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Bill Callegari

Callegari to retire

We will have at least one open State House seat in Harris County next year.

Rep. Bill Callegari

State Rep. Bill Callegari, a Katy Republican who chairs the House Committee on Pensions and the House Research Organization, said Monday that he wouldn’t seek another term in 2014.

Callegari, an engineer, took his seat in the House in 2001. He’s the 12th member of the Texas House to say he won’t be back. Several are running for other offices, while others are getting out of politics for now.

Republican Reps. Dan Branch of Dallas, Stefani Carter of Dallas, Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville and Van Taylor of Plano are all seeking other offices.

Callegari is joining a group that won’t be on the ballot next year that also includes John Davis, R-Houston; Craig Eiland, D-Galveston; Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa; Rob Orr, R-Burleson; Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and Mark Strama, D-Austin. Strama already resigned from the Legislature to take a private sector job. The special election to replace him is on this November’s ballot.

Rep. Callegari is finishing his seventh term in the House. I wish him well in his retirement. HD132 joins SD07 on the list of Harris County open seats for 2014, but with one major difference: HD132 is a seat that could be competitive in 2014, even more so in 2016 modulo any further redistricting. It was one of only two Republican-held districts that were slightly more Democratic in 2012 than in 2008, and that was in a year where Democratic turnout declined somewhat from 2008. I’m not saying this seat is going to make anyone’s short list of pickup opportunities, but consider: The partisan trend, and demography, are pointing in the right direction. Battleground Texas is in operation. Throw Wendy Davis in at the top of the ticket, and who knows what kind of a boost in performance is possible. The most opportune time to try to win a seat from the other guys is when it’s open, followed by when it’s being defended by a freshman. That’s 2014, and if necessary 2016. The road to a Democratic House majority runs through districts like HD132. It would be better to start contesting them sooner rather than later. Burka has more.

Modified teacher retirement bill passes Senate

Modified again, this time enough to garner support from the teachers.

Teachers, the state of Texas and school districts all would pay more to help support the Teacher Retirement System of Texas under a bill passed by the Texas Senate Wednesday.

Under Senate Bill 1458, the $117 billion TRS fund would get a boost from members, whose contributions would increase from 6.4 percent of their salaries to 7.7 percent over four years. Meanwhile, the state’s contribution would increase from 6.4 percent to 6.8 percent, and school districts that do not pay into Social Security would contribute 1.5 percent. Additionally, about 102,000 teachers who have retired since 1999 would receive a 3 percent cost of living adjustment under the new bill.

See here and here for the background. The main points of objection from the teachers had to do with the size of the state’s contribution, and with increasing the teachers’ contribution all at once instead of phasing it in. While this story has no details, the Texas AFT spells out the changes since the last time:

The combination of grass-roots pressure and hard negotiating by our legislative allies has led to this substantial improvement in the TRS bill. Sens. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), and Royce West (D-Dallas) played crucial roles in winning the Senate-passed improvements. Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) too gets credit for leaving his door open to negotiations to modify his bill.

As this legislation now moves over to the House and ultimately to a House-Senate conference committee, the same combination of grass-roots communication and tough negotiations in the capitol could bring further improvements sought by Texas AFT for retired and active school employees, such as an immediate benefit increase for all rather than just one-third of retirees, as well as prospective-only application of a new minimum retirement age for full pension benefits. (As it now stands under SB 1458, school employees who do not have five years of service credit by September 1, 2014, would be subject to the new minimum age of 62 for full, unreduced retirement benefits). So be prepared to launch another wave of messages to members of the Texas House!

To review: Under SB 1458 as amended on the Senate floor today, employee contributions would remain at 6.4 percent in fiscal 2014 (starting September 2013), while the state contribution would rise to 6.8 percent. In fiscal 2015, the employee contribution would be 6.7 percent, while the state continues to contribute 6.8 percent, plus school districts that do not contribute to Social Security would kick in another 1.5 percent. In fiscal 2016, the employee contribution would go to 7.2 percent, while the state and district contributions would hold at 6.8 percent and 1.5 percent; in fiscal 2017, the employee contribution would rise to 7.7 percent, which still would be less than the combined state/district total of 8.3 percent.

