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June 11th, 2007:

MLB celebrates the Army’s birthday

From my Inbox:

The U.S. Army celebrates its 232nd birthday in the coming week (June 14) with commemorative activities at 20 sporting events across the country. Minute Maid Park will house the birthday festivities in Houston as the Astros play the Oakland Athletics on June 14th.

Everyone attending will also have the unique opportunity to participate in the swearing in of 16 Houstonians to the U.S. Army.

By way of party favors, fans will have the chance to win one of 50 bags with memorabilia signed by Astros alumni, an exclusive Army leather jacket or to have their picture taken with G.I. Johnny and the U.S. Army Hummer.

“My father and his father before him served in the United States Army,” said Sergeant First Class Eric Kurzyniec, “and it’s amazing to participate in this birthday celebration that honors all the people who served in the Army over the past 232 years.”

Kurzyniec, who will be singing the National Anthem at the game, was recently awarded a Purple Heart after surviving a roadside attack in Bagdad.

These birthday activities are in conjunction with the Army’s Patriot Season, which honors America’s Soldiers – past, present and future – and their families. Patriot Season runs from Armed Forces Day (May 15) through Independence Day (July 4). Patriot Season also provides opportunities for Army prospects to interact with Soldiers and hear their stories and dedication to protecting our country.

As June 14 also marks the anniversary of the creation of the U.S. flag, the U.S. Army invites the nation to honor America’s Soldiers and the American flag they proudly defend. Although a coincidence that these two symbols of America share an anniversary, Flag Day serves as a reminder to honor the U.S. Army’s dedication to ensure freedom’s light shines as a beacon throughout the world.

The Thursday game starts at one PM, so if you were looking for an excuse to nip out of the office a bit early that day, I’d say you’ve found it.

Pension still pending

Still waiting on a pension deal to be finalized.

The city’s current funding arrangement with the Houston Municipal Employees Pension Fund, which must approve any benefit changes, expires July 1.

Without a new agreement, the city could be forced to pay millions more than White has planned in the proposed budget City Council is scheduled to approve this month.

The sides have met in recent weeks, but the time left to reach an agreement is running out.

“We’ve just waited and waited and waited until the last minute,” said David Long, the fund’s executive director, who has a strained relationship with city officials, especially White. “I’m not saying it can’t be done. We will do everything in our power to get it done. But it certainly makes it difficult.”

White’s proposed benefit changes are designed to cut the pension’s $1 billion unfunded liability over the next 30 years, thereby reducing the city’s annual contribution to the system.

Without a deal, the city must pay $109 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

White says the city can afford only about $75 million, and layoffs would be necessary otherwise. The $34 million difference — seemingly small in a $3.8 billion budget — is roughly the same amount the city plans to spend on libraries next year. That amount also could pay for training hundreds of police cadets.

Administration officials say White’s plan, which pension officials are analyzing now, would allow the city to maintain a more manageable annual payment and provide a competitive retirement package, while also helping secure the pension fund’s long-term viability.

Negotiations began almost four weeks ago. This story strikes me as more of a checkup to see how things are going than a dire warning of an impending train wreck, but beyond that it’s hard to say what’s in the offing. Stay tuned.

So much for staying spoiler-free

Boy, if you decided to TiVo the Sopranos finale and watch something else last night, I hope you didn’t look at the front page, above the fold headline in today’s Chron before you queued it up. Because if you did, you might have gotten a little angry at the lack of discretion therein. (So if you haven’t watched it yet, don’t click that link.)

I realize that most people, TiVo or no TiVo, probably did watch it live last night. But in this day and age, even on true must-see nights, you have to figure there’s a nontrivial number of people who, by choice or by circumstance, put it off till later. It’s one thing to expect people who haven’t tuned in yet to skip a story, it’s another altogether to expect them to overlook the front page. A little restraint would have gone a long way, is all I’m saying.

Early voting: I’ll let John handle it

For this penultimate edition of Early Voting for the runoff, I’m just going to say “What John said.” Go see for yourself.

Which just leaves this:

Early voting ends tomorrow. Today and tomorrow you can vote from 7 AM to 7 PM at any of the locations listed here. Please don’t miss out.

What was finally done about the TYC?

After all was said and done about the Texas Youth Commission, more was said than was done. Scott Henson takes a look at the main legislative action on the TYC (SB103) as well as some changes to the Administrative Code, which came with no public input. Check it out.

Causation, correlation, and car burglaries

Three things about this Chron story regarding car break-ins and enhanced sentencing for repeat offenders. One is that old chestnut about causation and correlation.

After Texas lawmakers downgraded car burglary to a misdemeanor more than a decade ago, vehicle break-ins exploded in the biggest cities.

In Houston in 1995, the year after penalties were reduced, vehicle burglaries jumped more than 20 percent, to roughly 23,000, police say. Last year, the city recorded 32,362 car break-ins.

Looking to reverse the trend, which contributes heavily to big-city crime rates, the Legislature passed a bill this session to restore burglary of a vehicle — breaking into a vehicle and stealing something from it — to a felony for repeat offenders.

The clear inference one draws from these paragraphs is that de-felonizing the crime of breaking into a car led to the increase in that crime; one should therefore also expect a drop in said crime now that repeat offenders can get state jail time. No evidence is offered in the story to support this conclusion, but it’s clearly the one we’re intended to draw from the opening paragraphs.

