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Louisiana

You know, there is a cheaper way to do this

Why are we still outsourcing inmates?

County commissioners next week will consider a proposal to outsource inmates to the Fort Bend County Jail, which would allow Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to slow — but not stop — the flow of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana.

The deal would bring as many as several hundred inmates closer to their families and attorneys, but would cost Harris County more than twice as much as shipping prisoners to Jackson Parish, La. It would also fail to address the root causes of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail, one of the nation’s largest, and prolong an elaborate game of musical chairs as the sheriff searches for jails to take his inmates.

Harris County’s 10,162 inmates are already spread across five facilities in Texas and Louisiana. It currently outsources 724 inmates, more than twice as many as any other Texas county.

[…]

“If there’s a desire to bring inmates closer to Harris County, this is the best deal we’ve been able to find so far,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. “It doesn’t fully address the outsourcing issue, but it chips away at it.”

Harris County pays $29.33 per inmate, per day at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, with transport included. Fort Bend’s per diem is $55.00, and Harris County would also have to pay for transport. Spencer said the additional costs would push the county’s total monthly inmate outsourcing bill to around $1 million.

The jail had stopped farming out inmates in 2017 but a backlog in the courts following Harvey led to a surplus of people in the jail, and so here we are today. The monthly cost of doing so now is more than $500K, which will go up to about $1 million with the more expensive Fort Bend option. That may not be a choice as defense attorneys in Harris County have asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to bar sending inmates out of state. I know you know but I’m going to say anyway that if we had fewer inmates in the jail – and remember, the lion’s share of these inmates have not been convicted of any crime – we wouldn’t need to spend this money. It’s a choice we’re making, one we’ve been making for way too many years. At least we get to make another choice this November.

Paxton goes after DACA

I have no words.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and officials from nine other states on Thursday urged the Trump administration to end an Obama-era program that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to live and work in the country without fear of being deported.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Paxton urged the White House to rescind the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. DACA applies to undocumented immigrants that came to the country before they were 16 years old and were 30 or younger as of June 2012. It awards recipients a renewable, two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings.

As of August 2016, more than 220,000 undocumented immigrants in Texas had applied for a permit or a renewal of one under the program, and nearly 200,000 of those have been approved, according to government statistics. It’s the second-highest total behind California’s estimated 387,000 applications and 359,000 approvals during the same time frame.

“We respectfully request that the Secretary of Homeland Security phase out the DACA program,” Paxton wrote. He was joined by the attorneys general of Arkansas, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as Idaho Gov. C.L. Otter.

“Specifically, we request that the Secretary of Homeland Security rescind the June 15, 2012 DACA memorandum and order that the Executive Branch will not renew or issue any new DACA or Expanded DACA permits in the future,” Paxton wrote.

[…]

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, blasted the move and warned the signatories they’ll be remembered for being on the wrong side of history.

“Their evident xenophobia is not remotely consistent with the trajectory of our nation’s history and future progress,” MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas Saenz said in a statement. “Their political careers and each of their states will suffer from their mean-spirited stupidity.”

I don’t even know what to say about this. It’s cruel, it’s stupid, and I can’t think of a meaningful definition of “Christian” that would allow for it. The one sure to be effective thing we can do about this is to elect an Attorney General who won’t pull this crap. Nothing will change until we change who we elect. The Press, the Current, and Daily Kos have more.

State to help defend county bail policies

Of course it will.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the top lawyers in five other states are backing Harris County in its protracted battle over money bail for poor low-level defendants, as the tally of those released on no-cash bail nears 1,000.

Paxton and the lead attorneys in Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana and Nebraska filed a joint brief late Monday supporting the county’s appeal of a federal court order that took effect three weeks ago eliminating cash bail for indigent misdemeanor defendants.

[…]

At a tense Harris County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, officials provided the clearest picture yet of the people released from impact of Rosenthal’s ruling. Nearly 980 people have been released by the sheriff under Rosenthal’s ruling as from June 6 through Friday, according to county’s office of budget management.

Of those, 40 people who were released on personal bonds had been arrested again by Friday and charged with new crimes, a rate of about 3 percent.

In the group of people who were able to afford cash bond — either through a bail bondsman or by posting cash — during the same time period, only about 1 percent had been re-arrested, county officials said.

The county’s arguments were countered in a lengthy hearing before Rosenthal that led to her order.

[…]

Paul Heaton, academic director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice and co-author of a study on Harris County’s criminal justice system, said the brief rehashes old arguments.

“The brief does demonstrate, however, that there are still important constituencies that have yet to be convinced of the need for bail reform,” he said. “Despite the significant progress in this area in states like New Jersey, Maryland, and Kentucky, and the mounting empirical evidence that cash bail systems can generate unwanted disparities and harm public safety — particularly when applied to low-level offenders — there are still many jurisdictions satisfied with the status quo that don’t want to change.”

Alec Karakatsanis, director of Civil Rights Corps, who represents ODonnell and the others who couldn’t afford bail, said Monday’s filing by the states’ attorneys echoed that stance.

“The amicus brief is a repeat of bail industry talking points that are entirely untethered to law and to fact,” he said.

I couldn’t find a copy of the Paxton brief, so you’ll have to rely on the story for what we know. Hard to know what else to make of this, or if the amicus brief will have any effect. Some days I wonder what it would be like to have an Attorney General who fights on the right side of an issue, any issue. Must be nice.

Bu-ee’s to expand to Louisiana

The road to world domination leads east.

The first Buc-ee’s outside Texas promises lagniappe, a little bonus, worthy of its Louisiana locale.

“It’s going to look like what we build, and it’s going to feel like what we build,” co-owner Beaver Aplin said this week. But in addition to the Beaver Nuggets and other proprietary snack foods such as fudge or jerky, Aplin said, customers should expect “Louisiana flair” with items like alligator, boudin and cracklins.

A 15-acre tract along Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge will soon get one of the Buc-ee’s mega-convenience stores. The chain known for its buck-toothed mascot, a cartoon beaver, has grown to 31 locations since the first one opened in 1982.

The store could also be the first of others in Louisiana and elsewhere as the Lake Jackson-based chain explores markets beyond Texas’ borders.

Exact plans are not yet available, but Aplin said Buc-ee’s has the Baton Rouge property under contract, and the company is working with the owner and the city. The store will likely be a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot travel center, similar to ones in Baytown, Texas City or Madisonville. It will feature sprawling bays of fuel islands and expanded food and other items for sale.

“We think Louisiana will be a great market, and I look forward to being there,” Aplin said.

[…]

Many Louisianians, through traveling or living in Texas, have been exposed to the Buc-ee’s brand, said Kelli Hollinger, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University.

“Buc-ee’s has a cult following,” Hollinger said. “You’re not just excited to go to Buc-ee’s, they’re part of the travel experience itself.”

Hollinger said tapping into Louisiana’s food culture should further help the brand there.

Added marketing professor Betsy Gelb of the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston: “You always want to be putting a toe in a state where there are people who know you.”

General counsel Jeff Nadalo said Buc-ee’s continues “looking at all opportunities in Texas and outside of Texas.”

Louisiana is the current focus, Aplin said, with other sites, including along the I-10 corridor, under consideration. None of those projects is far enough along to announce, he added.

Makes sense. Just on billboards alone, you have to figure Buc-ee’s is well known to anyone who’s ever driven on I-10. Now you can stock up on Beaver Balls on your way to New Orleans. What more could you want?

SCOTUS also blocks Louisiana anti-abortion law for now

Forgot to note this over the weekend.

Right there with them

Right there with them

The Supreme Court handed down a brief order Friday allowing four Louisiana abortion clinics to reopen after they were closed due to a recent decision by a conservative federal appeals court.

Last week, an especially conservative panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed down an “emergency” decision permitting an anti-abortion Louisiana law to go into effect. Under this law, physicians cannot perform abortions unless they have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — an increasingly common requirement masterminded by an anti-abortion group that drafts model bills for state legislatures. A challenge to a similar Texas law is currently pending before the justices.

