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April, 2004:

More on Sinclair

The Center for American Progress fills in some more details about Sinclair, the owner of several ABC affiliates which won’t be showing tonight’s Nightline. To put it mildly, these guys have been strongly supportive of President Bush. Check it out, and scroll down to the bottom of the page for a link to get CAP’s stuff via email.

Losing focus

As noted yesterday by the Yellow Dog Blog, this special session has essentially ceased to be about school finance reform and is instead focusing first on property taxes, with maybe some school stuff thrown in if they can. In particular, that means if the gambling expansion goes through. No gambling, no extra school money. That’s the kind of leadership we have.

Here are the “highlights”, such as they are. I note that there’s now a school finance blog, which has some of the actual legislative info, so check it out (via BOR).

House Panel to vote Saturday

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, said he hopes to have a version for action by the House Select Committee on Public School Finance on Saturday that the 150-member House can debate next week.

“I don’t think we want the school community up in arms,” committee Chairman Grusendorf said during a 15-minute meeting billed earlier as the panel’s chance to approve the plan.

A factor in the delay could be a South Texas legislator’s concern over a computer analysis suggesting Rio Grande Valley districts will get less aid under the plan than they would if lawmakers kept the “Robin Hood” system, which this year required property-rich districts to share $1.2 billion with others.

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, awaiting an explanation from GOP leaders, said: “If there is a defect in this model, it’s better for us to find out now and address it. This is probably the most important legislation most of my colleagues will ever vote on. We need to slow this thing down and make sure we’re doing the right things.”

Panel expects to pass plan

The legislation and a companion constitutional amendment that would legalize video gambling machines are expected to be voted on Saturday by the House Select Committee on Public Education.

The measures could then be considered by the full House next week at the halfway point of the 30-day special session.

Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, said he expects the 29-member panel to approve the two measures Saturday.

“I think we have consensus,” he said, referring to latest version of the 400-page bill that would overhaul the school funding system and reduce property taxes by about 30 percent.

The Republican lawmaker cautioned that additional funding for schools is probably contingent on the Legislature agreeing to legalize video gambling machines at seven dog and horse tracks and three American Indian reservations in the state.

No gambling, no help for schools

“Right now we don’t have a backup plan,” said Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, House Appropriations Committee chairman. “My guess is if the VLT (video lottery terminals) didn’t go, then there’d probably be some reduction in spending money.”

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, chairman of the House Select Committee on Public School Finance, said he thinks most lawmakers’ top priority is reducing property taxes. Supporters of increased school spending expressed dismay that funding education has become linked to gambling. Dick Lavine, a fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for fairness in taxation and education funding, said lawmakers have their priorities “upside down.”

Opposition to gambling mounting

“I think the leadership recognizes there is a growing group of people who are opposed to this,” said state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, who claims to have some 25 signatures of House members firmly opposed, so far.

She would need 51 “no” votes to be absolutely certain of blocking it: A constitutional amendment legalizing slot machines requires 100 votes in the 150-member House, where Republicans hold an 88-62 advantage over Democrats. Two-thirds of the state Senate and a majority of Texas voters would also have to approve it.

With such high stakes, state lawmakers are already making contingency plans in case opponents marshal enough support to stop the slot machines, technically known as video lottery terminals, or VLTs.

Failure to add them as a new source of state revenue will blow an estimated $1.5 billion hole in the latest House school finance package — about the same amount of new education money the bill envisions for the 2006-07 budget cycle.

The bill is tentatively scheduled for a vote in a House committee this weekend.

“If VLTs go down, that’s a huge part of this. Where do you go then?” said Bob Richter, a spokesman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. “I think they are concerned about that and what to do it if goes down.”

Bipartisan opposition to gambling

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said some of his party members are willing to vote against constitutional amendments that include video lottery terminals and other revenue-raising measures if Republicans don’t budge on a sales tax increase.

“The Democrats’ position is that the sales tax unfairly shifts the burden to the middle class, poor and fixed-income individuals,” Oliveira said.

Much business whining

“We’re getting too much of the load,” said Wade Sullivan, a Ford dealer in Crockett.

Under the plan, sales taxes on cars would jump, from 6.25 percent to 7.75 percent. For the buyer of a $20,000 car, the sales tax would rise $300, to $1,550.

Car dealers also would have to charge a 6.75 percent sales tax on mechanics’ labor, not just on repair parts. And they would have to foot a new payroll tax.

“There’s no doubt they want to punish people who drive,” said Tom Blanton, vice president for legislative affairs at the Texas Automobile Dealers Association.

Many businesses were furious that the House on Wednesday did an about-face and scrapped a day-old proposal to expand the sales tax to services by lawyers, accountants, Realtors, architects, engineers, interior designers, barbers and beauticians.

“Obviously, haircuts are more important to these people than the ability to get around,” said Mr. Blanton, who represents 1,400 car dealers. He said the payroll tax is “the job-killer tax, probably the most insidious of all.”

No new booze taxes – yet

“In the beginning, everything was on the table,” said Robert Black, a spokesman for Mr. Perry. “But after weeding things out, that simply didn’t make it into the plan.”

The liquor lobby has long been among the most powerful and influential in Austin. According to the Institute on Money in State Politics, about $1.5 million was given to Texas candidates in 2002 by beer, wine and liquor interests.

Despite the fierce efforts of lobbyists, some lawmakers are angling to tack a beer and liquor measure as a school-finance plan reaches the House floor. On Thursday, Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, filed a bill that seeks an additional 1 percent sales tax on ale, beer, wine and malt liquor, among other drinks.

Legislators and lobbyists have disappeared into the back halls of the Capitol to hammer out a deal, with some looking to replace funding options they don’t like by tossing others into the pot.

Some House members, like Richardson Republican Fred Hill, want the liquor industry to share more of the burden.

“I would think it’s [tax increase on beer] gaining momentum,” said Mr. Hill, who is expected to introduce an amendment raising the taxes on alcohol.

Officials from the Texas beer industry say they already pay high taxes and fees.

Mike McKinney, a lobbyist for the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, said the Texas beer industry bears the eighth-highest tax burden per capita in the nation – $26.90 annually, including state and federal excise taxes on barrels of beer and sales taxes.

“We are taxed a good deal higher than the national average,” Mr. McKinney told the House committee studying school finance. “We’re also quite a bit higher than our neighbors.”

The Texas per capita rate is double that in Louisiana and $7 more than the industry is taxed in Oklahoma, according to industry figures.

“We’re always concerned about letting the neighboring states capture part of our market because we get beyond them,” said Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. “I see two states immediately where we’re [taxed] better than twice what they are.”

Mr. Hill, though, said the overall per capita tax numbers could be misleading because they don’t factor the massive quantities of beer consumed in the Lone Star state.

Mr. McKinney conceded that point: “We do drink a lot more beer in Texas than they do in Arkansas.”

If they limited this one to only taxing wimpy downstream brands like Bud and Miller, I’d support it. It’d practically be a public service.

New deal for Lea Fastow

If at first you don’t succeed, reduce the charges.

The Enron Task Force had successfully sought an indictment on two counts of felony conspiracy and four counts of making false tax statements. On Thursday, those six charges were replaced with one count of willfully delivering a joint 2000 tax form reporting more than $48 million in income to the Internal Revenue Service even though she knew it to be fraudulent.

Lea Fastow, 44, could face a maximum 12-month prison term on the one charge, though prosecutors are likely to ask U.S. District Judge David Hittner for a lesser sentence.

On April 7, Hittner refused to give Fastow the five-month prison term she’d previously worked out with prosecutors. At that time she withdrew her prior guilty plea to one felony tax charge.

“This restructure of her case as a misdemeanor validates the theory that the charges against Lea Fastow were always intended as leverage against her husband,” said Jacob Frenkel, a Washington, D.C.-based former federal prosecutor and Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer.

The government had previously told Hittner that Fastow “played an integral role in her husband’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate with the government in this ongoing investigation.”

Andrew Fastow, originally charged with 98 counts, pleaded guilty to two felony charges and faces a maximum 10-year prison term for his role in fraud at the scandal-ridden Enron. But his cooperation with the government has already bolstered cases against ex-Chief Executive Officer Jeff Skilling and ex-top accounting officer Rick Causey.

Several criminal defense lawyers who practice in federal courts said Thursday the current Justice Department is loath to drop felony charges down to misdemeanors as has been done in this case.

“It’s extremely unusual,” said Houston-based defense lawyer Kent Schaffer. “Obviously this is a case the government didn’t want to try, and obviously they want to keep Andy Fastow happy.”

Legal onlookers say both sides win here, even if the judge sentences Lea Fastow to the full 12 months.

She wins because she will not have a felony record. That means she will not be banned from voting and she will not have the stigma of being a felon, which could keep her, a former businesswoman and future nursing student, from some future employment.

Many lawyers say even if she gets the maximum sentence, because she’s a first-time offender there is a good chance the Bureau of Prisons would release her into a halfway house well before that might happen were she a felon.

The government wins, too, because it did not want to lose Andrew Fastow’s enthusiastic cooperation, especially as it continues to pursue and investigate ex-Enron Chairman Ken Lay.

“When Judge Hittner said no to the earlier plea bargain, it put the government in overdrive to keep the peace with the Fastows and not take away from its continuing investigation,” Schaffer said.

Makes perfect sense to me. I’m certainly not an apologist for Lea Fastow, but she’s not the big picture here. Jeff Skilling is, and getting Andy Fastow fully on board to testify against Skilling is the goal. If that means Lea gets six months in Club Fed instead of 12, I’ve got no complaints.

Speaking of Skilling, by the way, his lawyers have struck back on the weird New York public intoxication incident.

Lawyers for former Enron Chief Executive Jeff Skilling on Wednesday accused the government of unnecessarily prejudicing the jury pool and improperly releasing his high blood alcohol level.

Federal prosecutors are asking that Skilling be placed under a midnight curfew and post an additional $2 million bond after a drunken incident in New York City.

