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Politics
Waco's state representatives talk education finance with Texas Tribune CEO
 Lauren Dodd  / 
 12.04.18

From marijuana legalization to gun regulations, education funding and everything in between, few stones were left unturned during the Texas Tribune’s discussion Tuesday with state Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, and Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, as the pair prepare for another legislative session starting next month.

The hourlong discussion at the Baylor Club moderated by Texas Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith touched on a wide range of topics including climate change, constitutional carry, water rights and conservation, property taxes, public education finance and border security.

State funding for public education is at an all-time low. Increasingly, taxpayers are picking up the state’s slack through increased property taxes. Things may change next year, as Gov. Greg Abbott has called on the state Legislature to boost school funding.

In light of the increased attention on public education finance, Smith pressed Anderson and Kacal on how they plan to alleviate the reoccurring public education finance dilemma during a legislative session also burdened with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

“You’ve kicked so many cans down the road from the last session, you have enough for a 12-pack,” Smith said.

Better funding for public education is the solution to 80 percent of the state’s problems, Kacal said.

“You can’t make valid and good decisions unless you’re educated and know how to read,” Kacal said. “It all begins with that education. Once we deplete them of that we’re not doing them any service. Education solves a number of problems.”

Anderson said education is a “convoluted issue” but agreed that the state’s share of public education funding needs to increase, citing that less than 50 percent of the state’s third-graders read at grade level.

“If we put in another $3 to $4 billion, some folks would say it needs to be $5 billion,” Anderson said.

He said the state could not afford universal prekindergarten, a proposal tossed around in previous legislative sessions. He said he supports continued use of the state’s standardized testing system as a necessary gauge for efficient use of taxpayer money.

Border security

When Smith questioned the legislators’ support of $1.6 billion in border security funding over the past two legislative sessions, funding officials have previously said was necessary because of an inadequate effort by the federal government under the Obama administration, and whether it would continue under a conservative Trump administration, the pair said they will likely continue to support a similar border security proposal in the upcoming legislative session.

“You can’t put the cart before the horse,” Anderson said. “If you say we can’t spend that ($800 million), then you run into problems at the border. It’s not just illegals. It’s drugs and opiates.”

When asked if he has metrics to prove the border security funding was well spent, Kacal said he could not point to exact metrics but that he “didn’t want to see what this state will look like without having spent that.”

The state of Texas is the 10th largest economy in the country, yet its education system ranks 43rd in the country. Smith questioned where the legislators would find the money to improve the state’s public education system.

“There’s no addition through addition in the Texas budget,” Smith said. “We don’t like new revenue, we don’t like taxes, we don’t like fees, we don’t like finding new money except when the economy grows and new money pours into the budget. The only way we spend money in Texas is addition through subtraction.”

Kacal said he is optimistic that his colleagues may vote to dip into the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a source of state funding with a balance of more than $11 billion.

Water is sure to be an issue in the next session, Kacal said.

“Once we educate these kids and provide health care for them, they have to have water to survive,” he said. “We want to keep the economic engine going.”

To protect the state’s water supply, Kacal said he and his colleagues need to base their decisions on science, taking into account recent studies about the impacts of climate change.

Marijuana

On the issue of marijuana legislation, which could provide a new state funding stream, Anderson and Kacal said they do not see it being a serious issue this session.

“It always perplexed me how we ostracize tobacco smokers,” Anderson said. “They have to go outside 100 foot away. So you can’t smoke that leaf, but it’d be okay to smoke this leaf.”

Anderson said he needs to hear more discussion on the issue.

Constitutional carry

In response to a question from the audience about his stance on constitutional carry, the ability to openly carry a gun without a permit, Anderson said he is “fine” with the concept but needs to see further studies.

Kacal said he backs law enforcement organizations in their opposition to constitutional carry.

When asked for his stance on the proposed Senate Bill 1819, which would effectively repeal in-state college tuition for undocumented students, Anderson said there are more pressing issues facing Texas.

“Today we talked about all of these issues that require funding in Texas,” Anderson said. “We have to worry about nursing homes, we have to worry about pre-K, we have to worry about a tremendous number of needs, special needs kids in school, mental health, jail diversion, all these things we’re trying to worry about. I think those things take prominence over the dreamers.”


