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March 12th, 2004:

McCourt memoir

I see that Frank McCourt is dipping into the memoir well once again.

Frank McCourt thought writing a novel would be a liberating experience, but the award-winning author said on Thursday he has abandoned that project in favor of something more familiar — another memoir.

McCourt, whose 1996 memoir “Angela’s Ashes” sold millions of copies and won a Pulitzer Prize, said he was uncomfortable writing fiction and will write about his own experiences in “Teacher Man,” which he hopes to complete by November.

“I tried it but it didn’t work,” McCourt told Reuters in an interview when asked about his planned foray into fiction.

“Reality kept intruding. So it’s back to the memoir.”

The novel — intended for Simon & Schuster imprint Scribner — was going to be based on his 30-year career as a high school teacher in New York.

“I wanted to write a novel because it would give me greater scope to deal with various situations and people,” he said, with a trace of disappointment.

“The memoir limits you, because you are dealing with people still alive, so you have to tread cautiously. It’s mostly about my experiences in the classroom.”

McCourt, 73, who took up writing after his teaching career, said reliving his time in the classroom had proved rewarding.

“I think it’s the story of what I learned as a teacher,” he said. “While teaching I was discovering myself. If you can have even a bit of that experience you’re lucky in this life. It’s better than therapy.”

He took the title for his new work from his old students.

“‘Teacher Man,’ that’s what the kids used to call me,” he said. “A lot of Hispanic kids would call you ‘Teacher’, or ‘Teacher Man’, or ‘Yo!”‘ he said with a laugh.

McCourt taught in four different city high schools, starting at McKee Vocational in Staten Island and eventually settling into the academically elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where he taught for 18 years.

I thought “Tis” touched on his teaching experiences, but I guess it left off there. As a Stuy alum and former student of Mr. McCourt’s, I’ll be very interested to see what names and incidents I might recognize. In particular, I’d love to know what he thought of either of our stuffed-shirt principals. (William? Julia? Anything you’d like to see in this book?)

Oh, hell, it’s Friday

I’ve had my fill of the serious. Time for the strange.

Whatever you do, don’t offer to take Norbizness to lunch at Schlotzky’s.

Only Larry could find a story like this: Nun Faces Jail For Drunk Tractor Driving. If this isn’t turned into an Xtreme Sport reality show on Fox Sports by next week, God will call me home.

Whatever else you do, don’t ask Jack what kind of DVDs he’s playing in his minivan. (OK, technically he doesn’t have a minivan, and those aren’t his DVDs. Work with me here.)

Pete proposes his solution to the federal budget crisis. That sounds way more serious than it is, so don’t be intimidated.

That’s all I got. Happy Friday.

Skilling trial delayed

Apparently, there’s a buttload of paperwork that no one particularly feels like wading through about now. Who can blame ’em? It’s Friday. Pop open a cold one and relax. We can always do this later.

TRMPAC roundup

All sorts of stuff for your perusal regarding the many interesting activities of Tom DeLay and his band of acolytes. First up is this Salon piece which look at the TRMPAC grand jury investigation and predicts that indictments will be handed down shortly. Get yourself a day pass or sit through the ad if you’re not a Premium subscriber and check it out.

Next is this Texas Observer story, which connects the dots between a campaign fundraising tour by Susan Lilly (the consultant who has already admitted to being paid with corporate funds) and Houston Rep. Beverly Woolley, and legislation that got passed last spring which was greatly beneficial to the sources they tapped. Be sure to check out the itinerary and the notes they scribbled about what their benefactors wanted.

Also of interest in that story is this bit about a visit to Charles Hurwitz of Maxxam, who also owns Sam Houston Racetrack Park and has been agitating for an expansion of legalized gambling that would benefit his business.

In a rare defeat for a TRMPAC sugar daddy, efforts in the 78th Texas Legislature to allow video poker at racetracks were introduced with much fanfare and then failed to go anywhere. Interestingly enough, today, as the GOP leadership casts about for a way out of the state’s school finance crisis, gambling is looking ever more alluring. (One strong proponent of legalizing some gambling to pay for public education is Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who received $50,000 from the Maxxam political action committee in 2003. As recently as January, the comptroller expressed her views on the subject at the Texas Thoroughbred Association’s annual meeting and awards banquet held at Hurwitz’s Sam Houston Race Park.)

I can just see Rick Perry accusing Carole Keeton Strayhorn of being in the clutches of corporate special interests in the 2006 Governor’s race. My irony-o-meter is already pegged.

Finally, the Travis County DA’s office has subpoenaed records pertaining to previous speaker’s races from Pete Laney and Edmund Kuempel. Speaker Tom Craddick’s defense team has been floating the “everyone else did it!” argument for his fundraising and disbursing activities, so the DA is looking at what these guys did to see if there’s any merit to that. As always, stay tuned. Latter three links via the Quorum Report.

More school finance stuff

If you had any optimism about the potential of a special session on school finance reform to actually improve schools and funding for them, Governor Perry was in town to kill all hope of that.

Perry wants to limit home appraisal increases to 3 percent a year, make elected officials responsible for appraisal values and cap local government tax collections unless voters approve additional taxes.

