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June 14th, 2007:

Meet the new SOS

We have a new Secretary of State on the way to replace the outgoing one, Roger Williams.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry is expected to promote a top aide to succeed Roger Williams as Texas secretary of state. Phil Wilson, Perry’s deputy chief of staff, would bring a background in economic development to the job traditionally focused on overseeing state elections.

Perry’s office declined to confirm the appointment, which could be announced today. Wilson didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

But state Sen. Kirk Watson aired no objections. Watson, D-Austin, reviewed the choice at Perry’s request because Wilson lives in Watson’s Travis County district.

Watson said he worked closely with Wilson when Watson chaired the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

The senator called Wilson “extremely competent. He works hard; he knows his business; he’s a real straight shooter. As far as I am concerned, the governor can go forward.”

Watson said Wilson assured him Wednesday that as secretary, he won’t take a position on the Republican-favored idea of asking voters to present photo identification or other proof of identity before voting; Wilson believes that it would not be his role as secretary to take a position on identification proposals.

[…]

Wilson watches over the $200 million Emerging Technology Fund and the $185 million Texas Enterprise Fund to recruit business to the state. On his watch, the governor’s office says, Texas has leveraged $10 billion in capital investment and 45,000 jobs.

Early this year, he was Perry’s point man on a failed legislative proposal to sell the state lottery and invest the proceeds in endowments for public schools, health care and cancer research.

Wilson worked previously as state director for former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and as director of communications for Charles Matthews, then a member of the Texas Railroad Commission.

Sounds about as good as anyone Rick Perry might appoint to the position. Which is to say, probably not someone I’ll ever like, but hopefully someone I won’t actively dislike. If he can fix the problems with TEAM, I’ll consider him a success. BOR has more.

The final HPD lab report

The final report on the problems with the HPD Crime Lab and what needs to be done about it has been released.

Independent investigator Michael Bromwich outlined a series of steps he said officials should take to determine what role blood-typing and DNA evidence played in securing convictions against as many as 600 defendants — including 14 already executed — whose cases were processed at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab between 1980 and 2002.

Police Chief Harold Hurtt, Mayor Bill White and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal agreed that hundreds of cases will require further scrutiny and possibly new testing, but they rejected Bromwich’s suggestion that a “special master” be appointed to oversee the process.

“We are committed to having a crime lab that the public and the criminal justice system can have confidence in,” Hurtt said. “But we feel very strongly that … we can accomplish what needs to be done without a special master.”

Bromwich’s recommendations were made in the final report on his sweeping $5.3 million investigation of the lab, where bad management, undertrained staff and inaccurate work — first exposed 4 1/2 years ago — has cast doubt on thousands of convictions and unsettled the criminal justice system in Houston and beyond.

[…]

Police and prosecutors already have begun their review, Hurtt said, adding that, in the absence of a “special master,” the committee of community representatives that oversaw Bromwich’s investigation, known as the stakeholder committee, will check on their progress.

The committee’s presence, coupled with assistance from nonprofits such as the Innocence Project to represent defendants’ interests, eliminates the need for an independent supervisor of the serology review, Hurtt said. Bromwich said the chief’s plan could be an acceptable solution.

Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, said his group will help but that a special master would be more effective.

“There is no other way to get to the heart of it,” he said. “Obviously (we) will provide help, but it’s just too hard.”

Each questionable serology case will get the scrutiny needed, Rosenthal said.

“We are going to start notifying defendants through the courts that there’s a possibility that something was done incorrectly in their cases,” he said, “and we’ll let the courts resolve that.”

While the stakeholder committee could work, as Bromwich says, I agree with Scheck: It will be more effective with a special master. The simple fact is that however well motivated HPD and the District Attorney’s office may be now, there needs to be someone in charge whose interests are independent of theirs. The Chron editorial puts it well:

Local officials understandably want to put the crime lab scandal behind them now that all the lab’s divisions have been certified as satisfactory and are processing evidence. However, hundreds of convicts remain in prison, some more than a decade after trials in which evidence presented might have been erroneously tested. Many no longer are represented by lawyers and will need more assistance than a small advocacy group such as the Innocence Project, with limited resources, can swiftly provide.

Hurtt says the judicial system, including police, prosecutors, judge and jury, can bring justice to the inmates who might have been wrongly convicted. That would leave the matter of representing prisoner interests to the police department that made the case against them, the district attorney’s office that prosecuted them or a small private group. That model does not guarantee impartial justice.

