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Jim Dunnam

Calling for a special session

It started with the Texas State Teachers Association.

The Texas State Teachers Association today urged Gov. Rick Perry to call the Legislature into special session now to appropriate $2.5 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and head off another round of harmful cuts in local public school budgets for the 2012-2013 school year.

“It is time to stop the bleeding and stop the cuts, now!” said TSTA President Rita Haecker, who appeared at a state Capitol news conference with State Rep. Donna Howard of Austin.

[…]

TSTA believes there is enough money in the Rainy Day Fund to restore the school cuts and leave a substantial balance to address other important needs. The comptroller has estimated the fund will have a balance of $7.3 billion by the end of this budget period. Other experts believe it may grow even larger, because of higher oil prices and increased production.

Gov. Perry insisted that the Legislature leave a large balance in the Rainy Day account, even while making deep cuts in state services, during last year’s sessions. TSTA will be circulating petitions, urging the governor to do the right thing now and call lawmakers to Austin. Texans also can sign the petition at:

http://www.tstaweb.net/forms/2012cutsPetition.html

“It is time for the governor to cut the politics and stop cutting away at our children, their education and our state’s future,” Haecker said. “He can call a special session, stop the cuts and do what’s right for Texas.”

Remember, the Lege underfunded Medicaid by nearly $5 billion, so most of the Rainy Day Fund is spoken for. Haecker and the TSTA are calling for the extra Rainy Day funds, which have accumulated over the past few months as the economy has improved, to be used.

Former Democratic House Caucus chair Jim Dunnam echoed the call in the op-ed pages.

Just back from his failed presidential bid, Gov. Perry has been urged by Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and by educator groups to call a summer special session of the Texas Legislature to address budget and school finance issues. It’s so bad that even Perry’s own appointee as head of the Texas Education Agency, Robert Scott, just said he can’t certify Texas’ ban on social promotion until the current lack of funding is addressed. Perry should heed these responsible calls to fix the problem.

In 2011, $5.4 billion was cut from public education; that’s more than $1,000 per child. Those cuts will be felt even more in the fall than in the current school year. In addition, distribution of public school dollars has gotten way out of kilter, with students really the ones suffering.

Last week, Perry ignored the calls for a special session and instead chose to minimize the role of money in education, saying, “ultimately success is about the results that we get out of our schools.” Results do measure success, but the fact is that schools receiving the most money are the ones showing the successful results.

[…]

Gov. Perry needs to listen to Ogden and others and convene a special session this year. Why await the inevitable Supreme Court ruling when the problem is staring us in the face? School funding is once again totally inadequate, and funding imbalances are determining the winners and losers in our accountability system. Ironically, Texas now has $6.1 billion just sitting in our rainy day fund – more than what was cut from schools last year.

We have to stop blaming everyone else for our problems and look in the mirror when we look at unemployment, the deficit and our economy. Our methodical and steady defunding of education at all levels is a root cause of many of these problems. The Legislature needs to go back to work now. Otherwise, our tomorrow might not come out like we want, and only we will be to blame.

Democratic Senate candidate Paul Sadler, who was an education finance policy expert while in the State House, put the focus on his presumed opponent in November, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst should “get to work or resign,” says Paul Sadler, former House Public Education chairman, who believes state lawmakers need to come back to the state Capitol to work on school funding in a special legislative session.

Dewhurst is running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate; Sadler is running for the Democratic nomination.

Only Gov. Rick Perry can call a special legislative session, but Dewhurst should be supporting the call, Sadler says.

“Massive cuts to education this year, followed by systematic cuts planned for next year, will create a “Double Robin Hood” scenario for many public schools,” Sadler said. “I call this ‘The Dewhurst Disaster.

Paul Sadler has a simple message for David Dewhurst: “Get to work, or resign.”

“During the last legislative session, it is now obvious that both Governor Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst were interested only in their selfish desire to run for higher office and were too afraid of the right-wing extremists to tackle the hard issues of our state created by their mismanagement,” Sadler said. “I can certainly understand why both of these men would try to leave the State before Texans learn of the disaster they have created.”

I’ve put Sadler’s full statement beneath the fold. I confess that calls for special sessions always make me queasy. Only the Governor can set the agenda for a special session. Once the door is open, you never know what he might let in. Even if I knew the scope would be limited to this issue, I can’t say I’m comfortable with this Legislature being called back into action by this Governor to fix the problems they caused. Why should we expect a different outcome this time around? But these are academic concerns, because everyone knows Rick Perry has no interest in fixing anything. What’s important is keeping the spotlight on this failure, and how the recent welcome news about sales tax receipts and the Rainy Day Fund balance obviate the already limp excuses that Perry and Dewhurst and the rest of them had for gutting public education in the first place. This election, the next election, however many elections it takes, need to be about the failure of the state’s Republican leadership and Legislature to provide for Texas’ future. So sign the petition and join the call, and mark this date on your calendar:

And if that’s not enough, as BOR suggests, you can join with the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition, who are one of the school finance plaintiffs.

(more…)

Don’t forget Texas’ debt

Now that Perry’s Prayerpalooza is behind us and we breathlessly await his Presidential decision, keep this op-ed by former State Rep. Jim Dunnam in mind whenever you hear Perry pontificate about the national debt.

Before Rick Perry became governor, Texas was a pay-as-you-go state for roads, meaning we used current gas tax receipts to pay for new road construction. Our forefathers set up a system where transportation needs were paid for then and now, not by passing the buck to future generations. Under Gov. Perry, all that changed.

Starting in 2001, Texas started borrowing money for new road construction, pushing that cost onto future taxpayers. In just a decade, this debt has grown from zero to $11.9 billion. With interest payments, future taxpayers and our children will need 20 years and $21.1 billion to pay off that debt. There is even more about to be borrowed. In all, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has authority to borrow $17.3 billion, with a 30-year payoff of $31.1 billion, further shifting the burden to our children.

To make matters worse, new transportation debt is being secured by general state revenue, not just the gas tax. The exact same taxes we use to pay for public education, state universities and health care are now being diverted to make bond and interest payments on this debt. Imagine what future Texans could do without being saddled with $14 billion in interest payments over the next generation. They might not have to take money out of their public schools or health care. They might even have a real tax cut some day.

This debt is as potentially crushing on the future of Texas as the federal debt is for our United States. Texas’ borrowing has gotten so bad that we are now spending more annually on debt service than we are paying for new roads. According to TxDOT’s latest figures, we will spend $1.72 billion on debt payments over the next two years, compared to $1.28 billion for new roads.

That $1.72 billion sure would have been nice to have in this budget for other things, wouldn’t it? We wouldn’t have these problems if we were willing to raise the gas tax to keep up with the demand and the cost of building and maintaining our roads. Apparently, paying billions in interest is better because hey, it’s not taxes.

Prioritizing the target list

So now that we’ve had a tour of the possible targets for the Democrats in 2012, how would I prioritize them? Let’s start with the districts I’d call the Must Haves, and the Really Nice To Haves:

Dist Incumbent County ============================= 034 Torres/Scott Nueces 035 Aliseda multiple 041 Pena Hidalgo 078 Margo El Paso 101 Open Tarrant 117 Garza Bexar 017 Kleinschmidt multiple 054 Aycock Bell 105 Harper-Brown Dallas 107 Sheets Dallas 113 Driver Dallas

As noted before, 101 was drawn to be a Democratic district. All of the seats in the first group were won across the board by Democratic candidates in 2008, while the second group maxed out in the 48-49% range. I suspect that the three Dallas districts have gotten a little friendlier to the Dems since 2008, though we won’t know till they start voting. The other two may not be as gettable as the others, but 2012 is likely to be as good a year as any to try for them. Note that if we pick up all 11 of these seats, we’re only at 59 total, thanks to the Hochberg/Vo pairing, which is to say three short of where we started out in 2002. So what’s next on the list?

