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Abbott goes max anti-vaxx

He really wants us dead.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued another executive order cracking down on COVID-19 vaccine mandates — this time banning any entity in Texas, including private businesses, from requiring vaccinations for employees or customers.

Abbott also called on the Legislature to pass a law with the same effect. The Legislature is in its third special legislative session, which ends Oct. 19.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective, & our best defense against the virus, but should always remain voluntary & never forced,” he said in a tweet announcing his latest order.

The order marks a significant reversal after Abbott previously gave private businesses the choice to mandate vaccines for workers. An Abbott spokesperson said in late August that “private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

For weeks, Abbott has been under pressure from some on his right to go further in prohibiting vaccine requirements, and one of his primary challengers, Don Huffines, celebrated the latest order.

[…]

The latest move appears to be at least partly motivated by President Joe Biden’s actions in September that require all employers with more than 100 workers to mandate vaccines for workers or test weekly for the virus. Biden also required all federal government workers and contractors to get vaccinated, leading nearly all the major airlines — including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines headquartered in Texas — to announce they’d abide by the mandate.

See here for more on his previous order, which as noted explicitly avoided including private companies. There’s no question that this is one part a toddler’s response to the Biden executive order, but also a coward’s response to the toxic ravings of his primary opponents. Abbott’s weakness and ineffectuality are just embarrassing. Whether it’s enough to get a plurality of voters to turn against him, that’s the zillion dollar question.

As noted in the story, big employers like airlines are going to comply with the Biden order, which applies to companies with at least 100 employees. The Abbott order, to whatever extent it has an effect, will affect smaller companies.

Experts agree Abbott’s order — which says even private companies in Texas cannot “compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual” — would likely be trumped by President Joe Biden’s requirements that federal contractors and businesses with 100 or more employees require vaccines. Major corporations based in Texas, including Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, said Tuesday they would abide by Biden’s rules over Abbott’s.

The federal rules are still in the works, but even after they’re enacted they won’t affect the majority of the state’s workforce. The big businesses affected by Biden’s rule employ 44 percent of Texas workers.

How much protection the governor’s latest order provides to those 56 percent of workers employed by the smaller companies, however, is another question. Legal experts were split on whether those fired for refusing to get a shot could start collecting unemployment, for instance. Some attorneys believe Abbott has clearly opened the door for those workers to get benefits, while others argued the order stops well short of making such a guarantee.

And the order is likely to prompt conflicting rulings from judges at various levels of the court system, as has Abbott’s effort to stop schools and local governments from enacting mask mandates. Repeatedly, the state has admitted in court that it has no plans to enforce the ban on mask requirements, saying that is up to local district attorneys.

“You have these orders coming down at various levels. I think if you’re a consumer or even an employee, you’re kind of in a tough spot if you’re choosing to not be vaccinated,” said Alfonso Kennard, Jr., a Texas-based employment attorney. “The path of least resistance would be to be vaccinated.

“At a minimum, all it does is give some entity the ability to point to something and say, ‘The governor said this, so I should be OK,’” Kennard said. “But a week from now, a judge could say it isn’t lawful.”

The Texas Workforce Commission would not say whether the order impacts unemployment claims, saying only that each is handled on a case-by-case basis with the “totality of the job separation” taken into consideration.

Kalandra Wheeler, an employment attorney based in Houston, said Abbott’s order would appear to make it easier for unvaccinated workers to argue they deserve unemployment.

“What they have to establish for you not to get benefits is that you either resigned and there was no good cause connected to the work, or that you were terminated for misconduct,” Wheeler said. “I think there’s less of an argument you’ve done those things when the governor issues a ban that says you’re not required to get the vaccine.”

Randall Erben, a law professor at the University of Texas who previously worked as Abbott’s legislative director, said he believes the order was “very carefully drafted, very thoughtfully drafted, and drafted in a way that makes it harder to challenge and more easily enforceable.” Importantly, it doesn’t mention anything about unemployment eligibility.

“The executive order doesn’t really get into that,” he said. “What it says is a private employer can’t compel an employee to get a vaccine. What an employer does after that is not addressed in the order. It’s not even really contemplated.”

If there’s one thing that is clear, it’s that this will be a busy time for the lawyers. Actually, it’s also clear that Abbott has no qualms about contradicting himself:

OK, it’s also clear that we are already living in Don Huffines’ Texas. Abbott is just blowing in the wind. If you like this and want it to continue, you know what to do. Same for if you don’t. The Chron and the Trib, in a truly brutal analysis that includes observations such as how Abbott is “so overwhelmed by politics that he’s become a Random Policy Generator, throwing out edicts that make sense only if you forget everything he said before”, have more.

Lawsuit filed against suspension of federal unemployment benefits

Not sure how likely this is to succeed, but it’s worth a try.

Thousands of Texans have banded together and hired an attorney to file suit to block Gov. Greg Abbott from ending emergency federal unemployment benefits before the programs expire in September.

The plaintiffs, two groups that organized over Facebook with more than 30,000 people, argue that the decision to end the benefits early exceeded the governor’s authority, according to the lawsuit, filed this week in state district court in Austin. The benefits, aimed at providing relief to workers during the pandemic, are scheduled to expire Saturday under Abbott’s order.

“Texas has what is known as a weak governor and a large part of Texas is run by commissions,” David Sibley, an attorney for the group of unemployment groups, said. “We just believe the governor is acting outside of his authority, and it’s something the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) should address.”

Abbott last month ordered the early end to federal programs that provided supplemental payments of $300 a week to unemployed workers and extended jobless benefits to gig workers and other self-employed people not covered by the traditional unemployment system. Abbott argued that job openings in the state are plentiful and the additional benefits were no longer needed.

[…]

On Friday, Judge Dustin Howell denied a temporary restraining order to block the governor from ending the federal benefits while the case is proceeding. Despite the ruling, Sibley said his clients will continue with their case. “A denial of a (temporary restraining order) does not mean the case is over,” Sibley said.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order the Texas Workforce Commission to make the decision on whether and when to end the benefits. They acknowledge that the workforce commission could reach the same decision as the governor, but it would delay when the federal benefits would expire.

See here and here for the background. The only other news story I found about this is a paywalled DMN story, so I don’t have any more details. Seems to me getting denied the motion for a temporary restraining order is a big setback, but maybe there is still a way forward. I found a Facebook group with 30K members that appears to be related to this, but it’s private and I don’t want to go poking my nose in places where it doesn’t belong. I wish these folks well, but I don’t think they’re going to get what they’re asking for. The Texas Signal has more.

Two arguments against Abbott’s rollback of extended unemployment insurance

It’s bad economic policy.

“I’m still nervous that we’re bowing out of this program before the labor market is fully healed,” said Dietrich Vollrath, an economics professor at the University of Houston. “The bad consequences of doing too much is limited,” he said, “but the bad consequences of doing too little can really be detrimental.”

About 800,000 Texans were receiving federal jobless assistance at the end of April, according to the most recent data. Nearly half of them — the self-employed or other gig economy workers — will lose all of their benefits at the end of June, when the governor is ending the additional aid. The rest will see a steep drop in their weekly checks.

[…]

While the Texas economy has largely rebounded from the height of the pandemic, when the unemployment rate topped 12 percent, companies across the state are still firing employees at two to three times the normal rate, according to Vollrath. He said that’s a sign the recovery remains fragile.

Labor experts already have some preliminary findings on the impacts of increased benefits during the pandemic. Economists at Yale University found that the $600 unemployment checks approved early on under the Trump administration did not significantly deter unemployed people from reentering the workforce.

Belinda Román, an assistant economics professor at St. Mary’s University, said ending the payments could backfire and instead drive people further into poverty. If it does work, she said, it may force at least some people into underpaid jobs that they have decided are no longer worth the time or health risk.

“My perspective is, pay better and that probably incentivizes a lot of people to come to work,” she said.

See here for the background. Those $600 checks also largely kept the economy from cratering a year ago. Taking away this benefit now, when the economy is still in recovery and lots of people are still not vaccinated and being cautious about going out, will mostly have the effect of making people who are already on the economic margins even poorer.

Also, too, there are other reasons why some businesses are having problems hiring.

Britt Philyaw, executive director of the Heard That Foundation, a Dallas non-profit that provides support for hospitality workers, said she doesn’t know of anyone who has turned down restaurant jobs to stay on unemployment.

“I find it really disturbing some of the things that I’ve seen on social media. I don’t like that the labor shortage is being politicized and how it is being said that people are lazy or they’re making more money on unemployment. I don’t think it’s the truth. The people we’ve worked with throughout the pandemic who were on unemployment and got their stimulus checks were not making ends meet,” she said.

What the pandemic did, in her opinion, was highlight the instability of restaurant jobs. The quirks of service industry work like tips and irregular schedules are often draws for many people in the industry, but they were cast in a different light when the pandemic hit, Philyaw said. Suddenly the things that were once perks of the business were no longer worth sacrificing health insurance, predictable pay and stability for.

“Something that is desperately lacking from the conversation is the fact that 70% of the population that works in the industry are women, some of them single with kids. I think that should be a huge part of the conversation,” Philyaw said.

The service industry labor market was already tight before the pandemic, and with even more jobs than there are workers, Philyaw said employees have the ability to be choosy about who they do go work for, which is making it even harder for employers, some of whom are offering sign-on bonuses and raising wages to attract new hires.

“People in front-of-house and back-of-house [of restaurants] are shopping around,” she said. “And they’re looking for things they value like, ‘Am I going to work in a safe environment? Am I going to work in an environment where I’m not going to be harassed or bullied or forced to work for free?’ So there’s just a lot of things at play, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as the stories that grab the most attention.”

