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December 9th, 2007:

Metro says they’ll start construction on time anyway

The latest Metro Solutions email blast directly addresses their recent kerfuffle with the FTA.

Recent news reports about METRO and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) may have left the false impression that two of Houston’s five proposed light rail lines are in jeopardy. They are not.

We do not expect delays on the start of construction, which is scheduled for next spring.

The Federal government already has the vast majority of information needed to evaluate these light rail projects.

METRO is working aggressively to provide the federal government the remaining documentation requested.

Well all-righty then. If that turns out to be the case, then we can file this under “tempest in a teapot”. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile, the Chron jumps in the fray.

Houston leaders reacted with puzzlement and concern to a pointed letter from FTA Deputy Administrator Sherry Little withdrawing approval for the two lines and calling for extensive new documentation and public hearings. The letter also includes a request that Metro demonstrate its technical capability to implement light rail, an odd requirement considering the demonstrated success and strong ridership of the existing Main Street line.

FTA officials say they warned Metro that the federal agency would be obstructive if Metro changed its plans. The warning, however, does not justify the obstructive behavior.

Metro CEO Frank Wilson says most of the information the FTA wants has already been provided and can easily be resubmitted. Some environmental assessments for the lines could take up to six months to rework, but that should not delay the 2012 completion dates for the entire light rail system if there are no further federal demands.

“We can begin some other places on the locally funded work and double back later and pick up the pieces that are,” Wilson said. “What I can’t gauge at this time and I can’t control is their time for review and their time for approval.”

Work on the new lines is expected to begin in May of next year.

The FTA’s motives for withdrawing its approval after earlier approving the planned conversion to rail are unclear, but the move smacks of partisan vindictiveness. Although Little claimed in her letter that federal guidelines required the proposal to be resubmitted, Metro officials pointed out that the document’s harsh tone was a striking change from previous cooperation between the agencies.

Not much new here. They’re taking Metro at their word regarding the potential for delays, which I hope is reflective of the evidence and not just of hope. And while I’m certainly open to the idea that “partisan vindictiveness” may have a role to play in this, I think they owe us a bit of speculation as to who’s being vindictive and why if they’re going to bring it up. Rep. Culberson said he wasn’t involved. Is the Chron dismissing his denial, or hinting that there’s another possible suspect? It would be nice to know.

And in other news, Governor Perry’s property tax cut claims are still phony

Much as I like to see Governor Perry and his malarkey about the property tax cuts get smacked down, I rather wish there weren’t so much space given in the story to those who seem to see tax cuts as an entitlement for themselves. As I see it, the reason we’re in such a fix over paying for education and other necessary services is because of whiners like Michael Kubosh and Paul Bettencourt and the outsized influence they have on the discourse. So I’m just going to skip over their palaver and get to the important parts of the article, which follow after that.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said the tax plan didn’t solve the school finance problems and didn’t raise enough money to meet the state’s growing needs.

“I’m not sure anybody (in the Legislature) believed the $2,000 figure, certainly nobody who had seen the math,” Whitmire said. “The bottom line is we have a broken tax system. We’re just not keeping up with our growth.”

[…]

[T]he amount of savings that Perry touted won’t come to average homeowners because the governor’s claim was based on home sales prices, which tend to be higher than actual taxable values. The calculation also did not account for ever-rising property values or school bond issues, which are repaid by a part of the tax rate unaffected by the new caps.

Perry’s TV ad clarified the $2,000 was money taxpayers would save over three years; the radio spots had no such caveat.

Sorry, I have to interrupt here for a second before I get to the best part. “Ever-rising property values”? Do the words “subprime mortgage crisis” (or if you prefer, Big Shitpile) mean anything to you? It’s true that property values have generally increased around here. Anyone who thinks that’s true for everyone or forever needs to re-enroll in Econ 101.

Back to the best bit:

Homeowners with more expensive homes will save most.