Dist Incumbent County ============================= 012 Open McLennan 045 Isaacs Hays 052 Gonzales Williamson 085 Open Fort Bend 102 Carter Dallas 112 Chen-Button Dallas 114 Hartnett Dallas 134 Davis Harris 149 Open Williamson

Here we come to districts where barring anything unusual I’d say Democratic candidates start out as distinct underdogs, though as above demographic changes since 2008 may make them a little bluer than they look now. The Dallas and Williamson seats will help provide a benchmark of where we really stand, and whether the Republican map is a work of genius or desperation. Candidate recruitment, and coordinated messaging could make a difference. Greg suggested that HD12 would be a nice fit for a Jim Dunnam comeback if he were so inclined, and I’m sure Patrick Rose would make an HD45 rematch competitive. It occurs to me that 2006 CD14 candidate Shane Sklar lives in HD85. He actually won the Jackson/Wharton combination in 06, so I hope he’s thinking about this. As for whoever runs against Sarah Davis, I would advise committing the phrases “She voted to cut $8 billion from public schools” and “She voted to cut family planning funds” to memory, and repeat them at least 100 times a day.

Finally, the seats that I don’t expect to be on the radar in 2012 but will be in future cycles:

Dist Incumbent County ============================= 032 Hunter Nueces 047 Workman Travis 064 Crownover Denton 065 Solomons Denton 066 Taylor Collin 067 Madden Collin 093 Nash Tarrant 096 Zedler Tarrant 097 Shelton Tarrant 108 Branch Dallas 115 Jackson Dallas 132 Callegari Harris 133 Murphy Harris 135 Elkins Harris 138 Bohac Harris 144 Legler Harris

Hunter’s seat, as noted, is mostly dependent on his own decisions – if he aims for higher office in 2012, it’ll be a hot race; if not, it may never be. The Harris districts will continue to morph as the population shifts and changes out west and around Pasadena. It’s possible some of these seats could be more competitive in an off-year race, and who knows what 2014 might look like. For the most part, I’m casting an eye towards 2016. I know, I know, that’s a long way off. But if I’m right, it ought to be a very interesting year.

New map, new opportunities: Outside the urban areas, part 1

Here’s the first post in my series of analyses of the new districts. I’m using 2008 electoral data, since the next election is a Presidential year, and I feel confident that the districts were drawn with an eye strongly towards protecting Republican gains in such a year. Without further ado, here we go.

HD12

District: 12

Incumbent: None

Counties: McLennan (part), Limestone, Falls, Robertson, Brazos (part)

Best 2008 Dem performance: Sam Houston, 46.67%

This district contains parts of Jim Dunnam’s old district, with the eastern part of the old HD57 being chopped off and reconstituted to accommodate Marva Beck. Lack of an incumbent is a big part of the draw here. A big downside is the eight point spread from the top of the ticket – neither Obama nor Noriega cracked 40% – to the Sam Houston number, which suggests that any Democratic candidate may have to swim against the tide. Lack of an incumbent also means you can’t accuse the other guy of voting to gut public education. Not a top priority, and may never be on the radar, but deserves a decent candidate for the first go-round at least.

HD17

District: 17

Incumbent: Tim Kleinschmidt (first elected in 2008)

Counties: Lee, Bastrop, Caldwell, Gonzales, Karnes

Best 2008 Dem performance: Susan Strawn, 48.27% (plurality)

Big change in this district, which used to contain Burleson, Colorado, Fayette, and parts of Brazos. Basically, it shifted south. Bastrop is the population center, and it was a purple county in 2008, with Strawn and Sam Houston scoring pluralities there. The more it becomes an Austin suburb a la Hays and Williamson, the better the prospects for a win. This district was on the radar for Dems in 2008 as an open D seat and in 2010, and I expect it will continue to be.

HDs 32 and 34

District: 32
District: 34

Incumbent: Todd Hunter (HD32, first elected in 2008); Raul Torres and Connie Scott (HD34, first elected in 2010)

Counties: Nueces

Best Dem performance in 2008: For HD32, Sam Houston, 46.20%. For HD34, Sam Houston, 58.83%

HD32 can charitably be described as a reach if Hunter runs for re-election. Nueces County has been trending away from the Democrats, the three counties that were removed from HD32 (Aransas, Calhoun, and San Patricio) were a net winner for Juan Garcia, whom Hunter defeated in 2008, and Hunter has done very well both in terms of fundraising and moving up the ladder in his two terms. However, it’s the worst kept secret in the state that Hunter wants to run for Congress, and if that map is at all favorable to him this seat may be open in 2012. So keep that in the back of your mind.

I’ll be honest, I’m not really sure why Torres and Scott were paired, unless they were considered to be hopeless cases for salvation. This is the more Democratic part of Nueces, with all Dems in 2008 winning a majority, up to 20 points in their favor downballot. This has got to be one of the easiest pickup opportunities for the Dems in 2012.

HD35

District: 35

Incumbent: Jose Aliseda (first elected in 2010)

Counties: Atascosa, LaSalle, McMullen, Live Oak, Bee, San Patricio, Duval

Best 2008 Dem performance: Sam Houston, 50.77%

Republicans have been trying to carve out a South Texas district for themselves for awhile, and this one may be their best shot going forward. The good news for them is that McCain and Cornyn scored solid wins in 2008, with McCain getting nearly 55% and Cornyn 51%. The bad news is that Dems carried the rest of the races, with Houston, Strawn, and Linda Yanez all getting majorities. Aliseda got into one of the more entertaining kerfuffles during the House debate over HB150; I don’t know if he got what he wanted or not, but what he got is a very swingy district that may be a battleground through the decade.

HD41

District: HD41

Incumbent: Aaron Pena (first elected as a Democrat in 2002, switched parties after the 2010 election)

Counties: Hidalgo (part)

Best Dem performance in 2008: Sam Houston, 60.15%

I can’t think of a single seat the Democrats would like to win more than this one. Technically, Pena is the incumbent in HD40, and Veronica Gonzales is the incumbent in HD41, but as the Legislative Study Group noted:

CSHB150 also radically changes Hidalgo County districts in an effort to squeeze a partisan performing district out of the existing population. The incumbent in HD 40 would only represent 1.5 % of his current district, and the incumbent in HD 41 would only represent 1.1 % of her district. The gerrymandered map in Hidalgo County takes great pains to draw the incumbents in HD 40 and 41 into almost entirely new districts, narrowing down to one city block at times.

For this reason, the district numbers were swapped, thus giving Pena and Gonzales most of their previous constituents back. Despite being on the Redistricting Committee and drawing what one presumes was the best map he could for himself, Pena isn’t exactly sitting pretty. The low score among Democrats was Obama’s 54.83%, with everyone but Jim Jordan getting at least 56%. Do his constituents love him enough to overcome the party label or not? Assuming he does run for re-election, that is.

Peña said he is in employment negotiations with a law firm that would require him to move out of the Valley. If he does take the job, he said, he won’t seek office in 2012.

In other words, he’s got a graceful way out if he decides that he can’t win his custom-designed district. We’ll find out soon enough. More non-urban areas coming up next.

Bye-bye, Big XII

Good-bye, Colorado.

The Pac-10 announced Thursday that the University of Colorado has agreed to leave the Big 12 to join its conference.

“This is an historic moment for the conference, as the Pac-10 is poised for tremendous growth,” commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement.

“The University of Colorado is a great fit for the conference both academically and athletically and we are incredibly excited to welcome Colorado to the Pac-10.”

[…]

A source with direct knowledge of the Pac-10’s discussions about adding more Big 12 teams told ESPN’s Joe Schad on Thursday that from the Pac-10’s perspective, it’s “simply a matter of who signs next.”

Colorado’s move might spell the end of the Big 12 Conference. Nebraska is also poised to announce its move from the conference to the Big Ten.

Texas and Texas A&M officials are scheduled to meet Thursday at an undisclosed location to discuss the future of their athletic programs and the Big 12 amid speculation the league could be raided by rival conferences and broken apart.

Did someone say Nebraska?

All signs are pointing to a Nebraska move to the Big Ten.

A source close to the Nebraska program told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that athletic director Tom Osborne informed some staff members within the past 24 hours the Cornhuskers were going to make the move to the Big Ten conference.

A source with knowledge of the Big Ten’s plans confirmed to ESPN.com that Nebraska will join the Big Ten by the end of the week or early next week. The source said the formal process of accepting a candidate either has started or would be under way shortly, as Nebraska must formally apply for admission to the Big Ten.

“It’s going to happen, unless something crazy happens in the final hours,” the source said. “I think by this weekend, it’s going to be wrapped up.”

Sean Pendergrast has more. For those of you keeping score at home, that would give the Big 10 twelve members, the PAC 10 eleven members, and the Big XII ten members. For now. Round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows.

