Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Closed Door Shenanigans in Austin

There are two popular myths spread by Republicans; one is that Democrats simply are the party of “tax and spend,” and second,  Republicans are the “responsible” party as stewards of the public’s money.  Neither of these allegations will stand close inspection.

Democrats controlled the state Legislature for almost 50 years.  During that time there was never a session of the Texas Legislature where Texas was in the hole as much as we are today.  Recent revelations are very eye opening about whether or not Republicans trust the voting public, or whether or not the voting public should trust Republicans.

Rep. Lon Burnam (D) Ft Worth

At the beginning of each legislative session, usually the House of Representatives brings proposals for rules changes.  Recently, a group of Democratic House members offered some very revealing proposed changes in the rules; all of which were voted down by the Republican majority.  Unfortunately, these proposed rules changes got very little play in the mainstream press.  They do, however, tell a story about trust and openness in government.

Representative Lon Burnam of Fort Worth offered a measure which would have required the budget conference committee to notify the general public ahead of time when and where they were meeting; and the meeting would have been required to be open to the public.  

This modest proposal was voted down overwhelmingly by the Republican majority.

Rep. Pete Gallego (D) Alpine
Pete Gallego, longtime Representative from Alpine, proposed that all research documents having to do with spending the public’s money be made available to any member of the Legislature.  This too was voted down.

Even though the Republican majority now speaks as though there is no alternative to the draconian cuts in the budget, Roland Gutierrez from San Antonio offered an amendment which was also voted down by the Republican majority.  He simply proposed that with any budget cut  the Legislative Budget Board, a non-partisan group working for the Legislature, would be required to publish an impact statement concerning the effect such cuts would have on each county in the state.

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D) Houston
Representative Donna Howard of Austin and Garnet Coleman of Houston offered a rule which would have prohibited the state from pushing off responsibilities which would require spending on local government.  The amendment of the rules would have prohibited the state passing an unfunded mandate on local government unless the state reimbursed the local government.  This practice will be particularly onerous when it comes to cutting mandated Medicaid funds for cities and counties throughout the state.  Local governments will face the prospect of seeing nursing homes closed and no health facilities available for the old, sick and children unless the local government wants to tax and make up the difference.  

Finally, Representative Armando Walle proposed the budget bill must be published at least five days before being voted on so that each member of the Legislature could examine it thoroughly to decide on its merit.  
Rep Armando Walle  (D) Houston
The general public should be aware of two other revelations coming forth this week in Austin.  The Governor Perry led tax reform, which was to reduce everyone’s school taxes while at the same time not increase state taxes, has been declared by the state’s Comptroller (our official budget estimator) to be short 5-billion dollars each year.  In other words the scheme pushed by our conservative Governor to adequately fund public education while at the same time not raising taxes is leaving us 10-billion dollars in the hole every two years.

Another conservative scheme has left our highway funding in a mess.  A brain child of Rick Williams, former chairman of the Transportation Commission and good pal of our governor, has left us shorthanded for the future of our highways and roads.  As you know, our highways are funded solely by a tax on gasoline.  This tax has not been increased in many years and its net revenue to the state is declining even though we have more and more cars on the highway.  Fuel efficient automobiles are becoming more popular; therefore, fewer gallons are being used in Texas and less money is being produced for our highways and roads.  
Under Perry’s leadership the Highway Department was authorized by the Legislature to issue bonds and borrow money to build roads immediately.  Unfortunately, much of the money was spent acquiring rights-of-way and helping scheme to have more toll roads in Texas.  As a result of the borrowing and spending by our Republican administration, we now are paying more in interest on a yearly basis than is being produced for future development of roads.  
It seems to me taxing and spending is certainly no worse than borrowing and spending.  It’s time Texans took a close look at what’s happening in Austin.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Texas budget headed in the wrong direction

After the initial release of the Republican state’s budget, four Republican members of the House, led by James Keffer of Eastland, proclaimed their own party is off on the wrong foot.  Virtual abolition of four community colleges and pre-kindergarten programs in Texas is not so attractive as a way to balance our budget to these representatives; mainly because in essence, the proposal comes close to doing away with community colleges in their district.

The proposed cuts in public education will create a mini-depression in Texas costing local districts approximately 100,000 jobs; or will require massive increases in the taxes on your home or business.  No new taxes at the state level, although it will help the Governor’s pledge of no increase in taxes, will result in increased taxes at the local level.  Even worse, taking a bite out of one of the most critical programs as public education will end up costing America in the future.  

Education experts, based on long-term studies, state a potential drop out from school can be predicted as early as the second grade.  One of the most effective ways to ensure students will get a decent education and stick with the learning process through high school depends on the success of early intervention programs such as pre-kindergarten.   

