Monday, December 31, 2012

Perry's Cronies

There was a time when Bob Bullock was a staffer for Preston Smith.  In responding to media criticism that Smith kept appointing his cronies to various high positions in state government, Bullock pointed out it would be very foolish for a politician to appoint someone not friendly to him.  Certainly, this is a logical assumption when one chooses to make high appointments.  Unfortunately, however, one would think a governor would give a great deal of consideration to qualifications even when choosing among his friends or buddies in appointing them to high office.

A close examination of what has been going on in Texas for the past few years almost makes me rethink my opposition to term limits.  Rick Perry, being the longest serving governor in the United States, has now appointed every member of every major board or commission in Texas.  Additionally, he has appointed or influenced the selection of both our major courts and most of our appellant courts throughout Texas.  The sad part about it all is he appears to give more consideration to cronyism than to qualification.

The latest evidence that Perry cares more about the “buddy-buddy” system than he does qualification is the fact he recently appointed one of his staffers to the Texas Supreme Court.  This staffer has no great credentials as a lawyer, has never served as a judge–even a justice of the peace–and has little to recommend him as a qualified person to interpret the basic law of the land as far as Texas is concerned. 

Even more disturbing is that any examination of Perry’s history of appointments quickly raises the suspicion that appointments are pretty much for sale.  Any time a major news outlet does an in-depth study of appointments to boards of regents, commissions such as Parks and Wildlife, the Public Utility Commission, etc., there is generally a connection between the appointment and at least a $100,000 contribution to Perry’s campaign.

Perry has insisted on the Legislature continuing to fund his technology fund and the Texas Fund for Investment to Attract New Business, as well as worthwhile endeavors such as the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.  However, in-depth studies by major newspapers in the state, such as the San Antonio news media, Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News have revealed large chunks of taxpayers’ money has been passed out--allegedly in the name of creating new business development in Texas--but unfortunately, after the large sums are ladled out to Perry’s buddies, all too often the job growth expectation does not come about, or the business goes under leaving little to benefit the taxpayers of Texas who footed the bill.  Even the Texas Legislature, which is not noted for great courage in attacking the governor’s programs, has raised the issue of accountability in many of these so-called economic development programs presided over by the governor.

Unfortunately, most Texans, as well as citizens of the United States, obtain most of their news from sound bites on television.  Again, unfortunately, television has neither the inclination nor the time to spend on what seems to me to be the makings of a real scandal.  Recently, the Houston Chronicle  published several stories concerning what they call the scandal-plagued Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.  The Institute was the brainchild of a former staffer and good friend of Ann Richards.  Almost three billion dollars was set aside to try to combat cancer in Texas along the lines of the way California attacked the stem cell research.

The Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle have revealed, for example, a Dallas businessman, David Shanahan, invested $90,000 in a campaign contribution to Rick Perry and David Dewhurst.  He received a great return on his investment in that a grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute netted him 12.8 million dollars.  Another Dallas businessman, Peter O’Donnell, was one of the venture capitalists responsible for raising almost a quarter million dollars for Perry in recent campaigns and received for his trouble an 11 million dollar grant from the Texas Bio-Tech Fund--without any of the legislative required input from business or scientific review panels. 

I’ve always felt that a politically conservative person, particularly in Texas, was one who wanted to be very frugal with the taxpayers’ dollars and limit government activity to those things which could best be done by government and not private sector.  Unfortunately, it is my belief Rick Perry and his accomplices have given a new meaning to Texas conservatism and business climate--that is to say, the new Texas conservatism a la Perry is "Take care of your fat-cat buddies so long as they take care of you and underwrite your next campaign for president."

Why Republicans Lost

Since the recent presidential election, various conservative talk shows have expressed a plethora of opinions as to why Obama won the election.  Rush Limbaugh maintains that Romney lost because voters are just plain stupid.  Star Parker, an editorial opinion writer, maintains the results of the election occurred because too many Americans lack character.  Fox News has offered a variety of opinions, but mostly maintain too many Americans have become lazy, slothful, and are simply “takers,” not “givers.”  Romney, of course, maintains he lost because Obama bribed too many of the citizens with tax dollars.  Most of the folks offering such opinions are the same folks who now want their various states to secede from the Union.

Numerous saner elements of the Republican Party--such as Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida--are offering what I believe to be sound advice for the Republican Party in order to get back in the running.  They have hit on some of the things which influenced the results of the election.  However, fortunately for Democrats, I believe the far right lunatic fringe of the Republican Party will never let the GOP get back on track concerning the items mentioned by rational Republicans.  The far right fanatics will continue to deny science, abhor gays, have no respect for women and continue their fear-mongering about a hoard of illegal immigrants who will take over the United States.  I believe some of their questionable concerns and ideas became legitimate reasons the people of America chose to re-elect President Obama.  There are also other reasons, however, that I believe factored into the swing to Obama.

Like “know nothings” of ancient times who believed the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was flat, too many in the Republican Party insist global warming is simply a myth propagated by the left-wing liberals of our time.  It is my belief the real reason Republicans refuse to acknowledge global warming is that to do so would require action to retard massive amounts of pollutants being pumped into the air to make many industrial complexes profitable.  Too many conservatives equate rational regulation of industry with denial of freedoms by the government akin to the regressive tax measures imposed by King George on tea. 

Another thing I believe contributed to the Republican defeat was the type of opinion expressed by Romney in the privacy of a meeting with $50,000 donors when he was most likely to be more unguarded and truthful of his core beliefs.  The “47%” comment reflected a lack of concern and compassion for fellow citizens who suffer in poverty and without health care or hope.  It is clear many Republicans or conservatives ignore the mandate of our constitution wherein we are to provide, through our government, for the common good.  Startling evidence of this occurred during the presidential debate of the Republican Primary where it was implied that those without money or health insurance should simply die rather than become a burden on the taxpayers of the U.S.A.

