TODAY'S FAIR SHOTS - MARCH 22, 2017
1-Abbott: 'More Simple, More Elegant' to Cut Off Local Regulations on Broad Basis
2-Senate Approves Bill Aimed at Starving Local Governments
3-History Report: Vouchers Were a Segregation Tool in Texas in 1950s
4-Medicaid-Related State Program Was Privatized and Now Costs More, Serves Fewer People and Is Mired in Conflicts of Interest
5-Consideration of McGee Nomination to Pension Board Postponed
6-Senate Honors Fire Fighter Johnny Villarreal; So Does Texas AFL-CIO
1. Gov. Greg Abbott said yesterday he would like to see legislation that broadly prevents local governments from enacting regulations, as opposed to single-subject measures dealing with items like Transportation Network Companies or plastic bags.
That stunning ideological statement against "government closest to the people," reported by the Texas Tribune, suggests Abbott is accelerating his effort to sharply limit local governments when he disagrees with them.
The "sanctuary cities" bill, SB 4, along with Abbott's crusade against Travis County over the sheriff's policy on voluntary cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and the "bathroom bill," SB 6, can be viewed through the prism of local control, though other issues are also in play.
Perhaps the broadest filed bill cutting off local government power involves discrimination. SB 92 by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Canton (companion is HB 4097 by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park), would prevent cities from creating any protected classifications and declare ordinances that already do so null and void.
Last session, Abbott signed a law that forbids local governments from regulating fracking. The TNC bill, which applies to companies like Uber and Lyft, has momentum this session and other bills that aim at local power are moving. So far, a broad-based approach has not cleared a committee:
"As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to preempt local regulations, is a superior approach," Abbott said Tuesday during a Q-and-A session hosted by the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank.
Such an approach, Abbott added, "makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you're going to have the certainty to run your lives."
Abbott made the remarks in response to a moderator's question about legislation this session that would "prohibit any local ordinance from exceeding the standard set by the state." It was not immediately clear to which bill the moderator was referring.
2. The Texas Senate yesterday approved a property tax bill that would more readily trigger local elections when local governments (other than school districts) seek to raise property taxes.
Carrying a starve-government motive, SB 2 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, reduces the trigger rate for a property tax election from 8 percent to 5 percent. It also makes the election automatic, as opposed to a mere possibility after a petition drive.
The United Labor Legislative Committee opposes SB 2, believing the measure will unnecessarily handcuff cities and counties and harm public employees.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin said the Legislature is to blame for higher property tax bills, not local government.
"Disrespecting our local elected officials disrespects the voters," Watson said before the measure won approval on an 18-12 vote, sending it to the Texas House.
The Austin American-Statesman reports Bettencourt used "fuzzy math" to justify the bill:
"When you have both taxpayers in the neediest portion of society as well as the largest taxpayers of the state having problems with tax relief, we need action," Bettencourt said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "Given the magnitude of property tax increases, we need real reform now."
The bill is necessary, he has argued, because local property tax burdens have risen faster than Texans' incomes.
Bettencourt, however, used fuzzy math to back up his claim by comparing a statewide measure of taxes to an individual-level measure of income, making it appear that tax burdens have far outstripped incomes in recent years. In reality, they have risen at roughly the same rate.
Many city and county officials fiercely oppose Bettencourt's bill, saying that it would tie the hands of the elected representatives who know their communities best and that property tax increases are often the result of "unfunded mandates" from the state, like demands on courts and prosecutor's offices adopted by state lawmakers.
3. Sixty years ago, vouchers were a tool to resist integration, Kate McGee reports in a historical piece for KUT radio.
A Senate committee worked into the evening to hear testimony on SB 3 by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood. The United Labor Legislative Committee strongly opposes the measure.
Resistance to the bill in the 1950s was led, among others, by the legendary progressive U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, whose portrait hangs in the Texas Senate chamber, KUT reports. Henry B's son, former U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez, is quoted in the story:
After the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Texas was resistant to desegregating its public schools. Then-Gov. Allan Shivers appointed a committee to recommend ways to prevent integration. One proposal created a school voucher program that would give parents who opposed integration taxpayer money to send their children to a segregated private school.
"Such aid should be given only upon affidavit that the child was being withdrawn from the public schools due to the parents' dislike of integration."
