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March 4th, 2004:

Consultants deny responsibility for pension plan screwup

Towers Perrin, the firm which gave us that bogus report on pension fund costs, says that the city did too know that its liability was going to skyrocket.

In its first public statement, actuarial giant Towers Perrin said “those involved in negotiating and implementing the benefit improvements … understood that this would be the ultimate effect.”

Reaction was swift from city officials now trying to deal with the pension program’s shortfall, currently projected to be as much as $1.5 billion through 2022.

“Nobody ever advised us that we had near this kind of obligation,” said Anthony Hall, city attorney under Mayor Lee Brown and now Mayor Bill White’s chief administrative officer.

“People would have been out of their minds to know this and proceed,” he said.

“The Towers Perrin report of February ’01 speaks for itself,” Mayor White said through a spokesman.

In that report — an analysis of legislation in Austin that would increase pension benefits for Houston city workers — Towers Perrin predicted that the city would not chip in more than 14 percent of its payroll toward the pension through 2009. On that basis, city officials agreed not to oppose the legislation.

But by last fall, Towers Perrin had revised the city’s expected contribution to the pension fund to be a maximum of 42 percent of payroll. As an example, the contribution for 2009 would be $204 million from taxpayers instead of the previously estimated $94 million.

In a two-page statement, released from its headquarters in Stamford, Conn., Towers Perrin implied that the city should have known about the expected impact. Its statement said that in February 2001, the same month the firm issued its report, the state Pension Review Board issued an independent opinion that “underscored the inherent uncertainties involved in projecting actual future costs of benefits.”

Indeed, the actuary from competing firm Milliman USA said the Towers Perrin assumptions were “very optimistic,” according to a copy of the opinion obtained by the Chronicle.

The Towers Perrin statement went on to say that in November 2001, the firm revised its estimates based on another year of the pension’s experience and “again reflected the need for increased city contributions.”

That report came out after the bill was passed into law, however. And while it reflected a higher contribution rate, the maximum rate was predicted to be 20 percent, not the 42 percent Towers Perrin predicted last fall. The payment for sample year 2009 was $120 million, not the later-revised $204 million.

“They had a chance to give a good (report) well after the legislative session was over, and that one wasn’t even close either,” said Philip Scheps, the city’s former director of finance and administration.

A spokesman for Towers Perrin said he could not comment beyond the written statement.

Yeah, I’m sure. I think Mayor White nailed it with his comment. I do think everyone involved back in 2001 should have questioned that optimistic forecast a lot more closely, but based on this story it’s hard to see how Towers Perrin didn’t drop the ball.

Getting Kinky again

Yet another profile of Kinky Friedman, self-proclaimed independent candidate for Governor of Texas in 2006.

For all of those wondering why the front man for the country music group ‘The Texas Jewboys’ wants to run the Lone Star State, Kinky will put down his cigar and say from under his 10-gallon hat: “Why the hell not?”

“I want to fight the wussification of the state of Texas. I want to rise and shine and bring back the glory of Texas,” Friedman said. “I am a writer of fiction who tells the truth.”

Friedman, whose first name is Richard but is known by Kinky and a few other names that are not publishable, does not have a campaign platform — mostly out of fear there may be a trapdoor somewhere underneath that will spring open and leave him swinging.

He writes a regular column for Texas Monthly magazine and is the author of 17 novels. His amusingly dark mystery “The Prisoner of Vandam Street,” comes out this month.

For the record, in order to fight the wussification of this article, in his mysteries (in which he himself is the sleuth), Friedman introduces himself (to women, anyway) as “Richard Kinky Big Dick Friedman”. Take that, FCC!

The article goes on to cover most of the same ground, and many of the same one-liners, that you could find in previous Friedman for Governor stories. We’re a long way from 2006, so it’ll be awhile before we know for sure whether this really is the start of a serious campaign or just a novel way of drumming up publicity. I’ll say this – if they make a reality show out of the Friedman for Governor campaign, I’ll watch. If they’re really smart, they’ll run it on HBO so Kinky can be his own true self.

