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Harvey Hilderbran

Precinct analysis: Republican primary election

I’ve done the Democrats, so now let’s take a look at the Republicans. In this case, I did have a few specific questions in mind, so my approach here will be a little different. First, we all know that Steve Stockman’s performance art piece campaign against Sen. John Cornyn didn’t amount to anything, but did he at least make some noise in his own Congressional district?

Candidate CD36 Else CD36% Else% ============================================ Cornyn 8,231 65,363 48.69% 55.57% Stockman 5,359 27,093 31.70% 23.03% Others 3,314 25,161 19.60% 21.39% Total 16,904 117,617

So sort of, yeah. Cornyn was held under 50% in the bit of CD36 that’s in Harris County, and it’s clear that Stockman picked up that he lost, but it didn’t make a difference overall. As it happens, the other counties in CD36 are all entirely within CD36, so we can look at the whole district as well now that we have the Harris data:

County Cornyn Cornyn% Stockman Stockman% ================================================ Chambers 1,609 41.02% 1,322 33.70% Hardin 2,937 40.52% 2,986 41.20% Harris 8,231 48.69% 5,359 31.70% Jasper 1,274 54.28% 780 33.23% Liberty 2,496 38.02% 2,007 30.57% Newton 226 46.40% 194 39.83% Orange 3,546 44.51% 2,925 36.72% Polk 2,626 46.46% 1,820 32.20% Tyler 1,121 46.01% 961 39.44%

So again, Stockman held Cornyn under 50% in CD36, but he still trailed in every county except Hardin. His performance in Harris was particularly weak. It’s possible that someone could have beaten Big John, or at least forced him into a runoff, but Steve Stockman was not that someone.

Along similar lines, I wondered how Dan Patrick did on his home turf of SD07 versus the rest of the county:

Candidate SD07 Else SD07% Else% ============================================ Patrick 30,398 48,373 64.84% 53.78% Not Patrick 16,481 41,578 35.16% 46.22% Total 46,879 89,951

Unlike Stockman, Patrick really killed it on his home turf, but he still won a majority elsewhere as well. That cannot be a comforting thought to David Dewhurst.

Given the inflammatory rhetoric about immigration and the pushback by Latino Republicans against Dan Patrick, I also checked to see if Patrick did any worse in the five State Rep districts held by Latinos (HDs 140, 143, 144, 145, and 148) than he did elsewhere:

Candidate Latino Else Latino% Else% ============================================ Patrick 5,515 73,256 56.58% 57.64% Not Patrick 4,233 53,826 43.42% 42.36% Total 9,748 127,082

Short answer: No. Of course, we don’t know how many of the Republican primary voters in these districts were Latino – the Anglo voting age population in these districts range from 12K (HD140) to 37K (HD148), so there are plenty of non-Latinos to go around. Regardless, at least in Harris County, Patrick’s rhetoric wasn’t a problem for these voters.

Finally, how did the Latino Republican candidates do in the Latino districts?

Candidate Latino Else Latino% Else% ============================================ Abbott 8,929 119,258 92.28% 94.52% Martinez 381 2,713 3.94% 2.15% Others 366 4,207 3.78% 3.33% Total 9,676 126,178 Candidate Latino Else Latino% Else% ============================================ Medina 1,558 15,993 16.91% 13.56% Torres 420 3,144 4.56% 2.67% Hegar 4,442 62,214 48.22% 52.74% Hilderbran 2,792 36,620 30.31% 31.04% Total 9,212 117,971

A little bit of a benefit, mostly for Debra Medina, but overall less than a drop in the bucket. Even if the differences had been dramatic, the paucity of voters in these districts would have minimized the effect. But the difference was trivial, so it didn’t matter anyway.

What will The Dew do this time?

Go negative or go home is the strategy the pundits have selected for him.

The Sad Dewhurst picture never gets old

Political experts have a bit of advice for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s re-election campaign: go negative or go home.

The incumbent Senate president was crushed in Tuesday’s Republican primary by Houston Sen. Dan Patrick.

In all, more than 72 percent of the roughly 1.3 million Texans who cast ballots in the GOP lieutenant governor’s race voted against Dewhurst, an 11-year incumbent who out-raised and outspent his three competitors in the field.

Now Dewhurst, who pulled just 27 percent of the primary vote, faces much more than an uphill climb in the May runoff.

To even stand a chance, Dewhurst will need to convert hundreds of thousands of voters who backed Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples or Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson – no easy task in itself, and neither Staples nor Patterson has lined up behind Dewhurst yet.

Political experts say the multimillionaire Dewhurst will need to unleash a barrage of attacks aimed at loosening Patrick’s stranglehold on the base of Texas’ most conservative voters, the same group that will decide the May runoff.