For Andrea Winn, a long-time restaurant industry professional who’s held server, sommelier and wine director positions at Dallas restaurants like Bolsa and Abacus, the decision to leave the restaurant industry came when the downtown Dallas restaurant she was working at reopened over the summer and management did not adhere to capacity limits, mask mandates and other safety protocols.

She took a full-time job as a wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods, stepping away from the industry she loved and had worked in since completing her degree in history and getting out of a desk job she loathed. It wasn’t easy to leave the dining room — she was saying goodbye to higher pay, flexible hours and the ability to travel when she wanted — but the benefits outweighed the cons, she said.

“I have a job now [at Whole Foods] where I am guaranteed a certain amount of hours every week, I know how much I’m going to get paid, and I have health insurance and sick time. The sick time was a really big thing because working in restaurants, unless you are really sick, you are expected to work sick. You’re looked down upon, and your schedule will be threatened if you don’t [work],” Winn said.

There is a common perception that restaurant workers are young, uneducated and in the industry out of necessity, Winn said, and such thinking makes it easy to believe that the shortage of workers is due to an unwillingness to work. But the reality is the industry is made up of seasoned professionals like her who sought out restaurant and bar careers and are now choosing to pursue careers that offer a better quality of life, she said.

Some jobs are better than others. People who have kids at home and no child care available don’t have a lot of options right now. Making them desperate doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Of course business groups want Abbott to cut off unemployment payments

Completely on brand.

The Texas Association of Business and more than three dozen other business groups are pushing Gov. Greg Abbott to cut the additional $300 in federal benefits currently going to unemployed Texans.

Nearly 1 million Texans remained unemployed and dependent upon benefit payments for income in March.

In GOP-led states, rescinding the extra pay is considered a way to force workers back into the job market to address labor shortages as the economy recovers from the COIVD-19 pandemic.

GOP governors in at least 16 states have announced plans to cut benefits: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

“Employers believe that supplemental [unemployment] benefit payments from Washington is disincentivizing work and resulting in many good Texas jobs going unfilled,” the Texas business association and 38 chambers of commerce and business associations wrote in a letter to the governor and the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that oversees jobless benefits.

“With COVID-19 on the decline and job openings on the rise, we believe it is time for Texas leaders and the Texas Workforce Commission to re-examine unemployment benefits, unemployment insurance work-search requirements and Texas’s role in federal supplemental unemployment benefits,” the letter said.

[…]

Critics of the decision to cut the additional unemployment pay argue it would hurt people who can’t work because they’re sick, caring for a person with COVID-19 or can’t find adequate childcare.

In response to Montana’s decision to rescind the benefit, worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project’s executive director Rebecca Dixon said return-to-work bonuses “can become a tool to coerce workers to accept substandard jobs, rather than enabling workers to pursue quality jobs that provide financial security.”

This is a lousy idea for the reasons stated above, and also because the states that have jumped on this bandwagon are among the worst at getting people vaccinated. Texas fits comfortably in that group, and yes there is a strong correlation to Republican-ness, since Republicans are less likely to want to get vaccinated, and as the people in charge are less likely to expend much effort to get vaccines to the lower-income, mostly people of color, that they’re now demanding go back to crappy jobs. As it is practically our state’s motto that the interests of bidness come first, I’m sure this will happen in short order. You already know what I’m going to say about that, so let’s just stipulate and move on.

UPDATE: Even faster than I expected.

Governor Greg Abbott said Monday that Texas will end federal pandemic-related unemployment assistance, effective June 26. This includes the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

“The Texas economy is thriving and employers are hiring in communities throughout the state,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the Department of Labor. “In fact, the amount of job openings in Texas is far greater than the number of Texans looking for employment, making these unemployment benefits no longer necessary.”

These guys sure got their money’s worth, didn’t they? The Trib has more.

Yes, lobbyists need sexual harassment awareness training, too

Closing an obvious loophole.

Sen. José Menéndez

In the aftermath of the story that rocked the Capitol this weekend of a lobbyist using a date rape drug on a legislative staffer, the Legislature is starting to take action.

Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) filed a bill on Tuesday that would require lobbyists to under sexual harassment and ethics training before registering as a lobbyist.

The state senator tweeted, “This bill is replicated after the Texas Senate policy which requires completion of sexual harassment training every 2 years by Senators & all staff. If lobbyists are going to work in & around Capitol, & directly with our staff, they too should be held to a responsible standard.”

All 31 senators have signed on to SB 2233 as co-authors, and it is scheduled for a hearing in State Affairs on Thursday.

The Senate action is one of many steps the Legislature is calling for, and legislators say the problem goes much deeper. Rep. Ina Minjarez told The Texas Tribune, “There is still a culture of silence and covering things up.”

[…]

Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas) filed HB 21 last November that would allow an individual to file a sexual harassment complaint to the Texas Workforce Commission within 300 days of the incident. The bill was languishing in the Calendars Committee until yesterday when it was scheduled for the House floor on Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Good thing we heard about this before the May 13 deadline for bills to be advanced out of committee, isn’t it? One may reasonably wonder why lobbyists weren’t covered in the previous legislation about sexual harassment, but at least that embarrassing loophole can still be closed now. It’s a tiny baby step – again, this is a massive culture problem, one that to paraphrase Max Planck is likely only to see advancement one political funeral at a time – but it’s still a necessary baby step. Also good to know that this Lege and its leadership can attempt to solve a problem when it puts its mind to it. The Chron has more.

Reopening roundup redux

More news about that thing that Greg Abbott is making us do.

Health experts give Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas mixed reviews, warn state should revive stay-at-home order if surge emerges:

Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, said Monday’s announcement came too soon — and did not give businesses enough time to prepare precautionary measures before opening Friday.

“That’s a concern,” she said.

Health leaders in some Texas cities said it was too soon to relax social distancing precautions that have helped keep the coronavirus outbreak manageable in Texas. Abbott moved toward reopening about 10 days sooner than health leaders in Houston had hoped for, according to the Houston Chronicle. The governor said his order supersedes any local restrictions.

“This is too soon for us,” Mark Escott, Austin’s interim health authority, said Tuesday during a city council meeting. “As we’re still preparing contact tracing, ramping up testing, working to protect vulnerable populations, now is not the time to flip on the light switch.”

At the same meeting, Lauren Ancel Meyers, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, shared a model she created showing that Austin could surge past its hospital capacity as soon as this summer if social distancing regulations are eased indefinitely.

In Dallas County, which marked its deadliest day on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Director Philip Huang said some area hospitals have seen increases in COVID-19 populations.

“These are the trends we’re worried about even before the governor’s order,” he said, standing in front of a screen that read “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” As businesses reopen, he said, it is all the more important that Dallas continue to socially distance, wear masks and “make smart choices.”

Health experts said Abbott must be careful in determining whether it’s safe to continue to expand business openings in coming weeks. The success of the economic reopening depends on increasing the state’s capacity for testing and contact tracing.

Moving forward to the second phase of reopening — when certain businesses could serve customers at 50% capacity — depends on the outcome of the first stage. Abbott said it is “only logical” that the restrictions he’s easing this week will cause an increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases. That alone will not be “decisive,” he said.

The governor and his advisers will look closely at hospitalization rates and death rates to decide whether it is safe to move on to phase two. But Abbott’s plan, outlined in a 65-page booklet, does not offer specific figures or thresholds.

[Luis Ostrosky-Zeichner, a professor of infectious diseases and epidemiology at UT Health] said “any sort of uptick in cases would be worrisome to me.”

A distinct lack of metrics was a concern to me as well, but what do I know?

Texas sending restaurant and retail employees back to work without child care:

Restaurant servers, retail cashiers and movie theater concession workers in Texas could be called back to work as soon as Friday, in the first phase of the state’s emergence from a coronavirus shelter-at-home order.

But parents working in those industries who have young children will be turned away from licensed child care centers, which remain open only for children of essential workers such as grocery clerks and nurses. And public and private schools across the state are closed for all students through the end of the school year.

As Republican state leaders move to re-energize the economy, already a controversial decision, they are forcing some parents into a near-impossible choice: find a place to leave your child or risk losing your source of income. Under the state’s current rules, Texans who choose not to go to work when their business reopens will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.

“Public health needs indicate that child care operations may remain open only to serve children whose parent is considered an ‘essential’ worker under the Governor’s executive order,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission, in a statement. “Just because a business is now open does not necessarily mean that it is considered ‘essential.’”

But the Texas Workforce Commission has since said in a follow-up statement that it is considering case-by-case waivers that would allow some people to continue receiving unemployment benefits even if they choose not to return to a reopened business.

“Under longstanding TWC policy, if an employer offered an individual a job and they refused the job offer without good cause the employee would not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits,” the statement said. “Recognizing this, extraordinary situation, TWC is reevaluating good cause situations that take into consideration the governor’s direction towards reopening the economy.”

It’s almost as if the problems that had been identified for working people in good times were exacerbated in a time of crisis. No one could have seen that coming.

Montgomery County commissioners call Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas economy ‘vague’:

Gov. Greg Abbott responded to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough late Tuesday and acknowledged his order to reopen Texas businesses on Friday needed clarification after Keough called the plan vague and said it didn’t mandate businesses such as hair and nail salons, bars and gyms remain closed.

“I actually went back and looked at the order and I can understand why he’s saying that it needs clarification. And so we will provide that clarification,” Abbott said in a Fox 26 interview regarding Keough’s comments.

Keough said he appreciated the governor’s attention in the matter but said he is standing his ground that his interpretation of Abbott’s order only says those businesses “shall” be avoided, which, he said, does not mean the businesses can’t open. He added if and when Abbott clarifies the order in writing, he will abide by its guidelines.

During the commissioners court regular meeting Tuesday morning, Keough said the county has done all it can to follow guidelines from Abbott. However, he said the opening of some businesses over others “doesn’t make sense.” After reading Abbott’s order, Keough said it does not close or keep closed any businesses.

