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September 16th, 2022:

State delays report on maternal mortality until next year

Sorry, didn’t get to it, other things to do, you know.

Texas health officials have missed a key window to complete the state’s first major updated count of pregnancy related deaths in nearly a decade, saying the findings will now be released next summer, most likely after the Legislature’s biennial session.

The delay, disclosed earlier this month by the Department of State Health Services, means lawmakers won’t likely be able to use the analysis, covering deaths from 2019, until the 2025 legislative cycle. The most recent state-level data available is nine years old.

In a hearing this month with the state’s Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee, DSHS commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said the agency wanted to better align its methodology with that of other states, and that there hadn’t been enough staff and money to finish the review for a scheduled Sept. 1 release.

“The information we provide is not easily understood, and not easily and readily comparable to what goes on in other states,” Hellerstedt told the committee. “And the fact it isn’t easily understood or easily comparable in my mind leaves room for a great deal of misunderstanding about what the data really means.”

In a statement, DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said the agency is reviewing its “internal processes” to try to develop more timely data.

“I expect we’ll be having conversations with legislators about what could be done to speed up the lengthy review process,” he said.

The setback comes four months before the start of the legislative session and two months before the midterm election, which has been dominated in part by the state’s new Republican-led abortion ban. Those restrictions have placed more scrutiny on the state’s maternal mortality rate, which is among the 10 highest in the country, according to national estimates that track pregnancy-related complications while pregnant or within a year of giving birth.

“There are a lot of us that want to know whether or not pregnancy in Texas is a death sentence,” said state Rep. Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat and member of the Texas Women’s Health Caucus. “If we’ve got a higher rate of maternal mortality, we sure want to figure it out. You can’t figure it out if somebody’s sitting on the numbers, and that’s my worry.”

Like in other states, maternal outcomes in Texas are worse for Black women, who have died at about three times the rate of non-black women. This year’s findings were expected to drill further into the causes behind those disparities.

Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Houston Democrat who has described going through her own dangerous birthing experience, said the data is critical for understanding the role cesarean sections play in maternal deaths and whether implicit bias is playing a factor in the quality of maternal care for Black women.

“There is so much to unpack from the data,” Thierry said, adding that “no woman who chooses life should have to do so in exchange for their own.”

Members of the state’s maternal mortality committee, which compiles the official report, said they were disappointed by the decision to hold the preliminary findings.

“(We) do the work to honor the lives of women who lost their lives, and families that are forever impacted by the loss of a mother,” said Dr. Carla Ortique, the committee chair. “So there’s disappointment on both fronts: that we’re not honoring those women and families, and that we may be negatively impacting efforts to improve maternal health outcomes in our state.”

Pathetic. And typical. But don’t worry, even if the Lege has no current data on maternal mortality to take action on in the next session, they will be fully prepared to make abortion more illegal, because that’s what they care about. Daily Kos has more.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

The next ridiculous lawsuit we’re all going to have to endure

Grit your teeth, here it comes.

A University of Texas at Austin professor has sued Texas A&M University claiming a new faculty fellowship program designed to increase diversity at the flagship university in College Station discriminates against white and Asian male candidates.

Richard Lowery, a finance professor at UT-Austin who is white, filed the federal class-action lawsuit on Saturday against the Texas A&M University System and its board of regents, Annie McGowan, Texas A&M’s vice president and associate provost for diversity, and N.K. Anand, Texas A&M’s vice president for faculty affairs.

Lowery is represented by America First Legal, a group created by Stephen Miller, a policy advisor for former President Donald Trump, and Jonathan Mitchell, a former solicitor general for Texas and the legal architect of Texas’ six-week abortion ban.

In the lawsuit, Lowery claims that a new fellowship program announced this summer within Texas A&M’s faculty hiring program called the Accountability, Climate, Equity and Scholarship Faculty Fellows program, or ACES, violates Title VI and Title IX, of the federal Civil Rights Act as well as the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

While the ACES program focuses on hiring recently graduated PhD students who want to enter academia, the new ACES Plus Program focuses on “mid-career and senior tenure-track hires from underrepresented minority groups, that contribute to moving the structural composition of our faculty towards parity with that of the State of Texas.” It sets aside $2 million over the next two fiscal years to help match a fellow’s base salary and benefits, up to a maximum of $100,000.

According to Texas A&M’s announcement of the new fellowship program on July 8, the university identified under-represented minority groups as African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

“Texas A&M’s proclaimed goal of establishing a faculty whose racial composition attains “parity with that of the state of Texas” seeks to achieve racial balancing, which is flatly illegal under Title VI and the binding precedent of the Supreme Court,” the lawsuit argues.

And that was as far as I got in the article before my monitor spontaneously combusted in a heroic but ultimately futile effort to preserve my sanity. I would like for there to be some new main characters in the Texas news now.

Opera in the Heights will stay at Lambert Hall

Good news.

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

The uncertainty is over, Opera in the Heights is staying home.

After months of not knowing what the future for the neighborhood staple might hold, a consortium including a longtime Houston singing club and two donors have purchased the property including Lambert Hall and will let Opera in the Heights remain as a tenant at the historic performing arts venue, according to Eiki Isomura, the opera’s artistic and general director.

“This is a big moment of joy and relief right now,” he said. “We’re very excited.”

Just a few months ago, members of Opera in the Heights had wondered if their days performing in the historic Lambert Hall might be numbered.

Leaders with Heights Christian Church, the church that leased space to Opera in the Heights for the last quarter century, earlier this year decided to sell their 42,600-square foot property on the west side of Heights Boulevard between West 17th and West 18th streets because of dwindling membership and financial resources.

Realtors for the church opened competitive bidding for the property and a consortium comprising Houston Saengerbund and two of Opera in the Heights’ most generous patrons emerged with the winning bid, Isomura said.

The deal for purchasing the property closed last Friday, Isomura said.

See here and here for the background. I’d never heard of the Houston Saengerbund before, but they’ve been around since 1883 and are Houston’s oldest musical society. They sponsor an annual award to support young singers, which is cool. I’m just delighted that this story has a happy ending, both for OITH and Lambert Hall itself. It’s very much not all the time that Houston cultural and architectural landmarks get preserved, but this is one of them and it’s worth celebrating. Kudos all around.