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April 22nd, 2007:

What about the other nonprofit leases?

Now that the situation with the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation has been essentially settled, the question becomes what about other nonprofits with similar leases?

What the nonprofits have in common is their lease agreement with the city of Houston. All pay $1 a year. And their leases, like those of dozens of other nonprofits and commercial businesses paying sub-market rent on city property, are now under scrutiny.

“We are looking at all of them, whether they were $1 a year or $100,” said Bob Christy, the city’s director of real estate. “Whatever the case may be, we are trying to go back through them and determine whether those are warranted or not.”

This strikes me as perfectly reasonable. Recall from the KHOU story that was apparently the genesis of all this that the City didn’t have any kind of decent management of its leases. While you clearly want to review all the deals with commercial establishments, you also should look at the ones with nonprofits as well, if for nothing else than to make sure that they’re all still going concerns that provide a real service to the general population. Given the state of the city’s management of its leases as described by KHOU, it wouldn’t be a shock to find out that some of them aren’t what they once might have been. You can’t know if you don’t check.

Mayor Bill White, who participated in the announcement at the West Dallas site, wants a more businesslike approach in dealing with city leases, including those with nonprofits.

White thinks token rent agreements are justified only in rare circumstances in which the service provided in exchange is considered a core function of the city.

“The policy is to try to avoid what’s called off-the-books financing arrangements, where there is an annual subsidy but the annual subsidy isn’t accounted for anywhere in the budget,” White said.

Again, seems plenty reasonable to me. Without any scrutiny, how do we know there’s not some kind of sweetheart deal being hidden in this accounting? The fact that the city’s handling of the Center’s lease was less than optimal doesn’t change the fact that this is a worthwhile thing to look at.

The city has long had different types of lease agreements with some nonprofits.

Earlier leases, like those signed by the mental retardation center and center for the deaf, allowed the nonprofits to provide a certain dollar amount of social services in lieu of rent. Although earlier reports said the facilities paid $1 a year, even that token payment was waived for services rendered.

For example, although the lease agreement with the Center for Hearing and Speech set $31,065 in annual rent, the amount has been waived every year because the nonprofit provides at least that much in services for hearing-impaired children. Executive Director Renee Davis said the services there are now valued at more than $1 million annually.


Although city officials say they are bound to honor the terms of the leases now in force, they already have started replacing some of the $1-a-year leases with agreements that bring in more revenue.

The University of Houston-Downtown had a 30-year contract to lease a nearby partial acre where the city’s first sewer lift station was. The city is selling the land to the university for an expected $1.4 million.

Selling the land instead of leasing it makes a lot of sense on both ends in most cases, and provides for City Council to give it a once-over before it happens. Maybe if the city makes enough of these sales, it might be able to shrink or even eventually eliminate the department within Public Works that manages leases. You never know.

Common Cause on Voter ID

The following is an op-ed by Mario Perez of Common Cause Texas. It’s scheduled to run in Tuesday’s Statesman, but apparently the voter ID bills are going to come to the floor on Monday, which would make this a day late (though hopefully not a buck short). In the interest of making sure it gets seen in time for the debate, I’ve agreed to run it here.

What would you say to your family doctor if he told you that although he cannot find evidence that you have any dire malady or health problem, he nevertheless insists to prescribe a harmful, costly, and extreme course of treatments? No one would blame you if you thought him a quack and sought a second opinion. Who would accept a solution in search of a problem?

That is exactly the situation facing the Texas Legislature right now. We have a few self-appointed experts who have filed bills that amount to too-strong medicine for Texans to swallow in the name of combating alleged voter fraud.

Rep. Betty Brown (R) – Athens , has filed House Bill 218 to require voters to produce certain government-issued photo identification along with a voter registration card in order to vote. Under this bill, a voter could also provide two other forms of identification including a certified copy of a birth certificate, an original or certified copy of a person’s marriage license or divorce decree, court records of a person’s adoption, name or sex change, in order to vote.

Under current law, a voter need provide a photo id or other identification if they are a first-time voter. Otherwise they are normally required have either a voter registration card, or be able to produce identification in order to cast a ballot. Why the current law needs to be changed has become one of the great mysteries of this legislative session.

It would be one thing if someone could come up with some examples of voter impersonation or other such shenanigans to justify so severely restricting the exercise of our sacred right to vote. Advocates of this change must be able to point to a crime wave of voter impersonation, right? They haven’t. And they can’t.

This is because according to our own Attorney General, hardly anyone has been prosecuted in Texas for any such crime. Almost all of the handful of “voter fraud” prosecutions in Texas have been connected to an unrelated area, voting by mail. This legislation has nothing to do with voting by mail. And yet we have very serious attempts to place onerous new requirements on the right to vote. Of course, this will prove a hardship to senior citizens and disabled Texans who do not have driver’s licenses, and will it will disproportionately impact minority communities and the poor. That is why organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Texas, the AARP, and MALDEF oppose this measure.

Paul Burka of Texas Monthly Magazine, a non-partisan critic of this legislation, has pointed to the conclusions of The U.S. Election Assistance Commission which interviewed a broad group of respected experts who concluded “…that the impersonation of voters is probably the least frequent type of fraud because it is the most likely to be discovered, there are stiff penalties associated with this type of fraud, and it is an insufficient means of influencing an election.”
There are many observers, including Burka, who contend that the real aim of this type of legislation is blatantly partisan: namely tamping down voter participation in communities that usually vote Democratic.

