Political Intelligence

Stripping the Pole Tax

During the 2007 session of the Texas Legislature, Texas’ strip club industry got its tassels in a twist over a law requiring a $5 fee for club patrons. The fees were supposed to fund rape-crisis centers and treatment for sexual offenders, among other programs.

This session, the clubs have engineered a proposed change in the law-and a potential windfall. First the industry sued the state attorney general and comptroller on the grounds that the fee violates performers’ First Amendment rights. Then Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat, filed House Bill 982. On May 12, Thompson’s bill passed the Senate, repealing the $5 “pole tax.”

Unless Gov. Rick Perry vetoes the measure, the state will return $11 million collected by the comptroller’s office since 2007. In turn, strip clubs will pay a 10 percent tax on gross receipts from door fees. The tax also covers adult bookstores and other adult-themed businesses. The money generated will go not only to rape-crisis centers, but also to public schools.

Brete Anderson, Thompson’s legislative director, says the tax will bring in less money than the fee, but has a better chance of standing up in court. Strip club owners triumphed last year when state District Judge Scott Jenkins ruled the tax violated dancers’ First Amendment rights. The state challenged the ruling, and the appeal is expected to be heard this summer by the Third Court of Appeals of Texas. “The plaintiffs have said they will drop the lawsuit if this bill passes,” Anderson says.

Taxxx-Less. illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Torie Camp, deputy director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, says it will be easy to skirt the tax under Thompson’s industry-backed measure. “How many adult bookstores charge a door fee?” she asks. “Strip clubs will simply have a drink minimum or some other fee besides a door fee to avoid the tax.”

Defenders of the 2007 law believe they can win the court battle and set a precedent, creating a taxation blueprint for other state governments. “We could take this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Camp says. “We are at the forefront, and other states are looking to us for guidance.”

Rep. Ellen Cohen, the Houston Democrat who authored the 2007 bill, had proposed a “cleanup” bill that would have bolstered her side’s chances of winning in court. Cohen’s bill would have reduced the fee to $3 and directed all the money to sexual-assault prevention. Some now goes to a state fund for the uninsured.

Despite having 69 bipartisan sponsors and co-authors, Cohen’s bill failed in mid-May on a point of order. Now Perry is the last resort for saving the pole tax. “We think the governor will support the survivors of sexual violence,” Camp says, “not strip clubs.”


Little New Orleans?

Galveston’s public housing Backlash

Hopes of a summer homecoming for former residents of Galveston’s beleaguered public housing system have been dashed.

In January, residents displaced by Hurricane Ike cheered when the Galveston Housing Authority announced a plan to refurbish two housing projects, Cedar Terrace and Oleander Homes, as temporary living quarters while crews rebuilt two others. The buildings were to be ready by August. The housing authority also said it would try to build 1,500 affordable houses over the next decade.

Since last September, when Hurricane Ike made landfall, more than 500 families have been living in trailers or motels, or with relatives. The storm only added to the need for affordable housing on the island. A waiting list has ballooned from 900 before the storm to 2,500.

In May, Galveston housing officials reversed course, deciding to demolish Cedar Terrace and Oleander Homes after a public backlash. The city of Galveston also unexpectedly declared the buildings unfit for habitation. The housing authority says it plans to spend $66 million rebuilding all four projects, but the buildings may not be ready for another year and a half.

Some hear ever-louder echoes of post-Katrina New Orleans in all this. In New Orleans, thousands of government-subsidized apartments-an estimated 82 percent of the pre-storm number-have been bulldozed and only partially replaced with mixed-income developments. Former residents, overwhelmingly African-American, now have few affordable housing options in their hometown.

“Katrina gives you a good outlook,” says Leon Phillips, a Galveston civil rights organizer and “BOI” (born on the island). “When people stay gone too long, they don’t return.”

After the storm, many in Galveston’s hard-hit poorer neighborhoods feared the indifference of authorities. They may not have counted on the hostility of more affluent neighbors. “Now the deadbeats, crackheads, whores, and other welfare trash will have new housing to tear up,” wrote one commenter on the Galveston County Daily News Web site. “All at our expense of course.”

Some dream of a recovery that excludes the less fortunate. An online petition signed by more than 2,000 people calls for the elimination of public housing on Galveston, including apartments for the elderly and disabled. Instead, the petition says, federal funds should be spent “to rebuild a healthy, clean, safe tourist destination.”

One signatory, Norman Pappous, a civic activist and Republican, calls public housing a “failed social experiment” that promotes dependency and concentrates crime. “Why are we empowering the government to expand a program that has already failed?” he asks.

Phillips acknowledges serious problems in the projects. But he says opponents should be aware of island history. The decline of the unionized Galveston docks in the 1970s devastated the black middle class. Chronic unemployment for many set in, with attendant increases in drug abuse and other social ills. Some found employment in the low-wage tourist industry, but hardly enough to afford decent places to live.

Rather than deal with these thorny economic and social problems, many well-off Galvestonians would rather push the problem to the mainland.

Stop the Presses!

Transparently Hostile

Open government on trial at the Legislature

On May 11, Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat, implored Capitol reporters to push his bill expanding Medicaid benefits. “We need the press to be a vital part of this,” he said. “Because let me just say this … all of us voted for the shield law. It is on the governor’s desk to be signed. We did that.”

