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March 16th, 2011:

Dan Ramos needs to go

I’m a little late to the table in commenting on the hateful remarks of Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Dan Ramos, and I apologize for that. Let me just say that there’s no place in civilized society, let alone the Democratic Party, for that kind of ignorant, homophobic crap. Ramos should be ashamed of himself, and every day that he remains in a position of authority is a travesty. He needs to go, and if he won’t do so voluntarily then we need to find some mechanism for removing him. I don’t even know what else to say – this is all so self-evident that it seems ridiculous to have to say anything. But it is incumbent on all of us to speak out against this kind of behavior, so let me repeat myself: Dan Ramos needs to step down as BCDP Chair, and if he won’t then he needs to be pushed out. Bob Moser has more.

Eyewitness ID reform passes the Senate


As approved 31-0 by senators, Senate Bill 121 by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, will require law enforcement agencies in Texas to adopt best-practice standards for eyewitness identification — in both photo and live lineups — where there is no such law now.

A 2008 study found that only 12 percent of police departments in Texas had any such standards.

“Eighty-six percent of the 44 DNA exonerations in Texas have been due to incorrect eyewitness identification,” Ellis said.

“The Texas Senate today took a very important step toward improving justice in Texas. … It enacts a simple best practice to ensure we have reliable evidence in our courtrooms to ensure the conviction of the guilty and the protection of the innocent.”

That’s one of Sen. Ellis’ package of innocence-related bills, whose House companion has passed out of committee. With any luck, this will be the year that these needed reforms get enacted. Kudos to Sen. Ellis for his tireless work on the subject. The Trib has more.

Howard wins again

It’s fourth and long for Dan Neil.

The House Election Contest Committee unanimously voted [Tuesday] to uphold Rep. Will Hartnett’s determination that Donna Howard won the long-disputed House District 48 seat. Committee members said Republican Dan Neil did not provide clear and convincing evidence to win. If Neil decides to challenge the committee’s vote, it will go to the House floor.


The committee, chaired by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, heard closing arguments from both sides today. Neil’s lawyer and former state Rep. Joe Nixon focused on five voters — two who lived outside the county and three who lived outside of the district during the election season. According to current statutes, residents are allowed to vote in their individual district if they reside in the same county and fill out a statement of residence. The three voters, Nixon said, did not fill out a statement of residence.

“It’s like having a suspended driver’s license,” he said. “You don’t really have one.”

Nixon said Neil was bearing the burden of human error, and that it was up to the committee to fix those mistakes if the true outcome could be ascertained — and, if not, to declare the election void.

Howard’s attorney, Randall “Buck” Wood, said Neil was asking for legislators to ignore existing law and make new law.

“They are simply asking you not to ask a judicial body, but to act as a legislative and political body,” Wood said. “But you’re sitting here as judge and jury.”

Hartnett said the only issue in question is where the individual actually lives.

“If we open the door to strict application to these requirements, we might as well allow re-dos for every time an election is this close,” he said.

After the committee vote, Neil said he was not surprised about the outcome, but about the unanimous vote. Going into today’s committee meeting, Neil said his team leaned toward taking the matter to the House floor, but he is likely to finalize that decision [Wednesday].

Seems to me that if we always adhered to the standard Nixon advocates, Sen. Bill Birdwell would have been knocked off the ballot last year. Be that as it may, I don’t know what Neil was expecting. I doubt he’ll get any more joy from the House, but hey, it’s Bob Perry’s his money. Rep. Howard released a statement that said:

I am obviously pleased with the committee’s decision regarding this extremely close election. Their unanimous vote reaffirms Master Hartnett’s thorough scrutiny of the details of this election contest. I look forward to continuing to serve the residents of House District 48.

As do the rest of us. Most of us, anyway. Postcards has more.

“Sanctuary cities” bill passes out of House committee

And another so-called legislative emergency gets voted on.

Legislation banning “sanctuary city” policies in Texas was voted out of the House State Affairs Committee today, sending the bill to the full House for consideration.

HB12 by Rep. Burt Solomons would prevent cities, counties and other governmental entities from adopting policies that prohibit law enforcement from asking a person legally detained or arrested their immigration status. The legislation was labeled an emergency item by Gov. Rick Perry in January. Under the bill, entities refusing to comply risk losing state funds.

Solomons presented the committee, with its nine Republicans and four Democrats, a substitute bill he said would address concerns raised about how the original bill would affect school districts. State Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, originally objected to their inclusion, alleging that allowing school district employees to inquire about a student’s status would violate federal law. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1982’s Plyler V. Doe ruled that a school district could not deny funding to a school that educated undocumented immigrants. Oliveira said denying education to any student also contradicts the Texas Constitution. Solomons removed school district employees in his substitute, but the bill would still apply to campus police officers. Oliveira tried but failed to amend the bill to remove school districts altogether.

Here’s HB12, a bill that solves no problems but causes plenty, and contains that great legislative fiction, a fiscal note that claims “no impact” on the state budget. What impact it will have on city and county budgets, the Lege isn’t required to say and for sure Gov. Perry doesn’t care. It’s all about the optics. There’s absolutely no reason for any Democrat to support this bill, so by all rights it ought to wither and die in the Senate. I sure hope it does.

