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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Headlines

Local News
Money a Factor in Possible Wellborn Annexation

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, groups opposed to annexation of Wellborn have warned that it will cost taxpayers millions. One of the most vocal opponents, Brazos County Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Mike McCleary, has predicted that it will cost the city about $14 million. The city is in the midst of compiling a plan for providing services to Wellborn upon annexation. State law mandates that an annexed area must receive about the same services as the rest of the city within 21/2 years. Results of the plan will be presented to the City Council in March.

Local Politics
Congressman Flores Talks With Residents in Bryan-College Station

Congressman Bill Flores fielded questions ranging from how to address the budget deficit to his position on gay marriage at his first town hall meeting in Bryan-College Station this week. The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports that about 250 constituents gathered at Sam Rayburn Middle School to put questions to the freshman congressman and hear his plans on how to respond to a variety of issues facing Congress. When asked by members of the audience, Flores outlined his position on a variety of other topics, saying: He supports term limits on members of Congress and plans to limit himself to four terms. He supports cutting the salaries of members of Congress. He supports the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and woman and which the Obama administration said this week that it will no longer support. He does not support the DREAM Act, which would provide legal residency to some illegal immigrants who have served in the military or completed college.

Texas A&M News
Rick Perry’s Appointed Texas A&M Regents Include Major Campaign Donor

According to an article in the American Independent, rying to find $1 million in contributions to Gov. Rick Perry? Look no further than the group of nine Regents for the Texas A&M University System. Earlier this month, Perry selected three new Regents to oversee the A&M System. Perry’s never been shy about placing prominent campaign supporters in positions of power (A&M Regent Richard Box is Perry’s campaign treasurer), and the latest round of appointments does not defy expectations. New Regent Cliff Thomas Jr. and his wife have donated $326,000 to Perry since 2000, including $100,000 in 2009 and 2010. Thomas’ donations make him the biggest Perry campaign contributor on the A&M Board of Regents, who together have given Perry more than $1 million, according to the Texas Tribune’s database of Regent donors to Perry. Thomas, of Victoria, is owner and CEO of Thomas Petroleum, Speedy Stop Food Stores and C.L. Thomas Inc. — which together comprise a fuel lubricant and chemical distributorship and chain of convenience stores. Perry previously appointed Thomas to serve on the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority board in 2004, reappointing him in 2009. According to his company’s website, Thomas was a high school and (briefly) college football coach before taking a job with an Exxon distributorship — purchasing his own distributorship in 1980 and expanding it into a company with more than 100 locations.

Texas News
Texas Education Agency Lays Off Workers

Layoffs have begun at the Texas Education Agency as legislators face a projected $15 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget. The Austin American-Statesman reports that TEA officials have declined to say how many of the agency's more than 1,000 workers were given pink slips. Some employees were seen Tuesday removing their personal belongings from the TEA's main office complex in Austin. Education Commissioner Robert Scott says, based on anticipated budget reductions, the TEA has taken steps to reduce the size of the agency. Scott says the TEA will continue with its mission to serve school districts and students. TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe says exact numbers on how many TEA workers lost their jobs will be released later.

Texas Politics
Ethics Bill Takes Aim at Double-Dipping in Texas

According to a report by the Associated Press, a top Texas Republican leader proposed ethics legislation Tuesday that would require more disclosure of campaign transactions and potential conflicts of interest between lawmakers and lobbyists, taking aim at double-dipping spending practices by lawmakers that have led to a criminal investigation. The legislation introduced by Rep. Charlie Geren, of Fort Worth, would clean up shoddy disclosure laws that have allowed lawmakers to pocket taxpayer money for political travel with little oversight or transparency. The Associated Press reported extensively on the spending practices, which have drawn scrutiny from Texas prosecutors. Republican Reps. Joe Driver and Dan Flynn, who represent North Texas districts, used their campaign accounts to travel to out-of-state conferences and stay in luxury hotels and then collected thousands of dollars in taxpayer reimbursements for the same expenses. Both lawmakers reimbursed their campaigns for thousands of dollars submitted in duplicate expenses after being contacted by the AP. Travis County prosecutors said they are investigating suspected double-dipping incidents. By law, legislators don't have to detail transactions made between their campaign and their personal accounts. They also don't have to report when they earn interest or investment dividends, or when they get money back from deposits, rebates or other credits. Geren's bill would require disclosure of those transactions, which would make it easier to see if politicians are using their campaign accounts to make money.

