Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Garnet Coleman

Don’t look for a meet-and-confer bill in the Lege this year

Buried in this story about the city and the county preparing to play defense during the legislative session is this update on the state of relations between the city and the firefighters.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In her first two sessions, Houston Mayor Annise Parker failed to gain traction with legislation that would grant the city meet-and-confer powers that give City Hall the legal authority to negotiate changes to the city’s fire pension system. And now that the city and fire pension board are engaged in what appears to be some introductory conversation, the topic already appears to be a non-starter in Austin.

In fact, the city may not even aggressively pursue a remedy in the Legislature unless local talks show signs of dissolving. That resonates with Harris lawmakers who have a clear message for City Hall: Solve this yourself.

“We’re not going to do anything or move anything that doesn’t have an agreement,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, a senior Democrat who echoed half-a-dozen other area legislators that a meet-and-confer bill opposed by firefighters would languish. “That’s a dead bill no matter what.”

That does not mean that concerns over the city’s unfunded liabilities are fading. Supporters of pension reform characterized the current discussions between the city as healthy and are expressing hope that they could yield a solution the Legislature would never produce.

“This issue is fraught with political risk for elected officials,” said Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which supports pension reform. “They’re more than willing to give this back to the city if they see any signs at all that the city is willing to take it on.”

I had no idea that the city and the pension board were talking. I always thought one of the sticking points from the city’s perspective is that the pension board didn’t have to talk to them. They got to make their own determination about things like cost of living adjustments, which was one of the things the city had been trying to get a say in, legislatively or otherwise. I’m not sure what led to this conversation, but it’s an encouraging sign. If nothing else, if they can come to an agreement, I’ll never have to listed to Mayoral candidates or newspaper editorial boards talk about pension reform again. I’d be happy to send some pizzas to the negotiations room if that will help facilitate such an outcome.

Expect to hear more about Perry vetos and no-bid contracts

Bring it on.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Democratic lawmakers and government watchdog groups on Saturday called for the reopening of an investigation into no-bid state contracts that ended in 2013 after Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the team conducting it.

The critics decried the millions of dollars in Department of Public Safety contracts and another set of similar deals given by the state health commission under Perry, who will step down Tuesday after 14 years in office and is considering a 2016 presidential run. They said a thorough evaluation of contracting is needed to assure taxpayers that their money is being spent responsibly.

“Hell, yes, we need to review everything,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has served in the upper chamber longer than any other member. “There seems to be an awful lot of no-bid this and no-bid that, and I just think we need to look at it all so we can tell where the problems are and what needs to be changed.”

[…]

Democratic state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Armando Walle of Houston were among those calling Saturday for the investigation of no-bid contracts to be reopened.

“Using state resources to bolster a political career by fomenting a non-existent border crisis, then giving no-bid contracts to a company that has limited experience in border security seems like an issue the Public Integrity Unit should be investigating,” Walle said.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based government watchdog group whose complaint initiated the investigation that led to Perry’s indictment, agreed. He added that if the investigation had continued, it may have prevented some of the issues now surfacing with state health contracts.

Four high-ranking Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials have so far resigned as a result of those issues, stemming from no-bid Medicaid fraud detection contracts with Austin technology company 21CT that got tentative approval to balloon to $110 million before being canceled.

The deal is now being investigated by the Public Integrity Unit.

Unit director Gregg Cox on Saturday cited that investigation as a reason why it was unlikely that his office could reopen the probe into DPS contracts.

“I just don’t have the horsepower right now to open new investigations, with everything else we have going,” said Cox, who added that he would review the option next week. He added that for now, he “would prefer to see other agencies investigate this, and then we can work with them.”

See here for the background. If nothing else, one hopes this is the fulcrum by which the Public integrity Unit gets its funding restored, which is something the House budget would do but not what Dan Patrick wants. Regardless, this is a giant turd that Rick Perry is leaving in Greg Abbott’s punch bowl, and I plan to enjoy watching the fallout.

Working for progress on LGBT issues

I’m always a little wary when I see a phrase like “chipping away” in a story about LGBT issues, but in this case it refers to obstacles, not hard-won victories, so it’s OK.

RedEquality

The rights and interests of homosexual Texans will be in the spotlight like never before next year, as the state’s same-sex marriage ban gets a long-awaited hearing in federal court and lawmakers take up a slate of bills that address everything from employment and insurance discrimination to local equal rights ordinances.

“In Texas, it’s very difficult with the makeup of the Legislature to pass anything,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “But it’s called chipping away – keep bringing the issue – until one day it passes.”

[…]

Daniel Williams, of Equality Texas, said he believes there is a “realistic opportunity” to pass legislation allowing both same-sex partners to be listed on birth certificates, and to remove a provision in state law that criminalizes sexual relationships between some same-sex teenagers.

Other bills have been filed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public school sex education classes, and for insurance companies and state contractors. Two bills, by [Sen. Jose] Rodriguez and his El Paso colleague Joe Moody, are seeking to remove from state law books an unconstitutional, unenforceable statute that criminalizes sodomy.

Williams also is interested to see whether Gov.-elect Greg Abbott will break with his predecessor by pushing state compliance with federal mandates to reduce the prison rape rate – which disproportionately impacts gay and transgender inmates – and whether more municipalities follow San Antonio, Houston and Plano’s lead in passing non-discrimination ordinances.

Don’t forget about Plano, too. There’s a reason all those hateful pastors are freaking out about this – they know they’re losing. Bills have been filed by Rep. Coleman and others to repeal Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage and to fix the birth certificate problem as noted, and there’s a broader organization being formed to help press the case in Austin. That’s all good and necessary and I have some hope as well, but I suspect that once all is said and done simply not losing ground will be seen as a win with this Legislature.

As for Sen. Donna Campbell’s effort to supersede local efforts by filing a resolution that would block any local rule or state law that infringes on “an individual’s or religious organization’s … sincerely held religious belief,” advocates think the business community will come out against it as they did against similar legislation in Arizona.

“Yes, you can talk about taking power away from those local leaders, but there’s going to be a lot of pushback from the local elected officials and their constituents,” said Jeff Davis, chairman of the Texas chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national group made up of gay members of the GOP and their allies. He said Campbell’s resolution likely would generate “a lot of talk,” but he believes the effort “isn’t going to move completely forward.”

Meanwhile, religious leaders waging a legal battle against Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance are banking on the increasingly-conservative Legislature to support their efforts. While they await a 2015 court date to determine whether enough signatures were gathered to force a local referendum on the Houston ordinance, they have turned their eyes to Plano, which passed a similar ordinance earlier this month.

“These ordinances are solutions looking for a problem,” said David Welch, director of the Houston-based Texas Pastors Council, which filed a petition against the Plano ordinance this week. “It is a special interest group representing a tiny fraction of the population using the power of law to impose their lifestyle and punish those that disagree with them.”

He said the council will continue to work with lawmakers on legislation that could undo these ordinances at the state level, as well as reaffirm current law that enshrines marriage as between one man and one woman.

It would be nice if the business lobby puts some pressure on to kill not just Campbell’s bill but all of the pro-discrimination bills that Campbell and others are filing, but don’t expect me to have any faith in their efforts. At least as far as constitutional amendments go, there are enough Democrats to keep them off the ballot, barring any shenanigans or betrayals. It would be nice to think that Republicans can play a key role in preserving existing protections, if not expanding them, but there’s no evidence to support that idea at this time with this Legislature. We need to win more elections, that’s all there is to it. Let’s make it through this session unscathed and get started working on that part of it ASAP. BOR has more.

Some Republicans embrace tuition re-regulation

This is a welcome change, but let’s not be distracted by what isn’t being said.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges and universities would be capped at their current levels and only be permitted to grow at the rate of inflation under a bill filed Tuesday by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.

Schwertner telegraphed his filing of Senate Bill 233 for the 2015 legislative session in a Sunday column in TribTalk. In the column, he argued that because state lawmakers started allowing university governing boards to set tuition rates without legislative oversight in 2003, “the dream of attaining a college degree is becoming a nightmare for more and more Texas students.”

Average tuition and fees in the state have more than doubled since tuition was deregulated and, as Schwertner noted in a news release announcing his filings, that growth has significantly outpaced the rate of inflation.

“I think the Legislature has a responsibility to consider whether the deregulation policies enacted over a decade ago still make sense for Texas students,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Here’s that press release from Sen. Schwertner referenced in the story. I’m glad to see some Republican acknowledgment of this problem, but if you read Schwertner’s TribTalk piece and you’re old enough to remember the year 2003, you will note what is prominently missing from his words: The fact that tuition deregulation was passed by Republicans at that time as a way to deal with a budget shortfall by allowing the public universities to set their own tuition rates in return for getting less funding from the state. If Schwertner and Greg Abbott are truly serious about this, they will acknowledge that simply capping tuition without making up the reduction in state funding for public higher education will cause other problems and is just shirking responsibility altogether for those problems. This is a good start, and kudos to Schwertner for being the point person for it, but it’s only part of the puzzle.

Democrats, at least the ones that weren’t in then-Speaker Tom Craddick’s pocket in 2003, opposed tuition deregulation and have fought to repeal it since then for precisely the reasons laid out by Schwertner, with the crucial difference being that they support the state paying its fair share. A Legislative Study Group report on higher education that I linked to in 2008 but which is unfortunately not at that URL any more covers a lot of this ground. Note the line about California having ten tier one universities that Abbott alluded to the other day. That LSG report also included an op-ed by Rep. Garnet Coleman from 2004, in which he correctly predicted everything that’s now finally being acknowledged today. Here’s an excerpt:

Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick exerted unyielding political pressure to compel the tuition deregulation bill’s passage, using Texas’ $10 billion budget shortfall as the rationale. While top state officials were patting themselves on the back for not raising taxes, they were saddling Texas college students and their families with staggering hikes in tuition rates.

Perry claimed in his State of the State address that education represents the greatest investment we can make in a future of prosperity. He then agreed to slash general revenue funding for higher education by $259 million, which includes his veto of $55 million for excellence in research funds. Yet, the governor simultaneously fought for and received $295 million for a new, unproven economic development fund that allows him to hand out financial incentives to businesses he is attempting to lure to Texas.

[…]

Knowing that it would further strain the ability of many students to pursue a college education, our short-sighted leaders forged ahead with their plan to deregulate tuition. Students holding jobs to pay for their college education will be required to work longer hours or take out additional student loans to cover the costs of unchecked tuition increases.

For example, tuition rates are set to rise by an average of approximately 12 percent this spring at the University of Texas System’s institutions. A student taking a 15-hour course load at the system’s flagship institution, the University of Texas at Austin, faces an even greater increase of 26 percent. By fall, the same student will pay 52 percent more for tuition than he did the previous year.

One major flaw of tuition deregulation is its affect on older students. Proponents of this policy failed to consider the fact that not every Texas university is a flagship and not evey student is a fresh-faced recent high school graduate. At the University of Houston at Victoria, for instance, the average attendee is 33. Increased costs are especially devastating to these nontraditional students who already have jobs, families and other responsibilities. Many cannot afford the extra burden.

Tuition deregulation also has serious consequences for two popular state programs, the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan and the Texas Grants Program. Parents and grandparents who were planning on securing a college education for their children and grandchildren by locking in tuition rates through the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan (formerly the Texas Tomorrow Fund) will no longer have that opportunity. Recent tuition spikes and uncertainty about future tuition costs have forced that program to close its doors to new enrollees.

Additionally, fewer Texas students will receive grants from the state to offset tuition costs. Without even taking into account the impact of deregulating tuition, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board already projects a 12 percent decline in Texas Grants recipients by 2005. Tuition hikes across the state will further diminish the number of new recipients.

Again, that was written in 2004. As is so often the case, we should have listened to Rep. Coleman. It took a decade longer than it should have, but we would be well advised to listen to him now.

Legislation to overturn same sex marriage ban filed

Someone’s gotta do it, and you know it won’t be Republicans.

RedEquality

Kriselda Hinojosa recalls how she unintentionally came out to her father in sixth grade.

“He actually saw me kissing my girlfriend at the time,” Hinojosa said. “So he caught me, but he didn’t get upset. He never yelled at me or anything. He was always very open-minded. I’ve never heard him talk bad about the LGBT community.”

Over the years, the now-32-year-old Hinojosa said, her father’s acceptance has evolved into righteous indignation over the fact that his only daughter doesn’t have equal rights. Two years ago, Hinojosa “eloped” to Las Vegas with her girlfriend for a same-sex commitment ceremony. When she returned to Texas, it hit home for her dad that their certificate means nothing in the eyes of the state.

In 2013, Hinojosa’s father, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), authored a bill to legalize civil unions in Texas. And on Father’s Day this year, he penned a heartfelt pro-equality letter to his daughter that was published in newspapers statewide.

On Monday, Sen. Hinojosa took his support a step further, introducing a bill to repeal Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the first day of pre-filing for the 2015 legislative session. Hinojosa’s bill, SB 98, is one of several that were set to be filed Monday that—if all were to pass—would have the combined effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in Texas pending a public vote.

“He says he’s proud of me, but I’m more proud of him,” Kriselda Hinojosa said. “He’s taking a risk, also, because he could actually lose supporters, but it doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s doing what he thinks is right.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed a companion to Hinojosa’s bill, HJR 34, aimed at repealing the marriage amendment, which was approved by 76 percent of voters in 2005. To pass, the amendment repeal bills would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers, as well as a simple majority at the ballot box.< Meanwhile, state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) and Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) were set to file legislation Monday that would undo Texas’ statutory bans on same-sex marriage, which passed in 2003. Anchia’s bill is HB 130, and Rodriguez’s measure was piggy-backed on Hinojosa’s SB 98. The statutory changes would have no impact until the constitutional amendment is repealed.

