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March 31st, 2019:

Weekend link dump for March 31

“Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez  — an oil tanker carrying 53 million gallons of North Slope crude oil  — hit a reef in the Gulf of Alaska, ripping half a dozen holes in the hull of the ship. More than 11 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the pristine waters and vibrant ecosystem of Prince William Sound, coating more than 700 miles of coastline down the Alaska Peninsula with a thick film of oil and killing a quarter of a million seabirds, thousands of otters, and hundreds of seals and bald eagles. Even today, a small portion of crude oil still remains just out of sight below the surface of the water in parts of Alaska impacted by the spill.”

Why Trump keeps losing in court.

The comic strip Cathy and its complicated relationship with feminism.

Meet Donald Cline, fertility specialist who, um, really got into his work. (See also: Cecil Jacobson, who was doing the same kind of thing around that time.)

At least one person knew how to fill out their bracket.

Wishing Charo all the best.

“So, as the global political power centers shift toward rising authoritarianism—away from American-style liberal democracy—significant players on the Christian right are gravitating to where the power is.”

“My gut instinct is that it is some combination of these factors that explains the end of the [Mueller] probe. Without knowing the reasons the investigation is finished, it is impossible to know how to assess its end—and nobody should try.”

“Barr’s cover-up gambit means Mueller will certainly be called to testify under oath in the House. That’s why we’re getting the full-on blitz to mischaracterize his findings: to lock the media and public into a favorable narrative nowhere in evidence, before he actually speaks.”

“Raise your glass high and toast to the fact that later this week, Samuel Adams will be releasing a Belgian Brut IPA brewed on International Women’s Day and dedicating it to the Notorious RBG.”

How GDPR is doing, one year later.

“A Salute to TV’s Most Underrated Female Characters”.

“In other words, we have currently seen .057% of the Mueller Report.”

“The Trump administration’s trade war with China has turned out to be a windfall for another country the president frequently berates: Mexico.”

“Divorce as a percentage of marriage has fallen a bit in recent years, but the bigger picture shows that it’s been roughly flat since 1975.”

“If you look back at the previous six seasons, so much of the show was, ‘Oh my God, this is what a politician is like behind closed doors’ — but those closed doors are gone. So often, it was shocking how incompetent her staff is. Well, turn the TV on and you can see that. So much of the show was often her messing up and then paying a very public price for something, and I’m not sure that exists either anymore. So a lot of our bread and butter, if you will, changed.”

“It is the equivalent of punching yourself in the face repeatedly.”

“Which of baseball’s most unbreakable records might actually get broken in 2019?”

“So to determine if the Barr triumphalists are acting in good faith, you need only ask them a simple question: do you accept these basic facts and acknowledge the profound seriousness of each one?”

House approves budget, and other news

Always a major milestone.

In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.

Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.

The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.

“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”

The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.

The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.

“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”

[…]

So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.

Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”

Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.

See here for more on last session’s House budget debate. One should never miss an opportunity to illustrate Jonathan Stickland’s failures. The House also approved a supplementary budget for the previous biennium, to cover expenditures that were not previously appropriated, such as the traditional underestimating of Medicaid’s costs and all of the Harvey recovery funding.

Speaking of revenues:

House Republicans muscled a heavily altered version of their property tax reform bill through a committee early Thursday, notching a single Democratic vote and swiftly shooting down attempts to further modify the draft.

A top priority for state leaders, House Bill 2 would require cities, counties and other taxing units to receive voter approval before levying 2.5 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year. A vote was expected to come Wednesday morning on a new draft of the legislation, which contains changes likely to appease small and special taxing units but leave big municipal leaders staunchly opposed.

But the hearing on the new version was postponed until past midnight. The 16-hour delay gave an unusual cluster of critics time to trumpet their concerns with the measure — and then for top House leaders to respond in an informal late-night news conference.

“Sometimes when everyone’s a little bit upset with you, maybe you have a good balance — that’s probably a good sign,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dustin Burrows, the author of the legislation and a Lubbock Republican. “We worked really hard; we talked to a lot of different constituencies” and a lot of members. “I think you’ll see in the committee substitute, the work product and a lot of collaboration.”

