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Shock Probation for Housing and Eco Devo

The state's Sunset Commission was expected to be tough on the Texas Department of Economic Development and on the state's Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

The state's Sunset Commission was expected to be tough on the Texas Department of Economic Development and on the state's Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

But in addition to recommending new and smaller boards of directors, and doing some dramatic chiropractic work on their org charts, the Sunset folks say the two agencies should be put on probation and sent through another legislative review in two years.

Sunset was tougher than expected on the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, saying the agency lacks a master plan for lands and should do more to promote land conservation by private landowners. They also recommended -- under legislative orders -- a new tax scheme to help support part of TDPW's operations, and said other state agencies should check with TPDW before selling land that might be valuable for sporting or conservation.

Economic Development responded with a written statement from its chairman, Mark Langdale. Housing officials said they'll have a reply ready in time for their Sunset hearing a month from now. And Andy Sansom, executive director at Parks & Wildlife, says he hopes to make most of the non-statutory changes recommended by the commission before the Legislature meets next January.

The three agencies have about a month to mull over the reports before the full ten-member Sunset Commission holds public hearings on recommendations. Each agency will die unless the Legislature renews its charter next session; any changes in law would go with the new charters.

This Land is Your Land... Say What?

The idea that other agencies should touch base with TDPW before they sell land might be hard for some agencies to swallow, but they'll go along. A few years ago, the General Land Office opened part of the Caddo Lake area for logging, and some conservationists bemoaned the loss of some old-growth cypress. Under the Sunset model, parks and wildlife would have had some say-so.

That could get really interesting if the idea is extended to university owned lands and those schools have to seek the approval of TDPW before they can sell land in, say, the Davis Mountains. The proposal from Sunset would also require agencies to notify the parks folks whenever they want to list a property for sale, which would, among other things, create a central registry of property for sale.

One Sunset criticism of the agency is that it doesn't do enough to involve private landowners in decision-making and isn't targeted enough in landowner assistance programs. Its general criticism of the agency parallels that one, saying TDPW is too decentralized and unfocussed.

The Sunset report says the agency needs to give the public more access to decision-making, and says it should sign up a single foundation with close ties to the agency to manage some of the agency's business ventures. The agency should consider outsourcing more of its operations, and should make more of its public lands available to hunters.

Lawmakers wanted Sunset to look at funding formulas at TDPW, and the agency suggested several options, including removing the statutory cap on the dedicated sporting goods tax that goes to the agency, replacing that tax with the sales tax on boats, and considering an expansion of that tax to canoes, kayaks and rowboats. They also say lawmakers could send voters a bond package (the first since the 1960s) that could be used to buy park and other lands.

Sansom said it'll take some money to implement some of what Sunset recommended. For instance, he said the agency's land conservation program is slight because funding for it is slight.

Trouble From Birth to the Present

Economic Development has been in trouble since its founding, as the Department of Commerce, in 1987. This latest Sunset report starts out by saying that TDED "has yet to succeed as an effectively run state agency." The report says there is a limited need at the state level for the agency's work, that most economic development takes place at the local level. It recommends, as we reported earlier, that lawmakers move the Smart Jobs program to the Texas Workforce Commission and send their tourism operations to the Texas Department of Transportation, which also has a tourism office.

The Sunset report says TDED's nine-member board should be replaced with a five-member board that is geographically representative of the state. It criticizes the agency for not providing travel information on its website in Spanish, recommends the abolition of both the Strategic Military Planning Commission and the Texas Economic Development Corp., a state-sanctioned corporation that can raise and spend money outside the state's budget. To top off the bad news, the report says that since economic development has been slow to make changes ordered in the past, the Legislature should put TDED on the review docket for two years from now. Agencies normally get 12 years between Sunset reviews. TDED's last review was less than three years ago.