We’ve been down this road before. What I said then largely applies now, and I don’t expect any different outcome. An x-factor in this is the Fifth Circuit, whose actions on the appeal of DeLeon v. Perry could possibly inspire some backlash. If there’s one achievable thing I’d like to see happen on this, it’s for there to be a fully unified Democratic response to these bills. I’d like to see the few remaining holdouts in our caucuses finally get right on this issue.

Actually, there’s a bigger reason why we’ll need to stand together on this.

Texas tea party Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, introduced a measure Monday that could effectively allow businesses to turn away gay customers — or fire LGBT employees — under the guise of religious freedom.

On the first day of pre-filing for the legislative session that begins in January, Campbell introduced Senate Joint Resolution 10. The resolution, which proposes a constitutional amendment “relating to a person’s freedom of religion,” reads as follows:

Government may not burden an individual’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion or right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief unless the government proves that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. For purposes of this subsection, the term “burden” includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, and denying access to facilities or programs.

Campbell introduced a nearly identical measure two years ago, but it died in committee. The 2013 measure was supported by the anti-LGBT group Texas Values and opposed by Equality Texas.

Texas already has a statute, the Religous Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), that provides strong protections for religious freedom. However, critics say Campbell’s proposal would go much further than the Texas RFRA.

For example, while the RFRA says government “may not substantially burden” an individual’s religious freedom, SJR10 states only that government “may not burden” an individual’s religious freedom. Removing the word “substantially” would significantly alter the scope of the law, as outlined in testimony from former state Rep. Scott Hochberg in 2013. Also, unlike the RFRA, Campbell’s proposal doesn’t include exceptions for enforcement of civil rights laws.

In other words, this would overturn the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and a whole lot besides. Because “local control” goes out the window when the locals do something the hegemons don’t like. Be that as it may, no Democrat should consider voting for this. Let the Rs own every piece of the same sex marriage ban as well as this abomination when SCOTUS finally takes up the question, whichever way they go. The people are ready for the unjust marriage ban to be repealed. Let’s give them what they want. LGBTQ Insider has more.

The Third Ward

Good story about a great historic neighborhood.

In 1872, four influential African-American ministers and businessmen pooled $800 to buy 10 acres of land along Dowling Street. That was the birth of Emancipation Park, a safe place to celebrate Juneteenth and freedom from slavery.

TSU, still thriving in the Third Ward today, got its start as the Colored Junior College in 1927. In the next 25 years, the school would grow into a four-year university with its own 53-acre campus and law school. But the intent of state leaders at the time was to preserve segregation and the notion of “separate but equal” in higher education.

The Third Ward grocery store and luncheonette that was the site of Houston’s first sit-in is long gone, replaced by a post office. At the edge of the parking lot is a state historical marker that describes the students’ nonviolent protests, which eventually led to the peaceful desegregation of lunch counters, department stores, movie theaters and other local businesses.

“I realized fairly soon that ignoring these students was not the best thing to do,” [Rev. Bill] Lawson says. “Part of my calling as a minister was to be concerned about the vulnerable. It was not to maintain the standards of the powerful, which included the Ku Klux Klan.”

The Third Ward still is a real place in the hearts and minds of most of its residents and former residents, including the self-proclaimed “queen of the Third Ward,” Beyoncé. No matter that the geographical and political demarcations that established four wards in 1839, then a fifth after the Civil War and a sixth in 1876, were essentially erased in 1905.

At that time, the city covered only 16 square miles, and none of the wards extended much more than two miles from the intersection of Main and Congress. Roughly, most of the historic Third Ward extended south and east from that dot on the map. Today, what is known as the Greater Third Ward has more than doubled in size and extends south to Old Spanish Trail and east to the University of Houston.

[…]

Problems. Issues. Controversies. Certainly there are plenty in the Third Ward.

Brown says rising property taxes are making it hard for her to stay in her beloved neighborhood. “Those taxes are making it hard for everybody. I don’t know if they’re trying to push us out.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman is worried about the most often discussed problem in all six wards – gentrification. He welcomes new residents who want to become part of the neighborhood and respect the Third Ward traditions and culture.

For those moving in only because “they’re dying to get to downtown as fast as they can,” forget it, Coleman says. “We don’t need more three-story boxes, either.”

That’s a tall order. The Third Ward isn’t just close to downtown, it encompasses or is close to UH, Midtown, and the Museum District, too. People are going to want to live there, and short of applying historic status to various neighborhoods there’s not much you can do to prevent the three-story boxes and other high-end, non-traditional properties from being built. Personally, I’m a big fan of the foursquare brick architecture that you see around the Third Ward and the few remaining un-gentrified areas of Montrose, but I’m not buying up lots out there, either. Anyway, read the whole thing, especially if you don’t know much about the history of the Third Ward. For a town that paves over its past with brutal regularity, Houston sure has a rich one.

Convention coverage

Wendy and Leticia and a whole host of others rally the crowd in Dallas.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte shared the spotlight at the Texas Democratic Party convention on Friday night, promising to change the direction of the state, ripping their Republican opponents and imploring Democrats to break the GOP’s two-decade grip on state government.

Davis attacked her Republican opponent, matching his attacks at the GOP convention in Fort Worth earlier this month, and talked fighting insiders in Austin.

“I’m running because there’s a moderate majority that’s being ignored — commonsense, practical, hardworking Texans whose voices are being drowned out by insiders in Greg Abbott’s party, and it needs to stop,” she said.

Davis spoke about her background, her kids and her grandmother, all as a way of establishing her Texas roots and values.

She talked about what she would do if elected, promising full-day pre-K “for every eligible child,” less testing in public schools, less state interference with teaching, more affordable and accessible college. She also implied she would end property tax exemptions for country clubs as part of property tax reform, and end a sales tax discount for big retailers who pay on time.

She took some swipes at her opponent, too.

“Unlike Greg Abbott, I’m not afraid to share the stage with my party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, my colleague, mi hermana, Leticia Van de Putte,” she said. When the audience hooted, she cautioned them: “Now you guys don’t clap too much or Greg Abbott will sue you.”

The insider slam on Abbott was woven into Davis’ nine pages of prepared remarks. “You see, Mr. Abbott cut his teeth politically as part of the good old boys network that’s had their hands on the reins for decades,” she said. “He’s been in their service and their debt since he ran for office, and as a judge and a lawyer he’s spent his career defending insiders, protecting insiders, stacking the deck for insiders and making hardworking Texans pay the price.”

Davis said Abbott accepts large contributions from payday lenders “and then clears the way for them to charge unlimited interest rates and fees.” She blasted him for taking contributions from law firms that handle bond deals approved by the office of the attorney general, and for saying state law does not require chemical companies to reveal what they are storing in Texas communities.

“He isn’t working for you; he’s just another insider, working for insiders,” she said.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Van de Putte, who spoke immediately before Davis, promised not to back down from the fight against Dan Patrick, her opponent for lieutenant governor. She said she would instead fight to “put Texas first.”

When she ran for student council president in junior high, she said, she was told she could not run because she was a girl.

“Well I did, and I won,” she said.

She said that lesson remains relevant now. “I need to run, not just because I am a girl, but because I want the responsibility. Because I know what needs to get done. And I know I’m the right person for the job.”

I love it when they talk tough. I’m not up in Dallas, though several of my blogging colleagues are. So far the reports I’ve heard are positive – lots of energy and excitement. One person even compared it to 2008, which is music to the ear. Obviously, the folks who take the time to go to a party convention aren’t the ones that need to be inspired to go vote, but they are the ones that will be doing a lot of the work to inspire others, so the more enthusiastic they are, the better.

As I said on Friday, the best thing you can do is work to help get the message out and get the voters to the polls. The next best thing you can do is pitch in financially. Democrats have done phenomenally well in grassroots small-dollar fundraising of late, which is both great and necessary since the other guys have a lot more megalomaniac billionaires on their side. Monday is the last day for this fundraising period, and while we can’t do much about the polling narrative right now, we can at least make sure that one part of the story is that our candidates will be in good shape to take the fight to their opponents this fall. So with that in mind, here’s where you can park that loose change that’s burning a hole in your pocket:

Wendy Davis

Leticia Van de Putte

Sam Houston

Mike Collier

John Cook

Steve Brown

If you can only give to one, I would advise you to donate to Leticia Van de Putte. Wendy Davis has already demonstrated that she can raise a ton of money, but Leticia needs to post a big number in July to ensure that every story written about her doesn’t contain a disclaimer about her ability to get her message out. Sam Houston and then Mike Collier are next in line. Those two plus John Cook and Steve Brown will have less effect on the ultimate outcome than the ladies will, but they are still very important.

“You just work with what you have rather than complaining that you don’t have it,” said John Cook, the land commissioner candidate. “That’s what our campaign is all about.”

Cook said he will focus less on the General Land Office and home in on the GOP’s controversial platform on social issues, which touts reparative therapy for gays and lesbians, among other measures.

“My job now is to point out the shortcomings of the Republican Party and the inclusiveness of the Democratic Party,” he said.

Brown, running for a seat on the state board that regulates oil and gas, has campaigned on increasing the Railroad Commission’s environmental stewardship and improving the agency’s fairness. He said he would work on communicating that to delegates at the convention.

Houston, vying to become the state’s chief lawyer, said he wants to depoliticize the attorney general’s office, saying that under Greg Abbott it too often has focused on fighting the federal government rather than finding solutions.

Collier said he intends to paint the tea party – and the Texas GOP, by extension – as anti-business for failing to support fully funding key state programs, such as public education, that ultimately aid business.

“If you understand business, you understand that you’ve got to invest to plan for the future,” Collier said.

The badness of the Republican statewide ticket doesn’t end with Dan Patrick. It’s rotten all the way down. Don’t forget about these guys, who will be working as hard as Wendy and Leticia with far less attention being paid to them.

John Cook mentioned the party platform, so let’s talk about that.

Roughly 7,000 delegates have converged on the Big D this weekend, two weeks after Texas Republicans met at the Fort Worth end of the Metroplex to hammer out a platform that drew national attention for its controversial planks on immigration and support for so-called “reparative therapy” to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality.

“All they did was talk about hating people,” Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said at a Thursday night reception. “This week, we’re in Dallas, Texas, talking about love, right?”

The Democratic Party platform will reflect that feeling, said Garnet Coleman, the Houston state representative in charge of leading the drafting committee for the last decade.

“Our platform is designed to include, not exclude,” Coleman said on Friday, the day before the draft document is viewed, debated and voted on by the permanent platform committee. “And I think their (the Republicans’) platform is an expression of values that are, quite frankly, outside of the mainstream.”

Coleman predicted the Democrats’ platform will not spark the heated debates of the Republican convention, where delegates fought over planks on immigration, medical marijuana and homosexuality, because of a “set of values” the party approved in 2004 and on which they have been building since.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of change,” Coleman said of the 2014 draft compared with its 2012 predecessor. The party will remain opposed to a guest worker program in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and the issue of child detainees on the border likely will not be included in the platform.

[…]

The most significant departure from previous years’ platforms likely will be the inclusion of a new plank regarding women’s issues, said Coleman. The section will focus on issues that affect women beyond family planning and abortion, such as wage disparity and other workplace challenges.

The transportation section also will see some additions, addressing what Coleman called the “non-sexy” issues of toll roads and highway building and maintenance funds.

“There’s not enough money to just maintain the highways we have, so that affects the ability for Texas to grow,” Coleman said, adding he would like to see a gas tax. “(Gov. Rick) Perry has made Texas highways into franchises for toll roads.”

As I’ve said before, no candidate is bound by their party’s platform, but I doubt you’ll find too many Democrats trying to back away or distract from the TDP platform. That especially includes the provisions on immigration.

Contrasting the GOP positions to their own, Democrats said it boils down to matters of inclusion and respect.

Like the Republicans, Democrats see immigration as a key to motivating voter turnout for the November general election.

In speech after speech Friday, Democratic Party luminaries ranging from Van de Putte to U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro to party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa bashed the GOP platform for its tough-on-immigrants, secure-the-border stance.

And when the Democrats approve their platform on Saturday, party officials said the result will feature most everything the Republicans’ did not.

“We are very supportive of a path to citizenship because there are people who are here and are very productive and have committed no crime and are adding to our economy,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, chairman of the party’s platform committee. “We are not for a guest-worker program, because that can become a form of indentured servitude.”

Throughout caucuses and forums on Friday, Democrats spent time focusing on the GOP platform that calls for tightening immigration enforcement, a position underscored in recent weeks by an unprecedented influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied apprehended after crossing the Mexican border.

“The Republicans have gone backward on immigration,” Castro told reporters. “You have a candidate in Wendy Davis that appreciates the contribution of immigrants throughout Texas history, and you have Republican candidates who use the border as a bogeyman. They use it to stoke fear. They use it to divide Texans, to turn Texans against each other and to win elections and the people of our state are tired of that.”

Stace seems to be pleased with developments so far, which makes me happy. There’s a lot more to come, but let’s stay focused on what’s important. Keep organizing, keep talking to the voters, and keep moving forward.

734K ACA enrollments in Texas

Pretty damn impressive, all things considered.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

New numbers out show that 734,000 Texans bought health insurance through the federal marketplace from last October to April 19, 2014, a report released by Health and Human Services shows.

Prior to March 1, an anemic 295,000 people had signed up, but in the final stretch of the Affordable Care Act first-year sign-up, another 439,000 obtained private insurance through the exchange.

Health care advocates applauded the new sign-up numbers and said the results are impressive, especially in the face of strong opposition from virtually every state Republican leader.

Texas has made more progress on affordable health insurance in the last six months than in the last decade,” said Stacey Pogue, a health care analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities.

“We know that Texas could do much more,” she said. “Too many Texans are still one illness or one accident away from going bankrupt.”

