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May 3rd, 2007:

“Pro Tem Four” to be tried together

Seven months after their joint not guilty plea, the four former Mayor Pro Tem staffers who were accused of giving themselves improper bonuses have a trial date.

State District Judge Michael McSpadden scheduled a Nov. 12 trial for Rosita Hernandez, Florence Watkins, Christopher Mays and Theresa Orta.

The decision, with which attorneys for both sides agreed, was based on the fact that the four were indicted together and their defenses are expected to be similar.

Each could ask later for a separate trial if it becomes clear that the defense strategies will differ sharply, said Assistant District Attorney Don Smyth.

Attorney Walter Boyd said his client, Hernandez, is looking forward to getting the matter resolved.

“There’s no basis for the allegations against my client or any of the others,” Boyd said.

Smyth said he, too, wants to get the case resolved because “somebody did something wrong.”

“Whether it’s criminal or not, we’ll put it in front of 12 citizens and let them decide,” he said.

The four, who are free on bail, have pleaded not guilty to charges of theft by a public servant and tampering with a public record. A Harris County grand jury last year issued a total of nine indictments.

Not mentioned in the story but presumed by me is that Council Member Carol Alvarado will testify, also presumably for the prosecution, at the criminal trial. Mark your calendars now.

“Budgets are moral documents”

CPPP:

Today the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) announced that 17,078 fewer children will be covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in May than in April. This is the second largest number of children ever to be disenrolled in one month, second only to immediately after state budget cuts in 2003.

Full release here. Anyone remember HB109? It passed the House a month ago, and time is running out, given that the Senate still has to approve it, a joint committee needs to iron out the differences, and both chambers need to pass it again.

What’s Governor Perry’s response? He doesn’t care.

Gov. Rick Perry urged lawmakers to cut school property tax rates by an additional $2.5 billion Wednesday, and House Speaker Tom Craddick said his chamber is already on track to consider the idea.

But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, said the state can’t afford it unless revenues dramatically increase, not if lawmakers want to balance the budget and meet their commitment in future years to subsidize already-promised tax relief.

“It would be imprudent to send money back now, knowing that we very likely might not be able to balance our budget and provide the local school property tax reductions that we all want to do,” said Dewhurst, parting from the two other top GOP leaders but on track with the House and Senate budget-writing committees.

Perry took a hard line in his latest push, which comes less than a month before the Legislature must adjourn.

“If the session were to be over with today, we could point to precious few accomplishments on behalf of the taxpayers, outside of continuing the property tax cuts of the last session and passage of budgets in the two chambers,” he said. “Taxpayers have pretty much been shut out to date.”

Dewhurst said, “I can’t believe that he said that, because he knows as well as all of us that we worked real hard this year to set aside the money to provide the (cut in) local school property taxes not just in this next biennium … but the next biennium of 2010-2011.”

Here’s the CPPP again (PDF). What was it someone said last year? Oh, yes, budgets are moral documents. Well, to some of us they are, anyway.

How about those centralized voter databases?

Sheesh.

A $14 million centralized voting-records system used by 224 Texas counties has so many computer flaws that voter registration officials in many counties want the state to scrap it.

The system already has kicked registered voters’ names off the lists during early voting that started Monday and forced others to wait as long as 10 minutes while the system verified voter registration. One of those left off the rolls was Prairie View Mayor Frank Jackson.

The system, intended to meet federal requirements for centralizing voter information statewide, has been plagued by so many problems since it began operating in January that some counties want out after the May 12 election.

“This particular system is just not working,” said Galveston County Tax Assessor-Collector Cheryl Johnson, one of the most vocal critics of the Texas Election Administration Management System, or TEAM.

Said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt:

“This new database is causing statewide voting problems. … It’s a bad technology system coming home to roost.”

[…]

Candy Arth, president of the Tax Assessor-Collector Association of Texas, said many members are angry about TEAM. “They are ready to throw it out the window,” Arth said.

Arth, carrying a sheaf of complaints from tax assessor-collectors, met with Secretary of State Roger Williams two weeks ago to voice her membership’s complaints.

