Top Texas News for the Week of August 16 to 20, 2010

Galbraith on grass, federal money and efforts to prevent another dust bowl, Ergenbright on school suspensions and who gets punished; Aguilar's interview with Alan Bersin, whose job is to keep the U.S./Mexico border secure, M. Smith on why it would be harder than you think to ditch the 14th Amendment, Adler and me on whether controversy is politically contagious, Ramshaw on the flap over funding for the state's institutions for the disabled (it's not about the money), my meditation on the state's fiscal woes (including a $1.3 billion deficit in the current budget), Philpott on proposed cuts to the state's food stamp program, Grissom on the push by Hidalgo County officials for a special election that might not be legal; Hamilton on the seven Texas universities that are making a play for Tier One status and Stiles on the mid-year cash-on-hand numbers reported by campaigns and political action committees: The best of our best from August 16 to 23, 2010.

Graphic by Todd Wiseman

Texas has the most acres of any state enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which seeks to prevent another Dust Bowl by paying farmers to plant grass instead of crops. But the program has fallen on hard times, and its participants worry they will, too.

Special education students in Texas are nearly twice as likely to be suspended as students in the general population, according to the Texas Education Agency — and though they make up just 10 percent of the overall enrollment, they account for 21 percent of expulsions.

The commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection on why he believes the Texas-Mexico border is secure, why deportations of criminals have reached unprecedented levels, why trade between the U.S. and Mexico still thrives and what motivates most undocumented immigrants to enter this country illegally.

As anti-immigration sentiment continues to rise along with border violence, proposals to abolish the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship provision have ricocheted through the political noise machine as an antidote for the incidence of “anchor babies.” But as a practical matter, what would the removal of birthright citizenship mean for the country? Pierce the fog of rhetoric and you’ll quickly discover that nobody really knows — including the state and federal lawmakers yelling loudest for change.

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The mud-throwing season is underway, with candidates on both sides working overtime to tie their opponents to controversial people, acts and money, hoping the negative mojo rubs off. Democrats are pushing anchor-baby videos of state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler. Republicans slam their Democratic foes for taking contributions from ethically suspect U.S. Reps. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., and Maxine Waters, D-Calif. "Both sides have folks who do what they do," says a rueful Texas Republican who doesn't want his name next to those of his party's outspoken officeholders.

In the wake of high-profile incidents of abuse, state health officials want to boost payments to Texas' institutions for the disabled by $25,000 per patient per year. But the proposed Medicaid rate change has drawn the ire of Texas’ disability community, which wants to see the facilities shuttered rather than propped up.

Comptroller Susan Combs' quiet acknowledgment that Texas will show a $1.3 billion deficit at the end of the budget year contrasts with the happy face she's put on state finances leading up to the 2010 elections. The numbers are the worst since 2003, when the Legislature responded with $10 billion in spending cuts, and increased fees, tuition and other revenue sources.

Last week, Republicans loudly complained about a just-approved bill that would send $830 million in federal education funds to Texas with strings attached. But Democrats have their own reason to balk.

Rio Grande Valley officials are fighting to hold a special election in November to fill a seat on the Hidalgo County Commissioners' Court — even though the secretary of state and a district judge say they have no legal authority to do so.

It could take years before the seven emerging research universities in Texas transform themselves into top-tier research campuses — if they do at all. But the state now pays them for demonstrated progress toward that goal, pitting them against one another in competition for limited funds.

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The 2,694 political committees and campaigns that filed mid-year reports with the Texas Ethics Commission together held $167 million in their accounts, but only 274 of them had more than $100,000 on hand. Our interactive chart tells you who or what they are and how much they've banked.

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