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May 11th, 2009:

Paying for rape kits

I missed this last week, and reading it now I’m one part outraged and one part puzzled.

Victims of sexual assault are getting bills, rejection letters and pushy calls from bill collectors while a state crime victims’ fund sits full of cash, Local 2 Investigates reported Thursday.

“I’m the victim, and yet here I am. I’m asked to pay this bill and my credit’s going to get hurt,” said a single mom from Houston.

She received bills marked, “delinquent,” after she visited a hospital where police told her to have evidence gathered. Officers assured her she would not pay a dime for that rape kit to be handled.

“That was unreal,” she said. “I never thought I’d be out anything for what I went through.”

[…]

“It is set up legislatively so that the criminal justice system pays for whatever evidence collection occurs,” said Kelly Young, with the Houston Area Women’s Center, a rape crisis facility.

Police departments are reimbursed for up to $700 by the Texas Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, but many departments cover the bills if they exceed that.

After that happens, victims can apply for other costs associated with the rape kit hospital visits to be covered by the fund.

The Houston Police Department made one payment toward the single mother’s hospital bill, but when she submitted the $1,847 worth of remaining bills to the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, she received a denial letter, telling her that law enforcement should have paid.

“She’s getting the run-around,” said Young at the rape crisis center, which was not involved in her case.

“There may be lots of survivors who have this happen and we don’t know because they don’t know that they shouldn’t be getting the bills,” she said.

Well, that’s a good question. Was there a screwup, on the part of either HPD or the hospital, or is this just how it goes and this particular woman happened to be the first one to get her story in the news? How we react to try to ensure that this never happens again depends on the answer to that.

Attorney General’s spokesman Jerry Strickland said the crime victim fund is enforcing strict guidelines imposed by the legislature as to which bills are paid and which victims are sent a denial notice.

Otherwise, he said that fund could become “insolvent.”

He said state law is clear that crime victims must exhaust all other potential funding sources, such as local police or their own health insurance.

“The legislature set it up that way,” said Strickland.

When asked for a number of how many denial letters had been sent out to Texas rape victims in the past, Strickland did not have an answer after checking with his crime victims’ compensation office workers.

He said the attorney general’s office constantly trains hospitals and health care providers on how to help victims in getting reimbursed for their expenses.

Again, the question that comes to my mind here is, screwup or SOP? Is it the intent of the Legislature that it’s the responsibility of the crime victim to do the paperwork to be reimbursed for any costs the local police department doesn’t pick up? Or is it the case that it’s up to the police departments and/or the hospitals to deal with it themselves and leave the victims out of it? One would hope that’s what they had in mind when that state fund was created – after all, as Salon puts it, we don’t charge burglary victims for the cost of dusting for prints – and one imagines that if cornered, the vast majority of legislators would agree that that’s how it should be. Perhaps that’s a subject on which the AG could issue an opinion.

Where the outrage really comes is that if this is the way it’s been all along, intended or not, it’s too late for the Lege to take action to fix it. The least we can do, therefore, is to find out for sure whether or not this is something that needs a legislative fix or a procedural one. Whatever the case, the cost of solving and prosecuting the crime should not fall in any way on the person victimized by the crime. Thanks to Ginger for calling this to my attention.

Monday Lege roundup

Lots of legislative action today beyond the voter ID vaudeville act. Here’s a quick roundup of some other bills of interest.

HB1736, also known as the Tim Cole Act for the man who was posthumously exonerated this February, has passed both chambers and is on its way to Governor Perry’s desk. The bill increases the compensation given to those who are exonerated after being sent to jail. Grits has the story, and more info is here and here.

– The statewide smoking ban is stuck no more.

A statewide smoking ban was endorsed by a Senate panel today, after authors agreed to exempt cigar bars, patios of restaurants and bars, and nursing homes.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston said the compromises were necessary to resuscitate the measure, which he called a matter of life and death.

“It goes a long way toward reducing the incidence of cancer in Texas,” he said of his bill. It cleared the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on a 5-3 vote.

Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, joined the panel’s four Democrats in voting for the bill, which Ellis praised as “much stronger” than a companion measure in the House that was watered down Friday to exempt 224 of the state’s 254 counties, limit enforcement and carve out many loopholes for bars.

So Sen. Nelson was true to her word. Kudos to her for that. SB544 still has to pass the full Senate and then get reconciled with the House bill, once it passes that chamber. There’s still work to be done, in other words.

Solar energy gets a boost.

