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March, 2009:

Senate committee passes unemployment insurance reform

You’d think, after all the high-profile squabbling over stimulus funds for the unemployment insurance trust fund, that the news of SB1569‘s advancement in the Senate might get a bit more notice than this, but apparently not. The only other story I could find was this from the Tyler Telegraph:

A Senate bill authored by a local legislator that would place provisions for Texas to accept $555 million in federal stimulus funding passed unanimously out of committee Monday.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, authored Senate Bill 1569 in the hopes that the state would accept hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government and avoid “strings” attached to the funding. The bill passed from the Senate Committee on Economic Development and is the first Unemployment Insurance Modernization legislation to pass out of a House or Senate committee.

The bill would place provisions to allow the state to accept the stimulus dollars for Texas’ Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

“I am pleased to keep the bill moving forward,” Eltife said. “I will continue to refine the legislation so that Texas can be eligible for the $555 million in federal stimulus money for the Unemployment Trust Fund. This will help many of our fellow Texans who are out of work while at the same time keeping the burden on business to a minimum.”


Eltife said with the provisions the state can accept the money and avoid future burdens.

The Statesman’s Virtual Capitol has a little more on what that means.

[Eltife’s] plan no longer includes a sunset provision, which is barred by the federal legislation, but calls for a review of the changes after they are put into law. Gov. Rick Perry remains opposed. It will be interesting to see whether Eltife can round up enough Republicans to bring this measure up, which would be a direct challenge to Perry. Chairman Joe Deshotel will have similar legislation in his Business and Industry Committee on Wednesday, according to the Statesman’s Kate Alexander.

I think this measure can and probably will pass both chambers, though it certainly could fail in the Senate. Passing it with enough votes and with sufficient time to override a veto, that’s a much steeper hill to climb. Maybe it would be useful to remind the Lege that they have smacked Governor Perry before, and can do it again.

As far as the attempts to come up with a sunset provision that isn’t really a sunset provision, if that’s what it takes to pass this, then that’s fine by me. I think it’s a bit ridiculous to have to go over such hurdles, given that the marginal cost to the state some number of years down the line for expanding its unemployment insurance program and collecting that $555 million in stimulus money today is tiny compared to the overall budget – something like 0.2% of state revenues – and the marginal benefits are substantial, as Ray Perryman has estimated that every $1 from these unemployment benefits would add $2.66 to the economy. That doesn’t even take into account the hit that businesses will take when the unemployment tax gets hiked in the coming months to keep the unemployment trust fund from going dry. All this, and we help a lot more people make it through some hard times intact. Point being, this is a good deal regardless of whether or not we think we might need to repeal it later. I mean, I understand the politics of this. I just don’t understand the logic.

UPDATE: Typically, Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business opposed this bill, defying all logic and (given the provisions in the bill making it easier for victims of domestic abuse to claim the benefits) compassion. Burka summarizes a debate among three lawmakers over the stimulus funding for UI.

Innocence, exoneration, and compensation

We’ve seen all of the stories about inmates being freed from jail in Texas after however many years inside, the result of DNA evidence proving they could not have committed the crime for which they were convicted. But what happens to these men once they are freed? Often, it’s not so good.

Wiley Fountain spent 15 years in a jail cell for a rape he did not commit.

Now the wrongly convicted man is serving another kind of time. He’s free, but he’s homeless.

After squandering nearly $390,000 he received from the state as compensation for his time behind bars, Fountain, 52, spends his days collecting aluminum cans for 35 cents a pound. He spends his nights in a tattered sleeping bag on the asphalt behind a liquor store in a run-down South Dallas neighborhood.

To other exonerees and their lawyers, Fountain is the worst-case example of the need for reforms in how the wrongly convicted are compensated. They are asking the Texas Legislature to increase compensation and to expand its offering of social services to give newly freed men a better shot at a second chance.


[U]nlike parolees, exonerees get almost no help from the state when they first re-enter society.

That could change this year.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed a bill to increase lump sum compensation from $50,000 to $80,000 for each year of incarceration. The bill also would require the state to pay some of the compensation in annuities, assuring exonerees a lifetime income. The payments would be retroactive to exonerees who already received lump sum payments, including Fountain, and would cease if there was a subsequent felony conviction.

“I don’t imagine any of us locked up more than 20 years have a lot of experience managing personal finances,” said Charles Chatman, who was exonerated in January 2008 after nearly 27 years.

The bill also would provide exonerees the same health insurance given to state employees, a crucial benefit for those who often emerge from prison with severe health problems but no way to get medical coverage.


Exoneration hearings have become common events in Dallas courtrooms in recent years. They’ve also highlighted the lack of social services available to the wrongly convicted.

Such services are commonplace for convicts paroled out of prison. Parolees receive $50 and a bus ticket to anywhere in Texas upon release, and another $50 when they meet up with their parole officers, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

There are re-entry centers in major cities that offer employment help, counseling and substance abuse treatment, and there are halfway houses for parolees who need additional supervision.

“We’re not releasing people so they can be homeless,” Clark said. “That doesn’t happen.”

But that’s what routinely happens to exonerees, who are released suddenly and with no place to go.

“It’s really terrible,” [Billy Smith, a Dallas exoneree who served about 20 years of a life sentence on a wrongful conviction of aggravated sexual assault,] said. “People who get out on parole have a better chance of getting started on the right foot than a person who has been exonerated.”

I don’t think it’s too much to ask to give people who were wrongly imprisoned at least as much help once released as the people who get out via parole. The state wrecked their lives, and it has a responsibility to try and make them whole again. Grits has more.

On a related note, as we also know, a lot of these men were convicted on the basis of faulty eyewitness testimony. State Sen. Rodney Ellis is the point man in the battle to improve witness identification procedures, but his efforts have been watered down somewhat.

The exonerations have not convinced all police and prosecutors that sweeping changes are needed. They don’t want lawmakers to mandate policies they believe are unworkable, and they fear losing court evidence because of honest police mistakes or technical violations. But leading law enforcement figures have agreed that eyewitness identifications could be improved.

Those pushing for reform, including defense lawyers and public interest groups, want language stiff enough to compel mandatory identification procedures.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, dropped his original version of the bill that would have ordered police agencies to follow specific lineup methods or face exclusion from trial of identification evidence. Gov. Rick Perry vowed to veto any bill that applied laws on evidence exclusion to eyewitness identifications, said Keith Hampton, legislative director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The compromise legislation requires police agencies to have written policies on identifications that reflect the latest scientific research. But it specifies that the judicial rule governing what is admissible evidence does not apply to eyewitness identifications.

“I’m more optimistic [about reform legislation becoming law] than I’ve been in my 19 years in the Senate working on these issues,” Ellis said in an interview last week.

Hampton said prosecutors had gutted the aim of the original bill.

“This is a pathetic response,” he said. “It’s a bill that does nothing.”

Prosecutors do not want real reform, Hampton said, and are conducting a “whisper campaign” to prevent Ellis’ bill from being debated on the Senate floor even if, as expected, it clears committee.

[Edwin Colfax, state director of The Justice Project, a national reform group,] agreed that the original bill was softened by opposition. But he said it would establish a framework for future meaningful change.

“It’s not as if the defense lawyers are not coming off better than they were before,” he said.

It’s possible for something to be better than what we had before and still not be very good. In this case, there’s room for it to be a lot better and yet still not really satisfactory. I don’t know if that’s the case here or not, but I’ll take any step forward if we can get it. Perhaps by demonstrating that the sky didn’t fall, further steps can be made later. At least, we can hope for that

Finally, I recently stumbled across this old Baseball Prospectus article, which illustrates how one cannot always rely on one’s memory to know what actually happened. Check it out.

“Play to extinction”

In my previous post on gambling, in which I presented the economic case for “racinos” as made by the racetracks, I alluded to the moral case against gambling. Bringing moral arguments into political discussions is fraught with pitfalls, but sometimes they just can’t be avoided, and this is one of those times. What’s interesting about the fight over gambling in Texas is how it hasn’t broken down strictly across party lines, which leads to some interesting bedfellows as well as the occasional double reverse. (For instance, despite his avowed opposition to expanded gambling now, Governor Perry once explicitly supported video lottery terminals at racetracks and on Indian reservations, which is to say pretty much exactly what the racetracks are pushing for now.) That in turn means that I sometimes find myself nodding in agreement with members of Texas’ Christian conservative movement, something which doesn’t happen very often. This Fred Clarkson article gets at the heart of this.

