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Paxton keeps finding new ways to be in trouble

The man has a talent.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Ethics experts on Wednesday were torn over whether Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s decision to accept $100,000 for his legal defense from a donor whose company was under investigation by his office violates the letter of the law or the spirit of it.

The attorney general’s office argued the donation is allowable because the embattled Paxton was not involved in the investigation that ended in a $3.5 million settlement of a federal whistleblower lawsuit.

State law prohibits agency officials from accepting a “benefit” from someone under the agency’s oversight and generally bans gifts from anyone other than family and those with a relationship independent of the office holder’s position. The revelation that Paxton’s office was investigating his benefactor’s company raises questions about defining “oversight” and “personal relationship,” ethics advocates said.

“When you start talking about receiving money from somebody that you still have jurisdiction over in a lawsuit, you just can’t do that,” said Buck Wood, an Austin elections lawyer and Texas ethics expert.

Agency employees in the attorney general’s office “shall never” take gifts from an entity “the employee knows is being investigated” by the office, according to internal rules obtained by the Associated Press.

Last year, Paxton accepted the gift from Preferred Imaging founder James Webb, whose company was under investigation at the time for Medicaid fraud. The attorney general’s Texas Civil Medicaid Fraud Division and the U.S. Justice Department in June co-signed a $3.5 million settlement of a whistleblower lawsuit accusing the company of violating Medicaid billing rules.

[…]

“The ethics laws are fuzzy. It’s not clear this is a violation of the law,” said [Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice], who said he hopes lawmakers will address the state’s gift ban next legislative session. “Clearly, it’s a violation of judgement and it clearly, no doubt, poses a conflict of interest between the attorney general and Mr. Webb’s company.”

The good news for Ken Paxton is that this apparently doesn’t amount to an actual violation of law or regulation, so there’s no grounds for another complaint and investigation. It’s just another example of how his ethical failings have had a negative effect on his ability to do his job. One supposes he’s used to dealing with that by now. Ross Ramsey, the Associated Press, and the Current have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Metro rider satisfaction

Not too bad.

HoustonMetro

The recently released study by advocacy organization TransitCenter, which details attitudes about public transit nationwide, generally offers good news for METRO Houston.

The Urban Edge requested Houston-specific data from the TransitCenter’s national survey of transit passengers. Roughly 76 percent of Houston respondents were somewhat or very satisfied with the frequency of METRO’s service, including bus and rail. About 71 percent said they were somewhat or very satisfied with the facilities as bus and rail stops. Riders were also generally pleased with transit travel times.

The positive responses come after a period during which METRO has enjoyed several big wins. Last year, the agency opened its Green and Purple light-rail lines. It also completed an ambitious overhaul of its bus network that included more efficient routes and more high-frequency routes.

But, it should be noted, the high marks from TransitCenter’s surveys come with a caveat: they probably aren’t representative of METRO’s riders. The nonprofit’s survey respondents skew white and wealthy.

The advocacy group’s Houston survey respondents were roughly 17 percent African-American, 17.5 percent Asian, 53 percent white and 14 percent Hispanic.

METRO’s own numbers, taken from surveys conducted over the course of nine months between 2014 and 2015, show its riders are 44.5 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic, 19 percent white and 7 percent Asian.

Click over to see the data. Clearly, we need a more representative sample, but a result like this still has value. For better or worse, users like these, who as the story notes also skew wealthy, tend to have the loudest voices, so if they’re happy, that makes for better politics for Metro. Still, it would be good to have a more accurate picture of what the Metro ridership thinks. If an outside group like TransitCenter is not well-placed to do that on its own, then perhaps Metro should commission such a study.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Hall of Fame revamps Veterans Committee

Sounds reasonable, but we’ll see.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame has again revamped its veterans’ committees to increase consideration for more contemporary players, managers, umpires and executives.

Under the change announced Saturday by the Hall’s board of directors, there will be separate committees for Today’s Game (1988-2016), Modern Baseball (1970-87), Golden Days (1950-69) and Early Baseball (1871-1949). Today’s Game and Modern Baseball will vote twice every five years, Golden Days once every five years and Early Baseball once every 10 years.

“There are twice as many players in the Hall of Fame who debuted before 1950 as compared to afterward, and yet there are nearly double the eligible candidates after 1950 than prior,” Hall chair Jane Forbes Clark said in a statement. “Those who served the game long ago and have been evaluated many times on past ballots will now be reviewed less frequently.”

Today’s Game will vote in 2016, ’18, ’21 and ’23; and Modern Baseball in 2017, ’19, ’21 and ’23. Golden Days will vote in 2020 and ’25, and Early Baseball in 2020 and ’30. The Hall’s Historical Overview Committee will decide which committee will consider those players who span eras, based on the time or place of their most indelible impression.

[…]

Committees will remain at 16 people, with a vote of at least 75 percent needed for election. The ballot size will be 10 for each committee; it had been 12 for Expansion Era and 10 for the others.

Yes, the Hall is too heavily weighted towards pre-WWII players. A big part of the reason for that is the Veterans Committee and the excesses of Frankie Frisch in the 1970s, stuffing the Hall with his pals from the 1920s and 1930s. Any list of “least valuable players in the HoF” will include multiple representatives from that group. There’s not much we can do about that, but we can try to correct the mistakes of more recent BBWAA members and their refusal to embrace better metrics as well as their bizarre inconsistencies on PEDs. I don’t really expect much here, but the potential is there for some good work to be done, beginning this year. I look forward to seeing what the first ballot for the Today’s Game group looks like.

Posted in: Baseball.

Endorsement watch: Not wasting any time

The Chronicle has seen enough.

Hillary Clinton

On Nov. 8, 2016, the American people will decide between two presidential contenders who represent the starkest political choice in living memory. They will choose between one candidate with vast experience and a lifelong dedication to public service and another totally lacking in qualifications to be president. They will decide whether they prefer someone deeply familiar with the issues that are important to this nation or a person whose paper-thin, bumper-sticker proposals would be dangerous to the nation and the world if somehow they were enacted.

The Chronicle editorial page does not typically endorse early in an election cycle; we prefer waiting for the campaign to play out and for issues to emerge and be addressed. We make an exception in the 2016 presidential race, because the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is not merely political. It is something much more basic than party preference.

An election between the Democrat Clinton and, let’s say, the Republican Jeb Bush or John Kasich or Marco Rubio, even the hyper-ideological Ted Cruz, would spark a much-needed debate about the role of government and the nation’s future, about each candidate’s experience and abilities. But those Republican hopefuls have been vanquished. To choose the candidate who defeated them – fairly and decisively, we should point out – is to repudiate the most basic notions of competence and capability.

Any one of Trump’s less-than-sterling qualities – his erratic temperament, his dodgy business practices, his racism, his Putin-like strongman inclinations and faux-populist demagoguery, his contempt for the rule of law, his ignorance – is enough to be disqualifying. His convention-speech comment, “I alone can fix it,” should make every American shudder. He is, we believe, a danger to the Republic.

[…]

We could go on with issues, including her plans for sensible gun safety and for combatting terrorism – her policy positions are laid out in detail on her campaign web site – but issues in this election are almost secondary to questions of character and trustworthiness. We reject the “cartoon version” of Hillary Clinton (again to borrow her husband’s phrase) in favor of a presidential candidate who has the temperament, the ability and the experience to lead this nation.

These are unsettling times, even if they’re not the dark, dystopian end times that Trump lays out. They require a steady hand. That’s not Donald Trump.

The times also require a person who envisions a hopeful future for this nation, a person who has faith in the strong, prosperous and confident America we hope to bequeath our children and grandchildren, as first lady Michelle Obama so eloquently envisioned in Philadelphia. That’s not Donald Trump’s America.

It is Hillary Clinton’s, who reminded her listeners Thursday night that “When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”

America’s first female president would be in the Oval Office more than a century and a half after a determined group of women launched the women’s suffrage movement, almost a century after women in this country won the right to vote. It’s a milestone, to be sure. Few could have imagined it would be so consequential.

Naturally, I agree with the choice. I’d gladly vote for Hillary Clinton over any of those other Republicans as well, but I agree that there would be room for debate with most of them. The decision here could not be clearer. Donald Trump is uniquely awful, singularly unqualified, and as someone who grew up in New York and knew who he was long before reality TV existed, absolutely not the kind of person you want to have in a position of power. If you’re a Republican and you just can’t bring yourself to vote for Hillary Clinton, then the least you can do is not vote for Trump. Skip the race, vote for Gary Johnson, write in Ronald Reagan, I don’t care. Just please, don’t stain your soul. If you’re not a Republican then this should be easy. I’m voting for Hillary Clinton because I believe she will make a fine President, and she is not only far and away the best candidate in this race but the only truly qualified one. She’s also the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump, and the only way to make sure she beats Donald Trump is to vote for her. I don’t know what else there is to say.

Posted in: The making of the President.

Friday random ten: Ladies’ night, part 6

Lots of well-known names this week.

1. Talking Old Soldiers – Bettye Lavette
2. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – Beyoncé
3. Billie’s Blues – Billie Holiday
4. X Offender – Blondie
5. Fool’s Game – Bonnie Raitt
6. I Want Candy – Bow Wow Wow (Annabella Lwin)
7. In Our Talons – Bowerbirds (Beth Tacular)
8. Mainstream Kid – Brandi Carlile
9. Ready Or Not – Bridget Mendler
10. Gold – Britt Nicole

For some reason that I can’t explain, I had been laboring under the delusion that Grace Jones was the lead singer for Bow Wow Wow. I blame the lack of the Internet in the 1980s for my false belief. Also, “Beth Tacular” is an awesome name. That’s about all I’ve got.

Posted in: Music.

Media covers latest voting rights lawsuit

Glad they finally noticed.

A group of Hispanic voters has filed a lawsuit challenging how Texas selects judges to its top two courts, arguing that statewide elections for the state Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals dilutes the voting strength of minorities.

The suit is the latest to allege the state’s election structure violates federal rules to protect blacks and Hispanics at the ballot box – and it is the most recent legal fight over whether at-large election systems in Texas unfairly hinder minorities.

