Saturday,
April 19

 
POLITICS

Free beer!

Texas is "wide open for business" – unless you're an indie brewer

Despite the hype, in at least one industry Texas cannot currently claim to be “wide open for business.” When it comes to microbreweries and brewpubs, Texas’ latest free-market slogan would more accurately read, “Kind of allowing business” or simply, “Please stop doing that.”

While hundreds of microbreweries (or craft breweries) have blossomed in states like California (268), Colorado (130) and Michigan (102), Texas ranks 45th out of 51 states in microbreweries per capita according to a 2011 report by the Brewers Association, a national group for craft brewers. As of 2011, only 59 microbreweries called Texas home, despite the state’s historic beer-loving culture. I’m not talking about SXSW or Fiesta consumption, per se, but the ample number of German and Czech immigrants whose brewing techniques made Texas a pre-Prohibition beer haven and helped launch well-known Texas beer labels Shiner and Lone Star.

Why does Texas, the second most populous state, have 77 percent fewer professional craft brewers than the country’s most populous state? Especially when, according to Governor Rick Perry, our business climate is so vastly superior? In an answer that could come straight from Perry: Regulation.

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Falling STAAR

Legislators likely to tweak the state's unpopular standardized tests again

Crying parents, precocious children, vengeful teachers, and eloquent administrators: just your average education committee hearings at the Texas capitol last Tuesday. State legislators in both the house and senate held separate hearings for the biannual airing of grievances against the state’s standardized testing system. This time the aggrieved may have found their most sympathetic audience yet, at least in the senate hearing, which focused solely on testing.

Most panelists agreed that the sheer number of tests have brought the education system to the breaking point. As one superintendent explained, under the current system a child in Texas public schools will take 35 standardized and benchmark tests from kindergarten through high-school graduation. The state also leads the nation in requiring students to pass 15 end-of-course examinations in order to graduate.

While the argument has gained new data and gravity, the fight itself goes back more than 30 years.

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Are you experienced: Aspiration and overkill in D8

The most interesting question came late in the Monday-night forum for District 8 candidates Ron Nirenberg and Rolando Briones. Organized by a coalition known as the Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development, the business-like debate featured a list of preselected questions that the contenders were allowed to cram for ahead of time. But with the prepared agenda dispatched early, moderator Chuck Saxer accepted impromptu questions from the audience. One of them was submitted with Briones alone in mind, and it went roughly like this:

How do you rationalize calling yourself a penny-pinching, minority small-businessman when you have a fleet of nice cars for your campaign, live in a fancy house, and donated $100,000 to St. George Episcopal Church?

For what it’s worth, Briones hit the low ball out of the park, turning a dig about class into a short disquisition on the still potent promise of the American dream.

“I didn’t plan that question. But I love that question. ... I absolutely love that question,” he said, before explaining that he grew up the child of working-class parents who sometimes relied on welfare and eventually became a successful business owner with 40 employees. He, his wife Krista, and two boys live in a nice (D8) neighborhood – check – and they’re planning to build a new home in the Dominion.

There’s nothing wrong with earning money,  he said. “I’m proud of that, I’m not embarrassed about that.”

The anger and suspicion in that question were directed at Briones' financial success, but it's the same suspicion and contempt we have for our politicians. The more they achieve, the more suspect and distasteful they become to us. It’s a condition of the drastic income inequality of our times, but also of something more enduringly American.

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Texas' education system is broken

Will legislators finally fix it?

Tuesday’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of Texas’ school finance system elicited a lot of excitement, if not surprise. Judge John Dietz ended a 12-week slog through testimony from rich districts, poor districts, parents, business owners and plenty of school-finance experts to conclude the State simply did not provide enough money to fund public school districts equitably or fairly. Dietz, a state judge who made a similar ruling in 2005, echoed his prior pronouncement, stating “There is no free lunch… We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don't." The question whether Texans in fact do want increased standards, and how to pay for them, now returns to the Legislature.

While many expected this ruling from Dietz, what happens next is anyone’s guess. Legislators are split along party lines over beginning school-finance discussions promptly, as Democrat state senators like Carlos Uresti and Leticia Van de Putte have called for, or putting them off. The State attorney’s general office, headed by Republican Greg Abbot, is expected to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, and many Senate and House Republicans, like State Senator Donna Campbell, have indicated they would like to wait on the state Supreme Court verdict.

“I think they must not have children in [public] school,” Representative Mike Villarreal said bluntly when asked why his colleagues in the House may want to wait, noting that he has two young children currently in San Antonio public schools.

