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May 5th, 2009:

Watch out for Medicaid

A wrench just got thrown into the budget reconciliation negotiations.

Forecasts that more Texans battered by the recession will qualify for free health care under the Medicaid program will require that the program receive nearly $1 billion more in state funds, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced today.

“One cloud has arisen,” he said, updating reporters about House-Senate budget talks. Though the Senate inserted $750 million more of state money into the two year, $182 billion budget for Medicaid enrollment and cost growth, Dewhurst said the Legislative Budget Board now thinks the figure should be closer to $1.75 billion. The House didn’t put any money into its budget for Medicaid enrollment and cost growth.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he expects lawmakers will have to find more money for Medicaid in both the 2010-2011 budget and an emergency spending bill plugging holes in the current budget.

“There’s less money today than we thought there was … a week ago for new stuff,” Ogden said.

Hard to say right now what effect this is going to have, but it sure makes that House vote to exempt more businesses from the margins tax feel like bad timing. Earlier in the session Sen. Van de Putte had questioned the amount of money set aside for Medicaid under the Frew ruling, but this appears to be separate from that. The thing to watch out for here is using the Medicaid shortfall as an excuse to gut a whole bunch of appropriations. I have a bad feeling about this. Postcards has more.

Interim DPS director retiring

What the hell is going on at the Department of Public Safety?

he director of the Texas Department of Public Safety is resigning amid allegations that he touched women at the agency in an unprofessional way, “demonstratively” blew kisses to one and called a veteran employee “his girl.”

Col. Stanley Clark’s resignation is effective May 31, but he will no longer be performing any duties at DPS, according to a spokeswoman.

Clark, 60, has led the agency since becoming interim director in September. He succeeded Col. Tommy Davis, who retired in the wake of a fire that severely damaged the Governor’s Mansion on DPS’ watch.

“This is an elite law enforcement agency. We expect all our employees to demonstrate the highest degree of professionalism,” Allan Polunsky, chairman of the Texas Public Safety Commission, said in a statement. “The director must set the example for all employees in their workplace communications.

“Col. Clark has acknowledged his failure to adhere to those high standards and has chosen to retire at the end of this month,” Polunsky said. “We are disappointed by this matter, and we are committed to moving on in our search for a director.”

The story has more details; it’s all very creepy. This guy was there on a temporary basis after the last guy was apparently forced out over DPS’ failures to prevent or apprehend the person responsible for the fire that damaged the Governor’s mansion in 2007. All I can say is I hope whoever they find via that national search knows what he or she is getting into. Grits has more.

Microbrewery bill passes out of committee

Woo hoo! HB2094, the bill that would allow microbreweries to sell some beer on premises that I thought might be dead before getting a glimmer of hope last week, passed out of the Licensing and Administrative Procedures committee on a 5-2 vote. That’s progress, baby. Time to call someone on the Calendars committee so this can get a floor vote. What a nice brewery-warming present that would make.

“Blogger bill” passes out of House committee

I’m pleased to note that HB4237, the “blogger bill” that I wrote about last week, passed out of the Civil Jurisprudence committee on an 8-1 vote. Now the race against time and the Calendars committee begins. Nevertheless, this is a nice step forward, and gives us something to build on in the event the clock strikes midnight on us. My thanks to Vince and KT for taking the point and testifying before the committee on this.

Last day of early voting for the May elections

Today is the last day to vote early in the May elections in Texas, including the special election for Houston City Council District H. Here (PDF) are the early vote totals through Sunday. As of then, 1221 people had voted in person or by mail. Saturday, the first of three days for which EV hours were 7 AM to 7 PM, was the busiest day with 240 in person voters. If Monday and Tuesday are like that, we’ll wind up with around 1700 early votes cast, which suggests that my initial projection of 2656 is too low. Probably not by much, though – perhaps the range is more like 2700 to 3500. I’ll have a better feel for it when I see Monday’s numbers. In the meantime, the basic idea that this is a low-turnout affair and that every vote really counts is still very much in operation.

