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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

August 20, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Austin American-Statesman. Aug. 18, 2019.

Four years ago, a consultant issued hundreds of recommendations and a challenge to Austin officials overseeing the sluggish, sometimes dysfunctional system for reviewing building and development permits.

“Austin must decide if it really is serious this time” about fixing its problems, the Zucker Report said. “If so, some dramatic actions ... will be necessary.”

Since then, the city’s efforts to improve its permitting operations could fill a book. But in some important aspects, they haven’t moved the needle. Less than a third of the people who filled out city surveys in the past few years were satisfied with the overall plan review process, and only 16% to 34% were satisfied with the amount of time different steps of the process took.

Rarely does the city meet its own goal of processing at least 90% of the applications by the city’s own deadlines, according to a new city audit that Council Member Alison Alter rightly called disturbing and disappointing.

And soon, the stakes will be even higher: Under House Bill 3167, which goes into effect Sept. 1, developers’ requests for plats, site development plans and subdivision plans will be approved automatically, warts and all, if the city fails to act on those applications within a 30-day “shot clock.” To meet those deadlines, Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales told the council’s Audit & Finance Committee last week, “We will have to use overtime and will probably have to ask staff to work on the weekends.”

It’s distressing the city’s Development Services Department remains in such straits. But the situation underscores the key recommendations the Zucker Report made back in 2015: The city needs more staffers and better tools to process permits more efficiently.

Keep in mind, those impacted by delays in the permitting process aren’t faceless customers. They are homeowners wanting to put an addition on their home to accommodate their growing family. They are longtime residents looking to create a garage apartment for some extra income. They are developers seeking to build apartment complexes with more of the units Austin badly needs.

As part of the city’s push to preserve and provide affordable housing, officials need to ensure such projects can get permitted in a timely way, without cutting corners on city standards. Delays run up costs for residents and developers alike, and they drag out the wait for housing units needed today.

The City Council has gradually worked on one of the chief recommendations of the Zucker Report: to hire more staffers to review plans and provide inspections in a more timely way. The council approved 38 new positions in 2016 for the Development Services Department, followed by 52 more last fall. But with the lag time in interviewing, hiring and training people, many of the staffers for those 52 openings are just now starting.

We’re hopeful this influx of staffing will improve the permit review process. It will remain the council’s responsibility each budget cycle to ensure the offices reviewing permits — not only Development Services but the city’s utility departments, Watershed Protection and others — continue to have the staffing they need.

It is also imperative that the new effort to rewrite the city’s development regulations, a fresh start after last year’s CodeNext debacle, produces a more straight-forward code that will be easier for staffers and developers to navigate. As it is now, the city’s code has so many vague or conflicting passages that staffers sometimes interpret and apply standards differently, the city audit found. This issue takes on added urgency under HB 3167, as the legislation bars cities from raising issues later in the review process that could have been flagged at the outset. The new law leaves permitting staff no room for error.

Other logistics also deserve attention: With estimates suggesting anywhere from a third to half of all projects in Austin are being done without the required permits, the city needs to raise awareness that residents can — and should — call 311 to see if the work at their house needs a permit. The permitting and inspection process helps ensure the work meets safety standards.

The city also needs to adopt the technology allowing for plans to be submitted and reviewed online. And the city needs more reliable systems for tracking the progress of permits and identifying bottlenecks that need to be addressed.

A city with the growth pressures and housing needs of Austin needs a permitting department that can keep pace. But more work remains if Austin is indeed serious about delivering permits in a timely way.

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Amarillo Globe-News. Aug. 19, 2019.

After several weeks of speculation and sustained silence, State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) announced last Friday that he was resigning as chairman of the Republican Caucus. The decision represents the first visible fallout from a meeting of Burrows, Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Michael Quinn Sullivan.

The full contours of that June 12 meeting in Austin have yet to be made public, despite Sullivan, the CEO of the hardline conservative political action group Empower Texans, indicating he had privately recorded the meeting. Thus far, Sullivan has not made the recording public, despite calls to do so from Bonnen, other lawmakers and media outlets.

Bonnen, who has had little to say about the matter, issued a brief statement Friday, saying Burrows “was a strong leader for the caucus. I respect his decision and I remain committed to strengthening our majority.”

The dispute, which continues to linger over the state’s Republican party as it ramps up for the 2020 elections, centers on Sullivan’s claim that during the meeting Bonnen offered Empower Texans media access to the House for the 2021 session if the group “targeted” 10 Republican members in the 2020 elections. Sullivan said Bonnen then left the room, and Burrows listed off the 10 members.

There has been much back and forth on this matter since it first became public, and throughout Burrows has been steadfast in making no public comment, declining media interview requests, canceling a handful of previously scheduled speaking engagements and reportedly frustrating several Republican colleagues along the way.

To be fair, a written statement from Bonnen said he had asked Burrows not to comment. For his part, Speaker Bonnen initially disputed Sullivan’s version of the meeting, but in the days since apologized for saying “terrible things” during the meeting.

