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January, 2013:

When, Wendy?

When will Sen. Wendy Davis run for statewide office?

Sen. Wendy Davis

Fortified by a convincing re-election victory, state Sen. Wendy Davis is resuming her role as a fierce critic of Republican-led education cuts as she enters her third regular session of the Legislature.

Political watchers say the session could set the stage for Davis to run for statewide office.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, the Fort Worth Democrat said one of her objectives is to reverse deep cuts in education and other services that she says were orchestrated by Gov. Rick Perry and other Republicans during the 2011 session.

“If we continue on the track we are today, with the tremendous underfunding of public education and higher education, we are putting Texas on a path to fail,” she said.

Davis amassed Democratic star power by repelling a well-funded Republican assault in November and gaining a second term in her Tarrant County Senate seat.

Her defeat of then-Rep. Mark Shelton, a Fort Worth pediatrician endorsed by Perry and other Republican leaders, heightened speculation that she is on her way to a statewide political run, possibly in 2014.

“From the perspective of electability, she’s one of our top superstars in Texas,” said state Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who believes that Davis is a potential candidate for governor, lieutenant governor or the U.S. Senate. “Her sensibility and approach to politics will just automatically propel her as a top candidate for statewide office.”

Davis has acknowledged an interest in moving up the political ladder but says her immediate focus is on working for District 10 and pushing a diverse legislative agenda in the 83rd Legislature, which will run until May 27.

I believe this is the interview they’re referring to. As the story notes, one likely factor in any decision Davis may make will come today, when Senators draw lots to see who has to run again in 2014 and who gets to wait till 2016. If Davis is in the latter group, she can run for something else in 2014 without having to give up her seat in the Senate unless she wins. If she draws the 2014 straw, however, she has to make a choice. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’d choose to stay where she is, but that seems the more likely possibility. This is one reason why Sen. Kirk Watson resisted suggestions that he run for Governor in 2010 – he was up for election that year.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said a statewide run by Davis is “much more a matter of when rather than if.”

“I think since the early days of her tenure in the Legislature, she has been somebody that Democrats have looked at with high expectations,” he said.

I can’t say for certain until the updated district information is published by the Texas Legislative Council, but Davis may have been the only Dem in 2012 to win a district that was not carried by President Obama. That says something. There are other names out there for 2014 – Henry Cisneros, Cecile Richards, and Julian Castro have all been mentioned as possibilities, if only by me in Cisneros’ case – and like Julian Castro, Davis may decide that it isn’t her time yet. Which would be fair enough and totally understandable, but I’ll say again that there’s no guarantee that 2018 will be a better opportunity than 2014. It’s a leap of faith, and you can only hope to be ready for it.

Speaking of such things, via press release from Edinburg Politics, there is now a Republican not named Rick Perry or Greg Abbott who claims to be running for Governor next year.

South Texan Miriam Martínez, a renowned international journalist, small business owner, and the former 2012 Republican nominee for state representative, House District 41, on Monday, January 21, announced her plan to seek the March 2014 Republican nomination for Texas governor.

She said her campaign would focus on key issues, such as job creation, education, child support, and immigration. But she also emphasized the importance of the Republican Party having a candidate who is a woman and a minority to lead the top of the political ticket.

“I do not believe in discrimination. I just think it’s time for a woman to do the job.” said Martínez, a survivor of family violence. “I know how to take care of business. As a Mexican American woman, I can handle challenges and defeats. What I can’t handle is living a life of regret and asking myself, ‘What if?’”

Martinez got 38% of the vote in HD41. She also got 1,210 votes in the GOP primary for HD41. As the story noted, she originally announced for HD41 as a Democrat – I had her listed there for awhile on my 2012 Election page after finding her via Google while compiling candidate names – which one presumes would be used against her in the unlikely case that someone feels the need to attack her candidacy. One can be successful as a Democratic candidate in a low-profile primary with a Hispanic surname and not much else. In a high-profile Republican primary, I’m guessing that probably isn’t so. Be that as it may, you have to give her credit for having the gumption to jump into the race before either Perry or Abbott has publicly made up his mind.

UPDATE: According to Postcards, Davis drew a two-year term, meaning that she would have to run for re-election next year. That would seem to put a damper on her gubernatorial prospects, at least for now. But you never know.

More from the Larry Marshall files

This guy is a piece of work.

HISD trustee Larry Marshall, fresh off a two-day school board retreat, flew from Houston to Tampa, Fla., on a clear winter day to watch the 2009 Super Bowl in Raymond James Stadium.

Cheap seats for the match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals cost $500 each, but brokers were charging $2,000. The price, however, didn’t matter to Marshall, who paid nothing for his ticket, his airfare or his hotel that weekend.

The school district’s most senior trustee recently disclosed under oath that he accepted the free trip from the owners of Fort Bend Mechanical, a Stafford company that three months earlier had won an HISD construction contract potentially worth millions.

New deposition testimony reveals that the Super Bowl trip was just one example of Marshall’s social interactions with actual or prospective HISD contractors. He also forged relationships over meals at places like the Four Seasons and Fleming’s, with the contractors typically picking up his tab, he said.

These connections would not have been disclosed publicly save for an ongoing civil lawsuit alleging a bribery and money laundering scheme involving Marshall, Fort Bend Mechanical and another company, RHJ-JOC.

The gifts normally fall under a loophole in state law, which allows local elected officials to keep secret any meals, lodging, travel or tickets they receive from contractors so long as the contractor is present at the event. The “guest” rule meant Marshall did not have to file disclosure paperwork about the Super Bowl because he attended alongside the district vendors who paid the bill.

“Not only do we need more disclosure, we just need to ban that practice,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen of Texas. “It’s a well-known psychological trick used by lobbyists at whatever level that if an elected official associates you with pleasurable events that they’re going to look favorable to any proposal you make to them.”

That loophole has since been closed, which is good if a bit late. What’s amazing to me is not just the extent of Marshall’s questionable behavior (I’m being generous here) but the extent to which he doesn’t see it as questionable. All I know is that Marshall is up for re-election this year, and I truly hope he gets challenged on this stuff. It has no place on the school board. K-12 Zone has more.

One place where a little austerity would do some good

Rick Perry’s slush funds get no love in the opening budgets.

The House and Senate’s initial two-year budgets would force Perry’s deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund to exhaust its last $7 million and throttle back on state film incentives and subsidies for major sporting events.

The Emerging Technology Fund, which subsidizes high-tech commercial ventures, would face slightly less dire prospects. The 8-year-old effort, which a Dallas Morning News investigation in 2010 found had awarded more than $16 million to firms with investors or officers who are large Perry campaign donors, has an estimated $120 million of existing money.

Lawmakers’ initial budgets would let it spend down that sum in the next two years.

“The Legislature is tired of seeing some of these programs being used the way they’re being used — or the appearance that they’re being used for that,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. “By zeroing those things out, the Legislature will have a way to look at these programs.”

In the past, Perry generally has succeeded in defending the programs, except in 2011’s budget-cutting session, when the Enterprise Fund and tech fund received no new money.

This year, though, Perry isn’t facing criticism only from Democrats, who say education and social services should get the first call on limited state dollars.

The Republican governor also is dodging charges of crony capitalism that were bandied about in his failed run for president last year and recently aired by Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, in his failed bid to become Texas House speaker.

Last spring, Texans for a Conservative Budget, a coalition of a half-dozen groups, urged lawmakers to consider eliminating dozens of programs, including the Enterprise Fund and tech fund.

Of course, as we know, these budgets are “just a starting point”, so Perry isn’t going to have to beg for loose change on the streets for his pet projects just yet. I could live with the continued existence of these funds if there were some actual oversight on them, and more stringent rules and sanctions for the job creation requirements of the grants. But just not giving them any more money works for me, too.

San Antonio strip club lawsuit

If you’re a lawyer representing strip clubs these days, you sure don’t lack for business.

More than a dozen strip clubs have sued the city of San Antonio over amendments to ordinances requiring entertainers to wear bikinis, claiming the changes are another heavy-handed attempt to shut the cabarets down.

The federal lawsuit resembles one at the center of a court battle almost 10 years ago when the city amended its human display ordinance to, among other things, bar nude dancing, set greater restrictions on lap dances and prohibit small, private and unsupervised VIP rooms in all strip clubs. It ended in a settlement.

Many of the topless clubs got around those restrictions, and greater regulation, by having entertainers wear pasties, while clubs that offered nude dancing challenged citations individually.

The ordinance pertaining to sexually oriented businesses and the human display ordinance were amended last year, with the changes meant at tightening technicalities.

The changes are set to take effect in the coming two months.

“They did a number of things, most of them were technical provisions, but of note, they changed the definition so if you are wearing less than a bikini you’re a sexually oriented business,” City Attorney Michael Bernard said. “It gets rid of this whole pasties thing.”

“The effect is to tighten up the definition of a sexually oriented business,” Bernard said. “If your business is sexually oriented, you are going to be sexually oriented under the law. Before, there were loopholes in which they avoided that.”

This sounds very similar to the original SOB ordinance in Houston that triggered a lawsuit that was finally resolved in the city’s favor more than a decade later, but a bit more restrictive. Houston has taken a somewhat different approach to policing its strip clubs these days, but it’s not out of the question that what happens in San Antonio could get imported here. So we may as well keep an eye on it.

January finance reports for Houston offices

Previously, I gave the July campaign finance numbers for Houston elected officials who are eligible for the ballot this fall. Here now are the cash on hand figures from the January reports, with all incumbents and a few assorted extras thrown in:

Dist Name Cash on hand ================================= Myr Parker 1,043,827 Ctrl R Green 35,753 AL 1 Costello 51,135 AL 2 Burks 2,378 AL3 Noriega 4,317 AL 4 Bradford AL 5 Christie A Brown 2,010 B Davis 57,983 C Cohen 29,881 D Adams E Martin 1,486 F Hoang 4,749 G Pennington 112,275 H Gonzalez 18,769 I Rodriguez 13,642 J Laster 27,254 K L Green 6,504 A Knox 0 A Stardig 23,605 D Jolanda Jones 3,203 D Boykins 0

CMs Adams, Bradford, and Christie did not have reports available as of Monday afternoon. There’s no fundraising allowed for city officials during this time, so everyone will have a smaller cash on hand total since all they could do was spend. Mayor Parker easily spent the most, a bit over $200K, with much of it going to her campaign operations but also sizable contributions to the Metro referendum campaign ($25K), the Harris County Democratic Party ($10K), and to help retire the debt of former Judge Steve Kirkland ($4,900). Ben Hall had not filed a report as of this deadline; I don’t think he had filed his designation of treasurer until after the 15th, so he wasn’t required to do so.

