The Metropolitan Organization (TMO) is an organization of institutions dedicated to developing power and leadership among citizens in order to transform the city. We work to create relational power that can build and strengthen each member institution as well as shape public policy for the common good. TMO was formed in 1980 to give a voice to people who are usually excluded from major decisions that affect their lives. TMO is a part of a larger network of organizations known as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a nationwide organizing institute with a fifty year history. TMO is also part of the West / Southwest IAF regional network and the Industrial Areas Foundation national network.

TMO believes that a truly democratic society requires the active participation of ordinary citizens. When people lack the means to connect to power and participate effectively in public life, social relationships disintegrate. Our model of relational organizing helps build real community. It generates social capital through a tight web of relationships across lines of race, ethnicity, class, faith, and geography. This social capital enables us to participate fully in public life and to become more effective actors in our communities.


Protesters Need More Saul Alinsky

"I went to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's "town hall meeting" on health care Tuesday expecting to see rude behavior. I did.

And some of it was from strident opponents of the health care plan under construction in Congress. But my "takeaway lesson" from the event was this: If you're an elected official who begins her town hall meeting by insisting you are here to listen to people's concerns, don't talk on your cell phone while a lady is telling hers...

Full Article, Houston Chronicle

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2009 News

Few disagreements in TMO 'accountability session'

By MIKE TOLSON Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

Nov. 30, 2009, 10:18PM

Mayoral candidates Gene Locke and Annise Parker took turns making promises Monday night to a local community activist group that presented them with its wish list of priorities for the next administration.

The Metropolitan Organization touched on four areas in its "accountability session," asking each candidate for agreement or disagreement with its stated positions. There was only slight disagreement between Locke and Parker, and none with the TMO concerns.

Each candidate agreed that Houston police officers should not be used to enforce immigration laws, that more police officers need to be trained to replace an aging force, that street construction is hampered by a cumbersome capital improvements program, and that the city should support a job training project for low-income and underemployed adults developed by one of TMO's sister organizations in Austin.

Locke said the training program, which will require $1 million in city funds in its initial phase, would be a priority in his administration.

"Even in hard times, you have to invest in yourself," Locke said. "It is part of our civic responsibility."

Parker said she supported the Capital IDEA program but would not commit to it unless she knows the money is available to pay for it.

"It's a great program and would be excellent for the city of Houston," Parker said at the event held at Trinity United Metropolitan Church in the Third Ward. "But I can't say now that we would be able to fund it for its full cycle."

Locke and Parker disagreed on whether the Houston Police Department should allow recruits trained under a Houston Community College program to be accepted as fledgling officers. Locke said HPD should train all its own cadets because it has higher standards and longer sessions. Parker said the other training programs produce properly trained cadets who receive the same state certification as those from the HPD academy.

Both candidates agreed that public safety would be improved by more joint policing - using officers from other agencies to handle some calls and patrol some areas now handled by HPD.

Parker said flood control improvements would be a cornerstone of her administration. She said many of TMO's concerns over poor streets and needed capital improvements, including additional greenspace, would be addressed as a matter of course by reworking infrastructure to minimize flooding. Locke said that more parks and recreational amenities were essential for giving residents the quality of life that a great city should possess.

Both candidates agreed that illegal dumping and compliance with city codes concerning vacant lots and buildings were major issues that needed to be tackled. Locke said the city should work in partnership with civic groups and citizen patrols to identify the most urgent needs, arguing that "the city can only do so much" on its own. Parker said the Neighborhood Protection Division of HPD has become forgotten in recent years and needs "to be raised up and re-emphasized" to get rid of eyesores before they become threats to public safety.

mike.tolson@chron.com

 

Mayor hopefuls agree on job training program

By MIKE SNYDER

HOUSTON CHRONICLE
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6663111.html

Oct. 11, 2009, 9:09PM

Houston's four leading mayoral candidates agreed Sunday that a job training program supported by community activists was worthwhile, but City Controller Annise Parker said the city couldn't afford to invest local tax funds in the program.

During an "accountability session" attended by more than 1,000 members of The Metropolitan Organization, the mayoral contenders and candidates for the City Council, controller and the Houston school board agreed to support most elements of the nonprofit organization's agenda.

Harris County Department of Education trustee Roy Morales, however, distanced himself from his three mayoral rivals on local enforcement of immigration laws. Morales said he would change a police policy prohibiting officers from asking citizens outside the jail about their immigration status and supported screening inmates in local jails to identify illegal immigrants.

Parker, Councilman Peter Brown and former City Attorney Gene Locke said they supported jail screening but would retain the order preventing police from asking people in the community about immigration status.

TMO's primary focus was on developing a local job training program for low-income and underemployed residents. The group's leaders said they had obtained commitments of $270,000 from local institutions and $250,000 from the state, and they asked the city candidates to commit $1 million in city funding over three years.

All the candidates expressed support for the program, which TMO said would return $5 in economic benefits for every dollar spent. "It's not a lot of money over three years," Brown said of the requested city investment.

Parker, however, said shrinking local revenues would make it impossible to support the program through the city's general fund. Using federal funds could require cutting other program, she said.

All the candidates agreed to work for better cooperation among local law enforcement agencies and to strengthen community policing strategies. And most agreed with TMO's requests to spend more on streets and drainage, neighborhood improvements, expanded library hours and materials and after-school programs, but didn't specify how to pay for these services.

mike.snyder@chron.com

 

 

A cheeky request for city funds?

By RICK CASEY Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/casey/6659212.html

Oct. 9, 2009, 12:02AM

It takes a lot of nerve to ask mayoral hopefuls to commit money to a new program these days, but that's what will happen Sunday when the major candidates face hundreds of citizens at an "accountability session" staged by The Metropolitan Organization.

TMO, a church-based community organization, wants $1 million over the next three years for a new job-training program.

My bet is that most, if not all, of the candidates will take the pledge, or at least agree to try to find the money.

Outrageous? Maybe not.

The Legislature this year overwhelmingly passed and the governor signed a bill authorizing $25 million over the next two years to encourage exactly such programs.

The legislation was sought by Republican State Comptroller Susan Combs in a study she issued last December showing a vital need to train workers for technical jobs that don't require college degrees. The Texas economy, the report said, could suffer if such training doesn't take place.

The study indicated community colleges are effective at such training.

The TMO proposal would recruit low-wage workers and give them intensive support as they go through community college training programs. The program differs from others in some key ways.

- The workers, often single parents who are struggling to stay afloat, meet regularly with a counselor and a support group. Issues of day care for their children, help with transportation and other causes of high dropout rates in standard job-training programs are dealt with.

- The program will work with the community colleges to develop special, intensive, five-day-a-week courses designed to get participants up to speed with math, reading comprehension and writing skills needed before they can succeed in college courses.

