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Forrest for the Trees

Speedy Roo, the mascot of the payday loan lender Speedy Cash, in an Austin advertisement.
Jen reel
Speedy Roo, the mascot of the payday loan lender Speedy Cash, in an Austin advertisement. Staff photo.

Over the last five sessions, state lawmakers have done almost nothing to regulate payday and title loans in Texas. Legislators have allowed lenders to continue offering loans for unlimited terms at unlimited rates (often more than 500 percent APR) for an unlimited number of refinances. The one regulation the Texas Legislature managed to pass, in 2011, was a bill requiring the 3,500-odd storefronts to report statistics on the loans to a state agency, the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. That’s at least allowed analysts, advocates and journalists to take stock of the industry in Texas. We now have a pretty good handle on its size ($4 billion), its loan volume (3 million transactions in 2013), the fees and interest paid by borrowers ($1.4 billion), the number of cars repossessed by title lenders (37,649) and plenty more.

We now have two years of data—for 2012 and 2013—and that’s allowed number-crunchers to start looking for trends in this pernicious, but evolving market.

In a report released today, the left-leaning Austin think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities found that last year lenders made fewer loans than 2012 but charged significantly more in fees. Specifically, the number of new loans fell by 4 percent, but the fees charged on payday and title loans increased by 12 percent to about $1.4 billion. What’s happening, it appears from the data, is the lenders are pushing their customers into installment loans rather than the traditional two-week single-payment payday loan or the 30-day auto-title loan. In 2012, just one out of seven loans were multiple-installment types; in 2013, that number had risen to one out of four.

Installment loans often charge consumers more money in fees. The total fees charged on these loans doubled from 2012 to 2013, to more than $500 million.

“While this type of loan appears more transparent,” CPPP writes in its report, “the average Texas borrower who takes out this type of loan ends up paying more in fees than the original loan amount.”

The average installment loan lasts 14 weeks, and at each payment term—usually two weeks—the borrower paying hefty fees. For example, a $1,500, five-month loan I took out at a Cash Store location in Austin would’ve cost me (had I not canceled it) $3,862 in fees, interest and principal by the time I paid it back—an effective APR of 612 percent.

My anecdotal experience roughly comports with statewide figures. According to CPPP, for every $1 borrowed through a multiple-payment payday loan, Texas consumers pay at least $2 in fees.

“The big issue is that it’s costing a lot more for Texans to borrow $500 than it did before, which is kinda hard to believe,” says Don Baylor, the author of the report. He says he thinks the industry is reacting to the likelihood of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “coming down hard” on single-payment payday loans, which consumers often “roll over” after two weeks when they find they can’t pay off the loan, locking them into a cycle of debt. Installment loans, despite their staggering cost, have the advantage of being arguably less deceptive.

Defenders of the payday loan industry frequently invoke the platitudes of the free market—competition, consumer demand, the inefficiency of government regulation—to explain why they should be allowed to charge whatever they please.

But it’s increasingly apparent from the numbers that the volume of loans, the staggering number of storefronts (3,500)—many located within close proximity to each other—and the maturation of the market has not lead to particularly competitive rates. If anything, as the 2013 data indicates, fees are becoming even more usurious and the whole cycle of debt problem may be deepening as longer-term, higher-fee installment loans come to dominate.

Indeed, a recent Pew study of the 36 states that allow payday lending found that the states like Texas with no rate caps have more stores and far higher prices. Texas, which is a Petri dish for unregulated consumer finance, has the highest rates of any state in the nation, according to the Pew study.

“I think that has bedeviled a lot of people in this field,” Baylor says. “You would think that more choices would mean prices would go down and that’s simply not the case.”

There is no competition, at least on prices.

Don Willett
Don Willett

The case titled State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado is one of thousands of civil forfeiture suits each year in which the state faces off against “One Pearl Necklace” or “.39 acres” or “One Gold Crucifix.” A used-car salesman in Houston, Zaher El-Ali, had sold the Silverado, on credit, to another man, who was later arrested for drunk driving and cocaine possession. El-Ali held title to the vehicle while the man paid off the truck. He had nothing to do with the crimes. But that didn’t stop local law enforcement from seizing the vehicle as “contraband” and filing suit against the truck (thus the strangely titled lawsuit). If El-Ali wanted to keep the truck he would have to hire an attorney and prove that he was an “innocent owner”: a legal standard higher than the one faced by criminal defendants.

El-Ali found himself in the same preposterous situation as countless Texans every year—seriously, the record-keeping is so bad, we don’t know how many people are affected—ensnared in the state’s shamefully baroque civil-forfeiture laws. It’s been amply documented that some local prosecutors and cops use the laws to run sophisticated shakedown operations, seizing cash, cars, jewelry and other property from innocent people, especially black and Latino folks, and funding their operations with the profits. Some law enforcement agencies derive almost 40 percent of their revenue from civil forfeiture, with virtually no checks or oversight.

In the East Texas town of Tenaha, the district attorney oversaw a particularly Dickensian operation: Local cops would stop out-of-town drivers on the flimsiest of pretexts to look for cash, DVD players, cell phones, anything of value. The DA would threaten drivers with criminal charges, even promising to have state authorities remove kids from parents unless they waived rights to the property.

