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December 30th, 2012:

Weekend link dump for December 30

I don’t know about you, but this was one of those years that I thought would never end.

America’s worst bosses. All are responsible for at least one large payout of a discrimination-related lawsuit.

The worst columns of 2012. I have no idea how they managed to stop at 50.

The top physics breakthroughs since the last Mayan apocalypse.

How to calculate your birthday using Maya Long Count.

You will need to work for almost two months to cover your health care costs for this year.

It’s the so-called “fiscal cliff” for a reason.

The 2012 Hack List. Boy, talk about a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Seven lessons learned about airlines in 2012.

Thanks to its paywall, the NY Times is now earning more from subscriptions than from advertising.

“That’s exactly what is worrying the Pope. He fears the opinions people form in their own consciences will lead them away from the doctrines set forth by the church.” Maybe what the Pope should really fear is that it’s Church doctrine that’s wrong.

And maybe this is why the Pope’s Twitter feed went all gloom and doom so quickly.

Ron Paul is not a fan of the NRA’s armed-guard-in-every-school proposal.

Why do the Koch brothers hate hurricane victims?

RIP, Charles Durning and Jack Klugman.

Oh, and I actually remember those orphan drug episodes of “Quincy” back in the day. I didn’t realize they had such lasting consequences, however.

Some of the people we’ll miss who left us in 2012.

Conservatives go cruising. Hijinks ensues.

“Anyone who really wants deficit reduction immediately — as tea party activists have claimed since they got started — should support plunging over the fiscal cliff as fast as possible. No other possible outcome could do more for reducing federal budget deficits than simply carrying out the policies due to take effect in the next several days.” Of course, tea partiers have never been concerned with reducing the deficit per se – it’s all about reducing their taxes, and reducing spending on people they don’t like.

Pete Peterson rules our world. Unfortunately.

“To recap: a major tea party group, which claims to be totally grassroots and not at all astroturfy, went through a coup carried out by a former House majority leader, his wife, and a gun-wielding aide, only to have the coup reversed through millions funneled through secret “corporations” by a donor whose business is for-profit cancer treatment (which is in no way related to FreedomWorks’ fierce opposition to health care reform). Republicans certainly do put the fun in dysfunctional.” Also, this. And that’s way more Dick Armey than anyone needs.

People like this set the bar just a little too high for the rest of us, you know?

Pope Lando II would totally make me want to be Catholic again.

How exactly is it that Westboro isn’t already classified as a hate group?

“The next question is pretty straightforward: can poor and disadvantaged kids have the same access to quality health care as kids from wealthy families?” There are no vouchers for that.

Hobby Lobby has gone renegade. I hope there are consequences for that.

Everybody hates the STAAR test now

In reading this story about the flood of legislation being filed to scale back or defer the STAAR tests, I am struck, but not surprised, by the genesis of this activity.

The clamor for change may have more to do with who’s finally speaking up, said Patricia López, a research associate at the Texas Center for Education Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Advocacy groups long have pointed out that standardized tests disproportionately hurt poor and minority students but the backlash has grown powerful and received more media attention because some aspects of STAAR “get really personal” with other populations, she said.

STAAR requirements impact high school seniors’ graduation plans and class rank in ways that its predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, never did — directly affecting a more affluent demographic of students and parents, she said.

“When you think about our old system, it was just about passing, and really the only kids that had to worry about that were the kids that were struggling,” said Arlene Williams, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the San Antonio area’s Southwest Independent School District.

Under STAAR, even “your high fliers” could be set back, agreed Southwest’s superintendent, Lloyd Verstuyft.

Nothing’s real until it affects middle class white people, am I right? Sure is funny how these things work. The attention to the potential negative effects of the STAAR test and the recent bouts of sanity concerning it are welcome, but I just have to shake my head at what it finally took to make it happen.

The payday lenders won’t go without a fight

Where there’s a fight, there’s sure to be lots of money.

