Saturday, May 30, 2015

Getting the politics out of politics...

Lloyd Doggett, while in the Senate of Texas, once commented during a debate that you can’t take politics out of politics. Senator Joan Huffman of Houston, however, seems to be trying.

For several decades the public integrity unit of Texas has resided in the district attorney’s office of Travis County. This special unit has successfully investigated and prosecuted numerous complaints of official misconduct. The unit was placed where it is because more often than not most official conduct at the state level arises in the capitol city.

Over the years, the unit has prosecuted far more Democrats or their appointees than Republicans.  Among them have been two speakers and an attorney general.

Republican politicians are now whining because Rick Perry was indicted by a group of 12 citizens for abusing his power. Perry, in an attempt to force the local district attorney to resign, threatened the use of his power of veto to punish the then-officeholder of Travis County. Had he threatened to beat her up if she didn't resign, his wrongdoing may have been more clear to citizens than it is now.  Nonetheless, it was still a threat to use his power to attempt to force another officeholder to bend to his will.

It seems Huffman’s scheme would be as political--or moreso--than the present system.  In the Huffman plan, instead of having alleged misconduct reviewed by a panel of 12 reputable citizens, the conduct would be referred to a group of Texas Rangers selected by one person, appointed and serving at the will of the governor. Thus selected, if the Rangers thought necessary, the case would be referred to the home county of the accused official. If the hometown boys perchance indicted the official, the case would then be referred to the local district attorney in the home county of the official. This would be the case even if the criminal conduct occurred in some other county such as Travis County, Austin, Texas.

Apparently, several senators favoring the Huffman method have lost sight of the conduct of a Republican activist occurring just a few years ago. Several thousands of dollars were allegedly misused in connection with the election process. The then-Republican-controlled Ethics Commission let the offender go free because the money allegedly misspent in violation of the election laws of Texas didn’t count since he didn’t use cash--he only sent out checks. This is the type partisan, political mischief Huffman is inviting.

The most recent great hypocrisy among Republicans occurred in the last election cycle. While they demanded loudly for the district attorney to resign because she pled guilty to a DWI charge, in the same election cycle they elected a politician attorney general who had recently admitted to conduct which amounted to a third-degree felony. 

It seems as difficult to take politics out of politics as it is to take hypocrisy out of politics.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Senate Bill 1628 and Windstorm Insurance...

The definition of a frivolous lawsuit is one that has been filed against me. All of mine are legitimate, of course. 

This is the hypocritical position of the leading so-called tort reformers. Richard W. Weekly is a great example of the consummate hypocrite.--he has fought for tort reform: his idea is to simply do away with lawyers and juries. Yet, when he lost a huge arbitration case (in an arbitration he had advocated), he turned to the courts to try to get further relief.  

People like Weekly and big insurance will not stop their assault on individual consumers and ordinary people until jury trials no longer exist and lawyers are all out of business. Weekly and others claim the "windstorm insurance pool" was done away with because of greedy lawyers. There is a very simple way to avoid having to deal with lawyers–pay the legitimate claims you owe.

A forgotten history of windstorm insurance was the fact that insurance companies at one time were required to furnish windstorm insurance with any homeowner’s policy. Insurance companies complained so much that they promised to fund and underwrite a special insurance for coastal folks, like us, if they could offer homeowner’s policies without offering storm insurance.  What went wrong was a combination of several hurricanes in a row, closely bunched--and the fact Rick Perry and his buddies put some of their cronies in charge who were either crooked or stupid. Many did not understand or know about the insurance adjusting business, others didn’t care and simply used the position to line their own pockets. Fraud was rampant among those who administered the Texas Windstorm Pool. Unfortunately, conservatives in the Legislature, instead of punishing the wrongdoers, simply are attempting to solve the problem by punishing consumers.

Having stuck it to Texas homeowners, now big insurance wants to stick it to consumers in all insurance claims.  Now pending in the House of Representatives in Austin is a bill properly dubbed “the insurance immunity act.”  It is so named because it would be a gift to insurance companies who have pulled $11.6 billion out of Texas’ economy and are now whining about having to pay claims fairly.

There are numerous features in the bill to protect insurance companies and increase their profit coming out of your pocket--but some are more egregious than others.  As an example, if you as a homeowner file a claim which mistakenly overstates your loss, you can be indicted under the new act and branded a criminal. On the other hand, if an insurance agent or adjuster cheats you, they are totally immune from being sued. If the roof blows off your house, you can wait forever for a replacement with no penalty to the insurance company who is re-investing and using the money you paid in premiums for coverage. 

Senate Bill 1628 now pending in the House of Representatives does away with most consumer protections afforded by the Texas Consumer Protection Act and shortens the time an injured consumer has to provide his or her claim.