Actually, that’s a point that shouldn’t be a joke. Nobody knows what will happen; in particular, nobody knows exactly what the Texas public universities that are affected by this will do. State Rep. Jim Dunnam thinks they ought to be more transparent about it:

The current Big-12 debate should not be what’s best for just Baylor, or just UT. The center of discussion should be what’s best for Texas as a whole, and the debate should be conducted in public, not back rooms.

We have public institutions to improve all our lives: public parks, libraries, swimming pools, museums. Public universities and their sports programs are the same thing.

The UT, A&M and Tech charters speak of enhancing the lives of every Texan, not one football program. The “Core Purpose” stated in the UT “Compact with Texans” says, “To transform lives for the benefit of society.”

For Notre Dame, maybe it’s different. But UT, A&M and Tech are public. Their football teams are not owned by one Athletic Director or a Board of Regents. They were founded and are owned by the people of Texas. They are valuable assets of our state. Mack Brown has done a great job as coach, but it took the support of generations of Texans to get him and his team on the field. University board members serve to protect the public trust of the citizens of Texas. Not just wealthy alums. Not TV networks.

[…]

Backroom deals with TV executives trading our state pastime for rating points is wrong. When I vote on changing Texas by law and statute, I do it after public hearings, after public debate and with a public vote. Every Regent was appointed by Governor Perry and confirmed by the Texas Senate, and they owe Texans the same openness and transparency in this decision.

That’s from an op-ed he sent out, which may wind up in a newspaper near you, or you can just read it here. I think he’s right, and I think it’s time for there to be some discussion of what this means and how these schools should conduct this business. It shouldn’t just be the regents’ decision.

The Baylor-PAC 10 emails

It’s impossible to keep up with all of the Big 12/PAC 10/Big 10 stuff, and the many possible permutations of what could happen, but I was amused by the emails from a Baylor regent trying to whip up support for their inclusion in any mass migration to the PAC 16 over Colorado.

Wrote [Baylor regent and prominent lobbyist Buddy] Jones: “We cannot let the other schools in Texas (A&M, U.T., Tech) leave the Big XII WITHOUT BAYLOR BEING INCLUDED IN THE PACKAGE. Long and short – if U.T., A&M and Tech demand that any move to any other conference include ALL TEXAS BASED TEAMS from the Big XII, we are golden. We need to be in a PACKAGE DEAL!”

[…]

Jones argues that Baylor is better than Colorado as a potential Pac-10 team because, “Baylor is superior to Colorado academically. Baylor has athletic facilities superior to Colorado. Colorado doesn’t participate in the number of sports that Baylor does. Baylor’s overall record in all collegiate sports dwarfs that of Colorado.”

Jones also points to Nebraska as being a key to the conference realignment. He opines that: “It’s hard enough get the home teams to stick tight. But harder still to influence a bunch of corn shuckers.”

I’m sure he meant that in the nicest possible way. The Denver Post managed to get a couple of people on the record about the Baylor-versus-Colorado thing.

Powerful Baylor alumni said today that the Texas State Legislature is looking into ways to help their alma mater.

As Kip Averitt, who retired in March after 17 years as a state senator and is a 1977 Baylor grad, told The Denver Post: “If it’s one or the other, I’d rather it be us than you.”

[…]

“I think there’s a desire to have regional participation in all of the athletics,” said State Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), Baylor class of ’86. “If you don’t have Texas and Texas A&M and Tech and Baylor playing one another, you lose the regional nature of your conference.

“It’s fun to play Ohio State every now and then but people come in day in, day out for that regional competition.”

[…]

“We’re on the same academic tier as Colorado,” Averitt said. “Both of our schools are at the top of the spectrum. That can’t be an issue. But for us down here, we’re kind of a family. We like to compete against our family.

“It’s nothing against Colorado at all. We like to travel up to Colorado from time to time. It’s a beautiful state. But when it comes to conference realignment, it’s a huge deal to Baylor University and central Texas economics.”

Colorado’s appeal to the Pac-10, besides a closer proximity, is it’s a member of the prestigious American Association of Universities. While Baylor is not, it’s considered one of the best academic institutions in Texas.

Athletically, Baylor boasts the most Big 12 championships outside of Texas and Nebraska. Baylor officials quickly point out that Colorado does not carry non-revenue sports that are popular in the Pac-10 such as softball, baseball and men’s tennis.
“We think that also should be a consideration,” Averitt said. “We’re across the board.”

Is it just me, or does anyone else hear Frank Sinatra crooning in the background?

I dunno. I guess it could happen. Baylor’s arguments are quite logical. But I think Buck Harvey is correct in that logic will be trumped by numbers.

Colorado doesn’t dominate its region the way Nebraska does. But it is still the state’s largest school with the potential to be more. Baylor, bordered by UT on one edge and A&M on another, isn’t a growth business.

Then there are the numbers. Boulder, Colo., is 25 miles from Denver and is included in that city’s television market. It’s the 16th largest in the nation, the reason four major pro sports are there.

Waco is combined with Bryan and Temple on the same list, yet is 89th overall — just above Jackson, Miss.

This sure is fun to watch, isn’t it? In closing, I leave you with Dan Wetzel, who makes a strong case for how supporting a football playoff would have saved the Big 12 from the current attempts to pick its carcass, and Sean Pendergast, who compares the spot the Big 12 is in to that of the Big East of 2003. Check ’em out.

Dunnam to Perry: Give me some names

So as you know, there was a story last month about Rick Perry’s swanky and expensive rental mansion, which he and his wife have been using while the Governor’s Mansion is undergoing repairs. Turns out that the rather lavish lifestyle he’s enjoyed while directing everybody else in the state to cut their budgets has dogged him a bit. He was asked about it in an interview with KENS-TV in San Antonio, and he gave a fascinating answer. BOR has a transcription:

Vaughn: Governor, I know that you’re tied into social media. I follow you on twitter and Facebook, so I went to my Facebook followers and asked them if they had some questions for you. You call yourself a fiscal conservative. You know that the mansion burned down. You are spending your time in a rental mansion. Tell me if I’m wrong or right. $10,000 a month for rent. So far that’s 600,000 dollars. This person says, “Governor is that necessary to spend that much money?”

Perry: I think it’s like 9000 dollars a month, but the fact is, the dollar amount is not what’s important here. I wish the mansion hadn’t burned down. When we were asked to move out of the Governor’s mansion downtown, Anita and I said look whatever we need to do, and then the detail, the governor’s protective detail, those are the individuals that make the decision about where we are going to live. There’s requirements about where we live, and they made those decisions.

Vaughn: Couldn’t you live in a smaller place, less expensive.

Perry: That’s up to them. If we moved closer into town — We’re 14 mi out of town because that’s the closest place they were able to find that had the requirements. You have a substantial number of people on the detail that actually take up the bulk of that room. We’re going to live wherever the Legislature and Department of Public Safety direct us to live. So hopefully we’ll get the mansion back in shape very soon and this issue won’t be on the table.

Vaughn: How do you respond to your challenger Bill White? He says he would live in a really nice apartment.

Perry: I say, let’s get focused on what’s really important.

So Perry says he doesn’t have a choice, he’s just living where the Lege and the DPS told him to live. In response, Jim Dunnam, who is a member of the legislature, sent Perry a letter asking him a few questions about that, since doesn’t remember the Lege doing anything like that. Go read it and see what he has to say. But don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

LSG forum on gambling

Earlier this month, State Rep. Jim Dunnam, the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, sent out a letter to the Chairs of the House Republican Caucus, the Texas Conservative Coalition, and the Legislative Study Group proposing that they establish “a bi-partisan ad hoc committee to fully explore all aspects of any and all gaming proposals that might be before the Texas House” in the next legislative session. Rep. Garnet Coleman of the LSG sent out the following in response:

Representative Garnet F. Coleman, Chair of the Legislative Study Group (LSG) House Caucus, announced [Monday] that the caucus would host a forum on the issue of gambling to help prepare members on the public policy implications of expanded gaming in Texas.

“This will be a Gaming 101 forum. Members need to receive information about the public policy of gaming,” said Representative Coleman. “We have the opportunity to look at what has happened in other states that have passed gaming, and review the long range impact for Texas.”

The LSG will host a forum on the issue, where members can learn about the intricacies of the issue. All members of the Legislature are invited to attend.

Representative Coleman said, “In the year since session ended, there has been a legislative vacuum when it comes to this specific issue. Members deserve to have as much information as possible as they prepare for the next legislative session, where various proposals for expanded gambling will certainly be proposed.”

