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May 15th, 2016:

Weekend link dump for May 15

“The 500-euro note, the bill of choice for many criminals looking to transfer large amounts of money without the authorities knowing, is being eliminated.”

“Among all these classes of professionals, all these institutions, that whole superstructure of US politics built around two balanced sides, there will be a tidal pull to normalize this election, to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water.”

“Right now, a small group of committed people are intent on changing the world. It’s going to take a large group of thoughtful, committed citizens to stop them.”

“Maybe the lesson here is to beware the TED-talk version of development economics. Shortening the time it takes to incorporate a small business is not a substitute for deeper institutional reforms, such as those that support investment in human and physical capital, remove economic barriers that hold back women and ethnic or religious minorities, or improve transportation, power, and sanitation infrastructure.”

What Norm Ornstein says.

Have a look at the Panama Papers for yourself.

“How could anyone ban such a neat book as The Six Bunny-Wunnies Freak Out?”

All hail the bison, America’s official mammal.

Clearly, Sen. Thune doesn’t get enough cat videos in his Facebook feed.

On doing sex work to finance law school.

No matter how bad things may get, you can always console yourself with the knowledge that you don’t have to live in a sea cucumber’s anus to survive.

A cool story about famous cat cartoonist B. Kliban.

Good for Google, dumping ads from payday lenders.

I’m not sure why I’m surprised to learn that Donald Trump’s butler is a lousy person, but I am.

“But when people are forced to stop taking the subway because our systems are literally on fire, they’re not going to use a hyperloop to get to work. They’re going to be getting in cars.”

Federal action on schools accommodating transgender bathroom use

Glad to see this.

The Obama administration is planning to issue a sweeping directive telling every public school district in the country to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.

A letter to school districts will go out Friday, adding to a highly charged debate over transgender rights in the middle of the administration’s legal fight with North Carolina over the issue. The declaration — signed by Justice and Education department officials — will describe what schools should do to ensure that none of their students are discriminated against.

It does not have the force of law, but it contains an implicit threat: Schools that do not abide by the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid.

The move is certain to draw fresh criticism, particularly from Republicans, that the federal government is wading into local matters and imposing its own values on communities across the country that may not agree. It represents the latest example of the Obama administration using a combination of policies, lawsuits and public statements to change the civil rights landscape for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people.

After supporting the rights of gay people to marry, allowing them to serve openly in the military and prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against them, the administration is wading into the battle over bathrooms and siding with transgender people.

“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” John B. King Jr., the secretary of the Department of Education, said in a statement. “We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence.”

Courts have not settled the question of whether the nation’s sex discrimination laws apply in matters of gender identity. But administration officials, emboldened by a federal appeals court ruling in Virginia last month, think they have the upper hand. This week, the Justice Department and North Carolina sued each other over a state law that restricts access to bathrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms. The letter to school districts had been in the works for months, Justice Department officials said.

“A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so,” according to the letter, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times.

The timing of this was propitious or provocative, depending on one’s perspective. As expected, Republicans here completely lost their minds over this, even though it didn’t actually represent a change in policy, just a reminder of what was already policy, which has gained prominence due to the bathroom obsession that is now gripping so many in the GOP. (On a side note: If, as some of our Republican leaders are now whining, it is meddling for the federal government to intervene like this, then what was it when Dan Patrick demanded that a local school superintendent be fired? “Local control”, indeed.) I am certain that a lawsuit will follow, and that’s fine. It’s time to establish some precedents.

The US Department of Education laid out its policy here, and I know this sounds crazy, but it might be a good idea to read it and understand it before making any accusations about what it does and doesn’t say. It also might be a good idea to read about Nancy Sims’ experience about becoming the mother of a transgender child. It’s people like Nancy’s daughter that people like Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz are so afraid of. Honestly, I hope that one of these children confronts Dan Patrick and asks him “Why are you afraid of me? Why do you hate me?” It won’t have any effect on him, of course, but it might change the conversation the rest of us are having. Daily Kos, TransGriot, the Austin Chronicle, the Press, and Think Progress have more.

Harris County crime lab experiencing DNA testing backlog

These things do happen.

I want one of these

Never miss a chance to embed the DNA Robot

Expanded testing for property crimes has helped create a backlog of more than 4,600 DNA cases in the Harris County crime lab, straining its ability to complete the processing of such evidence for sexual assaults and even homicide cases in a timely manner.

Officials with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences say a relentless uptick in property crime, robbery and assault cases has stretched the lab’s resources. The spikes can be traced in part to the lab’s own push in recent years to expand its forensic operations and offer law enforcement agencies more DNA testing for property crimes.

The lab serves more than 60 law enforcement agencies, which rely on it to process DNA evidence as part of criminal investigations. Officials are particularly concerned about how the backlog has affected sexual assault cases, which they’ve pledged to make a priority as the cases have recently taken longer to finish.

