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The great state of Texas

No cannabis for you

Good luck getting your hands on medical marijuana in Texas.

It’s been about a year since the first legally grown marijuana plants were harvested in Texas for their medicinal oils. But since then, fewer than 600 patients have seen any benefit out of the estimated 150,000 who suffer uncontrollable epileptic seizures that the medicine is meant to help.

Roughly 45 doctors, mostly concentrated in urban areas, have signed up to prescribe the cannabidiol. Just three companies in Central Texas have been licensed to distribute the drug. One doesn’t seem to have opened its doors, and another reports losing money with such a small client base.

“The way to assure the Compassionate Use Program has a future is by expanding access to more patients,” said Morris Denton, CEO of Compassionate Cultivation in the Austin area. “The worst thing that can happen is nothing gets done, because then we set the program back.”

Texas’ therapeutic marijuana program is among the strictest in the nation, giving only patients with intractable epilepsy access to cannabidiol that’s low in THC, the element that gives pot users a high.

[…]

The Texas Compassionate Use Act became law in 2015, but the rollout has been slow and rocky.

Despite getting more than 40 applications, the Texas Department of Public Safety licensed just three companies last year to distribute cannabidiol, the minimum number allowed by the law.

Patients need sign-off from two doctors to use the marijuana-derived oil. But so far, fewer than 50 certified epileptologists and neurologists have registered to participate. None is in the Rio Grande Valley or West Texas, records show, meaning patients there must travel far to see a qualified physician.

Some doctors are reluctant to enroll because Texas law requires they prescribe the drug instead of recommending it, a phrase other states use to sidestep federal marijuana prohibitions, advocates said. So far, 574 patients have been issued prescriptions, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program.

See here for some background, and here for a map of where the registered doctors are. If you live west of San Antonio, it’s Amarillo or nothing. There will be bills introduced to expand medical marijuana in Texas – Sen. Jose Menendez has already filed one such bill – and they may have a chance to get through. Greg Abbott has softened his stance, both party platforms are calling for marijuana reform, there’s popular support, and so forth. It’s just that it’s not easy to get any bill passed, and if a given bill isn’t a priority then it will be in line behind those that are. I don’t think there’s much in the way of opposition to expanding medical marijuana, and maybe to some other reforms, but I don’t think it’s a priority, either.

Whatabout that styrofoam?

Texas’ favorite fast food chain is being asked to make changes to how it serves its food.

Activists are pressuring San Antonio-based Whataburger to end its use of foam cups and containers in favor of materials friendlier to the environment.

More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling on the popular fast-food chain to stop using polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, in its cups and food containers, Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger said.

The petition was delivered Monday to Whataburger’s San Antonio headquarters and to restaurants in Austin and Corpus Christi by representatives for Environment Texas, Surfrider Foundation’s Texas Coastal Bend chapter and Care2.com.

“We think that they can find a good solution that meets customers’ needs but moves away from such harmful products,” Metzger said outside Whataburger’s headquarters on the North Side.

Whataburger, which has more than 800 stores in 10 states, said it is looking at alternatives to Styrofoam cups “that keep drinks at the right temperature, but we have a lot to consider from a quality and supply perspective when meeting our customers’ expectations.

“In the meantime, we continue to urge customers to properly dispose of our cups,” the company said in a statement.

[…]

McDonald’s pledged to phase out foam cups by the end of the year. Dunkin’ Donuts said earlier this year it would replace its foam cups in favor of double-walled paper cups by 2020. Starbucks Coffee Co. announced plans in July to eliminate the use of single-use plastic straws in favor of strawless lids or straws made from other materials by 2020.

“Companies are very conscious of their brand,” Metzger said. “They’re, of course, wanting to keep their customers. And that’s why I think we’re going to see companies like Whataburger hopefully join the ranks of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts and do the right thing here.”

Whataburger is talking to Environment Texas and the others about this, as they should. It’s a simple request, for a clear purpose, to do what others are now doing. Whataburger may have some questions, and they would surely need to phase in a change like this over time, but I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t want to do it. I hope they make that decision soon.

Rural counties and AirBnB

It’s working well for them.

Texans running Airbnb rentals in rural counties earned $20.6 million in supplemental income in the last 12 months with 169,000 guests, according to a new report from the hospitality company.

These results represent a growth rate double that of urban counties, the report added, citing a trend of more guests wanting to visit more than just Texas’ big cities.

The company said that while the Texas hotel industry is booming, most of this growth is concentrated in the four major metro areas, making Airbnb sometimes the only lodging option outside of these cities and suburbs.

You can see a copy of that report here. As CultureMap Austin notes, some of the biggest beneficiaries are counties in the Hill Country, which makes sense. I’m happy for these rural counties, but none of this changes my mind about the need for cities to be able to regulate AirBnB locally. AirBnB my be having a significant and mostly positive effect in some parts of the state, but it will have an even bigger impact of a more-unknown effect on those cities. At the very least, let’s not pre-emptively foreclose on any tools that cities will need to manage their own interests.

Trump trade war troubles

I have three things to say about this.

There’s a Chinese proverb: Sow melons, reap melons. Sow beans, reap beans.

In other words, expect tit for tat.

President Donald Trump — and by extension many of the nation’s farmers — is seeing that lesson in action after he launched a bevy of tariffs against China on Friday, prompting the People’s Republic to retaliate with its own tariffs on imports from the United States. Among those American goods are some key Texas exports, including cotton, corn and sorghum. Some of the Chinese goods targeted in Trump’s tariffs are vital parts for Texas’ agriculture industry, such as livestock equipment.

“No question, it’s going to hurt,” said Gene Hall, a spokesperson for the Texas Farm Bureau.

[…]

“You couldn’t pick a worse time for agriculture to be in a trade dispute,” said Hall, the Texas Farm Bureau spokesperson, pointing to a 50 percent decline in agricultural income since 2013. He said the farm bureau always supports negotiating trade disputes over gratuitous tariffs — but that many farmers hope the president’s actions will force China, which has historically acted in ways that have harmed Texas agriculture, to the negotiating table.

“There is some patience in the agricultural community for what the president’s doing, but there is some angst as well,” Hall said.

1. Clearly, the well of “Trump Supporters Continue To Support Trump Even Though He Keeps Doing Things They Don’t Like” stories has not yet run dry.

2. I’ve been keeping an eye on Trump’s approval rating among Republicans for signs that they may be less engaged than usual in November. While Democrats are super enthusiastic, Republicans have stuck with their man, which if nothing else has kept the bottom from falling out. I wonder sometimes if Trump’s high levels of approval among Republicans is in part a sign that the GOP has shrunk, so that the disapprovers are mostly not calling themselves Republicans any more, but I have no way to know that. I feel pretty confident saying that Dems will turn out in stronger numbers than usual this year. I have no idea yet where turnout will be on the R side. I’m still hoping for something like 2006, but there’s no real evidence of that at this time.

3. Gotta say, after all the harm that has been inflicted on so many people by Trump, the fact that his staunchest supporters are feeling the pain as well gives me no small measure of grim satisfaction. Maybe if they feel enough of it, we’ll finally be able to get the country back on the right track.

Austin drops its bag ban

What choice did they have?

The City of Austin says it will no longer enforce a ban on single-use plastic bags at most retail outlets, following a state Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down Laredo’s bag ban.

The court ruled Laredo’s ban was at odds with state law, but urged the Legislature to pass more specific laws to allow similar bans in the future.

The Texas Health and Safety Code says that local governments in Texas may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Opponents of bag bans argued that language makes the bans illegal, and the court agreed, saying state lawmakers haven’t effectively defined how plastic bags fit into that regulatory framework.

[…]

“Following the recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, the City will not enforce our current rules,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While it’s disappointing that the City is losing a tool to help protect the environment, we are also confident that the Austin community will continue to do their best to minimize plastic bag waste. Meanwhile, the City of Austin will continue to educate Austinites about the benefits of bringing reuseable bags with them every time they shop.”

Austin officials say prohibiting retailers from giving away disposable plastic bags helped reduce litter, save wildlife and stop bags from clogging up storm drains.

