Ed Sterling

AUSTIN - The Texas Board of Criminal Justice met in Austin on Dec. 3 and decided to ask the state for $66 million in immediate funding to purchase airport-style and mobile screening units and other surveillance equipment to stop cell phones and other contraband from being smuggled into Texas prisons.

Democrat John Whitmire of Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal

Justice Committee, and Republican Jerry Madden of Richardson, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said they support the idea.

In the summer and early fall, Whitmire was the target of illegal cell phone calls made by a death row inmate. Gov. Rick Perry responded in October, ordering a sweep of Texas prisons that netted 144 illegal cell phones, plus weapons and other contraband.

Hutchison eyes

governor’s office

Texas’ senior U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison on Dec. 4 filed papers with the Texas Ethics Commission and formed an exploratory committee, signaling her interest in running for governor in 2010.

Hutchison also transferred funds from her federal campaign finance account to a state campaign finance account.

A Republican, Hutchison won her U.S. Senate seat by special election in 1993. She was re-elected to full terms in 1994, 2000 and 2006. She served as Texas state treasurer 1991-92 and in the Texas House as a Houston-area representative from 1972-76.

Combs steps up

transparency

Because of a slackening economy, legislative committees and teams of state number crunchers must be at their best to find money and deliver the fiscal 2010-11 budget, which could be around $185 million.

Meanwhile, taxpayers can learn how much of their money government is spending and what it’s being spent on.

Nearly a year ago, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs launched “Where the

Money Goes” a Web site that now shows all state agencies’ spending in detail.

In continuing along those lines, on Dec. 3, Combs introduced openbooktexas.com, a Web site that includes “Texas Smart Buy,” an online ordering system; “Texas Transparency Check-Up,” an accountability study of local governments; and “Single Set of Books,” initiative examining uniform financial accounting in state government.

“It is clear that we have entered an era of great economic uncertainty, and government must make the most of every dollar, just like millions of working families,” Combs said.

“Texans deserve to know their tax dollars are being used wisely.

Families are cutting expenses and looking for ways to save. Government must do the same.”

Ethics commission

fines justice

The Texas Ethics Commission on Dec. 4 fined Texas Supreme Court

Justice Nathan Hecht $29,000 for violating state campaign finance rules.

The Ethics Commission said an unreported reduction in fees Hecht received from a law firm for personal legal assistance was tantamount to a political contribution and that violates the rules.

Debt collector settles with state Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Dec. 5 resolved the state’s enforcement action against debt collection firm NCO Financial Systems Inc.

NCO settled after being charged with violating the Texas Debt

Collection Act. State investigators said NCO unlawfully made harassing and threatening phone calls to purported debtors.

Under the settlement, NCO must implement policies that ensure its

debt collection efforts fully comply with this law. The settlement requires NCO to create a three-year $150,000 restitution fund to compensate Texans harmed by its unlawful acts.

The company will remit $100,000 to the state’s general revenue fund for violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, along with $150,000 in attorneys’ fees.

FEMA says mess

disappearing

The Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuffed media assertions that it had been slow to remove debris from areas stricken by Hurricane Ike in September.

FEMA said as of Dec. 2 it had removed 18 million cubic yards, or 79 percent of debris, from public rights of way in Texas and called it the largest debris removal in Texas history.

FEMA estimates the Ike cleanup will cost $800 million total. Cleanup

for Hurricane Rita in 2005 totaled $111 million, FEMA said.