Perry Urges Prayer as Texas Burns

As of today, over 1.4 million acres in the state of Texas have been ravaged by fire.

Yesterday Texas Forest Service responded to 4 new fires for 1,005 acres, including a 1,000 acre fire in Deaf Smith County. The following fires have been contained: CR 4600 (Tyler Co., 130 acres), Encino (Tom Green Co.,12,659 acres), Hickman (Midland Co., 16,500 acres), Frying Pan Ranch (Andrews Co., 80,907 acres), Cannon(Pecos Co., 9,248 acres), DRH (Pecos Co., 26,284 acres), Little Smokey (Pecos Co., 27,895 acres), and Yates Field(Pecos Co., 300 acres). Since January 1st, Texas Forest Service has responded to fires that have burned more than 1.4 million acres.

If you include the fires fought by local fire departments, the number jumps to 1,821,086 acres burned since the first of the year.

And the situation is dire.  Record drought conditions and wind have combined to form a perfect breeding ground for wildfires.  From the U.S. Drought Monitor:

[April 19, 2011] In Oklahoma and Texas, there was a slight alleviation of Extreme (D3) and Severe (D2) drought conditions in the south-central to southeast Oklahoma – northeast Texas area.  Over much of the remaining region, however, drought conditions maintained or intensified.  The Oklahoma panhandle and nearby locations in northern Texas, southeast Colorado, and southwest Kansas saw the introduction of Extreme Drought (D3).  Further, conditions along the Texas Gulf Coast and into the Louisiana Gulf Coast intensified with one category degradation over select areas.  In north-central Texas, while conditions did not change appreciably, strong impacts are being felt.  High temperatures combined with no precipitation and high winds have led to widespread wildfires.  Unless precipitation comes in to the area soon, conditions are likely to become exceptional.  Conditions in south-central and southwest Texas saw drought intensify as well.  Another area of Exceptional Drought (D4) was introduced in that area.

Tragically, two firefighters have lost their lives battling the fires and the number of homes and other structures destroyed is mounting.

Meanwhile, Governor Perry has urged Texans to pray for rain in a recently issued official proclamation:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life.

As someone who likes to keep the government out of religion and religion out of government, I’ll admit my eyebrow goes up when I read something like this.  I also believe that, ultimately, it’s just another opportunity to pander to the evangelical right wing.  That said, if someone wants to pray for the end of the wildfires and the merciless, sweeping, devastation they are causing, far be it for me to tell them otherwise.  Although I feel that the effort is useless, it certainly won’t hurt anything and may give people who are upset and frustrated by the situation an opportunity to feel like they are contributing which is beneficial in its own right.

I cannot help but think that the destruction may have been better contained in some areas had the volunteer fire departments been better funded.  While I am not blaming Perry and Texas Republicans for these fires, I am blaming them for being shortsighted and hypocritical in slashing firefighting funding to less than a quarter of its already insufficient budget:

State funding for volunteer fire departments is taking a big hit. It is going from $30 million to $7 million. Those departments are already facing financial strains. The State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas represents 21,000 state firefighters. The Association says more than 80 percent of volunteer firefighters are reporting taking a personal hit in the budget crisis. They have started using their own money to help pay for equipment and supplies.

“We’ve seen budget cuts, but this is the worst time that we’ve ever seen,” said Executive Director Chris Barron. “As far as the budget crisis and the fuel cost stuff for example continues to go up and it doesn’t help us out any whatsoever, so with the rising fuel and the budget cuts from the state it’s taken a great effect. I think the citizens and the public is going to see that.”

Most of the State of Texas is protected by volunteer departments. There are 879 volunteer departments compared to 114 paid departments and 187 departments that are a combination of both paid and volunteer firefighters.

These fires are neither a Republican nor a Democratic event – they are a natural disaster brought to us courtesy of ideal natural conditions.  And I know ALL citizens value our firefighters and the work they do.  However, it is beyond baffling – incomprehensible – to me, that Republicans would knowingly vote to de-fund fire protection on behalf of the citizens of Texas.  Even if the wildfires were not currently raging across the state, I would still be disgusted by this incredibly shortsighted act.

The people of Texas rely on volunteer firefighters:

The majority of the state of Texas is protected by volunteer firefighters with over 800 departments in comparison to the 114 paid departments.

Further, although their staff is devoted to helping, volunteer fire departments are seriously underfunded and understaffed to begin with:

Volunteer fire departments face struggles with funding, recruiting and in some cases, insurance benefits to protect their staff. “If we don’t do it, whose going to?” Said West Carlisle Fire Chief Tim Smith. “Our families live out there. Fire can’t burn unchecked,” Smith continued.

