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Texas A&M

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. The DMN has more.

What’s next for the now-canceled white nationalist rally at A&M

The legal experts are weighing in.

Saunie Schuster, an attorney for The NCHERM Group, which provides consulting for schools on First Amendment issues, said that was the organizer’s big mistake.

“You can be here and you can speak even if we hate what you’re saying, but you can’t disrupt the function of Texas A&M,” Schuster said. “Because a person was killed and people were seriously injured in Charlottesville, the potential for harm is not just speculative. If he’s linking the two events together, he’s seeing that as an outcome.”

Southern Methodist University constitutional law professor Dale Carpenter said the school’s position — that the rally presents a huge public safety risk and could disrupt normal activities on campus — is “legitimate,” but the school may face some legal backlash anyway. On Monday evening, rally organizer Wiginton said as much: “I guess my lawyers will now be suing the state of Texas.”

Carpenter said the university “can’t simply ban a controversial speaker because others might react violently.” He said blocking speech is an absolute last resort to prevent violence, not a first resort. He suggested the university may be able to negotiate a different time or place for the rally but said he doubts A&M will “succeed in simply prohibiting this event and its subject matter on campus.”

“That billing is too vague to constitute a true threat of violence, in my view. Indeed, the fact that Texas A&M specifically cited that billing as a justification may weaken its claim that the cancellation was for content-neutral reasons,” Carpenter added.

Meanwhile, Schuster said, “if the people coming to do a ‘White Lives Matter’ rally remain in a public area or do so in a manner that doesn’t disrupt the educational function of the institution, the school is going to be highly unlikely to be able to shut it down or restrict it.”

See here for the background. The racist organizer had talked about having a march on campus instead, which might be harder to restrict, but in the end decided to call it off, at least for now. He’s still talking lawsuit, however. My layman’s opinion of what A&M did was that it was defensible on public safety grounds, but that is no guarantee they would prevail in court if it comes down to it, which it may yet do. Other legal experts were less sanguine.

“If all it took to shut down a speaker was to threaten a riot, we would all find ourselves with very little free speech at all,” said Ari Cohn, the director of the Individual Rights Defense Program, a campus civil rights watchdog group. “Allowing the possibility of a bottle-throwing mob to justify curtailing speech only incentivizes violence. That is an untenable result, from a legal and practical standpoint.”

Cohn said that the [racist jerk]’s link between Charlottesville and the planned A&M rally—a main reason the university gave for canceling the event—is protected under free speech. “Under applicable constitutional precedent, it constitutes neither incitement to imminent lawless action nor a true threat, and without more, that notice does not justify canceling the event,” Cohn said. “Moreover, violence committed in one place does not justify curtailing freedom of expression in other places. We do not discard the First Amendment’s protections because someone, somewhere reacted inappropriately to speech—and to be clear, violence is never an acceptable response to speech. But to sacrifice our First Amendment rights on the altar of preventing violence is incompatible with our understanding of free speech.”

[…]

“[Texas A&M], in denying White Lives Matters [and other racist jerk]’s access to public areas to engage in speech—notwithstanding how deplorable and lacking in value that speech may be—more likely than not is violating the First Amendment by engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination,” JT Morris, an Austin-based attorney specializing in First Amendment law, said in an email. Morris said [racist jerk] could file a lawsuit immediately seeking an emergency temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, asking a judge to force the university to grant [racist jerk]’s group access to campus for the rally. “This is a really tough situation to balance First Amendment rights and public safety,” Morris said. “We’re looking at protecting speech of minimal value—to put it gently—that is espoused by a very small group of people, at the risk of serious harm to public safety.” As Morris notes, the First Amendment protects what most of us consider to be hate speech, unless that speech crosses the line and incites violence. “I’m not sure the White Lives Matter [and] [other racist jerk] stuff is quite there—yet,” Morris said.

As I’ve said, I support A&M’s actions here. If they wind up losing in court, that would be unfortunate, but at least they tried. Slate, which takes a national look at this issue, has more.

White nationalist rally at A&M canceled

I’ve been on the road with limited Internet access, so I’m just now catching up on recent events. Unlike our garbage president, I wholeheartedly condemn the appalling racist violence committed in Charlottesville by a bunch of Nazi scum. As such, I was heartened to see this.

A white nationalist rally planned on Texas A&M University’s campus has been canceled, apparently out of concern for student safety, officials confirmed Monday.

The school made the decision after consulting law enforcement and “considerable study” because of “concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff and the public.”

“Texas A&M’s support of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech cannot be questioned,” the university said in a statement Monday afternoon.

“However, in this case circumstances and information relating to the event have changed and the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event.”

You can learn the details of this now-canceled event here; I have no desire to give these jackwads any mentions. The asshole who organized this thing says in the story that he plans to sue. I think based on the deplorable events in Charlottesville that A&M has a pretty good public safety argument to make, but I guess we’ll see what the courts have to say. It’s certainly possible A&M could get overruled. Given that, you might want to make note of this Maroon Wall counterprotest, which had been prepped to go on at the same time, just in case it is still needed. It would be best for this to now be obsolete, but if that is not the case then it sure would be nice to completely overwhelm these fascists with huge numbers of actual decent people. Beyond that, kudos to the legislators who called on A&M Chancellor John Sharp to cancel the event, and to Sharp for heeding the call. In the meantime, if you need something to do now, there are things that can be done in Austin, in Missouri City, and in Houston. People need to speak up, but we also need to take action. The Rivard Report has more.

Three rideshare bills

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute Policy Center looks at the (first) three bills relating to ridesharing that have been filed in the Lege:

Three bills have been filed so far in the 85th Texas Legislature, regular session, addressing transportation network companies, frequently referred to as ride-hailing or (less accurately) as ridesharing. The bills are

  1. SB 113 Relating to the provision of and local regulation of certain for-hire passenger transportation.
  2. SB 176 Relating to the regulation of transportation network companies; requiring an occupational permit; authorizing a fee.
  3. SB 361 Relating to transportation network companies.

SB 113 and SB 176 have been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. SB 361 is expected to follow when it is referred to committee.

SB 133 prohibits municipalities from regulating any vehicles for hire (including taxis) and imposes minimal state-level regulation in its place. SB 176 and SB 361 also remove municipal authority over TNCs but introduce state level regulation. There are differences between the latter two (permit fees, for example), but the provisions of both bills are similar to those passed in other states. SB 361 further clarifies that TNCs are not motor carriers and, thus, not regulated under the motor carrier statutes.

There’s further analysis there, so go read the rest. SB361 is by Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, SB176 is by Sen. Charles Schwertner; it has five co-authors, including Democratic Sen. Juan Hinojosa. SB113 is by Sen. Don Huffines, and it’s basically a part of his plan to turn cities into helpless wards of the state. That’s the order in which I’d rank them from least to most objectionable. I’d be fine if nothing passes, but something likely will, and if that is the case I can live with either of the first two. There’s room to make them less daunting for cities, and I hope that happens. We’ll see how it goes.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

Fire ant-killing robots

Let’s just luxuriate in the glory of that headline for a moment, shall we?

Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

The idea is to use a camera to identify the species the same way computers and sites like Facebook can recognize faces, and then fire at them with a blue laser taken from inside a DVD burner, he said.

Sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they just got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding. He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to that.

“The marine biologists were [saying], ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,'” he said. Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

I just want to say three things. One, Harley Myler is now my favorite scientist ever. Two, the only way this project could be any better is if the ant-killing laser-firing robots were built to resemble Star Wars AT-AT walkers. I mean, it’s obvious, right? And three, for the love of God please don’t let the Defense Department or the NSA give this guy a grant. I can’t wait till May to see what the prototype looks like, but until then if you want some more practical advice about fire ants, here’s the A&M fire ant page for you to peruse. You’re welcome.

Still more hyperloops

They had a hyperloop design contest at Texas A&M:

In the end, Elon Musk couldn’t resist showing up to the competition he helped inspire. The billionaire SpaceX CEO made a surprise appearance at the end of the Hyperloop pod design competition at Texas A&M University Saturday, eliciting a rapturous reaction from the thousand-plus audience of high school and college engineers who were there to compete for a chance to test their designs on Musk’s personal Hyperloop track later this year.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s team was awarded the top prize, and will now go on to build an actual pod to race on the under-construction track near SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif. headquarters. The Delft University of Technology from the Netherlands were the next runners-up. Auburn University won in the category of best overall subsystem. Twenty-two teams in all will go on to test their pods in Hawthorne, although up to 10 other teams could also qualify after further judging in the coming weeks, according to SpaceX.

Dozens of other winners in propulsion, design, levitation, and braking were also announced at the end of the two-day competition, which also featured technology demonstrations like Arx Pax’s hover engine, and a speech by US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The event was meant to generate excitement among engineers and the public for the tube-based, transonic, vacuum transport system popularized by the billionaire Musk in 2013. But it was also meant to serve as a rebuttal to skeptics who dismissed the Hyperloop as too fanciful, impractical, and expensive to exist in the real world.

“The public wants something new,” Musk told the attendees. “And you’re going to give it to them.”

See here and here for some background. I still think this is all pie in the sky, but it is nice to think that there might be better ways to travel than what we have now. Maybe if this doesn’t work something like it will. Texas Monthly has more.

On to the benefits

Now that same sex marriage is the law of the land, Texas employers need to make sure that the spousal benefits they offer apply to all spouses.