Jerry Larson  

HEB partner Sarah Vasquez from the Woodway store serves children a holiday meal at the 29th annual HEB Feast of Sharing inside the Waco Convention Center.


Jerry Larson  

The Robinson High School choir performs at the 29th annual HEB Feast of Sharing inside the Waco Convention Center.


AP
White House intensifies confusion and fear on US-China deal
 
 12.04.18

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration raised doubts Tuesday about the substance of a U.S.-China trade cease-fire, contributing to a broad stock market plunge and intensifying fears of a global economic slowdown.

Investors had initially welcomed the truce that the administration said was reached over the weekend in Argentina between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping — and sent stocks up Monday. But on Tuesday, after a series of confusing and conflicting words from Trump and some senior officials, stocks tumbled, with the Dow Jones shedding about 800 points, or 3.1 percent.

White House aides have struggled to explain the details of what the two countries actually agreed on. And China has not confirmed that it made most of the concessions that the Trump administration has claimed.

“The sense is that there’s less and less agreement between the two sides about what actually took place,” said Willie Delwiche, an investment strategist at Baird. “There was a rally in the expectation that something had happened. The problem is that something turned out to be nothing.”

Other concerns contributed to the stock sell-off, including falling long-term bond yields. Those lower rates suggested that investors expect the U.S. economy to slow, along with global growth, and possibly fall into recession in the coming year or two.

John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, also unnerved investors by telling reporters Tuesday that he supports further Fed rate hikes. His remarks renewed fears that the Fed may miscalculate and raise rates so high or so fast as to depress growth.

The disarray surrounding the China deal coincides with a global economy that faces other challenges: Britain is struggling to negotiate its exit from the European Union. Italy’s government is seeking to spend and borrow more, which could elevate interest rates and stifle growth.

And in the United States, home sales have fallen sharply in the past year as mortgage rates have jumped.

Trump and White House aides have promoted the apparent U.S.-China agreement in Buenos Aires as a historic breakthrough that would ease trade tensions and potentially reduce tariffs. They announced that China had agreed to buy many more American products and to negotiate over the administration’s assertions that Beijing steals American technology. But by Tuesday morning, Trump was renewing his tariff threats in a series of tweets.

“President Xi and I want this deal to happen, and it probably will,” Trump tweeted. “But if not remember, I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so.”

Trump added that a 90-day timetable for negotiators to reach a deeper agreement had begun and that his aides would see “whether or not a REAL deal with China is actually possible.”

He revisited the issue later Tuesday with a tweet that said: “We are either going to have a REAL DEAL with China, or no deal at all — at which point we will be charging major Tariffs against Chinese product being shipped into the United States. Ultimately, I believe, we will be making a deal — either now or into the future. China does not want Tariffs!”

The president’s words had the effect of making the weekend agreement, already a vague and uncertain one, seem even less likely to pro- duce a long-lasting accord.

“We expect the relationship between the world’s two largest economies to remain contentious,” Moody’s Investors Service said in a report. “Narrow agreements and modest concessions in their ongoing trade dispute will not bridge the wide gulf in their respective economic, political and strategic interests.”

Among the conflicting assertions that White House officials made was over whether China had actually agreed to drop its 40 percent tariffs on U.S. autos.

In addition, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday on the Fox Business Network that China agreed to buy $1.2 trillion of U.S. products. But Mnuchin added, “If that’s real” — thereby raising some doubt — it would close the U.S. trade deficit with China, and “We have to have a negotiated agreement and have this on paper.”

Many economists have expressed skepticism that very much could be achieved to bridge the vast disagreements between the two countries in just 90 days.

“The actual amount of concrete progress made at this meeting appears to have been quite limited,” Alec Phillips and other economists at Goldman Sachs wrote in a research note.

During the talks in Buenos Aires, Trump agreed to delay a scheduled escalation in U.S. tariffs on many Chinese goods, from 10 percent to 25 percent, that had been set to take effect Jan. 1. Instead, the two sides are to negotiate over U.S. complaints about China’s trade practices, notably that it has used predatory tactics to try to achieve supremacy in technology. These practices, according to the administration and outside analysts, include stealing intellectual property and forcing companies to turn over technology to gain access to China’s market.

