Mike in the News

  1. Monday, November 9, 2009

    State Tax Collections $1 Billion Short

    Houston Chronicle

    By Peggy Fikac

    AUSTIN – Sales tax and natural gas tax collections fell more than $1 billion short of projections in the 2009 fiscal year, according to a state comptroller's report, fueling questions about the financial heartburn that may be ahead for Texas.

    “I think it tells us that the economy was softer than expected (when projections were outlined) in January, and tax revenues were lower than expected ... and if it weren't for the federal stimulus money, we would have been in a lot of trouble,” said Dick Lavine, of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, who analyzed state Comptroller Susan Combs' projected revenue for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31 and her recent annual cash report.

    Texas got $30.9 billion in federal funds in fiscal year 2009, a 17.6 percent increase over the previous year, due in large part to federal stimulus money and funds received as a result of Hurricane Ike, the comptroller's report said. Federal funding was nearly $2.9 billion more than projected, Lavine said.

    The comptroller's report does not address the current two-year, $182 billion state government budget, which includes some $12 billion in stimulus funds. Combs spokesman Allen Spelce called the report “a snapshot” and said the agency is working on an economic forecast.

    Chris Cutrone, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said by e-mail, “Texas continues to do better than most other states thanks to our low taxes, predictable regulations, fair and balanced budget with a projected $9 billion in our rainy day fund. However, we are not immune from the national economic downturn.”

    Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he was examining the numbers but had yet to draw a conclusion.

    “We've got some time to look at it” with the hope that the economy will begin to recover, he said. “Secondly, we've still got a fairly substantial rainy day fund that I'm glad we saved. The problem's still manageable.”

    Lawmakers have said they expect a challenge in crafting a budget in the 2011 legislative session. That is largely why they didn't touch the rainy day fund, which is fueled by oil and gas tax revenues, so lower natural gas tax collections will affect it.

    “My first thought is that we are fortunate to have ended the 2009 session with a rainy day fund, and my second thought is that 2011 is going to be a challenging year,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, House Appropriations Committee member.

    “We all anticipated lower sales tax revenue and natural gas tax receipts this year, and while our overall state revenues remain consistent with the comptroller's revenue estimate, this is exactly why I insisted the last four years on saving our rainy day fund so we will have more than $9 billion in 2011 to balance our budget,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a statement.

    Lavine, whose group advocates for lower-income Texans, said, “What it says to the federal government is there may be a need for a second stimulus package focused on state and local government, because this money has turned out to be so important for us.”

    Ogden disagreed. “If the federal government borrows even more money and calls it stimulus, it's more insane than the first one,” he said.

    Michael Quinn Sullivan, of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, which advocates for limited government, said the figures should show agency heads “that they need to right now be looking carefully at how they're spending the already-allocated dollars and make sure that they're finding savings now.”

    pfikac@express-news.net

     

     


     

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  2. Thursday, November 5, 2009

    Galen to Graduate 29 Registered Nurses

    The Galen School of Nursing in San Antonio will graduate its first class of registered nurses in ceremonies at 7 tonight at the St. Paul Community Center, 1201 Donaldson Ave.

    Twenty-nine students have completed Galen’s 15-month licensed vocational nurse-to-registered nurse bridge program. The program was approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Board of Nursing in 2008 after state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, sponsored an amendment to the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners sunset bill in 2007 to resolve a logjam in the approval process for the registered-nurse degree program.

    Villarreal will speak at tonight’s graduation ceremony, along with Mayor Julián Castro. Galen also operates nurse schools in Tampa, Fla., and Louisville, Ky. The San Antonio school has more than 600 students and more than 80 general education and nursing faculty members.

  3. Friday, October 30, 2009

    South Texas leaders press Perry to set up statewide complete census count panel

    Rio Grande Guardian

    By Steve Taylor

    McALLEN, Oct. 30 - To the chagrin of South Texas elected officials, Gov. Rick Perry has yet to respond to calls for the setting up of a statewide Complete Count Committee to ensure maximum participation in the 2010 Census.
     
    The idea was first proposed by state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, in a letter sent to Perry on Oct. 13. Villarreal told the Guardian he has yet to hear back from the Governor’s office.
     
    “I was hoping Texas would follow the lead of other states in setting up a Complete Count Committee but I have not even received an acknowledgement of the letter. I hope to hear from Governor’s office soon but that is not going to hold me back from encouraging our mayors and county judges across the state to form Complete Count Committees at the local level,” Villarreal said.
     
    Soon after Villarreal’s letter was sent to Perry, Texas Tribune reporter Brandi Grissom asked Perry spokesman Chris Cutrone for a response. “We understand this is an important issue, and we're looking into how best to serve the state on this issue,” Cutrone told Grissom.
     
    On Tuesday, Cutrone told the Guardian: “My comment from a few weeks ago still stands, and there hasn’t been any follow up moves by the Governor.”
     
    Getting a complete census count is crucial for two major reasons. The formulas for the awarding of billions of dollars in federal grants are based on population. And, congressional districts are redrawn every ten years based on population. Because of its growth, Texas could gain three or four extra congressional seats, if the census count is thorough.
     
    The Census Bureau will send out questionnaires to every household in the nation in March 2010. The following month, census workers will begin visiting households that did not respond to the questionnaire.
     
    Villarreal got his idea for a Complete Count Committee after hearing a presentation by Census Bureau officials at a House Committee on Redistricting hearing in Austin on Sept. 30. Villarreal, who is vice chair of the panel, heard that about 18 other states have set up Complete Count Committees.
    “As the 2010 census draws near, I urge you to ensure that our state government is taking every appropriate step to ensure the highest possible level of participation by Texas residents,” Villarreal wrote.
     
    “The stakes are high. Promoting participation in the census will improve our state’s chances of attaining the federal funding and political representation that our growing population deserves. If we succeed, we will receive more of our own tax dollars back from the federal government, easing our ability to meet our needs in transportation, education, health and human services and other ideas.”
     
    As well as proposing a Complete Count Committee to develop a coordinated statewide effort, Villarreal encouraged Perry to call on state agencies to use their existing lines of communication to inform the public about the census.
     
    “In particular, state agencies should capitalize on existing communications with the “hard to count” populations identified by the U.S. Census Bureau, including the elderly, children, minorities, renters and low-income individuals,” Villarreal wrote. “For example, census information could be included with materials that the Health and Human Services Commission already mails to participants in public assistance programs.”
     
    Villarreal said the Census Bureau’s Texas Outreach Director, Marisela Rosales, was ready to work with the state to help coordinate a statewide plan. Rosales did not return the Guardian’s call for comment at press time.
     
    Potentially, the largest “undercount” could take place along the border and in inner cities. Villarreal told the Guardian that it was important for South Texas cities and counties to go ahead and form their own Complete Count Committees and not wait for the state to help.
    “Don’t wait for the state, form your own Complete Count Committees at the local level. The Census Bureau will help you establish them and provide information, materials to help you communicate to your residents,” he said.
     
    Villarreal said the benefits of a complete count are huge for South Texas. “In the end, we are expected to have three extra congressional seats in Texas but are in reach of four. If we do a good job of making sure everybody is counted we could get that fourth extra seat. If we get four it improves the chances of having another congressional district in South Texas,” Villarreal said.
     
    The importance the McAllen Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) places on a complete census count can be seen by viewing the organization’s Web site. On the home page is a countdown clock showing how many days, hours, minutes and seconds remain to Census 2010.
    “The census count has everything to do with economic development,” said MEDC President and CEO Keith Patridge. “It has everything to do with companies looking at the growth of a region. Population size impacts investment decisions.”
     
    Patridge co-chairs the business and industry subcommittee of the City of McAllen’s Complete Count Committee. He said the group meets every month to strategize on how best to get a complete count.
     
    “Over $300 billion in federal funds are based on Census numbers so this issue is huge for us. That is why I am supportive of a statewide Complete Count Committee,” Patridge said. “If we do not count everyone that is here all we are doing is adding to the cost of those that were counted. For example, if there is an undercount of 10,000, we are going to end up paying for the services of those 10,000 at the local level but not get the money for it at the federal level.”
     
    Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia and McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez both told the Guardian that they would be asking their respective city commissions to write a letter to Perry urging the establishment of a statewide Complete Count Committee. Both have set up citywide Complete Count Committees.
     
    “We certainly support a statewide Complete Count Committee,” Garcia said. “It is extremely important to us that we get every dollar we can to our area. Our growth demands it.”
     
    Garcia said his “big fear” is that many people in the Valley will not understand that the information obtained by census workers will not be shared with federal agencies like Immigration Customs and Enforcement. “We need to get that word out, that everybody stands up and is counted,” Garcia said.
    Cortez agreed. “I am very much in favor of our Governor making sure we have an accurate count. “We want to be rewarded with the necessary representation and funding our population growth deserves.”
     
    State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said he, too, supports a statewide Complete Count Committee.
     
    “It is an excellent idea. We need to count every single person that resides in the state of Texas. Federal monies are allocated on a population basis. If we do not count every single person that resides in the state of Texas we will end up losing money. That money will have to be made up by the state,” Hinojosa said.
     
    Rene Ramirez said he would be making a complete census count one of his top issues when he is sworn in as Hidalgo County’s interim county judge. Former County Judge J.D. Salinas set up a Complete Count Committee.
     
    “This is a huge issue for Hidalgo County because of all the federal dollars at stake. With the Commissioners Court’s support I am going to do everything I can, whether that is PSAs or education, to get an accurate count,” Ramirez said.
     
    “How do you reach out to people? Do you communicate through the media, through door-to-door canvassing? Whatever it takes, we will do it. We have got to get every single person in this county to be part of the census.”
     

     

     

  4. Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Keeping Count

    Texas Weekly

    By Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune

    Texas should create a committee to promote participation in the 2010 U.S. Census, state Rep. Mike Villarreal told Gov. Rick Perry in a letter Tuesday.

    "The stakes are high," Villarreal, D-San Antonio, wrote. "Promoting participation in the census will improve our state's chances of attaining the federal funding and political representation that our growing population deserves."

    Like more than a dozen other states have done, Villarreal said Texas should establish a Complete Count Committee.

    Villarreal, who is vice chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, also urged Perry to use state agencies to reach minorities, the poor, the elderly and others who might not otherwise be counted.

    Many state agencies already work with those populations and send them materials about public benefits. Villarreal said those agencies should use their contacts to let people know that the census is safe and that participating is important.

    Billions in federal aid for health care, schools and roads depend on Texas residents being accurately counted, he said.

    The census count also has huge political ramifications.

    Texas expects to grab three or four more congressional seats because of population growth, which has largely been fueled by Hispanic Texans.

    Whether those new districts are drawn in a way that accurately reflects the state's population is tied to who gets counted in the census and where they are.

    Villarreal said Perry hadn't responded to his letter yet (or even sent him flowers recently, he joked).

    Perry spokesman Chris Cutrone said via e-mail that the governor appreciated Villarreal's letter.

    "We understand this is an important issue, and we're looking into how best to serve the state on this issue," he said.

    bgrissom@texastribune.org

  5. Saturday, October 10, 2009

    Exemption is used to skirt city's tree rules

    San Antonio Express-News

    By John Tedesco

    When City Council members approved an ordinance in 1997 to protect trees from urban sprawl, they had a deceptively simple goal: Make sure the rules applied to developers who often own large tracts of land — not homeowners who want to get rid of a few trees on single-family lots.

    But at least one lobbyist has figured out developers can bulldoze trees on a large property, as long as it has a house.

    In 2007, lobbyist Ken Brown told a commercial client, Skinner Nurseries, it could clear trees on a rural tract of land without worrying about the tree ordinance, said Charles Skinner, a real estate agent for the Florida company who is related to the owners.

    Because the 19-acre property on Somerset Road had a house, Skinner Nurseries was able to use the homeowner exemption as a free pass to get around the tree ordinance and its potential mitigation costs.

    Nearly every tree on the property was bulldozed to develop a tree-nursery business.

    “I can tell you there was a house there and people were living in it,” Skinner said. “While we had that exemption, we took advantage of it.”

    The project is an example of developers and lobbyists finding creative ways around the tree ordinance, which is viewed by many in the local real estate industry as an unnecessary, expensive burden.

    City officials begrudgingly say Brown's interpretation of the tree ordinance was correct. When the tree rules were written to exclude homeowners, the language in the ordinance set no limits on the size of residential properties.

    Brown insisted he didn't take advantage of any loophole in the tree rules. He said he gave his client all available legal options to develop the property — and the homeowner exemption was an option.

    “There's no loophole,” Brown said. “The language is as clear as can be.”

    Avoiding the rules

    There are several ways a developer can avoid the city's controversial tree ordinance.

    Using “vested rights” is most common. A state law allows property owners to be grandfathered from city codes, if development plans for the site were filed before the codes were enacted.

    Developers routinely have used the vested rights law in projects across San Antonio to trump the tree ordinance, an aquifer-protection ordinance and a flood-control ordinance.

    Brown's client didn't rely on vested rights. The company used an exemption in the tree ordinance in a way that wasn't originally intended, said Fernando De León, assistant director of the city's Development Services office.

    Brown said it's not his job to figure out the intent of the ordinance. He said he told city officials years ago that the homeowner exemption was poorly worded.

    “If there was problem with the ordinance, then it's the city's duty to change it,” Brown said. “So change it.”

    The tree ordinance also contains a provision that exempts farmers and ranchers, who pay lower property taxes under a state law that protects agricultural operations.

    A developer used that agricultural exemption at a large commercial development in Northwest Bexar County.

    Hugo Gutierrez Jr. leased his West Pointe property near SeaWorld to a rancher, who then bulldozed thousands of trees. Afterward, one of Gutierrez's companies filed plans to develop the property.

    Gutierrez's use of an agricultural exemption at West Pointe outraged at least one politician at City Hall.

    In April, then-Mayor Phil Hardberger and state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, held a news conference under the majestic oaks outside City Hall and announced an effort to close what they described as a loophole.

    “We're trying to protect our trees here,” Hardberger said at the time. “And those who want to scoot around and find little niches in the law to cut down our trees — we're going to stop that, one way or the other.”

    Revising the ordinance

    But it was a lonely crusade for the lame-duck mayor. None of Hardberger's colleagues on City Council joined him at the news conference, and officials have struggled to find a way to prevent future West Pointes.

    The city recently formed a committee of citizens, which includes members of the real estate industry, with a goal of addressing problems in the tree ordinance. But one committee member said he didn't share Hardberger's outrage about what happened at West Pointe.

    “It doesn't concern us,” said Bill Peters, a property analyst with the Northside Independent School District. If the city tried to prevent others from using an agricultural exemption to get around the tree ordinance, Peters said it would run afoul of the law protecting legitimate farmers and ranchers.

    Richard Alles, an environmentalist on the committee, said he's frustrated with developers who use exemptions in the tree ordinance in ways that weren't intended. But he said the city's proposed cure might cause even more harm.

    A draft of the new ordinance says developers have to preserve 35 percent of the tree canopy for high-density neighborhoods. They'd be required to plant new trees to meet that goal if there weren't enough existing trees.

    “If you have a site that contains very little trees, and you have less than 35 percent of the canopy, then we're going to tell you to plant new trees,” De León said.

    He said the idea is to require developers like Gutierrez to go back and plant new trees at West Pointe. Or it might encourage developers to preserve trees to meet that 35 percent threshold.

    Alles said the proposal focuses too much on tree canopy, without emphasizing the importance of saving old-growth heritage trees.

    “It creates an equivalency between a grove of newly planted, inch-and-a-half-diameter twigs, and the same canopy area provided by a 200-year-old heritage tree,” Alles said.

    De León said there are incentives in the proposed ordinance to preserve large trees.

    A lawyer's advice

    A company tied to Brown's client, Skinner Nurseries, bought the Somerset Road property in 2007.

    Skinner Nurseries planned to develop the land commercially, Skinner said. But before the development plans were officially filed with the city, Skinner said Brown learned about a house on the property.

    Skinner said he'd allowed the previous landowner to live there for a while because he had nowhere else to go.

    “The lawyer said, ‘Well, is there a guy living there?'” Skinner recalled. “We said, ‘Yeah, we're letting him live there. And (Brown) said, ‘Well, let him continue to live there.'”

    Skinner said the company, at Brown's suggestion, used the homeowner exemption in the tree ordinance to bulldoze the property.

    “We went in there and cleared it and smoothed it out and got it looking to where it is today,” Skinner said.

    It can be cheaper and quicker to clear-cut a property, and it opens up more land for parking and buildings.

    The cleared property might have looked greener if Skinner Nurseries had followed the tree ordinance. The company would have been required to save 40 percent of mature trees that reach a significant size, and all the large heritage trees.

    If the company bulldozed more trees than that, it would have paid mitigation costs that could have totaled tens of thousands of dollars. The city spends the mitigation fees on planting new trees.

    Part of the property near Leon Creek is in a flood plain, which increases the tree-preservation requirements.

    Skinner emphasized the property was a “dump” before the company bought it, and it was covered with “little scrubby trees” such as mesquite.

    An aerial photograph, snapped in 2005 before the property was bulldozed, confirms that scraggly trees and brush covered parts of the tract. But the photo also shows scattered large trees with wide canopies that could easily shade the old, 1,800-square-foot house on the property.

    Today, the tract of land on Somerset Road is vacant. Skinner said the sour economy killed the tree-nursery project, and nothing ever was built.

    “We would have a nice tree distribution center there right now if it wasn't for this doggone economy,” Skinner said.

    The man living in the house is no longer there, Skinner said. The old, vacant structure was torn down.

     

  6. Friday, October 9, 2009

    Grant boosts SAISD's growth efforts

    San Antonio Express-News

    By Michelle De La Rosa

    Maureen Gonima wanted her children to be taught in both English and Spanish, so she searched long and hard for an elementary school that offered that kind of dual-language program.

    She finally discovered Bonham Academy, in the San Antonio Independent School District.

    “Bonham was the only school that offered an emphasis on languages but at the same time was focusing on all the other academic disciplines, and we loved the small size and the diversity of it,” said Gonima, who lives in the suburban North East Independent School District.

    SAISD officials and the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel are partnering to attract more parents like Gonima to the district, located in the city's core. Enrollment has declined by some 20,000 students since the 1970s, putting student rolls at about 55,000 today.

    On Thursday, the American Federation of Teachers awarded the Alliance, one of its affiliates, a $150,000 Innovation Fund grant to get that effort off the ground. The amount itself is relatively small, but it represents the genesis of what is expected to be a years-long push to revitalize the district through such initiatives as converting schools to in-district charters and marketing them individually. The grant covers only the first year of the effort.

    “We've been talking about some of these ideas, probably for at least seven years,” Alliance President Shelley Potter said. “The Innovation Fund grant gives us the opportunity to actually be able to get resources that would allow us to take some of these ideas ... and to put them into action.”

    AFT also funded six other projects across the nation — the first recipients of the new Innovation Fund grants.

    Potter's group has criticized SAISD Superintendent Robert Durón for focusing too heavily on closing schools and not enough on coming up with creative solutions to boost the student count.

    Durón did not return telephone calls seeking comment Thursday.

    His staff is reviewing — and could modify — a proposal by a community advisory committee to downsize the district by closing more than a dozen schools over a decade and restructuring others. Trustees are scheduled to vote on a plan later this month.

    Some of the grant money would be used to encourage schools to convert to in-district charters — SAISD campuses that have a special curriculum focus, such as Bonham's dual-language program, and more leeway in the classroom — and help them through the process.

    The district currently has seven such schools, which serve neighborhood children as well as students throughout the district and outside of SAISD. The Alliance wants to have 30 in-district charters within three years.

    The charter staff would be trained how to measure charter competitors that are independent of SAISD so they can better market themselves.

    Another part of the plan calls for creating community schools to serve as one-stop shops for neighborhoods, that could include academic, medical, mental health and social services, depending on the community's needs. That, Potter said, would allow SAISD to make use of the space at half-empty schools.

    Another key part of the plan is a Grow Our Schools summit, where a cross section of Bexar County leaders would examine issues that contribute to the enrollment problem.

    State Rep. Mike Villarreal, whose daughter attends Bonham Academy, said he would work to garner support for the event, which will be held in March. He said he is excited about the project because it focuses on promoting individual schools, not the district as a whole — SAISD hired a marketing firm in July to do that.

    “It misses the point, which is there are existing assets that are in and around our individual schools,” Villarreal said. “Let's identify them, and let's put together a plan to play to those strengths.”

  7. Thursday, October 1, 2009

    Appraisal process scrutinized at Tobin Hill meeting

    San Antonio Express-News

    By Christine Stanley - Contributing Writer/North Central News

    Tobin Hill Community Association members celebrated their one-year anniversary Sept. 14.

    Association President Carolyn Kelley took the helm with two other members back in 2008. THCA has grown to more than 80 members since then, and the historic Tobin Hill neighborhood is quickly becoming one of San Antonio's hot spots thanks to home renovations, the Art on the Hill gallery walk and recent River Walk northern extension.

    But that progress has come with a price.

    THCA members say their property appraisals have skyrocketed because of Tobin Hill's newfound popularity, which translates into higher taxes.

