Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

October 21st, 2012:

Weekend link dump for October 21

“The Shikse’s Guide to Jewish Men”, published in 1978. Exactly as awesome as it sounds.

“Now I’ll bet you didn’t wake up wondering today how turtles go pee. But that’s what I want to talk about.”

If there wasn’t some kind of biblical prophecy about this kid, there should have been.

RIP, Arlen Specter, former Senator from Pennsylvania.

“Contemporary American elites, by acting exclusively according to what is in their interest in the short term by extracting our collective wealth for themselves and closing off opportunities for social mobility to others, are in the long-run sowing the seeds of destruction for themselves, our economy, and our society.”

Republican legislators in states like Texas have convincingly proven by their actions the continuing need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But in the end, it will still come down to what five Supreme Court justices want to do.

The Candwich gets its day in the sun.

Hell hath no fury like David Stockman scorned.

All this talk about raising the Social Security retirement age is an example of the comforted afflicting the afflicted, not courageous truth-telling.

The next time someone tells you that it doesn’t matter who wins the Presidential election, show them this and tell them you beg to differ.

Sorry, but I have no sympathy for those who violate the privacy of others when they complain about their own privacy being invaded.

Is it just me, or is the idea of a Rolling Stones Golden Anniversary Tour just wrong?

RIP, Professor Earl Lewis.

Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.

Michael Bérubé on why he resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University.

More punctuation marks, please.

So where did that binder full of women come from, anyway?

We don’t “go online” anymore, because we’re already there.

“While this is a lovely, multi-purpose binder, IT DOES NOT COME WITH WOMEN. Presumably, one is expected to find women on one’s own, or contact women’s groups, who are supposedly eager to help you stock your empty binder with women.”

Vote John Edwards for President if you know what’s good for you.

RIP, George McGovern.

Who doesn’t like parks?

The usual suspects – cranks, malcontents, and the Harris County GOP, that’s who.

Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot asks you to pay for part of that plan, of course. Not with increased taxes, though, [Mayor Annise] Parker insists. The bond measure asks voters to authorize $166 million in borrowing that the city plans to pay back through existing property tax collections.

Parker has said she would consider the Proposition B projects a legacy achievement in what she hopes will mark her place in city history as “the infrastructure mayor.”

But Dave Wilson, who has formed a PAC to oppose all five city bond measures, and like-minded anti-tax activists see a price tag, not just green space and infrastructure.

They have not targeted Proposition B specifically. Instead, they say the five propositions – combined with tax hikes proposed by Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College on the same ballot to pay for borrowing to fix those campuses – amount to too deep a dive into taxpayers’ pockets by government that cannot be trusted to spend money wisely.

While the measure calls for $166 million in taxpayer spending, it actually would cost $291 million to pay back with interest, according to one city estimate.

In a resolution opposing all city bond measures, the county Republican Party states: “Some of the proposed projects, such as creating ‘an integrated system of … bicycle trails’ seems a frivolous use of tax dollars when the city says it cannot find money to test thousands of stored rape kits.”

The resolution does not acknowledge that bond money cannot be used to pay for crime lab operations and other functions.

Of course, the city has found a way to pay for the rape kit backlog. It’s even one that I’m sure no Republican will ever, ever have to contribute towards. What could be better than that?

Honestly, I don’t get the Republicans’ opposition to this. There’s no tax increase. There’s never been a better time to float bonds, with interest rates at historically low levels. The city will only borrow as much as a private fundraising effort will generate. Everyone agrees that amenities like parks and bike trails are key to attracting businesses and knowledge workers to a city. The C Club, which last I checked was populated almost entirely by Republicans, has endorsed the parks bond. Even Republicans like riding bikes. What am I missing? Yes, I can see that this is part of a larger effort to sink all of the bonds, and whatever else you think of them the HISD and HCC bonds will have tax increases accompanying them. But that lack of distinction between the bonds shows that this is all about reflexive ideology and not about any policy rationale. I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s all very unserious.

One more thing: The story sidebar lists CM Oliver Pennington as an opponent to the parks measure. While it is true that CM Pennington voted against putting the entire bond package on the ballot, he also called himself “particularly supportive” of the parks bond. It is possible to distinguish, even if the Harris County GOP won’t do it.

Margins tax survives another challenge

Mighty quick ruling from the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of Texas on Friday struck down a challenge by Nestle Inc. and two other businesses targeting the state’s franchise tax.

Lawyers for Nestle and two Texas-based companies, Switchplace LLC and NSMBA, sued the state this year and argued that the tax violated the Texas Constitution’s statement that taxes must be “equal and uniform.”

The franchise tax was revised during a 2006 special session, part of a plan to create more funding for public schools. The revision expanded the kinds of businesses subject to the tax, and made eligible companies like Nestle who manufactured outside of Texas. Retail and wholesale businesses now pay one-half of a percent of their taxable margins, while manufacturers pay 1 percent.

But the Legislature designated companies like Nestle “unitary entities,” meaning that even if they did not manufacture in Texas, they should pay the higher rate.