Volunteers are on call 24 hours a day, and at any moment they could be called to battle a fire. “Ben Franklin was a volunteer firefighter. It’s nothing new to volunteer, but what we see is a decline in volunteerism,” Smith said.

A decline in volunteers begs the question: Would you risk your life for $5?“

We get paid $5.00 a call, and at the end of the year they give us one check for the total,” Wolfforth firefighter Lance Hamilton said.

Volunteers are also not given the same benefits as city employees when it comes to insurance. “Most of them have workman’s comp, but that’s about all they have,” Hamilton explained.“Fire is an inherently dangerous animal, and the thing we have to rely on is our training,” Smith said. But training can’t happen without funding and time.

I got this email forward a while back:

A man was trapped by the rising waters of a flood. A fellow came over in a rowboat and called to the man, “Jump into my boat! I’ll save you!”

The stranded man refused, saying, “No – God will save me!”

The water rose to the man’s knees, and along came a rescuer in a motorboat. “Get in! I’ll save you!”

“No!” the man on the roof replied. “God will save me!”

Soon after, the water was up to the man’s chest. Now came a helicopter.

“Grab onto the rope!” called the pilot, “I’ll pull you up and save you!”

As the man called, “No, God will save me!” a wave swept him off the roof and he drowned.

As he entered heaven, God greeted him, saying, “Welcome to heaven! Do you have any questions?”

“I do have one question.” the man replied. “There I was, stranded on my roof, with flood waters rising all around me! Why didn’t you save me?”

“Well!” replied God. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

I am not religious, but I have always been taught that “God helps he who helps himself.”  That is, you can’t sit back and expect that a miracle is going to happen – that some sort of magical force will save the day when you ignore the science, the technology, the knowledge, or the tools that you already have at your disposal.  Folks, our 800 volunteer fire departments (and 114 paid departments) ARE our boats and helicopter.

So my message to Perry and the Republican-run state legislature is this: Don’t endanger the people of this state even further by taking away what little funding exists for the volunteer firefighters we all rely on.  It’s not worth the massive expense, the vast amounts property damage, or the lives needlessly lost.  While prayer might make people feel better, it isn’t going to fix the situation. Instead of just praying for help, you must consider properly funding the tools necessary to better arm ourselves should a situation like this ever happen again.  Amen.

Dear Aaron Pena

The Fiscally Irresponsible Death Penalty

Growing up here in the Lone Star State, I never gave capital punishment a second thought.  If you kill someone and you should expect consequences – it made sense, especially for those especially heinous news-making crimes for which we all want retribution.  A little history:

Capital punishment has been used in the U.S. state of Texas and its predecessor entities since 1819. As of February 22, 2011, 1,217 individuals (all but six of whom have been male) have been executed. As of 2010 the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) houses death row prisoners after they are transported from their counties of conviction, and the TDCJ administers the death penalty on a condemned person’s court-scheduled date of execution.

Texas has used a variety of execution methods – hanging (until 1924), shooting by firing squad (used only four times during the Civil War period), electrocution (1924–1964) and lethal injection (1982 to present). Most executions were for murder, but other crimes such as piracy, cattle rustling, treason, desertion and rape have been subject to death sentences.

Under current state law, the crimes of capital murder and capital sabotage (see Texas Government Code §557.012) or a second conviction for the aggravated sexual assault of someone under 14 is eligible for the death penalty (though the recent Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Louisiana removed the death penalty option for rapists).

Since the death penalty was re-instituted in the United States in the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision, beginning in 1982 with the execution of Charles Brooks Jr., Texas has executed (all via lethal injection) more inmates than any other state, notwithstanding that two states (California and Florida) have a larger death row population than Texas. Male death row inmates are held at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit and female death row inmates are held at the Mountain View Unit, while all executions occur at Huntsville Unit.

In order for a murder to be a “capital murder,” it must meet one of the special circumstances set forth by statute:

Murder of an on-duty public safety officer or firefighter (the defendant must have known that the victim was such)

Intentional murder in the course of committing or attempting to commit a felony offense (such as burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction or retaliation, or terroristic threat)

Murder for remuneration or for promise of remuneration (both the person who does the actual murder and the person who hired them can be charged with capital murder)

Murder while escaping or attempting to escape a penal institution

Murder while incarcerated with one of the following three qualifiers:

a) While incarcerated for capital murder, the victim is an employee of the institution or the murder must be done “with the intent to establish, maintain, or participate in a combination or in the profits of a combination”,

b) While incarcerated for either capital murder or murder, or

c) While serving either a life sentence or a 99-year sentence under specified Penal Code sections not involving capital murder or murder.

