Kafka’s Law: `You never look good arresting disabled people ‘

Good morning Austin:

Shortly after ten last night, 15 advocates for the disabled and the attendants who serve them, many of them in wheelchairs, were charged with criminal trespass for refusing to leave the Governor’s Reception Room and the area surrounding the entrance to the Reception Room, which they and about 15 others had been “blockading” for nearly 12 hours. The Capitol generally closes at 10, unless the House or Senate or a hearing is running later than that.

The scene outside the Governor's Reception Room yesterday afternoon.
The scene outside the Governor’s Reception Room yesterday afternoon.

From my story in today’s paper, written before the arrests, the advocates wanted Gov. Greg Abbott to throw his weight behind raising the base pay for those home care attendants serving those on Medicaid to a more livable wage of $10 an hour.

Roughly 30 advocates for those with disabilities were demanding that he press the budget conference committee to raise the pay of community-based home care attendants to $10 an hour.

Right now, the base wage for those attendants is $7.86 an hour, without any benefits, sick leave or vacation, which the advocates say makes it hard to find and retain people who can help the elderly and those with disabilities who are eligible for Medicaid. Attendants assist with the basic tasks of everyday life and enable their clients to stay in their homes and out of nursing facilities.

The House budget would add $60 million to the state Health and Human Services Commission to increase that wage by 14 cents an hour. The Senate budget would add $38 million, increasing it by 11 cents an hour. The governor’s budget proposal asked for $105.3 million to “recruit and retain personal attendants,” increasing the base pay by 40 cents, but still well shy of the $10 that advocates said would make the work competitive with the fast-food industry.

Bob Kafka of the disability rights group ADAPT of Texas, said it would cost $480 million over two years to raise the base wage to $10 an hour.

“It’s criminal that people essential to our survival can’t feed their kids,” said Jennifer McPhail, another ADAPT organizer, who has cerebral palsy.

From Kafka:

This is one of the most critical issues for people who live in the community. if you can’t find an attendant you just can’t live in the community. Now Walmart and Target are paying $10 and the base pay here in Texas is $7.86. We want the governor to talk to the conference committee and to endorse  $10 for community attendants as a base rate. One of the really sad parts is that even though the rate is so low, it’s even worse because there is no health  insurance  no sick leave and no vacation. So we don’t know where we are going to find the attendants to do the basic things, like getting up in the  morning, taking a shower, eating and just going out into the community.

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The scene inside the Governor’s Reception Room yesterday

The demonstrators wanted to meet with the governor – they have talked to top staff in the past – but he wasn’t around the office yesterday, and his schedule is booked through the approaching  end of the session.

Here is a little more on why Kafka was ready to be arrested yesterday.

And here is Melanie Boyte of Austin.

In the politics of protest, being in a wheelchair has its distinct advantages.

First, if you are trying, for example, to blockade Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, the simple fact of their wheelchairs and their bulk make it easier to obstruct things.

And secondly, when it comes time for the state police to arrest you for criminal trespass when you refuse to leave, the wheelchair makes the physical act of executing the arrest more complicated and cumbersome, and, as Kafka pointed out afterward, the optics of arresting folks in wheelchairs always presents a problem.

“You never look good arresting disabled people,” Kafka said.

Outside Gov. Greg Abbott's office.
Outside Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

Multiply that by some X factor if, as in this case, the governor is also in a wheelchair.

Kafka knows whereof he speaks. A veteran activist for disability rights, he has been arrested about 35 to 40 times for acts of civil disobedience, in Texas and around the country.

Here from May 23, 2011, under the headline, 14 arrested for protesting budget cuts for disabled

AUSTIN (AP) – Fourteen protesters, many in wheelchairs, were arrested Monday while protesting budget cuts to state programs for the disabled.

Activist Bob Kafka said they were arrested in raucous protests outside Gov. Rick Perry’s rented home and inside the state Capitol. The protests were organized by ADAPT Texas, an advocacy group for the disabled.

The Legislature has voted to cut funding for medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, walkers and crutches. Lawmakers have also cut funding for personal attendants that allow many disabled people to continue living at home.

One activist was arrested inside the Capitol for sounding a siren to bring attention to their chants demanding more spending on health programs. ADAPT wants lawmakers to use the Rainy Day Fund to maintain the present level of spending for the disabled.

Before that there was this from Robert Garrett of the Dallas Morning News on March 1, 2011

AUSTIN — Eleven Texans in wheelchairs, denouncing proposed state budget cuts, were ticketed late Tuesday night after refusing to leave a sit-in outside Gov. Rick Perry’s office in the state Capitol.

The protesters were with the disability rights group Adapt of Texas and refused to leave the Capitol when it was closed for the night, while about 20 other members of the group left to set up a vigil outside. David Wittie, 55, one of the sit-in organizers, said he and the others who stayed were cited for trespassing, a Class B misdemeanor, and escorted from the building.

He said the group would meet to discuss future actions.

Another organizer, Bob Kafka, said the group was disappointed that Perry would not meet with them. They wanted Perry to agree in writing to their demand that Texas use all its rainy-day money and raise other revenue to avoid cuts to social services. The Republican governor has urged lawmakers not to use any rainy-day money and opposes tax increases.

And then this, from the AP’s Jim Vertuno on April 10, 2003.

Twenty-five activists for the disabled, most of them in wheelchairs, were charged Thursday with criminal trespassing when they refused to break up a protest in and in front of Gov. Rick Perry’s Capitol office.

Chanting “Gov. Perry, What do you say, How many crips have you cut today?” the disabled-rights group ADAPT staged a demonstration to protest potential budget cuts in services, including in-home attendant care and medication.

