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Eliot Shapleigh

State Sen. Jose Rodriguez to retire

Sad to see him go.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez

State Sen. José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat, announced Friday that he will not seek reelection to the upper chamber in 2020.

Rodriguez informed El Paso colleagues of his decision in a text late Thursday night that was obtained by The Texas Tribune. He made the announcement official at his district office.

“I started my tenure in the Senate with one of the worst budgets in the state’s modern history,” Rodríguez said in a written announcement on his retirement. “Fortunately, my last session was one where state leaders finally gave long overdue attention to our public schools.”

Rodríguez was first elected in 2010 to represent Senate District 29. The district, which hugs the Texas-Mexico border, is historically considered Democratic; it covers El Paso, Culberson, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties.

The senator’s retirement announcement comes a day after the Senate Democratic Caucus announced that Rodríguez would step down as chair at the end of the year. State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, will replace him at the post.

It’s unclear who will announce bids for Rodríguez’s seat. One potential candidate is state Rep. César Blanco, a fellow El Paso Democrat who serves as chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.

In case you’re wondering, Beto got 74% in SD29 in 2018, Lupe Valdez got 67%, and Paul Sadler got 61% against Ted Cruz in 2012. So yeah, safe Dem district. A State Rep. like César Blanco could certainly win it, or some other politician from within El Paso; Sen. Rodríguez had been the El Paso district attorney before he won the seat in 2010, following the retirement of Sen. Eliot Shapleigh. Sen. Rodríguez was a strong progressive and a good Senator, and whoever succeeds him will have big shoes to fill. I wish him all the best with whatever comes next.

Texas On The Brink 2013

Quantifying what we long suspected to be true.

TxOTB

Texas remains behind most other states on issues related to educational achievement, public health and the environment, according to the latest version of the “Texas on the Brink” study released Monday.

The sixth edition of the report from the Texas Legislative Study Group, a left-leaning research caucus in the House, says the state has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents, ranks 50th in the percentage of the population with a high school degree, and has the highest carbon emissions of any state. The study ranked the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Texas legislators should prioritize funding and support for education to improve quality of life in Texas, said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chairman of the Legislative Study Group, at a news conference Monday about the study. The state should protect Texas’ future by restoring the cuts made last session to public education and “making sure the amount of money that goes into the budget is growing the budget appropriately for the new students coming in and for the resources they need to be successful,” he added. He also said an expansion of Medicaid would improve health care access for Texans.

The report also examines Texas’ ranking in areas like women’s issues, workforce and public safety.

You can read the report here, and the LSG’s press release here. Former Sen. Eliot Shapleigh released the first Texas On The Brink report in 2003, with the LSG taking it on in 2011 after Shapleigh’s retirement. I encourage you to look at the report, it’s mostly a collection of facts and figures in easy-to-understand pieces. Two tidbits from the section on Women’s Issues that may be of interest: Texas ranks #47 in women’s voter registration, and #51 in women’s voter turnout; on the flip side of that, we are #4 in the percentage of women living in poverty. Think there may be a connection there? Consider that another item for Battleground Texas’ to do list. BOR has more.

(In case you’re curious, the source for the first two figures is the US Census Bureau, Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: November 2010. The source for the latter figure is the Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Adult Poverty Rate by Gender, States (2010-2011). Every fact given in the report has a similar citation.)

“Texas On The Brink”

Texas On The Brink is a report that has been produced annually since 2003, originally by State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh but now being continued by the Legislative Study Group. It shows how Texas compares to other states in a variety of categories:

1. State Taxes

2. Education

3. State of the Child

4. Health Care

5. Health and Well-Being

6. Women’s Issues

7. Access to Capital

8. Environment

9. Workforce

10. Quality of Life

11. Public Safety

12. Democracy

If you go through it, you’ll notice a theme: Texas is generally at or near the top in bad things – pollution, child poverty, dropouts – and at or near the bottom in good things – access to health care, graduation rates, and so on. You’d think that for a state that others are being told they should emulate, we ought to be doing better than that. I guess it’s a matter of what’s important to you. Check it out, or grab a downloadble copy for easy printing. The Trib has more, and the LSG press release about this is beneath the fold.

(more…)

More arguing over health care costs

There are many things to say about this.

The debate over how much federal health care reform will cost Texas put the state’s health and human services chief on the defensive on Wednesday, as he presented a budget estimate to lawmakers that is 20 times higher than federal projections and questioned the mathematics education of an influential U.S. House chairman.

HHSC Commissioner Tom Suehs estimates that health care reform’s top-dollar items — Medicaid expansion to roughly 2.1 million Texans, plus heightened reimbursement rates for primary care physicians — will cost the state more than $27 billion between 2014 and 2024, up $3 billion from his most recent estimate.

But the Congressional Budget Office’s numbers are far different. Between 2010 and 2019, the agency estimates, the reform will cost Texas $1.4 billion. A letter written last month by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, notes that Texas’ estimate is more than the $20 billion the reform is expected to cost all state governments combined in the next decade.

“I don’t know where he went to school and got his math education. But it’s not right,” Suehs said of Waxman, speaking at a joint hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services and State Affairs committees. (The answer? UCLA.) “I can’t rationalize the CBO’s budget numbers when I know that I’ve got a higher population of uninsured than most states have total population.”

Where to begin?

1. With all due respect to Tom Suehs, who deserves credit for his handling of the food stamp fiasco as well as for admitting that the Affordable Care Act will also lead to many cost reductions for Texas, I’ll take the CBO’s numbers over his any day.

