Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Hurricane Ike

Look in the mirror, John

It is of course a terrible thing that the actions of a single Republican will keep the Houston/Galveston area from keeping $40 million in federal disaster funds, but the reaction to it from certain quarters is more than a little precious.

The bill passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support late Wednesday night just as both houses were wrapping up final business in preparation for adjournment until after the Nov. 2 elections. The Senate sent the bill to the House, where it also had bipartisan support, with a message requesting that it be passed by unanimous consent, which allows lawmakers to speed up the passage of a bill as long as no member objects. But U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s office said U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., refused to vote on the bill, killing it. Tiahrt’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cornyn, R-Dallas, who introduced the bill in the Senate, said, “I’m greatly disappointed that this bipartisan legislation was obstructed by one person, and he needs to step up and explain his actions to Texans and families in other impacted states.”

News flash, John: This has been the modus operandi for the entire Republican caucus since January of 2009. Do the names Jim DeMint or Tom Coburn mean anything to you? And now we know, it’s bigger than Todd Tiahrt.

The leadership and Republican members of the Appropriations Committee agreed that Texas took so long to spend its share of a 2008 disaster grant for $600 million that the state probably didn’t need the money, said the staff member, who wasn’t authorized to comment on the issue and asked not to be identified.

“The state of Texas has had almost two years to spend that money,” the staff member said. The staff member said other states dispersed their share of the money much quicker than Texas.

The committee members were also concerned that the bill came to the House just as it was getting ready to adjourn so that it could not be studied.

“It was the committee’s objection in consultation with our Republican leadership” that killed the bill, the staff member said.

The only difference between what happened here and pretty much everything else these past two years is that the former gored an ox that Cornyn happened to favor. That’s a shame on many levels, but it’s clearly not out of character. What’s more, if it weren’t for the coordinated Republican strategy of delaying and slow-rolling everything in the Senate via its endless morass of arcane anti-democratic rules, it’s highly likely this bill would have been sent to the House and easily passed weeks ago. Whose fault is that, John?

Ike Dike gets a study

The “Ike Dike”, a network of dikes and gates off the coast of Galveston that was first proposed last year by William Merrell as protection against storm surges from future hurricanes, is being discussed more seriously by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District.

Although the Ike Dike may not be the final solution — environmentalists have raised concerns about the effect of gating off Galveston Bay and the project’s potential to spur development in sensitive areas — Merrell is happy there will be a comprehensive study of the issue.

“It will get a fair shake,” Merrell said of the Ike Dike.

“During this process everyone gets a chance to get their two cents in. My goal was to make sure this got on the table and that it got a fair hearing. Now that’s happening and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

A new report released last week by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center bolsters the case for doing something to mitigate storm surge, said Phil Bedient, the center’s director, who co-authored the report with environmental attorney Jim Blackburn.

“It’s pretty clear that we now really need to have a serious discussion about how to defend and mitigate against surge as best we can. You can’t completely protect an area, but you can reduce the risk,” Bedient said.

The report reinforces the notion that Ike could have been worse. Had it struck 30 miles down the Texas coast, for example, the surge at the Port of Houston would have been 19 feet, instead of just over 13.

It’s scary to think that Ike could have been a lot worse, isn’t it? Blackburn was one of the ones raising environmental concerns about the dike approach, so alternatives will get a fair hearing as well. The website for the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) is here. You can read their full report here, an overview of some of its findings here, and a brief status report here. To me, the key bit is this from that last link:

Dr. Merrill has estimated the Galveston portion of the Ike Dike to cost roughly $3 billion, or only 5-6 cents of property tax for residents in the affected counties over the next 30 years. Wayne Klotz, president of the Houston engineering firm Klotz Associates Inc., believes the estimate is higher at around $7 billion to $10 billion. Whatever the final cost may be, advocates believe there is a high benefit to cost ratio for such a project when financial consideration is given for the structure’s potentional to prevent future damage.

Even at the high end, $10 billion is a relatively small amount, which would be amortized over decades and which would have long-lasting benefits. Cost is always a consideration, but if that’s the most expensive scenario, it shouldn’t be an obstacle.

AAUP criticizes UTMB for post-Ike layoffs

Oops.

The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston and the University of Texas System (UTS) violated established and widely accepted guidelines on academic freedom and tenure when it laid off more than 2,400 faculty and staff in the wake of 2008’s Hurricane Ike, according to a report released today by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

More than 120 faculty members, 43 of whom were tenured or tenure-track, fell under the axe in late 2008, after Ike ripped through UTMB’s island campus, visiting destruction on hospitals, labs, and teaching facilities. Administrators at the UTS declared financial exigency, claiming that the hurricane damage put the facility in such dire economic straits that severe cuts to the faculty were necessary for it to remain solvent.

Critics have claimed that the declaration of financial exigency and decisions about who and where to cut the faculty were made behind closed doors with no broad-scale faculty input.

UTMB administrators may have been justified in declaring financial exigency when the hurricane hit, the AAUP’s Associate General Secretary Jordan Kurland told The Scientist. “But in a remarkably short time, monies were found, facilities were put back into operation, the worst case scenario never really materialized, and by the end of the winter, they were already hiring new people.”

Kurland, who supervised the staffing of the investigative committee that compiled the report, stressed this last point — the UTMB’s hiring of new faculty members mere months after firing others — as a key disappointment to the AAUP. “Those in charge took advantage of the ‘flexibility’ that had come from the initial lay-offs to move as soon as it was clear to do so to engage new people who would best meet current desires at the medical branch.”

The AAUP report is here. The reason this is a big deal is because the AAUP is considering adding UTMB to its censure list, which as a brief Chron story notes would make it a lot harder for UTMB to hire top faculty in the future. There will be a committee meeting before the AAUP’s annual meeting in June to formalize a statement about this. UT says it has proposed some revisions to its process that may address the AAUP’s concerns. We’ll see what happens.

Interview with Chula Ross-Sanchez

Chula Ross-Sanchez

Chula Ross-Sanchez

I have one more interview for the Galveston city elections on May 8, that being with Chula Ross-Sanchez, who is running for Council District 6. She is a former member of the Planning Council whose non-reappointment caused a bit of a stir. She has a long history of advocacy for things like mitigating beach erosion and providing affordable housing.

Download the MP3 file

Early voting runs through next Tuesday. You can find early voting locations and hours here.

Interview with Joe Jaworski

Joe Jaworski

Joe Jaworski

Today is the start of early voting for the May 8 uniform election date in Texas. There’s not a whole lot happening in Harris County, but down in Galveston they will be electing a new Mayor to succeed the term-limited Lida Ann Thomas. One of the candidates running, the one I would be voting for if I lived in Galveston, is Joe Jaworski, who served three terms on Galveston’s City Council from 2000 to 2006 and made a spirited but unsuccessful run against State Sen. Mike Jackson in 2008. I’m obviously not following Galveston’s elections very closely, but I wanted to interview Jaworski about his candidacy, and was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do so:

Download the MP3 file

I have one more Galveston election interview lined up and will present it later this week. Early voting runs through next Tuesday. You can find early voting locations and hours here.

Better days ahead for UTMB

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is not only coming back, it’s growing.

Although the UT Board of Regents authorized 3,800 layoffs, UTMB officials announced that about 3,000 jobs would be cut. The actual number turned out to be about 2,400, but it was widely interpreted as a step toward dismantling Texas’ oldest medical school. The Legislature forced the regents to reverse policy, a stunning change of fortune that is slowly beginning to benefit the local economy.

