The GOP gets personal

Posted in 83rd Legislature, Around The State, Had Enough Yet?, Special Session at 4:38 pm by wcnews

Perry and the wing nuts look like they’re coming unhinged.  That’s what happens when an enetitled group, that has been allowed to roam free for years, is finally having to deal with a competent and successful opposition, Sen. Davis: ‘Rick Perry’s statement is without dignity’.

Davis later responded to Perry’s comments.

“Rick Perry’s statement is without dignity and tarnishes the high office he holds,” she said. “They are small words that reflect a dark and negative point of view. Our governor should reflect our Texas values. Sadly, Gov. Perry fails that test.”

Even Republicans are realizing that it’s OK to call them our for their shameful rantings, Straus: Perry Crossed Line on Davis Comments.

“Disagreements over policy are important and they’re healthy, but when he crosses the line into the personal, then he damages himself and he damages the Republican Party,” Straus said.

Perry’s beeen making oops-worthy statements for a couple of years now.

Dewhurst must really be feeling the heat after his weak showing.  He’s taken to threatening to arrest members of the capitol press corps, Lt Gov David Dewhurst decides against arresting Texas media.

The problem for the GOP is that they are trying to hide their real intentions, (shutting down access to legal abortion), behind protecting women’s health.  Which is a solution in search of a problem.  It’s similar to voter ID, where they tried to hide their true intenion, (disinfranchising likely Democratic voters), behind  the non-existant problem of voter fraud.  They’re following a pattern.

They feel they need to hide their true intentions becauste while many people may believe abortion is wrong, they also know that making it too difficult to get a safe legal abortion may force women to take drastic measures.

State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) made the rounds of the Sunday shows today.  My favorite comment was the one asked by David Gregory on Meet The Press when he asked if she’s just delaying the inevitable.  She responded by saying, “I don’t thinks it’s every acceptable to concede the argument on incredilby important issues like this”.  And that’s the point even if this fight is lost, fighting for it is likley to bring those who have been sitting out into this and future fights.

The longer this fight goes on the better it is for the Democrats and worse it gets for the GOP.  The 2nd special session starts tomorrow.  Or as Kuff says, Time to lace up your Mizunos and head back to the Capitol.

Further Reading:
Filibuster Drama Shows Side of Texas Rarely Seen.
Wendy Davis says Rick Perry talks small government but likes big government when to his political advantage.


It’s getting hot in here

Posted in Around The Nation, Around The State, Had Enough Yet? at 3:56 pm by wcnews

Scotus had a big week:

Fisher v. University of Texas – in plain English.

Shelby County v. Holder, the end of preclearance in the Voting Rights Act – in plain English.

United States v. Windsor, aka the end of DOMA – in plain English.

There was huge political goings-on in Texas:

The rise of Wendy Davis – What the future may hold for Wendy Davis.

The end of David Dewhurst’s political career – For Dewhurst, a Critical Failure With a Large Audience.

Another oops by Rick Perry – Perry v. Davis. Round 1.

Texas Rush wants to move up – Patrick is in for Lite Gov.

The President gave a speech on climate change – Seeking More Presidential Action, Less Rhetoric, on Warming.

It’s been a huge news week.  Three historic (not all in a good way), SCOTUS decisions. (This one was under the radar, A Legal Blow to Sustainable Development).

It’s hard to say anything new about what went on in the Texas Senate on Tuesday into Wednesday morning.  Democrats in Texas certainly hope this is a seminal moment in Texas politics.  But I hope every Texan knows now that the GOP in Texas can no longer be moderated.  They will do everything they say.  People in this state can no longer blow off voting and believe the GOP won’t go forward with it’s extreme agenda.  And if Texans have finally awakened to the seriousness of the Texas GOP’s extremism, then so be it, better late then never.  But the only way to end the extremism is to vote the extremists out.

I would like nothing more then to see Wendy Davis make a run for Texas Governor.  Democrats need to take a chance, with a quality candidate sooner, rather then later, to see where they really stand.  If she will have the ability to fundraise nationally, and even internationally, and have a movement of the people behind her there’s no telling what might happen.  Not to mention the havoc a new electorate could wreak on Republicans up and down the ballot in Texas in 2014.  But without a movement and financial support there is no chance.

