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February, 2003:

Where the rubber meets the road

We’ve been talking about budget cuts as the Only Acceptable Solution for the budget crunch for awhile now, so let’s talk a bit about what that’s actually going to mean. Two articles from today’s Chron give us some insight, starting with this one about the effects of proposed cuts on state universities:

The University of Houston’s president told legislators Wednesday the school would need to increase tuition and fees by as much as 50 percent to make up for money lost in proposed state budget cuts.

UH President Arthur Smith and other educators also predicted that a lack of funds might lead to staff cuts. Smith didn’t provide specific numbers, but University of Texas at Austin President Larry Faulkner said he might be forced to cut as many as 250 faculty positions and 300 administrative and support positions, and Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System, said the Denton campus might have to eliminate 200 faculty and 300 administrative slots.

“Faculty hiring will come to a stop, and staff reductions will begin,” Smith told members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on education. “Next year’s students will find fewer course sections and larger classes. Marked reductions in retention and graduation rates will come as early as the second year of the biennium (2005). Research productivity will decline significantly within two to three years.”

Mark Yudof, chancellor of the UT System, added, “We face one of the most extraordinary budget crises in the history of Texas. … There will be no free ride.”

And one for the law-and-order fans, about how there’s no more room in the prisons:

With state prisons nearing capacity and legislators in a belt-tightening mood, Senate leaders announced Wednesday that they are working on an emergency solution to find space for 4,000 more inmates.

But some lawmakers warned that the state cannot avoid future prison overcrowding if the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is forced to continue to cut its budget.

The state prison population is at 97.5 percent of capacity with 147,565 inmates. TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd said prisons are receiving an average of about 5,500 new inmates a month while releasing only 5,000.

We are going to stay ahead of this (crowding) problem,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst vowed.

The powers that be hope to put the problem off for awhile by shuffling people around and shortening the required stay in drug rehab from nine months to six. But other measures, ones that will undoubtedly be unpopular, are also being considered:

Dewhurst also indicated he may support an increase in parole of nonviolent offenders, if it could be done safely.

The parole rate, which had been averaging about 25 percent of those eligible, dropped to 17 or 18 percent several months ago.

“That’s one of the reasons why we’ve had an increased pressure on our prison beds,” he said.

Gerald Garrett, chairman of the state board of pardons and parole, said the board may accelerate its review of cases already slated for parole consideration and expand the pool to put more cases into the process.

Which is something I support, frankly. I’ve noted before that the prison industry is the only part of the Texas budget that’s above average in per-capita spending, and thus it’s the first place we should look for efficiencies. So this doesn’t particularly bother me.

Of course, as the story notes at the end, budget cuts will likely reduce the number of parole officers “to 1,100 from 1,600, increasing their caseload from 75 to 100 parolees per officer”, meaning that there will be less oversight of parolees and thus very likely a higher recidivism rate. Which just proves that not all cuts actually wind up costing us less.

Bad things you can do to pizza

From Brad DeLong:

Ann Marie, staring at a line on a menu offering kung pao chicken pizza: “I think we can safely say that fusion cuisine has gone too far.”

I think it’s the combination of hoisin sauce, peanuts, and mozzarella cheese that is distressing…

My parents once took some friends of mine and me out for pizza while I was in college. A couple of my buddies wanted to order a “Hawaiian” pizza that had Canadian bacon and pineapple on it. My folks still refer to this as an unspeakable culinary depradation. I shudder to think what their reaction would be to the aforementioned kung pao chicken pizza. I’m feeling a bit queasy myself.

Iraq can pay for its own reconstruction

From Yahoo News:

The Bush administration said Tuesday that it expects Iraq to pay for its own reconstruction in the event there is a war to oust Saddam Hussein.

“Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is a rather wealthy country. Iraq has tremendous resources that belong to the Iraqi people. And so there are a variety means that Iraq has to be able to shoulder much of the burden for their own reconstruction,” said White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer.

“Our advice is to start by cutting taxes on dividends. We find that this allows you to pay for most everything,” Fleischer did not add.

Via Body and Soul.

It’s a great time to be a political consultant

Tim Fleck gives an overview of fat times in the local political consulting industry, thanks to the sure-to-be-a-record-breaker Mayoral race that looms large this November. First up, we see that Bill White is not letting his Democratic credentials keep him from going after Republican voters:

For instance, businessman and former state Democratic chairman Bill White has hired fund-raiser Herb Butrum, a veteran Republican consultant with ties to the Bush family who raised money for both Mosbacher and Sanchez.

Butrum predicts he’ll have no trouble tapping GOP sources to support his candidate.

“People understand the mess the city is in,” says Butrum. “More than anything, people want to see the city fixed, and that will trump most partisan feelings.

“For the city to come out of that, it’s going to take real business experience. That resonates with Republicans regardless of party labels. Bill has always been viewed as a real uniter and a very smart guy.”

Asked whether he can deliver GOP movers and shakers to White, Butrum says a number of people already on the team are “very, very close to the Bushes and the Perrys of this world.” He expects that the White campaign will unveil a high-powered battery of GOP supporters in coming months.

We’ll see if the Democrat-who-can-appeal-to-Republicans act works any better for White than it did for Chris Bell and George Greanias. I think it’s more likely to annoy Democrats and amuse Republicans, but if you’re a guy with a big bankroll, actual credentials, and no obvious base of support, I guess you have to do something.

This bit I’m still trying to understand:

The conservative Republican team of Allen and Elizabeth Blakemore is handling hyperambitious Councilman Michael Berry’s mayoral campaign, although a lot of smart money is betting that Berry eventually runs for controller instead. Berry could draw away attention and support from Sanchez in the early going while roughing him up with hardball attacks behind the scenes in the conservative community.

Allen Blakemore certainly has the connections to do that, since he is joined at the hip to right-wing activist Steven Hotze and his church-based political network. In any case, the rivalry between Sanchez and Berry for Republican votes also creates a mini-soap opera pitting the Blakemores and the Waldens against each other. (Social note: These two tandems have never been particularly fond of each other and should not be included on the same dinner party list.)

The Waldens are Dave and Sue, mentioned elsewhere in the article. I don’t get why the Blakemores have hitched their wagon to Boy Wonder Berry. He’s certainly no more conservative than Orlando Sanchez, he’s even less experienced in city government, he has no realistic chance of winning, and he could siphon off just enough support from Sanchez to let White and Turner in to the inevitable runoff, an outcome which I’d think would make most GOPers grind their teeth. Maybe it is just a bluff and he really wants to be comptroller, but again, there are other conservative Council members who would seem to be more attractive to the Blakemores (I’m thinking Bruce Tatro especially). Can any of the local Republicans help me out on this one?

No mention in this article of Chief Bradford. The Chron‘s John Williams had an amusing roundup of what-they-said/what-they-meant from each campaign’s main flack regarding a possible Bradford candidacy. If that’s accurate, then as a Bill White supporter I ought to start encouraging the Chief to toss his hat in.

Texas blogging

Aziz asks:

Mainly out of simple curiosity, who else is a Texas (political) blogger? Liberal or Conservative, I’m interested in compiling a list.

I think that’s an excellent idea, and I hope Aziz doesn’t mind if I crib it from him. I’ll even put up a link on my sidebar for this.

