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May 2nd, 2007:

More on the Senate’s anti-clean air bill

The Observer fills in a few blanks regarding SB1317, the Sen. Mike Jackson anti-clean air bill that passed yesterday.

Houston Democrats very nearly beat back SB 1317 [Monday]. The bill survived, for the moment, because of Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville). Legislation can only be taken up in the Senate if two-thirds of the body – 21 senators – vote to “suspend the rules ” that bills be heard in order. With 20 Rs and 11 Ds in the Senate, the minority can kill any bill if they stick together. On SB 1317, Lucio broke with his 10 colleagues by staying neutral on the key suspension-of-the-rules vote. His abstention denied the Dems of the 11 votes necessary to prevent the bill from coming up for debate.

It was a curious choice since Lucio decided to vote against the bill later (when supporters needed only 16 votes). Lucio has been known to trade his vote before when Senate leadership needs to flip a Democrat.

Lucio told the Observer that Jackson had explained the bill to him a few days earlier as “one city going into another city and trying to pass an ordinance.” So Lucio pledged to support Jackson. And apparently, in typical Democrat fashion, Lucio says no one bothered to give him the memo that SB 1317 was deeply opposed by Houston Democrats, especially the ailing Sen. Mario Gallegos. When Lucio found that out a few minutes before the suspension-of-the-rules vote, he was conflicted.

“I didn’t want to be shown voting against Sen. Gallegos, but at the same time, I didn’t want to desert Sen. Jackson completely,” Lucio explained. He said that after he heard more about the bill, he decided he was against it.

That explanation makes me slightly less mad at Sen. Lucio, but isn’t fully exculpatory. He could’ve asked around a bit before he gave his promise to Sen. Jackson. I know, the Senate is a clubby place and all that, but it seems to me that unless Jackson specifically informed him that Houston Dems hated his bill, he wasn’t dealing straight with Lucio. As such, I see no reason why Lucio shouldn’t have been a bit more coy. At the very least, I hope this is a lesson learned.

The bill still must pass the Senate on third reading. That may not happen. Lucio says he won’t vote to suspend the rules — which also requires 21 votes — when SB 1317 comes up for final passage.

That sounds good, but unfortunately when it came up for third reading today, Mario Gallegos wasn’t present, so even with Lucio’s vote against suspension, the damn thing passed. See page 16 (PDF) for the details. Thanks a lot, Eddie.

The Observer also got a reaction from Mayor Bill White to the Senate vote:

“I was disappointed [with the Senate vote] but I believe the majority of people in our state want a state with cleaner air,” White remarked

He went on: “Texas is changing and from all neighborhoods in our community – with people from all backgrounds, all partisan persuasions, all income levels – I get a sense that people are tired of business as usual on air quality. I feel that, you know, Texas some decades ago including Houston acted as though our land and air was infinite and anything interfering with industry could reduce economic growth. Our economy’s changed. Now the growth in our region which is the economic powerhouse of this state…depends on a broad base of businesses and the ability to attract skilled workers and entrepreneurs that can locate anywhere.”

White said that nuisance enforcement actions would hardly bring the industry to its knees. Civil nuisance violations are a Class C misdemeanor, amounting to a maximum $2000 fine. That works out to about how much profit the Houston petrochemical industry makes in 2 seconds, White calculates. The point of the proposed revisions to the nuisance ordinance, he said, is to set scientifically-based standards for 10 air toxics. Voluntary compliance from industry is preferred – and indeed White has encouraged companies to come to the table to work on an equitable solution – but the city still wants some legal stick to back up the standards.

I know this much: This issue will be a part of the 2008 campaign, in Jackson’s SD11 and elsewhere. Jackson’s ’08 opponent, Joe Jaworski, sent out the following email after Monday’s actions, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. Expect to hear a lot more about this in the coming months.

Finally, here are some thoughts on the matter from Rep. Ellen Cohen. There will be more on this, believe me.

(more…)

Brush your teeth!

