Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Rick Perry: "Soviet-Style Budgeting" and "Hot Air Politics"

2010: White Starts the Argument


by Ross Ramsey
Texas Tribune
Copyright 2010

Perry's Red State
---------Comrade Perry------------

Democrat Bill White said he won't rely on "Soviet-style budgeting" and "hot air politics" if he's elected governor, and said the state should make education its first priority and would be better off with a governor who's got business experience when it comes to economic development.

In a wide-ranging interview at the Tribune's "TribLive" event this morning, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee said the state has work to do to stay ahead of "dark clouds" on the horizon in education and economic development and other areas. He criticized Republican Gov. Rick Perry as a divisive chief executive who wastes more time campaigning and "railing about things he can't control" than he does working on state problems like education and controlling dropout rates and making college more affordable. "Leadership is not dividing people into teams… leadership is finding common ground," White said.

The candidate said education would be the state's top priority if he's elected, and said Perry is understating the number of students who drop out of high school every year. "We should treat someone dropping out of school as an emergency, like we treat a broken leg," White said.

He said the state needs a long-term plan to promote excellence in education, expanding Texas Grants, making school more affordable and making the schools themselves more productive and efficient. "Don't tell me there aren't some people [there] who haven't retired on the job," he said. The state can't afford to "export" its best students to out-of-state schools like the University of Georgia, Oklahoma, and LSU, he said. "We ought to be importing people who are better educated," he said. The state should combine limits on increases in tuition with commitments to provide adequate state funding to offset costs, he said.

"This is a great state, but there's dark clouds on the horizon if we don't train and educate our people," he said.

He criticized the across-the-board five percent budget cuts ordered by state leaders as "Soviet-style budgeting," and touted his record as mayor of Houston, saying the city kept its budget balanced by reacting more quickly to signs of economic downturn, and accomplished cuts with "productivity improvements" and renegotiated contracts with vendors and other measures. "You don't do it with some memo across the board," he said, referring to a letter from Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus III to state agencies last year.

Dewhurst said the Democrat is trying to generate headlines. "We asked state agencies to tighten their belts and identify five percent savings, without eliminating any essential services," the lieutenant governor said in a statement. "Now, more than ever, Texans are looking for leaders who are willing to make the right decisions and practice prudent fiscal discipline, instead of grandstanding."

White danced around questions on taxes, neither promising to cut them nor to leave them where they are. "Until you look under the hood… you shouldn't be making that decision," he said.

That earned him a towel snap from Perry spokesman Mark Miner. “Bill White has a tax problem — he won’t rule out raising taxes for Texans and refuses to release his own tax returns," Miner said in a press release. "His opposition to transparency raises questions about what he is afraid of and what he is hiding regarding his own personal fortune and how he may have profited during his six years as Houston’s mayor.”

White dismissed a memo from Dave Carney, Perry's New Hampshire-based chief political consultant, that outlined a line of attack the Republican might pursue against the Democrat. "Where does he live?" White joked. "He's from… New England?"

Carney's memo describes White as a trial lawyer. That's true or not, White said, depending on the definition. "I have tried cases. I represented businesses… If you say, 'plaintiff's personal injury trial lawyer,' it's not true." Another Carney suggestion is that White doesn't support gun rights. White disagrees with that characterization, too: "I support the Second Amendment. I own guns. I don't want to take guns away," he said. He expressed concerns about guns in the hands of street gangs but said, "I don't think we need any new gun laws."

White tried to put some distance between himself and Democratic President Barack Obama, saying "I hope every president should succeed," but adding that he disagrees with Obama about "the debt, the whole fiscal management of the country." He compared the debt with the problems in education in Texas. "We shouldn't eat our seed corn," he said. "… we need to be building for the future and making sure our kids aren't burdened by our spending."

He was critical of Perry's transportation planning, saying the governor has spent too much time on roads designed to move 18-wheelers across the state and too little on mobility for people in major urban and suburban areas. He made an example of transportation debt that's to be paid back using money that would otherwise go to maintenance and operations of roads. "I don't know what you call that, but it's not conservative," White said.

He'd like to phase out diversions from the highway fund that provide money to non-highway spending in the state budget, says the state should leave more transportation decision-making to local officials — even letting them do some contracting themselves, and said funding should come from public equity and public debt unless there's proof that other financing is cheaper.

