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Democrat challenges GOP’s Paxton to debate in AG race

File Photo 

AUSTIN – Democratic candidate for attorney general Sam Houston wants his opponent, state Sen. Ken Paxton, to agree to a debate ahead of the November general election.

Houston is expected to issue the challenge Wednesday at a news conference in Austin, demanding his Republican opponent “quit hiding from the media and the voters,” spokeswoman Sue Davis confirmed.

“To me, this is fair. He’s either going to debate me or explain to somebody why he hasn’t,” Houston said Friday. “How is this guy going to be attorney general if he won’t even address the issues?”

Houston contends his opponent hasn’t made a public appearance in months, ever since Paxton admitted to repeatedly soliciting investment clients over the last decade – a service for which he pocketed up to a 30 percent in commission – without being properly registered with the state as an investment adviser representative.

Texans for Public Justice, the same watchdog group that filed the original complaint against Gov. Rick Perry that eventually led to his August indictment, has also filed a complaint over Paxton’s noncompliance with state securities laws with the state ethics commission.

Paxton was reprimanded by the Texas State Securities Board and on May 2 fined $1,000 for the violation.

In response, Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm called Houston’s debate demand a desperate ploy from an underdog candidate.

“It’s not surprising that anyone losing by 20 points – and unable to raise meaningful campaign funds – would want free publicity. Rabidly pushing debates is most often the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass,” said Holm.

He did not answer follow-up questions about whether Paxton would agree to a debate. Houston was unchallenged in the Democratic primary.

The general election season has been characterized by top-ticket scuffles over the timing and nature of debates. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, challenged her Republican opponent for lieutenant governor state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston to five debates. He has agreed to one, scheduled for Sept. 29 in Austin.

Meanwhile, at the top of the ticket, gubernatorial candidates Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott continue to spar over the issue. On Friday, Abbott backed out of a second televised debate scheduled for Sept. 30, saying he did not agree with the roundtable format. He later agreed to another debate that same day, but Davis is calling on him to stick to the originally agreed to format.

Paxton was first elected to the state House in 2002. He won re-election four times, and in 2010 launched an unsuccessful bid to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus, before winning a seat in the state Senate in 2012.

He easily defeated his Republican primary opponent, state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, thanks in part to a nod of support from popular Tea Party darling U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Paxton’s Democratic opponent is a Houston lawyer who in 2008 ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court. In that race, Houston garnered 46 percent, losing to Republican incumbent Dale Wainwright by a five point margin.

By Lauren McGaughy

Mohamed Elibiary has left the building

Photo: Center for Security Policy

Mohamed Elibiary, an Islamist with extensive ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and a record of influence operations in the service of its agenda, has announced his departure after five years on the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council. We can only hope that – at a moment when the danger posed by shariah-adherent Muslims is becoming more palpable by the day – the Department decided to stop legitimating an advisor who has publicly championed that it was, “ inevitable that ‘Caliphate’ return”, contended that the United States is “an Islamic country with an Islamically compliant constitution.”

Elibiary had always been brazen in his support for Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, including featuring the Muslim Brotherhood “R4Bia” symbol on his twitter page, and publicly lauding Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb.

In 2011, Elibiary was also suspected of utilizing his security clearance in order to access confidential documents from the Texas Department of Public Safety, and seeking to “shop” the files to journalists in order to label then Presidential candidate Governor Rick Perry an “Islamophobe.” In May 2014, during testimony before Congress, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson admitted to Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX), that this was “problematic.”

Whatever the cause of Elibiary’s departure from a senior advisory capacity in the Obama administration, it must be welcomed because – as documented in the Center for Security Policy’s online, video-based course entitled The Muslim Brotherhood in America: The Enemy Within” ( – he played a prominent role in blinding the U.S. government to the threat posed by the Brotherhood’s “civilization jihad.” This was the practical upshot of a sequence of events that began with Elibiary being given the FBI’s highest civilian award at the Bureau’s Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia in September 2011.