“The people of Austin have gotten used to this. Not a single job was lost. Not a single business was harmed,” said Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We hope businesses and residents of this city will continue to do what works, regardless of what the Texas Supreme Court says.”

See here for the background. AG Ken Paxton has sent a letter to the other cities that had similar ordinances warning them they need to do the same, and I’m sure they will. The good news here, if you want to be optimistic, is that this was a statutory ruling, not a constitutional one. Which is to say, the Lege could fix this by amending the law in question. That’s not going to happen without a massive change in the type of legislator we elect, but it is possible, and something we can work towards.

What the Texas State Aquarium is up to after Harvey

They’re doing what they need to do, which they should be doing.

During Harvey, aquarium officials took in other birds and marine animals from the University of Texas-Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor — both areas that were devastated by the storm. They rescued pets such as Macaws, goats and chickens abandoned by owners who were fleeing Harvey’s torrent of wind and rain. And after the storm passed, they took in and cared for injured Brown Pelicans, turtles and other marine life.

Most returned to the wild. Others, like Storm, never will.

This kind of rehabilitation work is nothing new for the aquarium; it has been part of its mission, along with conservation, since it opening almost 30 years ago. It’s become such an important part of their work, officials said, they plan to open a new rehabilitation facility on their campus as early as 2021. Officials expect it will cost up to $20 million.

A new state-of-the-art building is important, aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid said, because it’s only a matter of time before the Gulf of Mexico has another environmental disaster like Deepwater Horizon. When that oil rig exploded in April 2010, nearly 3.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, harming animals, marine life and coral.

“We need to make sure we are ready for any environmental issue out there,” he said.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Storm, by the way, is a Magnificent Frigatebird that the aquarium rescued right after Harvey. They’re doing a lot of good and necessary work at the Texas State Aquarium, and they deserve our support. I love aquariums and have visited several in my travels on the west coast, but I need to find a reason to call on this one.

Too many people don’t get sick leave

From the CPPP:

All Texans should be able to care for themselves or a loved one if they get sick, regardless of what kind of job they do or how much they earn. Approximately 4.3 million Texas workers – or 40 percent of the total workforce – lack access to paid sick days, and it’s estimated that between 39 and 44 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. are not able to earn paid sick days.

Paid sick days are also a public health issue. When people are forced to go to work sick, everyone—employers, coworkers, and customers—is worse off. Children also face the consequences when their classmates come to school sick because their parents can’t afford to take the day off to care for them. Texas public employers, cities, and our state should work to implement paid sick days policies, which will improve the financial stability and health of all Texans.

Our new policy brief examines the inadequate access to paid sick days in Texas and highlights how businesses and families can thrive when workers are able to earn paid sick days. Across the country, there is growing momentum and support for city, county, and statewide paid sick days policies, which require employers to provide a certain number of paid sick days to workers each year based on the number of hours worked. To date, 44 cities, counties, states, and Washington, D.C. have passed paid sick days policies.

Everyone gets sick, and everyone should have the ability to earn paid sick days. A multi-city or statewide policy would ensure a high-quality standard so that all workers are able to care for themselves or a family member.

You can read the report here. I agree with this of course, as a matter of public health and of basic humanity, but as we know we live in a state where the business interests and Republican elected officials vehemently oppose the idea. The city of Austin has passed an ordinance to require sick leave, and the city of Dallas is poised to vote on a similar measure, but neither of those will matter if the current lawsuit or the sure-to-come legislation to preempt such ordinances succeed. You know what I’m going to say before I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: Nothing will change until we change who we elect. If you’re fine with being surrounded by sick people in the course of your daily life, then keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might consider fighting for something better.

TDCJ, here’s your moment in the sexual harassment spotlight

Please learn from it.

More than a decade after a sexual assault scandal rocked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the agency is still a “boys’ club” plagued by sexual harassment and a culture that makes it difficult for women to get promoted despite efforts to bring them into the ranks, according to more than a dozen current and former employees.

Three of the 10 highest-paid employees in the prison system and about 25 percent of wardens are women, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of 2017 state data.

But female officers also have to contend with harassment from coworkers, masturbating inmates and fear of retaliation if they complain, according to lawsuits, state records and interviews.

“You think it’s the inmates you have to worry about,” said one former employee, who asked not to be identified, “but it’s actually the people you work with.”

Some women told the Chronicle of enduring lewd comments or inappropriate contact from co-workers. One female employee said she and other women guards picked jobs working around inmates to avoid having contact with the men who supervised them.

The latest allegations come amid the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has focused a national spotlight on allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. And they follow a $250,000 settlement reached by the department last year in a lawsuit accusing a male lieutenant of raping an officer he supervised — a claim reminiscent of former assistant director Sammy Buentello, who retired in 2004 amid criminal charges and a high-dollar lawsuit by multiple women accusing him of sexual harassment and assault.

[…]

More than 44 percent of TDCJ employees are female, but those numbers include administrative assistants, librarians, attorneys and the high-ranking officials overseeing it all.

Even fewer guards — just 38 percent of the more than 22,000 corrections officers —are women.

Higher ranks are even more male-dominated. About 27 percent of sergeants are women. Moving up, about 25 percent of captains, 26 percent of lieutenants, and just 21 percent of majors and assistant wardens are women.

“You just have a culture of indifference, the good-old-boy system as they call it,” said Lance Lowry, a Huntsville corrections officer and former union president. “And the numbers clearly reflect that. If 38 percent of the officers are female, 38 percent of the sergeants should be, too.”

The disparity in promotions corresponds to a disparity in the average pay, with women earning about $2,700 a year less than men throughout the department, according to 2017 data.

As the story notes, this is not the first time TDCJ has had these issues, and even with all the attention being paid to sexual harassment in the workplace, the odds are it won’t be the last time, too. It’s a long and detailed piece, so go read the whole thing, and then contemplate the fact that an enterprising reporter could point her notebook at just about any major workplace, inside or outside of government, and come away with a similar tale. That is, after all, what this is all about. Grits has more.

Rio Seco

This is not good.

By KmusserOwn work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Mario Rosales, who farms 365 acres along the Rio Grande, knows the river is in bad shape this year. It has already dried to a dusty ribbon of sand in some parts, and most of the water that does flow is diverted to irrigate crops, including Rosales’ fields of wheat, oats, alfalfa and New Mexico’s beloved chilies.

Because last winter’s mountain snowpack was the second-lowest on record, even that irrigation water may run out at the end of July, three months earlier than usual. But Rosales isn’t worried. He is sure that the summer thunderstorms, known here as the monsoon, will come.

“Sooner or later, we’ll get the water,” he said.

The monsoon rains he is counting on are notoriously unpredictable, however. So he and many of the other farmers who work 62,000 acres along 140 miles of the Rio Grande in central New Mexico may get by — or they may not.

“Nobody’s got a whole lot of water,” said David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, whose job is to manage the river water that is delivered to Rosales and the others through diversion dams, canals and ditches. “If we use it up early in the season and don’t get any rain further on, the whole thing’s going to crash.”

Parts of the state got some much-needed rain this week, which may help Gensler extend his irrigation water a bit. But whatever happens this spring and summer, the long-term outlook for the river is clouded by climate change.

The Rio Grande is a classic “feast or famine” river, with a dry year or two typically followed by a couple of wet years that allow for recovery. If warming temperatures brought on by greenhouse gas emissions make wet years less wet and dry years even drier, as scientists anticipate, year-to-year recovery will become more difficult.

“The effect of long-term warming is to make it harder to count on snowmelt runoff in wet times,” said David S. Gutzler, a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico. “And it makes the dry times much harder than they used to be.”

Nothing to worry about, I’m sure. I mean, that part of the river isn’t even in Texas. I’m sure it will all be fine.

Remember the (gross mismanagement by George P. Bush’s Land Office at the) Alamo

Maybe remember this in November.

As the election season rolls on, keep this in mind when Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush opens his mouth: The officeholder from the state’s best-known political family certainly knows how to spin a story.

Back in February, Bush was in a noisy Republican primary fight with his predecessor, Jerry Patterson. Among other things, Patterson is an Alamo buff. He has made it abundantly clear that he thinks Bush has mismanaged things at that monument. And he got some support of that view from a draft of an internal audit critical of the “structure and funding model” at the Alamo put in place by the General Land Office.

