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March 23rd, 2004:

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.