“It is a myth” says Leslie Bernal, executive director of DC-based Stop Predatory Gambling, “that liberal and conservative religious groups can’t get along.” The same, he says, goes for the many religious and secular groups that work comfortably together all the time. “This is something I take for granted.”

The transformation of the religious community’s understanding of and response to the situation turns on two key points. One is distinguishing between what they call “predatory” forms of gambling and “social gambling,” such as church bingo nights, buddies playing poker, or the office football pool.

“Predatory gambling,” Bernal says, “is the practice of using gambling to prey on human weaknesses for profit.” He points to the highly addictive nature of contemporary electronic slot machines and video poker as the primary source of the profound “social costs” related to gambling addition. “Slots are,” he says, “designed to make you play as fast as possible for as long as possible,” and in gambling industry parlance, “to play to extinction.”

The other key transformational understanding is a growing recognition that state-sponsored casino gambling is incompatible with constitutional democracy itself. This argument is being championed by eminent historian of the civil rights movement Taylor Branch, who says that raising revenue via state-supported gambling addiction is a betrayal of the citizens and an avoidance of critical questions about our democracy: what do we want our government to do and how we are going to pay for it? “State-sponsored predatory gambling is essentially a corruption of democracy,” he said recently.

“[T]his violates our social compact, and the trust we must have in the belief that we are all in this together,” he continued. “And the first step away from it is to play each other for suckers. We’re going to trick them into thinking they are going to get rich, but they are really going to be paying my taxes.”

Read the whole thing, it’s well worth your time. It’s easy to think of casinos and slot machines and whatnot in libertarian terms (and I often do), in which consenting adults make their own choices about how they spend their own money. If that were all there is to it, there really wouldn’t be much of a case against gambling, in my view. But the fact is that the casinos make a huge chunk of their money off of the problem gamblers, those who “play to extinction” and in doing so create a host of social problems that we are unequipped, and frankly unwilling, to deal with.

(You may note there’s a parallel to another kind of legalization debate. As Mark Kleiman puts it, “The money in any drug, including alcohol, is in the addicts, not the casual users.”)

So that’s a big part of my qualms on this issue. There’s no way to capture the revenue from social gamblers without getting the problem gamblers as well, and we just don’t acknowledge those costs, much less account for them. How big a problem this represents is to some extent a matter of personal conscience. I must admit, I don’t know how many of these people we’re already dealing with, and how many more there would be if and when we make it easier to gamble right here. It’s possible the difference isn’t as big as I think it might be. But just as I believe the economic claims being made by the casino interests have gotten a woefully insufficient vetting by the press, so do I believe the costs associated with expanded gambling have been overlooked. If HJR 31 or something like it passes and we do wind up voting on an amendment this fall, I suspect some of these issues will get vetted as the various advocacy groups make their case. I just wish there’d be more discussion of them now, before the Lege takes action.

Senate panel approves budget

As you know, the Lege has one task they absolutely must do every biennium, and that’s pass a budget. The Senate Finance Committee has taken its first step towards doing that.

A two-year state budget that accepts federal stimulus money and increases spending by 7.3 percent, but hoards cash reserves, was approved by Senate budget writers today.

Counting federal funds, the Senate Finance Committee’s budget would spend $182.2 billion, up $12.5 billion over the current two year cycle.

“It’s a fairly significant increase in the overall budget,” said Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. “The committee worked hard to try and address many, many legitimate needs in state government, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the federal stimulus money.”

The panel approved the budget, 14-0. The full Senate is expected to act on it later this week.

A key goal of Senate budget writers was to protect the state’s “rainy day fund,” so that 2 1/2 -year old school property tax cuts won’t vanish after 2011. The committee left untouched some $9.1 billion expected in the rainy day fund by September 2011.

The reserve is expected to be used next session, when lawmakers will confront a yawning gap between the 2006 property tax cuts and offsetting new revenues from a revamped business tax and higher taxes on cigarettes and private transfers of used cars.

A 24-percent increase in federal funds helped the Senate panel balance the budget for 2010-2011.

So, thanks to stimulus funding, we can keep those irresponsible property tax cuts and not only not dip into the Rainy Day Fund, but also put aside enough money to pay for a further continuation of those cuts in the next session, when the piper was fixing to hand us a sizable bill for his services. My head is spinning.

In a brief discussion by the Finance Committee, Sens. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said they were voting for the budget with reservations.

Zaffirini said the panel should have heard testimony from experts before adopting a last-minute provision that would bar using any funds in the budget for embryonic stem cell research.

There’s a longer story on that here. Most of the arguments are familiar to people, since it’s basically the abortion issue one step removed, so I’ll just note this bit and move on:

Proponents of using embryos, who say they are obtained from fertility clinics and would be discarded anyway, said Texas stands to lose billions from a burgeoning biotech industry if it continues to create a hostile legal and regulatory climate.

A recent study by University of North Texas economists Bernard Weinstein and Terry Clower said the state could lose out on as many as 100,000 new jobs in the next five years if the state restricts embryonic research.

Yeah, no one’s ever really explained to me what’s supposed to happen to all those unused embryos at fertility clinics. Stay in the freezer forever, I guess. The Chron has a story on this as well, noting that researchers from Baylor College of Medicine, three University of Texas Health System academic health institutions and Rice University, including Norbel laureates Robert Curl and Ferid Murad, signed a letter to the Senate asking them to remove the Ogden rider. Anyway, moving on as noted to the House, where the Appropriations Committee was dealing with a different kind of kerfuffle.

House budget writers, spurred by a chairman angered by how Gov. Rick Perry helped steer a $50 million grant to the Texas A&M University System, voted Friday to strip Perry of one of the powers he used to make the grant happen.

The House Appropriations Committee put language in its proposed budget saying any transfers between the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund must be approved by the 10-member Legislative Budget Board. The panel also said the budget board, made up of the lieutenant governor, House speaker and members of the House and Senate, must approve any grants from the two funds.

Perry uses the Enterprise Fund to attract businesses to the state and the Emerging Technology Fund to launch tech projects at universities working with the private sector. Current law says grants from those accounts must be approved by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.

Friday’s move was a response to Perry’s announcement this week that he had transferred $50 million from the Enterprise Fund to the Emerging Technology Fund to pay for a grant to the Texas A&M University System for a new pharmaceutical manufacturing center.

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie , says that’s not how the state usually pays for buildings at universities.

Several members of the Appropriations Committee, including Pitts, praised the Texas A&M center, saying they were more concerned with the process than the result.

“We have a legitimate concern that funds (that) were dedicated for one purpose were moved to a fund with a completely different purpose with little or no input from the Legislature,” Pitts said.

There’s a reason a lot of us have called this a slush fund for the Governor. I suppose I should thank him for making that a little more obvious to some folks. This may well be a fine use of that money, but it sure would be nice to have something other than just Rick Perry’s say so.

One more thing:

The Appropriations panel also proposed putting $136 million into the Enterprise Fund and $77 million into the Emerging Technology Fund over the next two years — combined, more than $200 million less than Perry requested.

“Now is not the time to cut back on job creation programs,” Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said.

Because Rick Perry’s priorities are sacrosanct. Other priorities can go hang, but what Rick Perry wants is untouchable. Got it.

What else have you not told us, Sharon?

As we know, Sharon Keller, the Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, has asked that the state pick up her legal fees in defense of the charges against her on grounds that paying for her own attorney would be financially ruinous for her. And if you were to ignore the vast financial resources that she’s been failing to disclose as required by law, that might even be true.

The sworn statement Keller was required to file with the Texas Ethics Commission last April reflected income of more than $275,000, including her annual state salary of $152,500. It also showed that she owned at least 100 shares of airline stock, a home in Austin and one commercial property in Dallas. County tax records valued the properties at about $1 million.

Keller’s statement did not list her ownership interest in seven other residential and commercial properties in Dallas and Tarrant counties. Those properties are valued collectively by county appraisal districts at about $1.9 million.

Among Keller’s unlisted properties are two homes valued together at just over $1 million in the family’s compound across from the Dallas Arboretum. Keller is listed as sole owner under Sharon Batjer, her married name. She was divorced in 1982.

