Monday, November 22, 2010

Civic Commons

I'm still on jury duty, but I have a little time to write a quick post.  I found out about a website this morning called Civic Commons.  Civic Commons wants to help government entities at all levels share their technology, eliminating redundancy, fostering innovation, and cutting costs.  Here's what they do

  • Facilitating the sharing of code among government entities, with an eye towards developing an “Open Civic Stack”
  • Connecting governments throughout all phases of technology procurement, and building systems for more transparent & informed technology choices
  • Developing and supporting Open Data and Open Standards as foundations of an “Open Civic API”
  • Spreading government technology best practices
  • Building a community of “civic hackers” and give them clear opportunities to assist in the development of government technology
An interesting idea that could save governments a lot of money.  I only see one draw back, security issues in dealing with open sourced software, but if the government entity is diligent in dealing with security, this shouldn't be a problem.  I'll post the site in my helpful website listings.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The VIA Express

Well, lucky me, I'm on jury duty, but it has given me the chance to try out the new VIA Express bus.  The first day I rode it, I barely made it.  I drove over to the Park & Ride at 1604 and IH 10 and there were two buses sitting at the stop, but as I got out of the car one of them (the 94) drove off, so I rushed over and jumped on the 93.  Both of these routes are express, but the 93 also stops at the Crossroads Center, while the 94 goes straight downtown.  There were about four other passengers on the 6:50am bus.  Check the VIA bus schedules for info on bus stops and travel times.  Click on the Adobe reader icons for the actual schedules.

While riding, I struck up a conversation with a regular rider.  She works for the county and rides the bus everyday from the Crossroads stop.  She told me that the Express is very popular with people selected for jury duty.  She said sometimes the bus is packed with jurors.  The day I rode, I was probably the only one, and the bus wasn't full.  It's pretty cool because they actually send you two free tickets (there and back) along with the jury summons.  Since I used the ticket the bus driver knew I was going to the justice center, and when we arrived at the center at about 7:12-7:15am (the bus stops directly in front of it) he announced which doors to enter and that the main jury room was in the basement.  So the ride to the Justice Center was extremely easy.  I took the 6:50am bus, because the next bus at 7:20am was not scheduled to arrive at the Justice Center until 7:47am, and I didn't want to chance it because I was supposed to be there at 8:00am.  Bus Schedules are not always on time because of traffic and that's when traffic is usually at its peak.

I got put on a panel for a judge who was determined to pick a jury that day so that the case could be concluded before the holidays, so he kept us until 6:30pm.  Luckily the Express for IH 10 runs until 10:00pm but if you are riding the 281 express, it only runs until 7:00pm. The other Express routes are route 6 for the 281 corridor to downtown, route 16 to Fort Sam Houston, route 48, the IH 35 South Express, and route 64, the Hwy 90 Express.  If you just want to do some sightseeing check out the Sightseer Special, route 7 which travels from the Botanical Garden to La Villita and back, with stops at the Witte, the Zoo/Brackenridge Park, the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Alamo.

So it was after dark when I walked out to the bus stop.  The nearest stop is a little creepy.  It's in front of the Payless Shoe store at Commerce and Soledad across from the newly refurbished Main Plaza.  Definitely be ready for some local characters, homeless people with shopping carts who talk to themselves, young women in very skimpy outfits with spiky high heels, some young men who probably are regularly refered to as Ese, and I think even a willowy transvestite.  The 94 bus came exactly at 7:10pm as scheduled, and I have to admit, I was a bit relieved.    The bus brought me back to the Park & Ride at about 7:25pm.

Well, I was lucky enough to be picked for a jury, so I'll be at the Justice Center every day for awhile.  Everyday a juror can go down to the main jury room and pick up a set of free bus tickets for the next day.  Since we got out so late, the office was closed, so I decided to drive the next day and park in the County Parking lot across from the Justice Center.  With a validated ticket, you can park there for $2.00 a day, but beware, there is no in and out, so if you move your car, you will have to pay more, and there is no guarentee that there will be any spaces left, because the garage fills up by 8:00am.  One of my fellow jurors arrived at 7:45am and had to park elsewhere.  So if you get picked for a jury and you don't have to be there at the crack of dawn, you might want to consider the Express Bus.  I don't have to be there until 9:30am today, so I'm definetely taking the bus!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where does the money come from? The Texas Budget

The state of Texas receives money from several funding sources, with about half of its income (approximately $44 billion in 2010-2011) coming from the state sales and use tax rate of 6 1/4% (.0625).   City, county and transportation authorities can also collect sales taxes, but the combined tax can be no more than 8 1/4% (.0825). The Sales and Use tax is imposed on
all retail sales, leases and rentals of most goods, as well as taxable services.
Sales tax is highly dependent on consumption, luckily, Texans have been willing to spend money so revenue was actually up by 2.2% by June 2010.

