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The Contrarian

So apparently there’s some sort of budget shortfall in Texas. You may have heard a news report or seven about it.

The new and improved Republican majority in the Legislature (now 101 House members and counting) will enter the 2011 session in a budget-cutting mood. GOP leaders have made clear they intend to cut every program in sight rather than raise taxes.

With Texas facing a shortfall that may reach $24 billion, according to some estimates, it’s likely that we’re about to see major reductions in spending—in a state that already spends less per resident than any state in the nation.

There’s one major potential problem with that strategy—you know, a problem besides the ones created by laying off teachers and depriving vulnerable Texans of state services. The problem I speak of is lawsuits.

Texas is under legal obligation not to reduce spending in two major areas. One is Texas’ institutions for the mentally disabled (formerly state schools, now called state-supported living centers). After a major abuse scandal, the state reached a deal in 2009 with the  U.S. Justice Department. The feds agreed not to sue us, if the Legislature boosted funding for the facilities and improved conditions. We’re still being held to that agreement. The Legislature can’t reduce funding for state schools without risking a court battle with the Justice Department.

The state is also under federal court order to improve its children’s Medicaid program. This is the so-called Frew lawsuit settlement reached in 2007. It’s unlikely the Lege could make reductions in children’s Medicaid without being dragged back into federal court.

Then there are the many other programs that, while not subject to a lawsuit right now, very well could be if deep cuts were implemented. Those include Child Protective Services, the Texas Youth Commission, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the entire public school system.

The GOP may be eager to cut spending. But it comes with a lot of legal risk.

Medicaid Withdrawal Idea Gets Spiked

Report downplays Medicaid opt out, favors 'market' reforms

It’s official: Withdrawing from Medicaid would be a disaster for Texas. That’s the take-home message from a much-anticipated state report released today.

A few conservative Republicans—mostly Gov. Rick Perry and state Rep. Warren Chisum—have broached the idea of Texas opting out of Medicaid to help solve the state’s budget gap. Their comments had given political weight to a previously little-known joint study by the Health and Human Services Commission and the Department of Insurance examining the consequences of Texas losing Medicaid funding.

The report’s conclusions leave little doubt that Medicaid withdrawal would harm the state economically; deprive poor, elderly and disabled people of access to health care; likely raise property taxes; rob the state of tax revenue; and lead to increases in insurance premiums.

None of those conclusions are surprising. We’ve previously written about the potentially devastating consequences of Medicaid withdrawal. It never seemed a viable option for solving the state’s budget problems.

What I do find surprising is how stridently the report endorses certain Medicaid reforms. When it discusses Medicaid reform, the report reads like a product from a conservative think-tank.

It discusses the need for a “market-oriented” reform that would convert Medicaid funding to block grants and provide states wide latitude to spend federal money as it sees fit. That could include funneling Medicaid money into private savings accounts that individuals could use to purchase coverage from private insurers on the open market. I don’t know if that kind of market-based system would spend Medicaid money more efficiently, as the report claims. What I do know is that semi-privatized approach would funnel billions of dollars in Medicaid money to the insurance industry. (More on that proposal below.)

The report’s suggestions also happen to jibe with the Medicaid reforms that Gov. Perry has been promoting—that is when he hasn’t been talking about Medicaid withdrawal.

Here’s the statement Perry’s office released this afternoon about the Medicaid report:

“The current Medicaid system is financially unsustainable for states and the federal government, as costs increase about nine percent per year in Texas alone. Without greater flexibility and the elimination of federal strings, Medicaid will strangle state budgets and taxpayers as Obamacare and other programs expand Medicaid rolls.

“Texas, the states and the federal government would be much better served by increasing flexibility and innovation in Medicaid, even block granting funds to the states, so we can tailor Medicaid dollars to best serve the needs of Texas patients, families and taxpayers. I have discussed these issues with other governors and policy experts, and will be working on ways to improve the utilization of Medicaid dollars in Texas.”

