- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Austin American-Statesman. Oct. 20, 2017.

With their recent actions to spend millions of dollars above the project’s original cost and plow on with a third draft of CodeNext in the face of mounting public skepticism, Austin City Council members are signaling that it’s more important to meet a self-imposed deadline than do due diligence and build public confidence.

However well-intentioned, that is no way to tackle or complete the massive task of overhauling the city’s convoluted zoning and land-use regulations that stipulate what type of development can go where.

It’s time to press the pause button and address concerns over CodeNext. Forging ahead as public trust is collapsing only will widen an information gap that already threatens to engulf the process. Consider the two ballot initiatives underway to remove the decision over CodeNext from the council’s hands.

Austin attorney Fred Lewis, who heads the group Community Not Commodity, is spearheading a political action committee seeking to put CodeNext on the 2018 ballot. A separate political action committee headed by activist Linda Curtis also is gathering signatures to put CodeNext on next year’s ballot.

The decision over CodeNext should be made by Austin’s 10-1 council, elected from districts to represent neighborhoods and their interests. But if the council continues to display a tin ear, no one can blame Austin residents for opting for a referendum on CodeNext.

The public has not had a reasonable opportunity to comprehend new details in CodeNext’s second draft introduced last month, much less understand how they impact neighborhoods. Still, the council plans a third draft starting next month to meet an April deadline for adoption.

“I don’t understand the absolute determination to go ahead and pass it,” said Jane Rivera with Austin Raza Roundtable, which addresses issues facing the city’s Latino community. “My biggest concern is the fact that they are trying to use the land-use code to fortify and certify the density bonus program, which is not providing affordable housing to everyone in Austin, but to young single professionals.”

Density bonus programs permit developers to build larger housing projects than existing zoning allows - if about 5 to 10 percent of the housing units they create are affordable to people earning less than Austin’s median income.

In pressing ahead against such headwinds, the City Council is stoking concerns regarding the impact of CodeNext on Austin’s central and east neighborhoods - and the lack of overall engagement with low-income and non-English-speaking communities. Perhaps more important, the council’s recent actions gloss over a key question central to the proposed zoning overhaul: Will CodeNext help or hurt Austin’s affordability crisis?

Such concerns should be addressed before proceeding. In our view, that means benching the paid consultants from out of town and establishing community engagement sessions that feature city experts who can address concerns and provide meaningful instruction about CodeNext.

Along with questions about whether density bonuses should be overhauled, there are other concerns:

- How and if CodeNext will generate an estimated 65,000 affordable housing units of a total of 135,000 Austin is likely to need over the next decade to meet demand and keep the city from becoming more economically segregated than it is now. The city has pointed to density as the answer, but density by itself does not equal affordability.

There are examples in fast-growth cities across the nation in which density aided by gentrification diminished the stock of affordable housing and spurred increases in property taxes, rents and home prices. The council need look no farther than East Austin to understand such dynamics.

Even a simple question like what constitutes “affordable housing” in CodeNext lingo is a mystery. Does affordable housing mean apartments or homes for families whose income totals 80 percent of Austin’s median, which is $65,100 for a family of four? Or does it mean “missing middle” homes, such as duplexes, fourplexes, garage apartments, or micro housing units, which aim to serve people who earn more than the city’s median income, but too little to afford market-rate homes?

- How will CodeNext impact Austin neighborhoods across the city? For instance, the direct or indirect effect of zoning changes on traffic patterns, congestion, home businesses and new development.

- Whether the council will continue its spending on drafts that require translations for their complexity, as well as for language for people who aren’t fluent in English. Earlier this month, the council approved $2.27 million for the lead consultant, California-based Opticos, bringing the total so far to about $8 million - four times its original price tag. The document has grown to 1,388 pages.

- Whether Imagine Austin, the city’s plan on which CodeNext is based, still is relevant. The framework for the way the city grows was adopted in 2012 - but was put together in the years before. Much has changed since then - and the plan did not gain traction in or much input from Austin’s black and Latino communities.

There’s good reason to overhaul the current zoning code, which has been amended hundreds of times, illustrating its inefficiency for a city that has grown to nearly 1 million people.

But city land-use rules largely are the result of pitched battles between developers, environmentalists, neighborhood organizations, nonprofits and other interest groups. Rewriting them against that backdrop requires more patience, public trust and time.

