Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

January, 2014:

Endorsement watch: EQTx for Davis

Sarah Davis, that is.

Rep. Sarah Davis

A gay rights group Tuesday backed its first Texas Republican in a primary election, for better or worse.

State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, will find out in March if the endorsement, from Equality Texas, a gay rights advocacy group, will help or hurt her re-election bid. The announcement marks the first time the group has endorsed a Republican, a subtle signal of the momentum marriage equality is gaining as cases challenging the state’s Constitutional ban make their way through courts.

Davis said in a September interview with the San Antonio Express-News that she does not agree with the ban and that marriage should not be a government issue, citing personal freedom and limited government.

“I believe marriage is a religious sacrament, and the government should not force congregations to perform the ceremonies, however I do not oppose two consenting adults entering into civil unions,” Davis said by text message Tuesday. “The greatest threat to freedom is fiscal in nature, not social.”

She also said in the September interview that language outlawing sodomy in Texas’ law, which has been ruled void by the U.S. Supreme Court, should be removed. Davis also said spouses of same-sex members of the military should receive benefits, a move the federal government has asked state militaries to enforce but Texas has challenged.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Davis said of denying the benefits.

Lone Star Q adds on.

Davis, who was first elected in 2010 and defeated gay Democrat Ann Johnson in 2012, has been an outspoken supporter of LGBT equality. Davis authored legislation to ensure equal hospital visitation and medical decision-making, and she helped defeat an effort to ban LGBT resource centers on college campuses. She also happens to be the lone House Republican who voted against Texas’ strict new abortion regulations.

“The majority of Republicans agree with most of our legislative priorities,” said Texas Equity PAC volunteer Daniel Williams. “We have to make it safe for Republican representatives to be out front on those issues. Rep. Davis has done that and she’s facing a primary opponent who is decidedly anti-equality. Endorsing Rep. Davis in the Republican primary isn’t just the smart thing to do, it’s a vital step towards making it safe for other Republicans to represent true Texas values of fairness.”

Davis wasn’t immediately available for comment on the endorsement, which Williams said she signed off on. Williams said the endorsement also applies to the November election, when Davis faces Democrat Alison Ruff.

EQTx announced the endorsement on their Facebook page; as you can see, there’s not exactly a consensus over this. They also sent out an email yesterday with their full slate of endorsed candidates for the primaries and links to contribution pages for each; Davis’ page is here. As of yet, there is nothing about any of this on Rep. Davis’ campaign Facebook page.

I respect EQTx and I get what they’re doing, though I can’t claim to be as impressed by Davis’ record as they are. That said, Davis does stand apart from the bulk of her GOP House colleagues on social issues, and Lord knows she’s better than her primary opponent. This is obviously a calculated risk for both EQTx and Davis, since it’s far from clear that an endorsement like this will be of value in a Republican primary. What will Jared Woodfill and Dan Patrick make of this? To be as fair to them as I can, dissenters on high-profile issues are never all that popular within their own party, for obvious and valid reasons. We Democrats have been historically pretty tolerant of our own heretics, often out of a practical need to avoid trouble and be competitive in less-than-ideal districts, but that tolerance is almost always grudging at best. You’d think after the example of Martha Wong last decade, that the GOP would want to take a more pragmatic view here, but we’ll see about that. Davis is a strong November candidate, but she has to survive March first. BOR has more.

Trial date set for Wilson residency lawsuit

Mark your calendars.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

County officials have dropped their request to temporarily keep Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson from his office in favor of an expedited trial date that will allow jurors to decide if he lives in District 2.

Last month, the county sued to prevent Wilson from serving on the HCC board amid questions about his residency.

On Tuesday, First Assistant Harris County Attorney Robert Soard confirmed that the county will stop pursuing immediate legal action against Wilson in exchange for a civil trial beginning on April 15.

“We decided that it would be helpful to the people of District 2 and the people of the state of Texas to get this trial over with as quickly as we can,” Soard said late Tuesday. “We reached an agreement with Mr. Wilson through his lawyer that we would drop our request for a temporary injunction. In return, they would agree to an expedited trial.”

Wilson is ready for a jury to consider the case.

“I look forward to the speedy trial and getting my name cleared,” he said late Tuesday. “They’ve got a losing case and they know it. … I hope they come to their senses. This is nothing but partisan politics.”

The temporary restraining order preventing Wilson from taking his seat had already been lifted, so it’s not a huge concession to quit fighting that battle. I have no doubt that both sides would like to get the core issues resolved, so an expedited court date makes sense. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Judicial Q&A: Julia Maldonado

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.)

Julia Maldonado

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Julia Maldonado and I am a Democrat running for the 246th Family District Court. I’m a family lawyer who has been in private practice since the start of my career over fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve built a successful small business serving families in Harris and surrounding counties.

Although born in Mexico, I have spent my life here in Houston as part of a family who sought and achieved the American Dream. After graduating from Houston public schools, I received a Business degree from the University of Houston-Downtown and a law degree from Texas Southern University. I’m a proud mother to two grown men, and just recently became a grandmother. While my eldest, Vic, graduated from the University of Houston, my youngest, Aaron, is a Freshman at Baylor University. My sons are my best accomplishment to date.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The court primarily hears cases dealing with divorce, custody, visitation, adoptions and other family matters.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

After building a private practice and serving clients on both sides of a case, I have earned the experience and temperament to serve as District Judge in this family court. This calling is something I do not approach lightly and I look forward to serving the people of Harris County.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have spent my career practicing family law. During my 2012 campaign for the Court of Appeals, I found a little bit of time to study and pass the state examination to become Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and I’m proud to say that I am the only candidate in either Party with such a designation. I have built a successful practice and I am diligent in all facets of a case. The 246th needs an impartial jurist who will ensure fairness for all parties, and I know that I am able to meet the highest ethical standards.

5. Why is this race important?

The 246th District Court needs a judge who comes to each case with no biases and high standards of jurisprudence. As a family lawyer who has represented clients in these courts, these qualities have sometimes been lacking in some of our judges. As a member of a political party that is open-minded and appreciative of diversity, I will ensure fairness and justice for all.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

Any candidate for a family court will likely boast about their experience in the field, and I’m no different. Beyond experience, though, voters must seek the best candidates–candidates who are willing to put in the sweat and hard work of earning the vote. I was proud of my campaign in 2012 in which I was among the top vote-getters in Harris County, winning the county by over 12,000 votes. This kind of work is not easy and Democrats deserve candidates who work hard for every vote, rather than just serve as fixtures on the ballot. I am committed to putting in the hard work, raising the campaign cash, and deploying an effective campaign to earn the support of Harris County voters.

Somewhat less onerous navigator rules published

They could have been worse, but they could still be better.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Texas Department of Insurance on Tuesday issued state regulations for health care “navigators,” the workers who assist people seeking health insurance in the federal marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act.

The rules take into account some of the criticism aired recently by Democrats and health care advocates at public hearings, while also broadening the definition of “navigator” to allow additional organizations — not just those that received federal grants — to hire and train navigators.

“These rules will help ensure Texans have confidence that anyone registered as a navigator has passed appropriate background checks and received the training they need to safeguard a consumer’s most sensitive and personal information,” Texas Insurance Commissioner Julia Rathgeber said in a news release.

The rules require navigators to receive 20 hours of state-specific training in addition to the federal requirement of 20 to 30 hours of training, to undergo background checks, and to provide proof of identity. The rules also prohibit navigators from charging consumers, selling or negotiating health insurance coverage, recommending a specific health plan, or engaging in electioneering activities or otherwise supporting a candidate running for a political office.

Democrats and representatives from various health care organizations and nonprofits have raised concerns at public hearings held by the department that the proposed rules would impede navigators’ ability to educate people seeking health coverage, and divert time and funding away from their primary objective: helping people find health insurance.

In response to the public comments, the department removed from the proposed rules a $50 registration fee for each navigator. It also reduced the training requirements to 20 hours of state-specific training, from 40 hours in the proposed rules.

“There was no justification for the original proposal other than conservative politics,” state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said in a statement, “so I’m glad TDI has relented and come up with training requirements that are at least somewhat logical.”

[…]

Texans must apply before March 31 to receive federal tax credits to help pay for private coverage on the federal marketplace. Navigators must comply with the state’s additional training requirements and register by March 1.

Given the tight deadline, Democrats have alleged that the rules are politically motivated and are intended to curb enrollment in health plans offered in the federal marketplace. And despite the modifications, some Democrats and organizations that have hired and trained navigators say the rules will still increase costs, and take time away from navigators’ efforts.

Martha Blaine, executive director of the Community Council of Greater Dallas, which is among the groups that have received a federal grant to hire navigators, said the 12 navigators working for her organization have already undergone background checks and met other requirements in the state’s rules. She said she is unsure whether those efforts will have to be duplicated to meet the state’s requirements.

“It’s a bad use of resources, time and money,” she said.

See here, here, and here for the background. There’s a lot of people who’d like to enroll in an insurance plan via the exchange if Rick Perry and his cronies would quit interfering and get out of the way. Having these rules be only slightly obnoxious instead of blatantly obnoxious was probably the best outcome we could reasonably get. Here’s a side by side comparison of the rules as they were originally proposed and the rules that wound up being published (which you can see in full here), provided by Rep. Lon Burnam. I also received a letter Rep. Burnam sent about the original rules, and statements from Sen. Sylvia Garcia, and Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ruth Jones McClendon about the rules that were adopted. Finally, the Texas Organizing Project sent out a press release announcing a new collaborative effort to help inform folks about their health insurance options.

City sues HFRRF again

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In the face of growing concern about its ability to meet long-term retiree pension obligations, the City of Houston filed a lawsuit today against the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF), one of three pension systems covering City employees. The lawsuit seeks to enable the City to have the same input on contributions and plan design for HFRRF that it already has with the Houston Police Officers Pension System (HPOPS) and the Houston Municipal Employee Pension System (HMEPS).

“State law that applies only to Houston is unreasonably restricting our ability to protect taxpayers and keep our commitment to secure and sustainable firefighter retirement benefits,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “It is clear from the difficulties experienced by other cities that this is an issue that must be addressed. We have to have the ability to negotiate these benefits at the local level and be able to verify the financial health of HFRRF. We cannot and will not kick the can down the road.”

Through the “meet and confer” process with HPOPS and HMEPS, the City is already able to negotiate employee contributions, retirement ages and benefit levels for police and municipal retirees. In the past, these negotiations have resulted in agreements that have improved the city’s ability to meet its long-term obligations for these two pension systems. Under existing state law, there is no similar process available for the firefighter pension system. Contrary to the laws that apply to other cities, Houston is excluded from the important financial decisions about benefit levels and the contributions to support those benefits for its firefighter retirees. These decisions are made by boards controlled by current and retired firefighters who have an obvious conflict of interest. Several attempts to obtain a legislative cure for this problem have been unsuccessful.

