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January 26th, 2011:

Have gun, can vote

During the long debate over voter ID in the Senate, the Democrats proposed many amendments, most of which were defeated on straight party lines. Here, via the Chron, is one of the very few that passed:

18. Hinojosa – Accept CHL as a form of ID. Accepted by a vote of 30-0.

Clearly, the answer to Democratic concerns about voter ID is to ensure that everyone in the state gets a concealed handgun license. I don’t even have a smartass remark for that.

Inevitably, voter ID passed the Senate – the only question was how long it would take – so next up is the House, where the only question is whether Aaron Pena goes full monty and votes for it or not. Speaking of Pena, he might want to get a new drivers license, with a photo that actually resembles him, lest he wind up getting turned away from the ballot box some day. Harold has more on that.

You can be sure that a lawsuit will be filed over this, and before that the Justice Department will presumably subject the law to a review. While it’s true that laws in Georgia and Indiana (home of those devious nuns; and may I say “The Devious Nuns” would make an excellent band name) have passed constitutional muster before, it’s also true that Texas’ law is more stringent than theirs, meaning that it’s entirely possible that whatever line exists for this kind of legislation has been crossed. The legislative fight may be all over but for the shouting, but that won’t be the end of it.

A very early look at 2011 fundraising

A couple of weeks ago I took an early look at the 2011 city elections, but there was a key ingredient missing in that analysis: Money. The fundraising season for city candidates, which has been closed since last January, will open again on February 1. Let’s take a look at where various cast members stand now, before all the fun gets underway again.

Name Office Cash on hand ========================================= Annise Parker Mayor 1,050,253 Ronald Green Controller 15,677

One of the nice things about being elected Mayor is that you can hold a late-train fundraiser or two before the year-long moratorium sets in, and people with checks will attend them. Keep that number above in mind when discussing other potential Mayoral candidates. Sure, some of them would be able to raise big bucks as well, but 1) that takes time; 2) a lot of people who might otherwise like them will already be on the Mayor’s team; and 3) you can be sure she’ll have a couple of events lined up for as soon as the curtain is lifted, making the hole they start out in that much deeper. It’s a big factor, and when you hear someone say they’re “exploring” a race, what they mean is they’re calling around to see if there are enough people out there willing to write them enough big checks to make it worth their time. Waiting for term limits to do their thing is almost always the wiser course.

As for Controller Green, he defeated two better-funded opponents in 2009, so his lack of scratch is no big deal. Better yet, as you will see there’s no one out there with the kind of moolah MJ Khan and Pam Holm had to begin with. I’ll say again, it’s my opinion that Green is a lock for re-election.

The returning City Council members:

Name Office Cash on hand ========================================= Stephen Costello CCAL#1 28,938 Melissa Noriega CCAL#3 1,681 C.O. Bradford CCAL#4 4,238 Jolanda Jones CCAL#5 22,304 Brenda Stardig Dist A 21,892 Wanda Adams Dist D 342 Mike Sullivan Dist E 162 Al Hoang Dist F Oliver Pennington Dist G 64,223 Ed Gonzalez Dist H 19,975 James Rodriguez Dist I 45,923

CM Hoang’s report was not available as of this posting. There were numerous issues with his finance reports in 2009. So far, 2011 isn’t starting off so well for him on that front.

You can see why I’ve been skeptical of the rumors about CM Bradford’s potential candidacy for Mayor. He has not demonstrated big fundraising abilities in two different campaigns, and he starts out with very little. Again, I’m not saying he (or anyone else) couldn’t do it, but the track record isn’t there, and the piggy bank isn’t overflowing.

After winning a squeaker of a runoff in 2009, it’s good to see CM Jones with a few bucks on hand. While I believe she won’t be any easier to beat this time around, she will undoubtedly continue to be in the news, so she may as well be forearmed.

CM Pennington raised a boatload of money in 2009 and won without a runoff, so I’m not surprised he starts out with a decent pile. CMs Rodriguez and Gonzalez were unopposed in 2009, and given that they may have very different diatricts this year, I’m sure they’re happy to have the head start. I’d guess CMs Adams and Sullivan will be hitting the fundraising circuit sooner rather than later.

The departing incumbents:

Name Office Cash on hand ========================================= Sue Lovell CCAL #2 98,935 Jarvis Johnson Dist B 0 Anne Clutterbuck Dist C 89,534

Hard to know what the future holds for CM Johnson, but another candidacy doesn’t appear to be in the cards right now. The same can probably be said about CM Lovell, who had once wanted to run for County Clerk. That ship has sailed, and I don’t see there being much of a Lovell bandwagon these days. I won’t be surprised to see her disburse some of her funds to other candidates in the future, however.

