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May 28th, 2009:

CHIP dies again


Gov. Rick Perry today indicated that he opposes a plan to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program, putting in jeopardy of a veto a measure that has been a top priority this session for children’s advocates.

But the CHIP bill appears unlikely to make it to his desk at all. The House today rejected a Senate attempt to attach it to an unrelated measure.

Talking with reporters, Perry was asked if he’d consider having the Legislature take up CHIP if he calls a special session. He said no.

When asked why not, Perry said: “I would probably not be in favor of that expansion even if it came to my desk. I think the members know that. That is not what I consider to be a piece of legislation that has the vast support of the people of the state of Texas.”


The Senate late Wednesday revived the CHIP legislation by attaching it to a measure about newborn screening, and the CHIP bill’s Senate author, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, sent out a press release declaring: “Averitt saves CHIP.”

The author of the newborn screening measure, Rep. Paula Pierson, D-Arlington, who supports the CHIP expansion, said today the House is sending the screening bill back to the Senate. That’s because the CHIP amendment would have doomed the measure in the House, she said. “It was dead on arrival,” Pierson said.

I presume that the likelihood of a point of order, which would have scuttled the bill, was enough to get the House to send it back. Our Governor, as a matter of policy, thinks that having fewer kids be able to get access to health care is a preferable outcome. And for this, he’s the darling of those who call themselves Christian activists. Go figure. Rep. Garnet Coleman, in a statement he sent out to the press, speaks for me:

It is unconscionable, in these tough economic times, that Governor Perry will veto legislation that will help working Texas parents purchase insurance for their children. Legislation creating a buy-in program for CHIP passed last night with a 29-2 vote in the Senate, and it passed last month from the House with a vote of 87-55. This bill was specifically written with the strictest “crowd out” language possible to ensure that private health insurance is not substituted by CHIP coverage. The Governor is clearly out of touch with the needs of Texas.

Sadly, that’s been that’s been the case for a long time. We’re all the worse for it.

Hail to the king!

So apparently the head of the GOP is in town tonight to help raise money for US Rep. Mike McCaul, who apparently isn’t taking any chances for next year. No, not this guy – nobody cares about him. I mean this guy, also known as He Who Must Be Apologized To. Is there a brighter star in the Republican Party these days? Why, we may soon find that his image has appeared on a grilled cheese sandwich or something. It could happen, you know. Anyway, I can’t wait to hear what he had to say at this event. Should provide fodder for months to come. BOR has more.

Senate spikes McLeroy

Good for them.

The Texas Senate on Thursday refused to confirm Don McLeroy as State Board of Education chairman after an impassioned floor debate.

The 19 to 11 party-line vote was not enough to get McLeroy across the required two-thirds threshold. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, abstained from the vote.

McLeroy, a Republican from Bryan, was first elected to the board in 1998 and will remain in that position.

But Gov. Rick Perry will now need to appoint another leader from the 15-member board. Critics said McLeroy’s nearly two-year tenure as chairman has been dysfunctional and divisive.

I know I said that I’d give any Dem a pass on this one if they thought they needed to confirm him. I’m glad they didn’t take me up on that. If Rick Perry does appoint someone decent like Bob Craig, it’s a win all around. And if he goes full metal wingnut and gives us Cynthia Dunbar, well, I’ll look forward to the 2010 campaign that much more. TFN, which led the way on this one, has a full accounting of the proceedings and a statement on the outcome. Elise and Kilday Hart have more.

Senate passes windstorm bill

The one bill that has been expressly mentioned as a reason for a special session if it doesn’t get done is SB14, the windstorm insurance bill. It was a chubbing victim on Tuesday, but on Wednesday it was revived by the time-honored “attach it as an amendment to another bill” method.

By a 27-4 vote, senators voted to amend House Bill 4409 to include the provisions of Senate Bill 14, that was passed in April to address the looming crisis in the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.

