Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

March, 2004:

The return of the blocker bill

If we do in fact have a special session on school finance reform, the blocker bill and its 2/3 majority requirement for bringing a bill to the Senate floor for debate will be in effect, according to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Dewhurst said the Senate would require a two-thirds vote to debate all legislation. As presiding officer, he set that requirement aside during the highly charged partisan debate over redistricting last summer, prompting 11 Democratic senators to shut down Senate business by fleeing to New Mexico.

Some major education initiatives, including part of Perry’s property tax limitation plan, would require constitutional amendments and two-thirds votes in the House and the Senate regardless of the procedural change.

But a blanket two-thirds vote hurdle in the Senate would potentially give the Democratic minority more influence over changes in public school funding and legislation affecting teachers and classrooms. It could block any effort to allow tax dollars to be spent on private school vouchers, an idea that Perry and many Republican lawmakers support but most Democratic legislators oppose.

[…]

Dewhurst has been working privately with senators on revisions to a school finance plan approved unanimously by the Senate last year.

“It’s my intention to continue its use as long as our senators continue to come together and work for what’s best here in Texas,” he said of the two-thirds tradition.

Dewhurst, a Republican, drew a distinction between a special session on school finance — which Perry has said he will call if lawmakers can agree on a new funding plan — and last summer’s sessions on redistricting.

Redistricting is partisan and public education shouldn’t be, he said.

“The blocker bill and the resulting two-thirds tradition have historically been a legislative tool of the lieutenant governor. It historically has not been used in special sessions involving redistricting because redistricting is obviously not a bipartisan issue,” Dewhurst added, repeating his explanation for bypassing the tradition last summer.

(deep breath) I’m gonna let that one go. You all know my opinion on the subject.

Given that any major change would require a 2/3 vote of each chamber plus a statewide vote on a Constitutional amendment, this is a lesser thing than it appears in terms of legislative advantage, at least for this special session. I’d guess it’s more of a signal that Dewhurst the Good Cop will be back in the house after last year’s unpleasantness. It’s a smart move on his part, since now any grudge-carrying by the Dems can be characterized as bad manners on their part. And hey, who knows, maybe he’s actually sincere. Stranger things have happened.

A further signal that there may not be anything worth going to the mat over comes from State Rep. David Swinford (R, Dumas), who was there the last time we went through all this.

“Somebody needs to do something, and everybody knows it,” Swinford said. “But I’ve been meeting on the select committee in the House, and we had over 200 hours of testimony on this. To tell you I had a clear vision of where we’re going, I’d be lying.”

[…]

Swinford said he doesn’t foresee a massive overhaul of the tax and school finance systems. Instead, the likely outcome will be a series of bandages that will keep the system limping along.

“I don’t see the political will to trash this tax system,” Swinford said. “Instead, we’ll probably jick here and jack there and come up with 20 different things all wrapped together.”

One thing Swinford sees as a certainty is the impending demise of Robin Hood, the state’s effort to find equality between rich and poor districts.

You mean “this specific effort to find equality between rich and poor districts”. Unless the court ruling that led to Robin Hood in the first place is no longer operative, some form of fund transfer from rich districts to poor ones will take its place. Lasso, from whom I got the above link, says it thusly:

The courts have ruled (and will rule again and again) that all children must have a public education that is supported by substantially equal funding. The only way for this to happen is to have money transferred from rich places to poor.

It really doesn’t matter that the money is washed through the state. After all, if the property tax was collected by the state instead of the local districts and then redistributed you could SAY Robin Hood was dead. But the money would be taken from the same people and given to the same people as before. No difference.

And that’s the way it’s going to be. Changing to a sales tax won’t make a difference (or much of a difference). Rich districts will still subsidize the poor. As it should be. Robin Hood was a good guy, right?

Indeed.

DeLay supported TTM

Quelle surprise: Tom DeLay gave PAC money to Texans for True Mobility.

Two political action committees controlled by DeLay gave $30,000 to Texans for True Mobility, which spearheaded a high-dollar effort against Metro’s proposal to expand its light rail beyond the Main Street line.

DeLay’s donations came as Texans for True Mobility was scrambling to maintain an advertising campaign a day before the Nov. 4 referendum, which passed narrowly.

Campaign finance reports indicate that on Nov. 3, DeLay’s congressional campaign committee and his Americans for a Republican Majority each donated $15,000 to Texans for True Mobility.

Well, the good news is that since the referendum passed, that was all a waste of money for DeLay. In that sense, I wish he’d given more.

Metro board Chairman David Wolff said he does not believe DeLay’s contributions raise questions about his commitment to get money for Houston rail.

“I think that he has come a long way, and I look forward to working with him,” Wolff said. “He wanted there to be a referendum.

“He said he would respect the wishes of the voters. Now, they have spoken and I believe he will honor what they said. I have no reason to believe otherwise.”

You have way more faith than I do, but I guess you pretty much have to play nice. Talk to me again in a year and we’ll see how it goes.

Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerry Birnberg said he is not surprised that DeLay and Americans for a Republican Majority would spend money to defeat the rail referendum. “It looks like Congressman DeLay was fully committed to defeat rail,” he said.

But Birnberg said the disclosure of the contributions is further evidence that he and two other plaintiffs should move forward with a lawsuit they filed to force Texans for True Mobility to disclose the names of its donors.

The civil suit alleges that Texans for True Mobility broke the law when it concealed the identity of contributors who underwrote advertisements bashing Metro’s transit expansion plan. The lawsuit seeks damages of twice the amount of money the group collected.

The DeLay-related donations showed up in his PACs’ required financial disclosure documents, filed earlier this year.

“DeLay has ultimately had to disclose that he contributed to the anti-rail campaign, but that information is learned long after the election,” Birnberg said. “Who are the other people who contributed to that effort?”

Yep. I believe that above a certain amount – say, $250 or $500 – there should be no such thing as an anonymous political donation, and that all donations should be fully disclosed before whatever election it is that they’re being used for. Given that our idiot DA bought TTM’s baloney about it being an “educational” organization and thus exempt from normal campaign rules, I don’t expect to see this happen any time soon.

Undead lobsters!

Some things just defy embellishment.

Call it cryonics for crustaceans.

A Connecticut company says its frozen lobsters sometimes come back to life when thawed.

Trufresh began freezing lobsters with a technique it used for years on salmon after an offhand suggestion by some workers. It found that some lobsters revived after their subzero sojourns.

Now, Trufresh is looking for partners to begin selling the lobsters commercially. The company was scheduled to attend the International Boston Seafood Show, which began Sunday, armed with video showing two undead lobsters squirming around after being frozen stiff in a minus-40 degree chemical brine for several minutes.

Company chairman Barnet L. Liberman acknowledged its lobster testing is limited and only about 12 of roughly 200 healthy, hard shell lobsters survived the freezing. In addition, the company hasn’t researched how long a frozen lobster can survive – overnight is the longest period so far.

Liberman emphasized the company’s goal isn’t to provide customers with lobsters that always come back to life. He just wants to supply tasty lobsters.

I’m glad we cleared that last bit up. I was beginning to wonder what kind of marketing strategy they’d employ.

Such a tease

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison continues to be coy about her future.

Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards don’t agree on much.

But they both feel like it’s time to return to Texas and get a dog.

For Ms. Hutchison, a longtime senator who has recently adopted two children, returning home could mean taking on Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2006.

On Friday she told more than 200 women gathered at the Women’s Museum for a conversation between her and Ms. Richards that she was considering a 2006 campaign for governor.

The comments were yet another indication that she is aiming for the governor’s mansion.

“I haven’t made a decision. I’m looking at all options – one of which is to make money,” she said.

“There’s something very satisfying in that,” Ms. Richards said about making money.

Ms. Richards, who lives in New York, shared the stage with the senator.

She gave Ms. Hutchison tips about living as governor.

“Let me tell you something about the governor’s mansion: It is really old,” she said. “Raising those two little kids in the governor’s mansion, you’re going to have to put something over the furniture. It’s very fragile and very delicate.”

Ms. Hutchison said her children would impact her decision.

“It has changed my life,” she said. “Maybe it’s time for me to come home and get a dog.”

While everyone gets in a lather about KBH potentially challenging Rick Perry in a gubernatorial primary in 2006, I think there’s at least as good a chance that she may just quit and find a nice cushy high-paying private sector job. She’s 60, she’s got two kids now, she may be thinking it’s time to ease back on the throttle, cash in on her fame and connections, and raise a few bucks for retirement and their college fund. Just a thought.

Special Session: Still no consensus

Governor Perry has promised to call a special session on school finance reform as soon as “consensus” is reached on how to replace the Robin Hood system. A quick look around is all you need to see that there’s a whole lot of no-consensus going on.

From the Chron:

“It is still the governor’s intention to call a special session this spring. No date has been set. He and his staff are working daily toward that end,” said Robert Black, a spokesman for Perry.

But so far, legislative leaders have failed to agree on a politically acceptable solution that also will continue to fund schools equitably. Without a consensus, some key lawmakers are wondering whether a special session would be worth it.

Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, is among those expressing doubt.

Staples is a member of a legislative committee that last week released recommendations on how to revamp the current system. But he said the proposals would not close the gap between rich and poor districts.

Only five of the 88 school districts in his East Texas senatorial district must give up some of their revenue under the share-the-wealth provisions of the school finance law known as Robin Hood.

“Ensuring five school districts excel while 83 cannot make the grade is not victory,” Staples said. “Every child must have access to a quality education, and quality must not be dependent on their ZIP code.”

[…]

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, co-chairman of the committee that issued the report, said she is disappointed with such criticisms.

“Everyone knows that I have said in no uncertain terms and very clearly this will be an equitable system,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro supports collecting school property taxes on a statewide basis and then distributing them equitably.

But the Texas Constitution bans a statewide property tax. An amendment to allow such a tax would require a two-thirds vote of each chamber to put the issue before voters.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Talmadge Heflin said he doesn’t think there are 100 votes in the House to pass it.

“It would take a small miracle,” Heflin, R-Houston, said. “But we’ve seen things turn before, so you never know.”

Heflin said it’s also doubtful supporters of expanded gambling could get support in the House to put that issue before voters. Video slot machines at racetracks are an oft-mentioned way to raise about $1 billion.

From the Statesman:

A new “split tax roll” that would provide relief for homeowners is one of the few ways to replace the state’s school finance system without raising taxes, Gov. Rick Perry said Monday.

A split roll allows officials to set different tax rates for business and residential properties.

Business leaders fear it would be too easy to increase taxes on businesses while leaving rates low for residential property.

For weeks officials from the governor’s office have distanced Perry from the idea, first floated by his chief of staff, Mike Toomey.

In Round Rock on Monday, Perry called the plan a “great idea” that could lead to replacing the state’s share-the-wealth school finance system, called Robin Hood by some.

“I happen to think that a split tax roll is one of the only ways that you can get rid of Robin Hood without raising a plethora of new taxes in this state,” the governor said.

Perry did not provide details on how such a plan would work. He said he will talk more about a revenue proposal soon.

Perry also defended his proposal to cap property tax appraisal increases; several Texas mayors have said such a cap would hinder their ability to pay for police, trash removal and other basic services.

The idea of a split tax roll hasn’t been popular among business-friendly Republican lawmakers. And Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has predicted its failure in the Legislature.

From the Morning News:

[Governor Perry] has proposed a 3 percent annual cap on homestead appraisal increases and new limits on spending by school districts, cities and counties. The restrictions could only be waived with voter approval.

City and county officials already are mounting a counter-offensive against such a cap, saying that it would severely handicap local governments and potentially force them into elections that could cost as much as the new money the entities are asking voters to approve.

Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said the governor’s proposed cap would result in a tremendous loss of services for many cities.

“City councils won’t go every year to the voters to ask for another $1,000 for a fire plug. They’ll cut services,” he said.

Shifting revenues, capping property taxes and creating rewards for certain schools and teachers are ideas that all have their enemies, conceded Mike Toomey, the governor’s chief of staff.

“This is not easy,” he said during a hastily called news conference last week to defend the governor’s property tax relief plans against criticism from a host of city and county officials.

Mr. Toomey said it is possible that all or some of the initiatives could fail in a special session. “There’s a lot of factors that everybody has to consider and where the votes come from is number one,” he said.

More on that counteroffensive from cities and counties:

“Robin Hood lives in the school house, not City Hall,” the mayors said in a statement Friday of the current share-the-wealth method of paying for public education. “Plans being discussed to cap or freeze city property taxes as a part of the discussions on public school financing, we believe, are misplaced.”

[…]

The municipal league, which represents more than 1,000 Texas cities, and the Texas Association of Counties say an appraisal cap would hurt the quality of life in their cities.

“When your trash isn’t picked up, you don’t call the governor. When the pothole isn’t fixed, it’s not the governor you call, and when your water comes out yellow, you don’t call the president,” said Corpus Christi Mayor Loyd Neal Jr. “You call my listed number in the Corpus Christi phone book at 3 in the morning.”

And from the Star Telegram:

Noting the lack of consensus at this point, Perry said that the potential for disagreement goes beyond which taxes might have to be raised to pay for reform.

“There are multiple places where a consensus could break down, not just on the revenue side,” Perry said. “There are a number of places that the Legislature must become comfortable that this is where we’re going to go before a special session will be called.”

As Perry spoke, representatives from cities and school districts across Tarrant County were making plans to meet today about how Perry’s proposal to cap property taxes might affect their financial futures.

The meeting comes just days after two Tarrant County Commissioners publicly criticized the proposal, saying it would bring cuts to governments already strapped by unfunded state mandates.

The proposal would cap the amount of money local taxing entities such as cities, counties and school districts could raise each year. The limit would depend on the amount of money raised the previous year as well as growth and inflation, but could be raised with voter approval.

Commissioner Glen Whitley said today’s meeting will be an information exchange and preliminary strategy session. But he criticized the governor for trying to make local elected officials look like “the bad guys” and wondered aloud why Perry isn’t proposing to cap the revenue he presides over instead of what local governments spend.

“The governor is not talking about a state revenue cap, he is just concluding that we are the enemies in this deal,” Whitley said. “He has not addressed state revenue or state expenditures.”

Looks like we’ve got a way to go yet. Perry has mostly gotten his way when he’s made something a priority – his “no tax increases” pledge before the start of the 78th Lege, redistricting, tort “reform”. Will he care enough about this to throw his weight around, or will he let it slide and go on the assumption that he can still try again before the voters get another crack at him? We’ll see. I’d say it’s even money at this point, but that could change quickly.

UH apparently hires Penders

I’ll be damned.

University of Houston officials have called a news conference for this afternoon, presumably to name Tom Penders as the Cougars’ new head basketball coach.

UH officials said Monday night the new coach will be introduced at 4:30 p.m., followed by a 5 p.m. gathering at the UH athletics/alumni center that will be open to the public.

All indications are that the new coach will be Penders, 58, the former University of Texas coach whose Longhorns supplanted the Cougars in the 1990s as the state’s flagship basketball program.

Penders said Monday night he had not been officially offered the job by UH athletic director Dave Maggard. If and when the job is offered, however, Penders said he is prepared to accept it.

“Yes, I would accept it,” Penders said. “I’ve spent my whole career rebuilding programs that were down. I don’t want to take over a program that’s winning.”

Maggard declined comment on Monday night.

It’s hard for me to be objective about this transaction, because I really hated Tom Penders when he was the UT coach. He could be Bob Knight lite, or he could be Clyde Drexler redux. I just know that I’ll scream myself hoarse from my vantage point behind the visitor’s bench at Autry Court when he’s in the house. John Lopez has an uncharacteristically good perspective on the whole thing.

Smokey Joe and the cement plants

Byron points to this article about “Smokey Joe” Barton and his efforts to exempt a couple of cement plants from stricter EPA rules. I’ll leave most of the story for you to read – it’s worth your while – but I want to take a look at the money involved.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton’s push to exempt Ellis County from the toughest smog rules could directly benefit two corporations linked to Barton campaign donations – corporations now seeking state permits to boost allowed emissions of smog-causing pollution.

Mr. Barton’s effort, if successful, would help cement makers Holcim (U.S.) Inc. and Texas Industries Inc. avoid stricter permit requirements and possibly much higher pollution-control costs that would come if Ellis County is designated a smog-violation area, documents and interviews show.

Mr. Barton, R-Ennis, has been working for at least five months to block that listing, saying it is not scientifically justified or economically sensible. The Environmental Protection Agency, which has backed including Ellis County and its heavy industries, is to decide on nationwide listings by April 15.

The EPA’s final ruling will determine whether Holcim and TXI must meet the lesser environmental requirements that now apply in Ellis County or the tougher ones that would come with a smog-violator designation, according to a technical review prepared by the EPA.

The ruling would affect any Ellis County industry that seeks an air-pollution permit in the future.

Although most of Ellis County is rural, it is North Texas’ center of heavy industry, accounting for about 40 percent of the region’s industrial emissions. Altogether, 94 percent of Ellis County’s industrial emissions come from a half-dozen cement, manufacturing, energy or waste-disposal corporations whose political action committees have contributed to Mr. Barton’s campaigns, a Dallas Morning News comparison of Texas environmental records and federal campaign files shows.

Their donations to Mr. Barton since the 1998 election cycle total $74,500, according to Federal Election Commission reports. That includes $26,500 in either PAC or individual donations from TXI executives and $6,500 from Holcim’s PAC.

Mr. Barton also got $27,500 during that period from cement industry PACs to which Holcim’s or TXI’s political committees donated.

Mr. Barton, a nine-term congressman and the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement that campaign donations from Ellis County industries played no role in his drive to limit smog rules there. Spokesmen for Holcim and TXI also denied any link and said they haven’t discussed their permits with Mr. Barton.

“There is no amount of money that any group, corporation or individual could contribute that would influence any of my votes on any subject at any time,” Mr. Barton said in his statement.

