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TribWeek: In Case You Missed It

Hamilton on what demographic change is doing to higher education, Stiles interactively looks at fines levied last year by the Texas Ethics Commission, Ramshaw on the struggle of foster kids to hang on to their belongings as they're shuffled around by the state, Philpott on whether a sales tax increase could plug the state's budget hole (and whether it's possible to enact one), Grissom talks to jail conditions expert Michele Deitch, M. Smith and Dehn on how electronic textbooks are made, Galbraith interviews on Texas Parks and Wildlife head Carter Smith, yours truly on the dark art of revenue estimating, Aguilar on the strange bedfellows lining up against state enforcement of immigration laws and Chang on the bleak hopes of needle exchange advocates: The best of our best from Jan. 3 to 7, 2011.

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In August, 60 years after the University of Texas admitted its first black student, the school welcomed the first incoming freshman class in its history in which white students were in the minority. The state’s flagship university passed the demographic milestone earlier than some had anticipated, reflecting a similar shift that is rapidly taking place at other top-level universities across the country. While the changing demographics of college campuses may grab the headlines, the more compelling issue is how the growing number of minority students presents serious social and academic challenges for financially strapped universities, even as they are under pressure to boost graduation rates.

The Texas Ethics Commission levied more than $140,000 in fines in 2010 following complaints that candidates, officeholders and others violated laws governing elections, lobbying or holding political office. Since 2004, $650,000 in fines have been issued. Use our database to search the records.

When foster kids bounce from placement to placement, they leave their belongings with state child welfare workers — where advocates say they often get misplaced, given to the wrong child or even stolen.

It's not hard to find strange bedfellows in the Texas Legislature when the bills start flying. Republicans and Democrats frequently cross the aisle to support legislation that they feel will help their constituents. The same could be true as lawmakers try to figure out how to balance the state budget.  

Michele Deitch, the jail conditions expert and professor at the University of Texas' LBJ School of Public Affairs on why maintaining treatment programs that keep offenders in their communities and reducing some of the harsh, long-term jail sentences often doled out in Texas' notoriously tough criminal justice system could be more cost-efficient and allow Texas to close prisons.

Electronic textbooks are increasingly touted as an alternative to the more expensive traditional ink-on-paper variety. But how do lessons make the jump from the print to digital?

Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, on the acquisition of a large piece of remote and rugged land along the Devils River; next steps for the bighorn sheep released in Big Bend Ranch State Park; the threats posed by invasive species like the giant salvinia, an exotic, rootless fern, and zebra mussels — and what the state's budget shortfall might mean for his agency and for the state's lands, waters, fish, wildlife and parks.

Lawmakers are waiting for Comptroller Susan Combs to forecast exactly how much money the state will collect between now and August 2013 so they can write a two-year budget that spends no more than that. It's not exactly like opening the envelopes at the Oscars, but the Capitol community will be hanging on her every word. If history is a guide, her estimate of revenues will be closer to the bull's eye than the Legislature's estimate of spending. But this is a dark art; accuracy can be elusive.

Proposing state enforcement of immigration laws can produce strange bedfellows. "Who would imagine that after 28 years of law enforcement the ACLU would be talking so nicely about me,” Sheriff Richard Wiles joked after being introduced as a common-sense sheriff by ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke for his opposition to proposed legislation patterned on Arizona’s.

Public health officials have been trying for years to get dirty syringes and the diseases they spread off Texas streets with needle exchange programs that allow IV drug users to get clean ones — and always they've come up short. Given November's election results, they fear 2011 may be no different.

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