Motor Vehicle Sales and Use taxes make up the second largest source of income for the state and the Texas Franchise Tax is the third largest source of general revenue.  This tax collects 0.5 to 1.0% of  the margin from all corporations, Limited Liability Companies, Partnerships (with exceptions), Professional Associations,Joint Ventures, Business Trusts, and Other legal entities chartered in the State of Texas.  But what the hell is Margin?
Margin equals the lowest of three calculations:
  • total revenue minus cost of goods sold;
  • total revenue minus compensation; or
  • total revenue times 70 percent.

Here is a table from the Window on Open Government that details the General Revenue fund sources.

 As you can see revenues from the general sales tax, the motor fuels tax and alcoholic beverages taxes are up slightly, but revenues from all other funding sources are down, with total tax collections down by 2.5% and non tax collections down by 4.7% lowering General Fund Revenue by about $9 billion, a hole Texas can't really afford right now.

Texas also receives money from the federal government, about $55.1 billion during the 2010-2011 biennium.  In 2005 (according to the latest figures available by the Tax Foundation) Texas received $0.94 per dollar of taxes paid by Texans to the federal government.  So Texas is getting most of its money back and only actually contributing $0.06 to federal programs. Looks like we are getting off pretty cheap, especially compared to states like California, that only received $0.78 per dollar paid in income taxes.

Texans as a general rule are allergic to taxes and raising tax limits is tantamount to political suicide, but can we really afford to keep taxes this low???  

My next post will detail where the tax money is spent in Texas.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Texas State Budget: How did we get that HUGE Shortfall???

Over and over in the news I see reports of budget shortfalls for states.  Estimates in newspapers for the Texas Budget shortfall range from $18 billion to $25 billion.  So I decided to write a new series of posts on the Texas Budget.

Then the confusion set in.  When I started to investigate the shortfall by going to websites where these things are actually calculated, like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), which gathers data on all the states, and the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), which deals specifically with the State of Texas, I started finding a lot of discrepancies.  The CBPP which gets its numbers for Texas from the CPPP says the budget gap is $4.6 billion for 2011.  But the CPPP says
Texas needs to make significant public investments in infrastructure and services to ensure our prosperity. Unfortunately, Texas is a low-tax state with a structural deficit. In 2006, the state made its structural deficit worse by pledging to pay for a local school property tax cut. The "hole" or uncovered cost of that tax cut is now almost $10 billion per biennium. To add to the state's woes, just before the legislative session began in 2009, the country went into a severe economic recession that substantially reduced state tax revenues. Fortunately, the federal government stepped in with Recovery Act funding. Even so, many important projects and programs were left unfunded or inadequately funded.
Now, I guess you could figure that $10 billion per biennium has added up since 2006 to about $20 billion.  Not quite sure where the $4.6 billion figure comes from.  According to the Sunshine Review of the 2009-11 budget there was a projected amount of $9 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, which probably helps balance the budget out to the point that in 2010 the gap in the budget is $3.5 billion, with an added $1.3 billion in 2011, which adds up to $4.8 billion.  But usually, legistators hate touching the Rainy Day Fund.

In an article by Veronica Flores-Paniagua in the Express, she says the shortfall is about $25 billion, so if you add $20 billion for the last four years plus $4.6 billion from the CBPP, then it sort of makes sense.

Since the Texas legislature only meets every other year they have to come up with a budget that covers the government until the next legislative session in 2013, two more years, another $10 billion.  Public School Districts across Texas have been ordered to cut their budgets by 5-10%.  Now there is always fat in a large bureaucracy that can be trimmed, but if you are looking at $60 million for the next school year like Northside ISD, limiting paper use doesn't go very far, and hiring freezes can only work for a limited time in a fast growing school district.

Then to add to the pain, Perry refused to sign off on the latest school funding bill which would have given some relief to cash strapped districts.  The political wrangling on that bill was just plain STUPID in my opinion.  I blame both Perry and Lloyd Doggett for being pig-headed.  Lloyd Doggett basically drew a line in the sand by requiring Perry (the only governor required to do this) to pledge that federal funding would not replace state funding for schools (which apparently happened the last time Texas got federal school funding).  Perry, of course, refused to sign it, saying it was illegal for him to tie the legislature's hands for the future budget process, making him a Tea Party Darling.  Lloyd Doggett was trying to make Perry look bad, because he wasn't taking money for the schools, well that BACK FIRED, and now the school districts are paying the price.

Texas is 35th in the nation in per pupil spending.  Now if you are anti-taxes you probably think this is great and spending per student is not necessarily an indicator of how well students do in school.  But when budget cuts have to continue, because there is no money to make up for the gap in spending, after awhile it will effect student performance.  Can Texas afford to lower its student performance at a time when it is becoming the place for high tech and biomedical companies to locate, grow and proper?  Remember that old saying, you get what you pay for.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Making Bus Travel Easier and Faster

VIA's reimagined Express Service is now on line.  I got a door tag with two free ride coupons to advertise the new routes and buses.  The buses have WIFI, cargo racks, plush seats, reading lights and hybrid engines, making them a far cry from the Express bus I used to ride back in 1983.