2. As State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh said, it’s quite odd for the Lege to be looking at budget projections that begin four years out from now. The earliest the Lege will have to deal with the actual effects of the Medicaid changes is likely to be 2013, with the bulk of it beginning in 2015; as Sen. Shapleigh also noted, about 85% of the cost Suehs is projecting doesn’t start accruing till 2017. The 2011 Lege, which has to deal with a budget deficit, school finance, and oh yeah, redistricting, can put it off for now. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be looking ahead to the future, but a lot of people who are in the Lege now – including Sen. Shapleigh – won’t be there in 2013 or later. A very different cast of characters, and not just in the Lege, will be making the actual decisions about how to deal with all this. And the odds are, the Medicaid stuff that Suehs is fretting over will have been revised again by that time.

3. Something that always seems to get overlooked in all these discussions is that whatever amount of extra money Texas winds up spending on health care, that money will be spent on making many people’s lives better and healthier. That’s something we should have been doing all along but are just now being forced to do because things like cutting Dan Patrick’s property taxes have been considered a higher priority.

4. Finally, even if the state hasn’t been paying for these health care expenses, that doesn’t mean no one has. Ask your county hospital district administrator what will be the effect of having millions more people on any form of health insurance, be it Medicaid or something else, and see what he or she has to say. What the ACA will do, among many other things, is spread that burden around more equitably. Which is just fine by me. The DMN has more.

Once again with the Driver Responsibility Program

The Trib takes a look at Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program and the grassroots effort to repeal it.

The stories scroll by one after another on an online petition to repeal a law called the Driver Responsibility Act. Nearly 4,000 angry and devastated drivers, who have either lost their licenses or in some way dealt with the exorbitant surcharges of the program, have lent their names to the effort — just a fraction of the more than 1.2 million Texas drivers who have lost their licenses because of unpaid surcharges.

Texas legislators approved the Driver Responsibility Act in 2003 to encourage safer driving and raise money for Texas roads and hospital trauma centers. The program attaches hefty state surcharges to traffic citations like speeding, driving without insurance, driving without a license and driving while intoxicated. In addition to paying the fines and court costs associated with the ticket, drivers must pay an annual surcharge ranging from $100 to $2,000 or their license is suspended.

Trouble is, the program isn’t generating the kind of revenue that lawmakers hoped. The Texas Department of Public Safety has sent Texas drivers bills worth nearly $1.8 billion since 2003. But most of that money — more than 60 percent — has gone uncollected. And more than 1.2 million drivers have lost their licenses because they didn’t or couldn’t pay up.

I am not opposed to the idea of this program, but it’s been a failure in every way since it was adopted in 2003. It was intended as a new source of revenue for the state during our last budget crisis, but it has taken in far less than projected. It was intended to enhance public safety and encourage compliance with the law, but as Grits noted it has done neither, mostly because it has caused so many people to lose their licenses. It’s possible that some aspect of this legislation could be saved and rehabbed into something useful, but it’s hard to argue with the assertions that it should just be scrapped. At the very least, we need for the indigency program to take effect. This thing is broken; why are we still using it?

Well, let’s not forget that the main point of this was a source of revenue, and in these tough budget times, no one wants to do away with a source of revenue that doesn’t have a powerful constituency agitating about it.

Tamara Shippy, a 25-year-old Houston-area college student, started the online petition effort in 2007 after both she and her fiancé lost their driver’s licenses. “This is nothing more than a revenue-generating program,” she says. “That just is really appalling to me.” Even as DPS is trying to change the program to make it easier for some to pay, the chorus of voices calling for its abolition continues to grow.

As I observed back in 2007, you usually hear that kind of talk in the context of red light cameras. And as I also observed back then, some of the folks who yap the loudest about what a nasty, greedy revenue grab red light cameras are have been completely silent about the Driver Responsibility Program. I’ll leave it to you to decide why that might be.

Those uncollected surcharges

Here’s an update on the Texas Driver Responsibility Program, which was created in 2003 as a way to raise revenue by adding hefty extra fees to certain moving violations.

“It’s a complete failure,” said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation to kill the program last year. Shapleigh was able to insert language into a related bill that would waive surcharges for indigent Texans, but it won’t be effective until the fall of 2011, and then only if it has no significant impact on the state budget.

“What’s happening is that people can’t pay their fines, and then they lose their driver’s license. That means they can’t get to work,” he said. “It has a snowball effect that’s hurting a large number of citizens.”

[…]

But the program never worked as planned. More than 60 percent of the surcharges – $1.05 billion – has not been paid. Of the 1.9 million Texas drivers who have been told to pay, about 1.2 million have not, nearly two-thirds of those in the Driver Responsibility Program. If drivers don’t pay, their licenses are automatically suspended 30 days after their initial conviction.

The state has collected more than $672 million, but none of it has gone to highways. And just a fraction has gone to trauma centers, said Shapleigh, who noted that the original push for the program came during the state’s budget crunch in 2003, when lawmakers were scrambling for new revenue sources. The money is sitting in the state Treasury. The law that created the program required that collections pass a certain threshold before money is allocated.

Drunken-driving offenses carry the biggest surcharges – $1,000 a year for three years on the first conviction and $2,000 a year when the driver’s blood-alcohol level is twice the legal limit. Driving with an invalid license or without insurance draws a $250-a-year surcharge for three years.

Critics of the program said many of those affected by the surcharges are first-time offenders, students, single parents and low-income residents faced with the choice of either complying with the law or paying for necessities such as food, rent, car repairs and medical bills.

The financial penalties are so high that they are counterproductive and provide an incentive for people not to pay, the critics contend. And the surcharges come as a surprise; there’s been little effort by the state to inform the public that the program exists. Police typically don’t mention them upon issuing a ticket, and drivers are notified, often months later, in a letter from the state.