The Supreme Court’s order temporarily suspends the Louisiana law, effectively preventing the Fifth Circuit’s Wednesday decision from taking effect. Only Justice Clarence Thomas explicitly dissented from the Court’s order.

Monday’s order from the Supreme Court is not surprising — indeed, the most surprising thing is that the Fifth Circuit permitted the Louisiana law to briefly take effect despite clear signals from the Supreme Court that they should not do so. The justices twice stayed Fifth Circuit decisions permitting Texas’ similar, if more comprehensive, anti-abortion law from taking effect. The first time, the Supreme Court issued a partial stay permitting two clinics to be exempt from Texas’s new credentialing requirements for abortion doctors. The second time, the justices handed down a more comprehensive stay of what may be the Fifth Circuit’s most aggressive anti-abortion decision.

See here and here for a bit of background. ThinkProgress then goes on to explain why this order from SCOTUS is different from every other order from SCOTUS.

Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court handed down a very brief order allowing several Louisiana abortion clinics to reopen after a conservative federal appeals court forced them to shut down. Yet, while the Supreme Court’s order was very short — only slightly more than a paragraph long — it contained 14 more words than such an order normally would. And those 14 words appear to be a direct swipe at the appeals court that shut down Louisiana’s clinics in the first place.

[…]

Just one week before the Supreme Court heard these arguments, however, the Fifth Circuit handed down another anti-abortion decision. In June Medical Services v. Gee, the Fifth Circuit granted an “emergency” motion reinstating a Louisiana law that was expected to shut down all but one of that state’s abortion clinics. The Louisiana law at issue in June Medical Services closely resembles a provision of the Texas law at issue in Whole Woman’s Health.

The Fifth Circuit’s order in June Medical Services was surprising, largely because the Supreme Court had already dropped some pretty big clues that a majority of the justices disapprove of the Fifth Circuit’s decisions forcing abortion clinics to close. Among other things, the justices stayed the Fifth Circuit’s Whole Woman’s Health decision pending the Supreme Court’s own resolution of the case — effectively enabling many Texas abortion clinics to remain open that would be closed if the Fifth Circuit’s order were still in effect.

Nevertheless, the Fifth Circuit decided not to take the hint that Texas-style attempts to shut down clinics should be placed on hold. Instead, the Fifth Circuit claimed in June Medical Services that it was free ignore this hint because, when the Supreme Court stayed Whole Woman’s Health, it did so in a brief order without explaining its reasoning. “No guidance can be gleaned from the Supreme Court’s vacating portions of the stay without explanation,” according to the lower court, “as we cannot discern the underlying reasoning from the one-paragraph order.”

Which brings us back to the 14 significant words in the Supreme Court’s most recent order. “Consistent with the Court’s action granting a stay in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole,” that order begins, the Fifth Circuit’s order reinstating the Louisiana law is vacated.

These 14 words are a subtle spanking, but they are a spanking nonetheless. They directly contradict the Fifth Circuit’s claim that it can ignore the Supreme Court’s previous stay orders if the lower court “cannot discern the underlying reasoning” behind those orders. And they rebut the Fifth Circuit’s logic on its own terms. Why shouldn’t lower courts allow Texas-style abortion restrictions to go into effect in the future? Because halting these laws is “consistent with the Court’s action granting a stay in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole.”

So there you have it. ThinkProgress admits that one can over-read meaning into these situations, but coming off the way oral arguments for the HB2 case went, it’s hard not to feel a teeny bit of optimism. Not too much – let’s not get irrationally exuberant here – but a little. RH Reality Check and Slate have more.

Hey, how about another lawsuit against Obamacare?

Sure, why not?

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Six states filed a new lawsuit Wednesday against the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act.

The complaint that Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Indiana and Nebraska filed in the Northern District of Texas takes issue with the Health Insurance Providers Fee assessed to health insurers to cover federal subsidies.

The lawsuit says nothing in the Affordable Care Act’s language provided clear notice that states would also have to pay the fee.

“This notice was not even provided by rule but was ultimately provided by a private entity wielding legislative authority,” the suit says.

The suit seeks an injunction against the federal rules that say states are responsible for the fee. It also asks that states be refunded for what they’ve already paid.

The story says that the total cost of these subsidies is “$13 billion and $15 billion from states over the next decade”, so we’re not talking budget-busting numbers. It’s more the principle of it, or at least I assume so given the characters in this drama. Maybe by the time this one reaches the Supreme Court, the Senate will have finally gotten around to confirming a ninth Justice. Maybe. Trail Blazers has more.

Here comes I-14

Don’t hold your breath waiting for it, however. This will take awhile.

Texas is getting a new interstate, as part of a long-term federal transportation bill.

Interstate 14 will be cobbled together mostly from U.S. 190 and other existing roads to create a new freeway from western Texas to the Louisiana border. The Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition, based in Austin, announced the designation Tuesday.

The interstate will take years to build as highway segments must be brought up to freeway standards such as no at-grade intersections and various safety upgrades to allow for higher speeds.

According to the coalition, I-14 will connect Killeen, Belton, Bryan-College Station, Huntsville, Livingston, Woodville and Jasper before terminating at Texas 63 at the Sabine River.

Houston-area drivers would most likely encounter the new interstate where it crosses Interstate 45 in Huntsville, among the most used routes to and from Houston.

[…]

The designation is the first of many steps to convert federal and state highways into I-14. Efforts to turn portions of U.S. 59 into Interstate 69, for example, have taken decades, with many more sections to go.

In many spots, it will take rebuilding and potentially re-routing the highway. Bushell said officials are still working through some of those specifics, including where U.S. 190 currently shares roadway with I-45 northeast of Huntsville.

“Where possible we would want to stay on existing highway footprints but that may not be possible in some places,” Bushell said.

I-14 will go all the way to the Georgia/South Carolina border. Lord only knows how many years it will be before we see even a single I-14 road sign, but someday this new interstate may divert a bit of truck traffic from I-10. Of course, by then I-10 will likely have been widened to the point of being right next to I-14 anyway. Link via Streetsblog, and Paradise in Hell has more.

Yet another Obamacare lawsuit

Some things never get old.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

n Texas’ latest salvo against Obamacare, Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed suit over a fee states must help cover to pay for the sweeping federal health reform law.

Texas joins Louisiana and Kansas in suing the Obama administration over the Health Insurance Providers Fee, which Paxton says cost Texas $86 million in 2013 and about $120 million per year since. Texas feels the effect of the fee, levied on health insurers, because it reimburses the companies that operate with public funds in the state’s privatized Medicaid program.

“This threat to cut Medicaid funding to Texans unless the state continues to pay hundreds of millions in taxes to Washington amounts to the very ‘gun to the head’ the Supreme Court warned about in earlier rulings on Obamacare,” Paxton said in a statement Thursday.

[…]

State lawmakers debated the validity of the fee this year as they were crafting a new budget. A handful of Republican legislators briefly entertained the possibility of not reimbursing the private insurers who operate in Medicaid, the joint state-federal insurance program for the poor and disabled, for the health insurance providers fee. They ultimately voted to pay back the Medicaid managed care organizations — after taking the opportunity to lambast the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Now, Paxton says Texas should get its money back, arguing that the state should not have had to pay the “unconstitutional tax to Washington” in the first place.

The attorney general’s office alleges the wide-ranging federal health law is “silent” about whether states should have to pay the health insurance providers fee — under threat of losing federal funding to pay for Medicaid. That, Paxton says, violates a provision of the U.S. Constitution requiring state officials to “clearly understand” the conditions of accepting federal funds and amounts to “coercion.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Wichita Falls. The states are asking for the fee to be ruled unconstitutional and to be reimbursed for the funding already paid to the federal government in previous years.

