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August 21st, 2013:

Interview with CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

At Large #1 incumbent CM Stephen Costello is running for his third term. While most new Council members spend their first term learning the ropes and staying more in the background, CM Costello made an immediate splash by spearheading the charge for Renew/Rebuild Houston, the charter amendment that created a fee to fund road and drainage repairs and improvements, converting the process from debt service to pay-as-you-go. It was a tight election that had to survive a lawsuit afterward and some controversy surrounding its implementation, but it has transformed the infrastructure process and now offers the city a chance to redo a lot of its roads as Complete Streets. Since then, Costello has been at the forefront of the debate over the city’s long-term finances, as he chaired a task force to study the issue and recommend solutions, and he has worked on diverse issues like food deserts and payday lending regulation. We discussed all that and more in this interview:

Stephen Costello interview

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2013 Election page.

Abbott versus Garza on voter ID

They’ve battled in court, and now they’re battling in the news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday called a lawyer for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus unethical for his suggestion that people in the Rio Grande Valley attempt to vote without a photo ID.

Jose Garza, a lawyer who represents MALC in its fights against the state of Texas on voter ID and redistricting, reportedly encouraged voters in Edinburg to try to cast a ballot in next month’s city council elections without a photo ID. State lawmakers passed the voter ID bill — which requires voters to show one of several state- or federally issued forms of ID to vote — in 2011, but it was kept on hold until a June U.S. Supreme Court decision made its implementation possible.

“I would encourage everybody who wants to test this law to go and attempt to cast their ballot using their voter registration card,” Garza told the Rio Grande Guardian last week. “Let us test the impact of this law. We need to be able to measure how many people this law kept from voting.”

Abbott, whose office sued the Obama administration when the federal government originally blocked the ID requirement, said Monday that Garza is the one guilty of trying to suppress the vote, the common argument for opponents of the photo requirement who call the measure a 21st-century poll tax.

“It is always unethical for a lawyer to advise someone to violate Texas law. Even worse, Garza’s advice does not inform voters to bring one of the acceptable forms of voter ID,” Abbott said in a statement. “Instead, in an attempt to create a false impression that voter ID suppresses votes, the unethical advice is to come to the polls without the needed ID.”

Garza has since released a statement that fired back at Abbott.

Today, the attorney general questioned my integrity and said that I am advising voters to come to the polls without the photo identification that is now required to vote. Let me be very clear and set the record straight, I have never encouraged Texans to violate the law.

Everyone who is legally registered and eligible to vote ought to go vote. For those that are eligible and registered, but cannot obtain a valid photo ID as required by SB 14, I would advise them to also go vote and possibly cast a provisional ballot. Do not stay home and allow a discriminatory law to suppress your vote and voice. That is my message to Edinburg’s voters.

A federal court denied preclearance to Texas’ voter/photo ID law, stating that the undisputed record of evidence demonstrated that the voter identification requirement would have harmed the right to vote for many Texas minorities. Just because Section 5 is not in effect at the moment does not mean that the retrogressive effect of the photo identification requirement does not exist. I would advise the attorney general to do everything in his power to address the concerns of the D.C. Federal District Court and alleviate the undue burden that is being placed on the poor to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

General Abbott’s statement about my personal integrity is yet another ill-advised tactic to evade responsibility and accountability for seeking the implementation of an unjust and, I believe, unconstitutional law. If the citizens of Edinburg cannot vote, it is not because of me, but because of a law designed to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of poor and minority voters.

Emphasis in the original. Speaking of which, let’s go to the original story to see what really was said and meant.

Jose Garza believes a new Texas law requiring voters to bring along a certain type of photo identification is unconstitutional. He wants to bring a lawsuit against Texas and for this he needs practical examples of registered voters being denied the right to vote because they did not show up with an approved photo ID card.

“Anybody who is validly registered to vote and has a registration card or is clearly on the registration rolls should go and attempt to vote anyway, even if they do not have a photo ID,” Garza told the Guardian. “I believe the photo ID law is unconstitutional.”