National Politics
House Republicans to Seek Deep Budget Cuts in New Bill

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives want to make deep spending cuts of $4 billion as part of a stopgap bill to avert a government shutdown. Reuters news service reports that the two parties need to agree on a spending bill next week or much of the federal government will close, unsettling financial markets and risking massive layoffs. A House Republican aide told Reuters the party was proposing a two-week extension of government funding beyond March 4. But the size of the proposed cuts worried Democrats, who control the Senate and can block the Republican plan. Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, dismissed the proposal as "reckless," and accused Republicans of refusing to compromise. President Barack Obama's Democrats are fighting a pitched battle over spending cuts with Republicans, who were energized by big wins in November elections after campaigning for smaller government to curb a massive U.S. budget deficit. Global investment firm Goldman Sachs has estimated that the deep cuts in the House-passed bill would significantly slow U.S. economic growth in the second and third quarters of this year.

War & Peace
Increased US Drone Strikes in Pakistan Killing Few High-Value Militants

According to an article in the Washington Post, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed at least 581 militants last year, according to independent estimates. The number of those militants noteworthy enough to appear on a U.S. list of most-wanted terrorists: two. Despite a major escalation in the number of unmanned Predator strikes being carried out under the Obama administration, data from government and independent sources indicate that the number of high-ranking militants being killed as a result has either slipped or barely increased. Even more generous counts - which indicate that the CIA killed as many as 13 "high-value targets" - suggest that the drone program is hitting senior operatives only a fraction of the time. After a year in which the CIA carried out a record 118 drone strikes, costing more than $1 million apiece, the results have raised questions about the purpose and parameters of the campaign.

Foreign Policy
Study Finds US Wasted Billions in Iraq and Afghanistan

Corruption and waste has cost the US government billions of reconstruction dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an official study on wartime contracting released this week. Agence France-Presse reports that the report found that "criminal behavior and blatant corruption" were responsible for much of the waste related to the nearly $200 billion spent since 2002 on US reconstruction and other projects in the two countries. It did not give exact figures, but cited the Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report to Congress in January that found efforts were at clear risk because of poor planning and insufficient oversight. Another estimate in the "Commission on Wartime Contracting" report found that losses to fraud alone in both war zones could be as high as $12 billion. The commission offers 32 recommendations to improve the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where some 200,000 people are employed by subcontractors, including a decrease in dependence on private security and an increase in competition between subcontractors to lower prices.

Economy
Jobless Filings Fell Again Last Week

According to an article in the New York Times, fewer people requested unemployment benefits last week for the third time in four weeks, pushing the four-week average of applications to its lowest level in more than two and a half years. In other reports, sales of new homes fell in January while orders for durable goods rose in January, but only because of a rebound in commercial aircraft purchases. The Labor Department said Thursday that the number of laid-off workers applying for unemployment benefits dropped by 22,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 391,000. The four-week average of claims, a less volatile figure, fell to 402,000. That was the lowest level since late July 2008 and a hopeful sign that the job market was slowly improving. Applications below 425,000 tend to signal modest job growth. But they would need to dip consistently to 375,000 or below to indicate a significant decline in the unemployment rate. Applications for benefits peaked during the recession at 651,000.

Environment
Infant Dolphin Deaths Spiking in Gulf After Oil Spill

Baby dolphins, some barely three feet in length, are washing up along the Mississippi and Alabama coastlines at 10 times the normal rate of stillborn and infant deaths, researchers are finding. The McClatchy news services reports that 17 young dolphins, either aborted before they reached maturity or dead soon after birth, have been collected along the shorelines. The Institute of Marine Mammal Studies is doing necropsies, animal autopsies, on two of the babies now. Moby Solangi, director of the institute, called the numbers an anomaly and that they are significant, especially in light of the BP oil spill throughout the spring and summer last year. Millions of barrels of crude oil containing toxins and carcinogens spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil worked its way into the Mississippi and Chandeleur sounds and other bays and shallow waters where dolphins breed and give birth. This is the first birthing season for dolphins since the spill.