True: Earlier in the session, the Legislature passed a media shield law allowing journalists to protect confidential sources without risking jail time. But journalists have reason to feel less than obliged to Turner and his colleagues, because the rest of the session has seen multiple attacks on open government and transparency.

Sen. Robert Duncan, a Lubbock Republican, pushed a bill to exempt public employees’ birth dates from public disclosure. Birth dates, as journalists pointed out, are unique identifiers that have proven crucial in uncovering hundreds of people with criminal records working in school directs, and agencies like the Texas Youth Commission and Child Protective Services. An outcry over Duncan’s bill led him to gut the measure in favor of studying “how we can better address this without unnecessarily impeding the media’s ability to conduct meaningful investigative reporting.”

Unfortunately, Duncan’s bill was part of a larger trend. Rep. Diane Patrick, an Arlington Republican, won House approval for a bill that keeps school employees’ birth dates confidential. (At press time, the bill’s fate in the Senate was uncertain.) In the Senate, Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, took a more direct approach, authoring a bill that exempts criminal records of public school employees from disclosure. West’s bill passed the Senate and a House committee, and awaited action from the full House at press time.

Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, successfully pushed a bill to prevent-in the name of security-the release of “sensitive information” about biosafety labs. Experts who have already exposed biolab accidents in Texas say transparency bolsters rather than undermines security.

San Antonio Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth has also been busy. Under his Senate Bill 1630, appraisals of property the government is negotiating to buy would no longer be considered public information, under the pretense that releasing the price would hurt the government’s bargaining position. (As of press time, this along with the identical companion House bill to West’s bill are the only two that stand a chance of surviving the late-session bill-slaughtering slowdown in the House.)

Wentworth also got a bill through the Senate that would keep the travel vouchers of peace officers private when they’re protecting public officials. If it passes, the amount spent on Gov. Rick Perry’s security details, and the reasons for spending it, will be kept from the public. (Both Wentworth bills, like Huffman’s, were pending in House committees as the Legislature wound down.)

Such measures strike at the heart of journalists’-and the public’s-right to know what government officials and agencies are up to. Turner shouldn’t have been surprised that the news media didn’t rise to his call for cheerleading on the Medicaid bill, which died in the House. The shield law was welcome. But if investigative journalists aren’t allowed to do their jobs, there will be less and less worth shielding.

Cheneytown

Climate Change

Legislators open rhetorical fire on TCEQ

As ritual, Senate confirmation hearings for Bryan Shaw, Gov. Rick Perry’s latest pick for the three-member panel that oversees the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, were cathartic, at least for the agency’s growing ranks of critics.

In a tense April committee hearing, and again in May on the Senate floor, Democrats blasted Shaw, an associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at Texas A&M, for the environmental agency’s failures. Shaw has served as a TCEQ commissioner since his appointment in November 2007. The list of issues is substantial: lack of public input on air pollution; permitting a West Texas radioactive waste dump over staff objections; and secret, possibly illegal, meetings between Asarco, the El Paso copper smelter and major polluter, and at least one TCEQ commissioner.

“Over the last decade TCEQ has lost its way,” said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, an El Paso Democrat. “Created to enforce clean air and clean water laws, TCEQ now protects polluters.”

In an unusual move, the senators “severed” Shaw from the day’s other nominees and put him up for an individual vote-partly so they could air their grievances. Though Shaw was confirmed 22-7 (confirmation requires a two-thirds vote of those present), this rare public challenge underscored the sense that the industry-friendly TCEQ is embarrassingly out of step with a greening citizenry.

Sens. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, and Shapleigh grilled Shaw for hours. As Watson pointed out, confirmation hearings are one of the few chances for legislators and the public to figure out “how [agency heads] think about things.”

Watson, sarcastic at times, asked whether TCEQ is doing anything to prepare for congressional action on climate change, legislation that will have a major impact on the Texas energy sector. Shaw’s response: No, but the agency would “monitor and try to anticipate” new EPA requirements. Next, Watson asked if Shaw agreed with the view, supported by the vast majority of scientists, that human activity is driving dramatic climate change. Shaw’s answer was a tad opaque:

“I don’t believe it’s fully vetted,” said a visibly nervous Shaw, who sports a “high and tight” Aggie buzz cut. “Fortunately or unfortunately, having a consensus of a group of scientists doesn’t make that fully settled. There are still certainly those renowned scientists that still express skepticism, and moreover, I think that it warrants a critical process of looking forward because the implications of moving forward based on

the assumption that manmade contribution is the primary driver of climate change may close windows of opportunity for us with regard to the environmental good that we’re trying to achieve.”

Clear as smog.

Watson wryly suggested that Shaw consult colleagues

in the atmospheric sciences department at A&M. As it turned out, he already had. Gerald North, a renowned expert on climate studies at the university, told the he met with Shaw “a year or two ago” to discuss the science behind climate change. North said he left the meeting with a “kind

of empty feeling,” because he got the impression that ­”opposite political and economic considerations weighed more heavily” with Shaw than “an actual analysis of the views in the active scientific community.”

A gaggle of senators has called for Gov. Rick Perry to launch a “top-to-bottom” shake-up of the TCEQ. Though that’s unlikely, environmental groups are holding out hope that the agency’s sunset review, which kicks off in 2012, will lead to serious reform.

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