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deficit

It’s usually a bad idea to bet on any kind of overhaul in the Lege

I agree that it’s a sucker’s bet to think that the Lege will try to fix Texas’ tax code in any meaningful way. Nobody likes having to take votes that may later be used as clubs against them in a campaign, and the lobbyists swarm like no other time when someone’s tax break is on the line. But such an overhaul has to happen eventually.

For Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat who serves on the House Ways and Means and Appropriations committees, it amounts to financial mismanagement by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“Frankly, when you have a governor who says he will veto anything that even looks like a tax bill – even if it’s a reform of an existing, broken tax – it gives little reason for legislators to devote resources to proposing tax legislation,” Villarreal added.

Not that Villarreal and others haven’t tried.

Former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican who is retiring from the Legislature, last year sought a revamp of the chronically underperforming business tax, warning that local school property taxes would otherwise rise. The business tax was expanded in 2006 to help pay for lower local school property tax rates, but it has fallen short of projections. Ogden also has called the exemption-riddled sales tax system a “rickety” thing.

[…]

Villarreal has pushed to create a special commission to recommend exemptions ripe for elimination. It’s an uphill battle, he said, since tax code reform is “the right thing to do in the long term” but presents little short-term political gain.

“We do not scrub our tax code the way we scrub our budget. Every legislative session we open up the budget. We go line by line down the expenses that we approved in the entire session asking ourselves, ‘Is this working?’ ” he said. “In the tax code you can put an exemption in place and have it never be seen again.”

As I’ve said many times before, nothing will change until the state’s leadership changes. It makes no sense that tax expenditures never get the kind of scrutiny that every other kind of expenditure gets. To use the overworked analogy, it’s like going over your household expenses line by line every month, but never reviewing your investment portfolio to see what’s performing well and what isn’t. Of course, every exemption, exclusion, and loophole in the tax code was put there to benefit some interest group with the power to fiercely defend it, and that makes it a much harder fight. But we can see the consequences of avoiding that fight. Those chickens are going to roost whether we’re ready for them or not.

Cutting spending is always good for job creation

It must be true.

Eagle Ford Shale

A study by the University of Texas at San Antonio estimated that 20 counties in the Eagle Ford Shale supported 47,097 full-time jobs in 2011, a number that’s expected to grow to 116,972 full-time jobs by 2021.

For now, many of the jobs in demand are for truckers. And a pay range of $25,000 to $80,000 a year is attracting many applicants, according to Workforce Solutions Alamo officials. But even solid job applicants are being stymied by the licensing system, panelists said.

The whole process of getting the commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is backed up, said [Leodoro] Martinez, who also is chairman of the Eagle Ford Consortium.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is responsible for handling commercial driver’s license applications.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said that DPS “is addressing the increased demand for CDLs with our existing resources, and our examiners are processing them as quickly as possible.”

The department is expected to continue having to make do with existing resources. Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, said that because of budget cuts, he isn’t hopeful that the Legislature will be able to increase funding to help expedite applications.

So, were it not for the budget cuts last year, these applicants would have an easier time filling these much-needed jobs, thus making life better for them and making the economy better for all of us. And even with sales tax revenues up and a cash balance of over $5 billion, the odds of these cuts being reversed are slim, partly because the last Lege deferred a huge amount of obligations to this biennium, partly because it’ll cost more money just to keep up with growth, and partly because our government leadership has its head up its posterior. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough magic in the free market to overcome determined shortsightedness.

Land Board throws the Lege a curveball on school finance

Oops.

In the waning days of the 82nd Legislature, state lawmakers came up with a plan to help cushion the blow of $5.4 billion in cuts to public education.

State Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, proposed a constitutional amendment that he said could bring an additional $300 million to public schools. It unanimously cleared both the House and Senate. Orr’s measure became Proposition 6, which voters passed in November.

But that money has hit a roadblock on its way to public schools — and what looked like an easy fix for hard-pressed budget writers last May has turned into a headache that awaits their return in January.

The amendment allowed the School Land Board, which operates out of the General Land Office, to put a portion of earnings from investments on real estate assets into the Available School Fund, which along with property and sales taxes helps pay for public education. Last week, the little-watched board that oversees the state’s public school lands decided not to distribute the money. Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who sits on the three-member board, said it wanted to protect the funds for upcoming investment opportunities.

Usually the proceeds from the sale and management of public school lands would go into a $26 billion trust whose revenue feeds into what’s called the Available School Fund. Proposition 6 made it so the School Land Board, if it chose, could bypass that step and put money directly into the fund.

“We anticipated this funding for public education,” said Jason Embry, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. “We’re evaluating the impact on the budget and working with Commissioner Patterson to ensure there is no impact to public schools.”

Whether lawmakers should have expected the money is a matter of dispute. But the $300 million made it into the budget as part of general funds used to support school operations, contingent upon the constitutional amendment’s passage in November and the School Land Board’s approval of the transfer. During the special session last June, the Legislature added a provision to the appropriations bill that reduced general revenue funding to public education by $300 million if the amendment passed. It was to be replaced with the same amount from the Available School Fund with the board’s approval — but there was no provision to add that money back in if that didn’t happen.

“I was told that there would be $300 million going into the Available School Fund. Everything was put in place to allow to that to happen,” said Orr, who said the General Land Office agreed to transfer the money if the amendment passed. “I believe it needed to happen, so I’m not sure why it didn’t.”

Patterson said he did not recall committing to a transfer of the money and that his office had been unable to find “any evidence or documents or memos or testimony” that he did.

“I don’t have any control over what was written into the budget or what was made contingent. I don’t know who wrote that in there or why,” he said. “Somebody wrote a contingency rider assuming the answer would be yes.”

See here, here, and here for some background. If you look in the comments on those posts, you will see that Commissioner Patterson was never on board with this idea, so if the Lege was assuming that the School Land Board was going to go along with this idea, well, you know what they say about those who assume. I don’t think I realized till I read this story that the Lege had actually appropriated the $300 million based on that assumption; I must have been assuming that they would have made a supplemental appropriation at a later date once the Land Board signed off on it. Let that be a lesson to me. They’ll have to make a supplemental appropriation now, so you can add another $300 million to the Lege’s tab of unmet obligations from 2011. Good thing the Rainy Day Fund is full, because we’re really going to need it next year.

“Rather than trying a real solution to school finance they keep doing the little gimmicks and sleight of hands,” said David Bradley, the Beaumont Republican who chairs the Board of Education’s finance committee. “The Legislature is the problem. It’s totally improper for them to be pulling that kind of money out of these trust funds to use for general revenue funding.”

I hate having to agree with David Bradley, but he’s right. It’s on the Lege to fund school finance, and with the job they’ve been doing it’s no wonder we’re back in court a mere seven years after the last lawsuit was decided. I’m sure this seemed like free money to them – I admit, my first reaction was along those lines – and maybe that helped salve a bit of the guilt from having slashed $5.4 billion (and having voted to slash over $10 billion) from public education. But it was never a solution even if it did work.

What will the excuse for austerity be now?

We’re in the money, as it were.

Comptroller Susan Combs on Wednesday released updated details of how much money Texas is expected to collect in taxes and fees in fiscal year 2013, which begins on Sept. 1.

The report, prepared as Texas seeks $9.8 billion in short-term loans, indicated that the state will bring in about $2 billion more than Combs had previously estimated for 2013.

In addition, sales tax collections for the current fiscal year are running about $1.5 billion ahead of projections, while the business franchise tax has exceeded estimates by at least $300 million.

Combs previously reported that the state was sitting on a $1.6 billion cash balance from the previous budget, which brings the ever-changing total well above $5 billion.

[…]

An additional $5 billion would help lawmakers cover a tab for Medicaid costs that they must pay next year. That obligation has fallen from $4.8 billion to an estimated $3.9 billion as fewer people have enrolled in the health care program and changes aimed at controlling costs take effect.

[…]

The rainy day fund might be near capacity.

Combs expects the account to reach $8.2 billion by the end of 2013, almost $1 billion more than she projected in December. That amount would appear to approach the limit set on the fund by the state constitution.

Production taxes from the oil and gas boom are filling up the reserve fund, said R.J. DeSilva, a spokesman for Combs.

So the Rainy Day Fund is full, and the revenue projection may well be undershooting the mark. If we’re not restoring the funds that were cut from public education and a host of things besides, what are we going to do? This is why I say that the 2013 legislative session will be a major factor in the 2014 elections, because there’s a fundamental question about budgets and government services that needs to be answered. Do people have the expectation that the cuts made in 2011 were simply in response to the finances of the day, with the equivalent expectation that better times means putting things back as they had been, or do people believe this is the new normal? It’s not too early to start planning how to get voters to arrive at the answer you want them to.

Our high maintenance Governor

Ka-ching!

This corndog brought to you at taxpayer expense

Texans have been billed $2.2 million in out-of-state travel expenses for Gov. Rick Perry’s security detail since his November 2010 re-election, including his failed presidential bid and other trips ranging from vacations to state business and political gatherings, according to updated figures released Friday.

The new report released by the Texas Department of Public Safety freshly tallies $199,060.07 in expenses for Perry’s security detail within and outside Texas, with most for out-of-state trips.

The report covers the March-May fiscal quarter. It also includes expenses dating back to the September start of the fiscal year that came in after earlier reports were compiled.

[…]

Perry’s direct travel costs generally are paid by his campaign, but expenses for his security detail are paid mainly through the state highway fund, which includes proceeds from the state gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees.

Travel costs in the report include such items as airfare, rental car, food and lodging.