Sexual assault cases took on average of 172 days to complete in 2015, far from the county’s 60-day goal and the roughly 60 to 90 days that they took from 2009 to 2013 The average for homicides and death investigations is now 238 days, though it is more difficult to set a benchmark in such cases because evidence often comes in piecemeal over time.

The backlog – defined by county lab officials as containing any case that has not been completed – has set off a debate over how to prioritize DNA testing in the short term and handle lesser offenses such as property crimes in the long term.

[…]

[Crime Lab Director Roger] Kahn said the lab already has essentially halted analyses of DNA in some property crimes. Last July, the institute said it would suspend “touch DNA” analysis – such as testing for microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off on objects – for almost all property crimes.

The moves have contributed to a drop in the number of sexual assault cases that take more than 60 days to complete: after reaching 252 in January, that number was 148 last month, Kahn said.

He stressed that the high numbers are also in part because of new protocols to reanalyze some cases that have samples containing multiple people’s DNA. These, he said, can often be the most complex cases.

All this being said, Kahn acknowledged that the turnaround times are too high.

He said lab officials are looking at halting some analyses of assault and robbery cases. The lab is also planning to work with sexual assault nurse examiners to better identify samples to analyze in such cases, and is weighing other possible workflow improvements.

For their part, county commissioners on Tuesday approved the crime lab’s move to apply for a National Institute of Justice grant of more than $645,000 that would help its DNA division – the Forensic Genetic Laboratory – reduce the backlog. It has applied for and received the same grant since 2005.

Commissioners also approved a roughly $100,000 contract to outsource some property-crime testing to a private company, Bode Cellmark Forensics, an uncommon move but one that the county has made in the past.

[…]

It’s unclear what will happen to property crime cases, and possibly robbery and assault cases, that the county crime lab may set aside to focus on sexual assaults and homicides. Kahn said the lab works closely with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to prioritize cases, even those involving property crimes.

At Wednesday’s meeting, District Attorney Devon Anderson questioned whether the lab should be making decisions of what types of cases to prioritize.

Sheriff Ron Hickman said telling the public that the county lab had the technology to solve crimes, but couldn’t use it because of lack of resources, would not “play well.”

“How do you get to say, ‘No?'” Hickman said.

Kahn said the current focus is on sexual assault cases. Then lab officials, with other public officials, will determine how best to use the lab’s resources.

There’s a lot there and I don’t want to make too big a deal over it. Both DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman raise good questions, for which they deserve better answers than “we’ll figure it out later”. If this is a matter of resources, then Commissioners Court needs to address that. The County Crime Lab serves multiple cities in addition to the county, so it’s not just their own business that’s being affected.

We can’t discuss the Harris County crime lab without mentioning the Houston lab and the ongoing debate over whether the two should merge. I’ve noted before that there are questions about how the county handles crime lab issues and how the city’s needs would be accounted for. This situation highlights those concerns. As the story notes, the city’s crime lab has its own backlog issues, though they are smaller and seem to be on track towards resolution. I’m just pointing this out to note that there are questions to answer before anything can go forward. If you want this to go forward, which is certainly a reasonable thing, those questions need to be addressed. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not nothing and shouldn’t be treated as nothing.

New methane rules finalized

Gentlemen, start your lawyers.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued its final rule for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

The rule limits methane emissions from new oil and gas infrastructure and requires operators to submit to semi-annual or quarterly monitoring, depending on the type of operation. In addition, the agency took another step toward drafting a rule that would apply to existing oil and gas operations.

“They will help keep the nation on track to help the us cut emissions from the oil and gas sector,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said on a call with reporters Thursday. The new rule will reduce emissions by 11 million tons per year of CO2 equivalent by 2025, she said.

The Obama administration has a goal of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. Natural gas is 80 percent methane, while oil extraction processes also often release methane trapped underground. In 2012, 30 percent of the country’s methane emissions came from oil and gas operations.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year span, so leaking methane can be a huge problem. While natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, leaks in the system can eliminate the climate benefits. Scientists have found that in the United States, methane leaks and venting have nullified any emissions benefit from transitioning the electricity sector from coal- to natural gas-fired power plants. In fact, the EPA recently found that the problem of escaping methane is even worse than initially feared. The United States currently gets a third of its electricity from natural gas, up from 24 percent in 2010.

[…]

There are, though, two key changes from the initial draft rule the EPA published last year that environmentalists welcomed. Under the new rule, natural gas compressors will be subject to quarterly monitoring — twice as often as under the proposal. In addition, low-production wells will be included in the rule. In its fact sheet, the agency credited the changes to the more than 9,000 public comments it received after the draft rule was published.

See here and here for some background. We all know what comes next, and we know it’s not over till the Supreme Court says it is. So sit back, pop open a cold one, and wait for the legal action to begin. Daily Kos and the Trib have more.

