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February 15th, 2013:

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.