Rick Perry showing himself as an idiot and Dewhurst looking weak are just par for the Texas political course.  But a right wing crazy like Texas Rush trying to take advantage of that weakness shouldn’t shock anyone or, as Kuff says (see above), scare anyone anymore.  Especially after the idiocy of Jody Laubenberg.  But it can still get worse if the people don’t act.

As the Summer weather heated up this week so did the news.


A sad day in the United States

Posted in Around The Nation, Around The State, Elections, Had Enough Yet? at 5:15 pm by wcnews

While Chief Justice John Roberts is right that “our country has changed”, the South hasn’t. As the recent NYT article shows. Here’s the last paragraph of Roberts opinion, via TPM, Supreme Court Guts The Voting Rights Act.

“Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in §2. We issue no holding on §5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “Such a formula is an initial prerequisite to a determination that exceptional conditions still exist justifying such an ‘extraordinary departure from the traditional course of relations between the States and the Federal Government.’ … Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

The dissent was bitter, Justice Ginsburg Slams Supreme Court’s ‘Hubris’ In Fiery Dissent On Voting Rights Act.

“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” she wrote. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ance is no longer needed. … With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.”

One irony is that the reason the changes have occurred in voting is only because of the VRA and preclearance. Without it voting will become much harder for many until we finally make voting a right in the United States of America.Please sign the petition to join Daily Kos, Color of Change, and a growing movement to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing and protecting the freedom to vote for all.

The state of Texas has wasted no time in moving it’s voter disenfranchisement plan forward, Photo ID now required for voting in Texas.

Further Reading:
Brains and Eggs, John Roberts: “Our country has changed”.
TXRedistricting, Supreme Court strikes down section 5 coverage formula – the impact for Texas.


Our political system must change

Posted in Around The Nation, Had Enough Yet?, Money In Politics at 2:19 pm by wcnews

It’s not the people we elect but the political system they’re are elected into that is our problem. And until that’s fixed the problems of the American people cannot and will not be fixed. That’s the takeaway fromthis must watch video or Lawrence Lessig on Bill Moyers & Company this week.

One of the best parts is when he describes his plan for what he calls a “money bomb“:

BILL MOYERS: You have been putting forward a great big idea that you think might make a significant difference in this and radically change the system. It’s called the money bomb.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: It, yeah, well, right, the money bomb is a mechanism for creating the political power that we need to force this change. The change is not such a huge change relative to what other states, even what New York is thinking about right now, just changing the way you fund elections. But the money bomb is let’s figure out how much it would cost in the next two election cycles to win enough seats in the United States Congress to guarantee we get this change.

You know, I don’t know what that number is, but we’re hiring a group to calculate that number let’s say it’s a half a billion dollars. So then let’s go around to 50 billionaires and say to them, “Okay, we want you to write, we want you to promise in Kickstarter-like way, that if we find 49 other people to write a check for that number over 50, you will write a check for that same amount.”

So whether it’s a $10 million check or a $50 million check, I don’t know what the number is going be, but commit to us that you do that. So that by the end of this we’ve got a super PAC with the power to end all super PACs.

It would be for the purpose of electing representatives and a president committed to, we’d identify the package of reform they’ve got to promise. So you go into a district and you say, “Okay fine if this congressperson is not committed to that, we’re going to take that congressperson off, take that congressperson–”

BILL MOYERS: You’re going to punish him for not supporting reform?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Right. Now, of course, you had Jonathan Soros on your show and Jonathan Soros gave us the pilot that demonstrated how powerful this idea could be. Soros ran a little super PAC called Friends of Democracy. They targeted eight seats. They spent about $2.5 million, not a lot of money, and seven of those eight seats flipped in the way they wanted it to flip.

They made money in politics the issue and in seven of those eight seats people came out and said, “Fine, that’s right. This guy is corrupt in our view and we’re going totake him out.” Now, if you in 2014 went from eight seats to 80 seats and you won even 50 of those 80 seats on the basis of money in the politics so if you had $50 million in 2014 and you won 50 of those seats, that would terrify the United States Congress.

So when you came back in 2016 there would be a lot of people who would all of a sudden magically have become reformers in this fight and we would have a real chance to get a Congress committed to in 2017 their very first bill being the bill to enact the change that gives us a reason once again to have confidence in the system. Now, it’s a huge fight.