A class-action lawsuit uncovered that the proceeds from this highway robbery—an estimated $3 million between 2006 and 2008—were paying for popcorn machines, donations to a local Baptist church and bonuses for law enforcement key to the operation. Meanwhile, the DA was handing out light sentences to those caught with drugs, or laundered money, in exchange for seizing their assets.

El-Ali chose to fight the seizure on fundamental grounds. Rather than mount an “innocent-driver” defense, El-Ali challenged the constitutionality of putting the burden of proof on him to prove his innocence. He lost at both the trial and appellate level, and the suit landed last year at the Texas Supreme Court. You’d think that Texas’ highest civil court—overseen by nine conservative Republicans—would be sympathetic to a case that turns so pivotally on property rights and the relationship between individuals and the state. After all, the court has adopted an increasingly fundamentalist view on property rights over the past decade. In rulings on the ownership of groundwater, the power of eminent domain and the right of access to public beaches, a majority of the court has embraced a view that enshrines private property rights as essential to “freedom itself,” as the court put it in one recent ruling.

But in El-Ali v. Texas, the court declined to review the case, pointing to a 1957 decision—the last time the court weighed in on civil forfeiture. The collective yawning of the majority didn’t sit well with three of the justices. Justice Don Willett, in a scathing dissent signed by two others, ripped his colleagues for punting. Willett bangs all the conservative gongs, quoting James Madison and Edmund Burke and opining that the case “evokes less Chevy than Kafka.”

“Forfeiture 2014-style is not forfeiture 1957-style 21st-century practice merits 21st-century scrutiny,” he wrote, noting that the vast expansion in the use of civil forfeiture occurred after the Legislature broadened the statute’s scope in 1989 to include a grab-bag of felonies and misdemeanors, and allowed cops and courts to split the profits. “In the quarter-century since, we have yet to revisit the protections due in such proceedings.

“A generation ago in America, asset forfeiture was limited to wresting ill-gotten gains from violent criminals. Today, it has a distinctive ‘Alice in Wonderland’ flavor, victimizing innocent citizens who’ve done nothing wrong.”

There’s something beyond hypocrisy here. It’s not just that we live in a political moment in which Texas Republicans speak of little else than liberty, property rights and government overreach. It’s the sense that the state, particularly the criminal justice apparatus, as currently constituted, has become predatory, preying on the weak and forcing them to pay for it, too.

David Dewhurst's "Let it Go" ad

Not that long ago, one of David Dewhurst’s campaign officials told me that Team Dewhurst knew they were probably going to lose to Dan Patrick in the lieutenant governor runoff, but were going to start spending Dewhurst’s personal fortune to “burn the place down.” I didn’t realize he was talking about self-immolation.

There’s plenty to attack Dan Patrick on. He’s a smug radio-talk show wing-nut who thinks God is whispering in his ear and is so vain that he once wrote a book called The Second Most-Important Book You Will Ever Read. But Dewhurst has been almost totally inept at landing any punches. You can tell he really loathes Patrick, but the more vicious the attacks, the more Dew stumbles. Dew is Wile E. Coyote and Patrick is the smirking roadrunner running on the far-right of the road.

First, there was this ad. It’s impossible to look away from and yet it’s so startlingly weird and vengeful.

Then there was the debate. There’s plenty to chew on and Chris Hooks gives a great blow-by-blow. Dewhurst and Patrick tangled over whether he (The Dew) had chicken at a steakhouse—that was about the level of the discourse.

But the WTF line of the night, to my mind, was Dewhurst’s attempt to harpoon the white whale with a barbed line. Just kind of out of thin air, he goes:

“Do you have snake oil for the hair loss, too, Dan?”

As the some of the Cro-Magnons in the Texas House say when the lady legislators are debating… Meoooowww!

And this week Louie Gohmert (fun fact: Gohmert was class president at Texas A&M and that’s an Aggie joke that needs no punchline) has achieved a rare feat, a Triple Louie—three unrelated WTF comments in as many days.

On Wednesday, he reacted to the release of the 800-page National Climate Assessment, which documents the growing ravages of climate change in painstaking, heavily footnoted detail by reaching into the comments section of, say, Breitbart.com.

“Apparently this climate change was global freezing back in the 1970s. Then global warming and then, when it quit warming, now it’s climate change.”

On Thursday, at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Gohmert accused a Comcast executive of conspiring to keep Glenn Beck off the air. And, of course, this being Louie Gohmert, Al Gore, Sharia law and other apparitions made an appearance in his tale:

“And it was reported that Al Jazeera wanted to get their Sharia law push into the United States, and they were willing to pay big bucks….but they wouldn’t do the deal unless Comcast was willing to keep them in its list of networks provided. So it was reported Comcast agreed, so Al Gore got all that oil and carbon based money. Then, that kept Glenn Beck off the air. Of Comcast.”

Some people say Gohmert’s kinda dim. But that is a story as convoluted as a Russian novel; only a supple mind could keep it straight.

