Ending Human Trafficking in Texas

This story was written for my Navigating State Government class.

According to an assessment released by the Texas Department of Public Safety on April 2014, sex trafficking enterprises in Texas can earn between between $37,800 and $75,600 per week. That’s if the enterprises have five to ten victims who see six customers every day.

To help decrease the number of human traffickers in the state, a new House Bill is in the process of becoming a law. HB 416, if passed, would require “personnel of abortion facilities and certain other facilities performing abortions to complete training on human trafficking.”

“The sad thing is that many or most of Texas citizens have no clue about this issue…that is except for the people who are using the services of the pimps and those traffickers who abuse these children and young adults that have been captured into this ugly business and awful mark on our culture,” said Rep. Rick Miller.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such as has not attained 18 years of age.” It is also defined as “labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

Rep. Debbie Riddle is the primary author of HB 416. Rep. Travis Clardy, Rep. Dwayne Bohac, Rep. Rick Miller and Rep. John Cyrier are joint authors of the legislation. There are also 27 co-authors for the bill.

“I have been involved in the Human Trafficking issue for some time now in Fort Bend County. The task force there has been at work for over a year, focused on several important areas of this issue. The issues are awareness, education, police activities and the legal system to adequately deal with those participating in this horrible business,” said Miller. “When I was first briefed on the issue, there was no question in my mind that I needed to be involved and be part of the effort to protect our precious children who have become victims of this horrible crime.”

In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed HB 4009, which created the Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force. The task force would include different members of the Texas community such as the Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Texas Youth Commission, The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, a hotel or motel representative and an attorney representing the state. Having different government and nongovernmental entities would help make comprehensive efforts to fight human trafficking.

“This education must be provided to everyone who might be involved with our children in the school environment such as teachers and administrators, parents, clubs, malls and as indicated in this bill, the Planned Parenthood entities that might be treating or providing healthcare or abortions to these children who have become pregnant during their captivity in the trafficking environment. Of course our public safety people must also be trained to recognize the traits of these children as well,” said Miller.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the country with a population that is over two million people. It’s also number one on the U.S. top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions in the country, according to Mel Merriweather, who wrote a report about modern day slavery for Harris County’s Precinct 7.

In late 2007, 30 percent of the calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline were from Texas. Twenty-five percent of international victims were in Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

With a population over one million, Dallas is also on the list of top 20 human jurisdictions in the country. According to the Center for Public Policy Studies, a non-profit from Colorado that provides technical research, consulting and development services to public-sector agencies in the U.S. and the world, 35 percent of the state’s commercial sexual exploitation cases are in the Dallas-Fort Worth region even though the city only has 26 percent of the state’s population.

HB 416 would require abortion facilities, ambulatory surgical centers that perform 50 abortions in any 12-month period and/or has direct contact with patients of the facility to complete training.

“The whole idea behind this bill is to provide the training necessary so that the people who come in contact with the children can recognize that these children are victims of the human trafficking business and can refer them to the local police. This environment is one that if the child does not escape it within several years, the likelihood of them living past the age of 21 is not very good,” said Miller.

The executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission has to develop a one-time basic education and training program on trafficking. Training would last four hours and would include a review of the substance of sections of the Penal Code.

According to the Planned Parenthood website and The Austin Chronicle, they staff is trained to check for signs of domestic violence and human trafficking.

“When Planned Parenthood learns of an operation that exploits young women, we vigilantly work with law enforcement authorities to uncover and stop this abhorrent activity,” said Stuart Schear, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s vice president for communications, in a press release. “Planned Parenthood’s top priority is the health and safety of our patients and the health and well-being of women and teens across the country, and we have been in contact with federal and local authorities to identify the persons involved in these visits.”

The Texas Department of State Health Services will provide the training programs and approve the programs that meet the requirements. A list of the programs would be available on the DSHS website.

“Many assert that victims of human trafficking access health care services at various points of the state’s health care system and often visit abortion facilities accompanied by a trafficker or pimp. The parties also assert that these victims sometimes seek an abortion when forced by a trafficker,” said MeLissa Nemecek, Rep. Cyrier’s Chief of Staff. “Concerns have been raised that these women can slip through the system unnoticed because abortion facility workers do not know how to identify trafficked women and consequently miss an opportunity to rescue them.”

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, or NHTRC, Texas is number two for the amount of calls placed to the center. California was first on the list.

