Monday, February 28, 2011

March of Dimes, The Proof

In my Creative Communication class, I am working on building an ad campaign for March of Dimes. Recently, I was discussing my ideas with my professor and other classmates. One of my ideas for the campaign is "Be Prepared". As I was explaining my thoughts and ideas to my professor, another student made the statement that she had two miscarriages because her body was lacking Folic Acid. The third pregnancy was when the doctor's made sure that she was taking her daily dose of Folic Acid. She was able to carry the baby to term and she is now the proud mother of a beautiful baby girl.

I became involved with March of Dimes a little over two years ago. At first it was just an internship opportunity that I accepted to build a better resume and gain the experience. I had no idea what the organization was nor did I know its purpose. Once I became educated on the organization, I became committed to its mission. I found myself advocating for the cause every chance I got. I have hosted events on campus through my sorority. I even tried to get the organization a sponsored Basketball Game at TCU.

As an African American women, my risk for having a premature baby are extremely high. Being a woman in general, I have to always remember that I may not be trying to have a baby now, but I'm going to want my 9 months someday. Therefore, I advocate. I eat my leafy green vegetables. I take my Folic Acid. I try to prepare myself as much as I can now so that, when I am ready for pregnancy, my body is prepared.

In 2010, March of Dimes issued a nation wide report card and the USA scored a "D". More specifically, Texas was one of 14 states to receive an "F" with a preterm rate of 13.3%. This is compared to each state’s rate of premature birth to the nation’s 2010 objective of 7.6 percent.

I urge every woman and every man in this class to know the facts. One pill a day can help prevent neural tube defects in babies. One pill a day and you can carry your baby to term. It's so simple. Start early. Be prepared.

-Domonique Mack

Let's Move Sheds Light on Austin

Increasing obesity rates in the United States in recent years have caused health and nutritional issues, especially those regarding children, to gain additional attention across the nation.

This issue is currently being addressed in the 82nd Texas Legislature in a series of bills that focus on altering nutritional standards and physical education programs in the Texas public schools.

In the House of Representatives, these bills include:
HB 127: relating to the types of beverages that may be sold to students on public school campuses; referred to Public Health.
HB 280: relating to requiring a health credit for high school graduation; referred to Public Education.
HB 281: relating to physical education credits required for high school graduation; referred to Public Education.
HB 643: relating to summer nutrition programs in school districts; referred to Agriculture and Livestock committee.

In the Senate, these bills include:
SB 185: relating to physical activity requirements for students in public schools; refereed to Education.
SB 225: relating to including in public school campus improvement plans and in local school health advisory council reports to school district boards of trustees certain goals and objectives or information in order to promote improved student health; referred to Education.

As these bills are debated in Austin, examining steps taken by the federal government in these areas is both interesting and relevant.

Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has set childhood nutrition as a national priority in America. The campaign addresses the challenges that busy American families, including the Obama’s, experience and discusses how those challenges have an affect on individual nutrition. This video outlines some of the goals of the campaign:

In its first year, the campaign focused on the authorization of the Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act, signed by President Obama in December 2010. This bill reauthorized the Child Nutrition Bill and, according to the Healthy Schools Campaign’s website, makes a “significant move to shape the future of school food.” It calls for several actions including:

• increasing the reimbursements that schools receive by six cents per meal;
• setting improved common-sense nutrition standards for school meals;
• bringing policies that help schools send consistent messages about healthy eating;
• simplifying the process that children who are eligible for free meals go through to receive those meals;
• piloting expansion of farm-to-school programs as well as organic foods.

As explained by the Healthy Schools Campaign, the creation of such federal policy is critical to the implementation of new programs and alterations to existing programs in state public schools. With the support of the federal government, state governments now have the leverage and the funding to promote nutritional and physical education programs that help fight current habits and obesity prevalent amongst American children.

The School Nutrition Association provides an outline of the large role that the federal government has played in the development of school nutritional programs through United States history. In 1962, President Truman passed the National School Lunch Act to provide reimbursement to states for school meals. Until the 1990s the bill focused primarily on school reimbursement and providing meals to low-income students. Nutritional standards were first introduced in 1993 when the USDA published the School Nutrition Diary, outlining nutritional problems with school meals. Following this report, changes focusing on the need to improve nutritional quality have gained attention and continue to be addressed. 