Shortly thereafter, Spencer Ackerman of Wired Magazine published pictures of materials in the FBI Training Academy’s Library that Elibiary and his ilk deemed “offensive” accompanied by a series of screeds about the need to stop employing such information and trainers employing it to prepare Bureau personnel to protect us against all enemies, foreign and domestic. On November 8, 2011, then-Homeland Security Advisor to the President (now CIA Director) John Brennan agreed not only to accommodate that demand but applied the purge to the U.S. military, U.S. intelligence community and Department of Homeland Security, as well.

Unfortunately, as welcome as the news is that Mohamed Elibiary may be less able in the future to run subversive influence operations from within the U.S. government, his next publicly announced mission is disconcerting. In response to a Tweeted question from investigative reporter Ryan Mauro (who conducted a highly illuminating interview with Elibiary in the fall of 2013), the former Senior Fellow at the Obama Department of Homeland Security announced that he was now going to turn his attention to “reform[ing] the conservative movement so the GOP can win in 2016.”

I had an opportunity to witness personally Mohamed Elibiary’s involvement with the conservative movement when I was invited in the Spring of 2013 to address a conservative group that meets monthly in the Park Cities neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. Undeterred by his presence, I briefed the group on the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, its goals of imposing shariah worldwide under the rule of a Caliph, and its practice of stealthy, pre-violent “civilization jihad” to advance that agenda.

I also discussed the enabling role that has been played on behalf of and with Muslim Brotherhood-tied Islamists like Abdurahman Alamoudi, Sami al-Arian, Nihad Awad and Suhail Khan in their influence operations targeting the George W. Bush in the run-up to and during his administration by a prominent conservative activist, Grover Norquist. As recounted at length in Agent of Influence: Grover Norquist and the Assault on the Right, the Brotherhood front called the Islamic Free Market Institute, founded by Norquist and Alamoudi, and Norquist’s self-styled “Center-Right” Coalition meetings in Washington and similar groups meeting in state capitals and major cities across the country have served as vehicles for facilitating the penetration and subversion of the conservative movement.

In the course of my Park Cities briefing last year, I did not mention Elibiary by name and he did not make any intervention or otherwise challenge my briefing. After the meeting ended and he left, however, I asked the organizer, “Why do you have a Muslim Brother in this meeting?” Interestingly, he did not reply by saying, “Who are you talking about?” or “What evidence do you have that anyone here is a Muslim Brother?” Instead, he simply said, “The Center-Right Coalition recommended him.”

One can only assume that if Mohamed Elibiary is going to be involved in “reforming the conservative movement,” he will be doing it with the help of Grover Norquist. And that prospect should be of concern to all of us – as are Norquist’s past dealings with such Islamists to, among many others, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey, former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy, former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin and six of their colleagues in the community of influential national security practitioners who signed a cover letter accompanying the Statement of Facts that makes up the body of Agent of Influence. It should be required reading for all conservatives.

Frank Gaffney, Jr.

GOP poll shows Paxton with big lead in AG race

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AUSTIN – State Sen. Ken Paxton‘s campaign is touting a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent in the race for Texas attorney general, citing a poll commissioned for his campaign and released Tuesday.

The poll was performed by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, a Republican polling firm with locations in Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City and Austin. The poll surveyed 1,003 likely general election voters Aug. 24-26, 2014. They were asked: “If the general election for Texas Attorney General were held today, for whom would you vote for if the candidates were?”

Crosstabs provided to the Chronicle by Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm showed 52 percent chose his client and 28 percent chose Paxton’s Democratic opponent, lawyer Sam Houston, with 17 percent undecided. Paxton fared far better among conservatives, garnering the support of 75 percent of those polled.

Of those surveyed, 54 percent self-identified as conservative and 31 percent as independent. “Liberal” was not parsed out in the provided crosstabs. The margin of error was +/- 3.1 percent.

“Senator Ken Paxton is taking advantage of his convincing primary and runoff election victories and heading toward a dominant general election win,” a WPA press release accompanying the poll stated. “While he certainly has room for growth, the fact Paxton is already exceeding 50 percent of the vote illustrates his strength as a candidate.”

In response, Houston spokesperson Sue Davis criticized the timing and nature of the WPA poll: “I find this memo laughable. I find it interesting that Mr. Paxton’s spokesperson created it after they found out about our news conference.”

