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January, 2011:

South Padre Island joins the bag banning brigade

That didn’t take long.

Buoyed by a weeks-old law in nearby Brownsville, South Padre Island leaders Wednesday made the vacation hot spot the next Texas town to restrict the use of single-use plastic bags.

The unanimously approved prohibition against using plastic bags at points of sale becomes mandatory Jan. 1, 2012. Between Feb. 1 and then, merchants are asked to comply with a voluntary ban.

The measure was championed by a group of surfer-activists, said Alita Bagley, the city councilwoman who introduced it early last year.

“Living on an island with the Laguna Madre bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other side — we’re a very sensitive environment,” Bagley said. “This really seemed like sort of a natural step. The statistics are out there (on) what problems the amount of plastic causes, particularly in the marine environment.”

“Surfer-activists”. Who knew we had such things in Texas? Unlike the Brownsville ordinance, this one allows for compostable plastic bags, which if nothing else should make life a little easier for folks who use their grocery bags to clean up after their dogs. Kudos to South Padre for taking this step. We’ll see who follows next.

Senate budget pretty much the same as the House budget

There had been some talk that the initial Senate budget would be a little less harsh than the initial House budget, on the grounds that the Senate budget would at least use some of the Rainy Day fund, but that was not the case in the end.

The Senate’s version of a starting state budget is, at $158.7 billion, $2.3 billion bigger than the House’s, but still would chop overall state spending by $28.8 billion, or 15.4 percent, from current levels.

The upper chamber’s initial budget proposal includes a total of $69.8 billion for public and higher education; the House version provides $67.7 billion for education. Their overall spending on health and human services is about the same (though some details differ). If you’re looking only at state money — general revenue funding — the Senate would spend $79.7 billion, compared to the $79.3 billion in the House plan presented last week.

The big difference in state spending, as with the overall budget, is in education. The Senate would leave public schools $9.3 billion short of what they’re due under current education funding formulas, about $500 million better off than the schools would do under the House plan. In either case, the Legislature would have to change its school funding formulas, and until they do that, there’s no way to know which school districts lose how much money. Technology allotment and pre-kindergarten early start grants aren’t funded.

Like the House, the Senate would cut more than $254 million from special item funding for state colleges and universities and $431 million from student financial aid programs (if the money becomes available, they’d add back $50 million of that financial aid, for a total cut of $381 million).

They do similar things in health and human services, cutting provider reimbursement rates by another 10 percent on top of cuts already made and without taking into account federal stimulus funds used in the current budget that won’t be available for the next budget.

No rainy day fund, or anything else to increase revenue. On the plus side, those four community colleges that would be shut down under the House budget have been spared. See, whining works if you’re a Republican.

As with the Pitts budget, the Ogden budget is also being called a “starting point”, from which we might consider using the Rainy Day fund to make the impact a little less terrible. I’m linking to that story specifically for the purpose of mocking someone who richly deserves it:

Advocates of limited government applauded a bare-bones approach as an initial step in the discussion.

“You shouldn’t start the discussion of your family budget with how much of the family savings account can we tap this month,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.

Someone should inform Michael Quinn Sullivan about how actual American families have been living recently:

Over the two years ending September 2010, Americans withdrew a net $311 billion — or about 1.4% of their disposable income — from their savings and investment accounts, according to the Federal Reserve. That’s a sharp divergence from the previous 57 years, during which they never made a net quarterly withdrawal. Rather, they added an average of 12% of disposable income to their holdings of financial assets — including bank accounts, money-market funds, stocks, bonds and other investments — each year.

See, if it’s a choice between eating out or having premium cable or stuff like that, people will cut back in tough times. But if the alternative is to not eat two days a week, or to turn off the electricity on weekends, or otherwise cut out actual necessities for living, most people will do whatever they can to find the money to pay for them, whether that means taking another job, selling off prized possessions, dipping into savings, or going into debt. Somehow, that never makes it into conservative narratives about budget shortfalls.

Yeah, it is too early to be polling for 2012

But that won’t stop anyone from doing them.

2012 could be the year Democrats are finally competitive for President in Texas…but only if the Republicans nominate Sarah Palin.

There are vast differences in how the various different potential GOP contenders fare against Barack Obama in Texas. Mike Huckabee is very popular in the state and would defeat Obama by 16 points, a more lopsided victory than John McCain had there in 2008. Mitt Romney is also pretty well liked and has a 7 point advantage over the President in an early hypothetical contest, a closer margin than the state had last time around but still a pretty healthy lead. A plurality of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Newt Gingrich but he would lead Obama by a 5 point margin nonetheless. It’s a whole different story with Palin though. A majority of Texas voters have an unfavorable opinion of her and she leads the President by just a single point in a hypothetical contest.

Part of the reason Obama looks like he could be competitive against the right Republican opponent is that his position in the state has improved. 42% of voters approve of the job he’s doing to 55% who disapprove. His average approval rating in 4 surveys conducted in PPP over the course of 2010 was 38% so he’s seeing the same sort of uptick in his numbers there that he’s seeing nationally right now.

The other reason for Obama’s closeness is the weakness of the Republican candidate field. He’d have no shot against a GOP nominee that voters in the state like. Huckabee’s favorability rating is a 51/30 spread and he blows Obama out of the water. But none of the other GOP hopefuls come close to matching that appeal. Romney’s favorability is narrowly in positive territory at 40/37, but Gingrich’s is negative at 38/44, and Palin’s is even worse at 42/53. Texas voters certainly don’t like Obama but for the most part they don’t see the current Republican front runners as particularly great alternatives.

What’s maybe most striking about Obama’s competitiveness in these numbers is that they’re from the same sample that showed Democrats had virtually no chance of picking up Kay Bailey Hutchison’s Senate seat earlier this week, trailing all 12 match ups we tested by double digit margins.

The previous poll results are here. I’m going to disagree with the analysis in that I think it really is all about name recognition. In the end, Obama may or may not perform better than whoever the Democratic candidate for Senate is – I’ll take the over if it’s Gene Kelly, the under if it’s John Sharp, and would consider it a tossup otherwise – but he isn’t about to perform 10 to 15 points better than any of them. The level of support Obama gets is roughly going to be the base Democratic performance level.

Yeah, sure, candidates and campaigns and fundraising matter, but only so much in a Presidential year. John Cornyn had Senate incumbency, several terms as a statewide officeholder, and something like a 3-1 financial advantage over Rick Noriega, yet he finished behind John McCain in both total votes and vote percentage, and did only one to three points better than downballot Republicans. Barring a Gene Kelly situation, I expect all the Democratic statewide candidates in 2012 to be within a few points of each other.

The question is what is the ceiling for Democrats in 2012. About a million more people voted in Texas in 2004 than in 2000, and at both the Presidential level and downballot, the Republicans got about 70% of those votes. About 900,000 more people voted in 2008 than in 2004, and again at all levels the Democrats got about 90% of those votes. There are a number of reasons for this, but one factor I’d point to is Latino support. Obama did more than ten points better among Latino voters than John Kerry did, and that was a big part of it. Call me crazy, but I don’t think any Republican Presidential candidate is going to appeal to Latinos like George W. Bush did in 2004. Given that our state, and our electorate, isn’t getting any whiter, I like those odds.

I’ll say this much, if Team Obama actually spends some money in Texas, it would make a difference. If they consider the 2010 results in a vacuum, they’ll run screaming in the other direction, but this was a tough year all over, and one presumes they’re smart enough to realize that the 2012 electorate will be very different, here and elsewhere. Even if they (quite reasonably) think our electoral votes are out of reach, there’s still an excellent reason to play here, and that’s for the Congressional races. Two Republicans won in 2010 with less than 50% – Blake Farenthold and Quico Canseco – and of course there will be four new seats to fight over. Winning back CDs 23 and 27, and taking two of the four new seats, would mean a net +2 for Dems in Texas. If Obama hopes to start his second term with a Democratic (or at least a more Democratic) Congress, that sure would help.

