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Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.

CBS/YouGov: Cruz 44, O’Rourke 36 (RVs)

Time for another poll.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

In Texas’ Senate race, incumbent Republican Ted Cruz has a 10-point lead over Democrat Beto O’Rourke among likely voters. Cruz benefits from strong support from his own party and has an advantage among independents as well. O’Rourke is supported by Democrats, leads with Hispanics and has an edge with women. Cruz performs well with whites and men.

Cruz also has an overall job approval rating of 54 percent in Texas among registered voters, a bit higher than President Trump’s (50 percent) in the state.

On the matter of separating families specifically, both Cruz and O’Rourke get net positive ratings (largely driven by support from their own parties), although three in 10 voters do not have an opinion about O’Rourke on this, as he may be less known to voters than Cruz.

Poll data is here. They also did Arizona and Florida’s Senate races, if those interest you. For the Texas Senate race (question 6), the result from the full 1,025-person sample of registered voters was 44-36 as indicated in the headline. It was in the smaller (821 respondents) “likely voter” group that Cruz was up 50-40. I’m skeptical of likely voter screens at this early point in time, and all of the other poll results I have on the sidebar are for RVs, so for comparison purposes that’s the one I’m going with. The average of the six polls I’m using (all but the WPA one from January 5) now has Cruz at 47.2, with 40.2 for O’Rourke.

Improving how animals are rescued

One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina was the need to rescue pets along with their owners, and to do everything possible to keep them together afterwards. This Texas Monthly story describes how that went with Harvey.

There are a few best practices that became understood in the wake of Katrina: holding animals in the local area for much longer than in the past, ensuring that evacuees had opportunities to find their animals quickly, and sending animals that the organizations were confident were unowned to facilities where they could be adopted effectively. All of that came to bear in the wake of Harvey. “At the Montgomery County Animal Shelter, the warehouse set up as a staging area for bringing in these animals is right next to a Red Cross shelter,” explains Barbara Williamson of Best Friends Animal Society. “There are animals there that are somebody’s pets, and they can come and visit their pets. Post-Hurricane Katrina, if you were to talk to anybody in state disaster response in any state, that’s a priority. The recognition that pets are members of the family, and sometimes they’re the only thing people have left. They got out with their kids and their pets, and the last thing you want is for them to lose that four-footed family member.”

Also crucial is ensuring that families and their pets don’t get separated in the first place. Not all shelters for human evacuees are equipped to take care of pets, which is something that Austin Pets Alive—which found itself spearheading many of the animal-based relief operations around Harvey—stepped in to help with.

Mary Heerwald of Austin Pets Alive said that her organization didn’t know exactly what to expect when they got to Houston a few days after Harvey hit. They had expectations of how they’d be useful, but they quickly learned that the city’s needs were different from what they had imagined. “When we made it down to Houston, we didn’t know what we were walking into. We came with motorized canoes and boats and thought that we’d need to literally rescue animals from the water,” she says. “What we quickly found out was that no one has stepped up yet to figure out what to do with the pets who were being rescued. Once you remove a cat from the top of a car or a dog from a flooding backyard, then what do you do? They still need a chance to live and either find their family, or a safe and happy adoptive home. So we became the accidental spearheads of the pet lifesaving initiative in relation to Hurricane Harvey.”

Here’s the Austin Pets Alive! page for Harvey evacuations. The immediate need has passed, but foster homes for animals whom they hope to adopt out are always in demand. Reach out to them or to Houston Pets Alive! if you want to help.

A big ask for hurricane recovery

Good luck with that. I mean that mostly sincerely.

Texas needs an additional $61 billion in federal disaster recovery money for infrastructure alone after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, according to a report from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas that was delivered to members of Congress Tuesday.

Compiled at Gov. Greg Abbott’s request, the report was released on the day the governor traveled to the U.S. Capitol to talk Hurricane Harvey relief with congressional leaders.

Speaking with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said he’d had a “well-reasoned discussion” where he stressed that rebuilding the state’s Gulf coast was in the country’s best national security and economic interests.

“We are asking not for any handouts or for anything unusual, but we are asking for funding that will flood the entire region that was impacted so that the federal government, the state government, and the local government are not going to be facing these ongoing out-of-pocket costs,” Abbott said as he held a binder containing the 301-page report.

The $61 billion is in addition to money the state already anticipates receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from the federal housing department, which distributes disaster recovery grants aimed at long-term rebuilding.

[…]

The requests include:

  • $12 billion for the Galveston County Coastal Spine, part of the larger “Ike Dike,” a barrier aimed at protecting coastal areas from hurricane storm surge.
  • $9 billion for housing assistance in the City of Houston, which would help rebuild 85,000 single and multi-family housing units damaged by Harvey.
  • $6 billion to buy land, easements, and rights-of-way around Buffalo Bayou and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
  • $2 billion for “coast-wide critical infrastructure protection,” described as flood control and other mitigation projects around critical public infrastructure such as “power plants, communication networks, prison systems, etc.”
  • $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.
  • $115 million to repair 113 county buildings in Harris County.

Abbott appointed [John] Sharp, who is the chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller, to oversee the commission in early September.

So far, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51 billion on disaster relief in the past two months. But it is unclear what Texas’s share of that money will be, because it will be divided between the states and territories devastated by three deadly hurricanes and fatal wildfires.

It’s not that I disagree with any of this – in particular, I’m rooting for Ike Dike money to be appropriated – but that’s a lot of money, there are a lot of Republican Congressfolk who really don’t like spending money, there are even more Congressfolk who are still mad at some of their Texas colleagues for voting against Superstorm Sandy recovery money, and there’s a lot of money that will need to be spent in Puerto Rico, Florida, and California. Texas’ original ask for Harvey recovery money was a lot less than this, and even that caused some friction from within the Texas caucus when Greg Abbott got a little shirty with his fellow Republicans. Oh, and there’s also the Republican Congress’ track record of not being able to tie their own shoes. So, you know, don’t go using this as collateral just yet.

Speaking of the Texas caucus, their reaction to this was muted.

The initial reaction from Washington officials to the request: Surprise at its size and scope.

That could mean approval of the full amount will be a tough sell with Congress and the White House, coming at a time when hurricane damages to Puerto Rico and Florida, and losses in California to wildfires, are also in line for billions more in federal disaster funding.

But Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, was hopeful. “Just like the Astros, we’re going to get ‘er done,” Weber said in a reference to the World Series.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, whose district was hit hard by Harvey, agreed.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of money,” he said, “but it was a lot of storm.”

[…]

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, gave little indication of the prospects for the governor’s request. As for the $61 billion figure, Cornyn said, “We’re working on a number. We don’t have a number.”

Later, Cornyn said in a statement “it’s really important for us to remember that there’s a lot of work that we need to do in responding to some of the unmet disaster needs around the country, starting with Hurricane Harvey in my state.”

