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March 15th, 2006:

No sales tax increase?

The Texas Tax Reform Commission has held its last public meeting, and their current proposal for how to abide by the Supreme Court ruling on Robin Hood does not include increasing the sales tax as a component.

[TTRC Chairman John] Sharp said that his committee will spend two weeks finishing its proposal but has a preliminary consensus that it will include:

•Reduction in local school property taxes of about one-third, which would lower the current rate of $1.50 per $100 valuation in most school districts to $1 per $100. Total tax relief would be nearly $5.9 billion.

•A revised business franchise tax on the gross receipts of most businesses – excluding sole proprietorships and companies earning less than $300,000 annually – after either employee compensation or the cost of goods are deducted, depending on the type of business. Companies and partnerships that deduct employee compensation would pay a 1 percent tax, while mass retailers, wholesalers and others that deduct the cost of goods would pay a half-percent tax. The new business tax would produce an additional $4 billion a year.

•A $1-a-pack increase in the state cigarette tax, raising the total tax to $1.41 per pack. The new levy would generate an additional $800 million a year.

•Use of $1 billion of the state’s $4.3 billion surplus to help offset the reduction in school property taxes. Only about $2.2 billion of that amount was not previously committed by the Legislature, but Mr. Sharp said his advisers believe the surplus will grow an additional $2 billion to $2.5 billion in the current biennium – leaving sufficient funds for other programs such as education reform.

The tax revisions and surplus would produce about $5.8 billion to pay for the property tax cut.

I’m a little skeptical of any plan that involves the use of a surplus, because we’re only three years removed from having a $10 billion deficit. Where’s that billion going to come from in the next biennium? If we were talking about spending it on mostly one-time items, that would be different, but one presumes this property tax cut is intended to go forward. Obviously, we don’t have the TTRC’s report yet, but color me wary at the outset.

Another ponderable is whatever happened to the idea of extending the sales tax to services? When that idea first surfaced in 2003, statistics about how the goods-based sector of the economy was shrinking while the services-based sector was growing. Surely that hasn’t changed since then. Is that still up for consideration?

Finally, Sharp takes aim at the snake currently lurking in the weeds:

Meanwhile, as the special session approaches, a group of House Republicans has been trying to drum up support for a temporary fix that would use more than half the budget surplus to reduce property taxes by about 20 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Supporters say that would allow lawmakers to avoid a big tax bill in the special session and finish the job in the 2007 regular session.

Mr. Sharp, a Democrat, said that would be a big mistake and could leave the state with a deficit – especially if lawmakers can’t agree on a new tax system in 2007.

“That’s how you wind up getting yourself in big financial trouble,” he said.

Again, any solution based on using surplus funds is questionable at best, and let’s face it – the best (possibly only) reason for “finishing the job” in 2007 is that it occurs after the 2006 election. It’s also not at all clear to me that such a procrastinatory fix would satisfy the court’s mandate. All in all, this is an idea that should not be taken seriously.

Webb County officials complain about voting machine problems

You may recall that Primary Day results in Webb County were delayed due to voting machine problems. Yesterday, the Laredo County Commissioner’s Court held a hearing on this, and it got a bit heated.

When Chris Moody, the Texas director for Election Systems and Software, came to the podium to offer an explanation, he simply stated that they had not expected to use flash cards to record the votes. The plan was to use the personal electronic ballots (PEBs) that they trained county officials to use.

A flash card is installed in each electronic machine, and records the votes cast. A PEB is a device that is used to read all the machines from a particular precinct. Due to a programming error, the PEBs could not be used and tabulators had to read each individual flash card, significantly delaying the vote tally.

After Moody’s brief explanation Monday, dead silence ensued. Then Carlos Villarreal, county executive administrator, stormed to the podium and angrily told the court, “I think you need more explanation.”

[Commissioner Jerry] Garza responded that he remembered officials with the company coming to Webb County every two weeks to lobby the county to buy their equipment.

“Then we cut you an $800,000 check, and that’s it,” Garza said. “That’s not acceptable.

“It’s absurd. You promised us the world, and we got nothing.”

Oscar Villarreal, elections administrator, later said county officials were trained how to use the machine three weeks ago, and were not trained to use flash cards because they were only to be used in emergencies.