The quarterly report doesn’t include overtime for Perry’s security detail, which totaled more than $2.8 million from November 2010 through February. The overtime total includes trips within and outside of Texas.

The largest recent travel expense tallied in the report was a trip to San Diego, Calif., for $27,143.76.

[…]

“It seems like everybody else is tightening their belt, except for him,” said state Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, House Democratic Caucus leader, referring to state budget cuts and the potential of more to come. “If he’s asking for us to tighten our belts, he needs to look for a few notches himself,” Farrar said.

Perry and his staff have repeatedly turned aside the idea that he should cover the security costs, saying Perry is governor wherever he is and noting that previous governors also had security.

I do agree that governors travel as part of their jobs, and that they are entitled to security when they travel. It’s appropriate for those expenses to be paid by the state, and frankly that’s far superior to his trips being funded solely by campaign contributors. We have enough of a pay to play culture in our politics as it is, thank very much. That said, it is also the case that we are, as the Governor himself likes to proclaim loudly, in lean times that call for sacrifices and cutbacks. It would be nice if Perry could lead by example for once in his life and save us all a bit of money by travelling less often. The private sector uses virtual conference rooms, NetMeeting, Skype, Office Communicator, stuff like that as low-cost substitutes for travel. Perhaps the Governor’s office should look into that.

TAB takes a hostage

Can’t say I’m surprised by this tactic.

Leaders in the business community said Wednesday that they would not stand for increased funding for education if it came with any rollback of accountability standards in Texas public schools.

“If we are going to remain competitive in the world’s market, we are going to have to have an educated workforce. We do not have one today,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “We will vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system unless and until we are certain that the current accountability system is going to be maintained.”

The Capitol news conference, held by the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, comes as the standardized testing that is the backbone of the state accountability system is facing considerable backlash from parents, educators and lawmakers.

[…]

Wednesday, members of the workforce coalition — which includes groups influential in the Legislature like the Texas Association of Business, Texas Institute for Education Reform, Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Business Leadership Council (formerly the Governor’s Business Council) — made clear they would not support any kind of tweaks to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. An attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler to do just that during the last legislative session failed with the opposition of the business community.

“Before this landmark piece of legislation, HB3, is even fully implemented, we have people who want to roll it back and go back to fight the old wars about teaching to the test and all these other myths that are out there,” said Jim Windham, chairman of Texas Institute for Education Reform.

They argued that the existing system is the only way to ensure taxpayers know their money is being well spent.

“STAAR testing is an excellent step towards ensuring that the state’s education dollars are being directed into the classroom so that college- and workforce-ready students emerge from Texas public schools,” said James Golsan, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

To be blunt, these guys are full of it. The TPPF thinks we spend too much on education to begin with, and TAB is about as likely to support any measure that would actually increase revenue for education as Rick Perry is. Saying they’ll oppose an increase in funding for public education unless their demands are met is like Willie Sutton saying he’ll oppose the hiring of more police officers unless those pesky bank robbery laws get repealed.

On a more general note, I don’t understand the single-minded focus on the STAAR tests. Everyone wants accountability, and everyone wants students to graduate having received a good, comprehensive, useful education, but why in the world must we believe that STAAR tests are the only way to achieve that? I agree with this:

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer whose daughter will be a sophomore at Anderson High School next fall, said she was offended by the insinuation that parents are being led around by superintendents.

“We are smart enough to see what that system is and is not doing and we can perfectly understand on our own that it is a badly flawed system that needs to be fixed,” said Majcher, who listened to the news conference at the Texas Capitol.

“I think it is inappropriate to hold public funding hostage to repairing the problems that we all know exist with the current testing system,” said Majcher, who is part of a new parent group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. “The testing system is badly implemented, badly flawed, there are a lot of groups, a lot of parents who are working very hard to make positive corrections to that. I would not call that rolling it back. I think when we see a mistake, we make a course correction.”

Exactly. We’ve been pushing various accountability measures for 20 years in Texas. Some have worked well, others not so much, but it’s been an ongoing experiment, with tweaks, adjustments, and changes of direction as needed. To believe that the STAAR and only the STAAR can achieve the goals these guys says they want is myopic and suggests they care more about the process than the result. Turns out, even some prominent Republicans see it that way, too.

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken said Thursday that the state’s current public education accountability system is “broken and badly in need of fixing.”

During testimony at a hearing of the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development on career and technology education, the former state GOP chairman expressed his disagreement with a coalition of business leaders and a conservative think tank that announced Wednesday it would oppose any additional funding to public education if there were any rollback of existing accountability standards.

Pauken, who along with two other commissioners oversees the development of the state’s workforce, said he was surprised that the coalition claimed to speak for the business community and conservatives as it defended the existing testing system.

He said he had found widespread agreement among business leaders, teachers, school district officials and community college representatives he had spoken to around the state that “teaching to the test is one of the real reasons that we have a significant skill trade shortage.”

Pauken said he spoke as both a businessman and a conservative when he criticized the position taken by the coalition.

“The current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students — rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test,” Pauken said, adding that a consequence of the system was that “‘real learning’ has been replaced by ‘test learning.’”

Hammond and his buddies are speaking in their own interest, not those of schools, students, or parents. We should not take their little tantrum seriously.

HISD will not raise the tax rate

Instead, they will dip into their reserves to balance their $1.5 billion budget for this year.

The amount is about the same as last year, when the district reduced spending by approximately 5 percent to offset unprecedented state cuts.

Instead of seeking a tax increase – which the school board has been reluctant to embrace – [Superintendent Terry] Grier has recommended spending $9 million, or 3.5 percent, from savings next year.

“I would hate to arbitrarily raise taxes at this point when we don’t know what’s going to happen down the road,” said Mike Lunceford, president of the Houston Independent School District board.

HISD is one of about 600 districts suing the state, claiming funding is inadequate. Lunceford said he is hopeful that lawmakers will revise the school finance system next session.

[…]

[HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett said the district cannot continue to spend its fund balance. The account contains $257 million, about two months’ worth of operating expenses. HISD also plans to use $18 million from one-time federal jobs funding to close the budget shortfall.

“The district and the board will have to address how to balance this budget next year,” Garrett said.

The budget was adopted Thursday night. I’m sure the improved real estate market, which has led to higher property tax revenues and thus greatly eased the budget situation for entities like the city of Houston, enabled HISD to get close enough to balance to take this approach. A lot of the cost cutting they did last year – i.e., staff reductions – carry over as well. Still, as Garrett says, they can only go to their reserves for so much. Especially with a big bond package on the table for this year, they will need a healthy amount of reserves to ensure good bond ratings.

That bond package was unveiled Thursday as well, and unlike this year’s budget it will mean higher taxes down the line. Most of the focus will be on the high schools. You can see the details in School Zone and Hair Balls. The Board has not yet voted on Grier’s bond proposal, but there is some early opposition.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche criticized the plan for not including a new High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, her alma mater. Grier acknowledged the facility is lacking but said he wants to sell the valuable property on Dickson and find a new site.

Stipeche said she opposed changing the location, which is convenient to internships at downtown law firms and to students who transfer in from across the city.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, made a special appearance at the board meeting Thursday night to tell trustees he did not support the bond proposal as is, particularly the slight to Law Enforcement.

You can’t have everything. I don’t think that’s sufficient reason to oppose the entire package, but by all means until such time as the board has voted on it anyone who is unhappy with some part of Grier’s proposal go ahead and fight to make it better as they see fit.

STAAR pushback

The House Public Ed committee gets an earful.

Members of the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday questioned why the first batch of students who took the end-of-course exams scored so poorly. For example, 55 percent of ninth-graders met the minimum passing standard on the English writing test, and only 3 percent hit the college readiness standard that will be required in 2016.

“Is it a function of the instrument? That’s one answer. Is it a function of student attainment? That’s a different answer,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

They got few answers. State education officials said there is not enough data to draw conclusions with only one administration of the test.

[…]

Superintendents from across the state testified that the number of high school dropouts could skyrocket in the coming years because almost three-quarters of the students who failed the exams this spring were already considered at risk of dropping out.

In order to graduate, high school students must achieve an average passing score in the four core subject areas: math, English, science and social studies. Students who have failed two or three exams might give up because they will lose hope that they can catch up, said Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder, who testified at the hearing.

Manor Superintendent Andrew Kim, who also testified, said he supported the increased rigor of the end-of-course exams. But he said the state needs to help districts help students who struggled on the tougher test by allowing districts to start school earlier in the year and providing greater aid for students with limited English skills.

Only 8 percent of the ninth-graders with limited English skills met the minimum standard on the writing test, even with some accommodations. Educators asked legislators to give those students an extra year to get up to speed and offer the tests in the student’s native language.

Schroder drew applause from the audience when he called for eliminating a mandate that the end-of-course exam score count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.

The Trib has more on this.

The 15 percent rule was designed to create “skin in the game” for students taking the exams, said Amarillo ISD Superintendent Rod Schroder and Aldine ISD Superintendent Wanda Bamberg. But students already have two other incentives to perform well, they said — the cumulative exam score they need to graduate and the minimum scores needed to pass each test.

The committee also heard testimony from TEA officials, who addressed difficulties in timing STAAR exams. Currently, exams are administered about a month before school ends, so teachers have not yet covered all course material.

If exams are administered later, schools will not have time to see the results before starting summer school for students who must retake tests, said Gloria Zyskowski, the agency’s director of its Student Assessment Division. In turn, summer school cannot be pushed back because that would interfere with the start of the next school year.

Given this year’s timeline for exam return, there is no way to resolve the timeline of the statewide exam so that it covers the entire course, said Tyler ISD Superintendent Randy Reid.