What you’ll notice about Perry’s statement is that it doesn’t mention withdrawing from Medicaid at all. What it does endorse is “greater flexibility and elimination of federal strings” and “block granting” Medicaid funds to the states.

 The more you read the report and Perry’s statement, the more it seems the idea of Medicaid withdrawal was perhaps never a serious proposal. Perry may have floated the idea as a way to further these preferred “market-oriented” reforms of Medicaid.

As for Medicaid withdrawal, the numbers aren’t pretty. The report’s headline conclusion is that Medicaid withdrawal could result in 2.6 million Texans becoming uninsured.

Texas would surrender $15 billion in federal matching funds. “At the same time, Texas residents and businesses would continue to pay federal axes in support of other states’ Medicaid spending,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the spike in Texas’ uninsured population would also swamp the state’s hospitals in billions worth of uncompensated care. That would hike local property taxes.

We’d collectively pay higher taxes and higher insurance premiums and receive fewer benefits in return, while seeing kids, new mothers and the elderly kicked off services. Doesn’t sound like much fun.

But the report also highlights the rising costs of Medicaid—with booming caseloads leading to a 170-percent increase in Texas’ spending on Medicaid the past 11 years.

 So something has to be done: “Without significant reform at the federal level, states are left facing a no-win dilemma. Opting out of Medicaid means giving up federal tax dollars paid by the state’s residents to provide health care for our most vulnerable residents. Staying in the program forces states to pay for a federally-mandated expansion of Medicaid with little control over the program’s ever-rising costs, exacerbating an already unsound financial situation.”

 What’s surprising is how stridently the report discusses possible solutions to this “no-win” scenario.

The report concludes that the federal government should allow the state to “incorporate market oriented principles and greater accountability into the Texas Medicaid program.

“Under one waiver proposal, the state would establish consumer-directed medical accounts with sufficient funding to allow a client to purchase an individual or family high-deductible private insurance policy and fund a related health savings account.

“The proposal would empower Medicaid recipients to use health saving accounts for out of pocket health care expenses, job training, child care, or other qualifying purchases.”

This would represent a fundamental shift in how Medicaid functions. In the current model, the government reimburses doctors and other providers for the health care services they offer Medicaid patients.

Under the Perry plan, the government would fork over Medicaid money directly to individuals who would then shop for and purchase a private insurance plan. Instead of one money transfer (government to health care providers), we would have three (government to patient to insurance company to providers). Perry and the report authors pitch the latter system as more efficient, despite the added bureaucracy that would no doubt come along with these added transactions.

I don’t know if it would be more efficient. But it certainly would be a boon for the insurance industry and whatever financial institution would maintain these health savings accounts.

Still, the report’s recommendations are rather fantastic at the moment. The federal government determines how the Medicaid program operates. And it seems doubtful the Obama administration will allow Texas to implement these reforms.

 So until a Republican wins the White House (and perhaps that will be Perry), these Medicaid reforms (and Medicaid withdrawal) are likely nonstarters.

Chet Edwards Ousted from Congress

Anti-incumbent wave too much for veteran Democrat

Chet Edwards’ two-decade career in Congress has come to an end tonight.

The result wasn’t a huge surprise, though it is a tremendous loss of seniority for the Texas delegation. Tom DeLay’s redrawn 17th District finally ousted Edwards, though it took six years longer than the GOP had hoped.

What took down Edwards, ultimately, wasn’t the conservative 17th District that DeLay’s people manufactured. Edwards seemingly could have continued winning had this been a typical election. Rather, what sunk Edwards was the anti-incumbent, pro-Republican wave that’s sweeping the country tonight. This was a national election. And though Edwards tried to make the race about local issues, it was no use. Anecdotes abound of conservative-leaning voters who like Edwards and voted for him in the past who this year turned against him simply because they were angry with Obama and the nation’s direction. That proved too much to overcome—even for a campaigner as skilled as Edwards.