If the state were to reduce its contribution below 6.8 percent, employee and district contributions would fall by an equal percentage.

They released a statement thanking Sen. Duncan and the Democrats that worked to improve the bill and called on their members to support it. There are still issues to be settled, so don’t file this one away just yet. The Morning News has more.

On a related note, things were happening for the bill to modify the Employee Retirement System, but it didn’t get to a vote in time on Thursday, so whatever happens there will come from the Senate bill. At last report, labor had dropped its opposition to the ERS bill after some changes had been made. We’ll see what happens from here.

Senate examines pensions

This sort of thing always makes me nervous.

Legislative proposals to shore up Texas’ two largest public pension funds could require teachers and state employees to work years longer than they must today to get full retirement benefits.

For example, a teacher who started in the classroom at age 23 may now take full retirement at age 52; that would increase to age 62 under House and Senate bills that are set for committee votes Monday.

Workers nearing retirement, such as those 50 or older, would not be subject to the new rules. But the changes would apply to about half of the active school employees, including everyone from cafeteria workers to superintendents, and about 64 percent of state employees.

Such major changes are necessary to protect the pension funds for the long term, given rumblings that taxpayers can no longer afford them, said Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.

Under Texas’ pension plans, the state and active members contribute a portion of pay to the funds, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and the Employees Retirement System of Texas. That money is invested over time and guarantees a monthly check to a retiree until death.

“There is real hostility toward pensions. Even though we’ve done a better job in Texas, other states haven’t,” Duncan said, and that is fueling a national effort to convert public pensions to 401(k)-type retirement plans in which the employee bears all the risk of saving enough money for retirement.

New accounting rules could soon make the pensions’ funding gaps look a lot bigger, which, in turn, would expose the pensions to the political attacks that so far haven’t gotten traction in Texas.

“We can survive this if we make fundamental changes,” said Duncan, who has been an ally of public employees and carries a lot of weight on pension issues in the Capitol. “You just can’t throw money at it. You’ve got to make fundamental changes.”

But people who would be affected by those changes say the state is reneging on its promise to public servants.

“There is no excuse for defaulting on the framework of expectations that we have been working under for all these years,” said Hart Murphy, a high school social studies teacher in Austin.

Sen. Duncan’s bill is SB13. It has changed since that story was written. The TCTA has an update:

The TRS bills imposing a minimum age of 62 for full retirement on about half of current school employees passed out of committee Monday. SB 1458 passed the Senate State Affairs Committee on a vote of 6-3, and HB 1884 passed out of House Pensions on a 5-2 vote.

Both bills continue to include these major provisions:

  • a new minimum age of 62 for full retirement benefits for those not meeting the grandfather provision
  • a grandfather provision that exempts employees who, as of Aug. 31, 2014, are at least age 50, or meet a Rule of 70, or have at least 25 years of experience
  • a requirement that the employee meet the Rule of 80/age 62 criteria in order to be eligible for levels 2 or 3 of TRS-Care health insurance (A retiree under age 62 would be eligible only for the catastrophic coverage of level 1.)
  • an increase in active member contributions to TRS to match an increased state contribution
  • a benefit increase of 3 percent for retirees who retired prior to Sept. 1, 1994, capped at $100 per month

The bills were both amended to reduce the penalty for retiring under age 62 from 5 percent per year to 2 percent. This change would apply to employees who have at least five years in the system as of Aug. 31, 2014; anyone with fewer years, and future hires, would still be subject to the 5 percent reduction.

