Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kick 'em while they're down

No new taxes and punishing wrongdoers have a dandy sound, except in Texas too often it amounts to “kick ‘em while they’re down.”

Unfortunately in Texas what passes for good conservative cutbacks too often amounts to picking on those who can least afford it.  First to suffer when fees are raised in the name of saving or avoiding taxes, are children and poor people.  There is a basic reason for this.  Children and poor people seldom contribute to campaigns.  They don’t belong to well-heeled political action committees.  And, unfortunately, most of them don’t vote.

One of the most unfair results in raising fees to avoid saying you passed a new tax is the ill-conceived surcharge program imposed by the Legislature for traffic violations.  

Unfortunately, after you’ve paid the price for violating the traffic laws of Texas, you’re not done.  You can be saddled with additional fees for no other reason than the fact your senator and state representative didn’t have the guts to choose a program to cut or to increase the taxes in order to pay for the spending they authorized. 

For example, under the surcharge system, after you’ve paid your fine for a moving violation, an additional surcharge is added each year for three years of $100 each year.  In other words, whatever your fine was, you have to pay another $300 unless you have a bad driving record, then you have to pay an additional $375 in order to maintain your driver’s license.  If you’re caught driving while intoxicated, after you’ve paid whatever fine the court rules for which you are liable, and perhaps a few days in jail, you then learn you have an additional $1,000 annual surcharge for up to three years.  Subsequent convictions can carry an additional $1,500 surcharge year.  If you get caught driving while your license is expired, it could cost you not only the fine, but an additional $900.  Failure to have insurance could cost you an additional $1,000.  If you get more than two violations within three years, you would be assessed an additional annual surcharge.

Not only is the fact you have to pay an additional fine in effect, unfortunately the bureaucracy to administer this thing is so inefficient you may not learn about the fact you owe a surcharge until you are 2-3 years down the road and owe more than you believe you could reasonably pay. 

Unfortunately, in today’s society, people who really want to be employed and earn their own living, stay off welfare and be good citizens are the very people who can barely scrape together enough money to pay their traffic fines when they get them, let alone a surcharge imposed at the whim of the Legislature to fill up budget holes they wouldn’t fill with taxes.  To well-heeled folks it is a minor imposition; but to the poor who have trouble maintaining insurance for their vehicles, or even getting a vehicle so they can manage to get to work, it is a life sentence which could cost them their jobs or worse. 

Two things are certain in today’s society.  Most everybody sooner or later will get some sort of traffic violation.  The other thing is that automobiles for transportation have become a necessity for maintaining any decent quality of life.  The Texas surcharge system has been so draconian that even though over a billion dollars in fines or surcharges have been levied, less than half that amount has been collected; and of that amount, none of it has been spent on any state program for which it was intended.  In short, this program is causing far more harm to Texas citizens than it is benefiting society as a whole.

The next time you hear one of your local state politicians boasting about no new taxes and how conservative they are and how they are concerned for people less fortunate than they, ask them how they voted on raising fees, tuition and allowing outrageous rate jumps in insurance. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Labor's Day Not Lost

Mr. John Bernard, President and CEO of the Associated Builders & Contractors of Southeast Texas celebrated Labor Day by publishing an arrogant, self-centered diatribe in both the Port Arthur News and Beaumont Enterprise which took aim at organized labor and working people.

Among other things, Mr. Bernard whined about having workers forced on contractors by demographics (requirement to hire local workers).  It appears Mr. Bernard has forgotten that the taxpayers of Port Arthur and Jefferson County have paid a dear price for being able to ask that contractors in the big refinery expansions employ local folks.  They did so in the form of tax abatements to the tune of several millions of dollars.  These tax abatements were given based on the promise made by the companies that not only the companies but their contractors would try and maximize the number of local people employed in the various projects. 

Mr. Bernard continues to follow the corporate-republican line that unemployment is being caused by unreasonable regulations and high tax rates.  Specifically, Mr. Bernard pointed out the current debate in Congress on whether or not to allow the Bush tax cuts on rich folks to expire at the end of the year. The republican line is that most of these tax cuts benefit the poor and the middle-class mom and pop small businesses.  The fact of the matter is that over half of these tax benefits go to people making over 7 million dollars a year.

I guess Mr. Bernard has a short memory in that he fails to recall these same rich folks were making record millions of dollars, doing better than they had ever done in the history of the United States.  This occurred under Bill Clinton’s presidency when the tax rates were the same as they will be if the Bush tax cuts expire.