The good news for Dewhurst is that there’s no shortage of negative things to say about Dan Patrick. The bad news is that for many if not most Republican primary voters, and especially Republican primary runoff voters, they tend to see those negatives as positives. The one thing Dewhurst might be able to hit him with successfully is the charge that Patrick might actually lose the election in November to Sen. Leticia Van de Putte because enough non-Republican primary voters think he’s a big scary jerk. The problem for him here is 1) the only polling data out there so far is that one Trib poll, which shows Patrick leading LVdP albeit by slightly less than Dewhurst; 2) Republican primary voters don’t think they’re in any danger of losing in November even with a huge jerk like Patrick on the ticket, and it’s hard to argue with them about that right now; and 3) nobody really likes David Dewhurst, either. But hey, what are ya gonna do? Go ahead and spend your million attacking Dan Patrick, Dew. It’ll make you feel better, if nothing else.

As the Trib noted yesterday, there’s an effort among the powers that be (i.e., big money donors) to get Dewhurst to drop out, along with Dan Branch and Harvey Hilderbran. Hilderbran has already acceded. Of the three, I think Branch has the best hope of winning in May, but the pressure on him and Dewhurst could be great. There will still be runoffs in the Ag Commissioner and Railroad Commissioner races regardless, but needless to say the turnout level would be much less if Dewhurst and Patrick aren’t slinging around millions of dollars in attack ads. We’ll see how it goes.

The UT/TT primary polls were completely useless

Wrong!!!

I expressed my contempt with the UT/Texas Trib’s Democratic primary poll result for the US Senate race last night, which they richly deserved. Sure, pollster Jim Henson admitted that “the first person to raise some money and run some ads could really move this”, and that’s largely what happened, but that got lost in all the national attention that was paid to Kesha Rogers being proclaimed the frontrunner in a poll where basically nobody had an initial preference. They had a “result” that was guaranteed to get them a ton of attention, and that’s what they got even though their track record in past Democratic primaries was shaky at best.

Well, now it’s time to pay them a bit of negative attention, because their Republican primary polls, which I originally noted had a decent track record based on previous results sucked eggs, too. Let’s take them one at a time and assess the damage. I’ll even be generous and start with the one poll they basically nailed, just to give them credit where it’s due. Here’s the poll story from which I’ll be quoting:

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, facing a field of seven other Republican primary candidates in his bid for re-election, won the support of 62 percent of the likely Republican primary voters, followed by U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, who got 16 percent. Support for the rest was in single digits: Linda Vega, 7 percent; Dwayne Stovall and Ken Cope, 4 percent each; Reid Reasor and Chris Mapp, 3 percent each; and Curt Cleaver, 1 percent.

Actual result: Cornyn won with 59.44%, Stockman came in second with 19.13%. Dwayne Stovall was actually in third with 10.71%, but I won’t crime them for that. From here, it’s all downhill.

In the heated Republican primary for lieutenant governor, incumbent David Dewhurst leads the pack with 37 percent of likely Republican primary voters at his side, followed by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, at 31 percent; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at 17 percent; and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at 15 percent.

Actual result: Dan Patrick led the pack with 41.45%, followed by incumbent David Dewhurst with 28.31%. Staples had 17.76% and Patterson 12.47%, not that it mattered. That’s a pretty big miss, but it’s not their biggest.

The Republican primary for attorney general is a statistical dead heat between state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, at 42 percent, and state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney, at 38 percent — a difference smaller than the poll’s margin of error. Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman got 20 percent. When they were initially asked about the race, 47 percent expressed no preference between the candidates.

Actual result: Paxton 44.44%, Branch 33.49%, Smitherman 22.06%. They did get Smitherman’s level of support correct, but they had the wrong frontrunner and the race wasn’t as close as they said. Oh, well.

In the race for comptroller, that group of initially undecided voters accounted for 54 percent, perhaps an indication of continuing flux in the race. Debra Medina, the only candidate who has been on a statewide ballot (she ran for governor in 2010), got 39 percent after voters were asked whom they would support in an election now, followed by state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, at 26 percent; state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, at 24 percent; and former state Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi, at 11 percent.

Actual result: Hegar came thisclose to winning outright, with 49.99%. He was 151 votes short of a majority with four precincts still uncounted. Hilderbran was second with 26.01%, Medina third with 19.30%, and Torres last with 4.68%. I’m sorry, but that’s just embarrassingly inaccurate.

So in all three downballot Republican races as well as the Democratic Senate race, they incorrectly identified the frontrunner, with the extra indignity of having the almost clear winner of the Comptroller’s race not in the cut for a runoff. Well done, fellas. Well done.

Now you may say “c’mon, polling primaries is especially tricky”, and if you did I would agree. I’d also say that maybe their self-selected-sample-plus-secret-sauce methodology is especially poorly designed for polling in these specialized races, and I’d point to these very results as proof of that. You may also say that no one else was providing poll information on these races so at least they were telling us something, and I’d say we would have been better off with no information than we were with their badly wrong information. I’d also say they owe us an explanation for why they were so wrong, and a public examination and reconsideration of their methods given how badly wrong they were. If they can screw these races up so badly, why should anyone believe their general election polling? The ball’s in your court, guys.

I should note that I’m saying all this as someone who likes the Tribune and who thinks they generally do a good job. On this, however, they did a terrible job, and I’m not the only one who noticed. They should be embarrassed by this, and they should want to figure out where they went so far off track. I would advise them to be quick about it. Steve Singiser has more.

