TxDOT Initiates New Process

Posted in Road Issues, Around The State at 1:02 pm by wcnews

Here’s the press release, State Works to Accelerate Transportation Projects, thanks to deh for the tip:

AUSTIN - Moving quickly to implement recent transportation legislation, state transportation officials today initiated a new process to work with local officials – including local toll road authorities – to accelerate projects to reduce congestion and improve safety.

“The Legislature has given us clear direction to solve transportation problems by working with local officials,” said Ric Williamson, chair of the Texas Transportation Commission. “That is exactly what we are doing.”

At a special meeting in Austin, the commission authorized the Texas Department of Transportation to work with local toll entities such as regional tollway authorities, regional mobility authorities and counties to begin moving forward on 87 projects that are currently years away from being fully funded. View map of project locations.

“These are projects that local officials have said are needed to reduce congestion but are waiting in line for funding. We want to help our local partners build the projects as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Williamson said.

To accelerate improvements, the projects are being proposed by TxDOT for development, construction and operation as toll projects.

New legislation signed this week by Governor Perry, Senate Bill 792, gives local toll entities the first option to develop, construct and operate toll projects in their jurisdiction.

Before initiating a toll project on the state highway system, SB 792 requires the local toll authority and TxDOT to agree on terms and conditions for the project, including the initial toll rate and the methodology for changing the rate. The law also requires a market valuation of the project be developed to determine what the project is worth.

“It’s important to understand that in the absence of substantial new revenue, we will soon have no choice other than to shift tax resources from congestion relief to maintenance of the system, especially in major metropolitan areas and along the state’s busiest corridors,” said Williamson. “Evaluating the tolling potential of these projects will help us better understand the choices we all face.”

There are some TTC-35 projects on the list of 87 projects. Clearly this has not changed the” tolling fever” at TxDOT. They obviously see tolls as their only option for building highways in Texas. Now they will try doing it with local authorities first, instead of corporations. That’s better but, again, without leadership on this issue, and public outcry to raise the gas tax, toll roads will be built everywhere. If that isn’t what you want it’s up to you to start communicating to your elected officials that they won’t be punished politically for raising the gas tax.

Perry Names Phil Wilson Secretary Of State

Posted in Election 2008, Elections, Around The State at 12:42 pm by wcnews

Here’s the link, Gov. Perry Names Phil Wilson Texas Secretary of State.

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry today named Phil Wilson as Texas’ 106th Secretary of State. As secretary, Wilson will serve as the state’s chief elections officer, the governor’s liaison on border and Mexican affairs, and Texas’ chief protocol officer. The Office of Secretary of State also serves as the formal repository for official and business records, publishes government rules and regulations, and attests to the governor’s signature on official documents. Wilson’s appointment takes effect July 1.

“In addition to his responsibilities as secretary of state, Phil will continue to serve as my designee on the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund. In this role, he will continue his leadership of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism,” said Perry. “Phil’s new role will allow my office to coordinate with the Office of Secretary of State in a seamless way to expand trade, economic development, emerging technology initiatives in the private sector and higher education, and workforce development.”

As deputy chief of staff for Governor Perry, Wilson has overseen the governor’s initiatives in economic development, job creation, federal funding issues, military base realignment and closure, and policy development. He has served as the governor’s designee on the $200 million Emerging Technology Fund and the $185 million Texas Enterprise Fund to recruit business to the state. While serving in this post, the Texas Enterprise Fund has leveraged $10 billion in capital investment and 45,000 jobs. Wilson has also led public relations and media strategies for the $20 million annual Texas tourism campaigns.

Previously, Wilson worked as Gov. Perry’s Director of Communications from 2002-2003, and as State Director for U.S. Senator Phil Gramm.

Wilson graduated from Hardin Simmons University with a degree in political science and history in 1990, and received a master of business administration degree from Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business in Dallas. He received the Tomorrow’s Leaders Today Award, the George Skiles Anderson Award as Outstanding Male Graduate, and was named to Who’s Who Among American Colleges and Universities while at Hardin-Simmons.