A third reason, which I believe turned the average-thinking citizen off, was what I consider an improper use of religion.  Religion has been used for century after century to induce common folk to act against their own interests–from the time when citizens were persuaded that kings were selected by God to rule to modern times when pundits, such as Pat Robertson, spread the gospel that hurricanes and other disasters are brought on by the sinful ways of certain states.  Like many countries of the world ruled by religious theology, some so-called evangelicals in this country would make our government the same way, punishing people for straying from what they believe are biblical mandates. Ignoring the Constitution drafters’ provision warning against melding church and state, they insist upon inserting religion into government at every opportunity. This activity ranges from encouraging prayer in schools and other places and to include creationismwhich is a matter of personal religious faith and beliefin textbooks as a scientific reality. Many of these folks have probably never read a detailed account of Darwin’s theory and regard evolution as an instrument of the Devil and a rallying point for unbelievers.

Finally, a big reason for Obama’s margin of victory arose from Republican conservative attitudes  towards folks other than affluent Whites.  Numerous statements have insinuated that people of color desire nothing better than to be poor and live on the government dole, or that voter fraud was born of minority efforts to participate in the elective process, or that children of immigrants should be punished for having been brought to the United States.  One should recall Romney’s response to Governor Perry’s rare show of concern for Hispanics in advocating the Dream Act, which would allow immigrants who had attended educational institutions in the U.S. to remain.  Romney maintained he would veto such legislation and that such children should self-deport or be deported.  Republicans in several state legislatures have continued to introduce bills which are insulting to people of color or those with Hispanic surnames. These efforts range from the Arizona legislationwhich would allow baseless arrests to inquire as to one’s nation of originto bills introduced in the Texas Legislature which would create stiff penalties on illegal aliens, except for those brought here to serve as yard men or maids.

Republicans should hark back to the advice of the cartoon strip character Pogo, whose famously said “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

More on the Speaker's race...

Speaker Joe Straus

As provided by the Texas Constitution, the Texas Legislature will meet in regular session at high noon on the 2nd Tuesday of the next odd-numbered year. The first order of business will be the selection of the presiding officer of the House, decided by a majority vote of the members of the Texas House of Representatives.  The Secretary of State will call the body to order, nominations and seconding speeches will be made, and, thereafter, depending on the procedure adopted by the body at the time, an election of Speaker will be had.

On occasion, decision on the speakership has been a rambunctious affair with the two sides fighting over whether there would be a secret ballot, open ballot, or no ballot at all, simply a voice vote or counting of heads on the floor of the House.  Generally, the Speaker has been selected long before the body meets in its initial meeting of the session.  Generally, the Speaker is elected by an informal process by which various members give written pledges to vote for a particular candidate. Speakers used to stay on for one or two sessions and then either run for higher office or decide to retire to a better job.  The exception to that norm came about in recent years with Bill Clayton, Gib Lewis and Tom Craddick, all of whom decided to stay for multiple terms.

Currently, a race has developed between the incumbent Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio and Bryan Hughes from East Texas.  Straus was elected when dissatisfaction arose over the heavy-handed tactics of Tom Craddick of Midland.  Straus was supported by a large number of Democrats and subsequently has attempted to preside over the House in a fairly even-handed way, appointing a representative mix of Democrats and Republicans to key positions. 

As you may recall from an earlier blog post, during his second term--which was the last regular session of the Legislature--Speaker Straus faced some opposition led by the religious right arm of the Republican Party on the grounds the Texas House of Representatives should not be presided over by a non-Christian.  Straus is from an old Jewish family from San Antonio.  Although he’s been in the Republican Party for many years, the severe right segment of the Republican Party does not believe him to be in the spirit of true Republicanism in Texas.

Opposition to Speaker Straus has continued on the grounds that he appoints too many Democrats to positions of authority, that he is too liberal to fit within the mold of a Texas Republican, and some of the religious bigotry still exists over his religion.  The far right, particularly led by the Tea Party, has thrown their backing to Representative Hughes.  Hughes has now announced for Speaker and is going about seeking pledges to replace Speaker Straus in the coming session. 

Leaders among the Democrats in the State House have urged their fellow Democrats to remain uncommitted in hopes they can make the difference in the Speaker’s race, as well they should be able to do should they remain united.  The problem, however, is reflected in an old statement by former Congressman Bob Eckhardt, who once said organizing liberals in politics is about like organizing quail to hunt bird dogs.  Although some Democrats are disgruntled with Speaker Straus, those to whom he has awarded chairmanships and vice-chairmanships, I am certain, will be extremely reluctant to jump ship and support someone of an unknown quality.  It would be particularly surprising if Democrats found common ground and supported a candidate supported by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.  Democrats gained members of the House of Representatives in the recent election, and are expected to gain more in the next few elections due to the heavy population increase among Hispanics.  There are currently 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats.  If the two Republican candidates come near dividing the 95 Republicans anywhere close to even, the Democrats in the House will certainly be in a position to have a great deal of influence on whomever is elected Speaker. 

All Texans should watch with interest the selection process of the Speaker of the House in that the Speaker during the 140-day regular session wields enormous power--some say even more power than that of the Governor, at least for the period of time the Legislature is in session.  The person chosen to be Speaker will have a direct impact on the lives of all Texans when major decisions are made concerning health, public safety and education.  We should all watch with interest the actions of our elected state representatives and with whom they cast their lot in the coming session.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

You can make a difference...