Seven Hispanic voters, including the wife of a state senator from El Paso, are contending in the lawsuit that minorities for decades have been essentially shut out of the process of electing judges to serve on Texas’ two highest courts. The current system, they argue, violates the Voting Rights Act.

[…]

Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said Hispanics represent a huge swath of the state’s population growth but have reaped few political rewards in the process, especially when it comes to elections for the state’s top two courts.

“Now with a larger population and better political organization it might be a good time for an attack on the system,” he said, noting the timing of the suit could be politically advantageous for the Hispanic voters suing the state.

The lawsuit was filed last week; Rick Hasen noted it last Wednesday, and I blogged about it on Monday. The Trib also now has coverage, and they go into some additional detail.

Even the two Hispanics currently on the courts — [Supreme Court Justice Eva] Guzman and [CCA Justice Elsie] Alcala — were not originally elected to their seats. Both were first appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to fill vacancies. In fact, no Latino has ever been elected to those courts without first being appointed to their posts.

Guzman did not respond to a request for comment.

Alcala, who sits on the Court of Criminal Appeals, knows the optics could be better. Many of her cases involve Latino and African-American criminal defendants, but she’s the only person of color on her court.

“I don’t know if there’s a correlation, really, between the color of your skin and how you’re going to rule,” she said, but added: “I think that does cause people to perceive the court a different way.”

She does not take a position on the new legal challenge, but she did suggest another option for bolstering diversity among top judges: allow governors to appoint all them, with voters later deciding whether to retain them.

Perry appointed Alcala to the court in 2011. She won a new term in 2012 after running unopposed in the Republican primary.

“At the Supreme Court, a lot of minorities are appointed because the governor made a concerted effort to ensure there is balance.”

And on her court? She got lucky. “There just haven’t been vacancies,” Alcala said.

[…]

In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act could apply to elected judges — at least in state trial courts.

That decision was part of a long-running challenge to at-large judicial elections in 10 Texas counties. That convoluted legal saga sparked drama in Austin as two consecutive Texas attorneys general wrangled with Chief Justice Tom Phillips and district judges over how to handle the dispute.

“The political backstory in that case was fascinating, full of vintage Texas political intrigue and Capitol strategery,” Don Willett, a Texas Supreme Court justice since 2005, said in an email. The Republican justice, who has been mentioned by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as on his short list for future nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, said he could not comment on the latest challenge to Texas judicial elections.

“But as a political matter,” he added, “It’ll be interesting to watch from a safe distance.”

The complaint cites Chisom v. Roemer, 501 U.S. 380 (1991), which is the case that ruled that the Voting Rights Act could apply to judicial elections; the Trib story links to Houston Lawyers’ Assn. v. Texas Attorney Gen. (90-813), 501 U.S. 419 (1991), which held that the Roemer case (which was about elections in Louisiana) applied to Texas as well. Just because the VRA could apply to judicial elections, and did apply in that case, doesn’t mean it will in this case. Justice Alcala is quite right that we don’t have to elect Supreme Court and CCA judges at all; we could rely on an appointment system. I’m not advocating for such a system, but it does show that there’s more than one alternative available if the system we have now is found to be problematic. I’m sure the plaintiffs will have responses to both of these points, as will the state. I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

Posted in: Legal matters.

If we can’t ban it, we’ll BS about it

The “it” in question is of course abortion, with the state of Texas lying to women about its effects and risks.

Death and infertility were just two of the risks a doctor described to Kryston Skinner when she chose to have an abortion last year.

The 23-year-old knew it wasn’t the right time for her to become a mother, though Skinner dreamed of children in the future. The thought of not living to see that day, or becoming infertile, terrified her.

But some of the information she was given was misleading or medically wrong, contained in a long, controversial booklet that state lawmakers require doctors to give women at least 24 hours before an abortion procedure.

Medical experts have long denounced the booklet, saying important sections — such as those connecting abortions to the likelihood of breast cancer and infertility — are wrong.

Now, the Department of State Health Services is planning an update of the booklet, called A Woman’s Right to Know. The new draft doubles down on information highly contested by medical experts and the pro-abortion rights community, stoking the flames of a debate going back more than a decade.

The booklet was mandated by a 2003 anti-abortion law intended to guarantee informed consent from women seeking abortions. It contains information on the developmental stages of a fetus, risks of abortion and other options for pregnant women.

The state is supposed to consult with medical organizations to provide “objective,” “nonjudgmental” and “accurate scientific information” in the booklet. DSHS spokeswoman Carrie Williams said the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

The recent revisions were made “after reviewing medical research and information from experts in the field.” The process included consulting the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, she said.

But the group said the state has not incorporated any of its recommendations, which included removing scientifically unsupported language that suggests getting an abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, and that women who have abortions are more likely to become depressed or suicidal.

Here’s the draft of the new booklet, the current booklet, and a letter from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists telling the state that the draft booklet full is of BS. It’s another egregious example of doctors and scientists saying one thing, and a bunch of anti-abortion activists claiming they’re wrong because they want them to be wrong. Remember how much whining there was about Obamacare interfering with the doctor-patient relationship? This is what actual interference with that relationship looks like, since no doctor who isn’t a quack would ever choose to give this booklet to patients. Perhaps this would make a good legal test of the new standard for abortion restrictions. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

How about a commuter hyperloop?

This sure sounds interesting.

Navigating right-of-way for land development can be like drawing blood from fiercely independent landowners. But a San Antonio technology startup is banking that it has cracked the code to prying some surface rights from Texans by borrowing a concept familiar to them — royalties, not eminent domain.

Oil and gas companies routinely knock on doors of Texas ranchers and cattle owners to offer mineral royalties in exchange for leasing surface rights to conduct deep drilling operations. But instead of a heavy industry use, these surface rights would be for a clean technology powered bullet train that runs inside an above ground pipeline structure and offer profit dividends.

A bullet train building startup called Transonic Transportation LLC that recently relocated to San Antonio from its roots in Louisiana has its eye on an alternative to the Lone Star Rail project — a commuter train line that would connect downtown San Antonio to the urban core of Austin along the I-35 corridor that’s been abandoned by Union Pacific after a deal fell through.

The startup claims that eminent domain won’t be as much of an issue since the train platform is held up by concrete pylons rather than laid on the earth. So hypothetically, landowners could still have access to travel underneath the tracks, if necessary.

The company plans to use hyperloop technology, a trademark of SpaceX, a research and development firm. Hyperloop refers to a train inside a tube that glides on a magnetized track. But the California tech giant SpaceX, doesn’t have plans to commercialize it.

[…]

The prototype still in design phase could transport between 6,000 and 12,000 passengers per hour and cost between $8 to $12 per trip for consumers.The funding structure would be that of a public-private partnership rather than a bond supported or taxpayer-subsidized effort.

Transonic Transportation’s co-founder, Joshua Manriquez is a civil engineer by training and now has a team working on blueprints and patent pending technology for a Texas hyperloop train system.

Manriquez was part of the Louisiana State University team that made it through the design phase during the competition in early 2016 held by SpaceX. Since then, the startup has secured a 1-mile-long test track in Mississippi and aims to raise roughly $300,000 in a seed funding round within the next year. The company also has a testing facility in San Antonio.

“We’re getting closer to patent a lot of the designs that we have. We’ve been talking to a lot of big companies that are interested in the project but they are saying it’s all going to come down to economics,” Manriquez said in an exclusive interview. “As far as working with Lone Star Rail, it could be a beneficial relationship but that’s going to come down to whether or not they want to pursue anything like that.”

Manriquez said he’s reached out to Lone Star Rail and is waiting for a response but would move forward independently on a Texas hyperloop train system once the funding is secured.

“I have reached out to them about doing a feasibility study funded by TxDOT. There’s a research grant that’s available to transportation studies, but I’ve yet to hear back from them,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we were sitting down to a set of plans 10 years from now and deciding on a contractor.”

Here’s their website, where they claim the trip time would be 15 minutes. I’ve blogged a few times about hyperloops – see here, here, and here for more on them. The Lone Star Rail proposal to connect Austin and San Antonio may or may not be dead, so if nothing else this is an intriguing possible alternative. It’s also a creative way around the possible eminent domain issues that Texas Central is facing, though there’s no guarantee of that. In any event, I look forward to seeing if this idea gets any traction. Link via Streetsblog, and Texas Monthly has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

An update on the effort to make the Heights less dry

In which we learn there is indeed some opposition to this effort.

beer

A petition favored by grocery giant H-E-B to partially lift a 104-year-old ban on beer and wine sales in a dry part of the Heights could be headed for a vote this fall.

The Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which was formed to push the effort to allow sales for off-premise consumption, reported it gathered more than 1,700 signatures in 21 days. By law, the coalition had 60 days to collect a minimum of 1,511 signatures. The measure now is awaiting certification by the city secretary’s office.

H-E-B, which has expressed strong interest in establishing a store in the area, gave proponents a boost by working with Austin-based political consulting firm Texas Petition Strategies for the signature drive.

[…]

Opponents say the ban – put in place shortly before Prohibition – has kept the neighborhood family-friendly and helps guard against unwanted development. A change could alter future development, local resident and real estate agent Bill Baldwin warned.

“It opens the door for waves of other commercial development that undermines the character of this historic neighborhood, when the reality is we could simply drive one extra mile to get out of the dry area, get what we need, and still be able to enjoy the amenities and quality of life that I and my neighbors love,” Baldwin said in an email. “I myself am willing to go that extra mile.”

The Houston Heights Association has not taken a position on the ban, he added.

[…]

There is a Kroger in the dry area at West 20th and Yale. By contrast, the Kroger on North Shepherd at 11th Street is in a wet area. It recently opened an in-store bar that sells draft beer and wine. Kroger is not participating in the petition effort.

Baldwin said such nearby access makes repeal unnecessary. He said the movement comes from people with commercial interests in a change.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I personally find the argument espoused by Baldwin to be specious. Even if this effort could lead to liquor stores being opened in the Heights – which as we know the Beverage Coalition denies – it strikes me as unlikely that anything but a high-end place could afford the rent. I figure the amenities that people like about the neighborhood include things like walkability and good schools, and I rather doubt that an HEB would be seen as a negative. That will be a discussion for the campaign, assuming the City Secretary validates that there were enough signatures turned in. We should know that soon enough.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Steve Brown: Why we need the US90A rail line

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. Today’s post is by Steve Brown, on the newly revived US90A commuter rail line.)

