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Memo urged agency to lean conservative
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Memo urged agency to lean conservative

BY R.G. RATCLIFFE

AUSTIN -- A memo from a Texas Workforce Commission employee raises questions about whether an agency director attempted to use her office to build a conservative political machine. "Everything we do in external affairs, whether it is press or outreach or work with legislators should have as an end result, affecting public policy to TWC's benefit, that is to say frankly, getting legislation passed or killed," says the memo, which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle this week. "TWC needs a public relations overhaul."

01/31/2004
Shareholders nix `social' measures
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Shareholders nix `social' measures

DALLAS (AP) -- Shareholders of Exxon Mobil supported company management on Wednesday and rejected environmentalist-backed resolutions on global warming and renewable energy and a measure to ban discrimination against homosexuals. Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond defended Exxon Mobil's environmental record and said the world's largest publicly traded oil company wouldn't be pressured into making "social statements" that would hurt investors.

05/29/2003
Shareholders nix `social' measures
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Shareholders nix `social' measures

DALLAS (AP) -- Shareholders of Exxon Mobil supported company management on Wednesday and rejected environmentalist-backed resolutions on global warming and renewable energy and a measure to ban discrimination against homosexuals. Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond defended Exxon Mobil's environmental record and said the world's largest publicly traded oil company wouldn't be pressured into making "social statements" that would hurt investors.

05/29/2003
A More Deliberate, Broader Review is in Order
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A More Deliberate, Broader Review is in Order

A Texas Senate plan to overhaul the "Robin Hood" school-finance system appears to be swimming against both time and tide, as the June 2 end of the legislative session looms. The plan being pushed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is floundering in the House, where Speaker Tom Craddick, bolstered by Gov. Rick Perry, is angling for a special session to focus on school finance later this year or next. With so little time left and so many major pieces of legislation to work out in the waning session, the speaker's call for less haste and more deliberation is the better course. Particularly given the complexities, legalities and political sensitivities involved. The Senate voted 30-0 for its plan that would slash school property taxes by about $ 8 billion a year and recoup the lost revenue by increasing the state sales tax rate and expanding the sales tax to many services that are tax-exempt. If the House and Texas voters approved, the plan would replace local school taxes with a statewide property tax and cut the current $ 1.50 per $ 100 valuation cap for school operations to 75 cents. Critics say there's been too little time for debate and public understanding of the measure, and they have a point. In the meantime, Perry and Craddick are launching a $ 1 million study of school finance and other public education issues. Harrison Keller, the House speaker's senior policy analyst on education, said recently that the study will also take a broader look at the state's tax structure. That's a much-needed exercise that should be no-holds-barred and carefully consider all options, including the possibility of a state income tax. School finance has been much studied here in recent years, however, and the time for postponing reform is not limitless. Dewhurst deserves credit for showing leadership on the issue and stirring the pot that needs to be stirred. The Robin Hood school finance system faces legal challenges and is under deserved fire for allowing the state to shift ever more of the burden onto ever-rising local property taxes. But the Senate's proposed "tax swap" comes with a set of its own problems. It doesn't add sufficient new monies to the school system to cover the costs of rapid growth in the student population. Nor would it cover other anticipated increases in the cost of public education. If the rate of inflation were to return to 3 percent a year and the Legislature did not adjust state school funding for this inflation, says an analysis by the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, "it would take a property poor school district under this plan about eight of the 10-cent local enrichment tax to make up the inflation in a single biennium, which puts our schools right back where they are now, capped out." A sales tax is one of the most regressive forms of taxation. The Senate plan would let thousands of low-income Texans who use the Lone Star Card to receive food stamps and other benefits to use their electronic card to get a 40 percent sales tax reduction. Owners of apartments would be required to pass much of their tax savings to renters. But many low-income Texans aren't eligible for the Lone Star Card, and the question of tax equity merits a much closer look. The idea of expanding the tax base in exchange for lower property taxes is appealing. But Massachusetts followed that route in 1990 and quickly repealed the measure out of concern for the impact it would have on the state's economy. Florida in 1987 also broadened its sales and use tax and shortly repealed it after the increase triggered protests. "Higher sales taxes and taxing services each have consequences that affect taxpayers, jobs and the state economy," said Peggy Venable, director in Austin of the Citizens for a Sound Economy group. "The Senate school tax plan, while well-intentioned, may have some devastating unintended consequences on the state's economy. Let's take a careful look at the Massachusetts and Florida experiences. Let's look before we leap." Furthermore, the House approach will allow an opportunity to look at cutting costs and gaining efficiencies, such as consolidating small school districts and/or decentralizing massive, bureaucratic districts. One other point. There are constitutional questions about the Senate legislation. The Texas Constitution says tax bills should originate in the House.