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District 5: Is it still Radle's race to win?

Former District 5 Councilwoman and current SAISD board member Patti Radle at the 2011 MLK march. Photo by Justin ParrWith the addition last year of Leticia Ozuna, the District 3 Councilwoman who was appointed to fill Jennifer Ramos’ unexpired term, City Council developed a well-rounded brainiac feel rare for this group of representatives. Ozuna joined new members Diego Bernal (attorney, D1) and Rey Saldaña (Trinity prof, D4), and returning rep Ivy Taylor (city planner, D2), and suddenly the lower-number districts had leadership just as impressive as the north and northwest sides of town. Leadership that, like Mayor Julian Castro, is well educated, professional, young, Latino, and dedicated to making a significant impact on the community’s quality of life and future prospects.

A couple of weak spots remained, however, most glaringly in District 5, where Councilman David Medina has been careful to deliver popular bond projects such as a senior center to his district, but managed to alienate the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, a grassroots West Side institution with national cred, in the process. He was absent from the dais in September for a vote on Bernal’s payday-lender restrictions, an issue painfully relevant to his low-income district. An aspiring actor, he’s replaced former District 1 rep Mary Alice Cisneros as the Council member most in need of a script.

Perhaps his faults weren't as glaring in 2011, when he sailed to a second term with more than 70 percent of the vote, his nearest competitor Lourdes Galvan, the Councilwoman he beat in a 2009 runoff after her single uninspiring term. This year, however, the often lackluster D5 field is getting a candidate more in the mold of Bernal and Saldaña.

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Make it rain

Illustration by Jeremiah TeutschThe shrewd math of Perry's tax-relief proposal

Governor Perry’s State of the State Address delivered Tuesday focused heavily on our fiscal state, including how to continue Texas’ race to the bottom of the tax burden. “We've never bought into the notion that if you collect more, you need to spend more,” Perry told the Legislature during the speech. “Today, I'm calling for a mechanism to be put in place so when we do bring in more than we need, we'll have the option of returning tax money directly to the people who paid it.” While this sounds like something most citizens could get behind, the reality of what such a refund would look like has even some Republican allies sounding doubtful.

First of all, Perry’s statement assumes that “need” is something everyone can agree on, which has not historically been the case in the Texas Legislature. In the last session, in 2011, the Lege approved $15.2 billion in spending cuts, or 8.1 percent in cuts across all funds, which the Texas Tribune called “a modern record.” Among the areas hit hardest were Health and Human Services, which sustained more than $11 billion in cuts, and public education, where legislators slashed more than $4 billion. Both moves inspired large protests, heated legislative debates and lawsuits against the state. Compounding education and health advocates’ frustration was the knowledge that the Economic Stabilization Fund (a.k.a the Rainy Day Fund) held at least $6 billion at the time, which could have softened the budgetary blow. At the time Perry steadfastly resisted tapping into the fund at all, although he and other lawmakers did eventually sanction using nearly a third of the funds to close the budget deficit at the end of the 2011 session.

Now with the Rainy Day Fund projected to boast $8.1 billion tiny umbrellas by August 31, and more than $11 billion by the end of FY 2015, in addition to an expected higher general revenue collection, doling out some of that largesse is starting to look more appealing to everyone.

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Putting the wrong guy on trial

It has been almost a year since Michael Cuellar was asked to resign from his job as a contract coordinator with the San Antonio Fire Department, and he has not yet found full-time work. But he is dressed for an office job when we meet at the Jim’s on Ramsey in a pale button-down shirt, his hair neatly trimmed. He has two glasses of soda in front of him, which he proceeds to drink in order as we talk about his pending civil-rights lawsuit against the City of San Antonio. He rests his hands on the table when he’s not using them to make a point.

Cuellar was one of two recipients of criminal-trespass warning letters issued by the City in recent years. Cuellar’s letter forbids him from entering San Antonio Fire Department and Public Safety Buildings, City Hall and Municipal Plaza until he’s notified otherwise – preventing him from attending City Council meetings or appearing at Citizens to be Heard, and creating the impression that he is a potentially dangerous man. PdA first wrote about the letters in late October, without naming Cuellar because the letters – which are issued without any due process or opportunity for appeal – are extremely prejudicial. Since then, he’s appeared in the pages of the Current, and on Texas Public Radio – which have treated him sympathetically – and several times in the daily, where the coverage, intentionally or not, tends to reinforce the City’s message: don’t trust this guy.

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