“Phil Wilson is an extraordinary leader and a strong manager,” Perry said. “He has a keen ability to make decisions and get results, and I know he will apply those skills successfully for the people of Texas.”

Wilson lives in Austin with his wife Kristen Kincaid Wilson.

Gardner Selby’s hunch was correct.

I hope Mr. Wilson sticks to this position on Voter IDiocy, via BOR:

Wilson has publicly stated he will not take a stand on the Republican voter suppression strategy of requiring multiple ID’s in order to vote.

Wilson believes that it would not be his role as secretary to take a position on identification proposals.

The jury is still out on Wilson and we will have more as the story develops.

Texas Continues At Or Near The Bottom In Health Care Coverage

Posted in Health Care, Had Enough Yet?, Around The State at 12:36 pm by wcnews

From the DMN today, Studies say Texas lags in health care access.

To many people, Texas has a strong reputation for quality health care.

Retirees who move to the state cite good hospitals as a key attraction. Dallas’ Baylor University Medical Center and UT Southwestern Medical Center are renowned for churning out top-notch doctors. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston attracts patients from around the world.

But among the 50 states, Texas’ health care system ranges from average to poor, according to two reports released this week.

Industry experts say the low rankings are explained largely by the widening gap between Texans who have health insurance and those who don’t.

In other words if you have health insurance Texas is great, if you don’t'…..not so much. Not to oversimplify but, duh!

The study was done by The Commonwealth Fund. They bill themselves as, “..a private foundation that aims to promote a high performing health care system..” The full study is here, Aiming Higher. The Texas specific information is here.

Overall rank: 49

    Overall and Dimension Ranking

  • Overall : 49
  • Access: 51
  • Quality: 46
  • Avoidable Hospital Use & Costs: 48
  • Equity: 49
  • Healthy Lives: 24

Only Oklahoma and Mississippi are lower (51 in the study because DC was included). Shameful. This is definitely an area where Republicans in Texas have failed and only the Democrats should make sure every Texan know this. If it wasn’t for all the negative attention that CHIP and the Accenture deal brought to the health care issue in Texas as of late, this would have been worse and that’s hard to imagine.

Papers Reporting That County Is Close To A Deal On The Williamson County Landfill

Posted in Landfill, Williamson County at 10:58 am by wcnews

Last week the Taylor Daily Press reported, New landfill contract close, and now the AAS, County is close to landfill deal, had articles up about the imminent “new” deal that will be struck between the county and Waste Management (WMI) in regards to the county’s landfill. One of the main issues citizens have with the deal is that they be given a “meaningful opportunity for input” in the process. From the articles above it’s doubtful that will happen.

Copies of the new contract will be available to the public a few days before the Commissioners Court votes on it. County commissioners and attorneys have been discussing the negotiations in private executive session, as allowed by state law.

Previously, County Judge Dan A. Gattis tentatively said that commissioners would vote on a new contract by June 22. That has been pushed back to the end of July, at the latest.

A few days is not a “meaningful opportunity”.

This is a renegotiation of a less than perfect deal worked out by former county commissioner Frankie Limmer, from this AAS article of 2006:

At a time when available landfill space is becoming an increasingly valuable com- modity, Williamson County is earning only a fraction of what some cities reap for their taxpayers when awarding contracts to private companies to manage their public dumps.


Frankie Limmer, the Williamson County commissioner who negotiated the deal with Waste Management, didn’t return phone calls. Williamson County Judge John Doerfler, who also signed the county’s deals with Waste Management, says he only recently became aware of how much money other municipalities were making compared with Williamson County. “We’re looking into it,” Doerfler said.

