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Rick Hardcastle

Investigation requested into voucher astroturfing

From the Quorum Report:

Rep. Gina Hinojosa

Following a criminal complaint by a GOP former lawmaker, an Austin representative has asked the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to look a letter-writing campaign that has deeply troubled rural Republicans in the Texas House who are opposed to school vouchers.

In a letter obtained by Quorum Report this evening, Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, told prosecutors that she’s heard from many of her Republican colleagues who cannot believe the way in which many of their constituents’ names were used.

As QR readers who have followed this are aware, rural Republicans from East Texas to West Texas have received about 17,000 letters orchestrated by a group called Texans for Education Opportunity. The group claimed credit for the letter campaign but has said everything was done properly.

The problem, though, is that many of those letters utilized the names of people who are opposed to school vouchers in any form and, in fact, some of them have raised concerns about whether their identities were stolen for this campaign.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, has said he thinks lawmakers are being “defrauded” by these letters. One of the letters Seliger received, but the way, was sent in the name of someone who had died months before the letter was sent.

“I am writing to ask you and your office to immediately open an investigation into a massive letter writing campaign that appears to be fraudulent,” Rep. Hinojosa wrote to the Travis County DA Margaret Moore.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the letter. Rep. Hinojosa is the second person to ask a DA to investigate this, following former Rep. Rick Hardacstle, who was one of the people claimed to be a voucher supporter by this phony campaign. I Am Not A Lawyer so I have no opinion as to whether the civil code or the criminal code would be the more appropriate remedy for this, but it’s definitely fraud of some form, and if my name had been on one of those faked letters I’d want someone in power to Do Something about it, too. We’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: Scott Braddock has more.

Vouchers get their Senate hearing

Here we go again with this nonsense.

Senate Bill 3, authored by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, would establish educational savings accounts and tax credit scholarships to fund various costs associated with parents moving their children from traditional public schools to private, parochial, or charter schools.

In an online payment process, parents could use the accounts, called ESAs, to pay for items like private school tuition, educational software and tutoring for home school students. However, the bill would prohibit parents from using the money for food or child care.

SB 3 would also allow low-income students to qualify for a tax break, Texas businesses can donate to the scholarship fund, according to the proposal.

Senators did not take a vote on SB 3 after Tuesday’s meeting, leaving the matter pending for another day. However, Taylor’s counterpart in the House, Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty of Humble, long has opposed so-called ‘school choice’ measures and said the bill likely is dead on arrival in his committee.

At Tuesday’s hearing, which drew more than 100 witnesses, Taylor defended his bill from charges that it diverts public money from cash-strapped public school districts and gives it to private schools. He said districts would retain some funding in the first year that a student decides to leave a public school, giving it time to adjust without losing all per-pupil money they currently receive from the state.

“Basically, the school will have money without a student. It will actually have more money to spend on the kids who are still there,” he said. “It gives them a year to transition or maybe in the year, to see what they need to do to move their program forward, to be more competitive.”

I’m not going to rehash the arguments for why vouchers (by any name; there’s a reason they have been rebranded as “education savings accounts”) are lousy public policy. Search my archives for “vouchers”, or read this from the CPPP if you need a reminder. Though a vote wasn’t taken at the time of the hearing, the committee did subsequently pass it out on a 7-3 count, with Republican Kel Seliger voting No. This is one of Dan Patrick’s priorities, and a rare bill on which Greg Abbott has an opinion he’s willing to say out loud, so I’m sure it will pass the Senate, and most likely die in the House. This is what victory looks like these days.

In the meantime, there was this.

A number of House members said they have received fraudulent letters in the last couple of months addressed from constituents asking them to back the ESAs.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was suspicious when his office fielded 520 letters between mid-February and mid-March from constituents of his rural district, who are more likely to oppose private school choice than support it. All the letters were addressed from Austin and had the full names and addresses of each constituent at the bottom.

Springer started making calls. “We talked to a couple of dozen constituents. No one knows where they’re coming from. None of them agree with the positions that they’re even taking,” he said. He knows of about 10 other representatives who got similar letters.

