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Interview with Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

It’s time to start the interview series for the fall elections. As you know, I did interviews with various Democratic primary candidates earlier this year. As a rule, I’m not going to re-interview candidates that made it to the fall ballot, since in most cases there isn’t much ground to cover that wasn’t already discussed. The one exception to this rule is Kim Ogg, the Democratic candidate for District Attorney in Harris County. There has been a lot that has happened since March – the day I did this interview with her was the day she was making her charges public about DA Devon Anderson’s handling of the Ryan Chandler case – so this was a chance to catch up on those items. I don’t think Ogg needs much of an intro at this point, but you can go read what I wrote for her primary interview if you need to. Here’s the latest version:

I will have more interviews in the coming weeks.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Abbott’s voter registration persecution

Now this is what a partisan witch hunt looks like.

Still not Greg Abbott

On an overcast Monday afternoon, officers in bulletproof vests swept into a house on Houston’s north side. The armed deputies and agents served a search warrant. They carted away computers, hard drives and documents.

The raid targeted a voter registration group called Houston Votes, which was accused of election fraud. It was initiated by investigators for Attorney General Greg Abbott. His aides say he is duty-bound to preserve the integrity of the ballot box.

His critics, however, say that what Abbott has really sought to preserve is the power of the Republican Party in Texas. They accuse him of political partisanship, targeting key Democratic voting blocs, especially minorities and the poor, in ways that make it harder for them to vote, or for their votes to count.

A close examination of the Houston Votes case reveals the consequences when an elected official pursues hotly contested allegations of election fraud.

The investigation was closed one year after the raid, with no charges filed. But for Houston Votes, the damage was done. Its funding dried up, and its efforts to register more low-income voters ended. Its records and office equipment never were returned. Instead, under a 2013 court order obtained by Abbott’s office, they were destroyed.

And the dramatic, heavily armed raid never was necessary, according to Fred Lewis, president of Texans Together, the nonprofit parent group of Houston Votes. “They could have used a subpoena,” he said. “They could have called us and asked for the records. They didn’t need guns.”

The previously unreported 2010 raid coincided with agitation by a local tea party group and Lewis’ testimony in the trial of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. Lewis had filed a complaint against DeLay that, in large part, led to his indictment on corruption charges.

Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, declined interview requests. A spokesman, Jerry Strickland, said the attorney general does not recall being briefed by staff members on the Houston Votes investigation.

“In this investigation — and all other investigations conducted by the Office of the Attorney General — evidence uncovered dictates direction,” Strickland said in an email. “To insinuate there were other factors at work in this case is ludicrous and unfounded.”

Read the whole thing and see for yourself how “unfounded” it is. It’s a toxic mix of True The Vote paranoia, bad practices and bad faith from the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, and Abbott’s zeal to prove that somewhere, somehow there exists justification for voter ID laws. And then there’s the best part:

Abbott’s office said the Harris County district attorney in October 2011 “declined to accept for prosecution the case as prepared by investigators of the Texas Attorney General office,” according to a court document filed last year.

The document said the case related to a violation of an identity theft law in the Penal Code, which is a felony. It did not list names or details.

Strickland, the Abbott spokesman, said the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute that section of the Penal Code. As a result, the information was given to the Harris County district attorney’s office, he said in an email.

The News on June 10 filed a public records request with the attorney general for the case file. Abbott’s office, which is in charge of enforcing the state’s open records law, asked itself for a ruling on whether those records must be released. In an Aug. 28 letter, the attorney general’s office ruled that it may withhold the records under state law.

The records are exempt from required release because they pertain to a criminal investigation that did not result in a conviction or deferred adjudication, wrote Lindsay Hale, an assistant attorney general in the Open Records Division.

It’s unclear how often Abbott’s office investigates allegations similar to the ones leveled at Houston Votes.

In response to requests from The News, the attorney general’s office provided a list of 637 potential violations of the Elections Code referred to Abbott since he took office in late 2002.

Strickland said he could not say how many were investigated or how many involved alleged voter registration fraud. “The office does not ‘compile or keep statistics,’” he said.

The Harris County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the Houston Votes case. Terese Buess, assistant district attorney over the public integrity division, told The News that her office doesn’t discuss cases that don’t result in criminal prosecution. But “generally, criminal charges are only authorized when there is evidence that establishes probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed.”

Emphasis mine. So Greg Abbott asked Greg Abbott if Greg Abbott needs to release information about Greg Abbott’s half-baked partisan-driven investigation, and Greg Abbott said that Greg Abbott didn’t have to if Greg Abbott didn’t want to. Makes sense to me. Be sure to read the whole thing, there’s a lot to digest. PDiddie, Nonsequiteuse, and Texpatriate have more.

UPDATE: Definitely read this update from Nonsequiteuse as well.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Voter ID trial starts today

As one trial ends, the next one begins.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi will begin hearing arguments Tuesday on one of the nation’s most stringent voter ID measures, which Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed into law in 2011.

A ruling is unlikely before Election Day, meaning that 13.6 million registered voters in Texas would still produce a photo ID this November. That hasn’t stopped Democrats from wielding the law as a campaign cudgel, particularly Wendy Davis, who has attacked Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott over his office defending the measure in court.

The Texas law requires voters to show one of six kinds of photo ID. A Texas concealed handgun license is valid while a college student’s university ID is not, which opponents say shows Republicans trying to imposes obstacles on voters who typically vote Democrat.

The Justice Department is taking an aggressive role in trying to dismantle the law after the U.S. Supreme Court last year threw out a key portion of the federal Voting Rights Act, which had thwarted a flurry of recently passed voter ID measures in conservative states from taking effect.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made Texas a top target after vowing to go into states to wring out whatever remaining voter protections he could.

Minority rights groups that sued Texas over the voter ID law say the Justice Department has added muscle — and money — since joining the lawsuit last year.

“It’s leveled the playing field,” said Joe Garza, a San Antonio-based attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “I think the overall evidence is going to show significant impact on the minority community.”

The trial is expected to last two weeks. Although Gonzales Ramos could issue an immediate ruling from the bench that could affect the November elections, attorneys believe that is unlikely.

NPR adds some context.

The difference between this case and the one before the federal court in 2012 is that now the burden of proof is on the law’s opponents. Still, they think they might have an advantage. The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who was appointed by President Obama.

But the voter advocacy groups also know — if they prevail in her court — the state will almost certainly appeal the decision to a federal court with a more Republican tilt. The state wants to keep the ID requirements in place for this November’s election.

All this is important, says Edward Foley, an election law expert at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, because there are similar voter ID laws being challenged or considered in other states, including North Carolina and Wisconsin. Those involved are watching this case to see how effective Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act will prove to be in the fight against such laws.

“That’s a major, major issue,” says Foley. “All states are bound by the obligation not to impose a discriminatory burden on voting rights on the basis of race, and so if a voter ID law [is found to have imposed] that burden … that would be very significant new voting rights law.”

Foley says it could be applied not only to ID laws, but to other things such as cutbacks in early voting. He and other experts think the issue might very well end up before the Supreme Court.

Enrique Rangel reminds us of that 2012 decision, by the DC Circuit Court, when the state and AG Greg Abbott bypassed the Justice Department to sue for preclearance.

“The State of Texas enacted a voter ID law that — at least to our knowledge — is the most stringent in the country,” the three-judge Washington court said in its 56-page opinion.

“It imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas disproportionately likely to live in poverty,” part of the opinion reads. “And crucially, the Texas Legislature defeated several amendments that could have made this a far closer case.”

Yes, as I’ve said multiple times, the Republican-dominated legislature went out of its way to make this law as harsh and unforgiving as it could, all in ways to inconvenience or incapacitate voting blocs that leaned Democratic. One of the more egregious examples of that was making concealed handgun licences acceptable for voter ID purposes, but not student IDs. That led to another group of plaintiffs getting involved.

Voter ID requirements and other new voting restrictions not only pose unique barriers to African-American, Latino and low-income voters, they say, but also disproportionately affect students and youth, despite the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that declares the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age."

[This] week, a federal court will begin hearings over a lawsuit filed to block Texas' voter ID bill, which went into effect in 2013. Late last year, the Texas League of Young Voters, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, joined the U.S. Justice Department in suing Texas over the bill, which allows military IDs and concealed handgun licenses to be shown at the polls — but not student photo ID cards.

In Texas and other states, lawmakers have typically justified leaving student IDs off the list of accepted forms of voting identification on the grounds that students frequently move so their address may not be current. But students and voting rights advocates counter that the purpose of voter ID laws has never been to verify a voter's address — it's to confirm their identity, as the photo will ostensibly prove that the voter is truly who he or she claims to be.

"We haven't heard really good rationale for [not allowing student IDs]," Dale Ho of the American Civil Liberties Union told Time magazine. "It doesn't make any sense to exclude student IDs on the basis of an address. It leads us to think the only reason why they're excluding student IDs is that they don't want students to vote."

That's exactly what seven North Carolina college students alleged was a factor in the state's passage of a passel of voting restrictions last year, including a voter ID requirement that will go into effect in 2016. Like Texas, North Carolina's law also doesn't recognize student ID cards as legitimate for voting, although military and veteran cards are acceptable. That led students to join a set of lawsuits brought by the ACLU, NAACP and the Department of Justice that were combined into one seeking to block North Carolina's so-called "monster" voting bill [pdf]. (Earlier this month, a judge denied a preliminary injunction to block key provisions of the law from going into effect for this November's election.)

I don’t believe that group is directly involved in the Texas litigation, but the North Carolina case is just as important. Hair Balls reminds us who in Houston would not be able to vote right now.

What we see here is the higher cost to participate in the voting process for people already living in poorer parts of town. If you want to vote, you must take time away from work to travel to a DPS office within the city in order to obtain a photo ID.

That gets even harder when there’s no access to personal transportation, which obviously puts low-income residents at a disadvantage. And in Houston, that disadvantage is pretty significant. The average travel time to a DPS office for a person with a vehicle, one-way, is about 10.5 minutes. Not too bad for a city as spread out as Houston. But if you’re taking a bus to a DPS office to get that photo ID, you’re looking at about 66.7 minutes worth of travel time — in one direction. Oh, and that’s not factoring in the distance from one’s home to the bus station, and from the bus station to the DPS office — which can add even more travel time.

So, it basically takes Houston’s bus-riders — i.e. folks in areas where they can’t afford a car — about 6.3 times longer to get approved ID so that they can vote. That might be a slight hindrance, no?

If you’re already poor and you can’t access your local DPS office in a feasible, cost-effective way, chances are you’ll be less likely to get an approved ID than those living in richer neighborhoods who have cars. Which means you’ll be less likely to vote.

That’s cause and effect.

That also doesn’t take into account the fact that DPS offices are generally open only during regular business hours, and a lot of the working poor don’t get paid time off, meaning that an hours-long trek to their DPS office to get the ID they need also costs them a day’s pay. Again, the Lege could have provided for these folks by funding a program to reach out to people who lack ID and help them get it without going through all that, but they have shown no real interest in that. All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion.

Suppose that you were a member of a state legislature, and you drafted a new proposed law regarding voting procedures. Further suppose that as you shopped your proposed law around, everyone you met told you that the sole effect your law would have would be to suppress voting by the poor and minority voters.

Suppose you asked for second and third opinions, but again kept hearing the same thing – that whatever your law was meant to accomplish, or claimed to combat, or was at least nominally supposed to resolve, it would simultaneously utterly and completely fail to achieve that stated objective, while at the same time limiting access to the polls for minority voters.