So, for example, a person not included in the grandfather provision, but who has at least five years of service credit by Aug. 31, 2014, who met the Rule of 80 but was only age 57 at retirement, would have had their benefit reduced by 25 percent (five years times 5 percent) under the previous version; under the new version, the penalty would be 10 percent (five years times 2 percent).

The minimum age of 62 is favored by some because of the large positive actuarial impact it has on the TRS pension fund. TCTA and other groups have met extensively with the bill authors (committee chairs Robert Duncan and Bill Callegari) and other legislators, and we can report that these lawmakers are working with members of the budget conference committee to try to get a higher state TRS contribution, which would help further improve the bill (such as extending the grandfather and/or providing an increase to more retirees).

At the very least, the state can kick in more to TRS. If the employees are being asked to sacrifice, the state can give up something as well, to minimize the impact. It’s only fair. The state made a promise and it needs to do everything it can to keep that promise.

January finance reports for area legislative offices

Just to complete the tour of semiannual finance reports, here’s a look at the cash on hand totals for area legislators. First up, the Harris County House delegation.

Patricia Harless, HD126 – $308,221

Dan Huberty, HD127 – $69,058

Wayne Smith, HD128 – $218,425

John Davis, HD129 – $99,962

Allen Fletcher, HD130 – $46,559

Alma Allen, HD131 – $33,479

Bill Callegari, HD132 – $315,904

Jim Murphy, HD133 – $103,538

Sarah Davis, HD134 – $59,871

Gary Elkins, HD135 – $337,111

Gene Wu, HD137 – $32,504

Dwayne Bohac, HD138 – $28,286

Sylvester Turner, HD139 – $404,829

Armando Walle, HD140 – $72,571

Senfronia Thompson, HD141 – $345,547

Harold Dutton, HD142 – $85,127

Ana Hernandez Luna, HD143 – $111,652

Mary Ann Perez, HD144 – $118,832

Borris Miles, HD146 – $54,485

Garnet Coleman, HD147 – $173,683

Jessica Farrar, HD148 – $65,005

Hubert Vo, HD149 – $52,341

Debbie Riddle, HD150 – $67,757

I skipped Carol Alvarado in HD145 since we already know about her. Sarah Davis just finished running an expensive race – she got a much tougher challenge for her first re-election than either of her two most recent predecessors, so she didn’t get to build a cushion. I’m sure she’s start rattling the cup as soon as session is over and the moratorium is lifted. Borris Miles and Huber Vo do a fair amount of self-funding. Gary Elkins and Bill Callegari are in the two Republican held seats that were more Democratic in 2012 than their 2008 numbers suggested. Beyond that, nothing really remarkable. Here’s a look at the representatives from neighboring counties:

Cecil Bell, HD03 – $27,712

Steven Toth, HD15 – $25,832

Brandon Creighton, HD16 – $360,842

John Otto, HD18 – $480,066

Craig Eiland, HD23 – $92,623

Greg Bonnen, HD24 – $47,123

Dennis Bonnen, HD25 – $370,909

Rick Miller, HD26 – $30,561

Ron Reynolds, HD27 – $6,654

John Zerwas, HD28 – $470,622

Phil Stephenson, HD85 – $14,209

Ed Thompson, HD29 – $92,008

Bell, Toth, and Creighton represent Montgomery County – Bell in part, Toth and Creighton in full. Bell’s district also covers Waller County. Eiland is parts of Galveston and all of Chambers, while Greg Bonnen has the rest of Galveston. Eiland has two reports, both of which are linked with the sum of the two as his cash total. Dennis Bonnen and Ed Thompson share Brazoria County. Miller, Reynolds, and Zerwas are in Fort Bend, along with a chunk of Stephenson’s district. John Otto represents Liberty County, among others. Bell, Thompson, and Greg Bonnen are all ParentPAC candidates. Until such time as Democrats are in a position to retake, or at least come close to retaking, a majority in the Lege, sanity on public education is going to depend in no small part on people like them. I truly hope they’re up to that, because the ones that were there in 2011 sure weren’t. Of course, the more reasonable they are the more likely they’ll get teabagged by doofus chuckleheads like Steve Toth, who took out the unquestionably conservative but generally fact-based Rob Eissler last year. Not that Eissler distinguished himself last session, but still. You can perhaps see some higher ambitions in Creighton and Zerwas’ numbers – I have a feeling Zerwas will be very interested in Glenn Hegar’s Senate seat if Hegar makes a statewide run as some people think he will. I wouldn’t be surprised if Creighton has his eyes on CD08 someday.