Years ago while I was campaigning to be re-elected to the Legislature, I ran into an older gentleman. As I attempted to hand him a card and give him my spiel, he interrupted me by saying, “Forget it, son, I don’t vote.”  It was frankly a reaction I had not expected, not having heard such a jaded view of the election process in my young career as a politician.  I attempted to convince the older fellow that he was wrong, and it could make a difference.  He was unpersuaded and replied it didn’t make a damn who he voted for, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
I wish at the time I had the experience which followed a couple of years later to relate to him about why he was wrong.  It had to do with the fact that a 14-year old girl took the time to speak to her elected representative and made a significant change in the laws in Texas related to the public schools.  It is a perfect case in point that citizens can make a difference, and the Legislature can be responsive to an everyday citizen.
While serving in the House of Representatives, I was approached by a young lady of the Jewish faith who was a close friend to my daughter.  They were the same age and in the same grade in school.  My daughter’s friend pointed out to me the unfairness of the school situation whereby people of the Christian faith were not required to deal with unexcused absences for their religious holidays such as Christmas or Easter whereas, on the other hand, if she took off for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur she would be given an unexcused absence possibly affecting her grade and class standing.  She wanted to know why that was true.  Frankly, I had no answer for her, but promised to check into it.
I promptly made a call to the Texas Education Agency and asked why it was that people of a religious faith other than Christian received unexcused absences for participating in their religious events.  The answer I received was fairly straightforward.  It was simply the way the law was and had been for some time.  

Armed with my new knowledge about the situation, I proceeded to enlist the assistance of the Texas Legislative Council and drafted a bill providing that the law be changed to accommodate absences related to legitimate religious celebrations such as the primary Jewish holidays.  To my delight I was quickly approached by Senator Babe Schwartz who volunteered to be the Senate sponsor of the measure.
To my further delight and surprise the measure sailed through the House process, went to the Senate, was passed there and was eventually signed by the governor.  Since that time there have been several amendments to the bill to accommodate other substantial religious beliefs existing in Texas.
The point of the story is that by a 14-year old merely pointing out what she believed to be unfair about the Texas law led to a significant change in a public education system probably affecting  thousands of students over the years.  So, anytime someone says they can’t make a difference in what happens in government at the state, or even the federal level, then tell them the story of the so-called Jewish school bill.  Hopefully, it could renew their interest in citizenship and participation in our democratic form of government.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Trending to Gridlock

Unfortunately, there are signs that our Texas Legislature is headed in the wrong direction.  Controlling members of the Republican Party appear to want it to become more and more like Congress.  In Congress, the “winner take all” attitude seems to prevail, which has produced gridlock for the American people.  

The majority party in the Congress is generally ruled by the partisan party caucus, which happens to be the Republicans at this time.  Committee chairs are selected by the caucus and are members of the majority party only.  It seems those who desire to implement such a system in our Legislature should take note that the current approval rating of our Congress is the lowest in the history of the United States--below 20%.

A recent indicator that things are about to change in our Legislature of Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst’s primary defeat by Ted Cruz.  It seems Governor Dewhurst, who has been fairly evenhanded and bi-partisan in running the Senate, now intends to take a sharp right turn to satisfy the Texas Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.  Heretofore, chairmanships in the Senate were passed out generally on ability and interest in particular areas of government.  Even in earlier times when only 2-4 members of the Senate were Republicans, there were Republicans who chaired major committees of the Senate.  Recently, Governor Dewhurst removed Democrat Senator Zaffirini of Laredo--second in seniority in the Senate--from chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee.  She has been replaced by an ultra-conservative radio host who now happens to be a member of the Texas Senate.  For several sessions the right wing of the Republican Party has advocated that a “winner take all” policy should prevail.  As a result, since Republicans have run the table on elections for the last several cycles, we may expect every chairmanship to be awarded to a Republican both in the House and Senate. 

As even more evidence of his attempt to veer to the right, Gov. Dewhurst's recent appearance was reported by the Associated Press at Ted Cruz’ victory party in Austin.  It seems Governor Dewhurst made an additional pledge to be more conservative in his approach to leadership of the Texas Senate.

The right-wing of the Republican Party has also expressed its dissatisfaction with the current Speaker of the House.  Speaker Joe Straus was elected at a time when the House was almost evenly divided with a slight Republican majority. Straus helped to oust then-Speaker Craddick, whose heavy-handed rule over the House drew dissatisfaction not only from most Democrats but also many moderate Republicans.  Speaker Straus was elected with almost as many Democrats voting for him as Republicans.  Naturally, thereafter, committee chairmanships were pretty well divided among both parties. 

In his first Speaker re-election effort, Straus faced opposition from the religious fundamentalist wing of the party on the grounds that Texas deserved to have a “good” Christian to preside over the House.  This is in view of the fact that Speaker Straus is of the Jewish faith.  Fortunately for Texas, the effort to oust Speaker Straus on this premise failed miserably.

However, currently, a new effort is being mounted and Straus has an opponent in his effort to retain the speakership of the House.  Among the battle cries of those in opposition to the Speaker are those who object to his appointing any Democrats to chairmanships or positions of power within the House structure.

The Texas Legislature, for many long years, has been divided among progressive and conservative lines.  But fortunately for Texas, a collegial atmosphere has prevailed in which members of the Legislature of all political ilks have managed for the most part to work together on major challenges which face the Legislature.  As it was put to me early in my career in the House by a dear friend--whose political philosophy was pretty much opposite mine--the longer you serve in the Legislature, the less important it becomes whether you are a conservative or liberal, but rather whether or not you can be trusted and your word relied on.  Such an attitude in the Texas Legislature has allowed us to avoid the stifling gridlock which now possesses Congress in Washington.

