Is Texas Investigating Big Pharma (Again)?

Categories: Health, Texas

Ana C. via flickr creative commons
Two doctors at the Terrell State Hospital, one of ten state-run psychiatric hospitals, resigned last week amid allegations they took money from a pharmaceutical giant in exchange for hawking the drug maker's anti-psychotic to state regulators. Records from the Department of State Health Services indicate that an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office triggered the disciplinary action.

And if that's the case (the AG's office won't talk about the investigation) it wouldn't be the first time Texas officials have targeted Big Pharma for surreptitiously pushing to expand the use of anti-psychotics in the state's publicly-funded health care system.

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Houston's Pension Woes Dominate Lege Hearing

OTA Photos via Flickr creative commons
Houston City Council now qualifies as a place so dysfunctional that even a Texas House committee can get a laugh out of it.

Ray Hunt, speaking on behalf of the Houston Police Officers Union, was a high level of frustrated as he strode to the podium in the House Pensions Committee at the Legislature last night, lambasting city leaders and claiming they've pulled police officers and city workers into their fight with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.

Mayor Annise Parker wants to stanch the hemorrhage that is the mounting liability of the firefighters pension plan, now up to $1.8 billion. But Hunt argued it was hard to trust the decisions of a Council that he claims is incapable of controlling its own spending.

When Houston declared a $13 million surplus at the end of its last budget, Houston City Council could have taken that money to pay down debt. Instead, the money was divvied up 13 ways so each Council member had $1 million in additional discretionary spending. Hunt was flummoxed by the decision.

"The mayor said it was like teenagers at a mall," said Hunt, drawing a large laugh from the crowd. "And we want these people to be deciding my pension for the rest of my life? My pension?"

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Private Prison Companies Grow Fat Off Immigrant Detention

Categories: Immigration, Texas

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Brian Stauffer
A former Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan turned powerful U.S. Senator helped set in motion the sweeping system of immigrant detention we see today.

From 2000 to 2006, the average number of undocumented immigrants detained in the United States on any given day hovered around 20,000. And while that number had slowly started to creep up as lawmakers passed a series of post-911 security and terrorism prevention measures, it wasn't until 2009 that we saw a de-facto immigrant detention quota when Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) inserted this language into Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention budget: "funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds." (Byrd, for the record, did spend much of the latter part of his political career apologizing for his ties to the Klan.)

This year ICE is set to open what will ultimately become the country's largest immigrant detention center in the small South Texas town of Dilley. The new 2,400-bed facility, which is specifically designed to hold undocumented women and their children, will be operated by Corrections Corporation of America, one of two private prison giants that have seen profits rise as increased immigration enforcement boosted the number of immigrants put in detention.

In a new report, Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group critical of the private prison industry, details how CCA and fellow for-profit prison company GEO Group found a lucrative market created by ICE's so-called "bed mandate."

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Rebs Fight to Keep Confederate Heroes Day in Texas

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Troubled that Texas not only has a state-recognized holiday called Confederate Heroes Day, but also that said holiday just so happens to bump up against Martin Luther King Jr. Day every year (this year, the celebrations even fell on the very same day), 13-year-old Jacob Hale of Austin took his concerns to the Legislature. The ultimate result was HB 1242, authored by state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), which, if passed, would recast the holiday as Civil War Remembrance Day and move it to May.

On Tuesday, Hale went before a House committee and, wearing his suit, tie and American flag lapel pin, testified in favor of the bill he inspired, saying the current holiday ignores Union members and sympathizers who died in Texas along with those enslaved in the state. Hale urged lawmakers to create a new holiday that would be "more inclusive and a more accurate symbol of our state's diverse history."

And then, one by one, a line of mostly white, mostly elderly Confederacy buffs urged lawmakers to kill the teenager's bill.

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Bill That Could Kill Houston-Dallas Bullet Train Moves to Senate

Categories: Texas, Traffic

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Photo of the N700 bullet train, courtesy of JR Central
We're used to seeing votes fall along party lines out at the biennial circus we call the Texas Legislature. But in a Senate Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday, a bill that would effectively stall the project to build a high-speed train connecting Houston and Dallas split largely along urban/rural lines.

