Texas Budget Winners and Losers of 2015

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Border Spending

“The border funding was substantially increased, this time we ended up giving about $800 million to the border for border security, and I think that’s almost more than $300 million [more] than we did the last session.” — Rep. Sylvester Turner from Houston (D)

Medicaid Spending

Eva de Luna Castro, budget analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, says the $61 billion legislators budgeted for the next two years of Medicaid almost certainly won’t be enough. “What basically happened was the full amount of cost for Medicaid isn’t in this budget that they passed–they left medical inflation out, so that’s like assuming that your rent isn’t going to go up in this year. You know it probably will be, but you just aren’t going to deal with it right now.”

Correctional Officers

Turner says they were big winners. “They received a pay boost of 8.8 percent,” he says. “That was certainly needed, because the prison system has been facing a vacancy rate of anywhere between 3,000 to 3,500 correctional officers mainly because we have not been able to compete with the private sector.”

Transportation

Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, says the legislature funded the Department of Public Safety with general revenue and left gasoline tax revenues for the Department of Transportation to maintain the roads. But…

“…Well, I mean, it’s an additional $1 billion a year in roads which is a good thing, however TxDOT estimates they need anywhere from $3 to $5 million additional each year just to maintain the current level of congestion.”

Tax Cuts
It’s a mixed bag depending on who you ask.

“Tax cuts will have a good impact,” Craymer says. “Puts more money in people’s pockets that helps stimulate the economy.”

But de Luna says the cuts are a bad thing. “If you looked at where the tax cuts—where the benefit goes—the franchise tax, for example, was about $2.6 billion of that roughly $4 billion in tax cuts that the legislature made,” de Luna says. “A third of that franchise tax cut goes to out-of-state. It doesn’t even help companies here in Texas.”

Could Texas Ever Pass Canada’s No Tampon Sales Tax Law?

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No taxation with menstruation – that’s what 75,000 Canadians said in a petition to lobby the federal government to remove sales tax from feminine hygiene products. Jill Pieback led the movement from Toronto.

“We launched a campaign on January 26th with a goal of getting 50,000 signatures,” she says.

Along the way, they had a problem familiar to many women’s rights activists.

“The problem that we were facing in Canada is that there is no gender parity in our government,” Pieback says. “And this tax was so symbolic of so many other laws in Canada that have been made without considering women in this country.”

The petition was successful. The country’s government approved the tax exemption in a unanimous vote. In Texas, the state collects more than half a million dollars from taxes on feminine hygiene product every year. Steve Hanabutt is the president of Sales Tax Specialists in Plano.

“Currently the law says that any over the counter drugs that is required to be labeled with a drugs facts panel is going to be exempt from sales tax,” he says.

That means contact solution, laxatives and painkillers are exempt. Not to mention, groceries. Ann Dunkleburg is an associate director at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

“That comes very close to having the same rationale or even food for the reasons that you wouldn’t want to put a sales tax on it,” Dunkleburg says. “But because of the sort of ‘good old boy’ nature of our history here, those things have never been considered for exemption before.”

So will Texas ever pass a law like Canada – lifting what some have called a ‘tampon tax?’

“I think, that it could eventually and it probably will eventually, but frankly it might not be the highest priority,” she says. “I think you know we had a hard time getting some important legislation about the ability of state employees to express milk at work or breastfeed, so it’s not as easy despite the fact that in 2015 we would think these things would be easier to do.”

Some activists are wondering if it might actually be easier to lobby feminine hygiene companies to sell kits – say a box of pads or tampons along with a bottle of pain reliever. If it has to have medical ingredients listed on the box, it would be tax exempt in the state of Texas.

Dress-Over-Pants Fashion Crazy Nothing New: It’s Pakistani

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Commentator and Houston Fashion Designer Sameera Faridi says the hot trend that A list celebrities are wearing this summer is a trend that you’ve been able to see in Houston’s Pakistani neighborhoods for years.

For the fashion bloggers that are not aware, Faridi says Pakistani women have been rocking the dress-over-pants look long before A-list celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker layered up.

“We’re actually very excited to see this amazing trend catching up…this is going to be the look for the summer. It’s a very particular cut of the top and the pants,” Faridi says. “It’s really nice to see how simple the cut is, yet it is actually a derivative of a dress from another culture.”