The recent election has increased the number of Democrats who will serve in the next session of the Legislature to the extent that Republicans no longer have a super majority, which constitutionally is required sometimes in an effort to move serious legislation quickly.  A highly partisan system would not be conducive whatsoever to cooperation when such needs arise to deal with matters critical to all of the citizens of Texas.

In the Senate, as well, such an attitude of total control by the prevailing party could lead to major changes in the way the Senate has been run for almost 100 years.  For example, although government teachers will tell you the Lieutenant Governor of Texas possesses great power, his power does not stem from the Constitution or the fact the lieutenant governor is elected by the entire population of the state.  Generally, the lieutenant  governor’s power stems only from rules of the Senate, which can be changed by a simple majority vote of the members of the body.

The current rules, which have been in existence for a long time, provide that the lieutenant governor shall appoint members of each committee and generally control the calendar of action for bills pending before the entire body.  This rules provision makes Texas somewhat unique among most of the states of the union.  In other states, such as Louisiana, committee chairs and committee members are determined by party caucus, and the lieutenant  governor’s role is reduced to pretty much a figurehead who only presides over the Senate and can only vote in the event of a tie. 

Members of the Legislature should strongly resist an effort to fashion our Texas Legislature after the ways of Congress.  Texas has many challenges facing it in the coming few years, none of which would be helped by gridlock.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Myths can become Realities

Long ago I faced the stark reality that I would never be a professional singer.  I do, however, love to sing.  One of my favorite diversions is to participate in what is sometimes known as  “pick-n-grinnin” sessions wherein musicians get together, play their instruments and sing.  On numerous occasions I have sung at such events and I have enjoyed it to the fullest. 

Many of my friends have witnessed these sessions as well as when I have been invited to sing with country and western groups in public places.  There are friends of mine who in all honesty would be willing to take the stand in a court of law and under oath testify they have witnessed me playing a guitar. 

Now, I would pay a substantial amount of money if I had the ability to play a guitar--I would love to be able to do so.  Unfortunately, I cannot play one lick. 

That’s a good example of a myth which has become reality in the minds of some people.  There are numerous other myths which have grown up politically.  One which comes to mind, and in which I have participated, is the occasion of legalizing the lottery.  Thousands of people took a paralyzed oath that the public had been promised all of the money from the lottery would go to finance public education.  However, no statewide official or anyone else made that promise.  There was not even the promise that all of the funds from the lottery would be dedicated to public education.  The fact of the matter is, at the time the lottery was passed, it would not have furnished more than 1/14th of the amount bi-annually appropriated to education.

Another political myth was one perpetrated by the George Bush campaign ridiculing Al Gore, claiming he represented he had invented the internet.  Al Gore made no such claim.  It was Mr. Gore’s claim that he supported and assisted in the creation of the internet.  In fact, the internet was invented by a government laboratory and developed over a long period of time with federal funding.  Nonetheless, the Bush campaign went on to make this one of the central talking points of the campaign, proceeding to ridicule Gore for taking credit and being braggadocios about accomplishments he had not fostered.

Yet another myth which was created by money and advertisement was the belief John Kerry was not a legitimate war hero of the Vietnam War.  A group known as the Swift Boat group was able, through massive expenditures, to persuade a significant part of the American population that John Kerry had not in fact been in a fire fight and wounded in Vietnam.  Unfortunately, no mention was ever made of the fact in such ads that the other fellow, Mr. Bush, managed through the connections of his father, to avoid even having to go to Vietnam. 

A recent myth put forth by the Romney campaign is that the president said “You didn't build that”-- referring to businesses.  Reading the full text of Obama's remarks one sees that he was referring to the American system of government and the infrastructure created by our national government which helps to create an environment for business.

Almost every great fortune made in the U.S. was helped by our government.  Check your history.

One of the earliest great fortunes in our country was created by the group who laid the Trans-Continental Rail Road.  They capitalized for one million dollars.  Not a cent of the million was spent on rails or cross ties, however.  Rather, the entire million was spent persuading Congress to authorize one section of government land be gifted for each mile of rail laid.  The project made the group rich and brought great economic prosperity to our nation.

Mr. Jobs could never have created the I-Pad and related technology without the internet--which, of course, was the same internet that was created through years of government research in a government lab.

Former President George W. Bush managed to borrow $200,000 from some of his dad’s friends and invested in the Texas Rangers.  They gave him a great title--and thereafter the citizens of the city of Arlington voted a massive bond issue to create a state-of-the-art baseball stadium known as Ranger Stadium.  This fact immediately boosted the value of the Texas Rangers, allowing former President Bush to reap multiple millions from his $200,000 investment.  Based on this gratuitous situation, he was lauded as an outstanding businessman—yet another myth.

Generally, most political myths are not deep, dark secrets--nor are they deeply buried and relatively easy to disprove.  If only thinking participants in our Democratic system of government would take the time to study, research or even read a daily newspaper, they would be able to find out the truth for themselves.  I don’t know if others enjoy “play-like government” --as for myself, I prefer reality.

Friday, November 2, 2012

November Won't Bring Santa Claus

My oldest grandson, being a very precocious child, had it figured out about Santa Claus at about age 6.  He also figured out that along with belief in this fictitious character came some nice perks. It was obvious, at least to me, that he didn’t want to rock the boat and upset a good thing, so he went along with the deal.

Unfortunately, too many voters would rather ignore myths emanating from politicians’ rhetoric than face cold, hard facts. Rare as a hen’s teeth are admissions by those seeking office that they would ever consider levying taxes of any kind.

