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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Headlines


Local Politics
Contractor Questions Brazos County's Bid Selection

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, a local construction company owner raised concerns during a Brazos County Commissioners Court meeting this week about the process being used to evaluate competitive proposals. Mark Dudley, owner of Dudley Construction, asserted that his company was not given fair or equal consideration when it came to the county's selection of a contractor for phase three of renovations at the Brazos County Courthouse. The bid was awarded to Madison Construction, which is owned by banker Don Adam and is the company responsible for the previous two phases at the courthouse. As of Sept. 6 -- a month after the original proposals deadline -- Madison Construction had submitted a price of $3.903 million, while Dudley Construction's total came to $3.937 million. Originally, Madison Construction had submitted a proposed cost of slightly more than $4 million and Dudley Construction a proposal of $3.926 million, but those were adjusted afterward as contractors worked out cost-cutting opportunities. Before commissioners were able to approve the Madison contract, Dudley argued, they should have been considering the proposed cost amounts that were turned in the day of the deadline -- not the cost after negotiations. County Judge Duane Peters said he could sympathize with Dudley's frustration, but that officials had adhered to purchasing laws and codes.

Texas A&M News
Texas A&M System Hires Consultant to Find Savings

A consultant has been hired to conduct a comprehensive review of the A&M System, the $3.3 billion entity that has 11 universities, seven state agencies and a Health Science Center. The Eagle reports that the Tallahassee-based MGT of America Inc. will evaluate organizational, management and business practices to gain efficiency and streamline operations, the System's chief said. The review will examine structure, departmental functions, staffing levels, budgeting and shared services. The latter was the effort started in the summer of 2009 that combined major administrative positions between the A&M System and its flagship campus, Texas A&M University. According to a release from A&M System spokesman Jason Cook, the recommendations may include long- and short-term changes to the System's organizational structure. That, according to the release, could include alternative organizational charts, management reporting, cost savings, business practices, shared services and staffing requirements. MGT is a national consulting firm specializing in public sector management. Sharp said he extensively utilized it in the comptroller's office, including for performance reviews of school districts.

Texas News
Panel Urges Review of Arson Convictions

According to a report by the Associated Press, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recommended this week that all cases involving people locked up on arson convictions be reviewed. The State Fire Marshal's Office has agreed to scrutinize forensics in cases that led to an arson conviction. The Innocence Project of Texas, an affiliate of a national non-profit organization that uses DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions, will provide written surveys to prisoners to help identify cases for review. State officials also will examine death certificates because some don't list arson as the cause of death in cases that included fires. Jeff Blackburn, chief attorney for the Innocence Project of Texas, said priority will be given to Texas death row inmates. Arson convictions could be involved in 750 to 900 cases. The eight-member panel made 17 recommendations after the state attorney general limited the scope of its investigation in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 after being found guilty of setting a 1991 fire that killed his three children.

Texas Politics
State Workers Cut While Firm Spends

For more than a year before the state canceled its $144 million contract with an engineering firm it had hired to handle more than $1 billion in federal hurricane disaster relief grants, state managers warned that the firm, HNTB, had radically overspent its budget and should be relieved of most of its duties. The Austin American-Statesman reports that in the end, it was some of those same supervisors at the Texas Department of Rural Affairs who were fired and HNTB that carried on "full steam ahead," in the words of one of the supervisors. In February, Rural Affairs Executive Director Charlie Stone laid off his disaster recovery division — about 35 employees, almost all of them earning a fraction of the salaries the government was paying HNTB — and outsourced their work to the contractor. According to HNTB's contracted billing rates, its 14 highest-paid employees charge between $200 and $360 an hour for their services, though the highest-paid Rural Affairs employee made $126,000 a year, or $61 an hour. As a state Senate committee begins an inquiry this week into how the hurricane relief money has been managed, the American-Statesman has learned that HNTB is positioning itself for more state work.

