in Houston, Texas
Publicly-funded gondolas a ‘viable transportation alternative’ for Round Rock, Texas?
Tuesday, Feb 19, 2013, 03:03PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
gondola

When one of the most innovative cities in America takes its first crack at mass transit you can bet it won’t be buses, trains or streetcars.

No, Round Rock, Texas, elevation 709 feet, is thinking about a gondola system, like those crawling up and down the ski slopes of the world.

While the average mope on a Round Rock street might ask, ‘Are you really serious?’ the mayor of the city, Alan McGraw, is quick with a reply. “Why not?”

“The problem with government in general is the thinking is not very innovative,” McGraw told Texas Watchdog. “I am fascinated at this being a viable transportation alternative.”

In keeping with the kind of thinking Forbes Magazine recognized when it named Round Rock the second most innovative city in America in 2010, McGraw said he got the idea a couple of years ago.

Every time McGraw turned around the city was faced with a right-of-way issue that, invariably, cost money and time. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if you could plan over the top of everything already here?

The creative nucleus at Frog Design in downtown Austin were thinking about it, too. They put together a proposal for Austin. They couldn’t get an audience in spite of ongoing transit troubles, in particular with the city’s little loved commuter train to and from Leander.

Round Rock has no corresponding troubles because it has no bus system, no train, no entrenched transit union. But with a population of about 105,000, the city is one of the fastest growing in Texas.

And so McGraw welcomed Frog Design to City Hall last week for a multimedia presentation that had a lot of Austin and no Round Rock.

Alan McGrawAlan McGraw

No matter.

The presentation was a little light on specifics. After realizing most commuters would not be wearing ski clothes and would be scudding along in the Texas heat, Frog’s factoring in of climate control for gondolas quadrupled its low-end estimated cost from $3 million to $12 million a mile.

That figure could go as high as $24 million a mile, a figure that compares favorably to the $100 million Austin is estimating it will cost to complete a mile of urban rail. Which doesn’t compare favorably to much of anything.

At a top speed of 15 mph, the gondola system can be ruled out as a regional transportation alternative, McGraw said. At fewer than a dozen people to a gondola, dangling one behind another in a loop, there remain the problems of traffic density and of maximizing pickup and dropoff opportunities.

Michael McDaniel, the principal designer of what he likes to call “The Wire,” said Round Rock has a big advantage over Austin in that the city isn’t saddled with the political baggage of existing mass transit.

“We think it would be pretty hilarious that Austin, the city that likes to keep things weird, wouldn’t do this, but Round Rock, the place that keeps things normal, would,” McDaniel said.

Neither is McDaniel worried that the residents of a suburb in a state known for its individual vehicle culture would be reluctant to park their pickup trucks somewhere on the cable circuit and grab a gondola.

The designers have even toyed with an elaborate design allowing for door-to-door service, a sort of ski in and ski out system, he says.

“It’s really up to the city to decide what they want to do,” McDaniel said. “Round Rock would be starting fresh, from the ground up.”

McGraw’s undimmed enthusiasm begged the question, could there be an ulterior motive for considering an untried transit method with technical hurdles that threaten to make it costlier and less efficient than a bus or a train?

There is the coolness factor of having the only gondola system of its kind in the country, McGraw said. But he promised that wouldn’t color any cost/benefit analysis the city would need to do.

Although the Frog presentation never mentions it, could the gondola system open the door to the state’s first indoor skiing park? McGraw freely admitted he likes to ski. One of the planning team at Frog Design came up with the gondola concept, in part, because he is a ski bum, McGraw says.

There are stranger places to plan such a complex. In 2009, Snow Sport Entertainment Ltd. was all set to build Texas Alps, a $70 million complex as part of a proposed $1.6 billion World Villages of Grapevine, right next to the Grapevine Mills Mall, when the world economy collapsed.

The investors, including former Texas Rangers hitting star Rafael Palmeiro, later filed for bankruptcy.

Could the Texas Alps arise from the gently rolling hills of Round Rock? Alec Sohmer, who headed the original Alps project, told Texas Watchdog his group had no plans for Texas, and a deal for a similar skiing complex in Georgia has stalled.

