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unemployment insurance

It’s drug testing all the way down

Looks like the urinalysis industry in this state is going to get a big stimulus package next year, at least if the Republicans get their way.

As top state leaders push to drug-test some Texans seeking jobless benefits and financial assistance, critics suggest the initiative would single out the powerless and hurt their children.

It’s a battle that has been played out in other states – most prominently in Florida, where a drug-testing program for welfare applicants was stalled by a constitutional challenge saying it amounted to an unreasonable search.

Backers of Texas’ proposal cite its narrow scope, since a leading bill targeting welfare recipients would limit testing to applicants deemed high-risk for drug use. Those who failed the test and lost benefits could reapply in a year or, if they underwent drug treatment, six months.

“The reality is, no one wants to see any Texan using drugs,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. But he’s a critic of the proposal, contending the poor and jobless are being singled out “because of politics, and not because of reasonable, rational policy.”

“Whether you are receiving governmental assistance on welfare, whether you are a student receiving a Texas grant, whether you are an executive, a CEO, that’s up here asking for money from the Enterprise Fund – I don’t want to see anybody using drugs inappropriately. Now the question for me is why are we singling out this population?” he asked.

I think we all know the answer to that question. This is a no-brainer for Rick Perry et al – it plays well to the cheap seats, it sounds like something that would save money, and who’s going to stand against them on behalf of drug users? You can’t ask for much more than that.

Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director for the National Employment Law Project, said federal legislation allows testing only for claimants terminated from their most recent employment due to unlawful use of controlled substances, or those for whom suitable work is only available in an occupation that regularly drug tests.

The U.S. Department of Labor is developing regulations to allow states to implement these provisions. It appears the first would be a tough one in Texas, which restricts benefits to those who have lost a job through no fault of their own.

Andy Hogue, spokesman for Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken, who supports such drug testing, said it’s estimated the cost of testing for jobless applications would be about $12.1 million over five years. He said it’s projected the stricter requirements would save the Unemployment Insurance program in Texas $20.7 million in that period.

I seriously doubt we’ll see the kind of savings that Andy Hogue projects. I admit I have no evidence to back up this assertion, I just have no reason to trust such a self-serving projection. If this gets passed by the Lege and doesn’t get blocked by the courts, I’ll be very interested to see how that projection pans out. Bear in mind, of course, that four million bucks a year is chump change in an $80 billion budget – it’s not much more than Rick Perry spends on travel and security. Again, it’s all about priorities being out of whack.

We have a new illustration of “chutzpah”

From Sen. John Cornyn, who knows a thing or two about shamelessness.

Sen. John Cornyn pinned Democrats with the failure of a plan to extend jobless aid for millions of unemployed workers, only a day after Democrats fell a vote short of pushing through their version of the legislation.

“The blame for what happened has to lie at the feet of Sen. Harry Reid,” Cornyn said. “I don’t have any concerns about backlash.”

Just as a reminder, Cornyn and his cohort have consistently voting to prevent a vote from taking place. Had this been one of those “up or down” votes I used to hear about, it would have passed long ago. The latest measure had a 59-37 majority, which is more than 60% of the vote in favor, but by the Senate’s bizarre rules, that’s not enough. If Cornyn or any Republican other than Sens. Snowe and Collins, who finally budged on this last vote, gave a damn about the unemployed, they’d have quit filibustering these votes long ago. It’s not like there’s some compromise position that Cornyn and the rest of the GOP would be willing to vote for.

Putting it another way, the technical term for what Cornyn is doing is lying. Lying about who’s to blame for this ongoing debacle, lying about the Republicans’ motives, lying about pretty much everything. We should be clear about that.

How to really put the unemployed to work

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken has the germ of a good idea here. Unfortunately, he’s incapable of seeing what it is, and so goes off a cliff with it.

“Even in good economic times, there were people in Texas who saw the unemployment system as simply another entitlement program, which it’s not,” Pauken, who served in the Reagan administration, told me. “Obviously there are a tremendous number of people — they’ve lost their job through no fault of their own. They’re doing everything they can to try to find work. How do you distinguish between those who are really out trying to find work and those who simply want to draw an unemployment check as long as they can?”

Pauken suggests setting a wage of, say, $10 an hour and having people who get extended federal benefits work enough hours to cover their unemployment payment — “rather than it continue to be a drain on the taxpayer dollars.”

The appointee of GOP Gov.Rick Perry said this would weed out people “who may be gaming the system,” provide a worthwhile task for those trying their best and possibly open job opportunities.

[…]

Pauken “has it all wrong — hard-working Texans should not be required to take a low-paying job that has no relationship to their skills and background using their limited unemployment benefits to subsidize their wages,” saidMaurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project. “Unemployment benefits were created as an insurance program to help people get back on their feet, not to add insult to injury by blaming workers and their families for the devastating economic mess we’re in thanks to Wall Street.”

The Texas AFL-CIO’sRick Levy called the idea “a perversion of the unemployment system … Really what he’s proposing is a public jobs program, but instead of paying people a living wage, we would make them work for their unemployment benefits.

“In many ways, it’s an insult to working families that are doing everything they can to scrape by right now,” Levy said. “Basically, it would be putting people to work but eliminating things like minimum-wage and safety and health protections that only attach if you’re part of the workforce.”

To address Pauken’s points, there are people who believe that fluoridation of the water supply is a Communist plot to brainwash the American public. We’re not required to take that viewpoint seriously, and we’re under no compunction to do the same with those who think that unemployment insurance is a scam for lazy people, either. I’m sure there are a few folks gaming the system out there, working hard to get a meager one-third of their former salary instead of finding a job that might pay a real wage, just as there are those who commit other kinds of fraud. The marginal benefit we’d likely get from trying to root them out in this fashion is minimal, especially when weighed against the indignity and inconvenience of those who are working diligently to find employment while receiving this insurance. Putting the insult aside, what’s the point? Pauken doesn’t even suggest a pulled-from-his-ear figure of how much his silly idea might save if it were to be implemented, which is a sure sign of its half-baked-ness.

Having said that, I’m all in favor of a program to get unemployed people back to work, which we clearly need. It’s called another federal stimulus package, this one containing enough money for cities and states to eliminate the many large anti-stimulus packages that have greatly harmed the economic recovery. There’s still a gazillion infrastructure projects that can and should go forward, not to mention a lot of beach cleanup – I like the idea of making BP put up a couple billion dollars to pay for workers to clean the beaches – and of course we’ll need a lot of job skills retraining for folks who’ve been unemployed long term. That’d do the trick a lot more effectively than what Pauken proposes, and it would be a long-term winner for the federal deficit as well as all those underfunded states. You want people working, Tom, there’s your answer.

The unemployment tax and the Enterprise Fund

We know that unemployment insurance taxes have gone up, and we know that the increase is more than it would have been had Governor Perry not rejected $555 million in stimulus funds for unemployment insurance. But there’s another way in which Perry’s policies have adversely affected the unemployment insurance situation. As the Bill White campaign documents in this white paper on payroll taxes (PDF), the Perry slush fund known as the Texas Enterprise Fund has been siphoning money away from the unemployment insurance trust fund since 2005.