“Internal” is an important word in the previous sentence. That draft audit — along with the final version that came out this week — was issued by the internal auditor in Bush’s own agency. That’s what internal auditors are supposed to do, to tell you when there’s spinach on your teeth, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, oddities in your accounting and so on.

They point things out to management. Management is supposed to clean things up.

The draft audit was first revealed by the Austin American-Statesman in early February, and other reporters caught up with the land commissioner to see what he thought about it. “I can’t really comment on the document,” Bush said at the time. “I cannot disclose, but we do have evidence that it was a doctored memo.”

Here’s the lead paragraph from the draft audit — also the lead paragraph of the final audit:

“GLO should reconsider the structure and funding model it uses for operating the Alamo. A contractor performs the daily operations, but it uses state resources to do this, as it does not have its own funds or other assets. This is an unusual situation that has created complexity and a lack of clarity regarding the nature and the use of the funds used for Alamo operations. It is also the root cause of several of the observations in this report.”

[…]

Auditors typically give space to the people and organizations under the microscope, a place to make arguments, to disagree or to point out things the auditors might have missed. In this audit, the top line sort of slams the door: “Management concurs with the recommendations.”

Here’s a copy of the audit report, with more recent news coverage from the Statesman and the Chron. You have to admire the gall it takes to claim that an audit report by his own agency, signed off by his own management, is “fake news”, but that’s how stupid Baby Bush thinks you are. Here’s the key takeaway:

Bush faces Democrat Miguel Suazo in the fall. Suazo said Thursday the audit “clearly demonstrates that George P. Bush is in over his head and lacks the competence to manage our state’s most historic landmark.”

There’s a reason why Jerry Patterson came out of retirement to try to win his old job back. I hope you’re still committed to bringing change to the GLO this November, Jerry.

Hiring and harassment at TxDOT

Good morning. Here’s another story about harassment and discrimination being suffered by female and minority employees at a public institution, in this case the state Department of Transportation.

The Texas Department of Transportation held Tamela Saldana up as a “superhero” when she trekked across the state working to help contract with minority and women-owned businesses. But everywhere she went, Saldana said she encountered a similar troubling scene.

“I traveled to almost every district in TxDOT, and the faces were the same. They were the same. They were male, and they were predominately white male,” Saldana said. “If you saw a minority person, they were going to be the lowest level – the person who checked you into the front desk or the person who was out in the parking lot picking up litter.”

After more than a decade of glowing performance reviews, Saldana’s tenure with TxDOT came to an acrimonious end in 2012. That year, TxDOT fired the former University of Texas track star. She, in turn, sued for discrimination.

A KXAN investigation of TxDOT’s workforce reveals Saldana’s experience is one of hundreds that underscore the agency’s ongoing struggle to address gender and racial disparities — and their unfortunate side effects — in a culture historically and predominantly composed of white men, especially at its highest echelons.

KXAN found workers officially made more than 200 allegations against the agency in the past five years. Many of those came from women and minorities alleging harassment, discrimination and retaliation, according to internal TxDOT documents obtained through an open records request. Dozens of workers have also sued the agency in recent years on those grounds, according to court records.

Go read the rest. Basically, TxDOT is less reflective of society at large and the state’s overall civil workforce than it was a decade ago. It’s a problem on a number of levels, and it would be nice if our state’s leadership paid some attention to it. Link via the Trib/a>.

Cities and suburbs up, rurals down

The story of Texas’ population.

Recently released data from the Texas Demographic Center spelled bad news for many rural areas in the state: populations there were still shrinking, or growing slowly.

Population growth in Texas remained concentrated in urban areas in 2016, according to the new numbers. That meant the fight continues for many small towns in Texas that are struggling to maintain or build their communities and economies.

The new estimates, released in late April, approximate population per county as of July 1, 2016. They were calculated using different methodology than U.S. Census Data estimates. Usually, the two are within range of each other, said Lloyd Potter, the state demographer.

State results confirm an ongoing trend in the second-most populous state in the country of movement toward urban centers and the booming suburban areas that surround them.

“Texas is growing more than any other state,” Potter said. “Those points are really where the bulk of the population growth is occurring.”

Here’s the Texas Demographic Center website. There’s a link to the 2016 Preliminary Population Estimates, though when I looked the 2016 data was not yet there. I’ll be interested to see how these numbers compare to the Census projections for Harris County. Nothing is official until the 2020 count is done, as problematic as that may be, but this is a preview of the redistricting to come. It’s never too early to start thinking about what the next set of maps will look like.

Santa Fe

I don’t have anything profound to say, though I would suggest that someone on Dan Patrick‘s staff try to explain to him the concept of fire codes and emergency exits. Beyond that, I’ll say again what I’ve said many times before: Nothing will change until we change who we elect. That’s not a guarantee of change, and it’s far from the end of the work to do, but it’s a necessary first step. Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

Greg Abbott, Russian stooge

Heck of a job, Greggie.

A former director of the CIA and NSA said Wednesday that hysteria in Texas over a 2015 U.S. military training exercise called Jade Helm was fueled by Russians wanting to dominate “the information space,” and that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to send the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation gave them proof of the power of such misinformation campaigns.

Michael Hayden, speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe podcast, chalked up peoples’ fear over Jade Helm 15 to “Russian bots and the American alt-right media [that] convinced many Texans [Jade Helm] was an Obama plan to round up political dissidents.”

Abbott ordered the State Guard to monitor the federal exercise soon after news broke of the operation. Hayden said that move gave Russians the go-ahead to continue — and possibly expand — their efforts to spread fear.

“At that point, I’m figuring the Russians are saying, ‘We can go big time,’” Hayden said of Abbott’s response. “At that point, I think they made the decision, ‘We’re going to play in the electoral process.’”

You can read the rest, and you can listen to the Morning Joe podcast – Gen. Hayden was also on The Gist with Mike Pesca on Wednesday, though he wasn’t specifically talking about Jade Helm. I just have two things to add. One is that from now on, any time Greg Abbott criticizes anyone for any reason, the response should be along the lines of “Well, at least [whoever] didn’t fall for Russian propaganda”. And two, from the Observer:

Meanwhile, another Jade Helm-style exercise is planned for San Angelo in June. Oddly enough, now that Trump is president, there’s a notable lack of freaking out this time.

Well, the Russians aren’t trying to goad idiots like Greg Abbott into peeing their pants over it this time. Amazing what a difference that makes. ThinkProgress and the Lone Star Project have more.

RIP, Barbara Bush

Former First Lady and mother of President George W. Bush has passed away.

Barbara Bush

Barbara Pierce Bush, matriarch of an American political dynasty that has produced presidents, governors and other high officials, has died in Houston. She was 92.

Bush was an outspoken public figure, often putting into words the thoughts that the elected men in her family were too cautious to utter. She did practically everything in politics short of running for office herself, organizing campaigns and “women’s groups” in the parlance of the day, riding herd on political friendships and organizations critical to electing her husband, George H.W. Bush, to the U.S. House, the vice presidency and ultimately, to the presidency itself. Her oldest son, George W. Bush, was the 43rd president after twice winning election as governor of Texas. His younger brother, Jeb Bush, was governor of Florida and, later, an unsuccessful candidate for president. And one of her grandsons, George. P. Bush, is currently the land commissioner of Texas.

Barbara Bush was the second American who was both the wife and mother of presidents; the other was Abigail Adams. She and George Bush, married 73 years ago in January 1945, had the longest-lasting marriage of any first couple. Both were from political families. Her grandfather, James Robinson, was on Ohio’s first Supreme Court, according to Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.” Her father, Marvin Pierce, was a distant descendant of President Franklin Pierce. George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut.

The family had put out a statement earlier this week saying that Mrs. Bush had stopped taking treatment and was going to go into palliative care. She was loved and respected by many – see the bottom of the story for some of the statements that came out following the announcement of her passing – and she will be missed. My condolences to her family and friends. RG Ratcliffe and the Chron have more.