Six members of the group, some with severe disabilities, were arrested when they refused to leave Perry’s office when it closed at 5 p.m. The others were issued summonses when they refused the leave the Capitol when it closed five hours later.

Reporters from The Associated Press, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the San Antonio Express-News and several television stations were told by police they had to leave the building under threat of arrest and were not allowed to witness the late proceedings.

The demonstrators who were arrested said it was worth it to promote their cause.

“It beats dying in a nursing home,” Danny Saenz, one of the activists who is stricken with cerebral palsy, said before state police troopers put him on a bus to take him away.

All were charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing, which carries fines of up to $2,000 and 180 days in jail.

At 9:55 p.m., police brought Travis County Justice of the Peace Herb Evans to meet with the protesters who remained outside Perry’s offices on the second floor. He read them their rights, told them he respected their civil disobedience and warned them of the consequences of their arrests. He would not speak to the media.

State police then made reporters leave.

The protesters had an attorney, Malcolm Greenstein, on hand. He remained with them after reporters left.

The protesters who were in the Capitol at night were issued summonses for criminal trespass on the spot and allowed to leave. They were given dates to appear in court over the next two months.

“Everybody felt very committed. It’s not fun and games, it’s our lives. These cuts are immoral,” said Bob Kafka, an organizer for ADAPT. He said the group would continue to have a daily presence at the Capitol.

Wow. That’s uncanny. When Vertuno writes something, it stays written.

I mean the scene last night was almost identical in the way it played out, with Kafka, Greenstein and Evans playing the exact same roles a dozen years later, and me filling in for Vertuno and the other reporters. For better or worse, and not realizing at the time that this was more in the nature of a Broadway revival than wholly original premiere,  I reacted with perhaps a smidgen too much outrage when they threatened to arrest me.

State cop: Sir, who are you with?

Me: I’m with the Statesman.

State cop: You need to leave or are you going to be subject to criminal trespass as well. You heard the speech earlier (from Evans).

Me: As a reporter …

State cop: As anybody. Are you going to turn yourself in for criminal trespass?

Me: It seems like an event I should be able to cover.

State cop: You need to leave. You need to leave. You need to leave.

Me: As a reporter …

State cop: You need to leave. YOU NEED TO LEAVE.

On my way out, I attempted to approach Evans.

“I’ll tell you anything you want but I do not want to see my name in the paper,” Evans said.

At that point my escorts were determined that I leave the building, but I was perplexed about Evans’ comment.

He was cast, once again, as the good guy in this production, arriving at the scene in his black robe, and respectfully explaining to the protestors that the police had no interest in arresting them, and the sheriff no interest in jailing them. But, he explained that they could still be charged with criminal trespass and appear before a judge if that was their desire, and that he and his clerk were there to facilitate that process by issuing summonses that would allow them to go home without being booked and jailed last night and then appear in court in July.

Travis County Justice of the Peace Herb Evans explains the choices to protestors occupying Gov. Abbott's Reception Room in the Capitol, as attorney Malcolm Greenstein looks on.
Travis County Justice of the Peace Herb Evans explains the choices to protestors occupying Gov. Abbott’s Reception Room in the Capitol, as attorney Malcolm Greenstein looks on.

Win-win civil disobedience.

“Rather than carting us off to jail, which for them would have been very difficult, either needing accessible vehicles or trailing us all the way to the courthouse, and then going to jail, they gave us the option of a summons and the promise to appear on July 7 at 10 a.m.,” said Kafka outside the Capitol after his paperwork had been quickly processed.

Or, as Malcolm Greenstein, reprising his role as Malcolm Greenstein, explained, “they were charged with criminal trespass and they received a field release citation. You get a ticket to show up for court and when they show at JP, they will do paper work and be booked in and booked out at the booking desk. It is in lieu of going to jail now.”

 

Attorney Malcolm Greenstein after the arrests at Gov. Greg Abbott's office
Attorney Malcolm Greenstein after the arrests at Gov. Greg Abbott’s office

“Travis County has adopted this field release program, instead of getting arrested, you show up at a certain time, you go into the bond office, then you get fingerprinted and photographed and released. Then it goes into the system like all other criminal cases. It’s a Class B misdemeanor. What could happen is up to six months in jail and up to a $2,000 fine,” Greenstein explained.

But that seems very unlikely.

Outside the Capitol afterwards, it was a beautiful night, breezy and perfectly temperate.

The disability advocates felt good about how they had spent their day.

A few had slices of pizza, now cold. Dominos had delivered ten pizzas to their blockade a few hours earlier.

Organizer Joe Tate on the arrival of pizza for the demonstrators at Gov. Greg Abbott's office ordered.
Organizer Joe Tate on the arrival of pizza for the demonstrators at Gov. Greg Abbott’s office ordered.

 

But the police would not let the nine protestors ensconced inside the Reception Room eat in that elegant space. (That’s apparently general rule and not specific to people engaged in a sit-in.) If they left the room they were relinquishing their occupation. And the protestors outside the Reception Room refused to have any pizza as long as their inside brothers and sisters were unable to eat.

 

Joe Tate leaves with the cold pizza as demonstrators prepared to be arrested.
Joe Tate leaves with the cold pizza as demonstrators prepared to be arrested.

As everyone disappeared into the night, I rounded the corner at the Capitol on the way to my car and encountered another unlikely scene.

It’s Austin Flow Jam. You know, poi, hooping, acro-yoga, fan-spinning, juggling. Like that.

