Monday, April 29, 2013

National Day of Prayer 2013

Although Austin, Texas isn't necessarily known for active Christianity, this morning residents of the city and surrounding areas joined Governor Rick Perry in a special prayer breakfast.  Highlights included comments from former NFL player & State Representative Scott Turner, a performance by National Dove Award Artist Paul Overstreet, and a very heartfelt conversation about life and faith between Jimmy Gregory and Governor Perry.  Most significant however, was the prayer time; attendees spent time praying for the Military, those in government, education, media, business, and ministry, and especially families.  (And yes, we prayed for President Obama.)

There are many ways you can stand up for truth, but one essential element is to pray unceasingly. 

The official National Day of Prayer 2013 is actually May 2, but there are numerous events scheduled around the state all week long.  To find an event near you visit the NDP Task Force events page.  Several events are planned for Williamson County in Cedar Park, Georgetown, Leander, Round Rock, and Taylor.  Details can be found at the National Day of Prayer-Austin website

Friday, April 26, 2013

Misinformation About Union Political Disclosures

Yesterday I posted about Texas' Senate Bill 346, which would require greater political disclosure but would exempt labor unions from the new law.  Apparently some Republicans are defending the exemption because they have been led to believe that unions already engage in disclosure.

Political ethics attorney Jerad Najvar has done some fact-checking on these claims and shows that under IRS rules, even if a labor union engages in political advertising the union does NOT have to divulge contributor information.  Furthermore, unions can and do accept third-party contributions which do not have to be disclosed. 

Read the full story at Lex Politico

I'm afraid some of our legislators have been seriously mislead and I am pleading with them to do their homework before voting on Senate Bill 346.  As written, this bill is unacceptable. 

Who Represents Me?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Proposed Texas Law to Exempt Unions? Updated

Contrary to popular belief, labor union power is on the rise in Texas.  Few realize that our "right to work" status merely prohibits compulsory union membership.  Not only do we have a wide variety of private and public sector unions in Texas, union membership increased by 65,000 members last year.  It is no secret that the Democrat strategy to 'turn Texas Blue' is heavily reliant on burgeoning union power. 

Now it seems that the Texas Legislature is poised to pass legislation that would exempt labor unions from political disclosure rules.  Recently the Senate passed Senate Bill 346, which expands the definition of a 'political committee' and requires more activists to report contributions used for political purposes.  The vagueness of the proposed law is leaving many lawyers scratching their heads about who will be covered.  But one thing is certain, the law exempts labor unions.

From SB 346:
This subchapter does not apply to a labor organization or any subordinate entity or associated account of a labor organization.
Translated from the original Greek, this means:
This subchapter does not apply to a labor organization or any subordinate entity or associated account of a labor organization. 
As campaign attorney Jerad Najvar points out in Lex Politico, this law would "favor labor unions over everybody else."

Interestingly enough, it seems that the bill may have been slipped through the Senate without being read, because the Senate has taken the unusual step of recalling the bill.  (Concurrent resolution 33, April 17, 2013).  The recall measure passed by 21-10, but came too late to stop the House from taking up the bill.  SB 346 is currently listed as being in the House State Affairs Committee, and the House GOP still has an opportunity to amend.

In no way should any Republican be passing any law that exempts labor unions.  While there are other serious concerns about unintended consequences, political transparency is a good thing.  What is not good is giving labor unions special status.

Call your representative today and ask them to oppose SB 346 as written.
Who Represents Me? 

UPDATE:  My original wording left some readers confused about the current status of the bill.  I have revised to make it clear that the bill is technically in the House State Affairs Committee.

Related Posts
No Labor Unions in Texas?  Think Again...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Take Action to Support Crucial CAB Reform

UPDATE:  Texas Public Policy Foundation's David Guenther has interviewed Representative Dan Flynn on HB 3416 and CAB abuse.  The discussion will be available online tomorrow, April 15, as a TPPF Policy Cast here.  

