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April 30th, 2017:

Weekend link dump for April 30

Other Congressional districts that could be as competitive as the 6th District in Georgia was.

The evolution of the TV mom.

From the archives, how to deal with a psychopath. (Spoiler: If at all possible, don’t.)

“It’s hard to call these meetings political, at least in the narrow sense of partisan politics (save, perhaps, for those cases where campaign donations were involved). But they weren’t without meaning; who a president brought to the White House said something about the image he sought to project and the people he tried to speak for.”

“For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had been secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased — a fraud detection maneuver that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines.”

“For most people, the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this.”

Is Sean Hannity the next Bill O’Reilly?

There’s a lot of junk orbiting the earth, and it’s becoming a problem.

“Greek yogurt giant Chobani filed a lawsuit Monday against right-wing radio host Alex Jones, accusing the conspiracy theorist of publishing false information about the company.”

“Any enterprise run by a group of adults obsessing over the sexuality of teenage girls is bound to be deeply creepy.”

To hug or not to hug at work.

I’m a big Houston Rockets fan, but I confess to having a soft spot for the San Antonio Spurs as well. Stuff like this is one reason why.

“The big question in American politics is whether Trump’s opponents can find a platform and set of candidates that unite the diverse and somewhat diffuse anti-Trump majority, not whether the president’s fans continue to celebrate him.”

RIP, Jonathan Demme, Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs.

“The lowly caterpillar Galleria mellonella, also known as the wax worm, can digest a type of plastic commonly found in packaging, according to a paper published Monday in Current Biology. The finding continues a string of recently discovered plastic-eating organisms that has some scientists hoping nature might share some of its tricks and help us rid the environment of the alien materials.”

Now that is how you deal with a troll.

Eleven reasons for ESPN’s layoffs.

Why is the Trump administration arguing that it should be able to deport people like Melania Trump?

“I loved my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”

I told them I’d been abducted by a UFO. There was a long pause. I heard them do a big sigh. And they closed out the conversation saying that they’d make a note of it and I should wait for the DHS to investigate my report.”

“Please note that monkey-wrenching a despicably white nationalist Trump initiative with phone calls is not the paramount duty of patriots and neighbors at this time. We shouldn’t be making calls like that until after we’ve called our senators and representatives and flooded those phone-lines with sincere, passionately civil statements to hold those members of Congress accountable for holding Trump accountable.”

RIP, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, legendary Houston defense attorney.

Harris County bail system ruled unconstitutional

Damn right.

A federal judge in Houston Friday issued a scathing denouncement of Harris County’s cash bail system, saying it is fundamentally unfair to detain indigent people arrested for low-level offenses simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.

In a 193-page ruling released Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the county to begin releasing indigent inmates May 15 while they await trial on misdemeanor offenses.

Rosenthal concluded the county’s bail policy violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution.

“Liberty is precious to Americans and any deprivation must be scrutinized,” the order states, citing a comment from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

The judge also granted “class-action” status to the case, meaning that her findings will apply to all misdemeanor defendants taken into custody.

The ruling – a temporary injunction that will remain in place until the lawsuit is resolved pending appeal – will not apply to those charged with felonies, or those who are being detained on other charges or holds.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said late Friday officials are reviewing the orders.

“No decision has been made at this time concerning an appeal of the preliminary injunction,” he said.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. Grits highlights a key aspect of it.

Judge Rosenthal heard testimony from the Hearing Officers setting bail amounts on the front lines and poignantly found them non-credible: “The Hearing Officers’ testimony that they do not ‘know’ whether imposing secured money bail will have the effect of detention in any given case … and their testimony that they do not intend that secured money bail have that effect, is not credible.” In fact, she attributed “little to no credibility in the Hearing Officers’ claims of careful case-by-case consideration.” In the hearings she watched, they “treat the bail schedule, if not binding, then as a nearly irrebuttable presumption in favor of applying secured money bail at the prescheduled amount.”

If Judge Rosenthal were Politfact columnist, she’d be giving the Hearing Officers a “Pants on Fire” rating. To the extent that appellate courts must rely on her credibility assessments, and on many topics, they must, those lines may well preclude quite a few appellate paths for the defendants.

