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May 21st, 2009:

Budget yes, UI not yet

The conference committee on the budget finished its work yesterday.

While final details are still emerging, the 10 conferees worked out a last minute plan for spending $700 million of federal stimulus money for state fiscal stabilization. They hope that it will avert a special session, even if Perry vetoes some or all of the money. It appeared to go to school textbooks in part. And there were other things funded that are near and dear to the Perry family, such as preservation of a couple more county courthouses ($7 million) and restoring the fire-gutted Governor’s Mansion.

Burkablog and Floor Pass, which notes that the committee will vote out the budget on Tuesday, fill in a few more details. The first obstacle is making sure Governor Perry will sign it, but so far there’s no evidence that he wants to force a do-over. Not dipping into the Rainy Day Fund, for which we can all thank President Obama and the stimulus package, likely helps out there.

Unclear at this time is the fate of the Davis/Walle amendment, which would drain money from the Texas Enterprise Fund in the event that SB1569 gets vetoed. And speaking of SB1569, it took a few steps forward in the House, but ultimately was not brought to a vote. The best writeup I’ve seen about what went on during this comes from Ed Sills’ TxAFLCIOENews; I’ve reproduced it beneath the fold.

According to Brandi Grissom on Twitter, the House has recessed for the night due to its computers being down, without having passed any bills today. They’re scheduled to work Saturday and Sunday, and according to Gardner Selby, voter ID is supposedly atop the calendar for Saturday. That’s assuming they actually get to it – as we’ve seen multiple times this session, being on the calendar is no guarantee of anything. The Democrats will surely do what they can to run out the clock if they feel they must. We’ll see how far down the agenda the House gets tomorrow.

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Roy takes my advice

When I blogged about a recent story in the Chron about some resume-stretching by Roy Morales, I suggested that he should turn his firing by the Houston Emergency Center as a positive. Well, he’s now written a letter to the editor doing exactly that.

But it is the description of my departure from the Houston Emergency Center that is the most incomplete. I should have been more forceful in explaining the circumstances. The fact is, I bucked the city bureaucracy because I thought decisions were being made that jeopardized the 911 response system and put the people of Houston at risk. Inexperienced people were installing new technology for which there was no written plan. And this was occurring at a time when the center was facing issues related to previous technology and electrical problems. So I spoke up. I said it could bring the system down. My superiors disagreed. I was given the option to leave, and I did. Faced with the same decision now, I’d do the same thing.

Better late than never, I guess. Morales spends much of the letter claiming that he was misrepresented by Alan Bernstein. That’s pretty much SOP for politicians about whom a story like this is written, though of course the original claims that Bernstein pushed him on were made in public forums. I’m not exactly sure how that’s anyone else’s fault, but hey, whatever gets you through the day.

Windstorm insurance bill passes House committee

I’ve mentioned the prospect of a special session several times lately. One of the issues that could be the cause of a special session is windstorm insurance, as the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association took it on the chin last year thanks to Hurricane Ike. Governor Perry even came to the floor of the House yesterday to threaten that he’d call a special session for June 2, the day after sine die, if a bill didn’t get passed. Apparently, that was enough to make something happen.

Windstorm insurance reform legislation suddenly got voted out of a House committee Wednesday after Gov. Rick Perry threatened to call a special session on June 2 if the bill does not pass.

Both inland and coastal lawmakers expressed concerns about the bill they voted on, but said they needed to get something to a House/Senate conference committee if there is any hope of reaching a compromise to avoid a special session.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, complained that he was being forced to vote on a 51-page bill that he had not read. He said the House has had the entire session to work on a compromise and now was being presented a “false choice” of voting on an unseen bill or having it die in the Legislature’s closing crunch.

“The House is on fire! Let’s vote it out,” Martinez Fischer said.

“I don’t care what you do. If you want to vote it down, vote it down,” replied House Insurance Committee Chairman John Smithee, R-Amarillo.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, joined Martinez Fischer in voting against the bill, also complaining that she had not had a chance to read it.

“I’m not trying to slow the process down, but don’t I have a right to read this stuff?” Thompson asked.

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, urged his fellow committee members to vote for the bill just to keep it moving and not let it die. He said there are many things in it that still bother him.

“We have been told we will be called into a special session on June 2 if we do not get this matter resolved,” Hunter said. “Get the process moving so we do not kill the issue.”

The bill in question is SB14, which was approved by the Senate on April 30, but which has been revised since then. One hopes everyone will have the time to read the bill before it gets voted on again, not that this has ever been a requirement for getting stuff passed; if it were, we might never have heard the words “Trans Texas Corridor”. One also hopes that this bill will be given priority over clearly less-important things like voter ID. Finally, one hopes that this is the only thing that’s on Governor Perry’s list of reasons for which to call a special session, and not just the cudgel of the day. I don’t want the Lege to come back this summer any more than they do.

Mattress Mack is watching you

Be sure to smile for the cameras if you visit the Westchase District.

A West Houston nonprofit group on Tuesday applied for city permission to install the first of a dozen security cameras it plans to purchase to reduce crime in the affluent neighborhood.

Images from the cameras will be fed to the Houston Police Department as part of an ongoing city initiative to assemble a network of hundreds of security cameras to monitor public streets, stadiums, freeways and the Port of Houston.

