The hottest issue in Texas politics after school finance is one which virtually everyone dismissed until only a few months ago: illegal immigration.
In the Republican primary, at least, the issue has jumped to the top of the bullet point list of virtually every candidate The Lone Star Report (LSR) as interviewed.
This isn't likely an accident. Campaigns do polling, and the voters are clearly being heard. And while immigration remains primarily a federal issue, legislators have embraced it emphatically, looking for something - anything - they can do to combat the problem.
With that in mind, the Texas Public Policy Foundation held a policy forum Feb. 22 to outline the problem and possible actions.
Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams cautioned that a knee-jerk reaction to such an emotional issue could ultimately do more harm than good. Last year, trade between Texas and Mexico amounted to $45.7 billion, or $2,031 per person in Texas. Extreme solutions, he said, could threaten that trade.
"We need to bring the debate back to what I call practical solutions," he said.
Nonetheless, Williams called the openness of the Border a huge security risk to the U.S. and to Texas.
"The problem is that if illegal immigrants find it so easy to cross, then organized crime and terrorists will find it easy also," he said.
The biggest issue facing Texas specifically, however, is the cost to the state budget of measures to combat illegal entry. Although estimates are imprecise, the best guess is $4 billion or so.
Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp (R-Lampasas), who has wrestled with the costs to Texas' state health programs, cited what she called some startling numbers:
* One in four uninsured Texans is a non-citizen.
* In some hospitals, two-thirds of the uncompensated care costs are attributable to illegal aliens.
* Fort Worth's John Peter Smith Hospital delivered 5,775 babies in the last year, of whom 4,207 were to illegal alien parents.
* Almost 70 percent of the patients served by the Children with Speicial Health Care needs are non-citizens.
Those statistics, Hupp said, might just be the tip of the iceberg. State agencies' recordkeeping on illegal immigrant costs are very spotty and partial. In some cases, agencies have policies specifically prohibiting record keeping. In a two-month study of illegal alien costs, LSR has found numerous examples – particularly in education – where state policy is not tokeep records of illegal alien costs.
One solution, Hupp said, is ordering state agencies and their local counterparts to keep those statistics. Only when legislators know the full scope of the problem, she said, can they adequately address it.
"This is eating us alive," Hupp said. "Perhaps with better statistics we can move toward a policy that would plug the Border in a meaningful way.
"It's important that we have legislation that can begin the process before we have a funding meltdown which I believe is not far away."
Large as the costs for illegal immigrant health care are, virtually every study suggests they pale in comparison to the enormous cost of educating the children of illegal aliens. LSR's analysis shows that more than 80 percent of the overall cost of illegal immigration comes from this source.
Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) is particularly bothered by the rising costs of illegal immigrant education, a problem that, if fixed, could eliminate the need for a tax increase to solve the state's school finance problem.
"Texas spends $4 billion annually on education for illegal immigrant children and their U.S.-born siblings," she said.
This problem was forced on the state by the U. S. Supreme Court, which held, in Plyler v. Doe (1982), that Texas had no compelling interest in denying education to non-citizens. Harper-Brown, citing a number of problems with that 5-4 ruling, said the time could be ripe for another look. With the problem far graver than in 1982, she predicted, Plyler won't stand up if education costs are added to other illegal alien costs. Additionally, if the state were to pass a bill challenging the ruling, the Roberts court now in place would be more sympathetic.
Although sympathetic to that approach, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said efforts to free states from paying for the children of illegals have failed in the past. A congressional bill with the same purpose lost handily several years ago, Krikorian said.
Nonetheless, Harper-Brown said that until Texas solved the problem of free illegal immigrant education – as well as in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at Texas universities – present policies would continue as a magnet for illegal immigration.
Krikorian said that state officials who in the past thought illegal immigration was a federal issue are now starting to wake up. There is a need, he said, for every state to have a policy in place for dealing with the problem. Not dealing with it, he said, was a de facto policy to encourage the problem.
Krikorian suggested several stances the state could take very easily:
* End "safe harbor" cities, where local law enforcement officers are not allowed to ask questions about immigration status.
* Take advantage of a 1996 law that allows law enforcement officers to be deputized as immigration officers.
* Take better precautions to protect the state's ID from use by illegal immigrants.
* Deny government contracts and revoke business licenses from businesses fined by the federal government for hiring illegal immigrants.