___

Houston Chronicle. Oct. 23, 2017.

A funny thing happened at the ballpark.

As the Astros trounced the Yankees on Friday night, a foul ball fired like a bullet toward the crowd directly behind home plate. Fans sitting in the Diamond Club seats ducked and screamed as the ball harmlessly hit the netting, but one hand shot into the air. While everybody else flinched, Craig Biggio instinctively went for it.

That’s what champions do. And it symbolizes what happened on the field. From George Springer’s leaping catches to Marwin Gonzales’ astonishing throw to home plate, the Astros made split-second decisions and improbable plays that won the pennant.

Now, with the Astros facing the Dodgers in the World Series, we can all take pride our city is represented by a team that looks a lot like us - diverse, talented and intensely competitive. Our best hitter is a short guy from Venezuela. Our center fielder is the son of a Panamanian immigrant and a Puerto Rican gymnast. Our best pitcher just moved here from Detroit with his supermodel fiancée. Our first baseman is a Cuban guy with a wacky haircut. In this crowd, a right-fielder wearing a star-spangled Speedo fits right in.

They couldn’t have come along at a better time. Houston’s name has lately been associated with nothing but disaster. Now, even though we’re still picking up the pieces, we’re winners again and the world knows it. A city where people have spent the past few weeks ripping up carpet and replacing Sheetrock now waves a new pennant. A baseball team that was stripped down to the studs is showing the world that Houston knows how to rebuild and triumph. History will record 2017 not only as the year Houston survived its greatest natural disaster, but also as the year the city hosted both the Super Bowl and the World Series.

So now the Astros face the Dodgers, the team with the highest payroll in baseball, for the highest honor in the game. What we will witness are two ways teams can get to the World Series. If you’re the Dodgers, you can write checks and buy your way into a championship. If you’re the Astros, you earn it.

That’s what champions do.

___

The Dallas Morning News. Oct. 23, 2017.

How fitting that Texas-born Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla will soon receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In our eyes, it was never so much a question of whether as it was when. Seriously, what took so long?

She inspires passion from fans across the country as much today as she did more than 20 years ago when she was killed. Maybe even more so.

Sometimes, you hear celebrities described as “role models,” and it leave you scratching your head. Not with Selena. There may be no better example of a transcendent star - loved not just for her barrier-busting music but also revered because she never lost sight of her Texas roots and Mexican-American heritage.

There’s a reason that pride endures.

By now, you already know the basics of her life story. (No? It was immortalized in the cult classic, “Selena,” starring Jennifer Lopez. It’s worth a watch.)

The Corpus Christi phenom made it big on the Tejano music scene, starting as singer in her family band. She achieved many milestones in her short career, including a 1994 Grammy for Best Mexican/American Album. Tragically, at 23, she was fatally shot by her fan club’s former president in 1995.

And if you’ve lived in this state for any amount of time and haven’t tapped a foot or shimmied to her catchy hit “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” you must have been hiding under a rock. Just in case, Google gave a nifty reminder recently with an animated short commemorating the anniversary of her first, self-titled album.

But here’s why Selena’s legacy lives on after all these years:

- Her music brought Latino communities together and shined a new light on the huge potential of the Latino consumer market. Her career set the stage for many other Latino stars who followed. (Another Corpus Christi favorite daughter, actress Eva Longoria, is expected to be on hand at the Walk of Fame ceremony on Nov. 3.)

- She accomplished the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American Dream, coming from humble beginnings to the top of her field.

- She was a Latina entrepreneur, with a clothing line and boutique.

“There is something magic about Selena,” explained Mireya Loza, a curator at the National Museum of American History, which currently has a Selena exhibit on display. “Her story connected with so many people, and it legitimized the Latino experience for many, as well.”

She set the standard for what’s possible with hard work and dedication. Success is for the taking with a positive spirit and a vision.

That’s a universal message.

There’s no telling what else she might have accomplished had she not been slain so young. We’re glad the Hollywood star will help her legend continue to grow.

___

Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Oct. 23, 2017.

There’s an election going on at the moment. Probably not many Texans know it or will care enough to vote. That’s a shame.

Normally we’d blame voters. But not this time. Our Legislature couldn’t have picked a better time to ensure a near nonexistent turnout than an odd-numbered year with no statewide race for elective office and, in many locales, no local ones.

