Monday, May 31, 2010

Street Sales Tax

Among the things that come with summer, we have the start of the annual City budget process. At an overflow meeting of the Animal Services Board, City Manager Dominguez stated that we are looking at a $2.3 million shortfall this year. Unlike the feds, the city isn't allowed to "print" money. Some combination of new revenue and/or spending cuts will be required.

This Blog began as a site in opposition to the City's half-cent sales tax. In over a decade of opposing the tax, it was defeated three times, then approved by voters twice, last time for a twenty year term with specific projects part of what voters approved. At that time, we agreed it had changed from a multimillion open "slush fund" to a voter approved tax with satisfactory legal limits. We have not opposed the tax itself since.

It has been mentioned our existing authorization by voters is getting short enough to have an impact on our ability to issue bonds backed by the 4b tax. If Council wants to we can have something besides smoking on November's ballot.

Section 327 Tax Code allows us, if the voters approve, to designate one eighth cent of the tax we already pay to a Street Maintenance Tax. Even with a lower sales tax gross, this is about a million bucks a year. It might put off already approved projects a year or so. It would not solve our shortfall, but it could help.

A Street Maintenance tax can be part of a single ballot measure reducing the existing 4b tax by the same amount; we are maxed out, cannot simply add one-eighth cent. Regardless of the length of time we add to 4b in general, the Street tax part expires in 4 years. If we look at it in 4 years, we can reauthorize it; if it didn't work so well, we just let it die.

This special provision does not allow for construction of new streets, only maintenance of what we have. Council and staff have come close to pulling rabbits out of the budget hat to reduce ad valorem tax by a cent a year five years in a row. I will use an argument from the old days: putting some of street maintenance on sales tax will get revenue from people who use the streets but don't live here. It won't increase the tax paid by anyone, but it would give us about a million a year for pot-hole money.

Strikes me as worth a thought. The initiative for this must come from Council, not a petition. Voters still get the final say. If we don't at least give it a look, we are passing up an opportunity.

Memorial Day Reflections

When this blog started in 2005, I posted an article with a link to Why smart people defend bad ideas. We need to keep that in mind while we honor those who have served and sacrificed and continue to serve and sacrifice in defense of freedom and our country.

We need to remember that the best and the brightest are not the only source of bad ideas. Sometimes these bad ideas are from a tyranny of the masses. History is full of examples where the majority has unfairly and unjustly taken advantage of or oppressed a minority. Much of our constitution is there to help guard against such tyranny. It is , unfortunately, still a problem at all levels of government and society.

We must guard against bad ideas, even those from very smart people or those that are popular with the majority of people. We need to do this so that those we honor today will not have served in vain.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Principled Smoking Debate

Now that we have overcome some technical details of the Smoke Free petition and are at least all arguing the same ordinance, it is evident there is some mis-understanding as to what it is we ARE arguing. To clarify at least our points here at Conchoinfo, we present the following as basic principles.

1) We agree smoking is hazardous to one's health.

2) Second hand smoke is a recognized health risk. No one should be involuntarily subjected to second hand smoke.

3) City government offices and publically accessible facilities should be smoke-free with reasonable exceptions for open air: golf courses, open parks and such to be determined by City Manager so as to limit incidental exposure to smoking fumes.

4) Businesses allowing smoking shall provide prominent signage and notification so non-smokers can easily avoid smoking establishments. Absent warning signage to the contrary, publicly accessible businesses shall be assumed to be non-smoking.

5) Businesses which allow entrance to and serve children shall not expose them to smoking or second hand smoke. Should such a business provide a smoking section, that area shall be constructed such that tobacco smoke shall not infiltrate the non-smoking section allowing children.

It is our opinion that so long as tobacco is a legal product and its use is legal, businesses catering to adults who freely choose to indulge in this less-than-healthy habit should be allowed to provide a premise comfortable to that customer base, IF such a business makes reasonable effort to assure the non-smoking majority is not offended unawares.

We agree that there are limits to property rights, but we think with reasonable accomodation, smokers and businesses catering to them can be allowed without "asaulting" the senses of non-smokers.

No one I know is in favor of unrestricted smoking anywhere, anytime. Some of the anti-smoking rhetoric strikes me the same way as though someone walked past all the signs, paid the "cover charge" at a, ahem, "gentleman's club" and then decided to be offended at the sight of tits on display.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Smoking Ordinance and Civility

I need to apologize for my post of yesterday. I was hasty in ascribing motives to what was likely a mistake. I forgot an old adage, "Never assume a conspiracy when mere stupidity will suffice as a cause".

By this afternoon cooler heads prevailed. The proposal one now finds on the City website is the correct, original petition. City issued a press release and the valid language will be published the next two Sundays. At least next time Council meets, we will all be on the same page(es). Well, it is rather long.