As I've written previously, a bipartisan group of state leaders have proposed CAB, or Capital Appreciation Bond, reform.  The Senate version, (SB 449 authored by Sen. Juan Hinojosa) passed by a resounding vote of 28-3.  Now the House version, (HB 3416) is languishing in the Ways and Means Committee

Last week Leander ISD Trustee Pam Waggoner skipped the district's board meeting to attend a hearing on the House bill and argued that her district could not live without CABs that would allow them to defer debt for 30-40 years (and lead to a monstrous total debt burden of $2.7 billion).

Below is a communication I received from a concerned resident asking for help with this issue: 
Last Thursday in a public hearing LISD told the Texas House Ways and Means Committee that they couldn't live without CABs, that LISD kids would be stuck in portable buildings!  The brokers and some of the school districts turned out in droves to fight House Bill 3416  which would severely limit CABs, both to 20 years length instead of 30 or 40years and to 20-25% of the debt ratio per student for a district.  Not perfect, BUT WE NEED THIS BILL to slow LISD's insane spending.   It's our ONLY hope as LISD looks at issuing another $173 million bonds using CABs to drive our debt toward $4 BILLION.  The Bill is "pending", according to Rep. Flynn's office (the author) it is being tweaked and if we want it voted on and not languishing to die, we need to call and let them know they've been mislead by LISD and the Wall Street interests that are making millions off these CABs. 

I told them that a group of citizens here has worked for 2 years begging LISD to stop using CABs, and that they refused to listen.  I told them that virtually no voters in LISD actually know about the CABS, much less understand them, since LISD did absolutely NOTHING to tell voters in advance about their decision to incur the CAB debt before they issued them.  Then they used them to build lavish, extravagant facilities that would rival a private college campus, not just to replace portables. 

Please call or fax Chairman Hilderbran's office TODAY and talk to his staff. Let them know what you think about CABS! The more calls they get, the sooner it will be voted on. If you can think of anyone, please ask them to call to. Let's get this bill out of committee before LISD and Wall Street kill it!

Rep. Hilderbran, Harvey
District 53
(512) 463-0536
(512) 463-1449 Fax

Rep. John Otto (R) Vice Chair
(512) 463-0570
(512) 463-0315 Fax

Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R)
(512) 463-0727
(512) 463-0681 Fax
Rep. Angie Chen Button (R) Angie Chen
(512) 463-0486

Rep. Craig Eiland Craig (R)
(512) 463-0502
(512) 936-4260 Fax

Rep. Allan Ritter (R)
(512) 463-0706
(512) 463-1861 Fax

Rep. Mark Strama (D)
(512) 463-0821
(512) 463-1199 Fax

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D)
(512) 463-0616
(512) 463-4873 Fax

Rep. Naomi Gonzalez (D)
(512) 463-0622
(512) 463-0931 (Fax)

Please note:  At this point, calls are more effective than emails.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Leander ISD Staff Proposes "Cuts" That Include $25 Million In Spending Increases

While leaders in the Leander Independent School District are struggling to cope with the poor financial management of the past, LISD staffers don't seem to understand the concept of budget 'cuts.'  At an April 22 budget workshop, the administration presented a plan that was billed as featuring 'serious cuts,' but proposes annual spending increases.  While the 2012-2013 budget was approved at $237 million, the 2013-14 budget jumps to $250 million.  

One LISD trustee, Lisa Mallory, has shared a graph of proposed increases on her Facebook page:

Proposed "Cuts" to the LISD Budget.

Wow.  Presenting a budget that climbs significantly for three years in a row as a 'cut,' is pretty audacious.  Intellectually insulting to both the board and taxpayers, too. 

Part of the proposal includes draining the LISD reserve funds by some $19 million to cover deficit spending. (If Leander wants to follow in Round Rock ISD's footsteps, those funds could yield as many as oh, six classrooms.) 

If you're not going to cut the budget, fine.  But don't call spending increases 'serious cuts.'  It's positively Obamaesque.  

Related Posts:
LISD Trustee Pam Waggoner Skips Board Meeting to Lobby Legislature
LISD Financial Advisor Censured and Fined
LISD Trustee Pam Waggoner Endorsed by Far-Left State Rep Donna Howard
LISD's $2.7 Billion Debt a Factor in May Elections

Monday, April 22, 2013

25 Million Education Dollars = 8 Classrooms

Academic Fundamentals.

