Sharon AdamsDallasBlog would like to welcome another new Blogger, Sharon Adams, who will be doing our new 'society' Blog titled Inside the Scene. Sharon, owner and publisher of socialwhirl.com has been involved in the Dallas and national social scene since 1985 as both volunteer and publicist for non profit organizations' special events. A former contributing writer for People Newspapers on home and interior design, her articles were published in People, Etc./People Newspapers from June 2001 through August 2003, the majority of the articles appearing on the front page of the Society Section. Through her PR agency, Adams Communications, her interviews and profiles of gala and special event chairmen have appeared in Park Cities News since 1990. Photographs from clients' special events have appeared in local, regional and national magazines and newspapers. As publisher of socialwhirl.com, she reports on parties and special events from all over Dallas, Aspen and Santa Fe. By the way if you would like an invitation to an event just let her know. Click to go to Inside the Scene ...
Steve MolinaMr. Molina was formerly the General Attorney of ARCO Oil and Gas Company, Vice President General Counsel at Vastar Resources, Inc., Chief Counsel for ARCO Latin America (Caracas, Venezuela), Vice President and General Counsel for Benton Oil and Gas Company (now Harvest Natural Resources), and General Counsel to the Oman Oil Company in the Sultanate of Oman.
Mr. Molina is a 1970 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin (BA) and 1974 graduate of Southern Methodist University School of Law (JD). He will continue to serve as an Of Counsel with the law firm of Patton Boggs LLP, in Dallas.
The Senate has uncorked the bottle on School Finance, Vintage 2006.
Its Select Committee on Education Reform and Public School Finance this week held the first hearing of the new year and the post-Supreme Court decision era.
With a special session looming after the primaries, senators were eager to sort out just what the Supreme Court's recent finding - that the Texas school finance system was unconstitutional - really means.
In theory, the decision gives legislators a framework so they can pass a bill that they know will pass muster, rather than grope around in the dark. However, as Solicitor General Ted Cruz briefed the committee, there remain areas of uncertainty on the school finance roadmap.
Still, there is a map now, and Cruz laid out the general landscape.
The heart of the court's ruling is that the present school finance system levies, in effect, a specifically forbidden statewide property tax. The reason is found not only in the existence of a cap on local property taxes, but also in the presence of a "floor" - a minimum of standards (and by extrapolation, costs) that Texas schools must meet.
The true statewide property tax, Cruz said, kicks in when the gap between the cap and floor narrows too much
"In order for a tax to not become a statewide property tax, the school district must have meaningful discretion," Cruz said. The question is, how much difference between the two must exist for there to be discretion. Cruz said another Supreme Court finding (in Edgewood IV) indicates that a range of 15-17 cents of tax per $100 of property value might satisfy the court.
Cruz laid out five possible actions lawmakers could take to bring school finance in line with the court's requirements.
1. Passing a constitutional amendment allowing a statewide property tax. Although this is the simplest solution from a legal standpoint, the vote requirements for a constitutional amendment make it a difficult one to enact.
"A constitutional amendment that would be passed by the people and establish a statewide property tax would make this claim go away," Cruz said. "That would be a complete solution, the claim would be over, and there would be nothing more to dispute."
2. Fundamental reforms that would move away from the property tax altogether as the main source of funding for Texas schools. While some taxes were proposed in the last few sessions to supplement the property tax, a system still primarily based on that tax would nonetheless be unchanged as far as the court system is concerned.
The next three actions all involve some way of working within the existing system:
3. Raising the cap. This would be the simplest solution, and could even be accomplished in a one-sentence bill raising the $1.50 property tax to $1.65 or $1.70. One way of doing this is through a local enrichment option. But this, as Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) said, raises the issue of equity. If some schools can raise more money through local option taxes than other schools can, the system fails the test of being "equitable."
"With any of these options, one of the delicacies of this matter is that each of these issues are interconnected, and it is always an issue that how the Legislature addresses one can impact the others," he said.
4. Lowering the floor. The Legislature can do this by reducing the requirements it lays on local districts. The problem here is that the state never explicitly says what criteria would constitute an "adequate" education. In absence of direction, districts have argued for a wide range of costs. The state, for example, requires schools to lower the dropout rate.. One school district went so far as to argue a water slide would reduce dropouts.
Shapiro asked if the state couldn't simply define what the floor was once and for all by defining adequacy.
"If we put the criteria in place for adequacy, that would then not address the issue of the floor and the ceiling?" she asked.
"That's correct," Cruz said.
"My concern is, if you don't define it in some form or fashion, then we're always going to be in the courthouse," Shapiro said.
Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) said he didn't think that was possible, and said that changes in technology and new reforms would require that "whatever we do flows with the times."