RedEquality

“If an employer provides benefits to anyone who is currently married, they must now treat gay and lesbian employees the same and offer them the exact same benefits,” said Neel Lane, a San Antonio lawyer at corporate law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

“The ruling has an enormous impact on employers and employees in Texas,” said Lane, who represents on a pro bono basis a gay couple in Texas who have challenged the state’s ban on same-sex marriages.

[…]

Lawyers said they have been inundated with calls – mainly from small- and medium-sized business owners – seeking legal advice on updating employment and benefits forms but also asking if there are ways under Texas law to avoid having to make changes.

James Griffin, an expert on employment benefits and federal tax law at Jackson Walker in Dallas, said the legal advice he is giving his business clients is simple.

“Don’t waste your time looking for ways to defeat this,” Griffin said. “The Supreme Court decision is very broad. This issue is done. Make the changes and move on.”

Griffin and other lawyers say most large corporations implemented policies years ago that extend benefits to same-sex couples.

But they say some Texas-based companies that operate exclusively within the state have not addressed the issue because they have never had employees come forward and say they are gay and want benefits for their partners. Lawyers say that because Texas political leaders have been adamantly anti-same-sex marriage and benefits, many workers were afraid to step forward.

“Now, because of the Supreme Court ruling, a lot of people who have been reluctant are going to raise their hand for the benefits and the companies have to address it,” said Mark Shank, an employment law partner at Gruber Hurst Elrod Johansen Hail Shank in Dallas.

Among the employers who have already taken action is the state of Texas.

The state’s bureaucracy is moving forward to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision, even as state elected officials – including Gov. Greg Abbott – have lambasted the landmark ruling.

Starting Wednesday – less than a week after the decision – the Employees Retirement System of Texas, the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M System will extend benefits to spouses of gay and lesbian employees.

That means the state’s largest employer, the State of Texas, will join the list of those providing equal benefits to same-sex partners.

The decision is latest sign that state government is accepting the ruling, which struck down gay marriage bans in Texas and other states. And that bureaucratic churn provides a notable counterbalance to the saber-rattling by Abbott and other top Republicans.

“This is all kind of new for us,” said Catherine Terrell, a spokeswoman for the Employees Retirement System of Texas. “We’re just looking at what other employers have seen.”

The state employees some 311,000 people, according to the state auditor’s office. Terrell said ERS, which handles benefits for most state employees, was anticipating that about 1,500 spouses of gay employees would now enroll for benefits.

A “notable counterbalance to the saber-rattling”. I like that. When you consider all the county clerks who ignored Ken Paxton’s legal “advice”, it’s quite clear who’s really out of touch here. That doesn’t mean they’re going to acknowledge it any time soon.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas is also providing these benefits now; they weren’t included in the Trail Blazers post. Regarding the UT and A&M systems, I like the quote in this Trib story about that:

Professors at Texas’ public universities celebrated the extension of benefits, saying the policy change will offer relief for many gay and lesbian employees and reduce the rate at which they leave Texas institutions in search of schools that accommodate same-sex couples.

Patrick Burkart, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, said extending benefits for same-sex couples will put the university on the “same competitive footing” as other research universities across the country because it will help retain and recruit top faculty and staffers.

“What we’re going to find out is how expensive it’s been to keep a discriminatory policy on the books as we have,” said Burkart, the secretary and treasurer of the A&M chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which has pushed for the benefits for years.

Burkart, who has served on several faculty search committees, indicated that the previous policy denying benefits to same-sex spouses or partners kept potential candidates from applying for posts at the school.

Hundreds of colleges across the country offer benefits to same-sex spouses or same-sex domestic partners.

”I think our university has suffered for it, and now is a great time to catch up and gather our strengths,” Burkart said.

I’m willing to bet none of our “saber-rattling” state leaders ever considered that, and if any of them did, I seriously doubt they cared. It is of course one big reason why so many private employers have been doing this for so long – you’ve got to keep up with the competition. Burying your head in the sand never works.

Let’s go back to the first story for a minute to see an example of another place where they can demonstrate that:

Legal experts also say the first major domino likely to fall will occur in federal court in Wichita Falls, where a federal judge in March, at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Paxton, issued an injunction that prevented the federal Family and Medical Leave Act from applying to same-sex couples in Texas.

Because of the ruling, Texas was one of four states in the U.S. where FMLA benefits have been denied to gay couples involved in civil unions.

“That decision will almost certainly be reversed right away,” said David Coale, a partner at Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox. “State political leaders may try to fight it, but they are going to lose, and then they are going to have to pay a lot of money to lawyers for pursuing frivolous legal claims.”

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit involved federal employees in Texas, who were covered by an Obama executive order extending employment benefits to same-sex spouses. In the face of Obergfell v. Hodges, the injunction that was granted is clearly out of order. I presume a motion to lift the injunction will be filed shortly, and will be granted right away. Any other outcome is unfathomable.

Moving on, all the newly-married couples in Texas can now sign up for health insurance if they need to.

Same-sex couples who marry have had what the Affordable Care Act considers a “qualifying life event.” And that triggers a special 60-day enrollment period to purchase health insurance from Texas’ federally run, online marketplace, a group promoting enrollment said Tuesday.

Enroll America, a nonprofit supporting Obamacare, said in a release that under the health law, marriage is one of the unusual phenomena that allow consumers a mid-year bite at the apple. The others are having a baby, moving to a different coverage area, getting divorced and experiencing certain changes of income that would affect tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies.

“People don’t know that the special enrollment period exists,” Enroll America spokeswoman Annette Raveneau said in an interview.

[…]

Newly married same-sex couples and others with qualifying life events can sign up all by themselves, using HealthCare.gov.

Raveneau, though, strongly recommends that shoppers meet in person with a certified assistance counselor or Obamacare navigator. They can schedule appointments using Enroll America’s “Get Covered Connector.”

“The people who use an in-person assister, which are free, are twice as likely to finish the enrollment process and actually get a plan,” she said.

How many people might be able to do this? We can only guess, in part because the state has no plans to count how many same-sex couples get hitched.

Though Texas collects detailed data on marriages by county and age, getting better information on same-sex marriage rates in Texas could take years since the state has no plans to separately track those unions. Following Friday’s ruling, the Department of State Health Services released a new gender-neutral marriage application for counties to use. The application does not ask for the sex of either of the applicants.

“We are not specifically tracking those at this time,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the department. “The application asks for Applicant One and Applicant Two and currently does not ask for gender.”

States in which same-sex marriage was legal before Friday have taken different record-keeping approaches. Oregon, Vermont and Washington track marriage licenses specifically issued to same-sex couples. California and Florida simply track all marriages, and do not differentiate between same-sex and opposite-sex unions.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimated in 2013 that there were 252,000 married same-sex couples in the country, but later said that was likely an overestimate, citing flawed data. A recent paper from a census researcher put the figure at closer to 170,000.

The patchwork of data collection means reliable numbers on how many same-sex couples are getting married in different states may not be available until the next census in 2020, said Drew DeSilver, a senior writer with the Pew Research Center who has researched the issue.

I guess I’m not too bothered by this, since there doesn’t seem to be a single standard practice nationwide. It would be nice to know, but given the way the updated form is worded, I understand the reasoning. I’m sure there will be a million ways to come up with reasonably accurate estimates – new Obamacare enrollments will be one data point – and we’ll have Census data soon enough.

Moving on to the benefits issue

And as we move on to other fights, the terrain changes.

RedEquality

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opened the door for state agencies to withhold benefits from same-sex couples Friday, hours after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

In a letter released Friday afternoon, Abbott ordered heads of state agencies to prioritize religious freedom, writing that no adverse action should be taken against a state official “on account of the person’s act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by sincere religious belief.”

“This order applies to any agency decision, including but not limited to granting or denying benefits, managing agency employees, entering or enforcing agency contracts, licensing and permitting decisions, or enforcing state laws and regulations,” Abbott wrote.

In anticipation of this response, a lawsuit has already been filed for force the state to recognize the same-sex unions of its employees and grant them the same benefits. I have no idea what legal justification Abbott thinks he has for this, but we already knew he was a crappy lawyer.

The Trib makes it clear that this is little more than saber-rattling on Abbott’s part.

Public employers including Texas agencies, universities and schools may now be required to extend benefits to spouses of married gay employees in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Friday that marriages between same-sex couples are constitutional.

But when those benefits will be extended is unclear as state officials examine the high court’s ruling and consider new policies.

“At this point, all I can say is we’re aware of the ruling and we’re examining it,” said Catherine Terrell, director of governmental affairs for the state Employee Retirement System, which oversees retirement and health benefits for state employees and those of most public universities and community colleges.

A spokeswoman for the Teachers Retirement System of Texas, which serves public education employees, echoed that sentiment, saying it was also “analyzing” the ruling’s impact on the programs it administers.

The ruling is likely to have little impact on state employees’ retirement benefits, because employees can already assign any person as a beneficiary, Terrell said. But “the major benefit issue” could be with employees’ health insurance plans.

[…]

Legal experts agreed that when it comes to extending benefits for same-sex couples, the state is now bound by the Supreme Court ruling to recognize all marriages.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor and Texas Constitution expert at the University of Houston, said the state has no legal basis to exclude same-sex couples from the benefits it offers married couples.

“If you’re legally married by the law, no agency or government can restrict you,” Rottinghaus said. “Exactly how this is applied in Texas is going to be a bit shaky.”

But he added that extending benefits to same-sex couples is inevitable. “It’s not a question of when, but how,” Rottinghaus said.