Which is all the more odd when you realize that contradictory evidence come later on:

Police say vehicle burglars not only target valuables but papers and cards useful in identity theft. As people spend more time in their cars, police say, they have become increasingly lax about leaving behind wallets, purses and briefcases targeted by identity thieves.

Gosh, you think the greater number of wallets, purses, and briefcases being left behind in parked cars might be a contributing factor to the increase in break-ins? Maybe just a little? And who are these people leaving these things in their cars, anyway? How anyone can think that might be a good idea boggles my mind.

And finally:

Houston police Capt. James Jones, who handles legislative matters for the department, said increased penalties for the crime stalled in the Legislature two years ago, and supporters this session were forced to abandon their push to make a first or second offense a felony.

He said increased penalties will give police more incentive to target repeat offenders. But car burglaries will remain a difficult crime to solve.

The legislation includes money to educate motorists about a crime estimated to cost Texans more than $200 million a year.

How will enhanced sentences help if we’re not catching the bad guys in the first place? I’m glad to see that we’re going to spend some money trying to educate people about the dangers of leaving valuables in their cars, since however blindingly obvious that sounds it’s still likely to have a greater effect on this crime than the punishment will. But do we really not have any other tools in our toolbox besides “git tuff”? Is there nothing we could do to make it easier for the police to solve these crimes? For all the money we spend on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, you’d think we could get some better outcomes than this.

The Lottery: Still not a game for the rich

The good news is that rich folks do seem to be buying those new fifty-dollar scratch-off Lottery tickets, as the Texas Lottery Commission thought they would. The bad news is that they’re not buying any of the other pricey scratch-off games, at least in comparison to poor folks.

Several months ago, when the Texas Lottery Commission introduced a $50 scratch-off game, agency officials expressed confidence it would draw affluent customers. But they had little to base that assumption on.

As it turns out, they were right for the first 10 days of sales, at least.

But had they mapped ticket sales of their pricier tickets for the past 12 months — the $10, $20, $25, $30 and $50 games — they might have discovered retailers in the state’s 10 poorest ZIP codes sold $2.4 million of them, some 50 percent more than retailers in the state’s 10 wealthiest ZIP codes.

Per-capita spending on the high-dollar tickets was $25 in the 10 poorest ZIP codes versus $18 in the 10 wealthiest.

That’s counting the early sales data from the new $50 game, which went on sale May 7, and not including ZIP codes with a population of less than 100.

By itself, the new $50 ticket sold faster in more affluent ZIP codes.

[…]

State officials dismiss suggestions that the poor are more apt to wager money on high-dollar lottery scratch-offs.

“Because it’s a poor neighborhood doesn’t mean that the poor are buying the tickets,” maintains Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, who oversees the Lottery Commission as chairman of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee.

“Before, what used to be neighborhood stores now cater to people moving through the neighborhood. I’ve seen it. People stop at different stores and buy their tickets,” he said.

Whatever you say, Kino. I’m sure there’s plenty of River Oaks matrons passing through the working-class areas every day and stopping in at the local Circle K’s to stock up on scratch-off games. Makes perfect sense to me.

For the life of me, I cannot comprehend why anyone would think that rich folks would blow their spare change on high-dollar lottery tickets. Forget the value proposition, there’s much better thrills available for that kind of money. And if it’s the gambling aspect that’s supposed to be the draw, well, that’s why we have Las Vegas. I just don’t get it.

One more thing:

Robert Heith, the Lottery Commission’s spokesman, said the only real way to determine who is buying big-dollar tickets would be to stand “at the door (of each retailer) and ask everybody who bought a lottery ticket where they lived.”

By having a lottery, Flores said, the state gives folks a product they willingly line up to buy and at the same time raises more than a billion dollars a year in revenue for public schools.

“It’s like cigarettes,” Flores said. “If that’s what people want, let them buy it.”

Critics say state-sponsored gambling wasn’t as problematic when most games cost a dollar. (“Oh rats!” Gov. Ann Richards exclaimed 15 years ago when she purchased the first ticket and discovered she’d become the first lottery loser.)

“They always argued it was a harmless, little game. Spend a buck. ‘Oh, I lost. Big deal,’ ” said David Hudson, a former Democratic state representative from Tyler who waged a bitter campaign against attempts to introduce a lottery to Texas.

Lawmakers, then voters, approved the lottery the year Hudson left office, in 1991.

The state spent $2 million the first year on programs to help problem gamblers. The state now spends zero dollars on programs for problem gamblers even as ticket prices hit the stratosphere.

“We don’t encourage people to buy cigarettes,” Hudson said. “We don’t go out and buy billboards advertising cigarettes. But we do advertise lottery tickets. Is this the kind of thing the government ought to be engaged in?”

The pushing of this activity by the government bugs me about the Lottery, too. I have my qualms about legalizing casino gambling in this state as well, but that has more to do with the sleaziness of those who are lobbying for it than with the thought that gambling would be more widespread in Texas. Of course, selling off the Lottery to private investors raises other matters of concern, though in retrospect that was more about how it would be done than why. It’s hard to keep my personal feelings about gambling separate from the question of whether or not some aspect of this is good public policy.