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Bill to allow discrimination in adoptions and foster care passes the House

Shameful.

Rep. James Frank

Under House Bill 3859, which advanced on a 94-51 vote, providers would be protected from legal retaliation if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs” while caring for abused and neglected children. The measure would allow them to place a child in a religion-based school; deny referrals for abortion-related contraceptives, drugs or devices; and refuse to contract with other organizations that don’t share their religious beliefs.

Rep. James Frank, the Wichita Falls Republican who authored the bill and an adoptive father, said repeatedly during a lengthy debate Tuesday that his legislation is not meant to be exclusionary but to give providers some certainty when it comes to legal disputes. He described opposition to the bill as “fabricated hysteria.”

“You can be successful, but it will cost you,” Frank said. “The bill declares a winner and says, ‘You are protected.'”

But Democratic lawmakers who lined up at a podium at the back of the House chamber to question Frank said the legislation would give religious groups license to discriminate against LGBT — or Jewish or divorced — parents who want to foster or adopt, or to avoid getting children vaccinated. A vast array of things could be classified as a “sincerely held religious belief,” they said.

“We’re further casting these children off,” said Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston. “We’re making it more difficult for them to be adopted.”

See here for the background. The original sin here is the state accepting the idea that it’s okay for faith-based groups to treat children who don’t conform to their faith differently than those who do. By its very definition, it’s not acting in the best interests of the child, but of the providers, who last I checked were supposed to have the best interests of the child as their primary concern. And the “sincerely-held beliefs” dodge is just that, for as Chuck Smith said in that earlier story there are a lot of harmful beliefs out there. Remember this?

So check out the short exchange in the video clip above between Cohen and Becky Riggle, a pastor at Houston’s Grace Community Church. Riggle was testifying against [HERO], arguing that it violates the religious freedom of business owners and others in Houston who think LGBT people are sinful. If a business owner has the right to refuse service to LGBT people because the owner’s religious beliefs are offended, Cohen asks, then should business owners also be able to refuse service to other people — like, say, Jews — for the same reason?

Riggle, clearly realizing she’s trapped by her own argument, proceeds to trip all over her tongue in trying to respond. She ultimately suggests that yes, religious freedom would allow her to discriminate against Jews. But she insists “that’s not the issue” in the case of the Houston ERO.

Actually, that’s exactly what this is about — whether someone’s religious beliefs give them a free pass to discriminate against anyone they choose in civil society.

“Sincerely held” is not a synonym for “commendable” or “worthwhile”. This is a bad idea and it will be directly harmful to children who are already pretty damn vulnerable. ThinkProgress, the Observer, and the Chron have more.

Oh, and on a separate note, there was this:

A foster care bill in the House turned into a heated debate on vaccinations for children on Wednesday.

The bill from Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, is part of the state’s attempt to reform its foster care system. Wu’s House Bill 39, which won preliminary approval, would limit on the number of kids a Child Protective Services worker could supervise. It would also require speedy medical evaluations of children entering the foster care system.

Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington and vice chairman of the staunchly conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, authored an amendment to the bill that would have restricted doctors from including vaccinations in initial medical examinations for children. Zedler said children could be removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, and then given an unwanted vaccination.

On the floor, Zedler told lawmakers that vaccines don’t protect public health and should not be considered an emergency medication. “The vaccination is only for that child to protect that child,” he said.

[…]

Zedler’s amendment had both Democrats and Republicans up in arms. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, attempted to change Zedler’s amendment to allow doctor’s to distribute a vaccine if it has been proven to prevent cancer. Davis, who has previously been an advocate for vaccinations, said she was “dumbfounded” that lawmakers would vote against preventing cervical cancer.

“My amendment empowers doctors to practice medicine,” Davis said during a testy exchange with Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. “I think this is so important that we can eradicate cervical cancer.”

Leach said he was concerned that Davis’ amendment would revoke parental rights who do not believe in vaccination, and “rip that decision from the parents and the child and give it to the doctor.”

Emphasis mine. Zedler’s amendment passed, while Davis’ attempt to modify it was defeated. Here are the 2016 election numbers in Zedler’s district and in Leach’s district. Sure would be nice to have some better representatives in those two districts, wouldn’t it? The Trib has more.

A happy ending

This was a long time coming.

When I first reported on this family a year ago, the boys – who had behavioral issues and delays likely stemming from abuse, neglect and being shuttled through foster placements – had just been removed from the loving women they called Mama and Mommy, and the stable home where they tended gardens filled with chickens, vegetables and butterflies.

Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffery, Houston public school educators whose home was regarded as exemplary, had been deemed uncooperative by the Wharton Child Protective Services office after they repeatedly reported concerns, including suspected abuse by a teen half-sibling elsewhere in foster care whom the boys were required to visit.