The other omissions include two Keller-owned properties valued at about $823,000: a vacant commercial site in Euless and an occupied commercial property next to Keller’s Drive-In on East Northwest Highway, a landmark hamburger restaurant operated since 1965 by the judge’s father, Jack. Also not disclosed are three properties valued at $114,000 and owned by Keller’s 27-year-old son, a law student whom she claims as a dependent.


Keller’s assets, including those she is not required to disclose to the state, could reveal that she is even wealthier.

Her 2008 statement to the ethics commission did not list about $3 million in real estate held by three family corporations or trusts, in which she has an interest. State law requires that officeholders list any corporations in which they are an officer or director. Keller did not do so for the three family-run entities, although she did acknowledge earning income of at least $25,000 from a trust in her father’s name.

State law does not require asset disclosure if the officeholder does not have at least a 50 percent interest. Records do not show Keller’s percentage holdings, and neither she nor her lawyer would comment on any details of The News’ findings. Keller also did not list two properties worth about $796,000, owned by a family corporation in which her dependent son is an officer, as she is required by law to do.

Officeholders are also required to list outstanding debt over $1,000; Keller listed none on her latest report to the ethics commission.

Last year, Keller bought a residential property in Hunt County, valued on tax rolls at $251,000. She will not have to report that property until this year’s filing.

Oopsie. Apparently, even her high-priced defense attorney concedes that maybe she could afford his services after all. He still thinks she deserves them for free, because she’s a public servant and that makes her special. I say good luck with that argument. Thanks to Mark Bennett for the catch.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 30

It’s April Fool’s week, but there’s no fooling around with the Texas Progressive Alliance and the weekly blog roundup. Click on for the highlights.



Look on his works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Texas Sen. John Cornyn is threatening “World War III” if Democrats try to seat Al Franken in the Senate before Norm Coleman can pursue his case through the federal courts.

Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledges that a federal challenge to November’s elections could take “years” to resolve. But he’s adamant that Coleman deserves that chance — even if it means Minnesota is short a senator for the duration.

This comes at the same time as Cornyn’s demand for a complete change in the district court nominations process to suit his whims. I just have one question about this: When exactly did the chairmanship of the NRSC become such a powerful position? I mean, who knew so much hung on his re-election last year?

Let the shenanigans begin!

Boy, we only thought voter ID would not be brought up in the House till next week. Apparently, Rep. Betty Brown tried to attach a voter ID bill she has pending in its entirity to HB71, an otherwise fairly innocuous bill “relating to the establishment of a program to provide a ballot by electronic mail to military personnel serving overseas and their spouses and dependents residing overseas”. The amendment was not germane to the bill caption and would likely have been knocked out on a point of order, but in the end the amendment was withdrawn and the fight was saved for another day. As Burka notes, don’t expect this to be the only time such a maneuver is attempted. One way or another, the Republicans will do everything in their power to push this through, even as Elections Chair Todd Smith tries to strike a conciliatory tone. All of which is makes the Heflin plan seem that much less crazy.

Candidate interview: Maverick Welsh

We’re past the halfway point in my interview series for the District H special election. Today’s subject is Maverick Welsh, who resigned as chief of staff to Council Member and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown to run in this race. Welsh is a former teacher and relative of the late historian Maury Maverick, and he resides in Proctor Plaza. My interview with Maverick Welsh is here, as always in MP3 format.


Rick Rodriguez
Yolanda Navarro Flores
Lupe Garcia
Gonzalo Camacho

Regional crime lab

This has been talked about for some time, and not unexpectedly it’s starting to move forward.

After years of scandal at crime labs across the state, local officials have proposed opening a regional lab based at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Previous debacles include three Houston exonerations, which occurred because of flawed forensics, questions about conditions at state labs and concerns about mounting backlogs of cases never tested.

To restore public confidence in the Houston Police Department, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Police Chief Harold Hurtt plan to halt DNA testing at HPD and use the regional lab, which could grow to serve the entire Houston-Galveston Area Council region.

Some small counties see no need for a new facility. They already use outside labs such as those operated by the Department of Public Safety.

“It is more wishful thinking than a reality to think that the 13-county region would want to be involved,” said Judge A.G. Jamison, of Colorado County, who chairs the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “There is zero interest in our county.”

However, larger players, such as HPD and DPS, support the proposal. DPS analyzes DNA at its Houston lab but cannot keep up with requests for testing. Last year, DPS’ local lab received more than 1,700 cases with DNA evidence. It completed work on just 1,040, and the total backlog of cases exceeds 1,200 cases.

“There is plenty of forensic DNA demand,” said Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman.

The idea of creating an independent regional crime lab has been discussed since the first signs of problems at the HPD crime lab, where the DNA division was shuttered in 2002 after auditors uncovered widespread problems with the quality of work.

Plans gained new momentum in recent months with the election of Lykos.

Three things:

1. Not to sound cranky, but this idea was a plank in C.O. Bradford’s platform for District Attorney as well. As with many other changes Lykos has been implementing since her election, Bradford was speaking about them before she was even a candidate. I’m glad to see this happening, but these plans would be going forward regardless.

2. While I agree with this concept, there are many questions that need to be settled. What jurisdiction would this lab have? Would it operate independently, or would it be aligned with the prosecution, as it the default now? What governance would it have? Maybe we’re too early in the process to have the answers to these questions, but those answers will determine whether this is indeed better than what we have now or not.

3. And of course, there’s the matter of funding. Will the creation and/or funding of this lab require legislative intervention? If so, it may already be too late for this session, though perhaps a budget appropriation is still doable. I realize nothing could really have been done until a new DA was in place, but that does make it hard to get something going in a timely fashion.

I’m not asking these questions because I’m skeptical of this idea. I like this idea, and I want to see it done right. I just want to know more about what they have on the drawing board.

The Heflin plan for voter ID

While I still have hope that voter ID can be stopped one more time, I can certainly understand the viewpoint that a sufficiently determined Republican majority can push through what it wants to if it really tries, especially if we do wind up having one or more special sessions, and that as such the best tactic is to try to mitigate the inevitable damage. So I don’t have a problem with State Rep. Joe Heflin coming up with a “compromise plan” for this essentially uncompromisable issue. It’s just that in doing so, he (probably unintentionally) points out how absurd it all is.

Rep. Joe Heflin of Crosbyton is drafting an approach that he believes could bring members of both parties together. Early this week, he outlined some of his ideas to Smith, who didn’t reject any ideas out of hand, though he said today he wants to hear testimony on their feasibility and potential costs before making commitments.

Heflin hopes to have a draft proposal ready by Tuesday including these elements:

— Phasing in the ID mandate over four to six years to soothe Democratic qualms that the Republican ID push is driven by partisan desires to tamp down turnout among minority, Democratic-leaning voters next year in legislative elections. Their fret: The 2011 Legislature (elected in 2010) will be tasked with redrawing congressional land legislative districts based on the 2010 U.S. Census; more Republican legislators means a more Republican map.

— Exempting voters 65 and older from the ID mandate, with the exemption age increasing by one year every year after the law takes effect;

— Placing each voter’s photo on their registration cards, which also would newly have bar codes linked to PIN codes that voters wishing to submit ballots by mail would have to mark down in order to do so;

–Ensuring there’s funding for ID cards in some cases and to support expanded voter education and registration efforts.

The “phase-in” idea, which was also floated by David Dewhurst leads one to wonder just how much some of the Republicans believe their own rhetoric if they go for this. I mean, if you truly believe that elections are being stolen left and right because of swarms of voter impersonators, would you find a waiting period before implementing the solution you claim will stamp it out to be acceptable? Either this is the single most important issue facing Texas today or it isn’t. Phillip, who notes that by Rep. Todd Smith’s own admission, voter ID is really about creating a wedge issue, asks the same question.

Exempting voters over the age of 65 sounds nice, and would solve some of the problems of disenfranchisement. It’s just that by enacting such an exemption, you’re stipulating to the disenfranchisement problem, which the Republicans have adamantly denied. And given that one reason why some people have a hard time getting state-issued ID is that they don’t have their original birth certificates (some folks, who were born at home, never had them), how are we going to ensure that those who are eligible for the exemption, and only those who are eligible, receive it?

Putting photos on voter registration cards is a nice idea, and might have avoided this whole stupid issue had we been doing that all along. But how exactly are we going to do that? Will everyone have to go to their county’s voter registrar office to get a photo taken? If we just use existing driver’s license or state ID photos for voter reg cards, what about the folks who don’t have them? That’s what Democrats have been complaining about all along. And how much would this cost?