Texas’ maternal mortality rate not as bad as previously reported

Good news, if a bit puzzling.

Several of the state’s top health experts released a report in the medical journal Obstetrics & Gynecology on Monday showing that by using the new method, the number of women who died dropped from 147 to 56.

The study uses an enhanced method of counting maternal deaths that involves cross-referencing birth certificates, death certificates, hospital discharge data and medical records to confirm that a woman who died was pregnant before she died. The state’s current method of calculating maternal deaths includes using specific medical codes and requiring officials to check a box on death certificates indicating whether a woman was pregnant before she died.

The study said the state’s 2012 maternal death numbers inflated the number of women 35 and older who were classified as a maternal death and included reporting errors in which women who had not been pregnant were reported as maternal deaths. The researchers said they also found 2012 deaths that were not included in the state’s original maternal death numbers.

The authors noted that other states have used the same methodology to calculate maternal deaths. They said they chose 2012 for the new analysis because it was the year when maternal deaths peaked in Texas.

The study’s authors said they plan to use the new method to confirm maternal deaths and calculate maternal mortality rates for additional years.

See here for the background. The story notes that even with the revision, which the authors of the new study attribute to “data error” in the initial report, the mortality rate for black women was still double what it was for white women. There are still other serious concerns as well, as expressed by Lisa Falkenberg:

“I would hate to see us lose the momentum that we’ve gained,” said Dr. Lisa Hollier, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“We still have women dying of preventable causes,” she said. “We still have a two-fold, a doubling, in the risk of death for African-American women. Those things need to change. I don’t think we should accept where we are.”

Hollier, who co-authored this week’s report and also chairs the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force, points out that deaths aren’t the only measure of the problem. For every maternal death, Hollier says there are 50 women who experience severe complications that can lead to hysterectomies, breathing problems requiring ventilator support and kidney failure, to name a few.

“If there are 50 women who die in a particular year, there are 2,500 women who had severe complications,” Hollier said. “There are so many more women who are affected than just that tiny tip of the iceberg which is mortality.”

All this happens in a state where as Falkenberg reminds us our Republican leadership has refused to expand Medicaid – something like half of all births in Texas are paid for by Medicaid – and have cut back on access to healthcare for women by gutting Planned Parenthood. The definition of “pro-life” in this state is so narrow you could slide it under a lobbyists’ door. So go ahead and be happy that things aren’t as bad as we feared, but don’t be satisfied with it.

UPDATE: Sophie Novack in the Observer makes a lot of really good points about this revised study. Go read what she says.

The Schlitterbahn indictments

I’m still stunned by this.

Three Schlitterbahn Waterparks officials now have been swept up in a criminal probe into the 2016 decapitation death of a 10-year-old boy at the company’s Kansas park.

An indictment unsealed Tuesday in Kansas reveals for the first time that ride designer John Timothy Schooley and Henry and Sons Construction Company Inc., Schlitterbahn’s construction firm, also face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated battery and aggravated endangering of a child in the death of Caleb Thomas Schwab, along with park co-owner Jeffrey Wayne Henry.

The 10-year-old, the son of Kansas State Rep. Scott Schwab, died Aug. 7, 2016 while riding the 168-foot Verrückt slide when he hit a hoop that held protective netting on the ride’s second hill.

The indictment names Henry as Verrückt’s “visionary and designer” and Schooley as the slide’s lead designer. It accuses both men of ignoring safety standards during the slide’s design process and warnings about the ride’s potential danger.

If convicted on all 18 counts, each defendant faces a maximum sentence of almost 139 years and fines potentially totaling $3.4 million.

[…]

Neither Henry, who dropped out of high school to work for his father’s water park, nor Schooley had technical or engineering credentials pertaining to amusement ride design or safety, the charging document says. Furthermore, neither man possessed the expertise required to properly and safely design a ride as complex as Verrückt, according to the indictment.

Henry, who co-owns the New Braunfels theme park company with his two siblings, first conceived of the Verrückt project in November 2012 as a way to impress producers of the Travel Channel’s Xtreme Waterparks series and fast-tracked the slide’s design and construction phases, skipping over necessary calculations and safety measures in the process, according to the indictment.

Nothing like wanting to meet a reality show’s production deadlines to speed up the production of a water park ride. This long look at the indictments and the process that led to the faulty design decisions will make you question your desire to ever go to an amusement park again.

Henry first conceived of building the world’s tallest and fastest water slide on Nov. 13, 2012 in a “spur-of-the-moment” effort to catch the attention of the producers of the Travel Channel’s Xtreme Waterparks series, the indictment says.

But neither Henry, who dropped out of high school to work for his father at the original New Braunfels park, nor John Timothy Schooley, named as Verrückt’s lead designer, had technical or engineering credentials applicable to amusement ride design or safety or the expertise required to properly design a ride as complex as Verrückt, the charging document alleges.

The document quotes Schooley as saying, “If we actually knew how to do this, and it could be done that easily, it wouldn’t be that spectacular.”

The pair’s combined lack of expertise along with a rushed completion timeline led Henry and Schooley — longtime friends and business partners — to miss essential steps in the slide’s design and construction process, the indictment alleges, and favor “crude trial-and-error” methods over complex mathematical and physics calculations. According to the indictment, investigators found no evidence that the pair had made vital calculations measuring the physics of the ride — speed, weight, distance, velocity, momentum, gravitational force, centripetal force and friction.

Henry was known as a micromanager who pushed for the ride to be completed by June 15, 2013, about seven months after his initial conception, according to the document. Industry experts told the Kansas grand jury that a team of about four members including two qualified engineers would need at a maximum of six months for design calculations alone on a project like Verrückt, the indictment says. The Verrückt project didn’t employ a single engineer in the design phase, prosecutors allege.

Henry wrote two emails Dec. 14, 2012 to Schooley and other park employees: “We all need to circle on this. I must communicate reality to all. Time, is of the essence. No time to die. J”

In a separate email, Henry wrote, “I have to micro manage (sic) this. Now. This is a designed product for TV, absolutely cannot be anything else. Speed is 100 percent required. A floor a day. Tough schedule. Jeff”

Within 36 days of Henry’s initial idea, the design and construction on the Verrückt prototype was finished, court documents show.

Read the whole thing. I’ve been a fan of the Schlitterbahn for almost 30 years, but I don’t know that I can bring myself to visit it any more. I hope the defense can present a compelling alternate explanation for what happened, because what’s being shown here is disturbing, to say the least. See here and here for more. I’ll try to keep an eye on this going forward.

Everybody should be counted

The 2020 Census has big challenges, especially in Texas.

But even two years out from the 2020 count, local officials, demographers, community organizers and advocates say they are worried the census could be particularly tough to carry out in Texas this go-around.

They are bracing for challenges both practical — Hurricane Harvey displacement, internet accessibility and fewer funds with which to knock on doors — and political, namely anti-immigrant rhetoric and fears that a citizenship question will be included in the census questionnaire. Those issues aren’t insurmountable, officials say, but they will probably make Texas, which is already hard to count, even tougher to enumerate.

An accurate census is critical to the state. It is used to determine how many representatives Texas is entitled to elect to Congress. And the Texas Legislature and local governments rely on the data to redraw corresponding political boundaries.

The census also serves as a roadmap for the distribution of billions of federal dollars to the state and local communities, including funding for low-income housing, medical assistance and transportation projects.

But those working toward an accurate count in Texas are, in many ways, starting from behind. Massive in both size and population, Texas is home to millions of residents who fall into the categories of people who pose the biggest challenges for the headcount — immigrants, college students, children younger than 5 years old, to name a few.

After the 2010 census count, the U.S. Census Bureau found that most Texas residents live in areas that may be harder to count. Using a “low response score,” which is based on the likelihood that residents will not self-respond to a questionnaire, the bureau found that most Texas residents live in census tracts — geographic areas that include 1,200 to 8,000 residents — that exceed the national average for low response scores.

That’s particularly evident in areas with large shares of Hispanics and residents living in poverty, which are prevalent across the state.

