The Texas Legislature is open for business, and for The Watchdog that’s like a five-month-long Super Bowl.
I’ve been rolling the journalistic dice at those guys and gals in Austin for a decade or more on the top consumer issues. It’s a game. Here’s the problem, people. And here’s how to fix it.
Sometimes it works. You don’t have to give your full fingerprints for a driver’s license anymore, for instance, because of a campaign that began here.
As The Watchdog, I believe that when lots of people get involved in something, it can sure get messy. But the Texas way is that, in the end, something great can still come out of it. Remember the Alamo.
I’m blowing good luck at the dice in my hand now as I prepare to toss them. This year? I feel lucky.
The Watchdog’s crystal ball shows that we’ve got a good shot at fixing two of three pet causes.
Property tax reform? Yes.
Roofers’ regulation? Yes.
Electricity shopping reforms? No.
And today, I’ll nominate a new member to this exclusive club of Watchdog Nation pet issues: a Texas privacy law that protects what you do online from the rest of the world. I want to tell you about that. It’s probably the one surefire way we could emulate California for the better.
‘I refuse to give up’
Quickly, on the first three. I’ve barked like a pit bull about the unfairness of the state property tax system, the out-of-control roofing industry and electricity companies whose middle name is Deception.
I refuse to give up.
I witnessed the randomness of the property tax system when, years ago, I performed my first online protest by home computer one Saturday night — and won. Lowered my taxes by pushing a few keystrokes. Come on! How ridiculous.
Suddenly, this year, the property tax system is topic one.
Why? Because the state’s top Republicans are tired of hearing complaints from every part of Texas about tax bills as big as Jerry Jones’ ego.
They might change up the system, but unless they increase the homestead exemption in some way, don’t count on your taxes dropping.
On roofing, The Watchdog began crying buckets about the unregulated industry after my roofer filed bankruptcy and went to prison for theft. Eyewitness accounts are always so illuminating.
This year, more lawmakers and lobbying groups appear for the first time to be in favor of taming this wild industry. We’ll watch closely.
Electricity companies are my favorite examples of what makes Texas the Lone Scam State. Unfortunately, the (Public) Utility Commission — I took away their ‘P’ because they don’t care about us — is not much help here. Shopping for electricity will continue to feel like a street mugging because lawmakers don’t seem to care about eliminating all the loopholes that powered up as they turned their heads away.
Copy California’s privacy law
Let’s talk California.
Last year, in a single week of hurrying to avoid lobbyists getting their claws into the bill, the California Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown passed and signed into law the first-of-its-kind internet privacy law called the California Consumer Privacy Act.
The law, which takes effect a year from now, requires companies to turn over any data it has on you upon request — and you have the right to delete information.
The law also allows consumers to block the sale of their data to companies, and not pay any penalty such as a throttling of their internet speed or charging them more if they opt out.
The law will affect companies such as Facebook and Google, but also little companies that keep data on their customers.
Opponents, hoping to change the law, say that forcing companies to keep this data to share with consumers makes it less secure.
Another state, Vermont, became the first in the nation this month to regulate what data brokers can collect and sell. Nationally, the data broker industry is mostly unregulated.
California state Sen. Bill Dodd, a co-author of the California law, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal last year telling reporters, “My hope is that other states will follow, ensuring privacy and safeguarding personal information in a way the federal government has so far been unwilling to do.”
Alastair Mactaggart, a real estate developer who pushed California into passing the law, tells the story of how he once met a Google software engineer at a cocktail party who told him that if people understood what information Google knew about them, they’d be shocked.
If I could have one wish, I’d hope some Texas lawmaker will introduce a Texas Consumer Privacy bill. I dare any legislators to vote against it. (In California, it passed unanimously in both houses.)
What’s that? You say you’re not concerned about your privacy. Try this. Go to MyLife.com and type your full name and ZIP code. Then click on “See Reputation Score” and look for “See Background & Reputation Score.” Click on that, too.
Note what the website says about you. Especially notice how much of it is wrong.
Don’t keep clicking. Just have a taste of what high tech thinks it knows about you before making an escape.