A law that punishes felony theft at least accomplishes the goal of punishing people who steal things. The people who are punished may be disproportionately likely to be members of a protected class, which could either be the result of social factors not considered in the drafting of the penal law, or the result of disproportionate poverty and incitements to crime that are not uniformly distributed throughout society. It could also be the result of intentional design in the penal law, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the law punishing theft wasn’t consciously written to disenfranchise minority groups.

In contrast, everyone who looked at the picture I.D. law before it was ever made into law said the same thing – the law addressed no actual need or concern on the part of the State, but solely accomplished one goal – limiting voting access by the poor (and disproportionately, by minorities, the elderly, and the young). That is not just an incidental consequence of the law, that is the law’s purpose, function and design. Additional picture I.D. requirements were added to the voting process in order to limit access to voting.

Everyone knows this. No one sincerely believes the alternative narrative that is offered (“voter I.D. protects against fraud”). No one on the defense believes that narrative, and (with the possible exception of some hypothetical population of credulous fools) no one in the general public believes it. The State’s attorneys have the unenviable task of dying on the hill of “electoral integrity” to salve the egos of Texas elected officials.

So if everyone (your friends, your enemies, your colleagues in the Legislature) told you the same thing, over and over again, and yet you persisted in promoting your draft law, ultimately getting it passed by a majority of like-minded self-interested legislators, wouldn’t any rational observer say that you had passed a law that was not merely accidentally or incidentally racist, but intentionally targeted at a group of voters you could not possibly hope to win over to your side?

It’s up to the judge now, and ultimately to SCOTUS. I’ll be keeping an eye on this as it goes.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Second phase of redistricting trial over

Much like the first phase, with some insults for one of the state’s key players thrown in for effect.

Lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department and minority groups said in closing arguments in federal court Tuesday that state lawmakers illegally targeted Latino and African-American voters when redrawing congressional districts in 2011.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the Texas attorney general reiterated their claims that the 2011 redistricting was the product of political concerns — incumbent protection and attempting to secure Republican seats in the GOP-led Legislature — not intentional discrimination.

However, the state’s attorney making its closing arguments in defense of the Legislature’s congressional redistricting plan, came under heavy questioning from the federal three-judge panel hearing the case, with most of the questions asked by the two judges appointed by Republican presidents.

District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, appointed by President George W. Bush, asked Texas Assistant Solicitor General Matthew Frederick about a string of emails from Eric Opiela, then counsel for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, which focused on Anglo voters.

Frederick responded that while Opiela had some role in the redistricting process, that role was limited. He went on to describe Opiela as “an endless source of ideas,” adding “most of which were bad.”

Someone write that down so we can haul it out the next time Opiela runs for something. “Endless ideas, most of which were bad”, that’s comedy gold. Anyway, as was the case with Phase One of the trial, this phase was partly about whether or not the maps are lawful or discriminatory, and partly about whether Texas should be subject to preclearance again, this time under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. We still have to get through the two-phase trial over the 2013 maps before we can get to a decision and the inevitable appeals. As yet, the next trial has not been scheduled.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Now how much would you pay for Rick Perry’s lawyers?

The tab has gone up.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog came at no cost to the taxpayers

Gov. Rick Perry has billed taxpayers $133,000 to hire several lawyers to defend him against public corruption allegations, his office confirmed Friday.

That’s more lawyers and more state money spent than previously disclosed.

After Perry was criticized about the taxpayer expenditures, the governor’s office announced he would use campaign funds from now on to compensate his legal team.

But taxpayers have already spent $98,000 to hire Botsford & Roark, the firm of his lead criminal defense attorney David Botsford, who charges $450 an hour. Previously, state records — which take a while to show up in the government’s accounting system — showed taxpayers had spent $80,000 on Botsford’s firm.

Perry’s office also spent $15,000 to hire the Houston-based law firm Baker Botts and $19,890 to hire attorney Jack Bacon. The total came to $132,890.

Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in an email that the cost of the legal fees were “associated with the grand jury case involving Gov. Perry and Governor’s Office staff.”

Mm hmm. Look, I’ve already that Perry has a decent argument to make that at least the grand jury portion of his legal bills ought to be paid for by the state, even if that would be unprecedented. The total cost isn’t up that much, and I’m sure this was just a matter of some paperwork being filled out later than some other paperwork. But I’m also sure that Perry’s team knew when they made that announcement about his campaign paying his legal costs going forward just how much we the people were about to be stuck with. They could have been up front about it, but given their usual desire to hide the facts plus Perry’s self-serving reasons for the change in policy, I wouldn’t be surprised if this figure isn’t the full and final total, either. It’s just how Rick Perry operates.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

It’s a great time to be a construction worker

For most people, anyway.

On a conference call earlier this month, the president of Houston-based developer Camden Property Trust described what it’s like building apartments in markets where construction is booming and skilled workers are in short supply.

“It’s a catfight to get subcontractors to fully staff at your jobs,” said D. Keith Oden. He added, “It’s hand-to-hand combat.”

The labor shortage has become so severe that the company recently started putting guards on job sites to keep its workers from being poached by competitors willing to pay more.

“We’ve had specific instances where people would come on site and try to round up workers,” Camden’s chief executive Ric Campo said in an interview. “During the World Cup, we actually put big screens on our sites to get people to stay.”

[...]

[Pat] Kiley, principal of Kiley Advisors said licensed trades are in high demand: “electrical, mechanical, plumbers, sheet metal workers, iron workers, operating engineers, certified crane operators. These are all crafts in short supply,” he said.

Labor unions are recruiting workers.

“You’re getting people moving here from out of state like they did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Kiley said. “The unions have brought in people.”

Ed Vargocko, business manager of the Iron Workers Local 84, said the amount of construction taking place in the Houston area is attracting workers from other parts of the country where development remains slow.

“A lot of them come from California and quite a few from Detroit,” he said.

In some cases, the shortage is evident in higher wages.

Between the first quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2014, the average weekly wage in the local construction industry rose 24.5 percent, Jankowski said, citing the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. That’s higher than the 19.9 percent boost in the overall average weekly wage here over the same period.

The wage and benefit package for millwrights will increase by 4 percent for each of the next few years, Donahou said.

“It’s a strong market out there,” he said. “Everybody’s going after the same people.”

Still, a segment of the construction worker population, mostly immigrants, is underpaid and facing other problems.

A report on the challenges facing the construction industry in Texas, released last year by the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas, found that the state’s construction industry is characterized “by dangerous working conditions, low wages, and legal violations that hurt working families and undercut honest businesses.”

The report cited a widespread practice of payroll fraud, where more than 40 percent of construction employees were misclassified as independent subcontractors.

In such cases, employers avoid paying payroll and unemployment taxes and workers are deprived of overtime and other employment benefits.

That gives an unfair cost advantage to companies that don’t abide by employment rules, said construction veteran Stan Marek, CEO of the Marek Family of Companies.

The report cited is here. It’s yet another reason why comprehensive immigration reform is so desperately needed, and another reason why I cannot fathom how business interests can say with a straight face that they support CIR while continuing to support the politicians that oppose it. But in a state where employers can legally lie to their employees, I suppose such duplicity isn’t that surprising. Anyway, it sure would be nice if this kind of leverage for workers made its way to other industries as well. After decades of stagnant wages, we could all use it.

Posted in: Bidness.

Weekend link dump for August 31

The Ice Bucket Challenge has been a nice little windfall for the ALS Association, but what they really need – what we as a country really need – is a greater public investment in medical and scientific research. Thanks to the stupid sequester and our general fetish of “balanced” budgets, we’ve cut a ton of money from the National Institutes of Health. Rather than pouring buckets of water over our heads, how about we all write a letter to our members of Congress and Senators demanding that they restore the money that has been cut from the NIH budget?

And of course, some of the members of Congress that did the Ice Bucket Challenge were among those responsible for those NIH budget cuts.

“So, a hellmouth is open. No one panic.”

“Jell-O has lost its jiggle and nobody knows how to fix it.”

Could TV sitcom characters really afford to live in the homes they were shown to have?

Please wear sunscreen, kids. It’s important.

“Actions taken by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act have caused U.S. toxic air emissions to drop” by an estimated 3 million tons, from mobile and stationary sources, every year.

“Whenever a baseball game takes longer than three and a half hours, pundits go through the roof. Whenever there’s a week (like the second week of preseason games this year) where the NFL has just one game finish in under three hours, you don’t hear a peep.”

RIP, Richard Attenborough, film actor and director. Remember Jurassic Park? He was the rich guy that built it.

Mark Evanier supplies another reason not to smoke, in case you needed it.

There will be a Lost-themed episode of Phineas and Ferb airing on September 29. My life is almost complete now.

My fellow Catholics, if you participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, you were, technically at least, sinning.

You keep calling yourself a “libertarian”. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Your employer can legally lie to you in Texas.

“ALS causes 3.9 deaths per 100,000 people. The same number of deaths are caused each year by birth defects, drowning deaths in people less than 4 years old or more than 85 years old, or from firearms, respectively.”

“According to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), middle and high school students shouldn’t be required to start school before 8:30 in the morning“. My kids would definitely agree with that.

“This article is a list of list articles on Wikipedia, wherein the articles comprise a list of things that are themselves lists of things.” Yes, it’s a list of lists of lists. Somewhere, Bertrand Russell is smiling.

“Sure, in the Gospels — written decades later by devoted followers — Jesus is portrayed as perfect and sinless, an innocent, spotless lamb. But that’s not what it looked like at the time. He was executed because he was a thug who deserved it — a seditious vandal who knocked over tables, blasphemed, and threatened to destroy the House of God. Jesus died in disgrace.”

“It is, ostensibly, the most convoluted lawsuit involving a stuffed, farting hippo ever.”

And speaking of stuffed, farting hippos, here’s another measure of the unprecedented obstructionism of Senate Republicans.

Turns out Medicare costs aren’t rising all that much any more.

“Even though Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who fancies himself to be a thought leader in the party, still tweets #FullRepeal with regularity, he’s become an increasingly lonely voice. The use of Obamacare as an effective Republican attack looks almost at its end. It’s been a long time coming.”

I salute you, Lucy Coffey. And this is why Wonkette refers to our Vice President as “Handsome ol’ Joe Biden, God love him”.

You would think that encouraging workers to stay home when they’re sick would be universally accepted.

“At the risk of being a woman to weigh in on this debate, it seems that the argument here is asking the wrong question. Don’t those men who said those things have a responsibility to step forward, admit what they did, and apologize?”

I’m not sure we’ll ever hit peak gun.

Reflecting on Ken Phelps, who was a better player than Seinfeld gave him credit for, though he was past his prime by the time he was traded for Jay Buhner.

Who could possibly think that John Boehner has been an effective Speaker?

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Lawsuit over same sex benefits for city employees moved back to state court

RedEquality

The passage of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance and the efforts to put a repeal referendum on the ballot have been one of the big local stories this year, but you may recall that before we were all talking about HERO there was another big story relating to equality in Houston. Last November, Mayor Parker announced an update to city policy that would offer health and life insurance benefits to all spouses of legally married employees, including same-sex couples. At the time, the Mayor noted that same sex marriage was legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, and since the 2001 charter amendment that banned “domestic partner benefits” for city employees did so by restricting them to employees and their “legal spouses”, there was no justification for limiting that to opposite sex couples. Needless to say, the string of legal decisions since then concerning same sex marriage, including in Texas, has done nothing to undermine or contradict her position.

Naturally, there was a lawsuit filed, by a couple of Republicans at the urging of Jared Woodfill. They succeeded in getting a temporary restraining order, signed by state District Judge Lisa Millard. The city then moved the lawsuit to the federal courts, and succeeded in getting the restraining order dropped pending subsequent hearings. In the meantime, a second lawsuit was filed by two city employees who were beneficiaries of the change in policy to preserve their benefits. These plaintiffs sought to combine the two lawsuits going forward. In January, Greg Abbott stuck his nose in by filing amicus briefs on behalf of Woodfill and his crowd.

