in Houston, Texas
Thank you for reading and for all of your support. We will miss you.
Monday, Jun 17, 2013, 09:22AM CST
By Trent Seibert
scale

Regular readers to Texas Watchdog may have noticed there hasn't been much posted to the site over the past several months. The reason is simple: We've run out of money to keep delivering our award-winning local journalism.

We’ve had many generous donors since we launched in the summer of 2008, but a key donor for our operation in 2012, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, announced last year they would not be supporting independent journalism operations in 2013. We remain grateful for their support. 

We were unable to secure the funds we would need to continue operating as an independent journalism site on a meaningful level. 

Although closing down our site is quite sad, I look back at our time launching and growing Texas Watchdog as a bright point in Houston — and Texas — journalism.

Texas newspapers, TV stations and websites regularly partnered with us and published our stories. We truly regret that we will no longer be able to continue to fulfill our mission of providing them with free, nonpartisan enterprise and investigative journalism with punch and impact.

I’m proud to say that the journalists whose bylines you’ve gotten to know at Texas Watchdog have all landed on their feet. And you can continue reading their top-notch reporting:

They include: 

Jennifer Peebles. Jennifer is managing editor of digital operations at the Washington Examiner. She continues to be active with the Society of Professional Journalists at the national level. On Twitter: @jpeebles.

Steve Miller. Steve’s new book, Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock n’ Roll In America’s Loudest City, hits stores June 25 and is available for pre-order at booksellers everywhere, including Amazon. He’s written in recent weeks for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and covered the Cleveland kidnappings for The Daily Beast. He writes a monthly column on transparency for MLive and the Lansing City Pulse.  His Web site is Avalanche50.com. On Twitter: @penvengeance.

Mark Lisheron. Mark is a national reporter for Watchdog.org, a news site funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. You can also catch his byline on American Journalism Review. On Twitter: @marktxwatchdog.

Lynn Walsh. Lynn is an investigative producer for WPTV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla. She has been nominated for four Emmy awards and continues to be involved with both the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association. On Twitter: @lwalsh.

Mike Cronin. Mike is a reporter for American Public Media's Public Insight Network in St. Paul, Minn. On Twitter: @michaelccronin.

Lee Ann O’Neal. Lee Ann crunches data for the  U-T San Diego investigative unit and provides freelance computer assisted reporting publications around the country. On Twitter: @leeannoneal.

On a personal note, it has been a great honor to work alongside all of them. Pound for pound, I believe we had the best enterprise journalism team in Texas.

Thank you to all our readers and donors who made that possible!

As for me, I am now a journalist for the the U-T San Diego Watchdog team and hope to bring some good ol’ Texas journalism to sunny southern California. My work email is trent.seibert@utsandiego.com and my personal email is seibert.trent@gmail.com. On Twitter: @trentseibert.

Trent Seibert

Valero tells the tax man what’s what, awarded $5 million in overpaid taxes
Tuesday, Feb 12, 2013, 03:01PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Valero

Memo to southeast Texas oil companies: you might want to have your people give your local tax bills the old once over before sending off a check.

A Galveston County jury taking issue with a novel revenue enhancing program has decided the Texas City Independent School District, Texas City, Galveston County and the College of the Mainland must give nearly $5 million back to Valero Energy Corp. for an excessive assessment of its Texas City refinery.

The school district is on the hook for $2.45 million the jury said it had no business collecting from the independent oil refiner based in San Antonio, the Houston Chronicle reports this morning.

Galveston County is in arrears for $1.16 million; Texas City owes $805,000; and the college, $439,000.

Seems the Galveston Central Appraisal District in 2011 came in with an assessed value of the refinery that was off by just a bit more than a rounding error, $189.38 million, according to the jury.

And it wasn’t the first time. The school district in 2009 was forced to return $2.38 million to Valero after the Appraisal District worked its assessment magic.

Valero went after the appraisal of its Jefferson County plants in 2011, and a jury ordered the Port Arthur Independent School District to give back $14.6 million.

The company has at least two other lawsuits pending to try to take back tax money for which Valero contends it was overcharged, the Chronicle says.

Several officials for the involved government bodies could not be reached for comment, but those who did said the refund would be a hardship.

Aw, don’t be that way. Take it from Virginia Hopkins, our favorite waitress at Johnny’s Downtown Restaurant in Cleveland, who never thought twice about returning the $433,958 more than she was supposed to get for her tax refund.

You’ll just feel better about it.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of a gas station by flickr user derrich, used via a Creative Commons license.