- Area employers will help students know what fields the jobs are in.

All good in theory, but can it work?

The answer is that it already does. Sister organizations of TMO established successful programs years ago and have graduated thousands of participants.

Back in 1996 Paul Osterman, a labor economist at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, published a study funded by the Ford Foundation showing the San Antonio program, Project Quest, more than doubled the average participant's income after two years or less in the program.

The result was that taxpayers received a rapid return on their investment. Participants not only started paying more taxes, but needed less in food stamps and other forms of support. What's more, the prospects for their children jumped markedly.

A national expert on job- training programs, Osterman said Thursday that the San Antonio project and Capital IDEA, an Austin program based on it, "are among the best, if not the very best, in the country."

"It's a proven model," he said. "It's not like they're taking a risk."

The highly regarded Aspen Institute is in the process of evaluating the Austin program, but lead researcher Maureen Conway, who has studied job training programs for more than a decade, says she's already seen enough to be impressed.

"They're phenomenal," she said of Austin's Capital IDEA. "The way they use their resources, invest in their staff, use technology."

TMO has already sold some key Houston players on the plan. The United Way has agreed to put up $50,000 in matching funds. Lone Star College has pledged $30,000 in scholarships and $16,000 in staff time for developing curriculum. And federally funded Workforce Solutions has promised $124,000 for child care and other services.

So is it unmitigated gall to ask for a few hundred thousand a year from the city for the next three years?

The leading candidates all support tax breaks for companies willing to move here. If that's a good investment, isn't it wise to invest in workers who would take those jobs?

rick.casey@chron.com

 

 

Protesters lack predecessors' style CASEY: Cynicism not needed

Rick Casey Houston Chronicle

Wed 08/12/2009 Houston Chronicle, Section B, Page 1, 3 STAR R.O. Edition
http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl/2009_4776195/protesters-la...

 

I went to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's "town hall meeting" on health care Tuesday expecting to see rude behavior.

I did.

And some of it was from strident opponents of the health care plan under construction in Congress.

But my "takeaway lesson" from the event was this: If you're an elected official who begins her town hall meeting by insisting you are here to listen to people's concerns, don't talk on your cell phone while a lady is telling hers.

Jackson Lee explained that she wasn't being rude. In Washington, she said, you had to be able to "multi-task" in order to be effective.

Maybe so, but back home in Texas it is still rude for a hostess to answer her cell without apology while someone is addressing her.

Other than that, the meeting wasn't bad. A dozen or so people who bitterly oppose government health care reform made their points, sometimes with considerable volume. Others among the 150 or so present voiced their support or their concerns.

But the meeting wasn't what some conservative leaders are saying it was.

Proud of the irony, men such as Adam Brandon are describing the uprisings as the application of the techniques of the late Saul Alinsky, sometimes called the father of community organizing and author of a book called Rules for Radicals.

Brandon is vice president for communications for FreedomWorks, an organization headed by former Texas congressman and now Washington super-lobbyist Dick Armey. The group has skillfully used the Internet to arm protesters with town meeting schedules, talking points and tactics for putting representatives on the defensive.

Knowing when to be rude

The meetings, it is suggested, are a version of "accountability sessions" famously employed by Alinsky-style community organizations.

These conservatives understand one thing about Alinsky: His tactics could be rude. But they differed from the current outbreaks in two ways.

First, they were much more creative than just yelling at politicians.

Second, organizations in the Alinsky network got truly rude only when it was the only way to get to the table.

Alinsky, a longtime union organizer, understood that rich people had only to ask quietly. Working-class people had to be more creative.

How to get a meeting

The first Alinsky organization in Texas was San Antonio's Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS). When they couldn't get powerful banker Tom Frost to meet with them back in the mid-1970s, they formed long lines to change dollars into change, then returned to the lines to turn the change back into dollars.

They got their meeting.

It's been some time since Texas members of Alinsky's coalition, the Industrial Area Foundation, have had to be rude to get to the table.

"I've been with the organization over 10 years, and I've never seen us do anything like this," said Father Kevin Collins, pastor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and a leader of Houston's The Metropolitan Organization.

Alinsky's mission was to teach powerless people how to win at politics.

With the help of a trained organizer, members of TMO hold hundreds of house meetings to hear concerns of their members. They decide what issues can be addressed with political action. Then they come up with proposals, sometimes with expert help.

Then they meet with business and political leaders to build support for the plan.

By the time they have an "accountability session" in which hundreds of their members face a stage full of elected officials, most of the officials are usually on board.

When to polarize

At Jackson Lee's town hall meeting, one of the protesters shouted, "Government can't do anything right!"

But Alinsky organizations are not so cynical. They know that government will do right by those who exercise power. If the people don't, the money will.

One of Alinsky's mottos was "No permanent allies, no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests."

"We will teach people that sometimes it is necessary to polarize," said one veteran organizer. "But you have to de-polarize."

Remember San Antonio banker Tom Frost? He is now honorary chairman of the board of Project Quest, a tax-funded job training program won by COPS with his assistance.

rick.casey@chron.com

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Harris Plan to Count Assets May Limit Indigent Health Care

The Harris County Hospital District soon may begin including the value of patients' assets, rather than just their incomes, as they evaluate applications for free- and reduced-cost health care.

Chief Financial Officer Ferdinand Gaenzel told the hospital district's board of managers earlier this month that officials are considering implementing an "assets test" for the Gold Card program to ensure people with substantial savings do not take advantage of the discount program. The district currently bases eligibility decisions solely on applicants' incomes...

Full Article, Houston Chronicle

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Clergy Weigh In On Immigration Policy at TMO Summit

In arguments rich in biblical allusion, church and social activists Monday took aim at the nation's immigration policies - laws they contended split families, criminalize undocumented workers and undercut America's reverential self-image as a land of opportunity.

'There are 200 million migrants,' Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston told those gathered for The Metropolitan Organization's Clergy Summit: Welcoming the Stranger and Immigration Reform. 'War, famine, economic collapse drive them, and it's unstoppable. In our own country, 12 million undocumented people work and live in the shadows...'

Full Article, Houston Chronicle

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Voters Voice Their Thoughts on Reform in TMO Meeting

0810 - HC - Voters Voice Thought on ReformFew Republican candidates braved a grilling Sunday by members of The Metropolitan Organization, the Houston-area network of church-based groups working for social justice, such as better access to health care for the poor.

The four GOP candidates who did address an ethnically diverse audience of 600 people, wedged into the east side social hall of Immaculate Conception Church, mostly joined a stream of Democrats in agreeing with nonpartisan TMO....