There was a representative on site Election Day from Election Systems and Software, but Moody said that employee was not trained to use flash cards, either.

When asked what the company would do about the runoff, Moody said he, personally, would be in Laredo to assist with any technical problems.

Part of the reason for the heat was that a couple of the members of the Court had just gotten unelected on Tuesday, so some feelings were still a little raw. If it makes anyone feel better, the legally mandated random audit they did of one race, the Supreme Court Place 2 election, gave the same result as Election Day.

Now any time one blogs about electronic voting machine problems, one will get an earful of suspicion and doubt about them with varying ranges of intensity. My biggest concern is what I perceive to be a lack of redundancy in the system. It’s nice to know that if the PEBs fail you could still count the votes from the individual flash cards, but what happens if a flash card fails? I support equipping all electronic voting machines with printers like the ones on ATMs so that each voter also creates a paper record of his or her vote. Whether that serves as a backup/sanity check for the system or they’re counted as the “real” votes doesn’t matter to me so much as the idea that there’s a separate system in place to ensure integrity in the event of a problem with the machinery. Admittedly, this would not have sped things up in Laredo, but at least it would have put to rest any questions about the actual vote totals.

It should be noted, as this earlier story points out, that paper ballots are not immune to problems, either.

The final vote for 49th District Court judge was not released until Wednesday night because of a problem in Zapata County.

Doroteo Garza, Zapata County Democratic Party chairman, said that while the county’s delay was the result of new equipment, it was not the fault of the new electronic voting machines.

It was actually a machine used to scan paper ballots at each of the polling sites that caused the delay. Although machines were used at each of the sites, it was only the one at Precinct 4 that gave officials problems, Garza said.

In Zapata County, when the voter uses a paper ballot it is put into a machine that scans it and puts it in a sealed box. But the machine in Precinct 4 began to act up when a voter’s ballot was dropped into the box. The machine began to kick the ballot submitted previously out of the box in order to add the new one.

Garza said those ballots that were spit back out were taken and put in another slot for “spoiled ballots.”

Because of the defect, the ballots had to be manually counted, but the numbers didn’t add up and Zapata officials had to call technicians in from Heart Graphics, which provided the machines.

“We brought in the experts because they wanted to make sure everyone got a fair deal,” Garza said. “That’s why it took so long.”

Speaking as an IT professional, redundancy is your friend. Equipment sometimes fails. That’s just the way it is. You have to be prepared to overcome it when it does happen. Really, I think the biggest problem here was that there was no one from the vendor onsite during the primary, when all this new machinery was being used for the first time. It’s nice that they’ll be there for the runoffs, but they blew it by not being there last Tuesday. That should have been a requirement in their contract.

Finally, while the focus was on Laredo because of the CD28 primary, Webb County was not the only place to encounter glitches.

The error caused Tarrant County to report as many as 100,000 votes in both primaries that never were cast, dropping the local turnout from a possible record high of about 158,103 voters to about 58,000.

Because the errors added votes equally for each candidate, the glitch did not change the outcome of Tarrant County races but narrowed the margin of victory in some statewide races. In the close Republican primary race for Texas Supreme Court, for example, incumbent Don Willett edged past former Justice Steve Smith by only about 1 percentage point with the corrected vote tallies.

The math geek in me feels compelled to point out that if the same number of votes went to each candidate, the margin of victory would have remained the same if by “margin of victory” you mean “vote differential”. If instead you mean “percentage differential”, it would have actually increased once the repeat votes were removed. This is an application of what an economics prof of mine called “the Pete Rose Theorem”. It works like this: If Pete Rose enters a game batting .300 and he goes one for four, his batting average at the end of the day will decrease; this is because “one for four”, or .250, represents a smaller ratio of hits to not-hits being added to his existing total, which in turn reduces his overall ratio, which is expressed here as his batting average. Had he gone one for three (.333), his average would have gone up. In this case, since Willet’s percentage before the repeat votes were added was above 50%, adding the same number of votes to his total and to Smith’s (i.e., 50% to each) would have lowered Willet’s ratio of votes to not-votes, while raising Smith’s and thus do the same to each person’s percentage of the vote.

