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February, 2013:

Day One runoff EV totals

Here’s your Day One runoff EV report for the SD06 election. For comparison purposes, here’s the final report from the first round. This isn’t apples to apples, of course, because there were 12 EV days in Round 1 whereas there will only be seven days this time, but note that the in person total yesterday exceeds the in person plus mail ballots from Day One in Round One, the mail ballots returned yesterday is greater than any two days from Round One, and the total mail ballots sent is 30% more than the total mail ballots sent last time, with more likely still to be sent. Point being, even with the compressed schedule, the potential exists for a greater number of early voters in the runoff, which is consistent with my hypothesis that the total turnout this time around could match or exceed Round One. Too early to say for sure, of course, but keep an eye on it. Houston Politics has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 18

The start of Spring Training always makes the Texas Progressive Alliance happy as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Medicaid expansion pressure is having an effect

Despite the mountains of evidence in its favor, I still can’t say that I see a path to Medicaid expansion in Texas. But stories like this do give me some hope.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Adamantly opposed to expanding Medicaid coverage under President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had seemingly squelched efforts this legislative session to insure an additional 1.1 million low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act.

But a determined campaign, targeting legislators with public pressure and private persuasion, has kept the issue alive by framing Medicaid expansion as an economic bonanza and tax-relief opportunity that would bring $79 billion in much-needed federal money over 10 years.

The arguments, pitched to Republican ears, have carved out a small space in which lawmakers can work toward an agreement that once appeared impossible.

Several key GOP legislators, though skeptical about expanding Medicaid, haven’t ruled out the possibility of a compromise, provided they can get several important concessions. Democrats are ready to deal.

“I’m tempering my rhetoric,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “I don’t want to say anything that backs them in a corner. I want to get this done.”

[…]

Last week, the Austin City Council voted unanimously to push the Legislature toward expanding Medicaid, echoing a similar call by Dallas County. Influential lobbying groups also have joined in, including the Texas Medical Association, which recently endorsed expansion if accompanied by reforms that include cutting red tape and increasing provider payments.

[State Rep. John] Zerwas, a medical doctor, said he is feeling the pressure to reverse his opposition.

“Absolutely. If you talk to hospitals, if you talk to counties, there is a substantial amount of money that is promised in the law that would benefit Texans. We do have a substantial uninsured problem,” Zerwas said.

But, he added, the expansion as proposed would be a Band-Aid solution, stressing an unsustainable Medicaid system that has grown so large it threatens spending on education, roads and other vital programs.

Still, Zerwas said there could be room to negotiate if Texas wins important concessions from the federal government to create a flexible system. The amount of needed flexibility “remains to be defined,” he said, but could include running the expansion program as a health maintenance organization and requiring co-pays.

Houston’s Rep. Garnet Coleman, one of the Capitol’s leading Democrats on health care issues, is fine with requiring co-pays and similar concessions.

Coleman, however, draws the line at attempts to use expansion as an opportunity to change Medicaid’s promise to children and disabled and elderly Texans. Talk of adding flexibility, he said, has often meant cutting people and services from the Medicaid system.

“Those of us who support the Medicaid expansion, we can walk away from the table, too, if we don’t think what is proposed is good for our constituents. This is a two-way street,” he said.

I presume Rep. Coleman is talking about block-granting Medicaid, which everyone knows would be used to cut benefits. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the possibility of a deal on Medicaid expansion, but this is the first time we’ve seen some details, however sketchy. Obviously, the biggest hurdle is Rick Perry, and he’s painted himself into enough of a corner that I have a hard time imagining him signing anything that doesn’t include block grants as a cornerstone. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but no one has gotten rich underestimating Perry’s fanaticism lately. Still, bringing pressure from the county level is the smart move, though it would really help if Harris County would get into the game. If we can’t get that I’d settle for a resolution from Houston City Council. This needs to be a big issue for the 2014 elections, and it needs to be felt at the county level by folks like County Judge Ed Emmett and County Commissioner Jack Morman as well. If you’re not part of the solution then we need to get someone else who is.

We’re not going to solve our transportation issues without new revenue

The choice isn’t whether or not to pay, it’s how do you want to pay.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

Despite broad agreement that repairing and improving Texas highways will cost more money than it has in the past, legislators split Monday on whether now is the time to impose new transportation taxes or fees.

House members attending the annual Texas Transportation Forum said lawmakers were unlikely to support increasing transportation revenues. Senators, however, said this seemed unavoidable.

“There are times when taxes are the conservative thing to do,” said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

Across Texas, transportation officials estimate they need an additional $3 billion for new construction and $1 billion for maintenance. With state and federal coffers tight, conference attendees said, new revenue sources are the best solution – but a tough sell to lawmakers.

“It should be looked at as an investment, not an expense,” said William Thompson Jr., former New York City controller, a speaker at the transportation forum.

The recent template for getting projects moving in Texas has been development agreements between the Texas Department of Transportation and regional officials, and $13 billion in borrowing. State transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said the three most recent Houston-area projects to proceed – construction of part of the Grand Parkway and improvements to U.S. 290 and Texas 288 – advanced through partnerships with the Harris County Toll Road Authority and other adjacent counties.

But now “the credit card is maxed” and new taxes are likely, Eltife said.

“I was fine before I came to this office, and if they kick me out of office I’ll be fine,” Eltife said to applause from the crowd.

I’d need to look up the amount, but all that borrowing we’ve done to finance road projects in Texas is going to cost us a lot of money in interest payments. That’s another thing that will need to be paid for somehow. The solutions being discussed now include not diverting any more funds from the gas tax revenue, which would add about $300 million to the road funds but which would leave a hole of the same size in general revenue – the diversion is mostly to pay for the Department of Public Safety, so ending that diversion is no sure thing – and doubling the vehicle registration fee, which has a reasonable shot at passing and would raise about $1 billion. Personally, I think Sen. Eltife is right, and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can start actually making headway on this. It may be the case that driverless cars will ultimately reduce the amount of road space we need, but who knows when that might happen, and until then there are some crying needs that have to be addressed. Better and in the long run cheaper to accept reality now. The DMN, the Trib, Dallas Transportation, and EoW have more.

Some charter school stories

Now that Sen. Dan Patrick has filed his school choice bill, I thought this would be a good time to review some recent stories about charter schools. There were a couple of interesting stories relating to charter schools in the DMN the weekend before last. This story is about four charter school applications that contained identical language in each.

Concerns about the state’s vetting process for applications come as Gov. Rick Perry and key state lawmakers are pushing to allow even more charter schools, which receive more than $1 billion in state funds each year.

State education leaders say they’re trying to improve the screening process to ensure that applications reflect unique ideas, in keeping with the mission of charter schools.

“They’re supposed to be models of innovation in the classroom and the community,” said Michael Soto, a former state board member from San Antonio. “If you can’t even come up with original wording in your application, how can you be innovative?”

The four applications with similar passages had something else in common: They were prepared with help from a McKinney consultant, Bracy Wilson of Help Charters LLC.

Wilson said the copying in the public hearing summaries was an unintentional mistake. He said other copied areas reflect an effort by charter applicants to “look to the past for best practices” from other charters.

One of the four proposed schools, International Leadership of Texas, won state board approval. Eddie Conger, the superintendent, said his school’s mission — to make students fluent in English, Spanish and Chinese — is genuine. But parts of the application were not.

“I give myself an F-minus on the paperwork,” he said.

Conger is a former Dallas ISD principal who made big strides in improving Thomas Jefferson High School in North Dallas. He said he was encouraged by other charter operators to start a school, which will have campuses in Arlington, Garland and a third undetermined location.

Conger said International Leadership paid Wilson to help prepare the application. It’s Conger’s signature on the application attesting to its accuracy. So Conger, a retired Marine, said he assumes responsibility.

[…]

Three of the proposals — from International Leadership, Polaris and iWin — advanced to the state board for possible approval. Applicants said that when board members interviewed them in November, they discovered that parts of their proposals read alike.

“It was a total surprise to me,” said Nora Berry, who had applied to open Polaris Public School in Dallas County. “I had no idea the consultant was working with other applicants.”

Conger said International Leadership paid Wilson and Help Charters $78,000 for helping prepare its successful application. Wilson worked previously at Life School, a group of North Texas charter schools founded by his father, Tom Wilson.

Bracy Wilson ran last year for state representative from Collin County but lost in the Republican primary. His campaign website described him as “one of the leading consultants on charter schools” who has helped clients in numerous states.

Wilson said Texas has one of the most difficult and complex charter application processes in the country, which is why some groups hire consultants.

He said it appears that proxy questions and answers for the public hearings were mistakenly left in the applications. “Each application is reviewed by the respective applicant’s team and, unfortunately, some of these placeholder responses were not identified and replaced with the individualized responses,” he said in an e-mail.

Yet, the locations were changed in each of the summaries.

The summaries also had identical comments. For example, the summaries for both Athlos Academy and International Leadership had these identical quotes from parents: “We’ve been waiting for a school like this,” and “This is the school I want for my children.”

Conger said his school’s public hearing really took place — its application, along with the other three, included copies of the hearing notices that were published in local newspapers and copies of sign-in sheets. But he said the written summary was not “an accurate reflection of the public hearing.”

The applications also show similarities beyond the public hearing summaries. In some cases, descriptions of the proposed school’s philosophy and pledges of support use wording that is identical to previously approved charter schools that Wilson and his firm also worked with.

It’s unclear whether this is a common occurrence or an anomaly, but what is clear is that the process is complex and greatly detailed. To the extent that legislators like Sen. Patrick want to make it easier to start a charter school, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about.

Charter school applications are reviewed by the Texas Education Agency before they go to the SBOE for approval. This story points out that the budget cuts of 2011 have had an effect on their ability to move the process along.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, wants changes in how charter applications are screened and approved in Texas. For instance, he’d like a national group of charter school authorizers to train Texas Education Agency staff who oversee applications and state board members who review them. He said he’d also like to look for best practices Texas could adopt.

Patrick said such ideas would be part of a charter school bill he plans to file.

[…]

Meanwhile, the education agency — which oversees all Texas independent school districts and charter schools — struggles to perform its duties with a reduced staff. The agency has lost a third of its employees in the past two years because of state budget cuts. It has about 700 employees, down from nearly 1,100 employees two years ago

A recent report by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission said: “Although the agency has recently experienced a drastic downsizing of its staff, its responsibilities have not been similarly reduced. Spread too thin, TEA struggles to perform all these functions well.”

