A different kind of Festival

It’s the weekend following ACL and I’m at the Texas Tribune Festival. Its a festival for policy wonks, news junkies, liberal do-gooders and industry insiders. I got lucky and received an invitation from a friend who won tickets on twitter. The festival was organized by the Texas Tribune which describes themselves as:

…a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that promotes civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government, and other matters of statewide concern. Our vision is to serve the journalism community as a source of innovation and to build the next great public media brand in the United States.

Personally I see them as a response to a changing media environment. While the news and journalism industry struggled to make the adjustment to a digital platform the Texas Tribune started from ground up as an online publication. Almost immediately they became the go to outlet for in depth coverage of all things Texas and state government. They take great strides to turn 2-dimensional spreadsheets of data into color-filled visual interpretations that give perspective on the impact of government. They have award winning journalists that are regularly featured in national publications like The New York Times. The best part is their commitment to transparency and the understanding that being successful online means sharing and not hoarding content.

This type of forum is the future of information sharing and policy shaping. Similar to a think tank or TED talks it features high profile speakers that focus on best practices and the future of their respective industries. The full schedule can be viewed on their website and there is a mobile version as well. The tracks have been split in to 4 main categories: Energy and Environment, Public and Higher Education, Race and Immigration and Health and Human Services.  The festival as well as each program track has its own hashtag. For realtime festival updates follow me (@pollabear) and the hash tags: #tfrace, tfhealth, #tfenergy and #TribuneFest.

Left to right: Julian & Joaquin

The Mayor of San Antonio Julian Castro was the first speaker I saw this morning in a segment titled, “San Antonio is Energy City”.  He spoke about the phenomenal growth of San Antonio and challenges of responsibly delivering affordable energy. He explained that city leaders have worked with the vertically integrated municipal energy supplier CPS to provide energy at lower rates (than ERCOT or the competitive market) while still making significant investments in renewable energy. An impending $400 million solar project will put San Antonio at the top of municipal buyers of solar power along with being the state’s largest purchaser of wind power. The Mayor was introduced by his brother State Representative and U.S. Congressional candidate Joaquin Castro.

Too be continued…

I’m trying to get a well-rounded idea of the discussions taking place at the Festival. If it were up to me or if I were here alone I would have probably kept it parked on the energy track.  We broke for lunch about 1pm and enjoyed some Korean BBQ tacos from Coreanos a “premere Austin food truck”. I suggest the twice-cooked pork belly tacos, the 3 wise fries and a Prilosec (glad I got to eat before I hit the health track). As usual for me lunch was a highlight. Here are a few celebrity pictures I took with BEVO, the UT Cheerleaders (with some dudes finger over the lens) and Rep. Joaquin Castro.

Our 2nd sit-in was “The 82nd Session and Education: Lessons Learned.” The panel introduced by Texas Speaker Joe Straus included the top education and higher education buffs in the Senate, Democrat Judith “Z” Zaffirini aka “the Bull on the Brazos” and retiring Republican Senator Florence Shapiro. The house was represented by former Rep. Dan Branch R-Dallas and Rob Eissler, R-Woodlands. Considering the $4 billion cut from education in Texas last session everyone seemed oddly on the same page and even Speaker Straus seem uncommonly comfortable behind a dias ( and his jokes got real laughs).

Our 3rd event of the day attempted to answer the question was the “82nd Session good for Hispanics”. Of the 4 four panelist all were Texas House members, 3 were Hispanic, 3 were from border districts and 2 were Republican. Jose Aliseda seemed comfortable enough sticking to Republican talking points on issues like education funding and immigration but much less confident on the question of how redistricting has “fairly” benefited Hispanics with regard to minority opportunity districts.  When pressed about the DoJ’s concern over possible violations of the Voting Rights Act he admitted the redistricting process actually serves to protect the incumbency.  The panel also had heated exchanges over voter ID, use of the Rainy Day Fund and healthcare.