And he was critical of Perry's claims of job creation and his boasts that he's responsible for the state's relatively healthy economy. White said unemployment in Texas, in raw numbers, is at a historic high. He said he doesn't blame the governor for that, but also doesn't credit Perry for the state's job growth in recent years, saying "it sounds like somebody taking credit for somebody else's work." Some of the job creation the governor claims, for instance, is attributable to local officials, he said, like White himself. He said Houston's growth exceeded the state's until the current downturn, and said they did it "without giving away tax money."

White said he won't grandstand if elected, suggesting by inference that the current governor does just that. "I will try to avoid hot air politics."

© 2010 Texas Tribune: www.texastribune.org

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Texas highway fund is used as a backstop for the North Texas Tollroad Authority's toxic debt

NTTA bailout saddles taxpayers with toxic debt


By Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2010

Last week, both the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) and the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) approved a deal to use ALL Texas taxpayers (our state gas taxes) as collateral for toll roads in North Texas. Highway 161, a road to primarily benefit the Dallas Cowboys (Hwy 161 is the main pathway to its new stadium), got the green light first, and we're on the hook for virtually unlimited interest on the debt for 36 years if the toll road traffic doesn't show up.

The NTTA wouldn't need the State to guarantee its debt if it didn't already know that the projected traffic to pay for it is on shaky ground. Investors won't bite unless a return on their investment is a sure thing. They made it a sure thing by using the State's highway fund as a backstop for the NTTA's toxic debt (read more history here).

For years Rick Perry's excuse for levying toll taxes on urban Texans has been, "Why should West Texas pay for the congestion in Houston or Dallas?" Yet here we are, ALL paying for congestion in North Texas! The move is also unconstitutional (exploiting what TxDOT thinks can be construed as a "loophole"). The highway fund cannot be used to guarantee loans. To skirt the law, TxDOT added a provision it thinks it can use to make the unconstitutional deal legal by charging the NTTA interest on any money lent to it from the highway fund.

Exploitation or illegal?

Sound familiar? TxDOT exploited a "loophole" that was supposed to prohibit tolling existing roads for US 281, US 290, among others (watch it here). TxDOT also exploited the prohibition against selling our highways to foreign corporations through private toll contracts called CDAs by using another financing mechanism meant for local governments (called pass through financing) to accomplish the same thing.

In another example, TxDOT exploited a law that allows it to advertise toll roads in order to wage a PR campaign to persuade/lobby the public to accept more toll roads versus following the legislative intent of the law, which was to advertise the use of toll roads already open to traffic (like "get your Toll Tag here"). Perry vetoed a law passed by the legislature last year that would have prevented such chicanery from continuing.

Lastly, TxDOT attempted "creative accounting" tricks with Proposition 12 bonds in order to multi-leverage debt (use borrowed money as a down payment to get more borrowed money and so on) after the Texas legislature soundly defeated such legislation in the special session in July of 2009. Lawmakers clearly did NOT want TxDOT to become a bank or engage in the same risky financial schemes that caused the mortgage meltdown and global financial crisis that required a massive taxpayer bailout.

So how many times will this rogue agency get away with flouting the law? Would you and I get a free pass for such violations (especially considering TxDOT is doing it with other people's money forcibly confiscated through taxation)? Of course not! Add to that its rigged, fraudulent environmental studies to gain clearance for controversial toll projects and its $1 billion dollar "accounting error," and it adds up to intolerable acts that cry out for accountability.

Scheme to buyback FREEway to toll it

Hwy 161 is already three-quarters built with taxpayer money and could open as a free road, yet in this NTTA bailout, the agency will borrow over $1 billion in part to buy back the free portion of the road so it can turn around and toll it. This scam shoots a hole through another Perry talking point that claims we're out of money to build these roads with traditional funds, "so we MUST toll it." In fact in 2007, a TxDOT report to Congress lobbied to buy back existing interstates so it can slap tolls on freeways already built and paid for, and it caused a statewide backlash, a federal amendment by Kay Bailey Hutchison to ban the practice, and a TURF lawsuit to stop such lobbying against the taxpayer.

See the pattern here? TxDOT continues its deplorable behavior unchecked while taxpayer money is exploited, wasted, and recycled (how many times do we have to pay for the same road?). At the end of the day, lawmakers huff and puff, but they never blow the house down (and clean house)!

It's abundantly clear no one is looking out for us, so we must do it ourselves. We cannot give up the fight for accountability nor can we afford for this Governor and legislature to look the other way and continue to condone such disastrous fiscal policy certain to bring economic ruin for generations.

Call your state lawmakers at (512) 463-4630 or to contact his/her district office go here.