Perry also promised to decrease school taxes and get rid of the “Robin Hood” system of school tax distribution, which shifts money from rich districts to poor ones. He offered no specifics on how much taxes would be cut or where he would get funding to replace the money lost in the cuts. He said his plan will be “revenue neutral.”

“We need more education for our money, not just more money for our education,” he told a crowd of hundreds that spilled out of an auditorium at Bayland Community Center in southwest Houston.


Perry’s plan was immediately attacked by local government groups, who called it “potentially dangerous.”

Donald Lee, executive director of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, said the governor’s plan “fails to address the root causes behind high property taxes and instead paints all local elected officials as irresponsible. The proposal ignores the fact that tax increases at the local level have been driven by decisions at the state level.”

Lee added that a particularly expensive natural disaster could force a city to wait until the next election before having enough money to proceed with recovery plans.

Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, urged legislators to avoid hurting city finances as they try to solve the school finance problem.

“Cities collect only 15 percent of property taxes in Texas while schools collect more than 60 percent. The municipal share of all property taxes fell from 20.3 percent to 15.3 percent from 1985 to 2002,” he said. “Texas cities hope that lawmakers won’t confuse Robin Hood with the folks that fix your potholes.”

Houston Mayor Bill White, who faces a budget shortfall and is considering employee layoffs, bristled at Perry’s approach and said local governments should have more control over revenues, not less.

“The biggest help we can get out of Austin is fair reallocation of the funds that go from this area to Austin,” he said, adding that transportation money is sent to Austin and divvied up.

“If we didn’t have that gap … we could have significant (decrease) of property tax rates,” White said.

The mayor did not offer any figures to prove his claim, and a spokesman for the state comptroller said he is not aware of any figures that support White’s position.

Perry scoffed at his critics, calling them proponents of big government.

“They’re not just thumbing their nose at me,” he said. “They’re thumbing their nose at you and millions of Texans.”

Under Perry’s plan, local governments would not be able to collect taxes that exceeded a certain amount based on inflation and population growth unless voters approved higher taxes. The formula for determining the cap has yet to be worked out. If revenues were higher than the allowed amount, the tax rate would automatically be rolled back.

It amazes me that as Houston is in the midst of a fiscal crisis brought on by the artificial statewide imposition of a constraint on its ability to control costs, Perry is proposing the artificial statewide imposition of a constraint on cities’ abilities to control revenues. I know what happens to those who forget the past, but what about those who forget current events? Make no mistake, the cities themselves understand what Perry is doing, and what the effect will be on their finances.

Meanwhile, back at the Capital, those who will have to do Perry’s dirty work listened to some expert testimony about the actual effects of property tax caps.

Precise elements of tax and funding ideas being mulled by the 14-member Select Committee on Public School Finance remain unresolved — including projected costs.

Once fiscal details are known, “it’ll be a rude awakening, I’m afraid,” said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who leads the panel with Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington.


Rice University economist George Zodrow presented the cost of replacing school and other revenue based on a state estimate of $7.1 billion to cut the 2002 average school M&O tax rate of $1.46 per $100 valuation to 75 cents per $100 valuation and $1.9 billion to eliminate the corporate franchise tax.

Zodrow rated the efficiency, equity, simplicity, stability and deductibility of 10 tax options for the committee, which has a goal of completing its suggestions to lawmakers by next week.

You can read Zodrow’s report here (PDF). It’s long but readable. I’m about halfway through.

He did not spell out a favored mix of taxes, but Zodrow indicated the economy would benefit from broadening the sales tax to more items purchased by consumers and said that a value-added tax applied to business would be simpler to administer than the franchise tax.

Conceding that creation of a state personal income tax is “anathema to many Texans and to virtually all Texas politicians,” Zodrow said it would still prove easy to collect and give taxpayers a deduction on federal income taxes—unlike sales taxes.

Citing research by the Comptroller’s Office, Zodrow said a flat personal income tax, including all deductions and exemptions allowed under federal tax law, would yield $3 billion a year for each percentage point of tax. A tax rate of 2.75 percent would raise $8.1 billion a year.

That’s a point I’ve raised before. All academic, of course, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Shapiro said the final version also should suggest creation of a statewide property tax for education, one element in a Senate-approved plan last year.

She said she would favor expanding the sales tax to consumer services such as haircuts or manicures, but would oppose expanding the sales tax to legal fees and real estate because such changes would “hurt business.”

I think that’s exactly backwards, but until someone does a price-elasticity study it’s just my opinion and hers. I will point out, though, that according to the Comptroller’s office, taxing legal services would generate $806 million for 2004-05, taxing new residential construction another $513 million, non-residential construction $310 million, and residential repair and remodeling $158 million. On the other hand, taxing barber and beauty services would generate just $113 million. Seems to me you’d want to go where the money is, but what do I know. See page 22 of this report (PDF – page 15 of the PDF file) for the chart.

More analysis from the Center for Public Policy Priorities can be found here and here. Agendas and meeting handouts from the Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance are here. Major thanks to my friend Brandy, who’s been sitting in on these hearings, for the links.