Then, on Friday, he smote Godwin’s law a mighty blow, comparing a growing acceptance of LGBT folks to the “Nazi takeover of Europe.”

“So it is amazing that in the name of liberality, in the name of being tolerant, this fascist intolerance has arisen. People that stand up and say, you know, I agree with the majority of Americans, I agree with Moses and Jesus that marriage was a man and a woman, now all of a sudden, people like me are considered haters, hate mongers, evil, which really is exactly what we’ve seen throughout our history as going back to the days of the Nazi takeover in Europe.”

It’s almost like Gohmert’s being forced to wear a pink triangle. Poor guy.

Speaking of Nazis… Kesha Rogers. She’s the LaRouche Democrat who, despite the best efforts of the state Democratic party, made it into a runoff for U.S. Senate. Rogers is running on an “Impeach Obama” platform. She was in the Valley this week, rounding up votes from the anti-Obama, industrialize-the-moon Democratic voting bloc.

“The president has earned his Hitler mustache,” she said Thursday, adding that the comparison stems from supposed similarities between Obama’s signature domestic legislation, the Affordable Care Act, and a Nazi euthanasia program.

Partisan affiliations aside, Gohmert and Rogers seem to have a lot in common. The only difference is Gohmert’s serving his fifth term in Congress.

WA Parish coal plant
W.A. Parish coal plant

The new federal climate assessment, which came out Tuesday, tells us what we (should) already know. But does it in great and alarming detail, linking what’s already occurred to what else is in store. In short: Climate change is here. We’re already feeling the effects. And things will get much worse without a concerted effort to reduce emissions globally.

For Texas, which is lumped in with the Great Plains region, the National Climate Assessment finds that the state is getting hotter, exacerbating droughts. Precipitation patterns are changing, with more infrequent but heavier downpours. And sea-level rise is putting low-lying coastal communities like Galveston and Houston at increased risk of storms and loss of habitat.

The report, of course, was greeted by Texas politicians and regulators with the usual fact-free distortions and obfuscation we’ve come to expect. (More on that later.)

It’s a compelling report and the website presenting the findings is well worth your time. Here are a few visuals that tell the story.

First, a little scene-setting… The increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, is driving the increase in global temperature averages.

Global temperatures and carbon dioxide, 1880-2012
Global temperatures and carbon dioxide, 1880-2012

 

 

Average temperatures have risen across the U.S. since the late 19th century, with most of the increase occurring since 1970. The hottest year on record for the contiguous United States, including Texas, was 2012.

 

Climate CS_Net_Change_in_Ann_Temp_12910_v11
The colors on the map show temperature changes over the past 22 years (1991-2012) compared to the 1901-1960 average for the contiguous U.S., and to the 1951-1980 average for Alaska and Hawaii. The bars on the graph show the average temperature changes by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average). The far right bar (2000s decade) includes 2011 and 2012. The period from 2001 to 2012 was warmer than any previous decade in every region. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

 
The assessment uses the record hot and dry summer of 2011 in Texas and Oklahoma as an example of how “extreme climate events resulted in cascading effects across energy, water, and land systems.” In Texas, the summer of 2011 was 5.2 F hotter than normal, with more than 90 days of 100-plus days in parts of the state. 

 

 

climate WEL_days_above_100_13605_V4 climate WEL_texas_scatter_plot_V3

 

 

We can expect more brutally hot days—a quadrupling of days in the southern part of the Great Plains by mid-century—and higher temperatures across the board in the future, especially under higher-emissions scenarios. (Throughout the report, the authors relied on two different projections: The “lower emissions” scenario assumed a “substantial reduction” in greenhouse gas emissions and a temperature increase by the end of the century of 3 to 5 F; the higher emissions scenario assumed continued increases in emissions, leading to a 5 to 10 F increase by 2100.)

 

 

climate CS_projected_temperature_change_sres_V7
Figure 2.8: Maps show projected change in average surface air temperature in the later part of this century (2071-2099) relative to the later part of the last century (1970-1999) under a scenario that assumes substantial reductions in heat trapping gases (B1) and a higher emissions scenario that assumes continued increases in global emissions (A2). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

 

 

The number of warm nights will also rise, increasing water losses in lakes and streams, heat stress and demand for air conditioning.

 

 

climate GP_warm_nights_projected_V4
The number of nights with the warmest temperatures is projected to increase dramatically. The historical (1971-2000) distribution of temperature for the warmest 2% of nights (Top: about seven days each year) echoes the distinct north-south gradient in average temperatures. By mid-century (2041-2070), the projected change in number of nights exceeding those warmest temperatures is greatest in the south for both the lower emissions scenario (B1) and for the higher emissions scenario (A2). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

 

 

Rainfall patterns are changing too.

 

 

climate CS_Net_Change_in_annual_Precip_12909_v9
The colors on the map show annual total precipitation changes for 1991-2012 compared to the 1901-1960 average, and show wetter conditions in most areas. The bars on the graph show average precipitation differences by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average). The far right bar is for 2001-2012. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

 

 

Texas has always been drought-plagued, but increasing heat and projected changes in rainfall patterns likely means longer dry spells.