Emphasis mine. Keep that in mind the next time you hear a Republican dead-ender talk about how horrible Obamacare is. After more than a decade in complete control of Texas government, they’ve not done a damn thing to try to solve this problem. Hell, in that time they’ve never even recognized it as a problem. Then the federal government – President Obama and the Democrats in Congress – stepped in and finally did something about it, and the Republican leadership in Texas resents it like crazy, because it so clearly points out their abject failure. The final enrollment surge, generated purely by tons of need for health insurance coverage, since the state did everything it could to impede signups, was impressive enough that even the TPPF’s designated hack had to admit is was remarkable. Just imagine what could have been if only Rick Perry and Greg Abbott and the rest of them gave a damn.

Some details from Texas Well and Healthy:

BACKGROUND ON HEALTH CARE COVERAGE NUMBERS

  • Eight-four percent of Texans who signed up also received financial assistance, lowering their monthly costs.
  • Thirty percent of Texans who selected insurance plans through the Marketplace were 18-34 years old.
  • Approximately six million Texans were uninsured in 2012. With 25 percent of the state uninsured, Texas has the worst rate in the nation.
  • About half of the state’s one million uninsured children and teens are eligible for Medicaid or CHIP.
  • More than one million Texas adults are in the Coverage Gap. Their jobs do not provide insurance, but their income is not high enough to qualify for assistance in the Marketplace. The Texas legislature can provide insurance to Texans in the Coverage Gap by accepting federal health care funds.

The overall numbers are right in line with that Baker Institute study that had pegged the figure at 746K. You can see how Texas compared to other states in the updated Kaiser numbers.

More from the Chron:

For weeks, officials have said an estimated 8 million people nationwide signed up for coverage. Until Thursday, it was unclear that a little more than 9 percent of enrollees were Texans. Before the marketplace’s Oct. 1 launch, government officials projected about 625,000 Texans would sign up for coverage.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Vivian Ho, James A. Baker III Institute health economics chair at Rice University. “I thought that anyone who wanted insurance would have signed up by Dec. 31.”

Although the state surpassed enrollment expectations, Ho said millions of Texans remain uninsured. About half of Texas’ estimated 6 million uninsured residents could have applied for marketplace coverage created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

“We’ve only made a slight dent in the number of uninsured in Texas,” Ho said. “We need more resources down here.”

No one from the offices of U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz or Gov. Rick Perry responded to requests for comment about the number of Texas enrollments. All three lawmakers oppose the health care law commonly known as Obamacare, and Cruz repeatedly has pushed for its repeal.

No comment from any of them? Not even a smart-aleck remark? Wimps.

Thursday’s report did not include Houston-area enrollment information. In April, the Associated Press reported more than 177,000 Houston residents signed up for health coverage, exceeding expectations and indicating a last-minute enrollment push just before the March 31 deadline might have helped Texas.

Texas Hospital Association officials said they were encouraged by the enrollment update but agreed with Ho that the state needs to do more to help its remaining uninsured residents. Texas has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents.

Perry has refused to expand Medicaid, which would extend health coverage to more than 1 million residents who earn too much to qualify for the program and too little to afford private health insurance.

“Our federal income tax dollars are going to other states because the state’s leadership said no to connecting low-wage working families with health insurance options,” hospital association president and CEO Ted Shaw said in a written statement. “Other states have proposed innovative private-market solutions to expand coverage using available federal funding, and Texas should follow their lead.”

Maybe next year, if we have a better Governor, we can exceed this year’s totals. A statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman is here, and Progress Texas and Stace have more.

The farm team

Roll Call takes a look at the Texas Democrats of the future.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Democrats rarely fielded competitive Senate candidates over the past two decades — the party’s three best performers in that time span received 44 percent, 43 percent and 43 percent — but that may change by the next midterm cycle. State and national Democrats are gearing up for a competitive Senate bid as early as 2018, when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is up.

The first potential candidate names out of the mouths of most operatives are the Castro twins, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and freshman Rep. Joaquin Castro — though there are mixed opinions about which one is more likely to jump. Wendy Davis’ name comes up as well, should she comes up short in this year’s gubernatorial race, and the buzz in some Democratic circles is that Davis’ running mate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, has as promising a political future as Davis.

Beyond those four, there is a second tier of candidates who could possibly run statewide but don’t quite yet have the same star power. It includes freshman Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ousted eight-term Rep. Silvestre Reyes in 2012. He is young and attractive, but his geographic base is weak — El Paso is remote and actually closer to the Pacific Ocean than it is to the Louisiana border.

Democrats also named state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Chris Turner as possible statewide contenders and pointed to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, albeit with caution. Parker is openly gay, and some say that while Texas is evolving on a number of issues, gay rights is not likely to be one of them in the immediate future.

We’ve discussed the 2018 election before. Based on her comments so far, I don’t see Mayor Parker as a potential candidate for the US Senate. I see her as a candidate for Governor or Comptroller, assuming those offices are not occupied by Democrats.

Among the future contenders for [Rep. Gene] Green’s seat, Democrats identified state Reps. Armando Walle, Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez, plus Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

There is perpetual scuttlebutt in the state that [Rep. Lloyd] Doggett is vulnerable to a Hispanic primary challenge. Other Democratic strategists discount that line of thinking, citing Doggett’s war chest and ability to weather whatever lines he’s drawn into.

Whenever he leaves office, Democrats named Martinez Fischer and state Rep. Mike Villarreal as likely contenders. Martinez Fischer could also run in Joaquin Castro’s 20th District if he seeks higher office.

As for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s Houston-based 18th District, state operatives pointed to state Reps. Sylvester Turner and Garnet F. Coleman, who could also run for Rep. Al Green’s seat.

Working backwards, Rep. Sylvester Turner is running for Mayor in 2015. That would not preclude a future run for Congress, of course, but I doubt it’s on his mind right now. I love Rep. Garnet Coleman, but I’ve never really gotten the impression that he has his eye on Washington, DC. Among other things, he has school-age kids at home, and I’m not sure how much the idea of commuting to DC appeals to him. The same is true for Sen. Rodney Ellis, whose district has a lot of overlap with Rep. Al Green’s CD09. Ellis has by far the biggest campaign warchest among them, which is one reason why I had once suggested he run statewide this year. Beyond them, there’s a long list of current and former elected officials – Ronald Green, Brad Bradford, Jolanda Jones, Wanda Adams, Carroll Robinson, etc etc etc – that would surely express interest in either CD09 or CD18 if it became open. About the only thing that might alter this dynamic is if County Commissioner El Franco Lee decided to retire; the line for that office is longer than I-10.

As for Rep. Gene Green, I’d add Rep. Carol Alvarado and James Rodriguez to the list of people who’d at least consider a run to replace him. I’m less sure about Sheriff Garcia. I think everyone expects him to run for something else someday – he’s starting to get the John Sharp Obligatory Mention treatment – but I have no idea if he has any interest in Congress. And as for Rep. Doggett, all I’ll say is that he’s shown himself to be pretty hard to beat in a primary.

Texas’ 23rd, which includes much of the state’s border with Texas, is the only competitive district in the state and turns over regularly. If Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego lost re-election and Democrats were on the hunt for a new recruit, one could be state Rep. Mary González.

Should 11-term Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson retire, Democrats said attorney Taj Clayton, along with state Reps. Yvonne Davis and Eric Johnson would be likely contenders for her Dallas-based 30th District.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez is also a rising star. But his local seat in the Brownsville-based 34th District is unlikely to open up any time soon — Rep. Filemon Vela, from a well-known family in South Texas, was elected in 2012.

The great hope for Democrats is that continued Texas redistricting litigation will provide an additional majority Hispanic district based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. State Rep. Rafael Anchia is the obvious choice for that hypothetical seat, along with Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio L. De Leon.

And then there are a handful of Texas Democrats who stir up chatter but have no obvious place to run for federal office. Democrats put former state Rep. Mark Strama and Jane Hamilton, the current chief of staff to Rep. Marc Veasey, in this category.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Lily Adams, granddaughter of Ann Richards, is a respected political operative in Washington, D.C., and recently earned attention as a possible candidate talent.

I’m rooting for Rep. Gallego to win re-election this fall, but no question I’d love to see Rep. González run for higher office at some point. Taj Clayton ran against Rep. Johnson in 2012, getting support from the Campaign for Primary Accountability (which appears to be in a resting state now), along with Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who also appears in this story as someone to watch. Rep. Anchia is someone I’ve been rooting for and would love to see get a promotion. Mark Strama is off doing Google Fiber in Austin. I have no idea if he’d want to get back in the game – like several other folks I’ve mentioned, he has young kids – but he’s been mentioned as a possible candidate for Mayor in Austin before; if he does re-enter politics, and if he has an eye on something bigger down the line, that would be a good way to go for it. Lily Adams is 27 years old and has never run for any office before, but she’s got an excellent pedigree and has apparently impressed some folks. In baseball terms, she’s tearing up it in short season A ball, but needs to show what she can do on a bigger stage before anyone gets carried away.

Anyway. Stuff like this is necessarily speculative, and that speculation about 2018 is necessarily dependent on what happens this year. If Democrats manage to beat expectations and score some wins, statewide hopefuls may find themselves waiting longer than they might have thought. If Democrats have a crappy year, by which one in which no measurable progress in getting out the vote and narrowing the gap is made, some of these folks may decide they have better things to do in 2018. As for the Congressional understudies, unless they want to go the Beto O’Rourke route and mount a primary challenge to someone, who knows how long they may have to wait. It’s entirely possible all this talk will look silly four years from now. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Somewhat less onerous navigator rules published

They could have been worse, but they could still be better.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Texas Department of Insurance on Tuesday issued state regulations for health care “navigators,” the workers who assist people seeking health insurance in the federal marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act.

The rules take into account some of the criticism aired recently by Democrats and health care advocates at public hearings, while also broadening the definition of “navigator” to allow additional organizations — not just those that received federal grants — to hire and train navigators.

“These rules will help ensure Texans have confidence that anyone registered as a navigator has passed appropriate background checks and received the training they need to safeguard a consumer’s most sensitive and personal information,” Texas Insurance Commissioner Julia Rathgeber said in a news release.

The rules require navigators to receive 20 hours of state-specific training in addition to the federal requirement of 20 to 30 hours of training, to undergo background checks, and to provide proof of identity. The rules also prohibit navigators from charging consumers, selling or negotiating health insurance coverage, recommending a specific health plan, or engaging in electioneering activities or otherwise supporting a candidate running for a political office.

Democrats and representatives from various health care organizations and nonprofits have raised concerns at public hearings held by the department that the proposed rules would impede navigators’ ability to educate people seeking health coverage, and divert time and funding away from their primary objective: helping people find health insurance.

In response to the public comments, the department removed from the proposed rules a $50 registration fee for each navigator. It also reduced the training requirements to 20 hours of state-specific training, from 40 hours in the proposed rules.

“There was no justification for the original proposal other than conservative politics,” state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said in a statement, “so I’m glad TDI has relented and come up with training requirements that are at least somewhat logical.”

[…]

Texans must apply before March 31 to receive federal tax credits to help pay for private coverage on the federal marketplace. Navigators must comply with the state’s additional training requirements and register by March 1.

Given the tight deadline, Democrats have alleged that the rules are politically motivated and are intended to curb enrollment in health plans offered in the federal marketplace. And despite the modifications, some Democrats and organizations that have hired and trained navigators say the rules will still increase costs, and take time away from navigators’ efforts.

Martha Blaine, executive director of the Community Council of Greater Dallas, which is among the groups that have received a federal grant to hire navigators, said the 12 navigators working for her organization have already undergone background checks and met other requirements in the state’s rules. She said she is unsure whether those efforts will have to be duplicated to meet the state’s requirements.

“It’s a bad use of resources, time and money,” she said.

See here, here, and here for the background. There’s a lot of people who’d like to enroll in an insurance plan via the exchange if Rick Perry and his cronies would quit interfering and get out of the way. Having these rules be only slightly obnoxious instead of blatantly obnoxious was probably the best outcome we could reasonably get. Here’s a side by side comparison of the rules as they were originally proposed and the rules that wound up being published (which you can see in full here), provided by Rep. Lon Burnam. I also received a letter Rep. Burnam sent about the original rules, and statements from Sen. Sylvia Garcia, and Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ruth Jones McClendon about the rules that were adopted. Finally, the Texas Organizing Project sent out a press release announcing a new collaborative effort to help inform folks about their health insurance options.

Who enforces voter registration requirements?

My guess upon reading this is in effect nobody.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A combination of lax enforcement in the state’s election code, a faulty voter registration system and lack of leadership by state election officials have led to the disenfranchisement of thousands of Texans who faced challenges while registering to vote in the 2012 elections, according to a report the Texas Civil Rights Project released on Monday.

The TCRP’s report largely focused on what the organization calls a problematic lack of enforcement power in the office of the state’s top election official, the secretary of state, and calls on the Legislature to amend the Texas Election Code to give officials there the ability to enforce voter registration procedures at the state and local levels. The Texas secretary of state’s office said that while it does not have enforcement authority, it does educate and work with entities that carry out voter registration and ensure that voters are able to cast ballots.

The report outlines several recommendations to improve voter registration, including additional oversight of state agencies that are required by law to register individuals who apply for state services.

“Sometimes the election code is a paper title,” TCRP director Jim Harrington said at a press conference on Monday, adding that the Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees state elections, is not effectively using its “bully pulpit,” as it has in the past, to deal with the increased amount of noncompliance.

Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the agency is not an enforcement agency and “has no authority to compel another agency to take specific actions.”

You can find a copy of the report here. A quick highlight of what the Texas Civil Rights Project found:

1. Lackadaisical leadership by the Texas Secretary of State John Steen and his Elections Division Director Keith Ingram, including:

a. No effective register-to-vote campaigns, including in the state’s 10 various language communities;

b. No effective follow up with high school administrators to assure their compliance with the law in registering of-age students to vote (see Finding No. 2, below);

c. No effective follow up with state agencies to assure their compliance with the law to register voters when they apply for services (see Finding No. 4, below);

d. Lack of leadership in helping create standard, uniform Voluntary Voter Registrar processes among the counties (see Findings Nos. 3 and 5, below).