On Wednesday, Houston plans to challenge Paxton to a debate ahead of the November general election.

“They don’t release the actual numbers or the actual questions. Do the respondents know about Mr. Paxton’s legal problems? Do they know he admitted to a third degree felony? Knowing this, would people really think Ken Paxton could be an effective attorney general?” Davis asked.

Paxton was reprimanded by the Texas State Securities Board and on May 2 fined $1,000 for repeatedly soliciting investment clients over the last decade – a service for which he pocketed up to 30 percent of the management fee – without being properly registered with the state as an investment adviser representative.

Even so, he solidly defeated state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas in the late-May Republican primary, thanks in part to a nod from U.S. Ted Cruz. Houston was not challenged in the Democratic primary.

WPA, which has counted Tea Party favorites U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and U.S. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) as clients, was founded by Chris Wilson, who served as executive director of the state Republican Party under George W. Bush’s governorship. Chris Perkins once headed up former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s political action committee.

Lauren McGaughy is a reporter in the Houston Chronicle’s Austin bureau. She can be reached at or on Twitter @lmcgaughy.

Texas Attorney General Poll – Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research

Update: Texas, Mexico escalate border surge disagreement

Photo: Houston Chronicle 

Update, 2:15 p.m. on Sept. 12

AUSTIN – Texas and Mexico escalated their disagreement Friday over Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to send the state’s National Guard to the border.

Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto called the deployment “reprehensible” in an interview published in a daily newspaper.

“It is an attack on good relations and neighborliness,” Nieto told El Universal, adding that, “the policy is completely unacceptable and it does not embody the spirit of cordiality and friendship between two nations,” he added.

In response, Perry criticized Mexico for not addressing the spike in unaccompanied minors from countries such as Honduras who have crossed Mexico into American.

“Gov. Perry deployed members of the Texas National Guard to disrupt criminal activity that threatens all American citizens, and which is primarily a result of the U.S. federal government’s lack of commitment to securing our southern border,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in a statement that was more sharply-worded than comments yesterday about a Mexican ambassador’s statement on the same topic. “While Mexico has made progress in many areas, the government has not addressed the flow of unaccompanied minor children en route to the U.S. from Central America. Rather than questioning Gov. Perry’s decision to do what he knows is right for the citizens of his state and country, we wish the Mexican government would instead work more cooperatively with us to address this very serious problem.”

 Original post, 7 p.m. on Sept. 11

AUSTIN — Top Mexican and Texas officials criticized each other Thursday over the surge in Lone Star State law enforcement personnel at the border.

The Mexican government started the war of words by issuing a statement calling this summer’s surge in Texas National Guard troops and state Department of Public Safety officers “irresponsible” and politically motivated.

“The unilateral measure taken by the government of Texas is undoubtedly mistaken and does not contribute to the efforts in which our two countries are engaged to build a safe border and create a solution to the phenomenon of migration,” said the statement, which said Mexico “deeply rejects and condemns the deployment.”

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst fired back later in the day, saying it was Mexico that was being “insulting” by implying the surge is political.

“I find it puzzling and frankly offensive that the government of Mexico chose the 13th anniversary of the most tragic attack on our homeland to call on Texas to throw open our international border to illegal immigration, trafficking in drugs and human lives, and potentially even terrorists who wish to harm America,” Dewhurst said in a news release, adding that, “On this day of all days, we are reminded of the threats, both foreign and domestic, that face our nation.  Regardless of the source of such misguided criticism, I will always make my top priority each day to protect the safety of all Texas citizens.”

The surge in law enforcement started in June in response to a massive spike in the number of unaccompanied minors illegally crossing the southern borders. Officials said the children took up so much time that Border Patrol could not stop illegal activity by Mexican drug cartels.

Dewhurst, Gov. Rick Perry and state House Speaker Joe Straus agreed in June to spend $1.3 million per week on the surge in state Department of Public Safety officers. Perry announced the National Guard deployment in July, and the troops started deploying last month.

On Thursday, Perry’s office adopted a less angry tone than Dewhurst or the Mexican government.