Hard to imagine a program more efficiently designed to fail than this one. Note that none of what’s written here is really new – we’ve known since at least 2007 that all this has done is create more fugitives and scofflaws. As of that time, the unpaid amount was $620 million, so you can’t even say that the rate of growth has slowed. It’s instructive to compare the Driver Responsibility Program, which was billed from the beginning as a revenue enhancement for the state – note State Sen. Steve Ogden’s lamentation in that last link about how those who haven’t paid the fines are costing the rest of us more in taxes – to red light camera fines, which are both much smaller in amount and constitute the entire sanction, while DRP charges are add-ons to an original citation. I’ll say again, I wonder why the Michael Kuboshes of the world haven’t raised a fuss about them. You can draw your own conclusions, I guess. Grits has more.

Shapleigh not running for anything

It’s a shame, because I was really looking forward to being able to vote for him for something, but at least State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh will be an active participant in the 2010 election.

Shapleigh, 57, said he considered running for the governorship but changed his mind once Houston Mayor Bill White stepped into the race.

[…]

“Bill White is the best candidate in decades,” Shapleigh said. “He is proven. He is responsible. He will deal with the challenges of our times. He can win the election.”

Shapleigh, who has been a vocal critic of Gov. Rick Perry, continued his criticisms Monday as he called on voters to select new leadership.

The senator said he would go door-to-door, make campaign stops and write op-ed pieces to help White get elected.

“The best thing that I can do, that we all can do as a state, is to help him win this important office,” Shapleigh said.

Needless to say, I’m down with that. Given that we’ll have good choices for most of the statewide offices, and given that Shapleigh was never going to run for Comptroller or Land Commissioner, I can cope with his decision to sit this one out. But honestly, I wish he were running for re-election at this point. I wish him well in his return to private life, and I certainly hope that if he succeeds in helping elect Bill White Governor that there will be a prominent place for him in White’s administration. Thanks to the Trib for the link.

Roundup and reaction to White’s announcement

Bill White isn’t officially a candidate for Governor yet, but he’s already picked up endorsements from State Sens. Kirk Watson and Eliot Shapleigh. I feel confident that many more such endorsements will follow, perhaps even before he commits to the race.

For now, at least, the other Democratic contenders for Governor are still in the race. I figure Kinky is in till the end – he has books to sell, after all. Shami has already sunk a bunch of money into TV ads, so it doesn’t make sense for him to decide anything until that runs its course. Alvarado is an afterthought. It makes sense for Hank to switch, either to Land Commish or back to Ag Commish, but I expect he’ll dig in his heels a bit. He got into this race for a reason, and he won’t get out of it without one. He could wind up staying in, but I think a lot of folks will want him to switch. He’s the one to watch.

(Speaking of ads, I saw that KBH for Governor ad last night during the local news. My God, it was as awful as I’d heard. Hard to believe she was once seen as an unstoppable juggernaut in this race.)

Speaking of the other races, there’s already been talk about who else might run for the other offices now that White would be at the top of the ticket. I don’t want to get too far out there in the speculation game, but let me suggest a name anyway: State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for Lite Guv. She isn’t on the ballot in 2010, so it’s a free shot for her, she would provide a nice bit of regional and ethnic diversity, and she would generate as much excitement for that office as she did as a potential candidate for Governor. There would be some issues to work out first – she would have to want to do it, and there’s the matter of her endorsing John Sharp in the Senate race – but it’s nothing insurmountable. I have no idea what anyone else is thinking here, but this is what I think.

Ross Ramsay lists winners and losers as a result of White’s likely move. I would suggest that it’s too early to call Sharp a winner – we still don’t know for sure that there will be a Senate race before 2012, after all, and for all we know someone else could get into it by then. I’ll say this much – Sharp no longer has an excuse for his lousy fundraising in that race. I’d also suggest that a potential loser is Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. If White’s entry into the Governor’s race is the boost for Democrats in Harris County that a lot of people I’ve talked to think it will be, that may attract a stronger candidate to the County Judge’s race, and could put Emmett in jeopardy. Which would be a bit ironic, given the link White and Emmett have for their work during Hurricane Ike, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

I’m sure there will be a lot more to talk and think about between now and December 4, when White will announce his decision. In the meantime, here’s more from Burka and Swartz, BOR, PDiddie, Hal, Juanita, John Coby, Erik Vidor, Andrea White (not actually related to these events, but amusing to read), and Evan Smith.

UPDATE: Forgot to add in Rick Casey, too.

UPDATE: Here’s Purple Texas.

Shami and Shapleigh

Farouk Shami will make his entry into the Democratic primary for Governor official tomorrow afternoon at his business’ headquarters in Houston; details are on his website. The Trib gives us a peek behind the curtain.

Shami, running as a Democrat, has lined up an experienced gang to run his campaign: campaign manager Joel Coon, general consultants Robert Jara and Dan McClung, pollster Ben Tulchin, and media specialist Tad Devine.

Coon has worked on several campaigns, helping Democrat Travis Childers win a Republican congressional seat in Mississippi in 2008. Jara and McClung are old hands at Texas and especially Houston races. Tulchin is a California-based pollster who works on races around the country. Devine was an advisor to John Kerry and to Al Gore and has managed several campaigns in other countries.

The field for the Democratic primary is crowded, but more than half the voters are undecided. The names at this point include Felix Alvarado, Kinky Friedman, Hank Gilbert, Tom Schieffer, and maybe Ronnie Earle and Eliot Shapleigh, who haven’t declared but have been making gubernatorial noises. In a UT/Texas Tribune poll earlier this month, Friedman had 19 percent and Schieffer had 10 percent with everyone else in the single digits. Undecided had 55 percent, leaving plenty of room for new candidates.