As EOW came to find out, the county’s only concern seems to making up for Limmer’s bad, for the county, financial deal. Over the past week EOW has been getting familiar with this issue. There is not greater single source of information to “get up to speed” than the web site for the Hutto Citizens Group. There is another group that was started because of this as well, the Mount Hutto Aware Citizens - their name comes from the fact that under the new deal the lanfill’s height could grow to make it the tallest point in Williamson County.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the issues that have come up during this process:

  • The overall expansion size of the new contract (from 202 acres to 575) and the height (from 70 to 140 feet, there’s speculation it could be up to 700 feet).
  • That the landfill not become a regional facility.
  • There has been no competition, competitive bidding, in this process. Only a renegotiation deal with WMI has been part of the process.
  • A possible illegal land donation, Quitclaim Deed, from 1995 has come to light. It brings up questions about whether the county is being held hostage by WMI.
  • Secrecy of the renegotiation process, completely shutting out the citizens of the county from the process.

This is an important issue and all that the county seems to be worried about is how much more money they can get out of Waste Management in the renegotiation. While fixing the bad financial deal Frankie Limmer cut is obviously an issue, as noted above, it’s definitely not the only one.

The county’s actions of secrecy and shutting out the citizens, especially those that live nearby, make it appear that the county is trying to hide something. EOW has taken on the one-party, unaccountable government in this county from it’s beginning. It’s one of the main reasons for it’s creation. Nothing proves this point more than the actions of the county in dealing with the landfill. Stay tuned, EOW will be going more in depth on this in the future.


On The Secretary Of State Resignation

Posted in Election 2008, Elections, Around The State at 11:05 am by wcnews

It’s pretty much guaranteed that Roger Williams will reappear in Texas politics in the not so distant future. They don’t just fade away.

Although the post has been a launching pad for future political runs, Williams gave no immediate clue as to whether he’ll seek future political office.

“It’s really more of a springboard. I think there’s a tendency for all people to be appointed for that reason,” said Royal Masset, a Republican political consultant in Austin.

Indeed, when George W. Bush was Texas governor, his secretaries of state included Alberto Gonzales, Tony Garza and Henry R. Cuellar.

Bob Bullock once held the position too. The Texas Observer has the best synopsis of Mr. Williams’ not so banal tenure in the post, SOS!

Roger Williams, a one-time baseball prospect, car salesman, George W. Bush Ranger (he bundled at least $200,000 for the campaign), and most recently the man in charge of Texas elections, is stepping down effective July 1.

I was unaware of his connection to transportation but that would explain his appearance that these two transportation events this summer - the recent NASCO Conference in Fort Worth and the upcoming Texas Transportation Forum. Leaves little doubt where he stands on that issue. The TO post also goes through the many partisan maneuvers he made while holding this office.

Now that he’s gone we’ll have to begin worrying about who 39% will appoint to the post. Early indications are that it will be someone who’s for the ever present GOP plan of keeping voter turnout low, try to make the non-issue of voter fraud an issue, keep voting as exclusive (.PDF) as possible in Texas, and just generally do what they can to make the office a partisan vehicle.

Poll Slanted Toward Conservatives Heavily Favors Vouchers

Posted in Privatization, Vouchers, Public Schools, Around The State at 10:24 am by wcnews

You’re right, that’s not news. What’s news is that this poll will be used as “gospel” for those who still want to cram vouchers down Texan’s throats. BOR starts the debunking, New Voucher “Poll” Out.

As reported by our friends at Quorum Report, a new poll has been conducted that shows that 65% of Texans support vouchers. The poll was completed by Daron Shaw and James Henson, two UT professors, as part of the Texas Lyceum.


How to respond to this? Three things:

  1. Traditional response: vouchers threaten our neighborhood schools by taking public taxpayer dollars and sending them to private schools.
  2. Point out that 68 percent of people in the poll believe the Bible is the literal word of God, and 52% go to Church weekly.
  3. Based on what was reported on QR, the question doesn’t mention the money would have to go to private schools — it just says would parents want money to spend on their child’s own education.

This from the Executive Summary (.PDF):

More respondents (40%) identified themselves as Independents than as Republicans (28%) or Democrats (27%). More consider themselves Conservative (41%) than as Moderate (32%) or Liberal (19%).

