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Floor Pass


An emotional and incredibly strange war waged over the last two years—in community halls and small-town diners, conference calls and YouTubes, Fox News broadcasts and legislative hearings—concluded this morning as Sen. Dan Patrick announced that “the era of CSCOPE lesson plans has come to an end.”

And so begins the time for Tea Party and anti-CSCOPE activists to take a victory lap, or, if you’re one of the thousands of teachers that used CSCOPE’s lessons in your classroom, the time to start printing off and photocopying those handouts before they disappear forever.

“The big lesson here is that if you can generate a witch hunt that includes enough incendiary and distorted claims, then there are politicians at the Capitol who are ready to throw their supposed commitment to local control out the window,” said Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller in a statement this morning.

The curriculum management program, run cooperatively by the state’s 20 regional Education Service Centers, will still be available for the hundreds of school districts that use it to help teachers cover all the state standards, or TEKS. But the handouts and sample lessons that prompted charges of Marxist, progressive, liberal, socialist, globalist, environmentalist, anti-American, anti-ChristianMuslim, Mexican indoctrination will be gone by August 31.

It all ended with a 72-hour blitz of meetings at the Capitol and a letter late last night, “signed by all 20 members of the CSCOPE board,” Patrick said. CSCOPE administrators had turned over thousands of financial documents to Patrick’s office last week.

“It couldn’t be a more exciting day for us on the education committee,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels). “We identified something that was shrouded in secrecy, that affected education for our children, made it difficult for parents to find out what was being taught to our children, and we now have that issue resolved.”

Kyle Wargo, executive director of Amarillo’s Region 17 service center and a CSCOPE board member, got the privilege of speaking for the defeated. “I’m certainly very excited,” he said, which is understandable given what a punching bag regional service centers have become over the last six months.

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s in the best interests of the school districts, it’s in the best interest of the children.” Wargo said. Writing lessons for schools across Teas just isn’t practical, considering how much diversity of thought there is across a state Texas’ size. “We’ve learned one thing,” he said. “Lesson plans have a lot of subjectivity to them.”

“This is a great example of what happens when moms and dads across the state of Texas come together and get involved in their children’s education,” said Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands). “Everything that happened has happened here as a result of all their hard work, tireless efforts, blogging, Facebook messages, Twitter messages, email, press conferences, traveling tireless hours across the state to raise awareness about this program.”

Toth will pull his CSCOPE accountability bill in response to today’s news, and Patrick said the State Board of Education would also shelve its review of CSCOPE history lessons.

Patrick said he hoped big school districts would step in to help small districts replace the lesson plans they’d been getting from CSCOPE before—a practical solution, but also the sort of regional partnership that created CSCOPE in the first place. Failing that, he said, of course there’s always the private sector: “There are many vendors that, I’m sure, will try to fill this vacuum starting next year.”

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

Just one week left in the legislative session, and as usual lawmakers are cramming last-minute law-making like it’s the night before final exams.

The House has a long calendar of bills today, but the big one deals with ethics reform. Senate Bill 219 relates to the functions of the Texas Ethics Commission and concerns itself with transparency for political contributions, expenditures, advertising, and lobbying.

House members have pre-filed 34 amendments to the bill. As the Texas Tribune‘s Emily Ramshaw writes, some of the amendments could result in tough votes for lawmakers. That includes a proposal to require lawmakers to disclose contracts their family members hold with government agencies. One amendment would shift the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates allegations against state officials, from the Travis County DA to the Attorney General’s office. That’s a change some Republicans have long sought and an idea recently boosted by Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg’s DWI arrest. (Some Republicans would rather have a Republican AG investigating state officials rather than a Democratic DA).

Ethics debates are always fascinating. We’ll see how far House members are willing to go in regulating themselves.

Weekend Headlines:

1. A budget deal was reached late on Friday afternoon. Negotiators from House and Senate agreed on a water infrastructure fund of $2 billion, $3.4 billion to public education, and agreed to have public schools contribute $530 million toward Texas’ Teacher Retirement System, the Observer‘s Beth Cortez-Neavel reports. 

