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June 24th, 2014:

Another win for the EPA at the Supreme Court

And thus another loss for Greg Abbott and Rick Perry.

Greg Abbott approves of this picture

The Supreme Court on Monday mostly validated the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to regulate power plant and factory emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming while imposing some limits on the agency’s reach.

The justices said the EPA could not rewrite specific standards written into the law, but they still handed the Obama administration and environmentalists a big victory by agreeing there was another way for the EPA to carry out its program.

“EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case,” Justice Antonin Scalia said from the bench, in announcing the decision. “It sought to regulate sources that it said were responsible for 86 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources nationwide. Under our holdings, EPA will be able to regulate sources responsible for 83 percent of those emissions.”

[…]

The legal battle in part results from the failure of the administration and Congress to find common ground on the issue of global warming.

The court ruled in the 2007 case, Massachusetts v. EPA , that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are pollutants that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. That case, which was brought by states that said the EPA under President George W. Bush was not doing enough to fight global warming, concerned regulating motor vehicles.

The Obama administration later reasoned that “stationary sources” — factories, power plants and other structures — were also subject to the permitting requirements in certain parts of the act.

A unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with that view. It said that court precedents made the agency’s readings of its powers “unambiguously correct.”

But the EPA has acknowledged that the permitting thresholds set by the Clean Air Act do not fit well with something like carbon dioxide, which is ubiquitous in the environment. While the law said pollution limits of 100 to 250 tons per year triggered permitting requirements, the EPA had to raise those to 75,000 to 100,000 tons per year for greenhouse gases to identify the facilities most in need of regulation.

The Trib and Vox have pretty good explainers of the case and the ruling, so go check them out. It’s not a complete win for the EPA, but it’s still a solid ruling for them. Texas was of course one of the lead plaintiffs in this action, but as has been the case before, they lost. There’s no other litigation pending currently, but I’m sure there will be more in the future. TPM, dKos, and the EDF have more.

Medicaid expansion: Still a great deal, especially for cities

So many uninsured people could get covered if Medicaid expansion were universal instead of just here and there.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Expanding Medicaid under the new health care law would do a lot to slash the number of uninsured people, at least in some of the nation’s largest cities, according to a new report.

A review of 14 diverse big cities finds that the cities in states that are expanding the low-income health care program under the Affordable Care Act will see roughly twice the decline in the number of insured compared to cities in states not opting for the expansion, according to an analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute.

Three states are still debating whether to implement the expansion, while 21 have declined it, according to a count from last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The seven cities in states expanding the program will likely see the number of uninsured drop an average 57 percent, while the remaining seven cities will see an average 30 percent drop, the report finds. The projected declines range from 25 percent in Atlanta, Ga., which isn’t expanding, to 66 percent in Detroit, Mich., which is.

Medicaid expansion would affect large portions of each city reviewed, but it would have an especially huge impact on four of the 14. More than half the population in Detroit, Memphis, Miami and Philadelphia, would be eligible for Medicaid after expansion, but only Detroit is in a state opting for expansion.

Medicaid is just one aspect of the law. Combine its impact with the law’s subsidies, and more than half the population in all but one city would be eligible for some kind of insurance assistance, the report’s authors find. The resulting flow of revenue to the cities would be a boon to their economies, the authors argue.

You can see the report here. The Chron mentions this in passing but doesn’t bother going into any details. Not really surprising that big cities would do disproportionately well under Medicaid expansion, but of course only those cities lucky enough to be in the states that chose the rational and compassionate path will benefit that way, even as the states that have rejected Medicaid expansion could really use it. More here from Think Progress.

Meanwhile, a related story from the Trib, even if it didn’t realize it was related.

The sheriff of the state’s largest county is peeved with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the agency that runs the state’s mental health hospitals.

The agency is not offering the care that it is required to provide, the Harris County sheriff, Adrian Garcia, said. Given proper treatment, the sheriff argues, some patients would not be committing the crimes of which they are accused. Instead, they end up in Harris County’s jails, where they are a health care and financial burden to the county.