You can see a copy of the complaint here. A lot of other anti-Obamacare litigation has been telegraphed in advance, but I couldn’t find anything enlightening on the Health Insurance Providers Fee. You’d think all the obvious targets would have been aimed at already, but I suppose there could be a judge out there willing to buy into whatever Paxton et al are selling. Nice to know his self-recusal isn’t keeping him from his most solemn of duties. Gotta give his wife something to sing about, I guess. As for the merits of the claim that Texas is being unfairly deprived of this Medicaid money, I might have a big more sympathy for it if the state, with Paxton’s assistance and blessing, weren’t voluntarily depriving itself of a whole lot more Medicaid money. But hey, all’s fair in politics, right? Trail Blazers and KUHF have more.

Paxton asks judge to block EPA water rules in Texas

The basic story:

Texas has asked a federal judge to block enforcement of a new rule that expands authority over which water bodies the U.S. government can regulate.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made the request Tuesday in an 88-page court document. The request comes in the wake of a federal court ruling in North Dakota that blocked enforcement of the rule in 13 states that filed suit in that court. Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers in a federal court in Houston and aren’t affected by the North Dakota ruling last week.

The May rule would greatly expand federal authority under the Clean Water Act over the bodies of water the EPA can legally regulate, restoring protections to tributaries and wetlands.

That federal ruling was issued two weeks ago, but does not apply to Texas, which is to say that the EPA rule is still in effect here. Texas, along with Louisiana and Mississippi, filed its lawsuit against the new rules a couple of months ago, but there has been no ruling in that case yet. Here’s the AG’s press release on the filing, with other information about that case, if you’re curious. You never know what a judge will do, so we’ll see what happens. WOAI and ThinkProgress have more.

Two anti-gay bills advance

Look out.

RedEquality

Gay rights advocates began sounding the alarm Wednesday after two anti-LGBT bills cleared House committees and another received a favorable hearing.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said if LGBT groups and their corporate allies don’t work quickly to generate the type of backlash seen over a religious freedom bill in Indiana last month, it could soon be too late.

Miller made the statement on a day when separate House panels advanced bills that would bar county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses and allow state-funded adoption agencies to turn away gay couples based on religious beliefs. The two bills, which breached a dam that had kept a record number of anti-LGBT measures at bay for the first 100 days of the session, now head to the Calendars Committee.

“My fear is that if the Indiana-style outrage doesn’t happen now, before these bills make it to the floor of the House, it will be too late, because the membership of the House will pass these bills, and then the Senate will fly them through, and Gov. [Greg] Abbott will have no choice but to sign them in his mind,” Miller said.

Miller and others said with the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments on same-sex marriage Tuesday, moderate Republicans in the Legislature are feeling the heat from social conservatives.

“I feel like the Republican base is desperately afraid of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage this summer,” Miller said. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the leadership in the House to pass anti-LGBT legislation. I think some of Speaker [Joe] Straus’ lieutenants are more likely to cave in to that pressure than others.”

[…]

The House Committee on State Affairs voted 7-3 along party lines to advance House Bill 4105, which would prohibit state or local funds from being used to license or recognize same-sex marriages.

Among those voting in favor of the bill was Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a moderate who chairs the committee and has come out in support of one pro-LGBT bill.

“For me, I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, so that’s why I voted for it,” Cook said.

All due respect, and I do respect Rep. Cook for his support of the birth certificate bill, but he’s not a moderate. As I noted before, he received an F on the 2013 Equality Texas report card. His support of Rep. Anchia’s bill is great and appreciated, but it doesn’t change who he is.

The Texas Association of Business, the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, has come out against two proposed religious freedom amendments that critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution. But the TAB has remained silent on the bills that cleared committee Wednesday.

“We have not taken a position and doubtful (with timing of the session) that we will be able to,” TAB President Chris Wallace said in an email. “We will continue to monitor the business-related implications.”

Late Wednesday, the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Affairs voted 6-1 to advance House Bill 3864, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), which would allow state-funded child welfare providers to discriminate based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

Meanwhile, dozens of pastors gave hours of testimony in support of House Bill 3567, also by Sanford, which he said is designed to prevent clergy from being forced to perform same-sex marriages. Critics of HB 3567 say it’s so broadly written that it could allow any religiously affiliated organization—from hospitals to universities and homeless shelters—to discriminate against LGBT people.

None of this is good, so now would be an excellent time to call your State Rep and ask him or her to vote against these bills. It would also be nice if the TAB and its other corporate allies would remember that not only are these bills bad for business, they will inevitably lead to expensive litigation (that the state will lose) because they’re clearly unconstitutional. The cheaper and safer route is to keep them bottled up in the House.

It’s hard to overstate just how out of step with public opinion all of this is. I can only conclude that the GOP is more in thrall to its zealot wing than it is to the business lobby. Maybe this will finally help cause a bit of a schism. As far as those “Christians” that were there to lobby for these bills, they don’t represent all people of faith. Not by a longshot. And finally, if Indiana and Arkansas weren’t object lessons enough for Republicans, just keep an eye on Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal has decided that the best strategy is to double down. Imitating Arkansas is bad enough – do we have to do what Louisiana does, too? The Trib has more.

What do we expect from the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS on same sex marriage?

Some people are very optimistic.

RedEquality

Same-sex marriage will arrive in Texas before Easter, according to an attorney for two couples who are challenging the state’s marriage bans in federal court.

Daniel McNeel Lane Jr., of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in San Antonio, made the prediction as he prepared for oral arguments in the case at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Friday.

[…]

“I don’t think it will be stayed, certainly not by the Supreme Court, I don’t think it will be reviewed by the Supreme Court, and I think we’ll have marriage equality by Easter,” Lane told the Observer on Friday. “That’s my prediction. … That’s my strong feeling.”

On the same day as oral arguments at the 5th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court will meet to decide whether to hear same-sex marriage cases from four other states, which could pave the way for a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality as early as June. As of Tuesday, when same-sex marriage takes effect in Florida, Texas will be one of only 14 states where it’s still prohibited.

“Whatever the Supreme Court does, we will still make our arguments, the 5th Circuit is likely still to rule, and let the chips fall where they may. I’m sure that’s what our panel’s view will be,” Lane said. “The two will not be connected, and this court knows that if it affirms Judge Garcia, and finds that residents of this state have a right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender … it’s likely that that freedom, that equality, that justice, will come very swiftly, and the tide of that equality will never be turned back.”

Kenneth D. Upton Jr., senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, which is handling the Louisiana marriage case, said marriage equality in the 5th Circuit before Easter is “certainly one possibility.” But Upton added, “There are a couple of things that could throw a wrench in that prediction.”

Upton said if the 5th Circuit panel rules in favor of marriage equality, it’s possible the state of Texas would appeal the decision to the 15-member court en banc—which would be “a more hostile setting.”

“I don’t think the panel would stay it, but if the 5th Circuit grants rehearing before the entire court, the panel decision is automatically vacated,” Upton said. “So, I suspect Abbott’s office would play that card since they have nothing to lose.”

Upton said the 5th Circuit panel could also simply decide to wait for the high court.

“If they [Supreme Court justices] grant any petitions, and because they aren’t staying cases anymore, I think any subsequent court of appeals case will be held to see what the ultimate answer is,” he said.

Lambda Legal has asked the high court to review the Louisiana case even though the 5th Circuit hasn’t decided it yet—a type of request that’s rarely granted but that will also be considered Friday. Upton said whether the Supreme Court agrees to hear the Louisiana case, one of the other four cases or some combination, he thinks Friday’s proceedings in New Orleans will be upstaged by what happens in Washington.

“The arguments in the 5th [Circuit] will not be the real story that day,” he said. “It will be [the Supreme Court]. I feel pretty sure they will grant something that day.”

That’s not all the Supreme Court is being asked to do.

Idaho’s governor and attorney general are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to make same-same marriage illegal in the state, nearly four months after a federal appeals court affirmed that it was unconstitutional for Idaho to prohibit same-sex couples from getting married.

