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The great state of Texas

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.

Trumpcare would be a hospital killer

This is hardly a new problem, but it’s yet another aspect of Trumpcare that gets too little attention.

Texas hospitals stand to lose billions under the Republican-backed health plan, as federal Medicaid dollars shrink, leading to a rise in uncompensated care, according to a new analysis by the Commonwealth Fund, a national health policy foundation.

The study looked only at the U.S. House plan passed last month. It has not yet examined the impact of the U.S. Senate’s version unveiled late last week, which experts have predicted will bring even deeper cuts to Medicaid.

In Texas, uncompensated costs in the state’s 304 acute care hospitals could increase by 7 percent, rising to $38.4 billion over the next decade, the study found.

That compares with an estimated $35.8 billion over the next decade under the current Affordable Care Act.

At issue is a spike in the number of the nation’s uninsured whose care is often absorbed by hospitals. As many as 23 million Americans could become uninsured over the next decade under the House bill because of cuts to Medicaid, and the recalculation of insurance plans and how people afford them, the Congressional Budget Office estimated late last month.

[…]

Texas already leads the nation in the number of uninsured and hospital executives have cautioned that their institutions would be hard pressed to take a bigger hit should the uninsured rate go higher.

“If people think Harris Health can absorb this, that is a miscalculation,” said George Masi, president and CEO of Harris Health System, in a January interview with the Chronicle.

This is basically what the world was like before the Affordable Care Act. People who had no insurance would use hospital emergency rooms for care when they really needed it, which is inefficient and dangerous and super expensive and many other negative things, all of which get picked up by local taxpayers. There are so many things that are wrong with and bad about the GOP’s “health care” plan that it’s hard to focus on any one thing and even harder to prioritize, but this one is really big. And it will hurt rural areas at least as much as urban areas. Not that the Republicans who represent rural areas care, and it’s not clear that the voters who would be affected have figured it out, or if they have if they’re capable of getting past their faith in the Charlatan in Chief. But the facts are stubborn things. The Rivard Report has more.

Texas’ climate change future

Gonna be awesome.

The Texas economy could face some of the costliest consequences of climate change as temperatures continue to increase over the next several decades, according to a new study.

In the study published last week in the journal Science, researchers found that the economic burden of climate change will hit states along the Gulf Coast – including Texas – harder than the colder, northern states that will profit from warmer weather.

[…]

The study estimates that the U.S. economy will lose about 0.7 percent of GDP per year by 2080 for each degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures.

Texas, however, will likely see a loss of 3.4 to 9.5 percent per year beginning in 2080. And Harris County could face median damages worth up to 6 percent of GDP a year beginning in 2080. Some counties in Texas could fare much worse, facing damages up to 20 percent of GDP – ranking them among the worst hit counties in the nation.

Much of the costs for Texas come from higher heat-related deaths, said James Rising, a postdoctoral fellow at University of California at Berkeley who coauthored the study. By the end of the century, mortality rates in the state likely will increase by between 16 to 45 death for every 100,000 people due to the extreme heat. For perspective, Texas currently experiences about 13 motor vehicle deaths for every 100,000.

Researchers also were able to measure the economic impact climate change would have along the coast, with Texas ranking among the five states impacted most. With rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes, the study analyzed the potential cost of damage faced by Gulf Coast properties.

The study, which comes from researchers at the Climate Impact Lab, relies on “business-as-usual” emissions estimates, mapping the effects of climate change if nothing is done globally to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 21st century.

You can see the study here. As you can see from the map, the entire South really takes the brunt of it, which given how widespread climate denialism is in that part of the country seems like a particularly brutal form of poetic justice. Too bad the people who are the biggest part of the problem will be long dead before the worst of the effects take place. But hey, no worries, it’s just our kids and grandkids. The Atlantic and the Press have more.

The Round Rock Bigfoot footprint

You know, it’s been too long since we had a good Bigfoot story to talk about.

Steve Austin knows the truth

[Last] Saturday, the Round Rock Parks and Recreation Department released photos of foot prints found on various trails and parks in the Austin suburb. Officials have called it an “unexplained phenomena” and are urging anyone who knows about the origins of the footprints to contact them.

