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March 2nd, 2004:

Yet another overview

The Texas Observer moves the ball farther forward in the TAB/TRMPAC scandal. Among other things:

– The Travis County grand jury expires at the end of March, so any indictments handed down should be made public before then.

– The investigation may eventually touch Attorney General Greg Abbott due to the late intervention of the Law Enforcement Association of America.

– Some people are still attempting to reap benefits from Speaker Craddick’s ascension in 2002:

Ben Streusand has long been fascinated with politics. In the Houston offices of Home Loan Corp., the mortgage-lending firm he heads, hang signed letters by Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. A large man with a jovial smile, Streusand has worked for years as a Republican fund-raiser in Houston. He is the kind of essential cog in the Texas Republican political machine that links the elected officials with their corporate contributors. On October 12, 2002, about a month before the election, Streusand sent a letter addressed to: “Tom Craddick, Texans for a Republican Majority.” Enclosed was a $5,000 check from Aegis Mortgage Corp. to TRMPAC. Streusand wrote, “Dear Tom: Rick Thompson is the President of Aegis Mortgage, a nationwide lender headquartered in Houston. Next time you are in town I would like you to meet him.”

Streusand declined to respond to four calls seeking comment.

Since a number of corporate privateers and other special interests cashed in on the 78th Legislature, it stands to reason that Streusand would get his piece as well. And indeed, Streusand has benefited nicely from the efforts of Craddick, DeLay, and TRMPAC. He’s running for Congress in the newly redrawn, ultra-conservative 10th district that runs from north Houston to Austin. He’s leading in the polls and favored to beat his seven Republican opponents in the primary, which in that district, essentially hands him a U.S. House seat. As for Craddick, his acceptance of at least $5,000 in corporate money on behalf of TRMPAC doesn’t square with his post-election claims that he wasn’t involved with the PAC.

There’s no “essentially” about the 10th CD, as there’s no Democratic opposition. I’ve seen Streusand’s idiotic TV ads, in which he seems to think that the budget deficit can be blamed on discretionary spending (see Calpundit for the real story), and those were enough to convince me that he’s the second-worst candidate after John Devine. If he winds up in Congress, there really is no justice.

Anyway, a good solid read for all interested parties. Check it out.

Happy Independence Day

That would be Texas Independence Day, and today is the 168th anniversary of this state’s declaration of independence from Mexico in 1836. Too bad there won’t be a parade.

AUSTIN — Longhorn-riding cowboys, honky-tonkin’ Alvin Crow, and the big beats of the Aggie and Longhorn bands normally pulsate down Congress Avenue on the second day of March.

But, on this Texas Independence Day, one of the capital city’s grandest parades has fallen silent.

Money mixups and miscues conspired to pull the plug this year on Austin’s big bash paying homage to Texas’ 1836 declaration of independence from Mexico.

[…]

Large observations of Texas Independence Day are not observed statewide. Aside from the Austin festivities, Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park near Brenham, where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed, last weekend hosted its celebration with historical re-enactments and craft demonstrations.

Backers of Austin’s Independence Day celebrations hope to make them as important in the future as San Jacinto Day in April is to Houston or annual Fiesta celebrations are for San Antonio, said Harvey Ford, chairman of the board of Celebrate Texas.

In Houston, where San Jacinto Day is more widely celebrated than Texas Independence Day, neither the city nor county has an official observance planned. However, there will be San Jacinto Day ceremonies April 21 at the San Jacinto Monument.

Celebrate Texas’ push for more Independence Day festivities, which began in 1999, wasn’t initially met with open arms by city officials, Ford said.

“We never got a warm, fuzzy feeling from the city about what we were doing,” he said, speculating on why schoolchildren no longer celebrate the holiday as he did growing up in Texas.

“I guess that could range anywhere from being politically incorrect or a lack of people trying to preserve our unique history,” he said.

The Austin City Council had contributed in the past, but this year its belated financial support came too late.

The Independence Day parade and a fun run the next day would have cost nearly $15,000, a bill the city pledges to pick up in the future. In previous years, the city has contributed, if not always fully funded, the event.

Oops. Well, Pete has some alternate suggestions for would-be celebrants, and Norbizness has some links to follow if you want to do some reading on the subject. Of course, if you’re here in Houston, you could just drive up I-45 and wave to the statue of Sam Houston.