As I suspected before, the cash on hand figure Ronald Green reported in July was erroneous. This one makes much more sense.

Helena Brown spent down nearly all of her stash, with $5,753 going to Premier IMS for direct mail, $4,165 to Terry Yates and $850 to Kevin Colbert for legal services, $4,000 to Institute of Hispanic Culture for “community outreach” (event), $2,990 to the city as reimbursement for the magnets, and $1,050 to Media Masters for “media consulting”. So much for parity with Brenda Stardig. Like the magnets, she had tried to bill the attorney fees to the city but was denied the reimbursement by City Attorney David Feldman. William “Mike” Knox, who spent $500 on consultant Jessica Colon, is a declared candidate against her.

Dwight Boykins in District D spent $749 on flyers and magnets. I list Jolanda Jones as District D, but her finance report left the “office sought” field blank, so take that with a large grain of salt. No other non-officeholders who might be running for something filed a report.

Most other incumbents spent only modest amounts, since there wasn’t necessarily anything to spend it on. Besides Mayor Parker and CM Brown, Ed Gonzalez was an exception, dropping $40K from July. He made a lot of donations and contributions, including $5K to CrimeStoppers for a benefit dinner, $3,500 to the HCDP, $1,500 to Resurrection Catholic School, and $1,020 to Planned Parenthood.

There are no reports posted as yet for HISD and HCC candidates. I will check back later for them.

Not much else to see at this time. Fundraising season begins in a couple of weeks, and the trickle of candidate news should pick up then as well. As always, if you have any intel please leave a comment and clue us all in.

Last day of early voting in SD06 today

Today is the last day for early voting in the SD06 special election. Voting has not been terribly brisk so far. Through Monday there have been 7,178 total votes cast. You can see the daily figures here. Monday was a little slow because of MLK Day and no mail ballots arriving – we’ll see if an extra big pile of absentee ballots arrive today. But even if that happens, it seems to me that there will around 8,000 early votes cast, maybe 8,500, so unless there’s a big chunk of the vote to come on Election Day this Saturday, we will very likely fall on the low end of the turnout projections. There really isn’t a comparable race to turn to for comparison, but just for grins here’s how the early vote/Election Day breakdown went for the past six special elections and runoffs in Harris County.

Houston City Council, At Large #3, May 2007 – 44.7% of 37,592 votes were cast early

Houston City Council, At Large #3 runoff, June 2007 – 51.8% of 24,865 votes were cast early

SD17 runoff, Harris County only, December 2008 – 39.7% of 23,626 votes were cast early

Houston City Council, District H, May 2009 – 45.5% of 4,186 votes were cast early

Houston City Council, District H runoff, June 2009 – 47.7% of 4,707 votes were cast early

HISD Trustee, District 8, November 2010 – 50.5% of 24,631 votes were cast early

There was a runoff for that last race, but its results were not given on the Harris County Clerk page, so I can’t say how much of that vote was cast early. The 2010 and 2007 general elections were coincident with other scheduled elections – there was a city proposition on the ballot in May of 2007, and no I didn’t remember that, either – the others were not. With tongue firmly in cheek, I’d suggest that between 40 and 50 percent of the vote in this race will be cast early, so on the extremely optimistic assumption that there will be about 9,000 votes total cast early, we’re looking at an over/under of about 20,000 – say between 18,000 and 22,500, to be obnoxious about it. If we’re closer to 8,000 votes cast by tomorrow, lower those endpoints to 15,000 and 20,000.

It was my intent to include a look at 8 day campaign finance reports for this race, but as far as I can tell there are no such things posted on the Texas Ethics Commission page, just the January 15 reports. I don’t know why this is the case – maybe they’re someplace other than the usual location, for some reason – but I didn’t see 30 day reports, either, so maybe that should have told me something. With the January 15 deadline falling between the two dates I guess that makes some sense. For what it’s worth, Big Jolly suggested that Carol Alvarado was doing a lot better in fundraising than Sylvia Garcia was because a large portion of Garcia’s total on the January 15 report was that $106K in kind contribution from the Texas Organizing Project PAC (TOPPAC). I get what he’s saying, but it seems to me that a sizable investment in field work is quite valuable in a race like this, no matter how it’s accounted for. Speaking of which, Big Jolly also has this to say:

What I don’t understand is why RW Bray’s report doesn’t list In-Kind donations from Raging Elephants. I get at least one email a day supporting his candidacy from the Apostle’s group, stating that it is a political ad paid for by Raging Elephants. The last few days, the Apostle has been begging people to get to HCRP headquarters for phone banking. Now, we already know that Raging Elephants doesn’t bother with filing campaign finance reports but if a miracle were to happen and Bray somehow sneaks into a runoff, he’s going to have some ‘splaining to do. I mean, someone is paying for all that phone banking they have going on out of the Harris County Republican Party headquarters. Right?

Indeed. Perhaps someone ought to file a complaint about that. In any event, everyone involved in this race will have to make at least one more finance report, in July if they don’t make the runoff, so perhaps we’ll learn more about this at that time. If you are in SD06 and you haven’t voted yet, please do so. Early voting locations are here, and polling locations for Election Day on Saturday the 26th can be found here. Please do your part to prove my projections too pessimistic.

Second attempt at Sunday liquor sales

If at first you don’t succeed.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson filed a bill last week that proposed liquor stores be allowed to operate seven days a week.

Under the current law, liquor stores may operate from Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The stores must close on Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. If Christmas or New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday, the stores must close the following Monday, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Thompson’s proposal would allow the stores to be open from noon to 10 p.m. on Sundays, but the stores would continue to remain closed on the holidays.

[…]

Texas could potentially gain $7.5 million in new revenue every other year if the Sunday ban were lifted, according to a 2011 Texas Legislative Budget Board analysis.

During the 2011 legislative session, a similar measure failed to gain traction. Companion bills filed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Rep. Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, were left pending in committee.

Rep. Thompson’s bill is HB421, for those keeping score at home. See here, here, and here for the background. I supported this then and I support it now, mostly because I don’t see any good reason why Sunday should be different than the other days. I’m not the only one who sees it that way, either. We’ll see if this bill has a better fate this time around.

You simply must see us this year

The New York Times commands you.

Houston is probably best known as the Texan center for energy and industry, but it’s making a bid to be the state’s cultural and culinary capital as well. The Houston Museum District is a formidable coterie of institutions that includes the Rothko Chapel, the Museum of African American Culture, which made its debut last February; and the Asia Society Texas Center, which opened in a stunning Yoshio Taniguchi-designed building in April. And last summer, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened a 30,000-square-foot hall of paleontology in a new $85 million wing. Meanwhile, the city’s dining scene is also heating up, with three of the city’s newest restaurants — Oxheart, Underbelly and Uchi — placing on national best-new-restaurant lists.

Our fair city is number 7 on their list of 46 places to visit in 2013, one of only four places in the continental United States. So what are you waiting for? Hair Balls has more.

More on Hall’s announcement

Here’s the full Chron story from the weekend about Ben Hall’s announcement that yes, he really is running for Mayor this year.

Ben Hall

“Hall is a formidable challenger but is a long shot to unseat the mayor,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said in an email.

Rottinghaus noted Hall’s funding capability, his vision and his qualifications but suggested that “with Parker’s nationalizing profile and perceptions of her doing a good job, it is a more uphill fight.”

Rottinghaus added that Parker’s most formidable challenge may not be Hall, per se, but a crowded primary field that could squeeze her out of a runoff.

“In a runoff, a well-funded candidate like Hall that can put the right coalition together could have a chance,” he said. “This may be the model – almost successful for Gene Locke – that Hall is looking to create.”

Jared Woodfill, Harris County Republican Party chairman, said he could see a squeeze play of sorts developing, with challenges coming from Hall and, potentially, at least two Republicans.

“Annise Parker could be the odd person out,” Woodfill said. “She doesn’t have the constituencies that the other three would have, plus I don’t think she has lived up to her campaign promises. She promised to stay out of party politics, but she was an outspoken supporter of Obama.”

Woodfill and others recall just such a scenario in 1990 when mayoral candidates Lanier and state Rep. Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, squeezed out five-term incumbent Kathy Whitmire, who finished a distant third.

Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said he and Woodfill discussed the possibility of him running for mayor but said his interest was predicated on the possibility that Parker may leave office early to take a position in the Obama administration, thus necessitating a special election.

“In a special election, I could see what the party chairman is pitching, because that’s a low-turnout scenario that would be favorable to Republicans,” he said.

Bettencourt also suggested that Hall’s candidacy was based, at least initially, on the possibility that the mayor would leave office early.

“The glacier’s moving,” he said. “The question is, where is it going to stop?”

I have no idea what that glacier is supposed to signify. The flow of candidates moving towards running? The flow of Mayor Parker moving towards a job in the Obama administration that’s she has already denied and which never made any sense anyway? I generally agree with the basic thesis that a special election will have lower turnout, but a special Mayoral election ought to have enough attention and money in it to be a fairly reasonable facsimile of a normal election.

Not that it really matters, because we’re not going to find out. I’ve already said what there is to say about the squeeze-play hypothesis, but I suspect I’ll have to say it again (and again) between now and November, so here are the bullet points: Kathy Whitmire was a six-term Mayor coming off a bruising political defeat at the hands of her eventual opponent (and election winner) Bob Lanier. She wasn’t squeezed in that race, she was crushed, barely topping 20% of the vote. Lanier isn’t so much a Republican as a creature of the downtown establishment, and he’s certainly not a Republican in the way we think of them today. Sylvester Turner was a young up-and-comer, which Ben Hall is not. Besides all that, sure, there’s plenty of parallels if a serious Republican gets into the race. Knock yourselves out finding them. I just don’t think they’ll matter all that much in the end.

Looks like we’ll be waiting on SCOTUS for awhile

Texas Redistricting:

The Texas redistricting appeal wasn’t on the list of cases reviewed by the Justices at their screening conference today.