The proposed bills and alterations to the bills in the Texas Legislature are closely related to the current debate over nutrition and also to the national history of the issue. These current and past events help create a better understanding of the importance and relevance of the current debate in Austin.

-Kathryn Waggoner

Possible Alternatives to Widespread Layoffs

Natalie Brown is a teacher in Dallas ISD who may be one of the 3,100 employees laid off in DISD alone due to cuts in the state budget this year. According to an article by the San Antonio Express, those severe budget cuts are predicted to remove $10 billion in funding from public education in Texas.

"The scariest thing is that you realize you can't go to another school district to find a job," Brown said. View her full story from WFAA below.

Video and full text can be found here.

According to Texas law as it is now, school districts have no choice but to lay off employees in order to balance their budgets. However, two bills submitted during this legislative session offer school districts more flexibility over their budgets.

Senate Bill 468, submitted on Feb. 1 by Sen. Florence Shapiro, proposes giving school districts more local control and the elimination of mandates that prohibit reducing teacher salaries.

Sen. Dan Patrick submitted Senate Bill 443 on Jan. 31, which also provides more flexibility and control for school districts. According to an article from the Coppell Gazette, the bill would allow a district-wide average of 21 students per class instead of the current classroom cap of 22-1.

The bills have been referred to the Education Committee for further review. If passed by the Senate, both would become effective Sept. 1 and the removal of salary mandates would impact the 2012-2013 school year.

-Kaitlyn Van Gorkom

Voter ID Bill Passed by the Senate

The Senate has passed the Texas Voter ID Bill. This is the first major Republican legislative victory of 2011. “The measure was approved 19-11, with all Republicans backing it and all but one absent Democrat voting no,” (Houston and Texas News). Perry had already given this bill fast- track status. A last minute change that both sides agreed on for the bill was allowing a concealed weapons permit to be valid for voter identification. The new voter ID bill will cost the state about $2 million to pay for the necessary announcements. Democrats had argued that this cost is unnecessary when Texas is already working on the state’s debt.
         The voter ID bill will negatively affect minorities, the elderly, and the disabled, according to the Democrats. This bill could directly affect an elderly person who may have an expired drivers license. Elderly fall into the category of the ‘Silent Generation’ that contained many leaders in the civil rights movement who are full of opinions. The elderly citizen may have no need for a driver’s license because they no longer drive a vehicle. Now as they approach the voter poles, the elderly citizen will no longer be able to give their opinion and vote on issues such as Medicare that may directly affect them.
         The bill will now move to the state House.
Photo: Jay Janner/The Associated Press
Sen. Troy Fraser (center) and Sen. Tommy Williams (right) talk to Sen. Robert Duncan during debate on Senate Bill 14, the voter ID bill, in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Austin on Tuesday.

Eminent domain bill SB 18 pushes on

On Wednesday Feb. 9 the Senate unanimously passed the proposed Senate Bill 18 with a vote of 31-0.  The bill would tighten eminent domain laws and give more freedom to landowners.

SB 18, authored by Sen. Craig Estes, was passed by the Senate last session, but was killed by the House.  Officials, including Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, are using Texas citizens to further strengthen their argument this go round.

"Don't mess with Texas, and don't mess with Texas land. That's what this bill says," said Staples.  "Few issues have brought Texans together like this one.”

Staples has made the issue of eminent domain his top priority.  He has created a website,, and is active on his Facebook page, encouraging Texans to sign a petition in favor of the new eminent domain laws.  In fact, earlier today Staples presented the petition, with over 6,000 signatures, to the House Committee of Land and Resource Management.

Ever since the death of SB 18 in the last session, cases after cases have been released that show how the current eminent domain laws are “corrupt” and unfair to landowners.

The Texas Farm Bureau has become an advocate for changing the current laws.  For the past two years, they have posted opinionated pieces as well as tragic examples on their website and blog.

Here are two examples:  

With the massive support of government officials, advocacy groups and Texas citizens, as well as Gov. Rick Perry declaring eminent domain an emergency issue, the passing of SB 18 by the House seems inevitable. 