Aaaaaaand that, to the best of my knowledge and ability to search Google, is the last we heard of this until this past Thursday, when federal judge Lee Rosenthal issued a ruling that returned the case to state court. I’ve not been successful in figuring out how to find a copy of Judge Rosenthal’s order, so that’s all I can tell you for now. The Lambda Legal summary page for the case (they are representing the plaintiffs in the second lawsuit) has no updates as of today, but perhaps there will be more after the weekend. So that’s all I know for now. If you know any more, please leave a comment.

Posted in: Legal matters.

A home where the Texas State Bison Herd can roam

Very cool.

It was a little confusing at first, but the bison at Caprock Canyons State Park are settling into a pasture that’s 10 times what they were used to — basically the entire park.

Park staff opened up 10,000 acres to the approximately 100 members of the Official Texas State Bison Herd on Tuesday, a big step in a program that has expanded their access since it started in 2010.

“We’ve kind of been working them with feed trucks to follow. When they got through the gate, they’d go into any opening to check it out,” said Donald Beard, park superintendent.

“And when they saw the bison metal cutouts (an art installation), they took off running to them. When they figured out they weren’t really bison, they moved on.”

And with all that range to roam on, the animals descended from the almost-extinct Southern Plains herd settled into an area of about 200 acres.

“They’ve been there for three days. It’s a restored area where we put a prairie dog colony,” Beard said.

[...]

It was a bit of a historic event in that the herd is wandering almost freely on prairie their ancestors used before hunting nearly wiped them out, and before pioneer cattleman Charles Goodnight captured remnants of the herd in 1878 to raise and breed.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff and volunteers rounded up the beginnings of today’s herd from JA Ranch, south of Clarendon and Claude, and brought them to Caprock Canyons, just north of Quitaque, in 1997.

“It’s been something we’ve been working on for years. It’s good for the bison and good for the park,” said Rodney Franklin, regional director for Texas State Parks Region 5. “This is a major step toward the ultimate vision. Being the Texas State Bison Herd makes it a pretty big deal.”

There are still areas that need the habitat restored, and TPWD wants to continue to grow the herd.

“Managing the herd has been an adventure for us,” Franklin said. “Managing the numbers and making sure the resources are protected is part of it, making sure we’re balancing the resources and recreational opportunities.”

Here’s a bit more from the Chron.

In 2003, media tycoon Ted Turner donated three bulls to help the herd, which had gone through more than a century of inbreeding that threatened its survival. At the time, the herd had dwindled to 53.

[...]

The Texas herd was started in the 1870s with five bison calves captured by Charles Goodnight, one of the most prosperous cattlemen in the American West, with more than 1 million acres of ranch land and 100,000 head of cattle at his peak.

His wife urged him to save the bison, also known as buffalos, because hunters were killing them by the hundreds of thousands for their hides and meat and to crush American Indian tribes who depended on the animals for food and clothing.

The herd was donated to the state in 1997 and moved to 330 acres of the state park, which was once part of Goodnight’s JA Ranch between Lubbock and Amarillo.

When the Transcontinental Railroad was built across the United States in the 1800s, the bison – which are believed to have numbered in the tens of millions – were split into what was known as the Northern and the Southern herds.

I don’t have anything to add to this. I just love stories like these and figure they’re worth sharing.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

AirBnB in Houston

When people talk about “the sharing economy” for good or ill, the main players that get named tend to be Uber, Lyft, and AirBnB. We’ve heard a lot about the first two in Houston lately, but prior to this Chron story I can’t say I’d heard anything about the latter.

Airbnb launched in 2009 as a way for those with extra space to connect with travelers looking for an alternative to traditional hotels, in the same way that Uber and Lyft help people turn their cars into temporary taxis. In November 2013 Airbnb chief technology officer Nate Blecharczyk reported that more than 9 million users, or “guests,” have now stayed in AirBnb rentals, up exponentially from the 4 million bookings that the start-up recorded in its first four years of business.

“I had a roommate, and when she moved out instead of going through the whole process of finding a new roommate, I had extra furniture so I thought I would give it a shot,” said Crystal Lee, who has been renting a room in her Montrose house on Airbnb since 2012.

“Everything is yours, so I think people are a lot more respectful of that,” she said. “With roommates, people get used to leaving their stuff everywhere and not caring. When you have a house guest, people tend to be polite. It’s kind of fun to play tour guide and tell people where to go and what to do.”

[...]

Airbnb is most popular in cities that attract a lot of tourism and where hotel prices and rents are high. Austin, with less than half of the population of Houston, boasts nine times the number of Airbnb properties that Houston lists. That’s partly because downtown Austin has only 6,000 hotel rooms, not nearly enough for major events like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest. The fact that Airbnb has made a major push for publicity at recent SXSW festivals – including a promotional park featuring live music and display rooms designed by musicians like Snoop Dogg – could also be a factor.

Houston, on the other hand, has nearly 75,000 hotel rooms in the metropolitan area. According to tourism data compiled by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, a higher than average percentage of visitors are here visiting family or on a business trip, implying that they already have a place to stay or that hotel price is not of primary concern.

Houston is also one of only two cities in the U.S. where the average hotel rate per night is lower than renting out an entire house or apartment on Airbnb, according to the website Priceonomics. (The other city is Las Vegas.)

Cheap, plentiful hotel rooms haven’t made a dent in the demand for Airbnb hosts though. Anderson says her property is booked about 75 percent of the time, and Wright, who only makes her house available on weekends when she is heading to family homes in Tiki Island or La Grange, says she turns down more offers than she accepts. The process has been so successful for Lee that when her job relocated her to New York earlier this year, she kept her Houston house and still rents out the extra room.

While Houston might be lacking in traditional tourists, many Airbnb guests are people who are planning to move to the city and want to get a feel for the different neighborhoods. Others, particularly international travelers, stop in Houston while on cross-country trips as a break between the frenetic nightlife of New Orleans and Austin. Internships, job interviews, weddings and family visits are also commonly cited reasons for a Houston Airbnb stay.

It’s an interesting contrast with Austin. I know several people who have made an envy-inducing amount of money renting their homes via AirBnB for South by Southwest. I suppose the difference between “normal” level of demand for hotel space in Austin and the peak level that happens when SxSW is happening is such that AirBnB makes a lot of sense to fill the gap. I seem to recall there being a few stories about people leasing their homes for outrageous amounts in Houston during the last Super Bowl for similar reasons. I get why people have concerns about the effect of companies like Uber and Lyft on employment opportunities in the industry they’re entering. I think those concerns are valid even as I support allowing Uber and Lyft into currently regulated vehicle for hire markets. I don’t see the same concerns about AirBnB, however. There’s no barrier to entry in the hotel market like there has been in many cities in the taxi market, and there’s no general complaint about the way the hotel business is run like there is for taxis. A ride is a ride, but there’s a vast difference between a Motel Six room and one at the Ritz Carlton, or a traditional bed and breakfast and a resort hotel like the Hyatt Lost Pines. Uber and Lyft could conceivably upend the existing taxi industry, but I don’t see AirBnB as being anything more than a niche. What do you think?

Posted in: Bidness, Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Crazy Little Thing Called Love

A lovely little tune from Queen:

Oh, Freddy. You left us way too soon. Now here’s a version you may remember from a Gap commercial, by Dwight Yoakum:

A straight-up countrified version, a little up tempo, and it works quite well as a two-step, even if everyone in the video is line dancing.

Posted in: Music.

Ambulatory surgical center requirements of HB2 struck down

A last minute reprieve, though who knows for how long.

A federal judge on Friday struck down new requirements for Texas abortion facilities — a decision that could have shuttered all but a few abortion clinics in the state. The standards were set to go into effect Monday.

The lawsuit was brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of several abortion providers, asking U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of the District Court for the Western District of Texas to block the last provision of House Bill 2, which would have required abortion facilities to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Those include minimum sizes for rooms and doorways and having pipelines for anesthesia.

The law, which was passed by the Republican-led Legislature last year, included several strict abortion regulations that are already in effect.

In his ruling, Yeakel wrote that the law’s ambulatory surgical center requirements “burdens Texas women in a way incompatible with the principles of personal freedom and privacy protected by the United States Constitution for the 40 years since Roe v. Wade.”

Advocates of abortion rights quickly celebrated Yeakel’s decision, admonishing the state’s Republican leadership for attempting to “eradicate access to safe, legal and timely abortion care.”

“There was no justification for the medically unnecessary regulations in HB2, no demonstrated problem with safety in our state’s already well-regulated abortion clinics,” said Heather Busby, director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

You can see a copy of the ruling here. The trial wrapped up two weeks ago, and I think everyone expected a ruling by yesterday. This will of course be appealed, so it’s just a matter of what the (awful) Fifth Circuit thinks and how long it takes them to do whatever it is they’ll do, with this case and the one before it. This was a good week in court for us, but it’s far from over and it can all change quickly. BOR, the AusChron, and the Current have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Abbott will duck Dallas debate

How very statesmanlike of him.

Republican candidate Greg Abbott has reversed his decision to appear in the only gubernatorial debate scheduled to be broadcast statewide on television.

Abbott and his Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, had both agreed to participate in a Sept. 30 roundtable debate in Dallas.

But on Friday morning, Abbott’s team said it would not participate, expressing concern over the format.

“Due to our inability to agree on specific details of the format, Attorney General Greg Abbott will regretfully not be participating in the WFAA debate,” Robert Black, a senior campaign adviser said Friday morning.

Black, Abbott’s new debate consultant, joined the campaign on Aug. 4.

On May 28, Wayne Hamilton, Abbott’s campaign manager, sent a letter to WFAA accepting the terms of the debate.

“From grassroots events to policy announcements and roundtable discussions, we have made our personal engagement with voters a focal point,” Hamilton wrote to WFAA in May.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Abbott campaign has not lived up to the commitment it made to participate in this important debate,” said Mike Devlin, president and general manager of WFAA-TV. “WFAA has produced numerous debates which are balanced and fair to all the candidates. This debate would be no different. The citizens of Texas deserve to hear from the candidates for the most important office in the state.”

Here’s WFAA’s coverage of Abbott’s cut and run. Note the letter they include at the bottom in which Abbott’s campaign accepted the invitation to debate.

Later in the day, the story got a bit more complicated.

The Dallas debate was scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 30 and would have been broadcast on all of Texas’ Gannett stations including WFAA-TV in Dallas – Fort Worth, KHOU-TV in Houston, KENS-TV in San Antonio, KVUE-TV in Austin, along with other affiliates in Amarillo, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, San Angelo and Tyler.

Outside of those Gannett markets the debate was going to be available to any radio and television station in the state. In addition, the debate would have been streamed on-line at all of the Gannett websites in Texas.

Gannett stations currently reach 83% of Texans.

[...]

Late Friday afternoon, Abbott announced that Dallas’ PBS affiliate, KERA-TV, has agreed to host a formal debate on September 30. Davis did not immediately agree to it after committing to the first one that Abbott backed out of today.

“Voters deserve a thoughtful and substantive policy discussion on how the next governor will lead Texas. Greg Abbott looks forward to sharing his vision for Texas’ future and participating in the upcoming debates,” said Wayne Hamilton, Abbott’s campaign manager in an emailed statement.

Gannett guaranteed live coverage on all 10 of its television stations in Texas which reach 83% of the state. It’s uncertain if any television station outside North Texas has agreed to simulcast KERA’s debate.

The Davis campaign shot back at Abbott following the KERA-TV debate announcement.