That’s true of county clerks, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a straight line to get there. There’s already been a lawsuit filed to push the issue, in anticipation of this reaction from Abbott. It would be nice to think that we could avoid doing this the hard way, but of course we won’t. We will get where we need to be, We’re just gonna be mulish about it.

The feral hogs of Montgomery County

Because three blog posts about feral hogs are better than two.

Feral hogs – which some find more pesky than mosquitoes and more invasive than fire ants – are alive and well in Montgomery County.

Officials in The Woodlands say that there have been no recent sightings of wild pigs in neighborhoods – but in a growing problem has been reported throughout the county.

“We have not been hearing anything about feral hogs for the better part of several years,” Chris Nunes, director of parks and recreation for the Township, said.

He said that the boars generally reside in larger spaces – closer to water sources like creeks.

“We know of them in natural preserves,” Nunes added. “When it’s dry, they come into neighborhoods looking for food.”

Recent rains have resulted in no sightings, he said.

Keith Crenshaw, with the Houston branch of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Urban Wildlife Program, said swine in the city stay near drainage ditches and flood control corridors.

Crenshaw said Kingwood had an increase in sightings in October, after land was cleared and the way was opened for hogs to move into neighborhoods.

“The wildlife will disperse,” he said. “And hogs don’t have a major predator other than people.”

Still, Crenshaw maintains that wild pigs may live in suburban areas without humans knowing.

“It’s totally likely that people aren’t even aware they’re here,” he said.

[…]

As the county’s human population continues to grow and more land is developed, [Montgomery County extension agent for agriculture Michael] Heimer expects more hogs will move into neighborhoods.

For example, he said several homes will be constructed in what was formerly Camp Strake, a 2,000-acre property north of The Woodlands.

“When they start developing that, we’ll see a lot of wildlife displaced,” Heimer said.

In the meantime, he said it would help the extension office if county residents would report any hog sightings.

“A lot of this goes unrecorded,” he said. “Anything we can do to get information will help. It gives us a way to document what’s going on.”

We’re familiar with the feral hogs of Kingwood. Am I a bad person for admitting that the thought of feral hogs roaming the master-planned streets of Kingwood and The Woodlands makes me giggle? As for what the good people of The Woodlands can do about this menace, I recommend they start by downloading the Texas A&M feral hog app for helpful advice. Keeping the little buggers in line is everyone’s job.

Yes, but why is traffic so bad at these places?

Two things that aren’t mentioned in this story but need to be.

Two adjoining stretches of U.S. 59 in downtown and west Houston fared the worst regionally on an annual list of the 100-most congested freeways in the state, compiled by Texas Department of Transportation and Texas A&M Transportation Institute officials.

[David] Schrank, a co-author of the report, said changes to methodology led to some spikes in average congestion along certain routes. Areas with major freeway interchanges saw average congestion estimates increase, giving planners a fuller view of the gridlock afflicting most areas of the state.

The additional traffic is having a pronounced effect in certain areas, Schrank said: “These areas are teetering on really, really heavy congestion for long hours of the day.”

Houston’s two worst freeway segments are along U.S. 59. The stretch from Interstate 10 to Texas 288 ranks second-worst in the state, with an average of 743,006 hours of delay annually, per mile. The freeway from 288 to Loop 610 West ranks third-worst, with 730,655 hours of annual delay, per mile. Only a segment of Interstate 35 in downtown Austin fares worse.

Along both parts of U.S. 59, the new figures show a worsening pattern. Traffic on the eastern segment increased roughly 50 percent. Intense traffic at the interchanges with I-10 and Texas 288 was largely to blame, Schrank said.

“When you have a really, really bad quarter-mile or half-mile, it makes the whole area much worse,” he said.

Part of the problem is design and high demand for the freeway during many hours of the day, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“You clearly have as much traffic going north and eastbound on 59 in the afternoon as you do in the morning,” Emmett said, saying any remedy needs to consider the traffic flow.

That same problem causes backups on 288 northbound as well. Interchanges are a big part of the problem, no doubt. I-10 eastbound at I-45 South, where the one exit lane can be backed up to the Studemont exit or farther, is a classic example of this. But as I’ve noted before, the main issue with 59 northbound as you approach 288/45 is that it narrows down from five lanes to three at the downtown spur, then down to two lanes at the 288/45 turnoff. The volume of traffic that wants to continue north on 59 past these points is just too much for the available capacity. I hesitate to make absolute statements, but I don’t see how this can ever be resolved by adding more lane capacity, because there just isn’t the room for it. It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away.

The other point is that one big reason why there’s so much demand for that limited amount of lane space is because we’ve spent the past 20 years building much more lane capacity from Loop 610 and/or Beltway 8 outward on all the major freeways. A lot more people now live out where those expanded freeways take them, and they’re all trying to fit into those squeezed spaces on their way to and from their homes. That’s not the only reason for this – as noted, the traffic problem exists well outside the rush hours these days – but the same principle is in play. There’s much more demand for these freeways outside these urban core congestion zones, and that demand puts extra pressure on the places that are least able to handle it.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: We’ve pretty much maxed out our ability to deal with traffic by throwing more lanes at it. Unless we start double-decking or building tunnels, what we’ve got most places is what we’re going to have. One thing we can do but have not done is provide viable alternatives to taking the freeways for the people who are mostly moving about in town. Taking the people who are making short trips out of the equation and you can free up some space for the long haul drivers who have no other alternative. It’s the same argument I make about urban core restaurants providing bike parking to help keep spaces available for the customers who have to drive to get there. That’s going to require a much bigger commitment to and investment in public transportation, and so far there isn’t much evidence that’s going to happen. If they really thought about it, the people who have to navigate these traffic disasters every day ought to be the biggest supporter of expanded mass transit precisely because it will help get the people who would have options other than driving off the road. Someday I hope that argument sinks in.

The hogs keep winning

Same old story.

More than two decades into Texas’ ever escalating war against feral hogs, the wild swine continue gaining ground while Texas and the state’s native wildlife, plants and ecosystems lose it.

Despite taking millions of casualties – an estimated 750,000-plus feral hogs have been killed each of the past few years in Texas – the non-native pigs have continued their economically and environmentally destructive march across the state, with an estimated 2.6 million of them spread across at least 240 of Texas’ 254 counties.

“It’s just getting worse and worse; no matter what we’ve tried, the hogs just overwhelm us,” said Stuart Marcus, manger of the 25,000-acre Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. “They certainly are having a negative impact on native wildlife and habitat – directly and indirectly.”

Texas holds, by some estimates, as many as 10 times the number of feral hogs it did barely three decades ago.

[…]

A research project by Rice and Texas A&M universities conducted in the Big Thicket of southeast Texas used fenced and unfenced plots of land to gauge impacts of feral hogs. The plots used by hogs saw plant diversity reduced, fewer forbs, fewer large-seed (mast producing) trees, loss of leaf-litter ground cover resulting in a reduction in the abundance of invertebrates and small vertebrates, and changes in soil chemistry that changed plant communities.

The research also indicated plots disturbed by feral hogs grew twice as many Chinese tallow trees as the hog-free areas. Tallow trees are one of the most problematic non-native, invasive plants threatening Texas, as the tallows grow in dense monocultures, shade out native trees and grasses, are of almost no value to wildlife, and are almost impossible to control.

Stuart Marcus witnesses this on the Trinity River refuge.

“I call feral hogs ‘walking tallow trees,’ ” he said. “They are just as bad as tallow trees, and wherever they root up the ground, tallow trees seem to sprout by the hundreds.”

Feral hogs’ rooting behavior causes severe damage to environmentally sensitive and hugely important areas along waterways, particularly in central, south and western Texas where such waterways are limited.

“They definitely impact plant communities and really do serious damage to riparian areas, especially the western half of the state,” Frels said.

[…]

For the past three years, research at the Kerr wildlife area has focused on sodium nitrite, a toxicant that has been used to great effect against feral hogs in Australia.

Sodium nitrite kills by disrupting blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain. Pigs are highly susceptible to sodium nitrite because, unlike humans and other mammals, they lack the ability to produce an enzyme that reverses the effects. A feral hog ingesting a lethal dose of sodium nitrite quickly becomes lethargic, then unconscious. Death occurs within 90 minutes.

Research indicates the poisoned pigs pose little or no threat to scavengers or predators.

Developing bait/sodium nitrite mixtures that feral hogs will eat and that deliver a lethal dose of the substance and a “delivery system” – a feeder – that feral hogs can access but can’t be used by deer, raccoons and other non-target wildlife are the focus of research at the Kerr.

“It’s showing some promise,” Frels said of sodium nitrite’s potential as another tool to use against feral hogs. “But there’s still a long way to go before it could become an option.”

If it does, it could help turn the tide in the battle against feral hogs. In Australia, use of sodium nitrite has reduced feral hog populations in large areas by as much as 89 percent.

That would be a game-changer, and we could sure use it. I just hope the hogs don’t develop an immunity to it, at least not for a long time. Good luck getting it developed.

It’s still OK to be gay at Texas A&M

It was touch and go for awhile there. Here’s the Dallas Voice from Friday:

Texas A&M Student Body President John L. Claybrook has vetoed an anti-gay bill passed by the Student Senate on Wednesday that would have allowed students to opt out of funding the campus GLBT Resource Center with their activity fees if they have religious objections. The GLBT Aggies group just posted the above image of Claybrook’s veto on Facebook.

The Eagle of Bryan-College Station reported this morning:

News this week that some student senators had targeted the center thrust the traditionally conservative university into the national spotlight, and Claybrook said it was time to “stop the bleeding.”

