in Houston, Texas
Texans carry state/local debt load of $9,212 per person, for statewide total of $233.2 billion, according to comptroller
Thursday, Sep 27, 2012, 10:20AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
debt

Texas taxpayers were on the hook for $233.2 billion in debt in 2011, the cumulative result of spending by local and state government officials.

Local spending accounting for $192.7 billion or 83 percent of the total, has increased by more than 122 percent from $86.7 billion in 2001, according to Your Money and Local Debt, a new report by State Comptroller Susan Combs.

State debt, making up the remaining $40.5 billion, has grown by 134 percent from $17.3 billion during the same period.

Debt is rolled up by the state to finance transportation, university, housing, water and military projects. Cities, counties, school, hospital and water districts take on debt to pay for their projects.

Texas ranks fifth in the country in its combined state and local debt, $9,212 for every Texan behind New York, California, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The state’s per capita local debt, $7,983, is second in the country behind only New York, the report says.

As might be expected, Houston had the highest outstanding debt of any city in Texas, $13,150,526,369. Houston was followed by:

  • San Antonio: $9,424,770,314
  • Dallas: $6,555,273,086
  • Austin: $5,315,491,444
  • Fort Worth: $3,139,402,000

San Antonio, however, carried the highest per capita debt at $7,100, followed by Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth.

While the report issues no dire warning, Combs says taxpayers should be concerned that a small percentage of registered voters bothers to cast ballots for or against  issuing new debt locally or statewide.

Combs proposes that ballots make clearer what projects voters are deciding on, what their debt obligation is and the total debt being carried by the governmental body asking for new funding.

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

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Photo of 'pile of debt' by flickr user msaari, used via a Creative Commons license.

Harris County GOP asks for state approval to solicit campaign donations via text message
Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012, 06:27PM CST
By Steve Miller
texting

A Republican political committee has asked the Texas Ethics Commission to decide if it can receive small-scale political contributions via text message, as is done in California and Maryland.

The Harris County Republicans posed the question in a 72-page request that includes examples of previously approved rules.

The group would use a smartphone app that identifies phone contacts who are registered voters in a given area.

The app then has a window that permits one-touch calls or emails to the voter. If the voter is amenable to the idea of texting a contribution, the process is completed.

The contribution would be added to the donor’s wireless bill, and the committee would receive the money minus a transaction fee.

The app is designed by Harris County Republicans director Robert Flanagan, who said the technology will help candidates contact voters throughout the wide reaches of Harris County.

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

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Photo of 'Texting' by flickr user Joi, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas Supreme Court will weigh whether courts can award damages based on sentimental value of pets
Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012, 11:28AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
dog

How much is this aluminum good luck piece I stamped out in a Greyhound bus station back in 1971 worth? How about my high school football mouthguard?

How about my dog, Liberty?

If you answered incalculable, you’d be correct, at least for the first two if you aren’t a judge or a member of a jury in Texas. State law has long allowed for the award of damages based on the sentimental value of property.

(Please see City of Tyler v. Likes, 1997, Porras v. Craig, 1984 and Brown v. Frontier Theaters Inc., 1963.)

The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to consider what is for most pet owners the correction of a horrendous 120-year-old legal oversight, allowing courts to assign a dollar value to their emotional attachment to their pets, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is reporting.

The 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth thought this was reasonable, deciding in favor of Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen, whose beloved 8-year-old Labrador mix, Avery, was euthanized in error three years ago in an animal shelter, according to the story.

A Tarrant County civil district court originally refused to recognize sentimental value and dismissed the case, which the Medlens appealed.

"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners," the appeals court said in its ruling. "We interpret timeworn Supreme Court law to acknowledge that the special value of man's best friend should be protected."

Based solely on unconditional devotion, I certainly hope no one mistakenly euthanizes my mouthguard.

***
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 onTwitterand 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 cute dogs by flickr user ario_, used via a Creative Commons license.

Little distinction between criminal acts and lesser violations in League City’s ethics law, review finds
Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012, 10:39AM CST
By Steve Miller
ethics

The ethics ordinance in League City is flawed, according to a review by a national ethics researcher, who found that the law confused ethics violations with criminal acts.

The “means that enforcement is in the hands not of the ethics program, but of a criminal enforcement agency, which may very well be led by colleagues or allies of city officials,” writes Robert Wechsler, director of research at City Ethics, a group that assesses and assists local government ethics programs. “In addition, this means that there is little distinction between a crime such as bribery and an ethics violation such as accepting a gift from someone doing business with the city.”

 

Wechsler also faulted the process for appointing people to the ethics review board (ERB), where appointees are selected by city council members.

 

“If the ERB dismisses a matter against a council member, it will appear that its members were voting in the interests of their appointing authorities rather than in the public interest,” Wechsler wrote.

