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January 16th, 2013:

Meet the new budget

Same as the old budget.

Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature on Monday offered spare first drafts of the state’s next two-year budget that continue $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made last session and freeze funding for an embattled state agency set up to find a cure for cancer.

Upending recent tradition, the Texas Senate is starting off with the leaner budget this session, one that’s about $1 billion smaller than the House budget but spends nearly the same amount in general revenue, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. General revenue typically makes up around half of the total budget, with much of the remainder coming from federal funding.

The Senate proposed a $186.8 billion budget, a 1.6 percent drop from $189.9 billion, the amount the current budget is estimated to grow to after lawmakers pay for some unpaid bills in the current budget this session. General revenue spending makes up $89 billion of the budget, up 1.5 percent from the current budget.

The total House budget will be $187.7 billion, down 1.2 percent from the current budget. General revenue spending makes up $89.2 billion, a 2 percent increase from the current budget.

Both proposals drew swift criticism from Democrats and education groups, but Republican lawmakers in both chambers stressed that the budgets are merely starting points.

Let’s just say that they’ll have to show it to me before I believe it. The first time House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts or Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams starts talking about “tax relief”, I’ll know the fix is in. The debate over the supplemental budget, which will need to pay off some IOUs on Medicaid and school funds, will give us an indication of how this is going to go.

The embedded graphic above is from the Better Texas blog, which is a product of the CPPP and which you should be reading. Their point is that even with the higher revenue estimate, we’re still way below what we’d need to be spending to cover population growth and cost increases. It’s going to take a change in government to get to that point.

Still, some things do change, and the Statesman notes one of them.

One relatively small-dollar change will have an out-sized political effect. The House provided no money for the state standardized testing system, a $98 million reduction in state dollars, while the Senate fully funded the program.

Frustration has been building over the testing system, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, and parents and some business leaders are pushing for major changes. The House appears ready to force the issue.

“It will at least force the discussion,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped found Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent group seeking an overhaul of the state testing system. “I think it was a very bold move.”

It’s unlikely that the final budget will zero out funding for the STAAR test, but I do agree that this will prioritize the debate over just how much standardized testing we need. Keep an eye on that.

Here are responses to the budget from Rep. Mike Villarreal and the Texas AFT. So far everyone is taking Pitts and Williams at their word that what they’ve put out now is just a starting point. If we want to end up someplace better, now is an excellent time to let your Rep and Senator know what your priorities are. It’s also a good time to note that the first Save Texas Schools rally for the session is on the calendar:

In the face of underfunding, over testing and proposed vouchers, get ready to join thousands of concerned Texans as we stand up for quality education for ALL Texas students.

DATE: Saturday, February 23, 2013

TIME/PLACE: March: 10:45 a.m. on the Congress Avenue Bridge to the Capitol.  Rally: Noon – 1:30 p.m. at the Texas State Capitol on the South Steps, Congress Ave. & 11th St.

AGENDA: Speakers include Supt. John Kuhn and Diane Ravitch. More soon!

Organizing in Your Area: Click here to be an organizer in your area.

Transportation: We have scholarships available to local groups to help with buses this year. Click here to apply. Please contact Save Texas Schools as soon as possible!

Let us know you’re coming! Click here to sign the Save Texas Schools petition and to register for the rally.

As always, speak now or forever lose the right to complain about the end result. Burka is dumbfounded by it all, Grits says that “on the criminal justice front they’re not off to an inspiring start”, and EoW, Sen. Kirk Watson, and the Observer have more.

Baby Bush ready to claim his birthright

Perhaps we should just skip straight to the coronation once George P. Bush figures out what office he wants.

George Prescott Bush is gearing up to run for a little-known but powerful office in a state where his family already is a political dynasty and where his Hispanic roots could help extend a stranglehold on power Republicans have enjoyed for two decades.

The 36-year-old Fort Worth attorney says he is close to settling on campaigning for Texas land commissioner next year. He doesn’t expect to make up his mind until he knows what Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Republican, decides to do.

“We for sure are running, the question is the office,” Bush told The Associated Press during the first interview about his political future since filing paperwork in November to seek elected office in Texas.

Bush’s father is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his grandfather is former President George H.W. Bush and his uncle is former President and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Perry has been governor since George W. left for the White House.

Land commissioner traditionally has been a steppingstone to higher office, but Bush said little about any plans to eventually become a national political force.

