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February 2nd, 2014:

Weekend link dump for February 2

We’re not reading as much as we used to, but there are some promising signs.

“So why aren’t these CEOs clamoring for economic policies that might actually address this?” I’ll give you three guesses.

From the couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy department.

On the reboot of the Carl Sagan TV show Cosmos, now with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Would this mean that all currently married couples in Oklahoma would need to get a divorce?

There’s no such thing as unanimous acclaim. Whatever it is, someone somewhere won’t like it.

“How Silicon Valley’s most celebrated CEOs conspired to drive down 100,000 tech engineers’ wages”.

Meet Ceres, the last frontier of our solar system.

RIP, Morrie Turner, creator of the Wee Pals comic strip and the first nationally syndicated African-American comic strip artist.

“See, the more black people a place has, the more divided it tends to be along racial and economic lines. The more divided it is, the more sprawl there is. And the more sprawl there is, the less higher-income people are willing to invest in things like public transit.”

Amazon’s production of a Harry Bosch TV show would be enough to get me to subscribe to their streaming service.

RIP, Luis Avalos, best known (by me, anyway) for his role on The Electric Company.

Greta Susteren thinks Erick Erickson is a jerk. Right-thinking people everywhere say “Duh!” Erickson then goes on the prove her point, as if we needed further evidence.

“You might think that a bar fight is most commonly started between two guys fighting over a woman. That’s not so, at least not in my experience. Ejection seems to be a more precipitating event.”

RIP, Pete Seeger, legendary folk singer.

Good move, MLB. Pitchers could use a little protection out there.

The folks at NOM don’t much like heterosexual marriage, either.

The bat shard that Roger Clemens threw at Mike Piazza during the 2000 World Series is now up for auction. In case you were looking a present for that special someone.

“It’s time to recognize that income inequality is a sustainability issue, too.”

“It’s like an episode of The Goldbergs, but with less Jeff Garlin screaming in his underwear and more references to technologies and hairstyles gone by.”

Maybe milk isn’t as good for you as the dairy industry would like you to believe.

“Allowing a woman’s boss to call the shots about her access to birth control should be inconceivable to all Americans in this day and age, and takes us back to a place in history when women had no voice or choice.”

Post offices could deliver [simple financial] services at a 90 percent discount, saving the average underserved household over $2,000 a year and still providing the USPS with $8.9 billion in new annual profits, significantly improving its troubled balance sheet.”

RIP, Don Luis Cruz, known in Houston as the “Violin Man”.

Darryl Strawberry is making sense.

Medicare Payments for Vacuum Erection Systems Are More Than Twice As Much As the Amounts Paid For the Same or Similar Devices By Non-Medicare Payers.” I dare you not to click on that.

The ten worst Super Bowl halftime shows. Hard to argue with any of them.

Maybe we should just create one Super Bowl city and be done with it.

It’s generally better to help one’s constituents than to use them as political props.

The coverage gap

As you may know, the intent of the Affordable Care Act was to get people below a certain income level onto Medicaid, with people at or above that income level receiving subsidized health insurance via the exchanges. Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Medicaid expansion mandate was unconstitutional, it meant that in states that refused to expand Medicaid people who fell below that income level but above the income level for Medicaid eligibility as things were would be left out of coverage – too poor to receive insurance subsidies, not poor enough for Medicaid. More than one million Texas adults fall into that coverage gap. Here’s a story about one of them.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Damaged discs in Irma Aguilar’s neck make it hard to raise her arms, something she must do repeatedly when stacking boxes at the pizza restaurant where she earns $9 an hour as an assistant manager.

Sometimes, her untreated high blood pressure makes her so dizzy she has to grab onto something to prevent a fall.

And she struggles with anxiety, a heart-pounding fear that can strike at any time, but especially at night, when she lies in bed and wonders how she’s going to make ends meet.

Without insurance, she worries about how she will find the money to treat her health problems, which threaten her livelihood and the well-being of her family.

[…]

Aguilar’s four children are covered by Medicaid, which provides free or reduced-cost health care. But Aguilar makes too much money – $19,200 a year – to qualify. Texas’ Medicaid eligibility requirements are among the tightest in the nation, and Aguilar has to be nearly destitute to meet them – making no more than $4,200 a year as head of a family of five.

Emphasis mine. What that means is that if you make more than two dollars an hour working fulltime, you make too much money as the head of a family of five to qualify for Medicaid in Texas. Think about that for a minute.