Too be further continued…

As day 2 starts I’m reminded how lucky I was to score tickets to this festival from a friend, but I must say its a little disheartening that multiple interesting panels are happening at the same time. I’m currently listening to a conversation about the “Economics of Immigration Reform”. The panel includes Lt. Gov. candidate and Texas Ag. Commissioner Todd Staples, Hispanic Republican State Representative Aaron Pena and two private side professionals, one from a bilingual communications firm and the other an IBC bank exec. There was very broad agreement over “border security” and they addressed violence and the drug trade impeding economic investment. The entire panel supported Gov. Perry’s position on letting illegal immigrants have instate tuition rates which earned him boos at the latest GOP presidential debate. Staples said in the national debate this issue is unwisely being skewed from an education initiative to an immigration issue.

I’m missing what I expect to be a very interesting dialogue on the topic of “EPA vs Texas”. The issue is over states’ rights vs. national health and environmental standards.  I’m curious if the Keystone XL pipeline will come up. From the panel line-up it appears the audience will get a lot of industry talking points about predictable regulation and low taxes from the TCEQ and ERCOT reps. I’d imagine statistics on increasing water and air quality standards, non-attainment challenges and health consequences from Public Citizen and the EDF. What I’d really like to see is how they frame and address each other’s positions on stage given their normal tendency to speak to friendly crowds.

Lunch break…Had great Taiwanese fusion and boba tea from Coco’s and then got to ride in a new Chevy Volt. Pretty fancy and even roomy inside. The Feds offer a subsidy of $7,500 and the City of Austin will match it for a total of $15,000 off the $50,000 MSRP.

I’m back at Trib Fest and listening to T. Boone Pickens talk about “The Pickens Plan 2.0“. It starts with “getting on our own resources”. He criticized all Presidents since Nixon for doing little to ween America off oil from OPEC and allowing our over all imports to go from 25% to 60%. The foundation of his plan focuses on natural gas. He cites Natural gas being $2 a gallon cheaper than diesel and the possibility of switching all large trucks to natural gas. He said in France consumers have over 40 choices of natural gas vehicles. He has asked Obama to issue an executive order that all new federal vehicles must run off domestic sources: battery, natural gas, ethanol, etc. He mentioned an effort to sale a similar version of the plan to George Bush shortly after 9/11 but was unsuccessful.  Moderator and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith focused the question on how T. Boone moves from plan to policy. Pickens says he will continue to push whoever is in the White House and work with business leaders to make significant changes to our fuel consumption, but the process becomes easier with leadership in Washington.  He then pointed to the 1,500 natural gas stations in California that was the result of air quality issues. On the question of who he is supporting for President he appeared reluctant to say Rick Perry but given the polls he didn’t believe Obama had a chance to win reelection.

We decided for the last event of the festival that we would see our first event on the health track. Great choice, the speaker was Cecile Richards the daughter of former Texas Governor Anne Richards and President of Planned Parenthood. She started with thanking the Tribune staff for her ability to stay in touch with Texas from their coverage in the New York Times.  She thanked the Health and Human Services Secretary for including birth control in the list of medications that will be mandated for insurance companies to provide to woman cost free. She acknowledged the fight has been long and hard and there have been set backs. She expressed disappointment that they will be turning away young men who they in the past had offered STD testing and contraceptives. “We prevent more need for abortions than many of these politicians will in a lifetime.” More than 90% of Planned Parenthood’s operations are preventative measures including contraceptives, mammograms, etc. She spoke on the importance of sex education in schools and cited the fact the US leads the industrialized world in teen pregnancies and Texas leads the U.S. Although I enjoyed it immensely and agreed almost entirely I noticed this is one of the few events that focused on a controversial topic without having multiple world views represented.

I have to conclude the inaugural Texas Tribune Festival has been an extremely successful event. Its always a good idea to share good ideas and many were expressed here, its not every day you can say you were on 4 right tracks. I look forward to a DVD with the panels I missed and for these conversations to continue to bring us closer to solutions. If I could drop a note in the suggestion box for next year I would request live music. It would complement the cultural immersion of food trucks on the lawn -mariachi band or gypsy street musicians, anyone?


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