2. Speaking of ethics, the Tribune’s Jay Root examines the conflicts of interest that emerge when lawmakers legislate on issues that effect their businesses. He centers the story on Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) who oversees bills dealing with HOAs and runs one of the country’s largest HOA-management companies.

3. The AP reports on major proposed changes to the Texas Water Development Board that would accompany the $2 billion in spending on water projects. The number of board members would be cut in half, and the current board and executive director would be replaced.

Line of the Day:

“I never make summer plans.” —Rep. Todd Hunter, on Thursday regarding House plans to reach a budget. Maybe now he can rent that condo in Maui.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Senate Joint Resolution 1 is on the floor today. It’s a spending vehicle authorizing funding for water projects, and would establish the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT).

2. A bill that would authorize certain educators to carry concealed handguns in schools is also on calendar. Senate Bill 17 has received plenty of praise from national gun groups.

3. We’re also keeping an eye on Senate Bill 791, which alters the kinds of low-level radioactive waste that Waste Control Specialists can accept at its West Texas dump. That bill, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, is scheduled for debate on the House floor.

After yesterday’s budget mess, it looks like a deal has been reached.

On Thursday the Observer reported that the budget negotiations stalled after pressure from Gov. Rick Perry. The guv wanted to limit new funding for public education to $3.2 billion to avoid a vote in the Legislature on increasing the state’s spending cap.

Late Friday afternoon, the Associated Press reported that Texas House Democratic leader Rep. Yvonne Davis declared lawmakers reached a deal which would fund water infrastructure at $2 billion, restore $3.4 billion to state public education and would have public schools contribute $530 million toward Texas’ Teacher Retirement System.

“We have a tentative commitment that we have a deal,” Davis told the Associated Press. “I think people are pleased. They’ve been working very hard to forge relationships and do some good for Texas.”

The agreement capped contentious on-again-off-again negotiations between Democrats, who wanted the Legislature to go further toward restoring $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools made last session, and Republicans, who didn’t want to take a vote on the spending cap.

Update 1:00 p.m.: The skirmish over floundering House bills in the Senate has been resolved. Over a lunch recess in both the Senate and the House, lawmakers met to discuss Rep. Harold Dutton and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon’s claims that certain Senators were killing a few of their bills.

According to the Texas Tribune, Sen. Rodney Ellis, one of the senators allegedly stopping the bills, said he was working on a deal with Dutton.

“Everybody is happy. I love everybody,” he told the Tribune. “I’m trying to call Dutton right now.”

Original Story:

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) took to the front mic early Friday morning, upset over the Senate reportedly killing one of his uncontested bills. Dutton said he felt the Senate was disrespecting the legislative process.

“If the Senate doesn’t respect us, they need to expect us,” he said. “My message to the Senate is they need to be scared of someone in the House.”

To a bipartisan standing ovation from the floor, Dutton said he was headed over to the Senate, to give them a piece of his mind. He later changed course and said he instead intended to kill each Senate bill on today’s local and consent calendar until his bill was heard in the Senate.

The Texas Tribune reports Dutton could be referring to his largely uncontested House Bill 2139, which would allow a management district in Houston to undertake tax increment financing to pay for improvement projects—in other words, a highly local issue.

Sens. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) took issue with some of Dutton’s legislation according to the Quorum Report.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) also took to the back mic to say she would do anything she had to do to keep Senate bills on the local and consent calendar from being heard today until one of her floundering bills also got a vote.

“I have a concern about a bill that I personally have worked on for about four or five years to get out of this body,” McClendon told the press later. “We were able to work and compromise and talk to people and we got the bill out… there’s a member over there who says she’s going to kill the bill.”

McClendon pointed to Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who has threatened to kill House Bill 166.

“I don’t have a reaction on what she said but I have a reaction on what she did,” McClendon said. “I thought we were all getting along until bills were held up.”

HB 166 bill would create the “Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission” to investigate wrongful convictions and look for ways to improve the criminal justice system. McClendon’s bill passed out of the House in late April and was left pending in the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee as of Tuesday. Timothy Cole was wrongly convicted of raping a fellow Texas Tech student in 1985. He died in 1999 while serving a 25-year sentence.