At last week's Round Rock ISD board meeting, attendees had the opportunity to review a construction report for "Success High School."  The Success High School program has been in existence for some years and currently conducts classes for 'at risk' students at Stony Point and Westwood High Schools.  Last year, however, the board of trustees voted to take $25 million from the general fund to build a single campus east of IH-35 off Gattis School Road.  The decision has been controversial since it is no secret that RRISD is very much in need of several new schools and apparently the drop-out student program serves as few as 37 students per day.

In the construction update, it was revealed that the $25 million campus will include a total of eight classrooms.  Of course any campus has more than just classrooms.  It is important to realize that in addition to the eight classrooms, the cost also covers an administration wing, childcare facility, and the requisite coffee bar for students.

At a recent RRISD budget workshop, it was announced that the district will face a shortfall of $15 to $20 million in the 2013-14 budget cycle.  Unsurprisingly, Trustee Glen Colby proposed raising property taxes via a Tax Ratification Election (TRE) later this year.  Sadly, the district really does need new schools, something the board disregarded when setting funding priorities last year, but can no longer afford to ignore.  Round Rock families get ready; your taxes haven't finished climbing...

Friday, April 19, 2013

Leander ISD Trustee, Staff Skip Board Meeting to Lobby State Legislature: UPDATED

It seems that several key players were conspicuously absent from last night's Leander ISD Board meeting.  Board President Pam Waggoner, along with Superintendent Bret Champion, Assistant Superintendent Ellen Skoviera, and Executive Director of Community Relations Veronica Sopher, decided to skip the board meeting in order to attend a hearing on the state proposed ban on Capital Appreciation Bonds.

Waggoner et al, went to Austin to lobby against local debt restraint.  They claim that if legislators ban use of CABs (already proven to be quite toxic and banned elsewhere in the nation,) the state should also eliminate the "50-Cent Debt Test."  Current law does not permit school districts to incur debt that would raise the I&S tax rate above $.50 per $100 per valuation.  The 50-Cent limit was designed to keep school districts from taking on unsustainable debt, but with CABs Leander and other districts had found a way around the cap.  (Leading to LISD's $2.7 billion in debt obligations.)  Waggoner & crew fear that without the CAB option of deferring debt payment to their children and grandchildren, they won't be able to continue to borrow and spend like there's no tomorrow.

Essentially this crew skipped the board meeting to lobby for the ability to dig the district deeper into debt. 

Just a reminder from the State Comptroller's report "Your Money and Education Debt,"

In fiscal 2011, public school districts combined had one-third of outstanding Texas local government debt – $63.6 billion or $13,530 for every student in a district with debt. Of Texas’ 1,024 school districts, 854 have outstanding debt. From 2001-2011, public school districts’ total debt outstanding rose by 155.2 percent, far more than the increase in inflation. This debt is incurred locally, meaning that each district’s taxpayers are responsible for paying it back
Rather than lobby against restraint, perhaps school board trustees and staff should be looking at how to better manage finances going forward.  Again, Pam Waggoner refuses to debate her electoral challenger Jim MacKay, which is unfortunate since the taxpayers would benefit greatly from some frank discussion of the current situation.  I'm sure Leander parents want great schools with great programs, but if the district doesn't change course soon, debt service will prevent future progress.

Early Voting begins April 29, and Election Day is May 11.  See the Williamson County website for more information.

UPDATE:  A quote from Representative Dan Flynn regarding the hearings last week:

"I was disappointed by the number of hostile witnesses, including bond salesmen, testifying in support of large debts of over 2 billion for some ISD's," Representative Flynn stated after the hearing. "You have to wonder what voters would say once the transparency portions of this bill are implemented and voters are notified of this massive debt placed upon them, their children, grandchildren, and future grandchildren."