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

In May 2015, Metro began operating two light rail lines serving the East End and Southeast communities. Those routes, along with an extension of the Main St. line, were part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum. Included in that referendum was also a nine mile commuter line connecting Southwest Houston to Missouri City along Main/90A. Despite its bi-partisan support, that route has yet to break ground…or even clear its final environmental stage.

When the METRO Solutions referendum squeaked out a victory with 51.7% of the vote, it was the votes from Fort Bend that pushed it into the winner’s column. The METRO Solutions referendum received 66% of the Fort Bend County vote. That shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey (2016), Fort Bend residents beat out Harris and Montgomery County in favoring more spending for rail and buses. That study also found that a majority of Fort Bend residents believe that the development of a much improved mass transit system is “very important.”

Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2035. According to METRO, 24,000 daily work trips are made along the 90A corridor between Fort Bend and the Texas Medical Center. That number is expected to jump to 32,000 by 2035. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) also estimates that trips along US 90A to all major employment centers, such as downtown Houston, Uptown/Galleria, and Greenway Plaza in Houston will increase approximately 37 percent in that same time period. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear that METRO’s Board recently voted to submit this project to FTA for project development. The project development phase is a preliminary stage, so it doesn’t guarantee full funding.

What’s needed now is a robust strategy for the next legislative session to advocate for state funding for the 90A line, and the creation of a special district to spearhead this effort.

Under the state’s Transportation Code, the legislature can create special “Commuter Rail Districts” (CRD). These Districts have the statutory power to develop, construct, own, and operate commuter rail facilities and connect political subdivisions in the district. The Fort Bend CRD, for instance, could accept grants and loans from the federal and state government. It could also issue revenue bonds and impose taxes. This district would function as the project leader and fiscal agent in partnering with METRO, local municipalities, private investors, Fort Bend Express and other key stakeholders.

A lot has changed along Main/90A since 2003. The 90A line should definitely stop in Missouri City but it shouldn’t end there. Constellation Field in Sugar Land has become a major local attraction, and the Imperial Market development will break ground later this year. Combined, they will be a hub for Sugar Land’s retail, entertainment, residential and office growth. As such, having the 90A commuter line terminate at Imperial Market (or even the Sugar Land airport) makes a lot of sense…assuming they’re willing to coordinate with the CRD.

Additionally, Missouri City’s residential growth and development has steadily drifted towards SH6 in recent years. In addition to the 90A route, we should also examine the feasibility of having a Hillcroft spur with stops around the Fountain of Praise/Fountain Life Center, Chasewood/Briargate and traveling adjacent to the Fort Bend Tollway before terminating on SH6. Not only would that route help to spark needed economic development in key East Fort Bend communities, it would also serve commuters from Fresno, Sienna Plantation and Riverstone. This “Hillcroft Spur” could function as a Bus Rapid Transit alternative to rail, at least initially, and potentially replace the 2 METRO Park and Rides in Fort Bend.

Finally, the state legislature needs invest in urban and suburban transit. We’re not going to be able to adequately address traffic congestion in this state with more toll roads. According to the American Public Transit Association, commuter rail annually yields $5.2 billion in economic and societal benefits. Those benefits are often greater than the initial investment and include cost savings from avoided congestion, mitigation of traffic accidents and tax revenue generated. These projects are also dynamic job creators and economic development incubators.

It’s time that we get the right people at the table to brainstorm innovative mobility solutions in Fort Bend, and finally make the METRO 90A/Southwest Houston commuter line a reality.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and a past Director of Government Affairs for Metro.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

We have a superintendent

Welcome to Houston.

The San Francisco public schools superintendent won over a divided Houston school board with what members described as his devotion to equity for all students, passion for the arts and willingness to collaborate.

The trustees, often split along ideological and racial lines, voted unanimously Wednesday to select Richard Carranza, an educator who has led the much smaller California district for four years, as the lone finalist for the superintendent’s job here.

The former teacher and principal, who spoke Spanish growing up in Arizona and learned English in school, said he looks forward to taking the helm of the Houston Independent School District after his contract negotiation and the state’s mandatory 21-day waiting period.

“We have come together as a team,” school board vice president Wanda Adams said. “We have agreed to disagree on issues. But at the end, we were able to cross the finish line.”

[…]

In a brief phone interview Wednesday, Carranza said he sees Houston schools as ripe for improvement. He touted his efforts in San Francisco to focus on students’ social and emotional needs, in addition to academics.

“We never lower the bar for children, but we raise the level of support,” said Carranza, who described himself as a “blue-collar superintendent,” the son of a sheet metal worker and a hairdresser who was influenced by teachers to attend college.

“The role of the superintendent is to be in the community,” he said. “People are going to see me and are going to understand I’m approachable.”

Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt in the beginning, and Carranza appears to have earned quite a bit of that. He’s got a good resume, the teachers’ union has expressed cautious optimism, and anyone who can get the Board to be unanimous on anything is a force to be reckoned with. To be sure, he’ll have his work cut out for him, but I look forward to seeing what he can do. The Press has more.

Posted in: School days.

Expect Texas Central to be a target in the Legislature

It’s sure to draw a lot of proposed legislation, now that the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has declined to get involved at this time.

“We were glad the STB ruled as quickly as they did because that allows us to set the path forward and if they had any uncertainty it could have impacted the project’s timeline,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs. The company expects construction to start in 2017 and rides to start as soon as 2021.

With the Surface Transportation Board’s decision, the extent of the role of the federal government in the Texas project is unclear. The Federal Railroad Administration is still in the midst of an environmental impact study of the project.

“STB oversight has things that are positive and negative for the project based on either direction that it would decide, so getting a timely decision was important,” Reed said.

Even though Reed did not express displeasure with the Transportation Board’s decision, opponents of the project are celebrating it as a victory.

“I have good news for you,” reads a Texans Against High Speed Rail newsletter sent last week. “With the federal government’s ruling that it will not oversee this ill-advised project, Texas Central will now have to come back to Texas to get approval to build its high-speed rail … From our point of view, the best place for the citizens of Texas to be heard is the State Capitol.”

[…]

Many lawmakers who opposed the project last session are pointing to the Transportation Board’s ruling as a reason to feel emboldened about stopping the project dead in its tracks in 2017, even as Texas Central gears up to begin construction.

“The STB clearly made the correct decision on this matter, plainly reinforcing that a project contained wholly within Texas should be under the purview of state legislators and the citizens we represent,” said state Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican who represents counties south of Dallas, in a statement. “I consider this issue far from resolved and I reiterate my steadfast opposition to the project — both for individual landowners who will be harmed by it in the short term and for the Texas taxpayers who will likely be asked to subsidize it in the long term.”

State Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, said he is looking forward to “a robust debate going forward at the state level on the future of Texas Central Railway.”

“Fortunately for landowners and all who value property rights, the Surface Transportation Board made the right decision and declined oversight,” Metcalf said in a statement.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said when the decision was released, “there was joy and celebration in the heartland of Texas,” where he said people don’t want the train. The ruling appears to put the project in limbo, he said.

“I think they are going to have to use eminent domain if they’re going to build it, and I think they know that the status of whether or not they do or don’t have it under current Texas law is a pretty shaky area, it’s not real clear,” said Nichols. “But had the Surface Transportation Board ruled and taken [the project] on, then they clearly under federal law would have the authority to do it.”

Nichols said he expects Texas Central to promote legislation next session that “makes it very clear that they do have the right of eminent domain.”

[…]

Peter LeCody, the president of Texas Rail Advocates, said he expects to see efforts to pass more wide-reaching legislation when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I think it’s going to be very contentious going into the legislative session,” LeCody said. “This is definitely probably one of the strongest rural-versus-urban fights we’re going to be seeing for a long time.”

See here for the background. As I said before, while the opponents of Texas Central have (in my estimation) more legislators on their side than its advocates do, they don’t have a majority. The key to this session will be which side can convince enough of the many legislators who have no direct interest in the issue to join them. The lobbyists are going to be busy, that’s for sure.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, That's our Lege.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 25

The Texas Progressive Alliance calls on all Presidential candidates to come up with a plan to broker peace between Taylor Swift and Kanye West as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

July finance reports for county candidates

Most of the interesting race in Harris County this year are the countywide races. Here’s a look at how the candidates in these races have been doing at fundraising.

District Attorney

Friends of Devon Anderson PAC
Kim Ogg


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Anderson   253,670   55,392         0    368,907
Ogg        143,311   34,417    69,669    108,872

Devon Anderson received a $60K contribution from Richard Anderson; I have no idea if there’s any family connection there. She’s a strong fundraiser, but she’s also had her share of bad publicity, and I suspect it’ll take more money than what she has in the bank to wipe that away. As for Ogg, her biggest single contribution was $13,500 from Nancy Morrison. I feel like Ogg’s totals don’t quite work, since she reported $30K on hand for her February 20 eight-day report, but it’s not that big a deal. This is also a reminder that the totals listed above for Ogg were from the period February 21 through June 30, while Anderson’s are for the full six months.

Sheriff

Ron Hickman
Ed Gonzalez, May runoff report
Ed Gonzalez, July report


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Hickman    127,153  175,247         0    135,868
Gonzalez    38,435   35,587         0     20,117

Hickman had primary opposition, so his report is from February 21 through June 30. He got $21,700 from Suzanne and Keith Moran for his biggest donation. He also spent a bunch of money – $59K to Strategic Media Services for TV ads, $41K too Neumann and Co for mailers, and (my favorite) $10K to Tom’s Pins for “promo items and Golf Promo items”. I bet that’s a lot of pins and little pencils. As for Gonzalez, he had raised $130K from Feb 21 to May 14, during the primary runoff period. His July report is only for May 15 through June 30. In other words, don’t freak out at the disparity in amount raised.