The House has postponed hearing any of the Senate bills on the local and consent calendar until 1:15 p.m. Friday, although earlier Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), stated from the speaker’s dias that it’s the House intention to move all Senate bills from this calendar to Monday’s calendar.

In the meantime, the House stands recessed for lunch.

The Observer will update as we learn more.

The Lead:

Just 10 days remain in the legislative session, and negotiations over the budget—the one bill the Lege has to pass—seem at a critical point.

The negotiations unexpectedly imploded yesterday due to sudden pressure from Gov. Rick Perry over disagreements on $700 million for schools. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said Democrats were united in supporting a budget agreement in which $2.5 of general revenue went to schools and as would $1.4 billion in new property taxes.

Democrats had even resigned to accept that Republicans would divert $500 million previously dedicated to schools for other needs. But Perry said that deal still left too much being spent on schools, Turner said, though Perry later deflected blame. Two meetings on the budget were also cancelled.

But after more late-night meetings on Thursday, a budget deal may again be close. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told the AP that a budget agreement between House and Senate negotiators could be reached today. The AP reports the deal would bump new money for education back up to about $4 billion. That’s still short of restoring the $5.4 billion the Lege cut from schools in 2011, but it’s more money for schools than Perry was advocating. Stay tuned.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House passed a bill that will raise the cap on the number of charter schools from 215 to 275 in 2019, the Observer’s Patrick Michels writes.

2. Perry signed the Michael Morton Act that will make all evidence accessible to defense attorneys in order to avoid gross injustices like the 25 years Michael Morton served in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, as the Observer’s Olivia Messer reports.

3. The Observer‘s Emily Mathis examines why the proposal to implement term limits for statewide officials failed in the House on Wednesday. Many House members didn’t want to cross governor-for-life Rick Perry, who had made no secret of his opposition to the term-limit proposal.

Line of the Day:

““There’s just a sense that these things are being handed out relatively willy-nilly because the school districts don’t have to pay the costs. There hasn’t been any apparent close oversight coming out of the comptroller’s office on these projects.” —Texans for Public Justice Research Director Andrew Wheat on tax breaks approved by the comptroller’s office.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House Appropriations committee is supposed to meet at 8 a.m. to consider SJR 1, a vehicle that would devote rainy day fund money for water and transportation projects.

2. The House is dealing with an omnibus bill, SB 1458, that would rework benefits under the Teacher Retirement System. The bill currently includes a provision to raise the retirement age for full pension to 62.

3. A Senate bill authorizing the new combined university in South Texas will be up today in the House.

4. The House will also hear Senate Bill 198, which would prevent HOAs from restricting use of Xeriscaping or drought-resistant plants, which some geniuses at HOAs across Texas have tried to do.

Just two years ago, Michael Morton was still in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—the murder of his wife. He was finally exonerated in December 2011 after serving 25 years and has since worked tirelessly to ensure that others don’t suffer similar injustice.

Thursday afternoon, Gov. Perry ceremonially signed the Michael Morton Act—SB 1611—which was authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston). “Michael’s story played a very central role in making sure that we’re here today. It was his vocal efforts and other Texans’ work to make sure that citizens of this state would never have to face an ordeal that he had to face,” said Perry during the bill signing.

The measure is intended to improve Texas’ criminal justice system by ensuring that defense attorneys have access to all relevant evidence. One of the reasons Morton was wrongly convicted is that prosecutors withheld key pieces of evidence from his attorneys.

Morton was wearing a navy jacket, blue jeans, cowboy boots and a big smile. His wife Cynthia May Chessman stood behind him. At their wedding in March, they asked the 200 guests to donate to the Innocence Project, the organization that helped prove Morton’s innocence through DNA testing.

Perry said he is proud of Texas for being a “tough on crime” state. “But that tradition, however, comes with a very powerful responsibility: to make sure our judicial process is transparent and it’s as open as humanly possible,” he said. “Senate Bill 1611 helped serve that case, making our system more fair, helping prevent wrongful convictions, and, for that matter, any penalties that are harsher than what is warranted by the facts.”

