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March 29th, 2006:

Abramoff sentenced in Florida

Five years and ten months for Casino Jack.

U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck sentenced Abramoff, 47, and his former partner, Adam R. Kidan, 41, to the shortest possible prison terms under sentencing guidelines in the case. In pleading for the minimum sentence, lawyers for each defendant laid most of the blame on the other for the scam, in which they faked a $23 million wire transfer to obtain financing for the 2000 purchase of SunCruz Casinos from an owner who was later shot to death in a gangland-style hit.

“As you can imagine, this day is incredibly painful for my family, my friends and me,” Abramoff told the judge. “Over the past two years, I have started the process of becoming a new man.”

[…]

Although Huck opted for the minimum, Abramoff faces the prospect of at least a few additional years in prison when he is sentenced in a separate case in Washington, D.C. However, lawyers said, his overall sentence ultimately could be reduced depending on his cooperation with federal investigators.

[…]

In the Washington case, Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to federal charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. His plea deal with federal prosecutors in that case required him to cooperate with a broad federal investigation of corruption involving members of Congress, congressional staffers, other lobbyists and employees of the Interior Department and other federal agencies.

Among the congressmen whose names have come up in the probe are Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), former chairman of the House Administration Committee, and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the former House majority leader. Ney has been identified as the “Representative #1” who, according to court documents, received bribes from Abramoff in exchange for official acts, including congressional statements that promoted the SunCruz deal during contentious purchase negotiations. DeLay, who once described Abramoff as “one of my closest and dearest friends,” took three overseas trips with the lobbyist and received more than $70,000 in political contributions from him, his associates and his Native American tribal clients. Ney and DeLay have denied any wrongdoing.

So, the main point to remember here is that this is not the Washington case; that investigation, and presumably Abramoff’s cooperation in it, is ongoing. I’ve got a link to the original SunCruz story here, and Julia has a metric boatload of supplemental links. One last point, from The Stakeholder: Among the stubborn handful of Congressfolk who have refused to return Abramoff’s donations to them is our own Rep. Ron Paul. Perhaps someone should ask him about this.

Projecting the Governor’s race

The Lone Star Project has an interesting analysis of the Governor’s race, in which its basic thesis is that Chris Bell really does have a clearer path to a win than Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Not an easy path, mind you, but a clearer one. I’ll defer any deep thoughts on this for now, but here are a couple of quick comments:

1. I think the Democratic base vote is higher than what they use in their model. George Bush was the top votegetter just about everywhere for the Republicans, and John Kerry trailed all Democrats most places. I’d go with something between David Van Os’ 41% and JR Molina’s 42%. Not that it makes that much difference, and if there’s a winning scenario with this harsher environment that’s even more encouraging, I just think that’s overly pessimistic.

2. The LSP projection is largely in agreement with this Fox 7 Austin analysis (video link) that suggests a 35-35 photo finish between Bell and Perry and also suggests Strayhorn has a tougher row to hoe than is currently being suggested. (Screen cap from the video here.)

3. We don’t have any post-primary polling yet; what we had from February was two contradictory results, one from Rasmussen that suggested Strayhorn was already in a tight race with Perry, and one from the Dallas Morning News that had Strayhorn trailing Bell. I still think that Rasmussen has been oversampling Republicans, and if I were to guess, I’d say the real picture now is more like the DMN poll. As I say, though, that’s just my guess.

4. However you slice it, this just reinforces my belief that the prominent Dems who have been backing Strayhorn so far are running away from a winnable race. If we enter October with multiple polls showing Strayhorn and Perry neck and neck with Bell a distant third, then I can understand a tactical switch. Doing so now is craven and shortsighted.

More later. Read their piece and see what you think of it.

The slow spur

As I read about the snarled traffic on US59 approaching the newly-reopened Spur 527, I have to ask: Am I the only one who remembers what this stretch of road was like before the construction?

Some drivers said they saw little improvement in the traffic situation. Persistent rain Tuesday didn’t help.

