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April 10th, 2016:

Weekend link dump for April 10

Lots of corporations are getting nervous about being involved with the Republican national convention. As well they should.

“Thus, in America’s increasingly polarized political climate, the LDS Church has managed to do the impossible: maintain credibility among their ideological brethren (religious conservatives) while also winning praise from their political opponents (American progressives).”

The gas station was used as the set for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s barbecue restaurant will soon be opened as “a horror barbecue resort”.

Mathematical analysis suggests that Tyrion Lannister is the main protagonist of Game of Thrones.

“I was one of the not-so-many players to be given a chance to pursue my dream of being a Major League Baseball player. I was also one of the unfortunate closeted gay athletes who experienced years of homophobia in the sport I loved.”

RIP, Joseph Medicine Crow, acclaimed Native American historian, second world war veteran and last surviving war chief of Montana’s Crow tribe.

RIP, Erik Bauersfeld, actor who voiced Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar.

“But note: The Democrats used their brief two-year period of total control of both the White House and Congress to address head-on about a half-dozen problems, and tax evasion was one of them.”

Why do the laws of order and decency not apply to spaces where other people can’t tell you through basic social cues, or, barring that, Tasing, that you’re being a real asshole?”

“The Taurus Program, a partnership of ecologists, geneticists, historians and cattle breeders backed by Stichting Taurus, a Dutch nonprofit, is seeking to re-create the aurochs by crossbreeding modern cattle in a process known as back breeding. Laboratory-based genetic engineering is not required.”

“Seven New England Patriots fans sued the National Football League on Tuesday, asking a judge to reverse a decision by the league to strip the team of a first-round pick in this month’s draft over allegations of underinflated footballs.”

The celebrity implications of the Panama Papers.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to say about tiny houses and the people who want to live in them.

“So I guess you could say we have discovered an ‘old-but-new’ minnow way out in West Texas where nobody expected to find anything new, especially a fish”.

Well, that would be one way to end Game of Thrones. (Beware the comments, they’re spoiler-y if you’re like me and are still reading the books.)

“With so many different folks putting their stamp on the characters and twisting and turning them, it would be amazing if someone didn’t deliberately output a gay-tinged Batman, just as other variations have been inevitable. But I don’t think most (if any) of what Weldon writes about in the earlier days was intended. It just kind of all happened the way committees sometimes create something that no participant had in mind.”

RIP, Merle Haggard, country music legend.

“Ted Cruz came to New York Wednesday talking about education, but he’s the one who got schooled.”

What Charles Barkley says.

“While two years of crashing prices for oil, natural gas, and coal triggered dramatic downsizing in those industries, renewables have been thriving. Clean energy investment broke new records in 2015 and is now seeing twice as much global funding as fossil fuels.”

“Regardless, I suggested a movie where a fascist regime uses an existential threat like the giant ants of Them! to take power, except they never actually took the threat seriously and didn’t even believe it was real. Then it turns out that the monsters were real, the monsters are really a serious threat, and the monsters don’t like fascists.”

Way more than you wanted to know about God’s Not Dead 2.

“All three new rules shrink the financial sector by cutting down on lucrative activities that have nothing to do with finance’s core social purpose of channeling funds to economically useful activities.”

“What is worth remembering is that [Dennis] Hastert’s improbable rise to the pinnacle of political power in Washington was a direct consequence of Republican party efforts to exploit and eventually criminalize Bill Clinton’s extramarital sex life in order to overturn the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. The chain of events is clear and straightforward.” I for one had forgotten that Diaper Dave Vitter played a role in this, too.

The Rodeo had an extra clown this year

OK, it was a rodeo in Mississippi, but I wasn’t going to ruin a good headline. The point is, that clown’s name was Sid Miller.

Sid Miller

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller used a combination of taxpayer money and campaign funds to fly to Mississippi last year to compete in a rodeo for prize money, according to newly obtained records.

Miller spent nearly $2,000 in state and campaign cash on the three-day trip to Jackson, Miss., in February 2015, in the middle of last year’s legislative session, records show. He used an agriculture department credit card for the airplane flights and a campaign account card for a hotel room and a rental car.

Weeks later, he wrote a check from his campaign account to reimburse the state for the flights, according to department records.

During the trip, Miller spent two days competing in calf-roping events at the horse show at the Dixie National Rodeo, according to the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association. He won $880.

Miller did not have any scheduled meetings or events other than the horse show, according to his calendar.

“It was a personal trip so he could compete in a rodeo,” Texas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.

State law prohibits officeholders from using state money or campaign funds for travel that is primarily personal in nature.

Miller said the trip did not violate the law.

The agriculture commissioner acknowledged that he decided to go to Mississippi so he could compete in the horse show but said that after making that plan, he tried to set up a work meeting. He said he paid for the airplane flights with state money because he thought the meeting would happen but acknowledged it never actually was scheduled.

It was still a justifiable campaign expense, Miller said, because while at the horse show he spoke with the Mississippi agriculture commissioner and several rodeo participants and vendors who had donated to his campaign.

[…]

Ethics experts said the trip would be problematic if Miller benefited personally from state money or campaign donations.

Ross Fischer, a former Texas Ethics Commission chairman, pointed to a 1996 commission ruling that politicians cannot use even campaign money “if the primary purpose of the trip is personal.”

Buck Wood, a former state elections official, said “the fact that he ran into some people at the rodeo does not change the fact that the purpose of the trip was to compete in a rodeo.”

As noted later in the story, Miller’s office did not initially release emails relating to this trip, just as they did not originally release emails relating to his illicit trip to Oklahoma, for which a complaint has been filed. It was only later, when a more specific request that included references to the Mississippi rodeo was filed that they coughed up these emails. At this point, we have to conclude that there is a pattern of behavior here, and that Miller just can’t help himself. He’s a grifter, he’s using this office to live his best life, and what are you going to do about it? It would be nice if someone were to ask Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Ken Paxton that question, and it would be even nicer if one of them deigned to reply. Trail Blazers has more.