05/11/2003
Publishers Alter Texts to Try to Make Grade
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Publishers Alter Texts to Try to Make Grade

BY Jane Elliot

AUSTIN - Bowing to political pressure, publishers of social studies textbooks have changed passages dealing with events ranging from the Alamo to last year's terrorist attacks. The publishers are hoping the changes will help their 200 textbooks gain approval next month from the State Board of Education. That approval is key to getting a piece of the $ 345 million market. School districts will decide which books to use, but the state only pays for books that pass state board muster. With 4 million students, Texas is one of the largest markets for textbooks. Publishers often gear books to survive the rigorous review process here, and then market them in other states. Dozens of citizens reviewed the books and expressed their thoughts during three public hearings conducted by the state board last summer. Since then publishers have been responding to the comments, rejecting some and agreeing with others. The changes are drawing both praise and criticism. Board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, said she's pleased that publishers responded to calls to include more about Mexicans who helped defend the Alamo and the later struggles of Mexican-Americans for civil rights. Berlanga said publishers have added passages that weave Hispanics into the stories of Texas and America. "This is a very important step that we're taking forward," said Berlanga. Others say that the publishers are censoring their textbooks to pass a conservative litmus test. Texas Freedom Network, a group that monitors the religious right, said publishers have deleted passages that describe Islam positively and made changes to promote Christianity. For example, a reference in a sixth-grade social studies book to glaciers forming the Great Lakes "millions of years ago" was changed to "in the distant past." Robert Raborn, a member of the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, had complained that "millions of years ago" supported the theory of evolution and excluded theories such as intelligent design. That same publisher, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, addressed another of Raborn's criticisms by deleting a sentence that stated that acid rain produced in the United States is a major environmental problem for Canada. Last year, the education board rejected a high school environmental science textbook that conservatives said presented an extreme environmentalist view. State law allows the education board to reject books only for factual errors or for not conforming to the curriculum. "Instead of standing guard and protecting the thoroughness and accuracy of textbooks, some publishers are now caving in to pressure from a handful of very noisy would-be censors," said Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network. The discussion of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., by Muslim extremists was closely read by many reviewers. Raborn criticized a passage in the Glencoe/McGraw-Hill book that discussed how Osama bin Laden's instructions to his followers to kill Americans was not supported by the Quran, which tells soldiers to show civilians kindness and justice. "This is going to great length to put a positive light on Muslim teachings considering other passages in the Quran. Either leave this material out alltogether or present more balance," Raborn said in written comments submitted to the state board. The publisher replaced the deleted passage with a statement that al-Qaeda's anti-American beliefs were not shared by all Muslims. "The attacks on the United States horrified people around the world, including millions of Muslims who live in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere," the book now reads. Joe Bill Watkins, an Austin lawyer who represents the Association of American Publishers, said the review process worked. He said the alterations made by publishers are a small percentage of the changes requested by members of the public who reviewed the books. "For the most part, they're not controversial," said Watkins. "But this is social studies, and let's face it, you probably could throw a dart at any page and find somebody who didn't like it. This isn't mathematics, where two plus two equals four." Chris Patterson, director of educational research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, said the review process worked. "This is the perfect example of democracy in action and how democracy was designed to function," Patterson said. "It's noisy, it's loud and there's a lot of public interaction and the best outcome is derived." However, Patterson said the Legislature should consider adopting a formal process for the textbooks to be reviewed by college professors. "There's no real quality control. Everyone right and left sees that," said Patterson. . . . OPPOSING VIEWS "Instead of protecting the accuracy of textbooks, some publishers are now caving in to pressure from a handful of very noisy would-be censors." Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network "This is the perfect example of democracy in action and how democracy was designed to function." Chris Patterson of the Texas Public Policy Foundation . . . TEXTBOOK EXAMPLES The following are samples of changes made in Our World Today: People, Places, and Issues, a proposed sixth-grade social studies textbook. The text, published by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, is awaiting approval by the State Board of Education. "Glaciers formed (the Great Lakes) millions of years ago." Changed to: "Glaciers formed (the Great Lakes) in the distant past." "Al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden told his followers that it was a Muslim's duty to kill Americans. No idea could be farther from Muslim teachings. The Quran, Islam's holiest book, tells soldiers to 'show (civilians) kindness and deal with them justly.'" Changed to: "The terrorists who hijacked the airplanes belonged to a group called al-Qaeda. The group was founded by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian They hated freedom of religion and wanted strict religious leaders to control Muslim countries. Al-Qaeda's beliefs were not shared by all Muslims. The attacks on the United States horrified people around the world, including millions of Muslims who live in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere."