One of Springer’s letters was addressed from former state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, who vacated the seat currently held by Springer about six years ago. “I don’t believe in vouchers of any kind,” Hardcastle said Monday. “It ought to be illegal … representing me for something I have no interest in supporting or helping.”

Asked about the letters, school choice advocate Randan Steinhauser said there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the issue. “We’re excited to see that many folks are contacting their legislators. We’re looking forward to hearing more about the ways these elected officials are being contacted.”

Sue Dixon, a public school teacher in Gatesville for the last 20 years, got a call from state Rep. J.D. Sheffield’s office asking whether she had sent a letter lobbying her representative to vote for vouchers.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not!'” Dixon said. “I’m upset that someone would hijack my views.”

Sheffield, a rural conservative from Gatesville, said he had received about 550 of those letters.

Here’s a more detailed article about this bizarre story. I am reminded once again of Daniel Davies’ words, that good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I don’t know if this was the work of amateurs or exceedingly hardened cynics, but I do know it is not the work of someone who is confident that the people are with them.

Urban farming

The Lege wants to be more supportive of it.

Rep. Borris Miles

For the first time that anyone could recall, the Texas House Agriculture and Livestock committee had a joint hearing with the House Urban Affairs committee to discuss ways to help expand community gardens and urban farming. The goal: increase access to affordable and healthy food.

“It’s a well worthwhile deal. I see a great need,” said House Agriculture Chairman Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon. “I see it as a true change in demographics because the big grocery stores don’t build in urban Texas, or they close up and move out to the suburbs and the average mom-and-pop grocery store doesn’t carry fresh vegetables. ”

Community gardening in inner cities has gained momentum in most big cities around the country but Texas ranks last, Scott Howard, vice chair of Houston’s Urban Harvest, told lawmakers: “It’s kind of embarrassing.”

He believes vegetable gardens should be developed at every elementary school across Texas.

“This is where kids learn where their food comes from and how it’s grown,” Howard said.

Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, is playing a key role in trying to expand urban farming in Texas and appears to have won support from rural lawmakers, who said they would help him move legislation next year when the Texas Legislature returns to a regular legislative session.

“Urban farming would help fight obesity and diabetes in the inner city,” Miles said.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s a people issue,” he said. “It’s part of the Republican thread to be self-sufficient, so how can they deny it? All we’re asking to do is be able to sustain life for ourselves.”

State and local governments could help increase interest and support for urban gardens with tax incentives for land owners who allow community residents to grow vegetables on vacant city lots that otherwise could turn into eyesores. Utility companies could be granted liability waivers on easements and agriculture exemptions could be expanded to encourage inner city gardening.

Rep. Miles discussed this issue when I interviewed him. Our school does in fact have a vegetable garden, and they periodically send some veggies home with the kids. I don’t know how much that encourages better eating habits, but it’s pretty cool in itself. Certainly, using vacant lots as vegetable gardens is better than letting them be overgrown eyesores, and to the extent that the Lege can help cities encourage that it’s a good thing. It looks like this effort has some momentum behind it, so it’ll be worth watching next session.

Hochberg’s plan for less testing

A new bill filed by State Rep. Scott Hochberg that would exempt students who easily passed standardized tests one year from taking them the next, makes all kinds of sense.

The bill, co-authored by Hochberg and freshman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, would exempt fourth graders from taking the state’s standardized tests if they passed their third grade tests by a large margin. Similarly, students in sixth and seventh grade wouldn’t have to take the tests if they passed by a healthy margin in fifth grade. While the measure wouldn’t save the state much money, it would save local districts a lot in test preparation, while putting a larger focus on those students who barely passed or failed their exams. Using giant posters of data, Hochberg pointed out that students who do well on the tests one year will very likely pass the following year.

“If we know these kids are going to pass, why are we giving them the test?” asked Hochberg, the House guru of all things education and data-related. Currently, he says, school districts can rely on their high achievers to boost test scores and inflate a school’s ratings. That allows the struggling kids to fall between the cracks. This bill would shift that emphasis, as schools would be judged based more heavily on how they equipped their low performers.

“It shines a laser beam on those kids who are below grade level,” Hochberg said.