2. Failure of high schools to comply with the law in registering of-age students as voters, as they are required to do by law.

3. Lack of cross-county voter registrars such that a Voluntary Voter Registrars have to be certified in each county they register voters (and subject to widely different qualifications in each county), even where a city would overlap into different counties.

4. Lack of agency registration of voters, when they apply for services, as required by law. Seven agencies and governmental entities are mandated by statute to register voters, and the Secretary is empowered to require others to do the same.

5. Extraordinary slow recording of voter registrations by local county registrars and the Secretary of State (some of which is due to lack of electronic transfer of registrations).

6. Lack of uniform receipt for voters when they register so that they can use them when voting in case their registration has not been recorded.

7. Failure of the Texas Education Agency to encourage and promote voter registration and education for of-age students.

8. Lack of effective statutory remedies in the Election Code for noncompliance with legal requirements.

I’m sure the answer to my question above is that any enforcement of state laws regarding voter registration requirements would fall to the Attorney General – I believe the SOS when they say they’re not an enforcement agency. The AG’s office is, at least for civil law. Can you imagine Greg Abbott sending a stern letter to a County Clerk or elections administrator somewhere, threatening to take legal action against them if they didn’t comply with these processes? I’m having a hard time picturing it. It’s the opposite of what he cares about and it does nothing to advance his political agenda. So yeah, I’m sure these items have been a problem for some time now. And while it’s great that the Texas Civil Rights Project have brought them to life, that’s about all that can be done.

Well, it’s possible there may be things that can be done via the courts, if it comes to that. Along those lines, here are the most recent updates on the voter ID litigation, via Texas Redistricting:

State of Texas files final brief on effort to dismiss voter ID suits

New claims in the Texas voter ID litigation

Court denies request of True the Vote to intervene in Texas voter ID case

State of Texas files motions to dismiss voter ID claims of intervenors

True the Vote appeals decision not to let it into Texas voter ID case

It would be nice if Congress could step in an address the issues in the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court invented found, but that seems unlikely. People are still working on it, however, and I feel confident that there’s another big national battle over voting rights and accessibility coming. Here’s a press release I received from State Rep. Garnet Coleman about one of these ongoing efforts:

STATE LEGISLATORS FORGE POLICY AGENDA TO GUIDE VOTING RIGHTS LEGISLATIVE INITIATIVES ACROSS THE U.S.

— Leaders Seek to Transcend Partisan Differences, Emphasis Need to Preserve Voting Rights, Promote Voting Participation for All Americans —

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Marking an important milestone in fulfilling American Values First’s vision for its nationwide Voting Rights Project, a select group of legislators comprising the Project’s Task Force met in Washington, DC to develop the following policy agenda to guide legislative efforts in all 50 states:

* Modernizing the registration process

* Removing barriers to ballot access

* Addressing inefficiencies in the electoral system

* Improving voter education

* Increasing participation of eligible voters

* Ensuring that certain communities – students, seniors, rural voters, etc. – aren’t prevented from exercising their constitutional rights because of outdated processes that don’t account for today’s technology

This Voting Rights Policy Agenda includes a range of initiatives that can be implemented in the states as legislators deem appropriate.

Below a statement from Michael Sargeant, President American Values First Voting Rights Project

“Today’s summit brought together legislators to share the success and challenges they have experienced in their respective states, so that they can use those experiences to craft a vision for their own states,” said Michael Sargeant, President of American Values First.

“Incremental gains are possible in all 50 states, and as members of the Task Force return to their home states, this strategy will produce more examples of success that can be adopted across the United States.”

“Our goal is to empower state legislators nationwide to protect the rights of all eligible American citizens to vote,” said Michael Sargeant, President of American Values First. “Some states are already having this important debate; others seek incremental gains to improve voting laws in a way that fully enfranchises their citizens. Events like today’s will help to fulfill the promise of the Voting Rights Project.”

This first Task Force Policy Summit on Voting Rights was organized by the non-profit American Values First to foster discussion, share information and exchange ideas about the challenges lawmakers will have to overcome and opportunities in state legislative chambers to protect the rights of eligible American citizens to vote.

The summit comes at a critical time when states have aggressively and swiftly adopted laws that create barriers to the voting booth. The Brennan Center for Justice says these laws disproportionately affect seniors, military personnel, low-income citizens, the disabled, minorities and students.

American Values First is a non-profit organization that created the Voting Rights Project to engage state legislators in preserving the right to vote even as states endeavor to weaken voting rights protections.

See here and here for more. It’s discouraging to still be fighting these battles after fifty years, but there it is. We can complain about it all we want, but it’s engagement that will make the difference.

Who watches the private police departments?

Not good.

A veteran state lawmaker said Monday he is outraged by televised images of Rice University police officers striking a suspected bicycle thief with batons and appalled the university can refuse to release details because it is a private institution.

“We need to make certain we stop police officers from being able to hide behind their private institution status,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “Does stuff like this happen every day and they’re able to withhold it?”

Whitmire saw portions of a video, shot during an August arrest, when the excerpt was televised last week by KPRC-TV. The Houston Chronicle also has seen only the televised excerpt.

Whitmire said the Texas Rangers are investigating the university’s police department at his request and said he intends to seek to strengthen open records laws for more transparency.

[…]

The Rice police agency is under fire after officers hit 37-year-old Ivan Waller with batons while arresting him for stealing a “bait bike” that officers put out as part of a sting. Rice officials said in a statement that an internal review concluded the force was justified, but they did not release the full video or other information related to the arrest.

Texas law requires any government institution to release public information, such as salaries, mug shots of criminal suspects and personnel files. Because Rice is a private university, the police department is not required to release information such as the arrest video.

“Of course it was a beating,” said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “If (Rice administrators) don’t have zero tolerance for what I saw with my own eyes, I will deal with them in Austin.” He said he wants the officers seen in the video fired.

The KPRC report is here, with a followup here that includes reactions from Sen. Whitmire and State Rep. Garnet Coleman. There are many law enforcement agencies in Texas, including some highly specialized ones, and some that are under the auspices of private entities like Rice University. It should be clear that all law enforcement agencies should be subject to the same level of disclosure and transparency, but they’re not, and as usual we don’t think about it until something like this happens. The same rules should apply to anyone that has the authority to arrest someone and to use force to subdue them. I look forward to the bills Sen. Whitmire will file as a result of this, and I recommend Rice take him at his word.

Less is more, local legislative edition

Harris County and the city of Houston generally play more defense than offense when the Legislature is in session, so as a rule the fewer bills that get passed that affect them, the better.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

County and city lobbyists said their efforts to scuttle unfunded mandates and bills that would have handcuffed local governments’ powers largely had succeeded.

On a broader level, however, Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett were disappointed that some of their top priorities stalled.

“When we go to Austin, our goal is generally to play defense to keep things from happening that would have major consequences for Houston taxpayers, but we also try to promote a limited city agenda,” Parker said. “We made progress on some small pieces of legislation. Would I characterize it as a horrible session? No. A horrible session is when they do something really stupid to you, and there were some really stupid bills that we jumped on.”

Most notably, bills to cap local government revenues did not succeed, said the Texas Municipal League’s Bennett Sandlin and Texas Association of Counties’ Lonnie Hunt.

“Our mantra, more or less, is local control,” Hunt said.

[…]

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Emmett said he was disappointed, but not surprised, the Legislature failed to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. He also decried a lack of progress on transportation.

“That’s the biggest worry we have, because if we’re going to realize our economic potential and our growth potential, we’re going to have to have transportation, and right now it’s not there,” he said.

Emmett and [Rep. Garnet] Coleman cheered large increases in mental health funding compared to the last biennial budget, including a $10 million pilot program to divert the mentally ill from the Harris County jail.

Given the Legislature’s “disgraceful” failure to restrict payday lending, or to ban texting while driving, Parker said she will move forward with local ordinances.

Parker echoed Emmett’s disappointment at the Legislature’s progress on big issues, ticking off education, transportation, immigration and pensions as areas in which she said there had been insufficient progress.

“It’s always a success for a city when the Legislature doesn’t do anything to harm that city,” she said, “but in terms of the major issues confronting our state … you can’t say this was a successful Legislative session.”

Given that at one point, the payday lending bill would have done little more than nullify local ordinances, failure to do anything wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Mayor Parker wanted to wait and see what the Lege would do before acting locally on the issue, so I’m glad to see her bring it up again. We did get the bike trail bill, which was very nice, and there was something in there about a bill to allow county clerks to accept financial disclosure forms and campaign finance reports electronically, which would be awesome if it leads to a makeover for the crappy interface we have now. Death to scanned PDFs, I say! We didn’t get Medicaid expansion, but we did at least get that.

Equality Texas’ best and worst legislators for 2013

Two good lists to peruse while you wait for the Texas Monthly “Best and Worst” lists.

It was a good session for Equality Texas with a record 31 endorsed bills in our Legislative Agenda, including multiple pieces of legislation that were filed for the first time ever, bills that advanced out of committee for the first time, and two bills that have been sent to the Governor for signature.

Equally important as the filing and passage of endorsed legislation was the successful defeat of five bills/amendments that we opposed and worked to kill, including an amendment that would have defunded gender & sexuality centers, legislation targeting school districts that offer competitive insurance benefits, and an amendment allowing student organizations to ignore campus nondiscrimination policies.

Next week, we’ll be sending you a recap of the 83rd Session with more information on each of the endorsed bills that were advanced and the bad bills that were killed.

Today, we’d like to share with you our Legislative Report Card for the 83rd Session, including the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

Ratings of lawmakers are tricky. It is difficult, if not impossible, to include all the little things that happen behind the scenes, the influence of members on each other, or the true motivations or beliefs of individual representatives.

Still, it’s important to acknowledge the public actions of the people elected to represent us. In compiling this report card we considered public votes, authorship of pro- and anti-LGBT legislation, filing of resolutions acknowledging the LGBT community, and committee votes on issues affecting the LGBT community. Behind the scenes work and advocacy was not included.

So, how did your State Representative do in our ratings?

Here are our Best Members of the Texas House on LGBT issues.

Here are our Worst Members of the Texas House on LGBT issues.

Here is the Full Report Card for members of the Texas House.

There is certainly room for debate, particularly when something as complicated as this is reduced to a letter grade. We’d love to hear your opinion of the report card. How’d your representative do? Did we score them too harshly? Too favorably? Share this list with your friends and let’s have a conversation about how the people elected to represent us did over the last five months.

The Best and Worst lists have some amusing comments on them, so be sure to click over and read them. Here’s a description of how the scores and grades were calculated:

All votes are recorded as being either “For” the best interests of the LGBT community or “Against” the best interest of the LGBT community. In cases where a member recorded that their intended vote was different than the vote in the journal the members intention was used for scoring. Record floor votes for LGBT specific issues were given 20 points for “For” votes, votes on issues that disproportunately affect the LGBT community, but were not LGBT specific were given 10 points for “For” votes. A perfect voting record recieves 90 base points and a score of “A.” Bonus points were given for authorship of legislation, including amendments: for LGBT specific legislation: 6 points for primary author, 5 points for joint author and 4 points for co-author; for LGBT related legislation: 4 points for primary author, 3 points for joint author and 2 points for co-author. Authorship at any level of a congradulatory or memorial resolution that recognized the existance of the LGBT community recieved 1 bonus point. Equality Texas endorsed amendments to the budget that were withdrawn before being considered recieved 4 points. Authors of anti-LGBT legislation, including amendments, were given negative points as follows: -10 for primary author, -8 for joint author, -6 for co-author. Members who had the opportunity to vote on Equality Texas endorsed legislation in committee were awarded points; for votes on LGBT specific bills: 5 for “For” votes and -5 for “Against” votes; for LGBT related bills: 3 for “For” votes and -3 for “Against” votes. Members who scored in the “F” range, but who had at least one “for” vote on LGBT specific legislation were elevated to a D- rating. For some members, insufficent data was available to give a letter grade, those members were not graded.

See the accompanying spreadsheet for the full list of bills, amendments, resolutions, and votes. The high grade among Republicans was a C, achieved by three members: Reps. Sarah Davis, John Otto, and Diane Patrick. Three Rs received Ds, six got a D minus, and the rest of them failed. On the Dem side, there were three Bs, five Cs, two Ds, and the rest were A or A plus. I should note that on the six big votes, which amounted to 90 total points, a non-vote counted the same as an Against vote, which is to say both scored zero points. One non-vote was therefore enough to knock you down to a C, though you could make up points via authorship, committee votes, and what have you as noted above. While it is certainly important to show up, I might have rejigged the scoring to make an Against vote cost points, so as to distinguish between the two. It’s a minor quibble, and probably easier said than done, but that was the one thing that I didn’t quite like about this. Anyway, it’s a valuable resource, and it’s great to see the overwhelming majority of Dems on the right side of things here. It’s not that long ago that that would not have been the case.

Calling to add to the call

The special session is just a day old, and already legislators are lining up to extend its agenda to cover things that didn’t get done during regulation time.

snl-church-lady-special

Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, have filed a resolution that would ask voters to approve diverting some of the revenue that traditionally goes to the state’s savings account into the state’s highway fund.

“We’ve talked to Perry’s office about it,” Williams said. “They like it. I think they’ll be very supportive of it.”

Last week, days before the end of the regular session, Williams proposed the same plan to House budget leaders, who were not receptive to considering it so late in the session.

Williams is now hopeful that Perry will add the issue to a special session agenda that so far only covers redistricting issues. At a news conference Tuesday, Perry did not rule out adding other issues to the special session agenda.

“Unlike water for the last decade, we have addressed transportation, so there’s been some important movement in the transportation side,” Perry said. “Is it enough, from my perspective? No, but, again, I think it’s a little bit premature, with less than 24 hours since we’ve called this special, to be addressing whether we’re going to be adding anything to the call or not.”

