The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes you all had a wonderful Memorial Day weekend as it brings you this week’s blog roundup.
This week on Left of College Station Teddy asks if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell could be coming to an end, and Left of College Station covers the week in headlines. Teddy at will be looking back this week at highlights from Left of College Station’s first two years of blogging, and will be taking the month of June off from blogging. Look for more in depth coverage of politics and social commentary in July, including extensive research and investigations. Thanks to the Texas Progressive Alliance for supporting political and social thought to the Left of College Station.
Harris County is considering creating an elections administration department, with a non-partisan unelected appointee at the helm. PDiddie at Brains and Eggsis in favor of it, but irregular contributor OpenSourceDem is not.
At TexasKaos, Libby Shaw helps us understand Rick Perry’s complaints about the EPA taking over the permitting process from the toothless, Minerals Management Service, I mean the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Surprisingly enough, Mr. “Act of God” is upset he can’t continue his business first, second and always approach to environmental regulations. Take at look at Governor Perry to the EPA: Back Off.
Neil at Texas Liberal offered up a 58 second video where he listed eight points about democracy while standing in front of a car demolition lot near the Houston Ship Channel. Everyplace is the right place to talk about freedom.
Williamson County made a $4 million miscalculation when it determined the maximum amount the state requires it to spend on indigent health care. But that will not change commissioners’ recent decision to eliminate coverage for people without legal Social Security cards, Commissioner Cynthia Long said.
“We believe we made the right decision for the taxpayers of Williamson County,” she said.
County auditors found out May 13 — after meeting with state officials — that the county is now required to spend up to $4.4 million more than it initially anticipated on its indigent health care program, said Julie Kiley , an assistant county auditor.
The state requires the county to spend up to 8 percent of its general tax revenue to provide health care for people who qualify for its indigent program. Once the county reaches the state-mandated cap, the state begins reimbursing the county for additional costs.
County officials initially thought the maximum the county could spend on the program for this budget year was $7.1 million. That amount has now increased to up to $11.5 million, Kiley said.
County officials did not know the revenue also was supposed to include money from the debt tax levy revenue fund, Kiley said. The revenue from that fund added about $50 million to the total revenue amount, she said.
Long said this week that the county is projecting it will spend double the amount it has budgeted for the indigent health care program. The county budgeted $4 million and appropriated $3.1 million more this spring, and it expects to reach $8 million by the end of the budget year in September, she said.
Commissioner Valerie Covey said the fact that the maximum the county is required to spend has increased is a separate issue from the county’s decision to cut coverage for adults and children without Social Security cards.
In other words the county has to spend $11.5 million dollars this fiscal year on indigent health care. It was originally calculated by “county officials” that the county had to spend $7.1 this year – $4.4 million more. As you may, or may not recall, a few weeks ago the county made a big deal out of cutting off indigent health care for anyone without a valid Social Security card. Saying it was needed to because money was running out to pay for indigent health care this year.
Now we find out they have a significant amount more money that must be spent on indigent health care. And the county, according to Commissioner Long, will not change it’s policy regarding those without a valid Social Security card. This leaves two questions. Who are they going to spend this miscalculated $4.4 million for indigent health care on? Obviously it’s much cheaper, not to mention humane, to treat these people at a doctor’s office when they first get sick, as opposed making their only option the emergency room. The second question is who are these “county officials” that made this “miscalculation”?
On Wednesday TxDOT released the Management Organizational Review (MOR) that was performed by Grant Thornton. Here’s the link to the report. If you don’t want to read the whole 628 page report these two paragraphs, from the introduction, sum up TxDOT’s problems pretty well.
In May 2008, Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi, “at the request of Texas Governor Rick Perry, appointed a volunteer committee of 12 experienced and respected business leaders designated as the 2030 Committee. The Committee’s charge was to provide an independent, authoritative assessment of the state’s transportation infrastructure and mobility needs from 2009 to 2030.” The 2030 Committee determined that the State requires $315 billion from 2009 through 2030 (or $14.3 billion per year, in 2008 dollars) to meet pavement, bridges, urban mobility, and rural mobility and safety needs. Despite the 2030 Committee’s findings, some members of the transportation community hold differing views on the actual amount of funding required to sustain the State’s transportation system for this period. [Emphasis added].
The lack of agreement on the amount of funding needed to meet Texas transportation requirements leads to a certain amount of discomfort with TxDOT requests for increased funding. In addition, mistrust of TxDOT and issues around the consistency and completeness of communications on this issue inhibits commitment to additional funding. Some stakeholders said that “TxDOT isn’t broken, it’s just broke.” Others said that TxDOT isn’t sufficiently high-functioning to know if it has the resources required to do the job needed. Still others expressed that whether or not TxDOT has enough funding, until the Department is more transparent and has improved its operations, it would be difficult to justify an increase in funding.
