Hutto Citizens Group Points Out Hypocrisy of Williamson County Elected Officials

Posted in Landfill, Election 2008, Had Enough Yet?, Commentary, Williamson County at 4:30 pm by wcnews

In a full-page ad, Williamson County’s position on the pending landfill contract doesn’t pass the smell test, in the Austin American Statesman on Friday, the Hutto Citizens Group took Williamson County elected officials to task for breaking campaign promises relating to property rights, open government, fairness and integrity.

County Judge Dan Gattis:

In his campaign for county judge in 2006, Judge Dan Gattis stated The Gattis Pledge, which included these points: Protect private property rights. Conduct all county business in the open. Treat everyone with fairness and integrity. The HCG believes it is very obvious that these promises have been broken by the judge in his leadership position regarding the county landfill issue. (1) Judge Gattis has been reported by media as saying that commissioners court will vote on a new landfill contract before the end of July, but citizens will only be able to review that contract over a weekend instead of a 30-day period, as requested by the Hutto Citizens Group. (2)

Precinct 2 Precinct 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long:

In her 2006 campaign for Precinct 2 commissioner, Cynthia Long was quoted by the Hill Country News as saying, “When we attract new employers to Williamson County, we all win. The impact of new businesses on our tax base is a real plus. More businesses mean a more diversified tax base. It also means that residents and current businesses arent the sole taxpayers in the county.” This statement also is consistent with statements she made in her campaign literature. (5)

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ron Morrison:

In his 2006 campaign for Precinct 4 commissioner, Ron Morrison made this statement on his website: I will listen to your needs and provide 1st class county services to meet them. I will represent ALL of Precinct 4. (7) While Commissioner Morrison has taken the time to talk with members of the HCG about the landfill, those discussions have resulted in no conclusions and did not resolve any major issues. Commissioner Morrison is strongly urged to represent his precinct and become an active, public advocate for the positions citizens in his precinct have taken on the landfill. He should speak out promptly.

Precinct 1, and up for reelection, Commissioner Lisa Birkman:

After her swearing-in ceremony in 2004, Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman was quoted by the EyeOnWilliamson.com website (That’s .org, but at least they’re reading EOW) as saying that the new commissioners court should move away from the handshake deal process associated with previous courts. She also has taken positions directly responsive to county citizens on other issues such as a billboard and amphitheater, but she won’t do so on the landfill. This inconsistency requires an explanation. (8)

Their final paragraph is great.

The only solid evidence proving that a political deal has not been cut would be for commissioners court members to square with their campaign promises, open up the contract review process, and talk with us about the serious issues we have tried to discuss with them for several months with no success. Its clear that county officials have been less than forthright with county taxpayers. The firewall should be removed in the interest of open and transparent county government.

It’s been said many times here, but as long as our elected officials in Williamson County feel there will be no consequences for their actions, no matter how despicable, things like this will continue to happen. Until a few of these people get voted out of office and some accountability, via two-party county government, and American-style checks and balances are put in place, it’s guaranteed the people’s opinions will be ignored by our elected officials, except during campaign season.

Perry Op-Ed On HB 2006, Saves Who Money?

Posted in Privatization, 80th Legislature, Had Enough Yet?, Road Issues, Around The State at 12:57 pm by wcnews

The governor must be getting significant backlash over his veto of HB 2006, especially from the rural folk. That’s why he would pen an Op-Ed like this for the AAS last week, Veto saves taxpayers money. Anytime a politician says they’re going to save us money we should be skeptical and look further into the issue.

Perry’s main thrust is to say that this is just a plan hatched by evil trial lawyers that want to take taxpayers money, especially rural taxpayers money. These lawyers, supposedly, want extort money from the state for their clients, involving mostly urban eminent domain projects.

I strongly supported HB 2006 right up until the final days of the legislative session before last-minute amendments were added that would have cost taxpayers more than $1 billion annually and provided condemnation lawyers a new cottage industry to get rich based on frivolous claims.

HB 2006 would have allowed condemnation lawyers to sue cities, counties and the state for any reason and any amount whenever the state acquired land through eminent domain.

Perry also tries to scare us by using overblown rhetoric saying someone could sue for “any reason for any amount” is just hogwash. That’s always the case, no matter what, but truly frivolous lawsuits won’t go anywhere. His claims about construction dust are laughable. These lawsuits will, he says, unfairly impact rural taxpayers.

