By The Associated Press
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Feb. 19, 2012.
Texas not likely to get income tax, but current approach needs work
A discussion about whether Texans should shoulder a state income tax to grow the pot of money state government has to spend is worth having - but not because there's any chance the Lone Star State will any time soon give up its membership in the club of 9 states not taxing residents' income.
"I don't think there's an appetite for it," said Rep. John Frullo, R-Lubbock. "The desire is to live within our means."
It's a discussion worth having because talking about expanding the state's taxation reach to include income should remind Texans of just what is at stake as legislators wrestle every other year with how to balance the state budget. Lawmakers must either limit the cost of state government to revenue current taxes bring in or raise taxes to pay for the services they put in the budget.
Either way, Texans will pay - reduced services in the case of the former approach, higher taxes in the case of the latter.
Some in the state are convinced Texas is missing an opportunity by failing to add taxes on income to current levies on property and sales.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, wants to tax the income of any Texas resident earning $100,000 or more a year. Despite finding few allies in his ongoing bid to compel more affluent Texans to fork over an annual lump sum to the state treasury, he's gearing up to file the bill once again.
"This is the fairest tax because, right now, the wealthiest 1% are not paying their fair share," he said. "That's why we're in this hole."
The hole of which Burnam speaks is a projected $15 billion shortfall in the 2-year budget lawmakers will craft in 2013. That potential budget hole comes on the heels of a $27 billion shortfall the Legislature had to deal with last summer in creating the current 2-year budget.
As lawmakers settled in to put the current budget together, there were calls for raising taxes, tapping the state's Rainy Day Fund and implementing various other means of raising state revenue to fill the $27 billion gap instead of covering it with spending cuts.
Critics of Gov. Rick Perry's demand the budget be balanced with cuts said it couldn't be done without destroying the state's education system, turning the elderly out of nursing homes and throwing the poor to the curb. The state budget we now have did indeed dispense some pain. Those dependent on state money, such as public schools and higher education, are on average getting less state money, so they had to decide what was essential and what could be cut to balance their budgets.
The dire predictions of those opposed to spending cuts have yet to manifest themselves. In the meantime, the state's sales tax receipts are up and will add about $1.6 billion to current budget revenue.
There's no way to determine whether that sales tax gain would have been lessened or eliminated had the Legislature opted to hike taxes last summer instead of making spending cuts. That's a debate best left to the economic experts.
However, with a relatively finite amount of money circulating in the state, Texans will have to decide how much of it is best left in private hands and how much should be given to the government.
It's worth remembering the U.S. income tax began as a tax on the wealthy - those who had more money than they really needed - but the insatiable appetite of government ultimately required the less affluent to pay their "fair share" of the food bill.
What we really need are some good idea people to fix the state's existing tax scheme - but waking folks up with the threat of a state income tax is a good warning shot across the bow.
Austin American-Statesman. Feb. 20, 2012.
What to do with Perry's fundraising leftovers? Governor has options
Gov. Rick Perry has a chunk of change left over from his failed presidential bid and is asking the Federal Election Commission if he can use it to form a political action committee.
The governor raised almost $20 million for his presidential campaign, and the campaign set aside $270,000 for the general election - which it now no longer needs, since there is no general election in its future.
So Perry is asking the Federal Election Commission if his campaign can use the leftover money to start a political action committee - either a traditional one, with limits on contributions and expenditures, or a newfangled super PAC, which can raise unlimited amounts of money to support a specific candidate (as long as it's not working with that candidate) or to attack other candidates.
We wish Perry would consider other uses for his campaign money, but it's his hard-raised political cash. If he wants to form a political action committee with it, well, PACs are everywhere, so what's one more?
Candidates for federal office who want to spend their leftover campaign contributions have all kinds of legal options available to them, from giving the money to a political party to sending a limited amount of it to other candidates.
The only thing they can't do is use the money to pay for personal expenses.
The FEC has allowed past campaigns to switch money over to PACs, but if for some reason it rejects Perry's request, then Perry is asking if he can send the money instead to his Texas campaign fund and possibly use it for another run for governor.
Not all of the $270,000 Perry's campaign saved for the general election is available to start a PAC.