    State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) discussed the need for property appraisal reform with THCA members during a Sept. 13 meeting – a cause he's championed for years with limited success.

    Kelley and THCA members have been concerned about what they feel are unfair appraisals for some time. In June, Kelley said THCA planned to reach out to public officials, lawyers and tax consultants to guide residents through the property appraisal appeals process if they're facing an unexpected hike in their home's value.

    Bexar Appraisal District Manager Richard Hammond has said Tobin Hill appraisals went up 10 percent this year as a whole, with some properties decreasing in value. He said revitalization efforts in Tobin Hill's historic sections are driving home sales, which causes values to increase.

    San Antonio has similar hot spots in the historic Lavaca and Monte Vista neighborhoods, he said.

    Villarreal encouraged residents to protest their property appraisal if they think it has been unfairly assessed.

    “The appraisal district gives the first offer,” he said. “It's a game, and you're expected to counter offer.”

    If property owners are unhappy with any appraisal that's valued at $1 million or less, they can enter into arbitration with the appraisal district to argue their case.

    Thanks to recent state legislative action, the fee for that arbitration session has gone down to $250 from $500, Villarreal said, but homeowners are still unable to argue for a lower appraisal based on home equity.

    They instead have to argue based on market value. That can be tricky, Villarreal said, because privacy rules prevent appraisal districts from accessing sell prices for all properties, including commercial real estate.

    Villarreal encouraged THCA members to support his push for further property appraisal reform during the next legislative session.

    “My position is, if we're going to have this system, then let's make sure it's fair,” he said.

    In the meantime, Tobin Hill residents can look forward to a few new sidewalks and a $1.8 million drainage improvement project.

    Adam Greenup, chief of staff for Mary Alice Cisneros, said the District 1 city councilwoman managed to set aside funds for sidewalks and drainage improvements on San Pedro Avenue from West Evergreen to Interstate 35.

    Sidewalks are planned for both sides of Gillespie Street from Locust to Myrtle; on Main Street around East Evergreen; along East Dewey Place from McCullough Avenue to North St. Mary's Street; and on Woodlawn Avenue from McCullough Avenue to North St. Mary's.

  8. Wednesday, September 30, 2009

    House Redistricting Committee Hears Report from Census

    Quorum Report - Daily Buzz

     

    By John Reynolds

     

    Biggest challenge is persuading suspicious communities that information is protected

     

    An official with the U.S. Census Bureau told members of a House redistricting committee today that the biggest challenge facing the decennial count of the country’s population was communicating to the public that the process is secure and safe.

     

    Cathy McCully, the bureau’s chief of the census redistricting data office, also asked for the state’s help in supporting the census effort. Thirty-eight states have state-level committees to assist the Census Bureau in identifying areas that will be hardest to count.

    While several local jurisdictions in Texas have such complete count committees, there is no statewide committee, she said.

     

    But in response to a question from Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio), McCully said the biggest challenge is making sure people trust the government when it says that the census is secure, simple and that information collected by the agency won’t be divulged.

     

    She acknowledged widespread distrust of the federal government in many communities. So the task for the Census Bureau is to get the message out that it collects data and is not enforcing laws or conducting programs.

     

    “We are collecting data to support communities,” she said. “It’s important that folks understand it is safe to take part in the census.”

     

    Independent organizations have made predictions that Texas could gain as many as three to four seats based on population estimates made by the Census Bureau. McCully said today that she couldn’t comment on what the final reapportionment numbers might be and whether the new seats would be driven by population gains among minority groups.

     

    An accurate census count, she said, is not just important for determining how seats are apportioned in the nation’s legislative bodies but also for properly allocating large portions of government aid. Census number guide the distribution of more than $3 trillion over a decade, she said.

     

    As such, she said that it’s important to get accurate counts among every community in the country. To help, the bureau plans a three-part advertising campaign to raise public awareness and to work with partners to identify and reach out to hard to count areas.

     

    Census questionnaires will be printed in six languages (English, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese) while promotional materials will be published in 28 languages and further assistance will be available in as many as 101 languages.

     

    The results of reapportionment will be known by the end of 2010 but more specific population data that will serve as the basis for individual states’ redistricting efforts will go out in phases through the early part of 2011. McCully said that Texas would be one of the first states to receive that data because of the tight deadlines here on writing the new maps.

  9. Tuesday, September 22, 2009

    Report: Mass Transit Use Up in Texas

    Austin Business Journal

    Texans took to transit in record numbers in 2008, saving more than 115 million gallons of gasoline, according to a new report from Environment Texas.

    The report, “Getting on Track: Record Transit Ridership Increases Energy Independence”, found that transit ridership in Texas increased by more than 2 percent in 2008 compared with the previous year. Texans also drove 8 million fewer miles last year, a 4 percent decrease compared with 2007.

    “By giving Texans the option of light rail and other transit choices, we will protect family budgets from rising gas prices and protect the air we breathe from dirty pollution. If we want the future infrastructure for our growing population and economy, we need to start planning and investing now,” said State Rep. Mike Villarreal.

    In 2008, increased national transit ridership saved more than 4 billion gallons of gasoline, the equivalent of the fuel nearly 7.2 million cars – almost as many passenger cars as are registered in Florida – consume in one year, Environment Texas officials said.

     

     

  10. Monday, September 21, 2009

    Teen pregnancy program saved from budget ax

    San Antonio Express-News

    By Melissa Fletcher-Stoeltje

    Local and state elected leaders applauded Mayor Julián Castro and City Council members Monday for saving the city’s only teen pregnancy prevention program, Project WORTH.

    Dr. Janet Realini, president of the nonprofit Healthy Futures, expressed her gratitude to lawmakers for not letting the city program, which espouses abstinence-plus education that also instructs teens in contraception, go belly-up.

    “We know what works, but we can’t do it alone,” she said. “Now is the time for the community to step up.”

    Project WORTH (Working on Real Teen Health) was on the endangered list when the city was forced to find more than $19 million in savings to balance the budget. The program would have seen its $235,000 budget cut by two-thirds, which would have effectively killed it.

    Realini was joined by State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, State Rep. Mike Villarreal and several other speakers Monday in celebrating Project WORTH.

    “We have had more than a decade to see what abstinence-only education has done,” Van de Putte said. “Today 46 percent of teen girls have already had sex by high school.

    Fifty-seven percent of teen boys have had sex ... this is the sixth year in a row that Texas has led repeat teen births in the nation. One in four teens have had another child by age 18. If abstinence-only was working, we’d have different statistics.”

    Villarreal spoke of the way teen pregnancy triggers a host of other social woes.

    “We have to pay attention to this challenge of ours,” he said. “With the rise in teen pregnancy, the rise in young moms and dads, teens can’t go on to complete high school, let alone pursue a path to college. This generation of young babies are raised in households not emotionally or financially equipped to raise them. That perpetuates another generation of teens more likely to engage in unprepared sex.”

    Realini said the teen birth rate costs San Antonio around $70 million a year.

    Statewide, it represents an economic drag of more than $1 billion a year.

    Realini also announced Monday that Healthy Futures has a fundraising goal to amass $55,000 before 2010 to expand programs and increase access to science-based sex education. “We know what works, and we need to do more,” she said.

     

     

  11. Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Rep. Villarreal’s take on top 8 percent

    Austin American-Statesman: The Lowdown on Higher Education

    By Ralph Haurwitz

    I have a story in today’s paper about the announcement from the University of Texas that freshmen who want to enroll under the state’s automatic-admission law will need to rank in the top 8 percent rather than the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class. The new policy is effective for the fall 2011 entering class, meaning that the first students affected will be those who are currently high school juniors.

    One lawmaker who has been following these matters closely is state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, who was instrumental in crafting legislation earlier this year that gave UT authority to scale back its admission of top 10 percent students.

    “It’s not a surprise,” Villarreal said of the announcement by UT President William Powers Jr. “When we were analyzing different options of how to bring the two sides together, the data that we were looking at told us if we capped it at 75 percent, the rule would be effectively a top 8 percent.”

    The “two sides,” Villarreal said, were those who wanted to repeal the top 10 percent law and those who wanted no change whatsover. Of course, the 8 percent rule could evolve into a 7 percent rule, a 6 percent rule and so forth down the road as the state’s population increases.

    “I think it’s important to recognize this is a short-term solution to a long-term challenge,” Villarreal said. “And that challenge is growing top-tier universities in Texas where students want to live and study.

    “Students want to live and study in places like Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.”

    What about Lubbock? I asked.

    “Dallas, Houston and San Antonio,” he replied.

  12. Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    UT tightens rule on who gets in automatically

    San Antonio Express-News

    By Melissa Ludwig

    Getting into the University of Texas at Austin is going to get a little tougher for some top-ranked students.

    Beginning in 2011, the campus will limit automatic admissions to students who rank in the top 8 percent of their class, rather than the top 10 percent, according to a letter sent to the Texas Education Agency on Monday.

    The higher bar follows a new law allowing the university to cap enrollment from automatic admissions at 75 percent of the incoming class. Under the so-called “top 10 percent rule,” students who graduate in that tier of their high school class are automatically granted admission to any public university in Texas.

    Located in a hip city teeming with live music, UT-Austin is by far the most popular destination for top 10 percent students.

    This year, 86 percent of the 6,580 freshmen from in-state were top 10. If the 75 percent cap were in place today, the number of freshmen from Texas enrolled at UT under automatic admission would dip by 723 students to 4,935.

    Admissions officials at UT-Austin have been seeking relief from the law for years. They say they want to be able to recognize qualified students who have special abilities but do not rank in the top 10 percent. The new policy gives the university discretion over the remaining 25 percent of admissions, opening the door for some students who fall outside the top 10 percent.

    UT President William Powers complained that the university had “lost control” over admissions and did not have enough flexibility to admit students who may have other skills or talents besides making good grades.

    The 1997 law was passed to boost minority enrollment at UT after a federal court ruling in the Hopwood case prohibited admissions officials from considering students' race and ethnicity. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 ruled that public institutions of higher education could use race as a factor in deciding which students to admit.

    Many legislators were reluctant to change the rule, pointing to evidence that the law had boosted minority enrollment and geographic diversity by allowing students from rural and minority high schools to attend the flagship campus. Hispanic enrollment at UT has grown by 7 percent, enrollment of black students is up by 3 percent and enrollment of white students is down 13 percent.

    But lawmakers eventually compromised and tweaked the law just for UT.

    “I think it's an example of our work pulling two extreme sides together to find a shared solution,” said state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

    But Villarreal also called it a quick fix for a long-term problem — Texas has too few top-tier research universities in places where people want to work and study, he said.

    “We as a state need to invest in places like the University of Texas at San Antonio so that it becomes a top choice for students seeking a quality education,” Villarreal said. “We need to make UTSA a Tier One university.”

  13. Thursday, September 3, 2009

    HB 1937 Now Effective; Cities Should Adopt Solar Panel Financing Pronto

    Burnt Orange Report

    By Michael Hurta

    A couple days ago, House Bill 1937 (by Representative Mike Villarreal) took effect.  Texas municipalities now have the authority to enact property tax financing for energy improvements to different properties.  Kuff presented us with this information back in August.

    For those who don't know what property tax financing is, HB 1937 allows cities to do this:
     

    Two years ago, however, the city of Berkeley figured out an easy financing trick to get around this problem-the city itself just issues a bond to pay for the upfront costs of installing the panels, and the homeowner then repays the government over the course of 20 years via a small line item on the property-tax bill. (This way, if the home is sold, the costs of the panels get passed on to the new owner getting the benefits.)

    Solar Panels on the roofs of houses make for more renewable energy and more energy efficiency.  That combination represents exactly what we need to avoid a massive climate crisis.  So, Texas cities should make like Berkeley and give homebuilders and homebuyers an affordable option for solar energy.

    Austin, the "blue center" of the state with many activists dedicated to renewable energy, would be a perfect testing ground for this policy in Texas.  If I were buying a home, and I could add solar panels to my house simply by paying more property tax, I would jump on the idea in less than a second.  I'm sure others would, too.  Is there a chance, then, that we could see property tax financing for solar energy soon?

  14. Tuesday, August 25, 2009

    School law includes more instructional time for teachers

    KENS 5

    Standardized testing in Texas schools is and has been the source of controversy.
     
    But this year students will have a little relief thanks to a local lawmaker.
     
    Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature passed a School Accountability law, which includes amendments by state Rep. Mike Villarreal.
     
    Those amendments are meant to make sure students spend more days learning and less time taking tests.
     
    The changes are something local educators are happy about.
     
    "Any measure our legislators can take to give teachers back the instructional time they so desperately need is a movement in the right direction for educators in Texas," said Jennifer Carsten, a campus instructional coordinator.
     
    The measures move schools away from relying on constant testing and focus more on identifying students who need extra help, then providing that help.
     

  15. Sunday, August 23, 2009

    A new way to bring solar power to the people

    Off the Kuff

    By Charles Kuffner

     
    One of the major obstacles preventing many homeowners from installing solar panels on their roofs is, well, it’s expensive. At least in the short term. True, the panels may pay for themselves over the course of several years, especially if they reduce the amount of electricity you need to buy from the utility (or, much rarer, if you can sell excess power back to the grid). But the upfront costs can be formidable for many people.
     
    Two years ago, however, the city of Berkeley figured out an easy financing trick to get around this problem—the city itself just issues a bond to pay for the upfront costs of installing the panels, and the homeowner then repays the government over the course of 20 years via a small line item on the property-tax bill. (This way, if the home is sold, the costs of the panels get passed on to the new owner getting the benefits.)
     
    It’s a small policy tweak, but quite sensible. No mandates, no regulations, just offering homeowners an extra option if they choose. So it’s not surprising to hear that, as Kate Galbraith reports today, the idea’s been proliferating like crazy: This year alone, eight states have followed California’s lead by giving their municipalities permission for this sort of financing, including Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin. (Apparently, a lot of cities need permission from the states before they can mess with property-tax bills.)
     
    Yes, Texas - HB1937, which passed the House by an 87-51 margin and the Senate 30-1. The text of the bill indicates that the state has given municipalities the authority to do this, the technical details of which are summarized here.
     
    “Property tax financing” allows property owners to borrow money to pay for energy improvements. The amount borrowed is repaid through an increased property tax assessment over a period of years. Texas enacted legislation in May 2009 that authorizes municipalities to offer property tax financing for energy improvements. Contact your city or town to find out if financing is available for renewable energy and/or energy efficiency through special property tax assessments.
     
    To participate, a municipality must develop a plan that includes the boundaries of the financing district, arrangements for financing the program, and the time and place for a public hearing regarding the proposed program. Municipal programs must specify the following:
    • Eligible renewable-energy systems and energy-efficient technologies;
    • A method for ranking requests from property owners for financing through contractual assessments if requests exceed the authorization amount;
    • Specification of whether the property owner may purchase the equipment directly or contract for the installation;
    • The maximum aggregate dollar amount of contractual assessments;
    • A map of the boundaries within which contractual assessments will be offered;
    • A draft contract specifying the terms to be agreed upon by the municipality and a property owner;
    • A method for ensuring that property owners who request financing have the financial ability to fulfill financial obligations; and
    • A plan for raising the capital required to pay for work performed, which could include amounts to be advanced by the municipality, the sale of bonds, any reserve funds, and the costs incidental to financing, administration, and collection of the contractual assessment program.
    An assessment imposed, interest or penalties on the assessment constitute a lien against the lot until the assessment, interest or penalty is paid.
     
    The law doesn’t take effect till September, and it’s not at all clear to me how one would go about pursuing this. I’m not even sure who in, say, the city of Houston one would contact to inquire about it. I may ask around and see what I can learn. In the meantime, if you have any knowledge of how this would work, please leave a comment. Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link.

  16. Saturday, August 22, 2009

    Solar gets bad rap

    San Antonio Express-News - Opinion

    By David Klar

    Two misconceptions about solar energy must be cleared up before any CPS Energy board or City Council vote on nuclear takes place: That solar is too expensive and that it is unreliable.

    Those who say solar is costlier than nuclear fail to consider both volume construction and the steadily, rapidly declining cost of solar while nuclear costs are going up.

    CPS' recently announced solar venture of 27 MW (megawatts) in West Texas is a small order. The contractor, Tessera, will have to truck in personnel and equipment to a remote location, possibly having to construct housing and offices and bring in necessities for workers, all for a 27 MW facility. Tessera has also signed on to build up to 1,750 MW of solar for another utility. There is no doubt that that larger contract will mean a lower cost per kilowatt hour for electricity generated.

    A myriad of other large solar facilities are either planned or under construction. Pacific Gas & Electric has signed on to buy power from a 230 MW photovoltaic solar plant in California, with expected operation by 2013, for 13.3 cents per kWh. CPS gives the price of solar at 21 to 31 cents a kWh (kilowatt-hour).

    In California, a solar project planned by BrightSource Energy will produce 400 MW of power. A project planned by Pacific Gas & Electric on 6,000 acres of Mojave desert land will generate 553 MW of electricity yearly and is expected to be running by 2011 — long before construction of the STP expansion is even begun.

    Closer to home, a Florida company has announced plans to begin constructing by 2011 a 300 MW facility in West Texas, for generation to Texans.

    Projects like these will undoubtedly have a far lower cost per kWh than a nuclear plant that may run as high as $22 billion. And they'll be off the ground a lot sooner.

    Then there's rooftop solar for large installations.

    When SunEdison founder Jigar Shah was in San Antonio in May, his message was that rooftop — or parking lot — solar needn't have huge up-front costs. Power-purchasing agreements require customers to buy from the installer the electricity produced for a minimum of 10 years. This enables large companies to enjoy solar energy without a capital investment and a fixed price that is usually below utility rates.

    Legislation authored by state Rep. Mike Villarreal (HB 1937) will allow home owners to add the cost of solar installation to their property tax, avoiding high initial capital costs.

    Unreliability of solar is no longer an issue. Thermal storage, easier and less expensive than storage of electricity, takes care of the solar intermittency problem, and is needed for short periods only.

    Most concentrated solar technologies today can potentially provide at least six hours of thermal storage, achievable through the use of capacitors, compressed air, flywheels, molten salt, batteries, or hydrogen fuel cells. Two solar plants in Spain will employ six-hour storage and a third will have 15-hour storage. A 289- MW plant in Arizona will have thermal storage.

    The coming smart grid will also eliminate the problem of intermittency.

    It behooves all interested parties to know — before the nuclear die is cast — that solar storage exists and that the real costs of solar are far lower than what CPS says.

    David Klar is a former chair of the Alamo Group Sierra Club.

  17. Wednesday, July 22, 2009

    House Bill Promises Bright Future for San Antonio

    San-Antonio Express News - Solar San Antonio Blog

    By Eric Washburn

    Imagine a solar financing mechanism that covers the up-front cost of installing energy efficiency improvements and a solar panel array on your home or business. Now, imagine a program that also provides this financing at no cost to local, state or federal governments.

    In a time that many believe to be the tipping point of the solar industry, such a program can ease our transition in San Antonio to distributed renewable energy generation. Could such a program become a reality in San Antonio? Due to the efforts of Representative Mike Villareal, the Texas Legislature recently passed H.B. 1937, which allows municipalities to implement the bond-loan-property tax model. Villarreal and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson are already working to give the vision some shape.

    Based on a financing model developed in Berkeley and already implemented in cities throughout California and Colorado, the CityFIRST program has entered the planning stages in San Antonio and is generating interest in two dozen other US cities.

    The program allows municipal governments to sell bonds and use the proceeds to make a loan to a homeowner or business that can cover the up-front cost of energy efficiency improvements and/or a solar array. Property owners then pay back the loan through a voluntary line item on their property bills at a low fixed interest rate (in some cases, a zero percent interest rate) over a 20-year period. The loan is tied to the property, which means that payment is tied to the property itself if you move away. This configuration adds value to the property and is highly competitive against home equity lines of credit. Because the loan repayments are tied to the property, personal credit checks are also not a necessity. Taken with the benefits of energy efficiency and solar-- reducing energy bills and your own personal carbon footprint --such a program will provide a phenomenal opportunity to positively shape our quality of life and create green jobs in San Antonio.

    This sort of finance mechanism is well-known to local governments and the bond market. The Leon Valley community used a similar program in the 1980's to provide low interest housing loans to citizens that were paid back through their ad valorem taxes.

    Estimates indicate that a $280 billion dollar nationwide program of this type would reduce CO2 emissions by a gigaton with no additional cost to local, state or federal governments. Solar San Antonio is committed to working with the public and private sector to bring this program to San Antonio, as the CityFIRST initiative stands to provide the support for embracing the original nuclear power: the power of the sun.

  18. Sunday, July 12, 2009

    New life in school to be less painful for young refugees

    San Antonio Express-News

    By Jenny LaCoste-Caputo

    Nour Kassem can breathe a little easier this school year.

    And so can Joselyne Bambarukontari, Saadia Abdi and thousands of other children across Texas who came here as political refugees, seeking asylum from the war and starvation many of them faced in their home countries.

    Until this school year, these children who come speaking no English and often have never been to school or even held a pencil were required under state law to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills as soon as two years after arrival.

    But this spring, legislators included a provision in the bill that overhauled the state's school accountability system that will allow those children to be exempted from TAKS for up to five years.

