Possible Tighter Flounder and Trout Restrictions Questioned

Photo courtesy of Gary Hurst / Flickr

Photo courtesy of Gary Hurst / Flickr

Catching spotted sea trout and flounder along the Gulf Coast is more than just a point of pride for outdoorsmen in Texas. The pastime attracts sporting fishermen from around the world, part of a renowned saltwater recreational fishing industry that adds $2 billion to the Texas economy each year.

So the mere suggestion of new restrictions being placed on the saltwater fish has generated heated discussion along the coast — with some claiming that small-time fishermen will be pushed out to make way for richer anglers.

“It’s a big emotional deal,” said Andrew Sansom, who led the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department from 1990 to 2001 and is now executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Flounder and spotted trout have been the subject of strict regulation for 30 years, when their decimated populations prompted state officials to all but ban their commercial harvest. Only a few dozen commercial licenses to fish flounder exist today.

Last week, officials with the Parks and Wildlife Department discussed the possibility of imposing additional restrictions on the two fish, which are among the most sought after in Texas. In November, during flounders’ spawning season, fishermen can catch only two fish per day. The department is considering lengthening that period of such a low “bag limit,” or maximum allowable catch. In addition, the bag limit for spotted trout may be reduced to five from 10 year-round.

“It’s really about what we call helping the bag distribution, trying to get people to be able to harvest more fish,” said Jeremy Leitz, a statistician for the department.

He added that when it comes to trout, “not many people catch the current bag limit at 10.”

Not everyone agrees. “There’s nothing to show that changing these bag limits has increased the pleasure, has increased the numbers, increased anything,” said Johnny Valentino, whose family manages a fishing camp on Galveston Bay that is popular with saltwater trout anglers. “It’s all about ‘trophy trout’ fishing,” he added, referring to putting sport fishermen who want to catch the biggest fish ahead of anglers who just want to enjoy the sport and put some fresh food on the table.

That is understandable, given that the bay is one of the most successful spots for landing trout, said Everett Johnson, a retired fishing guide who is now the editor and publisher of the Texas Saltwater Fishing Magazine.

“They have substantially more freshwater inflow by virtue of their geography,” Johnson said of Galveston Bay. “Trout do better in fresher water,” so anglers there are the most likely to see no need for limiting an already stellar catch.

But Galveston Bay might also represent a culture of fishing that has been slowly disappearing — the angler who fishes for food, Sansom said. Putting limits on their catch “is a cultural assault.”

Sansom agrees that such anglers would be hurt by additional regulation. But the threat to saltwater fish in Texas from severe weather and increasingly advanced and better fishing techniques is real, he said, and regulators should not wait until it is too late to protect them.

“Remember that all of these animals have to live in an environment that sustains them,” Sansom said. “You can’t affect the climate, and the state hasn’t been very forthcoming in setting rigorous inflow standards” for freshwater, so lowering the bag limit is “what you’re left with.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/17/talk-tighter-flounder-trout-restrictions-questione/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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How to Utilize Privacy Tools to Safely Browse the Web

Image courtesy of Pietro Zanarini / browserchoice.eu

Image courtesy of Pietro Zanarini / browserchoice.eu

In the course of writing her book, Dragnet Nation, ProPublica reporter Julia Angwin tried various strategies to protect her privacy. In this blog post, she distills the lessons from her privacy experiments into useful tips for readers.

One of the easiest and simplest things you can do to protect your privacy is to be a smarter Web browser.

This is surprisingly difficult because most popular Web browsing software is set up to allow users to be tracked by default. The reason is simple economics – you don’t pay for Web browsing software, so the companies that make it have to find other ways to make money.

The most egregious example of this conflict came in 2008 when Microsoft’s advertising executives helped quash a plan by the engineers to build better privacy protections into the Internet Explorer 8 Web browser. Microsoft has since added additional protections – but they are not turned on by default. The situation is no better at Google, whose Chrome Web browser has “buried and discouraged” the “Do Not Track” button, and is pioneering the use of new tracking technology that cannot be blocked. And it’s worth noting that the other big Web browser maker, Mozilla Corp., receives 85 percent of its revenues (PDF) from its agreement to make Google the default search engine on Firefox.

Even worse, many of the tools that Web browsers offer to protect privacy are not effective. Tracking companies have refused to honor the “Do Not Track” button. And Google Chrome’s “Incognito” mode and Internet Explorer’s “InPrivate Browsing” mode won’t protect you from being tracked. Those settings simply prevent other people who use your Web browser after you to see where you’ve been online.

dragnet-nationAnd so, in order to prevent the most common types of tracking, I ended up loading up my Web browser – Mozilla’s Firefox – with a bunch of extra software. It sounds like a lot of work, but most of this software can be installed in a few minutes. Here’s what I used:

  • I installed “HTTPS Everywhere,” created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project. This tool forces your Web browser to use encrypted Internet connections to any website that will allow it. This prevents hackers – and the National Security Agency – from eavesdropping on your Internet connections.
  • I also installed Disconnect, a program created by former Google engineer Brian Kennish, which blocks advertisers and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, from tracking which websites you visit.
  • And finally I set my default search engine to be DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t store any of the information that is automatically transmitted by your computer — the IP address and other digital footprints — so DuckDuckGo has no way to link your search queries to you. That means DuckDuckGo won’t auto-complete your search queries based on your previous searches or based on your physical location, as Google does. So you’ll have to be a little smarter about your searches, and remember to bookmark the pages that you visit often, to save time.

After browsing with my ungainly setup for nearly a year, I found a Web browser that had all the features I wanted built in — called WhiteHat Aviator. It has built-in HTTPS Everywhere, it doesn’t retain or sell your online activity, and it uses Disconnect to block trackers from advertisers and social media companies. Its default search engine is DuckDuckGo.