With the passage of time – and the case not even being listed for review – the calendar now makes it highly unlikely that the court could take up the case even if it later decides to grant full review.  The four cases which the court did grant today are expected to be argued in April at the court’s last scheduled oral arguments.  So taking the Texas case and hearing it this year would require an unusual special setting – and there has been no indication that the court sees that kind of urgency in the case.

Instead, many observers have speculated that the high court has deferred deciding what to do with the Texas case until it decides in Shelby Co. v. Holder whether section 5 of the Voting Rights Act remains constitutional.

Of course, it is possible that the court later could summarily affirm the opinion below or dismiss the appeal as requested by the Justice Department and redistricting litigants (which would not require argument), but it looks increasingly likely that any action on the Texas redistricting appeal could be an issue for the 2013-14 term and not this one.

If so, the question then becomes whether the San Antonio panel takes any action to begin drawing remedial maps as well as address other legal challenges – or whether the San Antonio panel also decides to wait for Shelby Co.  To date, the court has not taken any action since receiving scheduling proposals from the parties in early December.

While waiting arguably makes sense, the challenge could become having to quickly draw remedial maps if section 5 is upheld – since a decision in the Shelby Co. case very likely might not come until late June.  Any changes to the maps would require redrawing precinct lines and a number of other technical steps, and the countdown to the filing date for the Texas primary starts in September.

While early dates could be tweaked, the court will have to balance not taking unnecessary steps against the possibility that the Texas primary election schedule could be messed up again.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this. It makes sense to wait, but it sure does ratchet up the stakes. I presume that there may need to be remedial maps even if SCOTUS makes changes to or throws out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, because the San Antonio lawsuit wasn’t about preclearance. There may not be all that much to do because as I recall the interim maps used for the 2012 elections made changes to most if not all of the districts that had been challenged and for which the DC court ruled against Texas. But I’m not a lawyer, so don’t take my word for it. We’ll know more after SCOTUS does its business.

Here come the tax cut proposals

When the sunny revenue forecast came in, we immediately got one crappy tax cut idea, to eliminate the margins tax at a cost of $4.5 billion. The Texas Association of Business didn’t care for the idea, at least at first, but are now warming up to it, because this is what they do.

For Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, it’s a simple formula: Keep taxes low and the Texas economic engine keeps on chugging. Hammond says making permanent the business tax exemption for companies that bring in less than $1 million in gross receipts would fuel the economy, as would allowing those making more than that to exempt their first $1 million.

“Currently if you do $900,000 in receipts, you pay no tax,” Hammond said. “If you have $1.1 million in receipts you pay tax on the entire amount.”

With a million-dollar exemption, the latter company would pay taxes on just $100,000.

Hammond also wants to lower the franchise tax rate by a quarter of a percent. And lest consumers feel left out, the proposal includes a sales tax exemption for college textbooks.

[…]

Hammond’s proposals would cost the state more than $4 billion, money he says should be off limits to lawmakers, because spending it would put the state over a constitutional cap on state budget growth.

“Unless there’s a vote of two-thirds of both bodies to bust the constitutional cap, that money will either be sitting in the treasury forever maybe, or, as we believe, it should be returned to the taxpayers,” he said.

But Hammond’s numbers don’t exactly add up. The $4 billion would be off limits based on the current size of the 2012-13 budget. But lawmakers are expected to add about $7 billion to that budget in a supplemental appropriation early this spring. That would increase the cap for the new budget and erase that $4 billion overage.

Hammond calls his proposal a starting point and expects more tax cut ideas in coming weeks.

Well, the margins tax was born on fuzzy math, so it would be somehow poetic if its demise began with more fuzzy math. The Statesman has more:

Hammond said the rate cut proposed by TAB could be the the first step in phasing out the franchise tax.

Until the latest revenue forecasts, Hammond had said he doubted the state would have the revenue to phase out a franchise tax that has accounted for about 10 percent of all state tax revenue. But he said Texas Comptroller Susan Combs’ forecast for the next two years changed his mind.

“We needed to see how much money was available,” Hammond said. “There’s money to fund some or all of it.”

Dick Lavine with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income families, disagrees.

Lavine said state funding for education is $500 per student less than before the 2011 cuts. He also noted Texas’ needs for water and transportation infrastructure.

Although the Legislature is expected to be even more conservative this year than in 2011, Lavine said he’s begun talking to GOP lawmakers and they aren’t in lock step for tax cuts.

“Not all of them are enthusiastic about tax cuts because they realize the state has higher priorities,” Lavine said.

Priorities, remember those? You know, like water and transportation and Medicaid and weaning the budget off of accounting tricks and paying off all those bills the Lege deferred from 2011. Those things. Oh, yeah, and public education, which the Lege won’t address this session beyond maybe funding enrollment growth but which Lt. Gov. Dewhurst wants to set some money aside in anticipation of a court ruling that more must be spent. This is why if you think in terms of what Texas actually needs, we’re falling well short of what we should be spending. Even without that, it’s hard to see where the room for a multi-billion dollar extravagance like this comes from. You can pay for the things Texas needs, or you can throw a bunch of money down the tax cut drain. You can’t do both.

And as a reminder, it’s not just the big ticket items that are clamoring for their fair share of the pie, it’s the smaller line items, too.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would close seven state parks during the 2014-2015 biennium under preliminary budget proposals from the House and Senate, and at least one group is ready to fight to keep them open.

In discussions before the legislative session began, the parks and wildlife department requested that the Legislative Budget Board allocate an additional $18.9 million from the sporting goods sales tax to keep all parks operational. The preliminary House and Senate budgets, released Tuesday, call for only an additional $6.9 million over the next biennium from that tax.

Ian Davis, the directof of Keep Texas Parks Open, said parks improve Texans’ quality of life and stimulate local economies, especially in smaller counties. His organization will hold town hall meetings around the state and organize Texans online to advocate for additional funds so the department can keep all its parks open.

“We are trying to mobilize people across the state so they understand that it could be their park that closes,” Davis said.

Here’s their Facebook page if the idea of not spending less than 0.1% of the revenue we have to keep Texas’ parks open offends you. We have a choice to make. We really ought to try to make a good one.

Yale Street Bridge work set to begin

Good to hear.

Work to rehabilitate the Yale Street Bridge south of Interstate 10 is scheduled to begin in April.

According to the Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering, the process will involve installation of external carbon-strip reinforcement along the bridge beams, significantly increasing the load-bearing weight of the structure, which now is set at 3,000 pounds per axle. Bids are expected to be received in February, with contracts awarded in March and rehab work beginning in April.

The bridge is on a Texas Department of Transportation prioritized list for statewide funding for replacement, with construction anticipated to start in late 2016.

The bridge’s capacity was downgraded by TxDOT from 8,000 pounds per axle last September.

Until the work is completed, monthly inspections of the bridge are slated to continue. Most cars, SUVs and light trucks do not exceed the restrictions, but some do. You can check the weight limit of your vehicle on the sticker attached on the driver’s side door.

The Houston Police Department continues enforcement efforts, as anyone who drives that regularly can attest. Also, the city is remotely monitoring bridge traffic to identify possible overweight vehicle violations. Perhaps the biggest reduction of traffic to the bridge is that with the completion of Koehler between Heights Boulevard and Yale, there is now an easy alternative route via the Heights Boulevard Bridge for northbound and southbound truck traffic. The Heights Boulevard Bridge does not have load limits. For more about the bridge and the rehab project, contact Alvin Wright at 832-395-2455 or alvin.wright@houstontx.gov.

See here, here, and here for some background. With the Alexan Heights project on the drawing board there’s even more reason to get this going. Hopefully this will make the situation a little better until full-on reconstruction can begin.

Weekend link dump for January 20

Hail to the Chief, it’s the Chief that we are hailing…

Woo hoo! Flying cars! About damn time.

Google wind. That’s a noun, not a verb.

How to not be a menace during cold and flu season.

These eight words come in handy in many other contexts as well.

The semi-open gay lives of some professional athletes.

The public health benefits of bikini waxing. Yes, I said “public”.

A more honest description of each Best Picture nominee.

The so-called “performance enhancing drug” problem is a lot older than you might think.

I agree that the Washington NFL franchise needs to change its name, but “Hail to the best Skins” just doesn’t scan.

How to disable Java in your browser. Might want to bookmark that for future reference, assuming anyone still uses bookmarks.

There’s no crying in space. Sort of.

Jodie Foster did not impress Andrew Sullivan.

Voter flatulence is the real problem.

“So the two years Obama and Boehner have spent trying to deflect, delay, and placate the mania of the tea party seem to have finally come to an end point.” God help us all.

It sure didn’t take Steve Stockman very long to remind everyone why we were so glad to be rid of him in 1996.

“So here is my recommendation for who President Obama should invite to give the benediction at his inauguration ceremony: No one.”

How do people who don’t have widespread networks of friends and fans put pressure on recalcitrant entities to fix their errors?

Earth’s long lost twin has been found.

Wayne Dobson doesn’t have your cellphone.

The march towards equality continues apace.

If you’re going to sneak vegetables into your kids’ food, be prepared for the guilt.

There’s a reason why the phrase “Very Serious People” is a putdown.

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

I think Dan Rather Scared My Mom would make an excellent band name.

Dana Milbank says what I’ve been saying for awhile about Steve Stockman.

RIP, Conrad Bain, a/k/a Mr. Drummond from “Diff’rent Strokes”.

The greatest screenplay never made.

Pity the poor six-figure earners. Won’t someone please think of them?

Defining impeachment down.

The Manti Te’o thing…man, I don’t even know what to say. Actually, I do know one thing to say, and that’s that if you’re going to read about that, you should read about Lizzy Seeberg as well.

A worthy honor for Victoria Soto.

RIP, Pauline Phillips, a/k/a Dear Abby.

“Remember Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope”? Looking back, I was struck by the audacity of his five boldest 2008 promises: universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, passing comprehensive immigration reform and creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce global warming. The president kept all but the last two promises, and by this time next year, he could be 4-for-5, with only carbon trading still outstanding.”

Poor David Brooks. So much cognitive dissonance, so little time.

Where are the 27th Amendment absolutists when you really need them?

RIP, Earl Weaver, one of the best – and most colorful – to ever manage a game of baseball.