Contributors of about $30,000 have given Perry permission to use their money on a PAC, but contributors of about $100,000 have asked for their money back.
Perry's a master fundraiser so he should easily be able to add to whatever final amount he ends up with to start his PAC.
Some Texas Democrats have called on the governor to repay taxpayers $2.6 million for the security costs the state spent on his presidential campaign before he quit Jan. 19, two days before the South Carolina primary. Perry's campaign says the decision to have a robust security detail on the campaign trail was the Department of Public Safety's, not the governor's.
If he forms a super PAC and decides not to run for governor again in 2014, Perry can use the PAC to pay himself a salary, as long as he's using money raised beyond the amount he shifts from his campaign.
So by forming a PAC, Perry not only could stay relevant nationally, but he also could stay employed after he leaves office and continue to nicely supplement his state pension at the same time.
We expect Perry will get the OK to start his PAC, but there is one option we wish he'd consider. He could donate his leftover money to charity.
We offer a few humble suggestions:
Perry has caught a lot of flak for living in a $9,000-a-month West Austin rental mansion while the Governor's Mansion is being restored. What if he gave his leftover campaign money to the Friends of the Governor's Mansion, the nonprofit that supports 1 of the most historic houses in Texas?
Or: Texas' state parks are hurting and are accepting donations from citizens to help them stay open.
Or: There's always the Boy Scouts. We all know how dear that organization is to the governor's heart.
If Perry needs the example of a fellow politician to follow, here's one: Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter left office last year after deciding not run for re-election. He has since given about $300,000 left in his state campaign fund to charitable and nonprofit groups, including $10,000 to the San Antonio-based Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate, which helps AIDS orphans.
Anyway, it's just a thought - if Perry is inclined to think that way.
Waco Tribune-Herald. Feb. 12, 2012.
Pay up, governor
After lying low following his ill-fated presidential run, Gov. Rick Perry last week began showing signs of political rebirth, suggesting he's ready to get back to work and that he's feeling confident enough to consider a re-election bid in 2014. This newspaper strongly believes the governor can best begin his return to state duty by returning the hundreds of thousands of Texas taxpayer dollars spent on security during his campaign for president.
That would at least show that he understands those ideas about personal integrity that he harped on the past several months.
Let's put aside the talk of term limits that Perry raised during his campaign and the fact he will have served more than three terms as governor by 2015. Conservative Texans who are truly serious about limited government and the integrity of elected officials would be hard-pressed to claim any fidelity to those principles while supporting Perry, especially after he permitted the state to pay for his gubernatorial security while he pursued another job.
Because of staggered filings, we have yet to know the total spent on Perry's Texas Department of Public Safety security as he stumped across Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere. The most recent filing shows that nearly $800,000 in travel costs was spent on the DPS detail following Perry to dozens of events linked to his quixotic presidential campaign from September through November. Ironically, some was also spent so that he could publicize his anti-Washington book, "Fed Up," supposedly all about good government.
Filings don't reveal the number of DPS security personnel accompanying the governor but expenses cited covered food, airfare, fuel and lodging. The figure will likely swell to more than $1 million by the time all bills are turned in and final filings are released. Why didn't Perry use campaign donations to fund security instead of billing us?
Perry talked tall about the need for integrity by our public officials and for absolute frugality involving taxpayer dollars. Now's the time to prove it. If he's to have any credibility in the three years left in his current term, not to mention his political future (and Republican rivals are watching), he should do right by taxpayers, tap his campaign chest and pay the state back for security costs that plainly had nothing to do with exercising his gubernatorial duties.
We also suggest that the governor get to work on other matters, such as legislation that would prevent the very double-dipping that he's guilty of, drawing both his state pension as a career politician and his salary as governor. He signed legislation to make it difficult if not impossible for other state employees and public school teachers to do this. Why then should Perry be above the law?
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Feb. 15, 2012.
End-of-course exams in Texas schools raise a furor
Anyone who believes that standardized testing in Texas public schools couldn't get much worse should wake up and sharpen their No. 2 pencils.