Gov. Butch Otter’s petition, filed Tuesday, said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong when it maintained that banning same-sex marriage violates couple’s equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Otter asked the Supreme Court to take up the issue once and for all, saying the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was not about discrimination against gay couples — rather, it was about the children.

“[Idaho’s] view of marriage is biologically based and primarily child-centered,” the petition reads. “And it holds that the principal (though not exclusive) purpose of marriage is to unite a child to his or her biological mother and father whenever possible, and when not possible, to a mother and father.”

“The time has come for this court to resolve a question of critical importance to the States, their citizens and especially their children: Whether the federal Constitution prohibits a State from maintaining the traditional understanding and definition of marriage as between a man and a woman,” the petition reads.

SCOTUS will be busy today.

On Friday, Supreme Court justices will meet in private to consider whether to act on cases that could provide a nationwide answer on whether same-sex marriages must be allowed. On the same day, a federal appeals court will consider bans in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“It’s an incredible confluence of events,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “It’s the culmination of many years of work.”

[…]

The justices this week will be considering petitions from five states where lower-court judges, bucking a nationwide trend, upheld laws banning same-sex marriage and barring the recognition of such unions performed in states where they are legal.

In all but one case, even the winning side has asked the Supreme Court to accept the cases and settle the issue during its current term, which will conclude at the end of June.

Without explanation, the justices in October passed up that chance. But that was before a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati ruled that there was no constitutional right to marriage that must be extended to gay couples and that states were free to define marriage as they wished.

Because four other regional appeals courts have ruled the other way, “the court is more likely to decide the issue now than when it denied review last October,” Kyle Duncan, a Washington lawyer defending Louisiana’s bans, said in an e-mail.

The Supreme Court does not have to announce its decision on the petitions Friday. But generally the justices must accept a case by the end of January in order to hold oral arguments and rule by June.

If they do not, same-sex marriages will probably remain legal in the majority of states through 2015 and banned in the rest.

Well, that ought to settle the “legal by Easter” matter quickly. I feel optimistic, but boy howdy are the stakes high. And as we’ve seen in the Legislature, there are still plenty of avenues available at this time for the forces of bigotry to roll back progress. We’ll see what happens. Hair Balls has more.

Sixth Circuit stands up for inequality

It was bound to happen eventually.

RedEquality

Remember the big no-decision decision the Supreme Court issued on same-sex marriage just a month ago? The justices were asked — in five separate cases no less — to weigh in on whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage. The Supreme Court demurred on the question, which was a significant move in and of itself.

By declining to review any of the cases before it, the justices effectively blessed lower-court rulings that had struck down state gay marriage bans in five states. Circuit courts had been unanimous on the subject. So what more was there to say? Barack Obama even told Jeffrey Toobin recently that he thought this was the best Supreme Court decision of his tenure: a silent statement on the importance of letting cultural change spread across the country, one state at a time.

Well, so much for the power of silence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit just reversed rulings striking down gay-marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. This means that four circuit courts have now struck down gay marriage bans, while one has upheld them. We no longer have unanimity. The Supreme Court, eventually, will have to step in.

The 6th Circuit decision is here. A lot of people had been waiting to see what the Fifth Circuit would do, if they would be the court that provided the circuit split that forced SCOTUS to act, but they took too long. They will still get a chance to have their say, of course, and perhaps now that they wouldn’t have to be the trailblazer for upholding this particular injustice they’ll feel more free to let their colors show. One hopes that in the end neither this ruling nor the one the Fifth Circuit is expected to make will matter. Daily Kos and Freedom to Marry have more.

Abbott’s appellate response brief is the same old junk

Pathetic.

RedEquality

Attorney General Greg Abbott says Texas’ same-sex marriage ban should remain in place because legalizing it would do little or nothing to encourage heterosexual couples to get married and have children.

Writing in a brief filed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday, Abbott said the state was not obligated to prove why gay marriage might be detrimental to the economic or social well-being of Texans. It was only required to show how opposite-sex marriage would be more beneficial for its citizens.

“The State is not required to show that recognizing same-sex marriage will undermine heterosexual marriage,” the brief read. “It is enough if one could rationally speculate that opposite-sex marriages will advance some state interest to a greater extent than same-sex marriages will.”

The new filing largely reiterated the same “responsible procreation” argument Abbott made in July, when the state first appealed a February district court’s ruling overturning the Texas gay marriage ban. In it, Abbott argued marriage among heterosexual partners is more beneficial to society because it encourages married couples to have children and provides an example for other couples to do the same.

See here, here, and here for the background. Texas Politics has a copy of Abbott’s brief here if you want a laugh. I guess when you really, truly have nothing to say, you say the same things you’ve already said and hope they sound better on repeat. As one of the commenters on the Chron story says, I’d love to see Abbott make these arguments to Judge Richard Posner. I know the Fifth Circuit sucks, but can they possibly be so intellectually and morally bankrupt to find merit in this idiocy? The case is on track to be hear in November or December, byt the same panel that will hear the Louisiana case appeal. Hopefully we’ll know something by the end of the year.

Of course the film industry thinks we need more film incentives

It’s all money to them. Why wouldn’t they think the state should provide more funding for them?

BagOfMoney

A Warner Bros. executive told a panel of Texas lawmakers they would have to pony up more cash for film industry incentives if they wanted to be in the movie business.

“The Texas movie industry incentive program … is not as competitive as many other jurisdictions,” said Warner Bros. Entertainment Vice President Michael Walbrecht. “Increasing the overall budget provided each year would probably draw more large-budget feature films.”

During his remarks before the House Select Committee on Economic Development Incentives, Walbrecht told the panel’s 13 members Texas was doing “just enough” to get some filmmakers to come to the state.

Texas’ programs are far surpassed by much more enticing incentives in states like Louisiana, he added, saying the Lone Star State isn’t even on the list of states feature filmmakers go to as a default.

“Without the incentive, these productions would probably not be able to choose Texas,” Walbrecht said.

The panel is holding a series of meetings before the 2015 session and is charged with looking at the state’s myriad economic development incentive programs, from the “deal-closing” Texas Enterprise Fund to local tax rebates.

Earlier Wednesday, Texas Film Commission Director Heather Page said the amount of money available through the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program is a moving target, but currently sits around $32 million. The program’s return on investment to date stands at 658 percent, she added.

Boy, I’d love to see the accounting on that. We know how accurate Hollywood accounting can be. Speaking of which, the state of California is boosting its film credit program to $400 million per year, with fewer constraints. We can’t let ourselves get beaten by California, can we? My opinion on this hasn’t changed much in recent years. If we’re going to throw money at movie studios to try to “incentivize” them to do their filming here, we should at least be honest about it.

Louisiana breaks the streak

One in every crowd, I guess.

RedEquality

A federal judge [in New Orleans] upheld the state’s ban on same-sex marriage on Wednesday, going against what had been a unanimous trend of federal court decisions striking down such bans since the Supreme Court ruled on the matter last year.

In his ruling, Judge Martin L. C. Feldman of Federal District Court said that the regulation of marriage was left up to the states and the democratic process; that no fundamental right was being violated by the ban; and that Louisiana had a “legitimate interest … whether obsolete in the opinion of some, or not, in the opinion of others … in linking children to an intact family formed by their two biological parents.”

That this ruling ran counter to a wave of other federal decisions across the country in recent months was immediately noted by opponents of the ban.

“We always anticipated that it would be a difficult challenge,” said J. Dalton Courson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, adding that the ruling would be appealed to the Fifth Circuit. “We certainly are disappointed considering the string of rulings in favor of same-sex marriage.”

Since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year in the case of United States v. Windsor, there have been 21 consecutive federal court decisions finding that gay marriage bans were unconstitutional, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.

