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The pause effect on bars and restaurants

I feel terrible for them, but what could we do at this point?

Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

[…]

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Here’s a local view of this dilemma.

“The whole thing is a mess for everyone. Obviously, we’ll have to adjust again,” said Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room in the Heights, adding that reducing capacity means she will not be able to bring back workers she had hoped to re-employ. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s every single business – every segment of the population. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just really, really hard.”

[…]

Brian Ching, owner of Pitch 25 in EaDo, fears the worst. “I don’t know if the business will be here in a month, two months,” said Ching, who also is readying another bar, East End Backyard, to open in July. “We were able to get PPE but we’ve burned through it all.”

He is most concerned for his workers, he said. “This time around, being closed with no PPE, we are likely going to have to furlough employees. I feel for all of them. There seems to be no end in sight.”

Bar owner Andy Aweida said he worries what the bar shutdown will mean not just to his staff but to all those in the bar industry.

“We did everything we were asked and did it well. It’s unfair to them and many others. So many people are doing what is needed and playing by the rules,” said Aweida, a partner in the Kirby Group whose bars include Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden and Holman Draft Hall. “I truly feel horrible for all those amazing employees, staff and many other good, hard-working people this affects.”

Lindsey Rae, who opened Two Headed Bar in Midtown only six months ago, conceded that the first year for any business is the toughest. But the bar closures are catastrophic.

“This is going to be a financial disaster for us,” she said. “We are down 85 percent since the pandemic. All of our revenues are exhausted. We can only afford to operate for about one more month unless Gov. Abbott will give us some gleam of hope.”

Hope, however, seemed fading on Friday for Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of the new Thai restaurant Kin Dee in the Heights. She saw six reservations cancel after the announcement.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We are complying with the guidelines. We are a small restaurant and we just opened. This is tough.”

At 75 percent capacity, Kin Dee was “doing OK,” Srasrisuwan said. But not for long. “We can’t sustain at this level for more than one or two months,” she said. “I’ve seen the number of COVID-19 increase so I am not surprised by Gov. Abbott’s announcement but I am worried. We don’t want to lose our staff but I don’t know how to keep operating at this rate.”

For some restaurant owners, Abbott’s pullback was not unexpected.

“It’s about time, to be honest. I thought we reopened too soon,” said Christopher Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s in the Museum District. “It’s the most responsible thing I’ve heard from (Abbott) in a while.”

Williams said he will be able to weather the capacity reduction because he was able to remain solvent by streamlining his menu, dropping prices, and increasing take-out. “At a time like this everyone needs to take profitability out of the equation. It’s about sustainability.”

George Mickelis, owner of the iconic Cleburne Cafeteria, said he was grateful for Abbott’s decision, and said he would be able to continue staying in business even at 50 percent.

“Obviously, no one wants to return to a complete shutdown and we pray that that is absolutely never necessary again,” Mickelis said. “We are all Texas tough and we will prevail.”

Two things can be true at once. This is a terrible blow to a crucial part of the Texas economy and culture. I’m much more of a restaurant person than a bar person these days, but bars are a key ingredient to neighborhood life, and a vital hang-out place for many people. They also employ a lot of people who’ve just been put back out of work at a time when we don’t know if there will be further federal assistance coming and the state of Texas has gone back to requiring out-of-work people to be actively job searching in order to get unemployment benefits. It’s also the case that we should have been a lot more careful and deliberate in allowing bars to reopen in the first place, precisely because everything about them makes them a prime vector for spreading a disease like COVID-19. I don’t know what else we could have done now, but it’s surely the case there are things we can and should have done differently before now.

Other businesses are now in a similar bind.

In the backyard of her business, Cutloose Hair, salon co-owner Ashley Scroggins watched a livestream Friday morning on her phone. On the screen was an image of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking of the risks of COVID-19 to the region.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.” She called for nonessential workers to stay at home.

Scroggins put down her phone and put on her mask. Then she walked into her salon, shut down the online booking system and began calling upcoming reservations: The salon was closing until cases subsided.

Officials have moved to contain the number of known COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, often through conflicting messages that left businesses attempting to weigh health risks against economic concerns.

While Hidalgo recommended nonessential workers stay home, she no longer had the power to enforce such a plan because Gov. Greg Abbott had superseded it with his own plan to reopen the state. Friday morning, Abbott rolled back portions of that plan — ordering bars and tubing and rafting establishments to suspend services and restaurants to cap dine-in capacity at 50 percent — but maintained other businesses could remain open.

