in Houston, Texas
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.

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.

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.

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

Texas props up wind, solar with hundreds of millions of dollars per year, lawmakers cautious on more $
Tuesday, Jan 22, 2013, 03:55PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
wind turbines

With a nearly $1 billion federal renewable energy tax credit in doubt, Texas Rep. Mark Strama delivered what to another audience would have been an odd message.

Strama, an Austin Democrat, is an energy guy, a technology guy, whip smart and a little unpredictable. Invited to give the keynote address to the Texas Renewable Energy Industry Association on Dec. 12 at a resort hotel south of Austin, Strama drew a few gasps admitting he supports hydraulic fracturing. Safe and clean hydraulic fracturing, of course.

Mark StramaMark Strama

But the product of that technology, abundant, inexpensive natural gas, was not necessarily a good thing, Strama told the group. Rather than pouring some of the windfall into new energy technology, utilities are providing a palliative, allowing millions of people to pocket their utility savings.

The not so simple truth, Strama said, is that after all of the billions of tax dollars that have been spent no one is any closer to knowing when the wind, solar and biofuels industries can survive without government subsidy.

What’s more, Congress’ reluctant decision to extend the renewable energy tax credit, and for only one year, may be a signal that in an age of cheap natural gas there isn’t the political will to ask ratepayers or taxpayers for more renewables support.

Renewable energy played almost no role in the presidential election dialogue. The energy tax credit passed with no outcry outside of the political class.

Of the roughly 600 bills filed through the end of the second week of the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature, just two contain the phrase renewable energy. One of them, a bill by Strama, is specific to the city of Pflugerville.

The other, House Bill 303, calls for the state to require utilities to get 35 percent of their generating capacity from renewables, two percent of it from solar energy, by Jan. 1, 2020.

The bill, written by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, like similar bills in the past two sessions, is likely to go nowhere. Rodriguez chose not to respond to calls and a list of several questions about the bill and renewable energy e-mailed to him by Texas Watchdog.

Strama won’t be offering any major renewable subsidy bill in this session.

“Honestly, a lot of the work I’m going to be doing is to protect what we already have now,” Strama said. “This is just not a priority issue to most people right now.”

Perhaps it isn’t a priority to most people because, at least in the abstract, they like the idea of supporting renewable energy. In 2009 the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation in Austin surveyed 993 registered voters, 85 percent of whom thought Texas needed to increase production of wind and solar power. Nearly 80 percent, 73 percent who identified themselves as conservative, supported the idea of subsidies, loans and tax incentives to those energy businesses.

In November, a national survey from the Texas A&M Energy Institute and the Bush School of Government and Public Service found 59 percent of the public for increasing renewable research and development funding and 60 percent supporting tax breaks for companies developing renewable energy technology.

But if all that funding and those tax breaks meant the price of gas going up at their local pump, the survey said nearly 70 percent would change their answer.

A public intolerant of an increase of a few pennies they can see is a public historically oblivious to its donation of billions of dollars it doesn’t see. In November, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin, estimated Texas would contribute $567 million a year on the renewable energy tax credit alone.

In their study, Josiah Neeley, policy analyst with the Armstrong Center on Energy & the Environment and Bill Peacock, director of the Center for Economic Freedom for the Foundation, drilled deeper.

Overall, including federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, wind, solar and other alternative energy got $7.1 billion of taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies since 2006.

The Public Utility Commission last year made way for a nearly $7 billion project at utility ratepayer expense to run electricity transmission lines from West Texas wind farms to urban centers where the generation would be used.

Since 2006, $2.46 billion has supported development of wind farms in something called Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, the study says. The zones were made possible when the Legislature in 2001 passed the Texas Economic Development Act.

Federal grants have pumped another $1.65 billion into wind farms, $290 million from the stimulus for various energy programs, including $52 million for more than 30 solar projects, several of them that will not pay for themselves for 50 or more years.

The cost of supporting the legal requirement that utilities purchase a percentage of renewable energy set by the Renewable Portfolio Standard is estimated to have cost power users an extra $69 million this past year, Neeley and Peacock contend.

The Legislature created the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which has since 2005 devoted $44 million to  renewable energy-related projects, according to the Governor’s Renewable Energy Industry Report. Two years earlier, lawmakers passed the Texas Enterprise Fund which has invested nearly $5 million in renewable energy projects.