© 2010 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Sunday, March 07, 2010

"The levees aren't the only concerns affecting the [Trinity Toll] road. No one has figured out a way to pay for it."

Trinity toll road faces levee work delays, 'cloudy' funding outlook

Trinity Toll Road by mojoskillet.

The prospects for the Trinity Parkway are dimmer now than they have been in years


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2010

A sign near Dallas' east levee inside the Trinity River floodplain basin warns of bridge support construction ahead. Construction on the Trinity toll road that will run through this area is scheduled to start in mid-2012, but a city official said work on the flawed levees will push the road back.

A top city official said last week that the toll road again will be delayed by problems with the Trinity River levees. Work to shore up flood protection will push the road's schedule beyond the mid-2012 start date that Mayor Tom Leppert set last year when worries first surfaced about the integrity of the 80-year-old levees downtown.

Further delay would be the latest in a long list of financial, engineering and political snags, coming as the scarcity of transportation funding has left even some of the parkway's most ardent champions worried.

Leppert conceded last week that the funding outlook is "cloudy and challenged," by far the most pessimistic assessment of the toll project since he led nearly the whole of Dallas' government and business establishment to defeat a 2007 referendum aimed at killing it.

"The transportation picture is a difficult one statewide," he said in an interview. Other than recent stimulus aid, federal support for roads is waning, and "all of the projects have gotten cloudy," he said.

His comments follow recent statements by North Texas Tollway Authority leaders who stressed again that they won't be able to build the Trinity Parkway for at least five years – unless backers can secure up to $1 billion to help pay for it.

Meanwhile, Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said funding for the Trinity Parkway has grown "more difficult." And last week, Dallas County commissioners John Wiley Price and Mike Cantrell said they'd be surprised if the road were built within five years.

The road has been bedeviled by controversy since its inception, especially after planners decided it should be built between the levees that for decades have protected downtown Dallas from floods.

Since Leppert and his allies repelled the anti-road vote, problems with the levees have forced the city to push back its construction date.

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last year that the levees were flawed, the city halted work on the road and other parts of what's known as the Trinity River Corridor Project, a grand parks and lakes recreation project.

Dallas City Council member David Neumann said an assessment of the levees since then has revealed that repairs will cost too much for the city to pay for out of existing funds. And, he said for the first time, fixing the levees will require a special bond election.

Kevin Craig, the corps' Trinity River project manager, said the city is right to say that the levee problems identified so far haven't ruled out the toll road.

But Neumann, chairman of the City Council's Trinity River project committee, said Dallas needs to target the levees.

"Our primary focus has been and will continue to be flood protection," he said. "I haven't relented one bit on any aspect of the Trinity River project, including the toll road, and neither has the professional staff, the City Council nor the mayor."

Still, "there will be some delay," he said, declining to estimate how long it might be.

Leppert said the city will have to spend money to repair the levees and focus on the sump system that moves groundwater into the levees during a flood.

"There are issues associated with the levees that are going to have to be addressed, and there is going to be a price tag," he said. "But the thing to remember is that we haven't spent any real money on these levees since 1950."

Empty buckets

The levees aren't the only concerns affecting the road. No one has figured out a way to pay for it.

For years, and throughout the 2007 campaign, city officials touted an understanding with the NTTA that limits Dallas' share of the road's cost to $84 million. But since then, the price has continued to grow, and NTTA has said its ability to pay the difference has disappeared "for the foreseeable future."

If the road costs $1.8 billion – and that number could easily increase with a delay – the city's share will amount to just a tiny fraction. NTTA said it will chip in every penny it can borrow against the road's future tolls, but that won't be nearly enough.

"Our role in this is a very small one," said NTTA executive director Allen Clemson, still in his first year on the job. "I have tried to be careful to manage expectations. The only thing we are bringing to the table is the funds supported by the tolls."

No exact figures on how much those tolls will generate are available. A year ago, NTTA's chief financial officer said the gap between what it can spend and the road's price tag could reach $1 billion.

At the time, Leppert said he was confident the road would be funded anyway.

"There are a lot of buckets to dip into," he said in February 2009. "We're absolutely committed to seeing this project through."

But those buckets are emptying quickly as other projects race ahead of the Trinity Parkway.

The federal government has sent about all the road dollars this way that it can spare, one of the Trinity Parkway's strongest backers said this past week.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, said she'll fight to get federal dollars for the road. But given the size of the funding gap for the Trinity Parkway and the city's levee needs, expecting a big share from Washington probably is expecting too much, she said.