Added Cornyn: “The reason I bring that up today is because Governor Abbott of Texas is up meeting with the entire Texas delegation to make sure that we continue to make the case and make sure that Texans are not forgotten as we get to work on these other important matters as well.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was also circumspect about the prospects for Abbott’s request, though he emphasized that the Texas delegation will remain united with the governor in getting the Gulf region all the aid it can from Washington.

“Repeatedly, projections have shown that Harvey is likely to prove to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” he said. “The president has repeatedly made direct assurances to me that the administration will stand by the people of Texas.”

As to whether the government might raise or borrow the money, Cruz said, “those discussions will be ongoing.”

Like I said, there are some obstacles. And I have to wonder, how might this conversation be going if Hillary Clinton were President? Harvey or no Harvey, I have a hard time picturing Greg Abbott asking President Hillary Clinton for billions of dollars for our state. I’d make him sign a pledge to quit suing the feds over every damn thing now that he’s come to town with his hat in his hand. Not that any of this matters now, I just marvel at the capacity some of us have for cognitive dissonance. We’ll see how this goes.

Charity Navigator on your best bets for Harvey relief

In case you’re still making up your mind about how to donate to Harvey relief.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday evening, August 25th, as the first Category 4 hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Charley in 2004. Ahead of its landfall, many communities were ordered to evacuate, as fears arose that the hurricane could leave some coastal areas uninhabitable. The storm, which intensified over the Gulf of Mexico before hitting Texas and its surrounding states, brought with it heavy rainfall, damaging winds, and a powerful storm surge. It has significantly impacted communities along the Texas coastline, including Houston, as well as other areas along the Gulf with wind and flood damage. Charity Navigator has compiled a list of highly-rated organizations responding in the aftermath of this storm and providing assistance to the people and communities affected by it. Donors can designate their donations to the cause on the organization’s website. However, at this point in time it is not certain that all these organizations will spend 100% of donations received on Hurricane Harvey relief.

If you’re looking for a local charity to support in the wake of Hurricane Harvey please consider Houston SPCAHouston Humane SocietyHouston Food BankFood Bank of Corpus Christi, or San Antonio Humane Society. These highly-rated organizations are located in the most-affected areas and are providing support to individuals and animals.

If you represent a charity interested in being considered for inclusion, please email hottopics@charitynavigator.org to request a disaster response survey.

Designated donations made from this page will be applied to charity programs per each charity’s designation policies.

This Chron story pointed to the Charity Navigator resource. There are a number of good options on that page, so go check it out. While you’re there, you might as well go ahead and check out the similar page for Hurricane Irma relief, because we’re unfortunately going to need it. For more local charity choices, this story has a photo essay of possibilities. And finally, there’s this:

All the living former U.S. presidents are joining together in an online campaign to raise money for those affected by Hurricane Harvey and the floods it caused along the Texas coast.

Called the OneAmericaAppeal, the campaign follows in the footsteps of a series of successful disaster relief efforts undertaken on behalf of the victims of the tsunami in southeast Asia, the earthquake in Haiti, and hurricanes Katrina and Ike.

Those efforts involved Bill Clinton and both George W. and George H.W. Bush. The new campaign, which is solely an online appeal, also includes Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

[…]

The idea for the joint appeal arose from discussions between George H.W. Bush and his son, both of whom live in Texas, but was immediately embraced by Clinton, Carter and Obama, said Jim McGrath, spokesman for the elder Bush.

“All five living presidents have come together, and they have done so because of what was taking place during and after Harvey,” McGrath said. “With the unprecedented intensity of the storm, the heroic response of the first responders and volunteers, and all the people from all over rallying to help them, it was not a hard sell.”

Go to www.oneamericaappeal.org to donate. All funds are earmarked for Texas, so you can reach beyond Houston if you wish. They will also consider expanding to Florida if needed, as we likely will.

CBS/YouGov: Trump 46, Clinton 43

Texas is being tracked as a battleground state. I can’t even believe I just typed that.

Hillary Clinton holds a three-point lead over Donald Trump in Florida, while in Texas – a state that has voted Republican by wide margins in recent years – Trump leads by a mere three points.

[…]

In 2012 Republicans won a double-digit victory in Texas, as they often do; it’s one of the most reliably Republican states in the nation. Today Texas is close, and is more a story of Trump underperforming rather than Clinton over-performing typical Democrats, and why despite the tightness it may still be difficult for the Democrats to actually get those last points and win the state outright. Clinton is doing about as well with key groups as President Obama did in 2008, but Trump is under-performing the Republican benchmarks by roughly ten points among white men, white women, and college whites in particular. Many of those not with Trump are unsure or voting third-party rather than Clinton.

In 2008 then-candidate Obama lost white men in Texas by more than fifty points and Clinton is down 35 points today. That’s still a big gap but the sheer number of voters that represents is part of the reason for the difference in the race. Meanwhile, Hispanics in Texas, who are supporting Clinton, say they feel very motivated to vote this year.

Scroll down for the polling data. Much of what is there is stuff we have talked about before. Clinton has consolidated Democratic voters better than Trump has done with Republicans. 93% of Dems are with Clinton, with four percent for Trump, one percent for Gary Johnson, and one percent for “someone else”, while only 84% of Rs are voting Trump, with 7% for Clinton, 5% for Johnson, and 2% for “someone else”. Clinton leads among all voters under 45, with a 21-point lead with the under-30 crowd. Trump as noted isn’t doing as well among white voters as Republicans have done in the past, but he is once again weirdly above 30% with Latino voters. I continue to believe those results are off, and that we’ll see numbers more in line with national Latino preferences once we have actual data. But look, the big deal here is that Texas is being tracked as a Florida-like battleground state. Who would have thunk it?

On a side note, Real Clear Politics has Trump leading Clinton 44.2 to 39.6 in the two-way race and 43.6 to 38.8 in the four-way race, while FiveThirtyEight has it at Trump 49.1, Clinton 43.9. That would be the highest total for a Democrat in a Presidential race in Texas since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976.

Still asking for Zika help

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Following reports of the first local mosquito-borne Zika infections in the U.S., Mayor Sylvester Turner is once again calling on the state of Texas and federal government to provide financial assistance to help fight it.

“There are already 14 confirmed cases of Zika virus being transmitted locally in Florida,” said Mayor Turner. “I believe it is just a matter of time before Texas is in a similar situation. Cities are the front line of defense in this battle, and we could use some financial assistance from the state and federal governments. It makes no sense to wait until there is an outbreak here.”

Since February, the City of Houston Solid Waste Department has been conducting weekend sweeps of illegal dump sites that can serve as mosquito breeding grounds. To date, 3,433 tons of debris and 29,130 tires have been hauled away at an annual cost of $3.6 million. With some additional state or federal funding, the City could purchase new equipment to increase collection frequency beyond the weekends, develop and distribute educational materials informing residents of proper and free disposal options and establish three additional heavy trash drop-off locations.