The Enterprise Fund has been a bone of contention since its creation in 2003. From the beginning, it’s been a mix of cronyism and bad economics, typified by the Lexicon case. Now taxes that businesses have paid that could have supplemented the trust fund or provided for training of people who have lost their jobs have instead gone to the Enterprise Fund, where they may have been used to support a competitor of theirs. Nice thing to contemplate when your taxes have gone up, and gone up more than they needed to, in a recession, isn’t it? That’s what Rick Perry’s leadership has given them. A press release from the White campaign that calls on Perry to restore the $161.5 million in diverted dollars to the unemployment trust fund and calls for an independent audit of the Enterprise Fund is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Just a reminder about Perry’s unemployment tax increase

Lisa Falkenberg watches some video of Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Larry Temple testifying before the Senate and reiterates something we knew.

Temple acknowledged Thursday to the Senate Committee on Economic Development that Texas’ decision not to take $556 million in unemployment stimulus dollars directly led to higher taxes for business owners and more borrowing from the federal government to replenish the state’s broke unemployment trust fund.

As you’ll recall, Gov. Rick Perry refused to accept a half a billion in federal unemployment stimulus dollars, saying there were too many strings attached, even though he knew the state’s unemployment fund was projected to go broke within months.

Temple testified Thursday that the commission has had to double the tax rate for businesses in order to replenish the unemployment fund. And he conceded under intense questioning from [State Sen. Kevin] Eltife that the hike wouldn’t have been as high if we’d taken the half a billion.

Earlier this week, Commission Chairman Tom Pauken notified lawmakers that the agency may have to issue $2 billion in bonds to feed the unemployment fund as time runs out on the state’s no-interest borrowing from the feds.

And for some businesses, the tax rate nearly tripled. You really need to see the video to get the full effect of Sen. Eltife’s questioning. Eye on Williamson has the key five-minute clip, which I’ve embedded here:

Sen. Eltife did his best to steer away from the politics of this, but we all know whose idea it was to turn down the unemployment insurance money. Rick Perry’s decision to do so was harmful to people who had lost their jobs and is now adversely affecting business owners. We knew this would happen, but he didn’t care.

Unemployment taxes triple

Here comes the Rick Perry unemployment tax increase that we’ve been waiting for.

Nearly two-thirds of Texas businesses will see the unemployment taxes they pay per employee per year nearly triple – from $23.40 to $64.80 – under rates announced today by the Texas Workforce Commission.

The minimum tax is paid by nearly 255,000 employers, or 67 percent of those who have been in business for at least a year, according to the commission.

[…]

The tax rate is being increased to repay federal loans and ensure the fund has enough money to pay claims in the coming year.

The rate is based on $9,000 in taxable wages. The minimum rate is going from 0.26 percent to 0.72 percent.

The maximum rate — generally paid by companies if they have had more employees who were laid off and got benefits — is going from 6.26 percent to 8.6 percent, or from $563.40 per employee to $774.

Schweet. Just remember, while the bulk of the fuss over this will be concerning the $555 million in unemployment insurance that Perry refused, he also contributed to this problem by suspending the collection of this tax back when it was more affordable for businesses to pay it. Because of that, they get the increased burden now when times are hard. Of course, that’s the way Bill Hammond of the TAB says they say they like it, which should stand as evidence why business lobbyists make lousy economists. Be that as it may, if you’re an employer, when you sit down to write that bigger check to the state, remember to thank Governor Perry for the privilege of paying it.

Here comes the unemployment tax increase

Here comes that unemployment insurance tax hike we’ve all been waiting for.

Under state law, the state’s unemployment trust fund is supposed to stand at 1 percent of taxable wages, or about $860 million. The fund has been depleted in the wake of high jobless claims.

As a result, employers will have to pay more to restore the fund to its mandated level, although the commission tried to cushion the blow by spreading the deficit assessment over several years.

Unemployment tax collections still are estimated to rise to $2.3 billion next year; $2.68 billion in 2011; $2.72 billion in 2012, according to commission spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt. Specific rates for employers were not available Tuesday. How much each employer pays varies, largely based on claims against an employer’s account.

Given the speculation that the Commission was going to push the pain as far back as it could, which is to say after the 2010 elections, I commend them for being realistic about the hole we’re in. The story notes for the umpteenth time the unemployment insurance stimulus funds which Governor Perry refused to take and which surely would have made that hole a lot less deep, not to mention the pain of unemployment a lot less stinging for many Texans, but it wasn’t the only thing he did to exacerbate this situation. His suspension of the tax back when times were good but the ditch was visible on the horizon still ranks as one of the dumbest things he’s done as Governor, and that’s not a short list.

“We haven’t been good squirrels. We haven’t put away nuts for the wintertime,” [Texas AFL-CIO Legal Director Rick] Levy said. “In fact, we deplete our fund so that when wintertime comes, not only is there not anything there, but we have to start charging extra. It’s just a backwards way of doing it.”

[Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, and] a past chairman of the commission, disagreed. “It’s my view, and the view of the employers, that it’s better to collect as little tax as needed,” Hammond said.

“Stockpiling the money in Austin, Texas is not a good strategy. We’d rather have the money out and working, creating jobs during the good times.”

Well, if that’s really what you want, then this is what you’ll get in the bad times. Hope you appreciate it.

Please know a little something about Texas before you write about Texas

David Broder packs an awful lot of ignorance into these two sentences of his bizarrely hostile column about the Senate’s health care reform bill and the opt-out compromise.

If a health care reform with an opt-out provision were to become law this year or next, one of the first states you might expect to exempt itself would be Texas. Republicans now control the governorship and both houses of the Legislature, and the state had no trouble rejecting candidate Barack Obama.

First, as surely Broder does not know, the next time the Legislature convenes will be January of 2011. As such, if a bill gets signed before the end of the year as some important Democrats expect, it would be at least a year before Texas could take any action. (Actually, it will likely be much later than that; more on that in a moment.) And of course, when the Lege next convenes, it may well have a Democratic majority, and there may well also be a new Governor. So I wouldn’t take Broder’s bet just yet, as the conditions may well be very different.

(Yes, Rick Perry could call a special session on this if he really wanted to. For a variety of reasons, I doubt he would, but I admit you never know with him. Be that as it may, I’m quite certain Broder knows nothing about this, either.)

Of course, 2011 may be too soon for any state to act on the opt-out provision. Perhaps Broder should spend a few minutes chatting with his colleague Ezra Klein, who is far more informed about what is actually in the bill. Or he could just listen in on one of Klein’s online chats, where he would have discovered the following:

The House bill has a national public option that will set rates in the same way private insurers do (negotiating with providers). The Senate bill has a national public option that works the same way as the House’s, save that it has an opt-out feature starting in 2014.

Emphasis mine. First, the House version of the bill has no opt-out provision; that was strictly a Senate invention, and as such it may not make it into the final bill at all. Second, the Senate provision doesn’t kick in till 2014, by which time I presume that we’ll all be obsessing about something else. But even if not, for Texas that would mean our first crack at it would be in 2015, after yet another gubernatorial election – who knows, to opt out or not to opt out might even be an issue in that election – and three legislative elections. Who knows what the landscape will look like then?