“I don’t see any solution to them getting the scores back in a timely manner,” Reid said.

Any new system is going to have some bugs to work out, but the issues here are pretty fundamental. I get the desire for more rigor, but it really sends a message that the push for higher standards comes at the same time as a $5.4 billion cut to the budget. The students that will have the greatest difficulty with the STAAR or any other accountability measure are exactly those who have the greatest needs. Jay Aiyer takes a closer look at the test scores and what they mean.

First and foremost, it is critical to understand what the test results actually say. If final standards scheduled to take effect in 2016 were used today, only 41 percent of students in biology, 39 percent in algebra 1, 40 percent in world geography, 46 percent in reading and 34 percent in writing would have passed. Based on this data, we can logically conclude that nearly 60 percent of high school students lack mastery of the tested subject at a level consistent with a student who is college-bound. If we analyze the data further, we see that students in affluent districts and students in admissions-based magnet programs far outperformed students in schools with large, economically disadvantaged populations. Unfortunately, this is consistent with a multiyear trend that strongly correlates family income with student performance.

This is true in Texas, across the country and around the world.

In fact, the Houston Independent School District, with a student population that is more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged, actually outperformed the state and many suburban districts, when the data are adjusted by income.

It is also important to note that the nearly 60 percent passage rate roughly corresponds to the percentage of students currently enrolled in remedial education classes at two and four-year colleges in our state. What STAAR results seem to have identified are students who are not on pace to graduate ready for college.

If we recognize that STAAR is simply a reflection of the underlying problems in public education, much of which is caused by economic factors that are outside the schoolhouse, what do we do?

Remediation can only do so much if you ignore the underlying issues, which is what we have always done and will keep doing, with even greater vigor these days. Meanwhile, the schools that are being told to do more with less now have to spend a bunch of money they don’t have on remediation. Don’t expect anything to be different next year.

Are the end of course standards too low?

Beginning this year, high school students must pass new end of course exams in a variety of subjects in order to be able to graduate. These tests begin in the ninth grade and continue through the 12th. The standards will be relaxed for the first couple of years while everyone gets used to them. Some people think the state is going too easy on the schools by doing it that way.

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has said the agency decided to phase in the standards, starting lower this year and increasing them through 2016, because students need time to adjust to the much more difficult questions on the new exams.

But a prominent business leader and the head of the state’s largest school district suggested the lower bar at the outset will give students, teachers and the public a skewed picture of schools’ performance.

‘False sense of security’

“It gives all of us an inadequate report of where we are,” said Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier. “It gives you a false sense of security.”

Grier said he would prefer to start with the higher standards, even if it means more schools earn the state’s lowest academic rating.

“If they’re unacceptable, they’re unacceptable,” Grier said. “We need to accept the fact that they are what they are and get very busy trying to improve them.”

The standards also drew criticism from Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business.

Hammond said the scores should accurately reflect whether students are being prepared for college and careers.

The TEA plans to release statewide scores from the new tests, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, this week or next. Scattered reports suggest that students struggled, even with the lower passing standards.

Ninth-graders who took the exams in spring 2012 must answer between 37 percent and 65 percent of the questions correctly to pass, depending on the subject. By 2016, freshmen will need to correctly answer 60 percent to 70 percent to pass most of the exams.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said districts should have reports this year that show how students would have done had the higher standards been in place, so the information can be shared with the public.

I guess I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s normal to phase things like this in, the only difference here is the four year timeline instead of a two year timeline. Based on what Ratcliffe says, the schools should know exactly where they stand even if their rating starts out higher than where it would have been. You can see the TEA’s STAAR Resources page for all the relevant information. The main concern that I have heard about the STAAR tests, beyond the usual aversion to our increasingly standardized-test-centric school culture, is that it will exacerbate our already worrisome dropout problem. These tests are a big change, and we’re implementing them at the same time as we’ve slashed five billion dollars from public education. I am perfectly fine with taking it slowly to see if there are any negative effects before going all in on yet another high stakes test.

Revenues rise, but reality recognition doesn’t

Good news and bad news, because we can’t have one without the other.

The latest bit of positive fiscal news came Tuesday when the state comptroller released numbers showing that business tax collections in Texas had exceeded projections.

Comptroller Susan Combs had estimated that the franchise tax paid by businesses would bring in about $4 billion in the first year of the 2012-13 budget. The $4.3 billion collected in May has already beaten that mark, and more payments will trickle in come August.

Sales tax collections, the most important source of state revenue, have also been coming in well above projections for the budget year, which began in September, and could produce billions in unanticipated revenue.

But state agencies, in the first step toward writing the 2014-15 state budget, were instructed Monday to submit budget proposals that do not exceed what they are getting in the current two-year budget.

They must also provide plans for how to implement a 10 percent reduction during 2014-15, if necessary.

[…]

“We are getting so far and far from reality that it really endangers our future economic growth,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for low- and middle-income Texans.

State leaders have created a “new normal” as a starting point, particularly in education, and “that is a terrible place to start off on, especially when they have the money to undo the cuts,” DeLuna Castro said.

That presumes they want to, which they don’t. They will have to be made to do so, or they will have to be gotten out of the way in favor of others who want to do so. Easier said than done, of course, but there it is. And while Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Joe Straus are busy crowing about how their draconian policies led to these revenue increases, Burka provides a dash of reality.

Overall, tax collections have been robust, up 12.56%, year to date, over 2011 levels. Sales taxes are up 11.71%. Oil severance taxes are up 42.6%. Natural gas severance taxes are up 44.3%.

Perry, Dewhurst, and Straus can claim credit for whatever they want, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have anything to do with putting oil and gas in the ground. EoW has more, and a statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman is here.

Today is budget day

The Chron has some questions about the Mayor’s proposed budget. I think the last question is the key one.

What happens if the $34 million in additional property tax and $32 million in new sales taxes forecast by the city do not materialize?

The city bases its property tax forecasts on data from the Harris County Appraisal District, which gives it a bottom line figure on what local property is worth. Sales tax numbers are based on a model that considers population, income, prices and sales. So these aren’t shots in the dark. They are predictions. If collections go south, presumably, the city could draw down its reserve fund without going below a level that would affect the city’s bond rating. However, the city is already tapping it for $30 million in this proposed budget, so it’s not an unlimited backstop.

I think if there’s going to be serious pushback on the budget, this is where it will be. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the city should resist the urge to tap into its reserves, even for a long-term money saver like the sobering center, as a hedge against the revenue projection being too optimistic and/or to replenish what has been drawn down in recent years. Doing that will almost certainly mean that some cuts will be required this year, and I’m going to guess that Mayor Parker would prefer to avoid that if at all possible. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but I’ll be surprised if this isn’t a big part of the dynamic.

It sure would be nice if The Lege would do something about the drought

Don’t count on it, though.

Most of Texas has emerged from its driest year on record, but the turn in weather likely will dampen legislative interest in the state’s water supply.

Water planners, policy experts and scientists said Monday at the Texas Water Summit that they do not expect lawmakers to address increasing water demands when they convene in January because the most populated areas no longer are in severe drought.

[…]

In 2011 alone, the state lost 100 cubic kilometers of water, or 70 Lake Travises, because of evaporation, said David Maidment, director of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

That, however, was not dry enough for lawmakers to find a way to fund water development beyond asking voters for authority to issue debt through bonds. The state’s water plan calls for a $3 billion investment in more reservoirs, desalination plants and pipelines, among other projects, to avoid shortages during the next 50 years.

“The challenge is to convince ratepayers and politicians that it is worth the cost,” said Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for water science and conservation at the Texas Water Development Board. “A lot of Texans take it for granted that water comes out of the faucet.”

Here’s a reminder about the state’s long term water plan. The story says that per capita water capacity peaked in the 1970s after several reservoirs were built and have declined since then. A multi-year drought like the one we had in the 1950s that spurred the construction of those new reservoirs, would be devastating. The fact that we’ve had a good amount of rain so far this year doesn’t mean we’re out of danger for that. There was a bill to deal with this in the Lege last year, but it involved imposing a fee to raise the money for the capital projects, and that never went anywhere. If the drought has mostly eased by next year, it seems unlikely that there will be any sense of urgency on this; certainly, with Rick Perry pushing budget suicide pact, it’s hard to see where the leadership to undertake something like this will come from. If drought conditions have worsened by then…boy, I don’t even want to think about that. The TM Daily Post has more.

Two more ways to divert money from public schools

Number One: Taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

When the Georgia legislature passed a private school scholarship program in 2008, lawmakers promoted it as a way to give poor children the same education choices as the wealthy.

The program would be supported by donations to nonprofit scholarship groups, and Georgians who contributed would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits, up to $2,500 a couple. The intent was that money otherwise due to the Georgia treasury — about $50 million a year — would be used instead to help needy students escape struggling public schools.

That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.

“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”

A handout circulated at the meeting instructed families to donate, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, many of whom were already attending the school.

“If a student has friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax, all of those people can make a donation to that child’s school,” added an official with a scholarship group working with the school.

The exchange at Gwinnett Christian Academy, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, is just one example of how scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.

Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.

While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.

If this sounds a lot like vouchers to you, you’re right. It’s vouchers in a different package, done in a clever way to work around those pesky church-state obstacles. I haven’t seen this particular variant rear its head in Texas yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

That leads to Item Number Two: Virtual schools, which are operating here in Texas.

report released Tuesday by the liberal groupProgress Texas is adding another layer to the controversy over virtual schools, claiming that despite their popularity, the programs have failed Texas students and are run by businesses seeking profit.

