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June 30th, 2010:

Who wants to answer for Rick Perry’s policies?

There was a hearing of the House Public Education Committee yesterday to discuss the Texas Education Agency’s controversial methodology for rating school districts, but the person responsible for that metric declined to show up to explain it.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, chairman of an appropriations subcommittee overseeing the education budget, was not too pleased that Education Commissioner Robert Scott stood up the committee on Tuesday.

Scott’s absence, Hochberg said, reminded legislators once again that “the commissioner only works for one person and he’s the person who lives in that other house.”

[…]

The main issue Hochberg and the other members wanted to discuss with Scott was the use of the Texas Projection Measure to improve schools’ ratings under the state accountability system.

Used for the first time last year, the measure is intended to show whether a student who fails the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is projected to pass the test within the next three years. If so, that student counts as passing for the school’s rating.

Some people have called into question whether the measure is providing an overly sunny picture of improving school performance. For instance, of the 74 school districts that were newly rated exemplary last year, 73 of them earned that highest distinction because the Texas Projection Measure lifted their passing rates.

Hochberg said such a significant one-year increase made him question whether the improved ratings last year was a function of better performance or a faulty measure. He cited an example in which 4th-grader who earned a zero on the writing test could count as passing if he or she had barely passing scores on the math and reading tests.

He suggested that the measure should not be used again when the 2010 scores are released on July 30.

It would be nice to know what Perry appointee Scott had to say about this, but he ducked and covered and left the task to his underlings, who got good and grilled in Scott’s absence. I guess I can’t blame Scott for taking a powder – I wouldn’t want to have to answer for anything the Perry administration is responsible for if I could help it.

Hurricane Alex

Stay safe, everyone.

Heavy downpours and possible coastal flooding are forecast for the next few days in the Houston area as Hurricane Alex churns in the Gulf of Mexico and then slams ashore along the northern Mexican coast south of Brownsville.

The rain and flooding lessen later this week as Alex moves inland across north Mexico and through the weekend.

Currently a Category 1 hurricane packing winds up to 80 mph, the storm may strengthen to become a Category 2, which would have winds between 96-110 mph, just before smashing ashore sometime early Thursday.

The storm is swirling above warm waters in the southern Gulf just off the coast of Mexico and moving west-northwest at about 7 mph this morning.

The storm has prompted officials to issue a hurricane warning in South Texas from Baffin Bay to the mouth of the Rio Grande. The warning extends south in Mexico from the river’s mouth to La Cruz.

A tropical storm warning is in place from Baffin Bay to Port O’Connor, where heavy rain and high winds are expected.

In terms of wind speed and storm surge, Alex isn’t as strong as some other storms. But it is large, and as SciGuy reminds us, the fact that we’re seeing a hurricane this early in the season is worrying. Hopefully, this one will pass by without too much damage, and it will be a good long time before the next one comes our way.

Feds fine Texas for food stamp failures

Our longstanding food stamp problems continue to cost the state of Texas millions of dollars.

Federal officials have fined Texas $3.96 million for errors in issuing food stamp benefits, according to a letter sent to House Speaker Joe Straus.

The penalty is for exceeding 105 percent of the national average rate of payment errors — overpayments or underpayments — for the past two federal budget years, according to the letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Texas plans to appeal the fine, said Geoff Wool, a spokesman for the state Health and Human Services Commission. He said that the number of food stamp recipients in Texas spiked after Hurricane Ike in 2008, increasing 26 percent in the year that followed.

It’s true that Hurricane Ike made a bad situation worse. But it was a bad situation to begin with because of the miserable failure privatization extravaganza that started in 2005 until its merciful death less than two years later. In the meantime, of course, the state had seen thousands of experienced HHSC employees leave the agency, which is the proximate cause of the staff shortages that led to the initial lawsuit over food stamp application processing delays. Ike was a factor, but without that screwed up experiment, HHSC would have been in much better shape to handle the increase in caseload that Ike helped cause. Rick Perry and his Republican cronies took something that was working, and they broke it. And the cost of that – the human cost, not just the dollars and cents cost – keeps mounting. And just as a reminder, one of the guys who helped screw things up in the first place has now been hired to un-screw them.

Speaking of that lawsuit from last year, here’s a brief update.