The women fought in court to get the boys back. Seven weeks later, they did – but it was only supposed to be temporary. CPS continued to block adoption efforts and to shop around the boys and their sibling as a package deal. The mothers say that after my columns began running, CPS staffers who once praised their care began to nitpick and demean, at one point initiating an investigation about a pedicure one boy received on medical advice, and another time terminating their right to medical consent.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. Just as mysteriously as CPS staff had opposed the adoption by Sugarek and Jeffery, they consented to it. Maybe they realized the battle was futile.

“We weren’t going to stop fighting,” Jeffery said.

In this business, we live for happy endings. But like everything else in this saga, it didn’t come easy.

See here, here, and here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. I don’t have anything to add to what Lisa Falkenberg says. There are lots of problems with CPS, many of which we can blame on the Legislator and our Governor, and others that CPS itself is responsible for. This story was an example of the latter. It’s great that it all worked out in the end, but it shouldn’t have taken this long and it shouldn’t have been this hard or this frustrating.

House passes its budget

Mostly shenanigan-free, with a nice little side order of shade for a few people who deserve it.

After 15 and a half hours of debate on hundreds of amendments to the Texas House budget, lawmakers in the lower chamber passed the two-year, $218 billion document, with 131 votes in favor and 16 votes against.

The House vote included using $2.5 billion from the state’s savings account, colloquially known as the Rainy Day Fund. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, thanked lawmakers for exhibiting “true leadership” with their willingness to tap the fund, “instead of electing to use an unconstitutional transfer from the transportation funding.”

That was a jab at the Senate, which last week approved its version of the two-year budget using a $2.5 billion accounting trick to free up funds dedicated to highway spending. The House must now work with the Senate, which is under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who vehemently opposes using the Rainy Day Fund, to reconcile their budget differences.

House lawmakers, debating the budget late into Thursday night, took several jabs at Patrick and other statewide elected officials throughout the evening.

Included in the fray were Gov. Greg Abbott, who saw one of his prized economic development programs defunded; Patrick, who heard a resounding “no” when his favored proposal to subsidize private school tuition with public funds was put to a vote; and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who lost more than $20 million from his agency’s budget for lawsuits.

On the winning side of the House budget debate were child welfare advocates, who saw funding for foster care and Child Protective Services tentatively boosted; social conservatives, who scored $20 million for the Alternatives to Abortion program; and the lieutenants of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team who, in a display of unity, easily brushed aside most challenges from far-right Republicans.

Statewide GOP leaders took some of the heftiest blows in the House chamber. Lawmakers there voted to strip $43 million from the governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund, the “deal-closing” fund the state uses to lure businesses from elsewhere, and divide it into two equal pots: one for Child Protective Services and foster care funding, the other for a program that pays for disabled children’s physical, occupational and speech therapy services. Both are hot-button issues that have dominated the House’s budget negotiations during this legislative session.

[…]

Private school subsidies, a pet issue of Patrick and his Senate, also suffered a perhaps fatal wound on Thursday. House lawmakers voted 103-44 to prevent state money from being spent to subsidize private school tuition in the form of vouchers, education savings accounts or tuition scholarships. The proposal’s author, state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said it was “in support of our public schools and our neighborhood schools.”

[…]

Paxton’s attorney general’s office also saw funding gutted by House lawmakers who opted to instead fund programs that serve vulnerable children. Foster care funding would receive $21.5 million that was previously intended to pay for Paxton’s legal services budget under a proposal by state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, that passed 82 to 61.

See here for more on the Enterprise Fund de-funding, which made me smile. Despite promises of shenanigans and roughly a gazillion amendments filed, there was more good done to the budget than bad. Which is not to say it’s a good budget, but it’s far from the worst we’ve ever seen. Take your positives where you can.

Especially when they involve Dan Patrick getting pwned.

In late March, lobbying group Texans for Education Opportunity used an online campaign to generate thousands of letters to 29 state representatives lobbying them to back education savings accounts, one of the subsidy programs in SB 3. Though the group claimed the letters were credible, the letters stirred up suspicion after no representative could find a constituent who remembered adding their name to that correspondence.

Of the 29 representatives targeted in the campaign, 26 voted Thursday to block money from funding “private school choice” programs.

RG Ratcliffe called it a “mugging”. As former Houston Rockets radio announcer Gene Peterson used to say, how sweet it is. Also, too, going back to the first story, there’s this:

Stickland had filed an amendment defund a state program for the abatement of feral hogs, which he’s become known for championing at the Legislature each session. Stickland railed predictably against the program, calling it “ridiculous” and a waste of money.

“It has not worked, and it never will work,” Stickland said, his voice rising.

That apparently offended rural lawmakers, notably state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. In response, Springer attached an amendment to Stickland’s proposal that would cut the same amount of funding for the Texas Department of Transportation, but only for roads and highways in Stickland’s hometown of Bedford.

Stickland took to the back microphone to cry foul.

“Someone else has chosen to make a mockery of this system and play gotcha politics,” he said before being interrupted. Laughter had erupted in the gallery.

“It’s funny until it happens to you,” he continued.

Springer and Stickland then confronted each other on the middle of the House floor and had to be separated by colleagues. Springer’s amendment ultimately passed, 99 to 26, forcing Stickland to withdraw his own proposal to which it had been attached.

What is best in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of Jonathan Stickland. And Briscoe Cain, too, the Chester to Stickland’s Spike, except without the victorious denouement for Chester. Look, just because the House passed a budget doesn’t mean this is the budget we’ll get. The Senate passed a budget, too, and there are lots of differences to be worked out between the two. The final version will be different, and some of the things we are cheering now may be undone in that. But that’s no reason not to cheer for the things that deserve it now. The Observer and the Press have more.

Zerwas proposes using Rainy Day Fund

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

Rep. John Zerwas

The chief budget writer in the Texas House on Friday proposed using $1.4 billion from the state’s savings account to pay bills coming due for a wide array of the state’s health and human services programs.

The proposal from state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, would continue pay raises for Child Protective Services workers that state leaders ordered last year. It would also pay for renovations at the state’s aging mental health hospitals and state-supported living centers for people with disabilities.

And it would partially reverse a sweeping $350 million budget cut to a therapy program for children with disabilities ordered by the Texas Legislature in 2015.

The funding would come from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, a savings account lawmakers may use in tight budget years. That fund currently has about $10 billion.

“Using a small portion of the Economic Stabilization Fund, combined with spending reductions, is the responsible way for us to close out the current budget cycle and respond to the slowdown in our economy,” Zerwas said in a prepared statement.

This is for the supplemental budget, which is to say the budget passed by the 2015 Legislature, not for the one this Lege is working on. It will free up some money for the current budget if Zerwas’ proposal is adopted, in the sense that current revenues would not have to be used to close out the previous budget. Given the emergency that everyone agrees CPS is and the outcry that followed the cuts to the therapy program for children with disabilities, you would think this would be a relative no-brainer, but don’t count on it. The Rainy Day Fund morphed from being a tool to use to smooth out economic bumps to a lump of gold buried in the backyard that is never to be touched unless there’s a natural disaster, with the 2011 session in which cutting $5 billion from public education was seen as the better choice as the turning point. A supermajority is needed to tap the Rainy Day Fund, and I have a hard time believing Dan Patrick and his Senate sycophants will go for that. But at least someone had the guts to bring it up, so kudos to Rep. Zerwas for that. Keep an eye on this, because it may be a precursor of the larger budget fight between the chambers. If Zerwas gets his way, that bodes well. If not, things could get ugly.

The Sugarek/Jeffery family is back together

Wonderful news.

Seven weeks after Child Protective Services caseworkers removed the boys following their foster mothers’ repeated complaints about suspected abuse by an older sibling living elsewhere in foster care, a CPS supervisor brought them back.

The move followed a contentious court hearing and a series of private meetings in which the mothers say CPS never acknowledged an error but agreed it was best to return the boys to the home where they had flourished. A CPS spokesman declined comment.

[…]

In a series of meetings last week, Ketterman and the foster mothers say CPS told them an investigation found the teen had not abused the 3-year-old. They said CPS and the CASA advocate suggested the problem was miscommunication, even though the foster mothers had meticulously detailed every concern for months. At one point, Sugarek said, CPS suggested the anal injury may have been caused by pinworms. She found that ridiculous, saying Dion’s pinworms had healed months earlier after he came to live with them.

But the foster mothers agreed to disagree on the abuse and negotiated to have the children returned. Sugarek and Jeffery say they’re back on track to adopt the two boys and look forward to discussing that at a hearing next month.

Meanwhile, the boys will have only supervised visits with their older brother. The foster mothers say CPS has asked for help in finding a placement for the teen somewhere in the close-knit Heights community.

See here and here for the background. I was at Hogg for their end-of-year awards ceremony on Monday evening, and the first people I happened to see on campus as Olivia and I arrived were Carol Jeffery and the two boys. It was so awesome to see them together. As Lisa Falkenberg notes, the outpouring of support from the community was overwhelming, but Sugarek and Jeffery and the boys were ultimately very lucky. Far too many people, adults and children, don’t get this kind of happy ending from CPS. It sure would be nice if our state leaders cared more about that.

Sugarek/Jeffery foster family update

From Lisa Falkenberg:

The drab little courtroom off the square in Wharton, with its blond wood, stoic flags and idle metal detector at the door, seemed like an alternative universe.