An $800,000 home in the Cypress-Fairbanks school district, for example, would have produced a tax savings of about $5,083 over the last two years.

The legislative response to the Supreme Court order for a new education finance plan was not about adequately funding schools, said state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, a school finance expert.

“It was about reducing property taxes, primarily for the owners of the most expensive homes,” Hochberg said.

Hochberg, Bettencourt and other tax experts predict a continuing saga because school funding formulas benefit the state when property values go up. Local taxpayers owe more to their schools, but the state then sends them less state money for public education.

“It’s not just Alamo Heights and Spring Branch and Highland Park in Dallas. It’s every school district,” Bettencourt said.

Local governments typically use increased property values to cover inflation “so they can at least stay even, but for school districts, if their values go up, they don’t get the benefit of that,” Hochberg said. “That benefit accrues to the state. Instead of putting that money into local school district budgets, we send that directly back to tax relief, which means the districts then have to turn around and raise the tax rate, and there goes the savings.

“The governor takes credit for tax relief while pushing the true costs back into the hands of the local school board members, who now have to take the blame for raising taxes just to stay even,” Hochberg said.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. There really isn’t anything else in that story you need to read.

Jones, Adams, Sullivan, and Galloway win runoffs

And the 2007 election season is officially over for Houston.

Lawyer and former track star [Democrat] Jolanda Jones coasted to victory over education consultant Joe TreviƱo in the only citywide contest in Saturday’s runoff election, according to unofficial results.

Runoffs were needed to fill three City Council seats and one Houston Independent School District position when no candidate received a majority of votes in the Nov. 6 election.

Houston voters also elected city employee [Democrat] Wanda Adams and businessman Michael Sullivan to City Council seats in districts D and E, respectively. They chose Houston NAACP President [Democrat] Carol Mims Galloway for the opening on the school board.

About 26,000 people voted in the At Large #5 race, meaning that your vote counted for 40 people. For comparison purposes, the June runoff for the special election had 25,000 votes, and the December 2005 runoff had 36,000.

My congratulations to all of the newly elected Council members, all of whom ran good races and I believe will do a fine job in office. My thanks and sympathy to the runnersup, for whom the same could be said. Congratulations also to Carol Mims Galloway for her successful return to public service. And finally, a little extra salute to my neighbor Joe Trevino for his strong debut in politics. I hope we’ll see you on a future ballot.

Pasadena voters, charged with picking a new mayor in a special election Saturday, will have to return to the polls in a Jan. 19 runoff to decide between top vote-getters Johnny Isbell and Ralph Riggs.

We’ve cast our last votes until March here in Houston, but the folks in Pasadena and Fort Worth still have a job to do.

Texas Progressive Alliance Silver Stars

What with preparations for Lights in the Heights and all, I never had a chance to blog about the 2007 Texan of the Year award, which my blogging colleagues and I with the Texas Progressive Alliance have been working on. This year, we’re honoring more than one person. I’ll let Vince explain:

For our Third Annual Texan of the Year Awards, the Texas Progressive Alliance elected to not only name a Texan of the Year-the Texan or Texans who contributed the most to the cause of the Progressive movement in 2007-but also recognize other Texans whose contributions were also important to the Progressive cause and worthy of recognition.

The Texan of the Year will be announced next Friday, December 14. Between now and then, the Texas Progressive Alliance will announce its list of Texans whose contributions to the progressive cause it believed worthy of special recognition. This begins today, with the announcement of the Texas Progressive Alliance’s Silver Stars. Starting Monday, four additional “Gold Stars” will be announced followed by the TOY on Friday.

Click over to see the Silver Star winners. Congratulations to all for your fine work.

Memo to the netroots on immigration

The Drum Major Institute calls on the netroots to take a leadership role in the debate over immigration. They offer six ways in which blogs can add value to the discussion, and they include links to research on the subject. It’s useful stuff. If you’ve got any interest in taking part, check it out.