In retrospect, I can think of a number of ways this substitution came about accidentally. Likely as any: I've been in a political campaign or three and it is not uncommon to have two, three "draft proposals" floating about. It's entirely possible someone inadvertantly e-mailed the wrong draft to City, one that had been considered, but rejected by the initiating committee.

Between length, time pressure and tiny type, no one catches it until the comments last Tuesday start to digress from the original language I was familiar with. When I look, sure as God made little green apples, the language published as a legal notice April 18 was at substantial variance from that originally submitted. As I say, likely came about by innocent mistake, I have been called a nitpicker by more than one person, BUT...

At least we caught this while it was correctible error. Let's suppose no one caught it, the initiative moves on and passes in November. The first person given a citation under the new ordinance has a sharp-eyed lawyer who catches this technical, but legally valid violation of Election Code. Not only does the accused walk out of the ticket, the whole ordinance gets tossed and all this effort has been for naught.

Far more important legislation has been tossed for far smaller "nits". As it was, City staff members, to their credit, reacted quickly and effectively and I'm sure great attention will be paid to the details as this moves on.

Make no mistake: I oppose this measure, I sincerely hope to either amend with exemptions or defeat it if it goes to vote as written. I withdraw my comments as to motivation on the part of Smoke Free, but I withdraw none of my objections that it is an assault on property rights. Let us move on to honest debate and a clean process.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Smoking Follies

Tuesday Council meeting was the Smoke-free Initiative and Referendum "no smoking" ordinance roll-out. The Smoke-free co-chair Lisa Burger opened, as expected. She promised not to be too long, "I know we have others wanting to speak. I don't know if we'll take comment from, uh the other side". Mayor New hastened to point out that we would hear from the public, even those of us so unenlightened as to disagree with our betters.

Later during comment, Burger responded to a hotelier's complaint about the restrictions on rooms he would be allowed to designate as smoking. She assurred him he could keep 20% of rooms smoking. I tried to get recognition to protest that percentage was destined to expire in 4 years, but I had already spoken, did not get the mike.

Almost glad I didn't. Silly me, that 4 year expiration was in the OLD Smoke-free proposal, the one this group filed and collected 4,500 signatures with. For convenience I will call it SmokenannieI. I went home that evening, I'm going to write about the meeting, but just for fun, I check the City of San Angelo website, they have a handy link front and center of homepage.

I must digress here; also Tuesday we got a State Comptrollers award for open records tranparency, my opinion overdue. I've been looking at City business for a long time, and the improvement on this front is awesome thanks to a lot of hard work by staff. Without that transparency, I might not have found what I was able to.

When I checked the site, imagine my surprise at discovering we had a whole NEW Smoke-free ordinance posted, I will call this changeling child SmokenannieII. Oh, it still had to do with regulating smoking in San Angelo, it still didn't cut bars any slack, but there ends the similarity. Many definitions changed, some places (tobacco shops, hotels) had restrictions removed, bars and restaurants now find even their outdoor seating "prohibited", other "modifications" which Mr. Turner put together in a convenient comparison found [here].

In short, Smoke-free "sold" a product to 4,500 signers and then felt free to substitute a substantially different product to bring before Council.

It really wasn't that hard. I'd be surprised if 1% of those signers actually read all of SmokenannieI. I confess, when the legal document was published April 18 in tiny agate type, I did not grab the magnifying glass my aging eyes would have required to read it, I just noted "OK, they complied"; after all, I had already read it. What was published was SmokenannieII, and if anyone caught it then, I haven't heard about it. SmokenannieII had been submitted e-mail, I understand to facilitate publication.

For those unfamiliar, I started sending copies of my editorial submissions e-mail a good while back. It saves the editor the labor of re-typing hard copy. It's a time-saving courtesy. In this case, someone from Smoke-free used it to substitute a whole new document and given the length, it understandably slipped by proofreading by City or Standard-Times staff or me, or anyone.

What makes this all the shabbier, once the thing hits Council and Council inevitably makes amendments, the five members of the initiating committee have full authority to accept, reject, counter-propose and generally horsetrade on behalf of the signers they represent. It's not as though they can call 4,500 people and consult on every amendment. What I do NOT find in Charter Sec 47 is the authority to collect signatures on one document and then gut and rebuild that before Council ever sees it!

Folks, there's no other way for me to put this: Smoke-free cheated, blatantly, and they almost got away with it. I'm not an attorney or a cop, I can't say (yet) if they violated law, but they certainly violated the spirit of Initiative and Referendum. It appears they violated 277.0023 of Texas Election Code, but penalty for that is not specific.I will be advising Council to rescind its acceptance of a tainted petition and tell the players to come back when they can play by the rules.

I know for sure, there are some mighty unhappy people downtown, people who gave this supposedly high-minded, well-intentioned group the benefit of trust and are feeling betrayed. Myself, until today, I disagreed with them, was prepared for an open battle of words and will, but I respected their position and intentions. I cannot say that now.