[SB541] by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would provide so-called renewable energy credit incentives for electric generation from equipment manufactured in Texas and sets a goal for electricity generated from sources other than wind at 1,500 megawatts by 2020.

“This is designed to help bring large, industrial-size solar facilities to Texas,” Watson said. “This is about looking forward to the future — in alternative energy, jobs and manufacturing — much the same we did for wind a few years ago.”

Good. ACT Texas and Environment Texas cheer, and I join them in that.

– Finally, both strip club bills, Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s HB982, and Rep. Ellen Cohen’s HB2070 were scheduled for votes today, the former in the Senate and the latter in the House. You have to figure there can only be one, so we’ll see which one survives.

Voter ID passes out of House committee

The session that’s been all about voter ID is finally headed into its final act as SB362 gets approval from the House Elections Committee on a 5-4 vote. It wasn’t actually a straight-party vote – Rep. Joe Heflin, who had tried to work a compromise, voted for it so as to retain the ability to make a motion sending the plan back to committee from the House floor, and Rep. Dennis Bonnen voted against it because it wasn’t punitive enough. And after all that, it may amount to nothing in the end.

Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith then told the press he doesn’t expect the bill to survive as is — that unless there are compromises from both sides when the bill hits the floor, then voter ID will “die”. Smith predicted the bill has a less than 50% chance of surviving, as is.

“What I’m trying to do is act in a way that satisfy [the conservative wing’s] concerns but also doesn’t blow up this body,” said Smith. “But I don’t pretend to control the votes on the House floor and it seems to me there are two possibilities: Either we reach some sort of consensus in a bipartisan fashion, or we will simply make a statement, have a record vote and go home having not passed a voter ID bill.”

Smith said that conceptually he’s in favor of a phase-in, a signature or verification process, and spending money to expand the number of registered voters to make clear the net effect of Voter ID isn’t intended to suppress the vote.

Smith continues:

“It would satisfy the concerns of my constituents, but then it would also address the reasonable concerns on the other side of the political aisle,” he said. “The question is, how many people want or care about satisfying the reasonable concerns on the other side of the political aisle. If there aren’t more than a handful, we may simply have a very divisive vote that in my opinion, is likely to fail.

“Unless we develop a more pragmatic approach, member by member, and a stronger desire to reach some sort of bipartisan compromise, then my guess is that it’s something less than 50%, the chances of passing a voter ID bill.

“We got a choice to make. Do we want to pass a bill or make a statement? And it’s clear to me that some members that simply want to make a statement. They’re not interested in passing a bill.”

Well, I’m not interested in passing a bill because it’s been clear from the beginning that the goal was to make it harder for folks who tend to support Democrats to vote. The alleged “problem” that this bill is supposed to address is rarer than getting hit by lightning while being eaten by a shark, yet it’s been deemed the single most important issue facing Texas today by those who fear for their electoral future if those damn voters can’t be stopped. One certainly could have put forth a bill that would have genuinely addressed legitimate issues, ranging from verifiable audit trails to obstacles to getting registered to actual fraud involving absentee ballots, but Smith’s Republican colleagues have never been interested in passing such a bill, as they have made perfectly clear. Given all this, the most sensible thing to do would have been to conclude that there are many more pressing issues that require the Lege’s attention, but that wasn’t gonna happen, either. So from the GOP’s perspective, they either get a half a loaf, ot they get what they think will be a juicy campaign issue, or possibly both. You have to give them credit for keeping on with the wedge issues in the age of Obama, for however much longer that will work. I suppose if your piano only has one key, you play that note for all it’s worth and hope nobody notices how monotonic you are. Good luck with that.

Happy Ardmore Day

Rep. Pena remembers the day six years ago when the House Democrats took a stand against the DeLay/Craddick/Perry re-redistricting scheme. Though they were only able to delay the inevitable, the effort marked the beginning of the resurgence of the Texas Democratic Party, which had fallen pretty far down after the 2002 election. And while there aren’t any covert bus trips on the agenda this year, the delegation is once again faced with a partisan power grab, this time voter ID, in the waning days of the session. Thanks to the larger Democratic caucus that resulted in part from the redistricting fight, and the fact that a couple of Republicans aren’t on board with it, that bill isn’t guaranteed to pass. We can all hope for a different outcome.

This Observer story from the June 6, 2003 issue, which I reread every now and then, is still the best take on what happened back then, and a nice dose of nostalgia to boot. It’s interesting and occasionally amusing to recall the projections of what might happen were the DeLay plan to pass. The line about how “the new map, if passed, would ensure Republican control of Congress for decades to come” used to make me wince but now makes me chuckle. That was sure how it felt at the time, for both sides, but boy, the future sure ain’t what it used to be. Good thing, too.