It’s built by a computer security firm called WhiteHat Security, but it hasn’t been audited by any computer security experts yet, as far as I can tell. So use it at your own risk (and currently you can only use it on the Mac OSX operating system). But I’ve been using it for a few months, and after some bugginess in the beginning, I’ve started to enjoy the unusual feeling of having privacy as a default setting.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Fight in Texas Over Payday Loans, From Capitol to Campaign Trail

Photo courtesy of Daniel Micka / iStock

Photo courtesy of Daniel Micka / iStock

The payday lending controversy that exploded in the governor’s race in recent weeks highlights the state’s lack of regulation and the challenge that lawmakers have faced with an issue that has been as contentious at the Capitol as it is on the campaign trail.

Last year, a major legislative effort to impose state regulations on lenders failed, and since then, Houston has joined Austin, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio in passing a city ordinance to limit the loans. Now, the issue of so-called predatory lending is flaring in the gubernatorial race amid calls for the resignation of Gov. Rick Perry‘s appointed head of the governing board of the agency charged with regulating the credit industry and educating consumers, who is also an executive for one of the lenders. 

In Texas, where payday and auto-title lending is a $4-billion-a-year industry with some 3,500 businesses, there are no limits on fees or loan sizes. Supporters of the industry say lenders offer a needed service to consumers who have few options for short-term loans. Critics say the businesses prey on struggling Texans by charging high fees and trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt.

“You’ve got these people doing stuff in Texas that they wouldn’t dream of doing anywhere else in the country,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “It is truly the wild, wild west.”

Texans get larger loans and pay higher fees than consumers in the nation as a whole, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank that has pushed for state reforms. Texans spent $1.2 billion in payday and auto-title fees in 2012, and 35,000 cars in the state were repossessed.

Texas was one of 27 states that had payday lending regulations that the Pew Charitable Trusts characterized as permissive in 2013. Fifteen states had no payday loan storefronts, and nine others had stores but also had strict requirements.

Some argue, though, that less regulation in Texas is better. Bill Peacock, vice president of research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said Texas has “one of the most competitive payday industries in the country.”

“So-called consumer advocates often complain that consumers are getting a bad deal, but consumers are voluntarily entering into these arrangements because they need access to capital,” said Peacock, who opposes city ordinances and state legislation that increase regulation of the industry.

Payday lending became an issue in the governor’s race when the leading Democratic candidate, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, called for the resignation of William White, chairman of the Finance Commission of Texas, following comments he made to the El Paso Times in December. White, a vice president of payday lender Cash America, told that newspaper that nobody forces anyone into loans and that “people are responsible for their decisions.” The campaign of Republican gubernatorial front-runner Greg Abbott has pointed out that Davis voted to confirm White in 2011.

Davis has also drawn attention to a 2006 letter written by Abbott, the state’s attorney general, that she said created a loophole for payday lenders when it said there is no limit to fees that may be charged by lenders operating as credit service organizations. Abbott’s campaign has said Davis’ loophole claim is false.

In the Senate, Davis has called for more state regulation of payday lending. Abbott campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch said Abbott would be “open to any and all reforms that will make Texas better.”

During the 2013 legislative session, lenders joined consumer advocates in working with lawmakers to craft legislation to create uniform regulations for payday lenders across the state. But there were sharp disagreements over the details of those regulations, and on the Senate floor, Davis and others added amendments to the bill that its author, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said left it with little hope of passage. Since its failure, Houston, the state’s largest city, became the latest to adopt its own rules for payday lenders.

Houston’s ordinance, which is similar to those passed in other Texas cities, limits payday loans to 20 percent of the borrower’s gross monthly income. It limits loans to no more than four installments or three renewals and requires that the proceeds from each installment or renewal reduce the loan principal by 25 percent.

Ellis said passing the ordinance was a “big coup” over industry opposition. State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said it would protect families and foreshadowed future state-level action.

“For too long, the working families of Houston have been preyed upon by payday lenders as they tried to survive from month to month,” Garcia said in a statement when the ordinance passed in December with the support of a coalition including religious leaders and AARP.

But the ordinances in Houston and other cities might be unenforceable or invalidated by courts, said Carona, chairman of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce.

Carona said the legislation he proposed last year would have saved Texas consumers millions of dollars in fees, protecting them “from the cycle of debt while preserving their access to credit and the basic fundamentals that support our free-market economy.” The proposal would have pegged the maximum permissible loan a lender could offer to a borrower’s monthly income, limited the number of financial products lenders could offer and capped the number of times an indebted borrower could refinance a loan.

After the failure of the state legislation, which would have pre-empted local ordinances, Houston Mayor Annise Parker moved forward with her proposal.

Rob Norcross, a spokesman for the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, said the trade association or its members “reluctantly” expect to sue Houston and El Paso over the cities’ ordinances, as they have done in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Denton.

The Dallas ordinance isn’t working, Norcross said. More than 75 payday lending stores have closed in the past two years, resulting in the loss of 200 jobs, he said. The ordinance is forcing consumers to drive to a neighboring city for loans or to bounce checks because they can’t get the type of loan they need in Dallas, he said.

“Unfortunately, we’re playing political games with people’s pocketbooks,” Norcross said. “If what we’ve seen in Dallas in the last two years is statewide, that would be a significant problem for the viability of the industry but, more importantly, a significant problem to access credit for Texas borrowers who, in a lot of instances, don’t have any place else.”

Norcross said much of the criticism of the industry results from people not understanding the numbers, such as how annual percentage rates work for small, short-term loans. An interest rate of 400 percent may sound high to people until they learn that could mean that someone borrowed $100 and had to pay back $117, he said.

While the alliance has concerns about city ordinances, it has always been in favor of a statewide regulatory framework over city ordinances, Norcross said.

“No, they don’t want statewide regulation,” Ellis said of the industry. “What they want is a statewide card to keep abusing Texas families.”