“Litigation is the only remaining option available to the City,” said City Attorney David Feldman. “Instead of Houston determining, or even having a meaningful say about the level of its own contributions to HFRRF, that decision is being made by people likely to benefit from the decision. The City is asking the court to declare unconstitutional the laws that allowed this. The suit also seeks to end the practice of HFRRF using taxpayer money to lobby in favor of such laws.”

Firefighters retiring with 30 years of service are currently eligible for an average initial monthly lifetime annuity of 94 percent of their average pre-retirement salary, plus an average estimate lump sum of approximately $850,000. The value of the average combined benefits for these retirees is estimated to be $1.6 million, which is equal to a lifetime monthly annuity of 197 percent of their average pre-retirement salary.

The City’s lawsuit does not seek any change in benefits being paid to current firefighter retirees, nor would it have any impact on HPOPS or HMEPS.

The press release is here, and a copy of the lawsuit is here. As you might imagine, the HFFRF did not take this lying down. I’ve put a copy of their press release beneath the fold, but here’s a quote:

The leadership of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund say the lawsuit filed today by Mayor Parker is nothing more than a power-grab and publicity stunt. The lawsuit is characterized as a political tactic aimed at attacking and hurting elderly and disabled firefighters and their families.

“The Texas constitution and statues that govern our plan have been in place since 1937, and has served our firefighters for over 75 years, and now according to Parker, our plan is all of a sudden unconstitutional,” says pension fund chairman Todd Clark. “Texas legislators have been supportive of our profession and have been the key decision makers in the protection of our plan.”

The Chron story has more reaction from the firefighters, including the president of the HPFFA, who among other things expressed surprise at the timing since the union is currently in negotiations with the city. I’d say if there’s one thing that Mayor Parker and the HFFRF agree on, it’s that the Legislature, in particular the Houston-area delegation, has been squarely on the side of the firefighters all along.

Anyway. The city had previously sued the HFFRF to get more access to their books, and won a ruling a few months later. This is a much bigger can of worms, as the city is seeking to do via the courts what it has been unable to do via the Legislature, which is get more control over how the pension fund operates. If you go back to the interview I did with Mayor Parker before last year’s election, she talked about what she wants the city to get. Skip to 8:54 for the start of the discussion about pensions, and 12:18 for the direct question about what she wants; basically, it’s to allow a defined-contribution option as an alternative for those who want it, and to make annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) discretionary rather than mandatory. She does allude to some other changes she might pursue specifically for the firefighters’ pension, and I’m quite sure a change to the deferred retirement option (DROP) program would be on that list. You can also listen to the interview I did with Todd Clark and Chris Gonzalez last January if you want the opposing view. These things have all been points of contention for a long time, and in fact COLAs and DROP are both specified in the lawsuit. The city’s argument is that state laws regarding this pension only apply to Houston, and that is unconstitutional. They seek to overturn the Houston-specific laws so that the remaining state laws apply to Houston as well. We’ll see how it goes. Texpatriate has more.

(more…)

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 20

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks that if same sex marriage is OK for Utah and Oklahoma it’s OK for our state too as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Abbott inserts himself in Houston same sex benefits lawsuit

Not a surprise.

Still not Greg Abbott

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed briefs arguing that a state court should be given an opportunity to declare Houston’s new policy of granting benefits to some same-sex partners of employees unlawful under Texas’ marriage laws.

In the first of two amicus briefs, Abbott argued that a lawsuit filed by a pair of Houston residents to stop Mayor Annise Parker’s decision last November to grant benefits to same-sex spouses of employees married legally in other states should remain in a state district court for review. The city has tried to get the case moved to federal court to take advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Abbott’s amicus brief argues that moving the lawsuit to federal court deprives the state of its authority to resolve the cases involving Texas’ Defense of Marriage Act.

“The defendants have challenged the constitutionality of Texas’s marriage laws,” Abbott writes. “This case should be remanded to state court as soon as possible.”

Abbott’s second amicus brief came in another lawsuit filed by national gay rights group Lambda Legal in a bid to get a judge to uphold the mayor’s change in policy.

Abbott argues that since the Lambda Legal lawsuit seeks to uphold the city’s decision to offer benefits to same-sex marriage partners, there is no dispute for the federal court to decide. He asks that the Lambda Legal suit be dismissed.

See here, here, and here for the background. I had assumed Abbott would get involved once Mayor Parker made the announcement. To meddle is his nature, and I’m sure he was feeling some pressure from the usual suspects to Do Something. Indeed, Harris County GOP Chair Jared Woodfill hoped the suit would attract Abbott’s interest, so clearly everything is proceeding as planned. I Am Not A Lawyer, so I don’t know how to evaluate the merits of Abbott’s claims. I also can’t find the briefs in question, so you’re on your own if you want to venture some analysis. BOR, PDiddie, and Lone Star Q have more.

Interview with Azuwuike Okorafor

Azuwuike Okorafor

Azuwuike Okorafor

As previously noted, there are two contested Democratic primaries for State House seats in Harris County. Challenging Rep. Alma Allen in HD131 is Azuwuike Okorafor. Okorafor is a Houston native and graduate of HISD schools who received a BS from Texas Tech and a law degree from TSU. During his law career, he worked for a civil rights litigation firm, and is now an Equal Employment Opportunity consultant for businesses. Though he is a newcomer to the political scene here, he was active with the Tech Student Democrats in college. We discussed his background, reasons for running, and a variety of issues in the interview.

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.

January finance reports for Democratic statewide candidates

BagOfMoney

With the exception of a stray missing report here and there, all of the January campaign finance reports for state office holders and seekers are up on the Texas Ethics Commission webpage. Here’s a brief look at the reports filed by Democratic candidates for statewide offices. I already have reports for the candidates in contested primaries on my 2014 Election page, so this is a chance to look at the uncontested candidates as well.

Governor

Wendy Davis
Wendy Davis SPAC
Wendy Davis GPAC

Ray Madrigal – No report

As you’ve probably read by now, Wendy Davis filed three campaign reports – basically, the first one is her previously existing Senate account, to which people were contributing before her official announcement that she was running for Governor; the second is her special purpose PAC account for her gubernatorial campaign, similar to the “Friends Of” or “Texans For” PACs that Republicans often use; and the joint Battleground Texas PAC that has gotten every Republican’s panties in a wad. I’m not going to rehash any of that, I’m just going to note with amusement that her total must have really freaked them out to have reacted so strongly instead of just pointing to Greg Abbott’s bottom line, which is enough to make Switzerland salivate. Davis certainly answered the question about her ability to raise the funds she’ll need, but once won’t be enough. She’ll need to post similar, if not better, numbers for July. But we’ll worry about that another day.

Lt. Governor

Leticia Van de Putte
Leticia Van de Putte SPAC

As with Wendy Davis, the first account is the pre-existing Senate account, and the second is for the Lite Guv race. Here are the details from each:

Account Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Senate $154,087 $177,799 $235,084 LG SPAC $290,514 $ 21 $251,756 Total $445,601 $177,820 $486,840

I presume all of the expenditures came out of the Senate account, which makes sense. The SPAC was created on November 23, so basically it represents five weeks’ worth of fundraising, which isn’t too shabby. I didn’t go through its contributions, but I did go through the expenses for the Senate account, and I did not see any transfers from the one to the other, so that $290K figure is accurate and as far as I know doesn’t include redundant funds. For five weeks during the Thanksgiving/Christmas period, that’s a decent total, which would project to $1.5 million to $2 million at that pace for the July report. Not bad as I say, but not really enough, either. LVdP doesn’t need to be in Wendy’s league, but she does need to have enough to do some real statewide outreach. If she doesn’t raise at least $5 million for July, I’d be concerned she won’t be able to do that. On the plus side, she can hit up Wendy’s supporters, including and especially the big-dollar ones. I feel confident that she is more than up to this challenge, but if you’ve donated to Wendy and not to Leticia, you need to rectify that.

Attorney General
Comptroller

Sam Houston
Mike Collier

Account Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Houston $184,595 $ 41,216 $153,678 Collier $213,518 $170,791 $439,015

I put these two together, because they’re the only other candidates to report significant fundraising totals. Houston’s report begins in October, whereas Collier had the whole six month period in which to raise money. Both did pretty well, with Collier’s totals being boosted by $400K in loans ($250K from himself, $150K from his company; Houston reported $10K in loans as well). Collier spent $30K on video production, and $50K on “website design and video advertising”; he also spent many thousands on consultant fees, which I didn’t add up. As Van de Putte needs to kick it up by an order of magnitude this period, so do these two. I’d be happy with $2 million raised from each. We know the base is big enough to support Wendy’s campaign, and I’m confident that support will extend to LVdP. Will it reach this far? I hope so.

Ag Commissioner
Land Commissioner
Railroad Commissioner

Kinky Friedman
Hugh Fitzsimons
Jim Hogan

John Cook

Steve Brown
Dale Henry

Account Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Kinky $26,416 $ 4,256 $22,159 Fitz $27,200 $ 6,549 $74,401 Hogan $ 0 $ 3,750 $ 0 Cook $13,153 $17,010 $ 0 Brown $ 4,455 $ 5,661 $ 0 Henry $ 0 $ 0 $ 0

Not a whole lot to say here. Fitzsimons had $50K in loans, and Cook, the former Mayor of El Paso, had a bit more than $19K in loans. I’m not exactly sure why neither Cook nor Brown reported any cash on hand, but it’s not that important. With the exception of Kinky, none of these folks will have much in the way of name recognition in November, but then neither will any of their opponents other than Baby Bush. From this point on, it’s all about the top of the ticket.

Supreme Court
Court of Criminal Appeals

William Moody
Larry Meyers
Gina Benavides

John Granberg

Account Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Moody $ 7,500 $ 9,358 $ 4,037 Meyers $ 1,000 $ 3,750 $ 441 Benavides $ 2,500 $ 3,750 $ 0 Granburg $ 780 $ 5,296 $ 780

Again, not much to say here. I thought Larry Meyers might have a few bucks stashed away just due to his longevity, but apparently not. He does have about $94K in outstanding loans, presumably money he has already spent. In case you’re wondering, that $3,750 figure you see is the filing fee. Again, these races are determined by the top of the ticket more than anything else. Maybe the state party will raise some money to campaign for the slate as a whole.

That’s it for these reports. I’ll look at others as we go along.

On pot and prosecutions

I’m sure you’ve heard about President Obama’s remarks that marijuana isn’t really more harmful than alcohol. There’s plenty of evidence to back that assertion, but Harris County DA Devon Anderson strongly disagreed with him anyway.

Zonker

President Barack Obama’s recently published remarks calling marijuana less dangerous than alcohol has prompted Harris County’s District Attorney to release a response today which bolsters her profile as a “law and order” prosecutor.