Challenging Chet

Via Eye on Williamson, I see the national GOP is once again looking to try to beat Rep. Chet Edwards in CD17.

There’s little question Republicans are looking to target Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who could face yet another tough re-election in his solidly conservative Waco-based seat. The question is who his opponent will be.

Both experienced and inexperienced Republicans are preparing their Federal Election Commission forms in Texas’ 17th district, encouraged by a strong showing by poorly funded 2008 nominee Rob Curnock.

Curnock held Edwards to 53 percent of the vote, despite receiving almost no support from the national party. Curnock, a small-business owner from Waco, plans to run again and hopes this time he’ll receive more support from national and local party leaders.

I think the key here is to compare Edwards’ 2004 performance with his 2008 performance, since I believe the non-Presidential year will be more favorable to him as it was in 2006. Here’s a Google spreadsheet that compares Edwards’ performance in each of CD17’s counties to John Kerry in 2004 and to Barack Obama in 2008. What I did in each was compare Edwards’ performance to that of the Democratic presidential candidate, and then compared the ratio from 2004 to that of 2008.

I think the story of these two elections is in the three biggest counties: Brazos, Johnson, and McClennan. In 2004, Edwards barely eked out a plurality in Brazos, got clobbered in Johnson, and won big in McClennan. In 2008, Edwards won a solid majority in Brazos, improved noticeably in Johnson, and won a smaller majority in McClennan.

His improvement in Brazos, I believe, can be largely attributed to an overall improvement in Democratic performance there. John McCain got almost exactly as many votes as George Bush did, while Barack Obama added over 4000 votes to John Kerry’s tally; meanwhile, Curnock did almost as well as Arlene Wohlgemuth while Edwards increased his total by 5000 votes. While there were probably a few Wohlgemuth voters who switched to Edwards in 2008, for the most part there were just a lot more people voting Democratic.

By contrast, Edwards’ improvement in Johnson is all him. McCain gained 1800 votes over Bush, and Obama added 600 to Kerry’s total, leaving their percentage almost identical to 2004, while Curnock lost 1500 votes and Edwards added 4200. Clearly, Curnock was a weaker candidate than Wohlgemuth, who was also from Johnson County and surely benefited from being a hometown girl, but Edwards did more than just take advantage of that difference.

Finally, McClennan presents an interesting case. Edwards won it by 23,000 votes in 2004, and was in net negative territory everywhere else. In 2008, he would have won even if all of McClennan’s votes were thrown out, but he only carried McClennan by 16,000 votes, and that was with Obama getting 37% to Kerry’s 33%. Here, Curnock’s residency in Waco likely helped him. Similarly, a local issue having to do with water rights that Edwards tied around Wohlgemuth’s neck back in 2004 was not on the table this time around. Unlike Johnson County, not being Arlene Wohlgemuth, especially not being Arlene Wohlgemuth in 2004, worked to the GOP’s advantage.

Based on all this, I’d venture that Edwards will likely do fine in 2010, barring any national headwinds against the Dems. If the NRCC dream candidate of State Sen. Steve Ogden jumps in, that would make for a hell of a race, but Ogden is up for re-election himself in 2010, so he’d have to give up his Senate seat and his powerful spot as chair of the Finance Committee to do that. I don’t know that a chance to maybe be in the House minority is worth that, but we’ll see.

Challenging Chet

Via Eye on Williamson, I see the national GOP is once again looking to try to beat Rep. Chet Edwards in CD17.

There’s little question Republicans are looking to target Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who could face yet another tough re-election in his solidly conservative Waco-based seat. The question is who his opponent will be.

Both experienced and inexperienced Republicans are preparing their Federal Election Commission forms in Texas’ 17th district, encouraged by a strong showing by poorly funded 2008 nominee Rob Curnock.

Curnock held Edwards to 53 percent of the vote, despite receiving almost no support from the national party. Curnock, a small-business owner from Waco, plans to run again and hopes this time he’ll receive more support from national and local party leaders.

I think the key here is to compare Edwards’ 2004 performance with his 2008 performance, since I believe the non-Presidential year will be more favorable to him as it was in 2006. Here’s a Google spreadsheet that compares Edwards’ performance in each of CD17’s counties to John Kerry in 2004 and to Barack Obama in 2008. What I did in each was compare Edwards’ performance to that of the Democratic presidential candidate, and then compared the ratio from 2004 to that of 2008.