I think the Ronnie Earle ship has sailed by now. I’m not aware of any buzz around him, haven’t really heard his name get mentioned in weeks, and at this point it’s hard to imagine him getting any traction. Shapleigh’s an interesting case. Since his announcement that he was not running for re-election to the Senate, it has appeared that he’s interested in running for something statewide, a subject that another Trib story explores. With five candidates already in the race, it seems to me it’d be a crapshoot – 20% of the vote might be enough to get into a runoff in a six-person field, and any of the five declared candidates strike me as being capable of doing that. Lite Guv, on the other hand, is wide open (yeah, yeah, Marc Katz – like I said, wide open) and if you’re really lucky you might wind up opposed by some non-officeholder selected by a committee. Certainly the odds of being on the ballot in November are much better in the latter case.

Back to Shami, about whom I daresay there will be many questions asked by primary voters, starting with “Who’s he?” and working towards “What has he done before now?”

Shami’s business, founded in 1986, took off when he signed a distribution deal with Austin-based Armstrong McCall. John McCall is a part owner of Farouk Systems now, and the two men — particularly McCall — were the biggest contributors four years ago to Kinky Friedman’s campaign for governor. Shami gave Friedman $24,400 for that run; McCall was in for $1.3 million and was listed, until last February, as Friedman’s campaign treasurer.

Shami also contributed to former Rep. Martha Wong, R-Houston, who lost a 2006 race to Democrat Ellen Cohen. And in May of this year, he gave $5,000 to Republican Ted Cruz, who had his sights set on a run for attorney general. In federal races, he’s contributed to candidates of all political stripes this decade, including Democrat Hillary Clinton, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston, Houston Mayor Bill White (for the U.S. Senate race), Ralph Nader (in 2004 and 2008), Tennessee Democrat Graham Leonard, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the same month he gave to Cruz), and the Republican National Committee (most recently in 2007).

Yeah, that’s going to cause some heartburn. All I can say is I hope he has a good, pithy explanation for folks who ask him about it. Beyond that, I look forward to seeing how his launch goes tomorrow.

Shapleigh’s successor

Via Greg, the El Paso Times runs down the possible contenders for the to-be-vacated Senate seat of Eliot Shapleigh.

Potential Democratic candidates include County Attorney José Rodríguez and state Reps. Joe Pickett and Norma Chávez.

Two Republicans, businessman Dee Margo and former state Rep. Pat Haggerty, also said they were interested in succeeding Shapleigh.

Margo, who lost to Shapleigh in 2006, said he may consider another run. Margo is chief executive officer of JDW Insurance.

As for Haggerty, he said he might try a political comeback by running for the Senate.

“Of course, once you hear about it, you gotta take a look at it,” Haggerty said. “(But) I’m an old man and this is a young man’s game.” He is 65.

Soon after Shapleigh’s noontime news conference in which he announced his decision to step down, Chávez said she would form an exploratory committee for the Senate seat.

“I’ve been inundated with phone calls of support to look into running,” she said. “Count me in as a contender.”

Hours later, Rodríguez announced that he was forming his own exploratory committee.

“I’m going to consider running and I’m gauging the community’s support,” Rodríguez said.

Pickett said that soon after Shapleigh’s announcement he received more than $250,000 in commitments should he decide to run for the Senate.

“I’m the chair for the House Transportation Committee, and that’s a pretty hard thing to give up for El Paso,” Pickett said.

Interestingly, Capitol Inside suggests Haggerty, who got primaried out of his State Rep seat in 2008 by Margo, who had the backing of Tom Craddick and Rick Perry, might run as a Democrat. There’s a certain logic to that, but it’s hard to see how he wins a Democratic primary against established contenders like Chavez. Had he made a declaration after the 2008 primary that he was quitting Team R, and then made a visible effort to assist Democratic candidates that November, such as State Rep. Joe Moody, the guy who ultimately beat Margo (he teased at it but never came out and said it), that would put him in a stronger position now and wouldn’t make him look like an opportunist. Too late for that, I’m afraid. So while it has a certain appeal, I just don’t see it happening.

On a related note, Burka hears that Shapleigh might be looking at Lite Guv as well. As you know, I love that idea. But I do share Greg’s concern that unless Shapleigh can collect a few million bucks for his effort in short order, he’ll be a target the Republicans will use to attack the entire ticket with glee. The best thing about Shapleigh is that he’s such a breath of fresh air on so many issues. Without the means to get him out there in front of the voters on his terms, that won’t be of much good.

Shapleigh not running for re-election

This is a big loss for the Senate, but there’s a potential upside that’s even bigger.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, El Paso’s tireless adovcate for the poor and underpriveleged, announced today that he will not be running for re-election in 2010.

“While other public service may lie ahead, I will not run for the Texas Senate in 2010,” Shapleigh said in a statement. “In public life, especially in Texas during this decade, doing what’s right, not what’s expedient is what matters. I am grateful to the people who elected me for the opportunity to serve.”

Sen. Shapleigh was and is a strong progressive voice, one of the more incisive critics of Rick Perry and the Republican leadership. His voice will definitely be missed, and as Greg notes, there’s a nonzero chance that seat could flip, especially post-redistricting. Just another thing to worry about.

So what’s the upside? Shapleigh might be gearing up for a statewide run, perhaps for Lite Guv. That would be awesome and a shot of adrenaline for the Democratic activist base. Via BOR, Brandi Grissom says on Twitter that we’ll know within three weeks, and that he’s not looking at Congress. I can’t imagine he’d be interested in the US Senate at this point, so that leaves state government, and Lite Guv seems like the best fit. Unfortunately, Shapleigh is not exactly a moneybags – he’d have to step up the fundraising PDQ to make such a race more than a quixotic one. But we can hope, and that’s what I’m hoping for right now. Postcards and Burka have more.