“It is completely absurd to suggest that I would allow any campaign donation whatsoever to impact my ability to ensure that my own children and grandchildren are breathing the cleanest possible air,” he said.

Do you believe that? Because in all honesty, I don’t. Oh, I could believe that Barton would vote for Holcim and TXI regardless because that’s the way he thinks, and I could believe that they would support Barton because they think, as one of their spokesbeings put it later on in the article, that Barton “tends to support reasonable taxes on businesses and individuals that can keep our economy prosperous”. But does anyone truly believe that there is “no amount of money that any group, corporation or individual could contribute that would influence any of [his] votes on any subject at any time”? Even a little bit?

I’ve brought this point up before, and I’ll say it again: If what Barton says is really true, then why should any rational, profit-maximizing, accountable-to-the-shareholders corporation give him money? If he’s going to vote their way anyway, isn’t it just a waste of their funds? You could make a case for their generosity if he were going to be in a close election with an opponent who is sure to vote against them and the marginal value of their donations could help him win, but he’s in a strongly Republican district and he’s got a million dollars more than Morris Meyer does. So what’s the point? How else can their contributions be explained?

I think there’s only one conclusion that you can draw, and that’s that Holcim and TXI expect to benefit from their donations. Whether you believe that’s of consequence or not is the real question.

UPDATE: The Blue Skies Alliance has a ton of stuff on Smokey Joe – check out this report (PDF) (summarized here) for all of the dirty details. Thanks to JD for the catch.

Cuellar calls for recount

The Cuellar-Rodriguez race in the Democratic primary for CD 28 is going into overtime as Cueller has formally asked for a recount.

Henry Cuellar, the Laredo lawyer who narrowly lost to incumbent U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez in the Democratic primary, called for a recount today an hour before the deadline.

He was scheduled to have a 4:30 news conference at his Laredo headquarters to announce the development.

The recount is the latest twist in a dramatic race between two former Texas House colleagues that saw some prickly campaigning over the past few months. Cuellar accused Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, of doing little for the district during his seven-year tenure while Rodriguez painted a portrait of an opportunistic party-hopper willing to sell his political soul for elected office.

District 28 includes 11 counties and runs from Hays County in the north to Zapata County in the south. More than 48,500 votes were cast in the race.

The final canvass by the Texas Democratic Primary on Saturday revealed a 145-vote margin in Rodriguez’s favor.

That total has bounced between 126 and 170 since the polls closed and absentee ballots were counted. I’m not sure why there was an adjustment downwards from the previous total of 170.

Because the contest took place during a primary, the Texas Democratic Party will conduct the recount. Recounts arising out of a general election are handled by the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Party officials have two days to review Cuellar’s petition and ensure its accuracy. Once the petition is approved, the recount must begin within seven days, said Jim Boynton, primary director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Each county involved in the recount will be contacted and a time scheduled for the recount. Both Cuellar and Rodriguez have the right to be present with one or more representatives at each recount site, Boynton said.

The recount will likely be completed early next month, before the runoff election on April 13, he said.

[…]

Boynton said he hasn’t seen a recount requested in a race this size since 1988 in an appellate court race. The original election was not overturned that time.

“It’s sort of a process,” Boynton said. “It’s time consuming and it’s hard to get everybody to make the times fit together.”

I don’t mean to disparage, but I can’t recall any recent election in which a recount resulted in a different outcome. Any help out there? Offhand, I wouldn’t bet anything on Cuellar’s chances, but I guess you never know.

The Station Fund

The editor of Blah3 performed at a benefit concert for the victims of the Station fire in Rhode Island, and he’s got some things to say about the experience. Check it out, and also check out this Rolling Stone article on the plight of the survivors.

Clarke on “60 Minutes”

I didn’t watch “60 Minutes” last night. Just wasn’t feeling up to it. Of course, it’s not exactly a grand revelation to me that Team Bush had a severe cranial-anal inversion regarding Iraq and al Qaeda, and it’s not exactly breaking news that they discounted the threat of terrorism prior to 9/11. (Don’t believe me. See for yourself what Condi Rice thought of the issue back in 2000. Or read this annotated timeline of Team Bush’s actions during its first months in office.) It was pretty sweet to see the “Who says President Bush dropped the ball?” teasers during the basketball games, though. That’s an image that I hope stays with people for some time.

What won’t be staying is the Chron’s reprint of this WaPo story, which was on page A3 of the print edition but which appears to have vanished from their web page as of now. Of course, you can get the story of Team Bush’s response. We know what’s important.

Perry secrecy watch

Want to know where our globetrotting Governor is? Don’t bother checking his official schedule ’cause it won’t tell you.

Defending a trip he took to the Bahamas with a group that included campaign donors, Gov. Rick Perry suggested Texans can decide what’s right.

“Where I go and who I talk with is, you know — it’s a pretty open piece of information that the people of the state of Texas by and large make a decision,” Perry told reporters when asked about the trip.

“You know, was it appropriate for me to go and stay at the White House the following week and talk to the president? I think so.”

But Perry’s travels are made public selectively.

His campaign-financed Bahamas trip — which included Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, and donors Jim Leininger and John Nau — wasn’t announced by his office.

It didn’t appear on copies of his schedule released under the state Public Information Act.

Neither did his overnight stay at the White House, though his schedule noted a dinner there.

Nor did his trip to Texas fund-raisers with President Bush.

The schedule Perry makes public is his “state schedule,” which doesn’t include his political schedule or, said spokeswoman Kathy Walt, personal items or “spur-of-the-moment activities, or activities for which he needed no schedule.”

Emphasis mine. This is why you wouldn’t have known about his little powwow in the Bahamas with Grover Norquist and James Leininger had he not been accidentally spotted by some noseybody on a boat. Add this to his Double Secret Budget Ideas and you begin to wonder if there’s anything he isn’t reluctant to disclose.

All in how you look at it

The latest Texas poll on the economy can be summed up as follows: It still stinks, but not quite as bad as the last time you asked.

A year ago, 76 percent of those polled rated the U.S. economy as fair or poor. This year, the Texas Poll found that those with a gloomy outlook fell to 65 percent.

“It’s moving in the right direction, but it’s not where you want it to be,” Tim Hopper, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Houston, said in reference to the U.S. economy.

Texans are feeling more optimistic about their personal lives as well, with 35 percent reporting they’re better off today than they were a year ago. That’s an improvement over the 28 percent who made that claim a year ago.

[…]

[T]he Houston economy, which remains highly dependent on the energy industry, still hasn’t benefited from the upturn in energy prices. Energy companies are still reluctant to beef up exploration and production because many worry the high prices may not be sustainable.

Though job growth — both in the state and nationally — is nothing to brag about, other national economic indicators such as gross domestic product, industrial production or the manufacturing index of inventories and sales appear to be moving rapidly in the right direction, said Hopper.

At some point, job growth will improve, something Hopper believes will occur later this year. Increased productivity can only go so far until manufacturers hire extra people to fill the extra orders they’re selling, he said.

I suppose that job growth will eventually improve, but we’ve been hearing it for awhile now. I still know too many people who are out of work or who had to move elsewhere to find it to feel personally optimistic. There’s a quote later on that says the more-upbeat mood may come from surviving last year: “If I can make it through 2003 and I’m still working, I can make it through almost anything.” Maybe, but it seems to me there’s another edge to this sword – if things don’t get appreciably better soon, people may start to feel desperate.

You can find the full survey, with historical trends, here (PDF). If you look, you’ll notice that the real improvement occurred between spring and fall of 2003:

How would you rate economic conditions in this country today -- excellent, good, only fair, or poor? Winter 2004 % (N= 1,000) Excellent 4 Good 30 34 (excellent/good) Fair 41 Poor 24 65 (fair/poor) DK/NA 1 Fall 2003 % (N=1,000) Excellent 3 Good 29 32 (excellent/good) Fair 38 Poor 29 67 (fair/poor) DK/NA 1 Winter (February) 2003 (N=1,000) Excellent 2 Good 21 23 (excellent/good) Fair 41 Poor 35 76 (fair/poor) DK/NA 1

Make of that what you will.

The silliest spin on this I’ve heard came from the newsreader on KHPT radio this morning, who chirped that 71% of people thought things were “good or fair”. I guess no one explained to him what “fair” means in this context.

On the receiving end of obsession

In the past couple of hours, I appear to have gotten several hundred referrals from search engine queries for some variation on Diane Zamora. I presume someone’s running a bot rather than doing this manually, unless they have amazingly fast keyboard and mouse abilities. Whoever you are, what is it you’re looking for that you didn’t find the first 300 times? Or is today National Google Diane Zamora Day and I just missed it on my calendar?

Sunday school finance op-eds

State Rep. Scott Hochberg (D, Houston) makes some good points in this piece in which he defends the much-maligned and marked for death Robin Hood system of distributing property tax revenues to school districts. Here’s something you probably didn’t know:

Robin Hood has been blamed so many times for district budget problems that many taxpayers believe their Houston Independent School District taxes are being sent to some other district.