    “I think it is a great example of how we need to be better listeners to our teachers and our school administrators,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, who, along with Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, championed the exemption. “They're the ones that have a direct working relationship with the schoolchildren and we need to give them room to exercise their professional judgment and discretion.”

    Educators say refugees who had to take TAKS before they were ready were set up for failure.

    “The kids had no concept of the language yet. For a lot of them it was very demoralizing,” said Rebecca Flores, principal of Mead Elementary in Northside Independent School District. “I think it can be very damaging.”

    Thousands of people escaping genocide and persecution are resettled each year by a State Department program. In 2007, the program brought 48,000 refugees to the United States, with 4,394 making Texas their home. Catholic Charities, the agency that oversees the program in San Antonio, resettled 600 last year and expects more this year.

    Catholic Charities receives federal funding to house the refugees for six months and is required to place them in low-crime areas and close together so they can form a community. The children end up grouped in certain schools, almost all of them in the Northside district.

    At Mead and nearby Colonies North Elementary, where most of the refugee children end up, principals have created “newcomer” classes where teachers can work on language, behavior and social skills, as well as academics. But the children have to move out of those classes soon, so they can prepare for the TAKS.

    A testing exemption will allow teachers to keep students in the newcomer classes if they're not ready to transition into grade-level classrooms. Still, principals at both schools said many of the children have made enough progress that they will put them in grade-level classes with teachers certified in teaching English as a second language.

    “We're trying to mix them in as much as possible,” said Sonya Kirkham, principal at Colonies North. Both Kirkham and Flores said it's important to make sure the children are mixing with their American peers and exposed to grade-level curriculum.

    But even for those who move on to traditional classes, the testing exemption comes into play. Just because they've been placed in regular classrooms doesn't mean they're prepared to pass TAKS.

    “It gives us more time to get them ready for the test,” Kirkham said. “They've grown so much. We're going to get them there. It's just going to take some time.”

    This summer, Northside was awarded a $50,000 grant from the First Lady's Family Literacy Initiative for Texas to help refugee children catch up with their peers.

    The grant will support Project Tumaini, a Swahili word that means to hope and believe with confidence. The project will provide intensive instruction for refugee families — children and parents — focused on becoming English literate. It will include educational support services, educating school personnel on the unique needs of refugees, and programs that will help restore the parent-child bond that was lost or weakened due to the refugee experience.

    Mead teacher Kerry Haupert knows firsthand how much extra help the refugee children need. She teaches one of the newcomer classes and teaches refugee kids in summer school. Testing her students this spring, even on the Linguistically Accommodated Test, or LAT, which is given to non-English speakers, was a traumatic experience. The test is given in English and most of Haupert's students have been in the country less than a year.

    “Some of them just broke down,” she said. “One of my students just looked at the test, shook his head and started to cry.”

  19. Thursday, July 2, 2009

    Legislative Stars: The 81st Legislative Session

    Texas Classroom Teachers Association

    When the 81st session of the Texas Legislature concluded, Texas public schools had a new accountability system for the first time in a decade and educators were among the few in the current economy to receive a pay increase. Issues such as these are invariably touched by many, but of the state's 31 senators and 150 representatives, some were shining stars in working for Texas teachers and students. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association is proud to have worked with these elected leaders, and we dedicate "Legislative Stars" or grant "Honorable Mention" status to the following legislators, who managed to rise to the tasks before them in a session where education was clearly not the focus.

    Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio)

    When the House of Representatives took up the state budget, TCTA and the other teacher associations asked Villarreal to run with an amendment to the teacher incentive pay provisions in the bill. As the bill came out of committee, $97 million per year had to be spent on the Texas Educator Excellence Grant, or TEEG, a campus-based incentive program under which 75 percent had to be paid to teachers on the basis of "objective measures of student performance" (essentially, TAKS scores). Our objective was to free up as much of the incentive pay funding as possible to be used for incentives other than merit pay based on test scores, such as paying experienced teachers to mentor new teachers and to attract experienced teachers to hard-to-staff schools. Villarreal successfully proposed an amendment that would have eliminated any required percentage of the incentive pay money to be spent on the basis of so-called "objective measures" while protecting incentive pay programs that were already in place. While the complete elimination of the required percentage was removed from the final bill, Villarreal’s efforts resulted in the elimination of the TEEG program altogether, and provided negotiators with bargaining power to retain the teacher pay raise in the final state budget and school finance bill.

  20. Monday, June 29, 2009

    Governor signs Villarreal bill to allow municipal finanancing of investments in energy efficiency

    San Antonio Sustainable Living

    Way back in February, Representative Mike Villarreal introduced the bill requested by San Antonio officials to authorize the city to finance property owner investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. On June 19, the governor the legislation which had passed the Texas House and Senate June 1st. It will go into effect September 1.

    This law is part of the plan developed in part by Laurence Doxsey, who with Pliny Fisk is credited with imagining the nation's first municipal green building program in Austin. Doxsey's new plan was advocated by a broad coalition including Environmental Defense Fund, Texas Society of Architects, CPS Energy, Public Citizen, and the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association.

    The full text of the law may be found in this June 1, 2009 post:
    Mike Villarreal sponsored bill to allow contractural assessments for energy efficiency improvements only awaiting Governor Perry's signature.

     

  21. Friday, June 26, 2009

    Tax assistance centers help bring in money

    San Antonio Express-News

    Editorial

    Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of a bill that would have provided financial support for volunteer tax centers across the state that help low-income taxpayers fill out their federal tax forms makes no sense.

    Investing $2.6 million in federal funds over the next biennium to help low-income Texans claim federal tax dollars owed to them could have netted a high yield.

    Sadly, due to the governor’s veto many poor Texans will not have access to those funds that would help them and provide a welcome boost to the state’s economy.

    Texans leave an estimated $1.4 to $1.9 billion on table each year in unclaimed federal tax refunds and tax credits.

    The amount would be much higher if not for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, centers that provide tax preparation assistance to taxpayers earning $45,000 or less a year.

    There are around 225 VITA sites across the state that prepare about 85,000 returns a year.

    In San Antonio, 43,000 tax filers took advantage of the services in 2008 and claimed $61 million in refunds, $25 million was through the Earned Income Tax Credit.

    Another estimated 40,000 households that were eligible for the tax did not take advantage of it and left $88 million unclaimed.

    That’s an average of $2,200 per family.

    For low- to moderate-income families, that represents several weeks of groceries and at least one rent or mortgage payment.

    The vetoed legislation, proposed by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, would have made $2.6 million in federal money from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families available in the form of grants to support VITA programs across the state.

    The Internal Revenue Service provides VITA sites with training and equipment.

    But the nonprofit and public agencies that administer the sites are responsible for funding operations and advertising their services.

    Every effort must be made to continue funding these centers.

    Providing low-income families the opportunity to claim funds under Earned Income Tax Credit lifts half a million Texans above the poverty level each year, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

    Perry’s veto was as misguided as it was baffling.

  22. Monday, June 22, 2009

    Billions in commercial value kept off tax rolls in Texas because appraisal districts can't get sales prices

    Newspaper Tree: El Paso's Online Newspaper

    by David Crowder

    “Commercial property is always, always undervalued on the books. Very rarely is it over valued. That is exactly why they’re opposed. This is driven by people who don’t want the commercial sales disclosure.” -- Peter Urrutia, spokesman for the Dallas area's MetroTex Association of Realtors.

     

    The fact that the El Paso City Council agreed last month to pay $2.7 million for a former grocery store property that was on the tax rolls for $780,000 may illustrate a problem that costs El Paso taxpayers millions and Texas taxpayers billions each year.

    Locally, the problem is the potential gap between the El Paso Central Appraisal’s District’s valuations for commercial properties and their higher market.

    While not everyone believes the 7.3-acre Furrs site behind Northpark Mall in Northeast El Paso was worth $2.7 million, had it been bought privately for that much, the $2 million disparity between the CAD valuation and the sales price would have remained secret.

    That is because Texas is one of a handful of states that don't require the disclosure of sales prices for homes or commercial properties to public appraisal and taxing entities.

    The Dallas Morning News recently reported that Texas is one of five states that do not require the disclosure of single family home sales but other sources indicate that as many as nine states do not require sales price disclosures to the public or to government property appraisal entities.

    What that means in Texas is that without sales information, central appraisal districts have to use less reliable information in setting values on businesses, homes and other property types.

    The situation could be compared to having a state or federal income tax without requiring companies or individuals to disclose their incomes. Another example might be having a state sales tax but not requiring stores to reveal their sales.

    Just how much value might be added to assessment and tax rolls isn't know, but state officials and references frequently point to a 2003 estimate by chief appraisal officers for Texas appraisal districts that sale disclosure would have added $18.8 billion to tax rolls that year.

    The Texas Legislature last month killed bills submitted by Republicans and Democrats alike to require the disclosure of sales prices for property value assessments.

    The bills had the support of the Texas Municipal League, which represents Texas cities.

    “I’ve submitted it three sessions in a row, and it’s gone virtually nowhere. This year, we didn’t even get a hearing,” said state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio.

    His bill, SB 444, was co sponsored by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. State Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat, submitted a similar bill in the House.

    Wentworth said the disclosure bills have run into tough and consistent opposition from Realtors and their associations around Texas and the Texas Apartment Association.

    “Sale price disclosure is opposed by people who are not paying their fair share of taxes and do not want to pay their fair share and want to continue the system that abuses the homeowners of Texas,” Wentworth said.

    Commercial property almost always undervalued

    Speaking for the Dallas area MetroTex Association of Realtors, Peter Urrutia agreed that his organization and others like it have opposed sales price disclosure legislation.

    “Texas has always been a very pro-property rights state,” Urrutia said.

    The big reason is privacy for both home and commercial property owners who simply don’t want their sales information made available to the public or appraisal districts.

    “Commercial property is always, always undervalued on the books,” Urrutia said. “Very rarely is it over valued. That is exactly why they’re opposed. This is driven by people who don’t want the commercial sales disclosure.”

    Other reasons for concern come under the heading of unintended consequences.

    “You have multiple online companies that would gobble that information up and sell it,” he said, referring to the example of Zillow.com on the Internet where you can type in any residential address and pull up that property and values for surrounding properties.

    “As accurate as Zillow is, it is also that inaccurate,” Urrutia said.

    Another concern is that the sales information, once disclosed, would be used to establish a new tax, effectively, a sales tax based property transfers for commercial properties or homes or both. A flat fee of $35 per real estate transaction has also been proposed as an alternative.

    Dallas Realtors offer sales data to CAD; El Paso Realtors don’t

    He conceded there is an awareness among MetroTex Association leaders and members that property should be assessed and taxed at its correct value.

    For that reason, the association voluntarily furnishes the Dallas County Central Appraisal District with sales information from its Multiple Listing Service.

    The multiple listing information is mostly on home sales, because relatively few commercial brokers use the MLS to assist in sales and those that to usually ask that sales information be kept from the appraisal district.

    More and more residential real estate agents are doing the same, especially for high priced homes.

    Most experts agree that the gaps in residential valuations used by appraisal districts and sales prices are also a significant problem in Texas, though not as striking as commercial properties in individual cases.

    For years, the El Paso Association of Realtors voluntarily shared its Multiple Listing Services sales information with the Central Appraisal District to assist the agency in coming up with more accurate valuations of residential property.

    But that arrangement ended several years ago, leaving the appraisal district without the sales information it had used since the 1980s that the district and protesting homeowners alike could use in coming up with comparable values neighborhood by neighborhood.

    The appraisal district’s interim chief appraiser, Dinah Kilgore, said the district relies on the sales information it is able to obtain from other sources, on state sales data and on national appraisal services.

    While that information is useful, nothing is as good as up to date sales data, she said.

    She hinted that the district relationship with the Realtors association is improving and that a new agreement for information sharing might be worked out in the future.

    Association President Suzy Shewmaker Hicks said, “We are certainly open to discussion with the CAD.

    “All they have to do is contact us at this point and we can sit down and talk. For the most part we have been against sharing sales information because it has been misused.”

    Asked how the El Paso association can justify its position in light of the fact that the very conservative Dallas association still furnishes the CAD there with sales information.

    “I can’t speak for Dallas. I speak solely for the El Paso Association of Realtors,” she said. “I’m not going to say who's right and whose wrong. It’s a complex issue.

    “There are privacy issues involved, and Texas is a nondisclosure state. But we are willing to talk to the CAD, and there is always the possibility of coming up with something that works.”

    * * *

    To reach David Crowder, write to dcrowder@epmediagroup.com or call (915) 351-0605, ext. 30, or 630-6622.

     

  23. Monday, June 22, 2009

    When faith and persistence affect Texas politics

    Austin American Statesman

    by Reverend Fred Krebs, Local Contributor

    Before each election, newspaper columnists write about low voter turnout and general lack of participation in the democratic process. Writers decry our political culture for being divisive, overly partisan and controlled by big-money interests.

    This was why it was gratifying to see Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, a Republican, and Democrats state Rep. Mark Strama of Austin and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe all commend the leaders of Austin Interfaith and the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Network for their work in helping to create and pass legislation creating the $25 million Jobs and Education for Texans fund.

    In her "Texas Works" report to the Legislature in December, Combs cited Austin Interfaith and its work force development strategy, Capital IDEA, as a successful model for training low-income adults for high-demand careers.

    In addition to Capital IDEA in Austin, Texas IAF organizations have started similarly successful job training initiatives in San Antonio, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. Capital IDEA, for example, takes adults earning on average $11,000 before training to nearly $38,000 after completion of the program. The programs graduated more than 9,000 participants. Capital IDEA and these other projects receive county and city dollars, but we saw the need for the state to invest in these types of long-term job training projects.

    Combs recommended that the Legislature create the $25 million JET fund, which includes a $10 million grant program providing state matching fund for long-term job training initiatives. We commend Combs and legislators of both parties for creating this legislation.

    The JET fund was passed in two bills: HB 1935 cosponsored by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. It was also included in HB 3, the public school accountability bill sponsored by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

    Over the last year and a half, Austin Interfaith, and its sister organizations in the Texas IAF Network began asking candidates across the state in nonpartisan accountability sessions if they would support the creation of a $10 million state grant program for proven, long-term job training projects.

    Our accountability sessions are consistently the largest events of local elections seasons. At an accountability session last spring when we first proposed this idea, more than 850 Austin Interfaith leaders attended.

    The creation and passage of this legislation was due in large part to hours of work by Austin Interfaith and Texas IAF lay leaders, pastors and ordinary citizens at the Capitol nearly every day of the session, often past midnight, making sure this legislation did not die.

    Ordinary citizens, through their congregations and Austin Interfaith, invested their time, energy and resources in these efforts. In our experience, asking candidates and elected officials from both parties to make commitments on issues affecting families has led to real success like this legislation.

    At first glance, this type of politics might not seem as sexy as covering partisan bickering. Judging by the success of this legislation in a session without many successes, we would question that. Ordinary citizens, engaging pragmatic elected officials of both parties, just might provide the type of politics that is worth reading about.

    Krebs is co-chairman of Austin Interfaith.

     

  24. Sunday, June 21, 2009

    National teaching program worthy

    San Antonio Express-News

    Editorial

    The San Antonio Independent School District is scheduled to vote Monday on a partnership with Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach in poor communities with academic achievement gaps.

    The program has a proven track record and makes a lot of sense for SAISD.

    Teach for America recruits and trains some of the nation's brightest college graduates to go into the country's poorest schools. There is great competition to become a part of the program both as a teacher and a participating school district — and for good reason.

    This spring, the organization had 35,000 applicants for 4,100 teaching positions, and it is approached by many school districts each year about coming into their schools. However, it can add only three to six new sites each year.

    An Urban Institute analysis of the Teach for America impact in high schools in North Carolina found students taught by the corps members outperformed their peers who were taught by more experienced teachers.

    The school board would be wise to enter a partnership with Teach for America and have its teachers in SAISD classrooms starting in 2010.

    The organization operated in 29 communities across the country last school year and is expanding to 35 this fall.

    Three of the locations are in Texas; they include the Rio Grand Valley, Houston and Dallas.

    Teach for America needs to find a local university that can provide teacher certification training for the teachers.

    They also need a commitment of funding for three years of operation, in this case $4.9 million. Some of that funding is already in place. Some was appropriated by the Legislature, but about $2 million in private funding is still needed.

    Local backers of the program include businessmen Charles Butt, Henry Cisneros, Tom Frost, Bill Greehey and former SAISD board chairman Julian Trevino as well as Mayor Julián Castro and state Rep. Mike Villarreal.

    Teachers hired by the district under Teach for America will be on the school district payroll and earn the standard first-year salary from SAISD. The program pays them an additional $5,000 stipend.

    Additionally, corps members undergo a five-week summer training program and receive support services through Teach for America offices that will be established locally.

    The program wants to bring in 150 corps members to work with 20,000 students within the first three years.

    Statistics show only 52 percent of SAISD students make it to graduation. Among those who do earn a high school diploma, only 27 percent are college-ready.

    SAISD could use the help and should welcome it.

  25. Saturday, June 20, 2009

    Perry vetoes Pre-k legislation with broad bipartisan support

    "Governor slams door on cyclists"

    San Antonio Express-News

    by Gary Scharrer and Peggy Fikac

     

    AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry, who recently broke his collarbone in a one-man mountain biking accident, stunned the cycling community Friday when he vetoed a “safe passing” bill that was a top priority for bikers and other vulnerable road users.

    It was among 35 bills that Perry vetoed this session, along with measures that would have expanded the state's prekindergarten program and given the state new powers to seize children and their medical records without a parent's consent or a court hearing.

    The veto of the cycling measure, which would have required motorists to give cyclists and other vulnerable road users at least 3 feet of clearance when passing on most highways, drew a strong reaction from some cyclists.

    “We are stunned because he's our guy, and we feel disappointed, even betrayed by our guy,” said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, the educational arm of the Texas Bicycle Coalition. “The bicycling community will never forgive Gov. Perry.”

    Perry had signed previous bills important for the cycling community, Stallings said.

    Surveys show 55 percent of the 30,000 active Texas cyclists, who belong to a cyclist organization, participate in GOP primaries, Stallings said.

    He also cited surveys indicating an estimated 4 million Texans ride bikes.

    Vulnerable road users identified in SB 488 would have included pedestrians; highway construction and maintenance workers; tow truck operators; stranded motorists or passengers; people on horseback; bicyclists; motorcyclists; and moped riders.

    Many already have operation regulations and restrictions in state law, Perry said.

    “While I am in favor of measures that make our roads safer for everyone, this bill contradicts much of the current statute and places the liability and responsibility on the operator of a motor vehicle when encountering one of these vulnerable road users,” Perry said in his veto message. “In addition, an operator of a motor vehicle is already subject to penalties when he or she is at fault for causing a collision or operating recklessly, whether it is against a ‘vulnerable user' or not.”

    Perry must sign or veto bills by Sunday's deadline, but the governor isn't expected to veto any more legislation. He also can allow legislation to pass into law without his signature.

    Besides separate legislation, Perry issued line-item vetoes and signed the $182 billion state budget for the two-year period starting Sept. 1. He struck $288.9 million from the measure, largely due to spending associated with bills that didn't pass.

    He said that under the measure, state general-revenue spending “would decrease by $1.6 billion, or 1.9 percent, compared to the current biennium, which has happened only once before in Texas since World War II.”

    Lawmakers also had $12.1 billion in federal stimulus dollars to help balance the budget.

    The governor's veto of a $25 million pre-K expansion program startled supporters, including Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, co-author of HB 130.

    “I'm saddened and astonished,” he said. “We put a lot of work into passing that bill — a lot of compromise and a lot of late nights.”

    Perry, in his veto message, said $25 million appropriated for the program should be used to expand the number of students served by the existing pre-K grant program.

    He said it would serve more than 27,000 students over the next two years, “which is 21,000 students more than the estimated 6,800 students that would have been served under the bill's proposed program — or a 305 percent increase.”

    “Expanding our current grant program, rather than creating an additional pre-kindergarten program,” he added, “will serve more students with greater needs.”

    A group that advocates limited government embraced Perry's veto of the pre-K expansion bill.

    “The Legislature erred in creating yet another expensive, pre-kindergarten program. Gov. Perry was right to veto this legislation, which would have been costly today, more costly tomorrow, and duplicative of efforts already available,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility

    Bicyclists have been working on the “safe passing” bill for eight years and had built a strong, bipartisan consensus for the legislation, which passed, 142-0, in the state House and 25-6 in the Senate.

    The governor's office never expressed any concern, Stallings said.

    “The bill was well vetted and had support across the political spectrum. That he would do this and not talk to us (during the session), frankly, we are shocked.”

    More than 1,000 Texans are killed in highway accidents each year, including about 400 pedestrians and about 50 cyclists, according to state records.

    He called the legislation “our make-or-break, major No. 1 issue.”

    The governor's veto of SB 1440, a bill that would have given the state new powers to seize children and their medical records without their parents' consent or a court hearing, created little surprise after even its House sponsor urged him to reject it.

    Critics complained parents and their lawyers should have an opportunity to tell their side before Child Protective Services can seize a child's medical and school records or gain access to the child.