“There have been reports that the Abbott campaign has ‘committed’ to another debate, but as we learned today Greg Abbott’s commitments don’t mean very much,” said Zac Petkanas, communications director for the Davis campaign in a statement late Friday afternoon. “Wendy Davis has already committed the evening of September 30 to a debate on WFAA. The station has asked to have a discussion on Tuesday, September 2, to discuss options given the recent developments and, as Wendy Davis is someone who honors her commitments, the campaign looks forward to having that discussion.”

The Quorum Report characterized this as Abbott “hurriedly setting up another debate and then announcing it”. Lord only knows what they’re thinking over there. We’ll see what happens next.

Just as the timing of the school finance decision worked in favor of Wendy Davis and her education policies rollout this week, it works against Abbott, who of course was on the losing side in the lawsuit. Hard not to connect the two, no matter how much he’d deny it. Chalk this up as another way in which Greg Abbott is like Rick Perry, as if there had been any doubt. There will still be one debate, in McAllen on September 19, assuming Abbott doesn’t try to weasel out of it as well. PDiddie, John Coby, Juanita, BOR, Trail Blazers, the AusChron, the Trib, and the Current have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

No taller billboards

Fine by me.

Texas highway officials are shelving a proposal to increase the permissible height for roadside billboards in suburban and rural areas, citing conflicting facts and a deluge of public criticism.

[...]

“It was obvious that Texans care greatly about our visual environment and take pride in the ongoing efforts to improve the traveling public’s experience on our highways,” said Ed Wulfe, a Houston-based commercial property developer and member of the Greater Houston Partnership’s executive committee.

The partnership joined 14 other local or statewide groups in opposing the height increase, which would have applied only in places where local laws don’t set height limits. Houston has one of the state’s strictest billboard codes.

Of 941 comments TxDOT received on the sign rule changes, 919 were related to the billboard height increase, according to a report. More than 900 were from the general public, officials said, asking TxDOT not to increase the maximum sign height.

“We had confidence Texans would speak up for the beauty of their state,” said Margaret Lloyd, a Galveston resident and vice-chairwoman of Scenic Texas, which leads many anti-billboard efforts.

See here for the background. The billboard industry proposed raising the maximum height of billboards from 42.5 feet to 65 feet – for purposes of comparison, the giant statue of Sam Houston outside Huntsville is 67 feet tall, plus a ten-foot base – on the laughable idea that greater visibility for billboards would equate to greater safety. Scenic Texas pushed back, arguing for a reduction to 30 feet instead. The Texas Transportation Commission, sensing a fight it didn’t want to engage in, made the wise choice to retreat. One hopes this will be the end of it, but I wouldn’t count on that. For now at least, the only thing you’ll see above the trees on Texas’ highways will be the sky, and of course the stars at night. Which is how it should be.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Ebola treatment progress

Some good news.

A study out [recently] shows that an experimental treatment for Marburg virus – a close cousin to Ebola – can be given after symptoms of the terrible disease have started to appear.

[...]

One experimental drug – given to two Americans and several Liberians who showed signs of the disease – appears to have been helpful, though it is not clear whether the victims would have survived anyway or what other treatments they received. The drug, ZMapp, includes proteins that interfere with the way Ebola attaches and enters a host cell.

[Wednesday]‘s study, published in Science Translational Medicine, looks at a different drug that takes a genetic approach to fighting the disease. The drug uses bits of genetic material to block Ebola genes from acting, the way sticking gum in a lock would prevent a key from slipping in.

The research team from the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston and Canadian drug company Tekmira Pharmaceuticals injected the Marburg virus into four groups of four rhesus monkeys. The first group got the drug 30-45 minutes after infection; the second one day after infection; the third two days later; and the last group three days later. All of the treated animals lived, regardless of when they received the drug.

Although the study was on the Marburg virus, not Ebola, senior researcher Thomas Geisbert said he thinks the results mean that a related Ebola treatment, called TKM-Ebola, will also work once symptoms appear.

As we know, the Galveston National Lab is where the action is for Ebola research in the US. I don’t have anything to add here, I’m just glad to see them make things happen.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Friday random ten – In N Out

Starting the second half of the alphabet, though we’re more than halfway through thanks to letters like Q, X, and Z.

1. Take Me Away – Napoleon XIV
2. Break My Heart – Natalie Merchant
3. The Needle And The Damage Done – Neil Young
4. People Got A Lotta Nerve – Neko Case
5. 99 Red Balloons – Nena
6. Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine – Nick Lowe
7. Come A Day – Nils Lofgren
8. Not So Pretty Now – Nine Inch Nails
9. You Are My Sunshine – Norman Blake
10. Good Old A Capella – The Nylons

You have to listen to the whole song to realize just how heart-breakingly sad “You Are My Sunshine” is, because it’s not obvious from the title or the well-known refrain. I know YouTube is a treasure trove of oddball novelty songs, but I doubt there will ever be as good an outlet for the likes of Napoleon XIV and the people that know his music like the Dr. Demento Show was. I doubt anyone is ever going to put out a collection of YouTube’s Greatest Novelty Songs.

Posted in: Music.

School finance system ruled unconstitutional again

A little light reading for your holiday weekend.

BagOfMoney

Nearly three years after more than 600 Texas school districts filed litigation challenging the state’s school finance system, a Travis County district judge has ruled in their favor.

In an almost 400-page opinion released Thursday, District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin said that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional not only because of inadequate funding and flaws in the way it distributes money to districts, but also because it imposes a de facto state property tax. It is certain to be appealed by the state to the Texas Supreme Court.

Though Dietz made no public remarks on Thursday, his decision is a reprise of an earlier oral ruling in February 2013. From the bench at the time, Dietz discussed what he called the “civic, altruistic and economic” reasons for supporting public education.

“We realize that others provided for us when we were children. We realize that children are without means to secure their education. Just as others provided for us when we were in school, now is the time when we provide for others,” he said, going on to describe the societal benefits of a well-educated population: lower crime rates, fewer people who need public assistance and a greater state income.

Here are the final judgment, findings of fact, and Judge Dietz’s remarks. Like I said, your reading assignment for the weekend. The Chron has a couple of reactions.

The Texas Democratic Party was quick to release a statement tying Dietz’s decision to Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, as well as GOP lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick and Glenn Hagar, the GOP candidate for Texas comptroller.

“Republicans like Sens. Dan Patrick and Glenn Hegar have touted their education cuts as a victory, and Attorney General Greg Abbott defended those cuts in court,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “The decision today is clear: these cuts were bad for Texas students and our state. Classes have started this school year, and our students should not have to wait for another lengthy court appeal to force Republican politicians in Austin to do the right thing. There should be no compromise on the quality of our students’ education and securing a strong, educated workforce for Texas’ future.”

David Hinojosa, Southwest Regional Counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said the ruling was especially important for Texas’ Spanish speaking students.

“This is a resounding victory for Texas public schools and schoolchildren, especially for the state’s most at- risk and vulnerable children like economically disadvantaged and English language learner students,” said Hinojosa, whose group represents five school districts representing low-income students. “Although low income students constitute the majority of public school students, clearly they constitute the minority when it comes to a political interest. And this judgment holds the states feet to the fire.”

Given Wendy Davis’ education policy releases this week, I’d say this was both fortuitous timing for her, and a solid defense against the usual complaints about she’s proposing things that will have to be paid for (heaven forfend). Pending the outcome of the inevitable Supreme Court appeal, the status quo is no longer operable. We have a good idea what Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte would do the make the state compliant. Greg Abbott, who spent the past couple of years defending the original $5.4 billion in cuts and the subsequent patch job, and his ideological buddy Dan Patrick have no credibility on this. Who do you want to solve a problem, someone who wants to solve it as well, or someone who resents being told there is a problem to solve? Seems pretty clear to me. EoW, Stace, Texas Leftist, BOR, John Coby, the Observer, the AusChron, and the SA Current have more.

UPDATE: Two more Chron stories worth noting. First, plaintiff reactions:

Dietz’s 404-page ruling and findings of fact represent the latest development in nearly three years of litigation over the issue. It’s a decisive victory for four plaintiff groups representing more than 600 school districts, including Houston ISD and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD.

But teachers, parents and students won’t see any tangible change this year, since the judge postponed any effects until after the upcoming legislative session.

“Judge Dietz’s ruling is stayed (until July 1), and therefore will have no immediate impact during this school year,” said Mark Trachtenberg, an attorney representing property-rich school districts including Alamo Heights in Bexar County. “We of course hope the Legislature, when it meets again in January 2015, will take steps to address the constitutional infirmities in the system.”

[...]

David Thompson, who represented 84 school districts including Houston and Cy-Fair in the case, applauded the ruling and said it put the onus on lawmakers.

“Since 2006, we have increased standards without regard to whether districts have the resources to meet them, all while adding hundreds of thousands of students who come to school with more needs and challenges,” said Thompson. “We respectfully believe that now is the time to begin to address the fundamental question over the resources that are needed to meet our state’s high standards.”

Leaders of Houston ISD, Texas’ largest school system, and Cy-Fair ISD both said they were pleased with the ruling.

“Education must be a statewide commitment,” said Houston ISD spokeswoman Sheleah Reed. “While HISD and the property owners of Houston have stepped up to the plate, it is time for our state to join us in ensuring that Texas schools have the resources needed to meet the high expectations we have for our students’ education.”

Cy-Fair Superintendent Mark Henry agreed: “We are pleased with the ruling and look forward to working with the Legislature to find a way to adequately fund all Texas public schools.”

The ruling wasn’t a victory for all the plaintiffs, however. Dietz denied relief for a group of charter schools that joined the suit, as well as a sixth group pushing school vouchers and reforms to teacher tenure laws.

And from the Missing The Point department:

It may not be that easy for Democrats to score political points off of the ruling, however.

Several political experts said education is an issue that often resonates more with mainstream liberals than the independent and moderate conservatives that Democrats will need to persuade to have a chance at victory.

Bryan Gervais, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, predicted the ruling may fire up the Democratic base in the short term, but is unlikely to be on the forefront of the minds of those who enter the voting booth.

“In November, is anybody going to be thinking about this case, really?” Gervais said.

Dude. Firing up the base is exactly what Democratic candidates need to do. I’ve said it repeatedly, it doesn’t matter how many “swing” voters Davis and/or Van de Putte can persuade to cross over if the Democratic base vote isn’t considerably higher than it’s been in the past three off-year elections. We need Presidential year voters to come out, just like the Republican benefited from in 2010. Do you not get that?

Gervais and [UT Politics Project director Jim] Henson said past battles repeatedly have taken center stage in the Legislature, but have not played the same starring role in political campaigns.

Democrats said this time could be different because of the $5.4 billion in cuts and how Republicans expressed pride in cutting spending afterward.

“The difference now is that back then, lawmakers never, ever cut $5 billion from public education and then bragged about it during a time of enrollment growth,” said Harold Cook, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Cook and other Democrats added they will benefit from being able to directly tie the ruling to several of the candidates, especially Abbott, because of his role defending the state.

The Davis campaign has been attacking Abbott for months on education and for defending the state against the lawsuit.

Yes, this time it really is different. That may not be enough, and maybe we really will look back and say it made little to no difference in turnout. But this campaign has always been about changing the turnout pattern, and the cuts to education have always been a part of that message. You could at least acknowledge that.

Posted in: Legal matters.

More on the Emmett Astrodome Park plan

Good to know that an architect thinks its feasible, but it will need more than that to become reality.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Kinder Baumgardner, president of SWA Architects, the firm behind several public projects in Houston involving parks, said plenty of big-idea architectural concepts that have been successfully carried out around the world initially were dismissed as impractical, including an indoor ski resort attached to a Dubai shopping mall.

“It is ridiculous, but it’s also very successful,” he said of Ski Dubai. “People love it.”