Two Houston foster mothers who entered Thursday with anticipation and profound concern for the little boys recently removed from their home were jolted back by a process puttering along at half speed.

The horrifying realities facing the boys seemed shrouded in jargon and legal formalities. A CPS supervisor in a shiny suit, and the county attorney paid to represent the agency, moved with an utter lack of urgency.

The judge, Eric Andell, at least seemed to grasp the seriousness of the case and noted he’d read about it in this column last week.

The foster mothers, Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffery, who were by all accounts loving parents to 3-year-old “Dion” and 4-year-old “Darius,” saw their plans of adoption dashed when CPS relocated the boys last month, apparently because the foster mothers had reported alleged abuse by a teen half-sibling living elsewhere in foster care.

[…]

At the status hearing last week, the foster mothers hoped the judge would consider their motion. They asked to be heard in matter, and they made a formal request to adopt the boys. But a ruling was delayed because their attorney had filed the motion only the night before.

“It seems to me the quicker we get this case to trial, the better off we are,” the judge told the attorneys and court-appointed advocates. “Time is not our friend.”

In fact, time may be the enemy for two troubled little boys with a history of abuse.

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. The good news is that CPS program director Leshia Fisher has been apprised, and is looking into things. The bad news is that she had been completely unaware that the boys had been taken away from Sugarek and Jeffery; she had assumed they had been returned to them by now. Every day that passes makes the situation worse for all involved. All we can do at this point is hope that someone steps in and fixes this.

And speaking of our bedeviled foster care system:

Two special masters appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms to the state’s embattled foster care system have begun visiting with state officials, and their recent two-and-a-half-day orientation is projected to cost the state roughly $43,000, according to state officials.

The cost of the meetings held April 25-27 are just the beginning of an open-ended tab for court-ordered oversight after U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled last year that Texas’ long-term foster care system treated children inhumanely and violated their civil rights.

In that December ruling, Jack ordered the state to pay special masters to study ways to improve foster care over a six-month period. In March, Jack picked two special masters favored by children’s rights advocates: Francis McGovern, a Duke University law professor, and Kevin Ryan, a partner at the New Jersey nonprofit Public Catalyst, which advocates for child welfare.

Emails obtained by The Texas Tribune show the special masters and their staff arranged meetings with state officials for late April. Jack approved pay for McGovern and Ryan at $345 per hour, according to the court record.

Ryan also hired four staff members to assist him: Deborah Fowler, Eileen Crummy, Lisa Taylor and Margaret McHale. McHale received court approval to charge $305 per hour; the other three staff could charge $325 per hour, according to an email from staff at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

[…]

This isn’t the first time the state has been on the hook for the costs of an external review of the state’s child welfare system. In 2014, the state paid The Stephen Group to review the operations of the state’s Child Protective Services agency. The initial $750,000 contract has been renewed twice, for a total cost of $2.7 million.

In this case, however, state lawmakers had no choice in approving the cost of the special masters. Lawyers for the state are appealing Jack’s ruling but must comply with her orders as the appeal progresses. Republican leaders have challenged Jack’s ruling as an affront to states’ rights.

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott said the court ruling was forcing the state to spend money it could have otherwise used to improve child safety, such as hiring more staff. Much of Jack’s ruling criticized the state for failing to hire enough caseworkers to keep track of vulnerable children.

“It’s unfortunate and disappointing that millions of dollars that could have gone to serving youth in the Texas foster care system and hiring more caseworkers will now be spent towards the legally baseless special master process,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a prepared statement.

[…]

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, told colleagues at an April hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that the state was simply paying on the back end for its failures to offer preventive care.

“Every time we have a federal court telling us that we’re not complying, it ends up costing us money. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “I know we’re all concerned about cost, but we always talk about how sometimes, prevention that we could’ve done could’ve saved us a lot of money.”

That’s because we always have to do this the hard way. And because “states rights” are more important than the children. Greg Abbott himself says so.

A personal story of CPS’ failure to protect children

I can’t begin to tell you how angry this makes me.

The new foster parents opened the door last September to a child they can only describe as feral.

At 3, he was obese, his brown saucer eyes shell-shocked, his chocolate skin pocked with a rash the CPS caseworker dismissed as eczema but a doctor later said was likely mites burrowing below. His shoes were two sizes too small, and he possessed one toy: a miniature motorcycle, broken.

He had but two words, not in his own tongue, but that of the previous foster placement in Wharton County. Más and luna, more and moon.

The boy – we’ll call him Dion – loved the moon. On a clear night, he would make his new foster parents stop the car to gaze at it. Maybe, in his young life – rootless, churning, abusive – the moon was the only thing standing still, safely out of reach of what was happening here on Earth.

Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffrey would never know the horrors he’d seen. He didn’t come with photos, or a written history. Only violent outbursts and fear in his eyes where trust should have been.

More than anything, Sugarek and Jeffrey wanted to shield him from any more trauma. But this, they say, was the one thing they couldn’t do in a Texas foster care system where abuse is so rampant it was recently found unconstitutional by a federal judge.

The trauma would continue – according to interviews and a review of more than 100 court documents, emails and medical records – this time at the hands of the state.

From the beginning, it was clear Dion’s only chance at a future was a stable, loving home with parents willing to endure bites and black eyes, willing to turn their lives upside down to help him heal.

There’s a shortage of such homes, of such people.

But Dion hit the jackpot. Sugarek, 44, the charismatic principal of Hogg Middle School in the Heights, and her wife, Jeffrey, a 38-year-old science teacher at nearby Travis Elementary, had dedicated their lives to helping children. They had bottomless hearts, energy, education and tools.

A month later, they took in Dion’s 4-year-old brother – we’ll call him Darius – who was much more verbal, but also suffered from behavioral issues and PTSD. According to court records obtained last week, the boys’ parents had a history of family violence, and their mother was a drug addict. Their father has been charged with attempted capital murder. In a little over a year, they’d each lived in four different homes. Dion’s most recent was shut down for abuse and neglect, Sugarek said.

[…]

All the while, the foster parents arranged visits with a teenage half-brother- we’ll call him Bobby – who was also in foster care.

Knowing that CPS strongly prioritizes keeping siblings together, Sugarek and Jeffrey in October asked to increase the number of children they’d accept from two to three. They considered adding a room to their house.

But early on, they say, red flags popped up whenever Bobby was around Dion.

[…]

Texas has been criticized for not tracking child-on-child abuse. But the notion that CPS would actively discourage foster parents from reporting abuse, and even punish them for doing so, is beyond outrageous. Even for a broken system.

No doubt, the 15-year-old had survived his own hell. In 2008, one record shows, CPS received an allegation of sexual abuse involving Bobby and “an unknown perpetrator,” but the case was closed before the investigation started due to allegations being “too vague or general.”

When Sugarek and Jeffrey kept reporting incidents, and it became clear they would not agree to adopt the teen, they say CPS officials began “shopping the boys around” to other families and at an adoption fair.

This, despite glowing reviews about the boys’ care.

[…]

According to the foster mothers and emails they sent to the boys’ therapist, Dion at one point told one mom that Bobby had put something in his rear end that felt like marshmallows. He said Bobby had hurt him.

At mediation, with all parties at the table, the foster moms say they asked for an investigation. Again, denied.

Finally, the final straw. All three boys attended a CPS-supervised adoption fair earlier this month. When they returned, the moms say Darius told them Bobby had taken Dion to the bathroom for a long time. The 3-year-old complained his backside hurt. He wouldn’t let his moms wipe him. Days later, after a swim lesson, he bent down in the changing room, revealing a swollen rectum.

His foster mothers notified the therapist, and their private case manager, and they rushed him to the doctor. Medical records show the boy had an anal “abrasion” and irritated skin, but a forensic sexual assault test was inconclusive.

The foster mothers say they had a duty to report it to CPS, and they say their DePelchin case manager encouraged it, but she warned them: CPS would take the children.

She was right. Almost immediately, CPS announced it was moving the boys to a “respite” placement.

Read the whole thing. That action by CPS happened a few weeks ago. They’re still fighting to get Dion and Darius back. I know all four people involved. Sugarek is Olivia’s principal, Jeffrey was her fourth and fifth grade teacher, and I’ve met both boys since they first brought Dion home at the start of the school year. I’m furious that the system could fail in so obvious a way, and heartbroken for two good people who had gladly taken on a tough job and done so beautifully with it. I have compassion for CPS’ caseworkers, who have an impossible job themselves, and get no support from a state government that just doesn’t care. As angry as I am about the particulars of this case, it’s the indifference from the state, which is busy defending itself from lawsuits while piously proclaiming at every opportunity how much they value babies and human life. Don’t worry, kids, Dan Patrick will stand outside every bathroom you ever use to make sure nothing bad ever happens to you. Beyond that, though, you’re on your own. These tax cuts we’re going to pass next year won’t pay for themselves, you know, and we mustn’t go around throwing money at problems we’re not really interested in solving anyway.

Greg Enos drops another bombshell

Greg Enos, the chief catalyst in getting Judge Denise Pratt ousted from the 311th Family Court, now documents bad behavior by Pratt’s successor on that bench, Alicia Franklin.