They aren’t. HISD is one of the 889 districts that receives money from the state. Only 132 districts, with less than 12 percent of the state’s public school students, give up any money raised locally.

132 out of 1021 districts give up local money under Robin Hood. You’d think with those numbers it’d be more of a third rail than Social Security, but you’d be wrong. I wonder how many new Republican state reps were elected on a platform that included revamping Robin Hood from districts that receive its funds. I’m not saying there aren’t still reasons to want to overhaul the system – pretty much everyone agrees that it isn’t working well enough to meet the state’s needs – but I’ll bet a lot of people voted against their own interests without fully realizing it.

Sure, those 132 districts want to keep all the property taxes they raise. And the leadership in Austin desperately wants to let them do that, because it is great politics. But even after they make their Robin Hood payments, those districts have at least $600 more to spend on each comparable student than does HISD or any of the other districts receiving state funds. That’s already a huge advantage in hiring teachers, setting class sizes and offering programs.

Eliminate Robin Hood payments by those districts, as some have recommended, and their advantage, on average, goes up to $2,600 per student, at a cost to the rest of us of $1 billion per year. Some solution!

Equity among the districts, the reason for Robin Hood in the first place, will still need to be addressed by whatever replaces it. There are indications that Republicans whose constituents are mostly in property-poor districts, such as State Sen. Todd Staples, recognize its importance and may cross the aisle to work with Democrats on a compromise. Governor Perry better doublecheck his math before he calls that special session.

Meanwhile, Clay Robison notes the study by Stuart Greenfield that the Quorum Report funded and fills in a couple of details.

If you own an average valued house of $150,000 and pay the average property tax rate of $1.46 per $100 valuation, a one-third cut would reduce your annual property tax bill by about $750, Greenfield says.

He warns that the reduced property tax deduction also would raise your federal income taxes by $113. The lost tax break couldn’t be recouped from higher sales taxes because sales taxes aren’t deductible from your federal return. A state income tax would be deductible.

What’s more, Greenfield adds, the higher the value of your house — which is the single biggest federal tax deduction for most Texas filers — the bigger your net loss as property taxes are reduced and sales taxes or any other form of taxation (other than a state income tax) is increased or imposed.

There also is talk, for example, of increasing the state cigarette tax or creating a new, broad-based business activity tax. Whatever the merits of those proposals, they also wouldn’t provide a replacement federal tax deduction for individual filers.

Many Texans who don’t file itemized federal tax returns are renters, and they wouldn’t necessarily realize the full benefits of property tax cuts or other tax breaks that their landlords might receive. But they certainly would pay any higher sales tax or, if business taxes were increased, would see higher costs for some goods and services.

The annual per capita sales tax load in Texas is $642. But since even the youngest children are included in that calculation, the average taxpayer actually pays more, a load that would be significantly increased if the Legislature either raises the tax rate or expands coverage to additional goods and services.

Obviously, $113 is a long way off from $750, so the final numbers will depend heavily on the kind of taxes that are imposed to replace the property tax revenue. The point, which I noted as well, is simply that whatever those taxes are, they won’t be deductible. You won’t be getting any of that back no matter what.

TypeKey

The folks at Six Apart, makers of MovableType, are getting close to releasing a new version of theit software that will allow blog owners to deal with unwanted comments (comment spam and anonymous drive-by abusives) in an integrated fashion with a service called TypeKey. I’m going to have to take a close look at it when it comes out, but I like the general idea. Jay Allen, the guy who gave us MT Blacklist, is sufficiently excited that he thinks MT 3.0 and TypeKey means that MT Blacklist’s days are numbered. Not everyone is as sanguine as he is, but for now count me in the looking-forward-to-it camp.

That so-called liberal media

Good grief. I had no idea about this. Read it and be amazed.

Hoops update

Well, I got 22 out of a possible 32 in the first round of the NCAAs, putting me a solid 8th out of 9 in the BAN Hoops Contest. My sincere thanks to Jack for doing worse than I did. The WestPhoenix Regional was the least kind to me – I was only 4 for 8 there. Oh, well. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, we’re gonna take it one day at a time and give 110%, we’re just happy to be here…did I forget anything?

UPDATE: The definition of a mixed blessing during March Madness is when a team from your favorite conference wins an upset that shreds one of your brackets. Congrats to Nevada for manhandling Gonzaga. At least I wasn’t in any danger of contending in this tournament anyway. Maybe Trent Johnson ought to be the hot coaching property coming out of the WAC this year instead of Billy Gillespie. Don’t anyone tell Texas A&M that, though.

UPDATE: Et tu, Stanford? At least I only had Gonzaga losing in the Elite Eight. Stanford was my pick to win it all. It’s official: I suck.

CD 32 tightening up

Byron points to this NYT article which notes that the race between Martin Frost and Pete Sessions in the new 32nd CD is tightening up, at least according to Congressional Quarterly.

Eight months before Election Day, the two candidates have raised more than $2.3 million between them. Similar attention is being paid to the other unusual incumbent-against-incumbent race in the state created by redistricting, which was promoted by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay with the expectation it could produce seven more GOP seats in Congress this fall. That contest is in West Texas between Charles W. Stenholm, like Frost a Democrat in the House since 1979, and freshman Republican Randy Neugebauer. (Story, p. 11)

“I will be campaigning in the district every waking moment I am not here in Washington,” Frost said. “If Tom DeLay wants these districts so badly he is going to have to win them the old-fashioned way, at the ballot box.”

The intensity of Frost’s campaign in recent weeks has led Congressional Quarterly to now rate the contest as Leans Republican, meaning Sessions appears to have an edge but the race could go either way. CQ had rated it Republican Favored, which meant a Frost win would be a major upset.

That’s all a matter of opinion, of course – as with any contest, all that will ultimately matter is the final score. Nonetheless, this is encouraging news, and I think with sufficient attention will draw a lot of fundraising that will help all of the endangered Democrats.

Just a thought here: It was mighty nice of the GOP to draw a childs-play district for State Rep. Kenny Marchant, who faces the plucky but unknown Gary Page in the new 24th CD. One wonders why a four-term incumbent like Sessions was left with the short straw and the real possibility of being ousted. Oh, I know, Frost was gonna run somewhere (though Jim Turner chose not to), and surely Sessions will get all the help he wants from DeLay’s moneymaking machine. But still. Why’d Marchant rate and Sessions didn’t? Makes you wonder.

Anyway. Keep your eye on this one. The better Frost does, the better the Democrats overall ought to do.

They liked us! They really (mostly) liked us!

About 70% of Super Bowl visitors polled said they would recommend the city to others based on their experiences during their visit.

Jordy Tollett, the president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he commissioned the survey to gauge “what people think we are, what they like about us and what we should tout.”

The Super Bowl Image Study, conducted by TouchPoll Solutions of Kingwood, questioned 820 non-Houstonians at Bush Intercontinental Airport and hotels around the city.

Poll results show visitors’ opinions of Houston were generally favorable to begin with and increased by 10 percentage points during their stay. After their stay, 30 percent of those polled said Houston was very attractive and an equal share rated it somewhat attractive.

Roughly the same percentages said their overall experience in Houston left them very satisfied or somewhat satisfied. Asked if they would recommend the city to others, 71 percent said yes and 8 percent no, with the rest undecided.

“It was a tremendous turnaround,” said TouchPoll owner Bobby Hollis.

Hollis attributes that turnaround to Houstonians’ friendliness and the depth of organized events offered in the week leading up to the Super Bowl.

The poll found that visitors tended to be upper-income, diverse and well-traveled, Hollis said. Most said they take two to seven vacation trips a year.

Three of five respondents were male, and two of three were visiting Houston for the first time.

About 40 percent of those polled said they rode the MetroRail line. Although they were not asked to rate its performance, two of three said mobility in Houston was equal to, or better than, that of most cities.

“There were numerous verbal responses praising the friendliness of Houstonians and the cleanliness of the downtown area,” the report’s introduction said.

Activities most cited by the visitors were dining (47 percent) and shopping (41 percent). Only 6 percent made it to the beach, and 12 percent visited a museum.

Sounds pretty good to me. The print issue mentions things like a lack of cabs in the Galleria and the general spread-out-ness of the Super Bowl events as some of the negative things cited.

One can only speculate what visitors might have said had the Super Bowl been played in midsummer. The impact of the climate may be better gauged when Major League Baseball holds its All-Star Game at Minute Maid Park in July. Tollett said he wants TouchPoll to conduct another survey then.

I’ve wondered the same thing myself. Let’s hope most of those visitors stay downtown and discover the air-conditioned tunnel system.

It’s official: The tech boom is over

Anyone remember DotComGuy? Would you believe he’s been DotComGuy for five years now? But not for much longer.

Mitch Maddox, who legally changed his name to DotComGuy in 1999 and got lots of media attention because of a yearlong Internet stunt, is selling his trademark name.

“I’ve taken it as far as I can go,” Maddox said Tuesday.

I believe that was true about five seconds after you made the announcement, but that’s just me.