I keep mentioning the Legislature because apparently that’s what it would take to actually opt out. Back to Ezra:

East Lansing, Mich.: One thing I don’t get about the state opt-out plan is how exactly does a state decide?

Why would it be better to create the exact same fight going on right now in D.C. but 50 times?

Ezra Klein: What I’m hearing is that both houses of the legislature would have to vote to opt out, and the governor would have to sign it. At the end of the day, I think very few states will actually opt out, because I don’t think people will still be yowling about the public option come 2014. Once the controversy of this moment goes, I don’t believe it will come back.

Again, you’d think Broder would want to acknowledge that fact, assuming he’s aware of it. The point here is that even in Texas, actually opting out would be difficult to do, even if we continue to have an all-Republican government. There are many ways to kill a bill, and if the two-thirds rule continues to exist in the Senate, that would present a significant obstacle.

And believe it or not, the Republicans in the Texas Lege are not as monolithic as the ones in Congress. SB1569, the bill to modify Texas’ unemployment insurance laws so that the state would have been eligible to accept the unemployment stimulus funds that Governor Perry so famously rejected, passed the Senate and had the votes to pass the House had it not been for the end-of-session chubfest that killed the voter ID bill. Perry would have vetoed it had it passed, and that veto would have stood up, but my point is that the Republican-controlled Legislature did not see eye to eye with him on this. Again, I’m sure Broder knows nothing of this.

We don’t really know yet what the bill that passes the Senate will look like, or what the conference committee version will look like. There may be an opt-out provision, or there may be something else; there may even be the Olympia Snowe “trigger” provision that is the apparent purpose of Broder’s column. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to use Texas as evidence to argue against a bill, it would be nice if you knew something about what the bill contains, not to mention knowing something about Texas politics.

Playing politics: Not just for the Forensic Science commission

Hey, you know that two billion dollars of federal funds we need to borrow to shore up the unemployment insurance trust fund? I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that Rick Perry’s appointees on the Texas Workforce Commission are thinking about delaying the inevitable tax hike to pay for all that until after the 2010 elections.

A plan to delay the worst of tax increases until 2012 is circulating at the Texas Workforce Commission, which is expected to set next year’s rates on Nov. 3.

Commissioners face an unappealing choice: Hammer businesses next year or spread the pain out over several years. Some experts say that while it’s understandable the commission would want to defer pain as long as possible, a blow that comes just as the recession wanes could crimp job creation in the state.

“It’s a big gamble in many ways,” said Don E. Baylor Jr., senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans. “We’re basically saying, ‘Hey, we’ll get out of this the same way we got out of it the last time, which was just gangbuster economic growth.’ And I don’t think anyone’s forecasting that.”

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, the state’s largest business organization, also expressed caution.

If commissioners try to postpone heavy tax increases for two or more years, “they might be overdoing it a little bit,” said Hammond, a former Dallas state representative who was the commission’s chairman under Gov. George W. Bush.

“Employers know that we’ve got to pay the piper” after a severe recession, he said.

When even Bill Hammond says that putting off a tax increase might not be such a hot idea, you know it’s a really risky idea.

No decision has been made, but commissioners could suspend for two years an assessment that makes up for shortfalls in the fund, which has been tapped out and living on federal loans since July.

They’d also issue $2 billion in bonds at the end of next year, to pay off the feds before any interest kicks in, triggering bond repayment taxes that could last until 2019.

Even with the extended delay of taxes, most employers would pay about 50 percent more next year than this year, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of historical tax yields and recent commission documents. This year, nearly 75 percent of Texas businesses paid $23.40 per worker into the fund.

If the commissioners don’t issue the bonds and don’t suspend a “deficit assessment,” then employers probably would be squeezed harder next year than they have been in 21 years. The tax paid by most employers could go up fourfold, and maybe even more than that, the newspaper’s analysis indicates.

[…]

Earlier this year, Perry and lawmakers rejected $556 million in federal stimulus money that would have eased the state fund’s shortfall. Perry said the money would have come with too many strings attached, such as liberalized treatment of people quitting their job to follow a spouse to a new location or unemployed workers seeking only part-time work.

Last year, Perry pushed the three workforce commissioners, who are his appointees, to suspend collection of part of the tax, saving employers $90 million. He also trumpeted $148 million of refunds to employers, required by law when the fund balance passes $1.7 billion.

This year, just over $1 billion was collected from employers, while the state’s on track to pay out some $3.5 billion.

Just so we’re all clear on who we can thank for this.

Governor Perry loves the stimulus

That Governor Perry loves the stimulus shouldn’t be a surprise, despite his high-profile bleatings. He loves anything he can use to his political advantage.

Gov. Rick Perry rallied opposition to federal stimulus spending, but he now is the manager of one of the biggest pots of federal gold in Texas: crime grants to local law enforcement agencies.

And those grants have become an integral part of Perry’s political machine.

Perry in the past has decided what law enforcement agencies receive about $23 million a year in Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grants. Now, because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Perry will have an additional $90 million to hand out.

While Perry’s office is the conduit for the federal money, the governor chooses which agencies receive the money and how it is spent. The political payoff has been great.

About $6 million in Byrne grants helped Perry win the endorsement of border sheriffs in 2006. Perry last year held a news conference to promote $557,000 in grant money he was giving to the San Antonio Police Department to target transnational gangs.

Every time Perry doles out the federal Byrne grants, he sounds like the money is his.

“Texas is tough on crime and remains dedicated to equipping our law enforcement with the resources necessary to protect our citizens and ensure the safety of our communities,” the governor said while handing out $2 million of the federal money to East Texas communities last year.

Perry created a controversy this year when he rejected $550 million in federal unemployment compensation funds, saying it had too many “strings attached,” but he later accepted more than $12 billion in stimulus funds to balance the state’s budget.

It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t feel the need to be truthful about who should get the credit for it, isn’t it? Perry, of course, isn’t the only stimulus-trashing Governor to act this way. The more they get called on it, the better.

Kay finally announces

To paraphrase The Observer, this was the least unexpected announcement in Texas politics history. Obviously, her message isn’t supposed to appeal to people like me, but I’ve read this story twice now and I’m still not exactly sure what her message actually is. This is the bit that encapsulates it for me:

Hutchison said she will to do more with less from taxpayers: “I will spend less, tax less and borrow less.”

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said Hutchison is correctly assuming Texans are willing to look at alternatives to Perry, but he said a broad “shotgun” approach to policy might not work and said she needs to tell them “what she is offering and how credible it is.”

I guess there are people who will like the sound of that “spend less, tax less and borrow less” stuff, but how exactly is that different from Tony Sanchez’s “scrub the budget” message from 2002? Putting it another way, what does Kay plan to spend less on, and what taxes does she plan to cut? Saying you’ll do these things is the easy part; saying how you’ll do them is where it gets tricky.

KBH is also criticizing Perry for turning down the stimulus funds for unemployment insurance. Naturally, I agree with that, but as the story notes, she voted against the stimulus package in the first place. Sure, you can say, and I’m sure she will, that she disagreed with the idea of the stimulus but once it was approved Texas should have gotten its fair share. That’s the standard logic that all of the self-styled anti-pork crusaders use when they get criticized for their own earmarks. I understand that logic, and if you can get past the hypocrisy it’s perfectly sensible, but does anyone think this won’t be turned into a John Kerry-esque “she was for it before she was against it” flip-flop by Team Perry? I at least don’t have much faith in her campaign’s ability to respond to attacks like that. Ken Herman provides some evidence of her campaign’s maladroitness.

