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July 26th, 2010:

Interview with Michael Soto

Michael Soto

It’s time to start up the interview machine again, as election season will be on us before you know it. (Fun fact: We’re less than 90 days out from the start of early voting.) I’ve got a trio of SBOE candidates to get things started, beginning with Michael Soto, the Democratic candidate for SBOE in District 3, which is primarily San Antonio and points south. Soto is a professor of English at my alma mater and is running to replace the unreliable Democratic incumbent, Rick Agosto. Here’s the interview:

Download the MP3 file

As before, I will keep a list of all interviews on the 2010 Elections page. Let me know what you think about the interview, and if you have any suggestions about that page.

What is this “warning” of which you speak?

I’m glad to see that someone is asking questions about the warning that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct handed down to Sharon Keller.

Seana Willing, the commission’s examiner, contends in an e-mail that the order is based on a rule that does not comport with the Texas Constitution. As examiner in judicial misconduct cases, Willing acts as a prosecutor does in a criminal case, gathering and presenting evidence, often assisted by a private attorney.

Willing says, “I’m not criticizing the commission for what they did, but I don’t understand why they did what they did.” But Willing is concerned that the commission’s public warning in Keller could result in “bad law” and cost taxpayers more money.

She argues the commission should have based its order on the constitution, which allows the commission only three options after it begins formal proceedings against a judge and after a special master issues a report: issue a censure, recommend removal or retirement, or dismiss the charges.

But John J. “Mike” McKetta, the special counsel who prosecuted Keller, thinks the constitution allows the commission to take the action it did.

Bob Warneke, the commission’s counsel in Keller, says the commission’s position is that the order “speaks for itself.” He declines further comment.

The question is somewhat complicated, and turns on what the Texas Constitution outlines and what the rules for the SCJC specify. It’s a bit of a mess, actually. The Statesman has a good story on this as well, which includes the fact that Keller is the 96th judge to be examined by the Commission, and the first to receive this particular sanction. One thing I hope we all can agree on:

While [Keller defense attorney Chip] Babcock is discussing an appeal, how such an appeal would proceed is unclear. That’s because there are different procedures for appeals after formal and informal proceedings. A public warning typically follows informal proceedings, but in Keller’s case, the commission issued a public warning after formal proceedings.

When the commission issues a public warning to a judge in informal proceedings, that judge has the right to ask the state Supreme Court to appoint three appellate justices to a special court of review to hear the appeal. Willing says in an interview that in such appeals, the three-justice panel reviews the evidence de novo, amounting to a new trial.

But because the commission initiated formal proceedings against Keller, Keller already has had a trial — before the special master. Willing says a new trial would be a waste of resources. She is concerned about Keller getting what amounts to a second trial on the taxpayer’s dime.

“This is taxpayers’ resources being expended for a second trial,” Willing says. “I have a problem with that.”

Willing says that even though the commission does not pay Graves Dougherty legal fees for McKetta’s work as special counsel, it had to pay for the firm’s expenses in Keller, which totaled about $20,000 so far. “Are we going to have to do that again?” Willing asks.

I would hope the answer to that is No. At this point, it appears the only way for that to be ensured is for Keller to take her medicine and let it go already. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Thanks to Grits for the Texas Lawyer link.

TEA Commissioner Scott defends Texas Projection Measure

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott takes advantage of a friendly audience to lash out at critics of the Texas Projection Measure.

Scott, speaking to the State Board of Education, said the so-called Texas Projection Measure has been misunderstood and misrepresented by critics who contend the policy gives a false impression of school performance.

The complex formula allows schools and districts to count as passing some students who actually fail the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills if the projection measure shows they are likely to pass in a future year.

“There is a little bit of election year politics going on here,” Scott said. “It is very easy to demagogue. It is very easy for someone to say they gave students credit for failing.”

Too bad he didn’t have the guts to say this to Scott Hochberg. It would have been nice to know how he would have answered those questions, instead of leaving his assistants to hang out to dry.

The commissioner also pointed to scores of e-mails from superintendents, principals and teachers across the state who wrote that the projection measure was beneficial for their students and schools — and should be retained. The Dallas Morning News obtained copies of all e-mails received by the Texas Education Agency through the beginning of this week.