Our borders should not be open and vulnerable to exploitation by ruthless criminals,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed wrote in a statement. “The governor is focused on ensuring drug cartels and other criminals don’t get a free pass into Texas and the rest of the nation because our borders are unsecured. We look forward to continuing to work with Mexico to address illegal immigration and the tragedy of unaccompanied minors.”

Dewhurst: Mexico’s Response to Guard is Offensive

Photo by: Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst issued a harsh rebuke of the Mexican government on Thursday for issuing what he called an “offensive” statement on the border surge that coincided with the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Dewhurst was resonding to a statement by the Mexican government that criticized Gov.Rick Perry’s deployment of the National Guard to the Texas-Mexico border in response to an unprecedented rise in illegal crossings by undocumented Central Americans.

“I find it puzzling and frankly offensive that the government of Mexico chose the 13th anniversary of the most tragic attack on our homeland to call on Texas to throw open our international border to illegal immigration, trafficking in drugs and human lives, and potentially even terrorists who wish to harm America,” Dewhurst said in a statement.

Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a statement — one dated Wednesday — that the deployment was purely political and claimed it would only serve to erode binational relations on issues like immigration and security.

“Mexico asserts that it is irresponsible to manipulate the current state of border security for political purposes. It reiterates that immigration must be addressed from a comprehensive and regional perspective, with a mid-term vision and with shared responsibility, to ensure peace, inclusion and prosperity in the region,” the statement says. “It does not contribute to bringing our societies closer together and it opposes the principles and values by which Mexico and the United States govern their bilateral relationship.”

Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said the governor’s office doesn’t know what prompted Mexico’s statement but that Perry remains committed to working with Mexico.

“The governor is focused on ensuring drug cartels and other criminals don’t get a free pass into Texas and the rest of the nation because our borders are unsecured,” she said in an email. “We look forward to continuing to work with Mexico to address illegal immigration and the tragedy of unaccompanied minors.”

In his statement, Dewhurst reiterated that the National Guard deployment is not political and said Texas has a proven, years-long track record of securing the border.

“It is also insulting to imply that protecting Texans is suddenly political when my fellow leaders and I have appropriated over $800 million in Texas tax revenue over the past seven years to purchase planes, helicopters and gunboats to secure the border because the responsible government entities simply refuse to meet their obligation,” he said.

The National Guard deployment has drawn the ire of border Democrats who say it amounts to little more than militarization for show and harms the local economy. They also question the estimated $38 million price tag taxpayers will be left with for the deployment.

But other border leaders like Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal says the troops are a necessary component to border security, and add that the federal government is not living up to its mission.

In addition to the thousands of Central American adults who have been apprehended at the southern border, tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have also been detained by the U.S. Border Patrol. Since October, about 66,000 of these unaccompanied minors have been apprehended, compared to about 35,000 during the same time period last fiscal year.

The Rio Grande Valley sector of the U.S. Border Patrol alone has seen about 48,500 unaccompanied minors this year, compared to about 19,250 last year, according to recently released statistics. Despite that overall increase, the numbers have been dropping since June.

California rocket company to move to Texas

AP File Photo

BURNET, Texas (AP) — A company filled with rocket scientists has bought in to Texas’ push to promote itself as a business-friendly, anti-regulation locale.

The Austin American-Statesman reports ( ) that Firefly Space Systems of Hawthorne, California, on Wednesday confirmed its relocation to the Austin area. The company says it’s negotiating with Cedar Park officials to make that city its headquarters. It said it already purchased 200 acres of farmland in Burnet County near the unincorporated community of Briggs.

The announcement comes just weeks after SpaceX announced it would create the world’s first commercial site for orbital rocket launches in South Texas.

Firefly will test small rocket engines at the Briggs location. PJ King, the company’s chief operating officer, expects to hire up to 200 workers, mostly engineers.

“These are all high-paying jobs,” he said.

King said Firefly was attracted to Texas partly because of its business and regulatory climate. It will also develop its rocket engines in collaboration with the University of Texas.

Firefly is attempting to build a satellite launching system that would cost customers $8 million to $9 million. It said that’s less than half the cost Russia charges.

King says the company will not test the rockets in Burnet County. He says the company is looking for a launch site, preferably on the coast.