Last week, the Houston Health Department was awarded $1.5 million by the Centers for Disease Control to use for surveillance, testing and prevention. The City is already in discussion with Harris County on the best way to maximize the use of these dollars.

Houston has documented 12 travel-associated cases of Zika virus infection since the start of the outbreak in Latin America earlier this year. Harris County has confirmed another 12 cases – 11 are travel related and one is an infant with microcephaly born to a mother who contracted the virus while traveling outside the United State. There are a total of 80 confirmed Zika cases in Texas. At this time, there is no evidence the virus has infected mosquito populations in the state.

In addition to the neighborhood trash sweeps, the City has public service announcements at the airports, on public transit, in city water bills and on local TV. The health department is going door-to-door to distribute insect repellent in underserved neighborhoods, and the City’s regional public health laboratory is supporting local hospitals and clinics with Zika infection testing.

Residents are encouraged to follow the three Ds of mosquito defense: drain, dress, DEET! Drain standing water on your property and keep hedges trimmed. Wear long pants and long sleeves, keep windows and screens repaired and use air conditioning. When outside, spray exposed skin with mosquito repellant containing DEET, reapply as necessary and use netting to protect babies in strollers or car seats.

This is not the first time Mayor Turner has asked for this help. I doubt the Republican-controlled Congress is any more interested in taking action now than it was then, but it can’t hurt to ask. Better to keep expectations low, though.

The Florida-Trump U plot thickens

Oops.

Florida’s attorney general personally solicited a political contribution from Donald Trump around the same time her office deliberated joining an investigation of alleged fraud at Trump University and its affiliates

The new disclosure from Attorney General Pam Bondi’s spokesman to The Associated Press on Monday provides additional details around the unusual circumstances of Trump’s $25,000 donation to Bondi. After the money came in, Bondi’s office nixed suing Trump.

The money came from a Trump family foundation in apparent violation of rules surrounding political activities by charities. A political group backing Bondi’s re-election, called And Justice for All, reported receiving the check Sept. 17, 2013 — four days after Bondi publicly announced she was considering joining a New York state probe of Trump University’s activities.

Marc Reichelderfer, a political consultant who worked for Bondi’s re-election effort and fielded questions on the donation at her request, told AP that Bondi spoke with Trump “several weeks” before her office publicly announced it was deliberating whether to join a multi-state lawsuit proposed by New York’s Democratic attorney general. Reichelfelder said Bondi was unaware of dozens of consumer complaints received by her office about Trump University filed before she requested the donation.

“The process took at least several weeks, from the time they spoke to the time they received the contribution,” Reichelderfer told AP.

The timing of the donation by Trump is notable because the now presumptive Republican presidential nominee has said he expected and received favors from politicians to whom he gave money.

“When I want something I get it,” the presumptive Republican nominee said at an Iowa rally in January. “When I call, they kiss my ass. It’s true.”

Now, nowhere in this story is there a mention of Texas. As we have learned, the Texas AG investigation into Trump University was finished in 2010, and Trump wrote a check to Greg Abbott for his gubernatorial campaign in 2013. As far as we know, Texas was not considering joining the lawsuit mentioned in this story – it rather boggles the mind to imagine Greg Abbott signing off on joining a lawsuit led by the Attorney General of New York, on any matter – so the fact of Trump’s contribution is not terribly interesting on its own. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything left to learn about the Trump U story in Texas, and the fact that the AG’s office now seems intent on shutting down any questions about the 2010 investigation leads one to wonder what else there could be lurking out there. The answer may well be that there is nothing – the decision to end the 2010 probe was surely political, but it doesn’t have to be anything more than that. All I’m saying is there’s no reason to take Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton’s word for it. So keep digging. And ask Abbott about Trump and all the horrible things he’s been saying, too. There’s a story for you. Slate and Daily Kos have more.

The Donald is spurring people to register to vote

Just another data point for your consideration.

Registration among Hispanic voters is skyrocketing in a presidential election cycle dominated by Donald Trump and loud GOP cries to close the border.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials, projects 13.1 million Hispanics will vote nationwide in 2016, compared to 11.2 million in 2012 and 9.7 million in 2008.

Many of those new Hispanic voters are also expected to vote against Trump if he is the Republican nominee, something that appears much more likely after the front-runner’s sweeping primary victories Tuesday in five East Coast states.

[…]

Many of the newly registered Hispanic voters are in California and Texas, relatively safe states for Democrats and Republicans, respectively.

In fact, because so many Hispanic voters live in those states, the effect of the rising registration numbers will be somewhat undercut, according to Vargas.

Still, rising registration rates among Hispanics in Colorado, Florida and Nevada could make it easier for the Democratic candidate to retain those swing states. Even Arizona could be in play, say some poll watchers.

Registration is a game-changer with Hispanic voters.

Only about 48 percent of eligible Hispanics vote, but nearly 80 percent of registered Hispanics go to the ballot box.

Emphasis mine. The story is primarily about swing states, because this sort of story always is, but as you know it’s the effect on Texas that interests me. Here’s a subsequent Chron story that adds a local angle.

Across the nation, non-profits say they are registering Hispanics and helping residents become citizens at faster rates than ever before, many of them mobilized by a desire to vote against the billionaire developer.

“That’s the No. 1 name that comes up all the time,” said Claudia Ortega-Hogue, vice president of the Houston-area League of Women Voters. “There is fear, and there is anger.”

Since last summer, when Trump first referred to Mexicans as criminals, Ortega-Hogue said her organization began registering more than 80 percent of new citizens at naturalization ceremonies compared to the 60 percent that is average. Many have long held green cards but told volunteers they naturalized now to vote against Trump. The process, from turning in an application to the final swearing-in ceremony, takes about six months, making May crunch time for those seeking to participate in November.

“The comments that Trump has made has really increased the numbers of people wanting to be involved,” Ortega-Hogue said.

Average monthly citizenship applications across the country spiked nearly 15 percent to about 64,800 between August and January, the most recent government data available, compared to the same period the year before. In Texas, some 66,000 immigrants became citizens in 2015, about a quarter more than in the previous year.

[…]

In the past, volunteers had to approach people and “almost twist their arms” for them to sign up to vote, said Carlos Duarte, who oversees Texas for Mi Familia Vota, a national group focused on boosting Latino voter registration.

“What is different now is that people approach us,” Duarte said. “They would always make these comments, and it was very heavily a reaction against Donald Trump.”

[…]

A sizeable Hispanic push could impact down-ballot elections, particularly in Harris County, which has the country’s largest Latino population after Los Angeles, more than 1.9 million.