I have also heard the misconception that HB 2006 would protect rural landowners. In reality, the bill would have affected predominantly high-growth urban properties. Rural landowners simply aren’t faced with the traffic issues that this bill targeted. If this bill had been allowed to pass, rural Texans would have been forced to pay more taxes to fund land purchases in urban areas because of the increases in litigation.

Perry’s main goal with this Op-Ed is to vilify lawyers - which is a long-time GOP talking point, at least until they need one.

When this bill was originally vetoed EOW posted on it and then got into an enlightening discussion with the Texas Farm Bureau about the particulars of this bill - from which will quoted below. (To get up to sped read full post above w/the Texas Farm Bureau). From the Farm Bureau we learned that in the rural areas there is significant risk of diminished access because of the TTC:

With regards to the rural issue with diminished access, it has a huge impact. As the TTC and other toll roads are envisioned, they are limited access roads. They will not have access roads, and they “dead-end” existing state highways, FM roads, and county roads unless the entity building the road finds that the road is “significant” enough to build an overpass. So, rural landowners may find themselves on an FM that stops at the TTC or toll road.

Not to mention the fact that rural property owners could be cut off from another part of their property if the TTC cut through their land. The Farm Bureau did a fine job of pointing out how the condemnation process currently works.

As far as being left with the “status quo” perhaps I need to clarify a little. HB 2006 had some good provisions on bona fide offers and public use. However, a landowner can rectify that situation under current law by hiring an attorney. I know that no one really wants to hire an attorney, but even had HB 2006 passed, condemning entities would have still bet on this aversion to hiring an attorney. It is their standard operating procedure. They know that a small percentage of landowners will fight. As a result, the bad actors would still have made low offers and taken property for questionable purposes. Even if HB 2006 had passed the landowner’s only true recourse to ensure the law is applied is to take the condemning entity to court. Sad, but true.

With regards to public use, we already have a strong conservative definition due to a Texas Supreme Court case in 1905. The problem is that the condemning entity buys off the property owner before the case gets far enough along in the court system to strike down the condemnation. So, its not that condemning entities can take property illegally, they just make the landowner an offer they can’t refuse to keep the case from the Appeals or Supreme Court. So, even if HB 2006 would have passed with the definition of public use, you don’t stop the condemnation unless you are willing to fight it to the Texas Supreme Court. We would love to find a landowner willing to make such a fight. Believe me.

They knowingly make low offers, and settle with the few that challenge before it gets to the Supreme Court. Just like an insurance company that denies a claim, they know a certain amount of people won’t challenge them. The new law would have actually saved taxpayers money because it would have reduced lawsuits by making the original offer fairer, and more acceptable to the owner. Therefore fewer challenges to condemnation awards:

Oh, one last thing that should be cleared up. HB 2006 would not have enriched eminent domain attorneys. They work on a contingency basis. They typically receive 30% of what they get the property owner above the offer made by the condemning entity. Had HB 2006 worked as we hoped, fewer cases would have gone to court, and there would have been less of a difference between the offer and the condemnation award. The result would have been that eminent domain attorneys would have received less income, not more. It is the condemning entities that force condemnations to court that are enriching eminent domain attorneys. It is interesting that they vilify attorneys who are trying to help property owners protect their property right to fair and just compensation. Shouldn’t the entities taking private property without making the property owner whole be the ones vilified?

At this point it should be clear to all Texans that Gov. Perry has lost all credibility when it comes to any issue that involves the TTC in any way. He will do anything, and say anything, to insure that this abomination moves forward. Including selling out rural farmers.

Bond Rating Service Gives NTTA “Rating Watch Negative”

Posted in Privatization, Road Issues, Around The State at 10:36 am by wcnews

Here’s the story, Fitch Places North Texas Tollway Authority’s Revenue Bonds on Rating Watch Negative. In my less than professional financial analysis what these guys are saying is that this deal will stretch the NTTA very thin financially. They’re also cautioning that if the traffic doesn’t show up, and they expect it will, then there could be big problems.

Fitch also recognizes that based on NTTA’s proposed total debt issuance, the authority would be highly leveraged with an escalating, back-loaded debt service profile. In addition to the SH 121 toll project, additional leverage of more than $1.0 billion is expected to support the development of the Eastern Extension of the President George Bush Turnpike and the Southwest Parkway Segment 1.