You should call or email your state representative and senator and ask that this bill be stopped or seriously amended to protect  the rights of consumers. Don’t buy the old excuse that if we are too hard on insurance companies they will quit writing insurance in Texas. Texas is the second most populous state and a huge insurance market which no insurance company wants to give up. 

It’s time for our elected representatives to get a little backbone and stand up to the hundreds of lobbyists and big money insurance companies.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Abbott Aversion

I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams that a mother in her right mind would trust someone who hated children to care for their child. Why on earth, then, would rational citizens choose groups such as the Tea Party which hates government to be in charge of government? Recent events demonstrate our current Governor mistrusts not only the United States government, but also local governments within our state. These recent actions show not only hypocrisy but bring into question whether or not Governor Abbott has what it takes to lead our state successfully into the twenty-first century.

In a recent speech, Governor Abbott stated that Texas should lead the way in combating the United States government, as well as local governments. In the past week our Governor had the opportunity to speak for sanity and rational government by denouncing the wackos who were promoting the rumor that the United States Army was moving into Texas for the purpose of declaring marshal law and confiscating Texans’ guns. Instead of having the courage to denounce such an outlandish scenario, the Governor simply wrote a letter to our state guard instructing them to keep an eye on the United StatesArmy.

Who can believe that loyal Americans who join our armed forces, putting their lives on the line to protect us all, could be a party to a mass conspiracy whereby the U.S. Army would move into Texas for the purpose of imposing marshal law?

The level of hypocrisy further extends to local government. While conservative Republicans have for many years preached that government that governs best is that closest to the people.  Now, with the Governor’s seeming acquiescence, the Republican Legislature has passed bills which would prevent cities and the voters in those cities to enact ordinances which would protect them from invasive oil drilling activities.  

On the theory of creating uniformity in state law, our Legislature has bowed to big oil by denying cities the right to put limits on activities which have led to earthquakes, toxic pollution and contamination of local water supplies.  While pushing more and more responsibility for funding onto local school districts and cities, numerous bills have been introduced to limit the ability of local taxpayers to allocate what they consider adequate money to pave streets, improve education and provide health facilities for city residents.

While promoting the idea that the United States government is the enemy of the people, Abbott and others ignore the fact that thousands of Texas children go without adequate medical care, educational opportunities or health services.  Even though Texas leads the nation in worker deaths, almost nothing is done or said about workplace safety in this state.  In fact, Abbott and his army of so-called tort reformers have made it almost impossible for an injured worker to seek redress through the court system.  While Abbott continues to enjoy his almost $10 million lawsuit settlement, he supports measures to make it more difficult for citizens injured by others to receive adequate compensation for their injuries. 

Public schools in Texas are clearly underfunded. Roads and bridges have serious needs while our leadership turns down billions of dollars in federal funds which could provide medical help to needy Texans, and the $5 billion robbed from public education remains unrestored. 

In spite of all of these needs, our Governor and Lt. Governor seem absolutely locked in on the proposal to take $4 billion+ dollars out of the Texas budget in order to be able to say that they gave a tax break.  Such a break to each individual Texan would amount to somewhere between $160 to $200 a year.  

To me, a $200 a year tax break in exchange for the opportunity to have better roads and a better education for my grandchildren is not good. 

It makes me angry that these folks continue to refer to the government of the United States of America as the enemy and also attack local government--both levels of government are making serious and valid attempts to address some of the real needs of citizens. I find little resemblance between some of these folks who call themselves patriots and our ancestors who dumped the tea in Boston Harbor.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Three ideas to improve government

I have been looking at government since I was a teenager–both from the inside and outside. I  pride myself on the fact that I have given a great deal of consideration and thought to how to make our government, both federal and state, better. I have three ideas which would lend greater efficiency to our government and allow us to meet our needs on a regular basis without moving from tax crisis to tax crisis. 

The bad news is I am confident I will not see any of these enacted in my lifetime.

First of all, it seems Texas politicians would rather walk barefoot through a room full of rattlesnakes than to say the word tax. I always thought this aversion to talk about tax harmful to our state in that the lifeblood of democracy is free and open debate about ideas. Unfortunately, the words income tax also scare the “bejeezus” out of ordinary citizens who conjure up the idea of a state taking as much of their paycheck as the federal government now does. 

The old statement about rich folks dancing while poor folks pay the fiddler couldn’t be truer than our system in Texas. Perhaps this is one of the reasons politicians in our state cater to the very rich when they keep talking about no new taxes. If only middle class and poor Texans would take a pen or a calculator and add it up, probably a modest state income tax would gain instant popularity.  

Take a look at what money goes out of your pocket every year to the government. After federal income tax, probably the largest bite out of your income is for school taxes.  You pay greatly on what you have already sacrificed to purchase–your home.  For most Texans, it is the biggest investment they will make during their lifetime.  Even with a tax which has grown from being one of the lowest property taxes in the nation to now one of the highest, we still run short on enough money to provide a first-class education system.  We are beset with lawsuits and complaints that our funding from the Legislature does not satisfy our constitutional mandate to provide an efficient system of public education.

