Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No SXSW for the working.

The SXSW music "conference" began, today. Unfortunately for me, I probably won't be able to check out any of the free shit this year. In fact, it's very likely that I will be working through the weekend.

Meanwhile, my wife (who does not have to go to work, tomorrow) has gone with a friend to see Les Savy Fav, tonight, at the Frenchkiss/Monitor Records showcase. Honestly: there is no jealousy here.

The worst part about the whole thing is that I work so close to all of the action. I could hear the music loud and clear when I left work this evening. But that's just how it's gonna be; how it's been for the last 5 years: I only get to take time off during SXSW every other year. The Texas Legislature doesn't give a damn if it's Spring Break or SXSW time!

There are 75 days left in the legislative session.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

News Implosion

A couple of weeks ago, the “Intel shell” in downtown Austin was imploded. The former Intel office building site will be cleared to make way for a new federal court building. Every day on my morning commute, I can see the rubble out of the corner of my eye as I pass 2nd Street on Lavaca. Folks in Austin have deemed the unfinished Intel building as the “symbol of the tech bust” (circa 2001). Between then and now, that area has changed completely. Now, we have the 2nd Street District with the AMLI apartments, trendy shops and restaurants, and several high-rise [higher-dollar] condo developments currently being built. I’m not sure who is going to buy and/or occupy these places when they’ve been completed. Or maybe that should be if they’re completed. Sometimes I wonder which of the downtown works-in-progress will be the symbol of the real estate bust?

The urbanist concept of the 2nd Street District is cool, I guess. But the place really doesn’t have any soul. Sure, they have the hip stores and restaurants, and I’m sure the living spaces are great. But the “District” lacks buzz; hipster/street cred: the kind you can get only after a place turns really poor, dirty, and sleazy, and then slowly gets gentrified. Give it 20 to 30 years, and it may finally attain hip status. Right now it feels like the “cookie-cutter mall experience transplanted from another city” that it’s supposed to not be. C’mon city council: let’s get some prostitutes and pushers out there, ASAP.

Work has been busy and crazy. The House and Senate budget committees both started moving at what felt like a frenetic pace over the past couple weeks. As hectic as it has been, I’ve spent fewer late nights at work this session [so far] that I did two years ago. I worked about 80 overtime hours in February. Two years ago, during the 79th Session, I worked 108 overtime hours in February. Actually, I worked every single day in February of 2005. This year, I got at least two Sundays off.

I’ve been too busy with budget matters, lately, to keep up with the bigger policy issues this session. Since it’s most closely related to my realm, I’ve been trying catch up on transportation issues. Earlier this month, the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security held an all-day public hearing on private sector toll road concessions and the Trans-Texas Corridor. Hundreds of citizens showed up: a vast majority of them in opposition of tolling concessions and the Trans-Texas Corridor. This is a policy debate that has been four years in the making, as the Texas Legislature has passed laws in the last two sessions that have established the framework for the state to enter into these types of agreements. And as one powerful senator has said, recently, each member of those past legislatures has paid a political price. Now, some of the same legislators who carried the enabling legislation are leading the charge to put the brakes on toll concessions and “comprehensive development agreements.” The proposed toll concession projects in Texas are different than the recent long-term lease-operate agreements for the Indiana State Toll Road and the Chicago Skyway, which were both constructed using public funds and then “sold” to private entities to operate and collect tolls for terms up to 99 years. The Texas projects, so-called “green field” projects, would be designed, financed, constructed, maintained, and operated by the private entities in return for the right to collect tolls for 50- to 75-year terms. The upside is that billions of private sector dollars would be available to begin highway projects, today, that the state would not have been able to finance and construct until 10 to 20 years in the future. The downside is that the private sector operators’ first priority is to generate profit for their shareholders. So, they would want to set tolls at a rate that would not only cover the costs of debt, operation, and maintenance, but at a rate that would also return a profit. That is what’s not sitting well with the voters. Well, that and the large swaths of land that would likely be gobbled up to accommodate the Trans-Texas Corridor, the segments of which would most likely be operated by private interests to make money. It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out by the end of the session.

Later this month, the budget committee work will slow down a bit, and I'll be able to listen in on the House and Senate debates. I kinda enjoy it: not because I’m a policy wonk [relative to many of my colleagues, I am not very wonkish at all], but because I get a kick out of the controlled chaos that is the Texas House of Representatives. It’s better than Jerry Springer, if only slightly more sophisticated.

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