Yesterday’s first Texas Transportation Commission meeting with Gov. Perry’s new hire, Deirdre Delisi, at the helm doesn’t appear to have changed much of anything. There are some signs though of how those opposed to the Trans-Texas Corridor and corporate/for profit toll roads, have effected this debate. Although nothing really new or earth shattering happened yesterday, TxDOT has finally acknowledged some of its problems by addressing certain issues. The issues of foreign ownership, “non compete” clauses, and property rights which have been some of their obstacles. They acknowledged but did not alter much.
But yesterday’s meeting also shows there’s still a long way to go. At the meeting TxDOT basically adopted what the legislature did last session. More than likely that’s just a nod to some in the legislature (DMN) from Delisi, giving legislators enough political cover to vote for her confirmation in January.
The set of guiding principles, as TxDOT called the minute order approved at its Thursday commission meeting, deals with some of the most controversial aspects of private toll road contracts, but in many cases reflects limits already imposed by the Legislature.
No deal will give private companies, for instance, the right to own a road they build, nor will any private firm have the right to set toll rates, the minute order says. Those rates will continue to be set by TxDOT and local planning entities like the North Central Texas Council of Governments’ Regional Transportation Council.
Here are the specifics from TxDOT:
The Commission reaffirmed its commitment to meet or exceed the requirements of state law on five key issues:
- All state highway facilities, including the Trans-Texas Corridor, will be completely owned by the State of Texas at all times.
- All Comprehensive Development Agreements will include provisions that allow TxDOT to purchase or “buy back” the interest of a private developer in a CDA at any time if buying back the project would be in the best financial interest of the state.
- The Texas Transportation Commission shall approve, in a public meeting, the initial toll rates charged for the use of a toll project on the state highway system and the methodology for increasing the amount of tolls. All rate-setting actions will come after consultation with appropriate local metropolitan planning organizations.
- Only new lanes added to an existing highway will be tolled, and there will be no reduction in the number of non-tolled lanes that exist today.
- Comprehensive development agreements will not include “non-compete” clauses that would prohibit improvements to existing roadways. The Department and any governmental entity can construct, reconstruct, expand, rehabilitate or maintain any roadway that is near or intersects with any roadway under the CDA.
In recognition of the Texas Legislature’s commitment to protecting landowners’ property rights and in following the department’s long-standing practice with other transportation projects, the commission affirmed two additional principles:
- TxDOT will always consider the use of existing right of way that satisfies the purpose and need of the project as a possible project location when conducting environmental studies.
- To the extent practical, TxDOT shall plan and design facilities so that a landowner’s property is not severed into two or more separate tracts and the original shape of the property is preserved.
It all sounds good, makes nice sound bites, and will probably bring about some good coverage from the traditional media. But in reality doesn’t change anything. Terri Hall and David Stall’s comments (HChron) on yesterdays meeting make clear how far there still is to go in this fight.
Opponents remained skeptical. Terri Hall, director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom said that if TxDOT expands or builds a competing road, the toll contractor could require compensation from taxpayers for any resulting loss in toll revenue.
David Stall, who operates the CorridorWatch.org with his wife, Linda, said the state had always intended to own the toll roads that it leased to private operators.
The new rules also call for only new lanes to be tolled, but Stall said that if TxDOT continues to rely on toll financing for new projects, it means “that they are not intending to expand existing free highways beyond the current expansion plans.”
Continuing to rely on tolls only to finance roads is unacceptable, and wasn’t addressed. There never was an “ownership” issue, it was about ceding the control of the toll roads for 50 plus years. And that still appears to be allowed. Regarding the issue of who sets toll rates it would be much better to have those directly elected by the people doing that. I’m not sure how comfortable any Texan is to have the toll rates being set by insulated unelected/appointed cronies of TxDOT or their local MPO/RMA. Especially in light of TxDOT’s recent financial management problems. And the “buy back” provision has holes in it too (DMN).
But Thursday’s minute order does little to truly bind TxDOT in its future dealings. For instance, the policy states that every private toll road contract will in the future contain a clause permitting the state to take over a toll road at any time, should it ever decide doing so was in the public interest. But it’s not the existence of such a term that matters most to critics of the department, because it will be the terms of the buyback that will determine whether it’s a good deal for taxpayers or not.
With all of this stuff the devil is in the details. The most publicized issue prior to this meeting was the ending of so-called “non competes” in CDA agreements.
Non-compete clauses for tollways would be a non-starter under a policy the Texas Transportation Commission will consider Thursday.
