Ethics the Texas Way

Just a few months ago, I’d have started this blog post with a comparison between Texas and a 3rd world government. Now, maybe I’ll be able to compare 1st term Texas Governor, Gregg Abbott with FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

BlabbottEvery FIFA Congress for as long as people can remember, Blatter has declared it’s time to clean up FIFA, as we know now, it’s never happened. Back in February, Governor Abbott declared five emergency proclamations for the 84th Legislature, The Governor’s issuance of an emergency item message to the Legislature enables that measure to be considered within the first 60 days of the legislative session.

Included in the five was this proclamation on ethics.

The faith and trust that Texas citizens place in their elected officials requires each of us to conduct the business of the state in the most transparent and honest manner possible. Strengthening our ethics laws relating to disclosure of state contracts with elected officials, prohibiting lawmakers from voting on legislation from which they could profit and increasing disclosure of campaign finance information will ensure a more responsible government for Texas.

So, the 60-days are up, they’ve pretentiously declared sine de which is a whole ‘nother issue. So, how’d the 84th Ledge do?

Well, in theory they had legislation to consider what were some of the most radical considered in years or even decades, including restricting legislators leaving and going straight to work as lobbyists, banning lawmakers from making money off of public debt-financing deals; and taking government pensions away from politicians who are convicted of public corruption charges.

In reality, what we got was

  • Special treatment for politicians and bureaucrats giving the ability to be tried in their home districts rather than where they commit corruption, giving them “home field advantage”.
  • A new way for Senators and Congressmen to avoid financial disclosure.
  • Continuing to avoid disclosing wining and dining by lobbyists.
  • A new spousal loophole that allows politicians to hide details about their spouses’ financial dealings.

What we did get was

  • Parity with the Federal bill that forced former Governor Perry and then (1st time) Presidential candidate Perry to disclose he was receiving a pension and salary at the same time from the State. Texas law at the time allowed this and allowed in to be secret.
  • A couple of other disclosure requirements including disclosing financial interests in State contracts.

Overall, pretty weak, hardly compelling, and definitely not the emergency legislation proclaimed. If Governor Abbott signs these changes into law, he has set course for a bi-annual Sepp Blatter moment.

If politicususa is right, and in actually went down like this, that’s pretty much how South Africa was awarded the 2014 World Cup minus the 15-deaths.

Koch-Pays-Abbott-Plays[1]

Greed, taxes and a lack of empathy

It’s tax time in Travis county and Austin, that means it’s the annual hand wringing and whining because the property values are up again, by huge amounts.

gop_greed_over_people_badge-r5803b6831b244f1ab8d9e1519c522292_x7j3i_8byvr_324[1]Taxes are all relative. The total of tax paid is still stunningly low compared to the quality of life and services you get for that. Yes, property taxes are high, but sales tax is relatively low, there is no state income tax, and while the Ledge and Republicans have you convinced that Federal Taxes are high, and money being wasted on drug taking, idle, work shy, “minorities”, it doesn’t matter that that is or is not true, taxes are not really high.

I have never had children in school in Austin, and will never have. I would guess I’ve paid over $60,000 for that choice alone. I’m guessing when most people complaigning were born or arrived in Austin, there were already schools? If thats true, someone paid for them. Probably a lot of people paid taxes for them and couldn’t use them as they were still being built. I’m guessing when they arrived the city had services, roads and other common amenities. How did they get there, someone paid taxes for them.

Those complaining are simply paying for the next generation and you are paying so that those families who can’t afford private education, have some expectation of having children who have a chance in life, and don’t become a burden on the same tax paying society.

I think the problem many of us have, is, those that complain about taxation seem out of touch or sheltered by comparison and lack empathy or sympathy for the real challenges. While I don’t know you, or anything about your quality of life, I’m guessing you don’t worry about water, food, and live in fear because you live in a dangerous environment? All the facilities, effort, and labor that goes into providing the conditions that allow you to live that way, were in general, provided by taxation. Usually that taxation was provided by someone else, your forefathers, others, the people that founded your city etc.

Too many people these days lack empathy, they are, in some respects selfish. They demanding they keep more of THEIR income, and not understanding that if they had to pay their fair share for the free facilities they get to use, in what is essentially a pretty dam good 1st world life, would be paying way over 50% of their total income in taxes. Even if taxes stayed the same, that would mean real cuts being made. Those cuts almost always are targeted at the people who will complain least, because they often are in real fear, too busy getting by.