Baumgardner said he was excited and inspired by the concept Emmett proposed, but that “whatever this thing is,” or turns out to be, should complement, rather than duplicate, amenities the city offers, such as pavilions, amphitheaters, exercise facilities and hike and bike trails.

Emmett mentioned all of those as possibilities Tuesday when he announced his vision for the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has not housed a professional team in 15 years.

Preservationist Ted Powell, who helped prepare an application to have the state designate the Dome a protected historic landmark, said “at face value, it seems like a reasonable repurposing plan.” He said he is concerned, however, that the plan is a last-ditch effort by the county, and that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo or the NFL’s Texans – NRG Park’s two primary tenants – could block it or at least scare away private investors. Another bond election likely would fail, he said.

Last November, voters rejected a $217 million bond issue to turn the Dome into an events center that would have increased the property tax rate by half a cent.

“If it comes down to another bond issue, then is that it?” Powell said. “Is that when the county says ‘No, there’s no other way to do this?’ ”

Emmett refused to speculate Wednesday about what would happen if his plan does not succeed, calling it “a hypothetical I can’t consider right now.”

“It’s gained traction,” he said. “The question is, how do we make it happen?”

See here for the background. I think at a minimum, three things are needed:

1. A clear statement of what the final product will be. After all this time and all the various plans that have been floated – some boring, some exciting, some completely hair-brained – you will have to be able to say “This is what it will be, and this is what it will do”. Saying this is what it can be or what it could do won’t cut it. It would be nice, and would make for an easier sell, if what it will be is something people are enthusiastic about, but I think a sense of cautious optimism will suffice.

2. A clear statement of how this will be paid for, and how it will maintain itself going forward. If there is a bond issue involved, be very clear about the plan to pay it off. Will it rely on a future revenue stream? Is that projected revenue stream realistic or pie in the sky? Don’t create another Reliant Stadium parking revenue situation, is what I’m saying. If there’s any chance this could have an effect on property taxes, be up front about it, but do everything possible to avoid the need for even a tiny increase in property tax rates so that you can decisively crush any fearmongering about it. I believe cynicism about the 2013 plan was a major factor in its defeat (as was the lack of a real campaign in its favor), but the usual anti-tax hysteria surely played a role as well. Learn from the defeat of the 2013 referendum is the lesson here.

3. Have everyone on board, not just in the “won’t oppose it” sense but in the genuine, holding-hands-and-singing-Kumbaya sense. What drives the cynicism I’m talking about is the sense that the Texans and the Rodeo are just sandbagging until they can force the demolition of the Dome, and that Commissioners Court is playing along with them. The only way to counter the view that this is all a game is to have all the stakeholders front and center in support of the plan, and to communicate that support by all means possible. Have I mentioned that the lack of a real campaign in 2013 was a factor in that referendum’s defeat? Because it was, and that’s a mistake you don’t want to repeat. Be loud and proud about the fact that everyone wants this to happen and that good things will result if it does. That will also mean talking about what happens if the plan goes down. If this is the last chance to save the Dome, say so. Don’t do so to frighten, just to be clear. Let people know what the choices are.

I make no guarantees about any of this. There’s plenty of ways that this can all fall apart, even if all the stakeholders do get on board, for which there’s also no guarantee. But if you want a path to success, where “success” is saving the Dome and using it for something useful, then this is the way I would want it to go. What do you think? PDiddie has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

The slow decline of the death penalty in Texas

Maybe a little.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes this state’s swagger over being tough on crime like “Old Sparky,” an electric chair that was used to execute 361 inmates and is now the centerpiece of a prison museum.

It sits just minutes from the Texas penitentiary where it was forever unplugged 50 years ago this summer following the execution of Houston’s Joseph Johnson Jr. for murdering a grocer.

While the oak chair is now a capital punishment relic photographed daily by visitors, this state’s death row is undergoing what looks to be a historic shift.

Texas forged an international reputation as it has executed far more inmates than any other state in the nation since 1982, when it resumed capital punishment with lethal injection. But this year, Texas just may lose its distinction as the state carrying out the most executions annually, sitting in a three-way tie with Missouri and Florida. Each state has executed seven people so far this year.

In Texas, a slew of changes in capital punishment that have been trotted out over the past decade or so and are taking hold. Those include requiring better legal representation for people facing the death penalty, giving jurors the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison without parole, and increasing the use of DNA and other scientific testing. And significant to the change is the realization by lawmakers and others that the system that condemns someone is not bulletproof.

The state executed an average of 29 people annually from 1997 to 2007, with 40 in 2000, according to statistics maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center. But it is now on track to have no more than 11 this year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the fewest number in 23 years.

Texas is not getting weaker on crime, but getting smarter about who is sentenced to death by reducing the chances of condemning an innocent person, said former Texas Gov. Mark White.

“We are starting to recognize that being tough on crime doesn’t mean you have to be tough on innocent people,” White said. “We have learned a lot: use the cutting edge of science, and not just the fast draw of the Old West.”

Not sure how much credit I’m willing to give the Lege for this, other than the passage of life without parole, which has definitely had an effect. If there’s a greater awareness about wrongful convictions and the need to safeguard against them, it’s mostly due to the efforts of groups like the Innocence Project, local officials like Dallas County DA Craig Watkins, and the compelling stories of exonerated men like Michael Morton, Anthony Graves, and the late Timothy Cole. The fact that insufficient enthusiasm for the death penalty can still be used as a political attack suggests we haven’t come that far from the old days. Though I am not a death penalty abolitionist, I will be perfectly happy if this trend continues.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

More about TPJ

The Chron profiles Texans for Public Justice, the group that filed the complaint that led to Rick Perry’s indictments.

[Craig] McDonald’s Texans for Public Justice, which operates out of a small office west of the University of Texas-Austin campus and currently has less than $1,000 in the bank, is known as the state’s preeminent group for analyzing campaign donations, building lobbyist databases and filing ethical complaints. It is at least partially responsible for the downfalls of former state Rep. Gabi Canales, former state Board of Education member Rene Nuñez and, most notably, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The only thing unusual about the two-page Perry complaint, McDonald said, was how long it took him and longtime colleague Andrew Wheat to put it together: just two days.

That, and the reaction.

Since the indictment was handed up Aug. 15, Texans for Public Justice has received dozens of interview requests and hundreds of expletive-filled letters, calls and emails, 10 times what followed DeLay’s 2005 indictment, McDonald said.

The group has played no role in the case since filing the complaint, but it nonetheless has become a part of the story as Perry has waged an aggressive campaign to cast the indictment as politically motivated.

[...]

Most of the group’s most high-profile targets have been Republicans, including DeLay, Perry and Ken Paxton, the current GOP nominee for attorney general, who last month became the subject of a TPJ complaint over his failure to register as an investment adviser as required by law.

Texans for Public Justice has gone after Democrats too.

One of the group’s earliest efforts targeted Canales, a Corpus Christi Democrat, for allegedly selling her power as a legislator to delay lawsuits. Canales lost her 2004 re-election bid, and the Legislature passed a law requiring all members to disclose when they used legislative continuances during legal proceedings.

Two other Democrats, Nuñez and fellow state Board of Education member Rick Agosto, were targeted in 2009 for not reporting gifts from a firm with business before the board. Nuñez was fined and lost his re-election bid.

National campaign-finance watchdog Ellen Miller said the group likely would target more Democrats if there were more of them in power.

“Texans for Public Justice has a national prominence and recognition for their very active state-based work around issues having to do with money, power and politics,” said Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which donated $1,200 to the Texas group in 2012.

So there you have it. Elect more Democrats, including some statewide, and you’ll see more of them get into trouble. It’s a lot harder to abuse power when you don’t have it.

Anyway. This story is a lot like the Trib story from last week, and undoubtedly like the others that have been written as well. I hope that in addition to all the attention they’re getting, a few people have also made contributions to TPJ so they can keep doing what they’re doing. If you want to be one of those people, see below the fold for the text of a fundraising email they sent out, with a donation link included. Someone has to do what TPJ does, and they’ve shown they’re pretty good at it.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Scandalized!.

More education policy from Davis

A lot to like here.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Saying she wants to expand Texas high schoolers’ access to technical job training programs, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis announced a plan to create a Career-Technical Coordinating Board.

The plan is the latest in a string of education reform proposals from Davis. It also includes recommendations on college affordability and improving graduation rates.

Davis promoted the proposal Tuesday at an event in San Antonio, saying she hoped to build cooperation among “local industries, community and technical colleges” in helping prepare Texas students for the the technical jobs of the future, according to the proposal.

“At the very time when we need an educated workforce to lead the economy of the future, we need to put quality education within reach for Texas families,” Davis said.

The campaign of her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, noted that Davis’ proposal did not mention how much the plan would cost.

“Sen. Davis continues to present talking points and press releases dressed as policy proposals that contain few details, lack any cost information and will grow the size of government,” said Amelia Chassé, an Abbott campaign spokeswoman. “If this were an assignment, her grade would be ‘incomplete.’ Texans deserve a leader that presents real solutions, not more slogans and fuzzy math.”

Davis said she would work with the Legislature to “find the resources in existing resources to be able to carry forth” the proposal.

See also this subsequent Trib story for more details. Stace, who liked what he saw especially on higher education, correctly predicted the “how much will it cost?” reaction, though to be honest it wasn’t that hard to see it coming. The irony here is that much of what Davis is calling for, and what Lt. Gov. candidate Leticia Van de Putte has called for in her proposal to subsidize community college directly addresses a lot of the things that the business community through mouthpieces like Bill Hammond says it wants. They just don’t want to have to pay for any of it. You’ll see that reflected when Greg Abbott gets around to releasing his education plan after Labor Day. It will, I am certain, be full of things like higher standards, greater accountability, more ways for people to move their children to other schools, and maybe a few other shiny objects, but not a dime of new spending, no assistance for the many, many students who need it to graduate or to be able to afford any kind of higher education, and no mention of how any of those standards or accountability measures can be achieved at current – or, hopefully for Abbott, lower – funding levels. Everyone just needs to work smarter, that’s all that it takes. Davis’ press release with the full outline of her plan, and a release from Battleground Texas about her plan, are beneath the fold, and BOR has more.

UPDATE: This DMN story from day two of Davis’ release touches on paying for her proposals.

Wendy Davis acknowledged Wednesday that her proposals to improve public schools will cost more money, but she said revenue is available if lawmakers will make education a priority and eliminate some corporate tax breaks.

“We need a governor who will lead the Legislature in a bipartisan way to find the smart ways to create that investment,” said Davis, the Democratic nominee, at an Austin news conference.

Davis said that because of Texas’ booming economy, budget writers next year are expected to have a $4 billion surplus and billions more in the state rainy day fund.

She said that existing revenue, coupled with “closing corporate tax loopholes that have been on the books in Texas for decades,” should provide lawmakers with the money needed to balance the budget and boost funding for education without new taxes.

Republican nominee Greg Abbott says his Democratic opponent would raise taxes if elected governor.

Asked what corporate tax breaks she would close, Davis’ campaign cited as an example property tax breaks for greenbelts used exclusively for recreation and parks, including private country clubs. Another tax break targeted by the Davis campaign is $111 million a year the state loses by rewarding large stores for paying their sales taxes on time.

Davis said she and Abbott offer “starkly different paths for our state” on investment in public schools.

It’s going to take more than that to fully fund all the things she’s talking about, but those items are a start, and they have the advantage of being good policy on their own. The story also reminds us that the state may soon be under a court order to find more money for education, so it sure would be nice if someone were thinking along these lines.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Election 2014.

HERO repealers try their luck with the Supreme Court

Because sure, why not?

PetitionsInvalid

Opponents of Houston’s equal rights ordinance have asked the Texas Supreme Court to force the city secretary to certify the signatures on a petition they submitted seeking to trigger a repeal referendum on the law.

Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals denied a similar request on Aug. 15, ruling that the emergency writ of mandamus would have the same result as a favorable ruling in the pending lawsuit opponents filed against the city earlier this month. The plaintiffs, the judges wrote, could appeal after a ruling comes down at the trial court level.

Trial in that case is set for Jan. 19.

The new filing with the Supreme Court, turned in late Tuesday, is similar to the group of conservative pastors and activists’ previous requests. It seeks to have the court force the city to suspend enforcement of the ordinance, to put the ordinance to another vote of the City Council and, if the council does not repeal it, to put the issue before voters.

Mayor Annise Parker already has agreed to suspend enforcement until a legal ruling is issued. Officials have said the deadline for placing items on the November ballot was Aug. 18, meaning a favorable ruling for opponents would appear to result in a vote in either May or November of 2015.

City Attorney David Feldman pointing to the appellate court’s denial of the similar mandamus filing, said opponents will face the same legal hurdles in going to the Supreme Court.

“It doesn’t change because the venue changes,” he said. “The law is still the same.”

Plaintiff Jared Woodfill said his side simply disagrees with the appellate court’s ruling and is hopeful the Supreme Court justices will see things differently.

See here, here, and here for the background. Remember, Woodfill et al are suing to get their referendum on the ballot. The writ of mandamus they have filed with the Supreme Court asks that the referendum be put on the ballot. You may wonder, as did Judge Shaffer and the 14th Circuit Court of Appeals, what the point of the lawsuit is if the mandamus gives them what they’re suing for. But like me, you probably don’t have the brilliant legal mind of Jared Woodfill. It doesn’t cost them anything but Andy Taylor’s exorbitant legal fees to ask, so what the hell. Texpatriate has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Teachers are doing it for themselves

I know this is intended to be an upbeat story, but I can’t help but find it a little depressing.

Some tech-savvy teachers turned to the Web this summer to try to offset the nearly $500 typically spent to ready a classroom for the first day of school.

Numerous Houston-area educators posted pleas on social media sites, including GoFundMe.com, donorschoose.org and Houston-based PledgeCents.com, asking for money for everything from Kleenex to graphing calculators.

[...]

Teachers spend an average of $485 of their own money on supplies for their students and classrooms, according to a 2012-13 study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. First-year teachers have among the highest expenses, with few resources of their own to get started, experts said.

“We definitely have had a bunch of teachers who have raised funds for basic classroom needs,” said Andyshea Saberioon, CEO and co-founder of PledgeCents.com. “We keep seeing all the ‘back-to-school’ sales going on, but that means that a teacher has to spend money out of their own pocket for those items. So we are seeing more teachers being proactive and raising funds for those supplies for this year.”

In Houston ISD, some teachers are eligible to be reimbursed up to $50 for classroom supplies. The Fort Bend Education Foundation provides its new teachers – about 250 this year – with $100 gift certificates for supplies.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, where more than 500 teachers will begin their careers Monday, does not give first-year teachers money to start their classrooms but tries to provide basic supplies such as poster board, pens and sentence strips, spokeswoman Nicole Ray said. Some campuses have parent-teacher organizations that provide teachers gift cards to help offset start-up costs.

You know the old bumper sticker about how it will be a great day when schools are fully funded but the Pentagon has to hold bake sales to be able to buy more bombers? That was the first thing I thought of when I read this. DonorsChoose and others like it are the modern-day bake sale. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad these organizations exist to help fill the funding gap we’ve created for schools and teachers nationwide. I’m just pointing out that the need that DonorsChoose and its cohort are filling isn’t some accident of nature that we have no choice but to work around. It really would be a great thing if that need didn’t exist.

Posted in: School days.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 25

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a Happy Back To School Week as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

How about Astrodome Indoor Park?

County Judge Ed Emmett gives his vision for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday proposed turning the Astrodome into “the world’s largest indoor park” and recreation area, a concept he said would honor the reason his predecessor built the iconic stadium 50 years ago: “To provide for traditional outdoor activities in an indoor space.”

“Rather than try to convert the Dome into something it was never intended to be, I think it’s time to look back to the vision of Judge Hofheinz,” Emmett told reporters gathered on the floor of the 49-year-old structure.

Among potential attractions Emmett said he could envision at the domed stadium were a large open green for festivals and other community gatherings, general exercise facilities, an amphitheater, a pavilion for music and other events, and special educational facilities for children, even museums. The Dome also could house permanent or temporary sports facilities, such as an archery range or horseshoe pits, he said.

Emmett said he has discussed the idea with members of Commissioners Court, as well as NRG Park’s major tenants, the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

He acknowledged his proposal was open-ended and did not include any funding plan, the lack of which has been his major criticism of previous proposals to redevelop the stadium.

“I think it’s important to layout the vision and call on the public and experts to help implement that vision,” he said.

Funding would consist of a combination of private and public funds, including rental fees, Emmett said. He gave no cost estimate for the proposal, saying that would be revealed once the plan is firmed up.

“Let me stress again, converting the Dome into the world’s largest indoor park is a vision worth pursuing,” Emmett said. “But in order to realize that vision, we must look to the public sector, the private sector and the general public for that support.”

Emmett’s statement about his vision for the Dome, which Swamplot notes has some similarity at a high level to the kind of plan that the Rodeo and the Texans were touting as having public support, is here. Getting enough of the public behind a vision for the Dome, enough to overcome the persistent cynicism that many people feel and that I think helped lead to the defeat of the 2013 referendum. People are going to need to be convinced that this is a good idea, that it really will save the Dome, that it’s not just another boring proposal being put before them so Commissioners Court will have cover to do the Rodeo and Texans’ bidding and finally tear it down, and that the value proposition for whatever the county will spend and the taxpayers will be asked to fund is there. The vision is good, but the sooner we have details and some pretty pictures to ponder, the better, especially if the idea is to have something ready in time for the 2017 Super Bowl. Texpatriate has more.

UPDATE: Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Trying again with pre-K

Different approach, hopefully a different result will follow.

On the first day of school for most Houston-area children, a coalition called “Early Matters” organized by the Greater Houston Partnership announced Monday it would release a 10-year “game plan” at a summit next month to expand pre-kindergarten and child care programs and assist parents so they can “become the best parents they can be for their growing child.”

Coalition members, including Chair Jim Postl, the retired president and CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., also made clear they would be looking to the Texas Legislature, which gutted state funding for full-day pre-K in 2011, saying restoring that money would be “a very important first step” to carrying out a plan they say will increase the likelihood that kids will stay in school and be prepared to join the workforce or go to college when they graduate.

[...]

The Partnership, Houston’s most influential chamber of commerce group, helped commission a study in 2012 that found that the vast majority of brain development occurs before age five and that greater investment in early childhood programs would be crucial to the region’s future economic success. The resulting report inspired the formation of another coalition of local business and community leaders called Early to Rise that launched a petition drive last year to place a 1-cent property tax hike on the November ballot to generate funding for these types of programs. The effort was based on an obscure, decades-old law that said the county judge must call an election to raise the tax rate of the Harris County Department of Education if enough valid signatures are gathered.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett refused to place on the item on the ballot, however, saying he supported improving early childhood education but that the petition language the group had used did not comply with the law. He and others also did not like that the proposal would have diverted the tax dollars to the coffers of a private group.

The group sued, but an appeals court backed Emmett’s decision.

Harvey said he and other GHP committee members convened a few months later and decided to launch another effort with “more active involvement of the business community” and “a much broader coalition.” In addition to business leaders, the coalition was joined Monday by a half-dozen local school superintendents, including Houston ISD’s Terry Grier.

“I think there was a lot of answered questions in a lot of people’s minds” about last year’s proposal, including “how you raise the money and how you have a countywide tax rate, who is going to be in charge of those dollars,” Grier said. “I think that this has the full support of the Greater Houston Partnership and it’s a wide coalition, a much broader coalition than it was a year ago. I’ve seen both programs. This is not the same program repackaged. This is totally different.”

Clearly, going for a statewide plan is the optimal path, but it’s also the heavier lift politically since it would involve spending money. I know the GHP and their partners in this effort would like to be nice and bipartisan and all, but there are some fairly significant differences between the two major candidates on the issue of pre-K. If you don’t feel like clicking those links, just ask yourself who as the next Governor will be more amenable to fully funding a statewide pre-K program. The question answers itself. The Early Matters coalition, who have County Judge Ed Emmett on board with the idea, haven’t zeroed in on how they would fund this, and still have a lot of blanks to fill in policy-wise, but it’s the goal that matters. I personally would have no problems with the Lege doing this via appropriation, but we should certainly take advantage of whatever federal and private grants exist, too. Let’s make this happen, and let’s make it happen in a lot less than that ten-year time frame.

Posted in: School days.

No one gets to dictate that the Uptown line must be BRT forever

So as we know, the Uptown line is moving ahead as BRT. It will be paid for with a variety of funds, coming from the city, from an Uptown/Memorial TIRZ, from grants, and so forth. A key component of this is an HOV lane on 610 for the buses that will carry the passengers for this line. The Uptown Management District and Metro were recently given $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission to facilitate this part of the construction. That money came with the proviso that this was really and truly going to be a BRT project, not a light rail project. Apparently, the recipients haven’t pinky-sworn hard enough on this to convince the TTC of their sincerity.

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state’s transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

State officials and skeptics of Metro’s regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won’t be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said “Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail.”

Moseley suggested Metro’s pledge on not building rail “could be stronger,” according to an email the same day. He suggested noting that any construction would not facilitate rail conversion.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia reiterated Metro’s lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can’t take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

“I am being respectful of the will of the voters,” Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance. The one-page document says all the parties “agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component.”

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

“I don’t think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not,” Garcia said. “Likewise, I don’t think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion.”

His partners disagree.

“We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail,” Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. “We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed.”

See here for the background. I for one agree with Gilbert Garcia. The casual disregard for the 2003 referendum by light rail opponents continues to astonish me. The Uptown line was intended to be light rail. That’s what the voters approved. I’m okay with it being built as BRT for now, because we do need to do something today and because at this point it doesn’t make sense to do the more expensive investment of light rail infrastructure until we know for sure that the Universities line will be built and/or until a commuter rail line along US290 gets going. But how does it possibly make sense to cut off, or at least make much less viable, a transit option that may not be on the table for ten years or more by putting a ridiculously long-term condition on a measly $25 million grant today? It would be better to forfeit those funds now than to sign away future enhancements that may someday look like a great idea or that may never happen. What authority does the TTC have to impose such a short-sighted condition? As far as the Uptown board goes, no future Metro is going to go ahead with a light rail conversion for the Uptown BRT line without the cooperation and co-funding of the Uptown Management District. The current board has no more right to shackle its future successors than the TTC does to shackle Metro. Can we please quit with the posturing and get on with the plans already? Sheesh.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

“Environmental tort reform”

Oh, hell no.

After failing in their attempt to limit cities and counties’ ability to take industrial polluters to court, some Houston businesses and statewide lobbyists now want to limit how much local governments can collect in penalties, a sort of environmental tort reform effort aimed squarely at a Harris County Attorney’s office they say is seeking high-dollar payouts at the expense of cleanup efforts.

At a legislative committee hearing earlier this year, the powerful Texas Association of Business and attorneys for Waste Management Inc. and a wealthy Houston family being sued by Harris County told lawmakers that the County Attorney’s office has started seeking outrageous penalties unrelated to environmental clean-up costs from entities already cooperating with remediation requirements imposed by the state or federal government. If allowed to continue, they told members of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, the lawsuits could have a “chilling effect” on development and erode property values.