Previously, House Democratic Caucus Leader Jim Dunnam had proposed creating a bipartisan ad hoc committee with LSG and the House Democratic Caucus, the House Republican Caucus and the Conservative Coalition Caucus. Both the Republican Caucus and the Conservative Coalition declined the invitation.

“Representative Dunnam was correct, this is an important issue that needs to be discussed and studied publicly,” said Representative Coleman. “With a revenue shortfall upwards of $18 billion in the next biennium there is a legitimate policy discussion that needs to happen. Members need to know the pros and cons of expanded gambling and the potential impact on our state.”

As I said before, I think this is a good idea. I’m not sure why the RC and the CC declined, but at least someone will be looking into it. The more work that gets done before the opening gavel in 2011, the better.

“Perry’s Fiscal Flim-Flam”

Just go read this article/slide show from the Texas Observer about the gap between what Rick Perry says about the state’s finances and the truth. It’s stuff we mostly knew already, but it’s still sobering to see like that. And keep this in mind:

Last month, the [Legislative Budget Board] warned lawmakers that there will be at least an $11 billion shortfall in 2011—thanks to the 2006 property-tax cuts. [State Rep. Jim] Dunnam, and other legislators, predict the shortfall will be much worse.

“We are hearing anywhere from $15 to $20 billion,” he says. “You think 2003 was bad. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

I’ve heard that Republican State Rep. Jim Pitts, who chairs the Appropriations committee, has been saying the same thing about the size of the shortfall. It’s going to be brutal. And to a large degree, we have Rick Perry to thank for it.

Dunnam wants Lege to study gambling now

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, noting that Speaker Joe Straus has maintained his pledge to stay out of processes that involve gambling-related legislation because of possible conflicts on interest, sent a letter to three of his counterparts suggesting that they take action and form a working committee now to do some study on the issue, as it will surely arise again in the next session.

In the 81st session, an overwhelming and bipartisan majority of the House voted to give this issue the serious consideration it deserves. HCR 220, by Kuempel, among other things called on “the lieutenant governor and speaker of the house of representatives to create a joint interim committee to study the gaming industry in Texas and its potential direct and indirect economic impact on specific markets and on the state as a whole…” This measure passed the House on a 98-36 vote, then died in the Senate for lack of time. The will of the House is clearly for this issue to be studied, and our constituents are owed more than us just waiting for the inevitable issue to arise in January 2011 with no prior comprehensive study of the issue.

Therefore, I am asking that you join with me in establishing a bi-partisan ad hoc committee to fully explore all aspects of any and all gaming proposals that might be before the Texas House during the upcoming 82nd Legislative Session.

You can read the letter, which he sent to House of Representatives Republican Caucus Chair Larry Taylor, Legislative Study Group Chair Garnet Coleman, and Texas Conservative Coalition President Wayne Christian and cc’ed to the rest of the House here. You know how conflicted I am about expanded gambling in Texas, but I certainly agree that it will be a big issue next spring, and as such it is the right idea to start the official discussion of it now. The fact that it won’t have any impact on the budget for this biennium doesn’t matter. I strongly suspect legislation allowing for expanded gambling will be broadly popular, and since such things tend to come from crisis times, I’ll be shocked if there isn’t something to vote on next November. So let the conversation begin and we’ll see what happens. Stace and the Trib have more.

Stiffed by State Farm

Those good hands we’re supposed to be in? They’re squeezing the heck out of us.

To leading lawmakers and even some insurance industry experts, State Farm hasn’t exactly been like a good neighbor in recent dealings with state regulators.

The state’s largest property insurer shows no sign of compromising on its marathon legal battle over the state’s ruling that it overcharged homeowners hundreds of millions of dollars.

The insurer – which had an improved bottom line in 2009, according to figures released Monday by the state – has yet to pay a penny to policyholders.

After filing twice in eight months to increase rates, company officials gave a cold shoulder last month to state Insurance Commissioner Mike Geeslin, who suggested State Farm needed to give its customers a break.

And on Thursday, State Farm will take Geeslin and the Texas Department of Insurance to court in an effort to keep the agency from publicizing documents related to the rate spikes, which represent a statewide increase of 13 percent.

That was today, and State Farm won a temporary restraining order barring the TDI from posting the documents, though that could change depending on what Insurance Commissioner Geeslin does. The Chron’s Loren Steffy explains what State Farm is trying to get away with.

State Farm’s cry that disclosure will be anti-competitive is just another industry red herring.

Homeowners insurance is a market with fixed demand, meaning it isn’t really free to begin with. In a free market, after all, competition drives down prices.

Yet in Texas, the Big Three — State Farm, Farmers and Allstate — repeatedly push to raise rates and would hike them even higher if the state didn’t restrict the increases.

Because homeowners rarely change insurers, yet most are required to have it by their mortgage companies, the Big Three retain a stranglehold on the market even as they raise prices and reduce coverage.

State Farm has been battling the insurance department since 2004, demanding higher rates, rejecting the state’s finding that it’s overcharging and appealing the order that it refund hundreds of millions of dollars to customers.

Now it wants to hide the its rationale for yet another rate hike.

Insurance rates have been going up faster than property taxes for a lot of people, not that anyone in the state’s Republican leadership seems all that worked up about it. Democrats, however, are all over it.

Under the current file and use system, insurance companies can introduce drastic rate hikes without obtaining approval from the state insurance commissioner, the Legislature, or Texas consumers. The commissioner has few tools to keep the marketplace in balance.

“There is no backstop here. The solution could not be clearer, we must give our commissioner the tools to bring these companies in line,” said Representative Jessica Farrar. “We need a system of prior approval requiring insurance companies to justify rate increases before they pass them on to their customers and TDI Sunset provides that opportunity.”

It sure would be nice to have some accountability for the insurers, wouldn’t it? We’ll see how the lawsuit proceeds.

Did I mention that we’re facing a revenue shortfall?

In case I haven’t beaten this horse beyond recognition yet, the stimulus money really saved our budgetary bacon this year, and without something equally dramatic, we are so screwed in 2011.

“It was a deficit budget as written,” said Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who chaired the Appropriations subcommittee on Education.

As soon as legislators knew how much money the state would have to spend, they realized the state was about $4 billion short of covering the proposed costs.

The federal stimulus money came to the rescue. In addition to the one-time expenditures typically associated with stimulus — roads, buildings, etc. — the Legislature also used the money to cover ongoing costs, particularly for education and health and human services.

But in order to avoid cutting education money next session, legislators will have to find a way to make up for this year’s missing education money as well as the money for growth.

“We sort of had a $5 billion hole that we covered with $8 billion of stimulus money,” said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

[…]

“Primarily the stimulus in Texas was used to just move dollars around and you didn’t have the level of benefit that the stimulus was designed to create,” says Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), chair of the Select Committee on the Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, the formal name for the stimulus money.

Dunnam argues that the Legislature created a deficit in education when it was actually spread throughout the budget.

If he’s right, that may prove to be a problem for educators. Next session, legislators will have to find a way to balance the budget, and this time, they’ll probably be without a stimulus package. Basic costs in education will be even higher as more kids join the ranks of students.

I’ll say it again, because I never get tired of saying it. The simplest solution to this problem is to roll back the unaffordable, irresponsible property tax cuts of 2006 that guaranteed we’d have a structural deficit in the budget for years to come. Given the creation of the business margins tax, we can probably get away with rolling back only a part of the property tax cut, so that there would still be a net reduction in rate. But that fifty-cent reduction was and is a complete budget-buster, and it has to be tamed. There’s no other truly viable option.

But wait! I hear you cry. What about the rainy day fund? That could cover the shortfall for 2011, and if we’re lucky we’ll have grown our way out of the problem by 2013. Putting aside the need for a supermajority to tap into the RDF, there’s a teensy weensy problem with this: The rainy day fund is smaller than you think.

[Texas Comptroller Susan] Combs revised her estimate for the so-called rainy day fund to $8.2 billion, down from her January projection of $9.1 billion.

The primary culprit is falling natural gas prices, which will lead to less production and thus less tax revenue.

Guess we better start hoping harder. Phillip has more.

Dems attack Perry over stimulus funds

Good to see.

Texas Democratic lawmakers Thursday defended President Barack Obama’s stimulus package against criticism from Republican leaders, saying Texas is making economic progress with the help of recovery funds.