“It’s a $24 billion industry with zero accountability,” Progress Texas executive director Matt Glazer said in a statement. “Virtual schools provide unregulated financial windfalls to a few insiders by shortchanging our children’s education.”

The Progress Texas findings come in response to a March report by  the conservative Austin think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supported virtual schools. The TPPF report claimed that virtual schools save money and can reduce drop-out rates because students who must drop out to work can take classes online whenever they have time. It said that virtual schools can also help students with special needs like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities.

In 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, made up of businesses and nearly 2,000 legislators, created a bill that supported online learning in classrooms and virtual schools. The measure initiated a wave of virtual schools across the country. In 2007, Texas approved Senate Bill 1788, similar to the ALEC model, which created a state-operated virtual school network and supported integrating online learning in Texas classrooms. Tax dollars help fund virtual schools, but businesses run them.

One of the only full-time virtual schools in the state, Texas Virtual Academy, was ranked academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency in 2009 and 2011, yet enrollment in the academy increased 3,203 percent in those years – from 254 students to 8,136, according to the Progress Texas report.

The report is here, and Progress Texas’ press release is here. ALEC was also a factor in the scholarship scam. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are. Read ’em both and keep your eyes open during the next legislative session. There’s a lot more to what’s going on with schools than just the nasty budget cuts from last year.

The Mayor’s 2013 budget

What a difference a year – and better sales tax receipts and a better real estate market – makes. Mayor Parker has unveiled her budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, and it promises no service cuts, no layoffs, and no tax increase.

Mayor Annise Parker

Last year, the city issued 764 pink slips and cut services as budget officials grappled with a projected $100 million shortfall. Projected growth of city property and sales tax fuel an expected increase of $78 million in general fund income for the coming fiscal year.

Parker’s budget proposes spending all of the increase and tapping the city’s reserve account for $25 million. She’s proposing buying several new things with that money:

  • Offering single-stream recycling – the big rolling green barrels instead of the handheld bins – to at least 30,000 more Houston homes.
  • Increasing staffing hours on the city’s 311 help line to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The one-stop line for reporting potholes, getting city service schedules, checking up on your speeding tickets and accessing scores of other city services currently operates 14 hours a day.
  • Putting $2 million into the operation of a sobering center the city hopes to open later this year. Police will have the option of bringing people they detain for public intoxication to the center instead of jail.
  • $5 million for forensic services. It is to be used for improved crime lab operations by a new independent board of directors the mayor hopes to install or on reducing the backlog of untested rape kits.

The police department budget alone is proposed to grow, by $58 million. Much of the police spending increase is explained by built-in increases in pension contributions, health benefits, seniority raises and fuel costs.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release on the budget, which has more details. Looking at this reminds me why I believe that it may be harder for someone to defeat Parker in 2013 than it might have been to do in 2011. The expansion of curbside recycling, which seemed unlikely to happen previously because of the Mayor’s reluctance to seek a garbage collection fee, is the sort of thing that will make voters happy. The sobering center, which has now been approved by Council, will save the city money and will enable it to reach the Mayor’s goal of getting the city out of the jail business. The money for forensic services is a step towards another of the Mayor’s goals, which she addressed in her inaugural speech. Whether or not the city can work out the governance issues with Harris County, getting that done would be a huge accomplishment. My point is that by the time the 2013 campaign starts up, she’ll have a lot more positive things to point to, something that’s a lot harder to do when you’re cutting $100 million from your budget. It’s not a panacea and there are no guarantees, but I do think any potential challengers may find that the road next year is rockier than they thought it might be in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 elections. The environment just isn’t going to be the same.

There’s still a lot to do before we even start thinking about 2013 elections, and first up is Council’s turn to examine and attempt to modify the budget. I’m sure everyone will have their own priorities. And I can’t let this go without noting the following:

Councilwoman Helena Brown alone opposed city funding for the [sobering] center.

“The project can be better accomplished by the private sector,” she said. She also emphasized her opposition to excessive spending and said the sobering center is “like a slow cancer that will contribute to the death of the city.”

And so she voted against an action that will save the city a couple million bucks a year because she opposes excessive spending. We need a new word, to denote when something passes unanimously except for CM Brown who voted against it for reasons only she can understand. Leave your suggestions in the comments. Stace has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story on the sobering center.

Another story about parents and education cuts

I really want to believe that there’s an uprising in the works and that the Lege could be a very different place for the better next year, but I’m reserving judgment on that for now.

Deep cuts in school funding approved by the Texas Legislature last summer could energize angry parents in a way similar to how the tea party movement mobilized conservatives in 2010. In the 150-seat state House alone, at least 29 candidates who are current or former school board members, or have other education experience, are challenging incumbents or vying for open seats in the May 29 primary.

Seventeen are Republicans and 12 are Democrats — and most are pledging to fix Texas’ broken school finance system and dial back the importance of high-stakes standardized tests.

A possible education backlash has [Rep. Marva] Beck nervous and another incumbent, West Texas Republican Rep. Sid Miller, facing a primary challenge that could be tougher than expected. Among several candidates vying for an open seat in suburban Dallas, meanwhile, is Bennett Ratliff, scion of a well-known Texas political family who says his education background sets him apart from a crowded field.

“Funding is not the whole issue, but you can’t continue to cut, and continue to cut, and continue to cut. At some point it does become about funding,” said Ratliff, a Republican and nine-year veteran of the school board in Coppell, northwest of Dallas. His father is former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and his brother Thomas is on the state Board of Education.

Beck and Miller, who was the author of the sonogram bill, are both awful and richly deserve to be ousted, but I’m not prepared to believe that their opponents will be measurably better, even if we just confine the discussion to the issue of public education. At this point, anything short of a commitment to restore the $5.4 billion in funding that was cut from education plus a commitment to work on closing the structural budget hole caused by the 2006 tax swap leaves too much room for the same old same old. I’m glad there’s something out there other than the nihilists that can put some fear into these guys, I just want to see it translate into better votes.

Carolyn Boyle heads the Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which in 2006 supported at least 10 candidates who unseated incumbents or captured open seats. This year, the PAC has conducted more than 25 interviews with pro-education candidates and will endorse an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

“This could be a game-changer election,” Boyle said. “There are so many candidates with rich education experience.”

Republicans hold a 102-seat super majority in the Texas House and while they will likely lose as many as 10 seats due to redistricting, they will maintain control. But next year they take a different tack.

As I said before, being an educator is nice but hardly sufficient. I love what ParentPAC does and I’ll be keeping a close eye on their endorsements this year – so far, I have received emails announcing their endorsements of Republicans Trent Ashby in HD57, Ed Thompson in HD29, Roger Fisher in HD92, Susan Todd in HD97, Amber Fulton in HD106, Jason Villalba in HD114, Bennett Ratliff in HD115, and Whet Smith in HD138; they have also endorsed Democrat Justin Rodriguez in HD125 – but I have not forgotten that all of their previous Republican endorsees marched off the cliff with the rest of their party last year. Not a one as far as I can tell argued against the cuts to education – hell, not a one as far as I can tell argued against the twice-as-big education cuts that were in the House budget. How do I know that once they’ve been elected they won’t take Rick Perry’s budget suicide pledge and give us more of what we got last time? I really really hope I’m being overwrought about this, because we’re not getting a Democratic majority any time soon and we need there to be at least a decent contingent of pro-education Republicans in Austin, but I’m not seeing what I want in the rhetoric just yet.

Republican Mike Jones is a former college instructor and member of the school board in Glen Rose, southwest of Fort Worth, who calls fully funding school districts a centerpiece of his campaign. He says it has raised the profile of his challenge of Miller — a one-time vocational teacher himself who voted in favor of the school cuts.

“It’s like the school district is a Chevy Suburban and it’s been driven by a superintendent … then the state comes and saddles them with a 40,000 pound trailer on the back end of it and starts blaming the Suburban or the principals or the teachers or the kids,” Jones said. “It’s not their fault it’s that trailer put on there. It’s the unfunded mandates and the testing.”

Jones and others have also seized on what they call the state’s over-reliance on standardized testing, which districts are forced to prepare their students for more rigorously than ever despite budgets cuts.

I’m glad to hear this and I agree with what Jones is saying, but it doesn’t take much political courage these days to be anti-standardized testing. I’m happy for these candidates to pursue a more balanced testing policy – as the parent of a rising third-grader, I’ll be delighted to have less to worry about on this score – but let’s not confuse that with a solution for the school finance problem. We may find some savings there, but it’ll be little more than couch cushion money. Dialing back the standardized tests is worth doing on its own merits, but it’s a separate issue from the main event of education funding.

I got those can’t get my car registration done on time blues

I have three things to say about this.

The Harris County tax office is paying 32 clerks overtime on weekends to eliminate a large backlog of unprocessed auto registrations, a potentially serious problem that could force some motorists to drive with expired decals.

Drivers can receive costly tickets and civil penalties for lapsed vehicle registration and cannot use the backlog as an excuse, tax officials stressed.

Since the overtime crew began last weekend, processing the mail-in renewals is down to 12 working days, said Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Don Sumners. Last week, a clerk answering the helpline said mail-in renewals were taking four weeks because of the backlog in April.

That means potentially thousands of motorists who mailed in their registrations – those expiring at the end of April – did not get them by May 1. The tax office was advising residents who wanted to drive their car legally to come to a tax office or one of 200 local stores where registrations are sold and purchase a second sticker, then apply for a refund when the renewal sticker arrives in the mail.

Sumners blamed the backlog on last year’s countywide budget cuts, which caused a 9 percent personnel reduction. He also cited a boost in local car sales. Auto registrations in 2011 were up 100,000 from 3.3 million in 2010, while new title transactions grew from 845,000 to 880,000.