Burnet County Commissioner Russell Graeter said he welcomes Firefly to the rural county of a little more than 42,000 people.

“There’s not much out there,” he said. “I hope it will get things going on for them in Briggs.”


Information from: Austin American-Statesman

Teen busted for pot brownies gets trial date

The young man from Round Rock who was initially facing life behind bars for making and selling pot brownies now has a trial date.

The Williamson County DA dropped a first degree felony charge against 19-year-old Jacob Lavoro last week but he’s not out of the woods yet. He’s still facing up to 20 years.

This afternoon Jacob and his attorney Jack Holmes met with the judge who set a tentative trial date of December 1st and a pretrial date of November 12th at 1:30 p.m. to discuss their motion to suppress evidence.

Holmes says police unlawfully entered his client’s apartment and seized data from his cell phone without a warrant.

After today’s hearing FOX 7 spoke with Holmes and marijuana advocacy group Texas Normal who reminds everyone even though the life sentence is off the table, 20 years is still a long time.

Holmes says, “He’s (Jacob) doing fine, he’s really nervous which I understand. He’d like to get this over with but he doesn’t want to proceed to fast and have us miss something. So he’s a pretty nervous kid. He’s 19 years old facing 20 years in prison so that’s understandable.”

Jax Finkel from Texas Normal says, “He’s (Jacob) 19 years old. He would be a middle aged person by the time he would get out of jail and that’s just for a few grams of cannabis. And that is not an equation that’s logical in any way.”

Again, Lovaro is facing possession of THC with intent to deliver and an added charge of marijuana possession. The maximum is 20 years and probation is also a possibility.

This is an update. A previous version of the story is as follows:

At 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon, supporters of Jacob Lavoro will rally outside the Williamson County Courthouse. 19-year-old Lavoro is due back in court for a status hearing.

He was arrested back in April for allegedly making and selling brownies made with marijuana. At one point the state was considering a life in prison punishment.

After police took the total weight of the brownies (which included the pan, batter and marijuana) it weighed 1.5 lbs, enough for a first degree felony charge.

The details of this story made national headlines and thousands of people started to support Lavoro. However, state law allows authorities to include the brownie mix, flour, and oil to determine the total weight and severity of the drug charge. Last month, the Williamson County District Attorney told Fox 7 it dropped the first degree felony charge saying it makes it a “simpler more straight forward case.”

Thursday’s status hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. At 1 p.m., Lavoro supporters are expected to rally to show support for what they call a minor crime.

In the status hearing, both sides hope to find out the test results of the THC found in the brownies. The levels will determine the charge Lavoro faces. Depending on the number of marijuana grams found in the brownies, Lavoro could get probation or up to 20 years in prison.

His attorney wants the whole case thrown out because he says police entered the apartment illegally.

Both sides say they are prepared to go to trial.

Fox 7 will have more details about what happens inside the courtroom later on today.

See video here.

Texas TEA Party members unveil border security plan

Members of the Texas TEA Party are calling on lawmakers to embrace their border security plan.

State lawmakers return to Austin in about four months, but that’s not soon enough for members of the Texas TEA Party movement who met Thursday at the capitol.

“We don’t believe they should wait for a regular session. You know what the clock is ticking on this thing and it’s costing us plenty,” said JoAnn Fleming with Grassroots America.

The call for a Special Session includes a demand that Governor Perry or the Attorney General order a Police Action and declare that a State of Eminent Danger exists in south Texas.

“And you know why we’re here? Because what our state government is doing is not going to solve the problem,” said Fleming.

With the security surge ordered by the governor earlier this summer denounced as being politically deceptive, the TEA Party has drafted its own border strategy.

Key points include forming a special DPS Border Brigade and activating the State Guard and authorizing the use of state funds for militia patrol units.

The to -do list for a Special Session includes:

-Banning access to social service programs.

-Preventing undocumented children from attending Texas schools.

-Outlawing sanctuary city policies.

-Tougher criminal penalties for employing and smuggling illegal immigrants.

“The resistance by members of the Texas legislature to engage in this crisis in a special session is shocking,” said Dale Huls with the Clear Lake TEA Party.

