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May 15th, 2009:

Travis Elementary closes for a week

Travis Elementary is our neighborhood school, where Olivia will be in the fall for kindergarten. They’ve had a lot of kids absent this week, enough to close the school through Memorial Day.

The number of Travis Elementary School students diagnosed with swine flu has jumped to 12, likely the largest cluster of the new influenza virus in Texas, health officials said today. The school will be closed until May 26, HISD officials said.

Nearly 400 of the Heights-area school’s 712 students stayed home sick today, and a steady stream of parents were removing their children from school throughout the day.

[…]

It’s not known how many children are sick and how many are being kept at home as a precaution. Some youngsters have had symptoms including fevers, headaches and stomachaches.

That’s a change from earlier today when they thought they’d keep the school open while encouraging parents to keep sick kids home till they’re fever-free for 24 hours, and washing everything in sight. I have a feeling some of my neighbors are going to be scrambling for child care arrangements next week.

A response from TAASA to the rape kits story

When I posted about that recent Click2Houston story regarding the sexual assault victim who was billed by the hospital for the rape kit, I wondered if this was a screwup or standard procedure. Well, here’s a response to the story from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) that clears things up.

Recently a Houston television station ran a story about a rape victim who was billed for her own rape exam. The news piece implied this was a common practice in Texas despite being told by several sources, including the Deputy Director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA), that this was not the case. This news story, riddled with inaccuracies and half truths, was picked up by other news outlets and blogs and it took on a life of its own. Activists, advocates, survivors and other concerned individuals from around the country were justifiably angry and began to demand answers and action. The problem is there isn’t really a problem, just the perception of injustice that is spiraling out of control.

TAASA is concerned that this misinformation will have a chilling effect on a rape victim’s willingness to report the crime and get a forensic/medical exam (rape kit). We want to assure everyone that the cost of a forensic exam is not billed to the victim. This is always the responsibility of law enforcement and they in turn can be reimbursed for up to $700 though the Crime Victim’s Compensation (CVC) fund. If the cost exceeds this amount it is absorbed by the law enforcement agency or hospital, not the victim.

Additional medical treatment is not part of the forensic exam and billed separately. All crime victims, i.e. rape, gunshot, mugging, etc. are billed for medical treatment. They are eligible to apply for reimbursement of these costs through the CVC fund. The CVC fund is statutorily the “payer of last resort,” so if a victim has medical insurance it will be billed first. This is to assure the fiscal integrity of the CVC fund and make certain that funds remain available to crime victims who are uninsured or underinsured. Rape victims are not singled out in this process for reimbursement, it is consistently applied to all crime victims and this process is replicated with few variations across the country.

As with any system there is the possibility of human error. A victim could be misinformed or struggle to make sense of the process. This is the principle reason TAASA believes rape crisis advocates are so valuable to rape victims. Rape crisis advocates are not formally part of the systems or institutions that rape survivors must navigate, but are a valuable ally to victims when they encounter barriers or inconsistencies. I wish the rape victim in the Houston story had an advocate to help her through this very difficult time. Our only interest in this situation is that rape victims are supported and assisted. I encourage rape victims to access the services they so desperately need and not be deterred by the perception that they will be charged for their rape exam.

That was written by Annette Burrhus-Clay, TAASA’s Executive Director. It’s still not clear to me where the error occurred, and I wish she had elaborated on the “inaccuracies and half truths” she said the story contained. It is good to know that this was an aberrant case, hopefully an isolated one, and I certainly agree with the call for rape crisis advocates. If it were earlier in the session, perhaps this story could be used to galvanize support for more funding for these advocates. Given where we are, I suppose the best we can do is try to get the word out and make sure as many people know how it’s supposed to be as possible. Thanks to Baby Snooks for emailing this link to me.