The report also noted TEA’s “inability to address issues of chronic poor performance in a few charter schools.”

Budget cuts do have consequences, don’t they? I figure there’s a fair amount of overlap between charter school proponents and budget cut enthusiasts. Anyone want to place a bet on Sen. Patrick restoring funding to the TEA so that it can do a more effective job of vetting and approving charters?

Other reading of interest: This WaPo blog post summarizes the recent reporting that many charter schools do in fact take steps to cream off the strongest students for their classes, and this post by a school finance expert who has been a charter school advocate in the past posits that “the political movement of charter schooling [is] no-longer operating in the public interest”. It’s long and wonky, but you need to read it. The bottom line for me is that while I believe charter schools have many positive things to offer as a whole, I have a lot of distrust for the people currently leading the legislative charge for them. We all need to be very clear about what “school choice” means if and when it passes through the Legislature.

Early voting starts today for SD06 runoff

It’s runoff time for SD06. Early voting begins today and runs through Tuesday, February 26. Here are the early voting locations, which are the same as they were for the first round:

Location Address
1 Harris County Administration Building 1001 Preston, 1st Floor Houston TX 77002
2 Holy Name Catholic Church 1912 Marion Street Houston TX 77009
3 Ripley House 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston TX 77011
4 H.C.C.S Southeast College, Learning Hub 6815 Rustic, Bldg D Houston TX 77087
5 Galena Park Library 1500 Keene Street Galena Park TX 77547
6 Hardy Senior Center 11901 West Hardy Road Houston TX 77076
7 Baytown Community Center 2407 Market Street Baytown TX 77520

See Harris Votes for more. With only seven days of early voting, and only three of those days being full 7 AM to 7 PM days, GOTV efforts for both Sylvia Garcia and Rep. Carol Alvarado will be even more important.

One thing Alvarado will have going for her as voting begins is the Chron’s endorsement.

Rep. Carol Alvarado

Runoff candidates Sylvia Garcia and Carol Alvarado are both dedicated public servants with a long history of representing the area.

In terms of political positions, there’s not much difference between them. Both are Democrats who vow to strengthen state education spending and expand Medicaid. They differ chiefly in the way in which they’d go about achieving their goals. Garcia vows to go toe-to-toe against Gov. Rick Perry and other Republicans. Alvarado says that she’d continue to do what she’s done as a member of the Republican-controlled Texas House: work with members across the aisle to get legislation passed.

We believe that Alvarado’s approach will serve her district best. In part, that’s pure pragmatism. Given Republicans’ utter dominance of our state’s government, a Democrat who hopes to accomplish anything at all has to play nicely with the GOP. But it’s also the solution to a larger problem. Both Texas and the United States need more politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, who can find middle ground and nudge the body politic forward. Alvarado is that kind of legislator.

Residents of the district are familiar with Alvarado and her staff, who are frequent presences at civic club meetings and neighborhood events. That sort of ground-level constituent service might not be notable elsewhere, but it is in places like the east side of Houston, Galena Park and South Houston. Many of the area’s neighborhoods receive too little attention from the elected officials who are supposed to serve them.

Members of the Legislature also are familiar with Alvarado. That’s especially important in this runoff because its winner will have to hit the ground running. She’ll be sworn into the state Senate with only a few days left in which bills can be filed. As a third-term member of the House, Alvarado knows the legislature’s ins and outs and has already established many of the relationships she’ll need to serve her district.

Congrats to Rep. Alvarado for getting the endorsement.

For those of you who still want to hear more about issues in this race – I know, how quaint – Stace summarizes a Univision report that has more information than we’ve seen in other recent reports.

I’ll keep an eye on daily early voter turnout. I think there’s a better chance this time around that early turnout will be less than half of final turnout – it was about 60% of final turnout for Round One – and I think there’s a decent chance that total turnout will match or exceed turnout from the first election. I’m just guessing, however – it could easily be the case that turnout declines. Before anyone clucks their tongues about the nature of certain districts, note Greg‘s words about how turnout in SD06 compares to the special election in SD22 from 2010. It is what it is. Just go vote if you live in SD06 and let everything else take care of itself.

The war on women continues apace

Honestly, I’m surprised that it’s taken as long as it has for this to happen.

Right there with them

Abortion clinics in Texas may soon face harsh new state requirements that pro-choice advocates say could greatly reduce access to abortion.

Sens Bob Deuell (R-Greenville), Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) filed a bill this morning that would require abortion clinics to meet the same conditions as ambulatory surgical centers.

The measure, Senate Bill 537, would force abortion clinics to follow the Texas Administrative Code for surgical centers, a 117 page document outlining everything from laboratory, nursing and anaesthesiologist requirements to radiological and construction procedures. Most of this code has little to do with the services provided by abortion clinics.

Filed by three pro-life doctors, legislation like this has been viewed as an underhanded tactic, which, in other states (like Alabama), has been criticized for threatening to close abortion clinics that don’t have the capacity or funding to meet such strict new requirements.

However, Sen. Deuell contends that the legislation is simply a method of increasing safety and health among Texas women. “Just as a medical doctor,” he said, “it came to me that they’re not under the same standards as any other surgical clinics and that we need to put them under that just for the safety of the patients.”

Deuell was adamant that the bill isn’t a pro-life tactic to close abortion clinics or make abortion less accessible. “It has nothing to do with abortions being done or not done.” He continued, “They’re legal, so they’re being done, and it is a surgical procedure, and it needs to be done in a place that has the same standards as a surgical center. Simple as that.”

He also asserted that the legislation would actually improve women’s health and accessibility to abortion providers. “The pro-choice movement talks about wanting to take abortions out of the back alley so they can be done properly. If you’re not certified as a surgical center, then that gets more toward the back alley and not in mainstream medicine, which is where it needs to be,” Deuell said.

Yes, I’m sure this just now came to Sen. Deuell. Of course, by his own reasoning, if he’s so concerned about women’s health, this should have been the very first bill he ever filed in the Senate. I mean, just think about all those poor women, having to get abortions in clinics that don’t measure up to his standards for cleanliness and safety for all these years. It’s scandalous, really. Of course, anyone who is content to let thousands of people die through his or her inaction or out of political spite really has no standing to claim “concern” for anyone’s health. The term “pro-life” is such a travesty these days, Jonathan Swift would be embarrassed to use it.

Not that any of that matters, I suppose. If this passes the Senate it will easily become law, and I have no reason to believe the courts will block it. As such, there are three people in the state that can prevent this from happening: Senators Eddie Lucio, Carlos Uresti, and Judith Zaffirini. It was their support of the awful sonogram bill that allowed it to clear the two-thirds bar in the Senate and make its way to Rick Perry’s desk. It took all three of them to enable its passage, since Jeff Wentworth stood with the other nine Democrats to hold this off. Depending on whether this abomination comes to the Senate floor before or after the SD06 special election is resolved, we may need two or all three of them to say no, this is going too far. This would be an excellent time to call their offices and make your voice heard, especially if you live in their district. It’s up to them to decide who they want to stand with.

Somewhat ironically, that news story cam out at the same time as this one.

Doctors, hospitals, clinics, health care groups, faith organizations and family planning associations urged lawmakers Wednesday to restore funding cut from women’s health programs for contraceptives and health screening.

At the forefront of their fight are two women who serve on the House Appropriations Committee, Republican Rep. Sarah Davis, of West University Place, and Democratic Rep. Donna Howard, of Austin. Both appeared at a Capitol news conference hosted by the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition.

Howard cited state estimates that thousands more unplanned births to low-income women as a result of family planning cuts will cost Texas millions more in Medicaid payments.

The state has projected 6,480 more Medicaid births at a cost of $33 million in the current fiscal year due to the reduction in family planning expenses. In the next two-year budget period, an extra 24,000 births are anticipated at a cost of $103 million.

Davis, a breast cancer survivor who is on an Appropriations subcommittee overseeing health and human services, said, “It’s really no longer the time to be playing politics with women’s health.”

In the Statesman, Rep. Davis is quoted saying that some of her Republican colleagues who voted for the cuts “didn’t realize they would hurt other kinds of clinics”, which is a polite way of saying that they’re deeply ignorant. They were told at the time exactly what would happen, they just chose not to believe it. It’s nice to hear that they may be slightly less willfully dumb this time around, but their concern for women’s health remains at best highly selective.

Patrick files his “school choice” bill

From the Trib:

The State Board of Education currently oversees applications for charter school contracts, which state law caps at 215. Patrick’s Senate Bill 2 would create a new state entity to authorize the contracts and lift that cap, allowing for an unlimited number of charter school operators in the state.

“There is no one answer to transforming schools but lifting the cap to add high quality public charters will give Texas parents, including the nearly 100,000 currently on a charter school waiting list, more choices to find the best education for their child,” Patrick said in a statement.

The legislation also includes language that makes it easier for local school boards to vote to become “home rule districts” and convert into charter schools. It follows Gov. Rick Perry’s call for more charter schools in his State of the State address, where the governor praised the innovation they bring to the public education system.

The charter school measure is one of a comprehensive set of proposals expected from Patrick to expand school choice in the state this session. Patrick has said those will also include fostering open enrollment across school districts and creating a private school scholarship fund through offering a state business tax savings credit to corporations.

Here’s SB2. The Observer summarizes what’s in it:

– Scraps the cap on state-approved charters, which currently stands at 215. Charter holders can already open multiple campuses (big chains like Harmony or KIPP), but charter advocates say there’s huge unmet demand, with long waiting lists at many charters across Texas.

– Creates a seven-member “Charter School Authorizing Authority.” Currently, charters are approved by the elected State Board of Education, but Patrick’s bill would put the power in the hands of seven appointees: four picked by the Governor and one each appointed by the lieutenant governor, education commissioner, and the State Board of Education chair. The governor would get to name the board’s presiding member.

– Give charters money for school buildings and other facilities—something charter schools in Texas have always done without.

– Requires school districts to make any empty or “underutilized” facilities available to charter schools that want them for the low, low price of $1.

– Makes it easier to close low-performing charters. Under Patrick’s proposal, the new charter authority must close charter schools that get poor academic or financial ratings from the state in three of the last five years.