One of those demands was that the Secretary of State’s Office take the heat for all the problems. “We are elected and the people are going to throw us out of office because you won’t take the hit for this,” Johnson said about the demand.

All of this is happening, of course, at the same time as the Lege is in the process of giving more centralized authority to the Secretary of State. Great idea! What could possibly go wrong with that?

And on that note, today is apparently the day that the Senate takes up HB218. I trust we’ve all said a prayer for the continued good health of Sen. Mario Gallegos today.

The swiftboating of Rick Noriega

The politics of HB13 have taken a decidedly ugly turn, as the Observer reports.

Gov. Rick Perry’s Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw has found the enemy — and it’s Houston State Representative Rick Noriega, a lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army National Guard.

In an astounding 3-page letter, written on the Governor of Texas’ letterhead, McCraw questions Noriega’s concern for the safety of the homeland with a tone that has to be read to be believed. In a fear-mongering and bait-and-switch style, McCraw misrepresents the debate and belittles Noriega.

McCraw writes, “Since it is your position that our border does not pose a terrorist threat, and because of that position you believe it is unnecessary to expand resources in protecting our border, I will make myself available to you or your staff immediately to provide a detailed briefing on why this mistaken position can cost lives.”

Noriega fired off a response to McCraw’s boss Rick Perry. “Last Friday, I received a letter from your Director of Homeland Security clearly implying that I favored policies that allowed terrorists free entry through our borders. This accusation is both insulting and irresponsible, particularly directed toward someone who has served the State of Texas at the border.”

Noriega had mentioned this to me at the house party we hosted this past Saturday for Melissa. The idea of a two-bit hack like Steve McCraw smearing someone like Rick Noriega would be funny if it weren’t so depressingly common these days. Given that one of HB13’s cosponsors thinks that the problem it’s run into in the House is the fact that it’s McCraw who’s in charge of Homeland Security, you’d think Governor Perry would be more attentive to the situation. But perhaps the Governor is too busy making his own phony claims about the border to pay too much attention to his underlings. We’ll see how or if he responds to Noriega.

UPDATE: Vince has more.

HB1224 and Applied Behavior Analysis

It’s easy to forget sometimes as we follow the politics of things like toll road moratoriums and primary dates that there are bills in the Lege that can have a huge positive effect on people’s lives, if only they can make it through the process unmolested. HB1224 is one such bill. Pete explains why:

HB 1224 – Relating to health benefit plan coverage for enrollees with autism spectrum disorder, passed out of the Insurance Committee in the Texas Legislature earlier this week, and the Committee report was sent to Calendars on Tuesday. The bill is a companion to SB 419, which passed the Senate floor unanimously, with one exception: HB 1224 came out of Committee with an amendment removing Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy from the list of services mandated for children aged 3-5.

ABA therapy as it pertains to children on the autistic spectrum involves teaching social and verbal skills to those not able to learn such things normally, which is to say through observation and imitation. In re-routing these learning pathways, the hope is to get the child back on course to mainstream life. It’s intense – 20-40 hours a week of therapy in most cases, much of it one-on-one – and it’s expensive, putting most college tuition structures to shame.

ABA is also effective. Half of children who have an early, intensive ABA program are able to function in normal schools with minimal or no support. It’s considered the most effective early intervention for young children with autism, and has been recommended by the Surgeon General since 1987.

Finally, it mitigates the cost to the state, estimated at $3 million over an autistic person’s lifetime, if they don’t receive early intervention. Contrast this with the cost of a .5% increase in insurance premiums.

In its original form, HB1224 would be directly beneficial to a large number of children in Texas, while at the same time being fiscally prudent for taxpayers. In its present form, as amended by the House Insurance Committee, that benefit disappears. That’s just wrong.

The good news is that it can still be fixed. I urge you to read Pete’s post so you can understand the personal stake he and his family have in this, and then take the time to call your State Rep and ask him or her to support putting ABA coverage back in HB1224. Thanks very much.

Early voting: Current info in San Antonio

The San Antonio Current takes a look at that city’s municipal races, ranging from the whimsical to actual candidate questionnaires. If nothing else, the latter makes it clear that Jacob Dell has no business being on any City Council. Click on and see for yourself.