“As a practicing lawyer who advises companies as to what liabilities they may face, like becoming involved with a contaminated property, I have to advise them – based on some of the recent cases – that there is a possibility, as remote as it might be … that you could be penalized for coming on to that site and seeking redevelopment because it is not precluded by the laws as they exist now,” said John Riley, a lawyer for Houston-based Waste Management.

The mega-company and two of its affiliates are facing nearly $2 billion in fines in a lawsuit brought by the county – set to go to trial next month – involving one of the state’s biggest pollution headaches: two industrial waste pits that leached paper mill sludge containing cancer-causing dioxins into the San Jacinto River for almost half a century.

McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. owned and operated the pits – now a federal Superfund site – in the 1960s, filling a 20-acre tract with waste from a now-closed paper mill near the Washburn Tunnel. The company later became part of Houston-based Waste Management.

The County Attorney’s office sued Waste Management, and International Paper Co., in 2011, asking the companies be fined as much as the law allows – $25,000 a day – all the way back to the site’s 1965 opening.

Last year, the companies supported legislation that would have diminished the power Texas cities and counties have had for decades to file such environmental enforcement lawsuits. Two bills that died in a House committee after being fought by Harris County lobbyists would have required the Texas attorney general to settle all such litigation filed by local governments and barred them from hiring outside lawyers on a contingency fee basis.

[...]

At the May hearing, Harris County officials told committee members they were “not sure what the problem is,” emphasizing that the TCEQ typically is listed as a “necessary and indispensable party” in these cases and that they must be approved by Commissioners Court.

“These cases are not filed willy-nilly,” First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

Soard and other officials who testified, including a TCEQ employee, said such lawsuits are reserved only for the most egregious cases. The county, they said, simply is attempting to recuperate clean-up, legal and other costs associated with contaminated sites and has every legal right to do so.

“Every time we file a case against a large company now we now expect to see them run to Commissioners Court and the press screaming about how unfair we are,” said Rock Owens, who heads the County Attorney’s four-lawyer environmental division. “This never used to happen and now it’s par for the course. Maybe this is an indication that we are finally hitting where it hurts, even if it’s only a little ding.”

Hey, you know what these powerful business interests and wealthy families can do to stop getting sued over these ginormous environmental messes they’re responsible for? They can clean them up in a timely fashion, and they can take all necessary steps to ensure that they don’t create any more such toxic hazards. Until then, as far as I’m concerned, they can STFU.

Posted in: Legal matters.

We need more mobile ID stations

From the inbox, from the League of Women Voters.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF TEXAS CALLS ON SECRETARY OF STATE TO EXPAND AND IMPROVE EFFORTS TO PROVIDE ELECTION IDENTIFICATION CERTIFICATES

AUSTIN, TX – “We are deeply concerned that eligible voters could be disenfranchised this November and we urge the Secretary of State to expand her efforts to provide Election Identification Certificates to voters who need them,” according to Elaine Wiant, President of the League of Women Voters of Texas.”

The League of Women Voters of Texas along with Public Citizen, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund and Texas Freedom Network Education today called on the Secretary of State, Nandita Berry to expand the 2013 efforts to provide EICs to voters who need them.

The League and its partners recommend that the State provide mobile ID stations in each of the major metropolitan areas (Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, McAllen and San Antonio) for at least seven days, including at least two weekend days, between now and Election Day. Additional locations outside of the major metropolitan areas including rural communities should also be provided to adequately respond to the needs of Texas voters.

In order to make the mobile ID stations accessible to those without the required IDs, we recommend that weekend and non-traditional work hours such as evenings be emphasized in all communities. The groups asked that the dates and locations of the mobile ID stations be set at least 21 days in advance, in order to give individuals sufficient time to obtain the underlying documentation required, such as birth certificates, to obtain EICs.

According to Wiant, “Local leaders are best positioned to identify the communities with the greatest need for this service and the places that community members can most easily access. Therefore, we ask that the Secretary ask local leaders for recommendations for selecting locations for the mobile ID stations.”

The State had previously estimated that a substantial number of registered Texas voters-between 600,000 and 800,000-lack an approved form of photo ID. The data provided to the United States Department of Justice as of September 2011 and January 2012 show that minority communities could be disparately impacted. In addition, a federal court found that “a substantial subgroup of Texas voters, many of whom are African American or Hispanic, lack photo ID” and that the “burdens associated with obtaining ID” will weigh most heavily upon the State’s racial minorities. Young people ages 18 to 24 and the elderly are also believed to be among those who are more likely than the general population to not have an approved form of photo ID.

The November 2014 election is the first major election under the Texas photo ID requirement. To be accepted, the ID must be current or expired no more than 60 days, and be one of the following:
Texas driver’s license, personal ID card, concealed carry license, or election identification certificate, or

  • United States passport, military ID, citizenship or naturalization certificate
  • Photo IDS that cannot be accepted at the polls include out-of-state driver’s licenses, employer IDs, and school IDs.

An exact match between the name on the photo ID and the list of registered voters is not required to be accepted to vote a regular ballot. If names don’t match, additional information will be considered in accepting the voter. Voters without acceptable ID will be able to vote a provisional ballot and provide ID within 6 days of the election.

An Election Identification Certificate can be obtained by voters without one of the other acceptable IDs by providing proof of citizenship and identity at Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) offices.

Battleground Texas, which has joined the call for more mobile ID stations, put out this helpful backgrounder on the issue. That state estimate of 600,000 to 800,000 voters who lack ID is the low end – up to 1.2 million registered voters may lack the accepted forms of ID, and black and Latino voters are far more likely to be in that bucket than white voters. The state of Texas and Greg Abbott in his role as its attorney have claimed repeatedly that there was nothing discriminatory or suppressionist about the voter ID law. Doing their best to ensure that all eligible voters who lack ID can get it would be a step in the direction of backing up those claims.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Rick Perry was actively searching for Rosemary Lehmberg’s replacement

The plot thickens.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Gov. Rick Perry personally called a well-known Austin Democrat to discuss her interest in replacing Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg days before the public learned Perry was threatening to withhold state funding from Lehmberg’s office unless she resigned.

Austin defense attorney Mindy Montford, who previously ran as a Democratic candidate for state district judge and district attorney in Travis County, confirmed her conversation with Perry — which took place in early June 2013 — to the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV on Sunday.

She said Perry informed her he intended to veto money to the Public Integrity Unit unless Lehmberg stepped down following her high-profile drunken driving arrest. Under the law, Perry, a Republican in his 14th year in office, would have named Lehmberg’s replacement pending an election.

“I think I told him, of course, it would be an amazing opportunity, and I thanked him for considering me,” Montford said. “The fact that I am a Democrat was surprising, and I think I mentioned that to him. I told him I would think about it, and thanked him.

“There was no acceptance because I didn’t feel like it was timely at that point,” she said. “We never spoke again because it became irrelevant when she did not resign.”

[...]

The revelation shows the level at which Perry was directly involved in attempts to force Lehmberg’s resignation and appoint a successor in the days leading up to his June 14 veto — rather than high-level aides coordinating the effort and briefing the governor.

To be clear, this information doesn’t add anything to the first round of legal arguments over whether or not the indictments are valid. Perry’s high-priced lawyers are arguing that the statute is unconstitutional, and if that’s true it’s true whether or not Rick Perry was behind the curtain trying to shove Lehmberg off the ledge. What it does is definitively ties Perry to the alleged criminal action of trying to coerce Lehmberg’s resignation. Remember that in the Tom DeLay case, one of the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case was the lack of direct evidence that linked DeLay to the money transfer. Mindy Montford provides that evidence for the Perry case quite nicely. No question, if there’s a trial, she’ll be a star witness.

This also brings up a point that Christopher Hooks in the Observer illustrates. Perry kind of needs the indictments to go away quickly, because the longer this plays out, the more revelations like this we’re likely to get, and the more dots that can be connected. Ed Sills in his email newsletter riffed off that Statesman piece to show the lengths that Perry spokespeople went to back in April to avoid saying anything that would later prove to be false. Hooks elaborates:

Separately, the story of the indictments is set to give new life to old stories about Perry’s improprieties, in much the same way Chris Christie’s bridge-related indiscretions gave rise to a narrative about his temper and vindictiveness toward political opponents. And Perry’s personality—best suited to offense—was well tailored to the first stage of this ordeal, but may trip him up going forward.

Here’s Perry’s story about the indictments, as outlined in a video released by his political action committee, PerryPAC: He saw a damaged public official, a woman who shouldn’t possibly hold office or any kind of responsibility, and took firm, narrowly targeted action to try to remove her. Now he’s facing political retribution from Democrats.

Parts of that narrative fall apart as soon as you look at them closely—particularly the notion that special prosecutor Michael McCrum, appointed to the case by a Republican judge in San Antonio, is an agent of Battleground Texas. But much of the rest of it could fall apart over the course of a trial, too.

Perry says his veto was about unseating Lehmberg, but it had significant consequences. As the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg wrote on Thursday, Perry’s veto of the funding for the Public Integrity Unit “derailed more than 400 felony level tax and insurance fraud investigations allegedly committed against the State of Texas.”

In other words, Perry’s action didn’t just punish Lehmberg for her refusal to step down—it punished the state as a whole and Texas citizens generally. Think about that: Perry zeroed out the funding for more than 400 felony investigations because a local official wouldn’t step down when he wanted. Kronberg:

The Travis County Public Integrity Unit is the most under-appreciated law enforcement apparatus in the state. Fully 95% of what it does is pursue white collar crime in Texas and on behalf of the State of Texas – motor fuels tax fraud, insurance fraud and legal support for the smaller of Texas 254 counties that do not have the funding or expertise to pursue white collar crimes in their jurisdictions.

When Perry derailed the unit, the Travis County Commissioners Court stepped in and restored a portion of the funding—but the PIU had to slash staff and caseload. The state’s side in serious criminal cases that had nothing to do with Lehmberg’s troubles—or even, politics generally—suffered needlessly.

But the PIU investigates political corruption too. Kronberg dismisses the relevance of the investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas as a factor in Perry’s motivation for wanting a friend in control of the DA’s office, but points to other possibilities.

“It is far more interesting to look at the Public Integrity Unit investigation of Republican AG candidate Ken Paxton and Perry Regent appointment Wallace Hall,” Kronberg writes. “Had Lehmberg resigned, it is doubtful Perry’s appointed replacement would be very interested in either criminal referral.” There’s no shortage of possible motives for Perry’s intervention in the PIU, even if those motives don’t necessarily matter to the legal case against him.

If the trial gets going, there’s really no telling what’s going to get dredged up in the discovery process. What internal communications, what private conversations will we become privy to? This trial might be the most penetrating look at Perry’s workshop in the 14 years since he took office. There’s no politician that comes away from that level of scrutiny looking good.

Some of this will come out anyway, but in the context of a trial, it’s going to look worse. And Perry may not get to hide behind privilege as much as he usually gets to. There are a lot of rocks to look under, and who knows what we’ll find. Harold Cook and Grits have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

The overcrowded jails of Montgomery County

Sometimes it’s hard to be a County Commissioner.

go_to_jail

Montgomery County officials are facing a dilemma partly of their own making: What to do with an ever-growing jail population after selling off another lockup.

The county’s jailers are struggling to find space for inmates — with dozens on occasion being forced to sleep on the floor or be shipped to a jail outside the county. The 1,200-bed jail is one of only five statewide — and the only one in the Houston region — rated “at risk” for overcrowding by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Next door to the county jail, separated only by a cyclone fence topped with razor wire, sits the Joe Corley Detention Center, built by the county in 2008 for $45 million. While the 1,500-bed facility was planned to someday handle jail overflow, the inmate population didn’t rise quickly enough, prompting the county to sell it to a private company in May 2013, said Commissioner Craig Doyal, who is poised to become county judge in January after a Republican primary win.

