Tag Archives: Austin

New Blog Launches To Help Support Austin’s Music Industry

By Bill Oakey – January 18, 2018

Anyone who has lived in Austin for a while knows that we are very proud of our nationally recognized creative industries. This includes music and all of the arts. But affordability issues have cut deeply into the well-being of many musicians, artists and venue owners. High rents caused by high property taxes and gentrification are the main sources of this problem.

So, today I am launching a new blog called, KeepAustinMusicAlive.com. This blog will feature occasional updates on efforts by local music and arts advocates to find solutions to some of the affordability issues. You will also find some entertaining surprises on the blog, beginning today. So, go ahead and click on it now and consider following KeepAustinMusicAlive.com.

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The Scary Future For America’s Middle Class

The following commentary was published in The Conversation. Steven Pressman is a professor of economics at Colorado State University.

GOP tax plan doubles down on policies that are crushing the middle class

By Steven Pressman, December 20, 2017

The U.S. middle class has always had a special mystique.

It is the heart of the American dream. A decent income and home, doing better than one’s parents, and retiring in comfort are all hallmarks of a middle-class lifestyle.

Contrary to what some may think, however, the U.S. has not always had a large middle class. Only after World War II was being middle class the national norm. Then, starting in the 1980s, it began to decline.

President Donald Trump has portrayed the tax plan Congress is wrapping up as a boon for the middle class. The sad reality, however, is that it is more likely to be its final death knell.

To understand why, you need look no further than the history of the rise and decline of the American middle class, a group that I’ve been studying through the lens of inequality for decades.

The middle class rises

The middle class, which Pew defines as two-thirds to two times the national median income for a given household size, began to grow after World War II due to a surge in economic growth and because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal gave workers more power. Before that, most Americans were poor or nearly so.

For example, legislation such as the Wagner Act established rights for workers, most critically for collective bargaining. The government also began new programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, that helped older Americans avoid dying in poverty and supported families with children through tough times. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, set up in 1933, helped middle-class homeowners pay their mortgages and remain in their homes.

Together, these new policies helped fuel a strong postwar economic boom and ensured the gains were shared by a broad cross-section of society. This greatly expanded the U.S. middle class, which reached a peak of nearly 60 percent of the population in the late ‘70s. Americans’ increased optimism about their economic future prompted businesses to invest more, creating a virtuous cycle of growth.

Government spending programs were paid for largely with individual income tax rates of 70 percent (and more) on wealthy individuals and high taxes on corporate profits. Companies paid more than one-quarter of all federal government tax revenues in the 1950s (when the top corporate tax was 52 percent). Today they contribute just 5 percent of government tax revenues.

Despite high taxes on the rich and on corporations, median family income (after accounting for inflation) more than doubled in the three decades after World War II, rising from $27,255 in 1945 to nearly $60,000 in the late 1970s.

The fall begins

That’s when things started to change.

Rather than supporting workers – and balancing the interests of large corporations and the interests of average Americans – the federal government began taking the side of business over workers by lowering taxes on corporations and the rich, reducing regulations and allowing firms to grow through mergers and acquisitions.

Since the late 1980s, median household incomes (different from family incomes because members of a household live together but do not need to be related to each other) have increased very little – from $54,000 to $59,039 in 2016 – while inequality has risen sharply. As a result, the size of the middle class has shrunk significantly to 50 percent from nearly 60 percent.

One important reason for this is that starting in the 1980s the role of government changed. A key event in this process was when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic control workers. It marked the beginning of a war against unions.

The share of the labor force that is organized has fallen from 35 percent in the mid-1950s to 10.7 percent today, with the largest drop taking place in the 1980s. It is not a coincidence that the share of income going to earners in the middle fell at the same time.

In addition, Reagan cut taxes multiple times during his time in office, which led to less spending to support and sustain the poor and middle class, while deregulation allowed businesses to cut their wage costs at the expense of workers. This change is one reason workers have received only a small fraction of their greater productivity in the form of higher wages since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the real buying power of the minimum wage has been allowed to erode since the 1980s due to inflation.