Yep, I hate the way property taxes are done in Travis County, it’s a sham. Businesses are not assessed fairly, there are too many suspicious valuations. However, while my income has stayed relatively flat since I arrived in Austin from the UK via New York City, my total gross income is still way up and I do not participate in any tax avoidance schemes. So when the politicians promise homestead exemptions, reducing the tax bill etc. they are doing nothing but pandering to the lowest common denominator, and increasingly that represents a generation who don’t understand how good they have it.

Debunking 5 Myths About Houston-Dallas High-Speed Rail Plans – CityLab

Good article addressing some of the common misconceptions and bias,  aka scare mongering I’ve about this high speed rail project

http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/04/debunking-5-myths-about-texas-high-speed-rail/390903/

Fraccidents coming to a neighborhood near you, soon

The “Texas House Approves “Denton Fracking Bill”” aka HB40, marches closer being signed into law by Governor Abbott. All those places, like say, Austin, where fracking is something mostly invisible that happens way out west, need to wake up.

The bill at his heart, stops cities from banning fracking within the city limits. When fracking is out of sight, it’s mostly out of mind. Flying into Dallas Forth Worth airport this morning surprised me though at the scale of the problem. You can see from the following picture I took out the window of the plane, to many it’s already a reality.

Fracking 1

Which would all be fine if you are inclined to believe the industry, and that the earthquakes are coincidental, and the groundwater pollution is unrelated and the methane naturally occurring, you’d think you’ll be OK. With this State law in place, there is nothing to stop them fracking the Eagle shale in say Zilker Park or Auditorium shores. Seriously.

Of course, even if the earthquakes and methane laced water are not their problem, the frackers still have their issues, these are captured and documented on the earthjustice page. I’m left wondering though if these are all the accidents, or just those reported. If you cruise around some of the Texas County Roads it’s not unusual to find this sort of hastily laid pipe which crosses creeks on pieces of wood support, hastily strung under bridges, and generally, out of sight, out of mind, in this case County Rd 615 in Alvarado, Texas

In stark contrast

texasWhile a lot of todays action in the Texas Capital, as covered by social media, is about the “open carry”  bill being sent back for procedural reasons, given we still have a full 7-weeks of the Legge before they remount their horses and get out of dodge for the next 1.5 years(I know, how weird is that?), there is no doubt the bill make to it the Governors desk, where Governor Abbott has said he’ll sign it.

I’m left feeling pretty empty and hollow about Texas today though. I heard the news today on the Texas Standard about SB 204. I don’t know anything about this subject, but when I saw the justification

that the state could “no longer afford” the cost of operating all of its 13 state-supported living centers.

I was left wondering how. in what universe can Texas not afford to run these? Neither the Texas Tribune or the Texas Standard had any details on how the some 3,000 beneficiaries of these State Institutions would be cared for.

A few minutes later the Texas Standard went on to cover this story, about Sex trafficking and human slavery. The article makes a number of claims, all of which are appalling and repugnant.

the Polaris Project says 100,000 children are trafficked a year for sex in this country. The Polaris Project maintains the national human trafficking hotline. Texas ranks second in the number of calls to that hotline.

It seriously makes you ask, why are we not focusing on this as a problem, are there State programs, State hospice care, State rehab centers?

But most of all, what kinda of Men are the “buyers” and facilitate this in Texas? It’s just disgusting.

Almost as bad though is that the Legge is busy debating open carry, meaningless tax cuts, and closing State institutions because it can’t afford  them. A fine example of “you get what you vote for”.

A Change Is Gonna Come

Then and now
Then and now

Notwithstanding Sam Cookes heavily racially motivated “A Change is gonna come“, that is exactly what is happening in Texas. Change is coming. The freedoms that have been held here as a right, are being diluted, and by that, I don’t mean the ridiculous moves by the far right, mostly white Christians.. Sure, they may win in the short term, but in the long term, they’ll have to change.

Why? They very growth former Governor Rick Perry espoused and celebrated as often as he could, proclaiming the Texas miracle, the traditional freedoms can’t hold at the growth rates we see in Texas cities. This is more pronounced in the big cities of Austin, Dallas, and Houston, but there is spill over into the mid-size and even the small cities.

