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January 10th, 2005:

Will any tax overhaul include farm exemptions?

One possible source of school finance revenue is a change to the way farmland is evaluated for property tax purposes.

[A] growing number of legislators would like to add a revamp of the agricultural valuations to the list.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said the state could add $400 million to its school finance coffers by tightening the law.

“A lot of weekend farmers get an ag exemption and agriculture is not their primary income,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “If we’re going to really, really examine school finance and our tax system, everything should be on the table. No sacred cows.”

Whitmire is one of several Houston-area lawmakers who receive ag valuations on property they own. He said his farm near Chappell Hill is not a weekend operation; he pays a family to manage 100 cows on 300 acres.

Across the state, $91 billion in property value is taken off the tax rolls. The loss in revenue to school districts tops $1.5 billion.

In comparison, the state-mandated $15,000 homestead exemption costs school districts statewide $1.1 billion.

The state’s reliance on local property taxes to fund nearly 60 percent of the $30 billion public school system has many homeowners straining under ever-increasing property tax bills. A homeowner with a large lot in an urban area pays full market value on the unimproved land.

And those getting the breaks are increasingly less likely to be family farmers and ranchers. According to the state comptroller, $409 million in agriculture productivity tax savings goes to out-of-state interests and $500 million goes to Texans whose family income is more than $90,000.

There’ll be resistance to this idea, partly because of the still-prevalent romanticization of rural life, and partly because there’s a lot of legislators from rural districts, but if everything really is on the table (no sure thing), it could go somewhere. Given that as the article notes many of these exempted farms are owned by corporations, including out of state corporations, there ought to be some room for negotiation. We’ll see.

Rock will return in February

Back when KLOL first switched formats, I thought that another station would eventually switch to a similar style to fill the void it left. According to this thread on the Houston Architecture Forum (which is a useful place to find all sorts of things about Our Fair City, btw), Power 97.5 is about two change to an “Adult Oriented Rock” format on February 15. How they will differ from the late, lamented KLOL is anyone’s guess at this point, but I’ll be prepared to give them a button on my car stereo.

There is some bad news, though: The new, as-yet-named station will feature Walton and Johnson in the morning. Which means I’ll not be tuning in until the afternoon.

(Look at the URL for that “News” link on the W&J page. Truly, anyone can be a blogger.)

Link via blogHOUSTON.

Why the Andrea Yates case still breaks my heart

Reading this article about how Andrea Yates is (according to her best friend) doing a little better now reminds me why after all this time I still get irrationally pissed off reading articles like this.

[O]ver time, Yates, who home-schooled her children and once agreed with Rusty to move the family into a converted bus, has expressed doubt about whether her husband always supported her.

Her friends and family have maintained he did not.

In a letter written to Bob Holmes in September 2003, Yates wrote: “Maybe sometimes I do wear rose-colored glasses regarding my husband but I have to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’

“I’ll ask him what was I like when I was sick? ‘Oh, like you usually are, just quieter,’ ” Yates wrote.

“Little Mary couldn’t bear to look at me — she’d cry,” the note continued. “I’d hold her outward so she didn’t see my face. So heartbreaking and tragic.”

After signing the letter, she asked Bob Holmes in a postscript to show Rusty compassion. “He has lost so much,” she wrote.

“All the ‘factors’ that contributed to the tragedy are complex and it wastes energy to assign ‘blame’ (ultimately I was the one who did it) but Rusty and I have lost our beautiful children,” she wrote.


[She] is interested in the efforts of the Yates Children Memorial Fund for Women’s Mental Health Education. The fund was established by the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston. In a letter to Debbie Holmes written shortly after their Christmas weekend visit, Yates expressed a hunger for more information about a statewide symposium the association had in November.

Holmes said that over the past three years, she and her husband have tried to convince Yates that she was severely ill in the months leading up to the children’s deaths. She said Yates only vaguely recalls that period and has been wrought with guilt.

“I told her, ‘Your speech, your breathing, your hygiene, your walk, your talk, your approach to your kids, everything wasn’t normal. There was nothing normal about you,’ ” Holmes said.

John would raise his hand over his eyes when he would talk to his mother, and Mary often cried in her arms, Holmes recalled.

Those memories make Yates sad to think what her children’s lives were like during those months, Holmes said.

But they also have empowered Yates to think about ways she can help prevent similar tragedies for other families.

She and Yates have talked about collaborating on articles about her mental illness, and Yates would like to eventually speak out in favor of better treatment for the mentally ill, Holmes said.

Parnham said Yates has expressed the same desire to him.

“She’s beginning to appreciate the fact that her situation could be possibly used as a learning tool for women across the world who suffer from the same kind of mental illnesses,” he said.