While the middle class got squeezed, the very rich have done very well. They have received nearly all income gains since the 1980s.

In contrast, household median income in 2016 was only slightly above its level just before the Great Repression began in 2008. But according to new unpublished research I conducted with Monmouth University economist Robert Scott, the actual living standard for the median household fell as much as 7 percent due to greater interest payments on past debt and the fact that households are larger, so the same income does not go as far.

As a result, the middle class is actually closer to 45 percent of U.S. households. This is in stark contrast to other developed countries such as France and Norway, where the middle class approaches nearly 70 percent of households and has held steady over several decades.

The Republican tax plan

So how will the tax plan change the picture?

France, Norway and other European countries have maintained policies, such as progressive taxes and generous government spending programs, that help the middle class. The Republican tax package doubles down on the policies that have caused its decline in the U.S.

Specifically, the plan will significantly reduce taxes on the wealthy and large companies, which will have to be paid for with large spending cuts in everything from children’s health and education to unemployment insurance and Social Security. Tax cuts will require the government to borrow more money, which will push up interest rates and require middle-income households to pay more in interest on their credit cards or to buy a car or home.

The benefits of the Republican tax bill go primarily to the very wealthy, who will get 83 percent of the gains by 2027, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Meanwhile, more than half of poor and middle-income households will see their taxes rise over the next 10 years; the rest will receive only a small fraction of the total tax benefits.

From virtuous to vicious

While Republicans justify their tax plan by claiming corporations will invest more and hire more workers, thereby raising wages, companies have already indicated that they will mainly use their savings to buy back stock and pay more dividends, benefiting the wealthy owners of corporate stock.

So with most of the gains of the $1.5 trillion in net tax cuts going to the rich, the end result, in my view, is that most Americans will face falling living standards as government spending goes down, borrowing costs go up, and their tax bill rises.

This will lead to less economic growth and a declining middle class. And unlike the virtuous circle the U.S. experienced in the ‘50s and ’60s, Americans can expect a vicious cycle of decline instead.

Huge Enrollment Drop Coming To AISD

By Bill Oakey, January 12, 2018, Updated January 15, 2018

Two years ago, KXAN’s Kylie McGivern reported that AISD was projected to lose 6,140 students over the next decade. Since then, the school district has struggled to try to slow down this trend. Last year they implemented a new policy to allow out-of-district students to transfer free to AISD. That effort yielded some positive results, but not enough to change the fact that significant enrollment declines will continue. In an upcoming blog piece, I will delve into the latest numbers and discuss the demographics and housing aspects. Why is all of this happening? Most of it comes down to one word:

Affordability!

Austin’s precarious real estate boom is bringing lots of young hipsters and couples without children to town, who are living in multi-unit housing complexes. Families with children, living in single-family homes, are being taxed out of their homes in alarming numbers. See the KXAN news story for some perspective on what one of those families is going through. They do not want to leave Austin, and it’s a crying shame that so many are being forced out.

To add insult to injury, the second highest cost impact on family budgets, next to housing, is transportation. Most of the new roads being built for commuters are planned as toll roads. And nearly all of those will have so-called “managed lanes.” Those are the ones where the toll rates rise as the traffic increases. Longtime residents who have paid their taxes and contributed to their community for most of their lives will be forced to pay high monthly toll bills. Or else, they’ll be confined to the slow lanes, as they watch the wealthy zip by them in the express lanes. The deck is stacked against the very people who worked to make Austin the prime destination that it has become.

What Are the Implications for Taxpayers and AISD?

The financial impact of the big enrollment drop on AISD will be devastating. We need only to look to Portland to see what that trend looks like. Portland saw a massive school enrollment drop in the 1980’s, as they transitioned into a wealthy enclave. The big difference is that today Portland has a very efficient public transportation system that includes rail.

