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March 30th, 2006:

From the “Why every vote counts” file

Seven votes makes the difference.

A recount of ballots today confirmed that County Court-at-Law No. 9 Judge Oscar Kazen will serve a single term after all, and will be replaced next year by political newcomer Laura Salinas.

“‘Landslide Laura’ wins by seven votes,” Salinas joked following the recount.

Out of about 35,000 votes cast, she got seven more votes than Kazen in the March 7 Democratic primary. Because there is no Republican candidate for the bench, Salinas is virtually assured to become the next judge for that court.

“The ballots really were very clean,” Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said. “I think (the recount) put everybody’s mind at ease.”

[…]

Kazen, whose family has been steeped in South Texas politics, held a dozen-vote lead over Salinas on election night. But that evaporated when mail-in and provisional ballots were counted six days later; Salinas came out on top by one vote.

A tally of overseas ballots last week increased the 34-year-old family and criminal law attorney’s lead to six votes. The recount added one more to her total.

Seven lousy votes. Remember that the next time someone tells you that it just doesn’t matter. For more background, see The Jeffersonian, Just Another Matt, and Larry for the Lege.

In other recount news, Carter Casteel’s deficit is now fifty-one votes, with two counties still to be re-done. That was always a longshot, but again, with such a small difference, you have to doublecheck. And you know, once again, every vote counts. Link via BOR.

On an unrelated note, I fully expected the Dems to lose State Sen. Ken Armbrister’s seat this November. I just didn’t expect it to happen by forfeit. Cripes. Link via PinkDome.

Endorsement? What endorsement?

NASA says that when their administrator whispered sweet nothings about Tom DeLay in front of an audience, it wasn’t really an endorsement.

Five days after NASA administrator Michael Griffin urged a Houston audience to keep U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay in office, a spokesman denied Wednesday that Griffin had made a formal campaign endorsement.

“The space program has had no better friend in its entire existence than Tom DeLay,” Griffin said Friday of DeLay’s legislative support of the agency. “He’s still with us and we need to keep him there.”

With DeLay present, Griffin spoke at the annual Space Center Rotary Club of Houston’s nonprofit National Award for Space Achievement Foundation gala.

Griffin had no intention of soliciting votes for the 11-term lawmaker, NASA spokesman Dean Acosta said.

“He did not make an endorsement and will not get involved in any political campaigns,” Acosta said. “If his words of thanks to Tom DeLay were misconstrued as an endorsement, then he regrets that.”

Uh huh. And why does this matter?

Under the Hatch Act, executive branch employees such as Griffin are permitted to express an opinion, campaign and make speeches for or against candidates in partisan elections — when they are off-duty.

The black-tie awards dinner at which Griffin made his remarks was held after regular working hours, but Griffin was representing the space agency and giving an award to a NASA employee, astronaut Eileen Collins.

Griffin’s travel to Houston from Washington, D.C., for the dinner was paid by NASA rather than the Rotary Club, said event organizer Floyd Bennett of the United Space Alliance.

The independent Office of Special Counsel, which administers the Hatch Act, will investigate the matter, spokesman Loren Smith said.

Employees who violate the Hatch Act can be removed from office, according to the Office of Special Counsel, or suspended without pay.

It’s like there’s a vortex around DeLay that causes everyone around him to do things that get them in trouble.

Want to ride your bicycle?

Christof tells us about an unused right-of-way inside Loop 610 called the Eureka Corridor and some currently languishing plans to turn it into a bike trail. The nifty part of this is a proposal by the White Oak Bayou Association (WOBA) to connect it to some existing bike trails in the Heights, Oak Forest, and all the way out to Memorial Park. WOBA is holding a meeting tonight (Thursday, March 30) at 7:30 PM to discuss this – send an email to their VP Linda Mercer at [email protected] if you’re interested.

This seems like a win-win to me: it’s cheap, it’s a great feature to help make Houston more attractive to people who might relocate here, and if implemented in this fashion it would give people another non-car option for getting to work downtown. What’s not to like? Check it out, and let your City Council member know what you think – the area in question encompasses Council Districts A (Toni Lawrence (713) 247-2010) and H (Adrian Garcia (713) 247-2003).

CPPP analysis of TTRC plan

Earlier than expected, but here’s the analysis by the Center for Public Policy Priorities (PDF) of the Texas Tax Reform Commission’s finance plan.

First, the proposal is a net tax cut. We had urged a plan that increased revenue; the Governor had asked for a plan that was revenue neutral; but the commission delivered a plan that reduces revenue by using some of the so-called surplus in this biennium to replace property tax revenue.

[…]

Our present revenue system is inadequate to meet our needs. The commission’s plan makes it more so.

Second, the commission’s plan, contrary to early reports, is not less regressive than our current tax structure. Texas has the fifth most regressive tax system in the United States, meaning that those with less income pay a greater percentage of their income in state and local taxes than those with more income. Under the commission’s plan, every income group gets a tax cut, but that is because the plan reduces revenue, not because the plan reduces regressivity. Indeed, as the equity note shows, using the new business tax, along with some of the so-called surplus, to cut property taxes gives the biggest tax breaks to those with the highest incomes—actually increasing the regressivity of the Texas tax system, a step backwards for low- and middle-income Texans.

