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May 14th, 2007:

More city pension woes

This doesn’t look good.

Short of layoffs, the city won’t meet its full obligation to the municipal pension fund in the next fiscal year, Mayor Bill White says, citing rising public safety and health care costs that are expected to strain resources.

In the next budget, expected to be unveiled Wednesday, White’s administration will propose paying only two-thirds of the statutorily required pension contribution — an arrangement that still would need approval from a skeptical pension fund board.

The employee retirement plan continues to be a challenge for White, who inherited a $1.9 billion unfunded liability in the pension fund when he took office in 2004.

[…]

Facing the prospect of having to make huge annual contributions to comply with state law, the city got the fund’s board to agree in 2004 to reduced payments for the past three years. The contribution was to increase in this year’s budget.

Douglas Benton, a vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s Investor’s Service, said the city has in recent years contributed “low” amounts to its municipal pension.

“The trend in underfunding of pensions is something we’ve seen in other cities across the country,” he said. “To say one concern or challenge would outweigh a decision on the rating assignment would not be fair.”

In February, Moody’s assigned Houston an Aa3 rating, a strong indicator, and assigned a positive outlook. Still, the analysis said the city’s long-term expenditure challenges for pensions and other retirement benefits would require “close surveillance” in the future.

Controller Annise Parker said she’s concerned the city hasn’t started negotiations with the pension fund, but she said the statutorily required contribution — roughly 24 percent of payroll — isn’t supportable.

I’m going to wait and see on this. For some background on the 2004 pension opt-out referendum, see here, here, here, and here. And by the way, if you think what the city of Houston is going through is fun, at least it’s trying to confront the problem. That stands in stark contrast to the State of Texas and our official Rubber Stamp, Comptroller Susan Combs, whose head is firmly buried in the sand regarding the state’s future pension liabilities. There’s a future legislative session that will make all previous ones look like a kindergarten picnic once this puppy comes due.

Lobbying for Craddick

If my previous entry isn’t enough to convince you that House Speaker Tom Craddick’s closest buddies are worried about his existential future, consider the following email, which was sent today to all members of the Lege:

From: Texas Alliance for Life
[mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: Monday, May 14, 2007 9:08 AM
Subject: Representative, we urge you to OPPOSE any attempt to unseat the Speaker.

May 14, 2007

RE: Please OPPOSE any attempt to unseat the Speaker

Dear Representative ,

We have heard a rumor that there may be an attempt to unseat the Speaker early this week. We strongly urge you to OPPOSE any such attempt.

Texas Alliance for Life categorically opposes any attempt to unseat the Speaker. We will score any vote to unseat the Speaker as an anti-life vote.

Any attempt to remove the speaker is bad for Texas, and it is bad for the pro-life movement. The ensuing chaos that would likely follow such an attempt — successful or not — would probably mean the death even the least controversial bills, including our pro-life bills.

If you need any further information, please contact me at 512-477-1244 (o), 512-736-3708 (m), or [email protected] In advance, we thank you.

Sincerely,

Joe Pojman, Ph.D.
Executive Director

Legislative advertising paid for by Texas Alliance for Life, Inc
2026 Guadalupe Street * Austin, Texas 78705 *
512-477-1244

Now, I’m not a lawyer, but I do know there are some pretty specific laws concerning the politics of a Speaker’s race. Perhaps someone better versed in the law than I can comment on how the above email jibes with this:

ยง 302.017. CONTRIBUTIONS AND LOANS FROM ORGANIZATIONS.
(a) Except as provided by Subsection (b), a corporation, partnership, association, firm, union, foundation, committee, club, or other organization or group of persons may not contribute or lend or promise to contribute or lend money or other things of value to a speaker candidate or to any other person, directly or indirectly, to aid or defeat the election of a speaker candidate.

b) This section does not apply to a loan made in the due course of business to a speaker candidate for campaign purposes by a corporation that is legally engaged in the business of ending money and that has continuously conducted the business for more than one year before making the loan to the speaker candidate.

Would that email from the Texas Alliance for Life, with its direct statement about how a legislator’s actions in a Speaker’s race would affect the TAL’s evaluation of them, count as a “thing of value”? Like I said, I’m not a lawyer. The question is whether or not someone will ask Ronnie Earle for his opinion. Once again, stay tuned.

UPDATE: Burka talks to Buck Wood, who says this is technically a violation of the law, but one that’s highly unlikely to be prosecuted.

Speaker’s Race II: The Wrath of Tom

Clay Robison looks back at last week’s parliamentary revolt in the House and speculates about Speaker Tom Craddick’s future.

A speaker’s race, with or without Craddick, is all but assured in advance of the next regular session two years from now, and its outcome will partly be determined by next year’s legislative races. Republicans hold an 81-69 edge in the House, meaning that a net gain of six Democratic seats (the same number the Ds gained during the last cycle) would throw the House into a partisan tie.

Even more modest Democratic gains could result in the election of a new speaker in 2009, provided dissident Democrats and their Republican allies aren’t outmaneuvered and out-muscled by Craddick, as they were in January, when the veteran lawmaker from Midland beat back a challenge by fellow Republican Jim Pitts of Waxahachie.

The speaker’s rare loss of a parliamentary fight last week — following a couple of more minor setbacks recently — quickened the pulses of Craddick’s opponents to the point that, by week’s end, some even were contemplating the possibility of trying to unseat him before this session adjourns on May 28.

That would require an almost-unheard-of motion to vacate the chair. Such a step would be extremely difficult to pull off, because it would require most House members not only to turn on the speaker but also to agree on a successor.

