Vol 29, Issue 28 Print Issue

Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade watches the delivery of the Capitol Christmas trees at the south steps on November 28, 2011.
Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade watches the delivery of the Capitol Christmas trees at the south steps on November 28, 2011.

Voter ID Lite?

Texas officials want access to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database, which the secretary of state’s office said could be “one of many important resources for confirming voter eligibility.” 

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

At least 14 people died and nine were injured when an overloaded pickup truck crashed in South Texas. Authorities are investigating whether human smuggling played a part in the sheer number of people packed into the truck. The dead were citizens of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. The practice of overloading vehicles with illegal immigrants as they head north into the state is common.

A proposed fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas is drawing fire from a Mexican agency protesting its placement in the flood plain. American officials insist that the fence segments will not obstruct the waters of the Rio Grande, but a treaty signed by the two countries in 1970 prohibits the building of any structure that causes a deflection of the river or its floodwaters. Half of the proposed 14-mile stretch falls in the floodplain, and engineers on each side dispute the other’s findings.

The School Land Board has rejected a $300 million injection of funds expected to be deposited into the Available School Fund. The money, earnings from investments in real estate managed by the board, was part of an agreement in the Legislature last year to restore a portion of the $5.4 billion cut to public education. The resulting constitutional amendment approved by legislators was also approved by voters in November. The intention of the provision was to allow money to be deposited directly into the Available School Fund, but the three-member board is not allowing the money to be disbursed, instead reserving those earnings for future investments opportunities.

A provision of the Affordable Care Act is netting Texans some cash. Insurance companies are now subject to a rule that requires them to refund premiums if their operations don’t meet a certain ratio. The so-called medical loss ratio requires companies to spend 80 percent of premiums they collect on health care service or efforts to improve them and keep their administrative costs below the 20 percent threshold. Anything over that level triggers a rebate to consumers, which encompasses individuals, small and large employers. The refunds are required to go out by Aug. 1. Consumers Union estimates that Texas is on tap to receive $166.9 million for 2011.

In response to funding cuts resulting from legislation excluding Planned Parenthood from the state’s Medicaid Women’s Health Program, the women’s health organization has deployed workers to downtown streets in Central Texas to solicit donations. The new strategy of seeking support directly from the public has netted donations of more than $165,000 in four Central Texas communities from more than 4,000 people.

San Antonio’s CPS Energy came to an agreement with a South Korean company to buy a fixed amount of solar photovoltaic power for the next 25 years, leading the company to plan building projects that will cost a consortium group of manufacturers about $1 billion and lead to the creation of 800 jobs for the area. When the solar plants are completed, they’ll be able to supply 400 megawatts per year to the utility, powering about 70,000 homes.

General Motors announced that it would be partnering with an Austin-area company to study the effect of the use of electric and plug-in vehicles on the smart grid in an urban area development. The project will be underwritten with funds from the Department of Energy and other project partners, and will involve participation of researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Environmental Defense Fund and the University of Texas. Overseen by Pecan Street Incorporated, the project will try to determine the impact of cars using the grid on the overall energy usage pattern of the neighborhood.

A study released earlier in the year by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin is being reconsidered in light of allegations that the leader of the study may have a conflict of interest. The study on fracking was led by Professor Charles “Chip” Groat and concluded that there was no connection between the practice and groundwater contamination. But Groat didn't disclose at the time that he was a member of the board of Plains Exploration and Production, an energy company that practices fracking. He has received over $1.5 million in cash and stock from the company since 2007. A watchdog group, Public Accountability Initiative, has also pointed out flaws in the study, including lack of verified peer review.

Political People and their Moves

The governor set a November 6 special election for the unexpired term of state Rep. Veronica Gonzales, who resigned to take a job with the University of Texas-Pan American. Whoever wins the HD-41 seat will hold the position until the winner of the regular election held that same day takes the oath of office in January.

Michael Kelley joins the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation as a government relations officer. He's most recently been teaching at Central Texas College, and worked at several state agencies and the Texas Senate before that.

Jeff Hillery joins Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, as communications director after six years with the Fox News talk radio operation in New York City (and 15 years in Dallas radio).

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Matthew Kreisle III to chair the Texas Historical Commission. Kreisle is an executive with Page Southerland Page in Austin. He also appointed Michael Donegan of Rockwall and August Harris III of Austin to that board. Donnegan works at El Dorado Chemical; Harris is president of Covenant Financial Solutions.

The governor named Erik Salwen of Houston to the Texas Southern University Board of Regents. Salwen is president of Oak Research and also works for the Dallas Theological Seminary.