And the reason that money bomb has gotta be so big is that the closer we get and the closer that K Street realizes that we might actually have a chance of winning, they’re going to create all sorts of pushback. Because if we win lobbyists don’t go away. We need lobbyists. Lobbyists are an important part of our system. But the value of lobbying services gets cut in half, right, because they are no longer the fundraiser-lobbyist. They are just somebody, a policy wonk giving a good idea about what they want. So you know, as John Edwards used to say when we used to quote John Edwards, there’s all the difference in the world –

BILL MOYERS: The former John Edwards.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: –yeah. There’s all the difference in the world between a lawyer making an argument to a jury and a lawyer handing out $100 bills to the jurors. And our lobbying system doesn’t understand that difference.

Lessig’s plan cannot succeed without an involved populace and politicians that are accountable to the people and not just the wealthy and corporations like we have now. We’ve all let our democratic muscles atrophy, it’s long past time we started working them our again. This is a great place to start. More at Rootstrikers, Three easy asks.


It’s messy and needs to get messier

Posted in Around The Nation, Had Enough Yet? at 3:57 pm by wcnews

The American people and their branch of government are the only ones that can force this to change.  No single person and no single party.  But the people working together.  And I don’t know if our country can act in that manner anymore.

Here’s an excerpt from Glenn Greenald on Democracy Now today.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, on Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein told reporters in the Senate gallery that the government’s top-secret court order to obtain phone records on millions of Americans is, quote, “lawful.”

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the FISA court under the business records section of the PATRIOT Act, therefore it is lawful.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Dianne Feinstein. Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, the fact that something is lawful doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous or tyrannical or wrong. You can enact laws that endorse tyrannical behavior. And there’s no question, if you look at what the government has done, from the PATRIOT Act, the Protect America Act, the Military Commissions Act and the FISA Amendments Act, that’s exactly what the war on terror has been about.

But I would just defer to two senators who are her colleagues, who are named Ron Wyden and Mark Udall. They have—are good Democrats. They have spent two years now running around trying to get people to listen to them as they’ve been saying, “Look, what the Obama administration is doing in interpreting the PATRIOT Act is so radical and so distorted and warped that Americans will be stunned to learn” — that’s their words — “what is being done in the name of these legal theories, these secret legal theories, in terms of the powers the Obama administration has claimed for itself in how it can spy on Americans.”

When the PATRIOT Act was enacted—and you can go back and look at the debates, as I’ve done this week—nobody thought, even opponents of the PATRIOT Act, that it would ever be used to enable the government to gather up everybody’s telephone records and communication records without regard to whether they’ve done anything wrong. The idea of the PATRIOT Act was that when the government suspects somebody of being involved in terrorism or serious crimes, the standard of proof is lowered for them to be able to get these documents. But the idea that the PATRIOT Act enables bulk collection, mass collection of the records of hundreds of millions of Americans, so that the government can store that and know what it is that we’re doing at all times, even when there’s no reason to believe that we’ve done anything wrong, that is ludicrous, and Democratic senators are the ones saying that it has nothing to do with that law. [Emphasis added]

The PATRIOT Act has become the the definition of a “slipper slope“.

The problems with this are many.  And the only way this will stop is if the people of America demand it stops.  Unfortunately our elected leaders and the corporations that bankroll them know that too, and they’re going to work hard to make sure that the people don’t come together and demand this stops.

As John Nichols reminds us it is up to Congress to change this.

Some senators think that’s acceptable. Indeed, Senator Lindsay Graham, R-SC, has declared himself “glad” that the National Security Agency is obtaining the phone records of millions of Verizon customers. And key Democrats, such as Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, have adopted a “what’s-the-big-deal?” stance that says the spying is old news that senators should have been aware of.

But many of the sharpest and most engaged members of the chamber are rejecting that assessment. Among those stepping up today were Democrats and Republicans who have histories of expressing concern about abuses of privacy rights. In the House, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, Jr., and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, Virginia Democrat Robert C. “Bobby” Scott moved fast to declare: “The recent revelation that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has approved the blanket and ongoing collection of telephone records — including those of everyday Americans with absolutely no ties to terrorism — is highly problematic and reveals serious flaws in the scope and application of the USA PATRIOT Act. We believe this type of program is far too broad and is inconsistent with our Nation’s founding principles. We cannot defeat terrorism by compromising our commitment to our civil rights and liberties.”