 

Both the ethics compliance officer and the city attorney are allowed to provide ethics advice, Wechsler found, “allowing forum shopping among officials who feel the city attorney might let them do something the (compliance officer) would not.”

 

On a more positive note, Wechsler pointed out that the council’s recent ban on electronic communication between council members during public meetings was a step in the right direction and that anything other than such a prohibition goes against the state’s open meetings act.

 

***

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


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Ethics sign via Texas A&M University.

State Rep. Vicki Truitt spent six-figure money with Eppstein Group in primary campaign’s last days
Monday, Sep 24, 2012, 04:45PM CST
By Steve Miller
checkbook

As her seven terms in the statehouse ebbed away in May’s Republican primary, state Rep. Vicki Truitt paid tens of thousands of dollars in advertising and consulting fees to political starmaker Bryan Eppstein, records show.

Truitt made two separate May 21 payments of $31,311.22 – ten days before the primary – to The Eppstein Group, one for advertising, and one for printing, according to Truitt’s most recent campaign finance report, which covers expenditures between May 20 and June 30. In total, Truitt paid $114,002 to The Eppstein Group in those 40 days.

Truitt lost the primary 56 percent to 44 percent to Giovanni Capriglione, a Tea Party-backed candidate who spent $20,847 on advertising in the same period.

In 2010, when Truitt narrowly won her seat in the North Texas district, she spent $54,355 on advertising with The Election Group, which was Eppstein’s company at the time. She won the primary with 52 percent of the vote and ran unopposed in the general election.

Other entrenched Republican incumbents who were ousted in May’s primary spent much less. Wayne Christian lost his East Texas seat to Chris Paddle, the former mayor of Marshall, 52 percent to 48 percent, spending $9,270, including $400 on Facebook ads, in the last days.

In The Woodlands, Rob Eissler lost to minister Steve Toth 57 percent to 43 percent after five terms in office. Eissler has $639,761 in his campaign coffers, according to his most recent finance report, and spent $40,025 on advertising in the last days.

Truitt was fighting adverse publicity as she lost her seat, which may account for her hefty advertising.

On April 10, Texas Watchdog reported on the no-bid contracts that Physician Resource Network, the consultancy run by Truitt and her husband, Jim, had secured from Tarrant County’s public health agency. The contracts were carried out down the line by Truitt donors. Five days later, the story was also run in the hometown Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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

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Photo of checkbook by flickr user adamthelibrarian, used via a Creative Commons license.

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.

Is Texas a red state? More like a red tape state. Texas regulates more professions than you think.
Monday, Sep 10, 2012, 02:05PM CST
By Curt Olson
redcap

Texas has earned a reputation nationwide as a state with a low regulatory climate where any business can flourish, but don’t tell that to Tod Pendergrass and Dana McMichael of Austin.

They have waged a fight for seven years against the Texas Supreme Court for its regulation of the industry of about 3,500 people in Texas who serve court papers. Texas is one of nine states that require state regulation, and the only one that did so by state Supreme Court edict, according to the National Association of Professional Process Servers.

“There is no call from the public that we need protection from process servers,” McMichael says.

Pendergrass and McMichael believe state legislators can undo the court’s action and have raised the issue via a new website, Texas Red Tape Challenge, where citizens can comment “on how to make Texas laws and regulations less burdensome.” The site created by the House Government Efficiency and Reform Committee in July has a forum for public discussion of state occupational licensing issues. Committee chairman Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, said he expects the elimination of some licenses and is seeking public input before the panel meets in November.

Opposed to any targeting of his industry is Carl Weeks, former chairman of the process server licensing board. He said the system is more efficient than that of local constables, who also have charge of serving court papers.

“Citizens should not bear the cost of subsidizing litigation cost. Private process fees are 100 percent paid by the litigants, when process is served in the office of a constable it cost taxpayers enormous dollars and only serves to grow and expand government. … Citizens of Texas are subsidizing the cost of private litigation when constable offices deliver civil process,” Weeks said.

Weeks said the Process Server Review Board provides an essential check on the profession.

“It goes to the deprivation of freedom and personal property interests,” he said. “You can’t get any more foundational than that.”

After about a dozen rejections by Texas lawmakers to regulate the industry, Texas Supreme Court justices created the Process Server Review Board in July 2005. It makes recommendations to justices and can recommend discipline of process servers.

The high court’s move established a cottage industry that requires process servers to take classes and pass an exam to receive a state certificate. The state collects $75 a year from each person who serves court papers. The Office of Court Administration pours the money into the state’s general fund, so far nearly $650,000. The classes are run by four trade groups and one small business.

Pendergrass and McMichael don’t like paying $225 for a three-year certificate, but that’s not the real rub. Both men argue the high court superseded the Legislature to regulate their profession.

“The Legislature never created the Process Server Review Board by statute,” said Pendergrass, who has 24 years of experience as a judicial process server.

“That is a blatant breach of power,” said McMichael, also a more than 20-year veteran of the industry. “If the Legislature can regulate it, the Supreme Court can’t.”

Weeks said the move was appropriate because justices have charge over the operation of the courts.

The licensing of people who deliver court papers adds to the number of people who have to get a state approval to ply their trade.

Consider a study in May from the Arlington,Va.-based Institute for Justice. It gave Texas a mixed grade, with Texas in the top third — 17th — for most burdensome licensing laws, and 32nd most extensively and onerously licensed state.

The study shows 60 years ago only one in 20 U.S. workers needed government approval to pursue their occupation. Today, it is about one in three. “Yet research to date provides little evidence that licensing protects public health and safety or improves products and services. Instead, it increases consumer costs and reduces opportunities for workers,” the Institute for Justice study states.

The study does not identity process servers, guardians and court reporters, all whom must have a certificate to work. A certificate would be the equivalent of a license issued by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. The department will spend about $48 million in 2012-13, and since 1999 the number of licenses it oversees has grown more than five-fold from 116,000 to 655,987, according to the department’s strategic plan.

“There’s been an explosion of occupational licensing,” said Matt Miller, executive director of the Institute for Justice’s Texas chapter. “Rules are typically passed with flimsy evidence.”

Pendergrass and McMichael said they will continue their quest to end the certification of their profession. They want the Sunset Advisory Commission, which has the power to recommend reforms or dismantling of state agencies, to examine the board. Pendergrass believes the board wouldn’t measure up under intense Sunset Commission scrutiny.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of red tape by flickr user free press pics, used via a Creative Commons license.

Bar owner blames Odessa police for no-show off-duty cop on night of shooting
Wednesday, Aug 29, 2012, 05:10PM CST
By Steve Miller
police

Cops are known to miss a court appearance or two. But it seems to have taken an Odessa bar by surprise when an off-duty Odessa Police Department officer failed to show up for a security shift on Aug. 18 –- and a guy shot three people in the bar parking lot, killing one.

THEN the cops showed up.

The practice of hiring cops to work side jobs is a common practice in most cities. In Houston, it’s been abused by the city’s police officers. (Click here to view applications for outside work to the Houston Police Department.)

As this story in the Odessa American points out, having local cops moonlight can sometimes drag the city into a thorny mess; the cop didn’t show, and people are casting a bit of blame.

“The bar owner, one of the victims and a family member of [the shooter] Richardson who said he was there that night have all said police are somewhat responsible for not providing security.”

While the Odessa police department sounds like it takes this no-show pretty seriously, the fallout is possible legal action against the city.

In Houston, the legislatively-created improvement districts use officers from the different law enforcement agencies for extra patrol, a potentially lucrative endeavor. What happens, though, when an officer fails to show up and something happens in his absence? Chances are some of the burden will be placed on that no-show.

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

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Photo of 'police car lights' by flickr user davidsonscott15, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas third in total state debt, low by per-capita measure; across all the states, underfunded liability shoots to $3.5 trillion
Tuesday, Aug 28, 2012, 11:54AM CST
By Curt Olson
debt

A new study by State Budget Solutions places Texas third nationwide in total state debt with $287 billion, behind California and New York.

New Jersey and Illinois joined the top three, rounding out the same five states with the highest total debt from a year ago, the study states. The states with the lowest total state debt are Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Texas’ third-place rank shouldn’t surprise taxpayers, given the state’s rapid growth in the past decade. The state had more than 25.1 million residents in 2010 compared to 20.9 million in 2000, according to Census data. Those extra 4 million people and change triggered the construction of roads, water and wastewater treatment plants, among other infrastructure.

When population is factored in, the picture in Texas improves.

The Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation reported that Texas has a debt per capita of $1,679, ranking 45th in the nation, according to figures for 2010, the most recent year for which data is available. That compares to New York’s nearly $6,700 per resident and California’s more than $4,000 per resident.

Texas’ rank for total debt did not surprise Chuck DeVore, vice president for communications at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation. He said fiscal policy analysts at the free market think tank have greater concern about local government debt.

“We would like to see limits on debt, especially at the local level,” DeVore said, noting local government debt boosts property taxes, with multiple public entities having power to raise property taxes.

State Comptroller Susan Combs reported last week that between 1992 and 2010 Texas had an additional 500 special purpose districts created, accounting for more than 87 percent of the growth in public entities levying property taxes.

State Budget Solutions reports total state debt nationwide dropped from $4.24 trillion to $4.19 trillion, which study author Cory Eucalitto attributes to reductions in unemployment trust fund loans and fiscal year budget gap totals. He estimated Texas’s fiscal year 2013 budget gap at $9 billion. Texas had no unemployment trust fund loans.