Senate Bill 1601, authored by Brenham Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, would specifically deny firms developing high-speed rail projects from using eminent domain -- the process by which government or businesses can force property owners to sell their land for projects that (ostensibly, at least) benefit the public. However, judging by Kolkhorst's narrowly-tailored bill and her comments in Wednesday's hearing, her bill has little to do with actually reforming how private companies wield eminent domain in Texas and rather stems from her flat-out opposition to high-speed rail.

"While I think in some countries it has worked, I just don't see a whole lot of high-speed rail across the United States," she said Wednesday. "I just don't see it, and I'm not sure I want Texas to be the guinea pig on this."

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Big Business May Help Defeat Anti-LGBT Bills This Session

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torbakhopper via flickr

Pocketbook issues -- and the chance to bring the Final Four or the Super Bowl to Houston -- may actually drive a stake in the heart of anti-gay legislation this session.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has identified 20 bills this session, including two constitutional amendments, that propose denying services to gays and lesbians or the U.S. Supreme Court's right to approve same-sex marriage. In states around the country, similar bills have been filed and either vetoed or changed once moneyed interests threatened to pull major events and business opportunities.

In a state like Texas, where lawmakers have crowned business growth as king, that's a heavy blow. And it means Equality Texas is not just standing with the American Civil Liberties Union and the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network. It also has added the Texas Association of Business, for the first time, to the list of allies.

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Despite Earning Excess Profits for Years, CenterPoint Is Asking for a Rate Increase

Categories: Texas

Monica Fuentes
During a presentation for investors last June, CenterPoint Energy vice president Tracy Bridge boasted that for years the company was making more money than actually permitted by state regulators.

See, back in 2011 the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the rate power transmission companies like CenterPoint can charge, authorized a 10 percent return on equity for CenterPoint, meaning regulators determined that CenterPoint shareholders should be allowed to earn up to $1 of profit for every $10 they own in the company. At that investors meeting last summer, Bridge pointed to a PowerPoint slide on the screen. "[Y]ou can see across the top of the blue bars that, for the last three years, we've been earning well in excess of that authorized return."

Yet, despite PUC records showing CenterPoint over-earned in the millions -- some $46 million in "excess revenue" in 2013 alone -- the company will today ask state regulators for a $16.7 million rate hike, which the company says will amount to an extra 31 cents per month for the average ratepayer.

Excess profits for years, and now a rate increase? How is that possible?

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Take the Robert Durst Tour of Texas!

Categories: Texas

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Monica Fuentes
Visit this house along Avenue K in Galveston, where Durst hacked apart his dead friend's corpse.
We can't get enough of eccentric millionaire Robert "I Only Chopped Up My Neighbor, I Didn't Murder Him" Durst, and now that he's facing another murder charge in Los Angeles, it may be awhile before we see his constantly blinking mug in Houston again. But at least he's here in spirit, and we can walk in his footsteps -- even in high heels! So put on your favorite wig, shoplift a chicken-salad-on-pumpernickel sandwich in case you get hungry on the way, and join us on the Durst Tour.

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Pharmacists Group Urges Members Not to Sell States Execution Drugs

Categories: Texas

It could soon get even harder for Texas to replenish its ever dwindling supply of execution drugs.

On Monday the American Pharmacists Association adopted a policy discouraging members from selling death-penalty states drugs for use in lethal injections. Here's the language of the new policy the APhA just voted to adopt: "The American Pharmacists Association discourages pharmacist participation in executions on the basis that such activities are fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care."

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Booking Agent Files Amazingly Insipid Letter About Matthew McConaughey's UH Speech

Categories: Texas

Is there a Dallas Buyers' Club discount for McConaughey speeches? We may never know...
A talent booker for Matthew McConaughey doesn't want anyone knowing how much the University of Houston is paying his client to deliver UH's commencement speech in May, and has outlined his arguments in one of the most idiotic letters to the Texas Attorney General we've ever seen. It's awesome.

Instead of doing something silly like having an actual attorney file an objection with the AG's Office, Celebrity Talent International President Glenn Richardson apparently hammered out the letter himself -- misspelling McConaughey's last name -- suggesting that disclosing the actor's fee might somehow put him in danger.

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