Every Tuesday night, outside your Capitol.

Here is Kira Bolin, your Flow Jam hostess.

 

Kira Bolin, organizer with boyfriend Chris Rovo, of Austin Flow Jam every Tuesday night at the Capitol
Kira Bolin, organizer with boyfriend Chris Rovo, of Austin Flow Jam every Tuesday night at the Capitol

 

 

Meanwhile, and it may seem incredibly petty bringing this up in the context of what you just read, but when I took a mid-afternoon break from minding the blockade to get something at the Capitol cafeteria, I ordered my usual BLT.

Only then did I read the sign that was staring at me.

 

The Capitol toaster is being repaired.
The Capitol toaster is being repaired.

Our toaster is currently being repaired?

Really? The only toaster in the Texas State Capitol cafeteria is being repaired?

I didn’t think toasters got repaired. I thought you just got a new one.

And, we will see you on Monday? That’s half the remaining time in the session away.

Well, Ok, fine.

No toaster.

Life goes on.

But have you ever had a BLT with the bread untoasted?

I never had and I never will again. It was horrible, virtually inedible.

Everything was identical to the usual Texas State Capitol BLT, which I love, except for the bread not being toasted, and it made all the difference.

That’s all.

 

 

The saber and the compass: Can Greg Abbott save pre-K from the tea party machete?

Good morning Austin:

I arrived midday yesterday at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s grand opening of its grand, new, six-story, 41,000-square-foot building at 901 Congress Avenue, only 352 yards from the Capitol, with its Red McCombs Event Center, its 170-seat Joe B. Hogsett Theater with its 50-foot Travis letter, and its Governor Rick Perry Balcony with its splendid view of downtown and the Capitol, in plenty of time to hear the speechifying by Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott.

But by the time I got there, I had missed the governor’s arrival.

Apparently, I was told, as the governor rolled past the assembled members of the press, he imparted two pieces of information.

1. First puppy Pancake had taken ill the day before, had been frothing  at the mouth, after apparently swallowing a frog.

The very good news is that Pancake is OK.

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And, no, I don’t know why he swallowed a frog.

But if Callista Gingrich can produce a series of children’s books about Ellis the Elephant, I see no reason why First Lady Cecilia Abbott can’t turn Pancake into a successful children’s book franchise.

 

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And 2:

Yes indeed.

From my story:

“We are at a time of crisis, and Texas must lead the way out of these times of crisis,” Abbott said. “We have to fight our way through a thicket of growing government oppression using liberty as both the saber that will cut the pathway clear, as well as the compass that will point the direction in which we are to go.”

That’s a wonderfully compelling image. Government as a kind of strangling kudzu. And the governor there, thrashing at it with his saber, with only his liberty compass to guide him.

Only, it seem to me that cutting your way out of the thicket of government oppression – or any thicket for that matter – is more the job for a machete than a saber.

Sabers are more for …. rattling.

That’s what the governor was doing yesterday.

After a period of studied quietude as he goes about the serious business of governing, Abbott wanted to let off a little steam, reassure the troops he hasn’t gone all soft and insidery and Austin on them, and show he can still rattle his saber with the best of them.

As I wrote:

Three months into his tenure as governor, Abbott on Tuesday sounded more like the gubernatorial candidate of 2014 — or his one-time protégé U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who is now seeking the Republican presidential nomination — than the more low-profile, low-key Gov. Abbott who has mostly stayed out of the limelight and kept his rhetoric firmly in check since being inaugurated.

In his State of the State speech in February he outlined a pragmatic agenda — with emergency items calling for spending for roads, pre-kindergarten, higher education research and border security, along with ethics reform and tax cuts — and since then has mostly worked behind the scenes to try to move his program through the Legislature.

But Tuesday’s speech, at a luncheon attended by 140 funders, staff and supporters for the think tank that has guided much of Republican thinking during the party’s two decades of dominance in Texas politics, demonstrated Abbott can be as fiery in his right-wing rhetoric as Cruz or any of the bevy of Republicans — including his predecessor as governor, Rick Perry — who are contemplating getting into the wide-open GOP presidential race.

Or, for that matter, Dan Patrick.

dyc tppf abbott 06
Gov. Abbott speaks to TPPF as AG Ken Paxton looks on. (Deborah Cannon photo)

 

Lucky for America, Abbott said, there is still Texas standing tall against oppressive government interference. For example:

“Instead of a federal government that is trying to control school curriculum through mandates, Texas has outlawed Common Core, and now we’re working to give parents even more freedom by giving them the power to choose the school that is best for their child,” Abbott said

But, as the governor learned yesterday, one man’s or woman’s Common Core is another man’s or woman’s pre-K  plan.

While it is certainly possible, as Abbott is, to be opposed to the Common Core and in favor of his pre- kindergarten initiative, it’s a whole lot easier to be in favor of both, or against both.

After all, it’s a slippery slope from a pre-K pilot program to full-on, it-takes-a-village kibbutzism and Barack Obama/Wendy Davis style pre-K for all.

From the American-Statesman’s  Kiah Collier:

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s hand-picked tea party advisory board denounced legislation Tuesday containing Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-kindergarten improvement plan as “socialistic” and “a threat to parental rights,” exacerbating an already strained relationship between Texas’ top Republican leaders.

“We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young children from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers’ day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG-TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade,” the letter said of two Abbott-backed bills — House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 801.

It was signed by 18 members of Patrick’s so-called Grassroots Advisory Board, which the Texas Senate’s presiding officer created in January — the month he was sworn into office and the Legislature convened — as part of a larger effort to more closely involve citizens in the legislative process.