The ballot also will ensure low turnout. There are seven constitutional amendments, on obscure issues such as allowing more professional sports teams to hold raffles (Proposition 5) and giving banks more freedom to promote savings, including via raffles (Proposition 7). And, no, we don’t know what the fixation on raffles is all about.

Here’s a brief rundown, and please hang around for our closing comments:

1. Property tax exemptions for partially disabled veterans or their surviving spouses if their homes were donated to them by a charity for less than market value.

2. Making it easier to borrow against home equity and lowering maximum fees related to home equity loans, but exempting certain charges from the calculation.

3. Limiting, to the end of the next legislative session, the service of unsalaried gubernatorial appointees whose terms have ended but who have not been replaced.

4. Requiring courts to notify the Texas attorney general of any constitutional challenge to a state law.

5. Expanding the definition of a professional sports team so more team-connected foundations can sponsor charitable raffles.

6. Property tax exemptions for surviving spouses of first responders killed in the line of duty.

7. Allowing banks and other financial institutions to conduct promotional activities such as raffles to encourage savings.

We recommend passage of all seven, although frankly we also recommend this ballot as a non-narcotic sleep aid. The Texas Secretary of State should consider substituting “yes” on this ballot with a legally binding “meh.”

But what should keep voters awake is distrust of their Legislature for failing to bring these amendments to them a year ago, or waiting a year. Yes, ballots in even-numbered years are longer and some if not many voters would skip the amendments. But at least they’d be more likely to show up and decide to skip amendments.

We see no big risks in any of these amendments. We wish they rated a stronger assessment. We’re a bit cautious about Proposition 2. Some members of our board view anything related to home equity loans with suspicion. They remember fondly when Texas was the only state that didn’t allow them. Vote yes, but borrower beware, even if your lender is your golfing buddy.

Proposition 6 is the most compelling. Who could say no? But we urge caution in creating new classes of property tax exemptions. At some point, too much of the burden could fall upon too few. Young, able-bodied non-military non-first responders could become a discriminated class.

What Texas really needs is an amendment requiring a certain percentage of turnout for an election to be binding. Currently, if only three people vote statewide, a proposition would pass or a candidate would be elected 2-1. That’s not democracy.

Turnout already is dismally low even during contested elections in even-numbered years. Election victors are fond of saying that the people have spoken, when the truth is that only some people spoke. Only one-fourth of Texas’ voting-age population voted in November 2014. Top statewide offices were at stake and a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner and agriculture commissioner were foregone conclusions because no incumbent was running.

Imagine what our proposed amendment would accomplish, not only for turnout, but to end voter suppression by imposing an incentive to get more rather than fewer people to vote. It would restore confidence in the system because the people truly will have spoken.

Early voting continues through Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 7.

___

Beaumont Enterprise. Oct. 24, 2017.

Many things are difficult after a natural disaster: Finding housing for displaced people, rebuilding washed-out bridges, salvaging historic buildings that were damaged, etc. One task is fairly simple: Hauling away debris piles.

It basically consists of A) pausing a truck in front of a pile, B) transferring the pile from the ground to the truck bed with a grappler, and then C) driving the load to a dump.

Oh, and repeat as often as necessary.

Granted, some person or agency has to get the trucks, schedule their pickups, find a landfill for the piles, etc. The process does require some organization and management.

But again, compared to finding shelter for a family with several children and possibly some special needs and perhaps school transportation issues, it’s not that complicated.

While countless tons of Harvey-damaged material have been hauled away, too much of it remains.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently said his office will be investigating debris-removal companies that “may be overpromising and underdelivering.”

Harvey recovery czar and Texas A&M; University Chancellor John Sharp agreed, saying, “It’s time to find out why some are moving too slowly, and some are refusing help that would remove debris faster.”

Anyone who doubts either of those officials could take a drive around Southeast Texas.

Here and there are small mountains of stuff that have been sitting by the curb since late August. It’s not pervasive, but in the places where the debris piles still exist, the effect is unavoidable.

People see it every day. Kids are tempted to pull things out and play with them, even though they may be contaminated with mold or sewage overflow. No one knows which pests lurk at the bottom of the pile, perhaps even breeding in their new homes.

For a good while after Ike, Southeast Texas was known as the place with blue-tarp roofs. Harvey’s legacy shouldn’t be lingering debris piles.

They have to go. City and county officials must redouble their efforts to get all of it hauled away amid the two-month anniversary of Harvey.

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