Transportation funding was one of those issues that just sort of went away at the end of the session, as there was no consensus on how to proceed. I’m skeptical that Perry will accept the use of Rainy Day funds for this purpose, even if ratified by the voters, and I’m even more skeptical that the teabagger contingent will go for it, but of all the things that could be added to the call of this session, that would be among the more constructive items. Among the less constructive items are bills that have been re-filed for more guns and fewer abortions. Perry isn’t saying yet what if anything else he might add to the call, but as I’ve said before, it’s hard to see how going full metal wingnut hurts him.

So for now at least, the special session is limited to redistricting, and in particular to passing bills to make the interim maps permanent. That hasn’t stopped Democrats from filing their own redistricting plans, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to have a hearing. As with the existence of this session, filing these maps is about the ongoing litigation. Via BOR, Rep. Garnet Coleman sums it up:

“Governor Perry has called us back into special session in order to adopt the interim maps as the permanent maps for the State of Texas.

Based on the narrowness of the Governor’s call, no alternative plans may be considered. The interim maps were clearly intended to be only temporary so that the state of Texas could hold elections; they were not intended to address all of the Legislature’s failures in adhering to the Voting Rights Act under Sections 2 and 5.

House Committee Hearings on the interim maps are set for this Friday and Saturday, which is not enough notice to allow the public to provide adequate testimony on the interim maps. Even if this were enough time, the narrowness of the Governor’s call means that publicly requested changes could not be adopted, effectively shutting out the opinions of Texas citizens.

The San Antonio three-judge panel has previously shown with plan H302 that they are able to draw maps that adhere to Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act and allow for adequate minority representation. I am going to file this plan as a demonstration that an alternative plan can be drawn that satisfies the Voting Rights Act. I shall file an additional plan later this week that will also accomplish these goals.

During the first call of the special session of the Legislature, members of color will once again demonstrate that the Texas Legislature is pursuing a course to deny effective representation of racial and ethnic minorities and communities of interest.”

The San Antonio court will once again have its hands full, and not much time to deal with all the issues before them. June is going to be a hell of a month.

If Medicaid is broken, who broke it?

Patricia Kilday Hart asks an excellent question.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

[Rep. Garnet] Coleman’s observation provides part of the answer: Just last session, the Legislature trimmed $486 million in state money paid to Medicaid providers, and ended a student loan-forgiveness program for new doctors exclusively serving Medicaid patients.

The federal government, which has established some rules that restrict the state’s ability to rein in costs, also bears some responsibility.

For example, the federal government will not allow states to charge even small co-pays, which could discourage overuse of services.

In 2009, the Texas Medicaid program paid $467 million for almost 2.5 million emergency room visits – but half of those visits were not emergencies, according to Stephanie Goodman, communications director for the Health and Human Services Commission.

“Private insurance plans typically charge a higher co-pay for an emergency room visit than for going to a doctor’s office because they want to create an incentive to choose the right level of care for the situation,” she said. “Medicaid should do the same.”

[…]

Medicaid has kept its costs down better than other sectors of the health care system. On a per-beneficiary basis, the program’s costs grew only 4.6 percent between 2000 and 2009, compared with a 5.1 percent increase in Medicare and a 7.2 percent increase in costs for patients covered by private insurance, according to the national Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on policies affecting low-income families.

“Medicaid is the victim of Swift-boating,” said Anne Dunkelberg, analyst for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, referring to the political ad campaign that torpedoed Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. “It is the power of the talking point that is repeated so often that people believe it.”

Medicaid is spending less per recipient today than in 2001, Dunkelberg says. The program’s bigger footprint can be traced to demographics, not overuse, she argued. Texas accounts for half the increase in children in the U.S., says the census, and most of them are poor.

The point about the reimbursement rates being set by the Legislature has been made before, but can’t be made often enough. If you don’t maintain your car, you have no business complaining when it craps out on you. Given the flexibility that the federal government has already shown Florida and Arkansas, there’s no question that co-pays will be allowed – Rep. Coleman has been talking about that, and some other items on Texas’ wish list, all along. The rest is up to us. And please note, if we really cared about controlling costs we’d be all over the Medicaid option. There’s no reason at all to believe that the private insurance way – the Arkansas option – will be less expensive. At the end of the day, if we don’t expand access to health care, via Medicaid or some convoluted not-Medicaid process, it will be because the Republicans chose not to, not because it didn’t make sense not to do so. Burka has more.

What Obamacare will do for Texas

Even without Medicaid expansion, the Affordable Care Act will help millions of Texans get access to health care.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Nearly 2.6 million Texans could qualify for tax credits to purchase health insurance in 2014, according to a report released Thursday by Families USA, a nonprofit that advocates for health care consumers.

The tax credits will be offered through the health insurance exchange — an Orbitz-style online marketplace for health insurance — that the federal government plans to launch as part of the Affordable Care Act in October. Beginning in January, families with an income of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line, between $47,100 and $94,200 for a family of four, will be eligible for a tax credit subsidy to purchase insurance through the exchange. The tax credits will be offered on a sliding scale, so that lower-income families will receive larger credits.

“These are typically the families where folks are working, sometimes more than one job,” U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said of the report. “Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, I think that’s something we can all support.”

Nearly 5.8 million Texans — nearly a quarter of the state’s population — are uninsured. The Health and Human Services commission estimates the tax credits offered through the health insurance exchange and other provisions in the Affordable Care Act will lower that rate to 16 percent. If Texas also expanded Medicaid — an unlikely scenario given Gov. Rick Perry’s opposition — the uninsured rate could be lowered to 12 percent.

“Given the large number of people in Texas that are uninsured, many of whom are poor, this is an extraordinary opportunity,” said Ron Pollock, executive director of Families USA. He said it was “short-sighted” for the state’s leadership to oppose Medicaid expansion, as it would bring billions of federal dollars to the state, and increase job opportunities.

You can see the report for Texas here, and for other states here. That still leaves about a million people who would be able to get Medicaid if the state agrees to expand it, but we know how little Rick Perry cares about these people. Trail Blazers has more on the Families USA report.

Elsewhere on the Medicaid front, HHSC Commissioner Kyle Janek has been given the go-ahead to negotiate with the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. At the time, he wasn’t given any direction about what to negotiate for or toward, but perhaps now that the Zerwas bill has been discussed in committee there’s something tangible for him to talk about. We’re unlikely to hear much about his effort and any progress he may make since apparently talking about it in public spooks people, the way saying the name “Voldemort” does in the Harry Potter books. Lord only knows what might happen, but hey, at least they’re talking. EoW has more.

House discusses Medicaid expansion

Sounds like a sincere effort, though whether it can get anywhere is an open question.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Amid hours of testimony from advocates in support of Medicaid expansion on Tuesday, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, described his proposal to create an alternative program that could draw down federal financing to provide health coverage for poor and uninsured Texans.

“I think it’s incredibly important that we do something that can be discussed and debated on the floor of the House,” Zerwas said before outlining House Bill 3791 during a meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Budget Transparency and Reform. “I think the citizens of Texas expect us to have that conversation.”

“The bill is intended to not be an expansion of Medicaid,” he added.

HB 3791 would require the state’s health commissioner to craft a “Texas solution” to health care expansion by pursuing a waiver or authorization from the federal government to reform Medicaid while expanding coverage to poor adults. Under Zerwas’ proposal, the waiver must be cost-neutral and allow Texas to leverage tax revenue collected from premiums on health care plans to pay for the state’s portion of the program’s costs. It must also allow the state to save money by tailoring Medicaid recipients’ benefits, implementing “personal responsibility” cost-sharing measures, such as co-pays and deductibles, and prioritizing premium assistance for private market health plans.

If negotiations with the federal government were to fail, the bill would require Texas to set up the same program with state funds.

“This is intended to try to promote personal responsibility,” said Zerwas, explaining that the program would support many options for poor individuals to find health coverage through the private market. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”

The bill was left pending in committee.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a joint author on Zerwas’ bill, said it would allow the Legislature to weigh in on the best way to cover the poor and uninsured.

“Let’s take what we want up there and let’s advocate for what the majority of the people in this Legislature think,” he said. As an example, he said, the bill would allow the state to help people who want one to obtain a health savings account.

If Rep. Coleman is involved then you can be reassured the bill will be meritorious, if not ideal. At least it’s intended to be expansionary, unlike some other proposals that have been floated. But it’s still not the best we could do.

“This is not Medicaid expansion; this is Texas Plus or Medicaid Plus One,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who laid out his House Bill 3376 at the House Appropriations Subcommittee on budget transparency and reform.

HB 3376 would expand Medicaid coverage to individuals below 133 percent of the federal poverty line. The bill includes a severance clause that requires the state to stop financing the program if the federal government reduces its share of financing below 90 percent and — “in the spirit of conservatism,” as Turner put it — also includes cost-sharing requirements such as co-payments.

“I don’t think anyone can dispute the numbers. We may dispute whether or not we want to do it,” said Turner, emphasizing that the state comptroller estimates expanding Medicaid coverage as proposed in HB 3376 would save the state $50.4 million in the 2014-15 biennium. “From a fiscal, financial, budgetary point of view, the numbers are overwhelming.”

Unfortunately, so are the odds against Rep. Turner’s bill passing. What’s best is not always politically doable, and though the opposition has no good argument, they have the numbers. What are you going to do? Let’s support Rep. Zerwas’ bill and hope for the best. Texas Well and Healthy has more.

Texas On The Brink 2013

Quantifying what we long suspected to be true.

TxOTB

Texas remains behind most other states on issues related to educational achievement, public health and the environment, according to the latest version of the “Texas on the Brink” study released Monday.

The sixth edition of the report from the Texas Legislative Study Group, a left-leaning research caucus in the House, says the state has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents, ranks 50th in the percentage of the population with a high school degree, and has the highest carbon emissions of any state. The study ranked the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Texas legislators should prioritize funding and support for education to improve quality of life in Texas, said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chairman of the Legislative Study Group, at a news conference Monday about the study. The state should protect Texas’ future by restoring the cuts made last session to public education and “making sure the amount of money that goes into the budget is growing the budget appropriately for the new students coming in and for the resources they need to be successful,” he added. He also said an expansion of Medicaid would improve health care access for Texans.

The report also examines Texas’ ranking in areas like women’s issues, workforce and public safety.

You can read the report here, and the LSG’s press release here. Former Sen. Eliot Shapleigh released the first Texas On The Brink report in 2003, with the LSG taking it on in 2011 after Shapleigh’s retirement. I encourage you to look at the report, it’s mostly a collection of facts and figures in easy-to-understand pieces. Two tidbits from the section on Women’s Issues that may be of interest: Texas ranks #47 in women’s voter registration, and #51 in women’s voter turnout; on the flip side of that, we are #4 in the percentage of women living in poverty. Think there may be a connection there? Consider that another item for Battleground Texas’ to do list. BOR has more.

(In case you’re curious, the source for the first two figures is the US Census Bureau, Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: November 2010. The source for the latter figure is the Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Adult Poverty Rate by Gender, States (2010-2011). Every fact given in the report has a similar citation.)

Romeo and Romeo and Juliet and Juliet

This is a small step forward, but it’s an important step.

In a state where attempts to expand gay rights have hit a wall of conservative Republicans, a Senate committee on Tuesday approved a bill to provide a new legal protection for sexually active gay teens.

Under Senate Bill 1316, gay and lesbian teens who engage in consensual sex with each other can escape prosecution on a felony charge of sexual indecency with a child — as long as they are over age 14 and are within three years of each other in age.

Currently, that so-called “Romeo and Juliet” defense is available only to opposite-sex couples.

Romeo and Romeo or Juliet and Juliet, the bill is being called.

Though controversy was mostly absent from Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee — chaired by the author of the bill — supporters and opponents predicted the fight will come when, and if, the measure comes up for a vote by the full Senate or in the House.

“If a couple meets age and consent criteria, there should be no difference in the law based on their sexual orientation,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the author.

Whitmire, a conservative Democrat in the more conservative GOP Senate, said he hoped Tuesday’s debate would focus awareness on the unfairness of the current law. While many states allow leeway in prosecuting sexual relationships between teens, supporters of the change in law said Texas is among few with its current “opposite sex” requirement.

[…]

The committee voted 4-1 to recommend its passage to the full Senate. Voting yes were Whitmire and Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso; and John Carona, R-Dallas. Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, voted no.

The other three committee members, two Republicans and a Democrat, were absent for the vote.

Asked what it would take for the bill to be considered by the full Senate, Whitmire said, “I’ve got to work the Senate. … It took a pretty good-sized step today.”

Indeed it is. Here’s SB 1316. Sens. Dan Patrick and Joan Huffman were the absent Republican members on the Criminal Justice Committee, and it would be interesting to know how they might have voted on this; I’m just guessing, but I think her time as a judge might incline Sen. Huffman to support Sen. Whitmire’s bill. Sen. Whitmire is undoubtedly correct that he has some work to do to get this to the Senate floor, but just getting it out of committee is an accomplishment.

The Star-Telegram has more:

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many states have provisions in their sex offender laws allowing some leeway in prosecuting teenage relationships. They range from exceptions to prosecution and sex offender registration to reduced levels of crimes, but Texas appears to be a rarity in its “opposite sex” requirement.

Elizabeth and Michael Hussey, members of the Houston-area chapter of the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, told the Senate panel their 17-year-old son deserves to be equal under the law.

“I’m a Texas Republican, a disabled veteran who served our country at personal sacrifice, who was doing that for freedoms and liberties of all Americans,” Michael Hussey said. “We don’t want anything special for him, we want equal … I served not for certain groups, certain people, but for everybody.”

Elizabeth Hussey said that just like parents of straight kids, she tries to give her son guidance on sex and other mature issues.

“His sexuality doesn’t change how I parent him, but the law stands in my way sometimes,” she said. “It’s hard as mother to say I want you to wait to have sex until you get married. He can’t get married. The law also says if he does have sex, he could go to prison as a sex offender? I want them to work with me here.”