    Perry should be applauded for supporting parental rights “and sending the message that our constitutional rights cannot be cast aside by unverified, uncorroborated anonymous tips,” said Jonathan Saenz, director of legislative affairs at Free Market Foundation, one of more than a dozen organizations that have been urging Perry to veto SB 1440.

    They warned Perry that the legislation violated established law, stripped children and parents of fundamental rights and opened the door to government intervention in the home.

    “Texas children are not ‘children of the state,'” said Kelly Shackelford, president of Free Market Foundation.

    Perry's 35 vetoes represents a sharp decrease from the 56 bills he vetoed after the 2007 regular legislative session. Perry set a record number of vetoes for a Texas governor during his first term when he vetoed 83 bills. He vetoed only 20 in 2005.

    He also vetoed three resolutions this year.

    The most bills that Gov. George W. Bush vetoed were 38 in 1997. Gov. Ann Richards' high veto mark was 36 in 1991. But Gov. Sam Houston only vetoed four bills in 1860.

     

  26. Friday, June 19, 2009

    Texas lawmakers increase financial aid

    San Antonio Business Journal

    An estimated 36,000 more students in Texas will have access to $614.3 million worth of financial aid from the TEXAS Grants program over the next two years. That is a 44 percent increase, or $186 million, above the total for the previous biennium.

    Next Tuesday, State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, will announce details of the Texas Legislature’s recent move to increase financial aid across Texas. He will be joined by University of Texas at San Antonio President Ricardo Romo, Texas A&M San Antonio Director Maria Hernandez Ferrier and Rick Hernandez, director of financial services for the Alamo Colleges.

    Villarreal sits on the committee that writes the budget for the Texas House. During the most recent legislative session, he worked to include the additional funds for the TEXAS Grants program over the next biennium.

    “In these difficult economic times, I’m proud that we’re investing in education, giving more students an opportunity to succeed, while improving our long-term economic position,” Villarreal says.

    In 2008, a national report on higher education gave Texas an “F” on college affordability, based on the average amount of family income that is dedicated to college tuition after financial aid. The Texas Legislature’s Select Commission on Higher Education concluded that Texas is not globally competitive and will face a downward spiral in both quality of life and economic competitiveness if the state fails to educate more people.


  27. Friday, June 12, 2009

    Solar prospects shining brighter

    San Antonio Express-News

    Editorial 

    The new solar array atop the Full Goods Building at the redeveloped Pearl Brewery is now the biggest solar project in Texas.

    How big?

    The Express-News reported the 200-kilowatt installation has 704 photovoltaic panels. The solar project is a tribute to owner Kit Goldsbury's commitment to sensible and sustainable redevelopment at Pearl.

    Yet it seems a bit odd that in a state as big and sun-drenched as Texas, this is the biggest solar project. Why haven't other developers and entrepreneurs erected even larger solar arrays?

    The answer is cost. The Pearl project has a price tag of $1.35 million, with Pearl's owner paying $950,000 and CPS Energy contributing $400,000. That's a big investment for Pearl and a smart decision for a utility searching for ways to expand capacity.

    But it will take a long time to recoup the investment. And that's not a public-private partnership that can easily be re-created in other situations or other cities.

    A measure passed by the Legislature, however, will make it easier for owners to invest in more solar arrays like the one at Pearl Brewery — and bigger. House Bill 1937, championed by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, amends state law to allow municipalities and property owners to enter into agreements that ease the financial burden of renewable energy investments.

    The measure permits cities to initially pay for the capital costs of a solar array, for instance. In turn, the city would assess the property for the cost of the energy improvement.

    The property owner still pays in full for the improvement through property taxes. However, the owner will be doing so over a long period of time rather than in a lump sum up front. And the effective cost of public financing will be much lower than a private loan.

    Villarreal's innovative solution is a boon for CPS Energy's Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan and the City of San Antonio's Mission Verde environmental sustainability program. The easier it is for municipalities and property owners to work together toward sustainable energy goals, the better off our state will be.

     

  28. Friday, June 12, 2009

    Job training bill awaits Governor's signature

    El Paso Times

    by Brandi Grissom

    AUSTIN -- Veronica Ortiz was living at her mom's house with her husband and three children four years ago, struggling to provide for her family on $8 an hour working at Speaking Rock Casino.

    Ortiz found out about Project ARRIBA, a job-training program in El Paso, and the now single mother of four is a registered nurse with a managerial position at a hospital. She said she owns her own home and no longer needs state assistance to buy groceries or take her children to the doctor.

    "My kids have seen me succeed, and I've set the standard for them," said Ortiz, who lives in the Lower Valley.

    Project ARRIBA, a program that helps low-income workers such as Ortiz land better-paying jobs with benefits, could get an additional $1 million through bills that await Gov. Rick Perry's signature.

    Members of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization and Border Interfaith thanked legislators and Texas Comptroller Susan Combs on Thursday for supporting bills that would create a $10 million grant fund to match local contributions to job-training programs such as Project ARRIBA.

    "This is a historic day for us," said Patricia Benitez, a leader with Border Interfaith, who attends St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Canutillo.

    Project ARRIBA helps provide job training and education for low-income El Pasoans seeking jobs that pay living wages and provide health benefits.

    Ortiz said the program paid for her tuition, fees, books, child care and even gas to get to classes.

    Since the


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    program started in 1999, it has served more than 650 students, mostly single mothers like Ortiz.

    The Rev. James Hall, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and member of the Project ARRIBA governing board, said the program's annual budget is about $1.4 million.

    The money comes from the city and county of El Paso, from private donors and from state and federal grants.

    With the matching money, Hall said, Project ARRIBA could help about 120 additional students, for a total of more than 400 next year.

    The program trains students for jobs in health care, education and information technology.

    "We won't prepare anybody for a job unless we know that job exists when they finish," Hall said.

    Combs says Texas needs more trained workers to fill jobs in the state's diverse economy, and not all those workers need to have a degree from a four-year university.

    The two bills that lawmakers approved include not only the $10 million for job-training programs but also $10 million for equipment for technical and career classes, and $5 million in scholarships for students' tuition and fees.

    For Texas to reach its full economic potential, said state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, an author of the bills, job training is essential.

    "Adult education matters," Villarreal said, "and we as a state need to do a better job investing in it."

  29. Thursday, June 11, 2009

    $25 Million JET Fund needs Perry's signature

    Austin American Statesman

    by Danny Yadron

    Take it as yet another sign that the economy ain’t looking so great these days.

    About 50 people crammed the Senate press conference room this afternoon to celebrate the pending creation of the $25 million Jobs and Education for Texans Fund.

    The idea, spearheaded by Comptroller Susan Combs, would allocate $5 million for student tuition assistance, $10 million for start up equipment and $10 million for competitive grants for long-term job training programs.

    The proposal, originally pitched in a December report by Combs, still needs a signature from Gov. Rick Perry.

    The Network of Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Organizations spent much of the regular session lobbying lawmakers for the job training fund embodied in House Bill 1935 by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and HB 3, a school accountability bill by Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. The Legislature passed both bills.

    The group, which includes the local coalition Austin Interfaith, runs four career training programs in the state. Capital IDEA, the Austin branch, has seen a surge in activity during the past 10 months, organizers said. At a program orientation last month, some 150 of the city’s jobless crammed into the auditorium of an East Austin church.

    About 650 use the highly selective program a year to obtain a job in nursing, technology or green energy, said Doug Greco, lead organizer for Austin Interfaith. If Perry approves the fund, Capital IDEA could handle about 300 more students a year, he said.

    Get more Legislative coverage inside the Virtual Capitol

  30. Monday, June 8, 2009

    Project Quest could double

    San Antonio Express News

    By Jaime Klein

    The number of participants in the Project Quest job training program could double under legislation now in the hands of Gov. Rick Perry.

    At a Monday morning news conference, leaders of Communities Organized for Public Service and the Metro Alliance, a local grass-roots organization and an advocate for Project Quest, were joined by Mayor Julian Castro, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and state Rep. Mike Villarreal, sponsor of House Bill 1935, in urging Perry to sign it.

    The legislation would establish a $25 million Jobs and Education for Texans grant program and a $10 million green jobs grant program in the state comptroller’s office, both financed through a rider attached to the state budget.

    Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat, said the language outlining the job training was tailored with Project Quest in mind, but added: “Project Quest is going to have to compete with other organizations around the state that provide similar services.”

    He said the effectiveness of Project Quest and other programs would be evaluated along the way. However, Villarreal added, adult job training is going to be essential to meeting the challenges of the changing economy.

    “You’ve got to have a strategy to educate the adults,” he said. “We have this huge population of adults that need to be re-trained. Under no scenario can we grow a viable state economy without an adult education component.”

    Project Quest Executive Director Mary Peña said a grant from the state could give the program “the opportunity to assist a lot of people — double, maybe — to help them move into self-sufficiency.”

    Father Walter D’heedene, pastor of Sacred Heart Church and one of COPS/Metro’s leaders, said employment training can lead to a better community.

    “Helping families achieve their own economic security is one of the best things we can do to improve our city’s social, cultural and economic well-being,” said D’heedene, who also serves on the board of Project Quest. “When parents have jobs with family wages, a career path and other benefits, their kids are more likely to finish high school, stay out of trouble and go to college.”

    The $10 million in grants for training in “green” jobs would support — through competitive grants — training in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The parameters of the program would be defined by the comptroller, Villarreal said, but could include alternative energy programs, retrofitting old buildings, reducing waste through recycling and reuse, and research and development.

    Villarreal said the green jobs program being developed by San Antonio as part of former Mayor Phil Hardberger’s Mission Verde proposal would be eligible for the grants, which came as welcome news to local officials.

    “San Antonio is going green in every single way that we can,” said Castro, adding that the grant program would help give San Antonians the skills they need to compete in emerging job markets.

    Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said the bill “is still under review.” But Villarreal said he is confident.

    “Bottom line, this is about jobs,” Villarreal said. “This legislation sends a clear message to our work force: If you want to work hard to go back to school, we will invest in you.”

  31. Monday, June 8, 2009

    Bring back Lege for TXDOT issues

    San Antonio Express-News Editorial

    One of the many procedural fatalities of the final days of the 81st Legislature was a transportation measure that would have given voters the option to fund road construction and other mobility improvements with local taxes.

    For the San Antonio area, local option legislation championed by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, was essential. While the entire state is far behind schedule in infrastructure improvements and expansion, the problem is most acute in fast-growing metropolitan areas. The San Antonio region faces a projected transportation shortfall of $19 billion over the next two decades.

    If the state can't or won't fund construction of the roads needed in Bexar County, voters deserve the option of approving local funding mechanisms that will. No one wants to pay more taxes or fees. But residents are entitled to determine whether those are any less preferable than the gridlock that is the result of insufficient roadway construction.

    Early disagreements among the Bexar County delegation — especially the opposition of Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio — didn't help the fate of the local option. Lawmakers who owe their offices to voters ought to trust them to be able to make an informed decision about whether they want to pay for more transportation infrastructure.

    While opponents successfully snuffed out a local option measure, they also failed to come up with any meaningful alternative to address the transportation funding shortfall. That fact, along with the inability of lawmakers to pass a bill to reform the Texas Department of Transportation, is more than sufficient cause for Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session.

    Transportation issues have been a high priority for Perry. For the good of Texas, he should call the Legislature back to address the state's inadequate transportation funding and TxDOT reform.

     
     

  32. Sunday, June 7, 2009

    Tree ordinance ruling a win for San Antonio

    San Antonio Express News

    Editorial

    In part, the 2003 San Antonio tree ordinance reflects an aesthetic choice: an environment with trees — especially large, mature trees — looks better than freshly scraped limestone.

    But there's more at issue than merely aesthetics. Trees provide environmental benefits to San Antonio, including energy savings from reducing the “heat island” effect and reductions in stormwater runoff and subsequent flooding. Trees are carbon dioxide sponges and oxygen generators.

    San Antonio has an obvious interest in enforcing the tree ordinance within its city limits and in the buffer zone that extends 5 miles beyond, where the city can exercise limited powers. Developers have challenged this extra-territorial jurisdiction since day one.

    Last month, the 4th Court of Appeals finally settled the matter: San Antonio can enforce the tree ordinance in the ETJ. It's a major legal win for the city, but only a partial victory.

    More work must still be done to close a significant loophole in the tree ordinance.

    There's a legitimate purpose for the state agricultural exemption for tree clearing. But some developers have transparently abused the exemption.

    Unfortunately, a bill by state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, that would have tightened its provisions died in the Legislature. Until the agricultural exemption loophole is plugged, unscrupulous operators will continue to evade San Antonio's tree ordinance.

  33. Friday, June 5, 2009

    Texas Monthly Releases 10 Best, Worst Legislators

    By Matt Glazer

    Every two years, Texas Monthly does a recap of the Texas Legislature and ranks what they consider to be the 10 best and worst of the session.
     
    And so another session is on the books. This legislative wrap-up marks the nineteenth time, beginning with the Sixty-Third Legislature, in 1973, that we have compiled our list of the Best and Worst lawmakers. Our criteria are those that members apply to one another: Who is trustworthy? Who gets things done? Who brings credit upon the Legislature and who brings shame? Who does his homework? Who looks for ways to solve problems and who looks for ways to create them? Who is hamstrung by ideology and partisanship and who can rise above them? Politics is not just about conservatives and liberals and Republicans and Democrats. It is and always will be about personality and relationships and comportment-not that there's anything wrong with that.
     
    So here is the Texas Monthly list (Democrats bolded for your reading pleasure):
     
    Best Legislators
    *       Senator John Carona
    *       Senator Robert Duncan
    *       Craig Eiland
    *       Rob Eissler
    *       Brian McCall
    *       John Otto
    *       Jim Pitts
    *       Senfronia Thompson
    *       Senator Kirk Watson
    *       John Zerwas
     
    Worst Legislators
    *       Wayne Christian
    *       Yvonne Davis
    *       Jim Dunnam
    *       Allen Fletcher
    *       Kino Flores
    *       Senator Troy Fraser
    *       Senator Mario Gallegos Jr.
    *       Richard Peña Raymond
    *       Debbie Riddle
    *       Senator Tommy Williams

    Also worth noting, three other Democrats made the honorable mention list-- Ruth Jones McClendon, Mark Strama, and Michael Villarreal.
     
    This wasn't the only 10 best list put out this year though.  Democrat Harold Cook and Republican Ted Delisi did something interesting.  Cook, the Democrat, picked the 5 best Republicans.  Delisi, the Republican, picked the 5 best Democrats.
     
    There list looked a lot different than Texas Monthly's.
     
    *       Representative Garnet Coleman
    *       Representative Todd Smith
    *       Senator Leticia Van de Putte
    *       Senator Bob Deuell
    *       Representative Scott Hochberg
    *       Representative Warren Chisum
    *       Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa
    *       Representative Craig Eiland
    *       Representative Jim Pitts
    *       Senator John Carona
     
    The fun thing to do is line the two lists up side by side and see the overlap.  The Letters from Texas list and Texas Monthly list have some interesting overlap with John Carona, Craig Eiland (an easy pick), and Jim Pitts.  Bob Deuell finds himself on the Texas Monthly honorable mention and on Cook's list.
     
    I am sure we could put together 30 different lists from 30 different people and 3 to 5 names would consistently come up.  
     
    Yes, there are some names I disagree with on both lists.  Yes there are some names I think were left off both lists.
     
    The simple fact of the matter is, the people that made huge mistakes in moderate to swing districts are going to have a challenger.  They were going to have a challenger regardless of any list.  Do these lists may have some affect on things, but not much.  
     
    They are fun.  They are interesting.  To those not reading blogs and tuned into politics 365 days a year, every year, nobody will know.
     
    With that, I ask you, who is missing from these lists?  Did Texas Monthly get it right?  Did Letters from Texas?  What would your list look like?  Take off your partisan hat and give it a try.  

  34. Sunday, May 31, 2009

    Funding local transportation solutions

    GOP senator slams his own party over ‘lack of leadership'

    San Antonio Express-News

    by Peggy Fikac and Gary Scharrer

    AUSTIN — Tempers flared on the legislative session's last weekend just as they did at its start, with a key GOP senator saying Saturday that the session's central theme is “lack of leadership” by top leaders of his own party.

    “If you look at this session, you've got two underlying problems: One is simply the lack of leadership in the top offices and the second is the lack of any clear, compelling agenda,” said John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, his anger triggered by the evident demise of a proposal to allow urban areas to raise gasoline taxes and some fees in their areas to pay for local transportation projects.

    The proposal was stripped from a compromise bill to overhaul the Texas Department of Transportation, which was among several important measures hanging as the session neared its Monday finale.

    Carona said he therefore would work to kill the TxDOT overhaul, which faces a final vote. He noted that a filibuster — talking until time runs out in the session — is an option, although he said he wasn't threatening one.

    Legislators also were toiling late Saturday on measures including windstorm insurance reform, an issue that GOP Gov. Rick Perry has said is so important that he could call lawmakers back into special session if they fail to address it.

    GOP Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said lawmakers also were working to salvage an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program.

    It was part of an effort to save a slew of bills lost when Democrats stalled proceedings in the House in an attempt to kill GOP-backed voter identification legislation. Voter ID divided the Senate early this year, when Republicans angered Democrats by changing rules to push through the legislation.

    In charging a lack of leadership, Carona referred to Perry's expected tough primary battle to keep his job against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, speculation that Dewhurst may run for U.S. Senate and GOP Speaker Joe Straus' newness as House leader.

    He particularly said Perry has failed to lead, saying the governor should have supported the local-option idea because money is running short to meet transportation needs.

    Perry spokesman Mark Miner said, “The senator is clearly sleep-deprived.”

    Perry, who has backed other transportation avenues including toll roads, earlier in the day said of the local-option idea, “I think there are a lot of members of the Legislature that have problems with raising new taxes during a recession.”

    Asked about the lack-of-leadership charge, Dewhurst said he tries to support all the senators.

    Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, described the leadership as “fabulous.” House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said Straus has consistently allowed the will of the House to work and that there wasn't enough House support to pass the local-option tax even though Carona suggested there was.

    “There's a lot of members in here who don't want to vote if there isn't the will to do it, because they'll get beat up on the vote one way or the other,” Pickett said. “And Carona knows that. Everybody in politics knows that.”

    House Republican Caucus Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, disagreed with Carona's leadership assessment.

    “We certainly had an agenda but with as close as the breakdown is between Republicans and Democrats (76-74 in the House), you don't get to do everything that you want to do,” Taylor said. “It's pretty simple math.”

    For him, the solution is simple: “Give us more Republicans, and we can have more of an agenda.”

    A number of San Antonio business organizations supported the local-option election as a way of offering voters an opportunity to relieve congestion.

    “Our air is being polluted by the traffic and, financially, people are losing time and money in their cars,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, who helped push the local-option idea for Bexar County.

    It often, however, takes more than one session to pass major issues, he said.

    “Half of the work is writing policy solutions, and the other half is building a coalition to advocate for the cause. We have made progress on both fronts,” Villarreal said.

     

  35. Tuesday, May 26, 2009

    House passes top 10 admissions compromise, but more negotiation expected

    Dallas Morning News

    by Christy Hoppe

    AUSTIN – The University of Texas at Austin could win some breathing room under the state's top 10 percent rule by capping automatic admissions at three-fourths of its freshman class, under a long-stalled provision approved by the House on Monday.

    The rest of the state's universities would continue under the popular program that grants admission to all graduates in the top 10th of their high school class.

    Revisions to the top 10 percent rule was the first major legislation taken up by the House in several days. Democrats had been using stalling tactics to push voter ID legislation – a fiercely partisan measure that is farther down a list of bills slated for debate – past a key deadline tonight to consider bills.

    And so after eight hours of debate, much of it filled with empty amendments offered by Democrats to keep tapping the brakes, the House tentatively passed the compromise, 121-24, and can now negotiate differences with the Senate.

    The Senate's version caps top 10 admissions at 60 percent for all state universities. But House members argued that the decade-old rule has added important racial and geographical diversity to state university enrollments and should be tweaked just for the popular UT flagship campus that is suffering under its weight.

    UT-Austin is losing any discretion over its freshman class as automatic admissions snapped up 81 percent of its slots last year. University officials protested that it could no longer offer seats to students interested in some of its nationally recognized specialty programs – such as geology, music and education.

    After working over the weekend with UT officials, Dallas Republican Rep. Dan Branch, the bill's sponsor, said the compromise represented a plan that opened the campus to the state's best students while allowing UT the ability to recruit out-of-state scholars or those with exceptional skills.

    "We feel like we've moved the ball forward, granted some relief, but preserved the benefits of the top 10 percent," Branch said.

    Texas A&M University now fills half of its freshman class from the top 10 rule, and UT-Dallas' entering class is almost 40 percent from it.

    Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said the problem is not the rule, which he said has provided minorities, rural denizens and others more opportunities than ever before.

    "The fundamental problem is an undersupply of desirable, top-tier universities," Villarreal said.

    He mentioned the University of Houston, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio and other campuses. "Until we make an increased investment to build those universities up, we will continue to tinker with how we mete out those limited seats at UT-Austin," Villarreal said.

    Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, spoke for many minority members about their fear of changing a system that has been working to give more minorities education opportunity.

    "That is a difficult position for many of us. When you look at the numbers, the numbers do not lie," he said, referring to the low enrollment of black students at UT.