The night began poorly for Edwards. He was trailing 17 percent in early returns and was even behind in his home base of McLennan County. When initial returns from Brazos County—which, as I wrote earlier, is a key battleground in the district—showed Edwards trailing by a margin of two-to-one, the gig was up for the long-time Democratic incumbent. (The AP called the race about 30 minutes ago.)

Bill Flores becomes the 21st Republican in the 32-member Texas congressional delegations. And that number could grow later tonight, with Democrats Ciro Rodriguez and Solomon Ortiz in serious trouble.  I’ll have more updates on those two races later tonight.

Could Be Rough Night for Democratic Congressmen

Early returns show trouble for Edwards, Rodriguez and Ortiz

UPDATE: AP calls CD-17 for Flores, Edwards returning to Waco.

The national news media is already calling the U.S. House for Republicans.

The news isn’t any better at this hour for Democrats in Texas congressional races. All three endangered incumbent Democrats are trailing in early returns.

It’s still very early, but it’s not looking good at all for Waco Democrat Chet Edwards. He’s trailing Republican challenger Bill Flores 63 percent to 36. Only 59,000 votes have been counted. Not only is Edwards down 17 points, but he’s trailing Flores in McLennan County (Waco), which is supposed to be his base, by 2,000 votes.

More worrisome for Democrats are the early returns from the Ciro Rodriguez and Solomon Ortiz races.

Rodriguez trails Republican Francisco Canseco 49 percent to 40 percent with 76,000 votes counted. But Rodriguez, the incumbent Democrat, is trailing in Bexar County (San Antonio), the district’s major population center.

In South Texas, Solomon Ortiz looks to have a major fight on his hands from Republican newcomer Blake Farenthold. Ortiz is trails by 8 percent with 52,000 votes counted. But he’s trailing in Nueces County (Corpus Christi). Moreover, Farenthold is leading even though no returns have come in yet from the largely Republican San Patricio County. Of course, few precincts from the Democratic counties of Cameron and Willacy have reported. But this is shaping up as a close race.

Democrats poured a lot of resources into protecting Rodriguez and Ortiz. If one or both lose, that would portend a disastrous night for congressional Democrats.

Bryan-College Station Key Battleground in CD 17

Whoever wins Brazos County will likely capture the race

The polls closed a few minutes ago in most of Texas, and now we wait for results in the state’s three key U.S. House races.

In closely watched Chet Edwards-Bill Flores race, the Bryan-College Station area could be a decisive battleground. The 17th Congressional District spans a swath of Central Texas from Waco—where Democrat Chet Edwards has his base—through the southern Fort Worth suburbs and east to College Station.

When Tom DeLay’s map-makers drew the district in 2003, they included the ultra-conservative Brazos County, which covers Bryan-College Station. They hoped that area would make the disctric Republican enough to overwhelm Chet Edwards.

But Edwards worked hard to make inroads in the area. He took advantage of his connections to Texas A&M, where he went to school, courted local politicians, and perhaps most beneficial of all, brought home federal pork for the university.

In his previous three races, Edwards has performed well in Bryan-College Station. In 2004, he polled even there against Republican Arlene Wohlgemuth. In 2006 and 2008, Edwards won the county by double digits.

This year could be different, though. Republican challenger Bill Flores lives in Bryan and there have been early indications that he will perform well there. As the early results come in, keep an eye on Brazos County. If Flores beats Edwards there, he’ll likely have himself a seat in Congress.

I’ll have more updates on Texas’ congressional races as results come in.

Will Corporate Ads Help Sink Solomon Ortiz?

Drug company front group attacks Democrat over health care bill.

Until recently, Blake Farenthold wasn’t given much of a chance to win his race against Democrat Solomon Ortiz, who’s represented Corpus Christi in Congress since 1982. 

But grassroots Tea Party activists have helped make the race competitive. And, now, last-minute corporate-funded ads may put Farenthold over the top.

