in Houston, Texas
Texas Congressman Ron Paul gets top mention in D.C. group’s rankings of lawmakers defending taxpayer interests
Monday, Sep 24, 2012, 12:53PM CST
By Steve Miller
money

The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste ranks Texas congressman and former presidential aspirant Ron Paul at the top of its latest list of federal lawmakers who defend taxpayer interests. Paul scores a 98 percent, bested only by two senators from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Also near the top of the list from the Texas delegation were Republicans Sen. John Cornyn (95 percent rating) and Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Pete Sessions, who both scored 91 percent ratings.

At the bottom of the list were Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee (4 percent) , Eddie Bernice Johnson (8 percent)  Silvestre Reyes (5 percent) and Charlie Gonzalez (8 percent).

The list, compiled annually by the tax watchdog group since 1989, was again much more welcoming to  Republicans than Democrats. Among the Texas Republicans scoring poorly were Kay Granger (52 percent) and Lamar Smith (56 percent).

According to the council, “the ratings separate the praiseworthy from the profligate by evaluating important tax, spending, transparency and        accountability measures.”

Charity Navigator, a group that ranks non-profits, defines the council as “a private, non-partisan organization representing more than one million members and supporters nationwide… [its] mission is to eliminate waste, mismanagement, and inefficiency in the federal government.”

The council received a decent overall review from Charity Navigator, although it ranked low on transparency with a rating of 44 out of a possible 70.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of money by flickr user Dan4th, used via a Creative Commons license.

While congressmen propose new oversight for NASA, private company sets launch date to resupply International Space Station
Friday, Sep 21, 2012, 02:56PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
nasa

It has taken a generation, but four congressmen, two of them from Texas, have figured out what has been wrong all this time with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Too much politics.

Reps. John Culberson of Houston, Pete Olson of Sugar Land, Bill Posey of Florida and Frank Wolf of Virginia, all Republicans, want NASA to be run by a non-partisan administrator and an 11-member board selected by -- don’t take too long guessing -- politicians, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Culberson told a news conference in Washington, a safe non-partisan haven, the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2012 will free NASA’s scientists, engineers and astronauts to do what they do best.

We’re assuming he didn’t mean beating the Russians to the moon.

By eerie coincidence, the congressmen announced their bill on the very day SpaceX announced plans in partnership with NASA to send a loaded unmanned Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station on Oct. 7.

The scheduled flight comes less than five months after SpaceX became the first private company to complete a mission into space. And six months after proposing to build a rocket launch complex just south of South Padre Island.

While the company currently awaits the results of an environmental impact statement, Environment Texas, a wholly apolitical Austin non-profit, made a statement of its own: Launch your rockets someplace else.

The private space industry is plenty used to that kind of politicking, having fended off Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking but outgoing member of the Commerce Science and Transportation Committee.

In the past Hutchison expressed, reliably, forcefully and without favor, a preference for space travel planned by and commencing from the taxpayer-funded Johnson Space Center in Houston.

It is this sort of space travel Americans need, without all the back room dealing, to stave off the Chinese, a space competitor that doesn’t share our democratic values, Wolf said.

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

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Photo of Ed White during the first American spacewalk via NASA.

Texas Facilities Commission shortens process of reviewing public-private partnerships
Friday, Sep 21, 2012, 09:51AM CST
By Steve Miller
capitol

The Texas Facilities Commission, the agency charged with managing state buildings, says it is enhancing its transparency by streamlining the process for public-private partnerships. Public policy watchers claim the body is making it easier for private entities to get taxpayers to foot the bill for its projects.

According to the Austin American-Statesman:

“Under the new procedure, the Facilities Commission's staff would notify the public within 10 days of receiving a proposal that meets its minimum standards. That public notification also would start the clock for other developers to submit competing proposals for the same parcel of state land.”

The move may cut three to four months off of the review process of a potential alliance, said Aundre Dukes, the commission staffer in charge of public-private partnerships.

Dukes works for Dekko Realty and also receives a $62,000 annual salary for his work with the commission, records show.

