Hey, 2018, we’re watching. You have our attention — and we know you’re already shaping up to be a momentous year.
Not only will the Austin City Council wrestle with a contentious overhaul of the city’s cumbersome land-use and zoning regulations, but Austin will welcome a new city manager, Spencer Cronk, who faces difficult challenges — among them forging a new police contract.
Meanwhile, health funding for millions of children across the country, including 400,000 in Texas, is set to expire unless Congress acts. Another national issue being closely watched in our state is whether to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation, and whether Congress will fund President Trump’s grand and divisive vision of a wall spanning the entire U.S. border with Mexico.
Let’s review some of the key issues looming in 2018:
A new Austin city manager faces tough challenges
Austin welcomes Spencer Cronk, 38, as its new city manager. With more than a dozen city executive positions to fill, immediate challenges to tackle — such as navigating a new collective bargaining agreement with the city’s police union, and overseeing road and mobility projects voters approved in a $720 million bond package — Cronk will have a full plate when he starts the job probably in February, after a contract is negotiated and he ties up loose ends in Minneapolis.
The challenges in Austin are likely to be tougher than the ones Cronk faced in Minneapolis as that city’s top administrator, so there isn’t likely to be much of a honeymoon. Austin, with 947,890 people, has more than twice the population of Minneapolis, with 413,651. As such, looming problems, such as traffic congestion and Austin’s affordability crisis, play out on a far larger scale.
Aside from managing a larger city, Cronk will have to make a huge transition to fit Austin’s governing style. Cronk lacks experience in working as a top manager in a large city governed by a council-manager system in which the city manager is the chief executive officer who runs city operations, independent of the mayor and council.
In Minneapolis’s strong-mayor government, Cronk was responsible for only a handful of departments. In Austin, he will oversee day-to-day operations and more than 60 departments. Austin’s city charter designates policy-making and zoning decisions to the mayor and council.
Much of the public’s attention will focus on Cronk’s ability to make the transition to a strong city manager at a time when the mayor and council, in the absence of a permanent manager, stepped in to help fill that gap. The situation calls for a rebalancing of power. Diplomacy is key, though some political feathers are likely to be ruffled in the transition.
Hammering out a police contract among the first tasks
As Cronk searches for a permanent police chief to fill the post now held by interim Police Chief Brian Manley, he also will have to woo the police union back to the negotiating table.
Austin police officers are working without a contract after enduring a huge – and perhaps unprecedented — blow from the Austin City Council, which last month voted unanimously to reject the preliminary agreement hammered out by city staff and the Austin Police Association.
Echoing the concerns of dozens of residents who showed up to oppose the contract in an all-night City Council meeting last month, council members said the proposed pay raises for police were too expensive and that the preliminary contract did not sufficiently improve citizen access to police records and oversight.
In recent days, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Kathie Tovo have proposed that police work under a temporary agreement in which police could work for 30 to 60 days, keeping the same benefits with some changes, such as pay raises for offices and additional accountability measures for the city. The idea is to give the parties more time to strike a bargain and contain political fallout by officers upset over the council’s vote.
CodeNext will dominate city council’s agenda
CodeNext, the city’s proposed overhaul of Austin’s land-use and zoning code, will continue to dominate the council’s time, energy, resources and agenda.
City officials have said they intend to release the third draft of CodeNext in February. If it is anything like its predecessors, it will be controversial, confusing and complex. Much of the controversy centers on how the revised zoning code that increases density in many areas will impact Austin’s central, east and other neighborhoods — and if density will accelerate or slow the city’s affordable housing crisis, economic segregation and displacement of lower-income people.
Frankly, the council has spurred near public panic by signaling a vote in April or late spring for a final zoning code after spending less than a year on public engagement on the 1,400-page CodeNext document. Keep in mind the first draft was publicly unveiled in late January 2017, with the maps that showed zoning revisions and comparisons for the entire city coming months after that, in the fall.
Those actions have fueled momentum by community activists to put CodeNext on the ballot, giving voters – and not the council – the authority to decide CodeNext.
Adler and his colleagues would be wise to slow things down.
Can a new Capital Metro CEO rise to challenges?
The public transit authority expects to hire a new CEO this month to head the agency that serves Austin, Jonestown, Lago Vista, Leander, Manor, Point Venture, San Leanna and portions of Travis County and Williamson County, including the Anderson Mill area.
To that point, the public is invited to meet and ask questions of the four finalists for the job on Jan. 8. For more information go to capmetro.org.
While former CEO Linda Watson stabilized the agency financially, upgraded its bus fleet and technology, revised fees and route structures and got things back on track with state lawmakers upset over the agency’s poor management and budget practices, the new CEO who replaces her will face equally difficult challenges.
The agency plans to spend $419 million on operating expenses and new capital projects this fiscal year. Its next CEO will have to tackle falling ridership and federal requirements to install expensive new train system control.
With Central Texas’ ever increasing traffic congestion, the agency should factor greatly in moving Central Texans around the fast-growth region efficiently. There is little question that Capital Metro must be part of an integrated mobility system that includes upgraded roads with designated bus, bike and turning lanes, routes that better serve commuters and modern traffic technology. The question is whether a new leader can help Capital Metro rise to those challenges.