Williams added that the current immigration policy amounts to a lose-lose policy for Texas and Mexico. But positive steps, he said, could be taken on an economic development level.
Some of the practical solutions Williams had in mind include rethinking Border commerce to develop win-win solutions. Free trade, he said, ultimately will do that. The North American Free Trade Agreement, he said, has helped improve the economy south of the Border. The Central American Free Trade Agreement could do the same, he said.. Opening up Latin American countries to investment, he said, would spur great advances in the economies of those countries.
One progressive step, Williams said, is the formation of close relationships between Border governors, who are promoting industry clusters to develop the economy on both sides of the border.
Writer Michael Tate commented on the spirit of Deep Ellum -- or loss thereof -- and the neighborhood's identity crisis in a piece on 90.1 KERA TV this morning. He predicts the area will morph into another Uptown. Read his commentary on www.publicbroadcasting.net/kera/news.newsmain
The $33 million gift from the Meadows Foundation to SMU was touted Wednesday as a transformative gift that will make the Meadows Museum and the university’s Meadows School of the Art more international in scope and more important at home. It is the largest single gift in the history of SMU.
University officials accepted the gift during a ceremony on campus that featured campus officials, representatives of the Foundation and members of the family of Algur H. Meadows, who made the first gift of Spanish art to SMU in 1962. An endowment followed in 1969, and nine years ago the Foundation donated $20 million to build a new museum on campus.
The biggest portion of the gift, $25 million, will go for Meadows Museum acquisitions, exhibitions, an educational curator position, expanded educational programs and special initiatives at the museum designed to increase the museum’s use within the community and bring national and international visitors.
The other $8 mllion will go to the Meadows School of the Arts for scholarships, faculty and maintenance of art, visual arts, theater, music and other facilities.
Gerald J. Ford, chairman of the SMU board of trustees, said the gift denotes the important role that the arts play in society and education and the unique ability of the Dallas campus to lead in that role.
Meanwhile, a search committee for the Meadows School has identified three finalists in the search for a new dean. They are Jose Bowen, School of Fine Arts dean at Miami University in Ohio; Douglas Lowry, dean of the College-Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati; and Sharon L. Vasquez, dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State University.
Carole Brandt, dean of the Meadows School since 1994, will retire in June. Her tenure has included the building of the new Meadows Museum at Mockingbird and Bishop Boulevard and a $5 million donation from Belo that enabled construction of a state-of-the-art TV studio, control room and digital newsroom and endowed chairman of the journalism division chairman in the Meadows School.
The school includes advertising, art, art history, arts administration, cinema-TV, corporate communication and public affairs, dance, journalism, music and theater. The school maintains a heavy schedule of concerts, dance and theater performances open to the community.
In the interest of disclosure, your blogger is on the journalism faculty at SMU.
A congressional campaign is accusing a Republican primary opponent of breaking federal election law.
According to a press release from the Wilson Aurbach For Congress campaign, Amir Omar has violated parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Omar and Aurbach are opponents in the congressional District 30 Republican primary. The District 30 seat is currently held by Eddie Bernice Johnson, and is considered to be a heavily Democratic district.
The Aurbach campaign is alleging that the Omar campaign engaged in a large scale “gift-for-votes scheme” involving the distribution of Eddie Deen Barbeque Sauce bottles and an endorsement letter from Eddie Deen. The Eddie Dean Company is well known for its signature barbeque sauce and catering service.
The letters and Eddie Deen’s "Western White House Bar-B-Que Sauce" were sent to potential voters in District 30 in February. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the letter suggested that Amir Omar could beat incumbent Eddie Bernice Johnson in November and that he would “make believers out of our Republican leaders."
According to the Aurbach campaign’s press release, the distribution of barbeque sauce bottles to potential voters is a violation of Title 42 Section 1973i(c) of the Federal Election Code because it has the “real potential to influence the outcome of an election in which traditionally only about 7,000 Republican households vote.”
Omar has rejected the claims by the Aurbach campaign. “A number of things that they are throwing out there are patently false,” said Omar. “I will address each of those issues in the morning.” Omar said that his campaign is planning a press conference for Thursday.
Omar has been endorsed by the Dallas Morning News as well as former party officials, including former Dallas GOP Chairman Bob Driegert and former Dallas GOP Political Director Cody Hand. Omar has also received the endorsement of Dallas County Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield.