“The damage must stop today,” Claybrook wrote in a letter announcing his intention to veto. “Texas A&M students represent our core value of respect exceptionally and I’m very proud of the family at this university. Now, more than ever, is the time to show great resolve and come together, treating each other like the family that we are.”

The Student Senate would need a two-thirds majority to override Claybrook’s veto. The bill passed by a smaller margin, 35-28. Even if the veto is overridden and the bill becomes policy, it almost certainly would be struck down in court, The Eagle reports:

Ken Upton, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal’s Dallas office, said even if the bill were signed and adopted as university policy, it wouldn’t last long.

“The most likely result is that a court would step in and stop it before it even happened,” Upton said.

He said there was clear legal precedent on the issue as laid out in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, where students sued their university because they opposed multicultural, environmental and GLBT groups.

“This issue is pretty well settled,” Upton said.

If somehow the measure did work its way through the courts, he said, top university officials could be held liable.

“… The people with decision making authority who allowed it to happen could be held liable full money damages,” Upton said. “But it would probably be struck down so quickly that money damages wouldn’t be an issue.”

Claybrook’s veto marks the second victory in as many days over measures targeting campus LGBT resource centers in Texas. On Thursday night, under immense pressure from the LGBT community, state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, withdrew a budget amendment that would have prohibited universities from using state funds “to support, promote, or encourage any behavior that would lead to high risk behavior for AIDS, HIV, Hepatitis B, or any sexually transmitted disease.”

Here’s a copy of Claybrook’s letter, via Texas Politics, and here’s a detailed story from the Dallas Voice that gives a lot of the background on this. The story was national news on Friday, and though the matter is settled for now I have a suspicion the underlying issue won’t go away. The temptation to meddle in this fashion is very strong for some people, and people like Bill Zedler and Drew Springer never really go away. BOR has more.

Time for another report on how much traffic sucks

We love this sort of thing, don’t we?

Houston commuters continue to endure some of the worst traffic delays in the country, according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Commission. Area drivers wasted more than two days a year, on average, in traffic congestion, costing them each $1,090 in lost time and fuel.

And it’s unlikely to get any better, researchers and public officials say.

“I think as rapidly as this area is growing, (the challenge) is just trying to stay where we are,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the traffic congestion.

Planned toll projects on Texas 290 and eventually Interstate 45 will help ease traffic, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes did in 2008, Emmett said.

With all due respect to Judge Emmett, these projects will help ease some traffic, for some people, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes have done. It will make traffic worse for some others. Anyone who has driven inside the loop on I-10 in recent years knows what I’m talking about. Traffic coming in on 290 is still going to dump onto 610 and I-10, and they’re not getting any more capacity. Traffic coming in on I-45 is still going to enter downtown streets and get stuck on the Pierce Elevated, and I’m sorry but no crazy downtown roundabout scheme is going to solve that.

Based on the mobility report, in 1982 drivers spent about 22 hours each year stuck in congestion, a figure that has increased almost every year since. Traffic congestion peaked in 2008 at 55 hours, the same year two carpool/toll lanes along I-10 opened between downtown and Katy. The lanes took five years to complete and cost $2.8 billion.

But some of the best ways to reduce congestion are less costly. As Houston drivers have acclimated to rush-hour traffic jams, they’ve become more adept at saving themselves time.

“People are adjusting when they leave,” [report co-author Tim]Lomax said, noting resources that provide real-time traffic information. As smartphones and computers become more common, and workdays come with greater flexibility for some people to work from home, commuters can adjust to less-stressful drive times.

Emphasis on the “some” in that statement. Those of us who have to drop off kids at school in the morning, for instance, don’t have a whole lot of flexibility.

Public transit can provide some relief, but with jobs in Houston divided among a dozen or so job areas, it’s hard for public transit to carry everyone where they need to go efficiently, Lomax said.

Public transportation doesn’t need to carry everyone everywhere, it just needs to be a viable alternative for enough people at least some of the time. The current light rail expansion will help some, and if we ever build the University Line and the Uptown Line (or a reasonable facsimile of it), that will help more. Better bus service will help, as will more park and ride service. Longer term, the best thing that can happen is a shift away from living a long distance from your job to living closer to it, close enough to make other options like walking, biking, and car sharing viable options. If we’re really lucky, that Chapter 42 update could help with that.

Anyway. A copy of the report with a few tidbits highlighted is here, or visit the TTI webpage for more.

Why not a university?

Tory Gattis has an interesting suggestion for that 136 acre tract of land east of downtown.

This parcel of land could be the last opportunity for Houston to add a major college campus to the city.  We should consider something similar to what NYC just did with Roosevelt Island, where after a long evaluation process they awarded it to Cornell for a technology campus.  That is likely to eventually be a huge economic development boon for New York.  Of course the City of Houston doesn’t own the land, but it could be a facilitator (along with the GHP) to open discussions with the landowner and various universities to explore interest.

There are a lot of potential options.

He lays out a number of possibilities, which I encourage you to examine. I have no idea how feasible any of this is, but it’s worth thinking about. Tory’s right that there may not be another opportunity for a university campus to be built inside the city limits. Such a development would also be a good fit for a streetcar extension when and if one gets built. I still lean towards something mixed use, but I could be persuaded otherwise. What do you think?

A dollar a tree

Replacing the trees lost in the Bastrop fires last summer is going to cost some money, but there’s now a foundation working on raising that money.

Flanked by containers bristling with pine tree seedlings, state and local officials on Tuesday announced a campaign to pay for an ambitious five-year plan to restore the Lost Pines after last year’s fires.

The Arbor Day Foundation has agreed to lead the fundraising effort and needs to raise about $4 million — or one dollar for every pine tree to be planted over the next five years.

The foundation said it has already received more than $600,000 in commitments from companies such as FedEx, Mary Kay and Nokia.

[…]

Nearly a year ago, the Labor Day fires burned more than 32,000 acres in Bastrop County and destroyed more than 1,700 homes and other structures, making it the most destructive fire in Texas history.

A hastily formed group of county, state and federal officials, dubbed the Lost Pines Recovery Team, immediately began working on a plan to restore the burned forest, but they hadn’t made much of a dent in raising the $17 million they had determined was needed for tree planting, erosion control, reseeding native grasses and clearing dead brush and other fuels.

The public-private partnership announced Tuesday puts the Arbor Day Foundation in charge of raising money, while the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas A&M Forest Service will handle planning, volunteers, tree selection and planting. Texas A&M University has pledged to send students to help plant this winter, Chancellor John Sharp said.

Go here to learn more about the Arbor Day Foundation, and go here to make a donation or volunteer your time to this effort. I wish them the best of luck with this project. The Arbor Day Foundation blog has more.

It was more than drought that killed the trees

So say the experts.

Don’t blame the drought for killing an estimated 506 million trees in Texas. At least, don’t blame it exclusively.

The drought is only part of the story of why trees are dying, according to a new report by the AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M University.

In most cases, the report says, the trees that died in 2011 were already stressed from pre-existing factors such as overcrowding, growing on the wrong site, age, soil compaction, trenching or inappropriate use of herbicides.

“If not for these factors, a large proportion of the trees that died might have recovered from the drought,” according to the report by Dr. Eric Taylor, a forestry specialist with the extension service.

The 2011 drought “severely weakened mature trees, making them susceptible to opportunistic pathogens like hypoxylon canker and insects like pine bark engraver beetles,” Taylor said in the report.

The report helps explain to the public what experts see, said Jim Houser, a forest health coordinator with the Texas Forest Service.

“That’s true, we tend to simplistically (blame) the drought,” Houser said. “In actuality, it’s a variety of problems that tend to combine together to kill trees. Certainly, the drought is the main problem.”

You can read the report here. The point they’re making is that if the overall health of our trees had been better to begin with, we’d have lost fewer of them during the drought. The trees that did survive are likely to be weaker than before, so their health will need to be safeguarded as well.

Houser said Central Texans can still save their trees if they water.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘It doesn’t matter if my grass dies; I can replant,’ ” Houser said. Trees are another matter.

“They shouldn’t abandon their trees,” he said.

A good way to water your tree is to take one of those big plastic paint buckets, poke a hole or two near the bottom, put it next to your tree, and fill it with water from your garden hose. The bucket holds enough water for a good drink, and the holes allow the water to be released slowly enough to really soak in. That’s what we (and by “we” I mean “Tiffany”) did for our trees last year, anyway. Hope this helps.

Jose Luis Zelaya

Jose Luis Zelaya is running for student body president at Texas A&M. He’s also an “illegal immigrant”. Here’s his story.

Zelaya first started working in the streets in Honduras at age 7, washing car windows and begging on buses. His mother left for the U.S. when he was 13, unable to take the beatings from his father, he said. At 14, he set out to find his mother and his little sister in the U.S. The journey took 45 days and ended in a one-room apartment in Houston his mother shared with several other families.

“People told me I couldn’t graduate from high school, that I couldn’t go to college,” he said.

Zelaya earned a bachelor’s degree from A&M in December and led the invocation at the graduation ceremony. He aspires to teach, but can’t because of his immigration status. He enrolled in January as a graduate student at A&M seeking a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, specializing in English as a Second Language.