Bromwich, a former U.S. Justice Department inspector general, won national attention when he investigated problems at the FBI crime lab. At a news conference after the release of his report on Houston’s lab, Bromwich agreed that adequate involvement by the stakeholder group could be a substitute for a special master in finishing up the crime lab investigation.

That will put a heavy responsibility on the volunteer, unpaid members to make sure the remaining cases are thoroughly investigated and not swept under the rug in the interest of saving money or jurisdictional expedience.

It’s not that it’s impossible for this to work without there being an outsider in charge, as the example of Dallas DA Craig Watkins shows. Of course, Watkins is basically an outsider, just one who has since gotten himself officially embedded. He has a mandate for what he’s doing that neither Rosenthal nor Hurtt have. Let’s get a special master and get this done. It really is the best way.

Grits has more and more on this. The final report itself is here (PDF).

The 2007 Best and Worst Legislators

Here’s the link, for the usual Limited Time Only, and here are the lists:

THE BEST

Rafael Anchia, Democrat, Dallas
Sen. John Carona, Republican, Dallas
Byron Cook, Republican, Corsicana
Sen. Bob Deuell, Republican, Mesquite
Scott Hochberg, Democrat, Houston
Lois Kolkhorst, Republican, Brenham
Jerry Madden, Republican, Plano
Sen. Steve Ogden, Republican, Bryan
Sylvester Turner, Democrat, Houston
Sen. Tommy Williams, Republican, The Woodlands

THE WORST

Lon Burnam, Democrat, Fort Worth
Warren Chisum, Republican, Pampa
Speaker Tom Craddick, Republican, Midland
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Republican
Sen. Troy Fraser, Republican, Marble Falls
Charlie Howard, Republican, Sugar Land
Sen. Eddie Lucio, Democrat, Brownsville
Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican, Houston
Gov. Rick Perry, Republican
Debbie Riddle, Republican, Houston

Honorable Mention

Rob Eissler Republican, The Woodlands
Senator Kevin Eltife Republican, Tyler
Dan Gattis Republican, Georgetown
Fred Hill Republican, Richardson
Senator Juan Hinojosa Democrat, McAllen
“The Insurgency” Jim Dunnam, Robert Talton, et al.
John Smithee Republican, Amarillo
Burt Solomons Republican, Carrollton
Mark Strama Democrat, Austin
Senfronia Thompson Democrat, Houston
Senator John Whitmire Democrat, Houston

Dishonorable Mention

Kino Flores Democrat, Mission
Pat Haggerty Republican, El Paso
Linda Harper-Brown Republican, Irving
Sid Miller Republican, Stephenville
Mike O’Day Republican, Pearland
Chente Quintanilla Democrat, El Paso
Bill Zedler Republican, Arlington

Rookie of the Year

Senator Kirk Watson Democrat, Austin

The former Austin mayor (and once and future statewide candidate) instantly earned respect for his intellect and diplomacy–and for knowing enough to let his elders take credit for his accomplishments.

Furniture

The concept of “furniture” originated in the early years of the Legislature to describe members who were no more consequential than their desks, chairs, inkwells, and spittoons–the equivalent of backbenchers in Parliament. Today the term is only mildly pejorative; the sin lies not in being furniture but in failing to recognize it. Here is the furniture for the eightieth session:

Alma Allen Democrat, Houston
Roberto Alonzo Democrat, Dallas
Wayne Christian Republican, Center
Senator Craig Estes Republican, Wichita Falls
Joe Farias Democrat, San Antonio
Jim Jackson Republican, Carrollton
Senator Mike Jackson Republican, League City
Nathan Macias Republican, Bulverde
Armando Martinez Democrat, Weslaco

The article is done as correspondence between authors Paul Burka and Patti Hart. I just want to highlight a couple of bits from it, for future reference:

[S]peaking of show business, the Senate has staged its share of theater too. Talk show host Dan Patrick brought his performance to town, both figuratively and literally. While Patrick will argue that we targeted him as a Worst before he ever darkened the Capitol’s huge oak doors, our only pre-session commitment was to our historic criteria. It was his colleagues who shook their heads at the mention of his name, weary of his lectures about overspending and ignoring taxpayers. In the closing days of the session, he told them how his northwest Harris County district provided the money for their constituents to spend, as if poor people don’t pay sales taxes too. Floor debate served as the set for scripted pieces on red-meat issues like illegal immigration, abortion, and appraisal caps. When his dreaded nemesis in the House, Fred Hill, announced his candidacy for Speaker, Patrick sent a mass e-mail referring to him as Fred the Snake. His fellow senators tried to school him, but nothing worked. “Don’t showboat,” they’d say, only to have him arrange for $1 million in cash as a prop for a press conference that was critical of the Senate’s version of the budget, then claim to have discovered $3 billion in savings that their months of work had overlooked. Too bad he didn’t mention his ideas to anyone before the budget was debated. It finally became obvious to all that Patrick was here for the wrong reason: not to be a serious student of state policy but to amass sound bites for a run for higher office in 2010.