This article from BBC amply illustrates the issues and what one, very small place, Kingsbury TX is doing.  I assume at least Kingsbury residents pay property tax to the county, and sales tax goes to the state, so in practice they are getting what they pay for. If they don’t have much of anything for a city government then that’s fine until they need it, at which point they won’t be generating enough property tax and sales revenue to cover it, and like everyone else in smalltown Texas, they’ll be expecting the “big city folk” to pickup the slack.

Metropolitan Texas is coming, when people live in close proximity, their priorities and problems change, and that drives the laws and loss of freedoms these people, and apparently a lot at the Texas State house are afraid of. Along with that liberty, also comes a change in attitude to toleration for everything from LGBT to the non-white community.

Instead of historically being able to segregate them, divide, force them to the fringe, more and more people live alongside those formally discriminated against, and learn that, really, they are just people too.

Of course this will take time, looking at the ridiculous, gerrymandered districts that include swathes of big cities intersected with sub-urban and rural areas will make it difficult to unset the time travelers that want to keep Texas in the 1950’s. However, as we’ve seen in the Indiana Religious Freedom debacle, big business, mostly metropolitan based, now holds all the cards and they will halt the journey back to 1950, because their success is dependent on being able to hire and keep the best and the brightest, and they don’t want to work in the 1950’s.

insidious greed – HSBC

If you’ve not been following along today, it’s well worth reading back through the BBC Business Live News feed on the HSBC Tax Avoidance scandal. It is indeed the perfect example of the sort of insidious greed that is destroying society today.

_80879991_171422343[1]

It’s not just the “me” culture that is all around us, but the industry and culture that is behind it. Rather than pay taxes now, there is a whole industry on tax-avoidance. It’s become an accepted practice, mostly illegal, certainly immoral and to deflect interest in their actions, just like with the bully at school, they deflect criticism and investigation away from their own failings, by making a big deal about those who can least defend themselves.

The amount of tax avoided, mostly illegally, by the HSBC 7,000 will have gone along way to dealing with many of challenges that the UK is currently facing, and the austerity measure they are taking.

Add to that the same offshore tax dodges being employed by large companies, and the industry of sleeze ball consultants, awarded for advising, aiding, and making this possibly, doing everything from advising, writing, and ultimately even joining governments to implement tax policy that facilitates this has got to stop.

It’s easier to blame welfare cheats, immigrants, in fact anyone than themselves. Here in Texas we have both past Governor Perry, and current Governor Abbott continually railing against the Federal Government. Under Governor Perry, we had the HHSC(Ed: no relation) contract scandal, with the State going with a no-bid contract, with little oversight and unclear results to again go after the “little people“. It’s much easier to make them the problem than deal with the problem of insidious greed of the wealthy and their legions of shills.

hsbc taxWatch this extract from the BBC Panorama show to get a quick summary, or read the summary here.

Something for the weekend – Ruby Ridge

I continue to try to get behind some the things held as “norms” here in Texas, and more broadly in America. This week has seen many examples of the gun lobby an the freedom from big government get riled up.

Even as a Brit’ I watched with amazement the FBI “invasion” at the Siege of Waco on UK TV. But the whole episode waas too easily dismissed when you stand back and look at those involved, almost as easy as “nut jobs!”.

I came across the story of a Texas Resident John Joe Gray, who is still holed up as a fugitive after 15-years, in his wooded, 50-acre ranch about 100-miles southeast for Fort Worth. I read into his case to see if that would show how many of the gun, freedom fighters had drawn their fear of being disarmed. Nothing really, if this report in the Houston Chronicle is true, not the cause célèbre I was looking for the cops are ignoring him.

11487373-standard[1]After reading an article on John Joe Gray, I came across a link pointing to the Retro Report and their video on the American Standoff at Ruby Ridge in 1992. Fascinating stuff. Ruby Ridge preceded the Waco Siege by almost a year, and at least for me, was unknown.

Having watched through to the end, I can certainly see the seeds of mistrust in the Federal Government, government overreach etc. It’s easy to extrapolate from there. Hundreds of smaller incidents, someone constantly telling you about the bogeyman, eventually you believe it.