Farenthold, 48, runs a computer consulting business in Corpus and is the grandson of Texas liberal icon Sissy Farenthold. He’s the one congressional candidate in Texas who, until recently, could claim to be running a grassroots campaign. Nearly all of the $379,000 Farenthold reported raising as of Oct. 13 had come from individual contributions or loans to himself; he’d received almost no PAC money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

On-the-ground campaigning by Farenthold’s enthusiastic Tea Party supporters in a district tilting toward the GOP has made this a close race. As the campaign gained more attention—and Ortiz began to look vulnerable—shady third-party groups showed up on the scene.

A group called The 60 Plus Association, which bills itself as a conservative answer to the AARP, has been running attack ads against Ortiz the past two weeks, ripping him for supporting the national health care reform bill. It reported spending $166,000 on the ads, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission

Third-party groups like 60 Plus Association don’t have to disclose who their donors are. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, third-party groups like this can raise and spend corporate funds on elections—as long as the expenditures aren’t coordinated with campaigns.

The 60 Plus Association has long been rumored to be a front group for the pharmaceutical industry.

So in Texas’ 27th Congressional District, we have a front group that may be using hundreds of thousands in drug company money to unseat a congressman who voted for the health care reform bill, which the drug companies certainly didn’t like, and to replace him with a novice Republican who might repeal the bill.

If Farenthold does pull the upset, the Tea Party will likely get the credit. But corporate interests will have made the difference.

See more of our Election Night coverage.

The Mystery of the Latino Vote

Latinos vote in high numbers in other states; why not in Texas?

“Why Latinos do not vote in large numbers is one of the mysteries of politics.”

 So writes Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka in this pre-Election Day post about the Democrats many woes in Texas. Burka makes some very good points in his post, but I have quarrel with the above statement.

Latinos do vote in large numbers—just not in Texas.

In the 2008 general election, about 50 percent of eligible Latino voters turned out to vote nationwide. In California, Latino turnout was 57 percent.

Meanwhile, in Texas, only 38 percent of Latinos turned out.

You can find those numbers at the Census Bureau site. (I researched this topic a couple of months ago for an Observer cover story on grassroots campaigning and Texas’ low-voter-turnout problem.)

Fact is, if Texas Latinos voted anywhere near the national average (not to mention California levels), Bill White might be measuring the drapes in the governor’s office about now.

California makes for an interesting comparison. In the past decade, Latino turnout has increased considerably. The number of Latino voters grew 85 percent between the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections, according to this report.

I don’t know why Latino voters in Texas (and select other states such as Arizona) vote at a lower percentage. I also don’t have any magic answers as to how Texas Democrats could entice more Latino voters to the polls (although some Democrats contend that a greater emphasis on grassroots organizing, door-knocking and community activities would help).

What I do know is that in other states, Latino voters now comprise a major slice of the electorate. And I tend to think if it can happen in California, it can happen here.

In an Austin courtroom on Thursday afternoon, six years after he was executed, Cameron Todd Willingham finally received the defense he deserved.

It was technically called a “court of inquiry,” a rarely used legal hearing in which the Willingham family and the Innocence Project asked Austin Judge Charles Baird to determine if Texas wrongly convicted Willingham of starting the 1991 fire that killed his three children.

But the three-hour hearing on Thursday felt very much like a re-trial. At Willingham’s actual trial in 1992, his two court-appointed defense attorneys called just one witness. They didn’t bother to put a forensic expert on the witness stand to counter the prosecution’s arson evidence. And they failed to undermine the testimony of  jail-house snitch Johnny Webb, a man with 13 convictions, who claimed Willingham confessed to starting the fire.

Yesterday, however, some supremely talented attorneys dressed in supremely expensive suits eviscerated the evidence against Willingham. They swiftly discredited Webb by displaying his own hand-written document recanting his testimony against Willingham and claiming prosecutors forced him to lie in court in exchange for a reduced sentence. Then the lawyers put on the witness stand two of the nation’s top fire scientists, who went point-by-point and debunked every piece of arson evidence in the case.