 

 

Figure: Change in Maximum Number of Consecutive Dry Days Caption: Change in the number of consecutive dry days (days receiving less than 0.04 inches (1 mm) of precipitation) at the end of this century (2081-2100) relative to the end of last century (1980-1999) under the higher scenario, RCP 8.5. Stippling indicates areas where changes are consistent among at least 80% of the 25 models used in this analysis. (Supplemental Message 5 and Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate, Key Message 3). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).
Figure: Change in Maximum Number of Consecutive Dry Days Caption: Change in the number of consecutive dry days (days receiving less than 0.04 inches (1 mm) of precipitation) at the end of this century (2081-2100) relative to the end of last century (1980-1999) under the higher scenario, RCP 8.5. Stippling indicates areas where changes are consistent among at least 80% of the 25 models used in this analysis. (Supplemental Message 5 and Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate, Key Message 3). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

 

 

We can also expect seasonal changes in precipitation. Spring, in particular, may be significantly drier across Texas.

 

 

climate CS_seasonal_precip_projections_A2_V5
Climate change affects more than just temperature. The location, timing, and amounts of precipitation will also change as temperatures rise. Maps show projected percent change in precipitation in each season for 2071-2099 (compared to the period 1970-1999) under an emissions scenario that assumes continued increases in emissions (A2). Teal indicates precipitation increases, and brown, decreases. Hatched areas indicate that the projected changes are significant and consistent among models. White areas indicate that the changes are not projected to be larger than could be expected from natural variability. In general, the northern part of the U.S. is projected to see more winter and spring precipitation, while the southwestern U.S. is projected to experience less precipitation in the spring. Wet regions are generally projected to become wetter while dry regions become drier. Summer drying is projected for parts of the U.S., including the Northwest and southern Great Plains. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

 

 

Soil moistures are decreasing, a major hurdle for farmers trying to coax crops from the soil. Parched land will be a growing problem, in particular, in areas like the Panhandle, where farmers are transitioning from the depleting Ogallala Aquifer to dry-land crops.

“Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 years,” the assessment states.

 

 

climate CS_soil_moisture_v9
Average change in soil moisture compared to 1971-2000, as projected for the middle of this century (2041-2070) and late this century (2071-2100) under two emissions scenarios, a lower scenario (B1) and a higher scenario (A2). The future drying of soils in most areas simulated by this sophisticated hydrologic model (Variable Infiltration Capacity or VIC model) is consistent with the future drought increases using the simpler Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) metric. Only the western U.S. is displayed because model simulations were only run for this area. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

 

 

Finally, sea levels have been rising inexorably, with an acceleration since the 1970s. Because of all the heat that’s already in the system, oceans will continue to rise for millennia. But by how much and how quickly is dependent on how much more carbon is pumped into the atmosphere. The assessment projects that oceans are likely to rise 1-4 feet by the end of the century, but the report does not rule out an increase of six feet. Much of the Texas coast—including barrier islands like Padre and Galveston, that protect the mainland from tropical storms—is only a few feet above sea level. And sea-level rise will not be uniform. In some areas, like around Galveston-Houston, the ground is sinking as well.

 

climate CS_SLR_scenarios_v8

**

And what is the response from Texas’ top officials to this sobering report?

Gov. Rick Perry: He’s refused to say anything. “Gov. Rick Perry’s office did not respond to a request on Tuesday to describe his policy for preparing the state for climate change and reducing its impact.”

Notably, Perry once wrote that the planet is actually cooling.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn: He didn’t address the report directly, but also avoided putting himself squarely in the denial camp.

“I am not one that denies that human beings have an impact on the environment. But I am sure not willing to put the federal government in charge of trying to micromanage the environment for the United States of America, nor for us to drive up the price of energy for people on fixed income, like seniors and people of modest means, by putting restrictions in place that other nations are not.”

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith: He’s the chair of the House Science Committee, so what do you think his take was?

“This is a political document intended to frighten Americans into believing that any abnormal weather we experience is the direct result of human CO2 emissions.”

And, finally, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality:

The environmental agency seems mightily concerned about the coal industry.

“There has been no significant global warming in more than 15 years, although carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. It is clear that the science of global warming is far from settled.  Regulatory policy cannot be set without firm guidelines and the proven cause and effect that would dictate policy. The NCA global warming policy will result in greatly reduced use of coal for energy generation. This will impact the reliability of the electrical grid, and will also increase energy costs.  It will particularly impact energy prices for those who can least afford it, such as the elderly and the poor.  This is the true environmental impact of the war on coal.”

 

Just for the record, here are the top 10 warmest years on record globally, according to NOAA (not in rank order):

2013 (tie)
2012 (tie)
2010
2009 (tie)
2007 (tie)
2006
2005
2004 (tie)
2003 (tie)
2002
1998

 

State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth)
State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth)

When I called state Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) a week after his narrow loss in the Democratic primary, he wanted me to promise one thing.