With the latest revelation, Congress has an opportunity to do what [Russ] Feingold begged the House and especially the Senate to do from 2001 on: provide meaningful oversight and real checks and balances on surveillance initiatives that are clearly at odds with a Fourth Amendment protection that says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

Feingold warned us five years ago that Congress, through its inaction and its explicit authorizations of unchecked surveillance in the Patriot Act and rewrites of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, ushered in “one of the greatest intrusions, potentially, on the rights of Americans protected under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution in the history of our country.”

Ideally, the pair of former senators who once expressed deep concerns about abuses of privacy rights and now serve as president and vice president would take the lead in addressing abuses.

But it is an understanding that the executive branch rarely surrenders authority that had been ceded to it that led the founders to separate the powers of the federal government. They wanted to assure that, when the executive branch did not act properly, the legislative branch could step up.

It is time for Congress to recognize that Feingold was right in his warning. The potential for for intrusions on the rights of Americans protected under the Fourth Amendment has been realized.

And it must be addressed by a Congress that understands and embraces its role as a defender of the Constitution to which every member swears an oath.

Further Reading:
Rick Perlstein adds his perspective, The NSA Doppleganger.
What You Should Know About the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
Obama Says No One Is Listening To Your Phone Calls. ‘Trust Me!’.
Trust the professionals. They’ll strike the right balance.
ProPublica has this, Mass Surveillance in America: A Timeline of Loosening Laws and Practices.


An editorial that makes no sense

Posted in 83rd Legislature, Around The State, Had Enough Yet?, The Budget, The Lege at 10:31 am by wcnews

This is a ludicrous editorial, Texas Dems hold water money hostage for school funding. Let me get this straight, we’re supposed to believe that the Democrats – who are in the minority in both houses and hold no statewide office – are responsible for holding up the water bill? I call BS.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, and I have a simmering disagreement over the House’s failure to finance a 50-year water plan. Burnam and other Democrats say they won’t give up water funding until they get school funding in trade.


The money for water infrastructure and more is available in the state’s almost $12 billion rainy-day fund. The idea is to put that much in a revolving fund to help entities across the state sell bonds for water projects. Burnam and others are blocking the way.

“House Democrats believe Texas should first restore the $5.4 billion cut from public education before spending money from the Rainy Day Fund for other issues,” Burnam and Rep. Chris Turner wrote in a letter to the editor published last week. “And since a drawdown from the Rainy Day Fund requires the support of two-thirds of the House, the minority party has more leverage than usual — and we intend to use that leverage to help our schoolchildren.”

I say the Dems are wrong. I don’t blame them for their tactics, but it’s not smart to use rainy-day fund money to pay for ongoing operation of schools.

Rainy-day money should be used either in a crisis or in one-time allocations to pay for things that won’t have to be paid for over and over again. If it’s used to help restore the $5.4 billion cut from schools two years ago, that same hole will have to be filled again when the Legislature meets in 2015, and again in 2017, and again in 2019, and so forth.

Burnam and others have told me it’s worth the risk that they’ll be able to come back in two years and find more stable funding. I don’t buy that.

Texas has the money this year to adequately and properly fund schools. If lawmakers choose not to do that, or if their definition of adequate funding differs from what educators or others might say, that’s their responsibility.

But it shouldn’t come from the rainy-day fund, and it shouldn’t block passage of the proposed one-time funding for water infrastructure.

So the Democrats want a deal to vote for the using the RDF to pay for water. Which begs the question, why does the GOP need the Democrats at all?  Well, it’s because too many of their members don’t want to spend any money from the RDF, and their earlier scheme to fund water out of GR (General Revenue) failed.  Here’s the answer, if the entire GOP caucus in the House (95 members) was for using $2 billion from the RDF to fund water, it’s entirely likely they could peel of 5 – 10 Democrats and get it passed. But the GOP is so far away from that getting all 95 R’s that they need many more Democrats then that.

And in politics, often times, to get someone to get to yes there needs to be compromise. So it’s looks totally “parisan hackish” to blame the powerless minority, when the powerful majority can’t even keep itself in check. Why is it that the Democrats are to blame and the ones that have to compromise their principals to pass Republican legislation? It makes no sense.