All right, I don’t really plan to talk about this much between now and the end of the year, so file this away for later. We’ve seen how quickly and significantly the winds can change over a few months, so we’ll see where things stand once the Republicans begin to coalesce around a single contender.

Tax expenditures

According to a legislative report prepared by the Ways and Means Committee, Texas is losing over $4 billion per biennium to various tax exemptions and expenditures.

One of the largest carve-outs was for the natural gas tax, which totaled about $1 billion a year in exemptions, according to the report. An exemption for bottled water sales amounted to a loss of about $250 million a year for the state, while an exemption for corporations with business interest in solar energy devices cost more than $1 million over the last two years.

The committee prepared the report to address Republican House Speaker Joe Straus’ charge to examine the exemptions and determine “how the current costs and benefits compare with the original legislative objectives,” according to the report, which did not make recommendations about which tax exemptions should be repealed.

Rep. Rene Oliveira, chairman of the tax-writing committee, also did not say which exemptions he would favor for repeal, but said the report contains as much as $2 billion in “low hanging fruit.”

“We should be looking at exemptions that should be repealed – whether it’s a corporate welfare exemption . or whether it’s a personal one – that the public policy that was the basis for it 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago no longer exists,” Oliveira told the AP.


Exemptions in the state business tax – which include a break for small businesses – also included a carve-out for certain insurance companies that pay another levy on premiums. That exemption cost the state about $1 billion in the last two years.

The report also examined sales tax exemptions for aircraft sales, internet service, coin-operated machine sales and billboard advertising. It raised the possibility of taxing cosmetic surgeries and automotive repair and maintenance services.

I’m not going to argue for or against any of these items right now. I guarantee, every single one of them has a constituency from which we will hear in loud and anguished terms if their particular piece of the pie comes under real scrutiny. I simply want to make the point that as the government is always being urged to examine its expenditures to ensure they are justified and useful, so should we at least periodically examine the breaks, loopholes, exemptions, and other instances of special treatment that we build into the tax code to see as Chairman Oliveira says if they are still fulfilling a valid policy role. To once again cite my favorite example of this, purchases made via the Internet were initially shielded from sales taxes in order to give these fledgling “online” businesses a fighting chance for survival. I think we can all agree that this business model has proven successful, yet the tax exemption exists. What purpose is it serving now? Regardless of what we decide, we should be having the debate.

One more thing: In the comments to an earlier post, I was asked what the “progressive solution” to the current budget situation would be. The full answer to that is complex and broad – there’s no one “progressive” answer but a range of ideas that we’d love to bring to the table – but consider this: If we used the Rainy Day Fund, adjusted the business margins tax and/or the 2006 property tax cut to eliminate the structural deficit that was created at that time, and at least grabbed the “low hanging fruit” that Chairman Oliveira referenced, we’d shave about $15 billion off the shortfall. That’s before you get to the LBB recommendations, many of which I find meritorious, or to cuts that progressives should gladly support like the closing of the Sugar Land prison, or to expanded gambling and whatever it may or may not have to offer. Sure, even if you do all that you’re still eleven or twelve billion dollars away from where the CPPP thinks we need to be, and from there you really can’t avoid making cuts to stuff we like (given that nobody will listen to our tax ideas, that is), but at this point the task becomes a lot smaller and a hell of a lot less painful. Doesn’t that sound better than laying off 100,000 teachers?

Legislative beer news

There’s a new player on the beer legislation scene this session.

The owner of one of San Antonio’s largest brewpubs, Freetail Brewing Co., is spearheading an effort to change state law to allow it and other brewpubs to distribute their beer anywhere in Texas.

If successful, beer aficionados no longer would need to travel to San Antonio to sip on Blue Star beverages, or to Austin for Uncle Billy’s or Dallas for Gordon Biersch. The brewpubs would be able to self-distribute up to 10,000 barrels of their brew per year or sell it to licensed distributors.

And under the proposed legislation, brewpubs could increase their total production from the existing limit of 5,000 barrels per year to 75,000 barrels.

Freetail owner Scott Metzger helped draft House Bill 660, which would change the state’s beer distribution laws. State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, filed the bill last week.

The San Antonio Current, the Chron’s Beer, TX blog, and the Austin Chronicle have all written about HB 660. Far as I know, this is the first time that brewpubs have gotten involved in this.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a fan of Saint Arnold beer and of microbreweries in general, and I’ve been a supporter of legislation to give them more freedom to sell their product. Past legislative efforts to allow microbreweries to sell their wares at their base of operations, which is something that Texas wineries have been able to do for some years now, have fallen short. The microbreweries are trying again, but theirs is a separate effort, as noted in that Beer, TX post:

Our own Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, has indeed introduced a bill that would let brewers distribute a limited amount of beer directly to consumers. HB 602 would allow Texas breweries to charge for tours and then give tour participants up to 48 12-ounce beers at the conclusion.

By charging varying amounts, depending on how much beer a tourist wanted to receive, consumers could get the beer they want while maintaining the status quo for the state’s powerful distributors. According to the wording of Farrar’s bill:

This section does not authorize the holder of a brewer’s permit to sell ale to an ultimate consumer.

So instead of allowing people to buy a case of beer after touring the brewery, you can offer differently-priced tours that may or may not include a free case or two of the product to take home with you afterward. If you’re thinking that’s a subtle change from the previous bills, you’re correct. If you’re wondering why such a subtle change would make this bill more likely to pass, all I can say is welcome to the world of sausage-making.

Anyway. Freetail owner Scott Metzger has started a blog to document his journey through this process, and he describes the differences between HBs 660 and 602 in this post, summing up as follows:

Obviously, I support HB 660. I also believe that the activities that would be permitted by HB 602 should be legal. If a brewery wants to give you a couple of cases of beer, I believe they should be allowed to. It should be noted, however, that HB 602 has a very narrow focus that affects only a handful of breweries: A-B in Houston, MillerCoors in Ft. Worth, Spoetzel in Shiner, St. Arnold in Houston, Real Ale in Blanco, Rahr in Ft. Worth, and Independence in Austin (in other words, only the breweries that package beer in 12-ounce bottles).

I support this bill and the efforts of the breweries who would be helped by its passage. I would however, point to HB 660 as a more comprehensive piece of reform legislation that has a greater reach. And with the exception of A-B, MillerCoors and Shiner who all exceed HB 660′s size restriction, the Brewpub bill allows the activities that HB 602 seeks to allow, should a brewery decide to change to a brewpub license. A brewpub is legally allowed to sell you packaged product for off-premise consumption, so long as they have packaged product to sell (most don’t).

You will never find me campaigning against HB 602, as I think it’s a bill that should pass. However, I believe our state is in need of greater reform that benefits our craft beer industry.

I was curious about what the microbrewery perspective was on HB 660, so I placed a call to Saint Arnold’s and had a chat with Brock Wagner. He told me they’re focused on their own efforts and that he wishes Metzger and his supporters the best of luck. As do I, to all of them. There’s a Facebook page for HB 660 to like if you’re into that sort of thing. You know I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Some day, we will do something about the Astrodome

So says Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“We on the Commissioners’ Court are going to have to make a decision, and I think it needs to be made this year, as to what we are going to propose to the voters,” he said. “It is a challenge, because every time we take a poll and ask people in public gatherings, ‘Do you want to tear down the Dome?’ 80 percent say no. When I ask what they want to do with it, that’s when it gets to be tricky.”

The Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which operates the county-owned Reliant Park complex, last year offered three scenarios. One option, totaling about $88 million, would demolish the Dome and use the land for a fountain and public space. It also would include about $300 million to add convention space at Reliant Park and replace Reliant Arena. Other options would retain and redesign the Dome and update Reliant Park’s convention facilities at a cost ranging up to $1.35 billion in private and public funds.

Willie Loston, executive director of the Sports and Convention Corp., said the agency hopes to ask commissioners for money this year to fund feasibility studies on future uses for the Dome.

Emmett said it could be a year, or more, before significant steps are taken on the Dome’s future step.

“That would be OK, as long as people know what is going to happen and where we want to go, even if we can’t start it,” he said. “But I do think it’s time to make a decision on where we want to go with it.”

Can you believe it’s been over six months since we first heard about the three options for the Dome, none of which were particularly well liked? My interpretation of Judge Emmett’s remarks is basically “Look, when the economy improves to the point that someone can finally get financing for one of these hairbrained schemes for the Dome, we’ll do something about it. In the meantime, just deal with it.” He might phrase it a bit more delicately than that, but you get the idea.

Weekend link dump for January 23

You can’t stop Hammertime. You can only hope to contain it.

The Perry Spiral, on the other hand, you can hope to stop.

Would you like a nice Chianti with your superconductor?

Yahoo! says Flickr is doing fine. I sure hope they mean it.

Is Facebook the same as “AOL done right”? I dunno, but see what you think.

When the name fits

“Pro-life”? Yeah, right.

A public option for banking makes a lot of sense. Some municipalities already do something like this, so extending it shouldn’t be too difficult.

No McMansions for Millennials. I hope so, but check back in 20 years when they’re hitting middle age and let me know if that’s still the case.

From the “Things you shouldn’t say on Twitter” department.

I didn’t think I could get more emotional about Christina Taylor Green. I was wrong.

Who is the cultural elite? Maybe not who you think.

“Erick Erickson hates Big Government so much that he got a job in it and then didn’t show up. Hah! He wins.”

Note to self: Don’t invest in any company this guy is associated with.

This was an excellent week to be reminded what a miserable, racist jerk Jesse Helms was.

Free Market Health Care would lead to an awful lot of people not being able to get health care.

Just a reminder of what the “repeal” of the PPACA Republicans voted to do would mean. Not to mention what it means about them.

For starters, it would directly hurt the millions of people who have already benefited from the new law.

There have been many individual mandates throughout our history.

From the “Put up or shut up” department.

I think The Borrowed Goats would make an excellent band name.

The down side of having a snarky nature.

The wonk gap. Not the same as the hack gap, but at least as pernicious.

Teabaggers don’t like teh ghey very much.

Because it cannot be said enough: The vast majority of so-called “fiscal conservatives” and “deficit hawks” are massive phonies.

Guess who hates the Senate now?

Life in the bizarro world version of New York City.

I’ll definitely add this to my TiVo season pass list.

Bromances are good for you.

The ridiculous pedestrian fatalities kerfuffle.

Jeb Hensarling is an idiot.

The so-called “Ryan Roadmap” would drive us straight into a ditch.

“Tone” is only part of the problem.

I’m not a fan of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, but the vitriolic hatred that’s being spewed by the usual mouthbreathers over a judicial nomination he made is truly appalling.

And with that, I wish you all a Happy National Pie Day! Why it isn’t on March 14, however, I couldn’t tell you.

Harris County starts firing people

So it begins.

County government layoffs have begun as Harris County seeks to trim its $1.3 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins on March 1.

Last week, the Architecture and Engineering Department notified 14 employees that they would be out of work on Feb. 25 unless the budget picture substantially changes.

“These are good people, and we’re just short money,” said John Blount, the department’s director. “The public expects us to do more with less and I understand that.”

Most of the county’s reserve fund is gone. About 73 percent of the budget is dedicated to payroll — salaries and benefits to the 15,000 employees who catch, try and incarcerate criminals, run libraries, build roads, manage public documents, inoculate people against disease and perform various other jobs.

Non-personnel costs, such as utilities, fuel for county vehicles and basic supplies, account for much of the rest, so large spending cuts almost by necessity involve trimming payroll costs.

In case you’re curious, the mission statement of the Architecture and Engineering Division is as follows:

The mission of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department – Architecture and Engineering Division is to execute the planning, study, design and construction of various buildings, roads, bridges, traffic signals, drainage improvements, parks, and other architectural and maintenance projects in accordance with certain design standards and contract documents. This Division also administers 12 sets of rules and regulations, including Flood Plain Management for Harris County.

In other words, nothing of any consequence. Who needs that stuff, anyway?

Amazon sues Texas

Game on.

Four months after Texas officials told Inc. that it owes $269 million in uncollected sales taxes, the online retail giant has filed a lawsuit demanding that the comptroller’s office release the audit information it used in arriving at that amount.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 14 in Travis County District Court, argues that the documents must be made public under the Texas Public Information Act and seeks a court order forcing their release. The suit also seeks recovery of attorneys’ fees and other legal costs.

Amazon and three of its subsidiaries — LLC, and Amazon Corporate LLC — say they sent letters in September and October to the comptroller’s office requesting “information related to the audit and the assessment.”

Amazon asked the comptroller’s office to explain its basis for the $269 million assessment, but “auditors were not forthcoming with an explanation,” the lawsuit claims.

The comptroller’s office has refused to provide the information, saying it was protected by attorney-client privilege because “the entire file relating to the audit was ‘prepared by and attorney,’ and thus … protected from disclosure,” according to the lawsuit.

A Dec. 16 opinion issued by the Texas attorney general’s office agreed with the comptroller’s office that the documents were protected, according to the lawsuit.

See here, here, and here for some background. Gotta say, I think the state’s refusal to provide documentation is lame, despite the AG’s opinion. I’ll be very interested to see what the courts have to say. More broadly, I hope this focuses a little attention on this issue, which really needs a real resolution. I see no justification for Amazon and other online retailers being exempted from sales taxes. It’s really time for Congress to step in and settle things, though of course the current bunch will never do that. Sooner or later, though, it’s got to be done, and the longer it takes the greater the burden will be on the state and local governments that are losing this needed revenue.

Appeals court upholds UT’s admissions policy


In 1996, a federal appeals court effectively banned affirmative action in admissions at the University of Texas in a case known as Hopwood. On Tuesday, the same court reversed course, ruling that the university’s consideration of race and ethnicity passes constitutional muster.

What changed? In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld affirmative action at the University of Michigan’s law school, essentially setting aside the Hopwood ruling.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited the Michigan case in affirming a 2009 decision by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin to uphold UT’s admissions policy, which was challenged by two white students who were denied acceptance. The 5th Circuit judges, based in New Orleans, unanimously agreed with Sparks that the policy avoids quotas, is narrowly tailored and otherwise meets standards set by the high court in the Michigan case.

“We’re very pleased,” said Patti Ohlendorf, UT’s vice president for legal affairs. “The university always has maintained that our undergraduate admissions policy is constitutional and follows the guidance of the Supreme Court.”

It’s a lead pipe cinch that SCOTUS will be asked about this again eventually. The judge who wrote the majority opinion made it clear that what is ruled constitutional now may not be so later – he likened it to redistricting, which is both amusing and insightful. Another judge wrote in a concurring opinion that while UT met the standard set by SCOTUS, he believed SCOTUS got it wrong in its previous ruling. We’ll see how it goes from here. NewsTaco has more.

County asks about exemption from drainage fee


County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez has asked County Attorney Vince Ryan for an opinion on whether the county has to pay the city of Houston’s new drainage fee.

Sanchez already has his own opinion.

