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June 29th, 2005:

All hail the King of Plunk

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Craig Biggio, the undisputed modern day king of the hit by pitch.

Craig Biggio’s arm guard is headed to the Hall of Fame.

The way Houston Astros manager Phil Garner sees it, the player won’t be far behind.

Biggio set the modern record for being hit by pitches and added a solo homer, helping Roy Oswalt win his fourth straight start in Houston’s 7-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Wednesday.

“When you look at where he stands [with] offensive numbers, he’s pretty impressive,” Garner said. “The guys that are ahead of him are baseball icons that live forever. The guys that he’s passed and he continues to pass are baseball icons too. So he’s in high cotton he deserves to be there.”

Biggio was hit on the left elbow in the fourth inning by Byung-Hyun Kim, breaking Don Baylor’s post-1900 record of 267 times hit by pitches. Biggio calmly turned and trotted to first as he had so many other times, but this time he pointed to the ball and asked the ball boy to send it back to the Astros’ dugout as a keepsake for his years of pain.

“Anybody that’s been hit that many times, you have no understanding about how many times that is and how painful it is over the years,” said Biggio, who had two hits to move into 52nd place with 2,718.

Many of the fans at Coors Field gave Biggio a standing ovation, and Cooperstown asked for his arm guard. As for the ball, it’s headed home to his kids.

“My kids collect a bunch of stuff, it’s amazing,” Biggio said. “We have a rotation going on, I don’t know if it’s my daughter’s or my oldest boy’s — somebody is going to get it. They treat everything with respect, they respect the game.”

Baylor, now a Seattle Mariners coach, complimented Biggio.

“It was an honor to watch him play,” Baylor said before the Mariners played Oakland. “I’ve always liked his style. When he became a free agent, I tried to lure him to Colorado.”

He didn’t mind Biggio breaking the record wearing protective gear.

“It’s all right. I had a lot of close calls,” Baylor said. “Body parts are not going to Cooperstown. I got hit in the elbow, the back, the head, the shins. You play and prepare for the next at-bat. I never missed a game or an at-bat because of it, but I charged the mound a few times.”

Naturally, Plunk Biggio is there to celebrate. He also commemorates Biggio’s record-tying plunk from Tuesday, which represented the first time Bidge got dinged in Colorado.

Congratulations to Craig Biggio for your most endearing record-setting feat. Now go apply some Absorbine and get a good night’s sleep.

KBH’s veterans goofup

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is scrambling to cover a hole in the Veterans’ Affairs budget.

The Veterans Affairs Department will ask for an emergency infusion of cash to meet its health care expenses this year after pressure built in Congress to fill a $1 billion funding shortfall, a senator and other officials said Wednesday.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said the VA and White House agreed to seek emergency money after Senate Republicans moved quickly to add $1.5 billion to this year’s veterans budget.

[…]

The maneuver cut off Democrats preparing to pounce on the shortfall with their own spending amendment, demanding a $1.4 billion injection into veterans programs.

“I warned my colleagues that what was an emergency would become a crisis if we didn’t work together to address the problem,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “That emergency has indeed become a crisis.”

[…]

Democrats called the shortfall a symptom of President Bush’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq, as the president appealed for the nation’s patience for “difficult and dangerous” work ahead in Iraq.

“It’s distressing because our veterans deserve better than an administration focused on cutting corners and hiding costs while engaged in a war abroad,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.

[…]

About one-quarter of this year’s shortfall can be traced to an unexpectedly large number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, but overall enrollment by veterans of all combat eras has exceeded the department’s estimates.

The department said it used figures from 2002, before the United States went to war in Iraq, to project is 2005 budget needs, citing the federal government’s long budgeting process.

[VA Secretary] Nicholson told lawmakers the VA also needs $1.5 billion to fill expected health care needs next year.

That includes $375 million to refill the cushion that would be depleted this year; $700 million for the department’s increased workload; and a $446 million error in estimating long-term care costs.

Hold some of those thoughts for a moment.