“All of this is looking at the lives of those five children and realizing that they will forever be wasted unless something good can come out of what happened at 942 Beachcomber on June 20, 2001.”

In my more charitable moments, I try not to demonize Rusty Yates for his role in this tragedy. It’s not like he hasn’t suffered as well – these were his children, too, after all. But the bottom line is that what happened at 942 Beachcomber did not have to happen. Andrea Yates was suffering from a treatable condition. She needed medication, she needed the full support of family and friends, she needed time to herself, and most of all, for the entire time that she was suffering she needed to never be left alone with her children. It’s Rusty’s fault that she didn’t get these things, as he was her primary (and for many things, only) means of support. It was his decision to stop medicating Andrea so she could get pregnant with Mary. I’d bet it was his decision that Andrea homeschool the kids. Andrea may not have known she was falling apart, but if Debbie Holmes knew it, Rusty must have as well. He failed her, and in doing so he failed his children. However much he may have suffered for the consequences of his actions, and however much I may empathize with his suffering, that fact is inescapable. And I’m angry now just typing those words.

I’m glad that Andrea wants to make something good come out of this horror story. Whatever peace she can find she deserves. May she live to make a difference.

Elsewhere, on the legal status of things, Tom points to this overview by South Texas College of Law (that’s here in Houston, btw) professor Dru Stevenson. One nit I have to pick with Prof. Stevenson is that Andrea Yates did not have postpartum depression, she had the rarer and much more malevolent condition of postpartum psychosis.

Women experiencing a psychosis are at risk of committing suicide and, in very rare cases, of harming their unborn child or infants. These women need to be hospitalized for their safety and to safeguard their infants.

This is a psychiatric emergency and the woman needs to be hospitalized immediately. Because of her confusion the woman may not have the insight to recognize how ill she is, therefore, the decision for hospitalization will be made by her physician.

But only if her husband lets her see a physician.

UPDATE: The DMN’s Steve Blow boils the appeals court’s ruling down to a simple question: “How much false testimony is OK?” Via Alan D. Williams.

For sale: Biosphere 2

Ed Bass is letting go of some property you might have heard of.

The company that owns Biosphere 2 Center, 3.1 glass-enclosed acres designed to simulate the Earth’s environment, has put the site up for sale.

The company is also selling 70 other buildings on the center’s 140-acre campus 16 miles north of Tucson, said Christopher Bannon, general manager of Decisions Investment Corp. of Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’d love to see the Biosphere 2 used as a research activity, but we know that may not be the end result,” he said last week.

Texas billionaire Ed Bass, president of Decisions Investment, spent more than $200 million to build Biosphere 2 in the 1980s as a prototype for a space colony.

The closed ecological site 16 miles north of Tucson contained miniatures of Earth’s rainforest, ocean, desert and other environmental features.

In 1991, eight “biospherians” were sealed inside for a two-year stay. But the project was plagued by rising costs and other setbacks and Columbia University assumed responsibility for the site under a management agreement, turning it into a research and education facility.

The relationship with Columbia ended in September 2003 and Biosphere 2 has been open as a tourist destination.

I took the tour of Biosphere 2 a decade or so ago while in Tucson for a wedding. Back then, you could only see it from the outside, so it wasn’t the most memorable experience I’ve ever had. According to this Slashdot thread, which includes commentary from someone who worked at B2 for awhile, you can now tour it from the inside. Alas, tourism wasn’t enough to keep it financially viable. No clue what a prospective buyer might do with it, but the suggestion of a reality TV show has some merit.

Tom Coleman’s trial begins

The perjury trial of Tom Coleman, the renegade undercover cop whose false testimony led to the wrongful conviction of dozens of citizens from Tulia, Texas, begins today. Guest blogging for the trial at Grits for Breakfast is the Rev. Alan Bean of the Tulia Friends of Justice. He’s got two entries up, here and here. He’s a natural at this, so I’m hoping he’ll come back again. Check it out.

December traffic report

Not too surprisingly, I saw a big dropoff in traffic from November to December. About 41,000 visitors came by last month, making it the second slowest month of the year, and that was after a late referral from Atrios. Everything is relative, of course – last year at this time I had 35,000 hits and it was my best month ever up till then.

Counting it all up for the year, I got about 535,000 hits, which is pretty amazing to me. As always, I thank you all very much for coming by. I feel very rewarded knowing that you do.

Top referrers are beneath the More link. Sadly, this month I seem to be deluged with spam domains in the referral stats that I get from my webhost. They don’t show up as Sitemeter referrals, which makes me wonder if they’re comment or trackback spams that got blocked by MT Blacklist but still counted as referrals by my host. I don’t know, but I do know that at the rate some of these are showing up, they may crowd out real referrers from the monthly total (I only see the top numbers). We’ll see what happens.