Friday, February 11, 2011

The Jail that Ate Tyler, and other stories

Just a few items for y'all this morning while I'm focused elsewhwere:

House crimjust committee assignments boring but significant
First, I should belatedly mention that Texas House committee chairs on criminal justice yielded no surprises but set the stage for a session where reform bills will have a serious chance of passage in the lower chamber. Congratulations to Jerry Madden, who resumes his former leadership role as Chair of Corrections, Pete Gallego, who remains Chairman of Criminal Jurisprudence (though presiding over a committee with a lot of new faces), and Sid Miller, who replaces Joe Driver as head of what's now the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. Madden has been central to Texas' recent probation reforms and his appointment by the Speaker appears to endorse his approach, which has received national acclaim. Further, Todd Hunter, who chairs the Calendars Committee (which decides what legislation will be voted on, when, on the House floor), will also sit on Corrections, signaling that bills coming out of that committee have an excellent chance of getting a House floor vote. Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Pete Gallego is sponsor of a slew of innocence legislation - requiring eyewitness ID procedures at police departments, recording interrogations, writ reform - and this appointment puts him in a good position to get those bills out of committee. Pretty much good news all around, or at least, as my father likes to say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Brain science and the law
Check out the Law and Bioscience Daily Digest, which summarizes legal opinions "in which cognitive neuroscience or behavioral genetics evidence has been introduced."

Prison blogging
The blog Texas Prison Bidness has several posts up that may interest Grits readers, as does The Back Gate.

The Jail that Ate Tyler
Officials in my home county really, REALLY want an expanded jail. They're about to put jail expansion on the ballot in Smith County for the fourth time since 2006, and judging from news coverage the voters still don't want it. During the last, failed plebiscite, a local PAC opposing the jail ran radio ads featuring snippets from Lorrie Morgan's country classic, "What part of 'no' don't you understand?" The chorus to that song rings in my head upon reading this news. There's a lot more local officials could do to reduce the jail population, recited many times on this blog and by Judge Cynthia Kent (now retired) who helped lead the charge opposing the last three jail-bond proposals. If they'd tried those other strategies and failed, voters would probably support jail expansion. But when Build! Build! Build! is the only option presented, after it's been rejected over and over, one suspects voters may start to seriously resent it.

Tax my online purchases, please
Off topic, but I'm unusually vexed by's decision to pull its physical plant out of Texas to avoid charging sales tax on purchases by Texas residents. I'm a bit of an agoraphobe, despise malls and shopping centers, and enjoy the convenience of online shopping, including at Amazon. But I don't want that convenience to then gut the state's tax base, and I don't mind paying consumption taxes on online purchases, given that Texas has no income tax and the sales tax is our biggest source of revenue. I like that online shopping is cheap, but to the extent that means the state must close neighborhood schools, eliminate financial aid for college, etc., because online sales aren't taxed like those on Main Street, that makes me want to check my use. Amazon owes the state $269 million, or about 1% of Texas current budget shortfall. Apparently under Texas law they can avoid applying the tax by moving their physical plant out of state, but that doesn't seem right to me. To be fair to local retailers, online purchasers should pay the applicable sales tax in whatever jurisdiction they're making the purchase. If Amazon can recommend stuff to me based on purchase patterns from 7 years ago, they can take my address from the credit card form and figure out how much tax to apply.

Roundup of recent Grits posts you might have missed
Finally, since not everybody checks in at Grits daily, while I'm focused elsewhere on stuff for which people are actually paying me, I thought I'd round up some notable Grits' posts published since the beginning of the year covering subjects or angles on stories you probably haven't seen elsewhere:


Anonymous said...

Sorry Grits,

I am gong the opposite way from you regarding amazon purchases. I am thrilled that Amazon took the high road for its customer base. I hope other businesses do so as well. Gut this pig like a Saturday bar-b-que. Why so critical you ask? This state has done nothing but bad for its citizens for 146 years. I pray everyday that another business will pull out and destroy that much more of the tax base. Why Don't I move? Well why don't you ask John Walsh that question?

So while I understand your logic, i hold different ideals on my side. Gut this place Amazon, take your money and run!

Anonymous said...

Charles in Tulia here:

Re: sales taxes on on-line purchases.

It's rare anyone ever says,
"Tax me." I applaud Grits on this move. Since Texas depends so much on sales taxes, we should pay tax on online purchases.

And I think a flat income tax on all income including retirement income (see, I'm asking to be taxed) above poverty level would be appropriate and preferable to a drastic cut in services.