– Gives more freedom to “home-rule districts.” Any school district can already become a home-rule district with approval from its local school board and the state, freeing itself of many rules imposed by the state. It’s a favorite cause of free-market groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, but in 17 years, no district has even tried to make the switch. Patrick’s bill would give “home-rule” districts almost all the freedom charter schools enjoy, and let districts make the change with a majority vote of the school board, not the two-thirds vote required today.

But the Texas Charter Schools Association is delighted with what’s in here. But there’s plenty here to rile advocates of traditional neighborhood schools—from the extra facilities money in a time when the Legislature is otherwise tight-fisted with money for schools—to the requirement that school districts hand over their empty buildings to charters.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) raised some of those concerns Monday afternoon in a Senate Finance Committee working group. ”I don’t want to take away from what has to be done for charter schools, but we don’t want to leave the public school facility needs out at the time,” he told Patrick.

“These are public schools, and we’re not funding them,” Patrick said.

Lot of that going around, isn’t there? I’ve said before, I favor broadening school choice within and across school districts, I’m open to increasing the number of charters, and I absolutely oppose the use of public funds for private school “scholarships”, which is to say vouchers. As I have done before, I will once again point out that the percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency is nearly double that of traditional public schools, and it’s currently very difficult to shut down a failing charter school. If SB2 does make it easier to close a failing charter then that’s all to the good, because charter schools are not a panacea. They’re a piece of the puzzle, and a relatively small one at that. Expecting them to be more is asking for trouble.

UPDATE: I received the following in my mailbox this morning from Raise Your Hand Texas:

Texas Needs to Clean Up Existing Charters Before Issuing New Ones

(AUSTIN, TEXAS) Raise Your Hand Texas released the following statement from CEO Dr. David Anthony regarding the introduction of charter schools legislation (SB 2) today by Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston):

On proposal to remove the charter cap:

“Unlimited expansion of charters as proposed in SB 2 will result in more charters, but not necessarily better ones. With 17.9% of charters rated academically unacceptable under the accountability system in 2011, let’s show that we can effectively oversee the charter schools that we have before authorizing the creation of a bunch of new ones.”

On facilities funding for charter schools:

“According to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, Texas expended $938 million on charters in 2011-2012 to serve 3% of Texas students. We simply can’t fathom providing facilities funding for charter schools in addition to the funding that they already receive when Texas public schools are still suffering from $5.3 billion in funding cuts.”

I think these are both valid points.

Marriage equality bill filed

As I said before, some things you do because they’re the right thing to do.

On the right side of history

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed a bill Thursday to permit same-sex couples to marry, calling it a “Valentine’s Day gift to all Texans.”

His measure is one of several bills filed recently that deal with gay rights issues.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, filed Senate Bill 538, which would take the term “homosexual conduct” out of the penal code.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Texas laws banning sodomy were unconstitutional. Though such laws cannot be enforced anymore, some are still technically on the books. Rodríguez’s bill would nix the part of the Texas Penal Code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a misdemeanor crime. Similar bills filed in 2011 were unsuccessful.

[…]

Burnam’s House Bill 1300 would extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, including property and homestead rights, child custody and support, adoption, and workers’ compensation benefits. Lawmakers who have signed on as co-authors include Democratic state Reps. Mary González, Ana Hernandez Luna, Donna Howard, Eddie Lucio III, Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, Mark Strama, Chris Turner, Armando Walle and Gene Wu. A similar bill, SB 480, allowing civil unions, was filed by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Rep. Burnam’s bill would only take effect if one of the joint resolutions that were filed previously to repeal the loathsome double secret illegal anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment is adopted. No, of course I don’t expect that to happen this session, but it’s coming eventually and we all know it. Well, most of us do, anyway.

Former state lawmaker Warren Chisum, who sponsored the proposal that put Texas’ version of the Defense of Marriage Act in the state constitution, said he hasn’t changed his views and he doesn’t think the state has, either.

“I know there’s a big push, seems like, around the United States, but you know, I don’t think Texas has changed their mind,” Chisum said. “We’ll be the oddball of all of them, I guess. If everybody else in the country switches, I still think the view of Texas is a little more conservative than the rest of the country.”

Gov. Rick Perry’s spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said, “The governor fully agrees with Texas voters, who made clear in 2005 that they believe marriage should remain between a man and a woman.”

Chisum and Perry sure are a couple of excellent symbols for the Texas GOP, aren’t they? Old, white, proudly intolerant, and stuck in the past as the world changes around them. Somewhere, a bunch of young Republican activists are grinding their teeth. Anyway, you can see a video of Rep. Burnam discussing his bill here. BOR has more.

Alamo Drafthouse at Regent Square

This is an interesting development.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which is opening its second area location Thursday in Vintage Park Shopping Village, just announced that it will open a third location in the Inner Loop mixed-use project Regent Square, where it will also show outdoor movies in a park there.

[…]

At Regent Square, occasional outdoor movies will be among such other park activities as concerts and farmer’s markets, said James Linsley, president of its Boston-based developer, GID Development Group.

The park plaza will feature a portable movie screen and serve as “another anchor,” Linsley said.

“Since Alamo Drafthouse is the premier theater operator, we thought we should collaborate with them on programming the outdoor movies,” he said.

The 4.2 million-square-foot Regent Square project, already under construction, will include a 21-story luxury apartment high rise at 3233 West Dallas and other retail and residential components.

The Alamo Drafthouse, part of the project’s phase 2, will begin construction later this year.

That’s very cool, and I’m certainly happy that I’ll have the chance to visit an Alamo Drafthouse without having to take a road trip, but I shudder to think what traffic will be like once that’s been built. West Dallas and Dunlavy aren’t exactly major thoroughfares, and the proximity to Allen Parkway will make this even dicier. I foresee a traffic light on Allen Parkway at Dunlavy when this is built, which totally ruins the Allen Parkway Psalm. Alas.

As long as I’m talking about parking, let me be the first to suggest that this new Alamo Drafthouse do what it can to provide bike parking, preferably in a covered location. The area around Regent Square is already densely populated, and I’d bet that folks who live around there would be willing to bike in. Hell, if the traffic is as heavy as I suspect it will be, it’ll probably be quicker to bike there if you live within a one mile radius or so. There will be a B-Cycle kiosk nearby, at the Sabine Bridge; perhaps a second location at the theater is a good idea, as well. Paging Laura Spanjian…

Alamo Drafthouse had previously announced plans for a Midtown location at a proposed development on Louisiana, but [Neil Michaelsen, CEO of Triple Tap Ventures, owner of its Houston-area locations] said his group now is “reviewing alternate sites in Midtown for an Alamo and is committed to bringing the concept to that market.”

That announcement was last May. I wonder what happened to make them change directions so quickly. Still, between that and the other new high-end theater mentioned in the story, which will be on Westheimer just inside the Loop, there will be more close-in movie options than we’ve had in a long time, at least since the days of the old Bellaire Theater.

How should the San Antonio court proceed after SCOTUS rules on Section 5?

That’s what the San Antonio judges in the redistricting case asked the parties to help it figure out.

In its order, the court told parties what has been widely assumed – namely that the panel would “not issue any opinion, if at all, under after the Supreme Court resolves the Section 5 matters.”

However, the court also showed concern for the upcoming Texas election schedule, asking the parties for their opinions on how “the Court would need to proceed under” various alternative section 5 scenarios.

This included asking the parties for ”a realistic time estimate on how long it would take for the Court to complete its task while still leaving sufficient time for local election officials to implement any necessary changes prior to the 2014 election cycle, assuming no postponement of statutory deadlines.”

Among the lengthy list of questions asked by the court are:

  • What further steps would need to take place if section 5 is found to be unconstitutional?
  • If section 5 is upheld but the Texas redistricting case is pending on appeal, would the “Court would be required to issue interim maps for the 2014 elections?”
  • If so, what map would the court use as the benchmark in drawing new interim maps?
  • What would happen if the Supreme Court remanded the preclearance case to the D.C. panel for further proceedings?
  • Under what circumstances would section 2 issues and constitutional claims have to be decided?
  • What additional evidence would be needed to decide those claims? And to the extent could the court rely on findings in the preclearance decision of the D.C. court?

The court asked that the parties’ advisories be filed by March 15, 2013, with any optional responses to other parties’ advisories to be filed by March 25.  The order said the panel would decide whether to hold a status conference after reviewing the parties’ submissions.

A copy of the court’s order can be found here.

Pretty complex stuff. What happens elsewhere after SCOTUS rules, especially if SCOTUS knocks down Section 5, is mighty complicated as well. Rick Hasen pondered this a little while ago.

One possibility is that nothing happens after Section 5 falls and minority voters in covered jurisdictions lose their important bargaining chip. Then, expect to see more brazen partisan gerrymanders, cutbacks in early voting and imposition of tougher voting and registration rules in the formerly covered jurisdictions.

The fight over these rules will be mostly political, not legal. I do not expect many successful constitutional cases or cases under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act – a different provision which applies nationwide but is harder for plaintiffs to win.

Another possibility, and one which seems fairly likely, is that negative public reaction to the Supreme Court striking down a crown jewel of the civil rights movement creates a political opening for Congress to enact a new piece of voting rights legislation. The GOP may also be eager to support some kind of legislation to blunt the likely fallout from an adverse action from the Roberts Court.

The choice of post-Shelby County legislation threatens to split the civil rights and election reform community over whether any New Voting Rights Act will be race-based – focused on protecting minority voters in particular – or whether the law will be focused on election reform more broadly, though still in ways that could significantly help minority voters.

A race-based reform could try to impose something like Section 5 nationally, though without the requirement that jurisdictions get permission before changing their voting rules. For example, a New Voting Rights Act could give groups challenging a new voting practice anywhere in the country the opportunity to show that the law makes minority voters worse off. It is unclear, at this point, whether such a race-conscious law would survive Supreme Court review after the Shelby County case and the Fisher affirmative action case.

An election reform-based proposal, in contrast, could set national standards for lines at the polls, ensure access to voting, rein in gerrymandering, create a uniform federal ballot design or address other issues, such as modernizing voter registration. If legislation comes, a new national standard seems inevitable. Even if we need a special law for election disaster zones like Florida and Ohio, it is hard to see the political path for Congress to pick a new set of jurisdictions to be subject to special federal control.