Primary results: Statewide

So Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott won easily.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

They never had to sweat their primaries, so on Tuesday night Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis turned their attention to a fall election that is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested and closely watched Texas governor’s races in decades.

Davis, who was winning almost 80 percent of the vote in early returns, and Abbott, who was pulling in more than 90 percent at last count, both gave early victory speeches on a night when uncertainty and surprise shook up candidates in several other key state races.

Davis went first, focusing her remarks on job creation and education, saying Texas badly needed new leadership after years of uninterrupted Republican rule.

“I want you to know this: I am ready to fight for you and to fight for every hardworking Texan across this state,” Davis said at her campaign headquarters in Fort Worth. “Now is the time to fight for our future. This is not a time to stand still.”

But Davis’ remarks quickly turned into an attack on Abbott. She criticized him for defending in court steep cuts made by the Legislature to public education in 2011 in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of school districts that say the state’s education system is flawed and doesn’t appropriately fund schools.

“He’s defending those cuts,” Davis said. “Cuts that laid off teachers and forced our kids into overcrowded classrooms.”

She also mentioned the ongoing abortion debate in Texas — the issue that helped turn her into an overnight sensation last summer when she filibustered a restrictive abortion bill. Davis bashed Abbott for his stance on abortion, saying that he wants to “dictate for all women, including victims of rape and incest.” Abbott has said he believes abortion should be legal only when the mother’s life is in danger.

“I will be the governor who fights for the future of Texas,” Davis said, adding that “Greg Abbott is a defender of the status quo.”

There were a lot of uncounted ballots at the time I called it a night last night, but turnout on the Dem side will probably be around 600,000, or about what we had in 2012. A bit more than half the votes were cast early, which strongly suggests yesterday’s rotten weather had some effect. Republicans also had more than half their turnout come in early, so it affected both sides. This is why I always vote early, y’all.

John Cornyn easily won his primary, but with a not-terribly-impressive 58% or so of the vote. Barring any late surge, David Alameel will finish with about 47% and will face (sigh) Kesha Rogers in the runoff, as she finished second with about 22%. I expect he’ll win easily in a low turnout race, and I have to wonder if this is the reason he got those early endorsements from Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and a whole passel of Dem officeholders. Maybe someone in the hive mind had the foresight to think that he had the best shot at solving the Kesha problem, hopefully in March but surely in May if it comes to it. Be that as it may, let me take this opportunity once again to spit on that crappy Trib primary poll. Use a dartboard next time, fellas.

Anyway. Alameel will be joined in the runoff by Kinky Friedman and Jim Hogan, who led the field for Ag Commissioner for no apparent reason. At least Steve Brown won the Railroad Commissioner nomination, so there was just one random result.

On the Republican side, Baby Bush collected 73% in the Land Commissioner race, so he joins Abbott in getting to start running for November. Glenn Hegar was within an eyelash of 50% at the time I closed up shop; if he falls back, Harvey Hilderbran will get another shot at him. All Supreme Court incumbents won, and all Court of Criminal Appeals races had clear winners. Otherwise, here are your runoff lineups:

Lite Guv – Dan Patrick versus David Dewhurst. Sure looks like The Dew is going down.

Attorney General – Ken Paxton versus Dan Branch. Back to the Railroad Commission for you, Barry Smitherman.

Ag Commissioner – Sid Miller versus Tommy Merritt. If things hold to form, Ted Nugent will have had quite the successful primary himself.

Railroad Commissioner – Wayne Christian versus Ryan Sitton. Yeah, I know, who?

That’s all I got. What are your thoughts about the primaries?

Combs not running for re-election

And a domino falls.

Susan Combs

Susan Combs

Comptroller Susan Combs opened up the logjam that has been statewide office in Texas by announcing Wednesday that she will not seek election in 2014.

Announcements were immediately flying with state Rep. Harvey Hildebran, R-Kerrville, throwing his green eye-shades into the race.

Combs, 68, was first won the comptroller’s post in 2007, after having become the first female Agriculture Commissioner. She also served in the state House as a Republican from Austin.

In her announcement, Combs said she wanted to return to ranching and continue her work on private property rights.

“In the summer of 1994, I marched up Congress Avenue with hundreds of Texans in support of private property rights—and I’m not done marching,” Combs said.

Combs has almost $8 million in the bank and was looking at a run for lieutenant governor, which was dampened when David Dewhurst said he would run for re-election.

This will be the first open seat in the big six statewide offices in more than a decade and the scramble is already on to fill the post.

Besides Hildebran, other potential candidates include tea party activist Debra Medina and Sen. Glenn Hegar, R- Katy.

