• Texas soon to join states taxing Amazon.com

    Texas residents are set to begin paying a 6.25 percent sales tax on Amazon.com purchases starting Sunday.

    The sales tax drama started when Texas claimed Amazon owed the state $269 million in back taxes from 2005-2009 because the company operated a distribution facility in Irving and was technically present in the state. Amazon said the charge was “without merit,” and sought to make a deal with Texas.

    In May 2011, Amazon had promised to invest $300 million and create 6,000 jobs in exchange for a 4 1/2 year sales tax exemption, but Texas rejected the deal.

    Amazon and Texas reached an agreement in April, and the online company doesn’t have to repay the back taxes, but instead will make $200 million in capital investments, create 2,500 jobs and charge a 6.25 percent sales tax.

    Proponents of forcing Amazon to collect sales tax say the move is meant to put online retailers on an even playing field with traditional brick-and-mortar stores and provide an extra revenue stream for the state.

    The Austin-American Statesman reported the lack of an online sales tax shorts Texas $600 million a year.

    Amazon, however, said stores like Wal-Mart are behind the push for legislation to tax online retailers in a move to curb their growth.

    The trend of states levying sales taxes on online retailers is gaining momentum. Texas joins Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin in mandating an online sales tax, with New Jersey and Virginia soon to follow.

  • A critical update to the Texas GOP platform

    The Texas Republican Party held its state convention June 7-9 in Fort Worth to elect delegates and vote on a new party platform.

    One portion of the education section made some surprising changes from the previous platform.

    In 2010, the Knowledge-Based Education plank stated teaching critical thinking skills were the primary purpose of public schools, along with “reading, writing, arithmetic, phonics, history, science, and character as well as knowledge-based education.”

    The new platform takes a different stance on critical thinking, and states:

    “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning).”

    Outcome-based education is a system of teaching usually associated with grading on a scale instead of a curve, block scheduling, standardized testing and developing curricula to specify desired outcomes for students. The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (and offspring) and No Child Left Behind are typical examples of OBE. 

    Both GOP platforms support knowledge-based education, which is “learning that revolves around both the knowledge that the student already has, and the understanding that they are going to achieve by doing work.”

    KBE supporters advocate a “back-to-basics” approach to education that revolves around teaching facts and knowledge directly to students, rather than encouraging them to arrive at knowledge through critical thinking. KBE focuses little attention to social development and does not take an integrated approach to individual subjects.

    While the 2010 platform places some value on critical thinking skills, the updated version clearly opposes them because they focus on “behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

    Along with removing the support for critical thinking, the platform also removed a policy that outlined an expected outcome for students. In 2010 it favored teaching entrepreneurial and investment skills, as opposed to teaching “children to be employees or perhaps at best managers for employers.” There is no mention of the entrepreneurial goal in 2012.

    The 2012 Texas Democratic Party platform also outlines a preferred teaching philosophy, which seems to share both KBE and OBE characteristics. This section of the platform has not changed since 2010.

    “...we believe the state should: replace high-­stakes tests, used to punish students and schools, with measures that restore the original intent of the state  assessment system: improving instruction to help students think critically, be creative and succeed.”

  • Supreme Court ruling pleases and displeases both parties

    The Supreme Court issued three rulings yesterday, the most high profile of which was Arizona V. United States.

    In a 5-3 decision, the Court struck down most of Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070, leaving intact the portion allowing law enforcement officials to check a person’s immigration status if he or she has been stopped for another reason.

    The unconstitutional portions of the 2010 law included requiring legal immigrants to carry citizenship documents at all times, prohibiting illegal immigrants from searching for a job and allowing police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants.

    Justice Kagan recused herself from the ruling because she was previously the Solicitor General arguing the government’s position in the case before she was appointed to the Court.

    Although the ruling only directly affects Arizona and other states that have passed similar immigration laws, (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah) Texas politicians and advocacy groups were quick to add their two cents to the debate. The split is mostly divided along party lines - republicans think the ruling went too far, while democrats think it didn’t go far enough.