See, that’s another reason to support marriage equality, so parents can tell their gay kids to wait till they’re married to have sex. Where’s the abstinence education lobby when you really need them?

Anyway. There’s a companion bill in the House, HB3322, filed by Rep. Garnet Coleman, who’s been on this since at least 2009. Despite the step forward by Sen. Whitmire and his bill, I don’t expect anything to come out of this – the troglodyte lobby is still too strong. I’ll be delighted to be wrong about that, and of course it’s always a good time to inform your legislators that you support these bills. Campos has more.

Harris Health System plans to serve more patients via Medicaid waiver

The story about what they’re going to do leaves a few details out, however.

Harris Health System leaders plan to serve 100,000 new patients in the next three years. That is a 37 percent increase from today, and is particularly ambitious when you consider how many patients the system added in the last year: about 500.

To bridge the enormous gap by the end of 2016, the county hospital district is counting on state and federal approval of a $1.2 billion plan that represents the ambitions of health care providers throughout the region. The plan grows out of the federal government’s decision to grant Texas a waiver from Medicaid rules, allowing it to reimburse providers for charity care and for delivering care in new ways.

The plan, awaiting approval in May, envisions unprecedented cooperation between the district and local private and nonprofit providers.

“That’s a major undertaking. We’re very committed to it. We feel it’s very doable,” Harris Health CEO David Lopez said. “We cannot do it all by ourselves. We need partners with us to help us address the needs of our community.”

[…]

Among the district’s proposals awaiting approval: Build nine new primary care clinics during the next three years, build “quick” clinics next to its emergency rooms where patients who are not in crisis can be seen, outsource more primary care visits to private clinics, and leverage federal funds to support Memorial Hermann and Texas Children’s Hospital’s expansion of primary care services.

Members of Harris County Commissioners Court, which appoints the hospital district’s board, say the waiver plans are too slow in cutting the backlog of patients who cannot get primary care appointments. That waiting list, first identified in fall 2011, is estimated between 91,000 and 104,000 a year.

Commissioner El Franco Lee last week issued a memo with the phrases “reduce waiting lists” and “get patients moving through the system” underlined, calling on Lopez to cut the backlog by outsourcing more doctor visits.

I had a few questions about this after I read the story, so I sent some inquiries to the Harris Health System’s media relations email address. Here are the questions I sent, along with the answers I got:

1. The article says that “the county hospital district is counting on state and federal approval of a $1.2 billion plan”. Where is the money for this coming from? Are there new funding sources being sought, or is this a repurposing of existing funds?

Answer: The $1.2 billion plan in the article refers to the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payments (DSRIP) projects available under the 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver Program. Harris Health System serves as the anchor entity for the regional planning for several counties in SE Texas. The Waiver primarily does two things: 1) expands Medicaid managed care to the entire state 2) replaces the Upper Payment Limit (UPL) program with two new pools of funding, The Uncompensated Care Pool and the DSRIP Pool. Detailed information about the proposed local regional health plan may be found at www.SETexasRHP.com.

2. What entities are being asked to approve this plan? What exactly are they being asked to approve? What happens if they reject some or all of it?

Answer: The state of Texas and U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will approve all plans.

3. The story says that this plan is unrelated to the Affordable Care Act. How will the plan be affected if the state changes course and decides to pursue Medicaid expansion, or a law is passed that grants counties the authority to pursue it on their own?

Answer: The 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver Program should not be affected by Medicaid expansion since it is unrelated. Detailed information about the 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver at-large, may also be found at the state’s Web site.

4. Are details of this plan available on the HHS website? If not, is there a document you could send to me with plan details?

Answer: Detailed information about the proposed local regional health plan may be found at www.SETexasRHP.com.

In other words, if you want to know more, you’re going to need to get your wonk on. State Rep. Garnet Coleman has discussed the 1115 waiver before – see here and here for two examples – and there’s some further discussion here. Basically, this is about delivering health care services via public hospitals and their partners more effectively and efficiently, with some extra federal funds available. It’s not fully clear how this will all work out, and there won’t be a decision on the waiver request until May, but this is what’s coming. Let’s hope it lives up to its promise.

Bike trail on utility rights-of-way bills filed

This is a big show of support for making bike trails on CenterPoint’s rights of way happen.

Houston voters last fall approved a $166 million bond measure to expand the city’s trail system, to be matched by $105 million in private donations via the Houston Parks Board. About 78 miles of trails would get built, limited largely to east-west paths that run along bayous. Many of the utility easements run north-south.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 633 and state Reps. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 200. Both drafts were filed Monday.

In a prepared statement, the lawmakers cast their proposals as a way to cut time and cost in trail development.

“The people of Houston have said loud and clear that they want more hike and bike trails,” Ellis said in a statement. “But it has become very difficult to acquire the land in urban areas like Houston that is suitable for development of trails. This legislation is a unique and innovative compromise solution to develop new trails without undue delays and excess cost.”

See here for the background. I’m not a lawyer, but comparing the text of the original bills that were filed by Reps. Sarah Davis and Jim Murphy, HB 404 and HB 258, to the updated bills HB 200 and SB 633, the main difference seems to me to be that the original bills basically exempted the utility from any and all liability, while the updated bills “[do] not limit the liability of an electric utility for serious bodily injury or death of a person proximately caused by the electric utility’s wilful or wanton acts or gross negligence with respect to a dangerous condition existing on the premises”. That, frankly, was my main concern, so I’m glad to see that saner heads have prevailed. It may be that CenterPoint is still getting away with something here – again, I Am Not A Lawyer, and I don’t know what level of protection CenterPoint would have without this bill – but on the surface at least this looks better to me. Barring any further revelations, I’ll be happy to see this pass. Hair Balls has more.

Medicaid expansion pressure is having an effect

Despite the mountains of evidence in its favor, I still can’t say that I see a path to Medicaid expansion in Texas. But stories like this do give me some hope.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Adamantly opposed to expanding Medicaid coverage under President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had seemingly squelched efforts this legislative session to insure an additional 1.1 million low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act.

But a determined campaign, targeting legislators with public pressure and private persuasion, has kept the issue alive by framing Medicaid expansion as an economic bonanza and tax-relief opportunity that would bring $79 billion in much-needed federal money over 10 years.

The arguments, pitched to Republican ears, have carved out a small space in which lawmakers can work toward an agreement that once appeared impossible.

Several key GOP legislators, though skeptical about expanding Medicaid, haven’t ruled out the possibility of a compromise, provided they can get several important concessions. Democrats are ready to deal.

“I’m tempering my rhetoric,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “I don’t want to say anything that backs them in a corner. I want to get this done.”

[…]

Last week, the Austin City Council voted unanimously to push the Legislature toward expanding Medicaid, echoing a similar call by Dallas County. Influential lobbying groups also have joined in, including the Texas Medical Association, which recently endorsed expansion if accompanied by reforms that include cutting red tape and increasing provider payments.

[State Rep. John] Zerwas, a medical doctor, said he is feeling the pressure to reverse his opposition.

“Absolutely. If you talk to hospitals, if you talk to counties, there is a substantial amount of money that is promised in the law that would benefit Texans. We do have a substantial uninsured problem,” Zerwas said.

But, he added, the expansion as proposed would be a Band-Aid solution, stressing an unsustainable Medicaid system that has grown so large it threatens spending on education, roads and other vital programs.

Still, Zerwas said there could be room to negotiate if Texas wins important concessions from the federal government to create a flexible system. The amount of needed flexibility “remains to be defined,” he said, but could include running the expansion program as a health maintenance organization and requiring co-pays.

Houston’s Rep. Garnet Coleman, one of the Capitol’s leading Democrats on health care issues, is fine with requiring co-pays and similar concessions.

Coleman, however, draws the line at attempts to use expansion as an opportunity to change Medicaid’s promise to children and disabled and elderly Texans. Talk of adding flexibility, he said, has often meant cutting people and services from the Medicaid system.

“Those of us who support the Medicaid expansion, we can walk away from the table, too, if we don’t think what is proposed is good for our constituents. This is a two-way street,” he said.

I presume Rep. Coleman is talking about block-granting Medicaid, which everyone knows would be used to cut benefits. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the possibility of a deal on Medicaid expansion, but this is the first time we’ve seen some details, however sketchy. Obviously, the biggest hurdle is Rick Perry, and he’s painted himself into enough of a corner that I have a hard time imagining him signing anything that doesn’t include block grants as a cornerstone. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but no one has gotten rich underestimating Perry’s fanaticism lately. Still, bringing pressure from the county level is the smart move, though it would really help if Harris County would get into the game. If we can’t get that I’d settle for a resolution from Houston City Council. This needs to be a big issue for the 2014 elections, and it needs to be felt at the county level by folks like County Judge Ed Emmett and County Commissioner Jack Morman as well. If you’re not part of the solution then we need to get someone else who is.

Repealing the Texas double secret illegal anti-gay marriage amendment

Some things you do because they’re the right thing to do.

On the right side of history

Reps. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, are seeking to reverse the state’s prohibition against gay marriage or same-sex civil unions.

Their proposed constitutional amendments — HJR 77 and HJR 78 – would repeal a 2005 amendment passed by Texas voters that bans recognition of same-sex unions.

Coleman cited recent polls that show sentiments have changed for a majority of Texans. “Two-thirds of Texas’ voters now believe the state should allow some form of legal recognition for committed same-gender couples,” he said.

Anchia said he represents many couples and families who are discriminated against by the state’s Defense of Marriage Act.

“It is time we revisit this issue; it is time we treat all Texans with dignity and respect,” Anchia said.

The representatives are taking particular aim at a provision of the act that would deny gay couples any civil or legal benefits reserved to husbands and wives. A statewide poll from last year showed that only 25 percent of Texans believe that same-gender couples should neither be allowed to marry or enter int a civil union.

There’s also SJR 29, filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez in the Senate on Friday, and SB 480 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, which would serve as enabling legislation for these resolutions if their accompanying amendments were adopted. See here for more.

Back to the Trail Blazers story, the poll cited is this UT/Texas Trib poll from October that showed approval of marriage equality with a plurality of 36%, and approval of civil unions at 33%; only 25% disapproved of both. Those are encouraging numbers, but I don’t see that translating into legislative action any time soon, especially since it will take a Constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support from the Lege to get passed. Maybe someday, but not when Republican legislators and other assorted officeholders are urging the Boy Scouts to keep banning gays because gayness is icky and immoral. We’re getting to the point where more and more people have realized that supporting equality is the truly moral thing to do, but we’ve still got a long way to go in Texas, and I don’t think we’ll get there – more specifically, I don’t think two-thirds of the Legislature will get there – before the Supreme Court does. I applaud Sens. Rodriguez and Hinojosa and Reps. Anchia and Coleman, who has done this every session since 2005, for their action, and I certainly urge everyone to call their Rep and Senator and ask them to support these joint resolutions, I’m just saying it’s too early to get one’s hopes up. Equality Texas has more.

UPDATE: The Dallas Voice has more.

TMA sort of endorses Medicaid expansion

Hard to say what this means.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Trustees of the Texas Medical Association passed a resolution urging state leaders to snare all federal Medicaid matching dollars that are on the table.

The group hinged its support, though, on simultaneous actions by state officials to make doctors’ participation in Medicaid more palatable and federal dispensations of flexibility “to change the program as our needs and circumstances change.”

The association, which held its winter meeting in Austin, didn’t specify what kind of discretion Texas ought to seek. The group’s endorsement of state acceptance of a huge windfall of federal Medicaid dollars comes months after another major provider group, the Texas Hospital Association, came out unconditionally in support.

[…]

Texas has one of the least generous Medicaid programs in the country. Because of the state’s high poverty rate, though, Texas Medicaid looms larger in the state’s overall health care system than its counterparts in some states. State GOP leaders frequently complain about its cost.

Doctors complain, not just of low reimbursement, but about what they see as hassles and scary threats made against them by overzealous fraud investigators who work for the commission’s inspector general. In the Saturday session on Medicaid, several doctors complained about what they see as a lack of due process and a rush to paint doctors as greedy.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who is the Legislature’s most vocal proponent of the Medicaid expansion, downplayed the importance of the Texas Medical Association’s resolution.

He said the group is dominated by specialists, many of whom don’t see Medicaid patients.

“This is about money,” Coleman said, referring to Texas’ low Medicaid reimbursement rates. “It isn’t about anything else.”

I couldn’t find the TMA’s statement on this, if they have one, and their 2013 legislative agenda wasn’t much help. Mostly the impression I get is that they don’t want to rock the boat with the state leadership, but there were enough cranky do-gooders in their ranks that they had to throw them a bone. Rep. Garnet Coleman put out a statement regarding the TMA’s announcement that I think addresses the issue perfectly:

As someone who has advocated for Medicaid expansion from the very beginning, I applaud TMA’s statement that we need to find a way to implement the expansion here in Texas. It’s a great start, and I agree with their position that denying care to over 1 million disabled and low-income Texans is ‘unconscionable.’

However, the devil is in the details. TMA’s proposal that Texas should have more ‘flexibility’ in the Medicaid program is worrisome because of its vagueness. ‘Flexibility’ has long been a code word used by those who only want the ‘flexibility’ to reduce Medicaid services, beneficiaries, or both. Further, it’s unclear whether TMA wants more flexibility in the entire Medicaid program or just the expanded portion. Finally, the federal government already allows for Medicaid flexibility through the 1115 Waiver process, most recently seen in the 1115 Transformation Waiver that allows Texas health providers to continue to receive federal UPL funds after the switch from fee-for-service to managed care.

TMA correctly points out that the low reimbursement rate of Medicaid in Texas has resulted in only 30% of Texas physicians accepting new Medicaid patients, but I want to remind everyone that Medicaid reimbursement rates are set by the Texas State Legislature and the Governor through the appropriations process, not by Washington. We could simply pass a budget that raises them. I’d vote for it. Also, physicians are not the only providers who see Medicaid patients. Advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, and entities such as Federally Qualified Health Centers, county hospital districts, and Accountable Care Organizations will all help fill the gap. Our primary goal should be to ensure that all Texas have access to care, and this is something we can do.