Related Posts:
Leander ISD's Financial Advisor Censured and Fined
Leander ISD Trustee Waggoner Endorsed by Far Left State Rep
State Leaders Move to Ban Leander ISD's Dangerous Borrowing Practices
LISD Debt a Major Factor in May Elections
Making Education a Priority:  Leander Football!
Leander ISD:  Storm on the Horizon

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Leander ISD's Financial Advisor Repeatedly Censured and Fined

It is no secret that Leander ISD has some pretty scary financial 'issues:' Overbuilding, overspending, $2.7 billion in debt obligations, questionable use of Capital Appreciation Bonds, etc.  Now there are questions surfacing about the District's financial advisor Southwest Securities.  Leon Johnson, Senior Vice President at Southwest, is frequently on hand to provide 'everything is peachy' presentations to the board and upbeat quotes to the mainstream media, but he hasn't really mentioned some of the problems his firm has faced over the last decade.

According to a report from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Southwest Securities has 41 documented "incidents."  These incidents include fines and censures for various infractions.  Most recently the firm was fined $77,500 on March 15, and has been fined more than $900,000 over the past 2 years.  Many of these charges involve illegal actions surrounding the sales of "municipal securities."

One cannot help but wonder if anyone in leadership at LISD has bothered to check the status of the district's financial advisor and leading debt cheerleader. Instead, Southwest Securities' Leon Johnson  is repeatedly invited to present regular dog and pony shows to the board and public, and no one seems willing to question Mr. Johnson's credibility on fiscal soundness.  No wonder Fitch has substantially downgraded LISD's bond rating.   

While this and other aspects of Leander ISD seem like great debate fodder for the upcoming school board elections, long-time trustee Pam Waggoner has refused to debate her opponent, Jim MacKay.  Perhaps she does not relish answering questions about the financial state of the district she has long governed. 

Related Posts:
Leander ISD Trustee Waggoner Endorsed by Far Left State Rep
State Leaders Move to Ban Leander ISD's Dangerous Borrowing Practices
LISD Debt a Major Factor in May Elections
Making Education a Priority:  Leander Football!
Leander ISD:  Storm on the Horizon

ResourceFINRA Report on Southwest Securities

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Resignations at Round Rock ISD Prompt More Questions Than Answers

Last Friday Round Rock ISD Trustee Glen Colby suddenly announced his resignation from the board.  In a letter to the Board President, Colby stated he wants to spend more time as a father to his children.

Colby's sudden announcement is the third surprise resignation this year; in January Superintendent Jesus Chavez unexpectedly announced his retirement, and this week Alan Albers, the Director of Facilities who oversees construction,  also retired.

Alber's announcement is interesting in light of the recent questions about construction contracts awarded by the ISD.  Although two board members have been attempting to obtain information about the $25 million Success High School and contract awards, the Superintendent has refused to cooperate.  Colby and several other members of the board have been especially shrill in condemning inquiries into these matters and moved to shut down any further investigations.

As for Glen Colby's resignation, there is much going on here.  Colby has been on the board since 2008, but many are wondering how the ISD kept quiet his 2010 arrest.  (Fail to Stop and Render Aid/State Jail Felony- Austin Police case number 10-0171224- files available at the Williamson County Courthouse if you would like to exercise your Freedom of Information Act rights.) Colby posted a $1,500 bond, but the previous Williamson County District Attorney's office did not invite the investigating officer to present evidence to the grand jury.  Former D.A. John Bradley's office obtained a 'no-bill' from the grand jury; the only reason given is "other."  (as opposed to lack of evidence or "the complaining witness requesting dismissal.")

(Imagine Colby was a Conservative-one suspects this would have been front-page news...)

There's a whole lot here that isn't passing the smell test.

The current Board will appoint a replacement for Colby; not an encouraging thought considering all the smoke and mirrors that have been at play in RRISD.

Do we trust this organization to do what is right?  Too choose an adequate replacement for Colby?  To choose a new Superintendent?

It seems that there are many questions here that need to be answered. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Those Aren't Your Kids...

Message from the Left:  "Your Kids Belong To Us."  Notice also the co-opting of the word "investments."