At the 2006 U.S. Department of Justice’s National Conference on Human Trafficking, the interstate I-10 was identified as one of the main routes for human traffickers. The two cities along the interstate are identified with a high level of human trafficking are El Paso and Houston.

“Texas has high numbers because we border with another country, Mexico,” said Nemecek. “[Rep. Cyrier] is the co-author of HB 11, which can strengthen the border through, among other things, more stringent penalties for the smuggling of humans and illegal contraband through the border, improved tools to address the counter flow of contraband, enhanced transparency of crime data throughout Texas, and more effective data sharing by law enforcement to connect crimes to identify larger criminal enterprises and pursue stronger penalties against organized crime. H.B. 11 seeks to address these issues and make Texas safer by creating a stronger border.”

In 2014, the HNTRC received 1,482 online tip reports, 1,149 emails and 21,431 phone calls from country. From the total number of phone calls made to the center, 5,978, or 28 percent, were made from a community member. Yet 339, or less than two percent, calls were made from a medical professional.

For 2014, Texas placed 1,876 calls to the HNTRC. That is less than 10 percent of the total calls that the HNTRC received. California placed 3,495 calls or 18 percent of the total calls to the center.

When talking about labor trafficking cases in the United States, 84 percent of the victims are adults and 16 percent are minors. Foreign nationals make up 68 percent of the victims with U.S. and legal residents make up almost 16 percent.

For sex trafficking cases in the United States, the numbers are much different. Adults make 61 percent of the victims, but less than 37 percent are minors. Foreign nationals make up 13 percent, while U.S. and legal residents make up 44 percent of the victims.

According to a report released by the Center for Public Policy Studies on January 2013, only four out of 350 law enforcement agencies in the state have federally funded task forces devoted to human trafficking.

Law enforcement are not required to compile and report statistics specific to human trafficking cases in Texas. Because of this and having traffickers plead lesser penalties, statistics can be challenging. According to the Center for Public Policy Studies, cities that have seen an increase in prosecution for human trafficking are parts of the state where data is being reported.

Police officers are required to complete a four-hour training course on human trafficking. Travis County Sheriff’s Training Academy uses the course “to increase the law enforcement communities” in the issues of “human trafficking through the exposure of informational materials and research” that includes “victim identification and investigation techniques, rescue and prosecution considerations, referral and service provider availability.”

“The author of the bill, Rep. Debbie Riddle, has done a good job of covering the bases,” said Nemecek.

There are currently a good amount of pro-life organizations that are in support of HB 416, which include the Texas Alliance for Life, Texans for Life Coalition and the Texas Catholic Conference, who are the public policy voice of the Catholic Bishops of Texas

“[Texas Alliance for Life] believes in protecting all innocent human lives, including trafficking victims. Research shows that trafficking victims are often taken to abortion facilities and forced to have abortions,” said Deirdre Cooper, a public policy analyst for Texas Alliance for Life. Abby Johnson testified that they knew this went on at her Planned Parenthood abortion facility in Bryan, but they did nothing to try to help the victim, simply gave her an abortion and sent her right back to her captor.”

Abby Johnson was a former clinic doctor for Planned Parenthood before resigning in 2009 after watching an abortion on an ultrasound. She is now a pro-life activist and an author of a book describing her experiences working for Planned Parenthood.

Cooper adds that the organization wants to help women from getting forced abortions and to help them leave their captors by providing help and resources.

“This bill is about protecting women from forced abortions and human trafficking. This bill is about training abortion facility workers to recognize victims and to offer them support and resources. The most important thing is protecting innocent life – the trafficking victim and her unborn baby. We must do all we can to protect and help women in those horrific situations,” said Cooper.

According to Cooper, ending human trafficking will take many approaches from local, state, federal and international groups.

            “Some of those components need to be legal- laws passed to protect women and prosecute traffickers, etc.,” said Cooper. “Only then will we be able to make human trafficking and abortion truly unthinkable. Laws are necessary too, and so we will continue to work for good laws that protect women and children, but we must also change hearts and minds to value all human life.”

HB 416 has seen a lot of movement in the house. The bill was referred to the State Affairs Committee where it got seven “ayes,” three “nayes” and two abstentions. Currently, the bill is being considered in Calendars.

Rep. Donna Campbell filed Senate Bill 1873, which is identical to HB 416. It currently scheduled for public hearing.

Nemecek said that the biggest challenge for HB 416 is timing.

“At this point, I believe the only hurdle for HB 416 is time. There are only 38 more days left of the legislative session. HB 416 needs to get on the General State Calendar very soon to make it pass the House, Senate Committee and the Senate in time,” said Nemecek.