That left salons, restaurants, gyms, offices, retailers and other businesses Friday to decide whether to heed Hidalgo’s call to return to the stay-at-home precautions she had the power to enact in March.

Many, like Cutloose Hair, decided shutting down on-premise operations was the right thing to do.

“It’s not getting better,” Scroggins said of the pandemic. “And the only way we can truly support our city is just to do what they’re asking us to do.”

It’s not an easy choice for many. My company, for which I’ve been working from home since March 6, two weeks before the city shut down, has suspended its plan to start bringing workers back to the office until further notice. I suspect there will be a lot more like this, and there should be. If you can reasonably work from home, there’s no good reason not to.

One possible small bit of hope for the bars and restaurants:

Under current state rules, restaurants and bars can sell beer, wine and liquor, but only in closed containers with their manufacturer’s seal intact.

The organization Margs For Life is lobbying to change that.

Founder Kareem Hajjar, also a partner in the Austin law firm Hajjar Peters LLP, is talking with Texas food and beverage associations to build support for an emergency order to let bars sell mixed drinks in containers that they seal on premises.

“While that work continues today, Margs For Life has evolved into a community of people who are either in the industry or support the industry, where we can share news and events, and help one another be as profitable as possible during this pandemic,” Hajjar told the Current.

Margs for Life’s proposed rule change, proponents say, would help restaurants and bars reduce inventory — and allow some facing dire financial circumstances to stay afloat.

“I’m privileged that I work at a bar that has granted me the ability to do to-go cocktail kits… But bars and restaurants would benefit from FULL to-go kits,” said David Naylor, a bartender at San Antonio craft-cocktail bar The Modernist, via a Facebook post. “Manhattans expertly built, Negronis that don’t require you to amass a stocked bar… ALL these are possible if [Gov. Abbott] would allow it.”

Abbott has expressed support for this idea.

Abbott originally signed a waiver March 18 allowing to-go alcohol sales, in an effort to support struggling restaurants after they closed their dining areas. The waiver was originally to last until May 1, but it was extended indefinitely. Abbott teased that this change could be permanent, tweeting at the time, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

Abbott again tweeted late Saturday that he supports the idea of extending his temporary waiver. State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, replied, saying that he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session to make it happen, also advocating to allow restaurants to continue selling bulk retail food items to go.

[…]

The Texas Restaurant Association submitted a proposal Thursday evening to Abbott’s office, asking to expand the waiver to also allow mixed drinks with liquor to be prepared, resealed and sold.

Cathy Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin, said its margarita to-go kits were very popular during the beginning of the restaurant shutdowns, but as dining rooms began to reopen, sales dwindled. Now, days could go by without the restaurant selling a single kit.

Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines, restaurants can only serve liquor in manufacturer-sealed bottles and with the purchase of food. For several restaurants, including Güero, this means their drinks are served in do-it-yourself kits, where customers mix the ingredients and liquor together.

Lippincott believes that if mixed drinks were also allowed to be served to go, she could see that being a popular option.

I support this as well, and any action that can be taken now to achieve this should be taken. And then, when the Lege convenes in January, we should not only pass a law to make this permanent, but also revisit all of our archaic and anti-competitive laws that govern the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. You know what I’m talking about. Let’s please at least let this terrible pandemic be a catalyst for something good.

One good thing that may come out of all this

We may get to keep booze to go sales.

On Twitter Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested to-go alcohol sales should be made available in Texas past the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas restaurants will be allowed to open for dine-in Friday under a 25 percent occupancy limit, and they’ll also be able to still offer alcohol to-go with the purchase of food. The state may be able to keep the option permanently, Abbott said in a tweet.

“Alcohol-to-go sales can continue after May 1,” the governor tweeted Tuesday night. “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let his keep going on forever.”

Some of what the governor may be hearing — or seeing — is the online chatter between residents enjoying the ability to pick up drinks to enjoy at home throughout the pandemic. The new freedom has been the source of memes, jealousy from other states and was incorporated on El Arroyo’s famed marquee signage in Austin. Long drive-thru lines at places like Taco Cabana, where frozen margaritas are $2, have also been common.

Abbott included the hashtag #txlege in the tweet for the Texas Legislature. The next legislative session begins Jan. 12.