Sheriff Garcia has allies, and might even get some help. The state agency is being reviewed by the Legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission, which will hold hearings later this month on a report from its staff that calls the system a mess. “Resolving the current crisis in the state mental health hospital system requires action, starting now,” the first recommendation states.

The report is remarkably clear, as these things go, detailing changes in organization and programs that would reboot the agency. It has floundered since undergoing a reorganization ordered by lawmakers who were trying to create “a truly integrated health services organization” in 2003.

“The state mental health hospital system is dealing with enormous pressure from increased commitments from the courts, and the review found that a lack of communication and collaboration between DSHS and the judiciary only exacerbates the problem,” the staff analysts wrote. They added that out-of-date facilities, “critical shortages” of clinical staff and the agency’s struggles with organization and new legislative initiatives have added to the troubles. The agency did not offer much resistance in its formal response, saying the report “captures the challenges we face” and that agency officials “understand and support the intent and direction of the recommendations.”

In other words, the system is not working. The recommendations include increasing staff for the hospitals and expanding capacity by contracting with local providers whenever possible.

I say it’s related because jail inmates and people with chronic mental illnesses are two more populations that would greatly benefit from Medicaid expansion, as we’ve discussed before. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the federal government pick up some of this tab, as they are ready and willing to do, unlike the state? Yeah, sorry about that. We’ll need to have a better state government first, then we can see about that.

Great moments in false equivalence

The headline reads Money from disputed tax bills flowing to candidates for top tax chief, and then the story tells us that more than 99% of that money is going to one of those candidates.

BagOfMoney

Business entities and taxpayers are pumping thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of candidates who, if elected state comptroller, would receive their tax-bill complaints.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office is charged with collecting state tax revenue and implementing state tax law. And even though the state auditor sought a ban on business contributions to comptroller candidates nine years ago, the Texas Legislature did not act and the practice prevails.

In this election cycle, businesses and lawyers with clients before the comptroller’s office have thrown more than $200,000 into the campaigns of two candidates seeking to replace Susan Combs: Republican state Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy and Houston-area accountant Mike Collier, a Democrat.

Public watchdog groups see a potential conflict of interest.

“As long as we’re going to have comptrollers running on partisan political tickets, it’s almost impossible to filter out which contributions might not have an interest in the comptroller’s office,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice.

Collier hasn’t received a lot of cash from entities with a stake in tax cases. Of the $200,000 he’s raised, only $1,500 comes from employees of ExxonMobil and BP, two energy firms with disputes before the Comptroller’s Office. He said he’d be open to legislative action barring contributions from donors with active cases with the office, but wouldn’t cut those donations out of his coffers.

“Because I’m the underdog and I’m trying to throw out the trench politicians, I’ll take money from anybody who’ll give it to me,” Collier said.

Hegar has snagged more than 10 percent of the more than $2 million he’s raised from businesses or firms with clients with active tax cases.

So in other words, of the “more than $200,000” that has been raised by the Comptroller candidates from people and firms that have business before the Comptroller’s office, at least $200,000 of it went to Glenn Hegar, while all of $1,500 went to Mike Collier. This is like saying that the Aaron brothers, Hank and Tommie, combined to hit 768 home runs in their career. One of the two contributed a lot more to the bottom line than the other. Oh, and well done on the “more than 10 percent of the more than $2 million” bit, which not only obscures the actual total (how much more than ten percent? how much more than $2 million?) it also surely confuses the more math-phobic readers about how much Hegar collected to the point where they have no idea that it’s way, way more than Collier. An impressive performance all around.

By the way, companies like BP and ExxonMobil have lots and lots of employees. Very few of those employees would have any role in or influence over the dispute process with the Comptroller’s office. Unless the BP and ExxonMobil employees cited above that donated to Mike Collier are among that small group, then the whole premise that “both candidates” are benefiting from contributions of entities and their representatives that have business before the Comptroller’s office is shot. Details, details.