And finally, the Senate:

Tommy Williams, SD04 – $1,164,109

Dan Patrick, SD07 – $1,485,091

Larry Taylor, SD11 – $183,826

Rodney Ellis, SD13 – $2,016,660

John Whitmire, SD15 – $6,167,111

Joan Huffman, SD17 – $707,914

Glenn Hegar, SD18 – $1,617,306

Hegar drew a four year term and can thus scratch his statewide itch without giving up his Senate seat. Dan Patrick was not so lucky, poor thing. As for Whitmire, all I can say is “wow”. As much cash on hand as Rick Perry, and no reason to believe any of it will be used for a significant purpose any time soon. I don’t even know what to say.

What they’re saying about transportation

So far in all the stories I’ve read about the beginning of the legislative session, education and transportation are two of the biggest items everyone talks about. Here’s a sample from the Chron.

Story #1:

[Rep. Ed] Thompson said funding for transportation is another high priority going into the session.

“The gas tax has not been visited since the early 1990s,” he said. “It’s not generating enough money. We’re going to have to figure out a way to fund highways going forward.”

[Sen. Larry] Taylor agreed. “Transportation is a huge issue particularly in our area,” he said. “We have to get more dollars to our roads and highways, and how we do that is up for debate.”

He said fuel taxes and increased registration fees are possible options.

“To build roads and maintain what you have, you need to have funds,” Taylor added. “And the system we have is not doing the job. We need additional funding.”

I cited that article in my earlier post about education discussion. I wanted to revisit it after I saw what was said in story #2:

Transportation is another key issue, [Rep. Bill] Callegari said.

“Texas is doing really well bringing business to the state, but if we can’t bring adequate transportation, they’re going to stop coming,” he said.

Funding for transportation could be a topic for debate, he added.

“We have a gas tax that we use to fund transportation,” he said. “Cars use less gas, and less gas means less income. We’re going to have to look for ways to finance transportation in the future.”

Improving infrastructure is how Callegari believes the state can protect the economy.

“Our economy is doing well, but it is contingent on making sure we have more funding for transportation, water and rail,” he said. “The most important thing is that we can keep rolling to work and keep moving goods across the state to keep our economy moving.”

So is this genuine concern about finding adequate funds for transportation – and they’ll need a lot of funds – or just boilerplate talking points going in to a new session? With the happy budget news, it seems to be more the former, but we’ll see how that actually plays out. For now at least I will note that the discussion has mostly centered on what the state needs and the need to pay for it – water issues are another common thread – and there’s little to no talk about the need to cut back. Again, maybe this means nothing, but it is a different sound than what we were hearing two years ago. Make of it what you will.

What they’re saying about education

The Chron has a couple of stories focusing on area legislators and their priorities for 2013. There will be many new faces in the Lege and the Senate in this session, so the more we know about what these folks have in mind, the better. This story is about Pearland Rep. Ed Thompson (R, HD29) and Sen. Larry Taylor (R, SD11), who was previously the State Rep. in the Friendswood-anchored HD24. The story covers a lot of ground, but I’m primarily interested in their thoughts on education.

Rep. Ed Thompson

District 29 State Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, said the state’s growing population is an indicator of economic strength.

“People are coming to Texas, because it’s a pro-business state,” Thompson said. “And our unemployment is dropping. It proves that our economy in Texas is improving.”