“This is a major victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system,” Perry said.

Sen. Ellis called the bill’s passage a bipartisan effort.  “The road to justice is not something you can do in a millisecond. It’s generally not a jet plane ride. It’s a journey. And this bill is an important step on that journey,” he said.

When asked if he supports the creation of an “innocence” or “exoneration” commission, Perry evaded the question. “I’m always open to the concept: how do we make Texas a better place to live? Whether that’s through transparency, whether it’s about statutes that are already on the book that need some tweaking and we don’t have to meet all the time, as Texas has shown to be efficient. So, the process, I think, works well for us.”

The current exoneration bill HB 166 has passed the House, but Ellis was reluctant to say that it would achieve final passage this session. “I, I never give up. It’s been around for over a decade. You know, you never say never. I’d say it’s on life support, but this Michael Morton Act had to be resuscitated a number of times as well.”

HB 166 would establish the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission to investigate allegations of wrongful conviction. (Tim Cole was the first man in Texas to be posthumously exonerated. He died in prison before his innocence was proven.)

Since Texas has the highest number of wrongful convictions (117 exonerations and counting), an innocence commission  seems like a good idea.

But on this day at least, Texas took another step toward reforming its criminal justice system.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) shepherded Senate Bill 2 through the House.

Each of the last two sessions, House members shot down the Senate’s proposals for raising Texas’ cap on charter schools—but a vote this afternoon put an end to the curse.

With a 105-34 vote, House members tentatively approved Senate Bill 2, a much different bill than Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) introduced in February, but one that would still let the state issue many more charters than it does today.

The House version approved today would increase the cap, currently at 215, by 10 a year, up to 275 charters in 2019. The Senate version goes further, bumping the cap to 305 by 2019. Lawmakers will now have to sort out the differences in conference committee.

While opening the door to new charters, the bill also makes it easier to close low-performing ones. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) introduced an amendment to delay expansion for a year, to give the state more time to close the low-performing charters first.

“Let’s put quality first, quantity second, and let’s make sure that the money follows quality charter schools,” Turner said on the House floor today. Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown) chimed in to remind lawmakers there are still six open slots under the state cap today.

Charter supporters like the Texas Charter School Association have made it hard for lawmakers to forget about the 100,000 families they say are on charter school waiting lists right now, and could use a spot in a new school. Turner’s amendment went down 52-86.

That was the afternoon’s most substantive debate on the bill, as lawmakers tacked on a dozen more amendments. Freshman Rep. Bennett Ratliff (R-Coppell) added an amendment allowing charter schools geared specifically toward special needs students. Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) added another requiring charter schools to post their check registers online. Grand Prairie Democrat Chris Turner added one requiring charter school teachers to have a college degree (only a high school degree is currently required).

In another major change, SB 2 would also curtail nepotism within charter schools; till now, charter administrators have had much more leeway than traditional public schools to hire and do business with family members. A floor amendment from Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) would exempt current charter school employees from the anti-nepotism requirements.

State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio)

According to one recent poll, 80 percent of Texans favor enacting term limits for statewide officeholders and 93 percent are in favor of holding a vote on the issue. In March, the Texas Senate overwhelmingly endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment limiting statewide elected officials to just two terms. So why exactly did the movement fail in the House yesterday?

“I think they equivocated on their responsibility. And I feel very strongly about that,” Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) said, referring to the failure of SJR 13 to pass in the House yesterday. The resolution was voted down 61-80, far short of the required two-thirds majority needed for a proposed constitutional amendment. The decision came with little debate.

“I did not anticipate it,” Larson said of the legislation’s easy defeat. “But yesterday, some of these guys, especially the new guys … they’re easily swayed. Folks tried to intimidate them through their web presence and saying they’re going to robocall their district and do those kind of things,” said Larson. “They’re easily manipulated.” Larson did not specify who these “folks” were, though he hinted they were proxies for Perry.