Have I mentioned lately that the revenue cap is stupid public policy?

Because it is.

BagOfMoney

Sales taxes are Houston’s second-largest source of revenue for the general fund, which pays for most core services.

Just as concerning for city officials, however, was more news about the city’s largest general fund revenue source: property taxes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, as he did in February, criticized what he said is an unjust and inequitable system that lets commercial property owners abuse legal loopholes to successfully challenge their property appraisals and pull millions out of local governments’ budgets.

As of February, the hole created by those tax lawsuits was to be a projected $16 million for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. By Wednesday, Turner and his finance director, Kelly Dowe, said that projection had risen to more than $32 million.

Council cut the property tax rate last fall to ensure the city would not collect more property tax revenue than is allowed under the city’s decade-old, voter-approved revenue cap, which limits growth in property tax collections to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of population growth and inflation, whichever is lower.

Companies’ successful lawsuits are pushing tax collections below the cap, however, with no way to adjust the rate back up to fill that hole.

“It’s a double hit. Last year you all lowered the tax rate based on the revenue cap. Had we known then we were going to be down another $32 million, I don’t think you would have lowered it that low. You cannot budget that way,” Turner said. “I will again ask the Legislature to remedy this situation. Taxes from hard-working homeowners should not effectively subsidize wealthy commercial property owners.”

But hey, look on the bright side: The system is working exactly as designed.

Anti-vaxxers gain ground in Texas

There’s a lesson in here that we need to learn.

On a Friday night little over a year ago, a Texas mother of three was attending a school dance when she got a text message that stopped her cold.

A state lawmaker from Dallas had filed legislation taking aim at a provision in state law that allows parents to opt their children out of school immunization requirements.

“I looked at that text and I just kind of was like, ‘Oh no he didn’t,’” said Jackie Schlegel-Polvado, who lives near Bastrop. “This is Texas. We believe in parental rights in Texas. Like, that is just a fundamental belief that most Texans have that parents make decisions for their children, not the state.”

It was an issue that directly affected Schlegel-Polvado and her family. Since 2007, she has been one of a small but growing number of parents in Texas who obtain “conscientious exemptions” from state vaccine requirements.

What was several worried parents exchanging text messages over the next few days turned into a Facebook group that within two weeks had more than 1,300 members, and then, ultimately, a political action committee.

Texans For Vaccine Choice’s mission, according to Schlegel-Polvado, is to guard parents’ rights to opt out of vaccine requirements — whether that means targeting legislators who seek to close non-medical exemptions or pushing for policies that otherwise protect parents who choose not to vaccinate, like preventing physicians from excluding them from their practices.

In this year’s primary elections, that meant going after state Rep. Jason Villalba, the Dallas Republican who filed the bill.

“The animus that was leveled against me for that was very surprising to me,” said Villalba, who ultimately won his race. “These people, they literally said it to my face — they hate me. That was troubling. Because I get it, they care about their children — but I care about my children too, and the children of the community.”

[…]

State law requires that children at all public and private schools have 10 different immunizations, including for tetanus, measles and pertussis, the bacterial disease known as whooping cough. Generally, children must receive those vaccines by the time they are in kindergarten, though they receive others, like for hepatitis B, in later grades.

If parents wish to opt out of school immunization requirements, they must file a what’s known as a “conscientious exemption” form with their child’s school at the start of the year. All but two states — West Virginia and Mississippi — grant exemptions from school immunization requirements on religious grounds. Texas is among 18 that also waive requirements because of personal beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under Villalba’s initial measure, Texas would have only allowed students to receive exemptions for medical reasons, such as an allergic reaction or in instances where a weakened immune system could cause health complications.

Pediatricians — many of whom have watched with dismay as the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children has climbed — widely support the elimination of non-medical exemptions to immunization requirements.

[…]

During the 2015 legislative session, Villalba said he quickly became acquainted with the passion of the anti-vaccine movement’s supporters, many of whom believe the undue influence of pharmaceutical companies has led to an overabundance of immunization requirements that come at the expense of children’s health.

“This is a group that is very dedicated, very organized; this issue is very important to them,” he said.

[…]

For now, the new organization’s strength appears to lie in its mobilizing abilities. A February campaign finance report showed just over $1,000 in contributions. And while its members made their presence felt in Villalba’s race, he still managed to win with 55 percent of the vote.

But Villalba said that without the engagement of the group, he would have expected his margin of victory to be larger.

It also may have accomplished a broader goal. The lawmaker said that for the 2017 legislative session, he does not plan to re-file his bill narrowing exemptions to the state’s vaccine requirements.

“I’m not interested in a suicide mission on this issue,” he said. “I sense — and this is unfortunate — the only way a bill like this gets any traction is an even worse large-scale outbreak, between now and session. Short of that I just don’t think there is going to be the appetite to do this bill.”

See here for some background. The lesson here is that intensity matters. A group of people that care passionately about a single issue and organizes around it can often get what they want in our political system, even if they’re a distinct minority. These anti-vaxxers are but one example; I’m sure you can think of many others. The number of unvaccinated children in Texas schools is still fairly small, less than one percent of the total, but it’s grown by more than ten times since 2004. This kind of idiocy is the reason why measles has made a big comeback in the US and around the world after being declared eradicated. I can’t blame Rep. Villalba, who was left hanging by Greg Abbott, for not wanting to deal with this crap next session. If the rest of us want someone else to pick up the ball on this, we’re going to need to make at least as much noise about it as these dangerous fanatics have done. Complaining about them is easy. Doing something about it is hard. It’s up to us.