dept. of immigration
Thanksgiving week, while most of us were stuffing ourselves, eight undocumented students at the University of Texas at Austin joined hundreds of others across the country in a hunger strike. They were willing to starve themselves to push Congress to vote on the DREAM Act, legislation that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented students who attend college or serve in the military. Julie, 30, said that she joined the strike because it was her last hope. She’s supported the bill since it was introduced in 2001 and has graduated with a master’s degree in nursing from UT-Austin. “I’m a 30-year-old woman now, and I’m still undocumented,” she said. “I want to practice as a military nurse, helping soldiers heal, but I can’t because I don’t have a Social Security number.”
The DREAM legislation would cover students up to age 35, like Julie. She saw the current lame-duck session of Congress as her last chance. She and the other hunger strikers hoped to convince Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to vote for the bill. (Hutchison supported the bill in 2007.) “We’ve done everything,” Julie said. “We’ve done calls, congressional visits, faxes and letters. We don’t have any more time to waste. Our lives could be decided on by the end of the year.”
listen to UT students talk about the DREAM Act
Every year, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the United States. Most students were brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age. Some entered the country without documents; others overstayed visitor visas. At least a million students could become legal residents and eventually citizens if the DREAM Act passed.
At press time, it was doubtful that even starvation would move lawmakers to support the students. The legislation, which once had bipartisan support, lost nearly all Republican backing as the debate over immigration reform became increasingly polarized. Hutchison has said she’ll vote against the bill.
—Melissa del Bosque
dept. of good fortune
The SBOE Giveth
When the State Board of Education met just before Thanksgiving, members kept in mind those of us who have little to be thankful about this year: our beleaguered state legislators. Almost every House member is feeling pressure from the nasty, raging speaker’s race, the budget shortfall and redistricting.
But lo and behold, the board came up with a gift sure to bring smiles to lawmakers. The board, usually known for making textbooks palatable to religious zealots and historical whitewashers, decided to send almost $2 billion to the Legislature to spend on schools, an unusually large amount. They had one request: that the Legislature use some of the money to buy textbooks that incorporate the board’s latest curriculum. While the state board determines how much money goes to the legislators, it’s up to the House and Senate to decide how to spend it.
With the budget this tight, there’s no guarantee the Legislature will buy the books, though publishers have already produced most of them. The texts would likely cost around $550 million, but the Legislature could use almost all the money to fund schools’ basic operations. That would help legislators balance other parts of the budget.
The board has sent a unanimous letter asking that lawmakers pony up. Whether legislators fund new textbooks or not, students will get tested on the materials starting next year. If schools can’t prepare kids for the tests, it’s hard to see how the system will work.
The board is already helping the Legislature cut corners. Rather than order new books that meet the state’s latest standards, the board is commissioning “supplemental materials” to fill gaps between the old books and new standards. Expect more creative solutions as lawmakers come to terms with one of the biggest budget gaps in recent history.
dept. of myth-busting
The Safe Place
If you believe the hype, El Paso should be one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country. It sits just across the river from Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Quite a few politicians and commentators have warned about the escalating violence in Mexico “spilling over” into the United States. That hasn’t happened.
While there have been a few isolated incidents of drug-related violence, cities on the American side remain remarkably safe. Nowhere is that more evident than in El Paso, which recently became America’s “safest city,” according to a recent report by CQ Press, a Washington, D.C., publishing firm.
CQ Press ranked the safest and most dangerous cities by looking at 2009 FBI crime figures in six categories: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and car theft. El Paso, which had just 13 murders in 2009, had the lowest crime rate of any city with a population more than 500,000. (So far in 2010, El Paso has seen four murders, according to the El Paso Times; across the river in Juarez, there have been at least 2,700 killings this year.) CQ Press also ranked another border city, San Diego, among the five safest. It’s worth noting that the five most dangerous cities—Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis, Washington and Atlanta—aren’t exactly overlooking the Rio Grande. So much for the spillover.
reality check dept.