Still left out of Medicaid, Aguilar hoped to get insurance under the ACA, but to qualify for a tax credit to help her pay for it, she would need to earn more than she does – at least $27,570 a year. Only those earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level are eligible for the subsidies. Aguilar is at 70 percent.

This puts her in the gap, with neither Medicaid nor affordable health insurance.

If she could get a subsidy, Aguilar would have shelled out about $46 a month for a midlevel health plan. Without one, the cost would have zoomed to more than $200 a month, a price that puts health insurance out of her reach.

“I have to scrape by as it is,” Aguilar said. “By the time I pay rent, lights and water, there’s not much left over. Sometimes, I don’t eat so my kids can eat.”

[…]

As Texas rejected the extra Medicaid money, state lawmakers committed more resources to health care in the past session, said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The Legislature set aside $100 million in added money for primary care services for women and an additional $332 million for mental health services, she wrote in an email.

“We’ve also developed a strong network of health centers across the state that provides low-income citizens with access to both preventive care and treatment for medical issues,” she said.

Such clinics depend on a mix of revenue – Medicaid, private insurance and patient fees – to enable them to provide care to those who lack insurance.

But those front-line providers don’t have enough money and resources to care for all the uninsured, including those in the coverage gap, said José Camacho, head of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers.

Nor can health centers provide a broad range of services, making them a too-porous safety net, others say.

“They’re no substitute for not having coverage,” said Anne Dunkelberg, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans. “They can’t provide specialty treatment or trauma care. If you’ve been hurt in a car wreck or have a broken bone or cancer, if you need a CT scan, you’re going to be out of luck. Health centers are wonderful for primary care, but they’re not a substitute for comprehensive care.”

Ms. Aguilar has chronic conditions, as noted above, so these health centers likely wouldn’t be of much good to her anyway, assuming she could afford their fees. Even if she could, she wouldn’t be able to afford any medications they might prescribe. So she’s pretty much SOL. I personally think that Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ted Cruz, and everyone else responsible for Texas’ horrible lack of health insurance for so many of its residents should be made to personally explain to Ms. Aguilar and her kids why they don’t want her to be able to get health care. Not that I think it would have any effect on them, but maybe if they had to explain it to all one million plus Texans that they have excluded from coverage it might eventually wear them down.

I do know one way that Ms. Aguilar and the million others like her could get helped, and that’s by electing Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte this November. No guarantee that they’d be able to overcome legislative resistance, of course, but there was some sentiment for expansion in 2011, and at least they wouldn’t be adding to that resistance. And if the Lege still can’t stand the idea of expanding Medicaid, there’s another way they could help Ms. Aguilar and many others like her: Raise the minimum wage. If Ms. Aguilar earned a bit more than $13 an hour, then her fulltime salary would make it to that magic $27,500 level – which is to say, exactly at the federally defined poverty line – and she’d qualify for insurance subsidies on the exchange. Either way would be fine by me.

More on TxDOT and high speed rail

First come the studies and the public hearings. Then we wait and see what happens.

What a weird map of Texas

The Texas Transportation Commission is expected to vote Thursday at its monthly meeting on the creation of a high-speed rail commission focused on the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Separately, TxDOT is holding a series of public meetings around Texas and Oklahoma, starting this week, to hear comments on a study looking at the feasibility of high-speed rail projects between Oklahoma City and South Texas.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff stressed that the two initiatives should not be interpreted as a decision by TxDOT to develop any high-speed rail projects in Texas.

“We have not yet discussed a broader charge with respect to transportation policy and funding,” Vandergriff said Friday in Dallas at the Southwestern Rail Conference, which was hosted by Texas Rail Advocates. “The Legislature sets our course for that.”

The new high-speed rail commission will advise state transportation officials on “the development of intercity rail corridors, new transportation policies, and funding and procurement strategies as they relate to the implementation of proposed high-speed rail connecting the Dallas and Fort Worth areas,” according to TxDOT’s agenda for the meeting.

“It is a limited purpose and scope assignment,” Vandergriff said. “It is not an indication that there is any funding for high-speed rail.”

[…]

TxDOT launched its Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study last year to take a wide-angle look at the impact of potential rail service projects between Oklahoma City and the Texas-Mexico border. This month, TxDOT officials announced plans to expand the scope of the study south, to Monterrey, Mexico, to account for interest in building a high-speed rail line between Monterrey and San Antonio.