Calling it a prime example of a private-public partnership for public safety, HPD Assistant Chief Vickie King said the westside initiative is allowed by city ordinance.

“Communities who want to install cameras that capture movements on the public right of way may do so, so long as private property is shielded from view,” she said.

The proposed camera system was introduced Tuesday by Houston businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and his wife, Linda, who live in an apartment at the Westside Tennis and Fitness Center, which they own. McIngvale said he became a fan of camera-surveillance technology because it quickly ended auto thefts and burglaries after he installed them at his furniture business.

“Police are stretched on their budgets, so it’s something we wanted to do as merchants,” said McIngvale, a member of the nonprofit Operation Westside Success, which is raising money for the system. “We’ve got a big economic stake in this, and it’s up to us to make our neighborhoods better.”

Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the city has 25 surveillance cameras in the central business district and is using federal grants to tie into state highway-department cameras on Houston freeways, as well as cameras monitoring the Houston Ship Channel and port facilities.

Yes, I remember when the existing downtown cameras became more ubiquitous. At the time, the goal was given as crime reduction as well as better response to emergency calls. While the former is clearly a goal of the Westchase cameras, it’s interesting to note that wasn’t mentioned here as a function of the downtown cameras. Not sure if that reflects an official shift or just the vagaries of editing, but I thought it was worth pointing out. I also rememher that some folks got all freaked out by the downtown cameras, which were an initiative of HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, who is not mentioned in this story. I wonder if there will be a similar reaction to this.

James Murphy, general manager of the Westchase District, said cameras the improvement district installed on private property outside restaurants and shopping malls led to a dramatic reduction in crime.

“We have 11 cameras we’re using, and it’s fantastic,” Murphy said. “We’ve reduced parking-lot crime in those locations 70 percent on average, and in some areas more. We’re talking about auto theft, auto break-ins and robberies.”

Somewhat serendipitously, this story appeared a day after this one, about a study on the CCTV cameras in London.

The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime, according to Home Office-funded research to be distributed to all police forces in England and Wales this summer.

The review of 44 research studies on CCTV schemes by the Campbell Collaboration found that they do have a modest impact on crime overall but are at their most effective in cutting vehicle crime in car parks, especially when used alongside improved lighting and the introduction of security guards.

That seems to jibe with the Westchase experience. As long as they don’t see the cameras as a panacea, they ought to get some benefit from them. Thanks to Grits for the link.

Credit card reform

Good.

Landmark credit card legislation, poised to reach President Obama’s desk as early as Memorial Day, will force the card industry to reinvent itself and consumers to rethink the way they use plastic.

The Senate Tuesday took a critical step forward by voting 90 to 5 to pass a bill that would sharply curtail credit card issuers’ ability to raise interest rates and charge fees. Lawmakers will now turn to reconciling differences with a similar bill approved by the House last month. Swift passage was expected given that the Senate version received so much bipartisan support and that the White House has pressed for action.

When Obama signs a bill into law as expected, the $960 billion credit card industry will go through restructuring that could have broad implications for consumers. (Details of the bill can be found here.)

The bill will prohibit card companies from raising interest rates on existing balances unless the borrower is at least 60 days late. If the cardholder pays on time for the following six months, the company would have to restore the original rate. On cards with more than one interest rate, issuers will have to apply payments first to the debts with the highest rates, which would help borrowers pay off their cards more quickly.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the bill “will help create a more fair, transparent and simple consumer credit market.”

The credit card industry is a great example of the consequences of deregulation gone wild. The profits they were raking in above a certain point had little to do with creating wealth and everything to do with transferring it from lower-income consumers to their own bottom lines. This is long overdue, and frankly it should have gone farther. But this is a good start.

When credit cards were introduced about 50 years ago, issuers practiced a one-size-fits-all approach of charging an annual fee and roughly the same interest rate of about 18 percent to everyone. As the industry became more deregulated in the 1980s, around the time that credit scores were introduced, issuers were able to separate the risky from the not-so-risky borrower and tailor the terms of card contracts.

The money they made from customers who did not pay their bills in full each month became an important revenue source. The industry makes $15 billion annually from penalty fees, and one-fifth of consumers carrying credit card debt pay an interest rate above 20 percent, according to figures cited by the White House and compiled from the Government Accountability Office and the Federal Reserve.

To make up for the lost revenue, card issuers will turn to those customers who pay what they owe in full and on time every month, analysts said. Gone will be the days when creditworthy customers enjoyed the benefits of low interest rates and cards that offer rewards such as frequent flier miles and cash back, they said. Annual fees, which had been banished to cards with rewards programs, are likely to return. Offers for zero percent balance transfers are likely to become rarer.

“This industry will start looking more like a one-size-fits-all pricing approach which dominated in the ’80s — 18 percent interest and a $20 annual fees,” said David Robertson, publisher of the Nilson Report, which covers the industry. Customers who pay in full each month will have “to start picking up the slack, to start pulling their weight.”

You mean they’ll change business models to be more like American Express? What a terrible thing that would be, and I say that as one of those so-called “deadbeats” who pays in full every month. Like Kevin Drum, I don’t buy any of the industry’s sobbing, and if I did I’d have no sympathy for them anyway. I mean, come on, if people like me were so bad for their business, why did they never cut me off or change the terms of my credit? So, you know, cry me a river already. Maybe this will force them to innovate in ways that are actually beneficial to the customer.