“This is our last hope to be able to work on this issue,” said state Sen. Mike Jackson, R-LaPorte, the Senate sponsor of the House legislation.


Jackson said that while the House may not accept the Senate’s provisions, the approval of the amended bill tonight will provide a way for House and Sehate negotiators to come up with a final version that can be approved before the Legislature adjourns on Monday.

The original version of HB4409 passed the House by a 147-0 margin, so one hopes that the addition of SB14 to it will be palatable. I’m in favor of there not being a special session, so taking action to reduce the odds of one is a good thing in my book. Floor Pass has more.

Gallery fire ruled arson


The massive fire last week that destroyed the warehouse at Gallery Furniture’s main location on the North Freeway was intentionally set, an official said today.

Rob Elder, assistant special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office in Houston, said the agency determined the fire was arson because all possible accidental causes had been ruled out, including a faulty generator that was initially suspected.

“Someone out there knows what happened that night, and we’re going to find them,” Elder said in a news conference today. No one has been ruled out as a suspect, said Elder, who declined to reveal details as to how investigators think the blaze began.

I did not see that coming. I hope they figure it all out.

Unemployment insurance dies, CHIP lives

Not unexpectedly, SB1569 was a casualty of the weekend chubfest. Also not surprisingly, it was basically chubbed by Republicans, who wanted to ensure its death as the local and consent calendar was finally finished up a little before the midnight deadline. I’m disappointed to see this bill die, but given that it hadn’t been passed by a veto-proof majority in time for the inevitable veto to be overridden, it was doomed anyway. If that helps the House Republicans blow off some steam, then so be it.

On the good side, CHIP expansion got new life.

The Texas Senate late Wednesday, facing a midnight deadline, used a House bill concerning newborn screening to revive a measure aimed at expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, put SB841 (the CHIP expansion bill) into HB1795, which was approved 28-2 by the Senate.

The CHIP amendment allows some families with incomes above current limits to buy into the insurance program.

The measure now heads back to the House with changes approved in the Senate.

One hopes it will be accepted as amended. That’s at least one less casualty from the weekend.

I’m including an excerpt from Ed Sills’ Texas AFL-CIO email newsletter about SB1569 beneath the fold. Click on to read it.

UPDATE: Floor Pass, quoting Harvey Kronberg, thinks the CHIP add-on might fall victim to a point of order.


More on the City Council redistricting lawsuit dismissal

Here’s the Chron story about the dismissal of the lawsuit, brought by Vidal Martinez and Carroll Robinson.

The lawsuit argued the city was violating its own charter by refusing to redistrict and add two council districts when its population passed the 2.1 million threshhold in late 2006.

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake rejected that contention, finding the plaintiffs had failed to show the city’s charter compelled redistricting. Martinez promised an appeal.

“This is just the first step in a long marathon,” he said, noting that the outcome of the case could depend on a U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with voting rights that originated in Austin. “Nobody should take any happiness out of this very preliminary ruling by the court. In the end, justice has not been done with a 30-year agreement and contract the city made with the Houston Latino community.”

City Attorney Arturo Michel said the ruling upholds the city’s contention that it could not follow federal law regarding redistricting without the accuracy provided by the upcoming decennial population count by the U.S. Census Bureau. Federal law requires precinct-level data for redistricting, which would not be available until after the 2010 count. Using data from the 2000 count, the city argued, would lead to inaccurate district boundaries.

“That will allow you to identify where voters are and come up with the representation system that is the fairest,” Michel said. “What’s more important is that you have a complete and accurate Census count so that you know where people are, and then you can divide your districts in a way that will be fairest to everyone.”

I’m not sure at this point how you can get a resolution from the courts that would be done any sooner than the post-2010 Census redistricting, but we’ll see how that goes. A copy of the opinion can be found here (PDF). It’s pretty complex, but I think Miya summarizes it succinctly enough as “the plaintiffs basically didn’t prove how they were damaged by the city waiting for the census”. And so wait we will, pending a reversal on appeal. Houston Politics has more.