    "When you want to be No. 1 in football, you go and find them. When you want to be No. 1 in basketball, you go and find them," he said. "But when your academic enrollment is 6 percent, something is desperately wrong."

    Before the vote, he said he would make a leap of faith: "Today I will give them the chance to do better. ... I hope they are prepared to run with it on the academic field."

    Other colleges could opt into the 75 percent cap if their admissions program becomes inundated with the top 10 students. The law would be reviewed by the Legislature after six years to determine its success.

    Senate sponsor Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she would have to review House changes to the bill to see if they are acceptable. The House version requires one more procedural vote, and then if senators don't agree to the changes, lawmakers from each chamber will try to negotiate a compromise. Gov. Rick Perry has said he would like to see the top 10 rule change.

    The policy was instituted a decade ago after a federal court prohibited using race as a criterion for admission into the University of Texas law school.

    Under the program, minority enrollment has improved. In addition, statewide, the top 10 percent of students have excelled, graduating from universities at a rate higher than peers admitted under other provisions.

  36. Monday, May 25, 2009

    Forging Compromise on Top Ten Admissions Policy

    House tentatively OKs bill changing top 10 admissions

    San Antonio Express-News

    by Jane Elliot

    AUSTIN — High school students who aren't in the top 10 percent of their class could find it easier to get into the University of Texas at Austin under a bill tentatively passed today by the House.

    The bill, which needs a final vote, would allow UT to cap automatic admissions at its flagship campus to 75 percent of an incoming freshman class. The university would have discretion over the other 25 percent of admissions. This would give UT some relief from the estimated 86 percent being admitted under the top 10 percent law this year.

    Students who graduate in the top ten percent of their class still could be automatically admitted to other state universities. The new law would affect students entering college in the fall of 2011.

    “If we don't act quickly, that university will be completely overwhelmed with automatic admits,” said House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, author of the bill. He said it would offer “some room, some discretion, some hope for the rest of our 90 percent of students.”

    The heavily-debated House bill, passed on a vote of 121-24, differs significantly from a Senate bill passed in March. The Senate version would give UT discretion over 40 percent of its admissions. Differences would need to be worked out in the coming week. The session ends next Monday.

    House members from a variety of districts — urban, suburban and rural — worked out the compromise with top UT officials over the weekend.

    But the author of the Senate bill, Senate Education Chairman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she wasn't invited to the talks. Shapiro said she didn't agree with capping automatic admissions at 75 percent instead of 60 percent, but would talk to university officials and her colleagues about the House changes.

    Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said the relief provided to UT-Austin would allow it to fill nationally recognized programs in areas such as geosciences and education with students who did not rank in the top 10 percent.

    The 1997 law was passed to boost minority enrollment at UT after a federal court ruling in the Hopwood case prohibited admissions officials from considering students' race and ethnicity. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 ruled that public institutions of higher education could use race as a factor in deciding which students to admit.

    Texas A&M University and UT's Dallas campus both admitted close to half of their freshmen class under the law last fall.

    Admissions officials at UT-Austin have been seeking relief from the 1997 law for years. They say they want to be able to recognize qualified students who have special abilities but do not rank in the top 10 percent.

    Supporters of the current law say it has leveled the playing field for students from inner-city and rural schools. Hispanic enrollment at UT has grown by 7 percent, enrollment of black students is up by 3 percent and enrollment of white students is down 13 percent.

    They also say that more students from smaller high schools are being admitted, with 865 schools now sending graduates to UT compared to 616 before the automatic admissions law.

    Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said it is “desperately wrong” that African-American men make up only 6 percent of the student body at UT, but are well represented on the schools' sports teams.

    The House debated for eight hours on dozens of amendments, including some that were clearly intended as delaying tactics. House Democrats have been dragging out floor debate on all bills in recent days to try and run out the clock on a controversial voter ID bill, which must receive a vote by midnight.

    The House bill includes provisions to inform students and parents about changes in the law. It also requires UT to expand class offerings at night, addressing a criticism by some lawmakers that UT should expand the number of students it admits.

    UT also agreed to end legacy admissions, lawmakers said, referring to a practice of giving preferential treatment to children of influential alumni.

    The bill calls for UT to revert back to full admission of top 10 percent graduates after six years, or in the event of a final court ruling barring the university from considering race or ethnicity.

    Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, had been a stalwart opponent to watering down the top 10 percent standard but supported the compromise.

    “I think this agreement is a fair compromise that preserves the spirit of the top 10 percent rule and ensures that under-represented students continue to have a clear path to UT-Austin,” said Castro, vice-chair of the House Higher Education Committee.

    The bill is a “Band-Aid approach” to the real problem, which is the state's undersupply of top-tier universities, said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

  37. Saturday, May 23, 2009

    Ethics, finance, lobby bills never see daylight

    Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

    By Enrique Rangel

    For the third time since Mike Villarreal was elected to the Texas House of Representatives eight years ago, this session the San Antonio Democrat co-authored a bill that would have limited the amount of money anyone can give to state politicians or to their challengers.
     
    And as other lawmakers have done in previous sessions, freshmen Reps. Chris Turner, D-Burleson and Angie Chen Button, R-Plano, introduced bills that would have required outgoing legislators to wait at least two years before they could lobby their former colleagues.
     
    Then there is a bill Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, filed which would have required lawmakers who violate ethics rules to pay fines to the Texas Ethics Commission with their own money rather than with campaign donations.
     
    But as expected, those bills went nowhere this session.
     
    "They never got out of committee," a resigned Villarreal said.
     
    The chairmen and most members of the committees the campaign contributions and ethics bills were sent to for the required hearings believe there should be no limits on campaign contributions, Villarreal said.
     
    "In their minds, the freedom to give money is equal to freedom of speech and I respectfully disagree," he said. "But in this process you need a majority to get your bills moving and they didn't share my perspective."
     
    As the old saying goes, the more things change the more they remain the same.
     
    Texas laws governing campaign contributions and unethical conduct have changed in the last 20 years since chicken magnate Bo Pilgrim handed out $10,000 checks to a number of legislators inside the State Capitol - but not a whole lot.
     
    The Pilgrim scandal forced the Legislature to create the Texas Ethics Commission, which over the years has fined numerous state and local officials for campaign contribution violations or ethical lapses.
     
    However, Texas is still one of the few states which allow individuals and political action committees to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates for state office.
     
    This explains why in recent years Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, San Antonio businessmen James Leininger and Charles Butt, Houston trial lawyer John O'Quinn and the late Fred Baron of Dallas, also a trial lawyer, gave millions of dollars to state politicians or to their challengers.
     
    Judging how slow this legislation has moved over the years, it appears major reforms to the state's campaign contributions and ethical laws still have a long way to go.
     
    This session, for example, more than 100 bills related to campaign finance reform, ethics and lobbying restrictions were filed, but like the proposals Villarreal, Turner, Button and Geren filed, most of those bills never made out of committee.
     
    A similar number of bills were filed in the previous session but only about a dozen or so became law.
     
    Yet, apparently those bills and others passed in previous sessions don't have strong enough teeth because campaign finance reform advocates complain big money and special interests still call the shots in the Texas Legislature.
     
    As some reformers say, it takes a major embarrassment like Pilgrim handing out $10,000 checks for the Legislature to enact major reforms.
     
    But if history is any guide, their wish may come true in the next decade because traditionally the state has a political scandal every 20 years.
     
    Does anyone remember the Sharpstown stock-fraud scandal of the early 1970s?
     

  38. Monday, May 11, 2009

    Villarreal advocates fairness in funding for institutions of higher education

     

    Area's biggest universities are missing out on millions in state funding 

    Star Telegram
    by Gener Trainor
    North Texas’ three largest universities are on the losing end of a chunk of state funding, causing them to miss out on millions of dollars a year, according to an analysis by a San Antonio legislator.
    The 12,500-student Texas Woman’s University in Denton is the region’s only public four-year institution that receives about what would be expected from nonformula funding, according to research by Democratic state Rep. Michael Villarreal.
    But the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas in Denton receive much less than what would be expected.
    Political power plays a key role, Villarreal said.
    Public colleges and universities in Texas get most of their state money through formula funding.
    Formula funding is based on formulas that include the number of credit hours (courses) students take, the type of courses taken (an engineering course gets more money than a liberal arts course because it costs more to teach) and the amount of space an institution should need to operate.
    Colleges also receive nonformula funding — money from state research grants or dollars a legislator might get for a school in his district. Comparing schools using the number and types of courses taken by students, UT-Dallas received $8.6 million less during fiscal 2008 than what would be expected. UT-Arlington was out $8.7 million, UNT $9 million.
    UNT lost the most among four-year institutions. But the University of Houston at Victoria ranked at the bottom when the number and types of courses students take, also called weighted semester credit hours, are taken into account.
    Villarreal said he did not include Texas A&M University in College Station or the University of Texas at Austin in his analysis because their massive funding would have skewed the results.
    The top two winners were the University of Texas at Permian Basin in Odessa and Texas A&M International University in Laredo. They received the most money above what would be expected based on the number and types of courses.
    They have both had powerful political leaders. Rep. Tom Craddick’s district includes a sliver of Odessa. He was House speaker until this year. Sen. Judith Zaffirini’s district includes Laredo. She leads the Senate Higher Education Committee.
    Neither Craddick nor Zaffirini could be reached for comment, and they did not respond to e-mailed questions.
    Race for Tier 1
    Nonformula funding represents 10 to 20 percent of the total state dollars that go to four-year state colleges and universities. But that’s enough to help influence the race for Tier 1 status among Texas’ seven state-designated "emerging" universities.
    UNT, UT-Arlington and UT-Dallas are all trying to become major research schools on the level of Texas A&M and UT-Austin.
    So are the University of Houston and Texas Tech University in Lubbock. They both come out top dollar winners, with Houston getting $28 million above what would be expected, followed by Texas Tech, with $23 million. The other universities competing in the Tier 1 sweepstakes are UT-El Paso and UT-San Antonio.
    Susan Rogers, UT-Dallas vice president of communications, said a more methodical way of distributing money is needed. But the ultimate problem is a general lack of state dollars.
    "A bunch of schools are kicking the crumbs around the floor," she said.
    UT-Arlington officials are cautious. They’re seeking $5 million in nonformula dollars to pay for a program to expand the nursing program, which now has about 400 students.
    "We get relatively little nonformula funding — we’d like to get more," Kristin Sullivan, assistant vice president for media relations, wrote in an e-mail. "But we are encouraged by early indications that the Legislature will grant us $5 million over the next biennium to establish the UT Arlington Regional Nursing Education Center."
    UNT officials are also reluctant to complain. State legislators are now deciding how much money colleges will get over the next two years.
    UNT has developed several programs, such as music, fine arts and city management, "with the benefit of only limited nonformula funding," spokesman Buddy Price wrote in an e-mail. So UNT’s top legislative priority is ensuring that the Texas Higher Education Board gets the amount of formula funding it says it needs. State legislators have typically approved less.
    'Rules of the game’
    Villarreal said he did the analysis because more money should be funneled to colleges by formula funding. He said that’s a fairer way to distribute dollars. Nonformula funding, he says, is influenced heavily by legislators who hold powerful positions, such as those who lead a higher education committee or serve on appropriation committees.
    "Those are the rules of the game," Villarreal said. "Those were the rules of the game."
    Such research comes easily to Villarreal. He earned an economics degree at Texas A&M and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He said he has no plans to file legislation from his research but hopes policy leaders and lawmakers talk about the disparities in nonformula funding. UT-San Antonio was also in the loss column.
    Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said her office will review Villarreal’s analysis. Spokesman Bernie Scheffler said Davis is concerned about funding for all state universities.
    "She has expressed the desire this session to see higher education get more funding, period," he aid.
    Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, declined to comment.
    Staff writer Alex Branch contributed to this report.

     

  39. Thursday, May 7, 2009

    Texas considering guide for new parents

    Just in time for mother’s day, Parenting Tips a couple of Texas lawmakers are working to provide new parents with a “baby-owners’ manual.” They’ve teamed up with a child advocacy group to release the how-to booklet for Texas parents.The thinking behind the bill is that new parents can use all the help they can get. While some may say it’s not the government’s job to provide that help, others say this guide could be a very useful tool.

    Two-month-old Curren is Alicia Henderson’s second child. She says she learned a lot about how to raise him after her first one was born.“With her we didn’t know anything. I mean, I knew how to care for her and love her, but I didn’t know how to feed and change diapers and we took all the classes, Parenting Tips but it’s still really scary,” Henderson said.

    Now some Texas lawmakers want to provide a little help. State representative, and dad, Mike Villarreal has authored house bill 1240, which would provide new parents with a booklet full of child-rearing tips.“This is the kind of stuff that all parents need to know, and the kind of info that will help the parent be a better parent, and more importantly, help them nurture and grow their child to meet their fullest potential,” Villarreal said.

    Non-profit child advocacy group, Texans Care for Children, published the 35-page booklet, titled, “A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy Children.”It’s been nicknamed “a baby-owner’s manual” and if the bill passes, Parenting Tips it would be distributed to Texas parents though non-profits and healthcare providers like Medicaid.However, not everyone believes lawmakers should be providing this parenting 101.Those who support the bill say it doesn’t matter where the help is coming from — parenting is a tough job and any extra assistance can’t hurt.

  40. Saturday, May 2, 2009

    Grim stats on Bexar's high-risk newborns

    San Antonio Express-News

    by Don Finley

    A new study of premature and tiny babies in Bexar County finds many are born to young high-school dropouts who already have children — and that Bexar has more of these high-risk babies than most urban areas.

    The authors of the study are pushing for a low-cost, Medicaid pilot program — limited to Bexar County — that would offer new mothers extended but very basic access to a family doctor and dentist for another 18 months.

    The program would offer “preconception” — in addition to prenatal — care to women before they conceive their next child, they said at a news conference Friday.

    By the time many pregnant women become eligible for Medicaid, they often are too far along in their pregnancy for doctors to overcome underlying health problems and unhealthy habits, supporters of the program say.

    A bill that would seek a federal waver for such a program has been introduced in Austin.

    “One in five children with mental retardation, one in three with vision impairment — almost half the children with cerebral palsy — are children born premature or low birth weight,” said Charles Kight, CEO of Community First Health Plans, a not-for-profit HMO owned by the University Health System. “This is not only an immediate issue in terms of how the pregnancy resolves itself, but it's a long-term issue for children in our community.”

    About half of all Bexar County births are covered by Medicaid, which in Texas operates through HMOs like Community First. Those women lose their coverage 60 days after they give birth, which often leaves them uninsured when they become pregnant again. Even limited coverage would not only help them maintain their health before conception, but provide them with prescription birth control methods to delay their next child — something many lack, Kight said.

    “Two things predispose you to premature births — having had a premature baby before, and short intervals between pregnancies,” said Dr. Dianna Burns-Banks, a local pediatrician. “Prematurity robs our children of their potential. Prematurity often robs the families of the joy of having a birth. But just as importantly, prematurity deprives our communities, our societies, of our most valuable human resource — our children.”

    Kimberly Bailey had her first baby at 15. Now 23 and covered on and off by Medicaid, she recently delivered her fourth child prematurely at 24 weeks gestation, six months ago. The infant required three months in the hospital.

    “Maybe I could have gotten some medical attention, and then I wouldn't have had my baby early,” Bailey said. “The system decides that one day I can go to the doctor and one day I can't.”

    The Bexar County pilot project, modeled after a similar program in Arizona, would cost about $1,320 per patient per year — roughly $575,000 for all of Bexar County. But with the average cost of a premature baby at $79,000 — compared to $1,500 for a healthy child — supporters of the bill say if the plan prevented only one premature birth a month here it would pay for itself in a year.

    The bill, SB 1842, was introduced by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. A companion House bill was filed by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

  41. Saturday, May 2, 2009

    Park worries piles could lead to fires

    San Antonio Express-News

    by John Tedesco

    When Deirdre Hisler learned that sparks from a welder's torch had ignited dry grass near Government Canyon State Natural Area, she was alarmed — but not surprised.

    Hisler is the superintendent of Government Canyon, a popular destination for hikers and mountain bikers, and she's well aware of the risk of a wildfire. The natural area is under drought restrictions, and visitors have been barred from barbecuing. Conditions are so dry, even cactuses have dried up.

    Over the past year, Hisler said she's had growing concerns about dozens of piles of dead trees near a fence line that Government Canyon shares with a 214-acre rural property on Kallison Lane owned by a company tied to Hugo Gutierrez Jr., a banker who bought thousands of acres of land in Northwest Bexar County.

    Hisler said she's told Gutierrez's ranching foreman, Wayne Benke, that the piles of dry wood pose a fire hazard to Government Canyon. Part of the 8,600-acre park, which attracted 44,000 visitors in 2007, contains some of the last old-growth and pristine stands of forest left in the county.

    “We told Mr. Benke we needed him to move those piles,” Hisler said.

    That was about a year ago. The piles are still there. And this month, a grass fire struck Gutierrez's property in an area that wasn't near the piles of trees, but that bordered property owned by Government Canyon.

    On April 7, a crew from the Geronimo Village Volunteer Fire Department fought a 1.5-acre grass fire on the property owned by Gutierrez. The fire also burned a parcel of land owned by Government Canyon that has no hiking trails.

    Firefighters extinguished the flames with 250 gallons of water, according to an incident report written by Manuel Casarez, the firefighter in charge. Casarez's report stated a spark from a welding torch caused the fire.

    The next day, the volunteer firefighters assisted the county's District 7 fire unit to extinguish a hot spot that flared up in same location.

    When a reporter called Benke and asked him about the fires, he replied: “I have no idea what you're talking about,” and hung up. Calls to Gutierrez weren't returned.

    Clearing trees

    Hisler is not the first public official to be concerned about Gutierrez's properties.

    Benke and Gutierrez were the subjects of a San Antonio Express-News article last year that detailed how thousands of trees were cleared on a different piece of rural property owned by Gutierrez.

    Known as West Pointe, the 3,200-acres of vacant land near SeaWorld is being marketed as an ideal location for new homes and businesses.

    The city arborist, Debbie Reid, notified Gutierrez that the clearing at West Pointe had violated a San Antonio ordinance intended to protect trees.

    Gutierrez's lawyer argued the trees were bulldozed as part of a ranching operation. Since the city's tree rules only apply to real estate developers, the lawyer said, Gutierrez wasn't required to follow the ordinance.

    The city conceded. A few months later, Gutierrez's company filed plans to develop West Pointe.

    The episode exposed a loophole in the city's tree ordinance, which requires real estate developers to pay mitigation costs for lost trees. At an April 3 press conference on the steps of City Hall, state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and Mayor Phil Hardberger criticized developers who try to “scoot around” San Antonio's tree ordinance by claiming to be ranchers.

    Villarreal announced he had written a bill that attempts to close the loophole. The bill is in the House Agriculture & Livestock committee.

    The property near Government Canyon was bought by a limited partnership tied to Gutierrez nearly three years ago. No development permits have been filed for the site. It's currently for sale for $15,000 an acre in what a sales brochure says is a “hot NW San Antonio market.”

    The drought brings a new concern about the pattern of tree clearing: The large, dry piles of trees and brush on Gutierrez's properties are potential fuel for a wildfire.

    At West Pointe, trees are stacked near the backyard of the Geronimo Fire Department — the unit that fought the grass fire near Government Canyon.

    “It's not good,” said Fire Chief Ben Hoeffner, as he pointed to a large tree pile near his fire station on Talley Road. “It's fuel for somebody waiting to light it.”

    Ranching expert Robert Lyons, a professor and extension range specialist in Uvalde for Texas A&M University, said clearing trees and undergrowth reduces the risk of a wildfire. Typically, a rancher piles up the dead vegetation, waits a period of time for it to dry and burns it.

    But waiting for optimal conditions for a controlled burn can be tricky — especially during a drought. In the meantime, Lyons said: “Those piles could pose a fire hazard.” If the piles were ignited in a wildfire, embers could float downwind and spread the flames, he said.

    Fire hazard

    Records show trees were piled up near Government Canyon about three years ago. Aerial photos on file with the Bexar County Appraisal District show the tree clearing occurred in 2006 – the same year Gutierrez's company bought the property.

    Trees on the northern portion of the rectangular parcel of land were cleared and stacked into piles; other trees were preserved. The piles are smaller than the giant mulch pile in Helotes that burned for months in 2007 and made national news.

    Like West Pointe, the property near Government Canyon is part of a master-grazing lease for cattle signed by Benke and Gutierrez.

    When a reporter visited the property near Government Canyon last week, no cattle were in view. At the entrance of the large property, patches of charred grass were near a freshly painted white metal gate.

    Hisler said she's tried to be a good neighbor with Benke and was reluctant to talk to a reporter when asked about the piles of trees and the grass fire. But she acknowledged she's worried what will happen to Government Canyon if the piles on Gutierrez's property catch fire.

    She said Benke, to his credit, had attended a public meeting at Government Canyon in 2007 that informed residents about a prescribed burn scheduled for the park. The burn was needed to control vegetation and cut the risk of a catastrophic wildfire.

    About six months after the meeting, she said Benke asked her if the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which owns Government Canyon, could help him burn the tree piles on Gutierrez's property.