In a written response, TDED Chairman Langdale said he was disappointed and frustrated by the Sunset report and suggested the agency has been overhauled too often. "We must think hard about making wholesale public policy changes when we need consistent strategies, funding and administration over multiple years," he wrote. Langdale, who's been on the board of the agency since 1997 (and on its predecessor board for some time before that), said the agency's new executives need time to solve problems detailed by Sunset. The Sunset report says the agency doesn't have sufficient financial controls to run either Smart Jobs or the private corporation, and repeatedly criticizes the agency for failing to implement changes ordered by lawmakers and policy makers in the past.

The pointedly says that the board had a chance to smooth things out after the last legislative review three years ago and didn't do so.

An Overhaul Aimed Squarely at the Board

The Housing agency has also been on the watch list for some time. And as expected, Sunset laid into it, recommending a five-member board in place of the current nine-member board. It says the current board structure puts too many people in the housing industry in charge, creating perceptions of conflicts of interest. The board also meddles in the agency's day-to-day affairs, the report says. As they did with TDED, the Sunset staff recommended making major changes to TDHCA and then hauling the agency back in two years from now to see how it's doing.

A related unit, the Texas State Affordable Housing Corporation, makes loans for down payment assistance and for home improvements. The Sunset report recommends spinning off the corporation, which could then operate like a plain old non-profit outside of state clutches.

Sunset's report says TDHCA's processes are not particularly friendly to the public. It says the agency's approach doesn't direct help to the areas of the state or to the projects where it's most needed. And it says the department doesn't do enough to make sure its programs provide fair access to housing under discrimination laws. It says the agency should do more to fix up older housing stock instead of concentrating so heavily on new projects and says TDHCA has done too little to address housing problems in the state's colonias. After all of that, the Sunset report recommends a bigger budget for the agency, the biggest chunks of which would go to an expanded planning section for agency projects and an increase in efforts to preserve and refurbish older housing around the state.

TDHCA's executive director, Daisy Stiner, said through an aide that she would withhold comment on the report until the agency goes to its Sunset hearings next month.

It's a Lawsuit and a Movement

It's hard to tell whether the people who showed up at the Capitol last week to talk about health care and insurance for women were more concerned about the immediate issue of trying to keep the owners of a hospital for women from closing the doors, or about the issue of whether insurance companies pay less for women's health care than men's.

This all started with a lawsuit over a hospital closing. A group of doctors in Austin teamed up with a hospital company to run a hospital for women. The company that owns the hospital decided the business wasn't working and started to close the doors. The doctors, whose livelihoods were tied to the health of that hospital, sued to keep it open.

In the process of deconstructing the issues in that suit, the litigants came to the conclusion that insurance companies don't pay enough to cover the costs of delivering babies. They say they discovered that maternity care is a loss-leader for most hospitals and that part of the reason their center was losing money was that the "loss-leader" was the main business. And they came to the broader conclusion, which is only thinly substantiated at this point, that insurance companies reimburse the costs of health care for men more generously than they reimburse the costs of care for women. It's hard to get direct comparisons, since men don't get pregnant and so on, but the doctors say some components can be compared, such as how much nursing time a patient requires for certain procedures, what it costs to rent a hospital room and so on. Through their law firm, they hooked up with Glenn Smith from Public Strategies, who has been working on the project on his own time, and the end result was the unveiling of the new cause.

Trying to Turn a Gut Feeling into a Substantiated Fact

That bit about gender discrepancies, even without much supporting data, is the headline-grabber, and the raison d'être behind the newly formed Equal Health Care Alliance of Austin. The group put up a web site, says it drew 3,000 people to it in the course of a couple of weeks, and Bang!, there's a new grassroots organization on the ground. The alliance, fronted at the inaugural press conference by University of Texas basketball coach Jody Conradt, businesswoman Susan Dell and Lucy Baines Johnson, will push for equal insurance coverage for equivalent health care for men and women. They want companies to push their insurance carriers along, and said they'll probably seek a remedy of some kind from the Legislature next year. (Dell said she'll work on this within her own company, but said she hasn't talked to her husband, Michael Dell, about whether his Dell Computer will do so.)