UTMB has already filled more than half of the jobs left vacant by the layoffs and eventually will have nearly 1,000 more employees than before the storm, said Cindy Stanton, UTMB director of recruitment services.

The UTMB expansion offers economic hope to a city whose population shrank an estimated 20 percent after the Sept. 13, 2008, hurricane. “Galveston will benefit from the economic impact of more workers crossing the causeway,” Galveston spokeswoman Alicia Cahill said. “We will likely see gains in sales tax, hotel-motel tax, and possibly property tax,” Cahill said.

That’s just great to hear. May there be a lot more good news like this to come.

Quan officially files

I had lunch today at the Post Oak Grill on Milam so I could be there for Gordon Quan’s official announcement that he is running for Harris County Judge. In fact, as Martha noted, he submitted his paperwork and paid his filing fee to be on the Democratic primary ballot. (Quan will have an opponent in March, Ahmad Hassan, who lost the 2008 primary to David Mincberg.) Here’s a copy of the press release about the event, and here’s a draft copy of the speech Quan gave at the event. I want to highlight this bit, which was right at the beginning:

I want to bring new ideas to the County Government and look to address the root causes of the problems to develop solutions and not just put a bandage on the problem.

Our jail is under court supervision and is overcrowded. While voters had previously defeated a bond election for a new jail, I believe they spoke out against the manner criminal justice was administered in Harris County.

I want to work to hand-in-hand with the commissioners, Sheriff Garcia, District Attorney Lykos, the local municipalities and the courts and elected officials like Senator Ellis to set criteria for fines versus confinement for minor offenses, a centralized jail system for more rapid bonding, the development of a public defender system and a regional D.N.A. lab to avoid wrongful confinement.

On top of these issues, I want to look at methods to remove from the criminal justice system people who are homeless and suffering from mental health issues. A proactive approach of investing in affordable housing with supportive services would remove “frequent flyers” from our jails and emergency rooms where they run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost for tax payers.

As you might imagine, this is something I’m very glad to hear. This isn’t just a matter of justice, it’s also a matter of fiscal responsibility. We’re paying millions of dollars to lock up people who don’t need to be locked up, which was always a bad idea but is now an urgent priority given the county’s financial situation. I’m really looking forward to seeing Quan push this issue.

An unexpected treat from this event was seeing local sports legend Barry Warner act as emcee and introduce Quan. I had no idea that Warner was so active in the Asian-American community, but he is, and he’s a longtime friend of Quan’s. I shook Warner’s hand after the event, which was nearly as cool as getting my picture taken with Lisa Malosky at Rep. Ellen Cohen’s campaign kickoff event nearly four years ago.

Anyway. Quan will have a tough race against incumbent Judge Ed Emmett, who is generally well regarded and has his performance during Hurricane Ike as Exhibit A for his re-election. I don’t know what kind of fundraising chops Quan has, but he will need to pile up some dough to get his name and message out there. From what I saw of him at this event, I thought his message was a strong one, his challenge will be to convince enough people to change horses. I think he’s about as good a candidate as the Democratic Party could have hoped for this year, and the crowd at this event was certainly fired up about him. We’ll see how it goes.

Bye bye, hurricane season

More like this next year would be nice.

The Atlantic hurricane season ended Monday with barely a whimper: Not a single hurricane came ashore in the United States.

Since June, when the season began, just nine named storms developed. Only three of them became hurricanes, and those stayed out at sea or weakened before passing over land.

[…]

The 2009 season was on target with the lower end of forecasters’ predictions. Before the season began June 1, the National Hurricane Center had anticipated nine to 14 storms, with four to seven hurricanes — a prediction that the Miami-based center scaled back slightly in August before the arrival of the season’s first storm, Tropical Storm Ana.

James Franklin, the center’s chief hurricane specialist, credited much of the quiet season to El Nino, the periodic warming of the central Pacific Ocean. El Nino, he said, produced strong winds in the Atlantic that cut down storms before they could develop into hurricanes.

Franklin said forecasters also noticed drier conditions in the atmosphere, which limited the potential for storms.

“Lately we’ve had busy seasons,” Franklin said. “To get a year this quiet, it’s a little bit unusual.”

As Eric Berger, who has a nice map here noted, the recent higher level of activity we’ve seen around here is more in line with historic norms than the long quiet spell we had in the 90s and first few years of this decade. If we’re really lucky, we’ll go back to that quietude for a few more years.

Galveston Shriners Hospital now open

The Galveston Shriners Hospital, which was closed down after Hurricane Ike and was set to reopen on Monday after a long battle to bring it back, has opened its doors a few days early. Kudos to all involved for getting this done.

Shriners Hospital reopens next month

Back in July, delegates at the national Shriners convention voted to reopen the burn hospital for children in Galveston. The date to reopen has now been set for November.

The hospital, a world leader in burn research and source of the foremost textbook on burn treatment, is tentatively scheduled to reopen Nov. 8, said Tommy Lambright of the hospital’s governing board.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Lambright, a leader in a rank-and-file revolt that overturned a decision by the combined boards of the International Shriners and Shriners Hospitals for Children to keep the hospital closed after the Sept. 13, 2008, storm.

[…]

The newly reopened hospital will be smaller and leaner, Lambright said. If fully staffed by the end of the year as expected, Shriners will have 200 employees compared with the 333 it had before Ike, he said. The national boards are expected to approve a budget that is about three-fourths of the $33 million pre-Ike budget, he said.

The two national Shriners boards decided to close the burn hospital, one of 22 Shriners hospitals nationwide, after the 2008 stock market decline caused the organization’s trust fund to shrink from $8 billion to $5 billion.

Douglas Maxwell, Shriners Hospitals for Children President and CEO, said the fund has recovered along with the stock market and now is worth about $6.5 billion.

Perhaps someday it will be as big as it once was, but that’s a small concern for now. Just getting it back is huge, and a win for children, Galveston, and UTMB. I hope they have a big celebration to go along with the grand reopening.

UTMB’s comeback

This is great to see.

A bigger and better University of Texas Medical Branch is rising from the debris of Hurricane Ike, with more than $1 billion in repair, refurbishing and new construction under way or being planned.

The UT Board of Regents recently authorized $667 million worth of new projects at UTMB, an amount that doesn’t include a proposed $400 million hospital tower. When completed, the tower will restore the medical school to the 550 hospital beds it had before the storm slammed into its Galveston Island campus Sept. 13, 2008.

The burst of construction is in remarkable contrast to the gloom over UTMB’s future only a few months ago. Earlier this year, a consultant recommended moving the UTMB hospital off the island. Last November, UTMB announced it was laying off a third of its work force.

But Dr. Ben Raimer, UTMB senior vice president, said the branch had an obligation to rebuild a better campus. “We would be very culpable if we put things back the way they were,” he said. “UTMB has a once in a lifetime chance to build for the future.”

That’s awesome, not just as a symbol of recovery, but also as an economic engine going forward. Galveston is doing all right economically, all things considered, but having a large employer like UTMB, with the types of jobs it provides, is crucial to its long-term success. I couldn’t be happier to read about this.