Even non-race based reforms could raise potential constitutional problems. This term the Supreme Court is hearing another case, out of Arizona, which raises questions over how much power Congress has over states to set the rules being used in federal elections. In the Arizona case, the specific question is whether Arizona officials must accept a federal voter registration form that does not include citizenship information required by Arizona law.

Hasen reminds us of why we have Section 5 in the first place, so read the whole thing, then go read what Emily Bazelon and Nina Perales have to say about Section 5 as well. It seems abundantly clear to me that Section 5 is still needed, and that if there’s a need for remediation it should be to extend Section 5 to the whole country, not to take it away from the places that brought it on themselves and continue to demonstrate why they can’t be trusted. All I know at this point is that if you were nervous about the Obamacare ruling, you should be nervous about this. The Express News has more.

LBB calls for expanding Medicaid

From the Quorum Report:

LBB CALLS FOR FUNDING MEDICAID EXPANSION AS PART OF ITS ADDITIONAL BUDGET PRIORITIES

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The recommendation given to the Article II Senate Finance workgroup notes that $50.4 million in state funding would draw down $4 billion in federal match for the next budget cycle

The Legislative Budget Board has included funding to extend Medicaid coverage to low-income adults as part of its list of priorities for additional funding to SB 1, the Senate budget bill.

The state’s political leadership has balked so far at endorsing the program’s expansion, which is a central component of the federal Affordable Care Act. The LBB recommendation, though, stems directly from the size of the federal match and the resultant outsized return on investment for the state.

Or to put it another way, the LBB is acknowledging just how much cash would be left on the table should the state’s leadership ultimately decide against the expansion. Also, the added coverage is expected to drive down governmental health care costs at the local level as fewer people seek care in hospital emergency rooms. Uncompensated care at hospitals amounted to $3.1 billion in 2011, according to LBB figures.

The federal government would cover 100 percent of the cost of coverage for the 2014-15 state budget cycle. Meanwhile, the cost to the state would be $50.4 million to cover half of the administrative costs of the expansion. In turn, the federal aid over the next two fiscal years for the expansion is expected to be $4 billion, according to the LBB. In other words, the state in its next budget would bear 1.2 percent of the total cost of the expansion.

The state’s share could actually be less than that. The LBB earlier recommended allowing the local taxing authorities that bear the biggest burden of paying for uncompensated care provided by hospitals to cover the match.

Burka thinks that freshman Republicans will be happy to hear this, because it means they won’t have to “[tell] their hometown doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare providers to go fly a kite”. I don’t know where he derives that conclusion, as it seems completely out of character for them. Take a look at this Tribune overview of the new legislators and tell me if you see any inclination towards that finding any kind of solution for Texas’ shameful lack of health care access. It’s one statement after another about what they oppose – abortion, “big government”, regulations, and taxes – and the only mentions of health care at all are in the context of opposing Obamacare. I really don’t understand what he’s thinking. Be that as it may, the bottom line continues to be that by any rational evaluation, this is a no-brainer. The only reasons Rick Perry and his legislative cronies have to oppose Medicaid expansion are political zealotry and a deep indifference to the needs of millions of people. EoW has more.

Riddle wants to abolish the HCDE

From Big Jolly:

State Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-150) filed HB945 [last] week. If enacted, it would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, transferring control of the assets to the Harris County Commissioners Court, and giving the commissioners one year to liquidate them.

The brains behind this, if you can call them that, is former member Michael Wolfe, who was thankfully unelected last year after a thoroughly undistinguished term in office. I can see an argument for abolishing the HCDE as an elected office – it’s basically the same argument for abolishing the SBOE as an elected office, in that very few people understand its function and the districts are far too large for campaigning to have any effect on electoral outcomes – but where the functions of the SBOE could reasonably be assumed by the Legislature and the Texas Education Agency, there really isn’t anything in the county to do what the HCDE does. (If you need a reminder of what the HCDE does, see the Chron’s November endorsement editorial or this document about the HCDE and this effort to eradicate it; you could also listen to one of my interviews from last year.) A bill to create an appointed board might be worth debating, though no less politically motivated given the shift on the board to a Democratic majority, but this is irresponsible. It won’t save any money, and it will deprive schools, teachers, and districts of needed services. I expect this bill is an underdog to pass, but someone in the Harris County Democratic delegation needs to keep an eye on it.

Take the 2013 METRO Bike and Ride Survey

A public service announcement from H-GAC:

2013 METRO Bike and Ride Survey

The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) and METRO invite you to participate in the METRO Bike & Ride Plan, a planning effort to improve connections between bicyclists and the transit network in the METRO service area. Take the survey!

Vision, Mission and Goals

Based on input from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, METRO and the project consultants, the following vision, mission and goals were developed for the project:

Vision

The METRO Bike and Ride Access and Implementation Plan will enhance METRO’s ability to provide first class transit service by linking the region’s expanding bicycle networks to transit infrastructure, while building upon its foundation as a trusted community partner to implement a prioritized set of projects that will provide attractive, safe, healthy, low-cost transportation choices for all users.

Objective

The METRO Bike and Ride Access and Implementation Plan will define a prioritized set of high-quality links between the bicycle and transit networks in the METRO service area to maximize the ability to make bicycle-transit linked trips for all users.

Goals

  • To enhance bicycle access to METRO facilities with a focus on the highest potential locations
  • To create inter-jurisdictional consensus on recommendations and partnerships that facilitate on-the-ground improvements with the associated project costs of each
  • To improve bicyclist accommodations at METRO facilities, especially Park and Ride lots, transit centers and rail stations
  • To identify recommendations for METRO to consider as it develops a comprehensive plan for bicyclists
  • To implement programs and standards that make the METRO system easy for bicyclists to understand and use

Project Description

H-GAC has partnered with METRO on the development of a Subregional Planning Initiative study that will facilitate METRO’s evolution as a multimodal transit agency to increase accessibility for bicyclists and pedestrians. The METRO Bike and Ride Access and Implementation Plan will identify strategic approaches tailored to each of METRO’s Park and Ride lots, transit centers and rail stations based on analysis and information that includes best practices from peer transit agencies, spatial requirements, security requirements and geographic requirements. Study goals include:

  • Enhance access for bicycle riders to METRO facilities
  • Identify specific short and long-range improvements, along with associated costs for each, that will maximize accessibility and accommodation for bicycles at each Park and Ride lot, transit center, and rail station
  • Provide recommendations for METRO and its member jurisdictions to consider as it develops a comprehensive plan for bicyclists throughout its service area

Again, the survey is here. I don’t know if there’s a deadline on this, but please take a moment if you can and help them out on this. Via Houston Tomorrow.

Weekend link dump for February 17

Dunk or dunk not. There is no try. James Harden is a Zen master.

And then God made a more accurate representation of farming in America.

No, we don’t have a fertility crisis in the US.

Illegally uploaded movies on YouTube aren’t being blocked as often as they once were.

Twenty-five years of “Raising Arizona”, one of my all-time favorite movies.

Why Title IX is still needed. Did you know that you can still get fired for being pregnant? That’s one reason why.

RIP, Edith Houghton, one of baseball’s pioneers.

Help make Molly an astronaut.

Wait, Rex Reed is still alive? Who knew?

Do you not want fries with that?

“The resignation is another chance for the institutional Church to ac with unambiguous justice toward the victims, and unambiguous penitence toward the rest of the world, which is pretty much the way it should have been acting for the past 20 years. Thus would the resignation of Benedict XVI be the only real lasting triumph of his papacy. The odds against it, alas, are extraordinarily long.”

“Note to Justice Antonin Scalia, a man who is 76, fervently Catholic, and also holds a life term: Take the hint. It’s ok to step down.”

Getting rid of styrofoam would be a good thing.

I don’t think more Nuge is going to help the anti-gun control folks, but hey, knock yourselves out.

“Here’s the funny thing: My wife doesn’t drive like a Prius owner. She still drives the car “normally”. But me? I’ve become that guy I used to hate, and I blame it on the data.”

Here’s one way to put your money where your mouth is on diversity.

Remember Fredric Wertham and “The Seduction of the Innocent”? Apparently, he cooked his research on comics and their effect on kids.

I just can’t imagine why the city of Sugar Land turned down this fabulous offer.

I’ve been a panelist on a couple of local PBS gabfests in Houston. They’re always kind enough to provide us talking heads with water, in attractive local-station-themed mugs, for the recordings. I like to think that I drink my water on television in a more smooth and professional manner than Sen. Marco Rubio does.

News flash: Terrestrial radio sucks. You already knew that, right?

I really have no idea why the modern conservative movement has such problems connecting with women. It’s a mystery, I tell you.

“Basically, a fake starship captain just sent a tweet to a real-life space station engineer, who replied using the language of the fake starship captain … and all of us got to see it.” My God, I love living in the future.

Hard to say who’s dumber, Ben Shapiro or the idiots who believed him.

Why there were all those dashboard cameras on Russian cars to capture the meteorite footage.

Awkward Valentine’s Day stories. I’m thankful I don’t have anything interesting to add to them.

Math is hard, Adjusted For Inflation division.

White Stallion coal plant deep sixed

I mentioned this in passing the other day, but the news that White Stallion has been shelved deserves its own post.

Developers have dropped plans for the White Stallion Energy Center about 90 miles southwest of Houston, signaling the end of a once heady rush to build several new coal-fired power plants across Texas.

White Stallion is the latest abandoned coal-burning project amid record low prices for natural gas and increased environmental scrutiny. The decision announced Friday means that Texans might not see another coal plant built after an 800-megawatt unit near Waco comes online in April.

The demise of the White Stallion project “hopefully represents the last dying gasp of ‘new’ coal plants in Texas proposing to employ technologies from the last century,” said Jim Marston, who leads the energy program for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Texas now has 19 coal plants, but once had plans for more. In 2005, Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order that put their permits on the fast track, but most approved projects were never built.

The natural gas boom, driven by low prices on natural gas, is the single biggest reason why White Stallion and many other proposed coal plants were scrapped, and the main reason why there are no new coal plants on the horizon after the Waco plant was built. But that wasn’t the only factor – the Environmental Protection Agency did its job, too.

White Stallion had run afoul of new federal limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants. The project’s developers had asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review the regulations, but the case is on hold.

The project also faced the EPA’s first-ever limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming from new power plants.

And it did not have the support of many locals.