Multiple murders (defined as two or more murders during the same “criminal act”, which can involve a series of events not taking place at the same time)

Murder of an individual under six years of age

Murder of a person in retaliation for, or on account of, the service or status of the other person as a judge or justice of any court

And although more rare, Texas law also provides that a participant in a crime who didn’t actually do the killing can be convicted of “felony murder” which may be a capital offense.  For example, the get away car driver waiting outside a bank whose accomplices kill multiple bank patrons would be eligible for the death penalty by virtue of his or her involvement in the criminal scheme.

The bottom line is that capital punishment is aimed at the nastiest crimes out there committed by some of the nastiest people out there – and there are some truly vile folks who have earned this punishment by virtue of their heinous criminal acts.  And until well after law school I never questioned the practice, even with my strong left-leaning political views, because there’s rarely any cause to question the viciousness with which the crimes were perpetrated.

In the 1760s, English jurist William Blackstone stated in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”  And while no one wants those theoretical nine murderers running amuck, I think we can all envision the potential horror of being that one falsely accused and subsequently “brought to justice” by virtue of lethal injection – the type of justice that cannot be reversed.  According to the Texas Moratorium Network,

138 innocent people have walked off Death Row in the modern era after spending up to 33 years condemned to death. Twelve Death Row inmates in Texas have been fully exonerated of the crimes that sent them to death row. Anthony Graves was exonerated and released in Texas on October 27, 2010 after spending 18 years incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, including fourteen years on Texas death row. An innocent man named Ernest Willis walked off death row and into freedom in Texas on October 6, 2004. There are several people currently on Death Row in Texas with credible claims of innocence. There have also been reports in major media that three people executed in Texas were possibly innocent, Ruben Cantu, Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna.

If the thought of spending up to 33 years incarcerated and expecting death at the hands of the state while completely innocent doesn’t turn your stomach, well, then I’ve got nothing.   The irony, of course, is that the state wanted to kill these innocent men – which is exactly what the innocent men were accused of in the first place:  killing innocents.  Even though these men were exonerated, eventually, how can any logical person reconcile this?

And what about those who were actually put to death wrongfully?  It’s a troubling thought, but by the sheer numbers, common sense dictates that there were some innocent men killed by the state.  And even if they weren’t the most upstanding members of society, I don’t see that anyone would advocate that being a good thing.

But even if we could guarantee that these convicts were, in fact guilty, there are still other factors which make me uncomfortable with it:

69.7 percent of all people on Texas’s Death Row are non-white. Out of all the executions in Texas since 1982, no white person has ever been executed solely for the murder of an African-American. On Sept 10, 2003 Texas executed a white man for the murder of his white wife and a black female convenience store clerk. Of course, African-Americans are often sentenced to die in Texas for killing white people. For example, Napoleon Beazley, an African-American juvenile, was sentenced to death by an all-white jury for killing a white man. The last seven juvenile offenders executed in Texas were all African-Americans who committed their offenses at the age of 17.

That information makes me squirm in my seat – I don’t know how it could make anyone not, unless of course, that person was fine with the disproportional death penalty convictions of Blacks because of a bias due to racism.  And I don’t doubt many people are perfectly at peace with that.  But I’m not.

There are other reasons to discontinue executions in the United States, but these few are enough to convince me.  Not that most heinous killers don’t deserve an eye for their eye, but because we cannot guarantee that each and every single one is guilty and we cannot guarantee that each and every prosecutor, judge, and jury is completely colorblind.

And still, proponents of the death penalty will poo-poo these arguments, but here’s one that might appeal to even pro-death penalty conservatives, especially with the current state budget crises around the nation:  killing killers is expensive.   How expensive you may ask?  According to ThinkProgress:

Indeed, the Northern California chapter of the ACLU estimates that California spends $137 million each year on death penalty cases, mostly on legal fees, including the mandatory appeals process. In contrast, “the alternative of permanent imprisonment would cost just $11 million.”

Cutting out capital punishment to save taxpayer dollars has even gotten the support of Former California Superior Court Judge Donald McCartin, “a self-described “right-wing Republican” who earned the nickname “the hanging judge” for the numerous death penalty sentences he handed out” who is calling on California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to abolish the death penalty.

Because experts agree that capital punishment does not serve as a deterrent to committing capital crimes,  one could argue that the only value in it is societal revenge:  retribution for the innocent lives taken violently before their time.  And I can’t say that I don’t see some intrinsic value in that.  But those lives are already long gone and killing the killers won’t bring them back.