Texas is withdrawing from Medicaid. That’s what you might think, judging from the recent headlines. The notion that state lawmakers might opt out of the health insurance program for the poor—largely paid for by the federal government—has been one of the major stories in Texas politics since the Republican election night romp on Nov. 2. “No More Medicaid?” was the headline in the online Texas Tribune four days after the election. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram followed with a story headlined, “Conservative legislators in Texas seek to opt out of Medicaid,” and the Houston Chronicle wondered, “No Medicaid in Texas?”
These stories were based largely on speculative quotes from two elected officials: state Rep. Warren Chisum, a Panhandle Republican who’s running for speaker of the Texas House, and newly re-elected Gov. Rick Perry. They’ve suggested that Texas, facing a massive budget shortfall, could save billions by pulling out of Medicaid, forfeiting the $16 billion a year the state receives in federal matching funds and replacing it with a state program. You might wonder how the state could turn away $16 billion from the feds and save money. Neither lawmaker has provided details.
Both have their motivations, though. Chisum needs to win support from right-wing House members if he hopes to unseat current House Speaker (and fellow Republican) Joe Straus. Perry has a book to sell—Fed Up!—and a national profile to raise.
In the rush for a good story, few reporters have paused to ask if a Medicaid withdrawal is feasible or under serious consideration. In reality, it seems doubtful the Legislature could opt out of Medicaid, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—who, unlike Chisum and Perry, will likely have a large say in the budget the Legislature creates next year—recently said as much.
Dewhurst released a statement that read, “In light of the revenue shortfall facing Texas, we need to take a serious look at any option that will help us balance the budget, but preliminary indications from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission indicate that opting out of Medicaid may not be the most cost-effective alternative.”
Here was perhaps the most powerful man in the Legislature saying that a Medicaid withdrawal made little financial sense. With good reason: Medicaid covers 70 percent of nursing home residents, more than 2 million children and more than half the births in the state. Ditching the program would cost Texas tens of billions in economic activity, might put doctors and pharmacies out of business, and could flood public hospitals with uninsured patients, leading to a spike in local property taxes.
Yet Dewhurst’s statement received scant media attention. Only one story—in the Chronicle—mentioned it. Medicaid withdrawal may make a good story, but unless the budget arithmetic changes, it ain’t gonna happen.
dept. of miseducation
El “Fracaso” in Brownsville
It’s a bad time to play chicken with the University of Texas Board of Regents. With an estimated $20 billion budget shortfall looming, the board of Texas Southmost College in Brownsville thought it would renegotiate the contract with the UT system to force UT to pay more than $10 million in back rent. Instead, the regents announced in mid-November they’d dissolve the 99-year contract with Southmost.
The University of Texas Brownsville-Texas Southmost College is a unique hybrid. It’s a community college and a four-year university combined. In 1991, the community college, which is funded by local property taxes in Brownsville, forged a partnership with the UT system and signed a 99-year contract. The UT system rents many of the buildings from Southmost and handles most of the administrative duties. UT-Brownsville and Southmost President Juliet Garcia summed up the impending divorce from UT as a “fracaso,” a failure.
Garcia tried to paint a rosier picture to staff and faculty. She promised that the UT System was still committed to building a four-year university in Brownsville without Southmost. Garcia said UT Brownsville’s growth was passing through a “cocoon phase” like other universities, such as the University of Texas at El Paso. The metamorphosis from homely caterpillar to butterfly will be difficult during the state’s worst budget crisis in history.
Southmost Trustee David Oliveira had a darker spin. “I am extremely disappointed, but I can’t say I am shocked because I warned the other trustees that this was going to happen,” Oliveira told the Brownsville Herald. “This could have disastrous consequences for our community and could set us back 50 years if the University of Texas Board of Regents follows through with this. I don’t know where we are going to get the funds to continue the programs we have, at the level we have, without raising taxes.”
—Melissa del Bosque