See here for the last update I had regarding litigation over the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases. As State Impact notes, White Stallion was in danger of seeing its state permit expire before getting an answer one way or another from the courts, and that would have meant needing to start over, which wasn’t going to happen. Pulling the plug was their only choice. While this is very good news for clean energy proponents, it’s not all good:

“The only downside of this shift to natural gas is that it has made the challenge for renewable energy to be competitive without subsidies even greater,” Rep. [Mark] Strama says. “Because any time that lower-priced natural gas power electricity displaces coal, for the same reason it tends to displace wind and solar. I think this story highlights again the need for a renewable strategy in Texas.”

To that end, Strama has advocated for state incentives and subsidies for more solar and coastal wind projects, which could help the state during hot summer days when demand for electricity is at its peak. He has filed legislation to that end, and is more hopeful that it stands a chance this legislative session.

“Let me put it this way,” Strama says. “We were really close in 2009 to passing meaningful legislation around renewables. [Then] we didn’t come very close in 2011. But this year feels a little more receptive to having a discussion.”

Some of what needs to be done to promote renewable energy in Texas is regulatory and not legislative, but either way there are things to do. In the meantime, let’s celebrate a win for a cleaner tomorrow. The Environmental Defense Fund has more.

Not a big enough picture

The headline on this story reads “County mulls big-picture health council”, but a read of the story makes it clear that there’s a big piece of this picture missing from the discussion.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Harris County is discussing a big-picture approach to its complex and overlapping health care costs, proposing the creation of a council to coordinate spending on mental health, public health, the treatment of jail inmates and the county’s hospital district.

The proposed group would mirror the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, created in 2009 to improve the justice system and reduce jail overcrowding. Though they acknowledge many factors are involved, county leaders note the jail population has fallen since some of the council’s proposals – such as launching a public defender’s office and letting inmates who enroll in vocational or educational programs earn three days’ time for each day served – were implemented.

“We not only have about 30 percent of all the property tax money going to the hospital district, but we have other areas that we support: mental health, incarcerated health and public health,” said Budget Management Director Bill Jackson. “All those together add up to almost $600 million a year, and I think that this council would bring people together, show their different needs. It deserves a lot of attention and a lot of coordination.”

[…]

The issues the health council would confront are hard to overstate, Commissioner El Franco Lee said. The same citizens often cycle through the jail and public hospitals, he said, with great overlap among homelessness and mental and physical health troubles. The result, he said, is a huge burden on public resources.

For example, $47 million of the sheriff’s proposed $391 million budget would be allocated to inmate health care. The county jail has been called the largest mental health institution in Texas; a quarter of its inmates take psychotropic medications on a typical day.

“So much of our dollars go into dealing with health,” said County Judge Ed Emmett. “I think every member of the court has said, ‘We’ve got find a way to separate mental health from the criminal justice system,’ and I think if we get everybody sitting together talking about it at the same time, we can make that happen.”

These are good ideas, and if a coordinating council for county health care makes sense to implement some of them then I support its creation. But let’s face it, if we’re not also talking about the need for Medicaid expansion and the huge benefits it would have for health care in Harris County, we’re not seeing the full picture. As Grits reminded us back in September, expanding Medicaid could have a large positive effect on these very citizens that cycle through the jail and public hospitals, not to mention the bottom line for those public hospitals. Medicaid expansion may not be on the table for the state right now, but there’s no reason Harris County can’t join with Dallas and other counties to formally request the right to do its own expansion. I’d conservatively guess that expanding Medicaid would affect over 200,000 people in Harris County, and I’d bet that more than a few of them are well known to the jail and the public hospitals. We can pay for all that ourselves, or we can take advantage of the Affordable Care Act and get the federal government to pay for the vast majority of it. If advocating for that isn’t part of any county health care coordinating council’s mission, then I don’t understand what its mission is.

Kubosh is in for Council

This happened on Friday.

Michael Kubosh

Michael Kubosh, part of the fighting brothers who finally rid Houston of red-light cameras, is announcing today he’s running for an at-large city council seat.

Kubosh will announce he’s running for Melissa Noriega’s at-large seat (she is term-limited out), and an eclectic cast of Houston politicos will be there, according to the campaign — from hardcore rightwing councilmember Helen Brown to community activist Quanell X.

“Above the city council chambers reads the phrase the people are the city,” Kubosh said in a release about the announcement. “It seems to me the current administration has ignored that statement. If elected, I promise I will never forget that quote. I will be the servant to all the people.”

Boy, I’m sorry I missed that announcement. Note that this is Michael Kubosh, who ran as a “Democrat” against Dan Patrick in 2006, and not Paul Kubosh, who has been a frequent commenter here. You may recall that I frequently criticized the two of them during the red light camera saga for not being city residents. Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that both Kuboshes are now duly registered to vote in our fair city. According to their registration cards, they now share an apartment in the Rice Hotel, which means they’re a wacky neighbor and/or a hot housekeeper away from being able to pitch a sitcom to NBC.

Anyway, according to Houston Politics, other candidates in the field for AL3 include Chris Carmona, who ran unsuccessfully against CM Noriega in 2011, and everyone’s favorite frequent flyer, Roy Morales. Jenifer Pool has been in for some time now as well. I put the over/under on the number of candidates at nine when all is said and done. The temporarily re-patriated TexPatriate comments on this race and a few others, though he got the wrong Kubosh brother for AL3. Easy enough mistake to make, I’m sure that won’t be the last time. This is going to be a fun election season.

Council approves Southwest/Hobby deal

You are now free to make lame jokes about Southwest’s marketing slogan.

Council members unanimously approved a 25-year use and lease agreement with the Dallas-based carrier that incorporates a new two-story, five-gate concourse and Customs and Border Protection inspection facility at Hobby into existing terms and conditions.

The 280,000-square-foot expansion is scheduled for completion before the end of 2015, with short-hop international flights to cities in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America to begin by 2016.

If the project is not completed by the end of 2016, the agreement will be considered terminated, according to its terms.

“We have always said that we hoped to have this facility up and running in 2015, and we’re very confident that we can do that,” Southwest spokesman Paul Flaningan said.

The exact foreign cities Southwest will fly to out of Hobby are yet to be determined, Flaningan said, and the airport is not allowed to ask for authorization to add new routes until six months prior to new service beginning.

“Our network planning folks still have to get in there to determine what are the best routes,” he said.

See here for more, and Swamplot for some pictures. Note that the vote was unanimous, so even Helena Brown couldn’t find a reason to vote against it. What more could you want?

Saturday video break: Everybody’s Talkin’

Song #31 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Everybody’s Talkin'”, originally by Fred Neil and covered by Harry Nilsson. Here’s the original:

Nice little country ballad. Never heard it before, but nice. Here’s Harry Nilsson:

I take it back, I have heard this before, I just hadn’t realized it by the title and artist, as has been the case with several other songs. This version is more pop and less country, though you can still hear the country roots in it. Which version do you prefer?

Working the county Medicaid expansion angle

As statewide Medicaid expansion is being pushed in Austin, some activists are going to various County Commissioners Courts to push for the county option to expand Medicaid as well.

“A broad spectrum of people across business, faith and health care communities are coming together to ask that we find a way to draw down these federal dollars, and I think it’s imperative that we do,” said Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins, chairman of the Dallas County Commissioners Court.

In 2011, local Texas governments, cities and counties, spent $2.5 billion in unreimbursed health care costs, according to a report by Billy Hamilton, the state’s former deputy comptroller and former chief revenue estimator. If Texas expanded Medicaid coverage to impoverished adults in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act, the state could receive an additional $100 billion in federal dollars over 10 years, helping to offset that spending by local governments. The state would pay $15 billion during that time, which opponents of the expansion, including state Republican leaders, argue is too much.

“We’re doing his across the state. The resolution is our strategy…to put pressure on the governor and the Legislature to pass Medicaid expansion,” said Willie Bennett, lead organizer with the Dallas Area interfaith coalition, which helped write the resolution on Medicaid expansion that Dallas County plans to adopt on Tuesday. He said their organization helped craft a similar resolution that the El Paso County Commissioners Court adopted on Monday, and is working with other major counties to also pass resolutions.

[…]

“Working uninsured [Texans] are leading the fight. These are everyday people who work, some of them six days a week, but can’t afford health insurance,” said Durrel Douglas, a spokesman for the Texas Organizing Project.

Dallas County could get $580 million in federal revenue to help insure 133,000 additional residents through the Medicaid expansion, Jenkins said. (Use this Tribune interactive to compare the costs and savings of expanding Medicaid.)

“What it boils down to is, if we don’t take it, our federal tax dollars will pay to cover this population everywhere else in the country and our local tax dollars will pay to cover it here,” Jenkins said. “That puts us at a health care disadvantage, because we have the nation’s highest uninsured rate already, and it puts us at a competitive disadvantage because you’re paying federal taxes to cover everybody else, but you’re not getting your fair share.”

I’m still not certain that the county option is allowable under Medicaid rules, but I applaud the Texas Organizing Project for their initiative. The more sources of pressure that exist for expanding Medicaid, and the more voices calling for it, the better. They got what they wanted in Dallas County.

Dallas County commissioners endorsed an expanded Medicaid program Tuesday that would cover uninsured low-income residents who otherwise must rely on charity care or county tax dollars to cover their medical costs.

County Judge Clay Jenkins said the 4-0 vote was not a political ploy directed at Gov. Rick Perry and other Republicans, who have staunchly opposed expanding the state-federal program.
“I hear Governor Perry saying Medicaid is a system in need of reform, and I agree,” Jenkins said. “Let’s find a way to craft a Texas plan that reflects the values of the state’s elected leadership and brings those much-needed dollars here.”

[…]

Locally, the expansion would funnel an estimated $580 million to Dallas County to cover new Medicaid recipients in 2014. The money would lessen the burden on local health care providers now treating such uninsured patients, usually in their emergency rooms.

“Parkland Hospital has estimated that the expansion will cover 133,000 Dallas County residents, whether they are going to Baylor’s ER for care or to Parkland’s community clinics,” Jenkins said. “This is the math, and it makes sense.”

[…]

The Dallas County vote won praise from the medical community.

Dr. Sue Bornstein, a former board member of the Dallas County Medical Society, said the current Medicaid system needs fixing as well as expansion.

“I’m certainly pleased that the county judge came out with this,” she said. “It’s our tax money, too. And in Texas we don’t want our tax money going someplace else.”

That’s the argument that has swayed an increasing number of Republican governors to accept Medicaid expansion, but as we know Rick Perry is more resistant to facts and reality than most. The TOP is working on similar resolutions in other counties – via email, Durrel Douglas told me that Bexar County, whose officials were the originators of the county expansion idea, is slated to vote on theirs in two weeks, and they are working to bring them to Harris, Hidalgo, El Paso, and hopefully others as well. I wish them the very best of luck. ThinkProgress has more.

The Summer X-Games

Another sporting event that could be coming to Houston.

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority is making a bid for ESPN’s action sports event, an annual competition that began in 1995.

“It’s definitely another feather in our cap,” said Janis Schmees, the CEO of Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “It’s a useful event, it’s a great timing because we have a brand new skate park that we just broke ground on. There, it attracts a younger crowd. Even in the Olympics they’ve added snowboarding because they’re trying to keep the youth excited about the Olympic movement. I think that up and coming generation loves the X Games.”

[…]

The winner will host the event over a three-year span from 2014 to 2016.

“The three year model allows for the event to grow and develop in the region and identify efficiencies over the course of the hosting period,” said Deane Swanson, ESPN’s senior director of event management, X Games, in an e-mailed statement.

Representatives from HCHSA traveled to Aspen, Colo., last month during the Winter X Games to meet with officials of the games. ESPN representatives have also made a site visit. Reliant Stadium, BBVA Compass Stadium and the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark are among possible venues for the games.

Los Angeles, which has hosted several Summer X Games, saw a $50 million economic boon from the 2010 games, according to economic research and consulting firm Micronomics. That figure came from a $12 million influx from increased tourism, $6 million related to the television broadcast production and $12 million from direct spending associated with the games. It also factored in the monetary value of having 31 hours of live programming throughout the games.

Yeah, yeah, economic impact projections, ’nuff said. This would still be a cool thing to have. We’re in a much better position to compete for this sort of thing now, too. Final bids are due on April 2, and the decision will be announced in August.

We’ve got mercury, yes we do

Once again, Texas overachieves at something bad.

Martin Lake coal plant

Even though mercury and other hazardous air pollution from U.S. power plants are declining, the progress at the coal-fired power plants are uneven, leaving in place a significant remaining risk to the health of the public and environment, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

Coal-burning power plants release millions of pounds of toxic pollutants into the air every year, including mercury and carcinogens like arsenic and chromium. US EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) can be used to identify the largest sources of these dangerous pollutants based on annual reports the electric power industry submits to the Agency under federal Right to Know laws. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, especially harmful to developing fetuses and young children.

Available online at http://environmentalintegrity.org/news_reports/01_03_2013.php, the new EIP report uses TRI data for 2011 (the most recent full year available) to identify the 10 largest sources of power plant mercury emissions – five of these are in Texas, of which four are owned by Luminant Generation.

[…]

EIP Attorney Ilan Levin said: “Nationwide, equipment has been installed over the years to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. That has helped cut down on the release of mercury, toxic metals and acid gases from power plants over the last ten years. However, that progress is uneven, and the dirtiest plants continue to churn out thousands of pounds of toxins that can be hazardous to human health even in small concentrations. For example, emissions of mercury from coal-fired power plants have actually increased in the last decade in the state of Texas.

Levin added, “Emissions from local power plants deposit mercury and other toxic metals in nearby rivers and streams, where these pollutants concentrate in aquatic organisms at levels that can make fish unsafe to eat. The fact that so few plants are responsible for so much of the mercury pollution makes the solution less complicated; the dirtiest sources need to clean up their act.”

You would think, given his deep and abiding love for fetuses, that Rick Perry would be all over this. You would, of course, be wrong. The full report is here; note that not only does Texas have five of the top ten, we have four of the top five. And as the report notes, the news just keeps getting better.

Fortunately, mercury emissions from coal-fired electric power plants have declined over the past decade, from 88,650 pounds in 2001 to 53,140 pounds in 2011. States like Maryland have cut mercury emissions from coal plants at least 80 percent through tough new state standards, while reductions in other states are a byproduct of pollution controls installed to meet other federal standards. For example, scrubbers that reduce sulfur dioxide to comply with acid rain or fine particle standards will also remove mercury. These reductions have not been evenly distributed; for example, mercury emissions from Texas power plants have actually increased since 2001. That matters, because rivers and lakes closest to power plants are the most likely to be the hardest hit by power plant mercury pollution.

The EPA’s long-delayed Mercury and Air Toxics (“MATS”) rule, which gives power plants until February of 2015 to comply, would level the playing field by requiring the industry’s laggards to catch up with companies that have already cleaned up their plants. EPA estimates that the rule will cut annual power plant mercury emissions to just over 13,000 pounds by 2016, about 75 percent below current levels. But the rule is being fiercely challenged by Luminant and other companies seeking to avoid the cost of the pollution controls needed to meet the new standard.

Yes, they are fighting it fiercely. See here, here, and here for some background. After that story about the connection between lead contamination and crime rates, we should all be very, very afraid of anything that dumps large quantities of heavy metals into our air, water, and soil. There is one bit of genuine good news in all of this, and that is that the proposed White Stallion coal plant has been cancelled, and with the boom of natural gas there’s no new coal-burning plants on the horizon. That won’t do anything to help mitigate the effects of the plants we have now, but at least it won’t get any worse.

Friday random ten: More unromantic Valentine’s Day songs

I did this last year and it was fun, so I thought I’d do it again.

1. Lord, I Wish I was A Single Girl Again – Elena James
2. Don’t Get Married, Girls – Ceili’s Muse
3. Put Another Log On The Fire – Jonny Fritz
4. Whatever – Asylum Street Spankers
5. You Rascal, You – Louis Armstrong
6. You’re So Vain – Carly Simon
7. Evil Woman Don’t Play Your Games With Me – Crow
8. Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine – Nick Lowe
9. Life Is Hard, But Life Is Hardest When You’re Dumb – Austin Lounge Lizards
10. The Twentieth Room – Gordian Knot

Put Another Log On The Fire is a Shel Silverstein song, subtitled “The Male Chauvinist National Anthem”. I think you get the picture. “The Twentieth Room” is a song about a woman who marries a man who turns out to have murdered all of his previous wives. As for “Whatever”, well, see for yourself:

You could always count on the Spankers to write tender love songs. Happy day after Valentine’s Day, y’all.

Clearing the rape kit backlog

Some excellent news from the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston Police Department today announced details of a plan that will eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits (SAK). Under the plan, which will be formally considered by Houston City Council next week, the untested kits will be sent to two outside labs for testing. It is anticipated the work will be completed in 12-14 months and cost the city $4.4 million, which will be covered with grant funding already awarded to HPD and dollars set aside for this purpose by City Council in the city’s current budget.

“Today is an important day for rape victims and the city as a whole,” said Mayor Parker. “With this plan we will finally be able to say the backlog is gone. The problem was years in the making and we’ve been working to solve it since I became mayor. It has been a struggle to deal with during a period of extremely difficult economic times, but we remained determined. I am committed to it never happening again.”

HPD is recommending the contract be awarded to Bode Technology Group, Inc. and Sorenson Forensics, LLC. They were selected through a competitive process. Both are recognized leaders in the field and both have worked on other large backlog projects in various places, including New York, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. Due to the volume of work, the city is able to maximize the use of a low, fixed-price contract.

“This plan will eliminate the backlog of SAKs and other DNA cases entirely,” said Houston Forensic Science LGC Chair Scott Hochberg. “This will allow the existing crime lab to focus on current casework and give the LGC a clean start and the ability to focus on other issues as it works to establish an entirely independent city crime lab.”

“Department personnel have worked diligently on this project and will be implementing an aggressive plan to complete it in an effective and efficient manner,” said Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. “I am extremely confident this will not be an issue in the future. I am also very proud of all the men and women who have helped us reach this milestone.”

The contract will include the following:

  • Testing of 6,663 stored SAKs
  • Testing of 1,450 active SAKs
  • Testing of 1,000 SAKs HPD anticipates receiving in the next year
  • Testing of 1,020 other non-SAK cases

The proposed contract with Bode Technology Group and Sorenson Forensics is expected to be on the February 20 City Council agenda. Approval by City Council would clear the way for transfer of all SAKs and other DNA cases to the two firms for the start of testing.

The backlog of these rape kits is a longstanding scandal, and clearing it would be a major accomplishment. Amazing the positive things that can get done when there’s money in the budget, isn’t there? The Chron story adds a few more details, including the fact that clearing the backlog would mean that DNA testing for property crime cases can proceed; that’s what the “1,020 other non-SAK cases” item above refers to.

The main question I have in reading this is whether the money came from the $5 per customer strip club fee that Council adopted last June. I wouldn’t think so, for two reasons. One, CM Ellen Cohen, who proposed the fee as a way to help pay for the rape kit backlog, estimated it would collect between one and three million dollars per year. Two point two million in six months seems like an awful lot. More to the point, I’m not sure the fee is even being collected yet, or if it is if its revenue is available for the city to use since the strip clubs filed a lawsuit over the fee in October. The state held the revenues collected from their fee in escrow for years while that litigation was being resolved. In any event, I posed the question to the Mayor’s office, also asking if the fee would still be needed now that the backlog was on its way to being resolved, and got the following response:

While the litigation is pending, the clubs are not paying the fee. The $2.2 million from the General Fund is part of $5 million City Council included in the current city budget last June for testing and to help with start up of the independent crime lab. It is not from the fee. There is no implication that the fee will no longer be needed. It just may not be needed for this purpose.

So there you have it. Speaking of the lawsuit, and I want to emphasize that this is my own speculation here, it seems to me that the resolution of the backlog would be a useful pretext for settling that litigation if both parties were so inclined. If the backlog is cleared then the fee is no longer needed, right? The city could agree to quit collecting it, and then modulo any haggling the clubs might want to do over fees that had already been collected, that would be all there is to it. Like I said, entirely my own speculation. Hair Balls has more.

Supplement this!

Time for the Lege to pay a few past-due bills from 2011.

That’s where a supplemental budget comes in. It is literally a second budget added to the original one lawmakers approved in 2011. It’s not an unusual course for lawmakers to take to address lingering IOUs, but this year’s efforts are becoming more complicated and politically fraught than in the past.

For starters, lawmakers are planning at least three bills to address the state’s supplemental needs instead of the usual one. The first measure needs to be signed by Gov. Rick Perry in March so the state can pay billions in upcoming health care bills on time. A second supplemental bill will address the state’s costs from fighting wildfires and providing prisoner health care, but it won’t need to pass so quickly. A third measure, also not a rush item, will reverse $1.75 billion in delayed funds to school districts.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said separate bills were needed to ensure that the emergency item makes it to Perry’s desk quickly.

Texas has $6.8 billion of unmet costs in the current budget, nearly all of it related to Medicaid and public education, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Lawmakers plan to use most of the extra $8.8 billion the Texas comptroller reported collecting from this biennium to pay those costs.

One way of thinking about this is that if Comptroller Combs had given us an accurate revenue estimate in the first place, we we could have dealt with all this in 2011 instead of pretending it didn’t exist for the purposes of “balancing” the budget. This is also a reminder, once again, that the concept of “balancing” the budget as we do in Texas is a fiction imposed by an artificial deadline.

The House Appropriations Committee passed its first supplemental bill on Monday, and Pitts plans to bring it to the House floor for a vote early next week. The bill, House Bill 10, has “emergency” status, a parliamentary designation that allows legislators to vote on the measure during the first 60 days of the session if Pitts can get the support of 120 of the 150 House members.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever had an emergency supplemental,” Pitts said.

The emergency stems from the last Legislature’s decision to fund Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for only 18 out of 24 months in the budget cycle, a move that allowed lawmakers to delay $4.5 billion in spending from state coffers. HB 10 will fund those programs for the full two years with $4.5 billion in state money, which will automatically trigger an extra $6.6 billion in federal funding.

The bill needs to get to Perry’s desk by early March so that health care workers aren’t left in the lurch, Pitts said.

“If we do not pass House Bill 10 for Medicaid, the doctors, the hospitals, the nursing homes will not be paid after the middle of March. … That is the emergency,” Pitts told his colleagues on the House floor Monday. The bill also includes $630 million owed to schools districts.

The emergency is one part the result of Combs’ inaccurate revenue projection, and one part the Republicans’ fanatical refusal to find new revenue. Most likely, these bills (about which you can learn more here) will pass, but you never know what the bomb-throwers in the GOP caucus might try to do. You may be wondering about the issue of school finance, for which Democrats have tried to get the cuts from 2011 restored. That’s not going to happen, but some kind of partial restoration may be possible.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said that lawmakers have just under $1 billion available to spend without hitting the constitutional spending limit on the current two-year budget. He and a group of lawmakers, which includes House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, are in talks to add some of that money to a supplemental spending bill expected to reach the full House next month.

“We’re still working on it,” Pitts said Thursday.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said the discussions are looking at adding public education money both to the current budget and the next two-year budget cycle.

[…]

During debate over the rule, Pitts told lawmakers the second supplemental bill may include funding for public education. That bill is also expected to address unexpected costs related to recent wildfires and prisoner healthcare.

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, urged Pitts to make clear publicly as soon as he could how much more money school districts could expect so they could properly plan to use it before the end of the fiscal year. He said many districts might use some of the funding to hire tutors for students who need to retake the STAAR end-of-course exams.

“There is time for us to make a meaningful difference in the resources available to them,” Strama said.

The rule in question was one that forbade any amendment to HB10 that added to the total cost without any offsetting cut elsewhere. We’ll see what comes of this. EoW has more.

Single member districts for Farmers Branch

Another long battle comes to an end.

When will they learn?

A Dallas federal judge has directed Farmers Branch to implement single-member City Council districts after the U.S. Justice Department signed off on the city’s proposed map.

The move could set the stage for a fiery May 11 election in which the outcome may provide the suburb of 29,000 residents with its first Hispanic council member.

Since 2006, Farmers Branch has spent about $6 million in legal fees defending a stymied ordinance barring illegal immigrants from rental housing. Ultimately, it led 10 Hispanic residents to sue the city under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, alleging the city’s at-large council election system discriminated against Hispanics.

The decision by Judge Sidney Fitzwater follows his ruling that the city violated the Voting Rights Act and had to develop a remedy. Fitzwater is a Republican appointee and the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Texas’ Northern District.

[…]

“It is hard to believe we are still fighting this fight,” said Elizabeth Villafranca, a former City Council candidate and whose election loss was dissected during the three-day trial. “The good thing that came out of all this is how under-represented we are in the city.”

Alfonso Baladez, a 67-year-old plaintiff in the case, testified that he had given up voting because his candidate never got elected.

On Friday, Baladez said: “I just wanted to be listened to. Now I can go to my district councilperson. There are things that are just not right.”

Under the new single-member map, District 1 on the city’s western side will have a majority of Hispanic U.S. citizens of voting age.

The last update I had on this was from 2010. This was the second such lawsuit filed to implement single member districts in Farmers Branch; an earlier one had been dismissed because the the judge ruled that the plaintiffs could not draw a single member district that would elect a Hispanic candidate. I guess we’ll know for sure in a few months. Ana Reyes, who works for state Rep. Rafael Anchía, has said she intends to run in the new district. We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, the FB City Council still has to approve the plan, which is scheduled for discussion on February 19, and there is still the possibility of an appeal. It’s not the end quite yet, but you can see it from here.

We need to fix birth certificates

This needs to happen.

Texas law prevents gay parents from both being listed on supplemental birth certificate forms for adoptive children. The forms provide space for only one mother, a woman, and one father, a male. The gender-specific language was added in 1997 as a part of a renewed commitment to conservative values, said the amendment’s author, former state Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas.

Opponents of the provision say it compels same-sex families to present unwieldy paperwork to prove legal parentage for medical care, school enrollment and international travel, and prompts extra scrutiny that can embarrass or confuse children.

Connie Moore, a Houston adoption lawyer, said children do not “understand the legal distinction” when their birth certificate causes a hold-up “while in line to sign up for soccer.”

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, has filed legislation this session to strike the 1997 amendment from the Texas Health and Safety Code. The first two efforts to pass the bill in pervious sessions died in committee.

[…]

For Anchia, the bill is more about children than about parents. “When you point out to people that children can be adversely impacted by an inaccurate birth certificate, then the argument becomes clear and persuasive,” he said.

Hartnett, who did not seek re-election last year, said he would want the measure to be reconsidered if there was evidence it was “causing some hardship for the children.”

Though supporters of Anchia’s measure think growing national support for gay rights bodes well for its passage this session, its success may hinge on its initial fate in the House Public Health Committee.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who has chaired the committee in recent sessions and is likely to do so again this year, said she would wait to see if the bill had the votes.

“It’s a cultural shift and a big issue,” Kolkhorst said, adding, “You never want to throw a bill out there that just cuts the membership up.”

Rep. Anchia’s bill is HB201. There are still plenty of haters out there who will whine and stomp their feet and tell lots of lies in a desperate attempt to prevent the undoing of this wrong – one of the more prominent such people is quoted in the story – but the flame of their hatred is dying out, and it’s just a matter of time before this is seen as the incomprehensible anachronism that it is. I don’t expect Anchia’s bill to pass, because stuff like this always takes more than one session to come to fruition, but if it doesn’t happen this session the existing law may be made moot by upcoming Supreme Court rulings. Even if that doesn’t happen, we all know this is a relic. We can do the right thing now, or be forced to do it later. The only difference is how many people are hurt in the interim.

Messing with the primaries

It’s like deja vu all over again.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed a bill to move up the primary one month in even-numbered years, to the first Tuesday in February.

Patrick said people in both parties should support the measure because it would give Texas a greater say in presidential elections.

“I’m tired of other states, mostly smaller, picking the nominees for president,” Patrick said in a statement.

It’s not clear the move would actually give Texas parties more clout because national rules governor state primary timing.

Democratic Party spokeswoman Tanene Allison said such an early primary would violate her party’s national rules and prevent Democratic delegates from being seated at the national convention and casting votes for the nominee.

“We strongly oppose it,” she said.

So much for people in “both parties” wanting to support it. All due respect, but the idea of Dan Patrick having the best interests of the Texas Democratic Party in mind is rather a stretch. But look, we’ve been down this road before. There was a lot of bills in the 2007 Legislature to move the primary up to February on the grounds that it would give Texas voters more of a say in the outcome. As we Democrats may recall, having the primary in March as usual was the best thing that could have happened, since the race was still very much in doubt and there were no other primaries between Super Tuesday and ours, meaning that the attention of the entire country and both the Obama and Clinton campaigns were right here that whole time. If Greg Abbott hadn’t appealed the original interim map from the San Antonio court to SCOTUS, the March primary in 2012 would have been very meaningful for the Republicans, quite possibly giving a major boost to Rick Santorum. (It likely also would have allowed David Dewhurst to survive the GOP Senate primary, but that’s a side issue.) Who’s to say that a March primary wouldn’t be meaningful in 2016? I was supportive of the effort in 2007 to move the primary up, but at this point I’d say leave it alone.

Senate Bill 452 also would apply in non-presidential years. The filing deadline, if the bill passed, would be moved to the second week in November starting with the 2014 elections, according to Patrick’s office. Patrick is among those talked up as eyeing a run for statewide office.

Democratic consultant Harold Cook said besides affecting the presidential primary, an early primary tends to help incumbent legislators and members of Congress seeking re-election.

“There is just simply less time for a challenger to get known,” he said.

Yes, it does benefit incumbents, which means it will benefit Republicans in general in 2014 for statewide races, not that they need the help. I don’t have a problem with wanting to make Texas more of a player in the Presidential nomination process, but after the last two races I think we ought to be wary of the idea that this requires an earlier primary date. Trail Blazers has more.

Here come the craft beer bills

From Brewed and Never Battered.

Senator Kevin Eltife (R-District 1) introduced bi-partisan legislation along with Co-Authors, Senators Brian Birdwell (R-District 22), John Carona (R-District 16), Eddie Lucio (D-District 27), Leticia Van de Putte (D-District 26), Kirk Watson (D-District 14), and John Whitmire (D-District 15) to modernize the state’s alcohol regulatory system to make more competitive Texas’s small, craft brewers.

Senate Bills 515, 516, 517 and 518 expand the rights of the state’s craft breweries and brewpubs to provide parity versus what brewers in other states are allowed to do.

From a Press Release put out by Senator Eltife’s office:

“Government shouldn’t be involved in picking winners and losers in private industry.  Texans believe consumers make the best choices about products in the free market,” said Senator Eltife.  “These four bills will level the playing field for the small business segment of Texas brewing industry.”