The commission in September 2011 filed a report with the Sunset Advisory Commission justifying its existence.  In November, the advisory commission will issue its own report on the agency.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of Texas Capitol by flickr user Andrew Dupont, used via a Creative Commons license.

McLennan County commissioners hold ‘private vote’ for treasurer pick; Texas open meetings law bans straw votes in closed session
Thursday, Sep 20, 2012, 03:30PM CST
By Steve Miller
solidarity

Commissioners in McLennan County presented a united front on the selection of a new county treasurer, so united that they may have violated the state open meetings law.

Before taking a vote in public, the commissioners took a separate “private vote” to make sure there would be a show of solidarity, according to one of the commissioners.

In this video, Commissioner Kelly Snell allows that he wants to see the county government run “like a business,” which is kind of how he explained a process that would be at home in any corporate boardroom.

Snell told a reporter with the Waco Tribune-Herald that the board’s vote for Bill Helton as treasurer was agreed upon in closed session before coming to a vote in public.

“It was an agreement that the vote that we took in public was a unanimous vote because we don’t want to put anybody behind the eight ball that’s coming in, and we agreed to do that,” Snell said. “We had our private vote in executive session but, you know, we go with the court’s will and the court’s desire.”

It’s possible Snell wasn’t aware that such a move was a violation of state law. In fact, his assertion was even affirmed by colleague Ben Perry, who said, “The body of the court felt that it was very important for us to come to a unanimous decision on both candidates.”

The legal issue turns on whether the commissioners took a straw vote: Was the conversation the type of discussion and deliberation that is allowed under the law? Or did they go around the table, polling each other behind closed doors?

The audio of commissioners court meetings in McLennan County is broadcast live online, and the body appears bent on making its business public. Snell has advocated for the live broadcasts. And in January, the court changed its meeting times from days to evenings, a time more convenient for locals to attend.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of solidarity bumper sticker via OccupyParty.org.

El Paso considers ban on plastic bags, which make up less than 1 percent of national waste stream
Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012, 02:28PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
bags

Banning plastic bags. Everyone’s doing it, from Austin to San Fransciso to Delhi.

El Paso thinks it might want to join in and why not? It’s cooler than telling people Sherman Hemsley lived there or getting your own Triple A baseball team.

The El Paso City Council on Tuesday asked city staff to explore an ordinance to ban plastic grocery bags or to assess a fee for their use, the El Paso Times reports.

The council then took a vote to assure the public it would continue to support the city’s plastic bag recycling program, for which the council was responsible.

Should a bag ban pass, the council will be able to go to bed at night (early and without a nightcap) knowing it stood up courageously against less than 1 percent of the city’s total waste stream.

While El Paso hasn’t studied it, and votes in cities like Austin suggest the facts don’t much matter, plastic bags accounted for 0.6 percent of the litter in the most comprehensive national study done to this point, by Keep America Beautiful.

When the California Integrated Waste Management Board studied the state’s overall waste stream, it found plastic grocery bags made up 0.3 percent or half the national average. (Please see Table ES-3 on page six of the study for the breakdown.)

There has been precisely no movement to ban the sale of tobacco products, whose packaging and butts make up more than a third of the litter, perhaps because federal and state governments profit so handsomely from their taxation.

There are no popular uprisings against paper, which makes up more than 20 percent of our litter, or plastic containers and packaging at nearly 20 percent. Metal, glass, organic waste, construction and motor vehicle debris, even waste with no category are bigger litter problems than plastic grocery bags.

Coalitions will inevitably form when the technology to produce reusable hemp soda bottles, cigarette filters and fast food clamshells with clever environmental slogans on them catches up.

It’s much easier to punish grocers and their customers. And besides, the folks in Austin, San Francisco and Delhi will think El Paso is cool.

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

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Photo of plastic bags by flickr user Heal the Bay, used via a Creative Commons license.

