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January 17th, 2011:

RRC Commish Williams to leave his post

Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, a ten-year incumbent who has nonetheless managed to claim the mantel of “outsider/insurgent” in the race for the 2012 GOP Senate nomination, will reportedly resign his post so as to actually be an outsider of some kind.

Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams likely will announced Wednesday that he will resign his seat to concentrate on a 2012 run for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Williams has been a candidate for the seat for more than a year, along with fellow Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones and former Secretary of State Roger Williams.

The main bits of interest for me in this is that it means Governor Perry gets to appoint Williams’ replacement on the RRC; that person would then have to be on the ballot in 2012 to finish out Williams’ term, which expires in 2014. If fellow Commissioner and Senate candidate Elizabeth Ames Jones, whose term on the RRC is up in 2012, stays in the Senate race, there would be two seats on the Commission up for election, with neither one having a candidate who had been previously voted in to that position. Assuming, of course, that the RRC is not disbanded as a result of its Sunset review.

Speaking of which, the Trib fills in the picture a bit more:

[The Sunset Advisory Commission] has recommended several changes at the agency, including one that would replace the three elected commissioners with just one. Williams praised that idea when it was proposed; now he’s leaving before the legislative debate on that and other changes can begin.

The resignation will let him focus on the Senate race. State officeholders are barred from raising money for state races while the Legislature is in session. They can raise money for federal races, but it creates an awkward situation where they are asking people who have a stake in what the Legislature is doing to give money to the politicians who might have some influence over that process.

This move gets Williams out of that trap, frees him to campaign, and lets him avoid any turmoil that might come out of the Sunset bill.

Gotta admit, it’s a slick move. One wonders if Ames Jones will follow suit. If not, one wonders if she’s rethinking her entry into the Senate race. There’s only so much room, and it’s crowded already. Greg and Burka have more.

Safety train

I’m passing along the following press release from Metro for those who might be interested:

METRO TO UNVEIL WRAPPED RAIL CAR PROMOTING SAFETY

WHAT: The NEW METRO will unveil a rail car wrapped in a bumper-to-bumper decal promoting safety along rail lines.

WHEN: 9 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

WHERE: METRO’s Rail Operations Center, 1601 W. Bellfort St.

WHO: METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia; METRO Board members Judge Dwight Jefferson and Allen Watson; and, METRO President & CEO George Greanias. Joining METRO are special guests Houston City Council members Brenda Stardig and Wanda Adams, and Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland and other local law enforcement representatives.

WHY: Safety is one of the seven operating principles of the NEW METRO. This wrapped rail car encourages motorists and pedestrians to exercise caution along METRORail tracks and freight tracks throughout the region.

Here’s a map to the location if you need it; it’s basically a block west of the Fannin South station.

From the “I told you so” department

Ladies and gentlemen, our former Comptroller:

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn did not win friends five years ago when she warned Gov. Rick Perry and state lawmakers they were writing the “largest hot check in Texas history” during a tax overhaul that resulted in lower property taxes and a revised business tax.

Strayhorn told them their plan would fall about $23 billion short over a five-year period.

Now, five years later, state leaders are staring at an estimated budget shortfall of nearly $27 billion over the next two years.

The nation’s economic collapse three years ago contributed to some of the state’s revenue troubles, but the biggest problem is that the new business tax did not generate enough money to pay for the school property tax cut, Strayhorn said Friday.

Strayhorn was right, and she deserves her little moment of vindication. But look, it should have been plain to everyone at the time what was going to happen. From the very beginning, property tax cuts of 2006 have been paid for with surplus revenue – the Republican budget of the 2007 biennium went so far as to set aside extra funds for the 2009 biennium because they knew that the business margins tax would continue to underperform its projections even as improvements were made in the collections process and the state economy was humming along. It’s true that we’re coming out of a historically bad economic slump, but when your new tax brings in less revenue than you budgeted for when times are good, any hiccup will cause you even bigger problems. We’ve known this all along. But there is no bigger priority in today’s Republican Party than giving Dan Patrick a tax cut, so nothing has ever been done. Carole Keeton Strayhorn was right, but she wasn’t alone in foreseeing this.

More on the new city ethics code

Not everyone likes the city’s new ethics regulations.

“Instead of enforcing ethics standards, all of these things seem to license unethical behavior,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for government watchdog Public Citizen in Washington, D.C. The exceptions to the city’s new gift policy “license unlimited gifts and unlimited travel, and that is exactly what codes like this are supposed to prevent. This is very weak. There are some states that have no gift rules, and this pretty much rivals that type of standard.”

There are other exemptions to the rule, including if the gift is worth less than $50 and if it comes from a relative or someone with whom the elected official has a regular social acquaintance.

Theoretically, he said, that could mean a lobbyist could pay for numerous meals as long as they were under $50, or could provide lavish gifts by saying they were friends.

[…]

“The state standard, when it comes to gifts, is much too lenient,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan ethics watchdog in Austin. “An ethics policy that allows an individual or a business to give an extravagant gift of travel or entertainment kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an ethical wall.”

Feldman defended the law as one that will allow significantly stronger prosecutorial tools for elected city officials who cross the line.

And, he pointed out, they still are required by the Texas Ethics Commission to disclose any gifts they receive annually.

“We had no intention to prosecute someone for an offense under the ordinance that would not be an offense under state law,” he said.

He added that the most significant problem with most ethics rules is one of enforcement. Because he has promised to prosecute violators of these restrictions in municipal court, he said the revisions are sufficient.

“I hope I’ve made it clear to everyone that we fully intend to enforce this,” he said.

Certainly, a big part of the problem with the Texas Ethics Commission is lax enforcement, and miniscule punishments. (Often-unclear requirements that are frequently violated inadvertently is another issue, but one that gets less attention than the others.) If the city really is serious about enforcement, then that should make a big difference. As for Holman and McDonald’s complaints about what isn’t in the code, that is a concern, but if the voters cared enough to vote out people who acted egregiously then there’d be less of that behavior. Judging from state elections, voters don’t do that very often. That’s not an argument against changing the code in the way that Holman and McDonald advocate, but it is a reason why you don’t see much of a push for it beyond folks like them.

What school districts have to look forward to

From San Antonio:

The San Antonio Independent School District is bracing for $33 million to $55 million in cuts for the coming fiscal year, due mainly to the state budget shortfall.

The trustees Tuesday night discussed options to reduce costs during a “funding crisis” meeting, including:

• Outsourcing some services.
• Trimming the school week to four days.
• Switching from full-day pre-K to half-day and charging tuition for families who want to continue with a full day.
• Eliminating some positions, including campus instructional coordinators, teaching specialists and textbook clerks, placing those employees in vacant positions where possible.
• Eliminating food at meetings and trimming district travel and cell phone stipends.
• Cutting the number of days some employees work.
• Consolidating some specialty schools.

Spending cuts are playing out in districts across Texas, and SAISD Superintendent Robert Durón said he wanted to be upfront with employees.

“I don’t stay awake at night worrying about giving people bad news,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what should keep all of us awake is if we know there’s bad news and we wait to tell our employees about it.”

Trustee Ed Garza said “there is no job that is secure” in the district.

From Austin:

Hundreds of people carrying signs with messages such as “Save our school” greeted a task force with anger, tears and pleas Wednesday at a meeting held to let the community sound off about a list of preliminary options for making the Austin school district more efficient including closing nine schools.

Even before the forums started, the politically sensitive issue had put the district in a political vise, the squeeze coming from grass-roots efforts by neighborhoods and parents and from the city’s highest office — and the issue is still several weeks away from a formal school board vote.

The 72-member task force was formed last year as the school board prepared for reduced revenue as a result of the stalled economy and a projected $27 billion state budget shortfall. The task force, charged with helping the district identify ways to run more efficiently, put forth an early proposal to close Barton Hills, Brooke, Joslin, Oak Springs, Ortega, Pease, Sanchez and Zilker elementary schools and Pearce Middle School.

The forum Wednesday prompted PTAs at Ortega and Sanchez to send busloads of children to hold signs pleading that their schools be saved.

Even Mayor Lee Leffingwell jumped in the fray, saying he had received hundreds of calls during the past several days. The city has been trying to reduce suburban sprawl and encourage growth in Austin’s urban core, he said in a statement Wednesday, adding: “The prospect of closing successful central city schools clearly runs counter to our community’s long-term planning goals.”

There are two important things to keep in mind here. One is that no matter how much you hate what your school board and school superintendent are talking about possibly doing, they’re not doing it because they want to. They’re doing it because the Legislature and Governor Perry are forcing them to do it by making cuts to public education instead of finding a way to provide an adequate level of funding. Please don’t misdirect your anger over this. And two, despite all the bloviating you have heard and will continue to hear from Perry, Greg Abbott, and pretty much every other Republican elected official in this state about how things like the Affordable Care Act and EPA enforcement of clean air laws will be “job killers”, the direct result of the budget that these same Republicans will adopt in a few months will be the loss of thousands of jobs in Texas. They need to be held responsible for the decisions they are making.

UPDATE: Greg cites Grapevine-Colleyville as another example.

Pollution prosecution

Not really sure what to make of County Commissioner Steve Radack’s proposal to create a new pollution control department that will more aggressively pursue violators.

“We have people out there violating the law and they’re polluting,” Radack said. “They’ve been getting away with it for a long, long time while it’s been under the health department, and it’s time to change that.”

Last March, Commissioners Court approved a recommendation to study how to strengthen pollution control, but no report has been issued. Radack said he has waited long enough.

“We study, we study and we study, but eventually, we have to take the test,” he said.

Radack proposes the new department at a time when the county is grappling with potentially tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts.

The six-term Precinct 3 commissioner said he believes the department can be created without additional cost by simply moving the pollution control specialists out of the Public Health and Environmental Services office and setting them up in their own shop.

Both the county attorney and Radack support a separate department, as prosecutions of polluters have declined in recent years.

County Attorney Vince Ryan has been gung ho about chasing polluters, so I’m not surprised he supports this. I certainly favor the philosophy behind this plan, but it’s not clear to me how this reshuffling of personnel will make a difference. So for now, I agree with this:

“I don’t know what to make of this,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, when asked about the proposal. He said he had hoped there would have been some sort of public debate in advance of a vote at Commissioners Court because the new agency will have such an impact on everyone in the Houston area.

“I really hope that whoever’s pulling the trigger on this is doing it in the best interests of Harris County,” Tejada said. “I hope this isn’t being done for the purpose of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.”

On the one hand, I don’t have a lot of faith in Steve Radack. On the other hand, if Vince Ryan is on board I’m willing to believe there’s something to it. Commissioners Court has delayed action on this until next month, so at least we’ll have some time to figure it out. What do you think?