Economy

It's a popular idea in Texas that the Lone Star State — once an independent republic — could break away and go it alone. A few years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry hinted that if Washington didn't stop meddling in his state, independence might be an option. In his brief run for the White House, he insisted that nearly anything the feds do, the states — and Texas in particular — could do better.

Photo courtesy facebook.com/pages/Lee-Leffingwell

Mayor Lee Leffingwell proposed this morning that Austin apply for a program that would encourage international investment in local green jobs, by designating Austin as an EB-5 Regional Center.

But what on earth is an EB-5 Regional Center?

A designation of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), EB-5 Regional Centers allow cities to receive immigrant investor capitol – either $500,000 or $1 million. Investors must also present evidence the investment “will create at least 10 full-time positions.” In exchange, the investor and the investor’s family “is granted conditional permanent residence” – more commonly known as a green card – “for a two-year period.” 

Photo illustration by Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

Texas government agencies have paid fired or resigning state employees more than $500 million in unused vacation time over the last decade. It’s a staggering sum that fiscal conservative critics call “ridiculous,” especially in tough budget times.

But state workers say what’s ridiculous is that so many jobs have been cut — and that agencies are so understaffed that employees can’t take vacations.

In each of the last 10 years, state officials paid out an average $50 million in accrued vacation time, according to data from the Texas comptroller’s office. That number crept up to $68 million in 2004 and $67 million last year — both on the heels of a budget shortfall and related layoffs.

Image courtesy dallasfed.org

Texas manufacturing ticked up last month, according to a report from the Dallas Federal Reserve (DFR).

The Texas Manufacturing Outlook Survey is conducted by the DFR monthly. It only complies results from 85 Texas manufacturers, so it’s more of a snapshot that a comprehensive assessment. Still, the findings reflect improving conditions among those surveyed.

The DFR points to several signs of manufacturing improvement: The state production index, the DFR’s gauge of manufacturing conditions, rose by over five points, from 5.8 to 11.2. New orders, shipments, and capacity utilization all posted gains for the month.

Employment measures – both new hires and hours worked by current employees – also saw growth.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/carolinehomerphotography

The City of Austin’s banking practices may soon get a thorough scrubbing with a resolution inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

An item before the Austin City Council this Thursday would examine the city’s banking practices, assess the impact of dissolving arrangements with large financial institutions and examine contracting with local credit unions and banks instead.

It would also direct the City Manager “to review the city’s current banking policies and make recommendations on changes to give preference to banks that support community reinvestment goals, such as the stabilization of the housing market, provision of loans to local homeowners and businesses, establishment of local branches in low-income communities, and opportunities for local employment.”

The item is sponsored by council member Laura Morrison. She tells KUT News a large part of the resolution is simply fact-finding.

Photo by KUT News

Austin saw a surge in single-family home sales last month, according to the Austin Board of Realtors.

In a new report, the board says home sales were up ten percent last month over January 2011. While comparing two months worth of data has limitations, the finding speaks more broadly to Austin housing demand.

Eldon Rude, director of the Austin market for real estate tracking firm Metrostudy, says the January numbers are part of an ongoing recovery of Austin’s housing market.

Rude says the numbers are “driven by continued increases in population and household in the region over the last several years, and people beginning to react to increasing rents in the apartment market, and so they’re moving toward the for sale housing market.”

The Nation: The Romantic-Industrial Complex

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Samhita Mukhopadhyay is the Executive Editor of Feministing.com and the author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life.

KUT News

STAAR-Crossed Educators Take Second Look at Test

Districts from across Texas are finding ways to curtail a component of the STAAR exam that makes the test  count towards students' grade-point averages and class rank, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The move comes in the wake of a growing unease with the role of standardized testing.

While the exam is required by law to compose 15 percent of a student's grade in each course, no specific guideline for doing so exists. With that leeway, individual districts are taking the reins into their own hands. Georgetown and Pflugerville, for example, have set minimum scores on end-of-course exams at 60 and 69, respectively.

In Austin, AISD has polled parents on several potential courses of action. Currently, all of the proposed options would affect class rank.  But now with the actions of surrounding districts, AISD is poised to change how they'll incorporate the scores.

The Austin school board will meet today to discuss end-of-course exams. The meeting is at 6:30 p.m., Carruth Administration Center Board Auditorium, Room B100, 1111 W. Sixth St.

