Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

AFSCME

Late money in the HISD races

Here it comes.

A political action committee mostly funded by the nation’s largest teachers’ union has received $225,000 to spend on supporting four candidates for the Houston ISD school board election and a city ballot measure, campaign finance reports show.

Houston United for Strong Public Schools plans to spend in support of three incumbent candidates — Wanda Adams, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung — and newcomer Elizabeth Santos ahead of Tuesday’s election, records show. The PAC doesn’t plan to spend on candidates in two other Houston ISD board races.

Political action committees operate independently of individual candidates’ campaigns. Houston United for Strong Public Schools has received the most donations to date among PACs supporting local school board candidates.

Records show Houston United for Strong Public Schools took in $150,000 from the political arm of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 1.7 million public employees, most of them working in schools.

The PAC also received $75,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union representing about 1.6 million public service employees. In addition to supporting the four board candidates, the PAC plans to spend in favor of a Houston city ballot measure to authorize the sale of $1 billion in bonds under a pension reform plan.

That’s a lot of money, but at least from my perspective in District I, it hasn’t been particularly visible to me. I’ve received mail from the Santos campaign, but no more than what I’ve received from the Himsl and Richart campaigns. I haven’t received any robocalls or been visited by any canvassers – for whatever the reason, it’s extremely rare for someone to knock on my door on behalf of a campaign – and if there are ads running on TV or the radio, I’ve not seen them. I don’t think I’ve seen any Facebook ads or ads in my Gmail, either. Maybe the bulk of this money is being earmarked for a runoff, I don’t know. Risky strategy if that’s the case.

The eight day finance reports are now available, but you won’t see any activity related to HUSPS in there. For example, here’s Santos’ 8 day report, which includes a $5K donation from Houston Federation of Teachers COPE, but HUSPS is nowhere to be seen. You have to go to the Texas Ethics Commission page and search for Houston United for Strong Public Schools there. In their TEC report, you can see that while they’ve raised $225K, they’ve only spent $115K, and $47K of that was for polling, which ought to be fascinating given the turnout context. I can’t tell from this how much they have spent in each race – there isn’t a single entry that specifies a dollar amount for Santos, for example. I don’t spend as much time with PAC reports as I have done with candidate reports, so maybe I just don’t know how to read these. Point is, this is where to look to get the details.

All of this has caused some controversy, which has played out on Facebook. The HUSPS website has no “About” page, and it took some sleuthing to figure out their origin. Not to put too fine a point on it, but large amounts of money being spent on local races by groups whose backers are not apparent is generally something that many of us find alarming. As Campos has noted, it’s hardly unusual for the HFT to get involved in HISD elections – they’re as much of a stakeholder as anyone else, after all – but this method of doing so is new. I don’t understand the rationale behind this approach, either, but it is what they have chosen to do. We’ll see how it plays out.

The Texas Future Project

Very interesting.

High-powered Democrats from Texas and California have joined with national labor unions in an effort to mobilize out-of-state donors and raise millions of dollars to build a progressive majority in the Lone Star State that could change state policy and national elections.

The Texas Future Project – that also will seek to convince Texas Democrats to donate here – wants to direct funding to groups that it has identified as working to effect change, from Battleground Texas to Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

The project has commitments for close to $1 million, said Houston lawyer Steve Mostyn. He and his wife, Amber, are top Democratic donors and part of a small core group of members of the project, which also includes a key California-based supporter of President Obama.

“The main thing … when we talk to people from out of state, or folks in this state about keeping your money here, is the fact that it’s possible – and that if the work is done, and the money is spent, that it’s probable, it’s actually probable -that you now become a battleground state in 2016 for the presidential race,” Steve Mostyn said. “And the long-term effect – once you get a voter to vote once, then twice, then they are pretty much to be there.”

Mostyn said the group would “like to raise as much as we can. If it’s not doing a few million a year, then it’s not really doing what it was designed to do.”

The effort is aimed at building the infrastructure to turn out underrepresented voters in Texas – particularly Latinos, African-Americans, single women and young voters – as state demographic changes give hope to Democrats long shut out of statewide office.