Alicia Franklin

I truly like Alicia Franklin personally and I do not want to embarrass her or cause her problems. I have even come to actually like her fiance, Doug York (outside of the courtroom). But, the facts are the facts. I would be a stinking hypocrite to go after “poor,” defenseless, little Gary Polland regarding his pay for CPS court appointments and then stay silent when I became aware of what Judge Franklin has apparently done. Luckily for Polland, I got my hands on Franklin’s pay vouchers first.

I could easily just keep quiet and let the Democrats and the Houston Chronicle work Franklin over and see what happened. In fact, I had it made in the 311th finally, since the new Judge Franklin held her position because I had been a prime mover in driving her crazy predecessor out of office. Toni and I almost never socialize without the kids and we had gone to dinner with York and Franklin and really enjoyed ourselves. Franklin is young, bright and enthusiastic and seemed so committed to doing a good job as a judge. I was truly fired up about her until the stinking facts got dumped in my lap.

I am writing this newsletter despite the fact that I know Franklin will be a judge through December and she may well win in November and then preside over the 311th for four more years (unless something bad happens that cuts her judicial career short as occurred with Judge Pratt). However, let me note that a recent survey from July shows Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott tied in Harris County and the Democrats have a ground game this year that the Republicans cannot possibly match. Do not assume that you know for sure who will win here locally in November.

I am writing this even though I contributed financially to Franklin’s campaign and I did a lot of work behind the scenes to get Franklin to switch from running for the 247th to the 311th District Court.

[…]

I have investigated and confirmed the facts set forth in this newsletter about Judge Franklin. With sadness and regret, I have concluded that these facts suggest possible criminal acts which should be investigated by a prosecutor. I am calling for an independent prosecutor and not the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit to investigate the bills submitted by Alicia Franklin and other attorneys for work they claim to have done on CPS cases.

I am not flatly accusing Judge Franklin of committing a crime. I am sadly and reluctantly pointing out 100% provable facts that create a reasonable suspicion that something very wrong has been done. I really wish Judge Franklin would provide her side of the story to convince us otherwise.

The facts described in this newsletter also show extremely poor ethical judgment by Judge Franklin and violations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics, which apply to judicial candidates as well as judges.

I am today writing the District Attorney, the State Bar of Texas and the worthless Commission on Judicial Conduct about these matters and asking for an investigation by people with resources and power far beyond me.

I am truly saddened to the core of my being to be writing this particular newsletter and I really wish you were not reading these words.

Click over and read the whole thing. Enos documents multiple infractions, the two main ones being Franklin overbilling Harris County – he has an example of her submitting claims for 23.5 hours of work on one particular day – and submitting claims for CPS work done after she had been sworn in as a judge, which is a violation of the Texas Canons of Judicial Ethics. There are other items, five in total, so again I say go read the whole thing and see what you think.

(By the way, since I’m sure you’re wondering, I have no information about the “survey from July [that] shows Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott tied in Harris County”. It’s the first I’d heard of it. I personally am pretty optimistic about Democratic prospects in Harris County this fall, but as with everything it comes down to turnout. Take nothing for granted, that’s for sure.)

One other item, which seems to me ought to be something the county addresses ASAP:

Lawyers are stealing tax payer dollars and the system in place at Harris County allows it. Here are the problems:

1. A paper based system from the 1950’s is still in use. Lawyers fill out the pay vouchers by hand, the judges sign the vouchers and then they go to the County Auditor, who pays the amounts approved by the judges, no questions asked.

2. A judge, who may approve dozens of pay vouchers a week, cannot see what an attorney is billing in other cases in that same court or in other courts.

3. No one until me ever took a mass of vouchers from one single attorney and extracted the fees charged on all cases for a particular day to see what the attorney is billing the county for on that day. This is how Alicia Franklin got busted billing 23.5 hours in one day. If I can “audit” vouchers, why can’t the County Auditor?

4. The real problem is that no one has any incentive to closely monitor the CPS pay system. The judges are picking their pals for the appointments and therefore obviously want them to make money. The attorneys do not want their vouchers audited either. They have figured out that they can make a lot of money by submitting almost any hours they can make up and no one is ever going to care or catch them.

The simple solution is to go to an all electronic reporting system, like the State makes candidates use for reporting campaign contributions. Candidates must enter their information into a database program that automatically uploads the data to the State database that we can all search. Click here to see just how searchable the Texas Ethics Commission campaign finance database is.

The county should make ALL billing and pay information for appointed attorneys viewable on line by everyone, including judges and reporters. Our family and juvenile judges should demand that all court appointments and all fees for appointed attorneys be reported. Simple transparency will eliminate a lot of the abuses.

It would also help if our County Auditor actually audited some attorney vouchers on a random basis to keep everyone honest. However, the County Auditor is hired, fired and managed by the district judges of Harris County. How gung ho will the auditor be to audit the CPS invoices her bosses have already approved?

