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January 17th, 2012:

Another day in the sun for Wentworth

The longer that the redistricting litigation drags on, the more opportunities there will be for stories to be written about State Sen. Jeff Wentworth and his bipartisan redistricting commission proposal.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, has been a longtime proponent of creating a redistricting commission to draw new boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes after the U.S. census.

Wentworth said his idea would cost the state less money and be more efficient.

“And the state legislators are not distracted and have the attention diverted from the more important issues,” he said, adding that redistricting “becomes the single most important issue after only the budget” in redistricting years because re-election trumps almost everything else for most members.


A realist, Wentworth said he would attempt to create a redistricting commission only for Congress. It requires a simple majority vote of both chambers and the governor’s signature.

Getting a commission to be in charge of legislative redistricting would be more difficult, requiring a state constitutional amendment, which needs a two-thirds vote in each chamber as well as voter approval. Wentworth said it would be “an insurmountable mountain” for the Legislature to climb.

Wentworth’s plan for a congressional redistricting committee would have eight people, who could not be lobbyists or lawmakers and who would be chosen by the Legislature.

Thirteen other states have redistricting committees with varying structures. In some states, legislators appoint the members of the commission, while other states try to keep lawmakers out of the process.

The National Conference of State Legislators notes that the track record of commissions’ success is inconsistent and that courts often end up getting involved anyway.

“Reformers often mistakenly assume that commissions will be less partisan than legislatures when conducting redistricting, but that depends largely on the design of the board or commission,” the conference says on its website.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund was critical of commissions in a 2010 report, noting that they are not accountable to the citizens as elected politicians are.

The report notes that commissions “do not guarantee a process or final redistricting plan that will protect minority voting rights.”

I’m sure that will sound familiar to anyone who’s been following this saga. To me, the main weakness of the Wentworth proposal is that it is necessarily limited to Congressional redistricting. I understand the reasons for that, but it should be clear that simply adopting a commission for Congress won’t make the redistricting process any less contentious or litigious. Congressional maps grab the headlines, but the State House and State Senate maps are large components of the ongoing lawsuits, and the State House map was singled out by both the Justice Department and the San Antonio court as being retrogressive. Even with the Wentworth proposal as law last year, we’d still have had lawsuits, and may well still be in the position we are now, not knowing when our primaries can take place.

And that assumes that the Congressional map drawn by the Wentworth Commission would be free of controversy. The state of California now uses a Wentworth-like commission for its redistricting, and the results have been contentious as ever.

“Redistricting and lawsuits go hand in hand,” [Douglas Johnson, a commission expert and a fellow with the nonpartisan Rose Institute of State and Local Governments at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California] said.

After the first round, many Republicans feel as though they were short-changed, Johnson said. The map drawn for the state Assembly has gone unchallenged. But the Republicans have some serious problems with the state Senate map.

A referendum to overturn the commission’s map will go before the voters as Republicans scramble to rein in the power of California Democrats.

“Simply forming a commission doesn’t get rid of the controversy,” Johnson said. “It remains a difficult and controversial process.”

Another challenge came from a former California Republican congressman.

George Radanovich filed a lawsuit to challenge the map on grounds that it violates the Voting Rights Act by intentionally diluting the African American vote in the Los Angeles area.

Johnson says that the new way was still better than the old way, and he may well be right. All I’m saying is that there is no way to remove the politics of this, and there are no solutions that everyone will agree on. As long as there are winners and losers in redistricting, there will be fights about it.

San Antonio chooses its solar provider


They will be building a lot of these

Under a bright winter sun Wednesday, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby introduced the companies selected to build one of the country’s largest solar projects and a solar manufacturing plant in San Antonio, an investment of more than $100 million.

OCI Solar Power, whose parent is a South Korean chemical company, will build the solar farms, using panels from a factory to be built here by Nexolon, another South Korean firm with close ties to OCI and a builder of solar cell components.