Texas Has A Retirement Home for Pets

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If you go to the Stevenson Companion Animal Life Care Center at Texas A&M, you’ll be greeted by a posse of dogs. Their queen bee, a 10 year old Boston Terrier named Patty. She has short little legs and an irresistibly smooshed face. She was running in circles around my legs.

I could tell Patty had something to tell me about her pet retirement, but I needed an interpreter, vet technician Janet Broadhead:

“Well she didn’t have much say so in the matter and she really liked her daddy because he took her everywhere it seems like especially drive thrus and only fed her people food so when she came here she didn’t really like it too much because she had to eat dog food and she had different handlers,” Broadhead says. “And then as time went on she’s learned to really like it and adjust to all the different people and the routine just like everyone else, I think she’d really say she really likes it now.”

The Stevenson Center runs on kibble and routine – you have to have a strict schedule to take care of the 34 animals at the center: dogs, cats and even a llama. Assistant Director Ellie Greenbaum says was started by Dr. Ned Ellet in 1993.

“He was the head of the small animal clinic here at the college of veterinary medicine for many years and he wanted someplace for people who didn’t’ have family of friends that could or would care for their pets,” Greenbaum says. “He wanted to create a home-like environment where they could send their pets and it would benefit the pets and the college of veterinary medicine.”

To enroll Patty in the program, her owner left her an endowment of at least 50 thousand dollars. Unlike a shelter that would try to get her adopted, Patty will stay at this sanctuary for the rest of her life, being cared for by people like Lauren Schwerdfeger.

“Patty is a hoot, she definitely has some character,” she says.

When the 9-to-5 staff goes home,Schwerdfeger and three other veterinary students take turns giving the animals food and medicine. In exchange for taking care of the more than two dozen pets, she gets free housing at the center and a scholarship, not to mention some valuable practice.

“There are so many things that go on here in the center that I’ll be sitting in class one day, for example this past year we were touching in physiology about diabetes and cushings and immediately my mind went to specific dogs that we have here that I know have these conditions,”Schwerdfeger says. “And immediately I’m starting to think, oh that makes sense, I’ve seen them, they do drink more than the other dogs, oh they do, this is the medication they’re on, that makes sense, you know, physiologically, why that would be working like that.”

All the animals here have one thing in common: they were absolutely adored by their humans. And the pets clearly loved their humans back. Greenbaum explains they go through a little grieving period when they first come to stay, but it always turns out okay.

“These animals have all come to live in a place where they’re still loved and well cared for and it’s what their owners wanted. So it’s a happy story,” Greenbaum says.

Right now there are more than 500 animals enrolled to enter the center in the future.

What’s Stopping Texan Millennials From Buying Homes?

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Despite low prices in the oil patch, the housing market is still looking very strong through much of Texas. And with Texas cities ranking among the best places for millennials to live, members of this now aging generation want to pass an important milestone: homeownership. The instant-gratification generation is drumming up plenty of business for companies willing to accommodate their shopping style.

Almost a third of Texans are under 30. By comparison, Baby Boomers make up one fifth of the state. And now, a study by the Urban Land Institute has found that more than half of all young adults 19-36 want to own a home someday. Deborah Brett co-authored the study.

“Generation Yers are still very much interested in homeownership,” she says. “Most of them see themselves as homeowners, just not right now.”

What Brett calls generation Y, other people call millennials. If every person in this group who wanted to buy a home bought one, this would be the largest home-buying generation in history, just by its sheer size.

But for many millennials, homeownership seems like a far-off dream.

“I think the ability to become a homeowner is tougher than it was in prior generations,” Brett says.

In some big cities like Austin – where the real estate market has been at historic highs – it’s actually cheaper to rent than buy a home. Houston and in Antonio are headed that way – Thanks to rising home prices there too.

Martin Walner manages high-tech boarding houses for recent grads. One’s in Austin. He says most of his residents want to be homeowners one day, but he’s not sure that will happen.

“I think a lot of people want to own a home at some point in their life, because they see it as a goal in their life one of the check boxes to reach, but especially single people,” Walner says.  “They wouldn’t want to have a home that early on because there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it and I think a lot of it is also jobs, it’s a very competitive job market out there.

Plus, millennials aren’t very handy. A third of the young homeowners polled in the study said they have no idea how to do necessary maintenance and repairs. Twenty percent said being a homeowner costs way more than they thought it would.

That means there are a lot of business opportunities there. Rick Orr runs a website that’s kind of like Pinterest for home listings.

“They’re very much bringing the industry forward in allowing for instant gratification from everything from finding homes to getting a quick response to whether or not we can go look at the listing on Saturday,” Orr says.