Compared to a park ranger’s foot, the mysterious foot print seems quite large. Some have speculated that it may be Bigfoot, the mythical creature that some have said they’ve seen in Texas.

But at least one local Bigfoot hunter was not impressed.

“I’m leaning towards not real at least on the top one,” Russell Miller told Chron.com after checking out the pics posted online. “Too narrow at the instep.”

Any further analysis of the images was difficult without a better view, the Baytown Bigfoot hunter added.

“Would love to see more pics and something for scale.”

Boy, wouldn’t we all? You can see the Facebook post with the pictures here, and I will leave the rest to your judgment. Just know that people can be tricky about this sort of thing. The Statesman has more.

Telemedicine set to expand in Texas

Coming to a video screen near you, thanks to a bill signed in May by Greg Abbott.

“This is a huge step forward, a real positive for Texas,” said Dr. Nancy Dickey, executive director of the Rural and Community Health Institute at Texas A&M University. She recently co-authored a report about the health crisis facing rural Texans amid hospital closings and other barriers to access.

Texas was one of the last holdouts in the rapidly evolving world of virtual medicine by requiring an in-person visit between doctor and patient in most cases before allowing diagnosis.

That requirement was at the heart of a bitter, six-year legal battle between the Texas Medical Board, which cited concerns of insufficient patient care, and Teladoc, a national leader in telemedicine.

Teladoc, headquartered in Lewisville, has more than 20 million customers nationwide, including 3 million in Texas. Previously in Texas the company used phones and high-resolution photos for diagnoses, as did other telemedicine companies in the state.

Teladoc has spent about $13 million in legal fees alone in the fight. The new state law presumably renders the fight moot.

The Texas Medical Board, made up of 19 regulators, declined to comment directly on the new law.

“The litigation, although abated, is still pending,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement.

“The need in Texas carried the day,” said Jason Gorevic, CEO of Teladoc. “This paves the way to expand.”

Or at least catch up with the rest of the country.

Texas currently dwells near the bottom of the nation in per-capita access to a physician, ranking usually between 46th and 48th, Dickey said.

In fact, 158 of Texas’ 254 counties do not have a single surgeon. In 185 counties, representing more than 3 million people, there is not a single psychiatrist. Eighty counties have five or less physicians.

While the traditional picture of telemedicine is one of linking a doctor to a patient in some isolated dot on the map, Dickey said it is equally useful for those in small towns who might be 30- to 45-minute drive from a specialist in a larger city.

Those patients, often older and poorer, may not have the time or energy to make a drive on rural roads, said Dickey.

“It is a way to take very specialized medical skills out to towns of 10,000 to 20,000 people,” she said.

See here and here for more on the lawsuit, and here for more on the bill that was signed that basically removed the barriers to telemedicine in Texas. I had been wondering about the status of the litigation since the compromise bill was announced. A little Googling yielded some more specific information than what is in this story.

Teladoc, which is based in Dallas, began operating in the state in 2005. But around 2010 the Texas Medical Board began restricting the practice of telemedicine, especially telemedicine by video, through a prescribing rule revision that required physicians to establish their patient relationship with an in-person visit.

This is where there are two different versions of the story. Teladoc and MDLive, which have operated continuously in Texas with their phone-only services, maintain that medical board rules have always permitted phone calls, even when they restricted the use of video telemedicine. The Medical Board, conversely, has maintained that this is essentially a loophole created by a drafting error and that the intent of the rule is clear: to forbid all telemedicine without an establishing in-person visit.

When Teladoc continued to use telemedicine by phone, the Texas Medical Board sent them a public letter telling asking them to stop, then issued an emergency rule clearing up any ambiguity between phone and video visits. Teladoc sued over the rule, saying that the interpretation of the law in the letter constituted a rule in and of itelf and that the making of that rule didn’t follow the proper procedures for rulemaking.

To make a long story short, that lawsuit beget a much bigger lawsuit in April 2015, one which might have gone all the way up to the Supreme Court. Teladoc sued the medical board under antitrust laws, saying that as a group of practicing physicians with a financial interest in the restriction of telemedicine, the medical board couldn’t pass rules designed to muscle out its competition.