Speaking of which, does anyone really believe that the party that doesn’t want to fully fund the unemployment insurance trust (among many other things) is going to want to put up an appropriate amount of coinage to pay for ID cards and expanded voter education and registration efforts? Remember, officially SB362 has no fiscal note, meaning that “no significant fiscal implication to the State is anticipated”. Even if we managed to create some pool of money for this, we have a pretty lousy track record of late in ensuring that the funds collected go to the purpose for which they were intended. I see this as a huge trap.

Other than all that, of course, I think this is a reasonable idea. Again, I don’t blame Rep. Heflin for trying. I just don’t see how he can succeed, at least on the terms of the debate as they have been advanced so far.

The TRCC should be sunsetted

What EoW says. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s ludicrous to think that a rational profit-maximizing actor such as Bob Perry would spend as much as he does on political access without expecting to get some kind of return on his investment. Seeing him collect the returns on his investment, in a manner that clearly contravenes the public interest, should therefore come as no surprise. John has more.

Weekend link dump for March 29

And so we approach the end of another college basketball season. Which can only mean one thing: Time for baseball to begin! Woo hoo!

Amazing beer bottle dominoes. May be the best thing I’ll see on YouTube this year. Now if I can just find someone to translate the intro/credits. Thanks to Jim Thompson for the link.

Because I follow Dwight on Twitter, I knew about the free download of the Nine Inch Nails/Jane’s Addiction EP. And now you know about it, too.

That Bill O’Reilly sure is one classy guy.

A look at KIPP schools.

Congrats to State Sen. Wendy Davis on passing her first bill, with style.

Hey, remember when Bobby Jindal said “something called volcano monitoring” was wasteful spending? Mount Redoubt begs to differ.

For the record, I’m not the least bit miserable. And I was 38 when Olivia was born.

A customizable representation of the solar system, in which you can learn about retrograde motion. Very cool. Via John.

Yeah, this is just wrong.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would make a Three Stooges movie one of these days. Pete, however, refuses to believe it.

It’s really hard to overstate the degree to which Rep. Michelle Bachmann is an idiot. And pretty much everyone knows it. Of course, she does have plenty of company in that regard.

“To wrestling fans, George W. Bush is worse than a sledgehammer molester.” Via Jack.

Embarrassing moments in TV cooking history. You’ll never look at an ear of corn the same way again.

Apparently, when I was in college and giving campus tours, I supplied some misinformation. I suppose I should come up with some kind of penance for that.

Which Republicans do you have in mind for that?

Republican attorney Jacob Monty calls on his party to tackle the problem of immigration reform in a serious and rational way. I think he makes some good points about the toxic relations the GOP currently has with Hispanics nationally, and about the fact that the Democrats haven’t exactly trampled over anyone to get a handle on this. None of that stopped me from having a belly laugh over this:

Republicans have a long-standing record of courageous support for realistic immigration reform that goes back more than 20 years. It was Republican icon President Reagan who successfully battled organized labor and the GOP’s own right wing to normalize 3 million undocumented immigrants. By building on that record, Republicans will begin the process of taking back the harsh words of some of the extremists on the right — and begin putting a critical wedge into the Democratic coalition in the process. By forcing the issue, Republicans will force Democrats to take sides, exposing serious fractures in the Democratic coalition. Equally important, for the first time since the November elections, they’ll show America they are still a party with positive, practical ideas to solve real and long-standing problems — and the courage to move them forward.

Um, Jacob? Which Republicans do you have in mind to propose these serious, sober, non-xenophobic reforms? John Boehner, maybe? How about any member of the Texas delegation – Ted Poe, John Culberson, Pete Olson? Yeah, I don’t think so, either. When you find a single Republican member of Congress to sponsor and introduce a bill that does what you want, let me know. I won’t be holding my breath waiting.

Oh, and since we’re invoking St. Ronald Reagan, the Republican they don’t make ’em like any more, I’ll note that he also embraced serious, realistic solutions to budget problems (which were of his own making, mind you, but still), including tax increases. Today’s Republicans? Not so much.

And even if you could find such a Republican to push for serious comprehensive immigration reform, how are you going to keep the screaming banshees of ideological purity from ripping him apart? To his credit, Monty recognizes this problem. But if he has a solution for it, he keeps it to himself.

Bottom line, this is indeed an issue that needs leadership and serious, comprehensive thinking. All I can say is good luck finding those things in today’s Republican Party.

UTMB versus Shriners

Well, this might help keep Shiners Galveston Hospital open.

The University of Texas Medical Branch on Friday asked a judge to stop Shriners Hospital for Children Galveston from locking its doors and imperiling millions of dollars in shared burn research.

UTMB asked Galveston County District Judge Wayne Mallia for a temporary restraining order and an injunction preventing Shriners from padlocking its hospital and its world-renowned burn center by a Tuesday deadline.

Ralph Semb, chairman and CEO of Shriners Hospitals for Children, said he was puzzled by the lawsuit because Shriners was prepared to give UTMB two more weeks to vacate the hospital.


UTMB was given only two weeks notice to move all laboratories and researchers out of the Shriners hospital, which is across the street from UTMB’s John Sealy Hospital and is connected by a walkway to UTMB’s Blocker Burn Center, Dr. Garland Anderson, UTMB executive vice president and provost, said at a news conference.

Anderson said it would take at least six months to a year to move all the equipment and researchers to a condemned building that had been slated for destruction. He said UTMB had tried to negotiate with Shriners headquarters but was unable to make any headway.

Nearly $14 million in ongoing research is at stake, officials said.

“If the laboratories and burn units were forced out in only a few days time, the damage would be catastrophic and irreparable,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says that an affiliation agreement between UTMB and Shriners requires a five-year notice of termination.

Sure does seem like keeping the hospital open would solve a lot of problems, wouldn’t it? Let’s hope the national Shriners see it that way. There’s a hearing for April 6, so perhaps we’ll get an answer by then.

Solar power

As you know, I’ve been a big advocate for wind energy on this site. Texas has done a lot to make itself a leader in that industry, and I believe it will pay many long-term dividends. But just as we have a lot of wind in this state (insert your own joke here), we also have a lot of sunshine, and as we do with wind, we ought to take advantage of that. Fortunately, there’s a lot of action on that front in the Lege, with much of it taking place this past week in the Senate.

Altogether, according to David Power, the deputy director of Public Citizen Texas, a consumer and environmental advocacy group, there are 69 renewable energy bills before the legislature, and over 50 of them promote solar power — far more than ever before.

“There are senators and representatives that are talking about solar that have never mentioned the word probably in their lives,” he said. “We’ve actually heard the term ‘global warming,’ and two years ago that was called ‘the G word’ — you didn’t talk about it.”

Mark Strama, a state representative who is a leading promoter of renewable energy, has introduced at least five green bills this year (including a measure that would allow local governments to create a property tax financing program for solar, along the lines of several California cities).

“It just seems like everybody recognizes our leadership in wind, and that government policy got us where we are today in wind,” he told me last month.

In solar, he added, “We need to catch up.”

BOR has more on this.

With over 60 bills in the House and over 30 in the Senate all pertaining to green energy initiatives, the Solar Alliance has targeted 6 major criterion needed in in any solar package in order to trigger the kind of job growth a widespread solar industry can create.

1. 3,000 total megawatts of installed solar over a 5- to 10-year program;
2. At least 1,000 of these megawatts dedicated to distributed generation;
3. Statewide application, with every region, every electric provider, and every customer class included, because if everyone benefits, everyone should participate;
4. Rate impact for residential consumers of less than $1.00 per month;
5. Provide an average of $250 million annually in incentives for the life of the program;
6. Program expires when the goal is reached.

This is an interesting tactic. Instead of advocating for a package of bills, the Solar Alliance has focused on specific policy positions.

If nothing else, that may help the rest of us evaluate the progress made in terms of what did and did not get passed. The Solar Alliance and the Alliance for a Clean Texas are good resources to visit if you want more involvement.

Finally, along similar lines, there’s a push for a coal moratorium. Maybe these things can happen this session, and maybe not. But the chances for any of them are better than they’ve been in recent memory, perhaps in forever.

Slowdown at the Mint

They’re not making as many coins as they used to.

As falls the economy, so falls the jingle of coinmaking at the U.S. Mint.