Most politicians, when confronted with questions of how promises of new roads, better pay for teachers and vast improvements in education could be accomplished without increasing revenue, have several favorite dodges. One of the foremost popular methods of avoiding admitting new taxes might be necessary is by promising to provide for all of the new government services by eliminating waste and increasing efficiency. Probably the runner-up to this dodge is the optimistic hope that by creating a new set of officeholders a vibrant and growing economy would result. Taxation and revenue would naturally flow into the coffers at a greater rate than in the past.

We are currently faced with such a Santa Claus scenario in the presidential race.  Mr. Romney proclaims non-stop that he can lower everyone’s taxes while at the same time maintain the same level of income for the federal government. Unfortunately for all of us, Mr. Romney will not tell us exactly how he intends to do this trick, other than to say he intends to close loopholes. We only need to apply common sense to this political promise to measure its accuracy. 

A whole host of so-called loopholes or tax write-offs are available to most of middle Americans making less than $200,000. These write-offs include a dependent deduction for each child, taxes paid locally, tax paid on your homestead, interest payments on your home mortgage--and, for those unfortunate enough to have high medical bills, a portion of those may be written off. We know from past statements made by Mr. Romney that he would not ever consider doing away with the massive loopholes, write-offs or perks given to corporations--such as the multi-billion dollar give away to oil companies as a subsidy. Using simple arithmetic, one can determine the promise of reducing taxes and raising the same amount of revenue is an empty political promise. 

Reducing the tax to 20% across the board, as Mr. Romney would like to do, would reduce the current revenue flowing to the public coffers by 5 trillion dollars. You add the $2 trillion the Republican nominee for president has pledged to give to the military, and we are looking at a 7 trillion dollar hole before the process gets started.  One reason Mr. Romney is able to pay only 14% of his income in taxes--about half what the average working stiff in America pays--is because of the capital gain provision of the Internal Revenue Code. I can’t imagine Mr. Romney doing away with the capital gain provision in that it would cost him and his supporters millions and millions of dollars.  

Additionally, it would be breaking his nationwide promise to not raise taxes on anyone--including the billionaires in the United States. Even the Congressional Budget Office and numerous other experts tell us that if you eliminated all of the deductions used by ordinary Americans making $200,000 a year, or less, there would not be enough savings to make up for the 5 trillion dollars lost by reducing the tax rate across the board to 20%.

The choice of Mr. Ryan as the Republican vice-presidential candidate gives us a good insight on what sort of things might be on the chopping block when we start trying to make up for the multi-trillion dollar hole created by the Romney tax plan, or to assist in balancing the budget. Mr. Ryan has repeatedly advocated privatizing social security, as well as converting Medicare to a voucher system, which would in effect put most of us at the mercy of the insurance industry.

As former President Clinton urged in a recent televised speech, all we need to do to figure out who is trying to “bamboozle” us is to do the arithmetic. When we do, it is easy to see the Romney/Ryan plan does not add up.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Education funding in the coming Texas legislative session

The coming session of the state Legislature will be one of the most important for the future of public education than any other time in the history of this state. Public education funding has been on the front-burner of legislative problems without solutions for over a decade.

Few people outside of education policy “wonks” and administrators truly understand how the state funds public education. Basically, allocations are made on a per-student weighted contact hour based on the type of course taken--for example, school districts receive additional dollars for students in advanced career and technology courses. However, the basic problem with public education funding in Texas is that since the 60's the Legislature has gradually reduced the amount of its share of funding for public education relying more and more on property tax wealth of the various districts. 

Relying on the wealth of individual school districts has created another serious problem in funding resulting in hundreds of lawsuits being filed by the various districts throughout the state. One district may be wealthy and a small tax effort on the part of its patrons produces a large amount per pupil, while its neighboring school district with fewer businesses or oil wells has to make a huge effort, taxing its citizens to the max, yet still producing a relatively small amount for its students.

Recently, the funding of public education was further complicated by the fact the Legislature, led by Governor Perry, chose to leave over six billion dollars in the “Rainy Day Fund” rather than meet the educational needs of students in Texas. The Legislature shortchanged public education over five billion dollars, giving local districts some serious choices on budgeting. The past session of the Legislature was the first time in the history of Texas, since we have had a foundation school program, that the Legislature chose not to even fund the growth in student population throughout the state. [For a comprehensive review of the research on the relationship between school finance and student achievement, See the 2012 report "Does Money Matter?" prepared by The Shanker Institute.]

Some things do not bode well for the future of public education in this state. First, our governor has been on an informal tour touting the fact we will not seek to find any additional source of substantial revenue, even for public education. Second, there is a growing clamor among right-wing Republicans to place more emphasis on school vouchers and fund private schools. This philosophy was recently reinforced by the fact that Lt. Governor Dewhurst has chosen to appoint Dan Patrick, a right-leaning television and radio personality, as chairman of the Public Education Committee. Patrick is a strong advocate of the voucher system and is likely, by using the clout of his chairmanship, to push the voucher proposal at least to a vote on the floor of the Senate, and perhaps further.

A charter school which is granted within a school district takes the per-pupil allocation of whatever students attend that voucher school directly out of the allocation of the school district. While a few charter schools have emphasized quality and have produced good results, the majority produce poor results as to student accountability and financial accountability for those hired by the charter school. The fact is, if you ask just about any Texas school finance expert, dollar for dollar, charter schools overall do not outperform traditional public schools--and yet, public dollars are bled off of the local schools to support them.

I strongly suggest that if you have children or grandchildren depending on public schools for their basic education, you should immediately contact your state senator and state representative and express your concerns about demanding adequate funding for the public school system of Texas. It is critical to the future of this state, its economy; and as I have said many times before, it is in your interest to help educate someone else's child.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Warning lights

When a red light pops up on the dashboard, most drivers will take the time to pull into a service station or mechanic shop to see what's wrong. Red lights on dashboards are there as warnings that something needs to be attended to. Unfortunately, our state leaders have ignored numerous red lights along the way dealing with education and the future of Texas. 

