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January 12th, 2005:

And the Brazosport News

Naturally, as soon as I hit Publish on that last post, I realize I should have noted that I’ve also started reading The Brazosport News, which returned from a multi-month hiatus in December. You want to know about the City of Freeport red-light district or who Andrea Yates’ mom and brother blame for what happened, Banjo Jones is your man.

The Red State and By The Bayou

Couple of new and new-to-me Houston blogs to check out. First is The Red State, run by Eddie Rodriguez, who used to work for State Rep. Carlos Uresti (D, San Antonio) and served as the Chief Clerk for House Committee on Human Services during the 78th Texas Legislature. He also worked on Hubert Vo’s campaign, and he’s the founder of the Houston chapter of Drinking Liberally. Among his recent entries are a listing of some Bills of Ill Repute to watch out for in the 79th Lege.

Closer to home (for me, anyway) is By the Bayou, whose author John lives in the Heights. He’s got a review of Hotel Rwanda, a tale of walking in Houston, and two posts on Strange Household Objects that…well, just go look and see for yourself.

Anyway. Good stuff at both places, so check them out.

NCAA academic reform

Some long overdue reforms are looming for NCAA Division I member institutions.

On the last day of the NCAA convention, the Division I Board of Directors approved the Academic Progress Rate (APR), the standard teams in every sport must reach beginning in the 2005-06 school year to avoid scholarship reductions.

Schools will receive warning reports in the next few weeks that let them know which of their teams fall below the APR set by the Division I Committee on Academic Performance. The rate is based roughly on a 50-percent graduation rate over a five-year period.

The Academic Performance Program applies to every men’s and women’s sport — more than 5,000 teams at the 325 Division I schools.

[…]

The so-called “contemporaneous penalties” are considered rehabilitative in nature and expected to serve as warnings for teams with poor academic performance. Such penalties could begin after December 2005.

Another phase of the program will be historical penalties, which will be more severe and directed at schools with continued problems. [The] committee is still working on the penalties, and they will have to be approved by NCAA directors later.

[…]

The APR will be based on the number of student-athletes on each team who achieve eligibility and return to campus full-time each term. There will also be a longer-term graduation success rate.

Beginning next fall, teams that fall under a minimum APR will lose scholarships when players who are academically ineligible leave the school. Such scholarships can’t be re-awarded for a year.

[…]

Teams that continue to have problems will be subject to the more severe penalties once the “historical penalties” are put into place.

Consecutive years of falling below certain academic standards would lead to recruiting and further scholarship restrictions. A third straight year could lead to being banned from preseason or postseason games, and a fourth would affect Division I membership status.

I’ve long felt that certain minimum academic standards should be a requirement for postseason play in the NCAA, so I like the overall direction of these reforms. I’m actually a little surprised there hasn’t been more of a hue and cry about them, since a fair number of schools would be affected by them right now.

More details in this DMN story. Also on the table for later on is a change to the requirement that a Division I-A school must maintain and average attendance of 15,000 for football to stay in Div I-A.

When the board meets in April to vote on legislation that came through the convention, it also will reconsider amending or eliminating a 2-year-old bylaw that went into effect last fall requiring Division I-A football programs to average at least 15,000 in attendance.

The first failure to do so would put a school on a 10-year probationary period. A second failure during the period would result in a bowl ban. A third failure would result in reclassification to I-AA.

Five schools – four in the Mid-American Conference plus Middle Tennessee State of the Sun Belt Conference – unofficially fell below that figure last season.

The closest of the 10 Division I-A programs in Texas to falling below the requirement was North Texas (15,184). Rice was next (17,652), followed by SMU (17,706) and Houston (21,167).

The board also will look at adding rules to help football programs currently in I-AA. That could include allowing I-A schools to count victories over I-AA schools against the six needed to be bowl eligible.

That last bit is a sop to the big conferences and their non-elite schools who need every non-conference win they can get to fill out those seventh and eighth guaranteed bowl spots. The good of the other two items outweigh that one by enough to keep me from gritching too much about it.

More deals in the works

We know that Sears and Diversified Collections Services have cut deals with the Travis County DA’s office to get the charges related to TRMPAC dropped in return for cooperation on the case. Now we see that progress is being made with the other six indicted corporations.

According to documents filed in Travis County District Court, two companies accused of making illegal political contributions have “flipped” for prosecutors in the past month, signing deals requiring them to cooperate in exchange for dismissal of their cases.