Here’s what I’ve got so far, from Aziz, his comments, and the bloggers I know of. To qualify, a blog has to be at least somewhat about politics. I don’t know what the threshhold is, so this is totally subjective by me. If you’re on/not on this list and think you shouldn’t/should be, let me know and I’ll make the appropriate update. As an Extra Added Bonus, I’m including an Expats section for known former Texans.

1117 Democrats for Truth
A Century of Crap
A.D.’s Rug Gallery and Hotbed of Liberalism
A Little Pollyanna
A Skeptical Blog
A Perfectly Cromulent Blog
A Violently Executed Blog
Aaron Pena
After-Party
Aggro
Alamo City Crossfire
Alan D. Williams
Alice in TV Land
All Things Conservative
alt 7
Amanda Strassner
Amblongus
Annatopia
Antinome
Appalachia Alumni Association
Arvin Hill
Austin Bay
Austin Lowdown
Awnry Young Texan
B and B
Back Roads of San Angelo
Barefoot and Naked
Barnga!
Beast’s Belly
Beldar
Ben’s World
Betamax Guillotine
Binkley
blogHOUSTON
BlueTexas
Border Ass News
Both Worlds
Brains and Eggs
Brazoria County Democrat
Brazos de Dios Cantina
Brazosport News
Bryan in 22
Buddenblog
But That’s Just My Opinion
By the Bayou
Canal Water Review
Capitol Annex
Carefully Selected Garbage
CateyBeth’s Corner
Centinel
City of Brass
Civic Dialogues
Clean Up Texas Politics
Coastal Politics

Come and Take It
Common Sense
Corked Bats
Cry Freedom
Dagney’s Rant
Daily Jimbo
Daily Texican
DeLayWatch From The District
Denson in 2004
Dos Centavos
Easter Lemming Notebook
Easter Lemming – Liberal News
esoterically dot net
Etc and So On
Ethel the Blog
Ethical Werewolf
Express-News Watch
Eye on Williamson County
Eyes Left
Father John
Firebrand Freedom
Fort Bend Democrats
Frothing at the Mouth
Get Donkey!
Grant Davis
Greg Wythe
Grits for Breakfast
Ground Zero for Tom DeLay
Hanging Fire
Holofernes
Houston’s Clear Thinkers
Houston Strategies
Houtopia
HugoZoom
I Blame the Patriarchy
Ill-Sorted Ephemera
In the Pink Texas
Incite
InSane Antonio
Insane Troll Logic
Inside the Texas Capitol
JammerBlog
Jessica’s Well
Jim Hightower
Joe Deshotel’s Capitol Weekly
Juanita
Junkyard Blog
Just Another Blog
Keath Milligan
Kevin C
Kim du Toit
krazypuppy
Latinos for Texas
Liberty’s Blog
Lone Star Rising
Lone Star Times
Lubbock DFA
Michael Hatley
Monkey-Brained Musings
Mouse Words
Musselman For America
mUUsings
NewsHog
No More Apples
No More DeLay
Norbizness
Occasional Markings
Oil Patch Democrats
On the Lege
One Hundred Monkeys Typing
Owen Courreges
Panhandle Truth Squad
Peppermint Tea
Phantom Professor
Pink Dome
Political Asylum
Political News & Analysis
Prairie Point
Publius
Rachel Lucas
Ray in Austin
Real Live Preacher
Rhetoric & Rhythm
Rick Perry Versus The World
Rightward Reasoning
Rio Grande Valley Politics
Rob Booth
Roman Candles
Safety for Dummies
SAGA
San Antonio Election 2005
San Antonio Politics
Save Texas Reps
Saving String
713 State
Shiny Special One
Silence is Consent
Skeptical Notion
Socratic Gadfly
Somervell County Salon
Something’s Got To Break
South Texas Law Prof
Southpaw
Stone Bridge
StoutDem
SurlyEdition
Tex Prodigy
Texas’ Favorite Prostitutes
Texas Civil Rights Review
Texas Legislature Observed
Texas Politics
Texas Viking
Texas Women’s Coalition
The Agonist
The Bayou City Perspective
The Burnt Orange Report
The C-Blog
The Fat Guy
The Fire Ant Gazette
The Gunther Concept
The Key Monk
The People’s Republic of Seabrook
The Red State
The Scarlet Left
The Supreme Irony
The Trailing Edge
The View from the Left
The View From The Nest
The View v.2
This Blog is Full of Crap
This Is Not A Compliment
Tholos of Athena
ToT
Trans-Texas Corridor Blog
Trivial Pursuits
Truth Serum
Urban Grounds
Very Opinionated
Virginia Postrel
Voice in the Wilderness
Watchblog
Watching Parking Meters
West Texas Voice
Winding Road in Urban Area
Winter of Discontent
Wood County Issues
Writerrific
Yellow Doggerel Democrat

And, of course, me.

The expats that I know of:

Angry Bear
Arguing with Signposts
Boi from Troi
Boots and Sabers
Bull Moose
Grammar Police
Half the Sins of Mankind
Kesher Talk
Little Red Cookbook
Max Power
Nick Schwellenbach
Ones and Zeros
Path of the Paddle
Perverse Access Memory
RAWbersvations
The Raitt Stuff
RLBTZero
Secure the Blessing
Strategeric Thoughts
The Poor Man
Tres Chicas (Lauri)
Xpatriated Texan

Again, if you are or know of someone I’ve overlooked, please let me know.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Bevo has a blog. It’s about cows.

UPDATE: Removed all of the subsequent update notices because this entry was taking too long to rebuild.

Pteropundit">One for the Pteropundit

Scientists are trying to figure out why there are a bunch of dead robins in Central Texas. The leading theory is…well, see for yourself:

Pesticides, a common killer, were ruled out. So was West Nile virus because the mosquitoes that transmit the disease have been zapped by cold weather. Tests run by two laboratories were inconclusive.

Now scientists are wondering whether the birds succumbed to a junkie’s fate — overdosing on alcohol-spiked berries or hallucinating on fruits plucked from exotic bushes in the back yards of suburbia.

“The bird gets stoned,” said Cliff Shackelford, an ornithologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which has been investigating reports of dead robins along the Interstate 35 corridor since mid-January.

[…]

Each year millions of robins born in southern Canada, the Great Lakes and Northeast make the trek to Texas, settling for the winter in areas with the most abundant food.

Die-offs happen periodically, due to bacteria flare-ups and the stresses of migration.

But this particular death spell was more pronounced because of the size of the robin population, which was pushed higher this year by the harsh winter gripping the North, state wildlife biologists said.

With more competition, some robins gorge on foods that in a normal year are not as prevalent in their diet. Some of these plants cause the same side effects that college freshmen get after downing too many tequila shots, Shackelford said.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to prove this hypothesis:

There is no equivalent to the blood alcohol test for birds, since their digestive system processes berries and alcohol rapidly.

“I don’t know what other tests we can do,” Shackelford added. “When they keep coming up negative, we don’t have the resources.”

And while it is a common belief that birds get drunk on berries that repeatedly freeze and thaw — a process called fermentation that converts sugar to alcohol — some scientists question whether the fruit is a high enough “proof” to kill them.