[…]

“The photo ID legislation may be the law of the land in Texas but I believe it is unconstitutional. The only way you can challenge it is to find people who have been denied the right to vote because they did not comply with this specific term,” Garza said.

“So, I would encourage everybody who wants to test this law to go and attempt to cast their ballot using their voter registration card. Let us test the impact of this law. We need to be able to measure how many people this law kept from voting.”

[…]

“You can be denied the right to vote if you do not have the right type of photo ID. If you have a driver’s license that has been expired for more than 60 days that is not good enough. If you have a photo ID from your university or college, that is not good enough. If you have a photo ID from work, an employee from a school district, a city, the state of Texas or the federal government, that is not good enough. But if you have a photo ID from your concealed hand gun license, you can vote,” Garza explained.

“If you were involved in an accident and you have a DWI and your license has been suspended, even though you are otherwise eligible to vote, if your license has been suspended for more than 60 days, you cannot use that as an ID at the polling place and you will not be allowed to vote.”

Edinburg is a university town. Garza said UT-Pan American students that are registered to vote should take along their student photo ID card to the polls and offer this as a photo ID card. If they and others who are on the voter rolls are denied the right to vote, they should call MALC, the ACLU, MALDEF, LULAC, or the South Texas Civil Rights Project, Garza said.

A reporter put it to Garza that if such voters carry out his advice they may could be denied their legitimate right to vote and that this could influence the outcome of the Edinburg special election. Garza acknowledged this was the case but said the fight to stop voter suppression in Texas was worth it.

“It is better than staying home. If a voter is denied the right, they should call us or LULAC or the Texas Civil Rights Project or the ACLU or MALDEF. All of these groups are interested in the impact of this law. They will want to hear from those who are being denied the right to vote because they did not have the appropriate photo ID,” Garza said.

“If you are a student and all you have is your student ID you should try to vote, show it. They are going to be denied but they are otherwise eligible. A student photo ID is as good a proof of who you say you are as a concealed hand gun license is.”

On the one hand, Garza is clearly saying that anyone who is registered to vote but doesn’t have one of the very few types of legal ID should go and vote anyway. If nothing else, seeing how many provisional votes wind up getting cast and where they are will help clarify things as the next round of litigation moves forward. You know that I agree with Garza about the unconstitutional nature of voter ID, and that I believe Texas’ ridiculous and arbitrary restrictions on what ID is required is strong evidence of the discriminatory intent of this law. Still, Garza does appear to be calling for what is basically civil disobedience here. I admire the sentiment, but it’s not clear what would be gained by it. There’s no capacity for shame among Abbott and his acolytes, and whatever the courts say the way to win on this is by winning elections. Casting needless provisional votes, however strong a statement, won’t help with that. Go vote whether you have the required ID or not, but do bring it if you have it.

Feds provide money to help sign people up for the exchanges

Every little bit helps.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

With the rollout of many Affordable Care Act provisions fast approaching, the federal government announced Thursday that eight Texas organizations will receive a combined $10.8 million to hire and train “navigators” to help uninsured Texans find health coverage.

“Navigators will be among the many resources available to help consumers understand their coverage options in the marketplace,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. “A network of volunteers on the ground in every state – health care providers, business leaders, faith leaders, community groups, advocates and local elected officials — can help spread the word and encourage their neighbors to get enrolled.”

Along with many other provisions in President Obama’s signature health reform law, the individual mandate to purchase health insurance is set to take effect on Jan. 1. Individuals who land somewhere between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line will be able to apply for sliding-scale subsidies through state health insurance exchanges that the federal government plans to launch on Oct. 1. The health plans offered in the exchange will become active on Jan. 1.

United Way of Tarrant County — in collaboration with 17 other organizations — will receive $5.8 million, the largest of the federal navigator grants awarded in Texas, to help enroll Texans in health plans offered through the federal health insurance exchange (Texas opted not to devise its own state-run exchange). The East Texas Behavioral Healthcare Network will receive $1.3 million, the second largest grant, and six additional organizations will each receive between $376,800 and $785,000. In total, the federal government awarded $67 million to more than 100 organizations across the country. View the full list here.