The blame for this lies directly with the tea party representatives, aka Perry and the wing nuts, and the voters that elected them.  They are the hostage takers. Again, we have $12 billion in reserves, even with another bad budget estimate from the Comptroller, and huge needs for water, transportation, public transportation, and health care.  And we’re being lead to believe that the best thing for our state is to leave that money alone, continue to neglect our priorities, and continue in the same downward spiral.  Again I call BS.


The wrath from the tea party

Posted in 83rd Legislature, Around The State, Had Enough Yet?, The Lege, Transportation at 1:08 pm by wcnews

Why can’t we have funding for transportation in Texas?  Or public education?  Or health care and Medicaid expansion?  Or higher education?  Or water?  Or the many other things that we need in this state?  The DMN’s Transportation Blog sums it up pretty well.

Transportation lobbyists say they have been counting votes on the bill and believe they have enough commitments of support. At the same time, there is the possibility that some of these “supporters” are privately telling Speaker Joe Straus that they don’t want to have to vote on a fee increase and would be grateful if the bill died in Calendars.

For the tea party, a fee increase is no different than a tax increase, and supporting one could be political suicide for some GOP members.

Many Republicans fear the wrath from the tea party right more than they value support from the business community, and Texas business has been nothing if not foursquare behind better funding of roads. Let the transportation system crumble under the stampede of new Texans, and the Texas miracle evaporates. [Emphasis added]

Yes the scorecard rules their world.


They could if they wanted to, but they don’t

Posted in 83rd Legislature, Around The State, Had Enough Yet?, The Budget at 10:39 am by wcnews

It can be difficult sometimes to figure out what’s really going on with The Lege.  But I think this paragraph from this article, House determined to fund water plan, floating a hybrid possibility, sums it up pretty well.

To bring some conservative holdouts on board, the rest of the money in a hybrid plan could come from general revenue dollars. That would mean less money for universities, public education and nursing homes, among other things, that rely, in part, on general revenue money. Using that money could assuage enough freshmen conservatives, who oppose using rainy day fund money — or just about any other increase in spending. Still, any proposal using general revenue dollars could be a nonstarter for Democrats, depending on how unified they remain. [Emphasis added]

There it is folks, that’s the GOP’s goal in Texas. Why, when we have plenty of money in our state to pay for all of these things, would our elected leaders be hoarding money, and unwilling to pay for them?  Because they believe that those things above are unworthy of support.  It’s why they’re leaving $100 billion in Medicaid money on the table.  They have health care and can’t understand the suffering of those who don’t.

I’ve read Speaker Joe Straus’ snark, whatever it means, but it means little to those in Texas that continue to suffer and struggle while the Rainy Day Fund just keeps getting bigger.  But why this is going on is not complicated.  They’re spinning and contorting themselves in all these different directions in an attempt to show that they had no other choice. When in reality they could pay for those things, if they wanted. But they have made a choice to do whatever they can to defund those things.  And they’d like to believe that those who will suffer because of this decision only have themselves to blame.

These people believe that’s just the way life is. The only way to get decent medical care and fully protect yourself from financial calamity is to get rich. Really rich. It’s the catch-all answer for everything that ails you. Anyone who doesn’t has only herself to blame.

They govern by ideology. Perry has much more, “We weren’t sent (to Austin) to govern like California”.


More on Texas’ lax regulations – payday lending

Posted in Around The State, Had Enough Yet?, Money In Politics, The Lege at 11:23 am by wcnews

What has become clear regarding passage of any payday lending regulation this session, is that what can pass is what the industry will allow The Lege to pass.  It’s pretty easy to see why when looking at all the money the industry has spread around, Payday-Funded Pols Push Tepid Loan Reforms.

Advocates trying to reform Texas’ runaway predatory lenders have been hamstrung by the awkward degree to which this industry finances political campaigns.

Loan sharks have invested almost $4 million in Texas’ past two elections. Public officials recently doubled their industry indebtedness, jumping from $1.1 million in 2008 to $2.3 million in 2012. During that period, out-of-state predatory lenders ramped up their share of the industry’s Texas campaign expenditures to 27percent.