Children’s health funding hangs in the balance
Millions of children across the country stand to lose access to health care if a Republican-led Congress does not reauthorize the hugely successful Children’s Health Insurance Program soon.
Lawmakers – who focused on a tax reform bill and allowed CHIP funding to lapse in September — passed a temporary budget in late December that only extends CHIP through the end of March. CHIP – which benefits families who earn too much to be covered by Medicaid but not enough to afford private health insurance — is now being used as a political pawn. Republicans are asking Democrats for spending cuts to offset some CHIP costs; those cuts would undermine the Affordable Care Act and weaken Medicare.
Though Texas and other states run their respective CHIP programs, they are financed mostly with federal dollars. Our state leaders need to step up for Texas children. As this board has said before, inaction amounts to political malpractice, given the stakes: the health and welfare of 9 million kids across the nation, including 400,000 in Texas.
Most Americans — including most lawmakers on both sides of the aisles — support CHIP. About three-quarters of the public said it was important to reauthorize the program, according to a September poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
CHIP delivers access to health coverage for children of lower-income working parents in a cost-effective way that benefits taxpayers. The program has helped lower the uninsured rate for children across the nation from 14 percent in 1997 — the year CHIP was established — to 5 percent in 2016, according to Kaiser’s data.
Families in Texas and around the nation shouldn’t have to worry over the fate of their children’s health insurance program. Congress needs to fund CHIP now.
Will this be the year for a Mexican-American studies curriculum?
The State Board of Education has a unique opportunity this year to finally call for a state-mandated curriculum for a high school level Mexican-American studies course. That move could come this month when the board meets for five days starting Jan. 29. The board’s most recent rejection of a textbook on the subject in late 2017 — the second to be denied — speaks to the need for the board to set standards for such textbooks and to develop a state-mandated curriculum.
It’s time that Texas — with the second-largest Latino student population in the nation— provided students with curriculum reflective of the state’s diverse history and of its ever-growing diverse population.
In trying to respond to growing interest for ethnic studies courses, the SBOE took an unprecedented approach in 2015 by calling for Mexican-American studies textbooks submissions. The problem was that it didn’t issue any curriculum guidance. Two calls for submission deadlines and two failed textbooks later — and with no course curriculum in sight — the board is no closer to providing clear guidance for such books.
The board only need look to Houston Independent School District’s “innovative course” curriculum, which the SBOE has already approved. The board created the “innovative course” designation to allow schools the flexibility to offer classroom instruction that exceeds state standards.
Many experts and state leaders feel the Houston ISD innovative course standards could be used as the basis for a state-mandated curriculum for a Mexican-American studies elective course. They’re right.
With such a blueprint in hand, the SBOE has no excuse to not offer Texas students a more inclusive view of this great state’s history.
Fate of Dreamers in Congress’ hands
Among the most vexing decisions facing Congress in 2018 is whether to protect young undocumented immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” from deportation.
The White House announced in September that it will stop renewing work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which expires March 5. Started under President Obama, DACA offers legal protections for undocumented young people who entered the country when they were children.
Of the nearly 790,000 people who hold DACA status, 124,000 live in Texas, according to the Pew Research Center.
We’ve said this before: Offering these young adults protection from deportation was the right and moral thing to do. They shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their parents.
Yet, the political gamesmanship has already begun. Republicans have drawn a line in the sand, demanding that a deal to restore DACA also include tougher border enforcement.
Expect even more DACA conditions. President Trump said Thursday that there will be no DACA without the border wall funding he desperately wants.
With DACA, Republicans see a chance to score some political hay. That’s a shame because Dreamers are achievers; 95 percent of DACA recipients are working or in school, according to one survey, and ending DACA would harm the U.S. economy, reducing the gross domestic product by $72 billion.
DACA recipients don’t deserve to be treated like a political football; they deserve our protection and our compassion.
Trump still adamant about building a wall
We said it last year and it bears repeating: President Trump’s vision of a wall along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico is an idea riddled with gaping holes in logic. It won’t fix a broken U.S. immigration system. It’s ridiculously expensive; the Department of Homeland Security pegged construction cost at $21.6 billion. And it won’t work, period.
But building a border wall was a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign — and he remains adamant about trying to make good on his vow, despite stiff resistance in Congress, including among some prominent Republican lawmakers. As we noted earlier, Trump is going so far as to make border wall funding a condition of cutting a deal to restore federal legal protections for young people who entered the U.S. illegally when they were kids.
Among the most vocal opponents of a wall are the Texans who live along the border, where a patchwork assembly of border fencing already exists. Fences disrupt lucrative commerce with Mexico — and they ruin a generally peaceful way of life that’s existed for generations of Texans. They also harm sensitive wildlife and habitat, and threaten to destroy eco-tourism in South Texas, critics say.
One Texan who knows this is Sen. John Cornyn. In August, Cornyn laid out a $15 billion border security plan reflecting what many Americans know: A continuous wall spanning the border isn’t the answer. While it calls for building a wall in select locations, it envisions more technology and more border personnel as means of cutting illegal immigration.
The plan might not be perfect — and many Americans would rather not see a wall at all — but it seems a more reasoned approach to Trump’s one-size-fits-all vision.
FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints delivers the latest perspectives on current events.