Too many Texans send their children to school totally unprepared for formal education.  They have never seen a magazine or book in their home; they are not subject to educational activities with their parents and they enter the school process completely intimidated.  It is difficult for such a child to learn in the early grades and soon becomes frustrated to the point they cannot succeed in secondary education.  

Our leaders who cannot see this, or will not admit to this, are creating a perfect formula for Texas to continue with the lowest paid number of jobs in the country and a huge drag on our economic engine.

For many years, I have read that persons with alcohol or drug problems are not very likely to succeed in rehabilitation unless they first recognize they do in fact have a problem.  Unfortunately, our current leaders in Austin appear to be making the same mistake.  Our Governor, for example, and others, refuses to recognize we have a record deficit budget which may need to be solved.  To reinforce this belief, or persuade you to think the same way, they have “phonied up” a way of calculating our budget’s shortfall.
Courtesy Texas Tribune

Traditionally, the state Comptroller calculates the revenue available for the next two years and then forecasts what will be the necessary expenditures based on the projection of needs such as education, healthcare, highways, etc.

If the Comptroller had calculated using this method, the budget deficit would amount to 25-27 billion dollars   However, she abandoned this method and produced a figure by simply subtracting the forecasted revenue from the current level of spending.  

Unfortunately, the Comptroller’s estimate does not add into the expected need for revenue the growth of public education and the increased numbers that will enter into our public schools.  Nor does it account for an aging population which will have a greater need for Medicaid and other health services.

Even worse, our Governor has proclaimed he will see that Texas does not touch its “rainy day fund.”  Apparently, he is enjoying the bright lights of the Governor’s office without looking outside to see whether or not it truly is a rainy day.

What do Americans really want?

America’s new Congressional majority justifies its actions to repeal health care reform by saying, “It is clear Americans want to do away with Obamacare.”  It saddens me to realize how fickle public opinion can be and how it can be manipulated.

During the presidential race, one of the strong points of the Obama campaign pledges was to do something about health care. As a matter of fact, millions of Americans are without health care coverage; and although, in this country, we do have the best medical technology in the world, we have one of the poorest health care systems.  Unfortunately, the real death panels in America are those which allow millions of Americans, many of them children, to perish for lack of access to adequate health care.  

It seems since the campaign rhetoric discussing health care in America and the time that health care reform was presented to Congress, there has been a shift in public opinion.  Current polls show slightly more Americans favor doing away with the recent health care reforms than those wanting to keep it.  Republicans talk as though there has been a big shift in public opinion simply because Americans have awakened to the fact that what they describe as “Obamacare” is not a good thing.  Because of such a shift in public we should take a look at exactly why the current opinion runs with the Republicans and against keeping health care reform.  This shift in opinion did not occur simply because Americans have now realized health care reform is a mistake.  

Unfortunately, too many Americans are buying into the Republican blather that health care would be much better if we simply let the market control and provide health care.  The principal reason there is such a prevalence of this attitude is the fact that money interests in the United States have now spent almost one million dollars per member of Congress.  Special interests provide 4 lobbyists per member of Congress and millions in advertisement and public “spin-doctors.”   All in order to persuade Americans that health care reform is bad.
If closely examined, the idea of solving the problem of so many millions of Americans with no health coverage could be solved by the free market is one of the most irrational things ever dreamed up.  The free market on health coverage is the market provided by insurance companies.  Insurance companies do not give a trifle about trying to relieve suffering or provide people with adequate health care.  The whole game of health insurance companies is to avoid giving sick people, or people likely to be sick, any health coverage whatsoever.  Insurance companies make money by avoiding payment of doctors and hospitals, not by providing service good for America or individual Americans.

If you ask conservative Americans whether or not they believe in personal responsibility, they would quickly answer, “Yes.”  The whole theory behind mandatory liability insurance for drivers is to make sure people driving protect other drivers in the event they injure them through their own negligence.  Similarly, healthy people who refuse to purchase insurance to cover their own illnesses or injuries put us all at risk.  If they are injured or fall ill and cannot pay for their own medical needs, we, those of us who pay, pick up the cost through higher insurance premiums, or through our tax dollars which provide for charitable health care.

Persons without health insurance coverage, who present themselves to the emergency rooms of our hospitals, annually run up billions in uncompensated health care.  Hospitals do not pick up this tab alone.  They make it up in increasing charges for those of us who pay for hospital services.  The amount we pay is not determined by someone we elect; but rather an insurance executive or hospital administrator decides what it will cost us for these uninsured victims who present themselves to the hospital.