-Michael Levy-

Smoke-Free Texas to go through Legislature this week

During the first week of March 2011 the legislature will be discussing Texas House Bill 670 and Senate Bill 670, which would protect people from the dangers of secondhand smoke. A recent poll showed that 70% of Texas voters support the new law that would prohibit people from smoking in indoor work and public places. In a news article from the San Antonio Express, Doug Ulman, President of LIVESTRONG said, “It’s heartening to see that Texans agree on the right to breathe clean indoor air. Now is the time for the Texas Legislature to pass this landmark bill that will protect our citizens from the proven dangers of secondhand smoke exposure.” Over 30 cities in Texas already have smoke-free ordinances in place, now it’s time for the legislature to decide if that ordinance should be state wide.

Smoke-Free Texas Coalition is asking for people to submit their testimonials and share their story on how secondhand smoke has affected their lives or the lives of someone they love. To submit your testimonial visit Chella Graves, a musician from the Lake Travis area shared her story on how secondhand smoke has affected her life on the Smoke-Free Texas Facebook page. In her story she says she has bronchial asthma and consequently after playing at open-mic night, she feels congested and nauseated the next day. She says, “A smoke-free ordinance for Texas is necessary for people like me who are unable to enjoy many restaurants and bars because of the detrimental effects of secondhand smoke on our bodies.” Graves is just one of many who have submitted their testimonials to Smoke-Free Texas Coalition.

In a study conducted by the Texas Health Institute, The University of Texas School of Public Health Austin Regional Campus, and Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health, showed that a smoke-free workplace law would save Texas $404 million dollars biennially. An estimated $250 million of the over all $404 million would be from health care cost savings and $142 million result from the reduced cost from smokers who quit smoking. If the smoke-free law was to pass, this study indicated that it would save the Texas economy and government money.

To learn more about this study click here

-Jennifer Neel

TDCJ Makes Major Cuts in Budget

The $40 million reduction for the 2011 fiscal year will cause major setbacks in the TDCJ, Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Ways in which the Senate and House plan to make cutbacks are through eliminating 400 agency positions and the Project ROI plan. According to the agency, $3.1 million comes from 400 agency positions and $1.5 million comes from Project ROI. Project ROI, Re-Integration of Inmates, helps inmate’s transition from prison life to the outside world.

The TDCJ is also changing the prisoner’s meal plan to save money. The prisoners will receive powder milk as a substitute for milk cartoons, and substitute slice bread for hamburger and hotdog buns. Dessert will be lessened to one weekly instead of two.

These reductions will make an impact, but the Senate Criminal Justice Committee has concerns over the cuts. On the 'My San Antonio' blog, John Whitmire, Chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said, “What people have to understand is that criminal justice is a system; it’s not just about locking people up, it’s about what you do while you have them. Some of these proposed cuts and savings will lead to increased spending later because it will increase the recidivism rate… and often times there will be another victim involved.”

Mike Gross, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, said, “This move by the agency will have a big impact on public safety in Texas.” Among other points, he said the elimination of Project RIO “just means we’ll be seeing more offenders end back up in prison.”

The elimination of Project ROI has been the subject of concern with many employees and advocates of the TDCJ. Many feel that this reduction will cost the state more money in the long run. With not properly educating and assisting inmates to the return into society, the TDCJ will potentially see these people re-enter the system.

The ‘Grits for Breakfast’ blog states, “What's missing is a plan from any key legislative leader so far to counter the agency's Maximum Prisons approach. Texas legislative sessions are short and we're nearly a third of the way through this one. If the only plan on the table for budget reduction says "cut reentry and community supervision first," when push comes to shove that's what'll be implemented.” Even though these cuts are significant, there has been no counter plan. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee has made a stance on the saving Project ROI, but so far is not taken action.

We will have to see within the upcoming weeks on how the agency’s plan may be challenged to save the re-entry program.

-Caroline Cardenas-

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Texas anti-bullying legislation: a state comparison

As anti-bullying legislation begins to be introduced in Austin, it is interesting to look at what other states have done in the area comparatively.  Anti-bullying legislation is relatively widespread throughout the United States, with 45 states having passed measures. Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota are the 5 states that do not have any anti-bullying laws.  The difference in the state laws becomes the degree of protection and extent of definition in the laws.  Bully Police USA, a watchdog organization advocating for bullied children, reports on state anti-bullying laws by giving each state a grade.  How the organization grades states can be found here.  One of the major criteria for a high grade is whether a cyberbullying clause is included in the legislation, an issue addressed in a few proposed anti-bullying bills in Texas this session, including HB 224, SB 245 and SB 42.  Texas’ current legislation, passed in 2005, has a grade of a C- on Bully Police USA.

One of the most recently publicized states in the arena of anti-bullying legislation is New Jersey.  A New York Times article describes the state’s law, signed by Governor Chris Christie in January 2011, as the nation’s toughest law against bullying.  The law requires officials to run anti-bullying programs at every school, training for teachers and quick investigations of incidents, and it includes very strict consequences for bullying. The signing of this law came three months after the death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide because he was bullied for being gay. Garden State Equality, a New Jersey gay rights organization that advocated for the bill said this law has become the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.”  Several other states—including Georgia, New Hampshire, Maryland and Florida—have enacted similar, but slightly less strict, measures. 

One state that has anti-bullying legislation but has pushed back against stricter measures is Minnesota.  The state gets a C- on Bully Police USA, the same grade as Texas.  In October of 2010, the Minnesota Independent reported about an LGBT anti-bullying initiative that passed the state legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer opposed to the stricter agenda.  “I don’t think we need more laws. I think we need more understanding,” he said.  “We are supposed to respect each other’s point of view, and we are not supposed to tell because they have a different point of view that they are not entitled to have that.” 

This year’s Texas Legislature faces the question of whether or not to enact stricter anti-bullying measures.  Bully Police USA is an anti-bullying advocacy organization that obviously thinks there should be stricter enactment, but others like Tom Emmer and several advocacy groups like Focus on the Family think that legislation should be less strict.  The following two videos show responses to the New Jersey anti-bullying bill, both positive and cautionary.


Texas Legislation Tracker

There has been progress on all of the anti-bullying bills I am tracking in Texas this legislative session; all of the bills are presently in committee.  The bills along with their progress are listed below:

  • 82(R) HB 224-read first time, referred to the Public Education Committee, and scheduled for public hearing on March 1. 
  • 82(R) SB 245-read first time and referred to the Education Committee. 
  • 82(R) HB 24-read first time, referred to the Public Education Committee, and scheduled for public hearing on March 1. 
  • 82(R) HB 130-read first time, referred to the Human Services Committee, and scheduled for public hearing on March 1. 
  • 82(R) HB 170-read first time and referred to the Public Education Committee. 
  • 82(R) SB 42-read first time and referred to the Education Committee. 
  • 82(R) SB 205-read first time and referred to the Education Committee. 
  • 82(R) SB 242-read first time and referred to the Education Committee.
-Michael Dabbs

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sanctuary cities may cost lives

Houston police officer Officer Rodney Johnson once saved several children who were trapped in a burning building. On September 21, 2006, Johnson’s five children were left fatherless after an illegal immigrant gunned down Johnson during a routine traffic stop. A twelve-year veteran of the Houston police force, Johnson’s life was one dedicated to service and to family.

The photo tribute below showcases the impact of Johnson’s death.

Johnson isn’t the only decorated Houston police officer whose life has been cut short or endangered by violent acts perpetrated by illegal immigrants. More recently, Officer Nash Patel was seriously injured  during a raid on an illegal immigrant drug dealer. Like Johnson, Patel had demonstrated extraordinary bravery during his long tenure with the Houston Police Department.

Some Texas politicians allege that Houston should be considered a sanctuary city because law enforcement officers are not allowed to ask suspects questions related to their immigration statuses. The result? Criminal suspects who immigrate illegally to the U.S and who should be subject to deportation often slip through law enforcement’s grasp and remain stateside, at great risk to the communities in which they live.

Pictured above: the scene of Officer Patel's shooting.

Johnson’s killer and Patel’s assailant both had prior run-ins with the law. Yet, both managed to re-enter and remain in the U.S. undetected. Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt described the illegal immigrant who killed Johnson by saying, “The subject was deported, and yet he came back, so if the government fulfilled their responsibility of protecting the border we would probably not be standing here today.”

Certainly, police officers take necessary risks every day in the course of their work. Likewise, not all illegal immigrants commit acts of violence. However, these stories illustrate the price that cities sometimes pay when they become lax in enforcing federal immigration laws. These are also the stories that Texas advocates for stricter laws against illegal immigration, including sanctuary cities, use to garner support for their legislation.

