Thursday, September 6, 2012

Arizona-Style Immigration Law in Texas? No Thanks.

The Nazis also asked a certain group of people for their papers. Okay, that's an exaggeration, as we obviously don't have now, or hopefully ever, Nazi status. But I'm trying to make a point about what can happen when you stop looking at people as people. I'm really surprised at how many Americans have the stance of, "they're illegal- they deserve what they get."

Frankly, I find this whole fear-mongering portrait being painted of the welfare-living, rapist, criminal immigrant to be disturbing. It dehumanizes them, and history has shown that a dehumanized population is a vulnerable one. The persecution of the Jews in Germany and Southern blacks in the Jim Crow era and before (let's not forget, they were called criminals and rapists too), among so many others, reminds us that hatred of a group, even when coupled with a broad public support and a moral high ground attitude, generally doesn't put you on the right side of history.

But they’re taking our jobs, and we’re in a recession, right? According to this story from The Atlantic, when Georgia passed similar immigration laws last year, they had over 11,000 empty farm worker positions available. I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories of the fruit rotting on the vine there. And found that "economists say immigration, legal or illegal, doesn't hurt American workers."

What about "Nike or Microsoft or General Motors or Ford or Boeing or Coca-Cola or Kellogg’s profiting from non-American labor?" I'm quoting The Family Guy, but he's got a point. Why don't more politicians go after the CEO's of these companies, who are outsourcing jobs Americans actually do want to do? I suspect it is because they are not as easy targets as illegal immigrants. They have more than us and not less. They are higher on the totem pole than us, and we all know that, uh, crud flows downstream. I'm just saying that maybe our anger is a bit misplaced.

In order to understand this legislation, we need to know who will be benefiting from it. No, I'm not talking about all the welfare money illegal immigrants are draining from our system; I'm talking about the billions of our tax dollars prison corporations have to gain from filling up their detention centers. Here is a youtube video about this system. It cites a story that NPR broke in 2010: that members of the Corrections Corporation of America and what is basically their lobby group, ALEC, were present with Sen Russell Pearce at the drafting of Arizona law SB 1070, and ALEC actually designed the model legislation for AZ and other states (This is so creepy, and unfortunately ALEC is designing a lot of other bills that get passed into state laws)

So, no, I'm not in favor of an Arizona-style law for Texas.

Texas Should Reduce the Budget Shortfall by Shopping at Costco

Here's how I would balance the budget:

1) Texas spends about $354 million on textbooks for public schools every year. While it is important to have up to date information in children's textbooks, I think the annual new editions many publishers print is a racket. Don't get me wrong, I think education should be one of our top priorities as far as tax $ go, but we should be smart about where we spend them. My guess is that legislators don't force publishers to be more selective in choosing new editions because a) it looks like they are cutting education spending and b) there is a good sized textbook lobby that is giving them money, but it looks like some California State Senators are trying to cut costs on textbook spending anyway. (I won't even go into what I think of the Texas Board of Education, who want this dum dum in charge of educating our children)

2) Why do we have a natural gas tax break, again? Effectively to increase corporate profits for the companies running the wells, according to this report by the Legislative Budget Board. Whether you believe reports funded by the fracking industry or the EPA, there seems to be enough evidence linking fracking, an increasingly popular method of extracting natural gas, with groundwater contamination to give us pause when considering this industry, let alone not taxing it. In fact, it could very well lead to increased tax expenditures in healthcare and environmental cleanup down the road. In this way, taxpayers would get to pay for the corporate profits twice.

3) Oh, right, I forgot what I would do first: legalize marijuana. I know this is some kind of moral issue for many people, but I'm pretty sure that anyone who's ever tried it can tell you it's no more harmful than alcohol (there are plenty of studies on this- here's an article with a few). (you can disagree with alcohol abuse and still want alcohol to be legal)This single piece of legislation would work to balance the budget on two fronts. It would increase tax revenue, sin tax revenue specifically, which gives the most bang for your buck. It would also cut down on the $3.3 billion we spend on prisons every year. As an added bonus, legalizing marijuana would cut into the $25 to $50 billion a year operating budget of the drug cartels, which, I don't know, might limit their power, thereby limiting their ability to deter investors and tourists, while generally making life a hell for Mexican citizens. With an economy not based on fear and torture, Mexico might become a place less people would want to leave, and that would cut into the amount of $$ taxpayers are spending on detention centers. I don't know, though, between the private prison industry and the drug cartels, aloooooot of money would be lost if we legalized marijuana, so, fingers crossed!