Among the many survival skills one needs as a parent is a feel for what battles to pick. That’s what was going through my head as I read this story about dental hygiene in kids today. This passage in particular stood out to me:

“The same things contributing to the obesity epidemic can also contribute to tooth decay,” said Dr. Gary Rozier, a dentist who teaches public health policy at the University of North Carolina.

Inadequate dental care may also play a role. Cavities in young children can form very quickly, and parents should begin bringing their children to the dentist at age 1, said Dr. Joel Berg, chairman of the University of Washington’s Department of Pediatric Dentistry.

Parents also must help their young children brush properly. “Preschoolers don’t have the dexterity to really clean their teeth,” Berg said.

Baby teeth naturally fall out as children age, but dentists say untreated decay can spread and is too dangerous to go untreated.

Rotten baby teeth are treated with fillings or — if the decay is extensive — extraction. But baby teeth fill certain spaces in the mouth, so their early removal may lead to crowding when adult teeth come in.

Preschoolers may not have the dexterity to really clean their teeth, but they do have the indomitable will to insist on doing it all by themselves anyway. I know that if I were a better daddy, I’d work through the screaming temper tantrum that would accompany my own insistence that I need to help her with this task so that I can show her how to do it right, but I’m not. I comfort myself with the thought that by not making toothbrushing excessively traumatic, I’ll someday have a more dextrous post-preschooler who is both capable and willing to brush her teeth regularly and correctly. I’ll just hope she doesn’t collect a mouthful of cavities in the meantime. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to crawl under my desk and wallow in my own inadequacy for awhile. I’ll be back in a bit.

Perry gets the toll road blues

Game on.

A two-year freeze on private toll-road contracts is on its way to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk.

House members voted 139-1 today to accept Senate amendments to a bill that would halt new private-sector toll-road deals for two years. But the complex bill exempts most major North Texas toll projects already in the works.

The one was, of course, Mike Krusee, who somewhat unexpectedly let the original bill out of committee the other day. If it was intended as a blocking maneuver of some kind, I’d say it failed.

Both chambers overwhelmingly passed the bill in an effort to rein in the state’s controversial 50-year deals with private companies to build and run certain toll roads. Senators approved the bill 30-1 on Monday after adding a late amendment.

“Today the Legislature sent a clear message: We will not sell our transportation system at bargain-basement prices,” said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, a former state transportation commissioner and an ardent critic of the state’s recent toll-road policies.

Mr. Perry, who has championed private toll roads as a solution to the state’s growing traffic congestion, now has 10 days to consider a veto. Last week, he released a statement strongly hinting that he would wield his veto power.

“We cannot have public policy in this state that shuts down road construction, kills jobs, harms air quality, prevents access to federal highway dollars and creates an environment within local government that is ripe for political corruption,” Mr. Perry said.

Will he veto and risk an override? Who knows, but it’ll be fun to watch either way.

Eye on Williamson and Burka have some of the backstory on this. More intriguingly, Senator Hutchison sent a letter to the head of the Federal Highway Administration chastising them for overstepping their bounds in advocating against the moratorium. (I know, a Bush Administration guy inappropriately meddling in the political process. Who’da thunk it?) The letter itself is here if you’re curious.

Buddy, can you spare a cockroach?

Only in Houston…

In a city with trillions of American cockroaches, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has agreed to pay a quarter per bug — up to 1,000 — as it seeks to populate a new insect exhibit alongside its Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Nancy Greig, the museum’s curator of entomology, insists the public payday for roaches isn’t just a marketing ploy.

“Absolutely, this wasn’t devised as a joke,” Greig said. “We needed more roaches for the exhibit, so I sent this message out to everyone in the museum asking people to bring them in. Well, someone decided to tell the press, and all hell has broken loose.

“But we really do need cockroaches.”

You’d think that one mating pair and the fullness of time would be sufficient, but what the heck. SciGuy has more.