While legislation failed to pass in 2013, lawmakers did pass measures in 2011 requiring payday and auto-title lenders to be licensed by the state and to post a schedule of fees in a visible place. Consumer advocates said those laws didn’t go far enough.

Don Baylor Jr., a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said he is pessimistic about chances that the Legislature will pass statewide reforms in 2015, in part because cities with ordinances don’t want to lose local control.

Carona said in an email that he would continue to work toward reform but that it was an uphill battle.

“Given the political environment at the Capitol, I am deeply concerned that we will have an even tougher time passing significant reforms during the next legislative session,” Carona wrote.

Additional reporting by Jay Root.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/15/payday-lending/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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A Midterm Report Card for Obamacare

Photo courtesy of iStock

Photo courtesy of iStock

The first half of the Obamacare open enrollment period is over, and yesterday, federal health officials announced sign-up figures from the first three months.

After a disastrous start, HealthCare.gov (which handles enrollment for 36 states) began functioning properly. It, along with state-run insurance exchanges, netted more than 2.1 million signups between Oct. 1 and Dec. 28.

But are sign-ups on pace to meet the Congressional Budget Office’s projection of 7 million this year? And is there an adequate balance between young and old, sick and healthy, to keep costs in line? That’s harder to say.

Here’s what we know:

  • Some states are performing much better than others. Connecticut has already exceeded the target the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) wanted it to have by the end of March, according to acasignups.net. New York and Rhode Island are also on pace to beat expectations. But other states are lagging. They include Maryland, Oregon and Massachusetts, which run their own exchanges and continue to be plagued by website problems. Also far behind are New Mexico and Mississippi, which rely on HealthCare.gov.
  • Enrollees are skewing older. Currently, 33 percent of enrollees are 55 to 64 years old, compared to only 30 percent who are under 35. In Arkansas, Maine, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin, at least 40 percent of enrollees are over 55. A higher proportion of younger enrollees are going to have to sign up before the end of March in order to help offset the costs of older ones. CMS officials say younger enrollees tend to sign up later in the process, as they did several years ago when Massachusetts implemented its individual mandate.
  • The vast majority of those signing up qualify for financial assistance. About 79 percent of the early sign-ups will receive financial assistance, just a bit less than what the Congressional Budget Office estimated (86 percent – see page 3). That ranges from an implausible low of 9 percent in Washington D.C., to 100 percent in Oregon.

Here’s what we don’t know:

  • How many of those who signed up for coverage previously had plans canceled by insurance companies If the policies are merely replacing coverage that individuals already had, the law won’t make the dent in the uninsured that proponents hoped for. In New York, for example, only 44 percent of the early enrollees had been uninsured.
  • The health status of early enrollees. While some people consider age a proxy for health status, in truth, it isn’t a very effective stand-in. Experts say they need to know more about the health of those who enrolled to know if the insurance risk pool will be balanced, keeping premiums from exploding in the years to come. Health insurer Humana reported last week that the mix of its early enrollees was “more adverse than previously expected,” in part because the Obama administration gave those with canceled policies the ability to stay in them for another year. That assumes those who chose to stay were healthier than others.
  • Whether enrollees have paid their first month’s bill. Coverage does not take effect unless consumers pay their initial bill. There has been plenty of confusion about the deadline to sign up – and confusion about when the first payment is due. Dates have changed and vary from state to state, insurer to insurer. Some insurers set a deadline of Jan. 10; others have set other dates in January for coverage that began Jan. 1. “It’s been pulling teeth,” Shaun Greene, chief operating officer of Utah-based Arches Health Plan, told the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper reported that, as of Thursday, Arches had collected about 60 percent of premiums for people who signed up for coverage that took effect Jan. 1.
  • How many people have signed up for coverage outside of the exchanges. In order to receive a premium tax credit to offset the monthly cost of coverage, individuals have to sign up using one of the health exchanges created under the law. But those who do not qualify or don’t want to bother can sign up directly with an insurance company. Ultimately, those figures will be publicly reported, but that will take months, or even years.
  • Will the open-enrollment period close strong as it did in Massachusetts? Supporters of the Affordable Care Act regularly point to the experience of Massachusetts, which implemented a similar individual mandate in 2007, and saw a late surge of enrollment, particularly among the young. The open enrollment period for Obamacare runs through March 31, leaving plenty of time for folks to sign up.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Enrollments Grow in Texas, Where Uninsured Rates Are High

Photo illustration courtesy of Todd Wiseman, The Texas tribune

Photo illustration courtesy of Todd Wiseman, The Texas Tribune

Texas enrollments in the online insurance marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act rose nearly eightfold in December, according to 2013 figures that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Monday.

Texas ranks third in the number of 2013 enrollments following the troubled launch of healthcare.gov on Oct. 1. As of Dec. 28, nearly 120,000 Texans had purchased coverage in the federal marketplace, up from 14,000 one month before.

The number represents a tiny fraction of the uninsured in Texas, which has a higher percentage of people without health coverage than any other state. In 2012, more than 6 million Texans, about 24 percent of the population, lacked health insurance, according to U.S. census data.

Florida led the nation in the number of 2013 enrollments, with 158,000. In a media call from Tampa, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius praised Florida’s high enrollment numbers. Like Texas, Florida has a largely unfavorable political climate toward the Affordable Care Act, and a high rate of the uninsured, at 21 percent. HHS officials offered no explanation for why more people enrolled in some states compared with others.

“The numbers show that there is a very strong national demand for affordable health care made possible by the Affordable Care Act,” Sebelius said in the call announcing the enrollment data, adding that nationwide enrollment had reached nearly 2.2 million.

The data offers a first glimpse at demographic trends surrounding enrollment in the federal insurance marketplace. Texans between the ages of 18 and 34 accounted for 26 percent of those who signed up for coverage. Texans between 55 and 64 made up the largest demographic group of enrollees, at 29 percent.

