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February 4th, 2013:

School finance system ruled unconstitutional

Surely no one is surprised by this.

The system Texas uses to fund public schools violates the state’s constitution by not providing enough money and failing to distribute the money in a fair way, a judge ruled Monday in a landmark decision that could force the Legislature to overhaul the way it pays for education.

Shortly after listening to closing arguments, Judge John Dietz called the funding mechanism unconstitutional. He has promised to issue a detailed, written decision soon. The trial took more than 240 hours in court and 10,000 exhibits to get this far.

Judge Dietz made the ruling in the last lawsuit, in 2005, and apparently referenced that in giving his decision from the bench. He will hand down his written opinion at a later date. There’s a ton more detail to come on this – for now, Twitter is your best reference; try searching hashtag #schoolfinancetrial – but I’m sure millions of words will follow elsewhere. So far what we do know is that Judge Dietz found in favor of the school districts on “property tax, equity, and adequacy claims”. He ruled that the cap on charter schools did not violate the constitution, saying that claim and the claims made by TREE are matters for the Legislature. Beyond that, we know that this will be appealed to the Supreme Court, we know that budget writers like Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams, along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, have spoken about setting some money aside in anticipation of such a ruling, and we know that unless the Supreme Court substantially reverses this ruling, there will be at least one special session next year. Fasten your seat belts, etc etc etc. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Here’s coverage from the Observer and the Trib. I also have statements galore, from the CPPP, MALC, Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Sen. Rodney Ellis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Sen. Wendy Davis, Rep. Mike Villarreal, Rep. Carol Alvarado, Rep. Jessica Farrar, Rep. Donna Howard, and Texans Deserve Great Schools, who seem to be missing the point. Finally, I now have a copy of Judge Dietz’s ruling and the LBB chart mentioned in the ruling.

UPDATE: Stace has more reactions, and Lone Star Ma chimes in.

How cursed is Houston as a sports city?

What curse?

So another Super Bowl is history, and as you might have noticed the Houston Texans were not be playing in the game. This continues an unbroken streak of Houston football teams not making it to the Super Bowl, some in particularly heartbreaking fashion. The Astros have never won a World Series, having only won one pennant in fifty-plus years of existence. Were it not for two NBA titles by the Rockets in the 90s, the city of Houston would be completely championship-free for the major sports. You may be wondering how Houston compares to other big league sports cities in this department. I was, so I did a little research to find out. I limited myself to the last 40 years, mostly because ancient history is only of so much comfort to most fans. (For what it’s worth, Bill Simmons uses a 35-year period for assessing true wretchedness.) With that in mind, here’s what I found. Let’s start with the cities that have had nothing to celebrate in that time span.


Franchises – Browns (two versions, NFL); Indians (MLB); Cavaliers (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0


Franchises – Bills (NFL); Sabres (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

San Diego

Franchises – Chargers (NFL); Padres (MLB)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0


Franchises – Seahawks (NFL); Mariners (MLB)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – SuperSonics (NBA), 1979

Any discussion of cursed sports cities has to start with Cleveland. Their last title of any kind was a pre-Super Bowl NFL championship by the Browns in 1964. Since then, they’ve had The Drive, The Fumble, the relocation of their team to another city where it then went on to win a Super Bowl a few years later plus another this year, and all that is before we discuss the Indians (last World Series win 1948) or the Cavaliers. See here, here, here, and here for more. Really, there’s no question about it. No other city is in Cleveland’s class when it comes to sheer sports misery.

Buffalo is first runnerup, though I doubt anyone in Houston will offer much sympathy to them. Besides the Bills losing four consecutive Super Bowls, not to mention the Music City Miracle, the Sabres are oh-for-two in Stanley Cup finals, with the most recent loss being as controversial as it was gut-wrenching for their fans. They’re not quite in Cleveland territory, but they’re closer than anyone else. San Diego has lost two World Series, both times getting swept by teams of the ages (1984 Tigers and 1998 Yankees), and one Super Bowl, but it’s hard to think of anyone in San Diego as being cursed. Seattle managed to never win a pennant despite fielding teams that featured as many as four future Hall of Famers plus Jay Buhner; I include them here since their one title was won by a franchise that has since relocated.

And here are the teams that have won one or two titles, thus putting themselves in a similar class as Houston:


Franchises – Braves (MLB); Falcons (NFL); Hawks (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Braves, 1995


Franchises – Cardinals (NFL); Suns (NBA); Diamondbacks (MLB); Coyotes (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Diamondbacks, 2001

Kansas City

Franchises – Royals (MLB); Chiefs (NFL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Royals, 1985


Franchises – Colts (NFL); Pacers (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Colts, 2007

New Orleans

Franchises – Saints (NFL); Pelicans (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Saints, 2010


Franchises – Twins (MLB); Vikings (NFL); Timberwolves (NBA); Wild (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Twins, 1987 and 1991


Franchises – Rays (MLB); Buccaneers (NFL); Lightning (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Buccaneers, 2003, and Lightning, 2004


Franchises – Bucks (NBA); Brewers (MLB); Green Bay Packers (NFL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Packers, 1997 and 2011


Franchises – Astros (MLB); Texans (NFL); Rockets (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Rockets, 1994 and 1995

Out of that group, I’d probably rank Minneapolis and Kansas City as more cursed than Houston. The Vikings are also 0-4 in Super Bowls, with several other heartbreaking playoff losses, the Twins can’t get past the Yankees, the North Stars won the Stanley Cup after relocating to Dallas, and the Timberwolves watched Kevin Garnett win two NBA titles with the Celtics. Both Kansas City teams have been poorly run for years, though the Royals are a little better these days. New Orleans would have had a decent claim to superior cursedness before their Super Bowl win; as long as Drew Brees can play at his level, they’ll have a chance. The other cities for the most part don’t inspire much sympathy. Atlanta may have the hapless Hawks and the feckless Falcons, but they also had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Indianapolis replaced Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck and rebuilt a contender after one season. Tampa and Phoenix haven’t been big league long enough to inspire real misery. No city that roots for the Packers can truly be cursed.

So, putting it all together, I’d probably rank Houston as the sixth most cursed city, following Cleveland, Buffalo, Seattle, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Your mileage may vary, but that’s how I see it. How would you rank the losers?

Sunsetting tax expenditures

Sens. John Carona and Rodney Ellis have the right idea.

Sen. John Carona

Over the past 18 months, many of our constituents told us they have trouble finding a reliable, accurate and up-to-date source of information on these tax breaks, exemptions and special treatments — often called tax preferences or loopholes.

Unfortunately, so do we.

The Legislature makes extensive efforts to determine the efficacy of every state dollar spent in our public education, health and human services, and criminal justice systems. With that data, elected officials can weigh the costs and benefits of different policy options in an attempt to make the most well-informed decisions. Yet we still have an astounding deficit of knowledge when it comes to tax expenditures.

Sen. Rodney Ellis

This session, we aim to change that. We have filed Senate Bill 140 — bipartisan legislation to scrub, sunset and possibly repeal scores of preferential tax breaks in Texas law. State agencies are subject to a sunset review every 12 years to determine if their functions need to be continued or reformed. The tax code would benefit from a similar periodic review of all its tax preferences to answer a simple question — are they working?

The Texas Tax Code contains numerous tax loopholes, many of which were inserted into the code in the distant past but live on long past the time the rationale for their existence has ended. Recent press reports estimate that, at a minimum, Texas spends $19 billion annually on these incentives. Yet despite this price tag, state agencies responsible for Texas’ finances are unable to provide a comprehensive list of tax preferences, much less detailed analyses. The sad fact is that the state agencies responsible for Texas’ finances are unable to determine exactly how many of your tax dollars are spent on tax loopholes, because no one even knows how many are in the tax code, how much they cost, or if they are even working.

Our ongoing budget challenges demand that we be as prudent as possible with all of our tax dollars, yet the state lacks a basic method to review and determine the effectiveness of a host of tax preferences and incentive programs. Texas needs a consistent, thorough review process to provide the public and policymakers alike with information on tax preferences’ successes and shortcomings.

Here’s SB140, which is enabling legislation for SJR12. There was some talk about taking a closer look at tax expenditures in 2011, but it never went anywhere because spending cuts were the be-all and end-all of everyone’s existence. I’m hoping for a bit more sanity this session, but if this has to be done as a Constitutional amendment that will make it a much heavier lift. Still, this is clearly an idea whose time has come – as they note, several other states do this already – so I wish them the best of luck with it. Link via Better Texas.

On a related note, Sens. Carona and Ellis’ timing on this is propitious given the push by their colleague Dan Patrick for a brand new tax expenditure gimmick, his proposal to fund private school tuition vouchers via a business tax writeoff. Former Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton makes short work of that.