Tax Assessor

Mike Sullivan
Ann Harris Bennett


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Sullivan    70,300   39,196         0    101,564
Bennett     26,190   11,536         0      1,837

Both Sullivan and Bennett were in contested primaries, so both reports cover February 21 through June 30. You could call Sullivan an efficient fundraiser – he raised that $70K from 55 total donors, 52 of whom gave $250 or more, and three of whom gave $100 or less. Bennett has never been much of a fundraiser, and this report bears that out. Some $17K of her raised total was in-kind, which contributed to the extra low cash on hand amount.

County Attorney

Vince Ryan
Jim Leitner


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Ryan         72,400  33,652         0    171,677
Leitner      12,550  10,225     9,500      8,765

Leitner had to win a primary, while Ryan was the one Dem who had a free ride. Ryan is also the one Democratic incumbent, and he built up a bit of a cushion over the past four years. Leitner wins the award for being the one guy to fill out his form by hand rather than electronically. Not a whole lot to see here otherwise.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack
Jenifer Pool


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Radack     747,500  177,604         0  1,616,948
Pool        13,750   13,054         0          0

This is the one contested County Commissioner’s Court race. Radack’s Precinct 3 is redder than Jack Morman’s Precinct 2 but less red than Jack Cagle’s Precinct 4. In a normal year, I’d expect Radack to get around 60% of the vote, though downballot candidates have done better than that in recent years; Adrian Garcia topped 47% there in 2008. This is obviously not a normal year, though whether the effect of that is primarily at the top of the ticket or if it goes all the way down remains to be seen. To the extent that there is an effect, Precinct 3 ought to serve as a good microcosm of it.

And for completeness’ sake:

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

El Franco Lee – Still has $3,774,802 on hand.
Rodney Ellis – $1,959,872 on hand. Same as his state report.
Gene Locke – Raised $258K, spent $182K, still has $115K on hand.

I’m going to step out on a limb and suggest that Gene Locke has run his last campaign. Very little money has been spent from El Franco Lee’s account – one presumes his campaign treasurer hasn’t given the matter any more thought since he was first asked about it in January. Rodney Ellis has promised to give $100K to the HCDP coordinated campaign. I say Gene Locke and J. Kent Friedman (El Franco Lee’s campaign treasurer) should do something like that as well. This year presents a huge opportunity for Harris County Democrats, and it’s not like that money is doing anyone any good sitting in the bank. It’s not my money and I don’t get to say how it gets spent, but I do get to say what I want, and this is it. Put some money into this campaign, guys. There’s absolutely no reason not to.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, Commissioner Locke has nothing to do with the late Commissioner Lee’s finance account. I was under the impression that Lee’s campaign treasurer controls that purse, but it has been suggested to me that (at least by now) that may have passed to his widow. Be that as it may, and again to be clear, Commissioner Locke has no involvement in anything but his own finance account.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Harris County DA drops charges against video fraudsters

Disappointing, to say the least.

Right there with them

Right there with them

Criminal charges against the anti-abortion activists behind undercover recordings of a Houston Planned Parenthood facility were dismissed Tuesday.

David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, the videographers who infiltrated Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, had been charged with tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony charge that carries up to 20 years in prison. A court clerk confirmed that the Harris County district attorney’s office filed the motion to dismiss the case against Daleiden and Merritt.

Harris County DA Devon Anderson said in a statement that Texas limits what can be investigated after a grand jury term gets extended, which happened in this case.

“In light of this and after careful research and review, this office dismissed the indictments,” Anderson said.

The misdemeanor charge against Daleiden was dismissed by the judge in June. The defense had filed a motion back in April to dismiss the felony charges on the grounds that the grand jury had not been properly empaneled, and the fraudsters rejected a plea deal later in April. If you’re wondering why now, when there hadn’t yet been a hearing on the defense motions, the DA’s office decided to throw in the towel, you’re not alone.

The decision came as a surprise because the district attorney’s office had argued at length in a 30-page motion filed in May that the issue about the grand jury’s term was “meritless.”

Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast’s attorney Josh Schaffer said Tuesday’s decision was based on a political calculation by a Republican incumbent who has drawn criticism for pursuing the case. It also came just days after sharp criticism of the DA’s office in an unrelated case over the jailing of a mentally ill rape victim to ensure she would testify.

“I think it smacks of a politically expedient decision made from the highest levels of the office,” Schaffer said. “It was an easy out for a district attorney who had already received a lot of heat from her party over this case and had received a lot of heat this week for the handling of another case, one involving a rape victim.”

If prosecutors were concerned about a technical error over the grand jury extension, he said, they could have remedied it months ago by taking it to another grand jury. The district attorney’s office could still file charges, he noted.

“I do not think what happened in this case was based on law or the facts,” he said. “It was based on politics.”

[…]

The lawyers had scheduled a hearing before state District Judge Brock Thomas in which they were expected to argue the grand jurors were improperly empaneled longer than their standard three-month term, rendering any indictments null and void.

Instead of arguing the point, prosecutors agreed in a surprise move that the defense raised a “colorable claim” and dismissed all of the charges.

[…]

Political and legal observers said the dismissal is understandable given the amount of resources it would have taken to prosecute versus the likely outcome.

“If I were writing the prosecutorial memo, it seems like this case would be a whole lot of work that would, at best, end up with a slap on the wrist,” said Geoffrey Corn, a professor at the newly named Houston College of Law. “There are bigger fish to fry in Houston.”

Corn said Anderson should not be criticized for using her discretion to dismiss a case that would expend county resources for a minor conviction.

“These were a couple of zealots who were overreaching and gaming the system,” he said. “DA’s have to make hard decisions about where to allocate resources. This seems to make sense to me.”

I Am Not A Lawyer, so I cannot evaluate the merits of the defense’s arguments or the reasons why the prosecution decided to buy into them. What Professor Corn says makes some sense, but one might ask why they didn’t make that calculation before taking this to a grand jury in the first place. It’s not like they couldn’t have seen this cost/benefit calculation coming from that vantage point. I can’t say what motivated Devon Anderson to change course now, but the timing of it sure is funny.

One more thing:

“The decision to drop the prosecution on a technicality does not negate the fact that the only people who engaged in wrongdoing are the extremists behind this fraud,” said Melaney Linton, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.

Yep. This is the very definition of “getting off on a technicality”. Let us not lose sight of that. The Press and the Current have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

There is a Castro thinking about running for office in 2018

It’s Joaquin. And he’s thinking about the Senate.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, has set off a new stir in Texas politics with his remark that he will consider challenging U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018.

Castro, long regarded as a rising star in Democratic politics, has previously not ruled out a run for the seat but seemed to offer more definitive language than usual in a TV interview Tuesday morning.

“I’m going to take a look at it in 2018,” Castro told CBS News, which interviewed him here at the Democratic National Convention with his twin brother, U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro.

“I’ll take a look at that and other opportunities,” Joaquin Castro added. “I’ve never been somebody that said in two years I’ve absolutely got to run for Senate or governor, but I will take a look at it.”

[…]

In the interview, Joaquin Castro appeared more interested than his brother in challenging Cruz. Asked by CBS’ Charlie Rose which one of the twins was going to take on Cruz, Julián Castro replied, “Probably zero of us.”

“He’s speaking for himself,” Joaquin Castro said a short time later.

This link generated quite a bit of excitement yesterday on Facebook, I can tell you that much. Joaquin Castro would face the same hurdles as his brother Julian would, whether Julian would consider the Senate or the Governor’s mansion, and the stakes are higher for Joaquin since he’d have to give up his seat in Congress to aim for a promotion. That said, Ted Cruz will likely still be feuding with Donald Trump in 2018, and I strongly suspect he’d be able to raise the money he’d need to make a serious run. I could see him peeling a few votes away from Cruz, if it came to it. But as always the first question is whether he can crack the problem of dismally consistent low Democratic turnout in an off year. if Dem turnout gets a decent boost this year, that may provide both a blueprint and a glimmer of hope. If not, much as it would pain me to say, he might be better off staying put till next time.

Posted in: Election 2018.

State settles birth certificate lawsuit

Good.

After undergoing mediation, the state of Texas has reached an agreement with undocumented families in a lawsuit over its denial to issue birth certificates to children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants.

The state will clarify and expand the types of secondary forms undocumented immigrants can use to prove their identity, according to attorneys representing the group of undocumented parents and their U.S-born children who filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Previously, immigrants in Texas could request birth certificates for their children if they had two secondary forms of ID, including Mexican voter registration cards and foreign IDs with a photo.

In the agreement, the state said it would accept voter ID cards received by undocumented immigrants in Texas by mail under recent changes to Mexican law, the attorneys said. Until earlier this year, the Mexican voter registration cards could only be obtained in Mexico.

The state also agreed to accept certain documents Central American parents can obtain from their consulates in the U.S. as secondary forms of ID if they are signed and stamped by consular officials. Under the agreement, the list of acceptable secondary documents was also expanded to include other supporting documents, such as copies of utility bills, paycheck stubs and letters relating to public assistance benefits, according to the families’ lawyers.

“We feel confident that undocumented parents with children born here will be able to access their children’s birth certificates,” said Marinda van Dalen, a staff attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.

See here and here for the background. The plaintiffs’ argument was that the state had no basis for changing its rules for what ID it would and would not accept, and the state’s defense to that argument didn’t resonate with the judge, so given all that a settlement seems like the best outcome all around. With the exception of the immigration executive order lawsuit, it hasn’t exactly been a great month in the courts for the state of Texas, has it? A statement from the Senate Hispanic Caucus is here, and the NYT and the Observer have more.

Posted in: La Migra, Legal matters.

July finance reports for State Rep candidates

Hey, it’s July, and you know what that means: Campaign finance reports! There aren’t many State Rep races of interest this November, but there are four that I wanted to look at.