Under NTTA’s proposal, toll revenues generated by SH 121 would pay its operating expenses, debt service obligations and generate surplus funds for the authority. However, it is possible in a downside scenario where SH 121 traffic and toll revenues are less than expected; the existing toll system may be called upon to help meet the SH 121’s debt service needs. There is also the potential that the existing toll facilities would cross-subsidize the debt service needs of the Eastern Extension and Southwest Parkway facilities. Under such a scenario, total debt service coverage could decline to levels around the authority’s 1.20x rate covenant. With a tranched debt structure, senior lien debt service coverage could be higher. Given the historic strong performance of NTTA’s facilities and expected growing traffic demand, it is Fitch’s opinion that cross subsidy by the system would not likely be for an extended period.

This whole deal is riding on a the Traffic & Revenue study that are known to have issues many times. Sure hope this one is on the money, shall we say.


Rick Noriega Getting The Buzz This Weekend

Posted in Election 2008, 2008 Primary, Around The State at 10:27 pm by wcnews

BOR is reporting that Rep. Rick Noriega (D - Houston) will be starting his exploratory committee next week.

State Representative and Lt. Colonel Rick Noriega made news in front of over 100 Democrats today at the Mid-Cities Democrats 3rd Annual Independence Day picnic by announcing he is one week out from launching his senatorial exploratory committee.

The TO blog puts the Draft movement in perspective, Drafting a Veteran.

Given that, the term “draft” is more of a catch-all — shorthand for creating a single entity that can encourage the idea of Noriega running, gather information about him for voters and reporters, and generate interest. Many supporters, like Burnt Orange Report, aren’t campaigning just for Noriega, but encouraging a strong Democratic primary that gets voters involved.

Texas’ progressive bloggers, Kuffner said, have long wanted to emulate successes in other states in generating interest, energy, and — never to be discounted — funds for preferred candidates. Noriega is a “perfect storm candidate” who presents an opportunity to

basically say up front who we think the best candidate is. This sort of came up originally in maybe January. It was coming up at a time when it was going to be Nick Lampson or John Sharp. Someone else who was going to be handed down by … the money powers that be. A lot of us folks felt like, “We want to be a part of this conversation, too.”

It’s worth noting that Kuffner goes to great lengths to point out that this is not some kind of adversarial relationship with the fund-raisers who typically control this process. If Noriega runs he is going to need a lot of money both to get out of the primary and to take on Cornyn. Already Watts is using his money to lock up support around the state. It’s really about being a united voice that can have a say in the process of selecting a candidate, even if the nomination eventually doesn’t go to his guy, asserts Kuffner. “The ultimate goal,” he said, “is replacing our existing Senator.”

Gardner Selby at the AAS has a big write-up today, State lawmaker eyes U.S. Senate bid.

After training soldiers in Afghanistan and sheltering hurricane survivors in Texas, Rick Noriega is eyeing a potentially tougher grind: unseating Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn next year.


Noriega said that if he runs, he’ll talk up the idea of Americans committing to public service: “The question becomes: What do we do individually to ensure that we as a nation are on the right path?”

Via Draft Rick Noriega thy have a link to a letter from 49 of the 68 Democratic state house members that are endorsing him. Go check it out and sign up to show your support.


The Late Friday News Release - Keel’s Staying

Posted in Around The State, The Lege at 4:38 pm by wcnews

From the AAS, click on the link to read the full release:

Former Austin Rep. Terry Keel, a Republican who only thought he was leaving the House when his last term ran out in January, plans to stick around as the House parliamentarian, a post he suddenly filled after the previous parliamentarian, Denise Davis, resigned late in the regular legislative session.

Have a nice weekend.

and Capitol Letters.

His assistant parliamentarian will be the smart, perky Kate Huddleston - who we first met working in his media office in 2003.

That means Craddick didn’t hire Ron Wilson, who acted as Mr. Keel’s asst parliamentarian at the end of the session — and, thus, had to put up with accusations on the floor that he was unethical and hadn’t paid fines to the commission, etc.

But don’t read too much into that. Wilson’s an entertainment lawyer in Houston. Who do you think he’d rather represent? Craddick or ZZ Top?

The Latest From Rep. John Carter (R - Exxon Mobil)

Posted in District 31, Congress, Had Enough Yet?, Williamson County at 11:26 am by wcnews

Congressman Carter believes the answer to high gas prices is to keep giving “Big Oil” corporate welfare and to increase oil drilling domestically.