The proposals currently before the legislature typically fall into two categories:

  •       Amending current laws to ensure cities cannot have policies that prevent officials from upholding either state or federal drug laws
  •       Passing new laws under which cities cannot explicitly oppose state or federal immigration laws.

Senate Bill 11 and correlating House Bill 12 are two of the most prominent anti-sanctuary cities being considered this session. SB 11 is before the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, and HB 12 has moved to the State Affairs committee. A public hearing for HB 12 is scheduled for March 22.

It is still too early to predict the chance that these bills will pass in this session. One thing we do know is that legislators will likely find themselves caught in the crossfire between Hispanic constituencies who oppose such measures and mounting public support for tougher immigration laws among other constituencies.

- By Kimberly Dena

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Texas CHIP Coalition

The CHIP program is still undergoing a lot of scrutiny in Texas as well as the United States. Texas CHIP coalition was formed in 1988 to help acquire support for the program in the state of Texas. They engage in advocacy efforts as well as educational efforts. Their website states that they work closely with the Texas Legislature on behalf of the children that are apart of the program as well as families.

The Texas CHIP coalition website offers information on the program as well as how to register. They have additional information regarding what is going on in the Texas Legislature about CHIPs and hold monthly meetings at the Texas Medical Association in Austin, Texas. Their website also offers the minutes for each meeting that they have.

According to an article by the New York Times in 2009 many states adopted the CHIP program even despite the recession. “The states' willingness to spend, even under excruciating budget pressures, is a measure of the support for expanding health care coverage to the uninsured as Congress and the Obama administration intensify their negotiations over a new federal health care bill.”

California was one of the states, like Texas, that did not adopt the program immediately. The article stated that “California officials estimate that up to 350,000 eligible children may be relegated to a waiting list, as the state grapples with its financial crisis.” Since this article was written in 2009, the losses that children have received due to no medical treatment have risen significantly in these states.

-Liane Michnoff

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gambling again on the table in Austin

With the budget shortfall of $15-30 billion dollars in the state of Texas, the push for legalized gambling has come to the forefront of discussion this legislative session. While in the past legalized gambling in Texas was merely an idea, it has become a possibility in light of our recent economic problems.

The major pro to legalizing gambling in Texas is the economic benefit casinos and resorts could provide. With our current debt levels, this is tempting given the fact that the Republicans holding power are reluctant to raise taxes to cover the difference. There is talk about making Galveston a host to a gambling resort, which would help boost that area after it was devastated by Hurricane Ike a few years ago. With all the money that is spent by consumers on trips to Vegas and Louisiana every year, it could pump more money into local economies.

The major con to legalizing gambling in Texas would be the social concerns that gambling brings. Republican lawmakers are concerned that with the legalization of gambling, Texans could become addicted to gambling, and bankrupt themselves at casinos, which could lead to an increase in poverty.

For more information on the issue of legalized gambling in Texas, check out this article by Greg Groogan at myFox Houston.

-Ian Cannon

Higher education without the Tuition Equalization Grant

The Tuition Equalization Grant (TEG) provides financial aide to students who are interested in attending private universities and therefore preserves the expansion of public institutions. Although college administrators prepare themselves for budget cuts every two years, the TEG could be cut by 41 percent, presenting major consequences. Fewer students will be able to attend private universities. As a result, public universities would not be equipped to hold the number of students coming in from private colleges.

A writer for the Austin Business Journal wrote an editorial defending the cut of the TEG, saying that it “plays a vital role in educating some of our best students – and saving the state money.”

Martha Marquez, a recipient of the TEG who attends Abilene Christian University, was featured in an article about the TEG budget cuts. She said her decision to attend a private university was based on the amount of aide she received, much of it being from the TEG.

If the cuts remain as extreme they currently are, approximately 9,500 fewer students will be receiving the TEG. Abilene Christian University’s director of student financial service, Ed Kerestly, said, "Most likely, we would be in a position to pass that cost onto students. They would need to look at loans or additional working or whatever to pay the difference, and that's certainly not what we'd like to see happen."

Students might not feel comfortable taking out additional loans. Expecting the students to work more during their college years would take away from their educational experience. The legislature will have to consider every aspect or consequence of the budget cuts for institutions of higher education this session.

-Carissa Cotner