“I want you to make it clear that above all things that in my obituary I want it to say not just ‘leading liberal,’ not just ‘avid environmentalist,’ but ‘probably the only pacifist to serve 18 years in the Texas Legislature.’” Because being a liberal and an environmentalist in the Lege isn’t tough enough.

For the almost two decades he’s served in the Legislature, Burnam has been the patron saint of lost causes, the unyielding liberal, the Quaker, the director of the Dallas Peace Center who believes it’s “always bad public policy to start a war.”

First elected in 1996, Burnam’s background was in community organizing and the anti-nuclear movement. At the time, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy hailed him as a “loud, obnoxious liberal.”

There are typically two types of politicians—the pragmatists and the true believers, those who work inside the system and those who work outside it. Burnam is undeniably the latter. He never passed many bills, but he always stood up for issues he thought were important, no matter how unpopular.

Burnam waged battles few other Texas Democrats would even bother with: abolishing the death penalty, legalizing same-sex marriage, instituting a state income tax, doing something, anything, about climate change. Every session he filed these bills and every session they were dead on arrival. That’s Lon, for better or worse—bound to principle and bound to lose, usually.

Burnam’s most famous losing cause was his vote against electing Midland Republican Tom Craddick as speaker of the House in 2003. Burnam was the lone “no” vote—a move that got him exiled to the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Plenty of Democrats (and some Republicans) didn’t want to see Craddick made speaker, but they went along with the winning side. Burnam says it was more than a protest vote. “I think we needed to begin immediately the resistance to his reign as speaker,” Burnam says.

But perhaps no moment better illustrates Burnam’s time in the Lege than a scene on the floor of the Texas House on April 2, 2003. Those were the early days of the Iraq war, and the House wanted to pass a jingoistic resolution blessing the war on terror and praising President Bush’s “patience, leadership, and will.”

Burnam was one of just three Democrats to oppose the resolution. As he argued from the back microphone that the Iraq war was illegal and immoral, dozens of legislators gathered at the front mic in a show of force in support of the motion. The dissent was a lost cause—the resolution passed 136-3—but Burnam felt it was the right thing to do. “People are just chickenshit,” Burnam says. “I can’t tell you how many of my Democratic colleagues said, ‘I wish I had the guts to do that.’”

Being right doesn’t count for much in politics, though let’s give credit: the Iraq war was a disaster and many conservatives would come to regard aspects of the war on terror as another manifestation of government overreach. Craddick lasted just three sessions and then was overthrown by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats.

Still, Burnam’s insistence on sticking to principle cost him the ability to pass many bills. “The last 10 years since then has kind of been like the French resistance against occupation,” he says.

Instead, Burnam says, he embraced his outsider status to do the dirty work his colleagues couldn’t—his version, perhaps, of realpolitik. “One of the things people will miss about me is my willingness to kill a bill on principle,” he says. “It’s a role that fell to me.”

In the March primary, Burnam lost to his opponent, Ramon Romero Jr., by 111 votes—a victim, he says, of Republican redistricting and “identity politics.” He’s filed suit to try to overturn the election, arguing that Romero signed people up to vote by mail using illegal means. The lawsuit is a long shot at best… which is, of course, fitting for Burnam.

When I talked to him in March, before he’d filed the lawsuit, there was a tinge of bitterness to his post-primary analysis. “It’s a different constituency, and I couldn’t make the transition fast enough because in part I couldn’t become Hispanic,” he says.

Burnam won’t rule out running for office again, and if his lawsuit doesn’t pan out he plans to return to the Capitol as an activist.

“I started out trying to save the world, but it’s real clear to me the world doesn’t want to be saved,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.”

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry attends the National Day of Prayer breakfast in Austin, Tex.

If there was any lingering doubt that Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund functions more as a corporate cookie jar than a “deal-closing” job machine, it should surely be put to rest with today’s news. Earlier this week, Perry announced that Toyota would receive $40 million to move its North American headquarters from California to Plano and bring with it 4,000 jobs. In a press release, Perry crowed, “Toyota understands that Texas’ employer-friendly combination of low taxes, fair courts, smart regulations and world-class workforce can help businesses of any size succeed and thrive.”

The press release went on to claim that Toyota had “cited a number of factors in choosing” Plano, including the Texas Enterprise Fund investment.

But today, the Los Angeles Times reports that that’s so much horse hockey.

“Taxes, regulations and business climate appear to have had nothing to do with Toyota’s move,” the paper reported. And that’s coming from a top executive.

“It may seem like a juicy story to have this confrontation between California and Texas, but that was not the case,” said Jim Lentz, Toyota’s North American chief executive.

Toyota left California to move its company’s brainpower, now divided among offices in three states, into one headquarters close to the company’s manufacturing base, primarily in the South.

“It doesn’t make sense to have oversight of manufacturing 2,000 miles away from where the cars were made,” Lentz said. “Geography is the reason not to have our headquarters in California.”

Oops.

So what did Texas taxpayers get for their $40 million? If you take Lentz at his word, basically nothing. Toyota was coming to Texas with or without the Enterprise Fund money. An incentives program like the Enterprise Fund is premised on the idea of being a “deal-closer.” You have to ask the “but-for” question: But for this incentive, would X company move to Texas? If the answer is, “Yes, the company would move anyway,” then there is no reason to offer the incentive.