Texas state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said that without the $16.5 billion in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, steep cuts would have been made to the state’s budget.

“We would have been in severe trouble if we had not had it,” Van de Putte told reporters in a Democratic National Committee-sponsored conference call.

Van de Putte said the stimulus money has led to the creation of about 69,000 transportation jobs, an $800 pay raise for public school teachers and accounts for $1.7 billion in other education funds.

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said the state did not have to reduce Medicaid spending as it did in 2003 when the Legislature cut the program.

More of this, please. It cannot be said often or loudly enough that we needed $12 billion in stimulus dollars to balance the state budget. Rick Perry can preen all he wants about how he didn’t want all those nasty federal funds, but the truth is he grabbed them with both hands because we needed every penny and then some. As for the unemployment funds that he did manage to reject, let’s always remember that everything Rick Perry has done on unemployment funds has cost us all more money. He’s wrong, he’s vulnerable on these points, and everybody needs to know it. Thanks to EoW for the catch.

Chubbing

That’s the word of the day, as the Democrats use up most of the ten-minute allotment for discussion of bills on the Local and Consent calendar in order to delay, hopefully to death, the voter ID bill SB362. It’s not a filibuster, as there’s no such thing in the House – the talking is merely designed to slow the whole process down, which it has done in both chambers. Since there were over 200 bills on the Local and Consent calendar, and since the bills are taken in order, taking nearly ten minutes per bill can really grind things down. Dems have noted a way to get to the bills everyone really wants to tackle, by voting to do so on a Senate-like two-thirds vote to consider a bill out of order, but so far there have been no takers on that.

Burka thinks the Dems are making a huge strategic and political blunder by adopting this tactic. I agree with him on one point: Rick Perry will have no hesitation about calling a special session, if the only thing that prevents voter ID from passing is a successful murder of the clock. That’s why I’ve thought for awhile that the best possible outcome is a floor vote that ends with the bill not passing. Maybe that’s not attainable – if so, running out the clock and hoping for the best is about all there is left to do. I strongly disagree with his assertion that they may as well give up the fight, on this and on unemployment insurance, which will surely pass the House but would not survive a promised veto. On voter ID, the Democratic base can forgive losing, especially in a case where the deck was stacked to begin with, but it won’t forgive surrender, not on this. Given a choice between giving the Rs a campaign issue and pissing off the very people they’ll be counting on to help them win elections next year, it’s no contest. As for UI, who’s to say Perry will necessarily follow through, and if he does who’s to say it’s good politics for him to do so? I don’t see the value in punting and am frankly a little puzzled by Burka’s touting of it in either case.

As I write this, the chubbing continues, for who knows how much longer. I don’t know how this ends. More than likely, it ends the way it was seemingly pre-ordained to end when the Senate gutted the two thirds rule so it could ram voter ID through, with SB362 passing. That may happen sometime before Tuesday, the last day for the House to pass a Senate bill on second reading, or it may happen later this summer. I’d still rather go down fighting. BOR and Rep. Peña have more.

UPDATE: Doesn’t look like there will be any way out of this other than straight through it.

Budget yes, UI not yet

The conference committee on the budget finished its work yesterday.

While final details are still emerging, the 10 conferees worked out a last minute plan for spending $700 million of federal stimulus money for state fiscal stabilization. They hope that it will avert a special session, even if Perry vetoes some or all of the money. It appeared to go to school textbooks in part. And there were other things funded that are near and dear to the Perry family, such as preservation of a couple more county courthouses ($7 million) and restoring the fire-gutted Governor’s Mansion.

Burkablog and Floor Pass, which notes that the committee will vote out the budget on Tuesday, fill in a few more details. The first obstacle is making sure Governor Perry will sign it, but so far there’s no evidence that he wants to force a do-over. Not dipping into the Rainy Day Fund, for which we can all thank President Obama and the stimulus package, likely helps out there.

Unclear at this time is the fate of the Davis/Walle amendment, which would drain money from the Texas Enterprise Fund in the event that SB1569 gets vetoed. And speaking of SB1569, it took a few steps forward in the House, but ultimately was not brought to a vote. The best writeup I’ve seen about what went on during this comes from Ed Sills’ TxAFLCIOENews; I’ve reproduced it beneath the fold.

According to Brandi Grissom on Twitter, the House has recessed for the night due to its computers being down, without having passed any bills today. They’re scheduled to work Saturday and Sunday, and according to Gardner Selby, voter ID is supposedly atop the calendar for Saturday. That’s assuming they actually get to it – as we’ve seen multiple times this session, being on the calendar is no guarantee of anything. The Democrats will surely do what they can to run out the clock if they feel they must. We’ll see how far down the agenda the House gets tomorrow.

(more…)

Gearing up for the voter ID showdown

SB362 was not on the calendar today, but it is expected to be brought to the House floor before the Tuesday deadline for approving Senate bills, perhaps as early as tomorrow. House Dems had a press conference today, accidentally pre-empting a Republican presser in the process, to decry voter ID and vow to fight it tooth and nail if it does come to the floor. None of that is new, though the hints that there might be a quorum-busting maneuver, plus the suggestion (on Twitter) that the Dems have the votes to defeat SB362, are. I suppose if the latter is true then there’s no need for the former, though given Rep. David Farabee’s comment that he could support a voter ID proposal that had a phase-in period, I suspect no one wants to take any chances in the event the Republican hardliners decide to grab the half a loaf that’s almost surely available to them. The clock is the Democrats’ friend on this (at least until Governor Perry calls a special session), and they emphasized the short amount of time remaining till sine die and the long list of things like windstorm insurance reform that still need to get done. I think in the end it will come down to counting noses. If the Dems really can beat this thing, which I think they can do as SB362 stands (remember, the GOP is a vote short right now), it’ll die. If the Republicans give a little, they can probably peel off enough support to get something passed. I’d say the choice is theirs.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, voter ID is not on the calendar for Friday. This is just a guess, but maybe Jim Dunnam is right and the votes aren’t there to pass it, and the delay is to give the Republicans time to get a majority. At which, needless to say, I want them to fail. Keep hope alive.

Perry’s ongoing war on the unemployed

You have to say this about Governor Perry: He never goes off message, no matter how ridiculous that message may be.

Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday re-stated his opposition to legislation that would allow the state to accept federal stimulus dollars for expanded unemployment programs. A key part of Perry’s argument is that once Texas expands the pool of people who are eligible for unemployment benefits, there will be no changing the program back to its current guidelines. (While the federal stimulus law says that states cannot insert a sunset provision that would automatically end the expanded benefits at a certain point, state legislatures can choose to revert back to the previous parameters of their programs).

“I’ve never seen anything generally done away with once it becomes law so I wouldn’t think this one would be any different,” Perry told a gaggle of reporters after a speech Wednesday.

I asked Perry about 2003, when lawmakers famously cut a number of programs in order to cope with a $10 billion budget shortfall.

“Ronald Reagan said that there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government program,” Perry responded. “I think that is a very wise statement and I will stand by that. Cutting government programs that are put in place that are entitlements are almost impossible to change.”

I just want to point out that Perry’s legislative director, Ken Armbrister, said those exact words about “temporary government programs” two months ago in testimony about the unemployment insurance funds. Like I said, always on message.

Is it almost impossible to cut a government program?

In 2001, the Legislature created a $1,000 stipend for teachers to pay for health insurance. In 2003, the Legislature cut it back to $500. And in 2006, it was rolled into teachers’ salaries to help lawmakers and Perry inflate the size of a teacher pay raise.

Between 2003 and 2007, the Legislature cut the utility assistance program for low-income Texans from $150 million to $15 million.

The Legislature created the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Texas in 1997. In 2003, the Legislature cut vision, dental and mental health benefits, while increasing the frequency with which families had to enroll.

Lawmakers cut payments to doctors seeing Medicaid and CHIP patients in 2003.

You get the idea. And Perry said when announcing that he would not accept the stimulus dollars, “Texas overcame a $10 billion deficit in 2003 because we decided to reduce government spending,” Perry said in March.

Said House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam, “The governor didn’t have any difficulty repealing CHIP eligibility and throwing 250,000 children off of health insurance. Maybe he has amnesia.”

It’s not amnesia, it’s good old-fashioned dishonesty. Maybe the key is to make the UI changes permanent, since we don’t seem to have any problems discontinuing permanent government programs when the mood strikes us.