4) Speaking of sin taxes, while I disagree with them on principle for being regressive and discriminatory, I do believe that fast food chains and soda and junk food manufacturers could cough up some of their gigantic profits to pay for the diseases their products cause. Maybe we could impose a tax based on the amount of advertising $$ a company spends. That would target the predatory practices of the company instead of their consumers, though the effect might be the same (higher prices). Either way, I wouldn't use this "fat tax" to increase state revenue directly; I would put it in a fund for healthy school lunches and programs to fight obesity and the diseases it causes. This would open up some of our healthcare tax money to be spent in other ways.

Who knew I had so much to say about the state budget? Well I do love a bargain!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


The Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee (CANPAC) proposed an ordinance amendment which would severely limit, if not prevent, new Coop or Greek housing in the neighborhoods near campus. Originally this amendment was scheduled to be voted on on August 16th, which would of course preclude most student participation, but council member Chris Riley's office told me they postponed it until September 27th.

Mike Hirsch, president of the Hancock Neighborhood Association told KXAN, "As we know, our houses are our most valuable thing that most of us own, and group residential degrades the value of neighborhoods." Power plants also lower your home's value. But we tend to put those in poor communities like Northeast Austin and Del Valle.

The Northfield Neighborhood Association is fighting student housing in their own way. They propose to lower the number of unrelated adults allowed to live together from six to four. They released a "position paper" about "Stealth Dorms," large houses meant for several students built in single family residential areas.  To be honest, it sounds awful. Developers come in, rip out the existing cottages, build huge cheap six or eight room houses, and then rent out to six different students. Trash, noise and traffic go up, property values go down.

It's like reverse gentrification. On the one hand, we've got affordable housing moving in to a neighborhood, and making the rest of the neighborhood more affordable. Then all the poor people move in. On the other hand, we've got unaffordable housing moving in to an affordable neighborhood, and making it unaffordable. Then all the rich people move in. In my estimation, both are tied to each other; we can't be libertarian in our policy towards East Austin and big government in our policy towards Central Austin.

If City Council votes against new student housing, they will be sending a message that property values near campus are more important than families being allowed to stay in their homes in areas being gentrified. So, I propose an amendment to this amendment: if you or your family has been living in the same neighborhood for over twenty years and property values begin to spike, as long as you stay living in your house and don't rent to someone else, your property taxes will not increase. We'll call that the Secure Communities Act, and it will slow gentrification and studentrification . Looks like we got ourselves a Mexican standoff.

Or do we? Actually, studies show that affordable housing does not have a negative impact on property value. This isn't just wishful thinking: So. Many. Studies and academic analyses find that affordable and group housing does not lower surrounding home values, and that factors like the design and management of projects play a big role in outcomes. In fact, according to this study from the University of Minnesota, "projects managed by non-profit organizations commonly have positive impacts on property values due to sustained, quality management of property."  The idea that students and poor people are scary, and will lower property value seems to be just another example of fear-based conventional logic being at odds with the data.

I look at these sorts of laws and ordinances as just-in-case laws.Their whole purpose is not the intrinsic value of the law, but leverage over a certain group of people, and they are almost exclusively discriminatory in the manner of their enforcement. A great example of this is Austin's sit-lie ordinance, in which people face citations for sitting or lying down on city sidewalks. I have sat on sidewalks several times and have never once been harassed by the police for it. But let's be honest, this law is not for me. It's there "just in case" that someone with a higher status than a homeless person doesn't want them hanging around.

Austin's rule that no more than six unrelated adults may live in the same house is another "just-in-case" example. These laws are designed to be selectively enforced in the just in case that a property owner sees someone or a group as a nuisance. They are not talking about the group of quiet grad students living in the "stealth dorm;" they are talking about the loud, obnoxious ones.

But I guess it's easy for me to say because I don't live near campus. Because I can't stand high concentrations of college students. Luckily, I can choose one of the many other areas of Austin to live.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Criminalization of Homelessness

Faces lined, cardboard signs. "Why lie? I need a beer." A greasy shirt, a window cleaner walking up and down at the light. Do you see them? I don't. I remember the cracks, but I can't remember the faces.

One man invited me to a homeless art show when I gave him an apple. I remember him: short white beard, baseball cap, really cool. And there is the sad boy who sits with his dog by the Walmart at Ben White and I-35, who looks away from the faces in the cars. I remember him.

The homeless can soften our hearts with compassion, remind us how lucky we are, give us wisdom, or freedom. They are there, and they affect us. They are also on the receiving end of a lot of aggression. Ex president of the UT College Republicans (a group known lately for their racist tweets) Lauren Pierce joked about killing "drag rats" to gain popularity in her campaign for College of Natural Sciences Representative ("Help me pad my resume!").

The main argument I hear from people against the homeless is that they aggressively panhandle or are rude.Well, I've been called a bitch a couple of times on the street for not giving someone money. You know who else has called me a bitch, and much worse? Young, drunk, rich, white frat boys. But you don't see city council passing ordinances against cat-calling women or loitering on 6th street after 2am. And you don't see people complaining about it like they do with the homeless.