“Certainly, we have populations that are hard to count — people whose first language isn’t English, people who have lower levels of educational attainment, people who move frequently,” state demographer Lloyd Potter said. “You have both recent immigrants and then, certainly, people who are unauthorized who are going to be wary of anyone who is knocking on their door and asking questions.”

That’s the chief concern among those working toward an accurate count in Texas.

Almost 5 million immigrants live in the state, and it’s estimated that about two-thirds are noncitizens — legal permanent residents, immigrants with another form of legal status or undocumented immigrants. Additionally, more than 1 million Texans who are U.S. citizens live with at least one family member who is undocumented.

Local officials, advocates and demographers for months have expressed grave concerns about the reception the 2020 census will receive among Texas immigrants who have likely followed years-long heated national and local debates over undocumented immigrants, immigration-enforcement laws like the one passed by the Texas Legislature last year and immigration crackdowns.

“Anyone close to this issue is really concerned. It’s an anti-immigrant environment,” said Ryan Robinson, demographer for Austin, which is home to 167,000 immigrants. “It’s always hard to count immigrants, but this is really going to be a tough issue.”

The fact that preparations for the Census are being done now by the understaffed and under-competent Trump administration isn’t making this any easier. Remember that the reason Texas got those four extra Congressional seats in the 2010 Census was our rapid growth due in large part to immigration. It would be quite ironic if we missed out on getting a seat or two because of a Census undercount that was the result of Republican legislative priorities. The Trib, Mother Jones, Texas Monthly, and Erica Greider have more.

Beware billboard blight

Does anyone actually want this?

Some 25,000 billboards along certain stretches of Texas highways could soar in size under a regulatory change approved by state transportation officials.

The Texas Transportation Commission voted unanimously Thursday to eliminate the existing 42½-foot height restriction beginning September 2019, allowing the size limit to double. The ruling followed months of deliberation and discussion, including a write-in campaign that generated thousands of letters both against and in favor of taller billboards.

The action allows the 2019 Texas Legislature to revisit the matter and issue clearer rules, commission chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

“We are trying to bring what I would call a fair balance to the deliberation,” he said.

The commission was immediately criticized for giving lobbyists for outdoor advertising companies a stronger hand in dealing with legislators when they meet next year. Many sign companies are aggressively seeking to roll back limits on height and the brightness of electronic billboards.

“The industry has no incentive to participate in that, help in that, or do anything other than kill it,” said Margaret Lloyd, president of Scenic Texas, which advocates for sign limits.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and chairman of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, said lawmakers in 2017 made clear they intended to keep the 42½-foot ceiling in place, although the authority rested with the transportation commission.

“Billboards will go to 85 feet,” Nichols said, warning of the consequences if lawmakers do not act.

[…]

The latest revisions to the billboard regulations were prompted by a court challenge to Texas’ sign rules in 2016, and a need to address hundreds of billboards that do not satisfy state rules because they pre-date laws, road conditions changed or were simply installed out of compliance.

“Some of them were over 100 feet,” Scenic Texas’ Lloyd told transportation officials. “(Outdoor advertising companies) basically turned their backs to the agency that was regulating them.”

Vela, the industry representative, said Texas has sufficient oversight of the outdoor advertising industry.

“We support robust enforcement of all regulations and believe that the department does a very good job of enforcement,” he said.

Comments pro and con poured in when TxDOT first proposed some of the rule changes in October, with more than 4,700 comments on the height restriction dominating the mix.

Of the 2,010 in favor of increasing the limit to 85 feet or eliminating height rules altogether, many came from outdoor advertising companies, property owners with billboards on their land and companies that use the signs to advertise.

Another 2,694 commenters opposed raising the height limits. Most of those were from Scenic Texas and its supporters and concerned residents.

Emphasis mine. This is not the first time that a proposal to raise the maximum height of highway billboards has come up – in that case, the new max height would have been a relatively petite 65 feet – and not surprisingly, the general public was against it. You know what to do in 2019, Sen. Nichols.

Medical marijuana is now available in Texas

To a very limited number of people, and only under a very strict set of circumstances.

Modern medicine has helped Laura Campbell’s 27-year-old daughter, Sierra, fight off many of her persistent seizures. At her peak, Sierra suffered from more than three seizures a day. Now, she’s down to one or two per month.

But the gains come with their own frustrations.

“She takes five pills twice a day, plus more if she needs an emergency supplement in case of a seizure. It damages her brain every time she has [a seizure]. Her IQ has gone down and her neurological functions are suffering,” Campbell said, trailing off between tears. “With every seizure she has, it just gets worse for her.”

Now Campbell, an Austin resident, is hoping she can wean her daughter off the “harsh” meds and turn to cannabis oil instead. That treatment was legalized in 2015, and a dispensary in Schulenburg made its first delivery of the oil to a young Texas child last week.

But as dispensaries are opening, Texans like Campbell’s daughter might still have a hard time getting access to the oil from marijuana plants. Currently, fewer than 20 doctors across the state are registered with the Texas Department of Public Safety to prescribe it.

They are able to do so under the Texas Compassionate Use Act, which legalized the sale of a specific kind of cannabis oil for a small group of Texans: epilepsy patients, like Sierra, whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

But to qualify for the medicine, Texans must have tried two FDA-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. The patients also must be permanent residents of Texas and get approval from two of the 18 doctors listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Under the law, a physician can only sign up for the state registry if, among several other requirements, the doctor has dedicated a significant portion of his or her clinical practice to the evaluation and treatment of epilepsy and is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in either epilepsy or neurology.

The bill in question was passed in 2015, so it’s taken awhile just to get to this point. There are only three dispensaries in the state, and there’s not likely to be many more doctors on the registry, at least not while Jeff Sessions is on a reefer madness kick. The effect of this law should be big for those who are able to take advantage of it, but the number of such people will be very small. I hope that effect is enough to allow for a broader bill in the next Legislature, but the surer route to that destination is to vote for candidates who are willing to support that outcome. The Chron has more.

From Harvey to drought

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The Texas Panhandle has become ground zero in a drought that has crept into much of the state just five months after Hurricane Harvey — including areas that suffered massive flooding during the storm.

More than 40 percent of Texas is now in a moderate to severe drought, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s compared to 4 percent on Aug. 29, a few days after Harvey slammed into the South Texas coast.

And dry conditions are expected to worsen over the coming months.

“As soon as Hurricane Harvey cleared Texas, then we almost immediately started going into the next drought,” said Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist for the Texas Water Development Board.

August was the wettest year in the state in 124 years, but every month since then — aside from December — has been considerably dry, he said.

Part of Beaumont, which saw nearly 50 inches of rain when Harvey stalled over southeast Texas as a tropical storm, is now in a moderate drought. And all of the city is considered “abnormally dry,” according to the drought monitor.

Drought conditions are particularly bad in North Texas and especially in the Panhandle, where all 26 of the region’s counties are in a severe to extreme drought and most have burn bans in effect. The outdoor fire restrictions don’t stop there, though: They’re in effect in more than one-third of Texas’ 254 counties, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Two bits of good news here. One is that Harris County is completely out of the drought zone, and two is that the longer-range forecast is for more normal rainfall beginning in May. One hopes that means a non-blistering summer. Be that as it may, this is what normal looks like now, one extreme to another. Maybe we should take climate change just a wee bit more seriously, you know, to try and cope better with this? Just a thought.

The war on coal is over in Texas

Coal lost, and good riddance.

Wind power capacity edged out coal for the first time in the Texas history last week after a new 155-megawatt wind farm in Scurry County came online. The farm in question is the Fluvanna Wind Energy Project, located on some 32,000 acres leased from more than 130 landowners.

Fluvanna pushed total wind power capacity in the state to more than 20,000 megawatts, while coal capacity stands at 19,800 megawatts and is slated to fall to 14,700 megawatts by the end of 2018 thanks to planned coal powerplant closures. Next year, Luminant will shutter three coal-fired plants—Monticello, Sandow, and Big Brown—and San Antonio’s CPS Energy will close J.T. Deely Station. Wind capacity in the state will reach 24,400 megawatts by the end of 2018, according to projections from Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at UT Austin’s Energy Institute.