“The evidence that there is enough alcohol in the berries to kill them is not there,” said Jesse Grantham, a biologist and director of bird conservation for Audubon Texas.

“They think grapes, berries, alcohol … the birds are drunk. I’ve never seen a study saying birds are dying of alcohol intoxication”

Grantham said the cause is more likely that the birds are feeding on non-native ornamental shrubs that contain toxins that American birds weren’t designed to stomach.

Examples include Chinese tallow, fire thorn (Pyrocantha coccinea) and chinaberry, he said.

“Most of the die-off is in suburban areas where people plant ornamental shrubs,” Grantham said. “There are some hazards to planting non-native species in your yard.”

Where are Grissom and Willows when you really need them?

City Council to consider anti-war resolution

Despite more pressing matters facing it, the Houston City Council will be considering a resolution to oppose an invasion of Iraq.

Six of the council’s 15 members support some form of a resolution on possible U.S. military action and some of them say the body should at least have the conviction to discuss it.

Mayor Lee Brown said through his chief of staff, Stephen Tinnermon, that neither of the two councilmen’s draft resolutions had enough votes to pass and he did not want to put either on the agenda until they did.

Councilman Gordon Quan’s draft called for the council to go on record “opposing unilateral pre-emptive military action against Iraq.”

Such action, it said, would cost billions of dollars when the American economy is struggling and cities are suffering fiscal crises.

Councilman Carroll Robinson’s draft supported withdrawing U.S. military personnel from the Middle East, Europe and South Korea and redeploying some to nations willing to accept them.

The draft proposed using the savings for domestic priorities, specifically a universal health care plan, prescription drug plan for senior citizens and education.

The Coalition for Justice Not War, working to get an antiwar resolution on the council agenda, supported Quan’s draft, said Ken Freeland, coalition spokesman.

“The best support we can give the American armed forces is to keep them out of an unjustifiable war in the Middle East,” Freeland said.

Look, I’m not in favor of this invasion, either, but I firmly believe that it’s none of the Council’s business. Yes, I know, other city councils have adopted similar resolutions. I think they’re equally misguided. City councils are about city business. Period.

If individual council members want to speak out on this issue, they’re free to do so on their own time. Were any of them at the anti-war protest last weekend? Not as far as I can tell. This just strikes me as posturing, and even though it’s for a position I favor, I still don’t approve.

A few things about me

Awhile back, Scott suggested I add a bio of some kind to this page. Well, in honor of my birthday, this post is it. If you’re curious about some possibly interesting but mostly obscure facts about me, then please click on the More link.

(more…)

Happy birthday to me

Today is my 37th birthday. I’m exactly the same age as Justine Bateman and exactly one day older than Cindy Crawford. Probably the most famous person to share a birthday with me is Copernicus, who would be 530 years old today, but there’s also Eddie Arcaro, Lee Marvin, John Frankenheimer, Smokey Robinson, Jeff Daniels, Falco, and Prince Andrew.

Among other things to happen on this date, on February 19, 1848, rescuers reached the Donner party. There’s a fun fact to bring up when someone offers a toast on your birthday.

UPDATE: Thanks to TalkLeft, I see that February 19, 1942 is the day that FDR gave the executive order to round up Japanese-Americans and place them in detention camps. Lovely.

Crime and punishment, NCAA-style

Steve Smith of OffWing Opinion recently wrote of the passing of Michigan booster Ed Martin, whose payola to the Wolverine men’s basketball teams of the late 80s have recently come to light:

Although I don’t condone lying to a court of law, even if it’s about something as trivial as receipt of booster payments or oral sex, the notion that Michigan would even consider sitting out the [NCAA] tournament this year for activities that date back to 1988, when several of the starters on this year’s team were toddlers, is madness. Maybe the university thought back in October that the punishment (which also includes forfeiting hundreds of victories from the Fab Five era) might impress the NCAA, so it had nothing to lose. After all, no one expected Michigan to do anything this year, especially after they lost their first six games. Now that Michigan is tied for the conference lead, and the star witness against them is dead, they might reconsider that earlier decision.

The problem that I have with this line of argument is that it basically means you have to catch and punish offenders the same year that they sin, otherwise you are perforce punishing at least some kids who weren’t there when the infractions occurred. In my opinion, NCAA sanctions for violations are designed to punish the school and its fans. It’s regrettable that innocent players are also affected, but that can’t be helped. Perhaps in cases like that the NCAA should allow players to transfer and play immediately, without having to sit out a year. That would not only give them an option, it would be an extra incentive to not cheat. Heck, let ’em transfer to any school that has been free of NCAA violations for at least five years, even if that puts the new school over the scholarship limit for that year. If that means Michigan has to scrounge for walkons or forfeit games because they don’t have enough players, so be it. That would be an incentive to keep your nose clean.

It would help, of course, if the NCAA were first and foremost an organization that cared about amateur college athletics instead of the almighty dollar. Quite a few schools have committed infractions that were as severe as SMU did in the 1980s, but none have received the “death penalty” since Mustang football was shut down for two seasons, and it’s unlikely any other program ever will. The money involved is too great, the conflicts of interest too inherent.

For what it’s worth, I have no qualms about proposals to pay players. The only argument against it is the ideal of amateur athletics. I can’t even type those words with a straight face any more. But let’s not be naive and think that giving players a stipend will lessen the urge to cheat. Boosters like Ed Martin were about winning at whatever cost. They’ll always be with us, and they’ll find ways to make their influence felt, both legal (such as “cherry-wood lockers, plush carpets and million-dollar weight rooms”) and not.

Anyway, I believe that the University of Michigan should be punished for Ed Martin’s infractions, I believe that any Wolverine who feels that this is unfair to him should be allowed to immediately transfer, and I believe that until the Ed Martins of the world begin to fear the price of cheating, cheating will continue to be rampant. The best thing to happen would be for an Ed Martin’s fellow fatcat alums to forever shun him for having cost their team an unacceptable loss of scholarships, money, players, postseason appearances, and prestige.

Goodhair nips heresy in the bud

Some pesky Republicans in the Lege have been straying off the ranch lately, calling for an expansion of the state sales tax so that drastic cuts in the education allotment can be avoided:

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the state should expand the sales tax to services, the fastest growing sector in the state’s economy and accounting for billions in untapped revenue.

“The current school system is being funded today on the backs of the local property tax payers. We can no longer continue to do so,” Shapiro, Senate Education Committee chairwoman, told educators rallying at the Capitol for increased public education funding.

“I would propose an alternative tax structure by expanding the sales tax base to include the service industry and the exemptions,” she said before the crowd of about 300 teachers, parents, students and other supporters.

Shapiro said she would not remove sales tax exemptions for food and medicine, which she conceded account for the lion’s share of an estimated $26 billion in sales tax exemptions.

Governor Goodhair, bless his stout heart and singleminded devotion to dogma, is having none of it:

“As I have said on numerous occasions, this is not the time to be talking about raising revenues. I’m focused on the spending side first and foremost,” Perry said Monday after speaking to the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas.

He has asked lawmakers facing a $10 billion budget shortfall to build a state budget from zero and set priorities without exceeding the $54.1 billion in state money available for the next two years.

That means cuts of about 12.5 percent over the current budget, which totals $114 billion when you add in federal and other funds.