But Patrick immediately sought to distance himself from the letter in a statement Tuesday, saying it “was unsolicited and expresses the individual viewpoints of Texas citizens.

“We had no advance notice of the letter and saw it for the first time after it had been distributed,” he said.

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The legislation would divvy up additional pre-K funding —$130 million in the House bill — among school districts that meet certain state quality standards and that create a “parental involvement” plan. To the Grassroots Advisory Board, that sum would be a “great cost to taxpayers,” but critics on the other side of the debate have said it’s insufficient, in part because it wouldn’t help all districts offer the full-day program they say a vast body of research indicates is beneficial to young children.

The two bills wouldn’t expand free preschool beyond the population of children currently eligible for it: 4-year-olds from low-income, non-English-speaking or military families. Although an exact price tag hasn’t been determined, the measures also don’t seek to restore a $200 million pre-K grant program state lawmakers gutted in 2011, which didn’t require the kind of quality standards and data reporting Abbott has demanded.

Under both bills, participation would be voluntary — as it is now.

“This interference by the State tramples upon our parental rights,” the advisory board wrote in its letter. “The early removal of children from parents’ care is historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights. The Welfare State has resulted in the breakdown of the American family.”

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who authored the Senate pre-K bill, said that “to associate Gov. Abbott’s pre-K initiative with socialism and with parents not loving their children is complete nonsense.”

From Jay Root’s story in the Texas Tribune, which provided a link to the letter.

 Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, author of the bill in the Senate, said she was “surprised and disappointed” to see the letter from Patrick’s advisers.

“It seems rather strange that they would take a stand like that against a bill that is the priority of the governor,” she added. 

Abbott has fought vociferously for his pre-K plan, which has already passed the House. It would give about $130 million, or some $1,500 per eligible student, in additional funding to school districts that adopt certain curriculum and teacher quality standards in their pre-K programs, as well as a “parent engagement plan.”

The letter underscores the potential for trouble in the relationship between Abbott and Patrick, who are far different stylistically and could be on a collision course over both education and taxes. After Abbott moved away last week from his earlier vow to “insist” on property tax reduction — considered Patrick’s top priority in the Senate — Patrick ignored the shift and invoked Abbott’s name as if the governor had chosen his plan over a competing one in the House.

In a statement, Patrick also said he would “not support any budget that does not have property tax relief.” Both chambers must pass a budget before the new fiscal year begins in September. Without a budget in hand before the regular session ends June 1, the Legislature will have to pass one in a potentially high-stakes special session this summer.

While the latest flare-up didn’t come directly from Patrick, it suggests that pre-K could be a new front in a power struggle pitting moderate and conservative Republicans against each other — with Abbott caught in the middle. Patrick’s advisory board appears to be beyond convincing when it comes to pre-K programs.

And, from Bobby Cervantes in the Houston Chronicle:

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has spent much of this legislative session both channeling and undercutting Gov. Greg Abbott. Nobody is more aware of this than Patrick himself, whose few months as the Senate’s leader have shown more than anything that he is cutting his own path to higher office.

On Tuesday, another front opened in the path to implement Patrick’s agenda. His Grassroots Advisory Board said it stands “united in strong opposition” to two pre-K funding bills making their way through the legislature and which are priority items for Abbott. The bills are a “threat to parental rights,” the group said in a fire-and-brimstone, hyperbolic letter first published by The Texas Tribune, adding that they are the “first step towards the implementation of universal pre-K.”

From a subsequent Facebook post from Julie White McCarty, head of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, and a member of the lieutenant governor’s advisory committee:

Well, somebody had to say it because 128 of our electeds sure weren’t standing up to the Governor! I am proud to be a member of this advisory board who released this statement today. Unfortunately there is confusion on whether Patrick was given a head’s up regarding our opinion letter. He certainly should have received one. If he did not, apologies are needed, but our stance is solid and remains intact. This pre-K bill is bad for Texas, bad for the budget, bad for kids and bad for families. Many thanks to Representatives Dustin Burrows, Patrick Fallon, Stephanie Klick, Matthew Krause, Jeff Leach, Matt Rinaldi, Matt Schaefer, Matt Shaheen, David Philip Simpson, Stuart Spitzer, Jonathan Stickland, Tony Tinderholt, Scott Turner, Molly White, Bill Zedler, Dennis Paul and Debbie Riddle for their courageous “NO” votes. I hear the pressure from Abbott was intense.

And this from an email exchange with Julie this morning:

The Governor giving a “red meat” speech reminds me of his speech to NETTP during the campaign trail.  I was only slightly on board with him at the time, but he chose our venue to launch his list of intentions for office.  It was good stuff.  Very strong.  Very tea party friendly.  I was encouraged that maybe Abbott really did “get it.”  Unfortunately, now that he actually holds office, not one of those issues he listed has been addressed, and instead he’s pushing for Pre-K.  Pre-K was not mentioned in his “red meat” speech to NETTP! 
The Pre-K program is opposed universally by tea partiers.  In fact, even some of my less politically active friends and more moderate friends can see this for what it is…  free daycare on the back of the taxpayers and further deterioration of the family unit… all with no true monetary limits.  Education funding is a mess.  Austin always tries to fix it by throwing more money at it.  But as others have said, if we cannot get it right with grades K-12, what business do we have adding Pre-K?  It’s madness.

We pause here for some scripture:

Galatians 6:7-9King James Version (KJV)
7 Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.

9 And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
King James Version (KJV)

In a previous First Reading on Feb. 4, I wrote about Gov. Abbott positioning himself as a national foe of Common Core, and tried to puzzle out why.