Anyone who might counter this testimony—the governor’s office, the state fire marshal’s office and the Navarro County DA’s office, which convicted Willingham originally—declined Baird’s invitation to take part in the hearing. So the Willingham side had the court to itself. After three hours of unchallenged evidence, former Texas Gov. Mark White, one of four attorneys who spoke, concluded the hearing. “Every shred of evidence points to his innocence,” he told the court. Then he took on the larger issue of the death penalty. “ It is time for a change in the way we carry out sentences that have no reversibility.”

Baird said he would study the case and make a ruling soon. But it’s not clear he’ll get that chance. As the hearing was ending, the state’s Third Court of Appeals issued an order halting the inquiry. (You can read more details about that here.) The Navarro County DA, appeared briefly before Baird and made an unsuccessful motion to recuse the judge. He then asked the appeals court to stop the hearing.

The appeals’ court action added one more bit of drama to a day that included White’s remarks about the death penalty and accusations that Texas executed an innocent man and that Gov. Rick Perry let it happen.

Those topics have dominated the news coverage of the Willingham case for years—and will likely continue to dominate it.

But, on this afternoon, the arson forensics finally came to the forefront.

As I’ve written before in this space, the forensic science is what matters most here. There are roughly 750 people in Texas prisons on arson convictions. Hundreds of them are likely innocent. (For more details on that math, read this story.)

Last year, I chronicled the cases of three men—Curtis Severns, Ed Graf and Alfredo Guardiola—who were likely wrongly convicted of arson. All three remain in prison at this very moment.

Reformers have long hoped the high-profile Willingham case would bring more attention to the issue of flawed arson evidence and perhaps lead to an official inquiry that would exonerate people like Severns, Graf and Guardiola, and many others.

Instead the Willingham case has become saturated and bogged down in the politics of the death penalty and the governor’s race. The details of the fire science are often glossed over. (Even the Forensic Science Commission, which is conducting its own separate inquiry of the Willingham case, hasn’t held a detailed discussion, at least in public, of the flawed arson evidence—though that may yet happen at the commission’s meeting in November.)

But on Thursday a courtroom full of spectators, reporters, cameramen and a judge sat rapt while John Lentini and Gerald Hurst, two nationally renowned fire experts, tore apart the forensic evidence against Willingham and so many others.

Under questioning from Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, Lentini testified for more than an hour. He delivered a detailed, occasionally sardonic power-point presentation that undermined every one of the 20 supposed indicators of arson that Manuel Vasquez—who handled the case for the fire marshal’s office in 1991 and has since passed away—used to convict Willingham.

Lentini began simply: Fires within enclosed structures behave differently than you think. A fire in your house will do wildly different things than a campfire or a wild fire. Sure, heat rises, but if the fire is inside a structure, the heat will become trapped by the ceiling, forming a layer of gas and smoke at the top of a room. That heat will eventually descend and warm the entire room until that room explodes in flames. This is a stage of fire known as “flashover.”

Lentini showed a portion of this video—in which a smoldering cigarette dropped in the cushions of a recliner engulfs the room in flames in about three minutes.

The key point is this: Flashover can make an accidental fire look very much like an arson—by leaving clues that investigators once thought were dead giveaways of an intentionally set blaze.

For instance: Fire investigators once thought that fire burned only upward. (“All fire goes up,” Vasquez told the Willingham jury back in 1992.) So if the floor was burned, then the fire must have started on the floor. And the burn patterns on the floor and under tables likely showed where an arsonist had poured an accelerant. These were called “pour patterns.”

When Vasquez found several pour patterns at the scene, he theorized Willingham had poured kerosene in the kids’ bedroom, through the house and out the front door. Chemical testing found no traces of an accelerant inside the house. But Vasquez was undeterred. He believed so blindly in the burn pattern evidence, the absence of an accelerant didn’t matter. It must have been arson because that’s what the “pour patterns” showed.  