“I think we’ve got to stay focused on the spending side. Once you take your eye off of the focus of spending and start talking about revenues there seems to be a historical pattern of people losing their resolve to pare the budget down to where it needs to be,” Perry said.

Let’s review again where the budget currently is:

Category .. Rank

Overall spending per capita .. 50

Mental health .. 47

Cash welfare .. 48

Corrections .. 17

Highways .. 42

Public health .. 45

Parks and Recreation .. 48

State employee wages .. 50

Education .. 37

Public welfare and Medicaid .. 46

We have hit rock bottom (which is to say, worse than Mississippi) and we have started to dig. We have gone long past the point of trimming fat from the budget, and have begun to trim ears, fingers, and internal organs.

Given that we’ll make Barbra Streisand the permanent Queen of the Cotton Bowl Parade before we adopt a state income tax, I’ll reluctantly endorse Shapiro’s idea. At least it still exempts food from the sales tax (unlike Talmadge Heflin’s proposal), which alleviates the burden it would put on poor folks. I don’t know what it’s going to take to make our idiot Governor realize that both sides of the budget equation need examining, but he’d better figure it out quickly.

Salon interviews Molly Ivins

Salon has a short – almost disappointingly so – interview with Molly Ivins today. Check it out.

Ah, fame

Via Mark Evanier, I see that some crazy college kids in Baytown (about 30 miles east of Houston) wanted to set a world record on February 1 by gathering the most people ever wearing Groucho Marx noses and glasses in one place.

The record was originated in the town of Pittsfield, N.H. in summer 2001 when 522 people gathered on a tennis court to don the familiar glasses-and-nose disguise.

“It was a part of our annual Old Home Day celebrations,” related Elsie Morse, editor of the Sun-Cook Sun, the weekly newspaper for the area. “It is sort of a big reunion for the town. We try to do something different each year.

“We all gathered at the court and were given our nose-glasses and we stood there for an hour,” she added. “And it rained.”

When told the town’s grip on the record was in jeopardy, Morse was genuinely disappointed.

“No, no,” she said, “you can’t.”

However, upon discovering that Baytown a city of about 70,000 was about to overwhelm the stunt she managed to salvage a degree of pride.

“Well,” Morse said, “we are a town of 5,000 people, so I’d say we did pretty well.”

The author goes on to note that an awful lot of students at Lee College, which is where this record was to be broken, had no idea who Groucho Marx was. I’m with Evanier – that’s just a damn shame. I’ll also add that the Baytown Sun is in dire need of a copy editor.

For what it’s worth, I nearly took a job teaching math at Lee College when I was leaving grad school. I wound up with a software company instead. Were I there today, I’d probably bring my DVD of Duck Soup to help combat their cinematic ignorance. (For the rest of you, I’ll recommend Roger Ebert’s review of Duck Soup.)

I love it when you’re snarky

I have to admit, when the Chron‘s Cragg Hines gets snarky he can be quite entertaining. Take this piece on Tom DeLay’s strongarm tactics to force the Lege into taking up congressional redistricting:

The last time I wrote about Tom DeLay having a “hissy fit,” one of his taxpayer-financed henchwomen called in a rage. Well, she or a successor can poise bejeweled fingers atop the nearest touch-tone keypad, because the U.S. House majority leader is on the verge of another hissy fit.

DeLay’s head, in fact, may explode if he can’t cajole-threaten the Republican majorities in the Texas Legislature into reopening the can of worms known as U.S. House redistricting. His erstwhile partisan colleagues in Austin, much to their credit, are stalling, but the nation’s best-known bug man will not easily take “no” for an answer.

Heh. Hines then slaps around Rep. Pete Sessions, who’s carrying some water for DeLay on this topic:

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, took up the cudgels after the Dallas Morning News (in an editorial position it shares with the Chronicle) criticized the idea of revisiting the redistricting issue.

Sessions said there was not only a “need” to redraw U.S. House lines but “a constitutional duty” for the Legislature to do so. Hogwash. There’s no “need” or “constitutional duty” until after the 2010 federal census. Anything before that is political tinkering.

Sessions crunches some numbers and argues for redistricting because Republicans candidates for the U.S. House in Texas got 2.3 million votes as against 1.9 million for Democratic candidates. Surely Sessions, an ideologically white-as-snow Republican, is not arguing for political quotas.

It’s rich that Sessions is brazen enough to stick his head above the parapet at all in this debate. The court-approved district plan established a new seat in northwest Dallas County that is overwhelmingly Republican. In about two nanoseconds, Sessions fled his old, more political iffy seat headquartered in Southeast Dallas to run from the safer territory. In British parliamentary parlance, this is known (with good reason) as a “chicken run.”

Bravo!

I’ll add that the Dallas Morning News is a dependably conservative paper, so if they aren’t too enthusiastic about DeLay’s little scheme, no other major paper is likely to be either. I’ll keep an eye on this, but I don’t expect anything further to happen.

There ain’t no such thing as a free tuition

Oooh, this one’s gonna sting: The state of Texas may have to renege on promises to pay college tuition for eligible students:

An estimated 5,000 students would be denied free college tuition promised to them by the state because of the projected $10 billion budget shortfall, lawmakers were told today.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Don Brown told members of the House Appropriations Committee that budget cuts would mean the Texas Grant scholarship program would not be able to provide aid to all of the estimated 80,000 students who will be eligible in 2004-05.

[…]

High school graduates who passed a college preparatory curriculum are eligible for the Toward Excellence, Access & Success grants if they attend a Texas institution.

The Legislature created the program in 1999 to cover full tuition and fees at public schools and defray costs at private universities.

Brown said it would take $440 million, up from the current $300 million, to meet the projected demand for the grants in the next two years.

He emphasized that he would rather not slash any of the programs but was required by the governor and lawmakers to identify potential cuts.

Yet another consequence of our state’s fetish about spending. We have a growing population, we know that a college degree is an excellent boost to one’s future earning potential, yet we spend less on state grants per student than the national average, we have less state support for student aid than the national average, and we have an increase in borrowing by students. And now we’re proposing to make it all worse, even though certain high-level politicians were happy to tout this very program this year and in years past. Oops, sorry kids, this sort of thing is only important when there’s an election coming up.

I know, I know, this is all preliminary, and we must explore all avenues, and yadda yadda yadda. I just want to know one thing: Does anyone in Austin think that cutting education funding might possibly incur long-term costs that will have a negative impact on future budgets, or is this biennial session all they care about?

Just call me Coach

I’m still not exactly sure how this happened, but some time over the weekend, I got talked into coaching a Little League baseball team. One of Tiffany’s coworkers (John) is a head honcho in a league in his neighborhood (which is not far from ours), and they wound up with too many players in the 9- to 10-year-old group and not enough parents who were willing to don the whistle and clipboard. John had already made inquiries about my availability to umpire, and in a moment of need decided to go for the gusto and see if I’d be willing to coach instead. Somewhere along the line I said Yes.

The last time that I coached anything was as a teenager when my dad and I served as assistant coaches for my brother’s Little League team. Though the team went something like 3-7, I like to think that I contributed in a small way to one of those victories. I was in charge of running infield/outfield practice before each game, and one day I decided that I’d give everyone a chance to try something new. So, I put all the regular infielders in the outfield, and vice versa, and ran the drill that way.