“We’re operating under a reduced staffing level, as is all of the county,” said Sumners, adding the auto registration section is down 22 employees. “The problem that we have is the volume keeps growing even though the economy’s not good.”

[…]

Paul Bettencourt, the previous tax collector, expressed surprise at the length of the backlog and said that in the past, staff were cross-trained and assigned to busy areas as the work flow demanded.

“They need to shift people to work the backlog,” Bettencourt said. “You put all hands on deck and transfer people in from other departments.”

1. Finally, a story that appropriately quotes Private Citizen Paul Bettencourt! I knew if we hung around long enough this would happen eventually. I feel like I should commission a plaque to commemorate the occasion.

2. It sure is hilarious to see Mister “I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool” whine about the negative effects of cutting government spending, isn’t it? I’m told the answer is to do more with less, Don. Good luck with that.

On a more serious note, I understand that cutbacks do affect us all, that the distribution of auto registrations is not uniform over the year, that there were more cars bought this year than was expected, and that all this is happening right as voter registration cards finally got sent out. I also understand that processing registrations is one of the main functions of this office. Was there really no contingency for dealing with an unexpected increase in the load level?

3. When you blame budget cuts for a problem like this, you’re really blaming Commissioners Court for not adequately funding the office. As such, the absence of a quote from a commissioner is notable. If this had been a story about the Sheriff’s Office dropping the ball on a basic operational matter, I feel confident we’d have been treated to the wit and wisdom of Steve Radack. I wonder what he thinks about this situation and Sumners’ response to it. Campos has more.

No uniform start times for HISD next fall

This surprised me.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier on Thursday withdrew his proposal to change bus schedules and school hours next year after concerns about disruption to families and questions about the cost savings.

This is the second consecutive year Grier has failed to gain support for a standardized bus plan, yet he said he expects to put it on the table again next year as the Houston Independent School District faces a projected $51 million shortfall.

“Before you start raising people’s property taxes, you’re going to be looking at every option you have to save money,” Grier said. “We’re not trying to find ways to make people angry.”

Yet anger, or at least annoyance, has surfaced from parents with varied concerns — starting school too early for children to be alert, starting classes too late for working families, releasing students too late for after-school jobs or extracurricular activities.

I’m willing to stipulate that the current open-whenever-you-want setup is inefficient, and that the goal of increasing instruction time is laudable. I just don’t think that a one-time-fits-all approach is necessarily the right answer, either. Elementary schools should have some flexibility to choose a time that best suits their communities, or at least represents the least disruption for them if they have to change it. Why not allow an 8 AM start option to go along with a 7:30 and an 8:30, and let the schools choose which time they want instead of having it foisted on them by the district? I’m willing to bet those two changes would have cut down on the griping considerably while stiff generating cost savings. I hope HISD is receptive to that idea when they try this again next year.

Rick Perry’s vision for women’s health in Texas

More talk than action, and the numbers don’t add up. Are we surprised?

We can fund it with corndog sales

Texas health officials have delivered a proposal to the federal government that outlines their plans for transitioning the Women’s Health Program from a program primarily supported by federal funds to one that runs on state money. They want the federal government to keep paying for the Medicaid program through October “to ensure that current and future clients of the program have access to family planning services without disruption.”

[…]

The transition packet outlines the state’s plan to find new providers to participate in the program. As it stands, about half of the clients in the Women’s Health Program go to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, and the network receives about 40 percent of the program’s reimbursement funding. Planned Parenthood has filed a federal lawsuit against the state, arguing they are being denied their constitutional right to participate in the program.

Under Perry’s directive, health officials say they are executing plans to operate the program without Medicaid funding and will rename it the Texas Women’s Health Program. They plan to house the program under the Department of State Health Services and to “transition the Medicaid program to a program funded exclusively with state general revenue.” Officials have not confirmed where that funding will come from, or whether it will be diverted from other sources. In response to an inquiry from Democratic lawmakers last month, HHSC Commissioner Tom Suehs hinted the state could free up state dollars to fund the Women’s Health Program by seeking federal block grants for other programs.

In addition, the state plans to expand the program’s scope of reimbursements services to include paying for treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. The Medicaid Women’s Health Program was intended to provide early detection and diagnoses; women were referred to other medical providers for treatment of their health issues.

Though family-planning providers have expressed confusion and uncertainty over their futures, HHSC officials maintain there will be a “seamless transition for clients and providers.”

The state’s proposal outlines plans to conduct a campaign that will include more robust referral services and outreach via radio, mailings and brochures. The commission plans to expand its call center’s scope of services to help clients find providers.

Before you get impressed at the idea of Texas expanding services and outreach, remember two things. First, they have to find enough non-Planned Parenthood providers to make up for all of the clinics that will no longer be able to receive this funding. This Chron story gives the reasons why, but for the most part it’s that it’s not a moneymaker for providers. Second, just this Monday at his no-tax-a-palooza Rick Perry was calling Medicaid a “ticking time bomb” that threatens to wreck his state’s budget. You may recall that at Perry’s direction, the last Legislature underfunded Medicaid by nearly $5 billion, a hot check the next Lege will have to use the Rainy Day Fund to cover. Perry’s bright idea to solve the Medicaid crisis he talks about is by implementing block grants. Block grants work to control costs because once they run out, that’s it. Whatever your need is, this is how much you have to spend. You get to control costs because you get to decree what they are. Can anyone envision a scenario where that is consistent with expanding a health care program that must first work to bring in a passel of new providers to replace a well-established nonprofit? Me neither. Either this state-funded alternative to the WHP will be so penurious that no one will want to participate, or its costs will grow at least as rapidly as Medicaid, thus bringing that ticking time bomb closer to kaboom. Well done, Governor! This whole thing continues to be vaporware, and getting an extension on the deadline to have its ducks in a row is unlikely to help the state of Texas figure it out.

Perry’s budget suicide pact

I have four things to say about this.

What Rick Perry wants to do with the extra revenue

Borrowing a tactic from national anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, Gov. Rick Perry used a tax day appearance in Houston to propose a no-new-taxes pledge for Texas lawmakers, a pledge that would, in his words, “lead to a stronger Texas.”

[…]

Perry laid out a five-part Texas Budget Compact that, in addition to no new taxes, called for truth in budgeting, a constitutional limit on spending tied to the growth of population and inflation, preserving a strong Rainy Day Fund and cutting unnecessary and duplicative programs and agencies.

He also urged the continuation of the small-business exemption to the Texas franchise tax.

“Each and every member of the legislature or anyone aspiring to become a member of the legislature should sign on,” Perry said.

[…]

Jeff Moseley, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Houston Partnership, endorsed Perry’s compact.

“The pro-business policies and accountable and responsible budgets adopted by Gov. Perry and legislators have given Texas an enormous advantage when competing for high-paying jobs, and helped Houston prosper to become the top region for corporate relocations in the U.S. in two of the last five years, including in 2011, and these principles will keep us on that path,” he said.

1. Everybody recognizes this as a gimmick, right? I mean, there’s nothing new here, just the same old rhetoric wrapped up in a slightly different package. Beyond that, there’s no purpose to any of this. I mean, what exactly is the point of pouring money into the Rainy Day Fund? The original purpose of this fund was to provide economic stability in times of budgetary crisis, but apparently we’re not doing that any more. The Rainy Day Fund isn’t a trust that generates revenue for something; unless the Lege explicitly authorizes it, whatever goes into the Rainy Day Fund stays there. What’s the point of a fund that never gets used? We may as well convert it to cash and stuff it under a mattress. For that matter, we may as well rake it into a pile and make a bonfire. That’s more than we’re getting out of it now.

2. Putting it another way, politicians love to say that taxes are the people’s money. Well, sometimes the people want to spend their money on things they need. You know, like schools and roads and a statewide water plan, that sort of thing. How many schools and roads and reservoirs do you think we’d have now if we’d only spent money based on some arbitrary inflation-plus-population-growth formula over the past hundred years?

3. By signing on to this frivolity, the Greater Houston Partnership has officially declared that it is no longer a voice for reasoned public policy. From this point forward, whenever you see them advocate for something like education reform, you can safely ignore them because they’re not serious about it. Which is a shame, because we need more organizations that take these matters seriously, but that’s the path they’ve chosen.

4. As you might expect, Democrats have been loudly critical of this. My inbox is filled with statements from various legislators – Reps. Jessica Farrar, Garnet Coleman, Mike Villarreal, Sens. Jose Rodriguez, and Kirk Watson, for example. Which is good, and what they should be doing, but let’s be honest: Barring an even greater wave than what we saw in 2010, the fate of this piece of fluff is up to the Republicans. There are a number of incumbent Republicans who have carried a pro-public education banner in the past, and a number of Republican challengers who are running as the pro-public education alternative. As with the GHP, if any of these candidates sign on to this pledge, they are declaring that they don’t really mean it. (They can follow this example if they need to.) I sincerely hope that endorsing organizations whose missions are pro-public education realize that, or else we’re going to be right back where we were after the 2013 legislative session.

State of the City 2012

It’s getting better.

Saying Houston has “rounded the corner” on the recession, Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday credited City Hall with providing incentives that businesses used to create or retain 13,000 jobs and invest $1 billion locally during the tough economic times of her first term.

Parker also told the sold-out crowd for her third annual “State of the City” address to expect a bond election on the November ballot.

Afterward, the mayor would not say how much borrowing she will ask voters to approve or offer many specifics about what it would be spent on, other than to mention a plan to “string the beads” of the city’s park system by connecting them with bike paths and green corridors.