Kirk England on leftOur Democratic bloggers, Ken Molberg and Ed Ishmael, had a premature celebration of a Democratic takeover of the Texas House of Representatives this year after the Democrats won a Republican seat in Austin in a recent special election.
Democrats were counting on another victory in yesterday’s special election in a Grand Prairie district previously represented by Republican Ray Allen. Rep. Allen resigned earlier this year from District 106 in Dallas County, thus necessitating a special election.
Democrats ran a viable candidate in real estate agent Katy Hubener who almost defeated Allen in the 2004 general election. Nonetheless, Republican Kirk England won the election with more than 53% of the vote. Turnout was low, as only 5,272 voters cast a ballot in the special election. England, an insurance agent, is the son of the very popular Mayor of Grand Prairie, Charles England. The Republican candidate had a big lead in early voting which propelled him to victory in yesterday’s election.
While the election was a squeaker, Republican leaders in the Texas House can breathe a little easier now that they have held onto a Republican seat in this marginal district. The tightness of the race does suggest however, that there will be a lot of hard-fought campaigns this fall as the Democrats try to win back control of the Texas House of Representatives.
Dallas County is lagging behind other populous Texas counties in emergency preparedness, according to the county’s Security and Emergency Management Director.
On Tuesday, the Dallas County Commissioners Court heard from the county’s homeland security chief, Robie Robinson, about Dallas County’s progress toward meeting certain standards set by the state as well as the federal government. Robinson has held the position of Security and Emergency Management Director since January 1st.
According Robinson, Dallas County was given the overall grade of “basic”, which is the lowest grade set by the state’s Division of Emergency Management (DEM). Tarrant and Harris counties, which also have considerably large populations, received grades of “advanced” for their emergency preparedness.
While the counties DEM grade is basic, it is in "noncompliance" with national standards. Robinson’s presentation indicated that areas of noncompliance include hazard management, resource management, logistics and facilities, training, and exercises.
The lack of emergency management facilities highlighted the court’s discussion on the county’s shortcomings. Some commissioners expressed concern for the type of facility that the county would eventually use.
“We need a hardened facility,” said Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield. Mayfield was responding to Robinson’s suggestion to the court that Dallas could build a new, hardened Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for five million dollars. According to Robinson, the other option is to remodel an existing facility for $150,000.
Robinson suggested that building a hardened facility might be better since homeland security facilities are at a greater risk to terrorism. “Often times on the FBI list, this facility comes up as a major target,” said Robinson. Also at issue for a potential new command center was location. Robinson mentioned Denton County as an example of a county that has its EOC away from high transit areas. Using a remodeled, existing facility in downtown Dallas could be problematic in the event of a major disaster.
Robinson’s presentation also had a timetable showing the expected future progress of the county’s emergency preparedness. The timetable indicated that “complete staff recruitment” would be achieved within six months. Some of the positions that need to be filled are planner, trainer, and an assistant coordinator.
The timetable also indicated that the county could achieve an “intermediate” rating in emergency preparedness within 12 months and an “advanced” rating within two years. Commissioners asked Robinson if hiring a consultant would speed up the county’s emergency preparedness. Robinson said that the county could have an advanced rating within a year and an intermediate rating within 6 to 8 months if they hired a consultant. The cost of hiring a consultant could be as much as $150,000.
Robinson's table also showed that a new EOC would be ready in three years.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's gubernatorial campaign is calling on Gov. Rick Perry to replace Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams.
Strayhorn complains that Williams, who serves in an appointed office, should not be fundraising while at the same time overseeing Texas' election system. The Secretary of State, among other duties, prescribes the manner in which independent candidates like Strayhorn can gain petition signatures to get on the ballot.
“Gov. Perry needs immediately to find a secretary of state that will serve as an impartial chief election’s officer. While in office and overseeing elections, a secretary of state should not be actively soliciting contributions from the governor’s special interests and pay fundraisers and political consultants as if he were a candidate. That is absolutely wrong," said Brad McClellan, Strayhorn's campaign manager.
Williams' office, however, notes that fundraising by the secretary of state is not a new thing, as many holders of that office use outside funds to pay for certain activities.
"This office has a number of expenses that are recognized functions of the Secretary of State," said Williams' spokesman, Scott Haywood. "Secretary Williams believes, like previous secretaries of state, that these expenses are better paid for by not using tax dollars."