Still talking about a new jail

We’re going to be having this conversation for awhile, I expect.

As he attempts to secure a new jail for Harris County, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has hired nearly 90 more guards but still faces skepticism from commissioners about whether a new facility is the only solution to chronic overcrowding and failed inspections.

Garcia argued earlier this month for the construction of a new jail, after the downtown lockups failed a fourth state inspection in six years because of broken toilets and intercoms. He said a new facility would alleviate persistent problems with maintenance and overcrowding at the facilities that house more than 10,000 people.

County and state officials have watched previous plans for a new jail fizzle because of a lack of voter support or the Sheriff’s Office’s guard shortage. They repeatedly have said other methods must be used to address overcrowding, including modification of bonding and pretrial diversion policies. Recent numbers show that half of the jail’s population is made up of people awaiting trial.

“A new jail would have to be a last resort,” Commissioner El Franco Lee said last week.

You know where I stand on this. As I wrote when this came up before, I’m open to the idea of a new jail as a replacement for the existing facility, but we absolutely need to deal with the underlying reasons for the overcrowding in the first place before we commit to anything. No plan, no new construction.

The discussion could culminate next month when Commissioner’s Court expects to receive a report from Justice Management Institute, which is performing a “top-to-bottom” review of the local criminal justice system. The court also is scheduled to hold its annual meeting to discuss its capital improvements plan.

“Why would we make any decisions until we have all the information?” asked Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “The last thing we want to do is to put (a new jail) back on the ballot and have it fail again.”

Agreed. And I’ll be one of those No votes if we haven’t moved forward significantly in dealing with things like pretrail services, bail, probation, etc.

Since January, [Sheriff Garcia] has hired 87 civilian jailers and cut openings in patrol, through new hires and transfers within the department, from about 70 to 22, according to Lt. John Legg, a spokesman for the department.

“Summer is a peak recruiting period,” Legg said. “We expect June and July to be big months for hiring.”

I’m sure it will be, and I’ve no doubt that the department is a better place to work now than it was last year. Having said that, I’m sure a big driver in this is the economic downturn. It’s not like there are a lot of other job openings out there, after all. Which means we need to make sure we can retain these folks when things get better, or else we’ll be right back where we started, possibly in a bigger jail with more inmates to guard. And that gets us back to the need to make sure we’re not locking up people we don’t really have to. Fix that, and the rest takes care of itself.

See you later, alligator

We all know how much Hurricane Ike has affected and continues to affect people and property. I at least had no idea how devastating it had been to the state’s alligator population.

The throaty bellow of adult male alligators, a combination mating call/territorial warning and a signature sound of vibrant coastal wetlands, has been all but absent from marshes along Texas’ upper coast this year.

The gators are gone. Marshes that a year ago held, quite literally, tens of thousands of alligators have, for the past eight months, been all but devoid of the signature wetlands reptile.

Hurricane Ike, which shoved a wall of saltwater as much as 18 feet deep as far as 15 or more miles inland along the upper coast this past September, profoundly impacted the marshes and the hundreds of thousands of alligators that lived there.

The storm hit dead-center of the state’s most extensive alligator habitat and highest alligator populations. The four-county area of Chambers, Galveston, Jefferson and Orange in the southeast corner of Texas held an estimated quarter-million alligators ahead of Ike.

The storm’s lingering effects continued killing gators for months. Just how many were lost to the storm remains in question.

“Right now, it’s still too early to say,” said Port Arthur-based biologist Amos Cooper, who heads Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s alligator programs. “We know we had some mortality of alligators. But whether they were just displaced and will move back as the habitat recovers is something we won’t know for a while.”

The good news is that the folks who keep an eye on this are optimistic that the gator population will bounce back next year. That’s what happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, so there’s no reason it can’t happen here. We hope, anyway.