To make up an absurdly simple example, imagine Willet beating Smith two to one. That means 67% for Willet and 33% for Smith. Now add one vote to each person, so that it’s 3 to 2 in favor of Willet. Willet’s percentage then declines from 67 to 60, while Smith’s climbs from 33 to 40. Do it again so that it’s 4-3 for Willet, and the percentages become 57-43. Play around with it yourself and you’ll see what I mean. Bottom line, Willet’s percentage of the vote was higher, and Smith’s was lower, after the extra votes were removed, not the other way around.

Anyway. Thanks to commenter Chito for pointing me to the original Laredo Morning Times link.

If not now, then when?

I was forwarded an email about a fundraiser for Missouri Senate candidate Claire McCaskill earlier today. I could whine about Texas being everybody’s donor state, but this happens all the time around the country. Besides, McCaskill is a strong candidate with a real shot at knocking off the incumbent Republican Jim Talent; Rasmussen has her leading by three points, with the rolling three month average tied at 43-43. This is a seat the Dems need if they want to take back the Senate, or at least narrow the gap. So I’m not bothered by that.

What does bug me is seeing the names Ben and Melanie Barnes at the top of the host list. If you search for the Barneses on the TEC contributions page, you’ll see that they’ve given a lot of money to fellow Democrats over the past several years. They’ve also contributed over $70,000 to one Carole Keeton Strayhorn since December of 2002, with the most recent donation being $10K on December 28, 2005. Which makes me ask why, in a year where the incumbent Republican Governor is polling at 40% and less everywhere you look, are they not supporting Chris Bell?

Now maybe they just don’t like Bell. If so, that’s their choice. What I suspect, though, given that Barnes had been rumored to be playing footsie with Kay Bailey Hutchison a year ago, is that he’s bought into the idea that only another Republican can take down Rick Perry. You can slice the math however you want, but we all know that Strayhorn can’t beat Perry without significant Democratic support – I’ve lost the link, but I believe Royal Masset calculated it at 30%. But with Perry polling within hailing frequency of Gene Kelly/Marty Akins numbers, why would the Democrats want to go anywhere else? When do we think we’ll next get a shot at the Governor’s mansion against someone who polls like Perry? Do you think Governor Combs or Governor Dewhurst will have such anemic re-elect figures in 2014? Cause I sure don’t.

You don’t have to tell me that the Democrats are in a down cycle in Texas. What I’m telling you is that the surest way to exacerbate that cycle is to abandon the most winnable race we’ve seen since 1998 because you’ve swallowed the idea that there’s no point in trying to win it with your own team. You want to see obituaries for the state Democratic Party? Watch what gets written on November 8 if Bell finishes third or (God forbid) fourth.

It’s not just about this year, either. What happens in November will determine to a large extent whether or not Democrats run a real, properly-funded challenge against John Cornyn in 2008. Cornyn’s approval rate is nothing to write home about, and he’s generated a fair amount of campaign material in his first term for whoever does challenge him. If Bell wins or even comes close, I’d expect to see potential opponents for Cornyn lining up quickly. If not, well, we can always hope for KBH to retire in 2012, right?

It’s a simple choice, really. Stand and fight, or run and hide. I don’t know why Ben Barnes has chosen the former everywhere else but Texas. It’s just a shame that he has.

UPDATE: You can add Tony Sanchez to the list of runners and hiders. All I can say is “ugh”.

Rusty to remarry

Hmmm…my invitation must have gotten lost in the mail.

Russell “Rusty” Yates Jr. will remarry this weekend, two days before his ex-wife, Andrea Yates, is scheduled to be retried in the 2001 murders of the couple’s children.

On Saturday, Yates will marry Laura Arnold, a woman he met while attending Clear Lake Church of Christ, according to the Rev. Fairy Caroland, Yates’ aunt.

“He’s happy and the family’s happy,” Caroland said, who added that the wedding date was set long before state District Judge Belinda Hill scheduled Andrea Yates’ retrial.

Arnold has two sons, ages 21 and 9.

[…]

Yates declined to discuss the wedding.

“It’s not something I want to talk about,” he said. “Just trying to keep my private life, private.”

I got nothin’.