There are over 40 bills in Congress right now that are related to human trafficking in the United States and other parts of the world. One bill that has recently caused controversy is the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act after the Senate passed it anonymously.

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act would increase law enforcement resources to go after sex trafficking perpetrators, and would create a new fund to help victims. The portion of non-taxpayer money in the victims’ fund, which is paid by the criminals’ fines, could not pay for any medical services so abortion restrictions wouldn’t apply.

“I feel I have a responsibility to protect our nation’s most vulnerable. I am pleased that once again we have come together to solve a major problem facing our country: human trafficking,” wrote Cornyn in an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle. “We can always do more to advocate and serve those who have been affected by abuse and exploitation.”

Health and Safety Code To Change if Bill is Passed

This story was written for my first Navigating State Government class.

Sections of the Texas Health and Safety Code will change if House Bill 708 is passed. The bill will rephrase certain sections and words in the section dealing with abortion.

Representative Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, filed the bill on January 14, 2015. She is the primary author of HB 708, which is related to the medical accuracy of information materials given to a woman seeking an abortion.

“In 2003, pursuant to the Woman’s Right to Know Act, the Texas Legislature directed the Department of State Health Services to develop a booklet entitled ‘A Woman’s Right to Know.’ The Act mandates that every woman be provided a copy of this booklet before having an abortion,” Diana Horn, the executive director of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus. “The booklet has three main problems.”

The “Woman’s Right To Know Act” requires physicians to give patients the state-mandated information about the risks 24 hours before the abortion procedure.

“First, the information contained in the booklet is not in compliance with medical standards adopted by the National Institute of Health,” Horn said. “For example, the booklet notes that at six weeks gestation, the embryo’s lungs begin to form and hands and feet have digits. However, according to the [National Institute of Health], this does not begin until eight weeks gestation.”

With the Texas House of Representatives being majority Republican, Horn said that the bill is “unlikely to progress very far in the legislative process.”

The booklet has been produced by the state to be given women seeking an abortion for more than a decade.

“This bill would simply ensure the material provided is in accordance with information developed by the National Institute of Health and its partner organizations,” Horn said.

 One line that will be removed from the Health and Safety Code, if the bill is passed, is the “possibility of increased risk of breast cancer following an induced abortion and the natural protective effect of a completed pregnancy in avoiding breast cancer.”

The National Cancer Institute hosted the Early Reproductive Events and Breast Cancer Workshop in 2003. During the workshop, 100 of the world’s top experts in the relationship between pregnancy and breast cancer risk reviewed previous studies to come up with answers. The experts came to a conclusion that induced or spontaneous abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk.

“The booklet notes that there is an increased risk in developing breast cancer after an induced abortion, yet there is no support in the booklet for this claim. In fact, as the American Cancer Society has stated in written testimony research has shown that induced abortions do not increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer,” Horn said.

Emily, a patient advocate for Whole Women’s Health who asked to remain anonymous, said that there are many misconceptions about abortions.            

“There are many myths surrounding abortion,” Emily said. “Many are not true. One myth I hear often is that women cannot get pregnant after getting an abortion. That’s not true either.”

The bill will also require for all information required by the state to be given to those seeking an abortion to be medically accurate when informing patients about the risks on having an abortion. This includes the medical risks associated with the particular abortion procedure, the risks of infection and hemorrhage and the risks associated with caring the fetus to full term.

“The motivation behind the issuance of ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ pamphlet is to coerce through misinformation a woman from having a constitutionally protected medical procedure,” Horn said. “The extent of the publication of scientifically inaccurate and ideologically motivated state issued materials is unknown, but that the State of Texas would do so even once casts into doubt the reliability of all state issued publications.”

In 2010, the most recent year with data related to abortion mortality, 10 women died due to complications from known legal induced abortions. Pregnancy-related mortality ratio was 16.7 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2010.

“Another myth about abortion is that it is a dangerous procedure,” said Emily. “The procedure is safe outpatient procedure. It’s 12 times as safe as delivering a child.”

HB 708 will be striking the portion of the law that restricts the type of information the state can provide. This will allow clinics to give more information on family planning services to the patient. That means that the patient will know about the medical assistance she can receive, that the father is liable for financially assisting the child and that there are public and private agencies that provide pregnancy prevention counseling and medical referrals for obtaining prevention medications and emergency contraception. This will give patients different options on what they could do with the pregnancy.