That means that state agency tasked with building and maintaining our roads cannot be trusted with the money needed to build and maintain our roads. Essentially everyone knows, although there is no agreement on the exact figure, that TxDOT needs a whole bunch of money in the future to build and maintain Texas’ roads. But few, if any in the legislature trust those in charge at TxDOT to do what’s right in given the money. By in charge I mean Perry and his appointees – a fish rots from the head down – not the employees at TxDOT.
I know I’ve said this many times but it bears repeating. How can anyone trust people who think government is the problem to be able to use government to solve problems? It just boggles the mind how anyone could still believe that that TxDOT can be turned around without a new governor.
TxDOT has a singular, deeply entrenched culture that reflects 93 years of service dedicated to providing top notch transportation infrastructure to the State of Texas. This culture, and the ways in which the organization is led and managed, are fundamental considerations in the MOR as they affect every aspect of TxDOT performance. The unifying thread through all the MOR observations and recommendations is the way in which leadership and management practices and cultural norms affect TxDOT behavior and efficacy. Changes in this area are the essential underpinning to achieving meaningful improvements in the areas of effectiveness, efficiency, communications and transparency.
Significantly change its leadership structure. It recommends that TxDOT create three executive positions that would answer to the executive director — chief administration officer, chief operations officer, and chief financial officer. These jobs would be new — even if, in the case of the CFO, they exist in some form today, and should not be automatically reserved for members of the executive now employed, the audit says.
Lessen its focus on engineering among its top leadership, and indeed throughout the agency. Currently, engineering expertise — even a license — seems to be the only coin of the realm that carries any value. That has meant putting engineers in non-engineering roles, just to keep them aboard, and making it harder for non-engineers “to be heard” no matter how strong their relevant, non-engineering expertise might be.
Make the aides to the five TxDOT commissioners who oversee the agency answer to the commissioners, not to the executive director. The report says that has created a conflict of interest. If the commissioners are to oversee the agency, they deserve unbiased and unfettered advice from their administrative assistants.
Divide the government relations staff and the communications staff. A few years ago, communications folks — spokesman and others — were merged under a new department led by Colby Chase, who had represented the department’s interests in Washington previously. The report says that has helped lead to TxDOT’s image as an overly political entity, and the staff of about 50 full-time workers should be divided once again.
Too little metrics, means it’s hard to assess TxDOT’s work. Is TxDOT doing good work? Efficiently? Who knows, says the audit.
Clearly TxDOT employees are accomplishing a great deal of work. However, in the absence of relevant metrics, performance reporting, management disciplines and controls – deployed across the organization – it isn’t possible to determine whether work is being done effectively or efficiently.
The 2035 plan as passed Monday included the contested State Highway 45 Southwest tollway but did not fund it. Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber successfully fought off a last-minute change to swap “letting years” by moving the SH 45 construction start date ahead to 2015 (from 2020) and move the Oak Hill “Y” construction date back to 2018 (from 2015). In a May 21 memo, Cantalupo had recommended the revised time frames based on the likelihood of getting federal funds; Huber argued that need, not funding, should drive priorities. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt made a successful motion, which passed 13-6 (despite a climate-skeptic speech by Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long), to reinstate into the plan’s policy language a goal to “implement a transportation system that reduces CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions.”
There’s a video below the fold that explains why she may think that climate change, and global warming isn’t happening. The short story is, it’s very complicated, and can’t be hashed out on cable news.
While us taxpayers in Texas are having tot tighten our belts and do without things like education funding, roads, etc.. it’s nice to know our Governor is living so well. Via Letters From Texas, It sucks to be you.
The dressing-down from EPA was not unexpected. In its own self-evaluation report submitted in the fall to the Sunset Advisory Commission, the agency had to respond to the question “What are your agency’s biggest opportunities for improvement in the future?” Its answer: “Building Relationships and Partnerships ,” especially with the EPA.
And in August, Larry Soward, in his last days as a commissioner at the state agency, told a conference of environmental attorneys that “EPA has acknowledged the threat, however veiled you may view it, of Texas being stripped of its authority to issue major air permits unless the state agrees to some changes. I have heard it said, ‘Texas can step up, or EPA will step in 2009′”.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which issues permits, released a letter from Executive Director Mark R. Vickery to the EPA that lays out the state agency’s efforts and communication with the EPA and said it “remains committed to reaching resolution of Title V (operating permit) objections.”