[In photo County Commissioner El Franco Lee, left, (who is seeking re-election), shakes hands with Nathaniel Crump after answering questions at a TMO accountability meeting in Immaculate Conception Church. Credit: Nick de la Torre, Hoston Chronicle]

Full Article, Houston Chronicle

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2008 News

PLAN COULD REVISE RULES ON INDIGENT HEALTH CARE: IDEA TO USE "ASSETS TEST" MIGHT LIMIT GOLD CARD ELIGIBILITY, CRITICS SAY

By Liz Austin Peterson Houston Chronicle

Publication: The Houston Chronicle (Texas)

http://www.allbusiness.com/health-care/health-care-facilities-hospitals/...

Date: Monday, December 15 2008

 

Dec. 15-The Harris County Hospital District soon may begin including the value of patients' assets, rather than just their incomes, as they evaluate applications for free- and reduced-cost health care.

Chief Financial Officer Ferdinand Gaenzel told the hospital district's board of managers earlier this month that officials are considering implementing an "assets test" for the Gold Card program to ensure people with substantial savings do not take advantage of the discount program. The district currently bases eligibility decisions solely on applicants' incomes.

Some advocates worry that such a move could limit access to treatment at a time when more people are losing their jobs and health insurance.

"We have some real concerns about that," said Dr. Rebecca Wills, a retired family practitioner who works on health care issues for The Metropolitan Organization, a Houston-area network of churches and groups working to improve access to health care for the poor.

Wills said she fears some needy applicants may not qualify because their family has two cars even if both parents need one to get to work. Even people who still qualify may have trouble gathering all the paperwork to meet the new requirements, she added.

"It's like it's placing another barrier," she said.

Gaenzel mentioned the assets test proposal while describing several changes the hospital district is making in an effort to make it easier for poor residents to get the treatment they need.

As of Dec. 8, applicants no longer have to provide identification documents for family members when they are the only person in the household seeking care.

The district also plans to shorten the application form from three pages to one in the coming months and train the clerks who register patients to help them with the eligibility process so patients do not have to wait in multiple lines.

The TMO and other groups long have complained that the application process for the hospital district's Gold Card program is unnecessarily long and confusing, often requiring multiple trips to eligibility centers to provide additional documentation.

Adriana Guzman would welcome such a change. Guzman had to visit a district eligibility center every day for eight days in August - sometimes twice a day - before she was able to get approval for her mother's uterine cancer treatment at Ben Taub General Hospital. Each time she thought she'd found the last required document, the clerks told her something else was missing.

"I'm telling you, it was devastating for me to come home with my mom waiting for me to say yes or no," said Guzman, a youth minister at Holy Name Catholic Church. "To her, this was life and death."

About 30 percent of Harris County's 3.8 million residents lack health insurance, and the district's three hospitals, 12 community health centers and numerous clinics serve as their primary safety net. The Gold Card's discount programs offer assistance to impoverished adults who cannot qualify for Medicaid because they are not disabled, have no dependent children or have children, but are not on welfare.

Through the Gold Card program, the hospital district offers discounts on a sliding scale to patients whose income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $53,000 a year for a family of four.

Hospital district spokesman Bryan McLeod said officials are considering an assets test because they want to make sure taxpayers are not subsidizing care for people who could afford to pay full price.

He said it was too early to say how the test would be structured but added officials are leaning toward the Medicaid model, which generally bars recipients from having assets worth more than $2,000, not counting their homes or their family's first car. That standard would have to be tweaked to mesh with the hospital district's sliding-scale

Dec. 15-The Harris County Hospital District soon may begin including the value of patients' assets, rather than just their incomes, as they evaluate applications for free- and reduced-cost health care.

Chief Financial Officer Ferdinand Gaenzel told the hospital district's board of managers earlier this month that officials are considering implementing an "assets test" for the Gold Card program to ensure people with substantial savings do not take advantage of the discount program. The district currently bases eligibility decisions solely on applicants' incomes.

Some advocates worry that such a move could limit access to treatment at a time when more people are losing their jobs and health insurance.

"We have some real concerns about that," said Dr. Rebecca Wills, a retired family practitioner who works on health care issues for The Metropolitan Organization, a Houston-area network of churches and groups working to improve access to health care for the poor.

Wills said she fears some needy applicants may not qualify because their family has two cars even if both parents need one to get to work. Even people who still qualify may have trouble gathering all the paperwork to meet the new requirements, she added.

"It's like it's placing another barrier," she said.

Gaenzel mentioned the assets test proposal while describing several changes the hospital district is making in an effort to make it easier for poor residents to get the treatment they need.

As of Dec. 8, applicants no longer have to provide identification documents for family members when they are the only person in the household seeking care.

The district also plans to shorten the application form from three pages to one in the coming months and train the clerks who register patients to help them with the eligibility process so patients do not have to wait in multiple lines.

The TMO and other groups long have complained that the application process for the hospital district's Gold Card program is unnecessarily long and confusing, often requiring multiple trips to eligibility centers to provide additional documentation.

Adriana Guzman would welcome such a change. Guzman had to visit a district eligibility center every day for eight days in August - sometimes twice a day - before she was able to get approval for her mother's uterine cancer treatment at Ben Taub General Hospital. Each time she thought she'd found the last required document, the clerks told her something else was missing.

"I'm telling you, it was devastating for me to come home with my mom waiting for me to say yes or no," said Guzman, a youth minister at Holy Name Catholic Church. "To her, this was life and death."

About 30 percent of Harris County's 3.8 million residents lack health insurance, and the district's three hospitals, 12 community health centers and numerous clinics serve as their primary safety net. The Gold Card's discount programs offer assistance to impoverished adults who cannot qualify for Medicaid because they are not disabled, have no dependent children or have children, but are not on welfare.

Through the Gold Card program, the hospital district offers discounts on a sliding scale to patients whose income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $53,000 a year for a family of four.

Hospital district spokesman Bryan McLeod said officials are considering an assets test because they want to make sure taxpayers are not subsidizing care for people who could afford to pay full price.

He said it was too early to say how the test would be structured but added officials are leaning toward the Medicaid model, which generally bars recipients from having assets worth more than $2,000, not counting their homes or their family's first car. That standard would have to be tweaked to mesh with the hospital district's sliding-scale system.

Dallas County does not include patients' assets in eligibility decisions for its charity care program unless the person receives Medicare, said Lynsey Purl, spokeswoman for Parkland Health & Hospital System.

Anne Dunkelberg, a health care policy expert with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, said almost every state but Texas has discarded asset tests for government insurance programs because they generally are not worth the time and effort.

While Gaenzel told the board the district wanted to avoid helping someone with a small income but $200,000 in the bank, Dunkelberg said such a scenario is "unbelievably rare."

"The bottom line is, asset tests are seen as really antiquated and almost an excuse to deny people benefits," she said.

But Karin Dunn of Gateway to Care, a nonprofit that helps uninsured people in the Houston area navigate the health care system, said she believes few of her clients would have enough in the bank to be affected by an assets test.

"I'm not going to say, 'Oh yeah, there's not going to be any problems with the district putting in an assets test,' but at the same time, until we see some details, we can't say that there will be," she said. "So, we just have to wait."

liz.peterson@chron.com

 

 

LET'S GET 'REAL' ON IMMIGRATION

COMMENTARY

By RICK CASEY

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/casey/6120157.html

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Nov. 18, 2008, 10:48PM

 

The Methodist minister sitting next to me, an African-American, was explaining at our lunch table Monday one of the benefits of the election of Barack Obama.

It means, he said, that he wouldn't find himself involuntarily cringing every time a black man was in the news for committing a heinous crime. Now, he said, he doesn't have to worry so much that people will think that the criminal is representative of black men.

"One of ours is in the White House," he said.

I hope he's right. It is as irrational to assume black criminals are typical of blacks as to assume that white criminals are typical of whites.

A couple of hours earlier, an Irish-American Catholic priest had approached me in anger about reporter Susan Carroll's series on illegal immigrants being freed by Harris County authorities after being accused or even convicted of violent crimes, only to commit more.

Same old stereotypes
He was afraid the series would feed hysterical stereotypes of illegal immigrants as violent criminals.

Carroll had noted in the first of the three articles that, "Most research has found that recent immigrants are far less likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to commit crimes and end up in prison."

But the priest was correct to assume that at least with many readers the series would feed stereotypes that are part of anti-immigrant hysteria.

The reality is that it is horrible for illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes to be released so they can commit them again. Carroll's stories are important, because authorities need to fix the problem.

The reality also is, as the research Carroll referenced shows, that the vast majority of immigrants - legal and illegal - work hard, keep their heads down and are less likely to get into trouble than native-born Americans.

Immigrants here illegally suffer from the same sort of stereotypes that blacks long endured, being branded as violent criminals while working hard in hopes of making a better life for their families. But they can't hope that one of theirs will be elected president.

Which brings us to why that Catholic priest and Methodist minister were among nearly 200 religious and community leaders from all over Texas gathered at Houston's Congregation Beth Israel synagogue Monday.

The all-day session was organized by The Metropolitan Organization (TMO) of Houston and the statewide coalition of Industrial Areas Foundation community organizations. Participants included Cardinal Daniel DiNardo as well as Protestant bishops and rabbis from around the state. They all seemed to quote scriptural injunctions, in various words, to welcome the stranger.

Also taking part were clergy and other church leaders.

The purpose, said TMO co-chair and True Light Baptist Church Pastor John Bowie, was to "see how we can organize our congregations to pursue meaningful immigration reform that brings people out of the shadows and incorporates them into society."

Leading the sessions was Austin-based Ernesto Cortes Jr., a legendary community organizer who now heads the southwest region for IAF. Starting in the early 1970s, Cortes has established effective community organizations from Houston to Los Angeles.

He was a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient and is currently a Martin Luther King Visiting Professor at MIT. As a footnote, he also helped lead the 10-day Chicago IAF training that Obama went through in 1984 (although Obama did not work for an IAF community organization).

The strategy, Cortes stressed, is to engage church members in what he called "real conversations," one-on-one, in the "house meetings" that are a staple of IAF organizations, and in church gatherings.

"People are organized around their anxieties and fears and insecurities," he said. "We need to tell our own stories and listen to them tell theirs. We need to work with them on their concerns."

Those stories, for almost all of us, include immigrating to America. But many of us, said Rabbi Larry Bach of Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, "have amnesia."

Bach said he was planning a Seder service around the very real story of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to El Paso last century through Mexico because they were barred from direct entry by quotas.

It's what community organizers do, the slow, slogging work of building constituencies through listening and talking - real conversations as Cortes says - seeking real solutions to real problems.

Can it work in a story-of-the-minute media culture dominated by sound bites and shouted talking points?

One can only hope.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at rick.casey@chron.com

 

CARDINAL CALLS FOR BROAD-BASED LEGALIZATION PLAN

Church activists at summit take aim at U.S. policies

By ALLAN TURNER

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/religion/6117984.html

Nov. 17, 2008, 10:38PM
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

In arguments rich in biblical allusion, church and social activists Monday took aim at the nation's immigration policies - laws they contended split families, criminalize undocumented workers and undercut America's reverential self-image as a land of opportunity.

"There are 200 million migrants," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston told those gathered for The Metropolitan Organization's Clergy Summit: Welcoming the Stranger and Immigration Reform. "War, famine, economic collapse drive them, and it's unstoppable. In our own country, 12 million undocumented people work and live in the shadows."

Borrowing language from a 2002 Catholic Conference of Bishops policy statement, DiNardo called for legalization of undocumented workers already in the country.

"Without some form of broad-based legalization," DiNardo said, "the problems will just fester and fester."

Janice Huie, resident bishop for the United Methodist Church's Texas Annual Conference, joined the call for granting legal status to undocumented workers. In May, she said, Texas Methodist leadership formally opposed job-site raids and criminalization of undocumented workers and their indefinite detention.

"We would support policies that point to the best of who we are," she said.

Huie and others reported an intensification of anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. fueled by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"I am encountering hateful, stereotyped and racist anti-immigrant language that is almost acceptable in the mainstream," Huie said.

 

'Red meat issue'
Rhetoric surrounding immigration issues has heated as talk radio programs exploit the issue, suggested Houston immigration lawyer, Charles Foster, chairman for Americans for Immigration Reform.

 

"They found this red meat issue bashing immigrants," he said.

Foster's group has launched a $20 million campaign to back immigration reform. Current immigration policies, whether they regard building border fences or regulating the number of legal entrants, often prove unworkable, he said.

"The annual quota for semi-skilled workers, as opposed to families or professionals is 5,000," he said. The nonprofit Pew Hispanic Center estimates 500,000 undocumented workers entered the U.S. annually from 2005-08.

Government efforts to dislodge undocumented workers also are ineffective, Foster said.

"If these workers risk their lives coming here," he said, "they're not going home. They're going further down the economic scale."

 

A warning on complacency
Although President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to speedily address immigration concerns, Foster warned those at Monday's conference not to become complacent. President George W. Bush, he noted, was a staunch supporter of failed efforts to reform immigration laws in 2006 and 2007.

 

"The problem was in the House," Ernesto Cortes Jr. said, alluding to the U.S. House of Representatives. "The mail they were getting was 100-1 against, and that's not going to go away."

Cortes, southwest regional director of Industrial Areas Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by the late Chicago activist Saul Alinksy, was the only non-church affiliated speaker.

Cortes urged his audience to "go boldly, move forward, but lovingly and attentively."

The key to building support for immigration reform, he said, is building "relationships of trust, to bond together."