Climate Change
Rising Seas Could Swamp Some Texas Cities By 2100

According to an article in the Texas Observer, last week, a team led by two scientists at the University of Arizona published research that for the first time looked at how rising seas are likely to impact every major coastal city (above 50,000 in population) in the lower 48 states. The headline from the report is that almost 10 percent of the land within 180 U.S. coastal cities could be swamped by century's end. But that's an average across the 48 states. Drill down a bit and the results are even more sobering for Texans. If the experts are right – and oceans do rise by 1 meter or more – some Texas cities could eventually be swamped by the Gulf. At greatest risk are Port Arthur, Galveston and Corpus Christi, according to the University of Arizona paper. Almost 50 percent of Port Arthur and Galveston are less than 1 meter, or three feet, above sea level. Roughly 90 percent of those cities' land area is below two meters, or six feet. Corpus Christi, the third most vulnerable Texas city, has about 15 percent of its area below 1 meter. While other Texas cities fare much better, they still contain non-trivial pieces of land at risk.

Civil Rights
Bill to Reduce Wrong Convictions in Texas Passes Committee

A Texas House committee advanced legislation this week that would require law enforcement agencies to standardize the way eyewitnesses identify suspects in an effort to reduce the number of wrongful convictions. The Associated Press reports that the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee voted to require agencies to adopt a written policy based on a model or create something similar to determine how they conduct photographic or live lineups. Currently only 12 percent of agencies in the state have written policies. To avoid unintentionally influencing the witness, the person administering the lineup would be prohibited from knowing who the suspect in the case is. The procedures would be written based on reliable research on eyewitness memory and relevant policies developed by other governments and agencies. Advocates say the issue is one of the most important in criminal justice, and lawmakers have long seen a need for reform in this area of the system. Texas leads the nation in the most convicts exonerated by DNA evidence, with more than 40 people released from prison since 1994. Seven men who spent decades imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit testified before the committee in support of the legislation. They said they wouldn't have lost years of their lives behind bars if the lineup process had been conducted differently.

Immigrant Rights
Hundreds of Texans Protest Proposed Immigration Bills

According to an article in the Texas Tribune, hundreds of Texans descended on the state Capitol on this week to draw attention to what they say are dozens of bills that, if passed, would hinder economic development, stymie education and — above all — encourage racial profiling in the Lone Star State. Some marched and waved signs supporting the United Farm Workers. Others, cloaked in Texas and U.S. flags, proclaimed that “Texas Can Do Better Than Arizona.” The immigrants’ rights advocates, former military personnel, lawmakers and students — from seemingly every rural and urban sector of the state — rallied and proclaimed that bills like HB 17 and HB 22 would serve only to increase insecurity and distrust within immigrant communities, hinder Texas’ future workforce from being competitive and lead to an increase in crime. The bills, by state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, would make it a Class B misdemeanor to be in the country without proper documentation and mandate that school districts report the immigration status of their students. Riddle has also filed HB 1202, which would make it a state jail felony to knowingly and “recklessly” hire an unauthorized worker.

Women’s Issues
Texas Proposed Law Could Jail Women for Taking Drugs During Pregnancy

A bill in the Texas House seeks to criminalize substance abuse during pregnancy. Currently, no such state or national law exists; however, for years, various lawmakers have attempted to change law in their state so that in the future, it will be possible for women to serve jail time for prenatal drug abuse. The American Independent reports that Texas Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels) introduced a bill early this month that would amend the state’s penal and family codes, making it a state felony offense for a woman to ingest a controlled substance while pregnant, as well as a state felony offense for another person to introduce a controlled substance into the pregnant woman’s body. Under Texas’ criminal code, state jail felonies are punishable by 180 days to two years in a state jail facility and a maximum fine of $10,000. According to the Guttmacher Institute (PDF), 15 states (including Texas) consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse under civil child-welfare statues, and three consider it grounds for civil commitment. Fourteen states require health care professionals to report suspected prenatal drug abuse. The institute notes that 19 states have either created or funded drug treatment programs specifically targeted toward pregnant women, and nine (including Texas) provide pregnant women with priority access to state-funded drug treatment programs. Four states prohibit publicly-funded drug treatment programs from discriminating against pregnant women: Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

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