Both companies will open headquarters in San Antonio, part of their larger commitment to bring at least 800 jobs to town with a $38-$40 million payroll. Mayor Julián Castro said at a news conference that the average pay would be $47,000.

That does not include the temporary construction jobs that will be created to build the multiple solar farms, most of which will be in CPS Energy’s service territory. Together, they will generate 400 megawatts of zero-emission electricity — enough to power 80,000 homes.

See here for some background, and CPS’ homepage for more. As an earlier story notes, this is for a 25-year deal, and the price CPS will be charged for the energy generated will reportedly be on the order of 11 or 12 cents per megawatt. Not too shabby.

Apparently, this deal has some folks in Austin a little envious.

But as Austin Energy is set to begin public hearings tonight on its proposed rate increase, solar advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith said solar energy proponents will urge the Austin City Council to copy the San Antonio model.

“The race is on” to become a manufacturing hub, Smith said. “They are going to beat us, unless Austin takes action quickly.”

If the two cities get into a race like that, I daresay the residents of both will win. Too bad we can’t do that here in Houston, since we don’t own our utility like they do. But at least we’re free of the yoke of burdensome government regulations. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

State not appropriating red light camera funds to trauma centers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Not in Houston any more it's not

Sandy Greyson drove away from an Arlington meeting eight years ago, and 2 tons of irony wiped her off the road.

A red-light runner struck her passenger side, pushing the Dallas City Council member’s car into a field. Greyson suffered a broken wrist and a head wound that required 19 stitches.

She was taken to an emergency room similar to the 128 trauma centers in Texas that are supposed to benefit from the state law that allowed red-light cameras.

The law directs a portion of fines generated by the cameras toward trauma centers. But instead of helping hospitals, the money is simply piling up in Austin.

The $46 million pot earmarked for hospitals is helping lawmakers certify a balanced budget even though much of the money in state accounts can’t be used for general expenses. It’s an accounting trick that has been used for years and defended by budget writers who say such maneuvers are necessary in lean times.

Budget writers face a choice: They either have to cut spending or reduce appropriations, said Steven Polunsky, spokesman for Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who wrote the bill that set aside red-light camera funds for trauma centers.

“In the past, the state has appropriated trauma funds,” Polunsky said. “However, the state was in a difficult budgetary situation.”

In their last session, lawmakers set a record by refusing to spend $4.1 billion raised from earmarked fees and taxes. The programs that suffer include electricity discounts for the poor and, in the case of red-light ticket revenue, trauma centers.

That would be the System Benefit Fund that gets frozen, along with such exotica as hunting and fishing license fee funds and the sale of specialty license plates. It’s the oldest trick in the budget-writer’s playbook, because dedicated revenues count as general revenues for budget “balancing” purposes. If you don’t have enough general revenue, just stop appropriating dedicated revenues until everything evens out. You can then declare yourself fiscally responsible, and the only people who get screwed are the ones who thought those revenues that were supposed to be dedicated to them. Everyone else just gets hoodwinked. People like Mr. Polunsky, who conveniently overlook the fact that there is in fact a Door #3 from which to choose to deal with this situation, help to ensure that it persists. The only truly remarkable thing about this story is that it gets written so long after the session. This was as true at the time the budget was printed and posted as it is today, but for whatever the reason it doesn’t make the news until later on. While I seriously doubt it would change the outcome, stories like this should be written before the budget gets passed. At least then no one could say they didn’t know what was about to happen.

Valero will not appeal tax break decision


Valero Energy Corp. has decided not to appeal the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s rejection of its request for a controversial property tax exemption.


Valero spokesman Bill Day said the company no longer would seek the exemption because it had reached agreements with appraisal districts for lower valuations on their refineries in all but one county where the company operates. Negotiations are ongoing with Moore County, Day said.

See here, here, and here for the background. One less thing to have to worry about this year, but the Lege still needs to address this going forward.