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April 13th, 2013:

Saturday video break: Me And Bobby McGee

Song #23 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Me And Bobby McGee”, originally by Kris Kristofferson, and covered by Janis Joplin. Here’s Kristofferson’s original version:

I love Janis Joplin’s iconic version of this, but there’s something about Kristofferson’s voice that just gets to me. When he sings the line about how Bobby is “searching for that home, and I hope she finds it”, I believe him, and I can feel how much it hurts for him to say it. I doubt that one out of a hundred people who know this song have heard Kristofferson sing it – I have a version in my collection – and of all the unknown originals I’ve heard in this project, this one is by far the one that deserves greater visibility. Now here’s Janis:

I think the main difference to me, besides Janis’ unbeatable voice, is that I feel more of the joy of the relationship in her words, right up to the “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday” line, where the loss really kicks in. I think I’ve decided that Kristofferson is singing from more years after losing Bobby than Janis is, and he’s looking back on it as someone who knows he’ll never match what he once had, whereas Janis is still young enough to hope for something like it to come along again. Just my opinion. What do you think?

Charter bill passes Senate, voucher bill passes out of committee

Score one for Sen. Dan Patrick.

As colleagues praised Education Chairman Dan Patrick’s efforts at building consensus, a significantly altered version of his expansion of the state’s charter school system quickly passed out of the Senate Thursday afternoon.

Patrick, R-Houston, said the bill accomplished what should be the goal of lawmakers — lifting everyone through quality education.

“The key to that is to have the opportunity for a great education, and I’m real proud to be a member of the Senate today,” he said as senators approved the measure by a vote of 30 to 1.

[…]

Talking with reporters afterwards, Patrick said the measure focuses on closing poor performing charter schools while allowing high quality schools to open.

Calling it “the most important education bill of the session,” he predicted by the time lawmakers go home in May, they will have passed “some of the biggest reforms in education that we’ve passed in a long time.”

Patrick originally intended to lift the state’s 215-school cap on charter contracts. After amendments, including one from Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, it now incrementally increases the limit on charters, reaching a hard cap of 305 by the year 2019. Charter schools aimed at dropout recovery or operated within traditional school districts would not count toward that cap.

The Senate dropped a requirement for school districts to lease or sell underused buildings to charter schools and another that would have provided facilities funding for charters, which — along with the state cap on charter school contracts — is a primary issue in a lawsuit pending against the state.

Patrick was hailed by Democrats after the vote for his willingness to listen and work with them. (The lone No vote was cast by Republican Sen. Robert Nichols, in case you’re wondering.) You know that I’m a frequent critic of Patrick’s, for very good reasons, but I do recognize that he’s got skills, and when he puts them to use in service of non-ideological items, he can be both good and effective. Patrick drew praise from Raise Your Hand Texas for his performance, and his SB 2 got kudos from Sen. Jose Rodriguez, who is very much on the opposite side of Sen. Patrick ideologically. I’ll throw in my own “attaboy”, since this bill does most of what I would have preferred and not much if any of what I opposed. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The Observer and Harold Cook have more.

And just to balance out all those good feelings, Patrick’s voucher bill, SB 23, was voted out of committee, with four Rs and one D (Eddie Lucio, of course) voting Yes. It seems likely that the remaining Democrats will unite against it, which will be enough to block it from coming to the Senate floor, but you never know. All in all, not a bad week for Dan Patrick.

Still arguing about road funding

I still don’t quite get why the obvious solution is so blithely dismissed.

With most of the work of developing a state budget behind them, lawmakers can now drill deeper into the state’s spending plan to find a way to fund billions of dollars in road maintenance, highway upgrades and other projects under the umbrella of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Highway department officials went into the session estimating the agency needed $4 billion more per year, about as much as it currently spends on new highway construction annually. To seriously dent the congestion crisis, some have said TxDOT needs about $12 billion per year. The agency is carrying about $23 billion in debt, as estimated by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

Under present scenarios, TxDOT will have about $2.5 billion for new construction in 2015. Lawmakers say this isn’t enough to meet the needs of a growing state.

“It is within our means to address it; we just need to do it,” said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Some revenue can come from relatively easy fixes, Williams and others said, such as ending diversions – mostly to law enforcement – from the revenue collected from Texas’ 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax. Ending the diversions, about $1.5 billion a year, would create a funding gap somewhere else but would fulfill a goal of using all transportation tax revenues for roads, ports and rail.

The gas tax alone cannot pay for the improvements, however. Texas lawmakers have not increased it since 1993, creating a huge funding gap for road projects. Because of changed driving habits and better fuel mileage, Pickett noted, the average driver paid about $12.50 a month in fuel taxes two decades ago. Now that driver pays about $9.54. TxDOT estimates road construction costs have increased 62 percent in those 20 years.

Increasing the gas tax isn’t an option, officials said. For one, no one supports raising taxes, Williams said. Secondly, as cars become more fuel efficient and electric vehicles grow in popularity, the usefulness of the tax is declining.

Ending diversions, most of which is funding for the Department of Public Safety, is a popular option, but as noted no one ever discusses how to fill the hole in general revenue that would leave. It now looks likely that money from the Rainy Day Fund will be used to start an infrastructure bank, but that’s one-time money and all this would really do is push more of the responsibility for transportation away from the state and to counties, which among other things would mean a lot more toll roads. Williams’ preferred solution is raising vehicle registration fees, which has support from the Texas Association of Business. I don’t necessarily oppose this, but I haven’t seen a comparison of how much revenue that would bring in versus how much a ten-cent increase in the gas tax would bring. I recognize that advances in fuel efficiency and the advent of hybrids and electric cars makes the gas tax a declining source over time, but it’s still the single biggest source of revenue for transportation, and it’s the only one that has any connection to how much one uses roads and highways. It’s also the case that a small increase in the gas tax plus indexing it to inflation of construction costs would wipe this problem out. Down the line, a transition to a vehicle miles traveled tax can deal with the issue of less revenue from better fuel efficiency. I know, I know, nobody likes raising taxes but now that we are finally admitting to the need for more revenue it just amazes me at how quickly the most obvious solution is dismissed. Can’t we at least talk about what it would look like to raise the gas tax so we can have a basis for comparison to all these other proposals? A more informed discussion, that’s all I’m asking for.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Start stocking up on batteries and bottled water.

Hunker down, y’all

Forecasters agree: The coming Atlantic hurricane season looks like a busy one.

A number of factors, principally higher-than-normal temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean where most tropical storms form, indicate this season will see a flurry of tropical activity.

“A wild season is on the way,” predicted Joe Bastardi, a noted hurricane forecaster with Weather Bell, a weather website.

That viewpoint was affirmed Wednesday when longtime seasonal forecasters William Gray and Phil Klotzbach, of Colorado State University, issued their first numerical prediction for the upcoming season, which begins June 1.

They are calling for 18 named storms, nine of which will be hurricanes and four of which will develop into major hurricanes. That’s about 50 percent more activity than during a normal season.

Klotzbach said the only potential check on activity this year is the slight chance that an El Niño might develop in the tropical Pacific, which would tend to limit Atlantic hurricane activity.

“I would say that we have moderate confidence in an active season at this point,” Klotzbach said. “There’s still a lot that could change with El Niño. If the tropical Pacific and tropical Atlantic look similar at the beginning of June to the way that they do now, I would say that our confidence would grow significantly.”

This season follows three years in which an anomalously high number of named storms – 19 – have formed.

The good news from our perspective is that the storms are likely to head north before entering the Gulf. That’s potentially very bad news for a lot of other people, though, and as well all know it only takes one big storm to make it a bad year. Not much else we can do except be prepared and hope for the best. SciGuy and Hair Balls have more.