VA Secretary Nicholson and Sen. Hutchison will be visiting Waco to see its VA hostpital, which is currently threatened by closure due to budget issues.

Waco VA Hospital advocates say the tour could be key to winning Nicholson’s support for the 73-year-old complex which has previously been marked for closure. Many say former VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi’s visit almost 18 months ago played a role in Principi’s decision to order additional review rather than closing or downsizing the hospital and hope the same will hold true for Nicholson’s tour.

“When Secretary Principi visited the VA at the request of Senator Hutchison and myself, it made a significant difference in his thinking,” said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who will join Hutchison in hosting Nicholson’s visit. “You have to see the Waco VA facilities and meet the employees to fully understand what a world-class facility we have.”

The VA and private contractors are considering downsizing several expensive hospitals including the Waco site and expanding others in growing veterans populations as part of a nationwide effort to improve veterans health care services.

[…]

Hutchison and Nicholson will arrive in Texas for a naming ceremony at a VA clinic in Lufkin for former congressman Charles Wilson, then fly to Waco for an afternoon stop, agency spokesman Ozzie Garza said.

The visit comes during a tough period for veterans healthcare, as Nicholson recently announced the agency is facing a $1 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year and could need an additional $1.6 billion in 2006.

Edwards, the Waco congressman, is concerned the shortfall could lead the agency to advocate downsizing the Waco hospital to save money.

“It would be the wrong reason, but if the VA is too underfunded, it would provide a rationale for shutting down or dramatically cutting back the Waco VA Hospital,” Edwards said.

Now, if we had some real coverage of the campaign for KBH’s Senate seat in 2006, we might have seen something like this in the newspapers.

US Senate Candidate Barbara Ann Radnofsky called on Kay Bailey Hutchison to do her homework. The Houston, Texas mediator and lawyer challenging Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) for her Senate seat, analyzed Sen. Hutchison’s June 23 claims concerning funding shortfalls for veterans, “after learning that the VA is approximately $1 billion short in 2006.”

“We’ve researched the issue on what the American Legion and others were explaining in terms of an even larger shortfall earlier this Spring”, said Radnofsky, 48, who is a practicing mediator and lawyer in Houston, Texas. “I call on Sen. Hutchison to explain why she ignored vital information explaining the crisis much earlier. Texans deserve a senator who will do her homework.”

“Sen. Hutchison is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. In a floor speech on April 12, 2005 opposing Sen. Murray’s Amendment for Emergency Supplemental Appropriations this year, she confessed to relying on the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Congr Record S3457, 3465 et seq), while major organizations had already uncovered the truth in terms of needs.” Radnofsky continued, “Had the issue of funding for veterans been presented to me as a sitting Senator, I would have vigorously done my homework. We expect our Senator to be an independent voice for Texans, not a rubber stamp for the administration.”

“The National Commander of the American Legion (which does not take sides in political races, nor endorse candidates, but rather is a voice for veterans and drafted the original GI Bill), Thomas Cadmus, issued a detailed statement on March 18, 2005 from his office in DC as follows: ‘The Senate’s budget resolution also ignored my funding recommendations for FY 2006. Every major veterans’ service organization that deals with the VA health care system every day recommended more than $2 billion in additional funding than offered by either chamber – without any budgetary gimmicks. Those young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda that I have visited did not shirk their duties and responsibilities, nor did the veterans of our earlier wars.’ ”

Here’s some more info on the Murray Amendment. One of the ways in which we’ve been shortchanged by KBH’s unchallenged reelection bid in 2006 is that we haven’t had any kind of critical look at her performance as a Senator. As with the moderate thing, she’s pretty much gotten a free ride since 1994. Well, I know that Barbara Radnofsky will do her part in holding up KBH’s record for scrutiny. The question is whether of not the media will take her effort seriously. If they keep up with this “everybody loves KBH” story line, we’ll all be the losers for it.

RIP, Edloe the cat

My sincere condolences to Lair on the death of his cat, Edloe. May he find many treats in kitty heaven. I’ll give Harry an extra Milk-Bone tonight in Edloe’s memory.