“The Task Force has gone out of its way to publicly and unfairly distort the events and place full culpability and responsibility on Mr. Skilling,” said the court papers filed by Skilling’s Los Angeles-based lead trial counsel, Daniel Petrocelli.

Enron Task Force prosecutors told the court in a public filing last week that Skilling violated his $5 million bond in Manhattan earlier this month by being severely intoxicated, trying to lift a woman’s blouse in search of an FBI wiretap and attempting to steal a car’s license plate.

The government filing said that after police took Skilling to a hospital the morning of April 9, his blood alcohol level was 0.19 — nearly twice the legal driving limit of 0.10 in many states.

According to Petrocelli’s papers, prosecutors have specifically asked that Skilling’s travel be restricted, he report weekly rather than monthly to pretrial officials and his bond be raised from $5 million to $7 million.

Skilling’s lawyers argue that the Houston pretrial services recommendations, which are not available to the public, are more appropriate and only call for new bond conditions regarding Skilling’s use of alcohol. They say Skilling has already “begun to comply with the new conditions,” although not yet ordered to do so.

“There is no bona fide justification for this attempt to impose such harsh, unreasonable restraints other than a desire to inflict as much hardship as possible on Mr. Skilling,” said Petrocelli in the filing.

The defense motion filed Wednesday asks that U.S. Magistrate Judge Frances Stacy adopt the recommendation of the pretrial services office and ignore the government. Stacy set the initial terms of Skilling’s bond in February when he was indicted on 35 felony charges in connection with the scandal-ridden company’s collapse.

And the prosecutors have responded to those charges.

Enron Task Force prosecutor Linda Lacewell told U.S. Magistrate Frances Stacy in court papers that nothing about Skilling’s behavior since the April 9 incident outside a Manhattan cigar bar should convince the court that he will adhere to the existing restrictions in his $5 million bond.

Prosecutors have said Skilling violated his bond by being severely intoxicated, trying to lift a woman’s blouse in search of an FBI wiretap and attempting to steal a car’s license plate. The government said that after police took Skilling to a hospital the morning of April 9, his blood alcohol level was 0.19, nearly twice the legal driving limit of 0.10 in many states.

Skilling’s lawyers accused the government on Wednesday of unnecessarily prejudicing the jury pool and improperly releasing his high blood alcohol level.

Lacewell countered Thursday that Skilling’s own lawyers were making public statements about the event and that he waived the medical record privacy rights so this investigation could be conducted.

“Given how he behaved during the evening of April 8 and the morning of April 9, it is understandable why Skilling would want to deflect attention from his own misconduct by attacking the government with unfounded allegations,” Lacewell said in the filing.

Prosecutors are asking that Skilling be placed under a midnight curfew, post an additional $2 million bond, restrict his travel to Texas and report to pretrial services weekly rather than monthly.

Much as I’ve enjoyed all of the guiltry pleas so far, seeing this sucker go to trial is going to be more fun than a trashy miniseries (or trashy made-for-TV movie). Get your popcorn makers warmed up now, folks, this one will be a hoot.

“Contrary to the public interest”

It is extremely difficult for me to understand this, which comes via Atrios. is reporting [no free link] that Sinclair Broadcast Group has ordered its ABC-affiliated stations not to carry tomorrow’s “Nightline,” which will air the names and photos of soldiers who have been killed in combat in Iraq.

Sinclair General Counsel Barry Faber tells the site: “We find it to be contrary to the public interest.”

The boycott will affect eight ABC-affiliated Sinclair stations.



The ABC Television network announced on Tuesday that the Friday, April 30th edition of “Nightline” will consist entirely of Ted Koppel reading aloud the names of U.S. servicemen and women killed in action in Iraq. Despite the denials by a spokeswoman for the show the action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.

While the Sinclair Broadcast Group honors the memory of the brave members of the military who have sacrificed their lives in the service of our country, we do not believe such political statements should be disguised as news content. As a result, we have decided to preempt the broadcast of “Nightline” this Friday on each of our stations which air ABC programming.

We understand that our decision in this matter may be questioned by some. Before you judge our decision, however, we would ask that you first question Mr. Koppel as to why he chose to read the names of the 523 troops killed in combat in Iraq, rather than the names of the thousands of private citizens killed in terrorists attacks since and including the events of September 11, 2001. In his answer, you will find the real motivation behind his action scheduled for this Friday.

I’ve printed the ABC News response to Sinclair beneath the More link.

About a mile from my house, just in front of the Height post office, is a World War II memorial. It sits on the esplanade of Heights Boulevard, the historic main drag through my neighborhood, and commemorates the young men from the Heights who served and died in that war. (I really need to take some pictures of it – it’s a very well-done memorial. Maybe tomorrow.) The Vietnam memorial in Washington is of course a huge wall with the names of all of the dead etched into it. Is there anyone who would suggest there was anything remotely improper about the public display of those names?

If hearing those names and seeing those faces makes you angry, well, it should. If it makes you question why we’re there and how we got there in the first place, again, it should. That doesn’t mean that your anger has to be directed in any one specific place, nor does it mean that you have to answer those questions in any one specific way. But there’s nothing noble about ducking the questions, or hiding from the names and faces. This is the price we’ve paid. I believe we’re all grown up enough to decide on our own whether or not it has been worth it, but apparently Sinclair doesn’t, and its viewers are the lesser for it. (Atrios has a list of those stations, and their contact info, by the way.)

As for the comment about reading the names being a political statement in and of itself, well, as Taegen Goddard points out, Sinclair has a definite political interest here as well.


The pension opt-out vote

Early voting has started for the May 15 election of City Proposition #1, which would allow Houston to opt out of the pension guarantee that was enacted last September. The numbers are scary (and getting scarier), but I’m rather torn as to whether or not this is the right thing to do. I’ve read both Greg, who’s voting Yes, and Kevin, who’s voting No, and I’m still undecided though leaning very slightly towards Yes.

For what it’s worth, I attended a meeting of the Heights Democratic Club a few weeks ago, and much of the meeting was a discussion of Prop 1. Both sides made a good case, with City Council member Adrian Garcia presenting the Yes viewpoint. In my mind, the matter largely comes down to how much you trust Mayor White with this hot potato. I don’t think he’s going to screw anyone, and that nudges me gently towards a Yes vote. But I’m not quite there yet. And I need to get wherever I’m going sooner rather than later, because I’m going to a wedding on the 15th, so it’s early voting or no voting for me.

Say good night, Rockets

So the Rockets exited the playoffs last night. A little luck and a little more better execution and they could be 3-2 going into a home Game 6, but it’s not to be. Yao Ming has said that just making the playoffs means they get a C for the season. That sounds about right.

I don’t have any brilliant ideas about what they need to do for next year. I think rumored trade talk for Steve Francis is misguided, mostly because I don’t think they’d be able to get equivalent value for him. I do think Francis can and will work better with Yao, and if I’m wrong they’re all in a heap of trouble. One more year, and be prepared to burn it all down and start over with just Yao if there’s no progress.

As for the rest of the playoffs, I don’t really care who wins as long as it’s not the Lakers. The only time in my life I can recall rooting for that team is when they were the lesser of two evils, which is to say only when they played the Celtics in the Finals back in the 80s. I’m not even sure I’d align myself the same way if that were to happen now (not this year, of course). I’ve tried to feel some warmth and fuzziness for the prospect of Karl Malone and Gary Payton finally winning a championship, but then I remember that I’ve hated their guts for more than a decade. If I’m going to root for any longtime deserving veteran player this year, it’ll be Kevin Garnett. In short: go Spurs, go T-Wolves, go whoever’s playing LA. And wait till next year, Rockets.

Good boy, Rep. Smith! Here’s your biscuit!

As promised yesterday, Rep. Lamar Smith filed legislation to once again try to give Bacardi rum a sweetheart trademark deal that isn’t available to other American companies.

Smith, R-San Antonio, filed a bill Wednesday to alter U.S. trademark rules to benefit Bacardi, the marketer of Bacardi rum, Dewar’s scotch and other recognizable labels.

The legislation is similar to a sharply criticized provision that was quietly slipped into the defense appropriations bill last October by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. After it was revealed that DeLay political committees had received $40,000 from Bacardi, the resulting outcry didn’t stop until the provision was stripped out.

Smith, however, sees his bill as more of a slap at Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whose government confiscated a rum-making company in 1960, setting off a chain of events that continues today.

“I don’t like to see Castro, or other companies, enrich themselves at the expense of legitimate companies that were seized during Castro’s communist revolution,” Smith said. “All that does is reward illegitimate, illegal behavior.”

Smith has the added advantage of having received no political contributions from Bacardi, but that matters little to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an activist group that criticized the DeLay provision and found little to like about Smith’s version.

“You’ve got to wonder why something that helps one company, to the detriment of (others), would go forward,” said Melanie Sloan, director of the government-accountability group.

Sloan’s answer: money.

Bacardi has contributed about $650,000 to congressional members of both parties since 1997, including $20,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority, a DeLay-sponsored political action committee under investigation for allegedly using corporate money in the 2002 Texas elections in violation of state law.

“This is a bad policy,” Sloan said. “The more people hear about it, the more appalled they are.”


CubaExport’s claims were dismissed by a federal court based on Section 211 of U.S. trademark law, a provision quietly inserted into a massive 1998 spending bill by former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla. — a tactic similar to what DeLay would try five years later.

Section 211 barred the United States from registering trademarks associated with property that had been seized by governments without compensation.

Smith’s bill, like DeLay’s ill-fated provision, would amend Section 211 to answer complaints by the World Trade Organization, which ruled that Section 211 violated copyright treaty obligations. The bill is designed to meet the WTO’s objections while continuing to protect Bacardi, critics contend.

“The legislation is important because it will show Americans won’t tolerate confiscation without compensation,” said Patricia Neal, Bacardi USA spokeswoman.

But several major U.S. companies are working to repeal Section 211 — including DuPont, General Motors, Eastman Kodak and Halliburton — based on fears that Castro will retaliate by canceling their trademarks in Cuba.

