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June 30th, 2005:

Really really last minute giving

There’s about an hour and a half in the Q2 campaign contributions period, so if you’re reading this before midnight (wherever you may be), you can still help some fine folks’ quarterly numbers. The Jeffersonian has a pretty good starter’s list for you. And if you don’t see this post until July 1 or later, fear not – it’s never too early to help out with the Q3 totals. Give now, give later, give what you can.

If you’re not ready to commit yourself to any particular candidate, an excellent alternate choice is the Texas Democratic Party’s Turn the Capitol Blue campaign, which is going on now through the end of this special legislative session. Andrew D has more on that one.

MLS in the Dome

I confess, I don’t pay all that much attention to soccer, so I haven’t been keeping up with this story.

The Astrodome might recover some of its faded glory if a Mexican club interested in bringing a professional soccer franchise to Houston has its way.

Club América, the Mexican First Division franchise that hopes to bring a Major League Soccer team to the Bayou City, has told city and county officials it would like its prospective Houston club to play at the former home of the Astros and Oilers. Officials with the Mexico City-based team, which is looking to buy MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes from the Anschutz Entertainment Group and relocate it to Houston, met this week with Mayor Bill White and officials with the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp.

MLS officials have expressed a preference for soccer-specific venues, such as a $45 million, 20,000-seat stadium and sports complex proposed in conjunction with the Houston Independent School District at the site of the current district-owned Delmar Stadium. But the 40-year-old county-owned Dome seems to be feasible for Club América.

“It certainly makes sense before you invest a penny in a new stadium to look at what’s already built, what’s available,” said Harris County-Houston Sports Authority head Oliver Luck, one of several city and county officials working to bring MLS to Houston. “I think it’s a smart idea to at least look at whether the Astrodome is a good short-term venue.”

Well, yes, the Dome is sitting there empty, waiting to be turned into a casino or a convention center/hotel or a space-themed theme park or whatever. That’s certainly cheaper than building a new stadium from scratch. Having attended the last rodeo at the Dome a couple of years back, though, I’m not so sure that you wouldn’t have to spend a few pennies to make it amenable to soccer fans. The old place had clearly seen better days since it got jilted by its former tenants. How much you’d have to spend, that I couldn’t say.

Anne, who was up in arms at the idea of HISD paying money for a stadium that a professional team would use, also wonders about the potential cost of sprucing up the Dome. It clearly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to put much money into what is clearly a stopgap solution, but let’s not forget, the Dome is currently costing Harris County one point five million bucks a year as it is. Given that, it’s not outrageous to me that spending a little money in order to generate some regular revenue and offset those costs a bit might make financial sense. Thus, I’ll wait to see what actually gets proposed before I worry about it.

It is curious to me that MLS turned to Houston after San Antonio shot them down.

Major League Soccer has pulled out of talks with San Antonio to locate a team in the city, saying local officials were not bargaining in good faith.
The Wednesday move came shortly after incoming mayor Phil Hardberger said at a news conference that the proposed deal with MLS didn’t make financial sense for the city.

“Goodbye. That’s what I would tell MLS,” Hardberger said.

But MLS officials said goodbye first in a terse letter to outgoing Mayor Ed Garza, a strong proponent of bringing pro soccer to the Alamodome.

[…]

Hardberger and several city council members criticized terms of the proposed deal, among them that the MLS team would get rent-free use of the dome.

Garza and MLS said an anchor tenant for the dome would help cut its operating costs and its annual deficit.

Garza questioned the abruptness of Hardberger’s decision to end negotiations. Garza said the 10-member city council also should have some say in the matter.

“What are the alternatives?” Garza asked. “To continue to lose money (on the dome) or to try to find a major league sports tenant that creates opportunities to make money.”

The Alamodome is an even bigger white elephant than our Dome, and it’s much younger to boot. You’d think there’d have been room for a deal there. Any San Antonians want to comment on that?

Last but not least, kudos to Lair for his prognostication skills. You called it, dude.

How’s it playing in Houston?