This tally includes cases that have made it to the appellate level: the 10th Circuit, in Denver, affirmed such rulings in Utah and Oklahoma, and the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., upheld the overturning of Virginia’s ban as well. Other cases are still waiting at the appellate level; a decision striking down Texas’s gay marriage ban has already been appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

With so much activity in the federal courts, legal experts believe that the Supreme Court is likely to rule more definitively on gay marriage during the next term, potentially rendering Wednesday’s decision moot within the next year.

TPM has a copy of the ruling. Judge Feldman apparently bought into the lurid slippery-slope arguments that hapless true-believer AGs have been unsuccessfully peddling elsewhere. The Fifth Circuit already has Texas’ appeal to deal with, once it gets around to putting it on their calendar. And in the time it took me to write this, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ban on same sex marriages in Wisconsin and Indiana, thus starting a new win streak for the forces of equality. One way or another, this question will be decided by SCOTUS. One hope this time they don’t duck the big issue, and that they get it right again.

Just a reminder that “more gambling” does not necessarily mean “more revenue”

If Atlantic City can go bust…

The winning streak has run cold for Atlantic City, N.J.

Earlier this week, the upscale Revel Casino Hotel announced it will close, bringing the total number of casinos in the city expected to close by the end of the year to four. Thousands of workers are confronting unemployment.

The state has long guaranteed Atlantic City a monopoly on gambling within New Jersey’s borders, but gambling revenues there have been declining due to increased competition from new casinos in neighboring states and the lingering effects of the financial crisis. The monthly report from the state Division of Gaming Enforcement issued Wednesday shows that the trend is continuing, as July’s take declined 7.7 percent year over year.

Pennsylvania, which only legalized casino gambling in the past decade, has replaced New Jersey as the state with the second-largest gambling industry. More casinos have been proposed in New York. Yet revenues have been disappointing across the region. In New Jersey, they have declined by around half from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006.

Most disappointing for investors has been the performance of the casinos’ new online gaming businesses. The prospect of online revenues has kept several casinos open despite declining income.

“A lot of these casinos have been unprofitable for quite some time,” said Alex Bumazhny, an analyst at Fitch Ratings.

Online gamblers haven’t anted up, though, and several casinos have folded. Bumazhny estimates that online gaming revenues for New Jersey businesses will total only around $125 million this year. Revel follows The Atlantic Club, which closed in January, and the Showboat and the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, also expected to close this year.

I like to note this sort of news item because as sure as the sun rises, at some point in the fall as the elections get settled and legislators start pre-filing bills, I’m going to get a press release from a pro-gambling expansion group touting the economic benefits of slot machines at horse racing tracks and/or casinos. Said press release and its accompanying economic study will point out the vast number of Texans that are currently gambling in Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other non-Texas states, and will lament the money that could have been spent and gambled right here. My point is that the casinos and riverboats and what have you in Louisiana and New Mexico and Oklahoma and wherever else won’t simply give up the business those traveling Texans bring them without a fight, and the competition they will bring to hold onto their existing customers as well as lure new ones may possibly have a downward effect on those numbers in those press releases and economic studies. This isn’t about whether one does support or should support expanded gambling in Texas – as you well know by now, I am deeply ambivalent about it. It’s just a reminder to keep a sense of perspective when the issue heats up as it always does every two years.

If Louisiana can do it…

By “it” I mean expand Medicaid. What’s Texas’ excuse if that happens?

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter on Monday left open the possibility of expanding Louisiana’s Medicaid program to cover more of the working poor.

Vitter, a candidate for governor and ardent critic of the health overhaul championed by President Barack Obama, said he’s not opposed to accepting the billions of federal dollars if Louisiana can improve the performance of its Medicaid program rather than expand “a pretty broken system.”

“We need to improve and reform Medicaid, and I want to look at everything that could be brought to bear to do that. Now, could more federal resources help to do that? They could, if it’s done right and if it’s done in a constructive way,” he told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

He said the expansion must not draw state resources away from other spending priorities like higher education, nor build “disincentives for able-bodied folks to work.”

“We welcome the senator to the conversation about covering more than 240,000 uninsured Louisianians. It’s a shame that he waited until after (the legislative) session to make his opinions known,” state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, said in a written statement.

Vitter’s willingness to consider Medicaid expansion stands in contrast to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s staunch opposition to the idea. The state’s current Republican governor has refused to consider any such proposals, and lawmakers recently killed several expansion bills.

To be clear, I have no reason to believe in David Vitter, who has done very little of merit in his legislative career. Lord only knows what conditions he might impose on accepting those filthy federal funds, and Lord only knows what kind of dealmaking might be needed to get this through Louisiana’s legislature. Even if one believes that Vitter is sincere, we’re a long, long way from anything happening. But just the fact that he’s willing to talk about it means something, and this will be very much worth watching. If this does eventually happen, three of the four states that border Texas will have taken the plunge. One can only hope that it will eventually be contagious. dKos has more.

How about those gators?

They’re doing well, with a little help.

The largest reptile in America was nearly extinct by the 1970s.

But, efforts to protect the American alligator resulted in a conservation success story that led to its removal from the endangered species list in 1987.

The Texas State Aquarium uses that story of conservation and action resulting in big impacts to educate people visiting baby alligators.

[…]

“Alligators are the flagship of conservation in North America,” said Jesse Gilbert, vice president and chief operating officer of the aquarium. “They were on the endangered species list. When we can take an alligator out and tell that story it helps us get the message across.”

Alligator populations in Louisiana are doing well and are stable or rising based on annual nesting surveys, which shows about 1.5 million wild alligators, said Ruth Elsey, biologist manager for the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge.

During peak years, alligators have an economic impact of $60 million in Louisiana based on harvesting for hides and meat, which is part of the sustained use harvest program.

Annually, the commercial harvest is 300,000-500,000 eggs and 33,000-35,000 wild alligators.

Alligators are ideal for aquarium education purposes because their ability to function in the wild isn’t affected by time in captivity.

“Reptiles are one of those animals that always go back to their animal instinct,” Gilbert said. “Reptiles are machines. Whatever they are programmed to do, that is what they will do for life.”

More recently, alligators have persevered through Hurricane Ike and the drought. These guys have been around for millions of years, so I root for them to stay around a little longer. Not in my backyard, of course – this is why I live in the urban core – but in the marshes and rivers where they belong. Long may they live there.

The states that are making life harder for their National Guard members

It’s not just Texas.

RedEquality

While a majority of states ban same-sex marriages, most are not fighting the new policy. But Pentagon officials say that in addition to Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia have balked. Each has cited a conflict with state laws that do not recognize same-sex marriages. (A West Virginia official said, however, that the state intended to follow the directive.) While the president has the power to call National Guard units into federal service — and nearly all Guard funding comes from the federal government — the states say the units are state agencies that must abide by state laws.

Requiring same-sex Guard spouses to go to federally owned bases “protects the integrity of our state Constitution and sends a message to the federal government that they cannot simply ignore our laws or the will of the people,” Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma said last week.

But the six states are violating federal law, Mr. Hagel told an audience recently. “It causes division among the ranks, and it furthers prejudice,” he said. Mr. Hagel has demanded full compliance, but Pentagon officials have not said what steps they would take with states that do not fall in line.

Though the government does not keep official figures on same-sex marriages in the military, the American Military Partner Association, which advocates for gay service members, estimates that the number could be 1,000 or more of the nearly half-million National Guard members nationwide, said Chris Rowzee, a spokeswoman for the group.

The military grants a range of significant benefits to the spouses of active-duty guardsmen, including the right to enroll in the military’s health insurance program and to obtain a higher monthly housing allowance. Spouse IDs allow unescorted access to bases with their lower-priced commissaries.

Officials in the six states say they are not preventing same-sex spouses from getting benefits, because those couples can register and receive IDs through federal bases. But those officials conceded that many couples would have to travel hours round trip to the nearest federal installation. Advocates for gay service members, though, fear that some benefits offered on bases, like support services for relatives of deployed service members, could still be blocked.