“I adamantly disagree with the President. According to a 2012 Drug Use and Health survey, marijuana is the number one drug that citizens over the age of 12 are addicted to or abuse. The negative effects of marijuana use on a developing brain can be permanent, and our President is recklessly giving what amounts to parental permission to our most impressionable citizens to break the law. Marijuana is creating deadly situations right here in Harris County,” Devon Anderson said in the news release.

[…]

“I welcome the President to come to Houston to review the same capital murder cases I did just last week that were the result of marijuana drug deals,” Anderson’s statement said. “Maybe then he will see that the most effective way to keep our law-abiding citizens safe is to obey all laws that our legislators put on the books at our State Capitol.”

You can see her full statement here. Again, the evidence is overwhelmingly with President Obama on this, and I’d recommend you read folks like Mark Kleiman for some current research on drugs, alcohol and crime – start with this WaPo interview, or go read his blog, for which he is not the only author. For this particular piece, I’m going to outsource the argument to Mark Bennett. But seriously, in terms of crime and social costs, it’s more correct to say that President Obama understated the case than that he overstated it.

The Chron also asked both Democratic candidates for their reaction. I’ll skip Lloyd Oliver’s rambling answer and go right to the good stuff.

Ogg, a former Harris County prosecutor now in private practice, supports diversion programs for people apprehended with small amounts of pot.

“In 2013, more than 12,000 people were arrested for marijuana and sent to jail in Harris County at a cost of more than $4 million,” she said. “Marijuana is illegal in Texas but jailing offenders in possession of small amounts is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Instead, those funds should be spent prosecuting violent offenders, gang members and thieves. It makes more sense to divert that group of offenders to voluntary work programs that make them more employable and don’t result in license suspensions, time in jail and other factors that cause them to lose their jobs or become less employable.”

[…]

Ogg, the former director of the city of Houston’s anti-gang task force and former executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston has concluded – after 26 years in public safety work – that tougher marijuana enforcement isn’t what people want.

“They want to be safe. They want our focus and attention on the dangerous criminals,” she said. “There aren’t enough resources in Harris County nor is it fair to make people lose their jobs over minor offenses like possession of marijuana in small quantities.”

Ogg talked about this at length in the interview she did with me. Obviously, I agree with her perspective on this. I think she’ll have a lot of voters on her side for it as well. While I don’t expect anything to happen next session, or the session after that, there will continue to be legislative attempts to dial back penalties for pot smoking. As with many other things, we can get ahead of the curve, or we can scramble to catch up. Seems a pretty clear choice to me.

School finance retrial, Day One

And they’re off, again.

Back in the courtroom after a 2013 legislative session in which lawmakers added money back to the state public education budget, lawyers representing nearly two-thirds of Texas school districts argued on Tuesday that the funding boost was short term, and that other changes had increased costs for schools.

“Any and all funding changes are temporary at best. There is absolutely no requirement they be in existence beyond the year 2015,” said Rick Gray, a lawyer for the Equity Center, which represents about 400 school districts, the bulk of them poor, in the sprawling litigation that involves five other parties. “It was an exceedingly small step in the right direction.”

Implementing complex new high school curriculum requirements, he said, including hiring more school counselors and broadening vocational education options, had imposed additional expenses on districts.

[…]

On Tuesday, school districts rejected any suggestion that legislative changes had weakened their argument.

“The state can’t dumb down its constitutional obligations and say that perhaps students aren’t held to same college-ready standards as they were previously,” said attorney David Hinojosa, referring to the new high school graduation standards.

But state lawyer Shelley Dahlberg said that all but a handful of districts met the state’s accountability standards and that student performance remained constant even in the face of budget cuts.

The new laws passed in 2013, she said, only improved an already consitutional system.

“School districts asked for and received more discretion and flexibility on every level,” she said.

Which doesn’t mean they got enough, of course. The state had argued that the post-2011, pre-2013 system was just fine as it was, so obviously they think the partial restoration of the drastic cuts from 2011 was manna from heaven. I don’t think the Lege did nearly enough, and I don’t think Judge Dietz will think the Lege did enough. Whether the Supreme Court thinks the Lege did enough is another question. Not that they have to get involved, however – his assertions to the contrary, AG Greg Abbott could try to settle the case instead of litigating it to the bitter end. Needless to say, I don’t think he’ll do that. I look forward to reading Judge Dietz’s opinion. Better Texas Blog has more.

Judicial Q&A: Steven Kirkland

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.)

Steven Kirkland

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Judge Steven Kirkland and I am a Democratic candidate for Judge of the 113th Civil Judicial District Court in Harris County.

I grew up in West Texas. I moved to Houston to attend Rice University where I graduated in 1982. While at school, I got involved in Houston politics and have been involved ever since. I worked my way through law school as a paralegal at Texaco and attended school at night. In 1990, I earned a position litigating environmental cases for the company. In 1998, I left Texaco and represented residents of East Houston and Harris County in their lawsuit against the ship channel industries to clean up our air. I have also worked with Avenue Community Development Corporation to develop affordable housing. In 2001, Mayor Brown appointed me to serve as Municipal Court Judge where I served until elected to the 215th Civil District Court in 2008. I am currently in the City of Houston’s legal department representing Houston taxpayers.

You can learn more at www.kirklandforjudge.com.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 113th District court is a civil court hearing cases involving personal injury, property damages, contract disputes and other civil complaints.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The incumbent was appointed by Rick Perry after I left the bench in 2012. The other District Courts are held by folks who served with me, while I was on the bench from 2009-2012. We didn’t always agree, but, we did serve as resources to each other and develop personal relationships. Since I have no relationship with the current incumbent, I chose this Court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have 12 years of judicial experience, 24 years of legal experience and over thirty years of community service to the people of Houston and Harris County. I have represented individual homeowners, international oil companies and Houston taxpayers. I have been on all sides of the Courtroom and have the legal and life experiences to serve you fairly, efficiently and with compassion.

In my twelve years as a Judge I have presided over more than 750 jury trials of cases ranging from traffic tickets and car crashes to complex construction and financial disputes. I have adjudicated the rights of neighbors over a fence and cases of citizens exercising their rights to free speech. In every Court that I have served in, I have adopted procedures and programs to improve the process. In Municipal Courts, I created the Homeless Recovery Court that allows folks working their way out of homelessness to clear up old warrants by performing community service at their shelter or program instead of going to jail. In the District Court, I mandated e-filing in all cases filed in my Court. I withdrew reference of tax foreclosure cases to the tax master and instead handled those matters directly. All of these are cost saving measures that increase accessibility to the courts and transparency in the decisions.

In addition to my professional experience, there are many tools from my life experience I have used to be a good judge. I am a recovering alcoholic. Twenty nine years ago I faced addiction, turned my life around, and have not had any alcohol since. While this is a strength, it also means there is a past. Prior to recovery, I was arrested several times for drinking inappropriately. I was fortunate to have survived my drinking years without harming myself or anyone else physically, and have managed to make amends to all who I have harmed emotionally. I speak from experience when I say I believe in the power of people to learn from their mistakes and improve their lives. This experience is a source of humility and compassion that I have used every time I took the bench.

5. Why is this race important?

Our Democratic Campaign for the Courthouse is critical to Justice in Texas. The newspapers are full of stories of Republican judges doing things that just aren’t right. The Court of Criminal Appeals was closed at 5 PM preventing an appeal of the death penalty, a family Court judge signed orders presented by the Chair of the Republican Party that strip health benefits from families of City employees behind closed doors after hours, a Criminal Court Judge holds a mother in contempt and sends her to jail for shouting “thank you Jesus” when ruling favored her son, a Juvenile Judge takes a child away from a young mother for no reason other than making the child available for adoption. All of these are Republican judges and it shows they just don’t get it.

My candidacy itself is important to folks who value diversity. Currently there are no open LGBT judges in the District Courthouse and only one in the State of Texas.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have a passion for justice. This passion directs my politics, career and community choices and activities. All my life I have stood up for what is right and spoke out against and tried to change what is wrong. From my record, you know where my heart lies. My thirty years experience of activism and accomplishments in the community and the party shows its not just talk with me, I walk the walk.

Why not three?

Greg suggests a couple of tweaks to term limits.

Jolanda Jones

Jolanda Jones

» Fix the JoJo exclusion. The statute, as written, is amazingly short and simple:

Section 6a. – Limitation of terms.
No person, who has already served two full terms, shall be eligible to file for that same office.

The statute is also amazingly unequal in how it applies a qualification for office. So much so, that I’m curious if this inequality provides an opening for a legal challenge. Basically, the law says that some folks get to serve three full terms and some only get to serve two full terms. If a candidate loses re-election to their second term (ala Brenda Stardig and Helena Brown), you have an entirely different qualification for office than someone who lost re-election to their third term (ala Jolanda Jones and Al Hoang).

There haven’t been many parties aggrieved by this statute, so it seems to me that there might be improved odds of that happening now that we have two such individuals. I would think that there might be ground to make this application more equal by substituting equally simple language that limits any officeholder to no more than three full terms … period.

That may not address any deeper concerns about the Clymer Wright-era limitations. But it does offer an incremental cleanup. And if it were to go through a charter amendment vote, it might be an easy enough one that it opens the door for public perception to see that elected officials aren’t trying to change the rules they have to abide by in the middle of the game. If you’re not sure about the public appetite for altering term limits, this modification would be a good test run.

» Why not three? – Many Texas towns have three year terms. Why is there such an immediate impetus for four-year terms when there is already a more common model already being utilized throughout Texas? You could leave the term-limit language as-is or make the tweak above. Doing so would create a nine-year window of service for people.

More importantly, it would also open Houston City Council to the whims of bigger electorates. If you really wanted to see a different City Council, the easiest place to start has always been to hold the election on even-numbered years. District A would be quite a bit more Dem-friendly, as would District F. My own District J, as it turns out, is as close to 50-50 in terms of partisanship among city year voters. That tilt would be eviscerated with an even-year electorate and the district would be reliably Dem-leaning. The rotating cycle of seats would lead to a seat being up for a vote in two odd-numbered election years for each six-year cycle. So there is some moderation to those swings that might be appealing.

It would seem practical, under this scenario, to stagger the elections so that each individual year would see one-third of city seats up for a votes. I’m not sure who that may appeal to or be unappealing to, frankly. One positive that I can see from this is that it might lead to an increase in competition for seats. If an elected thought to run for Mayor one year after being elected to a council seat, they could. In short, there would no longer be an incentive to sit out six years when terms are the same – as they currently are for the office of Mayor and Controller.