But capacity is one thing, electricity generation is another. In the first ten months of 2017, wind generated 17.2 percent of power in the state, and coal 31.9 percent, according to ERCOT. But wind should soon see large gains there. “By our analysis, in 2019 we’ll have more energy from wind than coal,” Rhodes said.

Don’t anyone tell Donald Trump.

That decline in international students is here

We knew it was coming.

UHCL is among several universities around Texas that this year have seen a sharp drop in international enrollment, as the number of international student applications to four-year public universities has plummeted by more than 10,000 after three years of growth, according to recently compiled data.

Experts and college administrators blame a number of factors, including President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during the 2016 campaign and in office, as well as the global economy.

The decline is significant because regional universities such as UHCL depend more on tuition revenue amid uncertain state funding from Texas lawmakers. International students pay higher tuition than in-state students, and their decline is forcing some Texas campuses to question if – and how – to recruit them moving forward.

“When we were seeing heavy (enrollment by) international graduate students, we had a lot more revenue,” said Jean Carr, UHCL’s executive budget director. “Now, seeing the decline, we’re having to figure out how to cover that shortfall.”

[…]

Universities tried to stem the decline in international students. Colleges extended deadlines, offered more support in the application process and launched marketing campaigns that told prospective students that they were welcome in Texas.

It wasn’t enough.

Overall, about three-quarters of four-year public universities in Texas saw declines in international student enrollment this fall, a Houston Chronicle review of preliminary university data found.

About 23 percent of the 35 institutions saw an uptick in international students. Two institutions either reported no change or did not report preliminary enrollment figures.

From 2013 to 2015, international student enrollment in reporting Texas schools grew from 36,703 to 45,609 students. International student enrollment declined slightly in 2016 and then dropped by more than 2,000 students this fall.

Some of the sharpest declines came at regional universities that lack the name recognition of universities with large-scale athletic programs or top-of-the-line research heft.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley lost more than 100 international students, a 14 percent decline. Texas A&M University at Commerce saw a drop of more than 180 students (a 22 percent drop), while Lamar University in Beaumont lost more than 350 international students (a 37 percent reduction).

Meanwhile, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin saw small increases in international student enrollment of less than 2 percent each.

See here for the background. This is one of those things that I fear once we lose it we’ll never get it back, at least not to where it was before. At the national level, and at the state level, we have made ourselves worse off for no good reason and no benefit in return. This is just one example of far too many.

RIP, Steve Mostyn

A terrible tragedy.

Steve Mostyn

Steve Mostyn, a top Democratic donor and prominent Houston trial lawyer, has died. He was 46.

According to a statement released by his wife, Amber, Mostyn died Wednesday after “a sudden onset and battle with a mental health issue.” She did not disclose the cause of death.

“Steve was a beloved husband and devoted father who adored his children and never missed any of their sporting activities. He was a true friend, and a faithful fighter for those who did not have a voice,” she said.

The statement also said: “If you or a loved one are thinking about suicide, or experiencing a health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right now at 1-800-273-8255.”

Mostyn is also survived by his daughter, Ava, his son, Mitch and his nephew, Skyler Anderson.

My heart breaks for the Mostyn family. May they find peace and comfort. Texas Monthly and the Chron have more.

Concerns about the Census

We need to pay attention to this.

Latino leaders are warning of a developing crisis in the 2020 census and demanding that the Census Bureau act aggressively to calm fears in immigrant populations about data misuse.

Citing focus groups and initial interviews in Texas and across the country, the bureau’s Mikelyn Meyers recently reported “an unprecedented groundswell in confidentiality and data sharing concerns” related to the 2020 count.

“We’re concerned that this may present a barrier to participation in the 2020 census,” she said. “And this is particularly troubling due to the disproportionate impact on hard-to-count areas.”

Harris County, which is roughly 42 percent Hispanic, has long been an area of concern for the Census Bureau. Last spring, officials tested new technology in only two counties – Harris and Los Angeles – aimed at improving response rates in hopes of finding solutions before 2020.

More than 1.45 million people live in what are considered “hard-to-count” census tracts in the nine congressional districts that include Harris County, according to U.S. census data analyzed and mapped by the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research. The researchers counted tracts with response rates below 73 percent in the 2010 census as “hard to count.”

Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, noted that the Latino community has historically shied away from participating in census surveys. For the 2010 census, the Houston chamber hosted information sessions and explained that responses assist the government in making decisions about how to spend federal tax dollars.

While Murillo said the chamber is willing to partner with the Census Bureau again, the federal government’s actions on immigration have alienated many Latinos and will make openly sharing information with government officials a hard sell. She cited the Trump administration’s decisions to push for a border wall and end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, also known as DACA, as reasons some may find to be wary.

“Trust has been breached,” she said.

Two things to remember. One is that the Census is actually specified in the Constitution, so just on that alone it’s a big deal. Two, in addition to political purposes such as apportioning Congressional districts, businesses and academics and local governments and more rely heavily on the demographic and economic data that the Census provides. We need to get this right, and that means (urk) depending on the Trump administration to not screw it up. You can see why people are raising the alarm.

New Braunfels can ban is back

A blast from the past.

New Braunfels officials plan to resume enforcement of the “can ban” and limits on coolers on rivers on Wednesday even as opponents of the controversial municipal codes continue to pursue a legal challenge to them.

The development follows the Texas Supreme Court’s refusal this month to bar the city from enforcing the ordinances, which prohibit bringing disposable containers or coolers over 16 quarts in size onto the Guadalupe and Comal rivers inside city limits.

“Everyone is still invited to enjoy their favorite beverage on our rivers. We just ask that they do so responsibly and in consideration of the health and sustainability of these important community assets,” Mayor Barron Casteel said in announcing Friday that enforcement of the measures would resume this week.

The resumption of enforcement after a lull of more than three years was called premature Monday by attorney Jim Ewbank, who brought suit in 2012 on behalf of local river outfitters and tourism-related businesses who contend the codes are an overreach of municipal authority.

Despite rejecting plaintiffs’ request to issue an immediate stay on enforcement of the contested codes, he noted the Texas Supreme Court did request a full briefing by the parties, “which is a good sign for us.”

The city’s brief is due to be filed by late November, said Ewbank, who expects the high court to decide by January whether to hear the whole case.

[…]

State District Judge Don Burgess granted the plaintiffs a summary judgment in 2014, but that decision was overturned in May by the 3rd Court of Appeals. It held that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge a penal code, therefore Burgess lacked subject matter jurisdiction on the case.

See here for my last update. I apparently missed the appellate ruling. Be that as it may, the city expects to get the ball rolling this week, with an eye on putting the ban back in place next year, assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t set them back. Adjust your tubing plans for the future accordingly.

Save the bats

In case you needed something else to worry about.

Texas researchers have closely watched the state’s bat population for years, looking for signs of a disease that has killed millions of North American bats: the white, powder-like substance on their nose and wings, the erratic hibernation patterns, the piles of dead bats at cave openings.

And every year, those researchers breathed a sigh of relief. Their bats were safe.

That changed last year. Swabs from three different kinds of bats in the Lone Star State’s panhandle came back positive for white nose syndrome, aptly named for the white fungus that grows on the tiny winged creatures.

The discovery of the disease, which has a nearly 100 percent mortality rate, was “devastating,” said Winifred Frick, senior director of conservation science at the Austin-based Bat Conservation International (BCI), at a news conference Tuesday.

But about $600,000 in grants announced Tuesday by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation could help researchers stop the disease’s spread in Texas. That amount is part of $1.36 million being handed out in the U.S. and Canada for six projects. The money comes from public and private entities: the foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shell Oil Co., and Southern Co., an Atlanta-based gas and electric utility business.

With these funds “we’re hoping to make a stand,” said Paul Phifer, assistant regional director for ecological services at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region. “They show that the government working with the private sector can really turn research into action … so I’m really hopeful.”

I’m hopeful, too, because Texas is a very bat-ful state, and we need them around. Go visit Bat Conservation International if you want to learn more or get involved.

Tracking earthquakes

It’s a thing.

Texas, home to two of the nation’s busiest oilfields, now has a new way for the public to track in real time how many earthquakes are rattling the Lone Star State since the expanded use of new drilling techniques.

