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May 9th, 2007:

More talk of a special session

I don’t know about you, but about the last thing I want for this summer is a special session, on any subject. That specter has already been floated, with transportation issues (read: HB1892) the crux. There’s a lot more talk of this today, and I’ll just refer you to some of it:

Patricia Kilday Hart says all signs are pointing to some serious behind-the-scenes negotiations in the Senate.

Ben Wear reports that “the governor’s chief of staff informed the staff at a Monday morning meeting that if they were planning vacations for the summer it would be advisable to buy travel insurance”. Sen. John Carona, however, doesn’t think it will come to that.

Christy Hoppe points out that while the Governor can make ’em come to Austin, he can’t make ’em pass a bill that he likes. Or, in this case, un-pass a bill he doesn’t like.

Eye on Williamson has some more links, plus thoughts on why compromise seems unlikely.

Finally, on a tangential note, McBlogger rips up a couple of pro-toll editorials.

I’ll say again, I’d rather see the veto of HB1892 stand than suffer through another endless legislative summer. There’s enough exceptions for existing projects in HB1892, plus all that expanded power for HCTRA, that on balance it’d be no great loss. I don’t know what Rick Perry thinks his legacy is going to be, but from where I sit, it’s his insistence on calling the Lege back to Austin for one damn thing or another. Almost anything to avoid that would be worthwhile.

House approves TYC reform bill

Nice to see that at least some decent bills have made it through despite the neverending sideshows and distractions this session.

The Texas House unanimously passed an omnibus bill Tuesday that would radically reform the troubled Texas Youth Commission.

The bill, by Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, likely heads to a conference committee where lawmakers can iron out differences between the House version and one passed by the Senate last month.

[…]

Both bills call for enhanced training for guards, the creation of an independent inspector general’s office and an ombudsman’s office, and no more than 12 offenders per guard. It also reduces the overall juvenile population by not accepting misdemeanor offenders and offenders older than 18. Also, offenders younger than 14 would be housed separately from 18-year-olds.

The major difference between the two proposals centers on management.

The Senate bill calls for a single individual, an executive commissioner, to run TYC, with the help of an advisory commission. The House bill calls for the reinstatement of a board of directors, which would have oversight over an executive director.

That was the structure in place earlier this year, when news reports carried allegations that two administrators at the West Texas State School sexually abused youths in their care and that alerts to administrators at the school and in Austin were ignored or covered up.

Grits has more, including some well-deserved kudos for Rep. Jerry Madden and Isela Gutierrez of the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles, who was one of the first whistleblowers on the whole TYC scandal. I truly hope that we’ve finally done right by these kids.

Stop HB159

Geez, this late in the session you’d think every bad bill that could come up would have already come up, but if the 80th Lege has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is what you’d expect it to be. And so, here comes HB159, which is as bad as they come. Grits explains.

[This bill] would disallow immigrant kids who spent at least three years and graduated from Texas high schools from receiving in-state tuition – on Wednesday’s Major State calendar. That means it must be debated before everyone else’s bills on the list.

One imagines Speaker Tom Craddick’s elevation of this bill to such lofty status may have been less a statement of policy – after all, Craddick actually voted for HB 1403 in 2001 and it was signed by Gov. Rick Perry – but instead a shrewd counterattack on Rep. Rick Noriega, who carried HB 1403 in the 77th Legislature. He just got back from National Guard duty on the Texas-Mexico border in time for session, but along with Rep. Farrar and several others he helped lead the recent uprising to rein in the Governor’s homeland security legislation. That affrontery, apparently, earns the Lieutenant Colonel a parliamentary back hand.

In another sense, though, the move spites House members generally, who as Harvey Kronberg recently pointed out have seized power in recent weeks from the Speaker in nearly unprecedented ways. Many members oppose HB 159, it will take a lot of time to debate, and every minute they talk about it more bills die.

It’s also a slap at Governor Perry, for what it’s worth. I’m not sure what this is supposed to accomplish, especially if it’s not popular among the members or the Governor, except to throw a bone to a raving lunatic. Be that as it may, this morning would be a good time to call your Rep and ask him or her to oppose HB159.

More on the anti-Craddick revolt

Burka has a long take on what happened in the Lege Monday night.

Our editor, Evan Smith, asked me this morning who was to blame for what has gone on this session. I waffled, but I think that there can be only one answer. The speaker has it in his power to set the tone. He can be magnanimous, or he can be confrontational. He has chosen the latter from day one of his speakership. The opposition Democrats cannot pass any significant bills on the regular calendar. They can’t serve on major committees unless their seniority allows it, which occurs in only a few cases. Calendar rules and the dividing of property tax cut legislation made it impossible for them to present their alternatives in debate. Whatever happened to the saying, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer? The Democrats have no stake in the session. They have nothing to do except figure out ways to torture Craddick on the floor, day in and day out. Idle minds are the devil’s workshop. Do you think that Pete Gallego would be trying to bust Craddick every day if he were vice-chair of Appropriations? Do you think that Jim Dunnam would be scheming against Craddick with every breath he takes if he were vice-chair of Civil Practices? Do you think that Craig Eiland would be lending his rhetorical and analytical skills to the anti-Craddick effort if he were carrying the teacher retirement bill?