In 2000, the 30-year-old Dallas native moved into an empty house and survived for a year solely off purchases made on the Internet. Viewers could watch Maddox 24 hours a day via a streaming Webcast on his Web site, www.dotcomguy.com.

Maddox began an auction Tuesday on his site for the trademark, DotComGuy, and the domain name www.dotcomguy.com.

“It’s an asset I’ve had lying around, and I think it can really benefit someone else,” Maddox said.

Yes, because venture capitalists are really hot to fund the next big Internet gimmick. Let’s face it: if Jennicam is no longer with us, the DotComGuy webcam is not exactly going to be a cash cow.

Media outlets worldwide covered Maddox’s online stunt. The promotion garnered sponsorships from several major companies including UPS and peapod.com, an online grocer.

Maddox was visited by celebrities and performers including Ed McMahon and the rock band Incubus.

Ed McMahon, peapod.com, and the rock band Incubus. I don’t think I can possibly add to that.

After his yearlong commitment expired, Maddox faded from the public eye. In the interim, he took some time off, traveled the world and made speeches.

“After”?

In November 2002, he married Anne Rehfeldt, a Fort Worth native he met through the online dating service Match.com.

The marriage license says Rehfeldt married DotComGuy, Maddox said.

Maddox said he will be happy to retake his family name as well as allow his wife to take his last name.

Once again, I don’t think I can add anything to that.

Eckels shills for Perry’s property tax cap

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels is going to bat for Governor Perry’s proposed property tax rate increase cap.

Eckels, who joined two state legislators on a three-city tour organized by the governor’s staff, said Perry has taken a “courageous stand” against rising property taxes.

“The governor’s plan protects local governments from unfunded state mandates that force local property tax increases and hides the true cost of state government programs,” Eckels said. “It makes government accountable to the taxpayer.”

But opponents believe Perry’s plan would severely restrict local governments’ ability to raise tax revenues to pay for basic services.

Interestingly, one of those opponents is that hotbed of Democratic liberalism Collin County.

Collin County Commissioners’ Court on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution opposing Gov. Rick Perry’s plan to limit property-appraisal increases and cap the amount of money raised from property taxes as part of so-called “Robin Hood” school-finance changes.

County Judge Ron Harris said the court stands behind local control and is concerned about the potential financial impact Perry’s plan might have.

“We feel the vast number of Texas cities have been very prudent,” said Harris, who chairs the court. “We have to face citizens for re-election. They’ve got the last say anyway.”

[…]

County Administrator Bill Bilyeu said county officials are concerned that if the proposal is adopted, they would not be able to expand services enough to provide for a rapidly growing population because the rate set by the Legislature might be less than the growth.

“It’s a cap on how much your operating budget can go up, regardless of how many new people moved in, new homes, mandates,” Bilyeu said.

On average, about 76 people move into Collin County a day, outpacing the growth of most of the state’s 254 counties, he said. While population growth across the state is roughly 2 percent, Collin County, at about 5 percent, is among several counties along Interstate 35 that are bursting at the seams.

The growth of Collin County’s operations is not because of increasing values for existing homes.

“Our growth is new buildings, new houses on the ground,” he said.

The expanded tax base pays for the new roads, jails and sheriff’s deputies need to serve the county’s new residents.

[…]

“I maintain what brought school financing to a head is not really the taxes,” Harris said. “It is the fact it’s hit the cap … It’s just not good policy to handicap local governments. You’ll have to make some cuts. The first thing that will be cut is your infrastructure.”

Counties must maintain jails and courts. In cities, residents want their children to get the right education, and they want police and fire service and their trash picked up, he said.

“We have to pay for what we get,” Harris said.

“We’ve been able to hold the tax rate, allowing growth, the increased tax based, to fund itself.”

County residents seem happy with the commissioners’ court. Two of its members, Commissioners Phyllis Cole and Joe Jaynes, received more than 60 percent of the vote for re-election in last week’s primary.

No Democrats filed to run for commissioner.

[…]

“We’re empowering Commissioner Cole, who is chair of a conference of urban counties, to represent that Collin County is absolutely opposed to the plan coming out of the governor’s office,” Harris said.

These guys are right. What this cap will do is essentially force counties to choose between schools, roads, hospitals, law enforcement, or flood control. Can someone give me a reason why any one of these things is less critical and less expected by the people who pay for them than any other? Cause I can’t. But apparently Robert Eckels can, though of course he’ll never tell you that.

One last thing, from the Chron story:

Republican Reps. Dwayne Bohac of Houston and Elizabeth Ames Jones of San Antonio joined Eckels on the tax cap promotion tour.

Bohac sponsored similar legislation last year that would have capped appraisal increases at 5 percent a year. He said the governor’s plan was better and would stop “appraisal creep.” At present, appraisal increases are capped at 10 percent a year.

[…]

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Bohac and Jones voted against Democratic amendments in 2003 that would have lowered the appraisal cap in Bohac’s bill from 5 percent to 3 percent.

“How can these folks keep a straight face while pretending to support something they voted against last session?” Dunnam asked.

Practice, Jim. Lots of practice.

Plano Star Courier link via Southpaw.

Final settlement in Tulia lawsuit near

Now that the city of Amarillo has reached a $5 million settlement agreement in the federal lawsuit filed by the unjustly imprisoned Tulia defendants, a group of other counties and cities in the Panhandle are close to negotiating their own settlement.

Sources near the negotiations have indicated the remaining 30 counties and cities named in the federal lawsuit likely will settle for substantially less than the $5 million Amarillo paid last week for its part in the suit.

Several sources with varying degrees of involvement in the negotiations have confirmed that the overall settlement for all the remaining municipalities combined is in the area of $1 million. Counties and cities would pay amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars under the agreement, which has not been finalized.

Attorneys from both sides of the suit said they couldn’t talk about the details of the negotiations, but they confirmed talks were ongoing.

“We are continuing to negotiate, and we hope we can reach a settlement,” said Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, who represents the Tulia defendants. “We’re eager to settle this case so that the entire Panhandle can put this nightmare behind them, like Amarillo did last week.”

The settlement, if finalized, would bring an end to a federal lawsuit that was filed in connection with the controversial 1999 Tulia drug bust.

Again, I’m glad to see this get resolved. Just for the record, for the 44 Tulia defendants who are plaintiffs in this lawsuit, I figure after attorneys’s fees and whatnot, they’ll net about $10,000 each. Before anyone complains about lawsuits and the taxpayers footing the bill and so on, ask yourself a simple question: Would you willingly go through what any of those 44 people went through in return for ten grand? The people responsible for this debacle got off very, very cheaply.

Here’s a look at how the city of Amarillo will pay its share of the settlement.

The $5 million payment to settle Amarillo’s liability in the Tulia drug sting won’t receive official approval from the Amarillo City Commission.

The commission gave city attorneys authority to reach a settlement amount on its behalf, and a 1987 ordinance gives a committee of department heads the authority to administer the payment.

State law requires the city commission to approve bid contracts of $25,000 or more, but that standard doesn’t apply to the $5 million settlement, a different kind of transaction altogether.

The settlement will be paid as an insurance claim, and potentially all of it will come from the city’s risk management fund, the fund through which the city insures itself for liability claims.

The ordinance creating the fund authorized a risk management board to administer the claims, which usually are too routine to need city commission attention. That board’s authority applies even in the case of an exceptionally large claim such as the $5 million Tulia lawsuit settlement.

[…]

Briefing the commission also was appropriate because the settlement amount was likely to be greater than $50,000, said City Manager John Ward, also a member of the risk management board. That dollar amount is a benchmark, Ward said, for when the board would bring a pending insurance-fund claim to the commission’s attention.

But even though the Tulia settlement amount would dwarf all other insurance claims the city has paid in the past 12 years, the commission still didn’t have to take official action because it wasn’t required by the ordinance that created the risk management fund. Nor would such action have been practical, Ward said.

When the commission gave authority to its lawyers before the mediation, the settlement amount wasn’t known, so it couldn’t have approved an amount, Ward said. And after the mediation, the judge wouldn’t have been receptive to the city changing its offer.

“You could stick these settlements on (the commission’s) agenda and they rubber-stamp them, but it really serves no purpose because it’s too late to vote against it,” Ward said. “The city is committed.”

In the case of Tulia, however, the commission will conduct one vote related to the $5 million settlement. The risk management fund’s ordinance limits aggregate payments for general liability to $3 million per year. So the commission on Tuesday will consider granting the program some kind of flexibility so the payment can proceed, Ward said.

Among the commission’s options are to amend the ordinance so that it allows for certain exceptions to the limitation, or to authorize a one-time exception in this case alone, Ward said.

The fund may not even have to pay the full $5 million for the Tulia settlement. The city is exploring options to supplement self-insurance funds with money seized by the task force that was involved in the sting.

But using those funds depends on state approval, Ward said.

I can’t think of a more appropriate use for that money than to help pay the settlement to the victims. Let’s hope newly elected State Senator Kel Seliger brings this up at his first opportunity. Feel free to drop him a line or give him a call at one of his offices and encourage him to do so.