In return for the postponement in the higher U.S. tariffs, the White House said China had agreed to step up its purchases of U.S. farm, energy and industrial goods. Most economists noted that the two countries remain far apart on the sharpest areas of disagreement, which include Beijing’s subsidies for strategic Chinese industries, in addition to forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft.


Jerry Larson  

HEB partner Shawn Daugherty from the Mexia store serves holiday meals at the 29th annual HEB Feast of Sharing inside the Waco Convention Center.


Associated Press — Pablo Martinez Monsivais 

China gets US tariff delay but movement on tech unclear

U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and China’s President Xi Jinping attend a bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina last week.


Bellmead
kicker
Hewitt council votes to hire city manager away from Bellmead
 Cassie L Smith  / 
 12.04.18

Hewitt will have a new city manager, pending contract negotiations, after the city council voted 5-1 Tuesday to hire Bo Thomas, who has worked as Bellmead’s city manager for the past six years.

After almost two hours in closed-door session with Thomas in attendance for most of it, the council returned to open session and briefly debated whether to continue their search for a city manager or hold a vote on Thomas’ hire.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Fortenberry, who cast the sole dissenting vote Tuesday, said Thomas is a capable candidate but that he would like a field of candidates to consider and interview, which would also allow more time for input from residents.

Other council members said it would be best to make the hire quickly to allow the city could get on with its business and to ease city employees’ concerns with their jobs, caused by recent upheaval among officials, including the previous city manager.

City attorney Mike Dixon told the council forming a search committee could cost up to $30,000 and said a local hire would come in already knowing Hewitt’s relationship to Waco and other local entities.

“I’m torn between voting to make a search committee and take three months or go ahead and hire somebody quick,” Councilman Bill Fuller said before the vote. “The person we interviewed tonight is very qualified and I think would do a great job.”

Thomas has served as city manager in Bellmead, just on the other side of Waco, since July 2012. His annual salary is $155,000.

Dixon said he expects contract negotiations to take up to two weeks, during which time a salary for Thomas will be determined.

Thomas said after the vote that he appreciates the confidence the council expressed in his years of experience and that he is thankful for the opportunity to share his vision for the city.

“I think Hewitt has a great future ahead of it,” Thomas said.

If hired, Thomas would move from a city of 10,500 residents with 77 employees and a $5.61 million annual budget to a city of about 14,400 residents with 109 employees and a $17.2 million annual budget.

The interview came almost a month after the Hewitt City Council voted 4-2 to approve a separation agreement with Adam Miles, the longtime city manager who had filed formal complaints against Mayor Ed Passalugo and a councilman. The council agreed to an $88,000 settlement with Miles Nov. 5.

Police Chief Jim Devlin has been serving as city manager since Miles’ departure.

Miles was making $164,582.58 at the time of his departure, City Secretary Lydia Lopez said.

The city of Hewitt uses a council-manager form of government, the most common among Texas cities. The city council establishes policies, creates ordinances, approves the budget and sets the tax rate, while the city manager handles day-to-day administrative duties. The city manager is required to prepare the annual budget, enforce city ordinances, supervise employees and programs, and provide recommendations to the council to enhance its ability to make decisions.

Before his hire in Bellmead, Thomas worked as the city manager in the northern Arizona town of Page for almost a decade. Before that, he worked 13 years for the city of Hobbs, New Mexico, including eight as city manager.

Thomas has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from New Mexico State University.

After announcing Thomas’ hire, the city council returned back behind closed doors to allow the council to seek and receive advice from their attorneys regarding “actual or threatened litigation; settlement of claims; legal powers and restrictions, and possible legal exposure; and matters required to be kept confidential by the professional rules which govern the attorney: Texas Workforce Commission charges.”

The city council will resume its meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall.


Business
City council signals support for electric scooters, approves projects for Elm Avenue, downtown Waco
 Phillip Ericksen  / 
 12.04.18

The Waco City Council decided Tuesday to pave the way for downtown, uptown and Elm Avenue to buzz with electric scooters.