In addition to being dishonest about unemployment insurance and the stimulus money, Perry is also a hypocrite as the Statesman points out. Yes, I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Perry uses taxpayer money — he asked for $260 million for the next two-year budget cycle — from the [Texas Enterprise Fund] to attract businesses to Texas. A principal measure of success is how many jobs a new employer creates.

What’s interesting here is that, as The Associated Press reported last week, companies that have received money from the fund are now allowed to count part-time workers in toting up the number of people they have hired.

But one of Perry’s objections to accepting the federal stimulus money for unemployment compensation is that it would allow part-time workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own to receive prorated unemployment insurance benefits. A typical example is a spouse who works part-time because of children, loses her job and needs unemployment benefits until she can find another job.

So, it’s fine by Perry to count part-time workers if it means helping an employer get public money, but if the employer lays off those part-timers in a recession, too bad for them. There are few better examples of the governor’s high regard for business interests and lack of interest in ordinary people.

Here’s a link to that AP story, which I missed when it came out. I really don’t think there’s anything that needs to be added to this.

House passes budget, slaps Perry

State Rep. Chris Turner, on Twitter:

At 3:56 am, the House unanimously passed the budget.

Believe it or not, that was earlier than was originally anticipated. The pregame chatter was that the House would have to reconvene today to finish the job, given the vast number of amendments that needed to be slogged through. It helped that the debate was largely civil, with many contentious amendments, the kind that get inserted to force record votes for future campaign fodder, got withdrawn.

“The real story tonight is that we all worked together, arm in arm, to pass a budget that we can all be proud of. We have shown that working together, we can do what is right for Texas and for Texans,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

The mostly sedate debate – there was a random “bring it on!” when one lawmaker questioned another’s amendment – ran the gamut of sometimes hot-button subjects while intentionally steering clear of a couple of sensitive issues.

House members voted to ban public funding for private school vouchers, bar the Texas Department of Transportation from hiring lobbyists, pay for rail relocation to pave the way for a high-speed passenger train from San Antonio to Dallas under an amendment by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, and change teacher incentive funding to give local school districts more control under an amendment by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

The Republican governor would see losses on two fronts under the proposal approved at 4 a.m.

The measure would drain most of the operating funds for Perry’s office, instead using it to pay for community mental health crisis services and veterans’ services under amendments by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and John Davis, R-Houston.

In addition, if Gov. Rick Perry carries through on his vow to block some $555 million in stimulus funds for unemployment benefits, he would lose the $136 million in the Enterprise Fund.

That budget amendment by Reps. Armando Walle, D-Houston, and Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, would transfer the money to the unemployment trust fund that pays benefits to workers.

“He (Perry) is having a bad day,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco. “He might have to secede.”

But an effort to slash funding for Planned Parenthood was dropped, and lawmakers also decided to forgo consideration of a ban on embryonic stem cell research.

I’ll expand on some of these points in a minute, but first let me say that this, finally, was the kind of thing I had envisioned when Joe Straus was gaining momentum to knock off Tom Craddick as Speaker. The budget debate was substantive, it focused on real issues and not ideological talking points, and in the end it was passed unanimously. Does anyone think that would have happened if Craddick were still running the show? I sure don’t. Straus hasn’t been the end of the rainbow by any means, but he gets a ton of credit for this.

Now then. As fun as it is to contemplate a penniless Governor’s office – perhaps its functions can be privatized; I hear Accenture is looking for a new gig – that was just a bit of a shell game that will ultimately be rectified. Of much greater importance, and much more likely to have a real effect, was the amendment to zero out the Enterprise Fund.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer proposed an amendment that would keep Texas companies from receiving money from the Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund if they’d already been bailed out by the feds. (Withdrawn.) Rep. Marisa Marquez tried to keep Perry’s funds from bailing out corporations that laid people off while paying bonuses to executives. (Also withdrawn) And Rep. Joe Moody wanted to prohibit cash flow from Perry’s funds to companies that contributed to his, Dewhurst’s or Straus’ campaigns. Debbie Riddle killed that bit of fun with a point of order. (She’s good at that.)

Then, Rep. Armando Walle wanted to nix the $136 million appropriation for the Enterprise Fund in the 2010-11 biennium if none of the unemployment insurance bills pass. The idea here is that if the unemployment insurance bills don’t pass, then Texas won’t get the $555 million for the unemployment trust fund, which Perry rejected last month. And the Enterprise Fund siphons money from the trust fund. So what Walle wanted to do with his amendment is say to Perry, “Veto the unemployment insurance bills, and we’ll zero out your slush fund.” But that amendment didn’t fly, either. Died on a point of order.

So far, Mark Strama has been the only one of the bunch to have any success. His amendment, which passed, says that the Emerging Tech Fund should prioritize funding for energy-related R & D projects.

But stay tuned. Yvonne Davis’ amendment, which would completely eliminate funding for Perry’s Enterprise Fund, was temporarily withdrawn, but seems like it might have some success.

And in the end, Rep. Davis’ amendment was accepted. I’m not exactly sure how it differed from Rep. Walle’s amendment, but the bottom line is that as things stand now, if Perry vetoes SB1569, whose prospects for passing the House look better to me now, then he nixes his own slush fund. You gotta love that.

Other matters of interest: School vouchers go down again. Teacher incentive pay gets an overhaul. Various petty amendments bite the dust amid general good will and the liberal use of points of order.

The floor fights have been few and far between. We hear that House members on the left and right have struck a truce and agreed to pull down their most controversial budget amendments.

That includes Panhandle Republican Warren Chisum’s proposal to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Chisum’s amendment had family family planning providers worried. But the amendment never came up.

Leo Berman, the Tyler Republican, did bring forth two amendments aimed at illegal immigrants. One would have instructed state health officials not to issue birth certificates to children of illegal immigrants (who, under current law, are U.S. citizens). Berman also tried to tax money transfers sent from Texas back to Mexico, and Central and South America. Both of Berman’s amendments were shot down on points of order because they changed state law, which isn’t allowed during the budget debated.

All in all, it was a pretty good day. There were some more goodies and the requisite amount of silliness, as one would expect for an 18-hour marathon. I recommend you read Vince’s exhaustive liveblogging to get a feel for that. In the meantime, the budget now goes to the conference committee so that the differences between the House and Senate versions can be ironed out. Burka things the Senate has the advantage in that, so who knows how much of what the House did will ultimately survive. All I know is that having seen the budget process under Tom Craddick three times, this was a vast improvement.

UPDATE: From Texas Impact:

Among the most important improvements the House made on the floor were:

They call the House budget “a significant improvement over the Senate budget”. Let’s hope we can say the same after the conference committee. Link via EoW.

Perry walks back secession talk

As the sun rises in the east, so do politicians who say stupid things revise and extend those remarks afterward when people start asking them questions about what they really meant. And so it was the case with Rick Perry, who insisted to reporters that he didn’t actually mean it when he said that Texas might look to secede if we got fed up enough with Washington, whatever that means. It might have been nice if the reporters had pressed him a bit more about the crowd to whom he made his initial statements, who were chanting “Secede! Secede!” in agreement with what they sure as heck thought he was saying, but I suppose you can’t have everything. Regardless, Democratic leaders such as Jim Dunnam and Rodney Ellis and gubernatorial candidate Tom Schieffer have rightly jumped on Perry for his idiocy, and I hope more will join in. (Anyone heard from Kinky Friedman on this?) It’d be nice if a few Republicans expressed some concern about making such intemperate statements, at least the ones who haven’t been busy making their own. Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath.

Of the many things that bother me about this, I think it’s the fact that once again a Texas Republican has made national news in a way that disgraces the state and makes us look like a bunch of rubes and fools. It’s been a nonstop parade of idiocy this year – Sharon Keller, the SBOE clown show, Louie Gohmert, Betty Brown, and now Rick Perry. I realize that there’s a lot of people who don’t care what others think about us, indeed who consider it a badge of honor to be looked down upon by the rest of the country and the world, but nothing good can come out of this. We can be as business-friendly a state as we want to be, but if people don’t want to relocate here because they’ve had such a negative impression of the place because of stunts like these it won’t do us any good. Exceptionalism isn’t necessarily an asset.

Most of all, I can’t believe I have to say any of this. Secession, for Christ’s sake. Because some people are unhappy that they lost an election. Remember how a bunch of celebrities whined to the press in 2000 and again in 2004 that they’d leave the country if Bush won? Remember how we all thought they were jackasses for saying that? Remember how Republicans in particular piled on them for their knavery? Boy, those sure were the days.