UPDATE: No, no, not Governor. We have enough candidates for Governor. We need a strong candidate for Lite Governor. C’mon, Sen. Shapleigh, you know you want to run the upper chamber!

Virtual border fence: Still a failure

Our Governor in action.

Gov. Rick Perry’s border Web camera program has run out of money, and in its first full year of operation failed to meet nearly every law enforcement goal.

Last year, Perry gave the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition a $2 million federal grant to install cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border and broadcast the footage live over the Internet. An internal report showed that a fraction of the 200 cameras Perry wanted on the border were installed, and that Internet border patrollers produced a handful of drug busts and a scattering of arrests.

[…]

Perry is seeking another $2 million to prop up the project that was supposed to become self-sustaining. After being shown a report that indicated the cameras fell far short of their goals, Perry’s staff produced a new, revised report that put the program in a more positive light.

The grant that financed the program has expired, and the sheriffs coalition says that without more funding, the cameras will go dark.

The first thing you need to know is that this was a federal grant that paid for those cameras. Darn that fascistic federal government and its dirty, dirty money! I mean, if we know one thing right now it’s that Republican governors just can’t handle temptation.

Original goals for the program were unrealistic, said sheriffs coalition executive director Don Reay. He said the cameras have been a success.

“We’re hoping there will be a new (grant) offered for next year,” he said.

In its first full year, the camera Web site drew more than 39 million hits and caught the attention of national and international media.
But interviews and reports the El Paso Times obtained indicate the nearly 125,000 “virtual Texas deputies” registered on the site led law enforcement to just eight drug busts and 11 arrests.

[…]

The sheriffs coalition was to install 200 cameras, but only 17 were up and running. That’s about one camera for every 70 miles of the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border.

The cameras were expected to generate 1,200 arrests. The sheriffs coalition reported 11.

Internet border watchers’ reports led to the referral of about 300 undocumented immigrants to U.S. Border Patrol officials. That was about 6 percent of the 4,500 referrals the program was expected to generate.

Reay explained the gap between the objectives and the results in this response on the report: “Original goals were not realistic. Problems encountered was an element of the press who did everything within their power to negate the problem (sic).”

Boy, if only being a naysayer granted the power to negate problems! I’d be, like, a superhero or something by now.

After questions about results in the year-end report and whether funding would be renewed for the cameras, Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger produced a different report.

The newly produced report showed objectives radically reduced from the original goals.

Instead of 200 cameras, it said the sheriffs coalition was expected to install only 15, making it appear as if the group exceeded its goals by installing 17 cameras.

The target number of arrests was revised downward from 1,200 to 25, much closer to the 11 arrests the sheriffs coalition actually made.

The original objectives, Cesinger said, were supposed to have been revised after a six-month progress report earlier this year showed the program was far from meeting its targets. There was some sort of “glitch” in the reporting process, she said.

If at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards. That could be Rick Perry’s campaign slogan. I must note that they did tell us that they intended to define success down six months ago, so we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Despite the small number of arrests, the few cameras installed and the failure of the program to become self-sustaining, Cesinger said, Perry was convinced the program deterred crime and should be funded again.

“The bad guys know there are an extra pair eyes on the border,” she said.

[…]

University of Texas at El Paso anthropology Professor Josiah Heyman, a border expert, called the Texas Border Watch program “expensive and dumb.”

Seventeen cameras on the vast expanse of borderland between Mexico and Texas, he said, would do little to stop the illegal flow of drugs and people into the United States.

“The cameras out in open country are just completely a distraction from the elephant in the room,” Heyman said.

Most contraband that enters the country, he said, comes through the ports of entry. The backpacks and Hummers full of drugs that come through the brush country between the ports are small potatoes compared with the semi-trucks and train cars loaded down with drugs and people that often make it through the complex and overloaded land port security system.

“Two million dollars would be a drop in the bucket, but it would be an a lot more effective drop in the bucket if it was focused on ports of entry instead of wide-open spaces,” Heyman said.

The irony of all this, of course, is that Rick Perry is the first in line to call all kinds of government spending “wasteful”. It’s just that by some strange coincidence, the things that he considers wasteful are all programs he doesn’t like. Here we have convincing empirical evidence that this is a wasteful program, one that doesn’t come close to meeting the goals that were set for it, and by spending money on this program we’re not spending an equivalent amount on something else that actually would be effective. But it’s something that Rick Perry likes, for whatever the reason, and so he wants to keep shoveling money into it, convinced that it can work better if we just keep trying. You really couldn’t come up with a better illustration of the emptiness of “wasteful government spending” rhetoric if you tried.

Wendy Davis

I’ve been a fan of freshman State Sen. Wendy Davis since I interviewed her last year at the state Democratic convention. You could tell she was smart and ambitious, and if given the chance could really go places. I’ve been happy with her actions so far in her first session – as this nice profile note, she has not been timid about making noise and getting stuff done. She’s also duly impressed her colleagues:

Senators in both parties, as well as outside analysts, describe the Harvard-educated lawyer as an energetic hard worker who meticulously researches the issues and displays an independent streak. Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee on which Davis serves, is a big admirer, saying she is on track to become “one of the Senate’s very top leaders in a very short period of time.”

“I’ve been here 20 years,” he said. “She appears to me to be one of the brightest and most capable freshmen I’ve seen to date.”

Davis, 45, works closely with Republicans Sens. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Chris Harris of Arlington, the two other senators who represent parts of Tarrant County, although she and Nelson split on a major transportation funding bill backed by North Texas political leaders. Davis, who was heavily involved in transportation on the Fort Worth council, has been a leading advocate of the funding bill while Nelson has opposed it.

In addition to Carona, Davis says her other mentors in the Senate are Democrats Kirk Watson of Austin, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and Rodney Ellis of Houston.