This is why they oppose parental choice in education- it interferes with the 'collective' mentality.


Two of Wilco's Three GOP Reps Vote with Republican Party Platform, Updated

During yesterday's session in the Texas House, legislators took up SB1-crafting a state budget.  However, Democrat Representative Abel Herrero offered up an amendment that would thwart any education reform attempts that end the government monopoly over K-12 education.  Williamson County Representatives Tony Dale and Larry Gonzales both voted against the Democrat amendment, but Representative Marsha Farney sided with Herrero.  Because of Farney and other defections, the amendment passed.

The issue of school choice has been strongly advocated by Republican voters; last year GOP primary voters approved a school choice proposition by a whopping 85%.  Furthermore, both the RNC's and the Republican Party of Texas' Platforms calls for parental choice in education: 
We encourage the Governor and the Texas Legislature to enact child-centered school funding options which fund the student, not schools or districts, to allow maximum freedom of choice in public, private, or parochial education for all children.
I cannot speak to the other defectors, but I think part of the problem here is that Farney was unopposed in the Primary.  With out opposition, candidates cannot be properly vetted.  Whether it is for the city council, school board, or state legislature, primary debates allow voters to understand where candidates stand on the issues.  

If you live in House District 20, consider  contacting Representative Farney to let her know how you feel about this vote.  (Please always remember to be respectful and polite- it's much more effective.) 

On one very faint bright note, the House reversed itself on an amendment to embrace Obamacare with a state Medicaid expansion.  Early in the day, in a confusing series of actions, legislators had actually approved another Democrat plan for expansion.  The amendment was reconsidered and withdrawn, but the flailing about and approval of so many left-wing amendments led to Texas Public Policy Action withdrawing support for the proposed budget.  

Not an encouraging day for liberty-minded folks.     

Correction:  Originally, I had stated that Farney voted against the Medicaid expansion amendment, but according to the Texas Legislature Online, she initially voted for embracing ObamacareWhen the measure was reconsidered, she voted against it.   

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Will Texans Rein in Local Government Debt Before It's Too Late? UPDATE

With Texas Comptroller Susan Combs sounding the alarm on local government debt, and the State Legislature considering various debt reform measures, I thought this would be a good time to look at the amount of debt held by a few of our Williamson County municipalities.

The Indebtedness 'Bad Boy' of the county is Leander ISD of course, with a total payback holding now at $2.7 billion.  Here's stats for a few other school districts (from the Texas Bond Review Board- an official state agency, even if some LISD Board members claim otherwise.)

Georgetown ISD:  $321,539,037
Hutto ISD:  $407,650,613
Round Rock ISD:  $1,057,789,047 (That's a billion, folks.)

City debt burdens are typically lower- The City of Round Rock has a debt burden of $326,865,149- but of course we are still talking about hundreds of millions.  Unlike similarly sized cities, much of the responsibility for road construction in the area has fallen to the county; consequently Williamson County government shoulders an unusually high infrastructure burden.  However, Round Rock certainly has managed to keep up with the 'best of them' in borrowing practices.  Sadly, we haven't had a city council election in ages, and city spending hasn't been much scrutinized.  So, it's really easy for that indoor sports facility cost to climb from $12 million to $14.5 million.  But what's $2.5 million these days?  (And we can always take comfort in the fact that the council recently voted to spend an extra $119,000 on a stone upgrade so that the walls will "really pop."  I'm sure the contractor really appreciated a little more cost on the backs of taxpayers.)

Unless we want to end up like the failing states of California, et al., we must act.  House and Senate Bills 14 cannot prevent local governments from being stupid about debt, but the proposals will certainly make voters more aware of how local leaders are building a house of debt cards.  The bills require clear ballot language about current debt and take steps to restrict non-voter approved 'Certificates of Obligation.'  (The latter now constitutes 16.6% of certain local debt burdens.)

Please contact your local representatives in the House and Senate and ask them to support government transparency.  Let's not go all California on debt.

Who Represents Me?