Thompson hopes these indicators will translate to a higher budget for the next biennium.

“With the economy doing better, revenues are going up. How much there’s going to be and what we’re going to do with it, that’s the question,” he said. “There will be a lot of discussion going back and filling holes in the budget from our last biennium.”

Taylor is optimistic that a stronger economy in the state will prevent the budget shortfall and resulting issues from last session, but he also said there will be several topics of debate in the session.

“Our economy is doing better than it was, but we are still facing a lot of challenges,” he said. “There are a lot of hard decisions ahead.”

Sen. Larry Taylor

Taylor said his second priority after creating a balanced budget is education reform.

“We are in the process of transforming our educational system for the 21st century,” he said.

Among the changes he hopes to see are increased use of technology and more focus on career training.

“We should be reaching out to people with different talents and gifts,” he said. “Not everyone needs to attend a four-year university. We have people gifted with their hands, and we need to reach out to them and help them get good jobs.”

Thompson also wants schools to offer students more career training options.

“Only about 30 percent of jobs in the U.S. require a four-year degree,” he said. “I think we need to allow them to pursue certifications and technical degrees that will allow them to get a job when they finish high school.”

While funding for education remains a hot topic, Thompson believes the issue cannot be fully examined until the court makes a final ruling on multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system.

“I think the Legislature will probably take a wait-and-see position pending the decisions on the lawsuits in the courts,” he said.

Superintendent John Kelly from Pearland Independent School District and Superintendent Fred Brent of Alvin Independent School District also expect the Legislature to delay decisions until the court case is resolved.

The Pearland district has joined one of the lawsuits.

“I would be the most surprised person in the state if the system is not declared unconstitutional,” Kelly said.

Kelly has worked in education for the past 30 years and said over that time, state regulations have increased, while funding has decreased – a challenging combination.

“If people are going to keep passing laws that increase the burden on school districts, they need to provide the funding,” he said. “If they don’t have the funding, they need to reduce the regulatory burden.”

Kelly hopes to also see a reduction in the amount of required testing, particularly the end-of-course exams. He recommends reducing the average number from 15 to around five.

“These 15 tests are in addition to the PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP and dual-credit tests the students are taking,” Kelly said. “It’s not like we don’t have enough tests.”

Kelly believes legislators are aware of the problem. “I think there’s a strong push to address this,” he said. “I think there’s momentum in that direction. The Legislature has heard from so many parents and school districts. They have to listen to that.”

Brent said, “Indicators show that state revenue is increasing, however, not at the rate of population growth and increasing student enrollment.

“The state needs to account for the increased student population growth and look for opportunities to help schools, and fast-growth districts, address the changing facility needs and instructional dynamics that come along with increasing student enrollment.”

Brent hopes the Legislature will make education funding a priority. “I do believe there will be opportunities to put money back into the school funding system that was pulled out, denied or supplanted with federal funds during the previous biennium,” he added.

In previous sessions, state dollars were replaced with federal funds, Brent noted. “However, the federal funds have ceased and it is critical that this funding is restored from the state level,” he said.

It’s encouraging to hear Thompson talk about growing the budget. We’ll see what that means in practice, but it sure beats talk about artificially restricting the budget for ideological purposes. As for education, it’s unfortunate that neither Thompson nor Taylor had anything substantive to say. At this point, talking about technology and vocational training is practically a shibboleth. Everyone agrees these are Good Things – as do, I, sincerely – and as far as I can tell there’s no actual opposition to these points. That doesn’t mean that there will necessarily be legislation addressing those issues, nor does it mean there won’t be a debate over how much to spend on tech and vocational training versus other things, but at the end of the day no one is lobbying against them. Hearing that Thompson and Taylor support them tells us nothing.