Dallas Police and Fire Pension System sues AG over records of real estate investment
Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012, 09:27AM CST
By Steve Miller
dallas fire truck

The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System lost the public records battle, and now it’s starting a war. After the state Attorney General’s office ruled against it earlier this month, finding that it must hand over to a requestor numerous records regarding a luxury real estate investment, the system filed suit against the AG in Travis County.

The investment in question is with Knudson Development in Hawaii and two companies owned by the system, GP Western Housing and KLH IV.

The request asked for names of people who had rented at one of the developments financed by the pension system, according to the lawsuit.

An asset distribution statement as of Jan. 31 this year shows a relatively minimal investment in Knudson - $590 million, or .1 percent of its real estate allocation.

It’s not the only flap the pension group is embroiled in; the Dallas Observer in July chronicled a deal with a local developer on a $200 million condo tower that has gone south, endangering members’ pensions.

It’s a dicey game the pension board is playing; real estate ventures are becoming more common for pension systems that are clamoring for projected returns of 8 percent that just aren’t happening.

In the case of the public records, though, these very public entities should be aware that their ventures are subject to public scrutiny.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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 MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of fire truck in Dallas by flickr user Justortitri, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Texas attorney general steers clear of San Antonio streetcar debate
Tuesday, Sep 18, 2012, 02:44PM CST
By Steve Miller
streetcar

Is a streetcar line the same thing as light rail? The state Attorney General has declined to rule on the question asked by state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who is battling officials in Bexar County who want to use special district funds for downtown streetcars.

Wentworth and a group of others say that a sales tax measure approved by voters in 2004 to create the Advanced Transportation District specified that the proceeds were not to be used for light rail, and that an effort to spend some of the sales tax proceeds on a streetcar project violates the referendum.

Supporters of the $190 million VIA Metropolitan Transit streetcar project, who say it will help with downtown development, claim that streetcars are not the same as light rail and therefore are fair game for some of the proceeds of the quarter-cent sales tax.

Wentworth in March asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to rule on the matter, after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff asserted in a letter to Wentworth and state Rep. Lyle Larson that the tax money could be spent on an urban streetcar project.

In his letter to Wentworth, Wolff said that “a light rail system is NOT the same as a street car system. Street car systems are slower than light rail, make more frequent stops, utilize smaller vehicles, and operate within the inner city.”

“I believe they are parsing words,” Wentworth said in an interview with Texas Watchdog. “They do have a contract with the voters. They didn’t keep their word.”

Wentworth noted that the top two proponents of the streetcar project are Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.

In 2000, voters emphatically rejected a light rail system, 70 percent to 30 percent. The supporters came from the business community, the same place that much of Wolff’s campaign funding comes from.

Wolff’s contributors for the first half of this year include:

  • Bart Koontz, who owns and operates a number of development firms that have ownership in millions of dollars in Bexar County property.
  • William Sneckner, of Star 7 Properties, which owns retail store properties.
  • Sam Barshop, co-founder of La Quinta Inn hotels.
  • Dan Leyendecker and Derek Naiser of LNV Inc.,  a consulting firm and engineering company for developers.
  • Rio Perla Properties, which owns millions or dollars of properties around the downtown San Antonio area.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of streetcar by flickr user M. Ortiz Gallery, used via a Creative Commons license.

AG denies Houston Airport System’s request to keep secret an embarrassing federal review
Tuesday, Sep 18, 2012, 11:20AM CST
By Steve Miller
plane

Under protest, the Houston Airport System has released a federal review questioning the agency’s flimsy fiscal arrangements with the city of Houston, including payments for software that was never used.

A local watchdog requested a copy of the 12-page letter from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Houston Airport System. He first went to the FAA, which denied his request because the review had no signature. He then turned to HAS, which appealed to the state Attorney General, claiming exemption under section 552.116 of the Texas Government Code, which pertains to audit working papers of a state agency by a state agency.

In a letter ruling issued Aug. 14, the AG denied HAS’ request to withhold the review. The exemption the airport system cited did not apply to the requested records.

