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Telecom Lobbyists' Loyalties Questioned
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Newspaper Article

Telecom Lobbyists' Loyalties Questioned

BY Sanford Nowlin

Some lobbying groups that claim to represent consumers on telecommunications issues actually are backed by big phone and cable companies trying to push their own agendas, consumer group Common Cause said in a report issued Tuesday. The report, "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Telecom Industry Groups and Astroturf" said groups with names such as Consumers for Cable Choice and Freedom Works are lobbying lawmakers as they consider big changes to the nation's telecom laws.

03/29/2006
Memo costs woman job
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Memo costs woman job

BY W. Gardner Selby

AUSTIN — An employee has resigned from the Texas Workforce Commission under fire for a memo she drafted last spring suggesting the agency should make use of "sugar daddy" lawmakers to succeed in the 2005 regular legislative session.

01/31/2004
Comptroller Seeks Cigarette Tax Boost
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Comptroller Seeks Cigarette Tax Boost

BY W. Gardner Selby

AUSTIN - Saying the state's business tax receipts were in "free fall," Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn urged lawmakers Monday to increase cigarette taxes. Strayhorn becomes the first statewide officeholder to shatter the "no new taxes" unity among Republican leaders. She listed a $1 a pack increase among 20 items that could yield $4.1 billion for the state in 2004-05. The state's cigarette tax has been 41 cents a pack since 1990. Strayhorn's other suggestions, many under legislative review, include the legalization of video lottery terminals at horse and dog racetracks, reducing administrators in public schools, authorizing the state's participation in a multistate lottery and tweaking a state law letting corporations reorganize as partnerships and avoid the state's corporate franchise tax. "My advice (to lawmakers) is to get busy on this," Strayhorn said. Gov. Rick Perry's response was to say a cigarette tax increase "ain't going to happen." Perry, emerging from talks with House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said he remains "comfortable" that legislators will balance the two-year budget without new taxes before the 140-day session ends June 2. Strayhorn said receipts from the state's corporate franchise tax, accounting for 6 percent of annual tax revenues, are running nearly 18 percent behind what she projected for the fiscal year, which ends Aug. 31. "We've got a franchise tax free fall going on," Strayhorn said, attributing the drop to more corporations organizing as partnerships to avoid the tax. House-Senate negotiators have been inching toward a roughly $117 billion budget that avoids higher taxes and closes a more than $10 billion gap between the cost of existing programs and state income in 2004-05. But progress has become "squishy," an aide said, because Perry, Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, all Republicans, have not agreed on how much to spend on education, higher education and other areas. Spending targets likely would be affected again if Strayhorn lowers her estimate of state income for the two-year period. But higher state taxes are not an option, Perry said. "There's not going to be a cigarette tax increase during this session of the Legislature," Perry said. Dewhurst agreed, saying, "I don't believe that we need to raise taxes in order to balance our budget." Strayhorn, saying the cigarette tax increase would generate $1.5 billion in state income, joins others who have urged such an increase, including Republican Sens. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio and Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a proposal last week to conduct a November straw poll of voters on the increase. She said she sought the nonbinding referendum because a $1 increase hasn't been forwarded by the House, where tax measures must originate. "This is one revenue stream that would have a beneficial impact," Strayhorn said. "As a mama and grandmama, I want to deter young people from smoking." Strayhorn told Texas Monthly in December, "Nothing I do is ever going to trigger a tax bill." And in a January report to lawmakers, she said would "vigorously oppose" higher taxes and creation of a state personal income tax. Perry declined to criticize Strayhorn, saying, "She puts a lot of different ideas on the table. And that's what the comptroller's job is." The leader of a conservative group that named Strayhorn its "friend of the taxpayer" several years ago called a cigarette tax increase untimely. "It's the wrong way to go," said Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. "I'm not slighting her for making the recommendation. It's up to policymakers to say that's not the way to go." Strayhorn said she doesn't believe she's breaking with past positions by urging the increase. Legislation to close the so-called franchise tax loophole - used by corporations that include the owner of the Express-News and SBC Communications Inc. - is widely considered dead. Strayhorn didn't name corporations that have taken advantage of the loophole. But she said more are doing so, and she listed nine examples of firms that paid between $100,000 and $9 million in franchise taxes in 2002 but zero for 2003 as of a deadline last week. Strayhorn said franchise tax payments from the state's largest corporations have diminished nearly 40 percent compared with May 2002. "This is significant news, and it's negative news," Strayhorn said, saying the loophole needs to be closed or business taxation needs to "go a different route." Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, who heads the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, cited Perry's anti-tax position as reason for not taking up cigarette taxes, though he said the increase could be weighed if a special session is necessary to finish the budget.