10/30/2002
3 Indicted for Closed Meeting
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3 Indicted for Closed Meeting

BY Janet Elliot

AUSTIN - Two current members and one former member of the State Board of Education have been charged with violating the state's open meetings law. The three are accused in indictments handed up Thursday by a Travis County grand jury with conspiring to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act and holding a closed meeting two years ago when they met for lunch with three outside advisers at a popular Austin deli. Board members David Bradley, R-Beaumont, and Joe Bernal, D-San Antonio, along with former board member Robert Offutt, face fines of up to $ 500 and six months in jail if convicted of the misdemeanor charges. Also named in the indictments are Russell Stein of Houston, Brian Borowski of Austin and Joe Alderete of San Antonio. Bradley said Friday that he expects to be exonerated. "I am disappointed that after cooperating and waiting on the county attorney that he is now two years later pursuing a false misdemeanor charge," said Bradley, who owns a real estate and investment business in Beaumont. "I am confident that when the facts are told again that I will be cleared of any misdeed." Bernal told the San Antonio Express-News, "I adamantly deny discussing public business at lunch." Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, who represents Bradley, said "there's not a snowball's chance in hell" of any convictions. "These guys were not doing school board business in a closed meeting in a public restaurant," said Hardin. "They were having lunch." Offutt could not be reached for comment. The charges stem from an Aug. 30, 2000, lunch at Katz's Deli in Austin. Bradley, Bernal and Offutt were members of a five-person committee that made recommendations to the full 15-member board on the hiring of managers for the Permanent School Fund. About half of the fund is managed by outside investment advisers and the other half by staff of the Texas Education Agency. Three TEA employees reported the possible violation after arriving at the restaurant and observing the board members and the outside advisers seated at two nearby tables. The employees stated that they saw on both tables documents related to the hiring of external money managers. Later that day, the full finance committee screened applicants for consultant positions to invest a portion of the school fund. Wayne Meissner, an attorney for Stein, had no comment. Stein is a former adviser to the education board, hired to oversee the Permanent School Fund's private money managers. An attorney for Alderete, a publicist and former member of the San Antonio City Council, could not be reached. Austin attorney Bill Allison represents Borowski, a financial consultant who served as an informal adviser to Bradley and Offutt. Allison said the fact that prosecutors have been investigating the meeting for 18 months and waited until the statute of limitations was about to run out to seek indictments indicates their case is weak. "Little-or-no-evidence cases are filed the same way you put a bookmark in a book. Use it or lose it," said Allison. "I've had this case for two years and I don't think there is any violation at all." The education board has been at odds with the Legislature over its management of the school fund and decisions on textbooks. Allison suggested the indictments may be politically motivated, coming before the November election. Bradley faces Democrat Richard Hargrove while Bernal is unopposed for re-election. Travis County Attorney Ken Oden didn't return a call. Assistant County Attorney Jim Connolly said an investigation will continue into allegations of conflicts of interest regarding board investment decisions about the $ 17 billion school fund, which is primarily used to buy textbooks. Connolly said with billions of dollars at stake, all decisions about the school fund must be debated openly. "The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to safeguard the public's interest in knowing how decisions are made with regard to that money," said Connolly. David Donaldson, an Austin attorney and director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said he can recall no other elected state officials being charged with violating the Open Meetings Act since it was passed in the 1970s. "I hope it sends a message to other state officials that the Open Meetings Act is a real deal," said Donaldson. However, Donaldson said that winning convictions might be difficult if the Committee on School Finance/Permanent School Fund didn't have authority to take independent action. Donaldson said lawyers for the board members could argue that the three did not constitute a quorum of the 15-member full board. Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative group that monitors the content of school textbooks and other issues, criticized the indictments. Peggy Venable, director of the group, said that the education board has been outstanding in managing the school fund. "These efforts are being engineered by several legislators who have been eyeing the $ 17 billion fund as a potential revenue source to pay for their overspending," said Venable.