It's not just 6th street at 2am, either. Recently, I was walking down 2nd street one evening with a friend, on the way to dinner. We were dressed up sharp, talking and laughing, having a nice night. Then, a group of young white men walks by and calls my friend a nigger. Well that just puts a damper right on your night. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think we do need to do something about the rich white menace in our streets. I mean, it's not even safe to go to dinner without fear of harassment.

Austin is home to 2,244 to 5,000 homeless people. In line with the trend of criminalizing homelessness in many other cities, Austin has steadily been enacting a series of discriminatory ordinances, such as the sit-lie ordinance, which prohibits homeless people from sitting or lying down in public places. City Council recently adopted new rules allowing homeless people with disabilities to sit down for thirty minutes at a time. Don't go overboard with the generosity there, City Council.

According to this study by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless, the "criminalization of homelessness takes many forms, including:

• Enactment and enforcement of legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or
store personal belongings in public spaces in cities where people are forced to live
in public spaces.

•Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering, jaywalking, or open
container laws, against homeless persons.

• Sweeps of city areas in which homeless persons are living to drive them out of
those areas, frequently resulting in the destruction of individuals’ personal
property such as important personal documents and medication.

• Enactment and enforcement of laws that punish people for begging or
panhandling in order to move poor or homeless persons out of a city or downtown

• Enactment and enforcement of laws that restrict groups sharing food with
homeless persons in public spaces.

• Enforcement of a wide range of so-called “quality of life” ordinances related to
public activities and hygiene (i.e. public urination) when no public facilities are
available to people without housing."

A 2004 study released by the Lewin Group found that housing the homeless in jail costs two to three times as much as housing them in emergency or supportive housing. If you put that money into permanent supportive housing, into helping people get off the street, it's a welfare handout, and that's just the sort of thing Christians hate to see their tax dollars going towards. So we spend more to put them in jail- at least they'll know what we really think of them.

Thirty-four year old Valerie Godoy was found beaten to death in a park on June 15th of this year. She was homeless. She grew up in Austin, studying theater at Bowie High School, only a few miles away from the high school where I studied theater. We probably graduated in the same year.

Her death has shone a light on Austin's lack of support for homeless women in particular. According to our 2-1-1 website, there is only one shelter dedicated to women and children in Austin, but there is a three week wait period for a bed. House the Homeless started a petition to create the Valerie Godoy Women's Shelter.

Austin should be a leader in rational, nondiscriminatory policy, but in 2004 was named the 10th meanest city to the homeless. The criminalization of homelessness costs us tax dollars and lives. It is time to reexamine our approach.

Friday, August 3, 2012

In her recent post, "Texas' War on Women," Alec says, "I don't understand it, I really don't. I just can't grasp the logic behind denying low-income women the ability to acquire contraception and treatment for STDs along with routine wellness and cancer screenings." There is nothing to understand, other than it ain't Granny in the local and federal legislatures; it's the Big Bad Wolf, and we'd better stop naively waiting for the lumberjack to come along to save us and start sharpening our own axe.

Sexism against women permeates every aspect of our culture, and because we mostly view the world through the glasses our culture has given us, we literally can't see it. What are women on television, in movies, and in literature? Bodies. Objects.

Bodies are easier to control than people, and the laws against women are symptoms of the larger issue of women not really being perceived as human beings. One in six American women is the victim of a completed or attempted rape, while 97% of the rapists never spend a day in jail. These are also symptoms. Now the Federal Legislature is also rolling back what few protections from violence women (particularly immigrant women) do have.

For as long as I can remember, I've had the distinct urge to be the protagonist in my own story. This should not be a radical idea, but it is. It is in contrast with what we see, and, as women, it is unfortunately our task to develop media literacy to understand how we are affected by this.

Writer Caitlin Moran made some excellent remarks on women's power in her interview on Fresh Air from August 2nd. On Lisa Brown's being banned from speaking on the House floor for using the word "vagina," Moran said she wished every woman in the room would have stood up and said the word, too, like "I'm Spartacus."

She also said she'd like to see women stop working for a day in protest of the cutting of women's health funding, and watch the country grind to a halt, "and that would be a beautiful and symbolic thing to happen, because women's lives grind to a halt if they are not in control of their fertility, if they can't make a decision about when they're going to become a mother and have responsibility over someone for the rest of their lives."

I hadn't taken the time to develop a position on abortion before. I've had friends who've had abortions, but never in Texas, and it was just something they did; it didn't directly affect me. Now I see that the right to choose gives a woman freedom over her own life.

I wonder what would happen in the abortion debate if men were the primary caregivers to children. In Texas, 36% of children live in single parent homes, and 85% of single parent households are led by mothers. Since women still make 77 cents for every dollar men make, it is hardly surprising that single mother households are three times as likely to be below the poverty line.