He ultimately did not win the election, but that’s not important. I’m just curious here. What exactly is the public policy rationale for kicking a guy like that out of the country, instead of helping him become a citizen and reaping the benefits of his talent and work ethic? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have made my way from Honduras to the US by myself at the age of 14. Yeah, sure, he cut ahead of some people in line. I say that’s more a problem for us to fix than for him to be punished for, but whatever. Fine him some appropriate amount, make him do some community service (I’m going to step out on a limb here and guess that he’s already doing that), have him write 100 times “I will not cross international borders without having all my papers in order”, etc etc etc. But seriously, isn’t Jose Luis Zelaya the kind of person we want in this country?

From the “More things you need to be slightly paranoid about” department

Nothing like a new domain suffix to remind you of the potential for creative malfeasance.

The University of Kansas is buying up website names such as www.KUgirls.xxx and www.KUnurses.xxx. But not because it’s planning a Hot Babes of Kansas site or an X-rated gallery of the Nude Girls of the Land of Aaahs.

Instead, the university and countless other schools and businesses are rushing to prevent their good names from falling into the hands of the pornography industry. Over the past two months, they have snapped up tens of thousands of “.xxx” website names that could be exploited by the adult entertainment business.

“Down the road there’s no way we can predict what some unscrupulous entrepreneur might come up with,” said Paul Vander Tuig, trademark licensing director at the Lawrence, Kan., school.

The university spent nearly $3,000 in all. It plans to sit on the .xxx names and do nothing with them.

The brand-new .xxx suffix is an adults-only variation on .com. The .xxx name went on sale to the public for the first time this week, promoted as a way to enable porn sites to distinguish themselves and a means of making it easier for Internet filters to screen out things parents don’t want their children to see.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle notes that UT and A&M have also been taking this precaution. I guarantee you, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes an unwanted news story for a politician. Hijacking a rival’s domain name is a sport of longstanding, and even today campaigns that should have had more on the ball get caught flatfooted – go click on rickperry.com for an example of what I mean. It won’t just be politicians who get snared by this, but when one does it will result in some embarrassing news cycles. If you’re a domain owner, now is a good time to see if your “.xxx” counterpart is still available or if it’s already too late.

You may now be wondering if I have done this for myself. I have checked and verified that as of this moment, offthekuff.xxx is unclaimed. Turns out that the cost of this particular insurance policy – the protection money, if you will – is $100 a year. That’s a tad bit more than I want to spend, so I’m taking my chances until the registry fee becomes a bit less extortionate. I think I can afford that risk as a non-candidate, but those of you who aren’t ought to look into it.

From the “And I wish for a pony, too” department

Hey, you know that annual UT-A&M game that’s not going to be played again any time in the near future? Let’s bring it to Reliant Stadium!

Why not have Texas and Texas A&M meet at Reliant Stadium every Thanksgiving? It would be a bigger draw than the bowl game played here each December. While many of the fans would be local alumni from both schools, a good number would travel to Houston for the big game. Depending on how the ticket draw is managed by the schools, one plausible scenario could have the schools’ top athletic donors, along with the students of both universities, receiving top priority for tickets, similar to how the Texas-Oklahoma game operates. This almost certainly would mean a huge chunk of the fans would come from outside the Houston area.

Think of the added revenue for hotels, restaurants and retailers around the week of the game. And the national television coverage wouldn’t hurt, either. The eyes of Texas, indeed America, would be ours for three-plus hours. While New York City has the nation’s attention every year with its famous Thanksgiving parade, there’s no reason Houston couldn’t capitalize on the football passions of Longhorns and Aggies. We could revitalize a tradition, and have an annual national television audience all to ourselves.

I view this as an almost-bowl game for our city, with each school’s band taking part in the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and perhaps even the Uptown holiday celebration. (Are you paying attention, area merchants?) The upside is huge, and has many potential local tie-ins.

Yes, I agree that if UT ever decides that it wants to play A&M in football again that it would be a boon for the city of Houston if you could convince them to play it here. Why they would want to give up a home game every other year, and what benefit they would derive from that arrangement, is apparently left as an exercise for the reader. But hey, wishes are free, so knock yourself out. I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t mark any dates on my calendar just yet.

Shunning A&M

It’s not just the UT-A&M football game that’s on the endangered list.

The SEC-bound Aggies have said they’d love to keep playing UT as a non-conference foe, but Longhorns athletic director DeLoss Dodds has said the school’s football schedule is full at least through 2018. That isn’t the case for all sports, but so far A&M has come up dry in scheduling future contests of any sort with UT.

“There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much interest from the other side,” A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said Monday.

[…]

Byrne has instructed his coaches to contact their UT counterparts about scheduling future non-conference games – with no luck to date.

“I reached out about four weeks ago to Texas and emailed and said we’d love to keep the series going,” A&M soccer coach G. Guerrieri said. “I haven’t heard back.”

A&M baseball coach Rob Childress said he and UT counterpart Augie Garrido have yet to discuss whether to continue playing as non-conference foes.

I’d speculated about this before, and I can’t say I’m surprised to see UT give A&M a cold shoulder. There’s no real incentive for them to do otherwise. The question now is whether any other Texas-based school will follow the Longhorns’ lead. At least one so far seems to be doing so.

As for the Aggies perhaps playing another soon-to-be former Big 12 mate in Baylor, Bears athletic director Ian McCaw said via email Monday, “At this time, our future non-conference football schedules are filled through 2020. With regard to scheduling Texas A&M in other sports, it will be considered on a sport-by-sport basis.”

Anyone know what the status of future games between A&M and Texas Tech is? How about TCU, SMU, and UH? Rice has played A&M fairly regularly in baseball lately, and occasionally in basketball, but has not played them in football since the demise of the SWC. I don’t expect any changes there. Looks to me like the Aggies will be racking up the frequent flyer miles in the coming years.

RIP, UT-A&M

Tradition, schmadition.

This Thanksgiving one of college football’s oldest and most storied rivalries will be put on indefinite hold when Texas and Texas A&M meet for the last time as Big 12 foes.

The Aggies wanted to continue the series when they left for the Southeastern Conference in July, but the Longhorns told the Aggies that their non-conference schedule is full through 2018.

[…]

Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin, who led the charge for the Aggies to move to the SEC, has been vocal about his desire to continue playing Texas throughout the conference realignment process.

“We’re able to accommodate them anytime they want to make that happen,” he said of the rivalry. “It’s their choice, obviously, if they don’t want to do that, and I have to respect that choice, but it will be a loss to both of us and the state of Texas.”

Loftin pointed out that most states have key instate rivalry games that take place each season despite conference boundaries.

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds emailed Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne late last week to tell him the Longhorns couldn’t fit A&M into their schedule through 2018.

“What we have right now is a full schedule, but if any future options are available, the decision will not be made by just one person,” Dodds said in a statement.

Loftin hopes they can renew the rivalry when Texas has room on its schedule.

“It’s open at any time,” Loftin said. “There’s no doubt in our minds to accommodate this kind of game at any time now or in the future.”

My sense, as someone who is neither a Longhorn nor and Aggie and who doesn’t really care one way or the other about this is that A&M is more interested in continuing this rivalry than UT is. From A&M’s perspective, their income will increase in the SEC, but so will their travel costs. Being able to play a few non-conference games in any sport in Texas will ease that a bit. I’ve mentioned before that if UT wanted to be a bit vindictive towards the Aggies, they’d refuse to play them at all, and would encourage other Texas schools to do the same. (Kim Mulkey, for one, does not need to be convinced of this.) The Horns can always offer games against themselves, with perhaps some exposure on the Longhorn Network (to the six homes that receive it, anyway) as incentive. I’m just spinning a scenario here, so don’t take any of this too seriously, but I will be interested to see what A&M’s nonconference schedule in men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and volleyball look like next year and in 2013.

Who’s number 14?

As the SEC welcomed Texas A&M as its 13th member, commissioner Mike Slive says they have no immediate plans to invite a 14th.

Slive said the SEC wasn’t looking to expand, but that A&M was too attractive of an option to ignore.

“We were very happy at 12,” Slive said. “When Texas A&M came to us and indicated their interest in joining the SEC, we said to ourselves: ‘That is a great institution, academically, athletically, culturally and in every way, and a real fit.’ So we decided even though we were content with 12, that we had the opportunity to have Texas A&M as part of the SEC was something that we just did not want to give up.”

Slive acknowledged that scheduling a 13-team league will be difficult but said it wouldn’t expand just to make things easier.

They won’t expand for 2012, but I cannot believe they won’t expand shortly thereafter to balance the conference. Thirteen is just an unwieldy number to deal with, and while making the scheduler’s life easier may not be a top priority, I’m sure it’s on the to do list. I also figure that the schools that will be in a seven team division will be thinking that their mates in the six team division have it easier than they do, and will want to rectify that. If they don’t add a 14th team by the start of the 2013 season, I’ll be surprised.

Meanwhile, there’s angst about the future of the UT-A&M game.

College football needs Texas-Texas A&M just like it needs rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan and Auburn-Alabama and Texas-OU and Lane Kiffin-NCAA. They’re as much a part of the fabric of college sporting life as Beano Cook, the Rose Bowl parade and Lee Corso’s costumes. Take ‘em away, and college football isn’t nearly as compelling.

And a lot of people are sad now that A&M’s gone to the SEC, and Texas-A&M is probably dead.

But John Sharp’s beyond sad. He’s borderline mad. Or he at least halfway sounded like it. Good for him.

“We want to make it abundantly clear we will play the game anywhere, any time,” the new Texas A&M chancellor told me Monday morning. “If that game dies, it will not be on us. That game is bigger than Texas and bigger than A&M. That game belongs to the people of Texas, and if it goes away, it’s not going to be on our watch.”

The Aggies are on record as saying they want to continue the series, come rain, shine or the Longhorn Network. A&M’s president and chancellor both say they want to play Texas every year.

[…]

Both sides are talking about how difficult it will be to fit in that game with conference schedules and all. Poppycock. Isn’t A&M in the third year of a 10-year series with Arkansas? Well, that will become an SEC game, which opens up a spot for Texas. Weren’t the Aggies and Longhorns supposed to play every year until the end of time or Joe Paterno’s next birthday? So now it’s a non-conference gig like all those pre-Big 12 Texas-OU shootouts in Dallas, no problem.

You see how easy it is.

Do not let pride and ego and raw emotion get in the way of the best thing in sports since the State Fair corny dog.

But DeLoss Dodds doesn’t sound as if he’ll budge either.

“As we have said before, scheduling them would be problematic,” the Texas athletic director said. “We have contracts for three non-conference games each year that run until 2018. We also don’t know what the configuration of the Big 12 will be.”

Then, DeLoss adds this for a zinger:

“We didn’t leave the conference. They did,” he said. “We’ll make a decision that’s best for Texas.”

The irony is that while A&M bolted for the SEC in large part to escape UT’s shadow, keeping this game probably means more to them at this point than it does to UT. The Longhorns still have a signature rivalry game with Oklahoma every year. They also now have an incentive, as do other schools in Texas, to minimize A&M’s presence within the state. I’m neither an Aggie nor a Longhorn, so the loss of this game would have no special meaning to me, but I do think that having severed conference ties with Texas, A&M is in no position to blame them for the end of this tradition if that happens. (For that matter, if either school actually cared about tradition, the Southwest Conference would still be a going concern.) The Aggies shouldn’t be surprised or offended that as they have moved on, so has UT.

Well, assuming the Legislature lets them move on, of course.

Texas has a long-standing tradition of creating odd laws to fit nearly every circumstance. Hell, we have an official song for our state flower. But one has to wonder if State Senator Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) may be taking things a bit too far with his proposal to draft legislation that would require the University of Texas and Texas A&M University to play an annual football game every Thanksgiving as they have for many years.

With A&M moving to the Southeastern Conference and the future of the Big 12 very much in doubt, Williams and State Rep. John Otto, who will sponsor the bill in the House, have decided this is a tradition that must be preserved and the best way to go about doing that is making it law.

We’re a long way out from the next legislative session, and for all we know neither Williams nor Otto may be in the next Lege, so to say this is all a bit premature is to understate. I’m not surprised someone has taken this up, but neither will I be surprised if it winds up going nowhere.

And finally, just because it’s such a weird story, we have the possibility of a merger between Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference.

A football-only federation – involving 22 to 24 schools – would offer C-USA and Mountain West a “strength in numbers” response to recent conference realignment.

“It’s an intriguing concept,” Rice athletic director Rick Greenspan said. “It’s one that is probably a bit unique in college athletics.”

A C-USA-Mountain West merger would involve the two leagues remaining separate. At the end of the season, the two champions would meet in a championship game with the hope the winner receives a BCS bid.

No timetable has been set for when a decision could be made. C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday that the possibility of a merger for 2012 is premature but “the following year is something that is possible.” The current BCS contract runs through January 2014.

I guess the idea is that the winner of this mega-conference championship game would be seen as BCS-worthy? Or maybe that they figure either the Big XII or the Big East will implode between now and then, and they would like to be first in line to fill that slot? Seems to me there’s a bit of an underpants gnomes problem here, but maybe they’ve put more thought into this than I’m giving them credit for. All things considered, it’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard this week.

Baylor conference-blocking A&M

Hilarious.

A threat of legal action by Baylor has, at least temporarily, held up Texas A&M’s move to the SEC. The SEC’s presidents voted unanimously Tuesday night to extend an invitation to Texas A&M to become the league’s 13th member, but that invitation is contingent upon all of Texas A&M’s Big 12 counterparts waiving their right to a legal challenge.

A source said Baylor had broken ranks with the remaining Big 12 members, which decided last week to waive their right to legally challenge a move by Texas A&M. In a statement, Florida president Bernie Machen, the chair of the SEC’s presidents group, said the SEC would not accept Texas A&M as a member until the potential legal roadblocks were cleared.

“We were notified yesterday afternoon that at least one Big 12 institution had withdrawn its previous consent and was considering legal action,” Machen said in the statement. “The SEC has stated that to consider an institution for membership, there must be no contractual hindrances to its departure. The SEC voted unanimously to accept Texas A&M University as a member upon receiving acceptable reconfirmation that the Big 12 and its members have reaffirmed the letter dated September 2, 2011.”

You can read that letter here. As you might imagine, the Aggies are none too happy about this.

A&M president R. Bowen Loftin issued a statement Wednesday morning:

“We are certainly pleased with the action taken last night by the presidents and chancellors of the Southeastern Conference to unanimously accept Texas A&M as the league’s 13th member. However, this acceptance is conditional, and we are disappointed in the threats made by one of the Big 12 member institutions to coerce Texas A&M into staying in Big 12 Conference. These actions go against the commitment that was made by this university and the Big 12 on Sept. 2. We are working diligently to resolve any and all issues as outlined by the SEC.”

USA Today reports that Iowa State, which would likely join Baylor out in the cold once the music stops, is also keeping its legal options open. Richard Justice thinks Baylor is just doing what it can to delay the inevitable, and I can’t blame them for that. I don’t think it will end well for them, however. Sure does suck not having a Governor and Lieutenant Governor looking out for you any more. Hair Balls has more.

Aggies officially outta here

Smell ya later, Big XII X IX.

Texas A&M is down to a final step in its methodical march to the Southeastern Conference. The Aggies on Wednesday gave the Big 12 official notification that they’re withdrawing from the 10-member league.

The SEC is expected to announce A&M’s entry as its 13th member in the coming days, putting the wraps on a whirlwind month in Aggieland. A&M will end a 16-year run in the Big 12 next summer, and intends to play football, volleyball and soccer in the SEC starting in the summer of 2012.

The Trib has the full press release. I don’t know if this will be good, bad, or indifferent for A&M, and to a large extent I don’t really care. It’s just business. If someone were to visit from the year 2021 and tell me that there’s no such thing as conferences any more, they were all replaced by something that was perceived to be more lucrative, I’d have no trouble believing it. The world already isn’t the same as it once was, we’re just waiting for it to reach a point of temporary equilibrium before it goes all helter skelter again. Burka has more.

Why not start the Aggie Network?

Kirk Bohls raises an interesting point.

It’s hard to blame Texas for having the wherewithal and desire to start its own network and reap $15 million a year off it for the next 20 years. It’s not the Longhorns’ fault they’ve won four national championships in football and two Heisman trophies, and are one of the most recognizable brands from Rome, Italy to Paris, Texas.

And Texas isn’t alone in this. Kansas State just announced it’s starting its own digital network. Oklahoma wants to. Magnus said Missouri’s looking into it.

So is Notre Dame, which is interesting since that could facilitate it joining the Big 12, no matter what A&M does, because the Big Ten Network supposedly would preclude it from taking Notre Dame with a Notre Dame network. The Big 12 could accept the Irish.

Texas A&M should start its own network, too. Lots of Aggies out there.

“The opportunities are just huge for each (Big 12) institution,” Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said. “I think as time goes by, we’ll all learn how to better those opportunities and get past somebody having a network. I think in 30 years, the Big 12 will look smart for doing it this way.”

I think that’s probably right. I also think that if, say, LSU or Alabama or Florida gets an offer from ESPN to start their own network, they’ll jump on it with both feet. What will A&M do if that happens? Better to look for opportunities than whine about threats. Go for it, Aggies.

No SEC for A&M

For now, anyway.

The Southeastern Conference is not extending an invitation to Texas A&M to become its 13th member, but isn’t ruling out adding the Aggies in the future.

University of Florida president Dr. Bernie Machen said the conference’s presidents and chancellors met on Sunday and “reaffirmed our satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment.”

“We recognize, however, that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of institutions in the league,” Machen said. “We discussed criteria and process associated with expansion. No action was taken with respect to any institution including Texas A&M.”

A high-ranking source within Texas A&M confirmed to ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb on Saturday the Aggies were intent on joining the Southeastern Conference. And they reportedly hoped to begin play in the league starting as soon as 2012.

[…]

An SEC official had told The New York Times ahead of Sunday’s meeting that there was still a 30 percent to 40 percent chance the Aggies would not get enough votes for an invitation. And the issue of needing to add a 14th team along with A&M remained, the newspaper reported.

“We realize if we do this, we have to have the 14th,” the SEC official said. “No name has been thrown out. This thing is much slower out of the chute than the media and blogs have made it.”

I’m sure finding a 14th won’t be too hard, though I suppose any candidates for that would need to make their desires known ahead of any invitation. Beyond that, it’s hard to say if the SEC is just saying “anything can happen” or if this is all the necessary groundwork for a future invitation. Maybe this was part of Rick Perry’s plan all along. Who knows? There’s still a meeting of the A&M Board of Regents, and the Higher Ed committee in the Lege, which may tell us more. The Trib has reaction from A&M President R. Bowen Loftin, and State Rep. Garnet Coleman brings the inevitable UH perspective.

UPDATE: Rep. Branch has canceled his hearing, though it can be rescheduled later if (when) needed. Meanwhile, the A&M Board of Regents has authorized President Bowen to explore all options, i.e., changing conferences. Finally, Rep. Coleman sends a letter to Rep. Branch advocating for UH to join the Big XII.