You can see her full statement here. The Trib also lists one-term former State Rep. Raul Torres as a potential candidate, and Sen. Tommy Williams is also considering it. Williams, Hegar, and Hilderbran would probably be OK, Medina is a nut, and Torres is unlikely to be able to compete with any of them. I’m sure others will jump in as well. Combs was at one time reported to be running for Lite Guv, but that never went anywhere. She wasn’t nearly as feisty as Carole Keeton Strayhorn when it came to pushing back on Rick Perry – speaking of the Comptroller Of Many Names, has anyone asked what she’s up to these days? – and her tenure was marred by her role in promising public funds for F1 racing in Austin as well as her gross mis-estimation of the state’s revenue in 2011, the result of which was far more drastic cuts to spending than was needed. I give her credit for (mostly) not being overly ideological, but some more competence and independence would have been nice. Texas Politics, PDiddie, Texpatriate, and Juanita have more.

Margins tax breaks passed

Someone’s getting a tax break. Probably not you, though.

Rep. Harvey Hilderbran

The Texas House on Tuesday tentatively cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s primary business tax — cuts that proponents say will keep the Texas economy humming and opponents argue cost too much.

House Bill 500 is the primary legislative vehicle to address the state franchise tax, commonly called the margins tax, but it is just one in a series of bills this session that either cut taxes broadly or target specific industries.

The price tag for House Bill 500 has yo-yoed through the session, as Gov. Rick Perry last month called for $1.6 billion in franchise tax cuts, only to see a House committee shrink it to $396 million three days later.

The bill permanently exempts small firms from paying the tax if they have less than $1 million in gross annual receipts. It also attempts to fix inequities between certain classes of taxpayers.

On Tuesday, the House added amendments that swelled the bottom line to $667 million.

[…]

[Rep. Harvey] Hilderbran, chairman of the House tax writing committee, said the Legislature must reconcile the appropriations bill and several bills that cut taxes during the final days of the session. The Legislature adjourns May 27.

In 2006, the margins tax was part of a deal to cut property taxes for homeowners and businesses. Critics argue that it never raised as much as was projected, but it accounted for $4.5 billion in revenue in fiscal 2012 — or about 10 percent of the state’s tax revenue.

It remains unpopular among many small businesses, in part because it taxes companies whether they are profitable or not.

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, echoed that complaint, saying HB 500 makes an inequitable system more inequitable.

“House Bill 500 takes a stupid tax policy and makes it stupider,” Strama said. “We should have a profit-based tax on revenue.”

Hilderbran said the tax bill returns money to taxpayers to grow the economy, but [Rep. Sylvester] Turner said it did nothing for working families.

“Did you give anything to anybody who’s not a business owner?” Turner asked.

“If they work for these businesses, they’ll be better off,” Hilderbran said.

Here’s HB500. It should be noted that Rick Perry is still threatening to call a special session if taxes aren’t cut further. Remember that both the House and the Senate have passed budgets that didn’t take into account hundreds of millions less in revenue (some of these cuts won’t kick in till the next biennium), so that’s something the conference committee will have to deal with once they resume speaking to each other. And of course if the Supreme Court upholds the school finance ruling, that’s that much more money the Lege will have to scrounge from somewhere else to fill in the now-larger hole. But hey, all in a day’s work. The good news is that this still has to pass the Senate, and there’s no guarantee of that. The Trib and the Observer have more.

Tax reform on the menu

The Lege, which was too busy slashing public school funding to address the structural deficit caused by the underperforming business tax and the too-big property tax cut, will try to address the issue in 2013.

“I believe that next session there will be substantial tax reform and a broad review of tax policy,” House Ways and Means Chairman Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said Wednesday after his committee kicked off the process by discussing tax abatements and exemptions.

The new business tax that lawmakers approved in 2006 during a school reform is not performing as advertised. And, it’s not uniform.

Auto repair shops at car dealerships pay a lower business tax than independent auto repair shops, Hilderbran said. What about on-line retailers who don’t have to collect sales taxes? That costs the state about $1 billion in lost revenue, he said.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has instructed Hilderbran’s tax-writing committee to determine whether the state’s business tax should be repealed and replaced with a different business tax. He also wants the committee to assess the impact of the state’s tax structure on the business climate. In other words, how do the sales and franchise taxes and tax exemptions impact capital investment, economic growth and job creation in Texas?

“Everything is before us next session,” Hilderbran said.

He would like to see reform that is revenue neutral – meaning tax rates that don’t increase revenue.

“If we have a more competitive tax code and it results in more economic investment and more economic growth that results in more revenue, I don’t view that as a tax increase,” Hilderbran said.

So, we’re going to seek the One True Tax Code that will spur economic growth and balance the budget by lifting all our boats on a rising tide of prosperity. Good luck with that.

Maybe someone needs to explain what a “structural” deficit is to Rep. Hilderbran, because by definition a “revenue neutral” reform can’t fix it. You either need to make the margins tax bring in more money, or you need to raise revenue someplace else. Perhaps Hilderbran is merely trying to obfuscate that fact to throw off the professional tax-deniers in his party, an effort for which I have sympathy, but I still don’t quite understand what makes a “revenue neutral” tax reform alluring to anyone. I mean, we all realize that “revenue neutral” means “some people will pay more, and some other people will pay less”, right? Maybe in the case of the auto repair shops or something like it, that is suitable, but wouldn’t it make more sense to say “Let’s make sure everyone is paying their fair share”, and leave it at that?