Lucy Nashed, Gov. Rick Perry’s spokeswoman, said, “Here in Texas, we strive toward an all-of-the-above strategy to address our state’s energy challenges and create a diverse and robust electric generating portfolio that uses a variety of sources, including traditional technologies such as natural gas, coal, nuclear, and newer technologies such as wind, clean coal and solar power.”

However, Nashed says Perry favors weaning the entire energy industry off industry-specific credits and subsidies while lowering taxes on domestic energy producers.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation feels the same way, only more so.

Josiah NeeleyJosiah Neeley

“Our message has been very clear,” Neeley said, “we’d like to see no government support for any energy industry and want to see no new energy supports. If natural gas or wind is doing well we’d like it to be due to the work of the market, not the government.”

The numbers suggest wind and solar still need the work of the government to have a hope in the market. With subsidies it currently costs $22 per megawatt hour to produce electricity with wind, 44 cents to produce it with fossil fuels, Neeley says.

Although power generation rates and costs are different for every utility, a customer with Austin Energy can choose to “buy” only renewable power through its GreenChoice program at a cost of 5.7 cents a kilowatt hour compared to the normal rate of 3.4 cents.

The average GreenChoice customer pays $23 more a month, Austin Energy says.

Forecasts by the Electric Power Research Institute show that while wind and solar are getting more competitive, they are unlikely to come close to natural gas at least through 2025. (Please see charts on pages 1-11 and 1-12 of its report here.)

graphic1


Further lost in the tangle at the intersection of commerce and government is what all the incentives, particularly in the wind industry, do to the pricing of energy.

Wind companies have at times been able to sell their energy below the market price, knowing it must be bought by somebody, and still make a profit, a practice decried both in a study by the consultant NorthBridge group and Donna Nelson, chairwoman of the Texas Public Utility Commission.

Advocates, including Strama, acknowledge the wind and solar industries would collapse without taxpayer and ratepayer subsidy but contend that coal, oil and gas have been subsidized for 100 years, renewable energy for a few decades.

Neeley says the Energy Information Administration points out that in 2010 renewable energy generates less than 10 percent of the energy in the country but gobbles up 55 percent of the subsidies. Fossil fuels are responsible for 70 percent of the generation while taking 16 percent of all energy subsidies.

Neeley says the public ought to be concerned that in an energy market commanded by already low prices for natural gas, artificial pricing for renewable sources will cut further into profits.

“In the long term there is a real threat to investment by the industry,” Neeley says. “If you can bid onto the grid at negative prices, nobody is making any money.”

“I don’t think the public has a good grasp of what is in their energy bill,” Fred Beach, with the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, says. “They have a very poor appreciation of who pays for what in energy generation. There is a need for much greater transparency.”

Beach refers to himself as a technologist, someone paid to examine the role of science and technology in energy policy. An opponent of direct government investment in renewable energy, Beach is, nonetheless, in favor of utilities meeting state standards for renewable energy use, however they do it.

Like Strama, Beach considers natural gas a low-cost bridge fuel to help consumers and the industry along while wind and solar technologies are improved.

“Right now, I think it’s a bridge to nowhere, an opportunity being wasted,” Beach says. “The industry doesn’t need that much more help. And I’m not a big fan of the government spending yours and my tax money. I am in favor of regulation that says meet this standard. We don’t care how you get there.”

Beach said energy consumers are further hurt by renewable policies pushing large-scale development of wind and solar power with a power plant model developed for coal more than 100 years ago.

Wind technology is ideal for large-scale generation. Solar power, at least today, is best suited to individual arrays on top of homes and businesses, Beach says.

This hasn’t stopped CPS Energy in San Antonio from going forward with a $1 billion, 400-megawatt solar development or Austin Energy considering a plan to have ratepayers underwrite $750 million to increase the city’s total solar power generation by 50 times by 2020.

San Antonio, with Democratic Mayor Julián Castro’s enthusiastic support, is resisting what Colin Meehan calls a “sugar rush” of low natural gas prices that cannot last.

Meehan, an energy analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, objects to criticism of renewable energy development rooted in the present. Wind and solar power continue to get cheaper.

Nor is Meehan patient with the idea that the Legislature is incapable of big thinking when it comes to renewables. In 2009 the House and Senate passed a $500 million plan by former Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, to offer rebates to individuals and companies to install solar arrays.