“If you look at the agenda that they pursue, they’re very much in keeping with what I believe is important,” she said in taking stock of her record with five weeks left in the session. “If I could put a label on the agenda I brought here, I’d call it a populist agenda. . . . I feel good that we’ve advanced the discussion on some important issues, and we’ve had some success already.”

I foresee a bright future, too, maybe a spot on the statewide ticket some day. No surprise that the Tarrant County GOP wants to paint a target on her back for 2012. I say good luck trying. The county is trending the right way, and barring something hideous in the 2011 redistricting, which seems unlikely given the GOP’s need to protect Sen. Chris Harris in that go-round, it’s just hard to knock off an incumbent Senator. I wouldn’t underestimate Sen. Davis, that’s for sure.

My favorite bit in the story has to be this:

Since January, [Davis] has been a dependable Democratic vote on some of the chamber’s more divisive issues, prompting at least one ardent conservative to long for the days when a Republican held the seat.

“Obviously, we have subtracted one vote from the right, and now have one vote on the left on those key issues that separate our parties,” said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. As a result, Patrick says, he has been unable to bring up his “informed consent” bill that would require women getting an abortion to undergo an ultrasound. “Not having a Brimer here has cost me an important vote,” Patrick said.

That couldn’t be sweeter if you dipped it in honey and rolled it in sugar. Patrick did ultimately pass his bill, but he had to water it down to do so, a direct consequence of the change in partisan makeup of the Senate. It’s a pleasure having you in Austin, Sen. Wendy Davis.

Senators versus TCEQ

If there were a competition for the most toothless (least toothful?) state regulatory agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) would surely be a contender for the title, most likely along with the Texas Ethics Commission. It’s gotten bad enough that some Senators are calling out the Governor on this.

Sens. Wendy Davis, Kirk Watson, Rodney Ellis, and Eliot Shapleigh took turns reviewing the litany of TCEQ failures – from potentially illegal meetings between a TCEQ commissioner and Asarco representatives to the denial of public hearings on cement kilns.

Sen. Davis (D-Fort Worth) honed in on the case of Glenn Shankle, the former TCEQ executive director who issued two extremely valuable radioactive waste disposal permits to a company, Waste Control Specialists, that he is now lobbying for.

“Right now industry is having its way with regulators and it needs to stop,” said Davis.

That TCEQ nearly always sides with polluters is not exactly news. The real question is: What are concerned lawmakers going to do about it? The senators promoted their various reform bills but suggested that industry lobbyists had prevented many of them from even getting a hearing. In the absence of significant action from the Lege, the senators are pushing for a thorough house-cleaning directed by the governor, a proposal that is frankly fanciful.

Let’s be honest: Rick Perry has exactly the TCEQ that he wants. Shapleigh calls the problems at TCEQ “systemic and pervasive.” If so, that’s due in large part to Perry’s appointments to the three-member TCEQ commission.

Just remember when you hear Governor Perry blather on about “states’ rights” in front of paltry crowds of true believers that if the state did its job on matters like these that mean ol’ oppressive federal government really would leave us alone. It’s precisely because we have limp noodles like the TCEQ that leads to federal involvement. There’s nothing new or unusual about this – the reason we have federal civil rights laws is because of states like Texas that refused to enforce such protections for their own citizens. Different decade, same story. Kilday Hart has more.

Banning trans fats

I haven’t really followed the anti-trans fat bill very closely, but if it’s worth a front page headline, it’s worth a mention here.

Lawmakers in coming weeks will consider bills by Houston state Rep. Carol Alvarado and state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, that would outlaw restaurant use of certain oils, shortenings and margarines by September 2011.

The oils, which have been treated with hydrogen at high heat to prolong shelf life, were touted as healthful alternatives to butter until doctors found they contributed to cardiovascular and other diseases.

“Texans want to make healthy choices,” Alvarado said Friday. “This has nothing to do with taste. Our restaurants cook with trans fat-free oils, and it doesn’t compromise the flavor at all.”

Glen Garey, general counsel for the 5,000-member Texas Restaurant Association, said his organization “stands arm in arm” with Alvarado on the issue, especially since the bill was altered in committee to allow restaurants more time to comply.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would join California and New York City in banning the restaurant use of oils containing artificial trans fats.

Alvarado’s bill calls for eliminating use of such oils at restaurant chains with 15 or more outlets in Texas by September 2010. The ban would apply to all restaurants by September 2011. Penalties for violations have yet to be determined.

Rep. Alvarado’s bill is HB1523. I’m moderately surprised that there’s no real opposition to this; usually this sort of thing kicks up a big fuss. I guess this is sufficiently mainstream now that a measure like this is seen as inevitable.

One objection I have seen to this comes from EdT on Twitter, in reply to an agreeing Alison Cook, who notes that there’s “MUCH more trans fats in the stuff on the grocery store shelves.” I’d say that’s true, but it’s also a federal matter. Restaurants are something the Lege can regulate, and so here we are.

HB1523 hasn’t had its committee hearing yet, and with a bit more than 8 weeks left in the session it’s hard to say what its prospects are, even with the restauranteurs in its corner. On a related note, Rep. Alvarado has also filed HB1522, which would require chain restaurants to disclose their nutrition information. Given that the best source for this information nowadays is Ken Hoffman’s Drive Thru Gourmet column, I’d say that bill might have the bigger effect.

Senate passes budget

The good news is that the budget presented by the Senate isn’t a big step backwards, which was a real concern given the bleak financial picture and the huge obligation of the property tax cuts, which we continue to be unable to fully pay for. As we know, we have the federal stimulus funding to thank for all of this. The bad news is that the Senate budget is not a step forward either, and it’s not clear that much of those federal dollars will be used in a way that’s actually stimulative.