Dr. Margaret Thompson, one of the Austin physicians who started the hospital, the hospital-breakup lawsuit, and the alliance, says the current reimbursement scheme makes it all but impossible to make money running a facility devoted solely to women. The disparity in costs, according to the one study offered up as evidence of the problem, ranges from 37 percent to 50 percent. Thompson and her cohorts say more numbers are needed, but also say their own experiences tell them there's a problem in public and private health plans that will prevail after the lawsuit in Austin is long gone. That low reimbursement issue is the underlying problem in the hospital's finances.

The bigger fight here is between doctors and insurers. The Texas Medical Association has thrown in with the Equal Health Care folks, saying the insurance industry is starving health care delivery systems in Texas. The blowback from the health insurance industry was not far behind.

The Texas Association of Health Plans says raising what companies pay for certain procedures would increase insurance premiums, which are directly linked to payouts. They also contend that people whose insurance covers a percentage of the costs and leaves the rest to the insured would be paying more if the Equal Health Care group were to prevail. The executive director there, former Sen. Jerry Patterson, said the alliance was relying on a study that isn't pertinent to Texas.

Something to watch: The alliance wants to get parity between men's and women's services in both public and private health plans, and they'll be trying to get numbers from private insurers and from the state and federal governments as they try to prove their contentions about inequality.

e-Politics, Voter Burnout, Politics vs. Real Life

Former U.S. Rep. and state Sen. Bill Sarpalius, D-Amarillo, is now a lobbyist in Washington. But he's about to give up his lobby practice for a venture called Lobby for, an Internet-based setup he says will link voters, members of Congress, interest groups and a team of lobbyists, all of whom want to know what the others are thinking, and some of whom will pay to know.

The public gets in free, for most stuff. The web site asks visitors for opinions on various issues and questions. The questions range from things like whether John McCain should be George W. Bush's running mate to "Do you think the excitement of the Internet and e-commerce have been overstated?"

Sarpalius says poll results can be sold to lobbyists, interest groups and members of Congress who are interested, and after enough people are frequenting the site and answering questions, the results could be sliced to show a member of Congress how the voters back home feel about an issue.

The outfit has contracted with a dozen former members of Congress (from both parties) who now lobby, and if the deal works, it could become a kind of instant grass-roots read on things pending on Capitol Hill. Sarpalius is the only Texan among them.

To keep the respondents coming back for polls, the site will eventually feature live meetings of congressional committees, access to committee transcripts within a day of a hearing and some other enticements. All that can be used to generate revenue, too, he says.

Congress will like it, he says, because it sorts through the noise for them. Members of Congress are deluged with email, and polling cuts through that so they can see what at least some voters want.

Interest groups will be able to throw their own issues into the mix to see whether people like their tacks and to try to generate some numbers that impress officeholders

The promoters are also buying up other political sites in the hope that the traffic now being portioned out to this place and that one can be collected in one spot. Sarpalius says he's been working on the new venture for about eight months and is about ready to leave his regular lobbying gig for it.

• The presidential race, as a matter of interest to the general public, climbed all the way up to two of every five registered voters around the time of the primaries in March. But the interest level is back down to 22 percent of the public, according to the latest numbers from that Vanishing Voter project we've been following in these pages. The Shorenstein Center at Harvard University says media interest in the subject -- measured by the number of presidential politics stories in a handful of major papers -- is similarly waning during this lull between the primaries and the conventions and final race. Voters even told the pollsters they are talking less about the race; that percentage, too, has been halved since the first week of March, according to the project's latest weekly survey.

• You look at numbers indicating voter interest, or the lack of it, and you wonder whether it's the candidates or the political game itself that's turning them off. A study done by Forrester Research says there are more interesting things out there, at least when you're talking to people on the Internet. They ranked the top 23 things people do while online, and politics didn't make the list. Shopping made it. Weather is there. Games made the ranking and so did stock market information. Pornography made it, too. But not candidates or elections or politics in general.

