Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hello to my International Readers + Cuba

Hello, Russia

As this is the sixth year I've published my quirky perspective on life via this blog, I thought I would check my readership statistics. I am amazed and humbled to see that I have readers all over the world--in places I have never been and may never see.

The Great Spike of July 2011

Web traffic reached an all-time six-year high this week when I published my TxDot Grant Rant. Oddly, no one has commented publicly thus far but I have gotten lots of feedback in private. (What are y'all afraid of? The Boogeyman is only really after me, you see. And if you believe that, you've learned nothing from reading my taxpayer advocacy diatribes.)

To Cuba and Beyond!

I'd like to say guten tag and willkommen to the folks in Germany. Either I have one crazed reader in Germany who views my blog a lot, or Germans really like my brand of humor. Either way, I am not complaining. Danke!

Also well-represented are the Netherlands, Canada (which makes me feel a tad bit guilty because I do poke so much fun at our Northern neighbor), Ukraine, Brazil (may I come visit!?!), Japan and France (Qui vous aime, bébé!?!). Not sure if that translates. I'd like to do a shout-out to Hungary who just destroyed all of the GMO corn growing there. Nice work! At least their people and livestock will not be sick and hungry in Hungary.

My personal goal is to get a reader in Cuba before Thanksgiving. Anything you can do, dear international reader, to help would be marvelous. I know some of the taxi drivers and hotel workers there pirate internet in their homes at great personal risk, depending on their personal connections. Do you know anyone in Cuba? Referrals are coveted.

The only openly Communist country in the Western Hemisphere is a constant source of fascination for me. Her food, music and people are so amazing. The culture itself seems quite lovely and vibrant.

But did you know that 1/3 of Cuban residents are incarcerated as political prisoners? That should give us all pause. Look at the "justice" system in your country. Is it equally broken? I'd love to hear from you.

O, Canada

A final thought...I vacationed in Calgary and Banff last December. Would you like to know what greeted me as I switched on the TV in my hotel room that first night? A Cuban Department of Tourism ad...Come Visit Cuba!

I was stunned. Suddenly, the Customs form I'd just filled out made a bit more sense. You can bring to Canada, duty-free, ONE bottle of wine and FIFTY cigars. I don't know about you, but it would take me one dinner to drink a bottle of wine and 25-50 years to smoke 50 cigars, and that is if I tried really hard to break my mother's heart.

The moral of the story is that perhaps Canada is quietly trying to offset the financial punch the U.S. has delivered to Cuba for the past five decades.

Our policy is inconsistent, at best. Look at the reasons for the Cuban embargo and then examine our policies with China. We are a two-faced country. While digging around on this issue, I found the following quote. I officially agree with this Democrat, George McGovern.

In June 2011, former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern spoke out against the travel ban before visiting Cuba, remarking: "It's a stupid policy. There's no reason why we can't be friends with the Cubans, and vice versa. A lot of them have relatives in the United States, and some Americans have relatives in Cuba, so we should have freedom of travel ... We seem to think it's safe to open the door to a billion communists in China but for some reason, we're scared to death of the Cubans."

In closing, if you are ever in Dallas, Texas, please visit the Havana Social Club in the American Airlines Center's Victory Plaza. It's a swingin' joint with incredible rum drinks, a state-of-the-art air purifier, and some fine tobacco products. Tell Carlos I sent you.

Now if I could just find a friend from Brazil...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Texas "Click-It-or-Ticket" Weeks are Shameful Scams

Eight Laws
Texas law says to stop at stop signs; when a yield sign is present, drivers must slow to a speed that is reasonable under the existing conditions and yield to any vehicle with the right-of-way. Texas law says to wear seatbelts while the vehicle is in motion and to observe posted speed limits. Texas law says drivers must be licensed and cars must registered, inspected and insured at all times. Texas law says to not operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

Within minutes, it would be possible to break all eight of the aforementioned laws and yet hurt no one. These are what are known as victimless crimes. When a vehicle hits another vehicle or person, then there is a victim. There is damage. Someone must pay. Restitution must be made. When no victim exists, has a crime really been committed? Should your car insurance rate hike because you didn't hit anything or hurt anyone? Think about it. It's all about money, not safety.