The best Texas Independence Day ever was in 1986, because it was the Sesquicentennial. That was cool because how often do you get to use a word like Sesquicentennial in everyday conversation? The only thing better was when Rice University celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1987, as that was its Demisesquicentennial. As noted by the MOB, that was the same year that SPAM celebrated its 50th anniversary. What more do you need to know?

Will they or won’t they?

If that pension shortfall problem isn’t enough to raise your general stress level, how about that oft-promised special session on school finance reform, which still may or may not happen, especially now that they have other things to worry about?

With April 1, once a target date for a session, now only a month away, there apparently is still no agreement among [Governor] Perry and legislative leaders, much less rank-and-file lawmakers, on a new funding plan.

The focus on education, moreover, also is being challenged by a criminal investigation into 2002 campaign spending that recently was expanded to include House Speaker Tom Craddick’s race for presiding officer.

Craddick, who turned over records related to his speaker’s election to a Travis County grand jury last week, insists he did nothing wrong. Meanwhile, he has been meeting with legislators about school finance.

But some people who have been around the speaker said he has seemed fretful, perhaps fearing that Democratic legislators would use a special session to make frequent political attacks against him and other Republicans over the fund-raising issue.

“Some Democrats will be throwing tomahawks and spears,” state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, predicted.

But he said the main problem was a lack of agreement on how to replace the current school finance law, which requires wealthier school districts to share tax revenue with poor districts.

Well you know, they could have taken care of this during the regular session as they promised they would. The Senate did its part just to see Perry and Craddick publicly piss all over their efforts. The powers that be very likely wouldn’t have come to an agreement, even without the sudden shift of focus to redistricting, but at least they could say they tried and made progress.

Do I think this will affect the 2004 Legislative races? Maybe a little, but probably not too much. I figure the suburban districts that are really hot for Robin Hood’s death are unlikely to toss out any Republican reps at this time (if ever). If this gets punted to 2005, it should be an issue in the next statewide election, unless of course a plan gets passed that people actually like. The pressure will increase on Governor Perry the longer this takes, but any viable challenger to him who wants to use this as a club will have to have a palatable plan of his or her own. Whatever else you might think, that’s a tall order.

In the end, I believe that some variation of the Dewhurst plan, which broadened and increased sales taxes while cutting property taxes, will get passed. Perry will claim his share of credit for it regardless, and the bidness lobby will accept the closing of the franchise tax loophole (yet another thing that should have been done last year but wasn’t) with much grumbling. As always, getting there will be most of the fun.

One point five billion

The projected shortfall in the city employees’ pension fund is now $1.5 billion, and there’s a mad scramble to come up with ideas to fix the damn thing. Nobody’s committing to anything other than ruling out a property tax hike, which, let’s face it, would be political suicide.

There are three things in this story I want to comment on. First:

An actuarial report prepared for the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System in 2001, when the biggest changes were made, said the city could afford the changes. But by late last year, the forecast had changed drastically.

And a constitutional amendment, ratified by state voters in September, keeps cities from rolling back pension benefits they’ve already given to workers.

This may be a semantic quibble, but the “forecast” didn’t change in the sense that the conditions which affected the long-term numbers suddenly became very different. I’m quite certain that a true and accurate forecast in 2001 would have been about the same as the one that came out late last year. What really changed was the identity of the person or persons doing the forecast, from someone with a cranial-anal inversion to someone who knew how to work a calculator.

As for that Constitutional amendment that was ratified in September, the reason you don’t remember anything about it is because that was the same election that featured the tort “reform” amendment Proposition 12. Though I strongly suspect that a seemingly innocuous amendment like the one that now shackles Mayor White would have gotten overlooked in just about any election, I do wonder if pushing it back to November might have given the competent forecasters enough time to figure out and warn about this mess we’re facing. Oh, well.

One more thing:

Towers Perrin, the firm that prepared the 2001 actuarial report, has declined to comment on the major revision it made to its forecast last year.

I’m just curious here, but since I haven’t seen any mention of it yet, I’ll ask: Do these guys have any liability for their role in this debacle? What is the likelihood that the city will try to shake a few dollars loose from them as part of an overall solution, and what is the likelihood that they’d be successful? If nothing else, at the very least they ought to refund the fees we paid them for their lousy advice.