Moreover, gay spouses say that in an age that saw the scrapping of the military’s ban on openly gay service members, it is discriminatory — and humiliating — to have to jump through extra hoops to receive benefits.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m still waiting for the threatened lawsuit to be filed. Note that even among the states that banned same-sex marriage, Texas and these others are a minority. There’s no public policy purpose being served here, just disrespect for people who have done nothing to deserve it. One way or another, these states need to be made to do the right thing and do right by their National Guard members.

Zack Kopplin

Remember the name Zack Kopplin.

Zack Kopplin

Rice University sophomore Zack Kopplin says he has been called the Antichrist, a godless liberal and, bizarrely, the cause of Hurricane Katrina.

Kopplin, 19, has gained notoriety for championing the fight against his home state of Louisiana’s 2008 law that made it easier for teachers to introduce creationist textbooks into classrooms.

“It’s incredible that a young man is prepared to stand up for the truth,” said Sir Harold Walter Kroto, a British chemist who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry and is a professor at Florida State University. He helped Kopplin connect with the 78 Nobel laureates who backed an unsuccessful attempt to repeal the law in 2011.

At a time when conventional wisdom has it that teenagers are disinterested in public policy, Kopplin is anything but apathetic and seems to relish a fight. The student activist has faced off against Louisiana state lawmakers and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, and has appeared on national news networks leading the charge against the of use religion in public school classrooms.

“Science has nothing to do with religion; they operate on different planes,” contended Kopplin.

Now Kopplin, a history major who is taking a full course load this semester, is preparing to fight state Sen. Dan Patrick’s effort to allow school vouchers in Texas. Patrick, R-Houston, is a strong supporter of school vouchers, which would allow tax money to flow to private and religious schools.

IO9 had a nice feature story on Kopplin and his fight against creationism in Louisiana a little while ago that you ought to read as well. He also has a blog that exhaustively documents creationist voucher schools around the country. This is why public funds should be for public schools and private schools should pay for themselves. He’s got his work cut out for him, but speaking as someone who wasn’t doing anything nearly that productive as a college sophomore, I’m deeply impressed with what he’s done already. Give ’em hell, Zack.

Are vouchers unconstitutional?

Attorney Kelly Frels makes the case that private school vouchers will not pass constitutional muster in Texas.

State Sen. Dan Patrick has proposed that the state of Texas provide vouchers to help parents pay for private school tuition. Vouchers are bad public policy, and they are not permitted by the Texas Constitution.

[…]

From a public policy perspective, assume that Texas adopts a voucher system. Will all private schools that benefit from state voucher money be required to accept any child who appears at the school’s door or will the private school be able to continue to pick and choose from those who apply? Will such private schools be required to offer bilingual education and to provide an appropriate, free education for students with disabilities? Or will the private school be able to take the state’s money for its chosen students and deny admission to those with educational challenges or those who misbehave, leaving them to the public schools to educate?

[…]

Constitutionally, vouchers are dead before they start. The Texas Constitution, Article VII, Section 1, recognizes the importance of “a general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people …” Article VII, Section 1 mandates that “… it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Given this constitutional mandate, how can the state’s money be used to fund private schools, even if the money follows the child to a private school?

Private schools that are sponsored by a church or a religious group face another constitutional roadblock in Section 7 of the Texas Constitution’s Bill of Rights. “No money shall be appropriated or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary, nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purpose.” Can anyone in good conscience argue that vouchers do not benefit the private school, even if the voucher is given to the child’s parents?

You don’t have to convince me that vouchers are bad public policy. Frels references prior op-eds by Ronald Trowbridge in making that case. The constitutional question I’m not qualified to evaluate, but I feel certain that Dan Patrick has consulted with an attorney or two, and that they have a differing opinion. I’m sure we’ll see a response from someone on Patrick’s team in the near future. For what it’s worth, Louisiana’s voucher program was ruled unconstitutional in state court last week, though the ruling is not seen as an insurmountable obstacle to the program. Personally, I’d rather win by defeating any legislation before it ever gets to the Governor, and not have to depend on the whims of the judiciary. Any lawyers out there want to weigh in on this?

The opening argument against vouchers

We’ve been hearing about vouchers since Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst named Sen. Dan Patrick to be Chair of the Senate Education Committee, but we haven’t heard – or at least, I haven’t seen – a lot of information about what exactly that would mean. This Chron op-ed by Ronald Trowbridge brings some facts and figures and gives a starting point for engagement on the issue.

A new proposed model now under consideration in Texas is called Taxpayer Savings Grants (TSG). But this model is fatally flawed. First, very few students would be able to use the grants (vouchers) because private-school tuition balances are too expensive. Second, private schools would not have the capacity to enroll large increases in student admissions. Third, grants would also subsidize relatively wealthy students already attending private schools. Four, the model opens the possibility, if not probability, that government subsidies (vouchers) to private schools could come with controlling political strings attached.

Proponents of TSG argue that the public school system would save $3,000 for every student who transfers to a private school and that “just under 7 percent of students would take advantage” of a $5,143 voucher to attend a private school.

Let’s look at the arithmetic. The Texas Education Agency reports that public-school enrollment K-12 in Texas in 2010-11 was 4,933,617 students. Seven percent would total 345,353 students. Private-school enrollment in 2009, reports the National Center for Education Statistics, was 313,360. There is no way private schools would have the capacity to enroll 345,353 more students.

Meanwhile, students already attending private schools would also receive the same $5,143 voucher per student. For 313,360 students already attending private schools, the cost to state government would total $161 million a year.

Here’s another serious problem with TSG: The public student transferring to a private school must pay the difference between the $5,143 voucher and the full price of tuition at the private school. If tuition is, say, $12,000 per year, parents would have to come up with the $6,857 difference. Private-school tuition often runs in the range of $10,000 to $20,000.

What’s more, private schools will do precisely what colleges do when stipends for Pell grants are increased: raise tuition. So the private school will raise tuition to, say, $13,000, and parents will have to pay the difference between $5,143 and $13,000.

Most of the 345,353 students would be priced out of the market. What’s more, 2.9 million school kids are on subsidized-lunch programs. These kids could not even dream of attending a private school.

Trowbridge notes that government funding for something inevitably leads to government meddling in, of not control over, that something, the prospect of which you would think might give people like Dan Patrick pause. I’d add in the concern that this is all just a massive subsidy for religious schools, which will have all kinds of questionable things on their curricula, but only if their religion is of the approved kind. There’s also the question about whether these schools would be subject to the same accountability laws as the public schools, which I suppose also goes to Trowbridge’s point about government money coming with strings attached. I feel quite certain that a response from Sen. Patrick or one of his acolytes will be forthcoming, so we’ll see what they have to say about this.

A matter of priorities

Compare and contrast.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the outspoken voice of the far right in the Senate, said he will be pushing vouchers that parents of school-age children could use for charter schools, online offerings or additional alternatives to the public schools.

“To me, school choice is the photo ID bill of this session,” he said. “Our base has wanted us to pass photo voter ID for years, and we did it. They’ve been wanting us to pass school choice for years. This is the year to do it, in my view. That issue will do more to impact the future of Texas and the quality of education than anything else we could do.”

Patrick envisions a cornucopia of conservative legislation he’s sure will pass, including sanctuary cities restrictions and bills to allow guns on school campuses and outlaw “groping” by Transportation Security Administration personnel.

Conservatives also will push for a law that only allows spending increases if they are based on population and inflation, and Patrick will continue his crusade to change the Senate rule requiring a two-thirds vote to bring up legislation.

Everything they want to do if they have the numbers to do so is an ideological checklist item, which is a continuation of what they did in 2011. Compare that to what the One Texas PAC is talking about – water, electricity, transportation. You know, the things Texas needs to ensure its future. Which issues would you rather see get addressed?