As for making online retailers pay their fair share, you know I’m all over that. What are the odds that will happen while Rick Perry is Governor? For that matter, what are the odds it will happen if Greg Abbott or just about any other Republican prominent enough to win the GOP nomination in 2014 succeeds him? If Hilderbran is serious about this, I support his efforts, but I’m not holding out much hope.

Don’t expect the next budget to be any better than this one

Continuing a theme I’ve harped on here, if state legislators thought that they solved Texas’ budget issues this year they are sadly mistaken.

Some experts say Texas tax revenues must zoom far above forecasts, if we’re to escape another miserable budget session in 2013. But the state’s leading forecaster on Wednesday offered little hope that will happen.

“The year of ’12 is not going to be a great recovery year,” John Heleman, chief revenue estimator for the Texas comptroller’s office, testified at the House Ways and Means Committee. He was referring to the fiscal year that began this month and ends Aug. 31, while answering a question from Kerrville GOP Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, the panel’s chairman.

“It’s still going to be flattish [and] soft,” Heleman said.

That could mean, if you check out the bottom half of this post I had earlier this month, that we’re sailing into fiscal headwinds in trying to keep up with the education, health care and transportation needs of a growing state. True, as Hilderbran pointed out, recent revenue numbers have looked good. Final but unofficial figures for fiscal 2011 show sales tax receipts increased by 9.4 percent over the previous year, which was — in a word — ugly. Fiscal 2010 included December 2009, which “marked the low point in Texas employment” during the Great Recession, Heleman said in a written presentation. In the just-ended fiscal year, Texas consumers and diners spent about 5.5 percent more on retail and restaurant purchases, he testified. The reason overall sales tax receipts leapt by 9.4 percent was “supercharging” from a burst of oil and gas drilling activity, some decent manufacturing growth and a bit of an uptick in at least parts of the construction industry, said Heleman.

This fiscal year, though, he sees “probably a little bit less than” 5.5 percent growth in retail and restaurant sales. As for the energy exploration and production sector’s purchasing, “it’s actually just going to flatten out — at higher levels,” he said. But that won’t grow, in percentage terms, the way it did last year.

Click on that link referenced above, and you learn the following bit of cheery news:

In the 2013 session, the budget gap may very well turn out to be as large. The economy’s recovery is slow, and lawmakers this year exhausted many of the available, one-time-only fiscal remedies — such as delaying state payments and speeding up tax collections. They also punted a $4.8 billion Medicaid IOU to next session. Yes, this time they could do that because they left about $6 billion in the rainy day fund. But next time? Probably a non-starter.

If revenue doesn’t run well ahead of forecasts for the next two years, and keep growing strongly for the two years after that, then “2013 will pretty much be a re-run of the 2011 revenue shortfall – with a 24 percent gap, instead of 27 percent,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, budget expert at the center-left Austin think tank the Center for Public Policy Priorities. That’s “back of the envelope,” but still pretty alarming, she said.

But don’t worry. The legislators will always have flim-flammery available to them.

In a report released this week, Comptroller Susan Combs illustrates the trickery that legislators and Gov. Rick Perry used to get there. That’s because lawmakers assess fees under the guise that they will be used for a specific purpose — to help low-income residents pay electric bills, for instance — but then leave much of that money unspent to balance the state budget.

Combs’ report shows the problem is getting worse. The state will leave $4.9 billion unspent in its dedicated accounts over the next two years, up from about $4.1 billion in the previous budget.

The unspent balances include $851 million that comes from fees on electric customers and is supposed to help low-income Texans defray their utility costs, $654 million meant to improve air quality and $388 million in an account for improving trauma facilities and emergency medical services. Technically, these dollars don’t get spent on other programs. But by sitting there unspent, they allow the state to show on paper that it has enough money to pay for the amount it budgets for education, health care and other high-cost programs.

That $851 million is of course the System Benefit Fund, which I’ve mentioned several times before. There’s also hunting and fishing license fee funds, which are supposed to go to the Parks and Wildlife Department, and there’s funds from the sale of specialty license plates, which are supposed to go to various non-profits. All that money is just sitting there, not being used for its intended purpose, because to do so would mean that it couldn’t be used to “balance” the budget. The end result is that these are stealth tax increases, passed because the purpose they were intended to serve was seen as worthwhile, but then not used for that purpose so the funds can then be counted along with general revenue even though they can’t be used as general revenue. A more honest approach would be to admit that we need more general revenue, not only for the things that general revenue provides for, but also so that these dedicated funds can actually be used for their intended purpose. Just another thing to think about when you go to vote next year. EoW has more.

House approves Congressional map

Once again, that was quick.

Rejecting charges that the GOP plan to redraw congressional district boundaries discriminates against minorities and punishes Austin, the Texas House just tentatively approved the partisan plan 93-48.

The new map in a revised Senate Bill 4 divides Travis County into five districts, like a plan approved earlier by the Senate.

Travis County is now in two districts.

Several amendments were offered to redrawn the map to add more so-called “opportunity districts” for African-American and Hispanic voters, but all were defeated. Several of those amendments would have put Travis County in two congressional districts.