On Sunday, Gov. Abbott debated former Education Secretary William Bennett on the Common Core standards on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.

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I mean, why would the governor go on national television as the point man against Common Core and as his coup de grâce urge viewers to look at a video that shows a teacher employing a method that is identical to that contained within Texas’ own standards.

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Or perhaps Abbott’s appearance on Fox as the national point man against Common Core has something to do with inoculating himself against criticism that his appointment of Martinez Tucker reveals him to be soft on the Obamacare of education standards.

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Lurking beneath this, is, I think, a longing for one-room schooldays of boys in overalls and girls in Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie dresses sharing their McGuffey Readers (“the child modeled in this book is prompt, good, kind, honest and truthful) and reciting, in unison, their times tables, a sharp rap on the knuckles for any act of errancy, and nothing in the lesson plan on evolution, climate change or this thing called Base 10.

The peril for Gov. Abbott, is that I don’t think there was any gold-standard pre-K program on the prairie.

Martinez Tucker, referred to above is  Sara Martinez Tucker, who Abbott named to the UT System Board of Regents.

As Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of Empower Texans, wrote at the time of her appointment:

Coming out of the gate with appointments, the team advising Gov. Greg Abbott seems to have made an initial early misstep by appointing an advocate of “common core” to the University of Texas board of regents. This is most surprising, given the strong stance Abbott has taken in opposing Common Core in specific and the federalization of education in general.

Among Abbott’s appointees to the UT Board of Regents announced on Thursday is Sara Martinez Tucker, the CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative. Writing in US News and World Report in February of 2014, she praised the controversial Common Core initiative being promoted by the Obama Administration.

“We should move the discussion to ‘how’ Common Core will be implemented – not ‘if’ Common Core should be implemented,” she wrote.

Suffice it to say, the governor did not consider the appointment of Martinez Tucker a “misstep,” and his office did not brook any opposition to her nomination.

From the American-Statesman’s Ralph Haurwitz on March 11:

The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved Gov. Greg Abbott’s nominees for the University of Texas System Board of Regents — but not without some opposition.

Ah, so wait, Common Core Martinez Tucker ran into some headwinds, eh?

No.

David Beck, a Houston lawyer, won a seat on the prestigious board by a 27-3 vote. Steve Hicks, a current regent and businessman from Austin, was approved 28-2. The vote for Sara Martinez Tucker of Dallas, CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, was 30-0.

30 zip.

 

Frying eggs on the sidewalk

From my story yesterday:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who preceded the governor speaking at the luncheon, said he was following in Abbott’s footsteps by suing the U.S. Labor Department for redefining “spouse” to include same-sex couples in the Family and Medical Leave Act, adding, “We filed that lawsuit in Wichita Falls. We thought that would be a great place for Department of Justice lawyers to spend their summer.”

Abbott, who was born in Wichita Falls, said it was “hot as H-E-double-toothpicks” there in the summer, recalling his mother cooking a fried egg on the sidewalk one July day. “I hope you cook those federal lawyers,” Abbott told Paxton.

Abbott said his mother fried the egg on the Wichita Falls sidewalk as a demonstration for him and his brother.

But a reader sent this link from Everyday Mysteries:

This question comes from the saying “It’s so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk!” How many kids, hearing it, actually try? Most likely they end up with a mess resembling scrambled eggs more than one sunny-side up. So what’s the problem?

An egg needs a temperature of 158°F to become firm. In order to cook, proteins in the egg must denature (modify), then coagulate, and that won’t happen until the temperature rises enough to start and maintain the process.

The sidewalk presents several challenges to this. According to an experiment reported in Robert Wolke’s book, What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, sidewalk temperatures can vary depending on the composition of the sidewalk, whether it is in direct sunlight, and of course, the air temperature. Dark objects absorb more light, so blacktop paving would be hotter than concrete. More often than not, sidewalks are concrete. Wolke found that a hot sidewalk might only get up to 145°F. Once you crack the egg onto the sidewalk, the egg cools the sidewalk slightly. Pavement of any kind is a poor conductor of heat, so lacking an additional heat source from below or from the side, the egg will not cook evenly.

Something closer to the conditions of a frying pan would be the hood of a car. Metal conducts heat better and gets hotter, so people actually have been able to cook an egg on a car hood’s surface.

Still, the idea of cooking an egg on a sidewalk won’t die. It is so intriguing that the city of Oatman, Arizona, hosts an annual Solar Egg Frying Contest on the 4th of July. Contestants get 15 minutes to make an attempt using solar (sun) power alone. Oatman judges, however, do allow some aids, such as mirrors, aluminum reflectors, or magnifying glasses, which would help to focus the heat onto the egg itself. It turns out that eggs also have a bit of an advantage in Arizona, the land of low humidity and high heat. Liquids evaporate rapidly when humidity is low. The eggs have a bit of “help” while they cook, and they dry out faster.

I bet you were wondering what is the origin of the saying? It’s not clear, although there is a reference to it in the Los Angeles Times on October 5, 1933, and even as far back as June 11, 1899, in The Atlanta Constitution–so the idea had captured the American imagination and become one of our common sayings by that time. And what about the other saying, “it’s so hot the chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs?” Well, what do you think?

Well, maybe Everyday Mysteries has never been to Wichita Falls.

And maybe “those federal lawyers” can try their hand at frying an egg on the sidewalk this summer.

Otto filing bill to fund retired teacher health care

Names
House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton.