The audit at issue is being conducted by the FAA, a federal agency, not the state auditor or the auditor of a state agency, an institution of higher education, a county, a municipality, a school district, a hospital district, or a joint board. Accordingly, section 552.116 of the Government Code is not applicable, and the system may not withhold the submitted information on that basis. As you claim no other exceptions, the submitted information must be released.

The sternly worded letter notes that a $20 million contract between HAS and the Houston Police Department, entered into without any memo of understanding, opens the door to a number of accountability problems.

Also noted by the FAA is a $345,000 expenditure by HAS for three years’ use of the city’s geographic information system, which no one at the airport system uses because it is “inferior to the one already in use at HAS.” Same for the $100,000 annual cost of the city’s phone system - but that estimate is tenuous because “the city has not revealed the exact cost to the airport.”

And finally, the FAA voiced concern over the marketing expenditures of HAS with three local economic development agencies, with no invoicing. It asked for some help in order to understand the arrangements and for a more complete accounting of expenditures.

A Houston Airport System spokeswoman declined to comment on the report. Texas Watchdog has requested the HAS’s official response.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of plane by flickr user MichaelB in Houston, used via a Creative Commons license.

Austin-area 45 Southwest tollway vote in doubt due to error-filled report (updated)
Tuesday, Sep 18, 2012, 09:39AM CST
By Mike Cronin
road stripes

A vote on the future of a 3.6-mile toll road in Travis and Hays counties could be postponed after a study on the traffic effects of the potential highway was found to be riddled with errors, the Austin American-Statesman has reported.

“The report was rescinded because some of the data we received from (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) was found to be faulty,” Jennifer Duthie, the study’s author said in an e-mail to Texas Watchdog.

“We should be redoing the analysis in the next couple of months,” said Duthie, who is a research associate at the University of Texas Center for Transportation Research in Austin. The revisions may delay an October vote by CAMPO on whether to keep the roadway in a long-range planning document for the region.

CAMPO Director Maureen McCoy said that the report’s population and employment projections were “undoubtedly flawed.”

The study “assumed population and employment figures in 2025 in about half of the area studied in southern Travis County and northern Hays County would decrease over the next 13 years. That would fly in the face of predictions of continued growth throughout Central Texas,” the Statesman reported.

Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, a CAMPO board member, told the Statesman she didn’t think it prudent to make any decision on whether to build the road until the board has sound numbers.

Eckhardt joined a majority of the Commissioners Court in calling for Texas 45 Southwest to be taken out of CAMPO's 25-year plan.

"It's not just road warriors who are concerned with the validity of these statistics, and it's not just the environmentalists,” she told the American-Statesman.

CAMPO and the Texas Department of Transportation paid for the study, Duthie said.

The report is a product of UT’s Network Modeling Center, McCoy said. She could not provide the study’s specific cost. But McCoy said CAMPO has provided the center $2 million during a four-year period.

The mistake-ridden study was “not a wasted effort,” Duthie said. “The model (preparation) will be useful for the next round.”

Many Central Texans had hoped the report would reveal whether building the tollway would really mitigate road congestion, and whether it might pollute the Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water to 60,000 people.

Updated (5:41 p.m.): This version of the story includes a link to the flawed report.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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

Pension reform will be a bloody fight between GOP factions in the Texas legislature
Tuesday, Sep 18, 2012, 09:14AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
capitol

When your party has owned your state in what seems like forever, eventually you drum up things to fight about within your own party.

For Republicans in Texas, pension reform is made to order.

Several Republicans, including current House pensions committee members like State Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, who reportedly would like to be the committee’s next chairman, think the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and the Employees Retirement System of Texas are swell the way they are, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

There is ample evidence of crisis in state pension systems in other states. Pension reform has become a rallying cry for small government conservatives across the country.

But although the two largest government pension programs in Texas have a combined unfunded liability of $28 billion, some experts have pronounced them healthier than most.

Recent reports by both funds argue that changing them, by moving toward a 401(k) contribution model, would be costly and counterproductive.