Such language in toll road contracts, which generally prohibit a toll road owner (such as the Texas Department of Transportation) from building or expanding a nearby free road, or require compensation for doing so, have been controversial in Texas and elsewhere. TxDOTâ€™s contract with Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish and American consortium that will build and operate a southern section of Texas 130, requires TxDOT to pay up if it makes certain highway improvements within 10 miles of the road.
While TxDOT did disallow “non compete” clauses that would stop construction and improvement of existing roads, there is not mention of disallowing compensation for lost revenue as Hall pointed out.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that yesterday’s meeting was not targeted at, and didn’t change anything, regarding the real transportation issues facing Texans. Texans were not the target audience. The message from yesterdays meeting was targeted directly at the legislature in an attempt by the new regime at TxDOT to show they’re willing to play nice, for now. Pay special attention to the legislators reactions to this, especially those that were critical of Delisi. Whether the target was hit or not well….we’ll have to wait until January.
They always say bad things come in threes. If the budget officer issue, and the WCRAS weren’t enough to swear off our current county government then hopefully this latest wrinkle in the landfill saga will do the trick. From today’s AAS, Williamson County’s landfill could start taking Killeen’s waste:
The amount of waste coming into Williamson County’s controversial landfill could increase dramatically under an proposed agreement between the City of Killeen and the landfill’s operator, Waste Management of Texas.
The Killeen City Council gave the go-ahead Tuesday for the city to negotiate a contract with Waste Management to send the roughly 100,000 tons of waste that Killeen produces each year to Williamson County’s landfill. Last year, the landfill took in 250,000 tons of waste from Williamson County, parts of Travis County and Salado, said Don Smith, Waste Management’s Central Texas general manager.
The proposed contract has drawn criticism from some residents near the landfill just north of Hutto, and has underscored what some county officials say is one of their major concerns: that the county has no control over how much waste goes into the landfill and where it comes from.
The proposed contract with Killeen also has expanded concerns that the site will become a regional landfill.
Take special notice in the above excerpt that Williamson County had absolutely no say in this trash from outside the county coming into the county. That’s what the Hutto Citizens Group (HCG) have been saying all along about who really controls our county landfill, the corporation Waste Management, Inc. (WMI).Â They’ve also been warning about the regionalization, (accepting trash from outside the county), of the landfill. The way Killeen went about securing this contract is certainly ironic:
Killeen’s waste is currently transported 62 miles to a landfill southeast of Austin that is operated by Allied Waste Services Inc. With that contract to expire in October, Killeen put its waste contract up for bid and city officials said Waste Management submitted the lowest bid. If a contract is signed, Killeen’s waste will have a shorter trip to the landfill, roughly 43 miles to the Williamson County site.
The lawsuit still pending regarding the current landfill contract, between the county andÂ WMI, is about whether it’s valid because it wasn’t put out for bid. See the irony? But what do our elected officials have to say about this?
“I’d ask (Waste Management) not to do it, but that’d be about as far as it would go because if I’m correct … they can do what they want to,” Williamson County Commissioner Ron Morrison said of the agreement.
That’s pathetic! As usual the Hutto Citizens Group is all over this. Here are a few excerpts from their statement [.pdf] on this latest development:
On Tuesday night, May 27, the City of Killeen’s council voted to proceed with negotiating a contract with Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) to deposit Killeen’s solid waste (100,000 tons per year) in the Williamson County landfill beginning in October of this year. Killeen began its discussion with WMI and other waste disposal companies several months ago. At the very least, WMI knew on May 8 (the date of the Hutto city council’s workshop with Gattis and Morrison) that it was actively pursuing the Killeen contract and that it was likely that the Killeen waste would be coming to the Wilco landfill.
However, at that May 8 meeting, with WMI’s Steve Jacobs sitting next to Gattis and passing him notes, Gattis responded to a question asking about importing solid waste from outside Williamson County, increasing the volume. â€œI don’t think WMI would do that to you, because they (WMI) would negotiate, even though it’s not required,â€ Gattis said. It is unclear whether Gattis knew (at that point) about the Killeen contract, but at the very least, in our opinion, Jacobs apparently knew the Killeen contract was in the works, and Jacobs did nothing to correct Gattis’ apparent misstatement and his misplaced trust in what WMI might do.