I think the story of these two elections is in the three biggest counties: Brazos, Johnson, and McClennan. In 2004, Edwards barely eked out a plurality in Brazos, got clobbered in Johnson, and won big in McClennan. In 2008, Edwards won a solid majority in Brazos, improved noticeably in Johnson, and won a smaller majority in McClennan.

His improvement in Brazos, I believe, can be largely attributed to an overall improvement in Democratic performance there. John McCain got almost exactly as many votes as George Bush did, while Barack Obama added over 4000 votes to John Kerry’s tally; meanwhile, Curnock did almost as well as Arlene Wohlgemuth while Edwards increased his total by 5000 votes. While there were probably a few Wohlgemuth voters who switched to Edwards in 2008, for the most part there were just a lot more people voting Democratic.

By contrast, Edwards’ improvement in Johnson is all him. McCain gained 1800 votes over Bush, and Obama added 600 to Kerry’s total, leaving their percentage almost identical to 2004, while Curnock lost 1500 votes and Edwards added 4200. Clearly, Curnock was a weaker candidate than Wohlgemuth, who was also from Johnson County and surely benefited from being a hometown girl, but Edwards did more than just take advantage of that difference.

Finally, McClennan presents an interesting case. Edwards won it by 23,000 votes in 2004, and was in net negative territory everywhere else. In 2008, he would have won even if all of McClennan’s votes were thrown out, but he only carried McClennan by 16,000 votes, and that was with Obama getting 37% to Kerry’s 33%. Here, Curnock’s residency in Waco likely helped him. Similarly, a local issue having to do with water rights that Edwards tied around Wohlgemuth’s neck back in 2004 was not on the table this time around. Unlike Johnson County, not being Arlene Wohlgemuth, especially not being Arlene Wohlgemuth in 2004, worked to the GOP’s advantage.

Based on all this, I’d venture that Edwards will likely do fine in 2010, barring any national headwinds against the Dems. If the NRCC dream candidate of State Sen. Steve Ogden jumps in, that would make for a hell of a race, but Ogden is up for re-election himself in 2010, so he’d have to give up his Senate seat and his powerful spot as chair of the Finance Committee to do that. I don’t know that a chance to maybe be in the House minority is worth that, but we’ll see.

Safe Passing Act moving forward

The Chron has an overview of the Safe Passing Act.

Cyclists always worry about close calls with motorists. That’s why many are paying attention to legislation making headway with Texas lawmakers this spring aiming to make drivers more responsible for their vehicles.

Motorists could be charged with a misdemeanor offense if they don’t give cyclists at least three feet passing clearance in most circumstances.

“It’s important for motorists to understand that close counts — just like in horseshoes,” said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas. “This bill has the potential to educate motorists that getting close is far more dangerous than they expected.”

The Safe Passing Bill (SB 488) also would ban the “right hook,” a dangerous turn made in front of a vulnerable road user — including cyclists, pedestrians, runners, motorcyclists and construction workers. Violations could result in a $500 fine.

Accidents resulting in injury could subject motorists to a Class B misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

SB488 passed out of the House Transportation Committee last week. I don’t see it on the House calendar yet, but given that it’s come this far and doesn’t seem to be particularly controversial, I feel pretty confident that it won’t be a calendars casualty. The fact that it has till May 26 to be passed in the House doesn’t hurt, either.

Faking it convincingly

I totally relate to this.

For classical-music fans, nothing ruins a good story about a violist beating the odds, or love in the woodwind section, quicker than musical fouls.

So the moment in The Soloist when Jamie Foxx picks up a cello for the first time is a delicate one for the classical-music buff. Not only does Foxx have to convey joy, loss and redemption, he has to look like he can tell the bridge from the fingerboard.

Does he?

“He was very convincing,” said Norman Fischer, cello professor at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, a premier Texas music program. “To do what he was doing was very impressive.”

“String playing is a very hard thing to really do,” Fischer added.

I know next to nothing about playing a stringed instrument, but having played the saxophone for 30 years, I’m very critical of any attempt by a non-musician actor to “play” a sax, or really any wind instrument. It’s easy for me to spot faking – the position of the instrument on or in the mouth, the way they breathe, the way their fingers move with the sounds they’re supposed to be making (arms in the case of a trombonist) – there are many ways to get it wrong, and it’s a distraction once I see any of them. Faking it in a convincing manner is a hard thing to do, and I respect anyone who can do it.