The Whole Star

firsttimevoting1
PHOTO BY EMILY MATHIS
Lining up to vote outside a Massage Envy.

At the age of 20, I lost my voting virginity on November 6, 2012, between 10:30 am and 12:30 pm in a defunct Washington Mutual bank sandwiched between an H-E-B and a Massage Envy in Austin. I drove to the voting site feeling a strange mix of apprehension: What if I voted for someone I would regret, someone that I would be ashamed to tell my grandchildren I voted for?

With the shaky confidence of a rube in a big city, I got out of my car and, before I took two steps toward the polling station, was approached at my car by a fellow voter.

“Ma’am, are you a racist?”

I assured him that I was not.

He proceeded. “I need some gas for my car, and I’ve already been turned down by two people. If you’re going to vote for Obama then you’ll give me gas money so I can get my car started.”

I informed him that, although I was not a racist in any way, I did not have any spare change with me. He abruptly moved on towards another unsuspecting voter exiting his car.

The bizarre turn of events, as it happened, settled my voting nerves, and I approached the line for the polling station with a new confidence.

I then waited in line for two hours.

You could tell which people were newbies like myself. Every voting alumnus had a book with him or her to pass the time, while the rest of us resorted to staring at cracks in the cement. The guy behind me, who was wearing a neon green Ron Paul shirt and an “I LOVE RON PAUL!” wristband, got in an argument with an election official for his political attire. The man stubbornly refused to discard his Ron Paul gear for five minutes until, in an act of dramatic defiance, he stripped his shirt and continued, bare-chested, to wait in line. I had forgotten about the rule against campaigning at the actual voting site (I was fondly reminded of an oft told family story, in which my older brother, still in a stroller, excitedly yelled “Dukakis, Dukakis, Dukakis!” at a 1988 voting site while my mother and election officials frantically tried to shush him).

After two hours, the line finally came to an end – I had successfully jumped through the various hoops of confirming my address and my name, and, finally, was next in line to vote.

My turn came, and I courageously marched up to my assigned voting booth. I punched my access number. And then, the ballot itself.

I progressed carefully, double-triple-quadruple checking that I did indeed select the candidates that I desired to win. That final moment came: “Cast ballot?” I hesitated for a final second before clicking “Yes”.

That was it. I walked from the voting site to my car feeling light. I had just joined the elite in the world who could and would vote for the next leaders. I wanted to eat a burger and watch a football game in front of a TV that cost as much as my small car – I was an American.

I got into my car and buckled my seatbelt, ready to return to work. So what if the whole process was a touch anticlimactic, and I might have built up the event itself to be much more exciting than it actually was.

I still got my sticker.

Writer Emily Mathis displays her "I voted" sticker.
PHOTO BY EMILY MATHIS
Writer Emily Mathis displays her “I voted” sticker.
Solar advocates
Priscila Mosqueda

Seven years after the Texas Legislature passed a bill calling for the state to add 500 megawatts of non-wind renewable power to its energy mix by 2015, the Public Utility Commission has yet to enforce the law. Solar power advocates are urging the commission to enact rules that would implement the change and add another 2,500 megawatts to the target by 2025.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard passed in 1999 under Gov. George Bush was largely responsible for kick-starting wind energy in Texas and making the state the national leader in wind capacity. Advocates say the 500 MW non-wind provision could do the same for solar energy.

But the commission has declined to adopt the rule. PUC chair Donna Nelson has said the target set by the Legislature is not a mandate, and that the commission doesn’t have the authority to enforce the rule. The Sierra Club and a dozen other groups filed a petition with the commission in September requesting they open a rulemaking process to claim that authority, but the commission has until November to decide whether it wants to do that or not.

Clean Energy Works for Texas, a coalition of environmental organizations, rallied outside the commission’s offices Thursday, where renewable energy advocates and industry representatives talked about solar power’s benefits and delivered petitions.

Two businessmen said their solar companies have grown from two to about 25 people in a few years, and both are poised to open second offices. Both will be in California.

“I would rather it be in Dallas, San Antonio or Houston, but the reality is California has taken a stand to support the development of the solar industry seriously by setting statewide goals and local support for their solar companies,” said Resolve Solar CEO Tim Padden. “I want to see this happen here in my home state. These could be Texas jobs.”

