The Hot List — With Bubble Babies

The Texas Weekly Hot List is back, with our best stabs at which races are closest and which ones ought to be on your watch list. This is inherently subjective, based on ongoing conversations with candidates, consultants, financiers and so on.

Some races are obviously competitive, like the 23rd congressional district or the 10th Senate district or the 78th House district. Some could be if events unfold in a particular way. Some depend on which candidate runs the better race, and some depend on external factors, like a sheriff's race or a county clerk who runs short of ballots.

It's worth noting that several races on the list include third-party candidates, whose presence often swings close contests. Editor's note: Two races had Libertarians and now don't, as those candidates have dropped out: HD-23, and HD-107; a hat tip to Robert Miller for pointing that out.

Finally, we've included some bubble babies — races that might turn out not to be competitive at all, that aren't topping any lists, but that have some characteristic — a past election result, a candidate name, a demographic trend — that lifts your eyebrow. Those are in the yellow zone for now, and might not amount to much. 


Texas Drought Woes Prompt Talk of Water Session

Things are starting to move on water, both on the policy front and on the crisis front.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, told an audience in Austin this week that water would be “at the center of the discussion” when the House reconvenes next year. Straus noted that the state’s population is projected to rise to 33 million by 2030, and that creates an “obligation to focus on infrastructure and resources.”

Straus is from San Antonio, and he cited a time in the past when USAA, a major employer, threatened to move to Phoenix because San Antonio then was seen at the time as water-constrained. “It was a wake-up call,” Straus said, though the company ultimately stayed. “I don’t want to reach a day where a Texas company announces it’s moving to Florida or Ohio because of water issues,” he added.

Straus’ talk took place at a meeting of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Afterwards, when asked what specific measures he planned for the next session, he said he was following the lead of Texas House Natural Resources Chair Allan Ritter, R-Nederland. There are “a lot of ideas out there,” he said, but among them, he cited beginning to implement the state water plan, the $53 billion to-do list that enumerates projects like reservoirs and fixing leaky pipes around the state.

Lawmakers on a panel at last weekend's Texas Tribune festival agreed that taking action on water — including starting to fund the water plan—is critical. "I think education will be everyone's 1A topic, but water should be 1B," said State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland. But the lawmakers said the challenge of water legislation was that each community has a different water situation—ie water is highly localized—and infrastructure is expensive.

"I think it's incumbent upon our leadership to hear the alarm that went off in 2011,” said State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking on another panel. “If they don't, that will be their legacy.” 

Other water policy issues are moving forward too. Earlier this month, the Texas Railroad Commission opened a comment period on proposed changes to regulations governing recycling of water that flows back out of fracked oil and gas wells, in the hopes of making it easier for companies to recycle the water. The comment period extends until October 29.

Meanwhile, the water-supply situation continues to become more acute in parts of the state, especially West Texas. The TCEQ has information on roughly two-dozen communities, mostly small and many in West Texas, that are at risk of running out of water within six months. (See this map.) Among bigger cities, San Angelo, conscious that it has just a year's supply of water remaining, is tightening water restrictions. Brownwood recently received a $12 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board; part of it will go toward a planned new facility that will process and recycle wastewater, and send it back into the city’s taps. The TCEQ must approve the plant’s design, and the Brownwood city council also needs to sign off on the project later this year. If built, the plant would become perhaps the second such facility in the country; a similar plant is under construction at Big Spring and should be finished by the end of the year.

Water woes also continue to plague Wichita Falls. If lakes there continue to fall, the city will go into a tighter stage of water restrictions.

Several water-focused forums will be underway soon. Texas A&M University will hold a conference on water and energy issues in College Station on October 3-4. And the Texas Tribune, in conjunction with Texas State University, is organizing a water conference in San Marcos on October 29. A panel at the South by Southwest Eco conference, scheduled for Oct 5, will also address Texas water issues. 

Janek's Scrutiny of Uninsured Stats Draws Critics

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.

In an interview at The Texas Tribune Festival last month, newly appointed Health and Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek made what to some health care observers was a startling suggestion — that the U.S. Census Bureau’s projection that a quarter of the Texas population is uninsured is inflated.

His reasoning was two-fold.

First, he argued the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — the largest household survey in the U.S., which has a national sample size of 3 million addresses and puts Texas’ uninsured population at 23 percent — asked the wrong question. It asked whether respondents had health insurance now, he said, as opposed to whether they had it at any point in the previous year.

“To say ‘I did not eat a hamburger today’ does not mean I never eat hamburgers, that I won’t have a hamburger tomorrow or the day after that,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘We’ve got this huge population of people who never eat hamburgers.’”