“You’re getting a government, the city of Houston, starting to dip into multiple jurisdictions’ pots,” Sanchez said. “At some point, you just have to say you have to be responsible for your own operations and not look to other taxing entities.”

Sanchez is not an attorney, so he’s asking one. But his request for a legal opinion is premised on Mayor Annise Parker‘s statement of principles in October 2010 that the only properties exempt from the fee will be those required to be exempted by state law.

Among those properties exempted are state facilities.

So Sanchez asks Ryan in a memo:

Are Harris County improvements such as Reliant Center, the County Administration building, the Jury Assembly Room and other such facilities political subdivisions of the State of Texas; and therefore exempt from the drainage fee?

Nice to see ol’ Orlando in the news for something other than his reading habits. As for his query, if County Attorney Ryan gives him the ruling he’s seeking, then so be it. If not, then as far as I’m concerned the county should get no more consideration from City Council than school districts will. Everyone is affected by flooding, and everyone can pay their fair share to mitigate it.

Saturday video break: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

The other day I heard Olivia saying – trying to say, anyway – fourteen-syllable words are quite the mouthful – that fabled construction from “Mary Poppins”, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, to Audrey. I sang her a verse of the song, and they were duly impressed. Then Olivia wanted me to spell it for her. I’m a pretty good speller, but I figured it would be easier just to show her the video instead:

That’s from the stage musical that’s been touring; Tiffany and I saw it a few months ago here. It’s different in some ways from the movie but like the movie is based on the books. We thought it was outstanding. And the girls liked the video. What more do you need?

What school districts may do to respond to the budget cuts

They may raise taxes:

Some school officials also are considering even more unpopular options – increasing property tax rates or eliminating special tax breaks. In some cases, even those moves aren’t expected to raise enough money to plug the worst-case budget holes.

“Right now, nothing is off the table,” said Candace Ahlfinger, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Independent School District, which could lose between $32 million and $53 million under the initial House budget plan.


Pasadena ISD – as well as Houston ISD, Spring Branch ISD, Cy-Fair ISD and about 200 other districts – have another way to increase revenues. Their school boards could decide to eliminate a special tax break, known as the optional homestead exemption, they have chosen to give property owners.

They will almost certainly deplete their own “rainy day funds”:

Under the House budget proposal, HISD could lose between $203 million and $348 million – up to a fifth of its budget – according to estimates from a consulting firm. [Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett told the school board that she didn’t expect the House plan to be the final word but said the district had to prepare for the worst.

She said the board could decide to increase the tax rate by a few cents without going to voters because the district hadn’t hit the limit yet. Dipping into the district’s savings accounts – which total about $285 million – is another option, Garrett said.

Given that the cuts that will be made in this biennium will almost certainly have a ripple effect into the next biennium, districts will do this with extreme reluctance. But since the other option is firing a lot of people, what choice do they have?

News from the state Capitol of possible cuts to public education of $9.8 billion has prompted Austin school district officials to look at drastic measures that in previous tight budget years were inconceivable — including school closure, cutting pre-kindergarten programs and cutting hundreds of teaching positions.

In phone calls and letters today to district staff, Superintendent Meria Carstaphen announced that on Monday, she would ask the school board to approve staff changes that include cutting one-third of librarian positions and more than 300 classroom jobs.

The total number of jobs lost if something like the Pitts budget gets passed would be staggering.

In any bill introduced this session, ALL districts will be subject to cuts. When a school finance bill sponsor tries to line up votes, the first question he or she gets is: when do I get to see my printouts? The printouts tell members how their constituents will fare under the bill. This session, all of them lose.

So, how do you line up support for a bill that offers only pain?

“We’ve never had one of these before,” the noted school finance guru Lynn Moak told me. “How are you going to divide the shortfall and get people to vote for it?”

Moak believes that education cuts of $5 billion a year could lead to as many as 100,000 lay-offs across the state. Personnel accounts for 85 percent of school spending.

Do you suppose that 100,000 number will start to follow Rick Perry around? I sure think it should. It is what he wants to have happen.

UPDATE: Some more reactions from Dallas. This person will someday either be hailed as a visionary, or jeered as a fool:

Garland ISD Superintendent Curtis Culwell said his district is not changing plans based on the preliminary state figures.

“I call it the shock-and-awe budget,” Culwell said. “Having said that, I think everyone needs to temper their reaction because it’s not workable, not plausible and not in the best interest of Texas, today or tomorrow.”

I sure hope the Lege reaches the same conclusion.

The Affordable Care Act will help millions of Texans

So says the Texas Department of Insurance.

Even as Texas leaders rail against the national health care law and call for its repeal, the state Department of Insurance has issued a report that says the law will make it easier for many Texas families to get health coverage.

The report also helps make the case that the current system is not working, as the number of Texans with health coverage through their employers has dropped nearly 18 percent in the last eight years.

In 2001, about 58.5 percent of Texans had employer coverage. By 2009, that figure had dropped to 48.2 percent — well below the national average.

“While most states have experienced declining rates of employer-sponsored coverage in recent years, the decline in Texas is more pronounced,” the agency said in a report to the Legislature on health insurance availability and affordability in the state.

The report noted that 26.1 percent of Texans are uninsured — 6.4 million residents — compared with a national average of 16.7 percent. Most are in families with low to moderate incomes.

Those are among the people who will benefit from the health care overhaul passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The TDI has a Federal Health Care Reform Resource Page, which has numerous useful summaries and highlights of the PPACA, but I did not find anything that cited the figures above or that looked like a new report, so I’m not sure exactly where this comes from. It’s all somewhat academic, since the Republican Party has refudiated the concept of universal coverage as a policy goal, and while the Lege will debate Rep. John Zerwas’ bill to create insurance exchanges, I’d bet more time and energy will be spent on grandstanding and ridiculous sideshows, none of which will do a thing to help anyone. But the next time someone asks, you can tell them that the state of Texas officially believes that the PPACA will be good for it, no matter what our so-called leaders may say. On a related note, here’s a statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman about what “repeal” would mean, and here’s a reminder that GOP claims about PPACA’s effect on employment are bogus and misleading. And of course, the PPACA will reduce the federal deficit over time, while repealing it will increase the deficit. Someone should tell Rick Perry about that.

Hey, spread some of that wealth around, willya?

Some Metroplex cities are seeing more of an economic benefit from hosting the Super Bowl than others. I know, try to control your shock.

Some Frisco hotels located an hour’s drive from Cowboys Stadium, the game site, are packed. Lewisville, Southlake, Richardson and a few other cities are expecting to siphon off some of the action with events of their own.

In other places, the big game might not make much of an economic blip. Duncanville and McKinney have planned few, if any, big game-related events. And Denton, a member of the Super Bowl host committee, still has many hotel rooms available despite a big promotional push.

Kim Phillips, vice president of the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the game’s regional benefits are undeniable. But the city has found it harder than expected to fill its 2,000 hotel rooms.

“There’s not a whole lot of action happening,” Phillips said of Denton, which is about 40 miles north of Arlington. “We’ve still got a couple of weeks before the game. Hopefully, we’ll see an influx of fans when the teams are announced. Right now, we still have quite a bit of availability.”

Good luck with that. As someone who has no interest in traveling to an event like this, I have no idea what to tell you.

One thing really stood out to me from this story:

The game is expected to draw more than 700,000 visitors and 4,600 credentialed media to North Texas. The economic activity is expected to spawn $10 million in local tax revenue and an additional $36 million in state taxes.

Seven hundred thousand visitors? Really? Looking back in my archives, Super Bowl XXXVIII here in Houston was projected to draw 104,000 visitors. I know JerryWorld is big, but it doesn’t hold that many people. Who are all these people coming into the D/FW area to not attend a football game, and why are they doing that?