California leads the nation in installed solar capacity, partly thanks to ambitious renewable energy standards and generous incentives to businesses and homeowners. The state has set a goal of 3,000 MW of installed solar capacity by 2016 and is already at 1,342 MW. By comparison, Texas ranks 13th in the nation in installed solar capacity. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Texas has 124 MW of installed photovoltaics, though Kaiba White of Public Citizen says many users don’t immediately report their units, so the number is probably about 20 MW higher.

“This is absolutely confounding, given our solar resource, our electric demand and our shortage of reserve capacity,” said Stan Pipkin of Lighthouse Solar. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Critics have long held that solar power and other renewable energy sources are too expensive. In a letter to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who wrote Commissioner Nelson asking her to enforce the non-wind provision, Nelson said, “I continue to believe that a non-wind renewable energy mandate would unreasonably increase the cost of electricity for Texas ratepayers.”

But a June 2012 study commissioned by the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Energy Foundation found that increased solar capacity would have meant lower average wholesale energy prices in Texas in summer 2011. According to the report, an additional 2,500 MW of solar would have reduced prices by $1.50 per megawatt-hour, and 5,000 MW would have reduced prices by $2.90 per megawatt-hour. That’s partly because solar performs the best during hot, cloudless summer days when power demand soars.

At the rally, speakers also stressed the benefits that solar power offers to local economies. They said they’ve tried several times to get the Public Utility Commission to create rules that would enforce the 2005 measure, and will continue to do so until it listens.

“No matter what these commissioners say in response to our petition, we’re not going anywhere,” said Dave Cortez of Texas BlueGreen Apollo Alliance. “We are going to carry this campaign through the Public Utility Commission sunset and we’re going to carry this campaign through the state Legislature in their January session.”

PHOTO BY NIKKORSNAPPER/FLICKR

As the deadline to extend a key tax credit for wind energy nears, threatening to deal a blow to the industry, advocates are asking two Texas congressmen to vote for extending the credit.

Texas leads the nation in installed wind capacity, with more than 10,000 MW of wind power providing nearly 10 percent of the state’s electricity. Advocates are urging representatives Quico Canseco (R-San Antonio) and Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi) to demand a floor vote in the U.S. House before the lame duck session.

The representatives’ districts are big wind production zones, with 926 MW and 1088 MW, respectively, of installed generation. In Canseco’s district, the Anacacho Wind Farm under construction near Uvalde will add another 99 MW when it goes online next year.

On Thursday, members of the BlueGreen Alliance, The Wind Coalition and American Shoreline, Inc. outlined the need for renewing the federal production tax credit before it expires at the end of the year.

“Wind energy has helped grow our economy and has kept the lights on,” said Dave Cortez of Texas BlueGreen Apollo Alliance. “Congressmen Canseco and Farenthold have an opportunity to take politics out of this equation and put working families first by giving wind power the same long-term support provided to other sources of energy.”

There are 7,000 wind-related jobs in Texas, according to industry group The Wind Coalition. Director Jeff Clark says some of those jobs will be lost if the tax credit is not extended, citing the Sierra Club’s finding that nearly 2,300 wind jobs have already been lost nationwide since the beginning of 2012 due to uncertainty surrounding the credit’s expiration. The wind industry says 37,000 jobs will be lost nationwide if the credit expires, though there are not yet any projections for how many Texas jobs would be lost.

But opponents of the tax credit, which subsidizes wind power by 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, say the industry will always need a federal crutch to compete with other energy sources. Mitt Romney upset some farm-state Republicans by saying he’d end the tax credit. Support for the wind industry has become an important election issue in states like Iowa, where farmers increasingly rely on wind turbines for income.

“Right now the wind power industry is getting a huge tax credit,” Farenthold said, according to the Raymondville Chronicle. “That is taxpayers’ money. I think they should be treated like anyone else.”

But wind energy advocates argue that all new energy sources initially need support, and that the tax credit is working as it’s supposed to.

“The capacity factors are becoming stronger and stronger and are competitive with coal and gas generation, but obviously innovation needs to be incentivized—the oil and gas industry was incentivized in its infancy,” Amshore Project Developer Jeff Neeves said. “Technology always needs to have some support to advance and to beat the monopoly of the status quo and the wind industry needs a temporary subsidy. I think that’s the big misconception, that this is some sort of long-term subsidy for the industry and it’s not; it’s just a means of incentivizing this new technology.”