I completely agree with the first point, and also think it would have a decent shot of being passed. I think everyone already thinks of the term limits law as being “three terms max” and not “three terms unless you leave after your second term, in which case only two terms”. I’d add that there’s a third former Council member affected by the current interpretation – Peter Brown, who resigned a few days early in 2009 in an attempt to circumvent this; City Attorney David Feldman opined against it. In any event, I think this minor change is very doable. It’s straightforward enough that the plain wording of the amended ordinance would be easy enough for voters to understand and hard to argue against. Heck, I don’t even know what the case against it would be. If we want to go small, as a first step or as an end unto itself, this is a good way to do it.

The second suggestion would be much more contentious. I’m not sure if it’s meant as a switch from three two-year terms to two three-year terms, or if it’s also intended to increase the overall allowable length of service while also addressing the concern about two year election cycles being too short, as the two four-year terms proposal was intended. If we were to go this route, I’d prefer the latter, but that may be a bridge too far. Here are the pros and cons of three-year terms as I see them.

Pro:

  • Higher turnout in at least half of city elections. Presidential years would exceed 50%, gubernatorial years would likely exceed 35%. Both are much higher than even high-turnout city elections have been.
  • As Greg notes, this would almost surely make city government more representative of the city’s demographics. In particular, I’d expect this to be a boon for Latino candidates, at least in the even-numbered years.
  • If you believe that two-year terms force Council members back into campaign mode too quickly, then having three-year terms should help alleviate that.
  • You may consider this a pro or a con, but having three-year terms would likely force some ambitious Council members to rethink their strategy for seeking other office, since the Texas constitution would require them to resign if they run for office with more than one year remaining on their current term. That’s just not an issue now with two-year terms, but it would be an issue at least some of the time with three-year terms.

Con:

  • That higher turnout will come entirely from people who otherwise would never vote in city elections. To put it gently, that could have an unpredictable effect on lower-profile and multi-candidate races.
  • Having city elections in partisan election years will necessarily make city elections more partisan. Sure, there are partisan elements to city elections now, with some races being more overt than others, but the non-partisan nature of our races now basically ensures that the vast majority of candidates run as inclusive/consensus types. I expect you’d see much harder D and R lines being taken in even years. Again, one may consider that to be more pro than con, but it would be a change.
  • Perhaps of greater concern is the likelihood that city races could get drowned out in a high-profile even year election. Imagine what city elections might look like this year, where we’re sure to get wall-to-wall ads in the Governor’s race for at least the entire month of October.
  • Large disparities in turnout between even and odd years could make for more turnover on Council, as a candidate that got elected under one scenario might well get swept out under the other, in each case with candidate quality not being a major factor.

I’m doing a lot of speculating here, and I could easily be wrong about some of these points, but I think they’re worth considering. Three-year terms would be a big change, some likely good and some maybe not so good. I still think a better answer is to get rid of term limits (which Greg also suggests) and to at least consider some form of public financing for campaigns. At the very least, I’d like to see a real conversation about what we think we’re getting out of imposing these particular limits on this one type of office. It’s been long enough now that I’m confident that “we’ve always done it this way” is the prevailing sentiment. Surely we can come up with something better than that.

Dan Patrick is lying about immigration and crime

That’s what the headline to Peggy Fikac’s column should be, but she took the easy way out.

At a forum where statewide candidates strutted their stuff for leading business groups, Sen. Dan Patrick could have focused on pretty much any angle when he talked about immigration.

There is the reality that people working here without documents are woven into the economy. There’s the question of how much responsibility businesses should bear for checking on prospective workers’ immigration status. There is the fact that key business leaders stymied so-called sanctuary city legislation in the 2011 legislative session.

Patrick – locked in a tough GOP primary fight for lieutenant governor in which candidates are positioned – chose to tie it to violent crime.

He pounded the need for border security by citing “hardened criminals we arrested from 2008 to 2012 – not illegals who were here for a job, who got four speeding tickets, but hardened criminals – 141,000 we put in our jails just in four years in Texas.”

“They threaten your family. They threaten your life. They threaten your business. They threaten our state,” he said, adding that they were charged with 447,000 crimes including 2,000 murders and 5,000 rapes.

Violent crime is scary and if you’re a law-abiding person, you’re probably against it, no matter your stand on immigration.

But Patrick’s stark language could seem a counterpoint to concerns that Republicans’ future depends on the party attracting more support from the growing Hispanic population.

Can we put aside the politics of Patrick’s abhorrent assertions and focus for a minute on the fact that he’s lying through his teeth? Let’s start by pointing out that Texas’ total state prison population is about 150,000, with another ten to fifteen thousand state prisoners in county facilities. Are we to believe that over 90% of inmates in state prisons are not just immigrants but undocumented immigrants? Does he have a source for this “statistic”, other than perhaps one of his body cavities?

Patrick’s crime numbers are deeply suspect as well. I don’t know what time frame he has in mind, but for the entire five year period of 2008 through 2012, there were 6223 murders in Texas. According to the Census, foreign-born people made up 16.3% of the population of Texas during that same time period. Are we to believe that 16.3% of the population – at least some of whom are children and elderly folks – committed nearly 65% of the murders in Texas?

There’s no evidence that increased immigration causes an increase in crime. That’s true if you look at historic data, and it’s true if you look only at Mexican immigrants. It is true that second-generation immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than first-generation immigrants, but only at the rate of native-born Americans. Which is to say, they’re about as likely to commit a crime as your average Senator or talk radio host.

By the way, if you go back to that link about the volume of crime in Texas, you might notice that there were half as many murders committed in the state in 2012 as there were in 1979, despite the fact that the overall population of Texas is twice as much now as it was then. The per capita murder rate therefore declined from 16.7 per 100,000 people to 4.4 per 100,000 people. Unless you believe that all native-born Texans must be on the verge of sainthood these days, I don’t see how that is consistent with an immigrant-fueled violent crime wave.

But Dan Patrick doesn’t care about any of that. He’s got an election to win, and if spreading lies helps him win, then that’s what he’ll do. To be fair, he’s hardly alone is spreading this manure around the state, but he’s the most shameless about it. I’ll say again, when Bill Hammond and his business brethren actually oppose this sort of crap, then I’ll believe them when they say they’re pre-immigration reform. In the meantime, even in a story on political tactics, I expect better from Peggy Fikac. None of the links I provided was hard to find. She owed it to her audience to at least reference the truth.

School finance retrial starts today

Back in the saddle again.

A fight over the state’s controversial school funding system is headed back to court Tuesday before the same judge who declared it unconstitutional nearly a year ago, with state lawyers hoping they can persuade him that an infusion of new money and other legislative remedies have restored the requisite measure of equity to Texas’ classrooms.

But Judge John K. Dietz must also weigh arguments from attorneys representing hundreds of cash-strapped Texas school districts, who contend that $3.9 billion in education funding restored by the Legislature last year – still a billion and a half dollars less than the $5.4 billion cut in 2011 – has fallen far short of attaining the educational standards required by the state constitution. Dietz ruled in February 2012 that Texas did not adequately or equitably fund public schools. The 2011 funding cuts, he found, violated the constitution by preventing school district from exercising “meaningful discretion” in setting local tax rates.

The trial is expected to last up to four weeks.

See herer, here, and here for the previous entries. Everybody knows this is going to go back to the Supreme Court. The question is whether Judge Dietz buys the state’s arguments that the partial restoration of funds cut from 2011 plus the scaling back of standardized testing puts the finance system back into compliance, however temporary. For various and in most cases obvious reasons, the school districts as well as the poseurs at Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, who think the problem is too much money, don’t agree. I don’t either, but we’ll see what Judge Dietz thinks.

Interview with Rep. Alma Allen

Rep. Alma Allen

Rep. Alma Allen

In addition to the contested primary in SD15, there are two contested Democratic legislative primaries this cycles. The first is in HD131, where Rep. Alma Allen faces a challenger for the second cycle in a row. Rep. Allen was first elected in 2004, defeating Craddick Dem and all around quisling Ron Wilson. Rep. Allen had a long career in public education, serving as teacher, vice principal, principal, and in central administration with HISD. She served on the State Board of Education for ten years prior to her election in HD131, and for the last two sessions in the House she has been the Vice Chair of the Public Education committee. With all the changes made to graduation requirements and standardized testing, not to mention the still-ongoing litigation about school finance, we had a lot to talk about.

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.

Teaching creationism in Texas

Zack Kopplin reports on some unconstitutional behavior by a national charter school operator that has several campuses in Texas.

When public-school students enrolled in Texas’ largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is “sketchy.” That evolution is “dogma” and an “unproved theory” with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth. These are all lies.

The more than 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system will learn in their history classes that some residents of the Philippines were “pagans in various levels of civilization.” They’ll read in a history textbook that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a “surrogate husband.”

Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.

Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than $82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Charter schools may be run independently, but they are still public schools, and through an open records request, I was able to obtain a set of Responsive Ed’s biology “Knowledge Units,” workbooks that Responsive Ed students must complete to pass biology. These workbooks both overtly and underhandedly discredit evidence-based science and allow creationism into public-school classrooms.

A favorite creationist claim is that there is “uncertainty” in the fossil record, and Responsive Ed does not disappoint. The workbook cites the “lack of a single source for all the rock layers as an argument against evolution.”

I asked Ken Miller, a co-author of the Miller-Levine Biology textbook published by Pearson and one of the most widely used science textbooks on the market today, to respond to claims about the fossil record and other inaccuracies in the Responsive Ed curriculum. (It’s worth noting that creationists on the Texas State Board of Education recently tried, and failed, to block the approval of Miller’s textbook because it teaches evolution.)

“Of course there is no ‘single source’ for all rock layers,” Miller told me over email. “However, the pioneers of the geological sciences observed that the sequence of distinctive rock layers in one place (southern England, for example) could be correlated with identical layers in other places, and eventually merged into a single system of stratigraphy. All of this was established well before Darwin’s work on evolution.”

[…]

Responsive Ed’s butchering of evolution isn’t the only part of its science curriculum that deserves an F; it also misinforms students about vaccines and mauls the scientific method.

The only study linking vaccines to autism was exposed as a fraud and has been retracted, and the relationship has been studied exhaustively and found to be nonexistent. But a Responsive Ed workbook teaches, “We do not know for sure whether vaccines increase a child’s chance of getting autism, but we can conclude that more research needs to be done.”

On the scientific method, Responsive Ed confuses scientific theories and laws. It argues that theories are weaker than laws and that there is a natural progression from theories into laws, all of which is incorrect.

The Responsive Ed curriculum undermines Texas schoolchildren’s future in any possible career in science.

There’s a lot more, so go read it all, or at least go read the Observer’s summary. Remember, your tax dollars are being used to help pay these guys’ bills. Will the Legislature do anything about it? Maybe, but if Dan Patrick gets elected Lt. Governor, I wouldn’t count on his taking any action. TFN Insider has more.

Funding after school programs

This should be a no-brainer.