“We still have significant differences in opinion on a number (of) issues, but processes for moving forward have been developed,” Vickery wrote. “A collaborative effort will continue to be beneficial for both agencies’ limited resources and the continued protection of the environment and public health.”
“EPA has either been told or been convinced by environmental groups that the permitting program that Texas operates is somehow deficient or not completely consistent with federal law. Our position, and the position of both the chemical manufacturers and refineries that are covered by these state permits, is that those allegations are completely false and without any foundation,” said Stephen Minick, of the Texas Association of Business.
Minick called it “a complete waste” and “very expensive” for companies to have to submit applications to the EPA, predicting that at the end of the process, the federal agency would find they met all applicable requirements.
Hector L. Rivero, Texas Chemical Council president and chief executive officer, said, “This is the first time we are aware of EPA demanding a Texas facility apply directly to the federal government for a Title V (operating) permit. . . . We are incredulous that EPA would encroach on a state regulatory program that has a proven track record of success.”
[EPA Regional Administrator Al] Armendariz said if TCEQ wants to retain authority over the rest of the permits at issue, state officials must “demonstrate to me in very short order … that these permits they are going to issue are going to be consistent with the Clean Air Act.”
“Some agency has to be issuing permits that are complying with the Clean Air Act,” he said. “If the state of Texas won’t do it, then I have the legal obligation to assume that role.”
“Because of Rick Perry’s mismanagement of the state’s environmental agency, our state is now losing our ability to make our own decisions about air quality and the economy.
While Perry will likely try to make this into a partisan issue, the truth is that the state was repeatedly warned, beginning in 2007 under President Bush, that its permitting program violated the law that granted Texas the authority to issue air pollution permits.
Historically, under federal and gubernatorial administrations with leaders in both parties, Texas had earned the ability to administer the Clean Air Act. This delegation of authority has been important to Texas, letting our state implement the Clean Air Act in a way designed to fit our own air quality and economic needs.
Over the course of two federal administrations, Perry’s agency lost the confidence of regulatory authorities to the detriment of all Texans.”
This is Rick Perry’s fault, plain and simple. Because Perry’s appointees have not been following the federal regulations and the Bush Administrations failures to enforce them, this has now come to a head. More than likely because the Perry appointees at the TCEQ didn’t think the EPA would actually go to this extent to enforce the regulations.
We have to remember that these regulations are for our protection. These are to protect the air we breath, the water we drink, and the land that grows the food we eat. They’re the only ones we have and they cannot be replaced.
Kuff has much more. As if on cue the Austin Chronicle and the Texas Observer have articles on the TCEQ and it’s corporate friendly attitude. Links to those below the fold. Read the rest of this entry �
The Williamson County Commissioners Court voted 5-0 Tuesday to issue $35 million in debt, to finish road improvement and expansion projects already underway for U.S. Highway 183, U.S. Highway 79 and Williams Drive in Georgetown.
But – despite arguments to the contrary from County Judge Dan Gattis and County Auditor David Flores – commissioners will pay for that work without federal stimulus dollars known as Build America Bonds.
“For us to not take advantage of BABS is for us to pay a higher cost for the borrowing of dollars,” Flores told commissioners.
Flores said if Williamson County entered the BABS federal stimulus program, it could expect to be reimbursed 35 percent of the interest payment for the $35 million in debt principal it is incurring.
That reimbursement, Flores said, would work out to about $150,000 per year for the next 20 years.
Most of the commissioners objections were straight from the warmed over tea party rhetoric – in other words partisan politics over good public policy.
“This is part of the stimulus plan and this is basically Williamson County condoning the growth of federal government,” Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long of Cedar Park said. “From my perspective, its sends the message that we support the stimulus program and we support the expansion of federal government.”
Pct. 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman of Brushy Creek agreed, stating: “Every project we’ve done with the federal government, they end up wanting to micromanage and tell us what to do.”
Pct. 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey of Georgetown acknowledged that when Williamson County accepts funding from the Texas Department of Transportation, those funds include federal dollars passed down to the state level.
But, Covey said, she had also has concerns about administrative costs that might be associated with federal stimulus funding, as well as possible restrictions on how the money can be spent.
Although Gattis, makes sense in the article, he still voted with the rest of the court.
Gattis said that while he favors issuing the debt – in order to finish the ongoing road projects – he thinks the county is being shortsighted in rejecting federal stimulus money.
“We’re making a big mistake here, leaving $100,000 per year on the table,” Gattis said. “It’s going to be interesting, as we’re getting into the budget and you’re not wanting to spend $100,000. We could fund a lot of programs with that.”