The county went to President Barack Obama in 2012 by only some 970 votes, and for the first time in over three decades now leans majority-Democratic, according to a survey last month by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Tellingly, most of that pickup for Democrats is among Latino respondents who are eligible but not registered to vote, said the report’s author, Stephen Klineberg.

Mobilizing these and other Hispanics could imperil two dozen Republican judges in the county and more than 50 around the state, as well as the Harris County District Attorney and sheriff, said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.

“With Trump’s track record thus far of making statements portraying immigrants as racists and murderers and building a wall, it’s a ready-made campaign commercial against him for Univision,” Jones said. “Trump on the ballot could really be serious trouble for Harris County Republicans.”

It could also hurt a few Republican legislators in strong Hispanic districts in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, including Gilbert Peña in Pasadena. And it might add a Democratic congressional seat in the 23rd district, which is currently represented by Republican Will Hurd and stretches from San Antonio to the Mexican border.

See here for more on the Houston Area Survey. I’ve written about this before, so add this to the collection. I will be very interested to see what voter registration numbers look like when they come out. Anything that Democrats can do to abet those efforts will be well worth it.

“Prison gerrymandering” tossed by federal court

Noted for the record.

go_to_jail

The Federal District Court for Florida’s Northern District ruled Monday that the prison gerrymandering in Florida’s Jefferson County unconstitutionally dilutes the voting power of its residents. By packing inmates who can’t vote into a district, but counting them when drawing electoral maps, District Judge Mark Walker said the county had violated the “one person, one vote” principle in the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s attorney, Nancy Abudu, argued the case on behalf of Jefferson County residents who felt the prison gerrymandering watered down the strength of their political power by unfairly stacking the deck for residents who live in the same district as the non-voting prisoners.

“If I want to get a road fixed, if I want a law changed, if I want more impact on a school board member or county commissioner, I have more power because my representative has to deal with fewer people,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s about access and the ability to influence, and making sure officials are responsive to their electorate.”

Abudu emphasized that not only do the inmates in Jefferson County lack the right to vote, the vast majority are not residents of the county, but were arrested in other parts of the state and shipped hundreds of miles away to serve their sentence.

According to the ACLU, of the nearly 1,200 inmates in the correctional center, only nine were convicted in Jefferson County. Yet the inmates make up a whopping 43 percent of the voting age population in District 3. “It skews the numbers so dramatically in this instance,” Abudu told ThinkProgress.

This may or may not have an effect in Texas at some point, but it is an issue that has come up in the Legislature before. Most Texas prisons are in lightly-populated rural areas, and an awful lot of prisoners come from big urban counties like Harris and Dallas, but as in Florida they count towards the population of those rural counties, where they neither reside or can vote. That does skew how districts are drawn, mostly at the State Rep level since those are the smallest ones. Harold Dutton has championed this issue in the Lege in past years, and I’m sure he’ll be back at it again. I don’t think the effect is that much, and unless SCOTUS eventually upholds this ruling (or a lawsuit is filed and successfully litigated here) it won’t affect Texas, but this is out there and it may mean something to us one of these days. Daily Kos has more.

Donald Trump is making more citizens

He’s good for something.

Over all, naturalization applications increased by 11 percent in the 2015 fiscal year over the year before, and jumped 14 percent during the six months ending in January, according to federal figures. The pace is picking up by the week, advocates say, and they estimate applications could approach one million in 2016, about 200,000 more than the average in recent years.

While naturalizations generally rise during presidential election years, Mr. Trump provided an extra boost this year. He began his campaign in June describing Mexicans as drug-traffickers and rapists. His pledge to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it has been a regular applause line. He has vowed to create a deportation force to expel the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally, evoking mass roundups of the 1950s.

Among 8.8 million legal residents eligible to naturalize, about 2.7 million are Mexicans, the largest national group, federal figures show. But after decades of low naturalization rates, only 36 percent of eligible Mexicans have become citizens, while 68 percent of all other immigrants have done so, according to the Pew Research Center.

[…]

This year immigrants seeking to become citizens can find extra help from nonprofit groups and even from the White House. Last September, President Obama opened a national campaign to galvanize legal residents to take the step. They can now pay the fee, $680, with a credit card, and practice the civics test online. They can get applications at “citizenship corners” in public libraries in many states.

The White House recruited Fernando Valenzuela, the legendary Mexican-born pitcher who naturalized only last year, and José Andrés, the Spanish-American chef, to make encouraging advertisements and to turn up at swearing-in ceremonies. On Presidents’ Day, administration officials swore in more than 20,000 new citizens. On Wednesday the administration announced $10 million in grants to groups guiding immigrants through the process.

A majority of Latinos are Democrats, and some Republicans accuse the White House of leading a thinly veiled effort to expand the ranks of the president’s party. But administration officials argue the campaign is nonpartisan, noting that immigrants who become citizens improve their incomes and chances for homeownership.

“I certainly don’t care what party they register with; I just want them to become citizens,” said Leon Rodriguez, director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency in charge of naturalizations.

Aside from Colorado, naturalization drives are taking place in Nevada and Florida, states likely to be fiercely contested in November where Latino voters could provide a crucial margin. One nonprofit group, the New Americans Campaign, plans to complete 1,500 applications at a session in the Marlins Park baseball stadium in Miami on March 19.

Great idea. In general, encouraging green card holders to go through the naturalization process is a good thing. I just hope we’re doing some of this here in Texas.

Texas plans to sue over EPA’s latest clean air plan

So what else is new?

ERCOT

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday that he plans to sue the Obama administration over the proposed “Clean Power Plan,” its plan to combat climate change by slashing carbon emissions from power plants.

“Texas has proven we can improve air quality without damaging our economy or Texans’ pocketbooks,” the Republican said in a statement, claiming the rules would threaten the power grid and increase electric prices. “I will fight this ill-conceived effort that threatens the livelihood and quality of life of all Texans.”

Using those arguments over the past year, the state’s Republican leadership has loudly panned the proposal, which would require the state to cut close to 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the next two decades however it sees fit.

Environmental and health advocates say limiting the greenhouse gas would help fight climate change, bolster public health and conserve water in parched Texas, and they suggest that opponents are exaggerating the economic burdens.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency suggests that Texas could meet its goal through a combination of actions: making coal plants more efficient, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, adding more renewable resources and bolstering energy efficiency. Under the proposal, Texas could also adopt a “cap and trade” program – a scheme in which companies bid on the right to pollute.

The federal proposal is scheduled to become final in June, and Texas would have one year to submit its plan. But some watching the debate expect the EPA to push back the deadline amid pressure from states and other critics.

If Texas ignores the rules, the EPA will construct its own plan for Texas, though the agency has not said what that might look like. Democrats and others call that approach risky and suggest it would beckon more stringent requirements.