Overhanging the decision, of course, is Texas’ governor for life. Now in his 12th year as governor, Perry is the longest-serving governor in state history.

“I don’t know about y’all, but a lot of folks looked at the governor’s office and thought we already had term limits in place until the present governor decided to run for a third term,” Rep. Lyle Larson said on the House floor. “This is not a referendum on Rick Perry. I can tell you, Rick Perry [has] done a lot of great things for our state. It’s more about straightening out something that I think will bring an infusion of new blood, new ideas.”

The proposal, though, would have “grandfathered” current officeholders, allowing sitting officials like Perry to serve two more terms. It also would’ve only become law if Texas voters approved it.

On the House floor, what little discussion there was focused on clarifying some technicalities. Other lawmakers even praised Larson for sponsoring the resolution.

Larson was confident in the resolution’s passage. “It’s forward thinking in addressing some issues where people are frustrated,” he said yesterday on the floor. “From both sides, people are excited about the prospect.”

But it seems that too many representatives feared that voting for the resolution would send a message that they did not support Perry.

“The only thing I can say is folks were looking at it as a referendum on the governor,” said Larson. “I think that the [members] voted against it for various reasons, some of them just had philosophical problems with term limits, some of them just lacked the courage to vote the way their constituents wanted … and it was essentially relying on the voters to make the decision, we weren’t making the decision here. That’s what’s even more frustrating for folks.”

The issue will likely be revisited if Gov. Perry runs for another term in 2014.

“From a political standpoint and from all these other offices, I think that the drumbeat might get a lot louder in the [gubernatorial] primary and going into next session to try and alleviate our state from folks just sitting in an office for … political purposes,” said Larson.

And it could spell trouble in the next primary season for representatives who run on an anti-incumbency platform.

“There’ll be some blowback in the primary about this. There’s some guys that are already pretty upset. In the districts, these [representatives] ran as anti-incumbents. And then they can’t vote for term limits? They’ll have to deal with that,” said Larson.

Reps. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) andJim Pitts (R-Waxahachie)
Patrick Michels
Things aren't so sunny these days between House Appropriations vice chair Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) and House Appropriations chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie).

Until recently, this session’s budget negotiations seemed to be sailing along smoothly, but sudden pressure from Gov. Rick Perry has put negotiations on the rocks as lawmakers argue over $700 million for schools.

School funding has become a major sticking point for lawmakers on the budget conference committee, as they reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions of the budget bill. The Senate added $1.5 billion to current public education spending, and the House set aside $2.5 billion more, a partial restoration of the $5.4 billion the Legislature cut from schools in 2011.

After a Democratic caucus meeting today, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), vice chair of the House Appropriations committee, said Democrats were united in supporting a plan the conference committee reached last Friday. That deal would dedicate $2.5 billion from General Revenue to education and $1.4 billion in new property taxes that would flow back into school funding formulas, for a total of $3.9 billion in new education funding, Turner said.

Democrats would have appeased Republicans, Turner said, by staying under the spending cap and even allowing $500 million originally intended for schools under House Bill 1025 to go toward other needs like fixing roads damaged by fracking equipment.

Turner said House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) met with him Tuesday night to reiterate the plan. Wednesday morning, though, the House Speaker’s office relayed a message from Perry, Turner said, that the deal would spend too much money on education.

“I think it’s important for the Republicans to decide what position they want to hold,” Turner said. “You cannot blame Democrats, and run away from blaming those groups in the Republican party, when they cannot agree themselves.”

Turner said Democrats were 55 strong in favor of the previous agreement, but now will not vote to tap the Rainy Day Fund for water and transportation unless the old deal is back on the table.

Turner said education funding is the only part of the budget Republicans want to cut in order to remain under the spending cap, so Perry is asking Republican members to only accept $3.2 billion for formula funding, along with another $300 million for the Teacher Retirement System. Republicans now want $700 million of the $1.4 billion in new property tax money to go elsewhere, possibly toward tax relief.

“The educational fund is being used as the slush fund for people to fund all their other projects,” Turner said.