Updated 6:35 p.m.:

The Texas House’s lead budget writer filed legislation Monday that would fully fund a state health care plan covering more than 250,000 retired teachers and their dependents.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said late last month the lower chamber wants to pick up the entire $768 million tab for TRS-Care over the 2016-17 biennium. Texas Senate leaders have indicated they will do the same.

The money will be included in House Bill 2, Otto said Monday at a committee meeting.

Securing that sum was one of the main goals of teacher groups this session, although they have called it just a first step. The Legislature also needs to overhaul the plan structure to make it financially sustainable for the long-term, those groups have said.

Teacher Retirement System Executive Director Brian Guthrie brought the same message to the House Pensions Committee Monday, where he laid out seven options for shoring up the fund.

“I would argue that we need to make systemic changes to the this program now in order to provide for the longer-term sustainability and we may not get this in one session, but whatever we can do to start down that path — if you put it off, the hole is just getting bigger.”

On Monday, Otto also said that discussions still are ongoing about how exactly to use the additional $2.2 billion the House has allocated for schools in its starting point budget. He also assured the panel that the money will definitely be spent on public education.

The sum, consisting entirely of local property tax revenue, is in addition to the $2.3 billion needed to fund enrollment growth over the 2016-17 biennium — about 85,000 new students a year.

The $2.2 billion has been “earmarked for improving equity and reducing recapture in our public schools,” state Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, the House’s lead education budget writer, reminded the committee.

Otto indicated as much earlier in the legislation session, which began Jan. 13.

“I expect in the not too distant future you will be seeing what the anticipated use of this $2.2 billion” is, Otto said.

“It is the chair’s intent that that $2.2 (billion) go to public education,” he continued. “It is not going to be pulled back off the table regardless of what we do.”

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, called the move “a very strong statement” and said she is “very appreciative.”

However, the former Eanes school district trustee emphasized that the $2.2 billion, as well as the nearly equivalent sum covering enrollment growth, is local — not state — money.

“I point that out because I think we need to just keep in mind the fact that we are still relying a lot on local property taxes to cover the cost of public education and at least in this case the chairman is putting it to public education rather than spending it on something else which is a huge step in the right direction,” she said, referring to the Texas Senate’s plan to return that money to local taxpayers in the form of property tax cuts. “One of the most significant things we could do to help our property taxpayers is to find state revenue sources that would decrease the amount that we’re relying on from the local property taxpayers.”

In response Otto said: “To my knowledge this is the first time since I’ve been here that we have fully restored all of the appraisal increase money back to public ed, so I think it is a good first step.”

During the meeting Monday, Ashby also announced that his Appropriations subcommittee had heard testimony from every higher education institution and had attempted to address their “top two priorities,” which he said were “increasing funding formulas as well as tuition revenue bonds.”

The subcommittee “added approximately $224 million to increase all the formulas including a 93 percent hold harmless of our community colleges,” he said. “For tuition revenue bonds we included $250 million for debt service contingent on legislation authorizing the bonds.”

He said the subcommittee also added about $50 million for financial aid programs, with the bulk of that going to the Texas Educational Opportunity Grant program. That is on top of the $41.3 million the House already allocated for TEOG and TEXAS Grants in its base budget, he noted.

Howard also praised the funding formula increase, but noted it is nowhere close to what would be needed to restore deep cuts made to higher education institutions in 2011. She said that would take $1.42 billion.

 

Cost of waiving tuition for veterans could grow to $2 billion

Senate budget writers on Thursday gawked at the exponential cost projections of a state law that waives tuition for veterans and their families at any of the state’s public higher education institutions.

The Texas Veterans Commission estimates the annual price tag of the Hazlewood Act could eventually grow to $2 billion if veterans start moving to the state to take advantage of the law after a federal judge last month struck down one of its provisions that says veterans and their families may receive free tuition as long as they enlisted while living in the state.

“We’ve created a monster,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

“This is something we really, really, really need to figure out how we’re going to address this,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the committee.

Earlier this week, the state Attorney General’s office told the budget-writing panel it would appeal the recent Hazlewood ruling.

According to Nelson’s office, $30 million of the nearly $33 million funding increase to the veterans commissions in the Senate’s proposed  budget is to reimburse higher education institutions for a share of the “Hazlewood’s Exemption Legacy Program,” which allows veterans to waive their tuition benefits so their children may take advantage of them.

That is a fraction of the total price tag, however. Hazlewood cost the state’s public higher education institutions $169 million last year to cover nearly 40,000 students, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, blamed the situation on the federal government, which he suggested should be paying for this kind of program.

“We’re finding ourselves potentially with a huge liability in trying to do right thing while the federal government just makes it more difficult,” he said.

 

Senate budget writers bemoan escalating state debt

Senate budget writers on Wednesday bemoaned escalating state and local debt, although who’s to blame and how big of a deal it really is emerged as points of contention during the in-depth discussion.

The Senate Finance Committee kicked off its third budget hearing of the 140-day legislative session with a debt overview presentation from the Legislative Budget Board showing state debt as of last August was at $44.3 billion and local debt was at $205.3 billion. The state portion has more than doubled in the past decade, LBB Assistant Director John McGeady told committee members.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, a Republican from Tyler who often harps on growing debt, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, placed blame on their fellow state lawmakers who they said have either transferred tough decisions onto bonds or local governments.

“It’s interesting to me that (in) the last 10 years we had all these people out there thumping their chest how we haven’t raised taxes in the state of Texas,” said Eltife, who profusely thanked Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson for inciting what he described as an unprecedented discussion about debt.

“No, we haven’t raised taxes,” he continued. “We’ve doubled the state’s debt in the last 10 years,” which is “a tax on a future generation.”