The voucher proposal was part of a larger group of bills filed to circumvent desegregation, but the bill never passed.
"It was my father and state Sen. Abraham 'Chick' Kazen from Laredo, and they had placed everybody on notice that they would be opposing any Jim Crow laws," former U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez said. In 1957, his father, Henry Gonzalez, was the first Hispanic state senator in Texas, representing San Antonio. He later became a congressman. Then-state Sens. Gonzalez and Kazen filibustered the bills targeting desegregation for 36 hours, setting a state record.
"My father really believed, obviously, government was for the people and by the people, and he just thought it was a real perversion that the state would being using tax dollars to promote segregation, which meant denying equal opportunity to all children in the state," Gonzalez said. His father died in 2000.
4. In the Privatization-Rarely-Works Department, consider this Houston Chronicle story by reporter Brian Rosenthal, soon to be writing for The New York Times. (Congratulations, Brian!)
This time, the subject is a program that is supposed to offer rides to some of Texas's poorest to their medical appointments.
Costs way more. Serves fewer people. Builds conflict of interest. Mired in scandal. What else is there to say about this chapter of junking dedicated state employees in favor of "the free market"?:
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has opened an internal investigation into the privatization of a program that transports poor Texans to medical appointments after a critical Legislative Budget Board report said the move has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars more while serving fewer than half as many people.
The probe by the commission's inspector general, Stuart Bowen, will examine why officials gave lucrative contracts for administration of the program to companies and nonprofit organizations that did not provide cost information and, in some cases, scored poorly on the state's rating system.
The privatization effort led to a dramatic reduction in Medicaid recipients served by the program, a large increase in complaints and a tripling of the per-ride cost to the public, among other issues, according to a report released by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board in January. Overall, the board concluded, the privatization has cost Texas taxpayers an estimated $316 million more than would have been spent if the state was running the program.
Commission Executive Commissioner Charles Smith disclosed the investigation in a legislative committee hearing late last week, saying he had ordered it after a Houston Chronicle story on the program...
Smith also confirmed that a Child Protective Services employee had been placed on paid leave while officials probe a potential conflict of interest involving a pending contract and a family member. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the employee is Frianita Wilson, the wife of former commission Inspector General Doug Wilson, who resigned in a 2014 contracting scandal.
5. In good news for supporters of traditional pensions for public employees in Texas, the Senate nominations calendar for Wednesday does not include a vote on confirmation of Josh McGee as Chair of the State Pension Advisory Board.
The United Labor Legislative Committee opposed McGee's confirmation, you will recall, over an apparent conflict of interest. McGee works for the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, which spends big to advocate for an end to defined-benefit pension plans and a move to 401(k)-style plans that place all investment risk on teachers, firefighters, police and other public employees. Other organizations that represent public employees have also opposed McGee.
In the normal course of events, McGee would have been considered for confirmation by the Senate on tomorrow's list. Two other nominees for the same board appear likely to be confirmed with no apparent opposition.
6. The Texas AFL-CIO is delighted to pass along a Texas Senate Resolution approved today that honors Brother Johnny Villarreal of the Fire Fighters, an outstandingly talented and popular advocate for working families at the Texas Capitol.
As a member of the United Labor Legislative Committee, Villarreal is instrumental in labor's legislative program.
From the resolution, SR 447 by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston:
WHEREAS, Johnny Villarreal has served as an engine
operator for the Houston Fire Department for many years; in the
course of his exemplary career, he has helped save thousands of
lives and prevent innumerable injuries in the face of great
hazards and at the risk of his own safety; and
WHEREAS, Mr. Villarreal has been a voice for Houston
firefighters as a board member of the Houston Professional Fire
Fighters Association, and he has been a leading spokesman for
association outreach efforts during his service as the Position 4
At a lunch for Brother Villarreal, the Texas AFL-CIO presented him with a plaque with the following language, minus the federation seal:
For a Man Who Puts Out Fires and Lights Fires for Justice
Congratulations, Johnny Villarreal, on your service to working families in Texas. Brother Villarreal, your legacy of labor advocacy goes beyond the firehouse and beyond Houston. Your work has improved all Texas workers' lives.
The Officers and Staff of the Texas AFL-CIO wish you only happy days ahead.
March 21, 2017