Payday lenders were big spenders in the most recent Texas political campaigns – contributing more than $1.6 million to state races in the 2012 election cycle and giving most generously to Republican committee members who soon will be reviewing proposed reforms for their industry.

Storefront lenders – including payday, car title and similar businesses – splurged even more heavily on 2012 campaigns than they did for 2010 state races, according to a Houston Chronicle comparison of contributions reported so far from payday players as identified by the nonprofit Austin-based watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

And that’s likely a harbinger of a larger lobbying spree to come: The industry backed a multi­million-dollar push in the 2011 Legislature to defeat a proposed cap for payday loan rates, which most other states already control.

“Their clout comes from their ability to put some of their profits into politicians,” Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald told the Chronicle. “They’re not shy about pooling money and going after reps that don’t go along with their wishes.”

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the storefront lending industry’s recent campaign contributions was Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who chairs the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce and collected $64,000. Carona insists he’s committed to pushing payday reforms and reining in rates in 2013.

“I can’t speak for other legislators, but contributions obviously have no effect on my position,” he said. “There WILL be legislation to break the cycle of debt and bring down the (annual percentage rates).”

The lenders also contributed $81,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Dallas Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat who’s a major advocate of payday loan reforms, campaign finance data shows.

There are many legislators whose pronouncements that they will not be affected by large campaign contributions from a particular special interest would be laughably ridiculous. I’m willing to give Sen. Carona the benefit of the doubt here, however, since he did do an honorable job with payday lending-related legislation in 2011. Don’t let me down, Sen. Carona.

Payday lenders’ oversized campaign investments concern advocates like Lori Henning, executive director of the Texas Association of Goodwills, part of a coalition of anti-poverty and religious organizations that support limits for lenders whose fees can trap borrowers in a debt cycle and drain resources from charities forced to fund bailouts.

“Obviously it’s a concern when anybody is giving money and hoping they can influence a vote or a decision – what’s difficult is (that) the advocacy groups can’t compete in that level. We’re nonprofits,” she said.

[…]

Advocates like Henning hope that the Legislature will limit loan fees, cap renewals and ban particularly aggressive collection practices statewide.

But lawmakers also could consider simply making all or some of a payday loan industry group’s voluntary “best practices” part of Texas law – adopting laws that require lenders to follow more specific guidelines for disclosures and loan procedures for example.

The former is what real reform looks like, and until we get it we will continue to need such reform in Texas. The latter is what “reform” looks like, and it is to be resisted as being worse than nothing because it will make people think that something has been done when in reality it’s the same as it ever was. It should be noted that Rep. Gary Elkins, himself a payday lender and the leader of the successful opposition to new regulation on the industry in 2011, opposes even these window-dressing measures. For obviously different reasons, I agree with him on that. It’s real regulation or the fight isn’t finished.

Your one-minute real estate update

I just have one mostly tangential thing to say about this.

Houston will see a modest and steady growth in retail activity in 2013, according to Ed Wulfe’s annual retail forecast.

And the following year should be much better, said Wulfe, who is chairman and CEO of Wulfe & Co., a retail development, brokerage and property management firm.

The amount of new shopping center space to be built and opened in 2013 will be slightly greater than this year’s, while 2014 should be “very strong based on what’s underway,” Wulfe said.

I note that story mostly because it seems like as good an excuse as any to wonder once again about the status of all those long-dormant projects whose empty lots serve as a daily reminder of their lack of activity. I speak of course of the Stables and the Robinson Warehouse, now celebrating its sixth anniversary of vacantness. At last report the Sonoma site was being redeveloped; I can’t personally confirm this, as I generally avoid the area. Regent Square was supposed to have commenced construction in October, but I haven’t seen anything on the Allen Parkway part of the property. And one property that I generally forget about but was in the news recently, the old Astroworld site, also continues to lay fallow. I know this story is about retail development, and most of the sites I’m talking about were intended to be residential or mixed-use, but I feel like the Houston real estate market won’t truly be healthy again until something is happening with all of them.