A 2011 study commissioned by The Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C., found that the federal government provided energy incentives of $594 billion for oil, natural gas and coal between 1950 and 2010, $335 billion of which was in the form of tax concessions. In that same period, wind, solar and biofuels combined received $74 billion, or about 9 percent of total incentives.

If extended, the production tax credit, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, would cost about $1 billion per year.

“I don’t begrudge wind farms,” Canseco said in May, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. “But we don’t just need wind farms. We are sitting on a mother lode of oil and natural gas,” he added, echoing the oft-used rhetoric that Obama is “picking winners and losers” in energy.

But Neeves said letting the subsidy expire could set the U.S. back decades and would result in lost jobs, revenue and grid stability.

“It doesn’t make sense to vote against that,” Neeves said. “To me it’s voting against the interests of your own district and constituents if you don’t support the production tax credit and you don’t support the incentivization of innovation and progress.”

Illustration by Matt Wright-Steel

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a three-part series this week on the Warren Horinek case, a story the Texas Observer first reported in August 2010. Horinek was a former Fort Worth police officer convicted in 1996 of murdering his wife. He is serving a 30-year sentence.

As the Star-Telegram details, whether it was a murder or a suicide is still, sixteen years later, a matter of heated debate. Observer Editor Dave Mann’s exposé—”A Bloody Injustice“—examined the circumstances of Bonnie Horinek’s death and the problematic blood-spatter testimony of a single expert with little scientific training used to secure Horinek’s conviction. Many forensic experts, not to mention the Tarrant County DA’s office, maintain that Horinek is innocent and argue that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that he was administering CPR to his wife after she committed suicide.

Dave’s reporting led to additional coverage by CNN and the Daily Beast. The Star-Telegram revisits the case at a time when Horinek and those who believe is innocent are running out of legal options. A judge in Tarrant County could rule soon on Horinek’s writ of habeas corpus.

This story was produced as part of a joint venture with Reporting Texas, an online publication at the University of Texas-Austin’s School of Journalism.

The Texas Department of State Health Services announced Wednesday that it would not accept GEO Care’s bid to privatize the Kerrville State Hospital, citing concerns over the company’s plans to cut operating costs at the state psychiatric hospital.

GEO Care, a subsidiary of the infamous prison operator GEO Group, was the only company to submit a bid to privatize a mental health treatment facility earlier this year. While the bid met the main proposal requirement, promising to generate ten percent savings over 2011 fiscal year costs for a minimum of four years, DSHS Commissioner David Lakey criticized the bid for lacking detail.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislative Budget Board, Lakey expressed concern that main cost reductions would be “achieved primarily through reductions in staffing and benefits to a degree that would put both our patients and the State of Texas at risk.”

DSHS said in a report that the programs GEO Care proposed were not appropriate for the long-term care needed at the Kerrville State Hospital. Furthermore, DSHS did not believe that the proposal would ensure staffing requirements required by law. GEO Care proposed cutting overall staffing from 542 to 428— a 21 percent reduction—and decreasing psychiatric nursing assistants 29 percent, from 167 to 118. The staff to patient ratio, set by a 1997 settlement in a federal class-action suit against the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, would not have been maintained with GEO Care’s proposed changes.

Wednesday’s decision is a win for advocacy groups that had long opposed privatization of the state psychiatric hospital by GEO Care, whose parent company GEO Group has a troubled history of prison operations in Texas.

“This is a testament to the role that advocacy can play in shaping decisions,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. His organization, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the United Methodist Church stated their opposition to GEO Care’s bid in a letter to DSHS, the Legislative Budget Board, and Gov. Rick Perry earlier this year. “The reason the proposal was rejected is telling of the problems with privatization—you make your money by cutting staff and paying them less while the care of your patients suffers,” Libal said.

In his letter, Lakey stated that DSHS will continue to support legislative efforts “to find innovative, effective and efficient models of providing psychiatric care” for the mentally ill in Texas, working with elected officials and community groups to balance cost and effectiveness.

The Texas Department of State Health Services announced Wednesday that it would not accept GEO Care’s bid to privatize the Kerrville State Hospital, citing concerns over the company’s plans to cut operating costs at the state psychiatric hospital.

GEO Care, a subsidiary of the infamous prison operator GEO Group, was the only company to submit a bid to privatize a mental health treatment facility earlier this year. While the bid met the main proposal requirement, promising to generate ten percent savings over 2011 fiscal year costs for a minimum of four years, DSHS Commissioner David Lakey criticized the bid for lacking detail.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislative Budget Board, Lakey expressed concern that main cost reductions would be “achieved primarily through reductions in staffing and benefits to a degree that would put both our patients and the State of Texas at risk.”