A year after Ike

One year after Hurricane Ike made landfall over Galveston, the news is surprisingly positive for the island, though many challenges still remain. The Lege helped Galveston in a number of ways for this year, such as requiring UT to reopen the Medical Branch and allowing the school district to use its 2008 count of students for funding purposes. Businesses are coming back, people are buying beachfront property, and tourism is about where you’d expect it to be, maybe a little better, given the economy. But there’s still a lot of people who aren’t back, most of them still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt, property tax revenues are significantly down, and the reduced population count will affect the Census as well as next year’s state allocation for schools. There is hope, though, and that counts for a lot. Read the story, as well as the previous entries in the look-back series and this week’s Houston Press cover story, and get a feel for it.

Welcome back, Arne’s

A lot of people I know missed you while you were gone.

Set in a century-old warehouse, Arne’s Warehouse & Party Store still looks like an old warehouse more than it does a store.

After crossing a clunky metal turnstile, shoppers enter a bare-bones space with seemingly endless aisles of party supplies, artificial flowers, candy, ribbons, pet supplies, paper and plastic dinnerware, holiday items, pinatas, computer stationery, housewares, cotton candy makers, hot dog turners and other small appliances, costumes and helium tanks for rent.

“And this is where we keep our tiaras,” employee Jovita Torres noted inside the store’s wedding room.

Near the front door is a handmade sign: “Wow! The Day Has Finally Come!” in reference to the reopening of the Heights-area store two weeks ago. Arne’s had been closed 11 months after suffering severe damage from Hurricane Ike.

And all that time, every time we drove past it Tiffany would mournfully wonder when – or even if – Arne’s would be back. When we saw the sign announcing its return, she let out a whoop of joy. Welcome back, Arne’s.

New beach boundaries

We have a new vegetation line, which determines where the public beach ends and private property begins, courtesy of Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

The line will determine whether beachfront property owners whose buildings were destroyed by Ike on Sept. 13 will be able to rebuild or possibly lose their houses to the public beach.

Patterson published new maps at TexasBeachAccess.org showing the new vegetation line.

[…]

Ike chewed away the shoreline, reducing his 198-foot lot to 8 feet. But beaches tend to rebuild themselves and, after checking the Texas General Land Office Web site, McConnell found that he now has 195 feet of property.

“As promised, I gave the natural line of vegetation a year to recover,” Patterson said. “In those areas where it has recovered it will be the boundary of the public beach.

“In areas where it hasn’t, I’ve drawn the line at mean low tide plus 200 feet,” he said.

The mean low tide line is the average of all daily low tide lines over 19 years.

Patterson said beachfront property owners who find that their buildings are on the public beach as a result of the new vegetation line will be left alone unless they block beach access or pose a health or safety risk.

He said it is too early to know how many structures that are now on the beach would have to be removed or how many properties would be barred from rebuilding. Patterson said it was likely that some houses on Galveston Island would have to be removed. It is less likely that houses on the Bolivar Peninsula will have to be moved because so few structures near the beach remain standing, he said.

In case you were wondering, State Rep. Wayne Christian and his beach house wound up on the right side of the line, meaning that he could have saved himself some trouble. Some guys have all the luck. A press release from Commissioner Patterson about this is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Ike Dike update

As the first Atlantic tropical storms of the year make their appearance, we get an update on the proposed Ike Dike.

One of Hurricane Ike’s legacies may be the hardening of the upper Texas coast against hurricane storm surges.

Within weeks, a post-Ike committee appointed by Gov. Rick Perry will recommend that six Texas counties band together to form a storm surge suppression zone.

In effect, this would empower the counties — Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Orange, Chambers and Jefferson — to seek state and federal funding and identify the best system of dikes, gates and seawalls to protect coastal communities — including the city of Houston and its Ship Channel industries — from devastating surges.

“We would like the counties to work together to study the potential of protective measures, whether it’s a levee system, a dike, an offshore barrier or something else,” said former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who chaired the Ike committee.

Ultimately, such a project is likely to cost billions, with funds coming primarily from the federal government.

Oh, that evil, evil federal government and its dirty, dirty money! Always doing things for us that we’re unable to do for ourselves. Why must we suffer under the burden of their yoke?

The recommendation will come amid a growing discussion in the area on whether Ike’s primary lesson should be to harden the Texas coast against storm surges, or to pull back from development in threatened areas such as Bolivar Peninsula.

The committee appears to back the “Ike Dike” approach advocated by oceanographer William Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston.

[…]

“We viewed the Ike Dike as an interesting idea, but not necessarily the solution,” Eckels said. “It’s a good starting point.”

He said area county judges are receptive to studying the idea further. But some, including Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, are skeptical.

“It’s an expensive proposition for a potential protection from one hurricane factor — storm surge — while doing nothing to protect us from wind, which was obviously a great problem here in Harris County,” said Emmett’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker.

Additionally, many environmentalists and scientists believe more coastal development — which a dike could encourage — is not the best public policy.

In June the Houston Endowment gave $1.25 million to Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters center, in part to study coastal development and storm surges.

The money will allow environmental attorney and coastal expert Jim Blackburn and others to explore alternative visions to simply hardening the coast as part of a report due in two years.

Blackburn says dike alternatives include turning much of Bolivar Peninsula into a national seashore and expanding wildlife refuges in Chambers and Jefferson counties.

“Perhaps the coast should just be a place to visit,” Blackburn suggested. “Everyone who goes there wants to move in. I understand that, but maybe unfettered development right on the beach is not the best public policy.”

I have a lot of sympathy for that position. I also have a lot of doubt that the political support to go that route. Is there a viable non-dike solution if you assume that the current level of development will remain as is? I could maybe see that happening. Alternately, I could see putting some restrictions on new development, which maybe you could get through as an accompaniment to an Ike Dike. I’ll be very interested to see what their proposed alternatives are, but I have my doubts as to their prospects.

The streetscape for the Universities line

RichmondRail.org has a suggestion for Metro.

For the coming light rail line to be a true asset to our neighborhoods, the streets leading to the transit stations must accommodate pedestrians more safely and comfortably than is typical for Houston streets outside downtown. If enacted, the proposed transit corridor ordinance (aka the Urban Corridor ordinance, which we hope to see on the City Council agenda for approval soon), would foster the evolution toward a more pedestrian-friendly environment as redevelopment occurs along the light rail corridors. That will take time. We believe that there is a near-term opportunity to achieve a better pedestrian environment along the University Line on lower Richmond Ave.

Virtually all of the public right-of-way on Richmond Ave. from Spur 527 to Kirby Dr. is only 80 feet wide. When METRO builds the University Line, we anticipate that they will also need to rebuild the sidewalks along that stretch of Richmond. What better time to create a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape than when the rail line is being built? However, the right-of-way constraints do present challenges.

Click over, and take a look at their resolution of support for a pedestrian streetscape for more. Note that none of this requires any property takings, and will make the area much more pedestrian-friendly. To me, the highlight is the request to bury phone, cable, and electric utility wires. This will not only enable better sidewalks in the space allocated, as utility poles will no longer be there blocking the way, but will also provide for fewer service interruptions during and in the aftermath of storms. Remember how downtown and parts of the Galleria area never lost power during Hurricane Ike? Doing this will add to the cost of construction, but there’s never a cheaper time to do this than when the streets are being torn up anyway. It’s an investment, one that makes a lot of sense and will pay off in many ways. Check it out, and add your support for the idea.

Brought to you by…

People don’t like it when you mess with their icons.