The bill that made it through the Senate yesterday was amended to protect consumers too well, it would seem, Amended Payday Lending Bill Passes Senate.

The Texas Senate approved a bill to regulate short-term lenders on Monday night, a milestone some thought the chamber wouldn’t reach after a personal and divisive floor fight on Thursday.

But with the measure’s author, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, calling the highly altered bill an “ugly baby,” it remains to be seen whether the measure is viable enough to get through the House.

The bill passed with versions of the six amendments Carona brought with him to the floor last week, but seven other amendments got tacked onto the bill, including one from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, that would bring payday lenders back under the control of existing small-loan regulations.

That provision is similar to one in a bill state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, introduced, which was lauded by consumer advocates but has long been seen as politically troublesome.

Carona’s point seems to be that it’s better to get something, because soon the payday lenders will own The Lege completely.

If lawmakers are forced to wait to address the issue until next session, “this industry will be so much wealthier, so much more politically powerful that you won’t be able to say no,” he said. “You won’t be able to hold the line.”

Apparently a bill that protects the consuemer faces long odds in the Texas House.

But [Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth] said that the lending industry, which has spent millions of dollars in political contributions and lobbying expenses on the issue, will likely ratchet up the pressure as the debate shifts to the House.

“They’re going over to the House and try to kill it,” she said. Davis told senators there are 3,500 payday and auto title storefronts in Texas, more than the number of “Whataburgers and McDonalds combined.”

Critics have accused lenders of subjecting consumers to steep interest and fees forcing them into continued debt. Industry officials say lenders are performing a valuable service to borrowers in need of cash, including the elderly and the working poor, but have said they welcome reasonable legislation to provide a “safety net” for those who chronically fall behind in repaying their loans.

Carona has said his bill is designed to break the cycle of debt for consumers who are forced to pay steep fees of or recurring loans. Under the bill, multiple-payment payday loans and auto title loans may not extend beyond 180 days and cannot be refinanced.

It would require a limited number of extensions of credit and a “cooling-off” period in which the borrower has to be without debt to any of the lenders.

It would be great if our elected leaders would actually pass a payday lending bill that is best for the people of Texas and not their campaign accounts.

Further Reading:
Payday lenders: Legislature offers insufficient reform.
More from TPJ on payday lending lobbying, 12 Republicans Flip From Legislature to the Lobby.


Wage theft in Texas

Posted in Around The State, Had Enough Yet? at 9:44 am by wcnews

NPR did a two-part series on wage theft in Texas.

From part one, Construction Booming In Texas, But Many Workers Pay Dearly.

Widespread Wage Theft

The economic collapse of 2008 brought with it an onslaught of wage theft, according to the Austin-based Workers Defense Project. At the end of the week, construction workers sometimes walk away with $4 or $5 an hour, sometimes less, sometimes nothing.

“Ninety percent of the people who come to our organization have come because they’ve been robbed of their wages,” says Cristina Tzintzun, the Workers Defense Project executive director.

The organization has co-authored a report with the University of Texas, Austin, that examines working conditions in the Texas construction industry. For more than a year, WDP staff and University of Texas faculty canvassed Texas construction sites, surveying hundreds of workers and gathering information about pay, benefits, working conditions and employment and residency status.

Cheated workers keep working, Tzintzun says, because contractors dangle wages like bait from one week to another, paying just enough to keep everybody on the hook.

Two workers died when a crane collapsed under windy conditions at a University of Texas, Dallas, campus site in July 2012. OSHA cited the construction company with six serious safety violations and levied a $30,000 penalty.

Jack White/Courtesy of The Dallas Morning News

“We’re talking large commercial projects, even state and county projects,” she says. “So it’s a problem that’s widespread in the industry.”

If wage theft is a nasty cousin of slavery, Tzintzun says there’s a deeper, more fundamental sickness affecting the Texas construction industry: the misclassification of construction workers as independent contractors instead of as employees.

“We found that 41 percent of construction workers, regardless of immigration status, were misclassified as subcontractors,” she says.

It works like this: Pretend you’re an interior contractor, drop by the Home Depot parking lot and pick up four Hispanic guys to install Sheetrock for $8 an hour.

By law, these men are your employees, even if just for the day. But in Texas, as in many other states, it’s popular to pretend they’re each independent contractors — business owners. Which means you are not paying for their labor but for their business services.

