Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

April 23rd, 2016:

Saturday video break: Istanbul (Not Constantinople) revisited

I posted three videos of the classic “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” a few years back, including a video of the original, by The Four Lads. Now here’s a video of the They Might Be Giants version, done over a montage of “Pink Panther” cartoons:

And here are four rats from the short-lived “Muppets Tonight” doing a few verses Greek chorus-style:

And for something less frivolous, here’s a trio called Harpeth Rising doing a nifty instrumental version:

So there you have it. I assure you it was mere convenience that Istanbul was on yesterday’s city-themed random ten list. As for more videos, I may have to go on the Page 2 results to get anything else of interest for this one.

First look at how HISD will balance its budget

Seems to be fairly well-received.

Ken Huewitt

The Houston school district’s interim superintendent on Thursday rescinded his proposal to reduce funding for gifted students amid concerns from parents and board members.

At the same time, Ken Huewitt proposed bolstering the budgets of schools with significant concentrations of low-income students, using $21 million from federal funds. Schools with the highest percentage of poor children would get the most extra money – an attempt to address the academic challenges at what Huewitt called “hyper-poverty” campuses.

Huewitt’s plan calls for revamping how campuses are funded at the same time as the Houston Independent School District faces an estimated $107 million budget shortfall in the coming year. The financial woes stem from the district expecting, for the first time, to have to send tens of millions of dollars back to the state because it is considered too property wealthy.

“This is about funding the needs of our kids,” Glenn Reed, general manager of budgeting for the school district, said after the board’s budget workshop Thursday.

To balance the budget, Huewitt has proposed several cuts, including ending the $10 million bonus program for teachers and other school staff, and cutting $11 million in contracts with outside vendors.

He also would eliminate the $19 million that went to help a few dozen low-performing schools, as part of former Superintendent Terry Grier’s “Apollo” reform program.

See here and here for some background, and remember again that this is not HISD’s fault, it’s the Legislature’s fault. I don’t know how the search for the next Super is going, but if the search firm/screening committee isn’t asking every candidate detailed questions about how they would have handled this situation, they are not doing an adequate job. I hate that HISD is having to go through this, but from what we have seen so far, Interim Superintendent Huewitt seems to have done a pretty good job of it. We’ll see what comes out when the Board votes on the budget.

Being Sid Miller

It’s complicated, especially when your stories keep changing.

Sid Miller

The Texas Rangers are currently investigating whether Miller broke the law when he took those out-of-state, taxpayer-funded trips in February 2015.

The first was to Oklahoma, where internal emails from the Department of Agriculture indicated he planned the trip solely to obtain the Jesus Shot, which some believe cures all pain for life. Miller, who claimed the trip’s intent was to meet with Oklahoma lawmakers, said he would repay the state for the trip out of an “abundance of caution” after it was revealed in March by the Houston Chronicle that he missed a meeting with the state agriculture commissioner, Jim Reese.

“There was an official purpose for him to be in Oklahoma, and that was to meet with the commissioner of the state of Oklahoma,” insisted Todd Smith, Miller’s political consultant of 17 years, on Thursday. Smith attributed the missed meeting to a “comedy of errors.” He could not answer why those issues were not discussed at a conference both Reese and Miller attended just days before the so-called Jesus Shot trip.

Miller also traveled to Mississippi on the state’s dime, where he participated in the National Dixie Rodeo. When asked about the trip, the Department of Agriculture provided more than one version of how it came to pass, and late Thursday, Smith offered a much different account than his boss.

Initially, the Houston Chronicle reported that Miller took the state-paid trip to Mississippi to participate in the National Dixie Rodeo but sometime after that tried to set up a work meeting with the Magnolia State’s agriculture officials, making it a legitimate state-covered business trip. Miller said after those meetings fell through, he repaid the state for the trip with campaign funds because he also met with donors and advisers.

More than a week before the Chronicle story, Miller’s then-communications director Lucy Nashed told The Texas Tribune that the Mississippi trip — which was always designed to be a personal trip — was mistakenly booked by a staffer as a business trip. Once the staffer realized the trip was personal, Nashed said, Miller repaid the state for the trip out of campaign funds and $16.79 from his nursery’s business account. Earlier this month, Nashed resigned, saying there was a “tremendous lack of communication” at the department.

Miller has told the Tribune there was “absolutely no validity” to the complaints from liberal advocacy group Progress Texas that led to the Rangers investigation, calling them “harassment.”

“There’s nothing absolutely illegal or wrong with either of those trips,” he said.