NCAA officially nixes high school programming on the Longhorn Network

So much for that.

The NCAA made official Thursday what most suspected would happen: It won’t allow programming involving high school athletics on university- or conference-affiliated television networks.

That means the new Longhorn Network’s plans to carry about 18 high school football games on Thursdays and Saturdays have been scuttled.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday that the NCAA staff had made the recommendation and it was approved by the governing body’s board of directors. An NCAA spokesman said that an Aug. 22 summit in Indianapolis to discuss the issue will go on as scheduled, with the topic now devoted to how to keep the new university or conference networks operating within NCAA rules.

Earlier, the Big XII had voluntarily put the kibosh on high school sports for at least a year. All of this may well be too little, too late.

Texas A&M intends to bolt the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, multiple insiders said Friday, in abruptly ending its nearly century-old league affiliation with rival Texas, and 15-year union with the Big 12, which includes longtime in-state rivals Baylor and Texas Tech. A&M has called for a telephonic regents meeting for 3 p.m. Monday to discuss “conference alignment.”

Agenda item 15 reads in part, “Authorization for the President to Take All Actions Relating to Texas A&M University’s Athletic Conference Alignment.” An A&M official said Friday night that the Aggies hope to begin play in the SEC in 2012, but it’s too early in the complex process to determine if that will happen.

A&M pushed up its regularly scheduled regents meeting from Aug. 22 apparently to stay in front of a hastily called Tuesday hearing by the Texas House Committee on Higher Education on potential league realignment. SEC school leaders also intend to meet Sunday to essentially rubber stamp A&M’s admittance, according to a Big 12 school official.

Earlier Friday, an A&M official said Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe had told A&M president R. Bowen Loftin that the Big 12 would survive without the Aggies and that UT holds the key to the long-term future of the Big 12. The A&M official added that the Big 12 believes Houston would be a viable candidate to replace the Aggies.

The Big XII says it ain’t happening, but you know how that goes. Mentioning UH in this context gets the wish machine working. Hey, you never know, maybe this year is finally the year for them. In the meantime, I’ll just watch and see if there are more dominoes to fall.

Rethinking school discipline

Wow.

Nearly 60 percent of junior high school and high school students get suspended or expelled, according to a report that tracked about 1 million Texas children over a six-year period.

About 15 percent of the Texas seventh- through 12th-grade students tracked during the study were suspended or expelled at least 11 times and nearly half of those ended up in the juvenile justice system. Most students who experienced multiple suspensions or expulsions do not graduate, according to the study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute of Texas A&M University.

“The findings in this report should prompt policymakers in Texas and in states everywhere to ask this question: ‘Is our (public) school discipline system getting the desired results?’ ” said Michael Thompson of the justice center, one of the report’s co-authors.

The findings suggest an urgent need to stop the criminalization of students for simply misbehaving, said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, longtime chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.

Some highlights from the study:

The report also found that during a six-year period, about 15 percent of the students studied were suspended or expelled 11 times or more — and more than half of those students had been on probation or incarcerated by juvenile justice authorities.

The study also found that:

• Nearly 6 in 10 public school students studied were suspended or expelled from at least one class during grades seven to 12, most of them at least four times.

• Only 3 percent of the disciplinary actions were for conduct for which state law mandated suspensions and expulsions; the rest were made at the discretion of school officials primarily in response to violations of local schools’ conduct codes.

• Repeated suspensions and expulsions predicted poor academic outcomes. Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school during the study period, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once.

• Schools that had similar characteristics, including racial composition and economic status of the student body, varied greatly in how frequently they suspended or expelled students.

Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center program and one of the report’s authors, said classroom removal is highly related to an increase of students repeating a grade, dropping out or entering the juvenile justice system.

“We see significant differences in the rates of suspension and explusion for similar student populations, indicating, I think, that it’s possible for schools, by relying less on suspension and expulsion, in theory, to actually reduce juvenile justice involvement and improve academic performance,” Thompson said.

You can find the report and related information here. It’s a first of its kind longitudinal study – every seventh grader was tracked for six years. I think we would all agree that every kid at that age occasionally engages in some knucklehead behavior. What we need to do with all this data is learn how to better distinguish between and deal with the good kids that do dumb things and the real troublemakers. The Trib notes that some school districts are already taking steps.

What the report ultimately means is that schools’ current methods of punishing kids are ineffective, said Deborah Fowler, a contributor to the report and director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit social justice research and advocacy group.

“The good news is that we know there are alternatives that do work,” Fowler said. She said schools can stop disciplinary problems from happening in the first place with an approach that emphasizes positive behavioral intervention and support, or a “PBIS” model. That allows teachers “to focus less time on disciplinary referrals and … more on the purpose of their role, which is educating the students.”

Several school districts across the state have implemented PBIS models, Fowler said, including Austin, Leander, Amarillo and Pflugerville.

Jane Nethercut coordinates a positive behavioral support program at Austin ISD. She said the model was based on praising students when they are doing something right, rather than punishing them when they are doing something wrong — and that it has “changed the schools” around the district.

“Disciplinary referrals have gone down; attendance rates have gone up,” she said, “This is not rocket science — in the schools that practice PBIS, academic performance has also gone up. We have seen thousands and thousands of hours of recovered learning time.”

That’s the goal, right? Click on to see the full press release from the Council of State Governments Justice Center. There’s a lot we ought to be able to learn from all this data.

(more…)

How does college tuition in Texas compare to other states?

In a previous post, John left the following comment:

Out of curiosity how much does a year at UT/A&M cost? How does that compare to Ohio St/Michigan/Cal/UVA/Washington etc. I would think this is a good time to do the revenue side and charge more for tuition if UT is still fairly inexpensive relative to other state schools.

I thought that was a fair question, so I decided to take a look into it. Let’s start by seeing how much one semester’s worth of tuition is at the University of Texas and at Texas A&M. First, for UT:

The tuition charged is in part dependent on the amount of state support received by the institution. In the early 1970s the state paid for nearly 85 percent of the cost of running the educational side of The University of Texas at Austin. Today, the state-appropriated fraction of the total budget for UT Austin is below 20 percent. The growing gap between what it costs to run the university and what the state is able to contribute has been covered in part by private donations, efficiency and other actions taken by the university. However, if the university is to maintain delivery of the quality of education for which it has become known, it determined it had to ask the students attending the university to pay for an increasing share of that gap. The University of Texas at Austin’s tuition places it well below tuition at comparable universities, and the university continues to be a nationally recognized great value in higher education.

If you look at that page, you will see that one semester tuition, for a resident student ranges from $4,493 for the Liberal Arts college to $5,163 for the Business program. Next, there’s A&M:

The cost of attending Texas A&M University can vary, depending on a student’s classification, residency status, personal needs and spending habits. Where the course is taught will also affect cost. Below are estimates to provide a reasonable idea of what it will cost to take a course or courses. The most current rates and information available at the time of publishing are used, and are subject to change.

You then have to look here for the current year. As with UT, there’s a range of tuition costs, for one semester tuition, 12-18 credit hours, from $4,193 for non-business programs to $4,803 for business.

So how do they stack up against peer institutions? To answer that question, I looked at two different groups of peers – a selection of public schools from the Association of American Universities, of which UT is a member, and the non-Texas schools that currently comprise the Big XII. Note that there is some overlap between the two – the University of Colorado, for example, is a member of both. A few words about my methodology before we begin:

– I only looked at tuition, for one semester. Some schools print tuition rates for the nine month (i.e., fall through spring) academic year – I simply divided that by two and rounded up to the next dollar for simplicity. Some present rates per credit hour – in those cases, I assumed 15 credit hours for a semester.

– I only used resident tuition rates. In all cases, non-resident tuition was between double and triple the non-resident rate. Since residents’ taxes support the public universities, that seems fair enough.

– All other costs – room and board, books, various fees – were left out of this calculation. For what it’s worth, my eyeball estimate of room and board was that it pretty consistently fell into the $7,500 to $10,000 range for the year. I didn’t bother looking at anything else. Note that for UC-Berkeley, tuition is called a fee, for reasons that escape me.

– Some schools have one flat rate, others have different rates for different programs, as UT and A&M do. In those cases, I reported the range as above. Generally speaking, programs like liberal arts, fine arts, journalism, and nursing fell on the lower end, and programs like business, engineering, architecture, and computer science fell on the higher end.

– Some schools charge more for upperclassmen than they do for freshmen and sophomores. In those cases, I reported the frosh/soph rates.

I think that about covers it. So without further ado, here are some AAU schools:

The University of Michigan

One semester tuition: Ranges from $5,824 to $8,087, depending on the program.

The University of Virginia

One semester tuition: $5,418 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The Ohio State University

One semester tuition: $4,760 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The University of North Carolina

One semester tuition: $3,182 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The University of California at Berkeley

One semester tuition: $5,469 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs, which is for some reason labeled “Fees”.)

For what it’s worth, in Googling Cal’s tuition, I came across this NYT story from March of 2010 that calls Call “still a bargain” and notes that its annual tuition had gone up quite a bit, from about $7700 to over $10K, in recent years due to budget shortfalls.

The State University of New York

One semester tuition: $2,485 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

There are many SUNY campuses, some of which are AAU members and some of which are not. I simply Googled “SUNY tuition”, I did not specify a campus. Far as I can tell, it’s uniform across the system.