Women of all ages constituted a majority of Texas enrollments: 55 percent. That was consistent with the nationwide trend. HHS officials said the trend was expected. Maternity care, newborn care and contraception are among the 10 categories of benefits that all health insurance plans must cover under President Obama’s health care law.

Enrollment breakdowns by race are not currently available, federal health officials said.

Three-quarters of Texans who purchased health plans in the exchange in 2013 received financial assistance, according to the HHS data. That percentage, which is less than the median rate of 80 percent for the 36 states operating under the federal exchange, might have been larger had Texas expanded Medicaid to cover poor adults. Texans living below the poverty line do not qualify for subsidies.

The Affordable Care Act requires most Texans to carry health insurance by March 31. The federal health law had a rocky start in October when the healthcare.gov website launched with major glitches. In past months, Sebelius has frequently apologized for the performance of the marketplace, but Monday’s announcement was a departure from the conciliatory tone.

“Americans are finding quality affordable coverage in the marketplace, and best of all, because coverage began on New Year’s Day, the promise and hope of the Affordable Care Act is now a reality,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/13/health-enrollments-surge-rate-uninsured-remains-hi/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Percentage of Foreign-Born Texas Is Growing

Photo of Houston traffic and skyline courtesy of Joel Willis

Photo of Houston traffic and skyline courtesy of Joel Willis

A growing percentage of Texans are originally from foreign countries, including one in four in the state’s most populous county, Harris, according to new census data.

Over a five-year period ending in 2012, Texas had the nation’s seventh-highest share of foreign-born residents: 16 percent, an increase from 14 percent in 2000 and 9 percent in 1990, according to U.S. Census American Community Survey data released last month.

In the state’s most populous counties, 23 percent of Dallas County residents were foreign born, as were 16 percent in Fort Worth’s Tarrant County, 18 percent in Austin’s Travis County and 13 percent in San Antonio’s Bexar County.

And Houston’s Harris County saw its percentage of foreign-born residents increase to 25 percent, up from 22 percent in 2000 and 14 percent in 1990.

“Houston has become one of the great magnets for the new immigration,” said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor.

Across the country, in 1960, foreign-born residents were typically from Europe; now, they’re more likely to be from Latin America and Asia. There are now more foreign-born Americans than ever before, though they make up a smaller percentage of the nation’s population than they did a century ago.

In Harris County, immigrants have come from Mexico and El Salvador, Vietnam and India, some with vast amounts of education and others with virtually none, to work as everything from doctors and engineers to construction workers and cooks. Houston — the nation’s fourth-largest city — is also a major destination for the resettlement of refugees from all over the world. And foreign-born residents of other U.S. states have also come to the Houston area.

Among Harris County’s more than 1 million foreign-born residents are state Rep. Hubert Vo, the first Vietnamese-American elected to the Texas Legislature, and Nandita Berry, who was tapped by Gov. Rick Perry in December as Texas’ first Indian-American secretary of state.

Klineberg expects the share of immigrants in the county to decline in future censuses because immigration has slowed and the children of many immigrants are coming of age and having U.S.-born children. Houston will still be a very diverse area, he said, but with growth fueled by U.S.-born Asian-Americans and Hispanics.

“No force in the world is going to stop Houston or Texas or America from becoming more Latino, more African-American, more Asian and less Anglo as the 21st century unfolds,” Klineberg said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/02/increasing-share-foreign-born-residents-texas/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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The Health Law Takes Effect: A Consumer’s Guide

Photo courtesy of iStock

Photo courtesy of iStock

Starting Jan. 1, central provisions of the Affordable Care Act kick in, allowing many uninsured Americans to afford health insurance. But the landmark law still faces heavy opposition from Republicans and from a public that remains skeptical the law can improve health care coverage while lowering its cost.

The law has already altered the health care industry and established a number of consumer benefits. It will have sweeping ramifications for consumers, state officials, employers and health care providers, including hospitals and doctors.

However, healthcare.gov, the federal website that is managing enrollment in 36 states, has been plagued by electronic problems that botched the Oct. 1 rollout of the health law’s online marketplaces, or exchanges. The problems frustrated potential enrollees and gave Republicans new fodder for their argument that the law was doomed to fail. After hundreds of hardware and software fixes, federal officials have said that the site works for the “vast majority of users,” but some problems remain.

Here’s a primer on where the law stands now and how it might change.

I don’t have health insurance. Under the law, will I have to buy it and what happens if I don’t?

You have until March 31 to enroll in health insurance before you are subject to the law’s tax penalty for not having coverage. For individuals, the penalty would start at $95 or up to 1 percent of income, whichever is greater, and rise to $695, or 2.5 percent of income, by 2016. For families this year the penalty is $285 or 1 percent of income. That will grow in 2016 to $2,085 or 2.5 percent of household income, whichever is greater. The requirement to have coverage can be waived for several reasons, including financial hardship or religious beliefs.

Last month the administration decided to waive the individual mandate penalty for 2014 for some people in the individual insurance market whose plans were being canceled.  Under the law’s “hardship exemption,” these consumers are also eligible to buy “catastrophic” coverage policies, which have lower premiums and higher deductibles than other plans that comply with the law.

I get my health coverage at work and want to keep my current plan. Will I be able to do that? How will my plan be affected by the health law?

If you get insurance through your job, it is likely to stay that way. But, just as before the law was passed, your employer is not obligated to keep your current plan and may change premiums, deductibles, co-pays and network coverage.

The law has already made several changes to employer-sponsored insurance. For example, plans generally now ban lifetime coverage limits and include a guarantee that an adult child up to age 26 can stay on her parents’ health plan. More than 3 million young adults have been able to stay on their parents’ plan due to this provision, according to administration figures.

What other parts of the law are now in place?

Starting Jan. 1, insurers will not be allowed to deny you coverage based on a pre-existing medical condition or place annual limits on medical coverage of essential health benefits, which include prescription drugs and hospitalization.