But on Thursday, Miller’s political consultant told the Tribune a new version of the Mississippi trip. He said it was always supposed to be a business trip to meet with Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith and that those meetings did occur, contrary to what his boss has previously said.

“I think there was some discrepancy about whether or not he had a meeting with her on that trip,” Smith said. “He met with her multiple times. He went to the rodeo with her.”

Tribune attempts to confirm whether Mississippi officials met with Miller have been unsuccessful.

As for Miller’s rodeo-ing while on a state-paid trip, Smith said there was nothing wrong with it and compared it to buying souvenirs while on a business trip.

“He can’t flip a switch and say, ‘I’m no longer the agriculture commissioner here, and I’m the agricultural commissioner now,’” Smith said.

Well, when most of us buy souvenirs on business trips, we pay for them with our own money. We don’t put them on the company card and then claim that we intended he purchase to be for business purposes when the accounting department asks us to explain the expenditure. And I for one can’t wait to hear what Commissioner Hyde-Smith has to say.

Actually, as it turns out, we don’t have to wait.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has met with his Mississippi counterpart multiple times since being elected, but there are no records indicating any meeting during Miller’s trip to the Magnolia State to compete in a rodeo in February 2015.

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith traveled to Austin to meet with Miller in December 2014, and the two also spoke during conferences in February and June of 2015, according to emails and budget records released by the State of Mississippi. No documents exist about a meeting during Miller’s trip, however.

Texas officials also said they have no records of any meeting during the trip.

The absence of records appear to undercut statements made by Miller and his political consultant, Todd Smith.

I’m sure you can imagine my reaction to this, but just in case you can’t:

It’s like one big Meghan Trainor video up in here. What really boggle my mind is that there was no real reason to make up another explanation. Miller’s previous excuse, however risible, was at least consistent. Why would you go to the trouble of offering a new, easily fact-checked reason and thus keep this part of the story in the news? Like Dogbert once said, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate.

Now you may be asking yourself, what happens if Miller finally does resign? Who would be best suited to step in for him? Well, don’t you worry, never fear, Jim Hogan stands ready to be called to service.

A criminal investigation into Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has just begun, and while it is far too early to speculate about its result, one candidate is putting his name forward for any opening necessitated by a resignation: Jim Hogan, the Cleburne farmer who opted not to campaign when the Democratic Party nominated him to run against Miller in 2014.

Hogan said in an interview that he has been closely following the news about Miller and believes it could end in him being appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to fill the position.

“Well, of course,” Hogan said. “If you had a tournament and the first guy was disqualified, wouldn’t you pick the guy that got second? Why would you pick someone who got out in the quarterfinals?”

[…]

For Hogan, the spending is troubling, but he said he also was disturbed by another aspect that had not gotten very much attention — the fact that both trips took place during work days.

“I’m just different,” Hogan said. “If I wanted to go to a rodeo, I guess I’d find one on a Saturday.”

Well, you can’t argue with that. I just wonder, did Jim Hogan call reporter Brian Rosenthal to tell him what he thought about this situation, or did Rosenthal call him out of a sincere desire to know what Jim Hogan was thinking about this? In ether case, I’m sure someone will advise Greg Abbott of Hogan’s readiness. Paradise in Hell has more.

Two Medicaid stories

From the Trib:

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

State health officials confirmed Tuesday they have asked the Obama administration to keep a 15-month lifeline of federal Medicaid money flowing into Texas to help hospitals treat uninsured patients.

That money would offer temporary relief to health care providers who face losing the funds — some $3.1 billion annually — over state leaders’ refusal to provide government-subsidized health coverage to low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature health law.

Federal officials previously signaled they would stop footing the bill for at least some of Texas’ costs for “uncompensated care” — the burden on hospitals when patients can’t pay for their visits. Under the Affordable Care Act, Texas was encouraged to expand its Medicaid program to cover nearly 1 million additional adults living in poverty — a move that would have given more poor patients a means to pay for care. The state’s Republican leadership has vehemently opposed that option, criticizing Medicaid as an inefficient government program.

[…]

First created as a $29 billion pot of money paid to Texas health care providers over five years, about 40 percent of that money came from local funds — mostly property tax dollars — and 60 percent from the federal government. The Obama administration approved the program in 2011, and it was set to expire in September.

By asking for the program to be renewed for a significantly shorter timeframe, state health officials indicated that they expect the federal government will be reluctant to continue handing out cash to reimburse hospitals for patients who can’t pay for their visits. Federal health officials have repeatedly told state leaders they have no desire to use waiver funds to pay for costs that would otherwise be covered by a Medicaid expansion.