Lastly, we need to replace every single judge involved in this dirty CPS court appointment business, which is about three judges in the family courts and at least two of the three juvenile courts.

The children and tax payers of Harris County deserve better!

An electronic filing and reporting system for vouchers submitted for legal work done on the county’s dime via judicial appointments seems like a no-brainer to me, for all the reasons Enos specifies. Honestly, I’m kind of amazed we don’t have even a rudimentary system for e-filing these vouchers in the year 2014. I know there were some attorneys that quailed at the idea of e-filing court documents, but come on. What are the best practices here? Surely there are other counties doing this. I don’t know who needs to drive this – Commissioners Court, the District Clerk, the County Auditor, someone else – but I hope we can all agree that it’s the right thing to do.

Solar’s bright future

Here’s a long story in the Observer about the state of solar energy in Texas. The piece covers a lot of ground, including this bit about what’s going on in San Antonio.

They will be building a lot of these

San Antonio has emerged as a city willing to turn talk into action and its abundant sunlight into energy to spark what Mayor Julian Castro—the one who the New York Times Magazine suggested could be America’s first Latino president—calls the “New Energy Economy.” In the era of Solyndra, San Antonio is making a bold, maybe risky bid at deploying solar energy on a scale that could edge the city away from fossil fuels, create jobs and reduce greenhouse gasses, water consumption and air pollution. Castro and the city’s massive utility, CPS Energy, are betting that climate change, depleting fossil fuels and increased drought stress will make early investments in renewable energy and clean technologies a huge payoff in the future.

In San Antonio, things have unfolded rapidly. In 2010, CPS Energy pledged to have 20 percent of its generating capacity, about 1,500 megawatts, come from renewables and 65 percent of its portfolio be low-carbon. The utility set a goal of 100 megawatts for solar. That same year, the 14-megawatt Blue Wing, San Antonio’s first utility-scale solar farm, went online. At the time, it was the largest photovoltaic array—a system that converts sunlight directly into electricity—in Texas and the third-largest in the nation. Then in October 2010, CPS contracted with SunEdison, a Maryland-based solar developer, to build and run three more 10-megawatt solar farms around the city. Almost as soon as that deal was in place, the utility rolled out a solicitation for another 50 megawatts, nearly bringing CPS to its 100 megawatt solar goal. But there was a big twist this time: The bidders would have to bring a manufacturing proposal to the table and put down roots in San Antonio. Clean energy alone wasn’t enough; San Antonio wanted to build a clean energy economy.

In June 2011, amid a record heat wave and drought, Castro and CPS head Doyle Beneby called together the business, environmental and political community for some big news. Five clean technology companies were opening offices or relocating to San Antonio, bringing about 230 jobs to the city as well as agreements to pump money and research into the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Sustainable Energy Research Institute.

“San Antonio has the opportunity to seize a mantle that no city in the U.S. holds today: to be the recognized leader in clean energy technology,” Castro said in announcing the relocations.

But what electrified the solar industry was when CPS Energy, in July, abruptly increased its solicitation for a 50-megawatt solar plant to 400 megawatts, enough to power 80,000 homes. The response to the 50-megawatt proposal was so positive and the offers so low that CPS simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do something really big. “The price was just rock-bottom on the delivered power,” said Lanny Sinkin.

By the time the bidding closed in July, the utility had received over 30 proposals. But after the deadline, with solar costs dropping practically overnight, new intriguing offers kept rolling in. Tantalized, the CPS board voted unanimously in October to reopen the bidding, this time with stricter requirements. Bidders had to provide a plan not just for building 400 megawatts of photovoltaic solar but also for bringing a manufacturing facility to San Antonio, along with at least 800 jobs and a capital investment of $100 million.

See here and here for more, and be sure to read the whole story in the Observer as well. The story briefly mentions rooftop solar panels and some of the ways that they can be financed, but there’s still one option on the table that no one seems to be using yet. Be that as it may, this story came out at the same time as an announcement from Houston about a federal grant to help make solar panel installs more affordable. Not a huge grant – less than $100K – but every little bit helps. More big thinking like they’re doing in San Antonio would help even more.

San Antonio chooses its solar provider

Nice.

They will be building a lot of these

Under a bright winter sun Wednesday, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby introduced the companies selected to build one of the country’s largest solar projects and a solar manufacturing plant in San Antonio, an investment of more than $100 million.

OCI Solar Power, whose parent is a South Korean chemical company, will build the solar farms, using panels from a factory to be built here by Nexolon, another South Korean firm with close ties to OCI and a builder of solar cell components.

Both companies will open headquarters in San Antonio, part of their larger commitment to bring at least 800 jobs to town with a $38-$40 million payroll. Mayor Julián Castro said at a news conference that the average pay would be $47,000.