Hooray and all that. I can’t help but think of the multi-year struggle to get beer-to-go legislation passed in the Lege, and the big money opposition to it from the cartel known as the distributors. That was a big step forward, but there remain dumb laws that impinge on craft brewers. I wish we could wave a pandemic-powered magic wand to make it all make sense, but we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.

Coronavirus and beer

Houston’s craft breweries are adjusting to life with closed taprooms and beer-to-go sales.

The team at Saint Arnold Brewing sat down to taste some test beers one Wednesday morning, as its members do when they work on new releases. But their meeting didn’t happen in the usual conference room. Instead, the 10 staffers each sat at a separate table in the brewery’s 10,000-square-foot taproom, with ample social distance between them.

There was another difference from normal times, of course: The vast taproom, typically bustling with people, had not seen a single customer inside since the coronavirus-related stay-at-home order. Across Houston, craft brewers have shut off their taps and closed their beer halls, gardens and patios. But they want Houstonians to know that they’re still brewing.

“Our production side is operating at full strength,” says Brock Wagner, founder and brewer of Saint Arnold.

The team has stopped kegging, but has shifted to canning and bottling more beer than usual in order to ramp up to-go sales, something they had never really focused on before, being a destination brewery. They have also seen an uptick in grocery and liquor store sales as more people hunker down at home.

“Everybody’s consumption of alcohol has probably gone up a little bit,” says Wagner. “I know that mine has.”

These new sources of revenue aren’t even close to making up for the loss of business usually generated from Saint Arnold’s taproom being open, their bar and restaurant orders, and other big buyers such as the Minute Maid stadium. But every little helps, a sentiment many local brewers echo. As taprooms — a major source of revenue for these businesses — lay empty, to-go and off-premise sales, even if a drop in the bucket, have become crucial to the survival of the industry.

Brody Chapman, founder and CEO of Spindletap Brewery, says big stores like H-E-B, Kroger and Spec’s have moved a lot of inventory, which has helped local breweries immensely. He’s also been amazed at how many loyal customers have been supporting their business by taking advantage of Spindletap’s new curbside and drive-through beer sales.

“Without the local support, honestly, we would be dead in the water,” he says.

[…]

There are also efforts to lobby state and local governments for relief, spearheaded by the Texas Brewers Guild. While Gov. Greg Abbott issued a temporary waiver last month relaxing liquor laws for bars and restaurants, breweries are still not able to offer services like direct-to-consumer delivery.

“When breweries are fighting for their lives, it would be nice to have more opportunities to get product out to people,” says Chapman. However, he says that a Houston-based start-up called HopDrop, a craft beer delivery service, has been instrumental to propping up local breweries during this time.

The craft brewing boom in Houston, with its lively on-premises social scene and great dining options, has truly been one of the best things to happen in my thirty-plus years in this town. These guys are huge supporters of school and charitable/non-profit fundraisers as well, which we’re going to need a lot more of in the coming months. There are many good reasons to stock up on your favorite brews at this time, which you can do via curbside pickup at the breweries – It’s Not Hou It’s Me has a handy guide to what’s available – or at the grocery store. As with so many other things, let’s make sure this part of our lives is still there when we get to have a life again.

Oh, and for sure let’s remind the Legislature again that the existing laws we have regarding beer distribution were ridiculous in the best of times and super anti-business in the worst. Let’s hope that our archaic and bizarre beer laws are among the things we learned we could do just fine without when this crisis is over.

(Turns out I was a little skeptical of home beer delivery in general and HopDrop in particular when it first came out. Shows how much I know.)

We may actually get beer to go this session

Well, what do you know?

The Texas Senate restored a measure Wednesday allowing breweries to sell beer to go from their taprooms to a bill allowing the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to continue operating. It also approved a measure that would loosen restrictions on the number of liquor store permits individuals can hold.

State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said her amendment allowing breweries to sell beer to go — something allowed in every state except Texas — would foster job creation, economic development, entrepreneurship and tourism.

“We stand our best when we stand together, and we come together on issues that have been divisive in the past,” Buckingham said during the floor debate. “Our constituents elected us to be bold — and with that, I give you beer to go, baby.”

[…]

The Senate’s beer-to-go amendment was made possible largely by an agreement between the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, a large lobby group representing the interests of beer distributor; the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, which represents the interests of local breweries; and the Beer Alliance of Texas, another group representing distributors.

The Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas didn’t sign on when the truce was originally made in February but agreed to the sign on with the other two groups earlier this month.

See here and here for the background. The bill that was approved, HB 1545, is as noted the sunset bill for the TABC, so the addition of beer to go (as well as an amendment allowing for earlier beer and wine sales on Sunday, which was struck in the Senate process) was technically shenanigans, but the best kind of shenanigans. Also added was an amendment that greatly raised the number of liquor store permits am individual can hold. These changes now head back to the House for approval, and if that happens it’s on to Greg Abbott for a signature. I will be holding a beer in reserve to raise when and if that happens. Here was a Twitter thread from the Texas Craft Brewers Guild from before the Senate hearings on HB1545, here’s a statement from State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who had filed his own beer-to-go bill and was the one who successfully amended HB1545 in the House. The Current and the Chron have more.

Costco joins in on liquor sales

Not just Wal-Mart any more.

Wholesale giant Costco has joined Wal-Mart and other retailers in the fight to let public corporations sell liquor in Texas.

Texans for Consumer Freedom, a group formed last month to lobby Texas lawmakers to loosen restrictions on the state liquor market, announced Wednesday that Costco Wholesale Corporation would lend its name to the effort.

“We are glad to be joined by Costco in our efforts to level the playing field for the retail sale of spirits so Texas consumers receive the choice, convenience and lower prices competition provides,” Travis Thomas, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

[…]

“Costco proudly stands with Texans for Consumer Freedom in its efforts to eliminate the unusual Texas spirits laws that artificially restrict competition and prevent us from directly serving our over 1.3 million Texas members,” Executive Vice President Dennis Zook said in a statement.

See here, here, and here for the background. Kroger and the Texas Association of Business were already in with Wal-Mart, and the Texas Package Stores Association – basically, the existing liquor stores – stands in opposition. My impression is that the bills in question will have a decent chance of passing, but we’ll see.

Legalize moonshining

You can brew your own beer at home, and you can ferment your own wine at home, but if you try to distill your own spirits at home, you’re asking for trouble from the rev’nooers.

The movement to legalize marijuana dominates headlines these days, but another group is laboring in relative obscurity to legalize its chosen intoxicant: homemade liquor.

The newly formed Hobby Distillers Association, based in Tarrant County, aims to change a federal law that prevents anyone from distilling spirits in the home — even if you drink it all yourself and don’t sell a drop.

“A lot of people don’t realize this is illegal,” said Rick Morris, owner of Brewhaus, a Keller company that manufactures and distributes small-scale stills and related supplies to make liquor. “It’s an eye-opener for them.”

Morris, the driving force behind the new association, has scraped up the funds to hire a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to convince Congress that hobby distilling should be put on the same legal basis as brewing beer and making wine at home.

“The beer and wine hobbyists are a little more organized,” said Paul Kanitra, president of lobbyit.com, which now represents the Hobby Distillers Association. “The hobby distillers are finally saying enough is enough.”

Federal law allows a hobbyist to brew up to 100 gallons of beer a year without getting a license or paying taxes. The same holds true for wine makers.

But distilling any amount of spirits — whiskey, gin, vodka, absinthe — could bring legal problems with the IRS and its subsidiary agency, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Federal regulators say it’s a matter of public health and safety: It’s easy, they say, to inadvertently produce homemade liquor adulterated with poisonous chemicals or start a fire with open flames used to heat a still.

Home distillers say those fears are overblown — that their hobby is safe and harms no one.

Kanitra said he and his lobby team hope to find a member of thee U.S. House or Senate to sponsor a bill and get it passed before the end of the year.

“We have to educate members of Congress, and once we do that, they will see there is no reason to treat hobby distillers so differently,” Kanitra said.

It never ceases to amaze me how many archaic Prohibition-era laws are still on the books, being enforced. I see no reason why distilling at home should be treated any differently than home brewing or home fermenting. If there are safety concerns, then put regulations on the equipment. At least craft distillers have more freedom to operate in Texas thanks to a series of bills passed last year that were sponsored by Senator and Lt. Governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte. This one’s a matter for Congress, and they’re too busy repealing Obamacare and not passing immigration reform to pay attention to something like this. Nevertheless, it would be nice if at least one member of Congress agreed to sponsor a bill to legalize home distilling. Who wants to lead on this issue?