In December, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid sued the commission in state district court in Travis County over the backlog. The group expanded its lawsuit in June, adding more plaintiffs and arguing that the entire food stamp system is purposely dissuading people from participating.

But Wool said, “We feel that because this is a federal program governed by federal rules, the state court is limited in its ability to provide relief.” The state is seeking to get the case dismissed, arguing in a June 22 court filing that food stamp processing deadlines aren’t mandatory.

“That,” said Cynthia Martinez of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, “is about as ridiculous as it sounds. This is an attempt for them to avoid accountability by making the argument that the king can do no wrong because he is the king.”

Business as usual, I’m afraid. Hair Balls has more.

Poll says people prefer slots to taxes

I don’t think that’s a great revelation – I’d think many people would claim to prefer a bout of the flu to having their taxes raised – but for obvious reasons, this is a noteworthy finding.

A new poll conducted for horse track owners indicates that Texans would rather legalize slot machines at race tracks than pay higher taxes to offset a projected $18 billion revenue shortfall in the next state budget. The poll of 801 registered voters in Texas, conducted by Austin-based Perception Insight, showed the preference for slot machines across the political spectrum – Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Results of the poll mirrored earlier surveys that found Texans generally would rather see new revenue raised in ways other than through increasing taxes. The new poll, conducted from June 8-13, was paid for by Texans for Economic Development, which represents horse and dog track owners in the state. Efforts to expand gambling in Texas have picked up steam as projections for the state’s revenue shortfall next year have continued to grow.

According to the poll, 57 percent of voters favor slot machines over higher taxes when given a choice, while 22 percent would rather raise taxes.

You can see the poll memo here. There’s a lot of context missing – these were a couple of questions from a larger poll, about which we have not been told anything, and there’s no crosstab data – so don’t read too much into it. In particular, I think any time you ask the question “Would you prefer for the state to raise taxes or do X”, I think “do X” is going to win handily most of the time. Not to put too fine a point on it, but even the most optimistic estimate of potential gambling revenue for the state is far short of the structural deficit caused by the ginormous unaffordable property tax cut of 2006, let alone the actual shortfall for this biennium. In other words, this isn’t an either-or choice, even if we assumed there were no other possible options. I understand there’s only so much you can do in a poll, but that means there’s only so much you can take from it, too.

To me, the more interesting finding is that there is no apparent downside for a politician who supports expanded gambling. That’s not going to stop hardliners like Empower Texans, who have been peddling the misleading claim that gambling expansion is a Democratic issue – someone should tell that to Rep. Ed Kuempel, as he was the lead author of the joint resolution and its enabling legislation to expand gambling last session – from trying to scare Republicans about it. It wouldn’t be any fun if it weren’t for stuff like that. Whether this changes anyone’s position or not, I couldn’t say, but it’s not likely to make anyone shy away from supporting more gambling.

Finally, note that the questions only asked about slots at horse racing tracks, not about casinos. As we know, those two interests are competitive and not cooperative, so there’s no guarantee that even if we do see some kind of gambling expansion move forward that it will take this specific form. Maybe casinos would be less popular than slots, I don’t know. Just something to keep in mind.

Another setback for DART

More bad news from Dallas.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit can’t afford to build light-rail service to D/FW International Airport by 2013 as it has long said it would, the agency’s chief financial officer said Tuesday.

The news comes as a sharp reversal, but CFO David Leininger said the only way the project can be built in the near future will be if new revenues can be found, either through a new tax or, more likely but still uncertain, a federal grant that would cover the approximately $275 million cost of the final leg of the Orange Line.

“We are not abandoning these projects by any means, but there simply isn’t room for them in your current plan,” he told board members.

[…]

Irving has counted on the line to anchor more than $4 billion in planned developments near rail stations. That includes a $385 million convention and entertainment complex in the Las Colinas Urban Center. The city is shouldering the lion’s share of those construction costs.

That’s on top of the previous announcements about projects being delayed or discontinued. Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that the pool of federal grant money that gave Metro funding for the North and Southeast lines is all used up. Metro got the last two available grants for that. Until there are more funds like that available from the federal government, projects like that and like the University line will at the very least experience some uncertainty. It’s high time Congress took action on this. Alternately, as the DMN editorializes, the Lege can provide funds for regional transportation projects. This is worth doing, and if DART can’t do it by itself, it should get help.