Because of that, the assertion that the state has balanced its budget in the last decades is “just false,” Eltife said. “We haven’t. We’ve done it on the backs of bonds. And it’s not the conservative way to fund state government.”

“If you don’t have the money, you raise taxes to pay for it,” he said. “If you don’t want to raise taxes, don’t spend the money. But don’t go into debt.”

Watson had a similar message, but contended that state lawmakers in their refusal to raise taxes and increase state spending amid explosive population growth have shifted the burden onto local governments, particularly for things like transportation.

When cities or counties raise taxes to pay for roads, Watson said, “We sit in judgment of that, I think, sometimes in an inappropriate way.”

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, somewhat tempered the discussion when he asked the LBB to confirm that the fastest growing type of state debt is “self-supporting,” meaning there is revenue available to pay it off and that “taxpayers aren’t on the hook” for it.

That didn’t much resonate with newly-minted state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham, who later asked the LBB to confirm where Texas ranks in terms of accrued local debt per capita among the 10 largest states.

“I’d like to have that confirmed … just to put in perspective where we are and where we may be heading with California falling off the fiscal cliff as a warning here.”

The answer? Second, behind New York. And ahead of California, which ranks third.

“Oh dear,” Nelson responded.

The Flower Mound Republican and state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, who is on the short list to chair the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, have filed joint resolutions that — if approved by lawmakers and then Texas voters — would divert any excess money in the state’s rainy day fund into an account dedicated to pay off state debt.

“Our economy is producing more revenue than we can spend,” Nelson said in a statement sent out before the hearing. “We need to send part of it back to taxpayers, and reduce the obligations we are placing on future generations of Texans.  They are not mutually exclusive — we can do both.”

Glimmers of bipartisan support have also have emerged this week during budget hearings for another joint resolution authored by Eltife and state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, that would ban any spending to pay down state debt from counting toward the state’s constitutional spending cap. That also would require voter approval since it would amend the state constitution.

Sens. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, listen to testimony during a Senate Finance Committee hearing this week
Sens. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, listen to testimony during a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday

 

 

Hegar ‘shocked and utterly embarrassed’ about condition of facilities

Update 3:50 p.m. on Feb. 4:

A day after Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told Senate budget writers he was “shocked and utterly embarrassed” about the condition of his 20-plus field offices, bipartisan consensus on the Senate Finance Committee emerged even stronger Wednesday around the need to repair beleaguered state facilities — particularly the schools for the deaf and blind.

“It’s horrible, horrible conditions,” said Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, of a report detailing unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the school for the deaf.

“When you look at the reports, they’ve got rodents, bats, bed bugs … electrical failure, mechanical system failure, plumbing and sewer system failure and these are young people we are responsible for,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.  “We’re creating misery for people that we ought to be taking care of.”

The issue re-emerged as the budget-writing panel heard from the Texas Facilities Commission, which told the committee that the state’s “deferred maintenance” needs have grown to almost $1 billion.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, noted that sum was just $400 million in 2006.

“You’ve got to spend the money on these buildings to maintain them,” he said. “It is a waste of taxpayer money to let these buildings (get) in these conditions and continue to accrue deferred maintenance.”

Eltife said the price tag has grown despite past recommendations to craft a 10-year maintenance plan.

“We’ve never done that so now we’re at $1 billion and growing,” he said.

Harvey Hilderbran, a former longtime state lawmaker who now heads the facilities commission, told the committee that the “definition of deferred maintenance is the absence of maintenance and we ought to be striving for planned maintenance.”

Addressing the issue “would be a wise investment on behalf of the taxpayers to address it but not to mention our hardworking state employees and the conditions that they find themselves working in  — and the visitors, our clients,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, a committee member.

Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, noted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has 108 prisons “and I promise you the roofs, the access, the security concerns, are pretty widespread” because of maintenance issues.

“There are several different issues here that we need to address,” Nelson said later. “And, you know, another one is obviously at what point do you say this is such a mess that money would be better spent to start over.”

Original post:

When Texas’ new chief financial officer appeared before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday to outline his office’s own monetary needs, he reminded upper chamber budget writers that he vowed during his campaign to make the comptroller’s office “a model for all state agencies” in terms of tightfistedness.

However, Comptroller Glenn Hegar — a Republican and former state senator — also said the office needs more money to upgrade its buildings, explaining that he had recently gone on a tour of 28 field offices and had “absolutely been shocked and utterly embarrassed by the condition” of them.

Hegar did not get too specific, but suggested the problems involve “basic sanitation” and gave one example of an office where tissue paper had been stuffed into a hole in the wall.

“I tell my staff I may not may not be a big fan of the Wizard of Oz, but I know what Dorothy felt like: We are not in the Capitol anymore,” he said, drawing a comparison between the field offices and the immaculate, pink granite statehouse. (A spokeswoman for Hegar also said he considers the LBJ Building, where his own office is housed, to be in poor condition).

“We do not need the best” facilities, Hegar continued. “But basic sanitation” is a must.

“Prior comptrollers have never stood up here and said ‘We need to maintain our buildings,'” he said, noting he has heard no complaints from the dutiful state employees who are forced to work in the dilapidated facilities.

Susan Combs, Hegar’s predecessor, did not ask for any additional money to upgrade the field offices, according to the office’s biennial legislative appropriations request submitted last fall.

Lauren Willis, a spokeswoman for the Comptroller’s office, said Hegar has not yet submitted an official request but the office is looking into what might be needed.