“He doesn’t close those,” Keough said of businesses such as hair salons, barbershops, gyms and nail salons. “It says you should avoid these businesses. It is uncommonly vague what he has said and there is a measure of confusion. I am not trying to push against the governor, I am just trying to free the people who have been chosen to be the losers.

“The object here is not to go rogue on the state of Texas or the governor. The object is we have until Friday to get clarification on this. As far as we are concerned, he has not declared these (businesses) closed.”

Still waiting on that clarification. People seem to be especially agitated over the haircut issue:

As Abbott made the rounds of TV news interviews Tuesday, it was clear that his hair edict had struck a strong and disappointed chord with some Texans.

“Now governor, by far the most calls we have been getting are from barbers and hairdressers who are trying to understand why they are not in phase one of your plan,” the interviewer on KFDX in Wichita Falls asked Abbott on Tuesday afternoon. “People feel that personal grooming is essential and if proper precautions are taken, why isn’t the hair industry in phase one?”

“Well, first I agree with their sentiment 110%. And I know that fellow Texans do also,” Abbott replied. “But once again, the decisions that we made yesterday were decisions based upon recommendations by doctors, and so some doctors concluded that because of the close proximity between a barber and a customer and a hair salon and a customer, even though they’re wearing face masks, we’re still looking for best strategies.

“But it’s so important for your audience to know this,” Abbott said. “After my announcement yesterday, we began working on the issue immediately, and we are continuing to work on it and we will be looking forward to try to make an announcement really soon as we come up with safe strategies for barbers and hair salons to be able to reopen.”

I mean, my hair is approaching levels of shagginess not seen since my grad student days, but that hasn’t broken my spirit yet. My hair will still be there to be cut in a couple of weeks, you know?


Go click and read the thread, and also read this Eater story if you haven’t already.

Office space: How to keep Texas workers safe as they return:

The office refrigerator? Better take it away. The office coffee pot? Ditto. Even shared copiers and printers have become biological hazards, thanks to the spread of the coronavirus.

Workplace culture as we knew it in January is disappearing as companies prepare for the return of employees as early as Friday in Texas.

Many companies have focused on separating employee workstations so workers remain 6 feet apart to comply with government social-distancing recommendations. They’re also buying masks and gloves to prevent the virus from spreading. But what about not-so-obvious dilemmas, such as whether to station someone on each floor to help maintain distancing in office elevators. And what to do about the germ-covered door knobs on bathroom doors?

“It’s the simple things, like unfortunately and sadly, maybe eliminate the handshake,” Jason Habinsky, an employment lawyer with Haynes and Boone, told employers this week during a telephone seminar. Instead, maybe workers could point and a nod at each other, a manner that before the conoravirus pandemic might have been awkward but now makes sense.

I don’t drink coffee and I almost never generate paper, but I do bring my lunch more often than not. Guess I’ll have to plan to start bringing a cooler or something. This world we’re going to re-enter is going to be so very different from the one we left.

We have a new SOS

Yippie.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

After losing his last chief election officer over a botched review of the state’s voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday appointed a new secretary of state: Ruth Ruggero Hughs.

Ruggero Hughs is moving from the Texas Workforce Commission, which she has chaired since August 2018. She joins the secretary of state’s office nearly three months after Democratic senators blocked the confirmation of her predecessor, David Whitley, who questioned the voter registration of thousands of naturalized citizens.

Whitley resigned on May 27, lacking enough votes in the Texas Senate to keep the job after he oversaw an effort to scour the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens. The review instead threatened the voting rights of tens of thousands of voters of color, landed the state in federal court and prompted a congressional inquiry into voting rights violations.

[…]

Ruggero Hughs is likely to face a challenge in repairing the secretary of state’s relationship with the hundreds of local officials it depends on to run elections. Some county officials have said they’re still waiting for an explanation from the secretary of state’s office on how they got the review so wrong.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. Abbott took his sweet time naming a replacement, because he’s Greg Abbott and he does what he wants. Whether Ruggero Hughs winds up being a better SOS than David Whitley was isn’t a high bar to clear, but the real question is whether she’ll be Abbott’s flunky or an honest broker. We’ll have to wait and see, and keep a very close eye on her in the meantime. Because the Lege is not in session, she’ll get to serve until 2021, at which point she’ll need to have won over at least a couple of Dems if she wants to stay in that job. The Chron has more.

Paxton’s cronies

This guy really is a piece of work.

Ken Paxton

When seeking a job at the Texas attorney general’s office, it’s less about what is on your résumé than who you know.

In Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first weeks in office, he filled his higher ranks with at least 14 people connected to him and other prominent Republicans — quiet “appointments” that his office defends in spite of state law, which requires that jobs be advertised when they’re filled from outside the agency.

An American-Statesman review of more than 1,800 pages of personnel files reveals that hiring procedures were relaxed or altogether ignored for those who had worked for Paxton, former Gov. Rick Perry or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Records show several were hired weeks before they had even applied for the jobs, if an application was completed at all.

Meanwhile, people whose résumés didn’t include political connections often faced months of red tape, interviews and vetting — just the sort of competition that state law envisions for coveted state jobs.

It is not uncommon for elected officials to ignore a decades-old law meant to prevent political patronage in Texas, but the number of Paxton’s so-called appointees is notable, and correspondence obtained under the Texas Public Information Act suggests Paxton was promising lucrative jobs to his political allies months before he took office.

[…]

The Statesman asked three state agencies how state law might allow for “high-level appointments,” as Paxton’s office called them. None would provide answers.

The Texas Workforce Commission, the designated arbiter for job postings, deferred to the attorney general’s office, which stopped answering questions from the Statesman for this story. The Texas Legislative Council, whose lawyer assists legislators in drafting laws, deferred first to the attorney general’s office, then back to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The commission’s spokeswoman, Lisa Givens, said her office provides no guidance or oversight to ensure state officials are following the law. They just take what other agencies send them and post it.

“We don’t enforce the rule,” she said. “We accept the postings. There’s no enforcement in this provision.”

Givens did note, however, the statute says “any agency, so that would be any agency.”

Because the law is 25 years old, wrapped into two omnibus revisions of chunks of state law, it has received little attention in recent years. But earlier this year the Senate Research Center, providing context for another bill, was succinct in its interpretation: “State agencies are required to list job openings with the Texas Workforce Commission.”

“The job posting requirement is black and white,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, the left-leaning watchdog group whose ethics complaint against Paxton spurred an ongoing grand jury investigation into possible securities violations.

“In Texas, cronyism is allowed,” McDonald said. “But you have to at least follow the rules.”

Still, an official determination on whether Paxton broke the law can only come from the attorney general himself.

Isn’t that special? Read the whole thing, it’s a nice piece of reporting. There’s not much else that can be done, though perhaps if he’s still claiming to caer about ethics, perhaps Greg Abbott could add this to the Lege’s to do list in 2017. Beyond that, if nothing else this serves as further evidence, as if it were needed, that Paxton has the ethical and moral compass of a Russian hacker. His downfall, when it finally happens, is going to be epic.

HISD should not be on the hook for North Forest’s liabilities

Come on!

Fourteen months after the Texas Education Agency ordered Houston ISD to take over the long-troubled North Forest school district, some unexpected disputes over funding have surfaced.

The Houston school board has authorized its attorneys to challenge a Texas Workforce Commission ruling that the district owes more than $3.7 million in unemployment benefits to former employees of the North Forest Independent School District.

In addition, HISD has not yet received enough state money to rebuild North Forest High School and an early childhood center in the area, though district officials say they expect to have sufficient funds in coming years to complete at least the high school project.

[…]

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams ordered the 6,700-student North Forest school district to be closed and annexed to HISD on July 1, 2013, after years of academic struggles and financial problems.

David Thompson, an attorney who represents HISD, said the district should not be responsible for reimbursing the state for unemployment benefits because the North Forest employees never worked for HISD. The Texas Education Agency did not require HISD to hire any North Forest staff.

The unemployment claims totaled $3.7 million as of June 30, according to HISD.

“We think we’re right on the law,” Thompson said, adding that he expects the district to file a lawsuit against the Texas Workforce Commission to appeal having to reimburse the commission for the claims. “Three million dollars pays for a lot of teachers, a lot of supplies.”

The HISD school board voted Thursday to authorize next steps to appeal the commission’s ruling.

HISD officials said they did not know how many North Forest employees filed unemployment claims, but it’s likely hundreds. North Forest ISD employed about 850 people before it closed.

Look, HISD did not volunteer for the duty of annexing North Forest. It was imposed on them by the state. I’m not arguing the merit of that decision – I happen to think it was a good call – but let’s be honest, this is a challenge for HISD. To add to that challenge by imposing North Forest’s unpaid bills on HISD is unconscionable, and that’s before we take into account the Lege’s draconian cuts to public education in 2011 and the state’s extremely flush coffers at this time. Seriously, why are we even arguing about this? The state should make good on these unemployment claims already.

Pauken for Governor

We have our first official non-fringe candidate for Governor next year.

Tom Pauken

Saying he hoped to reunite the “Reagan coalition of social and economic conservatives,” former Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken confirmed to the Tribune that he will file to run for governor in 2014.

“I like [Gov.] Rick Perry. I like [Attorney General] Greg Abbott,” said Pauken, a former chairman of the Texas Republican Party who also worked in the Reagan administration. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. One or both may run. I’m going to run on issues.”

Pauken’s intention to run for governor was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

He touted his recent work building support for education reform and emphasizing the importance of vocational training.

“On issues where there’s common ground, let’s bring Texans together,” he said.