Many abortion clinics require women to speak to a counselor first. If the counselor does find them to be emotionally unfit or seems to be making the wrong choice for the procedure, women are given different options.

“If the counselor thinks that the woman is not making a good choice, we give them a packet that goes over some questions about how they are feeling and what might be best for them,” said Emily. “If they are need of adoption services, we refer them. We also help them with financial assistance.”

For organizations and clinics who are against abortion or do not provide abortion services help families in other ways. They offer pregnancy tests, free sonograms, parenting classes, newborn classes and other things that will help them raise a child.

“We have a baby store that has free baby items for parents who attend parenting classes. That’s a way they can earn points to buy stuff,” said Katy, a worker at the John Paul II Life Center. “We contact them once a month to see how they are doing.”

Katy, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they continue to help new parents throughout the parenting process even after the baby is born.

“If this is really about a woman’s right to know, she should know all sides and all of the facts in order to make a fully informed decision,” Horn said.

The last thing the bill will change, if passed, is changing the wording of the health code from “unborn child” to “embryo or fetus.”

“I think the phrasing plays into people’s emotions. It kind of makes people think differently about people who get abortions and lights abortion in a different way,” said Emily.

The Texas Abortion Facility Reporting and Licensing Act, Health and Safety Code, Chapter 245, states that all abortion facilities in the state have to submit an annual report to the Texas DSHS on each abortion that is performed at the facility.

“A myth is that single women are the only ones getting abortions. That’s a lie. Women come in who are married or in relationships,” said Emily. “One in three women have an abortion. Over half have multiple [abortions]. People are uncomfortable speaking openly about it due to the stigma around it.”      

In 2012, the United States saw a total of 68,298 induced abortions were reported to the Department of State Health Services. From those 68,298 induced abortions, 66,098, or 96 percent, were reported by the Texas Department of State Health Services.        

The total number of induced abortions reported to DSHS decreased by almost six percent in 2012.

A few of the reasons behind the decrease in abortions are due to the laws currently in place. One law requires patients to visit the clinic twice before the procedure and that women must also have an ultrasound 24 hours before the procedure. Once that is done, women can schedule an abortion.

The 2013 abortion law, or House Bill 2, requires facilities that provide abortion services to meet the same hospital-like stands as ambulatory surgical centers. The bill forced all but 18 of the 41 abortion clinics in the state to close down. It’s currently being challenged in court.

Representative Donna Howard, a D-Austin, and Representative Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, filed as joint authors of HB 708 on February 17, 2015.

Farrar is also the author of HB 709, a bill that related to the waiting period before a physician may perform an abortion.

“Representative Farrar believes every woman should be allowed to make personal reproductive healthcare decisions based on her own faith and in consultation with her own physician and her family,” Horn said. “She also believes that if legislators want to end abortions, the safest way to do so is to reduce the need for them through access to and education about contraceptive use for both men and women.

Predicting the Bills

This was written for my Navigating State Government Class

Derek Cohen sat on a wooden bench, wide-eyed as people quickly passed him. His blue and white tie popped against his gray button-down shirt. He pulled on the sleeve of his form-fitting black suit, making sure that he was presentable.

“We consult with a lot of legislators on bills that involve criminal justice reform via prison issues or procedural issues,” Cohen said. “Often times [legislators] have certain questions that they might have about writing the bill.”

One of Cohen’s favorite things about being at the capitol is that he gets to meet many interesting people. Coming from the University of Cincinnati where he was getting his Ph.D. in criminology, he never thought he would be working in policy. He thought he would stick to academia, but got interested in policy after taking a few classes on the subject.

“I generally ended up going to where I felt I would make the most change, and here I am.”

Cohen is a Policy Analyst for the Center for Effective Justice, a section of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The foundation educates policymaker using academic research and outreach, with Cohen focusing on criminal justice and the prison system. Because of his job, he spends a lot of time at the capitol.

There are currently more than 90 bills related to criminal justice and the prison system.

“We try to lend our expertise wherever we can,” Cohen said.

Cohen said that even though many bills might start controversy, he has to remaining neutral.

“We do provide our research on where the bill would be best used on,” said Cohen. “We have already done research for many bills that have been introduced which include non-disclosure of criminal records [and] the criminalization of truancy. All these things are areas that the legislation is showing a general interest in reform efforts and how it should look like.”

On that day, Cohen was meeting with different legislators and representatives to discuss the non-disclosure of criminal records. The debate stems from whether or not people should be eligible to seal their records for a small legal offense.