This is how the AAS says the question on vouchers was asked:

Among findings that surprised pollsters, 65 percent of those surveyed said they favored school vouchers or some sort of plan to give tax money to parents to let them choose how to pay for their children’s education. Thirty percent opposed vouchers.

One of the people conducting this poll, Daron Shaw, worked for both Bush/Cheney campaigns. He was on Fox “News” a while back discussing bias in poll questions. You can read about it here and here. Hmm…wonder if giving tax money to parents skewed the results.

One question on school vouchers has always been how in the world are the private schools going to deal with the influx of news students if something like this was to come to fruition? They’d have to hire and bunch of new teachers, build new schools, etc.. Next thing you know they’d be asking for help from the government so they could keep up.

This is a poll and polls can be designed with a pre-determined outcome, by the way the questions are asked. It’s just hard to believe that support for vouchers (67%) is higher than President Bush’s disapproval rating (62%). If they would have asked the question like this, do you believe your tax dollars should be taken out of public schools, which will lead to their destruction, and be given to private schools instead? They would have gotten a completely different number.


Homeland Security Bill Funds Alternatives To Family Incarceration

Posted in Criminal Justice, Privatization, T. Don Hutto, Around The Nation, Around The State at 3:31 pm by wcnews

“..[T]here are more cost effective and humane alternatives to housing immigrants seeking amnesty”, as Jane Van Praag said in the TDP article on Saturday’s protest, 100 stage protest Saturday:

Jane Van Praag sat under an umbrella for much of the afternoon, holding her sign that read, “Prison is never in the best interest of a child.” Van Praag, who attended the eighth vigil on May 7, is the Democratic precinct chair for District 425 in Bartlett and said she learned of T. Don Hutto through Orta, a friend of hers.

“I think it is just to continue to reiterate our feelings that it is wrong to imprison children,” she said when asked about the repeated protests at the center.

Van Praag said she thinks there are more cost effective and humane alternatives to housing immigrants seeking amnesty.

“It makes me ashamed,” she said.

As if on cue News 8 is reporting today that the Homeland Security funding bill moving through Congress increases funding for alternative detention programs:

A Homeland Security spending bill heading to the U.S. House floor could lead to changes on where some detainees are held.

The measure adds about $11.3 million to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget. The money is earmarked for alternative detention programs and directs the agency to house families in facilities that are more like homes than prisons.

With a different president and local leadership this would be the first nail-in-the-coffin towards getting T. Don Hutto closed for detaining women and children. But as always with the current administration, no good deed goes unpunished, Veto Hangs Over Homeland Security Budget.

A Democratic plan to sharply boost the Homeland Security Department budget ran into a stern White House veto promise Tuesday as House debate loomed on the first of a dozen annual spending bills.

President Bush has not vetoed a domestic spending bill, and the homeland security measure is among the most popular with lawmakers. It is, however, larger than Bush requested.

So much for compassion.

New Road Opening In Round Rock

Posted in Road Issues, Williamson County at 3:18 pm by wcnews

Round Rock to open second phase of A.W. Grimes Blvd..

The opening of A. W. Grimes Boulevard will significantly change traffic patterns in east Round Rock because it will be the only major north-south road between Mays Street and Red Bud Lane to cross Brushy Creek as well as have a grade separation with the Union Pacific railroad line that parallels U.S. 79.

A.W. Grimes Boulevard will also provide motorists with an alternative to IH-35 between Pflugerville and Round Rock by connecting to Grand Avenue Parkway on the south and FM 1460 to the north.

This road should help quite a bit. This will actually connect Georgetown to Pflugerville. Best this about it, no toll!!

80th Transportation Wrap-Up

Posted in Privatization, 80th Legislature, Road Issues, Around The State at 3:01 pm by wcnews

Now that SB 792 has been signed into law it’s time to look back and what was done and see if it can be explained. Can’t guarantee anything though.

BurkaBlog has a good “interview” with an “unnamed source”, Unspinning SB 792. It’s a good back and forth and points out that overall the winner was local tolling authorities, like HCTRA, that are the winners in this bill. It’s curious to me that TTC-35 isn’t even mentioned. While it is stipulated that:

In sum, it cannot be reasonably argued, as the governor’s office attempted to do, that the CDA moratorium in SB 792 is without effect.