I suppose Mr. Bernard would like to go back to the days when there was no OSHA to demand safe workplaces for workers, or when the construction industry in Texas led the nation in industrial deaths.  As for ‘cap and trade’, which he condemned so vigorously, I note that he had no suggestion about how to stop global warming and seemed to care very little about whether or not the general public is exposed to disease-carrying industrial pollution.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bernard, I remember the days when thousands of workers were sentenced to death by their employers who made them work while being exposed to asbestos.  I personally handled cases where the employer misled the employees into believing their lung problems were caused by tuberculosis or some other disease.  It was only through vigorous pursuit of the issue by lawyers that the world discovered what industry had known for years--that asbestos caused cancer and other deadly lung diseases.  

Somehow I am very leery of leaving the safety of the public and construction workers to the whim of Mr Bernard’s organization or members.

Although contractors promised local government they would do their very best to employ local workers, the motels around Port Arthur are full of workers from other states and other countries.  While boasting of cooperative programs between contractors and unions to create skilled workers in the area, too many skilled workers are sitting idle today because most of the contractors working in the area now prefer to work non-union labor.

Maybe Mr. Bernard and the members of his organization should take another look at this if he really cares about Southeast Texas.  When most of these big jobs are done, too many of the workers Mr. Bernard has hired will return to Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, or elsewhere, while our union guys generally own homes here, raise their families here, and spend their hard earned money in this area.

For the most part, Mr. Bernard took aim at labor on Labor Day and shot himself in the foot. The only point on which we agree is the hope that next Labor Day construction workers will have more reason to celebrate.


Text of the column which appeared in the Beaumont Enterprise is provided below:

Monday, September 6, 2010
Section: Opinions
Page: A8

Byline: John Bernard

Type: Guest Column

Area needs strong companies to provide jobs

   While Labor Day is recognized as a time to celebrate the American worker, this year's holiday has taken on a more somber tone, especially for those in construction. 

    The unemployment rate for the construction industry is nearly twice the national average, and more than 1.75 million construction workers are out of a job. The drilling moratorium and looming cap and trade legislation would hamper our industry even more! 

    We are blessed in Southeast Texas to have a thriving petrochemical business that has helped us get through the down-turn many other areas have experienced. Locally, there is still a lot to be done in getting local craftspersons employed. 

    Notice I did not say "workers." In order for us to get our locals into these jobs they need to be trained and exceptionally safe. Our local construction companies are feeling the weight of increased competition from outside contractors and legislation. 

    What most people don't understand is that projects in our industry are bid "hard money," that means there is no room for error. 

    The contractor has to come in under schedule, under budget and do it with no injuries. In order to do that, they need highly trained workers who have the skills, not "workers" who have been forced on them by an entity just because of demographics. 

    We are not doing our local workforce any justice if we don't raise the bar where they can compete with out-of-town construction workers. 

    Living here doesn't guarantee you a job if you can't perform the task without someone standing over you instructing you on every little detail, not to mention the safety risks to the individual and co-workers. 

    There is not one good reason why a local person is not working in our industry. Between the ABC Construction Training Center, the Lamar Institute of Technology and the local union apprenticeship programs, qualified craftspersons shouldn't be an issue. 

    Our local small businesses and contractors are the catalyst for creating jobs and economic recovery, yet today's construction contractors face a dizzying array of obstacles, including burdensome and costly federal regulations and mandates along with high tax rates. 

    Tax rates could shoot up even higher if Congress fails to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax relief measures, the estate tax and the capital gains tax--leading to one of the largest tax increases in U. S. history. In addition, out-of-control federal government spending has ballooned our national debt to $13.3 trillion -more than $40,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. 

    In order to break out of this dire situation, our national ABC office has developed a 2010 Job Creation Proposal that will help stimulate the construction industry and put Americans back to work. The proposal includes a wide-ranging package of recommendations, including providing tax relief to small businesses, such as construction contractors, as well as to families and individuals; increasing access to capital; allowing the entire construction workforce to participate in federally funded projects; and enacting a comprehensive national energy plan. 

    The nation is facing unprecedented economic challenges, and both large and small construction contractors are eager to take the lead in stimulating economic growth by getting back to building America. Implementation of ABC's recommendations will help jump-start the construction industry during this economic downturn. 

    Let's hope that next Labor Day construction workers will have more reasons to celebrate. 