And RIP, Stan The Man Musial. Been a rough month for the Hall of Fame, hasn’t it?

Some things you can vaccinate against

Saying dumb things isn’t one of them.

CM Jack Christie

As the council considered a proposal Wednesday to accept $3.1 million in federal funding for childhood immunizations, Councilman Jack Christie voiced his opposition to the measure, apparently conflating it with flu vaccinations.

“I’m going to vote against this,” Christie said before the 15-1 vote. “You don’t die from the flu.”

Christie backed down somewhat from his comment on Friday. What he meant to say, he said, was that “People should not die from the flu.”

“First of all, that’s $3 million that the federal government doesn’t really have,” Christie said of the funding proposal. “It’s borrowed money we eventually have to pay back. But more important is the media’s embellishment of the extreme fear of encouraging flu vaccinations.

“Every year there’s going to be a flu,” he said, “and vaccines create synthetic immunity, which does not trump natural immunity to disease.”

Christie, who said he has never taken a flu shot, suggested the medical community should focus more attention on prescription drug abuse that claims thousands of lives annually in the U.S.

Dr. Joshua Septimus, associate professor of internal medicine at Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, called Christie’s comments irresponsible.

“That is totally wrong,” he said. “The flu kills anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands in the U.S. alone. There is very good evidence that the flu shot reduces deaths from the flu. That flu vaccine is a very low risk and with very high potential benefits.”

So much here to deal with. First, the idea that not accepting this funding is fiscally responsible is ludicrous. This money has already been appropriated. Not accepting it doesn’t mean it magically gets transmuted from a liability to an asset on the federal budget balance sheet. It means it gets to be granted to some other city. There are sometimes good reasons to turn down federal funding, but this is money for childhood immunizations. Spending money to keep kids healthy is about the best spending we can do. It’s an investment with a big payoff, both in terms of spending less later on sick kids, and the greater lifetime earnings potential of kids who grew up healthy and in some cases who got to grow up at all.

Second, the bit about the medical community needing to focus more on prescription drug abuse is a complete non sequitur. Last I checked, the medical community was big enough to handle more than one thing at a time. It’s also unlikely to change its priorities based on one screwball City Council voting down a grant for childhood immunizations. If you want to send a message to the American Medical Association, writing a letter to them is probably the better approach.

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, but even Helena Brown voted to accept these funds. Let me say that again: Even Helena Brown voted to accept these funds. When you’re off on an island that even Helena Brown isn’t inhabiting, you need to check your coordinates, know what I mean?

Who gets the water?

This will be worth watching.

A simple idea has guided appropriations of Texas water for decades: First come, first served.

Now, with drought conditions returning to almost the entire state, the principle is being put to the test by a fight over water in the Brazos River.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is withholding water from some, but not all, rights holders to meet the needs of the Dow Chemical Co., which operates a massive manufacturing complex where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have sued to get their water back, saying the state agency overstepped its authority by exempting cities and power producers with rights younger than theirs from the suspension order. The agency based the decision upon “public health, safety and welfare concerns.”

No one disputes the chemical maker’s rights, which date to the 1920s. The legal question is whether TCEQ may consider factors beyond seniority when deciding who gets water first in times of shortage.

“This really will be a precedent-setting case if the courts uphold TCEQ’s position,” said Ronald Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. “It is about whether we still believe in the priority system. It is elegantly simple, but its limitation is that we don’t consider the highest economic use of water.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the Texas Farm Bureau and two growers argue that TCEQ does not have the authority to divert from the priority system during drought.

The order leaves more than 700 farmers without surface water for irrigation, while dozens of others with junior rights, including the cities of Houston and Waco and NRG Energy, will not be restricted in their use.

“It turns the priority system on its head,” said Regan Beck, assistant general counsel for public policy at the Farm Bureau.

Mark McPherson, a Dallas-based lawyer who specializes in water rights but is not involved in the lawsuit, agreed.

“When the historic state priority system is changed so materially, it makes those who planned based on the priority system look foolish, and it makes those who benefit from the change look lucky,” McPherson said. “I don’t think that’s a proper use of agency power.”

The solution, he said, is for those who need more water to pay for it. State law allows TCEQ to transfer water rights to meet urgent public health and safety needs, but doing so requires compensation, which was not offered in this case.

“The correct answer is perhaps harsh, but nonetheless necessary: Go acquire more water rights, at the market cost, and pass those costs on to the users,” McPherson said. “And if this were allowed to happen, we’d quickly feel, and finally understand, that water supply is a critical factor in economic competition.”

I’m not a lawyer and I know precious little about water rights, but what McPherson says makes sense to me. I can’t wait to see what the court says. I imagine the Lege will be interested in this decision as well, as it may force them to rewrite some existing laws, and it may give them some extra incentive to tackle that long-term water issue.

Meanwhile, in other water dispute news, the state of Texas has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against New Mexico over water from the Rio Grande.

In its complaint, Texas says that New Mexico has dodged a 1938 agreement to deliver Texas’ share of Rio Grande river. Instead, New Mexico is illegally allowing diversions of both surface and underground water hydrologically connected to the Rio Grande downstream of Elephant Butte reservoir in New Mexico, according to the filing.

The complaint, filed after New Mexico took its own legal actions and after years of negotiations, asks the Supreme Court to command New Mexico to deliver water apportioned to Texas.

The Rio Grande is the primary, and at some places the only, source of water for much of the agricultural land within Texas. Water from the river constitutes, on average, half the annual water supply for El Paso, according to the filing.

“So long as New Mexico refuses to acknowledge its Rio Grande Compact obligations to Texas, no amount of negotiation or mediation can address Texas’ claims,” the filing said. “And so long as the matter continues unresolved by this Court, New Mexico can simply continue to divert, pump and use water in excess of its Rio Grande Compact apportionment, to the continued detriment of Texas.”

Conservation in El Paso has been emphasized for decades, said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. “The community has rallied behind conservation as important,” he said. “But we have rights to access to water: Water in the desert is crucial.”

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King fired back Thursday in a statement that Texas’ court filing was “tantamount to extortion.”

New Mexico farmers already can draw less water from the Elephant Butte reservoir following an agreement several years ago between the two states. King said the Texas complaint, if successful, would “deplete the water in southern New Mexico in a manner that would destroy the long-term viability of water resources.”

The Trib also covered this and another dispute between Tarrant County and Oklahoma that SCOTUS has agreed to adjudicate. I figure we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the coming years.

Green batteries

This is very cool.

Robert Conrad approves

In one more step of a global effort to develop greener battery technology, researchers at Rice University say they have found a way to replace a costly metallic component in lithium-ion batteries with material from a common plant.

While many of today’s lithium-ion batteries incorporate cobalt, which has to be mined and then altered at high temperature for use in batteries, Rice researchers say they can accomplish the same function using a dye extracted from a plant.

Reaching into an oxygen-free box to combine and assemble materials, researchers have shown that in altered form the plant-based substance can be incorporated into a lithium-ion battery that is almost as effective as today’s versions, said Leela Mohana Reddy, the lead researcher in the effort.

The chemically altered dye can hold and move the energy-carrying lithium ion in the same way as lithium compounds involving cobalt or other substances. The material was derived from a small flowering plant called a madder, native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. Scientists are testing other dyes that could prove even more effective, Reddy said. His group’s findings appeared last month in Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports.

Although the science behind the green battery component is in its early stages, if developed further it could lead to a change in one of three main battery parts: the cathode. Simply changing that component would increase the sustainability of battery production, Reddy said.

“You don’t have to do any mining,” he said. “You just plant and then you can turn it into a dye and then into a battery material with simple chemistry at room temperature.”

Batteries, especially rechargeable batteries, will be increasingly important as we move – however slowly – towards less dependence on oil. We also know that less dependence on metals that need to be recycled is a good thing as well. It’s great to see some of the leading research on this new technology be done at Rice. If we’re really lucky, some hot new startup will emerge from this research. And if nothing else, this story gave me the opportunity to post this little blast from the past:

Go ahead, I dare you.

The Eagle Ford Shale UFO

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a UFO!

Strange things are afoot in the South Texas oil patch and in the sky above. In a region that’s seen its tax rolls and traffic problems swell from the scores of new residents, could extraterrestrials be the next wave?

Roughnecks working at a fracturing well in the Eagle Ford Shale drilling region say they saw unidentified lights in the night sky on consecutive days in October and captured blurry video of at least one of them.

Three months earlier, a security camera captured a blurry, black-and-white image of what appears to be a flying saucer hovering ominously at another well site.

So far, no little green men have applied for a truck-driving job, but in a region desperate for more workers, they may not get turned down if they did.

Space alien visitation, or at least claims of it, adds a new dimension to the social upheaval that’s engulfed La Salle County.

I’m not sure why this is just being reported now, but I suppose it’s as good a hook for a story about the boom times now going on in South Texas as anything else. It also might be a reason for the Obama administration to rethink its position on blowing up planets.

The cellphone video, taken by worker Xavier Garza, shows a reddish-orange orb in the northern sky. Roughnecks can be heard off-camera cursing — as they are wont to do — in amazement.

Witnesses say the camera didn’t pick up a dozen more lights that appeared and reappeared several times, typically hovering in formation. It happened two nights in a row.

And last week, a photo surfaced on the website of the Mutual UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) Network, a volunteer group that investigates UFO claims, purportedly taken at a well site in the same stretch of the Eagle Ford.

Allegedly taken from a security camera, it appears to show a large saucer-like object, with an array of four lights, hovering over the caliche pad of a La Salle County well site. Other odd orbs can be seen in the background.

That photo, with a July 5 time stamp, already has passed two authenticity tests, says Charles Stansburge, a veteran MUFON investigator.

“If it’s a prank,” Stansburge said, “someone spent a lot of money to stage it. It’s not a doctored photo. It’s a 60-foot-diameter saucer that’s hovering.”

The video in question is supposedly on YouTube, but I couldn’t find it. Clearly, the conspiracy is far more extensive than even I could have imagined. I also couldn’t find the photo on MUFON, but that may just be the result of crappy site design. I’m sure the photo that accompanied this story, embedded above, is the same thing. I like a good UFO story as much as the next person, but why all the fuss about Eagle Ford when there’s been a UFO elsewhere in Texas for years?

I don’t think there’s any immigration reform proposal comprehensive enough to cope with that.