[…]

There is no more unreliable senator than sixteen-year veteran Eddie Lucio. His nicknames say it all: Sucio (“Dirty”) Lucio and El Resbaloso (“the Slippery One”). Want to get a laugh from a colleague? Claim you’ve got eleven signatures to block a bill and produce a list with Lucio’s name on it. That’s a good one; Lucio uses disappearing ink. When the city of Houston needed to block a bill undercutting its ability to manage air emissions in neighboring suburbs, Lucio promised to provide a crucial vote against the bill. He voted “present” when a “no” would have killed the bill, then voted “no” when it no longer mattered. He pulled a similar stunt when the Finance Committee was looking for funds to pay for a Medicaid lawsuit settlement. Lucio voted for an amendment designating that the money come at the expense of health and human services for the poor. Later, he changed his vote, but it was too late. Here’s how he explained himself to the Web-based publication Rio Grande Guardian: “I am pleased I had the opportunity to address the issue one more time, even though we were on the losing side. It sent a message.” It sure did.

[…]

Let’s close on an upbeat note with the two remaining Bests. If the Legislature were a stock market, Rafael Anchia would be Google. He is the future–the son of immigrants (from Spain and Mexico), a lawyer with a blue-chip firm, the League of United Latin American Citizens’ onetime national Man of the Year, and the Democratic Rookie of the Year in our 2005 Best and Worst Legislators story. In only his second term, Anchia emerged as a top floor debater in the fight over the voter ID bill. After hearing Republicans argue that the bill was designed to prevent voter fraud, Anchia responded, “That’s like burning down the forest in case Bigfoot exists.” When another voting bill was considered in committee, this one requiring that a person seeking to register to vote be able to prove that he is an American citizen, Anchia confronted state GOP chair Tina Benkiser, who was testifying for the bill. “Can you prove today that you’re a citizen?” Anchia asked–the point being that most people (including, it turned out, Benkiser) don’t typically carry around their passport or birth certificate. When his ambitious legislative program of environmental bills–mostly improving energy efficiency–stalled, he looked for donkeys on which to pin the tail, and he found Republicans willing to let him attach his proposals to theirs. Recommendation: Buy.

Scott Hochberg didn’t figure to be on the Best list. This was not a session in which public education, his area of expertise, was in play. But then a conversation took place in which a Republican lawmaker described him this way: “No legislator is indispensable, but Scott Hochberg is the closest thing to it.” Session after session, he knows more about school finance than anyone, and he’s willing to share his knowledge with friend or foe. Members on both sides of the aisle trust him. When Chisum’s bill requiring high schools to offer Bible electives was sent to the Public Education Committee, it was so riddled with problems Hochberg could have killed it. Instead, he fixed it. When the bill reached the House floor, Chisum tried to substitute his original flawed version–and the House sided with Hochberg. In previous sessions, the former chairman of the Public Education Committee, Kent Grusendorf, did everything he could to keep Hoch-berg on the outside, only to lose floor battle after floor battle to him; this time, new chairman Rob Eissler was his biggest fan. On the first day the committee met, Eissler placed four Hochberg bills on the agenda–an unmistakable signal that his banishment was over. He passed one major bill this session, polishing up the way the state adopts textbooks (which saved school districts $1 billion), but next session, when school finance formulas will be on the front burner, Mr. Indispensable will be front and center.

Lots of good stuff in there. Enjoy!