Photo by KUT News

It's Friday, so here’s an end-of-the-week look at what we’ve been following: News from KUT.org, our reporting partner StateImpact Texas, and our friends at the Texas Tribune:

AISD Teachers Weigh Options with In-District Charter (KUT News):

"A charter school operator from South Texas is moving into East Austin’s Allan Elementary School next school year. It’s the first step in a multiyear strategy that Austin ISD hopes will reverse years of academic setbacks. But for some teachers, it’s a cue to leave their campus.

“I do not want to be a part of what they’re bringing to our community, and it’s still not what I think is best for kids,” Allan Elementary bilingual education teacher Constanza Serna said.

Austin ISD’s first ever in-district charter school program starts next year and will be run by IDEA Public Schools from South Texas. Alejandro Delgado – a graduate of Bowie High in Austin – will be the first vice principal of the renamed IDEA Allan campus.

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UT Board of Regents Negotiate Sale of Players Restaurant

As reported by The Daily Texan, UT’s Board of Regents affirmed their desire to purchase Players Restaurant from owners Carlos Oliveria and Edward A. Hempe. The news came at a Regents meeting in San Antonio on Wednesday.

The university does not have definite plans for the land but is considering adding a building to house the Red McCombs MBA program.  

University spokesman Gary Susswein would not comment on specifics of the sale because a discussion would undercut negotiations.

Image by Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

A 12-page report released Wednesday by the Texas comptroller's office offers a wide-ranging look at the effects of the record drought that is still gripping Texas.

The report, "The Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond," contains few new figures for drought losses but offers graphics that depict the breadth of the problem, which hurt crops, threatens electricity production and forced 55 communities to ban outdoor watering.

"Texas is prone to cycles of drought which makes it important for residents, businesses, and state and local governments to manage water use," Comptroller Susan Combs said in a prepared statement. "Every Texan has a stake in water issues the state faces.”

Despite recent rains, 95 percent of the state remains in drought.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/ajanhelendam

If Austin Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) seemed crowded last time you flew, there’s a reason for that: ABIA announced a record travel year for 2011, with over nine million total travelers. That’s a five percent bump over last year’s takeoffs and departures.

Southwest Airlines leads the pack, with 3,325,925 passengers served out of ABIA. American Airlines came in second at 1,867,087.

Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:LoneStarMike

It’s gotten so that you can hardly count to ten without hearing about Austin’s latest accolade. Between high profile cultural events, the economic insulation of vast state and university employment, and a relatively affordable quality of life (at least compared to coastal enclaves like Los Angeles and New York), it’s not surprising everything’s coming up Austin.

But who can keep this procession of plaudits straight?

To get a gauge of just how many Austin-happy rankings are floating around at any one time, we looked for “best cities” rankings including Austin over the last two months. And from that, we compiled this meta-masterlist, a Top 10 of the city’s most recent Top 10 rankings ranging from the apparent, to the arbitrary, to the really, really arbitrary. 

So without further ado, Austin’s Top 10 Top 10 Listings:

  1. Green Tech Go: While it doesn’t rank Austin along other cities, this love letter from Time Magazine declares Austin has become “America’s Clean-Tech Hub.” It links growth in Austin’s nascent green and clean technology to its past performance in the semiconductor industry, and gives a shout out to the Pecan Street Project energy distribution experiment.

In which we serve a heaping helping of links for your reading pleasure:

Huma Munir, KUT News

A wealth of employment and salary data for the Austin region has just been released, and it confirms Austin has become a high-tech capital.

Photo by Teresa Vieira for KUT News

The recession has stripped African-Americans of thirty years of economic gains, according to the president the National Urban League. Marc Morial was in Austin today to speak to a leadership summit hosted by the National Forum for Black Public Administrators.

"It has been difficult for white, Latino, Asian, all people.  But African-Americans have taken the toughest brunt of this,” Morial said.

Photo by KUT

We pretty much know we're awesome, but it's nice to hear it again and again. Austin made third place on CNN Money's list of "Ten Top Turnaround Towns". We even beat out Dallas, which ranked eighth. 

CNN Money said Austin has solid job growth, a relatively laissez-faire economy, and plenty of space to expand.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/emdot/

The financial services company Standard & Poor's (S&P) is showing some love for the Texas economy today by granting the state's government bonds an AA+ rating.

In a press release, S&P analyst Horacio Aldrete-Sanchez said it was because the Texas economy is large, diversifying, and growing faster than the country's as a whole.

KUT News

Travis County wants to become an economic stimulator. At their regular meeting, county commissioners discussed a proposal to amend the county tax code in order to offer an incentive for businesses that want to relocate to Travis County. The City of Austin and the State of Texas have similar programs, but commissioners are proposing something different.

Can't afford the $165 registration to attend the annual forecast from Angelou Economics? Catch some of the details here.

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