Her critique extended beyond the Hearing Officers, though to elected judges acting as “policymakers” overseeing Harris’ County pretrial-detention mill, whom she found to be willfully and conveniently ignorant about the human impact of they system they’re running:

policymakers are apparently unaware of important facts about the bail-bond system in Harris County, yet they have devised and implemented bail practices and customs, having the force of policy, with no inquiry into whether the bail policy is a reasonable way to achieve the goals of assuring appearance at trial or law-abiding behavior before trial. In addition to the absence of any information about the relative performance of secured and unsecured conditions of release to achieve these goals, the policymakers have testified under oath that their policy would not change despite evidence showing that release on unsecured personal bonds or with no financial conditions is no less effective than release on secured money bail at achieving the goals of appearance at trial or avoidance of new criminal activity during pretrial release.

That’s exactly right – they’re not going to change unless somebody makes them, and Judge Rosenthal clearly has decided she’s that somebody.

I would note that all of those elected judges are Republicans (*), and they are all up for re-election next year, so there is another way to force a change here. In the meantime, I have to ask again, why are we even still fighting this? What principle are we defending? Why are we writing checks to fat cat Washington DC Republican lawyers to “advise” on whether or not to appeal? Stop the madness and stop wasting my tax dollars on this crap, and settle the damn lawsuit already. It’s the right thing to do on every level. District Attorney Kim Ogg wants to settle. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez wants to settle. Commissioner Rodney Ellis wants to settle. Everyone else needs to get in line.

(*) The judges in question preside over the County Courts, where misdemeanors are heard. County Court Judge Darrell Jordan, who was elected in 2016 to fill a newly-created bench, is the lone Democrat. He also is the lone judge to favor settling.

House approves bill to kill margins tax

Dumb.

The Texas House on Thursday approved a proposal that would phase out an unpopular business tax that provides funding for public schools.

The proposal by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, would not reduce the state’s franchise tax during the current penny-pinching legislative session, but it would do so in future years. Under Bonnen’s bill, economic growth would trigger reductions in the tax, which currently brings in about $8 billion every two-year budget cycle, until it ultimately disappears.

About $1.8 billion in franchise tax revenue in the current two-year budget cycle goes to the Property Tax Relief Fund, which pays for public schools. Democrats, arguing that the tax cut would cause lawmakers in later years to underfund crucial public programs, railed against the proposal for nearly two hours. They offered a series of amendments that would have lessened the extent of the tax cut or redirected funds for college tuition, pre-kindergarten and other priorities, but all were defeated.

The final vote took place late Thursday evening at the end of a long day on the House floor, which followed a marathon debate Wednesday over “sanctuary” jurisdictions that lasted until roughly 3 a.m. When Bonnen’s proposal finally hit the floor, few Republicans offered any remarks in response to Democrats’ outrage; most lawmakers in the chamber appeared to be paying little attention.

[…]

Businesses dislike the franchise tax, often called a “margin tax,” because they say it’s overly complicated and can punish them in less-prosperous years. Because it’s based on a business’s gross receipts, a business can still be required to pay the tax even in years it takes a loss. Many call the tax, which was passed as a way to reform the state’s school finance system, an unnecessary burden, and high-profile Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott have sought its demise.

Lawmakers in 2015 cut the tax rate by 25 percent, which gave them $2.6 billion less revenue to help craft a budget this year. Proponents of the tax’s elimination argue it would stimulate the state’s economy and create jobs.

In the short term, it’s difficult to say just how much revenue is at stake in Bonnen’s proposal because the tax is highly dependent on economic conditions. A fiscal note written by the state’s Legislative Budget Board estimated it could cut public school funds by up to $3.5 billion in the 2020-2021 biennium.

I mean, look, I know the margins tax was a poorly conceived kludge that everyone hates (or at least claims to) and which has been a top GOP whipping boy for a couple of sessions, but please do keep two things in mind. One, this tax, which replaced the also-hated and seldom-paid franchise tax, was created in 2006 to help fill the revenue void left by the Supreme Court school finance decision in 2005 that led to a mandated across-the-board property tax cut. It was never going to fully fill that void, and indeed its poor design and regular underperformance has been a problem, but it at least made up for some of the funding for schools that disappeared when the previous system was declared to have been an unconstitutional statewide property tax. Something is going to need to replace the revenue lost to this tax being (eventually) eliminated, and all we have right now is wishful thinking about economic growth, a continued reliance on local property taxes, and a handful of magic beans. And two, it’s probably not a coincidence that the amount of revenue lost in this biennium to the previous one’s margins tax cut is almost precisely the amount the House and Senate are arguing about in order to make this session’s budget “balance”. Cause and effect, y’all. You should have one of your interns Google it.