The last city bond election was in 2006, when voters authorized $625 million in borrowing to finance work on streets, drainage, parks, libraries and public safety. She said this year’s election will not require a tax increase.

Parker also announced that she expects this year’s budget to be flat, as opposed to the $100 million shortfall she and City Council had to close last year. She also said she will not have to lay off or furlough any workers this year. She issued pink slips to 764 employees last year.

The mayor contrasted this year’s optimism with her previous addresses in which she said she “tried to deliver bad news in the best way possible.”

The full text as prepared for the State of the City 2012 is here, and you can compare it to the addresses of 2010 and 2011. I did not see a specific mention of the budget being flat, but Mayor Parker did say that unlike last year, “the budget I will send to City Council next month will not include cuts in swimming pool and library hours, health care services, furloughs or layoffs”, so that’s good news. The main thing beside that from the speech that caught my eye was this:

Infrastructure
We are transforming the way we do long-term planning for infrastructure improvements – planning ten years down the road instead of just five. For the first time we have a comprehensive analysis of the condition of every mile of city streets and a watershed level drainage assessment. We have a plan to address them in a systematic, worst-comes-first, pay-as-you-go manner.

The work has already started. This year the City will start almost 30 new projects for street and drainage improvements with a value of approximately $250 million. A major storm sewer and road project on Aldine Westfield from Tidwell to West Little York and drainage improvements in the Brays Village area are examples of the projects already underway.

Voter approval of Rebuild Houston was a visionary step that will reap benefits for our neighborhoods for years to come. It was the right thing, the prudent thing, a faith-in-our-future thing to do, and I defy you to name another city in America that would have made this bold step in the midst of a recession.

After all the false starts and missteps with the determination of what the drainage fee would be, the best way to turn that around is to show results. This is the first public mention I can recall of active Rebuild Houston projects. I hope to hear more this year. People like seeing roads get fixed. It’s tangible, and it’s the sort of thing that just about everybody agrees should be done. Let’s not let this go under the radar. Stace and Nancy Sims have more.

The Sheriff’s office is hiring

Good.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia says by balancing his department’s $392 million budget, he’ll be able to transfer 100 deputies from jail duties to crime-fighting jobs in the next year while hiring hundreds of new civilian jailers.

During a news conference Monday, Garcia said when he took office in January 2009 the department was spending $56 million more a year than approved by Commissioners Court. When the budget year ended Feb. 29, the department spent $2.8 million less than was budgeted.

“The budget was out of control,” Garcia said. “I brought in executives from the business world and told them it was irresponsible to allow this to happen. I challenged them to fix it, and they did.”

Garcia said the savings will allow him to begin filling 240 vacancies in the jail with civilian jailers. He said in the next 12 months they will transfer 100 deputies ­- 60 to patrol and 40 to investigations and court protection – now assigned to jail duties.

[…]

A countywide hiring freeze that began in October 2009 – now lifted – was among factors forcing the county to pay large amounts of mandatory overtime to legally staff the jails. Garcia said jail overtime payments, which reached a high of $40 million a year and totalled $20 million last year, can be cut to $15 million this fiscal year, which began in March 1.

“We’ve already brought overspending under control, now we’re working to put more boots on the ground to keep Harris County safe and to continue to bring crime under control,” Garcia said.

Obviously, the reduction in the inmate population, which recently enabled the county to cease outsourcing them to other jails, has had a big effect on the Sheriff’s ability to balance his budget. There are a number of factors responsible for that – DA Pat Lykos gets some credit, the overall decline in the crime rate gets some – but Sheriff Garcia has implemented some policies to abet that. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of progress being made, which Garcia gets to trumpet and Steve Radack gets to whine about. Gotta love that. A copy of the Sheriff’s press release is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”

[…]

When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.

Early Childhood Intervention

When we say that the budget was balanced on the backs of children and the poor, this is the sort of thing we’re talking about.

Lawmakers last year slashed funding for the statewide [Early Childhood Intervention] program by 14 percent. The reductions come at a time when demand for services is increasing and children’s needs are growing more complex.

Many of the 56 agencies that contract with the state to provide early services are feeling the effects of the changes, which became effective Sept. 1.

The number of clients in MHMR’s program, for example, has dropped from 1,481 in September 2011 to 1,280 in January. At Easter Seals of Greater Houston, enrollment went from 626 in November 2010 to 465 last November.

“It’s a frustrating time,” said Dena Day, ECI program director at Easter Seals. “It’s frustrating when they (staff) go to homes and see babies they know need services and won’t get them.”

ECI targets children ages 6 weeks to 3 years who show signs of developmental delays or have a medical diagnosis, such as autism or Down syndrome. The children receive services in their home, and parents are taught skills to assist with their child’s development.

This is some of the best money we can spend. It has a lifelong effect, and the investment is paid back many times over. Children who get this kind of help are more likely to stay in school – there’s another factor in the graduation rate for you – and thus have better outcomes in life. The jails are full of people with learning disabilities and other problems that could have been addressed when they were little but weren’t. Doing less now to help children who need it will cost us a lot more later. And everyone who voted for that in the Lege – that is to say, every Republican in the Lege – will own that.

Texas high school graduation rate improved over the last decade

According to one report, anyway.

Texas’ graduation rate for high school students increased 1.9 percent since 2002 to just below the national average, according to a new report by a coalition of education groups.

The report found that high school graduation rates rose from 73.5 percent to 75.4 percent between 2002 and 2009, and pulled almost even with the 2009 average nationwide of 75.5 percent.

The national graduation rate, though, increased faster than the state’s, climbing 2.9 percent over the same 7-year period. The biggest gains nationwide came in Tennessee, where rates jumped 17.8 percent, and New York, which increased 13 percent, between 2002 and 2009.

[…]

The report will be presented Monday in Washington at the Building a Grad Nation summit sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance, a children’s advocacy organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was authored by John Bridgeland and Mary Bruce of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm focused on social change, and Robert Balfanz and Joanna Fox of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The authors used the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate, which tracks first-year students through all their years in high school, since they said it was the best and most-recent data available nationwide.

You can find the report here. It actually says that the nation’s graduation rate rose by 3.5 percentage points, from 72.0 to 75.5, during the 2002 to 2009 time period. Not sure why the news report got that wrong. Given that, despite the positive spin in the opening paragraphs, this actually means that Texas’ graduation rate fell below the national average during this time.

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t improvement:

As recently as 2010, the Texas Legislative Budget Board reported the state’s overall graduation rate ranked a dismal 43rd nationwide. Last month, though, the Texas Education Agency announced that a National Governor’s Association report put Texas’ graduation rate for the class of 2010 at 84.3 percent, or 10th highest among the 34 participating states who track student performance over their entire high school career. Yet another report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the state’s 2008-2009 graduation rate was 75.4 percent, or 28th in the nation — findings similar to those in Monday’s report.

“There’s lots of different ways to look at it and everybody’s got a different intention,” said Frances Deviney, Texas Kids Count director at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. But she said other measures, including drop-out rates, have fallen in recent years, providing additional evidence more high schoolers statewide are graduating.

“It is getting better,” Deviney said, though she worries that cuts in state funding for programs designed to keep students from leaving school early could eventually undo those gains.

What happens going forward is the big question. Either the massive cuts to public education funding have a negative effect on the graduation rate or they don’t. I should note that even without the cuts, there are a lot of people who are concerned that the new STAAR test and the end of course exams now mandated for high school students would contribute to a higher dropout rate regardless. We know how things were going before 2011. It will be a few years before we really know what happened after 2011. What will we do if we find we’ve reversed course?

Just keep cutting till we tell you to stop

I have two things to say about this.

Now more than ever

Looking to get an early start on shaping budget discussions for the 2013 legislative session, the Texans for a Conservative Budget Coalition recommended Tuesday that lawmakers plan to reduce welfare spending, increase local control for public school districts, and consolidate or eliminate general revenue spending for several state agencies.

“The roadmap is very clear,” said Julie Drenner of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank and member of the coalition. “Government must prioritize spending on essential government functions only. When lawmakers look at questions, they must ask themselves only two questions: Do I reform it, or do I eliminate it?”

The coalition’s other members include the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and the Texas chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

[…]

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, said the coalition’s proposals would damage the state.

“This proposed policy-making agenda is a pending disaster in this state for women and men of all ages, including college students, minimum-wage workers, public schools, educators, and public servants,” she said. “We cannot expect to undercut essential state programs … and still expect Texas to thrive in the future.”

The coalition began during the 2011 legislative session and is based on the tenets that the Legislature should not raise taxes, increase spending or balance the budget using the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, or “Rainy Day” Fund.

It has reconvened now to address issues that are likely to develop as lawmakers create the 2014-15 state budget.

“The message we want to send with the revival of this coalition is, ‘That wasn’t the end,’” Joshua Treviño, the TPPF’s spokesman, said of the budget reductions in the 2011 session. “That was just a good start.”

1. This is basically the Paul Ryan Budget Plan for Texas. Protect a few things that the rich and powerful like, ensure those folks have to pay as little as possible, and cut the hell out of everything else. It has nothing to do with “priorities” or needs or anything else except lowering taxes for those who least like paying them. I guarantee you, every spending cut these guys would propose will be accompanied by an even larger revenue cut that will ensure the need for more of the same in the next budget. The goal is to exempt themselves from paying for anything.