“We believe that’s a red herring,” Neal said. “Cuba has sought out foreign investment since the collapse of Soviet subsidies in the 1990s. . . . Confiscating anyone else’s trademark would isolate them even more economically than they already are today.”

Smith, whose district includes western Travis and Hays counties, is chairman of the House Courts, Internet and Intellectual Property Subcommittee, which will hold a hearing on the bill in the next few weeks, he said.

The bill has 32 co-sponsors, including Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio.

I’ve pretty much used up all my snark and indignation on this sorry, corrupt boondoggle. I’m running dry on creative ways to criticize Tom DeLay for his unceasing fealty to corporate slush funds. These stories pretty much speak for themselves. Sadly, issues like this linger like mold in your bathroom tile because so little light gets shined on them. The only other story I see about this is in the DMN, and they barely recap what it’s about. The Chron, as usual, isn’t paying attention. What a waste.

Anyway. Thanks as always to AJ Garcia for keeping me up to date on this stuff.

House kneels before its masters

Remember those halcyon days of, um, yesterday, when Tom Craddick could say things like this?

The expansion of the sales tax is designed to tap into the growth in the service sector of the Texas economy.

“The idea of broadening it, that’s where the growth in the economy is,” said Craddick. “If you broaden it, you pick up that growth.”

Yeah, well, it was all a load of crap. The corporate overlords have spoken, and there will be no expansion of the sales tax into the service economy, with the minor exception of auto repair and car washes. As there’s not much variation in today’s coverage, I’ll just point to the stories: Chron, Morning News, Express News, Statesman, Star Telegram. Here’s a brief summary of the changes, from the Statesman:

* Providing a larger payroll tax: For-profit businesses would pay 1.25 percent of their wage base or $125 per full-time employee each quarter, whichever is less, compared with 1 percent or $100 per employee under the original proposal.

* Keeping the residential and business property tax collections at the local level instead of creating a statewide property tax.

* Raising the general sales tax rate even higher, from its current 6.25 percent to 6.75 percent. Heflin’s plan had proposed a 6.5 percent rate.

* Eliminating the proposed sales tax on all but two of 19 services. Auto maintenance and repairs and car washes would still be taxed.

* Increasing the motor vehicle sales tax from the current 6.25 percent to 7.75 percent — compared with 7.5 percent under Heflin’s proposal.

The new version still calls for legalizing video lottery terminals, adding a $1-per-pack tax to cigarettes and charging sales tax on items currently exempt, such as newspapers, magazine subscriptions and coin-operated services.

In addition, the state would put a $1 surcharge on amusement tickets, including those to movie theaters and professional sporting events.

One committee member said the committee is considering lowering the school property tax rate from $1.50 per $100 of value to $1.05 per $100 — 5 cents higher than what was originally proposed.

I’ll get to some of the implications in a minute, but first, one piece mentioned only in the Express News:

Creating a new tax on cigars that would generate almost $6 million a year.

So we’ve got increases in the cigarette tax and smokeless tobacco tax, plus a new tax on cigars. I had no idea we had such a powerful pipe-smoking lobby in this state. How else to explain how they and only they got off tax-free?

Points to ponder:

1. Leaving property tax collection at the local level may mean no need for a Constitutional amendment. I’m guessing the Attorney General will have to rule on this, but if so, it means that the proposed property tax reductions can be passed by a simple majority in each chamber, so Democrats could not block it so easily. The 2/3 rule in the Senate could still come into play, but as David Dewhurst has already indicated that he’s not bound by tradition, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

2. Whatever increase or expansion of the sales tax goes through, the expectation of revenue from gambling is what’s allowing there to be more money for the schools (which, remember, was the original reason for this session) in conjunction with property tax reductions. What happens if the opponents of expanded gambling, such as Sen. Jane Nelson, carry the day? Will the Lege simply go forward with the current tax proposals and not take any action on school funding issues? Surely this wouldn’t be seen by the courts as providing a Robin Hood replacement with sufficient funding equity.

3. I’m sure the Democratic caucuses have some strategy in mind over there on the sidelines. I hope I’m not reading anything about it because they’re biding their time and waiting to see what gets proposed before they start making noise. They’ll need to be clear about why they’re taking whatever obstructive action they may pursue, which is that proper funding for schools takes precedence over giving Highland Park homeowners a tax cut. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – thanks to the gerrymandered State House districts, they have little to fear from Republicans at the ballot box.

One last item, from the Chron:

The governor visited a home in Pflugerville, in suburban Austin, to renew his call for the Legislature to cut and limit future growth in local property taxes. His proposal includes a 3 percent cap on the annual growth of property tax appraisals.

David and Tammy Odom were recently notified that the appraised value of their house, which they purchased about 18 months ago for $165,000, had jumped $8,000 during the past year, meaning their tax bill this year could increase by $240 or more.

Perry said his proposal, if enacted by the Legislature, would cut the Odoms’ potential tax increase almost in half.

Raise your hand if you think the retail sales price of the Odoms’ house didn’t increase by at least as much in the last 18 months as well. So why should I care about the increase in their appraisal? Cap or no cap, when they sell that house the new owner will be taxed on the market value of the house. Why should they be treated any differently?

UPDATE: Sadly, the answer to point #2 appears to be as I feared: no new money for schools. You’re damn right I expect the Democrats to vote that down.

What is it with not electing Senators?

Did I miss a memo? Is this National Bash The 17th Amendment Week and nobody told me about it?

Zell Miller, Georgia’s maverick Democratic senator, says the nation ought to return to having senators appointed by legislatures rather than elected by voters.

Miller, who is retiring in January, was first appointed to his post in 2000 after the death of Paul Coverdell. He said Wednesday that rescinding the 17th Amendment, which declared that senators should be elected, would increase the power of state governments and reduce the influence of Washington special interests.

“The individuals are not so much at fault as the rotten and decaying foundation of what is no longer a republic,” Miller said on the Senate floor. “It is the system that stinks. And it’s only going to get worse because that perfect balance our brilliant Founding Fathers put in place in 1787 no longer exists.”

Well, now. Perhaps someone should call up Zell Miller and ask him how many of the following Bush-touted Constitutional amendments he supports: Gay marriage ban, abortion ban, flag-burning ban, victims’ rights, and (must…keep…straight…face) balanced budget. Since he’s such an expert on Constitutional feng shui, I’m sure he’ll be able to explain why support for any of those proposals is Not The Same Thing.

I think I’ve figured it out. Now that Vieth v. Jubelirir has officially given state legislatures the power to determine who everyone’s Congressperson will be, it follows that we may as well repeal the 17th Amendment and assign all representational power to those state Leges. As a bonus, we won’t have as much to worry about with black-box voting machines. It’s a win-win! Jim D sees it the same way.

Enjoy your retirement, Zell. I know I speak for many people when I say the Senate will stink a lot less without you.

Vieth decided

The Supremes upheld Pennsylvania’s redistricting plan in the Vieth v. Jubelirir case, though in doing so they did not throw out the Bandemer precedent.

By a 5-4 vote, the court rejected a challenge by Pennsylvania Democrats to districts that were redrawn after the 2000 census by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. The plaintiffs had argued that the new boundaries were so politically skewed in favor of the Republicans that they violated the constitutional principle of one person, one vote.

The case is one of several in which Democrats are challenging new congressional districts that were drawn by GOP-controlled state legislatures following the latest census with the aim of maximizing Republicans’ chances of winning elections for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a decision last week, the Supreme Court declined to review a lower court ruling against a Democratic challenge to a controversial GOP redistricting plan in Texas. But a more substantive appeal against those districts is still pending.

In today’s decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that political disputes over district boundaries date back to the early 18th century and that “it was generally conceded that each party would attempt to gain power which was not proportionate to its numerical strength.”

But Scalia was narrowly rebuffed in an attempt to revisit a 1986 Supreme Court decision that left open the possibility of claims against gerrymandering. He wrote that 18 years of wrangling in the courts over gerrymandering “with virtually nothing to show for it” have shown that such claims are “nonjusticiable” and that the 1986 ruling was wrong.

He was supported in that view by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas. But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who had voted with the majority to uphold the Pennsylvania boundaries, sided with four justices in refusing to overturn the 1986 ruling, thereby foreclosing future challenges to gerrymandering.

Kennedy, in a separate written opinion, said correcting district boundaries that were drawn for partisan reasons “would commit federal and state courts to unprecedented intervention in the American political process.” However, he said the courts must remain open to cases of redistricting that might be unconstitutional.

So basically the extreme partisan gerrymander forced through last year is not illegal on those grounds. There’s still a Voting Rights lawsuit left in the system, but as I’ve said before, the lines we have now are reality. Time to make some lemonade, you know what I mean? Via Nosey.

UPDATE: The local reaction:

J. Gerald Hebert, a lawyer representing Democrats in that case, said Wednesday’s ruling shows a court majority is clearly concerned that partisan gerrymandering can violate constitutional rights.

“The search for a standard goes on, but there is a clear warning shot to legislators who are more interested in partisan greed than in fairness, democracy and equal representation,” Hebert said.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds said the Supreme Court upheld a political tradition.

“We’re very pleased by today’s decision affirming that redistricting is a political process and congressional boundaries can be drawn based on political criteria,” Reynolds said. “This practice is not new and is used by both parties. It is a victory for the redistricting process, and we’re looking forward to moving on.”

Sadly, I think Reynolds’ take is closer to reality. Here’s also a bit more on Justice Kenndy’s position:

Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the majority in rejecting the Pennsylvania case. But he said the absence of an objective standard to measure partisan gerrymanders does not rule out of the emergence of one in the future.

“If a state passed an enactment that declared, `All future apportionment shall be drawn so as most to burden Party X’s rights to fair and effective representation … ,’ we would surely conclude the Constitution had been violated,” Kennedy wrote. “If that is so, we should admit the possibility remains that a legislature might attempt to reach the same result without that express directive.”

Kennedy said the court may want to pursue whether a standard could be reached under claims that partisan gerrymanders violate a person’s First Amendment rights of free speech and free association.