This information about Killeen makes it clear that what the HCG has been saying for some time now is indeed true. Our fears about how citizens’ interests are left unprotected have been validated. If the Killeen case is any example, our worst fears about regionalization, landfill height, no recycling, and the county’s failure to be in control have come home to roost. The most disappointing feature of this episode is that at the May 8 Hutto city council workshop, while WMI’s deal with Killeen was being finalized, no one from WMI corrected the information that Gattis was providing, and what could even be worse, we don’t know at this point how much the county knew about it on May 8. And if county officials didn’t know, why were they unaware? Is the county’s relationship with WMI such that this basic, important information wouldn’t be disclosed. Why is it left up to citizens to discover these things on our own, rather than having the county and the county’s contractor be upfront about what is going on?
The two remaining questions about the Killeen matter are these: What is Williamson County going to do about it? What is the City of Hutto going to do about it?
From Precinct 4 Commissioner Morrison’s comment above it appears the county fully intends to take this laying down. Hutto, we’ll just have to wait and see. As the HCG says their worst fears have been realized. Our county landfill being run by a corporation, and all the county government and citizens can do is ask them to play nice. That’s not likely to happen. Again, accountability comes in November.
The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) recently wrapped up their almost year-long investigation into the helter-skelter beginnings at the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter (WCRAS). Here’s quick refresher.
The county commissioners decided they wanted a first-class animal shelter. They designed one and started a nation-wide search for a director. They then hired a well qualified director. But that’s about as far as they got. After many months of trying to get the shelter properly funded and staffed, with no help from the commissioners, shortly after the shelter opened the director resigned. That’s when the real problems started. The county hired a former commissioners niece as interim director, (she would later have serious personal legal troubles), and allegations of cruelty, neglect, and lawsuits followed. Also there were complaints from owners of their pets being euthanized while they waited. It took a while but eventually, and after a whole lot of trouble, the shelter appears to be running smooth. After hiring a new director and properly staffing and funding the facility – as the original director recommended.
That’s it in a nutshell, for more detail you can check out EOW’s coverage of the issue.Â The AAS this week had this article on the end of the investigation, Investigation completed after 10 months, (Be sure and read the comments).Â As is the case with any screw up in Williamson County these days it looks like no one will be held accountable for this, at least until November.
Those who were closely involved with this issue are saying the investigation wasn’t much of one, and the AAS article is full of holes. Here’s a response to the AAS story:
have read each page of the Williamson County Sheriffâ€™s Office â€œInvestigationâ€ Report. First of all, the report is poorly written with numerous grammatical errors and misspellings as well as failure to document dates and times with interviewees. Due to these issues it is difficult to follow the report. I was a Leander resident at the time, and am appalled at the lack of actual â€œinvestigatingâ€ that took place!
I hold a Masters degree in Criminal Justice and spent a few years working for a law enforcement agency in CA. It is obvious that a number of cover-ups occurred as well as just plain poor police work. Too bad for the residents of Williamson County and the homeless animals (once again)!
(Much more in the rest of this entry)
Read the rest of this entry �
Today the Texas Observer released a poll part of which is an attempt to determine if the March primary was the beginning of a realignment in Texas. The poll is also trying to answer some lingering questions from the results in March. From the press release:
The poll seeks to answer questions Texans have asked with increasing frequency this political season: Is there a political realignment in Texas? Are Republicans switching allegiance to the Democratic Party? Just who are these new primary voters and newly registered voters? And what will they do in November?
All very good questions. The poll results have Paul Burka reevaluating.
* 66% of the Democratic primary voters either had NO history of voting in previous Democratic primaries (going back to 2002) or had previously voted in at least one Republican primary.
* The breakdown of these two groups was:
â€“No Democratic primary history 55%
â€“Republican primary history 10.8%
* 9.4% of the Democratic primary voters indicated their intention to vote for John McCain for president.
* The dropoff after the presidential race was extreme. Downballot races received very little attention from these voters.
These numbers have caused me to reevaluate the significance of the Democratsâ€™ two-to-one advantage over Republicans in primary participation. If these voters had had a history of of voting in the Democratic primary, it would be reasonable to conclude that they were loyal Democrats. But 2/3 of the voters in the Democratic primary did not meet this description.
The question is, Can the Dâ€™s reap the benefit of this huge turnout in the U.S. Senate race and in local races for courthouse positions and for legislative and congressional races? Two-thirds of the primary voters showed little interest in these races. The problem for Democrats is twofold: First, can they raise the money to educate these voters about the downballot races? and, second, can the enthusiasm that new voters exhibited on March 4 be sustained over the eight months between the primary and the general election?
I suppose that a different spin could be applied to these numbers, but my reading is that the poll is bad news for Democrats.