2. Every Democrat needs to be talking about this. If it’s an election issue nationally (and it is), it’s an election issue here as well. According to Robert Miller, House Speaker Joe Straus is out there talking about “his priorities for the upcoming session as education, transportation infrastructure, water and positioning Texas for continued economic success while meeting the needs of a growing state” and that “Texas is a center-right state, it is not a far right state”. That’s not compatible with what these guys are saying, so either Straus doesn’t mean it, or these guys will attack him as a threat to their vision. Oh, wait, they already are. Straus may hold them off for now, but they’re not going to go away, and they are the direction the GOP is going. This is what Democrats need to be talking about. If the Republicans get into a high profile intra-party fight about it, so much the better, but it’s on us to make the case that they’re doing it wrong and we’re the better choice. A statement from Rep. Mike Villarreal that came out after this story appeared is beneath the fold, and EoW has more.

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More cuts, fewer teachers

We knew this was what had happened, and now we have the numbers.

New data from the Texas Education Agency illustrate what school officials have decried for months: Their staffs are stretched thin following the unprecedented state budget cuts that took effect this school year.

Statewide, districts eliminated roughly 25,000 positions, including more than 10,700 teaching jobs. Overall, districts cut their workforce by 4 percent – through attrition and, in some cases, layoffs – since last school year.

“I’m hoping the Legislature will see there’s hard data showing that, yes, districts are making some good decisions in terms of efficiencies,” said Bob Sanborn, president of Children at Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit that analyzed the state figures. “But the Legislature should be very worried that in the haste to be more efficient we are cutting our future out from under us.”

Remember that the cuts from the 2011 budget are somewhat backloaded for the second year of the biennium, so there’s more of this to come. This is why HISD is grappling with its budget again, and is considering a property tax rate hike as one option to close another multi-million dollar shortfall. Don’t like that idea, or the other things they’re considering? Blame Rick Perry and the Legislature for putting them in that position. And yes, it could have been so much worse.

Texas lawmakers, agreeing with Gov. Rick Perry’s no-tax-hike pledge to balance the budget, cut per-student funding to public education by $5.4 billion over the biennium, which includes the current school year and next year.

“The cuts weren’t as bad as they could have been,” said Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the House Education Committee.

One House proposal would have reduced school funding by $10 billion, costing an estimated 100,000 jobs.

The budget the House passed would have $7.8 billion from public education. Every House Republican voted for that budget. The economic news in Texas is getting better, but we’re going to keep getting more of the same from the Lege for as long as we have the same Lege.

Solving car crimes with DNA

This story is basically a commercial for Harris County’s crime lab – Did you know that since they have no testing backlog on personal crime cases they can focus on property crimes? It’s true! – but it’s still pretty cool.

But do they look this good doing it?

For the last few years, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences aided area law enforcement in solving property crimes by testing evidence for “touch DNA” – microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off when an object, like a car steering wheel, is touched. The technology can be used even if the suspect is wearing gloves because there’s a high likelihood the skin cells were transferred onto the gloves when the perpetrator was slipping them on.

“It was a pretty incredible tool for us to have to identify some of these suspects,” said Sgt. Terry Wilson, of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office auto-theft division. “These (burglary of a motor vehicle) cases are some of the hardest cases for law enforcement to solve because there’s almost never any eyewitnesses. There’s very rarely any good evidence left behind, fingerprint evidence and things like that, and once we started recovering some of this DNA, it was pretty exciting there for a while.”

DNA testing is a practice typically reserved for personal crimes like rape and murder. However, the forensic institute, formerly the medical examiner’s office, has also been performing DNA testing on evidence – containing either skin cells or bodily fluids, like blood and saliva – from property crime cases such as car break-ins and home invasions.

Since January 2008, the forensic institute made more than 3,000 matches to crime suspects in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System database, or CODIS, a national database used to store DNA profiles. Of those, about 75 percent were for property crime cases.

I believe they call those “epithelials” on the “CSI” shows. This is a great use of the technology, especially since property crimes generally have a low solve rate. But – you knew there would be a but, right? – there’s one small problem:

[C]ounty budget cuts have suspended testing in the auto theft division for now.

Oops. Well, maybe with the budget picture improving for Harris County, they’ll be able to get this back on track soon. Try not to have your car broken into until then, OK?

It’s not so easy being green

For cities, anyway, at this time.

Easy for him, at least

College Station, the maroon-hued home of Texas A&M University, is finding it is not easy being green.

Four years after launching an ambitious local effort to fight global warming, city leaders say their high hopes have fallen to hard economic realities, forcing them to abandon their green-at-all-costs approach.

The College Station City Council decided last month that its green efforts should be “fiscally responsible” and create “a real and tangible return of investment to the city.” The city also no longer will strive be a leader in energy efficiency and the reduction of emissions from carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

“Enthusiasm remains, but it is tempered by the current economy,” said Bob Cowell, the city’s planning director.

So, now the city, for example, will look at the cost of maintenance and the lifespan of a hybrid vehicle before buying one. If the objective is a greener fleet, the city may look at reducing its size, instead of adding another hybrid, Cowell said.

“We are being a little more deliberate,” he said.

The problem is that these things have sizable up front costs, which are recouped over some number of years in lower energy expenses. Cities and states are still feeling large effects of the economic collapse from 2008, so investments of all kinds tend to get deferred, no matter how good the payoff is. The federal government helped once with the stimulus, and it would make a lot of sense to do it again what with interest rates being as low as they are and the need being as strong as ever, but suffice it to say that ain’t gonna happen any time soon. So here we are, and when cities are able to start doing this again it’ll wind up costing them more, both from the lost time and from higher interest payments.

If you can’t specify it, it’s not wasteful

After reading this op-ed by Todd Clark, the chair of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (that is, their pension fund), I have decided to adopt two rules for all future discussion of the city’s budget.

Let me speak briefly about the city’s Long Range Financial Management Task Force. This advisory committee could have focused on some key city issues, but it did not. The No. 1 agenda for this task force was to attack city pensions. The topics that were presented were financial in nature but they were also a smoke screen to go after the public employees, and particularly the firefighters.

This task force spent most of its time focused on pensions, which are tightly regulated and professionally managed. Despite its name, the task force focused only on the short term. What is worse, the focus on pensions was devised to take the public’s eye off the perennial mismanagement problems inside city government, which are politically uncomfortable for the mayor. The three city pension funds account for only 9 percent of the entire city of Houston budget, according to the task force. The committee spent 91 percent of its time and attention on the pensions. It appears to me, however, that the committee should have spent all its times examining the entire budget for waste.

City employees are repeatedly asked to make sacrifices due to continued wasteful spending by the city. Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund will continue to protect the firefighters and their families against these attacks and any future attacks by this mayor, as the Houston firefighters will continue to serve the citizens of this great city by protecting them from harm.

Rule #1: If you claim there is wasteful spending, but then fail to say what spending in particular is wasteful, I’m not going to take you seriously. Crying “waste” is the easiest and laziest dodge in the book. If you’re not giving specifics, you’re not contributing.

Rule #2: If you don’t acknowledge that police, fire, and emergency services constitute two-thirds of the city’s operating budget, I’m not going to take you seriously. Here’s that budget-balancing tool again, which itemizes how much we spend on different items. Clark goes on at length about how pension payments represent only 9% of the budget, but never seems to note that any truly vigorous effort to cut city spending would focus on the amount that we dedicate to police, fire, and EMS. I mean, surely in a time of declining crime rates, there is a case to be made to reduce the size of the police force. But just go try to find a candidate for city office who supports such a position. It’s not hard to conclude that one reason we’re talking so much about pensions is because we’ve walled off so much of the rest of the budget from consideration.

Now to be clear, I agree with Clark that we’re talking too much about pensions, and I have said so repeatedly in this space. I think there are things we need to consider doing to ensure that the pension plans remain solvent and that the city’s burden remains manageable, but I want to see a much more holistic approach to the budget than what I’ve seen so far. I am also not advocating for cuts to police, fire, and EMS, I’m just pointing out that everybody, especially the self-proclaimed budget hawks, studiously ignores the fact that this is by far the fattest part of the budget. They all prefer to hide behind the “wasteful spending” sham rather than be honest about what it is we do spend our money on. Clark is advocating for protection of the firefighters’ pension fund, and as such is not required to provide a preferred alternative. That’s fine and dandy, but it doesn’t make him any more credible or courageous, or any less self-interested, than anyone else in this discussion.

Better budget news

For the city.

The city of Houston may have $21 million more in income in the coming fiscal year than it had planned on before Wednesday. That’s when it got the news that the Harris County Appraisal District projects that taxable values in the city — and by extension, the amount of taxes it collects on that property — will rise 4.54 percent in 2012.

The city had previously assumed a rise of only about half that much.

[…]

Also this week, the city got the news that sales tax receipts for the first seven months of FY 2012 (which runs from July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012) were up 10.66 percent from last year. If the city finishes the year up 10.5 percent, that would roughly double the increase the city had budgeted for. The bottom line would be about $26 million more than the city planned for in its $1.8 billion general fund budget.

Nice. Not enough to wipe out all concerns, but an unexpected extra $50 million or so would go a long way towards making this budget a lot easier to deal with than the last two or three. There’s good news for Harris County, too.

Harris County Commissioners Court is poised to adopt a $1.34 billion budget on Tuesday that envisions no tax increase this fall and, unlike last year, would not require layoffs.

[…]

“We are fortunate that our revenues are stable at this time,” said Chief Budget Officer Bill Jackson. “They’re not decreasing, and it looks like we’re charting our way forward on a slow recovery. Our departments were able to come in at or below budget this year. That helped our financial situation.”

The Sheriff’s Office, at 32 percent of the general fund, is by far the county’s largest department; the next-largest consumes just 5 percent, Jackson said. For only the second time in eight years, the Sheriff’s Office is projected to have finished the fiscal year within its $392.5 million budget.

