Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Will we finally get a vote on vehicles for hire this week?

Remember last month when Council was supposed to vote on a vehicles for hire ordinance change to allow Uber and Lyft to operate here in some fashion? It was put off till July 30 to allow for some form of “consensus” to emerge among the stakeholders. How’s that going? Slowly, it would seem.

Lyft

At least 2 percent of vehicles for hire in Houston would be capable of serving disabled passengers who require special treatment under revised rules proposed by city officials.

The changes, part of the debate about new companies barging into the Houston paid ride market, would meet what officials said is the anticipated demand for cabs and other vehicles in Houston by those who are in a wheelchair or who require a lift to get into a car.

Far more than 2 percent of Houston cabs and limousines are accessible to disabled passengers now.

Service to the disabled was one of the chief concerns expressed by City Council members as they debated regulatory changes that would open the local market to new companies such as Lyft and Uber. The companies pair drivers using their own vehicles with customers interested in hitching a ride. Lyft and Uber use smartphone applications to pair drivers and riders, then take a cut of what the rider pays.

[...]

Uber

Other than the provisions for the disabled, little of the 140-page Chapter 46 of the city code changed since council members delayed a decision last month. Beyond the 2 percent standard, the regulations would require city officials to periodically gauge the demand and progress of disabled for-hire vehicle availability.

Yellow Cab alone already meets the 2 percent threshold for the entire city, in part because the agency is a provider of disabled rides for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which pays for rides for some clients. According to a 2013 study, Yellow Cab has more than 200 vehicles compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and equipped with wheelchair lifts.

Currently the city has fewer than 2,500 taxi permits and fewer than 1,900 limo permits issued. It would take more than 5,000 new vehicles entering the paid ride business before the industry would risk having too few vehicles to meet the 2 percent standard.

You’d think we could have arrived at this point in less than 45 days, but whatever. Cab companies were reviewing the revised rules as of last report. I’m going to step out on a limb here and guess that they still won’t be happy about them. On the one hand, it’s not clear to me that just because there will be an increase in the total number of vehicles for hire in Houston that there will also be an increase in demand for rides by folks that need vehicles that are accessible to the disabled. But that doesn’t mean that the newcomers shouldn’t need to carry some of that load as well. How you ensure that Uber and Lyft have some number of cars that can give rides to people with disabilities is still an open question. You could require them to have a certain number of such vehicles available and make their app have an option to request one, which means in effect that they’d be operating like traditional cab companies in this respect. Or I suppose you could require them to have some number of drivers who own such vehicles among their troupe of available drivers for at least some set number of hours per day. I have no idea if that could work.

Perhaps it would be useful to see how other cities are handling this issue. The city of Minneapolis just voted to allow Uber and Lyft to operate. The question of rides for folks with disabilities came up there as well.

The new ordinance distinguishes the companies from taxicabs, creates a process for them to become licensed and specifies what insurance they must carry. Insurance is a particularly complicated issue for the services, since they typically use hybrid plans that complement a driver’s personal policy.

But taxi industry representatives weren’t happy with a two-tier fee structure that will charge major taxi companies significantly more than transportation network companies. Others have concerns that changes to the wheelchair-accessible vehicle requirements could backfire.

Minneapolis follows California, Colorado, Seattle, Chicago and Baton Rouge in passing legislation to specifically regulate the services; St. Paul is crafting its own version, while other cities have interim agreements.

[...]

Another point of contention related to how a proposed incentive program for wheelchair-accessible vehicles will work. The city will fund it using a $10,000 surcharge, which replaces an existing requirement on companies to provide the vehicles themselves (which never acheived compliance).

“I dont think there’s a taxicab company that will do it,” said Waleed Sonbol, owner of Blue and White Taxi, following the vote. That concern that no one will bid on the program was reflected in a letter earlier this week from disability advocates.

[Ordinance sponsor Jacob] Frey said the new system will actually work better, however. “If you’re an individual with disabilities and you need transportation, you call one number and you will get service that is fully ADA accessible,” Frey said. “And we aready have four or five different companies that are chomping at the bit” to provide that service.

Council Member Cam Gordon, who expressed concerns Thursday with the disability provisions, said the entire process convinced him that the Twin Cities should be tackling transportation regulations as a region.

“This whole process has only reaffirmed for me my conclusion that having the city regulate this industry is no longer necessarily appropriate,” Gordon said.

Cabs got several breaks in the new law. New regulations spearheaded by council member Abdi Warsame allow non-city facilities to inspect vehicles, extends the maximum age of vehicles by five years and gives drivers more parking privileges.

“What we have in front of you is the wish list of the taxi companies,” Warsame said.

Some possibilities there for Houston, perhaps. I certainly hope someone has at least placed a call to the cities with existing ordinances to see how they handled some of the concerns that have arisen.

There’s also the insurance question.

It’s a transportation company that’s growing at record speeds, but some are saying slow down and put on the brakes because when it comes to insurance coverage you may not be safe.

“It does concern us,” said Mark Hanna with the Insurance Council of Texas as he spoke of Uber. “We have 20 different states looking at this and no one really has come up with a solution.”

Uber connects a passenger to a driver via an app on a cell phone. That’s the only way the driver and passenger are supposed to communicate. All fare transactions go through a credit card already on file.