“Unfortunately we had to go to bat for our clients’ right to avail themselves of our services,” Gorevic said. “But it was worth the effort, and we see that as our responsibility as a leader in the space. We never ceased operating in the state and in fact we were reluctant to go to court, but ultimately the reason we went to court was to protect our right to continue to operate and the right of our clients to operate our services. … We stepped up and took a stand and we didn’t see any of our competitors doing the same thing.”

That lawsuit dragged on for two years with a number of twists and turns and cost Teladoc $7 million in a single quarter, according to a public earnings call. Indications were looking positive for the company (the FTC, the federal government’s primary antitrust actor, even filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Teladoc’s behalf), but ultimately the two sides realized they would rather reach a compromise than take the case any further up the ladder. Last fall they requested a stay in the case and a settlement seemed likely to follow.

Gorevic confirmed to MobiHealthNews that if Abbott signs the bill, it will essentially end the long legal battle.

“We expect that the legislation, if signed by the governor, will end the lawsuit,” he said. “It will obviate the need for the lawsuit.”

That story was published May 26, and an update to it at the top confirms the bill’s signing. I didn’t find anything more recent than this in Google News, so I presume the details of the settlement are still being worked out. As I said before, telemedicine isn’t a panacea – it will be of limited use to people who still don’t have insurance, for example – but it’s a good option to have. We’ll see how much it takes root in the state.

Texas’ teen pregnancy rate is the result of bad policy choices

From the Rivard Report:

In Texas each year, about 35,000 young women get pregnant before they turn 20. Traditionally, the two variables most commonly associated with high teen birth rates are education and poverty, but a new study, co-authored by Dr. Julie DeCesare, shows that there’s more at play.

“We controlled for poverty as a variable, and we found these 10 centers where their teen birth rates were much higher than would be predicted,” she said.

DeCesare, whose research appears in the June issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, said several of those clusters were in Texas. The Dallas and San Antonio areas, for example, had teen pregnancy rates 50% and 40% above the national average.

Research shows teens everywhere are having sex. Gwen Daverth, CEO of the Texas Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said the high numbers in Texas reflect policy, not promiscuity.

“What we see is there are not supports in place,” Daverth said. “We’re not connecting high-risk youth with contraception services. And we’re not supporting youth in making decisions to be abstinent. We’re just saying that is an approach we want to take as a state – whereas other states have put in more progressive policies.”

Daverth said California invested in comprehensive sex education and access to contraception. There, the teenage birth rate dropped by 74% from 1991 to 2015. The teen birth rate in Texas also fell, but only by 56%.

In South Carolina, young women on Medicaid who have babies are offered the opportunity to get a long-acting form of birth control right after they give birth. They’re also trying that approach in parts of North Carolina. And Colorado subsidizes the cost of long-acting birth control. There, both abortions and teen birth rates are dropping faster than the national average.

Texas makes it hard for teenagers to get reproductive health care, Daverth says.

In Texas, if a 17-year-old mom wants prescription birth control, in most cases she needs her parents’ permission. “Only [Texas] and Utah have a law that if you’re already a parent, you are the legal medical guardian of your baby, but you cannot make your own medical decisions without the now-grandma involved,” Daverth said.

That’s part of the reason, she notes, Texas has the highest rate of repeat teen pregnancies in the country.

Emphasis mine. That’s pretty much our state in a nutshell. The problem is that any effort to deal with this necessarily begins the acknowledgment of the realities of the situation – you know, like that teens have sex and that teens who have sex without access to contraception and good information about reproductive health are much more likely to become parents than teens who do have those things – and we’re no good at that. Shame and denial is so much easier, and we live with the results of that.

Birth control by mail

This is interesting, but doesn’t address a couple of key points.

About half the counties in Texas don’t have the number of public clinics required to meet the contraceptive needs of the population. So Nurx, an at-home birth control delivery app, decided to give women in the state the option to get birth control whenever they want and without ever needing to step into a clinic or even physically see a doctor.

Starting today, those in the Lone Star State will be able to tap the Nurx app and get contraceptives delivered straight to their door.