Well, the drill was quite a bit sloppier than usual that day, since most of the kids had never played their assigned position before. After we won the game, over an opponent that was objectively more talented than we were, my mom told me that some of the other parents had observed our pregame exercise and concluded that their boys would whip us easily. They were openly talking about it, in fact. Whether this before-the-fall pride was transmitted to their kids or not I couldn’t say, but I’ll take the credit for it anyway.

Though I have no idea what I’m getting into, I find I’m rather looking forward to it. I’ve been told by John that I’ll have several dads to serve as assistant coaches, and Tiffany has volunteered to help out as well. I’ll let you know how we do as the season progresses.

It’s gonna be a long campaign

Get ready to start seeing Bill White for Mayor ads on the teevee and radio, as the first announced candidate tries to raise his name recognition:

The Houston lawyer and businessman has purchased enough television commercial time for each Houstonian to see him nine times over a three-week period, based on predicted viewing patterns.

His well-financed campaign also will run advertisements on English- and Spanish-language radio stations.

[…]

“Polls I have seen show Bill White has negligible name identification,” said Rice University political scientist and pollster Bob Stein. “He needs to overcome that.

“The question is, will this stick?” Stein said, noting that voters might not be paying attention so early in a mayor’s race.

It probably can’t hurt. White is not starting out with an obvious base of support, so he’s going to need to demonstrate viability in order to get money and endorsements.

In the first commercial, called “Traffic,” three White supporters talk about their belief that White can solve local traffic problems.

The ad includes a Hispanic man, radio executive Tom Castro; a black woman, small-business owner Gail Brown; and a white man, lawyer Daryl Bristow. All three say that White can “get this city moving.”

Seems like a savvy move, both in addressing an issue that everyone cares about and in showing a Rainbow Coalition of support. He’s going to have to cannibalize the Sanchez and Turner bases if he wants to make it to a runoff.

I’ll report my impressions when I come across one of his ads.

Cynthia Cooper redux?

Is two-time WNBA MVP Cynthia Cooper about to come out of retirement? Houston Comets owner Les Alexander thinks so:

“These are heady times for the Houston Rockets and Comets,” Alexander said to those in attendance at the annual Tux & Tennies Charity Gala. “With Yao Ming, we are the No. 1 focus of sports around the world. With Steve Francis, we have one of the best guards in the NBA, and Cynthia Cooper will be coming back to the Comets.

“That announcement will made soon, but we’ll go for another championship.”

Alexander seemed certain there would be no problem finalizing the deal.

“Nothing is done until it’s done,” Alexander said after breaking the news. “But I’m very optimistic. Cynthia Cooper is the Steve Francis of the WNBA. Her coming back is fabulous.”

As a Comets season ticket holder, this is exciting news. I should note, though, that Cooper’s retirement was partly the result of her unwillingness to share the spotlight with Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. A certain level of ego is expected among star players – as Dizzy Dean once said, it ain’t bragging if you can really do it – but if this second go-round is going to work, everyone involved will have to agree that there’s only one ball, and only so many shots available. We’ll see how Coach Chancellor deals with it.

From the Venus and Mars files

Tiffany and I just had the following conversation:

T: “I’m going to iron the shower curtain.”
C: “For the love of God, why?”
T: “I’ve run it through the washer and dryer, and it still has the folds from the package.”
C: “Does this really, cosmically speaking, matter?”
T: “It bothers me.”

I should note that the shower curtain is cloth, with a plastic liner for the wet side. But still. My hopes for ever understanding women have taken another hit.

Google buys Pyra Labs

Hmmm. Google has bought Pyra Labs, the company that created Blogger and Blogspot.

“I couldn’t be more excited about this,” said Evan Williams, founder of Pyra, a company that has had its share of struggles. He wouldn’t discuss terms of the deal, which he said was signed on Thursday, when we spoke Saturday. But he did say it gives Pyra the “resources to build on the vision I’ve been working on for years.”

Part of that vision, shared by other blogging pioneers, has been to help democratize the creation and flow of news in a world where giant companies control so much of what most people see, hear and read. Weblogs are also becoming a valuable communication tool for groups of people, and have begun to infiltrate the corporate, university and government spheres.

[…]

But now Google will surge to the forefront of what David Krane, the company’s director of corporate communications, called “a global self-publishing phenomenon that connects Internet users with dynamic, diverse points of view while also enabling comment and participation.”

“We’re thrilled about the many synergies and future opportunities between our two companies,” he said in a statement on Saturday. He didn’t elaborate further on what those synergies and opportunities might be, but said more details would emerge soon. Users of the Blogger software and hosting service won’t see any immediate changes, he added.

For Williams and his five co-workers, now Google employees, the immediate impact will be to put their blog-hosting service, called Blog*Spot, on the vast network of server computers Google operates. This will make the service more reliable and robust.

Making Blogger and Blog*Spot more robust can only be a good thing, that’s for sure. How many of us Blog*Spot refugees would still be there is it hadn’t been so flaky all the time? I think I would’ve eventually moved, but I can think of some other folks who might not have.

How Google manages the Blogger software and Pyra’s hosting service may present some tricky issues. The search side of Google indexes weblogs from all of the major blogging platforms, including Movable Type and Userland Radio. Any hint of proprietary favoritism would meet harsh criticism.

That I’m not worried about. I certainly agree the backlash would be loud and sustained.

Major technology companies are seeing the potential. Tripod, the consumer web-publishing unit of Terra Lycos, recently introduced a “Blog Builder” tool. America Online is expected to do something similar, and no one will be surprised if Yahoo and Microsoft do the same. Are more buyouts of blog toolmakers in the offing?

I sure won’t begrudge the Trotts any riches they may get from a sugar daddy buyout, but if that does come to pass I certainly hope that they’d stay on and continue being the vision behind MT. Though she doesn’t discuss their own existential future, Mena Trott has some thoughts on this deal on their Six Apart weblog.

Via Gary Farber.

January traffic report

January was my busiest month yet, with just over 6500 visitors, according to the SiteMeter counter. Listed below are the top referrers, according to my webhost’s report. As always, thanks to everyone for visiting, reading, and linking.

(more…)

Will the budget crunch lead to casinos?

And here we go again on another well-worn subject. With the budget crisis and the doctrinal unwillingness to examine the state’s revenue streams, a bill to legalize casinos is once more making its way through the Lege. The difference is that now more people are considering it:

While most legislators publicly hold the same stance on gambling, privately they share doubts about the governor’s plan to resolve the budget crisis without finding new revenue sources.

Recently, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, when asked about the chances of a casino bill reaching the Senate floor, said it was unlikely, but added that the climate may change in the coming months.

“You never say never in politics,” said Tom Rodgers, spokesman for the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas, which is lobbying to revive casino gambling on tribal land in the state.

“There will come a point where the citizens of Texas may not be able to support such difficult spending decisions and they will have to look at the revenue side,” he said.

The arguments for casino gambling are roughly the same as those that led to the creation of the state Lottery in the early 90s, the last time we had a budget crisis. Basically, the argument goes, other states have casinos/lotteries, and Texans want to play casino games/buy lottery tickets, so why should that money leave the state?