If countries south of the border do not cooperate, the TEA Party solution is to close commercial ports to Mexico and order a boycott of their products.

A former state senator, Gonzalo Barrientos, immediately dismissed the ideas as extreme and unrealistic.

“God gave us a heart and he also gave us a brain, to figure out how to solve problems, that are going way out to lunch instead of working through the civil methodology,” said Barrientos.

While the TEA Party was demanding state legislative action now, members of another conservative group were also at the state capitol taking a slightly different approach.

State Ag Commissioner Todd Staples lead a panel discussion Thursday sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He says he understands the frustration felt in south Texas but suggested most illegal crossings could be prevented by modifying one federal program.

“We need a modernized Guest Worker Program that puts American workers first that starts clearly with Border Security but has a mechanism where we don’t have a million people seeking to come in illegally,” said Staples.

Doing this according to Staples will allow law enforcement units already on the border to focus on drug smugglers and other potential threats.

In response to the TEA Party plan the following statement was sent to FOX 7 from the Office of Governor Rick Perry:

“Although securing the border is a federal responsibility, Texas has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to step in where the federal government has failed, most recently through Gov. Perry’s directive for DPS’s surge operation in the Rio Grande Valley and deployment of up to 1,000 National Guard troops to support this operation.”

See video here.

Conservative groups target inaction on border crisis

Ramping up their criticism of top state officials — including many of the same Republican officeholders they earlier supported — a coalition of conservative and tea party activists on Thursday blasted inaction by the state to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants across Texas’ border with Mexico.

“What is happening is a clear dereliction of duty by our Legislature and our top state officials,” JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America, a conservative tea party group, said at a briefing at the State Capitol.

“Our message to these officials is: You’ve known about it since last spring, you’ve campaigned about it, but you’ve done nothing. We intend to hold you accountable.”

What the groups want is for Gov. Rick Perry to call the Legislature into special session, for the state to officially designate the border crisis an emergency and then take action to send in state military forces to block all border crossers.

The groups were specifically critical of Perry’s deployment of National Guard troops to the border, inisiting that has done little to actually stop crossings. Mary Huls, president of the Clear Lake Tea Party, and others said the action is only helping keep in operation the federal government’s controversial policy of catching and releasing border-crossers — a policy they oppose.

“State officials are accomplices to what is happening” on the border, said Dwane Stovall, director of Keep Texas Free, a states-rights group. “”It’s now time for state leaders to back up their words with action. . . and the leadership of Texas starts with the governor of Texas.”

Members of the groups also expressed concern that the longer Texas’ border remains unsecured, the greater the costs to the state’s economy, schools and public safety. They called for officials to increase security along the Houston Ship Channel, which they insisted is a prime target for terrorist attacks but is largely unprotected.

Warning that they plan to increase their criticism about official inaction, the groups said they plan to confronting current officeholders  who are seeking election in November, just two months before balloting takes place.

They blamed much of the inaction on officeholders who are making promises while running for election, but are not following through with action now that they have the authority to carry out. “The problem is political consultants and donors . . . They are stalling until after after the NOvember elections, and that’s not appropriate,” Fleming said.

“Shame on our governor and all the way down for not addressing this,” said Heidi Theiss, vice president of the Clear Lake Tea Party and a League City Council member who supported a controversial resolution to ban the housing of undocumented immigrant children in that city south of Houston.

Thursday’s criticism marked the latest time in recent months that tea party and conservative activists have leveled criticism at current GOP state leaders, after elections gains by their candidates in spring elections bolstered their numbers and clout in the upcoming legislative session.

Weeks ago, a coalition of many of the same  groups called for the Legislature to adopt a conservative, bare-bones state budget that significantly cuts spending and taxes across the board.

Reason Foundation comes unhinged at populist revolt against tolls

Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation has decided to pick a fight he can’t win.

He just published an article personally attacking anti-toll group leaders across the nation, and he had a extra special below-the-belt attack saved just for yours truly. He’s responding to the populist anti-toll revolt taking place in America, and he can’t help but go on the attack because these grassroots efforts are finally making progress. He’s lashing out in response to a 5-page cover story in the Weekly Standard that slammed the new rage among transportation think tanks like Reason, called HOT lanes. It stands for High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Sometimes they convert existing HOV lanes into toll lanes, other times they’re new lanes but only open to carpoolers and those who pay tolls.