TexNet, which the University of Texas said is the nation’s most advanced state-run seismic monitoring system, includes 22 permanent monitoring stations and another 40 that are portable. The system was formed in 2015 thanks to $4.47 million in state funding.

The Permian Basin in west Texas and New Mexico and the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas continue to see some of the nation’s strongest drilling activity. Those regions, along with the Dallas-Fort Worth area, have all seen an increase in earthquakes, according to a statement earlier this month from the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

“Small earthquake events have become more common in Texas recently,” Scott Tinker, director of the bureau, said in the statement. “We are now positioned to learn more about them and, hopefully, to understand how to mitigate their impacts in the future.”

The UT Bureau of Economic Geology press release about this is here, and the official TexNet webpage, at which you can get all the data, is here. It would be nice to live in a world where this wasn’t needed, but it is so you may as well be aware of it. Texas Monthly has more.

Poker clubs

I wish them luck.

Michael Eakman, a poker aficionado from a very young age, has hosted poker tournaments from around the country, but Texas gambling laws have long shut him out of his own state and his hometown of Houston.

This year, however, he opened the city’s first restricted membership-based poker club, joining several Texas entrepreneurs who believe they have found a way to circumvent those regulations and host everything from friendly poker games to competitive tournaments.

Unlike traditional gambling houses, Mint Poker in southeast Houston does not take a share of any gambled money, referred to as raking the pot. Instead, the club and similar ones across the state charge membership fees for players wanting to play in the club, a business approach that pushes the boundaries of legal gambling.

But so far, Eakman and other entrepreneurs in Austin and north Dallas haven’t drawn any unwanted attention from the Legislature or state regulatory agencies. Their efforts are gaining enough traction that they’re looking to expand. They have formed an association to represent their interest and are hoping to establish more clubs across Texas.

“In our conversations with the city attorney here in our jurisdiction, we made everyone aware of what we were doing before we even signed the lease,” Eakman said. “I certainly don’t want to challenge anyone to bring a court case, but I think at the end of the day we’re handling this by being proactive instead of reactive is the way to do this. … There are no regulations and guidelines other than the narrow scope of a very vague law.” Bingo, horse and dog racetracks, Native American casinos and even the state-run Texas Lottery all provide outlets for Texans trying to test their luck.

[…]

At least three other membership-based poker clubs have opened in addition to the Houston business: Texas Card House with two locations in Austin, and Poker Rooms of Texas in north Dallas. They recently joined forces as the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs, and have begun working with longtime utilities lobbyist Tim VonKennel to represent them within the Texas Legislature, Eakman said.

VonKennel is the father of Texas Card House owner Sam VonKennel, and said he helped organize the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs to increase legislators’ awareness of membership-based poker clubs in Texas.

“The Legislature hasn’t really seen it yet because it hasn’t really existed,” VonKennel said. “As they pop up, I want to make sure the Lege is aware of them. What I would really like to do is get these guys to become licensed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and that way they’re absolutely certain they’re on the right side of the law.”

Sen. Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio, said he was involved with the creation of membership-based poker in Texas, encouraging Eakman to devise a business model that could clear the hurdles of Texas gambling laws when they met at a poker tournament.

“I think it’s a little hypocritical that we can have a state lottery or horse racing in texas but we can’t let people play poker,” Menendez said.

Basically, as far as I can tell, these things are legal until proven otherwise, which is to say until some law enforcement agency makes an arrest, or until Ken Paxton issues an opinion. The story above appeared a few weeks ago and fell into my drafted-but-never-got-around-to-publishing pile, then I saw this AP story and dug it back up. As noted, while the state has not given an opinion on this sort of thing, local law enforcement has, at least in some places.

On Sept. 7, Dallas police executed a search warrant at CJ’s Card Club on Walnut Hill Lane. Police filed a report alleging the keeping of a gambling place. The case remains under investigation. A department spokeswoman declined to release any further information.

The club has since closed, its website and Facebook page have been shut down, and its operators could not be reached.

Around that same time, Poker Rooms of Texas closed after Plano police questioned the legality of that operation. The club opened late last year in a strip center storefront on Parker Road off Independence Parkway. It reportedly attracted scores of players each night.

Its website states that it “is working with local authorities to resolve operational issues.” Its owners did not return messages.

The website for Lucky’s Card Room in Fort Worth says the club is temporarily closed while it works on a new location. And the site for TopSet Poker Club in Plano stated that its grand opening, formerly set for September, has been delayed while it considers options in light of problems identified at similar businesses.

Big Texas Poker Club opened in late August in a commercial building off Jupiter Road in Plano. Owners Fred and Heather Zimmerman said they did their homework to ensure that they would be legal. Three weeks later, they shut down to avoid arrest.

“This is a legitimate business, and it’s better than illegal poker rooms,” Fred Zimmerman said.

The couple said they were transparent about their club as they sought a city permit to open. Only after they started gaining members did they receive “threatening letters” from police stating that their business model violated the state’s gambling law.

Plano City Attorney Paige Mims said certificates of occupancy are about the fitness of a building and have nothing to do with the activity inside. As for whether a private card room can operate, she said the city does not give legal advice.

Police spokesman David Tilley declined to go into details about his department’s conversations with the poker rooms. “Gambling is illegal in the state of Texas,” he said.

In other words, if you have a favorite spot to play Texas Hold’Em, don’t get too attached to it. I should note that there was an effort in the 2009 legislative session to carve out a legal exception for poker, but it didn’t make it. If there’s been a similar effort since then, I’m not aware of it; that one had a social media/PR push behind it and there’s been no such thing in subsequent sessions. The legislator who filed the pro-poker bill back then was then-Rep., now-Sen. Jose Menendez, who as you can see still supports the idea. Like I said, I wish these guys luck. I’m not a poker player myself, but I see no reason not to let ’em play.

More medical marijuana requested

This was a pre-Harvey story.

Medical cannabis companies and investors are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Department of Public Safety to approve more dispensary licenses beyond the three given provisional approval in May.

In a pair of letters this week, the coalition argues that having just three dispensaries, two in Austin and one in Schulenburg, cannot ensure that patients with intractable epilepsy have easy access to the low THC-chemical strain of the cannabis plant.

The Texas Cannabis Industry Association requested in its letter that a second round of applications be taken for the 40 companies that initially applied for but failed to obtain provisional licenses. The group specifically asks for at least nine additional licenses.

The requested number stems from a recommendation made by DPS’ chief financial officer, who noted in September 2015 that at least 12 dispensaries would need to be licensed to meet the needs of some 150,000 patients with intractable epilepsy in the state.

[…]

In October 2016, DPS officials reduced their recommended number of dispensaries to three.

A DPS memo sent to at least one cannabis company last November stated that the governor’s office had requested the reduction, along with other regulatory changes to the state’s fledgling medical-cannabis program.

The companies and investors who signed the Texas Cannabis Industry letter note that both DPS and the governor’s office “failed to provide a reasoned justification for this arbitrary choice limiting the number of licensees.”

You can see the letter here and some supporting information for it here. This bill was passed in 2015, and we were supposed to have all these dispensaries set up by September 1 of this year. Obviously, there are more important issues to worry about right now, but for those who may have benefited from the passing of this law, this is where it stands now.

They don’t make libertarian paradises like they used to

I love a good cautionary tale.

For the last few years, Von Ormy has been in near-constant turmoil over basic issues of governance: what form of municipal government to adopt, whether to tax its residents, and how to pay for services such as sewer, police, firefighters and animal control. Along the way, three City Council members were arrested for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act, and the volunteer fire department collapsed for lack of funds. Nearly everyone in town has an opinion on who’s to blame. But it’s probably safe to say that the vision of the city’s founder, a libertarian lawyer whose family traces its roots in Von Ormy back six generations, has curdled into something that is part comedy, part tragedy.

In 2006, fearing annexation by rapidly encroaching San Antonio, some in Von Ormy proposed incorporating as a town. But in government-averse rural Texas, incorporation can be a hard sell. Unincorporated areas are governed mainly by counties, which have few rules about what you can do on private property and tend to only lightly tax. There’s no going back from what municipal government brings: taxes, ordinances, elections and tedious city council meetings. Still, the fear of being absorbed by San Antonio — with its big-city taxes and regulations — was too much for most Von Ormians.

