The state of states’ debts

State Budget Solutions, a DC-based non-profit, has put together a report on the large debts the states have accumulated.

Now, you might say that most states can not run deficits. Remember that the meaning of the terms “deficit” and “debt” are legal and that state legislatures write the law. This means that the people in charge of the budget are also in charge of the loopholes. A recent column in the Fort Worth Stat Telegram (“Legislature still using gimmicks to balance Texas budget“) and State Budget Solutions prides themselves on finding and revealing these gimmicks. As Texas Watchdog reports, Texas has about $282 billion in debt.

Having debt is not always bad. Companies borrow to invest in their future all the time. However, any debt you feel like you need to conceal is probably bad and a little more truth in accounting would be healthy.

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Public opinion and the electoral college

Gallup has just released a new poll that show that 62% of Americans favor getting rid of the electoral college in favors of the popular vote.

One of the most interesting findings is how little opinion has changed. These numbers have been remarkably consistent over the last decade. The only shift was right after the contested 2000 election when a few Democrats suddenly lost their enthusiasm for the electoral college while a few Republicans noticed how much better it was than a popular vote.

Support for using popular vote rather than electoral college

Attitudes on the electoral college were impacted more by the possibility of George Wallace winning enough southern electors in the 1968 election. Many people feared that Wallace would win enough southern states to deny Richard Nixon a win in the electoral college and the George Wallacewould use that leverage to get a deal from Nixon to roll back civil rights laws.

Support for constitutional amendment to get rid of electoral college 1967-198Now, before you electoral college haters get all excited, remember that it takes a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress (and three-fourths of the states) to get an amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified. You’re going to need a lot of support to kill off the electoral college–especially with so many people wanting to give the states a stronger role in national politics.

The National Archives has some good information on the electoral college. This includes the Certificate of Ascertainment from Texas (and every other state) that lists the names of all the electors and potential electors from every party on the ballot.

Here’s the front page:

Texas ascertainment certificate 2012

Making it easier to get benefits

Lone Star CardStateline has an interesting article (“States retool food stamp, benefits systems“) about how Texas and other states are getting rid of fingerprinting or similar requirements for getting benefits like “food stamps” (SNAP is the new name for the food program in Texas). It turned out that the new security features were costing more to implement than they realized in savings.

By the way, if you’re curious about what kind of benefits are provided by the state or it takes to get these benefits you can check out the state’s website: Your Texas Benefits.

Super PACs

The Texas Tribune has a story (“The Super Pacs and the Rise of the Non Campaign“) that discusses the issue of “Super PACs”  from a Texas angle.

First, let me try to explain the origins and varieties of “Super PACs.”

In the beginning, there were PACs (“Political Actions Committees”). PACs were political committees organized under federal law that operated under a set of rules and overseen by the Federal Election Commission. I’ll skip explaining all the rules they had to follow because they’re pretty much moot now that Super PACs are here.

The basic Super PAC became a major concern after the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision from the Supreme Court because the Court ruled that corporations have some of the same rights First Amendment rights as individual citizens. This, combined with the ruling that PACs could spend unlimited amounts as long as they did not give directly to the campaigns or coordinate with the campaigns, created the possibility of large amounts of money going directly from corporate or union accounts directly into politics.

Still, the principle of transparency was still in place. There were these big PACs out there spending tons of money, but at least we knew who they were and what they were up to.

Today… not so much.

The newest breed of Super PACs are organized under IRS rules as non-profits and not subject to federal election laws that require disclosure. So, they can spend as much as they want and the public has no way of knowing who is providing the money.

Here some the problems with these new Super PACs:

  1. A few people with a lot of money can have a big impact. Those names may be a secret to you and me, but those big donors will make their contribution known to the candidates if they win office. If I give a pro-Perry PAC a million bucks I’ll have the canceled check handy if I meet Rick Perry.
  2. As the Texas Tribune story points out, these groups can run ads with nasty attacks that benefit their candidate while their candidate claims to have nothing to do with it. That is, campaigns can farm out their dirty work to these committees. PACs do not have to officially coordinate with campaigns to know what they want. Does anybody think the Super PAC backing Mitt Romney (“Restore Our Future”) does not know that Romney would like to see Perry attacked?
  3. Finally, campaigns lose control of the campaign. With millions being spent by these Super PACs it is much harder for candidates following campaign laws to raise and spend enough money to avoid being drowned out.

Stephen Colbert has been demonstrating the functioning of Super PACs brilliantly with his own Super PAC (“Americans For A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”). Whether you think that these committees should be outlawed or that we simply need to be aware of the difference between them and the candidate’s official campaign committee, the Colbert Report has done a public service by creating a great example of exactly what lurks beneath the surface of campaign finance laws.

Who Gets What from the Governor, Part II

Texans for Public Justice has released a report [full report in .pdf format] that looks at how much money companies that received money from the Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) that is run by the Governor’s office.

This report finds that 43 companies that landed a total of $333 million in TEF awards contributed almost $7 million to Perry’s campaign and the Perry-affiliated Republican Governors Association (RGA). TEF companies sometimes made corporate contributions directly to the RGA, while company PACs, owners or executives gave to both the RGA and to Perry’s campaign (which cannot accept corporate funds). These contributions included $1,652,159 to Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns and $5,331,701 to the RGA. The 43 TEF recipients that contributed to Perry and/or the RGA represent about half of the 90 companies that received TEF awards.

The TPF also found that 3 of the 37 companies in Perry’s investment portfolio received TEF awards totaling $12.2 million. That seemed less troubling since the portfolio was in a blind trust and I suspect a lot of investors hold stock in companies General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, and PepsiCo. Still, the millions of taxpayer dollars that go to these companies reflect why we have blind trusts.

I have written before about the need for institutional reform to create a wall between elected officials who need campaign contributions and government programs that hand out millions of dollars. This latest report provides even more evidence we need to do something. If these companies need capital so badly that they can only get it through government programs they should not have millions of  extra dollars to put into the political system (and remember that the $7 million here is only what they gave to Perry-related political committees).

This does not have to be about Rick Perry. Whether you distrust Rick Perry or will distrust some future governor, the question is if the state needs to separate the politics from the cash or quit giving money to companies. We have conflict of interest rules for other state employees. I have used the example of a law against textbook publishers making contributions to candidates for the State Board of Education as an example of some of us already facing restrictions. Should we tell the companies that cash from the government that they can not contribute to the politicians that control the money?

Reaping what we sow

Rick Perry remains caught up in a flap over his immigration policy. I think his predicament is a good example of the politics of the day. Perry is now getting heat because he is just not as conservative as he could be on immigration because he supported a bill that gave the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition. In particular, Mitt Romney is having fun clubbing Perry over the head with this issue because Perry has been doing pretty much the same thing to Romney on health care. Perry helped create the ideological standard that he’s now struggling to meet. As Galatians 6:7-8 tells us that, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” 

Perry may deserve a little of this. Still, the question is if  the nation is moving toward some kind of zero tolerance politics where anyone straying from what they think it means to be conservative or liberal is blasphemy. President Obama is under attack from the far left for his compromises with House Republicans on taxes and spending. Perry is challenged on immigration. Romney on health care. What does it tell us when no one meets the standard? How can a system of checks and balances that requires compromise function in the climate of expectations we have today?

Why organized interests succeed