The bill, however, died over a procedural disagreement as the session expired. No similar bill has been introduced since.

This fall, when the Environmental Defense Fund joined several other groups in asking that the Public Utility Commission on its own order utilities to increase their renewable percentages, the commission refused the petition.

Strama says he believes the window of opportunity to attract promising solar businesses has closed. Renewable energy industry leaders, in particular wind energy, are predicting a very quiet 2013.

In recognition of the reduced circumstances, Strama says he intends to introduce a bill that would have ratepayers underwrite the construction of solar arrays on public school rooftops.

The same bill in the 2011 session never made it out of Calendars Committee.

In his speech to the Texas Renewables Energy Industry Association, Strama said he thought the Legislature was further from its renewable goals than five years ago. Still, he remained confident technology would eventually do the only thing that could sustain renewable energy: lower prices.

“We’ve been providing energy from coal on an enormous scale for 100 years,” Strama said. “Nothing you could say would convince me we won’t someday be able to provide renewable energy on an enormous scale.

“People are right to ask about a timetable. We don’t have a timetable.”

***
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.

Photos of wind turbines by flickr users nikkorsnapper and and the russians are here, used via Creative Commons licenses.

Booming revenues have officials in Texas pondering pay raises, boosts to programs
Wednesday, Jan 09, 2013, 10:53AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
bar

Like the guy who finds a crumpled $20 bill on the floor on his way out of the tavern and heads right back to his favorite bar stool, Texas governments are all of a sudden flush.

Booming oil and gas industries have produced enough tax revenue to give the Legislature an estimated $8.8 billion more than they had to play with the last time they met in 2011.

(Please see the detailed revenue estimated for the 2014-15 biennium prepared by the Texas Comptroller here.)

And would you believe in Dallas County, commissioners found enough property value increases and spending cuts under the cushions to scrape together as much as $17 million to toss into the 2014 fiscal pickle jar?

To our deliberative heroes in Austin, according to the New York Times today, the surplus is very nearly as vexatious as an estimated $27 billion shortfall was coming into the last session.

For the titanium umbrella crowd who in 2011 predicted the Texas sky would unravel and drop, the surplus is an opportunity to atone for moral failures in public education, indigent health care, prisons and road infrastructure.

To those who see Tea Party freshmen taking their seats in an already conservative House there is, more than ever, pressure to appear in every spending measure austere.

Dallas County commissioners, too, are singing the ballad of fiscal surplus woe. Mike Cantrell, the only Republican on the court, reminded fellow commissioners how easy it is to spend a surplus, the Dallas Morning News reports.

“I’m hoping we move slowly,” Cantrell said.

But what of all the deprivation endured by Dallas County government since the economy began its atrophy in 2008? County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, suggested the county use its surplus to make up for lost time, giving raises to all department heads

There are, Jenkins said, “some real opportunities to improve the quality of life” in Dallas County, meaning, apparently, the lives of those running county departments.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, explained the current and perpetual dilemma to the Times this way:

“I think there’s going to be a group of people who think we’ve got the money, we need to spend it. I think there’s going to be a group of people who think we need to cut our budget more. The session could be very difficult because of those two groups of people pushing us.”

Check back with us in about 139 days. Having never in 33 years written a story about government returning a surplus to the taxpayers, we think we know which group of people will come out on top.

In the meantime, we plan to have a drink on the guy at the bar with the wrinkled twenty.

***
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 joelgoodman, used via a Creative Commons license.

Daughters of the Republic of Texas misused state funds, failed to preserve Alamo, attorney general finds
Wednesday, Nov 21, 2012, 11:47AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Alamo

Judging by a Texas Attorney General’s report, the only thing the Daughters of the Republic of Texas weren’t responsible for at the Alamo was killing off Crockett, Bowie and Travis.

The volunteer custodian for the Alamo for more than a century failed to preserve and maintain the shrine to Texas independence, misused and used state funds for its own benefit and violated state nonprofit organization laws in the process, according to a 38-page report provided to the Texas Legislature.

(You can read the entire report here.)

The Attorney General’s office released the report more than a year after concluding an investigation that began with a complaint of mismanagement by the DRT made in June 2010, the report says.

Daughters of the Republic volunteers continue to provide services at the Alamo, but under the direction of the state General Land Office, given authority over operations by the Legislature in 2011.

