in Houston, Texas
Texas A&M presses on with privatization plan, estimates savings at $260 million
Sunday, Jul 29, 2012, 09:37AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
tam

If this keeps up, Barack Obama might be the only person left on a government payroll who despises capitalism.

About six weeks ago, Texas Watchdog told you Texas A&M University was considering using a contractor rather than university staff to handle dining services on campus. Although many who were aware of it tried to keep it hush, hush, word leaked out that A&M stood to save $125 million over 10 years by using a private company.

The idea has gone over so big the school is now planning to pay the contractor to maintain campus buildings and landscaping, too. Combined with free-market dining services, the school’s savings estimate now stands at $260 million, Texas Tribune reports Friday.

The contract with Compass Group USA, of North Carolina, is the largest of its kind with any American university, the story says.

As we reported a couple of weeks ago, privatization has suddenly become all the rage in certain circles, particularly among Democratic leaders who have the unenviable task of telling their citizens their governments have spent them out of money.

Compass has guaranteed employees jobs for two years with a 4-percent pay increase to even out a difference with the company benefits package if they reapply and pass a background check.

University president R. Bowen Loftin thought the Compass offer very fair. Quite a few of the roughly 1,650 taxpayer-sponsored employees who had been serving up the barbecue, cleaning the toilets and cutting the lawn disagree.

Walter Draper, an assistant custodial supervisor who thought it unfair, wondered aloud how a private company could do the same jobs he and his colleagues were doing for an average of $26 million less every year.

“Texas A&M has one of the finest business schools in the country, and yet we can’t figure out how to in-house save money out of our department,” Draper said, with a metaphorical scratch of the head.

***
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 athrasher, Texas A&M logo from the Texas A&M University System.

Texas A&M professor prompts release of Watergate records that had been sealed for four decades
Monday, Jun 04, 2012, 06:22PM CST
By Mike Cronin
nixon

U.S. government officials say they will release some Watergate documents sealed for four decades in response to a request from a Texas A&M history professor.

"Forty years after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee that began the chapter of U.S. history known as Watergate, no good reason exists to keep sealed many of the judicial records created during the trial of the Watergate burglars," wrote U.S. Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Shapiro wrote in a court document filed, the Associated Press reported.

"I’m obviously going to get something, but I don’t know what that something is," Luke Nichter told the AP. He teaches at Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen and catalogs secret recordings made by President Richard M. Nixon at nixontapes.org.

Shapiro argued in her filing, however, that three categories of documents should remain out of public view: those containing personal information and grand jury information,  and those containing information through illegally obtained wiretaps.

Law-enforcement officers arrested burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972,  at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.

You can see a full timeline of the Watergate story here.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitterand 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 Richard Nixon.

Texas public college chiefs among most highly paid in nation
Friday, Jun 01, 2012, 09:09AM CST
By Steve Miller
graduation cap

The chief administrators at the University of Texas, Texas A & M and Texas Tech were among the highest paid public college presidents in the U.S. for fiscal year 2011, a new study from the Chronicle for Higher Education reports.

And all three university systems have both talked of/executed layoffs and enacted tuition increases in the past year, often complaining about a decrease in federal and state funding while doing so.

The UT Board of Regents in May increased tuition at the Austin campus by 2.1 percent for out-of-state undergrad students and 3.6 percent for grad students.

U-T Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa was paid $751,680 last year.

The UT–Pan American campus at Edinburg in South Texas laid off 26 staffers last year, citing budget cuts of $17 million.

At Texas Tech University, where Chancellor Kent Hance is paid $757,740, 800 layoffs were proposed and may still be coming.

“All the black ink is gone,” Hance said. “It’s all red, which is the color of blood.”  

In March, the university approved a tuition increase of 1.95 percent, generating $3.4 million in revenue.

Texas A&M Chancellor Michael McKinney retired last July with some financial security. But not before pulling in $1.966 million in 2011, making him the highest paid university head in the state and the second highest in the nation. Here’s his parting statement.

