LAWMAKERS DELVING INTO FEDERAL STIMULUS PACKAGE
|Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst answers reporters' questions about the impact of the federal economic stimulus bill on Texas.|
(AUSTIN) — President Barack Obama signed the economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Monday, sending hundreds of billions of dollars into the national economy, including billions to help beleaguered state governments. While the impact of the economic downturn has not been as severe in the state, the stimulus bill includes about $17 billion for Texas. It has about $5 billion for Medicaid, and almost $4 billion for public and higher education. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst said Wednesday that he and his staff have just started looking at the provisions in the bill and how they related to Texas, but he warns that lawmakers will have to be wary about relying on one time payments from the federal government. "We need to be careful on how we use one time funds, so that we're not painting ourselves into a deficit in 2011, but a number of these funds, I think, will be able to help us in these program areas," he said.
Some of the federal money could come with strings attached, and as lawmakers look further into the 1100-page bill, they will consider how federal provisos could affect state policy. Lubbock Senator and Finance Committee member Robert Duncan said budget writers will have to make sure to keep to fiscal policies that have served Texas well in the past. "This is Texas, we're fairly independent here, and it's because of that independence that we are as healthy as we are today," he said. "You can rest assured that the Texas Legislature will be very careful in going through these programs so that we can ensure that we maintain independence and the Texas spirit in the way these funds are expended."
Also Wednesday, Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay announced the filing of a bill that will increase transparency and accountability for executives at state electric co-ops. Fraser became aware of a problem early last year when he was barred from entering a board meeting at the Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC). He was responding from complaints by co-op members regarding the secretive activities of PEC executives. Upon finally getting access to the meeting, Fraser said he was rebuffed when he attempted to find out how much the PEC general manager was paid in salary. "It's none of your business," Fraser said he was told. "I became very aware that we had a closed system where members could not be elected from the outside, they were denying all members access to the board room, and if you asked for records of the co-op, the members were denied," he said.
|Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay lays out his bill aimed at increasing accountability and transparency at state electric co-ops.|
At a February 2008 meeting of the Business and Commerce Committee, Fraser, who chairs the committee, read a list of abuses he attributed to PEC executives. These included exorbitant salaries, expensive trips to day spas and thousand dollar restaurant bills, all on the co-op's tab. Members of the co-op complained that they were denied their right to elect presidents or managers, saying these positions were hand-picked by board members.
The bill, SB 921, increases transparency and accountability for board meetings and board elections. While the bill is aimed at all state electric co-ops, it includes many provisions that apply a higher standard just to PEC. For example, while other co-op boards must set clear guide lines for members voting by proxy, PEC board members are specifically prohibited from proxy voting. The bill would set open meetings requirements for co-op board meetings, and while the legislation allows for executive sessions of the board, written or audio records of those sessions must be kept for two years. Co-ops will have to set policies, in writing, for travel expenditures, conflicts of interests, whistleblower protections and reimbursements. The bill would also authorize audits of co-ops by the State Auditor, if the Legislative Audit Committee deems it appropriate.
State Representative Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs, who represents more than 50,000 PEC customers, said this bill will not only open the PEC and discourage similar abuses at other co-ops, but will help to ensure the success of the cooperative electric market in the state. "I am convinced that with open meetings, and open records and fair elections and real, earnest, lasting local control, we in Texas can guarantee the long-term viability of co-ops," he said.