HB626 passes out of the House

Part II of the Very Bad Day At The Lege happened when the “compromise” version of HB626 passed out of the House yesterday. I’m going to hand off to Eye on Williamson for a minute, as he hits the main points about this:

One of my first impressions of this bill is that if we’re going to invest all these NEW powers in the Secretary of State (SOS), this office must become an elected office and NOT stay as a political appointment by the governor.

That being said we now have to look forward to the proposition of the SOS hiring a bunch of new staff to perform this operation or, low and behold, they outsource/privatize this to somebody’s brother in-law’s IT company, which will fudge up our voter rolls just like happened in Florida in 2000.

Best case with this bill is that whatever “fraud” it purports to fix – and there’s very little, if any, evidence that it does, and if it did this NEW law grandfathers in anyone that’s already on the rolls fraudulently – it opens up a whole new huge can-of-worms. That can is verifying voters citizenship which leaves new registrants open to having their registrations disallowed due to partisan politics, computer error, or malice.

Part of the problem is noted in the Dallas Morning News story:

[Oppenents] argued that the state has no reciprocity agreements with other states’ birth-certificate and naturalization databases and that trying to cross-check millions of voters against numerous lists like Social Security and driver’s license records would produce too many errors.

So first, we’re giving an awful lot more power to the unelected office of Secretary of State. Second, we’ll need to increase the size of the SOS’ office, just to handle the bureaucracy of verifying voters’ citizenship, which they may not be able to do effectively because it depends in part on how every other state handles birth records. And third, all this expanded government (would someone please enlighten me as to how this is “conservative”?) is being done to eliminate a type of fraud that is barely a blip on the radar, while at the same time granting amnesty to any actually fraudulent voters who may currently be registered. Did I miss anything? Oh, yeah, it’s still not clear how much this will cost and how it will be funded. Isn’t this fun?

Meanwhile, HB218 moves over to the Senate where the health of Sen. Mario Gallegos will be crucial.

All 11 Senate Democrats are needed to block the bill from coming to the floor for debate, where the Republican majority will easily pass it.

“I’ll be here,” Gallegos promised Tuesday from the Senate floor, where he put in a full day against the advice of his doctor.

Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst promised to give Gallegos 24-hours notice before the bill hits the Senate floor — but only once, and that came Tuesday.

There won’t be another notification should the bill be delayed today.

Senate Democrats say that if House Bill 218 is introduced on the floor while Gallegos is in Houston undergoing medical treatment, they’ll filibuster until he can make it back to Austin.

“We’ve got 10 who can filibuster until Mario gets back. Understand that somebody is going to filibuster,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

“I think we can talk for 24 hours,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

So a showdown over voter identification is guaranteed.

Gallegos was in Austin yesterday. I don’t know where he is today, and I’m not sure when the Senate will take up HB218. All I know is that anyone who thinks of weaseling out at this point will need to explain to every Democrat in the state why he or she wasn’t up to the task in the same way Mario Gallegos was. Stay tuned.

Senate votes against clean air

Yesterday was a bad day in both chambers of the Lege. We’ll start with the Senate, where a bill to block the City of Houston’s effort to enforce clean air regulations on plants outside its city limits was passed.

Mayor Bill White’s plans to clean up Houston’s air were dealt a blow Tuesday when the Senate tentatively passed a measure that would prohibit local governments from regulating pollution coming from outside their boundaries.

“This isn’t over air quality. It’s over city sovereignty,” said Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, who carried the bill. “This is a policy issue, not an environmental bill.”

Jackson also acknowledged the bill had become a partisan issue. It was passed along party lines, in a 20-11 vote.

Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, just back from a liver transplant, attempted to filibuster the bill but gave up his efforts to talk the bill to death after less than 30 minutes.

Until now, the city had successfully blocked legislative attempts to limit its power to clean Houston’s air.

White wants to be able to bring nuisance charges against industrial plants outside Houston that send unhealthy concentrations of certain pollutants inside the city.