Bell makes peace with Green

I’m glad to see this.

Houston Rep. Chris Bell is attempting to mend a rift among House Democrats that grew out of the racially divisive election he lost to Al Green earlier this month.

Bell met this week with Democratic House leaders who were angered by members of the Congressional Black Caucus who sided with Green against the first-term lawmaker in the party’s March 9 primary.

Bell plans to meet today with Green and invite the former NAACP leader to Washington to meet with the Democratic caucus in an effort to heal any wounds left from the election.

“There’s some significant anger on the part of some members that colleagues would back an opponent, and I don’t think that serves us at all,” Bell said.

House members traditionally support incumbent members of their own party — or remain neutral — in primary elections, no matter who the challenger is.

Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., criticized fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus for taking sides against Bell. “You have an incumbent, and you don’t support the incumbent? It was inappropriate,” Ford told Congressional Quarterly.

Bell met Wednesday with House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi, of California; Steny Hoyer, of Maryland; and Bob Menendez, of Maryland, urging them to put aside any rancor with the Black Caucus over his defeat.

“The last thing I want is to be is the poster boy for racial discord,” Bell said.

This was both the smart and appropriate thing for Bell to do, and I applaud him for it. He’s right to not give any further victories to Tom DeLay’s divisive tactics. He’s also only 44 and needs to consider his own political future, assuming he wants one. I know what office I’d like to see him run for next.

UPDATE: Greg adds some thoughts.

February traffic report

I don’t really know how much traffic I had in February thanks to the sudden and inexplicable death of my Sitemeter counter early on in the month. After a couple days of ruling out every other possibility, I decided it had to be specific to that one account. I bit the bullet and switched everything over to the counter that I had (and thankfully still remembered the logon/password details for) on my old Blogspot site. I know I got about 21,000 hits since that was configured on Feb 11, so let’s say I got 32,000 hits. I got a lot of referrals from my post about Howard Stern getting dropped by Clear Channel while they were picking up Michael Savage, which helped drive that total.

By the way, I never did get an answer from the Sitemeter folks about my account. You do get what you pay for.

Top referrers are below the More link. As always, thanks for reading.

(more…)

Those prison blues

I’ve harped on the correlation between our lock ’em up mentality in this state and our recent budget shortfalls (see here, here, here, and here for earlier installments). Slowly but surely, that idea is taking hold to the Lege.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the state of Texas now who thinks that the smart thing to do is build thousands of more prison units,” said House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie. “We need to have a better-funded system of probation.”

Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, a member of the Corrections Committee and its designee on the Appropriations Committee, was among several lawmakers who quizzed Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials about whether many people are on parole who might not need to be, whether probation programs get enough money to be a realistic alternative to prison and whether new technology should cause Texas to rethink its decade-old parole and probation policies.

Such suggestions could have drawn derision at the Capitol just a few years ago during an era when new prisons and getting tougher on criminals were politically popular. During a five-year period starting in 1991, Texas tripled the size of its prison system to become the largest in the free world as it slashed the parole rate and sentenced felons to longer terms.

But the costs to operate such a system proved huge, and parole, probation, drug treatment, education, job training and other rehabilitation programs for prisoners were cut to make ends meet. Last year, the criminal justice agency, which oversees prisons and parole programs and financially supports county-run probation programs statewide, had to cut $240 million out of its $5.2 billion budget.

“My sense is that we may have about the same amount of funding available during the next biennium, but any new initiatives whatsoever will have to be paid for through savings,” Allen said after a Tuesday hearing during which businesses proposed options that could save state money by privatizing some corrections services.

On Wednesday, a legislative hearing explored how to improve parole and probation programs to save money. State budget officials noted that the basic cost of keeping someone on probation is 97 cents a day, compared with $2.30 for parole and $44 for prison.

Lawmakers are discussing whether satellite-tracking technology could be used more extensively to better keep track of the 76,000 parolees and 450,000 probationers — more than 3 percent of all adult Texans — and whether other technology and revamped supervision policies could allow many more felons to serve their time outside prisons so they could pay taxes and stay with their families.

“Do we have people on parole in Texas for 14 years because they need to be on parole or because that is how we have always done it?” asked Stick, a former prosecutor.

Stick suggested that some people might be released from parole early if they were proven to be rehabilitated.

“Maybe we have an antiquated system we need to look at,” he said.

Yeah, maybe we do. I realize there’s a certain only-Nixon-could-go-to-China aspect to Republican state legislators looking into alternatives to the prison industry, but now would be an excellent time for some Democrats to make we-told-you-so noises and to trot out whatever good ideas they may have. They won’t get official credit for whatever legislation may result, but they might plant the notion in the media and in the public consciousness that they were on the right side of the issue all along.

UPDATE: Kevin thinks this is bad news.

Your regular TRMPAC briefing

The state Republican Part continues its efforts to smear Travis County DA Ronnie Earle by claiming that he has a double standard because he didn’t go after former Attorney General Dan Morales.

Earle said he did not investigate Morales because federal officials were doing it.

“The federal authorities did an outstanding job in that case, and it would have been inappropriate for me to intervene in their ongoing investigation,” Earle said. “Justice was done.”

Morales last year pleaded guilty to federal charges of mail fraud and filing a false income tax return in connection with his attempt to fraudulently secure $520 million in legal fees for a friend in the state’s $17 billion tobacco lawsuit settlement.

You know, I admit to being as much a partisan in this squabble as anyone, but that sure seems like a reasonable explanation to me. It’s not like Morales is off in the Caymans with a boatload of ill-gotten gains thumbing his nose at all of us. I don’t recall ever hearing complaints that the feds were overstepping their jurisdiction in this case, at least not from Republicans. I also don’t ever recall hearing any complaints from Republicans about who was or wasn’t prosecuting Morales during the leadup to his guilty plea in federal court, or when he was working for and endorsing Governor Perry back in 2002. I guess it wasn’t convenient back then.

I should note that then-Attorney General John Cornyn did some of the early heavy lifting in unravelling Morales’ crimes. There was some speculation that Cornyn was dogged in pursuit of Morales because he was still seen as a potential threat to win an election for Governor or Senate in 2002. That Cornyn may have been motivated in part by partisan goals doesn’t diminish the fact that he had a legitimate reason for his investigation. Given the facts of the TRM/TAB case that have come to light so far, I’d say the same is true of Ronnie Earle.

I’ve pointed to several overviews of the TRM/TAB investigation before, but I really recommend this one in the AusChron, which looks at the individual pieces and players and how they all fit together, rather than doing a chronological narrative. Your understanding of the subject will definitely be enhanced by it.

ChevronTexaco closes the sale

After all that hoo-hah, ChevronTexaco went ahead and bought the Enron Building anyway, without the tax abatement from Harris County.

Houston City Council had already agreed to give ChevronTexaco a tax break on $64 million in building improvements and furnishings, reducing the California company’s tax payments to the city by $350,000 a year over 10 years.

Doubts about the deal arose after ChevronTexaco indicated it also expected tax incentives from a reluctant county government.

It was unclear how the county’s position affected negotiations for the purchase of the gleaming new building, completed by Enron shortly after its collapse into bankruptcy.

Plans now call for consolidating ChevronTexaco’s 4,700 workers and 500 workers from outside Texas at the new facility at 1500 Louisiana. The current work force in Houston is now in seven buildings.

The oil giant would still have to pay taxes on the building’s current assessed value of $79.3 million, which would bring the city $520,000 a year.

If I’m understanding this correctly, CT still gets a break from the city on planned improvements to the building, but not from the county. Hard to argue the assertion of the County Commissioners’ Court at this point that there was no need for them to kick in, as the sale clearly did not hinge on it. This may still be seen as a screwup on Mayor White’s part (though again I can’t say for sure if the Commissioners squeezed him a bit), but it looks like it’ll be a pretty small ding on his record.

Rodriguez increases lead, and other news

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez has increased his lead over primary challenger Henry Cuellar now that provisional and overseas ballots have been counted. Forty-four votes were added to his margin, which now stands at 170.

Although the results are unofficial until the Texas Democratic Party conducts the formal canvass March 20, Rodriguez’s campaign staff was heartened by the increase in the incumbent’s lead from 126 votes on election night.

“Now that the provisional and overseas ballots have been counted, every vote has been counted,” said Rodriguez spokesman John Puder. “Any hope that the Cuellar campaign had that those votes would help close the gap has vanished.”

Cuellar may still ask for a recount, but one would think that he’s not as well-positioned for it as he was before. The difference is still small, though, so his chances are still reasonable.

Meanwhile, in CD10, the money keeps flowing in the runoff between Ben Streusand and Mike McCaul.

As of Feb. 18, Streusand had contributed more of his own money than any other congressional candidate — $1.34 million, or 96 percent of the $1.4 million he has raised.

McCaul, meanwhile, was the third biggest personal spender at $647,000, or 70 percent of the $929,000 he raised.

Such contributions have helped make this the costliest congressional race in the country to date, with more than $2.6 million being spent, according to campaign finance reports.