According to a statement by Supreme Court of Texas staff attorney Osler McCarthy, Nestle argued that it was forced to pay double what it owes. It said the differentiation between manufacturing businesses and retailers violates both the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, because it discriminates against “interstate commerce,” and the Texas Constitution’s call for “uniformity.”

Six justices of the state’s Supreme Court, agreeing with lawyers for the comptroller and the attorney general, wrote that where the manufacturing happens does not matter in the context of the franchise tax. Because it is applied equally to manufacturers who do business in Texas, there is nothing wrong with Nestle’s being charged the higher rate. “Location is not the basis for different treatment because in-state companies that manufacture will pay the same rate as Nestle,” wrote Justice Nathan Hecht in the court’s opinion, “and out-of-state companies that do only wholesaling and retailing will qualify for the lower rate.

Justices Don Willett and Debra Lehrmann dissented from the opinion, explaining that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. “The Tax Code disallows taxpayer suits like this,” Willett wrote, “and as a prudential matter, deciding whether a statute is constitutional is simply not the stuff of mandamus,” or in other words, not the kind of thing the court should address.

See here, here, here, and here for the history. I suppose there was one Justice who either was recused or sided with the plaintiffs; the story doesn’t say. The deadline for the court’s decision was November 9, so clearly they weren’t letting any moss grow. This apparently brings to an end the aspects of the law that can be challenged in state court, but an appeal to the Fifth Circuit and ultimately SCOTUS is possible, since the Texas Supreme Court relied on the Commerce Clause in its ruling. So no new lawsuits, but the final chapter of this story has not yet been written. SCOTX Blog

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

Endorsement watch: HCDE and District E

The Chron endorses three Democrats for the Harris County Department of Education.

At-Large Position 3: Democratic challenger Diane Trautman would bring expertise and professionalism to the job. As a professor of education at Stephen F. Austin State University, she taught courses in ethics and leadership – areas that would be useful on the county board, which astoundingly lacks an ethics policy. With previous banking experience, she’s strong in finance. And knows first-hand how the department helps schools. As principal of Tomball Junior High, Trautman saved enough by ordering supplies through the co-op that she was able to fund a science program.

Position 6, Precinct 1: Democratic nominee Erica Lee would be a strong advocate for Head Start and Early Childhood Intervention. As a first-grade teacher at HISD’s Lantrip Elementary, she says, she could easily tell which kids had benefited from those programs.

Position 4, Precinct 3: Silvia Mintz knows first-hand the importance of education to achieving the American dream. In 1998, when she came to the United States from Guatemala, she worked as a janitor. “My first words in English,” she says, “were ‘Windex’ and ‘mop.'” After attending community-college classes, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of St. Thomas; then received her law degree at South Texas College of Law. Now in private practice, she’d be a strong advocate for expansion of Head Start.

Trautman is of course running against the ridiculous Michael Wolfe. Lee, who thankfully won the runoff in that screwed-up primary, will easily complete the single easiest pickup opportunity that 2012 has to offer. As I said before, Silvia Mintz is the kind of person I want to see get elected to something. I’m just glad she showed up for the editorial board screening. If at least one of Trautman and Mintz join Lee in being elected, the HCDE board will become majority Democratic, not too shabby considering that four years ago at this time it was all Republican.

Meanwhile, the Chron makes the establishment choice in the special election for City Council District E.

David Martin

With a resume that boasts companies like Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers, [David] Martin has the accounting background that Houston needs in a time of pension problems and budget challenges. But in addition to this financial expertise, Martin also has an energetic optimism about the city that voters should want in their elected officials. He talks about his time on the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority – where he has served as chairman of the finance committee and secretary/treasurer – like a microcosm of Houston: a diverse group of people all pulling in the same direction. As Martin explains, it is that diversity and energy that makes Houston a wonderful place to live and work, not to mention how they create an appealing location for business.

[…]

Martin already has several projects in mind for his extensive district. He’d like to build a fire station on the west side of Kingwood and another for Clear Lake. Martin’s also interested in integrating flight training and engineering at Ellington Field with science programs at local schools, better tourist passes for the Lone Star Flight Museum and Johnson Space Center … the list goes on. This is the sort of on-the-ground knowledge you’d would expect from an incumbent.

With an eye on fiscal responsibility and a heart for Houston, Dave Martin offers the best choice for District E voters.

See here for the Chron overview of that race. With three candidates, there is the possibility of a runoff, and with a special election looming for SD06, things could get a little complicated. The sensible solution would be to schedule both elections at the same time.

[Harris County Clerk Stan] Stanart said his office is coordinating with Perry’s as to when a special election for the senate seat could be held — perhaps in tandem with a city runoff, and perhaps not.

“There’s potential logistics roadblock that could come up if we had a runoff already scheduled,” Stanart said. “You don’t want to confuse voters having two early votings going on at the same time. We’re looking at calendars, what makes the most sense.”

As we know from the special election in District H in 2009, only the early voting centers in the affected district would be open for SD06 and District E. It certainly would be best to have them all open at the same time, and only once if there’s any overlap. We’ll see how that plays out.