“We have not updated basic facilities for quite some time,” Hegar said Tuesday. “I wish that I would have toured those offices quite some time ago.”

His comments launched a discussion among committee members about whether the state should conduct an assessment of all its properties, owned or leased.

Many of them are “deplorable,” said state state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, a committee member.

 

 

LBB recommends shoring up health plan for retired teachers, success measures for border security operation

The Legislative Budget Board on Friday recommended that Texas lawmakers shore up the health insurance plan for retired teachers by increasing state, retiree and school district contributions.

The agency recommended adjusting contributions so that the cost of the insolvency for the 2016-17 biennium is allocated 50 percent to the state and 12.5 percent each to active members and school districts.

“Beginning in fiscal year 2012, total expenditures exceeded total revenue for TRS-Care, resulting in a declining fund balance. The fund is projected to be insolvent in fiscal year 2016,” according to the LBB’s Effectiveness and Efficiency Report.

The recommendation is among 106 included in the report that span a variety of topics and issues from Medicaid to border security oversight.

Echoing concerns outlined by a special committee of lawmakers, the report concluded that the state has no real way of determining whether its ongoing enforcement operation at the Texas-Mexico border is effective in part because of inconsistent interpretation of statistics.

“Neither the Border Security Council nor the Homeland Security Council are required to make recommendations regarding performance standards, reporting requirements, or the allocation of funds for border security that are appropriated to the agencies that receive most state appropriations for this function,” the report concludes after a lengthy analysis. “As a result, the state’s cross-agency collaboration in oversight and measuring the results of border security operations is limited.”
The report goes onto recommend that the next two-year budget that lawmakers will write during their 140-day session include a rider to “require certain information, including outcomes, on border security to be reported to the Legislative Budget Board using specified criteria.” Also: That state law be amended “to reconstitute the Border Security Council as a special advisory council of the Homeland Security Council and require the Homeland Security Council’s annual report to include an assessment of the performance, reporting, and funding amounts for the state’s border security activities that is made available on the Office of the Governor’s website.”
The report also recommends several changes to the law that allows property owners to appeal their appraisals, including amending statute to “establish standards for what defines comparable property, limit comparable properties to those in the same appraisal district, require adjustments to be based on general appraisal standards, and establish which appraised value is used at each stage of protest and appeal.”
It also says the Texas Comptroller should “establish standards for development and calibration of adjustments for industrial, petrochemical refining and processing, utility properties, and other unique properties by rule.”
Several refineries and odd properties have used the current law to their advantage in fighting appraisals, resulting in millions fewer dollars less for school districts and other taxing entities.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, a member of the House Committee on Fiscal Impact of Texas Border Support Operations
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, a member of the House Committee on Fiscal Impact of Texas Border Support Operations

 

 

Jane Nelson: I’m mad some think I want to harm ethics commission

Michael Quinn Sullivan
Michael Quinn Sullivan

When the Texas Senate unveiled its base budget proposal Tuesday, eyebrows raised when prominent conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan was among the first to notice that the two-year spending plan cut total funding to the Texas Ethics Commission by more than a third.

In a post on his website, the Empower Texans president — who currently is fighting an ethics commission fine in court — listed the nearly 37 percent funding cut as one of five commendable, “stand out” attributes of the budget crafted by state Sen. Jane Nelson, the Republican from Flower Mound who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. (The others included zeroing out funding for both the Texas Racing Commission and the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s office, which — like the ethics commission — investigates state officials).

“Nelson’s budget is the first step in making good on promises made by Republicans in the 2014 election cycle,” Sullivan wrote.

As Nelson’s office explained Tuesday, the funding cut to the ethics commission is attributable to a one-time, $3.5 million allocation made in 2013 for a new and improved electronic system that was not restored. The House base budget proposal — released Jan. 15 — mostly maintains that amount, however, reducing total funding to the ethics commission by less than 4 percent.

Asked about the funding difference on Wednesday, Nelson said she was mad about insinuations that she wants to harm the ethics commission, and emphasized the money was temporary.

“I am ticked off at the spin that’s being put on this. The money that they’re not getting was one-time funding,” she said. “It never ever crossed my mind to do anything to the ethics commission.”

“We’ve got enough conflict on real issues,” she continued. “I don’t want conflict to be there on issues that (are) not a conflict… You know, I was reading some of the blogs last night and it was — no, that’s not what we did.”

Asked why the House decided to mostly keep the one-time funding, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus said that after the e-filing project concluded the commission “demonstrated other needs — including enhancements to the e-filing system — that directly relate to administering and enforcing the state’s ethics laws.”

“The House budget allows the Ethics Commission to continue to fulfill its very important role in the legislative process and in our democracy,” Jason Embry said in a statement.

Last August, the commission requested funding “for items beyond initial design” of a new and improved system for filing campaign finance reports and lobby and personal financial statements, including $150,000 to create a library of online training videos showing how to use the system, $175,000 to “fix any code defects” and $500,000 to add “functional enhancements” to the system that “will benefit the public and persons who use the system to file reports.” The system — expected to be a vast improvement over the current system — is supposed to come online this year and includes a mobile app.

It will “result in more accurate information for the public,” according to the commission, and also will “contain comprehensive management tools, including a robust database that will allow the commission to verify the completeness and accuracy of disclosure information.”

Asked what will happen if the agency does not receive those funds, Executive Director Natalia Luna Ashley said “At the end of the day, the Texas Ethics Commission will serve the public the very best way that it can with the resources that it’s given.”

“The budget process – it’s that, it’s a process, and we’re at the beginning stages of it,” she noted.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of Senate Finance Committee
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee