The TV news is an ass, the sequel

I failed to give credit where it was due when I wrote early yesterday about how television “news” ignored the dramatic events at the Texas state capitol.  There was a filibuster-to-adjournment over a bill that would drastically reduce the availability of abortions in Texas and that caused citizens to fill the galleries, and later to express their anger when they saw, plain as day, the lieutenant governor and his supporters try to railroad the process, and at one point saw that an official record of a vote had been changed.  I was annoyed that I couldn’t follow the story on television–it was not being covered on any of my local stations in Houston nor on any of the national cable “news” channels.  I was keeping up on Twitter.

What I neglected to do was to consult other avenues available on the Inter-Webs, and I was reminded of that today by Time and by Rachel Sklar.  The state senate was live-streaming itself, and the big show was available on other live streams, too, with some great work done by the Austin American-Statesman.  Congratulations to them all for recognizing a newsworthy event when they saw one and doing something to let the rest of us keep up.

Time: “As protesters massed in the gallery, the GOP majority attempted to close debate and bring a vote, and Democrats maneuvered to stall after their rivals forced [Senator Wendy] Davis to stop speaking on procedural grounds, well over 100,000 YouTube viewers were tuned to the channel–closer to 200,000 as zero hour approached. That’s a six-figure viewership, after primetime in most time zones, watching legislators argue over Robert’s Rules of Order and who properly held the floor.”

Sklar: “The clock struck midnight. Victory! They had run out the clock! The chants continued. Twitter exploded. But that was weird, it seemed like that vague roll call was still going on. What, exactly, was going on in that huddle by the Chair?

This is what was going on: They were taking the vote. It was after midnight, and suddenly that strict adherence to rules didn’t seem so strict anymore. Whispers were trickling out, confirmed by the AP: SB5 had passed, 17-12.

Twitter was going bananas. I checked the networks again. CNN was re-running Anderson Cooper. MSNBC was re-running Lawrence O’Donnell. Fox was re-running Greta van Susteren. Journalist Lizzie O’Leary tweeted, ‘Interesting choice you made tonight, cable news executives.'”

By now you’ve heard how it turned out: the good old boys intent on changing a law that most Texans thought didn’t need changing (and despite having failed in their effort to change the law during the regular session, by the way) were gobsmacked at the reaction of the crowd, yet tried to push ahead and took a vote on the bill after the deadline and declared victory, only to be confronted with not only the evidence of their failure to act within the rules of the chamber but evidence that someone messed with the records (Anthony De Rosa posted screenshots of the evidence, here and then here) and ultimately conceded defeat of the bill on other technical grounds.  And just as expected, Governor Haircut issued a call for another special session starting next week so legislators can have a third bite at the apple.

Yeah, but we didn’t need to see any of that live as it happened, did we…

UPDATE 6/28 8:00 am CT: Patti Kilday Hart at Houston’s Leading Information Source solves the mystery over the conflicting reports of when the Texas Senate voted on the abortion restriction bill, and it turns out there was no hanky-panky.  The respected secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw explains that the vote started before the special session ended at midnight–she knows because it’s her job to check the clock before starting the roll call–and the rules allow such a vote to count; because of the noise in the chamber the staffer charged with recording the vote had to leave her desk to hear the result, and it was past midnight when she returned to her workstation to enter the result; someone later manually changed the date in the system to reflect the correct date of passage.  But the bill ultimately was not passed legally because, as Lt. Gov. Dewhurst said at the time, it hadn’t been signed by the presiding officer “in the presence of the Senate” as required by the state constitution: all official action of the special session ended the moment the senators left the chamber (because of the noise) after midnight, and could not resume when they returned some time later Wednesday morning.

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You hate to see a grown legislator cry

It’s not a pleasant sight, but we should get used to it because it’s not over: across the country, and soon in Washington, D.C., elected representatives are finally struggling with making actual budget cuts.

Here in Texas we face the same problem as everyone else: not enough money to pay for everything we want.  Fact is, we’re $23 billion short of what we’d need to fund the last budget with no increases in anything—or in other words, we need to cut the last budget by more than 12%—and the Texas Constitution doesn’t permit deficit spending.  So our legislature is in the midst of that “adult conversation” we’ve heard so much about, making tough decisions about what to keep and what to cut.

No one’s really in favor of cutting state funding of public education by $8 billion (or in favor of what Tom the Dancing Bug down there is imagining), or short-sheeting projected growth in Medicaid caseloads by $4 billion, or running TDB onbombing schoolsthe risk of nursing homes closing because of the proposed cut in Medicaid reimbursement rates.  But all of that’s in the budget approved yesterday by the state House of Representatives, and that’s after getting the governor to agree to use $3.1 billion dollars from the savings account.

Republican leaders in the Texas House, who are still talking about finding some “non-tax revenue” source to ease the cuts, passed this budget because they believe the voters made it clear in November that they’re opposed to raising any taxes, and so far there’s been no groundswell of Texans begging to pay higher taxes to prevent these cuts…although there’s been plenty of complaints about what’s proposed to be cut.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, likened the situation to entering a burning house and finding schoolchildren in one room and elderly people in another.