Finally, Texas, not Washington, will decide whether or not we expand Medicaid in this state. Governors across the country of each party are realizing that expanding Medicaid is important and the best policy for their populations; we need to do the same. The bipartisan solution that TMA calls for is already on the table. We just need to take it.

As with the case of the business lobby and immigration reform, if the TMA wants something different from the Legislature they really ought to consider supporting different candidates for the Legislature. Supporting the same people but hoping for different results, we all know what the diagnosis is for that. The Trib has more.

Is there a way forward on expanding Medicaid in Texas?

It’s a little hard to know what to make of this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Affordable Care Act is the federal law that Texas Republicans love to hate, but one top lawmaker says expanding health care for the working poor could happen if federal authorities are willing to strike a deal.

Republican Sen. Jane Nelson, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said she hopes the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will allow Texas to receive $27 billion to expand Medicaid. But she said the key is to allow lawmakers to develop a Texas-specific program that will not blow the state’s budget.

“I am still open to anything that will allow us to have the flexibility that we need, and that will also give us the assurance that it’s not going to put us deeper in debt,” Nelson told The Associated Press in an interview.

[…]

Gov. Rick Perry has rejected the Affordable Care Act as an affront on state’s rights and said he wants the federal money with no strings attached in a block grant. The Perryman Group, an independent economic consulting company, estimated that Texas will miss out on $90 billion in increased economic activity and leave at least 1.5 million people uninsured if it does not expand Medicaid.

Nelson said a block grant was not the only way to reach a deal. She said a waiver that would allow the state to develop a tailor-made program within certain federal boundaries might be enough.

[…]

Nelson is among those who want to require some recipients to contribute toward their health care costs — such as paying income-based premiums or co-payments — something federal authorities have until now have rejected under Medicaid. She said Medicaid can also be made more efficient.

Last week Nelson announced legislation intended to make it easier to identify and punish those who defraud the program.

“We’ve got to address these root problems before I will support expanding it,” Nelson said.

Nelson identified Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, as a key player in working toward a deal with federal officials. Coleman has said he supports a limited requirement for some Medicaid patients to pay part of their health care costs, adding that he believes a deal is possible. Health and Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek has said his staff is working with federal authorities to see what’s possible.

I don’t know where that $27 billion figure cited by Sen. Nelson comes from. The number usually thrown around is $100 billion in federal funds for the first decade of expansion. If I had to guess, I’d say the $27 billion is for the first two or three years when the feds are picking up all of the tab; it goes down to 90% reimbursement after that. It would have been nice for the story to be more clear on that. As for the Perryman study, see here for the background.

Beyond that, it’s not clear what kind of plan Nelson has in mind. This is the first I’ve heard of this, and there’s no detail in the story to indicate what Nelson’s basic idea is. It’s true that the Obama administration has been flexible in working with the states on matters relating to the Affordable Care Act, but such flexibility only goes so far. What is the state willing to do to be in compliance with the law? If Rep. Coleman really is on board with this, then I have some optimism that a deal can be made, but let’s get some information first. And unless part of the plan is to get Rick Perry’s assurance that he won’t veto whatever bill gets passed, it’s all a waste of time.

How long before marriage equality comes to Texas?

As is so often the case, the state of Texas will lag behind the rest of the country on the issue.

On the right side of history

If DOMA is struck down, questions will be raised about states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages and if it matters where a couple lives to receive federal benefits, [Ken Upton, a senior staff attorney in the Dallas office of Lambda Legal, the national LGBT civil rights group] said. Those questions won’t be answered until after the decision has been handed down.

One thing is clear, though: Contrary to popular belief, a favorable DOMA ruling wouldn’t require states like Texas to recognize same-sex marriage.

“I’m not sure this is going to completely answer all the questions if the court takes it up, but it’s going to move us a lot further down the road,” Upton said. “In terms of marriage, it won’t have any affect on that. The Supreme Court’s decision in DOMA cases is not going to tell states they do or don’t have to marry someone. It’s just going to tell the federal government if you’re legally married, you have to recognize it.”

Texas and the other states with marriage amendments have two potential paths to marriage equality — repeal the bans before passing marriage equality legislatively or at the ballot box, or await a future Supreme Court ruling forcing them to recognize same-sex marriages.

Most advocates believe the court will force Texas along with other holdout states to recognize same-sex marriage in about a decade as more and more states legalize the practice.

Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said the likely outcome would be a majority of states approving same-sex marriage, leading Congress or the Supreme Court “to make a decision on a national level.”

“I don’t think it’ll be all that long,” Smith said. “I think it’s certainly probable within a five- to 10-year timeframe.”

Smith said Texas’ marriage amendment could be repealed, but it would take educating voters, as well as electing more politicians who support marriage equality. Repealing the amendment would require a two-thirds majority vote of both the state House and state Senate to place it on the ballot, then approval from a simple majority of voters.

“It is possible if there is intense, on-the-ground work convincing Texas that public opinion is on our side,” Smith said. “So it would be a significant amount of electoral change in order to legislatively change marriage in Texas. That’s not impossible, but it just takes work.”

I don’t think a legislative solution is likely to be viable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that Rep. Garnet Coleman introduces a bill to repeal Texas’ awful Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage constitutional amendment, but it’s precisely because this bit of bigotry has been enshrined in our state’s constitution that I don’t think it can be removed by the same means. I can envision a legislative majority on marriage equality during this decade if I’m feeling optimistic, but a two-thirds supermajority? Not in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime. The numbers are improving, but there’s still a long way to go. No, one way or another I believe it will be settled in a courtroom. My assumption has always been that when and if DOMA is struck down by the Supreme Court, sooner or later someone will file a lawsuit in Texas arguing that the state’s law discriminates against those who don’t have the wherewithal to travel to a more enlightened state to get married, and that this represents an unequal situation that cannot be allowed to stand. How long that might take – I assume it too would ultimately be decided by SCOTUS – I have no idea. But first things first. Let’s hope SCOTUS does the right thing on DOMA, and we’ll go from there.

I’m glad someone is optimistic about the possibility of Medicaid expansion in Texas

Because I sure can’t say that I’m optimistic about it happening.

It's constitutional - deal with it

State Senator Rodney Ellis, Democrat of Houston, said fiscal conservatives have an incentive to reach an agreement “because the alternative is going to cost us much more economically and dig a much deeper hole in our budget.” Some Democratic lawmakers have already proposed legislation that would help them circumvent Mr. Perry or else produce a bipartisan compromise that might gain the Obama administration’s support.

Under the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care overhaul, the federal government would cover 100 percent of the costs of expanding state Medicaid programs for three years, a share that would taper to 90 percent in later years. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, estimated the expansion would cost Texas $5.7 billion from 2013 to 2022, which the organization called a modest price compared with the $65.6 billion that would be covered by the federal government.

[…]

Mr. Ellis has filed a bill to put the option of Medicaid expansion on a statewide ballot as a provisional amendment to the Texas Constitution. Giving the deciding power to voters would relieve political pressure on Republican legislators and alleviate fear of a veto, he said.

Representative Garnet F. Coleman, Democrat of Houston, is also trying to provide a path toward Medicaid expansion. He plans to file an omnibus Medicaid bill that could be altered during the legislative session to incorporate Republicans’ conditions for Medicaid expansion. One idea is co-insurance, Mr. Coleman said, which some Republicans have endorsed to get new Medicaid enrollees to pay a portion of their monthly health care premium.

I have a lot of respect for Sen. Ellis and Rep. Coleman and I wish them the best of luck in pursuing these bills. I just wish I could share their optimism, but I feel quite certain that nothing will change as long as Rick Perry is Governor. The conditions under which I can see Perry et al going for this are either more flexibility on determining eligibility for Medicaid – that is, the ability to greatly restrict who qualifies for it – or making it a block grant, which provides a cost ceiling and again gives the state pretty much free rein to decide how to spend the money. Neither of these are particularly likely, for good reason, though the game of chicken that’s going on nationwide between states like Texas and the feds continues. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a resolution on this.

All the interviews for 2012

As we begin early voting for the November election, here are all the interviews I conducted for candidates who are on the ballot as well as for the referenda. These include interviews that were done for the primary as well as the ones done after the primary. I hope you found them useful.

Senate: Paul SadlerWebMP3

CD02: Jim DoughertyWebMP3

CD07: James CargasWebMP3

CD10 – Tawana CadienWebMP3

CD14: Nick LampsonWebMP3

CD20: Joaquin CastroWebMP3

CD21: Candace DuvalWebMP3

CD23: Pete GallegoWebMP3

CD27: Rose Meza HarrisonWebMP3

CD29: Rep. Gene GreenWebMP3

CD33: Marc VeaseyWebMP3

CD36: Max MartinWebMP3

SBOE6: Traci JensenWebMP3

SD10: Sen. Wendy DavisWebMP3

SD25: John CourageWebMP3

HD23: Rep. Craig EilandWebMP3

HD26: Vy NguyenWebMP3

HD127: Cody PogueWebMP3

HD131: Rep. Alma AllenWebMP3

HD134: Ann JohnsonWebMP3

HD137: Gene WuWebMP3

HD144: Mary Ann PerezWebMP3

HD146: Rep. Borris MilesWebMP3

HD147: Rep. Garnet ColemanWebMP3

HD150: Brad NealWebMP3

Harris County Sheriff: Sheriff Adrian GarciaWebMP3

Harris County District Attorney: Mike AndersonWebMP3

Harris County Attorney: Vince RyanWebMP3

Harris County Tax Assessor: Ann Harris BennettWebMP3

HCDE Position 3, At Large: Diane TrautmanWebMP3

HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1: Erica LeeWebMP3

Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Sean HammerleWebMP3

Constable, Precinct 1: Alan RosenWebMP3

HISD Bond Referendum: Interview with Terry GrierMP3

City of Houston Bond and Charter Referenda: Interview with Mayor Annise ParkerMP3

HCC Bond Referendum: Interview with Richard SchechterMP3

Metro Referendum: Interviews with David Crossley, Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler, Sue Lovell, and County Commissioner Steve Radack

Fall interview season begins tomorrow

I know that we just finished the primary runoffs, but we’re also now more than halfway through August, so it’s time to start doing interviews with candidates for the fall. I’ll be up candid, I don’t know exactly how many interviews I plan to do. For the most part, I don’t anticipate re-interviewing candidates that I spoke to for the May election – I’m already too far behind even if I did want to do that. I’m mostly going to concentrate on area races, but as always things can and do change, so don’t hold me to that. In the meantime, here’s a list of the interviews I did earlier with candidates who will be on the ballot in November:

Senate: Paul SadlerWebMP3

CD07: James CargasWebMP3

CD14: Nick LampsonWebMP3

CD20: Joaquin CastroWebMP3

CD23: Pete GallegoWebMP3

CD27: Rose Meza HarrisonWebMP3

CD33: Marc VeaseyWebMP3

SBOE6: Traci JensenWebMP3

SD10: Sen. Wendy DavisWebMP3

HD131: Rep. Alma AllenWebMP3

HD137: Gene WuWebMP3

HD144: Mary Ann PerezWebMP3

HD146: Rep. Borris MilesWebMP3

HD147: Rep. Garnet ColemanWebMP3

Harris County Sheriff: Sheriff Adrian GarciaWebMP3

HCDE Position 3, At Large: Diane TrautmanWebMP3

HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1: Erica LeeWebMP3

Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Sean HammerleWebMP3

Constable, Precinct 1: Alan RosenWebMP3

You may notice if you click on the Web links above that the embedded audio player no longer works. The code comes from Google, and they unfortunately appear to have disabled it. I should have an alternate solution in place going forward, but just clicking on the MP3 file ought to work for you as well. And of course you can always download it for your iPod or whatever.

I am going to try again to reach Beto O’Rourke and Filemon Vela, but you know how that goes. I’ve given up on Rep. Lloyd Doggett; though I did finally make contact with a staffer before the primary, at this point I doubt there’s any interest on his end. There was a contested primary in CD10, but both candidates were late filers. I am trying to reach Tawana Cadien, who won the nomination, but she has no phone number that I can find and she has not as yet responded to an email I sent. If anyone knows how to reach her, please ask her to drop me a note: kuff – at – offthekuff – dot – com.

Medicaid expansion isn’t just about hospitals

Grits has an insight.

At [last] Monday’s House County Affairs hearing, Chairman Garnet Coleman noted the irony in response to testimony by witnesses regarding the effectiveness of Veterans Courts, which are essentially mental-health courts aimed at current and former military members. Citing the example of a mentally ill veteran coming back from Afghanistan who, as a civilian, earned less than 133% of the poverty rate, Coleman noted such a person could essentially gain access to mental health services only by committing a crime.  (The Department of Veterans Affairs provides some services, but nothing like those needed for someone with a chronic, serious mental illness.) By rejecting Medicaid funds, said Coleman, the state would strip away options for indigent veterans and everybody else below the 133% threshold to access treatment services outside the justice system.

His comments got me thinking: The biggest implication for the criminal justice system from rejecting Medicaid funds really stems from the missed opportunity to attract billions (with a “b”) in new funding for mental health services that would be delivered outside the criminal justice system.

It may not be just hospital executives and insurance companies imploring Rick Perry to do the right thing, or at least it shouldn’t be. Whether that will make a difference or not is anybody’s guess. Read the whole thing and see what you think.

No Medicaid expansion for you!

So much for that.

Texas will not expand Medicaid or establish a health insurance exchange, two major tenets of the federal health reform that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld last month, Gov. Rick Perry said in an early morning announcement.

“I stand proudly with the growing chorus of governors who reject the Obamacare power grab,” he said in a statement. “Neither a ‘state’ exchange nor the expansion of Medicaid under this program would result in better ‘patient protection’ or in more ‘affordable care.’ They would only make Texas a mere appendage of the federal government when it comes to health care.”