Part of that success was due to the falling jail population, Jackson and Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said. The jail population stood at 8,668 Friday, down from a peak of 12,381 in September 2008.

Overtime bills in the short-staffed lockup also have fallen from $33 million two years ago to $21 million last fiscal year; the sheriff has budgeted $15 million for overtime this fiscal year.

This year’s budget may actually allow the Sheriff to hire a few people, which as we know will save some money by not having to authorize so much overtime. Good news all around.

I was amused by this:

County Judge Ed Emmett said he is glad last year’s “storm” of cutbacks seems to have passed. He praised Jackson’s proposal to allow departments that come in under budget to roll over part of their savings, allowing them to make purchases when it makes sense rather than to beat the artificial deadline of the fiscal year’s end.

Yes, well, the entire requirement that revenues and expenditures must be made to match in time for that artificial deadline is silly and makes budget-writing entities do nonsensical things in the name of “balancing” the budget. But hey, the first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one, right?

Making a profit coming and going

I don’t comment very often on the business world, but I thought this Loren Steffy column from Friday about the El Paso/Kinder Morgan deal was noteworthy.

Protesting the El Paso shareholders meeting

Chancellor Leo Strine questioned the role of Goldman Sachs, which advised both El Paso and Kinder Morgan in various aspects of the $21.1 billion deal. Goldman handled Kinder Morgan’s public offering last year, owns a 19 percent stake in the company and has two representatives on its board.

Last week, Strine ruled that the vote should go forward so shareholders can decide for themselves whether the price is fair. But he also decried the conduct of companies involved.

During the negotiations, Kinder Morgan, for example, lowered its offering price for El Paso in September, to $26.87 a share from $27.55, Strine wrote. That should have given El Paso’s board the chance to force Kinder Morgan into a public fight by putting El Paso in play and soliciting bids from other potential suitors. The deal was announced in October.

After all, if Kinder Morgan initially had been willing to pay more, it was a good bet that other companies might also.

Instead, El Paso’s chief executive, Douglas Foshee, and the company’s board accepted the lower price.

“Instead of telling Kinder where to put his drilling equipment, Foshee backed down,” Strine wrote in his ruling.

Yes, that’s the same Goldman Sachs that wrecked the economy in 2008, working and profiting from both sides of the deal. Why El Paso’s shareholders would tolerate this screw job, I couldn’t say. Why this kind of blatant conflict of interest isn’t illegal, I also couldn’t say. Nice work if you can get it, that much I can say.

Not that anyone should feel sorry for El Paso, of course. As a press release from Good Jobs Great Houston noted, “Over the last three years, El Paso Corp and General Electric made $14 billion and got a refund of $4.8 billion in federal subsidies and rebates (2008-2010)”. Even Mitt Romney paid more in taxes than that. They’re far from the only such examples. For plenty more, read this US PIRG/Citizens for Tax Justice report on the highly profitable investment Fortune 500 companies have made in lobbying, which has resulted in a very handsome return for the bottom lines. If you’re not talking about corporate tax reform – and I am perfectly happy to trade a lower base rate for closing the many egregious loopholes – you’re not serious about the country’s long term fiscal health.

Pediatric dental care

It’s more important than you might think.

While overall oral health care for adults and children has improved, tooth decay continues to be the most common chronic disease among children. It can have serious social and health consequences when untreated and, in rare cases, can be fatal.

“The children with the highest need are the poor,” said [Dr. Martee] Engel, a pediatric dentist for 20 years. “Their tooth decay occurs more rapidly and is more pervasive.”

A surgeon general report in 2000 called the problem a “silent epidemic.” It estimated that children lose more than 51 million school hours because of toothaches. Children whose families are below the federal poverty line suffer 12 times more restricted activity and loss of school hours than other children, the report said.

Texas has done a better job than most states in improving access to dental care during the past decade, according to a study by the Pew Center.

Texas was one of nine states to receive a B for meeting national benchmarks.

In 2007, the state added $258 million to Medicaid to increase dental reimbursement rates on average by 50 percent, which has increased dentist participation.

The action was part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit.

But even with more access through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, use of benefits remains low. Only 60 percent of the 3.3 million Texas children enrolled use their dental benefits, according to state officials. Figures in most other states are lower.

Health policy analyst Julia Paradise said more dentists, especially pediatric dentists, must participate in public insurance programs to fill the gaps. The need is greatest in rural areas and inner-city communities, she said.

“Coverage is not the same as access,” said Paradise, an analyst with the nonprofit Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. “It gets you to the door, but the door has to open.”

The story cites the case of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland boy who died from a brain infection that started out as simple tooth decay, which is caused by bacteria. I’m as surprised as you are to learn that Texas does well on that national benchmark, but given the way the Lege underfunded Medicaid in the 2011 session to help “balance” the budget, I will not be surprised to see that take a hit next year. Keep this story in mind when the subject comes up.

Perry’s empty promise on the Women’s Health Program

Our Governor talks big, but his words have no meaning.

The state will find the cash to continue a women’s health program whose federal funding is threatened because of a decision to keep Planned Parenthood from participating, Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday.

“We’re going to fund this program,” Perry said. “Listen, we’ll find the money. The state is committed to this program … This program is not going away.”

Perry didn’t specify where the state would get the money for the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, which provides health screenings and contraceptive services to low-income women.

In a Thursday letter to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Perry directed Commissioner Tom Suehs to work with legislative leaders to identify funding.

Nearly 130,000 women are enrolled in the program, which in fiscal year 2012 is scheduled to receive $29.8 million in federal funds and $3.3 million in state general-revenue money.

“We’ve got a multibillion-dollar budget, so we have the ability to be flexible on where monies come from,” Perry said.

Funny, but I don’t remember any talk about “flexibility” back when billions were being cut from the budget. I also don’t recall the Governor objecting when tens of millions were being cut from the Women’s Health Program and bills to continue it were being blocked in the Legislature. Where will we find that money, and why couldn’t we find money like it when the budget was being written? Who will actually provide the services for 100,000+ women that had been going to Planned Parenthood? Why is it even remotely fiscally responsible to turn down a 9:1 funding match over a ridiculous point of ideology? There are no answers, only questions.

Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, House Democratic Caucus leader, said of Perry’s funding promise, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” noting cuts approved by lawmakers who crafted the current budget to meet a massive revenue shortfall.

“I don’t see how you’re going to get blood out of that turnip,” Farrar said.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said that “the real losers in this battle are limited income women of color who are disproportionately harmed” by the new rule.

“Perry and his free-market cohorts have repeatedly said that Texans should have a choice of health provider. But his insistence on banning certain providers from the program prevents poor Texas women from seeing their provider of choice – and that’s just bad medicine,” Coleman said.

What did you expect? The Trib, Burka, and BOR have more, and a statement from Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, Inc. CEO Melaney Linton is beneath the fold. There will be a rally in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic at 4600 South Freeway on Monday, March 12, at 11:30, as part of PP’s statewide bus tour. See here for details.

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Still more dedicated funds not being dedicated

I keep wondering when we’re going to discover the last dedicated fund that is not being used for its original purpose but for general revenue. All I know is that we keep finding more of them, in this case fees collected from defendants in the criminal courts.

While courts assess fines to punish defendants, in theory, the dizzying array of fees and court costs, which can reach more than $600, is meant to ensure that those who use the judicial system help pay for it. But an American-Statesman analysis shows that’s not the case.

Over the years, legislators have used tens of millions of dollars collected from criminals to fund a slew of projects, many with only the faintest connection to the courts. Texas judicial administrators estimate that 1 in every 3 dollars raised through such state fees is spent on projects outside the court system — a practice critics say amounts to an undeclared tax on the state’s poor that might violate the law. Cities and counties whose courts raise much of the state money, meanwhile, complain that their courts are drastically underfunded.

Today, court costs pay for the rehabilitation of patients with head injuries. They fund research on obesity among minority children in Houston and cover the salaries of game wardens. They support three academic centers at state universities and after-school programs for kids. And they were used to pay a private company $2 million to install cameras along the Mexico border so citizen “virtual deputies” could watch online and report illegal crossings.

Last year, elected officials raided a $20 million pot collected from criminal defendants to pay for state employee pensions.

Thanks to such maneuvering, in Texas courts, a “DNA collection fee” does not necessarily pay for DNA tests, a “breath alcohol testing fee” does not always cover breath alcohol tests, and people judged guilty of victimless crimes contribute millions of dollars every year to “victims compensation.”

“We have a ‘school crossing fee’ that nobody — nobody — can tell me what comes of it,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.

Some say requiring defendants to cover so many expenses makes sense because crime creates broad social costs encompassing police work, prisons and social programs.

“Courts do not stand alone,” said Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, chairman of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee.

And nobody disputes that many of the programs are worthy of government support.

At worst, though, such under-the-radar diversions of so-called dedicated court money could be against the law. Some judges have ruled that using fees for purposes other than that for which they were collected is unconstitutional. At that point, the money is more accurately described as a general tax.

At the very least, it is dishonest for the government to tell taxpayers it is collecting money for one thing and then use it for another, said Jim Allison of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.

“If we’re not going to use a fee for a particular purpose,” he said, “we shouldn’t collect it.”

Of course, we do this all the time. See once again the System Benefit Fund that gets frozen, hunting and fishing license fee funds, the sale of specialty license plates, and red light camera funds. I’ve beaten this horse over and over again, so other than the specifics of this case – you should definitely read the story for the details – there’s nothing new here. The budget is all sleight of hand and misdirection because the Lege is desperate to avoid having to confront the real problems, our tax system is screwed up, and people are paying for things they’re not getting. Same story, different dedicated fund. Grits has more.