    The agency doesn't do that for private property owners, Hisler said, and she was also worried the flames from the piles would spread to Government Canyon and ravage the park. She asked Benke to move the piles.

    She heard little from Benke until about a month ago, when he asked if state officials would partner with him to build a new fence. She said she was open to the idea.

    “I really want to be a good neighbor to my adjoining landowners,” she said.

    Then a colleague informed her about the April 7 grass fire. Hisler wasn't happy that welding occurred on the property during a drought without adequate measures on hand to douse a fire. And she wasn't happy that Benke hadn't immediately notified her.

    “He came to our prescription burn meeting,” Hisler said. “He understands the fuel load we have here at Government Canyon. But it's just being disregarded by leaving those piles there, and welding during drought conditions.”

  42. Tuesday, April 28, 2009

    TPR Radio: Seton home loses state funding

    Texas Public Radio

    Click here to listen to the story.

    Texas has weathered the recession better than most states, but non-profits that provide important social services are losing funding from foundations and government programs. Seton Home in San Antonio is one such organization that has had to make tough choices to keep their doors open.

    Mother’s Day is just around the corner. It’s a time to honor the women who nurtured and cared for us when we were most vulnerable – giving us the tools we needed to be successful and balanced human beings. Being a mom is perhaps one of the toughest jobs around – and it’s even more difficult for teen moms and their children.

    Seton Home is a place for teen moms who decide to keep and parent their children despite the enormous challenges that face them. Girls as young as 12-years-old can come here when they’re pregnant, have their children and live here with them here until the age of 20 – learning the skills necessary to be responsible parents on the outside world. Margaret Starkey is the executive director of Seton Home.

    “What we’re trying to do is make sure that they finish school and then go on to get some kind of trade – go to college – so that they can later on make enough money to where they can support their family without relying on welfare,” said Starkey.

    The facility can house up to 40 moms and their children. It has a licensed daycare onsite where professionals watch the kids while the moms finish their high school education. They live together in community learning how to care for their children. Nearly sixty percent of the girls are referred to the program by State Child Protective Services from places all over Texas. Seton Home also has contracts with county juvenile systems – so the state depends heavily on the program and reimburses Seton Home only a fraction of what it costs to care for the girls. That’s why Margaret Starkey was alarmed when her organization lost nearly three hundred thousand dollars of government money it depended on.

    “I ended up having no choice, but to really immediately look at where we could cut expenses. Within a couple of weeks we ended up reducing staff by five full-time positions and two part-time positions,” said Starkey.

    Those positions cut included a full-time night manager and a staff therapist who helps the girls deal with a wide range of emotional issues. Tiffany Walker is the full-time therapist who got to keep her job.

    “We’re in such intense work loads and it’s so nice to have someone to bounce things off of and to support each other and when you lose that it’s really really hard,” said Walker.

    The money that Seton Home lost came from a non-profit called the Texas Pregnancy Care Network based in Austin. For several years they have been contracted out by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to distribute state money to teen pregnancy programs considered alternatives to abortion. Vincent Friedewald is the executive director.

    “Seton Home was an organization that came on very early in the program at a time when the funding level was the same as it is today – but when there were much fewer providers,” said Friedewald

    By providers – Friedewald means care givers that signed up to receive funding from his program. Seton Home had been receiving a sizable portion of the Texas Pregnancy Care Network’s 2.5 million dollar budget, but Friedewald says more organizations have signed on – without an increase in base funding from federal and state governments.

    “So the first priority is not to let up at all in terms of our recruiting efforts. We need to make sure that women across Texas have access to similar types of services that people have at Seton Home. Remember Seton Home – yes – takes a lot of clients and provides great services, but they are just one of many providers that potentially could provide services across Texas,” said Friedewald

    So the demand for funding is higher, but the supply has not increased – so someone needs to take a cut. But San Antonio State Representative Mike Villarreal says it shouldn’t be Seton Home. He says the state depends so heavily on the program that officials should find ways to keep it funded.

    “There is almost no state oversight on this organization, the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. We have serious concerns – I have serious concerns about why we need to go through them – why we need an intermediary,” said Villarreal.

    Villarreal proposed several pieces of legislation that would mandate the Texas Pregnancy Care Network allocate forty percent of its funds to maternity facilities like Seton Home, but those bills failed to survive the appropriations and budget debates in the legislature. While the discussion continues in Austin, Margaret Starkey is still facing financial huge obstacles. But despite the hardship, she says Seton Home will continue to help those teen moms who want to keep and parent their children.

    “When you’re 13 – 14 – 15 and you don’t have any kind of family support that you can go to – then I just feel that we have an obligation to help those young moms,” said Starkey.

  43. Monday, April 27, 2009

    On-site child care for Texas small businesses

    On-Site Child Care for Texas Small Businesses, Created with Help of Top Small Workplace, Could be Expanded with New Bill

    Guerra DeBerry Coody (GDC), an advertising, marketing, and PR firm in San Antonio, TX – and a 2007 Winning Workplaces/Wall Street Journal Top Small Workplace – continues to stick up for its small business peers in the state when it comes to helping them establish on-site child care centers within their workplaces.

    On our website we told the story of how, several years ago, working mothers in the firm of roughly 60 employees collaborated with state legislators, including Rep. Michael Villarreal, and other vested stakeholders to pass legislation that made this a reality in Texas.  Well, according to political blogger Charles Kuffner on Saturday, there is legislative momentum to expand this program that GDC helped to create, and has served as a model business for in terms of its impact on employee engagement and retention.

    Rep. Villarreal just got House Bill 415 passed, and Michele Autenrieth Brown, GDC's Group Account Director who helped draft the original legislation, tells Winning Workplaces she expects the companion bill, SB 1983, to be voted on in the Texas Senate in the next few weeks.

    In addition to expanding the program caveat from businesses with 50 or fewer employees to 100, Kuffner says that

    The statute includes a number of safety measures, including inspection by the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), criminal background checks and training standards for staff, a requirement to maintain at least one adult for every four children, and limits on the number of hours per day and per week that a parent can be away from the workplace.

    Michele provided more context in her email to me today:

    About three years passed from the time we started working on the legislation to the time the law was implemented.  During that time, business was good and we added more than twenty employees to our staff!  As a result, we were no longer eligible as a small business under the current law and were forced to get a childcare license.
     
    We did a little research and realized that, among other things, that state of Texas considers a small business one with 100 employees or less.  We thought it makes sense given the need and interest to align our law's definition with how the state sees other small business.
     
    Once again, Rep. Mike Villarreal agreed to carry this legislation in the Texas House and Sen. Carlos Uresti is doing the same with the companion bill in the Senate.  Both the House and Senate subcommittees have been very receptive and we are hopeful that this all passes!

    As I have seen a number of blog posts recently on government interfering too much or too little in small business operations, it's great to see a case in which it's doing just the right amount to fill a vital need.  Rep. Villarreal, whom Kuffner quotes on his blog, sums up the win-win here well:

    This legislation ... helps small businesses recruit and retain employees, gives parents an accessible child care option, and allows children to spend time in a safe environment near their parents.

    Thus is the power of a cohesive company mission, a leadership that tirelessly works to fulfill it, and an emphasis on smart workplace team building and employee engagement best practices.

    More on GDC on this blog:

  44. Monday, April 20, 2009

    Higher education funding increases by nearly 8 percent as overall spending expands

    After 19 hour debate, House passes $178.4 billion budget

    Higher education funding increases by nearly 8 percent as overall spending expands

    The Daily Texan

    by Viviana Aldous

     

     

    The budget, a 5 percent increase from the last two-year period, includes $11 billion in federal stimulus money, which will help fund expenses including education, Medicaid and transportation.

    “Texas faces a budget gap of more than $5 billion this session,” said Jim Pitts, the chairman of the appropriations committee. “The gap is not artificial nor is it manufactured.

    It is very real. This is a budget that meets the needs of this state and its population and, where possible, does much more.”

    Higher education funding will total $22.8 billion, a 7.9 percent increase from the 2008-2009 budget. Financial aid will receive a 23.8 percent increase, almost 25 percent more than last two-year period.

    “This is something that we can be proud about,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. “This is something that distinguishes what we accomplished in appropriations more than the Senate.”

    The debate, which lasted nearly 19 hours, was one of the most open and peaceful budget debates the House has seen in a long time, said state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine.

    “While we’re all products of our experiences, all of us on [the Business and Economic Development] subcommittee put labels behind us, and collectively as a unit, we did what was best for the majority of Texans, the majority of the time,” said state Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto. “Our actions acknowledge the difficult times we live in but also acknowledge the hope and the ingenuity that Texans are known for.”

    The Senate passed a $182.2 billion budget on April 1 that prohibits the use of state money to fund embryonic stem cell research, a provision not included in the budget passed by the House.

    Neither the Senate’s nor the House’s version of the budget takes funds from the state’s emergency Rainy Day Fund, which will total more than $9 billion by the end of the year.
    The House and Senate will compromise on a final version of the budget when five House members and five senators meet in a conference committee.

     

  45. Sunday, April 19, 2009

    Passionate teacher gives refugee students a chance

    San Antonio Express-News

    by Jenny LaCoste-Caputo

    Just a peek at Kerry Haupert's student roster is enough to reveal that her class at Mead Elementary School is far from ordinary.

    Joselyne Bambarukontari; Saadia Abdi; Methode Niyonkuru; Mohammed Baraka.

    And the list goes on.

    They are outsiders, both literally and figuratively, sharing a portable trailer at the back of the campus. Sometimes, they wear mismatched clothes and chatter to each other in a mix of broken English, Arabic, Maay and Karen.

    But the classroom — covered wall-to-wall with their artwork, professions of love for Haupert and English words labeling almost every inanimate object — is a haven for these children.

    It's here that some of them picked up a pencil for the first time, learned how to hold a pair of scissors or write their ABC's.

    Here they are learning English at an astonishing rate and discovering what it is to be an American.

    Haupert's students are among thousands of refugees who have resettled in San Antonio through a program with the U.S. State Department. The agency sends refugees to several cities, channeling funds through local agencies. In San Antonio, Catholic Charities oversees the program.

    In 2007, the program brought 48,000 refugees to America, with 4,394 making Texas their home. Catholic Charities resettled 600 refugees here last year and expects more this year.

    Many of the children have spent their lives in refugee camps, never have been to school and can't read or write in their own language, let alone English. Some have witnessed terrible atrocities.

    Their arrival presented educators in Northside Independent School District, where most of the refugees live, with a challenge unlike any they'd ever faced.

    Learning the basics

    Haupert's classroom is a first for Mead.

    When the school opened in 2006, Principal Rebecca Flores knew she would be dealing with a challenging population.

    Mead, just outside the South Texas Medical Center, is surrounded by apartment complexes. Ninety-eight percent of the students live in apartments, and half of the Mead students switch schools within the school year. The mobility rate is the highest in Northside.

    But Flores had no way to prepare for what happened in August 2006. The school was flooded with refugees because the housing provided for them largely is in Mead's attendance zone. That first year, many of the children came from countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. While they didn't speak English, most were educated.

    Haupert, a third-grade teacher, was intrigued by the diversity and decided to become certified as an English as a second language, or ESL, teacher. The next year, Haupert was assigned to a fourth-grade ESL class. But things changed again.

    The refugees kept coming. But this time many of them were from African countries where children had fled genocide and lived in refugee camps with no opportunity to go to school.

    “It's overwhelming,” Flores said when the unschooled refugees began arriving. “We're dealing not only with the academic side, but basic things. How to go to the bathroom, how to eat in the cafeteria.”

    Flores said children would sit on the floor, tribal style, and eat off one another's plate. They would urinate on the playground and sometimes pantomime the violence they had witnessed.

    With no playbook to go by, Flores began to develop one. Taking a cue from Colonies North, a neighboring Northside elementary school that also was seeing an influx of refugees, she decided to create a “newcomer” class.

    Rather than place children in grades based on their age, they would put them together to work on language, behavior and social skills.

    Flores found it was easier said than done when she began interviewing job candidates.

    “I had people walk out of those interviews,” she said. “They didn't want to deal with it.”

    Meanwhile, substitutes came to her office in tears, frustrated by the task. Finally, Flores found a long-term substitute willing to serve out the rest of the 2007-08 school year.

    All the while, Haupert was desperate for the job.

    “I felt like they were my kids,” said Haupert, who sat in on the interviews for a new teacher. “It was really hard for me to be impartial. I felt like we were interviewing for my job.”

    Flores knew Haupert wanted the class, but didn't want to move her mid-year, especially since her students would take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the state-mandated test that determines a child's academic future and a school's accountability rating.

    When the school year drew to a close last spring with no candidate on the horizon, Flores told Haupert the class was hers.

    Their Christmas gift

    On the first day of school, Haupert had 23 children in her class. Some had been in the country a few months, some had just arrived. Several were from African countries and three were from Iraq. She also had a large group of Burmese children who had been living in refugee camps in Thailand.

     

    Most of the children were small for their age. One Burmese girl had watched her mother waste away and finally die in a refugee camp. Later in the year, when Haupert asked the children to bring pictures of their families, she would bring a photo taken in the camp of her young mother in her casket, her five children and husband gathered around.

    That first day, Haupert gathered the children on the floor and pulled out pictures of her family. She spread them out, chatting about her life and things she liked.

    When she was done, she asked the children to help her write sentences about herself. Twenty-three pairs of solemn dark eyes started back at her blankly.

    Then a boy from Darfur, Abakar Baraka, who'd been in the country for six months but already was showing amazing progress, offered in accented English: “Ms. Haupert's favorite animal is a dolphin.”

    Educators say children who arrive here when they are very young, even those who are unschooled, can catch up with their peers. At Mead, every refugee fifth-grader except one who took TAKS this year passed. Those children have been in school since third grade.

    But even with the breakneck progress Haupert witnesses, there still are daily challenges.

    In December, a flu outbreak hit Mead and several of Haupert's students came to school sick. But calling parents to pick up their kids isn't easy when those parents might not have a phone, don't speak English and have no transportation.

    “We finally loaded them into our cars and took them home,” Flores said. “We're not supposed to do that, but these children needed to be home with their parents.”

    As the weather turned colder, Haupert noticed many of her kids still were coming to school in sandals and flip-flops. She started hitting up teachers for donations and solicited her mom for help.

    Together, Haupert and her mother found two Payless Shoe Stores willing to give discounts. Haupert had her kids trace their hands and feet on paper to make reindeer faces — their foot outline on brown paper was the long face and their hands on red paper, the antlers. Haupert used those tracings to determine shoe size.

    On the last day before Christmas break, Haupert handed gifts to each student. Each student found a brand new pair of sneakers and socks inside.

    She also lobbied for grant money for Saturday field trips that include the families, taking them places like theaters and museums. She hosted Saturday workshops for refugee families and even helped the boys in her class form a basketball team.

    When Haupert missed a game and the boys lost, they told her it was because she wasn't there. She didn't miss another all season.

    “Yes, it is a lot of time and some may feel that I do too much with the kids, but I do it because I want to help them to have every opportunity that my parents gave me,” Haupert said. “Their parents want to help them, but don't know where to go and what to do, so if I can guide the families and give them a little ounce of hope, then that is living the American dream.”

    A nurturing classroom

    But beyond the feel-good moments, there are staggering academic challenges to overcome.

    Haupert capitalizes on her time, rotating the children in groups. She sometimes has help from an ESL tutor and college students.

    On a recent morning, Haupert read with five children, while another group worked on spelling words, another on writing sentences and one more read with a tutor.

    Haupert pulled a tall, red-and-white-striped hat on her head and grabbed a book called “My Red Scarf.”

    “Is this fiction or nonfiction,” she asked. Most answer fiction. Haupert asks them to look carefully at the pictures. “When you have real pictures, it's non-fiction,” she said.

    As they begin reading, there are countless interruptions. Saadia, a 10-year-old from Somalia, holds up a white board with her spelling words on it from across the room.

    “That's good, Saadia. Practice again,” Haupert says.

    “Again? I'm done” Saadia says.

    “Practice again.”

    Haupert's eyes are back on Rebecca Me, a 9-year-old Burmese girl, who is struggling to read a passage.

    “Very good job, Rebecca,” Haupert says. “You have to believe you can do it, and you're doing great.”

    Mohammed Baraka, Abakar's little brother, starts to read and stumbles over the word “shopping.” Haupert tells him to break it up. “Find a smaller word you know. What does ‘sh' say?”

    Mohammed sounds it out. He turns the page and his face lights up as he sees a picture of sheep.

    “In Sudan, there's lots of sheep,” he says, his voice high with excitement.

    Haupert's classroom is like a cocoon where she can nurture her students and watch their progress. But they can't stay there forever.

    Under state law, even the children who arrive with no English and no formal education must take the TAKS as soon as two years after arrival. That means they must move to traditional classes as soon as possible so they can be exposed to the material they'll see on the TAKS.

    “Our refugee students have made amazing leaps and bounds since arriving at our schools and what our teachers and staff have done for them is phenomenal,” Northside Superintendent John Folks said. “But the state and federal guidelines need to be more flexible to give these students more time to acclimate to their new lives.”

    Bills filed by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Rep. Mike Villarreal, both from San Antonio, would exempt recent unschooled refugees for up to five years from TAKS, and appear to be on track to become law.

    “I think people get it and want to do something about it,” Villarreal said. “This is not about rolling back our commitment to educating these students. It's about recognizing that our accountability system is hurting these children.”

    Flores said she initially thought students only would stay in the newcomer class for a year, but with more time on their side thanks to lawmakers, she might let them stay longer.

    She plans to move the newcomer class into the main building this fall. This year's arrangement wasn't meant to be permanent and she's concerned the kids feel isolated.

    As for Haupert, she's not ready to see them go.

    “I'm afraid they would sink,” she said. “They just need a little more time and they're going to do great.”

  46. Saturday, April 18, 2009

    Texas House votes to slash Governor Rick Perry's budget

    AUSTIN – House members virtually wiped out Gov. Rick Perry's office budget Friday in order to help veterans and the mentally ill.

    With little debate, the House on a voice vote approved erasing 96 percent of the nearly $24 million that budget writers had recommended for Perry's office operation over the next two years.

    Some Democrats cast the House's move as a rebuke of the governor's recent comments about Texas seceding from the Union.

    "That's the headline: 'Two days after governor says we ought to secede, House zeroes out the governor's budget,' " said Appropriations Committee vice chairman Richard Raymond, D-Laredo.

    However, most Republicans said they went along simply to speed debate of the state budget – a debate that could last into Saturday.

    "At the end of the day, the governor will be fully funded," said House GOP caucus chairman Larry Taylor of Friendswood.

    Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said, "I think they're just playing silly games."

    The raid on the governor's money came as the House debated a two-year, $178.4 billion budget that includes $11 billion of federal stimulus money but protects a state "rainy-day fund" expected to swell in two years to $9.1 billion.

    On teacher merit pay, the House voted overwhelmingly to break a requirement that teachers be judged by their students' performance on standardized tests.

    Instead, all decisions on incentive pay would be made by local school districts. Through their state formula funding, districts would get all $343 million that budget writers had recommended for merit pay. Texas has the nation's largest experiment with teacher merit pay, though teacher groups oppose it.

    "It's probably how we should've done it in the first place," said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, author of the plan. It passed, 146-0.

    Cuts to Perry's budget were proposed by House Democratic caucus chairwoman Jessica Farrar of Houston, who siphoned $4 million away for veterans' programs, and Rep. John Davis, R-Houston. He took $18.7 million more, for community mental health "crisis services" that try to keep the mentally ill out of jail and emergency rooms.

    Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, noted that Farrar had seven floor amendments that would sweep funds from Perry's office or the state-federal office in Washington that he controls.

    When asked why Republicans didn't object to zeroing out the GOP governor's budget, King said, "We were just trying to avert any unnecessary gamesmanship."

    Taylor said Democrats were "trying to make the other side make bad votes that they can use in the campaign or PR."

    Farrar denied trying to put GOP members on record rejecting money for deserving Texans such as veterans and the needy.

    "I was looking to do something for people in hard economic times," she said.

    Davis said he wasn't mad at Perry but simply wanted to continue a two-year state push that House budget writers underfunded.

    Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the House's chief budget writer, played down the reductions of Perry's office budget. Pitts said the move "doesn't have anything to do with the mood on the governor." He described it as driven by members' desire to avoid spending "about two hours" talking about Perry's office.

    Meanwhile, the Senate squabbled along partisan lines about whether budget writers violated the federal economic recovery law's intent.

    All 12 Democrats except Sen. Royce West of Dallas, a key budget writer, wrote Education Secretary Arne Duncan complaining that a couple of billion dollars of stimulus money aimed at education is being held back by Texas budget writers "for use as future property tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy."

    In a response sent to congressional Democrats from Texas, Perry and the Legislature's top Republicans, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Joe Straus, denied any misuse of stimulus funds. The rainy day fund that is being protected, to pay for state needs next session, gets money automatically, they wrote.

  47. Friday, April 17, 2009

    Redesigning teacher incentive pay

     

    Houston Chronicle Texas Politics Blog

    Posted by Peggy Fikac

    The big House budget battle of last session has become another kumbaya moment in tonight's debate.