Sure seems like a narrow target to me. As I said, this is the hand we’re dealt. We can play it or not, but we’re not getting any more cards.

UPDATE: Greg Wythe is pissed.

UPDATE: Greg Morrow has a proposal.

Indeed, my credentials are more than sufficient

I just have one question for you, Norbizness: is your rap lyrics to middle management translator a skill you list on resumes? I’d hire you for it.

Carrying rum for Tom DeLay

Whatever else one may say about Tom DeLay, once he’s been bought he has the decency to stay bought. Just ask Bacardi, on whose behalf DeLay has been trying to sneak or force through a bill that would give them exclusive rights to the “Havana Club” rum label in Cuba, even though doing so might damage the intellectual property rights of hundreds of other American companies. (See here, here, here, here, and here for more background.)

Today’s update is that yet another bill, HR 4225, has been filed to fulfill Bacardi’s wishes at DeLay’s behest. What with all of those other pesky scandals surrounding him, though, DeLay got someone else to sponsor the bill for him, in this case Texas’ Lamar Smith. No wire reports that I can find as yet, but I have found a couple of press released reactions to the bill, one from the National Foreign Trade Council, and one from Citizens Against Government Waste, both of which were critical of it. I’ll keep looking for news accounts to see what the official word is, but for now I take heart in knowing that DeLay’s efforts have all been for naught.

By the way, CGAW has an amusingly named WasteBlog, which I just might have to subscribe to. Check it out.

Anyway, thanks to AJ Garcia for the heads up.

Morrison, Meyer, and more Frost

Kos teases us with some poll news from CD22:

I’ve gotten my hands on some polling data from the district, and it’s surprisingly poor for [Tom] DeLay. His Approval/Disapprovals are 44/48. On the reelect question, 36 percent would definitely vote for him, 27 percent would consider someone else, and 27 percent would definitely vote for someone else.

53 percent of respondents were pro-choice, with only 34 percent following DeLay’s strict anti-choice line.

This is apparently a partisan poll, so reach for the salt. It’s not crazy to me that this poll may be accurate, though. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if DeLay is a hold-your-nose candidate for some number of Republicans in that district. He has drawn primary challengers in the past, though none of them has made him sweat.

Reaching those voters and convincing them there’s a better alternative is, of course, the hard part. I firmly believe that Richard Morrison can be the guy to do that, but if it’s doable it’ll still probably take more than one shot at DeLay to bag him. If Morrison (or Morrison plus former Republican and DeLay primary challenger Michael Fjetland, who’s running as an independent) can pull better than 40%, look for a much stronger run in 2006.

(Oh, and check out Morrison’s campaign blog, which has been getting regular updates lately.)

Meanwhile, Morris Meyer has a guest post up at Eschaton. That Smokey Joe Barton has a colorful past, doesn’t he? I really don’t know what kind of traction Meyer (and Morrison, for that matter) is getting, but I’ve been impressed with their willingness to fight and not concede anything. I didn’t realize until I compared the old map with the new one today (see them here) just how much the 6th CD had changed. Maybe incumbency won’t help Barton as much as it would have under the old map.

And finally, Martin Frost and Pete Sessions have signed a Clean Campaign pledge, which “commits both candidates to publicly disavow any outside group that advertises without the explicit consent of either candidate.” That’s a direct result of this ad, which was sponsored by a wacko fringe group that has a history of running such ads. I’ll be very interested to see how this plays out.

Feeds, blogrolls, etc

I suppose I should’ve subscribed to my own blog’s feeds from the get-go, but after reading David’s post about Atom, I learned that I don’t have a full-post feed of my own. I’ve created an Atom template, and once I’m sure it’s working I’ll provide a link for it on the sidebar.

Is anyone else having a problem seeing my blogroll? It just won’t display on my work PCs in IE, but I can see it fine at home in Mozilla. I’m rather stumped at this point, so any suggestions are appreciated.

I’ve noticed a string of referrals today from what looks like web mail systems at and – I’m guessing someone sent an email at those places which contained a link to one of my posts. I can’t see what they’re pointing to, so this has piqued my curiosity. Please drop me a note or leave a comment if you know what this was about.

Finally, one last plug for Bloglines. Notifying me when an infrequently-updated blog has new content is currently my favorite part of using an RSS aggregator. Try it, you’ll like it.

The limits of outsourcing

I largely agree with the logic and conclusions in this story about why not all outsourcing of technology tasks to India has been successful. I have some experience in this kind of matter (which I will not talk about in this space – you’ll need to ask me in person if you’re interested) and this tracks pretty closely with what I’ve been through.

One thing this article doesn’t explicitly mention is that in the long run, the problems with productivity that related to communication and experience will be worked out. I don’t see this as anything but a bump in the road. On the plus side for me personally, I’d rather work in the invention and engineering side of the house than in the operations and production side anyway. I recognize that this is the smaller slice of the labor pie, however. Link via Suburban Guerrilla.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum’s experiences are similar to mine.

UPDATE: Linkmeister chimes in with smaller-scale anecdotes.

House unveils its proposal

The state House has released a new plan to overhaul state tax collections as part of school finance reform, and to say the least, it’s not timid. It’s also not likely to survive in its present form. I think the Statesman summed up reaction to it pretty well:

The initial reviews: reserved kudos from the Senate, studied neutrality from the governor and a scramble by lobbyists to divine the plan’s ramifications.

Here’s a basic outline of the plan, as reported in the Morning News.

• A slight increase in the state sales tax rate, raising it from 6.25 percent to 6.5 percent. In Dallas, the rate would be 8.5 percent including the local levy. Also, a larger increase in the motor vehicle sales tax would boost the rate from 6.25 percent to 7.5 percent.

• Expansion of the sales tax to include a host of services and items. That would include auto repairs, barber and beauty services, residential repairs, legal and accounting services, real estate services and financial services.

• A state payroll tax that would replace the business franchise tax. All for-profit employers would be charged either $400 or 1 percent of annual wages per employee – whichever is less. A similar proposal with a 2.5 percent rate is also under consideration.

• A $1 increase in the state cigarette tax to $1.41 per pack and a slight increase in the state tax on smokeless tobacco. The cigarette tax increase would raise about $700 million a year.

• Legalization of video gambling machines at seven dog and horse tracks and on three American Indian reservations. The maximum 40,000 slot machines that would be authorized would generate $1.5 billion a year.

Other tax and fee increases include a $1 surcharge on all amusement tickets and expansion of the state sales tax to include Internet access services and newspapers and magazines.

Most of the new revenue – $5.2 billion – would be used to offset the property tax reduction of 50 cents per $100 of value. The remainder would provide $1 billion in new money for schools and $750 million to equalize the 10 cent levy that school districts could collect for enrichment.

The payroll tax would generate about $2.4 billion a year, but the net gain to the state would be $600 million after the business franchise tax is abolished. The franchise tax, paid by about one in six businesses because of loopholes and exemptions, generates about $1.8 billion a year.

A constitutional amendment would be required for the state property tax and the legalization of video gambling. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate as well as voter approval.

Not explicitly mentioned there but noted by the Star Telegram is that this plan does not include the infamous stripper tax. That $1 surcharge on amusement tickets apparently includes movie tickets, though. The Chron has some more details on the new tax proposals:

The plan introduced by Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, also eliminates the corporate franchise tax and imposes a new business tax based on payroll. Businesses would pay 1 percent of their payroll or $400 per employee, whichever is lower.

Heflin’s proposal also includes higher sales taxes on motor vehicle and boat sales, a $1 cigarette tax hike, and video lottery machines at racetracks. Among the services that would be taxed are home remodeling, barber and beauty, legal, accounting, architectural, public relations, testing labs, financial, real estate brokerage, veterinary, and automotive maintenance and repair.


Heflin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the proposal tried to reach a balance between business and consumer taxes.

“We tried to be sensitive to the business community when they said, `We don’t mind paying our share if it’s fair and uniform,’ ” Heflin said.

Businesses would pay some of the new sales taxes on services such as management consulting, research and development, and computer programming. But other new sales taxes, including on coin-operated laundry machines and car washes, will fall heavily on consumers.

The plan also includes a state property tax set at $1 per $100 assessed valuation to replace local school property taxes now capped at $1.50. However, Heflin said he is considering allowing the $1 tax to remain at the local level, a priority of school districts.


Craddick said he thinks the business community may accept the new taxes because of the reduction in property taxes and elimination of the franchise tax.

“The franchise tax is in decline anyway; more and more companies are converting out of it. You’re having fewer and fewer businesses pay,” said Craddick. “You need to look at a base where everybody pays on an equal basis.”

The expansion of the sales tax is designed to tap into the growth in the service sector of the Texas economy.

“The idea of broadening it, that’s where the growth in the economy is,” said Craddick. “If you broaden it, you pick up that growth.”


The House committee also heard about a separate plan for a 2.5 percent payroll tax offered by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas. Branch said his plan would replace most of the franchise tax and would raise $5 billion, enough for a 33 percent property tax cut.

In addition, Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, offered an amendment capping property appraisal growth at 5 percent.

There’s a lot to digest here, and it’s probably a fool’s errand to pick out any aspect for detailed inspection. For one thing, as the Statesman notes, there’s something in there for pretty much everyone to love and to hate.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said almost any omnibus proposal, though it may have bits and pieces included to appeal to various lawmakers, will inevitably include over-my-dead-body elements for other legislators.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, said she is implacably opposed to any gambling elements. Tuesday, she was already talking about a filibuster and pondering medical procedures to allow her to spend hours on the Senate floor without going to the restroom.

If a video lottery bill reaches the Senate floor, Nelson said, “I plan to call a doctor down and be catheterized.”

I believe that’s my Too Much Information nominee for the session, but it does demonstrate the degree of opposition that certain aspects will face. Another part that will be fought tooth and nail is the proposed change of the property tax to be collected statewide, as noted in the Express News.

