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March 31st, 2011:

House votes to spend some Rainy Day funds

From the Trib:

House lawmakers preliminarily passed two bills Thursday that together will balance the state’s budget for the remaining months of the fiscal year through a mix of spending cuts and use of the Rainy Day Fund. The cuts were in the first bill, HB 4, which passed by a party-line vote of 100-46. The second bill, HB 275, authorizes the use of $3.1 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. (See our liveblog of the debate here.) The latter measure generated more support from Democrats, with a final vote of 142-2.

Most of the reductions outlined in HB4 have already been implemented by state agencies. (See the list of agency fund reductions here.)

The votes came after nearly ten hours of intense debate. In all, lawmakers filed 65 amendments to HB 4. Democrats attempted to restore funding for public education, higher education, and health services. Some amendments were contingency-based; others targeted the governor’s various funds, including the mansion restoration account.

With very few exceptions, Democratic amendments went down on party line or near-party line votes. An amendment by Rep. Mark Strama limited one of Rick Perry’s slush funds, the Emerging Technology Fund, to only spend monies it had already allocated through August. A few other Democratic amendments drew a handful of Republican votes and some fine whining but still got tabled. Beyond that, nothing terribly exciting happened. The big show is tomorrow when HB1 gets debated and approximately one million amendments get voted on.

Costello opposes exempting the churches

From the inbox:

Houston City Council Member Stephen Costello asks the Mayor and Council to exempt only state-mandated property from the drainage fee.

Costello, the At Large Position 1 Council Member, offered an amendment Wednesday to the Municipal Drainage Utility ordinance that would limit exemptions to those under the state’s Local Government Code Section 552.053.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Costello said. “It is only fair that everyone who contributes water to the system should help maintain it. If we start exempting groups, then homeowners and businesses will have to pick up the slack.

“Throughout this process, I have consistently maintained that all users of the drainage system should pay the drainage utility fee,” Costello added. “The City has the responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated fairly.”

Council will vote on the ordinance next week.

The ordinance was brought up in Council yesterday but was tagged. I greatly prefer CM Costello’s compromise to Mayor Parker’s, and now that the churches have shown themselves to be such sore winners, I like his proposal even more. My concern is that it will be a futile gesture, given that Dan Patrick’s blackmail bill has passed the Senate. (And may I just say: What the hell are Whitmire, Ellis, and Gallegos doing supporting his meddling? Get the Senate out of Houston’s business already!) But it’ll be good to get everyone on the record anyway.

One thing I hadn’t considered about Patrick’s petty little bill is that it might not pass Constitutional muster. Turns out that Sen. Ellis inquired about that with the City Attorney (would have been nice if he’d done that before teaming up with Danno, but whatever), and today he got this response, which says, in a word, No.

Article 3, § 56 of the Texas Constitution provides:

(a) The Legislature shall not, except as otherwise provided in this Constitution, pass any local or special law, authorizing:
* * *
(2) regulating the affairs of counties, cities, towns, wards or school districts;

To avoid the strictures of Article 3, § 56, a population distinction as is found in this Bill “must be based on a real distinction, and must not be arbitrary or a device to give what is in substance a local or special law the form of a general law.” Bexar Co. v. Tynan, 97 S.W.2d
467, 470 (Tex. 1936). The Texas Supreme Court has opined that, in statutes classified by population, the central question is whether the population classification bears a reasonable relationship to the object sought to be accomplished. See Maple Run Mun. Utility District v. Monaghan, 931 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Tex. 1996); see also, Smith v. Decker, 312 S.W.3d 632, 635-36 (Tex. 1958); Rodriguez v. Gonzales, 227 S.W.2d 791 at 794 (Tex. 1950)(condemning law as prohibited local and special law where court determined that “[n]o valid reason can be perceived for limiting the operation of the Act to border counties”); Smith v. State, 49 S.W.2d 739, 744 (Tex. Crim. App. 1932)(striking down law as an unconstitutional local or special law because the “classification does not rest in real and substantial distinction rendering the class involved distinct [and] the basis of the classification—the population involved—has no direction relation to the purpose of the law”). The proposed Bill satisfies none of these criteria.

The Texas constitutional framers believed that restrictions on the passage of local and special bills would prevent the granting of special privileges; secure uniformity of law throughout the state; decrease the passage of courtesy bills; and encourage the legislature to devote more of its time to interests of the state at large. (Interpretive Commentary, Art. 3. § 56 Tex. Const.).

Unfortunately, this Bill fails on all four counts. On its face, the Bill grants special privileges to an entire list of entities seeking exemption from payment of drainage charges, and only for such entities in the City of Houston. By imposing those exemptions only in the City of Houston, the provisions in TLGC Chapter 552 allowing the creation of a municipal drainage utility would, in substantial measure, be uniform state-wide, except in Houston. Clearly this Bill on its face affords special privileges for selected groups by exempting them from utility payments at a time when both the State Legislature and the Houston City Council are wrestling with declining revenues. The proposed Bill is a local Bill, aimed solely at the City of Houston in direct contravention of the Texas Constitution. Not only would the Bill expand the categories of property eligible for exemption from payment of a drainage fee in Houston only, but the number of entities that would qualify and the properties that would receive exemptions in comparison to other cities is incomprehensible.