Sohmer wasn’t aware that anyone else was moving ahead on a skiing village in Texas.

But are you sure, Watchdog asked McGraw. “No, not at all,” he said, amused at the question.

At the end of the presentation, McGraw told Frog Design the city’s line of communication would be open, nothing formal, nothing set for an upcoming agenda. McGraw, he said, is always ready to listen.

“It’s open-ended. I like the idea of having another arrow,” he said, mixing his skiing and archery metaphors, “in our quiver of transportation.”

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

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Photo of gondola by flickr user tomkellyphoto, used via a Creative Commons license.

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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.

Austin Energy customers foot bill – $2 a month per customer for 19 years – for idled biomass plant
Thursday, Feb 14, 2013, 05:33PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Sam Houston National Forest

Around the clock, seven days a week, in a plant 233 miles away, a full complement of energy professionals stands at the ready to provide wood-fired power to Austin Energy customers.

The staff isn’t sure when they will be needed next. The $128 million plant has produced electricity for less than two of the seven months it has been in operation.

But  for the next 19 years a little less than $2 will be added every month to the bill of the average Austin Energy customer to pay for a plant that, when it does produce energy, produces energy too expensive for any energy company to want to buy.

“It is one of the biggest boondoggles I’ve seen in modern history,” an obviously agitated Tony Bennett says. Bennett is the acting director of the Texas Forest Industries Council. “Just thinking about how they pulled this off makes me mad.”

Bennett was among those who tried to persuade Austin Energy five years ago to think a little bit harder before trying to pull off building a new biomass-burning generating plant in the pine woods of East Texas.

The Council was part of a once-in-a lifetime coalition of consumer and good government advocates, environmental activists, and commercial and industrial interests who came together in 2008 to plead with the Austin City Council to reject the plan.

The City Council unanimously approved allowing Austin Energy to charge its customers to build the plant. The plan allowed for the energy company to enter into a guaranteed contract for 20 years for energy valued at the time at $2.3 billion.

“What is the most disturbing thing to me was that they put this contract through in about two weeks, almost in secret,” Bennett says. “I can tell you it shocked the forest products community at the time, the way they hurried it along.”

The reason for its urgency was that Roger Duncan, then head of Austin Energy, considered the plant a necessary component in his plan for Austin Energy to get 35 percent of all of its energy from renewable sources, spokesman Ed Clark says.

Unlike solar power and wind power, wood or biomass is a source of energy that could be called on in the dead calm of night, Clark says.

“Roger wanted that renewable component that would allow us to have power to dispatch 24-7,” he says.

Roger Duncan and Austin Energy could not at the time the contract was signed in 2008 have anticipated the explosion of hydraulic fracturing that created a buyer’s market for a seemingly endless supply of cheap natural gas, Clark says.

They could have had they listened to several industry experts who were part of a generation plan task force formed by former mayor Will Wynn in 2007, Trey Salinas, a spokesman for the Coalition for Clean Affordable Renewable Energy, says.

At least three of those experts who later helped form the coalition told the task force that most every reliable forecast predicted a protracted period of low natural gas prices driven by technological breakthroughs like hydraulic fracturing.

“They can’t say they couldn’t know because they were told,” Salinas says.

More than two years ago, while the plant was under construction, Michael Webber, who supported the plant as associate director of the Center for International Energy & Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, admitted to Texas Tribune the plant was controversial to begin with and no longer made economic sense.

In spite of the failure of additional federal tax breaks to materialize that would have made biomass more competitive, construction pushed on. Not long after the plant  fired up for the first time this past summer Southern Power, a subsidiary of the Southern Company in Atlanta, acquired it.

By agreement, Southern Power has the plant fully staffed around the clock, ready to serve Austin Energy’s needs, spokesman Tim Leljedal says. In spite of the substantial lack of work, Leljedal confirmed that the company has not reduced staff nor has it been asked to by Austin Energy.

Leljedal declined to say - per the contract - how much Austin Energy customers were paying by the day, week or month when the plant is idle.