It is highly unlikely that Austin will ever be able to afford a citywide rail system. That’s because the City already has a daunting list of over $8 billion worth of plans. Rail is not on that list. Voters have already approved bond packages totaling $1.7 billion in City and AISD bonds in the last two years. And hundreds of millions in additional bond projects are in the pipeline. The City is on a scary path toward raising property taxes to the legal maximum of 8% every year. Where is all that money supposed to come from?  Do they think we all have sacks full of money just lying around? How much debt can the City handle? And most importantly, is this kind of cost spiral even sustainable. I think not!

As for AISD, they are most likely headed for an “affordability perfect storm.” The State’s Robin Hood school finance system, known as “recapture,” diverts hundreds of millions of dollars of our local tax money into other school districts across Texas. Consider this quote from AISD’s website:

“Austin ISD is the single largest payer of recapture in the state. Our payment alone comprises 13 percent of all state collections. During the next five years—between fiscal years 2016 and 2020—Austin ISD is projected to pay almost $2.6 billion in recapture payments to the state. By 2019, more than half of every tax dollar collected in Austin will go to the state.”

AISD’s projected student enrollment drop only exacerbates the problem. Fewer students generate less State revenue. AISD receives $7,390 annually for each student enrolled. It’s easy to see that declines of several hundred students per year translate into millions of dollars lost.

Whenever district officials recommend consolidating or closing under-enrolled schools, parents complain and slow down the inevitable transition. The delays lead to costly expenses to operate and maintain those schools. Meanwhile, as home property appraisals, school operating costs and bond payments escalate, taxpayers get slammed with a cost spiral that forces them to leave Austin. That generates further enrollment declines. The only way out of this vicious cycle would be school finance reform at the State Legislature. We need much more public focus on that issue, along with a coordinated effort by City, County and AISD officials to push for reform. Failure to achieve that goal could imperil Austin’s hopes for continued economic success.

Seniors Get Shafted On Social Security Cost of Living Increase!

By Bill Oakey – January 8, 2018

Austinites who receive a monthly Social Security check may have heard the news reports that they will finally be getting a cost of living adjustment, starting this month. The 2018 cost of living increase will be 2%. This was very welcome news to hear, since the annual adjustment was a big fat zero in 2016.

Then it was a paltry .3% in 2017. In this chart, the Social Security Administration lists the annual cost of living (COLA) increases announced at the end of each year. They take effect beginning in January of the following year. So, it would appear that for 2018 we will be getting a 2% raise, starting “on or about January 24th,” according to the notice they sent out by mail.

But Instead Of a 2% Raise, We Will Be Getting the Royal Shaft!

The Social Security notice that came in the mail includes a nasty little surprise. They are hiking the Medicare deduction! So, using mine as an example, the Social Security cost of living increase is $27.00. But the Medicare deduction got jacked up by $25.00. That leaves me with a whole, great big $2.00 monthly increase. The best advice that I can give to everyone else out there is this: Don’t spend it all in one place! In fact, I’ve been told that I may be one of the lucky ones. Three people close to me got no net increase at all – zero, zip, nada!

Last October, the Chicago Tribune warned that the 2018 Medicare increases “would hit large numbers of low-income individuals who struggle to make ends meet.” The article cites a new study by the Senior Citizens League. The study revealed that seniors have lost one-third of their buying power since 2000, as Social Security cost-of-living adjustments have flattened and health care and housing costs have soared. Check out this blistering op-ed in the L.A. Times. The screws are tightening in several areas, with perhaps little hope from Congress.

You Should Contact Your Central Texas Congress Person

Take a stand and ask that Congress act now to provide a meaningful Social Security increase. Here are the names and phone numbers to call:

Rep. Lloyd Doggett: 512-916-5921

Rep. Roger Williams: 512-473-8910

Rep. Lamar Smith: 512-912-7508

Rep. Michael McCall: 512-473-2357

What Is Your Cost of Living Increase If You Are a Retired Teacher or a Retired State Employee?