The first time he said it, you weren’t sure you had heard what you thought you heard. The second time, there was no doubt.

The disembodied announcer voice at Kay Bailey Hutchison’s gubernatorial campaign kickoff event was mispronouncing the name of her high school.

La Marque (la mark) High School had been fancified to La Marquis (la mar-kee) High School.

“They keep saying it,” a La Marque cheerleader said to a fellow cheerleader in the school gym where Hutchison announced her candidacy.

[…]

On education, Hutchison committed what’s become a common sin among candidates of her generation.

“I want to help to create an education system like I had,” said Hutchison, La Marque High School, class of 1961.

No thanks. I’ll pass on that.

Yes, 1961 was a great time to be in Texas public schools — if you were white and didn’t face learning disabilities. La Marque High School was segregated when Hutchison attended.

Oops. Anyway, what I expect out of this campaign, if you can call it that, is a lot of hot air and name-calling from both candidates, and very little about the problems Texas faces and how they can best be solved. That’s just not what Perry and KBH are about. EoW, the DMN, BOR (and again), and Greg, who goes after the KBH needs Democratic votes meme, have more.

It’s hard to be unemployed in Texas

I’m sure this comes as no surprise.

If you lose your job in Texas, you may be out of luck in more ways than one.

The Texas Workforce Commission rejected about a third of jobless claims last year and 27 percent the first half of this year. When jobless people appealed those initial decisions, their chances of winning this year were only about one in four.

The common reason for denials is Texas’ tight list of eligibility standards. The state under Gov. Rick Perry refused to expand them in law even when the federal government offered $555 million more in stimulus money in return. Perry said it would be bad for Texas in the long run.

“Texas has never made the changes necessary to reflect the changing work force, so our unemployment system is still based on the model where daddy goes to work at the factory at the same place for 40 years,” the Texas AFL-CIO’s Rick Levy said. “Now, fewer and fewer people work like that, but our eligibility determinations are still based on that model, so a lot of people fall through the cracks.”

In addition, when employers appeal benefit decisions, they’re more likely to win than jobless people who appeal denials. Appeals of staff decisions first go to an agency tribunal of upper-level staff, then to the three-member, Perry-appointed commission.

“I think that the (governor’s) appointees have had a general bias toward the business point of view in these matters,” Levy said.

I think the fact that the Senate passed a bill to expand unemployment insurance eligibility and thus accept the stimulus funds suggests that this is something that could be changed when we finally get a new Governor. No guarantee, as I’m sure many of the Republicans in the Senate were swayed by the economics of taking the federal funds versus borrowing a bunch of money to make up for the shortfall, but it’s at least possible. Interestingly, this may be relevant in the next session.

As Perry fends off jabs by foes including GOP U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Democrat Tom Schieffer over rejecting the additional stimulus money, the campaign could make a difference. Texas has until Aug. 22, 2011, after the next regular legislative session, to apply for the stimulus funds for jobless benefits if lawmakers and leaders decide to make the necessary changes in benefits.

I don’t remember hearing this before now, but it’s nice to know we could get a second bite at the apple. I just hope we’re in a position to take advantage of it.

You can pay me now, or you can pay me later

Odds are, we’ll opt for later to deal with the large deficit we’re facing with the unemployment insurance trust fund.

Texas’ jobless-benefits fund is empty, and the state will probably borrow $1.5 billion from the federal government to pay benefits through December, a state official said Tuesday.

But it’s unclear when Texas employers will have to pay a much higher tax to repay the loan and rebuild a required $863 million cushion in the unemployment compensation trust fund.

A second Texas Workforce Commission official and an outside expert said the brunt of expected higher taxes might not sock employers until 2011, after the worst of the recession passes and well past the March primary for Gov. Rick Perry.

A key driver of higher tax bills for employers – though not the only one – in the next few years will be a “deficit assessment” to restore the fund to fiscal health.

“The commission can use its discretion in minimizing the tax impact to Texas employers,” said Workforce Commission spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt.

[…]

Hatchitt said some time this fall, the state will decide whether to postpone a deficit assessment until 2011. Commissioners will probably decide at the same time their schedule for issuing bonds, possibly next year, she said. Bond proceeds — a figure of $2 billion has been widely mentioned — would repay funds Texas is borrowing from the federal government.

At Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the three-member commission, chairman Tom Pauken of Dallas pressed the agency’s chief financial officer, Randy Townsend, for an estimate of how much the state will borrow from the feds by Dec. 31. Townsend indicated it would be about $1.5 billion.

Texas won’t have to pay interest on the federal loans until January 2011.

Don Baylor Jr., an employment policy expert, said that if the commission postpones a deficit assessment until 2011, that will force more borrowing from the federal government next year, just to pay ongoing benefits to laid-off workers.

And in 2011, employers would pay not only a deficit assessment but also the first installment of a “bond obligation assessment” lasting several years, said Baylor, who works for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans.

It is reasonable to defer the cost of refilling the trust fund until after the economy recovers, which means that Governor Perry better hope that President Obama’s plans to get things back on track succeed. Of course, if Perry hadn’t so foolishly suspended collection of the replenishment tax back when times were still good, we’d be in less of a pickle now. And the longer we defer the pain, the more we’ll have to borrow in the interim, and the more we’ll have to pay back in the future. The next biennium’s budget is under enough stress already, and this will just add to that. But at least we’ll get to deal with it after the GOP gubernatorial primary. That’s what really matters, after all.

Burka on the politics of unemployment insurance

Burka takes a look at how Rick Perry’s rejection of the stimulus funds for unemployment insurance might play out in his eventual battle with Kay Bailey Hutchison for the GOP nomination for Governor. Be sure to also read this comment by “Conservative Texan”, which boils the economics of the issue down nicely. Perry’s stance has polled well so far, but I think that two billion dollar loan we’re going to have to take out to clean this mess up is going to render him vulnerable. That’s assuming that KBH can get her act together sufficiently to make something of it – figuring out whether or not she should resign would be a good sgtart – and/or the Democrats keeping the pressure on, of course. I have more faith in the latter than in the former, but hey, you never know.

A&M and the Emerging Technology fund

Loren Steffy tells us about politics infecting research at Texas A&M. And Rick Perry is involved. Shocking, I know.

In January, the state awarded A&M $50 million from the Emerging Technology Fund, which purports to benefit private-sector technology startups, for the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing, which plans to develop new vaccines.

Unfortunately, the infusion of taxpayer money is showing some disturbing symptoms that have been found in other state economic development deals: a web of political relationships and arrangements with financially shaky companies with ties to key decision makers in the process.

Funding for the therapeutics center is drawing scrutiny because of a power struggle between the university’s main campus in College Station and the A&M System, which oversees 10 other campuses statewide. Chancellor Mike McKinney, who runs the system, ousted A&M president Elsa Murano in June, partly because of a dispute over who should control research budgets. Provost Jeffrey Vitter quit last week.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the NCTM project was the biggest grant ever for the tech fund, which is overseen by Gov. Rick Perry, an A&M alum.