Public fury over a proposal to rename an iconic seawall park after a snack chip led Frito-Lay to ask Galveston County commissioners to halt the renaming process, a Frito-Lay spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Galveston city officials had asked commissioners to recognize a $1 million donation by Frito-Lay to help remodel Fort Crockett Park by changing its name to Sun Chip Park at Fort Crockett.

The seawall park is best known for the statue dedicated to the thousands killed by the 1900 Hurricane — a man holding a child in one hand and the other reaching skyward.

Frito-Lay spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez said the company asked officials Monday to halt the 30-day comment period required for a name change but would not renege on its offer to assist in the Hurricane Ike recovery.

County Parks Director Dennis Harris said he would formally ask the commissioners Tuesday to discontinue the public comment period.

“Just to be absolutely clear, there is no connection between how the brand is recognized and the funding,” Gonzalez said. “The unfortunate part is it’s sort of a distraction from the larger intent and what the larger need is.”

Gonzalez said Frito-Lay would discuss another way to recognize the company’s contribution, for instance placing its name on a plaque.

I’m thinking the plaque is probably the better idea. We name parks after donors all the time, and I’m sure that there are plenty of examples of parks named after corporations out there now. I don’t have any problem with that, but that’s usually done when the park is first being opened. It’s another thing to change the name of an existing, well-known park to honor someone or something’s largesse. Put up a plaque to tell the story, maybe call a subsection of the park Sun Chip Plaza or something, and leave it at that.

More on food stamps lawsuit

The Chron now has a story about the lawsuit that has been filed over Texas’ inability to process food stamp applications in the federally-required 30 day time period. There’s not much in the story that we don’t already know, but I want to point this out:

“We have an obligation to do better for Texas, and we’re trying,” agency spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said, “but adding workers is a long-term solution because of the length of time it takes to train workers. So, it doesn’t provide the immediate relief we need in a short-term situation like a hurricane or what we hope is a temporary downturn in the economy. Workers are coming in early, staying late and working weekends to try and catch up.”

The hurricanes-and-bad-economy excuse appears to be the line of defense that HHSC has adopted to these charges, as Ms. Goodman said basically the same thing in this DMN story from last week. It’s worth noting again that problems with getting these applications processed in a timely fashion go back well before Hurricane Ike or the current economic meltdown. As such, they are nothing more than excuses, and should be brushed aside.

Still waiting on Rita aid

I’m appalled by this.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has spent about a third of the federal funds it received to help low-income residents rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Rita almost four years ago, the state auditor reported Friday.

As of June 5, the state housing agency had spent $135 million of $440.4 million in federal funds, auditor John Keel said. It had completed repairing or rebuilding 527 homes and had begun work on 422 more, his report said.

More than 7,300 Texans applied for help under the federal program, Keel said; 2,107 of them withdrew their requests or were deemed ineligible. The rest were approved or were awaiting a decision.

So what’s happening with the remaining applicants, the ones who are still waiting? There’s more than 4000 of them. I wish the story had some information about that.

Michael Gerber, executive director of the state housing agency, attributed delays to the complexity of federal requirements for spending the funds and to the difficulties in working with extremely poor, sometimes illiterate families who often had difficulty producing proof of clear title to their properties or other essential documents.

Agency spokesman Gordon Anderson said the auditor’s housing repair figures apparently do not include 224 rental housing units rebuilt or repaired since the hurricane. Contractors have completed an additional 140 single-family homes in the two months since the figures for the auditor’s report were gathered, he said.

Leaders of organizations that have worked on Texas hurricane recovery issues, however, said the auditor’s report reinforces their concerns that it takes too long for applicants to wade through required title searches, environmental and historical reviews and other procedures.

The cost of repairing many homes damaged by Rita increased dramatically because the dwellings suffered additional damage from rainstorms while their owners waited for funds, they said.

“The inordinate delays experienced in the Hurricane Rita rebuilding program will be dwarfed by the delays in the six-times-larger Hurricane Ike program” unless the state applies lessons it learned from Rita, said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service, a research and advocacy group.

Walter Diggles, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, said state agencies approached hurricane recovery with “an overabundance of caution” because they feared reports of fraud similar to those that emerged in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. That attitude slowed the process down, he said.

I understand the concern about scams, but let’s not let the pendulum swing too far. It doesn’t make sense for 80% of the people who were approved for assistance to not have received it four years later. Whatever it takes to fix this, let’s get it done.

HHSC sued over food stamp delays

This will definitely bear watching.

Legal services lawyers for the poor have filed a class-action lawsuit demanding immediate repair of Texas’ much-criticized eligibility screening system for health and welfare programs.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Austin late Friday by two impoverished Irving women who applied for food stamps more than two months ago but still haven’t been interviewed by the state Health and Human Services Commission.

In June, the state failed to determine eligibility of more than one-third of new food stamp applicants within the federally required 30 days, the suit says.

It says the delays meant that 55,276 applicants didn’t receive word on whether they qualify. Among those kept in the dark apparently were some who don’t have money for rent or food and under state law are supposed to be processed as “expedited” cases within 24 hours.

“The law is clear. You have timeframes in which to certify people. And they are not doing that,” said Bruce Bower, deputy director of Texas Legal Services Center, which brought the suit.

“I think that they do not have enough staff to do the work,” Bower said of the commission.

[…]

Commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the state processed 50,000 more food stamp applications in the first six months of this year than in the same period last year.

“We’re drinking from a fire hose right now,” she said.

Although a privatization experiment launched four years ago drove hundreds of experienced state workers to seek other jobs, the commission has gradually added more staff – some 700 in the past year, Goodman said.

“We’ve got more workers and we’re processing more cases than we were a year ago, but it simply hasn’t been enough to keep pace with the growth in applications,” she said.

Goodman attributed many of the problems to Hurricane Ike and the economic slowdown.

“We’re asking for more staff and looking at other ways to deal with the increased workload,” she said. Goodman said the two-year budget that takes effect on Sept. 1 allows the commission to request 656 new eligibility workers, and it is doing just that.

Celia Hagert, a nutrition policy expert with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans, said a poor economy can’t be blamed for the system’s current woes.

“The delays aren’t just a result of the recession,” Hagert said. “We’ve been out of compliance with federal performance standards for three years now. The question is whether we’re adding staff fast enough.”

I refer you to my blog post of May 19, 2008, which noted that the feds were complaining that “far too many approvals [of food stamp applications] remain untimely and call center performance needs to be more constant.” Going back to February 20, 2008, a review by the Statesman showed that “less than half — 48 percent — of Texas food stamp applications processed using the updated computer system, known as TIERS, are completed within the 30 days the federal government requires.” In other words, the excuses about Hurricane Ike and the economic slowdown are just that – excuses.

This has the potential to cost the state a lot of money. Which, given that the root cause of all this – the disastrous experiment of privatizing HHSC with Accenture – was a misguided attempt by the state to save money, would be rather ironic. And when the federal judge ultimately socks it to us, remember that we will have Rick Perry to thank for it. HHSC Employee has more.