You are likely to be eligible for some preventive services such as breast cancer screenings and cholesterol tests, with no out-of-pocket costs.

Health plans can’t cancel  your coverage once you get sick – a practice known as “rescission” – unless you committed fraud when you applied for coverage.

The law earlier barred insurers from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions.

Insurers have to provide rebates to consumers if the companies spend less than 80 to 85 percent of premium dollars on medical care.

Some existing plans, if they haven’t changed significantly since passage of the law, do not have to abide by certain parts of the law. For example, these “grandfathered” planscan still charge beneficiaries part of the cost of preventive services.

If you’re currently in one of these plans, and your employer makes significant changes, such as raising your out-of-pocket costs, the plan would then lose its grandfathered status and have to abide by all aspects of the health law.

I want health insurance but I can’t afford it. What will I do?

Depending on your income, you might be eligible for Medicaid. Before the health law, in most states nonelderly adults without minor children didn’t qualify for Medicaid. But now, the federal government is offering to pay the cost of an expansion in the programs so that anyone with an income at or lower than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, (about $16,000 for an individual or $32,500 for a family of four based on current guidelines) will be eligible for Medicaid.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled in June 2012 that states cannot be forced to make that change. As of last month, 25 states and the District of Columbia have chosen toexpand Medicaid.

kaiser-health-newsWhat if I make too much money for Medicaid but still can’t afford to buy insurance?

You might be eligible for government subsidies to help you pay for private insurance sold in the state-based insurance marketplaces, also called exchanges.

These premium subsidies will be available for individuals and families with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level, or about $11,490 to $45,960 for individuals and $23,550 to $94,200 for a family of four (based on current guidelines).

If you earn less than 100 percent of the poverty level and live in a state that does not expand the Medicaid program, you generally cannot qualify for a subsidy to purchase coverage. However, you are also exempted from the penalties for not having insurance.

Will it be easier for me to get coverage even if I have health problems?

Insurers are now barred from rejecting applicants based on health status.

I own a small business. Will I have to buy health insurance for my workers?

No employer is required to provide insurance. But starting in 2015 — a one-year delay from the previous date of 2014 — businesses with 50 or more employees that don’t provide health care coverage and have at least one full-time worker who receives subsidized coverage in the health insurance exchange will have to pay a fee of $2,000 per full-time employee. The firm’s first 30 workers would be excluded from the fee.

However, firms with fewer than 50 people won’t face any penalties.

In addition, if you own a small business, the health law offers a tax credit to help cover the cost. Employers with fewer than 25 full-time workers who earn an average yearly salary of $50,000 or less can get tax credits of up to 50 percent this year.

Citing technical difficulties, in late November the Obama administration announced aone-year delay in the debut of the online marketplace for small businesses, called the Small Business Health Option, or SHOP. Until the SHOP exchange is fully operational in November 2014, small business owners can apply for coverage through the mail, over the phone or with a broker or insurance agent.

I’m over 65. How does the legislation affect seniors?

There is no need for you to enroll in the health law’s exchanges. Medicare is not part of those exchanges.

But the law does make other changes to Medicare.It is narrowing a gap in the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan known as the “doughnut hole.” That’s when seniors who have paid a certain initial amount in prescription costs have to pay for all of their drug costs until they spend a total of $4,550 for the year. Then the plan coverage begins again.

That coverage gap will be closed entirely by 2020. Seniors will still be responsible for 25 percent of their prescription drug costs. As of late November, more than 7.3 million seniors and people with disabilities who hit the doughnut hole have saved $8.9 billion on their prescription drugs, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The law also expanded Medicare’s coverage of preventive services, such as screenings for colon, prostate and breast cancer, which are now free to beneficiaries. Medicare will also pay for an annual wellness visit to develop or update a plan to prevent disease or disability.

According to CMS, in 2012 an estimated 34.1 million beneficiaries took advantage of Medicare’s coverage of preventive services with no cost-sharing.

The health law reduced the federal government’s payments to Medicare Advantage plans, run by private insurers as an alternative to the traditional Medicare. Medicare Advantage costs more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare. Critics of those payment cuts say that could mean the private plans may not offer many extra benefits, such as free eyeglasses, hearing aids and gym memberships, that they now provide.

Will I have to pay more for my health care because of the law?

It depends. Younger people who often paid less for health insurance before the health law may pay more for coverage. Older people may pay less because there are tighter rules governing how much more insurers can charge based on age. People who could not afford insurance before may now be eligible for subsidies to cover the cost of premiums – and possibly out-of-pocket costs as well.  Individuals who purchased insurance before may pay more because the law’s “essential health benefits” require that more services be covered.

Opponents say the law’s additional coverage requirements will make health insurance more expensive for individuals and for the government. Even supporters of the law acknowledge its steps to control health costs, such as incentives to coordinate care better, may take a while to show significant savings.

There are also some new taxes and fees. For example, starting last year, individuals with earnings above $200,000 and married couples making more than $250,000 paid a Medicare payroll tax of 2.35 percent, up from 1.45 percent, on income over those thresholds. In addition, higher-income people faced a 3.8 percent tax on unearned income, such as dividends and interest.

Starting in 2018, the law also will impose a 40 percent excise tax on the portion of most employer-sponsored health coverage (excluding dental and vision) that exceeds $10,200 a year and $27,500 for families. The tax has been dubbed a “Cadillac” tax because it hits the most generous plans.

In addition, the law also imposes taxes and fees on several major health industries. Last year, medical device manufacturers and importers began paying a 2.3 percent tax on the sale of any taxable medical device to raise $29 billion over 10 years. An annual fee for health insurers is expected to raise more than $100 billion over 10 years, while a fee for brand name drugs will bring in another $34 billion.

Those fees will likely be passed onto consumers in the form of higher premiums.

Has the law hit some bumps in the road?

Yes. The Oct. 1 launch of healthcare.gov was marred by technical problems that frustrated millions of consumers and gave Republicans on Capitol Hill fresh material for another round of hearings and charges criticizing President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. Some Democrats have urged the administration to delaythe law’s individual mandate, citing the website’s woes. After a series of repairs, officials have said that the website is working for the “vast majority of users.”

When millions of Americans who buy coverage on the individual market began to learnthat their current health plans would not be offered in 2014 because they did not  comply with the health law’s new requirements, Obama had to apologize for his oft-repeated statement “if you like your health plan you can keep it.”

With some Americans still having difficulty in late December trying to sign up for coverage that starts Jan. 1, administration officials asked insurers to give people more time to pay for coverage beginning Jan. 1.  Insurers said that people who enroll by Dec. 24 can pay as late as Jan. 10.

Problems with healthcare.gov have helped keep early enrollment well below government estimates, but administration officials have said they expect sign-ups to continue to intensify before open enrollment closes March 31.

Are there more changes ahead for the law?

Republicans are expected to continue their efforts to defund or repeal the health law and convene additional oversight hearings to highlight the law’s problems as Congress gears up for the 2014 midterm elections.

It’s also possible that some of the taxes on the health care industry, which help pay for the new benefits in the health law, could be rolled back due to pressure from affected groups. A repeal of the tax on medical devices was part of last fall’s debate over funding the federal government and raising the federal debt ceiling but was not included in the final deal. Medicare’s actuary has predicted that the law’s payment reductions to hospitals and other providers may not withstand heavy political lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), one of the most contentious provisions of the health law, is also under continued attack by lawmakers. IPAB is a 15-member panel charged with making recommendations to reduce Medicare spending if the amount the government spends grows beyond a target rate. If Congress chooses not to accept the recommendations, lawmakers must pass alternative cuts of the same size.

Some Republicans argue that the board amounts to health care rationing and some Democrats have said that they think the panel would transfer power that belongs on Capitol Hill to the executive branch. In March, the House voted to repeal IPAB. The Senate did not consider the measure.

This article was republished from kaiserhealthnews.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family FoundationKaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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As Year Begins, Texas Governor’s Race Will Heat Up

Photos courtesy of The Texas Tribune and Alan Kotok

Photos courtesy of The Texas Tribune and Alan Kotok

State Sen. Wendy Davis, who got off to a slow and often rocky start in her race for Texas governor, will ring in the New Year with a much bigger bank account and an aggressive new strategy designed to keep front-running candidate Greg Abbott on the defensive.

For Abbott, a three-term attorney general, it’s steady as she goes: He’ll keep unveiling carefully crafted policy initiatives and tying Davis to President Obama while remaining hyper-cautious in his own dealings with the news media — lest he become the first Republican in nearly a quarter-century to blow a governor’s race.

Welcome to the marquee political contest this year in Texas, where the gubernatorial primaries are all but decided and both candidates are looking toward a November showdown with knives drawn.

“I’m looking for both of the campaigns to get very aggressive as soon as they find it strategically sound,” said Jim Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “I would expect that ethics and character are going to be big parts of both of those efforts.”

For the Abbott campaign, that means making the most of Davis’ private dealings as a lawyer, particularly her partnership with Gov. Rick Perry’s former chief of staff, Brian Newby, and their long list of public-sector clients who have interests before the Texas Legislature.

The Davis campaign, meanwhile, is hammering Abbott over his role — or lack thereof — overseeing the troubled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, whose former chief commercialization officer was indicted over allegedly lax vetting procedures related to a cancer research grant.

Polls show it’s still Abbott’s race to lose. But the Republicans are facing something Texas hasn’t seen in years: a Democrat who is about as recognizable to Texans as their own standard-bearer. Davis, a Harvard-trained lawyer, became an instant celebrity after waging an 11-hour filibuster of a restrictive abortion bill over the summer.

Her stardom didn’t change the conservative leanings of the Texas electorate, of course. But it gave her a head start because one of the most important tasks for any campaign is boosting name ID, and for Davis that was accomplished literally overnight.

Her status as a feminist icon and Democratic hero also turned her into a fundraising powerhouse. The day after her announcement on Oct. 3, the campaign exceeded a 24-hour goal of $500,000, Davis said, and she has spent much of her time crisscrossing the country raising money in California, Washington, D.C., and the East Coast, according to press reports and Abbott supporters who are more than happy to emphasize her out-of-state dough.

The public will get a better sense of the resources the candidates have at their disposal in mid-January, when the next campaign finance reports are due. In the summer, Abbott reported more than $20 million in the bank, compared with about $1 million for Davis. With so much money piled up so far and plenty of GOP donors anxious about a Democratic resurgence, the attorney general is expected to maintain a financial advantage in the race, and probably a significant one.

But one Democratic ally familiar with Davis’ fundraising operation says her campaign is “satisfied” with the haul.

“It’s going to be a big number,” the ally said.

It hasn’t been all roses for the titan in pink tennis shoes, though. Her launch was rocky literally from the beginning, when aides told the media not to leak word of the location of her Oct. 3 announcement but then proceeded to profusely leak it to supporters and donors.

Then within days of the announcement, a round of thank-you emails to donors listed the wrong website for her campaign, directing people instead to an anti-Davis site that’s running a flattering video about Abbott. Her campaign also listed the wrong address to an event at around the same time in San Antonio, causing some reporters to show up late.

As winter set in, Davis began racking up some unflattering headlines in the news media.

“Wendy Davis is not ready for prime time,” blared a highly critical column in the McAllen Monitor, which faulted the campaign for a logistically glitchy South Texas event and the candidate’s seemingly hands-off approach to the issue that made her famous — the “A-word: abortion,” as the columnist put it.

Others, including Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka, wondered out loud — in blog posts titled “Where’s Wendy?” and “Where’s Wendy (Part II)?” — why Davis wasn’t hitting Abbott harder on the issues, from energy pricing to education.