By the way, if Sen. Patrick et al are going to be pushing vouchers – which, let’s be clear, means public money for private (read: “religious”) schools – I wonder if they’ve had a chat with their friends from Louisiana about unintended consequences. I also wonder if, like Louisiana, these private schools will be held to lower accountability standards than the public schools are, if they are held to any standards at all. Perhaps someone should ask Bill Hammond what he thinks about this little scheme. EoW and the Texas AFT Blog have more.

Let’s be clear about something: I disagree with Dan Patrick as much and as often as anyone can, but I truly lament the fact that he has nothing to offer on the real issues that Texas faces. I don’t pretend that my side has all the answers, but right now my side is the only one seeking them. Dan Patrick is a smart guy, and he could be very productive if he cared about something other than perpetuating his own power. I’m sure I wouldn’t like most of whatever solutions he’d have to offer, but I’m also sure there would be something there that could be a starting point for constructive debate. Instead, all we get is time-wasters, distractions, and assaults on those he disdains. I firmly believe it’s behavior like this that will hasten the downfall of his party, but in the meantime Texas’ problems get deeper and more intractable, and that does no one any good.

When monkeys are outlawed, only outlaws will have monkeys

Or something like that.

Cebus capucinus

Even in their Texas hideout, Jim and Donita Clark are terrified that wildlife agents from their home state of Louisiana will descend on their motorhome and seize the four Capuchin monkeys they’ve reared for 10 years.

Four months ago, the couple fled before authorities showed up at their house for an inspection, and ever since they’ve been hiding out with their monkeys — all of them cooped up in the recreational vehicle.

Exotic animal owners like them say wildlife agents have been cracking down in Louisiana and around the country after high-profile cases of exotic animals getting loose or attacking people. At least six states have also banned the ownership of wild animals since 2005, and Congress is also mulling tighter restrictions.

The couple fears the monkeys will be confiscated and sent to a zoo if they return home to DeRidder, La.

“It’s not what I fought for … to be treated like this,” said Jim Clark, a 60-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, as tears streaked his face. “It’s not right to think they can come into your house and do this to you with or without a warrant.”

[…]

Crackdowns in Louisiana and elsewhere have gained momentum since a man in Ohio released his personal zoo of lions, tigers, zebras, bears and monkeys before killing himself. The 2009 face-mauling of a Connecticut woman by a chimpanzee also highlighted the dangers of keeping wild animals in residential neighborhoods.

“It was a wakeup call to the nation that we should no longer tolerate the reckless decision-making by a small number of people,” said Wayne Pacelle, the head of the Humane Society of the United States.

Veterinarians and primate experts generally agree that monkeys — like all wild animals — shouldn’t be adopted as pets.

“They are not animated toys. They’re so intelligent they’re difficult to keep in a stimulated environment long term,” said Dr. Patricia V. Turner, the president of the Association of Primate Veterinarians.

She said monkeys kept in homes often end up obese and suffering from emotional stress that takes the form of self-biting. Monkeys are garrulous social creatures and need to be around their own kind, she said.

With all due respect to the Clarks, I agree with the experts. Monkeys and other wild animals should not be kept as pets. It’s dangerous, it’s bad for the animals, it’s often bad for the local ecology, and it’s just not right. I support efforts to tighten restrictions on who can buy, sell, or possess exotic animals. TM Daily Post has more, and the Trib has a related article about the Humane Society pushing for a ban on “exotic” pets.

The black bears return to Texas

Very cool.

SOMEWHERE IN BLUE ELBOW SWAMP — Hope, sometimes, is based on the strangest things. Here, deep in the near-impenetrable thickets of the Sabine River basin, it rides on sardines and tampons soaked in pastry filling.

That exotic bait, researchers anticipate, will lure the elusive black bear out of hiding, leaving behind exciting evidence of its renewed presence in its long-abandoned East Texas stomping grounds.

Once legion in the region’s swamps and forests, black bears effectively vanished from Texas by the mid-1960s — victims of overhunting and habitat destruction. But now, graduate students from Nacogdoches’ Stephen F. Austin State University, heartened by repeated reports of sightings, have taken to the woods to determine how many of the “threatened” animals may have returned.

Under forest wildlife management professor Christopher Comer’s supervision, master’s degree candidate Dan Kaminski last week began setting hair-snare traps — fragrant baits surrounded by a barbed wire-barrier — in swampland near the Texas-Louisiana border. The three-year project ultimately will encompass a vast swath of East Texas, notably the once bear-infested Big Thicket.

The history of the bears in Big Thicket is really interesting. I had no idea there had once been so many bears there. I just don’t associate bears with Texas. And now I know why.

Meanwhile, back in the swamp, Kaminski and his colleagues, scratched and sweat-drenched from their initial outing, plotted their next move.

Siegmund suggested sardine cans be only partially opened lest the contents quickly fall victim to insects.

Kaminski explained that, in efforts to maximize the appeal of his hair-snare traps, he would introduce a new variety of bait: a three-to-one mixture of cattle blood and fish oil. He already has found a slaughter house to provide his supplies.

I have to ask: Have you considered using picnic baskets? I hear they’re quite effective. Might also help us determine if our bears are smarter than average or not.

Outsourcing inmates

We know Sheriff Adrian Garcia has a plan to fix problems with the Harris County jails. He’s been up front about what he wants to do, and he’s helped create the position of “jail czar”, who is tasked with finding ways to reduce the jail population for the long term. As such, I presume, and I hope, that this is being viewed as a short term solution only.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia wants to spend $16.5 million to house up to 2,100 inmates in four other Texas county jails for six months, part of his plan to alleviate overcrowding in Harris County lockups while trimming overtime and transportation costs.

Several members of the Commissioners Court expressed support for the initiative Monday, noting that although the new contracts average $5 more per day per inmate than the existing contract to house up to 1,800 inmates in Louisiana jails, the higher costs will be offset by savings in reduced overtime, medical and transportation costs.

On Sunday, there were 1,046 inmates from Harris County in Louisiana at the cost of $38 per prisoner per day, but that does not include transportation and medical care. Those jails accept only minimum-security prisoners, the sheriff added.

The new contracts with Dickens, Bowie, Newton and Jefferson counties set for approval by the court today range from $42.25 to $45 per inmate per day, and include transportation and medical costs. All categories of prisoners will be accepted, Garcia said.

Garcia said he expects the majority of Harris County inmates sent to the four in-state jails will be those convicted, sentenced and awaiting transfer to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison. Also expected to be transferred are those convicted of a state jail felony, but plea bargained to serve their sentence in county jail. Late last month, there were 395 inmates awaiting transfer to state prison and 1,295 serving state jail offenses.

“The real win here is … we’re trying to find ways to deal with the overcrowding situation and we’re trying to partner with surrounding counties so we can get TDCJ paper-ready inmates“ transferred to state prison, Garcia said. ‘‘Obviously, any population we can relieve from here is going to be a win, a plus, and take pressure off our operations.”

The request has now been approved by the Court. As the first story notes, overtime costs last year were $30 million, so this is certainly a cheaper option. It’s likely to be cheaper than the Louisiana option was as well, given that transportation and medical costs are included. And it certainly makes more sense to ship out inmates that are supposed to be in state jails, rather than minimum security inmates. All well and good, but the ultimate goal has to be to eliminate these costs, by reducing the county’s jail population to the point where outsourcing is no longer needed. As long as we’re working towards that goal, and everyone is doing their part, then this is okay. If it becomes a substitute for reducing the overall jail population, then it’s not. This appropriation is for six months, and while we certainly won’t have problems fixed by then, I do hope we’ll be able to show some progress.

UPDATE: Stace has more.

Our friend the stimulus package

Jason Embry tells us just how much Texas relied on the stimulus package this year.

A new report from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that federal stimulus dollars played a large role in allowing Texas lawmakers to balance their budget this year without tapping Rainy Day Funds.

The national group asked states to say how they closed their budget gaps for the 2010 budget year, and 35 states responded. Of those, 25 said they used federal stimulus dollars to close budget gaps, and Texas reported that it relied most heavily on stimulus dollars, using those dollars to provide 96.7 percent of the gap-closing solution. Nebraska was next at 88 percent.