"We need to create social learning networks ... not to persuade so much as understand," he said. "To do that, we need to learn the language of concern."

allan.turner@chron.com

 

WHEN TMO SPEAKS, CANDIDATES LISTEN

Voters voice their thoughts on reform in meeting with office-seekers

By ALAN BERNSTEIN

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6079531.html

Oct. 26, 2008, 11:08PM

 

Few Republican candidates braved a grilling Sunday by members of The Metropolitan Organization, the Houston-area network of church-based groups working for social justice, such as better access to health care for the poor.

The four GOP candidates who did address an ethnically diverse audience of 600 people, wedged into the east side social hall of Immaculate Conception Church, mostly joined a stream of Democrats in agreeing with nonpartisan TMO's liberal-leaning agenda.

But there were some differences in the one-minute-each presentations by the candidates, which were made in reaction to testimonials and near-demands by the group about proposals to reform schools, the justice system and other institutions. The TMO format reverses the usual formula campaign events, making the voters the speakers and the politicians the listeners.

 

Democratic county judge candidate David Mincberg, saying he is sensitive to social justice issues as the child of immigrants who came to America with no money, agreed to push for simplifying qualifications for access to the county public health care system.

 

He also agreed to establishing a public defender's office for poor accused criminals, inspecting job training programs elsewhere in the state and expanding the use of special courts that provide treatment and rehabilitation programs, rather than incarceration, for addicted and mentally ill violators of the law.

Mincberg is challenging Republican incumbent Ed Emmett, who agreed to some of the points but also said he favors public defenders in only some kinds of cases.

Instead of directly pledging to expand the speciality courts, he said he was very interested in juvenile justice reform.

 

District attorney hopefuls

Former Houston Police Chief C.O. "Brad" Bradford, the Democratic contender for district attorney, agreed with the TMO drive to, among other things, make grand juries more reflective of the entire community.

 

His Republican opponent, former Judge Pat Lykos, urged people there to volunteer for service on grand juries, which decide whether to bring charges in criminal cases, and to look at her record for impaneling grand juries as a judge.

But she added, "I will not play politics with the grand jury system" by making wholesale changes.

The composition of grand juries has been an issue in the campaign for district attorney.

Bradford says grand jury members should be chosen at random from a cross-section of the county; Lykos says the current system of judges picking grand jurors will suffice if run responsibly.

Republican Dorothy Olmos signed on to the TMO agenda along with opponent Ana Hernandez, a Democratic member of the state House. Republican Gilbert Pena attended as part of his campaign against Democratic state Sen. Mario Gallegos, who was absent.

Sheriff Tommy Thomas, Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt and State Rep. Dwayne Bohac were among the Republican invitees also absent, leaving Democrats to dominate the group of candidates crowded onto the stage.

TMO member Rosa Abram of Fifth Ward Missionary Baptist Church said she was happy with the result of her first "accountability meeting" with the candidates, who included U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston.

"I feel most of the elected officials will do what they say," Abram said, "but I have my doubts about some of them. So we need to do this more often."

alan.bernstein@chron.com

 

METRO PLANS TO RAISE FARES

Officials consider hikes of 25 cents to $1

By ROSANNA RUIZ

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6058923.html

Oct. 15, 2008, 5:52AM
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

 

Bus and rail passengers would pay 25 cents to $1 more to ride under a proposal before Metro's board of directors this week, the first of three annual fare increases planned by the transit agency.

Under the proposed hikes, local bus and rail fares would go up by 25 cents to $1.25.

Park and Ride fares would rise according to how much riders travel. For example, Park and Ride users in Missouri City would see fares go from $1.50 to $2; Katy Park and Ride customers would pay $4.50, up $1 from current fares. If approved, the new fares would take effect Nov. 2.

The board is set to vote on the fare increases and Metro's proposed $330 million operating budget Thursday.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said Tuesday that base fares have remained the same for 14 years, and blamed rising diesel and other costs for the proposed hikes.

"We felt like, to be fiscally prudent and to be stewards of taxpayer dollars, we needed to go to our customers and say, 'Hey, we're going to need help paying for all this,' " said Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts. "And we tried to spread it out equitably among our passengers."

The last rate increase was in 1994, when bus fare went from 85 cents to $1.

The proposed increase comes after Metro did away with its complex system of discounts and passes last year in favor of a Quick Card, or Q Card, payment system.

Although base fares have remained the same, Metro has increased services by 18 percent in the last two decades, Roberts said. Metro's fuel costs are projected to double next year to $23 million, she added.

Fares make up 21 percent of Metro's operating budget. The remainder is comprised of sales tax revenue and federal funds. The increase is expected to result in $14 million in additional revenue for fiscal 2009, which began Oct. 1; Metro projects total fare revenues of $68.2 million in the current fiscal year.

Also included in the proposal are fare increases for local and Metro Rail fares for the coming years. Those fares would go up by a nickel in 2010 and 2011. Park and Ride fares would increase by as much as 20 cents each of those years. Airport service will remain $15 one-way and $30 round-trip.

Public hearings on the budget and fare increases were conducted Tuesday because earlier hearings on Sept. 16, three days after Hurricane Ike hit the region, failed to draw attendees.

Those waiting for buses outside Metro's downtown headquarters on Main were not pleased about the news. "I'm having trouble as it is riding the bus," said Kelley Yarber, 50. "I'll probably have to walk if I don't have the money."

Edgar Robinson, 28, said he'll have to pay because he has no other way to get to work. "I'm not too happy about it."

The Rev. Richard Hassell, a member of The Metropolitan Organization, a nonpartisan group of churches, synagogues and nonprofits, suggested Metro allow the public more time to respond to the proposal.

"Ike has caused a lot of pain and suffering in our community," said Hassell, pastor of Sheeler Memorial Church in Independence Heights. "It would just be another hardship for people in our community."

Roberts said Tuesday's hearings were the only ones planned before Thursday's vote.

Also Thursday, Metro's board will take up its capital and general mobility budgets. The general mobility budget calls for $164 million for city and county projects and repairs. The $520 million capital improvement budget includes $441 million for the Metro Solutions plan as the agency begins work on expanding light rail.

rosanna.ruiz@chron.com

 

COMMENTARY

A BUDDING TAKS REVOLT

By RICK CASEY

August 13,2008

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/casey/5940103.htm

Parents are looking forward to Texas' annual tax-free weekend beginning Friday for back-to-school-related purchases.

 

Many students, parents and teachers yearn more adamantly for a TAKS-free school year.

Teachers have long chafed at the drill-and-kill culture in many schools that has been fostered by an accountability system that relies so heavily on student performance on the standardized test called the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Many students who struggle to pass the test go to school with dread, knowing that, whatever their grades, they face being held back from promotion if they mark too many wrong bubbles.

 

TAKS is working, isn't it?