White said he would prefer not to use nuisance laws to crack down on air pollution from elsewhere, but he proposed that approach because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has failed to adopt strong-enough standards limiting pollutants.

“For years, we have urged Texas state regulators to set maximum levels for the concentration of carcinogens, such as benzene. They should adopt the city’s detailed plan to reduce benzene or develop their own plan,” White said after Tuesday’s vote.

“Cleaning our region’s air is good for public health and our economy. We are not interested in reducing excessive emissions of air (toxics) placed in the air outside our city so long as folks keep it out of the lungs of people inside the city.”

[…]

Houston doesn’t have the right to regulate air quality in another city, said Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston.

“Houston is creating regulations other people have to live by. This is bad policy,” Janek said of White’s plan, adding that TCEQ ought to set tougher standards, not the city of Houston.

“We tried to leave it to the state for 15 years, and nothing’s happening,” Gallegos said. “TCEQ is not going to do anything. They will leave it as it is. You have the same fox guarding the hen house. Another two years will go by with no regulation.”

Strictly speaking, Sen. Janek has a valid point. This should be the TCEQ’s job. Unfortunately, the TCEQ lacks any real power to do that job. The Lege could give it a genuine mandate to do its job, and indeed multiple bills have been filed this session to do exactly that. Unfortunately, these and other such bills have to go through the House Environmental Regulation Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the polluter’s best friend in Austin. As the Dallas Morning News editorializes this morning, Bonnen has given great lip service to environmental action, but hasn’t done squat beside that.

While many lawmakers bear responsibility, Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s lack of leadership has been particularly disappointing.

Last month, the Angleton Republican, who leads the Environmental Regulation Committee, spoke of long-term strategies and clean energy. He scheduled hearings for 18 bills that would protect the air we breathe. We called it an “air quality extravaganza.”

While the pronouncements from the statehouse steps and the much-heralded hearings were dramatic statements, they’ve yet to yield substantive change.

Now, Mr. Bonnen is pledging to pass comprehensive reforms – in 2009.

Two years is too long to wait. Policies that would make polluting less profitable and would bolster urban areas’ efforts to meet federal air quality standards are urgently needed.

A years-long delay is a dangerous prospect for Dallas and other smog-choked cities.

And guess what? Bonnen may be responsible for letting Jackson’s bill come to the floor of the House, where it will undoubtedly pass on similarly partisan lines. That nugget is buried at the end of the Chron piece:

Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, has filed an identical measure in the House. That bill still is in committee. Once Jackson’s bill receives final passage, it is expected to substitute Smith’s measure for swifter passage.

See, Smith’s bill resides in Urban Affairs, which is chaired by Houston Democrat Kevin Bailey, who at this time seems unlikely to give it a hearing. But Jackson’s bill, now that it has passed the Senate, hasn’t been assigned to a House committee yet. If it goes to Urban Affairs, which as Jackson’s own statement about this being a “city sovreignity issue” it ought to go to, then most likely it’s sayonara. But if it goes to Bonnen, well, that will be that. I’ll keep an eye on that.

One last thing: This bill didn’t have to come up for a vote at all. While all eleven Democrats voted against the bill once it came to the floor, Sen. Eddie Lucio abstained on the matter of suspending the rules to allow it to come up. This is exactly the sort of crap that got Frank Madla primaried out in 2006. I don’t mind if Lucio or anyone agrees with Jackson on the merits of the bill, but be a grownup about it if so. This sort of thing is – pardon my French – chickenshit. Shame on you, Sen. Lucio.

RIP, ARMPAC

Another chapter in the book of Tom DeLay has come to a close.

The political action committee for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was quietly closed last week after a decade-long run as one of the most influential – and infamous – PACs run by members of Congress.

With a final $1,400 payment to the Federal Election Commission last month settling an audit dispute, Americans for a Republican Majority then filed its termination papers with the commission April 24.