As it stands, the budget proposal would increase funding for college aid, but not nearly enough to cover all students eligible for Texas grants. It would increase money for human services, but it wouldn’t expand eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Among spending highlights, it would pour more money into community services for people with disabilities.

Public schools would get a boost, with some funding tied to separate finance system reforms. Universities and health-related institutions would get an increase.

Correctional officers would get pay raises, and a teacher incentive pay program would get an infusion.

The proposal also would increase funding for regulatory agencies to ensure they can properly do their jobs, a move budget-writers advocated because they said insufficient oversight contributed to national economic problems.

Budget supporters also addressed the controversial question of funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Before the Senate’s 26-5 vote approval, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden clarified that his proposal only would prohibit money appropriated by the state budget from being used directly for research that involves the destruction of a human embryo. It would not ban such research.

Overall, the budget sought to balance spending on crucial services and saving for expected harder times to come. Backers said the budget makes progress and critics said it doesn’t go far enough to address critical needs.

There also were questions over whether the budget properly uses nearly $11 billion in stimulus funding for the fiscal period that starts Sept. 1.

About half of the stimulus money would substitute for state funds that otherwise would be needed. That raised questions because the proposal leaves untouched a state savings account known as the rainy day fund. That account is expected to grow to $9.1 billion in a couple of years.

I have some sympathy for Ogden’s position about not spending the money in the rainy day fund, given that sales tax revenues being collected now will be the basis of the next budget. Given how awful I thought this budget was going to be when the session first began, I almost feel a sense of relief at the way it has turned out so far. On the other hand, given how reluctant a lot of Republicans were to dip into the rainy day fund for just about everything, even hurricane relief, before we knew there would be enough federal money to cover whatever we needed, I can’t say I have much faith that we won’t be in an equivalent position in two years’ time, only without any assistance from DC. And I know that the top priority of the Republicans will be maintaining those irresponsible property tax cuts. I’m glad to avoid the problem for now, and I’m glad that the usual budget victims escaped mostly unscathed, but I totally understand why those five Senators (all Democrats – Ellis, Gallego, Watson, Shapleigh, and Davis) voted no.

Of course, this isn’t the final word, not by a longshot. The House still has to do its thing, and then there will be a committee to reconcile the two. As noted at the end of this story, among other things that could mean the Ogden stem cell rider, which was kinda sorta clarified, could be taken out. Here’s Patricia Kilday Hart on what that rider now says:

“I have recently passed around what I think might be better language” which he will substitute in conference committee, Ogden said. The revised rider would prohibit the use of state money “to directly fund embryonic stem cell research” until the state Legislature passes “legislation regulating embryonic stem cell research.”

He said adding the word “directly” would mean that researchers at state universities could continue their work if it is funded by other entities. Opponents of the original rider had been concerned that embryonic stem cell researchers would no longer be able to work in state-supported institutions.

The process by which that rider made it into the budget in the first place was still lousy. I do hope it winds up on the cutting room floor.

One last issue with the budget has to do with money for the Frew settlement. Here’s Kilday Hart again:

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte believes the Senate Finance Committee failed to include enough money in SB 1 to cover the state’s obligations under the settlement of the Frew v. Hawkins lawsuit, in which the state agreed two years ago to significantly improve access to Medicaid services. And she lays the blame for the failure at the feet of Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office.

Van de Putte notes that Frew plaintiff’s attorney Susan Zinn has sent two letters — one dated Jan. 27 and one dated March 16 — to the AG’s office advising it of non-compliance with a 2007 agreement, particularly with a promise to spend $150 million on “strategic initiatives” to increase participation by children in Medicaid services — primarily by increasing participation by health care providers. Zinn’s letters to the AG noted that the Legislative Budget Board’s funding recommendations for the next biennium do not comply with the court order. Van de Putte says Zinn has received no response from the state to her letters.

Further, she said, Senate budget writers were not advised of the plaintiff’s concerns. ”To my knowledge, (no one) in Finance or leadership was given those documents showing what was needed to be compliant,” she said. “There was a disconnect.”

If lawmakers fail to fully fund the settlement, “we will be in violation” of a federal court order, Van de Putte noted. “Our attorneys failed to communicate to budget writers.”

Let’s hope there are no nasty surprises lurking in there. Here’s a statement from Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, one of the No votes, and a statement from Sen. Van de Putte, who voted Yes with reservations, is beneath the fold.

UPDATE: Floor Pass has a nice recap of yesterday’s Senate budget action.

(more…)

Here come stimulus money

The first batch of funds is arriving.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated more than $500 million to Texas cities and counties on Monday, part of a wave of stimulus money expected to flow into the state.

Federal officials released $14.4 million more to support 12 Texas health centers, many of which provide care to people with no health insurance. The federal money is expected to create more than 400 jobs in the state, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

[…]

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs received the biggest chunk of money — about $148.4 million for affordable rental housing projects that rely on low-income housing tax credits.

More than 350 public housing authorities in Texas received $119.8 million for public housing projects, including energy-efficient modernization, capital improvements and critical safety repairs. San Antonio and El Paso received the most public housing assistance with about $14.6 million and $12.7 million, respectively.

There’s more, and I’m glad to see it. I suspect most of the agencies that will benefit from these monies haven’t exactly been flush in recent years, if ever. Hopefully, we can get a lot of good done.

Of course, there’s still a fight looming over how much Governor Perry wants the state to accept. Towards that end, a group of Democratic legislators will be calling on Perry to take everything that has been allocated for Texas. From their release:

Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston,) Representative Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), Senator Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) and Senator Mario Gallegos (D-Houston) will hold a press conference to urge Governor Perry to accept all available stimulus funds on Tuesday, March 3, 2009, beginning at 9:00 AM, in the Lieutenant Governor’s Press Room.