While Texas isn’t the only state with a giant “contraceptive desert,” or an area without at least 1 clinic to every 1,000 women in need of publicly funded contraception, it is certainly the biggest area of land in the United States not meeting these needs.

And with Trumpcare looming, and Trump’s recent “Religious Freedom” order, which allows businesses to deny birth control coverage based on religious reasons, many women could lose access to their publicly funded birth control pills and even more publicly funded clinics could go under, leaving a large and vulnerable population wide open to other, possibly dangerous methods of preventing birth.

As the story notes, there are other birth control delivery services on the market, but Nurx appears to be the only one operating in Texas. The legislative session is over, but I can easily imagine someone taking aim at this in a future session, though to be fair I thought there would be a reaction to the Mexican abortion option, too. Be that as it may, the real issue here isn’t lack of places to buy the pill, it’s the increasing restrictions on insurance coverage for it, which will become a crisis if Trumpcare passes in any form. It doesn’t matter what your delivery options are if you can’t afford to buy it in the first place. Still, it’s good that Nurx exists, and I hope it has some company in the market soon. I also hope it doesn’t have a large chunk of that market taken away from it by Congress.

Here comes Conroe

Not so little anymore.

This isn’t the first time Conroe, population 82,286, has recorded notable growth.

In 2015, it was one of the 13 fastest-growing cities by percentage, ranking sixth below other Texas cities like San Marcos, Georgetown and Frisco. The next year, according to Census numbers released Thursday, Conroe zoomed to the top spot and became the headline on news stories across the country.

Forty miles north of downtown Houston, Conroe is the county seat of one of the fastest growing counties in Texas. Montgomery County netted more than 19,700 residents between July 2015 and July 2016, as Houston-area suburbs continued to expand.

In fact, Texas had four of the five fastest-growing large cities in the U.S., each near a major city. Following Conroe were the Dallas suburbs of Frisco and McKinney, which grew by 6.2 percent and 5.9 percent, respectively. Georgetown, an Austin suburb, was the fifth-fastest growing city with a population increase of 5.5 percent.

Officials in the Texas cities and the state’s demographer attribute the growth to various factors, including the state’s robust jobs market and the cities’ diversified economies, lower costs of living and skilled workforces that earn higher wages.

“A lot of times when people think of Texas, they think about cowboys and roping cows. But really we have … cutting edge manufacturing, technology and finance, and certainly all of the oil extraction activity as well,” Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter said.

For Conroe Mayor Toby Powell, a self-described “ol’ boy” who has lived in the city all his 76 years, the growth is no surprise.

In fact, Powell said, Conroe officials already had been planning for increased demand for city services and infrastructure. A new police station has just opened, and a new fire station is under construction. The city also has purchased 75 acres of land to build a second sewer plant.

Traffic congestion already can be seen just a few minutes away from its town square lined by old-fashioned street lamps and dotted with benches extolling the city’s history. Along Highway 105, which runs east-west through Conroe, shopping centers are home to chain stores and restaurants like Target, Home Depot, Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill, and queues of cars back up at lights and turn lanes.

Maybe I shouldn’t have joked about Conroe trying to annex The Woodlands back in the day. The former-small-town-turned-booming-suburb narrative isn’t new, and like so many other places – Katy, Pearland, Spring, etc etc etc – two facts remain: The original small town and the booming suburb that supplants it are two very different places, and the secret ingredient in all of them is an abundance of cheap, undeveloped land on which to build. That was Houston’s secret once upon a time, too. I don’t have any large point to make here, but I will note that just as the politics in places like Katy and Pearland have started to change as their populations have increased and diversified, so too will this happen in Conroe. It would be nice to have a bit of Democratic infrastructure in place for when that happens.

The stars at night are still not as brights as they could be

We need to do better.

In the high mountains of a wild desert, day drains from the sky and night lights appear like halos on the horizon.

There’s no moon. Just Mercury chasing the setting sun in the west, Jupiter rising to the east and another golden light emerging on the northern horizon.

The view from the McDonald Observatory, considered the crown jewel of the University of Texas System, includes the glow from the Permian Basin oil field, incandescent with the work of 24-hour drilling, fracking and gas flaring.