[…]

ARMPAC also helped precipitate DeLay’s fall. In the late 1990s, the PAC was run out of a Capitol Hill townhouse that housed a lobbying firm and a questionable non-profit, both of which were run by lobbyist Edwin Buckham, a former chief of staff to DeLay. For several years Buckham’s firm employed DeLay’s wife, paying her more than $100,000 for what has been widely considered undefined work.

Several years later, the FBI and Justice Department began investigating DeLay’s connections to now imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. To date, the investigation has yielded guilty pleas by Abramoff, two former aides to DeLay, ex-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), two former Ney aides and a former Interior Department official, among others. Abramoff’s and Buckham’s clients became major donors to ARMPAC in the late 1990s as well as to non-profits run by the two lobbyists, sometimes with fund-raising help from DeLay. The investigation, which won multiple awards for The Post’s investigative team, is considered ongoing.

And of course we know about ARMPAC’s bastard stepchild TRMPAC and all of the fun things it did here in Texas. Good riddance, I say. Link via TPM.

Early voting: San Antonio and Dallas

I haven’t paid any attention to the municipal races in San Antonio and Dallas – what can I say, there’s only so much bandwidth available. Unlike 2005, which featured a hot three-way race in the Alamo City, this one is much lower key as popular Mayor Phil Hardberger will cruise to re-election. The Walker Report, which is the best source of info about who’s supporting whom in these races (I swear, the dude goes to every campaign event in the city), has the Express-News endorsements (full story is here). I see they tabbed Mary Alice Cisneros for Council District 1. Will Henry get the itch to run for something again, or is he happy to let his wife have the spotlight now?

Meanwhile, the Morning News endorses Tom Leppert for Mayor, and makes its other recommendations here. These I know nothing about, but StoutDem has some recommendations. I should note that John McClelland, running for Dallas City Council District 12, is a fellow blogger at the Burnt Orange Report.

Have you voted for Melissa Noriega yet? Yes, I’m going to find a way to mention this every day during early voting.

Targeting 2008: State Senate

I spend a lot of time analyzing different types of races, for State House, for Congress, and for countywide offices. I do this because it’s where most of the action is. Since I first started to really follow this stuff in 2002, I can’t think of a single general election State Senate race that was particularly compelling or competitive.

I’m hoping that 2008 will be very different. For one thing, if we’ve learned anything from the past few sessions, it’s that the Democrats in the Senate have no margin for error. The eleven votes they have now are a much more solid bloc than the twelve they had in 2003 and 2005, but with one member forced to stay home most of this session due to health issues, the Dems may find themselves in a position where they can’t block a bill they really want to. Even with all eleven present, they’re still at the mercy of a single turncoat. The only cushion for this will be to elect more Democrats.

Fortunately, it looks like the Dems will have some chances to do just exactly that in 2008. Before I begin, let me say that I’m indebted to a reader who goes by the handle “blank”, who sent me some numbers that make the case for State Senate action clear, and who identified a top target that had been completely beneath my radar. “Blank” did the heavy lifting on this one, I’m just putting some polish on it.

Based on 2006 performance in their districts, there are four Republican Senators who should draw strong challenges this year, if the Democrats are serious about making inroads in the Lege. Here they are, based on the numbers in the Moody/Willett Supreme Court race:

Dist Senator Dem GOP KBH BAR Jones Henry Willett Moody =================================================================== 10 Kim Brimer 43.3 56.7 61.7 38.3 55.2 44.8 52.7 47.3 16 John Carona 41.5 58.5 62.1 37.9 57.7 42.3 53.4 46.6 9 Chris Harris 40.0 60.0 64.6 35.4 58.8 41.2 55.8 44.2 11 Mike Jackson 38.5 61.5 65.5 34.5 59.2 40.8 56.7 43.3

A full listing is here (Excel spreadsheet). Jackson already has a strong opponent, and there’s rumors he’ll retire after this session. Carona is in the same boat as Pete Sessions in that there’s only so many targets left for Dallas Dems to shoot for, so I expect him to get a big name opponent, possibly a sitting State Rep. Harris isn’t very well liked, but as his district covers parts of Dallas, Tarrant, and Denton counties, with Denton being nearly half of it, I think he’s the most likely to skate by without having to break a sweat.