And there is an expensive April 13 runoff to come between the two candidates. Streusand won 28 percent and McCaul 24 percent in eliminating six others in the March 9 primary.

[…]

The geometry of the 10th District, which stretches from Houston to Austin, helps explain why the race is so expensive, said GOP political consultant Allen Blakemore.

Last year, the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature changed the boundaries of the 10th District to give Republicans a better chance of winning the seat last held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. Doggett decided to run in the 25th District, which was moved to South Central Texas, and the 10th became an open seat with a 64 percent Republican voting history.

“To win, you have to advertise in two television markets, Austin and Houston,” said Blakemore, who does not work for either candidate. “And there are three radio markets including Brenham.

“If you’re (U.S. Reps.) Tom DeLay or John Culberson, you only have to buy in the Houston market,” he said. “That’s what makes this race so expensive to compete in.”

It also greatly raises the bar for a Democratic candidate who might get into the race, probably as good a reason as any why Gus Garcia was the only one to even contemplate it. Sadly, any serious challenger in this bastardized district will almost surely have to be someone with his or her own money to burn on it.

Big spending on political races has not always worked in the Houston area.

Two years ago, Republican businessman Tom Reiser spent $1.76 million on his losing campaign for the 25th Congressional District. GOP businessman Peter Wareing spent $1.2 million on his losing primary race for the 31st Congressional District.

Reiser and Wareing were part of a wave of 14 congressional candidates in 2002 who spent large sums of their own money on their campaigns only to lose their elections.

I had to go to the Secretary of State page to remind myself about Peter Wareing. I had forgotten that he’d tried again after his expensive failure in 2000 in CD07 against John Culberson. Some people are just gluttons for punishment, I guess.

Among those supporting McCaul are former Gov. William P. Clements; U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; and Republican state Reps. Todd Baxter, Jack Stick and Terry Keel.

Speaking of Stick and Baxter, the AusChron notes that Democratic primary turnout in their State House districts may spell trouble for them in November.

Both of their Dem challengers – Mark Strama and Kelly White, respectively – ran unopposed in districts designed to lean Republican. But both Strama and White still got more votes last week than did the incumbents.

The article suggests this election may not be like the ones of the recent past, and that the Dems may have blown a chance to make some gains or at least hold some losses down.

Last week’s results suggest forces that are working more deeply and broadly than many observers, including me, may have initially concluded on Election Night. Yes, it’s true that U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, facing what just days before had seemed (to many, including him) a neck-and-neck battle for survival, poured on a get-out-the-vote effort that helped buoy the high D turnout. But only a third of Travis Co. lies within Doggett’s new CD 25, and while Dem turnout in East and Southeast Austin was indeed much higher than normal, and much higher than most anywhere else, those precincts always prefer the D’s by several orders of magnitude. (Central and East Austin have kept Dems in power at the courthouse for at least the last two election cycles.)

But Democrats outpaced GOP turnout in all three of Travis’ congressional districts, two of which were uncontested on the D side; in all six of its House districts, none of which was contested on the D side; and the precincts of all four county commissioners, two of whom weren’t even on the ballot. Certainly, the countywide races – for sheriff and especially for 200th District Court – offered their share of voter interest, but the GOP had some of those, too.

Indeed, the turnout may be making some local Dems question their willingness to write off without a fight the races for CD 10 and CD 21, for Terry Keel’s House District 47, and for Gerald Daugherty’s Precinct 3 seat on the Commissioners Court. The GOP was unwilling to write off CD 25, but Becky Armendariz Klein has a row to hoe almost as long and narrow as the district itself. Despite her glib assertions on Election Night that she could pick up the Hinojosa (that is, Hispanic) vote, at least in Travis Co., Doggett outpolled Hinojosa and Klein combined by a factor of 4.7-to-1.

Something else is apparently at work, something that suggests the cynical hubris of the GOP leadership may now be touched by nemesis. Faced with effective disenfranchisement and supposed irrelevance, Travis Co. Democrats did not go play Frisbee with their dogs; they stormed the polls to send a message – about redistricting, about Tom DeLay, and about Bush and his reign of error, more so than about the choices actually before them on this ballot. Some of this reflects the Zeitgeist of a revitalized national Democratic Party (particularly here, where Howard Dean still came in third, even after exiting the race before the start of early voting); people made time to vote in the same way, and for the same reason, that they stood in the pouring rain for an hour to see anti-GOP documentaries like Bush’s Brain and The Hunting of the President at SXSW. Democrats care about what’s happening in politics, right now, in a way that hasn’t been true locally since Ann Richards’ 1990 triumph.

The second paragraph is a bit misleading, in that two of the three Congressional districts had no Democratic primary candidates, not unopposed primary candidates. However you slice it, though, it would appear that Travis County Dems are more fired up than anyone, including the party leaders, would have thought. I’m not sure what their secret is, but I do wish they’d share it with Harris County.

Finally, getting back to CD 10 for a minute, those who care about that sort of thing will be pleased to note that McCaul has picked up the Poppy Bush endorsement. I will note the following from the Streusand campaign:

Marc Cowart, Streusand’s campaign manager, said the Bush event shows that McCaul is the candidate of “the Republican establishment.”

“The feedback we hear from voters and grass roots is they don’t want the Washington establishment telling them how to vote,” Cowart said. “They want to make a decision based on facts, issues and backgrounds.”

If one believes Mr. Cowart, then a possible interpretation of his words is that Republican voters are not very happy with Republican officeholders right now, at least not happy enough to consider an endorsement from them to be a good thing. Make of that what you will.

You can have my beer bong when you pry it from my cold, hungover fingers

Spring break has many traditions associated with it. Lately, it seems that one of those traditions is for a City Council person somewhere to lose touch with reality and propose a stupid rule in order to keep those damn kids off their lawn.

NEW BRAUNFELS — Last summer, City Councilman Ken Valentine saw a young woman on the bank of the Comal River being fed beer through a “beer bong.” Minutes later she fell and received a serious cut.

Valentine is now proposing that the devices be banned from the Comal and Guadalupe rivers inside the city limits and that police confiscate them when found.

“I want the beer bongs off the river,” Valentine said at a City Council workshop Monday night. “Their only purpose is to get someone drunk as a skunk as quickly as possible.”

Valentine promised to put a call for a beer bong ban on an upcoming City Council agenda.

A beer bong is a long section of flexible tubing attached to a large funnel. The user puts the tube in his or her mouth while another person dumps beer into the funnel. They are a common sight among college-age drinkers on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers when thousands float the waterways on summer weekends.

“The user”. I love that. Makes it sound like a piece of software.

New Braunfels Police Chief Russell Johnson said he doubts a policy to ban beer bongs would pass legal muster.

“If we break the law, we are no better than they are,” he said.

Councilman Lee Rodriguez said he doesn’t like the idea either.

“Ken is wanting to bend the rules,” he said. “I appreciate his passion about what goes on on the river, but we have to draw the line somewhere. We have to be careful about violating people’s rights.”

Concerns about personal freedoms led the council to defeat a proposal last year to ban radios from the rivers, and instead adopt a stricter citywide noise ordinance.

Rodriguez said he “was kind of upset” with Valentine because “he keeps putting out a bad message about our rivers,” which could keep well-behaved families away.

The public perception that river tourism constitutes an alcohol-fueled wild party will simply draw more rowdy tourists, Rodriguez said.

Many city and Comal County officials believe behavior on the rivers has improved substantially in recent years, as stepped-up law enforcement has created a more family friendly atmosphere.

Congratulations, Ken “No Bong” Valentine of New Braunfels! You have officially joined Martha “No Thong” Wong in the pantheon of City Council frivolity. Remember, no problem is too important to be put aside for a crusade against college students having the kind of fun you don’t approve of. That’s the American way.

County plays hardball on Enron building

When last we met, the County Commissioner’s Court was wreaking havoc on the proposed sale of the Enron building to ChevronTexaco by playing coy about a tax abatement for improvements. We see today that they haven’t changed their tune.

Harris County commissioners didn’t discuss a policy on tax incentives at a Tuesday meeting, signaling ChevronTexaco may not get the tax break it wants in exchange for buying the newer of the Enron buildings.

The commission was expected to discuss its policy on granting tax breaks to businesses and perhaps whether to give the California-based company a break, just as the city did. But it put off any discussion after its staff recommended not giving the tax break.

“We’re going to take that to mean they are not going to address it. So with something like that, we’re left in limbo,” ChevronTexaco spokesman Mickey Driver said. “We have to move ahead, so right now we’re looking at our options.”

Moving forward with buying the 40-story building could mean renegotiating closing requirements for the deal, said Driver, who would not say what any new negotiations would involve.

[…]

Houston City Council has agreed to give ChevronTexaco a tax break on $64 million in building improvements and furnishings, reducing the company’s payments to the city by $350,000 a year for 10 years.

The company would still have to pay full taxes on the building’s current assessed value of $79.3 million, which would bring the city $520,000 a year.