The University of Indiana

One semester tuition: $4,062 (Spring 2011)

Michigan State University

One semester tuition: $5,861 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The University of Florida

One semester tuition: $2,510

The University of Washington

One semester tuition: $4,351

Putting this group into a chart for easy reading, using the lowest rates from the schools that had ranges:

School Tuition ======================== SUNY $2,485 Florida $2,510 North Carolina $3,182 Indiana $4,062 A&M $4,193 Washington $4,351 UT $4,493 Ohio State $4,760 Virginia $5,418 Cal-Berkeley $5,469 Michigan $5,824

Pretty much in the middle, as things stand now – in fact, A&M is just about smack-dab in between SUNY and Michigan. Bear in mind that this is before any tuition increases, which could be as much as $1,000 for a year, or $500 for a semester.

Now on to the Big XII schools:

The University of Oklahoma

One semester tuition: $3,927 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

Oklahoma State University

One semester tuition: $2,051 (Calculated as 15 hours of Undergraduate Tuition.)

The University of Nebraska

One semester tuition: $3,656 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The University of Missouri

One semester tuition: $3,684 (Calculated as 15 hours of Undergraduate Tuition.)

The University of Kansas

One semester tuition: $3,937

Kansas State University

One semester tuition: $3,114

The University of Colorado

One semester tuition ranges from $3,509 to $5,610, depending on the program.

Iowa State University

One semester tuition: $3,326 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

Now let’s update that chart:

School Tuition ======================== Oklahoma State $2,051 SUNY $2,485 Florida $2,510 Kansas State $3,114 North Carolina $3,182 Iowa State $3,326 Colorado $3,509 Nebraska $3,656 Missouri $3,684 Oklahoma $3,927 Kansas $3,937 Indiana $4,062 A&M $4,193 Washington $4,351 UT $4,493 Ohio State $4,760 Virginia $5,418 Cal-Berkeley $5,469 Michigan $5,824

Compared to their athletic peers, UT and A&M are already the two most expensive schools, and they’re about to become more so.

So there you have it. I don’t know if this changes anyone’s mind, but at least now you have a basis for comparison.

UH gets a boost in its rankings

Good news for UH:

The University of Houston’s quest to become the state’s next top tier university — a designation that would put it alongside Rice University, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University — received a major boost Tuesday.

The latest rankings from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching move UH to its highest category, for universities with “very high research activity.”

That ranking is updated every five years, based upon criteria including research expenditures, number of doctorate degrees awarded and the size of the university’s research staff.

UH previously ranked in Carnegie’s second tier, for “high research activity.”

Rice, UT-Austin and A&M are the only other Texas universities on the list, which is considered an indication of Tier One status.

That’s a nice accomplishment, which is the result of a lot of work. My congratulations to UH for achieving it, and my best wishes for completing the journey to full-fledged Tier One status.

The bad news:

[E]ven if UH were to qualify for the Tier One funding this year, it and other public colleges and universities are likely to sustain cuts — maybe significant ones — in basic state support for higher education.

That’s because the state is facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, and higher education is expected to be one of the main targets for cuts.

[UH President Renu] Khator acknowledged concerns that Tuesday’s announcement could be interpreted as a sign UH doesn’t need additional money from the state.

It does, she said, and the Carnegie designation proves that it will use it wisely.

“We have shown the state that the investment is worth it,” she said.

Sadly, the state isn’t interested in making any investments right now. Dan Patrick’s property tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, you know. Better luck next biennium.

New frontiers in sports branding

Would you like your electrons in burnt orange or maroon?

In a deal put together by sponsorship broker IMG College and Branded Retail Energy, a Dallas-based company that markets electricity through affinity partnerships, the schools will create university-branded power companies. Texas Longhorns Energy and Texas A&M Aggies Energy will begin selling electricity and natural gas to consumers in deregulated markets in the state next month.

“We’re very conscientious about our brand. We want to be careful with that logo and that symbol,” University of Texas Senior Associate Athletic Director Chris Plonsky said. “When BRE and IMG brought it to us, we went ‘Huh?’ But it made sense because the issue of sustainability, especially on large college campuses that use a lot of energy, is important to us.”

That was the hook — pardon the pun, Hook ‘Em Horns’ fans — to the whole deal. Texas Longhorns Energy will be powered by one of the nation’s top retail electricity providers, Champion Energy Services, and will provide renewable green energy to alumni and fans in deregulated regions of Texas. Each new customer account will generate funds for sustainability initiatives for the respective schools.

“I haven’t come across a university president yet who didn’t have a committee on sustainability,” says Larry Weil, chief marketing officer for Branded Retail Energy.

And to think I once considered university-branded credit cards to be a tad on the excessive side. I presume that “sustainability” here means “new and innovative revenue streams for the athletics department, so we can keep up with the Joneses”. I’d ask what could possibly be next, but I’m afraid to find out. Via Consumerist.

Is the Big XII in UH’s future?

Now that we know the Big XII will survive, one question that now arises is whether it will try to replace defectors Nebraska and Colorado, and if so with which teams. Already, there’s a drumbeat for UH being included. Richard Justice runs out to the front of the parade.

The Big 12 almost certainly will add two teams at some point. It may be two years from now, maybe longer. TCU would seem to be a slam dunk for one of the invitations, and UH needs to position itself for the other.

To do so will require work on multiple fronts, to do things UH has been unable to do in the past. But this is a new era at UH.

I’ve kind of lost count of the number of New Eras there have been at UH since I came to town in 1988. I can’t help but feel like I’ve heard this all before – IF they can maintain recent success, and IF they can upgrade their facilities, and IF they can draw bigger crowds, then it will all come together. If they can in fact do these things, then UH makes some sense; there’s enough UT and A&M alums here to make Houston a part of the Big XII TV market already, so that’s not much of a factor. Let’s just say I’m not going to hold my breath on this.

UH President Dr. Renu Khator gets some space on the op-ed pages to chime in as well with a rah-rah piece for her school. I noticed that the one thing neither she nor Justice mentioned was the concept of rivalries – UH rivalries, I mean. As that was a large subject of discussion when everyone thought the Big XII was headed for the junk pile, and especially when it looked like A&M might part ways with UT, that seems a curious oversight. Not to put too fine a point on it, but UH’s biggest rival these days is Rice, whom UH would be leaving behind in this scenario. Yes, I know, UH sees UT as a rival. I have news for you: UH and UT are rivals in the same way that Rice and UT are rivals. The rivalry means a lot more to one school than it does to the other. If all that lip service to rivalries meant anything, then the UH-to-the-Big XII advocates should be calling for Rice to come along as well. As TCU is also being mentioned, bringing Rice along would give the conference 13 members, so we may as well go whole hog and grab SMU, too, to balance out TCU and get things back to an even number. And since that would make the Big XII moniker as accurate as “Big 10” and “PAC 10” are right now, a new name for it would be in order. I have a suggestion for that, too.

Anyway. If you want to see the UH thing happen, there’s a University of Houston Should Join The Big 12 Facebook group for you. There’s a similar group for TCU, too, if your tastes go that way. If you want to read more about how Dan Beebe pulled this off, read Kevin Sherrington and especially Dan Wetzel, who reminds us that this is a temporary peace. Sooner or later, something like what the PAC 10 was trying to do will come up again. Burka, the Trib, and Sean Pendergast have more.

Big XII lives

Wow.

“The University of Texas’ athletics programs will continue competing in the Big 12 Conference,” the school announced Monday in a statement.

Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin released the following statement:

“Texas A&M is a proud member of the Big 12 Conference and will continue to be affiliated with the conference in the future. As Athletics Director Bill Byrne and I have stated on numerous occasions, our hope and desire was for the Big 12 to continue. We are committed to the Big 12 and its success today and into the future.”

Oklahoma also announced its intention to stay in the Big 12.

Less than five hours ago, the departure of UT, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to the PAC 10 was described as “imminent”, though there were other reports at the same time that the situation was more fluid. Guess we know which it is. I’m a little surprised by this, on the grounds that UT’s regents were to meet tomorrow, and A&M’s regents had not yet even scheduled a meeting. Apparently, that pitch from Big XII Commish Dan Beebe was more compelling than I expected it to be.

Beebe’s pitch involves projections of a significant increase in the Big 12’s cable rights beginning in 2012. The numbers suggest an average payout per team at about $17 million, just under the $17.4 million per school the deep-pocketed SEC distributed.

“We have as much value as 10 here than just about any other conference out there,” Beebe said Friday. “If it’s about that value and that money, then that shouldn’t be part of the equation.

“If it’s about other factors that are outside of our control, then there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Big 12 schools heard an optimistic presentation in Kansas City during the spring meetings by Fox Sports Net suggesting a significant increase.

There is a catch: the Fox offer to the Big 12 would be long term, upward of 18 years, according to multiple sources. A great deal now might not be as lucrative in 2025.

The Big 12 could get even more cash in 2016, when the league’s broadcast TV rights package with ABC/ESPN expires. The departure of Colorado and Nebraska will add about $32 million to the conference in penalties over the next two years.

According to ESPN, UT will still be allowed to pursue its own TV network. Earlier reports had suggested that this would be a deal-killer for Texas A&M. Just goes to show you never really knew what was going on all this time. The questions I have now are one, will the PAC 10+1 add a 12th team so they can at least get a conference championship game, and two, will the Big 10 and its 12 members swap names with the Big XII and its 10 members? I suppose it’s possible the Big XII could hunt for a couple of new members to make its name accurate again – I have a statement from State Rep. Garnet Coleman advocating for the inclusion of UH and TCU – but that still doesn’t settle the Big 10 mess. All in due time, I suppose. Credit to the DMN for being first out with the story.