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July 27th, 2014:

Weekend link dump for July 27

We have nothing to fear but people who fear inflation itself.

Take a tennis ball and a soccer ball and blow the mind of some little kids.

Three words: Aerosol cake batter. And you “bake” it in the microwave. Or save time and just spray it directly into your mouth, because of course you would.

Hooray for Earlene Moore, helping Texas women buy better-fitting bras since 1939.

Medicare’s financial health has greatly improved lately.

“But in the hands of an inflation truther, this mathematical banality achieves a kind of totemic significance. It’s the grassy knoll inside Area 51 where Janet Yellen is playing a record backwards that says hyperinflation is coming.”

Who’s playing what game on immigration?

The NFL is now not the only defendant in concussion litigation.

What Kevin Drum says.

Hospitals are hurting in the states that refused to expand Medicaid.

One place where Sweden trails the US: in the amount of nudity on its reality TV programming.

“It’s not that you want a law degree without having to suffer the consequences of your actions, it’s that God wants it. Nothing reflects the model of Jesus Christ more than getting what you want without suffering at all.”

Want to buy the piano played by Dooley Wilson in Casablanca? Well, now you can.

“Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey is impacted by environmental issues, particularly climate change and freshwater scarcity. The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of the League’s history and culture. Many of the NHL’s players, both past and present, learned to skate outside on frozen lakes, ponds and backyard rinks. The game of hockey is adversely affected if this opportunity becomes unavailable to future generations.”

Citing Third Way as evidence of a division on the left is actually pretty good evidence that there is no such division.

What Tony Dungy doesn’t get is that the reason “things will happen” with Michael Sam is because of guys like Tony Dungy.

Better read the fine print on that AirBnB agreement before you lease out your place.

You’re probably overpaying your CEO.

Don’t ask me why Americans stink at math. I’m one of those annoying people that has no trouble with it.

Never surrender, Brooklyn!

“Tennessee is being sued for depriving eligible residents of Medicaid coverage.”

“Tara Reid presents her findings on the scientific possibility of sharknados“. Go ahead, I dare you to not click on that.

It was a pretty good week for Weird Al Yankovic.

I really can’t think of any good reason why Russia should be hosting the 2018 World Cup.

Twenty-four years later, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act still lags.

Ogg proposes marijuana prosecution reforms

I like the sound of this.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg, the Democratic nominee for Harris County district attorney, said Friday she will ticket and enforce community service for, instead of arrest and jail, thousands of people arrested each year in Houston for low-level marijuana possession.

“We can save up to 10 million dollars a year, folks,” Ogg told campaign supporters and reporters at a Friday news conference. “We think that taxpayers deserve to have their money spent wisely.”

Ogg said more than 12,000 people were charged in 2013 with marijuana possession of less than 4 ounces, then jailed for an average of five days, costing taxpayers $4.4 million a year.

Under her plan, if she is elected in November, those suspected of misdemeanor possession would be cited, have to go to court, then spend two days cleaning up litter. If the community service is successfully completed, offenders would not have a conviction on their record.

“This is the future of marijuana prosecution in Harris County,” she said. “Our tagline is ‘No jail, no bail, no permanent record, if you earn it.’ ”

This is a concept Ogg has discussed before, among other places in her interview with me for the primary. When President Obama made a statement back in January about pot not being more harmful than alcohol, Ogg supported that position. What matters about Ogg’s plan here is that the goal is to keep this kind of arrest off someone’s record, because being tagged with such an arrest, even for a tiny amount of pot, can have all kinds of negative effects for things like higher education, employment, child custody, and so on. Short of actual legalization, this is probably the best way to minimize the disproportionately serious consequences for such a minor offense.

What’s interesting is seeing DA Devon Anderson’s stance evolve over time. She was quite critical of President Obama’s words in January but was supportive when Rick Perry spoke about decriminalization a week later. In this story she said the DA’s office is working on something similar to Ogg’s proposal, which is as far as I know the first we’ve heard of that. This is to her credit, but I think it’s fair to say that Ogg was there first, and that Ogg has put more thought and planning into her idea. That’s probably why the group Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), last seen opining in the Baker Blog about when marijuana might be legalized in Texas, sent out a press release applauding Ogg and calling on Anderson to “clarify her position on handling low-level marijuana possession offenders”. Kudos to Ogg for being front and center on this. Texpatriate and John Coby have more.

The marriage equality economic boost

From Equality Texas:

RedEquality

The Williams Institute released a report today estimating that marriage for same-sex couples in Texas would add $181.6 million to the state and local economy over a three-year period. The report predicts that 23,000 Texas couples would marry, spending an average of more than $6,000 per wedding. Up to 1,500 jobs would be created in the state.