About the time the governor’s office and the A&M System began discussing the grant, the fund’s director, Mark Ellison, quit to become A&M’s associate chancellor for economic development. Ellison told state lawmakers investigating the grant earlier this year that he wasn’t involved in the discussions.

The grant given to A&M caused a stir in the Lege because it was done by Governor Perry with essentially no oversight. An amendment was added to the budget bill that would require such grants to be approved by the 10-member Legislative Budget Board, but offhand I don’t know if it survived into the final bill. There was also an attempt to zero out the Emerging Technology and Texas Enterprise funds in the event Perry vetoed the bill to accept stimulus funds for unemployment insurance, but as that bill never made it to his desk it became a moot point. So as far as I know the underlying political issue still exists. As for A&M, they have plenty of other problems to deal with right now, many of which are related to the Governor’s office. Funny how that’s so often the common thread in these stories, isn’t it?

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.

Two billion dollars

Governor Perry’s grandstanding rejection of the federal stimulus money for unemployment insurance is going to cost us all more and more.

Texas is preparing to borrow as much as $2-billion to pay for unemployment insurance benefits. That’s what the chairman for the Texas Workforce Commission told KERA in a recent interview. KERA’s Shelley Kofler reports employers who fund benefits can expect a tax increase, too.

The fund that pays unemployment benefits to Texans ran out of money this month. That forced the state to take out the first of several no-interest, federal loans that will total some $643 million- just to pay benefits through September. Then what? Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken says the state will borrow more. A lot more.

Pauken: We are looking at putting a bond in place probably next year in excess of a billion and we could look at a bond in the range of a billion and a half or $2 billion.

Kofler: The state of Texas may have to borrow $2 billion?

Pauken: Yeah, that could well be the case in terms of a bond over a seven-to-10 year period.

Pauken wants to stretch the repayment of $2 billion plus interest over at least seven years saying that might limit a huge spike in the tax rate employers pay to support the benefits fund. But for employers, Pauken says there’s no escape.

Pauken: Oh, they are going to have to pay more next year. They have had lower rates in recent years because the economy has been so good in Texas, but it is going to go higher next year.

Remember, business owners, you will have Governor Perry to thank for this. Now even if we had accepted the stimulus money for unemployment insurance, we’d still be short of what we need to handle the increase in claims. Of course, a big part of the reason for that was because the Texas Workforce Commission stopped collecting the replenishment tax for the unemployment insurance trust fund, which is now broke, back when times were better, because of course the good times always last forever. That was done at the behest of Governor Perry, as Sen. Watson helpfully reminds us. So pretty much every decision Perry has made regarding unemployment insurance has wound up costing businesses money. He’s claiming we may not have to borrow quite as much as $2 billion, but given his track record so far, why should anyone believe him? More here.

Our friend the stimulus package

Jason Embry tells us just how much Texas relied on the stimulus package this year.

A new report from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that federal stimulus dollars played a large role in allowing Texas lawmakers to balance their budget this year without tapping Rainy Day Funds.

The national group asked states to say how they closed their budget gaps for the 2010 budget year, and 35 states responded. Of those, 25 said they used federal stimulus dollars to close budget gaps, and Texas reported that it relied most heavily on stimulus dollars, using those dollars to provide 96.7 percent of the gap-closing solution. Nebraska was next at 88 percent.

At least 11 states (not Texas) raised taxes to close their gaps. At least eight states (not Texas) tapped their rainy day funds. Montana and West Virginia (not Texas) relied entirely on spending cuts.

Texas was one of the few states to avoid a budget shortfall in the current year. But the report also projects a budget gap of $4 billion to $5 billion a year starting in the 2012 budget year. This is all worth pointing out because state leaders rarely mention the $12 billion in stimulus dollars they received when they discuss what great work they did to balance the budget, and because Gov. Rick Perry was one of the country’s most dogged critics of the stimulus dollars.

Which is one reason why I mention it every chance I get. Even by Rick Perry standards, the level of hypocrisy here is stunning. The irony is that were it not for the stimulus money, the legislative session we had would have been much more contentious, and when that happens Perry’s approval rating usually takes a dive. You could argue that the main reason – perhaps the only reason – he’s gone from being conventionally considered a dead duck versus KBH in next year’s primary to leading in all the polls against her is precisely because of the stimulus, which not only made for a smoother session in the Lege but gave him a juicy issue to flog for his dead-ender base. He really leads a charmed political life, doesn’t he?

Meanwhile, Perry is defending his decision to reject the stimulus money for unemployment insurance, and (God help us) threatening to resist health care reform on “states rights” grounds. If you’re unemployed or uninsured, Rick Perry wants you to stay that way and quit pestering him about it. I will say that the fact that his rejection of the stimulus money for unemployment insurance hasn’t been a negative for him – polls have consistently shown a plurality agreeing with him on this – is a failure of Democratic messaging. If we can’t make that into a millstone for him, we’re not doing our job.

UPDATE: Of course, Rick Perry isn’t the only shameless hypocrite on the stimulus package. He may net even be the worst among GOP governors, hard as that may be to believe.

Watson on unemployment

State Sen. Kirk Watson reviews the bidding on how the state of Texas has handled its unemployment issues.

As was noted during this past legislative session by Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken (who was appointed by the Governor and once led the Texas Republican Party), unemployment assistance is not a welfare program. It exists to provide temporary help to Texans in tough, sometimes tragic, situations so they can find work without losing their homes, cars, or electricity. And it protects the economy as much as the people who need it.

The commission’s job is to figure out how much money the state needs for unemployment benefits, what to charge businesses that support the program, and how to prepare for things like economic recessions that send the state’s unemployment rate skyrocketing.

And as you may have noticed over the last few days, the commission isn’t doing any of those things very well.

He then provides a nice itemized list of the ways that the TWC and Governor Perry have screwed up or fallen short in this. The TWC has now taken emergency action to avoid needlessly cutting off some 15,000 people’s unemployment insurance. And hey, lookie here, some actual campaign-related activity from Camp KBH:

Rising unemployment in Texas has become an escalating issue in Perry’s re-election campaign. He says his policies have created jobs and helped insulate the state from the worst of the national recession, but on Monday, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s campaign called those assertions “political spin.”

“Maybe with all of the double talk coming out of the governor’s office, they haven’t had time to notice that our state has lost 266,300 jobs over the past year,” Hutchison spokesman Hans Klingler said.

Klingler used to be a spokesperson for the state GOP, so he knows his doubletalk. Hitting Perry on job losses is about as good a strategy as any I could think of. The question is in what way will you actually be different than him as Governor. Needless to say, I think Watson would make for a much sharper contrast than KBH would, assuming she ever gets around to trying.

More unemployed, fewer benefits

Boy, no one could have predicted this.

In a sign of lingering hardship, more than 15,000 Texans will lose their unemployment checks at the end of the month because they have exhausted their benefits after 59 weeks without a job.

They are among 82,000 Texans who are on their last allotment of unemployment benefits. Though they are eligible for a further extension funded by the federal government, it could take weeks or months to receive.

Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken has said people are staying unemployed longer as a woeful economy continues to affect people across the state.

During the week of July 4 this year, there were 22,115 initial claims, compared with 12,541 in the same time period a year earlier. Continued claims for that week totaled 298,821, up from 113,489 in the same time period in 2008.

Advocates for labor and for people with lower incomes are frustrated.

“People are literally in the lurch right now,” said Don Baylor of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for services for lower-income people. Baylor said he’s heard it could be well into the fall before the extra federal extension kicks in, adding, “That’s going to be really, really difficult for thousands of Texans who are losing their benefits.”

Some of these folks are going to lose their houses as a result of this, which needless to say isn’t going to make the overall economic picture any better.

[Texas Workforce Commission spokeswoman Ann] Hatchitt said Tuesday the state will need to borrow about $643 million from the federal government through Oct. 1, an increase of $150 million from the $493 million projected just last month.

Despite the tough times, Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday stood by his decision to oppose the state getting another $555 million in federal stimulus money that was contingent on it changing its jobless benefits to allow more people to qualify for payments.

Perry’s “principled” stand is going to cost the state and its businesses a lot of money, and that’s before we take into account the extra helpings of misery that the folks who could have benefited from the expansion of the program will endure. I don’t know what else there is to say that hasn’t already been said.

Well, okay there is one more thing.

Despite the loan, Gov. Perry defended his decision to those who questioned it.

“They are shortsighted and probably criticizing for a political reason rather than a legitimate financial reason,” Gov. Perry said.

Sure, because there was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING POLITICAL about the rejection of the unemployment stimulus funds in the first place. Why can’t Governor Perry’s critics understand that? He was just operating in Texas’ best interests, politics be damned!

Texas to get stimulus funds for education

Two weeks ago I wondered if there might be an issue with Texas receiving stimulus funds for education because of the way these funds had been appropriated in the state budget. I’m pleased to see that the answer is no, there are no problems with receiving the funds.

Vice President Joe Biden assured Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Monday that the state’s application for $4 billion in federal stimulus money for education will be approved in about two weeks.

“It was a very productive and positive meeting,” Perry said of his conference call with Biden and four other governors.

The governor declined to discuss the specifics of the call, but gubernatorial spokesman Mark Miner said Biden opened the conversation by giving Perry assurances that the federal education money will be flowing to Texas. Perry later in the 45 minute call asked Biden to confirm what he said and the vice president repeated it, Miner said.

[…]

Perry also has been blasting the federal government over the stimulus package, but he has been prepared to take $16 billion in stimulus funding for the state. But because his office waited until the last minute to apply for the education stimulus funds last week, there had been some question about whether he would apply for them at all.

Good to know that Perry doesn’t hate teachers and children quite as much as he hates the unemployed. Also nice to see that someone has roused Senator Hutchison from her nap and gotten her to notice that Perry’s public stance on stimulus funds doesn’t exactly square with his actual actions. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

The Chamber of Commerce tax cut

I mentioned before that a secondary reason for Governor Perry to veto HB770 and its Wayne Christian Beach House provision was an amendment slipped in by State Sen. Mike Jackson to give a property tax exemption to local chambers of commerce. Ed Sills of the Texas AFL-CIO went off on a righteous rant about this in his email newsletter the other day, and I wanted to reproduce it here. With his permission, it’s beneath the fold, so click on to read it.

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From the “Things are tough all over” department

Texas trying to keep up with unemployment claims.

The rising number of jobless Texans has generated more claims than the Texas Workforce Commission can handle.

The commission has added hundreds of workers and phone lines to call centers to deal with soaring unemployment claims, but officials acknowledge that they can’t answer every call.

A commission spokeswoman, Ann Hatchitt, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram they were hiring and training folks as fast as they can.
Claimants are urged to file for claims on the commission’s Web site, http://www.twc.state.tx.us, which also has answers to commonly asked questions.

The percentage of claims filed online has risen from about 30 to 50.

The state’s unemployment rate jumped to 7.1 percent in May, from a revised 6.6 percent in April.

And yet somehow, a majority of Texans approve of Governor Perry’s shortsighted decision to reject stimulus funds for unemployment insurance, according to the Texas Lyceum. I don’t know if that’s good messaging on his part or just bad math skills on everyone else’s, but you have to admire his ability to frame the conversation. Which is about the only admirable thing about him that comes to my mind right now.

Unemployment insurance taxes set to rise

Good news, business owners! You’re going to see a tax increase soon.

Most Texas employers should plan for their unemployment insurance taxes to increase significantly next year, Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken of Dallas said Tuesday.

While tax rates won’t be set until December, Pauken said that mounting layoffs are close to exhausting a state trust fund, forcing him and two fellow commissioners recently to authorize what they expect to be $2 billion of interest-free borrowing from the federal government.

[…]

Pauken’s projections came nearly three months after Gov. Rick Perry, with the backing of many business groups, rejected $556 million in federal stimulus money for unemployed Texans. He said President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress attached too many strings to the money and that Texas would have had to expand eligibility for benefits.

Pauken said that though things could still change, it’s probable that the commission next year will need to raise an amount from employers comparable to the amount raised in 2003 – or 2.4 percent of all taxable wages.

In 2003, the “minimum tax” paid by nearly 278,000 employers was 0.67 percent of the first $9,000 of an employee’s wages, or $60.30 per worker. This year’s minimum tax rate is only 0.26 percent, or $23.40 a head.

For all 448,000 employers, the average tax rate in 2003 was 1.67 percent, compared with 0.99 percent this year. If next year’s rates mirror those from six years ago, the average employer would pay about $150 per employee, up from just under $90 this year.

If the commission doesn’t issue bonds to defer the pain into future years, he said, the commission next year would have to slap an even bigger “deficit tax” on employers.

Under that scenario, Pauken said, the commission would have to squeeze from employers an amount approaching 2.9 percent of all taxable wages – a level not seen in the last decade or so.

And just remember, you have Rick Perry to thank for all of this. A statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman about this is beneath the fold.

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The lack of leadership

State Sen. John Carona gets medieval on his party’s leadership.

Tempers flared Saturday on the Legislature’s last weekend with a key GOP senator declaring that the session’s central theme is “lack of leadership” by top members of his own party.

“If you look at this session, you’ve got two underlying problems: One is simply the lack of leadership in the top offices and the second is the lack of any clear, compelling agenda,” said Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas.

His angst was triggered by the evident demise of a proposal to allow urban areas to raise gasoline taxes and some fees in their areas to pay for local transportation projects.

But the bickering about the bill has been emblematic of a string of sparring episodes that have played out over the last few weeks as lawmakers have struggled with successes and losses on controversial public issues.

[…]

n charging a lack of leadership, Carona referred to Perry’s expected tough primary battle to keep his job against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, speculation that Dewhurst may run for U.S. Senate and the fact that GOP Speaker Joe Straus is a novice House leader.

“You can determine that perhaps that’s because the state’s top two leaders are considering their future political ambitions. You might consider that part of it is due to the fact we have a new speaker who has his own troubles,” Carona said. “The bottom line is you can’t lead 181 members without strong personalities and a set and significant agenda.”