Friday random ten: Couldn’t stand getting metaphysical

Time for your weekly dose of random music. Ready, set…

1. Banish Misfourtune/Rabbit’s Moon – Paisley Close
2. My Manda – The Mollys
3. Couldn’t Stand The Weather – Stevie Ray Vaughan
4. Let’s Get Metaphysical – David Gilmour
5. What Are You At? – Great Big Sea
6. Something So Right – Paul Simon
7. I Gotcha – Joe Tex
8. Her Modesty – Trish & Darin
9. Variations on a Theme by Eric Satie – Blood, Sweat, and Tears
10. Sometimes A River – String Cheese Incident

Today is an exciting day at our house, as Olivia’s preschool has its gradution ceremony/party for the kids and their parents. Olivia’s been telling us for weeks about the music they’ve been rehearsing for it. I’m about to find out just what’s in store for us. She’ll continue to be at the school through the summer, but will be saying good-bye to some friends now and many more in a couple of months as most of them will be going to other schools for kindergarten. She’s eager to move up, but I know she’ll miss her friends, and hasn’t realized what that means yet. It’s going to be an eventful year, that’s for sure. None of this has anything to do with music, of course, but it is the backdrop for today. What are you listening to?

Voting right on climate change, take two

Yo, Democrats. You were given a mandate this past November. Please act like it.

Democratic leaders pushing to cap greenhouse gas emissions were working Wednesday to appease key lawmakers who want to ease the financial burden that the climate change plan would impose on consumers and refiners.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who plans to formally introduce his climate change bill today, said that he expects a new compromise deal will have enough votes on his 59-member House Energy and Commerce Committee to be approved by the panel next week.

But Waxman spent much of Wednesday huddling with wavering Democratic lawmakers on the panel to shore up support for the measure. The skeptics included Texas Democrats Gene Green and Charlie Gonzalez, who want concessions for refiners in the Lone Star State, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., who wants tax relief for low-income households to defray expected higher energy costs.

The cornerstone of the bill is a plan to cap carbon dioxide emissions blamed for contributing to global warming.

Under the compromise, greenhouse gas emissions would be capped at 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 — a looser standard than the 20 percent reduction Waxman had originally sought. That proposed cap is more rigorous than the 14 percent goal President Barack Obama has sought or the 6 percent target advocated by some committee Democrats.

To exceed the limits, power plants, refiners, manufacturers and other industries would have to buy emissions allowances on a new carbon market. But after weeks of negotiations, committee Democrats have agreed to give away 35 percent of the allowances to electric utilities, 15 percent to trade-sensitive industries such as timber and steel manufacturing and a small number to the auto industry.

Still undecided was the question of how many allowances should be given to refiners, with the final number likely to rest between 1 percent and 5 percent.

Green, the unofficial leader of a group of oil-patch Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee, was pushing the higher number.

He said he wanted to vote for a bill that limits CO2 emissions, “but does it in a way that is reasonable.”

“There’s some flexibility” in the allowance allocation, Green said, “but 1 percent is not in the ballpark.”

After meeting with Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Gonzalez said he was “feeling really good” that he would get enough concessions for refiners and would vote for the legislation.

As Yglesias notes, even with all the concessions, this is still a decent bill. Could be a better one, but it could have been a much worse one, too. It’s still a big step forward. Yet it’s frustrating to realize how much has been given away, in a way that will place a larger share of the cost of these necessary changes on those who can least afford it.

We’ve discussed this before. Rep. Green is a fine Congressman, who has groomed a large number of very capable proteges. He’s also an electoral juggernaut, and you don’t get to be that way without being responsive to your constituents. So if you live in CD29 and you want Rep. Green to do the right thing, it’s up to you to tell him so. A diverse group of activists will be gathering in his district today at noon to urge him to support climate change legislation. Click on to read about this and participate if you can.

UPDATE: Looks like we have a deal.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., signed off on the compromise with Texas Democrats Gene Green and Charlie Gonzalez. The cornerstone of their deal was a commitment to donate at least 2 percent of valuable carbon dioxide emissions permits to refiners.

The compromise on refiners — tentatively agreed to late Thursday but still subject to last-minute negotiations — could help Waxman and Markey steer their contentious climate change measure through the 59-member Energy and Commerce Committee next week.

The measure also is buoyed by a new agreement among many committee Democrats on core parts of the bill, including a plan to freely give away more than 50 percent of those emission allowances to electric power distributors, trade-sensitive industries and automakers.

“We are now one huge step toward creating a 100-year solution to the carbon problem … that will protect consumers,” Markey said.

[…]

Green of Houston and Gonzalez of San Antonio said that with the changes aimed at helping refiners and other modifications, they expected to vote for the legislation next week.

The pair, whose districts are home to the plants and headquarters of major U.S. refiners, had been pushing for 5 percent of emission allowances to be given to the industry.