Of course, that doesn’t mean everything is at a standstill. Far from it. Privately, other lawmakers have said Burrows, a three-term representative, has visited some of the people on the alleged list in what has been characterized as efforts of reconciliation. However, no one is going on the record about what’s transpiring.

The simmering controversy took a turn last week when the House Investigation Committee unanimously moved to bring the Texas Rangers in. That virtually ensures no public comments from those involved, and that is appropriate. Let the Rangers do their work and the investigation go wherever it must go.

Burrows’ decision to step down as caucus chair was likely made in the best interest of the party and Speaker Bonnen. Burrows emerged as a strong supporter of the speaker prior to the start of the 2019 session, and that support contributed to his ascendancy among House leadership. It seems logical that same quality is on display now.

This move, though, will not bring an end to the Sullivan-Bonnen matter. It is only the latest development in an ongoing saga. While there may be those hoping this issue simply fades away, that seems an improbable scenario as ethics violations involving Bonnen are part of an increasingly complicated mix.

The time may not be right yet for those involved to comment publicly as there are lots of moving parts and competing narratives in play, but eventually a time will come when what happened in that June meeting will get sorted out. It is at that point, we hope the silence will end, replaced by long-awaited answers.

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Houston Chronicle. Aug. 19, 2019.

Lyndon Johnson had his War on Poverty; Donald Trump has declared war on the impoverished themselves.

The president’s latest salvo might have been fired at immigrants, but it sent a clear message to anyone struggling to make ends meet in America that the current occupant of the White House would prefer you look elsewhere for help.

The Trump administration last week issued a revised rule that would deny legal status to any immigrants U.S. officials think are likely to apply for government assistance such as food stamps or subsidized housing.

Kenneth Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the new “green card” rule would help ensure immigrants allowed to stay in this country “can stand on their own two feet” and won’t become a drain on society.

That seemingly innocuous comment was meant to assure taxpayers the president is only protecting their interests, but it has a more sinister connotation when placed in context with other moves by this administration to limit aid to the poor.

It smacks of the same rhetoric that decades ago spawned the “welfare queen” myth that poor women living in ghetto neighborhoods were having babies to get a monthly check instead of getting a job.

Trump declared his war on the poor with an executive order issued April 10, 2018, titled “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility.” Call it his manifesto.

Trump’s document admitted welfare reform under Bill Clinton in 1996 included a work requirement but insisted the system “still traps many recipients, especially children, in poverty and is in need of further reform.”

It’s true that too many Americans are poor, about 40 million, and too many of the poor are children, about 13 million. But blaming temporary assistance programs for persistent poverty is an elitist trope and a gross distortion of reality.

Many poor families are working multiple jobs and still need help. Instead of extending a hand, Trump is making their situation more difficult.

He’s figured out it’s easier to bypass Congress, especially with Democrats controlling the House, and get subservient department heads to make rule changes like the revised green card requirements.

The Department of Agriculture, for example, is making a rule change that would eliminate food stamp benefits for 3.1 million Americans.

It doesn’t matter that 11 million people have left the food stamp rolls since its post-recession peak of 47 million. Trump wants more people off food stamps. Instead of addressing the reasons so many families experience hunger and periods of food insecurity, he is callously cutting off a lifeline many use as a last resort.

The USDA rule change says if a family of four earns $32,640 a year — 130 percent above the federal poverty level — and has more than $2,250 in the bank, it will no longer qualify for food stamp aid of about $1.40 per person per meal.

You can either save money for emergencies or eat. Not both.

Meanwhile, Department of Housing and Urban Development rule changes could hurt poor people looking for affordable housing. Secretary Ben Carson has decided HUD will no longer enforce an Obama administration rule that required more than 1,200 municipalities to file desegregation plans or risk losing federal housing funds.

HUD officials said it was taking too much time to analyze the desegregation plans, which frequently were rejected for being incomplete or inconsistent with civil rights laws. Advocates for fair housing said that was exactly why HUD should enforce the rule, but Carson acted like he didn’t hear them.

Trump’s enfeebling of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is another disservice to the poor. The CFPB was created in 2011, in part, to advocate for Americans who suffered from the predatory loan practices that helped send this nation into crippling recession.

That wasn’t the mission Trump gave Mick Mulvaney when he appointed him CFPB’s interim director in 2017. The former South Carolina congressman promptly ordered a hiring freeze, put new enforcement cases on hold and sent the Federal Reserve, which funds the agency, a budget request for zero dollars.

“Elections have consequences at every agency,” Mulvaney told reporters. He was replaced last year by another Trump acolyte, Kathy Kraninger, who has stayed the course Mulvaney set.

So, too, has Trump stayed on course, subversively sticking it to the poor through rule changes that too often escape public scrutiny even as he makes speeches declaring his affection for the common man.

Comparisons of Trump with other familiar names in history have been made. How about P.T. Barnum? He also knew how to put on a good show filled with illusions and sleights of hand.

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