Several trips through the trouble spot showed that the two left lanes consistently made the best time, which may explain part of the problem.

Speeds there seldom dipped below 20 mph while traffic in the two right lanes was stop-and-go.

That raises a suspicion that some drivers in the right lanes are merging to the left to make better time, then merging back to the right to avoid having to exit onto the spur.

A suspicion? Dude, that’s exactly what people did in the old days, and for exactly the same reason: there were far fewer cars that actually took the spur than there were cars continuing north on 59, so people got in the left lanes and stayed for as long as they could before squeezing/forcing their way over. The only difference that I can see now is that there are fewer lanes overall right now – one left lane has been lost to the not-yet-opened HOV, and one right lane is still closed due to unfinished work on the Main Street exit.

And as Christof points out in the link above, even if the Shepherd-to-spur section had been widened, you’d still run into a bottleneck just past it where the exits to 288 and I-45 are. Both of those ramps can and do back up onto 59, which is obviously a problem, and speaking as someone who takes 288 north to the Pierce Elevated most days from work, 59 is still plenty crowded once you get past those exits, too.

Now if there’s a significant number of people who are coming this way to get to I-45, and if a lot of them figure out that they can get there via the spur (and avoid that nasty bottleneck-by-design Pierce Elevated onramp), then maybe the load at this juncture will lessen a bit. Certainly getting the HOV in play, and reclaiming the lane lost to the Main Street exit work will go a long way, too. But for now, all I can say is: Honestly, what did you expect?

LBB analysis of TTRC plan

The Texas Tax Reform Commission (TTRC) plan is set to be unveiled today, and it starts with a shot of good publicity thanks to a Legislative Budget Board analysis that paints it as a tax cut for all income levels.

The analysis represents a dramatic change from last year, when the budget board reported that other tax-swap proposals floated in the Legislature would impose tax increases on all but those Texans at the highest income levels.

Lawmakers blamed the disparity in those plans on hefty cigarette-tax increases, as well as increases in the the general sales tax. People who earn less generally spend a larger percentage of their money on those taxes. Perry’s panel will not recommend a sales-tax increase.

“Our committee spent a heck of a lot of time trying to make sure that the tax was not regressive, and so far we’re pleased with what we see,” former Comptroller John Sharp, chairman of Perry’s tax commission, told the American-Statesman this afternoon.

The plan would put the largest tax cuts at the top of the income scale, with households making more than $146,804 seeing a 3.3 percent tax cut and those making between $104,865 and $146,804 seeing a 2.8 percent tax cut.

Households making less than $14,042 would see a 1.4 percent tax cut, and those between $14,042 and $23,872 would see a 0.9 percent cut.

That certainly is a world better than last year’s debacle. I’ve got some concerns, which I’ll address in a minute, but first, bear in mind that the LBB analysis is not for everyone.

Smokers would be net losers under the proposal, but Perry has said, in recent speeches, that a higher cigarette tax could encourage a healthier lifestyle.

The tobacco tax increase, which would hit poorer smokers harder, was omitted from the analysis, because it would have had a negative impact on the overall projected savings.

The tax equity note also doesn’t differentiate between homeowners and renters, many of whom are in the lowest income categories and may or may not receive pass-throughs of property tax savings from their landlords.

Yes, if you smoke, all we can say is thanks for shouldering a bigger part of the burden. I’d be very interested to see what the analysis would look like without this omission. You’d have to make assumptions about how much an individual smoked, but surely it would be easy enough to factor it for (say) one pack a day smokers versus two pack a day smokers.

And of course, the problem with depending on a higher tobacco tax is right there in Rick Perry’s words: This tax will provide an incentive for people to quit, or at least cut back on, their cigarette habits. That’s good news for them, and good news overall for the state of Texas, but bad news for the budget. It’s folly to depend on such a volatile revenue source for anything other than activities directly related to that source. We’re in denial if we think that a dollar increase in the tobacco tax will be a stable part of the school finance picture.