House Redistricting Committee Chairman Burt Solomons, R-Denton, said the plan is the fairest that could be drawn. While it does not pit any incumbent congressman against each other for reelection, it targets U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, by putting him in a new district that stretches from eastern Travis County to San Antonio.

Far as I can tell from Greg’s liveblogging, the map that the House approved was basically unchanged from the committee version, with a couple of minor tweaks; see Trail Blazers and Texas Politics for more on those. Note that Greg quoted a Texas Insider story that had claimed there would be a substitute plan, Plan C161 by Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, so I went and got the 2008 and 2010 electoral data for it in anticipation. In the end, the Hilderbran Plan went nowhere and wound up getting withdrawn, which at least saved me the trouble of grabbing more images from the redistricting viewer site. No complaints there, let me tell you.

CSSB4 now moves to third reading in the House, then back to the Senate for concurment (concurrage? concurrification?) or a conference committee, then off to the Governor (assuming he can make time in his busy not-running-for-Presidential schedule), the Justice Department, and every court this side of your local JP. I will note that the special session was called on June 1, with Congressional redistricting on the call from the beginning. Today is June 14, and the map is basically finalized and will be on its way to the Governor soon. Makes you wonder what the heck took them so long during the regular session, you know?

Finally, speculation about which San Antonio might pol might run against Lloyd Doggett in CD35 seems to be centering on State Rep. Joaquin Castro, twin brother of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. The author of that piece misidentifies the district as CD21, but I can tell you that I heard the same speculation about Castro from a fairly plugged-in person yesterday, so I’m inclined to take it seriously. Obviously, nothing is in stone until someone files paperwork, and the inevitable Justice Department review will likely put some of this action on hold for the time being. But you can be sure that there’s a lot happening behind the scenes.

UPDATE: The Trib has more.

From the “When you’re in a hole, go ahead and keep digging” files

Deficit, schmeficit.

Texas lawmakers voted on Thursday to extend a tax break for businesses with revenues of less than $1 million a year at a time the state is facing a massive budget shortfall.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 8-0 to send the bill to the full House with three lawmakers absent.

The bill by Republican Rep. Harvey Hilderbran would continue a tax break that will cost the state almost $150 million over the next two years. Under the original business franchise tax, only companies with revenues of less than $600,000 a year were exempt from the tax.

See here for some background. The bill is HB262. Note that there are eight Republicans and three Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, and that the vote was 8-0 with three members absent. How you can justify this exorbitant expenditure, for which there is no offsetting revenue source, at a time like this is just beyond me. Just keep it in mind when you hear every Republican in the House talk about “living within our means” and how they can’t support the slightly less awful Senate budget because it spends too much money.

Raising cigarette taxes

Is any kind of tax increase possible for this legislative session?

The House appropriations bill, scheduled for debate this weekend, would cut out the $10 million-a-year anti-smoking campaign, which remains a legacy of the state’s 1998 tobacco settlement.

To save the anti-smoking effort, Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, is pushing a bill to increase the state cigarette excise tax by $1.05 per pack.

“It doesn’t take a whiz to figure out we’re spending a lot because of a product that contributes to all those expenses,” she said. “We need the money. We can’t have a cuts-only approach, and it’s not a new tax. It’s not something that affects the masses.”

[…]

If passed, the state’s excise tax would rise from $1.41 to $2.46 a pack. The tax increase would generate about $375 million a year in extra revenue for Texas, according to Legislative Budget Board estimates. Alvarado proposes to use $25 million a year for anti-smoking programs and the remainder for property tax cuts.

Raising the state’s excise tax from $1.41 to $2.46 a pack would still leave at least eight states with higher cigarette taxes. It cost Texans $1.6 billion a year to cover Medicaid costs for smoking-related illnesses, according to 2004 data compiled by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

To be clear about something, recall that the 2006 property tax cut wasn’t just financed by the business margins tax. There was also a one dollar increase in the excise tax on cigarettes, which contributed a smaller but still significant amount to the balance sheet. Where the article says that funds from Rep. Alvarado’s proposed increase would go towards “property tax cuts” after paying for the anti-smoking programs, that’s what it means. It would be a small step towards closing the gap between the cost of that property tax cut and the revenues being raised to pay for it.

[House Ways and Means Committee Chair Harvey] Hilderbran said Alvarado does not have enough support in his committee to recommend a cigarette tax increase “at this time.”

“But things change, so if she get the votes for it, I’ll be happy to consider bringing it up (for committee action)” Hilderbran said.

That’s better than a flat out “No”, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic about its chances. But to answer the question I started with, if any kind of tax increase is possible this session, this would be it.

Time for a corporate income tax?

Maybe, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said legislators should consider a constitutional amendment that would clarify that an income tax could be assessed on corporations but not individuals.

The objective would be to use the corporate income tax to replace the current franchise tax that is considered unfair by many businesses.

“Even if you lose your shirt, you still may be liable for paying the business tax because it isn’t an income tax,” Ogden said. “That business tax is a mess.”