The one who surprised me, as much by his mere inclusion as by his placement atop the list, is Kim Brimer. His district is entirely within Tarrant County, which is the one major urban county to remain a Republican stronghold (though that’s gradually weakening), so it hadn’t occurred to me to look there. But by every measure, Brimer is the Republican Senator in the bluest district.

Part of this is electoral drift. Compare how various State Rep and Congressional Democratic candidates did in the parts of their districts that overlap Brimer’s SD10 Tarrant County in 2006 and 2004:

CD 2004 Dem Votes Pct 2006 Dem Votes Pct Change ============================================================ 6 Meyer 58,507 35.22 Harris 37,864 40.33 5.11 12 Alvarado 55,186 30.76 Morris 36,672 33.92 3.16 24 Page 26,573 28.86 Page 17,880 32.72 3.86 26 Reyes 49,764 45.90 Barnwell 30,088 47.72 1.82 Total 190,030 34.80 122,504 38.32 3.52 HD 2004 Dem Votes Pct 2006 Dem Votes Pct Change ============================================================ 90 Burnam 14,841 65.22 Burnam 9,647 73.00 7.78 93 Gregory 17,924 43.94 Pierson 10,761 49.35 5.41 94 Woolridge 21,262 36.89 Pillow 11,145 32.49 -4.39 96 Cox 26,447 39.67 Youngblood 16,475 44.29 4.62 97 Stevens 23,425 36.76 Barrett 16,900 40.82 4.07 99 Popp 17,602 30.33 Ford 12,279 33.83 3.50 Total 121,501 39.24 77,207 41.91 2.67

On the Congressional side, I’d rate David Harris and Tim Barnwell as better candidates than Morris Meyer and Lico Reyes, but the other two are a wash. Burnam was unopposed in 2006, so his percentage is an estimate; Paula Hightower Pierson won her district. David Pillow ran against ParentPAC candidate Diane Patrick, who’d knocked off the unloved Kent Grusendorf in the primary. Both HDs 96 (Bill Zedler, 52.46% in 2006) and 97 (Anna Mowery, 55.93%) should draw strong challengers as well. It’s hard to judge how a Presidential year will compare to a non-Presidential year – obviously, who’s at the top of the ticket will make a difference – but the opportunity is there for the Dems to improve on those numbers further.

And that’s critical, because the situation is even closer to a tipping point than these numbers indicate. In 2006, there was one high-profile countywide race in Tarrant, for District Attorney. Democratic challenger Terri Moore got 46.84% of the vote, easily making her the best-performing Democrat in the county. As you can see from this spreadsheet, she came even closer to winning a majority of the vote in SD10 – she wound up with 49.22% of the vote there. Yet in doing so, she had fewer votes than incumbents Burnam and Veasey, while running even with Hightower Pierson; she did do better than the other Democratic challengers. In other words, there’s still room for growth.

Now of course the Democrats have to actually nominate someone who can give Kim Brimer a run for his money. I’m told they’re working on that, but until then this is all theoretical. And for sure, it’s a lot easier to make this case on the Internet than it is in real life. Brimer isn’t a particularly distinguished Senator – considering that the Metroplex contingent includes the likes of Jane Nelson, Florence Shapiro, and Royce West, plus Harris and Carona, he’s practically invisible – but he’s still an incumbent, and he’ll surely have whatever resources he’ll need. The point I’m making is that you can’t win if you don’t try, and this is a race that needs trying. I’ll keep an eye on this one to see what develops. Thanks again to “blank” for the inspiration and the data.

UPDATE: Correction noted per blank’s comment. I’ll try to dig through the precinct numbers and come up with the actual SD10 totals.