Seatbelts Save Lives!
The Texas Department of Transportation admits that 92% of Texans properly follow seatbelt laws. Yet, for two weeks a year Texas drivers must endure the annoying Click-it-or-Ticket radio jingles targeting the noncompliant 8% of the population. The campaign's marketing firm said it's the time of year when “state troopers, police officers and sheriff’s deputies statewide will be stepping up enforcement of the state’s safety belt laws.”

Or not. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security just because you are one of the 92% who use seatbelts. One aggressive little department in Travis County logged in about 100 hours of overtime in the most recent campaign and in that time wrote only five seatbelt tickets. They wrote 190 other moving violation citations, however. This tiny town is riddled with drug dealers and stolen property. How many of those criminals were busted during the 100 hours of overtime? That's right. A big fat goose egg. Zero. But "Officer Maria Overtime" camped out in a sleepy little neighborhood and cranked out hazardous moving violations to every car that failed to sit at her pet stop sign for 3 full seconds in the middle of the night. Then when she pulled them over she would lie and say that she had "no choice" but to write a citation during Click it or Ticket week. Blatant lies. Shoddy police work. Overzealous taxation-by-badge. But why?

Revenue Generation Uniforms
TxDOT's Selective Traffic Enforcement Programs (STEPs) target any violation within the predetermined timeframe and supply tax dollars to pay for officer overtime. TxDOT tracks the number of tickets a department writes during the designated weeks for subjective things such as HMV (Hazardous Moving Vehicle), ITC (Intersection Traffic Control Safety), OA (Other Arrests), OC (Other Citations), and UN (Uninsured Motorists). Departments that churn out the most tickets per hour are rewarded with more grant money.

TxDOT gave out more than $1.1 million in grants last year to 102 police agencies. The department I just mentioned got one of these "STEP Incentive" grants for their aggressive revenue generation.

I think the scam should be exposed. It's burdensome harassment of the taxpaying public and does not protect anyone.

According to Paul Perry, the STEP program's revenue scheme can be understood in three easy steps:

1.TxDOT gives your tax dollars to the local police.
2. Your tax dollars pay for more traffic writing ticket hours.
3. TxDOT takes $100 "off the top" of each ticket written.

Put another way, TxDOT hands out our scarce tax dollars to local law enforcement agencies across Texas to pay overtime to officers, so they can write more traffic tickets, so TxDOT can profit.

Show Me the Money
TxDOT doesn't judge the success of STEP programs by noting a reduction in traffic accidents. What the state agency seems to be primarily concerned with is how many more tickets are being written. Section 8 of its grant application indicates that a city’s or county’s past "performance" on enforcement will be considered in future grant requests. Basically, the man with the highest numbers of trivial tickets wins. Throw discretion and common sense to the wind, police people, just keep your citation numbers high and you'll get paid more overtime.

To Protect and to Serve
The two reasons police officers were installed into our society were to protect citizens by deterring crime and catching criminals and to help the normal citizen. There is nothing helpful about TxDOT's Click-it-or-Ticket scam weeks. I wish they'd be content to scrape up off the highway the small fraction of the 8% of drivers who operate sans seatbelt and end up as Texas roadkill and just mount them in courthouse hallways. Paying a good taxidermist to prepare those few violators would be a tremendous savings over the millions of dollars used against us each year in this scam operation.

Fight the Ticket Tax
I'm not advocating trying to break existing traffic laws on purpose. But if you get a bogus STEP citation, fight it. Take it all the way to a trial by jury. It's annoying and expensive to do so, but then again the system was being annoying and expensive to you first. Be brave. It's the only way to win. Don't let them talk you into a trial with just the judge and the officer. (The judge looks a lot like that guy pictured above in the leather jacket. They are on the same team, folks. Team Revenue.) Take it to a jury of your peers. They have probably been similarly harassed. Besides it feels SO good to beat them at their game, on principle. I did it myself just today. Officer Maria Overtime should be ashamed of herself.

I hear TxDOT may be hiring...