05/20/2003
Another Mother of Hotel Giveaways Angle Sounds Familiar
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Another Mother of Hotel Giveaways Angle Sounds Familiar

BY Carlos Guerra

Some City Hall boondoggles keep getting resurrected, each time with a stranger twist. One of these is the "Mother of All Hotel Giveaways," as I dubbed the convention center hotel when it was first proposed seven years ago. It began with the $200 million Convention Center expansion that city leaders said would win us the Really Big Conventions that would fill up local hotel rooms and increase occupancy tax revenues. But after the expansion failed to draw the huge meetings, they said we needed more rooms and then gave multimillion-dollar subsidies to three big hotels. And when the conventioneers still didn't show, it was because we needed a hotel at the convention center itself. It will be the Mother of All Hotel Giveaways, I predicted. In addition to the biggest subsidy to date, it will also get a free city parking lot and sit on prime city land rented for a song. At that time, headquarters hotel plans were as common, nationally, as huge convention center expansions. Literally every large city was doing one or both, so all would soon be competing for the same limited big conventions. Undeterred, city officials picked a developer and waited, and were still waiting when I cited what Grid, a real estate trade journal, had reported in its April 2002 edition: "Both the city (of San Antonio) and the development team continue to put the best face on the situation, (but) the deal is coming undone." By then, our headquarters hotel plans were 6 years old and the hotel was five years behind on its original opening date. And the travel industry had still not recovered from its post-Sept. 11, 2001, nosedive. After Related Lodging and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. missed its umpteenth financing deadline, the council dropped the developer - but not before vowing to "find other ways" to make the hotel a reality. One year later, city officials are still quietly exploring ways to revive it. They are considering financing the hotel entirely with tax money and handing it over to an operator, and even expanding it from 1,000 to 1,200 rooms to 1,600 rooms. But a newly released study of Dallas' proposed convention center hotel sheds some interesting light on these deals. (It was conducted for Washington-based Citizens for a Sound Economy by Source Strategies Inc., which also provides detailed analysis of hotel occupancy rates and taxes for the Texas Department of Commerce.) After studying development in Texas' largest convention markets over the last two decades, researchers concluded that "headquarters hotels do not generate their own market demand, (but instead) absorb existing demand." Source Strategies also found that if "the investment criteria of a private developer" were applied, subsidies for such boondoggles are "not a sound investment" because "the city would assume massive financial risk for a minimal return." Finally, the research group concluded that "a 'Convention Headquarters' hotel will be financially devastating to the existing hotels in the downtown district, causing extensive loss of revenues, reduced real estate values (and diminished tax base), and in some cases bankruptcies and closures." Of course, what they found concerns Dallas' proposed hotel. What we have been writing for almost seven years is about ours. But I must emphasize a key point made in that study: "Where private enterprise fears to tread, beware!"

03/25/2003
Another Mother of Hotel Giveaways Angle Sounds Familiar
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Another Mother of Hotel Giveaways Angle Sounds Familiar

BY Carlos Guerra

Some City Hall boondoggles keep getting resurrected, each time with a stranger twist. One of these is the "Mother of All Hotel Giveaways," as I dubbed the convention center hotel when it was first proposed seven years ago. It began with the $200 million Convention Center expansion that city leaders said would win us the Really Big Conventions that would fill up local hotel rooms and increase occupancy tax revenues.