Pauken said he wants to get a group together to look at the school finance system, which he said needs an overhaul. “We have a flawed Robin Hood system that was flawed from the beginning,” he said. “It hasn’t gotten better. It’s gotten worse.”

He said the state needed to focus its attention to essential services, such as its transportation infrastructure. He also said Texas needs to become less reliant on high property taxes, and he indicated that he is a strong proponent of term limits for statewide politicians.

“I also think there’s too much crony capitalism out there,” he said. “I think that’s a problem at the federal level, but I think it’s also a problem at the state level.”

Pauken has occasionally been a force for good, and he’s occasionally been a force for bad, which nevertheless gives him a higher batting average than either of the two main as-yet-unannounced contenders. What he’s saying here sounds altogether too reasonable to have any traction with the seething masses of the GOP primary electorate. I’m really hard-pressed to imagine a scenario in which he comes out on top of either Perry or Abbott. I have no idea why he thinks he can win – maybe he’s rooting for Perry to step away and Abbott to stay put. Who knows? Anyway, good luck, and watch out for the Pauken-mentum.

It’s drug testing all the way down

Looks like the urinalysis industry in this state is going to get a big stimulus package next year, at least if the Republicans get their way.

As top state leaders push to drug-test some Texans seeking jobless benefits and financial assistance, critics suggest the initiative would single out the powerless and hurt their children.

It’s a battle that has been played out in other states – most prominently in Florida, where a drug-testing program for welfare applicants was stalled by a constitutional challenge saying it amounted to an unreasonable search.

Backers of Texas’ proposal cite its narrow scope, since a leading bill targeting welfare recipients would limit testing to applicants deemed high-risk for drug use. Those who failed the test and lost benefits could reapply in a year or, if they underwent drug treatment, six months.

“The reality is, no one wants to see any Texan using drugs,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. But he’s a critic of the proposal, contending the poor and jobless are being singled out “because of politics, and not because of reasonable, rational policy.”

“Whether you are receiving governmental assistance on welfare, whether you are a student receiving a Texas grant, whether you are an executive, a CEO, that’s up here asking for money from the Enterprise Fund – I don’t want to see anybody using drugs inappropriately. Now the question for me is why are we singling out this population?” he asked.

I think we all know the answer to that question. This is a no-brainer for Rick Perry et al – it plays well to the cheap seats, it sounds like something that would save money, and who’s going to stand against them on behalf of drug users? You can’t ask for much more than that.

Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director for the National Employment Law Project, said federal legislation allows testing only for claimants terminated from their most recent employment due to unlawful use of controlled substances, or those for whom suitable work is only available in an occupation that regularly drug tests.

The U.S. Department of Labor is developing regulations to allow states to implement these provisions. It appears the first would be a tough one in Texas, which restricts benefits to those who have lost a job through no fault of their own.

Andy Hogue, spokesman for Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken, who supports such drug testing, said it’s estimated the cost of testing for jobless applications would be about $12.1 million over five years. He said it’s projected the stricter requirements would save the Unemployment Insurance program in Texas $20.7 million in that period.

I seriously doubt we’ll see the kind of savings that Andy Hogue projects. I admit I have no evidence to back up this assertion, I just have no reason to trust such a self-serving projection. If this gets passed by the Lege and doesn’t get blocked by the courts, I’ll be very interested to see how that projection pans out. Bear in mind, of course, that four million bucks a year is chump change in an $80 billion budget – it’s not much more than Rick Perry spends on travel and security. Again, it’s all about priorities being out of whack.

Pauken on testing

Patricia Kilday Hart has a conversation with Texas Workforce Commission Chair Tom Pauken about testing and accountability in public schools.

Tom Pauken

As a Texas Workforce Commissioner, Pauken has spent a lot of time studying whether our public school system prepares an educated workforce.

His conclusion? The focus on college-prep and testing has, well, “left behind” kids who would be better served earning an industrial certificate that would snag them a good job with a middle-class income.

Right now, “Help Wanted” signs across Texas beg for trained workers in welding, machinist, electrical or commercial trucking fields. But our college-centered school system – measured incessantly by tests – isn’t producing an adequate pool of applicants.

“I don’t think this teaching to the test benefits anyone,” said Pauken. “It is taking away from learning.”

Does every student need to be college ready? “We need multiple pathways to high school education,” he said. One pathway would be getting ready for college; another would be “career-oriented, with an emphasis on an industrial credential.”

Students who aren’t inclined to pursue college simply give up and drop out of school, Pauken says.

“It’s self-defeating. There are blue-collar jobs out there,” said Pauken. And more to come soon: “The average age of a welder is 50. This is a huge opportunity for young people, and it pays well.”

Pauken hopes to persuade the Texas Legislature to make sweeping changes to our education system when it meets in January – beginning with the acknowledgement that some students are not well-served by a strictly college-prep curriculum.

I agree with what Pauken says about the need for more vocational education, a subject he discusses at greater length in this Statesman editorial. I daresay most people would agree with that, and with the idea that there ought to be more than one pathway to educational success. I’ve interviewed a lot of candidates for various offices and asked them questions about public education and college readiness and standardized testing, and I’ve yet to hear one say that we need less vocational education. If Pauken has a strategy to achieve his stated goals then more power to him. I’m wondering what his plan is to overcome accountability absolutists like Bill Hammon and TAB, as they are unlikely to back off their no-retreat-on-testing stance. I wish Hart had explored that in her column, since it is potentially a critical story line for the 2013 Lege, but I suppose we’ll hear plenty about it before all is said and done. EoW has more.

TAB takes a hostage

Can’t say I’m surprised by this tactic.

Leaders in the business community said Wednesday that they would not stand for increased funding for education if it came with any rollback of accountability standards in Texas public schools.

“If we are going to remain competitive in the world’s market, we are going to have to have an educated workforce. We do not have one today,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “We will vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system unless and until we are certain that the current accountability system is going to be maintained.”

The Capitol news conference, held by the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, comes as the standardized testing that is the backbone of the state accountability system is facing considerable backlash from parents, educators and lawmakers.

[…]

Wednesday, members of the workforce coalition — which includes groups influential in the Legislature like the Texas Association of Business, Texas Institute for Education Reform, Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Business Leadership Council (formerly the Governor’s Business Council) — made clear they would not support any kind of tweaks to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. An attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler to do just that during the last legislative session failed with the opposition of the business community.

“Before this landmark piece of legislation, HB3, is even fully implemented, we have people who want to roll it back and go back to fight the old wars about teaching to the test and all these other myths that are out there,” said Jim Windham, chairman of Texas Institute for Education Reform.

They argued that the existing system is the only way to ensure taxpayers know their money is being well spent.

“STAAR testing is an excellent step towards ensuring that the state’s education dollars are being directed into the classroom so that college- and workforce-ready students emerge from Texas public schools,” said James Golsan, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

To be blunt, these guys are full of it. The TPPF thinks we spend too much on education to begin with, and TAB is about as likely to support any measure that would actually increase revenue for education as Rick Perry is. Saying they’ll oppose an increase in funding for public education unless their demands are met is like Willie Sutton saying he’ll oppose the hiring of more police officers unless those pesky bank robbery laws get repealed.

On a more general note, I don’t understand the single-minded focus on the STAAR tests. Everyone wants accountability, and everyone wants students to graduate having received a good, comprehensive, useful education, but why in the world must we believe that STAAR tests are the only way to achieve that? I agree with this:

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer whose daughter will be a sophomore at Anderson High School next fall, said she was offended by the insinuation that parents are being led around by superintendents.

“We are smart enough to see what that system is and is not doing and we can perfectly understand on our own that it is a badly flawed system that needs to be fixed,” said Majcher, who listened to the news conference at the Texas Capitol.

“I think it is inappropriate to hold public funding hostage to repairing the problems that we all know exist with the current testing system,” said Majcher, who is part of a new parent group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. “The testing system is badly implemented, badly flawed, there are a lot of groups, a lot of parents who are working very hard to make positive corrections to that. I would not call that rolling it back. I think when we see a mistake, we make a course correction.”

Exactly. We’ve been pushing various accountability measures for 20 years in Texas. Some have worked well, others not so much, but it’s been an ongoing experiment, with tweaks, adjustments, and changes of direction as needed. To believe that the STAAR and only the STAAR can achieve the goals these guys says they want is myopic and suggests they care more about the process than the result. Turns out, even some prominent Republicans see it that way, too.

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken said Thursday that the state’s current public education accountability system is “broken and badly in need of fixing.”

During testimony at a hearing of the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development on career and technology education, the former state GOP chairman expressed his disagreement with a coalition of business leaders and a conservative think tank that announced Wednesday it would oppose any additional funding to public education if there were any rollback of existing accountability standards.

Pauken, who along with two other commissioners oversees the development of the state’s workforce, said he was surprised that the coalition claimed to speak for the business community and conservatives as it defended the existing testing system.

He said he had found widespread agreement among business leaders, teachers, school district officials and community college representatives he had spoken to around the state that “teaching to the test is one of the real reasons that we have a significant skill trade shortage.”

Pauken said he spoke as both a businessman and a conservative when he criticized the position taken by the coalition.

“The current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students — rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test,” Pauken said, adding that a consequence of the system was that “‘real learning’ has been replaced by ‘test learning.’”

Hammond and his buddies are speaking in their own interest, not those of schools, students, or parents. We should not take their little tantrum seriously.

Job growth was good last year

More hopeful news for this year.

Jobs and job growth for the region (Source: Greater Houston Parnership)

Boosted by gains in energy, manufacturing and retail trade, the Houston area added 75,800 jobs during 2011, a 3 percent increase over the previous year, the Texas Workforce Commission reported Friday.

“The numbers are impressive,” said Barton Smith, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston.

Improvement appeared to begin at the end of the summer and has been broadening over a greater number of sectors.