“We are currently working with them on the technical issues and what does it mean for those who do have those records once legislation has passed,” Cohen said.

Reflecting on the last session, Cohen said that the non-disclosure issue did not see much momentum. He said that it might change this legislative session.

“All sides of the House can get behind [this issue] and I think we are going to see some movement on that,” he said.

Hijab Fashion On the Rise

This story was written for my Journalism and Religion Class.

Shanada Lewis never thought she would sell an outfit to someone in the Middle East. Her company was just a small online boutique based from Austin, Texas.

She had started her online boutique in 2009 when she was seven months pregnant. She could not find any place in Austin that sold clothes for Muslim women. She struggled to find places in the city that she was comfortable shopping in or easy access to.

That’s how The Ummah Shop was founded.

“I was frustrated with the lack of fashion in Austin. When I started, my thought process of the shop was like it would be a Mary Kay party with Islamic clothes,” said Lewis.

Before the online boutique was founded, Lewis sold clothing from her home, carnivals, stores and EBay. After selling articles of clothing on EBay, she decided to open up her own online boutique.

Fashion was never something Lewis was interested in. A few years after she converted to Islam, she realized that her clothing was how she could express herself.

“The interest in fashion came out of default,” she said.

Lewis was Christian for majority of her life. She had been part of many religions, but always found a way to disprove them. In 2006, that all changed.

She found Islam.

“Being raised Christian, I knew that I had a strong belief in God. It was just a lot of confusion that pertain with the trinity. It was difficult for me to rationalize,” said Lewis. “I came upon Islam and it was just absolutely clarity that I hadn’t experience with any other faith I had studied.”

She also took on wearing the hijab. She said that she tried it on to see how she would feel in it on.

“I came to love and appreciate for the hijab,” she said. “It’s a reminder that we are more than just beauty. We have a soul.”

The Ummah Shop might be the only local online boutique, but the shop is one of thousands on the Internet. With the rise of fashion blogs catered to Muslim women, online boutiques have been popping up all over the world to serve millions of women.

Marketing firm Ogilvy Noor reported that the 7 million Muslims that live in the United States have a combined consumer market worth of $170 billion. That means that the American business are not taking advantage of this untapped consumer market.

Because the fashion industry is not taking advantage of the untapped Muslim consumer market, they must spend money online to buy clothing.

“We were definitely one of the earlier companies to pop up,” said Melanie Elturk, the CEO and Chief Designer of Haute Hijab. “We went from being this small little mom and pop shop to an international brand that ships daily all around the world.”

Elturk created the online boutique and blog to provide modest yet fashionable clothing catered toward Muslim women.

“Our philosophy lies in the Quranic tradition of wearing the head cover (hijab) and dressing modestly in order to be recognized as women of faith and to uphold modesty,” said Elturk. “We aim to ease the process of finding modest clothing by providing a site where every piece of clothing sold is hijab-friendly.”

Elturk found her inspiration from working with the Muslim youth in her hometown of Detroit. She noticed that the hijab was an issue for young girls. Many young girls struggled to keep it on, but others refused to put it on.

Unlike Lewis, Elturk had always been an interest in fashion. That’s why she felt the need to do something.

“Haute Hijab was born out of a necessity that I saw in my Muslim community to not only design stylish hijab-friendly clothing, but to be a source of support and inspiration for hijab-wearing women everywhere,” said Elturk.

Now, Elturk is running her Chicago-based business from Dubai where she caters to women all across the world.

Elturks said that she hopes that her shop and blog will inspire Muslim women to wear and love the hijab and feel confident.

“For those who aren’t Muslim, I hope it will serve to break barriers, foster communication and commonalities between people who are told they are different, when in reality have much more in common than not,” she added.

Students show love for favorite food trailers and their impact on Austin culture

The city of Austin is known for more than just the saying, “Keep Austin Weird,” the live music that blasts through the thick, concrete walls that make up the bars on the 6th Street and the hectic, celebrity-filled SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conference and Festival.

Other than the loud entertainment life, Austin is also known for the addicting and unique food trailers that are scattered all throughout the city with a huge concentration in downtown Austin, South Congress and with a few in the West Campus area.

“[Food trailers] increase the uniqueness of Austin. They give Austin a bit of flavor and allow [people] to try random foods at really great prices,” sophomore government major Amanda Esparza said. “Because of all their choices, [people] can literally find any type of food at the trailers.”