Yes, we do heart Houston

I’ll be ready to take a photo of this after it’s been deployed.

SCULPTOR DAVID Adickes is almost ready to plant this giant concrete-on-steel sign on property he owns along Chester St. on the south side of I-10, just east of Patterson. You’ll be able to get your best view of it when traffic comes to a standstill on your way downtown.

Click the link to see the picture. My love of all things Adickes is well-documented, so if you’re a hater please spare me your outrage. It won’t change my mind.

Another complaint filed against Keller

This ought to be interesting.

A civil rights group is asking the state to revoke the law license of a judge who has been a lightning rod in debates over the death penalty.

The Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project filed a grievance Wednesday with the State Bar of Texas against Justice Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, saying she is unfit to retain her license to practice law. Records show Keller has been licensed since graduating from SMU’s law school in 1978.

The group alleges she is untrustworthy and dishonest, citing:

A review by the Texas Ethics Commission that found she failed to disclose several sources of income, as required by law.

Her refusal in 2007 to keep the court open after 5 p.m. at the request of lawyers drafting an appeal on behalf of death row inmate Michael Richard, who was executed that evening.

Statements she made in a federal lawsuit filed by Richard’s widow that purportedly contradict what she told the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Well, yeah. All of these things are true. I don’t have any particular reason to think the State Bar will hold her accountable, but what the heck. Having gotten off on a technicality before, I’m convinced she’s made of Teflon. Let’s just say I don’t have my hopes up for this.

Friday random ten: The top 500, part 10

Continuing on with the songs in my collection from the Rolling Stone Top 500 list.

1. All The Young Dudes – Billy Bragg (#253, orig. Mott The Hoople)
2. I Can See For Miles – The Who (#258)
3. Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley (#259, cover of Leonard Cohen)
4. Sail Away – Randy Newman (#264)
5. Sunday, Bloody Sunday – U2 (#268)
6. Sloop John B – Lager Rhythms (#271, orig. The Beach Boys)
7. Somebody To Love – Unknown (#274, orig. Jefferson Airplane)
8. Born In The USA – Bruce Springsteen (#275)
9. Money (That’s What I Want) – The Beatles (#288, orig. Barrett Strong)
10. Can’t Buy Me Love – The Beatles (#289)

To me, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is a top-ten all-time song. I have no idea why Rolling Stone rated it this far down on the list. Yes, I somehow have a version of “Somebody To Love” whose artist is unknown to me. No, I don’t know how that came to be. As for “Hallelujah”, for which the Buckley cover and not the Cohen original is on the RS list, I’ve linked before to this essay about the song’s evolution from the Cohen original to one of the most-covered and used-by-TV-and-movies songs around, but apparently the domain on which that appeared is now offline. Thankfully, someone created and uploaded a document of that post, so you can still read it. Which you should if you haven’t before, it’s well worth it.

Entire song list report: Started with “Stolen Car”, by Bruce Springsteen. I apparently have two versions of this song, one from “The River” and the other from “Tracks”. This is the sort of thing you learn about your collection when you play it all in alphabetical order. The version from “The River” is listed first, so it’s what I began with. Finished with “Sukiyaki”, by Big Daddy, song #5103, for 63 tunes this week. Among them were the five movements of the Suite of Old American Dances, by Robert Russell Bennett, performed and recorded by the Trinity University Wind Symphony circa 1987, which included yours truly on the alto saxophone. Thankfully, the other, more talented, members of the ensemble largely succeeded in drowning out my contribution. What are you listening to this week?

Defining “emergency” down

Governor Perry finds a few more “emergencies” for the Lege to deal with.

Today, Gov. Rick Perry added two more issues, including controversial voter ID legislation, to his list of “emergency items” that legislators can begin deliberating on right away instead of waiting until after the first 60 days of the session.

He also wants legislators to get cracking on legislation encouraging an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring the federal budget be balanced. Already on the “emergency items” list are reforming eminent domain laws and abolishing sanctuary cities.

I understand that he was going to include an item about “finding the damn remote for the TV”, but then someone reminded him that his wife had confiscated it because his channel-surfing annoyed her. Hey, it’s no less urgent than anything else he’s identified so far.

There’s nothing to stop the GOP from finally getting the voter ID legislation it’s been dreaming about since 2005, and there’s no point in noting how stupid the whole thing is any more. If you believe that swarms of illegal aliens are going from precinct to precinct casting ballots in the name of dead people and fictional characters in an effort to throw elections to the Democrats – except, one presumes, in 2010 – there’s nothing I can say that will change your mind. Naturally, the Senate will take it up first thing Monday, because who knows how many elections those illegal aliens could steal if they wait any longer. As for the balanced budget nonsense, beyond the economic illiteracy of the idea, I will simply note that for some reason, this was not considered an emergency in 2003, 2005, or 2007. I will leave it to you to decide why that may be. Juanita and Abby Rapoport have more.

UPDATE: Harold brings some quality snark to the issue. You will no doubt be delighted to know that after declaring this emergency, Rick Perry jetted off to Vegas to sell some books and hobnob with the swells. Because that’s what leaders do in emergencies.

UH gets a boost in its rankings

Good news for UH:

The University of Houston’s quest to become the state’s next top tier university — a designation that would put it alongside Rice University, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University — received a major boost Tuesday.

The latest rankings from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching move UH to its highest category, for universities with “very high research activity.”

That ranking is updated every five years, based upon criteria including research expenditures, number of doctorate degrees awarded and the size of the university’s research staff.

UH previously ranked in Carnegie’s second tier, for “high research activity.”

Rice, UT-Austin and A&M are the only other Texas universities on the list, which is considered an indication of Tier One status.

That’s a nice accomplishment, which is the result of a lot of work. My congratulations to UH for achieving it, and my best wishes for completing the journey to full-fledged Tier One status.

The bad news:

[E]ven if UH were to qualify for the Tier One funding this year, it and other public colleges and universities are likely to sustain cuts — maybe significant ones — in basic state support for higher education.

That’s because the state is facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, and higher education is expected to be one of the main targets for cuts.

[UH President Renu] Khator acknowledged concerns that Tuesday’s announcement could be interpreted as a sign UH doesn’t need additional money from the state.

It does, she said, and the Carnegie designation proves that it will use it wisely.

“We have shown the state that the investment is worth it,” she said.

Sadly, the state isn’t interested in making any investments right now. Dan Patrick’s property tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, you know. Better luck next biennium.

Closing loopholes

From the inbox, from Rep. Mike Villarreal:

Rep. Villarreal announced legislation to close a $20 million corporate tax giveaway, citing it as an example of how the state’s outmoded tax system created the current fiscal crisis.

“With the state’s fiscal crisis threatening our ability to educate our children, there is no excuse for wasting money on corporate tax loopholes,” said Rep. Villarreal.

The bill, HB 658, would eliminate an obscure tax refund provided to businesses that receive property tax breaks from cities or counties. The Legislature established the refund in 1995 as a temporary way to reimburse companies after the state ended their school property tax abatements. However, the state never eliminated the refund. As a result, new companies that were never “victims” of the elimination of the school district tax breaks continue to sign-up to receive compensation if they have city and county tax abatements.

“State leaders have failed to take responsibility for ending corporate tax loopholes, creating the current financial crisis that threatens funding for our schools,” explained Rep. Villarreal.

The text of the bill is here. Given the massive, job-reducing impact of the Pitts budget, it seems to me we can ask a few corporations to give up a “temporary” tax break that was supposed to have expired years ago to help mitigate that just a teeny bit.

Houston: A nice, cheap place to visit

According to CultureMap, our fair city is among the Top 10 Budget Travel Destinations for 2011. What do the folks at Budget Travel have to say about us?