03/25/2003
Statewide Tax on Income May Be Gaining Steam
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Statewide Tax on Income May Be Gaining Steam

BY W. Gardner Selby

AUSTIN - A dozen years ago today, then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock made the biggest public miscalculation of his career in declaring Texas ready for a state personal income tax. Bullock, surprising editorial writers and Gov. Ann Richards at an event in the Governor's Mansion, vowed to lead the charge for a 5 percent personal income tax and 8 percent corporate income tax to fund public schools while driving down local property taxes. Saying he personally disliked "any type of new taxes," Bullock continued: "But I also know deep down in my heart, deep down in my heart, that it's the right thing to do for Texas." Few heeded his call, and Bullock's idea died, although he recovered and even won re-election after proposing a constitutional amendment approved in 1993 that requires voter approval before an income tax becomes law. No statewide official has pushed an income tax since, but advocates - and one opponent - say it might be gaining momentum as lawmakers confront escalating property taxes and a projected state revenue shortfall exceeding $10 billion. "No question, there is a growing movement to consider a state income tax," said Peggy Venable, the Texas director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which favors cutting taxes and spending. "We have more people moving in from outside the state, of people accustomed to paying a state income tax," Venable said. "There is certainly a property tax revolt rumbling. It's the anything but a property tax" crowd. But, she said, "it would be the wrong move." Republican leaders agree, led by Gov. Rick Perry, who said Wednesday: "The vast, vast majority of the people of the state of Texas think like I do. The smartest thing we have never done in this state is pass a state income tax." "The state income tax is dead," agreed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. "There's no support for it in the Legislature and throughout the state." Yet Dewhurst has been studying alternative education funding methods to whittle dependence on local property taxes. "I'm working on it daily," Dewhurst said. "It's got to work numerically and then we've got to work the politics. It will require a lot of explaining all around the state." Among 31 senators and 150 House members, two Democrats are urging colleagues to seek voter approval of a personal income tax as the best alternative to the state's reliance on sales taxes, corporate franchise and other taxes, which yield about $26 billion a year. Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, estimates the state could raise $15 billion more for education by levying a personal income tax of 4.8 percent, while driving down school property taxes 90 percent. "If voters get to see the facts, their minds change," Shapleigh said. "We can't improve the system by increasing taxes on property. More and more people need to see the facts." First-year Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, plans legislation to progressively tax income at a rate of up to 6 percent, while eliminating local maintenance and operation school property taxes and the corporate franchise tax. "There's no political will to do it," Rodriguez conceded. "We have to create that will." Dallas businessman Albert D. Huddleston has circulated a proposal to fund school facilities and teacher salaries, at an average of $52,000 a year, by replacing local property taxes with either an expanded or increased sales tax, a flat-rate income tax or statewide property tax - or some mix of the three. Huddleston's "Texas Great Teacher Plan," which envisions giving experienced teachers a property tax exemption, would require nearly $19 billion a year, drawing from $11.2 billion in existing state education spending and $7.5 billion generated by the new tax. Few legislators look like they're ready to follow in Bullock's footsteps. Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, first elected to the House in 1966, cited voters confronting higher property taxes and said: "There's going to be a personal income tax or there's going to be a revolution." More typically, Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, whose district includes Bullock's boyhood home in Hillsboro, shook his head no. "People wouldn't send me back to Austin if I voted for a state income tax," Pitts said.

03/06/2003
Some Doubt Governor's Resolve
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Some Doubt Governor's Resolve