DSHS said in a report that the programs GEO Care proposed were not appropriate for the long-term care needed at the Kerrville State Hospital. Furthermore, DSHS did not believe that the proposal would ensure staffing requirements required by law. GEO Care proposed cutting overall staffing from 542 to 428— a 21 percent reduction—and decreasing psychiatric nursing assistants 29 percent, from 167 to 118. The staff to patient ratio, set by a 1997 settlement in a federal class-action suit against the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, would not have been maintained with GEO Care’s proposed changes.

Wednesday’s decision is a win for advocacy groups that had long opposed privatization of the state psychiatric hospital by GEO Care, whose parent company GEO Group has a troubled history of prison operations in Texas.

“This is a testament to the role that advocacy can play in shaping decisions,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. His organization, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the United Methodist Church stated their opposition to GEO Care’s bid in a letter to DSHS, the Legislative Budget Board, and Gov. Rick Perry earlier this year. “The reason the proposal was rejected is telling of the problems with privatization—you make your money by cutting staff and paying them less while the care of your patients suffers,” Libal said.

In his letter, Lakey stated that DSHS will continue to support legislative efforts “to find innovative, effective and efficient models of providing psychiatric care” for the mentally ill in Texas, working with elected officials and community groups to balance cost and effectiveness.

PHOTO SOURCE: ALAMO HEIGHTS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT ON FACEBOOK
An AHISD switch flipping to mark the completion of the district's solar power initiative in April of this year.

Last year, as you may recall, the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the state’s public education budget. By now the effects are starting to show. The Houston nonprofit Children at Risk released a study last week that details just what those cuts have cost Texas students.

The report considers 81 school districts—8 percent of Texas’ districts, representing 36 percent of its students. It’s a diverse group, ranging from rural districts with only a few hundred students to giants like Houston and Dallas ISD, and it’s hard to draw broad conclusions. But the overall pattern is clear: across Texas, districts are growing their class sizes, letting teachers go and straining their infrastructure. They’re taking unsustainable measures and waiting for a salvation that may not come.

Districts get most of their money from local sources—bonds and property taxes—and state aid. These cuts only came from the state’s part, and on the surface they don’t look like much—just 3 percent of Texas’ total education spending.

But they came to a system already in crisis, with districts already struggling to cope with the last legislative “fix” to the school finance system, the “target revenue” system created in 2006 that already left some districts woefully underfunded. Last year’s cuts represented another shock to the system, though they’ve dealt with it differently. Texas’ school districts are fantastically diverse, with totally different needs and tax bases.

But there are some overarching themes. Most districts did anything possible to avoid cutting teachers or other core instruction costs. They cut electives, after-school programs and bus routes instead. They consolidated schools or tried to outsource or share administrative costs. Some adopted innovative new solutions: Alamo Heights ISD installed a number of green conservation techniques to cut utility bills—they’ve put solar panels on their roofs and sold surplus energy back to the utility providers. Two districts cooperated to get a better deal on after-school programming. Others won big nonprofit or corporate grants.

But mostly, the report found, districts covered budget shortfalls with unsustainable belt-tightening. The top three strategies were delaying maintenance, putting off tech upgrades, and freezing administrator salaries. Of these, putting off maintenance was the most popular—a solution that can only work so long. The fixes suggest a system waiting to be saved.

“While every dollar counts, even the most creative districts were only able to achieve comparatively small savings from these strategies with regard to total operating budgets,” the group found.

The problem is this: payroll expenses—mostly for teachers—make up about 80 percent of school spending. You can only cut so far before dipping into that. So in the last four years the state has lost 10,000 teaching positions—while adding 83,000 students. Teachers may not get laid off, but when they retire or leave, new ones aren’t rehired. The result is bigger classes, more work and longer hours for teachers, and reduced access to pre-K and after-school care.

Often, even this hasn’t been enough. After all their cuts and belt-tightening, one third of the districts surveyed still operated at a loss.

At a trial late next month, the state faces six combined lawsuits over the school finance system, from more than 500 districts representing 3 million Texas students. Schools can’t do much more than wait, and hope for help from the courts. The case is likely to wind all the way to the state Supreme Court, and even if the schools win their case, it’ll probably be well into 2013 before the Legislature is directed to fix the funding system.