"Anything I would say that is positive, I couldn't stand behind," she said. "We are scraping the bottom here. I'd love to feel that we could do it. But right now it's just hard."

Several leaders stressed that funding could materialize unexpectedly.

Some state lawmakers again will fight for a bill next year so local leaders could ask voters to pay more for transportation, which could provide new funding for roads like the Trinity Parkway.

And Leppert said that despite the questions, the Trinity toll road enjoys strong support.

"So, in one sense the Trinity is cloudy and challenged, but it still remains a high, high priority," he said. "We're looking at a million people coming here every five to seven years, and if we want to keep growing, we have got to address surface transportation."

Bridging the gap

Besides, Clemson said NTTA has experience working with local, state and federal governments to try to find money for expensive projects.

"The NTTA faced a billion-dollar funding gap for the Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail toll project in Tarrant County only six months ago," he said. "Now that gap is $30 million. So it's just going to take a partnership."

But that road is not yet built, either – and it won't be until key commitments from state and federal agencies are finalized. And just to get it this far has required NTTA to call in most of its chits.

NTTA also expects to plow about $150 million of its resources into the Southwest Parkway, something it can't afford to do for the Trinity Parkway.

Leppert said he remains optimistic.

"The other pieces will have to be filled in like any other project," he said. "Of course, we hoped it would be under construction by now, and now we're in a position where we still won't be in construction for the next year, either."

For now, as the city begins reviewing the early feedback from the levee assessment from its engineering contractor, Leppert said he doesn't expect anything to derail the road entirely.

"There is nothing there [in the levees study] that is going to be a structural impediment to going forward with the project," he said. "All of the flood-control issues will have to be addressed first. That is the way it has always been, and the way it is now. What we are trying to do is simply push it forward as far as we can."

© 2010 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com

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"Perry has held elected office in Texas for 35 years and somehow succeeds, year after year, in positioning himself as an outsider."

Perry is vulnerable, but White has work to do


Jan Jarboe Russell
San Antonio Express-News
Copyroght 2010

Given Gov. Rick Perry's skillful evisceration of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary last week — and the anti-Obama sentiment in Texas — conventional wisdom suggests that the November governor's race is Perry's to lose.

Former Houston Mayor Bill White's chance to oust Perry depends on several factors: Can he persuade Republican moderates who are angry with Perry for vilifying Hutchison to cross over?

Can White make the case that Perry, a 10-year incumbent, needs to be replaced and that White, a moderate Democrat, is the one to replace him? Can White raise enough money to compete against Perry?

And, finally, a single statistic: 39 percent.

A 39 percent plurality is how Perry won in 2006 against Democrat Chris Bell, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who was a strong independent, and Kinky Friedman, an effective spoiler.

The fact that 50 percent of Texans did not support Perry's harsh, hard-right agenda four years ago is good news for White. Perry's recent rhetoric about secession and his bragging that Texas is “recession-proof” — at a time when 1 million Texans are out of work — make him a hero to the GOP's right wing. But those aspects also make him vulnerable in a general election.

The matchup between Perry and White will not just be a choice between Gov. Good Hair, as the columnist Molly Ivins used to say about Perry, and Gov. No Hair. It also will be a battle between Perry's pressing of rural Texas values (states' rights, guns, God, the pose of aggressive unsophistication) and White's urban Texas values (brash big-city brains, pragmatism, a Texas rich in education and culture, as well as a mythic past).

Demographically, the advantage should be White's. The last time a census showed Texas as a predominantly rural state was in 1940. But nostalgia and mist-shrouded caricature hold powerful sway. White will have to find his own version of the tired but effective “Don't Mess with Texas” refrain.

For starters, he can decry the state's debt, which has doubled under Perry's watch; toll the bell over the governor's land grab for the Trans-Texas Corridor fiasco; and criticize him for refusing $555 million in federal stimulus money in unemployment benefits.

In his victory speech last week, White struck a small blow for Texas values when he said each generation of Texans wants a better quality of life for the next. In today's Texas, with growing high school dropout rates, a stagnant economy and rising taxes, that's unlikely.

Opportunity is an urban Texas value; separatism is a rural one.

But White will have to do much better than that to win. Perry will come after White with all he's got and paint him as an Obama Democrat. To win, White will have to convince the great middle in Texas — moderates who don't like the left or the right — that he is a Democrat they can trust. It won't be easy.

Then again, stranger things have happened. Perry has held elected office in Texas for 35 years and somehow succeeds, year after year, in positioning himself as an outsider.


© 2010 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE