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March 29th, 2011:

RIP, health exchange bill

Can’t say this is a surprise.

State Rep. John Zerwas, the Simonton Republican who has filed legislation to implement one of the key elements of federal health care reform, said his bill may be permanently stuck.

Zerwas, who proposed establishing a Texas health insurance exchange not because he approves of federal health reform, but because he fears the feds will do it for Texas, said he’s been told Gov. Rick Perry’s office doesn’t support the measure.

“I am absolutely disappointed,” said Zerwas, who is an anesthesiologist. “I believe this is one of the most important things we can do to protect our insurance market, by putting a Texas exchange in place.”

Perry’s office didn’t say whether he’d veto Zerwas’ bill. But a spokeswoman said the governor “strongly opposes the federal healthcare reform bill and the one size fits all mandates that come along with it.”

What Perry really opposes is anything that would help people who lack health insurance get it. He’s done exactly nothing in his first ten years to advance that cause, so why should we expect anything else? The excuses may change, but the underlying ideology remains the same. I respect Rep. Zerwas’ efforts, but if he wants to do this he’s going to need a Democratic Governor, and who knows when that may happen.

Moving the primaries back

In the 2007 legislative session, there was some energy to move the primary date up in Texas, on the theory that an earlier primary would finally enable Texas voters to have a say in the Presidential process, which was usually decided by the time our turn rolled around. That ultimately went nowhere, and it turned out to be for the best. Now the primary calendar may get pushed back a few weeks to accommodate a 2009 federal law aimed at making it easier for overseas military personnel to vote.

Texas must comply with the 2009 Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment Act requiring states to provide ballots to military personnel at least 45 days before an election. Making it easier for military personnel to vote will require Texas to change primary and runoff elections dates – resulting in longer campaigns for candidates and the public.

The early March primary election date will change – most likely to later in March or April. The runoff election – now six weeks after the primary – could move to May or late June or, possibly, even to July.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, are working to develop a bipartisan plan, which may not be so simple considering the Legislature includes as many election experts as there are members – 181. And most have an opinion. The major political parties also will have to sign off since they run the primary elections.

Sen. Van de Putte’s bill is SB100, and Rep. Taylor’s bill is HB111. The two are not the same, and so far it’s unclear that there’s a single approach preferred by a majority of either chamber. Among other things, having runoffs in June might present logistical issues, since many voting locations are schools, which would not be open at that time.

There’s another issue in all this that’s nagging at me as well:

Linda Green, installation voting assistance officer at Fort Sam Houston, said deployed troops have had problems voting by mail because ballots didn’t reach the personnel on time, or don’t get returned soon enough to be counted. But she said the Defense Department does an excellent job of providing resources to help with voting, including the assignment of a voting assistance officer to each unit – typically a captain or major.

I have to ask: Why aren’t we thinking about designing a system for these voters that doesn’t rely on slow mail delivery? Specifically, isn’t it time someone designed a system where they could vote over the Internet? Everyone in the military already has a unique ID. All they’ll need is an account and a password, and they’re good to go. The system can be designed to prevent anyone from voting more than once – hell, you could make it so that only a designated set of computers at a given location are authorized for voting, which must be done in the presence of the voting assistance officer. Obviously, this isn’t a problem that can be solved at a local or state level, so adjusting the elections calendar is the best the Lege can do, but still. This has got to be the right answer.

Schools begin to feel the effect of budget cuts

If you’re an HISD principal, the next few weeks will be no fun at all.

More public school employees can expect pink slips in coming weeks as state law requires districts to notify teachers by mid-April – technically, 45 days before the last day of instruction – if they don’t have guaranteed jobs in the coming year. If the budget picture improves, the employees could be hired back.

The Houston Independent School District board kick-started the cuts this month, authorizing Superintendent Terry Grier to give layoff notices to about 90 employees – many of them literacy coaches – because federal stimulus funding or other grants were drying up.

HISD is preparing for a projected shortfall of $170 million – about 10 percent of the district’s $1.6 billion operating budget. On March 10, the board approved lowering the funding it distributes to each school by $275 per student.

Just as a reminder, as things stand the budget proposed by the Senate would be slightly better for HISD than they were originally expecting, though that would still translate to over $100 million in lost funding for them. The House budget is far more draconian, worse than HISD is planning for, and it’s not at all clear that the House will go along with what the Senate wants to do. In other words, the misery being felt now may be just the beginning. And just think, TAKS tests are at the end of April. I’m sure everyone will be in a great frame of mind for them, don’t you?

TPC splits the difference

Bike advocates get a partial victory as the Transportation Policy Council voted to keep the last $12.8 million of unallocated federal funds on alternate mode projects instead of redirecting it towards roads.

“Whatever we do in this room is supposed to be representative of our regional values and needs,” said Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey, who said he favored redirecting that $12.8 million to roads. “If we allocate federal money to small-ticket things that are representative of individual communities’ values as opposed to regional values, we’re sucking up our discretionary funding because of the deficiency in mobility, the big-ticket things.”

Ultimately, Storey voted with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to funnel all the remaining dollars to mobility work, but leave previous funding decisions intact.

A proposal by Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell to give $7.2 million more to bike and pedestrian projects and another $72.6 million to roads was voted down.

CM Lovell put out a statement following the TPC meeting that said “This action not only stopped the loss of $12.8 million in federal funding recommended at the February 25 TPC meeting but also secured the commitment of the $51.6 million, which represents 15 percent of the total federal funding and exceeds the original recommendation that was originally considered by the Transportation Policy Council.” That is higher than the nine to thirteen percent range for alternate mode projects that Judge Emmett had recommended, but considerably lower than the 34% target that advocacy groups like Houston Tomorrow wanted. Still, they managed to reverse the original decision to use those remaining funds for roads and drew a considerable amount of attention to their efforts in the process, which is no small thing. I haven’t seen a statement yet from either HT or BikeHouston yet so I don’t know how they feel about this, but my guess would be more positive than negative.

The first people

Great story.

Texas scientists have found the oldest confirmed site of human habitation in the Americas just north of Austin, where the Edwards Plateau meets the coastal plains.

The unprecedented haul of artifacts from as far back as 15,500 years ago brings archaeologists much closer to answering the mysteries of who the first Americans were, where they came from and how they got here.

The new work, published Thursday in the journal Science, may definitively prove humans lived in the Americas prior to the “Clovis” people, who spread widely across the western hemisphere beginning about 13,000 years ago. These people, identifiable by their characteristic fluted spear points, were long thought to be the first Americans.

The discovery of such an old settlement also suggests the first Americans must have come from Asia, not through an ice-free corridor over land, but along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts in boats as long as 16,000 years ago.

“I think we’re getting closer and closer to understanding how and when the first people came into the Americas,” said Michael Waters, a Texas A&M University archaeologist who led the study.

I love this story, and I can’t wait to hear more about what Dr. Waters and his team discover. I couldn’t quite read it without thinking to myself “And whoever these people were, and whenever they arrived, they probably encountered some ancient ancestors of Debbie Riddle and Leo Berman demanding to see their papers”. I think I’ve been following the Lege too closely and it’s scrambled my brains a bit. Anyway, read the article and be excited about what we’re learning about the people who were in Texas before we were.