It’s hard to understand why it’s news to Burka that so many people voted in the Democratic primary without a Democratic voting history. Taking into consideration recent low Democratic turnout in the primaries, and the results in downballot races from March. My “spin” is that Democrats in Texas should have already known this and if this is news to Texas Democrats, then that’s the bad news.
What struck me about these numbers, is that they’re doesn’t appear to be much new, or news, here. From looking over the primary results it was pretty obvious then that the Democrats now had an opportunity they hadn’t had in a while, along with a whole bunch of new voters identified that are willing to give the Democrats a look. And from what Burka and others are reporting so far I don’t think that’s changed. As EOW pointed out back then, and still sticks to it, the Democrats haven’t won anything yet. If the work isn’t done in the coming months and it’s just assumed that things have already changed then nothing will be won in November. BOR has some similar analysis their post on the TO poll:
These numbers show a need for us to limit undervotes in the general election. These percentages in conjunction with the 240% voter increase create staggering margins. All this good news means nothing without funding and volunteer efforts, there is a distinct possibility down ballot races will only see a fraction of the surge (that’s why we are organizing to take back the House).
We are within a breath of winning the House, three seats are up for grabs in the Texas Senate, Rick Noriega is closing in on John Cornyn, and Harris County could turn completely blue this cycle. Is that a realignment? Not sure. One thing is very clear, Texas is at least seeing the voting base dealign with the out of touch, conservative ideology of John Hagee, James Leininger, swift-boat Bob Perry, Tom Craddick, Rick Perry, and the rest of the Republican Party.
Now it is up to us to finance our candidates positive messages, and truly realign Texas.
Let us get to work.
County Judge Dan Gattis, Sr., is still the appointed county budget officer despite AG’s opinion stating the County Judge can’t be appointed to that position.
Our “conservative” leaders in Williamson County will continue to expand the size of government this year as well. From the AAS, Williamson County budget requests up from last year.
In recent weeks, department heads around the county have been making requests to commissioners, who are starting to figure out next year’s county budget.
So far, requests total nearly $123.8 million, up from the $107.1 million approved from the county’s general fund last year, said Ashlie Koenig, the county’s budget analyst. Those requests don’t include money for salary increases, something commissioners will decide on when they approve the budget later this summer.
Koenig said that in recent years the county has typically shaved off $10 million from the requested amount to get the county’s final budget.
“We go through every single line item … literally down to the types of chairs they’re requesting,” Koenig said. “If someone is asking for a $600 chair, we scale it back because, as a taxpayer, I can’t justify that, and I’m not going to buy a $600 chair for myself.”
There weren’t any quotes from the county budget officer in the article. Which brings us back to a question from earlier in the year, Who Should Be The County Budget Officer? Back then we found out that because of the commissioners choice to operate under Subchapter C rather than Subchapter B of Chapter 111, Texas Local Government Code (5-0 vote in favor on 2/20/2007), the Count Judge could no longer be appointed as the county budget officer. County Attorney Jana Duty even went so far as to ask for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s opinion on the matter. From the AG’s opinion:
..we conclude that a county that chooses to operate under subchapter C of chapter 11, Local Government Code, may not appoint its county judge to serve as its county budget officer.
Upon searching the county web site, under the Commissioners Court agenda and minutes, no evidence can be found that someone other than Judge Gattis is the budget officer. It was discussed at a meeting last month.Â From the agenda of the April 22, 2008 meeting, item #33.
Discuss and take possible action regarding appointment of County Budget Officer.
On Feb. 20th, 2007 the court voted to change the County budget preparation process and chose to operate under Subchapter C rather than Subchapter B of Chapter 111, Texas Local Government Code, and appointed the County Judge as County Budget Officer.
From the minutes of the April 22, 2008 (scroll down to #33) commissioners court meeting, a motion brought up to make current budget analyst Ashlie Koenig the county budget officer, but it was tabled. A further search of the minutes and agendas finds no further references to this topic. From this we can surmise that County Judge Dan Gattis is still the county budget officer which, in the AG’s opinion isn’t allowed.Â It’s unclear why the County Judge is still operating in this position which is clearly against the AG’s opinion.
Texas Ranks 46th (out of 51 because the study included Washington D.C.) nationwide in childrens health says a just realeased study by The Commonwealth Fund, U.S. Variations in Child Health System Performance: A State Scorecard. Texas was ahead of Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Oklahoma. Here’s the FWST article on the study, Report card on kids’ healthcare gives Texas an F.
With a fifth of Texas children going without health insurance, the state’s child health system ranks among the nation’s worst.