In Florida, the Obama administration recently agreed to extend a similar source of hospital funding in that state, but only for two years and at a significantly reduced rate. That arrangement diminished the state’s low-income pool by about 50 percent for the first year and 70 percent for the second.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the letter. This is the 1115 waiver, and I’ve been rooting for the feds to tell Texas to go pound sand unless they expand Medicaid. This is at least a step in that direction.

And from Think Progress:

The Obama Administration just sent a strong signal to states trying to defund Planned Parenthood, warning all 50 states that attempts to strip Medicaid funding from the women’s health care provider is most likely illegal.

The letter, sent to each state’s Medicaid director, cautions lawmakers that “providing the full range of women’s health services… shall not be grounds for a state’s action against a provider in the Medicaid program.” In other words, the fact Planned Parenthood provides abortion services in addition to other women’s health services is not legal grounds to cut it off from Medicaid funding. It stipulates that the only justifiable reason to remove a provider’s Medicaid funding is if that provider isn’t able to bill for or perform covered medical services.

“Once again, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has made it clear that it’s illegal for politicians to tell women where they can and cannot go for care,” said Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, in a statement.

[…]

The Obama Administration has warned specific states before that cutting off Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood may violate federal law, but this is the first time that they have sent a letter to every state in the country.

As we know, Planned Parenthood has filed a lawsuit against Texas after it announced it was cutting PP out of any program it hadn’t already cut them out of as punishment for those faked videos by the fraudsters Daleiden and Merritt. I don’t know what effect, if any, this federal action will have on that, but I do know we could easily solve all these problems (and more) if Texas would expand Medicaid and obey the law. It’s all so simple, really.

Pity the poor utilities

Sorry, but low electricity prices, especially when they are aided by record amounts of wind power generation, are good news.

ERCOT

Texas’ national lead in cheap wind power, combined with near historically low natural gas prices, mild weather, an abundant power supply and slower growth in electricity demand, can work to the detriment of power companies.

The combination weighed down wholesale power prices last year to their lowest averages since 2002. And the effects are only becoming more dramatic in 2016, even creating bizarre instances when, in the abstract at least, providers are paying to put electricity on the market.

“It’s pretty dire,” said Michael Ferguson, associate director at Standard & Poor’s covering utilities and infrastructure. “It’s a bad situation for gas generators, but for coal generation, it’s even worse.”

Texas’ wholesale power prices averaged $26.77 per megawatt-hour last year, down nearly 35 percent from $40.64 per megawatt-hour in 2014. The cost was more than $70 as recently as 2008.

While now is a good time for consumers to lock in cheaper electricity prices, well more than 25 percent of the state’s power plants are operating at a cash loss, especially the older coal-fired plants, power executives and analysts estimated. That’s before more stringent federal emissions regulations go into effect in coming years

Until coal plants start shutting down or the state tweaks regulations to artificially inflate prices, power companies will struggle, executives said. A new Moody’s Investors Service report concluded that Texas “power prices are unlikely to climb out of their doldrums.”

Already, less than a quarter of Texas’ coal fleet is operating early this spring, as more generators simply take their coal plants offline until the summer heat brings more demand, analysts from Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. noted.

In March, wind added to the grid more than coal power for the first time ever for a full month. Wind contributed 21.4 percent of the grid’s overall power, compared with 12.9 percent from coal, which used to be the dominant source of the state’s electricity generation, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages about 90 percent of the state’s electricity load.

“Ultimately, something is going to have to give here,” said Thad Hill, president and CEO of Calpine Corp., the largest power generator in the Houston region and owner of the nation’s largest fleet of natural gas-fired power plants.

[…]

Texas is home to nearly 20 coal-fired power plants and the near future of at least six of them are considered at risk.

They will require expensive upgrades to meet federal standards, according to a recent ERCOT analysis, and the costs could outweigh the benefits of keeping them open. That’s not even counting the effects of the federal Clean Power Plan, which is pending in court.

“Ultimately, we think the market could be a lot tighter than people think, particularly if people start mothballing or retiring units,” said Hill, whose Calpine would stand to benefit because it doesn’t own any coal plants.

At-risk plants include Luminant’s Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake coal plants in East Texas, half of Luminant’s Sandow plant east of Austin, NRG Energy’s Limestone plant east of Waco, and Engie’s Coleto Creek plant near Victoria that’s being bought by Dynegy.

It’s fine by me if those coal plants go the way of the dodo. It’s long overdue, and their demise will make meeting the Clean Power Plan benchmarks even easier. More investment in solar energy will help mitigate the low-wind periods and ensure demand can be met in the summertime. What’s not to like?