All that means is that there is a moratorium on concessions of future, yet unplanned, projects over the next two years and doesn’t specifically speak to TTC-35. This Q&A is needs further clarification:

Q. So, who were the winners and losers?
A. It is hard to see SB 792 as anything other than a setback for the concession model.

It’s true that concessions lost in a long-term, overall, PR sense. Meaning concessions have been outed, more of the voting public know what they are, they’ve gotten a bad name, and politicians will be putting there political future at risk if they support them. That statement doesn’t, however, mean that they can’t be done over the next two years.

It’s a good read that goes through the factions that were working against Perry (local toll authorities, anti-corporate toll citizens, and legislators), and explains very well what has been done. To fully understand one must be able to read between the lines. Burka does wrap his post with something that’s completely agreeable. Until and unless we have politicians that are willing to not only propose but publicly campaign for raising the gas tax this will continue to be an issue:

One closing comment. In the next to last Q and A, it is clear that the assumption underlying TxDOT’s policy is that the Legislature will not raise the gasoline tax. Mike Krusee offered an amendment this session to index the tax to inflation, and it was soundly voted down by the House. Lawmakers, craven as ever, want to complain about concession agreements, but they refuse to take actions that would make them unnecessary. A popular governor could provide the leadership for indexing the gasoline tax and issuing bonds based on the increased revenue stream, selling it to the public as a way to avoid expensive toll roads. Dream on.

Krusee gets not credit for that because he knew it would fail and obviously didn’t support it. He only proposed it in an attempt to say, “See, what other choice did I have?”.

Here’s what Will Lutz from DallasBlog had to say about it:

There is significant discontent with toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor. Two-thirds of legislators actually voted to declare a moratorium on the renting of state right-of-way for toll roads and give local toll authorities more power over local toll projects than the Texas Department of Transportation.

But when Perry threatened to call a special session over transportation, the lawmakers relented. Indeed, they passed a bill that technically puts a moratorium on new comprehensive development agreements, but the bill contains lots of exemptions and loopholes.

In short, most of what Perry wants to do can happen in the next two years.

There are some interesting tidbits in this article from The Bond Buyer, TxDOT To Sell $1.1B Tomorrow. It talks about the fact that Texas can still sell bonds at it’s normal pace, we find out that the toll moratorium wasn’t the only thing the legislature accomplished in the road financing game:

It also follows a swirl of legislation that would nearly triple the department’s bonding capacity and redrew the landscape for developing toll-road projects.

This looks interesting too:

Analysts also commented on the fact the Legislature exempted the state from some reporting requirements under the Government Accounting Standards Board’s Statement 45. GASB 45 requires governments to report the future cost of retiree health plans — or other post-employment benefits — as liabilities.

A bill awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s signature requires the state to estimate those costs but not to report them as “liabilities” that require advance funding.

What would a legilslative session be without a little “book-cooking”? And Sen. Carona’s actions, calling a hearing in March, right around the time the Cintra deal for SH 121 was made public, helped the NTTA get back in the game:

TxDOT also saw years of work leading to a $5 billion private concession agreement with Spanish developer Cintra — Concessiones Infraestructuras de Transporte — for the State Highway 121 toll project near Dallas superseded at the suggestion of Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. At Carona’s suggestion, bidding for the project was reopened to the North Texas Tollway Authority, a public entity that had previously agreed to sit out the project under a protocol agreement with TxDOT. Regional controversy over SH 121 reflected popular alarm over long-term lease agreements for toll projects. That led to calls for a two-year moratorium on private toll projects.

If you’re confused about this issue don’t read the pro-corporate toll TollRoadNews’s post session article, Texan pols finally cook up Swiss cheese freeze. It does a very good job of pointing out the contradictory parts of the so-called moratorium but will get you no closer to determining if this is a moratorium or not.