John Bernard is president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors of Southeast Texas.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I’ve written articles in the past about getting the kind of politicians we pay for.  Not necessarily what we pay for in money, but what we pay for in our dedication to the selection process in becoming informed and active, participating voting citizens. Unfortunately, we fall short in that category all too often and end up paying the price of being represented by people who are less than what we would have them be.

Texas Legislature House Floor [photo by: Elise Hu]  

Recent articles are appearing in various newspapers condemning members of the Texas Legislature for having double-dipped. These stories are relating instances wherein several members of the Legislature have drawn their legislative per diem for expenses and at the same time have paid rent, food and entertainment and travel costs out of their campaign funds.  

While I agree that politicians need to be more circumspect than average business people, or even our average citizens, we have not treated the members of our legislature in a realistic way as far as allowing them to survive while enduring the public service of a state representative or state

It appears that many voting citizens would have elected officials take vows of poverty.  I doubt seriously we would receive many qualified candidates for office if such a vow was a prerequisite for filing for office.

The Texas Constitution of 1875 set a miserly attitude toward compensating members of the legislature which continues to this day.  Delegates to Texas’ First Constitutional Convention after reconstruction fixed the per diem for legislators at $5.00 a day for the first 60 days of a session, and $2.00 thereafter.  They were allowed a mileage rate of 20¢ per mile for traveling to and from the Capitol--once per session.  
Texas Constitution, 1875 -Archives & Information Services -
Texas State Library and Archives Commission
During the debate on legislative compensation and per diem, one Convention delegate proposed that the per diem be raised to $6.00 per day which reportedly invoked a retort from another delegate that if $5.00 a day wasn’t enough for members then they should stay home.  Many observers of the Texas Legislature still harbor such feelings about compensation for members of that august body.

A search of recorded history in the Texas Legislative Reference Library finds 20 attempts since 1875 to increase legislative compensation.  Of those 20 attempts, only 4 have been successful.

For many years, legislative pay was limited to $10 per day for the first 120 days of the session, and $5.00 a day for any other days the legislature met.  It remained this way until 1954 when, by constitutional amendment, legislative pay was increased to $25 a day for the first 120 days of the session and no pay thereafter.  
In 1960, for the first time, legislators were granted a salary by the public through constitutional amendment. Legislative pay was authorized at $4,800 per year, $12 a day per diem, and the length of session was increased from 120 days to 140.

The current pay of the legislature is $600 per month, or $7,200 per year, and per diem is a whopping $30 a day for the full, regular session, as well as any special session. The Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House receive the same $7,200 a year as other members of the Texas Legislature. Mileage allowance for members of the legislature is the same rate as for other state employees set by the General Appropriations Act. 
 When he was the state comptroller, Bob Bullock took a major step forward on behalf of the legislature by simply ruling the state constitution allowed members of the legislature to be compensated for travel to and from Austin on a weekly basis rather than only once per session. 
Price Daniel, Jr. Photo by Bill Malone.
TSLAC Current Events, Tx State Library

 & Archives Commission [1973/99-12]
Until the Sharpstown scandal, perks by lobbyists were common place in Austin.  It was not unusual at all for a lobbyist to offer a member of the legislature the use of his or her credit card to take a family trip, or go out for an evening at the most expensive restaurant in Austin.  Following Sharpstown, when the Speaker of the House was convicted of wrongdoing, serious reforms were attempted.  
Under the leadership of Price Daniel, Jr., then known as the “Reformer Speaker of the House”, more openness was installed in the legislative process and stricter reforms were placed on legislators accepting the largess of special interest lobbyists. [See related article "Daniel Urges Strong Reforms," The Victoria Advocate, May22-1973, page 2]  Eventually, strict limits were placed on the amount that lobbyists could spend on member of the legislature and fairly comprehensive reporting requirements were required.  
While the lobbyists’ spending reforms were well intentioned, they misfired. We have gone from one poor system to another.  Previously, members of the legislature were given generous gifts, meals and other perks by lobbyists.  Once that became cumbersome and unwieldy for lobbyists, the fertile minds of politicians came through with a different system.  Today, regular fundraisers are held throughout the off season on behalf of representatives and senators.  
Almost every member of the legislature has a re-election fund or a healthy pot of campaign funds.  Now, instead of having lobbyists shower members of the legislature with gifts, the lobbyists simply contribute money to the campaign funds and then members of the legislature spend it pretty much however they choose.  

Virtually everyone in Austin who knows anything about the legislative process and politics knows of the system.  It has been going on for at least since the late 1980's and early 1990's.  So, it appears somewhat hypocritical to me that now the press seems to be amazed that members of the legislature are dipping into their campaign funds to make life a little easier for them as they attempt to support a home in their home district and a living spot in Austin.