I’m not a lawyer, and certainly David Feldman has an interest in advocating the city’s position, but it’s pretty persuasive. If nothing else, it sure sounds like there will be more litigation coming if SB714 becomes law. Campos has more.

What was this past election about?

I’ve seen the following quote from House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, in this Statesman story about some queasiness among lower chamber Republicans about the severe budget cuts, several times this past week, and I feel it needs a bit of deconstruction.

There are limits, in fact, to how much can be added and still get the 76 votes needed to pass the House budget.

“For a lot of members of the House, this is as far as we can go,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said last week. “They feel like they were elected to make cuts and this accurately reflects what their constituents want.”

I don’t know how the campaigns actually went in most House districts. There wasn’t a competitive race in mine, so the vast majority of what I saw that an average voter would have seen came from the Governor’s race, where the Republican message was basically “Texas rulz, Obama droolz”. Rick Perry certainly didn’t campaign on the need to slash the budget in Texas. Sure, he talked at length about out of control spending, but that was always clearly in the context of talking about Washington and Obama and the Democratic Congress. I realize I’m Monday morning quarterbacking to an extent here, but does anyone disagree with the claim that Rick Perry has basically been running a nonstop anti-Washington campaign for about two years now? Does anyone disagree that the 2010 election was all about the anti-Obama vote coming out in force, abetted by a weak economy and a heaping measure of anti-immigrant sentiment? I mean, the two candidates in Harris County that won races they weren’t generally expected to win, Sarah Davis and Jack Morman, both basically ran anti-Obamacare campaigns despite the fact that neither one was seeking an office that had anything to do with “Obamacare”. To say that the election was about anything else strikes me as being a big distortion of what really happened.

Now again, I don’t know how things looked on the ground elsewhere in the state. Maybe some of these Republican freshmen really did spend their summer and fall last year talking about the need to cut billions of dollars from the state budget, from public education and Medicaid and everywhere else. It’s also possible – likely, in fact – that the “out of control spending” message about Washington was also taken implicitly by voters to be a critique of Austin. That gets into some ticklish territory for Texas Republicans, since they’ve been in full control of state government since 2003, so if spending here was “out of control”, well, whose fault was that? I’m equally sure that Democrats, who seldom miss a chance to run away from themselves, would have not done a very good job pointing out that distinction and contradiction. That will have to be the task for next year, when the electorate and the climate ought to be considerably different. In the meantime, however inaccurate a characterization of the 2010 election Pitts’ statement may be, I’m not at all unhappy for the Republicans – and the Democrats – to run with it. Y’all go right ahead and tell the voters how you gutted public education and helped close a bunch of nursing homes just like we asked you to do. We’ll be glad to have that conversation.

Mayor seeks pension fund cuts

Given the size of the budget shortfall for next year and the amount that the city pays into the various pension funds, Mayor Parker’s proposal to pay less should not be a surprise to anyone.

City Attorney David Feldman and Finance Director Kelly Dowe already have asked firefighter pension executives to accept $14 million less than the city’s obligation to the pension system for the fiscal year that begins July 1. They plan to ask police for cuts as well, they said.

“We asked them to work with us to determine whether we could reduce the amount paid in, and I pledged that concessions made would offset cuts made to the fire department,” Parker said Tuesday.

Early this month Parker asked the fire department to cut $22 million from its $449 million budget as part of a larger set of spending targets issued to city departments.

Firefighter pension leaders who met with Feldman and Dowe at City Hall late last week said they were told that the city would be laying off between 200 and 300 firefighters, as well as closing some stations. They talked of the administration’s desire to reduce the pension payment by $14 million during the same discussion.

“We feel like it’s an ultimatum. The result is, from their perspective, to make the pension plan look bad so they can pass their budget,” said Christopher Gonzales, executive director and chief investment officer of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund. “They’re balancing the budget on the backs of the firefighters, and that’s unfair.”

With all due respect, I think the other city employees that have been furloughed or laid off would disagree with that characterization. Everyone knows that the trajectory the city is on with its pension obligations is unsustainable. The resolution will ultimately involve some combination of the city paying less, the firefighters contributing more, and pensioners (current and future) taking less. It’s just a matter of how messy it is getting there.

UPDATE: I received this statement from HPFFA President Jeff Caynon, which disputes the Mayor’s claims about the budget. It reads in part:

“A few months ago, firefighters negotiated with HFD to restrict vacation use and adjust the department deployment model which saved the city about $5 million. The mayor then recently ordered HFD to cut its budget by five percent – or about $25 million. The Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) recently lower the city’s contribution thereby saving the city of Houston $13 million per year for the next three years.