The more likely scenario is that the session ends, Craddick (if he is running again) actively solicits pledge cards from members, and would-be challengers of both parties seek support and weigh their chances.

Except that, according to Burka, a motion to vacate the Chair is apparently in the works. At the very least, Craddick supporters are worried about it enough to take action. Burka prints an email from the chair of the Texas Republican County Chairman’s Association, which sounds the alarm and tells people to contact their member in support of Craddick. This is, as he says, completely unprecedented.

From what I understand, the week after the deadline for second- and third-readings of bills is normally pretty tranquil, with the real frenzy occurring in the last week. As with so many things this session, it looks like what’s normal is not what will happen. Stay tuned.

Weingarten begins process for River Oaks demolition

Houstonist brings the latest update on the River Oaks Shopping Center redevelopment:

Weingarten Realty Investors, which owns all three properties, on Monday began the process to get approval to demolish the curved section of the River Oaks center on the north side of West Gray — the portion of the center set to become the site of a new, two-story shopping strip. Weingarten’s first step was to file for a certificate of appropriateness — which is required because the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission began the landmark designation process for the structures last month — and its next step will be to wait. The HAHC will consider the certificate at its May 23 meeting; if the commission denies Weingarten the certificate, the company will have to wait until Aug. 7, 90 days after it applied for the COA, to actually get demolition permits. (That 90-day waiting period is the best protection the city’s preservation ordinance offers structures that aren’t designated protected city landmarks — and few of them are.)

There’s more at the link, so click over. Anybody out there take up Lisa Gray’s suggestion to spend a few bucks at the Alabama BookStop two weeks ago? This was the result of my trip there. It’s Olivia’s current favorite book – I think we’ve already read it fifty times. Leave a comment if you went trekking to the BookStop recently. I’m genuinely curious to know if there was a spike in business there as a result of her column, and if so if Weingarten and/or Barnes and Nobles noticed it.

More public funding for the Astrodome Hotel?

When last we looked, there was talk of Harris County being the financier for the proposed Astrodome Hotel, as private financing had not come through. Now there may be another public avenue for the project, thanks to the Legislature.

Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, amended a House bill to qualify the project for hotel and sales tax rebates, which could total $150 million over 10 years.

“We have a national icon sitting unused,” Janek said. “They want the ability to convert the Astrodome into something useful. If you build a hotel, it lets you keep the taxes you generate. The money wouldn’t be there, but for the existence of that hotel.”

Looking ahead in the story, the bill Janek amended is HB 3694.

Astrodome Redevelopment Corp., the private entity seeking to transform the so-called “Eighth Wonder of the World” into a luxury hotel, is counting on the future rebates to help it secure financing for the $450 million project.

“This could be the critical piece that puts them over the top, that allows this to work,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “If it’s something that will help make it work, I’m willing to throw that in the mix.”

Emmett noted that the county won’t receive any money until the hotel is up and operating, and says it is a “long shot” such rebates would make a big difference in the overall scheme of things. “We’re not putting the money into it, it’s the people who choose to stay there,” he said. “The county should not put any taxpayer dollars into it.”

[…]

“There are a number of hurdles we need to cross before that comes to fruition,” said Franklin Jones, Astrodome Redevelopment’s lawyer. “The county expects a private developer to do the heavy lifting.”

The county can choose to do whatever it wants with the rebate money, Jones said, adding that “we hope to benefit from whatever they do.”

The city of Houston used the same approach, known as the Texas Enterprise Zone program, as a vehicle to help develop the Hilton Americas next to the George R. Brown Convention Center. The program is being updated this session with House Bill 3694, which already has passed the House.

Janek changed the bill’s language to qualify a county-sponsored hotel. His amendment passed out of the subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development, which he chairs. It must now go to the Business & Commerce Committee before heading to the full Senate for a vote.

“If we are able to bring a hotel to that complex, this would generate additional funds. It would be the prudent thing to do,” said Mike Surface, chairman of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which manages Reliant Park. “The rebate would be used for additional park enhancements. We hold a firm line that we want the hotel to be privately funded.”

OK, so if I’m reading this correctly, the possibility of these rebates would act as a form of collateral, thus (one hopes) enabling Astrodome Redevelopment Co. to secure the private financing that has thus far eluded it. And just in time, it would seem:

The Sports & Convention Corp. set a June 1 deadline for Astrodome Redevelopment to prove it has lined up financing.

Astrodome Redevelopment appears to be proceeding as expected, Surface said, but he did not rule out finding another developer if it is unsuccessful.

Which means new deadlines, new options, and so on. It may yet be awhile before we know the true fate of the Dome.

Talking ’bout my generation

I love this.

Pete Townshend probably never imagined this generation singing his song.

A group of 40 British seniors (average age: 78) called The Zimmers scored a YouTube hit, gleefully singing The Who’s My Generation in a video that has been viewed by 1.5 million people since its posting April 2.

In it, they smash guitars. They re-create The Beatles’ walk across Abbey Road. They hold up a sign saying, “I’m bored in old people’s homes.”

And now American talk shows, such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, are calling. A download will be available May 21 at British iTunes. A BBC documentary featuring the group, Power to the People, airs May 28, the same day the CD single of My Generation goes on sale.

“We’re hoping to be at No. 1 for at least two weeks,” says the group’s manager, Neil Reed.

Here’s the video. It’s a hoot, as well as being a pretty decent arrangement of the song. All I know is that if you really are only as old as you feel, then there’s nothing at all incongruous about singing “Hope I die before I get old” when you’re 90. May I feel that way at that age, too.