Sophomore computer science and biology major Leah Hudson said that food trailers are an important aspect in Austin culture. Her favorite food trailer happens to be the Short Bus Subs located on 26th Street and Rio Grande.

“I just wanted a sandwich so the first time I went it was near the beginning of this semester. I ordered ‘the Bully Sandwich,” said Hudson. “I really liked [the sandwich] because it seemed to have all the stuff I like in a sandwich.”

The ‘Bully’ sandwich contains Genoa salami, pepperoni, ham capocolla, provolone, lettuce, tomato, oregano, pepperoncini, oil and vinegar between two pieces of bread.

The Short Bus Subs is the perfect example of creativity done right. Instead of a normal trailer like other food trailers, the Short Bus follows an educational theme using an actual yellow short bus to sell their sandwiches. Even the sandwich names are education themed with names such as ‘the Principal,’ ‘Class Clown’ and ‘Summer Vacation.’

“I think people should try the subs because they always seem to have just the sandwich you are craving and the options are unique and delicious. The Short Bus Subs is special because it gives you options that you wouldn’t normally get in a sandwich and presents them in great and affordable packages,” said Hudson.

Each sandwich has many different ingredients that do not seem to work together. The sandwiches are stuffed to it’s maximum potential with many ordinary and unique tastes.

Undeclared freshman Karla Pulido prefers to treat her sweet buds over her stomach which is why she endures a long bus ride to eat at her favorite food trailer, Gordough’s, which is located on south 1st Street. Gordough’s makes doughnuts with many different topings.

“The first time I went to Gordough’s was [this past January]. I ordered a ‘Naughty and Nice’ with cinnamon sugar. The doughnut was delicious. [It’s] super fluffy, warm and crispy all at the same time. My favorite though is the PB&J,” said Pulido.

Gordough’s is not an average doughnut establishment. Instead of the average jelly-filled doughnuts that can be found in usual doughnut and bread markets, Gordough’s majors in innovatively delicious mixtures that include doughnuts and random ingredients. From the sweet-sounding ‘Sound of a Peach’ that has peach filling, cinnamon, sugar and cake batter to the ‘Flying Pig’ that has bacon and maple syrup icing, Gordough’s is not an average doughnut shop.

Esparza prefers simple traditions to crazy concoctions. Her favorite food trailer is Hey Cupcake!, which is located in the center of South Congress, a popular tourist area. Other locations are at Burnet Road, Ranch Road and Research Boulevard. Esparza’s first visit was last December when she ordered a six-pack of cupcakes that had two ‘Red Velvet’ cupcakes, two ‘Sweetberry’ cupcakes and two ‘Double Dose’ cupcakes.

“I try to go as often as I can. My favorite is the red velvet. I love Hey Cupcake! because they serve amazing cupcakes,” said Esparza.

Food trailer operations have seen a huge increase in the past few years. Travis County had 648 permitted mobile food vendors, according to the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department. In 2012, the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department had a food trailer count of 1,200.

“The food trailers in Austin are special because they’re a part of what makes Austin weird. They aren’t just your average burger joints,” junior Radio-television-Film major Cecilia Bergstedt said.  “You have places like Mighty Cone, Wurst-Tex, Old School Bus and Hey Cupcake and they reflect the character of the city and the eccentric people who live here. That’s what makes people want to eat at food trailers.”

For more popular food trucks, locations vary from South Congress, downtown Austin, Rainey Street and West Campus by the University of Texas campus.

City Council Approves Performance-Based Incentive, Adds Solar Panels to Commercial property

The City of Austin voted 7-0 on the March 7, 2013 city council meeting to approve a performance-based incentive for the generation of solar energy in three facilities located on southeast Austin.

“Council Member [Chris] Riley voted for this item because he believes in a generation mix that includes renewable energy sources like solar power,” Council Member Chris Riley’s Chief of Staff, Lewis Leff said.  “The City of Austin has been a leader in solar energy programs for decades and our continued investment in solar projects will help us reach our generation plan goals of increased renewable energy sources.”

One of those goals is to have 200 megawatts come from solar energy through the use of solar panels.

“[Austin has] a very ambitious goal,” Vice-President of Distributed Energy Services at Austin Energy Debbie Kimberly said. “Having this goal will create a great legacy and benefit the future. It’s [also] a way make our dollars stretch out farther.”