UPDATE: I received the following email in response to this:

Dear Mr. Kuffner:

In your Aug. 5 post about the lawsuit filed by two Irving residents against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission alleging a failure to process food stamp applications in a timely manner, you erroneously link this issue to the integrated eligibility project managed by the Accenture-led Texas Access Alliance from 2005-2007

The fact is that the Alliance only handled food stamp applications for Travis and Hays counties – just two of Texas ’ 254 counties. These two counties represent just seven percent of Texas ’s total food stamp population. The vast majority of the backlog of food stamp applications exist across the state, including in Dallas County where the two Irving women reside. It is inaccurate to link our 2007 project in two counties to statewide food stamp application backlogs in 2009.

I thought you might appreciate knowing the facts.

Sincerely,

Peter Y. Soh
Accenture

The Ike baby boom bust

Remember this Chron story from May?

Doctors who work in Houston’s busiest maternity ward say they’re expecting an especially bustling June, leading some to conclude that Hurricane Ike was the perfect storm for making babies.

It’s been eight months since Ike knocked out the region’s electricity, leaving many with no television, Internet access or other distractions for days, if not weeks. Now there’s a curious bump in the number of women who are rounding out their third trimesters of pregnancy.

Several obstetrical practices associated with The Woman’s Hospital of Texas are extra-busy these days with prenatal care.

“I looked, somewhat in shock, at my little book of deliveries for June, and it’s 26,” said Dr. John Irwin, president of Obstetrical and Gynecological Associates.

He routinely delivers 15 to 20 babies a month and called the Ike boomlet “a real phenomenon.” His colleagues in the 35-physician practice have seen a similar increase in patients who probably conceived during the powerless days after Ike.

“There’s about a 25 percent increase in the number of deliveries coming up in mid-June to mid-July,” said Irwin, also chief of surgery service at Woman’s Hospital.

Turns out it was more illusion than reality.

Hair Balls got actual birth figures from the Hermann Hospital System (eight big hospitals for births), Texas Women’s Hospital, LBJ and Ben Taub; we also talked to Methodist. While some saw an increase in births in June/July 2009 over the previous year, others saw drops.

“We are not seeing anything that can be attributed to an Ike baby boom,” says Jennifer Hart, spokesperson for Hermann. “It’s just normal summer numbers.”

I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been an uptick, and I’m not surprised to hear that it was mostly hype. Kudos to Hair Balls for being enough of a stickler about it to go back and check.

Shriners Hospital in Galveston to reopen

Good news.

Delegates at the national Shriners convention meeting in San Antonio voted Monday to reopen a world-renowned burn hospital for children in Galveston, closed since it was damaged by Hurricane Ike in September.

Convention delegates voted to keep open all of the 22 hospitals nationwide in the Shriners system and, in a separate decision, voted 756 to 482 to reopen the Shriners Hospital for Children-Galveston.

[…]

The vote followed months of lobbying by the 1,000-member El Mina Shrine, based in Galveston. Tommy Lambright, the Shriners Hospital for Children Galveston board member who led the lobbying effort, said every one of the 1,500 delegates to the convention was contacted by phone.

The Galveston hospital, known for its advances in burn treatment, was kept closed after the storm by the combined boards of the International Shriners and Shriners Hospitals for Children after the endowment for the hospital system shrank from $8 billion to $5 billion because of the economic downturn.

[…]

The vote was welcomed by the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. David Herndon, a celebrated burn surgeon.

“I’m immensely gratified,” said Herndon, who also is head of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Blocker Burn unit, in a telephone interview from San Antonio.

“Very few hospitals can take care of the massive burns we can anywhere in the world,” Herndon said. “This is vitally important to our area.”

That’s good news for Galveston, good news for UTMB, and good news for everyone who has been or will be helped by their services. Well done, y’all.

Planting vegetation against the tide

I suppose there’s more than one way to try to save your beachfront property.

In Texas, a thin green line in the sand separates private property from public beach. And that line of vegetation is drawn by Mother Nature.

Some property owners, however, are taking a more proactive approach by planting grass and shrubs along the edge of a dune on Bolivar Peninsula to keep their homes off the public beach.

These owners are trying to create an artificial vegetation line, marking where their property ends and the public beach begins.

Under the Texas Open Beaches Act, as administered by the General Land Office, houses cannot be built seaward of the vegetation line, which was scoured away by Hurricane Ike.

Between 20 and 30 property owners on the peninsula, however, have planted their own vegetation line, said Angela Sunley, leader for the General Land Office’s beach and dune team. Land office officials can easily spot man-made vegetation versus the real thing.

Silly homeowners. They should have just called Wayne Christian.

And here are the vetoes

Here’s the full list, with links to statements about individual bills, here’s his press release, and here’s his budget statement. A few points of interest:

– Perry wimped out and allowed HB770, the Wayne Christian Homestead Bill, to become law without his signature. Way to lead, big guy. I can’t wait to get Jerry Patterson’s press release about this.

– As already noted, he axed SB488, the Safe Passing Bill. Bicyclists are pissed off.

“We are stunned because he’s our guy, and we feel disappointed, even betrayed by our guy,” said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, the educational arm of the Texas Bicycle Coalition. “The bicycling community will never forgive Governor Perry.”

Perry had signed previous bills important for the cycling community, Stallings said.

Stallings said surveys show that 55 percent of the 30,000 active Texas cyclists who belong to a cyclist organization participate in GOP primaries. He said surveys also indicate an estimated 4 million Texans are, at least, casual bike riders.

[…]

The governor’s office never expressed any concern, much less opposition, Stallings said.

“The bill was well vetted and had support across the political spectrum. That he would do this and not talk to us (during the session), frankly, we are shocked.”

I’m not. Par for the course, if you ask me. I hope the bicyclists take out their frustrations about this in a big way.

– He vetoed HB3148, which would have allowed some minors who engaged in consensual sex to not have to register as sex offenders, which strikes me as petty and short-sighted. I’ll bet that will annoy Grits.

– Rep. Jerry Madden gets his wish, and SB1440 gets zapped.

– Two bills supported by environmentalists, HB821, which related to recycling TV sets; and SB2169, which would have established a smart growth policy work group and the development of a smart growth policy for Texas, got nixed.

– Perry signed HB4294, the electronic textbooks bill, over the objections of some social conservatives. Credit where it’s due – I thought this was a decent bill.

– He signed SB1410, thus negating West University Place’s ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in some new construction. Local control, schmocal control.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m sure there are other gems in there that are not immediately obvious to me, so leave a comment and let me know about them.

UPDATE: Naturally, after I hit publish, I get a couple of releases from Rep. Garnet Coleman about two of his bills that Perry rejected. Here they are, first about SB2468.

Statement by Rep. Garnet Coleman on Governor’s Veto of SB 2468, by Sen. Gallegos | Rep. Coleman

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Governor Perry would veto a bill that closed the revolving door of employees on the local level where individuals have rotated in and out of county government and the private sector. These actions send a bad message to Texans when it appears that their government works for the highest bidder instead of its own constituents.

It could be possible that Governor Perry does not want to draw attention to his own office’s revolving door. He calls the legislation a piecemeal approach to the issue of county lobbbying and claims he wants to avoid creating differing and confusing standards of ethical conduct. This leaves only the standard that his own office has set, which is that of a revolving door. Ethical behavior in one area of government shouldn’t have to wait for the rest of the state to catch up.

I think the Governor is well aware of these circumstances given the number of employees he has had that have rotated from the public sector, to the private sector and back again. He vetoed this bill on the same day he named a former lobbyist that was a former employee of his to his chief of staff position(1, 2).