Saturday video break: No More I Love Yous

Song #35 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “No More I Love Yous”, originally by The Lover Speaks and covered by Annie Lennox. Here’s the original:

I’m familiar with the song because we have the Annie Lennox CD that contains the featured cover version, but that’s the only version of the song I’d heard before now. It’s pretty standard 80s stuff, if you ask me. Here’s Annie Lennox:

I have no idea what’s up with those Mickey Mouse ears, but she’s Annie Lennox and I’m not, so what do I know. I prefer her voice to the other singer’s, and I agree with the Popdose writer that the backup vocals are better in this version, too. A clear win for the cover. What do you think?

Cornyn says relax, we won’t do it

Texas’ senior Senator reassures us that Republicans won’t destroy the global economy in order to gain political leverage.

Just kidding

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican whip, said in Houston Thursday that Congress will not allow an impasse over raising the debt ceiling to result in the federal government defaulting on its spending obligations.

“We will raise the debt ceiling. We’re not going to default on our debt,” Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

[…]

Cornyn said that paying bills on a pro rata basis or delaying payment on some bills until the debt ceiling issue is resolved may be possible, “but my hope would be that we would not even go there.”

In an opinion piece in the Chronicle last week, Cornyn wrote that shutting down parts of government may be necessary if the White House and Congress cannot agree on a deal to slash spending.

“It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country, rather than plod along the path of Greece, Italy and Spain,” he wrote. “President Obama needs to take note of this reality and put forward a plan to avoid it immediately.”

The senator did not provide details, either in the article or in his interview with the editorial board, about what areas of the government might be shuttered or for how long. He frequently has said, however, that Republicans should use the debt ceiling and the forthcoming debate over the continuing resolution necessary to finance government as leverage to cut spending on entitlement programs.

[…]

Cornyn, asked whether his statement Thursday represented a change of position from the views expressed in the op-ed, said the article represented something of a negotiating ploy.

“You sometimes try to inject a little doubt in your negotiating partner about where you’re going to go, but I would tell you unequivocally that we’re not going to default,” he said.

And so after Cornyn’s retreat from his earlier threat, the Chron saw fit to give him a wet, sloppy kiss for acting all statesmanlike and stuff. I can only hope that the part of their conversation that led to his admission went along Blues Brothers lines:

“You lied to me.”

“It wasn’t a lie, it was just bullshit.”

I haven’t figured out how to work Carrie Fischer and James Brown into it, but it’s a start.

Alexan Heights on Yale

If you live in my neck of the woods you’re probably interested in the news (via Swamplot) of the new apartment complex being planned for the empty lot on Yale between 6th and 7th. The RUDH January newsletter has details.

Trammel Crow Residential is planning its first project in the Heights, at the corner of Yale and 6th Streets. At their request, Council Member Cohen invited RUDH to discuss our questions and possible concerns. We prepared a three-page document outlining concerns that ranged from potential traffic impacts, streetscape greening and sidewalk connectivity, safe signalized crossings for pedestrians and cyclists, proposed connections to existing bike trails and park spaces and a desire to ensure the appropriate architectural style to fit the fabric of our neighborhood. RUDH also coordinated with the landscape architectural firm that proposed designs to facilitate converting the new drainage detention pond into community park space (south of the hike and bike path and next to Rutland). At the moment, there are currently no plans in place to make the new drainage detention pond into useable green space.

The good news from the meeting is that Trammel Crow is interested in working with RUDH and community leaders to transform this drainage detention pond into a public green space amenity. The developer also communicated their interest in investing in the surrounding streetscapes and infrastructure in a manner that promotes mobility and creates safe connections for pedestrians and cyclists.

Trammel Crow Residential has committed to share their traffic and drainage studies with RUDH when they become available and stated they would perform mitigations as required by the City. We are hopeful this positive collaboration will lead to a sustainable development and mitigate any newly created problems.

The bit about turning the detention pond into usable green space is interesting and encouraging; see this Swamplot post for more on the pond, which has been under construction for awhile. I don’t know why it is that 6th Street doesn’t go through to Shepherd, but given that it doesn’t a well-landscaped community park is an excellent use of the space. I hope RUDH and the neighborhood folks can help make it happen.

The epic fail of utility deregulation

Surely no one is surprised by this.

The winners and losers in the nation’s wave of utility deregulation are clear.

The winners? Shareholders and executives. The losers? Customers and workers.

Over a decade of deregulation, the frequency and duration of outages have crept up, maintenance of aging infrastructure has been deferred, line workers have been laid off – and CEOs’ salaries have risen an average of 150 percent nationwide, a Hearst Newspapers investigation has found.

[…]

During a five-month investigation, Hearst Newspapers found four primary and interrelated factors – cited again and again in interviews, studies and other research – that drive investor-owned utilities’ problems with reliability:

» Aging infrastructure

» A shrinking workforce that has curtailed both maintenance and response to storms

» Persistent failure to trim and remove trees near power lines

» A culture change that has placed profits above reliability

Investor-owned utility CEOs’ pay packages are increasingly based on profit and stock performance, with very little or none of their compensation dependent on reliability for ratepayers.

Between 2000 and 2011, the 150 percent increase in CEO pay packages at investor-owned utilities brought the average to more than $6 million a year, according to a survey conducted for Hearst by Longnecker & Associates, a Houston compensation consulting firm.

From 1999 to 2002, utilities cut their manpower costs by shedding 13,000 electrical power-line installers and repairers, one-fifth of the total, according to data obtained by Hearst from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of utility linemen remains well below pre-2000 levels.

“We’ve gone from having dependability and reliability being the gold standard of the companies to profitability and money,” said Jim Hunter, director of the utility department at the Internation Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington D.C.

“There needs to be a national inquiry into the reliability and efficiency of our electric supply,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

The story has a national focus, but it most certainly includes Texas, where deregulation hasn’t lowered anyone’s utility bills. There doesn’t appear to be much political will to do anything about this, though, so I’m sure we’ll be reading the same story in another five or ten years. I don’t know what it will take to make this a real issue.

Friday random ten: Inauguration 2

It’s Inauguration 2 Weekend for President Obama. Here are a few suggested songs for the party playlist.

1. Back Where You Started – Tina Turner
2. Starting All Over Again – Mel & Tim
3. Serious Business – John Mellencamp
4. Work To Do – The Isley Brothers
5. Still Crazy After All These Years – Paul Simon
6. Winner Takes It All – ABBA
7. The Strangest Party (These Are The Times) – INXS
8. Everything’s Gonna Be Better Next Year – The Rescues
9. Things Can Only Get Better – Howard Jones
10. Hello Hopeville – Michelle Shocked

Song #5 of course is a special dedication to any members of the Republican Congressional caucus that happen to wander in. What tunes would you offer up for the occasion?

Hall is in

It’s on.

Ben Hall

Former Houston City Attorney Benjamin L. Hall III announced his candidacy for mayor Wednesday, choosing a slogan of “Hall for All!” and emphasizing his ability to unite people.

Hall said he filed a form designating a campaign treasurer late Tuesday, the first formal step in his bid to unseat Annise Parker this fall. The Rev. Bill Lawson, pastor emeritus at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, is listed as treasurer on the form, but a Hall campaign press release said former State District Judge Alvin Zimmerman also will serve as co-treasurer.

“By selecting these two pillars of our community,” Hall said in the release, “I intend to signal an aggressive intention to applaud our diversity and differences as strengths in our city and not weaknesses. United we are stronger! Our diversity is a great asset.”

[…]

In our conversation this morning, Hall stressed job creation, economic growth, international trade, and a more creative, compromise-seeking approach to the city’s pensions issues, and also emphasized that the city’s strength lies in its diversity. He said Parker’s 16-year tenure at City Hall as a council member, controller and now mayor, has produced “leadership fatigue.”

Hall said he plans announcements on international trade (“I figure a person shouldn’t just be promising things, they should try to get ahead of it, and say, ‘Well, this is what we’ve done.’”), pensions, Metro/rail and drainage in the coming months.

“This is really a world-class city, and we’re treating it as kind of nothing more than the fourth-largest city,” he said. “This city is in communication and dynamic relationships with the entire world, but we need a vision coming out of the mayor’s office that actually promotes that as a priority, as opposed to a tertiary or corollary idea.”

On pensions, Hall said Parker didn’t push aggressively for reform as controller and only recently turned her focus to the issue as mayor. He said creativity and good working relationships — which he said he had — with key legislators and local officials can solve the current disputes.

He said the city must think bigger and work on issues of greater import than how and where the hungry can be fed.

“If you ask the question, ‘In 16 years what policy has been advanced by this administration that has aggressively grown this economy?’ I think you’ll have to scratch your head a long time,” Hall said. “I’m not intent on driving a negative campaign. I just simply want to say we’re at a place of leadership fatigue, and I think that we need a fresh new look at a way forward for this city.”

We’ll see what those later announcements have to say, but for now it’s a bit unclear what Hall has in mind to do as Mayor. The thing about promising vision and fresh ideas and whatnot is that you have to actually come up with something fresh and visionary, and that’s harder than it looks. The main thing I’ll be watching for is what he has to say about pensions. Hall shouldn’t have any trouble picking up support from the firefighters, who endorsed Fernando Herrera in 2011 and who have no love at all for Mayor Parker, but given what Todd Clark and Chris Gonzales said in my interview with them, if what he’s getting at here is that he thinks he can do a better job negotiating concessions from the HFRRF than the Mayor can, well let’s just say I have my doubts. But I don’t know if he’s saying that because I don’t know yet what he is saying, so we’ll have to wait.

One more thing:

Hall initially entered the 2009 mayor’s race, but soon withdrew and threw his support behind Gene Locke (also a former City Attorney), who eventually lost to Parker in a runoff. Hall also toyed with the idea of facing Parker in 2011, but did not enter the race.

Hall may have thought about entering those two Mayoral races, but what he didn’t do in either of them was vote. In fact, he hasn’t voted in a city of Houston election since 2001. This is because he resided in Piney Point, and was registered to vote there during that time. If you’re going to complain about a lack of leadership in the city, it seems to me you should have been doing something about it, and voting is the very least you could have done.

Dewhurst and Nelson push Medicaid reform

I’m reserving judgment on this for now.