Overcoming the visceral objection to an income tax will be tough — even if it would apply only to businesses.

“I think at least it’s something we should consider,” Ogden said. “I think the voters are reasonable people. If we propose reasonable solutions, I think they will give it serious consideration.”

If they can hear your reasonable proposals over the screeching and caterwauling that would be sure to accompany it, then sure, they’ll consider it. Good luck with all of the zombie lies that will be told. The point of this is that the much-reviled business margins tax, in addition to its other flaws, may be assessed on a business that lost money in a given year. This is because it was explicitly designed to not be an income tax, because that would be unconstitutional and Just Plain Wrong. Yeah, I don’t get it, either. Anyway, Ogden’s plan isn’t going to go anywhere because tax legislation must originate in the House, and House Ways and Means Chair Harvey Hilderbran has said no new tax bills will be forthcoming this session. So, barring anything unusual, we’re stuck with the system we have for at least two more years.

Going through the couch cushions

“Taxes” may be a dirty word, but the Lege is busy looking for revenue in other places.

“Right now, there is a tremendous amount of effort being invested in identifying new revenues that avoid being called a tax bill,” said Dale Craymer of the business-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

“Politically, a lot of members have pledged not to raise taxes,” he said. “Obviously, members are seeing the impact of the budget proposal, and there’s a desire to try and raise new revenue to protect the budget without violating the no-new-taxes pledge.”

Some revenue measures already have been filed. Details are lacking on others as lawmakers work to get them in shape in advance of Friday’s bill-filing deadline.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, is having hearings through the next several weeks on measures including his House Bill 257, which would yield $72 million by having unclaimed property revert more quickly to the state.

Hilderbran said he also has legislation to boost Comptroller Susan Combs’ enforcement and that his panel will look at efforts to strengthen audits, hike tax penalties and close loopholes.

Here’s HB257, which has been referred to committee. One revenue-enhancer that has made it out of committee is Rep. Villarreal’s HB658, which is aimed at closing a corporate tax loophole. By themselves, none of these bills adds up to much, but all together they’ll have some effect. Assuming they all pass and get signed, of course, which is far from a guarantee.

In addition to these revenue enhancers, there are the usual accounting tricks that delay payments till the next biennium, of which we saw plenty in 2003. They can save substantial amounts for this budget, but since they do have to be paid, they put that much more pressure on the next budget. The big ticket items are still the Rainy Day Fund – HB275, the bill filed by Rep. Jim Pitts to use RDF funds to balance the prior biennium’s budget, may come to the floor for a vote next week – and fixing the structural deficit. Unfortunately, that and anything else that would have a more significant effect are off the table for the session.

[Rep. Harvey HIlderbran, chair of the Ways and Means Committee,] said he sees opportunity in some of the recommendations made by the Legislative Budget Board that could generate $500 million or more by better enforcing existing law, closing some loopholes and tinkering with some tax exemptions.

One proposal, for instance, would allow the state to claim forgotten bank accounts, uncashed checks and security deposits if they are left dormant for three years rather than the current five years. That change would generate $72 million.

Hilderbran would not, however, follow the path of his predecessor , state Rep. Rene Oliveira, a Brownsville Democrat who last year identified as much as $1.5 billion in sales tax exemptions he said were ripe for elimination.

“That’s a tax hike, and that’s not what we’re going to be working on this session,” Hilderbran said. “We’re not changing the code substantially or significantly. We’re just basically making it more effective.”

That narrow approach will probably produce a relatively small amount of the $27 billion needed if the state were to maintain the current level of services in the 2012-13 budget.

Fixing the big problems, such as the revamped and underperforming business tax, will have to wait until the next legislative session in 2013.

Ideology trumps need. It’s not just Hilderbran – if it were, it might be possible to generate some leverage on him, but he has plenty of company in his stance. The Republicans may tinker, but they’re comfortable with not fixing what’s broken.

Rural school districts prepare for the worst

I have very mixed emotions reading a story like this.

For the residents of [the] tiny West Texas farming community [of Miles], the school district is central to their identity, history and way of life.

“There’s a wonderful feel about a small community,” said Glenda Lacy, the keeper of Miles’ history. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Miles, however, faces a serious threat to its survival from the school budget cuts being mulled in the Texas Capitol.

Lawmakers are considering a two-year budget proposal that does not cover $10 billion owed to school districts under current law, which would amount to a 14 percent reduction in total state and local education spending.

The possibility of such a loss of state aid has superintendents across Texas fretting about school closures, layoffs and fewer programs for students.

But for [Miles’ school superintendent Robert] Gibson, the worst-case scenario could mean the end of his town.

Miles will receive about $2.5 million this year in direct state aid while local taxpayers chip in another $710,000 by paying the maximum property tax rate allowed by state law.

Under the proposals floating around the Capitol, the district could be out as much as $508,000 — about 15 percent of its total budget — for each year of the 2012-13 budget. And Gibson can’t ask voters to authorize any more local tax money to make up the difference.

“Everything we have asked of them, they have done,” Gibson said. “If we ask them to dig a little deeper, I’m sure they would. But I don’t think it’s fair.”