At least 11 states (not Texas) raised taxes to close their gaps. At least eight states (not Texas) tapped their rainy day funds. Montana and West Virginia (not Texas) relied entirely on spending cuts.

Texas was one of the few states to avoid a budget shortfall in the current year. But the report also projects a budget gap of $4 billion to $5 billion a year starting in the 2012 budget year. This is all worth pointing out because state leaders rarely mention the $12 billion in stimulus dollars they received when they discuss what great work they did to balance the budget, and because Gov. Rick Perry was one of the country’s most dogged critics of the stimulus dollars.

Which is one reason why I mention it every chance I get. Even by Rick Perry standards, the level of hypocrisy here is stunning. The irony is that were it not for the stimulus money, the legislative session we had would have been much more contentious, and when that happens Perry’s approval rating usually takes a dive. You could argue that the main reason – perhaps the only reason – he’s gone from being conventionally considered a dead duck versus KBH in next year’s primary to leading in all the polls against her is precisely because of the stimulus, which not only made for a smoother session in the Lege but gave him a juicy issue to flog for his dead-ender base. He really leads a charmed political life, doesn’t he?

Meanwhile, Perry is defending his decision to reject the stimulus money for unemployment insurance, and (God help us) threatening to resist health care reform on “states rights” grounds. If you’re unemployed or uninsured, Rick Perry wants you to stay that way and quit pestering him about it. I will say that the fact that his rejection of the stimulus money for unemployment insurance hasn’t been a negative for him – polls have consistently shown a plurality agreeing with him on this – is a failure of Democratic messaging. If we can’t make that into a millstone for him, we’re not doing our job.

UPDATE: Of course, Rick Perry isn’t the only shameless hypocrite on the stimulus package. He may net even be the worst among GOP governors, hard as that may be to believe.

How much money would expanded gambling generate?

Throughout this session, every time the subject of expanded gambling in Texas comes up, along with it comes some kind of projection of how much revenue it might generate. Those estimates always come from the proponent of that form of expanded gambling, and as expected are wildly optimistic. For example:

Texas Insider, February 13:

“Our breadth of support cuts across all lines of gender, race and party,” said Tommy Azapardi, Executive Director of Texans for Economic Development. “In these economic times, voters are very motivated by the 53,000 new jobs and the billion dollars a year for state coffers racinos could generate for the state.”

Texas Politics, February 23:

Proponents say casinos in Texas could generate anywhere from $3 to $4.5 billion per year.

Houston Chronicle, February 25:

Backers of Joint Resolution 31 and Senate Bill 1084, the broad gambling legislation, said their proposal would bring in at least $3 billion a year in new state and local revenue.

So how realistic is any of this? Well, consider this.

During 2008-09, the [Economic Forum] expects gaming taxes to drop from $804 million to $715 million, an 11 percent decline. Gaming revenues will increase by 3.3 percent to $739 million in 2009-10, and by 3.9 percent to $767 million in 2010-11, according to the forum.

That’s from Nevada, a state which has more gambling than we do or would even if HJR 31 passes. The $715 million in gaming revenue comes from a gross gaming revenue tax of 6.75% (it’s actually slightly less than that, but this is close enough), which in turn implies statewide gambling revenues of about $10.5 billion. If you assume the casinos’ margin is seven percent – that is to say, a total 93 percent payout on all bets – that means gamblers dropped a total of about $150 billion at Nevada casinos.

So the question is, do we think Texas casinos will generate more than Nevada’s? HJR 31 sets the revenue tax at 15%, so we could generate as much tax revenue on less than half the amount – about $4.8 billion, or $68 billion in bets at the same payout rate. To get all the way to $3 billion, though, you’d have to have the casinos take in $20 billion, which in turn is about $270 billion in bets. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

By the way, a little further Googling led me to this article, which suggests that gross casino revenue in Louisiana is about $2.5 billion. That strikes me as a better comparison to Texas – note that Louisiana has 13 riverboat casinos and one land-based casino, while HJR 31 would call for 12 casinos in Texas – and would generate $375 million in gambling taxes at 15 percent.

Now of course, the casinos have other ways to make money for themselves (food, drink, hotel occupancy, entertainment, etc) and for the state (sales taxes, hotel taxes, alcohol and cigarette taxes (assuming smoking would be legal in the casinos, which I’m guessing would not be the case), property taxes, business margins taxes, etc). I don’t know what the components are to that $3 billion figure for the casinos, or the $1 billion figure for the “racinos” (I still hate that word). It’s entirely possible – likely, really – that I’m not comparing apples to apples. But at least you can see where my numbers are coming from. It would be nice if the gambling industry could do some of the same kind of calculation, and show their work, so that a proper comparison, as well as a judgment of their projections, can be made.

Full disclosure: The two Nevada links came to me from Teresa Kelly of Texans Against Gambling, after she commented via email about an earlier post of mine. That was the inspiration for this post, though the rest of the research is mine. I’ll be more than happy to do a similar exercise for someone on the pro-gambling side of things if they want to as well.

Two stories about gambling

The Chron’s David Barron talks to some experts about putting slot machines at horse tracks, which is one of several major proposals to expand gambling in Texas this legislative session.

William Eadington, an economics professor at the University of Nevada and director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, questions the accepted wisdom in racing circles that video slots are a magic bullet for racing.

“The official argument is that this is a way to save racing and increase purses, which will attract better horses,” Eadington said. “The only thing wrong with that is that it hasn’t really held up.

“Racing continues to be in decline. If you look at handle and on-track attendance and net revenue after payment of purses — any of the standard measures — it has been stagnant for 20 years.”

While track operators stand to benefit financially from state licenses for video slots, granting such licenses during an economic downturn and limiting the field to racetrack owners cuts into potential state tax benefits by eliminating the large casino operators as competing bidders, Eadington said.

“Most of the major companies, with a couple of exceptions, are in no position to be bidding on casino licenses. They have no money for capital commitments,” Eadington said. “In that sense, this is not a great time to be putting things out for bid. You foreclose the option of doing something better if and when the economy gets going again.”

Difficult times for the resort casino industry, of course, make this a perfect time for racetracks to seek state legislation that would grandfather them in as video slot operators.

“It’s all political,” the economist said. “What (the tracks) would like is an environment that preserves the possibility of long-term excess profits. If they can have exclusivity in slots in urban areas, they are potentially very profitable.”

Nice to hear a little balance to all the rah-rah stuff the gambling industry puts out every time we go through this. I feel like it should have run on the front page, rather than the front page of the sports section, but I’ll take what I can get.

Meanwhile, John Nova Lomax has a cover story in the Press about the history of casino gambling in Galveston and the debate today about bringing it back as a means to revitalize the place post-Ike. I think this is the key bit:

You can see arguments for and against casinos before your eyes. Both major Lake Charles casinos sport huge parking lots — which begs the question of where they could fit in Galveston.

Those lots are also jam-packed with cars with Texas license plates. When you couple that with all the signs touting the many shuttles offering dirt cheap transport from nine pickup points in Houston to the casinos, you realize the magnitude of the cash drain over the Sabine.

Both the Isle of Capri and L’Auberge du Lac are vast complexes that rise mirage-like out of acres of concrete in the middle of nowhere. Each offers in-house restaurants, shops, clubs and lodging, and that underscores one of [gambling opponent Harris] Kempner’s main anti-casino contentions — that [Allen] Flores and the Strand merchants are fooling themselves if they think casinos will bring them customers. Even in the old days, he says, the Balinese Room knew well how to lock down the junket trade. “When the casinos wanted to attract banquets, they undercut,” he says. “They could afford to do that because they can make food, drink, shelter and entertainment a loss leader, and they will do it again.”

That’s been the Atlantic City experience, and I tend to think it would be Galveston’s, or any other place’s that got casinos, as well. Lomax does a good job of presenting multiple perspectives on the issue, so check it out.