What’s remarkable in the Toyota case is that an executive is admitting as much. You can’t blame Toyota—a for-profit company responsible to its shareholders—for taking the $40 million, but you have to wonder if the state of Texas shouldn’t now ask for its money back.

And what did Perry get? Bragging rights, the ability to lay claim to the “job creator” mantle, another notch in his belt for the silly zero-sum California vs. Texas pissing match and associating himself with a popular brand of Texas-made trucks. (Full disclosure: I own a Toyota Tacoma.)

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the true nature of the Enterprise Fund, which has paid out $558 million since its inception in 2003, has been made apparent. Last year, the governor offered Chevron $12 million for an office tower it was already planning to build in downtown Houston and the company’s own application made scant reference to other sites it was considering. Chevron also noted that it planned to use the money to lavish employees with moving benefits and perks.

If there is a “Texas miracle,” Perry’s Enterprise Fund doesn’t seem to have much to do with it.

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry attends the National Day of Prayer breakfast in Austin, Tex.

Is it too early to consider Rick Perry’s legacy? Some state lawmakers already are, at least indirectly.

Legislators are considering what to do with some of the guv’s signature programs, the big corporate subsidy funds that have been plagued by charges of cronyism and inefficiency since their inception. Funding for the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, in particular, is dwindling due to lawmakers’ reluctance to keep pouring dollars into what some critics consider Perry’s corporate welfare accounts. The Observer, for example, reported on a $12 million Texas Enterprise Fund grant to Chevron for a Houston office tower that the company had announced years before. Chevron, in fact,  planned to spend the money not to create new jobs, which were already in the works, but on generous moving costs for its employees.

Overall, the Texas Enterprise Fund alone has doled out more than $500 million in grants since the Legislature created it a decade ago. In 2010, the Observer found—in a story appropriately titled “Slush Fun“—that 20 of the 55 Enterprise Fund companies had either given money directly to Perry’s campaign or donated to the Republican Governors Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that Perry presided over in 2008.

All of that is on Rick Perry. But it’s up to the Legislature and the next governor—either Wendy Davis or, more likely, Greg Abbott—whether to shut down the funds, or modify them.

Today, a House committee heard from a parade of economic development types, including governor’s office personnel overseeing the funds, who argued that the programs are a key ingredient in the supposed “Texas miracle economy.”

“Don’t screw up the basics,” said Jonathan Taylor, Perry’s economic development director. “But also recognize that all those incentives are must-haves now.”

The timing of the hearing was perfect. Perry is on one of his frequent job-hunting trips, this time in New York, where he’s been repeating his challenge to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to debate, as he put it on Twitter today, “creating jobs and free marketing [sic] policies.”

Indeed, the message from business interests and the governor’s people at today’s hearing was that the programs were too burdensome for applicants—though, of course, that was dressed up as needing more “flexibility.” Taylor urged the Legislature, citing competition from other states, to consider shrinking the turnaround for Enterprise Fund grants from 90 days to two weeks.

Prompted by questions from lawmakers, Taylor and his counterpart at the Emerging Technology Fund, Terry Hazell, also cautioned the Legislature not to move control of the funds out of the governor’s office.

“You get in front of the people who actually make the decisions,” Taylor said, of why companies like working with the governor’s office. “You get to talk to the decision-makers.”

Of course that goes straight to one of the core criticism of the Enterprise Fund, the Emerging Tech Fund, the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas and all the other big pools of money that flow through the guv to big and powerful interests—that they’re not so much technocratically managed job-creating programs as political slush-funds that haven’t proven claims about job creation.

Hazell said today that the Emerging Tech Fund didn’t track return on investments for individual companies and that the overall return was “modest.”

Lingering over the discussion today was the question of what Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott think about these programs. Neither has said anything definitive.

Abbott has been particularly cagey. In July, when asked directly, he told the Houston Chronicle:

“If we can create the appropriate tax structure, that’s going to be the strongest incentive any business needs, whether it be businesses thinking about relocating from California or businesses already here.”

Davis, for her part, has said she supports the premise of a job-creating program like the Texas Enterprise Fund but has pushed for more accountability and transparency. In 2013, she co-authored legislation requiring the state auditor to take a closer look at whether the Enterprise Fund was following the law.

"Jesus Christ on Killing" by Sgt. Charlie Eipper
Amazon.com
"Jesus Christ on Killing" by Sgt. Charlie Eipper

We’ve found it, the mother of all WTF. We have found Peak WTF. After this one, we may have to retire WTF Friday, just hang it up in recognition that nothing will ever top this.

But, first, let’s look at the runner-ups this week.

The Texas Nationalist Movement—”The state’s leading independence organization”—had themselves a meetin’ down in San Antonio and resolved to redouble their minority outreach. But first, they had to run Kanye West out of town.

“We are defending our culture because some rap singer from Los Angeles wanted to show his video on the walls of The Alamo, and a bunch of blue shirts (Texas Nationalists) showed up and said, ‘Nuh-uh!’” Belmore said.