Foreign Policy 
US Revises Strategy for Ending the Afghan War

According to an article in the Washington Post, the Obama administration has launched a revised strategy for Afghanistan that officials hope will lead to substantive negotiations with insurgents and regional support for a political end to the war. The strategy is an attempt to fold disparate policy elements into a comprehensive package as the administration tries to fashion an exit that will not leave Afghanistan open to civil war or the reestablishment of terrorist bases. Elements of the strategy already underway include escalation of military pressure on the Haqqani network of insurgents in eastern Afghanistan — along with an open door for the network, and other Taliban groups, to hold direct talks with the United States. Pakistan, where the groups are based, has been offered a principal role in the negotiations in exchange for curtailing its support for them and helping bring them to the table, where the Afghan government will also have a seat. Until recently, the administration insisted that substantive talks must be between the Afghans and the insurgents, with U.S. facilitation and Pakistani support. The new strategy, officials said, recognizes that talks are more likely to succeed with the direct participation of the four parties with the biggest stake in the outcome.

Domestic Policy
Workforce Commission Warns Unemployment Insurance Recipients About Scams

Officials at the Texas Workforce Commission are warning unemployment insurance recipients to be aware of scammers attempting to obtain personal information. The Lufkin Daily News reports that unemployment insurance benefits recipients should be aware of unscrupulous business operators who may try to obtain their personally identifiable information such as date of birth, debit card numbers, personal identification numbers or Social Security numbers, commission officials said. Commission spokesman Mark Lavergne said to his knowledge, there have been no complaints to TWC or incidents reported from Lufkin or the Deep East Texas area. Commission officials recommend recipients give personal information only when filing for benefits online at ui.texasworkforce.org or when speaking to an unemployment benefit customer service representative on the Tele-Center phone filing system. Because of reports of suspicious activities to TWC, commission officials said unemployment staff will never call to obtain personally identifiable information, perform home visits or use text messages to contact claimants.

Economics
Recession Drives More Americans to Poverty-Wracked Neighborhoods

The number of Americans living in neighborhoods beset by extreme poverty surged in the last decade, erasing the progress of the 1990s, with the poorest areas growing more than twice as fast in suburbs as in cities. At least 2.2 million more Americans, a 33 percent jump since 2000, live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or higher, according to a study released today by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. The report, which analyzed Census Bureau data, shows the extent to which the U.S. lost ground in efforts to fight poverty during a decade marked by recessions, including the deepest slump in seven decades. The Midwest and South were hardest hit, suffering from manufacturing job losses and the housing bust. When people are concentrated in very poor neighborhoods, they face a host of additional problems from worse schools and fewer job opportunities to poor health, she said. The report follows the release of data by the Census Bureau in September that showed the number of people living in poverty was the highest in the 52 years since the agency began gathering the statistic. U.S. household income fell to its lowest level in more than a decade in 2010 and poverty rose to a 17-year high.

Environment
Texas Red Tide Kills 4.2 Million Fish 

The Associated Press reports that the algae bloom known as red tide has killed 1.2 million more fish along the Texas coast in less than two weeks. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reported this week that about 4.2 million fish have died since the red tide outbreak began in September. The agency on Oct. 20 estimated 3 million fish had been killed. State health officials last week banned, until further notice, commercial and recreational harvesting of oysters, clams and mussels due to red tide. Tuesday would have been opening day for public harvest of oysters through April. Experts say red tide, often present in the fall, is worse this year because of the Texas drought and recent excessive heat. The algae thrive in warm, salty water. Red tide can cause respiratory problems in people.

Civil Rights
Judge Denies DNA Tests Before Texas Execution

A judge has denied a Texas death row inmate's request to test DNA evidence that his attorneys say could prove his innocence. Hank Skinner is set to be executed next Wednesday for the 1993 deaths of his girlfriend and her two sons. Skinner's attorneys had asked for testing of DNA evidence that had not been tested before his 1995 trial. But Judge Steven R. Emmert in the Texas panhandle on Wednesday denied Skinner's request in a brief order that did not explain the judge's decision. Emmert's order was made public on Thursday. Skinner's attorneys say they plan to appeal the decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Prosecutors have called the request merely an attempt to delay the 49-year-old's execution.

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