Lentini scoffed at that. We now know those burn patterns are simply the result of a fire going to flashover. Those burn patterns tell you nothing about how the fire started.  “I could tell a jury that this is a pour pattern,” Lentini said, while displaying a photo of the burned floor from the Willingham house, “and they’ll believe me, but that’s not true.”

Lentini similarly dismantled Vasquez’s other evidence:

Multiple points of origin. This is the “holy grail” of fire investigation, because accidental fires almost never start in more than one place. So, if you can show a fire started at multiple points, then you normally have arson. Vasquez tried this in the Willingham case. That was a serious error, Lentini said, even back in the dark ages of 1991. Multiple points of origin typically means several starting points, unconnected to each other in multiple rooms. If you have one starting point in the kitchen and another starting point in the bedroom upstairs—and there’s no fire trail connecting them—that’s probably arson. But in the Willingham case, the entire house was burned—all the damage was connected. “Multiple origins have to be isolated,” Lentini said. “In the Willingham fire, all the damage was contiguous.” There was no way a competent investigator, even in 1991, could find multiple, independent points of origin at the Willingham scene.

V-patterns. These are v-shaped burn marks that investigators once thought pointed to where a fire started. Because investigators like Vasquez believed wrongly that fire always burns up, a v-pattern near the floor must “point” to where an arsonist started a blaze on the floor. Vasquez testified that he found a v-pattern near the door, leading him to conclude that Willingham started a point of origin there. That conclusion was false. We now know that v-patterns in post-flashover fires occur when the fire sucks in air. V-patterns often are found near ventilation points like windows and doors. In the Willingham case, the v-pattern near the door simply shows where the fire breathed in air to sustain itself. It isn’t an indicator of arson.

Melted aluminum threshold. Vasquez found that the aluminum threshold on the front door to Willingham’s house had melted. It was once thought that melted metal (and warped bed springs and elaborate cracks in windows) was a sign of arson because it showed that a fire burned especially hot. Investigators once thought arson fires burned hotter than accidental fires—because accelerants burned hotter. Numerous experiments have shown that’s not true. Accidental fires and gasoline fires can reach the same temperature. Yet Vasquez testified that only a fire fed by an accelerant could get hot enough to melt the aluminum threshold. He theorized Willingham poured kerosene across the doorway so no one could escape. That is all patently false. The melting point of aluminum is 1,200 degrees, a temperature that any accidental fire could attain, Lentini said. The melted threshold—and the warped bed springs and the cracked windows—provide no clues to how the blaze started. The fact that they’re melted simply shows they’d been in a fire. Nothing more, nothing less.

I’ll stop there. Lentini had many other examples, but you no doubt get the picture. So, how did the Willingham fire start? Dr. Hurst—the Cambridge-educated chemist and Austin-based fire expert who took the stand last—theorized that faulty wiring in the childrens’ bedroom was a possible cause of an accidental fire. But he concedes it’s impossible at this point to know with any certainty how the fire started. But one thing is certai: None of the nine fire scientists who have studied the case since 2004 have found a single piece of credible evidence of arson.

“The bottom line is all the evidence is consistent with an accidental fire.,” Lentini said.

I found the scientific presentation fascinating. We’ll find out Friday if some of those details find their way into the media coverage.

When the hearing ended, though, reporters mobbed Gov. White and peppered him with questions about the death penalty and Perry’s handling of the case.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hurst and his wife sat by themselves a few feet away. Hurst has seen many faulty arson cases over the years, working pro bono with attorneys and journalists to free people wrongly accused or wrongly convicted (he examined the three cases I profiled last year). He’ll tell you that fire investigations are becoming more scientific and that the field is improving. But he still sees a lot of flawed cases. In fact, Hurst told me, while he was sitting in Baird’s courtroom Thursday waiting to testify, an assistant DA approached him and asked Hurst to examine an arson case. The bad cases will keep coming. There are many people who, unlike Willingham, can still be helped.