Watch along, if you hadn’t heard of Ruby Ridge Idaho, you will after that. Something for the weekend?

Ruby Ridge: American Standoff from Retro Report on Vimeo.

Freedom of Information, your Texas?

If Governor-elect Abbott continues like State Attorney General Abbott, Texas will be seen increasingly like a 3rd world banana Republic, than a first world economy and US super state. In the modern connected world, successful governments and organizations thrive on openness and transparency. The people don’t need to be told everything all the time, they do though have both the right and have the confidence to know their government and politicians are acting lawfully.

2014-11-02 22.57.06Congratulations to Governor Elect Greg Abbott.

Here is hoping that Governor Elect Abbott will understand the big difference between being Attorney General and being Governor. As attorney general he used his legal knowledge, and qualifications to hide, obfuscate and in some cases flat out refused to allow disclosure of reasonable information to the public about the operation of their government, and the state.

The picture above is taken from last weeks Austin American Statesman front page. It doesn’t matter if I, or you, agree with his politics, what should be beyond question is his (mis)use of the law to hide what he’d done. In this instance, the Statesman had applied for a copy of an abortion lobbyist/litigation-consultant contract to work with the Attorney Generals’ own office during the HB2 bill process in 2013. The contract became a big deal during the five-day federal court trial over HB2.

Abbott’s office refused to release the document saying it was exempt. In a strange reversal, after early voting closed, the Open Records Division allowed its’ release. Abbott tried to claim the consultant was a distraction, and there we have the problem. When government agencies are ashamed of its’ actions they look to bury the news, or hide the truth. The government becomes the problem, not the truth.

Other decisions that Attorney General Abbott has taken in the recent past where transparency was sacrificed and secrecy, confidentiality, and security were used include:

If Governor-elect Abbott continues like State Attorney General Abbott, Texas will be seen increasingly like a 3rd world banana Republic, than a first world economy and US super state. In the modern connected world, successful governments and organizations thrive on openness and transparency. The people don’t need to be told everything all the time, they do though have both the right and have the confidence to know their government and politicians are acting lawfully.

Governor-elect Abbott do you want to spend your time being a distraction, or are you actually going to lead?

Notes:

Why Nations Fail, does this apply to Texas?

Why Nations Fail is a fascinating book, by Acemoglu of MIT and political scientist, James Robinson. They posit that economies that have abundant natural resources can be easily captured by groups that become politically powerful. The authors view is that an abundance of natural resources, which may seem like a blessing, often turns out to be a blessing for a select few and, for the rest of a country’s citizens, a curse. It’s called the natural-resource curse.

east-texas-oil-field[1]The natural-resource curse is well understood economic equation, there are a number of papers on it, this one by Sachs and Warner, the show that countries with great natural resource wealth tend nevertheless to grow more slowly than resource-poor countries. Resource-abundant countries tended to be high-price economies and, benefited by the few.

With the media here in Texas, and especially Austin, currently focused, on prices, the tax burden; the impact of the thousands of people moving  Texas;  and John Stewart Daily lampooning Texas, from inside Austin itself; and an increasing sense of conflict among ordinary people, I wonder if Texas, through it’s natural abundance of land, oil, shale oil isn’t in fact setting itself up to fail?

Certainly ahead of next weeks mid-term elections, the 10/1 Austin City Council election, the vote on Prop-1. all the signs are there. While the abundance of natural-resources has lulled people into a false sense of security, allowing various groups to drive conflict in order to gain control of the State Institutions. Classic theory in practice.

While this would normally be something you’d expect in 3rd world countries such as Sierra Leone, Angola, Venezuela and Nigeria, is it so impossible that it could happen here?

The signs are that it is. Texas is increasingly dropping in national ranking, and internationally worse still. Despite the abundant wealth garnered from the Oil boom, and the more recent Gas/Shale boom, the bulk of that money resides indeed in the hands of the few. Texas has

Oxfam has a solution paper to the natural-resource curse. It starts by saying “get your hands on the money”. In this case, I think rather than get our hands on the money, it would be better to follow Norways lead and create a world leading Sovereign Wealth fund and use that to improve the State, and services that Texas itself has. What are we currently doing?  Raiding the rainy day fund to improve the roads, the rainy day fund aka The Economic Stabilization Fund, or the Texas version of a sovereign Wealth Fund, nice.