What we do need to know boils down to two things. How much of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education last session do you want to see restored, and what do you think about Sen. Patrick’s so-called “school choice” proposal? I will stipulate that the Lege is certain to wait and see what the courts do with the ongoing school finance litigation, and that Sen. Patrick’s proposals are not fully formed yet, and as such I’ll be tolerant of a certain amount of hedging and “wait and see”-ing. But this is where the rubber meets the road, and I want to know what everyone’s general philosophies are, and what they hope to attain or to prevent. Moreover, Thompson is a Parent PAC candidate. The Texas Parent PAC was founded in part to oppose vouchers, and one of their guiding principles is to “ensure that local and state taxes collected to fund preK-12th grade education are used only to fund Texas public schools”. That’s a pretty clear statement. How does Rep. Thompson evaluate Sen. Patrick’s proposal in light of that? It’s important that we know.

A second article about one of the new legislators from Fort Bend does at least partially address these questions.

Rep. Phil Stephenson

For state Rep. Phil Stephenson, freshman Republican for the new District 85, encompassing Rosenberg and Needville, parts of Fort Bend County and Wharton and Jackson counties, education, transportation infrastructure and water are major concerns for him and his constituents.

While public safety, fiscal discipline, economic development and children’s health and education are priorities for seasoned state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican representing Senate District 17, comprising Brazoria, Fort Bend and Harris counties.

Having been a trustee on the board of Wharton County Junior College for 16 years until Stephenson took state office, fixing public education from kindergarten through 12th grade is essential.

“We’ve got to do a better job of K-12 education,” he said. “We have to have a properly educated work force.”

He wants to cut the amount of testing under the State of Texas Assessments for Academic Readiness, put more teachers in classrooms, pay them more and bring in more programs for higher education.

A certified public accountant, Stephenson supports restoring some funding to education but not all the $5.3 billion that was cut in the last session. Rather than raise taxes, he said lawmakers must look at areas to cut funding, such as the Texas Education Agency, to spread the money around.

That doesn’t tell us much – how much funding would Rep. Stephenson want to restore, and how would he pay for it? His actual suggestion sounds like funny accounting to me – but it tells us more than the other story did. Favoring any kind of restoration is good to hear, because not everyone favors that.

Finally, this story gives the school district perspective top billing.

Officials from the Cy-Fair Independent School District are hopeful that the new session will result in more funding for education.

“It’s going to be an interesting session, and I think there will be a lot of focus on education,” said Teresa Hull, associate superintendent, governmental relations and communications for CFISD.

Hull believes that state legislators are receptive to the concerns of educators.

“There’s a lot of support across the state from the school districts and the legislators,” she said. “We’re feeling very optimistic about some positive outcomes.”

Hull said the district has several priorities going into the session.

Adopting a school finance system that is adequately funded and equitable is at the top of the district’s wish list – which would include restoring the previous biennium’s funding cuts.

Hull acknowledged, however, that the Legislature may not be able to move forward on the issue until the court makes a final ruling on multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system.

[…]

Hull said that while the state might put education finance on the back burner, there are other school-related areas that can be addressed.

“The ones I think we’re going to see get the most attention right off the bat will be accountability and testing,” she said.

The district would like to see a reduction in the amount of high-stakes testing, as well as the elimination of the requirement that an end-of-course exam count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.

Hull said CFISD also wants districts to have more flexibility to manage classroom personnel based on individual school and student needs.

“Let us decide how we want to allocate money into those programs instead of dictating how much and where it will go,” she said.

Hull also hopes to gain more local control for the districts.

This would include the elimination of a standard school start date.

She said that the district plans to oppose legislation that would divert funding from public education, such as voucher programs.

Instead, she prefers policies that expand on public school choice programs that already exist.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to choice,” she said. “But the idea of public funds going to private and parochial schools is concerning. It diverts public funds from public education.”

Cy-Fair is of course in SD07, home of “school choice” bill author Sen. Patrick, whom Hull praises as a “good listener”. We’ll see about that. The story does also include quotes from a legislator:

District 132 State Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, said several educators have communicated concerns about the high number of tests required for students to graduate.