Here in Houston, you can see the day-to-day early vote counts here (PDF). I’m pretty sure that similar records exist somewhere in the archives for previous elections, but I can’t find them right now. If and when I do, I’ll be able to get some kind of feel for how turnout compares to other recent elections.

Have you voted for Melissa Noriega yet? Whether you have or you haven’t, you can also help her out by volunteering to phone bank and/or blockwalk. Contact the campaign, or leave me a comment here and I’ll hook you up. There’s always room for one more volunteer.

Dan Grant announces for CD10

I’m aware of several Congressional candidates from 2006 who are planning to run again next year, as well as a few new hopefuls who are currently exploring a bid, but this is the first formal announcement of a candidacy by a newcomer that I’m aware of. What’s more, I know of at least one other Democratic contender for CD10, which would give it two contested primaries in a row after being avoided as hopeless in 2004. Which is as it should be, especially given Mike McCaul’s underwhelming performance last year. Click on for Dan Grant’s press release announcing his entry into the race.

(more…)

More from Rep. Farrar on HB13

The following is another press release from Rep. Jessica Farrar (my State Rep) regarding the Homeland Security bill HB13:

On Friday, April 27, HB 13 by Chairman Swinford (R-Dumas) was recommitted to the House Committee on State Affairs. On Monday, April 30, the newly amended version of HB 13 was voted out of the committee and sent to the House floor for a vote. It is scheduled to be heard on the House floor on Thursday, May 3. Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) has repeatedly voiced her concerns regarding HB 13, stating that while she agrees with what the bill aims to accomplish she feels the language in the bill does not provide what the Texas law enforcement community needs to combat the crime we currently face on the border and throughout the state.

The newest version of HB 13 fails to address Rep. Farrar’s primary concern that duties that belong with a law enforcement agency are placed with a political office. That political office is run by a civilian that is appointed by the Governor. “The State Office of Homeland Security is placed in the Office of the Governor, and it is not overseen by any law enforcement agency or personnel. Yet we, as a legislature, are expected to give this office $100 million plus the authority to develop, administer, and execute activities that should be placed under a law enforcement agency such as the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). That does not make sense to me,” stated Rep. Farrar.

Another major concern is that while the newest version of HB 13 moves the Texas Data Exchange (TDEx) to DPS, it continues to give program management of this criminal database to the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, which is a part of the State Office of Homeland Security. The Criminal Law Enforcement Division of DPS is currently staffed with crime analysts, data analysts, and other personnel that develop, maintain, and administer other DPS databases. “DPS does not need the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management to provide any program management or support for TDEx. This is simply to guarantee that the Governor’s Office continues to have access to and command of the highly sensitive criminal and personal information in TDEx, and that is unacceptable,” said Rep. Farrar.

Yet another concern related to intelligence is the creation of the Texas Fusion Center, which is placed in the State Office of Homeland Security. The Texas Fusion Center will merge data from law enforcement and the private sector. It is meant to facilitate the sharing of crime and homeland security related information and intelligence at all levels of law enforcement. This is a problem because highly sensitive criminal and personal data will be controlled by a political office. There is also a possibility that the Texas Fusion Center will not be allowed to participate in the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, a nationwide communications capability endorsed by the US Department of Justice that will link together all levels of law enforcement, as it is meant specifically for law enforcement agencies.

Along those same lines, the ability of both TDEx and the Texas Fusion Center to work cooperatively with other law enforcement agencies that run criminal databases is compromised because the State Office of Homeland Security is not a law enforcement agency. “Other national and international law enforcement agencies are hesitant to share highly sensitive criminal information and intelligence with a political and non-law enforcement agency. I fear we are risking the level of assistance and cooperation we will get from other law enforcement entities if we do not place both TDEx and the Texas Fusion Center completely under DPS and remove the access and control HB 13 currently gives to the Governor’s Office,” said Rep. Farrar.