Four in every 10 drilling rigs working in the U.S. are in the Permian Basin, and the prolific oil province is creeping closer to the observatory, where astronomers depend on the veil of desert night in the Davis Mountains of the Big Bend region.

“It just feels like a tidal wave coming at us, because you know, 10 years ago, we looked up to the north and we saw a dark starry sky and now we see this glow,” said Bill Wren, special assistant to the observatory superintendent. The oil field lights don’t hinder astronomical research – the McDonald Observatory remains a place of exceptional darkness. The sky’s zenith, where astronomers look to the edge of the observable universe, remains free of light pollution.

What worries astronomers is the idea that the oil field, the most productive in the U.S., will keep marching toward it, and worse, glowing brighter and chewing up more of the sky.

A new light pollution measurement just released by the observatory shows how much brighter the night sky is than it should be – 18.5 percent above the background glow of natural features.

“It’s only down toward the horizon where it’s polluted, and astronomers aren’t pointing the telescopes down close to the horizon,” Wren said. “They’re observing high overhead. It’s still an extremely dark sky for astronomy. It’s a little spooky to see that glow growing and coming this way.”

See here and here for previous blogging on this topic. The good news is that help may be on the way.

The Permian Basin Petroleum Association, in collaboration with the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, recently issued its recommended lighting practices for oil and gas operations in the seven counties that surround the observatory.

“We’re very excited,” Ben Shepperd, president of the PBPA, said in a phone interview as he was returning to Austin after hosting the association’s annual golf tournament.

“We’ve been working with the observatory for a couple of years and had a number of meetings with observatory officials, operators and service companies to come up with a good set of recommended practices,” he said.

The recommendations were prepared by the Dark Skies Advisory Group, made up of PBPA members, representatives of the observatory and the public. The group was formed to address the needs and concerns of the observatory and help develop a plan to help keep West Texas skies dark and help the work of the observatory.

PBPA’s board of directors approved the recommendations, which should be implemented after the Texas Legislature ends its 2017 session, Shepperd said.

Lighting type, coloring and direction — including guidance to keep lights pointed below the horizon to help mitigate light pollution — are among the key recommendations.

Shepperd said the recommendations should help the observatory “and are workable, especially from a safety standpoint.”

“One thing we learned is those bright white lights are actually bad for your eyes,” he said.

He said proper lighting could improve safety around drilling sites, which involve lots of tools and heavy machinery.

The recommendations also encourage the use of internal combustion units, which would reduce the need for flares.

Operators active in the region should easily adapt the recommendations because they don’t involve additional costs or major costs, “it’s just different equipment,” Shepperd said.

You can see the Recommended Lighting Practices report here. There really is nothing complicated or expensive in there – a lot of it is just common sense – so one hopes this will help. As that Midland Reporter-Telegram story notes, there will be further meetings in the summer to assess progress and see what else can be done. All in all pretty positive, and one hopes that the next story of this genre will be about how these guidelines have made a difference. Note too that what this group recommends is also largely applicable to homes and neighborhoods in urban and suburban areas. You too can do your part to cut down on light pollution.

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.

No more feral hog poison

It was not to be.

The manufacturer of a controversial bait used to kill feral hogs withdrew its state registration for the poison, putting Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s plans for a Texas “Hog Apocalypse” on hold.

“We have received tremendous support from farmers and ranchers in the State of Texas, and have empathy for the environmental devastation, endangered species predation, and crop damage being inflicted there by a non-native animal,” Colorado-based company Scimetrics wrote in a news release Monday. “However, under the threat of many lawsuits, our family owned company cannot at this time risk the disruption of our business and continue to compete with special interests in Texas that have larger resources to sustain a lengthy legal battle.”

Earlier this year, Miller announced that he wanted to use the poison to take out the state’s invasive feral hog population and that using the poison could save the Department of Agriculture $900,000 that was designated for feral hog control. He wrote that the poison could mean “the ‘Hog Apocalypse’ may finally be on the horizon.”