As this study shows, that day can’t come soon enough for Texas school districts.

Retio Uses Social Media to Fight Drug War Corruption In Mexico

A new app for Apple devices allows users to report violence, road blocks and police abuse.
PHOTO SOURCE: http://ret.io/mx/DF/
A screenshot of of the Retio app in action.

While Google chairman Eric Schmidt was declaring technology to be the solution to Mexico’s drug violence, two kids from Mexico were already expanding coverage of their citizen-sourced crime reporting app to the entire country.

After visiting Juarez in July, Schmidt suggested Google’s intelligence capabilities could be used to facilitate information-sharing about cartel activity among police and citizens. A great idea—and one that Mario Romero and Jose Antonio Bolio, two friends from Merida, Yucatan, had already started implementing with their free app, Retio.

The application allows citizens to report shootings, murders and assaults as well as broken traffic lights, road blocks (illicit and otherwise), abandoned cars, police abuse and instances of corruption via Twitter. Contributors use the handle for the corresponding city, e.g. @RetioDF for Mexico, D.F., and tweet a description of the problem, sometimes with photo evidence.

An automatic system categorizes the report by type of issue, deletes spam and retweets from the feed. While anyone with a Twitter account can contribute information and access the website and search their city or state, only iPhone and iPad users can download the app. Users search by type of incident or by looking at a map – reports link to the GPS location when possible. Retio users can also map each others’ entries as posts almost always include cross streets.

“The original goal was to organize and optimize Twitter to avoid different problematic situations that people face every day in Mexican cities,” Romero says. “Users in different cities started using hashtags to inform themselves of these type of situations, but it wasn’t an ideal solution – our plan was to build a better tool to resolve this and we’ve been able to do that. But we’re still not done.”

Romero, a 29-year-old who studied industrial engineering, says he and Bolio, 24, started working on the project in January 2011. Retio launched online in Merida in July then expanded to Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara, Mexico’s three largest cities, by August. By February 2012 they launched the iPhone app and extended coverage to all states.

As of Monday morning, Retio’s Mexico City feed had nearly 62,000 tweets and more than 6,000 followers. Monterrey showed a similar ratio, but Ciudad Juarez, whose Twitter account was created in July 2012, only had two tweets and 14 followers.

“We’ve seen the same pattern repeated in several cities,” Romero says. “Few users at first, but an accelerating growth as more users join when a ‘viral’ effect is produced.”

In Mexico, citizens have used social media to warn others in their community about shootings, muggings and areas to avoid for years. Retio adds a forum for reporting corruption and misbehavior by authorities.

“We also believe it is important for authorities to know they are being watched by the citizenry at all times and behave accordingly,” reads the site’s FAQ. Retio’s creators say the newfound transparency will help inhibit extortion, arbitrary detentions and other abuses of power.

But unlike Blog del Narco, Retio makes no promises of anonymity to its users. The co-founders don’t hide behind a cloak of firewalls and are listed by name and photo, along with friends who often help out with the site and app.

“We haven’t received any threats, although the reaction of some authorities has not been ideal,” Romero says, adding that both the police and municipal officials responsible for fixing potholes and keeping streetlights working are none too pleased about Retio.

“The system forces an instant transparency as far as attention to citizens, and that’s something they’re not used to yet,” he says. “As far as the criminals, especially narcos, I think they would probably be more worried about other types of reports, like journalistic investigations that expose them and their connections, than about citizens alerting each other about shootings and risky situations.”

Currently, Twitter feeds are available for every state and for many cities within each state. Romero says the next step will be to expand to other countries, which he says they will begin before the year is up.

“We believe that even though the distribution of the types of problems is different among different cities, even among cities in Mexico, the advantages offered by the collaboration and coordination between citizens are universal.”

PHOTO BY HI! RORRO ON FLICKR

collateraldamagelogoThis week the Texas Tribune reported on a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine by a research group at UT-Austin. The Texas Policy Evaluation Project (known more snappily as Tx-PEP) is studying the impact of “legislative changes to family planning policy in Texas.” The group’s findings, to be gathered over three years, promise to add weight to a debate that’s become highly politicized. In Texas, women’s health is not so much a public health issue as a Zeppelin filled with politicians’ hot air. In the absence of hard data, it’s easy for advocates of restricted reproductive services to make baseless assertions.