Texas Senate in Session - March 2009  
[photo by Joseph Martin III]
Most problems for legislators come about when they fail to properly report the use of their campaign funds. What Texas needs to bring it into the 21st century are annual sessions and a living wage for members of the legislature, along with the strongest ethics code possible.

I am satisfied that those who defend the legislature meeting only once every two years do so because the current system leaves Texas government in the hands of the governor, special interest lobbyists, and bureaucrats for 2/3rds of the 2-year period.  

I am also satisfied that the meager compensation for members of the legislature is designed, in the minds of some, to keep poor folks from serving.  Is it really representative government when ordinary folks with ordinary jobs are in reality barred from serving in the state legislature?

Citizens of Texas should ask themselves whether those who would run government like an efficient business would dare to entrust their business to a manager receiving only minimum wage--and THEN attempt to budget their business for only 140 days every two years. Most likely, the average citizen would wonder what fool would even ask such a question--a little twist on getting they paid for.

Friday, September 3, 2010


I’m beginning to wonder whether it is worse to reveal the fact that a political candidate is a “scumbag,” or to be a “scumbag.”  Harry Truman once replied when someone urged him to “Give‘em hell, Harry” that he simply “told the truth and the people being told on thought it was hell.”  I have a feeling a lot of the so-called mudslinging that people decry and attribute to their opponent is, often times, actually the truth. And the general voting public ought to hea

A prime example of a candidate being too nice was the occasion when a fellow named Don Yarbrough ran against a fine appellate court judge for the Texas Supreme Court.  There was little doubt Don Yarbrough had a shady past and had a history of association with people suspected of high crimes.  Yarbrough’s opponent, Judge Charles Barrow of the Thirteenth Court of Appeals serving Corpus Christi, Texas, took the fine gentlemanly view that he would not speak ill of his opponent even if it were true.  He left that to the Texas press corps.  The Texas media, both electronic and paper, dropped the ball.  Don Yarbrough, taking the advantage of the name idea of a former candidate for governor of the same name, swept to victory and became one of Texas’ Supreme Court justices. Only a short time later, it was revealed Justice Yarbrough was in fact a crook and was convicted of felonious conduct.  Many Texans went around wringing their hands wondering how this could have happened that a felon could get himself selected by the voters of Texas to be on our highest court.  I suspect these are many of the same people who would be quick to condemn a candidate of speaking ill of his opponent, even if it were true.  

It seems we may have lost something in Texas.  Lusty, rough-and-tumble, passionate politics is not new in Texas.  Reading a history of the elections in which Sam Houston participated, there were instances where candidates would literally pull guns during the course of debates.  Sam Houston once accused one of his opponents of being a bank robber, having stolen a safe from a bank and thrown it in the river. 

While ordinarily it is a good thing that political opponents be civil to one another, doing so to the point of not letting the public know things they should know about one’s opponent does the public a disservice and in a way defeats the whole purpose of the elective process.  We have become too sensitive about confronting one another publicly as candidates for office.   In the good old days a debate was a real debate.  You put two candidates up and let them think of the questions to ask their opponent, or accusations to make for the opponent to refute.  Political debates today have been reduced to nothing more than a scripted news event in which we find out very little about how the candidates feel or what they know about each other.  

The tepidness of debates today is quite evident by the current debate going on between Bill White and Rick Perry about whether to have a debate.  Rick Perry has chosen not even to submit to interviews by the various editorial boards of Texas’ newspapers, and claims he would not debate with candidate White because White has not revealed enough information about prior income tax returns.  Isn’t this a subject that ought to be debated?  If White had done wrong, or something illegal, wouldn’t it be far more dramatic for Mr. Perry to reveal this charge in the course of debate and demand White to explain it right there on television before God and all the voters?  Alas, I am afraid we have become too civilized to engage in such conduct! Most debates are relegated to the various candidates taking turns answering questions with an occasional “ad lib” off the topic of what the moderator posed as a question.    

Ideally, the open democratic process should be one which gives full disclosure of the good, the bad and the ugly about the candidates.  The candidate with an interest in winning should be the most motivated person or team around to discover all of the defects of his or her opponent and, alternatively, should be most knowledgeable about all of their own good qualities which recommend them as the best candidate for office.  

As for White and Perry, putting aside the gamesmanship and agreeing to a good old fashioned televised debate or a series of debates would be a good start for this election year.