Meeting on H-GAC transportation plan tonight

Previously, I noted that the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) will be hosting some public meetings in June regarding the $92 billion in sponsored transportation and related clean air planning and projects identified in its draft 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. The first of those meetings is tonight. Here’s some information, courtesy of the CTC:

What: Public open house and hearing for 2035 RTP
When: Thursday, June 14, 2007 from 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Where: Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) offices at 3555 Timmons Ln., Houston, TX 77098 (map)

Some kudos for the 2035 plan:

  • This new plan finally addresses in a meaningful way the fact that land use decisions can have a significant impact on mobility and quality of life
  • This new plan acknowledges the vision and goals for future growth from the thousands of participants in the Envision Houston Region process
  • More than 1/3 of expenditures will go to much needed transit projects
  • This new plan talks intelligently about preserving open green space and limiting development in flood plains
  • This new plan includes $25 million towards “livable centers” that will allow some Houstonians to drive less by living closer to where they work

Some concerns about the 2035 plan:

  • This plan still includes many controversial highway projects proposed in years past that will not help our region meet ambitious quality of life goals
  • Less than 5% of expenditures will go to freight rail to make our region’s antiquated rail network safer for neighborhoods or more efficient
  • Less than 1% of expenditures will go to projects to make our region more walkable or bikeable
  • The plan does not address how different modes affect each other: how do freeways affect pedestrians? can freight rail improvements take trucks off highways? should transit improvements be targeted to walkable centers?
  • This plan does not benefit from the efficiencies of coordinating our infrastructure to build “complete” streets where individuals can choose between many different safe and efficient modes of access

Finally, the public has just two more weeks to digest the RTP, and it will be a challenge to meaningfully react to such a big plan in such a short time. Unless H-GAC grants community requests for more time to respond, the public comment period ends July 2nd.

So there you have it. If this sort of thing interests you, be sure to attend and make your voice heard.

Accenture may be gone, but privatization lingers

As we know, the state of Texas terminated its contract with Accenture to operate call centers to determine benefits eligibility back in December. While the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is trying to bring back former employees to pick up the work that Accenture couldn’t do, that doesn’t mean that the idea of outsourcing this task has been consigned to the dustbin. Indeed, according to an email I got from the Texas State Employees Union, it appears the HHSC is on the lookout for its next future ex-outsourcer:

HHSC plans to issue a new request for proposals for operating the call centers in December 2007. Then it plans to award the new contract a scant five months later in May 2008.

It will take companies two to three months to submit proposals, which will only give HHSC two to three months to evaluate them before making the award.

“It looks like HHSC is fast tracking its revival of the call centers. Fast tracking the original call center plan is one of the mistakes that led to disaster with the Accenture contract,” said [Mike Gross, TSEU vice-president].

Well, I suppose you could say that nobody could be as bad as Accenture was, right? That depends, it would seem.

TSEU also warned that HHSC’s new eligibility computer system TIERS is not designed to work in a call center environment. This and many other problems that have plagued TIERS are a long way from being resolved.

One of the potential contractors for the revived call center experiment will be Maximus, which was a call center subcontractor for Accenture. Maximus was supposed to make it possible for TIERS to operate in a call center environment. But its solution, a computer application known as MAXe3, never worked right, which, according to a report issued by the Comptroller, caused unacceptable delays in processing applications for services.

Boy, with a resume like that, what could go wrong? The troubles with TIERS are well known. Nothing like taking your existing failures and building on them.

“If HHSC wants to provide convenient and effective services, it needs to re-staff its local eligibility offices and provide state employees with technology that actually works,” said Gross. “HHSC should also give state employees the responsibility for processing CHIP applications. Doing so, will make the transition between Medicaid and CHIP seamless.”

On a side note, CHIP enrollments have dropped for four straight months.

Ted Hughes with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission blamed the decline on the agency’s decision to end an amnesty program for families with incomplete applications.

Yes, CHIP enrollment is as much about administrative policy as it is about eligibility requirements. Which is why the tighter the rein kept on HHSC, the better. Let’s keep an eye on this.

More on Roger Williams

The Observer blog has a great rundown on our soon-to-be-former Secretary of State, Roger Williams, and his future political ambitions.

Maybe the leap from public steward to Republican candidate isn’t surprising, since Williams never missed an opportunity to use his supposedly nonpartisan office to score partisan points.

There was the incident in which Williams’ office fired a state lawyer who inadvertently embarrassed Karl Rove. Williams admitted Rove called him after staff attorney Elizabeth Reyes indicated to the Washington Post that Rove may have committed a civil offense by voting in Texas without meeting state residency requirements.

“He and I are friends,” Williams said of Rove, explaining the phone call and assuring us that Rover would never, ever ask for Reyes’ head. Nevertheless, she was fired. A subsequent investigation by Kerr County officials cleared Rove of any wrongdoing (because he intends to return to the state).