Coup? What coup?

The rumor of a list of legislators looking to oust House Speaker Joe Straus turns out to be, well, a rumor.

The Statesman’s Gardner Selby started hearing chatter late last week that Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, was circulating a list of signatures to remove Straus. Martinez Fischer told Selby on Monday that he first heard the rumor from a Straus aide last week.

“I just kind of laughed,” Martinez Fischer said. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I didn’t think it was a big deal.'”

The rumor apparently persisted, and Martinez Fischer took it up with Straus on Monday.

“I said, ‘I hear I have a list,'” Martinez Fischer said. “He says, ‘yes, that’s what I’m hearing.’ We started laughing, the speaker and I, and I said, ‘Joe, you know I think that’s crazy.'”

For the record, Martinez Fischer told Selby, “There’s no list that either I’m circulating or that I’ve signed.”

He said Straus referenced in their conversation a Monday post on the Republican-friendly Web site texasinsider.org. “Word around the Texas House of Representatives is that a phantom list of nearly 76 signatures is circulating that will take out Speaker Joe Straus when the time is right. A few representatives wishing to remain anonymous have told Texas Insider they have signed the sheet calling for a motion to remove the speaker,” the post says.

[…]

Since it cites a large number of Democrats, I brought it up with Rep. Jim Dunnam, leader of the House Democratic Caucus. “Nobody’s asked me for a signature on anything,” Dunnam said. He later added, “I haven’t heard anybody talking about that.”

But not all is fine. “I do know that there are people who are unhappy with how business is not being conducted in the House,” Dunnam said. “I think there is a general frustration that the clock is ticking. Nobody’s doing anything about insurance rates. Nobody’s doing anything about electric rates. Nobody’s doing anything about college tuition.”

Dunnam says he counts himself among those who are unhappy. But is removing the speaker the way to remedy that? “That’s not the way I’d want to solve it.”

It would probably help if there were less focus on needless things like voter ID, but that’s an issue for the Senate, at least as of today. Be that as it may, I’m not surprised that this turned out to be nothing. Strategically, whatever complaints the Dems may have about how committee assignments and chairs shook out, how were they going to benefit by trying to throw over Speaker Straus? There’s no chance of putting a Dem in the Speaker’s seat this session, and if your main quarrel with the way things are going is that there’s no meaningful business being conducted, it’s hard to see how plotting a coup helps. This never made sense, and I’m glad that it was just gossip.

The author of the post is said to be someone named Mark Feldt. A Google search for that name and Texas Insider produced only this article on the site. And Mark Felt (not Feldt) was the name of the former FBI operative who was Deep Throat, Bob Woodward’s critical source during the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate. In other words, this post is based entirely on unnamed sources and is written by someone who could well be using a fake name. Texas Insider is the product of conservative activist Jim Cardle.

Noted for future reference. Always good to know your sources. Rep. Martinez-Fischer gives his own take, and takes a swipe at Texas Insider, here.

Parker versus Perry

I like this.

Houston City Controller Annise Parker sharply criticized Texas Governor Rick Perry today for rejecting $555 million in federal stimulus money that would have funded unemployment benefits for out-of-work Texans.

“In January alone, more than 65,000 Houstonians were unemployed – the most since 2004 – and our economy is slowing,” said Parker. “While the Governor makes his political point, our local economy is losing out on millions of dollars in stimulus funds – and Houstonians are hurting.”

[…]

Parker recently called on Perry to allow more transparency and local input into decisions about allocating stimulus dollars, to ensure that Houston receives its fair share of funds. She also met with local legislators in Austin to discuss the use of stimulus funds.

“I support the efforts of our local representatives to bypass the Governor’s rejection of these funds and bring more stimulus dollars to Texas and to Houston,” said Parker.

“As the impact of the national economic crisis hits home in Houston, our leaders should be doing everything they can to keep our economy growing,” she said. “The Governor’s rejection of these badly needed funds is a failure of leadership.”

I’d like to see more city officials follow suit. Cities, big and small, are going to feel the effects of Governor Perry’s foolishness directly. Governor Perry can afford to fret about the possible years-off effects of expanding unemployment insurance to match what many other states do. (He can fit it in between Tweeting about his upcoming TV appearances.) Those who are on the business end of this action need to be concerned about what is happening now, to thousands of people and their families. Perhaps with sufficient pushback from local leaders, the Lege will be encouraged to override Perry’s bad decision. Good on Annise Parker for taking the lead.

Of course, if there’s one person you’d think would be taking the lead on this, it would be Perry’s main opponent in the 2010 primary, Kay Bailey Hutchison, since this stunt (like everything else he’s doing these days) is about the primary. But so far, nothing but some meaningless platitudes from KBH, which one presumes isn’t making her supporters happy. What pushback there has been has mainly been from Dems in the Lege and responsible economic types.

“The tax implications for 2010 are much, much worse if you do not take the stimulus money,” said Don Baylor, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans. “The fund is basically going to be out of money by the OU game.” In other words, by October.

Economist Ray Perryman testified to a panel of lawmakers earlier this week that “it is unrealistic to assume the system can continue in its current form.”

The federal money would be enough to pay for the increase in benefits, including changes in state law, for a decade, Perryman told the House committee charged with making recommendations to spend the federal stimulus money.

House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who chairs the committee, said the move is so counterproductive it “has to be 100 percent political.”

“What is taking the money going to do to your taxes? Nothing,” Dunnam said. “Put this $555 million up and it will pay for the whole program for a decade. Maybe in a decade there may be some impact … there is no rational basis for it.”

The crazy thing is that this should be a hanging curve for KBH. All she has to do is say that Perry is grandstanding about refusing to take responsibility to help those who are getting laid off, while not raising a peep at the prospect of stimulus funds being spent by TxDOT on toll roads. This isn’t rocket science, you know? But I guess she’s going to need The Lege to do the dirty work and save her bacon.

Bills to expand benefits — and thus allow Texas to get the money — have been filed by lawmakers including Reps. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, and Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound; and Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, whose bill was signed onto by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, has backed taking the money. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, filed a resolution to take all the stimulus money.

“It’s a bipartisan effort in the House to get these funds,” Dunnam said. He noted rising unemployment and said a state jobless benefit fund could need a federal loan and state bonds to stay in good shape. Business taxes pay for the fund.

[…]

A veto override would require a two-thirds vote — particularly difficult in a Legislature dominated by Republicans. The last veto override occurred in 1979.

Dunnam said an override isn’t the only option: “There are more than a handful of ways to skin a cat.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman agreed, noting that legislative bargaining is common as the session’s end nears. “There may be ways to move forward that don’t require a veto-proof majority,” said Coleman, D-Houston. “At the end of the day, there are things that Rick Perry wants.”

You mean, besides the spotlight? In the meantime, if you’re looking for work, or in a position to help someone who is, there’s a volunteer group called ROPE with HOPE that’s available. From an email that Andy Neill sent me about the group:

The group name “Rope With Hope” signifies – R.O.P.E. (Recruiters Offering Professional Expertise) With H.O.P.E. (HR Offering Professional Expertise) – and it is an online network of Corporate Recruiters and HR personnel that have come together to assist area Job Seekers in their attempts to gain meaningful employment.

Unemployed Houstonians are encouraged to email their resumes if they would like a professional assessment to HoustonRWH@hotmail.com, and every HR or Recruiting professional that would be interested in volunteering for “Rope With Hope” is asked to do one of the following:

* Allot 1-2 hours per week (can be after-hours/weekends) to offer your HR, Interviewing, Recruiting, or Resume review expertise to unemployed candidates.

* Attend an event or meeting that would either allow you to announce this new resource for displaced or unemployed workers; or conduct a presentation on interviewing or resume writing techniques. This is as simple as appearing at your own existing HR Society, Civic Association, Church Group, or Chamber of Commerce meeting and introducing the concept of “Rope for Hope – Houston”.

Anyway, I wanted to introduce the concept and group to you and encourage you to spread the word if you could. Even if you could just pass this info on to your Corporate HR/Recruiting folks at your “normal job”.

They have a Facebook group as well. Send an email to HoustonRWH@hotmail.com if you have any questions.