Bills that would direct Texas regulators to adopt a plan are nearing their death in the Legislature.

Fossil fuel interests and 15 U.S. states – not including Texas – have sued the EPA over the proposed rules in a case heard last week in federal court. Judges appeared skeptical of a challenge to rules that haven’t been finalized.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have to say, if Paxton managed to deliver that line about Texas improving its air quality on its own with a straight face, it will be the most impressive thing he ever does in office. Texas has fought the EPA multiple times in recent years with little to show for it, with another fight currently before the Supreme Court. Doesn’t mean they’ll lose this time, but it does give one some hope. It would of course be cheaper and easier and better for everyone if they would give up this fight and adopt rules that the state is already most of the way towards meeting anyway, but like most things in life that comes down to winning elections, and we know how that has gone around here.

Meanwhile, if you don’t like the idea of the EPA wielding power over Texas, you won’t like this, either.

Texas appears poised to enact environmental legislation that could trigger an unintended consequence: more federal oversight.

Fast-moving bills that would curb opportunities for public protest so state environmental permits can be issued more quickly have drawn the attention of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, long the state’s political punching bag.

The agency says it has concerns about the legislation, and may need to review whether it jeopardizes permitting authority the EPA has granted Texas.

Senate Bill 709 would scale back contested case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution.

Similar versions of the bill pushed by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, have sailed through the House and Senate, rankling consumer and environmental groups.

[…]

The EPA says it shares concerns about the bill, which would overhaul the hearings process in a variety of ways. It would give the agency sole discretion to determine who is an “affected person” who could ask for a hearing; set an 180-day time limit for the proceedings (with potential exceptions); narrow the issues the public could argue; and arguably shift the burden of proof from the company to the public.

“EPA is concerned that as currently drafted, [the legislation] could be read to impact the applicability of federal requirements to federal permitting programs being implemented by the TCEQ,” David Gray, director of external affairs for the EPA’s Dallas-based regional office, recently wrote to Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who had asked for input.

Gray called the shift in the “burden of proof” as particularly problematic, adding that the EPA should review the legislation to ensure that it doesn’t “interfere with federal requirements or alter the basis for one or more program requirements.”

See here for the background. It’s like we can’t help ourselves sometimes, isn’t it?

And finally, on a related note:

Kansas and Texas will file amicus briefs supporting Florida in its lawsuit against the federal government over Medicaid expansion, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday.

Scott filed suit last week, alleging that the federal government is “coercing” the state into accepting Medicaid expansion by witholding the extension of a different Medicaid program. The Low Income Pool brings $1.3 billion in federal funds to the state to pay hospitals for care for the poor and uninsured and is set to expire June 30.

“I am glad Kansas and Texas are joining our fight against the Obama Administration for attempting to coerce Florida into Obamacare expansion by ending an existing federal healthcare program and telling us to expand Medicaid instead. The US Supreme Court has already called this sort of coercion tactic illegal,” Scott said in a released statement.

In granting a one-year extension last year, federal officials stated they would not extend it again without significant changes. A recent letter from federal officials to the state clearly suggested the fate of LIP was tied to Medicaid expansion but officials with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services have also said Florida is free to expand Medicaid or not as it wishes.

See here for the background. Daily Kos has characterized the Florida lawsuit as being about refusing federal Obamacare dollars while demanding federal non-Obamacare dollars, which strikes me as apt. Easy to see why it was irresistible to Texas to join in. Ed Kilgore has more.

No, seriously, expand Medicaid or else

Bring. It. On.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The federal government is officially holding state leaders’ feet to the fire, hoping to get Texas to expand its Medicaid program to provide health insurance to more low-income Texans.

Federal officials called the state’s health agency this week to say that Texas’ reluctance to expand Medicaid — a key tenet of President Obama’s signature health law — will play into whether his administration extends a waiver that helps the state’s hospitals cover uninsured patients.

The development follows news from Florida, where a similar tug-of-war is playing out between the federal government and a Republican-controlled statehouse that opposes Obamacare but hopes to renew billions of dollars in hospital funding. This week, federal officials sent a letter to Florida lawmakers that said Medicaid expansion “would reduce uncompensated care in the state,” making it “an important consideration in our approach regarding extending” the state’s hospital waiver.

Linda Edwards Gockel, a spokeswoman with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, confirmed Friday that federal health officials called the Texas agency Thursday afternoon to relay a similar message.

Officials from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “said they recognize each state is different, but they intend to use the same three principles outlined in their letter to Florida as they evaluate uncompensated care funding pools in all states,” Edwards Gockel said in an email. “We don’t have more details than that at this point.”

Tom Banning, chief executive of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians and an advocate for Medicaid expansion, said in an email that the call “should be a wake up.” Annually, Texas hospitals receive billions of dollars combined by way of the federal “transformation waiver.” Losing that money “will have a crippling effect throughout Texas,” Banning added.

The Texas hospitals waiver runs through September 2016, but the 2015 legislative session is the last chance for state lawmakers to negotiate a renewal before then. The current session is slated to wrap up on June 1, barring a governor-called special session.

Estimates for the value of that waiver vary. The Texas Hospital Association, which supports some form of Medicaid coverage expansion under the Affordable Care Act, estimates the waiver’s five-year value at $29 billion.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, the feds are similarly putting the screws to Florida. There’s basically zero chance that anything will get passed this session – Sen. Rodney Ellis tried to get a Medicaid expansion amendment through during the budget debate and failed, while Greg Abbott is holding firm and whining about how mean the feds are being to him – so it’s just a matter of whether the feds follow through in 2016 and if enough pressure can be brought to change things in 2017. Anyone want to place a bet on that? The only semi-retired Burka has more.

Financing the high speed rail line

A long story in the Trib about Texas Central High-Speed Railway and its ambitious Dallas to Houston rail line. It’s a good primer if you haven’t been paying close attention to the story and want to cover all the basics. A couple of points:

Central Japan Railway Co., also known as J.R. Central, sees a huge opportunity for exporting its technology to America, where the busiest passenger rail line takes about seven hours to slog the 400 miles between Washington and Boston.

Today, there are only three significant high-speed rail projects in advanced development in the U.S. — in Texas, Florida and California. At some point during the early planning of all three ventures, J.R. Central offered to sell its trains to those states but only found sure footing in Texas. The Texas project, led by a private local company working with J.R. Central, is by far the most ambitious.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway is promising to connect Houston and Dallas with the fastest trains at 205 mph, developed on a relatively snappy timeline with little support from taxpayers. By contrast, the California train will be heavily subsidized and take years longer to develop. Texas Central Railway has set a 2021 target date for beginning operations while the California line isn’t expected to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco until 2029. In Florida, a privately funded project could begin service between Miami and West Palm Beach as early as 2016 but is projected to be the slowest of the three, traveling at less than 100 mph through some areas, and run on a congested century-old right-of-way, including a portion that will run on a converted freight line.