We’ll have updated information after a budget meeting at the Capitol scheduled for 3 p.m.

Update at 3:28 p.m.: Reporters have just been told “the meeting has been postponed until further notice.” We’ll update as soon as there’s more.

Update at 4 p.m.: After signing the Michael Morton Act this afternoon, Perry spoke briefly about the budget negotiations. Texas has put a significant amount into public education in the last decade, he said.

While he didn’t respond to Turner’s claims, he disputed the idea that he was encouraging lawmakers to sacrifice one piece of the budget for another.

“I’m sure that there are people that would like to blow up the session with this bill,” he said. “Pitting one article against another article is not particularly productive, and I’m not going to participate in that.”

Perry reiterated that he wants $1.8 billion in tax relief, and a budget under the spending cap with adequate funding for water and transportation, but he shut down further questions.

“I’m not going to craft a budget here with you all today,” Perry told reporters.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst at a Feb. 7 legislative press conference on government transparency and empowering taxpayers.
Courtesy the Texas Comptroller's Website.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst at a Feb. 7 press conference.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs has approved $1.2 billion in tax breaks to her campaign contributors since 2006, according to the Austin-based nonprofit Texans for Public Justice.

According to a report TPJ released Wednesday Combs has received $238,500 from companies getting the tax breaks, under a statewide economic incentive program since her first run for comptroller in 2006. Most of the 37 projects are energy and chemical plants along the Gulf Coast or wind projects in West Texas.

Under 2001’s Economic Development Act, school districts can offer businesses up to 90 percent relief from property taxes, and then make the state cover the gap in funding. The comptroller’s office reports that as of January, 128 tax credit contracts are in effect throughout Texas, and that companies are returning 58 percent of their tax benefits to the school districts.

bill that would further extend the program until 2024 is waiting for a vote in the Senate after passing through the House. The program’s supporters say it brings new employers to the state, but critics say the big tax breaks don’t justify the number of jobs it creates.

TPJ Research Director Andrew Wheat told the Observer that there’s no regulation ensuring the program really helps fund projects that create new jobs.

“There’s just a sense that these things are being handed out relatively willy-nilly because the school districts don’t have to pay the costs. There hasn’t been any apparent close oversight coming out of the comptroller’s office on these projects,” Wheat says.

Wheat points to Valero, which kept nearly $33 million in tax credits for projects tied to Texas shale gas, which, he says, “makes it a bit of a stretch to argue that these companies might have taken these projects to other states.”

As TPJ reported in 2007, property-rich districts give out most of the tax breaks. And not only are schools giving corporations a break, some districts are reportedly taking cash rewards from the companies in return, then pocketing the money to pad their own budgets.

“I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder to what extent that’s a bribe or not,” Wheat says.

There is no cost to school districts to give the tax credits, especially since any loss in revenue is compensated through the state’s formula funding for public education. So schools get their regular funding from the state, and get bonuses from companies on the side.

But the TPJ report says there’s a “fatal flaw” in the program: it costs Texas taxpayers $200 million a year.

Dick Lavine with the Center for Public Policy Priorities says that money is all under the table.

“Most of these districts are getting $100 per student per year,” Lavine says. “The agreements are on file, but it’s not reported. … It doesn’t show up in school finance calculations, it’s just free money for the schools.”

“This is a hugely expensive program that has not been monitored closely at all,” Lavine says. “Texas would be growing fast and we’d have the extra hundreds of millions of dollars a year that’s been wasted through this program if we could just abolish it.”

Meanwhile, the program looks like it’s been helping out the comptroller as she gears up for next year’s race for lieutenant governor.

“There is absolutely no overlap between the campaign and any agency functions conducted by the comptroller’s office,” Combs’ spokesman R.J. told the Observer.

But Wheat says it isn’t so simple.

“There’s something unseemly about the public official who with one hand signed off on these tax breaks and with the other hand is taking money from the beneficiaries of this program to run her campaign,” he says. “We think there’s a problem with it and that the people involved with handing out these tax breaks shouldn’t be taking money from the companies that are getting the tax breaks.”

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