The last session of the Legislature spent considerably more time on political matters such as passing voter identification and jousting windmills of perceived invasions by hordes of illegal immigrants than on the challenges of providing future generations of Texans with an adequate education.

It is difficult to discern why a governor would promote voter identification as an emergency item to cure a non-existent problem and almost ignore the crisis of funding equity for public education. Nonetheless, the Legislature ignored the normal increase in student population and blithely shortchanged public education by almost five billion dollars, declared victory for the session and went home.

As a result of the failure of the Legislature and other state leaders to address public education, classroom size--previously limited to a 21:1 ratio--has been ignored.  Local tax increases have virtually been mandated by the Legislature, while shouting “no new taxes,” and in effect mandating increased local taxes on your home and business.

Texas is in the top 2 or 3 states leading in school dropouts and teen pregnancies, and will soon be a leader in adults with no high school diploma.  In a time when hi-tech and skilled jobs are clearly the answer to a prosperous future, Texas continues to boast of a business climate which contains the most minimum wage workers of any state in the union.

A more recent red light popped up on the dashboard of our state government in the form of the College Board reporting that now Texas' scores on college entrance exams have dropped below the national average.  While it is somewhat encouraging that 2% more students took the exam, it is discouraging the average scores dropped by 3 points.  Such a situation is a clear warning we are not adequately preparing the students of Texas public education for the kind of education and accompanying jobs the future demands.

The college entrance exam is important for another reason.  Numerous scholarly studies have indicated one of the key ingredients to having disadvantaged students proceed and succeed in obtaining a higher education is the belief they have the ability and opportunity to do so.  A case in point frequently cited is a situation in Brooklyn, New York, where a self-made millionaire visited a class in his old school.  The millionaire guaranteed every member of the class that should they succeed in obtaining a high school diploma he would in fact pay their tuition and expenses to college.  Because of this promise, almost 100% of the class entered and successfully attended college.  In fact, the millionaire was saved out-of-pocket expense because a significant number of the class did so well they earned academic scholarships for college.  

Successfully passing a college entrance exam while in high school surely gives encouragement and hope to the student taking the exam that he or she has the ability to get in and complete a college education.

It is incumbent on us, as citizens, to demand of our members of the Legislature, of both parties, that they begin to focus more on the next generation than on the next election.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Old Tricks

One of the oldest political techniques in the book is for a politician to create a fake crisis and then pretend he is the only one available to avoid disaster.  The Republicans remind me a little of the old story about the old maid who always feared finding a man hiding under her bed, but was disappointed when he really wasn't there.  The Republicans are a lot like that when it comes to looking for voter fraud.
During the last session of the Legislature, our governor declared as an emergency a measure to require all voters produce picture identification in order to vote.  Not just any picture identification, however--it specified a narrow group of photo IDs that would qualify.  The premise of the legislation was to deal with voter fraud which in fact did not exist. For the last several years, the primary source of voter fraud in texas, what little there was, stemmed from mail-in ballots--which was totally ignored by the Republican legislation requiring voter identification.

While the Republicans blandly say it really has nothing to do with preventing persons from voting, hearings before federal courts have revealed very clearly that it does.

One example is my mother, who will be 98 before the year is out, who has been voting ever since she was old enough to pay for a poll tax.  Clearly desiring to vote and having some time back forfeited her driver's license, she did not possess a voter ID which would pass muster under the Republican legislation.  Because she clearly wants to vote in the future, I bundled her up, took her from the assisted living residence and traveled to downtown Port Arthur to get a photo ID from the drivers license office.  After a wait of about 45 minutes, her picture was taken and in exchange for the $10 fee she was given an official Texas Identification Card containing her picture.

Other evidence brought forth in federal court hearings shows there are counties in Texas which do not offer a Department of Public Safety drivers license office.  This would require, in some instances, poor people to drive many, many miles in an effort to obtain a sanctioned picture identification card.

Comments from various Republicans make it clear what this is about--such as a Republican leader in Pennsylvania who boasted that now that voter ID had been passed in Pennsylvania Governor Romney's election would be assured.  Facts uncovered since the plethora of voter limiting proposals offered by Republicans is further evidence that Republican concern for voter fraud is phony.
The Associated Press has recently revealed the fact that in Colorado--where the Republican Voter Registrar estimated almost 12,000 non-citizens on the voter rolls when checked--only a small handful of non-citizens were on the rolls.  Less than 200 out of the estimated 12,000 of those had actually participated in voting.    
North Carolina and Florida were other examples.  Particularly in Florida, where huge estimates were made of illegal or non-citizens being on the roll, in the final analysis less than 1/100th of a percent were discovered on the voter rolls.  It is absolutely clear the efforts to limit voter registration and throw roadblocks into voting is a solution in search of a problem.
Communists in despotic countries use police force, the military and other totalitarian ways to stop people from voting.  Unfortunately, one of the major parties in the United States has adopted a more subtle but equally dangerous threat to voter participation.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Educational Trends in Texas

Bill Hammond, the Executive Director of the Texas Association of Business issued a prediction this week that by 2040, if current trends continue in Texas, one-third of Texas’ adults will not have a high school diploma. Hammond’s concern strikes me as being very similar to the little boy who killed his parents and then pled for mercy before the judge on the grounds he was an orphan.

Hammond, and most other members of the Texas Association of Business, have been complicit in the Texas political strategy led by Rick Perry to denigrate education at almost every level.  Unfortunately, what Texas politicians such as Perry tout as a great business climate is no more than a dumbing down of our Texas potential workforce.