While on that subject: rural counties (such as Swisher) and the small towns within them also rely heavily on sales tax, and larger towns nearby (like Amarillo and Lubbock) get a huge portion of purchases made by residents of these towns and counties, putting a severe financial burden on these towns and counties. Surely some method of sending the sales tax back to the residents' counties could be devised, say on sales over $100. I know the larger municipalities would cry bloody murder, but it would be fairer.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Spoken like a carpetbagger, 9:53.

They're considering eliminating college financial aid for the next two years, e.g., not to mention closing neighborhood schools, firing thousands of teachers, etc., but you say the state doesn't deserve tax revenue because "This state has done nothing but bad for its citizens for 146 years." Pure hogwash, IMO.

What good does it do anybody if Texas can't keep schools and hospitals open or pay for road repair? Why would anybody who lives here possibly wish that?

Anonymous said...


Not a carpetbagger; born, raised, educated, enlisted and commissioned in this state. So about as purebred Texan as one could be.

I guess you would need to walk the mile to understand my reasoning. I hold no ill will towards your beliefs as they are rooted in what would be best for the majority. However that might be, Until this state corrects its faulty policy on the outcome of its own citizens, I will hold my grudge.

Yes, I read your blog alot and I know about the school closings, teacher firings, college aid drop. But is Amazon leaving the cause of this? I say no.

Instead of the firings, etc, how about the legislature pass a few less laws, stop funding prisons for the low level offenders, stop the fallacy of no financial impact line items, hold accountable the Governor and his staff of prison worshipers.

There are plenty of ways to save the items you mentioned. First way I can think of is stop the high cost of incarcerating low level offenders, stop spending 2.5 million a year on the registry, hold off on giving money away to outside groups, stop the funding of the programs that have shown themselves to be not cost effective. THEN, I hold your thought as my own as well.

Damn Scott, you and I both know they don't have to de-fund the mentioned programs, they only need to de-fund the ones that don't work first, and they would have plenty of money to use for teachers, colleges, schools etc.

Anonymous said...

YEAH 12:10 you are speaking a language I understand and agree with.

Soronel Haetir said...


If sales tax were purely a matter of state then I could see your point, but in many places it is not. Alaska (where I live), for instance, has no state sales tax, but most communities do. The town I live in has a 6.5% sales tax, but only on the first $1800 of any sale and there are other exemptions as well. Multiply that complexity by the million different combinations across the nation and I think it quite reasonable to exempt online retailers from collecting out-of-state sales tax.

You could always try harder to enforce the use tax laws. Good luck on that one though.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Soronel, I would reiterate that "If Amazon can recommend stuff to me based on purchase patterns from 7 years ago, they can take my address from the credit card form and figure out how much tax to apply," local tax included. They routinely perform much more complex operations. I'll bet Alaska does a lot of online orders.

12:10, I agree with you when it comes to corrections, but when it comes to public schools, higher ed, and Medicaid, where most of the money is, finding multi-billion dollar cuts that are big enough to close the gap just isn't feasible. IMO, the demand for cuts - even if we tap the Rainy Day Fund - can't be solved by only cutting programs that "don't work." Some programs will be cut that in fact work well, and if holding Amazon to account will let Texas fire a few less teachers, keep offering financial aid, etc., I don't see the logic of cutting off our nose to spite the face. I share most of the crimjust goals you named, but not the tactic of holding your breath and refusing to engage at all until a list of x, y, and z demands are met. We all have to live here, after all. Heaven knows I'm not going anywhere, so I don't want it to completely suck.

Anonymous said...


I see your point. Last post from me on this.

I do see your point about we all have to live here. I would counter you to say for 58,000 people currently in Texas, it already sucks to live here. Until you live this you never understand it. We are at our rock bottom.

Robert Langham said...

Tyler County Commissioners held an open forum don't contest folks who say this is driven by judges holding folks with high bail until they plead guilty. The judges wanted a new courthouse-even stealth courthouses included in the new jail and that got stripped out several elections back.
Based on the latest Texas data, Smith County could trade judges with Laredo and cut their 800 prisoners down to 400.

Anonymous said...

Regarding those online purchases, Grits. I'm sure if you want to just mail a check periodically to Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller, she'll be happy to take it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

2:12, neither anonymous, smart-ass comments nor voluntary donations will solve a $20 billion budget gap.

Audrey said...

I do wonder how much longer this state can go on without imposing a state income tax. I think its just around the corner. You place a progressive income tax in this state then the wealthy will have to pay a price for doing business could still be considerably less than say California. Ultimately, that will be the only way out of Texas's fiscal problems (Sales tax remaining). As to will Perry explain that one?