Huberty, a conservative Republican who just left the Humble school board to come to the House, concurred. He argued the districts currently spend too much time and money on testing, particulary when those children who already did well one year will almost undoubtedly will pass again.

For proof, Hochberg—by far the nerdiest House member—turned to the numbers. Of those students who passed their reading and math assessments by a large margin in fourth grade, over 97 percent passed again in fifth grade. The numbers were even more compelling among middle schoolers. Over 98 percent of seventh graders who passed their assessments by a large margin in math and reading passed again in eighth grade. Meanwhile of those fourth graders who failed their tests, less than 40 percent passed the following year.

“It really sheds the light on this group of kids who are the ones who are likely to become dropouts as things go on,” Hochberg said told the handful of reporters.

The bill is HB233, and you can read about it in Hochberg’s own words here. There are two other Republicans signed onto the bill – Rick Hardcastle and Jim Keffer – which one hopes bodes well for its chances. I’ll be interested to see if there’s any real opposition to this, because offhand I can’t think of a reason why you’d oppose it/ We’ll see what happens.

Republican State Rep says Perry can’t beat Bill White

I wonder how many people will be thinking along the same lines as State Rep. Rick Hardcastle.

When the Legislature does reconvene in 2011, one big question will be who is governor?

“Whether or not we’ll have a new governor, no one will know until March,” Hardcastle said. “If Bill White wins the Democrat primary, whoever wins the Republican primary better get their work boots on. Bill White is the most popular governor of any big city in the nation. Houston is a huge voting block.”

Hardcastle said while he supports both Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, he said he is leaning toward Hutchison for a variety of reasons.

“I think Kay can beat Bill White, and I don’t think Rick can beat Bill White,” Hardcastle said. “I think the (Trans Texas) Corridor will kill him against Bill White. I don’t want to see a Democrat governor when we have a Republican majority.”

Link via Come and Take It, who wonders if other State Reps are in the same position. The idea that only Kay can beat Bill isn’t a new one, and with Team Hutchison leaking an internal poll that shows them up two points on Perry, it won’t surprise me at all if you start to hear more of this spoken out loud. Of course, given how lousy a campaign KBH has run against Perry, it’s far from clear to me that she would do any better in the general than he would, though at least she would have the advantage of not being Rick Perry. Anyway, just something to keep an eye on. BOR has more.

Stem cells and the budget battle

Other than voter ID, we really haven’t had a big fight in the Lege this session. Burka thinks Sen. Steve Ogden’s scurrilous stem cell rider could be the next big brawl.

The Ogden rider is not in the House bill, but it is likely that the conservatives will offer the identical language as a floor amendment to the House committee substitute. [House Appropriations Chair Jim] Pitts will oppose it. If the amendment passes, it will be in both bills and will become part of the conference committee report. I believe that if it comes to a vote, it will fail.

It’s all about 2010 GOP primary politics, of course. Never mind what would be good for Texas. There will be a rally in support of removing this rider from the budget this morning at the Capitol by Texans for Advancement of Medical Research. Click on to read their press release.

That won’t be the only thing to fight about, of course – Burka has three other posts highlighting various amendments to the budget, many of which seek to divert or restrict money in the Texas Enterprise Fund, a/k/a the Governor’s slush fund. That has the potential for more entertainment value, mostly for the gratuitous Perry-bashing that it will allow. No shortage of things to keep an eye on, that’s for sure.

Oh, and the House yesterday approved $3.3 billion in supplemental spending, which included $700 million for hurricane relief. It passed by a margin of 141 to five on second reading. As far as I know, no teabags were harmed in the passage of that bill.

UPDATE: Here for your perusal is the Legislative Study Group analysis of the budget, also known as CSSB1. It gives a detailed overview of all appropriations in each article of the budget, including a breakdown of federal stimulus funds, plus a description and rating of each amendment, of which there are well over 100. Only a handful of amendments are rated as “Unfavorable”, with most of them being aimed at the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s office (it’s long been a GOP desire to move prosecution of political crimes out of Travis County) or at undocumented immigrants; the former amendments come from Rep. Wayne Christian, the latter from (who else?) Rep. Leo Berman. Check it out.

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