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August 1st, 2009:

Saturday video break: Can the frog dance?

Kermit the Frog does “Once in a Lifetime”, by the Talking Heads, complete with David Byrne giant suit:

Clearly, I have underestimated “Muppets Tonight” all these years.

Hammerlein, too

The Chron confirms the Lone Star Project report about Ed Johnson being reassigned in the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, and adds on to it.

Two Harris County officials at the center of an ongoing dispute over what the Texas Democratic Party claims was an orchestrated effort to purge thousands of voters for partisan political reasons have been reassigned to duties outside the voter registration office, Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez said Friday.

Vasquez insisted the removal of Ed Johnson and George Hammerlein from voter registration duties was part of a larger office reorganization and was not related to a federal lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party challenging the way the office handles the voter rolls.

Johnson’s impartiality has been questioned by Democratic Party officials, who noted that the associate voter registrar also was a paid director for Computer Data Systems, a private company owned by state Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, that sells voter registration data to Republican candidates.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with any outside influence,“ Vasquez said of the personnel shuffle. “Two of the people in the voter registration office, I thought their skill sets were better used elsewhere.”

The reorganization, he said, involves 20 employees.

Mighty convenient for this sort of thing to happen now and to have nothing to do with any pending legal dispute, that’s all I can say. Getting those two away from voter registration data did need to happen, though, so as far as that goes it’s all good.


Who says Republicans don’t have any ideas about health care reform, or anything else for that matter? Here’s Rick Perry’s plan to overhaul the system.

This afternoon, Rick Perry’s office released a letter the governor has sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. In the letter, Perry once again threatens to invoke the “state’s rights” protections in the 10th Amendment to resist any health care reform passed by Democrats in Washington. (Perry first hit on that rather seditious idea last week.)

Instead of Obama-care, Perry wants the feds to approve a free-market-based plan that Texas officials pitched about 18 months ago.

Under the Perry plan, Texas would divert Medicaid money to allow uninsured Texans to shop for, and buy, health coverage from private insurers.


Perry writes in his letter to Sebelius that his plan “presents a strategic alternative to continued reliance on government-run health care programs and our already overburdened safety net systems of care.”

I have just one question: Does Perry not realize that Medicaid is a “government-run health care program”? Or that using Medicaid money to fund his plan isn’t reducing our reliance on government-funded health care at all?

(Here’s a pdf of Perry’s letter to Sebelius. And, for all the policy geeks out there, here’s a pdf of the original Texas proposal from December 2007.)

Okay, so maybe it’s just that they don’t have any good ideas, or any original ideas. Diverting tax revenues to private industries is certainly something Rick Perry has tried before (*cough* *cough* Accenture *cough* *cough*), with not so good results. What could possibly go wrong this time?

The DA’s new DWI program

The Harris County District Attorney’s new driving while intoxicated diversion program appears to have some problems.

Under the new program, those accused of a first-time DWI will be offered the diversion program or 30 days in jail and a $750 fine. Defendants who do not want either choice can take their cases to the judge or to trial.

Currently, some first-time DWI defendants are given the option of pleading guilty, paying a $100 fine and taking three days in jail, plus two days, which they do not have to serve if they behaved during the first three.

Known around the courthouse as a 3/2/$100, the deal will not be offered after the diversion program begins.

Those who take the diversion program will plead guilty and get a maximum of two years probation, including treatment and community service. If they successfully complete the probation, their records will not show a conviction for driving while intoxicated. If they fail, they will be sentenced to at least 30 days in jail under a contract signed when they take the deal.

JoAnne Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said the program is coercive and appears to thwart the intent of the Legislature, which prohibits deferred adjudication for DWI offenses.

“It could have been a good program. It could have been an exceptional opportunity for people who have made a mistake and driven when they shouldn’t have,” Musick said. “At the same time, I think it’s very poor planning and execution on how to conduct the program.”

She said the plan is coercive because defendants have to waive their rights, sign a contract and plead guilty. She said defendants could be sent to jail at the smallest amount of evidence of a mistake or if they fail to fulfill every requirement.

Problem One, as Musick points out, is that this looks an awful lot like a deferred adjudication program, which the Lege outlawed for DWI infractions back in the 90s. Problem Two, as noted later in the story, is that it’s not clear this will actually reduce the jail population, which would seem to be the point and which constitutes a deal-breaker for me. Remember, a lot of defendants prefer to choose jail time over probation now because the probation requirements are so onerous. Problems Three and higher are enumerated by Grits, Mark Bennett, Paul Kennedy, and Murray Newman; I’ll leave it to you to see what they have to say. I’m thinking this one needs some more time on the drawing board.

Our teen drivers are better than yours

Good news is always welcome.

A new report by the Texas Transportation Institute found that the state’s rate of fatal teen crashes is dropping faster here than anywhere. Researchers looked at 37 states that put restrictions on teen drivers’ licenses and found Texas is alone in seeing the number of teen drivers involved in fatal crashes drop for five consecutive years.

“Texas is doing a better job than any of the other states,” said Texas Transportation Institute researcher Bernie Fette, co-author of the 46-page report released Monday. Fette credited not just the license restrictions but also programs in high schools to get kids focused on safe road behavior.

Since 2002, when 625 teen drivers were involved in fatal crashes, Texas’ numbers have come down each year. In 2007, 419 fatal crashes involved teen drivers.


Teen driving risks have been on the minds of lawmakers in Texas at least since 2002, when new rules for young drivers known as graduated driver’s licenses took effect.

Since then, new Texas teen drivers have had to spend six months with a learner’s permit before getting a license. After that, they must spend another six months with other restrictions, including a prohibition against driving between midnight and 5 a.m.

This year, lawmakers extended those probationary periods to 12 months each, and outlawed the use of cellphones by young drivers.

But Fette said his research suggests that tougher laws are only part of the reason for Texas’ success in making fatal crashes involving teen drivers less frequent.

After all, Texas’ laws have not been as strong as those in many other states. And some states with graduated driver’s license laws actually saw their fatal crash rate go up, Fette said.

In Texas, he said, 300 school districts are implementing a first-in-the-country program called Teens in the Driver Seat, an initiative that gets teens talking to their peers about the risks of driving. Preliminary research says the program, begun in 2003, has worked.

“The [graduated-license] law is a necessary foundation,” Fette said. “But that law can be reinforced or made stronger through a peer influence program like Teens in the Driver Seat. If you have a combination of the two, as Texas does, what you have is a really good one-two punch.”

Here’s what the TTI says on its homepage, and here’s their white paper. Good to see Texas leading the way in something that isn’t a negative.