Nice. I’d forgotten that incident (I could swear I blogged it at the time, but if so I can’t find it). How typical for anything involving Karl Rove.

Vince speculates about Williams’ replacement, and suggests Harris County Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt, who has decided not to run in CD22, as a possibility. Maybe, I don’t know. Bettencourt has been known to have statewide ambitions, and this would be a good springboard for him. On the other hand, the streets are already clogged with Republicans who have statewide ambitions, and it’s not clear to me why Rick Perry would give any one of them a boost up. So who knows?

How much would you pay for all that Comcasticness?

I see that Comcast is set to roll out a bunch of new channels when it assimilates Time-Warner next week. I’m not particularly interested in any of them, but I am interested in this:

Comcast will introduce a new tiering system that has several notable upgrades or improvements.

The new “Basic Service” tier includes all local channels (and their HD signals) as well as Chicago “superstation” WGN, Tube Music (affiliated with Channel 39), and Spanish-language channels LATV (affiliated with Channel 2) and V-me (affiliated with Channel 8). Price: $16.42.

An “Expanded Basic” tier adds 55 channels to the “Basic” tier, including eight HD channels. Price: $44.99.

“Digital Basic” is for customers who want the first two tiers plus access to video on demand, including MoviePlex. Price: $51.99.

Niche channels such as ESPN News, Current TV, Gospel Music Channel and Toon Disney are on the “Digital Classic” tier. Price: $55.99.

“Digital Preferred” adds Logo, Indieplex, Sundance, four Encore channels and more. Price: $56.99.

A sports pack, which includes the NFL Network, goes for an additional $4, while a 15-channel Spanish-language package can be added for $5 more. Premium movie packages and international channels are also available. HDNet pack, offering Mark Cuban’s HDNet and HDNet Movies, can be had for another $3.

A package that includes everything except the international channels is available for $86.99, which matches the current price for a similar offering on Time Warner.

Almost makes you wonder how much different a la carte pricing would be, doesn’t it? I’m not sure which of these our current TWC digital cable plan will map to, but I guess I’d better check. No point in paying for something you never watch if you don’t have to.

One more thing:

All prices do not include the cost of equipment such as a digital box or an HD tuner.

Monday’s Chron had a story about how there was supposed to be a free market in digital cable boxes by now. Didn’t quite work out that way, but you can avoid the charge if you have the right alternate equipment:

Set-top boxes distributed by cable companies today contain both security and navigation functions. In the first phase of the plan, the FCC ordered the industry to make the security function separately available by July 1, 2000.

That led to the development of the “cable card.”

The credit card-sized devices house the de-scrambling function and plug into competing boxes, such as the new TiVo Series3, and digital cable-ready televisions, which have a card slot.

So far, there’s been little competition for competing set-top boxes. Only about 260,000 cable cards have been deployed, according to the NCTA. And they don’t always work very well.

We’re on our second set of cable cards for our Series 3 TiVo. The first ones did not work well at all – they would lose signal regularly, which required a call to TWC customer service and a request for a third-line support engineer to re-initialize the card, followed by a TiVo reboot. After several go-rounds on this, I swapped the cards at a TWC retail outlet, and things have been fine (well, mostly fine, anyway) ever since. Keep that in mind if you ever go this route.

Perry signs cancer research bill

Whatever else you may think of this just-expired session, this will count as a win for Governor Perry.

Texas will create a cancer research institute under a bill signed Wednesday by Gov. Rick Perry, who now needs voters to approve a constitutional amendment giving $3 billion to fund its mission of finding a cure.

Flanked by cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, Perry signed the bill creating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, putting the state among a handful aggressively pursuing research that has traditionally been handled by the federal government.

In November, voters will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to issue up to $300 million a year in bonds to be distributed by the institute.

“We set our sights high, and that’s appropriate for Texas,” said Perry, who signed the bill at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “And I set my sights on the day when we talk about cancer the same way we talk about polio.”

[…]

Before the bill emerged from the Texas Legislature, some lawmakers questioned issuing billions in bonds, which could accumulate billions in interest debt. But the measure still easily passed the Senate and House.

In the end, HJR90 passed easily enough. It was getting it to a vote that was extremely difficult – the measure nearly crashed and burned numerous times. Being associated with the lame-brained Lottery sell-off idea wasn’t an auspicious beginning, and it was almost a casualty of the end-of-session Speaker’s race crossfire. But after all that, there it will be on your November ballot. That’s really all that matters.