The Highest Tax in Texas, for Three Days

The state's second three-day sales tax holiday this August won't be universal; a small town surrounded by Austin has told the state it won't take part. The population of Sunset Valley is smaller than the senior classes in most urban high schools, but the city is home to one of the main shopping destinations in southwestern Travis County. Stores there will honor the state's sales tax holiday -- knocking 6.25 percent off the tax rate -- but will have to charge the local tax, which in this case is 1.5 percent. The regular sales tax will still apply on most items. There is a list of things that are on sale, most of them clothing and back-to-school items. Sunset Valley is small, and this action amounts to chump change in the overall scheme of things, but many folks didn't know local communities could opt out of the holiday until now. Sunset Valley is the only one in the state that did.

Some Leave Hot Kitchens, Others Take Heat

Marshall Police Chief Charles Williams, who wasn't on most radar screens at the beginning of the month, is quitting his job as George W. Bush's appointed chairman of TCLEOSE (the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards-Education). Racist remarks he made in a 1998 deposition finally filtered to Austin and the media, and although Bush didn't publicly ask for his resignation, Williams decided to bail out. Several legislators and various other groups demanded Williams' ouster after news of the remarks spread. Williams made the comments in connection with a discrimination lawsuit filed against his police department. That happened before Bush appointed him, and the remarks were reported locally, but Bush has told reporters in Austin and elsewhere that he didn't know about William's deposition until this month.

Texas Health Commissioner William "Reyn" Archer III has been making the rounds, explaining to Hispanic and other legislators the interview with The New York Times in which he suggested that Hispanics have a cultural resistance to family planning. He publicly apologized the next day (see last week's Quotes of the Week), but still drew disapproving letters from Sen. Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Houston, and Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville. Neither called for his resignation, but others, like U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, and the National Council of La Raza, have said he should quit. Bush has said Archer's apology is sufficient for him.

But this could have a tail on it. Archer's longer-term political problems extend beyond his comments on Hispanics. He angered some doctors by saying, in that same interview, that they don't practice preventive medicine because it cuts into billings later on. He raised eyebrows elsewhere by downplaying the significance of the large number of Texans without health insurance. And little plumes of smoke appeared over the heads of some legislators when they read his quote that they left more than half a million people off the Medicaid rolls in order to balance the budget.

College and Political Briefs

The University of Texas System's recruiting efforts didn't gel on schedule, so the school is naming an interim chancellor. R.D. "Dan" Burke, currently the system's executive chancellor for business affairs, will take the top job for now, replacing William Cunningham. Cunningham will leave the chancellor's post and the chancellor's house, but got a nice exit package: He'll receive a year's severance (the base rate is $374,500), an office and a secretary, and will get ready to return as a business professor in a year. Related: Vice Chancellor Mike Millsap says he will leave the UT System on September 1, after almost nine years on the job. The former House member, chief of staff to Speaker Gib Lewis, and in-house lobster, um, liaison, for UT says he isn't sure what he'll do next.

• He wasn't on the ballot this year and his term doesn't end until the end of 2004, but Texas Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott doesn't want those loyal Republican voters to forget him. His campaign recently did a statewide mailing called "The Supreme Court Report" to an unspecified number of "activists and known donors." The four-page flyer contains mostly news about the court and doesn't ask for money. Miraculously for a GOP mailer in Texas in the year 2000, it doesn't include a picture of the sender with Gov. Bush (although the first words on the first page are "Since Governor Bush appointed me"). Abbott's mailer touts him, but only lightly. It includes a synopsis of some cases before the court and encourages readers to contact his Supreme Court office to learn more about those or other opinions, and includes a form so recipients can stay on the judge's mailing list.

• A business note: Winning Strategies, the Canton-based company headed by former Texas Senate candidate Bob Reese, has been sold to Charles Loper & Associates, a real estate planning services firm that was one of its clients. Reese will continue to work for the company and will keep some of Winning Strategies' businesses under a separate company working out of the same space: mail, warehousing and order fulfillment. The company is out of the politics business, at least directly, a year ago.