“The improvement in energy is now spilling over to the rest of the economy,” Smith said.

You may be looking at that 75,800 figure and saying to yourself “Didn’t we just see some better numbers than that for 2011? What gives?” You’re right, we did. The difference is that the numbers reported in that earlier post were for the November 2010 to November 2011 period, while these here are December 2010 to December 2011. What accounts for the difference? Barton Smith suggests the November ’11 numbers were a bit wonky. Here’s another explanation:

Last year the Austin area — and Texas as a whole — showed modest job growth at an annual rate of about 2 percent. Texas added 204,500 jobs last year, while the Austin area added 16,100 jobs over the year .

However, the rate of net job growth was negligible for December and well below the annual rates for Texas and the Austin area.

Alan Miller, executive director of the regional arm for the state workforce commission, said he doubts the survey is capturing Austin’s growth accurately.

“Personally, I think our local economy is growing and adding more jobs than what is reflected,” he said.

For example, he said there have been numerous news reports of software firms expanding or relocating here, but the workforce commission’s report reflects zero job growth in the information sector.

“I can’t explain that,” Miller said.

The data are based on a survey of employers and are updated monthly as well annually. For that reason, the monthly data indicate directions for the economy, but economists tend to favor the annual, corrected numbers.

In other words, it’s also quite likely that the December ’11 numbers are not accurate, and will be significantly revised when the next report comes out in March. So don’t panic.

“If it slowed down, it slowed down from a 100-yard dash to a mile run,” added Patrick Jankowski, vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership. “Maybe we’re finding the pace we can sustain over the long run.”

Jankowski also noted that local job growth in 2011 was the sixth strongest of the past 21 years. Houston saw year-over-year growth in all but four sectors: transportation, warehousing and utilities; information (which includes media); arts, entertainment and recreation; and government.

Austin saw government employment shrinkage as well. Unlike some people, I expect more of that this year, though I fervently hope not as much as there was last year. The Trib has more.

How’s that Texas miracle going?

Not so good.

The Texas unemployment rate reached 8.5 percent in August, its highest rate since June of 1987.

That’s an increase from 8.4 percent in July.

Those numbers come from the U.S. Department of Labor. The numbers were confirmed by the Texas Workforce Commission, which says the state lost 1,300 jobs in August. Texas gained 8,100 private-sector jobs, but those jobs were wiped out by job losses in the public sector.

For the year, Texas has added 272,000 jobs in the private sector but lost 19,000 government jobs. In August alone, the state lost 11,500 jobs in local government, for a net loss of 9,400 government jobs.

The Texas unemployment rate ranks 27th, tied with Colorado.

Gov. Rick Perry is trying to make the Texas jobs record the centerpiece of his campaign.

Indeed. Maybe cutting billions of dollars from the budget and laying off thousands of government workers wasn’t the best way to add jobs and grow the economy. I’m just saying. Apparently, the Perry response to this is to blame the President for the loss of local and state government jobs. Funny, I thought Republicans used to call that sort of thing “shrinking government”, and liked taking credit for it. One more thing to add to the list of things they used to support but now oppose, I guess.

On Texas’ government jobs

Since I had previously complained about a lack of acknowledgement by Texas writers about the role that growth in the public sector has played in the so-called “Texas Miracle”, I want to give credit where it is due.

In the Texas that Perry has presided over as governor since December 2000, the job-creation record is more complicated — and more tied to government.

During Perry’s tenure, the combined number of federal, state and local government jobs in Texas has grown by 18.3 percent vs. a 10 percent increase in private-sector jobs.

One of every four jobs created in Texas since Perry became the state’s chief executive is in the government sector, figures from the Texas Workforce Commission show.

Since the U.S. recession officially ended in June 2009, Texas has added almost 297,000 private-sector jobs, a 3.5 percent increase. Government has added about 31,000, a 1.7 percent clip.

“Strong job creation over this period is the result of a thriving private sector and an increase in government workers. … We cannot ignore the fact that the government sector has added as many workers as mining over this time, with the U.S. Department of Defense alone adding nearly 5,000 jobs in Texas through military base consolidation,” said Jason Frederick, senior economist with bank BBVA Compass.

The mining sector includes the energy industry.

There are some helpful charts in the story to illustrate these points; if you do the math, the government sector was responsible for 26.5% of all jobs created during Perry’s tenure, which is slightly more than one in four. I hadn’t even considered the number of military jobs in the equation, since that’s not particularly visible here in Houston. I presume the post-recession figures are net growth, which would take into account all of the layoffs that local and state government have made since then, with more to come as the budget for the next biennium kicks in this week. Don’t expect our highest-since-the-80s unemployment rate to drop much in the near future.

Texas’ unemployment rate spikes

Texas unemployment rate hits its highest mark since 1987. That’s probably not the kind of headline Rick Perry wants to read right now.

As Gov. Rick Perry touts job creation and limited government on the campaign trail, the Texas’ unemployment rate tied a 1987 record in July and the Austin-area took the brunt of the state’s job losses in the public sector.

The Texas Workforce Commission on Friday termed the employment results “mixed” because the state added 29,300 jobs but the seasonally adjusted jobless rate increased from 8.2 percent in June to 8.4 percent last month.

Having the state tie a 24-year high for unemployment rate could be coming at just the wrong time for Perry. Perry has long called Texas a national jobs-creation leader in a country besieged by unemployment. He traveled through Iowa this week on a bus with “get America working again” painted on the side.

The latest unemployment numbers could weaken that message. The rate hasn’t been this high since the mid-1980s oil bust. And even though Texas has received numerous accolades for creating more jobs in recent years than any other state, 26 states had a lower unemployment rate in July.

In other words, Texas’ unemployment rate is slightly worse than the median, and is now only 0.7 points better than the national rate. What a miracle!

There’s more from the Chron and the Trib. I have often complained in this space about how a writer from some national media outlet will do a story about Texas that gets things fundamentally wrong, but so far it’s a non-Texan who has made a critical point about these figures that has been unmentioned by the locals. As Jared Bernstein has pointed out, an awful lot of Texas’ job growth in recent years has come from the govern sector. As quite a few of those jobs were in public education, the stimulus played a large role as well. We are of course now seeing many of these jobs get lost, thanks for the most part to the state’s budget cuts. Growth elsewhere is thankfully enough to offset that, and since many school districts had been prepared for even worse cuts than what they ultimately got, fewer education jobs than originally anticipated will be lost. The point is that Texas’ job picture is much better than it otherwise would have been in the past thanks to government hiring, and it will not be as good as it could be in the future thanks to government firings. You can’t talk about Rick Perry and jobs without talking about that if you want to tell the whole story.

Non-robust job numbers in Texas

As goes the country, so goes the state.

The Houston area is showing signs of a slowdown after coming off some fairly strong job gains during the winter months.

“It’s very consistent with the national pattern,” said Barton Smith, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, who pointed to the data released Friday by the Texas Workforce Commission that showed Houston area employers added just 45,000 jobs during the past 12 months, a gain of 1.8 percent.

Since January, when area employers put on 56,600 jobs, a 2.3 percent gain, they have been easing back on their hiring.

The slowdown is relatively modest, Smith said. But it’s becoming increasingly clear hiring isn’t as robust as it was just a few months ago.

There’s another factor in play as well.

Austin-area employers added 13,700 jobs in the 12 months that ended in May, a 1.8 percent annual gain, the Texas Workforce Commission reported Friday.

But the region’s largest job sector, government — which includes local school districts and higher education — lost 600 jobs, a 0.3 percent decline. That was the first sign of local and state budget cuts that are expected to grow over the summer, as the full impact of teacher and state agency layoffs is felt.

That sector accounts for 22 percent of the 785,300 jobs in Central Texas.

The cutbacks were even deeper in other large Texas cities.

The Dallas area lost 3,200 government jobs last month, a 1.2 percent drop. Houston was down 7,300 jobs, or 1.9 percent, and San Antonio was down 2,400 jobs, or 1.4 percent.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Remember, the Legislative Budget Board forecast large numbers of jobs lost as a result of the penurious spending cuts. That was based on the initial House budget, which was a lot harsher than what is now in the pipeline, but it’s still going to result in a lot of layoffs. Maybe as Rick Perry continues his Ego Across America tour, someone in the national media should ask him about that.

The Lege’s job killing budget

Do you think this is what all those people who came out to vote last November had in mind?

The Legislative Budget Board, a nonpartisan state agency that helps lawmakers with budget numbers, predicts that House version of the 2012-2013 state budget would result in 272,000 fewer jobs in Texas the first year and 335,000 fewer in 2013.

The projected loss includes eliminating 117,000 private sector jobs in 2012 and 146,000 in 2013. An amendment to the House rules by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, directed the LBB, which is overseen by the House speaker, lieutenant governor and other state leaders, to produce the Dynamic Economic Impact Statement.

“The voters did not elect us to eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. We have to be smarter than this,” Villareal said. “We can’t grow the Texas economy with a budget that destroys jobs, hurts neighborhood schools and makes college more expensive.”

Villarreal has more here. The report doesn’t say directly that this many jobs will be lost, just that Texas will have this many fewer jobs than it would have under a baseline budget scenario. If you have a basic understanding of economics, there’s nothing surprising about this. Cutting government spending is taking money out of the economy. Firing government workers adds to unemployment. Any other conclusion by the LBB would have been shocking. What I expect to happen, if the Republicans are forced to acknowledge this report, is that they will begin attacking the LBB in much the same way that Congressional Republicans have attacked the CBO when it tells them something they don’t want to hear. So far, it’s mostly just whining, as seen in this Statesman story, but give it time. And pay heed to what this guy says:

The projections do not come as a surprise to Bernard Weinstein, an economist at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

Weinstein said he had not examined the analysis but that it appeared to be “a government agency in the state of Texas saying, ‘Before you start slashing right and left, remember there are going to be consequences.'”

