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June 2nd, 2009:

Special session speculation

We all know that the Lege adjourned without finishing all its business. A lot of people are speculating there will need to be a special session to deal with it. At this time, Governor Perry is not one of those people.

Gov. Rick Perry said today he didn’t rule out calling a special session to address the fallout from last night’s legislative meltdown that put the future of five state agencies in jeopardy.

[…]

Perry stressed that the Texas Department of Transportation and four other agencies are in no danger of shutting down in the near future and promised he would find a way to keep them going unimpeded.

Sen. Steve Ogden and others last night said the resolution the House hastily passed yesterday afternoon was “hokey,” “preposterous” and “extreme.” Ogden also questioned whether the resolution was legal.

Perry said he worked with House leaders on the resolution and said lawyers had told him it would have worked.

House Speaker Joe Straus said this morning he did not believe a special session was necessary.

Sen. Glenn Hegar had said last night that Perry could address part of the problem by issuing executive orders. Perry made very clear that that was not true.

“Whoever dreamed that up might want to find something different to do in their life than give advice to senators,” Perry said.

Well, I don’t know what Perry has in mind, but I hope he’s right that it’ll all work out in the end without any need to reconvene. For what it’s worth, the AusChron was speculating the legislators would be back next month, while the Observer put its marker on next April, after the primaries. I say keep watching what Perry says – if there’s going to be a special, it likely won’t come as a surprise. He’ll give some indication beforehand. Elise and Trail Blazers have more.

Cornyn reverts to form

Hey, remember when Big John Cornyn was rebuking the crazy wing of the Republican Party for making race-based attacks on Sonya Sotomayor? Apparently, he’s figured out that this put him in the minority of the GOP, because he’s now joined them.

Since the introduction last week of Sonia Sotomayor, Republican senators wary of attacking the first Latino Supreme Court nominee have lashed out at conservatives in their party who branded the would-be justice a racist and have even predicted a smooth confirmation.

But several of those same GOP senators said Sunday that they would now make race a focus of the Sotomayor nomination fight — and they were far less eager to criticize conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich for their racially tinged critiques.

Fanning out across network television talk shows, the senators in essence pledged to ask a fundamental question: Can a woman who says her views are shaped by her Puerto Rican heritage and humble beginnings make fair decisions when it comes to all races and social classes?

“We need to know, for example, whether she’s going to be a justice for all of us or just a justice for a few of us,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, speaking on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

Days earlier, Cornyn said in a radio interview that it was “terrible” for conservatives to be attacking Sotomayor as a racist. He did not reiterate those sentiments Sunday and pledged that he and other Republican lawmakers would investigate Sotomayor’s past comments and rulings to judge her fairness.

Always good to see people about whom one has a low opinion live up to that opinion one has of them. I like the way Kevin Drum phrases it:

Oddly enough, Cornyn has never expressed any concerns about whether a white male judge who rules against affirmative action can be a justice for all of us or just a justice for a few of us. I suppose it just slipped his mind.

I think it’s just a matter of Cornyn remembering who the “us” is and who the “them” is. After all, as others have noted, identity politics is something that happens to white people, not something that is done by them. I’m glad our junior Senator has cleared up where he stands on this.

UPDATE: BOR has more.

Houston’s budget

The Chron asks if the city of Houston’s budget is balanced, then answers that question with a “Well, maybe”.

Does the city of Houston have a balanced budget?

Like so many things in politics, it depends on whom you ask.

For wealthy businessman Bill King or City Councilwoman Pam Holm, the answer is no, since Mayor Bill White’s administration is planning to spend about $50 million more from its general fund in fiscal 2010 than it will take in from taxes and other revenue streams.

To Bob Lemer, conservative tax accountant and longtime critic of City Hall, the answer is an emphatic no. Lemer said a 2008 audit of Houston’s finances over the past five years shows the city in the red to the tune of $1.5 billion if it were to do its books like a private company.

And if you see things like the mayor, Finance Director Michelle Mitchell and most City Council members do, the answer is a strong yes in the sense that the city is not spending money it does not have.

Who is right? All of them, each in their own particular way, said City Controller Annise Parker.

“We have used borrowed money to meet some of our current obligations, which is, I think, fiscally unwise,” Parker said. “But while Mr. King and Mr. Lemer are out waving the red flag, I just have the yellow flag of caution up.”

I think a lot of the criticism in this article is more about semantics than anything else. Suppose I earn $50,000 in a year. Over the course of a year, all of the money I earn is dedicated to three things: Taxes, retirement savings, and living expenses. At the end of the year, my budget is “balanced” because every penny I took in is accounted for in one of these three ways. Now I decide I want to buy a house, so over the course of the next four years I scrimp on living expenses and put a little less into retirement savings, and create a fourth category of expenditure called Down Payment, to which I dedicate $5000 a year. Then, in year five, I go back to my previous allocations, and I plunk down the $20K I’ve got in the Down Payment fund on that house I want. I’ve now spent $70,000 in Year Five, but I still took in $50,000. Am I in a deficit situation? If so, is that a bad thing?

I give that example because of the way the “problem” is described for Houston’s budget.

In the course of his administration, White said he consistently has made sure the city built up its “fund balance” — governmentspeak for reserve or savings — to pay for large expenses and to improve the city’s bond rating. The latter is a key factor in holding down the cost of borrowing.