“Please keep TPM and do not suspend the use of the TPM for school accountability ratings,” said Lewisville High School Principal Brad Burns, reflecting the viewpoints of numerous principals in Texas.

“Whether TPM was good, bad or in-between, we had children for the first time in their lives that experienced success,” wrote Temple schools Superintendent Robin Wuebker-Battershell. “Retool it if necessary, but don’t surrender the concept.”

And Weatherford High School Principal David Belding urged Scott to please “not dismantle a system that gives schools with more difficult student groups to educate the chance to be recognized for moving those students forward. That is what TPM does.”

Look, nobody is attacking the idea of a means to measure growth. My understanding is that such a thing is required by No Child Left Behind, so totally scrapping it isn’t an option. The problem is that as a way to measure the growth of students who are not already passing their tests – that is to say, to measure the growth of the students it was really designed to measure – TPM sucks. In mathematical terms, it’s a lousy model. Pointing that out isn’t politics, but distorting that criticism is. Can we please focus on the real issue, so that we have accurate data about our teachers, students, and school districts and so that the real progress they have made doesn’t get lost under the weight of a bad metric? Thanks.

How dry is Dallas?

I’m fascinated by stories about elections to allow the sale of alcohol in places where it is currently prohibited. I suppose I find it weird that these vestiges of Prohibition are still with us. I especially find it strange to learn about such restrictions in big cities like Dallas, since my impression is that they primarily exist in rural areas, but clearly that is not the case.

Since March, when Keep the Dollars in Dallas began collecting petition signatures to force an election [to eliminate dry areas in the city], a central theme of its campaign has been that added sales-tax revenue from expanded alcohol sales could help close the city’s budget gap.

City staffers buttressed that argument during a May presentation to the City Council of budget “brainstorming ideas.” The presentation asserted that the expansion of alcohol sales would add $11.3 million in sales taxes per year.


The city’s report calculated potential tax revenue from each of two ballot initiatives. One would permit the sale of beer and wine – but not liquor – at stores throughout Dallas. A second would eliminate the “private club” requirement that exists in dry areas, which requires the formality of admitting restaurant customers into a “club” before allowing them to buy drinks.

To project potential revenues from the first initiative, city staffers obtained confidential estimates of beer and wine sales per square foot of retail space from one convenience store chain and three grocery store chains in wet areas. The staffers then applied those numbers to all of Dallas assuming the entire city went wet.

The resulting prediction was that alcohol sales in the city’s grocery and convenience stores would grow from $352 million to about $973 million per year. Taxed at 1 percent, the added sales would generate about $6.2 million in city revenue.

To project revenues from the second ballot initiative, involving alcohol sales in restaurants, city staffers performed a similar extrapolation. Based on mixed-beverage tax receipt figures in wet areas from the state comptroller’s office, they estimated such alcohol sales would go from about $542 million to about $880 million. From an effective tax rate on such sales of about 1.5 percent, the city would receive an added $5.1 million in revenue.

City staffers concede that not all of these gains could actually be realized, since many of the new sales in areas going wet would be “cannibalized” from areas that were already wet.

“As a result, these revenue estimates should be considered a maximum potential revenue gain,” the city research report says.

I don’t know how much of Dallas is dry, so it’s hard for me to say how credible I find the proponents’ numbers. The only dry place in Houston that I’m aware of is a small piece of the Heights, where restaurants that aren’t fortunate enough to have a grandfathered permit cannot sell booze, but the overall effect there is miniscule. Making this area wet would make only a tiny difference to the city’s bottom line. I figure the more of the city that already allows alcohol sales, the more “cannibalization” there would be. Be that as it may, if I lived in Dallas I’d vote for these propositions on the grounds that I think it’s silly for there to be dry areas in this day and age. Whether or not eliminating them brings in extra tax revenues isn’t a factor to me. I don’t see any public policy rationale for these little alcohol-free islands, and the experience of the Collin County town of Anna strongly suggests that nothing bad will happen if they disappear. I say pour a cold one and join the 21st Century, Dallas. The DMN editorial board has a sensible take as well.