Weinstein said it was obvious that proposed budget cuts would have an effect on the state’s job market.

“Jobs creation results from spending by both the private sector and the public sector. So now you have what economists call the negative multiplier,” Weinstein said. “By cutting the budget here and cutting the budget there, there will be at least for some time a negative economic impact on income, employment and tax revenue. By cutting state spending, you are cutting state revenues, because the recipients of that spending will not be paying taxes on that.”

Weinstein said the effect is illustrated by the possibility of thousands of teachers being laid off statewide as part of the budget crunch.

“Where are they going to find employment quickly?” he said. “The answer is: nowhere.”

All I can say is that I’m glad to see some kind of counterweight to the overly optimistic forecasts of job growth in Texas. I think we have tougher times ahead than a lot of people expect. If I’m right about that, who do you suppose will get blamed for it this time? Burka, Postcards, Texas Politics, and the CPPP have more, and see also this article in The Economist for a broader view of Texas’ economic situation.

What about the jobs?

With all of the public sector job cuts coming, will the private sector pick up the slack? This Statesman story paints a picture that I think is a tad bit too optimistic.

Government employment, which includes local school districts and higher education, made up 22 percent of total nonagricultural jobs in the Austin area in 2010, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

In the past five years, government employment has grown by 14 percent, helping offset losses in other areas such as manufacturing, which fell by 17 percent in the same period.

As the state capital, Austin has always had “this terrific stabilizing factor” of public sector employment, said Jon Hockenyos, president of TXP Inc., a consulting firm specializing in economic analysis and public policy.

But Texas’ projected state revenue shortfall of as much as $23 billion means deep cuts in public sector jobs.

Local school districts already are preparing to cut positions, including more than 1,000 in the Austin district, hundreds more in Round Rock and more than 140 in the Georgetown district.

The Texas Education Agency already has eliminated more than 100 jobs, and other agencies also have trimmed positions.

The University of Texas, one of the region’s largest employers, also has cut jobs.

Those losses mean that private-sector employers will have to pick up the slack to keep the area’s economy going.

It’s a tall order: Central Texas had 770,500 jobs in 2010, 1.5 percent more than in 2009. But the region still is short of its peak of 775,800 jobs in 2008.

And the unemployment rate hovered around 7 percent all of last year.

Last year, preliminary estimates from the Texas Workforce Commission indicated a higher job growth rate. The revised figures — part of the commission’s annual process, using more specific data — surprised some economists but didn’t alter their overall assessment of the Austin economy.

The story is filled with mostly anecdotal evidence of growth in small businesses. Which I’m sure is happening, and which I hope is going to exceed everyone’s expectations. But this story focuses exclusively on the Central Texas region, which will have a lot more of those opportunities than, say, rural areas, where job losses in school districts are unlikely to be offset. It also doesn’t take into account losses in county and municipal employment, which will surely add a lot more to the total. It’s for all those reasons that I thought the initial projections of job growth by the TWC were too blue-sky. I’d love to be wrong about this, but I’m still feeling pretty bearish overall.

You got a license for that downward dog?

How much regulation do yoga teachers need?

In the past few years, the Texas Workforce Commission has begun sending letters to programs that train yoga instructors, advising them they must get certified to operate as a career school or college, or request an exemption. Career schools and colleges are regulated under the state’s education code.

Certification costs $1,000 to $3,000, and schools that don’t comply can be closed or penalized $1,000 a day. Exemptions are allowed for training programs that cost less than $500, last fewer than 24 hours or are designed to teach recreational or avocational subjects.

The amount of training required to become a yoga teacher varies, but the Yoga Alliance , a national education and support organization, has 200-hour or 500-hour standards for teachers. Training generally costs at least $3,000.

Jennifer Buergermeister, who owns two yoga studios in Houston and is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Texas Yoga Association , lobbied state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, to introduce a bill that would exclude from regulation yoga teacher training programs because they don’t meet the state’s definition of a career school or college — institutions that offer postsecondary instruction that leads to a professional academic career or vocational degree.

That change in language through House Bills 1839 and 2167 , now in committee, would exclude schools that train instructors of yoga, Pilates, karate and other recreational activities from the definition if they do not lead to an educational credential.

[…]

Murphy said his bill is more about limited government than yoga specifically. Training programs that don’t require a high school degree or lead to certification shouldn’t be regulated by the state, he said.

“If you’re going to be a barber, I want those schools licensed or inspected. But if you’re just doing something for gardeners about how to grow vegetables, you don’t need to be regulated. It’s a hobby versus a career,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think (regulation) produces any better of a product.”

Here are HB1839 and HB2167. I disagree with Rep. Murphy’s last sentence, but I do agree with the general sentiment about regulating careers versus hobbies. And I’d actually go a little farther than Rep. Murphy and suggest that some of the licensing requirements we have for certain careers serve not as guardians of public safety but as barriers to entry, and they ought to be reviewed for efficiency and effectiveness. Licensing overreach is a topic that Matthew Yglesias often writes about, and I think he makes some good points. I’d call these bills a step in the right direction.

Happy talk about Texas employment

2010 was a better year for employment in Texas than 2009 was.

Texas employers expanded payrolls by 20,000 jobs in December, the third straight month the state has gained jobs, according to data released Friday by the Texas Workforce Commission.

The state gained in most major employment sectors, led by construction, with 8,700 jobs.

“It’s a very positive picture on job growth,” said Mine Yucel, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The state unemployment rate edged up to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent in November and 8.1 percent in October. But even that may be a sign of recovery, Yucel said.

To be counted as unemployed, a person without a job must be seeking work. As employers add jobs, some people who had given up looking for work are apt to start trying to find a job again.

“It means people are seeing more jobs out there, and they’re coming back into the labor market,” Yucel said, referring to the rise in the unemployment rate. “As the economy grows, we expect that rate to come down.”

[…]

During 2010 as a whole, Texas payrolls expanded by 230,800 jobs after shrinking by more than 350,000 in 2009.

[…]

“The monthly growth was strong in December, and the year-over-year growth is representative of a solid overall recovery in the Texas job market,” said Waco economist Ray Perryman.

That’s good, and I’m delighted for everyone who found a job this past year. But I wonder, is all this optimism truly warranted at a time when the Legislature is working on a budget outline that might result in 100,000 teacher layoffs, which would be on top of county and city layoffs? Sure, maybe these things won’t happen – maybe the Lege will come to its senses and use the Rainy Day Fund to blunt some of the impact of the shortfall, thus limiting teacher firings to the 10,000 range or so – but how can you not even discuss the possibility when assessing the outlook for 2011? That just doesn’t seem right to me

How to really put the unemployed to work

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken has the germ of a good idea here. Unfortunately, he’s incapable of seeing what it is, and so goes off a cliff with it.

“Even in good economic times, there were people in Texas who saw the unemployment system as simply another entitlement program, which it’s not,” Pauken, who served in the Reagan administration, told me. “Obviously there are a tremendous number of people — they’ve lost their job through no fault of their own. They’re doing everything they can to try to find work. How do you distinguish between those who are really out trying to find work and those who simply want to draw an unemployment check as long as they can?”

Pauken suggests setting a wage of, say, $10 an hour and having people who get extended federal benefits work enough hours to cover their unemployment payment — “rather than it continue to be a drain on the taxpayer dollars.”

The appointee of GOP Gov.Rick Perry said this would weed out people “who may be gaming the system,” provide a worthwhile task for those trying their best and possibly open job opportunities.

[…]

Pauken “has it all wrong — hard-working Texans should not be required to take a low-paying job that has no relationship to their skills and background using their limited unemployment benefits to subsidize their wages,” saidMaurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project. “Unemployment benefits were created as an insurance program to help people get back on their feet, not to add insult to injury by blaming workers and their families for the devastating economic mess we’re in thanks to Wall Street.”

The Texas AFL-CIO’sRick Levy called the idea “a perversion of the unemployment system … Really what he’s proposing is a public jobs program, but instead of paying people a living wage, we would make them work for their unemployment benefits.

“In many ways, it’s an insult to working families that are doing everything they can to scrape by right now,” Levy said. “Basically, it would be putting people to work but eliminating things like minimum-wage and safety and health protections that only attach if you’re part of the workforce.”

To address Pauken’s points, there are people who believe that fluoridation of the water supply is a Communist plot to brainwash the American public. We’re not required to take that viewpoint seriously, and we’re under no compunction to do the same with those who think that unemployment insurance is a scam for lazy people, either. I’m sure there are a few folks gaming the system out there, working hard to get a meager one-third of their former salary instead of finding a job that might pay a real wage, just as there are those who commit other kinds of fraud. The marginal benefit we’d likely get from trying to root them out in this fashion is minimal, especially when weighed against the indignity and inconvenience of those who are working diligently to find employment while receiving this insurance. Putting the insult aside, what’s the point? Pauken doesn’t even suggest a pulled-from-his-ear figure of how much his silly idea might save if it were to be implemented, which is a sure sign of its half-baked-ness.

Having said that, I’m all in favor of a program to get unemployed people back to work, which we clearly need. It’s called another federal stimulus package, this one containing enough money for cities and states to eliminate the many large anti-stimulus packages that have greatly harmed the economic recovery. There’s still a gazillion infrastructure projects that can and should go forward, not to mention a lot of beach cleanup – I like the idea of making BP put up a couple billion dollars to pay for workers to clean the beaches – and of course we’ll need a lot of job skills retraining for folks who’ve been unemployed long term. That’d do the trick a lot more effectively than what Pauken proposes, and it would be a long-term winner for the federal deficit as well as all those underfunded states. You want people working, Tom, there’s your answer.