The point of the story is that in 2005, a report by the Texas State Auditor showed that 750 taxpayers received $461 million in tax credits and refunds from the comptroller’s office less than a year after they or their representatives had made a contribution to then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. This was a key attack point by Rick Perry against Strayhorn in the 2006 campaign. That auditor’s report recommended that legislation be passed to the Comptroller or candidates for Comptroller from receiving campaign contributions from anyone that had a dispute pending with the office. Needless to say, nothing happened then, and nothing will happen in 2015. But at least now we’ve been reminded of the issue, and the Chronicle figured out a way to make numbers that are two orders of magnitude apart sound similar. So there’s that.

Teacher health insurance costs

Another thing on the list of things the Legislature needs to deal with but won’t.

Health care insurance costs for hundreds of thousands of Texas teachers and other public school employees are scheduled to go up again this fall, prompting renewed calls from educator groups for the state to pick up more of the cost of employee premiums.

The biggest increase will be experienced by those seeking basic coverage for themselves and family members. Their monthly premiums will jump $85 to a high of $1,145 a month, nearly two and a half times the national average of $472 a month. Similar coverage in the private sector would cost around $407 a month, according to a recent Bush Institute study on teacher health care costs.

“The current policy of imposing ever-greater costs on employees is not sustainable,” said Ted Melina Raab, spokesman for the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “It is putting decent, affordable coverage out of reach for growing numbers of school personnel.”

More than 280,000 public school employees – roughly three in four teachers, principals, administrators and other staff – receive health insurance through the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. The insurance program, called TRS-ActiveCare, was created to provide a health care option to working teachers whose districts did not offer their own plans.

Last Friday, the TRS board agreed to increase monthly premiums across most TRS-ActiveCare plans.

Since 2002, the state’s share of premiums has remained at $75 a month. During that same period, some educators seeking coverage for just themselves have seen their premiums increase 238 percent.

Even with the state’s monthly contribution of $75 and a $150 base contribution required from school districts, some employees still will pay upwards of $920 a month for basic family coverage.

“These increases amount to pay cuts,” Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association said, noting the average teacher in the Lone Star State makes under $50,000 a year. “It really has become a burden for some of these teachers.”

This is a feature and a bug of the employer-subsidized insurance model. As we know, employers that provide health insurance plans for their employees pay a significant fraction of the cost of the premiums. This makes health insurance a lot more affordable for many people, but it means many of them have no idea how much their insurance really costs, and it means that an ever-increasing percentage of their total compensation is going to health insurance and not to, you know, salary. But that’s the world we live in, and Robison is exactly right – if the state is not upping its share of the payments, then it is like a pay cut for the teachers, since they’re bearing the full brunt of it. That’s just not right.

The solution, educator groups and districts agree, lies with the legislature. Teacher groups point to the fact that lawmakers and other state employees are covered by the Employees Retirement System of Texas health insurance plan, which pays 100 percent of monthly premiums for individuals and half of dependent coverage.

“School district employees are conveniently thought of as state employees for some things, not thought of as state employees for other things,” said Texas AFT President Linda Bridges, citing increasing performance benchmarks placed on public teachers by state officials. “We think school employees should have health care as good as the governor.”

[…]

State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said state lawmakers have a clear role to play in reducing health care costs for teachers.

“Here is an area where clearly the state has a role to play,” said Villarreal. “Clearly, the legislature can take actions to reduce the costs for our teachers in a way that doesn’t interfere with the authority of superintendents and principals.”

State Sen. Bob Deuell, the Greenville Republican ousted by tea party candidate Bob Hall, thinks this will be a hard sell in a legislature keen on budget cuts.

“If you increase the premiums, you have essentially cut the salaries of teachers at a time when they’re not being paid enough already,” said Deuell. “I doubt very seriously the teachers are successful in getting this issue – or any other issue – through next year.”

This is where I point out that Texas’ revenue collections are going gangbusters, meaning the Legislature will have plenty of money to work with. The combination we have of unmet needs, neglected infrastructure, and available cash is one you’d think would be amenable to actually finding solutions to the problems we face. Unfortunately, that requires a level of rationality in the Legislature that doesn’t exist. Can’t do much about the Legislature but we can change direction at the top of the state. It’s the best hope we have.