As for the point about renters, that was the reason why the previous year’s tax-swap plan was such a loser for lower-income folks. Their main burden is the sales tax, so reductions to other taxes won’t affect them as much. The only real way to give those folks tax relief is to lower the sales tax rate, which some people still want to do:

Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, said he was “dubious” of the business tax proposal.

Janek, a physician who would have to pay a business tax for the first time under the commission’s proposal, said he would prefer to expand the sales tax to business services instead and possibly lower the sales tax rate.

Janek said he prefers sales taxes because they are consumption-based.

I’m still a little mystified as to why there hasn’t been more support for expanding the sales tax to business services. In theory, at least, it would have the same political pros and cons as the TTRC business tax; certainly, the opposition it got from various service industries and the resultant Swiss cheese proposal that died with all the other plans testify to that. If someone like Sen. Janek really pushes for that idea in April, it will be interesting to see who lines up behind what plan.

An article forwarded to me from the Quorum Report indicates that the main stakeholders of the tax plan – the business lobby, school districts and poverty advocates – are still in wait-and-see mode right now. Look for an analysis by the Center for Public Policy Priorities on Friday to see where they stand. One point about the schools:

School districts are looking at portion of the bill on meaningful discretion. Lynn Moak of Moak Casey & Associates says the 6 cents per-year discretion is generous given previous offers made in prior legislation. Rollbacks appear to be calculated on last year’s tax rate, plus 6 cents, rather than last year’s revenue-per-student, plus 6 cents, which gives fast-growth school districts a bit more room for tax rate growth. That kind of latitude is going to be considered a plus by the school districts.

The immediate revenue generated under the bill, minus the business tax, would give school districts the chance to roll back to $1.33 per hundred dollar valuation the first year. Once the business tax kicks in, it would be $1 the second year. That could be a short-term fix. Long term, Moak says that inflation is likely to eat up a significant portion of the new tax capacity, which is likely to put school districts back at the $1.50 cap. To fully address the Supreme Court’s mandate for meaningful discretion — and, more specifically, long-term meaningful discretion —
will mean adjustments to the finance formula, Moak said. Tinkering with the formula would mean opening up the call on the session. That’s not likely to happen, if Perry can help it.

At least two more actions are necessary to get long-term relief from this court challenge, Moak said. First, the Legislature needs to define and fund a “general diffusion of knowledge,” as stated in the state Constitution. And, second, the funding formula must account for inflation. Otherwise, any gains will be eaten away by increased costs.

Remember that things like rising gasoline prices hit schools in the pocketbook, too, and they have less flexibility to react to such unaccounted for cost increases thanks to various mandates like NCLB. Remember too that the public school system grows by something like 75,000 students a year in Texas, and that any viable school funding plan has to plan for that. The plan that Governor Perry has in mind is revenue-neutral, which does not do that. The TTRC plan is a good start, but we’re still a long way from done.

Walkouts around the state

There were student walkouts in Dallas and Fort Worth yesterday along with those in Houston and elsewhere around the country. That will probably be the end of that type of activity – as Stace notes, the party line from school administrators appears to be that while these demonstrations will leave students subject to discipline at the discretion of school principals, any further such walkouts will bring harsher sanctions.

I’m okay with this. It’s appropriate for the students to be held responsible for the work they missed, and it’s appropriate for them to be subject to normal school rules for having an unexcused absence. As long as schools do not seek to single out students they identify as ringleaders, I support this action. Accepting the consequences for civil disobedience has always been a part of that tactic. The message has been sent and received, now it’s time to channel that energy into other avenues, like writing to Congress members and registering to vote.

On a tangential note, this Statesman story talks about how the immigration issue is playing out in some campaigns so far. I found this chart of the positions taken by gubernatorial candidates to be enlightening:

Gov. Rick Perry (R)

Calls for more federal aid to border law enforcement.