According to this report from the Texas Legislature,  Texas is 2nd in the nation for the overall birthrate, and 49th for female voter turnout. Barefoot in the kitchen much anyone? We're 6th in the nation for women living in poverty, and douchebags like Greg Abbott threaten cutting off all funding for women's health over abortions.

The only upside to all of this is how skinny I will get by puking every time I think about it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

UT Needs to Pony Up and Disclose Who's Behind Their Research

Public / private partnerships involving academic research teams and big business are, sadly, nothing new. But when public universities release favorable reports for the big corporations who hire them, the public should at least know who commissioned the research. 

A recent case involves a study, released by the prestigious Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin last February, which found that fracking doesn't contaminate groundwater. Great, right? Now that a respected public institution did a scientific study, all the noise about the environmental devastation caused by fracking can be discredited and companies like, oh, say the Plains Exploration and Production Company can get back to the important work of growing our economy, with no risk for taxpayers of costly cleanups down the road.

But wait, what's this? The Study's supervisor and leader, Dr. Charles Groat, is on the board of the Plains Exploration and Production Company. According to State Impact Texas, it looks like he was paid almost half a million dollars by the company just last year, and he owns $1.6 million in company stocks. In fact, his total take is about $2 million from the company. Not bad for a university professor, and I'm guessing that with all those stocks he stands to make much more from increased fracking. Actually, one of the sites in his study is being drilled by the Plains Exploration and Production Company right now!

The New York Times reports that UT has promised (in a statement to journalists) to "identify a group of outside experts to review the Energy Institute’s report on the effects of hydraulic fracturing." That's fine, but this is just the latest scandal, and the only reason it's a scandal is because they got caught. Hmmm... wouldn't it be better if there was some kind of law that would force universities to give full disclosure on "research" of this sort?

That was exactly what the Texas legislature tried to do last year. The bill was originally introduced (as SB 1603) in 2009 by former Senator Eliot Shapleigh, in response to a similar case in which the Institute for Policy and Economic Development at the University of Texas at El Paso released a study showing the positive economic effects of the reopening of the ASARCO copper smelter, while ignoring the devastating environmental effects which were then contested. Who commissioned and paid for the report? You guessed it- ASARCO. And they used the study for credibility in a press conference and PR campaign.

The bill "requiring financial disclosure concerning reports prepared by public institutions of higher education for other entities" was reintroduced last year, as SB 1304. Passing both the House and the Senate Committees for Higher Education on zero nays and only one absentee in each, and with no objections from most Texas universities and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, it looked like a sure bet. Until, that is, it mysteriously died before it could be voted on by the House.

There was, however, one dissenting school: the University of Texas at Austin. Did they kill the bill? Who knows, but they were the only ones fighting it. Why would they do such a thing? Well, if you were to ask me, I'd say that if the public knows that certain financial backing creates a conflict of interest, the research is to some extent discredited. If the research doesn't hold sway over the public as being credible, the point of corporations funding university research all but becomes moot. With less corporate backers, UT loses $$ (around 472 million, but who's counting). We have established a motive.

And that brings us back to the fracking Groat scandal. Now UT's in the hot seat, and I think it would be a perfect time to revive SB 1304.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Texas "Swing"

In the July 19th post on the Burka Blog at Texas Monthly, Paul Burka writes about Obama's statement, made during a fundraising visit last week, that Texas will "soon" be a swing state. I agree with Burka's assessment on the subject- that it probably will become a swing state, we just don't know how "soon" that will be.

The Republican party has, for the last thirty or so years, been the white party, so what happens when Texas ceases to be a white-majority state? As Burka says, "The Republican base is aging. The average age of the party’s donors is 70. The average age of the 18,000 GOP state convention delegates was 58."

The demographics are changing and I think it will be really interesting to see what happens with a white minority in Texas. I have a hard time seeing how non-whites would possibly vote for a party actively working against them, but then, plenty of women and poor whites vote Republican so anything could happen. It's certainly not like the Democratic party has only common people's best interests at heart, either (though they do make less of a point to show outright disdain for them).

Burka makes two really good points concerning this.

1). For some reason, Hispanics don't turn out to vote in large numbers here in Texas.

2). Many traditional Hispanic values are in line with the conservatism of the Republican party. "Faith, family and patriotism" are particularly singled out.

I have noticed particularly this second phenomenon. Heck, one of my best friends is Mexican-American, and she views the Tea Party as a bunch of liberal wussies.

So, maybe if they play up their conservative values and Democrats' ties to big business and Wall Street, the Republicans could be the ones to "swing" back into favor with minority voters. If that happens, count on the Tea Partiers to swell the ranks of the Democrats and then we're back to where we started.