Texas Central officials have said the project will be privately funded and not require any public funding to subsidize its operational costs. If the private financing can be secured, the Houston-Dallas connection would be the fastest high-speed rail line in the nation and among the first successful private passenger rail projects in recent American history. It would essentially be the modern Sun Belt’s first new intercity passenger rail line of any sort in over a decade. If successful, it could mark a turning point in the urbanization of the U.S., and a high-profile rebuff to more progressive coastal cities that have struggled to modernize transit systems with the high-speed technology that has already reshaped Asia and Europe.

The Texas project would also be a huge feather in J.R. Central’s conductor’s cap. The company is about to start construction in Japan on a nearly unsubsidized cutting-edge maglev — short for magnetic levitation — train line, connecting three major metropolitan areas and powered by electromagnetic propulsion rather than a fossil-fuel-powered engine. Yet much more expansion is unlikely in Japan, where low population growth means less demand for new infrastructure. To keep growing, the company must look abroad.

As the Texas proposal has drawn more attention, supporters are framing it as a key opportunity for the state to burnish a reputation as a trendsetter on the national stage.

“As Texans, we take great pride in blazing a path for the rest of the country to follow,” the mayors of Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth wrote in a letter endorsing the project in April. “This project will do just that.”

Over the last year, officials with Texas Central have traveled around the state, touting their plan to profitably ferry passengers from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes or less, with as many as 34 trips a day in each direction. In explaining their confidence that the plan will become reality, Texas Central officials have pointed to the state’s regulatory framework, which Gov. Rick Perry often proclaims as more predictable and less burdensome than those in other states. Texas also has a history of embracing the private sector for infrastructure projects, particularly toll roads.

The best-known of those projects, a privately financed, 41-mile stretch of State Highway 130 in Austin that sports an 85 mph speed limit, the fastest in the country, technically defaulted on its debt in July, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Yeah, maybe not the ideal association for this project.

While Texas Central knows where it won’t get the money for its train lines, it’s less clear where it will get the needed backing. Texas Central Railway says it intends to raise most of the money in the U.S., but so far, its ability to draw the billions of dollars in investment is merely speculative.

The experience of All Aboard Florida could be instructive. The company is in the process of cutting a number of land deals with various levels of government for stations and transit-oriented developments around them, and has won a commitment from the state to build its terminal at Orlando International Airport. The Texas project is expected to follow a similar approach to development, though company officials have already nixed the idea of developing stations at airports.

Just recently, All Aboard Florida took its biggest step yet to realizing its passenger project, one that Texas Central will eventually have to emulate: It sold $405 million in debt to private investors to finance the initial South Florida leg, from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.

All Aboard Florida offered investors a 12 percent annual return on the five-year bonds. The high-yield offering sold quickly, surprising observers who predicted investors would be scared off by the fact that All Aboard will have no cash flow until the railway is operating, which won’t be for at least another two years. But while the success of the sale could bode well for Texas Central, the projects could also be received very differently. In its coverage of the All Aboard bond sale, Reuters reported that private investors were attracted to the project in part because it involves repurposing and expanding an existing freight railway and doesn’t require as much higher-risk, ground-up construction as the Texas project. Another draw for investors, Reuters reported, was the possibility of government financing down the line, again something that the Texas project doesn’t offer.

This is not the first time a private firm has attempted to build a high-speed rail line in Texas. Back in the late 1980s, two European-backed firms were competing to win a state franchise to connect the so-called Texas triangle of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines waged an aggressive campaign against the awarding of the franchise, arguing that it would force the carrier to severely scale back its operations in Texas. State officials ultimately granted French-backed Texas TGV a franchise, only to see the company give up on the project after failing to come up with enough capital.

This time around, Southwest Airlines has said it is neutral on the Texas Central Railway project. Eckels and airline industry experts have predicted that the airline will maintain its neutrality, as Southwest has diversified its business enough that it would not likely view a high-speed rail project as a threat to its business.

Hard to know what to make of the past history here. This project is different in many ways, and there really isn’t a good analogy for it. I’m a fan of this project and I’m rooting for them to succeed, but I find myself a little queasy at the animosity that exists, mostly on the Republican side, for public financing of rail projects, and increasingly of any non-road-oriented transit project at all. That’s not TCR’s responsibility, it’s just another unfortunate sign of the debasement of Republican politics. Other than a change in attitude from that side, I suppose the best thing that could happen would be for TCR to be a big success and be the starting point for additions, extensions, and connections that will be part of the public investment in infrastructure. We’re going to solve our problems by doing things that work, not by doing what we insist is the only thing that can work.

The dino turtle

Please don’t go extinct.

The extremely rare, utterly impressive and scary looking alligator snapping turtle is actually even more rare than first thought, according to a study out of Florida this week.

Researchers in in the sunshine state have found that the scaly creature, once common to Houston, is actually just one of three different kinds of the turtles.

Until this week the species has been collectively known as macrochelys temminckii and nicknamed the ‘dinosaur of the turtle world’ because of it’s fiercesome look and massive size. It can reach up to 200 pounds in weight.

Now two new species names have been added after scientists found distinct differences between the turtles that have grown up in river systems across the Gulf states.

The new study looked at data from turtles still in the wild as well as fossils that date back 15-16 million years and determined the turtles developed differently according to their geographical placing.

[…]

It means that the few who still live in East Texas are the last remaining of their kind, with just close relatives living across state lines, rather than direct decsendents.

A figure for how many of these prehistoric-looking beasts remain does not exist. Their shy nature and nocturnal lifestyle make it almost impossible to count them.

Some estimate the Suwannee still has around a 1000 of them but that figure could be much lower in East Texas and Louisiana because of the love of local populations for turtle soup.

“Whenever the (federal authorities) banned sea turtles from harvest, all the people, especially in New Orleans, who wanted turtle soup, turned to freashwater turtles,” said Thomas, “That was alligator snapping turtles, they hit them hard and they hit them hard in a short amount of time.”

I’m sorry, but a magnificent creature like this deserves a better fate than being wiped out by foodies. They’re not currently listed as endangered, but perhaps this re-classification will cause a review of that. At the very least, chefs ought to find more plentiful turtles to use in their soup.

Florida’s failure to be insane is our gain

Good news if you’re rooting for Houston to host Super Bowl LI.

Houston’s bid for Super Bowl LI received a major boost Friday when Florida lawmakers ended a 60-day legislative session without approving a plan that would have provided a $350 million upgrade for Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Houston is bidding for the 2017 Super Bowl against South Florida or San Francisco — the city that doesn’t win the NFL owners’ vote for Super Bowl L.

The owners will vote on Super Bowls L and LI on May 21-23 at the league meetings in Boston.