“I finally figured out that I couldn’t save anybody in this fire,” Dutton said, asking why lawmakers chose not to put out the fire by addressing the state’s underlying fiscal problems.

The same kind of tough decisions need to be made in Washington, and just like in Texas there’s no way to make real change without pain—a lot if it.  Most of the federal budget is tied up in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and defense spending.  The deficit commission concluded that everything has to be on the table for discussion, and a small group of senators has been negotiating quietly to come up with a plan.

Tomorrow, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin releases his plan, and I hope that kicks off some serious discussion about our options for resolving the government’s financial problem.  I hope, but frankly I’m not overly optimistic about Congress solving the problem: you see, tomorrow another group of worthies meets at the White House to see if they can keep the government from shutting down on Friday, because Congress has repeatedly failed in its responsibility to pass a budget for the year that started October 1 of LAST YEAR!

C’mon, guys; cut the crap and get serious, wouldya?

Justice DeLay-ed, not denied

It ought to be a somber moment when a man who was once a high-ranking member of the leadership of our nation’s Congress is convicted of a high crime for his actions while in office, and it would have been in a more innocent day.  But on this day, I admit to being downright giddy that Tom DeLay—the Hammer—once my representative in the United States Congress—was nailed by a jury in Austin, Texas for violating our state’s election laws.

I don’t mean just that I was pleased Delay Trial because someone who broke the law was convicted of the offense; we all should take comfort when the system shows that the powerful are not above the law.  I mean, I was gleeful to hear that this particular sanctimonious, obnoxious, slimy, dishonest bully was finally getting what he deserved.   His wife and daughter seem to understand the seriousness of his predicament: not satisfied with mere victory at the polls, he engineered an illegal money-laundering plot to ensure partisan victory into the next generation—and that was before the Citizens United decision would have made it so easy to avoid prosecution for corrupting the process.

Schadenfreude?  You bet your ass.

The guy who forced a redistricting of the just-completed redistricting in order to secure a Republican majority that was already without doubt, is now a convicted felon?  Excellent.  The guy who insisted that lobbying firms fire every Democrat on the payroll in order to play ball with the Republicans in power, will now carry the stain of criminality for the rest of his life?  Perfect.  The guy who threatened that judges would become political targets if they couldn’t see their way clear to ignore the law to advance his partisan agenda?  Outstanding!

Sentencing comes in December so we don’t know yet if he’ll actually go to prison, but there’s hope, America…don’t give up hope.

Lying numbers, the people who use them, the people who count

The trouble with reporting numbers in the news is that the people who provide the numbers have an agenda and the people who write the news don’t pay enough attention to what they’re being fed.  We have a great example here in Texas—great in the sense of being a good example, because in fact children and taxpayers are being hurt.

100714_PRESS_JournalismByNumbers Last week I ran across a piece from Jack Shafer in Slate praising a new book that reminds us to be skeptical of the numbers.   “No debate lasts very long without a reference to data, and as the numbers boil their way into the argument, you must challenge them or be burned blind by them,” warns Shafer, and he highlights some of the authors’ examples of cases in which funny figures are used for moral and political suasion.  He’s reminding us all to be vigilant; he reminded me of a case that makes the point.

This came to my attention earlier this month in a column by Rick Casey in the Houston Chronicle.  He wrote about  Houstonhochberg state representative  Scott Hochberg, regarded across Texas as the man with the best understanding of our school finance system, and his discovery that the Texas Education Agency was manipulating statistics to show dramatic improvement in the number of schools with better student performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the standardized test of primary and secondary students’ mastery of basic skills.

How could they do that?  Through use of a statistical tool called the Texas Projection Measure, which was developed by a national testing company.

Hochberg asked…how many correct answers a fourth-grader with barely passing math and reading scores at Benavidez Elementary in Houston needed to be counted as “passing” the writing test.

The unbelievable answer Hochberg had reached himself was confirmed…The child needed zero correct answers for his or her teachers and administrators to get credit for his or her “improvement.”

That’s right: zero.

Under questioning by someone they couldn’t bullshit, the TPM developers had to admit the tool considers inappropriate data to come up with this remarkable result.  That made news (here and here and here), and not just because the state’s education commissioner failed to attend the hearing.  The governor’s appointee sent staff to defend the use of a statistical tool which, we now know, translates the reality of continuing poor performance by students on standardized tests into the appearance of improved performance by schools and the bureaucrats who run them.

And all just months before the governor stands for re-election.

So there’s no real surprise that the education chief now opens his mouth (via e-mail), resorting to one of the favorite tactics of the governor himself: accusing anyone found not to be in lockstep with the powers that be of trying to harm the state and the little skoolchirrun of Texas.  He also says he’s considering new ways to use TPM: maybe use it less, or leave it up to the independent school districts to decide if they want to use it.

What?!  The TPM is flawed; it’s designed to let school administrators pad the TAKS results to make it appear that their schools—and they themselves—are doing a better job.  Casey sums it up well:

That the commissioner would allow a system such as the TPM to be put into place without serious evaluation, and then defend it as “reliable and accurate,” tells me that neither he nor the governor who appointed him take seriously the most daunting and vital challenge facing Texas: building up Texas by educating our children.