Gattis realizes that the county is giving away between $2-3 million over the next 20 years, but he still voted with the rest of them. I guess it’s not polite to dissent when the court is denying federal funds. There were no comments regarding where precinct 4 Commissioner Rom Morrison this issue.
While it’s true the federal government may have some input into these roads if federal funds are taken, most times it’s regarding environmental concerns, that’s not worth giving this money away. This looks like it was done more for partisan political reasons, then for reasons of good public policy or what’ best for Williamson County.
If you noticed that Eye On Williamson Was down for over the last couple of days, that’s because the server for the web site crashed. As you can see we’re back up now and all should be back to normal. Thanks to all those behind the scenes who got us back up and running so fast, you are truly appreciated.
Smith: But the difference would have been that you would have had to go find the money that you got from the federal government that you got presumably in the form of cuts.
Dewhurst: No, we wouldn’t have had the spending level that we did. We would have had to trim the budget. We still would have been able to put some money into public education, some money into higher education, but we wouldn’t have been able to put as much money into public education and higher education and into Medicaid as we were able to do with the stimulus dollars. That’s a true statement. At the same time, we were able to create a better budget by having some access to the federal funds
In essence what Both Dewhurst and Dunnam are saying is that Texas’ budget would have been balanced, with or without the stimulus, it’s the law. But life in Texas would be much different then it is now. And that’s the reality that the elected Texas Republicans will not admit to. Without the help of the federal Texas, and their political futures would be in much worse shape.
As the recent CBO report shows the stimulus has worked, and worked well, CBO says stimulus a bigger success than expected. This is important because as Perry, Dewhurst and the rest of the GOP in Texas crow about their budget slashing prowess, they didn’t do any in 2009, because of the federal stimulus.
Without the $16 billion dollars Texas used in 2009 to balance the state’s budget, without slashing it to the bone and without raising taxes, Texas would be in extreme circumstances and unemployment would be considerably higher then it is right now. Heading into another budget cycle that would be even more dire.
The point of all of this is, for the GOP members in Texas to be running around saying how much they hate the federal government and all it’s spending, is extremely dishonest. Without the stimulus money in Texas these politicians would be in a much more dire political situation, and they have the federal government to thank for the fact that they are not.
There are always unintended consequences of legislative action, and the worse the legislation the worse the unintended consequences are. Mike Krusee’s HB 3588 and the toll roads it has wrought on our area is the case in point. TxDOT literally has no plan, or system in place, about how to collect from drivers who refuse to pay their tolls, Tough road ahead collecting late tolls, other then possibly clogging local Justice courts in Travis and Williamson County.
TXDOT’s Wisconsin-based collection agency is now calling violators at home and sending letters to try and get them to pay their tolls and fees.
But if you ignore the collection agency, there is little they can do. They cannot contact your credit report, they cannot prevent you from renewing your driver’s license and they cannot stop you from registering your vehicle with the state.
Taking violators to court could be TXDOT’s only option to collect the money. But until an Interlocal Agreement is reached, county officials said those cases will not be heard.
More than 150,000 toll violators owe $56.1 million in outstanding tolls and “administrative fees” – but the Texas Department of Transportation is hitting a roadblock, or several, when it comes to collecting them.
To be exact, the amount of outstanding tolls is $3.12 million. But KXAN discovered TXDOT is charging some violators more than 4000 percent in those “administrative fees”. And those fees are what push the total amount of money owed to $56.1 million.
TXDOT said they’re now going to take those violators to court.
KXAN spoke with the elected officials in Williamson and Travis counties, and they agree with Gammon.
Travis County Treasurer Delores Ortega Carter said TXDOT needs to get their ducks in a row before they file any toll violation cases.
“They can file all the cases they want, how long they’ll be there we don’t know,” she said.
Carter’s colleague in Williamson County, Treasurer Vivian Wood concurs. “I just can’t see our judge and commissioners agreeing to anything even though the statute is there.”
County officials said it all boils down to what is called an Interlocal Agreement: A set of rules and guidelines to outline procedures dealing with court costs, collection of tolls and fees, where the money collected goes, payment methods, timeliness and line items.
They said there has got to be an Interlocal Agreement before any cases can be heard in county courtrooms. Ortega-Carter and Wood told KXAN they’ve been trying to get an agreement with TXDOT since 2006, but have not heard anything from the state agency.
“I don’t have anything from the state that tells me…and we don’t just send money down to the Comptroller without the state’s requirements for identification of those funds,” Wood said.
Ortega-Carter added: “We need to have a paper trail so that, for auditing purposes, we can see where it’s going. We don’t care how the state spends the money, that’s their problem. We do care how the county receives that money.”