“The perception came together that they were sort of not being aggressive enough,” said Republican political strategist Matt Mackowiak. “I think that probably started to hurt them.”

Henson, the UT political scientist, said Davis was saddled on the one hand with sky-high expectations — ultimately impossible to meet — and an atrophied Democratic Party infrastructure on the other. As a result, Abbott mostly got a “free ride” and valuable time to boost his profile while she was trying to build a campaign from scratch, get people in the field and put money in the bank, he said.

More recently, though, the Davis campaign has been striking a decidedly tougher tone, a development some insiders are attributing to newly installed campaign manager Karin Johanson, a veteran of difficult, high-stakes political contests.

When Abbott began touring Texas to tout ideas for education reforms, for example, Team Davis pounced with attacks on the attorney general’s role as the lawyer who’s defending $5.4 billion in education cuts made by the Legislature in 2011.

Abbott says he was just doing his job, but Davis aides and surrogates have repeatedly pressed him to either embrace or repudiate the cuts. Abbott says he can’t talk about the cuts and then defend them in court in the ongoing school finance trial. The Davis camp has also hit Abbott for refusing to take a position on major issues, from school vouchers to immigration and threatened or endangered species protection.

Like Davis, the Abbott campaign also had some early boo-boos. In September, Abbott distanced himself from a Tweet of a top adviser, who re-broadcast the suggestion that Davis was “too stupid to be governor.”

Earlier, he had faced criticism for thanking a supporter who, in a Twitter message praising the attorney general, had called Davis a “Retard Barbie.” Abbott said the tweet was accidental and called the language his supporter used “reprehensible” and “completely unacceptable,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

None of the mistakes, on either side, have changed the fundamentals of the race. Texas was and is a Republican state, and for those who like to handicap political races, this one leans rather heavily in favor of Perry’s heir apparent. Like Perry, Abbott can draw on the GOP’s well-oiled turnout machine, a long list of supportive officeholders and the deep pockets of dozens of pro-business donors.

But as Democratic consultant Glenn Smith likes to point out, weird and unexpected things can happen in elections — as they did in 1978, when Democrats ruled Texas similar to the way the GOP does now.

“Wendy is an underdog,” said Smith, a former aide to Gov. Ann Richards. “So were the Republicans when Bill Clements got in. And he won.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/01/texas-governors-race-getting-more-heated/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Despite Health Law’s Protections, Many Consumers May Be ‘Underinsured’

Photo courtesy of Michael McCloskey

Photo courtesy of Michael McCloskey

People with chronic conditions will be better protected from crippling medical bills starting in January as the health law’s coverage requirements and spending limits take effect. But a recent analysis by Avalere Health found that many may still find themselves “underinsured,” spending more than 10 percent of their income on medical care, not including premiums, even if they qualify for cost-sharing subsidies on the health insurance marketplaces.

“You have some great protections in place, but these out-of-pocket costs and how plans are structured are going to create some serious problems,” says Marc Boutin, executive vice president at the National Health Council, an advocacy group for people with chronic health conditions.

Potential trouble spots include prescription drugs; specialist care, including that provided by academic medical centers; and services such as physical therapy that typically require a course of treatment over weeks or months, say experts.

The health law prohibits insurers from turning down sick people for coverage and generally eliminates lifetime and annual dollar limits on benefits, including hospitalization and prescription drugs.

It also caps the amount people spend out-of-pocket in 2014 at $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families that buy a plan on the individual and small group markets, including the health insurance exchanges. People with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($28,725 for an individual or $58,875 for a family of four in 2013) may qualify for cost-sharing subsidies on the marketplaces that reduce those caps as well as their deductibles and copayments.

The Avalere analysis found that many chronically ill people, especially those in Bronze or Silver plans that offer less generous coverage, will likely reach their out-of-pocket maximum every year.

John Earley worries he may be one of them. Earley, 60, has severe plaque psoriasis, a condition that causes painful, itchy red patches on his skin.

After he was diagnosed more than 30 years ago, topical creams and ultraviolet light treatments that slow the growth of skin cells worked for a while. But eventually their effectiveness waned. He finally found relief with Humira, a biologic drug that blocks the production of an immune system protein that causes inflammation. The twice monthly injections cost more than $2,200, but the Texas high-risk pool through which Earley and his wife are insured covers the drug with a $100 copayment. The drug’s manufacturer, AbbVie, covers all but $5 of that amount through its patient assistance program. Their insurance premium is $1,460 per month.

With the Texas high-risk pool set to close early next year, Earley, who works on contract as an architect in Arlington, is checking into plans on the health insurance marketplace. The plan with the best Humira coverage—a $150 copay per refill—is a gold plan with a $1,718 monthly premium for the two of them, says Earley. Plans with lower premiums would require 40 to 50 percent coinsurance for the drug, which is in a high-cost specialty tier.

“What I’m finding with the insurance policies that are available, it’s going to cost you either way,” says Earley.

kaiser-health-newsThe gold plan with the best Humira coverage would cost roughly a quarter of their income, says Earley, who is not eligible for tax credits to subsidize his premium costs.  But that may be their best option, even with financial assistance from the drug’s manufacturer, given the high drug coinsurance charges on the other plans.

Drug costs are perhaps the most often cited coverage concern for people with chronic conditions, but there are others, say experts.

Access to specialists and to academic medical centers with the necessary expertise can be problematic on the marketplaces, where many insurers have opted for a narrow network of doctors and hospitals in order to keep a lid on premiums. A recent McKinsey & Co. study found that 70 percent of the 120 plans it examined offered narrow hospital networks that excluded at least 30 percent of an area’s biggest hospitals. Academic medical centers were generally part of broader plans whose premiums were 10 percent higher than average.