Everybody’s linked to the SurveyUSA 50-state approval ratings poll for President Bush, for which Garance has the best take, but what interests me is the results for Texas, where Dubya is pulling anemic (but not Perryesque) 50/47 numbers. Inside that is the total for Harris County, where Bush is in negative territory – 43% approve, 54% disapprove. I wish I could see earlier results, to get a feel for any trends there may be, but they’re not available. I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from this, especially not for the small Harris County sample, but I think it bears watching. File it away for later when we have more monthly data points to look at.

Ethics committee may be back in business

If you’ve been feeling lost and adrift since the House Ethics Committee went silent, fear not for their return may be imminent.

A partisan dispute that stalled a House investigation of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, moved closer to resolution Wednesday as Republicans dropped their insistence on a new staffing setup for the ethics committee, top Democrats said.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., bowed to Democrats’ demands that the committee hire a chief of staff who has bipartisan support and does not have partisan connections.

Hastings had sought to install his top aide as staff director, a plan that drew opposition from Democrats who alleged the move would violate rules adopted in 1997 that the committee be overseen by a “professional nonpartisan staff” approved by a majority of the panel.

[…]

After meeting Wednesday with Hastings, the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., issued a statement saying the two leaders had “reached an agreement in principle” regarding the hiring of a chief counsel-staff director.

The statement said that both Hastings and Mollohan also could appoint their personal staff to the committee but that those employees “would have no managerial or supervisory role over that professional nonpartisan staff.”

Mollohan added that “although we have made significant progress, our agreement is not final, as some issues require further discussion.”

There’s still a push in some quarters to install an outside counsel to investigate Tom DeLay’s global gallivanting, since committee chair Doc Hastings has his own issues to deal with in those matters, but that’s not one of the sticking points that Mollohan is referring to. The Hill has more on the agreement in principle, which sounds like it’s more or less in practice as well from their account.

Sam Rosenfeld makes a good point about this latest retreat by the Republicans.

It’s worth mentioning that over the course of the entire struggle over ethics procedures in the House, Democrats have managed to win, completely, every fight they’ve picked, forcing the Republicans to back off of every single endeavor they’ve attempted to water the rules down. Republicans retreated on the party rule change shielding indicted leaders; then they retreated on the proposed ethics committee change revoking the 30-year-old rule requiring that House members behave in a manner that “reflects creditably” on the institution; they passed and then reversed the rule changes allowing for legal counsel to represent multiple targets of an ethics investigation and requiring a committee majority, or both the chairman and ranking member, to greenlight an investigation. Now they’re backing off their attempt to politicize the committee’s staff. This kind of victory is one Democrats will want to savor.

Nicely done, ladies and gentlemen. Now keep at it.

(End note: I’m quite certain that The Stakeholder has a wealth of links on this subject today, but for some reason bringing up their blog has crashed by Internet Explorer the last two times I’ve tried it. I’ll check later when I’m at home and can use Firefox.)

Grilling Greer

Texas Lottery Commission chairman Reagan Greer was in the hot seat today as the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee looked into the expanding scandal over inflated jackpots. Among the latest revelations is an admission that they believe in killing the messenger at the TLC.

A former lottery official who was fired this month shortly after warning superiors about a projected jackpot shortfall said Wednesday that his termination came with no explanation and only about seven months after he received a positive evaluation and a 4 percent raise.

Lottery officials testified before a Texas House committee Wednesday that Lee Deviney was fired over a lack of confidence in his performance as the financial administration director, not the recent flap over inflated jackpots for the Texas Lotto game.

“The timing of this is very bad, and it’s unfortunate,” said Mike Fernandez, who supervised Deviney. “His release from the agency had absolutely nothing to do with this issue.”

Fernandez, the commission’s administration director, said he verbally warned Deviney about his job performance but never documented his concerns.

But Deviney said his June 14 termination came with no warning and soon after a June 3 e-mail message he sent alerting superiors that projected sales would not meet the planned jackpot estimate.

“I can’t say it was as a result of this, but I can’t say it wasn’t,” Deviney said in a telephone interview while vacationing in Colorado. “They didn’t say anything. I was handed a piece of paper by Mike Fernandez, and then he ran out the door.”

When he asked a human resources official why he was fired, Deviney said the official told him she couldn’t discuss it.

Deviney said he wasn’t shocked by his termination because firings aren’t uncommon in what he called a “generally hostile atmosphere” at the commission. He said he expected some repercussions after top officials learned of the shortfalls.

“I felt my job was just to alert them that we had a problem,” said Deviney, who was with the lottery for more than two years. “I was very concerned that someone’s head would roll and, in fact, somebody’s did.”

It was the wrong person’s head, unfortunately, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

OK, minute’s up: Reagan Greer has clearly demonstrated why he was unqualified for this job.

Executive Director Reagan Greer, who signed off on the overstated jackpots based on staff recommendations, reiterated his apology during testimony Wednesday before the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee.

Greer said he’d become comfortable in his position and stopped asking hard questions, but he maintained he never intended to deceive players.

Sure must be nice to have a job like that, where you can just settle in and coast after you’ve made yourself nice and comfy. This is all a nice way of saying Greer was lazy.

Deviney said he called lottery Executive Reagan Greer late in the afternoon of June 3 — a Friday — to express his concern that the $8 million jackpot estimate for the June 8 drawing would be off by $1.5 million. Because Greer had already left for the weekend, Deviney said, he put his concerns in an e-mail to Greer and other top lottery executives.

Officials could have pared down the estimate because advertisements for the June 8 Lotto drawings would not hit the billboards until after 10 p.m. on June 4.

At a contentious hearing before the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures, lottery executives acknowledged that Deviney had aired those concerns.

Greer also said that he did not read Deviney’s e-mail or hear about it from any other lottery executives until Monday, June 6.

Can we please make sure that the TLC has enough in its budget to buy its next director one of these?

Once Reagan Greer did get around to reading his email, he went ahead and approved the deception.

[TLC] Chairman C. Tom Clowe was asked by members of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee who specifically had deceived lottery players by advertising phony estimated jackpots four times since last fall.

Mr. Clowe answered: “The person who made the decision [to sign off on the estimates] … Reagan Greer.”

“The commissioners think this was deception and that it was wrong,” Mr. Clowe testified. “If those were my employees in the private sector … I would take the appropriate action and consider it a wrong act.”

Mr. Clowe stopped short of saying that Mr. Greer should lose his job over the issue.

Mr. Clowe knows what the right thing to do here is, but for some reason he can’t quite bring himself to say it. Alas, he’s not the only one to fall short.

State Rep. Ismael Flores, D-Mission, chairman of the committee that oversees the Lottery Commission, said he is not calling for Greer’s resignation, but reminded him sternly that other state employees have been fired for lesser mistakes.

“I know of a lot of employees that are doing something else because they made one, two, three mistakes,” Flores said. “I mean, I’m not asking for your resignation – but think about people doing something else.”

How many more mistakes does Reagan Greer have to make before he’s held accountable for them?

“If there is one agency that needs oversight, that’s the one,” said Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Tomball, who is not a committee member but sat in on the hearing and questioned officials. “I think the mismanagement in there is far more substantive, far more pervasive than any of the news stories have led me to believe.”

If so, maybe that’ll finally be enough to get Governor Perry to take responsibility for hiring Reagan Greer and do what needs to be done.

Notes from the consensus

Have we achieved consensus yet?

The House Ways and Means Committee passed a tax plan Wednesday with a steep hike in the sales tax that many senators oppose.

The plan closes loopholes in the corporate franchise tax without imposing additional business taxes that the House passed earlier in the year and that Senate leaders insist are essential to any new school finance plan.

Disputes between the House and Senate about how to pay for property tax cuts led to the failure of a school finance bill during the regular legislative session that ended Memorial Day.

[…]

Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said the Senate likely will substitute its own tax plan.

“The Senate is going to want to have a broad-based business tax in lieu of a 1-cent sales tax (hike),” said Ogden.

Lawmakers then would try to work out differences in a conference committee before the session ends July 20.

“It’s better to have a bill over here to discuss than have it blocked in committee,” said Ogden.

I admire your optimism there, Steve, but all I’m saying is this: Other than the passage of time, what has changed that would make these ongoing philosophical disputes easier to resolve?