Update:  The City of Round Rock issued $12.5 million in certificates of obligation in 2007.  From the city's website

In 2007 the Round Rock City Council approved the issuance of $12.5 million in certificates of obligation to help fund $18.2 million of improvements to Old Settlers Park.  The improvements to the park include major renovations to the existing 20 baseball fields and construction of a 5-field softball complex. 
Update:  Below is a response from Round Rock's Communications Director Will Hampton.

The City of Round Rock has been one of the fastest growing cities in the country for the past three decades, and that growth necessitates the issuance of debt to pay for large capital projects. That said, the City has also spent $75 million in cash over the past 15 years on large capital projects that most municipalities would have to issue debt to pay for – thanks to sales tax revenue that was generated in large part from Dell customers across Texas.

While Williamson County has certainly done its part build new roads, the City of Round Rock has actually shouldered much of the burden for its own growing infrastructure needs, for both transportation and our water and wastewater utility – which boasts some of the lowest rates in the region.  We have leveraged $173 million in Type B local sales tax revenue – which was approved by voters – into $535 million in transportation improvements since 1999. We’ve partnered with Williamson County, the Texas Department of Transportation and private developers to expand our transportation infrastructure, sometimes using cash and sometimes issuing debt.

Construction costs for the Round Rock Sports Center are being paid for through hotel occupancy tax (HOT) revenue. And the extra money to pay for improving the aesthetics of the walls, we believe, is a sound investment. The City’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, by recruiting tournaments and events to Round Rock, helped bring $8.6 million in direct spending into the local economy in 2012. HOT revenue, by law, must be spent on activities and facilities that draw tourists to town. That revenue cannot be spent on, say, more police personnel or a new trail.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Municipal Bankruptcy: Coming to a Government Near You?

Great news: A U.S. bankruptcy judge has ruled that the city of Stockton, CA can declare bankruptcy.  News reports have called Stockton "emblematic of government excess."
Its salaries, benefits and borrowing were based on anticipated long-term developer fees and increasing property tax revenue. (Emphasis mine.)
Like numerous other municipalities across the country, Stockton leaders relied very heavily on borrowing and obviously weren't very good at saying "no" to anyone.  The most prominent issue of course is the city's pension obligations, but we should not discount the role of massive debt; this is a cautionary tale for Texas. 

"But that's just those crazy liberals in California!" you say. 

Not so fast, Pardner, we've got plenty of local debt right here in Texas.  In fact, according to the Comptroller's office, local debt has more than doubled over the last decade.  And for us Williamson County folks, we should note that while Stockton's debt burden was just shy of $1 billion, Leander School District taxpayers are now on the hook for $2.7 billion

Sadly, there are folks in local government who are adamantly defending these local debt burdens.  Leander ISD, and have even gone so far as to claim the Texas Bond Review Board numbers are, er, misleading.  LISD Board of Trustees President Pam Waggoner has been trying to assure everyone that the ISD debt isn't really such a bad thing, and, after all it was voter approved.  (By 6-8% of the registered voters.)  Surprisingly enough, she also seems to blame the State Legislature for Leander ISD's bad CAB practices:
CABs are one of several ways we handle debt . The answer to this problem is for the State Legislature to not punish us for going over the 50-cent test.
Um, say, how about not spending and borrowing so much?

Waggoner suggests that her board is 'fiscally' conservative, but as candidate Jim MacKay has pointed out, the district has essentially played a fiscal "shell game" to make it appear as though the debt were below state-approved levels. 

MacKay, who is challenging Waggoner in the May elections, has written an explanation of the LISD financial shell game, and notes that the bond writers sure are making a nice living on all this district borrowing and refinancing. 

Sadly, Ms. Waggoner has refused to meet Jim MacKay for a public debate, and hasn't even bothered to accept invitations to speak to local conservative groups.  I guess she is hoping this will all just go away?  Perhaps she's right; if things get too bad, Leander ISD could, like Stockton, declare bankruptcy.  

And we thought it was only in California.

Note:  The state legislature is taking action on the growing problem of local government debt- House and Senate Bill 5 would create greater transparency and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are proposing an outright ban on the CAB practices defended by Waggoner.