Sen. Jane Nelson

Lt. Gov David Dewhurst and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, on Wednesday touted Senate proposals they say would bring down spending on Medicaid, the state’s health program for the poor, by instituting quality-based payment reforms for long-term care services and measures to catch Medicaid fraud and abuse.

“Our Medicaid costs have doubled, doubled since 2002-2003,” said Dewhurst, adding that Medicaid costs are crowding out room in the budget for “services people in Texas want to see,” such as public education, higher education and transportation.

Dewhurst said Senate Bills 7 and 8, filed by Nelson, the chairwman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, would bring down ballooning state Medicaid costs. “What we’re trying to do, Senator Nelson and myself, is improve the quality of health care for our Medicaid population” by providing incentives that lead to better patient outcomes.

The idea of payments based on medical outcomes rather than simply payment for services rendered is of course one of the cornerstone reforms of the Affordable Care Act. Given the Republican origins of many parts of the ACA, it’s hard to say if Dewhurst and Nelson are cribbing from it or if they’ve just gone old school. Either way, I’m quite certain that they would recoil from any attempt to compare their bills to the ACA, because of socialism or something like that.

SB 7 would redesign long-term and acute care services for the disabled and elderly — the most costly services in Medicaid — by instituting quality-based payment systems and expanding Medicaid managed care to cover services provided in nursing facilities.

SB 8 would ensure that providers found guilty of Medicaid fraud in Texas or other states would be barred from participating in the state’s program, strengthen prohibitions against marketing to Medicaid patients, add medical transportation services to managed care and enable the Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General to establish a new data system to catch Medicaid fraud earlier.

Nelson highlighted that the OIG has identified more than $6 billion in fraud and waste between 2004-2011 in Medicaid, and she said a computerized claims monitoring program could be used “to identify outliers, anomalies and red flags in the Medicaid program so we can deal with those abuse trends on the front end.”

I want to hear from the professional wonks about this, but the Trib story doesn’t have any such quotes. Looking elsewhere, I do find some reactions. Here’s one in the Statesman:

Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said Nelson’s goals of eliminating fraud and trying to create a Medicaid payment system that doesn’t provide incentives for too much or too little care “are goals everyone shares.”

Dunkelberg said her organization, which advocates on behalf of low-income Texans, will watch certain issues, particularly attempts to target fraud in the Medicaid transportation system, which many children, elderly Texans and disabled people rely on to make medical appointments.

Fairly nondescript, but not negative, which is good. Here’s the Chron:

It’s important for the state to take steps including making every effort to prevent providers from defrauding the state, said Bee Moorhead, executive director of the interfaith advocacy group Texas Impact. But Moorhead said the legislation touted Wednesday “is not the heart of the matter.”

“The biggest Medicaid problem Texas has is (that) so many people should be getting it, but aren’t,” she said.

Moorhead said more than 1 million children are eligible for health care but aren’t getting services. She also noted the opportunity for Texas to add 1.6 million people to Texas Medicaid over a decade through the expansion.

More of the same, so it would seem there isn’t anything particularly controversial. Going after fraud is relatively low-hanging fruit, and is unlikely to generate much opposition. Who doesn’t want to prevent fraud, and to punish those who do offend? I’d just note that any line item based on “money saved from fraud detection and prevention” is likely to be questionable, and anti-fraud measures have their own costs, since it takes people and other resources to investigate, prosecute, and collect repayments.

Expanding Medicaid is indeed the heart of the matter, but we know how that’s going to go.

Dewhurst also announced at Wednesday’s news conference that Texas would not expand Medicaid to cover impoverished adults, as outlined by the federal Affordable Care Act. “One size does not fit all in the health care arena,” he said, explaining he would rather apply for a block grant from the federal government to run the state’s Medicaid program independently.

Republican lawmakers have been under pressure to expand Medicaid to bring down the rate of uninsured and cut uncompensated care costs for hospitals and local government entities. Some Republicans in other states — such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer — have agreed to support the Medicaid expansion.

The Legislative Budget Board — headed by Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus — issued a performance review on Wednesday morning recommending that the state empower counties to choose whether to expand Medicaid. Supporters of the Medicaid expansion say turning the decision power over to counties would relieve political pressure on Republican leadership.

The LBB report recommends that lawmakers pass a statute allowing counties to use local revenue to fund the expansion. In that way, local money that is currently spent on uncompensated care for the uninsured could be used to pull down $2.5 billion in federal funds for the 2014-15 biennium and cover 1.3 million impoverished adults in the six most populous counties.

The Chron quotes Dewhurst as saying expansion is off the table “at the present time”, for whatever that’s worth. I can’t say I expected Dewhurst to say anything different about Medicaid expansion – it would have been a bombshell if he had – but there are other aspects of the ACA that will affect Texas whether Dewhurst et al like it or not. This may not have been the venue to address that, but it would be nice to hear what he and others think about that. Be that as it may, here’s what that performance review says about Medicaid expansion:

Of the 535 hospitals in Texas, 108 hospitals owned by city, county, or hospital districts accounted for 48 percent ($1.5 billion) of charity care spending reported in fiscal year 2011. Most of the charity care (94 percent) local public hospitals provided was attributable to six hospital districts—Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, and Travis. Local public hospitals that account for a significant amount of uncompensated care spending report that 90.8 percent of patients receiving some form of charity care were non-elderly adults. With certain exceptions, federal law allows states to use intergovernmental transfers to obtain funds for use as the non-federal share for Medicaid services. By using local funds as the non-federal share for expanding Medicaid to newly eligible population, Texas could generate an estimated additional $2.5 billion in Federal Funds for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

I had previously noted an announcement by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services saying that there would be no option for a “partial or phased in Medicaid expansion”. My interpretation of that was that it meant the county option for Medicaid expansion had been mooted. Obviously, the LBB and I can’t both be right, and I’d assume they’re the ones that are correct. I haven’t heard much on this option, if it still is one, since September, so I have no idea if anyone in the Lege is currently pursuing this. Dewhurst said that neither he nor Sen. Nelson endorsed the idea, which isn’t the same as saying they opposed it but which does present an obstacle. The Chron story has reactions from the type of people who might want the Lege to provide this option:

Local officials said their first choice would be for Texas to expand the program statewide. That would provide a uniform program across Texas and ensure a funding source while relieving them of some of their costs of uncompensated care.

The Legislative Budget Board assumed the higher match would apply for newly eligible adults with a county-based expansion.

If counties were to do an expansion, local officials said it would be important for private hospitals to contribute, not just leave the cost to local taxpayers. They suggested a fee as one option.

David Lopez, president and chief executive officer of the Harris Health System, said, “If this becomes a local option, then … everybody needs to have skin in the game.”

Ron Cookston, executive director of Gateway to Care, a Harris County-based nonprofit collaborative focused on health care, said letting communities manage expansion could have a real benefit, but a state-level expansion would be preferable.

“If it is not done at the state level, there is going to be, community by community, variations in the services … ,” Cookson said. “That creates an infrastructure nightmare.”

That second paragraph makes it sound like the LBB isn’t fully certain that county-based expansion is an actual option. It would be nice to have some clarity on that. As I said before, one does have to be concerned that if some counties opt to expand Medicaid on their own, some others will try to leech off of that, which is unfair all around. The county folks clearly understand this. Full statewide expansion is the only way to deal with that, but that ain’t happening, at least for now.

One more thing, from Trail Blazers:

Dewhurst and Nelson repeated their opposition to expanding Texas’ Medicaid program to add non-disabled adults between 18 and 65 whose incomes are below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal health care law provides full funding of adding the adults for three years and will pick up at least 90 percent of the cost after that. But Texas Republicans have said they fear federal deficit-reduction efforts will undo the federal government’s promise to pay most of the cost. Nelson said she’s “concerned about the cost three years from now.”

If that’s your concern, then tell your colleagues in Congress to tone down their deficit obsession, which as we all know only really manifests when there’s a Democrat in the White House. The White House has already come to the realization that including Medicaid in any deficit-reduction “grand bargains” would undermine their own efforts to expand Medicaid, so I’d largely consider Nelson and Dewhurst’s concern to be no big deal. Unless Republicans get their way at the national level and disembowel Medicaid via the Ryan budget or something similar, of course. As above, I don’t really expect them to embrace my line of thinking here. The Observer has more.

Where are the doctors?

The Morning News tries to verify that the Dallas-area providers listed for the new Texas Women’s Health Program are in fact providing health care services to the women in this program as advertised. It goes about as well as you’d expect.

Right there with them

A Dallas Morning News survey of 336 contacts listed online for the program showed that 18 percent of the 55 unrepeated physicians and offices surveyed knew they were a part of the program and are accepting new patients. Two listings point people to businesses with no connection to the program — a sports medicine clinic and a title company.

A spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Commission, which operates the new program, acknowledged that the list has problems.

“It’s not that it’s a list that they shouldn’t be using, it’s that there are addresses on that list that shouldn’t be there, so we’re going to have to do some work to clean that list up,” said Linda Edwards Gockel.

Gockel said the list, which has been available on the program website for more than three months, is not the same list of 3,500 approved providers the state has touted. It represents all the locations a potential provider billed from in the past.

She said the commission hopes to have the list corrected by next week. Gockel could not say why it was not removed sooner, but that women can always call the 1-800 number listed on the website. After The News pointed out the list’s failings, subsequent press releases from the commission avoided mention of the website.

In fact, if you go to the Texas Women’s Health Program website now and click the Find A Doctor link, you will not see any providers listed at all:

According to Trail Blazers, the site “will be fixed sometime this week”, though it looks now like that has been pushed out a few more days. Reps. Donna Howard and Lon Burnam had previously found the same problems that the DMN reports on here in Austin and Fort Worth. Now other Democrats are getting in on the action.

“It is unacceptable that thousands of Texas women may be cut off from access to the program due to the program’s inability to meet demand,” said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, the House Democratic Caucus chairwoman, in a prepared statement. “My main concern is to ensure that women may be given the opportunity to affordable and accessible health care.”

Using the Texas Public Information Act, Farrar requested that the agency release a list of the available providers enrolled in the Texas Women’s Health Program along with the number of patients they anticipate serving, the number of patients served by the former Medicaid Women’s Health Program and the geographical areas in the state where provider enrollment does not meet demand.