Many students who pass easily spend days in mind-killing boredom as school principals, whose futures depend on student passage rates, pressure teachers to do whatever it takes to make sure lagging students make the grade.

 

Still, the test is making Texas schools better, isn't it?

Early this month the Texas Education Agency announced that a record number of schools were rated "exemplary," the highest level.

And slightly fewer schools than last year were rated "unacceptable," the lowest level.

Yet, less than a week later, the Governor's Competitiveness Council, whose 29 members include the likes of the heads of AT&T and Exxon Mobil as well as high state officials, issued a report highly critical of the performance of Texas schools.

 

TEA 'games' not at fault

"If the state's talent development system does not not make critical changes at every level to ensure a dependable work force is available, Texas will not remain a high quality place for doing business," it warned.

 

One of its recommendations: Require the schools to graduate students who are ready either for college or the work force.

Council members recognized that half of first-year students in Texas colleges require remedial courses.

They seem to think graduates are equally unprepared for jobs.

Some business leaders blame the accountability system for being too lenient.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, is highly critical of the TEA for inflating results in a number of ways, such as exempting school districts from national dropout standards, and rounding up on some measurements to give schools higher ratings than they actually scored.

In a recent interview with Austin journalist Harvey Kronberg, Hammond attacked the agency for "numbers games and bureaucracy" that mask failures exemplified by schools that have a 50 percent passing rate for math and graduate only two-thirds of their students.

He has a point. But the likelihood is that the disconnect between the performance of schools and students on the TAKS test and the readiness of graduates to take on college and the world has little to do with the "games" played at TEA.

It has to do with the fact that we evaluate the schools on how students do on the TAKS test. If that is the main measure of schools, that is what the[limit]

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2007 News

AD HOC GROUP OPPOSES SPRING BRANCH ISD'S $597 MILLION BOND PROPOSAL

Superintendent says group's paid advertisement was misleading

By ANNETTE BAIRD Chronicle Correspondent

Oct. 29, 2007, 1:37PM

A recently formed ad hoc group calling themselves "Taxpayers for Responsible Spending" says the Spring Branch school district's $597 million bond proposal is bloated, wasteful and affects everyone's pocket book, even those 65 and over.

Joe Yarbrough, who formed the group and spent $2,700 of his own money on a full page ad in the Oct. 25 Houston Chronicle decrying the bond, believes the proposal to rebuild 12 elementary schools at a cost $249.1 million is unnecessary. He said some of those schools, such as Frostwood and Wilchester, had renovations and additions under the $250 million 1999 bond.

"They're duplicating what they said they would do in the 1993 and 1999 bonds, and they're piling debt on top of debt," Yarbrough said.

Superintendent Duncan Klussmann said the ad was misleading in that the schools will not be facing the "wrecking ball" and that Yarbrough's tactics "border on blackmail."

Klussmann said the 12 schools - Spring Branch, Housman, Ridgecrest, Pine Shadows, Valley Oaks, Hollibrook, Shadow Oaks, Frostwood, Edgewood, Westwood, Meadow Wood and Wilchester - would cost almost as much to renovate. New structures, such as gymnasiums, classrooms and multi-purpose rooms built with 1999 bond money will remain intact.

Of Yarbrough's tactics, Klussmann referred to an Oct. 5 e-mail he received from Yarbrough saying he wouldn't oppose the bond if the district diverted funds to the Ag Science building.

"I'm not going to put one person above all the community members who worked to put this together," Klussmann said.

Klussmann said the bond proposal has been two years in the making, is entirely necessary, well thought out and has wide community input and support.

"Ours is a long-term approach for addressing facilities needs, which is why this bond issue is at the dollar amount that it's at," Klussmann said.

Public opposition to the bond appears to be spotty compared to the tidal wave of support, expressed at recent school board meetings and by the more than 650 endorsements the group "Vote Yes Spring Branch ISD Bond Election" have collected.

"The size of the bond is a function of the district's needs," said Barry Abrams, who served on the 65-member bond advisory committee and helped organize "Vote Yes."

"We can't defer making this investment. This is an opportune time for taxpayers."

Memorial resident Franklin Olson believes the bond is necessary and an investment in the future.

"My wife and I we consider this bond issue to be our legacy," said Olson, a member of The Metropolitan Organization, which has endorsed the bond. "We want the community to be strong, which means having strong schools."

Yarbrough and a handful of others aren't convinced.

Yarbrough, 75, contends that even though homeowners 65 and older will have their property taxes frozen, they still will be paying for the bond through the cost of doing business in the district.

"Businesses will pass on the tax increase to consumers," he said.

The bond proposal recommends a property tax increase of 6.95 cents per $100 assessed value, with the exception of homeowners 65 and older or disabled with homestead exemption.

Charles Latimer, owner of Shadow Oaks Drive In grocery store, and Gene Frazier, owner of the Spring Branch area Wholesale Restaurant Supply, worry about the size of the bond and the effect it has on all taxpayers.

"If my taxes go up, I will have to pass on the increase to consumers," Latimer said.

Frazier agrees many district facilities need renovating, but doesn't agree schools should be torn down and replaced.

"More money doesn't make better schools," said Frazier, adding that his children received an excellent education at Spring Branch Elementary and Cornerstone Academy, both housed in two of the district's oldest buildings.

The bond proposal, which will come before voters Nov. 6, also includes $260.1 million for upgrades, including electrical, plumbing, air-conditioning and heating systems and maintenance at all other campuses; $66.8 million for new classrooms and upgrades for safety, security, technology and science labs; and $21.1 million for contingencies such as construction cost overruns and the cost of selling the bonds.

 

 

MAYOR REJECTS TMO'S PAY PLAN

Group sought training for HPD in dealing with the mentally ill

By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE and CYNTHIA LEONOR GARZA Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/5195613.html

Oct. 8, 2007, 1:10AM

 

Mayor Bill White resisted a call by a broad-based community organization to support an incentive pay program for police officers specially trained to deal with the mentally ill during a Sunday forum with city and school elected officials, leaders and candidates.

The Metropolitan Organization's request to provide $150 per month incentive pay would encourage Houston Police Department officers to become Crisis Intervention Team specialists and comes in light of four shooting deaths over the past year of mentally ill residents by HPD officers. HPD has been criticized for its handling of those crisis situations.

The group, which hosted the forum, also asked for increased training for 911 operators to help them identify when crisis-intervention trained officers are needed.

"Our HPD officers are some of the best compensated in the country," White said, adding that he doesn't think the incentive pay is necessary, but that if needed, it would be considered.

Crisis training should be "mandatory for those who come out of the cadet training," White said. About 700 officers have the training but only about 380 are on patrol, he said.

Councilmember Adrian Garcia echoed the mayor's opposition. "I don't think you need to pay officers to do that," Garcia said.