Craft distilling

We’re all familiar with the craft brewing industry in Texas, but did you know there is also a growing number of craft distillers in the Lone Star State? Whether you knew that or not, you will probably not be surprised to learn that they too have been held back by archaic alcohol laws, but like their brothers and sisters in the beermaking world, things are looking up for them now.

Yellow Rose Distilling

Twenty years after the rebirth of the craft-beer movement, and 30 years after boutique wineries found a foothold in America, spirits including scotch and bourbon are finally getting the small-batch treatment, with local distilleries redefining made-in-Texas spirits.

Distilleries of any kind were banned in Texas until 1997, when Tito Beveridge of Tito’s Vodka fought for legislation to legalize the industry once again. Now there are 43 distilleries with active permits in the state (though not all licensees are actively producing spirits), enough to place Texas at ninth in the nation with plenty of room to grow. California, the nation’s leader in distilleries, has about 250 independent producers operating.

Most of those Texas distilleries make spirits that don’t require aging, such as vodka or rum, but in the past five years a fledgling movement toward craft whiskeys has flourished across the state, with new brands that are already getting international attention.

[…]

Unlike wineries, distilleries in Texas are currently barred from offering tastings of their spirits on site or from selling directly to the consumer from the distillery. That’s set to change if Texas Senate Bill 905, which passed the state Senate in March and the House earlier this month, is signed by Gov. Rick Perry.

“Allowing distilleries to have on-premise and off-premise sales will bring visitors to the distilleries, which will hopefully increase sales and bring attention to Texas products,” notes the staff of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, one of the bill’s authors.

Other bills designed to help Texas distilleries compete with out-of-state brands are under review by the Texas House of Representatives, including SB 828, which allows in-state distilleries to designate an official agent to conduct product samplings and take orders from wholesalers, as out-of-state distilleries do, and S.B. 652, which will allow Texas distilleries (as well as wineries and breweries) to buy and sell their products to other licensed distilleries.

Here are SB905 and SB828, which has also passed the House by now. SB652 is on the House calendar for today, as are the craft beer bills for which we’ve all been patiently waiting. I can only presume the reason why the distillers got their legislation through with no apparent fuss is that there isn’t an established industry of large distillers and liquor distributors to oppose them.

Anyway. The Press had a cover story on Texas’ craft distillers back in 2011 that’s worth your time to read. Yellow Rose was the first to open in the Houston area last year, and the craft distillery legislation that currently awaits Rick Perry’s signature would directly affect them:

Assuming SB 905 is signed and takes effect, Yellow Rose will move its microdistillery to central Houston near North Post Oak and Katy Freeway, seizing the opportunity to use tours as a marketing and sales tool.

As it is currently located north of Tomball, that would most likely mean it will become an actual Houston business instead of merely a “Houston-area” business once SB905 is law. I hope one of the city’s lobbyists has expressed support for this bill to Perry.

LBB recommendations

We’re still waiting on the Pitts “You’re gonna get it good and hard” budget, but until then the Legislative Budget Board has released a list of recommendations for savings, which you can see here, that’s worth reviewing. There’s some good stuff here, so let me go over a few highlights.

Things I like:

—  Require electronic banking for state business. Replace paper checks with direct deposit for all state employees and others who receive regular payments from the state.

—  Strengthen regulation to improve food safety. Coordinate food safety regulation between the four main agencies involved to cut down on the six million cases of food poisoning reported each year in Texas.

—  Tie the August sales tax holiday to budget conditions. This would save $111.8 million by canceling the sales tax holiday in August 2011 and 2012 and by then conditioning it on the health of the state budget. If the state has a surplus in 2013, there would be a holiday, and if available revenue for the 2014-15 budget — the one that’ll be written in two years — is greater than available revenue now, then they can have the holiday then, too.

—  Repeal restrictions on Sunday liquor sales. Getting rid of the state’s ban would increase revenue from state alcohol and sales taxes by $7.4 million. Texas is one of 14 states that don’t allow hard liquor sales on Sundays.

—   Lose the exemption on hotel taxes for permanent residents. Hotels don’t charge occupancy taxes on people who stay for 30 days or more. If they did, the state would bring in another $16.1 million in taxes every two years.

—   Reform how health care is delivered and paid for to reduce costs. The LBB suggests legislation that encourages Texas health care providers to try out new payment and delivery models, and to consider using bundled payments in the Texas Medicaid program. The LBB recommendations also seem to suggest lifting — at least in part — the ban on the corporate practice of medicine, or hospitals hiring doctors.