Good on you, Rep. Farrar. What all this says to me is that the list that had been given on the website was complete and unadulterated junk and that they have taken it down in a desperate attempt to fix it. Remember that the state has been bragging for months about how they’re all fired up and ready to go without Planned Parenthood and with a list of 3,000 providers all set to step in. Is there any reason now to believe that was anything but a lie? Further, given the obvious problems and the complete disconnect between what the state has been saying and what everyone who has bothered to check has discovered, is there any reason to think the state will get this fixed any time soon? I say no and no.

I also say it’s time to get the people primarily responsible for this mess on the record about it. That includes State Sen. Bob Deuell, who requested the AG opinion that declared the state could sever ties with Planned Parenthood while still receiving federal money for the WHP (and how has that turned out so far?); Kyle Janek, the chair of the Health and Human Services Commission; and of course Rick Perry himself. Good on the DMN and Reps. Howard, Burnam, and Farrar for uncovering this lie, but it’s time for everyone else to get in the game as well. Rick Perry isn’t going to care about this until he’s forced to care about it.

City pension funds make their case

This deserves more visibility than it’s gotten.

Representatives of Houston’s three employee pension boards told a Houston City Council committee Monday that the sky is not falling and pleaded with council members to be patient in examining the city’s pension obligations.

The presentations from the firefighters’ pension, the municipal employees’ pension and the police pension were organized in response to an informational presentation from the city’s chief pension executive, Craig Mason, before the same Budget and Fiscal Affairs committee last month.

Mason’s presentation had examined how the city’s liabilities would increase or decrease if the pension plans were to change their assumed investment returns, their annual cost-of-living adjustments or made other adjustments. He made no recommendations.

[…]

City Councilman Stephen Costello, chair of the budget committee, began Monday’s meeting by saying the city won’t be able to fund the pensions in the future without reform. The city’s unfunded liability stands at $2.5 billion, he said.

“This year alone we will pay $242 million in pension costs and in five years our costs will increase by another $110 million. By the year 2020 it’s projected that the contributions will be between 30 percent to 45 percent of payroll, which in my opinion as a business owner is unsustainable,” he said. “It’s obvious the city cannot sustain this rate of growth without having to cut services, lay off employees, or raise taxes. This is not a problem that is 30 years away. It’s a problem that’s within 3 to 8 years.”

Pension representatives responded that pensions are long term and stressed that the majority of retiree benefits are paid from investment returns and employee contributions, not city contributions. Cutting or threatening to cut benefits could spur waves of retirements from the city, they added, as changes to the police pension did in 2004. They noted Houston’s economy is strong and improving, and will allow the unfunded liability to be reduced over time.

Go give a listen to that interview I did with Todd Clark and Chris Gonzales of the firefighters’ pension fund if you haven’t done so, it helped me clear up some of my own confusion. I think the broad outlines of this debate are fairly well known by now, but the one factor I haven’t see discussed much is how the improved economy has affected the city’s short to medium term budget outlook. I would venture to say that if we hadn’t had the collapse of 2008 and the lean years that followed we would not have spent nearly as much time talking about pensions at any level as we’ve done. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the city’s budget numbers for this year to see how things stand now. I do think there will need to be some action taken to ensure that the city’s pension liabilities don’t become unmanageable, but I suspect there’s less we have to do now than there was a year or two ago.

January reports for SD06 candidates

Stace beat me to the punch in reporting on the January campaign finance reports for SD06, so I’ll have to one up him by being more obsessive thorough in bringing the numbers. So here we go.

Seven of the eight candidates filed a January report for the race. Susan Delgado was the lone exception, but she will play a role in this story. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, the big two candidates, beginning with Carol Alvarado:

Raised $343,653
Spent $426,934
Cash $304,349

Notable contributions: Several of her current and former House colleagues, plus one former Senator, kicked in – Burt Solomons, Ellen Cohen, David Farabee, Kip Averitt, Diana Maldonado, Rep. Marisa Marquez, and Rep. Richard Raymond, to the tune of $10K; the others all contributed modest amounts. Other big numbers that caught my eye include $26K from HillCo PAC, $23K from HPOU PAC, $13,500 from HPFFA PAC, $10K each from Kamoru, Kase, and Mickey Lawal, $10K from Bob Perry, and $10K from Bill and Andrea White. As Stace noted, Alvarado received a lot of support from various police and firefighter groups – a firefighter PAC from Fort Worth chipped in another $2,500. Alvarado, who mentioned in her interview with me has filed legislation to expand gambling in Texas, also got $2,500 from the Chickasaw Nation and $1K from the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas. Finally, Alvarado has a direct connection to Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast through her sister Yolanda, and has a $145 contribution from PPGC CEO Melaney Linton to show for it.

Next up, Sylvia Garcia:

Raised $244,086
Spent $320,381
Cash $474,006

Notable contributions: Garcia also got support from current and past legislators – Ana Hernandez, Armando Walle, and Ellen Cohen, plus 2012 candidate Ann Johnson and 2010 candidate Silvia Mintz. She didn’t get any donations that I saw from a member of the Senate but did get one from Senate spouse Carlos Zaffirini. As noted by Stace, Garcia got the single biggest contribution of any candidate, $106K in kind from the Texas Organizing Project PAC for ground support. Steve Mostyn kicked in $12,680 in cash and in kind. Finally, Garcia got my two favorite contributions of this cycle. One was $100 from fellow candidate Susan Delgado. I can’t be certain this is the same Susan Delgado, but contributor Delgado listed the same ZIP code as candidate Delgado did on her July 2012 report, so you make the call. Finally, all the way from Hawaii where she lists her occupation as “retired”, former Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire, now Kathy Whitmire Wehner, gave $200. How awesome is that?

And the rest, as the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island” used to conclude:

RW Bray

Raised $300
Spent $1,310
Cash $620

Maria Selva

Raised $1,075
Spent $1,287
Cash $0
Loan $212

Dorothy Olmos

Raised $0
Spent $3,500
Cash $3,500
Loan $3,500

Rodolfo Reyes

Raised $0
Spent $7,750
Cash $0
Loan $8,107

Joaquin Martinez

Raised $447
Spent $1,250
Cash $0

This is another illustration why I agree with those who do not see any chance for RW Bray to make the runoff. If this special election had been held last November, the pool of voters would be more than big enough to give Bray a legitimate shot at the top two. But how many of those people who did vote for him in November do you think even know there’s an election going on now? He doesn’t have the resources to let them know that he needs their support. Between that and the presence of habitual candidate Dorothy Olmos on the ballot, I just see no prospect for Bray to advance. Speaking of Olmos, her reported totals make no sense, but it’s not worth worrying about. For them and for the others, their reports speak for themselves.

With six days down and six to go in early voting, 4,288 ballots have been cast, with in person votes just nosing ahead of absentee ballots. You can see the totals here. Yesterday was the first day of 7 AM to 7 PM voting, so I’d expect the daily totals to increase. I’d put the over/under at 10K early votes right now, but that could easily go up. Still, the low end of turnout projections is looking likely at this point. Ask me again in a week. PDiddie and TM Daily Post have more.

Abbott’s millions

If there’s one thing Attorney General Greg Abbott is good at, it’s accumulating money.

Fueling growing speculation of a bid for the Texas Governor’s Mansion, Attorney General Greg Abbott reported Tuesday he has amassed a campaign war chest of $18 million, three times the amount claimed by incumbent Gov. Rick Perry.

While both men publicly have stated they will not make a decision about their political futures until the Legislature ends in June, Abbott’s stunning fundraising success provided more grist for the Austin rumor mill that he will try to advance up the political ladder sooner, rather than later.

Abbott spokesman Eric Bearse declined to speculate how his boss would direct his campaign largesse.

“The attorney general is focused on protecting Texas taxpayers and enforcing the laws of Texas,” Bearse said. “He’s grateful to all his supporters who have made his service possible.”

[…]

Political observers were impressed with the hand shown by Abbott, who raised $4.1 million in the most recent reporting period.

“It’s hard to look at that number and not think he’s planning to run a race at the top of the ticket,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “This further fuels the intrigue of what each man will do.”

Austin political consultant Bill Miller agreed that Abbott’s prodigious fundraising signaled an interest in higher office. “He’s accumulating a lot of money with the intention of making a run for higher office,” though exactly when remains unknown, said Miller. “That’s how I read the dollar signs.”

You can see his report here. It should be noted that Rick Perry raised over $3.5 million, and David Dewhurst $3.3 million in the same reporting period, so as far as that goes Abbott wasn’t that far ahead of the pack. It’s just that Abbott has been sitting on millions for years, and it’s really started to pile up. He had $8.5 million in January of 2009, $9.2 million in January of 2011, right after his last election, and $12.0 million last January. One presumes he’s raising it for a reason, but who knows, maybe the reason is just that he likes having a ginormous amount of money at his command.

One thing you can’t say is that no one could ever use that much money. Looking back at 2010, Rick Perry spent $4.7 million (raising $7.1 million in the same time) in the last six months of 2009; $1.9 million through January 21, 2010; $8.8 million from January 22 through February 20; and $3.4 million after that through June 30, raising another $7 million in the process. That’s $18.8 million, technically over a year but really in nine months. So yeah, if Abbott intends to run for Governor and especially if he has to knock off Rick Perry to get there, I can’t really say he “needs” all that money but I feel confident in saying he’ll spend it. On a campaign to vigorously oppose out-of-control spending, of course, on which the irony will go completely unremarked.

Burka thinks Perry’s relatively small cash on hand number – only in this context could $6 million be a small number – is another sign he’s fixing to hang it up after this term ends. He doesn’t think Perry wants to risk his record of not losing an election. I get that, but I’m not so sure. How many elite athletes choose to retire while their skills are still sharp? Very few take that path – most continue to play long after it’s apparent to everyone else that they’re not the player they once were. That’s a hard thing to admit, and the same drive that made them what they are makes it difficult to see when it’s over. I think Perry thinks he can win, and frankly I’m not sure that he’s wrong. Be that as it may, I’m not sure he’s the type of person to graciously step aside and let someone else have what he’s had all to himself for the past decade. I think it will have to be taken from him. We’ll see.