The author, Jonathan Last, used many of the same terms to describe this wrong-headed policy as the anti-toll groups do – government picking winners and losers, crony capitalism, privatized profits, socialized losses, Lexus lanes, etc. If the shoes fits, and it does, it’s not hard for liberty-minded people to come to the same conclusions all by themselves. They can spot a scam when they see one. But Poole asks, ‘Where do these ideas come from?’ Or more to his point, who is promoting ideas in opposition to his libertarian ivory tower theory-world of road pricing?

His answer is a nasty attack on grassroots advocates attempting to save the middle class from the biggest, most expensive tax grab in our lifetimes. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Poole or the Reason Foundation. I ran into Poole in the halls of the Texas Capitol when our anti-toll group, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), was asking legislators to sign onto a public private partnership (P3) moratorium in 2007. I’d enter a legislator’s office and there he was lobbying lawmakers to support P3s and disregard the public outcry. The original moratorium passed with a vote of 169-5. It’s been a rough road for P3s in Texas ever since, and it’s about to get rougher.

The problem, according to Poole, is the ‘bogus arguments’ anti-toll leaders are making. Poole even calls them ‘malicious’ arguments. Not only are the anti-toll arguments not ‘bogus,’ Poole offers no evidence that the arguments are false and instead launched ad hominem attacks, denigrating activists for being housewives, specifically ‘crusading housewives.’

He asks where did journalist, Mr. Last, gets his ideas?

“My research has found a growing network of grass-roots, right-wing populist groups opposing tolling and public-private partnership (P3) concessions. One of the originators of many bogus arguments on these subjects is a San Antonio housewife, Terri Hall, founder of the group TURF. Her efforts helped bring about a two-year moratorium on concessions in Texas in 2007. This year she led a successful effort to change the platform of the Texas GOP from pro-tolls to anti-tolls. And her anti-tolls, anti-P3 agitation appears to have swayed GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott (the likely successor to pro-tolls Rick Perry) to adopt anti-toll positions.

“But Terri Hall’s grass-roots activism has consequences far beyond Texas. Similar right-wing populist groups are actively opposing P3s and tolling in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Each is also led by a crusading housewife, and their websites use many of the same terms (toll-tax, crony capitalism), arguments (abridging state sovereignty, most of the funding is from taxpayers, etc.) and materials (such as the video “Truth Be Tolled”).”

First, Poole gives these ‘populists,’ journalists like Last, and Texas Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott no credit for coming to the same conclusions independently. Anyone who analyzes the contracts and the data can see the same rip-off and draw the same conclusions – housewife or not. P3s are anti-taxpayer and a colossal transfer of wealth from taxpayers to a handful of private toll concessionaires and their buddies who finance them.

Anti-toll leaders have used the terms ‘crony capitalism’ and ‘boondoggle’ because P3s and the way toll roads are being done today are exactly that. Our arguments are based on statutes, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) commission meetings, TxDOT documents, and the P3 contracts themselves.

The fuss over P3s
What’s the big deal about P3s? They sell-off our public infrastructure to private, even foreign, corporations in very long-term sweetheart deals (50-99 years) designed to extract the highest possible tolls from the traveling public. How high? How about 95 cents a mile, $24/day, or nearly $6,000/year in new taxes on driving (that’s per commuter, not per household).

These contracts contain non-competition clauses that penalize or prohibit the expansion of surrounding free routes, artificially lower speed limits on free routes and increase speed limits on the tollways, force taxpayers to pay the private toll operator for losses in revenue (due to carpoolers, uncollectable tolls, natural disasters), use heaps of taxpayer subsidies and loan guarantees, and guarantee handsome profits.