Once more with the stimulus and unemployment insurance

By the way, the money that the state has in reserve for unemployment insurance is rapidly being depleted. Just so you know.

[Tuesday], the Texas Workforce Commission announced that the unemployment trust fund is now expected to be almost depleted by October. The commission issues monthly projections and each has been gloomier than the last. By law, the trust fund must stay above $858 million at the beginning of the fiscal year in October. At the current rate, the fund will be $812 million below the floor, commission executive director Larry Temple told the House special stimulus committee yesterday.

And a $812 million deficit means somebody’s gotta pay – and that somebody, according to Temple, will be Texas employers.

Temple said the fund can raise money to pay unemployment benefits in three ways: 1) By borrowing from the feds (and paying interest on the loans) 2) By issuing bonds (also involves paying interest) and 3) By raising taxes on employers. He said the commission’s strategy would probably involve a combination of the three.

However, combo or no combo, even if TWC borrows from the feds or floats bonds, the employers will be the ones funding the debt.

Dunnam made this clear when he asked Temple, “Do any of [the scenarios] involve anyone other than employers paying for the deficit?”

Temple responded, “No.”

Here’s where the stimulus comes in: Don Baylor, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said if Texas changes its eligibility statute and accepts the stimulus funds, employers will still have to pay an additional $294 million in 2010 to make up for the deficit. But without the federal funds, employers will pay an additional $935 million to make up for the deficit in 2010.

Sure does sound like taking all of the federal stimulus money available for unemployment insurance would be a good deal all around, doesn’t it? It eases the tax burden on businesses, it helps many more people, and by helping more people it has a stimulative effect on the economy. Which was the point, after all. You’d have to be a blinkered partisan zealot not to see the benefits. You know, like Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business:

[Hammond] presented a bold proposal to “save” $630 million a year in unemployment benefits payouts, which included measures such as greatly restricting or eliminating benefits for people who receive severance pay. He also said the commission didn’t do enough to ensure people are looking for work while they’re receiving benefits: “The commission is allowing [unemployed] people to sit on their laurels.”

Or we could just eliminate the idea of unemployment insurance altogether. Who cares what happens to these people that get laid off, anyway? They’re just a bunch of lazy bums who want to suck Bill Hammond’s blood. Where’s the compassion for that, I ask you?

Well, I suppose it’s all academic, since Governor Perry has now officially rejected the unemployment insurance funds. Hope all you business owners that will see your taxes go up more than they needed to will appreciate that. Perry made the announcement right here in Houston, which is somewhat ironic.

Houston’s growth advantage over the rest of the nation during the past five years–oil and natural gas–has not only evaporated in the face of a global commodity bust but has turned into a definite liability. The coming year will see significant job losses in Houston, led by the energy sector.

Via Texas Politics. Too bad Governor Perry won’t be joining any of these folks on the unemployment line until at least 2011, by which time one hopes the job market has improved. It’s good to be the king. A statement from Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller in response is beneath the fold. BOR has more, including Kay Bailey Hutchison’s timid response.

(more…)

Morrison speaks on the Grand Parkway

Fort Bend County Commissioner Richard Morrison writes about the recently-greenlighted Grand Parkway Segment E and the possibility that stimulus funds could be used to fund what will become a toll road.

If Segment E is funded from the stimulus money and finally constructed, exorbitant tolls from this segment will be used to finance and construct the remaining segments in Liberty, Montgomery, Brazoria, Chambers, and Galveston Counties. That means the citizens of Fort Bend County and North-west Harris County will be paying for those segments even though they never drive on them. From a mobility standpoint many of these remaining segments are useless. Miles and miles of the remaining pieces will cross open prairie where no one lives, will have little or no effect on traffic and are not needed. When our transportation dollars from Washington D.C. are desperately needed to get people to and from our population centers, it only seems reasonable that the federal stimulus money should be spent on actual mobility projects.

There’s more, so check it out. On a related note, the Observer has a report from that rally at the Capitol that urged TxDOT to slow down and get more public input on how and where it should be allocating those funds. And quit pissing everybody off while they’re at it.

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.

The stimulus and the budget

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, who is the chair of the ad hoc committee that is charged with disbursing federal stimulus funds, gave an update on their proceedings. Among other things, the federal money may free up some state revenues.

Normally, the federal government pays about 60 percent of Texas’ Medicaid expenses, a contribution known as the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP). Under the stimulus law, the federal government would pay around 66 percent of the expenses, which would, according to Health and Human Services commissioner Albert Hawkins, free up about $4.6 billion in general revenue. Some of it would go to make up for the Medicaid shortfall, but the rest would be free to be appropriated.

The stimulus law says a state is not eligible for in increase in its FMAP funding if any of the increase ends up, directly or indirectly, in a state’s reserves or rainy day fund.

“There’s a question as to what that means,” Dunnam said. He said the committee did not yet know whether maintaining the rainy day fund at its current level would result in the feds revoking the FMAP funds. At the beginning of the session, comptroller Susan Combs reported the state had a $9.1 billion budget shortfall, and it seemed to make ends meet, legislators would have to dip into the state’s reserves.

“It was very, very clear that if not for the stimulus money that we were going into the rainy day fund,” Dunnam said.

The committee hasn’t discussed what to do with the freed general revenue, but it seems like Dunnam would be in favor of spending it. He said the stimulus funds were intended to stimulate the economy. If Texas were to use federal funds where state funds are usually spent, and keep state funds, then, he said, “you haven’t complied with the intent of the act.”

I feel confident there will be some pushback on that, mostly from Governor Perry. Which is why the more that he can be reduced in influence, the better. I hope that the end result of all this is a realization that we do have more money in the budget than we first thought, and should re-evaluate our assumptions about how we appropriate accordingly. If that means it takes a little longer than usual to bring HB1 to the floor, then so be it. Better to get it right than to rush.

So about all those stimulus funds

Remember how Governor Perry had argued against states receiving federal stimulus dollars? Well, he still doesn’t want them, though he’s giving himself some waffle room.

Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday he’s not sure the state should accept all of its projected share of federal stimulus money — $16.9 billion and counting by preliminary estimates — because of the “mile-long” strings that might be attached.

“In Texas, we actually know it is a good idea to look a gift horse in the mouth. If we don’t, we may end up with an old nag,” said Perry, who has been critical of such federal spending and voiced concern over whether the state could afford federal strings.

“One thing that concerns me is that dollars are going to come into Texas that require us to match those dollars, and then two years from now, those federal dollars won’t be there, but we will be on the hook to pay for those programs going forward,” Perry said.

Funny, I don’t recall that being a condition for property tax cuts. But that’s Totally Different, because, well, it just is.

According to a preliminary legislative analysis, economic stimulus provisions that affect the Texas budget could total about $16.9 billion.

Perry didn’t say which programs he was referring to, and spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said his staff still is looking over potential allocations to Texas.

One program that raised concern early on was funding for unemployment insurance that would be contingent on state changes allowing more jobless people to become eligible, Cesinger said.

That would be the unemployment insurance fund that we stopped fully funding awhile ago.

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who heads the state House’s Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, said it’s hard to understand the GOP governor being reluctant to take stimulus funding.

“The governor every year comes in and wants half a billion dollars for the (state) enterprise fund to create jobs and stimulate economic growth and he’s going to say we don’t want $20 billion?” Dunnam said. “I find it difficult to understand.”

Perry said he welcomes federal dollars for one-time infrastructure improvements, such as transportation.

“You’ve got plenty of roads and re-doing some things down in Galveston County and that part of the state hurt by the hurricane. We’ll gladly accept those dollars. But we need to say, ‘No, thanks,’ if they’re trying to stick a bill on the state of Texas to expand government,” Perry said.

And what, road and reconstruction projects always come in under budget? Anything we undertake now might wind up costing more later. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing. Heck, some things turn out to be sufficiently worthwhile that we decide to spend more on them later. What are we afraid of?

I accept that sometimes federal monies come with unpalatable requirements. I don’t mind having a debate over those things, as long as the Lege gets to express an opinion as well. These decisions need to be made on a larger basis than Rick Perry’s primary campaign. We can always include a sunset provision on anything we’re not sure we want to keep funding two years from now. BOR has more.

UPDATE: In the end, Governor Perry has decided to take the cash. Since that’s what I wanted him to do, I’ll spare the snark about being against it before he was for it. But that doesn’t mean you have to! Here would be a fine place to express your sarcasm. Just be careful about what email address you use.