Think, instead, of what could be constructively accomplished with the hundreds of millions of dollars used on the death penalty – hiring more police officers, teachers, fire fighters, providing much needed supplies for our schools, feeding the hungry, providing job skills training for those who want to better themselves, college scholarships.  Hundreds of millions of dollars could really make a difference of measurable positive value.   And of a far greater value to our society than any benefit we could possibly get from capital punishment.  Think about it.

Gov. Perry and Texas GOP are Short-Changing Children’s Future

I’ve been wanting to write on the state of education in Texas, but it’s very frustrating me, given recent events, so I’ve avoided it thus far.  I found a fine blog post on the subject, however, so I’m going to use this space to pimp Woodgatesview’s recent analysis:   Gov. Perry and Texas GOP are Short-Changing Children’s Future

 

My kid’s been watching too much 24 hour news

Yesterday the kids* and I were at Target** and we had a look at the toys.***  The boys gravitated immediately to the Legos; they have a new line of Lego ninja collectible toys.  And frankly, they look pretty lame – something to compete with other little boy collectibles like Bakugan and so forth from what I can see.

The seven year old started begging for a package of them which I told him I had no intention of buying.  He asked how much it cost and suggested that maybe he could pay me back out of his piggy bank.  It was about $20 and he only has about $10 in his bank, so I said no.

He paced around, thought about other ways to get it, and then declared rather triumphantly in a line taken straight from Washington D.C., “Mommy – I can just write you a check!”  OK…..no.

So we had a little talk about budgeting and spending wisely:  not wasting money on things we don’t really need, and not spending money we don’t have.****  A timely topic, if there ever was one.

*And I’m going to have to get used to saying, “Yes, they are ALL mine.”

**Buying toothpaste.  Someone, whom I will not name, decided it would be better off squeezed into the sink.  Again.

***I confess – it was easier than the thought of letting them mess up the house before bedtime once we got home.

**** Too bad Governor Perry wasn’t there for the lesson.

Michael Williams Mistaken For A Waiter

This is just…..just……sigh….

Katherine Haenschen at the Burnt Orange Report writes:

You know your political party has a race problem when activists are frequently mistaking a rising star in a major state for… a waiter.That’s what happened to Michael Williams at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Williams is a Railroad Commissioner appointed by George W. Bush, the first African American to hold a statewide executive office in Texas, and an erstwhile Texas Senate candidate. During an interview at CPAC, Williams said other [overwhelmingly white] attendees mistook him for being the help. Repeatedly.

Read the rest here.

It probably stinks to be mistaken for a waiter, repeatedly, knowing full well that it’s because your fellow conservatives assume that a man of color in that environment should be fetching a pitcher of iced tea to top you off rather than contributing to serious policymaking.  And yet he is not able to complain about it even a little bit – you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you.  The bow tie is a cute explanation, and while I don’t buy that he believes it even for a minute, it’s better than having them turn on him which is the alternative.

I will never understand how some minorities, women, and homosexuals can identify with the GOP.  Even if they agree with some of the fiscal policy issues on the conservative platform, fundamentally, conservatism actively seeks to strip these groups of their rights and reduce their quality of life.  I often want to shake them and ask, “They don’t support you – how can you support them?”

If my very identity is belittled, disrespected, and legislatively attacked over and over, any other issues become trivial.  Apparently some people don’t see it that way and of course they are free to do so, but it makes me wonder what sort of value they place on self.  Perhaps not as much as they should.

Mini Texas History Lesson of the Day

On May 19, 1848, Mexico ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ceding Texas, California, and most of Arizona and New Mexico to the U.S.

Despite what you may have heard from our esteemed Governor Goodhair,  you’re stuck with us for the long haul, now, suckers!!!

[Insert evil laugh here]

Things that Belong in Sunday School

Sec. 28.002. REQUIRED CURRICULUM.

Subdivision (2)(H) effective beginning with the 2009-2010 school year.

(a) Each school district that offers kindergarten through grade 12 shall offer, as a required curriculum:

(1) a foundation curriculum that includes:

(A) English language arts;
(B) mathematics;
(C) science; and
(D) social studies, consisting of Texas, United States, and world history, government, and geography; and

(2) an enrichment curriculum that includes:

(A) to the extent possible, languages other than English;
(B) health, with emphasis on the importance of proper nutrition and exercise;
(C) physical education;
(D) fine arts;
(E) economics, with emphasis on the free enterprise system and its benefits;
(F) career and technology education;
(G) technology applications; and
(H) religious literature, including the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and New Testament, and its impact on history and literature.

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