Oh, yeah, that Enron Broadband trial

I confess, I’ve sort of lost touch with the ongoing Enron Broadband trial. Like Tom, who provides us with a nice update on the case, I thought it would be closer to finished by now. Those poor jurors – I just hope they can get a few minutes of fame out of this when it’s all said and done. Anyway, Tom says things aren’t going as well as you might have thought for the prosecution. If they can’t bring this one home, what does that say about the upcoming Skilling/Causey/Lay trial?

More fame

KTRK’s Michael McGuff interviewed yours truly plus Kevin and Anne for a pretty spiffy article on the local blog scene. Reading through it, I’m reminded that I apparently haven’t lost my touch for giving colorful quotes:

“If there’s one way that I’d like to see blogging change the media landscape, it’s to provide some real competition for the professional pundits, many of whom in my opinion are partisan hacks and out of touch drones of conventional wisdom,” Kuffner said.

Guess I won’t be getting invited to any Professional Pundits Association dinners in the near future.

Regarding the sidebar links, I really do hate to give a list of favorite bloggers. Even restricting myself to only Texas blogs, there were easily another ten or twenty I could’ve included had I been permitted to do so. There’s a reason my blogroll and Bloglines subscriptions list are so long. The tips for new bloggers and message about copyright are also worth reading. Check it out.

Truth in Lotto advertising

Oh, I hope someone liveblogs this.

Texas lottery officials could face tough questions and some nasty wrist-slapping today when they testify before lawmakers about inflating several Texas Lotto jackpot estimates.

But they would face more scrutiny under a bill filed Tuesday that forces the lottery to comply with laws against deceptive trade practices.

Sen. Jane Nelson said recent revelations that lottery officials advertised bigger jackpots than they could afford to pay out jeopardize the integrity of the game and the government that sanctioned it.

“It was deceptive. How can you put up a billboard that says you’ve got $8 million in the jackpot when they only have 6.5 in the kitty?” said Nelson, R-Lewisville. “If the public is not confident that what we’re advertising is accurate, you will see, I think, sales will drop to a much greater extent. People have to have confidence, and if their government isn’t being honest, then we’re in bad shape.”

[…]

The lottery’s executive director, Reagan Greer, and several other lottery officials and staff members were expected to testify about the jackpots and other issues in today’s meeting of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee.

Speaking of the unqualified Reagan Greer, I just now realized that I’d overlooked the fact that the jackpot overstatement was not a one-time incident.

Nelson’s measure, Senate Bill 52, was filed just days after the three-member Texas Lottery Commission took Executive Director Reagan Greer to task for advertising the June 8 Lotto jackpot at $8 million even after it had become apparent that ticket sales would not support a grand prize of more than $6.5 million.

Under sharp questioning from the commissioners, Greer and other lottery executives acknowledged that they had inflated jackpots on at least three other times. The acknowledgement drew a stern rebuke from the commissioners, who said that lottery players have the right to demand truth in advertising from the agency.

And of course, it’s even worse than that:

Texas lottery officials were explicitly warned last year that ticket sales might not be enough to fund advertised jackpots, but they took no action to prevent it.

Months later, the warnings proved true, and the lottery’s executive director, Reagan Greer, nonetheless approved advertisements for inflated jackpots.

A March 23, 2004, memo shows that Mr. Greer and other top officials were given specific notice of the looming problem.

“This puts the agency in a position where we are advertising a jackpot amount (e.g. $8 million) that we may not be able to support,” wrote Robert Tirloni, the lottery’s online product manager.

[…]

In his memo, Mr. Tirloni proposed a number of measures to firm up finances. One suggestion – allowing for up to eight jackpot increases to be guaranteed by the agency’s budget, rather than ticket sales – could pose a “precarious public relations situation,” he wrote.

Currently, four straight increases can be funded by agency money. After that, a winner is guaranteed a percentage of ticket sales.

Mr. Tirloni also suggested cutting the size of jackpot increases between drawings with no winner, but he noted that might push lotto sales down even further.

Between Nov. 3, 2004, and June 11, 2005, the underfunding scenario Mr. Tirloni warned of occurred in four jackpots, though none featured a winner.

[…]

At a Jan. 7 Lottery Commission meeting, concerns about underfunded jackpots in other states were raised, according to a meeting transcript.

Mr. Greer has discretion to set jackpots. At that meeting, he and other top agency officials rejected a “hard-line” formula by which jackpots would rise or even fall depending on ticket proceeds.

“The advice that I have gotten up to this point has been very good, and, again, this has not been an issue,” Mr. Greer said, even though by then, a November jackpot had been inflated. “I do have a comfort level with what the rule is now and appreciate the fact that in my position as executive director, I have that discretion.”

I think it’s long past time for Mister Greer to be shown the door.

If executive director Reagan Greer doesn’t resign, the Texas Lottery Commission should fire him. Only a change in top leadership can properly send the message that the state of Texas stands for honest and fair games.

[…]

Hat in hand, Mr. Greer admitted to surprised lottery commissioners – his bosses – last week that he approved four inflated jackpots since the fall. He conceded that he should have “more closely” examined staff recommendations to routinely boost jackpots after nonwinning drawings to generate interest in the game. Yet the same Mr. Greer also said top officials knew more than a year ago that lagging sales eventually would fall behind jackpot needs.

[…]

The attorney general’s office is juggling a hot potato in this case – an allegation of fraudulent advertising by the state itself. If fair is fair, state officials need to be held as accountable as a grocer with the habit of deceiving customers by putting his thumb on the scale.

The lottery also faces tough questions today at a House committee meeting called to look into these shenanigans. Here’s a suggestion for panel members: Ask Mr. Greer if he would patronize a business that made false claims in its advertising.

Amen to all of that. I’d just add one thing: When is Rick Perry going to demand an acceptable level of accountability from his hand-picked Lottery chief?

School finance heresy narrowly defeated

If you’re wondering how the whole consensus on school finance reform thing is going, here’s a clue: The House just passed the same plan it had put forward during the regular session.

House Bill 2 would cut school property taxes by 40 cents per $100 of valuation and spend $2.5 billion for teacher pay raises, new programs and technology.

It would delay the start of school until after Labor Day and replace the 11th-grade standardized test with subject exams.

The legislation also would institute state and local incentive-pay programs for teachers and allow struggling schools to be turned over to private companies. Teacher and education groups are opposed to the measure, which is substantially the same as one passed by the House during the regular legislative session earlier this year.

“This will do more to improve education in the state of Texas than literally anything we’ve done in the last half century,” said bill sponsor Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington.

The bill would lower the maximum school operations tax from $1.50 per $100 property valuation to $1.10 in 2006. With voter approval, districts could impose local enrichment taxes up to 15 cents per $100 of valuation.

It also would limit, but not eliminate, the amount of money that property-wealthy districts have to send to less wealthy districts under the so-called “Robin Hood” provisions of current law.

School districts would be guaranteed an increase of at least 3 percent, an amount critics said would barely cover inflation and doesn’t meet the education needs of the state’s 4.3 million schoolchildren.

“It is arguable whether the money has kept pace with the students, the tests, the mandates,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

Next up is a tax reform plan, which is where the real bones of contention between the House and Senate exist. The Senate was originally inclined to spend more on education, but eventually gave up and bowed to Craddick’s will on the subject.

What the House very nearly did was pass the Democratic alternative, which to say the least would have livened things up a bit.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said the Democrats’ plan would provide more money to three out of four school districts than offered by HB 2. It would provide greater funding for urban districts that have large populations of low-income students.

The Democrats proposed cutting the school operations tax rate by only 20 cents but increasing the homestead exemption from $15,000 to $45,000.

The Democrats said their plan would provide greater tax relief to owners of average-priced homes while the Republican plan would benefit owners of higher-priced homes.

Craddick said last week that he was opposed to the Democrats’ plan because it would not provide a significant tax break to business property owners.

Hochberg’s amendment would have given teachers a $3,200 raise phased in over two years, compared with an average raise of $1,500 in Grusendorf’s bill.