As amended, HB 2 now exempts community colleges, emergency service districts and hospital districts from abiding by the 2.5 percent election trigger. Another provision lets certain districts, including cities and counties, bank unused revenue growth, so long as they average below 2.5 percent over five years. And new “revenue enrichment” language could cushion some taxing units by letting them raise $250,000 in new property taxes a year, even if it exceeded the growth rate. The threshold, set at $250,000 for 2020, would be adjusted by the state comptroller annually, based on inflation.

[…]

Currently, voters can petition for an election if property tax revenue growth exceeds 8 percent, a rate set during a period of high inflation in the 1980s. State leaders have touted the lower chamber’s proposal and a Senate companion as an overdue correction and as a needed check on spiraling property tax bills. But critics say the reform efforts would not reduce tax bills, just slow the rate at which they grow — and, in the process, hamper local officials’ ability to provide public services for growing populations.

As you know, I oppose revenue caps, no matter how well intentioned. The reason the Lege ties itself into knots every two years in a vain attempt to limit property tax growth is that a taxing system that so heavily relies on property taxes fundamentally relies on a system that is divorced from people’s ability to afford their taxes. As I muse every two years, if only there were some system of taxation that was proportional to how much money people made in a given year, that would solve so many of these problems. Too bad no such system exists anywhere in the world.

Of course, another way to limit property tax growth for homeowners would be to ensure that everyone is paying their fair share of property taxes.

As state leaders promote their property tax reform package as needed relief for everyday Texans, some Democrats and county appraisers suggest a provision in the tax code has stacked the system in favor of corporations that can appeal their valuations with a combativeness most homeowners can’t muster.

At issue: a 1997 amendment, drafted by a prominent tax attorney, that critics say has allowed business and industry to lower their property tax burden at the expense of other taxpayers. The provision offers all Texans a way to fight their appraisals by arguing they were treated unfairly compared to other properties. But critics say large property owners have capitalized on it to drive down their costs, while residences and small businesses can’t afford to do the same.

“If you have a whole category of property that is nonresidential systematically paying less, well who do you think is paying more?” said Bexar County chief appraiser Michael Amezquita.

Amezquita is one of several officials who say their districts have been inundated by appeals and lawsuits from commercial owners trying to lower their appraisals, which determine what taxes are owed on a property. Supporters of the “equity” provision say it’s a critical tool for all property owners, and that commercial properties aren’t afforded the tax exemptions many home and agricultural land owners receive. Critics counter only well-funded property owners can afford to sue — and when they do, there’s often little an appraisal district can do to fight back.

“The deck is stacked against us,” said Amezquita, who has been sued by a J.W. Marriott resort seeking to have its taxable value reduced. A spokeswoman for the hotel declined comment.

I’ve written about this before. This issue of equity appeals was a cornerstone of Mike Collier’s campaign for Lt. Governor. We’d be having a much broader conversation about fairness and equity in taxation if he had won that race, but he didn’t and so we aren’t. Better luck next time, I guess.

Anyway. The Senate still has to approve its budget, and school finance reform remains a work in progress. There’s a decent amount of harmony now, but plenty of opportunities for tension, drama, and good old fashioned nastiness remain. Which is as it should be.

The Lege versus the polls

There are reasons for this.

Politicians are often said to be chasing the polls, but sometimes they run the other way.

According to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, at least two issues popular with a majority of Republican and Democratic voters — requiring businesses to offer paid sick leave and the implementation of “red flag” laws that would allow courts to order the seizure of guns from people who are deemed an imminent threat — are considered dead on arrival in the Capitol.

“It’s not uncommon that you see some level of popularity on an issue outside the [Capitol] and an opposite trajectory within the building,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who authored a red flag bill this session. “We shouldn’t dictate everything we do by a poll, but if we completely divorce ourselves from public perception, we’ll end up being more divisive than we need to be.”

Lawmakers will dole out a bevy of reasons to explain the dissonance between what legislators are doing versus what voters are asking for: lawmakers lagging behind culture, differences between statewide and regional polling or simply a disagreement between lawmakers and pollsters on how to get the best pulse on what voters want.

“Is a legitimate poll something you should pay attention to? It’s another piece of information and research data, and it’s helpful,” said state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. “But does it change my whole mindset on where I’m going tomorrow? Absolutely not.”