It was only February when new chief John Sharp  - who makes a paltry $507,300 - not-so-eloquently tried to quiet layoff rumors in the lower ranks: "When you are losing a million bucks a year, I would say that the chances are greater that employees will be laid off," Sharp said of the dining services operation.

And then there’s the tuition hikes approved in May for several A&M campuses. What’s a thinking high school grad to think of all this?

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

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Photo of graduation cap by flickr user K. Sawyer Photography, used via a Creative Commons license.

Houston police, Texas A&M, other Texas agencies have gotten federal permission to use drones
Thursday, Apr 26, 2012, 03:17PM CST
By Mike Cronin
drone

Drones, made famous by their use to destroy military targets in Iraq and Afghanistan and identify people illegally attempting to enter the United States from Mexico, are also being used by Texas police departments and universities.

Their widespread domestic use might have caught some Americans unawares when the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation announced last week that it finally won a legal battle with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Officials from EFF, a nonprofit organization that advocates for individual rights in the digital world, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a list that shows for the first time what public agencies the U.S. government has authorized to use drones.

Texas is home to many: the Houston and Arlington police departments; the Texas Department of Public Safety; the Hays County Office of Emergency Management in San Marcos; Texas A&M University Corpus Christi; Texas A&M – Texas Engineering Experiment Station in College Station and Texas State University in San Marcos.

“This is the first time we have seen the broad and varied list of other authorized organizations, including universities, police departments, and small towns and counties across the United States,” writes the EFF’s Jennifer Lynch.

See a map of the agencies given permission to fly drones here.

EFF officials also obtained a list of private drone manufacturers authorized to fly drones domestically.

Lynch writes:

Unfortunately, these lists leave many questions unanswered. For example, the (Certificate of Authorization) list does not include any information on which model of drone or how many drones each (public) entity flies. In a meeting with the FAA (last week), the agency confirmed that there were about 300 active Certificates of Authorizations and that the agency has issued about 700-750 authorizations since the program began in 2006. As there are only about 60 entities on (that) list, this means that many of the entities, if not all of them, have multiple Certificates of Authorizations.

It’s also not clear when certain certificates expired and why other applications were not approved, she writes.

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

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

Photo of a drone via Defense.gov, which says the photo is from a scheduled missile exercise aboard the USS Tortuga in Singapore on June 26, 2008.

Public officials' emails shed light on wrangling over University of Houston-Victoria
Monday, May 09, 2011, 01:33PM CST
By Steve Miller
UH banner

Using emails obtained through a public information request, the Victoria Advocate this weekend revealed the political wrangling over an affiliate campus of the University of Houston System, which is beating back an attempt by Texas A&M to take over its Victoria campus.

 

Rep. Geanie Morrison filed a bill in March that would allow for the transfer of the campus to A&M, including UH's school in Sugar Land. The emails show UH leaders maneuvering for the support of Sugar Land officials, who could make the move difficult.

 

In particular, the emails show UH System Chancellor Renu Khator asking a subordinate for talking points as she headed into a meeting with state Sen. Glenn Hegar, whose district includes Sugar Land.

"What should I be asking him/alerting him under various scenarios?" Khator wrote.

 

The talking points she then received from a system staffer included this paragraph:

 

"After careful review by outside consultants, we are proposing to transition UH Sugar Land from a system center to a branch of UH. We believe this is consistent with the community's vision and will provide the best model for delivery of academic programs."

Morrison, who tells the Advocate she was "extremely irritated" by the e-mails, has received contributions from Texas A&M's political action committee over the years, including separate donations of $1,500 in 2006 and 2007.

 

The Advocate story puts on display the competitive nature - and financial value – of affiliate campuses and also documents politics at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a taxpayer-supported panel with a $46 million proposed operating budget for 2011.

 

Board member Dennis Golden, also a former UH System regent, e-mailed UH official Grover Campbell in March to say he was worried about the idea of UH losing Victoria.