“They have to take 15 or more tests to graduate from high school. A lot of people feel that’s just too much emphasis on testing,” he said. “I’ve talked to teachers, parents and superintendents, and they just think it’s overdone.”

Callegari would also like to see more emphasis on career and technical training.

“These are not menial jobs – they are very important jobs,” he said. “We need to bring a stronger advocacy for career and technical training, making sure we provide the opportunity to get training and not precluding anyone from going to college.”

Again with vocational training, which is to say nothing much, plus some concerns about testing, which is both good and the continuation of a theme. But nothing about restoring funds or vouchers. These are the questions we need answered, and if you see any story in which a legislator is quoted on matters relating to education but these questions aren’t addressed, the article is incomplete. We need to know, and we need to know now before the debating and voting begin.

Interview with Silvia Mintz

Silvia Mintz

Our third candidate this week is one of the more interesting people you’ll meet this cycle. Silvia Mintz came to the US from Guatemala when she was 17. She worked as a janitor and a nanny, learned English, and eventually wound up at the University of St. Thomas, where she graduated with a degree in political science, and the South Texas College of Law. This KTRK story provides a concise biography; you can get more from my post on her in January, and this La Voz article if you are Spanish-enabled. She was also quoted a fair amount in the Chron story on the recent Latino summit, though for some reason it didn’t identify her as a candidate for office. Which she is – she is running in HD132 against Rep. Bill Callegari, who has not had an opponent in his Katy-area district since the 2001 redistricting. Here’s the interview:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

Silvia Mintz

Another thing I need to do now that the filing deadline has passed is try to learn about some of the late entrants. It turns out that Silvia Mintz, who filed to run in HD132, has a heck of a story to tell.

Twelve years ago, Silvia Mintz came to America with little more than a dream and the desire to earn a living and support her family. She worked minimum-wage jobs as a janitor and nanny just to make ends meet. But to see her today, you would never guess she started out from such humble beginnings.

That’s because over the course of these past 12 years, Mintz has created an entirely new life for herself. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas, graduated from law school, passed the bar exam and co-founded her own law firm in Houston, Plake & Mintz, PLLC.

Read it and be impressed. I look forward to meeting her during the campaign. Thanks in part to a large influx of new residents out in the western part of Harris County HD132 was a lot less red than it has been in the past in 2008 – Adrian Garcia got nearly 46% there – and incumbent Bill Callegari hasn’t had a Democratic opponent since 2000, when he was in HD130, so he may be a wee bit out of practice on the campaign trail. If she can raise some money and get some grassroots support going, this race could be a sleeper.

Blow before you drive

MADD wants to make it harder for people with a drunk driving conviction to get behind the wheel.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is again pushing Texas legislators to require ignition interlocks for people convicted of their first driving while intoxicated offense.

The ignition interlock device tests a driver’s breath to confirm he or she hasn’t been drinking before the car will start.

“We really want to see this on first-time offenders in order to prohibit the third or fourth time down the road,” said Hope Rangel of Humble, executive director for MADD’s Southeast Texas region.

Proposed legislation, including bills filed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and state Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, calls for the interlock to be installed for offenders convicted of their first DWI who are placed on probation.

Two similar measures filed in the last legislative session in 2007 died in committee.

Callegari has HB1110. Ellis has SB170, which has a companion bill in the House, HB379 by Linda Harper-Brown.

Current Texas law requires interlocks as a condition of probation only for repeat offenders or those with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15 in any alcohol-related driving offense.

The device also is required for those released on bail while awaiting trial if they are charged with repeat DWI offenses or if they hurt or kill someone while driving drunk.

Although the proposed legislation is encouraging, Rangel said, many convicted drunken drivers in Harris County are opting for jail time instead of probation. If an offender chooses to go to jail, no interlock is installed.