The poison was classified as a “state-limited use pesticide,” which means anyone wishing to use it must be licensed by the department. Scimetrics withdrawing its registration means the department can no longer license people to use the poison — a move Miller called a “kick in the teeth for rural Texas.”

“Unfortunately, it seems that once again the hard working folks who turn the dirt and work from sunup to sundown have fallen victim to lawyers, environmental radicals and the misinformed,” Miller said in a prepared statement. “Once again, politically correct urban media hacks and naysayers win out against the rural folks who produce the food and fiber everyone needs.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Just for the record, the bill to require a state study of the use of any pesticide in this manner – which was filed by a Republican from Denton – passed the House by a vote of 128-13. Who knew there were so many “environmental radicals” in the Legislature? Clearly, the place has gone to hell since ol’ Sid was there. This doesn’t have to be the end for warfarin, the poison in question. There’s no reason why a study on its environmental effects couldn’t be done. Maybe a Texas governmental agency with an interest in such a study – like, say, oh, I don’t know, the Texas Department of Agriculture – could put up some grant money to fund one. Just a thought. The Trib has more.

Texas Lyceum poll on immigration

Our state has more nuanced views than you might think.

The pollsters found that 62 percent of Texans said immigration helps the United States more than it hurts the country. That’s an increase from 2016, when 54 percent of the respondents said they viewed immigration was more beneficial than harmful.

The pollsters defined “sanctuary” entities as those in which “local police or city government employees learn that someone is in the country illegally, they do not automatically turn that person over to federal immigration enforcement officers.”

Forty-five percent of the respondents supported sanctuary policies while 49 percent opposed them. That came as 93 percent of all respondents said local police should be able to inquire into a person’s immigration status when arrested for a crime.

The results suggest most Texans would likely support “sanctuary” legislation currently moving through the Texas House, which would limits inquiries into immigration status from local law enforcement to people who have already been arrested.

Proposed legislation that passed the Senate earlier this year permits local police ask about immigration status if a person is either arrested or detained by law enforcement for other reasons.

The Lyceum poll found deeper divisions among Texans when asked if inquiries by law enforcement into immigration status should be allowed for people who aren’t arrested. Only 44 percent agree that police should check a person’s status during a traffic stop, while 41 percent agreed that immigration status should be checked when a person is reporting a crime. Only 39 percent said that status should be checked when the police believe that a person is a witness to a crime or could provide information.

[…]

Half of the respondents were asked if the state should stay the current course with President Trump in the White House, while the other half was asked about state expenditures with Republicans in charge of the U.S. Congress. Under both conditions, most of the respondents with an opinion on the issue – 45 percent of those questioned about Trump and 41 percent questioned about Congress – agreed the state should keep spending largely on the border.

“This indicates that, overall, Texans are expressing a greater expectation that the President will deliver on border security and/or immigration enforcement than Republicans in Congress, but there is no outcry to decrease the amount of money Texas spends securing its borders,” poll supervisors wrote in their summary.

When asked about President Trump’s plan to build a wall on the southern border, only about a third, or 35 percent, favored a barrier separating Texas from Mexico. Sixty-one percent opposed the project. The numbers are almost identical to the poll’s results from 2016 when 35 percent favored building the wall and 59 percent opposed such a project. This year, however the percentage of respondents who identified as Hispanic that supported construction of the wall rose from 18 percent in 2016 to 25 percent.

The survey also found that nearly two-thirds of respondents, or 63 percent, strongly supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants after a long waiting period if the applicants paid taxes and a penalty, passed a criminal background check and learned English. Twenty-seven of the respondents somewhat supported that idea while 4% somewhat opposed and 5% strongly opposed.

Here are the Day One press release – it’s “Day One” because the Lyceum has a second round of polling numbers coming out today – and Executive Summary. I want to quibble with the pollsters’ interpretation of the border spending question, for which the wording was “With [Donald Trump in the White House] / [Republicans in control of Congress], should the Texas Legislature continue funding border security operations in Texas at the same levels as before, increase funding for border security operations, or decrease funding for border security operations?” For one thing, it would be perfectly rational for someone who thinks Trump and Congress will shower the state in border money to want the state to spend less, and by the same token someone who thinks that Trump and Congress won’t come through might want the Lege to keep their spending up just in case. I agree that the result shows a greater preference for a continued high level of state spending, I just don’t see a connection to the federal level. There wasn’t a similar question asked in the 2016 or 2015 Lyceum polls, so there’s no basis for a direct comparison.