[S]chool groups have long opposed replacing local school taxes with a statewide levy, contending such a move would diminish the connection between taxpayers and local schools while giving legislators the green light to meddle more in how schools are managed.

The Texas Association of School Administrators asked its members this week to contact House members and urge a “no” vote on the expected $1 per $100 valuation state property tax.

“It is advantageous to public schools to maintain a strong and direct connection between the local taxpayer and the public schools that benefit from their taxes,” its Monday alert states.

Bill Ratliff, who proposed a statewide property tax as an education funding source while serving as an East Texas senator, newly lobbies for the Texas Association of School Boards.

Ratliff said today: “The fear all along was that if there is no significant local (school) tax, you know the old saying: ‘He that has the gold makes the rules.’ If all the money is coming from the state, the Legislature will not be able to resist calling all the shots. Schools will have less local control.”

Ratliff said he has been told there are more than 50 pending amendments that amount to legislative efforts to dictate how school districts operate—ranging from directives affecting teacher contracts to one setting school board election dates.

To school districts, Ratliff said, “that’s usurpation of local control—and they don’t even have any extra money yet.”

All along, I’ve been trying to figure out the political implications of this change or that, and I suspect the reason that reaction outside the House, especially from Rick Perry, has been so muted is that right now everyone else is making the same calculations. The House plan as it is right now would be a victory for Perry for property tax reductions (whether or not a separate appraisal cap is included, though to not have a cap would be a loss for him), but such broad expansions and increases in other taxes might be hard for him to swallow, and if the gambling proposals go down in flames, thus eliminating a potentially big source of extra revenue for the schools, then all bets are off (sorry about that).

I must say, I continue to remain puzzled about the whole property tax versus other tax issues. I’m a homeowner, and I know fully well that I pay a lot of property tax, but I also know that I get a decent sized piece of that back in April when I file my federal tax return. I just can’t quite understand the appeal or logic of using an increase in a non-deductible tax to subsidize a cut in one you can write off. I can only presume that it’s analogous to security by obscurity – everyone knows what their property taxes are, but no one has a clear handle on how much they shell out in sales tax, so cutting the former is always appealing even if the corresponding rise in the latter overcompensates for it in the long run.

Finally, whether slot machines are in our future or not, the House heard testimony yesterday that its current plan to license the machines is too generous to the licensees.

Jeff Hooke, an investment banker and consultant from Maryland, said a plan being considered by a House committee would charge racetracks only a “nominal fee” for licenses worth many millions of dollars.

“The governor and the Texas Legislature have a fiduciary obligation to get the taxpayers a fair deal,” Hooke said in testimony prepared for the Senate Finance Committee.


Hooke, whose travel expenses to Texas were paid by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which opposes gambling, said that making track owners bid against competitors for the licenses could generate almost $4 billion in licensing fees alone for the state.

Hooke said the state could auction the licenses for cash to the highest qualified bidders or auction licenses to bidders offering to take the lowest percentage of revenue from the machines.

He said the state of Illinois auctioned a casino license in suburban Chicago last month for $518 million. He said a video lottery terminal license is comparable in value to a casino license because slot machines provide 75 percent of casino profits.

Hooke said an Indian tribe in Michigan paid $265 million for a 40 percent interest in a Detroit casino license in 2000, indicating a total license value of $663 million.

As with yesterday’s stuff, this evidence is not coming from a disinterested party, so take it with whatever level of skepticism you feel is warranted. As a matter of theory, though, I like the idea of making potential slot machine sites bid for their licenses. They know how much they think the licenses are worth to them, and it’s in the state’s interest to adjust their fees accordingly.

An interview with Rep. Martin Frost

Recently, I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Rep. Martin Frost, who is running in a highly contested and closely watched race in the new 32nd Congressional District against Republican Rep. Pete Sessions. The interview is beneath the More link.

My fellow Texas blogger Byron LaMasters of the Burnt Orange Report had the same opportunity that I did to ask Rep. Frost a few questions, and his interview is now up. We tried not to overlap too much on our questions, but you may see a rerun or too in there, so don’t be alarmed.

So, without further ado, here’s my interview with Rep. Martin Frost:


Pet blogging

The Dallas Morning News has a pet blog. No, really. And you know what? Looking at the content, which includes a plea for help in finding a lost dog, I think this is a pretty good idea for a newspaper-based blog. Done in a smart way, it’ll be small bits of stuff, including some time-sensitive info, the sort of thing that isn’t enough to flesh out a full column and/or is already out of date by publication time. Given a choice between that and this, I’ll take the pet blog any day. Now if they could just add links to individual entries…

You’re in the database now

Be careful when ordering that pizza – it might help The Man hunt you down.

It’s dinnertime, and you’re hungry and tired, so you pick up the phone and order your favorite pizza. But you might have just landed yourself a lot more than pepperoni and cheese.

If you owe fines or fees to the courts, that phone call may have provided the link the state needed to track you down and make you pay.

That’s one of the strategies of firms such as a company being hired by the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator to handle its fine and debt collections.

David Coplen, the state office’s budget director, said he discovered that pizza delivery lists are one of the best sources such companies use to locate people.

“There are literally millions of dollars of uncollected fines, fees and court costs out there,” Coplen said.

How much?

A sampling in January of just three of Missouri’s 114 counties found about $2 million owed to courts by people whose Social Security numbers were known, Coplen said. That finding suggests courts statewide could reap significant revenue once Dallas-based ACS Inc. gets to work this month pursuing people using phone numbers and addresses.

Databases compiled by private companies and government agencies are a key tool for firms such as ACS, Coplen said, and “one of the databases they find to be most helpful are pizza delivery databases.”

“When you call to order a pizza, you usually give them your correct name, your correct address and your correct phone number,” he said.

Naturally, no pizza chain would confirm that they share info with firms like this. I haven’t ordered from Domino’s since I was in grad school; this is just one more reason to feel good about that.

I must say that I don’t see this as full-scale creeping-Big-Brother evil. For one thing, it strikes me as being peanuts compared to what credit reporting companies already know and tell about all of us. For another, I’m a big believer in cities collecting the fines and fees they’re due. It’s not going to be enough to balance any budgets, but there’s no good reason to leave that kind of money on the table, especially now. I have my qualms about turning this sort of thing over to a private contractor, but not enough of them in this case to work myself into a fevered rant. I do think there ought to be some strict rules which say what these guys can and can’t do, and what kind of information is and is not available to them, and for the sake of uniformity those rules ought to be federal in nature. I fully expect it’ll take a couple of made-for-Dateline type outrages before anyone takes up that cause, however.

So anyway, file this under FYI, and use it as an impetus to try out a local non-chain pizza place next time. The food will be better anyway. Via Gary Farber. Oh, and Gary, the phrase you’re looking for is No Anchovies, Please.

Exchange program

Last week, I received an email from Jesse Lee of the DCCC asking if I’d like to participate in a blog exchange program, where I posted something there and he posted something here. I agreed, and this morning my guest appearance was published on the Stakeholder site. I also received Jesse’s reciprocal post in my inbox, which is beneath the More link. It’s a good look at how the national Congressional races have shaped up so far and where they’ll be going from here, so please take a minute and check it out.

Look for more of these blog exchanges between the Stakeholder and progressive bloggers in the future. I think it’s a great way for the DCCC and national Democrats to interact with their base, and I hope to see some good conversations get started. This is the kind of thing I like to see groups like that do with blogs, for it’s exactly the sort of thing that blogs are well-suited to do. Kudos to the DCCC for thinking outside the box, and here’s Jesse’s post.



Slot machines at horse racing tracks are all the rage today.

Seven Texas racetracks, including Grand Prairie’s Lone Star Park, could function as around-the-clock gambling casinos open 365 days a year under a multibillion-dollar proposal presented to a legislative panel Monday.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, made the presentation to be included in a far-reaching package of legislation that would overhaul the way Texas pays for public education.

Under Pitts’ proposal to the House Select Committee on Public School Finance, Lone Star Park and six other racing facilities, along with three Indian reservations, could operate as many as 40,000 video slot machine-style lottery terminals where patrons play for cash prizes.

Pitts and lawyers representing the Texas Lottery Commission and the state attorney general’s office said the machines would generate more than $2.6 billion a year, with the state receiving $1.57 billion.

Officials project that Lone Star Park, the 8-year-old racetrack just north of Interstate 30 between Dallas and Arlington, would produce $1.7 billion in annual revenues and pump $701.7 million into the state treasury. That’s more than Las Vegas hotels and casinos generate for the state of Nevada, the select committee was told.

“That blows my mind,” said state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, the panel’s chairman.

I do not believe these figures. I believe they are pumped up, overly optimistic, and based on flawed assumptions. I believe this is a new version of the bill of goods we were sold on the lottery a decade ago. I need to see some numbers from a truly disinterested party before I’m willing to accept any data as accurate.

The rate of return was based on the provision in the measure that calls for the state to collect 60 cents on every dollar earned by each video slot machine. But the former chairman of Lone Star Park warned that the state’s desire to maximize its revenue could sabotage the venture before it is launched.

“You won’t be able to develop the facility if the tax rate and all costs on the track are as high as that,” said Robert Kaminski, who is now a consultant to Lone Star Park’s parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp. “You can’t tax it so high on the front end that it reduces the incentive to put the investment in to generate the revenue that the state wants.”

There’s your first danger sign. We can talk all we want about how slot machine money will be earmarked for education, but once they’re a reality there will be a ton of pressure to look out for the interests of the race tracks who own them. I guarantee you that when that happens, those interests will be put ahead of everyone else’s. If we want more gambling in Texas, we should be honest about it and drop the fig leaf that it’s all about generating money for schools.

I already know the real answer to this question, but is anyone else wondering why there’s so much official concern for the well being of race track owners?

During testimony about video lottery terminals, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs told the committee that having the terminals would help the state’s equine industry. She said money the racetracks would get from the terminals would help fatten their purses, luring owners with better breeds of racehorses to the state.