Finally, in a bit of late-breaking news, Abbott apparently has enough money to troll the New York Times in search of alienated gun-obsessed New Yorkers. Speaking as someone who grew up in one of the Republican parts of New York (Staten Island), all I can say is that I honestly can’t think of anyone I knew back then who had a gun. It just wasn’t part of the culture. (Dad, if you’re reading this, please chime in with a comment.) I can’t speak to how things are now on the Island, and I can’t speak to how things are in upstate New York, but to the extent that my experience holds I daresay that Abbott – who I’m sure is quite ignorant of New York – will get less of a response than he might think. I’ll have to keep an eye on what my Facebook peeps from back east have to say about this.

Like it or not, Obamacare is coming to Texas

The Better Texas blog reminds us that as the Affordable Care Act fully kicks in next year there are things that need to be done in Texas to be compliant

It's constitutional - deal with it

[W]hat I hope to see are bills that prepare Texas for 2014 market changes to help keep premiums reasonable, encourage competition, and ensure that the Texas Department Insurance (TDI) can protect Texas consumers.

Starting in 2014:

  • Insurers can no longer deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions or charge sick people, women, and small businesses more;
  • Subsidies will be available to help Texans above the poverty line buy private health coverage in the new exchange;
  • New risk adjustment mechanisms kick in.  They aim to eliminate incentives for insurers to avoid enrollees in poor health, while keeping any one insurer from bearing more than its fair share of risk from sicker enrollees; and
  • Many policies must contain “essential health benefits,” a new floor for coverage.

In light of these sweeping market changes, TDI needs appropriate tools to protect health insurance consumers.  First, TDI needs to be able to reject unreasonable rate increases. Insurers will incorporate all of the changes listed above will into health insurance premiums.   Consumers will benefit if the experts and actuaries at TDI check that insurers have made reasonable assumptions about costs and savings that come from these changes and have authority to deny excessive rate increases.

Second, TDI needs clear authority to enforce new consumer protections, such as no more pre-existing condition exclusions.  Unless Texas updates its Insurance Code to reflect consumer protections that take effect in 2014, conflicting state and federal laws will create confusion for consumers and insurers alike.  And if TDI isn’t authorized to enforce new consumer protections, federal regulators may step in.

Well, the feds are going to be running our insurance exchanges, so why not let them handle consumer protection, too? How much do you trust Rick Perry’s TDI to get this right? The irony here is that not giving TDI the tools to enforce the new insurance regulations might be seen as poking a finger in the feds’ eyes when in fact it’s opening the door for them, much as the refusal to implement insurance exchanges was. The logic sure is hard to understand sometimes.

One more election for 2013

There will be another special election in November to replace a departing member of the HCC Board of Trustees.

Richard Schechter

The Houston Community College board will have two new faces after trustee Richard Schechter submitted his resignation and Mary Ann Perez was elected to the state House.

HCC trustees will swear in former trustee Herlinda Garcia on Thursday to temporarily replace Perez until a special election in November. They also plan to accept Schechter’s resignation and are expected to appoint an interim soon.

Schechter, an attorney elected to the board in November 2005, did not give a specific reason for his resignation but said the time was right after voters recently approved a $425 million bond issue for new college buildings.

“Now, after the passage of the bond, I think this is an appropriate time for me to step aside and allow someone else the opportunity to serve our community,” Schechter wrote in his resignation letter.

I had previously noted the special election that will be needed to cover the remaining term of now-State Rep. Mary Ann Perez, which expires in 2015. Whoever is appointed to replace Schechter will have to run again (or step down and leave the seat open) to fill the rest of his term, which runs through 2017. Schechter, whom I interviewed about the HCC bond referendum, deserves kudos for that and for helping to persuade his boardmates to put their campaign finance reports online. I wish him and Rep. Perez well with what comes next for them, and I wish Trustee Garcia and Schechter’s successor well on the board.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 14

The Texas Progressive Alliance is digging in for another long legislative session as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Meet the new budget

Same as the old budget.

Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature on Monday offered spare first drafts of the state’s next two-year budget that continue $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made last session and freeze funding for an embattled state agency set up to find a cure for cancer.

Upending recent tradition, the Texas Senate is starting off with the leaner budget this session, one that’s about $1 billion smaller than the House budget but spends nearly the same amount in general revenue, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. General revenue typically makes up around half of the total budget, with much of the remainder coming from federal funding.

The Senate proposed a $186.8 billion budget, a 1.6 percent drop from $189.9 billion, the amount the current budget is estimated to grow to after lawmakers pay for some unpaid bills in the current budget this session. General revenue spending makes up $89 billion of the budget, up 1.5 percent from the current budget.

The total House budget will be $187.7 billion, down 1.2 percent from the current budget. General revenue spending makes up $89.2 billion, a 2 percent increase from the current budget.

Both proposals drew swift criticism from Democrats and education groups, but Republican lawmakers in both chambers stressed that the budgets are merely starting points.

Let’s just say that they’ll have to show it to me before I believe it. The first time House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts or Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams starts talking about “tax relief”, I’ll know the fix is in. The debate over the supplemental budget, which will need to pay off some IOUs on Medicaid and school funds, will give us an indication of how this is going to go.

The embedded graphic above is from the Better Texas blog, which is a product of the CPPP and which you should be reading. Their point is that even with the higher revenue estimate, we’re still way below what we’d need to be spending to cover population growth and cost increases. It’s going to take a change in government to get to that point.

Still, some things do change, and the Statesman notes one of them.

One relatively small-dollar change will have an out-sized political effect. The House provided no money for the state standardized testing system, a $98 million reduction in state dollars, while the Senate fully funded the program.

Frustration has been building over the testing system, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, and parents and some business leaders are pushing for major changes. The House appears ready to force the issue.

“It will at least force the discussion,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped found Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent group seeking an overhaul of the state testing system. “I think it was a very bold move.”

It’s unlikely that the final budget will zero out funding for the STAAR test, but I do agree that this will prioritize the debate over just how much standardized testing we need. Keep an eye on that.

Here are responses to the budget from Rep. Mike Villarreal and the Texas AFT. So far everyone is taking Pitts and Williams at their word that what they’ve put out now is just a starting point. If we want to end up someplace better, now is an excellent time to let your Rep and Senator know what your priorities are. It’s also a good time to note that the first Save Texas Schools rally for the session is on the calendar:

In the face of underfunding, over testing and proposed vouchers, get ready to join thousands of concerned Texans as we stand up for quality education for ALL Texas students.

DATE: Saturday, February 23, 2013

TIME/PLACE: March: 10:45 a.m. on the Congress Avenue Bridge to the Capitol.  Rally: Noon – 1:30 p.m. at the Texas State Capitol on the South Steps, Congress Ave. & 11th St.

AGENDA: Speakers include Supt. John Kuhn and Diane Ravitch. More soon!

Organizing in Your Area: Click here to be an organizer in your area.

Transportation: We have scholarships available to local groups to help with buses this year. Click here to apply. Please contact Save Texas Schools as soon as possible!

Let us know you’re coming! Click here to sign the Save Texas Schools petition and to register for the rally.

As always, speak now or forever lose the right to complain about the end result. Burka is dumbfounded by it all, Grits says that “on the criminal justice front they’re not off to an inspiring start”, and EoW, Sen. Kirk Watson, and the Observer have more.

Baby Bush ready to claim his birthright

Perhaps we should just skip straight to the coronation once George P. Bush figures out what office he wants.

George Prescott Bush is gearing up to run for a little-known but powerful office in a state where his family already is a political dynasty and where his Hispanic roots could help extend a stranglehold on power Republicans have enjoyed for two decades.

The 36-year-old Fort Worth attorney says he is close to settling on campaigning for Texas land commissioner next year. He doesn’t expect to make up his mind until he knows what Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Republican, decides to do.

“We for sure are running, the question is the office,” Bush told The Associated Press during the first interview about his political future since filing paperwork in November to seek elected office in Texas.

Bush’s father is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his grandfather is former President George H.W. Bush and his uncle is former President and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Perry has been governor since George W. left for the White House.

Land commissioner traditionally has been a steppingstone to higher office, but Bush said little about any plans to eventually become a national political force.

His grandfather Prescott Bush was a US Senator, too. The past four years have been a rare period in American history where a member of the Bush family has not held some office. It will be interesting to see how he handles the inevitable tea party opponent he gets for Land Commissioner or whatever else he runs for. Will he adopt their positions, or will he remain blandly Bushy and presume that his name, money, and connections will suffice to handle it? The Trib has an interview with our future overlord if you want to better prepare yourself for the inevitable.

Mental health court coup

Interesting.

Judge Jan Krocker

Citing problems with the administration of Harris County’s mental health court, a board of judges has ousted the court’s founder and presiding judge, Jan Krocker, officials confirmed Friday.

“There were a lot of valid complaints about Judge Krocker’s administration of the court, and she didn’t like the idea of oversight,” said Michael McSpadden, Houston’s most senior felony court judge. “We are all behind a mental health court. We just want it run the correct way.”

Krocker will continue to preside over the 184th State District Court, a bench to which she was first elected in 1994, but two other judges, David Mendoza and Brock Thomas, will oversee the mental health court.

Krocker said the move was the natural evolution of the program.

“Once we knew the court would be funded for another year, I had hoped to reduce my involvement because it had become so time-consuming,” she said in an emailed statement. “I would have been glad to transition out and turn it over to Judge Mendoza and Judge Thomas. It is too bad this wasn’t handled differently.”

What’s interesting about this is that the mental health court has only been in existence since October. That’s an awfully short period of time for everyone to lose patience with the person who brought this thing to reality. Or maybe there was something else going on.

The abrupt removal may have been spurred by Krocker releasing a statement in December accusing another judge and newly elected District Attorney Mike Anderson of trying to kill funding for the court.

Last year, Krocker said then-District Attorney Pat Lykos had promised $500,000 for the court to continue. When that promise dried up days before Lykos left office, Krocker blamed Anderson and state District Judge Belinda Hill.

Anderson and Hill, who was the chief administrative judge over the 22 district judges and is now Anderson’s first assistant, have both publicly supported the mental health court.

The problem was not the court, McSpadden said. It was Krocker.

“She wasn’t following the mental health advice of the people we hire, the doctors we hired,” McSpadden said. “There were a lot of complaints, from inside and outside the court.”

As a non-lawyer I have no insight into this, so let me throw this out to those of you who who may have some insight for your comments. What do you think?