I do feel that we’ll see CM Clutterbuck run for something again. No, not Mayor – at least, not this year. There was a time when I thought she’d be a big threat to win HD134, but unless Sarah Davis (whom Clutterbuck supported last year) stumbles badly, that seems unlikely now. She could possibly be groomed to take over for her former boss Rep. John Culberson. I’d hate to see that if it meant she’d morph into a Washington Republican – she’s far too sensible for that, I hope. Actually, what I wouldn’t mind seeing is for the redistricting fairy to move her into Jerry Eversole’s precinct (this map doesn’t quite do that, but it’s close), because she’d be an excellent choice for Ed Emmett to make in the event Eversole does get forced out before 2012. Just a thought.

Finally, a few others of note:

Name Office Cash on hand ========================================= Gene Locke Mayor 20,645 Roy Morales Mayor 5 MJ Khan Controller 1,657 Michael Berry CCAL #5 88,122 Jack Christie CCAL #5 0 Eric Dick CCAL #2 4,036 Mark Lee Dist C 1,287 Robert Glaser Dist C 301

If it’s an election year, you can be sure ol’ Roy will be running for something. Doesn’t really matter what – this is Roy we’re talking about. I’m sure he’ll let us know what soon.

Who knew Most Influential Houstonian of 2010 Michael Berry had so much cash left in his account? I seriously doubt he’d run for anything – he’s got a much cushier, not to mention higher-paying, gig now – but I suppose he could decide to throw a few bucks at someone. Hey, Roy, you got Berry’s phone number?

I have no idea if Jack Christie will take another crack at At Large #5. As I said above, I don’t think CM Jones will be any more vulnerable this time around, but who knows? It does seem likely she’ll draw a fringe opponent or two – Griff Griffin needs a race now that Lovell is termed out – so hoping for a runoff and better luck in same isn’t unreasonable. My advice, for what it’s worth, would be to start fundraising early, and not shoot your wad all in the last few days.

Mark Lee ran for District C in 2005, and for Controller in 2003. He’s reportedly looking at C again, but like Ellen Cohen will have to wait to see what the mapmakers produce. Robert Glaser ran against Clutterbuck in 2007 and 2009. Eric Dick, who as far as I know has not been a candidate before, will be running for the open At Large #2 seat; the cash on hand listed for him is the result of a loan.

There were a handful of other names listed among the reports, but none that are likely to be candidates this cycle. We’ll have a much better idea where things stand after the June 15 reporting date.

The national folks notice Texas’ budget situation

You’ve probably seen this by now, but just in case you haven’t, here it is.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry likes to tell Washington to stop meddling in state affairs. He vocally opposed the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus program to spur the economy and assist cash-strapped states.

Perry also likes to trumpet that his state balanced its budget in 2009, while keeping billions in its rainy day fund.

But he couldn’t have done that without a lot of help from … guess where? Washington.

Turns out Texas was the state that depended the most on those very stimulus funds to plug nearly 97% of its shortfall for fiscal 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

We here are all familiar with the details, but it’s nice to see it get some play in the outside world. Three points to make:

1. The story does not mention the structural deficit caused by the 2006 property tax cut, which was supposed to be paid for by the business margins tax (among other things) but has not been. It’s easy to blame the economy for the dire straits we now face, and to be sure that’s a significant part of it, but Rick Perry and his buddies blew a multibillion dollar hole in the finances five years ago, and they still haven’t done anything about it. That cannot be emphasized enough.

2. I still don’t know what to make of Perry’s supposed national ambitions. I just don’t see how he gets elected President, and it’s not really clear to me how he’s an asset as a VP nominee either, but I’ll admit to a certain myopia on the topic. That said, a story line like this, coupled with subsequent headlines about 100,000 teachers getting laid off if there are no significant changes to the budget, just don’t seem like they’d play well in Peoria. How exactly is this a model for the rest of the country to follow?

3. I will always wonder how things might have played out if Perry really tried to block the stimulus money, and not just the relatively paltry amount for unemployment insurance, in 2009. No pain in 2009 meant no real counter to Perry’s ludicrous claims about how good things were around here. You could argue that in more ways than one, Barack Obama was the single biggest reason Perry got re-elected.

You must obey these laws, but not those laws

Here’s a Chronicle story profiling EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz:

That the EPA is picking on Texas, a favorite refrain of the politicians, is an “unfortunate characterization” because the agency works with the state on many issues, ranging from oil spills to clean water for impoverished communities along the Mexican border, Armendariz said in a recent interview at his office.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “the elected officials — the governor and the attorney general (Greg Abbott) – see some value in fighting the federal government for their own sake. They’re fermenting the disagreements we see. It’s bad public policy. It’s bad for permit holders. And it creates uncertainty.”