That does not include the temporary construction jobs that will be created to build the multiple solar farms, most of which will be in CPS Energy’s service territory. Together, they will generate 400 megawatts of zero-emission electricity — enough to power 80,000 homes.

See here for some background, and CPS’ homepage for more. As an earlier story notes, this is for a 25-year deal, and the price CPS will be charged for the energy generated will reportedly be on the order of 11 or 12 cents per megawatt. Not too shabby.

Apparently, this deal has some folks in Austin a little envious.

But as Austin Energy is set to begin public hearings tonight on its proposed rate increase, solar advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith said solar energy proponents will urge the Austin City Council to copy the San Antonio model.

“The race is on” to become a manufacturing hub, Smith said. “They are going to beat us, unless Austin takes action quickly.”

If the two cities get into a race like that, I daresay the residents of both will win. Too bad we can’t do that here in Houston, since we don’t own our utility like they do. But at least we’re free of the yoke of burdensome government regulations. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

Business leaders urged to oppose “cuts only” approach to the budget

Good luck with that.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby is helping lead an effort to rally Texas business leaders against what he calls a “catastrophic” cuts-only approach to balancing the state’s budget in the face of a massive shortfall, estimated at $15 billion to $27 billion over the next two years.

Hobby, a board member of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, and F. Scott McCown, the group’s executive director, say in a letter being sent today to the state’s hundreds of chambers of commerce that such an approach would undermine the state’s economic recovery, weaken education and leave vulnerable Texans unprotected. The center focuses on low- and moderate-income Texans.

“We simply can’t balance the budget through cuts alone without doing terrible damage to our economy and our future,” Hobby and McCown said in the letter.

They want business leaders to speak up for a “balanced approach” that includes spending the state’s rainy day fund savings account, which is expected to contain $9.4 billion; adding new revenue through such options as increasing alcohol or tobacco taxes; raising taxes on “sugar-loaded” drinks; eliminating “unwarranted” sales tax exemptions; or temporarily increasing the state’s sales tax rate.

You can read Hobby and McCown’s letter here I applaud them for this, and I wish them the very best of luck, but a couple of points. One, let’s not expect too much from the business community. They’re kinda sorta on board with this, but if you read their quotes in the story or listen to what they have to say here, they’re supportive in a very mush-mouthed kind of way. They’re okay with using the Rainy Day Fund – which is a big deal, don’t get me wrong – but not much beyond that. They don’t want to see education gutted, but they don’t want to pay for it, either.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, which has 220 local chambers as members, said his group opposes a cuts-only approach, although it doesn’t back spending the entire rainy day fund and doesn’t want new taxes. It favors keeping spending about the same over the next two years.

Well, we have $15 billion less to spend than we did two years ago, and the entire Rainy Day Fund would only cover 60% of that. How do you expect us to get there from here, Bill? This is likely to have as much effect on the debate as the business community’s pitiably weak opposition to anti-immigration legislation has had. I have more faith in the school superintendents.

The other point I’d make is that if I’d written the CPPP’s letter, I’d have stuck to the revenue ideas already on the table, which include reviewing the sales tax exemptions, fixing the business margins tax – yes, I know, even with this audience – the LBB recommendations, and expanded gambling. I would not have mentioned new things like the sugar tax or other extra sin taxes, since they’re extremely unlikely to get anywhere and might distract from the overall message. Just my opinion.

By the way, if anyone reading this still thinks that balancing the budget with cuts only is a good idea, here’s more evidence that you’re wrong.

State protective services chief Anne Heiligenstein dropped some bad news on Senate budget writers today: Her year-old push to redesign the payment system for foster care providers will be a non-starter if lawmakers approve proposed cuts that would effectively drive down rates by 12 percent.

Abused and neglected children with complex emotional and psychiatric problems often are ripped from their home communities in North Texas and shipped down I-45 to so-called “residential treatment centers” in the Houston area, Heiligenstein has said, saying she’d like to change that. An agreed-upon overhaul of rates and contracting would put a private provider in charge of a region, which would include a duty to make sure there are enough beds close to home.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who’s sponsoring the redesign bill, asked if efficiencies might be found that would allow the effort to go forward.

Not really, said Heiligenstein, head of the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protective Services.

“The presumption for being able to do this is that there would not be a rate roll-back,” she told the Senate Finance Committee. “We will not ask for an increase in foster care rates … , but we need what is currently invested in the system, plus normal caseload growth.”

Is that something you really want to support? BurkaBlog has more.

Revisiting the FLDS saga

Grits sat in on the House Human Services Committee hearing that looked at how the state handled last year’s child-welfare operation at the FLDS ranch, and he’s got a detailed report on what transpired as well as an analysis of the proposed legislation to deal with it, which he refers to as “a Christmas Tree of mischief.” Check it out.