Chris Bell (D)

Supports legislation approved by U.S. Senate panel ordaining more border security and allowing illegal immigrants to become legal residents.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn (I)

Supports more border and port security law enforcement aid and allowing U.S. citizens, including such groups as the Minutemen, working with officers to combat illegal crossings.

Kinky Friedman (I)

Favors expansion of border fencing and supports legislation approved by U.S. Senate committee ordaining more border security and allowing illegal immigrants to become legal. Also favors creation of guest worker program.

Yes, Carole Keeton Strayhorn appears to be running to Rick Perry’s right on this. Maybe someone should call Tony Sanchez and let him know about it. And just as a reminder, here is what Kinky Friedman said about “expansion of border fencing”.

One last thing: Here’s a picture from Dallas for those of you who mentioned flags yesterday.

UPDATE: Today’s Chron coverage is here, here, and here. There’s also blog coverage from Aaron Pena, Latinos for Texas, South Texas Chisme, and of course Dos Centavos.

Astros’ claim on Bagwell insurance denied

Bagwell insurance claim denied.

Lawyers for Astros owner Drayton McLane and Connecticut General Life Insurance are bracing for litigation over Connecticut General’s decision to deny the total disability claim the Astros filed to recoup $15.6 million of disabled first baseman Jeff Bagwell’s salary this year.

Acknowledging that pain in his arthritic right shoulder had become too great, Bagwell went on the 15-day disabled list on Saturday. Twelve days earlier, Connecticut General had already denied the Astros’ insurance claim.

“On March 13, 2006, Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. notified the Houston Astros that it had denied a total disability claim submitted by the Astros relating to Jeff Bagwell,” said attorney Ty Buthod, a partner at the Houston law firm of Baker Botts, which is representing Connecticut General. “The company determined that there had been no adverse change in Mr. Bagwell’s condition or ability to play baseball between the end of last season, when he was an active member of the roster, and Jan. 31, 2006, the date the policy expired.

“The company carefully reviewed the claim as submitted by the Astros and determined that the claim did not support a finding of total disability.”

McLane disagrees, and he vows to pursue legal recourse to collect on his claim.

Clearly, what we need here is some tort reform. Or maybe insurance reform. It’s all so confusing. Where’s Joe Nixon when you really need him?

I suppose the Stros will claim that since Bagwell did play in the World Series but obviously cannot play now, that’s proof enough that his condition changed adversely. The insurers will say that since he could still play again after more surgery, this is a temporary setback and not a certain career-ender. I can see merit to both arguments. My best wishes and a bottle of Excedrin to the judge that catches this one.

And They Cook, Too

I know that when the vast majority of the public thinks about blogs and bloggers (at least, the vast majority of that tiny slice of the public that knows who and what we are), words like “Cheetoes” and “Jolt cola” are often involved. Well, via Julia, I’m pleased to tell you that some bloggers at least have perfectly viable culinary skills. See for yourself in And They Cook, Too, which is not just a cookbook but also a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders. A listing of the recipes within is here, some sample pages are here (PDF), and you can order this baby here for the everyday low price of $15. Bon appetit!

More bloggy plagiarism

I confess, what with all the Domeneching recently, I’d not heard of the case of ESPN Radio personality Colin Cowherd and the charges that he’d reada humor piece from a Michigan Wolverines fan blog called the M Zone on the air without attribution. Salon’s King Kaufman gives the basic story, noting that this generated a lot less outrage than Cut ‘n’ Paste Ben. Cowherd ultimately apologized and gave credit to the M Zone bloggers, at which point all was forgiven.

For what it’s worth, I have a suspicion that the reason this got paid less attention than L’Affaire de Ben is that it’s not exactly unheard of for radio DJs to read stuff they got off the Internet and/or via email (usually stuff from the Internet that’s been forwarded to everyone in creation). The longstanding humor site TopFive.com has made a running joke about being ripped off by Wacky Morning DJ types for years. I think as much as anything, no one was all that shocked by this. Maybe now it’ll be different, I don’t know. I kind of doubt it, though.