Production at the federal government’s coin factory in Denver fell a sharp 26 percent in 2008 from the previous year, contributing to a national output decline of 30 percent.

Mint officials said the drop is a direct reflection of the plunging economy and the resulting fall in cash-register transactions that require merchants to provide change.

“Coin demand is definitely affected by economic activity,” said Greg Hernandez, acting director of public affairs in Washington for the U.S. Mint.

“Banks are not ordering as many coins as they were,” he said. “If local banks are not getting orders from local merchants, it’s going to affect Mint production.”

The U.S. Mint in 2008 produced 10.1 billion general-circulation coins, the fewest in at least 10 years.


Part of the coin-production decline stems from diminishing consumer interest in collecting quarters issued for each of the 50 states — a phenomenon that had ramped up the minting of quarters to a record level in 2000.

And some analysts say increasing use of credit and debit cards, and other electronic transactions, has played a role in reduced demand for coins and currency.

But economic conditions are believed to be the biggest factor.

“If people are just buying fewer things and there are fewer transactions, that will have an effect” on the demand for cash, said Dennis Stansbury, assistant vice president for cash operations at the Denver branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

That makes sense, though I admit it’s not something I ever would have thought of. Learn something new every day.

Mint officials said they expect production of at least one coin type — the relatively new U.S. presidential $1 coin — to increase as the government conducts a marketing push for merchant and consumer acceptance of the coin.

It’s been more than a year, and I’ve still never seen one of these coins. Maybe some day.

No hog hunting

Bummer. Remember the plan Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack floated to allow bowhunting of feral hogs in George Bush Park, both as pest control and boon for the local food banks? The Army Corps of Engineers, which had say-so on this matter since the park was federally created as a flood control measure, put the kibosh on it.

In a March 19 letter, Richard Long, the supervisory natural resource manager for the Corps’ Houston office, agreed that the park’s feral hog population is a major problem for the Corps, the county, park users and nearby homeowners. But he said a limited archery program probably is not the appropriate solution.

For one thing, he said, a hog that is wounded but not killed could become a serious threat to the hunters, other park users or the people who live near the park. And allowing certain people to hunt would give the appearance of preferential treatment while potentially leading some people to mistakenly believe the entire park is open for public hunting.

“This would create a major enforcement problem for all agencies concerned as well as have a detrimental impact on the wildlife resources of the project,” Long wrote.

Long suggested expanding the trapping program Radack has been operating for more than a decade, which currently removes about 300 to 400 hogs every year.

Ah, well, it was fun while it lasted. On the plus side, this should reduce the chances of Ted Nugent showing up unannounced for some weekend recreation. So perhaps expanding the trapping program is the best way to go.

Win some, lose some for science

That’s the basic conclusion to draw after the three-day circus that was the now-concluded SBOE hearings in Austin. TFN Insider sums it up:

TFN President Kathy Miller: Texas State Board of Education Adopts Flawed Science Standards

The word “weaknesses” no longer appears in the science standards. But the document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms.

Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks.

We appreciate that the politicians on the board seek compromise, but don’t agree that compromises can be made on established mainstream science or on honest education policy.

What’s truly unfortunate is that we now have to revisit this entire debate in two years when new science textbooks are adopted. Perhaps the Texas legislature can do something to prevent that.

As before, TFN’s liveblogging was an invaluable resource for anyone who wanted to know just what the heck they were doing up there. Friday’s installations are here and here, with a video preview of what it was all about here. Other liveblogs: Thoughts from Kansas and Evo.Sphere, while once again Martha covered things on Twitter. She also has an article reprinted from QR that goes into the reasons why this is such a circus. The Observer has a wrapup piece as well. Finally, as evidence for the Evan Smith thesis about the close tie between the SBOE’s baloney and Texas’ bad image elsewhere, I submit this. The good news, in a sense, is that at least we’re not the only ones. And we have two years, and an election, in which to get it right for the next time.

The Statesman on the state of beer in Texas

The Statesman visits an issue with which we are familiar.

Ever wondered why you can’t go to the store and buy a six-pack of the North by Northwest Restaurant and Brewery’s beer? How about one more: Ever wondered why, in a state of 24 million that ranks second-thirstiest in terms of beer consumption, Texas has about, like what, eight craft breweries? Partly thanks to, say many in the business, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission code, which keeps these small brewers from selling you a six-pack to go at the brewery.

Blame the code or blame beer distributors and their lobbyists, who wield a considerable amount of political power when it comes to TABC code changes, some small brewers say.

It’s very similar to the Houston Press story about the state of beer in Texas from October, with an update about current legislation such as HB2094. The brewpubs and microbreweries have done a pretty good job getting their story out about this, so even if they fail again to change the law this session, as is probably the case given the nature of the Lege and the way this session has gone, they’re putting themselves in a position where they can succeed. These things just take time.

One item from the story:

A compromise measure that would allow breweries to sell admission to tours, and for admission to include a beer sale, had a hearing before the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures last week, and Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, testified in its favor.

“We had worked real hard with Rep. Farrar to craft some kind of legislation that would allow (brewers) to do some of the things they want to do without disrupting the three-tier system,” Donely said. “You’re not going to walk up and buy beer without taking the tour.”

As for some brewers’ gripe that distributors have disproportionate pull at the statehouse, Donley said: “I wish we had a tenth of the influence they think we have. The fact is the three-tier system has served the state well for many decades.”

I’d say the system has served the system well for many decades. Certainly, the distributors have no problems with it, which is kind of the point. If it served the state as well as it served the existing interests, we’d have a heck of a lot more microbrewers, brewpubs, and beer festivals than we currently do. Thanks to Guardian of the Non Sequitor for the link.

Friday random ten, Hawaiian style

Two weeks ago, I printed a Special Guest Star edition of the Friday Random Ten with an offering from Chron reporter Alan Bernstein. At the time, I asked if anyone else would like to submit a list for publication. I got a response from Linkmeister, my blog buddy from Hawaii, which I present to you here:

1. Up Around The Bend — Creedence Clearwater Revival
2. Colorado — Linda Ronstadt
3. So Much to Say — Dave Matthews Band
4. Memory — Elaine Paige
5. Old Man — Neil Young
6. Divided Highway — The Doobie Brothers
7. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for — U2
8. (Goin’) Wild For You Baby — Bonnie Raitt
9. Lines On My Face — Peter Frampton
10. See The Sky About To Rain — Neil Young
11. Travelin’ Band — Creedence Clearwater Revival

Complete with a bonus track, because that’s the way they roll on the Island. My thanks to Linkmeister for the contribution. Anyone else want to join in, drop me a note. Happy Friday!

You have the right to an attorney, but it doesn’t have to be of your choosing

In her response to the charges pending against her before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Sharon Keller made the claim that the state should foot her legal bills. Rick Casey notes the problem with that claim.

[We do] provide attorneys for accused criminals.

True, we don’t hire lawyers for accused criminals who make $152,500 a year, as Judge Keller does.

And we provide lawyers only for indigents in danger of losing their freedom or their lives, not simply their jobs like Judge Keller.

And we don’t allow indigent defendants to choose their own free lawyers, particularly the highly regarded likes of Mr. [Chip] Babcock.

Keller wants the taxpayers to pick up the “usual and customary fees” of Babcock’s firm, despite the fact that, according to the filing prepared by Babcock, hiring him is to “risk a financially ruinous legal bill to defend against these charges which are without merit.”

The judge should know better, especially in these tough times, than to ask us taxpayers to agree to a lawyer whose usual and customary fees can lead to a ruinous legal bill. However, I personally would be willing to chip in for the kind of lawyers whom Keller has found acceptable for people whose lives were at stake.

You can picture what kind of lawyer that is (hint: the incompetent, indifferent, sleep-through-the-trial kind), but Casey provides a few examples in case your imagination is lacking.

Mark Bennett, who compliments Casey for his efforts, has his own critique of Keller’s defense.

She spends several paragraphs reiterating the facts of Michael Richard’s case (the “he had it coming” defense), explains that Richard was not seeking not to be executed, but rather not to be executed using the current protocol (the “only hastening the inevitable” defense) and points the finger at Court of Criminal Appeals counsel Edward Marty and Richard’s lawyers (the “some other dude did it” defense).