“Fiscal year budget gaps alone fell by more than half. The lack of a subsequent, sizable drop in total state debt, however, shows that the cause of state debt is a systemic one requiring far more than annual budget balancing to eliminate,” the State Budget Solution report states.

The State Budget Solutions study that Eucalitto released early Tuesday identifies the growing problem with pension debt and the way states account for it.

The study shows many consider the aggregate pension debt for the 50 states to be about $760 billion. The study says this understates underfunded pension costs by $2.1 trillion, a number accepted by the credit-rating firm Moody’s. New rules expected this fall from Moody’s and the Governmental Account Standards Board will almost certainly paint a bleaker financial picture for pensions across the country.

Across the states, the underfunded liability increases to about $3.5 trillion when health care benefits for public employee retirees are added to the $2.2 trillion amount by which pensions are underfunded.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of debt by flickr user Images_of_Money, used via a Creative Commons license.

Investment officers, medical positions highest paid in state agencies, but executive pay disparities emerge in Texas state audit
Friday, Aug 24, 2012, 04:15PM CST
By Curt Olson
money

A new report from State Auditor John Keel confirms that investment officers and medical positions remain the best paid in state government.

The audit on executive pay at state agencies also shows some deputy administrators and other employees earn as much or more than the executive who manages the agency where they work.

One chart in the audit shows the 25 highest-paid investment officers in state government earn salaries between $180,000 and $480,000. The top three, two investors with the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and one with the Employees Retirement System of Texas, make more than the highest paid state agency executive. ERS Executive Director Ann Bishop earns $312,000 and is eligible for a bonus from the ERS board.

Some of the investment officers in this list may be paid incentive compensation if investment returns surpass goals. Keel outlined incentive compensation in this report about three months ago for certain investment officers in TRS, ERS and the Permanent School Fund.

Meanwhile, the top 25 medical positions identified by Keel, all physicians or psychiatrists, earn between $208,260 and $216,652.

Some of the trends in Texas state agency executive pay disparities Keel found include:

  • A total of 181 employees at 12 state agencies had salaries that exceeded the annual salaries of the executive officer at their agencies.
  • A total of 107 employees at 37 state agencies had salaries that were the same as or within 10 percent less than the annual salaries of the executive officer at their agencies.
  • The Health and Human Services commissioner, who oversees five agencies and budget of about $32 billion, has a lower salary than the annual salaries for eight other management positions at state agencies.

These trends occur in a time of budget reductions at state government, with state agency leaders instructed to brace for more in the budget for 2014-15.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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

Photo of the money by flickr user Steve Rhodes, used via a Creative Commons license.

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FEBRUARY 27 / Eric Hoffer on . . . . . . baby boomers and alienated intellectuals. "SCRATCH AN INTELLECTUAL, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the...
Update:3 years 1 week
Unca Darrell
2017 Project: January “Progress” There are two different ways to interpret my 2017 project: that it's a way more complicated New Years Resolution, or that it is essentially...
Update:3 years 1 month
Greg's Opinion
Ted Cruz's first senate term in a nutshell The National Review's Tim Alberta switched to Politico, and one of his opening pieces put Ted Cruz's first term in a nutshell It...
Update:3 years 1 month
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:3 years 1 month
Mike McGuff
VIDEO: KPRC 2 10pm newscast (1-24-99) ...
Update:3 years 1 month
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:3 years 1 month
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:3 years 1 month
Mike McGuff
Tweets
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
"Patrick F. Kennedy is a career foreign service officer" - http://t.co/GOrCe0IS
Peter Corbett ✈ | 7 years 9 months
I'm at McCarran International Airport (LAS) w/ @almacy http://t.co/KvmId07i
KERA Public Media | 7 years 9 months
TONIGHT at 7pm on KERA TV: Presidential Debate: Learn more at PBS NewsHour. http://t.co/Z9kYdun8
PBS MediaShift | 7 years 9 months
Tech Snafus Make Bill O'Reilly/Jon Stewart 'Rumble' More of a Stumble http://t.co/4OfeBlrG (@kegill | @pbsmediashift) #rumble2012
Will Sullivan | 7 years 9 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 | 7 years 9 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 7 years 9 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
San Antonio Current | 7 years 9 months
Go ahead, chalk it up http://t.co/YMWpC5wM #satx #chalkitup
Caller.com | 7 years 9 months
Scanner: Bathroom on fire in 600 block of Virginia, CC fire dept. on the way
Ballotpedia | 7 years 9 months
Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 7 years 9 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 7 years 9 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 7 years 9 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 7 years 9 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 | 7 years 9 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 7 years 9 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 7 years 9 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 7 years 9 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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