HD134

Rep. Sarah Davis
Ben Rose


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Davis       92,972  252,457         0     53,839
Rose        83,047   31,278         0     54,691

I don’t really expect HD134 to be particularly tight – it will never be “safe” in the sense that most districts are, but it also won’t be any closer than 55-45 barring anything odd. Which, to be fair, could happen this year. Ben Rose has been pretty active so far, and he raised a decent amount of money; his campaign sent out an email on Tuesday bragging that they are “currently in 1st place with more cash on hand than our incumbent opponent”, which is true enough but not perhaps the most accurate way of viewing things, given that Davis spent a bunch of money in a contested primary. If he gets to make the same boast after the 30 Day reports come out, I will be genuinely impressed. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if Rep. Davis retains the endorsement she received in 2014 from Equality Texas. She hasn’t done anything to forfeit it as far as I know, but unlike 2014 she has a viable opponent. We’ll see what happens.

HD144

Rep. Gilbert Pena
Mary Ann Perez


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Pena        14,920   15,932         0     13,643
Perez       38,304   37,814         0     48,362

Bear in mind here that Gilbert Pena is the incumbent, not the challenger. How an incumbent, even an accidental one like Pena, could have that little to show for two years in office is a good question, but perhaps the answer is that he’s a clear underdog, based on 2012 results. Mary Ann Perez, who lost to Pena in 2014 by a close margin, had to win a three-way primary and will likely have an incumbent-sized bank account by the time the next report is filed.

HD149

Rep. Hubert Vo
Bryan Chu


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Vo          34,763   44,541    45,119     56,071
Chu         27,668   42,732    46,475     17,593

As with Hd134, I don’t expect anything exciting here, but Republicans sometimes throw a bunch of money at Rep. Vo, and sometimes they find a self-funder to spare them the effort. Chu actually had a decent number of small-dollar donations, but in the end I doubt it will amount to much.

HD137

Rep. Gene Wu
Kendall Baker


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Wu          42,851   35,928    45,000    124,611
Baker           20   23,424         0         20

This district is closer to safe than swing, but Rep. Wu’s opponent was one of the anti-HERO leaders, who ran for District F last year and finished third in a field of three. I was curious to see if any of Kendall Baker’s fellow HERO-haters would show him some love in this race, for old time’s sake if nothing else. I think you can guess what the answer to that is. Baker’s expenditures all came from personal funds, including $20K to Aubrey Taylor Communications for “Election related banners on blog posts thru 11/8/2016”. I’d always heard there was money to be made in blogging, I guess I was just too dumb to figure out how to do it. Maybe next election.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Falkenberg talks to DA Anderson about jailed rape victim

Worth reading, as you would expect. I’m going to quote from the conclusion:

DA Devon Anderson

[Assistant DA Nick] Socias appeared to have diligently tried to help, but he seemed to be trying alone. Anderson’s office said she wasn’t informed about the situation until near the end of trial.

She should have been involved from the start. The sheriff as well. When I asked, Anderson couldn’t think of a single thing the prosecutor could have done better. One is glaringly obvious: ask for help.

In the end, the victim testified, and her bravery helped get a serial rapist off the street.

But the cost to the victim was too high, something Anderson said “we regret very much.”

“We’ve just been crushed by this,” she told me.

I believe her. But a young rape victim has been destroyed by this. It’s not acceptable to say that was unavoidable.

See here for the background, and do read the whole thing. I don’t think Devon Anderson has been a terrible DA. She has done, or at least tried to do, some good things, from better handling of marijuana cases to not being bulldozed by politics in the Planned Parenthood investigation. She’s a clear step up from Chuck Rosenthal. But this case demonstrates an appalling lack of oversight within her office. There’s just no way that an ADA should have been able to make the decision to hold a crime victim, let along a rape victim, in jail without the full knowledge and consent of the DA and the Sheriff. Maybe they would have signed off on it and maybe they would have insisted on finding another answer. Maybe if they had signed off on it there would have been better management of the process that could have avoided the terrible things that happened to the victim while she was inside. Whatever the case, the fact that it did happen without them knowing about it is a problem. That Anderson didn’t see that on her own is an even bigger problem.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

New affidavit procedure implemented for HD120 special election runoff

Seems likely this is what we’re going to get for November.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Now before the Court comes the Consent Motion for Entry of Temporary Remedial Order, filed on July 23, 2016. The Court has considered the motion and determined that it should be GRANTED.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the Motion for Entry of Temporary Remedial Order is GRANTED.

LIMITED INTERIM RELIEF

With regard to the special election for Texas House District No. 120 on August 2, 2016, with early voting to begin on July 25, 2016, if a voter seeking to cast a ballot appears on the official list ofregistered voters but does not possess an acceptable form of photo ID due to a reasonable impediment, the following steps shall be taken by the election officer to allow the voter to cast a provisional ballot:

  • Provide the Reasonable Impediment Affidavit form, attached as Exhibit B, or a Spanish language translation thereof, to the voter, and ask the voter to provide one of the following forms of identification:
    a. A valid voter registration certificate, or
    b. A current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name of the voter.
  • If the voter does not have one of the above forms of identification, they must provide their date of birth and the last four digits of their social security number in the space provided on the Reasonable Impediment Affidavit form.
  • Ask the voter to complete this form by entering their name, address, and, where applicable, date of birth, and last four digits of their social security number, and then ask them to review the “Voter’s Affldavit of Reasonable Impediment,” indicate their impediment, and sign their name.
  • Ask the voter to return the completed form to the election judge. The election judge should indicate at the bottom of the form what type of identification the voter provided. The election judge whould enter the date and sign in the space provided.
  • Provide the “Affidavit ofProvisional Voter” envelope to the voter, and ask them to complete the voter portion on the front side of the envelope.
  • Ask the voter to return the completed envelope, and on the reverse side, the election judge shall complete their portion. The election judge should mark “Other” and indicate that the voter is casting a provisional ballot due to a reasonable impediment. The election judge should enter the date and sign in the space provided.
  • Staple the Reasonable Impediment Affidavit form to the “Affidavit of Provisional Voter” envelope, and the voter shall proceed to cast a provisional ballot.

Upon confirmation that the “Affidavit of Provisional Voter” envelope is complete and that the Reasonable Impediment Affidavit is attached, the ballot shall be counted by the provisional balloting board unless there is conclusive evidence that the affiant is not the person in whose name the ballot is cast.

The Secretary of State will provide the Reasonable Impediment Affidavit form to the Bexar County Elections District for distribution to election officials.

Link via Rick Hasen. This is more or less what we expected after the parameters for “softening” Texas’ voter ID law after the Fifth Circuit ruling was handed down. This order specifies that both sides may still “seek or oppose future orders of relief”, so just because this is the process that the handful of people who will vote in the essentially meaningless runoff for the HD120 special election doesn’t mean it is what we’ll get for November. For that, District Court Judge Nelva Ramos has requested briefs from both sides by August 5, with a hearing on August 17, and a ruling to presumably follow in short order. Early voting for that HD120 runoff happens this week, so we may get a bit of real world data on how this solution works, though given the low stakes of that election and the likelihood of miniscule turnout, I wouldn’t expect much. The briefs and the hearing will tell us what we should expect. The Lone Star Projectand the Trib have more.

UPDATE: From Texas Lawyer:

On July 21, Matt Frederick, the deputy Solicitor General of Texas, responded to the court’s inquiry about any possible appeal of the Fifth Circuit ruling by stating that Texas did not intend to seek a Supreme Court review “at this time.”

[…]

[Deuel Ross, assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who represents plaintiffs challenging the Texas voter ID law], said the challengers were “satisfied” with the voter identification rules that Ramos has established for the Bexar County special election.

“We think the relief is appropriate,” he said.

Kayleigh Lovvorn, a spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General, said in an email about the state’s plan to response to the Fifth Circuit ruling: “At this time, we are in discussions with the plaintiffs and are evaluating all of our options.”

We’ll see if they come to an agreement for November.

Posted in: Election 2016, Legal matters.

Looking again for a new justice complex

Got to do something about this sooner or later.

hall_of_justice

Mayor Sylvester Turner has formed a committee to study how to acquire a new police headquarters and courts complex for Houston.

Former mayor Annise Parker spent more than two years studying how to replace the city’s aging “justice complex” but ultimately abandoned it without having found a viable funding source or getting City Council support for identifying one.

[…]

“Timing is key for the formation of the Justice Complex Commission as the real estate market is experiencing changes due to the sustained slump in oil prices, which has dramatically impacted commercial real estate in downtown and other business districts around the city,” Turner said in a prepared statement. “The decline in energy prices, the extensive development of new commercial buildings and the downsizing of the private sector have created a perfect storm opportunity for the City to consider leasing or purchasing millions of square feet of office space for a project such as the Justice Complex.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. As with most things, this comes down to the price tag and how to pay for it. With this being a dicey time to be discussing capital projects, those questions are even thornier. They’re unlikely to get any less so the longer we wait, so here we are. Good luck with it.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Voting rights lawsuit filed over Texas statewide judicial elections

This happened on the same day as the Fifth Circuit ruling on voter ID.

[Wednesday], the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), Garza Golando Moran, PLLC, and Dechert LLP filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of individual Latino voters alleging that the method of electing Texas’s Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judges violates the Voting Rights Act. The Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals are the two highest courts in the state and decide critical issues of state civil and criminal law, respectively.

“Courts in the state of Texas should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “Instead, the way in which Texas elects judges to two of the state’s highest courts denies Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice. Bringing Texas state courts into compliance with the Voting Rights Act can help instill greater public confidence in the state’s justice system.”

All 18 high court judges in Texas, nine for each court, are elected statewide. Because White Texans comprise the majority of the citizen voting age population in the state, and because Latinos consistently prefer different candidates than do Whites, Latino-preferred candidates are almost never elected to the highest levels of the state’s judiciary. Such vote dilution is prohibited by the Voting Rights Act and the state could develop and implement a more representational electoral method.

Texas’s Latino citizen voting age population (CVAP) comprises 26.5 percent of the state’s CVAP while White Texans comprise 56.4 percent. With Latinos in the minority and voting polarized along racial lines, Latinos have been significantly underrepresented on both courts for decades. Since 1945, only two of the 48 judges to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals, a mere 4.2 percent, were Latino. Over the same time period, only five of the 77 justices to serve on the Supreme Court, or 6.5 percent, were Latino.

Plaintiffs in the case include six individual voters from Nueces County and an individual voter from El Paso County.