Armendariz insists that anyone in his position would be taking the same steps he has. He notes that Richard Greene, the Bush appointee who proceeded him as the EPA’s regional administrator for Texas and four adjacent states, sent “strong letters” to the TCEQ about problems with aspects of its permitting program. Armendariz later determined that roughly 130 refineries, chemical plants and factories with so-called flexible permits needed to bring them into compliance with federal law.

“The steps we’re taking are required by law,” he said. “What people are disagreeing with is the Clean Air Act, as written by Congress. What they don’t like is how the law is written.”

And here’s an Express News story about “sanctuary cities” and the legislation that will be taken up to deal with it.

Several, including one by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, would deny state grants to cities that don’t enforce immigration laws. Several similar bills have been filed in the House, including one by state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball. Riddle also filed a bill that would allow police to arrest illegal immigrants on trespassing charges.

[Mayor Raul] Reyes said that would put more burdens on cities like El Cenizo.

“They should be helping communities like El Cenizo,” he said. “We don’t have the economic means to hire personnel.”

Bennett Sandlin, the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, agreed with Reyes. It’s almost unheard of for city councils to tell police not to ask about immigration status, Sandlin said; most policies are set by police departments.

And he said the Legislature shouldn’t be interfering with police chiefs. On top of that, Sandlin said, requiring police to enforce immigration laws would be an added financial burden in the midst of budget shortfalls.

“In a perfect world we’d have the state and federal money to enforce immigration statutes,” he said. “But right now we’re bare to the bone just locking up the bad guys.”

Riddle said she’s confident her bills fall under Perry’s emergency item designation and will be voted on in the session’s first 30 days.

Patrick said he wants sanctuary cities done away with so individual cities aren’t thumbing their noses at federal and — assuming the Legislature passes a bill he filed that requires officers to ask anyone without identification about their immigration status — state law.

So let me see if I’ve got this straight. It’s bad for the federal government to enforce its laws in Texas. It’s good for the state to require cities to enforce federal laws, even as such requirements represent unfunded mandates and fall outside the jurisdiction of municipal law enforcement agencies. Maybe what environmentalists need to do is get someone to file a bill that would require cities to arrest violators of the Clean Air Act. That seems to be the approved method of federal law enforcement these days.

Cuts here mean hikes there

The only problem with this AP story is the headline, “Texas budget cuts may shift burden to locals”. There’s no “may” about it – the Pitts budget would absolutely shift a huge burden to local governments.

Cuts set off a domino effect: Historically, public schools raise property taxes when the state education agency sends smaller checks. Cities and counties have to pick up the bill when the sick go to the emergency room because fewer doctors accept Medicaid. And when the mentally ill don’t receive treatment, local law enforcement often steps in.

Texans pay for these services in one of two ways. Local authorities collect property taxes, and 64 percent of the state budget comes from sales taxes. Less spending during the recession has meant reduced state revenues. The state also collects a business tax, but that has never produced as much revenue as lawmakers predicted, [Sherri Greenberg, interim director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School for Public Affairs in Austin] said.

The draft budget assumes no new taxes and over the next two years takes $9.8 billion away from schools and could cost 100,000 school district jobs, according to Moak, Casey & Associates, a school finance consulting firm that analyzed the budget. This at a time when Texas schools is projected to add 160,000 new students, according to census figures. The Houston Independent School District alone could lose $348 million in financing, something that could result in teacher layoffs.

As the story notes, HISD is one of several school districts that has the option to rate property taxes by as much as three cents without putting it to a vote. Does anyone doubt that this is what they’ll do if faced with this big a loss of revenue? When that happens, remember that it was Rick Perry and his policies that made it happen.

Parkland Health and Hospital System is one of the largest public hospitals in Texas, treating more than 93,000 low-income patients who depend on the program each year. Ron Anderson, the CEO, said state cuts in health care merely shift the costs to counties and hospital districts, which rely on local property taxes. Parkland relies on medical school faculty and students to provide services, so cuts to the higher education budget will compound the cuts to the health budget, costing millions in local taxes.

“Sometimes you think you’re saving money with one budget, but your actually transferring the costs to somebody else and the costs might actually be higher,” Anderson said. “The taxpayers who pay these bills are actually the same taxpayers.”

Texas ranks 49th in the nation in per capita spending on mental health programs, and the draft budget would cut spending by 40 percent. When mentally ill people can’t get the help they need, they often end up in jail or worse, said Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

“Officers and the mentally ill will be having confrontations that will result in arrests, tazings and, regretfully, even shootings,” Garcia said. “That should not be the way that families or individuals resolve their mental health issues, but that’s generally how it works because there is a lack of service.”

The state has responsibilities. The cuts that are being proposed represent a complete abdication of those responsibilities. We can pay now or we can pay later, but one way or another we’re going to pay.