That’s the finding of a new “scorecard” from The Commonwealth Fund, which ranked Texas at No. 46 among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
The study, set to be released today, examined each state’s performance on 13 separate measures that focused largely on healthcare quality and access to care.
The dearth of health insurance is especially significant in Texas, which has the country’s poorest children’s coverage rate. The researchers contend that that goes hand-in-hand with the state’s No. 42 ranking for the quality of healthcare here.
That’s because uninsured children too often lack a “medical home” where a family doctor can give them routine and preventive care, said Dr. Gary Floyd, an administrator at Cook Children’s Health Care System.
“Any problems found in a well-child visit are not picked up and taken care of early,” he said. “And then, when the child gets sick, these folks find themselves with really no physician, no office to pick up a phone and say: ‘Hey, my child has a fever. I need him seen today.’”
Nonetheless, the state did perform well on measures of health outcomes — speci- fically, infant mortality and the risk of developmen- tal delays among young children.
The Commonwealth Fund report didn’t speculate about why those Texas outcomes were better than in many other states. But Floyd, who is medical director of pediatric urgent-care centers and public policy, said the results could be tied to state efforts to provide prenatal care to pregnant mothers and to prevent premature births.
Things have been improving lately and it appears to be directly tied to the increased CHIP funding from the last legislative session.
Barbara Best, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas, said the situation for children has improved significantly here in recent months.
With lawmakers’ move to expand the government-funded Children’s Health Insurance Plan, about 127,000 children have been added to the rolls since September, she said.
“We have made some progress,” Best said. “That is very, very positive. And that’s a sign of what can be done to reduce the number of uninsured children.”
Floyd also noted that the state last year boosted payments to physicians who treat low-income Medicaid recipients. The bump in pay has averted an ongoing exodus of doctors from the program, making more physicians available to poor children, he said.
That’s good news! But there’s still room for improvement as the study shows:
If all U.S. states did as well as the top performers:
An additional 4.7 million children U.S. children would have health insurance.
Almost 12 million more children would get recommended medical and dental checkups.
1.6 million fewer children would be at risk for developmental delays.
Almost 800,000 more children would be up-to-date on their vaccines.
Improving children’s health care is a no-brainer, something we can all agree on, and well worth every penny.
From its inception in 2005, Eye On Williamson has brought to light issues of concern to working families in Williamson county. During this time, our blog has accumulated a loyal readership of Democrats and Independents tired of failed Republican “leadership”. You have applied pressure and demanded more accountability, and won a few concessions. Together, our impact on the community is beginning to make a positive difference. We are grateful for all your focus and determination.
Throughout this time, I have been known only by my pseudonym, dembones. The issue of anonymity is polarizing among bloggers. Those who write under their given names claim that to do otherwise is to be afraid to place one’s reputation on the line for one’s public positions. I have remained of the opinion that my professional career, which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, must be kept separate from my political opinions.
For two years, this has been an acceptable position, as I have worked behind the scenes within the Texas Progressive Alliance, the netroots at large and the local Democratic party. These activities, along with career and family obligations, have kept me from having the time to write as extensively as I would like.
Fortunately, there is the incredible talent and work ethic of wcnews, the founder of this site and the one who writes the majority of the posts here. Everything this blog has accomplished is thanks to his tireless, twice- or thrice-daily postings. It has been rewarding to work together assisting in editorial matters and generally handling the technical issues. Mostly, I (along with our growing list of regular readers) enjoy reading his consistently high-quality posts.
Much of my effort over the past few months has been behind the scenes. I contributed mightily to the local Barack Obama campaign leading up to the March 4 primary. Some have credited me with helping to produce a 13-point win for Obama in Williamson county. Next, I was asked to handle the task of credentialing the delegates and alternates at the county convention. This massive undertaking involved more than 500 hours of labor, involving dozens of dedicated volunteers. It was the largest Democratic convention
ever held in Williamson county, and though it involved long lines and a lot of waiting around, it will be remembered as a turning point in local political history.
In the last two months, I’ve been deeply involved in organizing the delegation to the state convention, now less than two weeks away. Getting to the state convention is a real milestone for me, not only because of the effort that began on February 6 in support of Barack Obama, but because I am for the first time myself a candidate for a significant office within the state Democratic party.
My name is Brian Hamon, and I am a candidate for committeeman from Senate District 5. I intend to bring the desire for change within the Democratic party to its executive committee. One can easily look back at my positions expressed on this blog over the past two years and see that I am a proud liberal that feels that corporations and their lobbyists have seized control of government and produced a society that scarcely resembles the America of the textbooks I read when I was a student in Texas public schools.