“If you go to race, and the maximum prize you can get is $5,000 versus $500,000, where are you going to go?” Combs said after her testimony. “You’re going to go to the $500,000.”

The level of concern for the historically oppressed horse racing industry is touching, isn’t it? But why stop there? Why not bring the same joy to other industries? How about slot machines at the gas pump? If you go to fill up your tank and the maximum you can get is a full tank of gas versus a full tank plus a shot at $500,000, where are you going to go?

By the way, why is the Ag Commissioner testifying on this subject?

“I look at it from the aspect of rural economic development,” Combs testified before a House committee as legislators entered their second week of a special session.

Oooo-kay, let’s move on. Let’s go back to the numbers for a second.

Seven horse and dog tracks in Texas, including Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, would average 4,000 video slot machines. The rest would be on three American Indian reservations.

To put the figures into context: Caesar’s Palace on the Las Vegas strip has about 2,000 slot machines. The state of Louisiana has just over 14,000 video slot machines. West Virginia has 10,500.

Nevada has about 210,000 slot and gaming machines, according to the 2003 annual report of International Game Technology, the country’s largest manufacturer of slots and gaming devices.

That’s a lot of slot machines, which would make for a significant expansion of gambling in Texas, right?

Some state leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, have said the slot machines wouldn’t amount to expansion of gambling in the state because they would be confined to locations where other forms of gambling already are allowed.

“The proposal allows the Texas Lottery Commission to operate a video lottery system consistent with the public policy that strictly limits the expansion of gambling in Texas,” Mr. Pitts said. “This amendment will continue to control the proliferation of gambling by only allowing … [gaming] at horse and dog tracks in Texas and certain Indian lands.”

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

This all may be an academic exercise, as there exists some strong opposition in the Lege to expanded gambling.

Republican House members Linda Harper-Brown of Irving and Jodie Laubenberg of Parker say they can’t support the use gambling to finance education.

Ms. Laubenberg heard about the Pitts proposal from a reporter late Monday.

“Is he serious?” she said. “My position hasn’t changed.”

Ms. Laubenberg said her opposition to the slot machine idea is “nothing against the governor.”

“But this is just one component of the plan I cannot support,” she said.

Ms. Harper-Brown said lawmakers who oppose gambling will prevail.

“This does nothing to damage our resolve,” she said of the Pitts proposal.

And not just in the House, either.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said senators waiting for House action will consider slot machines, adding, “My preference is to not do it.”

“I’ve never been a supporter of state-sanctioned gambling,” he said.

It’s important to remember, though, that the real agenda here isn’t gambling, and for that matter isn’t really school finance reform. It’s an antitax agenda, and the potential consequences aren’t getting nearly the public hearing that slot machines are.

[Rep. Kent] Grusendorf, referring to moves to change Perry’s proposed restrictions on local governments’ ability to raise taxes, said, “It’d be nice to get one hot-button issue off the table.”

Advocates for cities and counties, who question the fairness of lawmakers directing local tax decisions, said they are reviewing language reached this weekend by Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson. Perry’s office said the governor remains committed to his original proposals “at this time.”

“We’ve come as close as we can possibly get to agreement on it,” Hill said.

Under the changes, voters would be asked to cap at 5 percent how much a single-family home’s valuation can annually increase for tax purposes. Perry has proposed a 3 percent cap.

Perry has sought to require local governments to seek voter approval of tax increases that outpace population growth and inflation. The new language would permit voters to petition for a tax rollback if local governments increase taxes 5 percent or more, not counting tax breaks for economic development.

Currently, voters can petition for a rollback if a local agency raises taxes more than 8 percent above the rate needed to raise what it spends on day-to-day operations. School boards are required to hold ratification elections rather than awaiting a petition.

Voters would be asked to approve or reject such tax increases once 5 percent of voters who cast ballots in the previous presidential election sign a rollback petition — easier than the existing requirement that 10 percent of registered voters in a local jurisdiction sign a petition.

Hill said the proposal also would include a proposed constitutional amendment barring future Legislatures from handing down “unfunded mandates” to local agencies, with the attorney general advising whether laws breach the ban.

This is the ball that you really need to keep your eye on. Everything else is just bells and whistles.

UPDATE: Missed this op-ed by Perry himself.

My plan may not be perfect, but it is the best plan I know of to achieve four basic goals: improving funding for education, lowering the school property tax burden, replacing Robin Hood with a more equitable system and sustaining and enhancing the job climate in Texas.

Those who criticize my plan have an obligation to do more than criticize. They need to offer Texans their constructive solutions, too. Let’s have a positive debate about ensuring long-term prosperity and opportunity for the people of Texas. If lawmakers and other leaders stay focused on tax relief and better schools, we will succeed. And Texas will be better off for it.

I mostly agree with that last paragraph, though of course I’m way more interested in staying focused on better schools and a more workable tax system. This session is supposed to be about the schools, right? As to “tax relief”, I forget where I saw this, but someone recently observed that it’s funny how we’re a low-tax state when we’re trying to lure businesses here, but we’re in dire need of tax relief when the Lege is in session. Link via Hope.

And Carlos Guerra reminds us that we’ve seen this trick before.

This is hardly a new idea. Texas’ parimutuel entrepreneurs have pushed for video lottery terminals for years, and not only to benefit Texas schoolchildren.

It began in 1987, after parimutuel tracks won voter approval following a multimillion-dollar ad campaign promised that the “sport of kings” would pump billions into the state treasury, create thousands of new jobs and help Texas dog and horse breeders.

In 1993, after the rosy predictions failed to materialize and several new tracks resorted to bankruptcy protection, the Legislature authorized simulcast betting — wagers on out-of-state races — to help the struggling ventures survive.

In 1995, $521 million was bet on Texas tracks, with more than half — $262 million — on live races and the remainder on simulcast contests. But by 2003, these tracks’ wagers had grown only $36 million to $557 million, and bets on live races had dropped to $114 million.

And during that time, all the tracks’ state taxes on bets dropped from $7,386,299 to $4,676,860.

The tracks’ total attendance between 1995 and 2003 dropped from 3,534,208 to 2,862,501.

Now, remind me again: Whom exactly are these slots going to help?

I feel even more certain about my initial skepticism. Via Lasso.

Rodriguez updates lawsuit

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez has amended his lawsuit against Henry Cuellar to allege that many people who voted in the runoff do not actually live in CD28.

The San Antonio Express-News visited some of the residences in question Monday based on information provided by Rodriguez’s attorney, Buck Wood.


Two other homes listed in the lawsuit — one littered with trash and with the front door standing off its hinges and another with a posted city application for remodeling — appeared vacant when visited by a reporter. Records show 11 people living and voting at those addresses.

At a fourth address, a resident said he did not know six people who were registered there and voted in the primary.

Texas voter eligibility requirements mandate that a person be a resident of their county at least 30 days before the election.

Rodriguez officials, who have had investigators combing Webb County since late March, said they have reason to believe the irregularities extend beyond the 500 votes they say were cast with questionable voter registration addresses.

“I believe that if we’re given a decent amount of time to investigate this case, we’re going to find more and more and more of this,” Wood said. “And we haven’t even gotten to Zapata yet.”

The Cuellar camp, meanwhile, said the allegations are more of the same misrepresentations that Rodriguez has engaged in since he lost the election, Connolly said.

“Do we think he’s uncovered some kind of grave impropriety in Webb County? No,” Connolly said. “We don’t think that’s the case at all, but until we have the chance to review the facts specifically, we can’t really address it.”

Connolly added that Cuellar’s attorneys were anticipating Wood’s strategy and plan to file a timely response by Wednesday.

Webb County Elections Administrator Oscar Villarreal said he was not aware of the Rodriguez findings.

“As far as people voting without living at a particular address, I have never heard of us having that kind of problem,” Villarreal said.

That’s just bizarre. What I’m wondering is how these alleged phantoms came to be registered in the first place. I look forward to hearing Cuellar’s response to these charges.

UPDATE: The final amended form of the lawsuit just says “in excess of 100” unqualified voters cast ballots in Webb County.

Clinging to a court decision as his last hope, Rodriguez has had investigators in the Webb County area since late March.

Campaign officials said that investigation has turned up more than 500 questionable votes, but the lawsuit alleges “in excess of 100” such irregularities occurred to ensure legal accuracy.

“We don’t want to say 250, for example, if it’s 249,” Puder said.

But Cuellar’s attorneys immediately seized on the 100-voter figure Tuesday, saying it is a far cry from the 500 questionable addresses the Rodriguez campaign has said they are looking into.

“This is an act of desperation,” Cuellar attorney Steve Bickerstaff said. “The original tack was to challenge the recounts (in Webb and Zapata counties), but now it’s an act of targeting individuals within a single county who they think may have voted when they weren’t eligible to.”

Bickerstaff added that the suit makes no allegations of fraud or official misconduct.

A Cuellar response will be filed with the court today in advance of a pretrial hearing Thursday in Austin.

Cuellar’s attorneys had asked that the case be dismissed based on insufficient evidence. Bickerstaff said that request stands.

“I’ve seen nothing in this (newly filed) petition to change that,” he said.

We’ll know soon enough.

Repeal the 17th?

Apparently, Tom DeLay supports repealing the 17th Amendment, which allowed for the direct election of Senators.

During the House debate last week over reconstituting Congress in the event of a terrorist attack or natural catastrophe, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) seemed to come out against the 17th Amendment, which authorized the direct election of U.S. Senators.

“I would argue that it’s had a negative effect on this country,” said the Texas Republican, who has never been a huge fan of the way the Senate operates anyway.

But DeLay isn’t really against the 17th Amendment, is he? He doesn’t want to return to the pre-1913 era, when Senators were elected by state legislatures, sometimes under some very questionable circumstances?

It turns out that he does. DeLay “shares a similar position with [former Nixon White House counsel] John Dean, [Sen.] Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and several Founders who have monuments around this city,” said Jonathan Grella, DeLay’s press secretary, naming other prominent Americans who support the Constitution’s original method for choosing Senators.