—   Expand Medicaid managed care into South Texas. The LBB suggests lifting the ban on Medicaid managed care in the Rio Grande Valley, which has been offered by the Health and Human Services Commission as a potential cost-saver.

—   Reduce Medicaid patients’ reliance on emergency rooms. The LBB says redirecting patients with non-emergency conditions from the ER to a clinic could save $184.2 million a year. They suggest physician incentive programs, making urgent care centers Medicaid clinics, and encouraging Medicaid managed care to put tougher restrictions in place.

—   Continue and expand the Medicaid Women’s Health Program. Expanding a program that uses preventative screenings to avoid pregnancy-related Medicaid costs would save $3.8 million in the next biennium, the LBB says.

—   Allow advanced practice nurses to prescribe certain drugs. The LBB says advanced practice nurses are poised to ease Texas’ physician shortage, if the state allows them to diagnose and prescribe in some capacity. The cost to patients would be less too, LBB argues.

—   Establish a supervised re-entry program to reduce costs and improve efficiency. The LBB is recommending that lawmakers consider closing one or more prison units. That’s a big deal, because tough-on-crime Texas has never closed a prison. The board says the state could save up to $33 million in the next biennium if the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does a better job of helping released prisoners stay out of the big house, reducing prison population.

—   Eliminate statutory barriers to contain costs in correctional managed healthcare. The LBB says the state could save about $1.2 million in the next biennium by improving health care processes in prisons, like prescription drug distribution and dialysis treatments, and by allowing more really sick and really old prisoners out under the Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision Program. The LBB says in fiscal year 2009, 74 offenders died while awaiting review for medical parole.

— Implement a fuel inefficiency surcharge. In 2010, Texans bought nearly 566,000 cars with less-than-efficient fuel ratings. The LBB says adding a $100 surcharge to the purchase of new vehicles with poor fuel efficiency could raise $115.3 million over the next biennium.

That last one may be my favorite of them all. My only objection is that the surcharge should be higher – I’d plump for $1000, which in the context of buying a bigass truck or SUV isn’t that big a piece of the sticker price. And I say this as someone whose last automotive purchase would undoubtedly have been subject to this. (But not my next one!) Beyond that, lots of other worthy suggestions, all of which I hope receive support in the Lege.

Things I don’t like, or at least am dubious about:

—  Consolidate the state’s poison control centers. There are six now; merging them into one would save $2.6 million annually.

—  Raise prices for storing documents for local governments. The state’s archives aren’t covering their costs with current pricing, and doing so would cut $1.6 million from state spending.

—  Charge state employees for parking in state garages. The state could bring in $5.5 million every two years, the LBB estimates, if it charged state employees as it now charges visitors who don’t work for the state.

—  Cut state contribution to state employee insurance plans. This would save the state $298.1 million in the next biennium by shifting health insurance costs to employees or by keeping those contributions level and lowering benefits under those plans.

—   Charge state retirees extra to keep current health benefit levels. The state could save $95.5 million if it charged retirees to pay part of their insurance premiums based on their years of service, and if it lowered the state’s subsidies for those retirees’ dependents to 40 percent of their premiums (it’s 50 percent now).

—  Increase the state traffic fine to improve traffic safety. Texas could gain about $53 million in general revenue and another $31.7 million in dedicated general revenue over the biennium by increasing the state traffic fine. Already, Texans found guilty of a traffic violation pay a $30 traffic fine to the state in addition to whatever the cost of the citation is. The LBB recommends ramping that fine up to $45.

—  Improve traffic safety by banning the use of wireless communication devices while driving. This ought to make state Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, happy, since he’s tried session after session to ban cell phone use while driving. The LBB says Texas could save lives and generate about $2.3 million by making it illegal to use your mobile device while driving, and also making it an offense under the much-maligned Driver Responsibility Program.

The poison control merger may be all right, but given recent history, I’m highly distrustful of such things. I would oppose anything that increases costs on local governments without strong assurance that other budget actions will not simply transfer state expenses to localities and call them “savings”. I think more work needs to be done on revamping the Driver Responsibility Program before any fines should be increased; while I don’t oppose a texting-while-driving ban, adding anything to the DRP is something to be very skeptical of. I realize that the insurance items are big tickets, but imposing them on top of furloughs is putting a lot of the burden on state employees; charging them for parking is just insult to injury.