These apps and websites become even more popular in such a hot real estate market.

Lobbyists Push Legislature to Open up Rules on Alcohol Sales

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Texas has a few laws surrounding alcohol: liquor stores are closed on Sundays,  you can’t put the American flag on beer bottles, and publicly traded companies can’t own liquor stores.

Travis Thomas says it’s only a matter of time before that last law is changed. He’s the spokesman for Texans For Consumer Freedom, a lobby that wants the law removed.

“To exclude public companies from competing is arbitrary, is anticompetitive and when you consider the fact that retail stores of all kinds all compete with publicly traded companies and they do not enjoy state-mandated protections,” Thomas says. “So then what is it that makes the retail liquor market different?”

Thomas says a public company doesn’t mean what it sounds like when it comes to the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission.

“According to TABC, a public company is one that has more than 35 shareholders,” Thomas says. “Now there are many, many companies that are not publicly traded that have more than 35 shareholders.”

Brookshires Grocery is the latest one of those publicly traded companies to join the Texans for Consumer Freedom, whose members include Costco, Walmart and the Texas Business Association. The lobby says it wants to amend existing state laws and has backed bills filed in the Texas House and Senate that would eliminate the prohibition on publicly traded companies.

Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, filed one of those bills. He says that existing laws are against the principles of Texan’s belief in free market capitalism.

“We filed the bill, so we’re waiting on filing a request on the committee hearing,” Isaac says. “Once the bill goes through the committee hearing, we’re going to have testimony on both sides, and then you request a vote on the bill and then it goes to another committee called the calendars committee.”

Isaac says that he’s hopeful his bill will pass.

“Once they’re voted on the floor of the House, if they’re voted on favorably, it would go over to the senate.”

The bill has to pass those legislative hoops before it would change a law that’s been on the books since 1995—and the governor would still have to approve.

Texas Tech Makers Piggyback On Apple Watch

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Only a handful of people have actually held an Apple Watch in their hands.

Wearables have gotten a lot of hype since then, but a Piper Jaffray survey showed that of the nearly ¼ of Americans who bought a wearable, only 10 percent use theirs every day.

Quartz technology writer Mike Murphy thinks that if any company can make a wearable more – wearable, it’s Apple.

“They’re entering a market where others have failed,” Murphy says, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re gonna see another cultural phenomenon shift here with the watch, but who knows what could happen with Apple.”

But you need an Iphone to use the watch and the same survey showed only 7 percent of Iphone users intend to buy an Apple Watch. That’s the same rate of people who said they’d buy an Ipad in 2012. By now even the pope has one.

Most people don’t just buy an Iphone or an Ipad. They buy a case, adapters, and speakers. Sales of Apple accessories are expected to top 5 billion dollars in 2015.

John Arrow was watching Tim Cook’s announcement. And he saw an opportunity.

“One of the great things about Apple, is whenever they release a new piece of hardware, it creates this whole ecosystem of products and people have built gigantic companies based on that ecosystem,” Arrow says.

The watch will have interchangeable straps and a 2 and a half hour active battery life. Arrow’s company went to work designing a strap that can charge an Apple Watch. It’s a big risk.

First, no one in Arrow’s company has seen the Apple Watch just yet. They have to wait until April just like the rest of us.

“We’ll be out there at 1 AM in line buying up as many as we possibly can,” says Arrow.

Apple stores reportedly ban accessory makers that base their designs on leaked information. So Arrow and his team are designing based solely on the specifications Apple made public.

Second, Arrow’s betting that people will see the battery life as a problem and see his product as the solution.

“I think even though we are the first with a way to charge the AppleWatch on the band, I think there’s going to be others, Arrow says, “What it’s going to come down to is the design, the aesthetics, and the capacity. Those factors are going to be way more important than being first to market. Being first to market doesn’t hurt though either.”

Success will lie mostly with convincing Apple to carry his product inside its stores.

It’s a gamble that could pay off. Mike Murphy.

“But I think there’s always gonna be that secondary market, that opportunist market of people looking to um make products around big selling products. I mean it’s a huge huge industry right now, Murphy says, “The peripheral business for iPods, iPads and iPhones and it’s definitely going to be that way for the watch.”

The biggest question is whether the Apple Watch will live up to the hype.

J.P. Morgan forecasts that 26 million Apple Watches will be sold – Apple factories started production on 5 million this week..