The answer to that question does not require any math skills at all. You don’t need a calculator, and you don’t even have to count on your fingers. Those of us who worked all our adult lives as Texas teachers or State employees have not received any annual cost of living increase since 2001!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Theme From Shaft” – Isaac Hayes
  2. “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” – Joan Baez (written by Bob Dylan)
  3. “Zero Zero” – Bent Fabric
  4. “Down to Zero” – Joan Armatrading
  5. “Less Than Zero” – Elvis Costello

A “Crazy” Letter to the Editor

Austin American-Statesman, january 5, 2018

Re: Dec. 30 article, “Austin Will Appeal Its Most Recent Court Loss Involving the Texas Open Meetings Act.”

I applaud City Council Member Alison Alter for asking city staff to study and recommend legally required agenda-posting procedures. However, it’s shameful that it took two court rulings in the people’s favor to prompt this action. The city of Austin was founded in 1839. It shouldn’t have taken them 178 years to learn how to properly prepare their meeting notices — 179 before the study is completed.

We can at least be thankful for one thing. The City Council meetings have never failed to keep us entertained, befuddled and amused. In the words of Paul Simon, the folks at City Hall are “still crazy after all these years.”

BILL OAKEY, AUSTIN

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Still Crazy After All These Years” – Paul Simon
  2. “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy” – Tom T. Hall
  3. “Crazy” – Written and recorded by Willie Nelson, 1962
  4. “Crazy” – Patsy Cline version
  5. “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby” – The Crew Cuts
  6. “Crazy Arms” – Willie Nelson & Ray Price
  7. “Crazy Baby” – Doug Sahm
  8. “Crazy Talk” – Brenda Lee
  9. “She’s Crazy for Leaving” – Guy Clark
  10. “Crazy Man, Crazy” – Bill Haley & His Comets

Save Money Under The New Tax Bill – Pay Your 2017 Property Taxes By December 31st

By Bill Oakey – December 27, 2017, Updated December 28, 2017

Please note: Your 2017 property tax bill is not due until January 31, 2018. This blog piece offers a suggestion to pay it by December 31st, to take advantage of changes to itemized deductions in the new Federal income tax law. But, you cannot claim a 2017 Federal tax deduction by prepaying your 2018 property taxes. The 2018 property tax bills will not be generated until the fall of next year.

If you itemize your income tax deductions, you could save money by paying your 2017 property taxes by December 31st, this Sunday. The new Federal tax bill puts a $10,000 cap on state and local taxes that you can deduct. This change takes effect in 2018. So, if your property tax bill is higher than $10,000, paying it by December 31st could give you a one-time cost savings. You might want to consult with a tax accountant to evaluate your best option.

Your 2017 tax bill was mailed to you several weeks ago. You can also look it up on the Travis County Tax Office website. If you want to pay it by mail by December 31st, follow these guidelines from the Travis County Tax Office. Payments made with a U.S. Postal Service postmark on the due date are considered timely. Commercial postal meter imprints are not considered postmarks for the purpose of determining timely payments.

As to why those property taxes are so high, and what can be done about that, here’s a parting thought. Go ahead and enjoy the parties on New Year’s Eve. Then, check back with this blog in the New Year. There will be plenty of adventures ahead in the battle for affordability!

Keep Austin Music Alive!

By Bill Oakey – December 19, 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, Austin residents and tourists alike need to be very concerned about the future of our live music scene. Popular music venues have been forced to close because of high rents and land sales. Saving our art and music venues is one of those “action items” that we can’t afford to leave sitting on a shelf in a City report.

I Have a Photo to Match the Message

I entered this photo into Mozart’s and the Hula Hut’s “All About Texas Christmas Lights”  photo contest. If it suits your fancy, please go to this link. Click anywhere in the photo. Then click the blue “Like” button below the photo, to vote for it in the Audience Choice Award. Midnight Thursday is the deadline. Thanks!

“Keep Austin Music Alive!” – Photo by Bill Oakey