Then he said the uninsured numbers suggest that just because people don’t have a health insurance card in their wallet they don’t have a safety net — when they can get taxpayer-funded care from their local hospital district.

“If Harris County Hospital District, and Parkland Hospital, and the Tarrant County Hospital District, Bexar County Hospital District tomorrow created a card and put it in the wallet of all those people who come to their hospital districts for services, and said, ‘This is your insurance card,’ you would see a dramatically different answer to that question,” Janek said.   

There’s a flip side to his first argument: The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, which asks whether respondents had health insurance at any point in the previous year, also puts Texas’ rate of uninsured at about a quarter of the population. That survey is much smaller — it has a national sample size of 100,000 addresses — but is more detailed and conducted by more experienced staff.

“The suggestion that Texas would shoot to the top because of the way the question is asked — I cannot think of any reason why anything would be different here,” said Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities. “The same conditions exist here that exist in the whole country, except we have more people uninsured, and we’re spending billions of dollars in local property taxes” on hospital care.

Janek’s second argument — that the numbers are inflated because they don’t take into account the care provided by local hospital districts — has drawn critics, too.

Dr. John Holcomb, a San Antonio pulmonologist who chairs the Texas Medical Association’s Committee on Medicaid, CHIP and Access to Care, said there’s simply no comparison between having insurance and seeking care from a hospital district.

“If you really had an insurance policy, it wouldn’t stop at the county line,” he said. “It’s an un-useful form of insurance because it’s not insurance at all.”

And Tom Banning, executive director of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, said residents of large areas of Texas, particularly South Texas and many rural communities, don’t have the benefit of a hospital safety net system.

In his remarks at the Tribune Festival, Janek acknowledged that hospital districts are an imperfect solution, but said including their services in an uninsured calculation would produce a “dramatically different number.”

“I don’t know what that absolute [uninsured] number is. It depends on how you measure it,” he said. “My job as executive commissioner at Health and Human Services is to make sure we maintain that safety net.”  

Holcomb said the metrics used to determine Texas’ ranks of the uninsured have been used across the nation for decades, and that there’s no second-guessing them.

“No matter which metric you want to use,” he said, “Texas is still in last place.” 

Texas Weekly Newsreel: Hot List, Local Debt, Hamburgers

This week on the Newsreel we've got the return of The Hot List, bubble babies, the comptroller's new study on debt, water, health insurance, and an unusual soundbite.

Inside Intelligence: About Those Money-Makers...

This week, we asked the insiders about money — sales taxes, property taxes, casinos, and tax reform.

Start at the top: The only issue that would prompt lawmakers to make major changes to the state’s tax code, in the opinion of the insiders, is school finance. Not coincidentally, several lawsuits against the state’s school finance system have been rolled into one big trial that’s set for October. That could set the tone for tax and revenue issues in the next legislative session and beyond.

Nearly three-quarters of the insiders don’t think it’s a good idea to replace current property taxes with sales taxes, as suggested by some lawmakers and think tankers. Slightly more than half think it would make sense to replace local school property taxes with a state property tax.

Finally, in light of the latest efforts to legalize casino gaming in Texas, the insiders came up with an interesting split. Three quarters believe voters would legalize casinos if asked to amend the constitution, but four-fifths don’t think the Legislature would vote to put that issue on the ballot. According to the insiders, the voters want it but their representatives don’t.

The verbatim answers were thin in last week’s horse race questions, but the commenters were back in force this week. A full set of verbatim comments is attached, and a sampling is included below.


What would prompt the Texas Legislature to make major changes to the state's tax code?

• "Adverse ruling from the Supreme Court in the Nestle case."

• "Better leadership"

• "Court order"

• "Successful legal challenges to the current business tax structure."

• "School finance may be the only thing that convinces the lege that a more diversified tax structure is needed."

• "The lege will dawdle on school financing until the courts force them to do something. That's the historical way of changes, and nothing has changed, except for the worst in terms of being responsible and doing what's right."

• "The harsh and highly politicized air around Texas state taxes leaves only one option for major reform: a court order."

• "More Democrats"

• "State water plan"

• "Judicial fiat. It's has always been the only cover to which the leg will respond."

• "Usually, local schools are enough to spur some action. However, if vouchers are passed, it will be a convenient excuse for lawmakers to say, 'Let's just see how this works before actually doing the right thing and funding public education.'"


Is it a good idea to replace local property taxes with sales taxes?

• "Sales tax receipts drive the budget. If you want to shrink the state budget, you are for this idea. Such a swap will stop sales tax receipts as we know them."

• "It depends on which local property taxes are being eliminated, and how they are applied."