CM C.O. "Brad" Bradford

CM C.O. “Brad” Bradford

To combat youth crime, a former Houston police chief says the city must first solve another problem: unstable and inadequate funding for after-school programs.

City Councilman C.O. Bradford said it is more urgent than ever to make after-school programs a public-safety priority as federal grants continue to dwindle or expire, forcing dozens of area providers to shut their doors this year and leaving more children unattended during critical hours.

“Deadly house parties. Drive-by shootings. Killed kids,” he said. “We’re going to see more and more of that.”

Bradford, Houston’s police chief from 1997 to 2003, has failed on previous attempts to persuade Houston leaders to take city funds earmarked for new police officers and instead spend them to expand after-school programs, but he vows to continue the push.

Since 2011, Bradford has chaired a coalition of area after-school care providers called ENRICH, which is based out of the Harris County Department of Education’s Cooperative for After-School Enrichment. The group’s end-of-year report highlighted local studies it organized and funded that show that after-school programs are linked to reducing youth crime.

For more than a decade, numerous national and regional studies have concluded that about 20 percent of all crimes – and more than half of violent crimes – committed by kids and teens happen in the four hours after school on weekdays, combatting the perception that mischievous kids prefer to skulk the dark. Some hope a solution is as simple as providing positive alternatives during those hours.

Former Mayor Lee Brown touted after-school programs as an anti-crime measure when the city began funding some in the late 1990s. Although the city spends millions from federal grants each year, only about $225,000 comes from the general fund.

“Too many young boys and girls are being cited and being detained because they are simply being children, and we are not providing the proper guidance, coaching and counseling they need,” Bradford said.

ENRICH reported that 53 percent of funding for after-school programs in Harris, Waller and Fort Bend counties came from federal sources in the 2012-13 school year. Dozens of after-school programs focused on academic enrichment were forced to shut down after that school year as federal grants expired with no option to reapply for one or two years.

I completely agree with CM Bradford that this is a priority and a sound investment that needs to be funded. You know the old expression “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”? That’s the idea here. Kids who are bored are more likely to get into trouble than kids who are busy. Doesn’t make them bad kids, it just makes them kids. I don’t know about you, but I certainly did a few stupid things when I was a kid and didn’t have anything better to do. The fact that federal grants are getting scarcer for this, presumably in the name of “austerity” or “smaller government”, is a scandal and a travesty, but this is the world we live in right now. We can pay now to help keep kids busy and engaged and productive, or we can pay later when they’re not. You tell me what makes more sense.

Livin’ small

Kids today and their crazy ideas about how to live.

The modern apartment is increasingly likely to look like this: a 380-square-foot space with a separate bedroom; a kitchen with fewer cabinets and more shelves; and a place in the garage to plug in an electric car.

“Things are changing quickly,” architect Mark Humphreys said last week during a webinar in which he and other industry experts presented their outlooks and new trends for the apartment market.

Units have been getting smaller as more 20-somethings – a key segment of the renter population – no longer want roommates or big pieces of furniture requiring large spaces.

“Millennials coming into apartments don’t own a whole lot other than technology,” said Doug Bibby, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council.

Several years ago, Humphreys designed a project in The Woodlands where the smallest units were 550 square feet. There’s now a waiting list to get one.

The floor plans with 380 square feet, known as “micro units,” are slowly making it to Houston. Humphreys designed some in a project in Katy, and he said there’s “no question” more will start to show up in the urban core.

It’s a trend he calls “the Manhattanization of the United States.”

I presume the main attraction of these smaller units is that they’re less expensive than larger ones. Smaller spaces are also easier to keep clean, but really, it’s going to be about cost. If this sort of trend catches on, it might make it economical to build reasonably affordable apartment units in popular parts of town. Of course, small spaces like this are likely to only really appeal to single people, but I figure there will be plenty of them. We’ll see how much this actually catches on.

Weekend link dump for January 19

As The Slacktivist keeps saying, they are coming for your birth control. This is not about faith, it’s about politics.

Now that we have a little distance from the Hall of Fame vote, let’s talk about ways to improve the process. Bill James advocated for enlarging the electorate years ago in The Politics of Glory. That idea is needed now more than ever.

“A&E appears to have taken a large clan of affluent, college-educated, mildly conservative, country club Republicans, common across the nicer suburbs of the old south, and repackaged them as the Beverly Hillbillies.”

You do have to admit, it’s a lucrative business model for all involved.

Houston, you can get your nerd on later this month.

Obamacare has been good for Georgia, even as Georgia refuses to accept that it has been good for them.

The Sopranos debuted fifteen years ago. Yeah, we’re all old.

“Read that again: conservatives complain that we should have less welfare and more opportunity and civil society, only to turn around and also call those things ‘welfare’ too when the time comes.”

You really need to see these awesome photos from the set of Star Wars taken by Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew.

“For younger workers we really are slouching toward gender equity—we’re just doing it more by men becoming worse off than by women becoming better off.”

Photos from the No Pants Subway Ride, in case you missed it again this year.

“For $5,000 to $10,000, high-end chefs will have a new toy and tool later this year—a 3D printer specializing in sugar.”

“If you’re interested in saving health care costs, the dumbest thing you can do is cut nutrition.”

A-Rod is suing everyone in sight. I don’t think this will end well for him.

You’ll shoot your Internet connection out.

“And that’s why the Duck Dynasty affair was a huge deal. It was a test for the Christian church. It was an incredibly easy test for the Christian church. And the white evangelical church in America failed that test. Completely, utterly failed. The overwhelming majority of white evangelicals did not respond as pastors and they did not respond as prophets. They responded as jerks.”

“But what was considered extreme and nutty then is standard operating procedure today.”

Maybe someone should tell those idiots on ESPN about the record-breaking heat in Australia. Just a thought.

“Skyrocketing numbers of beachcombers are pocketing seashells, and the environmental effects could range from increased erosion to fewer building materials for bird nests.”

“Check out this beautifully simple pie chart that illustrates just how rare climate denial in the scientific community is.”

“My theory: Mascots without pants aren’t inherently creepier than mascots with pants.”

The Downton Abbey effect on British inheritance laws.

“Good ideas fail because of right-wing paranoia that congressional Republicans take seriously, and bad ideas advance because of right-wing paranoia that congressional Republicans take seriously. We can no longer focus on what is true; we must also consider what far-right media perceives as possibly true.”

RIP, Russell Johnson, best known as The Professor on Gilligan’s Island.

And RIP, Dave Madden, best known as Reuben Kinkaid from The Partridge Family.

RIP, Hiroo Onoda, Japanese soldier who refused to surrender after World War Two ended and spent 29 years in the jungle in the Philippines. He finally agreed to surrender when his former commanding officer traveled to the Philippines and rescinded his original orders.

Analyzing the Pennsylvania anti-voter ID lawsuit ruling.

Annise Parker’s journey

The Chron reviews how Mayor Parker went from activist for the LGBT community to Mayor on the occasion of her wedding.

Annise Parker circa 1991

The country’s first openly gay mayor became the country’s first openly gay married mayor this week. A wedding wouldn’t seem the sort of event to justify partisan commentary, yet at least one critic questioned the timing: Why, the Harris County Republican Party chairman asked, did Mayor Annise Parker marry longtime partner Kathy Hubbard after her re-election?

But Parker has spent more than half of her life working to advance civil rights for homosexuals. The union is just a formality for a life lived outside the closet, years before popular culture began to catch up.

Parker first met Hubbard at Inklings, Parker’s gay and feminist bookstore in Montrose, in 1990. The 23 years they’ve spent together span a period of notable change in gay culture in our country. Parker, 57, had been out since high school.

To give their meeting cultural context, she and Hubbard met two years before singer k.d. lang came out of the closet, three years before singer Melissa Etheridge did so, and seven years before Ellen Degeneres received a toaster from Etheridge when Degeneres’ popular character said she was gay on prime-time TV.

Unlike those performers, Parker didn’t have a paying audience to consider. Instead, she had a constituency to represent. Parker in 1990 was just beginning to think about advancing her career in public service, which eventually would lead to her mayoral election. She began that work at a time when gay rights hit a flashpoint in Houston following two fatal hate crimes.

The evolution of this particular civil rights issue has been urgently debated and has evolved greatly in recent years. The tenor of the debate suggests how far it is from resolution. But it’s also easy to lose sight of how far gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights have come since Parker served as president of Houston’s Gay Political Caucus in 1986, which was one year after actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS after living out for years to close friends but closeted to the public.

Mayor Parker’s story is well known, but it’s always worth taking a look back and reminding ourselves that there was never any guarantee that any of us would wind up where we did. The fact that she is able now to marry the woman she loves and has been partnered with for 23 years would have seemed like a crazy, alternate-universe idea even five years ago. That happy occasion is unfortunately also an opportunity for the usual squadron of small-minded pecksniffs, from anonymous commenters on newspaper websites to public officials that have nothing better to do, to make nasty remarks. Whether they realize it or not, their whining is just a reminder that they’ve lost. They’ve lost in Utah, they’ve lost in Oklahoma, and perhaps as soon as next month, they’ll lose in Texas. The laws may take awhile to catch up, and as with all things some will never give up their fight for the wrong side, but they have lost. Our country is a more joyful place for it.

HISD gives final approval to revised mascot/nickname policy

That’s that.

Four HISD campuses will have to adopt new mascots after the school board gave final approval Thursday to a policy banning certain nicknames, such as the Redskins.

The proposal from Superintendent Terry Grier drew some debate among students, alumni and community members, but the change puts the school district in line with others nationwide that have retired mascots tied to Native Americans.

Specifically, the new Houston Independent School District policy bans nicknames deemed offensive or culturally insensitive. District leaders said the affected mascots are the Lamar High Redskins, the Westbury High Rebels, the Hamilton Middle School Indians and the Welch Middle School Warriors.

The school principals will have the next several months to work with the community to adopt new mascots, said HISD spokeswoman Tiffany Davila-Dunne. The school board will not have to sign off on the new names.

See here, here, and here for the background. The HISD board had tentatively approved the new policy in December. The vote for final approval was unanimous.

Earlier in the week, the Chron ran a couple of op-eds about the upcoming policy change. This one, by Carnegie Vanguard senior Maya Fontenot and Lamar alumnus Kenyon Weaver, who has been advocating this change since his high school days, deals with the usual arguments against the change.

A common refrain is that this is all political correctness, sprung on an unsuspecting HISD by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who, after meeting with a group of Native Americans, wrote a letter to Superintendent Terry Grier articulating their sincere concerns about the “Redskins.”

It is true that Ellis and Grier spotlighted this issue, but it is one that festered long before. The fact is that nationwide since the 1970s, an estimated two-thirds of schools with Native American iconography have adopted new mascots in recognition that such use is hurtful and a result of, as Stanford University’s Lois Amsterdam put it in 1972, “childish misrepresentations in games, history books and motion pictures.” (Stanford stopped using the “Indian” mascot in 1972.)