I don’t have a problem with the concept of legalized gambling. I’m sufficiently libertarian for that. I do have a problem with the state coming to depend on revenue gleaned from gambling. For one thing, as we’ve seen with the Lottery, it’s not a particularly dependable source of revenue. For another, it’s mostly just another way to squeeze money from lower income folks.

I do wonder just how much extra money will be gained by allowing casinos. From what I can tell, people who cross into Louisiana to gamble do so as part of a vacation or day trip. Will those people really prefer to drive to the Astrodome to drop their change into the one-armed bandits? In other words, are casinos a lure because they’re destinations, or because they’re where you go to scratch your urge to gamble? Has anyone done a study on this? (Answer: Yes, there’s been a study done. Read more here.)

If it turns out that people would make trips to the local casino part of their regular leisure routine, wouldn’t that just be moving dollars around instead of adding them? I mean, I’d have to cut back or give up on other things if I were to add regular casino visits into my routine. Isn’t that just going to mean that fewer of my dollars will be spent at other clubs, restaurants, whatever? There’s a fair amount of evidence that this has been the case elsewhere, as well as evidence that casinos increase crime in their areas.

(It should be noted that Atlantic City is finally starting to see some of the promised benefits of casinos, and some other places have had fewer problems than anticipated. That all strikes me as rather faint praise, but take it as you will.)

I was skeptical about the promises made by pro-lottery forces in 1991 (anyone else remember how lottery money was supposed to go towards education?), and twleve years later I’m at least as skeptical of promises being made by pro-casino forces now. I don’t see any good coming from this proposal, and I hope it dies in committee.

Here we go again

Emma from The Oregon Blog, Barry Deutsch, and Nathan Newman are arguing about that moldie oldie Nader v. Gore. My sympathies are pretty firmly with Nathan on this one. In particular, I’m right there with him as he goes, for the umpty-millionth time, against the “there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans” canard:

Just false. In last fall’s resolution on Iraq, the MAJORITY OF DEMOCRATS IN THE HOUSE voted against the war resolution.

Let me repeat. A MAJORITY OF HOUSE DEMOCRATS VOTED AGAINST THE WAR RESOLUTION. And it was the new Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, who led the forces to defeat the war resolution. And the man who would have been President, Al Gore, came out firmly against intervention.

It’s not bad arguments on behalf of Nader that bother me most. It’s arguments that just flat out don’t tell the truth. Maybe the Naderites are so blind that they can’t even notice reality, such as actual voting tallies or the position of Gore on intervention, but it’s what makes their whole position seem so ridiculous and disconnected from any kind of reality.

Maybe the reason why there are so many dishonest arguments on behalf of Nader is because the man himself starting using them immediately after the election, as chronicled by Matt Welch, who spent several months in 2000 covering the Nader campaign and also voted for Nader. Welch demonstrated just last year that Nader continues to dissemble and fudge. It’s no wonder that the same untruthful arguments are recycled by his supporters.

One thing that tends to get overlooked in the whole did-Nader-cost-Gore-the-election debate is that there were other factors in Florida that worked against the Democrats. Putting aside the infamous butterfly ballot, there’s the fact that thousands of black voters were improperly removed from the voter rolls before the election. Given that blacks voted for Gore at a 93% clip in Florida, that’s a sizeable chunk of support lost.

I’m not a Green voter. They don’t support my values nearly as closely as the Democrats do. Sure, I wish the Democrats were more liberal on various issues, but they’re a hell of a lot more liberal than the Republicans are.

Finally, I’m not particularly impressed by Green claims that the Democrats can’t win without them. I don’t think there’s enough Green voters to justify expending a lot of effort to woo them. Nader got 1/37th of the vote in 2000. I’d rather have that tiny slice than not, but if I can’t get it I’ll look elsewhere. There’s lots of other fish in the sea. The 2004 election is going to be won by turning out the base and by winning over independents. The Greens can get on board or stay on the sidelines. It’s up to them.

Chron discovers Astroturf

Well, not really, but they did print an opinion piece about it. The current GOP Team Leader-inspired turfing has been known for over a month, thanks to the likes of Atrios and Failure Is Impossible, but better late than never, I guess.

Rural schools fear Robin Hood reform

School funding in Texas is done from a combination of local property taxes and state funds. It’s roughly a 50-50 mix, though right now the state’s share is at a low point. In the early 90s, after the inequities of this system were declared unconstitutional, a plan was put into place that shifted funds from richer districts to poorer ones. This was known as the “Robin Hood” plan. Though it has helped to level the playing field somewhat, it has been largely unpopular, especially with those richer districts, and is under another court challenge. Many state legislators ran for office in 2002 pledging to change the school funding system.

A bill by Rep. Kent Gruesendorf (R, Arlington) to eliminate the Robin Hood plan by 2005 has passed out of committee even though it does not mention what the alternative would be. Governor Perry supports this effort, though the only contribution he’s made to solving the problem has been to suggest yet another commission to study school financing.

All of this has generated the usual amount of skepticism. The first actual sign that this train may get derailed comes from this story, which suggests that Republican lawmakers from rural districts fear that any such reform will shortchange their constituents.

Texas’ 700 rural schools are not all property-poor, but they get equalizing funding under the current system because they are so small, and in some cases, remote.

They fear the elimination of that advantage and worry that any new system would force the districts to consolidate, an unpopular idea in rural areas.

“We would lose all that we’ve gained and have to start all over, and we’re worried about what could happen in an urban Legislature,” said Don Rogers of the Texas Association of Rural Schools.

Together, the rural and urban lawmakers have enough power and votes in the 150-member House to slow down a bill to repeal Robin Hood by 2005.

Until now, it had been flying through the legislative process. The bill by House Public Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, offers no alternative plan.

I’m a bit skeptical of this story, since it never actually mentions any Republican lawmakers who may oppose Robin Hood reform. Still, it’s not hard to see why rural legislators might not view reform as favorably as those from the wealthy suburbs.

Some want promises that any new system won’t force small and rural schools to consolidate, an idea pushed by some urban and suburban lawmakers who believe it would save the state money.

Rogers said in most rural areas, the schools are the center of the community and often the largest employer.

The cost of building a central school and transporting students there would offset savings, he said.

Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, agreed. “When you consolidate schools, you ruin communities,” he said.

Laney, the former House speaker, had been influencial in stopping previous pushes for consolidation, Rogers said.

Let’s be blunt here: “Consolidation” means throwing some number of people out of work, an idea that’s never popular. I’m even more skeptical of the notion that this would be a net money saver.

I do think a school finance reform bill will at least come up for a vote, but I’ll be surprised if Gruesendorf’s bill reaches the governor’s desk as is. There are too many questions left unanswered for it to pass in its present form. Despite the pressure that many first-term reps are under to Do Something, I think a compromise of some kind will have to be reached first. Stay tuned.

(This post also appears on the Political State Report.)

Clueless or criminal?

I’ve given my share of beatings to Kenny Boy Lay for his role in the Enron implosion. One of the main reasons why people like me have believed in Lay’s culpability was his steady selloff of Enron stock in 2001, even while telling employees that it was never a better time to buy. What else could this be but sheer criminality?