Why in 2011: Houston is home to Texas’s biggest shopping mall at 2.2 million square feet; 56,000 acres of green space; and the third most Fortune 500 companies in the country, but when it comes to prices, the U.S.’s fourth-largest city is all about scaling down. Hotel rates have dropped 5 percent since 2009 and four-star rooms are going for $96 according to a recent Hotwire report. And while the city has 8,000 restaurants and a growing culinary scene—local restaurateurs Bryan Caswell and Monica Pope both snagged Best Chef nominations from the James Beard Foundation—good grub doesn’t require a splurge. The typical meal in Houston runs $32.50, more than $2.50 cheaper than the national average. Plus, the city is flexing its cultural muscle (the Houston Zoo just unveiled its African Forest exhibit), and encouraging tourists to explore to their heart’s content with the Houston CityPASS, which offers access to any combination of six attractions—Space Center Houston, Houston Aquarium and Museum of Fine Arts included—for $39 (a bargain when you consider that a similar pass goes for anywhere from $64 in San Francisco to $79 in New York).

Best time to go to Houston: The best odds for T-shirt weather and minimal rain are in late spring (April, May) and mid-autumn (October, November), but even in January, the coldest month, temperatures rarely dip below 63 degrees.

I presume they mean that the daytime high rarely dips below 63 in January; anyone who took their advice and traveled here last week was probably shivering miserably and cursing under their breath. Of course, if they’d flown in from anywhere north of here, it had to look pretty decent in comparison. Be that as it may, it’s always nice to get a little positive press.

Williams will step down from the RRC

Michael Williams makes it official.

Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams says he has sent Gov. Rick Perry a letter telling him he will be leaving the commission on April 2 to concentrate on a race for the U.S. Senate.

Williams described the campaign as a “long cycle and a long race” that will, perhaps, have as many as nine candidates vying for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Williams said he thought he could do a better job of concentrating on the race as a private citizen than as an office-holder.

Also, he said by giving Perry such advance notice, it will allow the governor to consider whether to replace him on the commission. There is discussion in the Legislature with taking the three-member panel down to one commissioner or possibly combining it with other agencies.

I’m more interested in the fate of the RRC than I am with Williams’ campaign, which I daresay will be as unoriginal and undistinguished as all of the other contenders’, with the possible exception of Ron Paul. It’s not at all clear to me that a one-person RRC, or whatever it might be renamed to, would be any less corrupt or more accountable than what we have now. But at least it might mean fewer people biding their time while plotting to run for something else.

Senate retains 2/3 rule

The Senate will mostly operate as it did in 2009, retaining the traditional 2/3 rule and the exception for voter ID legislation.

Though there was still some heated discussion around the matter, which will likely continue as long as Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is in office.

Though he lacked the votes to do away with the “2/3 rule,” Patrick still rose to express his opposition to its existence. He would prefer a simple majority or a compromise of a “3/5 rule” because the 2/3 rule is “inhibiting” the rule of the majority. “I don’t stand alone,” Patrick said. “I stand on the shoulders of our founding fathers.”

Interestingly, the first person to rise in support was Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who famously stood against hs party when they passed the voter ID exemption last session. “I stand somewhat in contrast to my position two years ago,” he said. The reason: a flood of calls from constituents, he estimated between 150 and 200, supporting the rule.

In response, the longest-serving member, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said, he was “disappointed” that, after two sessions, Patrick had not developed an appreciation for the rule, which he said “requires us to sit down and talk.” He cited an apocryphal story of Thomas Jefferson comparing the purpose of a senate to the same reason coffee is occasionally poured into a saucer before being consumed — to cool things down.

Minor tweaks were made to the rules dealing with the referral of local bills and allowing more time to consider budget changes proposed in conference committee. The Republicans all voted in favor of the rules, and Democrats — still opposed to the voter ID exception — voted against.

Congratulations to Robert Miller for calling this correctly. As I’ve said before, I’m not going to justify this either way. The various anti-majoritarian rules that exist here and in other bodies are great when you’re the one using them to stop something you don’t like, and they suck when the shoe is on the other foot. Admit it and deal with it, because it is what it is. The main reason why the Texas Senate 2/3 rule still allows that body to function in something resembling a workable fashion – i.e., completely unlike the US Senate – is because the minority party only uses it to stop stuff it really hates, and not as a de facto veto for every bill under the sun. There’s also no question that if Senate Dems got a bit too stroppy, David Dewhurst would get the blocker bill cleared off the calendar faster than you can say “I’m running for the Senate in 2012”.

Anyway. The one difference from before for the Senate was the adoption of a Kirk Watson amendment to allow for more time before voting on the budget.

The Texas Senate today approved a change in its rules to allow for a 48-hour period before the state budget can be voted upon, time for the public and lawmakers to understand what’s in it.

No such time delay exists now.

The vote was 18-11.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, had proposed a five-day viewing period, but some senators argued that such a change would place the Senate at a disadvantage in negotiating a final version of the budget with the House that has no such delay in its rules.

Good for Sen. Watson for getting this done. I hope it helps.

Bye-bye, border fence

Long overdue.

The Obama administration on Friday canceled the long-troubled, high-tech invisible fence project along the U.S.-Mexico border, ending a five-year, $1 billion pilot program that President George W. Bush envisioned as stretching along most of the 1,969-mile border.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano briefed key members of Congress on the decision, which she telegraphed months ago by ordering a yearlong review of the project.

She said technology gleaned from the 53-mile project in Arizona will be used to continue developing a high-tech border security network that relies on agents from the U.S. Border Patrol, some 700 miles of pedestrian and vehicle fencing and aerial surveillance by unmanned drones.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to meet our border technology needs, and this new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability,” Napolitano said.

What is also long overdue is a comprehensive review of the effectiveness of current immigration policies, including enforcement efforts, to be followed by an actual bill to do the reform that everyone says they want. Everyone knows that the current system is broken. It’s way past time to fix it. And when that effort is inevitably met by fierce resistance from the xenophobic wing of the Republican Party, at least we’ll all know for sure who stands for what.

Insurance exchanges

This will be worth watching.

One of the GOP’s leading healthcare experts in the House – Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton – introduced a bill Thursday to create a health insurance exchange in Texas.

The exchanges, which are required in the federal health care reform legislation that was passed by the last Congress, provide a unified marketplace for consumers to compare and purchase health insurance from private providers.

“It’s the vehicle through which a lot of the expansion of insurance was intended to occur,” said Zerwas. “We wanted to get a bill in fairly early in the Legislative session so that the members could look at it, could be sure that what we’ve come up with will uniquely benefit Texas.”

He described the exchange system he’s proposed in the bill as a public-private partnership that is a compromise between the Massachusetts and Utah exchange models.

“We have combined elements of both in there,” he said. “It sort of builds on some of our experience, in terms of the management and oversight of the high risk pool that we have. We’ve taken pieces of things that seem to work well in Texas and moved them into what this exchange would be.”

Even though he was opposed to the federal legislation that mandated the creation of the exchanges, he thought the idea was a beneficial one for Texas.

“I think people just want to get comfortable that whether ‘Obamacare’ survives or not, or whether it just completely unwinds, if we create a health insurance exchange… that it would serve Texans well whether Obamacare was out there or not,” Zerwas said.

The bill in question appears to be HB636. Zerwas is a serious health policy person, unlike his clownish Fort Bend colleague Charlie Howard, so I have hope that the discussion about this will be informative. I don’t have a strong opinion about whether Texas should do its own exchange or should leave it to the feds – all things considered, I’d trust the feds more at this time, though it must be noted that the LBB recommendations said that the state should “create and run” them – but I’m glad to see someone with chops take a crack at it. And it must be noted, of course, that it took action by a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress to get Texas to finally maybe do something about this. All in all, a reasonably positive step.