Calling this effort “PC,” or politically correct, is, in fact, the true problem. Such a posture closes the mind and the heart.

This posture leads to conversations such as: “So, what’s the big deal? It’s a small population, few Native Americans actually attend HISD, and many don’t see the term as offensive if they’re turning it into a positive word. In fact it’s honoring indigenous people. Natives are just being oversensitive.” Objecting when a public educational institution reduces an entire race of people and their traditions into a caricature used in sports, we don’t think that’s overly sensitive.

The next argument that often comes: “Where do you draw the line? If you cannot have Native Americans as mascots – what’s next, banning the use of animals too?” Ending offensive symbolism and respecting human cultures and communities is not a slippery slope that results in nonsensical rules that cross over to the animal kingdom.

Chron editorial board member Evan Mintz followed up with a point that’s worth remembering from his high school experience.

About two decades ago, my own alma mater, St. John’s School, had a similar tussle over its mascot name: The Rebels. Apparently some people didn’t like a mascot that implied we sympathized with folks who thought it a tragedy that the North won the Civil War..

The school first tried a rhetorical switch. Instead of Rebels with Confederate flags and a Johnny Reb mascot, we became Rebels as in the James Dean movie, “Rebel Without A Cause,” with a greasy-headed delinquent in a leather jacket. It was a clever trick, but not clever enough. So in 2004, after much stress, we just became the Mavericks. All the synonymous definition of Rebel, without any of the historical baggage.

Now, 10 years later, no one really seems to care. That’s the lesson: Alumni will get over it. Teenagers will identify with whatever a cheerleader yells at them. And high schools only have an institutional memory of four years.

He also has some suggestions for the four affected schools:

Be interesting. You’re losing mascots that not only fail to unite a community, but could be found at any school across our nation. Pursue something that is a unique identifier for your school or be stuck with another bland moniker.

Lamar High School, down the street from the River Oaks Country Club, could embrace its oil-money neighborhood and become the Oil Barons or Wildcatters. How about the Lamar Oilers for some Houston nostalgia?

Westbury High School, with its automotive technology programs, could become the Sparkplugs, Hot Rods or Roadsters.

Hamilton Middle School, situated between Yale and Harvard at the northern end of Heights Boulevard, could be the Ivies or the Streetcars. The school could even look to its robotics program and become the Jaegers. Giant fighting robots? Now that’s something middle school students can cheer.

And Welch Middle School should simply bask in the stardom of its most famous graduate and become the Beyoncés. Flawless.

My alma mater has followed that path – its mascot is “Pegleg Pete”, in honor of our namesake – though many of our sports teams go their own way on nicknames. Students and alumni at Lamar et al might consider that option as well.

Riding that crowded train

Metro ponders its options for dealing with potential delays in the delivery of new railcars.

Metro officials said Wednesday that the best solution to an expected shortage of railcars might be to limit trains on the main light rail line to one car rather than two, freeing up cars from the current fleet to serve new lines scheduled to open in September.

Currently, Metro tethers two cars together most of the time on the decade-old Main Street line to ensure sufficient capacity.

Officials acknowledged that the decision would frustrate riders, likely leading some to abandon using the line.

“If you try to use our current fleet to run East and Southeast,” said board member Christof Spieler, referring to the new lines set to open this year, “that means leaving passengers behind.”

Officials are waiting for 39 new railcars from the manufacturer, CAF U.S.A., but they still don’t know exactly when the cars will arrive. At least two are likely to be in service by September, Metro officials said.

The company is months behind a schedule that calls for it deliver the final car by September, and it has yet to deliver a viable vehicle. The first car to arrive in Houston came in December – five months late – and still hasn’t passed a key leak test. The train also exceeds weight specifications, meaning it will cost more to operate.

Metro’s board met Wednesday to examine options for operating the new East and Southeast lines and the existing Red Line with the agency’s 37-train fleet. Both new lines are on pace to open in September, said David Couch, vice president of rail construction for Metro.

To have trains arrive every 12 minutes on the two new lines, and assuming no CAF cars arrive by opening day, Metro will have to pull 10 trains from the current route.

See here for the background. Assuming that the two that Metro thinks are likely to show up on time do so, then eight cars will need to be diverted. If “at least two” turns out to mean “more than two”, so much the better. On the other hand, any unexpected maintenance will be that much more disruptive. I don’t see how Metro has much choice for how to deal with this in the short term, so it’s really just a question of how short the short term is. A month, maybe two months, to get enough cars in so that the Main Street line doesn’t need to be cannibalized any more, that’s probably not a big deal. Longer than that, especially if the deadlines are fuzzy and promises get broken along the way, that’s a problem. Other than be prepared to sue for damages if it comes to that, I don’t know what else Metro can do about it right now.

Who’s spamming you?

Probably someone from Dallas. Figures, right?

When it comes to those annoying and unsolicited text messages you get imploring you to reply for weight loss tips, “free” money, and adult-oriented services, Houston and Dallas are smartphone spam lords of Texas, acccording to Internet security firm AdaptiveMobile.

The funny part is that most of the SMS spam in Texas is sent between Dallas and Houston themselves, with few spam messages making it outside those two cities. The Houston versus Dallas rivalry even rages via spammers.

The report says that phones in South Florida, Dallas and Chicago are hit with the highest levels of SMS spam in the country. It also says Los Angeles creates the most SMS spam.

AdaptiveMobile said in a press release earlier this month that most of the spam in Texas is adult-themed. Florida is known for what is called “junk car” spam, solicting people to sell junker cars for cash.

You can see the infographic here and a post describing how it was created here. That latter link may be of interest to those of you that are into visualizing data; I personally prefer to see the numbers themselves, but to each her own. For what it’s worth, I hardly get any text spam at all. I get junk phone calls on my cell all the time – I’ve largely stopped answering the phone for any number I don’t recognize – but junk texts don’t seem to be a problem. Not sure why that is, but it’s fine by me. Anyway, now you know which direction to shake your fist in anger when you get spammed. You’re welcome.

Saturday video break: Hey, little minivan

I know I posted an Austin Lounge Lizards video last week, but this was the official theme song of our now-broken minivan, so how could I not?

One way or another, we will be a minivan family again. It is what we are.

Another complaint filed against Judge Pratt

Pretty much needed to be one.

Judge Denise Pratt

Embattled family court Judge Denise Pratt is the subject of another criminal complaint by Webster family lawyer Greg Enos, accusing her of breaking the law by signing orders saying she had given prior notice to lawyers before dismissing hundreds of cases last month.

Judges are required under rules of civil procedure to schedule hearings and warn parties involved in pending litigation of their intent to dismiss cases, but numerous lawyers, including Enos, have told the Houston Chronicle they learned their cases had been dismissed only after the fact. The 311th District Court judge’s surprise docket purge – more than 700 cases since Dec. 19 – has sparked a furor at the Harris County Family Courthouse as lawyers and their clients fret over now-nullified custody arrangements, child support payments and the fate of cases on which Pratt already had ruled and needed to make final that were abruptly dissolved by the mass dismissal.

In addition to Enos’ complaint to the Harris County District Attorney’s office, several Houston family lawyers said they are filing complaints this week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct amid calls from some for Pratt to resign and withdraw from the March 4 GOP primary.

[…]

In his complaint to the District Attorney’s Office, Enos alleges that by signing orders to dismiss those cases, Pratt violated a section of the state penal code that makes it a crime to knowingly make a false entry in a government record.

“The truth is that none of these parties were given notice that their case would be dismissed on Dec. 30 or 31,” Enos wrote.

A docket for cases set to be dismissed for want of prosecution, he wrote, “takes up at least half a day and usually involves dozens and dozens of attorneys in the courtroom with motions to retain. Pratt knew that no one was in her court for a dismissal docket on those days.”

Attached to Enos’ complaint were dismissal orders that Pratt had signed, stating that “all parties were given notice of the setting date and that failure to appear would be grounds for dismissal.”

See here for the most recent entry in this saga, which has taken a turn for the bizarre. Pratt’s lawyer, who is definitely earning his hourly rate, insists that this ain’t no big thing.

Pratt, through her lawyer, has acknowledged that some notices of pending dismissals were not sent out but has blamed the problem on a new state-run computer system being used by the district clerk’s office.

District clerk’s spokesman Bill Murphy said that system, known as eFileTexas.gov system, has nothing to do with the mailing of notices of dismissal hearings.

Pratt’s lawyer, Terry Yates, said it is commonplace for judges to purge their dockets at the end of the year and called Enos’ complaint “wholly and utterly without merit.”

“Greg Enos is like the boy who cried wolf, and he’s become a political alarmist,” Yates said. “The fact that he released this quote, I’ll put it in quotes, ‘criminal complaint’ to the media on the same day he filed it with the DA’s office shows his true motivation.”

Enos’ complaint was the second he has lodged with the District Attorney’s Office in regard to Pratt. Last October, he accused the Republican judge of backdating court orders to make it appear she had performed duties months before she actually had in several cases. That led to the resignation of Pratt’s lead clerk and sparked an investigation by the District Attorney’s Office and a grand jury.

Pratt, through Yates, has blamed the backdating on her clerks, who are employed by the district clerk’s office.

Yates noted Thursday that rules of civil procedure specifically require that the clerk send notice of the court’s intention to dismiss and the date and place of the dismissal hearing, and stipulate what should be done when notice is not given.

Murphy, the district clerk’s spokesman, said in an email that court coordinators – not clerks – are responsible for mailing notices of upcoming dismissal hearings. Coordinators, he noted, are employed by the county Office of Court Administration but “hand-picked by the judges for whom they work.”

If what Yates is saying is true, then it ought to be easily confirmed. How many cases were dismissed at the end of the year by other Harris County Family Court judges? Let’s check the same thing in some other big counties, too – Dallas, Bexar, wherever else District Family Courts exist. Check 2012 and 2011 and 2010, too – surely this data all exists. If Yates is correct, then the number of cases Judge Pratt dismissed will fit right in with those of her peers’ courts. If he’s wrong, they’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Empirical claims like this should always be checked. I’d do it if I knew where to look. Surely someone at the Chron, or someone reading this, has that capability. Houston Politics has more.

UPDATE: Turns out the answer to my question was at the end of the story, but I missed it:

According to records, Pratt dismissed 561 cases for want of prosecution in December. The eight other Harris County family courts dismissed from 28 to 121 cases each.

As they say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. Got another explanation, Mr. Yates?

MLB adopts expanded instant replay

Excellent.

Baseball’s replay age has finally dawned, thanks to Thursday’s unanimous approval by owners of what commissioner Bud Selig called a “historic” expansion of replay to correct missed calls.