Perry’s office said he’s sending a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius [Monday] morning asserting his opposition, both to accepting more than a hundred million federal dollars to put more poor Texas adults onto Medicaid, and to creating an Orbitz-style online insurance marketplace for consumers.

Of course, opting out of creating a state exchange means that the federal government will create one instead. It does not mean there will be no exchange in Texas. This is why some Republican legislators like Rep. John Zerwas tried to pass a bill to create an exchange, so that it would be implemented by Texas instead of the federal government. The rationale for not implementing the state-run exchange confounds me, but I have never been Rick Perry’s intended audience.

As for the refusal to expand Medicaid, just on Friday the Dallas Morning News reported that Perry was still thinking about it.

Gov. Rick Perry won’t say whether Texas should take or reject the federal largesse that could allow the state’s Medicaid program to cover more poor adults.

But a spokeswoman confirmed Friday that his aides have begun canvassing health care provider groups for their opinions about expanding Medicaid and creating a state health-insurance exchange

Though he’s a staunch opponent of President Barack Obama’s federal health care law, Perry’s reluctance to declare immediate opposition to the Medicaid expansion after the Supreme Court’s ruling last week puts him at odds with several other Republican governors. Some, such as Florida’s Rick Scott, have already vowed to keep their states on the sidelines, taking advantage of the court’s ruling that they can do so without jeopardizing the funds they already receive.

Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier played down the calls as routine outreach on a major issue. But several health-care lobbyists and experts said it’s shrewd for Perry to say little because the Supreme Court ruling gives him leverage to negotiate with the Obama administration for tighter Medicaid eligibility rules and leaner benefits before agreeing to the expansion, which would take place starting in 2014.

“It’s smart politics because there’s no need to make a decision at this time, and he and a lot of Republicans are playing for more flexibility within the program,” said Tom Banning, chief executive and executive vice president of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians.

Apparently, he didn’t listen very closely to what the health care providers want, because they have made their preference quite clear.

Getting the Medicaid expansion in place has already become the “number one priority” for the Texas Hospital Association, said John Hawkins, the senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at the organization. “It’s the kind of thing that hits our members right on the margin when they’re trying to digest other payment cuts,” he said.

Twenty-seven percent of working-age Texans, or more than 6.1 million people, were uninsured in 2010, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s the highest rate in the nation and the second-highest number to California’s 7 million people. Under the Medicaid expansion, 2.5 million Texans would qualify, the Urban Institute estimates.

But Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has been a staunch opponent of health care reform and his administration has indicated a willingness to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. For Texas hospitals, which absorbed $4.6 billion in unpaid bills and charity care in 2010, that’s a problem, Hawkins said.

I’m thinking that will provide for some interesting fundraising pitches this fall. My advice to them is to start donating to Democrats now.

So now Rick Perry will take a victory lap on Fox News and bask in the adulation of his cultish supporters. Everyone else will have to deal with the reality of this, starting with county taxpayers.

It's constitutional - deal with it

Unlike many states, Texas does not directly subsidize the cost of caring for the uninsured. Instead, taxpayers in Dallas County and elsewhere help pick up that tab through property taxes that support safety-net hospitals such as Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Last year, Parkland reported that its own cost for delivering uncompensated care was $335 million. Dallas County taxpayers funded $425 million, or 35 percent, of the hospital’s operating budget.

For the average Dallas County homeowner, that created a hospital tax bill of $370.

Some advocates of health reform say the new revenue from Medicaid payments is large enough that hospital districts — whose budgets are controlled by county commissioners — could reduce their tax rates.

[…]

Some experts expect that Texas will eventually accept the Medicaid funding. After all, the federal government would cover the entire cost of the expansion between 2014 and 2016. Hospitals that have struggled to find ways to offset charity care are certain to demand that state lawmakers take the money.

“It really depends on the political pressure they get from the counties and the hospitals that benefit from having these people covered,” said John Holahan, director of the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center. “To leave all this federal money on the table will create an intense debate.”

The hospitals are big losers as well.

Hospitals regularly get stuck with bills that the uninsured cannot afford to pay. Every year, the American Hospital Association adds all those bills up to calculate the total amount of uncompensated care that its members provide. Every year, the number gets bigger and bigger, hitting $39.3 billion in 2010. Here’s a chart I put together with the AHA data:

Under the health reform law, hospitals will see reductions in some of their Medicare reimbursement rates. They will be forced to deliver higher quality or see financial consequences.

All of that was worth it, in hospitals’ eyes, because of the insurance expansion. That would finally put someone on the hook for the medical bills that have, for decades, gone unpaid.

If states opt-out of the Medicaid expansion, that essentially means there’s no one on the hook for some of the poorest patients. And that explains why Bruce Siegel, president of the National Association of Public Hospitals, calls states opting out a “potentially disastrous outcome” and is urging Congress to come up with a fix. For them, the status quo is the worst possible outcome: One where they have accepted cuts to Medicare, and still get stuck with billions in unpaid bills.

Remember, a part of the Affordable Care Act was a reduction in the federal subsidy for uncompensated care costs because it assumed the expansion of Medicaid would greatly reduce the number of uninsured patients. Unfortunately, no one foresaw the SCOTUS decision striking down the provision that states would lose existing Medicaid funding if they didn’t accept the subsidies to expand it, and so here we are. Just as a reminder, states like Texas that have a lot of uninsured people would have benefited greatly from it as a result. It was a simple case of red state/blue state math.

The deal the federal government is offering states on Medicaid is too good to refuse. And that’s particularly true for the red states. If Mitt Romney loses the election and Republicans lose their chance to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they’re going to end up participating in the law. They can’t afford not to.

Medicaid is jointly administered between states and the federal government, and the states are given considerable leeway to set eligibility rules. Texas covers only working adults up to 26 percent of the poverty line. The poverty line for an individual is $11,170. So, you could be a single person making $3,000 a year and you’re still not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid in Texas. That’s part of the reason Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.

Massachusetts, by contrast, covers working adults up to 133 percent of the poverty line — partly due to a former governor whose name rhymes with Schmitt Schmomney. It’s a big reason it has the lowest uninsured rate in the nation.

The Affordable Care Act wants to make the whole country like Schmitt Schmomney’s Massachusetts. Everyone earning up to 133 percent of the poverty line, which is less than $15,000 for an individual, gets Medicaid. And the way it does that is by telling states the feds will cover 100 percent of the difference between wherever the state is now and where the law wants them to go for the first three years, and 90 percent after 2020.

To get a sense of what an incredibly, astonishingly, unbelievably good deal that is, consider this: The federal government currently pays 57 percent of Medicaid’s costs. States pay the rest. And every state thinks that a sufficiently good deal to participate.

But, somewhat perversely, the states that get the best deal under the law are states like Texas, which have stingy Medicaid programs right now, and where the federal government is thus going to pick up the bill for insuring millions and millions of people. In states like Massachusetts, where the Medicaid program is already generous and the state is shouldering much of the cost, there’s no difference for the federal government to pay.

So if Texas had accepted Medicaid expansion, it would have gotten a vastly better deal than states like New York, California, and Massachusetts. Now that Texas has decided to “send that money back” to Washington, we will subsidizing the Medicaid expansions of New York, California, and Massachusetts, and getting nothing in return. Does that sound like a good idea to you? BOR, Neil, EoW, Juanita, Hair Balls, Ed Kilgore, Sarah Kliff, and Rep. Garnet Coleman have more, and statements from Rep. Jessica Farrar and Sen. Rodney Ellis are beneath the fold.

(more…)

What will Texas do now?

Now that the Affordable Care Act has been upheld by the Supreme Court, there are two big issues that Texas will have to face. (*) One is the health care exchanges, and the other is Medicaid expansion, now that there’s no real sanction for refusing to participate in it. On the former, I do expect some action.

It's constitutional - deal with it

The Affordable Care Act requires every state to have a health insurance exchange — a kind of Orbitz for medical coverage — and says if states don’t do it, they’ll get a one-size-fits-all federal plan instead.

In a conference call on Thursday, [AG Greg] Abbott said he’s unsure if and how Texas will set up an exchange, but that Texas will have to “move swiftly.” “That will have to be hammered out in the coming weeks and months,” he said.

Last session, efforts to lay the groundwork for a Texas health insurance exchange were rebuffed by the state’s Republican leadership — even when one key House Republican crafted the legislation. Now, time is of the essence, and the Legislature doesn’t meet again until January.

In the meantime, Texas could establish a state-run exchange through an executive order or via a government agency, said Kandice Sanaie, the governmental affairs manager at the Texas Association of Business (TAB). TAB, which ardently opposes the individual mandate the Supreme Court upheld, worked with other groups last session to try to get a state-run exchange passed, Sanaie said. The bill failed to make it out of committee.

Gov. Rick “Perry was still running for president at that time, and no one wanted to connect Texas with what was going on in Washington,” she said.

Now, Sanaie said, the political climate has changed enough that she believes it is possible the state will move to create its own insurance exchange. But Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, a proponent of federal health reform, said that would require a dramatic change in Perry’s stance.

Both Sanaie and Coleman said they do not believe the state can afford to wait until the next legislative session to design an insurance exchange, adding that the benefits of a successfully implemented state-run exchange would trump those of a federal one.

“We have the ability to solve problems and craft solutions that take into consideration our uniqueness as a state,” Coleman said. But he said he is glad the state will be required to opt into some kind of exchange “whether or not somebody like Rick Perry said no.”

Rep. Coleman expanded on that here. The legislator who tried to pass a bill establishing an exchange in 2011 was Rep. John Zerwas, who’s a doctor and has a good working relationship with Rep. Coleman on health care issues. If the people who want to get things done have sway, Texas ought to be able to establish its own exchange, though the timing is mighty tight. If it’s Rick Perry who carries the day, then expect nothing to happen till the feds inevitably step in.

As for Medicaid expansion, I have no illusions that Texas will behave any more rationally or humanely than any other bass-ackwards Southern states. I fully expect there to be a huge amount of saber-rattling and chest-thumping on the matter. I also fully expect there will be a lot of pressure from within to go forward with the expansion, because there are a lot of entities below the state level that would greatly benefit from it. Every county and hospital district would surely prefer to have all of the uninsured people that now throng to their emergency rooms get on Medicaid, for example. As Grits notes, Texas could save itself a pile of money by enrolling prison inmates on Medicaid. Sarah Kliff has some numbers:

Let’s take a state like Texas—which has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents and is not a fan of the Affordable Care Act. It stands to gain a lot from the federal expansion: It would receive $52 billion from 2014 to 2019, and its Medicaid program would expand by 45.5 percent. One study from Bloomberg Government estimates that Texas would get more money from the Medicaid expansion than any other state.

However, the Lone Star State would also have to spend $2.6 billion of its own money on the expansion and see its Medicaid costs rise by 3 percent over the same time period. This is all to implement a law that the Texas government sued to overturn.

You’d think that a 20 to 1 ratio would be a strong incentive, but we’re talking about a state that is willing to refuse a 9 to 1 match so it can stick a shiv into Planned Parenthood. Rationality is not the driving force here, though apparently the GOP Senate primary runoff is, as David Dewhurst has come out against Medicaid expansion; I’m sure Ted Cruz will follow and will find a way to imply that Dewhurst didn’t do it hard and fast enough. Still, it’s not a straight R versus D battle, and there is another powerful argument in favor of taking the money:

Patricia Gray, who represented Galveston in the Texas House from 1992-2003 and now is special assistant for health policy at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said state leaders may change their minds, especially if Congress allows more flexibility.

“Texas sends more money to Washington than it gets back,” she said. “If we don’t do this, we’re subsidizing New York’s Medicaid expansion, and California’s Medicaid expansion.”

Our leaders do love to complain about Texas not getting its fair share from Washington. There might be more sympathy for that argument if Rick Perry et al didn’t turn their noses up at so much of it. Anyway, at this point it’s not clear how it will all play out. Anything is possible and what ultimately happens my surprise us.

(*) – All this assumes President Obama wins re-election. No Obama, no Obamacare, simple as that. Procedural arcana are only issues when Republicans are in the minority; they just don’t count when it’s their turn to be in charge. We’ll know well before the 2013 Lege is sworn in what if any action they need to think about taking on this.

Revenues rise, but reality recognition doesn’t

Good news and bad news, because we can’t have one without the other.

The latest bit of positive fiscal news came Tuesday when the state comptroller released numbers showing that business tax collections in Texas had exceeded projections.

Comptroller Susan Combs had estimated that the franchise tax paid by businesses would bring in about $4 billion in the first year of the 2012-13 budget. The $4.3 billion collected in May has already beaten that mark, and more payments will trickle in come August.

Sales tax collections, the most important source of state revenue, have also been coming in well above projections for the budget year, which began in September, and could produce billions in unanticipated revenue.

But state agencies, in the first step toward writing the 2014-15 state budget, were instructed Monday to submit budget proposals that do not exceed what they are getting in the current two-year budget.

They must also provide plans for how to implement a 10 percent reduction during 2014-15, if necessary.

[…]

“We are getting so far and far from reality that it really endangers our future economic growth,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for low- and middle-income Texans.

State leaders have created a “new normal” as a starting point, particularly in education, and “that is a terrible place to start off on, especially when they have the money to undo the cuts,” DeLuna Castro said.

That presumes they want to, which they don’t. They will have to be made to do so, or they will have to be gotten out of the way in favor of others who want to do so. Easier said than done, of course, but there it is. And while Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Joe Straus are busy crowing about how their draconian policies led to these revenue increases, Burka provides a dash of reality.

Overall, tax collections have been robust, up 12.56%, year to date, over 2011 levels. Sales taxes are up 11.71%. Oil severance taxes are up 42.6%. Natural gas severance taxes are up 44.3%.

Perry, Dewhurst, and Straus can claim credit for whatever they want, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have anything to do with putting oil and gas in the ground. EoW has more, and a statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman is here.