Friday, January 27, 2017

Dan Patrick's $8.5 billion Bathroom Bill a Distraction

The Texas legislature is now in session and the first thing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants to talk about isn’t spurring the economy even though the state has fallen from third to twenty-first in economic strength since 2013. No, instead he wants to talk about his $8.5 billion bathroom bill that the cost the state 185,000 jobs according to a study by the Texas Association of Business.

The Bathroom Bill is a Republican distraction, Patrick and his followers are using fear to take the public’s eye off their record of incompetence. The Texas Comptroller announced that tax revenues are expected to fall during this two year budget period so there won’t be as much money available this legislative session.

We all know that Republicans never want to be seen raising taxes so that means there will be cuts; once again we’re likely to see public education take a hit. Consider that while the legislature did increase public school funding a little in the last cycle it has yet fully restore what it cut in 2011. Now they’re going to cut again, we could be back to a 2011 style budget where thousands of Texas teachers lost their jobs.

Senator Donna Campbell will once again push her school voucher bill in an effort to gut public education in Texas. No matter what she and voucher supporters say it’s really just a way to provide discounts to rich people who already send their kids to private schools and turn a public service in to profits for private businesses. Private schools aren’t required to provide bus service so not every child is able to attend them and they aren’t accountable for the quality of the education provided. Private school students don’t even have to take the standardized tests administered to public schools so their performance can’t even be compared.

Campbell is sure to claim once again that her bill will save the state money because it doesn’t use all the money allocated per child in the public system but that just means that it’s even less useful to middle class and low income parents who can’t afford to subsidize their children’s education. Will John Kuempel stand up for Seguin and the rest of Guadalupe county school children and say NO?

There will surely be cuts to other agencies that provide services the public relies on. The only question is which agencies will see budget cuts and how deep they will be?

Then there’s Out on Bond Ken Paxton, the man who is supposed to be the state’s chief law enforcement office but will spend the next few months preparing for a trial that could see him got jail for 99 years. He’ll be too busy fighting a legal battle to save his life to actually do the job for which he was elected. If the man had any character at all he’d resign so that the citizens of Texas could get the law enforcement services our tax dollars are paying for. Of course that would mean he’d no longer be able to take donations from rich people to pay for his legal defense. Or let me rephrase that he’d no longer get those donations because we wouldn’t be in a position to return the favor.

 Published in the Seguin Gazette January 20, 2017

Friday, January 20, 2017

Republicans Push Confirmations Before Due Diligence

Almost two weeks ago Republicans in Congress voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) by taking away both power and independence from the investigative body, and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries. The mission of the bi-partisan OCE is "to assist the House in upholding high standards of ethical conduct for its Members, officers, and staff and, in so doing, to serve the American people". In the last term it investigated 16 members of Congress, three of them from Texas. The House Republican Conference thought they’d pull the wool over the eyes of the American people by holding the vote late in the day without warning and without discussion.

The vote made headlines the next day and by the time new members of the House had been sworn in and Speaker Ryan called the House to order thousands of Americans both Republican and Democrat had called their representatives to express their disgust and demand that the move be withdrawn. The Republicans heard the people and in a victory for both transparency and democracy relented. This victory belongs to you my fellow citizens.

Now Republicans in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are attempting to sidestep normal procedures on confirming cabinet nominations by holding hearings and votes before the nominees have even filed their financial and employment disclosure forms with the Office of Government Ethics as required by legislation passed in 1978. Review of those documents usually takes a few weeks, not a few days so there should be no hurry to vote on these nominees. That’s not stopping Senate Republicans who are rushing to pass them through, which makes me wonder what they’re hoping to hide from the American people.

Secretary of Education nominee and billionaire, Betsy DeVos is just one of the four nominees who hasn’t filed disclosure forms and she has financial entanglements akin to those of Donald Trump so there is plenty of room for conflicts of interest that the vetting procedures of the Office of Government Ethics are designed to discover and help resolve. DeVos and others whose ethics reviews aren’t complete should not be voted on because we “the people” have the right to expect our government officials will not use public office to line their private pockets.

The success of phone calls by people like you and me in stopping House Republicans from shutting down the watchdogs at the Office of Congressional Ethics should embolden everyone reading this to call Senators Cornyn and Cruz at their San Antonio offices to demand that no votes on Trump’s nominees be held until a thorough review of their ethics disclosures has been performed. You can call Sen. Cornyn at 210-224-7485 and Sen. Cruz at 210-340-2885.

Keep those phone numbers handy as it’s a sure thing we’ll all have many reasons to call them over the next four years.

Published in the Seguin Gazette January 13, 2017

Monday, January 16, 2017

“Hands off Obamacare, Medicaid and Medicare”

On Sunday afternoon more than 20 people from New Braunfels and other parts of Comal County rallied in support of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and Medicare outside Congressman Lamar Smith’s office. All the participants are worried that access to healthcare will be lost for themselves or family members or friends if Republicans in Congress pass legislation to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without even having a replacement for it.

It is widely understood that the Republican plan to convert Medicare to a voucher will jeopardize the health and lives of many seniors. The problem is there is no guarantee that they’ll be able to acquire comparable insurance even with higher premiums since many of those on Medicare are much sicker than the average population. Since insurers make their profits by avoiding the sickest people some will find healthcare unattainable.