I’m more puzzled by this than anything. While the Senate itself is non-democratic for any number of reasons, how is the election of individual Senators anything but? And how would indirect election via state legislatures help? As this New Yorker article on redistricting notes, the Senate is probably a truer representation of the will of individual states than the House is.

Senate races, which are not subject to redistricting, are decided by actual voters, who do indeed change their minds with some regularity. Control of the Senate has shifted five times since the nineteen-eighties. The House, by contrast, has changed hands just once in the same period, in the Republican takeover of 1994. In 2002, only one out of twelve House elections was decided by ten or fewer percentage points, while half of the governors’ and Senate races were that close. In 2002, only four House challengers defeated incumbents in the general election—a record low in the modern era. In a real sense, the voters no longer select the members of the House of Representatives; the state legislators who design the districts do.

On the other hand, I suppose that answers the question about why it’s appealing to Tom DeLay.

But don’t expect DeLay to be seeking to overturn the 17th Amendment anytime soon.

“If you can’t redistrict the Senate, this is the next best thing,” Grella joked.

Jokes aside, I’m curious. Does anyone reading this think the 17th Amendment was a bad idea and should be repealed? If so, why? I must say that this is one of those things that had never really occurred to me.

Thanks to AJ Garcia for the link.

Putting your principles into action, the hard way

From the WaPo’s Reliable Source column:

A Different Kind of Joint Session

• Last week the Capitol Police busted a young intern working for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) for toting a baggie of pot and a bong into the Cannon House Office Building

The bit goes on to talk about one of the seven (!) people in America who have legal access to medical marijuana (no, I didn’t know there were any, either), but the reason I blogged this was simply to say that there’s something just so right about an aide to a former Libertarian Party Presidential candidate getting busted for bringing pot (not to mention a bong) to work. I’ll bet when he goes for a smoke break, people go with him. Via Rob.

More on Perry’s school strategy

Here’s an interesting perspective on why Governor Perry proposed the school finance reform solution that he did.

The 134 school districts that lose money under the Robin Hood school finance system serve 12 percent of the state’s students. Voters in these districts cast 17.5 percent of the 2002 GOP primary vote, according to Texas Legislative Council records. But Campaigns for People found 27 percent of all campaign contributions made in 2002 came from people living in these districts.

Perry’s staff crafted a school finance plan designed to appeal to Houston Republicans who want to cap property tax appraisals and to Dallas Republicans who want to eliminate the share-the-wealth Robin Hood school finance system. To pay for it, they avoided across-the-board tax increases, instead focusing on “sin” taxes and expansion of gambling to video lottery terminals at horse racing tracks.

Perry’s aides then did polling to make certain his plan would be popularly received even if not legislatively viable.

“I’m sure he will say it’s the best plan available, but a lot of people have speculated that it’s because he’s worried about somebody running against him,” said Mike Boone, a prominent Republican lawyer from Dallas who is pushing for a broad business tax to replace the current school finance system. “He can claim he had a plan and if it failed, it failed, but at least he took action.”

I’m not sure what to make of that. I don’t expect an actual Perry person to confirm that this was their plan, but I’d like to see a quote from more than one person, especially someone who already disagrees with Perry’s plan, before I accept this as conventional wisdom.

I’m also not sure how good a strategy this would be even if it’s true. 17.5% is a decent sized bloc, but it’s nowhere near a majority. Surely Perry sees his base as being a bit larger than the Houston and Dallas suburbs, right? I know primaries are decided by a small slice of the electorate, but betting one’s reelection on one-sixth of those who voted last time seems awfully risky to me.

Finally, even if he is just hoping to get credit for trying, what happens if Craddick and Dewhurst team up to pass sweeping legislation that caps property taxes but also expands and increases the sales tax while overhauling the useless corporate franchise tax? Does Perry have the sand to veto such a bill and piss most people off, or does he turn his back on that 17.5%, who might reasonably have expected him to push his poll-tested plan a bit harder? Actually, if this did happen he’d probably point at the property tax cap and declare victory anyway. Whether he’d be allowed to claim credit or not is another question.

Catholicism and politics

I’ve been rather amused lately watching all of the dust that’s been kicked up over John Kerry’s Catholicism and the attempts by some people to reduce the entirity of Catholic dogma to a litmus test on abortion. Most amusing has been the reaction to this attempt by Rep. Nick Lampson to put together a Catholic Voting Scorecard, which rates legislators on a broad range of issues, including “housing vouchers, welfare and raising the minimum wage”. Apparently, some Republicans are upset that he’d dare to politicize a matter of faith. Who’da thunk it?

I think it’s a good thing that we’re having this discussion, because it’s giving Catholics a chance to point out that there are other issues besides abortion. Of course, the deeper we get into this, the more clear it becomes that neither party hews all that closely to Catholic doctrine – an awful lot of Democrats support the death penalty and voted for the Iraq invasion, as we all know. Maybe that whole separation of church and state thing, which Steve Smith (permalinks bloggered – look for the April 23 entry) reminds us the Vatican reluctantly approved in 1960, isn’t such a bad idea after all.

But if we really want to make the debate about whether or not John Kerry can be a good Catholic and vote pro-choice, then at the very least I think we ought to expand the conversation just a little, and ask those who are bearding Kerry if they really oughtn’t be going after any Catholic politician who doesn’t toe the line on birth control.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his landmark encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (Latin, “Human Life”), which reemphasized the Church’s constant teaching that it is always intrinsically wrong to use artificial birth control—contraception—to prevent new human beings from coming into existence.

Artificial birth control is “any action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [sexual intercourse], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” (Humanae Vitae 14). This includes sterilization, condoms and other barrier methods, spermicides, coitus interruptus (withdrawal method), the Pill, and all other methods of artificial contraception.


Contraception is wrong because it’s a deliberate violation of the design God built into the human race, often referred to as “natural law.” The natural law purpose of sex is procreation. The pleasure that sexual intercourse provides is an additional blessing from God, intended to offer the possibility of new life while strengthening the bond of intimacy, respect, and love between husband and wife. The loving environment this bond creates is the perfect setting for nurturing children.

But sexual pleasure within marriage becomes unnatural, and even harmful to the spouses, when it is used in a way that deliberately excludes the basic purpose of sex, which is procreation. God’s gift of the sex act, along with its pleasure and intimacy, must not be abused by deliberately frustrating its natural end—procreation.


Ignoring the mountain of evidence, some maintain that the Church considers the use of contraception a matter for each married couple to decide according to their “individual conscience.” Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church has always maintained the historic Christian teaching that deliberate acts of artificial birth control are always gravely sinful, which means that it is mortally sinful if done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). This teaching is definitive and irreformable. It cannot be changed and has been proclaimed by the Church infallibly.

There is no way to deny the fact that the Church’s ordinary magisterium (cf. Vatican II’s document Lumen Gentium 25) has always and everywhere condemned artificial contraception. The matter has already been infallibly decided. The so-called “individual conscience” argument amounts to “individual disobedience.”

(Emphasis mine.) Got all that? My best wishes to you if you want to make that a key plank in your platform. And if you choose to ignore this while focusing on abortion, I’d like to know why. Your mandate seems pretty clear to me.

UPDATE: More from Slacktivist.

Steve Brozak

Meet Steve Brozak, who may have a major role to play in the Democrats’ efforts to win back the House in November.

WESTFIELD, N.J. — On a Friday afternoon last April, a couple of weeks after he returned from Iraq, Marine Lt. Col. Steve Brozak walked into the town hall here and changed his voter registration from Republican to Democrat.

That put Mr. Brozak in the middle of Democratic efforts to chip away at Republicans’ political strength on national-security matters. With Vietnam veteran John Kerry at the top of the ticket and unease growing over the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq and terrorism, Democrats are hoping to tap a new constituency: members of the military and veterans, who vote overwhelmingly Republican.

It’s a mission being embraced by the 42-year-old Mr. Brozak, now running for Congress in a well-to-do swath of suburban New Jersey. A social moderate and fiscal conservative, he’s emerging as the Democrats’ dream challenger to an entrenched Republican. The son of immigrants, he’s an investment banker specializing in biotechnology companies and a Marine who has served three years on active duty and 18 years in the Reserve, including brief volunteer deployments to Haiti, Bosnia, Kuwait and Iraq.


Mr. Brozak, who plans to retire from the Reserve May 1, began turning against the Republican Party during the South Carolina primary in 2000, when a Bush ally accused Sen. John McCain of neglecting his fellow Vietnam veterans. Mr. Brozak grew even angrier in 2002, when Republican Saxby Chambliss, aided by President Bush, defeated Democratic Georgia Sen. Max Cleland in a bitter campaign. Ads for Mr. Chambliss implicitly questioned the patriotism of Mr. Cleland — who lost three limbs serving in Vietnam.

When Mr. Brozak decided to change his party affiliation, the only person he told ahead of time was his father, an immigrant who had piloted a fighter plane in a brief uprising against the Nazi occupation of his native Yugoslavia and wound up in a slave-labor camp. Later, he found himself discussing the war with a Marine buddy, who told Mr. Brozak he sounded as if he were campaigning. The idea stuck, Mr. Brozak says, and he decided to discuss running with New Jersey and national Democrats.

These days, Mr. Brozak is especially angry about the administration’s treatment of National Guard and Reserve troops, the traditional weekend warriors who now find themselves deployed for years. Within the next few months, 70% of the 7,000 members of the New Jersey Army National Guard will be on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sinai Peninsula or elsewhere — a higher share than at any time since World War II.

In the Marines, Mr. Brozak served as an infantry commander and public-affairs officer. His last post was as liaison with companies whose employees had been called up for duty. When he went to Kuwait and Iraq a year ago, he accompanied a survey team assessing how deployment affects citizen-soldiers. The survey found a third of the troops expected to pay a heavy price: lost jobs, lost businesses, lost promotions, lost income.

“As bad as it is for people in this economy, it’s twice as bad for the guard, reserve” and active-duty military, Mr. Brozak told a political action committee of service-academy graduates at a meeting last month aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid. Despite legal safeguards, many of them aren’t guaranteed a job when they return, he says. He believes the regular military should be beefed up to take the stress off the part-timers.