That is a kind of charming image: A bunch of heavily armed far-right secessionists chasing off an extremely wealthy and successful rapper by going, “Nuh-uh!” (And Kanye retreats, with echoes of “na-na, na-na, boo-boo/stick your head in doo-doo” ringing in his diamond-encrusted ears.)

Oh, and “blueshirts”? Guys, if you’re rebranding to appeal to a more mainstream audience, perhaps it’s best not to refer to yourself with the same term used for multiple fascist causes around the globe.

Anyway, Texas’ leading independence organization is trying to bring more minorities into the cause.

“I’m not talking about pandering, let the other side do that,” he said. “We have much more in common with minorities than they (liberals) do.”

Suggested slogans: “Secession: It’s Not Just for Slave-Owners Anymore” or “This Ain’t Your Grandaddy’s Secession Movement” or “Secession: Second Time’s the Charm.”

If and when Texas does secede, I know who could be head of the FBI, or maybe poet laureate: Sgt. Charlie Eipper of the Wichita Falls Police Department. Eipper once killed a man in the line of duty. Then he was troubled that the indiscriminate killing in Rambo IV would give Christians the wrong idea… that there’s anything wrong with a high body count. As he told the Wichita Falls Times Record:

“[Rambo] didn’t want to, but finally did. Their boat got taken over by river pirates. He had to kill them to save everybody,” Eipper recalls. “When Rambo was dropping the missionaries off at their destination, the lead missionary was stepping off the boat and turned to Rambo. ‘I know you think what you did is right,’ the missionary said, ‘but it’s never right to take a life.’”

Eipper cringed. “I thought, ‘What if there’s a young believer in Christ watching this? What if it’s somebody who is in the Marine Corps? Or an officer? They’re going to be so confused. They’ll think, ‘Surely this guy is speaking on authority of Scripture.’”

So, he wrote a book—self-published on Amazon.com—called Jesus Christ on Killing. Which is only a slightly-less disturbing title than Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Christ, IMHO. Eipper’s book contains chapters such as “Thou Shall Not Kill?” and “Jesus the Man of War.” As the Times Record describes it, “he is articulate on the subject of Jesus Christ and killing.”

“The Scriptures are clear that God condones the use of deadly force in killing whenever we are threatened,” Eipper said.

Stand your ground, boys. That’s what Jesus would do.

Turns out that Jesus is coming back and boy is he pissed. Says Eipper:

“When Jesus comes back, he will be the man of war. When he comes back, there will be a whole lot of killing going on.”

Happy Good Friday, everyone!

Texas Barnett Shale gas drilling rig near Alvarado, Texas
Barnett Shale rig

New research suggests that pollution from fracking contributes a much larger share of Dallas-Fort Worth’s smog problem than state officials have said. The study, conducted by Mahdi Ahmadi, a graduate student at the University of North Texas, was presented at a clean-air meeting this morning in Arlington. The Observer received a copy of the presentation.

Ahmadi analyzed data from 16 air-quality monitors in the Metroplex going back to 1997, looking for a connection between oil and gas production and ozone. Seven of the sites were east of Denton, outside of the Barnett Shale, and nine were located in the shale area, close to oil and gas activity.

Ahmadi’s twist is that he adjusted for meteorological conditions, including air temperature, wind speed and sunlight—key ingredients in ozone formation. Backing natural factors out of the data allowed Ahmadi to better pinpoint human factors, including the link between fracking and ozone formation.

He found that while smog levels have dropped overall since the late 1990s, ozone levels in fracking areas have been increasing steadily and rising at a much higher rate than in areas without oil and gas activity.

“This is a small but important victory for real science in this process, as opposed to the completely politicized approach by TCEQ to prevent the imposition of new controls of any kind,” said Jim Schermbeck, director of North Texas clean-air group Downwinders at Risk.

Since 2008, meteorologically-adjusted ozone in the fracking region has increased 12 percent while in the non-fracking region ozone rose just 4 percent.

UNT ozone study

UNT air quality study winter monthsThe trend during the winter was “even more striking,” said Dr. Kuruvilla John, the UNT engineering professor who oversaw the study. During winter months, the fracking region saw a 21-percent increase in ozone, while in the non-fracking area it went up 5 percent.

That’s significant because ozone season has traditionally been confined to the summer months. Moreover, EPA’s smog standards have become increasingly stringent over time, as scientists find more evidence for health problems at lower levels. If the EPA were to lower the ozone standard to 60 or 65 parts per billion—it currently sits at 75 ppb—the Dallas-Fort Worth region could find itself out of compliance even during winter months.

Regardless, Ahmadi’s research directly challenges the message from Gov. Rick Perry and Texas’ top environmental officials, who routinely dismiss links between smog, and oil and gas activity. On its website, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality claims that because the wind “blows emissions from the Barnett Shale away from the DFW area,” those emissions from fracking are “not expected to significantly affect ozone in the DFW area.”