Pension finances, local government debt targeted in Texas transparency bills
Thursday, Feb 07, 2013, 02:42PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

A quartet of the most powerful legislators in Texas filed bills Thursday to make available to the public detailed financial information from most local taxing entities and pension systems across the state.

Senate bills 14 and 13 and their identical House counterparts establish, at the request of state Comptroller Susan Combs, new requirements for the posting of public debt, unfunded liabilities, borrowing and project costs on websites maintained by state and local agencies.

“People need to know what their government is doing, and how it spends their money,” Combs said in a statement she issued after a press conference announcing the filing of the bills. “We need to implement common-sense changes that put vital information about government spending and debt in front of the public.”

SB 14, drafted by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Jim Pitts, R- Waxahachie, commits the Comptroller to maintaining tax rate information for every political body collecting a sales or use tax in the state, updated by the assessors and collectors for those bodies.

Williams is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a member of its committee on Open Government. Pitts is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The state’s Bond Finance Office would post on a website a list of all outstanding local securities and schedules for their repayment. In turn, the issuers of local securities would submit reports of their activities to the state.

Under SB 14, the public would get more detailed information about the issuing of bonds, the rationale for their issuance and a tally of outstanding debt incurred by the bonds.

Local political bodies would be expected to file annual reports detailing all of their funds and their outstanding debt obligations. These reports would be posted on websites maintained by all cities, school districts and special taxing districts.

Susan CombsSusan Combs


Once every three years each special taxing district in the state would be expected to prepare a report defending its existence and hold a public hearing to discuss the assessment.

The bill would also require school districts to create or to include on their websites detailed information about school facilities, enrollment, estimates of projected costs for new school projects and the current annual financial report.

"When we write the budget each session, we require transparency and access to information,” Pitts said in a prepared statement Thursday. “Texas taxpayers deserve the same level of transparency and openness, and House Bill 14 will deliver just that.”

Senate Bill 13, written by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, calls on the state Pension Review Board to maintain a website for the financial information for every public pension plan in the state.

Duncan is the chairman of the State Affairs Committee and a member of the Finance Committee. Callegari is the chairman of the House Pensions Committee.

The bill would require from all pension systems, including the state’s two largest, the Employees Retirement System of Texas and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, financial reports that would include:

  • Net investment returns for each of the most recent 10 fiscal years
  • Net rate of return for 1,3, 10 and 30-year periods
  • Net rate of return from the founding of the pension plan
  • Current and future anticipated rate of return on investments.

Texas Watchdog has reported on in detail concerns with the health of pensions plans in the state and nationally.

To that end, the Pension Review Board would be expected to produce a study of the overall health of public retirement plans in Texas and present its findings to the Legislature by Sept. 1, 2014.

“It is important for taxpayers to feel confident that public pensions in Texas are being managed properly to ensure long-term financial health,” Duncan said in a statement Thursday. “Senate Bill 13 aims to give citizens the information they need to feel secure about public pensions.”

Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said he was particularly pleased the bills focused on opening the financial affairs of schools and pensions.

“Texas is once again at the forefront of the transparency movement, pushing for the sort of good government reforms that will give Texans more information, more choice and more freedom,” Heflin said. “Among other things, these two bills would let Texans know who’s taxing them and why, require local governments to prepare basic financial reports, and put all this information online.”

Max Patterson, executive director for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems, issued a statement Thursday saying the direction from the Comptroller’s office was the right one.

“There may be some fine-tuning we’d like to see with the fees that are indicated in the first drafts of the bill, but we will work with the comptroller on that or other matters that come up with our members,” Patterson said.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user 401(K)2012, used via a Creative Commons license.

Pensions of former Texas lawmakers can be kept secret: Judge
Tuesday, Feb 05, 2013, 03:47PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas state Capitol

Texas District Judge Lora Livingston Tuesday ruled the state is not obliged to tell the public how much it pays in pensions to former members of the Legislature.

Livingston turned back a lawsuit filed last October by the open government non-profit group Texans for Public Justice. The group originally filed suit to compel the state to produce a total cost for the retirement plans paid to 103 former legislators who currently work as lobbyists.

“It really doesn’t matter whether they are lobbying or not, we have a right to know what that total is because we are paying into it,” TPJ director Craig McDonald said Tuesday afternoon. “They’re hiding it because maybe we think the retirement might be too extravagant. That’s for us to decide, not them.”

McDonald said no decision has yet been made to appeal Livingston’s decision.