More than 20 city and school elected officials and candidates, including Houston ISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, attended the meeting designed to gauge the officials' and candidates' commitment to supporting TMO's agenda.

The group - composed of congregations, schools and other institutions - asked candidates a slate of yes-or-no questions. Each candidate was given a very limited time to answer. Candidates were not allowed to campaign, and the audience was not allowed to boo. About 300 people attended the meeting at Trinity United Methodist Church.

City officials and candidates were also asked whether they supported increasing city employees' pay to a "living wage," removing abandoned houses and developing affordable housing.

Despite gaining support on their issues from the seven candidates vying for the two open seats on the HISD school board, TMO leaders said the organization cannot support the district's $805 million bond measure.

"We're just extremely unhappy with the process," TMO member Terri Parris said. "It was a painful and prayerful decision."

While students need new buildings, leaders of the grass-roots groups critical of the bond said HISD leaders should have consulted with the community before unveiling the bond package.

Five of the seven HISD candidates said they are also against the bond. Only District II candidate Reginald Adams and District IV candidate Paula Harris said they will support the proposal to build 24 schools and renovate 134 others.

Opposing the bond "is the popular thing to do right now," Adams said. "The facts will prove that this bond is in the best interest of students and the city."

Several African-American leaders have spoken out against the bond, saying their communities are being short-changed. But the bond has gained some ground in the last two weeks, earning endorsements from LULAC, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Houston Partnership.

Saavedra told the crowd that he will hold public meetings before he consolidates schools - a major sticking point of some bond critics.

Saavedra and the candidates also agreed to support TMO's other issues, which include reducing principal turnover at some of HISD's troubled schools and lobbying to end high-stakes standardized testing.

jennifer.radcliffe@chron.com

cynthia.garza@chron.com

 

 

ARCHBISHOP DINARDO SPEAKS TO LOCAL FAITH LEADERS AT TMO MEETING

By JONAH DYCUS, Herald Staff Writer

September 21, 2007

Houston- Archbishop Daniel N. DiNardo delivered a keynote address to local faith leaders during a symposium for clergy hosted by The Metropolitan Organization (TMO), Sept. 5. TMO focuses on helping working citizens form leadership qualities through activism and promoting grassroots advocacy.

The public square meeting took place at St. Cyril of Alexandria Church in west Houston.

"One of the great merits of the (TMO) model is that they are in the neighborhoods, empowering people to speak for themselves, training them and raising them up to be leaders in their community," said Deacon Sam Dunning, the archdiocesan director of the Office of Peace and Justice and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Deacon Dunning attended the TMO meeting. "The whole idea of trying to solve problems as close to the source as possible is certainly in accord with the social teachings of the Church."

During his presentation, the archbishop commented on how he has seen such on-going efforts substantially help those in the labor force. "You can't grow up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania without being aware of the worker question, since the whole history of that (was based upon) the Church's involvement with unions, its involvement with the organization of workers. There was intense interest of the Catholic Church with that question," Archbishop DiNardo said to the assembly, which included members of Protestant denominations and the Jewish faith.

The archbishop also outlines some of the principles of Catholic social teaching, citing Pope John Paul II's tireless dedication in "always remembering the human person."

"The human person is the basis of our understanding of social doctrine. We see each individual... is made in the image and likeness of God. All human beings are equal, and all human beings are distinctive," Archbishop DiNardo said. "With Catholic thinking, because we deal with the human person, we are particularly sensitive in our faith tradition to the beginnings and ends in the life of a human person. This is not to say that the other parts of the life of a human person are not integrally important... but for us, the beginnings and the ends are the most vulnerable."

Reflecting on the numerous issues TMO seeks to resolve, Deacon Dunning says there is much common ground shared by the various ministers in attendance.

"I am always moved that we share that basic prophetic impetus that drives us," he observed. "One of the advantages of organizing in the communities in addition to being close to the problem is that you are close to the people who are suffering through the problem. As Christians, we have an opportunity, a great blessing, to be Jesus to others, but also to see Jesus in others who are suffering and walk in solidarity with them."

By bringing clergy together from many different faith traditions, "it highlights our commonality," says Deacon Dunning. "I think the more solidified and unified the religious community can be around social concerns, the more powerful we are."

He applauds the efforts of Catholics on the parish level in aiding their brothers and sisters in need. "I am sure (representatives of other faiths) have their own respective degrees of pride, but I am very proud of the strenght and volume of the Catholic voice in these various efforts, "Deacon Dunning said. "The Catholic Church has been there from the beginning. We have had a great impact on TMO, as they had a great impact on us."

Harmonizing the various sectors for justice is vital to those affected by such actions, says Archbishop DiNardo.

"TMO (members) can come together and work on these issues that have their interest, whether it is by faith, culture or needs... They can work together and align with the city and ocassionally challenge it for the common good of a given neighborhood," he stated. "Working in such ways does help us understand the meaning of working for the common good. I don't think the common good is something that stands out there as a formality- it is something that is realized as people gather together as human persons who are to be infinitely respected."

The archbishop encouraged his fellow clergy to remain open and receptive as they are challenged to support grassroots movements in their communities. "Sometimes, if you have a religious point of view, people say that is purely private. But in the United States, you look at what our founding fathers say in the Constitution.... just because one has a religious faith, does not mean that religious faith is purely private," Archbishop DiNardo explained. "Religious faith has had profound public resonances in our country and elsewhere."

Complementing the work of the clergy working through TMO, Archbishop DiNardo encourages them to carry on and not shy away from the public stage. "I think it is important to make our presence shown."

 

DEWHURST DRAWING FLAK ON CHIP

Leaders, clergy say he didn't do business forms, shouldn't criticize those re-enrolling

By GARY SCHARRER Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/special/07/legislature/4707408.html

April 12, 2007, 1:52AM

 

AUSTIN - Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst drew fire Wednesday from several clergy members and leaders of a community action group who said they have lost patience with him on funding the Children's Health Insurance Program.

It is hypocritical for Dewhurst, they said, to dismiss low-income families' concerns about signing CHIP re-enrollment forms every six months when Dewhurst himself has failed to properly fill out basic business forms affecting some of his business interests.

"We don't have patience with the lieutenant governor who doesn't understand the problems that affect working families of Texas. He says he supports our children, but he hasn't lived up to it," said the Rev. Kevin Collins, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Houston and a leader with The Metropolitan Organization.

Dewhurst said he has always "been a strong supporter of children," with Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo calling him a "champion for children."

The Network of Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Organizations, which includes the TMO, wants lawmakers to spend the extra $78 million to return CHIP to 12-month eligibility instead of six months, something the House budget bill already has done. The program's enrollment period shrank four years ago when lawmakers cut the program back as a money-saving measure.