Emphasis Burka’s. That feels right to me. We’ve seen the bogus rulings on points of order, the priority given to some bills and not to others, and on and on. For all the talk of a new Craddick that came up during the Speaker’s race, it’s clear that the actions have spoken louder. There’s only one way this will change – the Observer thinks it might be happening, Burka is less sure. I want to believe the former, but unfortunately I think Burka is more likely to be right. Show me a candidate, and get back to me after the 2008 election.

Death to fire ants!

Some good news in the battle against one of our more obnoxious invasive species.

Imported red fire ants have plagued farmers, ranchers and others for decades. Now the reviled pests are facing a bug of their own.

Researchers have pinpointed a naturally occurring virus that kills the ants, which arrived in the U.S. in the 1930s and now cause $6 billion in damage annually nationwide, including about $1.2 billion in Texas.

The virus caught the attention of U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers in Florida in 2002. The agency is now seeking commercial partners to develop the virus into a pesticide to control fire ants.

The virus was found in about 20 percent of fire ant fields, where it appears to cause the slow death of infected colonies.

“Certainly, we are excited about it,” said Bob Vander Meer, the leader of the USDA research team in Gainesville, Fla. “I think the virus has great potential. No question about it.”

[…]

In the laboratory, the virus, SINV-1, has proven to be self-sustaining and transmissible. Once introduced, it can eliminate a colony within three months.

That’s why researchers believe the virus has potential as a viable biopesticide to control fire ants, known to scientists as Solenopsis invicta.

Although it occurs naturally in fire ants, the virus needs a stressor before it becomes deadly and begins replicating within a colony, Valles said.

Integrating the virus into ant baits could offer a tool to the pest-control industry, agricultural producers and harvesters, consumers and others for whom fire ants are a persistent problem.

The virus isn’t alone in the fight against the fire ant. In South America, they have dozens of natural enemies. But researchers don’t know whether those predators could be introduced here.

Among them is the small phorid fly, which seeks out fire ants and lays its eggs on them. The eggs hatch into tiny maggots that bore into the heads of their host and feed on its brains.

“The problem is we really don’t know how effective these phorid flies are going to be in North America,” Merchant said.

Obviously, any time you mess with Mother Nature, the potential for nasty unforeseen consequences is worrisome. This sounds like a reasonable approach, but you never know. Nonetheless, and I’m sure anyone who’s ever suffered a bite (or ten) from these little nasties would agree, I’m hoping this works out. Just about anything that beats them back is good by definition.

The end of “Lost” is coming, but not quite yet

The end of Lost is coming, and it will be good.

Lost will continue for three more shortened seasons, then go out with an inevitable “shocking” finale at the end of the 2009-2010 season, ABC said Monday.

The announcement means producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have gotten what they wanted, receiving an end date they requested as well as signing a rich new deal.

The agreement is also good for ABC, which gets three more seasons of the still-popular series. The network receives 48 more episodes that ABC will roll out in 16-episode seasons, with all seasons airing uninterrupted (like Fox’s 24).

“In considering the powerful storytelling of Lost, we felt this was the only way to give it a proper creative conclusion,” said Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment. “Due to the unique nature of the series, we knew it would require an end date to keep the integrity and strength of the show consistent throughout, and to give the audience the payoff they deserve.”

[…]

The deal appears to be good for all concerned, including viewers.

“I think for story-based shows like Lost, as opposed to franchise-based shows like ER or CSI, the audience wants to know when the story is going to be over,” Cuse told Variety. “When J.K. Rowling announced that there would be seven Harry Potter books, it gave the readers a clear sense of exactly what their investment would be. We want our audience to do the same.”

I think Lost has been as good as it’s ever been lately, and I think (I hope!) this will settle the question of whether or not the producers know what they’re doing and where they’re going, or if they’re just making it up as they go along with no plan. Much as I know I’ll miss it when it’s gone, I can’t wait to see how Lost ends.

Bilingual children’s TV

Interesting article about bilingual children’s shows, which are being shown primarily on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel.

Nickelodeon has been leading the way in this burgeoning genre, El Tigre being its most recent entry.

“This is about a commitment to diversity,” said Tom Ascheim, the network’s executive vice president and general manager. “We’re a clubhouse where every kid is a member just by being a kid. If you believe that in your heart, you need to be sure kids can find themselves on the screen.”

The network’s No. 1 show for preschoolers, Dora the Explorer, reaches as many as 2.8 viewers 2 years of age and older and of Hispanic origin each month, including 853,000 preschoolers.

Dora and other shows that take a bilingual tack to attract Hispanic youngsters also populate their shows with Hispanic characters and themes.

Olivia’s current TV obsession is Dora’s cousin Diego – she’d watch every episode on the TiVo, twice, each day if we’d let her. As a result, she knows her pygmy marmosets and three-toed sloths, and I’ve caught her singing a word or two in Spanish since she developed this habit. If I could only get the damn theme song out of my head, it’d be great. Ah, well, you can’t have everything.