Anonymous said...

I bet if Smith County just got rid of one judge, Jack Skeen, they'd have plenty of room in the jail.

Anonymous said...

Grits, you may be OK paying the tax, but the volumes of paperwork and additional computers, bookkeepers, and accountants needed to gather the information and pay it out to Texas would be an expense that Amazon doesn't want. It makes sense for them, regardless of what their customers want (don't fool yourself for a second thinking they did this for their customers, 9:53). They can locate in a non-sales tax state and not pay taxes within that state and all transactions across state lines, even into Texas, are exempt from state taxes.

Makes good business sense, which is not always good sense for others that could use the money.


Anonymous said...

Add this one to the list Scotty.......

House Bill 998, introduced by Rep. Ruth McClendon (D- San Antonio),
would require owners of unneutered male dogs weighing 20 or more pounds,
that are not restrained at all times, to carry a minimum $100,000
insurance liability policy. A dog is only considered restrained if it
is either kept in an enclosure or kept on a leash under the immediate
control of a person at all times.

Failing to purchase the insurance would be a class C misdemeanor.

How do they get elected?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rage, I understand they'd prefer it that way, but I don't believe the law should be structured to give them that loophole. If I'm buying in Texas that's the point of purchase and that's where the tax laws should apply.

And I don't believe for one second this is too complicated for them to track. In every state I'm aware of, one authority (in Texas, the Comptroller) collects the sales tax, notifies retailers what taxes apply in the jurisdictions in which they operate, and thus a Walmart in a town with sales tax may charge a different tax scheme than stores wehre there's not one - this happens every day and it's not a problem, the tax rates are updated (at most) annually, and Amazon's computing sophistication is such that it's disningenuous in the extreme to claime it'd be so onerous on them they can't do it. What's onerous is competing on a level playing field with brick and mortar stores, and THAT's IMO what they really want to avoid.

Soronel Haetir said...


Except that one of the exemptions I mentioned for my town is that everyone over 65 is completely exempt. I've lived places where the rate varied based on age with several different brackets.

I own a small retail store and even with just the one set of tax matters to contend with it is a difficult issue.

The tracking of what you've purchased and what to recommend is different in that every customer can be structured exactly the same way. Taxes do not have that same property. If it were just a matter of rates I might agree with you. But it's a matter of rates, product, sales total, age of the prichaser, intended use of the product and likely other things I'm not even thinking of right off.

A different matter entirely, though that will help flesh out why I think the business location (or at least their hosting provider), and not the customer location is the correct place for such considerations. In the internet porn context there have been prosecutions based on people, in their own homes, downloading material from out of state publishers. Note these prosecutions are against the publishers, not the recipient. I would /much/ rather see the publisher's location (or again, at least the hosting location), be the key community for any such community based standards else we shall all be ruled by the most restrictive community standard. And I see no rational method for saying in one context that a business should only be liable for conduct that would violate its own community's standards and on the other saying that a company must deal with out of state sales tax in all its varients.

And remember, any rule that would apply to Amazon is going to apply to everyone else as well. Amazon might well be able to afford such compliance, but there are a huge number of online retailers that are not nearly so well situated.

Anonymous said...

From a Dallas Morning News poster........

1:21 AM on February 12, 2011

First, let me say that I have slightly more knowledge in this area than the average Texan, including Gov. Perry. It is unfortunate that he had to make these comments without full knowledge of his own state’s law. As lawboy said, it appears as if Perry has just taken this opportunity to try to benefit himself politically (yet again).

The biggest issue in all of this mess is whether or not Amazon has nexus in the State of Texas. Nexus is defined as being “engaged in business.” Rule 3.286(a)(2)(A) under Title 34 Part 1 of the Texas Administrative Code states that an entity is engaged in business if it “maintains, occupies, or uses, permanently or temporarily, directly or indirectly, or through an agent, by whatever name called, a kiosk, office, place of distribution, sales or sample room, warehouse or storage place, or other place where business is conducted.” Perry may have been correct in saying that Amazon “obviously didn’t have a storefront,” but that does not preclude it from having to collect sales tax from its Texas customers. Amazon owned/rented/operated the distribution facility in Irving and, therefore, has a physical presence within the State. Amazon is responsible for collecting and remitting sales tax from its customers.