George Scott holds on in Katy ISD race

Every vote matters, y’all.

George Scott

George Scott

A longtime critic of the Katy Independent School District has ousted a 27-year incumbent from the board of trustees, winning by three votes out of nearly 3,000 cast, according to unofficial total results announced Friday.

Conservative blogger George Scott received 1475 votes to Trustee Joe Adams’ 1,472 votes, district officials said Friday. The final tally came six days after election day results left the Position 1 race too close to call.

Results will become official when the seven-member board canvasses them at a meeting Wednesday. Scott would be sworn in at the May 23 board meeting, along with Trustee Rebecca Fox, who was re-elected earlier this month.

Scott’s victory signals a major shift for the district. Adams is a widely recognized figure in the Katy area and has served on the board of directors for the Texas Association of School Boards.

A former media liaison for the Harris County Appraisal District and past publisher of The Katy Times newspaper, Scott has for years questioned the board’s fiscal decisions, transparency to the public and deference to Superintendent Alton Frailey, who is retiring this summer.

Scott contended that trustees became too influenced by Frailey and hadn’t held him sufficiently accountable. He criticized the district’s push for a $62.5 million stadium, a project that still divides the community because of its price tag. It is now being built alongside an existing one and is set to open next year.

In challenging Adams, Scott suggested that the incumbent had become complacent. Scott said voters heard that message.

“I’ve been a very strong critic, but my goal is to try and work with the other board members,” Scott, 66, said Thursday, a day before the final results were announced. “Can we agree that the district can do a better job with communication to the media and public? Can we hold the superintendent more accountable? I want those talks to be professional.”

Scott was ahead by seven votes with 14 provisional ballots to review and the possibility of overseas ballots still to come. Adams would have needed to net eight votes, which would be an 11-3 win on provisionals if they all counted. In the end, eight of those ballots were counted and Adams won them 6-2, but pending any recounts, Scott wins by a nose.

Covering Katy, which provided the details on the provisional ballots, also provides a peek at how first-time candidate Scott ousted the nine-term incumbent.

Even though it was a very close election, it was not easy to beat a man who has been re-elected nine times in a row. Scott won by running “a flawless campaign,” according to supporter A.D. Muller, who has worked as an advisor on numerous campaigns in Katy, including Scott’s campaign.

“I’ve never seen a Katy school board race with zero mistakes until this one, and I’ve never seen such an unconventional race as Scott has run this year,” Muller said.

Among the unconventional tactics Scott used was spending no money on campaign signs, until the very end of the campaign. Instead, Scott spent all of his advertising budget with Covering Katy during much of the campaign. Later in the campaign he also used direct mail.

“People thought I was crazy, but I know everyone reads Covering Katy,” Scott said. “I did not have a big budget. My choice was buy yard signs or buy a great advertising position on Covering Katy. The decision to go digital instead of traditional was a no-brainer for me. I had to constantly tell my supporters to trust me. They thought I was crazy because no one had ever run a successful campaign without yard signs,” Scott said.

“I didn’t buy a single campaign sign until the very end when a supporter said he’d donate to my campaign if the money was used for yard signs, so I bought some signs,” Scott said. Otherwise, he said he would not have purchased any signs.

Weather played in Scotts favor too. When the recent flooding hit Katy it spiked Covering Katy’s page views, meaning Scott’s advertisement was seen nearly 800,000 times in the last four weeks of the campaign.

Meanwhile, Joe Adams ignored Covering Katy. He would not provide a phone number or email address to be contacted for stories on the election. He never personally responded to any requests for interviews or comments.

Scott recognized Adams’ mistake and saw an opening. He provided Covering Katy with a barrage of big name endorsements, which bought him credibility with many Katy newcomers who didn’t know his background as a former member of the Harris County Hospital District, a staffer with the Harris County Appraisal District and the former owner of The Katy News.

Scott also quietly made amends with people he’d criticized on his blog George Scott Reports. Known for his slash and burn commentaries, Scott criticized people on all ends of the political spectrum. At the start of the campaign he needed to know if those he criticized would turn against him during the campaign. He visited with them and was surprised to find almost every person said they’d support him, some key people even endorsed his campaign publicly.

“At times during this campaign I’ve wondered what did I do to deserve this type of support after being so critical of these folks over the years,” Scott said. “I told them I’d understand if they told me no, but they all felt I’d do a good job on the school board and pledged their support. I’ve been supported by a lot of good people, and I appreciate what they’ve done for this campaign,” Scott said.

There’s more, and it’s worth the read. Small campaigns like this are just different than large ones, and there’s nothing that substitutes for personal contact from a candidate, which you can do much more easily in a campaign of that scale. I know a few campaign professionals who are nodding their heads vigorously at the bit about not spending money on yard signs. Anyway, as someone who appreciated George’s writing on property tax issues, I’m glad to see he won. Congratulations, and best of luck with the new gig.