Rep. Phil King (R) – Weatherford has offered the equally objectionable HB 626 which would require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. Doesn’t sound too bad? It is actually a very bad idea. This legislation would effectively put an end to voter registration drives in Texas.

His bill mandates that anyone trying to register to vote must include in the mail or in person a certified copy of an official document to prove citizenship status. This includes a birth certificate or other documents confirming birth that is admissible in a court of law, United States citizenship papers issued to the applicant, or an unexpired United States passport issued to the applicant. Is this a necessary provision to stamp out the practice of undocumented residents unlawfully registering to vote? No, there is no evidence of a real problem of this nature.

Amazingly, Rep. King candidly admits in his bill analysis that “…there is no evidence of extensive fraud in Texas elections or of multiple voting ….”

These bills have been rushed out of the House Elections Committee on straight party-line votes. The Calendars Committee even met at 11:30 pm to hastily schedule them for consideration before the House, in unusual fashion. This represents a rushed attempt to ram them through before sufficient public debate and consideration. It is clearly at odds with Speaker Craddick’s professed support of a new, more friendly and bipartisan House of Representatives. We can only hope that cooler heads prevail against this hurried and clumsy attempt to force down the throat of the people of Texas a strong, foul-smelling remedy that they don’t need.

Perhaps legislators should have a version of the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. Someone should tell them that when they come up with solutions to our ‘problems’ they need to “First, do no harm.”

Mario X. Perez is a Fort Worth Attorney and State Chair of Common Cause Texas .

Bear in mind that if you move to another county within Texas, you have to reregister to vote. Thus, under Rep. King’s HB626, you’d have to first acquire a certified copy of your birth certificate or passport, which takes time, involves bureaucracy, and costs money, and then either mail it or haul in in person to your County Clerk or Tax Assessor’s office. In addition to being a monumental pain in the butt (which is precisely why it will drive registration rates down), it seems to me that this will become an irresistable target for identity thieves. Wouldn’t that make for a nice little future scandal? You’d think just on civil libertarian grounds there’d be plenty of prominent Republicans who’d oppose this sort of thing, but it’s one of the top priorities for the state and national GOP, and resistance has come mostly (but not entirely) from Democrats. And so it goes.

Cigarette run!

This article about how convenience stores just on the other side of the Texas border – especially those in Louisiana – are doing a landmark business since the state cigarette tax went up by a dollar isn’t surprising. This is one of those times when Texas’ sheer size is a saving grace – for most people, it isn’t even close to practical to search elsewhere for smokes. But let’s look at the numbers that were reported, to see if we can learn anything:

There have been massive changes in Texas’ tax rolls, though. The number of per-pack tax stamps sold in 2007 has declined by 27 percent compared to the first three months of last year, but revenues have doubled.

Texas is on pace to pull in nearly $1.1 billion in revenue for calendar 2007, compared with $509 million for 2006. Comptroller Susan Combs’ revenue projection for fiscal 2008 — starting this Sept. 1 — is for slightly more than $1.1 billion, with $677 million going toward property tax relief; the 2009 projection is for more than $1.2 billion, with $731 million set aside.

OK. The tax was once forty-one cents, now it’s a buck forty-one. It took 1.241 billion packs of ciggies to generate $509 million in taxes for 2006, while it’ll take 780 million packs to bring in $1.1 billion. That’s more than a 27-percent decline – it’s a 37 percent decline. I’m guessing that sales were slower in the first quarter last year than they were in subsequent quarters, as people likely stocked up just before the tax increase took effect. That would in turn have a slight dampening effect on this year’s sales – at least, those in the first quarter – so I can see where a slight increase over the next two years is feasible. It’s safe to say that this is not a revenue source that will keep up with population increases, however, which frankly has been Texas’ problem all along with its tax system.

Like I said, no surprises, but let’s keep these numbers in mind when we get the real revenue results later on. It’s not clear to me yet what pressure bootlegging, over-the-border sales, and people quitting or cutting back will have.

One more thing, for pure comic relief:

Texas law prohibits returning with more than one carton’s worth of cigarettes without paying tax on the overage. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, assigned by law to collect the tax, runs checkpoints at the Mexican border and in international airport terminals, but not along domestic state lines where the rule is impossible to enforce. Officials are unaware of anyone ever voluntarily paying tax on excess cigarettes.

One wonders if they even bother to have a form to fill out for someone who might inquire about making such a voluntary payment. Some things just aren’t worth the investment.

It’s official: Ray Jones will not be on the May 12 ballot

Never got to this on Friday, but Matt Stiles reported that Ray Jones’ petition to the State Supreme Court to be placed on the May 12 ballot for City Council was denied. The info is here, though it’s nothing more than a “Denied” stamp. Stiles reports that Jones is raising money for a November run, and if so I wish him well.

Let’s recap the main points of this story:

1. It would be nice if there were a grace period of 24 hours or so after the filing deadline, so that candidates who got the paperwork wrong in a way that’s not material to their eligibility to run could fix it. I for one would support such a change to the law.

2. Whether or not such a change ever happens, turning in a ballot application at the last minute carries a risk for disqualification that should be considered unacceptably high. All candidates would be advised to get them in at least a day in advance, just in case.

3. And for goodness’ sake, use a notary who’s done this before. Leave no blank unfilled, people!