[…]

The Texas Future Project was started by the Mostyns – Susman and his wife, Ellen, who has now stepped back from political efforts because she was appointed by the Obama administration to head the U.S. government’s Art in Embassies program – and San Francisco-based donor activist Steve Phillips, who was founder and chairman of PowerPAC.org, which conducted the biggest independent expenditure effort in the country in the 2008 presidential primaries to support Barack Obama. Phillips also is founder and chairman of the progressive PAC&.

Also on the ground floor of the state project are labor unions concerned about Texas wages and standards. The AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union helped start it. The United Food and Commercial Workers joined more recently.

The project has identified groups in Texas that it considers to be “high-impact, high-performing, accountable programs that are building field infrastructure and engaging in leadership development for progressive change beyond any election cycle,” according to Mostyn’s email.

They include Annie’s List, Battleground Texas, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the Texas Organizing Project and the Workers Defense Project.

My interpretation of this is that it’s basically a clearinghouse for large donors to direct funds to various groups that do good work for progressive political causes, especially progressive electoral causes. The named beneficiaries are all certainly worth supporting. Their webpage is nothing more than a way to get on their mailing list at this time, so you won’t learn much there. (Note to Randall Munroe: I had to go to the second page of the Google search results for Texas Future Project to find that webpage.) I’m a little concerned that building this kind of structure might make it more difficult for new progressive organizations to get off the ground, but I don’t know for sure that will happen. Overall, this sounds pretty good to me. What do you think?

No check for you!

Nice little bit of holiday cheer for Texas’ retired public employees this week.

Retired public employees discovered yesterday that they would not receive additional $500 checks this year. According to Senator Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, they shouldn’t hold their breath for more benefits next cycle either. “I don’t think we’ll be able to,” he said. “The constitution restricts … any sort of benefit enhancement unless the fund is actuarially sound. It’s not.”

The controversy hinges on the wording of the appropriations bill passed in the 2009 session. The legislature set aside $155 million for the additional checks, but rather than distributing the money through state pension funds, the bill put the Comptroller in charge of distribution. The payments would only be made if the Attorney General had a “conclusive opinion that such one-time payments are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,” according the bill’s language — yet the attorney general’s opinion said that there was no way to have a definitive position. “The appropriation provision on its very face makes it impossible for us to conclusively opine that such payments ‘are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,'” the opinion read.

Since the appropriated millions will return to the pension fund, Duncan says the attorney general’s decision will further the fund’s stability. The new money raised the state’s contribution rate to from 6.58 to 6.64 percent. Duncan said he is committed to keeping the fund healthy in the long term, even if that means no additional money for state retirees in the next few sessions. “The popular thing to do is, ‘Give me something today,’” Duncan said of the payments. “But if that’s what we continue to do, these funds will always be short. They will always be actuarially unsound.”

Advocacy groups that lobbied for the additional checks say that in a recession, teachers and other public employees needed the money badly and view the process with the Attorney General’s Office as an underhanded tactic. “We did not expect there to be such a discussion of semantics,” said Tim Lee, the president of Texas Retired Teachers Association. Lee said while the TRTA knew about the decision to go to the attorney general’s office, he did not know the focus would be on the complexities of the word “conclusively.” Duncan, however, said he told groups like TRTA that the language set a high hurdle, and all parties involved agreed to the language knowing the risks.

As you might imagine, the folks who will not be getting those checks in their Christmas stockings aren’t too happy about this. Here’s a press release from AFSCME that laments its loss, and another from the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that I’ve placed beneath the fold. It’s always fun times in budget land, isn’t it?

Here’s the Attorney General’s opinion on the matter. Burka weighs in as well. One place he’s wrong is in singling out the Education Committee chairs – according to Rep. Scott Hochberg, whom I asked about this, the bill in question did not go through their committees. I’m sympathetic to the idea of being conservative with pension funds, but the point of this was that it wasn’t pension funds being allocated for this one-time payment, it was general revenue. Using general revenue to boost the pension fund strikes me as iffy at best – if the investments these funds are tied up in continue to tank, it’s good money after bad, and if they recover with the economy, the general revenue infusion was unnecessary. Frankly, handing out a bunch of checks to people who are sure to spend them would have provided a nice stimulus at a time when the state economy could have really used one. But that’s not the sort of thing we do around here, so I guess it would have upset the natural order of things or something.

(more…)