Members of Houston’s bid committee were careful to not sound too confident after learning South Florida would not get the $350 million in taxpayer funding to improve the Dolphins’ stadium.

“This definitely improves our chance to get the Super Bowl,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the bid committee. “Miami’s stadium is woefully in need of repairs and upgrades to (Super Bowl) standards. Even after repairs, it wouldn’t come close to what we have at Reliant Stadium.

“If Miami isn’t willing to invest capital to make their facility world class, that puts them at a disadvantage. It improves our competitive advantage.”

Can’t imagine why they didn’t want to do that considering how well it went the last time, but hey, no one said this had to make sense. If there are three competitors for two slots and one competitor fails to meet the criteria required, that would seem to bode well for the other two. We may not even have to worry about the effect of the Astrodome on our bid. Sweet, right? We’ll know in a couple of weeks if it all worked out for us.

Feeling good about the Super Bowl bid

The city of Houston has submitted its bid to host Super Bowl LI in 2017, and they feel pretty good about their chances.

Houston’s competition will be San Francisco or Miami – the city that fails to get the coveted Super Bowl L.

League owners will vote on both Super Bowls on May 22 in Boston.

For now, Houston officials are confident but cautious because they know there are more steps in the process to host the first Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium since 2004, when New England defeated Carolina.

“We feel really good about our chances,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the host committee. “We believe Houston will be hard to beat.”

[…]

Campo, chairman and chief executive officer of Camden Properties, pointed out the numerous improvements the city has made or will make before 2017.

“The east-west light rail will be completed in 2014,” he said. “We’re building a new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis that’ll be a bookend to the Hilton-Americas. We’ve got Discovery Green.

“The NFL requires at least 19,000 rooms in the city. We have more than 20,000, including 6,000 downtown.

“For fans and visiting teams, it’s going to be the ultimate experience. We’ve got world-class buildings and incredible venues for the NFL Experience and Super Bowl Village.”

Don’t forget our nationally-known restaurant scene now, too. It’s a little funny to think how much has changed since Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. We’ve been confident about our chances from the get go. We’ll see if our optimism is warranted.

The general feeling around the NFL is that San Francisco, with its new stadium in Santa Clara, will beat out South Florida for Super Bowl L. South Florida is trying to get $400 million for stadium improvements.

At the league’s spring meetings in Phoenix last month, officials from South Florida met with the owners and asked for help.

“The mayor of Miami was trying to get the NFL to make a commitment that if they passed this referendum there, they’d get a Super Bowl,” Texans owner Bob McNair said in Phoenix. “The league would not make that kind of commitment.

“They had no assurance that if we voted them a Super Bowl that they would get the money. I think the governmental bodies in South Florida are going to have to move first and say, ‘OK, we’re going to approve the stadium, and we’ll take our chances on the Super Bowl.’

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Miami that will impact our chances of getting the Super Bowl. If they don’t get improvements to their stadium, I think that’ll work against them.”

You would think that after the debacle that was the financing of Marlins Stadium that the Dolphins would be tarred and feathered for making such a request, but this is Florida. You have to grade on a curve.

In related news, via Swamplot the city also put in its bid to host the Summer X-Games for the next three years. (See here for more on that.) We won’t know the answer for that until August, though we will know if we make the next round of cuts shortly. We have a lot more competition for this, including Austin and Fort Worth. Wouldn’t it be cool to get both bids?

You sure you’re registered?

Your voter registration could get cancelled without you realizing what’s happening.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

More than 300,000 valid voters were notified they could be removed from Texas rolls from November 2008 to November 2010 – often because they were mistaken for someone else or failed to receive or respond to generic form letters, according to Houston Chronicle interviews and analysis of voter registration data.

[…]

Statewide, more than 1.5 million voters could be on the path to cancellation if they fail to vote or to update their records for two consecutive federal elections: One out of every 10 Texas voters’ registration is currently suspended. Among voters under 30, the figure is about one in five.

Texas voter registration rates are among the lowest in the nation, but Texas pays nearly twice as much to cancel voters – 40 cents per cancellation – as it does to register new ones at 25 cents.

State and federal laws require the nation’s voter rolls be regularly reviewed and cleaned to remove duplicates and eliminate voters who moved away or died. But across Texas, such “removals” rely on outdated computer programs, faulty procedures and voter responses to generic form letters, often resulting in the wrong people being sent cancellation notices, including new homeowners, college students, Texans who work abroad and folks with common names, a Chronicle review of cancellations shows.

The Secretary of State’s office says it automatically cancels voters only when there is a “strong match” between a new registration and an older existing voter – such as full name, Social Security number and/or date of birth.

However, each year thousands of voters receive requests to verify voter information or be cancelled because they share the same name as a voter who died, got convicted of a crime or claimed to be a non-citizen to avoid jury duty. Those voters receive form letters generated by workers in county election offices that “therefore may be more subject to error,” said Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State in emailed responses to the newspaper. Voters who fail to respond to form letters – or never receive them – get dropped.

First, since I have been critical of the Chron in the past for its mealy-mouthed characterization of the voter ID issue, let me praise them for this story. It raises an important issue that I daresay too many people don’t think much about. It’s also something that provably happens with great frequency, unlike those wild allegations about vote fraud.

We have some experience with mistaken identity in our house. There is another woman in this town with the same name as my wife and a history of not paying her bills. We know this because we have received numerous calls over the years from bill collectors. Some were easier to dissauade that the woman they were lookinf for was not at our house than others, but it was a giant pain regardless. If my wife can be mistaken for someone else by bill collectors, she can just as easily be misidentified by the Tax Assessor’s office in the event that woman goes to jail or dies or changes her name or something like that. As former County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, whose registration was briefly suspended by the Tax Assessor’s office back in 2003 over a similar name confusion, said in the story, the burden of proof should be on them before any action is taken, and not on the voter.

All this, of course, is without even mentioning the potential for partisan mischief like what we’ve seen in Florida lately and in Harris County in recent years as well. There’s a reason there’s been so much litigation over the way the voter rolls are maintained. I was taught as a kid that the right to vote is one of this country’s basic foundations, but we sure don’t act like it. Neil and BOR have more.

Amending the Texas “Stand Your Ground” law

I agree with this.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said Texas needs to revise its law to prevent a tragedy such as the Trayvon Martin case in Florida from happening here.

This state’s current law is not that different from the so-called Stand Your Ground law used in Florida. Under current law in the Lone Star State, a person is justified in using deadly force in self-defense or if someone is unlawfully and with force trying to enter their home, business or vehicle or is in the act of committing murder, kidnapping, rape or robbery.

The current law took its shape in 2007, and used a model that had passed in Florida and 14 other states. What changed is that the Texas Legislature removed a provision that said people have a duty to retreat if faced with a potentially violent situation. The old law also said that citizens had the right to use deadly force to protect themselves, others or their property but only if there was no avenue for escape.

