Friday, August 06, 2004

Angry e-mails rain down on lawmakers

Toll road, HRA battles raging in cyberspace

by William Lutz

August 6, 2004

The Lone Star Report
Volume 9, Issue 1
Copyright 2004

When it rains, it pours.

Staff members with many House and Senate offices have been deluged with emails on two topics: teacher health insurance and toll roads. LSR has learned that members from all parts of the state (both on and off the relevant policy committees) have been targeted by a mass e-mailing campaign. Technology has made it easier and cheaper than ever to contact elected officials. And many interest groups are using special websites where citizens can email their elected officials with one click to get their point of view across en masse .

Members - even those not from Central Texas - are getting bombarded with form e-mails on Austin toll roads. A group called People for Efficient Transportation PAC has set up a website to encourage people to contact their lawmakers in protest of toll roads. The group is also working on the recall of two Austin city council members who backed the road plan, Brewster McCracken and Mayor Will Wynn .

“As a Texan” — the e-mail begins — “I am alarmed and angered with the recent CAMPO vote that approved the massive House Bill 3588 ‘Double Tax’ Toll Road plan for Central Texas. I’m aware of Rick Perry’s direction for ALL Texas cities and towns to accept toll roads. This mandate has produced an irresponsible and sloppy Toll Plan for our capital and threatens every city and town in Texas. We are not opposed to all toll roads. We do, however, vehemently oppose the 3588 ‘Double Tax’ Toll Road plan because it forces Toll Roads on almost EVERY daily commute highway. This has never been done before. In Austin, the Toll Plan seizes more than $100 million dollars of our tax-paid roads/projects and converts them over to Toll Roads.”

Among House Republicans, HB 3588, Gov. Rick Perry ’s transportation bill, passed easily on the House side; the toll-road feud did not escalate during the regular session. Senators were more reluctant, but eventually went along.

The bill has become far more controversial since passage than before. Highly publicized toll road controversies in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio have created some divisions among Republicans and could cause some legislators to re-examine the state’s current approach to transportation funding next session. Divisions on toll roads tend to run along to regional or neighborhood, rather than ideological, lines. Members look to their districts for guidance on this one.

Another issue guaranteed to resurface next session is the Legislature’s decision to shift the health stipend for teachers into Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRAs). Switching to HRAs ensures that the money is not subject to the federal income tax and can be rolled over from year-to-year. (The prior arrangement was “use it or lose it.”) However, teachers lost the ability to take the money as cash and pay taxes on it.

HRAs are administered by a third-party company. During the 2003 session, lawmakers asked for cost estimates for administering HRAs. The actual contract signed by the Teacher Retirement System had management fees that turned out to be substantially more than the original estimate. Teachers will have to pay $30-$42 per year out of their $500-per-year stipend (which was cut from $1,000 during the last session) for the HRAs.

The Texas Federation of Teachers issued a scathing press release bashing HRAs and the state leadership. (All four major teacher groups opposed HRAs during the 2003 regular session.) TFT issued a press release referring to the program as a “rip-off.”

Wrote Texas Federation of Teachers president John Cole to his members: “‘A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul.’ — George Bernard Shaw. The state of Texas is about to rob you, though the beneficiary of the theft is not a guy named Paul, but Aetna Insurance Company.” TFT is calling for a complete repeal of HRAs.

Reps. Dan Ellis (D-Livingston) and Chuck Hopson (D-Jacksonville) sent press releases criticizing the program, and TFT states on its website that it held a news conference with Reps. Jose Menendez ,Robert Puente , and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (all D-San Antonio) on the issue.

TFT has also set up an online action center for its members. With one click, a TFT member can send a letter to Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst , Speaker Tom Craddick , the member’s legislator, and the president of Aetna.

In spite of all the protests, HRAs are current law and will go forward as planned. Congress has approved Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which have several more attractive features than HRAs. With HSAs, both employer and employee money can go into it, and it may be used as an individual retirement account in addition to use as a health account.

The one question looming over the HRA controversy is what it will mean for the future of consumer-directed health care. The current Republican leadership supports consumer directed care, but the Aetna incident may in the future make it more difficult to round up the votes for such initiatives. O

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