[…]

Bill Grusendorf, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools , said that if state education money must be cut, it should come from the school districts that get the most in per-student funding, not the small districts struggling at the bottom.

“The danger there, politically, is that we’re outnumbered,” said state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran , R-Kerrville, whose district includes Miles.

If representatives from urban and suburban districts team up, Hilderbran said, the rural districts are doomed.

On the one hand, I feel terrible for these small, rural districts. As Warren Chisum pointed out, they are the largest employers in many West Texas towns. The cuts outlined in the Pitts and Ogden budgets really would be their death knell. On the other hand, let’s be honest: They’re getting exactly what they voted for. By my calculation, Rep. Hilderbran’s district gave Rick Perry 75% of the vote last year. Perhaps some of them were as misled about the state of the state’s finances as Jim Keffer’s constituents apparently were, but it’s not like they haven’t been voting for self-professed small-government budget-cutting Republicans all along. They wanted smaller government and budget cuts, now they’re going to get them. How much sympathy am I supposed to muster?

Which isn’t to say that they don’t have some legitimacy to their complaint. Though again, it all stems from something I’m sure the residents out there largely support, the 2006 property tax cuts:

So that no school district suffered as the balance of state and local money changed, lawmakers essentially froze the level of per-student revenue at what each school district was getting in 2005-06.

That snapshot captured some districts at an ideal moment because of what was happening on the ground locally. Others were not so lucky.

One district near Miles has $6,700 per student in combined state and local money while Miles’ take is $5,065. Though it has 100 fewer students than Miles, the neighboring district has $1 million more to spend because of that difference.

“Every student ought to be worth the same amount of money, but they’re not, and that’s not fair to the students,” said Elaine Baca , a school board member in Miles.

And that inequity will surely be a key component to the next school finance lawsuit. At the end of the day, though, if you want public schools to get what they need you have to vote for politicians who make them a priority, not property tax cuts. Maybe now that message will start to get through.

Redistricting hearing in San Antonio

It’s that time of the decade again.

Monday’s joint hearing of the House Committees on Redistricting and Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence — on the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus — marked the unofficial kickoff for that process. The first Texas redistricting meeting held this year outside of Austin, it attracted some of San Antonio’s heaviest political hitters: Smith, fellow Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, not to mention committee members Mike Villarreal and David Leibowitz.

[…]

Luis Figueroa, staff attorney for Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, cited Hispanic population growth as the primary reason Texas will gain those seats, arguing that otherwise the state would be looking at only one additional congressional seat. He urged legislators to create new districts that would enhance Hispanic voting power in the state.

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, decried what he called the “fajita strip” approach to map drawing, which he said resulted in long, unwieldy districts.

Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, made the strongest push for the GOP cause, saying at least 45 percent of Bexar County voters are Republicans, “but only 20 percent of its (state) representatives are Republicans.”

The simple answer to Hilderbran’s complaint can be seen in the Spanish surname voter registration (SSVR) numbers for Bexar County. In 2002, for example, seven of the ten State Rep districts (SRDs) had SSVR’s between 56 and 59. In other words, the districts were drawn with Hispanic voters spread out more or less evenly in these districts. (You can see the 2006 and 2008 SSVR numbers here; it’s basically the same as it was then.) That worked as intended – six of those seven districts have Latinos representing them, with Democrat David Leibowitz in SRD 117 being the seventh. The three other districts are SRDs 120, 121, and 122. The former is over 30% African-American, with an SSVR of 33.5%, and is held by Democrat Ruth Jones McClendon; the other two have SSVRs of less than 20% and are the two Republican seats.

Point being, to make any changes in Bexar County, you’d have to pack some more Latino voters into one or more SRDs, thus making one or two others less Latino. The almost inevitable result of that would be the election of a white Republican, which I’d bet would be viewed as a retrogression of voting rights by the Justice Department. Alternately, the GOP could find some candidates that can actually appeal to Latino voters. Republicans are forever talking about how conservative Latinos are, though they never seem to be able to translate that into tangible results. It should be noted that Republican Ken Mercer was elected in SRD117 in 2002; Leibowitz knocked him off in 2004. Also, a strong Republican candidate named George Antuna came close to winning SRD118 in 2006 after Carlos Uresti opened it up by running for State Senate. Though it’s likely harder now than it was eight years ago, it could be done if the Republicans really tried.

Finally, if Hilderbran is going to play that game, someone ought to ask him why Dallas and Tarrant counties, which combined to give Barack Obama 52% of their vote in 2008, have all or part of eight Congressional districts within their borders, but only one Democrat representing them. For that matter, if anyone else wants to take a crack at it, give it your best shot.

Anyway. There will be more of these hearings around the state in the coming months, so look for announcements of one near you, and make your voice heard.

Revisiting the FLDS saga

Grits sat in on the House Human Services Committee hearing that looked at how the state handled last year’s child-welfare operation at the FLDS ranch, and he’s got a detailed report on what transpired as well as an analysis of the proposed legislation to deal with it, which he refers to as “a Christmas Tree of mischief.” Check it out.