The agreements were signed with Illinois-based Sears, Roebuck and Co. and DCS Inc., a debt-payment company based in California, and say the contributions were given “on the basis of false and misleading information provided by the fund-raiser that solicited the contribution.”

Sources close to the investigation said this week that similar deals were being negotiated with some of the remaining six companies indicted late last year: the Williams Companies Inc., Bacardi USA, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, Questerra Corp. and Westar Energy Inc.

The companies that could be reached declined to comment, as did Gregg Cox, director of the Travis County district attorney’s public integrity unit and a leader of the investigation.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said information gleaned from the companies could be used as leverage to pressure remaining defendants and, potentially, to target more powerful members of the Republican Party in Texas and in Washington.

That’s a mighty big “could” in that last paragraph. I don’t doubt there’s a strong incentive on both sides to make a deal. The only question is whether or not any bigger fish are catchable as a result. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Stakeholder points to the full LATimes story that the Chron excerpted. I’ll echo Kevin’s comment below.

And they’re off

And so the 79th Texas Legislature is officially in session, with the usual pronouncements of bipartisanship, Serious Talk about Serious Solutions to Serious Problems, and miscellaneous pomp and circumstance. Let the wild rumpus begin!

Three new Houston legislators were among those sworn in yesterday, including Melissa Noriega, who is pinch-hitting for her husband Rick, currently serving in Afghanistan. We’re still two weeks away from the hearing for the Heflin contest. Hubert Vo will be a full voting member (except, of course, for the contest itself) until then.

Here’s an item for the new Lege that I hope we can all get behind.

The Texas House and Senate may adopt rules later this week that will require more votes to be recorded and make it easier for the public to track those votes online.

Texas is one of nine states that does not require lawmakers to record all of their votes. Legislators often take voice votes, which are not recorded for public view.

The only votes required to be recorded are committee votes and proposed constitutional amendments, which require approval of two-thirds of the members.

Though legislation has been filed to require all votes to be recorded, the issue also could be addressed immediately through rules changes. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on rules for each chamber Thursday.

There are some grumblings that what has been proposed isn’t enough, but it’s at least a start.

Finally, the United Ways of Texas is blogging the 79th Lege. The first entry is here. Looks promising, but if anyone can tell where their blog index link (and RSS feed link) is, I’d be obliged if you could point it out to me. Via Sarah.

Better than a sharp stick in the eye

Comptroller Strayhorn has given her revenue report to the Lege, and it’s much better than the last time.

Strayhorn estimated legislators will have $64.7 billion in state revenue to spend in the upcoming two-year budget — $6.4 billion more than they had in January 2003.

But whether that means lawmakers are in the black for the 2006-2007 budget is in the eye of the beholder.

Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders told state agencies to cut 5 percent out of their current budget to use as a starting point for budget writers. This would put it in the black by billions of dollars, but the surplus would rapidly disappear as the Legislature added spending.

Strayhorn made estimates based on current state spending levels plus money to cover population increases in public schools and social services. She said that would leave a $400 million surplus.

But advocates for the poor said Strayhorn’s revenue estimate is at least $7 billion in the red if the state wants to maintain current services and restore cuts made during the 2003 session. And that does not include increased funding for Child Protective Services, teacher health insurance or to lower public school property taxes.

The urge to restore CHIP funding will put things back in the red on its own, and that’s before anyone mentions school financing or property tax cuts (remember, every ten-cent reduction in property taxes is a billion dollars in lost revenue). Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has said he expected a shortfall of a billion or two; I think in the end he’ll have been optimistic. Still, this is better than starting out $10 billion in the hole.

As always, this is a campaign opportunity for Strayhorn:

“No matter how strong our economy is, fixing our broken school finance system cannot be done within our existing revenue estimate,” Strayhorn said. “There is no shortfall when it comes to the budget. There is a shortfall when it comes to the governor’s leadership.”

Strayhorn said Perry needs to immediately restore funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, fully fund teacher health insurance and give teachers a $3,000-a-year pay raise.

Those proposals would cost almost $3 billion more than her revenue estimate, but she said they could be funded by adopting a $1 a pack increase in the cigarette tax, legalizing video lottery at horse racing tracks and closing franchise tax loopholes.

“The governor (in 2003) championed a budget with $2.7 billion in new fees and charges and out-of-pocket expenses, and balanced the budget right on the backs of our school teachers and our most vulnerable Texans,” Strayhorn said.

This session is going to be such fun, isn’t it?

UPDATE: Lasso has some editorial reaction to the announcement of the “surplus”.