With this arrangement, the contractor — you — don’t have to pay Social Security taxes or payroll taxes or workers’ compensation or overtime. Instead, you pretend the undocumented Hispanic worker you’ve just paid in cash is going to pay all those state and federal taxes out of his $8 an hour himself.

“Our estimation is that there’s $1.6 billion being lost in federal income taxes just from Texas alone,” says the Workers Defense Project’s Tzintzun. The report estimates that $7 billion in wages from nearly 400,000 illegally classified construction workers is going unreported in Texas each year, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue lost owing to institutionalized statewide payroll fraud.

“It’s really the Wild West out there,” Tzintzun says.

And part two looked at it from the business owners side. One who follows the rules and one who doesn’t, Texas Contractors Say Playing By The Rules Doesn’t Pay.

Homes in Texas are cheap — at least compared with much of the country. You can buy a brand new, five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house near Fort Worth for just $160,000.

But that affordability comes at a price — to workers, many of whom are in the country illegally and make $12 an hour or less, but also to business owners.

Let’s say you own a big Texas construction firm, and you want to run your business the right way. You try your darndest to hire only legal workers and pay them a decent salary plus benefits.

Most importantly you pay all your taxes, Social Security, unemployment — everything you’re supposed to — just like a normal company in other industries.

So, how’s that working out?

“There’s no way you can compete,” says Stan Marek, CEO of the Marek Family of Companies, one of the largest commercial interior contractors in Texas. They’ve been in business 75 years, but Marek says the past four have been extremely difficult.

“When someone is paying less per hour, no workman’s comp, no payroll taxes, [no] unemployment — we can’t overcome that,” he says.


Undocumented Laborers, Working For Cash

There are certainly no Texas high school graduates building a retaining wall in Dallas’ upscale Highland Park neighborhood on a recent day. Well, unless you count Trent, the owner of a landscape construction company. Trent, who asked that NPR not use his last name because the IRS might take an interest in his business, designs and builds landscapes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“I don’t pay anyone by the hour. In fact, I treat the guys that work on my crew as subcontractors — they are self-employed,” he says.

This is a key distinction. If Trent were to classify his workers as employees, he’d have to pay taxes, Social Security, unemployment and overtime. But by saying his workers are actually independent contractors — in essence, business owners — he’s off the hook.

Trent says his workers have been working with him for years. He has between four and seven laborers per day on most projects. And he knows most of them don’t have papers. “I would say 10 percent are documented,” he says.

Trent pays his workers a fixed amount per project, in cash. If the job takes a little longer than expected, nobody asks for more money. On average, each worker makes $70 a day, more if they’re skilled.

Trent says he doesn’t know if any of his guys are paying taxes. “That’s their business,” he says. “If I were to speculate, I would probably say they are not paying their Social Security [taxes]. I would also say that they’re probably not filing their income tax returns on a regular basis.”

An Underground Economy

The University of Texas and Workers Defense Project study estimates that $7 billion in wages go unreported from nearly 400,000 illegally classified Texas construction workers each year. It’s evolved into a massive underground economy, the report says, that cheats the state and federal government of billions of dollars in taxes and revenue each year.

Trent says he’d be happy to classify his workers as employees and pay the government all it’s owed as long as his competition does the same. But the reality is that Trent often finds he’s underbid on landscape projects, even though he’s paying his undocumented workers $70 a day.

“The fact of the matter is that the people that I’m competing against have the same large pool of undocumented workers to use on their crews,” he says.

Trent says blaming him for the nation’s immigration problem is like blaming an Army corporal because a war was lost. He says he didn’t make this competitive playing field or the Texas or Mexican economies. He’s one 40-year-old man in landscape construction, he says, doing the best he can.

“If there wasn’t such a readily available supply of laborers that are looking for work in my exact line of business, then I would say I am doing wrong and that I should play by the rules,” Trent says. “I don’t feel as though I’m doing anything wrong.”

Trent says this is now the way the construction business is done in Texas, and that nobody seriously worries about enforcement. There aren’t enough IRS agents in the world to make a dent.

The cheaters are winning, driving wages down for everyone else, and our elected leaders stand by and do nothing.

« Previous Page� Previous entries « Previous Page · Next Page » Next entries �Next Page »