Coleman, who voted against the change five years ago, said it’s time to dial back the Texas law to its pre-2007 status. He said a duty to retreat could have prevented what happened in Florida when a neighborhood watch volunteer confronted an unarmed teenager and ended up shooting him.

Rep. Coleman expanded on that on his site.

The Texas Castle Doctrine too freely gives license to use deadly force based on subjective assumptions and needs to be corrected. In 2007, when the Legislature eliminated the duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense, the likelihood of killing someone simply because they were presumed to be dangerous was increased. Now Texans can justify the use of deadly force based on perceived danger almost anywhere and not just at home— in their cars on public roads, the workplace, and essentially anywhere they are not trespassing and lawfully allowed to be on that property. What was passed in 2007 was unnecessary, and I voted against it. Texas law already allowed people to defend themselves against deadly force with deadly force if they were unable to run away and escape danger. I will file legislation that returns Texas law to a balance that values human life, avoids violence when possible, and preserves the right to self-defense in clear situations of immediate life-threatening danger.

Coleman sent out an email announcing this as well, which included this link to the House Research Organization’s bill analysis of SB378. I note that one of the people who testified against the bill in the House committee hearing was Bill Delmore from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. I believe that this extension of Texas’ Castle Doctrine was unnecessary, and now that we have clearly seen the potential consequences, it’s time to rethink it. I hope Rep. Coleman’s colleagues in the Lege listen to him. The Chron has more.

I’d really like to buy a yacht in Texas, if only your tax policies would let me

I’m not sure which is more awesome, the idea that we’re even having a debate about giving yacht owners a tax break or that they yacht owners who would benefit from this are telling us it’s for our own good.

Clayton Reaser said he’s having big fun on the $1 million yacht he bought last year in Seabrook — so much so that he soon plans to purchase a larger yacht in the $3.5 million range.

But this time, he said, he’ll be heading to Florida to make his purchase unless Texas lawmakers follow that state’s lead and approve a tax cap for boats costing $250,000 and up.

Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, sponsored HB 2187, which would impose an $18,000 sales tax cap on the purchase of a yacht in Texas. The bill sailed through the Ways and Means Committee April 28 and could soon be headed to a House vote.

“I’m definitely going to buy my boat in Florida if this legislation doesn’t pass,” said Reaser, 31, a Dallas entrepreneur. “I would love to give my money back to Texas. My next boat will have Florida on the back of it instead of Texas if this thing doesn’t pass.”

See, now don’t you just want to rush out and support HB2187 on poor Mr. Reaser’s behalf? Surely you agree that he deserves to be taxed less for his yacht. He’s trying his best to be a good, patriotic, tax-paying Texan, but the man just keeps holding him down. Won’t someone please think of the yacht owners?

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said the measure is “crazy” given the state’s two year budget shortfall of $15 billion to $27 billion.

“We’re helping yacht owners while we are cutting our public schools by 21 percent and nursing homes by 33 percent,” Villarreal said. “We’re helping yacht owners … while we’re eliminating all scholarships for college freshmen in 2012-13.”

The bill is ill-timed, Villarreal said, because no data have been collected to show how yacht sales in Florida have been affected by the bill passed last year.

We may not know what the effect of Florida’s tax cut for yacht owners has been. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the kind of person who can afford to buy a yacht is unlikely to base his or her decision on a few extra dollars for the taxes, but hey, the rich are different than you and I. What I do know is that tax policy probably matters less than you might think as a general rule.

Anti-tax advocates contend that higher taxes on the wealthy lead to millionaire flight. They say this has been seen in Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York. The rich are mobile, they say. They can take their money, taxes and jobs wherever they are treated best.

But a new study focusing on New Jersey provides some of the most detailed evidence yet that so-called millionaire taxes have little effect on the movements of millionaires as a whole.

The study, by sociologists Cristobal Young at Stanford and Charles Varner at Princeton, studied the migration patterns of New Jersey’s millionaires before and after 2004, when the state imposed a “millionaire’s tax” that raised rates on those earning $500,000 or more to 8.97% from 6.37%.

The study found that the overall population of millionaires increased during the tax period. Some millionaires moved out, of course. But they were more than offset by the creation of new millionaires.

The study dug deeper to figure out whether the millionaires who were moving out did so because of the tax. As a control group, they used New Jersey residents who earned $200,000 to $500,000–in other words, high-earners who weren’t subject to the tax. They found that the rate of out-migration among millionaires was in line with and rate of out-migration of submillionaires. The tax rate, they concluded, had no measurable impact.

“This suggests that the policy effect is close to zero,” the study says.

Maybe this doesn’t directly compare to the yacht situation in Texas, but it does suggest that perhaps people aren’t as influenced by these things as the Clayton Reasers of the world want you to believe. There is a cost in going elsewhere for one’s yachting needs, both in terms of time and money. And if this was really that important to the super duper rich folks, they could go to the Cayman Islands and avoid yacht taxes all together, which apparently was Florida’s motivation for engaging in this race to the bottom. Maybe the better choice is to leave things as they are and adjust later if the data says we need to. I’m just saying. See this Chron editorial for more.

The SUPERTRAIN passes us by

We knew we weren’t going to get much in the way of funding for high speed rail in Texas, but it still kinda stings to see just how little we got.

The $3.75 million that the Lone Star State will receive is a sliver of the more than $8 billion distributed, mostly to states that have plans and other funding ready to go.

The goal is to build a coordinated national high-speed-rail network that could help relieve road and air congestion. Plans range from upgrading Amtrak tracks to help trains move at more than 100 mph to building elevated tracks for European-style bullet trains, which could shuttle travelers across long distances at more than 185 mph.

Long-standing plans call for the high-speed network to pass through the Metroplex, linking North Texas with St. Louis and Chicago to the north and San Antonio to the south.

Let’s just say we’re a long, long way from that. The DMN puts it in context.

Consider what others are doing. Take Florida, which has, like Texas, a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature:

  • In October, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Florida lawmakers to get their “act together” if they wanted stimulus money Congress authorized for high-speed rail.
  • In December, those lawmakers passed a high-speed rail bill in special session to address governance and funding.
  • Thursday, President Barack Obama went to Florida with Amtrak-riding veteran Joe Biden to announce a $1.25 billion grant to develop Tampa-to-Orlando service for 168-mph trains.

In California, voters had already embraced bullet-train development by approving a $10 billion stake in financing. Illinois, aside from having close friends in Washington, had pledged support to modernize current Chicago-to-St. Louis service.

In the rail sweepstakes, no smart money was on Texas – certainly not after Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in Austin this month that there “has been no central vision, no common vision for rail in Texas.”

With that assessment, we agree.

Ouch. I don’t know when the next opportunity will come, but I sure hope we can do better than this.