Beyond City Limits
Bowing to both public pressure and common sense, prosecutors in Swisher Co. have thrown in the Tulia towel and won't retry 38 defendants in the infamous 1999 drug sting if their convictions are thrown out by the state Court of Criminal Appeals, as recommended last month by a visiting judge. All parties, including prosecutors, agreed that undercover freelance narc Tom Coleman was simply "not a credible witness under oath," in the judge's words. Coleman, who orchestrated the bust that nabbed more than 10% of Tulia's black population, may now face charges himself. Swisher Co. commissioners, trying to head off costly civil lawsuits, have authorized a plan to pay between $2,000 and $12,000 (depending on time spent in prison, in some cases up to four years) to each of the unjustly convicted defendants. (Tulia-related costs have already led to three tax hikes in the Panhandle county.) Meanwhile, Swisher Co. DA Terry McEachern, who prosecuted the Tulia cases based almost entirely on Coleman's testimony, is in legal trouble of his own -- he faces DUI charges in New Mexico, where he was stopped while motoring (by his own account, reported in the Amarillo Globe-News) under the influence of beer and Valium. -- M.C.M.
The Texas House Appropriations Committee approved its draft state budget Monday, 19-2-8 -- an unusual vote that likely portends bitter dissent when it hits the House floor next week. The full budget proposal -- including all federal and other funds -- totals $117.7 billion, and the general revenue (state) portion is at $58.6 billion. That's $3.4 billion less than this biennium, but $4.5 billion more than Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn certified as available in January. House leadership has not made clear where it expects to find this $4.5 billion, other than that it won't be from new taxes. That means when the bills come due, there will be even greater cuts to health and human services and education than are currently in the House bill, which drops 250,000 children's health insurance, cuts 365,000 more kids from Medicaid, and slashes funding for teacher's health insurance in half, among other lowlights. Scott McCown of the Center for Public Policy Priorities summed it up for The Dallas Morning News: "It's a very cruel budget." -- Michael King
And it just gets worse. Comptroller Strayhorn announced Tuesday that state sales-tax revenues continued to drop in March, down $23.4 million (2.3%) from March 2002. This is the ninth consecutive month of declining sales-tax revenues, the state's largest source of income. Thus far in fiscal year 2003, sales-tax revenues are down $207 million from FY 02. The comptroller's office said that preliminary estimates of local sales-tax revenues, to be confirmed April 11, also declined this month. -- M.K.
Speaking of Madame Comptroller, she aims for Texans to gamble their budget woes away; the latest addendum to her list of thrifty hints to the Lege, released last week, calls for a video lottery "for local property-tax relief and increased education funding." Strayhorn wants to institute state-run video gambling (currently legal in five states, the largest being Oregon) at racetracks, which means it's not really "expanding" gambling since you can already wager there. But Gov. Rick Perry ain't buying this sophistry, coming out firmly against any new gaming, even if it's for the kids. Strayhorn says her plan could generate nearly $1 billion in new revenue by 2008 -- enough, she adds, to justify her proposed constitutional amendment to limit local property appraisals to a 5% annual increase. The resulting loss in school-tax revenue would lower the state's net gambling winnings to $650 million. -- M.C.M.
Former state attorney general Dan Morales pleaded not guilty last week to a dozen federal charges of corruption in relation to the $17.3 billion settlement of the 1996 lawsuit he filed as AG against the tobacco industry. Morales and his friend and fellow attorney, Marc Murr, are accused of attempting to steer legal fees to Murr for work never performed; Morales is also accused of filing a false tax return and illegally using campaign contributions to buy a $775,000 home. Morales represented himself at his plea hearing, but said he's making arrangements with attorneys for what he believes will be a "seven-figure" defense. Morales said all the charges are false and political in nature, and told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "You know, there are good things that happen in life and there are bad things that happen in life, and you just have to deal with it and address them as they occur." -- M.K.
Nine candidates have filed for the Dist. 43 Texas House seat opened by the March 18 death of Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville. A special election will be held Tuesday to complete the remaining 20 months of what was Rangel's 13th term -- Republican Ed Cyganiewicz, the former mayor of South Padre Island who took 38% of the vote against Rangel last fall, declined to run knowing he would have to begin a new campaign early next year. There are seven Democrats and two Republicans now running in a formerly all-Dem district that was redrawn last year to include GOP-leaning areas. Gov. Rick Perry's quick call for a special election is expected to help the two Republicans: lawyer Ron Lozano, and Palm Valley mayor and former Cameron Co. Commissioner James Matz. -- M.K.
Texans for Public Justice filed a lawsuit last week to require state Rep. Gabi Canales, D-Alice, to fully disclose all "legislative continuances" that she has sought to delay state court proceedings. (Under state law, legislators who are attorneys can get an automatic delay in any state court proceeding scheduled during legislative session.) TPJ had asked three legislators to publicly disclose all the continuances they have sought since November. The other two -- Reps. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Ruben Hope, R-Conroe -- provided the information, but Canales told TPJ, "There are no records in this office that meet your request." According to published reports, Canales has delayed at least three lawsuits filed by victims of the now-withdrawn diet drug Fen-Phen against the pharmaceutical giant Wyeth. TPJ filed a similar suit last year against then Rep. Rick Green, who eventually agreed to make the requested disclosure. "The public has a right to know how often [Canales has] used the privilege," said TPJ Director Craig McDonald, "and how much she's being paid to delay these cases." -- M.K.
The Illinois-based State Farm insurance company, which has about a third of the homeowners insurance market in Texas, announced last week that it will drop current policyholders who move to a new home and will not write new policies for people who move here from out of state. The company says it lost $1.8 billion in Texas over the last two years, and that while it is monitoring the insurance reform bills pending in the Lege, its decision is primarily a consequence of the losses and the oncoming storm and hurricane seasons. -- M.K.
According to a study released April 6 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, the nation's prison population set a record high through mid-year 2002, with more than two million inmates in federal, state, and local prisons and jails. Among the local highlights: Harris Co. ranked No. 7 and Dallas Co. No. 8 in the nation for the largest local jail population; in 2002 Travis Co. jails were running an average of 113% over capacity; Texas' rate of incarceration for juveniles increased 10.6% in 2002, with 230 inmates under 18 imprisoned statewide. Nationally, African-Americans are incarcerated far more often than all other races; out of 100,000 blacks, 4,810 are incarcerated vs. a mere 649 whites. For persons aged 25-29, the disparity is even more startling: 12,877 per 100,000 blacks (that's one in every eight people), vs. just 1,615 for whites. For the full report, see www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/press/pjim02pr.htm. -- J.S.