(A little bit of) job growth returns to Houston

It’s a start.

From small hand-lettered signs on shop windows to Fortune 500 heavyweights hosting job fairs, Houston companies are once again starting to look for workers.

The influx of new jobs helped push the Houston area’s unemployment rate down slightly to 8.4 percent in April, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. The local jobless rate, which is not adjusted for seasonal variations, was 8.5  percent in March.

The commission also reported that Houston-area employers added 2,700 new jobs during April.

“It continues to look like we’re plowing ahead with steady, moderate growth,” said Barton Smith, director of the University of Houston’s Institute for Regional Forecasting.

Since Houston hit bottom in September, the area has been adding about 1,900 jobs a month, said Smith, who seasonally adjusts the monthly Texas Workforce Commission data. If that pace continues, Houston would be on track to add about 23,000 jobs over the course of a year, an increase slightly under 1 percent.

That’s not a lot for Houston, which is used to much more robust job creation, Smith said.

“But at least it’s growth,” he said. And it seems to be accelerating, he added.

There’s some context missing here. What do “robust job creation” numbers for Houston look like? How many jobs per month need to be created just to keep up with population growth? It would be nice to know these things, but they are not in the story. It’s also the case that new unemployment filings were up a bit – as Dr. Smith notes, there’s some churn as certain sectors seek to add employees while others are still shedding payroll. But at least the graph is pointing up again, and that’s something. If we can get something similar from property values, next year will be a lot better, or at least a lot less bad, than this year was. Keep your fingers crossed.

Just a reminder about Perry’s unemployment tax increase

Lisa Falkenberg watches some video of Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Larry Temple testifying before the Senate and reiterates something we knew.

Temple acknowledged Thursday to the Senate Committee on Economic Development that Texas’ decision not to take $556 million in unemployment stimulus dollars directly led to higher taxes for business owners and more borrowing from the federal government to replenish the state’s broke unemployment trust fund.

As you’ll recall, Gov. Rick Perry refused to accept a half a billion in federal unemployment stimulus dollars, saying there were too many strings attached, even though he knew the state’s unemployment fund was projected to go broke within months.

Temple testified Thursday that the commission has had to double the tax rate for businesses in order to replenish the unemployment fund. And he conceded under intense questioning from [State Sen. Kevin] Eltife that the hike wouldn’t have been as high if we’d taken the half a billion.

Earlier this week, Commission Chairman Tom Pauken notified lawmakers that the agency may have to issue $2 billion in bonds to feed the unemployment fund as time runs out on the state’s no-interest borrowing from the feds.

And for some businesses, the tax rate nearly tripled. You really need to see the video to get the full effect of Sen. Eltife’s questioning. Eye on Williamson has the key five-minute clip, which I’ve embedded here:

Sen. Eltife did his best to steer away from the politics of this, but we all know whose idea it was to turn down the unemployment insurance money. Rick Perry’s decision to do so was harmful to people who had lost their jobs and is now adversely affecting business owners. We knew this would happen, but he didn’t care.

Unemployment taxes triple

Here comes the Rick Perry unemployment tax increase that we’ve been waiting for.

Nearly two-thirds of Texas businesses will see the unemployment taxes they pay per employee per year nearly triple – from $23.40 to $64.80 – under rates announced today by the Texas Workforce Commission.

The minimum tax is paid by nearly 255,000 employers, or 67 percent of those who have been in business for at least a year, according to the commission.

[…]

The tax rate is being increased to repay federal loans and ensure the fund has enough money to pay claims in the coming year.

The rate is based on $9,000 in taxable wages. The minimum rate is going from 0.26 percent to 0.72 percent.

The maximum rate — generally paid by companies if they have had more employees who were laid off and got benefits — is going from 6.26 percent to 8.6 percent, or from $563.40 per employee to $774.

Schweet. Just remember, while the bulk of the fuss over this will be concerning the $555 million in unemployment insurance that Perry refused, he also contributed to this problem by suspending the collection of this tax back when it was more affordable for businesses to pay it. Because of that, they get the increased burden now when times are hard. Of course, that’s the way Bill Hammond of the TAB says they say they like it, which should stand as evidence why business lobbyists make lousy economists. Be that as it may, if you’re an employer, when you sit down to write that bigger check to the state, remember to thank Governor Perry for the privilege of paying it.

Here comes the unemployment tax increase

Here comes that unemployment insurance tax hike we’ve all been waiting for.

Under state law, the state’s unemployment trust fund is supposed to stand at 1 percent of taxable wages, or about $860 million. The fund has been depleted in the wake of high jobless claims.

As a result, employers will have to pay more to restore the fund to its mandated level, although the commission tried to cushion the blow by spreading the deficit assessment over several years.

Unemployment tax collections still are estimated to rise to $2.3 billion next year; $2.68 billion in 2011; $2.72 billion in 2012, according to commission spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt. Specific rates for employers were not available Tuesday. How much each employer pays varies, largely based on claims against an employer’s account.

Given the speculation that the Commission was going to push the pain as far back as it could, which is to say after the 2010 elections, I commend them for being realistic about the hole we’re in. The story notes for the umpteenth time the unemployment insurance stimulus funds which Governor Perry refused to take and which surely would have made that hole a lot less deep, not to mention the pain of unemployment a lot less stinging for many Texans, but it wasn’t the only thing he did to exacerbate this situation. His suspension of the tax back when times were good but the ditch was visible on the horizon still ranks as one of the dumbest things he’s done as Governor, and that’s not a short list.

“We haven’t been good squirrels. We haven’t put away nuts for the wintertime,” [Texas AFL-CIO Legal Director Rick] Levy said. “In fact, we deplete our fund so that when wintertime comes, not only is there not anything there, but we have to start charging extra. It’s just a backwards way of doing it.”

[Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, and] a past chairman of the commission, disagreed. “It’s my view, and the view of the employers, that it’s better to collect as little tax as needed,” Hammond said.

“Stockpiling the money in Austin, Texas is not a good strategy. We’d rather have the money out and working, creating jobs during the good times.”

Well, if that’s really what you want, then this is what you’ll get in the bad times. Hope you appreciate it.

Playing politics: Not just for the Forensic Science commission

Hey, you know that two billion dollars of federal funds we need to borrow to shore up the unemployment insurance trust fund? I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that Rick Perry’s appointees on the Texas Workforce Commission are thinking about delaying the inevitable tax hike to pay for all that until after the 2010 elections.

A plan to delay the worst of tax increases until 2012 is circulating at the Texas Workforce Commission, which is expected to set next year’s rates on Nov. 3.

Commissioners face an unappealing choice: Hammer businesses next year or spread the pain out over several years. Some experts say that while it’s understandable the commission would want to defer pain as long as possible, a blow that comes just as the recession wanes could crimp job creation in the state.

“It’s a big gamble in many ways,” said Don E. Baylor Jr., senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans. “We’re basically saying, ‘Hey, we’ll get out of this the same way we got out of it the last time, which was just gangbuster economic growth.’ And I don’t think anyone’s forecasting that.”

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, the state’s largest business organization, also expressed caution.

If commissioners try to postpone heavy tax increases for two or more years, “they might be overdoing it a little bit,” said Hammond, a former Dallas state representative who was the commission’s chairman under Gov. George W. Bush.

“Employers know that we’ve got to pay the piper” after a severe recession, he said.

When even Bill Hammond says that putting off a tax increase might not be such a hot idea, you know it’s a really risky idea.

No decision has been made, but commissioners could suspend for two years an assessment that makes up for shortfalls in the fund, which has been tapped out and living on federal loans since July.

They’d also issue $2 billion in bonds at the end of next year, to pay off the feds before any interest kicks in, triggering bond repayment taxes that could last until 2019.

Even with the extended delay of taxes, most employers would pay about 50 percent more next year than this year, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of historical tax yields and recent commission documents. This year, nearly 75 percent of Texas businesses paid $23.40 per worker into the fund.

If the commissioners don’t issue the bonds and don’t suspend a “deficit assessment,” then employers probably would be squeezed harder next year than they have been in 21 years. The tax paid by most employers could go up fourfold, and maybe even more than that, the newspaper’s analysis indicates.

[…]

Earlier this year, Perry and lawmakers rejected $556 million in federal stimulus money that would have eased the state fund’s shortfall. Perry said the money would have come with too many strings attached, such as liberalized treatment of people quitting their job to follow a spouse to a new location or unemployed workers seeking only part-time work.

Last year, Perry pushed the three workforce commissioners, who are his appointees, to suspend collection of part of the tax, saving employers $90 million. He also trumpeted $148 million of refunds to employers, required by law when the fund balance passes $1.7 billion.

This year, just over $1 billion was collected from employers, while the state’s on track to pay out some $3.5 billion.

Just so we’re all clear on who we can thank for this.

Always go to the source

If you find yourself in the position of needing to file for unemployment insurance from the state of Texas, be sure you go to the Texas Workforce Commission page to do it. Do not go anywhere else.

As if it’s not bad enough to lose a job, some people trying to apply for unemployment benefits with the state have instead mistakenly filed their personal information with privately run Web sites.

“What you’ve got is a private site that may be legal but is trying to get information from people so they can sell those lists to others for possible financial gain,” said Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken. “They are just taking advantage of the situation. There’s always somebody trying to figure out an angle.”

The state commission isn’t alleging any laws have been broken, he said, but people may be confused by official-looking private sites if they aren’t familiar with the system.

Just this week, the three-member commission decided to allow a woman to backdate her jobless claim after she initially provided information to a site called www.The UnemploymentAdvisor.com, and began an e-mail correspondence with it.

[…]

The Unemployment Advisor doesn’t appear to charge a fee to those who provide information; instead it offers advice on maximizing the chance of getting claims approved to those who provide their information.