The bottom line here is that there’s at best modest support for “sanctuary cities”, with majority opposition to police asking about people’s immigration status in situations other than making a criminal arrest, there’s majority opposition to the Trump wall, majority support for in-state tuition for DREAMers, majority opposition to widespread deportations, and near-unanimous support for giving immigrants a pathway to citizenship. It’s not all good news for the progressive side of the debate, but it’s a lot closer to that than to the maximalist anti-immigration position. It’s up to all of us who support better immigration policies to advocate for them, because there’s more support out there for them than you might think. Tomorrow I’ll post about the second part of the Lyceum poll, which among other things will have your first glance at Senate 2018 numbers. The Chron has more.

Hate groups are getting busy on college campuses

From the Anti-Defamation League, another reason to be worried, if you needed one.

White supremacists, emboldened by the 2016 elections and the current political climate, are currently engaged in an unprecedented outreach effort to attract and recruit students on American college campuses. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has cataloged 104 incidents of white supremacist fliering on college campuses since the school year began in September 2016, with surge of activity since January 2017, when 63 of the total incidents (61 percent) occurred.

Until recently, on-the-ground white supremacist actions have been relatively infrequent on college campuses. But this year has been different, according to ADL’s Center on Extremism. White supremacists are using a variety of tactics including anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and racist fliers, as well as on-campus appearances and speeches by racist activists.

“White supremacists have consciously made the decision to focus their recruitment efforts on students and have in some cases openly boasted of efforts to establish a physical presence on campus,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO. “While there have been recruitment efforts in the past, never have we seen anti-Semites and white supremacists so focused on outreach to students on campus.”

White supremacist engagement tactics on campus range from the virtual, such as sending racist fliers to thousands of campus fax machines, to on the ground rallies and speaking engagements. More extremists are also making a point of visiting campuses to speak with students individually. This is part of a push to move their activism from online chatter to “real world” action.

See here for a fuller report. As noted by the Current, seventeen of these documented incidents have taken place on campuses of Texas universities, with Texas State being especially popular. I don’t have a prescription for this, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to be part of the resistance to it. Among other things, it would be very nice if our state leaders addressed the problem, spoke out against it, and maybe had just the tiniest glimmer of self-awareness for the role their support of Donald Trump has had in exacerbating this problem.

A happy ending

This was a long time coming.

When I first reported on this family a year ago, the boys – who had behavioral issues and delays likely stemming from abuse, neglect and being shuttled through foster placements – had just been removed from the loving women they called Mama and Mommy, and the stable home where they tended gardens filled with chickens, vegetables and butterflies.

Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffery, Houston public school educators whose home was regarded as exemplary, had been deemed uncooperative by the Wharton Child Protective Services office after they repeatedly reported concerns, including suspected abuse by a teen half-sibling elsewhere in foster care whom the boys were required to visit.

The women fought in court to get the boys back. Seven weeks later, they did – but it was only supposed to be temporary. CPS continued to block adoption efforts and to shop around the boys and their sibling as a package deal. The mothers say that after my columns began running, CPS staffers who once praised their care began to nitpick and demean, at one point initiating an investigation about a pedicure one boy received on medical advice, and another time terminating their right to medical consent.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. Just as mysteriously as CPS staff had opposed the adoption by Sugarek and Jeffery, they consented to it. Maybe they realized the battle was futile.

“We weren’t going to stop fighting,” Jeffery said.

In this business, we live for happy endings. But like everything else in this saga, it didn’t come easy.

See here, here, and here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. I don’t have anything to add to what Lisa Falkenberg says. There are lots of problems with CPS, many of which we can blame on the Legislator and our Governor, and others that CPS itself is responsible for. This story was an example of the latter. It’s great that it all worked out in the end, but it shouldn’t have taken this long and it shouldn’t have been this hard or this frustrating.