Legislators themselves have spent the last decade passing laws that protect their pension information and prohibit the Employees Retirement System from disclosing it, McDonald said.

In 1998 Texans for Public Justice asked for an opinion of then-Attorney General Dan Morales, who said the public was entitled to the pension information.

“Our speculation was Morales’ opinion was the reason the Legislature passed those laws,” McDonald said. “This is total hypocrisy to talk about transparency and accountability and in the middle of the night pass laws that close off information about this pension money.”

A year ago, after federal income disclosure reports revealed Gov. Rick Perry was receiving a state pension worth more than $92,000 a year on top of his $150,000-a-year salary, there was a call for increased pension disclosure.

And while the public learned that more than 6,000 state employees were drawing a state pension and a state paycheck, state law protected their identities.

As Texas Watchdog reported last month, Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, has filed a bill that would end the practice of double dipping - but not for those like Perry who are already helping themselves.

Texans for Public Justice has focused on legislators-turned-lobbyists because they are among the best compensated lobbyists in the state, McDonald said. (Please see the chart on the second page of this document.)

The group has tried with little success to lobby for a law that would prevent retiring lawmakers from moving immediately into the lobbying profession. A bill filed in the last session by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, went nowhere.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has in this session filed Senate Bill 99 that would force a legislator to sit out two legislative sessions before doing any registered lobbying work.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.

Dazzled by promise of rail, Austin leaders still need to persuade public
Monday, Feb 04, 2013, 12:33PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
train

Having followed Texas Watchdog’s coverage of Austin’s rail rapture, you can be forgiven for assuming the movement remains earthbound awaiting only taxpayer billions and living, breathing commuters.

Not so. Like President Obama explaining the single failure of his first term, the brain trust behind Austin’s Central Texas and urban rail plans needs only to tell a better story, one that inspires the public to Choo-Choo Ch’ Boogie.

So says a new report from a working group headed by Greg Hull, president of the American Public Transportation Association, and development directors for transit systems in Dallas, Charlotte, Denver, Portland and Salt Lake City.

The working group lauded the overall planning for the high-ridership Central Texas Project Connect and the expansion of the much loved but chronically underused MetroRail commuter line now running from Leander to downtown Austin.

What the partnership of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the City of Austin and Lone Star Rail District hasn’t done so well is tell people why they really, really need all this rail transportation, the report says.

It might also help, the working group suggested, if there were a “well defined, clearly understood, and agreed upon path for moving the projects forward.” The path could be blazed if the groups involved formed a real partnership and figured out individuals and businesses in the area that like the rail idea.

And, while you’re in the storytelling mood, it wouldn’t hurt to come up with a 20-year plan to explain to people how you plan to pay for this fantasia.

As Texas Watchdog has cheerfully pointed out for some time, they will be explaining that for 20 years almost all of the money will be coming from the people. While locomotive fanciers continue to float ideas about private investment in rail systems, no one has ponied up a dime in decades in Texas.

It isn’t any secret to area transit officials how cost effective the MetroRail has been, coming in wildly over budget, its cars half-full on the best days. A year ago, while losing millions of dollars a year on its weekly commuter run, MetroRail added weekend service.

Fares taken in on the weekends cover about 8 percent of the $1.85 million MetroRail spent running trains on the weekends this past year, the Austin American-Statesman reports today.

Not a whole lot better than the 5 cents commuters are contributing to every dollar it costs MetroRail to run the trains during the weekday rush hours.

Now, if there were only a better way to tell that story. Maybe with lots of pictures of big, old locomotives.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of a MetroRail commuter train by flickr user xfile001, used via a Creative Commons license.

President’s jobs council disbands; economist: ‘I didn't even remember we had one’
Friday, Feb 01, 2013, 04:37PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
White House

Grief-stricken that after spending $7.66 trillion to get us going again our economy is shrinking and our unemployment is growing, I turned this week to a last thread of hope, the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

Only to find out the President decided Thursday to break up that old jobs council of mine. Well, no reporter worth his salt is going to sit back with his feet propped up on his desk smoking his meerschaum and not ask why.

In the late morning, I put in a call to the media departments for the two Texas members of the council, Gary Kelly, chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines, and Matthew Rose, CEO for BNSF Railway, who doesn’t live too far from me here in Austin.

And then I set about to do some digging. As anyone who cares about our economy recalls, President Obama issued an executive order in January of 2011 calling on some of our most powerful business people to:

“continue to strengthen the Nation's economy and ensure the competitiveness of the United States and to create jobs, opportunity, and prosperity for the American people by ensuring the availability of non partisan advice to the President from participants in and experts on the economy...”