With little outcry from the Texas Association of Business, Texas Republican leadership has cut funding for public education by over 5-billion dollars, requiring larger classrooms and lower paid teachers, as well as higher local property taxes. The Republican dominated State Board of Education appears to give more attention to religious belief and fundamentalist concepts than to the teaching of science-based curriculums.

Presently Texas has the most minimum wage paid workers in the United States. There has been an unrelenting effort in Texas to deny injured workers access to the courthouse; and most of our Republican leaders consider the right of workers to organize themselves into unions as un-American.  At a time when most developing nations of the world have doubled-down on high-tech jobs fostered by forward-looking programs in education, Texas has continued in the mistaken belief that we can have decent education in our state “on-the-cheap.”

While our state political leaders at election time claim great concern for education, they continue to support such things as voucher programs which detract from funds available to our public education system.  They have supported the abolition of pre-school programs and at the same time failed to adequately provide for growth in our public system of education. College tuition has continued to rise while student aid is lessened each legislative session.

While I agree with Hammond’s assessment that if present trends continue Texas will look more like a third-world country than a progressive, forward-looking, modern state with high-paying, high-skilled jobs, I call on Mr. Hammond and his fellow members of the Texas Association of Business to quit giving lip service to those who seek public office in Texas in the belief we can have a Cadillac system on a Model-T budget.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Free" Speech

One of the things that sets America apart from most other countries is the freedom we enjoy to give our opinions and basically say what we want to say. The importance of this right was reflected in numerous quotes of Thomas Jefferson who placed freedom of speech and freedom of the press at the highest level of our constitutionally guaranteed liberties. The right to speak one’s mind was further reinforced by a revolutionary new concept in America when early on our Supreme Court ruled that truth was a defense to libel and slander. Such a defense had not existed in the old world, or in most countries of the world ruled by despotic sovereigns.

Even the Bible comments on how damaging false statements and gossip can be, labeling the tongue a lethal weapon. Long ago, however, American jurisprudence made the decision that the freedom to express oneself and the freedom of the written word is so sacred in our culture that, even if a false statement is made, the person who made it should not necessarily be held accountable. In the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court set the standard--at least for public figures--such that even though a statement is proved to be false, unless the alleged victim can show not only that it was false but that it was made with malice, such a statement would not support damages. The theory that follows this standard is that we should not put any restraint on those who report the news and facts to the general public. Thus news reporters may be basically unrestrained, at least when it comes to publication of facts and events related to public figures.
Although public figures certainly bear the greatest burden of slanderous and libelous statements made about them in the press, we as citizens of a free nation also bear a burden in support of free speech. Recent events in the Near East--where a 14-minute video sparked demonstrations, riots and attacks on our embassies--were proven to be not the handiwork of our government but the handiwork of a person alleged to be part of a fringe group. Citizens of other countries of the world not familiar with how sacred we hold the individual’s right to express himself or herself cannot understand fully a country such as America allowing false or libelous statements to be made, particularly about beliefs they hold sacred in their own countries and cultures.
Another example of how harmful and hurtful false press can be is known in recorded history as the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxer Rebellion was never a real rebellion, but was a story made up by a group of newspaper reporters in Chicago on a rainy day who had nothing better to do. As a result of their false and fictitious story, dozens of missionaries were slaughtered in China. 

While I would not change the protections of a free press in America, I do believe it is time for us to take a look at the standards by which we hold people accountable. This is particularly true with the technological advances made today whereby anyone with a computer can instantly communicate all the way around the world. I’m not sure bloggers with no credentials and no restraint should be afforded the same protections as what we generally refer to collectively as “the media.”
I know of local bloggers who have poor writing skills and typify little in-depth knowledge of how we govern ourselves and even less regard for the truth who have published things on their blogs which are complete figments of their imagination, and in some instances are hurtful to people.
I’ve always believed that if we, as a government, choose to protect free speech, we should not necessarily protect a lie. Perhaps, at least with individual bloggers, we should adopt a slightly different standard than laid down by the aforementioned Supreme Court case. Perhaps a new standard should be: a) is it true; b) was there any effort made to ascertain the truthfulness of the statement; and, c) was it harmful to the person about whom it was published or written.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Government and Corporations

Recently, prompted by a Republican rant about how America’s economy and the world would be better off if we would only get government off the backs of corporations, I engaged in a sometimes dangerous exercise–I started thinking about it. Almost every speech Romney or his surrogates  make contains the same philosophy. They talk about how--if we simply gave tax breaks to corporations and rich people, and did away with the oppressive regulations--we would free up the job creators to produce untold numbers of jobs and we would all once again be prosperous, rolling in dough.
Mostly, the regulations which corporations cite as being oppressive are first and foremost regulations dealing with environmental concerns. In fact, Rick Perry, our governor--who jumps every time the big money boys say “frog!”--even had the State of Texas sue the federal government to avoid implementing regulations to keep our air clean. 

Second, usually on the list of complaints is that we should not be taxing corporations at all--and if so, only a small amount.  And of late we’ve been hearing about unreasonable safety regulations, and the fact the government system since Taft Hartley has allowed labor unions--particularly in the private sector--to enjoy benefits such as vacation time, hospitalization, and other luxuries which corporations deem too expensive, making it undesirable for them to do business with American workers.

Suppose we had a free society of unregulated and untaxed corporations. What do you think would happen in regard to the areas now regulated by our national government? What about the safety of workers? Suppose we let corporations operate their refineries, for example, in any manner they chose, free from regulation having to do with pollution. Could any mother feel comfortable living in a community where emissions carrying carcinogens were exposing her children to such diseases as asthma, leukemia, or even cancer? 