Well, it could be utter, pathetic cluelessness, as this NYT article suggests. Ken Lay was selling off Enron stock because it was pretty much the only liquid asset he had, and he was in past his neck:

• When the falling stock price left him with too little collateral for his loans, he took several steps to delay selling Enron shares, like selling other investments and persuading a bank to accept an illiquid investment as collateral.

• That summer, Mr. Lay converted more than 200,000 Enron options into stock, but did not sell the shares. A result was a tax liability of several million dollars for an investment that proved worthless.

• That July 31, Mr. Lay stopped daily sales of Enron shares begun the year before under a Securities and Exchange Commission program for corporate insiders. A financial adviser said Mr. Lay believed the stock price was too low.

• In late September, before the crisis hit, Mr. Lay used a $10 million incentive payment to pay down some bank loans, essentially using cash to forestall the further forced sale of Enron shares.

• About the same time, Mr. Lay began to sell and even abandon private equity investments that required him to post additional cash — money he could have raised by selling Enron shares.

All told, experts said, the records indicate that Mr. Lay believed what he said when he told employees the stock was a good buy in August 2001.

“That trading pattern is consistent with Ken Lay sincerely believing that Enron stock had reached a trough and had nowhere to go but up,” said Kevin J. Murphy, who specializes in executive compensation at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California.

How did he get himself into this position in the first place? His portfolio had way too much Enron stock:

The records show that in 1997, Enron shares made up more than 90 percent of his liquid assets. Even his largest illiquid asset — a family partnership, in which he owned an interest then valued at $47.9 million — was largely invested in Enron.

His advisers said they pressed Mr. Lay to diversify, and in late 1999, he did so, largely with borrowed money.

Virtually all of Mr. Lay’s marketable investments were pledged as collateral to back margin loans from institutions like PaineWebber, First Union and Compass Bank, a regional bank. He had multiple lines of credit at Bank of America, including a $40 million line for him and his wife, $10 million for a family partnership and $11.7 million to allow him to buy 2.5 percent of what became the Houston Texans football team.

Throughout 2000, those credit lines underwrote the purchase of new investments. Following his strategists’ advice, Mr. Lay placed millions with money managers, including Goldman, Sachs; Cypress Asset Management: the TCW Group; and Fayez Sarofim & Company in Houston. Millions more went to mutual funds and other public investments.

And as Enron’s stock price fell, he was subjected to more and more margin calls. To raise the cash to pay them off, he sold more shares of Enron stock.

So Kenny Boy had neverending faith that each day would be the day that Enron’s stock price would bounce back, and he and his company would be back in clover. I guess this will ultimately lead to the conclusion that he really was out of touch, and not actively malicious. I’m not sure that this is better for his reputation than a conviction would have been.

By the way, it sure would’ve been nice to have known some of this while Lay was advising Dick Cheney on energy policy, wouldn’t it? Not that we’ll ever know what Lay actually advised Cheney to do, other than to keep his head down while addressing the ball and to order the cabernet with the pheasant.

Via Kevin Whited.

Sharon Keller hits the trifecta

I recently introduced you to Justice Sharon Keller of the state Court of Criminal Appeals. She was in the news recently for suggesting that funds earmarked for legal representation of death row inmates be returned to the state to help alleviate the budget crunch. Before that, she was probably best known for her refusal to acccept exculpatory evidence in the case of Roy Criner.

Well, she’s back in the news now that three of her court colleagues have criticized the full panel for allowing an inmate to be executed despite clear evidence that his court-appointed attorney was utterly incompetent. From the Chron story:

After upholding [Leonard] Rojas’ conviction on his automatic direct appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1997 appointed a Fort Worth lawyer to file a habeas appeal. A habeas appeal is designed to raise claims not based solely on the trial record, and habeas counsel is required by law to conduct a thorough investigation.

The lawyer admitted in an affidavit he did no independent investigation beyond speaking with Rojas one time, reading the trial record and talking to one of the trial attorneys.

The lawyer also failed to take action that might have preserved Rojas’ right to federal habeas review and did not even inform Rojas that his state habeas petition had been denied.

The attorney had received two probated suspensions from the State Bar of Texas. Two weeks after the Court of Criminal Appeals appointed him to represent Rojas, he received another probated suspension for failing to take care of his clients.

Last year, in a widely criticized opinion, the court ruled that habeas lawyers must be competent when appointed but need not represent the client competently. Price, Holcomb and Johnson also dissented in that case, with Price writing that competent counsel “ought to require more than a law license and a pulse.”

The Austin American-Statesman article notes further that the attorney in question had never handled a capital case before and was having “personal and professional problems” at the time.

You really have to love the logic of “habeas lawyers must be competent when appointed but need not represent the client competently”. I guess by that standard if you can drive a new car home, the dealership is off the hook forever, even if the car never starts again.

None of this bothers Keller, who’s more upset that her colleagues aired dirty laundry than with the idea that justice is a process rather than a fill-in-the-blank form:

Keller, joined by Judges Mike Keasler and Cathy Cochran, took a swipe at her colleagues for releasing the dissent, noting that “any jurisdiction this Court might have arguably had over (Rojas’) claims expired upon his execution.”

Yes, God forbid we should ever look back at our actions and reconsider whether they really were the right ones to take. The next time I’m called in for an after-action review of a project at work, I’ll just say that any jurisdiction my manager may have over me in this matter expired upon completion of my work. I’m sure they’ll understand.

You may note that I haven’t mentioned anything about Leonard Rojas or the crimes for which he was executed. Well, if these stories are accurate there’s little doubt that he’s guilty and unremorseful – in short, someone for whom little sympathy is warranted. That’s not the point. The point is that death is, you know, final. If some enterprising law student were to come along and review Leonard Rojas’ case, it wouldn’t make any difference if she were to find a glaring procedural error, the kind of error that would normally force a new trial or even outright dismissal of the charges. That’s because Leonard Rojas is now dead. The Court of Criminal Appeals allowed him to be executed without knowing or apparently caring if he really should be. If we can’t be confident that every death row inmate has had a fair and full chance to appeal his verdict, then we can’t be confident that only the guilty get executed. The fact that Rojas made it to the gurney without a real review of his case should be cause for consternation, not ass-covering.

The excuses that some of our state judges give as to why an incompetently represented defendant doesn’t deserve any better – “Hey, he was competent when we appointed him, it’s not my fault if he turned out to be a goober” – “OK, so his lawyer slept through parts of the trial, but how do you know they were important parts of the trial?” – are just pathetic. If we gave half as much consideration to ensuring fair representation as we do to coming up with these excuses, we wouldn’t need the excuses.

If there’s one good thing to come out of this, it’s that some legislators are working to remove the task of appointing attorneys for these cases from the Court of Appeals. They’ve clearly shown they can’t handle the responsibility.

Thanks to reader darms for the tip.

Valentine’s Day isn’t happy for everyone

Today is the day that Robert Chambers, the so-called “Preppy Killer”, gets out of jail after serving all 15 years of his plea-bargained sentence for the murder of Jennifer Levin in 1986.

Chambers confessed in 1988 to strangling 18-year-old Jennifer Levin two years earlier. He claimed it was an accident while they were allegedly having rough sex; prosecutors said he killed her in a rage.

Wearing a red sweater and green pants, Chambers ignored a phalanx of reporters as he walked out of Auburn Correctional Facility at 7:15 a.m., got into a van and rode off.