My second favorite part of the answer is where Judge Keller claims that “If applied to these charges [Article 5] Section I-a(6)A [of the Texas Constitution] is unconstitutional under the United States and Texas Constitutions.” So part of the Texas Constitution is itself unconstitutional under the Texas Constitution.

Maybe we should have provided her with an attorney after all. I’m sure there’s plenty more where this came from. And for the record, I said some of this stuff last month, after Clay Robison wrote about Keller’s request, just before she filed for an extension.

A setback for Shriners


Local Shriners vowed Wednesday to take their case for reopening the storm-damaged Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston to convention delegates after the national leadership again decided to keep it closed.

Officials of the 1,000-member Galveston-based El Mina Shrine were notified Tuesday that their plea to reopen the hospital and its world famous burn center had been denied for the second time.


“Myself and the local Shriners from the El Mina Shrine, we are definitely going to take it forward to the national membership,” said Tommy Lambright, Shriners Hospital for Children Galveston board member.

Packets of information arguing for reopening the facility have already been sent to the 1,163 Shriners delegates who will meet in San Antonio on July 23.

The delegates can vote to overturn the leadership’s decision and have done so at least twice before.

Delegates prevented the leadership from closing the Minneapolis Shriners Hospital for Children in 2003 and last year stripped the leadership’s authority to close any hospital, a rule that does not affect its power to forbid the Galveston hospital from reopening.

Lambright said El Mina Shriners would be lobbying delegates.

“We fully expect to get a positive vote to overturn the board’s action,” Lambright said.

I hope he’s right. As I said before, your best bet to affect that outcome is probably to contact the national organization and any Shriners you happen to know personally. And hope for the best.

Making reregistration easier

This is a positive step.

In Harris County, the voter registration office is starting to anticipate your next move.

County Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez has put together a coalition of private organizations and large employers to make sure that residents who move within or to the county get an on-the-spot chance to fill out fresh voter registration applications.

Moving into an apartment or buying a dwelling involves signing lots of papers. Now the Houston Apartment Association and the Texas Land Title Association will make sure the papers include voter registration forms, Vasquez said Wednesday.

Continental Airlines and the Houston Independent School District are the first employers to join the coalition by ensuring that registration forms go to workers who update their personnel records with new addresses.

“Let’s hit people when they are trying to make one of those moves,” said Vasquez, who was appointed in December to succeed fellow Republican Paul Bettencourt, who resigned from his elected post.

Any effort made to update these records in a timely fashion is an improvement over what we had before, and I applaud Vasquez for making that effort. There are still some holes here – what if you’re moving to a garage apartment or rental house, or you’re moving in with someone? – which makes me wonder if it might not be better to involve the Post Office in this, to get people who are filling out change of address forms there. Perhaps that can be added on later. In any event, as I said, this is better than what we had before, and the change in attitude is refreshing as well.

Redistricting commission advances

We know about Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s biennial efforts to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission for Texas. On Monday, those efforts advanced forward a step.

By a vote of 21-10, senators approved Senate Bill 315 that would create the nine-member commission — eight of its members named by the Legislature, four Republicans and four Democrats, with the ninth member to serve as a non-voting presiding officer.

The measure by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, would also designate the Texas Supreme Court as having original jurisdiction in all cases regarding redistricting.

Passage came after a bit of drama. Debate was stopped after it appeared that Wentworth might not have the 21 votes necessary to suspend the Senate’s rules to debate and pass the bill.

But after several minutes of huddling on the Senate floor, Wentworth went ahead and got enough votes.

State Sen. Mike Jackson, R-Lake Jackson, was among the 10 senators who voted against passage. During the brief debate, he said he had doubts that the commission could accomplish its intended purpose.

Wentworth insisted it would, noting that 12 other states use such commissions successfully.

Here’s the vote (PDF) on second reading:

Yeas: Averitt, Carona, Davis, Deuell, Duncan, Ellis, Eltife, Gallegos, Hegar, Hinojosa, Lucio, Patrick, Seliger, Shapleigh, Uresti, VanideiPutte, Watson, Wentworth, West, Whitmire, Zaffirini.

Nays: Estes, Fraser, Harris, Huffman, Jackson, Nelson, Nichols, Ogden, Shapiro, Williams.

That’s all 12 Dems in favor, and Republicans split 9 for and 10 against. I think this thing may just have a chance to make it through. Which means it’s a shame that it only covers Congressional redistricting and not also State Lege redistricting, which needless to say is as big and hot a potato as anything else. Maybe next time, if doing so could still put such a commission in place before the 2012 elections. Having said that, I can also see this thing getting vetoed by Governor Perry. As Patti Hart reported, the only opposition to this bill in the committee hearing came from the executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, which probably thinks that it can ram through what it wants again next session. If the activists think this is a screw job, you can be sure Perry will have their back. I’m not saying that will be the case – Dan Patrick voted for this, after all, so it’s safe to say that the base is not uniformly against the idea – but if it does get rejected I won’t be surprised.

Strengths and weaknesses fails

That’s the good news.

San Antonio’s Ken Mercer, part of the board’s seven-member social conservative bloc, tried to put the much-debated “strengths and weaknesses” language back into the state’s science standards that guide the content of textbooks and curriculum. Mercer’s amendment to a final draft of the science standards would have required science teachers to discuss the so-called weaknesses of evolutionary theory in their science classes.

A few minutes ago, Mercer’s amendment failed by one vote (the tally was 7-7).

Corpus Christi’s Mary Helen Berlanga missed this morning’s vote, though she isn’t one of the board’s social conservatives and would be expected to vote against the strengths weaknesses language.

The board will take a final vote on the science standards tomorrow.

Unless one of the other members has a last-minute change of heart, it appears the strengths and weaknesses language won’t be included in the new science standards. That would be a huge victory for the pro-evolution side.

That’s very good news, as it avoids Texas becoming a national laughingstock for the time being. This sort of thing never truly goes away, of course, so we can never let up. Unelecting some of the troglodtyes on the Board would make the job a lot easier. One such possible target is Democrat Rick Agosto of San Antonio, who is at best wishy-washy on a lot of science issues, and who might be easier to take out in a primary than any of the Republicans in a general election. Keep an eye on him.

The bad news is that some other petty little odious amendments did make it through. I haven’t followed this closely enough to tell you about it, but there are plenty of others who have, so for more information than you could possibly need, here’s where to go:

TFN‘s exhaustive liveblogs – one, two, three, four.

Vince’s liveblog from today.

Thoughts from Kansas, another busy liveblogger. Too many posts to recount – try their creationism archives for an overview.

Martha on Twitter – you might also search for the #txsboe hashtag. Martha also testified before the committee.

On balance, I’d call it a good week for science, though between this and the stem cell skulduggery, I wouldn’t say it was good by that much.

UPDATE: The TFN summarizes:

OK, we’ve had a little time to digest all that went on today at the Texas State Board of Education. Without going through each of the many amendments that passed, here’s essentially what happened. This morning the board slammed the door on bringing creationism into classrooms through phony “weaknesses” arguments. But then board members turned around and threw open all the windows to pseudoscientific nonsense attacking core concepts like common descent and natural selection.

The amendments approved today are very problematic, regardless of the important victory over “strengths and weaknesses.” We anticipate that all 15 board members will be participating tomorrow, however, including a pro-science member who was absent today. So there is still time to reverse course.

Tomorrow, with the final vote, the board has a serious decision to make: is the science education of the next generation of Texas schoolchildren going to be based on fact-based, 21st-century science or on the personal beliefs of board members promoting phony arguments and pseudoscience?

You can still weigh in by sending e-mails to board members at [email protected] Texas Education Agency staff will distribute e-mails to board members.

Like I said, it could have been a lot worse. But it could still be a lot better.

UPDATE: Dave Mann thinks the picture is bleaker.

The seven social conservatives on the 15-member board mostly got their way this afternoon. They passed a series of minor amendments that, with a slight word change here and there, diluted the state’s science standards and the teaching of evolutionary theory. Critics say these proposals open loopholes in the standards for the teaching of unscientific theories espoused by religious conservatives. (The same approach was tried, quite successfully, at the board’s meeting in January.)


The change in fortunes occurred largely because of Rick Agosto of San Antonio, who voted against the social conservatives in the morning and mostly with them in the afternoon. Agosto is viewed as the key swing vote on the board. He voted against the “strengths and weaknesses” language in January and again this morning, despite fierce lobbying from religious groups in his district.