Working families, after being largely cut out of the prosperity of the 90s, are groaning under the strain of foreclosure, unemployment, decaying schools, skyrocketing health care and energy costs, pending ecological disaster and a tax burden that regressively constrains those of us that take home a paycheck while exempting the wealthy.
I’m proud to announce that these positions have earned me the endorsement of the Campaign For Change. In addition, my technical and grassroots organizing skills have earned me the endorsement of current SD5 committeeman Bill Holcomb.
The election for committeeman will take place at the Texas Democratic Convention in Austin on June 6. About 270 delegates from the 14-county district will decide between me and two other announced candidates. If elected, I will work hard to recruit quality candidates for public office, demand accountability from TDP staff and build our grassroots organization throughout the district. My record of effectiveness includes my work on this blog and my efforts to produce exciting news for Democrats in Williamson county. Texas’ best raw increase in votes for Governor from 2002 to 2006, our sensational turnout in the 2008 Democratic primary, and the promising future for Williamson county Democrats on the ballot in November are the direct result of the intense dedication of many individuals. In some ways, I’m a beneficiary of being at the right place at the right time.
However, the accomplishments of this blog and my accomplishments as a political organizer run parallel. This is a movement I am proud to represent. We believe in the promise of democracy, of working within the system in order to improve it, and of transparency and accountability at all levels of government. I plan to bring this movement to a new level of visibility by joining the State Democratic Executive Committee and working toward statewide victories for Democrats in Texas.
In Texas we like to believe that our legislature is made up of citizen legislators. We believe this for several reasons. One reason is because we perceive them as working only part-time, they are constitutionally mandated to meet for 140 days every two years.
The constitutional design of the legislative branch and the political history of Texas have combined to make “the lege,” as insiders and observers call it, a peculiar institution. The Texas Constitution creates a part-time legislature that meets for a relatively brief 140 days every other year. The members, so-called citizen legislators, work within a political culture with a strong suspicion of government and a long history of accepting the involvement of wealthy business interests in politics.
Another reason is that their low salary keeps them from making a living from the state and therefore more likely to do the people’s work.
State legislators are paid meager salaries. Senators and representatives alike earn only $7,200 per year, or $14,400 for a two-year legislative period. Some may consider this salary generous, since after all legislators work only for 140 days over two years. However, this salary equals just slightly over $100 per day. Even if our legislators worked only eight hours per day, this would equal only $12.86 per hour for the people who make our state laws and conduct oversight of executive branch offices.
In addition to their annual salary all legislators and the lieutenant governor receive a per diem personal allowance of $128 for every day the legislature is in session (both regular and special sessions). This adds up to $17,920 for the regular 140-day session. Annual compensation for the year in which the legislature is in session totals $25,120 – which includes the $7,200 salary and $17,920 per diem allowance. For the biennial term, legislators earn $32,320, or a yearly average of $16,160.
While legislators do make more than the $7,200 annual salary it’s still not a lot of money. While these two reasons are why many believe in the citizen legislator myth, it is also exactly why very few citizens can actually run for and serve in the legislature in modern day Texas. The word citizen, as used in this context infers the common person. But in reality only those who are independently wealthy or whose job allows them the time off for the legislative session can afford to run for, and serve, in the legislature. While the lore of a part-time “citizen legislature” that meets every other year to blunt the effects of carpetbaggers makes a great tale, it is today little more than that.
But as the twenty-first century unfolds, the Legislature remains a curious combination of old-style politics, nineteenth century institutional design, and the realities of a state with 22 million people, many of whom live in or near some of the largest urban areas in the country.
That “curious combination” is now, quite possibly, causing more problems than it’s worth. There are several recent stories swirling around the Texas Legislature that point out structural weaknesses in how we fund it. Tales of “ghost workers”, spouses being paid with campaign funds, and legislators using campaign funds to pay off credit cards, are more the norm these days, than is the myth of the legislator coming for 140 days every two years and going back to the farm, ranch of general store. More often than not it’s the lawyer, insurance man, or consultant that can afford to be a legislator.
Although the regular session is still 140 days, there are many more special sessions these days and much more work to be done between sessions (interim). In the interim now there are many committee hearings that do the work, as set out by the leaders of both houses, that needs to be done to get ready for the next regular session. Often times these hearings are held not just in Austin, but all over the state, and over a span of many months. Again this schedule is not very conducive for a “citizen” working at a 40 hr./week or more job, 5 days a week, with a couple of weeks vacation a year.