Things I think are hilarious:

—  Steer veterans to benefits that aren’t state-funded. Use national public assistance databases to make sure veterans in Texas aren’t using Medicaid — which costs the state money — for benefits that are available from veterans programs that don’t use state money.

—  Maximize the federal funds Texas receives for transportation. Texas could get more than $223 million from federal transportation dollars if lawmakers changed some laws to improve the transportation planning process and the coordination among transportation-related agencies, according to the LBB.

We hate the fascistic, freedom-killing federal government and its evil, filthy money, except when they help pull our budgetary fat out of the fire. Then we can’t get enough.

Those are my off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. What do you think?

More on Lonnie Allsbrooks

Lonnie Allsbrooks, the most recent entrant in the race for City Council At Large #1, sent a missive to Swamplot about problems he’s had trying to open a second establishment with a beer and wine license. It’s not easily excerpted, so just go read it for yourself. Two things I have to say:

1. What I know about the Heights being dry is that it’s because the formerly independent city that once was the Heights was dry, and that its annexation by Houston didn’t change that. As far as I know, an election would need to take place to overturn that. I remember seeing a map once that showed the dry/not dry boundaries, but I don’t recall where I saw it. If anyone can shed a little light on that, I’d really appreciate it.

2. The race for At Large #1 is now officially more fun than it was before. Read the Swamplot post and you’ll understand.

UPDATE: An email to Whitmarsh’s list reminds me that Beer Island had a Tommy Thomas sign on it last year. That wasn’t exactly in touch with area sentiment.

Blue laws

Ever wanted to buy some booze on a Sunday? Maybe soon you’ll be able to.

Most Texans are familiar with the Blue Laws.

Put into effect decades ago, they prevent the sale of hard liquor on Sundays, among other things.

“There is certainly an inconvenience there, no doubt about it,” Spec’s Liquor Warehouse customer Bud Hall said.

And it’s inconvenient even for customers wanting to buy beer or wine. The same laws make it illegal to sell those items before noon on Sundays.

“If we are having a barbecue on a Sunday or something like that, and it is before noon, we have to sit there and wait,” Spec’s customer Scott Moody said.

Now, a bill filed in the Texas Legislature is looking to repeal those restrictions for good.

There’s no information given about said bill or its author in the story, so I’m not sure what its number is, or whether there may be more than one such bill. The closest thing I could find is HB863 by Rep. Robert Roland Gutierrez (D, San Antonio), which would allow for liquor sales on Sundays between noon and 6 PM; it doesn’t mention anything about beer or wine. That doesn’t quite fit the description in this story, but it’s all I could find.

But that’s not good news for Spec’s owner John Rydman.

“In the 2,500 or 2,600 package stores that there are all over the state of Texas are family people. We don’t want to necessarily work another day. It’s not good for my employees. They need a day off,” Rydman said.

It would also add more overhead to the store’s bottom line, Rydman said.

With the economic downturn, state lawmakers are looking for different ways to generate revenue. Selling booze on Sundays is just one of their ideas.

“I think this is a good source of revenue without having to increase taxes or cut valuable state programs,” District 143 State Rep. Ana Hernandez said.

Hernandez said Sunday liquor purchases could generate upwards of $5-8 million for the state.

Rydman disagrees.

He said his sales wouldn’t go up. Instead, he believes they’d just be spread out over seven days instead of six.

“Those who filed the bills are still convinced there is extra money somewhere. They just think we are crazy—that we people in business don’t know what we’re talking about,” Rydman said.

I support repealing the blue laws because I think they’re a relic of a bygone past that doesn’t really serve any purpose today. I think there would be a modest increase in state revenue from such a change; in context, five to eight million bucks is pretty modest and is probably in the neighborhood. It also likely would spread existing sales around more, but that sounds like a convenience customers have wanted. I appreciate Rydman’s concern about his employees and his bottom line, but I feel confident he can make it work. Spec’s notes that its hours of 10 AM to 9 PM Monday through Saturday are “The maximum allowed by law”, which suggests to me they’d do more – certainly that their customers would want them to do more – if they could. So whether it’s HB863 or some other bill I was unable to locate that’s the vehicle for this, I support the effort to extend the allowable hours for the sale of alcoholic beverages.

UPDATE: Roland Gutierrez, not Robert. My apologies.