But in a city with a lot of traffic, how do you make the bus go faster?  In about 2 years, VIA plans to have a gizmo that allows them to change red lights green, but that's a few years in the future.  Other ways to make buses faster are HOV lanes (a pretty inexpensive thing to do, and contrary to car commuter fears, doesn't slow down the rest of traffic, check out my post about them here.)  And in NYC they have put in bus ticket kiosks by the bus stops in order to take fare collection out of the picture, a process that slows down bus travel by 30%.  After adding light changing transponders and fare kiosks, bus ridership in New York went up by 20%, in a city where mass transit is highly used that's pretty phenomenal.  It's also the first time, that when polled, NYC bus riders were 98% satisfied with the bus service.

So will fancier, faster bus service catch on in SA, the jury is still out, but I think I'm going to try out my free bus rides.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Want Change but not that kind of CHANGE

When President Obama was elected CHANGE was his mantra.  He won the election by 7 percentage points.  Not exactly a mandate, but certainly change from the previous administration.  Of course, Texas went for McCain, but only by 11 percent, not exactly a total blowout either.  But now, people are MAD because the Democrats took it for granted that the electorate wanted change.

But what exactly did the electorate mean by change.  Well, obviously the liberals wanted carbon trade legislation, strong environmental regulation, immigration reform, and universal, cheap, single payer health care.  They sort of got health care, not sure how cheap it's going to be though.  Conservatives wanted the economy to get back on track without spending money.  Well, the economy is still struggling after two years, and don't even get them started on the money.  The moderates, which I still believe there are a few of us left out there, wanted the economy to improve, and wanted modest changes in health care, immigration and environmental regulation. The independents, well I'm not really not really sure what they wanted because they aren't a cohesive group.  But probably the thing that everyone wanted was a decent job where they lived.

I think it's interesting that CHANGE caught so many voters imagination.   We humans don't particularly like change, we like things to stay the same, as long as everything is running relatively smoothly.  But, of course we all know that a few months before the election everything went to hell in a hand basket.  Blaming fingers started pointing in all directions and I think that all sides had their parts to play.

The biggest problem, in my humble opinion, was that everyone seemed to think that good economic times were here to stay and despite a few minor blips from time to time nothing was going to slow down.  When the stock market started showing weaknesses, people switched to real estate as the be all and end all.  I started getting queasy when I noticed large amounts of new housing stock being bought in blocks and put up for lease in neighborhoods throughout town.  I found out pension funds from California and other states were investing heavily in real estate.  Then the Adjustable Rate Mortgage reared its ugly head.  Back in the 80's this was the bugaboo that brought on the Savings and Loan Crisis.  Housing speculation became rampant, always a bad sign, but no one seemed to notice.  A coworker of mine had caught the fever and declared she wanted to flip a house.  I advised against it.  When everyone is flipping houses, its time to get out of real estate.  Well, I sort of changed that, Old Joe Kennedy decided to get out of the stock market when he found out his shoe shine boy was investing.

So what happened to bring on the Great Recession, relaxation of government regulation, by both the Democrats and the Republicans, and universal greed brought it on.  One thing we have to remember is it was called the Great Recession.  But unlike its name sake, the Great Depression, which took 10 long years plus a world war to recover from, we in our fast paced world expect the economy to recover overnight.  Well it's two years later and the economy is limping slowly towards recovery, largely due to the dreaded TARP legislation.  Everyone hates TARP, but actually it has been pretty successful.  Most of the banks that received the loans have paid the money back and GM is slowly starting to improve.  Also, if my memory serves me TARP was a bipartisan bill, everyone was on board.

Well, back to change, what kind of change would be GOOD Change?

The other day I was listening to an interview of Bill Hobby, the longest standing Lieutenant Governor in Texas.  The interviewer said that polls show that most voters don't want their legislators to compromise and he asked what Hobby thought of that.  Hobby laughed and said, "then they're CRAZY".  Because as the former LG knows, nothing gets done in the state house or congress without compromise.  There even has to be compromise between members of the same party.  It's also important to have civil dialogue.  If everyone is screaming at each other, nothing gets done.  The best legislation happens when all voices can be heard and are listened to respectfully with an OPEN mind.

The change I want to see, but I don't think is likely to happen anytime soon, especially after the vitriol spewed during this current election season, is CIVIL DIALOG and the willingness to LISTEN to other people's opinions with an OPEN MIND.  SA2020 has been a model of this type of behavior, it sure would be nice to see this happen in other venues.  And one more change that I would like to see is PATIENCE.  This is probably the hardest one of all, because I know people are suffering out there, but to misquote a Blood, Sweat and Tears song, "What goes down must come UP."