That’s about to change. In looking at the impact of cuts to the state family planning budget, Tx-PEP’s research group finds that:

  • Clinics have reduced access to the most effective methods of contraception
  • More clients are being asked to pay for services that had previously been free
  • Women are choosing less-effective methods of contraception
  • Women are foregoing tests for sexually transmitted infections
  • Teens are having to travel further to access confidential services

In a survey conducted between February and May 2012, Tx-PEP also found that 53 family planning clinics have closed while 38 have reduced their hours. The clinic closure findings are close to what the Texas Observer reported in August based on a survey conducted for us by the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas in July 2012. We found that more than 60 family planning clinics have closed, only 12 of which belonged to Planned Parenthood. Clearly, each subsequent survey of family planning providers will find that more have been forced to shut their doors.

Over the next three years, Tx-PEP will examine the impact of budget cuts on family planning clinics, contraceptive services, women’s experience of accessing services, unintended pregnancies, births, and access to abortion care. The group will also evaluate the economic impact on Texas of these dramatic legislative decisions.

Hard facts about the choices made at the Capitol will, one hopes, inject some much-needed gravity into a mostly fact-free discussion. As more of Tx-PEP’s data are published, political bloviating might become harder to get away with.

Photo courtesy of Workers Defense Project.

As the state offers yet another tax incentive to woo yet another tech company to Austin, Workers Defense Project is stepping in to ensure that workers building the physical shell for HID Global are treated and compensated fairly.

In light of rampant wage theft in Texas and the 2009 study that found every two and a half days a construction worker dies in Texas, Workers Defense is stepping up its efforts to protect workers on construction sites through the Premier Community Builders program.

Workers Defense Project is demanding that Austin City Council add three conditions to their contract with HID Global before approving the building of their complex in north Austin: the presence of a safety monitor on site once per pay period; a wage floor of $12 per hour; and a commitment to hiring disadvantaged Austin residents with construction certifications for 15 percent of the jobs. The city council is set to vote on the proposal when it takes up the $2.8 million incentive package on Sept. 27.

Workers Defense seeks similar conditions for all major construction projects in Austin, particularly ones where the city or state is offering incentives. It recently succeeded in getting the city to require Trammell Crow Co., the company building a mix-use development downtown, to hire 20 percent of workers from construction certification programs that train disadvantaged residents and pay them $16 per hour. Trammell Crow also agreed to safety monitoring by a Workers Defense representative.

In March, the organization secured a $12 per hour wage floor as well as safety monitoring for the 38-acre Apple campus to be built in northwest Austin. Gregorio Casar, business liaison for Workers Defense Project, says they are still talking to Apple about ensuring a percentage of the workers come out of construction certification programs that offer training to disadvantaged residents.

“We campaigned with City Hall to say, ‘If we’re going to invest $9 million in Apple, then we want to see an investment back into working-class people,’” Casar says, referring to the $8.6 million incentive Austin gave Apple in addition to the $21 million from the state.

Casar says while Apple and others have promised many jobs to people in the tech industry, working-class laborers should benefit from the generous financial incentives as well. But he says the Premier Builders Program doesn’t just benefit the workers. Through a partnership with Austin Energy Green Building, projects that are certified by the Premier Community Builders program earn a point on their Green Building rating.

“Normally they might be resistant to pay more to protect workers because it might cost them more money, but if consumers demand this they could actually see it as a benefit to themselves,” Casar says. He compares their program to stores that choose to sell fair trade products – the company can market themselves as caring about larger socioeconomic issues while consumers agree to spend more to support a good cause.

The amount of “construction families” of four living off less than $11,500/year in Austin more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data and the 2005 American Community Survey. In the same period, the number of families of four living off more than $46,000 decreased 25 percent.

While Workers Defense has focused on workers’ rights, education and organizing low-wage workers in Austin, the Premier Community Builders program emphasizes finding low-income residents who have not had the opportunity to work on safe and well-paying construction projects, train them, and then put them to work on large projects with good conditions, like they hope HID will be.

As of Thursday afternoon, Casar said he estimated the organization and its members had sent about 100 comments to the city council via their online comment system in preparation for the Sept. 27 vote.

 

(Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly said a construction worker dies every two and a half days in Austin. The study found that a construction worker dies every two and a half days in Texas. The story has been amended to reflect this change. The Observer regrets the error.)

1 7 8 9 10 11 14