CORRECTION: Trey Martinez Fischer spells his name the way it appears at the beginning of this sentence, and not the way we spelled it last week. Sorry about that.

Political People and Their Moves

Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander shifted more than a dozen people on her organizational chart, sprinkling her own management team with some of the agency's more experienced hands. She named Luis Saenz her executive assistant. Mike Reissig, the agency's chief revenue estimator, is now director of fiscal management, and James LeBas, removed from the estimator's job less than a year ago, is restored. Rylander fired Gardner Selby, a well-known former reporter who's been at the agency for almost five years, and Jeff Ehrenberg, hired last year to help out in the comptroller's "competitive strategies" division... Fred Aus is leaving the Senate Natural Resources committee to the semi-private sector; he'll handle government relations for the Lower Colorado River Authority... Public Strategies Inc. scooped up Eric Wright, who's been the top staffer on the Senate Finance Committee for several years. Also new at PSI: Jeff Clark, who had been at the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce, handling lobbying and Internet chores. He'll keep a hand in e-stuff, but won't be lobbying in the new job... Patsy Clapper, currently working for Rep. Barry Telford, D-DeKalb, is off to the dot-commune: She'll work for an outfit called Alex Winslow, who was already working part time in that office, moves up into her job... The House's Marco Martinez is moving a few hundred feet to the east, where he'll be a legislative aide to Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston... Charlie Hester is leaving the Texas Chiropractors Association. No replacement has been named... Talk about giving notice: Randy Washington, deputy commissioner for health care financing at the Texas Department of Health, is leaving that post but will stay on at the agency until March of next year. He'll work on special projects and hand over the job to Debbie Blount, who's been picked to replace him. Among other things, she'll oversee TDH's piece of the Medicaid program... Saralee Tiede, late of the Public Utility Commission, will direct communications for the Austin Chamber of Commerce... Appointments: Gov. Bush tapped Gail Madden, a Dallas consultant who's been involved with a number of community organizations, to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. She's replacing Martha Dickie, an Austin lawyer. Bush named Mark Rusch of Plano, a county court-at-law judge, to be the first judge of the new 401st Judicial District Court... U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, D-San Antonio, is among the Texans assuming positions at the GOP's national offices. He will co-chair (with two others) the party's Victory 2000 fund-raising campaign... Deaths: Former Rep. Jerry Johnson, D-Nacogdoches, apparently of a heart attack. Johnson, who left the House for an unsuccessful Texas Senate bid, was 66.

Quotes of the Week

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, announcing the results of a study that shows the quality of Texas air and water, with some exceptions, is improving: "There are some, including politically motivated columnists, politicians, no-growthers, who are trashing Texas without regard to the facts."

Activist Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, offering the counterpoint: "There has been some gradual improvement in the air quality in Texas, but it is due primarily to federal laws, cleaner cars and cleaner gasolines, not initiatives taken by people in Texas to clear the air."

Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, defending a law -- put in place after federal courts knocked down the state's affirmative action program -- that admits the top ten percent of high school students to Texas universities: "Without the top ten percent rule, we have nothing. We have to have something to keep the doors open to our minority students."

A protester's sign at a rally in front of the Governor's Mansion, protesting remarks by Texas Health Commissioner Reyn Archer, who stumbled in The New York Times, saying Hispanic culture doesn't mesh well with family planning (he apologized later): "Latinas are pissed, not pregnant."

Dr. Sanjaya Saxena, who heads the compulsive disorders program at UCLA, talking to the Los Angeles Times about political junkies: "There's a certain portion of the population that is vulnerable to having pleasurable activities or hobbies... get out of control. It's similar to people who get so wrapped up in other pleasurable activities it starts interfering with the rest of their lives, like gambling or drinking or Internet addiction."

Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 41, 24 April 2000. Copyright 2000 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

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