08/31/2002
Sounding Off on Textbooks
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Sounding Off on Textbooks

BY ARmando Villifranca

AUSTIN - Some simply want Texas towns, rivers and regions marked correctly when mentioned in school textbooks. Others find the scant references to women's rights - and other civil right struggles - deplorable. And then there are those who seek the inclusion of little-known facts so obscure and trivial - such as San Antonio supplying meat to patriots during the American Revolution - that they are probably better suited for a board game about trivia than a young Texan's mind. Throughout Wednesday, teachers, citizen groups and public citizens sounded off on what they thought should be included in social studies textbooks during a hearing before the State Board of Education. "Citizens have pretty much been asleep at the wheel. We've complained a lot after the fact, but only a few citizens have over the years rolled up their sleeves, reviewed the textbooks and weighed in," said Peggy Venable of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. Concerns ranged from omissions to misrepresentations, especially about the cultural, political and racial landscape of the state. Texas, which has about 4.1 million students in its public school system, adopts new social studies books every eight years. The state will spend $ 344.7 million on the textbooks, which will be used in classrooms in 2003. The elected State Board of Education has no say over textbook content but can reject books because of errors or failure to follow the state curriculum. The board is scheduled to make its final decisions in November. Tony Bonilla, a Corpus Christi attorney and former League of United Latin American Citizens president, said state history textbooks were "woefully inadequate" when it came to depicting the role Hispanics played in state and national history. The list for public testimony included a contingent from the University of Texas-Brownsville that left the Rio Grande Valley at 3 a.m. to attend Wednesday's hearing. Venable said her group is focusing on ensuring that textbooks teach patriotism, free market and democracy in a favorable light. During the last round of hearings, her group sought the rejection of one textbook, but will not make such recommendations this year. An example of someof the problems, she said, was a reference in a sixth-grade textbook claiming that socialism and communism were good for all citizens. "We believe strongly that those are failed systems . . . and that sixth-grade students need that explained to them," she said.

07/18/2002
Ratliff Wants Statewide Property Tax In Lieu of Local levy
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Ratliff Wants Statewide Property Tax In Lieu of Local levy

BY Janet Elliot

AUSTIN - Replacing local property taxes with a statewide levy would provide a more equitable means of funding public schools, Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff said Wednesday. "The reason it becomes more equitable is all taxpayers would pay the same state property tax rate," said Ratliff, author of the 1993 "share-the-wealth" school finance plan. Ratliff would have the Legislature levy a statewide property tax of $ 1.40 per $ 100 of a property's assessed value. The money would be distributed to districts on a per-pupil basis.

04/04/2002
Environmental Groups to Look Closely At Future Federal Judges
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Environmental Groups to Look Closely At Future Federal Judges

BY Patty Reinert

WASHINGTON - Worried that President Bush will attack the nation's long-standing environmental protection laws through the courts, a dozen environmental groups announced Wednesday that they will for the first time scrutinize nominees to the federal bench.

07/19/2001
Viewpoints
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Viewpoints

BY Michael Donnelly, John Hoppe, John H. Hall Jr., Frank Staats

Trolleys a first-order folly The Metropolitan Transit Authority's plan of laying "streetcar tracks" down the middle of Main Street is a folly of the first order. Tracks are very expensive and the work on them has to be "in place," which is a problem that is upsetting to all traffic downtown. A design requiring detours would not be in the interest of the designers, political or otherwise. Tracks can also be a driving hazard in rainy weather.

12/06/2000

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