Winning the battles but losing the war

That’s the story of reproductive rights, and access to reproductive health care in general, in Texas.

Right there with them

“We have made tremendous gains,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life. He hopes that someday, perhaps under Trump, the Supreme Court will overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling upholding abortion rights. In the meantime, when he surveys abortion trends in Texas, he sees “huge progress.”

Abortion rights advocates ruefully agree they have lost ground.

“What makes Texas unique is that the clinic system was undercut so quickly,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research group. “Texas has taken what might have happened in a decade or more in another state and collapsed it into a year.”

Texas has “eroded the fabric of care once in place to serve women and make the current landscape extremely difficult to navigate,” Whole Women’s Health CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller wrote in an email. “As a result of these laws, there are fewer abortion providers in the state and many women have to travel hundreds of miles to receive care.”

Whole Woman’s Health had five clinics in the state a few years ago. After Texas imposed new restrictions, the group shuttered two and decided to challenge the law in court. One clinic is finally set to reopen in Austin in the next couple of weeks. The other, in Beaumont on the Gulf Coast, will remain closed

[…]

More than half the clinics and abortion facilities in the state had already shut down. Just 17 abortion facilities remained in six counties — down from 41 centers in 17 counties in 2012, according to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a university group that tracks legislation’s impact on reproductive rights.

About half of the Planned Parenthood clinics in the state are among those that have closed. The clinics that are still open face new restrictions and onerous administrative requirements for them and their patients. Women seeking abortion services face travel distances that have increased by four times over the past few years, according to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project.

A few abortion providers are making plans to re-open: Northpark Medical Group in Dallas started performing abortions again in February after a three-year hiatus. Planned Parenthood will reopen its clinic in Waco by the summer. And Whole Woman’s Health, the Supreme Court plaintiff, will reopen soon in Austin.

But access is unlikely to get back to where it was. Planned Parenthood has no plans to re-open its six shuttered clinics, though it has also resumed services at its San Antonio clinic in 2015. That’s the closest clinic for a woman in the Lower Rio Grande Valley — 250 miles away.

Read the whole depressing thing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, nothing will change until we change who gets elected. There’s a bottomless appetite for bills to restrict abortion in any number of crazy ways, and while they can sometimes be defeated in court, they do a lot of damage in the meantime and cost a bunch of money to litigate away. The only way to stop this is going to be to have a Legislature that doesn’t pass these bills and/or a Governor who will veto them. Nothing will change until that happens.

Texas asks for Ike Dike money from the feds

Good luck with that.

Almost a decade after Hurricane Ike killed dozens of people and caused $30 billion in damage, a group of Texas politicians and business leaders say they finally have “all the support necessary” to break ground on a massive coastal barrier that would protect the Houston area from another devastating hurricane.

Now they just need $15 billion to build it. And that’s what they urged the federal government to provide in a recent letter to President Donald Trump.

Signers of the letter include Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, more than 20 area mayors, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and several Houston-area members of the Texas Legislature.

[…]

Even for a president that has pledged to restore the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the barrier will be a tough sell. Such an ambitious public works project has never been built in anticipation of a natural catastrophe. It took the Great Storm of 1900, which killed thousands of people in Galveston, to get a seawall constructed on the island; New Orleans’ failing levee system was not fixed until after Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people in 2005; and only after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York did Congress allocate a significant amount of money to pay for storm protection studies.

The massive projects that do get funding also usually require years of planning and federal studies. In December, then-President Barack Obama signed a law that might help speed up that process for the Ike Dike, but there is still no official consensus plan on exactly what to build. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have the final say on what plan to pursue and is conducting its own study of the issue, has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

And it might take far more than $15 billion to get the coastal spine up and running. Some have estimated it will actually cost twice that to build it, not including the money necessary for continued maintenance and operation of the barrier system.

We know what Trump’s promises are worth, so take that “pledge” with an appropriate amount of sea salt. That said, there’s no real precedent for this as noted in the story, and it’s not like the Republican Congress is inclined to spend money on anything but the Pentagon and tax cuts for the rich. So yeah, go ahead and ask – it costs nothing to ask – but don’t get your hopes up. The Chron has more.