Suppose we didn’t have OSHA to regulate safety in the workplace? Could any family feel comfortable sending their breadwinner into a place where safety was ignored in favor of higher profits? Do you think the good ol’ boys who love to fish on weekends could afford bass boats and places on the lake if corporations were allowed to repudiate union contracts which guarantee decent wages, dignified treatment and benefits? How about taxes? Should we allow corporations to pay only what they volunteer to pay to support their communities? Do you really believe corporations would ‘pony-up’ enough to help keep our schools open and provide police and fire protection?
I agree that without regulations business would certainly be more profitable.  However, there must be a balance between the quality of life we all desire while maintaining an environment where businesses can make a profit. I cite as an example the major oil companies who operate in countries outside of the United States of America. Without having to pay all of the so-called ‘onerous’ union contracts, government oversight, safety and environmental regulations, for the past few years oil companies have made huge multi-billion dollar profits. 

At a time when America needs more revenue, Big Oil is fighting to hold on to these multi-billion corporate welfare payments.

Current Republican plans for adding jobs are simply to curtail spending on such things as social security and medicare while cutting the corporate tax rate and lowering the taxes on invested money to zero. In interviews, Romney and Ryan claim that the cost associated with giving corporations and the mega-rich folks further tax breaks will be more than made up for by reforming the tax code and closing loopholes. 

Very few specifics have leaked out concerning what kind of loopholes Republicans intend to close--however, there has been some indication that items under consideration would include taxing workers’ health care benefits furnished by employers and disallowing the deductions of interest payments on home mortgages. 

Every working American should ask themselves, “Would it be better for America to tax my health benefits--which are furnished by my employer--and yet not allow my interest payment deductions on my home, while at the same time we continue multi-million dollar subsidies to Big Oil companies, which have now set gasoline prices at record heights while Big Oil is also enjoying multi-billion dollar profits?”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

All in the same boat

For many years property taxes have been a source of conversation and consternation in Texas. Even though overall Texas ranks among the lowest taxing states of the union, property tax remains a sore spot with almost all citizens. In Texas, property taxes have risen from near the lowest in the United States in the mid-1950's to among the top 3-4 in the U.S. today.

Property tax is the primary way Texans support public education. In all, property taxes levied in the various districts and counties throughout the state amount to a little over $60 billion. A few frustrated members of the Legislature have suggested we abolish the property tax to support education and replace it with an increased sales tax.  The problem with this is that in order to replace the money not raised by ad valorem taxes, the required increase in the sales tax would be upward of 15% on each item you purchase. Most exemptions, such as diapers and groceries, would be eliminated.  Some, mainly property owners, argue this would be preferable to the current system, which in effect taxes people repeatedly on their homes and businesses. Again, the problem with this system is that a sales tax is regressive and hits those on limited incomes much harder than those with large incomes.

The ad valorem tax used to support public education has been under attack in the court system since the 1960's, beginning with the Edgewood case filed in federal court. The federal appellant court, including the Supreme Court, ruled not that the tax system was fair, but that it was not so unfair that it had reached the point of unconstitutionality. The appellant courts followed with a warning that failure to address the problem could very likely involve federal court intervention in the future.

The Edgewood case in the federal system was followed by a case reaching the Texas Supreme Court in which the system of funding education was deemed to have run afoul of the Texas Constitution; specifically, the provision which required the state to offer all citizens a quality or decent education.  The basic problem with the tax is that it unfairly treats and punishes children who have the misfortune to live with their parents in poor districts or counties. The current system provides unbalanced amounts available to educate children. 

As an example, citizens of school districts like Mount Belvieu enjoy supporting a quality system of education at a relatively low tax rate because they are fortunate enough to have salt domes within the boundaries of the district filled with natural gas which periodically can be taxed. The gas is not produced in the district, but simply is taxed as it passes through the storage in the district on its way primarily to the Northeastern part of the United States. Other districts of low property wealth force citizens to pay a higher tax rate and devote a greater effort to support public education, resulting in even lower amounts available to deliver education to their children. In short, the current system is, was and probably will be unfair.

A simple solution, unworkable in Texas, is to support public education with an income tax.  It is not likely the people of Texas will in the near future vote for a constitutional amendment which allows an income tax, even though it would totally replace the ad valorem tax on their homes and businesses.

There is another solution which would absolutely resolve the inequity of the current property tax system. As Chairman of the Senate Education Committee I proposed it; Ann Richards flirted with it very briefly. Sadly, it was grossly misunderstood by the press who failed to note in their reports that the proposed tax was not to be added to the local tax, but to replace it. As a result, the idea was quickly rejected by Governor Ann Richards.

The proposal would have preserved only local taxes dedicated to paying off bonded indebtedness. Thereafter, a statewide tax at a uniform rate per $100 valuation would have been levied on all property within the state. Then money would have been placed in the state treasury and allocated to each district based on the number of pupils. At the time of my proposal, a dollar per $100 tax rate would have raised slightly more than the differing local tax rates. And, it would have lowered the tax rate for half of the taxpayers in the state.

Such a system would end forever the lawsuits alleging the system of raising taxes and the allocation of state funds for education as unfair.

I have long believed sailboat racing among sailors with the same class vessels is the fairest sporting competition existing today. All of the sailors have to have the same amount of wind, use relatively the same amount of sails, and maneuver the same kind of boat. Thus the winning boat depends primarily on the skill of those who operate it. The same should be true of school districts throughout Texas. If every district had the same resources available per student, Texans would quickly learn which districts make efficient use of their money and produce the right result for our children. Maybe it is time for all taxpayers in all school districts in this state to get in the same boat.