[…]

Third, we are concerned about whether this new tax base has the same growth potential as the property tax. We await a fiscal note that will indicate future revenue growth. It is unlikely, however, that the new tax will grow fast enough both to keep up with what the property tax would have produced and replace the revenue lost from the net tax reduction.

On the positive side, the commission may have designed the best business tax proposed to date. This new tax may be the basis for legislation during the upcoming special session that Texans can applaud. To draw applause, however, any proposal must 1) put more revenue on the table; 2) increase fairness, or at least not make things significantly worse; and 3) meet our future needs with growth that is equal to or greater than the growth from the property tax it replaces.

Link via Eye on Williamson, which has a snazzy new location and look – be sure to update your bookmarks.

Lots more reaction from various business groups and other stakeholders here. There’s too much to reasonably excerpt, so go read it all. Right now, there’s a lot of waiting-and-seeing, with a generally positive if not enthusiastic undertone.

Vince does some interpretation of the report, and notes that it’s basically the same as a proposal from 2002 by the Joint Select Committee On Public School Finance. What’s interesting is that the JSCOPSF report (PDF) also addressed education reform as well as school finance and tax reform, something the TTRC did not do. Vince has some excerpts comparing the two reports, so go see for yourself.

Finally, Aaron Pena went on a local radio show to give his impressions of the TTRC report. RGV Life gives a summary of that discussion.

As the HHSC crumbles

Hey, remember when the state of Texas was going full speed ahead on the privatization of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (THHSC) even though the federal government had official concerns about its ability to deliver the services it’s obligated to do? According to Father John, those fears were well founded.

But the real shocker was a report that applicants who do not get a receipt for their applications can kiss those applications good bye, they no longer being processed, but they are being boxed and sent to the warehouse. I guess if the applicant is too absent minded due to his hunger pangs, and does not bother to get a receipt, then he can not prove that he filed the application to begin with, and if he can not prove it, then he or she did not do it.

I truly and sincerely hope that this report is not accurate, for I am sure that boxing applications and sending them to the warehouse is illegal. During my tenure at HHSC-DHS they made sure to let us know that mishandling, and falsifying state documents is a crime, now it appears that it has become agency policy.

That’s from Samm Almaguer, who like Father John is now a former employee of THHSC. Father John also says that the recent decline in the number of Texas children insured by Medicaid is due to the staffing shortage at THHSC, which was the result of the layoffs done to get the private contractors installed. Note too that the enrollment decline goes back farther than that story suggests. All this without any real cost savings like we were promised. What a deal.

More on the concealed carry law

We all got a good schadenfreudistic laugh out of Tom DeLay’s gun woes, but I was curious about the provision in that law that called for the suspension of a concealed-carry license (CCL) for a person under a felony indictment. I sent an inquiry to then-State Senator, now Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and wound up having a pleasant chat with him about it. I’m not the world’s best note-taker, but here’s what I got from the conversation:

– While the CCL bill was passed in 1995, there had been previous attempts to do so going back to 1989. A gutted version of the bill was passed in 1993 that called for a nonbinding referendum, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Ann Richards. The suspension requirement that tripped up DeLay is something that was a part of the bill all through its history, and he agreed when I suggested that it came from a “tough on crime” mindset that was more than what was needed for these purposes.

– Many people and groups played a role in putting together the bill – Commissioner Patterson cited DPS as having a big part in it. Patterson’s goal in 1995 was to remove what he thought were “onerous” provisions from the earlier attempts that would have placed a bigger burden on potential handgun carriers. The amount of training required for a CCL was an example of such a provision.

– Patterson eventually wrote the bill himself longhand on a legal pad in his kitchen. He said he tried to balance the concerns everyone had in order to get a bill that could pass.

– He believes that in the end, he gave up too much in getting that bill passed; he believes that he’d have still had the votes to pass it even if he’d held firmer on some of the concessions he made to this person or that’s need to position himself politically on the bill.

– The aformentioned suspension-for-felony-indictment provision is an example of something he’d have done differently if he had it to do over again. While he would have included that for “assaultive” felonies, he did not think that the broad-based suspension requirement was fair. We agreed that the only reason it’s getting attention now is because of the high profile of Tom DeLay.

I want to add that I opposed this bill in 1995. I thought it would lead to more opportunistic gun violence. That has not happened, a point Patterson makes in an op-ed he wrote (PDF) to commemorate the law’s tenth anniversary. My thinking on the issue of guns and gun control has evolved over the years. I found that I could not reconcile my strong belief in personal freedom for things like reproductive choice with a belief in the need to restrict gun ownership. So, I changed. I can’t say I like guns, but as with abortion, that doesn’t mean I think someone else should be forbidden to have access to them.

My thanks to Jerry Patterson for his feedback on this.