• "The devil is in the details. There needs to be more details on how it would operate with regard to exemptions and who they impact and how."

• "Depends on whether you can afford to pay additional sales tax. If you can't, then it's probably a bad idea. If you can, then you probably think it's a good idea."

• "Absurd suggestion that would ask the poorest Texans to go without so that Michael Dell and Mark Cuban can save money."

• "No state that has tried this has made it work. Texans won't like it because we would not want to cede any more control of our schools to the state -- which is what would happen if the money was collected through a state sales tax."

• "What ever happened to the conservative dedication to local control? Communities would have no way to decide to raise local taxes to improve local services."

• "A sales tax/property tax swap is that rare and happy animal at the Lege, an absolutely terrible policy idea that has even worse politics (and exactly zero chance of passing)."

• "Absolutely, not. The consumption tax would reach 25% and capture a broader range of goods and services. This would slam retail business as well as wholesale in our state. Retailers provide 1 in 4 jobs in Texas, which would be reduced with such a decision. The appraisal review process needs a serious makeover."

• "It's a horrible idea and I don't know why the Tea Party wants to raise the price of tea to a level they can't afford."


Is it a good idea to replace local school property taxes with a statewide property tax?

• "That is the only way to support a general diffusion of knowledge and stop paying lawyers to argue about it."

• "There is no way to get around the arbitrary (and inherently unjust) features of the property tax. It has no place in Texas tax policy PERIOD."

• "Think property taxes are high now. Let the state get control of them. Also, no local control anywhere, no local enrichment for local school districts. Schools would be completely controlled by state funds."

• "Local voters approve local taxes proposed by local electeds? It is the epitome of local control."

• "It might be if one could trust the current brand of politics (voucher-lovers) and all future leges to properly use the funds for public education. But really, these people? No way."

• "No, we must do all we can to return controls to the LOCAL level. The most basic way to do that is to pay for schools locally."

• "With the disparities across the state it might be an idea whose time has come - equitable valuation and equitable tax."

• "Until there is a statewide tax of some sort there will never be the equal education system called for by the Texas Constitution. All you will end up with is more 'Robin Hood' schemes."

• "Switching from a local tax to a state tax would do nothing that can't already be done by statute. It would be purely window dressing. And the deals that will have to be made to get this done are dangerous to Texas business."


Do you think voters would legalize casinos if asked?

• "That doesn't mean that it's good public policy, though."

• "It just makes financial sense and most importantly, Grandma is tired of driving to Louisiana."

• "Texans beware. I grew up in an idyllic small Midwestern town that now has a casino. Fancy new street lights, pennies for schools, and a community pool come at a steep and very real price: gambling addiction, crime, strain on families, etc."

• "The need for more revenue does not escape most Texans. Absent courageous leadership, they will look at anything that does not raise taxes."

• "Sounds like free money. If you ignore social costs, regressivity, etc."

• "Texans are gambling today; it's just other states that are reaping the revenue. Risk seeking is an inescapable part of the human condition. No one is being forced to line up at the tables. Liberty and mutual respect dictates that you keep your religious views out of my life."

• "While not a panacea for the state's economic revenue woes, casino gaming done correctly, with limited licenses in a destination resort approach, would keep Texas gaming money from flowing out of the state and also have the added benefit of bringing in new dollars from out of state and internal visitors, something that is just not possible with VLTs at race tracks. Again, a huge hurdle is securing 2/3rds to put the measure before the voters."

• "That's the problem; the Lege knows that if this gets to the voters, its cha-ching time for the state."

• "Too many Texans have been to casinos in other states for them to say it's objectionable. This is like liquor-by-the-drink. Give 'em a chance, and they'll vote for it."

• "Have you been to Vegas lately? No shortage of Texans! (Not to mention the dives that count as casinos in Oklahoma)."

• "And the money would go to fund public education... like the lottery, right?"


Do you think the required two-thirds of the Legislature would vote to put the casino question on the ballot?

• "The votes haven't been there for 20 years and aren't likely to be there for another 20. Conflicts of interest among sitting legislators aside, the gambling interests have shown that they will simply funnel money to the party that will give them what they want and legislators are wary of creating yet another campaign finance giant that can make them -- or try to make them -- bend their knees to powerful funders."

• "Hell NO! They may call themselves 'Tea Party' limited government conservatives, but we all know the religious right is still in control of the votes in their districts."

• "Of course they will vote to support. Our Tea Party legislature believes in personal freedom and individual responsibility, right?"

• "Though conservatives are split on this, there are enough in opposition to hold the line -- even folks who aren't stridently against increasing gambling will argue that gambling always promises more in revenue than it delivers."