Dallas Mayor Leppert officially not running for re-election

As expected.

Mayor Tom Leppert, a successful business executive who rose from political unknown to become one of Dallas’ most powerful mayors, has confirmed he will not seek re-election in May but will pursue “other ways to add value to our community, our region, our state and our nation.”

Leppert’s comments were the clearest signal yet that he is planning a run for U.S. Senate, something that has been rumored for months but that he has yet to announce.

In a lengthy interview reflecting on his time at City Hall, Leppert did not commit to serving out his full term as mayor, which ends in June. But he did not say when he might leave office.

He said he decided not to run for a second term because he feels he has accomplished much of what he set out to do.

“I feel like I’ve done the job. It wasn’t a question of time. It ought to be judged by the results you’ve accomplished, not how much time you’ve spent,” he said.

It’s way too early to start handicapping a field that has no official entrants of significance yet, and I’m probably not the right guy to do that, anyway. Still, I have a hard time seeing how a guy like Leppert can gain traction in this environment, where a record of accomplishment is seen as a negative. Heck, just overcoming the Poppy Bush endorsement of Roger Williams may be too high a hurdle to overcome. (Yes, I’m being facetious.) Regardless, if he really is running, look for the reinvention as a true-believing teabagger to begin any day now. Greg has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 17

The Texas Progressive Alliance celebrates the MLK Day holiday as it brings you this week’s blog roundup.


LSG on the budget

The Legislative Study Group, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman, now has an analysis of the Pitts budget outline, which you can read here. The main point to remember:

How We Got Here: Built-In Budget Shortfall Comes from the 2006 Tax Package

The current $26.8 billion budget shortfall is partly the result of a built-in budget hole created in the 3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature, which has now created a structural shortfall in three successive legislative sessions. Unless the tax structure is changed, Texas lawmakers will begin every legislative session with the built-in budget shortfall.

In 2006, Governor Perry signed into law a tax package that changed the state’s business tax structure, redirecting billions each year away from public schools and into a newly created Property Tax Relief Fund. The tax package consisted of four major pieces of legislation:

  • House Bill 2 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), creating the “Property Tax Relief Fund” which collected money from the other three tax bills in the tax package
  • House Bill 3 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the franchise tax or “margins tax” bill
  • House Bill 4 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the motor vehicle sales and use tax
  • House Bill 5 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the $1 cigarette tax

At the time the tax package was presented to the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Perry, the Comptroller estimated that the revenues generated from the new tax package would fall $14 billion short of the cost of the legislation in the first five years. The predicted shortfall has come true, leaving the state billions short of necessary funds to maintain basic state services.

They have charts to go along with the words for all you visual learners. No matter what we do this session, we will continue to have shortfalls until we plug this hole.

From the department of That Didn’t Take Long, we have our first Republican complaints about the budget.

“Why would we ever have a staff recommendation as a starting point that creates a headline that says Brazosport College would be closed?” Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said during an explanation of the budget on the House floor.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the House’s chief budget writer, said enrollment in the four districts had declined over the past decade.

But Bonnen and other Republicans questioned the legislative budget staff’s analysis. Bonnen said that even if supporters can stave off closure of Brazosport College, the cloud over its future could hurt enrollment.

Other targeted campuses include Ranger College, 85 miles west of Fort Worth, and community colleges in Borger and Odessa.

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, whose district includes Ranger College, called the closure recommendations “the height of irresponsibility.”

Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, said he doubts there will be savings because most of Odessa College’s students would simply transfer to another state-supported school.

Bonnen’s diatribe sure got attention. Look at what the Trib says:

Bonnen describes Brazosport College as “the hub and center” of his district — one that local industry relies on for job training and that community members go to for education and cultural pursuits. “The thought of losing an institution like that is kind of debilitating,” he says. Though he recognizes that the base budget is “nowhere near” how the final budget will look, Bonnen says that even suggesting a college might be closed is “significant” and even “disastrous.” Students will begin looking to transfer, and others might decide to not bother enrolling.

“It creates a high degree of uncertainty,” he says. “As policymakers, we’d better be damned sure it’s something we’re going to do if we create that uncertainty.” And Bonnen feels strongly that the school will, ultimately get that funding once his arguments have been made.

So…you’re saying that the no-new-revenue, no-rainy-day-fund, cuts-only approach that Perry and Dewhurst and the rest of the GOP have been espousing would kill jobs? I’ll make a note of that. Hey, it’s all fun and games until your own ox gets gored. Look, “cutting waste” and “tightening the belt” and “finding efficiencies” and “shrinking government” and all that other hooey will always be more popular than identifying specific programs, all of which have their own constituencies, for reduction or elimination. Now at least Reps. Bonnen, Keffer, and Lewis know what that means, and perhaps have a better understanding of why we have a Rainy Day Fund, and why that cut-only approach is a lousy idea.

Of course, one can always take the “Don’t cut me, cut that other guy” approach in response:

Bonnen says the realization that the solution to the state’s budgeting woes could include eliminating his local community college does not cause him to look upon revenue-increasing options like tax hikes any more favorably. He says it’s his job to make the case that no responsible budget eliminates Brazosport College, and he hopes that even the architects of HB 1 will come around. Similarly, Lewis is confident that all four colleges will ultimately receive funding.

“There’s no joy in this budget for anybody,” Bonnen says. “As frustrated and unhappy as I may be to see Brazosport College not funded, I can assure you Chairman Pitts and others involved in this baseline budget are as troubled as I am.”

My priorities are worthy. Yours are not. Easy, no? Kilday Hart and Abby Rapoport has more on this.

Finally, here’s a look at how the budget affects TxDOT, and a second glance at the budget and its effects on criminal justice from Grits. Clearly, the lessons learned in 2003 about how cuts in some programs wind up costing you a lot more later have not been retained.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Terry Grier’s memo about what the Pitts budget would mean to HISD:

Our analysis of the House appropriations bill reveals that the proposed $5 billion cut to public education would mean an annual loss of $202 million to $348 million per year for HISD. This represents 15 percent to 20 percent of HISD’s budget. Theoretically speaking, HISD could wipe out all of central administration and would still have to severely cut school budgets to compensate for this large of a reduction in state funding. Put another way, $202 million–the low-end projected revenue loss–is enough to pay the salaries of 3,825 teachers with an average salary of $52,800.

As you can see, there is no way for Houston schools to absorb a blow such as this without causing serious harm to classrooms.

Boy, this sure is going to be Texas’ century, isn’t it?

The Pitts budget

Here it is, and if it is a shock to you, you haven’t been paying attention.

The House’s starting-point budget proposal would provide for a total budget of $156.4 billion in state and federal money, a decrease of $31.1 billion, or nearly 17 percent, from the current budget period.

The budget proposes nearly $5 billion less for public education below the current base funding. It is also $9.8 billion less than what is needed to cover current funding formulas, which includes about 170,000 additional students entering the public school system during the next two-year budget cycle. Pre-kindergarten would be scaled back.

Higher education funding, including student financial aid, would be slashed.

The proposal wouldn’t provide funding for all the people projected to be eligible for the Medicaid program and would slash Medicaid reimbursement rates for health care providers.

Community supervision programs would be cut and a Sugar Land prison unit would be closed. Funding would be eliminated for four community colleges including Brazosport near Lake Jackson.

Thousands of state jobs would be cut.

I’m not sure where to provide a link for this, because HB1 has not been filed yet, according to TLO. If I understand correctly, Pitts’ outline was just give via printouts. Be that as it may, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. One is that this isn’t a bill. Rep. Pitts’ stated objective was to show what the budget would look like if there were no increases in revenue and the Rainy Day Fund were unused. The Senate is working on its own budget outline, which by all reports does assume that the Rainy Day Fund will be tapped for some amount, so it will be different.