While revisions to the language in HB 13 pertaining to the Border Security Council were made, the end result has not been a change for the better. Members of the Border Security Council are now appointed by the Governor, including the chair of the council. “The duties currently assigned to the Border Security Council should be carried out by law enforcement professionals, not political appointees,” said Rep. Farrar.

The Border Security Council now has a strictly advisory role, as the State Office of Homeland Security decides how to allocate all border and homeland security funding. “The end result is that we still have the Governor’s office deciding who gets money and support. There is no protocol to ensure that the funds for both border and homeland security programs around the state are distributed based on need,” said Rep. Farrar.

In addition, the State Office of Homeland Security will be the entity that sets performance standards, reporting requirements, and audit methods for all border and homeland security funding and programs. “This is still a case of self-policing. No one else getting state funding is allowed this privilege,” said Rep. Farrar.

HB 13 also requires local and state law enforcement officers to have to report certain crimes to the State Office of Homeland Security. “While this creates a massive new and unnecessary reporting requirement on our officers, it also puts the State Office of Homeland Security into the role of monitoring local law enforcement on a state-wide level. There is no need for this, and it gives even more control of law enforcement matters to a political office,” stated Rep. Farrar.

“This bill should be about empowering our law enforcement community throughout Texas so that it is able to get the job done. Unfortunately, HB 13 fails to do this. I believe both our border and homeland security will suffer as a result of this, and I ask my colleagues to seriously consider the consequences of the current language in this bill as it comes to the House floor on Thursday. The citizens of Texas are asking for results, and this legislation will not give them that,” said Rep. Farrar.

Rep. Farrar’s previous statement on the subject is here. As a reminder, border police chiefs also have strong reservations about HB13.

UPDATE: More from Grits.

More border fence opposition

Following up on yesterday’s piece about border fence pushback from the folks who are on the business end of it, we have this surprisingly unified response from Texas officials.

“It’s clear that our state leaders, and I’m going to say the Legislature as a whole — I can’t speak for every member — is not in support of this wall. It will bring negative effects,” said Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

The outcry came after a new map emerged showing federal plans for the border fence. Border community leaders said they were assured they would be able to give input before any fence plans went forward, but they said that never happened.

They said more Border Patrol officers and camera surveillance are better ways to use the money and that the Rio Grande provides a natural river barrier that could be more easily patrolled if thick brush were cleared from its banks.

The Customs and Border Protection map depicts a planned structure running piecemeal along a 600-mile stretch of Texas from Presidio to Brownsville.

“I think the president himself needs to get a gauge in his home state,” Lucio said.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat, called the proposed fence a “wall of shame.”

Members of the Texas Border Coalition, consisting of border mayors, county judges and economic development commissions, met with Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst today and aides to Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick. They said both leaders offered support for their opposition to the fence.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry did not meet with the group today because his schedule was full, an aide said. In the past, Perry has said he disagrees with those who want a wall or fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, though he has said some fencing in urban areas makes sense.

“Building a wall along the border is not an answer to securing the border. It would create a false sense of security,” said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger. “The governor does believe that strategic fencing along high population areas makes sense.”

But more manpower and other security resources — not an unmanned wall — are better options, she said.

We’re speaking. Is anyone listening?

TYC update: Downsizing the wrong way

I’ve not been keeping up with the latest developments at the Texas Youth Commission these days, but fortunately Grits for Breakfast has been. To sum up:

– The TYC is losing lots of staff members in the wake of the scandals. Remember when I said that their new policy of releasing the kids whose sentences had been unfairly extended was a good way to help bring some balance to the staff/inmate ratio? This will more than offset that, and that’s not a good thing.

– Worse, the TYC is looking to fire staffers with misdemeanor convictions on their record. If you thought it was hard to adequately staff these locations before, it’ll be a lot harder now. I can’t see what purpose this new policy serves.

– On the other hand, not everybody who’s leaving deserves sympathy. Case in point, Lydia Bernard.

Barnard, who rose quickly through the managerial ranks during her 20-year career, failed to substantiate and act on allegations that Ray Brookins, an assistant superintendent at the Pyote lockup in West Texas, was meeting alone at night with youths in his custody during 2004 and 2005, the commission reported.

I refer you back to the original Observer story for full details.