Golden then wrote he was working to get a former Cougar - presumably a former University of Houston Cougar - on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

 

If issues arose regarding Morrison's bill and the transfer of UHV, the coordinating board would be charged with settling disputes.

 

"Outstanding," Campbell told Golden.

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

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Photo of UH banner by flickr user Onilad, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas students rejected as out-of-state enrollment grows at state schools
Monday, Apr 04, 2011, 02:34PM CST
By Steve Miller
UT tower

Getting Junior into a Texas college is getting a bit more difficult, as schools have increased out-of-state enrollment -- so much so that nearly 1 in 4 students enrolled at UT Austin this fall is from another state or country, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported over the weekend.
 
The story’s findings raise the question of whether the schools are more interested in dollars than scholars, though none of the officials said their motivation was higher out-of-state tuition fees. They said they’re trying to boost their schools’ reputation on the national stage as well as enable “cultural diversity.” But as the Star-Telegram details, the admissions policies have brought rejection letters to Texas students with resumes that include research experience, top-notch grades, and leadership and sports activities.
 
The news comes as state lawmakers are fussing around and cutting the student aid formula of Texas Grants, the state’s largest student loan program. The good news: Don’t worry about the loan – a kid from California has your classroom seat, anyway.
 
Sort of takes the wind from the sails of the College For All Texans Foundation, which notes that “Last year, more than 79% of students received some type of financial assistance totaling more than $492 million.” More loans are a good thing for the government, of course, which can garnish the wages of those in default.
 
The foundation, an arm of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, estimates that an out-of-state Texas A&M student from a home with an income of $75,000 would pay around $35,914 a year before any grants, assuming the student lived on campus. A student from Texas? $20,614. (Interestingly, A&M has bucked the trend, with out-of-state admissions holding steady for the last several years.)
 
The 282-employee higher education coordinating board includes 21 employees who make more than $100,000 a year and is headed by Raymund Paredes, who adds to his $180,000 annual salary with another $40,000 in fundraising fees from the College for All Texans Foundation, according to this story and confirmed by this tax return. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board donated $190,000 to the foundation in 2009.
 
***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of UT tower by flickr user wblj, used via a Creative Commons license.
Texas Watchdog contributor to investigation that won Peabody Award
Friday, Apr 01, 2011, 03:47PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
Peabody Awards

Many congratulations to our friends and colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio for their Peabody Award for their 2010 series on sexual assault on college campuses.

Texas Watchdog was proud to be a part of their multi-part series. We probed a case in which a Texas A&M University student was accused of raping multiple women on campus over a period of years.

From a post from CPI's Web site:

The Center’s 12-month investigation, Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice, showed that students who have been the victim of sexual assaults on campus face a depressing array of barriers that often either assure their silence or leave them feeling victimized a second time. Meanwhile, students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults on campuses can face little or no punishment and go on to graduate, as colleges and universities ignore the problem.

The story has had a clear impact on public policy, inspiring congressional action on Capitol Hill, and leading the U.S. Department of Education to strengthen its oversight of how colleges and universities handle campus rape cases. Next week, the Education Department is set to announce new guidance on how schools should address sexual assaults that occur on campus, in accordance with federal law. 

If you didn't see it, one of CPI's most recent investigations said that a third of the nation's 148 refineries rely on an extremely toxic chemical called HF, or hydrofluoric acid, and that of the 50 that use it,  a quarter of them are in Texas. I'm sure that's particularly interesting to the people who live near the Marathon refinery in Texas City and who were under a shelter-in-place order for about an hour last Sunday because of an HF leak.

Texas Watchdog has been honored to partner with CPI, NPR and many other fine news organizations on reporting projects, including WOAI-Channel 4 in San Antonio, KPRC-Channel 2 here in Houston, the Amarillo Independent. Our stories have been republished by many other fine news organizations, including most recently, the Houston Chronicle. If you're with a news organization and you're interested in talking about how we could work together, please contact our editor, Trent Seibert, at trent@texaswatchdog.org or at 832-316-4994.