Discussing “red flag” laws, which the UT/TT poll says 72 percent of Texans support, Perry said almost everyone can agree that the state doesn’t want “people that have mental challenges” to have access to guns. But he said implementing such measures might also have the unintended consequence of infringing on Texans’ Second Amendment rights.

“That’s a challenge and that’s a balance that legislators have to face: In the name of public safety, do we give up somebody’s liberty?” he said.

[…]

At the same time, leaders in both chambers are working to block municipal policies designed to ensure that workers in certain cities be required to offer paid sick leave to their employees. According to the UT/TT poll, 71 percent of Texas voters support policies requiring sick leave, including 56 percent of Republicans.

But some Republicans take issue with the poll, saying they disagree with how voters were asked about the issue.

“The UT/TT poll never addressed the fundamental question: Should local politicians be telling small businesses how to run their day-to-day operations, creating a patchwork of regulatory costs across the state?” said Alice Claiborne, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who authored a bill this session to overturn local policies requiring sick leave.

Still, the disparity between lawmakers and voters on certain issues is striking — to both legislators and political outsiders. And after Democrats made gains in the state in 2018, some predict that politicians will be more reluctant to go against polls in the near future.

“Surely if I were a legislator I would be a little more cautious than I would’ve been two years before,” said Bryan Jones, a government professor and J.J. Pickle Regents Chair in congressional studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “If they’re not, they’re going to lose seats.”

The 2018 midterms, in some ways, shook up the status quo in Texas, Jones added. But whether lawmakers pay these polls any mind boils down to whether they think the midterms were a fluke or a trend.

“If lawmakers reacted to every one-time event they’d be all over the place,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist. “You want to be mindful of the winds but you also want to be mindful of whether this is a sudden storm or a real change in climate.”

There’s a fairly simple reason for this disconnect. There are a significant number of people (read: Republicans) who say they support things like red flag laws and mandatory sick leave, but still vote for politicians who oppose them. Part of that is partisan identity, but mostly it’s because those voters agree with those politicians on other issues that are more important to them, or conversely disagree with Democrats on other issues that matter more to them. There may come a time when these people’s priorities shift – I’d argue the 2018 election was one such time, as we have discussed – but until then this is what we get. As is usually the case, until someone loses an election because of this, nothing much is going to change.

Here come the driverless trucks

Coming soon to a freeway near you.

Self-driving 18-wheelers will soon cruise next to you down Interstate 10 and other major Texas freeways.

TuSimple, a California-based autonomous truck start-up, has been mapping routes and plans to haul commercial loads from Arizona to San Antonio, Houston and other Texas cities. The company will likely make a major announcement next month, Chief Product Officer Chuck Price told me.

Safety drivers will initially sit behind the wheel, but Price hopes to take them out by the end of next year. The age of autonomy has arrived.

“We’re probably going to spend $1 billion to make this happen, and we have investors that are committed to deliver the funds over time,” he said before showing off his technology at the recent SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin.

Price’s confidence comes in stark contrast to most of the news about self-driving technology over the past year. Uber, Waymo and independent analysts have adopted a more pessimistic tone about how soon autonomous passenger cars will hit the road.

The trucking business, though, is different. Companies dispatch thousands of loads a day along the same fixed routes, from one distribution center to another. Big trucks spend most of their time on the highway, not negotiating tight urban intersections. That makes training the algorithms easier.

Most importantly, the trucking industry is motivated. The age of the average driver keeps rising and finding new ones willing to spend lonely nights on the road is difficult.

[…]

The company plans to grow its fleet to 50 trucks by June to test its software.

“By the time we get to the end of 2020, we’re going to have tens of millions of miles that are proving the system out on fixed runs from Arizona all the way down to Houston,” Price said.

Here’s a couple of stories about the company, which I’d not heard of before. I actually think they’ll be fine for the most part on the freeways – they better be, that’s for sure – but color me skeptical about how these things will handle once they’re on city streets. You can take the company’s optimism however you like, I think those safety drivers will be necessary for longer than they think they will. And now that I know these trucks exist, I’ll be on the lookout for them while I’m driving on I-10.