In that sense, this hearing wasn’t really about Cameron Todd Willingham. It was about the wider problem and the potentially hundreds of people still in prison whose names we don’t yet know.

“Unless lawmakers dig deep, Texas may pull back a lifeline that keeps about 15,000 people alive.”

That’s the lead of Bob Garrett’s story in Wednesday’s edition of The Dallas Morning News. It was the must-read story of the week that you may not have read. The piece didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

Garrett’s story chronicles the money shortages in the state’s HIV Medication Program. Funded with federal and state money, the program gives anti-retroviral drugs to Texans afflicted with HIV and AIDS who otherwise couldn’t afford the expensive medications.

The drugs have proven remarkably effective. They have turned a terminal illness into a chronic one. In short, the program supplies about 15,000 people the medications that are keeping them alive.

But, as Garrett reports, the program is running out of money. And with a budget-cutting legislative session looming, the program may have to severely curtail services—if it survives at all.

Part of the problem is increased demand:

“Enrollment has surged to record levels because the recession stripped people of jobs and private health coverage, the state screens more people for HIV, and the drugs are highly successful at prolonging lives, said program manager Dwayne Haught of the Department of State Health Services.”

State Lawmakers will need to increase funding for the HIV drug program for it to continue current services. With the state facing a budget gap estimated at $18-$21 billion, a funding boost seems like a long-shot.

But then again, 15,000 lives are at stake.

Just to give you an idea of scale, here are some Texas towns with populations of about 15,000: Brenham, Belton, Forney Uvalde, Mount Pleasant, Sulphur Springs and Pampa.

While the program is costly—these drugs aren’t cheap—it actually saves taxpayers money in the long run: “the AIDS drugs, though expensive, forestall more costly inpatient hospital stays and crisis treatments for HIV patients, health care providers, advocates and some lawmakers said,” Garrett writes.

This program was on the chopping block back in 2003 too—the last time the state faced a budget crisis. It survived thanks to the dedicated work of several advocates, including Eduardo Sanchez, who then headed the Department of Health.

Seven years ago, state legislators found a way to fund this program even in a tight budget year. There are 15,000 people who hope lawmakers do it again.

Update (2:35 p.m.): Not much happened at today’s hearing. Judge Charlie Baird postponed the Willingham court of inquiry until he rules on a motion filed by the Navarro County DA asking Baird to recuse himself from the case. The proceedings will reconvene next Thursday, Oct. 14. 

Posted earlier: Six years after his death, Cameron Todd Willingham may go back on trial this afternoon in an Austin courtroom.

OK, it’s not a trial exactly. But it could have that feel. Lawyers for the Willingham family and the New York-based Innocence Project filed a motion in district court in Austin, asking Judge Charlie Baird to determine if the State of Texas wrongly executed Willingham for starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children.

As you probably know, the arson evidence used to convict Willingham—and hundreds of other defendants—was outdated and flawed. (If you don’t know about this case, read this story and then this one.) Willingham was executed in 2004.

The proceedings today are known as a court of inquiry. But lawyers can put witnesses on the stand and offer evidence, so it potentially could become a Willingham “re-trial.” If Baird were to rule that Willingham was wrongly convicted, it would mark the first official conclusion that an American state had executed an innocent man. (You can read the Willingham family’s petition here.)

Yesterday the DA in Navarro County, where Willingham was convicted, asked Judge Baird to recuse himself because he ruled on one of Willingham’s appeals while a member of the Court of Criminal Appeals 15 years ago. The Statesman and Grits have more about that. Baird also presided over the hearing in the Tim Cole exoneration. What’s different this time is the lack of DNA evidence.

This hearing is about much more than Willingham. As I’ve written in this space many times, there are potentially hundreds of people wrongly convicted of arson in Texas prisons alone. Willingham’s case is now more about their fates than his.

I’ll be at the hearing this afternoon—if it happens—and will post updates in this space and on Twitter (@ContrarianDave).

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