If all Americans were responsible enough to provide for their own medical needs, the needs of all American citizens would be met at much lesser cost.  Substantial reduction in medical costs in America would move our economy forward more than any other single item.  Not only would it provide lower cost health care, but it would improve health care for us all. 

P. T. Barnum once said there is a sucker born every minute.  Those Americans who believe the free market will ultimately provide adequate health care for all Americans simply prove the truth of P. T. Barnum’s words.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recent Happenings in Austin

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Former Senator and Supreme Court Justice Oscar Mauzy had a motto inscribed on a poster he hung on the wall in his office.  The poster said, “Forgive and Remember.”  It is with grudging admiration for their political acumen that I remember how we lost the state Senate race for District 17 of which Port Arthur is a part.  If you will recall, Chris Bell, who ran Rick Perry a good race for governor sometime back and was the congressman who blew the whistle on Tom Delay’s heavy-handedness in Congress, should have won the state Senate seat for District 17. 
Chris Bell

In a special election, called due to the resignation of the district’s senator, numerous candidates filed for the spot.  It appeared for a while that Chris Bell, being the only announced Democratic candidate, would walk away with the race.  As predicted, Bell ran and came within a few votes of winning the seat outright.  Unfortunately for Bell, at the last minute a 44-year old, African-American, female lawyer filed as a Democrat. As to her Democratic credentials, Stephanie Simmons was suspect at best.  There was little or no evidence she had ever participated in the Democratic primary process; and even though there was testimony that she in fact did not live in the district, she qualified by claiming residence at her mother’s home which barely sat in Senate District 17, just outside the boundaries of Harris County. 

The Republican strategy was to siphon just enough votes away from Bell to cause a runoff with the leading Republican in the race, counting on the fact that minority voters traditionally do not turn out as well in runoff elections as do affluent, conservative Republican voters.   Sure enough the strategy worked.  About half of the minority voters in the Jefferson County part of District 17 showed up for the runoff, and Bell was defeated by Joan Huffman, a conservative Republican who lives West of Houston.

Stephanie Simmons
This week in Austin, Stephanie Simmons who caused the runoff in 2008, handing the Senate seat to Republicans, was rewarded for her party loyalty by Governor Rick Perry.  Perry just appointed Stephanie Simmons to the Risk Management Board of Texas.  This Board makes recommendations concerning risk management of insurance, particularly that along the coast.  No one has been able to uncover any particular qualifications for Ms. Simmons holding this position other than the fact that she obviously was of great service to the Republican Party when she ran as a Democrat.

Despite the crisis of a 27-billion dollar shortfall, this past week found the House busy flailing away at some of the issues our Governor deemed to be emergencies. One day the House spent almost all of the morning session debating and passing a resolution giving advice to the U. S. Congress on how to balance budgets.  It seemed to me it could be likened to a seminar given by priests on how to develop good marital relations.

A tiny bit of good news emerged this recent week in Austin, however.  It now appears at least some leading Republicans in the House are not going to walk lock-step down Governor Perry’s desired path of not touching the “rainy day fund.”  The probable chairman of the House Public Education Committee has indicated he favors tapping at least a part of the 9.5 billion dollars in that fund to make up for the 5-billion dollar shortfall in this biennium’s budget for education.  During the current biennium Texas school districts are likely to get 5-billion dollars less from state aid unless the Legislature takes quick and decisive action.  It appears Governor Perry’s scheme to replace property taxes with a business tax in Texas is off by 5-billion dollars per year.  The Perry tax produces about that much too little to fully fund educational needs each year.

There is an old saying about two different types of military leaders.  There are “do as I do” officers and “do as I say” officers.  It appears the current statewide leadership falls in the latter category.   While demanding that institutions like Lamar University return approximately 10% of the money they have been appropriated to help with the shortfall, I have yet to read of any state leader who has offered to take a 10% pay cut.  This includes our Governor who is living in a $100,000 a year rental using up approximately $40,000 a year for landscaping. 
I can only hope that somewhere our current leadership in Austin is working on a booklet of advice  for our youth on how to compete in this world economy with the better educated young people from India and China.  If we continue on cutting the budget at any price pathway, this is where we’re headed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Those of us who are not political addicts may not be familiar with push polls.  A push poll is a thinly disguised political tool to influence the opinion of potential voters by asking a question in such a way that it “pushes” them toward adopting a predetermined political viewpoint.

I recently received an official Republican Party document entitled, “Listening to America.”  My examination of this document, at least in my mind, raised more questions than answers.  Also, a close examination of the questions asked reveals exactly how tilted the questions are; and as we lawyers say in many of our objections, the questions assume facts not in evidence.