BY W. Gardner Selby

AUSTIN - Within 30 days, Texans will know if Republican leaders are sticking to budget-cutting plans or bending to pressure for increased taxes, a GOP leader said Tuesday. "Within the next month, we'll have a sense as to whether we have people bolting or not," said Rep. Talmadge Heflin of Houston, chairman of the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee. "The ones that fold will have to be the leadership-the speaker, the lieutenant governor, the governor," Heflin said, referring to House Speaker Tom Craddick, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry. "If heat comes on them to where they say, you know, we can't do this, then we're screwed," Heflin said, adding he expects the leadership to stick together and "get the job done." Republican leaders have vowed to achieve a 2004-05 budget that absorbs a projected revenue shortfall of $9.9 billion without requiring additional taxes, possibly spending less than the $117 billion earmarked in the 2002-03 budget that runs through August. In his State of the State address Tuesday, Perry gave no indication of giving ground, saying voters "elected us to set priorities, not to raise the price of government," adding: "My friends, it can be done. We can balance our budget without raising taxes." Dewhurst, informed of Heflin's comments, said: "If we stand together, Democrats and Republicans alike, we can balance the budget without new taxes." Craddick, R-Midland, said: "I'm not bolting." "The three of us will stay together all the way through," Craddick said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that." Heflin supports a proposal to abolish the state's share-the-wealth public school funding system by 2005. He wants immediate research into overhauling the tax system so the 2005 Legislature can consider ideas like replacing property and franchise taxes with an expanded state sales tax. In early April, the House likely will take up a draft of the budget recommended by his committee, Heflin said. If approved, it will head to the Senate, whose members will probably substitute their own version and clear the way for House-Senate negotiations before the session ends June 2. Heflin on Tuesday asked the Texas Association of School Boards to support a lean budget along with his desire to overhaul school funding and taxes in 2005. "I'm asking that you partner with us to do that," he said. John McInnis, an Arlington school board member and past president of TASB, later objected. Describing himself as a moderate Republican, McInnis said: "If they're not going to come up with new resources to pay the bills, my question is: Who cuts where?" "They're going to bolt," McInnis predicted of the GOP leaders. "They simply have to. It's going to be an interesting rhetorical dilemma for the governor to wade out of." Peggy Venable, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, disagreed, saying taxpayers will need to remind the leaders that they are spending taxpayer dollars and not money that belongs to government. "Chairman Heflin is absolutely right," Venable said. "They are going to have to be steadfast in their focus on cutting spending and addressing the needs of Texas." The Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for programs serving poor Texans, noted Tuesday that health, education and criminal justice agencies are being asked to chop more than $4.5 billion from their budgets before taking them to legislative budget-drafting panels. Scott McCown, the center's executive director, called Heflin's comments "the best news I've had all day." "When fellows start telling you that they're not going to bolt, that means people have been talking to them about the desperate need to raise revenue," McCown said. "A lot of people are using their access to leadership with a private message that this is going to be devastating to balance the budget without additional revenue." "That means he's having to keep an eye on them, that things are happening," McCown said.

02/12/2003
Issues in Eduction
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Issues in Eduction

BY Lucy Hood

A four-month debate over Texas textbooks' portrayal of everything from religion to the Alamo and its profound consequences for schoolchildren across the nation is expected to end this week. Social studies books to be adopted by the State Board of Education were vetted over four months for mistakes, philosophical preferences and compliance with Texas' curriculum. "I think it's over and done with, and we'll pass the proclamation," said state board Chairwoman Grace Shore, R-Longview. But at least one board member and one interest group have cautioned that anything can happen at the last minute. The outcome will affect what students learn nationwide. Texas is the second-largest textbook market in the country. Public schools will spend $345 million on the social studies texts alone, and changes made to the Texas books often end up in classrooms elsewhere. The books, in the end, will incorporate suggestions from the right and the left. Both sides unleashed their critiques at three public hearings in July, August and September. And publishers, to a great extent, acquiesced to their demands. At the behest of Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, for example, Prentice Hall increased Hispanic representation in some books and created a 32-page section featuring many Hispanics, including defenders of the Alamo, who played a role in Texas history. Publishers also made changes requested by a conservative coalition. The San Antonio-based Texas Public Policy Foundation took the lead with a $100,000 study that produced a list of 533 alleged mistakes. Other groups, such as the Texas Eagle Forum and Citizens for a Sound Economy, offered their own lists. According to the Texas Freedom Network, those revisions promote Christianity, attack Islam and distort the teaching of science and slavery. The network is a liberal group that monitors the religious right. "These kinds of changes go far beyond anyone's idea of factual errors and constitute a form of censorship," said its director, Samantha Smoot. Board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, part of the social conservative bloc on the board, defended the changes. "Promoting Christianity? That's a crime?" he asked. "America was founded on Christian principles." Asked if the public could expect swift approval of the texts, Bradley hesitated. "Never say never. ... Twenty-four hours is a long time in education," he said, adding fuel to Smoot's fear of a last-minute pitch from the right for additional changes. Board members said the debate had been healthy, producing better books and giving the public an opportunity to participate in the selection process. "It represents democracy in action at its best," said board member Joe Bernal, D-San Antonio. Bernal praised publishers for increasing minority presence in some of the books, and he called the initial lack of Hispanic representation an "error of omission." Errors are important to the board, whose role in the textbook debate is only to correct factual errors, determine if the books conform to the state curriculum, and pass judgment on the bindings. In 1995, lawmakers restricted the board's powers, leaving it "with just enough authority to constantly get us in trouble," said board member Chase Untermeyer, R-Houston. "Right now we live in this half light," Untermeyer said, "in which textbooks are the best but by no means the only example of the problems faced by having partial powers." He suggested lawmakers either restore full authority to the board or take it away altogether. Smoot agreed that something must be done, suggesting that textbook selection be given to a separate entity. "A narrow group of people is able to use this process to grandstand about their political opinions and affect which books are chosen and which are not," she said. "It's clear that a great many things about this process don't serve children."