Many readers out there need to understand that Sales Tax is an end user or consumer tax. Amazon is NOT being taxed. When you or I visit a Best Buy and purchase a movie, Best Buy is responsible for collecting 8.25% (in most cases) from us and remitting the collected tax to the State. In no way does Best Buy have to pay sales tax on our behalf. However, if they fail to collect sales tax from a customer, the law CLEARLY states that they are still responsible for remitting 8.25% of the gross amount of the sale to the State. Simply refusing to collect sales tax does not eliminate a seller’s responsibility from paying it to the State. This is why the State of Texas sent Amazon the bill and not to its tens of thousands (or more) Texas customers. We all want a more efficient government right?

What this issue comes down to is fairness. Not only did Amazon receive tax abatements when it set up shop in Irving, but it CHOSE to maintain a competitive advantage by refusing to charge its customers sales tax. You will not find another retailer within the borders of Texas that thinks this is perfectly fine. You want to talk about the State losing 119 jobs and “investment dollars” from Amazon, then why don’t you think about the millions, if not, billions of dollars that its competitors have lost out on sales? Sales that would have been CORRECTLY taxed.

In the end, I foresee Amazon’s sales tax liability remaining along with penalty and interest tacked on. The laughable thing here is that under Rule 3.286(b)(2), Amazon will still be responsible for collecting and remitting sales tax to the State for 12 months from the date they move out! How’s that for poetic justice?

Move along Amazon, and please take Rick Perry with you

Soronel Haetir said...

Certainly if Amazon continues (I don't know whether they do) to operate facilities in TX I would expect that they would need to collect TX sales taxes. Only if they moved all of their business operations out of state would I expect that duty to cease.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, I think Texas needs to update the statutory definition of "nexus" in the sales tax law to accommodate the internet age. I and other Texans shop there enough that there is a web "nexus," and as the poster at 5:03 wrote, "Sales Tax is an end user or consumer tax." Texas web sales should be taxed, whether Amazon has a storefront or distribution center here or not.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, Soronel, why exactly can't Amazon ask your age and apply the sales tax exemption if it applies? Really you just seem to be throwing up obstacles that aren't really that significant and claiming they're insurmountable.

Soronel Haetir said...


The point is that that is the setup for one small town. The sales tax structure elsewhere is entirely different. Again, unlike your example of making item recommendations where the action is the same for every single item, regardless of price, type or category.

Again, this is something Amazon might well be able to afford compliance with, but would be an absolute killer for the tens of thousands of small and specialty retailers. Retailers who are in no means trying to cheat TX as their owners have no more connection with the state than that people from the state visit their website. I would personally categorize those visits much more closely to a Texan making an out of state trip to make a purchase than the store owner opening a new location. (I realize that the fact that the retailer doesn't even collect in-state taxes makes this comparison break down somewhat). As an owner of a small retail store (being a liquor store I don't do any out of state sales), I have a hard enough time training employees to deal with the tax structure of my one town. Imagining being answerable to officials where I don't even do business is just insane.

And again, as it is the consumer who actually owes the tax (the retailer collecting it is just a convenience to both the consumer and state), perhaps (as I mentioned) what you need is more vigorous enforcement of the use tax laws. Given how you rail against other such efforts though that would seem a strange position for you to take.

I am still curious what your answer to my porn example would be? Are you okay with burdening some publisher in Los Angeles with finding out exactly where the line is in every county in Alabama (on an ongoing basis as prosecutors change no less) and having to make a case by case determination (with the possibility of criminal sanction for getting it wrong) as to whether their material violates that standard?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Soronel, please point to anything I've written, anywhere, "railing against" a "use tax"?

And no business owner need take any Texans' money if they don't want to comply with sales tax laws. It'd be easy enough for out of state vendors to just deny access to Texans if they don't want to collect sales tax.

I also disagree taxing web sales would be an "absolute killer for the tens of thousands of small and specialty retailers"

That's BS, and would be no more a "killer" than collecting sales tax is presently. If this were the law there'd be an annually updated app to process the taxes, either produced by the state or generated as a commercial application, quicker than you can shake a stick. Porn sites could use it as well as anybody else. Yours is a pre-computer era argument, not one that holds much weight IMO in the modern era. It's not that it CAN'T be done, it's that web retailers don't WANT to do it.

Soronel Haetir said...

I didn't say you railed against use tax. However complaining about the sort of stepped up enforcement that I see as a reasonable alternative is very much in line with plenty of other material you've written. I cannot point to you actually complaining about such enforcement because it hasn't happened.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Okay, but I still don't understand why you think use-tax "enforcement" against private citizens is a reasonable idea but not for businesses like Amazon.

This is all about Amazon wanting a competitive advantage against brick and mortar businesses, not the difficulty of collecting taxes.