Under the deal Green and Gonzalez reached with Waxman and Markey, the free allowances for refiners could begin phasing out as early as 2014; refiners would eventually have to purchase all of the allowances they need from the federal government in an auction.

By contrast, the free allowances for electric utilities would phase out over five years beginning in 2025.

Green said the deal also would delay the implementation of a proposed low-carbon fuel standard until at least 2023 — a change from Waxman and Markey’s initial plan to phase in the standard as early as 2014.

The low-carbon standard, designed to promote advanced biofuels made from plant materials, would require escalating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels.

I’ll need to see what the reviews are of this, but it sounds like a positive step. Getting this passed in the first place is the big thing; it can always be tweaked later. Kudos to all for working through this.

(more…)

Poker bill dies

Last night at midnight was the first major deadline in the House. Any bill that had not been passed on second reading was officially dead for the session, though some may get reincarnated as amendments to already-approved bills. About three quarters of the 5000 bills filed in the House suffered this fate, including some high profile ones such as the concealed-carry on campus bill and, I’m sad to say, HB222, the poker bill.

A proposed constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling never made it onto the calendar. Sponsors had said they would not ask it to be set unless there were enough votes to pass. They never reached the necessary 100 votes.

The bill to legalize poker games at horse and dog tracks had a chance of getting on the calendar, but sponsor Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said he was pulling it off because Gov. Rick Perry’s staff assured him the governor would veto it.

“Sometimes you flush good will if you put a dead bill out on the floor,” Menendez said, explaining his decision to withdraw the measure without debate.

And with that, none of the bills that would have authorized an expansion of gambling made it through.

Their chances looked better than ever this year, with a strapped state budget and a new House speaker with interests in a San Antonio racetrack.

But in the end, lawmakers say, the expectation of federal stimulus dollars kept the state from getting desperate for money. And the major casino gambling legislation needed 100 votes in the 150-member House, a threshold that the bill’s sponsors couldn’t reach in such a divided chamber. And even if the poker bill had passed, Gov. Rick Perry probably would’ve vetoed it.

“We came into the session billions of dollars short. The stimulus pulled us out of dire straits,” said Menendez, D-San Antonio. “If we were cutting school budgets and not giving teachers raises, we would see a lot more willingness.”

Gambling opponents say it’s easy to blame the bill’s failure on a budget bailout. But they argue that the real reason gambling gets no traction session after session is because it’s bad policy.

Suzii Paynter, with the Baptist General Convention’s Christian Life Commission, said the promises of jobs and tax revenue that supporters make are exaggerated.

“Gaming legislation has failed because the more people look into the promises that are made, the more weaknesses they see in the proposal,” Paynter said.

I think there’s some merit to the argument about stimulus money having an effect. I certainly thought the gloomy budget picture at the start of the session would act as a catalyst for gambling proponents. The real test will come next session, when everyone is already expecting a huge deficit and a fight over the rainy day fund, and no stimulus package to come to the rescue. I do agree that the claims of jobs and tax revenue are overstated, but they’ll likely look a lot more tempting when the alternative is deep, slashing cuts to needed programs.

More unemployment funds available

The bad news is that Texas’ rate of unemployment continues to rise. The good news is that this means more federal funds for unemployment insurance are available, and these come with no conditions on them.

Texas now qualifies, thanks to the state’s steadily rising unemployment rate, for $250 million of string-free federal money. That money would provide another 13 weeks of unemployment benefits — at no cost to the state — for some 70,000 workers whose benefits are set to expire beginning in July, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

There is a catch, however. The Legislature needs to make a technical tweak to state law and the only bill that would be germane and appears to be moving is Senate Bill 1569.

That bill would enact the necessary changes for Texas to access $555 million of federal money to expand unemployment eligibility. But that money comes with strings that Gov. Rick Perry has said are unacceptable.

The bill passed out of the Senate weeks ago and is lingering in the House Calendars Committee. It could come up early next week — and likely pass. But that would not be soon enough to allow time for a veto override should Perry choose to exercise that authority.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said House members intend to attach the tweak to SB 1569 when it comes to the floor. The additional $250 million — and the tens of thousands of unemployed workers that would get extended benefits — might just change the dynamic for the governor, said the bill’s proponents.

Bill author Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he has long kept hope alive that Perry would not veto the bill and this money has stoked his hope.