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry released a statement saying the “ruling is one step forward and two steps back – simply not good enough. It is bad enough that the Obama administration picks and chooses which laws it wishes to enforce, but for the United States Supreme Court to deprive states of some of those powers... is insulting to the Constitution and our right to govern ourselves.”

    U.S congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) said the “remaining “show me your papers” rule is very troubling. Its implementation should be reevaluated because of racial profiling. Today’s decision only underlines the need for prompt, comprehensive immigration reform.”

    However, there is one notable exception. Somos Republicans, self-described as the “largest Hispanic GOP grassroots organization,” came out strongly in favor of the ruling with this statement:

    “We... have said from the very beginning that SB 1070 is both unconstitutional and not an effort at illegal immigration but actually an effort to violate the rights of all Latinos in order to drive them from America.”

    The Supreme Court is scheduled to deliver this term’s most anticipated ruling Thursday, which will decide the fate of Obama’s most significant legislative initiative, the Affordable Care Act.

  • Authorities crack down on Austin drug rings

    Now seems like a very bad time to run a drug trafficking operation in Austin.

    On Thursday, a mix of local, state and federal law enforcement agents raided 10 homes and businesses, including Jovita’s restaurant on South First St.

    Police said the restaurant was making $6,000 per day selling heroin in and around the establishment.

    18 people have been indicted for “conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute more than 1 kilogram of heroin from May 2011 through June 15,” three of which police say are members of the Texas Syndicate prison gang.

    Amado Pardo, one of Jovita’s founders and well-known South Austinite, and his wife Amanda Pardo were arrested during the raids.

    Thursday’s arrests followed another major bust in Williamson County, where 16 were arrested Wednesday in connection with a meth lab near Leander. Police say they found meth and materials used in the production of the drug at the house.

    The Williamson County sheriff’s office and the Drug Enforcement Agency tracked the purchase of more than 100,000 pseudoephedrine in Williamson County pharmacies. The 16 individuals have all been charged with a first degree felony and are looking at 5 to 99 years in prison.

    Just three months ago, authorities raided and later seized the assets of Yassine Enterprises, the organization that previously owned 8 bars in Austin. 11 individuals face federal indictments in connection with drug trafficking, weapon purchases and violent crimes. In addition, one member of the group was associated with transferring $45,000 to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

    Austin’s remaining criminal organizations (how many more can there be?) must be on edge after the recent busts, while the authorities are no doubt celebrating.

  • Separation of powers showdown

    Yesterday, President Obama granted Attorney General Eric Holder executive privilege to withhold documents requested by the House committee investigating the administration’s involvement in the failed ATF gun smuggling sting, Operation Fast and Furious.

    The executive privilege, Obama’s first use of the power, ignited a “political firefight” on Capitol Hill and resulted in the House Committee voting to hold Holder in contempt of Congress.

    Punches were thrown, and Holder claimed the vote was politically motivated.

    "It's an election-year tactic intended to distract attention — and, as a result — has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people."

    Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor defended the committee’s contempt vote and released a statement saying, “Fast and Furious was a reckless operation that led to the death of an American border agent, and the American people deserve to know the facts to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

    Presidential use of executive privilege dates back to George Washington when he denied the House’s request for information relating to the Jay Treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain.

    More recently, Bill Clinton used executive privilege 14 times, most notably in an attempt to withhold his aides from testifying in court during his impeachment in 1998.

    George W. Bush used the power six times, once to withhold the details of Vice President Dick Cheney’s meetings with energy executives, and several times to block congressional subpoenas of his Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and political aide Karl Rove.

    While voting to hold an official in contempt can potentially lead to jail time, politicians usually avoid carrying out the entire procedure because it could lead to a court battle that redefines the limits of executive privilege.

    Nancy Pelosi chastised House republicans Wednesday and claimed they misused the contempt vote.

    “It doesn't serve our country, and it undermines the true purpose of contempt of Congress," Pelosi said. "That's why I didn't arrest Karl Rove when I had the chance."

    Things seem to be calming down now, with the Associated Press reporting a compromise between both parties is in the works.