At their meeting, all six members of the council said the city should publicly request transportation vendors submit proposals for share operations for bikes and scooters in Waco.

All three companies that submitted proposals for bike-share programs at the city’s request also included scooters as optional ad-ons, so city staffers looked to council members to determine how best to proceed amid a national trend of scooter use in metropolitan areas.

“I think it’s a great program,” District 3 Councilman John Kinnaird said. “I’d love to see them scoot around town, in our bike lanes, appropriately and safely, as soon as possible.”

The program launch will not be until the summer or fall of next year, according to the city.

The city will first reject the three proposals from Zagster Inc., Veoride Inc. and Gotcha Bikes LLC, then amend city regulations to allow for a company to operate scooters on public property so that similar proposals can be accepted later.

Chelsea Phlegar, a senior planner with the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, told the council the city could work with one of the three potential vendors and continue the process to only accept bikes, which was the original proposal. A working group supported by the downtown Public Improvement District studied the viability of a bike-share program earlier this year and recommended the city pursue one. If the council had opted to stay the course, bikes would have likely been available for public use in the spring.

Council members instead voiced support for a program with more flexibility to include bikes, scooters and potentially other vehicles as technology or trends change.

“I believe we can do it because I think the conversations have already been started enough,” District 1 Councilwoman Andrea J. Barefield said. “I don’t think it’s going to be that hard to switch to make that happen.”

Scooters made a two-day appearance downtown in August. At the insistence of city leaders, Bird Rides removed the scooters because the operation violated ordinances.

Conversations surrounding safety and city regulations of the scooters are likely to continue.

Chase Hardy, a Baylor Law School student, spoke in favor of the scooters during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“I know that our city is a very pro-business group, pro-innovation, and I just really hope that even though there’s some scary aspects to it, we can really embrace that and move forward as we think in these discussions,” Hardy said.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file 

Lane and Amy Murphy (right) give TIF Zone board members a tour of the former St. James United Methodist Church building they bought two years ago. The city council signed off Tuesday on a board recommendation for more than $530,000 in public money to support the couple's plan to open a restaurant in the church's former fellowship hall and to continue preservation work.

TIF projects approved

The council approved five recommendations by the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board.

  • Termination of the contract with Waco Franklin Place Apartments Ltd. for a second phase worth $750,000. The money will be returned to the TIF Zone fund.
  • Approval of $531,185 toward the $2.6 million renovation of the former St. James United Methodist Church. Lane and Amy Murphy plan to convert the historical Methodist church into a restaurant and bar designed by J. Fall Group, which operates restaurants in Chicago and Los Angeles.
  • Approval of $545,125 toward the $3.6 million renovation of the former Bank of America building at 510, 514 and 518 Austin Ave. Homebuilder Steve Sorrells plans to convert the area into office space.
  • Amendment of the contract with Brotherwell Brewing at 400 East Bridge St. to extend its completion deadline to June 1.
  • Cancellation of a request from Magnolia Market at the Silos for $153,910 to resurface and landscape a parking lot near the tourist destination. Magnolia has indicated it is preparing a new master plan for the property in and around Sixth Street and Webster Avenue, which will address the parking lot, according to a city staffer.

Elm Avenue

The council awarded a contract to Barsh Co., a Waco-based construction firm, for the renewal of the 700 block of Elm Avenue. The project, worth about $680,000, includes improvements to sidewalks, drainage, lighting, landscaping and accessibility.

Downtown TIF Zone funds and capital improvement funds will pay for the project. The city expects the contract to be finalized in the next four to six weeks, and the work should be completed within 110 working days thereafter.

Known as the “model block” project, it will serve as a precursor to further development on Elm Avenue. Work on a $3.8 million “streetscape” project on Elm, funded by the TIF Zone and the Texas Department of Transportation, has not yet been awarded to a firm.

“It’s just really exciting to see the work that’s being done over there, as well as the work that’s being done to get community input on what the community around Elm Avenue wants to see in that area,” Mayor Kyle Deaver said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this works out.”

A dance studio and restaurant will share the revamped block and are expected to open around the same time the work is completed.