Vol 29, Issue 37 Print Issue

Texas Health and Human Services commissioner Kyle Janek (center) with deputy commissioner Chris Traylor and moderator Emily Ramshaw in a discussion of the future of state health policy at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 22, 2012.
Texas Health and Human Services commissioner Kyle Janek (center) with deputy commissioner Chris Traylor and moderator Emily Ramshaw in a discussion of the future of state health policy at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 22, 2012.

Janek's Scrutiny of U.S. Census Bureau Uninsured Statistics Draws Critics

At The Texas Tribune Festival, Health and Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek made a startling suggestion: that the Census Bureau’s projection that a quarter of Texans are uninsured is inflated. 

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

A new report from an environmental group acting as an oil and gas watchdog reports that about half of all active wells in Texas are not inspected on a regular basis to ensure compliance with safety regulations. The shale drilling boom of the last few years has overwhelmed state inspectors at the Railroad Commission, whose numbers have increased from 88 in 2010 to 153 currently. But Earthworks, which conducted the study, estimated that in 2010, 53 percent of active wells were not inspected. The group also contends that even when violations are found, the penalties are so minimal that industry can afford to ignore them. Barry Smitherman, head of the Railroad Commission, disputed the allegation, issuing a statement detailing improvements to the commission’s operations and enforcements.

A long-standing challenge to Texas Open Meetings Act was dealt a blow this week when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law. The state was originally sued in 2006, after it penalized members of the Alpine City Council for discussing the city’s business over email. The law in question requires public disclosure of government meetings, and was called into question by Avinash Rangra and Katie Elms-Lawrence, who claimed it violated their right to free speech under the First Amendment. After the 5th Circuit Court dismissed the case in 2009, claiming that the plaintiffs had no standing, since they were no longer on the council, officials from other municipalities joined in the suit. The court decision affirms that free speech was not violated in this case, because the state was not attempting to regulate speech. Attorneys for the plaintiffs immediately said they would continue to appeal the decision.

Although cases of West Nile virus appear to be waning, vigilant health officials in Midland are tracking a new strain of mosquito-borne disease. The appearance of the California serogroup strain for the first time prompted officials to trap mosquitoes to be sent to Austin for testing. The Texas Department of State Health Services wants to track the types of viruses found throughout the state and get a jump on their planning for the next mosquito season.

Census data analyzed by a national group shows that a gender wage gap in Texas persists, although it varies by location. The average woman in Texas earns about 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Texas fared a little better than the nation as a whole, where women earned 77 cents on the dollar. The study, conducted by the National Partnership for Women & Families, details by congressional district what the gap is and how much the resulting lost wages are for women.

Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law student attacked by Rush Limbaugh for her testimony before Congress on birth control, made an appearance at a women’s studies conference at Southern Methodist University. Fluke renewed her assertion that the availability of contraception to women makes a difference in women’s participation in the broader world. And she continued to stress that affordable contraception is a necessity for women and for society. Anti-abortion protesters gathered near the forum, and the panel faced contentious questions from the audience.

High school students increased their SAT participation rate in 2012, but their average scores declined slightly. Texas saw its rates of participation rise about 6 percent from the previous year, meaning that about 58 percent of high school seniors took the college admissions test. Rates rose most dramatically among minorities; since 2007, Hispanics have increased participation by 65 percent and blacks by 42 percent. During the same time period, though, scores declined. The latest drop was about 5 points in each area of the test, meaning that Texas students scored below the national averages in all three sections of the test.

A school district located near Fort Worth has drawn national attention for its new policy on paddling. Springtown schools were under the gun to modify their policy on corporal punishment after two teenage girls were paddled by a male administrator and came away with bruises. The district has now mandated that opposite-sex paddling will be allowed, with conditions. A same-sex school official has to be a witness to the swats, and parents have to opt in to the punishment in writing. Texas schools are permitted to use corporal punishment, and it’s estimated that about 75 percent of them use it, although parents can prohibit it and some large districts have banned paddling.

Political People and their Moves

Texas House speakers generally stay out of general election races that involve the other party’s incumbents. Democratic speakers don’t go directly at Republicans; Republican speakers don’t go directly at Democratic members. They have to get elected by members, after all, and it doesn’t help if you intentionally and openly split the House during the elections. The knives are out, sometimes, but they’re concealed.

That’s not how the Senate operates, apparently. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is touting Republican challenger Mark Shelton, a state Rep. from Fort Worth, over Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, in the November election. He visited the district on Shelton’s behalf and tweeted this: “Dr. Mark Shelton is going to be one of the conservatives we need in the Texas Senate!” 

FreedomWorks — the Washington, D.C.-based grassroots organizers started by former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey — jumped into the race for Texas Speaker, sending emails to a list (they said) of 110,000 Texans telling them to bug their state representatives to vote against San Antonio Republican Joe Straus and for Mineola Republican Bryan Hughes. That group was banging the drum two years ago for Ken Paxton of McKinney, who was challenging Straus then and who is now Senate-bound.

Fort Worth political consultant and lobbyist Bryan Eppstein rearranged his Austin operations, with Keats Norfleet and David Marwitz leaving to consult on their own, and giving up his longtime offices at the Cotton Ginners building. He says he'll still have an Austin operation, but with personnel changes: Chris Keffer remains in Austin and will get help from the Fort Worth crew as needed, Eppstein says.

Ron Curry, a former state environmental regulator in New Mexico, is the new regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. He replaces Al Armendariz of Dallas as the head of the region that includes Texas; Armendariz left last spring after warring throughout his tenure with the companies he regulated and with Texas regulators, too. 

Jay Kimbrough, who left the Department of Public Safety in May to work at the troubled Texas Department of Juvenile Justice (formerly the Youth Commission), is going back to DPS. Mike Griffiths, the new head at TDJJ, has been on board for a month.

Jeff Jeter moves to the University of Texas-Arlington as director of legislative affairs; he had been on the staff of retiring state Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington.

Gov. Rick Perry has named Heather Page of Austin director of the Texas Film Commission. Page, a camerawoman, has worked on major feature films and television shows like Revenge, Friday Night Lights and The Green Mile.

Perry also has appointed Maria Teran of El Paso to the State Health Services Council for a term to expire Feb. 1, 2013. Teran is president and chief executive officer of Sierra Machinery Inc.

Deaths: Fred Meyer, a Dallas business executive and a key player in turning Dallas County and then the state to the Republican Party in the 1980s, raising money, recruiting candidates and creating a statewide organization. He was 84.