5. "Buying down the floor." The state could accomplish this by providing direct funds to districts to cover some of the costs represented in the floor.
Cruz noted, however, that lowering the floor doesn't necessarily give the Legislature free reign then to lower the cap - i.e., to reduce the property taxes.
"If the floor comes down, the cap cannot come down by the same measure," he said. The key to solving school finance is to increase the gap between the cap and the floor, and if the floor were to be reduced, the reduction in the cap would have to be less, in order to generate room to comply with the "meaningful discretion" standard.
Although the school finance ruling found against the plaintiffs on most points, denying their arguments that Texas schools were under-funded, Cruz said most of the solutions do in fact imply greater funding of schools.
"There is certainly a difficult tension with which this body must wrestle, because there are strong policy objectives, on the part of, I think, many members of the Legislature, to lower tax rates," he said. "Those policy objectives are in tension with the most direct way to respond to this legal claim. And so much of the discussion of the policy matter has been lowering the cap, lowering the cap. Lowering the cap hurts the legal claim."
Cruz said it was possible to make up for that elsewhere, but lowering the cap was "moving backwards," making a constitutional fix more difficult.
"The urge to lower the cap, the urge to lower taxes has the effect of constricting discretion, and what the lawsuit is about is expanding it," he said. "And that will remain a challenge, that what as a policy matter this body may deem attractive is not helpful legally."
Members of the committee also laid out their own personal goals for the new legislation. Shapiro, citing dropout numbers, high numbers of students needing remedial education and other statistics, said school reforms must be part of the solution. Reform, she said, should also focus on high schools, which are not doing as well as elementary schools.
West said he agreed but thought lawmakers should avoid spending too much time on matters like November elections for school board members.
Sen. Bob Duncan (R-Lubbock) said a prime need was "reform in the morale of our educators." He also said that this session shouldn't just be a repeat of other ones.
"Some of the ideas that we looked at probably are not good ideas, and some ideas that we didn't look at may be," he said.
The NTSB investigation into that flight accident found that the pilots used an on-board laptop performance computer to calculate expected landing performance. Info entered into the computer included expected landing runway, wind speed and direction, airplane gross weight at toughdown and reported runway braking actions. The computer calculated the stopping margin at between 30 and 560 feet.
Both calculations were made on the assumption engine thrust reversers were deployed at touchdown. However, flight records show they were no deployed until 18-seconds after touchdown. At that point there was less than 1000 feet of usable runway.
The FAA does permit thrust reverser credit for calculating en-route operational landing distances for some transport category aircraft like the 737-700, but not the 737-300 series. If the thrust reverser credit had not been allowed for the Southwest Flight the comuter would have indicated a safe landing was not possible.N
Pump prices pushed upward as last week's decreases proved to be short lived, according to the AAA Texas' Weekend Gas Watch.
The statewide average price for a gallon of regular self serve is $2.280 a gallon — up a penny since last week. Dallas has the highest average on the list at $2.303 a gallon — up a penny. Corpus Christi has the lowest average at $2.173 — about the same as last week. Fort Worth stands at $2.294 which is a long way from last years September high of $3.
"Retail gasoline prices have moved higher against a backdrop of increased crude oil prices," said Rose Rougeau, spokesperson for AAA Texas. "A year ago, crude oil traded at $49 a barrel and gas prices averaged $1.792 — 49 cents lower than the current average of $2.283. This week, crude hovers around $66 a barrel."
Did you know that selling information about cell phone use is illegal in Texas? Well, it is. However that hasn't stopped some Web sites from offering to sell just such information. Now, the Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott, is going after them.
Most such Web sites will charge from $50 to $200 for records for the past 30-days. These records are often of interest to businesses and suspicous spouces or even parents fearful of what their children are doing. Many of the sites represent that such purchases are legal. The AG says they are not legal.
To halt the business practices and to prevent the further spread of these Web sites, the Attorney General’s investigation demands information from several dozen pirate Web companies illegally claiming to have access to private cell phone records for a price. The results of the investigation will determine what legal action may be warranted.
Attorney General Abbott’s investigation will also focus on liabilities against those who conduct transactions that open consumers to possible dangers, including possible victims whose information may have fallen into the wrong hands. Some cell phone users, for example, may seek anonymity because they are protecting themselves from an abusive ex-spouse or a person stalking them. There are also concerns about the release of phone records of officers’ who work undercover.
To prevent such abuses, Attorney General Abbott urges consumers to contact their cell phone companies to find out if any party has requested their cell phone records. Otherwise, consumers may have no way of knowing if their privacy has been breached. Consumers may also request a unique password-protected account through their cell phone companies to prevent others from accessing these records.