For people who need specialist care, narrow networks can be problematic since the law’s limits on what a patient spends out-of-pocket only apply to in-network care. Dermatologists trained in handling severe psoriasis may not be in network, nor the academic medical centers that some people need for treatment, says Leah Howard, director of government relations and advocacy at the National Psoriasis Foundation.

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes the out-of-pocket costs for effective treatments such as phototherapy can deter patients who would have to make  a copayment for perhaps dozens of sessions.

“We’ve seen people who would prefer to be on phototherapy, but can’t afford $500 in copays over eight weeks, so they end up stepping up to a systemic treatment,” says Howard.

In addition, although dollar limits on benefits aren’t allowed, plans typically limit the number of sessions for certain treatments such as physical therapy.

Because of the rocky rollout of the exchange websites in many states, many consumers have found it difficult to get basic information about premiums and plan deductibles, say experts. Many don’t know which providers are in the plan networks or what benefits the plans cover.

“As more and more people become covered and as people start to use their plans, we’ll see if the cost protections in the plans are sufficient, and directed toward getting people the care they need,” says Sara Collins, a vice president at the Commonwealth Fund.

This article was republished from kaiserhealthnews.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family FoundationKaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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The Year in Review: Texas Politics

davis-perry-cruzRick Perry announced that he will leave office, just in time for the children born his first year in office to enter high school.

Wendy Davis and Ted Cruz rode their soap boxes into the political stratosphere, with her attempting to jump from the state Senate to the Governor’s Mansion and him kicking the tires on a presidential run, with visits to states that wouldn’t normally be intriguing to a U.S. senator from Texas.

It’s the year the Democrats unveiled new plans to get back into a competitive position in Texas state politics, and the year that the obstacles fell from the Republican political ladder and freed a swarm of candidates to run for statewide office.

2013 was supposed to be a political interim, a year when the focus of Texans interested in civics turned from mostly politics to mostly policy. With a couple of exceptions — including the constitutional amendment on water and the race for mayor in Houston — the ballots were quiet.

The year started with Cruz taking office after his surprise defeat of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in 2012, and with the Legislature coming to work with a huge Republican contingent that was just short of the supermajority needed to completely ignore the Democrats.

Cruz immediately made it clear that he wasn’t going to follow the longstanding advice to freshman members of any legislative body — that they should take their seats and close their mouths until they have a few years of experience. With a talent for getting in front of cameras and a ready message for Republicans coming out of a disappointing national election in 2012, he ends his first year in office better known to friends and foes than many senators in their second and third terms.

That legislative situation was new, too. A supermajority doesn’t have to listen to a minority, and Republicans in the Texas House who were almost impervious to Democratic influence in 2011 started 2013 ready to talk. What followed got the regular biennial meeting of the Legislature branded “The Kumbaya Session,” with members pulling together on prickly issues from water to the state budget. They restored 2011’s public education cuts. They left that session, the legislative equivalent of a G-rated Pixar movie, and started a series of special sessions that could have been scripted by Quentin Tarantino, focused on messy political issues like redistricting and abortion and women’s health.

Lawmakers forfeited some of the goodwill that marked the first five months of the year. And they made a star of Davis, the Democratic state senator from Fort Worth whose filibuster on abortion and women’s health services marked the end of the first special session. The legislation itself passed in another special session and got Perry’s signature. It’s now being litigated. But the livestreamed event got international attention, and the politician at the focal point — Davis — is now running for governor. She might have run for statewide office without that boost. But with it, she instantly built a fundraising base around the country and kindled hope among Texas Democrats who have been shut out of statewide office for almost two decades.

A couple of weeks later, the other side of the governor’s race opened up, when Perry announced he wouldn’t be seeking another term in 2014. That freed Attorney General Greg Abbott to get into that race without challenging the incumbent and set up a potential general election next year — assuming both win their primaries — between a couple of candidates with interesting personal stories and easy-to-distinguish political profiles.

Perry’s decision to get out of state politics triggered a game of musical chairs on the Republican side of the ballot. Democrats were free to file for any office; since no Democrats hold statewide posts, the candidates don’t have to defer to any officeholders. On the Republican side, Perry’s move opened Abbott’s job. Dewhurst is the only Republican in statewide executive office trying to hold his current position, but he’s weakened by his loss to Cruz in last year’s U.S. Senate race. Three officeholders who supported him then are opposing him now. Among other things, that means the offices — land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and a state Senate seat — are open.

Since 1994, the last time the Democrats won a statewide race in Texas, all a Republican has had to do is get out of the GOP primary alive. That’s harder this year, with all of the candidates. And the Democrats hope to change the math in November.

A year ago, out-of-state liberals announced a program they call Battleground Texas, designed to organize Texas voters and make the state competitive in November elections. The national math behind that is compelling for both parties: Without Texas’ electoral votes, it would be virtually impossible for a Republican to win the presidency without flipping a number of other states. The Battleground Texas organizers said at the start that they didn’t expect fast results, and that they might not chalk up big wins for four years, or six.

Some Democrats are hoping candidates like Davis — and like state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat running for lieutenant governor — can speed that up and turn the state purple.

Political maps make that proposition more difficult in races for Congress and the state Legislature. Most districts were drawn to favor one party or the other, and only a few could go either way, given the current behavior of voters. Higher turnout could change things in a few districts, but in most, the numbers are set. With some shifts possible here and there, the next versions of the Texas House and Senate, and of the state’s congressional delegation, will probably look a lot like they look right now, with respect to parties.

One more thing about Texas politics in 2013: national politics in 2016. Perry didn’t say he was done with politics — just that he won’t seek another term in the state’s top position. He has not said he wants to run for president again after his ill-fated run for the nomination last time, but he is doing the sorts of things one might do if one wanted to investigate the possibility of another run for national office. Cruz’s explorations, already noted, could put another Texan into the mix.

And this wasn’t even supposed to be a political year.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/31/2013-year-politics/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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