The press conference will call on state leaders to invest the stimulus funding in programs and priorities which will give a hand-up to as many Texans as possible. The legislators will particularly focus on plans to shore up Texas’ rapidly dwindling Unemployment Insurance System.

While Texas does not yet face double digit unemployment, as Michigan does, the economic forecast is not rosy. According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, the Texas economy will lose 111,000 jobs in 2009, and the unemployment rate is expected to rise from 6 to 8.2 percent. The recently passed Economic Recovery Act offers $555.7 million to Texas to shore up its shaky unemployment fund, but the state must first pass a series of reforms to be eligible. Unfortunately, even as Texas accepts stimulus funds, some continue to say the state should reject unemployment funding, simply because it requires small changes to the program.

It would be nice to have some Republican legislators doing this as well, but this is a good start. That press conference will be at 9 AM in the Lt. Governor’s press room in the Capitol.

Finally, on a related note, a group of transportation activists will be making a call of their own to TxDOT tomorrow regarding that agency’s plans for its federal stimulus funds.

In February, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocated $2.25 billion in federal transportation funds to Texas. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) will allow states up to one year to decide which projects to build.

But the Texas Transportation Commission is poised to ram through $1.7 billion of new stimulus-funded projects at their meeting Thursday. The project list is chock full of controversial projects, including the Grand Parkway in Houston, the US-281 toll road across the Edwards aquifer in San Antonio, roads to nowhere, and sprawl highways through environmentally-sensitive areas. Further, many Texans object to spending stimulus on toll roads.

On Tuesday morning, Texans from across the state will converge at the capitol to demand that Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) slow down and do this right. We must ensure our federal stimulus isn’t wasted on boondoggles!

What: Joint citizen press conference

Who:

* Texans United for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Terri Hall, http://texasturf.org
* Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, Brandt Mannchen, http://texas.sierraclub.org
* Environment Texas, Alejandro Savransky, http://environmenttexas.org
* IndependentTexans, Linda Curtis, http://indytexans.org
* Houston Tomorrow, Jay Crossley, http://houstontomorrow.org
* Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC), Robin Holzer, http://ctchouston.org

When: Tuesday, Mar 3, 2009 at 9:15 am

Where: East steps of the Texas Capitol, Austin, TX

That would be just like TxDOT, wouldn’t it? I hope they listen to the call to slow down.

UPDATE: The Observer has more about TxDOT and the fast one they’re trying to pull.

Will we get a piece of the stimulus?

Maybe, maybe not.

Many states, running short of cash, may jump at the chance to spend federal stimulus money.

In Texas, though, the executive and legislative branches may not jump in unison.

Several Democrats and even a few Republicans are nervous that Gov. Rick Perry might reject the federal aid.

“If there’s any risk Perry would reject that money, we want responsible lawmakers to take it, allocate it and use it for Texas,” said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle wouldn’t say if the governor will oppose taking any of the aid.

“The governor continues to oppose the bailout, but if Congress does allocate taxpayer money, a lot of which is from hard-working Texans, then Texans deserve their fair share,” she said.

So at least there’s a chance that practicality will trump ideology, but it’s not a sure thing. As with just about everything these days, it’ll depend on the politics of the Republican gubernatorial primary.

With the GOP primary a year away, the politics of government intervention in the economy have emerged as the first clear flashpoint between Perry and Republican rival Kay Bailey Hutchison, who wants to unseat him as governor.

Perry has declared his independence from Washington by opposing stimulus packages in virtually any form – and chiding Hutchison for voting for the initial $700 billion bailout pushed by the Bush administration. Hutchison aides fire back that Perry has been hypocritical on the issue.

Hutchison has rejected a pair of stimulus packages, including the compromise tentatively approved Friday, amid growing GOP opposition. But Perry aides are pounding her with criticism that she’s flip-flopped on the issue as they head into next year’s Republican gubernatorial primary.

[…]

Republican consultant Royal Masset said that even in the Republican Party, there’s a desire for government to stem the economic crisis.

“People are forgetting that Republicans were the ones who floated the great bailout that started this whole thing,” he said. “It’s not exactly like this is a Democratic plot to make the world safe for socialism.”

Yes, well, the stimulus package is supported by those pinkos in the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. You’d think they might have some influence in this debate, but with Rick Perry and Kay Bailey marching to the same right-wing drummer, they may find themselves frustrated by it all. Which is why I’ve been screaming about the need to have some Democratic counterweight to them. As such, I’m pleased to see there’s at least one person out there who might run for Governor as a Democrat.

Tom Schieffer of Fort Worth recently returned to Texas after serving as U.S. ambassador to Australia and, more recently, Japan under former President George W. Bush.

Before that, he was president of the Texas Rangers baseball team when Bush was a part owner of the franchise.

Now, figuring out what to do next, Schieffer has been calling friends and associates, weighing a possible race for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

Yes, Democratic nomination. Before hooking up with Bush, Schieffer, brother of CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, was a Democratic state representative from Fort Worth in the 1970s.

He has been away from Texas politics (and the country) for years and, thanks to his Bush connections, likely would encounter a cool, even hostile, reception from many Democratic voters.

Not exactly a resume to fire me up, and I daresay I won’t be alone in that reaction, but I fear the possibility of beggars-can’t-be-choosers territory, and let’s face it – I ain’t voting for Kinky, no way, no how. At least a guy like this might have some capability to raise money, and to get some reasonably credible candidates on the rest of the ballot. I can live with that.

Finally, in case you’re curious, our junior Senator missed today’s cloture vote on the stimulus package to chase a little stimulus of his own. I feel so represented.