At the end of this fiscal year on June 30, the city’s reserves are projected at $220 million. Under White’s proposed budget, fiscal 2010 will end with $171 million in unspent funds, meaning the city will have drawn down its reserves by $49 million.

White said the city built up the balance with the expectation of spending it on certain big expenditures, such as raising the pay of firefighters. That means the budget is balanced, he said, despite the fact that expenses will outpace revenues by the $49 million.

I say the situation here is analogous to the one I sketched out. Perhaps not exactly, if the extra expenses being incurred are not one-time (it’s not clear if that’s the case), but I think the question is a fair one. If you’ve saved in previous years in anticipation of a big expense in a future year, does that mean you’re in a deficit situation when you make that expenditure, and if so is that a bad thing?

That’s the crux of Council Member Holm’s complaint, and I have a hard time seeing it as anything but a bullet point in her City Controller campaign. Lemer’s issue is with bigger than that.

For Lemer, the author of a 2004 ballot proposal to limit city spending, the $49 million question is moot. He argues that the city racked up a cumulative deficit of $1.5 billion from 2004 until 2008.

“That is absolutely frightening,” he said. According to his research, the main driver of that has been borrowing to keep up with costs for the city’s pension debt.

But White said that when the city has borrowed to pay pension expenses, it has reduced other borrowing accordingly, so its overall debt levels have remained low relative to its assets.

“The ratio of debt is down from where it was in the early ’90s, and it is very competitive with other cities,” the mayor said.

Parker said the city’s spending has exceeded revenues by $1.5 billion from 2004 to 2008 because Houston has been on a building boom since the administration of Mayor Bob Lanier, borrowing to pay for new infrastructure that helps fuel growth.

“We have invested back in the city of Houston,” she said. “Our long-term debt has gone up sharply, but our infrastructure assets have gone up in valuation as well. We’re a growing city, and we’re trying to meet the needs of that growth.”

Well, I’d think that infrastructure investment would be a good thing to do, especially these days, but I’m not a longtime critic of City Hall, so what do I know? I suppose too much at once is bad, but that isn’t the argument Lemer is making, and as I can’t say I consider him to be a reliable source, we’ll just have to agree to disagree here. As for Bill King, I’m not exactly sure why his name is in this story, since there’s no quote from him that I can see. Maybe he’s required to be mentioned in stories about Houston’s governance, the way John Sharp was required to be mentioned in any story about potential statewide Democratic candidates. I can’t say I’d be surprised by that.

The Cook and Delisi Top Ten

With the motto of “Why should Texas Monthly have all the fun?”, Harold Cook and Ted Delisi have put together their own Ten Best Legislators list, with the twist being that Cook picked the Republicans and Delisi picked the Dems. It’s an interesting and thoughtful list, but I’d bet their Ten Worst list, with each picking from their own party this time, would be a lot more fun. What say you, fellas?

In related news, as BOR notes, all four of the freshmen that had been endorsed by the TexBlog PAC were honored as outstanding members by different groups, and Houston freshman Rep. Kristi Thibaut was named House freshman of the year by the House Democratic Caucus. Click on for her press release on the subject. Congrats to all the winners!

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Strip club fee dies

Boy, I had sure thought that HB982, the alternate strip club fee bill by Rep. Senfronia Thompson had passed the Senate, but apparently the vote to pass it was reconsidered and was never taken up again, so as a result, it’s dead.

That means the current version of the fee – which was approved in 2007 – will stay in place. But it’s been tangled in litigation for the last two years over constitutional questions. Without a legislative solution, it will be up to the courts to decide whether the fee stays in place.

It’s usually the case that a bill you’d swear was dead makes some kind of miraculous last-minute comeback. This session, you couldn’t say for certain that something has passed until it actually hit the Governor’s desk. You just never knew.

More Tier One schools

Here’s some genuine good news from Sunday night’s chaos.

Legislation intended to lift some of the state’s public universities to top-tier status has passed the House and Senate and now goes to Gov. Rick Perry, who is expected to sign it.

The measure, House Bill 51, also includes authorization for a $150 million bond issue for the hurricane-damaged University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, part of a $1.3 billion package of funding for that campus, and $5 million for Texas A&M University-Galveston.

Seven so-called emerging research universities would compete for extra funding in hopes of joining the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University as nationally recognized research institutions. Rice University, which is private, is also a top-tier school.

The 2010-11 budget approved by the Legislature includes $50 million for the emerging universities in addition to their normal appropriations. The $50 million would be parceled out based on which schools raise the most money from private donations for enhancing research and recruiting faculty members.

Officials of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board say it could take 20 years and considerably more funding for even one of the seven emerging institutions — UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, UT-El Paso, the University of North Texas, the University of Houston and Texas Tech University — to rise into the big leagues

Still, lawmakers and higher education leaders said passage of the legislation represents a commitment that, in time, should lead to the development of more high-demand universities, reducing pressure on UT-Austin under the state’s automatic-admission law.

“This is one of those real privileges to carry this legislation,” said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

That is good news. You may recall a report from the Legislative Study Group, which I blogged about a year ago, that highlighted the need for more Tier I schools. I think this represents a major step forward, and I’m glad to see it got done. Kudos to all for that. Statements about HB51 from Reps. Ellen Cohen and Garnet Coleman are beneath the fold.

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Texas blog roundup for the week of June 1

The Lege may have adjourned, but the Texas Progressive Alliance is always in session. Click on to read this week’s blog highlights.

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