“For too long the voice of the Latino community has been missing from the critical secret conference rooms of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Carmen Rodriguez, plaintiff in this case and longtime civil rights attorney and activist from El Paso. “It is vital that we bring the promise of the Voting Rights Act to the selection process of the members of these august judicial bodies.”

Because Texas’s judges largely represent only one subset of Texas voters, there are serious questions as to whether all of the circumstances of a diverse population are fully considered. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears all death penalty cases in the state. From 1977 to 2010, of the 92 executions of Latinos nationwide, 78 were executed in Texas. Recent Supreme Court decisions of critical importance to racial minorities, including a May 2016 ruling limiting school funding for English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, were issued without so much as a dissent.

“All Texas citizens should have the right to cast a meaningful, undiluted vote for their most important courts,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee. “For decades, that right has been denied to Latinos in Texas. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was designed precisely to deal with this circumstance.”

“For too long, the Latino community in Texas has had no say in who represents them on the highest courts in the state,” said Jose Garza, a civil rights attorney and partner at Garza Golando Moran, PLLC. “The recent school finance ruling is a clarion call to every minority in Texas: Your voice will not be heard by these courts. Now is the time to listen to the millions of Texas minorities who want a seat at the table to help decide the matters important to our community. I am proud to represent these brave clients and work with some of the best legal minds in voting rights to fight for my state and my community.”

“Being able to participate fully in our electoral system is a fundamental right of all citizens,” said Neil Steiner, a partner at Dechert LLP, which is representing the plaintiffs pro bono. “We look forward to vindicating those rights for Texas’s Latino population.”

Here’s the complaint. The introduction gives you an overview of what this is about:

1. The Supreme Court of Texas (“Supreme Court”) and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“Court of Criminal Appeals”) are the courts of last resort in Texas. They are the final authorities on questions of Texas civil and criminal law, respectively. Together, the two courts render enormously consequential decisions that profoundly affect the lives of all Texans.

2. According to the 2010 Census, Latinos, a significant and rapidly growing racial group, constitute 37.6 percent of Texas’s total population and 26.5 percent of Texas’s citizen voting age population. However, Latinos have been prevented from participating fully in the election of Texas’s high court judges because of the way those judges are elected. That election method, in which all judges for both courts are elected in at-large statewide elections, unlawfully dilutes the voting strength of Latino citizens and prevents them from electing their candidates of choice.

3. The Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals each has nine members. Because voting is racially polarized, that is, white voters as a group and Latino voters as a group consistently
prefer different candidates, the at-large method of election functions to deprive more than one quarter of the State’s eligible voting age population from electing judges of their choice to any of the eighteen seats on the two courts.

4. The Latino population and citizen voting age population are sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in at least two fairly-drawn single-member districts; the State’s Latinos are politically cohesive; and the State’s white citizen voting age majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat Latino voters’ preferred candidates. Because of these circumstances, as well as the historical, socioeconomic, and electoral conditions of Texas, the at-large election method for the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301 (“Section 2”). Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986).

5. For these reasons, plaintiffs respectfully pray for this Court to issue: (1) a declaratory judgment that the use of at-large elections for the Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; (2) an injunction against the further use of at-large elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals; (3) an order requiring future elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals to be conducted under a method of election that complies with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act; (4) an award of costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs, including expert witness fees; and (5) such additional relief as is appropriate.

I found this on Wednesday afternoon via Rick Hasen while looking at his coverage of the voter ID ruling. Basically, this is the at-large versus single-member-district debate taken statewide. If you scroll down to the end of the complaint and look at the list of lawyers involved, you will see that one of them is Jose Garza, who has successfully argued voter ID and redistricting cases on behalf of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. (Both of Garza’s partners, including Martin Golando, are also involved.) Amy Rudd, the first attorney listed in the complaint, was pro bono counsel for the NAACP Texas State Conference and MALC in the voter ID case as well. Point being, this is an experienced legal team taking this on, and it could wind up being a pretty big deal, yet so far the only news coverage I have seen is from Texas Lawyer, KTSA, and the El Paso Times, which notes that six of the plaintiffs are from Nueces County, with the seventh being El Pasoan Carmen Rodriguez, a civil rights attorney and wife of Texas Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. I very much look forward to seeing how this plays out.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Fort Worth updates its transgender bathroom policy

Everyone declares victory.

The new guidelines, condensed to two pages, affirm transgender students’ right to accommodations but eliminate a portion of the April guidelines that told schools not to out transgender students to their parents out of concern for their safety.

The new guidelines require parents to be involved with students and administrators in developing a “student individual support plan,” including provisions for bathroom use. Clint Bond, a spokesman for Fort Worth ISD, said the change was insignificant.

“In essence, there’s no change from the original guidelines issued on April 19 compared with the ones issued today,” Bond said. “The wording is a little bit different. We always intended to involve parents in the decision.”

[AG Ken] Paxton seemed to disagree in a Wednesday morning press release cheering the new guidelines, which he said brought Fort Worth in line with the opinion he issued on June 28. Paxton concluded in his opinion that state law did not allow schools to conceal transgender students’ gender identity from their parents.

Jacinto Ramos, president of the Fort Worth school board, called Paxton’s opinion a “good road map” to the revised guidelines. He emphasized that the changes reflected input from parents, students and community members. The district held six town hall forums, and appointed 45 parents, teachers, and community leaders to a Student Safety Advisory Council that met five times.

Ramos said that the guidelines are meant to be comprehensive, and not just address which bathrooms transgender students use.

“The original guidelines were written with every intention to protect all children, and obviously it got twisted up into a so-called bathroom policy, which couldn’t have been further from the truth,” Ramos said.

See here and here for some background. If the policy was amended to conform to the recent AG opinion on the matter, then indeed that represents a small change. The story quotes Lou Weaver of Equality Texas giving approval to the new policy, though I have not seen a statement on EQTX’s Facebook page about this, which strikes me as a bit odd. Whatever, if this previously-expected modification satisfies the pottylust of the Dan Patrick crowd, then huzzah and hallelujah, let us please turn our attention to actual problems. I doubt it really will satisfy their lust because nothing ever does, but I’m hoping for the best.

Posted in: School days.

AG asked to investigate Hill County ballot irregularities

Weird, but we’ll see.

The Texas Attorney General’s office has been asked to launch an investigation into allegations that multiple people voted illegally in the 2016 Republican primary elections in Hill County, despite local officials’ claims that the discrepancies were caused by human error and would not have affected the results of any elections.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office made the request Thursday in response to a complaint from Aaron Harris, executive director of Direct Action Texas, a conservative political advocacy group. Harris noted that there were 1,743 more votes cast in the election than there were voters.

In the most hotly contested race involving the county, eight-term state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, eked out a victory in the House District 8 spring primary, receiving about 360 more votes than political newcomer Thomas McNutt, who is best known for his family’s ownership of the Corsicana-based Collin Street Bakery, a well-known fruitcake purveyor.

Cook did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and a spokesman for McNutt declined to comment. Even if the AG’s office finds evidence of misconduct, it would not change the election results. The time to contest the primaries has passed, said Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office.

Six or seven primary voters are shown to have two ballot dates, and one voter appears to have voted as many as four times, Harris wrote in a letter sent to Hill County election officials in June.

“Our research in Hill County has revealed very significant discrepancies in the 2016 Republican primary election,” Harris said in a statement. “Given the magnitude of this issue, we must reform the election code to restore the integrity of the process.”

Hill County Election Administrator Patsy Damschen said the difference could be explained by human error. While most votes are counted by a machine, early votes and absentee ballots are tallied by hand. The early votes were accidentally counted more than once, Damschen said. They were added to the absentee ballot count, thus inflating the total number of votes.

But the mistake didn’t change the outcome of any elections, Damschen said. Removing the duplicated votes would lower the margin by which candidates won, but the winner in each of the county’s 22 precincts would remain the same.

You can see a copy of the letter here. I can’t reconcile the numbers mentioned with the figures I can see on the SOS webpage, which shows 8,929 votes cast in the GOP Presidential primary in Hill County, and 8,165 votes cast in Hill County, out of 22,300 voters. Cook won that race by 225 votes, per SOS figures, so as noted the total number of actual disputed votes is not enough to make a difference in the outcome. I agree with Mark Jones at the end of the story – this feels like sloppy bookkeeping by Hill County. We’ll see what the AG says.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Buc-ee’s files another logo lawsuit

That’s one litigious beaver.

Buc-ee’s has sued the San Antonio-based operator of Choke Canyon Travel Center for promoting its barbecue and other travel essentials with its grinning, lip-licking, hat-wearing, finger-pointing alligator. The alligator sits in a circle -much like Buc-ee’s beaver — and adorns a wide range of products, from sweet and salty snacks to bags of ice to tee shirts.

The alligator, however, doesn’t have a name.

[…]

The case, which was filed late last year, alleged that the Choke Canyon convenience store, along with Choke Canyon Bar-B-Q and Choke Canyon Exxon, infringed on Buc-ee’s trademark by copying the look and feel of the roadside retailer, which has grown to 27 locations across Texas. Choke Canyon has three locations in and around San Antonio. Neither the owner of Choke Canyon or his lawyer returned calls seeking comment.

Besides the logos, Buc-ee’s alleges that Choke Canyon copied several other features, including oversized bathrooms, numerous fuel pumps, ample parking and a similar looking soda station. Buc-ee’s first learned of its competitor in December when it began receiving inquiries from vendors and customers about the Choke Canyon Travel Center, according to the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison set the trial for early next year.

Buc-ee’s won its previous logo lawsuit, against a company that also used a beaver in its branding. I get the zeal to protect these images, but I gotta say, this one seems like a stretch to me. We’ll see what happens in court. Whatever does happen in that case, I’d prefer Buc-ee’s stick to suing competitors and suppliers, and not former employees who will be impoverished by the experience. Don’t make me feel dirty about using your clean bathrooms, Buc-ee’s.

Posted in: Bidness.

Weekend link dump for July 24

“In the 17 states with a medical-marijuana law in place by 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other classes of drugs fell sharply compared with states that did not have a medical-marijuana law. The drops were quite significant: In medical-marijuana states, the average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of antidepressants each year, 486 fewer doses of seizure medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication.”