The system as it is today, with little oversight from a toothless Ethics Commission, almost invites legislators to find creative ways to compensate themselves. From this editorial in today’s AAS:
If the best minds in Texas were to devise a government that works for the interests of the state and its people, it wouldn’t look anything like what Texas has today. It would pay judges and lawmakers a decent wage and ban or severely restrict the financial influence of wealthy individuals, lobbyists and special-interest groups.
As it has evolved, Texas government is beholden to the monied interests, and reforms come about only after scandal. It may be an overstatement to say Texas has the best government money can buy, but not much of one.
We need to pay our legislators more so they’re not beholden to “monied interests”. Hal has much more on this topic as well a link to this article from Chris Bell on the subject, With government, you get what you pay for.
I would very much like to see more varied backgrounds in state government dealing regularly with the multitude of problems we face.
However, that’s only going to happen when we start paying legislators a competitive wage and have them meet for at least six months every year.
I would also like to read fewer stories about the conflicts of interest and ethical challenges faced by lawmakers because of the obvious need most have to supplement their income.
Unless they’re retired or independently wealthy, they’re in a tough spot. There aren’t a whole lot of jobs that lend themselves to a legislator’s schedule, so those in office become prime targets for employers looking for an inside track with state government.
Or, on the flipside, employers wishing to avoid any type of controversy can view lawmakers as radioactive and not hire them. It’s a bad situation either way.
The answer is to raise the pay for legislators, change the rules to limit sources of outside income and have them meet annually.
I’m not sold on the annual session, but the rest is dead on.
A citizen legislator in the 21st century would be someone who is not beholden to monied interests, lobbyists, or their employer for them to be able to continue to support themselves and their families in order to keep serving in the legislature. (This would also not preclude the aforementioned professions, the independently wealthy, or retireees from continuing to run and serve).
No longer are our legislators beholden to the people of Texas to retain their seat in the legislature. Bringing back the citizen legislator to Texas can happen, but not without a fight. As with any major change it must come as a mandate from the people. There is a well financed system currently in place that will resist a change with all it’s might, because it will greatly hinder their current way of doing business. But that change would make the citizen legislator in Texas a reality and not the myth it is today.
Two Texas legislators had ethics complaints filed against them last year for pay(ing) wives with campaign donations, which is against the rules.
When ethics complaints were filed last year accusing state Reps. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, and Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, of illegally paying their wives with campaign donations, they reacted differently.
Eissler admitted he was wrong, stopped paying his wife to run his legislative office and said he had agreed with the Texas Ethics Commission to pay back the $52,000 out of his pocket.
Isett chose to fight the complaint. He stopped paying his and his wife’s accounting company to manage the campaign’s books but began paying a separate company that she created in response to the ethics complaint. And he upped the amount, from $36,300 over the previous 2Â½ years to $39,158 last year, or half of every dollar he raised in 2007.
Critics say Isett is testing the legal limits in a way that could highlight a loophole â€” paying a spouse’s company â€” for other lawmakers to use.
Both men deny intentionally violating the law.
State law prohibits lawmakers or candidates from using political donations to pay themselves, their spouses or their dependent children. The intent is to prevent a legislator from living off campaign donors, who frequently are lobbyists representing clients. The law was passed in 1991 in response to a couple of senators who used campaign dollars to subsidize their family businesses.
Paying spouses for campaign services is rare, according to a review of recent campaign reports, but there’s a growing trend of lawmakers using political donations for things unrelated to campaigning. Lawmakers without opponents are using their campaign cash to supplement their staff’s salaries, pay for travel or living expenses in Austin, and lease planes or luxury cars used in their official duties.
Neither Eissler nor Isett drew opponents this year.
Kudos to Eissler for admitting his mistake and paying the money back. Eissler pointing to Craddick’s leadership on this issue is priceless:
Eissler said he saw Speaker Tom Craddick paying his adult daughter six figures with campaign donations. He said he didn’t realize that the law allows lawmakers to pay their adult children with campaign dollars but not their spouses and dependent children living in their household.
“I didn’t understand the difference,” Eissler said. “When I found out you can’t do that, I stopped.”
Isett on the other hand found a way around it:
As a CPA, Isett said he read the law differently than lawyers who specialize in campaign finance. The law refers to personal services, he said, and he thought his wife, trained as an accountant, was providing a professional service to the campaign and was not covered by that provision.
“As accountants we have a different understanding and frame of reference about what these words mean,” said Isett, referring to Internal Revenue Service guidelines on professional services.