Congress recently passed H.R. 1252, the Federal Price Gouging Act, that claims to protect consumers from price gouging. I voted against this legislation because it does nothing to alleviate increasing gas prices. In fact, both the Department of Energy, as well as the FTC has found no credible evidence that the rising prices of gas are due to market price fixing or any other unlawful behavior among oil companies. Many economists believe that the real result of the Federal Price Gouging Act will be to impose price controls on gasoline that could very possibly result in shortages, gasoline rationing, and 1970’s style gas lines.

This misguided legislation comes just months after Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic majority passed legislation repealing tax incentives approved by the previous Congress that would have encouraged oil producers to increase their domestic production and their refining capacities. These incentives would have invested in our energy infrastructure something that would actually help bring down prices and improve reliability.

The “many economists” Rep. Carter is referring to are probably related to the oil company scientists that believe global warming doesn’t exist. Yes it’s hard to believe that someone with the amount of Exxon Mobil stock he has would be promoting policies beneficial to Big Oil corporations.

SH 121 Wrap-Up

Posted in Privatization, Road Issues, Around The State at 10:50 am by wcnews

From the DMN, NTTA gets nod for 121 project. Basically the NTTA is taking the risk on the traffic & revenue (T&R) study:

If Highway 121 traffic exceeds expectations, some of the extra toll receipts NTTA collects will be spent locally to ease congestion. However, should traffic be significantly less than NTTA has projected, the authority might have to raise tolls on Highway 121 or other area toll roads to cover any losses.

The clock in ticking on the NTTA and Cintra will be keeping a close eye on it:

Still, Thursday’s vote didn’t sideline Cintra entirely. The commissioners placed two conditions on NTTA getting the project.

NTTA has 60 days to negotiate a binding and detailed agreement with the Regional Transportation Council. Then, NTTA would have 45 days to pay more than $3.3 billion to the state for use on other North Texas road projects.

If NTTA fails to meet either condition, the contract will go to Cintra, said Mr. Williamson.

“If you can’t get there, the staff will sign the agreement with Cintra,” Mr. Williamson said.

Cintra executives said they remain ready and able to deliver the project should NTTA fail to keep its promises over the next 60 days.

“The NTTA proposal is incomplete and lacks a firm financial commitment,” said Jose Lopez, Cintra’s president of North American operations. “What you get from us is a guarantee and a legally binding contract that is ready to deliver SH 121.”

On your mark, get set, go!

And today’s DMN editorial on this issues places the blame for all of this in the right place, mostly, it’s not just the legislature it’s the governors over the last 15 years as well. Are elected officials neglect of transportation funding over that time period is what has caused the “toll everything” mentality:

There’s a lesson here for every public official who contributed to months of miscommunication, uncertainty, nasty politics and yo-yo decision-making over Highway 121. Solving North Texas’ traffic congestion requires cool heads and clear policy.

There’s also a lesson for lawmakers who have neglected their duty to adequately fund transportation. That’s the root cause of the rumble over Highway 121. It’s past time for legislators to quit kicking the tough money decisions down the road.

While the legislature, the house in particular, must start the ball rolling on upping the gas tax, a governor could definitely help bring them along by leading on this issue. 2010 can’t get here fast enough.

As Neeley Leaves TEA, Report Says Perry Crony Commits Cronyism

Posted in Had Enough Yet?, Education, Around The State at 9:17 am by wcnews

Here’s the AAS story about this from yesterday, Report cites problems with TEA contract, it also include a link to the report.

Associates and former employees of high-ranking officials at the Texas Education Agency have in recent years won pieces of contracts that were not competitively bid, according to a report from the agency’s inspector general.

The report, obtained by the American-Statesman on Wednesday, says that contracts went to education service centers, which serve as regional outposts for the state agency, and that the associates of agency officials received subcontracts.

The report does not explicitly state whether competitive bids should have been taken. Even when competitive bids are issued, agency staff members do not follow the agency’s contract policies, the report says.

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, who ordered the report after an agency employee raised questions in February, has turned it over to State Auditor John Keel, who is investigating further, agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said.

Neeley who commissioned the report is being replaced by her second in command, and Perry Crony, Robert Scott who was “frequently cited” in the report. From today’s HChron, Perry stands by choice for TEA fill-in. Why wouldn’t he? That is, after all, what crony’s do for one another.

Gov. Rick Perry has no concerns about putting deputy commissioner Robert Scott temporarily in charge of the Texas Education Agency, the governor’s spokesman said Thursday, despite questions raised in an inspector general’s report detailing no-bid contracts that went to Scott’s friends.