Even then, the report says, DRT leaders were not altogether honest in describing their stewardship of the Alamo to lawmakers.

Only because the Legislature removed the DRT from direct control of the Alamo is the Attorney General’s office refraining from legal action against the group, the report says.

Karen Thompson, president of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, told the San Antonio Express News the organization was shocked “at the outrageously inaccurate conclusions within the report.” Thompson said the report was not an accurate picture of her organization today.

The Attorney General’s report makes clear that much of its criticism is directed at DRT leadership.

“This report recognizes that the DRT and its members have committed countless volunteer hours to serving the Alamo and the State of Texas,” the report says. “Indeed, generations of DRT members have demonstrated tireless commitment to the Alamo.”

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

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Photo of the Alamo by flickr user Rhubarble, used via a Creative Commons license.

Secretary of State Hope Andrade resigns, says post was ‘highest honor of my professional life’
Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012, 04:26PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas state Capitol

Hope Andrade, who oversaw five elections over the past four years as Texas Secretary of State, is resigning, effective Friday.

Andrade, 63, felt it was the right time to move on after the Nov. 6 statewide election, her spokesman, Rich Parsons, told Associated Press this afternoon. She submitted a letter of resignation to Gov. Rick Perry today.

“It has been the highest honor of my professional life to serve as the Secretary of State for the greatest state in our nation,” Andrade said in a press release. “I am truly humbled by the trust and confidence Governor Perry placed in me nearly four-and-a-half years ago and will forever be grateful for the opportunity to represent Texas in this esteemed office.”

Hope AndradeHope Andrade


“As the first Latina Secretary of State, Hope has a permanent place in our state’s history books,” Perry said in his own release. “Her leadership was fundamental during five successful statewide elections. I’m thankful for her service, and I’m proud to call her a friend. I wish her all the best as she continues to make our state a better place.”

Andrade was active in promoting voter registration and rigorous in following state law in maintaining the integrity of voter rolls.

She defended, but put a temporary halt to, the purging of the names of dead voters from the rolls prior to the November election after critics objected to a change in the method mandated by the Legislature.

Andrade is the former chairwoman of the Texas Transportation Commission and a longtime businesswoman in San Antonio.

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

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

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

Texas state payroll shrinks, though not in higher ed or at the DMV
Thursday, Nov 01, 2012, 12:10PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
plate

Social services, criminal justice and education were largely responsible for reducing the state payroll by ½ a percent in the past fiscal quarter in Texas.

The reduction of 1,620 full-time positions, bringing the total down from 297,502.9 positions, was nearly offset by the addition of 1,587.6 positions in the state’s institutions of higher education, according to a new report by the state Auditor comparing employment in the previous quarter to the same period in 2011. (See a chart tracking the change here.)

While total higher education staffing increased by 1.1 percent to 148,557.9 full-time equivalencies, the number of administrators jumped by 2.4 percent over the same period a year ago to 3,023.6 positions.

The Department of Aging and Disability Services reduced its staff over a year to 16,878.8 positions. The reduction of 721.2 positions was the biggest single loss for a state agency, according to the study.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Juvenile Justice Department dropped a combined 1,101.7 jobs from the end of August 2011.

The Texas Education Agency, which began laying off employees during a tough legislative session on public education in 2011, reduced staff by 226.2 to 701.6 positions, a 24.4 percent drop, the highest percentage decrease among major departmental employers.

The Texas House under Speaker Joe Straus and the Senate, headed by Lt. David Dewhurst, both conservative Republicans who have called for smaller state government, made double-digit percentage reductions, shedding more than 100 employee positions each.

It is important to note that in June through August of 2011 the Legislature was just completing a session and in the same quarter this year the Legislature had been adjourned for more than a year.

The Department of Public Safety, in the midst of a $63 million spending spree to open driver’s license megacenters across the state, brought its staffing to 8,692.8 positions by adding 347 jobs, more than any state agency.

Texas state employees


The Department of Motor Vehicles grew its staff by 151.3 positions to 730.2 positions or 26.1 percent, the highest percentage increase of any major state agency.

Governor Rick Perry, another high-profile, small government conservative, added 3.9 positions in a year, bringing his staff to 264.1 positions.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose staff handled a Supreme Court challenge to Obamacare that was not upheld and a Supreme Court redistricting fight this year, increased his office’s staffing by .3 percent, 13.7 positions added to a staff of 4,057.2 positions.