Schools to serve less junk food

Texas school cafeterias have been told to shape up or ship out.

The new food rules limit everything from fund-raising bake sales to grams of fat and will have an impact on 93 percent of Texas public and charter schools, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.

French fries survived a no-fried-foods ban, to be phased in over five years, but will have to be baked and served no more than once a week to elementary schoolchildren.

Second helpings are out. Smaller portions for chips, cookies, bakery items and frozen desserts are in.

“This policy is the result of months of collaboration with experts and interested individuals around the state who consider children’s health and education a top priority,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs.

“We think this is absolutely achievable. We wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” she said.

[…]

The new policies take effect Aug. 1 for all schools that participate in the National School Lunch, School Breakfast and After School Snack programs. Combs said she’s releasing the guidelines now because districts are signing or renewing food service contracts with vendors.

Schools will face tough penalties for failure to comply with the new policy.

[…]

The guidelines call for 100 percent real fruit juice, skim and low-fat milk, fresh fruit and vegetables if possible and smaller sized soft drinks in vending machines in the high schools.

Candy is banned for elementary schoolchildren and restricted to after lunch for middle and high school students. All deep-fat frying is to be eliminated by 2009, limits are set for fats and sugars and schools must reduce purchase of products with heart-risky trans fat.

Franchise operations such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell would have to comply with the guidelines in order to continue operating in lunchrooms.

Schools with fryers will need to find ways to buy ovens.

“They’re not going to be able to sell fryers in the state of Texas. They’re making us phase them out completely,” said Terry Gooch, assistant director of the Texas Association for School Nutrition. “There’s not too many districts in the whole state that don’t have fryers.”

What little I remember of school cafeteria french fries tells me that this is no great loss. But what I really want to know is are there any new rules about Mystery Meat?

Primary primer

I’ve told you about Local Voter and its many useful resources for determining who your incumbents and candidates are. The folks at E-The People have also created some voter guides that are worth a look, for Houston (in conjunction with the Chron), Dallas (with the Morning News), and El Paso (with the El Paso Times).

The Houston voting guide, to which I gave a test drive, was easy to get started – just fill in your street address and ZIP code. It gave me a list of races for which I was eligible to inspect and approve. From there it got a little confusing, as it didn’t identify which party the primaries were for, and it mingled candidates for both parties in some of them, such as Sherriff, which threw me off at first. It only asks which primary you want after you choose the races you want. I’d have done it the other way around. It also couldn’t say which JP and Constable elections I’ll be voting in, something that Local Voter handled easily. Finally, it only showed contested primaries, a limited albeit resonable choice. As such, I recommend checking your information on Local Voter first – after you fill in your address and city info there, the page with your Local officeholders has a link to a list of candidates for your precinct, sorted by party, and including all Constable and JP races as well as uncontested primaries. I did this to verify that I do have a JP (he’s just in an uncontested primary) and that I’m in the Constable precinct I thought I was.

Anyway, once you get past all that, you’re presented with a ballot. You can enter a check mark next to the candidates you like, compare candidates on the issues, jot down notes to yourself, and print or email the ballot to yourself for later reference. If you email the ballot to yourself, it will contain a URL that you can bookmark. That’s the only way to save the page itself with your choices.

For those who care, my ballot is here. For other races, with the exception of choosing Alma Allen over Ron Wilson in HD 131, I’d go with the Democratic incumbents. I’d also go with Richard Morrison in CD 22 and Byron Barclay in HD 134. Whoever you go for, though, just make sure you do go. The Presidential primary may be over, but the voting is just beginning.

Rob has already done his, having heard about this from Jost. I heard about this via an email from the E The People folks. However you’re hearing about it, use it and Local Voter to get prepared for the voting booth. Early voting ends tomorrow.

The documents keep flying

More documents from the civil lawsuit against TAB/TRM were released Wednesday, and they appear to bolster the criminal case against those groups on charges of illegally using corporate money in the 2002 campaign. This is a really long post, so I’m going to put the bulk of it under the More link. Click on for the latest.

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