• "The moral imperatives regarding state-run gambling will prove secondary to the political imperatives regarding a tax increase to fill the state revenue hole created by an under-achieving franchise tax."

• "I see it happening in the House, but probably not in the senate as quite of few of those monkeys are looking at higher office."

• "A legislator's vote to put casinos on the ballot will draw far more attention from its opponents than its supporters."

• "Smoke-free Texas has a better shot!"

Our thanks to this week's participants: Cathie Adams, Clyde Alexander, George Allen, David Anthony, Jay Arnold, Charles Bailey, Tom Banning, Mike Barnett, Dave Beckwith, Amy Beneski, Rebecca Bernhardt, Andrew Biar, Allen Blakemore, Tom Blanton, Hugh Brady, Steve Bresnen, Linda Bridges, Chris Britton, Lydia Camarillo, Kerry Cammack, Marc Campos, Thure Cannon, Snapper Carr, Janis Carter, Tris Castaneda, Corbin Casteel, William Chapman, Elna Christopher, James Clark, Rick Cofer, Harold Cook, Beth Cubriel, Randy Cubriel, Denise Davis, Hector De Leon, Eva De Luna-Castro, June Deadrick, Nora Del Bosque, Tom Duffy, Richard Dyer, Jeff Eller, Jack Erskine, John Esparza, Jon Fisher, Rebecca Flores, Terry Frakes, Wil Galloway, Norman Garza, Dominic Giarratani, Bruce Gibson, Stephanie Gibson, Daniel Gonzalez, Jim Grace, John Greytok, Clint Hackney, Wayne Hamilton, Bill Hammond, Adam Haynes, John Heasley, Jim Henson, Ken Hodges, Steve Holzheauser, Billy Howe, Shanna Igo, Deborah Ingersoll, Richie Jackson, Cal Jillson, Bill Jones, Mark Jones, Robert Jones, Lisa Kaufman, Richard Khouri, Tom Kleinworth, Ramey Ko, Sandy Kress, Dale Laine, Pete Laney, Dick Lavine, James LeBas, Donald Lee, Luke Legate, Myra Leo, Elizabeth Lippincott, Ruben Longoria, Homero Lucero, Vilma Luna, Matt Mackowiak, Dan McClung, Parker McCollough, Scott McCown, Mike McKinney, Debra Medina, Robert Miller, Bee Moorhead, Mike Moses, Steve Murdock, Craig Murphy, Keir Murray, Keats Norfleet, Pat Nugent, Sylvia Nugent, Nef Partida, Gardner Pate, Tom Phillips, Wayne Pierce, Richard Pineda, Allen Place, Royce Poinsett, Jay Pritchard, Jay Propes, Bill Ratliff, Karen Reagan, Tim Reeves, Jason Sabo, Mark Sanders, Andy Sansom, Jim Sartwelle, Stan Schlueter, Bruce Scott, Steve Scurlock, Christopher Shields, Dee Simpson, Jason Skaggs, Ed Small, Martha Smiley, Todd Smith, Larry Soward, Dennis Speight, Jason Stanford, Bob Strauser, Colin Strother, Michael Quinn Sullivan, Sherry Sylvester, Jay Thompson, Russ Tidwell, Trey Trainor, Ware Wendell, Ken Whalen, Darren Whitehurst, Seth Winick, Alex Winslow, Lee Woods, Peck Young, Angelo Zottarelli.

The Calendar

Saturday, Sept. 29:

  • Sen. Carlos Uresti's "Night in Monte Carlos" fundraiser; Grand Hyatt, San Antonio (7-11 p.m.)

Tuesday, Oct. 2:

  • "Why Bother? Voices of a New Generation"; Austin City Limits Studio 6A, Austin (7-8 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for House candidate Scott Sanford; the Pantry, McKinney (6 p.m.)

Wednesday, Oct. 3:

  • South by Southwest Eco; Austin (runs through Oct. 5)

Thursday, Oct. 4:

  • Exoneree Michael Morton speaking at Capitol (11:45 a.m.)
  • Valley Environmental Summit; Brownsville Events Center (8 a.m.-3 p.m.)
  • Reception for Rep. Diane Patrick; Arlington Music Hall (5:30 p.m.)

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.

Quotes of the Week

Let me go on the record as saying, I believe in Satan.

Gov. Rick Perry at the Texas Tribune Festival

Now we can really talk about Satan.

Perry, later in the conversation, on the state budget

He isn't going to be a committee chairman.

Speaker Joe Straus, asked about Satan later at the conference

There are people in politics who want to do the right thing.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, at TribFest

Oh, you people are going to be so disappointed.

Jesse Treviño of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, after Castro's comment prompted audience applause