Setting aside the effects on public education, the tuition credit idea should be rejected as a matter of tax policy alone. Education is important, but what makes this particular program worthier of tax breaks than donations to a thousand other good causes? What makes this cause more worthwhile than donations to public schools? Why this tax break and not others? There are no good answers.

We don’t know what a Texas version of this corporate tax credit program would look like or who will benefit, but whatever shape it takes, we need to keep in mind the experience in other states. States such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have all had problems with the programs at various times because they’re designed with little or no public accountability. Companies should be free to donate money to private nonprofits if they want, but if the donations effectively come out of the state treasury, my 30 years around government tells me someone better be following the money because scandal will happen eventually.

Hamilton sure is a busy bee these days, isn’t he? Anyone who thinks Patrick’s proposed scheme would not be leveraged by people who already do send their kids to private schools or who always were going to send their kids to private schools – something that’s already happening in Louisiana – I’ve got some beachfront property in Lubbock for you.

Free WiFi finally coming to Houston airports

And there was much rejoicing.

Free WiFi is set to land at Houston’s two main airports by year’s end.

As wireless fidelity service becomes a consumer expectation, the Houston Airport System told the Houston Chronicle it is working to develop a complimentary – as well as fast, reliable and easy to use – network for the 50 million or so travelers who pour through Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports each year.

WiFi has never been totally free at the city’s commercial airfields, which first started offering pay-only access in 2005 via Sprint.

Currently, fliers get 45 minutes of free access through Boingo Wireless after sitting through a 30-second advertisement. The city has contracted with the Los Angeles-based wireless giant since 2009, when the airport system says demand for free WiFi was not as high.

But fliers say Boingo isn’t always easy to connect to, and it costs $7.95 a day – less under monthly plans – after the complimentary period ends.

Lisa Kent, the airport system’s chief information officer, said airports have “historically” considered WiFi more luxury than necessity, but “that is changing over time.”

Free WiFi, she said, has become one of the most frequent requests from passengers who submit feedback forms.

People “all carry, or most of them carry, smartphones and tablets and laptops, and they expect to be able to access totally free bandwidth from public entities, particularly airports, where they do a lot of staging and waiting for their flights,” said Kent, who oversees the technology department.

The tech team is still working out such details as who should build and maintain the network and what exactly it should look like.

“Ideally, we would like to have a new infrastructure at least beginning to be installed by the holiday season,” Kent said.

You only have to spend some time in an airport that has free WiFi to realize just what you’re missing at Hobby or IAH. I won’t be surprised if the airports develop a tiered offering, with free service that may be slow and/or include ads, and pay service that will be faster and ad-free. Whatever the case, it’ll be better than what we have now, which is basically nothing unless you have the privilege of being in one of the airline executive waiting areas. All I can say is it’s about time.

Amazon fulfills its end of the deal with Texas

Good to see.

Nine months after it struck a deal with the state to bring thousands of jobs and invest millions of dollars in Texas, online retail giant on Wednesday unveiled the first steps toward keeping its end of the bargain.

Amazon said Wednesday it will build three fulfillment centers in Texas, creating about 1,000 jobs. The new facilities will include a 1.2 million square-foot site in Schertz, east of San Antonio; and two sites in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — a 1 million-square-foot center in Coppell and a 1.1 million-square-foot facility in Haslet.

The fulfillment centers in Schertz and Coppell will handle the shipment of “larger items—anything from televisions to bbqs, for example,” Amazon said. The Haslet center will ship smaller items like books, small electronics or DVDs, the company said.

“We look forward to putting more than 1,000 Texans to work at our new fulfillment centers in Schertz, Coppell and Haslet,” Mike Roth, Amazon’s vice president of North American fulfillment, said in a news release. “We appreciate the state and local elected officials who have helped us make this exciting investment in the state of Texas.”

In April of last year, Amazon struck a deal with Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, calling for the online retailer to bring 2,500 jobs and $200 million in capital investment to the state, and to start collecting tax on sales made to people in Texas. Amazon began collecting the sales tax on July 1.

See here, here, and here for the background. Amazon had announced the Schertz location in November. Barring anything unusual this ought to be the end of the story in Texas, but it remains the case that Amazon and other online retailers should be paying sales taxes on Internet transactions regardless of what deals have been worked out in what states. It also remains the case that the current Congress is never going to fix that, so this is the workaround for now.