Most importantly, now everybody, including all those freshman Republican legislators, know exactly what they’re up against. No more hiding behind vague and meaningless platitudes about “cutting waste” and “smaller government”, because this is what all that means. Now is the time for everyone who will be on the business end of these proposals to make their displeasure known, starting with school districts.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent David Anthony estimated that his district could lose $80 million under the budget blueprint.
“That would significantly impact everything we do in the district,” he said.

The state’s third largest school district has already cut more than $70 million, including some 800 positions, over the past four years.

“We’re very lean already,” Anthony said. “Future cuts will impact the services we provide. We want to maintain quality. If you continue additional pressure and cuts, eventually it breaks.”

Scaling back pre-kindergarten programs would deliver a big low for Houston ISD because about 80 percent of the students come from low-income families, district spokesman Jason Spencer said.

Here’s more on that:

Lawmakers, though, would have to rewrite school-funding formulas because the House leaders’ plan falls $9.8 billion short of obligations to school districts and charter schools.

“They’ve got to pass a major school finance bill with major cuts in it,” said school finance expert Dan Casey, who predicts renewed interest in a lawsuit against the state “if you see cuts of this magnitude and no changes in standards.”

The House budget would push Texas into uncharted territory, he said.

“There isn’t anybody – even the more veteran legislators – that have been through those kinds of reductions,” Casey said.


Under the House plan, public schools, which teach reading and arithmetic to future workers, would receive no extra money to cover enrollment increases. Nor would districts be given more state funds, as currently required, to offset declining local property values.

“That’s catastrophic for any fast-growing districts, like a Frisco or a Lewisville,” said Casey, a former adviser to the Legislature on school finance who now has a thriving private consulting practice.

The budget would eliminate funds for the nation’s largest experiment in teacher merit pay. Also zeroed out would be the main remedial program created by Texas in 1999, as it required students in certain grades to pass achievement tests to be promoted.

“You’re going to have the same rising standards and less financial help for the support that will make students successful,” Casey said.

Somewhat bizarrely, both Rick Perry and David Dewhurst made claims about protecting the vulnerable and providing a “world-class education” in their inauguration speeches. Neither of those things is remotely possible under the Pitts outline. The question is what happens next. The answer, as always, is to make your voices heard. I know of one group in HD134, organizing via Facebook, that’s meeting to “petition support from our newly elected representative, Sarah Davis, to support funding for public education”. I have no idea what effect that or any other such effort may have, but if you don’t make it clear to your Reps and Senators that you didn’t vote for this and will vote against anyone who supports these kinds of cuts, they’ll have no reason to think there’s any problem with doing so. We have 132 days to make sure they know. Reactions from various Democratic lawmakers are beneath the fold. The Trib has more on the budget in general, while Grits, Postcards, and the Trib again discuss the criminal justice impact of the outline, and the LBB webpage now has some budget docs.


The first fantasy map

Behold, what Houston City Council districts could possibly look like in a few months. There are, as Greg discusses, plusses and minuses to the approach he took, as well as real-world roadblocks and political considerations that may trump theoretical optimization. And of course, the actual data may require a few tweaks from this revision based on 2009 estimates. Still, it will at the very least give you an alternate picture to the nine-district map we have now, and will hopefully also get you to start thinking about what the next map should look like. Maybe you’ll even be encouraged to download your own copy of Daves Redistricting App and take a crack at it. This ain’t as easy as it looks, and the folks in the Planning Department who will be doing the heavy lifting deserve respect and well-informed feedback for their efforts. Check it out and see what you think.

The fate of the two-thirds rule

Today’s the day we find out what rules the Senate will use. A lot of people seem to think that despite Dan Patrick’s best efforts, the two thirds rule will stay mostly, if not entirely, intact. The Statesman editorialized in favor of this on Sunday, including a call to remove the exception that was carved out in 2009 for voter ID bills. I’ve said before that I have mixed feelings about such anti-majoritarian measures – they always look better when you’re playing defense than when you have the numbers – but I would like to point out that this isn’t the only way in which a dedicated minority can change the course of legislation. I don’t know what will happen with the Rainy Day Fund, but it takes a supermajority to use it, and last I checked that didn’t bother Sen. Patrick. So whatever happens with the 2/3 tradition, let’s all admit that we like rules that work in favor of our side, we don’t like rules that work against us, we feel no shame arguing both sides of the same rules, and move on.

More on the magnet schools report

I guess it’s just as well that I never made it all the way through that audit on HISD’s magnet schools, because it seems that neither Superintendent Terry Grier nor the Board of Trustees are all that wedded to it.

Grier and the trustees have yet to release a counterproposal, saying they first want to hear from parents. But in interviews and public meetings last week, they dropped hints about the ideas they do — and don’t — support. Grier also has acknowledged that some of the popular schools deemed too crowded to continue their magnet programs might not be too full after all, according to the principals.

This much is clear: The proposal from Magnet Schools of America, released a week ago, will not become HISD’s new master plan.

“From the very beginning, we said that we can either adopt some, all or none of it,” said outgoing school board president Greg Meyers. “Clearly, after seeing it, we’re not going to adopt all of it.”

But that’s not a guarantee the magnet schools will be spared budget cuts.

“I’m not trying to take away success,” said newly elected board president Paula Harris. “But could people lose money? I think the opportunity to lose money is definitely there.”

The report is here, in case you missed it. As long as HISD makes good use of the feedback it’s going to get at the public hearings and adopts practices that help control cost while making successful programs available to as many kids as possible, I’ll be happy. Many of these meetings will take place on Tuesday the 25th at 6:30 – see here for times and locations.

HFD news

Couple of big stories relating to the Houston Fire Department in the news this week. First, the EEOC makes a ruling:

The Houston Fire Department’s failure to properly address discrimination complaints by a female firefighter and subsequent retaliation subjected her to a “hostile work environment” based on her gender, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined.

EEOC District Director R.J. Ruff Jr. notified HFD and the firefighter, Jane Draycott, of the agency’s decision in a letter. The decision, or “determination,” may clear the way for a negotiated settlement between Draycott and the fire department or a possible lawsuit — filed by Draycott or the federal government.

Draycott and another firefighter, Paula Keyes, found racist and sexist graffiti scrawled on the walls of their dormitory at Station 54 on July 7, 2009. The incident occurred after Draycott had complained to HFD officials of harassment.

“There is reasonable cause to believe that Charging Party (Draycott) was personally and individually subjected to a hostile work environment based on her gender and that she was retaliated against,” the letter stated. The EEOC’s ruling said that “… management was well aware of the fact that Charging Party was being subjected to a hostile work environment because of her gender but failed to take corrective action.”

The city is seeking a settlement, which will hopefully bring an end to one aspect of this saga. Fixing the underlying problems is still very much an unresolved issue, however. We still don’t know who in particular is responsible for the graffiti, and it’s clear HFD has a lot of work to do to change its culture. But at least perhaps Jane Draycott can get some closure.

And when one door closes, another one opens.

The city’s Office of Inspector General will open an investigation into a visit City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones made to a downtown fire station Friday in which she is alleged to have used profanity and criticized the work ethic of firefighters.

Jones ardently disputed the account of the incident provided by officials with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, saying she had a jovial exchange with firefighters at Station 8 that was part of a team-building exercise she organized for her staff.

She said the account provided by Jeff Caynon, the fire union president, is “inaccurate” and suggested it was politically motivated. Jones said she does not remember using profanity.

“When the truth comes out, people will see it’s not accurate,” she said.

There’s no point in speculating here. What we have is two diametrically opposed stories being told by people who don’t like each other. Let the OIG do its work and sort it out as best it can.