See here and here for the most recent entries in this saga. The schedule for TxDOT’s public meetings on the Texas-Oklahoma prject is here. As for the Houston-Dallas privately funded project, Chron transportation reporter Dug Begley has more on what they’re saying. Texas Central High-Speed Railway is expected to file some federal documents in April that will tell us more about their plans, including their preferred route. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that.

Too old for death

Fascinating story about Texas’ oldest inmate on death row. He’s been there for 36 years.

Two weeks after he turned 40, Jack Harry Smith showed no signs of letting middle age slow him down. So on the first Saturday in January, he put on a ski mask, grabbed his pistol and a buddy, and went charging into a Pasadena convenience store.

As career criminals go, Smith never had been newsworthy nor successful. That changed by the time he ran out the front door of Corky’s Corner, and it wasn’t because of the small sack of cash in his hand.

Behind him lay the body of Roy Deputter, the store’s bookkeeper who lived in a trailer behind the store and had rushed inside with a gun when he heard the commotion. Before him loomed capital murder charges.

Smith’s lawyer says his client recalls little of the event. Prosecutors and lawmen typically are skeptical of convenient memory loss, but there’s a good chance he is telling the truth. On the day that Smith earned his ticket to death row, Jimmy Carter was threatening to slap a tariff on imported steel, Egypt and Israel were closing in on a historic peace accord, and the Dallas Cowboys were on the verge of their second Super Bowl title.

Which is another way of saying that Smith is old. By the standards of Texas’ death row, in fact, he is ancient. No one lasts that long in the nation’s most aggressive capital punishment state, certainly not a three-time loser who has spent most of his life behind bars. This isn’t California, which sends many people to death row but rarely executes them. The only inmates to escape the death chamber are those spared by appeals courts or those so mentally ill they are not competent for execution. And there are but a handful of those.

Smith is not one of them, and by rights he should not be alive. Yet he has beaten the odds and lingered on since 1978 – through six presidential administrations, countless Middle East negotiations and too many Super Bowls to remember. Tragedy has stalked his case for years and put his appeal on hold again and again. Now he is 76 and there’s no end in sight, at least not one imposed by the courts.

By “tragedy”, they mean that the original judge in the case and two of Smith’s lawyers died while his appeals were in process. That all helped delay the process, in addition to the usual slow pace of the system; the average inmate spends a bit more than ten years on death row before the sentence is carried out. At this point, the Attorney General’s office is officially pursuing matters, though the Harris County DA’s office could still be involved. Smith’s co-defendant was paroled a decade ago, and if his death sentence were to be commuted, he’d be paroled as well, though he has no family left and thus has no one to go home to. It’s hard to see what would be gained by continuing all the legal machinations. The best resolution, for some value of “best”, anyway, is probably to leave things as they are and let nature take its course.

Endorsement watch: Fitzsimons for Ag Commissioner

The Chron recommends Hugh Fitzsimons as the best choice for Ag Commissioner in the Democratic primary.

Hugh Fitzsimons

Hugh Fitzsimons

A 59-year-old San Antonio native and third-generation rancher, Fitzsimons produces honey and raises grass-fed organic bison on his ranch in Dimmit County. One of the top reasons he’s running for office, though, is water.

Before running for agriculture commissioner’s four-year term, Fitzsimons served on the Wintergarden Water Conservation District. That experience becomes apparent when he discusses ways for Texans to conserve water, balancing the needs of cities, farmers and fracking.

As part of a solution, he says he’ll work to promote water recycling in the fracking process and irrigation systems that prevent evaporation.

He is also the only Democrat to receive the endorsement of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a national organization dedicated to supporting independent family farmers.

And while many other candidates speak only in hyperbole about immigration, Fitzsimons speaks with compassion. Instead of horror stories about death along the border, he talks about the time he kayaked down the Rio Grande.

If you care about the future of the Texas Democratic Party, vote for Fitzsimons. If you’re tempted to vote for Kinky, make a donation to the Drug Policy Alliance instead.

The Chron also endorsed Eric Opiela on the Republican side, with a kudo for J. Allen Carnes and a brickbat for former Rep. Sid Miller. They wrote about twice as much for the Dem primary endorsement, beginning with two paragraphs of potshots at Kinky Friedman and his pro-pot campaign. Their objection was more about Kinky and his past history of being more showman than statesman in his campaigns, which I can certainly understand, than it was about marijuana policy. I’ve got interviews with Kinky and Fitzsimons set to run next week, and I’ll have more to say about this primary in a future post. On the merits, this is an unassailable recommendation, and if you aren’t acquainted with Hugh Fitzsimons yet, you really should get to know him.