(Original ordinance, updated ordinance, changes)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Smoking, "Rights" and Wrongs

Tuesday will see first presentation of the submitted-by-petition no-smoking ordinance. This will be interesting on two counts: we have two new members of Council; and it opens a possibility a lot of signators didn't know existed.

The no-smoke crowd got a lot of attention when their run at the May 8 election failed to make it in time. The signatures got approved (honestly, should have), so now they are on the Nov ballot Or: They get to put a penny in the electoral fusebox and Council approves as put forth, 13 pages of new ordinance that goes a lot further than "Thou shalt not smoke", tobacco cigarettes, left-handed cigarettes, or even possibly BBQ grills!

I speak from some experience, I have successfully sponsored in ten years, two amendments to animal control; Ed the pig, all of four words, and the rooster limit, a short paragraph. Both were discussed and amended before being adopted by Council.

My never-to-be-humble opinion, the anti-smokers have over-reached. Most of what they seek is already in practise; One cannot smoke in any gov't office, school, hospital, any building a person MUST enter.

Council will have two new members, but this is paycheck-to-pickle betting; should Council be favorably inclined, it is not going to adopt this entire thing unamended.

IF Council amends so much as a semicolon, it kicks back to the "initiating committee" and a majority of those 5 people have 20 days to agree or say "See you in November".

When this first came up the local forum was full of comments about smokers' or non-smokers' "rights". I took the point that the issue was primarily property rights. My view, this decision properly belongs to the business owner, the person who pays the taxes, buys the inventory and makes the payroll week to week. That person is best positioned to judge the customers' wishes, and presuming he/she wants to continue to be a business owner, will promptly respond to the customers' preference on any given rule.

Reality, the 13 pages boil down to this: restaurants and especially bars, will have this decision imposed on them and their customers. Matters not a whit to them if owners, employees, and customers ALL prefer to smoke, the smoke-nannies know what's good for us and they want their good intentions codified into ordinance.

Hope you aren't a fan of live music. Since Austin passed a no smoking law, theme song in the East Sixth St. district might be Stevie Ray Vaughn's "The Sky is Crying"; if cash registers had tears they would be crying. Many former employees are not troubled with tolerating second hand smoke, their concern is paying bills while unemployed. The smoking crowd that used to fill the tip jar is fed up with stepping outside and getting hasseled for a public intox charge. Dumb enough to smoke they may be, stupid they ain't. Word gets around, they stay home and listen to the stereo, smoke in their own back yard. Meanwhile the health nuts who passed the law are neglecting to flood into the smoke-free premises and help pay the bills.

A lot of human behavior is unhealthy. A lot of it escaped public attention until we started living long enough for the bad habits to catch up with us. Too much salt is bad for some: me, I put salt on a slice of salt-cured ham and have a BP of 115/78. Fried food, fast food, high fat diet, very bad, cholesterol will kill you. Again, my last test, 170. Smoked for 40 years, recently won a $50 bar bet, stuck my head in a bucket of water and held my breath for 3 minutes.

Yeah, I'm lucky. I will die of something, someday, but it won't be the government's business! When we have bought the last powerchair for some morbidly obese person; when we have airbagged and side-panelled our shrunken, fuel efficient cars to the point we can't cram two people and a week's worth of groceries in them; when we all are dutifully reporting for our thrice-weekly mandatory exercize sessions and the last two fast food joints are struggling to stay open selling lo-cal salads: When that glorious healthy day arrives, maybe a few of us will still be here to look wistfully back on the days when free people were allowed to associate of our own free will with our own kind and enjoy a cigarette or two while listening to some kick-ass blues band.

I have climbed to the mountaintop and I have seen the future, and the free man in me does not like it. William Buckley was right; from time to time we must stand athwart history and shout "STOP!".

An enjoyable digression and rant. My suggestion to Council is reject this for the moment. I further suggest the anti-smokers sit with us and we both come back to Council with an amendment both sides can live with. That would save me the trouble of generating a counter-petition for a more moderated ordinance. Which I am quite willing to do.

City code 8.400 could use some clarification. The practise is no smoking in city buildings, but 8.400 makes exceptions for "fully enclosed offices". I don't know anyone that high in the food chain who does smoke, but that could allow say Mr. Dominguez to shut the door and set out the ashtrays. Other particulars haven't been looked at since '93 and are internally contradictory. This sort of detail could be cleaned up without mandating policy for every tavern in town.

Unlike today's petitioners, I have read City Charter. Several times. I know the timeline; if a counter-petition is our only option, I will have to walk out of Alicia's office with it by end of month. I'll do it, but I would prefer to sit and compromise.

(Added by the Editor: The official notice is on the City Website.)