Many families do not re-enroll every six months, which drops children from coverage. Dewhurst has said most Texans don't have much sympathy "for someone that can't fill out a two-page application every six months."

The Democrat-supported Lone Star Project in Washington reported this week that Dewhurst failed to file necessary forms at least six times in recent years for companies that he owned or controlled.

"It's certainly an important thing for the leader of the Texas Senate to be as punctual as the poor people that he expects to be punctual," Collins said. "And, of course, he's probably got several lawyers who can do this for him whereas the poor people of Texas have to do this all by themselves. It's a shame. He's out of touch."

Meeting later with reporters, Dewhurst said he would not respond "to any political attack in this forum. If folks want to attack me politically, they can wait until (the election in) 2010."

Dewhurst sent a letter later in the day to the organization criticizing leaders for "politicizing this issue," but inviting them to meet with him "to discuss your concerns and ideas."

He said he's always been interested in providing health insurance to all CHIP children who qualify.

He considers both six- and 12-month enrollment periods artificial time frames.

Some variation of a continuous verification system, which would provide uninterrupted coverage for children in families who qualify, is something Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick have discussed, Dewhurst said.

Currently, 325,000 children are covered under CHIP, a federal-state health insurance program for children of the working poor. But the program does not cover about 375,000 CHIP-eligible children.

gscharrer@express-news.net

 

 

CITY BUDGET SHOWS HOW MAYOR WILL CAMPAIGN

By KRISTEN MACK Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

June 21, 2007, 11:57PM

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/mack/4910806.html

A budget is a moral document, as Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell liked to say. It is a clear indication of an institution's priorities.

The budget passed by Houston City Council on Wednesday also tells us a lot about Mayor Bill White.

This budget, his fourth since taking office and more than any up until now, reflects him and his aspirations for higher office.

White will no doubt point to an increase in public safety funding. For the first time, the city has devoted more than
$1 billion to public safety spending for the police, fire and municipal court departments.

But any mayor would have been obligated to meet those fixed costs, largely associated with personnel. Spending more money does not mean problems are being solved, particularly the city's violent crime. And council members still contend that it is not clear how the police department is allocating resources.

The mayor also will highlight a reduction in the property tax rate, which he has passed every year since taking office. But the rollback is meaningless. It translates into a $1.25 annual savings for property with a $100,000 assessed value - that won't buy a Happy Meal.

Building it into the budget gives cover to conservative council members who have promised to reduce taxes and it avoids extensive debate at the table.

While the mayor supported the nominal tax decrease, he was raising fees elsewhere. White was counting on a trash fee, what the city called a "waste-reduction fee," that would guarantee money for some solid waste services, including recycling.

Council, however, nixed that plan, eliminating the creation of a dedicated fund and calling for public hearings should the city consider it in the future. It's not likely that it will.

The Metropolitan Organization came out against the fee, calling it regressive and dubbing it a de facto tax. Fees hurt poor people most, because everyone would pay the same cost and they affect those with the least ability to pay.

Council members, meanwhile, continue to acquiesce to the mayor, making few significant changes during the budget process, their one opportunity a year to influence the city's agenda. By the end of Wednesday, many members were tabling their amendments, rather than bringing them up for discussion.

While there is little wiggle room in a city budget, White has been in office long enough to make his own stamp on the city and budget.

White continues to play it safe. He went out of his way not to offend and to build consensus, which led to an unambitious budget. It lacks an overriding mission.

Part of that is because White, who is a micromanager, appears to be out of new ideas. His most significant policy initiative was Safe Clear, a mandatory towing ordinance, that went into effect more than two years ago.

White also lacks an organization. It's never been clear who he seeks input from or turns to for advice. What's becoming increasingly clear is that the mayor is so concerned with image, he's reluctant to take a risk - with the recent exception of his initiative to regulate out-of-city polluters. But he appears to be backing away from that, instead waiting on the Greater Houston Partnership to come up with a proposal.

This budget is merely a reflection of how he plans to campaign, as a tax cutter who has made public safety his top priority.

 

Campaign notebook

Mikal Watts, who is exploring a run for U.S. Senate, crept into state Rep. Rick Noriega's backyard Tuesday. Noriega is the only elected official among several Democrats considering a potential challenge to Republican incumbent Sen. John Cornyn.

 

During his daytrip to Houston, Watts, a San Antonio trial lawyer, hosted fundraisers and attempted to shore up support for his all-but-certain campaign.

"He appears to be doing all the right things," said Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, who met with Watts. "I'm not ready to make a decision about his candidacy, but he's got a good grasp on the issues and he's done his homework on Harris County."

Watts' campaign was tight-lipped about who he met with, saying only that he had a "broad spectrum" of meetings. Watts, 39, has already pumped $3.8 million into his campaign, equal to Cornyn's cash on hand. Watts, who formed an exploratory committee earlier this month, donated $1.9 million to his exploratory committee and lent it another $1.9 million.

Another frequently mentioned candidate is former Comptroller John Sharp. Dallas lawyer Emil Reichstadt also is looking at running. Houston lawyer Barbara Ann Radnofsky, the 2006 Democratic Senate nominee against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, has not ruled out taking on Cornyn, but she is eyeing the attorney general's race in 2010.

Watts has until June 30 to raise money before campaign finance reports are due. It will be a reliable indicator of how viable his campaign is, even though he will have only had a month to tap contributors.

kristen.mack@chron.com

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Dewhurst Drawing Flak On CHIP

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst drew fire Wednesday from several clergy members and leaders of a community action group who said they have lost patience with him on funding the Children's Health Insurance Program.

It is hypocritical for Dewhurst, they said, to dismiss low-income families' concerns about signing CHIP re-enrollment forms every six months when Dewhurst himself has failed to properly fill out basic business forms affecting some of his business interests...

Full Article, Houston Chronicle

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Simpler Form Created to Aid Storm Victims

About 30,000 evacuee households - most of them in Texas - are still eligible for housing aid, which had been extended to 18 months after the disasters. The extensions are to Feb. 24, 2007, for Hurricane Katrina evacuees, and to March 28, 2007, for Hurricane Rita evacuees. But recipients had to fill out a lengthy application to re-certify their eligibility... Now the agency has come up with a one-page form that allows applicants to declare that assistance is still needed.

'It's the most beautiful form I've ever seen,' said Bob Fleming, vice president for program services at Catholic Charities in Houston and a leader of the Metropolitan Organization, a group working with hurricane evacuees, including 25,000 households in Texas, where most of the storm victims fled.

Full Article, New York Times

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Immigration Debate Hits HPD From Both Sides

Stepping into a hot local fight over city policy toward illegal immigrants, the federal agency that enforces immigration laws said Friday that Houston police could do more to help the effort.

At the same time, a leading community group urged the department to stand firm on its policy limiting inquiries into suspects' residency status...

Full Article, Houston Chronicle

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