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January 11th, 2013:

Friday random ten: Life, liberty, and property

The new Congress was sworn in last week, and the Texas Legislature reconvened this week. This seemed like an appropriate occasion for a Friday Random Ten.

1. (You’re Not The) Boss Of Me – They Might Be Giants
2. One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer – John Lee Hooker
3. The Deal (No Deal) – from “Chess”
4. Re: Your Brains – Jonathan Coulton
5. What A Fool Believes – Doobie Brothers
6. Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine – Nick Lowe
7. Suits Are Picking Up The Bill – Squirrel Nut Zippers
8. Easy Money – Billy Joel
9. Sh*t Got Crazy – A.Dd+
10. Stupid Texas Song – Austin Lounge Lizards

I think that about covers it. I managed to refrain from including “Send In The Clowns” (by Mel Torme), but just barely. What songs would you dedicate to the legislative body of your choice?

Here comes that B-Cycle expansion


Houston’s bike-sharing program downtown is getting a boost from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, city officials announced Wednesday.

The insurance company will contribute $750,000 to expand the B-Cycle system from three stations and 18 bikes to 24 stations and about 200 bikes, the city said in a news release.

“Bike Share is a great new transportation program for Houston and with the support of BCBSTX we are able to expand our pilot into a thriving program, providing a real commuter and recreational transportation option for workers, residents and visitors, improving health and quality of life,” Mayor Annise Parker said in the release.

The partnership could accelerate the program, which has been delayed by slow movement on permits and federal grant agreements. The U.S. Department of Energy is another major sponsor of the program, via a grant.

With the expansion, officials believe the system could generate about 25,000 trips annually, a roughly 12-fold increase from the current use.


“We hope this investment will help Houston children and families, not only find more convenient transportation, but get healthy and stay healthy through increased, fun physical activity,” said Bert Marshall, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, in a news release.

The Mayor’s press release is here, the full Chron story is here, and my previous updates on Houston B-Cycle are here and here. Click on the story link to see a map of the forthcoming B-Cycle kiosk locations. You’ll be very well covered downtown, and there are other useful locations as well. I expect the college campuses will be next in line, most likely via a similar partnership, and beyond that I’d like to see further expansion along the new rail lines and into the Washington Avenue corridor, which might even help a bit with the parking situation there. Longer term, I hope they’ll look at Upper Kirby and the Uptown/Galleria area, neither of which are terribly bike-friendly (though I’m sure there are things that can be done to ameliorate that) but both of which also have nasty traffic and parking problems that can use all the help they can get. It could hardly take longer to bike from Richmond to San Felipe along Post Oak than to drive it, and you can literally park by the front door of your destination if you pedal it. Once funding is available, that’s got to be a no-brainer. Anyway, this is great to see. Expansion launches in March, so it ought to be done by the time my office moves downtown in May. I’m very much looking forward to taking advantage of this.

School Land Board votes to transfer $300 million to Available School Fund

From the Trib:

The School Land Board voted Tuesday to release $300 million into the Available School Fund for public schools.

The money will be released in two $150 million installments, one in February and the other on June. The funds had been caught in a standoff between the Legislature and the School Land Board, which operates out of the General Land Office and oversees the state’s public school land.

A constitutional amendment proposed in 2011 by state Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, allowed the board to put a portion of earnings from investments on real estate assets into the Available School Fund, which along with property and sales taxes helps pay for public education.

Voters passed the amendment last November, but the little-watched School Land Board decided not to distribute the money in July. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who sits on the three-member board, said it wanted to protect the funds for upcoming investment opportunities.

“It’s the age-old question of whether you save the money to send your kids to college or borrowing when they do,” he said at a House appropriations meeting in December.

Usually the proceeds from the sale and management of public school lands would go into a $26 billion trust whose revenue feeds into the Available School Fund. Proposition 6 made it so that the School Land Board, if it chose, could bypass that step and put money directly into the fund.

Background here. Given Commissioner Patterson’s previous opposition to the transfer of these funds, I was curious how he voted, since the story didn’t specify. I sent an inquiry to his office to check, and was told that he did vote no. You can read Commissioner Patterson’s statement here, the crux of which is as follows:

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, chairman of the board, cast the lone vote against the payment. He said the decision was frustrating because lawmakers passed a flawed budget last session that addressed short-term problems without providing a coherent long-term vision.

“We need to strive to do better,” Patterson said. “Spending down our kid’s trust fund to pay today’s bills is a path I don’t want to go down any further. Fortunately, the fund is healthy enough to protect Texas schools from one year of bad budgeting.”

I sympathize with that, but I don’t have a whole lot of optimism about better budgeting. Anyway, the money that the Lege assumed would be there after the constitutional amendment passed is now in fact there, so that’s one thing less to worry about.

Student RFID lawsuit rejected

A win for the school district in federal court.