For example, Question No. 1 asks “Should the House Republicans unite in opposition to all of President Obama’s planned tax hikes?”  This question made me wonder if there is something I missed, because I even watch Fox News on occasion and I do not remember hearing of any tax hike planned by President Obama.  I do know there was some effort to leave the legislation passed under George Bush’s administration in place which would have restored tax rates for people making more than $1,000,000 to the level they were under the Clinton administration.  I’ve not heard any announcement from the Obama administration that they plan any legislation to raise taxes.

Another question under the spending section asks, “Do you support passing strict budget caps to help reduce federal spending?”  In case you weren’t aware, there have been caps on the federal budget in place for several years.  Unfortunately, these caps have routinely been suspended even when the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate.  The question makes me wonder what kind of cap we could put in place to stop the current Republican House of Representatives from suspending it in the near future.  In their typical, hypocritical way, among the first actions of the new Republican controlled House of Representatives was to repeal the rules put in place by Democrats requiring “pay as you go” on any proposals to pass the Congress.

A real zinger in the questionnaire asks, “Do you believe Medicare and Social Security should be modernized, starting with fraud and abuse in each program?”  It has been my experience that most of the fraud uncovered in recent years has been on the part of medical suppliers such as doctors and hospitals, most of whom are absolutely supportive of Republicans and opposed to health care reforms.  I’m also struck by the choice of words in this question by asking whether or not Social Security needs to be modernized.  I suspect what they’re talking about is going back to the old George Bush proposal of turning our Social Security over to Wall Street. Wouldn’t that have been nice in the recent Wall Street bust!

The questionnaire also asks whether or not we should reform our tax code.  The key word here is reform. I’m not sure so-called reforms of the last two generations under either Democrats or Republicans have amounted to reform.  A study of our whole national economy shows that every time we change the tax code we give another bite to the super-rich.

A book I have been reading recently points out and documents that the wealth of the top 1% of Americans has more than quadrupled since mid-1970.  Most of it is attributable to the fact that every tax break passed by Congress gives a much bigger share of the wealth to the super-rich than to middle-America.  It also pointed out this type favoritism to the super-wealthy is rapidly depleting America’s middle-class which for over 200 years has been one of the great strengths of our nation.

How about earmarks and pork-barrel spending?  Talk about hypocrisy!  One of the greatest critics of rampant spending by Congress is Sarah Palin.  However, we need to remember, it was during her tenure as governor of Alaska that earmarks broke the record for a single state.  Although she now criticizes the practice, I do not remember her ever sending any of it back to the U.S. Treasury.

Speaking of assuming facts not in evidence, one question asked, “Should the Republicans immediately repeal the most damaging regulations that President Obama and Speaker Pelosi imposed on job creators?”  First of all, the Speaker of the House is not in a position to pass regulations.  They can vote on the change in the law but not regulations.  Republicans obviously want to continue to keep doctors and medical providers in their corner the best they can by asking whether or not the voters support medical liability reform by cracking down on junk lawsuits against doctors.  

As I have pointed out numerous times in this column, it is not the junk lawsuits that doctors fear.  It is the one where they are clearly negligent and through their carelessness cripple someone for life. A case in point is a woman in San Antonio whose medical provider wrongly amputated both of her legs. She has found it almost impossible to find a lawyer to file suit for the doctor’s mistake.  If that’s what they call cracking down, I certainly would have to answer that question “no.”

Let’s hear it for patriotism.  Republicans pile on by asking whether or not you believe foreign terrorists should be given military trials and kept out of civilian courts.  Actually, some of us believe that what has set America apart from rogue nations --which have no concern for humanity or individual rights-- is the fact we believe justice is a human right.  

Having a “play-like” trial before a military tribunal does not ensure protection of those rights in the American tradition of justice for all.  I would dare say most of the right-wingers who favor denying trial for people accused of international criminal activity would just as soon execute the so-called terrorists without a trial.  They are wondering why waste our money going through such a charade?  Have we already forgotten we just got rid of a vice president who openly advocated torture?  

Two other questions start summing up the Republican philosophy by asking, “Should congressmen cite the Constitution as authority on any bill that is up for a vote and should they install cameras in the powerful rules committee so that voters could see how bills are brought to the House floor?”  I would certainly favor both, if I had any assurance that those listening to the Constitution being read would understand what they hear.  

I would add to the proposal of the additional cameras in the congressional realm by suggesting they put one in the Republican caucus so the American people could see what they were really thinking when they adopted their policy of bills to favor and oppose.  

I just have one observation about the so-called push poll sent to me.  As far as I’m concerned, whoever sent it can take it and shove it.