Should Texas introduce a measure to repeal all school property taxes with the possible exception of paying all bonded indebtedness and then enact an income tax on all income over $50,000 a year of probably not more than 2% or 3%, we would have more money than we need to provide for public education in this state.  It is a function which our forefathers envisioned to be the burden and responsibility of state government. Unfortunately, since the 1940's when the state supported about 80% of public education, we have backslid--mainly because of no new taxes at the state level--to where local governments now furnish about 80% of the cost of education and the state about 20%. 

Should we replace the ad valorem tax on homes and businesses in Texas with the income tax I have described above, the average Texan would save untold amounts of money in the process.

The second idea I would push forward is to quit exporting our suckers--gamblers. We’d take in probably a couple of billion a year if we authorized casino gambling in Texas. Without a doubt this would be a win/win situation in view of the fact I don’t believe in gambling, but I do have to pay property taxes on my home.

The final idea I have does not involve raising money. At my age I had the misfortune of being confined to a nursing home for a week. It was not a shabby facility--in fact, it is reputedly one of the best in the area where I live. However, I can describe it in one word–awful. Currently, the Medicaid allowance for care of elderly persons who cannot afford to pay out of their own pocket is about $6.  That’s not even minimum wage. I submit to you that adequate care for the elderly cannot be accomplished at such a low rate. 

My idea for curing this is to require each member of the Legislature–House and Senate–to spend one week in a nursing home. I promise you that would fix the problem.

I suppose I’m living in reverse in conjuring up innovative ideas the same as I did when I was very young. At least it gives me something to dream about in my old age.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Limping into the 21st century...

Everyone knows it would be difficult, if not impossible, to win a Nascar race in a horse and buggy. Unfortunately, many of our leadership in Texas think it’s worth a try.

We operate under a constitution designed in the 1870's. Most of the legislators back then traveled from broadly diverse parts of Texas as far as El Paso by horseback or horse and buggy. There were no telephones, televisions, or twitter and very few paved roads. Our outmoded constitution requires that legislators work virtually for free ($600 a month). They are expected to write a budget in 140 days which will accommodate the needs of our state for two full years. 

In the 1870's our budget was a small fraction of what it is now, and federal funds stemming from Washington, D.C. were unheard of as a part of our state’s budget.

While no business would try to run its financial affairs by budgeting two years at a time, Texas tries. Without adequate opportunity to make adjustments, changes or accommodate special needs,  we are in constant crisis mode. The only bill which must be passed in order for the state to continue to operate is the appropriations bill which, it seems, always comes late in the Session.

The appropriations bill must be passed by both houses and signed by the governor--and additionally must be certified by our state comptroller, Glenn Hager--as being within the boundaries of expected revenue to come in the coming two fiscal years. This year, Hager's estimate is higher than usual but is not being used wisely.

Recently, our state comptroller issued a cautionary note to the Legislature pointing out that--in this era of searching for $4.5 billion dollars worth of tax cuts--our future could be imperiled by lack of attention to several things. Among those items he listed were a retirement fund for teachers, a state employee pension system, health care, and transportation. Unmentioned were critical issues involving water, declining state facilities which are in bad need of repair, and our public education funding. While Hager was, in my opinion, doing his duty with this warning, he failed to have the courage to tell our leadership that these serious issues should be handled before we start giving back tax money. 

One Legislative quirk has to do with why the spending bill always sits until near the end of the Session before it achieves passage. First, all those who do the appropriations want to make sure they have every penny available to design their spending plan. The other motive is somewhat ulterior in that there is a rule in both the House and Senate prohibiting the passage of any measure which calls for expenditure of state dollars until after the appropriations bill has been passed. This leaves a lot of dead bills on the junk pile at the end of the Session. Another quirk about the Legislature is it seems no Session passes without some controversy between the House and the Senate about who is killing whose bills. This also causes many measures, some good, some bad, to remain un-passed.

The reason I say it is difficult to win a serious race in a horse and buggy in modern times is that, only meeting every other year, plus limiting the days and refusing to address a budget every year, makes it difficult for the Texas Legislature to take into consideration declining or new needs of the state, new sources of revenue, and a sensible budget that fits the time. 

Another false hope is that the State of Texas can operate on a tax system created 50 or more years in the past. The old mantra of no new taxes or giving tax breaks every session causes fear among politicians about even discussing taxes. Lack of discussion means lack of consideration. Therefore, I fear our state will limp into the twenty-first century with a system of taxes that is not only unfair but is also not up to the task of making Texas a modern, forward-thrusting engine for economic prosperity.