Enter Art Martinez de Vara. At the time, Martinez de Vara was an ambitious third-year law student at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a local boy with a penchant for Texas history and right-wing politics.

Martinez de Vara suggested a compromise of sorts. Von Ormy could become a “liberty city” — a stripped-down, low-tax, low-government version of municipal government that’s currently en vogue among the tea party in Texas.

Initially, the city would impose property and sales taxes, but the property tax would ratchet down to zero over time. The business-friendly environment would draw new economic activity to Von Ormy, and eventually the town would cruise along on sales taxes alone.

There would be no charge for building permits, which Martinez de Vara said would be hand-delivered by city staff. The nanny state would be kept at bay, too. Want to shoot off fireworks? Blast away. Want to smoke in a bar? Light up. Teens wandering around at night? No curfew, no problem.

Martinez de Vara and his mother, Sally Martinez, along with other prominent residents, started the Commission to Incorporate Von Ormy. He gave Von Ormy a motto: “The Freest Little City in Texas.”

Folks in Von Ormy liked what they heard and in May 2008 voted to incorporate. Martinez de Vara was elected mayor that November.

In a 2015 presentation he gave at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, Martinez de Vara said that a group of people with no political experience took it upon themselves to do everything a large city like San Antonio does but at a lower cost. He touted Von Ormy’s ability to provide animal control services, a 20-officer police department — a mix of paid officers and volunteers — and an online city hall.

“We were blessed with this unique opportunity to experiment with democracy,” he said.

Today, there is no city animal control program and stray dogs roam the streets. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office patrols the town instead of city police, and City Hall resides in a mobile home with one full-time staffer — though that’s a step up from the dive bar where City Council met until the owner bounced them out. If you go to the city’s website, you’ll be informed that it’s still under construction.

If Von Ormy is a libertarian experiment with democracy, it’s one that hasn’t turned out as expected.

It’s a fascinating read, so check it out. I had no idea there was such a thing as a “liberty city”, but we do live in a strange state. No one involved in this mess comes across terribly well in the tale, but idea man Martinez de Vara ends up doing pretty well for himself with the professional wingnut crowd, because nothing succeeds like failure. And to be fair, just because Von Ormy flamed out, that doesn’t mean the “liberty city” idea is discredited. There are others like it in Texas, and for all we know (the story neither names nor describes any of them) they could be thriving. Maybe Von Ormy didn’t fail but was failed, if you know what I mean. That would make for an excellent followup article. Anyway, check it out.

Where have all the foreign students gone?

Wherever it is, it’s increasingly not here.

Students from India, China, Iran and other countries have long flocked to Texas campuses to work with top professors and to earn a prestigious American degree.

But this year, those students appear to be less enamored by the Lone Star State.

International applications to Texas’ four-year public universities have plummeted over the past year by at least 10,000, a 12.5 percent decrease from last fall, according to a Houston Chronicle review of university data. The dramatic decline is a stark contrast to the 30 percent increase in applications from 2013 to 2016. At the University of Houston, for example, foreign applications dropped by 27 percent.

Several factors are likely causing foreign students to look elsewhere, analysts and campus administrators say, noting a sluggish global economy and greater competition from other countries. Still, many bluntly point to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric as significant, saying it is creating an unwelcoming environment.

“U.S. politics has made some international students uncomfortable,” said Jeff Fuller, a former admissions director at the University of Houston who left his post in May.

Fuller said potential foreign applicants’ questions showed anxiety. Will I be deported? Could my visa change? And, he said, they wondered, “How accepting would a campus be of an international student when everything they see on TV shows ‘build a wall’?”

The decline comes as U.S. public colleges increasingly see enrolling foreign students as important to their operations and mission. International students pay out-of-state tuition prices, an important revenue source as universities fear declining state support. Foreign students make up a significant portion of the diversity that campuses value.

Drawing students from around the globe shows prestige and reach, too. Texas universities enroll the third-highest number of foreign students in the country, according to the Institute of International Education, an advocacy group for student exchange.

“It is a cause for concern across all universities,” said Yvette Bendeck, the associate vice president of enrollment management at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. “Everybody’s talking about how to approach the shift that we’re seeing globally … interaction with people of different backgrounds is an experience people should have when they’re in the classroom.”

Obviously, federal policy is the main factor here. If SB4 is allowed to be implemented, it would not surprise me to see some second-order effects as well, so that we see states that are enthusiastically following the Trump lead seeing steeper drops in enrollment from foreign students than states like California. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I believe it could. The tuition issue exists at private universities, too, where having some number of full-tuition-payers helps stretch the financial aid budget. Basically, there’s nothing good that comes of this, and even if the travel ban is ultimately thrown out by SCOTUS, the effect could well linger well into the future.

Ten digit dialing comes to San Antonio

It’s the end of an era.

The era of knowing someone is from San Antonio based solely on the “210” at the start of a phone number is drawing to a close. San Antonio is outgrowing its singular 210 area code and will have to add a second code, 726, later this year.

The North American Numbering Plan Administration, which oversees national use of area codes, predicts that 210 numbers will be exhausted by early 2018.

Area code 726 will be an overlay code for the region currently serviced by 210, including the majority of Bexar County and parts of Atascosa, Comal, Guadalupe, Medina, and Wilson counties. An overlay area code means that 210 numbers will not change, but 726 numbers will be available to the same area.

The biggest immediate consequence is that San Antonio will cease to be the largest U.S. city in which seven digit dialing is possible, meaning that the old way of dialing local calls without an area code will no longer work.

“Right now we are in what is called a permissive period where you can use either a seven or 10 digit phone number in the 210 area,” said Terry Hadley, communications director for the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, which oversees area codes in addition to all electric, telecommunication, water, and sewer utilities for the State.

The six-month permissive period will end on Sept. 23, meaning that all local calls will require 10 digits, the three-digit area code and a seven-digit phone number. Long distance calls will continue to require 1 followed by 10 digits.

The activation date for the new 726 area code will be Oct. 23.

[…]

The 210 area code has been in place for San Antonio since 1992 and has become part of San Antonio’s identity for some.

“210 is really a brand for San Antonio,” said local resident Sarah Esserlieau. “There are a couple companies that reference 210 to show that they’re local companies, and I don’t know how that will affect branding.”

“Five or 10 years from now, will [210] be almost like a heritage number?” she questioned, suggesting the older area code could create a sense of pride similar to regional pride for area codes in some cities.

Yeah, well, when I was in college San Antonio was still using 512, same as Austin. It was still a long distance call, though, and you had to dial a 1 before the number. I do think 210 numbers will have a bit of prestige for them, as 713 and to a lesser extent 281 numbers in Houston do, but that may not be fully felt until there’s a third or even fourth area code that everyone else can look down on. And don’t worry, you’ll get used to the ten digit dialing thing. Hell, everyone has to do that already with cellphones, right? No big deal.

RIP, Mark White

Former Texas Governor Mark White has passed away.

Mark White

Former Gov. Mark White, who championed education reforms while serving as Texas governor from 1983 to 1987, died Saturday in Houston. He was 77.

Julian Read, a close friend of White who served as press secretary to Gov. John Connally during the 1960s a confidant to many Texas governors since then, confirmed that White suffered a heart attack at his Houston home.

White, who was born March 17, 1940, graduated from Lamar High School and Baylor University. He received his law degree from Baylor Law School in 1965.

[…]

White’s signature legislation as governor was an education bill that implemented Texas’ first-ever statewide testing standards and the well-known “no pass, no play” rule that required students to maintain passing grades to play sports. It also mandated class-size limits and teacher pay raises — legislation that required a tax hike and ultimately cost White a chance at reelection.

I came to Texas in 1984, so White is the first Governor I experienced, though I don’t remember much of his tenure as I was a college student and not paying that much attention to state politics. Everyone I know holds him in high regard, and his education reform legacy lives on to this day. Rest in peace, Mark White. The Trib and RG Ratcliffe have more.