The three locations are 1600 Royal Crest Drive Building 2, 1600 Royal Crest Drive Unit 1, and 1601 Royal Crest Drive Unit 2. These addresses make up the common areas at the Autumn Hills Apartments, which include the laundry room, pool area and office space. Many of the tenants are students.

“We are looking to conserve energy and be green as possible. We want to make our community attractive to those who want to save on their electric bills,” Autumn Hills Apartments manager Garrett Wiess said.

The apartment complex will continue to receive electricity from the Austin Energy grid as well as the energy from the solar panel. AE will pay for the energy that is sent to the grid if the apartment complex produces more electricity that the complex can use.

“The solar panels will not affect rental rates because it would only affect the common areas and our offices. It would only affect the cost of electricity in these areas,” Wiess said.

Austin Energy requested authorization to be in an agreement with Coeus BE Austin, LP, to provide the incentive for an estimated $12,194 per year, for ten years. The total amount of the ten years cannot exceed $121,940. That means that if any other monetary needs, they cannot ask the city for more money.

“The city benefits from these investments because we’re helping to incentivize private dollars towards solar energy production. The more solar power that exists in our city means that our citizens don’t have to spend major dollar amounts in new large traditional power plants,” said Leff.

The total cost for the installation of the solar energy costs $321,172.50, which makes the incentive pay 33%-38% of the total cost of the solar panels.

“This performance-based incentive program for commercial customers is relatively new but I believe the city gets a good deal because we only pay a partial rebate for the actual energy that is produced from the solar panels. This means [Austin Energy] customers are helping to produce more clean, renewable energy and eventually helping to make solar power cheaper for everyone,” Leff said.

Even though the incentive is paying for the installment of the solar panels, the customers are responsible for the maintenance of the panels.

“The customer is responsible for the panels after they are installed. If the panels degrade, that means that the customer will be paid less,” Kimberly said.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, $108 billion is spent each year on energy bills for commercial buildings and 30% of energy used by commercial buildings could be cut through investments in energy efficiency.

“If we started to use green energy, we can decrease the dependence of energy from foreign countries. Green energy is cost effective,” Kimberly said. “We would also be meeting the market demand for this technology. We need to make sure that [our planet] is a good place to live now and in the future.”

Infographic on how much energy the solar panels would save.

Taking On the STEM Shortage Issue

In today’s workforce, there is a high demand of students with a STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, degree from a credited university. Even though the demand for students in the STEM field is high, there are not enough students that can meet the numbers of workers needed according to the Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.

The STEM field is considered to be the important areas in education that will keep the United States as a world power and help improve the economy. Yet, less than half of all undergraduates that declare a STEM major end up getting the degree according to the Association for Unnamed Vehicle Systems International.

“We are facing a shortage of STEM workers. We need engineers and technicians to solve some of the biggest challenges facing society,” said Lonny Stern, the STEM Council Director at Skillpoint Alliance, a non-profit in Austin, Texas that focuses on STEM education for students.

Thirty-three percent of eighth graders are interested in STEM majors, but only 6 percent of high school seniors will get a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI.

“Public education is the [United States] is far from being excellent, and that is only hurting not only individual students, but also the country itself,” senior lecturer for the Department of Mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin Corinne Irwin said. “The [United States] cannot compete with other countries intellectually if most young people are seriously undereducated and grade-inflated.”

Colleges and universities in the United States award about one-third of STEM degrees compared to colleges in Asia and universities according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“College courses have not changed to meet the demands of the market. Typically, the first and second year courses are taught as ‘weed-out’ classes with huge curves, traditional lecture styles, and very theoretical work product,” Stern said. “It is not until junior and senior year courses that students can see their STEM education in action.”

Current culture does not support patience and endurance in students to get to their third year of college. Because of that, a huge number of students end up changing their major, said Stern.

Noticing the shortages in the STEM field, many non-profits are taking up the issue and are trying to get younger students interested in STEM careers and education before reaching the college level.

Skillpoint Alliance is focusing on building partnerships that lead to college and career success for Central Texans. STEM Council, a division of Skillpoint Alliance, are engaged to address workforce and educational issues in STEM.

“As a service, it is important to present the community the ability to provide a service to the greater Austin area and to help coordinate with high schools and the community to show how some daring teachers are building models that demonstrate successful applications of STEM and how it has an impact on the Austin work force,” Pflugerville’s Connally High School teacher David Conover said.

STEM Council hosts many events to get students involved in STEM careers and education. They focus on robotics, green technology and digital media. Students are able to participate with programs such as Velocity Capstone, an internship-like program where high school students can get paid to create an innovative solution to a real-world problem, network with high-tech employers and use the design and product in a real-world situation.