The new system, which will go into effect this season, will give managers most of the power to trigger reviews, by providing them with one challenge per game, along with a second potential challenge if their first is upheld.

Only after a manager has used up all of his challenges, and only from the seventh inning on, would umpires be authorized to initiate a review on their own.

For the first time, calls at first base, at the plate and on the bases will be reviewable. There will be limited exceptions, including the fabled “neighborhood play” at second base. But MLB executive Tony La Russa, one of the architects of the new system, estimated that almost 90 percent of all potential calls are now reviewable.

Disputed home runs will be reviewed under existing rules and do not need to be formally challenged.

Baseball officials paved the way for Thursday’s vote by negotiating late deals with the Major League Baseball Players Association and with the Major League Umpires Association. Sources said an agreement with the players’ union wasn’t finalized until Wednesday night.

“The Players look forward to the expanded use of replay this season, and they will monitor closely its effects on the game before negotiating over its use in future seasons,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement.

Meanwhile, MLB alleviated a key concern of the umpires by agreeing to hire two additional umpiring crews (a total of eight new umpires), and staffing the replay center in New York through a rotation of current umpire crews instead of with former umpires and umpiring supervisors.

“For some, the discussions regarding expanded replay appeared to move too slowly, too deliberately. But there were technical and operational challenges that needed to be addressed, and that took time,” World Umpires Association representative Brian Lam said in a statement.

More details are here. As you know, I’m a big supporter of replay technology to get as many calls right as possible. I just see no reason not to be able to review and correct where needed calls that are obviously, painfully wrong. Umpiring is hard – I’ve done it for youth baseball – and MLB umpires generally do an excellent job. But nobody is perfect, and even the best umps can get caught out of position or get a sub-optimal view. Why hang them out to dry when a fix is so easily done? The NFL has used instant replay with great success for years, and while it was controversial at first, there’s basically no one arguing against it any more. I’m sure there will be some reactionary voices this season, and I’m sure the system will need some fine-tuning – MLB has committed to tweaking it as needed over the next three years – but before you know it we’ll all be wondering what took so long. Pinstriped Bible and Hair Balls have more.

Still seeking Sriracha for Texas

State Rep. Jason Villalba has a dream.

Rep. Jason Villalba wants to move production of his favorite spicy condiment to the North Texas area.

A plant in Dallas, Richardson, Plano, or another Texas community could help bring jobs to the state, he said.

Citing “greater opportunities for success” thanks to Texas’ business-friendly environment, the Dallas Republican sent a letter to Huy Fong Foods, the makers of the chili and garlic hot sauce Sriracha.

In the letter, he offered to organize a delegation of Texas dignitaries to talk about the benefits of moving to Texas.

“As a public official and a corporate attorney for small businesses, I am extremely troubled by excessive government interference in the operations of private, job-creating businesses like Huy Fong Foods,” Villalba said in the letter. “You have worked too hard and have helped too many people to let government bureaucrats shut down your thriving business.”

[…]

Villalba said if the plant were to move to Texas and if complaints were filed, “we’d have to address that.”

“We’d want to make sure we can continue to create a strong and vibrant economy and we’re very safe with the companies we do have here,” he said.

That’s in regard to the environmental concerns that temporarily halted production back in November. Hard to imagine Texas being any harder on the environmental regulatory front than California, which the Huy Fong folks may see as a plus or a minus. In the meantime, Villalba’s entreaty comes as the hot sauce makers are at the end of a thirty day moratorium on shipping their product out of state “to ensure that the contents of the uncooked sauces are free of microorganisms, according to a California Department of Public Health order.” Again, whether a Texas approach to such things would work in Huy Fong’s favor or not is open to debate, but moving here could cause other problems.

Huy Fong has been buying peppers from the same Southern California farm for decades. The peppers arrive at the plant within hours of being harvested and are used quickly after that.

It’s all about the local sourcing, y’all. I respect Rep. Villalba for chasing a dream, but good luck solving that.

Friday random ten: Baby, you can drive my car

Or you could, if it hadn’t been clobbered by a pickup truck coming the other direction and drifting into my lane while I was waiting at a stoplight last weekend. So in memory of my old minivan, whose fate is still in the hands of the insurance adjusters, here are ten car songs.

1. Car And Driver – Bill Morrissey
2. The Car Hank Died In – Austin Lounge Lizards
3. Car Train – The Jazz Jury
4. Car Wash – Rose Royce
5. Chasing Cars – Snow Patrol
6. Electric Car – They Might Be Giants
7. Fancy Car – The Honeycutters
8. Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
9. In The Car – Barenaked Ladies
10. Race Car Ya-Yas – CAKE

Wish me luck with the bureaucracy and paperwork. Not being at fault doesn’t mitigate the annoyance.

If you want to be treated for mental illness, go to jail

You’ve heard it said that the Harris County Jail is the largest mental health facility in Texas. Here’s a great story in the Observer by Emily DePrang that illustrates what that really means.

go_to_jail

Of the 9,000 or so inmates here, more than a quarter take medication for mental illness, meaning that many days, this jail treats more psychiatric patients than all 10 of Texas’ state-run public mental hospitals combined.

Most of those patients live in the general population and get their psychotropic drugs alongside inmates taking blood thinners or insulin. But some stay here on the second floor, in the Mental Health Unit, an award-winning program that functions as a full psychiatric hospital within the jail. The unit can treat almost 250 inmates at a time for serious mental illnesses. All receive medication; some also attend therapy and visit with caseworkers who help them plan for life after release. Many leave the jail more stable and connected to social services than when they came in.

Outside the jail, Houstonians with mental illness often can’t find those kinds of services. Harris County has one of the most underfunded public mental health systems in a state that consistently ranks last, or almost last, in per capita mental health spending. The Mental Health Needs Council, a policy advisory group made up of mental health practitioners, estimates that in 2012, almost 70,000 adults and more than 14,000 children in Houston with severe mental illness needed help from the public system but couldn’t get any. Hundreds of people are currently on a waiting list for basic mental health services—and that’s progress, down from 1,600 during the summer.

This isn’t because of some inefficiency in the public system versus the jail, but because of who pays for each. Community-based mental health care is funded mostly by state government, and for years, the Texas Legislature starved its public system. Like all public services, community-based mental health care was never flush, but in 2003 lawmakers slashed funding and limited treatment to just three diagnoses. Thousands of people who relied on the system were suddenly ineligible. Many went into crisis and were picked up by police or wound up in emergency rooms, where they stayed briefly, stabilized, and were released, still unable to get treatment in the community.

A crisis-driven system evolved, one that was inefficient, ineffective and unkind. It was also expensive. While the state initially saved money in 2003 and with subsequent cuts, it passed the cost on to counties, which had to deal with the real consequences of untreated mental illness. In Harris County, the number of law enforcement calls about people in psychiatric crisis jumped from fewer than 11,000 in 2003 to more than 27,000 in 2012.

As people with mental illness filled the jails, counties like Harris were forced to act. They added mental health programs to their law enforcement agencies and jails, a humane move, but one that shifts costs from the state to local taxpayers and blurs the lines between institutions designed to punish and those meant to treat. That’s how Texas’ largest jail became its largest mental hospital. And that’s why many Texans can get better mental health treatment inside the jail than out of it.

Again, when I say that Rick Perry and his cronies don’t want people to get health care, I’m talking about more than just the refusal to expand Medicaid. But the refusal to expand Medicaid is still a big part of the problem.

White men, age 22 to 55, who are medically indigent—meaning they don’t have insurance and aren’t eligible for Medicaid—are the group most likely to end up both needing the public mental health system and, at some point, going to jail. Preston Murski is all these things. He’s a Houston native, 22, blond and chatty, and he slips easily into a grin. But he faces an uncertain future. When we meet in the Harris County Jail’s chaplaincy room—just a concrete floor, plastic chairs, a dry-erase board and a battered wooden podium—he flickers between bravado and worry. Like all the inmates, he wears baggy orange clothes, but a purple hospital wristband signifies that he’s in the Mental Health Unit.

“I started coming to jail when I was 14,” Murski says. “It’s been in and out, doing six months in, a month out, a year in. I’ve been with MHMRA since I was 14.” MHMRA is the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, the primary provider of public mental health services for medically indigent Houstonians like Murski.

“When I was in juvenile [detention], they give you one or two free refills of your medication. My medication costs like $800 because I take a lot of Seroquel, and I take a lot of Adderall. So [after] I get that free refill, my dad’s like, ‘I’m not paying this money. I ain’t got the cash.’ And I’m not on insurance, nothing. I’m just walking around. So meds run out. I go to jail. It’s always been the story of my life. If my meds run out, I go to jail.”

Access to services for juveniles is a major challenge in Houston. The Mental Health Needs Council found that in 2012, about 19,300 children and adolescents in Harris County suffered serious emotional disturbance and needed help from the public system. Most had already developed substance abuse problems and 40 percent had been exposed to trauma. But 74 percent of those 19,300 kids received no mental health treatment at all.

Many ended up in trouble with the law. Almost 69 percent of the children referred to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department in 2012 had a diagnosable mental illness.

[…]

But once in the jail, help is available. Dr. Scott Hickey, director of outcomes management for the county mental health authority, says that’s both good and a symptom of the public system’s problems. “There are any number of individuals who have dropped out of the treatment system who reconnect through our jail mental health services,” Hickey wrote in an email. “In addition, there are many who received care only through the jail [T]he root cause of many system problems, including this one, is our inadequate outpatient service capacity.”

The mental health authority estimates it would need a fourfold budget increase to satisfy the current demand in Harris County. But there is a way lawmakers could decrease demand: expanding Medicaid. Andrea Usanga, policy director for Mental Health America of Harris County, an advocacy group, says that had Texas chosen to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), it would have made an enormous difference. “Close to 90 percent of the individuals who are currently served in the public mental health and substance abuse system would be eligible for Medicaid if it were expanded,” she says. Gov. Rick Perry’s choice not to expand it, she says, was “all political. It’s really sad. Ideology hurts everyday people all the time. Everyday people are suffering.”

Harris County’s public mental health authority not only lacks the funds to meet the demand in the community but also can’t offer whole areas of needed services, Usanga says. When I tell her about Murski’s alcohol problem, she nods. “I’m not surprised.” She says that one of the major barriers to effective mental health care is that the public system still treats mental illness and substance abuse separately. “If you have a substance abuse issue, there’s a very, very high likelihood that you’re having some type of mental health issue, too,” she says. “MHMRA will treat the mental health issue, but you can’t go to MHMRA to learn how to safely withdraw from substances. Our system is not set up to do this. So it’s a very ineffective way to be dealing with folks with co-occurring issues.”