“Overall these numbers seem, if anything, conservative for the long run,” said Dr. Daniel S. Hamermesh, Professor in Economics, Royal Holloway University of London, and Sue Killam Professor in the Foundation of Economics, University of Texas at Austin. “Further, marriage for same-sex couples allows couples to be better off – creating what economists call a ‘marital surplus’ which provides an even greater economic benefit.”

The Williams Institute utilized state-level data, as well as the 2010 U.S. Census and the American Community Survey, to conservatively estimate the impact of extending marriage to same-sex couples in Texas.

“The Williams Institute report affirms that the freedom to marry is good for business in Texas,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Allowing gay couples to marry here would give an economic boost to caterers, florists, event venues, and others who make a living through wedding planning. Our economy is already one of the strongest in the country, and marriage for same-sex couples would only add to that prosperity, while doing the right thing morally and constitutionally.”

You can see the study here. It’s a three-year projection that includes things like spending on the wedding itself by the couples, spending by out of state guests, and sales taxes. One item they don’t single out is the fees for marriage licenses, which provided a nice little boost for New York City in the first year that same sex marriages were allowed there. Every county clerk in Texas ought to be in favor of this if they know what’s good for them. Now to be fair, in the context of an economy the size of Texas’, this is pocket change. But given the many, many other good reasons for marriage equality, it’s another cherry on top of the sundae. There’s no good reason not to support it.

(I must note that there is one reason professed to disagree with this study and oppose same sex marriage, given by usual suspect Jonathan Saenz. It’s so incredibly stupid and bizarre that I can’t even bring myself to quote it. It’s here if you want to see for yourself. Don’t blame me if your head explodes.)

Along those lines EqTX is also calling on AG Abbott to drop the appeal of the ruling that tossed Texas’ ban on same sex marriage, on the grounds that plaintiffs have won 26 straight rulings. I totally agree on the merits, but it must be noted that in the recent Tenth Circuit ruling, one of the three judges bought the bogus traditional argument, and Abbott gets to plead his case before the Fifth Circuit, which as we know sucks. (Well, he’ll eventually get around to pleading his case.) As such, I can’t claim this is a slam dunk for the good guys, even though it should be. By the way, just as a reminder, Sam Houston would drop the appeal if he were AG. Just saying.

Finally, last week’s Houston Press had a cover story about being a same-sex married couple in Texas, which was similar in nature to the Observer article from earlier this month. I’m pretty sure every publication in Texas could do their own story and not repeat any of them. Texas Leftist has more.

Commuter rail status

There’s still a push for commuter rail in Houston.

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

With freight trains on Houston area tracks teeming with cargo, supporters of commuter rail to the suburbs are focusing on three spots where they can potentially build their own lines for passengers.

The Gulf Coast Rail District – created in part to find a way to make commuter rail work in Houston – is studying three possible routes for large passenger trains.

What’s clear, at least for the near future, is that commuter trains will not share any track with local freight railroads, or buy any of their land.

“There is a lot of freight moving through the region because of all the new business, and the freight carriers are trying to meet the demand for that,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district. “They are not willing to discuss the use of their rail for passenger rail operations.”

[…]

Without access to the freight lines, Crocker said, commuter rail must find its own way. Focusing on land owned by local governments or the state, and near current freight lines, officials identified three possible routes for study: along U.S. 290, U.S. 90A and the Westpark corridor.

The plan is to further study all three, looking at how much ridership they could expect while analyzing the type of property that would have to be purchased, engineering challenges and costly factors such as bridges.

Each of the routes includes some easily obtainable land and could connect suburban commuters to the city. The goal would be to develop commuter rail from the suburbs to Loop 610 – or farther into the central city under some scenarios – and connect it to local transit.

Both the Westpark corridor and U.S. 290 offer close access from western or northwestern suburbs to The Galleria and Uptown areas, where a single bus or light rail trip could carry travelers from a train station to their final destination. The U.S. 90A corridor, which Metro has studied before, offers access from the southwest to the Texas Medical Center.

Developing rail along any of the corridors would pose many challenges. In the case of the Westpark and U.S. 290 routes, both would abut local roads, meaning ramps and entrances would have to undergo serious changes. Other projects, such as light rail and toll roads, also are being considered for the space.

The terrain poses challenges as well. A U.S. 90A commuter rail system would need to cross the Brazos River and would pass by the southern tip of Sugar Land Regional Airport.

“There are challenges out in Fort Bend County,” Crocker said. “But the demand is so high we would like to take another look at it.”