Commissioners said they felt pressured into the sale because of an Internal Revenue Service deadline that could have cost the county the tax-exempt status on the bonds used to build the center.

Commissioners had pledged during the bond election that local inmates would fill 30 percent of the center within five years — but not a single inmate had ever been placed there. They had instead been allowing the U.S. government to pay to house federal prisoners there.

Florida-based Geo Group Inc. bought the center to house undocumented immigrants, leaving commissioners on Monday with little choice but to begin reviewing new proposals, costing in the $200 million range, to expand the jail.

Doyal points out that the county earned a $20-million profit from selling the center to Geo for $65 million. At the same time, Geo pays the county an additional $250,000 per year in taxes for the center and $500,000 for managing its federal prisoner contracts.

In addition, the proposed jail expansion, if completed, would be four times larger than the detention center.

Yeah, $20 million plus $250K per year is still a long way away from $200 million. I know I was a math major and all, but I don’t think you need any particular expertise to realize that. And if the last new facility never needed to be used, why would you need a new one that’s four times bigger than the one you have now? And another thing…you know, I’m just going to hand the mike to Grits.

The main difference between this situation and a circus is that clowns in the circus are professionals. The commissioners court’s ill-considered launch and inept (and possibly corrupt) handling of the whole private jail mess has been a comedy of errors and misjudgements that would be funnier if local taxpayers weren’t footing the bill. I’d be rather surprised if voters approve a nine-figure jail bond so they can go through the whole jail-building brouhaha again. (Wanna bet commissioners try to issue the debt without voter approval?)

Grits fails to understand after all these years why, whenever public officials suggest new jail construction in response to “overcrowding,” reporters don’t immediately begin to question the causes and solicit solutions for excessive pretrial detention. More to the point, why didn’t the consultants hired by the county suggest those options? Like other jails in the state with an overcrowding problem, most Montgomery jail inmates have not been convicted of a crime (and will receive probation even if convicted). Instead, just more than two thirds of them, according to a 7/1 TCJS report, are in jail awaiting trial, still technically presumed innocent. Most simply cannot afford bail. Statewide, about 58 percent of defendants in county jails are awaiting trial; half is not at all an unreasonable goal.

Whether the old jail needs renovation I cannot say. But to the extent the issue is building more capacity, it’s likely Montgomery County officials – particularly local judges – could resolve that  without new jail construction just by expanded use of personal bonds for lower risk defendants who can’t make bail. They should try that before asking taxpayers/voters to trust them with another jail building scheme.

Yeah, what he said. To be as fair as I can be to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court, they do represent a fast-growing county, so it’s not completely unreasonable that their current jail needs are growing as well. That doesn’t detract from Grits’ point, of course. There are dumb ways to handle that kind of growth, and there are smart ways to handle it. You can see which way they’re leaning up there. Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Shine a light on dark money

I totally favor this.

BagOfMoney

Secret campaign donors in Texas may soon be forced out of the shadows.

The Texas Ethics Commission, already fighting a conservative group in court over whether it can regulate dark money disclosure, appears poised to approve a proposal aimed at requiring some politically active nonprofits to start revealing their anonymous donors.

The eight-member commission rolled out a draft proposal Thursday, signaling how the state campaign finance regulator plans to move forward on tackling the growing concern over secret campaign spending in Texas elections.

Under the draft regulation, the commission would require a nonprofit to start disclosing donors if 25 percent or more of the group’s expenditures can be classified as politically motivated. It also would require disclosure if political contributions account for more than 25 percent of the group’s total contributions in a calendar year.

“We’re tying to figure out how we get to the public information about who is contributing to candidates,” said commission Chairman Jim Clancy, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Separately, the commission on Thursday clarified that dark money groups may spend up to 20 percent of their revenue on politics without having to disclose donors.

The commission referred to it as a safe harbor, of sorts, in an opinion that represents one of the first concrete pieces of guidance provided to campaign finance lawyers since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums on electioneering.

As I’m sure you know, I am all in favor of more disclosure. I honestly don’t understand the argument against it, though I’m aware that the courts don’t necessarily share my view. The usual anti-transparency suspects are kicking up the usual fuss and threatening to take this to court, where they unfortunately will have a good chance of prevailing. It’s still the right thing to do, and who knows? Maybe some day we’ll have better judges. Texas Politics has more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Perry’s legal team to try to get indictments tossed

It’s what any defense attorney would try to do.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog has done nothing wrong

A lawyer for Gov. Rick Perry said Friday he will challenge felony charges that the governor overstepped his authority when he said he would veto state funding for Travis County prosecutors if District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg would not resign her post.

David Botsford, an attorney for Perry, informed Visiting Judge Bert Richardson he plans to file a writ of habeas corpus challenging the constitutionality of the laws underlying the two-count indictment against Perry.

“It will speak for itself,” Botsford told reporters. He said his challenge would be based on the governor’s power to veto and his First Amendment rights.

[...]

Both Botsford and Michael McCrum, the San Antonio defense attorney who was appointed the special prosecutor in the case, met with Judge Richardson Friday. After a 35-minute meeting in the judge’s chambers, the two attorneys came out and Richardson informed the court Botsford would turn in his challenges to the indictment by Aug. 29.

Once those objections have been filed, McCrum will file his responses and the first full hearing in the Perry criminal case will be scheduled.

Outside the courtroom, McCrum declined to talk about his strategy or address criticism about the indictment returned against the governor.

“I think it’s appropriate to approach this case in a court of law,” said McCrum, who anticipated that a trial in the matter would not take place until next year.

Novel idea, that. Just as a reminder, the complaint was filed before Rick Perry vetoed the Public Integrity Unit funds, so we’ll see how far that gets with the judge. Costs them nothing to try, and hey, you never know.

An earlier story about the defense strategy contained some interesting legal analyses.

“If I was on the Perry defense team, I would be asking for the quickest trial date I could get,” said Paul Coggins, a defense attorney with the Locke Lord law firm and a former U.S. attorney in Dallas. “Let’s load it up in 30 days. Let’s go.”

Coggins, a Democrat, said the next thing to watch for is Perry’s team challenging the Texas statute behind the two felony counts.

“They’ll take a swipe at the statute,” he said. “The statute is too vague. You’re going to do that at least. I think the judge is going to have some real issues with the statute.”

The two-page indictment gave few clues as to how grand jurors were convinced Perry may have done something illegal. And Coggins said that unless McCrum can prove to jurors that Perry’s veto threat was illegal, it will go nowhere.

“Based upon what we know so far, if there isn’t some incredibly powerful, smoking gun that we’ve heard nothing about, then I don’t think this case should have gone to the grand jury,” Coggins said.

Not so fast, says Bill Mateja, a defense attorney in the Dallas office of Fish & Richardson. Mateja is a former federal prosecutor who knows McCrum, the San Antonio defense attorney tapped by Richardson, well.

“I’ve worked with Mike McCrum,” Mateja said. “I cannot believe that Mike McCrum decided to indict Rick Perry based solely on Rick Perry playing politics. I can believe that Mike McCrum indicted Rick Perry because there is something more than we’ve seen.”

Mateja, who described himself as a conservative Republican and a Perry supporter, said that if McCrum’s case doesn’t show more than what is already known, then it’s a “bad indictment.”

I think we all agree on that. As for McCrum, he had a few things to say as well.

McCrum said he would respond in court to Perry’s filing.

“At this time, I feel confident of the charges. I feel confident of the facts as applied to the law, and I will move forward,” he said.

McCrum said he expects the case to go to trial because “I anticipate that Mr. Perry will never plead guilty.” He said he thinks a trial would not be until next year.

[...]

McCrum was asked by reporters about the drumbeat from Perry and his team that the case against him is politically motivated.

The San Antonio lawyer said he didn’t plan to discuss strategy or evidence in the case, pointing out that Perry’s lawyers are “talking about the theories of law and whether or not the facts support those theories.”

“On this situation, I think it’s important that I approach it with dignity and respect for our system of justice,” McCrum said.

He also declined to supply his own political affiliation.

“I don’t feel that anything about politics is relevant to this case insofar as my politics are concerned,” McCrum said in response to a reporter’s question. “And so with all due respect, sir, I can’t dignify the question because by answering it, I give it relevance, and I don’t think it has relevance.”

It shouldn’t have any relevance, but you know how that goes. Going back to the earlier story, Mateja also predicted the defense would try to get the indictments tossed. If that happens, that would be a huge victory for Perry and an equally huge egg to Mike McCrum’s face. Again, I’m not a lawyer and I have no expertise in this matter, but again there’s nothing in Mike McCrum’s history to suggest that he’s gone off half-cocked. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that McCrum has more up his sleeve than he’s shown so far. Maybe that won’t be enough. We’ll get some idea of that this week.

On a side note, the two-man team at Texans for Public Justice wrote a piece for Politico that called out various liberal pundits for their embarrassing ignorance in the Perry matter. They didn’t break any new ground, but at least the word is getting out there that the indictment isn’t about what a lot of people leaped to conclude it was about.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

The limits of lobbying

They do exist, as Houston’s cab companies recently discovered.

Uber

More than a year of intense lobbying by established cab companies and tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to City Council members were not enough to hold off a pair of upstart tech-taxi firms that now can operate legally in Houston.

In the end, city regulators made few changes to their original proposal revising Houston’s vehicle-for-hire rules. Of the two dozen amendments proposed by council members before they approved the item earlier this month, neither of the cab industry’s top priorities – capping the number of drivers who can sign up with the new companies and requiring them to carry round-the-clock commercial insurance – passed.

To the extent the proposal did evolve, the changes are unlikely to hamper new entrants, Uber and Lyft, or other firms that use smartphone applications to connect willing drivers with interested riders using the driver’s personal car.

Perhaps, said Councilman Michael Kubosh, a staunch opponent of the new rules, the vote simply reflected that the app firms have an idea whose time has come.

“I let the cab companies know right off when they came to talk to me, and I certainly told the cab drivers, ‘Guys, technology always trumps tradition. This is coming and you guys have to prepare yourselves for it,’ ” he said.

Lyft

[...]

Tina Paez, director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department that drafted the new rules, credited Yellow Cab with pushing for disabled access. The final ordinance requires at least 3 percent of vehicles for hire to be wheelchair accessible, that no one company can meet that goal, and that a task force will make further recommendations to City Council.

Paez pushed back on the other victories [Yellow Cab lobbyist Cindy] Clifford claimed, however, saying her department’s original draft was based on research, not suggestions from the cab industry or the new app companies.

The city always planned to place the same public safety rules on all companies, Paez said, though she acknowledged taxi lobbying forced the new firms to submit to city background checks and vehicle inspections rather than let third parties conduct them. And, Paez said, the language clarifying the effect of new entrants’ insurance policies changed the wording but not the content of the law.

“There was very, very little that changed from what we originally proposed to council, except for the disabilities part,” Paez said.

I think CM Kubosh summed it up pretty well. There’s clearly a demand for the type of service being offered by Uber and Lyft, and the main argument against them largely boiled down to “we’ve always done it this way”. Yes, there were legitimate concerns raised about insurance, background checks, and access for disabled folks, but there was never any reason those couldn’t be addressed. I’ve said before that I’d like to see the changes reviewed in (say) twelve months’ time because we don’t have any history to guide us with these changes and we don’t know what the long term effects will be, but again that’s no reason not to try to deal with the evolution of the market. I still think that much of the demand for Uber and Lyft will come from people who weren’t cab riders to begin with and that the existing cab business will be affected much less than they fear, but we’ll see. It’s my hope that we’ll look back on this in a year or two and say that the market has grown and that people have benefited from the expansion of their choices.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.