While the makeup of the committee might have been a little too Ivy League and Wall Street for a Texan’s taste, you couldn’t argue with council’s pedigree. And they got right to work, or certainly said they were going to get right to work.

Groups of council members decamped for “listening and action sessions” around the country. Council members including Kelly and Rose told an audience at Southern Methodist University on Sept. 1, 2011, that if the government was going to spend a lot of  money to get the economy going again, you could do worse than to invest in infrastructure.

By the end of the year, the council had kicked out a swell report Road Map to Renewal, although its recommendations for the future - fostering innovation, preparing the workforce for a global economy, investing in alternative energy and infrastructure - sounded a lot like talking points for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The council met only four times, the last time on Jan. 17, 2012, at the White House. There is no 2012 report on the website, and one wonders with the dissolution of the council whether there will be one.

Seems like more than a few people wondered why, exactly, the President formed the jobs council in the first place.

To calculate the impact the council had on the economy, the Marketplace website asked economist Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institution what he thought of the President’s decision to shut down it down. "Well, as probably more than one economist would remark to you,” Burtless said, “I didn't even remember we had one.”

By this time, much of the afternoon had flown by without my knowing what the Texas delegation to the council thought of their work. I looked on the Internet in vain for comments from either of them.

Deadline fast approached, when Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Kelly, replied by e-mail to my request.

“Thanks for reaching out, “ Mainz wrote. “Gary is out of pocket, and I won’t be able to get you a comment for your deadline. We don’t have a canned one to send. Sorry we can’t help out with this story.”

We can only hope Kelly can’t be reached because he’s in a garret somewhere finishing up his part of Road Map to Renewal: 2012.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of the White House by flickr user DuckofD3ath, used via a Creative Commons license.

Newspaper notice law ‘horse and buggy’ thinking, Rep. Jonathan Stickland wants governments in Texas to post online
Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013, 04:49PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
horse and buggy

You can already hear a distant drumbeat, the pounding of 40-gallon drums holding printer’s ink.

Freshman state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, who rode into the Texas House on a surge of small-government austerity, has filed a bill he says will save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Stickland’s House Bill 335 would rescind laws that require all government bodies to pay newspapers to advertise their public notices. Instead, they would be free to post these notices on their taxpayer underwritten government websites.

Be forewarned, the following will include allusions to and even overt references to government transparency and accountability, an informed public, the commonweal and all that.

But really, when you get down to it, as we must when it comes to government, it’s going to be all about the money. And make no mistake, it’s a lot of money.

In the age of the Internet, the government tether to expensive ads in newspapers people increasingly aren’t reading is horse and buggy thinking, Stickland says. Most government bodies, even tiny municipal utility districts (MUDs), have their own websites.

Posting notices of upcoming public meetings and important actions, even soliciting public input, could be done as effectively at little or no cost on those websites, Stickland says.

Just how much taxpayers could save is a little hard to figure. When contacted by Texas Watchdog, neither the Texas Press Association nor the National Newspaper Association could provide estimates of how much newspapers earn from taxpayer-funded advertising.

Anecdotal evidence - like the $25 million a year Pennsylvania is likely spending, according to an Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy study, or the $4 million annually that school districts alone in Texas spend, a state Comptroller study found - hint at an enormous market.

Or in figures from around the country provided by legal-notice.org, a nonprofit clearinghouse for, believe it or not, news concerning public notice law.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley told Stickland’s staff moving to website notices would save county taxpayers $50,000 per year.

The National Newspaper Association back in 2000 estimated 5 to 10 percent of a newspaper’s revenue came from public notice advertising, the Annenberg Center report said. The figure today is as much as but no more than 5 percent in Texas, Donnis Baggett, executive vice-president of the Texas Press Association, says.

And while classified advertising revenue dropped 29 percent during the period the Annenberg Center looked at, public notice revenues were off by 4.3 percent.

Jonathan SticklandJonathan Stickland

In short, according to Stickland, the current welter of public notice law “amounts to nothing but a taxpayer subsidy for the companies that own newspapers, and it needs to go the way of the horse and buggy.”

Cue an incessant ink drum beat getting louder.

The editorial board for The Eagle in Bryan-College Station wrote that newspapers make a pittance on public notices and offer a tremendous public service.

“While at first glance, the bill seems innocuous, it is, in fact, dangerous – and, it won't save much money, either,” the editorial said.

Mark Engebretson, editor of the Lake County Sun, called on readers to take action.

“Call legislators, let them know,” he wrote. “It’s a bad idea, forget it. Don’t know who the legislators are? They’re listed on the Internet.”

At the top of the list of bad reasons, Baggett says, is leaving the legal responsibility of public notice in the hands of public officials. As even a casual reader of Texas Watchdog can tell you, despite the endless rhetoric, public officials have an unrelievedly awful record of making sure the people know what they’re up to.

“The fact is, most officials see this as a bother and an unnecessary expense,” Baggett says. “They would rather not deal with it.”

But if it were to come to pass, Baggett says citizens would be left to search each and every website for each and every notice from each and every government body. Providing the government body has a website.

And providing the citizen has a computer. Relying on new technology threatens to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, something the Texas Press Association has written extensively about.

Not in print but on its website, Keep Texas Notified.

If Keep Texas Notified can keep Texas notified, why couldn’t websites operated independently of government compete for the advertising monopolized by newspapers? The laws themselves, for one thing.

Legal-notice.org shows no record of any change other than that at the local level. In 2008, 153 bills, amendments and proposals like Stickland’s were proposed, the Annenberg Center study said. Few got a hearing, and none at the state level passed.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., journalism think tank, says newspapers have so far protected their turf.

“Seems to show that the old media has some clout still, slapping down these proposals as they come up,” Edmonds wrote in an e-mail to Texas Watchdog.

Expect Stickland’s bill to get slapped around by the old media some more before the session is over.

“We believe his bill might be unconstitutional,” Baggett says. “We’re looking into that.”

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of horse and buggy by flickr user K.B. Ansari, used via a Creative Commons license.

Surplus refunded to taxpayers under Gov. Rick Perry’s plan
Tuesday, Jan 29, 2013, 03:03PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas state Capitol

Flush with an oil and gas-generated surplus of nearly $9 billion, Gov. Rick Perry has called for a change in the Texas Constitution to allow the state to refund unspent revenues directly to taxpayers.

Perry brought the audience for his biennial state of the state address to their feet Tuesday morning asking the Legislature and citizens to help find $1.8 billion in tax relief during this session.

Surprised at the duration of the ovation, Perry remarked, “I'm proud that in Texas, we're talking about the best way to give money back to the people who paid it.”

Perry, delivering his seventh state address to the joint meeting of the House and Senate, said Texas needed to take advantage of its role as a national economic leader and put its financial house in order.

To be able to return unspent tax money to citizens directly would require amending the state Constitution. Such an amendment would require approval by two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate and by a majority in a statewide referendum.

Last year, with a budget surplus of $2.1 billion, the state of Indiana granted state tax credits of $111 for every taxpaying individual and $222 for couples.

Rick PerryRick Perry


“We've never bought into the notion that if you collect more, you need to spend more,” Perry said.

The governor’s office established a website soliciting ideas for how to provide the $1.8 billion in tax tax relief. At the same time, he called for an even tighter, more streamlined budget and a constitutional limit on spending growth tied to the growth in population and inflation.

The franchise tax exemption for small business should be made permanent, he said.

In the future, state budgets would not rely on budget gimmickry like dedicating collections of taxes and fees tied to specific bills only to hold onto the funds or use them for another purpose.

“If we don't need taxpayer money for that purpose,” Perry said, “let's not collect it at all.”

Perry emphatically reiterated his longstanding position that Texas will not expand Medicaid or establish a health insurance exchange under the terms dictated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“Texas is not going to drive millions of dollars more into an unsustainable system, one that would drive Texas into bankruptcy,” Perry said.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Texas state Capitol by flickr user Matt Rife, used via a Creative Commons license.

Price tag says $115 billion, study authors find Medicaid expansion in Texas ‘affordable’
Monday, Jan 28, 2013, 04:45PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
shot

With the unveiling today of a new report on the cost of expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, we are confident we have now heard the last three words on the subject: Smart, Affordable and Fair.

The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured said pretty much the same thing in a lot more words with its study released back in November.

By affordable, the Kaiser Commission meant $1.03 trillion with the cooperation of all 50 states from this year through 2022.

The cost for Texas to be smart, affordable and fair is about $115 billion during the same decade, according to the new report by Billy Hamilton Consulting for Texas Impact, a grassroots religious non-profit based in Austin.

This figure is considerably less than the $150 billion the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation estimated in its study, as much as $38 billion of it to comply with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

What this flurry of studies is selling, particularly in states like Texas with recalcitrant political leaders, is that all this expanding isn’t just affordable but practically free. And by free these analysts mean paid for by the magic money machine in that far off land where all dreams come true: Washington, D.C.

Of that trillion in the Kaiser study, why, only $76 billion would come from the states. And of the $115 billion only $15 billion would come from Texans, according to the Hamilton study.

What’s more, in the best tradition of John Maynard Keynes, all this free federal money will multiply itself in a direct and indirect boon to the Texas economy, $27.5 billion yielding $67.9 billion during the fiscal years 2014 through 2017, the study says.

Should you like to believe all that we’ve said here about the money being free and multiplying like fishes and loaves, feel free to ignore those marginalized cranks like this one suggesting all of Medicaid is paid for by taxpayers.

Next thing these folks will have you believing is that we are running national debt of $16 trillion.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo by flickr user Lance McCord, used via a Creative Commons license.

Crystal ball says click here for salamander protection costs
Friday, Jan 25, 2013, 03:54PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
salamander

Having not quite championed four little known, underloved and potentially endangered salamanders here in Central Texas, you can imagine my excitement at the mere mention of them in a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release.

Fish and Wildlife was giving notice that its draft report analyzing the potential economic impact of protecting the habitat of the Austin Blind, Georgetown, Jollyville Plateau and Salado salamanders was now available to the public.

The estimated impact was $29 million over a period of 23 years, the release said, with little explanation of how the dollar figure was arrived at or why a federal agency chose to measure the impact over such an odd period of time.

The bottom of the release was studded with helpful links to find the Service on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, but nowhere a link to the report to which notice had been given.

Knowing the federal government to be logical and efficient, I clicked on a link promising more information at the Fish and Wildlife Southwest Region website. The site’s top story announces the availability of a brand new economic analysis for my four beloved and imperiled salamanders.

To learn more, the agency suggested I click “Learn More,” which took me back to the original press release.

Deeply rooted in investigative reporting, I dialed a local number provided at the top of the release. Adam Zerrenner, a spokesman for the Austin field office did not answer, and at 9:07 a.m. I left a message.

At 10:14 a.m. an apologetic Zerrenner returned the call. “The, the, the blame is all on us,” he said. Just Google our “Austin Ecological Services” field office and click on the first link that comes up, Zerrenner suggested.

But will I find the report? Will the $29 million be explained? The report will tell you all about it, Zerrenner said, with the reassurance of someone with a long experience of public service at the federal level.

As promised, Google did its job, delivering me to the field office, which provided a trove of information on Texas salamanders.

After nine minutes of careful perusing, I called Zerrenner again. The message I left begged his pardon for my stupidity and asked that, should he call back, he stay on the line and guide me to the report.

It might also bear noting at this point the Austin American-Statesman, perhaps having experienced some of the same technical difficulties, wrote a story based on the press release alone, leaving an explanation for the costs for another deadline.

At 10:33 a.m., the echo in the background of the return call told me Zerrenner was no longer alone. Two members of the field office information technology staff (one of them cheerfully admitting she was really half a position) had joined us on a conference call.

The 3 ½ of us returned to the field office website where, because it had just been added, I was asked to refresh my browser. Scrolling to the bottom of the page, under the Second Comment Period heading, second item, there it was. The Draft Economic Analysis.

According to the agency, designating as critical habitat dozens of sites totalling about 6,000 acres or about 9.4 square miles in Williamson and Travis County would cost $29 million with a favorable discount rate or as much as $40 million if the rate deteriorated.

The authors admit to many economic variables making this estimate a very rough one and confining themselves mostly to the costs one might have dealing with the federal government while trying to develop in and around the critical habitat area. (Please see page ES-4 of the report.)

The actual economic impact, when all is said and done, could be several times the Fish and Wildlife Service estimate, Kemble White, a member of a Williamson County group assigned to the issue, says.

White, regional scientist for SWAC Environmental Consultants in Austin, says among the many missing costs in the estimate is the cost in time lost complying with all of the federal requirements embedded in adding four salamanders, however deserving, to the Endangered Species list.

“Let’s just say these guys (Fish and Wildlife) have a pretty foggy crystal ball when it comes to figuring out what it’s going to cost,” White says. “This report excludes all kinds of economic impacts.”

For those costs, we’ll have to wait patiently for another press release.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of the Jollyville Plateau salamander via AustinTexas.gov.

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