After hiring a lawyer to represent him before the Ethics Commission, Isett said, his wife created the company “to bring us back into compliance.”
While the law forbids direct payments to lawmakers, a spouse or dependent children, it allows a lawmaker to reimburse a legislator’s company for “actual expenditures” but not for a profit.
For example, a lawmaker who owns a printing company could reimburse his company for printing campaign materials, but he can’t pay himself a profit.
The law says nothing about a spouse’s company.
The end highlights the main problem with these types of issues in Texas.
Isett complained that lawmakers have to interpret an ambiguous law and research the Ethics Commission’s database with hundreds of legal opinions.
“You never know you might be doing something wrong,” Isett said, “until someone files a complaint.”
Yet neither Isett nor Eissler asked the Ethics Commission for advice, as the law allows, before they began paying their wives.
This kind of shenanigans points to why the Texas GOP is in trouble. The Ethics Commission is reactionary entity. They do not actively seek out violations, they only react to filed complaints. It’s a body setup by legislators to keep an eye on legislators. Which makes the odds slim that violators and violations will be caught. John Cobarruvias says it best:
Based upon this research, it is clear from the number of elected officials who have violations in their reports, the Texas Ethics Commission is either incompetent, or not interested in adequately monitoring, preventing, training, or taking corrective action against those who have violated the trust of the citizens of Texas.
The TEC has a motto “Promoting Public Confidence in Government”, but instead is nothing more than a repository for campaign finance information that provides little if any confidence to the public. It is near worthless.
The current system doesn’t discourage violations, in fact it almost encourages it. As long as there is little chance of getting caught and minimal penalties if caught, there’s little chance things will change.
On Memorial Day Democratic US Senate candidate and veteran Rick Noriega wrote and Op-Ed about how expanding the GI Bill would be a fitting tribute, Texas needs two senators who will back our veterans.
Today is Memorial Day, and I can think of no more fitting tribute to commemorate those who serve in the armed forces than the ratification of this new GI Bill.
As a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, I have seen countless acts of valor and heroism performed by our troops. They risk their lives for us daily, asking nothing in return but the benefits they have been promised. The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Act was proposed by Sen. Webb as a means of protecting and increasing the educational benefits for those who have served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001. Like the GI Bill enacted after World War II, this 21st century GI Bill will ensure that our soldiers are able to pursue the American Dream for which they have put their lives on the line to defend.
One of the most important economic policies of the 20th century was the original GI Bill. That first bill has been credited with creating the modern middle class. With the educational benefits offered to them, millions of returning war veterans were able to become doctors, teachers, scientists, engineers, lawyers and artists. The Post- 9/11 Veterans Educational Act will restore benefits to what they once were, boost the economy for everyone and allow another generation of American soldiers to achieve their goals.
Today’s veterans deserve the same sort of benefit that World War II veterans enjoyed. It’s not only good for the troops and their families, it’s good for our nation as a whole, strengthening our economy and our military recruitment.
The GI Bill was instrumental in the creation of the middle class and should be modernized. It also makes sense to educate these people who have already served. They will undoubtedly continue with that service once educated by becoming “..doctors, teachers, scientists, engineers, lawyers and artists”, as Noriega points out. Noriega also points out his opponents troubling vote against expanding the GI Bill :
Unfortunately, my opponent, Sen. John Cornyn, failed to stand up for our troops. Cornyn was one of only 22 senators to vote against the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Act, continuing his history of turning his back on veterans. Adding insult to injury, Cornyn went so far as to condone and encourage a presidential veto of the bill. Webb’s GI Bill passed with the support of 75 senators, including Texas’ senior Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Texas needs two senators fighting for our veterans and our families. It is reprehensible that Cornyn supports keeping our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan but refuses to provide for our soldiers once they return home. As a public servant, as a soldier and as a Texan, I am ashamed of Cornyn’s continued efforts to deny our troops the benefits they earned defending the United States.
Sen. Cornyn argues that financing higher education for veterans would encourage soldiers to leave the military to attend college. The notion that we should limit benefits to force our troops to stay in the military is morally repugnant. The knowledge I gained while attending college is instrumental in the work I do as a member of the Texas House of Representatives and as a lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army National Guard. I believe that higher education should be a reality for any American who wants it, and I am disheartened by Cornyn’s desire to deny this valuable right to the honorable men and women of the armed forces. A stronger GI Bill will help military recruitment, attracting America’s most capable and gifted volunteers to the military during a time when we need more troops than ever.
While pundits still see Noriega as a long shot, it’s votes like this by his opponent that is changing that.
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