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January 29th, 2005:

And then there were three in HD121

One of the two Republicans in the special election for HD 121 has dropped out and will endorse the other, though his name will remain on the ballot.

“I believe that the Democrats are waging a very strong campaign, and I do not want even one vote displaced for a Republican in that district,” said [Glen] Starnes, a financial adviser.

The election is Feb. 5; early voting runs through Tuesday.

Starnes, 39, was one of two Republicans seeking the seat. The other, Joe Straus III, already has garnered key endorsements from elected area leaders, including U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth and County Commissioner Lyle Larson.

Starnes said he plans to add his name to the list of endorsements and actively campaign for Straus, 45.

Because the ballots already have been printed, Starnes’ name will remain on the ballot, and his vote totals will be reported election night, said officials with the Bexar County Elections Department.

Also on the ballot are Democrat Rose Spector, 71, and independent Paul Silber, 80.

In 2002, total turnout in this district was 49.2%, with about 41,000 ballots cast. Former Rep. Jones, running unopposed, got about 30,000 votes. In 2004, she got 47,000 votes out of 66,000 cast. At a wild guess, I’d peg purnout for this special election in the 5-10% range, or between 4000 and 8000 total votes. Under those conditions, as we’ve said before, anything can happen. Making sure people know to vote, and getting them out to vote, will be everything. Click here if you want to help Rose Spector do that.

Plastic surgery tax

From the Creative Revenue Streams Department:

Lawmakers trying to plump up the bottom line are considering a “vanity tax” on cosmetic surgery and Botox injections in Washington, Illinois and other states.

[…]

The tax would not apply to reconstructive surgery for, say, burn victims or women who have undergone mastectomies.

In September, New Jersey became the first and so far the only state to tax plastic surgery, at 6 percent. The tax is projected to bring in $25 million a year.

In Illinois, the state comptroller has proposed a 6 percent tax on cosmetic surgery to create a stem cell research institute. If the Legislature approves, the question could be put to the voters in 2006.

In California, the very capital of cosmetic surgery, such procedures are tax-free.

Melissa Wilson, executive director of the Texas Society of Plastic Surgeons, said that, so far, Texas lawmakers have not suggested such a tax here. However, with other states considering it, Texas may not be far behind, she said. “We know because of the school finance issue that legislators will be looking for any and all sources of income,” Wilson said, adding that the society opposes the tax.

Man. We could fix the school finance system on the revenue generated from Houston alone.

Jokes aside, the point here is that the service side of our economy grows, proposals to tax portions of it will increase. Sooner or later, some legislator will realize that services as a whole should be treated as goods have always been and propose an overall change to his or her state’s sales tax structure. And really, why should lipstick be taxed but not liposuction? Why tires but not tuneups? We’ve had some preliminary discussion on this in Texas, and I daresay it will get a longer look this time around.

Building influence

Here’s an interesting article from the This Week section of the Chron regarding an acrimonious and public battle between a disgruntled homebuyer named Jordan Fogal and the builder who constructed her house, Tremont Homes. The basics of the feud involve claims of defects with the house, a demand to have it bought back by Tremont, and a refusal to use binding arbitration, which is a standard part of most new-home contracts. I’m in no position to judge who’s right and who’s wrong, but I think the following illustrates pretty clearly why many people don’t trust the arbitration process, and why I have a fair bit of sympathy for them.

[William S. Chesney, III, a lawyer for Tremont] said groups like [Homeowners for Better Building, or HOBB] have a skewed view of the arbitration process and in doing so, convince people like [Jordan] Fogal that what they need to do is force builders into buying back a home instead of getting to the bottom of the problem and fixing it.

“It’s customary, if not exclusive, to have arbitration provisions both for homeowners and builders to get quicker and more expedient resolutions to what would otherwise be a 2-3 year court process,” Chesney said. “HOBB thinks 12 people on a jury is better than an independent arbitrator. (Fogal) found HOBB, and HOBB said, ‘This is the position you need to take,’ so she did.

“When she started having some problems, she quickly went to ‘buy back my $360,000 house.’ ”

Said [Charles Turet, another lawyer for Stature and Tremont], “HOBB likes the emotion of 12 people who don’t have any real knowledge of the situation over an impartial arbitrator who isn’t going to be swayed by the emotional argument and is just going to look at facts and determine the best and easiest way to solve the situation.”

Turet, along with being a lawyer for Tremont and Stature, is also an arbitrator for [American Arbitrators Association, or AAA].

Let’s start with the baseless attack on civil juries, something that I’ve noted before. Just once, I’d like to see a reporter ask someone who offers such an opinion if they hold similar feelings about juries in criminal trials. It’s not as if prosecutors haven’t played on the odd emotion or two in search of convictions, yet somehow no one credible seems to think that we ought to scrap that system in favor of judge-only trials. Attacking juries like this is cynical, dishonest, and really quite insulting, since after all everyone reading this is a potential juror. That this now seems to be a standard talking point for the homebuilding industry certainly doesn’t give me any faith in their preferred system of arbitration.

But what really gets me is the last quoted sentence. The lawyer for the builders is also an arbitrator for the AAA, which is the group used to rule on these builder/buyer disputes. If you were brought up on criminal charges, how much faith would you have in getting a fair trial if the judge were an assistant district attorney? Yet here we have an attorney for the homebuilders who also rules on disputes involving homebuilders. Why should anyone outside the industry have any reason to trust this? Remember, restricting access to the courts is something that builders have actively lobbied for, and one of the extra rewards they got for their efforts (and campaign contributions) was a seat on the Texas Residential Construction Commission, the governing body that sets the rules for how these disputes get resolved (see here and here). So again I ask, why should anyone trust this?

As I said, for all I know in this particular instance, the buyer has been irrational and the builder has acted in good faith every step of the way. Without knowing for sure that that’s the case, though, it’s hard for me to sympathize with the builder.