“Based on those loose criteria, here is our complete ranking of 44 fake presidents.” Because, why not?

If cybersquatting were an Olympic event, this guy would be the gold medal winner.

Cash-strapped towns are un-paving roads they can’t afford to fix.

Show this to anyone who claims Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both awful.

“If I talked like Donald Trump, I’d get sent to the principal’s office immediately.”

“Indeed, based on the mountain of court records churned out over the span of Mr. Trump’s career, it is hard to find a project he touched that did not produce allegations of broken promises, blatant lies or outright fraud.”

I have no love for Tom Brady, but I must agree with this. The lesson here is that Roger Goodell is always the greater evil.

“What would be best, though, is if [Taylor] Swift recognizes the opportunity — favor, really — that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have presented her for what it is.”

And as always, the lawyers will have their say.

More reasons to be wary of Pokemon Go, in case you needed them.

“But even without the plagiarism, Melania’s speech was bad.”

“We debate the definition of fascism and just what governmental structures it involves. But setting that largely academic and unhelpful debate aside, this is precisely the kind of febrile victimology and demands for aggression and revenge against enemies that gives rise to it.”

“In other words, per pound, fireflies are brighter than the Sun.”

“Indiana Gov. Mike Pence served five terms in Congress and worked his way up to a leadership role in the House. Since he has sealed his Congressional records until December 2022, we’ve done what we can to dig up the best reporting on Donald Trump’s would-be vice president.”

RIP, Garry Marshall, longtime TV and film writer, director, producer, and actor.

The Demon Chipmunk case, which is unfortunately not as exciting as it sounds.

A tiny little wall now surrounds Donald Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

RIP, Rep. Mark Takai, first term Congressman from Hawaii who was diagnosed last year with pancreatic cancer.

An oral history of Big Trouble In Little China, one of my very favorite movies.

RIP, Betsy Bloomingdale, socialite and friend of the Reagans.

RIP, VCRs. You had a good run.

“To put this all into perspective, if Vladimir Putin were simply the CEO of a major American corporation and there was this much money flowing in Trump’s direction, combined with this much solicitousness of Putin’s policy agenda, it would set off alarm bells galore. That is not hyperbole or exaggeration.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

What next for Julian Castro?

I can think of something for him to do.

Julian Castro

Housing Secretary Julián Castro was long touted as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton, but when the call came Friday informing him that the presumptive Democratic nominee had picked someone else, he wasn’t entirely surprised.

“It’s disappointing, of course,” Castro said in a telephone interview Saturday morning, “but it’s also easy to put into perspective. When I was 30 years old, I lost a very close mayor’s race. At the time I was completely disappointed and crushed. But a few years later I came back and I became mayor of San Antonio and it actually worked out for the better.”

[…]

In his Saturday telephone interview with The Washington Post, Castro said he had no doubt that Clinton will receive the overwhelming share of the Hispanic vote, even without a Latino on the ticket.

“I believe that Hillary Clinton has a broad vision for America and that the Latino community is very much a part of that vision,” he said. “I’m confident she will get strong support.”

He added: “In the years to come there will be a Latino or Latina president. I believe that’s going to happen in due time. I hope to be alive to see it, and I’m very confident that my kids will.”

It’s not crazy to suggest that person could possibly be Julian Castro. A direct step Castro could take to increase the probability of that outcome would be to run for Texas Governor in 2018. A win would of course be a huge advancement, but even a creditable loss that set him up for a better try in 2022 – as he himself noted, it took him two attempts to get elected Mayor in San Antonio – would suffice. Sure, there’s a huge downside risk attached to this, as there’s no indication Texas is ready to even come close to electing a Democratic governor. But there’s a big risk in playing it safe and waiting for the right opportunity to come along. People may forget who you are in the meantime, or some brash upstart may emerge and cut ahead of you in line. Ask David Dewhurst, or Hillary Clinton for that matter, about that.

In the meantime, if Castro is even slightly inclined towards running for Governor in 2018, he can lay a lot of groundwork for it by working to turn out Latino voters in Texas and help Democratic candidates, especially Latino candidates, get elected this year. There’s Pete Gallego for CD23, Dori Contreras Garza for State Supreme Court, State Rep candidates in Dallas and Bexar Counties, Ed Gonzalez for Harris County Sheriff, etc etc etc. He’s going to be out on the trail anyway, so why not put a little elbow grease into helping out in his own state? If he really wants to get people fired up about a future candidacy, spend a little time in places that aren’t Democratic now but which need to be at least on the way there for him to have something resembling a reasonable shot – Fort Bend, Williamson, Bastrop, Comal, Collin, Denton, Brazoria, you get this idea.

Now maybe Castro isn’t looking at 2018. Maybe he wants to do something different for awhile, maybe he’d like to step out of the spotlight for a few years and spend more time with his young family, maybe he’s given it plenty of thought and concluded that 2018 is hopeless and would do him too much damage. If any of these or something else like them are true, I will understand. But in the meantime, I’m going to root for the ending I want.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Roadside drug tests

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

go_to_jail

A Houston police officer pulled Barry Demings over as he headed to work in Beaumont and plucked a spot of white powder off the floorboard of Demings’ year-old Ford Explorer.

Demings had just detailed the SUV – and wondered later if a speck of soap upended his life.

“I never even saw it,” he said, explaining how the officer dropped the speck into a small test kit and said “it came back for cocaine.”

Demings was charged with felony drug possession based on the results of the primitive test that costs about $2 and has been found to have a high error rate. He was told he could face a sentence as long as 30 years based on old prior convictions – no one mentioned waiting for a crime lab to verify the officer’s roadside result.

He insisted he was innocent but got scared and accepted a plea deal. He lost his job, his girlfriend and his Explorer. Upon release, he decided to leave Texas behind forever.

In 2015 – seven years later – the Harris County District Attorney’s Office notified him that Houston’s crime lab found no cocaine in the sample. He filed a writ of habeus corpus with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and was finally exonerated.

He is among 298 people convicted of drug possession even though crime lab tests later found no controlled substances in the samples, according to a far-reaching audit of drug cases by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. So far, 131 of them, like Demings, have had their convictions overturned in cases that go back to 2004. About 100 other cases remain under review for potential dismissal.

In all 298 cases, prosecutors accepted both felony and misdemeanor plea deals before lab tests were performed. The $2 roadside tests, which officers use to help establish probable cause for an arrest, cannot be used at trial as evidence under Texas law.

[…]

The Harris County audit of drug possession convictions and related lab results going back to 2004 was launched in 2014 by Inger Chandler, an assistant district attorney in charge of the DA’s conviction integrity unit, after a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman called her about reversals of several drug convictions by the Court of Criminal Appeals.

The following year, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson changed her policies and directed prosecutors generally to stop accepting guilty pleas in felony drug cases before receiving lab reports confirming the evidence. Plea deals are still accepted prior to lab testing in misdemeanor drug cases, and in some felony cases in which jailed defendants can qualify for probation.

The forensic evidence problems uncovered by Chandler’s unit began around 2005, when Houston’s city crime lab – then overseen by HPD – lost several staff members and simultaneously saw a huge increase in drug cases, which created a backlog.

Lab officials implemented a triage system for drug testing with the DA’s office: Drug cases slated to go to trial would get processed first. For defendants who had accepted plea deals, the crime lab would later go back and test samples, often months or years after the guilty plea had been entered.

Chandler’s audit of wrongful convictions has been possible because the Houston Forensic Science Center, formerly HPD’s crime lab, preserved and tested the evidence even in the plea deal cases.

“We were keeping the evidence, and with the agreement with the District Attorney’s Office that we would continue to process even if it was pled,” said James Miller, manager of the center’s controlled substances section. “Because we both understood there was always the possibility that the substance may not actually be illegal.”

So far, prosecutors have identified and examined 456 flawed cases. Of those, 298 people had been convicted despite having no illegal controlled substances in their possession at all. In 29 of the 298 wrongful convictions, there had been no filing for relief because a defendant declined to pursue the case or faced other legal obstacles.

In other cases among the 456, the types or quantities of controlled substances were misidentified or there was too little evidence left to perform a confirmatory test.

About 78 percent of the 456 flawed cases came from the Houston Police Department, which still uses roadside tests that were developed in the 1970s. Chemicals in small vials turn colors when exposed to cocaine and other illegal drugs but can be easily misinterpreted by officers and can have high false positives, Miller and other experts said.

Emphasis mine. This article is a followup to a much longer ProPublica piece that explored the history and background of these roadside tests; another story, about the chemist who created these kits in 1973, is here. You should read them both – I don’t know about you, but I had no idea about any of this before now. We could have a debate about whether it’s reasonable for police officers to conduct roadside drug tests like this, but the high error rate for this test, which hasn’t been updated sine the 70s, makes it a particularly poor reason to hold people in jail or encourage them to plead out on a charge that is based on a crime that may never have existed. The point, again and again and again, is that there are way too many people in our jails who should not be there. The cost of this, both to the people who have been subjected to this and to us taxpayers who foot the bill for it, is unacceptable. When are we going to do something about it?

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

KUHA sale completed

Say goodbye to classical music on your terrestrial radio.

Houston Public Media’s classical musical station transitions to an all-digital format starting at 9 a.m. Friday, July 15.

It’s a result of Christian radio station KSBJ agreeing to purchase the KUHA 91.7 FM signal from the University of Houston — which holds the license — in February 2016.

“We are happy that the ownership of KUHA will stay in local hands and we are excited about the future,” Houston Public Media Associate Vice President and General Manager Lisa Shumate said in a statement. “Houston Public Media’s commitment to multi-platform arts and culture content, in addition to classical music, is stronger than ever.”

[…]

KUHA 91.7 FM was purchased from Rice University for $9.5 million in 2010. Most of the classical music and arts programming produced by Houston Public Media moved to the new station, along with live broadcasts with the Houston Symphony, the Houston Grand Opera and local performing artists and groups. KUHF then adopted a 24-hour all news and information format.

See here for the background. KUHA continues to exist as an HD station, and of course there’s always streaming. But if you like to listen to classical music in your car, and you don’t have an HD receiver, you’re out of luck. And so it goes.

Posted in: Music.