I had hoped that SB1569 would have been taken up in time to try to override a veto, but apparently that won’t happen. Burka says the votes weren’t there for the override anyway, and thought the bill was dead as a result. I certainly hope it passes regardless; even without this extra incentive, I say make Perry veto it if that’s what he intends to do. Given the way some other Republican governors have folded on the issue, it’s not out of the question that this was all just a bluff. Given the extra funds that are now available and the fact that the unemployment trust fund will be depleted as of July, I don’t see how the Lege can’t force the issue.

And if more incentive is needed, here’s the CPPP with some hard figures.

As of May 5, more than 353,000 Texans were receiving unemployment benefits, more than triple the number of Texans receiving UI benefits a year ago. Currently pending in House Calendars, SB 1569 strengthens our UI system to protect unemployed Texans and qualifies Texas for $555 million in federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for our UI Trust Fund. But the Legislature has overlooked an entirely separate pot of money in the ARRA that is equally important. About 70,000 Texans are expected to exhaust their federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) beginning in July. The ARRA will pick up the 100 percent of the costs to extend UI for these Texans, delivering more than $250 million in federal funds into the Texas economy without any state costs. In order to qualify, Texas must change its extended benefits statutory trigger to activate the program; the change can expire when the full federal funding phases out in 2010.

Emphasis in original. The CPPP has put together this chart (PDF) showing how many people per House district stand to lose EUC funds, and how much money is at stake, if SB1569 doesn’t pass. I say if that’s really what Rick Perry wants, let’s give him the chance to take it. As this is a bill that has already received Senate approval, it has until May 26 to pass. Let’s get it done, please.

Don’t sell that beer just yet in Lubbock

It’s always something.

It will be eight weeks or more before shoppers see beer and wine in grocers’ coolers as stores line up to receive state alcohol permits.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission will issue permits to sell alcohol throughout Lubbock County after voters overwhelming approved two propositions expanding alcohol sales during Saturday’s county-wide election.

But questions about Lubbock’s zoning ordinances could further slow the process of opening the city up to alcohol retailers.

Challenging the city’s alcohol zoning ordinances, Pinkie’s and Majestic Liquor, which own the liquor stores at The Strip, last week filed a lawsuit against the city of Lubbock and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission claiming the ordinances violate state law. The Lubbock City Council approved alcohol zoning ordinances in November 2008 in anticipation of Saturday’s vote.

Anti-alcohol PAC Truth About Alcohol Sales co-chairman Josh Allen said while he’s not involved in the suit, he does not “believe the City Council has much of an ordinance to stand on.”

He described the zoning ordinances, which use specific language regulating alcohol sales in Lubbock’s West Broadway District, and set a city standard for floor space and percentage of sales allowed of alcohol retailers, as contradictory to TABC regulations.

The liquor stores asked 237th District Judge Sam Medina to bar the city from issuing the necessary paperwork to obtain alcoholic beverage permits until an agreement can be reached on the wording of the ordinance. An Avalanche-Journal story last week reported Medina will consider at a hearing later this month whether to grant an injunction.

Here’s that earlier story.

The suit has nothing to do with whether alcohol should be sold in Lubbock, but rather who can sell it where, said Zach Brady, attorney for the stores.

“As far as we’re concerned, the citizens are going to decide whether we have alcohol sales in Lubbock,” Brady said. “But if we do choose to have those sales, my clients want to make sure that the rules are fair and that they comply with state law.”

The city council approved last December changes to the city ordinances defining where alcohol could be sold in anticipation of Saturday’s vote. Lubbock overstepped its authority when the council limited the size of package stores and specified what types of businesses could sell alcohol in the same area, Brady said.

The liquor stores asked 237th District Judge Sam Medina to bar the city from issuing the necessary paperwork to obtain alcoholic beverage permits until an agreement can be reached on the wording of the ordinance.

Cities do have options for zoning under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, but the ordinances they establish cannot conflict with the state law, Brady said.

“What they’ve chosen to do is not among their options,” he said. “What they can’t do, expressly under the code, is to discriminate among the different classes of alcohol retailers. They can’t let one type of business sell alcohol in a given area and not let another type of business locate in that area.”

Obviously, the current setup is a better deal for the existing liquor retailers than whatever comes next will be. I’ve no idea what the merits of their suit are, but I can’t blame them for taking this step to protect their business. We’ll see what the judge thinks. Be sure to read this Texas Monthly feature, in the May edition, about the environment in Lubbock leading up to the vote as well.