“I believe that non-profits should be helping education in central Texas and everywhere for that matter,” Irwin said. “If non-profits can help improve the abilities for Texans to have the skills and the education for good jobs, then I feel that entities, like Skillpoint Alliance, are great ways to support a very wobbling education system.”

Since STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018, the president adding emphasis in the much-needed degrees in STEM, a high number of high-tech focused jobs available and the importance of public education. If a community focuses on a particular issue, politicians will eventually notice, said Stern.

“There is no magical solution or equation that makes this [issue] work, but trying to come up with the best practice or best model is the value that comes out of this,” Conover said. “The [practices or models] that are successful need to be researched, which is why it is important to bring together the community of industry and education.”

Currently in Texas, there are 2.5 jobs for every unemployed person with a STEM degree while there is one job for every 3.3 unemployed people without a STEM degree.

“This is the Wild West and we are in a new territory and it is no secret that STEM is a needed approach in education,” Conover said.

Crashes Caused by DUIs Sees Decrease Trend

Austin has shown a decrease trend in crashes caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol, according to the Texas Department of Transportation or TxDOT.

Between 2008 and 2011, there has been a decrease of 211 car crashes caused by DUIs. There are rough estimates of car crash numbers caused by DUIs, but TxDOT will not release numbers until later this year.

“I am very excited and pleased that the City of Austin has seen a decrease in DUI-related crashes,” TxDot Information Specialist Jim Cotton said. “Texas has a long standing history of DWI and DUI problems and it is one of our major causes of traffic fatalities and injuries.”

There is a large amount of arrests in the downtown area due to the high concentration of bars, yet most automobile crashes are spread out throughout the city of Austin said Richard Mabe, DWI coordinator for the Austin Police Department.

“From the first day of January to present day, there have been 706 arrests for DWIs in Austin,” Mabe said. “Ballpark figure for [2012] was 6200 arrests for DWIs.”

Driving with a blood-alcohol content, the amount of alcohol in a person’s blood, that is higher than 0.08, is considered illegal.

Mabe said APD uses public service announcements, enforcement and education to help inform citizens and minimize the number of crashes. Even though they try to minimize the amount of crashes caused by DUIs, they do not work with TxDot.

TxDot tries to minimize DUIs and DWIs by administering the Texas Traffic Safety Program where they develop a large number of statewide projects that focus on DWIs and DUIs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation funds the Texas Traffic Safety Program.

“We […] provide additional enforcement funding for law enforcement agencies to increase their efforts in areas where they have a known DWI Program,” Cotton said. “We also provide grants for training for prosecutors regarding DWI cases.”

Thirty-two percent of all traffic deaths occurred in crashes where one of the drivers had an illegal amount of alcohol in their blood, according to the 2007 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drivers that have prior DUI convictions are not that likely to become repeat offenders. In 2007, only eight percent of drivers in fatal crashes with an illegal amount of blood-alcohol concentration had previous alcohol-impaired driving convictions on their records.

There are a variety of consequences for those causing a crash while under the influence of alcohol. For someone who is a first-time DWI or DUI offender, they are a Class B Misdemeanor and are subject to a 90-day license suspension, 72 hours to 180 days in jail and a $2000 fine.

If the first time offender had an illegal blood alcohol level, the fine would increase to $4000 and up to one year in jail.

“The penalties increase significantly for repeat offenders and for offenders who injure or kill someone. Legal fees for a standard DWI case are also very expensive, anywhere from $4,000 and up,” said Cotton. “Of course, getting arrested, going through the booking process and going to the county jail is a pretty significant consequence, as well.”

Christian-affiliated organizations at the University of Texas at Austin have joined together to create ATX Rides. ATX Rides is a free service offered once a month that picks students up from downtown Austin to the main campus and West Campus areas.

“[ATX Rides] is a safe way to get home, and [it] literally takes you right to your door,” sophomore education major and ATX Rides member Alexandra Rammell said. “We serve around 300 to 400 [a weekend]. That’s a rough estimate, but our vans are usually full, especially once people start heading home.”

Education and designated drivers are the key factors to keep the trend decreasing said Mabe.

“With the other devices that people are using, […], alcohol and drugs makes driving so much more dangerous out in the roadways,” Mabe said. “The time to designate a driver is not at two o’clock in the morning when you stumble out of a bar. You do that before you ever go out.”