His grandfather Prescott Bush was a US Senator, too. The past four years have been a rare period in American history where a member of the Bush family has not held some office. It will be interesting to see how he handles the inevitable tea party opponent he gets for Land Commissioner or whatever else he runs for. Will he adopt their positions, or will he remain blandly Bushy and presume that his name, money, and connections will suffice to handle it? The Trib has an interview with our future overlord if you want to better prepare yourself for the inevitable.

Mental health court coup

Interesting.

Judge Jan Krocker

Citing problems with the administration of Harris County’s mental health court, a board of judges has ousted the court’s founder and presiding judge, Jan Krocker, officials confirmed Friday.

“There were a lot of valid complaints about Judge Krocker’s administration of the court, and she didn’t like the idea of oversight,” said Michael McSpadden, Houston’s most senior felony court judge. “We are all behind a mental health court. We just want it run the correct way.”

Krocker will continue to preside over the 184th State District Court, a bench to which she was first elected in 1994, but two other judges, David Mendoza and Brock Thomas, will oversee the mental health court.

Krocker said the move was the natural evolution of the program.

“Once we knew the court would be funded for another year, I had hoped to reduce my involvement because it had become so time-consuming,” she said in an emailed statement. “I would have been glad to transition out and turn it over to Judge Mendoza and Judge Thomas. It is too bad this wasn’t handled differently.”

What’s interesting about this is that the mental health court has only been in existence since October. That’s an awfully short period of time for everyone to lose patience with the person who brought this thing to reality. Or maybe there was something else going on.

The abrupt removal may have been spurred by Krocker releasing a statement in December accusing another judge and newly elected District Attorney Mike Anderson of trying to kill funding for the court.

Last year, Krocker said then-District Attorney Pat Lykos had promised $500,000 for the court to continue. When that promise dried up days before Lykos left office, Krocker blamed Anderson and state District Judge Belinda Hill.

Anderson and Hill, who was the chief administrative judge over the 22 district judges and is now Anderson’s first assistant, have both publicly supported the mental health court.

The problem was not the court, McSpadden said. It was Krocker.

“She wasn’t following the mental health advice of the people we hire, the doctors we hired,” McSpadden said. “There were a lot of complaints, from inside and outside the court.”

As a non-lawyer I have no insight into this, so let me throw this out to those of you who who may have some insight for your comments. What do you think?

Austin to get bike sharing

About time, y’all.

City Council will vote Thursday on a five-year contract with a newly formed nonprofit organization, Bike Share of Austin, to operate the system.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization awarded Austin a $1.5 million grant last summer that would fund most of the project. Bike Share of Austin, the only organization that applied for an operating contract, would provide $500,000 in matching funds. Officials hope memberships, grants and sponsorships will sustain the system, which they say would cost about $225,000 a year to operate.

Proponents say bike sharing would ease traffic congestion, help close transit gaps in the bus and rail systems, offer an alternative to single-occupancy vehicles and improve users’ health.

“This is no longer one of those things that’s out on the edge. It’s becoming a fairly standard part of transportation infrastructure for cities,” said Council Member Chris Riley.

Bike-share programs operate in about 20 U.S. cities — including San Antonio, Denver, Miami and Washington — and more than 400 cities worldwide. Houston and Fort Worth are putting in systems, too. Most municipalities team with a nonprofit or private-sector partner for operations.

Houston of course already has a system, which as we know is about to be expanded. I’m one part amused and one part amazed that it’s taken as long as it has for this to come to Austin given its overall proclivity for biking, but hey, you never know.

Austin’s plans call for 40 stations and 400 bicycles. If approved, the system could launch as soon as late spring or summer.

Exact station sites haven’t been set, but they would be focused in downtown and popular destinations such as Zilker Park, said Adrian Lipscombe of Austin’s Public Works Department, which would implement the program. Stations would be an average of two or three blocks apart.

[…]

Austin is hillier than downtown San Antonio, though, and some have questioned whether users can handle the 40-pound bikes on the city’s rolling terrain. Some downtown streets are not what many would consider beginner-friendly, either. But proponents say the city’s young workforce and mild climate make it a perfect fit.

San Antonio’s pretty hilly overall, though, and I don’t know that its downtown streets are any beginner-friendlier than Austin’s. I’m sure Austin will take to this just fine. Took ’em long enough, that’s for sure.