As examples, Haywood noted some travel, protocol and ceremonial duties which allow the Secretary of State to represent the state, but which he said are traditionally paid for through outside sources.
Mayor Laura Miller, council members Pauline Medrano and Angela Hunt, Chief of Police David Kunkle, and representatives from various city departments met Tuesday morning with over 150 people at a town hall meeting held at the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum to discuss the troubled entertainment area's future.
City officials and staff for nearly two hours listened to and discussed the problems plaguing the area including crime, crime, zoning, and special use permits.
“Our vision is to make Deep Ellum a place where people want to come to eat and shop, listen to great music, have a great time, and know that it is safe,” Mayor Miller told the audience, mostly resident and business owners in the area east of downtown.
She said she would create a task force to tackle the problems the area faces.
The Deep Ellum Task Force will be made up of one representative from each of the following: the Deep Ellum Foundation, the Deep Ellum Association, Deep Ellum Residents Council, a restaurant representative, a live music bar owners representative, and a dance club/bar representative. This new task force will meet monthly at a location in Deep Ellum with representatives from various city departments including Police, Code Compliance, Development Services (Zoning), and Streets.
Gianna Madrini, President of Deep Ellum Association said “We are so delighted that the Mayor, Chief Kunkle, the Council members and city staff took the initiative to be here. We want to get back to our roots-arts, music-and make this a great neighborhood to live in, and we can do that with the city’s help.”
Gov. Rick Perry is actually courting legislators to support a new gross receipts tax on business in the upcoming special session on school finance, but some area Republican members are balking. After meeting with Perry here in small group sessions, some said they prefer to use the surplus to “buy down” local property taxes, but there clearly is no consensus.
John Sharp, Perry’s appointee to head the Texas Tax Reform Commission, was with Perry when he tried to rustle up support for the one percent gross receipts tax his commission has recommended. Sharp is in the process of drafting legislation to be introduced at the special session this spring.
One area legislator, however, said some members want to deal with the single issue they’ve been presented by the Texas Supreme Court -- the illegal statewide property tax -- by simply giving local districts more state funds from an available surplus that would reduce their dependence on local property taxes and give them some breathing room. Most districts are either at or near the $1.50 property tax cap and have no discretion left for raising money locally.
The state now has a $4.3 billion surplus that could be used to allow schools district to reduce their tax rates by 20 to 30 cents. The reasoning is that the Legislature controls the cap, so it can either lift the cap or buy it down. This solution won’t eliminate recapture but it will give the districts, and local property taxpayers, some relief, at least in the short term.
Using the surplus to buy down local taxes would put a temporary patch on the troublesome school finance system that would probably satisfy the Supreme Court and enable legislators to get out of the session politically unscathed. They could then wait until the next regular session to deal with meaningful tax and education reform.
Sharp and Perry say a one percent gross receipts tax would raise about $4 billion and with higher sales and cigarette taxes, the Legislature could buy down the local property tax rates by about 50 cents.
However, one legislator said members don’t trust Perry to simply use the money for education; they feel he’s looking for a new revenue stream to fund his Trans Texas Corridor and to pay for an increasing Medicaid case load and other expenses.
Nine House members from across the state, including some from Dallas suburbs, have sent a letter to the governor asking that he consider the option of using the surplus to buy down local property taxes, thus postponing substantive tax and education reform until the next regular session in January, 2007.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn reported Feb. 8 that $4.3 billion in general revenue-related funds were available to be appropriated or re-appropriated. They include a contingency appropriation of some $1.8 billion earmarked for public education that has not yet been spent. Strayhorn, who’s running for governor as an independent, also reported last week that since 1999, Texas has dropped from 25th to 40th in the nation in per-student spending.
Perry already has said that that the Legislature may not be able to accomplish education reform in a special session with tax reform. But he is advocating a broader business tax to replace the current inequitable franchise tax that is expected to produce less revenue over time. A broader tax would capture more sectors of the economy.
Some Republican members, however, fear the effects a broader business tax would have on small businesses and say exemptions already are being carved out for lawyers and doctors. Others have tough races in the fall elections and don’t want to have to defend a vote for new taxes.
As for Perry, he knows he needs to produce some leadership in this special session or he, likewise, could be in political trouble. As a result, he has adopted a different approach with members, engaging in some give-and-take. In the past, sources said, he would meet with members, announce what he wanted to get done and then leave as staff answered questions. By contrast, he seemed much more approachable in recent meetings.