At least 17 former Perry aides are now registered lobbyists according to a Dallas Morning News report (3). This includes a former state representative that formed a lobby firm, left to be Governor Perry’s chief of staff from 2002 – 2004, and then returned to his lobby practice (4). He was followed by another former state representative that had become a lobbyist and returned to serve as legislative director until returning to the private sector.(5)

Sources:
1. Press Release: Gov. Perry Names Sullivan Chief of Staff, http://governor.state.tx.us/news/press-release/12606/
2. Texas Ethics Commission Registration, Ray Sullivan, http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/tedd/lobcon2009d.htm
3. Dallas Morning News, Jan 6, 2009
4. http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/img/01-09/0104PRO_toomey.pdf
5. http://governor.state.tx.us/news/appointment/5098/

Here’s Perry’s statement about the veto. This was the “revolving door” bill aimed at restricting Harris County employees from doing county business after leaving government employ. So much for Ed Emmett’s ethics reform plan. Got anything to say about that, Judge?

Next, Coleman’s statement about HB3485:

Statement by Rep. Garnet Coleman on Governor’s Veto of HB 3485

“It is disappointing that Governor Perry vetoed this important piece of legislation. With the addition of the amendment allowing certain rural public hospitals to employ physicians, this bill would have ensured access to physician coverage across rural Texas. Rural public hospitals in Texas find it more and more difficult to attract physicians to their communities and retain them. Many physicians entering practice today prefer an employee relationship, rather than having the responsibility and burden of setting up and managing a small business. H.B. 3485 gave rural public hospitals and physicians who want to practice in rural Texas flexibility. Having the option to employ physicians would have helped rural hospitals improve and preserve access to physicians. Without physicians, these hospitals will not continue to exist.

The Governor alleges that an amendment was added in the final days of session that was neither debated nor discussed. However, prior to concurring with all of the Senate amendments I had multiple conversations with the Governor’s office, one of them with Sen. Ken Armbrister, the Governor’s Legislative Director, as well as another member of the Governor’s staff.

To be clear – I told the Governor’s staff that the amendment in question could be removed if it created any sort of problem or if it jeopardized the passage of this important legislation. Sen. Armbrister assured me that the Governor was fine with the amendment and therefore fine with the overall bill. Tort reform groups were also contacted to assuage any concerns, with their assurances that the groups were neutral on the bill. To Sen. Armbrister’s credit, he did call today to inform me of the governor reversing his position.

The worst part is, the only losers with this veto are the people of the state of Texas and the various counties, with no gain or loss to the tort reform movement.”

Here’s a letter from Rep. Coleman to Governor Perry thanking him for his assistance with the language of the bill; here’s a letter to Governor Perry from the Texas Conference of Urban Counties urging him to sign HB3485; and here’s Perry’s veto statement. How weaselly can you get?

UTMB to open emergency room

Awesome.

The University of Texas Medical Branch is scheduled to open a full-service emergency room Aug. 1 for the first time since Hurricane Ike inundated its campus more than eight months ago, relieving pressure on overburdened emergency rooms throughout the region.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that a smaller UTMB has had an impact all over southeast Texas,” said David Marshall, UTMB chief operating officer.

UTMB’s Level 1 trauma center, a rating given to emergency rooms that provide the most services, was ranked among the best nationwide before the storm.

The emergency room has been closed since then, forcing emergency medical crews to drive patients long distances and be out of service for extended periods.

Marshall said UTMB is trying to get the emergency room open as soon as possible after talks with other hospitals in the region that are overwhelmed with patients that otherwise would have gone to the medical school.

Great news for the region and for the Island. I just hope they can hire, or rehire enough people in time for the opening.

Keep Heights Green

Got this via a Heights mailing list I’m on:

Keep Heights Green, a local non-profit organization whose mission is to replant trees in the Greater Heights area lost during Hurricane Ike, is hosting its first fundraising event on Thursday, June 18, from 7 to 9 p.m. The organization, which was formed in October 2008, has plans to put 100 trees in the ground this year and maintain them. Having recently planted 18 eight-foot live oak trees along Ella Blvd., Keep Heights Green hopes its Summer Fundraiser will help the organization raise funds to plant the remaining 82 trees to meet its first-year goal. Eighty percent of all funds raised through Keep Heights Green go directly into planting and maintaining what is placed in the ground.

Keep Heights Green’s Summer Fundraiser will be at the amazing and beautiful Indian Summer Lodge, located in the Historic Heights. We’ll have food, wine, entertainment, a silent auction and raffle. Please join
us — you’ll enjoy a great evening in a beautiful and serene garden oasis.

There will be plenty of opportunities to give, and an individual donation of $25 at the door is greatly appreciated! If you’re looking for an opportunity to make a positive impact on your community, this is the event for you!

Event Details

Date: Thursday, June 18
Time: 7 – 9 p.m.
Location: Indian Summer Lodge
605 Columbia at White Oak
Houston, TX 77007
Attire: Your best GREEN cool summer casual

RSVP: [email protected] or you can RSVP on our Facebook page (and also become a fan of KHG)
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Keep-Heights-Green/

Hope you can make it.

Falkenberg on HB770

Lisa Falkenberg hops on the HB770 train, both in her column and her blog, with video of Rep. Wayne Christian at work. I don’t really have anything to add to that, but I will note that there’s another reason to dislike this bill, beyond Christian’s self-dealing. An amendment by Sen. Mike Jackson, added before the conference committee, basically grants an exemption to paying property taxes for chambers of commerce. What that has to do with the original intent of the bill, never mind why that would be considered good public policy, is a question I can’t answer. But if I didn’t already think this bill should be vetoed, this would give me a considerable shove in that direction. And hey, if we must have a special session, Governor Perry can add “granting homestead exemptions to Hurricane Ike victims” to the call so a non-polluted version of HB770 can be passed. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Editorialists urge veto of HB770

HB770, the originally obscure bill to grant homestead exemptions to folks who lost their house in Hurricane Ike that has generated a big stink thanks to the self-serving provision inserted on behalf of State Rep. Wayne Christian, is getting panned by editorialists around the state. Here’s a sampling.

From the Chron:

Rep. Christian should be ashamed of pushing stealth legislation that benefits himself. As Tom Brown, president of Texas Open Beach Advocates, told the Chronicle, “it’s a very special bill to benefit a state legislator and that is flat-out wrong.”

For a half century, Texas has had one of the strongest coastal access laws in the nation. Residents who buy beach-front property are well aware that storms and rising sea levels may someday reshape the landscape, putting their investment in peril.

A law allowing homeowners to rebuild at the water’s edge, even if it is restricted to Bolivar, is laying the groundwork for future destruction of property while undermining the principle of open beaches. Texans should join [Land Commissioner Jerry] Patterson in calling on the governor to veto the bill.

From the Statesman:

he amendment makes a significant statement about public beaches and private property. Significant enough to warrant full legislative review, complete with public hearing.

Patterson, never a mincer of words, told the Houston Chronicle: “My opinion is just to say, ‘Screw you, Wayne Christian,’ because the Legislature didn’t pass this, one guy passed this.”

In his e-mail [to us], Christian railed about Patterson’s “cursive language.”

We’re really not sure what “cursive language” is, but perhaps this falls under that header: Perry should veto the damn bill.