The state agency said some businesses may try to charge a fee to file claims. Filing for benefits through the Texas Workforce Commission is free.

It’s not really clear what that site might be doing, since presumably it has a profit motive in mind. I suppose this woman and anyone like her will start to receive a lot of unwanted mail now.

Besides warning jobless Texans to be sure they file in the right place, Pauken said the commission is looking into contacting Google to see whether the search engine can help make sure this type of site “doesn’t bubble up to the top” in searches.

In a Web search Wednesday for “unemployment benefits,” www.TheUnemployment Advisor.com was the second site to pop up.

The first was for another private company.

The good news is that a Google search for unemployment benefits Texas, the TWC page came up first. When I searched simply for unemployment benefits, sites for other states filled the first result page, but atop them was a sponsored link to a private company that claimed to represent Texas and exhorted me to “Submit an Application online today. Visit our site. Get your benefits!” Be careful where you click, that’s all I can say.

You can pay me now, or you can pay me later

Odds are, we’ll opt for later to deal with the large deficit we’re facing with the unemployment insurance trust fund.

Texas’ jobless-benefits fund is empty, and the state will probably borrow $1.5 billion from the federal government to pay benefits through December, a state official said Tuesday.

But it’s unclear when Texas employers will have to pay a much higher tax to repay the loan and rebuild a required $863 million cushion in the unemployment compensation trust fund.

A second Texas Workforce Commission official and an outside expert said the brunt of expected higher taxes might not sock employers until 2011, after the worst of the recession passes and well past the March primary for Gov. Rick Perry.

A key driver of higher tax bills for employers – though not the only one – in the next few years will be a “deficit assessment” to restore the fund to fiscal health.

“The commission can use its discretion in minimizing the tax impact to Texas employers,” said Workforce Commission spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt.

[…]

Hatchitt said some time this fall, the state will decide whether to postpone a deficit assessment until 2011. Commissioners will probably decide at the same time their schedule for issuing bonds, possibly next year, she said. Bond proceeds — a figure of $2 billion has been widely mentioned — would repay funds Texas is borrowing from the federal government.

At Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the three-member commission, chairman Tom Pauken of Dallas pressed the agency’s chief financial officer, Randy Townsend, for an estimate of how much the state will borrow from the feds by Dec. 31. Townsend indicated it would be about $1.5 billion.

Texas won’t have to pay interest on the federal loans until January 2011.

Don Baylor Jr., an employment policy expert, said that if the commission postpones a deficit assessment until 2011, that will force more borrowing from the federal government next year, just to pay ongoing benefits to laid-off workers.

And in 2011, employers would pay not only a deficit assessment but also the first installment of a “bond obligation assessment” lasting several years, said Baylor, who works for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans.

It is reasonable to defer the cost of refilling the trust fund until after the economy recovers, which means that Governor Perry better hope that President Obama’s plans to get things back on track succeed. Of course, if Perry hadn’t so foolishly suspended collection of the replenishment tax back when times were still good, we’d be in less of a pickle now. And the longer we defer the pain, the more we’ll have to borrow in the interim, and the more we’ll have to pay back in the future. The next biennium’s budget is under enough stress already, and this will just add to that. But at least we’ll get to deal with it after the GOP gubernatorial primary. That’s what really matters, after all.

Two billion dollars

Governor Perry’s grandstanding rejection of the federal stimulus money for unemployment insurance is going to cost us all more and more.

Texas is preparing to borrow as much as $2-billion to pay for unemployment insurance benefits. That’s what the chairman for the Texas Workforce Commission told KERA in a recent interview. KERA’s Shelley Kofler reports employers who fund benefits can expect a tax increase, too.

The fund that pays unemployment benefits to Texans ran out of money this month. That forced the state to take out the first of several no-interest, federal loans that will total some $643 million- just to pay benefits through September. Then what? Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken says the state will borrow more. A lot more.

Pauken: We are looking at putting a bond in place probably next year in excess of a billion and we could look at a bond in the range of a billion and a half or $2 billion.

Kofler: The state of Texas may have to borrow $2 billion?

Pauken: Yeah, that could well be the case in terms of a bond over a seven-to-10 year period.

Pauken wants to stretch the repayment of $2 billion plus interest over at least seven years saying that might limit a huge spike in the tax rate employers pay to support the benefits fund. But for employers, Pauken says there’s no escape.

Pauken: Oh, they are going to have to pay more next year. They have had lower rates in recent years because the economy has been so good in Texas, but it is going to go higher next year.

Remember, business owners, you will have Governor Perry to thank for this. Now even if we had accepted the stimulus money for unemployment insurance, we’d still be short of what we need to handle the increase in claims. Of course, a big part of the reason for that was because the Texas Workforce Commission stopped collecting the replenishment tax for the unemployment insurance trust fund, which is now broke, back when times were better, because of course the good times always last forever. That was done at the behest of Governor Perry, as Sen. Watson helpfully reminds us. So pretty much every decision Perry has made regarding unemployment insurance has wound up costing businesses money. He’s claiming we may not have to borrow quite as much as $2 billion, but given his track record so far, why should anyone believe him? More here.

Watson on unemployment

State Sen. Kirk Watson reviews the bidding on how the state of Texas has handled its unemployment issues.

As was noted during this past legislative session by Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken (who was appointed by the Governor and once led the Texas Republican Party), unemployment assistance is not a welfare program. It exists to provide temporary help to Texans in tough, sometimes tragic, situations so they can find work without losing their homes, cars, or electricity. And it protects the economy as much as the people who need it.

The commission’s job is to figure out how much money the state needs for unemployment benefits, what to charge businesses that support the program, and how to prepare for things like economic recessions that send the state’s unemployment rate skyrocketing.

And as you may have noticed over the last few days, the commission isn’t doing any of those things very well.

He then provides a nice itemized list of the ways that the TWC and Governor Perry have screwed up or fallen short in this. The TWC has now taken emergency action to avoid needlessly cutting off some 15,000 people’s unemployment insurance. And hey, lookie here, some actual campaign-related activity from Camp KBH:

Rising unemployment in Texas has become an escalating issue in Perry’s re-election campaign. He says his policies have created jobs and helped insulate the state from the worst of the national recession, but on Monday, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s campaign called those assertions “political spin.”

“Maybe with all of the double talk coming out of the governor’s office, they haven’t had time to notice that our state has lost 266,300 jobs over the past year,” Hutchison spokesman Hans Klingler said.

Klingler used to be a spokesperson for the state GOP, so he knows his doubletalk. Hitting Perry on job losses is about as good a strategy as any I could think of. The question is in what way will you actually be different than him as Governor. Needless to say, I think Watson would make for a much sharper contrast than KBH would, assuming she ever gets around to trying.

More unemployed, fewer benefits

Boy, no one could have predicted this.

In a sign of lingering hardship, more than 15,000 Texans will lose their unemployment checks at the end of the month because they have exhausted their benefits after 59 weeks without a job.

They are among 82,000 Texans who are on their last allotment of unemployment benefits. Though they are eligible for a further extension funded by the federal government, it could take weeks or months to receive.

Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken has said people are staying unemployed longer as a woeful economy continues to affect people across the state.

During the week of July 4 this year, there were 22,115 initial claims, compared with 12,541 in the same time period a year earlier. Continued claims for that week totaled 298,821, up from 113,489 in the same time period in 2008.

Advocates for labor and for people with lower incomes are frustrated.

“People are literally in the lurch right now,” said Don Baylor of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for services for lower-income people. Baylor said he’s heard it could be well into the fall before the extra federal extension kicks in, adding, “That’s going to be really, really difficult for thousands of Texans who are losing their benefits.”

Some of these folks are going to lose their houses as a result of this, which needless to say isn’t going to make the overall economic picture any better.

[Texas Workforce Commission spokeswoman Ann] Hatchitt said Tuesday the state will need to borrow about $643 million from the federal government through Oct. 1, an increase of $150 million from the $493 million projected just last month.

Despite the tough times, Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday stood by his decision to oppose the state getting another $555 million in federal stimulus money that was contingent on it changing its jobless benefits to allow more people to qualify for payments.

Perry’s “principled” stand is going to cost the state and its businesses a lot of money, and that’s before we take into account the extra helpings of misery that the folks who could have benefited from the expansion of the program will endure. I don’t know what else there is to say that hasn’t already been said.

Well, okay there is one more thing.

Despite the loan, Gov. Perry defended his decision to those who questioned it.

“They are shortsighted and probably criticizing for a political reason rather than a legitimate financial reason,” Gov. Perry said.

Sure, because there was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING POLITICAL about the rejection of the unemployment stimulus funds in the first place. Why can’t Governor Perry’s critics understand that? He was just operating in Texas’ best interests, politics be damned!

From the “Things are tough all over” department

Texas trying to keep up with unemployment claims.

The rising number of jobless Texans has generated more claims than the Texas Workforce Commission can handle.

The commission has added hundreds of workers and phone lines to call centers to deal with soaring unemployment claims, but officials acknowledge that they can’t answer every call.

A commission spokeswoman, Ann Hatchitt, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram they were hiring and training folks as fast as they can.
Claimants are urged to file for claims on the commission’s Web site, http://www.twc.state.tx.us, which also has answers to commonly asked questions.

The percentage of claims filed online has risen from about 30 to 50.

The state’s unemployment rate jumped to 7.1 percent in May, from a revised 6.6 percent in April.

And yet somehow, a majority of Texans approve of Governor Perry’s shortsighted decision to reject stimulus funds for unemployment insurance, according to the Texas Lyceum. I don’t know if that’s good messaging on his part or just bad math skills on everyone else’s, but you have to admire his ability to frame the conversation. Which is about the only admirable thing about him that comes to my mind right now.