A federal judge Tuesday ruled that Northside Independent School District can transfer a student from her magnet school for refusing to wear her student ID badge to protest a new electronic tracking system.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia rejected a lawsuit brought by Andrea Hernandez, 15, through her father, Steve Hernandez, backed by lawyers provided by the Rutherford Institute.

The lawsuit had sought an injunction so she could stay in Jay High School’s magnet school for science and engineering without having to wear the identification badge.

The badges contain a chip used to track students’ on-campus whereabouts but Northside ISD officials had offered to let her wear it without the chip.

Andrea refused, saying it violated her constitutional rights and religious beliefs, and after Northside officials reassigned her to Taft High School, her regular neighborhood school, the family filed suit in November.

“Today’s court ruling affirms NISD’s position that we did make reasonable accommodation” to Andrea’s religious concerns, the district said in an emailed statement. “The family now has the choice to accept the accommodation and stay at the magnet program, or return to her home campus” later this month.


Administrators use [RFID] mainly to identify students who are in the building but missed morning roll call, although the system also can locate individual students any time of day. It keeps an electronic history of each badge, so operators can retrace a student’s general movements. In a 25-page ruling, Garcia said the five claims of violations of federal and state civil liberties and religious laws that the lawsuit asserted failed to meet requirements to get the injunction.

The issue of school safety trumps some of the claims, he wrote, and cited examples from Northside Superintendent Brian Woods’ testimony that the RFID program has allowed educators to quickly find students during emergencies.

“In today’s climate, one would be hard pressed to argue that the safety and security of the children and educators in our public school system is not a compelling governmental interest,” Garcia wrote. “One could envision many different methods of ensuring safety and security in schools, and the requirement that high school students carry a uniform ID badge issued for those attending classes on campus is clearly one of the least restrictive means available.”

See background here and here, and via Wired you can see the court’s opinion here. The Rutherford Institute, which represented Andrea Hernandez, has said that it would support an appeal to the Fifth Circuit. I continue to not understand the fuss, given that NISD has allowed her to remove the RFID chip from her ID card. Requiring high school students to carry and display an ID card seems to me to be a pretty basic security measure. We’ll see what if anything happens from in the courts and the Legislature.

In praise of CODIS

We’re catching more crooks thanks to DNA. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but it’s always nice to have some numbers.

I want one of these

The number of Texas crimes solved after a suspect’s DNA matched with offenders’ DNA samples stored in the national repository known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) recently passed the 10,000th mark.

The state averaged only about 200 matches a year during the first five years after the database was created in 1996. That number leaped to an average 1,000 hits a year for the next 10 years. In just the last 11 months, the number of matches has nearly doubled to 1,943, records show.


Harris County now processes an average of 400 cases a month, compared to about a dozen cases in the past, said the lab’s director, Dr. Roger Kahn, explaining how automation has replaced the tedious repetitive tasks once done by human hands.

The number of samples of offenders’ DNA stored in Texas’ database also has mushroomed to more than 660,000. Texas law requires all registered sex offenders, felons sent to prison or placed on community supervision, and juveniles committed to Texas’ juvenile justice system to submit a DNA specimen.

“The more samples in the pool, the greater opportunity for a match,” said Skylor Hearn, who oversees the crime lab that manages the state’s database. “There is a degree of recidivism in (the) criminal world, and we’re catching up to them.”

At the same time, the ability to make a match is increasing because DNA profiles can be developed from material that’s often invisible to the eye.

“Originally, we required a blood stain the size of quarter. Now it’s not visible. A dandruff flake is enough; just touching something leaves behind cells that can be enough. The systems are much more sensitive,” Kahn said.

Harris County also has a special “CSI-style” seven-member team that it can dispatch to collect potential DNA from sensitive murder scenes.

That last bit is somewhat of a commercial for the Harris County crime lab, which as you know is getting a new facility soon, but what the heck. Keep up the good work, y’all.

Using DNA analysis is often associated with innocence and exoneration these days, and for good reason. It’s important to remember that every time DNA absolves someone who had been convicted of a crime, it also points a finger at the real perpetrator. For every innocent person in jail, there is some number of guilty people who aren’t in jail. (Some may be in jail for other reasons, or they may be dead, or as with some questionable arson cases, there may have been no crime in the first place.) None of those exonerations, and subsequent arrests of the real criminals, would have been possible if the original DNA evidence had been destroyed upon conviction, as prosecutors like now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley have advocated. If he had gotten his way in the Michael Morton case, not only would Morton still be incarcerated, but a man who is now also suspected in the murder of at least one other woman would still be walking free. Think about that. And while you do, be sure to read Pam Colloff’s outstanding two-part story in the November and December editions of Texas Monthly about the Michael Morton saga. If you don’t have a tear in your eye, and a belly full of outrage, by the ending, you should consider talking to your doctor. See also Grits’ interview with Colloff for more.