“Legislators should encourage entrepreneurial spirit by creating a climate for small business development opportunities that leads to capital investment and job creation in our state,” added Senator Eltife.  “This legislation will provide the proper regulatory framework for these businesses to operate and grow.”

What the Bills Do

SB 515

  • Increases the production limit for a brewpub from 5,000 to 12,500 barrels annually
  • Authorizes a brewpub to sell their products to the wholesale tier for re-sale
  • Authorizes a brewpub to self-distribute up to 1,000 barrels annual to the retail tier for re-sale

SB 518

  • Authorizes a production brewery under 225,000 barrels of annual production to sell up to 5,000 barrels annually of beer produced by the brewery to ultimate consumers for consumption on the premise of the brewery

SB 516 & 517

  • Authorizes a production brewery under 125,000 barrels of annual production to self-distribute up to 40,000 barrels annual of beer, ale and malt-liquor to retailers. (Note: this right currently exists but is being adjusted. Currently, a brewery under 75,000 barrels of annual production may self-distribute up to 75,000 barrels. These bills increase the size of a brewery that may self-distribute while reducing the amount they may self-distribute. There are two bills because it affects both the “Manufacturer” license – Ch. 62 of the code – and the “Brewer” permit – Ch. 12 of the code.)
  • Eliminates discrimination against out-of-state suppliers.

This is great to hear. I don’t remember there being this kind of broad support for previous bills, but if this is any indication there just might be a breakthrough this year. These bills encompass most, but not quite all, of what the microbrewers and brewpubs have been pushing for. Beer, TX notes the exception:

Notably, the bill regarding on-site sales for production breweries does not include any provision for selling beer for off-premises consumption or giving packaged beer away following tours. That had been a major push during the past two legislative sessions. In 2011, a bill made it through the House and Senate committee but was never called for a floor vote because of opposition.

That opposition hasn’t gone away and the small brewers abandoned efforts to include such a provision in this year’s proposals.

That’s a bummer, but sometimes you have to take a smaller step forward before you can get where you really want to go. Here’s Open the Taps:

Open The Taps continues to work closely with the [Texas Craft Brewers] Guild to help shape and guide the legislation and we are pleased with the general direction of the debate, but we believe these bills can and should go further by allowing microbreweries to sell set quantities of beer directly to patrons for off-premise personal consumption.

We will be working with members of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures to share our position and elicit their support.

I’d rather have stronger bills, too, but better to get these bills passed and come back in two years for more than fail again and have to start all over again in two years. Passing these bills will be progress, and we need that. The key is that the usual suspects do not appear to be standing in the way this time, as the Chron story notes.

Several of the parties involved in developing the proposals say there is at least some agreement within the industry and in the state Senate.

“Conceptually, we’ve agreed,” said Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents Silver Eagle Distributing and other major wholesalers.

[…]

Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, applauded the work of lawmakers “in bringing industry stakeholders – from small and large brewers to distributors and retailers – to the table to discuss how to make Texas a compelling place for breweries to do business.”

Scott Metzger, the Freetail owner who pushed for a brewpub bill two years ago, agreed that pre-session working groups organized by Van de Putte created “a really good, open process.”

Getting past that opposition is huge, but nothing is certain until the governor puts his signature on it. As always, now is an excellent time to contact your Senator and your Representative to let them know you support these bills, and you would like them to support these bills as well.

No, we shouldn’t be closing any state parks

We shouldn’t be closing them in bad times, and we definitely shouldn’t be closing them in good times.

“We need to turn up the volume and let people know that our state parks are threatened,” said Ian Davis, director of the Keep Texas Parks Open campaign. “We’re in a time of budget surplus, and it seems backwards to be closing parks.”

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs has predicted a 12.4 percent or $11.2 billion increase in general revenue funds for the 2014-15 biennium.

But the initial proposed park budget being considered by the Texas House and Senate now is $4.1 million short of the bare minimum necessary to keep the state’s 91 parks open, park officials say. The Legislative Budget Board, which develops budget and policy recommendations for the Legislature, last week estimated such a cut could close as many as nine parks but did not identify any particular ones.

Despite the potentially dire outlook, Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith remains optimistic: “This is only a beginning point of a long budget process that will take place over the next couple of months.”

After a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 6, the committee’s chairman, Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, asked parks and wildlife for a more detailed accounting of its needs.

“I’m not personally interested in seeing any state parks closed. But there’s some confusion on what we need to do to help,” he stated.

Beside being short on operation expenses, the proposed budget includes nothing for capital improvements for aging facilities.

While costs for everything from gas to weather-related damage have soared, the proposed 2014-15 park budget of $140.7 million is some $19 million less than what was appropriated for the department in the 2008-2009 biennium, records show.

Just to bring a little math here, $140.7 million is 0.14% of the total revenue estimate of $101.4 billion for this biennium. Restoring the TPWD budget to $159.7 million would be 0.16% of the total. In other words, it’s basically rounding error. Especially after all of the weather-related trauma some parks have suffered through, the better question to ask is how much do they need to get back to where they ought to be. One way to fix this problem, as Ian Davis wrote in an op-ed, is to stop the diversion of funds that were intended to be dedicated to parks into general revenue, which is one of the many accounting tricks used to make the budget look “balanced” in 2011. State Rep. Lyle Larson has filed HB 105 to end that diversion and fully fund Texas’ parks. If you care about this, that’s something you should support. Give a Like to Keep Texas Parks Open for more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 11

The Texas Progressive Alliance sends its best wishes for an early spring to everyone digging out from last week’s blizzard as it brings you this week’s roundup.

The school finance ruling has been handed down, and it could be a game-changer for schools and the Legislature. Off the Kuff explains.

The Democrats in the Texas House are trying to show that the GOP doesn’t care about public education. They should since it’s been the best winning strategy for Texas Democrats in the recent past. WCNews at Eye on Williamson posts on this week’s news from The Lege, Texas House Democrats have a plan.

“Tip your server, save the world”is a suitable mantra for living in the second decade of the 21st century. PDiddie at Brains and Eggs shares the message of transforming everything you can, within the reach of your own arm, from Will Pitt.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme is watching Ted Cruz hissy fit no votes on everything including no the Violence Against Women Act.

Neil at Texas Liberal wrote that President Obama’s policies on the uses of drones will lead to abuses both internationally and at home.

Over at TexasKaos, lightseeker explains how corporate school reform is The Stupid on Steroids. Give it a look.

Gambling has always polled well

In addition to their self-reported efforts to work together, the pro-gambling expansion forces have released a poll showing public sentiment on their side.

A poll paid for by Let Texans Decide, a pro-gambling group made up of interests that wanted slot machines at racetracks last session, asked 1,001 registered voters in Texas: “Regardless of your views on gambling, would you support or oppose allowing Texas voters to decide on a constitutional amendment to allow the expansion of gaming in Texas?”

The answer was a loud “yes.”

Of all respondents, 82 percent said they’d support being able to vote on a constitutional amendment to allow gambling, and 78 percent of Republican primary voters — the folks that, let’s face it, decide our statewide elections — also supported the idea of putting gambling to a public vote, according to poll results.

[…]

The poll was conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, the same firm that did the surveys for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz during his run for the Senate last year.

Respondents were contacted by phone between Jan. 27 and Jan. 30. The margin of error is ±3.1 percent, with an oversample sufficient to achieve 511 Republican primary voters with a margin of error +4.4 percent.

You can see the poll memo here, and crosstabs can be found here. There are two points to note. One is that asking people whether they favor voting on something is not the same as asking them if they favor the thing they’d be voting on. I suspect most propositions would get a favorable response to the question “should the people be allowed to vote on this”. Two, previous polls on the subject have generally shown a positive response from Texans towards expanded gambling. This 2009 Baselice poll found that 63% of respondents favored allowing slot machines at horse and dog racetracks, with 82% being in favor of being allowed to vote on the question. This 2010 Texans for Economic Development poll found that people preferred slot machines at racetracks as a way to raise revenue by a 57-22 margin over increasing taxes. None of that has made any difference in the Legislature in the past, and the safe bet is that this poll won’t make any difference, either. But there you have it anyway. Hair Balls has more.

Repealing the Texas double secret illegal anti-gay marriage amendment

Some things you do because they’re the right thing to do.

On the right side of history

Reps. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, are seeking to reverse the state’s prohibition against gay marriage or same-sex civil unions.

Their proposed constitutional amendments — HJR 77 and HJR 78 – would repeal a 2005 amendment passed by Texas voters that bans recognition of same-sex unions.

Coleman cited recent polls that show sentiments have changed for a majority of Texans. “Two-thirds of Texas’ voters now believe the state should allow some form of legal recognition for committed same-gender couples,” he said.

Anchia said he represents many couples and families who are discriminated against by the state’s Defense of Marriage Act.

“It is time we revisit this issue; it is time we treat all Texans with dignity and respect,” Anchia said.

The representatives are taking particular aim at a provision of the act that would deny gay couples any civil or legal benefits reserved to husbands and wives. A statewide poll from last year showed that only 25 percent of Texans believe that same-gender couples should neither be allowed to marry or enter int a civil union.

There’s also SJR 29, filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez in the Senate on Friday, and SB 480 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, which would serve as enabling legislation for these resolutions if their accompanying amendments were adopted. See here for more.

Back to the Trail Blazers story, the poll cited is this UT/Texas Trib poll from October that showed approval of marriage equality with a plurality of 36%, and approval of civil unions at 33%; only 25% disapproved of both. Those are encouraging numbers, but I don’t see that translating into legislative action any time soon, especially since it will take a Constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support from the Lege to get passed. Maybe someday, but not when Republican legislators and other assorted officeholders are urging the Boy Scouts to keep banning gays because gayness is icky and immoral. We’re getting to the point where more and more people have realized that supporting equality is the truly moral thing to do, but we’ve still got a long way to go in Texas, and I don’t think we’ll get there – more specifically, I don’t think two-thirds of the Legislature will get there – before the Supreme Court does. I applaud Sens. Rodriguez and Hinojosa and Reps. Anchia and Coleman, who has done this every session since 2005, for their action, and I certainly urge everyone to call their Rep and Senator and ask them to support these joint resolutions, I’m just saying it’s too early to get one’s hopes up. Equality Texas has more.

UPDATE: The Dallas Voice has more.