The latest mess spilling out of the process has to do with what the Legislature really meant five years ago when it called for end-of-course exams in grades 9-12 and specified that the test results should count for 15% of each student's final grade.
That seemed clear at the time.
But now that the time for those end-of-course exams is almost here, lawmakers are realizing that it isn't. They didn't say what 15% or "final grade" should mean, and they weren't clear about when that part of the new testing regime should begin.
In 2009, they told Education Commissioner Robert Scott to come up with a plan for the testing and give it to them before the 2011 legislative session. He did, and part of the lengthy report on that plan pointed out some of the problems with the 15% rule.
For whatever reason - preoccupation with the state's multibillion-dollar funding shortfall or with political redistricting or something else - they took no action on those problems.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said this week that Scott has the authority to clear away any confusion. He says he doesn't.
Students in ninth grade will take the first of the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness end-of-course exams this year. English I and other English classes will begin testing next month or in early April. Math, science and civics tests start May 7.
Set aside the significant problem that it will be awfully hard to grade those tests and get the results back to local districts before the end of the school year. That might not make much of a difference this year, but when those ninth-graders get to be 12th-graders and the question becomes whether or not they will graduate, test grades will be crucial.
Take into consideration that standardized tests aren't graded on a 100-point scale like most classroom tests. How does a grade of 2,587 translate?
But here's where the answer sheets really hit the fan: How does "15% of the student's final grade for the course" affect their grade-point average, their class rank and what college or university they can get admitted to?
Whether struggling students learn enough to graduate gets to the heart of schools' educational mission. But GPA, class rank and college admissions affect all students, and parents of students at the top of the academic achievement list howl loudly when things go wrong.
At a State Board of Education meeting Jan. 31, Scott called it a "cheerleader and band mom" issue, adding, "That's when you'll see that we are going to really raise the stakes."
Scott says it's up to local school boards to decide the grading issue, and many of them are already feeling the heat. Some decided early on that 15% of the final grade for the course means exactly what it says, all the way. Other districts decided that it means 15% of the course grade, but it doesn't have to affect GPA or class rank.
Now those first districts are seeing that their students will be at a disadvantage when competing with students from the second group for college admissions. They're reconsidering.
Add a final wrinkle: School districts and campuses won't suffer if this year's test results are bad. Students will.
Yes, it's a mess.
The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 17, 2012.
More efficient military plan deserves full debate
There are upsides and downsides to a proposal by America's top special operations commander, Adm. Bill McRaven, seeking greater worldwide deployment autonomy and flexibility. McRaven's proposal, reported with scant details by The New York Times, comes at a time when America's conventional armed forces are scheduled for troop reductions and budget cuts that will shrink their overseas profile.
This newspaper celebrated McRaven in December as the 2011 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year for the leadership he provided in the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In spite of that and other major victories credited to the special operators under McRaven's Special Operations Command, the world remains a very dangerous place. Who will fill the gap when conventional U.S. forces pull back?
Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. Upheaval in Syria threatens to turn the Middle East into a powder keg. Russia and China are investing heavily in military hardware and signaling intentions to expand their footprints internationally. Mexican and Central American drug cartels imperil regional security.
America is not the world's policeman, but this country does need to be ready to confront aggression and assist allies whenever and wherever the need arises, such as when a civilian vessel is hijacked by pirates in the Arabian Sea or an al-Qaeda outpost is discovered in a remote corner of Yemen. The Special Operations Command has the training and capacity to respond quickly with proven effectiveness.
McRaven reportedly is lobbying for an expansion of his authority to pre-position his forces around the world and, in some special cases, bypass normal command channels when urgent deployments are needed. In some cases, his forces already have limited authority if they encounter certain individuals listed in presidential orders as being so dangerous they must be killed or captured on sight.
Even that form of presidential authorization is rare. When McRaven stood at the ready to send his forces into Pakistan for the bin Laden compound raid, he did so only after significant debate among White House principals who had to weigh the military risks and likely diplomatic fallout.
Few commanders enjoy McRaven's position of strength to propose such a bold change. He is someone who delivers the goods without engaging in self-promotion or self-congratulation. Even so, the public deserves to hear more details of his plan before any final decisions are made.