But to show how the lines of debate have been redrawn, Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, chairman of the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee and a supporter of the status quo, was rather badly pummelled in the Republican primary in May and won’t be part of the coming Legislative session.

Until her thumping, Truitt had been mixing it up pretty good with the more conservative elements of her party, at one point dropping a book-length Texas Ethics Commission complaint on activist Michael Quinn Sullivan and his two non-profits, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Empower Texans.

Sullivan says he has heard nothing about the complaint from the Ethics Commission, but was pleased voters in Tarrant County saw fit to fire Truitt.

“It's in the TEC black hole, as far as I know,” Sullivan told Texas Watchdog Monday. “Ms. Truitt has a record of legislating poorly, and she didn't appreciate our work in letting taxpayers know just how badly she was misrepresenting them in Austin.”

Sullivan has urged the Legislature to reform state pensions, which a contributor to Empower Texans recently called a  “ticking time bomb.

Orr’s views on what kind of ordnance state pensions are will almost certainly determine whether or not his political wish is granted.

Update (Sept. 19): This article was updated to clarify that the opinion that unfunded government pensions is a ticking time bomb is the opinion of Michele Samuelson, a contributor to Empower Texans, and not the opinion of Empower Texans.

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

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

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Rick Perry vs The World
Andrea Parquet-Taylor named KTVT CBS 11 news director Former KHOU 11 assistant news director Andrea Parquet-Taylor named Vice President, News Director for KTVT CBS 11 Andrea...
Update:2 years 2 weeks
Mike McGuff
VIDEO: KPRC 2 10pm newscast (1-24-99) ...
Update:2 years 2 weeks
Mike McGuff
Democrats actually thought Wendy Davis was a serious candidate? Hat tip to Willisms: VIDEO- Wendy Davis being Wendy Davis: https://t.co/SHq3ACGVDJ #txlege— Will Franklin (@WILLisms) January 24,...
Update:2 years 2 weeks
Rick Perry vs The World
Luke Bryan to sing National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LI on FOX ​ Country music superstar LUKE BRYAN will sing the National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LI pregame festivities at NRG Stadium in Houston...
Update:2 years 3 weeks
Mike McGuff
Tweets
Karen Townsend | 6 years 8 months
"Patrick F. Kennedy is a career foreign service officer" - http://t.co/GOrCe0IS
Peter Corbett ✈ | 6 years 8 months
I'm at McCarran International Airport (LAS) w/ @almacy http://t.co/KvmId07i
KERA Public Media | 6 years 8 months
TONIGHT at 7pm on KERA TV: Presidential Debate: Learn more at PBS NewsHour. http://t.co/Z9kYdun8
PBS MediaShift | 6 years 8 months
Tech Snafus Make Bill O'Reilly/Jon Stewart 'Rumble' More of a Stumble http://t.co/4OfeBlrG (@kegill | @pbsmediashift) #rumble2012
Will Sullivan | 6 years 8 months
Great addition, been burned too much by bad subs. "Google Play Announces Free Trials For In-App Subscription Services" http://t.co/TOLgRVak
TxDOT | 6 years 8 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 6 years 8 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 6 years 8 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
San Antonio Current | 6 years 8 months
Go ahead, chalk it up http://t.co/YMWpC5wM #satx #chalkitup
Caller.com | 6 years 8 months
Scanner: Bathroom on fire in 600 block of Virginia, CC fire dept. on the way
Ballotpedia | 6 years 8 months
Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 6 years 8 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 6 years 8 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 6 years 8 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 6 years 8 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 6 years 8 months
If you see news in or around San Antonio 'SEND IT' to @NEWS4WOAI here: http://t.co/uMqbMXQv OR email us at: NEWSDESK@WOAITV.COM
swamplot | 6 years 8 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 6 years 8 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 6 years 8 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 6 years 8 months
Mental Health Awareness Week FREE Webinar:"Understanding Depression-How to Help You or a Loved One" Thurs,Oct 11@1pm-https://t.co/YUWi19WY
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