Clark confirmed Austin Energy is paying a capacity fee to Southern Power, but would not say what it was, per the contract. But the fee and the contract are little different from those signed with other renewable energy companies in generation arrangements that are increasingly complicated.

At one time, Austin Energy envisioned the biomass plant running 90 percent of the time. Officials have downgraded the outlook to 75 percent and promised the plant would be firing on all burners by this summer, Clark says.

When asked if Austin Energy customers would be expected to cover the shortfall in the $2.3 billion contract, Clark says, “We’re not going to come close to that $2.3 billion figure.”

The problem is, advocates have for five years been unsuccessful in getting Austin Energy to make the terms of the contract public. No one really knows what utility ratepayers are paying for.

“CCARE (Coalition for Clean Affordable Renewable Energy) has always strongly believed that Austin Energy should release the 2008 Biomass contract,” Salinas says. “We do not feel there is a legitimate reason that a signed contract should be kept confidential and held from the public for over four years.”

The Austin City Council is currently deciding on whether or not to hand oversight of Austin Energy over to an independent board.

“We view this biomass plant decision as Exhibit A for why we need an independent board overseeing Austin Energy,” Salinas says.

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

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Photo from the Sam Houston National Forest by flickr user NixBC, 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.

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.

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Photo of money by flickr user 401(K)2012, 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.

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Photo of a MetroRail commuter train by flickr user xfile001, 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.

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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.

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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.

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 Jollyville Plateau salamander via AustinTexas.gov.

Lawmaker promises less raiding of state’s dedicated funds - like those for utility bills of poor
Thursday, Jan 24, 2013, 01:25PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
dome

Imagine if you were to hold a fundraiser for terminally ill children from abusive homes, raised a potful of money and used it to pay your rent.

In the Texas Legislature, this is known as “dedicating,” passing laws that require setting aside an amount of taxation or fee to carry out their goals and sitting on it, instead, to plug holes in the state budget.

This practice, clearly lacking in dedication, has produced what the Legislature has come to think of as a slush fund of nearly $5 billion, all perfectly legal if you talk to the right kind of lawyer.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams tells the Dallas Morning News he’s willing to take a crack at ending the process of dedicated funding. But he isn’t exactly sure how and thinks it might take two or three legislative sessions.

Williams, R-The Woodlands, says lawmakers began leaning on locking in funding in the last decade when state sales tax collections were volatile. A volatile state sales tax, however, is the funding source for all that dedication, making budgeting itself an unstable business.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Williams said.

In the meantime, low-income utility customers, the dedicated fund the Legislature isn’t using to help you has grown to $850 million. Air quality awaits improvement while its fund is $798 million. Paramedic and hospital emergency services is short $388 million the Legislature promised.

May we suggest, while you are waiting, a fundraiser?

***
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 state Capitol dome by flickr user dziner, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas courthouses named to preservationists’ ‘most endangered’ list, $247 million spent to date on courthouse program
Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013, 12:55PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
plate

The historic courthouses of Texas, without which the lemonade, chewing tobacco and dominoes industries would have long ago collapsed, are themselves collapsing. Again.

Taxpayers have since 1999 spent $247 million to keep the domes, cupolas and turrets atop 83 of the old warhorses, but that isn’t near enough, according to a report by KXAN-TV in Austin.

After 14 years of restoration, the state’s county courthouses have found themselves back on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

To help blot out the shame, the Texas Historical Commission is asking the Legislature for another $20 million in this session. But with at least 75 of the more than 235 courthouses 50 years or older in need of work, expect the requests to go on in perpetuity.

Stung by the first National Trust reproach, Gov. George W. Bush and the Legislature in 1999 ponied up $50 million to establish the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. The grant reached a high of $62 million in the 2007 session but has dipped to $20 million for each of the past two biennia.

Should the funding not be forthcoming, counties might want to consider setting up committees for issuing bonds without voter approval as was done to prompt quick action to build a new $343 million courthouse in Travis County.

And if that doesn’t work out, there’s always room for folding dominoes tables in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

***
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 Fort Bend County courthouse by flickr user fusionpanda, used via a Creative Commons license.

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