This is going on across the country, with big non-Medicaid-expanding states like Texas and Florida getting the bulk of the funds. Apparently, in some parts of the country Planned Parenthood was a grant recipient to help people navigate the exchanges. Can you imagine the caterwauling there would have been here if Planned Parenthood had gotten some of that cash? If only.

Not that there wasn’t some pathetic whining, mind you:

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and 12 other states’ attorney generals have raised concerns that the federal navigator program could pose risks to patients’ privacy. In a letter sent to Sebelius on Wednesday, the state attorney generals assert that the federal government’s screening process does not require uniform background or fingerprint checks, therefore convicted criminals or identity thieves could become navigators. They also expressed concerns that navigators would not undergo sufficient training.

“We take very seriously the privacy of our states’ consumers and believe that your agency’s current guidance regarding these groups suffers numerous deficiencies,” the attorney generals wrote in the letter.

Some medical professionals and advocates have raised objections to the attorney generals’ concerns, suggesting they are politically motivated. They say navigators must comply with state and federal laws governing the privacy of sensitive medical information. If they do not adhere to strict security and privacy standards, including how to handle and safeguard consumers’ social security numbers and identifiable information, they are subject to criminal and civil penalties at both the federal and state level. The federal government imposes up to a $25,000 civil penalty for violating its privacy and security standards.

“Officials from Texas and the other states that are involved keep trying to sow doubt about the Affordable Care Act, but the law is well on its way to helping millions of our nation’s uninsured receive the health care they need,” Katrina Mendiola, executive director of Engage Texas, said in a statement released by the Texas Well and Healthy Campaign. “What Texans need to know is there will be experts — who are screened and authorized to help — ready to help them find out about their health care options and get enrolled on October 1.”

You know what would have been an excellent solution to that concern about privacy? Texas creating and managing its own insurance exchange, instead of petulantly outsourcing it to the feds because our Republican leaders refuse to lift a finger to help anyone who doesn’t have health insurance. Too bad about that, no? Oh, and Greg Abbott really ought to deal with the mote in his own eye before he goes complaining about someone else’s ability to protect personal data. Trail Blazers has more.

Educating people about invasive species

Worth a shot.

Zebra mussel

Every two months, Christopher Churchill, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, scuba dives in Ray Roberts Lake, northwest of Dallas, to monitor the growth rates of zebra mussels, which have wreaked havoc on several Texas lakes and rivers.

“A year ago, it was hard to find just one zebra mussel,” Churchill said. “They’re everywhere now.”

Churchill’s assignment follows the 2009 discovery of the non-native zebra mussels in North Texas’ Lake Texoma. That year, the area lost 28 percent of its water supply when local water officials halted pumping water from the lake for fear of spreading the mussels through a pipeline that pumped water to a second reservoir, which is connected to a water treatment facility.

Officials embarked on a $300 million project to build infrastructure that would pump the water from the infested reservoir directly to the treatment facility, eliminating the possibility of infecting the second reservoir.

One way zebra mussels are introduced to new waterways is via boats that are not cleaned properly. Legislation passed this spring aims to increase awareness among Texas boaters about how to prevent the spread of the mussels and other invasive species.

To be certified to use their boats in Texas, individuals must take a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department boating education course. The department certifies about 12,000 individuals a year. The new legislation adds test questions on preventing the spread of invasive species to existing courses.

“If we can educate boaters, fisherman and those out with water craft then they can be our real front line defense against the spread and introduction of invasive species into new water bodies,” said Ross Melinchuk, deputy executive director of natural resources for the department. In addition to the courses, officials hope signs along lakes and reminders painted on boat docks will help decrease the spread of invasive species through boats.

I think the legislation in question is HB1241, but I can’t swear to it. Eradicating invasive species like the zebra mussel, or just holding them in check, will mostly involve ways to kill them or prevent them from breeding effectively. How to do that is a very difficult question, since you don’t want to introduce new and potentially worse problems into the ecosystem. Steps like this are fairly small-bore, but they can’t hurt and they are necessary to help keep the problem from getting any worse than it already is. I wish the TPWD good luck with this effort.