It’s an illogical bill - a dog’s breakfast. First it asserts a moratorium on concessions to Sept 1 2009, then most of the bill is devoted to exemptions and to laying out the terms under which concessions can be written.

To make a long story short on what this is and/or isn’t we will just have to wait and see. The best thing that may have come out of this session’s work on transportation is that TxDOT may have figured out, and I emphasize may, that the public doesn’t like corporate toll roads. The key is to look at how TxDOT reacts to this. These comments from TxDOT chair Ric Williamson may be a glimmer of hope:

Mr. Williamson acknowledged that the past five months were humbling for the Transportation Department.

Lawmakers repeatedly criticized what they described as the agency’s rogue and arrogant tactics in awarding toll road deals.

“The whole process has been inalterably changed,” he said. “We know clearly what [lawmakers’] concerns are, what they want us to do, what they don’t want us to do. And we will change our behavior accordingly.”

If he understands that it’s time to let Texans have more say about how we finance our roads then that’s would definitely be the best thing to come out of all this. Also Democratic control of Congress has brought the legislative branch, at the federal level, attention to this issue and they don’t like PPP/CDA’s.

This seems to be a bill that both sides are claiming victory on and the only way we’ll truly find out if this is a moratorium on TTC-35/concessions or not is if the governor and TxDOT attempt to proceed, challenge the legislative intent of this bill. What the reaction would be to that, and if anything could be done to stop it, would tell us if this is a moratorium or not.


Are Texas Pundits Attempting To Starting A False Narrative For 2008 Election?

Posted in Election 2008, 2008 Primary, Around The State, Williamson County at 9:55 pm by wcnews

The Message For 2008 - Democrats Rising, Republicans Falling

While the fact that the Democrats prospects are rising and the Republicans prospects are falling has, to a certain extent, to do with the depths one had fallen to and the heights the other had reached, the fact is the Democrats are rising in Texas. It came to mind after reading Gardner Selby’s article from the AAS last week. He attended the town hall meeting with Texas Democratic Chair Boyd Richie and wrote this article, Democrats raring to go for ‘08, despite history.

While he correctly points our it’s been over 30 years since a Democratic presidential candidate carried Texas it’s the next paragraph I take issue with. It’s the already tired, and what seems to be the beginnings of a Texas pundit created truth (first pushed by Burka), that the Democratic presidential nominee will hurt Democrats down ballot in 2008:

It went unsaid at an Austin town hall meeting held by the Texas Democratic Party on Saturday that the ‘08 presidential election could tip down-ballot races toward Republicans, diminishing Democratic gains.

Of course it went unsaid because it’s BS. This is one of those false narratives, a straw man argument, that the pundits appear to want to make the Democrats defend at every turn.

Pundit: You’d sure have a great chance of winning this year if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s a Democrat at the top of your ticket. What’s your plan for dealing with that?

Candidate: I wasn’t aware of that was a problem.

Just because this is Tom Craddick’s wishful thinking strategy to keep his apartment doesn’t make it fact Paul and W. The Republicans many issues to be concerned about in the coming election cycle. The biggest are the coming bloodbath and many GOP primaray races for Texas house seats after the late session move to remove the Speaker. Also the should be concerned about turning out their own voters when they’ll have a uninspiring candidate, no matter who wins the nomination, with little if any chance of winning after the 8 year disaster of this Bush Administration - that Molly Ivins so eloquently compared to A Rotting, Dead Chicken.

Mr. Selby does have a quote from Williamson County Democratic Party Chair Richard Torres in the article:

In the crowd, Richard Torres, who leads Democrats in historically Republican Williamson County, advised: “We had a good year last year. We’ll have a better one next year.” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell won 25 of 92 county precincts last year. Democrats seek to win half the precincts in the 2010 governor’s race.

That’s right Richard. The GOP is also hemorrhaging rural voters, which is occurring in Williamson County. While Democrats aren’t assured of anything in 2008 in Texas neither are the Republicans. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to say that. But all signs are pointing to Democrats being on the ascent in Texas and Republicans descending.

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