To me, US90A is the clear first choice. I’ve been advocating for Metro to turn its attention back to what it calls the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC). As recently as two years ago, they were holding open houses to get community support and finish up a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which would put them and that project in the queue for federal funds. Unfortunately, as of September of 2012, the plans are on hold. I would hope it wouldn’t be too difficult to revive that process, in partnership with the GCRD. Note that while Metro’s original plan for the SWRC stopped at Missouri City, just across the Fort Bend County line, while the GCRD plan goes all the way to Rosenberg. The latter would clearly have much greater ridership potential, and would include destinations that would be of interest outside the regular commute, such as the airport and Skeeters Field. You only get to do this sort of thing right the first time, so it would be best to plan to maximize ridership from the beginning.

As for the other two, it must be noted that the corridors in question are already fairly well served by Metro park and ride. There’s some overlap with the US90A corridor, but not as much. Both Westpark and US90A continue well into Fort Bend County and thus beyond Metro’s existing service area, so I suppose the Westpark corridor would be the next best choice for commuter rail. The other key factor at play here is that the US90A line would connect up with the existing Main Street Line, thus potentially carrying people all the way from Rosenberg and elsewhere in Fort Bend to the Medical Center, downtown, and beyond. The 290 corridor will at least have the Uptown BRT line available to it as a connection, and if it were to happen it might revive discussion of the Inner Katy Line for a seamless trip into downtown via Washington Avenue. As for Westpark, well, go tell it to John Culberson. You know what we’d need to make any Westpark commuter rail line the best it could be. Anything the GCRD can do about that would be good for all of us.

Vaping in jail

Not sure how I feel about this.

As a way to allow some inmates to get their nicotine fix and sheriffs to shore up tight budgets, county jails across the country have begun selling electronic cigarettes. Though the trend has largely bypassed Texas, jail officials say that could change as sheriffs begin to warm up to the smokeless technology.

While traditional cigarettes are banned from most jails, vendors of e-cigarettes, which vaporize a liquid solution for inhalation, see a big market in Texas. The 245 jails regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards have a combined capacity of about 95,000.

Shannon Herklotz, the commission’s assistant director, said he knew of only two county jails in Texas that allowed electronic cigarettes. But more sheriffs, primarily in rural counties with smaller facilities, have expressed a cautious interest in selling them, asking questions about the technology, he said.

“It’s not that it’s not allowed. It’s up to each individual sheriff,” said Herklotz, who supports banning e-cigarettes to prevent issues with contraband at jails. With county jails facing budget shortfalls, e-cigarette vendors are pushing their products as a way for sheriffs to supplement revenue and help inmates suffering from withdrawal.

[…]

One vendor, Precision Vapor, recently began selling e-cigarettes to the Titus County Jail in Northeast Texas.

“It was at the request of inmates that we started selling them,” said Michael Garcia, a lieutenant at the jail, which sells the item from its commissary. “The inmates report that they feel more at ease and not as nervous,” he said. “They don’t have the agitation of going from two packs a day to zero.”

The jail, which has an average daily population of about 110 inmates, buys each e-cigarette for $3 and sells about 80 a week at $6 apiece, Garcia said. That profit helps pay for inmate uniforms and other supplies, which “eases the burden of the taxpayers.”

Brian McGiverin, a prisoner rights lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that most jails strictly banned tobacco but that sheriffs were likely to view e-cigarettes more favorably because they are less of a fire hazard than traditional cigarettes.

“It doesn’t seem like a terrible idea, setting aside the idea of whether it’s a smart idea to smoke in the first place,” he said. “The people are buying it, so that means it’s something that they want.”

Out of curiosity, I sent an email to Alan Bernstein, the Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to inquire about their policies on e-cigarettes. Here’s what he sent me:

The Harris County Jail, the state’s largest, does not allow inmate use of e-cigarettes because of the negative health effects of nicotine, the potential for these items to be traded among inmates as “currency” and the potential for misuse of the lithium battery and vaporizing function of the items. We are not aware of any vendors approaching our staff to discuss adding e-cigs to our list of inmate commissary products.

As noted before, my main concern is that the health effects of e-cigarettes are not well understood at this time. If they turn out to be helpful in getting people to quit tobacco and they don’t have any harmful effects of their own, then I can see the merit in this, though Bernstein’s point about the potential for misuse is well taken. The bit about e-cigarette sales being helpful to counties with tight budgets and “easing the burden” on taxpayers, however, makes me queasy in the same way that expanded gambling does. Being dependent on a potentially volatile income stream that is in turn highly dependent on the habits – in many cases, addictions – of a small number of mostly vulnerable people but which is invisible to most everyone else strikes me as bad public policy, one that comes with a built-in set of skewed incentives. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe e-cigarettes don’t have much in common with the tobacco kind – but until we know that I’m very skeptical of this.