I’m glad that the differences in priority are so clearly defined. While the national Democrats are still figuring out what it means to be an opposition party, the folks here seem to have a pretty decent grip on it. What’s more, they’ve got some traction – twelve Republicans voted for their plan, which forced Speaker Craddick to cast a tiebreaker against it.

Unfortunately, you have to go to the Statesman story to learn a key feature of the Democratic plan.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said the Democrats’ plan would give larger tax cuts to the average homeowner in 144 of the state’s 150 House districts. He also said three-fourths of Texas school districts would see more money under his plan than under the GOP plan.

I’m thinking that may have been a part of the reason that a dozen Republicans crossed over.

More commentary from Greg, Houtopia, Nate, PinkDome, Dos Centavos, and Aaron Pena. Latinos for Texas discusses a different Democratic alternative.

UPDATE: There is a story on the accompanying House tax plan as well. Like its sibling, this is another warmed-over rerun.

A revised tax proposal, similar to Gov. Rick Perry’s plan for property tax relief, surfaced in the House on Tuesday, as Ways and Means Chairman Jim Keffer tried to break an impasse on the tax-writing committee.

The plan includes an increase of 1 cent per dollar in the sales tax, a slightly bigger increase than advocated by Perry, but it incorporates the governor’s more limited approach to business tax changes. It would close loopholes in the corporate franchise tax rather than impose a broader business tax, which the House approved in March.

It also would reduce local school taxes by about 30 cents or 35 cents per $100 valuation over the next two years, the goal sought by Perry.

Keffer, R-Eastland, said the revised plan was a potential “avenue” to a tax agreement during the special session, which the governor called after the House and Senate were unable to agree on a tax overhaul before the regular session ended May 30. The proposal may be discussed by the Ways and Means Committee today.

Keffer said he was trying to “mix and match” ideas to win enough votes to advance a tax bill to the full House for debate. Tax bills must originate in the House, and the special session must end by July 20.

The plan is still in committee. That 1 point increase in the sales tax was a nonstarter in the Senate, and I doubt it will be any more well-received this time around.

George’s successor

I’m relieved, yet a little bit disappointed, to hear that George Steinbrenner has named his successor.

With his 75th birthday approaching next week, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner made it official Tuesday: Son-in-law Steve Swindal will follow him as head of baseball’s most storied team.

Steinbrenner did not say when Swindal would take over. At a news conference on June 15, Steinbrenner mentioned in passing that Swindal was “going to carry on.”

“Yes, Steve will be my successor,” Steinbrenner said through spokesman Howard Rubenstein in an e-mail response to questions from The Associated Press. “I also have other sons, daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law coming along and they will remain involved. As I have said many times, ‘You must let the young elephants into the tent.”‘

Swindal, 50, is married to Steinbrenner’s daughter, Jennifer. He said there was no way he would be as hands-on as his father-in-law.

“I think that’s impossible. My inherent style is more delegation,” Swindal said Tuesday during a telephone interview from Tampa, Fla. “I don’t think there could ever be another George Steinbrenner. He is Mr. Yankee and has represented them for 32 years. I could only could only hope to surround myself with the best, brightest baseball minds and do a lot of listening.”

Swindal said Steinbrenner had told him he would be the successor.

“We’ve discussed that all the kids would be involved at some point in running the team and everybody would contribute,” Swindal said. “It just happens at this point in time my kids are further along, and I can spend more time in New York. The other boys have younger children, and they have to stay closer to home.”

On the one hand, as a lifelong Yankees fan, I’m glad to see that there’s an orderly plan for succession when George is no longer around. There’s more than enough chaos surrounding my favorite team – we really didn’t need an ownership fight on top of it all, whenever that might have happened.

On the other hand, I must admit, this could have been the mother of all reality TV shows. “Who Wants To Be A Megalomaniac?”, “George’s Apprentice” (that Trump guy has nothin’ on King George when it comes to firing people), “Survivor: The Bronx” – the possibilities are endless. Oh, well. Maybe next time.