He particularly said Perry has failed to lead on the transportation bill, saying the governor should have supported the local-option idea since money is running short to meet transportation needs.

Once again, I’ll say that this session has been about the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary from the beginning. Rick Perry has achieved a lot of his goals, though not all of them. If you don’t like what you’ve seen, well, that’s what the elections next year are all about.

The story talks about the bills that were killed by the chubfest, and the ensuing scramble to resurrect as many of the important ones as possible. I say the fact that so many bills were in a position to be killed by that kind of delay is itself an indictment of the leadership, specifically of Speaker Straus. Look at SB1569, the unemployment insurance bill that would have gone against the Governor’s wishes on stimulus money. It passed out of the Senate committee on April 2, was put on the calendar on the 14th, passed on second reading on the 16th, and on third reading on the 20th, when it was sent to the House. It then passed out of the House committee on May 2, and disappeared until May 18, when the Calendars committee finally took it up. It was debated in the House on May 21, then postponed due to disagreements over an amendment, and was finally taken up again after all the chubbing concluded late on the 26th, where it failed to pass before midnight. It took the Senate 18 days to go from committee approval to final passage. It took the House 19 days to go from committee approval to the initial floor debate. If the House had moved at the same pace as the Senate, SB1569 would have been on its way to Governor Perry’s desk before any of us had ever heard the word “chubbing”.

Oh, and despite Burka’s helpful suggestion that the House simply punt on this, I’ll note that SB1569 passed on third reading with eight Yes votes from Republican Senators, out of 19 total. Assuming it would have gotten 70 Yes votes from House Dems (let’s assume an absence or two, and a stray No vote or two), it would have needed 30 of 75 Republican Yeas to pass with a veto-proof majority. That’s a smaller percentage of House GOP votes needed than Senate GOP votes received, so don’t tell me it was impossible. Yes, there may have been more pressure on House Republicans to vote No, but we’ll never know that now. This could have been taken up for a vote in time had the House been better organized and had it been a priority instead of voter ID.

There are other examples, of course. We know that committee assignments came out later than usual. You can cut some slack for that. The House didn’t get to voting on any bills till later than usual as well, and along the way we’ve heard complaints about the pace of the action in the House and of the length of their daily schedule. All I’m saying is there was a reason there were so many bills imperiled at the end. It didn’t have to be that way.

Getting back to Carona and his complaint, it’s making for some quality entertainment if you’re into that sort of thing. Follow the ups and downs here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Unemployment insurance dies, CHIP lives

Not unexpectedly, SB1569 was a casualty of the weekend chubfest. Also not surprisingly, it was basically chubbed by Republicans, who wanted to ensure its death as the local and consent calendar was finally finished up a little before the midnight deadline. I’m disappointed to see this bill die, but given that it hadn’t been passed by a veto-proof majority in time for the inevitable veto to be overridden, it was doomed anyway. If that helps the House Republicans blow off some steam, then so be it.

On the good side, CHIP expansion got new life.

The Texas Senate late Wednesday, facing a midnight deadline, used a House bill concerning newborn screening to revive a measure aimed at expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, put SB841 (the CHIP expansion bill) into HB1795, which was approved 28-2 by the Senate.

The CHIP amendment allows some families with incomes above current limits to buy into the insurance program.

The measure now heads back to the House with changes approved in the Senate.

One hopes it will be accepted as amended. That’s at least one less casualty from the weekend.

I’m including an excerpt from Ed Sills’ Texas AFL-CIO email newsletter about SB1569 beneath the fold. Click on to read it.

UPDATE: Floor Pass, quoting Harvey Kronberg, thinks the CHIP add-on might fall victim to a point of order.

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Perry’s salvage job

How can you tell that sine die is approaching? Governor Perry starts getting involved in the legislative process.

Perhaps state lawmakers are fatigued by Gov. Rick Perry’s long tenure or maybe they’re just balking at his leadership, but the Republican-led Legislature this year has turned its back repeatedly on the governor’s decisions and policy positions.

The Senate has rejected a Perry appointee to the parole board as incompetent for the job. His nominee for Board of Education chairman is in grave danger. The House last month stripped Perry’s office of most of its funding in the budget debate, and the money had to be restored in a joint conference committee.

House lawmakers also voted to abolish the Texas Department of Transportation, which is chaired by Perry’s former chief of staff, and replace it with an elected commission. Not to mention the controversial $555 million in federal stimulus money that Perry wants to reject and lawmakers seemed poised to accept.

Publicly, Perry responds by exuding a “what-me-worry?” attitude.

“I don’t ever get concerned about what goes on in the Legislature,” Perry said recently. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It ebbs and flows.”

However, this past week, the governor engaged in a major effort to salvage his legislative agenda and public persona.

Perry threatened a special session if his emergency item on windstorm insurance reform does not pass. In state and national publications, he sought to clarify his nationally publicized remarks on Texas secession from the union. And Perry lobbied lawmakers on the House floor for passage of major restrictions on top 10 percent admissions to state universities — a bill that had not been on Perry’s list of priorities previously.

I suppose this is a companion piece to one from a week ago, during which time the McLeroy nomination got re-animated though not necessarily resuscitated. We still don’t know the status of the Texas Enterprise Fund in the budget, and the unemployment insurance bill still hasn’t passed, thanks in part to the ongoing chubfest. A deal has now apparently been reached on the Top Ten law, though whether it really achieves what Perry wanted it to or not I couldn’t say. So as before, tune in tomorrow, or maybe a few days from now, to see how much of a victory Perry gets to declare.

Perry’s staff also had to spend part of the week distancing him from his chief campaign consultant, who told the Dallas newspaper that expanding the GOP philosophical base is like opening a “whorehouse.” Several prominent Republican women denounced the statement in a letter to Perry as “in keeping with how you’ve governed — through division and an appeal to fear.”‘

[…]

“The governor is clearly distracted by an upcoming battle in the Republican primary and is probably is somewhat less focused on the range of issues that he might have been focused on,” [Sen. John] Carona said.

Many believe that Perry, by attacking the federal government and the Obama administration, is trying to shore up hard right support for his expected GOP primary re-election challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“A lot of decisions, from my vantage point, appear to tempered by what appeals to the far right element in a Republican primary, and that can wreak havoc on the system,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

Yeah, some of us have been saying that Perry’s agenda for this entire session should be viewed through the 2010 GOP primary prism for awhile now. Say whatever else you want about our Governor, he’s not subtle, and while his motives may be unintelligible, they’re seldom a mystery.

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.

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Ogden stem cell rider removed from budget

Good.

Sen. Steve Ogden just announced that his rider banning use of state funds for embryonic stem cell research will not appear in the new state budget.

“We really couldn’t come to a consensus” so the bill will be silent on the stem cell issue, Ogden announced in this morning’s conference committee meeting on the budget bill. “I continue to be concerned about us continuing to be silent” on what he called “a profound issue.”

While the federal government has guidelines and regulations concerning use of federal money in such research, “in Texas there are none. I hope even though we adopt this rider (the House version, which was silent on stem cell research), it is not the last word on this subject,” Ogden said.