From the Galveston Daily News:

The other reason this legislation deserves a quick veto is that it is bad public policy. The Open Beaches Act says that beaches belong to the public. If your land becomes a beach in Texas, you lose it, just as you would lose part of your cow pasture if a river changed course and ran through it. If a river runs through your pasture, you would not get to set up a tollbooth in the river and you would not get to charge bass boats and kayakers to pass.

The river would not be your private property in Texas — and neither would the beach.

Waterways and beaches are public property in Texas. And people who buy beach-front property are warned repeatedly, loudly and often about that provision in the law.

The Open Beaches Act is a good law. The alternative is to live in a state where most of the beaches are owned by the wealthy.

Remember that the initial purpose of this bill was to help folks in Galveston; it’s the reason given by State Rep. Craig Eiland why he voted for it. For the Galveston Daily News to argue for its veto strikes me as pretty powerful.

From Bud Kennedy:

Retired state Rep. A.R. “Babe” Schwartz, a Galveston Democrat, led the 1959 effort to defend public beaches.

After Ike, he talked about beachfront homeowners.

“We’re talking about damn fools that have built houses on the edge of the sea for as long as man could remember and against every advice anyone has given,” Schwartz said.

And who have power in Austin.

From the Star-Telegram:

Does the Open Beaches Act encroach on property rights in cases like this? Every beachfront-property owner knows the risk. If not for the act, eventually much of the Texas coast would be lined with private beaches.

Perry should veto HB 770. While that would hurt property owners in Galveston and elsewhere who want to retain their homestead tax exemptions while they rebuild, the greater good would come from upholding the integrity of the Open Beaches Act.

From the Beaumont Enterprise:

The sanctity of public beaches cannot be compromised in Texas. Homes or businesses cannot intrude onto beaches that belong to all Texans. For those reasons, Gov. Rick Perry has little choice but to veto a bill that contains a provision that would exempt property owners on the Bolivar Peninsula from a state law that bans construction on public beaches.

The Enterprise also had one of the better stories I’ve seen on the issue. Elise Hu has a statement from Rep. Christian that tells his side of it as well.

As of Friday, Governor Perry said he was still studying the bill. I have no idea what he’s going to do, and I daresay we won’t know until the June 21 deadline for him to take action. If you have an opinion, the Governor’s fax number is 512-463-1849; those who are rallying for a veto have been urging their supporters to send faxes asking for the bill to be rejected.

Still bitching about the beach

Who would have thought that an otherwise-obscure bill about granting homestead exemptions to people who lost houses in Galveston to Hurricane Ike would become the most controversial bill of the first week post-sine die?

Open beaches advocacy groups sent out e-mails and posted Web messages Thursday asking voters to call Gov. Rick Perry’s office and urge him to veto a bill containing a provision exempting a legislator’s beach house from the Texas Open Beaches Act.

Phone calls poured into the governor’s office urging Perry to veto a bill with a provision that Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, helped write allowing him and others on the Bolivar Peninsula to rebuild on the public beach.

As of 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the tally was five for a signature and 249 for a veto, including phone calls and e-mails.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson scheduled a news conference for today to urge more phone calls to the governor asking for a veto of HB 770. General Land Office spokesman Jim Suydam said Patterson would wade into the Gulf waters off Galveston Island to show where houses could be built under the provision that protects Christian’s right to rebuild his beach house.

Christian denies that he did anything improper, saying the bill will allow other property owners to rebuild who otherwise would not be able to under Open Beach Act regulations administered by the General Land Office. He said the provision would keep property on the tax rolls that otherwise would be removed.

Christian, by the way, made it to the Texas Monthly Ten Worst list this session, and that was without any mention of this little debacle, presumably because the word of it came too late in the writing process. It was gilding the lily anyway, I suppose. Still no word from Governor Perry about this bill’s future, which as I said before is standard practice. We’ll know soon enough.

Open beaches

Got the following email from a colleague and thought it was worth mentioning:

Very late Sunday night a “deal” was made in the Texas legislature to make an exemption in the Texas Open Beaches Act – the law that guarantees public access to our beaches.

Rep. Wayne Christian of Center, Texas use to have a beach house on Bolivar. Hurricane Ike destroyed it. I feel badly for him and the thousands of others who lost property. But state law prohibits construction of houses on the public beach. Why? Because its the PUBLIC BEACH, not private beach.

Anyway Rep. Christian wants to build a new house on what is now PUBLIC BEACH, and he snuck a law through that exempts front-row owners in Bolivar to build new houses on our beach. That is bad public policy. Beaches are like public parks, you can live near them but not in them.

Right now, please phone Gov. Perry and respectfully ask him to “veto HB770, building houses directly on the public beach will cost us billions of dollars in the next storm”.

512-463-2000

Rep. Christian was on the conference committee for HB770, which is (I presume) where this amendment was added. The Galveston News had a story about HB770 on Monday.

House Bill 770 started as a bill to allow homeowners whose houses were destroyed by a hurricane to maintain their homestead exemptions — even if a final decision on whether to rebuild hadn’t been made.

But the law also appears to have exempted houses along the Bolivar Peninsula from the requirements of the Texas Open Beaches Act for four years.

Under existing law, buildings must be behind the line of naturally occurring vegetation.

The bill would exempt from state open beaches laws a house “located on a peninsula in a county with a population of more than 250,000 and less than 251,000 that borders the Gulf of Mexico.” Only one area in the state meets that description — the Bolivar Peninsula.

The bill, which was co-authored by Galveston County’s state representatives, Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, and Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, won unanimous approval in the state House and easily earned passage in the Senate. One of Galveston County’s two state senators, Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, was the bill’s sponsor in the Senate.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose agency is responsible for managing the open beaches laws in Texas, blasted the law.

“I don’t think building houses on the beach, with the waters of the Gulf beneath them, is a good idea or good public policy,” Patterson said. “This bill is so poorly drafted that will happen.”

Here’s the bill text. I agree with Commissioner Patterson on this, and think a veto is not a bad idea. And according to today’s Chron, he plans on sticking to his guns.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has asked Gov. Rick Perry to veto the bill containing the amendment. The bill has not yet crossed the governor’s desk, and he will not make a decision until he sees it, said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger.

“I don’t think building houses on the beach, with the waters of the Gulf beneath them, is a good idea or good public policy,” Patterson said.

If the governor signs the bill, Patterson vowed that he would not enforce the amendment. “My option is just to say, ‘Screw you, Wayne Christian,’ because the Legislature didn’t pass this, one guy passed this,” he said.

Patterson said the Legislature would have to impeach him if lawmakers wanted the provision enforced.

That would be going too far – filing a lawsuit strikes me as the better way to stop enforcement of that law – but at least we know where he stands. Christian, for his part, says this wasn’t about him:

Christian said his vote for the amendment benefited other peninsula property owners and therefore was not a breach of ethics. “If I were to pass a law that affected only Wayne Christian, that would be a conflict,” he said.

At least 12 of his neighbors want to rebuild but can’t without the amendment, Christian said.

The amendment will keep property on the tax rolls that otherwise would be taken off if left undeveloped, Christian said. He also insisted the amendment is “not mine,” because it was put forward by Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville.

“I did sign with him because I approved the concept,” Christian said. The amendment targeted the Bolivar Peninsula because it bore the brunt of the storm, he said.

He denied that it was improper to add the amendment to a bill so close to the end of the session. “This is not an unethical, deceptive method of doing anything,” Christian said. “This is the way it’s been ever since government was invented.”