On the eve of his release, Chambers issued a statement of regret through his lawyer.

“There has not been a day since Jennifer Levin’s death that I have not regretted my actions on that day,” the one-paragraph statement said. “I know that the Levin family continues to suffer her loss, and I am deeply sorry for the grief I have caused them.”

You can take his remorse with a grain of salt, for he clearly felt none in previous years, even when appearing before the parole board:

[H]e has never shown any public remorse for what he has done. At a 1995 parole hearing, he made the curious statement: “I guess I could also give you the party line and say I have learned my lesson, I will never do this again, but that’s not how I feel at the moment.”

That quote comes from Court TV’s Crime Library, which has all of the details of this case. Don’t read it if your blood pressure is already elevated. I generally have little use for the victims’ rights groups today, but it’s useful to remember that there was a need for them in those days. The treatment of Jennifer Levin by the media and Chambers’ defense team was nothing short of atrocious. Years later, the New York Post is still using headlines like KINKY SEX, EARLY DEATH and saying things like this:

ON a balmy summer evening in 1986, two boozed-up teens strolled into Central Park for a frenzied sexual tryst.

Only one of them left the park alive.

It gets worse from there.

My heart goes out to Jennifer’s parents. May they someday find peace.

Happy Valentine’s Day

I’m still under the weather and thus low on blog energy, so this is as good a time as any to rerun My Favorite Valentine’s Day Story. Happy reading.

Clinton wows ’em in Austin

Bill Clinton was in Austin yesterday and gave a speech about current events. I’m a little low on energy today thanks to a cold, so I’ll just point out this funny line by Liz Carpenter, the former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson and sponsor of the lecture series that brought him to town:

“It’s great to have a former president with us, and one that didn’t need duct tape to hold us together,” Carpenter said.

Heh.

Another Enron report released

Here’s yet another report of Enron’s evildoing, this one about a variety of questionably legal tactics to skirt tax laws. I could quote large bits of this, but I think the following sums up everything you need to know:

Enron received tax advice that pushed legal boundaries from established companies such as Bankers Trust and from its outside law firm, Vinson & Elkins, the congressional panel said in a report on its yearlong probe of Enron’s tax records.

The company’s tax department became a profit center, with its own annual revenue targets, the report says.

“Show Me the Money!” is emblazoned on an internal Enron document regarding a transaction, one of a trove released by the committee.

Emphasis mine. What more can you say?

Good news and bad news

The good news is that famed Texas populist Jim Hightower has a blog.

The bad news is that the design sucks, the layout is ugly (and when an “aesthetic retard”, as Tiffany lovingly calls me, says something is ugly, you can bet your butt it’s U-G-L-Y), he’s got no blogroll, and it all appears to be links to news articles with no original content. Oh, and everything is excerpted, with the More link bringing up a new window whether you wanted one or not. But other than that…

Via Ginger, who thinks (and I agree) that all authors should have weblogs.

State budget update

Governor Goodhair has finally gotten around to admitting that the only way to eradicate the $9.9 billion budget deficit without raising taxes is to cut funding for education and health care, two things he never actually mentioned while on the campaign trail.

The governor’s new spending reductions, designed to help bridge a $9.9 billion revenue shortfall, would average 9 percent for most state agencies — and would be even more for state universities — during the next two-year budget period beginning Sept. 1.

Perry and legislative leaders already have demanded 7 percent cuts from agencies to enable state government to end this fiscal year in the black.

“Texas families don’t want, don’t need and don’t deserve new taxes,” Perry said in his State of the State Address, receiving much applause from the Republican-dominated Legislature.

But the governor reiterated his support for a proposal to let university governing boards raise tuition, an item that could add thousands of dollars to college costs.

[…]

In all, Perry — who last month was criticized for submitting a budgetary proposal that contained zeros rather than specific spending amounts — outlined $9.1 billion in cuts, money transfers, tightened tax loopholes and other spending reductions on Tuesday. He also sought $390 million in new spending for his economic development fund.

The Legislature, subject to the governor’s veto powers, will make the final decision on any spending plan.

The Legislature’s budget-drafting arm has told state agencies to draft a starting-point budget that cuts 12.5 percent from state spending. That would cut public education funding by $2.7 billion, health and human services by $1.4 billion and the state criminal justice system by $607 million.

Well, at least there’s no more smoke and mirrors to hide behind. It’s out in the open, and people can have their say about it. The Chron was typically wishy washy. The Dallas Morning News gave him a mixed review (registration required). I didn’t find any other editorials about his State of the State speech in a quick tour of the big city newspapers. Maybe they’re waiting for a bigger issue to come along.

Those troublesome women

Via DC Thornton, I see that Right Wing News recently hosted a Warblogger Awards competition. I find one thing moderately curious about this, which is that there are separate awards for Best Female Blogger and Best Overall Blog. I don’t quite understand the distinction here. All of the other categories are about blog characteristics – funniest, original content, most bloodthirsty, best group blog, etc – but this one is the only subcategory that’s defined by who the blogger is rather than what’s in the blog.

(OK, that’s not totally true, since there’s also a Best Non-American Blog category. However, I’d argue that non-American blogs are mostly about non-American content and are thus in a genuinely different class, much as non-American films are in a different class than American films. I admit the distinction is a bit hard to pin down, but that’s how I see it.)

There is, of course, a Best Overall Blog, which has male and female entries. It seems to me that if you’re going to give a separate award for women, you ought to be consistent by eliminating the Best Overall award and simply honor Best Female Blogger and Best Male Blogger. To do it this way feels patronizing to me, as if it’s an admission that a woman won’t be in contention for Best Overall.

Putting it another way, it’s wholly appropriate that the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors the Best Male Actor and Best Female Actor in a given year. It would be wholly inappropriate if they honored Best Overall Actor and Best Female Actor instead.

Like it or not, having a Best Female competition in conjunction with a Best Overall competition eventually degrades and devalues the Best Female competition. This is because everyone knows that being Best Female doesn’t mean as much, since after all the field of competition is artificially limited.

An example of this is in the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL). At its national tournaments, there are Open events and Women’s events. In every possible metric – coverage, number of participants, buzz – the Open events have tons more prestige. Someone once told me that the only real reason for the Women’s events these days is to provide employment opportunities for female professional players (since their clients tend to be women). Even that is changing, since some high-profile female clients have started hiring male pros and winning Open events. I don’t expect the Women’s events to ever go away, since they also serve as qualifiers for the international Women’s championships, but it really doesn’t matter since no one pays much attention to them anyway.

(Ironically, it was a lawsuit in the 1980s by a woman named Jillian Blanchard that led to the elimination of Men’s events. Of course, those Men’s events, in particular the national Men’s Pairs championship, were still considered more prestigious. Blanchard and others like her just wanted the chance to test themselves against all competition.)

I’m probably making a needlessly big deal about something that was intended to be lighthearted amusement, and if so I apologize. Lighthearted or not, though, I got a message from that particular choice, and I’m sure it’s not what the author intended.

UPDATE: To quote Eric McErlain, who was a judge:

Best Female Blogger: No Vote — why? Because every female blogger can stand on their own in this competition, they don’t need to be “ghettoized.”

Indeed.