Speaking of which, I finally did my civic duty on the way home from work yesterday at Moody Park. This might have been the hardest decision I’ve had to make in an election ever – it was way harder than settling on a Presidential candidate last March. I want to stress again that I considered this to be a dead heat between Ed Gonzalez and Maverick Welsh, both of whom I think would do an excellent job in office. In the end, I finally decided to cast my ballot for Welsh, on the grounds that from what I could see, his team worked harder at it. That’s a small thing, one that’s only a factor in a race that’s as close as this one, but it’s what did it for me. If Gonzalez makes the runoff and Welsh doesn’t, I’ll happily vote for him. If somehow neither of them makes it, I’ll figure it out from there.

If you live in H, have you voted yet? Leave a comment and let me know.

Burka on the Census and redistricting

Paul Burka takes a look at Census figures and projections for 2010 and considers the implication for the 2011 Legislative Redistricting Board redraw of State House and State Senate lines.

There is going to be carnage in rural Texas, especially from Wichita Falls to Lubbock to Amarillo, an area currently represented by six House Republicans: Hardcastle, Jones, Isett, Chisum, Swinford, and Smithee, and only two Democratic districts (Farabee and Heflin). In East Texas, the Eltife and Nichols Senate seats are in rural areas that have not kept up with the growth rate.

On the other hand, Republicans won’t even have to gerrymander to gain seats in suburban Texas. Huge growth rates in Collin, Denton, and Montgomery counties will result in more Republican seats. The other two big suburban counties, Fort Bend and Williamson, also have high growth rates, but the growth in these counties includes Democrats as well as Republicans. Growth in urban Texas was right around the statewide average, so the Democrats will have to win seats by defeating Republicans.

I suppose that’s true. It’s a good thing that the Democrats have gotten better at that. And in Harris County, at least, a lot of the high-growth areas got a lot less red last year. The result is that what was drawn to be a 15-10 Republican advantage in the delegation became a 14-11 Democratic lead in four cycles’ time, thanks in part to Republican overreach in 2001. Don’t take anything for granted, that’s all I’m saying.

On a side note, one thought that struck me in thinking about this was that perhaps we ought to consider increasing the number of members in the House and the Senate. Assuming Burka’s population projection is accurate, each of the 150 State Rep districts will have about 168,000 people in it after the 2011 redraw. Now take a look at the 1990 Census figures. Just 20 years ago, each district had roughly 113,000 constituents. To keep that same ratio for the 2010 population you’d need 223 members. Maybe this is one reason why the cost of running for State Rep keeps going up – you have to reach more and more voters just to maintain position. And with four Congressional seats being added to bring the total to 36, the 31 Senate districts are going to become a lot more populous than Congressional ones soon. I say it’s worth considering the possibility of increasing the size of each chamber in order to keep a certain level of closeness to each elected official. What do you think?

UPDATE: Greg brings some maps.

The poll tax

Sometimes it’s hard to remember what century we’re in.

Rep. Alma Allen’s joint resolution to post-ratify the 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed the House on second reading this afternoon. The 24th amendment is the one prohibiting states from levying a poll tax, or a tax on voting, which was used to keep minorities, women and low-income folks away from the polls.

When the 24th amendment was ratified in 1964, Texas was one of just five states that still levied a poll tax, and one of 12 states that didn’t ratify the amendment. Since then, Virgina, North Carolina and Alabama have post-ratified the amendment.

“It’s been a long time coming but it’s here today,” Allen said.

The measure is HJR39, which passed unanimously. Of course, a good number of those folks who voted to finally post-ratify the amendment that outlawed that poll tax are eagerly hoping for the chance to vote for its modern variant. Not that any of them would acknowledge the irony, of course. Ah, well, I suppose we should just celebrate the moment while we can.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 4

It’s four weeks to sine die for the Lege, but the Texas Progressive Alliance is never out of session. Click on to read this week’s highlights.