Well, that much is certainly true. As has also been the case since government was invented, sometimes these last-minute deals contain unpalatable provisions. And so here we are.

You’ll be hearing more about the Open Beaches Act this November, as the passage of HJR102 means there will be an amendment voted on to make the Open Beaches act part of the Constitution instead of an ordinary law that could be changed by a majority vote in the Lege. The above-linked story, and this Chron story from last week have more info about that.

The push to protect public access comes in the wake of lawsuits challenging what is public and what is private along the 367 miles of mostly wild Texas coastline.

The Open Beaches Act prohibits houses seaward of the vegetation line, which crawls steadily landward as the beaches erode.

While trophy houses, subdivisions and hotels have sprouted along the Gulf of Mexico, rising seas, sinking land and storms have led to the rapid erosion of Texas coastline. By some estimates, as much as 10 feet of beach front washes away each year.

As the sandy shore shifts over decades, a barrier island, such as Galveston, may look the same, but it will be farther landward. Houses that once stood hundreds of feet from the surf will be encroaching on the Gulf.

In some cases, the Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for the coastline, has sued to remove houses from the beach.
Jerry Patterson, the state’s land commissioner, suggested that the proposed amendment wouldn’t change anything along the coast.

“We work every day at the Texas General Land Office to ensure the public’s right to access the beach,” he said.

Property owners contend that the existing state law tramples on their rights and that a constitutional amendment would make matters worse, according to the House’s analysis of the pros and cons of the bill.

J. David Breemer, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who is challenging the land office’s enforcement of the Open Beaches Act, said he doesn’t believe a constitutional amendment would insulate the state from lawsuits.

“The issue is how the law is used, not the intent,” Breemer said. “The easement keeps rolling over land that the public hasn’t ever walked and development has already happened.”

Still, beachgoers and environmentalists expressed enthusiasm over the proposed amendment, which cleared the state House on a 140-1 vote and the Senate on a 29-2 vote.

Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter, said the environmental group would campaign in favor of the ballot measure.

“It’s a great issue to elevate people’s awareness of coastal protection,” he said.

This KHOU story has more on that lawsuit. I’ll be voting for this proposition, and I look forward to seeing how the Supreme Court deals with it when that lawsuit, which has been sent its way by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, comes before it.

UPDATE: Land Commish Jerry Patterson keeps pushing this, with a press conference tomorrow in Galveston. From his release:

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson will hold a press conference at 10:30 a.m. Friday on the beach in Galveston to rally Texans to demand Governor Perry kill a proposed law that would exempt the Bolivar Peninsula from the Texas Open Beaches Act.

The press conference will be on the beach in the Pirates Beach subdivision in Galveston, just seaward of the 4200 block of Ghost Crab Lane.

“Call Governor Perry now and let him know you want to keep Texas beaches for the enjoyment of the public,” Patterson said. “An eleventh hour amendment to HB770 would allow an elite few to rebuild their houses on the public beach or even in the surf. That’s not just a bad idea, that’s bad public policy.”

Patterson urged Texans who love the beach to call Governor Perry’s office at (512) 463-2000 and ask him to veto HB770.

The amendment was covertly slipped into the bill without any public debate on the first day of the 2009 hurricane season, which was the last day of the 81st Legislature.

“As Gulf Coast residents were thinking about the next storm, a few lawmakers were actually sneaking an amendment on to a bill that would allow their neighbors to rebuild their houses on the public beach or even in the surf zone of the area hardest hit by Hurricane Ike,” Patterson said. “That’s just unthinkable.”

Far as I know, there’s been no public comment from Governor Perry yet. He probably won’t say anything until he takes action on the bill, but it’s possible he could telegraph his intent.

More Tier One schools

Here’s some genuine good news from Sunday night’s chaos.

Legislation intended to lift some of the state’s public universities to top-tier status has passed the House and Senate and now goes to Gov. Rick Perry, who is expected to sign it.

The measure, House Bill 51, also includes authorization for a $150 million bond issue for the hurricane-damaged University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, part of a $1.3 billion package of funding for that campus, and $5 million for Texas A&M University-Galveston.

Seven so-called emerging research universities would compete for extra funding in hopes of joining the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University as nationally recognized research institutions. Rice University, which is private, is also a top-tier school.

The 2010-11 budget approved by the Legislature includes $50 million for the emerging universities in addition to their normal appropriations. The $50 million would be parceled out based on which schools raise the most money from private donations for enhancing research and recruiting faculty members.

Officials of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board say it could take 20 years and considerably more funding for even one of the seven emerging institutions — UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, UT-El Paso, the University of North Texas, the University of Houston and Texas Tech University — to rise into the big leagues

Still, lawmakers and higher education leaders said passage of the legislation represents a commitment that, in time, should lead to the development of more high-demand universities, reducing pressure on UT-Austin under the state’s automatic-admission law.

“This is one of those real privileges to carry this legislation,” said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

That is good news. You may recall a report from the Legislative Study Group, which I blogged about a year ago, that highlighted the need for more Tier I schools. I think this represents a major step forward, and I’m glad to see it got done. Kudos to all for that. Statements about HB51 from Reps. Ellen Cohen and Garnet Coleman are beneath the fold.

(more…)

House approves windstorm insurance bill

The one known threat of a special session has just been dramatically reduced.

House members today approved the conference committee report shoring up a fund supporting hail and windstorm insurance coverage for coastal property-owners.

Assuming the Senate similarly OK’s the legislation, it’ll go to Gov. Rick Perry, whose threat to call a summer special session if lawmakers didn’t address the windstorm topic helped kick-start negotiations about 10 days ago.

Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said a moment ago he expects Senate approval tonight. Referring to previous efforts to amend the windstorm law, Fraser said: “This represents six years of work, so we’re excited.”

Details are in the Postcards entry. According to TrailBlazers, the vote was 147-0 in favor, so one hopes that this will carry forward and get signed. Doesn’t mean there can’t or won’t be a special session, but it does mean the one issue that Governor Perry explicitly said could trigger one will be resolved. That’s all one can hope for at this time.

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.

“Near normal” hurricane season

Better than a highly active season, I guess.

With the Atlantic hurricane season drawing near, the last of a growing number of storm prognosticators, Uncle Sam, chimed in Thursday with its predictions.

Federal forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there probably would be nine to 14 named storms this year, with four to seven becoming hurricanes.

“A near-normal season is most likely,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.
Among the burgeoning community of hurricane season forecasters — from veterans such as William Gray and Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State University to new players like North Carolina State — there’s a general consensus that this year will bring less tropical weather than last year’s 16 named storms.

They cite various reasons, such as an expectation of more moderate sea surface temperatures in tropical areas of the Atlantic Ocean as well as the possible development of an El Nino in the Pacific, which could dampen storm formation.

“During many El Nino years, we have had significantly fewer named storms than normal,” said Chris Hebert, the lead hurricane forecaster with Houston-based ImpactWeather, a private forecasting service.

Over the last several decades an average of about 10 named storms have formed each year, but that number has risen significantly since 1995. Most forecasters attribute the rise to an upswing in a long-term, natural cycle of Atlantic temperatures called the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation.

Since 1995, 12 of the 14 Atlantic hurricane seasons have seen above-normal tropical activity.

So don’t rest easy just yet. Preseason predictions are not that accurate anyway. And as we all know, it only takes one well-aimed hurricane to make the season a bad one.