***

Contact Jennifer Peebles at 281-656-1681 or jennifer@texaswatchdog.org. Follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog.

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Texas Watchdog is putting a double dose of transparency out on the InterWebs Tuesday
Monday, Dec 06, 2010, 04:09PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
radio

 

Texas Watchdog is putting a double dose of transparency out on the InterWebs Tuesday.

At 12:30 Eastern/11:30 Central, we'll be doing our live broadcast of TrentTV, our monthly Webinar on how to use open government laws to keep our public servants honest. Tomorrow's topic will be lobbying and lobbyists. You can watch the broadcast live one of three ways -- at newmediatv.org, where you can chat with us live; right here on texaswatchdog.org, through the video player in the upper right corner of our homepage; or on our Facebook page via the "Livestream" tab at the top.

Then, at 3 p.m. Eastern/2 p.m. Central, we'll be done our live broadcast of Transparency Talk Radio, our new weekly Internet radio show/podcast on open government issues. Tomorrow's show will feature an interview with Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He'll tell us about the FOIA ban in the Texas A&M university system and the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Texas' Open Meetings Act.

Listen to internet radio with JenniferLPeebles on Blog Talk Radio

If you can't tune in to see or hear either of those shows as they're being broadcast live, don't fret -- they'll still be available for you to access after the fact. 


For our TrentTV broadcasts, go to our archive of past shows on newmediatv.org, or check out our YouTube channel at youtube.com/texaswatchdog.

And for Transparency Talk Radio, you can conveniently listen to all of our past shows online through BlogTalkRadio.com, where you can listen as streaming audio or just click the link to download any of our episodes to your iPod via iTunes. And if you're already an iTunes user, we're there too, in the iTunes Store under "podcasts." Just go to the iTunes store and search "Transparency Talk" and you'll find us. (And even though you access the episode through the iTunes Store, it's free -- you don't have to pay anything to download it.)

Contact Jennifer Peebles at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or 281-656-1681. Follow her on Twitter at @texaswatchdog and @jpeebles.

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

Photo of 'transistor radio 1957' by flickr user
 Rodesidepictures, used via a Creative Commons license.
Texas Higher Education brass begin the "There are a Whole Lot of Other Fat and Pretty Turkeys in the Barnyard Tour"
Friday, Nov 05, 2010, 11:26AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
turkey

When the state's five major newspapers carry stories saying taxpayers think in tough times your budget is the first that ought to be cut, there is no time to waste carrying a message of your worthiness to the people.

William Powers, president of the University of Texas and R. Bowen Loftin, president of Texas A&M University, the Houston Chronicle says today, are on what might be called the "There are a Whole Lot of Other Fat and Pretty Turkeys in the Barnyard Tour" of Texas. "The facts are, we are very productive institutions, and we need to get that across to the citizens," Powers told the Chronicle.

As Powers and Loftin are all too well aware, a very conservative wave of new members giving Republicans a huge majority in the House will be asked in the upcoming 82nd Legislative session to deal with what at least a few analysts have said is a $25 billion budget shortfall. Both university presidents have said they understand the budgets of every state institution are likely to take a good trussing in 2011.

This past spring, state officials asking for 5 percent budgets cuts from every institution accepted budget reductions of about $25 million each from the state's two major public universities. Those cuts contributed to an overall reduction of $1.25 billion, far less than even the most conservative estimate of the shortfall.

Voters told telephone pollsters for Blum & Weprin Associates in the days leading up to the election they much preferred budget cuts to new taxes. And if those cuts were to come from one of four areas, 28 percent of poll respondents said they should come from higher education, 12 percent said they should be made in public safety, 7 percent from health care for the poor and 4 percent from public education.

The Austin American-Statesman, the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News paid for the poll.

Contact Mark Lisheron at mark@texaswatchdog.org or at 512-299-2318.

Wild turkeys picture by flickr user Vicki's Nature, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 7 years 10 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 7 years 10 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 7 years 10 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 7 years 10 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 10 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 10 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 7 years 10 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 7 years 10 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 7 years 10 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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