The General Land Office, headed by conservative Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is running for lieutenant governor in 2014, boosted his staff by 20.9 positions or 3.6 percent to 600.9 positions.

However, Patterson’s agency was called on in August of 2011 to take over nearly $3 billion in federal funding that had not yet been distributed in relief for the victims of Hurricane Ike in 2008.

The Department of Rural Affairs, one of the agencies criticized for its handling of the Hurricane Ike funding, was abolished by the Legislature, a reduction of all of its 70.6 positions, the Auditor’s report says.

The other agency with Ike responsibilities, the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, lost 52.2 or 14.4 percent of its staff during the same period. Michael Gerber, the executive director of the agency, resigned at the end of August of 2011.

***
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 dome by flickr user victorfe places, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Texas state lawmakers weigh privatization of state services; Texas’ recent track record with privatization gloomy
Thursday, Jul 12, 2012, 11:28AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
state Capitol

Even as our state government continues to exceed its wildest expectations for sales tax collection, ushering in the promise of new spending, there are still some starry-eyed dreamers trying to save a buck by taking state services private.

Some of them are members of the House State Affairs and Government Efficiency & Reform committees who met jointly on Wednesday, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal says.

Fortunately, others on the committees and experts were there to tamp down the enthusiasm for efficiency and reform from the outside.

And with good reason. As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, public-private partnerships are a budget gimmick promoted by Democrats like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Newark Mayor Cory Booker in places where government has run out of revenue sources.

In places like Republican-controlled Texas, where bumper sales tax reports are a monthly event, the recent track record of privatizing state services has been dismal.

Earlier this year the state and IBM finally walked away taking heavy losses from an $863 million contract that utterly failed to modernize data services for more than two dozen government agencies.

Three years earlier, the state and Accenture divorced after a nearly $900 million contract to provide Medicaid and food stamp services that was to have saved the state $646 million brought instead nothing but misery to both parties.

Tough to figure out just why the partnerships didn’t work out. IBM, the company that practically invented the computer industry. Accenture, one of the most successful technology services companies in the world. And the state of Texas, which brought us the stimulus weatherization program and driver’s license renewal centers.

Still, some like Talmadge Heflin, the former Houston lawmaker now with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, say the state should consider giving private enterprise another chance.

“I think the government needs to be more entrepreneurial,” Rep. Jose Menendez, vice-chairman of State Affairs, said toward the end of the hearing.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Menendez is a Democrat.

***
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 chascar, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas aids convicted felon in training as barber but denies license
Thursday, Jun 07, 2012, 04:23AM CST
By Mike Cronin
barber shop

Texas taxpayers spent money training Lynn Mays, an ex-convict, how to be a barber.

But due to a system of state agencies that don’t coordinate, Mays was denied a license to practice his new trade and, in his words, “prove the system works,” the Austin American-Statesman’s Eric Dexheimer reports.

The dispute raises a question: Why have a Texas taxpayer-funded agency assist a man trying to reintegrate into society, only then to have another Texas taxpayer-funded agency prevent that?

Mays, a Dallas-area resident who’s 42, finished an eight-year prison term in 2010 for aggravated sexual assault.

To help him find a job, the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services paid for Mays’ barber training.
 
Mays passed his exams last year. Yet the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation denied Mays a license, concluding that he had not been a free man long enough to prove he’d been rehabilitated. No set time period exists, Jeff Copas, a licensing and regulation department spokesman, told Texas Watchdog.

“It’s done entirely on a case-by-case basis,” Copas said. Officials take many things into account, including the type of crime committed, the amount of time a person has been free, the age of the person and the type of rehabilitation efforts the person has taken, he said.

“There’s a lot of due process involved,” Copas said. “We can’t just arbitrarily deny an appeal.”

Mays’ vocational rehabilitation counselor Charlotte Reed took up the cause for him. Mays appealed the licensing decision to the state Office of Administrative Hearings, and in a letter to that office, Reed pointed out that that “Mr. Mays has several learning disabilities which have been barriers for him in the past,” and that “taxpayers already had paid for his training.”

Taxpayers bought the gas that enabled Mays to appeal to Texas licensing and regulation commissioners last week.

That didn’t matter.

The commissioners unanimously rejected Mays’ entreaty to obtain a barber license, 4-0.

***
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 sign by flickr user the justified sinner, used via a Creative Commons license.

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