Agosto wasn’t alone. Several other pro-evolution board members voted with the social conservatives’ this afternoon.

The board will take its final vote on the science standards, which will set content of classes and textbooks for years to come, tomorrow. The board can add in or take out language up until final passage.

So one last fight is likely tomorrow.

Remember the name Rick Agosto. The fight next year has to be in March as well.

Your eyes may deceive you

The Chron covers a report by the Justice Project about faulty eyewitness testimony and the many wrongful convictions to which it has led.

Most wrongful convictions in Texas stem from mistaken eyewitness identifications, errors that experts say could have been avoided — or even eliminated — with more sophisticated lineup techniques, according to a report released Wednesday.

Since 1994, DNA evidence has exonerated 39 men convicted in Texas of crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder, according to a report Wednesday by the Justice Project, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform.

Six of the cases occurred in Harris County. Each was investigated by the Houston Police Department. Each was built on flawed eyewitness evidence.

“Eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in Texas and across the country,” said Edwin Colfax, Texas director of the Justice Project, which analyzed the factors that contributed to the wrongful convictions.

“But of law enforcement agencies across Texas, only a tiny fraction have any written policies for these critical investigative procedures and only a tiny fraction have implemented best practices,” he said.


The Justice Project report calls on law enforcement agencies to adopt several procedures, such as documenting the entire lineup process and having an uninvolved or “blind” officer conduct a lineup. It also recommends that witnesses see suspects’ photos one after another rather than at the same time in an array.

There are numerous bills that have been filed to address these points, many by State Sen. Rodney Ellis. The main opposition comes from police departments and District Attorneys, in some cases on grounds of disagreement as to what best practices are, and in some cases on grounds of pigheadedness.

Grits has a link to the full report. He also notes that the wrongful conviction figures are understated:

Ironically, by focusing solely on DNA exonerations, such analyses understate the real number of innocent Texans who’ve been exonerated – 35 were pardoned from the Tulia drug stings, 24 innocents were set up in the Dallas “fake drug” scandal, and another dozen or so were set up by a lying informant in Hearne, an event about which a major motion picture will be released next month.

Add those to the 39 DNA cases the Justice Project examines and the number of recent exonerations easily tops 100. (And it would not be difficult for some law student to spend some quality time on Westlaw to add to the list.)

If even some of the bills that address these issues get passed, it will be a huge step forward. For more on problems with eyewitness identification, Grits has you covered.

Locke to formally announce today

I don’t think there’s any mystery about who is and isn’t running for Mayor, but as other candidates have had their formal campaign announcements, so today will Gene Locke. From the press release:

WHAT: Gene Locke To Announce Candidacy

Gene Locke will make a public declaration of candidacy for the Houston Mayoral race. Locke will also reveal plans for a campaign kickoff event on April 18th to rally volunteers and supporters for his candidacy and make public a video introducing him through his campaign web site at

WHERE: Tranquility Park, 400 Rusk Street, Houston, 77002


WHEN: 11 to 11:20 a.m. Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gene Locke is a Texas Super Lawyer who graduated valedictorian from his high school in Marshall, Texas. The son of a teacher, he enrolled at the University of Houston shortly after it became integrated. There he became a leader – attuned to social issues and civil rights. He later graduated from South Texas College School of Law attending night school and worked at a refinery to support his family. After graduation he moved to Washington D.C. to serve as Chief of Staff to Representative Mickey Leland. From 1995 to 1998 he served as Houston City Attorney under Mayor Bob Lanier. Locke is a partner at the Andrews Kurth LLP law firm, and remains General Counsel to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. He has been instrumental in negotiating contracts that allowed the development of Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium and the Toyota Center.

Gene Locke is a devoted husband and father. His wife, Aubrey Sampson Locke; daughters, Tembi and Attica; sons, Nicholas, Douglas and Thomas – are among his biggest supporters.

Here’s the Chron story on Locke’s announcement. I’d have to say at this point the field is set, modulo the usual fringe characters. I think we have three good and qualified candidates in the race, and I look forward to hearing them debate their vision for Houston’s future.

Response from the racetracks

When I wrote my earlier post about how much revenue expanded gambling would generate for Texas, I said I’d be more than happy to do a similar exercise for someone on the pro-gambling side of things. Sure enough, I got an email from Mike Lavigne on behalf of Texans for Economic Development, who sent me a copy of a study done by TXP that examined the question for the horse racing interests. I’ve uploaded it here (PDF) for your perusal. The main thrust of the argument is as follows:

Texans are already gaming at a high level. Based on data from a variety of sources, including state gaming commissions, convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs), and other academic studies, TXP has estimated the current gaming revenue in a seven-state region that is attributable to Texans at approximately $2.3 billion during 2007, the equivalent of about 3.8 percent of the national total. This is the assumed universe of current Texan gaming; while there undoubtedly are individual instances of Texans gaming elsewhere in the country, it does not appear to be significant.

The Innovation Group was engaged by Texans for Economic Development to estimate the size of Texas’ gaming market. A summary of their results follows. As the table indicates, the total Texas market approaches $4.2 billion in gaming revenue at full implementation. However, there is still leakage out of state, as some Texans will continue to game elsewhere.

A significant share of the revenue that would occur in Texas with the implementation of racinos would be recaptured from other states where Texans currently game. Measurement of the volume of this spending is done through subtracting the leakage out-of-state ($840.2 million) from the $2.4 billion figure, yielding recaptured spending of approximately $1.8 billion.

They estimate a total of about $3.4 billion in gambling revenue, which when taxed at 30% (the rate for racetracks is higher than what has been proposed for casinos) yields about $1 billion a year for the state. They make other claims as well about related economic activity and employment, which I’ll leave to you to examine.

I remain basically skeptical of the claims made here – I think some of these projections are optimistic, especially the ones made separately about the economic benefits for other businesses that flow from expanded gambling. I also think it’s foolish to rely on gambling revenue for anything other than “found money” – the Texas Lottery should be an object lesson there. Finally, there is a moral case to be made against expanded gambling, and I think we greatly underestimate the social costs associated with it, which the state does precious little to mitigate. I’ve got a future post planned for that, since it’s outside the scope of this one. Having said all that, I can at least see where the racetracks’ numbers are coming from, and while I think they’re sunny, they’re comprehensible and reasonable. We can argue over these numbers because they’re here to be argued over, which remains more than I can say for the casino interests, whose claim that they would generate $3 billion for the state looks even more ludicrous to me based on this.

I also asked Lavigne in an email exchange after he sent this to me about the bleak picture the racetracks have painted for their industry today, and why they would be a better vehicle for capturing the “leakage” than regular casinos. Here’s what he said, reproduced with permission:

The Racing Commission did indeed paint a glum picture. There is no denying the shape the industry is in right now. The primary reason is that purses in Texas are so low, there is no incentive for breeders to breed in Texas. If they take the same horse and breed it in Louisiana, NM or OK they will be eligible for much larger prizes. A large chunk of the money made in this bill will go toward growing purses here that will be competitive with not only with our neighbors, but with the eastern seaboard, where racing has had a lot more success. This model is the reason our industry in Texas has fared so poorly. When parimutuel wagering was legalized in Texas, there were very few (if any) racinos in our bordering states.

We don’t oppose the proposal for regular casinos on its face, but we do object to the disparate tax rates. That would surely kill any chance racinos would have to be successful.

As to why we think racinos would better capture the money than casinos? I think that is the wrong question. Both would be able to get at that money. We do have to look at political reality though. What is more palatable to the legislature? Full on casino gambling overnight? Or a smaller expansion at existing sites with legal wagering already taking place.

The Governor and many Republicans have repeatedly said that they do not want to expand the footprint of gambling. We believe our proposal is a more modest one.

The most important thing to remember about these figures is that the Comptroller will ultimately make the decision as to how much money these proposals would raise. She will do her own math.

So there you have it, the case for racinos. My thanks to Mike Lavigne for engaging me on this. If someone with the casino interests wants to show me their numbers, I’ll be more than happy to do this for them as well.

Finally, on a related note, whatever reservations I have about casino and/or racetrack gambling, I do support an expansion of legalized poker in Texas. HB222, introduced by Rep. Jose Menendez as the Poker Gaming Act of 2009, would establish poker as a “game of skill and not a lottery or gift enterprise prohibited by the Texas Constitution” and would thus allow for the creation and regulation of legalized games. In particular, it would allow establishments that hold a license to serve alcoholic beverages issued by TABC or a license issued by the Racing Commission to have the ability to host the game of poker. There was a hearing for this bill yesterday in the House before the Licensing and Administrative Procedures committee. I have no issues with this bill and support its passage.