Drunken drivers put on probation have to pay for the device — which can average about $150 a month — so they might find jail more appealing, she said.

Actually, there are quite a few other reason why these offenders might find jail more appealing. They were laid out in a Chron story from 2006 on why so many first-time DUI offenders chose jail over probation:

Facing the stiff costs and strict rules that come with probation, thousands of convicted drivers in recent years have decided spending time behind bars is the better option.

And in a county already struggling with crowded jails, that’s a disturbing trend. Sentences can be short enough to mean losing only one weekend and a vacation day, but some end up behind bars as long as half a year.

“Because of the number of sanctions and what the defendants feel is the ‘hassle factor,’ many opt not to go on probation,” said County Criminal Court at Law Judge Sherman Ross. “Financially, it’s more expensive.”

The choice of jail time also may mean fewer options for treating the alcohol problems that land many drivers there.

“Probation has become so onerous that there’s no incentive to take it,” said Bob Wessels, manager of the county criminal courts at law. “If we really want people in treatment, we aren’t providing incentives.”

Of the 6,685 DWI defendants in the county who accepted plea agreements last year, 2,894 (43 percent) took jail time rather than probation, Wessels said. In 2000, fewer than 10 percent (479 of 5,034) chose jail.

Last year’s figure, though significant, did represent a drop from 2004, when it reached 52 percent. Robert Pelton, past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, attributes the decline at least partly to lawyers not doing all they should for their clients.

“I think any attorney is doing a disservice to their client by putting them on probation,” he said.

Pelton, a defense attorney for 31 years, said he generally advises clients to take the jail time because probation can be so arduous, financially and otherwise. Probation for DWI carries another risk: If it’s revoked, a judge can pile on even more jail time than originally would have been ordered.

This, added to the fact that Harris County has the highest per capita rate of probation revocations in Texas, means it may make more sense to burn some vacation time behind bars, Pelton said.

Grits blogged about this at the time. It’s yet another reason why Harris County’s jails are overcrowded. It seems to me that if we got serious about this problem and removed some of the perverse disincentives for choosing probation, we could accomplish MADD’s objective without the need for new legislation and do a lot of good for the criminal justice system and the taxpayers of Harris County. Of course, that’s hard work, and passing a new law is comparatively easy. Point is, we could have already achieved this goal, without needing to wait for another opportunity in the Lege.

By the way, the story notes that installing the interlock can already be a condition of bail or probation. It might be nice to know why it’s only done sometimes and not as a matter of course before we require it.

Back to the original story:

Research suggests lawbreakers with prior DWI convictions are a serious problem. MADD claims such offenders comprise nearly one-third of the alcohol-related dangers on the road.

Last year, Texas had 124,662 residents with three or more DWI convictions, according to the state Department of Transportation. The agency reported 18,271 other Texans had five DWI convictions or more.

One person had 22 convictions, the most of any driver in the state, TxDOT said.

Drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes were eight times more likely to have a prior DWI conviction than sober drivers involved in a fatality, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in 2007.

[…]

Not everyone supports MADD’s proposal.

The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, is urging the Texas Legislature to reject the bills.

Institute spokeswoman Sarah Longwell said ignition interlocks for first-time DWI convicts “ignore the root cause of today’s drunk-driving problem: hard-core alcohol abusers.”

Well, okay, but one could argue that those hard-core abusers will have a first offense, at which time they will get the ignition lock. For however long that lasts, anyway – the text of the Ellis/Harper-Brown bill only says “The court shall order the ignition interlock device to remain installed for at least half of the period of supervision”, which strikes me as more relevant for probation than for someone who chose jail time. I suppose they’re arguing more money should be put into treatment, and if so I certainly agree. I don’t see how that’s incompatible with this bill, however.

The bottom line is that while I agree with the goal of this effort, I have problems with the means being proposed to attain it. Let’s fix what’s wrong with probation first.