Don’t forget that a significant fraction of Medicare participants, like my wife, aren’t retirees, they’re people who are totally disabled and frequently unable to acquire health insurance on the individual market at any price. Even the Texas high risk pool didn’t want her and pushed her off to Medicare.

Let’s not forget about Medicaid, Texas Republicans have already cut reimbursement rates for some of the most vulnerable children in Texas. Now those children can’t get the physical therapy and other services they need to be even remotely healthy or self sufficient.

Lamar Smith needs to be told “Hands off Obamacare, Medicaid and Medicare”.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Texas Cities Can Make a Living Wage a Reality

Walmart, McDonald’s and other low wage employers not only take advantage of their employees they also take advantage of us the tax payer even if we don’t shop their. They do it by paying wages so low that their employees qualify for and collect federal benefits like housing assistance, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program aka food stamps. That’s because the federal minimum wage is no where near a living wage. Even in low cost areas of low cost state like Texas a 40 hour a week job at minimum wage won’t pay rent, utilities and put food on the table let alone address health care and other living expenses.

I’ll be you’re as sick as I am of our tax dollars subsidizing their profits but with the election of Donald Trump and the continuing Republican majorities in the House and Senate it is unlikely that the federal minimum wage will be raised in the next four years. The Texas governor and legislature are also Republican controlled leaving little chance that Texas will raise its minimum wage. Worse state law prohibits cities from raising their own minimum wage rates.

Cities like San Antonio and San Marcos have taken action to work around this ridiculous prohibition. In San Antonio city employees are paid a minimum of $13 per hour and the city requires all contractors to pay their employees a minimum of $13 per hour as well. That leaves an awful lot of people out of the benefit of higher wages but it’s a start. In San Marcos the city recently passed an ordinance that offers tax benefits to employers who pay at least $15 per hour.

There is nothing stopping the city of Seguin or the Seguin ISD from setting a minimum wage for all contractors doing business with them. There are other ways to increase the value of low wage workers earnings such as requiring that all employers in the city provide five days paid sick leave for every employee. In reality that actually benefits everyone since then the sick person doesn’t infect the rest of the staff or their customers. I don’t know about you but I prefer the restaurant worker handling my food to be healthy so they don’t contaminate my meal and make me sick too.

Walmart, McDonalds and other large chains often manage labor costs by shifting schedules around so that employees don’t have same schedule from one week to the next making it very difficult to plan child care, meet with children’s teachers, or see a doctor. Fast food chains are notorious for requiring their employees to work a few hours then punch out for three or four hours and then work a few more, or simply sending employees home early often preventing them from working even close to full time hours. Cities like Seguin can require that all employers in the city limits provide clarity and certainty to workers schedules.

There are ways we can make a difference at the local level but it won’t happen if you and I don’t demand it of our local officials. We must speak to our city council members and the trustees of our school districts urging them to take the actions they can to make our communities better places to work and live.

Published in the Seguin Gazette January 6, 2017

Friday, January 6, 2017

Trump and cabinet full of conflicts of interest

The big reason that elected and appointed officials at both the state and federal level are supposed to disclose their business interests is to allow the public to recognize conflicts of interest which in many instances is enough to prevent them. Texas has state disclosure regulations and so do most cities. Congress passed and President Obama signed the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge or STOCK Act in 2012 which makes it illegal for federal officials, whether elected or appointed such as cabinet members to profit from their knowledge of upcoming legislation or regulations or other information not available to the general public.

For roughly the last 40 years presidents have thought it appropriate to put their holdings into what is called a blind trust. That’s essentially like a mutual fund where the shareholder doesn’t know which stocks are owned. In this way a president can’t know how the decisions he makes or the agreements he signs will affect his personal finances so they shouldn’t affect the decision and he can’t profit from advance knowledge.

Donald Trump continues to refuse to produce his tax returns which are one way the American people could determine for themselves whether or not he takes undue advantage of a president’s far ranging access to secret information. Nor will he put his assets in a blind trust. Instead he says his children and managers will handle business for him but he’ll still know what companies he is invested in and what if any affect his decisions will have on those businesses before anyone else.

Last week in what appears to be an effort to curry favor with Trump the government of Kuwait has cancelled their reservation with a competing business and changed the location of an event to a Trump owned hotel.

While on the campaign trail Trump bragged that he knew how to game the system and therefore he knew how to clean it up but his actions so far suggest he has no intention of doing so. Trump’s nomination of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be the next Secretary of State, a position in which he will have numerous illegal conflicts of interest given his holdings in Exxon stocks and Exxon’s business dealings with Russia among other countries is just one reason for concern. Another problematic Trump nominee is Congressman Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services who has traded stock in at least forty health care companies while on the House committee that regulates them. More worrying is that close Trump advisor Newt Gingrich has proposed that Trump can simply pardon his cabinet members for the crimes of conflict of interest and continue as if they were legal to begin with.

Many people voted for Trump in the belief that he wouldn’t tolerate this kind of gaming the system but it seems he’s already letting them down. If you’re one of those people you certainly have a right to be angry. There are other examples of him backing away from campaign promises such as I’ll “drain the swamp”, “build a wall” and “lock her up”. I foresee more to come, so if you’re having buyer’s remorse now or feel it later the Resistance will welcome you.

 Published in the Seguin Gazette December 29, 2016