“None of the $13 million pension reduction was counted toward the $23 million budget cuts ordered by the mayor. In fact, during recent discussions the mayor’s financial director expressly notified firefighters that any savings related to pension reduction would not count toward the city’s imposed HFD budget cuts.

“The mayor’s comments today were misleading, but they also continue a pattern of behind-the-scenes pension and layoff threats that contradict the administration’s statements about their public safety commitment. The mayor also has attempted to pit police and firefighters against each other by increasing the city’s contribution to the police pension without argument while failing to acknowledge the efforts of firefighter’s pension.”

Click the link for the rest.

Bill Hammond gets his name in the papers again

Whether he actually achieves any of the goals that are the basis for many of these stories remains to be seen.

Hammond, a former business owner and Republican lawmaker from Dallas, is accustomed to steering the state business organization between its support for Perry and his fervent belief that now is not the time to short-change public or higher education.

Hammond, who’s been interested in public education since his days as a lawmaker in the 1980s, has added higher education to his list of concerns for the state’s future workforce.

“If we don’t have an educated workforce, the jobs will leave,” Hammond said. “We are not meeting the needs of the future.”

It’s a message he takes to lawmakers, educators and the business community. The message not only chastises lawmakers who favor cutting education, it also faults the public and higher education establishment for not doing a better job of preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs.

“Business needs to be a critical friend,” Hammond said of his double-barreled message.

Hammond, listed this year on Texas Monthly’s list of the 25 people who most influence state politics, leads the oldest statewide business organization, which includes 3,500 businesses and 220 chambers of commerce.

For this legislative session, the Texas Association of Business has partnered with business and education groups to produce reports on ways to improve higher education and the need for better pre-kindergarten.

He also called for spending money from the state’s reserves, the so-called rainy day fund, weeks before state officials inched in that direction with a deal to spend about $3.2 billion to cover the shortfall in the current budget.

To those who would argue the state’s funding gap for the next two years can be closed with cuts alone, Hammond says, “You can’t cut from current (spending) levels and have a functioning government.”

I give Hammond credit for being out in front of the need to use the Rainy Day Fund, and I give him credit for being a voice of relative sanity on immigration. But as I’ve repeatedly said, I just don’t expect him to be very effective in getting what he says he wants. Maybe if he threatened to actually oppose some of the Republican legislators that stand in the way of these goals, I’d have more faith in him. But as long as he continues to be buddy-buddy with bad actors like Leo Berman, I expect he’ll be as successful as a parent who threatens his kids with various punishments for misbehavior but never carries it out. What does any currently elected Republican legislator have to fear if he doesn’t do what Bill Hammond asks? Not nearly as much as what they believe they have to fear from the teabaggers. As long as that’s the dynamic, the results will be utterly predictable.

Is there an app for doing a golf clap?

This just about blew my mind.

Staying connected at the Shell Houston Open will be easier than ever this year, and golf fans won’t have to sneak their cellphones past the entrance gates to do so.

Starting with this year’s Honda Classic a couple of weeks ago, golf fans have been allowed to take their cellphones to the course during tournament play. It comes, of course, with several stipulations, chief among them, turning off the ringer, making calls in designated areas only and not taking pictures during the actual tournament.

Steve Timms, SHO tournament director and the chairman of the tournament action committee, presented the proposal for the new policy to the PGA Tour more than a year ago. The PGA Tour tested it at five events over the past six months and found that there was little, if any, interruptions of play.

The reason for the change in policy is twofold, said Timms, who also is president and CEO of the Houston Golf Association. First, the PGA Tour merely is acknowledging that cellphones and smartphones are an integral part of people’s lives. And secondly, the PGA Tour can use smartphones to its advantage, offering spectators downloadable applications that will allow them to follow the scoring and receive announcements regarding the tournament.

Timms said surveys among golf fans showed that having to check the cellphone at the gate was a deterrent to attending. Many people aren’t willing to be out of touch with the world for four or five hours.

“I know I don’t like to be without mine, and I know with the younger demographic, a lot of them don’t wear watches because that’s the way they tell time,” Timms said. “They want to be constantly in touch. It’s just part of our society.”

I don’t think I qualify as the “younger demographic” any more – maybe at a golf tournament I would – but yeah. I very seldom go anywhere without my cellphone and my BlackBerry, and if I had been told at the entrance for a sporting event that I’d need to check them with security for the duration (as had been the case with the PGA Tour), I’d ask for a refund and go home. I realize that golf is a little different than team sports – you’re up close to the action and are expected to keep quiet – but it still amazes me that professional golf is just cluing into this. I mean, you can get WiFi at Minute Maid, and the demand for wireless coverage at Reliant is bedeviling its engineers. How is it that golf managed to hold out for this long?

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 28

The Texas Progressive Alliance is ready for another sports-related tourist infusion as it brings you this week’s bloog roundup.