11/14/2002
Groups Voice Opinions on Social Studies Books
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Groups Voice Opinions on Social Studies Books

BY Lucy Hood

Textbook testimony heeded Woody Guthrie's words on Wednesday, or at least his best-known phrase, as educators and parents debated the content of social studies books to be used in Texas classrooms for the next eight years. In various ways, many of the 78 people who signed up to testify before the State Board of Education had one thing to say: "This land is my land." They felt strongly that the social studies texts should reflect just that. Wednesday's hearing was the third and final one before the board approves a list of recommended textbooks in November. The stakes are high both for the state and the publishing industry. Texas is the second-largest consumer of textbooks nationwide, and it will spend an estimated $344.7 million on social studies books alone. The speakers fell into three camps. One of those, a coalition of several conservative organizations, claimed that many of the more than 250 social studies books under consideration do not place sufficient emphasis on patriotism and the merits of a free-market society. Their liberal counterparts argued that there is more to social studies than capitalism and patriotism. A third group said the accomplishments of minorities, particularly Hispanics, are not fairly represented in the texts. "The textbook battle is a clash of belief systems," said Richard Neavel, of Austin, who has five grandchildren in public schools. One of them is 11-year-old Elena Cortez Neavel. "Elena will not be educated if she learns to be blindly patriotic," he said. Mentioning scandal-ridden companies such as Enron, he asked if "that is the free enterprise system that these organizations want Elena to admire?" One of the organizations he referenced was Citizens for a Sound Economy. Its leaders have raised questions about the teaching of economics, for example, and whether the textbooks accurately tout the benefits of capitalism and the drawbacks of governmental intervention. Another vocal critic of the social studies texts has been the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which spent nearly $100,000 and commissioned 16 scholars to study several of the textbooks. They identified more than 500 errors. But their critics have questioned whether the errors represent actual mistakes or a difference of opinion. Chris Patterson, director of education research for the San Antonio-based TPPF, came under fire Wednesday for the group's failure to hire an African American or Hispanic scholar to review the books. "You need diversity," said board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi. "There are many Hispanic scholars who would have welcomed the opportunity to work with you and your evaluation." Many who spoke mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks, and Citizens for a Sound Economy gave the textbooks high marks overall for their accounts of the tragedy. Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, said the hearing was an exercise in democracy and therefore a suitable way to mark the anniversary. She also reiterated the group's commitment to "ideology-free textbooks" and opposition to censorship. Citizens for a Sound Economy director Peggy Venable gave the textbooks high marks overall for their accounts of the Sept. 11 tragedy, but criticized some books for not placing blame on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network. "We need to point out that we were attacked for our virtues, not our sins," she said. What publishers ultimately put in the Texas books is often used as a template for the books they sell nationwide, said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers. The changes made here, he said, could end up in classrooms all over the country, or, as Guthrie would say, from "California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters."

09/12/2002
Content of Textbooks Education Board's Job
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Content of Textbooks Education Board's Job

Textbook publishers who want to do business with the state would be wise to heed a warning from the Texas Education Agency. It warns against changing the content of textbooks because of pressure from special interest groups or individual State Board of Education members. The TEA sent a letter to all textbook publishers reminding them that proposed changes must go before the full board for approval. The State Board of Education has 250 social studies and history textbooks under review. On Nov. 15, it will determine which ones go on a list from which Texas public school districts can select. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy and several individuals indicate some publishers have been willing to alter content after the groups complained. A public process allows interested parties to express their views. Allowing certain parties to deal directly with the publishers undermines the process. Publishers want to please because Texas school districts will spend more than $344 million on books and supplementary materials. Because Texas is the second-largest textbook consumer in the nation, it drives sales in other states as well. The elected members of the SBOE, rather than special interest groups with their own agendas, should have the final say on the textbook lists.

09/03/2002

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