We’ve discussed this before. Expanding Medicaid wouldn’t solve all problems, but it would be a huge step forward and would be a big help for an awful lot of people. Really, we’d all benefit from it. We’d benefit by not having to pay for costlier and less effective care for fewer people. We’d benefit by the increased economic potential of thousands of people who could be productive citizens if only they could get the help they desperately need. We’d benefit by having a lower crime rate and by being able to direct police resources to more productive pursuits. And we’d benefit directly because whether we realize it or not, we all almost certainly know someone who needs this help but is unable to get it. We are perfectly capable of making this situation better. We just have to choose to do it. That’s not going to happen with the current state leadership. There’s really not much more to it than that.

Rolling out the laptops

I look forward to seeing how this goes.

Tens of thousands of local students will receive taxpayer-funded laptops or tablets this month as the Houston and Clear Creek school districts join the national movement toward digital education.

School leaders say dispatching the devices can help bridge the gap between rich and poor families and lead to more engaging instruction, though some recent trials elsewhere were plagued with problems.

As the nation’s seventh-largest school system, HISD will be closely watched as it becomes the latest big-city district to experiment with giving students personal technology devices to use in class and at home.

By the end of January, the Houston Independent School District plans to have distributed laptops to roughly 18,000 students at a quarter of its high schools. At the same time, Clear Creek ISD expects to deploy about 6,000 tablets to all its ninth- and 10th-graders. Both districts intend to dispatch many more devices over the next few years.

“This project is not going to go without bumps,” said Lenny Schad, HISD’s chief technology officer. “But I’m confident when those bumps do occur, we’re going to be able to react very quickly and move forward.”

[…]

Research into whether personal technology programs – typically called one-to-one initiatives – lead to improved student achievement has yielded mixed results. While some districts and states started giving devices to students on a small scale more than a decade ago, few of those efforts have survived, largely for budget reasons.

But as cell phones and computers have become ubiquitous, technology experts say schools need to take public education more into the digital age.

“It is irresponsible for any school district not to be moving to creating 21st century learning environments. I think it’s criminal,” said Leslie Wilson, who co-directed Michigan’s $40 million school laptop program in the early 2000s. “But it’s also criminal to go about doing that without doing it right.”

[…]

Clear Creek voters approved the technology plan as part of a bond referendum last May. By the fall of 2015, the district expects to dispatch about 30,000 tablets to students in grades 4 through 12. The cost per device, including software, a case and extended warranty, is $541, according to the district.

HISD officials say leasing the HP laptops is cheaper, at about $260 for the device and software, excluding the case.

In both districts, the students ultimately have to return the devices.

So far, HISD has funded its laptop program with federal dollars designated for low-income students as well as professional development. For this school year, the district has budgeted more than $8.1 million for the devices, teacher training and other expenses. By January 2016, HISD plans to dispatch nearly 65,000 laptops to all its high school students.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has said he eventually would like to give devices to younger students as well.

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree that school districts need to make modern technologies available to their students. How else do we expect students to learn about them? It’s also vitally important for districts to have a solid plan for deploying laptops or tablets or whatever, to have a strong training program in place for teachers, and to track results and make adjustments as needed. There’s not enough long-term research available yet to provide clear guideposts, but we can at least learn from the failures of others. I’m excited about this and I hope it produces great results.

VRA 2.0

Texas Redistricting:

[Thursday] morning, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced proposed amendments to the Voting Rights Act that would rework the section 5 coverage formula invalidated by the Supreme Court in Shelby Co. v. Holder.

The text of the bill – styled the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 – can be found here.

Under the proposed amendments, states and local entities would be required to submit voting changes for preclearance before putting them into effect if they met the conditions of two new statutory triggers.

Ari Berman has a thorough analysis of the bill:

The Sensenbrenner-Conyers-Leahy bill strengthens the VRA in five distinct ways:

1: The legislation draws a new coverage formula for Section 4, thereby resurrecting Section 5. States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would currently apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Local jurisdictions would be covered if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” over the past fifteen years.

The formula is based on a rolling calendar, updated with a current fifteen-year time period to exempt states who are no longer discriminating or add new ones who are, creating a deterrent against future voting rights violations. It’s based on empirical conditions and current data, not geography or a fixed time period—which voting rights advocates hope will satisfy Chief Justice John Roberts should the new legislation be enacted and reach the Supreme Court.

The new Section 4 proposal is far from perfect. It does not apply to states with an extensive record of voting discrimination, like Alabama (where civil rights protests in Selma gave birth to the VRA), Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which were previously subject to Section 5. Nor does it apply to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have enacted new voting restrictions in the past few years.

Moreover, rulings against voter ID laws—like in Texas in 2012—will not count as a new violation. Voter ID laws can still be blocked by the Department of Justice or federal courts in the new states covered under Section 4, but that will not be included as one of the five violations needed to keep the state covered. This exemption for voter ID laws was written to win the support of House majority leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans.

2: The legislation strengthens Section 3 of the VRA, which has been described as the Act’s “secret weapon.” Under Section 3, jurisdictions not covered by Section 4 could be “bailed-in” to federal supervision, but plaintiffs had to show evidence of intentional voting discrimination, which is very difficult to do in court. Under the new Section 3 proposal, any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law—whether intentional or not—can be grounds for a bail-in, which will make it far easier to cover new states. (One major caveat, again, is that court objections to voter ID laws that are not found to be intentionally discriminatory cannot be used as grounds for “bail-in” under Section 3.)

3: The legislation mandates that jurisdictions in all fifty states have to provide notice in the local media and online of any election procedures related to redistricting changes within 180 days of a federal election and the moving of a polling place. This will make it easier for citizens to identify potentially harmful voting changes in the forty-six states not subject to Sections 4 and 5.

4: The legislation makes it easier to seek a preliminary injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law. Plaintiffs will now only have to show that the hardship to them outweighs the hardship to the state if a law is blocked in court pending a full trial. There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on North Carolina’s voting law in July 2014, before the full trial takes place July 2015.

5: The legislation reaffirms that the attorney general can send federal observers to monitor elections in states subject to Section 4 and expands the AG’s authority to send observers to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against language minority groups, which includes parts of twenty-five states.

As Berman notes, the bill doesn’t go nearly as far as many of us would like – not taking voter ID laws into account for the preclearance criteria is a big deal – but it does do a lot to make up for the mess that SCOTUS left behind when they killed Section 4. Putting Texas back under preclearance would be major. As Daily Kos notes, the bill does have the support of Civil Rights veterans like Rep. John Lewis, as well as the ACLU, but it has attracted criticism from several minority groups. This is likely the best we’re going to get, and as Ed Kilgore says, getting enough support from Republicans to pass it – hell, to bring it to a vote – is far from assured. I can’t even begin to imagine the level of deranged fanaticism it will drive Ted Cruz to. President Obama pledged to fight for a renewed Voting Rights Act, and this bill can be considered a down payment on that promise, but of course if he pushes for it too much it’ll ensure all the Republicans oppose it. So we’ll see where, if anywhere, it goes from here.

Big Brew

I like the sound of this.

beer

For three days in October, the [George R. Brown] convention center will host Big Brew, a major new festival that aims to tap into the region’s burgeoning craft-beer scene by putting 1,000 beers out for public sampling, along with seminars on what you’re drinking and where it comes from.

To satisfy Houstonians’ growing passion for pairing food with beer, some of the biggest chefs in town are lining up 40 local restaurants for an evening of culinary improvisation.

“We really do think we can make this a beer-tourist destination,” said Big Brew organizer Clifton McDerby of Food & Vine Time Productions.

[…]

McDerby said the sampling hall during Big Brew will feature 1,000 craft beers. A selection that large would rank among the larger ones in beer festivals nationally, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association industry group.

“It’s a goal, but it’s a goal that we will reach,” McDerby said.

The main tastings will be preceded by two smaller events, a food-and-beer pairing and an exclusively Texas tasting, on the evenings of Oct. 23 and 24, respectively. All will be inside the Brown Convention Center.

McDerby said there also will be a downtown pub crawl, and additional events in the vicinity are likely to be added.

The pairing event will feature food selections from 40 Houston restaurants, 29 of which have signed up.

McDerby said a culinary committee led by noted restaurateurs Robert Del Grande of RDG & Bar Annie, Michael Cordúa (Américas , Artista) and Randy Evans (Haven) is developing the list.

The Texas tasting will feature 40 in-state breweries exclusively.

I’m thinking this was Mayor Parker’s favorite press conference of all time.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker on Tuesday turned a public announcement about a new beer festival into a toast to the city’s industriousness and traditions of hospitality.

“Houston has always been a place for entrepreneurs,” she said, adding craft brewers to a legacy of dynamic business owners who stimulate the local economy.

“Today we celebrate an industry and a city on the rise,” she said, raising a glass of Houston-brewed beer from Saint Arnold Brewing Co. “Here’s to our city, and here’s to beer.”

I’ll drink to that. The festival will run from October 23-25, and tickets go on sale on February 17. They’re limiting sales to 11,000 tix for the main event, so I’d advise buying yours quickly, not to mention perhaps planning for a vacation day on the Friday. The event webpage is here, the Facebook page is here, and a photo gallery from the press conference is here. CultureMap has more.

Mayor Parker gets married

Awesome.

Mayor Annise Parker and Kathy Hubbard

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and longtime partner Kathy Hubbard are now married – at least in the eyes of 18 states, including California, where the couple formally exchanged vows Thursday in a sunset ceremony in Palm Springs.

“This is a very happy day for us,” Parker said in a news release issued from her office. “We have had to wait a very long time to formalize our commitment to each other. Kathy has been by my side for more than two decades, helping to raise a family, nurture my political career and all of the other ups and down and life events that come with a committed relationship. She is the love of my life and I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life married to her.”

The wedding included family and friends, including the mayor’s mother and Hubbard’s sister, according the mayor’s press office. The Rev. Paul Fromberg, a family friend from San Francisco, presided. Two other close friends from Houston, Judge Steve Kirkland and Mark Parthie, were attendants and formal witnesses. Parker and Hubbard chose Jan. 16 for their wedding because it marks the 23rd anniversary of the start of their lives together, her office said.

[…]

The mayor had vowed not to marry until it was legal in Texas, then softened her stance. By state law, her marriage is not recognized as valid in Texas.

You can see the press release, which is the source of that adorable photo, here. As the Chron story notes, we first got wind of this just after Christmas. I’m delighted for them both and wish them all the very best. And in case you’re wondering, the press release notes that Hubbard has “other insurance options available to her”, so she will not enroll in health insurance via the city’s updated policy on employee benefits. Congratulations and mazel tov, you two.

UPDATE: PDiddie reminds me that Texas Leftist heard about this before the rest of us did. The updated Chron story reminds us that Harris County GOP Chair Jared Woodfill is a nasty, bitter, small-minded person, who if the experience in Utah is any indication is likely to be out of touch with most Texans in short order. Hair Balls has more.