When cutting the budget increases your costs

From the deja vu all over again department.

Texas legislators, looking for ways to plug an estimated $15 billion to $27 billion budget hole, are considering proposals that would cut as much as $162 million from rehabilitation and treatment programs meant to help criminals avoid going back to prison. For instance, the $100 Danny Bell received when he was released — the so-called “gate money” handed to prisoners who have completed their sentence — would be cut in half. Financing for Project Reintegration of Offenders, known as Project RIO, which helps released inmates find jobs, would be eliminated. So would money for educational and vocational programs in prisons and for re-entry transition coordinators. Financing for substance abuse and mental health treatment programs would drop dramatically.

Criminal justice advocates say the cuts would reverse years of reforms in Texas that have helped reduce recidivism and drive down the size of the prison population. “We’re taking away the basic tools that they need to live responsibly,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The state initiated its reforms in 2007 after lawmakers got some stunning news: Budget writers estimated the state would need some 17,000 additional prison beds by 2012. It would cost about $2 billion over five years to build and maintain enough capacity. The expected growth was attributed to high probation revocation rates, low parole rates and a lack of access to treatment programs in and out of prison.

Legislators decided to try a new approach. Instead of building more prison facilities, they invested $241 million in community treatment and diversion programs meant to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison and to ensure that those who served their sentences would not come back.

More felony offenders were put on probation, and more prisoners who qualified were released on parole. As access to treatment improved and probation and parole officers had options to impose intermediate sanctions, fewer offenders were sent back to prison. Last year, Texas had the lowest parole revocation rate of the decade, with about 8 percent of parolees returning to prison. The crime rate in Texas dropped to the lowest level since 1973, even as the population increased. There are about 7,000 fewer inmates in Texas prisons now than what had been projected in the alarming 2007 report.

Tony Fabelo, research director at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, told lawmakers at a recent hearing that the cuts they are considering would undo that progress. Prison population, he said, would rise. Crime rates would spike. By 2013, he said, the state could be short about 8,600 beds. Compounding the problem, he said, are plans to close prisons at the same time treatment and diversion programs are cut. Troubling, too, are proposals to trim other areas of the budget like mental health and substance abuse treatment, public education and jobs programs.

“You’re really going to have a perfect storm developing,” Fabelo said.

State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano and chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee, was a chief architect of the criminal justice reforms that face decimation. He said he planned to fight to keep every dollar Texas has invested in re-entry, treatment and diversion programs. “The statistics clearly indicate we’re doing a better job,” he said.

The main difference between now and during the budget crisis of 2003 is that now we can’t claim we don’t know what will happen when we make these budget cuts. We saw what happened the last time, we know what will happen again, and we know perfectly well what we should be doing instead. We have no excuses. How stupid are we about to be? Grits has more.

Spending money on medical students

I have two things to say about this story, which is about a budget rider that would concentrate the money the state spends on graduate medical residencies into the doctors’ first three years of training regardless of how long their residencies take to complete, which would have the effect of favoring general practitioners, who only need three years, over specialists. Actually, before I get into that let me say that I had no idea the state spent any money on this. The story doesn’t get into the details of who the beneficiaries are or how they qualify for it. Anyway, I have two things to say:

Proponents say the budget rider would give residency programs an incentive to produce the primary care doctors Texas desperately needs, because those slots would be fully funded. They say residents who go into specialties that take longer than three years are often paying for themselves — because they’re providing services their supervisors can bill for.

“It is the state’s obligation to use tax dollars in a fashion that best serves the citizens of Texas,” said Dr. Nancy Dickey, president of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, which has one of the state’s largest family medicine residency programs. “As we try to address a physician shortage in a state that continues to grow its population, it would be appropriate for legislators to consider selective use of graduate medical education funds.”

But opponents say it’s misleading to suggest residents in any specialty are making money for their hospitals, especially since they’re now barred from working more than 80 hours a week. They say cutting off funding for years four through seven would have a devastating effect on surgical specialties and those that lose the most residents to other states, from neurology to urology.

“Texas needs specialists and primary care physicians,” said Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the Texas Medical Association. “I would hate to see us sacrifice one for the other.”

In case you haven’t noticed, this budget is full of sacrifice, as far as the eye can see. The vast majority of that sacrifice is being placed on children, the elderly, the poor, the sick, and so forth. I trust you will forgive me if I feel somewhat less sympathy for medical students than I do for these folks. If you find this budget rider intolerable, then by all means please join with the rest of us in demanding that the state generate the revenue to pay for the things it needs to do. But if it comes down to how we allocate the insufficient funds that we now have, there are a lot of other things I’d prioritize over this.

Texas has a physician shortage across all medical fields: In 37 out of 40 major specialties, it ranks below the national average of physicians per 100,000 people. It’s particularly pronounced in primary care, where last year, just 8 percent of Texas medical students went into family practice, down from 14 percent in 2001. More than a quarter of those students left Texas for out-of-state residencies, a strong indicator that they won’t practice in Texas.

Gee, wasn’t tort “reform” supposed to solve that problem? What a shock (*snort*) to learn that it was not the case.