OK, you can use some stimulus money on rail


Federal transit officials on Tuesday reversed course and agreed to allow Metro to use nearly $30 million in economic stimulus funds for utility relocation work on the proposed North and Southeast rail lines, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee announced.

Just last week, Metro was told such stimulus funds could not be used on the latest extensions of the rail lines because the projects were not deemed “shovel-ready.” Instead, the Federal Transit Administration recommended Metro use its stimulus funds for converting 83 miles of high occupancy vehicle lanes to high occupancy toll lanes.


Jackson Lee said the about-face — announced in “letters of no prejudice” from the FTA — followed U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s visit to Houston earlier this month.

LaHood, who was invited here by Jackson Lee to see the light rail line, spent all day March 13 meeting with Metro supporters, officials from various universities and other public institutions.

“He was able to ride on the (rail) system and meet with the head of Texas Children’s Hospital, who was able to explain how vital the system was,” Jackson Lee said.

Of the total $28.9 million in federal stimulus funds freed up for Metro’s rail plans, $19.2 million is earmarked for utility relocation work on the North Corridor Light Rail, while $9.7 million will be devoted to relocating utilities for the Southeast Corridor Light Rail.

The key to getting the economic stimulus funds was proving that Metro could start the work within 90 days — a requirement to secure the federal monies, Jackson Lee said. The utility relocation work can be contracted and people hired to do the work immediately, she said.

Of course, the definition of “shovel ready” is different for rail projects than it is for toll road projects. But we’ll take what we can get.

Red light camera revenues remain unspent

The state has not yet appropriated the money in the trauma center fund that it has collected from cities with red light cameras.

That is because the Legislature, which passed a 2007 law requiring cities to share profits with the state, has not formally approved transferring the money to the hospitals.

To spend the camera money, which totals about $9 million so far, lawmakers this session must include specific language in the biennial budget plan being drafted.

“We need to get the money out to these centers,” said state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, whose 2007 law required cities to share their profits. “We promised the public that the money would be for regional trauma care, and, to me, there is no excuse for that money going any place else.”

The Senate version of the biennial state spending bill, which is being printed, does not include language for the red-light camera funds. The provision could be added in later negotiations before being enacted into law.

The $9 million collected so far — much of it from Houston — is a fraction of the state’s biennial budget. But trauma centers across the state need all funding available, said John Hawkins, vice president for governmental relations for the Texas Hospital Association.

He said that especially is true at facilities like Ben Taub General Hospital, which has seen increased traffic since Hurricane Ike damaged operations at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

“All of the money collected ought to be appropriated,” he said. “There’s real need out there.”

There’s a lot of needs, but yes, this is something that ought to be taken care of. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t happen during the budget process, but screwups most definitely do occur. The main question will be whether the budget is printed with enough time for everyone who’s looking for a particular appropriation to see if it’s there before it gets voted on.

It remains unclear how the money, if allocated, would be spent. City officials said they would prefer the money be distributed using a formula proportionate to what regions collect. Houston, for example, sent the state $3.7 million — about 40 percent of the total.

No other city in Texas came close to collecting more than Houston. Arlington, Duncanville and Humble all collected about $1 million in profits, respectively, which they split with the state. Dallas collected only $336,000.


The money, so far, has been sent in by more than 40 cities, from Allen to University Park, that have collected fines since Carona’s law took effect in September of 2007.

At least 10 cities reported to the state that they lost money on the cameras. A few others reported just breaking even, records show.

Leading the way was Garland, which was the first city in Texas to install cameras. Officials there say that city lost more than $300,000 from September 2007 to this month.

“We experienced a fairly substantial decline in the number of violations after a period of time,” said George Kauffman, managing director of financial services in Garland. “They learn where the intersections are and probably take extra precautions at those intersections.”

That city since has renegotiated a contract with the vendor that maintains the cameras in an effort to break even. There also are plans to add three cameras, bringing the total to 12.

Matt Stiles put together a list of the money-losers here. Those of you who believe the cameras are all about revenue may now say your piece.

Ogden’s stem cell skulduggery


Steve Ogden may have lost support of Senate Democrats for SB 1 with his surprise rider prohibiting state funds to be used in stem cell research, or as the rider states: ”in conjunction with or to support research that involves the destruction of a human embryo.”

The rider was added Monday with little debate, on a 6-5 vote, with several members absent from the committee.

It sure must be tough to be a researcher in the Medical Center these days. You finally see this kind of restriction being lifted federally, and now you have to worry about the state shutting you down. It’s a wonder they don’t get whiplash.

I seem to recall Rep. Myra Crownover complaining about a vote being taken on the unemployment insurance stimulus funds while a couple members of that committee were not present because they didn’t know a vote was going to take place. If that was wrong, then so is this. Actually, given the subject matter, it’s wrong regardless. Surely this deserved a real debate, and an up-or-down vote, instead of being snuck into the budget. It’s not a matter of principle – I’ve no doubt Sen. Ogden is sincerely acting on his – but one of procedure and policy. Matters of policy should be debated. As Sen. Kirk Watson said in his statement opposing this action, it’s not clear whether the committee intended to implement such a sweeping ban. The only way to know for sure is to talk about it and let anyone who has questions ask them.

UPDATE: BOR has more.

Chronicle cuts

Brutal day at 801 Texas yesterday, with more today. I confess, I don’t understand how getting rid of the people who create the content helps make the product more viable going forward, but what do I know? I’m sure they have some Cunning Master Plan to make it all make sense.

Banjo and Hair Balls have the gory details. I’d like to express my sympathies and best wishes to everyone who got the axe. There’s a lot of talent on that list, and it won’t be easily replaced. May you all find something better.

I have to say also, as a fan of the Rice Owls, that I’m truly pissed off that the Chron has let MK Bower go. He did an outstanding job on the Rice beat, and Owl fans are showing him the love for it. With the departure of Mike Murphy and Terrance Harris, who covered UH and TSU, as well, the Chron has made it clear that if it ain’t the Big XII, they won’t be paying attention. Thanks a hell of a lot.

Keller blames others for her actions

Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who has been formally accused of violating her duty as a judge in the matter of the Michael Richard case, has filed her response to the State Commission on Judicial Ethics. (For which she was given an extension, because she couldn’t get it done in time. God really does have a sense of humor.)

Keller said the Texas Defender Service has filed previous death penalty appeals with the court after the clerk’s office closed. She also noted that the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure allow for after-hours appeals to be filed either with the clerk or a judge of the court willing to accept the case.

Keller said all the judges of the court are listed in the blue pages of the telephone book and the phone number of court General Counsel Ed Marty phone number was listed on his letterhead and known to (the defender service.)

She said when Marty called her on the day of the execution about a defender service request that the clerk’s office stay open late, she understood that only to be about the clerk’s office, not Richard’s ability to file an appeal.

“Judge Keller did not, and could not have, if she had wanted to, close access to the court in light (of the appellate procedure rules),” said the brief by her lawyer, Chip Babcock.

You can find a copy of the full response here. You might then want to reread the factual allegations (PDF), or just Rick Casey’s summary, and note how casual with the truth Keller has been about this all along. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but wonder how Presiding Judge Sharon Keller would rule on this matter if it had come before her. Better hope the commission isn’t as nakedly pro-prosecution as you are, Judge.

The Texas Defender Service said Keller is trying to deflect attention because she “knowingly broke the rules” and caused Richard’s execution when he likely could have gotten a stay.

Neal Manne, counsel for the service, said the judicial conduct commission found that Keller knew she was not the assigned judge handling the Richard execution and that she should have referred the calls to that judge, Cheryl Johnson.

“The commission has properly focused on Judge Keller’s conduct, and has not in any way suggested that Texas Defender Service acted improperly or was at fault,” Manne said.

Keller’s defense, which apparently includes some last-minute edits, referenced that recent Chron story about missing deadlines in capital cases. Well, we did know that she doesn’t think she did anything wrong, so it stands to reason that someone else must be at fault. Simple, really.

No idea when the Commission may make its ruling. Any lawyers out there want to comment on her defense?