    Two years ago, House members defied the GOP leadership to drain teacher incentive pay programs in order to fund an across-the-board teacher pay raise (Senate and House members later agreed to fund a smaller teacher pay raise and keep some money in incentive programs).

    Tonight, Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, won 146-0 approval for an amendment to reconfigure the program.

    Under his plan, $342 million in teacher incentive pay money over two years would be removed from Texas Education Agency's oversight and instead funneled directly to school districts through school funding formulas.

    School districts could use the money for existing incentive pay programs; teacher recruitment and retention at hard-to-staff schools; teacher recruitment and retention for hard-to-fill subject areas; and imprving teacher quality through training and mentoring.

    The amendment is tied to separate legislation that would reform school funding.
     

  48. Thursday, April 16, 2009

    Villarreal fights for fair taxation

    San Antonio Express-News

    by Jennifer Hiller

    The San Antonio Board of Realtors launched a campaign Wednesday to oppose the public disclosure of home sale prices.

    It's part of a years-long fight that pits the group against the Bexar Appraisal District whenever the Legislature is in session.

    Realtors worry that price disclosure would lead to higher taxes and a “transfer tax” — basically a state tax on the sale of any property.

    But Bexar County Chief Appraiser Michael Amezquita says disclosure would create a fair system that would help regular homeowners, who now bear disproportionate responsibility for paying property taxes.

    Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, both have filed bills that would require disclosure. Neither bill seems likely to pass this session.

    Technically, real estate sale prices are private in Texas.

    But the sales data for middle- and lower-income people, who buy and sell homes through the Multiple Listing Service, are easily available to tax appraisers who can purchase the information through private companies.

    Amezquita believes that, statewide, multifamily and commercial properties receive assessments that are 60 percent to 75 percent of fair market value.

    Meanwhile, residential property is assessed at 85 percent of fair market value.

    “That's an unfair burden on homeowners,” he said.

    Price disclosure likely also would affect the most well-to-do residents.

    Wealthy home buyers often ask that their sales information be removed from the Multiple Listing Service, which can lead to an underappraisal of property.

    “The boards think they are sitting on the data, and nobody else knows it,” said Jim Gaines, research economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University.

    But Gaines said there are arguments for and against disclosure.

    “If you're Joe Q. Public, it's a populist issue. It's a fairness issue,” Gaines said. “However, assessors have generally underassessed properties in the past. You don't want your taxes to go up if your assessment goes up.”

    SABOR announced a new Web site,www.sanantoniofairtaxes.org, and a drive-time radio advertising campaign to gather public support. The group also is working with the Texas Association of Realtors and Realtor boards across the state to lobby against the legislation.

    “We don't want it to gain momentum,” said Travis Kessler, CEO of the board of Realtors.

    Villarreal said his bill doesn't have the support to make it out of committee. But he said other bills he's helped author and support address some appraisal reform issues that have more widespread appeal, such as providing better technology to appraisal districts and making appraisal review boards more independent. The real estate industry does support appraisal reform.

    “If we're going to have this property tax system, it needs to be equitable,” Villarreal said.

  49. Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    Students, lawmakers want more aid

    San Antonio Express-News

    by Melissa Ludwig

    Local students are joining a grass-roots campaign started by state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, to urge Texas lawmakers to increase funding for need-based financial aid.

    Aided by a general fattening of the budget from federal stimulus money, House budget writers have proposed a $224 million boost — a 50 percent increase — for TEXAS grants, which help needy students go to college.

    The budget is scheduled for a House vote Friday. If it passes, representatives must then square off with senators, who have asked for a more modest increase of $86 million.

    At a news conference Monday at the University of Texas at San Antonio's downtown campus, Brent Ward, a 20-year-old junior, said students are borrowing more money to cover rising tuition, and graduates are walking into a sagging economy with an average debt load of $18,000.

    Ward himself will graduate debt-free, thanks in part to the $2,500 a year he receives in TEXAS grants.

    The pot of money for the grants has been underfunded, however, which meant that only half of eligible students received grants last year. The proposed increase would boost that percentage to two-thirds, Villarreal said.

    “We fell behind on the promise” to cover all eligible students, he said.

    Maintaining that investment after stimulus funds disappear will be a challenge. Villarreal is banking on an economic recovery to return Texas' budget to normal levels.

    More money for TEXAS grants could ensure more students will succeed in college, according to a data analysis by the Legislative Budget Board. Controlling for other factors such as academic preparation, the analysis showed a grant accounts for a 46 percent increase in the odds a student will stay in school and graduate. That's equivalent to the advantage gained by raising a SAT score 350 points or a class rank by 30 percentile points, the analysis found.

    Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes has proposed adding merit criteria to TEXAS grants to ensure the state spends its money on students who have a better chance of succeeding. A bill that would put academically prepared students first in line is pending in the Senate.

    Villarreal opposes such a change, saying it won't be necessary to prioritize if lawmakers fully fund the program.

    Hoping to garner public support, Villarreal has set up an online petition at www.leaderslisten.org and a Facebook group called “Increase TEXAS grants.”

     

  50. Friday, April 10, 2009

    The rich are not so different

    Houston Chronicle

    by Rick Casey

    The rich are different from you and me,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway.

    “Yes,” replied Hemingway. “They have more money.”

    Like much work by skilled novelists, the conversation as related in Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro was based on actual events, but modified for effect.

    Fitzgerald, in a short story called The Rich Boy, had written that the rich “are soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trusting.” Years later, Hemingway said something about getting to know the rich in a lunch conversation with critic Mary Colum. She is the one who provided the rejoinder, if not quite as pithily.

    America’s attitude toward the rich has always been ambiguous. We speak disparagingly about the elite but consider it one of our nation’s great virtues that we all have a chance to join them. And we often associate wealth with “success,” whether the wealthy person earned the money through hard work or came by it by being a member of what a friend of mine, the son of very successful parents, calls “the lucky sperm club.”

    Membership has its advantages.

    In 2005, a study by the U.S. Department of Education tracked the educational performances of eighth-graders for 12 years. They used an eighth grade math test as a baseline.

    Let’s call those who scored in the top 25 percent on that test “the smart kids” and those who scored in the bottom 25 percent “the dumb kids.” And let’s call those whose parents ranked in the top 25 percent by wealth and education “the rich kids” and those whose parents ranked in the bottom 25 percent “the poor kids.”

    The study found that the dumb rich kids were slightly more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than the smart poor kids.

    Now, presumably, some of that difference was because the dumb rich kids had parents who expected more from them and taught them habits that contributed to their success. But a recent study by the Texas Legislative Budget Board at least hints at the power of simply having more money.

    The study looked at the “persistence” rates of students who received Texas Grants beginning five years ago. In other words, how many more students who received the grant ($5,888 this school year) completed their courses each year and moved on to the next.

    Texas Grants are given to the incoming students with the lowest incomes who qualify by earning high school diplomas in either the “recommended” or “distinguished” programs. Students must complete at least 24 semester hours per year and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale to remain eligible.

    For comparison

    With a base of more than 20,000 students throughout the state, the researchers were able to account for a variety of factors and determine how much more likely students were to move to the next class in comparison to students similar in terms of economic background, high school grades and SAT scores.

    The researchers then looked at other factors for comparable jumps in success rates. They found that having a Texas Grant compared to:

    •  Scoring 350 points higher on the SAT.

    • Ranking 30 percentile points higher in their graduating high school class.

    • Completing the “distinguished” high school curriculum.

    I talked to several student aid specialists in Houston. All agreed that a good part of the impact is simply not having to work an extra job while studying. Paired with a federal Pell Grant, the total is enough to cover tuition and fees at most state universities. They cautioned that there may be other factors. Whatever those factors, coming up with more money for Texas Grants is clearly a good investment.

    Current funding covers only about half of applicants. One proposal in the Legislature would raise that to 70 percent, at an additional cost of $300 million. That is only six times what Gov. Rick Perry recently earmarked for his alma mater, Texas A&M.

    I confess to an interest in this investment. I’m fortunate enough that my teenagers aren’t needy enough to qualify.

    But I want there to be more college-educated Texans who can afford to buy what my daughters produce.

    rick.casey@chron.com

  51. Wednesday, April 8, 2009

    Rethinking earmarks for eggheads

    Houston Chronicle

    by Rick Casey

    When it comes to muscling up to the funding trough in Austin, I’m happy to say the University of Houston does better than any other large university not named UT-Austin or Texas A&M at College Station.

    It fares far better than UT-San Antonio or UT-Dallas, its closest competitors among big-city universities lusting after “tier-one” status.

    But pound-for-pound, seven state universities wield more clout in Austin than does UH.

    The rankings come from one of the Legislature’s most serious wonks, Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

    Villarreal majored in economics and minored in math at A&M, served a fellowship as an econometric programmer (whatever that is) under Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve, and then headed off to Harvard to get a master’s in public policy — starting with a semester at MIT in a microeconomics program.

    With that kind of background, it was not heavy lifting for him to figure a way to rank the political power of the universities.

    The Legislature funds universities in two ways. One is through formula funding, a methodology that sets up criteria and doles out money according to how well the institution meets them.

    The other is individual allocations, which we might call “earmarks.” These can be inserted into various bills by individual legislators.

    With data from the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, Villarreal ranked universities’ earmarks.

    The first thing he did was to remove UT-Austin and Texas A&M from the list. Because of their special status, they’re funded on a whole different plane.

    Then he factored for size. Villarreal discovered that looking at earmark funding per student isn’t an adequate measure because some universities offer many more “expensive” courses than others.

    A large freshman lecture course in history costs much less than an advanced engineering course, for example. So he “weighted” the courses according to costliness, then ranked school funding according to “weighted semester credit hours” offered.

    The top four

    By this measure, seven universities do better than UH. If you can name them without first looking, you get an A in political science.

    The top four, in order, are Odessa’s UT-Permian Basin, Laredo’s Texas A&M International University, Prairie View A&M, and Sul Ross State University in Alpine.

    Why did they do so well? Well, longtime House Speaker Tom Craddick came from UT-Permian Basin’s bailiwick. Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo has chaired the Senate higher education subcommittee for three sessions.

    Alpine Rep. Pete Gallego was vice chairman of appropriations for years and was often on conference committees that put the finishing touches on bills in the last days of the sessions.

    As for historically black Prairie View A&M, the black caucus is united in its support and gets support from white members aware of those schools’ history of underfunding.

    UH benefits from some good lobbying and the support of a large delegation, though the efforts don’t extend to the UH-Victoria, Downtown or Clear Lake, which rank respectively at the bottom and fifth and sixth from the bottom.

    Villarreal isn’t critical of legislators who have won more funding for their area institutions. But as a member of the House appropriations subcommittee on education, when members and lobbyists seek increases in earmarks for area universities, he wants to argue to use the money even more effectively.

    Imagine a relatively inexpensive program that has been shown to result in low-income students performing in college as though they had scored 350 points higher on the SAT or had ranked 30 percentile points higher in their high school classes.

    That’s Friday’s column.

    rick.casey@chron.com

  52. Sunday, April 5, 2009

    Watch Video: Local officials try closing loophole in San Antonio’s tree ordinance

    John Tedesco Blog

    http://johntedesco.net/blog

    Last week, state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and Mayor Phil Hardberger announced an effort to fix a city ordinance that was meant to protect San Antonio’s diminishing tree canopy from urban sprawl. A loophole in the ordinance allows real estate developers to bulldoze trees for ranching and farming.

    For those who want to learn more, here’s a YouTube video of the April 3, 2009, press conference...

    Click here to read the full blog post and a collection of news stories on this issue.

     

  53. Sunday, April 5, 2009

    Will the bully pulpit go silent?

    San Antonio Express News

    by Jaime Castillo

    Among the advantages Mayor Phil Hardberger had coming into office in 2005 — a robust economy, rising property values and his predecessor's low approval rating — one of his biggest assets wasn't immediately apparent.

    From Day 1, the gray-haired retired judge has had rare freedom to grab the bully pulpit and speak without fear of retribution.

    When he entered office, Hardberger had already made his bones as a millionaire trial lawyer, so he didn't have to carefully plot his City Hall career with an eye on returning to the job force later.

    Similarly, donors and interest groups couldn't threaten to end his political career because Hardberger already knew the mayor's office was his last stop on the electoral train.

    Hardberger's ability to let 'er rip — albeit typically in eloquent fashion — was on display Friday.

    The term-limited mayor stood in support of legislation filed by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, to stop unscrupulous developers from clearing protected trees under the guise of agricultural or ranching operations, and then developing the property later.

    “Those who want to scoot around and find little niches in our laws to cut down trees ... they are going to have trouble as long as I have a voice in this city,” the mayor said.

    He also had choice words for developers who might say the legislation is an assault on private property rights.

    “It doesn't penalize the farmer. It doesn't penalize the rancher. And it doesn't penalize the legitimate developer,” he said. “It punishes those who are not willing to play by the rules.”

    At the end, the saber rattling was probably just that. Considering the access statewide homebuilders like Bob Perry routinely buy with huge campaign donations to candidates like Gov. Rick Perry, it would be a monumental upset if Villarreal's bill becomes law.

    But in a city like San Antonio, where developers have been one step ahead of City Hall “for a hundred years,” as Hardberger put it, the bully pulpit has come in handy for four years.

    The question is whether the next mayor will be able to speak with the same candor.

    Three of the top candidates — Diane Cibrian, Trish DeBerry-Mejia and Sheila McNeil — are compromised by past close associations with the development community.

    And, Julián Castro, once the bane of the chamber of commerce crowd for opposing development over the Edwards Aquifer, now has loads of business support. He's happy to have it, but it could force him to pick his battles carefully on development issues.

     

     

     

    To contact Jaime Castillo, call (210) 250-3174 or e-mail jscastillo@express-news.net.

  54. Saturday, April 4, 2009

    Tree-clearing developers told to 'sin no more'

    San Antonio Express News

    by John Tedesco

    Mayor Phil Hardberger stood on the steps of City Hall, announced he intended to close a loophole in San Antonio's tree preservation ordinance and told wayward developers Friday: “Go and sin no more.”

    The mayor was flanked by state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, who has authored legislation to give the city “more muscle” to enforce its land-use ordinances. A small crowd of environmentalists applauded Hardberger and Villarreal.

    Friday's news conference was missing mayoral candidate Diane Cibrian, who, like the mayor, had pledged to fix the tree ordinance.

    The city's rules are intended to protect San Antonio's diminishing tree canopy from urban sprawl, but a loophole allows developers to bulldoze trees for ranching or farming.

    Attending Friday's news conference might have been awkward for Cibrian. It featured a poster-size aerial photo of piles of dead trees at the Village at West Pointe, a sprawling property near SeaWorld owned by Hugo Gutierrez Jr. — one of Cibrian's campaign supporters.

    Hardberger and Villarreal said they were outraged by the tree clearing at West Pointe. Gutierrez had leased his property to a rancher, who bulldozed thousands of trees. Then one of Gutierrez's companies filed plans to develop the property.

    On Friday, Cibrian said she had a scheduling conflict and couldn't attend the news conference. None of her colleagues on the City Council attended the event, although Hardberger invited all of them.

    Cibrian said she was glad the mayor was playing a leading role in supporting Villarreal's House Bill 2016, which would allow cities to collect mitigation fees at projects such as West Pointe.

    Villarreal's bill tries to close the loophole at the legislative level. Cibrian said she tried to fix the problem locally. She wrote an Oct. 15 City Council memo, signed by Hardberger and three council members, that suggested amending the tree ordinance.

    Like Villarreal's legislation, Cibrian proposed that a property owner would have to pay mitigation fees if the land usage shifted “from agricultural to any type of development.”

    City staff dusted off an old amendment that addressed the spirit of Cibrian's memo but never had been adopted. On Jan. 12, an advisory committee of the Planning Commission considered the amendment. The committee members — including members of the real estate industry — questioned its legality and voted against it.

    “They had a bunch of questions and a bunch of changes they wanted,” said Fernando De León, assistant director of the city's Development Services office. “We said we were going to revise it and take a brand new ordinance back to them.”

    City staff might bring forward the revised proposal in May, he said.

    Cibrian, who says she's a staunch advocate for the environment, gave differing accounts last year about her ties to Gutierrez.

    Cibrian initially said she wasn't aware of any disputes between Gutierrez and the city about the tree clearing at the Village at West Pointe.

    She later called back a reporter and said she had, in fact, discussed the project with City Attorney Michael Bernard. She said she couldn't remember details of the conversation.

    After the city arborist tried to fine Gutierrez for the destruction of trees, Bernard wrote a letter overruling the arborist and clearing Gutierrez of any liability.

    After days of questioning, Cibrian also admitted last year that she'd spent a weekend at a condo in Cancún owned by Gutierrez's family. Cibrian amended her personal financial disclosure statement with the city clerk's office to reflect the trip, which she said had been at the invitation of Gutierrez's daughter, who Cibrian described as a longtime family friend.

    Cibrian insisted Friday she had no qualms about closing the loophole in the tree ordinance — even if it meant alienating Gutierrez.

    “If it impacts him, it impacts him,” she said.

  55. Friday, April 3, 2009

    Surprise! Developers win again!

    San Antonio Express News - SA Politics Blog

    by Scott Stroud

    On a beautiful Friday morning in front of City Hall, beneath the canopy of a live oak tree that's nearly a century old, Mayor Phil Hardberger and Rep. Mike Villarreal declared war on rogue developers who take advantage of a loophole in the law to evade the city's tree ordinance. But the mayor, with just a little coaxing after the news conference, acknowledged the harsh political reality that the developers are winning.

    Hardberger and Villarreal stood side by side in support of House Bill 2016, sponsored by Villarreal, which would give San Antonio the ability to close the agricultural loophole in its tree ordinance so developers can't cut down trees by pretending the property they want to build on is a farm or ranch.

    The legislation was precipitated in part by a news story in the Express-News last summer. The story, by projects reporter John Tedesco, explained how Laredo banker and developer Hugo Gutierrez used a loophole in the tree ordinance to clear thousands of trees on the West Side by leasing hundreds of acres of land to a rancher, then sought permission for a commercial development.

    The article outraged Hardberger, who sung its praises and declared, "We definitely need to close that loophole that's allowed that to happen."

    But the loophole didn't get closed -- and the likelihood that it will seems small.

    On Friday at City Hall, Hardberger said he had investigated the possibility of suing the developer but was advised by City Attorney Michael Bernard that he would lose. He said he considered suing anyway, but decided instead to try to change the state law -- which, he acknowledged, is a "tough row to hoe," an obvious reference to the developer-friendly Texas Legislature.

    City officials also tried to push through a change in the local ordinance, but that was rejected by an advisory committee to the Planning Commission. Besides, it looks now to the city's lawyers that the loophole can't be closed without pushing the change through in Austin.

    Asked during the news conference whether he had a message for developers looking to skirt the law, Hardberger put on his best Clint Eastwood-meets-Jimmy Stewart face and said this: "My message would be, 'Go and sin no more -- because if you do, you're going to get punished.'"

    The line drew laughter and applause from city employees and tree-lovers gathered in the shade, but it's not entirely clear that what the mayor said was true. A few minutes later, discussing the issue further with a gaggle of journalists, Hardberger acknowledged that, as things stand now, the developers clearly are winning.

    "That's been true for 100 years as far as I can tell," he said.

     

  56. Friday, April 3, 2009

    Verde endorsed by picky enviros minutes before ozone season party

    San Antonio Current - queblog

    by Greg Harman

    Excerpt:

    So the green camp likes the Mayor’s sustainability plan? Where’s the headline in that, local pen-pushers and lens-cleaners must have been asking themselves as they retreated en masse from the steps of City Hall.

    See, Mayor Hardberger and state Representative Mike Villarreal had just been bad-mouthing unscrupulous developers at their own little press event, warming the stage for the People’s Republic of Eco-Sanity.

    [LIGHTNING BACKSTORY: Villareal is pushing a bill that would close a loophole that has allowed developers to use ag exemptions to continue clear-cutting land in spite of strict city tree and flood ordinances. “Some developers are poised to make a profit while playing by a different set of rules than the rest of us,” Villarreal said in a press release yesterday.  “With this legislation we’re not only fighting for fair government, we’re fighting to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink.”]
     

    To read the full blog post, visit queblog.

  57. Thursday, April 2, 2009

    Lawmaker tried to close loophole in city tree ordinance

    San Antonio Express News

    by John Tedesco

    Developers would have to pay mitigation costs under a proposed state law if they bulldoze trees for ranching or farming but later develop the property.

    The legislation filed by state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, attempts to close a loophole in the city’s tree-preservation ordinance that has allowed some developers to wipe out thousands of trees without a penalty.

    Villarreal and Mayor Phil Hardberger plan to announce House Bill 2016  Friday at City Hall, with the backing of environmentalists.

    Hardberger and Villarreal predict it will be an uphill battle in the Legislature.

    “If I was a gambling man, I would think this one is going to likely fail rather than pass,” Hardberger said. “But we’ve got to do something to protect South Texas’ heritage.”

    The bill was prompted by a San Antonio Express-News report last year about the Village at West Pointe, a 3,000-acre site of pastures and dense trees.