Saturday video break: Little Saint Nick

Hey, how about a little Christmas music? Here are the Beach Boys with “Little Saint Nick”:

Videos of bands where they all wear the same outfit – especially when they all also have the same haircut – will never get old for me. I don’t always include Christmas songs in these video posts because I have plenty of versions of standards, and that’s kind of boring. This was kind of a lost classic, so I went with it. Also too, I have a cover version of it, by She & Him:

Yes, I know, they’re all hipstery and precious, but I like their rendition of this song. If it were another “Jingle Bell Rock” or (God forbid) “The Little Drummer Boy”, I’d feel distinctly less jolly. This one is OK with me. And before anyone asks, the Christmas-in-summer theme is well established, especially if you grew up in New York in the 70s and 80s.

Posted in: Music.

Why would you even think to put a rape victim in jail?

I am outraged.

The 25-year-old rape victim, frightened and long-suffering from mental illness, agreed in December to testify against the Houston man who brutally assaulted her in 2013.

She hoped to put him behind bars for life.

But that decision landed her in the Harris County jail for more than a month over the Christmas holiday – terrified, helpless and hopeless, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week in Houston.

The woman, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had a mental breakdown on the witness stand and then was jailed by Harris County prosecutors who feared she wouldn’t come back to court.

“They didn’t care. They got what they wanted,” the woman’s mother said Wednesday about the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “She was collateral damage and they didn’t care what happened to her.”

News about the case shocked Houston’s defense attorneys and advocates for rape victims.

“That is beyond ludicrous,” said Lavinia Masters, a sexual assault victims advocate. “I’m amazed that a judge would allow that. You’re further victimizing a victim.”

District Attorney Devon Anderson said the woman, who was homeless when she was raped, was going through a “life-threatening mental health crisis” and told prosecutors she was not going to return to testify.

“If nothing was done to prevent the victim from leaving Harris County in the middle of trial, a serial rapist would have gone free – and her life would have been at risk while homeless on the street,” Anderson said in a video statement. “This was an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation. There were no apparent alternatives that would ensure both the victim’s safety and her appearance in trial.”

She defended the prosecutor named in the lawsuit, Nicholas Socias, and said any claim that her office does not support crime victims is “outrageous.”

[…]

Jailing a witness to ensure they testify is an unusual move in Harris County, especially when the witness is not also facing criminal charges. Over the past two decades, there have been a smattering of published accounts of rape victims being jailed across the country.

Officials with the Houston Area Women’s Center said respecting the dignity of survivors and providing full support are paramount.

“We have no direct knowledge of this particular case, but are concerned that sexual assault is already under-reported and that this may further deter survivors from coming forward,” said Rebecca White, the center’s chief executive officer.

I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that led to the conclusion that jailing this poor women was a good idea. I mean, I know that the Harris County Jail is called the largest mental health facility in the country, but that doesn’t make it a hospital, and it doesn’t make it an acceptable place to try and treat someone who doesn’t belong in jail. This was just monumentally bad judgment, and Kim Ogg is right to call for an independent investigation of what happened. For shame.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Metro revives US90A commuter rail line

The possibility of it, anyway. No promises or commitments at this time.

HoustonMetro

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday approved a resolution authorizing transit officials to “place” the project in the “Federal Transit Administration process” and look for ways to pay for it. When officials essentially placed the project on inactive status in September 2012 after spending $1 million on feasibility studies, it was estimated to cost about $400 million to build the rail line.

Board members stressed restarting the project was not tacit approval of it, or a promise for a single dollar toward building it.

“I just want to make sure we are clear,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said. “This is to allow the possibility of federal funding, but isn’t a commitment.”

Since voters approved the project in 2003, plans for a train line along U.S. 90A from south Gessner Road to Metro’s Fannin South rail station south of Loop 610 have been the exception among Houston’s contentious rail plans. For example, unlike intense opposition to a proposed rail line on Richmond Avenue that has been a point of contention among lawmakers, the 90A project enjoys robust support from Houston officials, elected officials in smaller cities and the area’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who represents the southwest Houston area where the rail line would run, has long called it one of his district’s top transportation priorities.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who has been a constant opponent of the Richmond rail project, last year said the 90A line should be Metro’s first priority once it has sufficient money for rail projects. Culberson’s office on Thursday did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

[…]

In reviving the dormant rail project, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said it was important to gauge support for it and move forward. Technically, as the project remains approved by voters from the 2003 referendum, Metro officials can talk to federal transit officials anytime about its prospects.

“I don’t think it was absolutely necessary,” Patman said of the fresh resolution, “but I wanted to involve the board in the decision. I wanted to make sure everybody was on the same page.”

The vote, she said, was “a clear mandate for us to get back in the process.”

How to pay for the project, Patman said, will be worked out later. “There is no financial commitment to this point,” she said.

Patman says later in the story that a public/private partnership is possible. We’ll see how that goes. Another question is how much preliminary work would have to be re-done. Metro had been working towards getting a Draft Environmental Impact Statement as recently as 2012, but the project was put on hold in September of that year (the “Current Projects page” on Metro’s website that used to document it and that had announced its suspension no longer exists). There’s also the question of whether the line would have to end at the Harris/Fort Bend County line or if it could be extended (at greater cost) into Fort Bend County. Metro would need to seek legislative approval to expand into Fort Bend, which ought to be doable but is never a guarantee. All of this is to say we’re a ways off from anything happening. I’m glad to see this step being taken, but it’s very much the first step of a long journey, if indeed we embark on that journey.

One more thing: As you know, since Metro reached its detente with Rep. Culberson, I’ve asked about the status of his promises to help change federal laws to allow Metro to apply some funds it has already spent on other rail projects as matching funds for the proposed US90A line. I asked Carrin Patman about that at the meeting a group of us bloggers had with her some weeks ago. She said that Culberson did indeed work towards making that happen, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. C’est la vie, I guess. Perhaps he can try again now, or try some other tactic to help Metro move forward on this. I hadn’t written anything about Metro rail projects since then, so I wanted to note here that he did keep his word on that. KUHF has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

As goes Pasadena

If Texas Democrats ever figure out the secret of getting more Latinos engaged in the voting process, it’ll be in places like Pasadena where they find the key.

When Oscar Del Toro tries to persuade his fellow Pasadena Latinos to vote, he appeals to them on practical and emotional levels.

Practical: If you and your neighbors get the voting numbers up in your precinct, elected officials will start paying attention to your neighborhood even if your candidate doesn’t win.

Emotional: You’ll feel better about yourself if you participate in your community. Del Toro’s parents came to Pasadena from Monterrey, Mexico, and became U.S. citizens years before he did, but they never voted until he took them to the polls.

“You could see the pride in their faces,” he says of that day.

Del Toro, 53, who runs a cartridge toner and laser printer business out of his home, lost a bid for a seat on the Pasadena City Council last year. His adopted hometown, meanwhile, was becoming a national symbol of the struggle to protect and expand voting rights for minorities and to boost the historically low level of Latino participation in elections.

It seems that the “sleeping giant” – the perceived potential of more than 27 million eligible Latino voters nationwide to help swing Texas and other Republican-dominated states toward the Democrats – has yet to be roused.

Take the November 2013 decision by Pasadena voters to change the city council structure from eight single-member district positions to six district seats and two at-large, or citywide, posts. The charter change passed by 79 votes out of more than 6,000 cast.

[…]

The result was discouraging to Del Toro and to like-minded Pasadenans like Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler, who is Latino. Both men are featured in “The Giant Still Sleeps,” a new documentary by Austin-based filmmaker Miguel Alvarez. In the film, Wheeler suggests that the change in the council makeup could strengthen the sense among many Latinos that their vote won’t make a difference. Mayor Johnny Isbell had pushed for the charter changes just weeks after a U.S. Supreme Court decision ended advance federal approval of election-law changes in some states with a history of discrimination.

“It almost validated what I kept hearing – they moved the goal posts back again,” Wheeler says. “It doesn’t matter; they’re going to do what they want to anyway. As we get closer to making this city more equal, they’re going to push back hard on us. It’s very sad, but we have to come back even stronger.”

Wheeler and Del Toro vow to continue their struggle, even as other residents who filed a lawsuit challenging the charter change await their day in court. The documentary includes shots of Del Toro speaking to civic groups and interacting with Pasadena Latinos who tell him that they have never voted – because their jobs and family responsibilities don’t leave them with enough time, or due to cultural differences.

I met Mr. Del Toro at the June 25 County Executive Committee meeting, the one where we picked the two judicial nominees. Nice guy, I enjoyed talking to him. He’s got the right idea for how to get people involved, it’s just that this is a very labor-intensive method. It’s also what I thought Battleground Texas was going to be about when it first appeared on the scene. Regardless, the more of this going on, the better. Click that Trib link and see the Austin Chronicle for more on the documentary.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Friday random ten: Ladies’ night, part 5

Wow, we’re still in the B’s.

1. Mad About You – Belinda Carlisle
2. Call It Whatever – Bella Thorne
3. I Could Be Persuaded – Bering Strait (Natasha Borzilova and Lydia Salnikova)
4. Take My Breath Away – Berlin (Terri Nunn)
5. Go Now – Bessie Banks
6. Up The Junction – Beth Madden
7. Dawn Chorus – Beth Orton
8. Stuff Like That There – Bette Midler
9. Slap Bang – BETTY (Elizabeth Ziff, Alyson Palmer, Amy Ziff)
10. I’m Wishing – Betty Carter

Usually I can tell you where a given song came from, but every now and then I stump myself. I have no idea where that Bessie Banks song, which iTunes tells me I acquired in 2011, came from. Bering Strait was a country music group from Russia that briefly made a splash. Beth Madden was from a Coverville collection, Beth Orton from an Amazon sampler, BETTY from a two-disk “funny folk songs” live CD, and Betty Carter was on the “Stay Awake” Disney cover album. Speaking of Disney, I have numerous songs from artists in their stable thanks to the girls, and I will admit that Bella Thorne’s “Call It Whatever” is one of the catchier tunes they produced, one that I’d listen to voluntarily. The other three artists I figure you’ve heard of.

Posted in: Music.