The new UNT research isn’t the only recent study suggesting that the state’s scientific understanding of ozone is shaky. A study conducted for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, released earlier this month, found that fracking activity in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale would drive large increases in the two main ozone ingredients and imperil San Antonio’s compliance with federal smog rules.

Apparently, the group’s public probing of the fracking-smog links didn’t sit too well with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Austin American-Statesman reported on Monday:

“The Texas environmental agency has frozen funding for a San Antonio area governmental coalition’s air quality improvement work after an official there publicly shared modeling results that suggested fracking contributed pollution to the city.

“Last summer the Alamo Area Council of Governments made public a report that found that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Eagle Ford shale field endangers air quality in the San Antonio area – and, to a milder extent, the Austin area.

“The Alamo group, composed of officials representing local governments over a 12-county area, did not share the report’s data beforehand with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which had paid for its collection.

“So when it came time last fall to dole out money to councils of government from across the state – including the council from the Austin area – all but the Alamo area council were rewarded with a roughly 30 percent uptick in Legislature-appropriated money to carry out air quality monitoring and planning work.”

 

KETK's Neal Barton
KETKNBC.com
KETK's Neal Barton

Sometimes it’s baffling that the United States, unlike most of the world, continues to have a persistently large population of climate change deniers. But, then, you see something like this—a preposterously misleading commentary on climate change that ran on KETK, the NBC affiliate in Tyler—and you begin to understand why. The two-minute segment, which ran on Friday, was billed as “Global Warming, Laughable” and featured the commentary of KETK News Director Neal Barton. The piece is riddled with factual errors, bizarre assertions and it cites an obscure scientist and a committee of the United Kingdom House of Commons. Oh, and it’s also plagiarized from a British newspaper. Basically, Barton read portions of a story from the Yorkshire Evening Post on his “POV” segment, passing the views off as his own.

The story (or in this case, a text version of what aired) opens innocently enough:

Recently, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report in seven years on the now widely accepted phenomenon known as “climate change.”

For the record, the IPCC is the global authority on climate science, consisting of hundreds of climate authorities from dozens of countries. The panel’s recent findings call climate change “unequivocal” and warn of dire effects from sea-level rise, wildfires, flood and drought.

But then, Barton’s POV takes an abrupt (far-right) turn away from the broad scientific mainstream into a kind-of false-balance upside-down world.

But, one teacher says it’s all bunk and you won’t hear this on the mainstream media. So I’m glad to serve equal time.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report, damning the media for confusing ‘fact’ with opinion and pushing the message that, in terms of freak weather, ‘the worst is yet to come.’

Yeah, sure it is.

Barton doesn’t mention that the House of Commons is a British institution. But more important, he gets the committee’s report completely wrong. The report, in fact, laments  that the public is misinformed on what scientists know about climate change, and criticizes the media in the UK—the BBC in particular—for scientific inaccuracy and relying on “experts” with an agenda. Which is precisely what Barton does. So he says in his commentary:

Emeritus Professor Les Woodcock goes against the grain and when a reporter asks the former NASA scientist about “climate change” and “global warming,” he laughs.

He says the term “climate change” is meaningless. The Earth’s climate has been changing since the Earth was formed 1,000 million years ago. The theory of “man-made climate change” is an unsubstantiated hypothesis [about] our climate [which says it] has been adversely affected by the burning of fossil fuels in the last 100 years, causing the average temperature on the Earth’s surface to increase very slightly, but with disastrous environmental consequences..

Notably, Professor Woodcock gets the age of Earth wrong. it’s not 1 billion years old, it’s about 4.54 billion. But, then, why is Barton quoting a British professor when the U.S. has most of the world’s prominent climate denialists? I emailed Barton yesterday to ask about some of his claims and he sent me a link to a news article in the Yorkshire Evening Post, one of the leading newspapers of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Which is kind of a weird thing to do because, as it turns out, nearly every word of Barton’s commentary is lifted verbatim from the Yorkshire Evening Post story, which ran in February, including the quote from Woodcock. The only difference is that Barton noticeably pauses over the word “reproducible” twice, and then skips over it. He also adds a few choice interjections (“Amen sir”).

I asked Barton in an email about his apparent plagiarism.

“We’ve only been keeping records for 100 years,” he responded. “I was told this when I did tv weather 30-years ago. That’s was before I went through 40 hours of college meteorology. I was told this by meteorologist who trained me. They were absolutely right then—and now. The Evening Post was right on it.”

I asked him if it was appropriate to plagiarize in a commentary.

He responded (spacing in the original):

I attributed right from the article.

I said where I got it from.

Plagiarism is just saying here is what I think and never mentioned where you found it.

I cite articles all the time.

Of course it’s ok in a commentary.

It’s the basis many times for the commentary.

That’s where you start.

You agree or sometimes disagree.

This is not the first time Barton, or KETK, has run into controversy. In 2010, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy criticized the station for its cheerleading of a tea party event in Tyler that featured Glenn Beck and Rick Perry. The reporter responsible for that report explained to StinkyJournalism.com, “The TV station I work for, and I don’t necessarily agree, has taken a right-wing approach.”

But Barton explained that KETK is “right on track with our coverage of the Tea Party.”