His campaign website is here, for those of you who want to check him out in more detail. Via Easter Lemming.

A little forensic punditry

Kevin Drum points to this WaPo piece by William Adler, in which he shows how he fingered a UT prof for signing his name to an op-ed which had been entirely written by someone else, and as it embarrassingly turned out for the prof, printed under a different prof’s name in a different newspaper in the past. A longer and more detailed version of this story is here, which Julia had noted.

It’s pretty good reading, and I agree with Adler’s suggested questions for op-ed page editors: 1) Did you write this piece? 2) Are you a consultant, paid or not, to an organization or interest group with a vested interest in your column? I find it disturbing that this kind of punditry fraud has been going on for so long, but at least now with Google, Lexis/Nexis, and watchdogs like Adler, it ought to be harder to go undetected. Really, though, it’d be much better if op-ed page editors themselves Googled authors and the occasional catchphrase before running a piece in their own paper. In addition to this sort of fraud, they’d also catch writers with intentionally misleading bylines.

What I don’t understand is why UT is not planning any disciplinary action against Sheldon Landsberger, its errant professor.

The college is not planning any disciplinary action against Landsberger, said Dean Ben Streetman.


The University considers plagiarism “any use of the content or style of another’s intellectual product without proper attribution” when regarding student work. Disciplinary action for “scholastic dishonesty” ranges from failing the specific class to permanent expulsion and is administered by Student Judicial Services.


Streetman, who has been dean for eight years, said he has never dealt with a similar experience.

“We believe that when faculty write articles, that it should be original,” he said.

I suppose, though it’s not clear to me here, that Streetman is saying that the University doesn’t have a rule that covers this case. If so, then Landsberger would seem to be free on a technicality. I’d feel better about that if UT, and any other school which doesn’t explicitly cover such occurrances, would address it for the future.

Chron overviews TRM/TAB investigation

The Chron kinda teased me with the headline of this front page story: “Possible violations of law found in state GOP money trail”. The story, which says that a review of “more than 10,000 pages of state and federal campaign finance reports” found possible violations of state law in how corporate money was spent, never really gets into any details and thus doesn’t move the ball forward. The only real new information I got out of this was the total dollar amounts of corporate and union cash – the two types of donations that are singled out under Texas law – by each party. In 2002, that was $5.7 million by the GOP and about $560,000 by the Democrats.

I suppose it’s useful enough as an overview, and perhaps its timing is a sign that the reconvened grand jury is getting ready to make some noise. And it did have this little tidbit, which I’ve seen before but which bears repeating in light of recent revelations:

[Wayne Hamilton, former GOP executive director and now a special adviser to the party] said the Republican increase in corporate funds was the result of aggressive fund raising.

That fund raising included $400,000 from two national nursing home chains that wanted caps on pain-and-suffering awards in neglect and abuse cases. The Legislature in 2003 passed such caps.

Not that there was any quid pro quo, of course. As we well know, it is wrong and unethical to even suggest such a thing.

Academics and athletics at Rice

So there’s been another faculty report at Rice which is critical of athletics there. Wasn’t the first one, won’t be the last. Typically, this one makes no recommendations except for “more study”.

I’m a fan of Rice sports, but I’m not an alumnus. I think Rice gets more value out of its programs than any McKinsey study can quantify, but I also think that it will be increasingly difficult for a school like Rice to be a meaningful competitor in college sports because the big money schools don’t really care if Rice plays or not. We’re not a big draw, we don’t have a big fan base, we don’t have desireable facilities outside of baseball.

Whatever, though, this is much ado about nothing. I don’t see there being enough support among administration, trustees, alumni and fans to make any changes – quite the contrary, in fact. That’s fine by me. As befits a true Rice fan of any sport, I’m ready for next year. Go Rice!

Thus endeth week one

We’re now one week into the special session on school finance reform, and the one thing we know for sure is that the Perry Plan is toast. Neither Tom Craddick nor David Dewhurst has supported it, there’s already an alternate plan in the works, and of course on the sidelines we have Carole “No Strippers!” Strayhorn throwing spitballs.

It’s been my belief that if the sessions implode with no major action taken, Perry will suffer some blowback. However, as this AP story notes, he may come out all right anyway.

No matter which school finance plan emerges, Perry appears to be hoping Texas voters in 2006 give him credit for pushing lawmakers to address the vexing subject.

Even George W. Bush wasn’t successful when he tried to pass a school funding plan as governor in 1997, Perry has pointed out.

Republican political consultant Ray Sullivan, who has close ties to Perry and Bush, said polls showed then that voters supported Bush’s efforts.

“School finance is a monstrously difficult issue for any governor or Legislature to address,” Sullivan said. “Texas governors have not always been successful at dealing with school finance in the past. But they generally get credit for trying.”

There is something to that, and for sure even an incremental change which includes some kind of property tax cap will be seen as a victory for Perry. I still see this spinning out of his control, and other players in the 2006 game claiming more credit than him. We’ll see.

I will say this: Strayhorn is on the verge of turning into a self-parody. (Not that she really had all that far to go, in my opinion – all that “tough grandma” baloney always made me gag.) Sooner or later, people are going to say to her “OK, smartypants, what’s your plan?” Closing down strip clubs isn’t going to sound any more like a bright idea than taxing them is. Look at this editorial from the Lufkin Daily News (via Byron). If you’ve lost Lufkin, you’ve lost the Common Person Common Sense mantle.

Continuing its great job of political coverage from the redistricting sessions, the Austin Chronicle has a fine overview of this session and what may happen. Check it out.

There’s your tort “reform”

This would be funny if it weren’t so utterly pathetic.

House lawmakers sent a stern message to insurance companies Thursday: Medical malpractice lawsuit reforms passed last year were meant to help doctors — not boost profits.

Republicans and Democrats who supported the legislation suggested that lawmakers might consider mandatory rate rollbacks if doctors don’t get significant rate relief soon.

Lawmakers nearly approved a rate rollback last year but stopped short when insurance companies promised reductions.

“Some of us put ourselves way out on the line for our doctors,” said Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, author of the bill and the constitutional amendment that allows a cap on jury awards and limits insurance companies’ liability.

“Profits for (the companies) is not what we intended.”

Imagine that. The Lege passed a law that reduced the costs of a bunch of profit-maximizing firms, and they had the gall to go and use it to maximize their profits. Maybe next time, the legislation ought to match the intent, you know?

This is even more precious.

The House Civil Practices Committee on Thursday heard updates on the fallout from a sweeping lawsuit reform bill enacted after a bitter legislative struggle last year.


At the hearing, [State Rep. Patrick] Rose sharply challenged [State Insurnce Commissioner Jose] Montemayor over a letter the commissioner wrote to the committee in March 2003, when emotions over the reforms were approaching white heat.

Montemayor wrote that if the reforms were enacted, “this would translate to a 17 percent to 19 percent reduction in rates.”

Montemayor’s projections were cited by many lawmakers and reform supporters, especially during the campaign that persuaded voters to approve damage-award caps.

But Montemayor testified Thursday that his letter was not meant to promise that rates actually would go down by that or any amount. The numbers were theoretical and did not allow for a surge in malpractice lawsuits filed before the new laws took effect, Montemayor said.

Yo, Jose: The “bad intelligence” defense works best if you aren’t the actual source of that intelligence. You said rates would go down. They haven’t. Maybe they will eventually – and “eventually”, I remind you, is not what you promised – and maybe if they do this ridiculous piece of legislation will be partly responsible for it. But the bottom line is, you were wrong. Now admit it.

And the reason you were wrong is because the case for tort “reform” is a myth. Instead of getting tough on the small minority of doctors who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of med-mal cases, instead of working to make the free market of doctors more efficient, Republicans pushed for a new artificial hindrance on that free market, and are shocked to find that it has had an unintended (albeit not unforeseeable) consequence. Best of all, to compensate for that unintended consequence, they’re talking about enacting price controls. The irony is just killing me.

The sacrifices some bloggers make for the rest of us

Kriston Capps is made of sterner stuff than I am, let me tell you.

Last night I attended a panel discussion hosted by a conservative/libertarian social club, and the topic of discussion was gay marriage. Panelists included former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga), some total dick who looks like Ed Helms from the Daily show, some guy with extremely small, soft-looking hands from AEI, and Andrew Sullivan; the panel was moderated by Grover Norquist.

Let me start by saying that you are in a bad way if the most reasonable person in the room is Grover Norquist.

My hat is off to you, sir. Check it out, including the contest at the end.


Still fighting with your VCR? Get ready to fall even farther behind on the technology curve.

The DVD stands out as one of the most rapidly adopted consumer technologies ever, but in the electronics industry it’s akin to an aging king in Shakespearean drama — rivals are lurking, knives drawn.

Just as consumers are beginning to get comfortable with their DVD players, electronics manufacturers are set to introduce next-generation discs that store more — and would be harder to copy.

A dozen companies, headed by Sony, are pushing a disc called the Blu-ray.

The other main contender, the High Definition DVD, is promoted only by Toshiba and NEC. But it has an important endorsement from an industry group and is also expected to get Microsoft’s support as the software giant seeks a toehold for its multimedia format in the consumer electronics arena.

Movie studios generally aren’t commenting on the new formats. And the rival industry groups are not saying exactly when they expect to have players on the market. Both, however, consider the DVD ripe for replacement next year.

For consumers, the benefit of a new format would be better image quality. Sales of high-definition TV sets have finally started to take off, but current DVDs don’t have the resolution to get the most out of HDTV sets.

Great. Even if I could justify an HDTV (which I can’t) and even if there were some place in the house where it would fit (which there isn’t), I figure scoring the TiVo means I’ve used up my allowance of technological indulgences until, oh, 2008 or so. I suppose on the bright side, video tapes are still being rented and sold, so I may not feel the fullness of my obsolecense until then anyway. Yeah, that’s the ticket.