Define-A-Thon

I confess, I’ve never understood the allure of spelling bees. I mean sure, they can be compelling enough as entertainment, but (and I say this as someone who is a good speller) who cares if you can memorize a bunch of obscure words? To me, if they’re not a part of your vocabulary – if you can’t use them, because no one would know what the hell you’re talking about – the value of those words is limited. As such, I’m delighted to hear about this.

Now that spelling bees have been turned into a hit Broadway show and crossword puzzles into a movie, the publishers of the American Heritage Dictionary are hoping to create a cultural moment with a competitive game about definitions.

Dictionary publishers typically send out news releases highlighting new entries — “blogosphere,” “instant messaging” and “shout-out” are recent examples — but struggle to find other ways to get attention.

“I think everyone publicizes new words, so I want to go beyond that,” said Taryn Roeder, 32, who as Houghton Mifflin’s assistant director of publicity promotes the American Heritage Dictionaries reference line.

So this year Houghton Mifflin created — and trademarked — the Define-a-Thon, which is modeled after a spelling bee but instead asks contestants to match words to definitions (and gives them a helpful list of words to choose from). The publisher has dispatched Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor at American Heritage, to hold events across the country.

On a recent Thursday night in Cambridge, Mass., about 225 people filed into the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square to watch a Define-a-Thon. After two heats of 20 contestants each, the finalists were Brandy Jones, a community design planner who picked the correct word for definitions like the ringing or sounding of bells (“tintinnabulation”), and Katherine Bryant, a science textbook editor, whose definitions included head-scratchers like the right to use and enjoy someone else’s property without harming it (“usufruct”).

[…]

A three-time finalist in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Emily Stagg, was a featured competitor in the movie Spellbound who inspired the Define-a-Thon, according to Roeder, the American Heritage publicist. In an opinion column in the New York Times last May, she wrote, “Why don’t we make the National Spelling Bee a ‘definitions bee,’ where competitors need to know primarily what words mean rather than simply how to spell them?”

Amen, sister. I think that would have a lot more value. And I’m totally going to use the word “usufruct” in a sentence sometime this year.

By the way, for anyone else who thinks that what words are used for is more interesting than what they look like, I recommend the radio show Says You!, which runs on KHOU here Saturdays at 11, which is to say following Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!. Unfortunately, they don’t have a free podcast like Wait Wait does, so I don’t always get to hear it in a given week. But if you like words, and especially if you enjoy the occasional vile pun, it’s a great listen.

News flash: Border wall still hated on the border

No surprises here.

South Texas border mayors and economic leaders expressed anger and disappointment Monday after learning new details of the location of 153 miles of controversial fencing in and around border cities — including some downtown areas.

”I am totally disappointed,” said Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, who heard Sunday night that 19 miles of fencing in his city would begin downtown. ”I remain steadfast in opposition to the building of a fence.”

”It is absolute idiocy,” said McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez, who contends that illegal immigration can only be stemmed with a guest worker program. “A fence by itself is only going to delay people from crossing.”

Cortez and other South Texas officials said U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials vowed to consult with them about locating the fencing projects.

[…]

South Texas border leaders learned some of the details of the proposed fence last Friday, at a meeting where Valley officials circulated a confidential April 20, 2007, memo from the DHS outlining the location of 370 miles of a primary ”pedestrian fence” to be completed by 2008.

The memo included a map that indicated fencing projects in Presidio, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, Roma, Rio Grande City, Los Ebanos, Hidalgo, and Progreso.

The memo explained that DHS officials have already ”designated the locations along the southwest border where it is operationally necessary to construct pedestrian fence.”

But Cortez, as did other border officials, said they had been previously assured by DHS officials they would be consulted about the fence’s location.

Their first concrete details emerged in the last two weeks, they say, when landowners in Hidalgo and Starr counties reported that U.S. Border Patrol agents showed them maps outlining parcels of private property on the Rio Grande the government plans to fence.

“We were told by the secretary of DHS they would be consulting with us before the fence went up, and it has not happened,” said Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

Typical. Sadly, characteristically typical.