“I am confident that our community will do what it takes to bring more jobs to Houston. I and other civic leaders should get this deal done,” Mayor Bill White said through a spokesman.

Driver praised the city’s efforts to facilitate the deal but said the county was not so accommodating.

“We’re not mad at the county or the commissioners. We just found it very, very difficult to work with county staff,” Driver said, adding that “to this minute we don’t understand what we did wrong.”

David Turkel, the county’s director of community and economic development, said his office had again reviewed ChevronTexaco’s application and still is recommending against granting the oil giant a tax break.

[…]

Commissioners didn’t actually consider ChevronTexaco’s request for a tax incentive Tuesday.

Such a request would make it to the court’s agenda only if Turkel’s staff recommends approval.

The commissioners did direct Turkel to review the county’s criteria and policies on tax breaks, with particular attention to the way requests are coordinated with other local governments.

During the discussion of the guidelines, Commissioner Steve Radack suggested that Harris County consider buying the downtown tower if ChevronTexaco backed out.

It was clearly intended to send a message to ChevronTexaco that Radack, for one, did not care if the company pulled out of the real estate deal.

You know, I’m still not sure if the Commissioner’s Court is sticking it to the new Mayor, or if he genuinely screwed up by jumping the gun and/or not following known protocol correctly. I did a search through the Chron archives “Harris County Commissioners” and either “tax break” or “tax abatement”, and found two examples of tax abatement denials, one in 1997 when a chemical plant was turned down (at least at the time) for being a polluter, and once in 1996 when Albertson’s grocery stores was rejected for being unfair to existing grocers – the full story is beneath the More link for those who are curious.

It would seem, therefore, that denying such a request is unusual; at least, it would seem unusual enough to be newsworthy. What I don’t know is if this type of request is itself unusual. It’s not the kind of abatement request that was created in 1987 to lure businesses – it appears to be more discretionary. Looking around more, it appears that any taxing agency can grant such a requst, then other taxing agencies who have a piece of the action have 90 days to decide whether or not to go along.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, my gut says the following:

1. The denial of a tax abatement requested in this fashion is uncommon, though perhaps not as a percentage of the request total.

2. The Commissioner’s Court is playing hardball, but it’s more of a turf thing than a partisan thing, since neither El Franco Lee nor Sylvia Garcia seem particularly upset.

3. Mayor White probably screwed up, though it doesn’t appear to be terribly damaging to him so far and it may have been more in reading the Court than in dotting I’s and crossing T’s. I’ll bet he never makes this mistake again.

Probably more than you wanted to know. Sorry about that. Got a bit carried away.

(more…)

Felo de spam

Here’s a new variant on malevolent email that I at least haven’t seen before:

Dear user of “Offthekuff.com” mailing system,

Your e-mail account has been temporary disabled because of unauthorized access.

Advanced details can be found in attached file.

Have a good day,

The Offthekuff.com team

Now, obviously, if my email account had been disabled, I wouldn’t be able to log in and see this message. Plus, all the stuff from my webhost is very clearly identifiable as coming from them, and more specifically from their domain. Still, it took me a second because the message is a bit shocking, and it’s not like I’ve never experienced mail issues before.

The attachment is a PIF file, which those of you who don’t remember the Win 3.1/DOS days may not realize is basically a command file for DOS. I didn’t bother looking too closely, but it probably does something pleasant like delete a bunch of files or some such. Many corporate email servers block PIFs because of this.

So consider this a public service warning. You’ve probably heard it often enough to block it out completely, but never open an attachment in email unless you know what it is and why it was sent to you. Don’t be the cause of your PC’s implosion.

Whoever said snarkiness couldn’t be a force for good?

The Poor Man has decided to harness the power of honest competition and good old fashioned trash talking for the purpose of raising funds for John Kerry. Dean and Clark supporters in particular should take note. Check it out.

Select Committee report

The Select Committee on School Finance has issued its final report (PDF) for your perusal. Individual pages load really really slowly for me, so I haven’t given it more than a quick glance as yet. I will note, as the Quorum Report did, that none of the Democrats on the committee, not even Ron Wilson, signed the thing. More on that in a bit.

There’s some news coverage of the report now. First, from the Star Telegram.

A joint committee of House and Senate members worked on the report for more than six months. But Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, one of four Democratic lawmakers on the panel, said the report still leaves too many questions unanswered. “In terms of eliminating Robin Hood — we are concerned about what system is going to take its place,” Lucio said. “Will we have as much or more equity as what we have now? The direction we’re going is vague. It has not given me enough information.”

Committee co-chairwoman Rep. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the report represents a road map — not a final destination. Over the months, she said, panel members managed to eliminate some taxing options while focusing attention on others.

“I would have liked for us to be much more specific in our proposals, but I think we needed to be general,” she said. “I think the specificity needs to come from the Legislature itself when we create the new system.”

In other words, the report is basically another recapitulation of the problem and some general hand-waving at solutions, but no actual policy recommendations. We’re still a long way off from anything resembling consensus, let alone legislation.

The report by the Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance calls for a reduction in local property taxes and an end to the share-the-wealth school finance system that redistributes tax revenue from property-wealthy districts to property-poor ones.

It said that the state should increase its share of funding for education and that lawmakers should consider cutting local property taxes in half. Such a move would require the state to find another $7 billion in annual revenue, Shapiro said.

The report does not state how to accomplish those goals, but it restates various funding options that have been considered for months.

Among them: increasing the sales tax, expanding the sales tax to include various services, creating a statewide property tax, creating separate tax rates for individuals and businesses, increasing taxes on cigarettes, and allowing video lottery terminals at horse and dog tracks.

None of that is anything like new information.

More reasons why the Democrats demurred in the DMN:

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said the report very forcefully called for elimination of “Robin Hood” provisions in the current finance law but was less specific on what will be used to preserve equity once Robin Hood is gone.

“I have problems with making Robin Hood the villain when more than 80 percent of our students in the state benefit from that requirement,” she said. “The committee should have outlined an equity standard in its goals.”

The senator also said she had concerns about proposed relaxation of class-size limits in elementary schools and the possibility that one recommendation could be used to justify a new voucher program for private schools.

Rep. Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi, said she was unhappy with a funding adequacy study done for the committee that was based on a standard of 55 percent of students passing the state achievement test.

“One of the things we need to do is boost student performance across the board,” she said. “We need to look at the full spectrum of students.”

The DMN also gives some numbers:

Of the various revenue options, there has been widespread support for raising the state cigarette tax – now 41 cents a pack – and authorizing video gaming at racetracks. A $1 increase in the cigarette tax would raise an additional $1 billion a year, and the new gambling option would raise another $600 million.

Those two revenue-raising proposals were the only ones listed in the report as sources of new funding for schools. The others, such as higher sales taxes, would be used to replace revenue lost through a reduction in school property taxes of up to 50 percent.

A spokesman for low-wealth school districts questioned whether the $1.6 billion in new money would be enough.

“It will not generate enough money to do what needs to be done,” said Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center, which represents hundreds of low and medium-wealth districts.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Cigarette taxes and gambling are just too volatile to be dependable annual revenue sources. Haven’t we learned anything from the history of our state Lottery?

The Longview Journal has some more specifics on the numbers, while the Tyler Morning Telegraph has an interview with Sen. Todd Staples on the report. Check out the Telegraph’s headline, which really doesn’t fit the story they actually print at all.

Getting back to QR, it also has this interesting nugget:

Last week, Governor Rick Perry laid a proposal on the table capping local property tax appraisals at 3% a year. The cap barely covers the historical rate of inflation.

We asked Stuart Greenfield, Ph. D. to comment on the current effort to address the various proposals facing a likely special session of the Legislature. Greenfield brings excellent credentials to the table. He was the Chief Revenue and Economic Forecaster for the Comptroller’s office from 1977-1986. He returned to the Comptroller’s office in the 1990’s to work on the Texas Performance Reviews.

Two of Greenfield’s more startling conclusions are that property tax cuts could actually result in higher taxes for most homeowners and rather than the rich subsidizing the poor, most of the proposals currently on the table would have the middle class subsidizing the rich.

I presume that it’s a combination of a reduced property tax, which necessarily means a smaller federal income tax deduction, plus an increased and/or expanded sales tax, which generates the higher tax burden overall. I’m a little too lazy to work through the math on the effect of just the property tax reduction, but I have a hard time believing that the concurrent increase in one’s income taxes would completely offset it.

And before anyone asks, the reason the rich make out better in these proposed schemes is simple: They spend less of their money percentage-wise on items that fall under the sales tax than the rest of us do. Combine that with a proportionally bigger break on property taxes, and voila.

Thanks again to Brandy for the heads-up on the report.

Off to Washington Monthly

Kevin Drum has made his move over to Washington Monthly, where he will be blogging under the title “Political Animal”. (Is it just me, or is anyone else surprised to realize that no one else had claimed that moniker before now?) Anyway, I’ve put that link under the Pros on the sidebar. I’m keeping the old Calpundit link on the main blogroll for now, since he says he’ll still post there occasionally. Update your links as you wish.