That’s fine by me. I strongly disagree with Sen. Ogden’s position on this issue, but I’d be happy to have the fight in the House and in the Senate, through the committee process and on the floor, out in the open for all to see. What we got instead was a sneak attack, which gave no one the chance to argue against it. Given that the House did not concur, it was only right to not force the issue via the conference committee, so kudos to Sen. Ogden for not going to the mat over this. Bring it up in 2011 and we can try to settle it then.

Now, if the Davis/Walle amendment on unemployment insurance and the Texas Enterprise Fund survives, then I’ll be even happier. The House is supposed to take up SB1569 tomorrow, which likely doesn’t leave enough time to pass it and override a veto, so the best bet to make sure Texas gets the unemployment funds it needs is to make it painful for Rick Perry to reject them. Let’s hope it happens. The CPPP has more.

More unemployment funds available

The bad news is that Texas’ rate of unemployment continues to rise. The good news is that this means more federal funds for unemployment insurance are available, and these come with no conditions on them.

Texas now qualifies, thanks to the state’s steadily rising unemployment rate, for $250 million of string-free federal money. That money would provide another 13 weeks of unemployment benefits — at no cost to the state — for some 70,000 workers whose benefits are set to expire beginning in July, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

There is a catch, however. The Legislature needs to make a technical tweak to state law and the only bill that would be germane and appears to be moving is Senate Bill 1569.

That bill would enact the necessary changes for Texas to access $555 million of federal money to expand unemployment eligibility. But that money comes with strings that Gov. Rick Perry has said are unacceptable.

The bill passed out of the Senate weeks ago and is lingering in the House Calendars Committee. It could come up early next week — and likely pass. But that would not be soon enough to allow time for a veto override should Perry choose to exercise that authority.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said House members intend to attach the tweak to SB 1569 when it comes to the floor. The additional $250 million — and the tens of thousands of unemployed workers that would get extended benefits — might just change the dynamic for the governor, said the bill’s proponents.

Bill author Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he has long kept hope alive that Perry would not veto the bill and this money has stoked his hope.

I had hoped that SB1569 would have been taken up in time to try to override a veto, but apparently that won’t happen. Burka says the votes weren’t there for the override anyway, and thought the bill was dead as a result. I certainly hope it passes regardless; even without this extra incentive, I say make Perry veto it if that’s what he intends to do. Given the way some other Republican governors have folded on the issue, it’s not out of the question that this was all just a bluff. Given the extra funds that are now available and the fact that the unemployment trust fund will be depleted as of July, I don’t see how the Lege can’t force the issue.

And if more incentive is needed, here’s the CPPP with some hard figures.

As of May 5, more than 353,000 Texans were receiving unemployment benefits, more than triple the number of Texans receiving UI benefits a year ago. Currently pending in House Calendars, SB 1569 strengthens our UI system to protect unemployed Texans and qualifies Texas for $555 million in federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for our UI Trust Fund. But the Legislature has overlooked an entirely separate pot of money in the ARRA that is equally important. About 70,000 Texans are expected to exhaust their federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) beginning in July. The ARRA will pick up the 100 percent of the costs to extend UI for these Texans, delivering more than $250 million in federal funds into the Texas economy without any state costs. In order to qualify, Texas must change its extended benefits statutory trigger to activate the program; the change can expire when the full federal funding phases out in 2010.

Emphasis in original. The CPPP has put together this chart (PDF) showing how many people per House district stand to lose EUC funds, and how much money is at stake, if SB1569 doesn’t pass. I say if that’s really what Rick Perry wants, let’s give him the chance to take it. As this is a bill that has already received Senate approval, it has until May 26 to pass. Let’s get it done, please.

I hate you! I need disaster relief!

Care to guess who is the biggest requestor of federal disaster relief funds since 2001? Why, none other than Governor Rick “Secession 4 Eva!” Perry, that’s who.

According to FEMA’s website, Texas has been the site of 13 “major disaster declarations” since Perry took office following George W. Bush’s departure in 2001. That includes five instances of severe storms and flooding, two tropical storms, one “extreme wildfire threat,” and Hurricanes Claudette, Rita, Dolly, and Ike. (Texas received significant federal assistance following Hurricane Katrina, but it did not appear on FEMA’s website in the “major disaster declaration” category.)

David Riedman, a public information specialist at FEMA, explained to me that a major disaster declaration is issued when a governor “determines the state’s resources are overrun.” From that point forward, the federal government, under federal law, is required to reimburse the state for at least 75 percent of the cost of recovery. Help is primarily targeted at rebuilding roads and bridges, debris removal, and reparing damage to public buildings. In the relief efforts that are still under way from the damage done by Hurricane Ike, the federal government is reimbursing Texas for 100 percent of all expenses, according to Riedman.

In fact, since FEMA’s record-keeping began, Texas has received federal disaster assistance more times than any other state.

Is it possible to wear out the word “hypocrite”. I mean, actually render it unusable due to too many invocations of it? If such a thing can be done, Rick Perry will be the cause.

By the way, even Sarah Palin is accepting stimulus funds for unemployment insurance. It’s just so hard to remain pure these days, isn’t it?

House committee passes SB1569

Good.

The House Business and Industry Committee wasted no time approving the Senate bill that would open the door for Texas to get $555 million in federal stimulus money to expand unemployment eligibility.

SB 1569 landed in the committee yesterday and the members passed it out Tuesday afternoon in a 6-2 vote. Republican Reps. Wayne Christian of Center and Rob Orr of Burleson were the nays.

Time is of the essence, of course, since there is a good chance Gov. Rick Perry will veto the measure and the chambers could try to override that veto. Perry has not said he will veto the legislation, which passed the Senate last week, but he has repeatedly objected to taking the money.

One significant change made to the bill in committee would undo an amendment proffered by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, that would make the eligibility changes contingent upon getting the federal money.

The U.S. Department of Labor, however, indicated that Texas would not get the money if that provision remained so the House committee stripped it.

Committee Chairman Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said the bill could come to the House floor next week.

If I’m reading the Constitution correctly, if the bill gets to Governor Perry more than ten days before sine die (Sundays excluded), then there would still be time to override a veto. Easier said than done, of course, but at least there’s a chance. Keep your fingers crossed.

House budget conferees announced

Elise Hu names names.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, House Appropriations Chairman
State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Webb, House Appropriations Vice-Chair
State Rep. Ruth Jones-McClendon, D-San Antonio
State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton
State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Houston

Give credit to Burka – he called all five. These five will join Senate conferees Steve Ogden, Royce West, Florence Shapiro, Chuy Hinojosa, and Tommy Williams to hammer out the final budget. I don’t know yet when they’ll start their process, but I assume it’ll be soon. Will the Davis-Walle amendment, which drained the Texas Enterprise Fund in the event of a veto of SB1569, survive? Will the Ogden stem cell rider get the heave-ho? The answers to these and other important questions will be known to us soon.

UPDATE: As has been pointed out to me, Zerwas is from Katy, in Fort Bend County. None of the ten conferees are from Harris County; Williams’ district includes a piece of northeast Harris County, though he himself hails from The Woodlands. I hadn’t realized that when I first wrote this, but it strikes me now as being a little strange that the largest county in the state has basically no representation on the budget conference committee. Hope they don’t forget about us…