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January 25th, 2013:

Friday random ten: For the sake of randomness

You know what I haven’t done in awhile? A Friday random ten that was actually random. So here we go.

1. Mrs. Robinson – Pomplamoose
2. Say What! – Stevie Ray Vaughan
3. Adios, Lorena – Eddie From Ohio
4. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out – Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
5. The Recruited Collier – Paisley Close
6. Truckin’ – Dwight Yoakam
7. Subdivisions – Rush
8. Wild Eyed Southern Boys – .38 Special
9. Funnel Of Love – Asylum Street Spankers
10. Ear Nose And Throat – Troubled Hubble

The Springsteen is from his “Live 1975-1985” collection. It was five albums when it came out back in the day, but only three CDs. I’m kind of amused that vinyl has made a comeback lately. We’re swimming in old-fashioned record stores in my neighborhood these days. I don’t really have the space for more stuff these days, so I’ll be sticking with MP3s for now. But I’m happy for them and wish them the best. Have you bought any vinyl lately?

Optimism abounds at inauguration time

Inauguration time is always a good time to be optimistic.

Mayor Julian Castro

Texas Democrats haven’t had a lot to cheer about in recent years.

As San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is quick to remind you, the political score in Texas is 29-0. In favor of the Republicans.

That means 29 Republicans in statewide offices; zero Democrats.

But amid the glitz and glamor of the second Obama inauguration, celebratory Texas Democrats — including Castro — are beginning to think that they might just have a pathway to political competitiveness in the Lone Star State.

“I’m telling you: In six to eight years, Texas is going to be a Democratic state,” Castro told several hundred enthusiastic Democratic partisan feasting on beef brisket at D.C.’s popular Hill Country Barbecue joint.

Five new Democratic members of Congress — including three Latinos and an African American — are giving party activists reason to hope that they can compete in Texas sooner than the pundits are now predicting.

“It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be easy. But it can be done,” said freshman Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth.

Of course it can be done, and I’m as big a believer in it getting done as anyone, but it sure would be nice to know there’s a plan out there somewhere to actually do it. We know what the elements are – money, organization, voter registration, message, outreach, etc etc etc – but who’s working on it? For a change, there may now be a real answer to that question.

National Democrats are taking steps to create a large-scale independent group aimed at turning traditionally conservative Texas into a prime electoral battleground, crafting a new initiative to identify and mobilize progressive voters in the rapidly-changing state, strategists familiar with the plans told POLITICO.

The organization, dubbed “Battleground Texas,” plans to engage the state’s rapidly growing Latino population, as well as African-American voters and other Democratic-leaning constituencies that have been underrepresented at the ballot box in recent cycles. Two sources said the contemplated budget would run into the tens of millions of dollars over several years – a project Democrats hope has enough heft to help turn what has long been an electoral pipe dream into reality.

At the center of the effort is Jeremy Bird, formerly the national field director for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, who was in Austin last week to confer with local Democrats about the project.

In a statement to POLITICO, Bird said the group would be “a grass-roots organization that will make Texas a battleground state by treating it like one.”

“With its diversity and size, Texas should always be a battleground state where local elections are vigorously contested and anyone who wants to be our commander in chief has to compete and show they reflect Texas values. Yet for far too long, the state’s political leaders, both in Austin and in Washington, D.C., have failed to stand for Texans,” said Bird, who recently founded a consulting firm, 270 Strategies. “Over the next several years, Battleground Texas will focus on expanding the electorate by registering more voters — and as importantly, by mobilizing Texans who are already registered voters but who have not been engaged in the democratic process.”

[…]

One Democrat close to the planning process said the group intended to bring in “top campaign talent to Texas” for a long-term organizing push. Strategists filed papers with the Texas Ethics Commission to create Battleground Texas earlier this month with that goal in mind.

“It’s going to take a sustained effort and we’re going to have to prove ourselves over time,” the Democrat said. “We need to have the talent in state to build something real over time and make the environment such that you can look someone in the eye and say, ‘You can run statewide and you can win,’ or you can tell a presidential candidate that you should really consider putting resources here.”

Another strategist tied to Texas called the project a “very positive effort to try to put together a pretty broad grass-roots organization to try to identify and ultimately mobilize progressive voters.”

“There’s a realistic view that that will take more than one cycle,” the strategist said. “None of this stuff is ever real until you’ve got money.”

That all sounds good, and I’m happy to hear about it. There are many questions to be asked about this – Who’s actually running it? Where’s the money coming from? What are the short and long term goals? How can you be sure this will last beyond the next election cycle? – but it’s a start. It will help that the bench is deeper today than any time in recent memory. The Castro brothers, Marc Veasey, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Gallego, Wendy Davis – any of them will be a fine statewide candidate when they’re ready, and they aren’t the only ones on the horizon. If they have sufficient infrastructure behind them their eventual tasks will be much easier. Eye on Williamson, BOR, Burka, Trail Blazers, and the DMN have more.

Another reason why spending caps are a bad idea

There are many reasons why, but this is one we haven’t encountered before.

Several political observers well-versed in the state’s finances say that lawmakers could hit the state’s spending limit this session, complicating efforts to access the $11.8 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

The Texas Constitution says the government can’t grow faster than the state’s economy. That growth rate is always set ahead of the session based on the estimated rate of growth in Texans’ personal income over the next two years. Passing a budget that busts the limit requires support from a simple majority of the House and Senate.

While it’s a simple idea, in practice, the constitutional spending limit is about as clear as mud. The exact amount of the spending limit for the next budget remains a moving target, and there is disagreement on some aspects of how the limit is meant to be applied, particularly whether any spending from the Rainy Day Fund is subject to the limit.

“Apparently there’s a lot of confusion out there about what counts and what doesn’t,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior budget analyst for the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

This year, lawmakers find themselves contending with reaching the limit largely because of the Texas economy’s rapid swing from a recession to a robust recovery. Cuts made in 2011 were based on estimates from the comptroller’s office that revenue would come in at low levels. The rebound happened faster than expected, leaving the current Legislature with a large surplus and calls to spend some of it on a range of expensive proposals, including tapping the Rainy Day Fund to restore billions in education cuts made last session.

“One can argue that we really didn’t need to make many of the cuts in the budget that were made in the last legislative session, including the $5 billion in cuts to public education,” said education finance expert Lynn Moak. “But to get it back, you have to bust the spending limit.”

[…]

In November, the LBB voted to set the growth rate in spending at 10.71 percent. Several people watching the budget process predict that rate should lead to a final spending limit that will allow lawmakers, if they choose, to spend virtually all of the available general revenue this session, expected to be roughly $95 billion after lawmakers pass a supplemental budget for 2012-13.

The $11.8 billion projected to be in the state’s Rainy Day Fund is a different matter. House officials have said the limit applies to most types of spending that lawmakers have proposed for the fund, though certain kinds of tax relief would be exempt. Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, helped write the legislation that created the Rainy Day Fund in the late 1980s, and he said that’s not what the lawmakers who originally approved it bargained for.

“It was never the intent that the spending limit apply to the Rainy Day Fund,” said Craymer. He agreed the issue is now a point of debate.

Well, this is the sort of thing that happens when you let ideology override policy. Surely no business would allow itself to be handcuffed by the inept forecast of an incompetent financial officer, but that appears to be the position Texas has put itself in. The good news, as the Statesman notes, is that so far at least legislators don’t appear to be willing to tie themselves down in this fashion. Rep. Donna Howard has filed a bill to clarify that the Rainy Day Fund is not subject to this spending cap; the bill in question is HB652. There’s hope that we can work around this without anything too dumb happening.

This assumes that Rick Perry doesn’t make the situation worse by pushing through an even tighter cap, because doing stupid and harmful things like that is his job. Scott McCown explains why this is such a bad idea.

If a family budgeted this way, no matter how much money the family made, it could never improve its life. Imagine sitting down to write your first family budget. Naturally it is lean, but you have dreams of a better future — a safer neighborhood, a graduate degree. Under the governor’s proposal, though, even as your income increased, you would be stuck living under that lean budget adjusted only by family growth and household inflation. You could never make your life better.

Not being able to make things better would be a big problem for Texas. However you measure it, Texas ranks low in spending. Our systems for education, water, transportation, mental health, child protection, and many others are struggling. If we could adjust our current lean budget only for population and inflation, we could never make major new investments to improve our state.

The governor’s proposal has another big problem: Not only could a family not improve its life, periodically things would actually get worse. As the Great Recession reminded us, income doesn’t always go up. Sometimes breadwinners suffer a pay cut or lose a job, and a family has to cut its budget. Under the governor’s proposal, this lower level of spending would become the new base.

For a family, that would mean if it made $35,000 last year, but only $30,000 this year, its budget for next year would have to be based on the lower figure even if it made $40,000. Yes, even after the family’s income recovered, it couldn’t increase spending. No family would budget in a way that prevented recovering from a setback, and no state should, either.

The governor’s formula also uses the wrong measures of population and inflation. A family budget isn’t based merely on family size, but on family composition — whether the family is budgeting for a baby, for a child in college, or to care for grandma matters a lot to the bottom line. Likewise, a state can’t merely consider growth in total population; a state must consider who it is actually serving. For example, in Texas the rate of elderly who potentially need assisted living through Medicaid is projected to grow twice as fast as our total population between now and 2040.

And just as a family wouldn’t base its budget on government inflation, a state shouldn’t base its budget on household inflation. Families and governments buy different “baskets” of goods and services. A much higher portion of the state budget, for example, goes to buy health care, which is increasing in cost faster than household inflation. By using the wrong measures of population and inflation, year after year, the governor’s proposal would force Texas to do less and less for fewer and fewer.

As far as Perry and his cronies are concerned, doing less and less for fewer and fewer is a feature, not a bug. As always, now is an excellent time to let your State Rep and State Senator know that you want them to work on solving Texas’ problems, not making them worse. It’s not their job to tell future legislators what they can and cannot do. EoW has more.

The case against Metro advertising

Ed Wulfe isn’t happy with talk about Metro putting ads on buses and trains.

In the late 1970s, Houston voters overwhelmingly defeated a local referendum to allow ads on bus shelters. Soon after, Houston City Council banned all new billboards within the city limits, then extended the prohibition to the limits of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. In the years since, Houston and Harris County have also created Scenic Districts with signage constraints and ongoing landscaping enhancement efforts.

As a result of these measures, the number of billboards in greater Houston has been reduced an astounding 84 percent over the past 30 years, from more than 10,000 to less than 1,500 – and the number continues to decrease. This dramatic reduction in visual clutter has been accompanied by infrastructure investments that further enhance Houstonians’ quality of life. For example, our city’s parks continue to grow and will become even better and more accessible in the years ahead, thanks to the overwhelming support of Houston voters in the most recent bond elections.

Given this extraordinary progress, it is very troubling that Houston Metro is now considering selling ad space on its taxpayer-funded bus and train fleet. The desire for new sources of revenue is understandable, but this should not occur at the expense of Houston’s visual environment. Paid advertising on the sides of buses would not only be unsightly; it would also create additional distractions for drivers, not to mention opening up our city to a variety of challenges relating to deciding who can advertise and what types of ads would be permitted.

For all of these reasons and more, advertising on the exterior of Metro’s vehicles is unacceptable and should not be allowed. Instead, Houston Metro should explore other revenue-generating opportunities that have fewer negative consequences. Options such as providing naming rights on park and ride facilities and selling advertising on the interior of buses should be considered, for example. I am also confident that Metro’s administrative and board leadership can find ways to reduce their operational expenses a minimal amount to offset any potential revenue sources from damaging advertising on the sides of buses.

See here for the background. I don’t share the concerns about ads on buses and trains, though I do concede that the occasional controversy about what does or does not get advertised is inevitable and unpleasant. But this isn’t a hill I want to die on. If there’s no objection to selling station naming rights, or to ads on the inside of buses and trains, then I’m fine with that. Giving up that small piece of revenue is worth it to avoid a fight and maintain goodwill. Let’s move forward with those things.

Will we have enough power?

Maybe not. From the EDF.

It’s understandable that no one seems to have noticed a strongly worded letter to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) last Monday demanding more action to ensure electric reliability in Texas, and asking ERCOT to report back to NERC by April 30 on additional actions taken.  NERC isn’t some federal boogey man either; it’s a corporation founded by the electric industry to create commonly accepted standards for electric reliability across North America, usually through voluntary compliance.  President Bush’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the corporation “the authority to create and enforce compliance with Reliability Standards,” which is where this letter comes into play.

In their 2012 report, NERC highlighted ERCOT as the only region in North America that was not maintaining adequate electric reserves to meet demand, and with this letter they made it very clear that the actions taken to date have not done enough to mitigate that risk.  In the letter, NERC President Gerry Cauley notes that the PUC and ERCOT are continuing to address energy reliability issues, but finds that “solutions have not yet sufficiently materialized to address NERC’s reserve margin concern.”

Cauley goes on to say that “it is still unclear to us how ERCOT intends to mitigate issues that may arise on the current trajectory and when new resources may be available to meet growing demand.”  So according to the corporation whose membership consists mostly of utilities, grid operators, large and small customers, and electric regulators, the actions that the PUC and ERCOT have taken at this point are not enough to ensure we’ll have reliable electric supply, risking blackouts as soon as this summer.

As lawmakers settle into Austin for the next few months they’ll certainly be paying close attention to this issue, though many have indicated they would prefer that ERCOT and the PUC develop the solutions to this problem.  Cauley’s letter serves as notice that the PUC and ERCOT need to be more aggressive if they want to ensure a reliable supply of power in Texas.  Certainly both agencies are putting serious time and effort into keeping the lights on in Texas, including effort so expand existing demand response programs, but NERC clearly thinks they need to be doing more.

This was also noted by Loren Steffy, who says that Texas is now “under more pressure than ever to encourage generation, and that’s likely to mean higher prices at a time when the deregulated market was supposed to be delivering lower prices to consumers”. (He also notes that consumer protections are likely to be weakened, because that’s how we roll in this state.) Thanks to the continued tax credit in the so-called fiscal “cliff” deal, there will be more wind projects gearing up, and ERCOT foresees $8.9 billion in electric transmission projects by the end of 2017, but neither will help in the short term, and it’s still not enough for the longer term. I don’t know what else there is to be done, so just consider this a heads up for when the crunch does hit.