The contracts do not have to go to the lowest bidder either. Texas lawmakers have replaced competitive low-bid contracting with ‘best value’ bidding that allows the contracts to be steered to the well-connected from an already tiny pool of global companies. The first three Texas P3s went to the same Spain-based company, Cintra, with direct ties to Governor Rick Perry’s office. Lobbyist Dan Shelley worked for Cintra, became the chief legislative liaison for Perry in 2005 when he landed the development rights to a massive network of P3s toll roads known as the Trans Texas Corridor for his former employer, then went back to work for Cintra. How is that anything but cronyism? Shelley and his daughter still lobby for transportation clients in the Texas Capitol.

But perhaps the worst aspects of P3s are the fact they use eminent domain for private gain and surrender control – in essence, state sovereignty – over our public infrastructure to private corporations. In 2012, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal cited this as his reason to pull the plug on P3 concessions calling them ‘ill-conceived sell-outs.’ Those are tough words that didn’t come from a housewife.

Let’s breakdown some of the other the so-called ‘malicious’ arguments of anti-tollers.

1) P3s use massive sums of taxpayer subsidies.

This is absolutely a fact. In examining just Cintra’s three P3s in Texas, the vast majority of the project funding comes from the taxpayers. On State Highway 130 (SH 130) that runs parallel to Interstate 35 between San Antonio and south Austin, a $430 million federal TIFIA loan was secured for the $1.3 billion project. TIFIA loans are backed by the U.S. federal taxpayer. If the traffic doesn’t show up to pay the toll revenues necessary to retire that debt, it’s you and I on the hook for it.

On the Interstate 635 contract in Dallas, the total project cost was $2.6 billion with $2 billion of that price tag coming from the taxpayers. Cintra landed an $850 million TIFIA loan, $615 million in Private Activity Bonds (also a federal program, special tax-exempt bonds just for these toll road deals), and $490 million in gas taxes from Texas taxpayers.

On the project dubbed the North Tarrant Express in Ft. Worth, Cintra snagged 7 different stretches of highway in one bid. They finagled the development rights which gave Cintra the right of first refusal on all of them under two ‘best value’ bidding procurements (here and here). What a deal!

So Interstate 820, Interstate 35W, and segments of State Highway 121 and State Highway 183 are all part of the sweetheart deal wrapped up in one big package with a bright green money-colored bow, courtesy of the taxpayers. Out of a total cost of $3.7 billion for the projects, $2.8 billion came from the taxpayer: $1.2 billion in TIFIA loans, $673 million in PABs, and nearly $1 billion in other unspecified ‘public funds.’ Segment 3B was 100% funded by taxpayers. All told, $1 billion in all Texans’ gas taxes went into the I-635 and North Tarrant Express projects, yet they’ll still be charged a toll to use it. This is clearly double taxation.

Cintra’s SH 130 is already in technical default according to Moody’s investor service, experiencing less than half the projected traffic. When it goes bankrupt, the taxpayers go bankrupt with it. Poole claims the private operator takes on the risk for the debt service on this money, but that hardly qualifies as a true transfer of risk from the public to the private sector. We’re on the hook for it, therefore it’s the taxpayer at risk. End of story.

This same funding scam is repeated on virtually every P3 across the country. Only tiny bits of the private toll concessionaire’s own money, known as private equity, is put into the deal. Some funding is the private toll revenue bond investors’ capital (which is still not Cintra’s own skin in the game). If the traffic doesn’t show up, those bond investors take the hit for that, but there’s no penalty to Cintra for that loss. So Cintra is risking precious little of its own capital, leaving taxpayers and other investors (including public pension funds) vulnerable for its projects.

But revenue bonds are getting harder to come by since toll managed lanes (toll lanes down the middle of an existing freeway) are not financially feasible. With free lanes alongside the toll lanes and congestion generally only bad enough to make people pay tolls just a few hours a day, the tolls collected on managed lanes are inadequate to repay cost of construction and retiring the debt. Hence, the massive injection of taxpayer subsidies. Even Fitch ratings warns “toll roads with meaningful untolled competition, especially those designed to relieve congestions, could be vulnerable because their value would diminish with lower traffic growth” in its report last year. The private guys won’t risk their own capital for such loser projects, but the government is only too willing to risk our money.

So Poole can in no way honestly claim that the private operators are taking on the risk.

Continue reading here.