“None. The governor has complete confidence that he will do his job with the utmost integrity and professionalism, just as he always has,” Perry spokesman Robert Black said.

Scott will lead the agency, which oversees public education for 4.5 million children attending Texas public schools, until Perry picks a permanent successor to Shirley Neeley, who left her job as commissioner this week after the governor decided not to reappoint her.

A former Perry aide, Scott previously led the agency between Neeley’s appointment and the departure of her predecessor, Felipe Alanis.

The inspector general’s report released Wednesday chronicled instances when contracts that were not competitively bid landed with Austin attorney Emily Miller, described in the report as a friend of Scott’s, or with his former executive assistant, Cory Rountree.

The report said it was often unclear how Scott’s friends got the work.

“Key participants in the contracting process do not agree as to how the subcontractors were chosen,” according to the report.

The inspector general’s report said the education agency failed to follow state contracting policy in awarding millions of dollars in competitive grants. It highlighted ambiguities in awarding grants from a $261 million partnership between the state and several private foundations for high school improvement.

Neeley commissions the report, that fingers the governor’s buddy and shortly before it’s release she’s “forced out” of her job.


NTTA Gets Their Deal - They’ve Got 105 Days [UPDATED]

Posted in Privatization, Road Issues, Around The State at 12:26 pm by wcnews

TxDOT voted 4 - 1 to give NTTA the contract. It’s all contingent on them getting a project agreement done with the RTC in 60 days and having the project funded, financial closing, within 45 days of the agreement being delivered.

If the deal doesn’t get done in this time frame then Cintra gets the deal. As Ric Williamson said, “Either way the deal is done today”.

[UPDATE]: Burka says anything more than 45 days is a good sign for the NTTA.

[UPDATE]: DMN has it’s story up. Commissioner Ted Houghton was the lone “no” vote:

Today, commissioners gave their conditional approval to the NTTA’s Highway 121 proposal, which includes $3.3 billion in cash payments. But the commission’s vote is contingent upon working out the finalized business terms over the next 60 days.

The NTTA proposal would be terminated if the project does not close within 45 days after reaching that agreement. If that were to happen, commissioners said, they would accept the Cintra deal.

Commissioner Ted Houghton, who has frequently tangled with the NTTA during the Highway 121 bidding process, cast the sole dissenting vote.

[UPDATE]: (Last one). Pete Driscoll over at Move It! has his take, Dallas agency wins toll road. His post reminded me of the fact that Ric Williamson was adamant about keeping TxDOT staff out of the project agreement process. His reasoning was that he doesn’t want TxDOT getting blamed if a deal didn’t get done in time, protecting his staff. He also mentioned several times that he doesn’t like it when his staff gets maligned in the media by reporters using anonymous sources. Either way it was a point that hadn’t been mentioned yet and keeping TxDOT out of the room is what ultimately kept Mr. Houghton from voting for this:

But board member Ted Hougton didn’t cast the dissenting vote because he was opposed to letting the North Texas Tollway Authority finance and operate Texas 121.

He’s not happy because the order as written excludes the Texas Department of Transportation from helping the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Transportation Council negotiate a contract with NTTA.

“This is part of the state highway system and I don’t think we can abdicate our responsibility,” Houghton said. “We have a role in that negotiation.”

Williamson said TxDOT’s reputation has been dragged through the mud enough over the issue in the past couple of years. State officials can watch negotiations, he said, and steer locals away from illegal rabbit holes, but that’s it.

“There is absolutely no benefit to our inserting our staff in this process to be once again blamed,” he said. “If we are in the negotiations it will inevitably fail.”

Williamson and Houghton did agree on something, and that was grousing about having to go through another dog and pony show over who develops Texas 121. Williamson said this is the third time around, and a contract with Cintra has been sitting for months ready to be signed.

Two More Articles By The DMN Pre-SH 121 Vote

Posted in Privatization, Road Issues, Around The State at 9:13 am by wcnews

Here are the two articles:

Complex forces at work in 121 contract fight.

Some say private firms may shy from Texas if Cintra loses 121 project.

Basically what it comes down to is whether TxDOT wants to piss off a corporation (Cintra) or many lawmakers, Rep. Mike Krusee excluded, and the people of Texas.

You can watch the hearing here. The SH 121 vote is #6 on the agenda (.PDF).

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