    West Pointe’s owner, banker Hugo Gutierrez Jr., was marketing his vacant land as an ideal site for real estate development. But Gutierrez also had obtained an agricultural exemption from the county and he leased West Pointe to a rancher, Wayne Benke.

    The rancher selectively cleared thousands of trees for a cattle-grazing operation.

    City Arborist Debbie Reid claimed the clearing violated San Antonio’s tree preservation ordinance and threatened to fine Gutierrez. The city’s rules call for developers to preserve certain trees, and to pay mitigation costs for trees they cut down.

    Gutierrez’s lawyer argued the city standards didn’t apply to a ranching operation.

    City Attorney Michael Bernard eventually sided with Gutierrez on Feb. 1, 2008. Four months later, one of Gutierrez’s companies filed plans to develop West Pointe.

    Today, piles of dead trees and brush dot West Pointe’s rolling landscape, alongside trees that were preserved. Near Wiseman Road outside Loop 1604, a school is being built on part of the property, but that area hadn’t been bulldozed as part of the ranching operation.

    Word of Villarreal’s bill received a cold reception in real estate circles.

    “Our industry, the residential construction industry, absolutely doesn’t support this,” said Michael Moore, a board member of the Greater San Antonio Builders Association.

    “It’s going to create problems for subsequent property owners who buy a piece of property,” Moore said. He called it a “signification private property rights issue.”

    Under state law, property owners who use land for agricultural purposes, such as ranching, can apply to the county to reduce the property’s appraised value. That saves them money when it’s time to pay their annual property taxes.

    If the agricultural land is developed, a “rollback” tax is supposed to kick in. In those cases, the property owner can be required to pay five years worth of back taxes for the full market value of the land.

    Villarreal’s bill expands on the rollback provision. It requires a landowner to file an affidavit “attesting to the land’s use for an agricultural operation.” When the land-use changes, a city such as San Antonio can apply its local ordinances and recoup mitigation costs.

    Villarreal said his bill applies to other city regulations, such as rules mandating park space and flood protection.

    He said he wrote the bill at the request of San Antonio officials, who were unsure whether they could enforce city rules on landowners who had possibly abused agricultural exemptions.

    Villarreal’s bill was filed Feb. 27, and on March 9, it was referred to the House Agriculture & Livestock committee.

    Fernando De León, assistant director of the city’s Development Services office, said last year that other landowners have tried using their agricultural status, with mixed success, to avoid the city’s tree ordinance.

    De León said their properties were much smaller than West Pointe. City officials never had encountered anything on the scale of Gutierrez’s sprawling land.

    Villarreal said most developers protect the environment and turn a profit.

    “Unfortunately, we have to legislate for a few bad apples,” Villarreal said.

  58. Wednesday, April 1, 2009

    Proposed bills depart from abstinence-only sex ed

    The Daily Texan

    by Matt Stephens

    State Reps. Michael Villarreal and Joaquin Castro, Democrats from San Antonio, discussed their bills Tuesday to alter the sex education curriculum in Texas public schools.

    Villarreal’s bill would ensure that all information presented in schools is scientifically and medically accurate, while Castro’s bill aims to include information on contraceptives and birth control in the state’s curriculum.

    “We want to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the number of teen pregnancies by providing [students] with scientifically accurate information,” Villarreal said. “If students are going to be sexually active, you can’t discourage them from using contraception.”

    Texas ranks third in the nation in number of unwanted pregnancies and first in multiple unwanted pregnancies from the same teen, according to the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based watchdog group that supports a curriculum change.

    David Wiley, a professor of health education at Texas State University and co-author of a recent study by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund on sexuality education programs in Texas schools, supported the bills at the meeting.

    Wiley’s study covered more than 900 school districts in the state and found that roughly 96 percent of children in the public school system receive no sex education or abstinence-only education.

    The study also found that “a growing body of evidence indicates that abstinence-only programs are ineffective in changing teen sexual behavior.”

    “This is an adult problem,” Wiley said. “And adults have failed kids.”

    The meeting was held before a hearing of the House Committee on Public Education, which will consider the bills before they return to the House of Representatives. The last sex education curriculum change was made in 1995, cementing an abstinence-only curriculum for the state, said Kathy Miller, president of Texas Freedom Network.

    “I’m a parent of a 15-year-old, and I can tell you that it doesn’t matter about community,” Miller said. “Adolescents like to turn their parents off. I just hope there are adults in the school who are reinforcing what I’m saying.”

    The bills include an option for parents to opt out of the curriculum if they do not want their children exposed to the information.

    Lori Devillez, executive director of the Austin Pregnancy Resource Center, has been working at crisis pregnancy centers for 20 years. Devillez said she believes teaching abstinence is the only way students should learn about sex.

    “That’s the correct message students need to hear,” Devillez said. “If we go beyond that, then they get a mixed message.”

    Even if the bills successfully reduced teen pregnancies, Devillez said she would not support them. She said that when the center was receiving abstinence-only funding, it saw an accompanying reduction in the number of teen pregnancies.

    Devillez said other methods of abstinence should be included in sex education curriculum as well.

    “We can teach them boundary settings and refusal skills so that they can make a healthy choice,” Devillez said. “We tell girls that they can say ‘no,’ and they look at us like they have never heard that before.”

     

  59. Tuesday, March 31, 2009

    Bills in Texas Legislature would create 'abstinence-plus' sex education

    Star Telegram

    by Anna M. Tinsley

    AUSTIN — Sex education in Texas public schools could soon go beyond abstinence, but only to make sure that students receive information on preventing pregnancy and disease if they do not abstain from sex.

    Two San Antonio lawmakers say their controversial bills — which would create "abstinence-plus" sex education programs and require that all information taught about contraceptives be scientifically accurate — are needed at a time when Texas ranks third nationwide in teen birth rates.

    "We have a teenage pregnancy epidemic in Texas," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio. "We need a comprehensive approach to a problem we can no longer ignore."

    Opponents say the proposals that went before the House Public Education Committee late Tuesday would not benefit Texas students.

    "Why are we going to tinker with something that is working?" asked Kyleen Wright, president of the Arlington-based Texans for Life Coalition. "We already tried the Planned Parenthood sex ed plan in the 1980s."

    Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, said it’s clear there is a problem in today’s society, with the number of teen pregnancies and birth rates.

    "There is a high rate of sexual activity in middle and high schools," said Shelton, who serves on the committee weighing in on these bills’ fate. "We need to come up with a solution.

    "Abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexual diseases," he said. "It’s pretty tricky to provide accurate information and not make it an instruction manual."

    More than abstinence

    These bills would change the current sex education program, in place since the mid-1990s under then-Gov. George W. Bush, which stresses that abstinence must be part of the sex education curriculum.

    Castro’s bill would still require abstinence to be stressed as the only 100 percent effective way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, but it also would teach about birth control that can help avoid pregnancy and disease.

    Villarreal’s bill would require that all information taught in public schools about condoms and other forms of birth control be scientifically accurate.

    "We all want our kids to choose abstinence and wait to have sex," said Janet P. Realini, president of Healthy Futures. "But the abstinence only strategy is not achieving that."

    Wright said abstinence education works and polls show that parents prefer abstinence. "We have something that is working very well," she said.

    Positive choices

    Some say the abstinence-only approach isn’t working, even though Texas spends more than any other state on abstinence education, $18 million a year.

    Public schools are not required to teach sex education in Texas, which is why some do and some do not. These bills would not change that, or force schools to teach it.

    In Fort Worth, students are taught age-appropriate curriculum, starting in the sixth grade, regarding the reproductive system. "They are taught to make positive choices, including about alcohol, drugs, tobacco and sex," said Barbara Griffith, a spokeswoman for the Fort Worth school district.

    She said she did not know whether the Fort Worth curriculum would be affected if these bills become law.

     


    Bill Watch: Sex education Description: House Bill 741, by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, would require comprehensive or "abstinence-plus" sexuality education in Texas public schools. House Bill 1567 by Rep. Michael Villarreal, D-San Antonio, requires that all information taught in public schools about contraceptives, including condoms, be "scientifically accurate."

     

    How to track: Go to www.legis.state.tx.us and search for the bills by their number.

  60. Tuesday, March 31, 2009

    Listen to Radio Coverage: Lawmaker Advocates for More Accurate Sex Education

    North Texas Public Broadcasting

    Several bills are working through the Texas Legislature that would shift the state's public sex education program away from the current Abstinence ONLY guidelines. KUT's Ben Philpott has more.

    San Antonio Representative Mike Villarreal is sponsoring one of the bills that would change the state's current Sex Education system. His pushes for a more comprehensive program to be taught in schools.

    Villarreal: "I think teenagers know when adults aren't presenting the full truth or the whole story to them."

    He'd like to see a state sex ed program that mimics successful steroid abuse programs.

    Villarreal: "The programs that are frank honest - here are the consequences - those programs are the most affective. In the same fashion we're trying to bring that frankness and honest information to the table if schools are going to engage in sex education."

    But some say that "frank" approach is code for downplaying the risks of using contraception - and catching a sexually transmitted disease. Kyleen Wright with the Texans for Life Coalition says the some of the bills would take away local program control.

    Wright: "If you talk about a unified program - what you're talking about is eliminating community control. And that's what we have through the health advisory committees in the law now -- and it's working."

    Wright says teen pregnancies are down more than 20 percent since abstinence only teaching began. Groups pushing for change say those same rates have started to climb again now that the vast majority of school districts are using abstinence only programs.

     

     

    Ben Philpott, KUT News

    Click here to listen to the story.

  61. Friday, March 13, 2009

    Study confirms value of TEXAS Grant program

    San Antonio Express News

    Texas Politics Blog

    posted by Gary Scharrer

    milke-portrait.jpg
    Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio

    A TEXAS Grant to help students finance college is worth 350 points on the SAT test or is akin to a 30 percentile boost in high school ranking, according to analysis of about 20,000 student records.

    The success associated with a TEXAS Grant is like a student graduating under the more rigorous Distinguished Achievement Plan rather than the Recommended High School Plan, according to a Legislative Budget Board study.

    "A TEXAS Grant costs about $3,500 per student. You cannot spend $3,500 to increase somebody's SAT score by 350 points," says Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, a member of the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Education, who requested the study.

    Texas higher education officials say financial assistance is the key to enrolling more Hispanic students and closing education gaps in Texas. The Legislature appropriated $427 million for the 2008-09 budget for the TEXAS Grant program. Education officials are recommending a $350 million increase.

    Such an increase would allow the state to give financial help to about two-thirds of eligible students. The existing program covers fewer than half.

    "Going to college is like starting a successful business. You need capital," Villarreal said. "The TEXAS Grants is our most successful scholarship program that provides students capital to make this commitment."

    An inadequate investment in the college financial aid program will limit the likelihood of success for students, Villarreal said.

    Subcommittee Chairman Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said he's not sure what the policy implications of the study are "other an financial aid is important."

    Villarreal plans to share the report with all of his colleagues in an effort to make a case "that we need to increase our investment in TEXAS Grants."

  62. Thursday, March 12, 2009

    Listen: TX Lawmaker Proposes ‘How-to’ Manual For Babies

    A Texas lawmaker is proposing parents get a little bit of extra help when they leave the hospital with their new baby.  State Representative Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) is proposing a law that directs hospitals to send new parents home with a guide.

    The guide, nicknamed a “baby’s owner manual” explains what to expect from newborn up to five-years-old.

    “When you buy a new TV you receive a thick owner’s manual… But as parents of newborns we leave the hospital without critical information on how to keep them safe…,” said representative Villareeal in a news release.

    The bill is currently in committee for review.  The guide would be printed in both English and Spanish and would complement existing materials handed out by medical personnel. It would also be available online.

  63. Monday, March 9, 2009

    Transportation solutions require united effort

    by State Representative Mike Villarreal
     
    Special to the San Antonio Express-News

    One day, my son and daughter will take to their bicycles and ride from south of downtown San Antonio where we make our home to Government Canyon on the far Northwest corner of Bexar County. Away from streets and safe from automobiles, the path they follow will run along our creek ways and linear parks.

    One day, businessmen and women and working people from across our city will walk along well-maintained sidewalks to their nearby light rail station where they can board a train to their work place.

    One day, the choice of driving to and fro across San Antonio will become as odd and out of place as walking is today.

    Why dream of this San Antonio future? Because our way of life today is costing us time, money and our health. Too many families struggling to get ahead spend more on transportation than on housing. Too many young and old have accepted asthma attacks as part of their routine. Too many children die in automobile accidents learning to ride a bike or walking to school.

    We have choices to make. Do we want to continue our dependency on cars and foreign oil; or do we want transportation choices in Bexar County? Do we want our infrastructure investments to focus only on reacting to traffic congestion; or do we want to strengthen the core of our city to attract and accommodate more people?

    I have filed legislation with the help of other members of the Bexar County delegation that will strengthen our local leaders' ability to propose and finance transit solutions, such as light rail, bus rapid transit, pedestrian and bike ways. We have pulled together unlike anytime before to offer our concerns and suggestions.

    There is still more work to be done, but in the end our common purpose is to give our local leaders new potential revenue streams to fund choices in transportation. Those choices will not be made by our local leaders alone. We believe no dirt should be broken, no fee should be levied without a positive vote of the people.

    We all share the pain of this recession, but we must also seize the opportunities it presents. Today there is a growing national, state and local commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle and the technologies to support that lifestyle. I believe in our community's ability to pull together, take a cold objective look at this challenge and come up with shared solutions that allow us to not just grow, but grow into a safer and healthier San Antonio for our children.

     

  64. Wednesday, March 4, 2009

    Toll foes concerned on stimulus proposals

    San Antonio Express News
     
    by Peggy Ficak and Gary Scharrer

    AUSTIN — Some Texans want state transportation officials to tap the brakes on allocating $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds for highways, while legislators from San Antonio are trying to come up with a consensus plan for raising money for Bexar County road projects.

    Tuesday's road wrangling started on the steps of the Capitol, where toll road opponents and environmentalists urged the Texas Transportation Commission to allow more time for public input on stimulus-funded projects.

    The activists voiced particular concern about tollways and toll-related projects, which the Texas Department of Transportation said add up to $836.1 million.

    “How many times do we have to pay to drive the same stretch of road?” asked Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

    TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott gave the quickest possible “no” when asked if it's possible that the commission would put off Thursday's vote on the $1.2 billion. The commission has already delayed action once on the projects after state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who heads the House committee overseeing stimulus funding, voiced concern that the agency wasn't allowing enough legislative input.

    Lippincott emphasized, as he has before, that the project list was developed in coordination with local transportation officials over a period of months. He said none of the projects is new and that the commission had been clear that it wanted to spend stimulus money on projects that pooled resources, including toll revenue.

    He also said paying a toll is no different than paying to get into a school football game at a stadium built with tax money.

    Transportation was also the focus of a Bexar County delegation meeting, after which some members said socking San Antonio residents with higher fees and taxes to pay for new projects requires a plan the entire delegation can embrace.

    A key state senator is pushing legislation to allow local communities to choose ways of generating money for transportation, such as increasing fees for vehicle registration and drivers' licenses, increasing gasoline taxes or assessing fees based on number of miles driven. Some legislators from San Antonio are concerned about the equity of new fees and the location of new transportation projects

    “We're going to work this out as a team,” Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said after the members-only meeting to address differences on how to handle San Antonio's growing transportation problems.

    Villarreal has filed House Bill 1674 to advance San Antonio's transportation interests, although some of his colleagues contend such a bill must be one drafted by all legislators from Bexar County.

    “We, as a delegation, all have valid concerns, and we all recognize that it will take a countywide effort to come up with a countywide solution,” said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.

    Whatever measure the delegation agrees on will likely end up in a larger transportation bill by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, giving communities local election options to help finance transit needs.

    Meanwhile, under the stimulus spending plan to be voted on Thursday by the transportation commission, the San Antonio district would get $120 million in state-allocated stimulus funds to build four interchange ramps at U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, allowing traffic to bypass current snarls. Those connectors wouldn't be tolled, but they could connect to future toll lanes as well as the freeway lanes.

     

    Staff Writer Patrick Driscoll contributed to this report.

  65. Tuesday, March 3, 2009

    Transportation bill necessity for Bexar County

    San Antonio Express News

    Editorial

    Legislation that would allow counties to use a variety of local-option funding mechanisms for transportation infrastructure has been needed in Texas for a long time.

    And Bexar County, which is behind other large population centers in planning for the transportation future, needs the measure more than most areas.

    Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, has introduced a bill that would allow voters to decide if they want to choose any of a number of methods to generate revenue for local transit infrastructure. The funds could be used for roads, buses, rail or bike lanes.

    Among the possible revenue generators are additional vehicle registration fees, driver’s license fees, roadway impact fees or other vehicle-related charges.

    Villarreal’s bill is designed to be inserted in Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Carona’s comprehensive legislation or be an independent measure if the other bill falters.

    To move forward, the bill needs support from the Bexar County delegation, but resistance has appeared with Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer the most visible roadblock.

    If Bexar County lawmakers can’t reach a consensus, the San Antonio area could be left behind as other counties look ahead.

    The Bexar House delegation is scheduled to discuss the legislation today.

    Villarreal has expressed a willingness to address reasonable concerns.

    This issue requires serious deliberation and not political gamesmanship. The county’s quality of life and economic viability are at stake.

    Without the authority to ask voters to tax themselves or adopt fees, Bexar County will become more congested and toll roads will be the dominant solution to address roadway needs.

    Additionally, the bill addresses the full range of transit needs that Bexar County must cope with as soon as possible.

    Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is a strong supporter of the measure.

    Villarreal noted that 57,000 new cars are added to Bexar County roads annually, and Texas lost $1 billion due to federal cutbacks in the last two years.

    “San Antonio’s regional funding shortfall through 2030 is projected at $19 billion,” he said in a prepared statement.

    Now is the time for unity and statesmanship in the Bexar delegation. The success of this bill is crucial to the county’s future.

  66. Saturday, February 28, 2009

    Legislator puts options on the table

    San Antonio Express-News
     
    by Patrick Driscoll

    Would San Antonio voters stomach higher vehicle registration fees, a per-mile driving tax or other new charges to pay for transit and roads, maybe even light rail?

    State Rep. Mike Villarreal thinks so.

    Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Friday gathered a group that included toll road critics and past light rail foes to trumpet House Bill 1674, which was filed earlier this week.

    If the bill can get through the Legislature amid a deepening recession and past a tax-leery Gov. Rick Perry, then Bexar County commissioners could ask voters to enact fees to fund projects such as light rail, buses, roads or even sidewalks and hiking and bicycle trails.

    Perry, who knew Villarreal's legislation was coming, hasn't weighed in yet.

    “We are reviewing the bill,” spokeswoman Allison Castle said Friday.

    Joe Garza, who sees an otherwise 15-minute drive morph into a 30- to 45-minute slog to get to work during rush hour, isn't sure what to think either.

    “If I know more about it, if it sounds good, then I guess, yeah,” he said. “But I guess it's going to be a while.”

    Villarreal and Wolff, making their pitch at VIA Metropolitan Transit's Crossroads park and ride, stressed transit, especially passenger rail, to help keep the air clean and curb combined government and household transportation costs.

    Villarreal said the city is too reliant on cars.

    “We've got to make a major change,” he said.

    Behind him stood Duane Wilson and Terrell McCombs, president and former chairman, respectively, of the North Chamber of Commerce, the only local chamber to oppose a disastrous light rail proposal in 2000.

    “This is a big step forward,” McCombs later told Villarreal.

    Wolff said the city is way behind Austin, Dallas, Houston and most other major U.S. cities in building passenger rail. San Antonio needs a comprehensive plan first and then funding, he said, but the county likely wouldn't go to voters until the economy revs back up.

    “We don't want to ask people to increase taxes before the economy recovers,” he said. “That's at least two years away, maybe four or five.”

    Options proposed by Villarreal's bill include:

    • An additional vehicle registration fee up to $150.

    • Per-mile charge up to a penny a mile, using either estimated averages or technology to track driving.

    • Range of annual fees, based on engine size, up to $350.

    • Range of vehicle pollution charges, using estimated impacts, up to $250.

    • Additional driver's license fee up to $50.

    • Additional new resident vehicle registration fee up to $250.

    Fees would be tied to specific projects, with rates split according to construction and operation costs. Voters would decide each project separately, and when construction ends, the related rate would too.

    While selecting projects, officials would have to first consider linking the most densely populated areas to job centers and try to balance improvements across the city.

    They would not be able to use the funds to subsidize toll roads.

    “At least we have a local option on things without having stuff crammed down our throats,” said toll road critic Mel Borel of Texans United for Reform and Freedom, who joined Villarreal to make the announcement. “It doesn't solve everything, but it's a start.”

    County commissioners would call the election but first would have to hold a public hearing. The Advanced Transportation District, run by VIA, would be able to require the county to make such a call.

     

  67. Wednesday, February 18, 2009

    Bill Requires New Parents Receive Baby 'Owner's Manual'

    KTSA Radio 

    By Daniel Farias
     
    New parents often receive new baby clothes, blankets, and bottles, but how about a owner's manuel to go along with their newborn baby?
     
    State Representative Mike Villarreal (D--San Antonio) has filed a bill that would require hospitals to give new parents an 'Owner's Manual' when they take their new born baby home.
     
    "The manual would