But rivals of Uber, such as local cab companies, say that isn’t always happening and that can put everyone in danger. And that has the insurance industry concerned.

“You’ve got gaps,” said Hanna. “In fact, there may not be any insurance coverage whatsoever.”

According to Uber, unless you go through the app and abide by Uber’s platform, Uber’s insurance policy does not apply.

And according to Hanna most personal insurance policies don’t cover drivers if they charge a fare. And that could leave people exposed.

[...]

And it’s concerns like that that have the Texas insurance industry asking Uber to put on the brakes.

“We’re just asking them to slow down,” said Hanna, “Let us put some mechanism in place that lets us provide coverage for everybody, so everybody is safe.”

Uber declined and on-camera interview, but in a written statement said if a driver is accepting trips through other means that the Uber platform, Uber’s insurance policy does not apply.

Here’s another story about how the insurers in Texas are saying that there’s a gap.

Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the industry group the Insurance Council of Texas, said insurance companies across the U.S. are looking to state regulators and legislatures for guidance as they prepare to offer expanded policies.

“Everyone is trying to come up with a solution,” Hanna said.

California might be the place where model legislation or regulation will be crafted.

Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, said lawmakers in the California Assembly and state Senate are working on bills, and state insurance regulators are pondering new regulations.

In Texas, insurance regulators haven’t made much progress in dealing with ride-sharing companies.

Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Jerry Hagins said that state law requires auto liability coverage, but it doesn’t distinguish between personal and commercial coverage, and local municipalities must set requirements for insurance for taxis and livery operations.

So far, Austin city officials have deemed Lyft and Uber to be operating as illegal and unpermitted taxis. Officials have gone so far as to impound vehicles and ticket drivers.

Hagins also said that most insurers offering personal auto policies do not rate their policies for commercial uses.

Patti Kelly, a State Farm spokeswoman, confirmed that Uber and Lyft drivers in Texas generally wouldn’t be covered by their personal policies while earning extra money shuttling people around.

Both Uber and Lyft have liability policies that insure drivers who take on passengers under their name. But they are supposed to pick up where personal polices leave off, the companies have said.

Advice from the Texas Department of Insurance echoed the guidance from the Insurance Information Institute: Call your insurance company to confirm you’re covered.

Again, you’d think some progress would have been made on this by now. At the very least, can we get a definitive answer on whether those Uber and Lyft liability policies do in fact pick up where the personal policies leave off? Perhaps the Legislature needs to get involved here.

In any event, that’s the lay of the land as Council prepares to maybe vote on this on Wednesday. Assuming it doesn’t get tagged for a week – I’m not sure if that’s still in play after the current delay – or any further delays are proposed.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

It’s past time for a garbage fee

Yes, this.

For years, Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes has suggested the city implement a garbage fee to expand curbside recycling and pay for other initiatives. And for years, Mayor Annise Parker has demurred.

Now, with a looming budget deficit that could force widespread layoffs and cuts to services, the idea may see serious discussion at the council table for the first time.

Though Parker has not endorsed any particular path, she acknowledges a garbage fee is among the most important of the dozens of ideas officials are considering as they try to close a $150 million budget gap by next summer.

[...]

For Hayes’ part, he said he has “been like the North Star on this,” pushing roughly the same fee for the same reasons for six years, always reminding council members that Houston is one of the only major cities in the country, and the only one in Texas, without a garbage fee.

“I have consistently stated the same things to both mayors, who have both been huge recycling advocates, and the same thing to all the council members,” Hayes said. “If you’re asking me what to do and I’m your appointed and confirmed expert, here’s what we should do as a best practice in this particular city business.”

The fee Hayes has pitched – $3.76 a month or $45.12 per home, per year – would ensure recycling trucks and containers are replaced on time and without taking on too much debt, would deploy officers to better enforce rules against illegal dumping, and would add neighborhood depository sites.

Hayes said any broader proposal in line with what other Texas cities charge would be designed to generate enough revenue to cover his department’s $76 million budget, removing waste operations from the tax-supported general fund entirely. Such a fee in Houston, Hayes said, would be $15 to $20 a month per home, or $180 to $240 a year.

Using fees for 96-gallon bins, the type Houston distributes, Dallas charges residents about $21.92 a month, San Antonio $17.69 to $19.93, Fort Worth $22.75, Austin $33.50 and El Paso $16. Austin also levies a monthly $6.65 fee that funds other waste operations.

I’ve supported the idea of a garbage fee for some time now. The city would have been able to roll out the single-stream recycling bins a lot sooner with a dedicated fee, instead of having to wait till it had collected enough money from the program itself to finance the purchase of the equipment. How much better it would have been to deal with this back in one of the good budget years when the focus could have been on the improved service that a garbage fee would have meant instead of now when it’s all wrapped up in a deficit-reduction veneer.

The oddball argument was unconvincing to Councilman C.O. Bradford.

“When you look at business magazines, trade publications, economic forecasts, Houston is separate,” he said. “Houston is doing much better than those other cities because we do things differently. We don’t have to do it just because other cities are doing it.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said an informal survey of civic clubs in her district last year showed general support for the $3.76 monthly fee.

“People were willing to consider that,” she said. “For me, we have serious issues ahead and I think everything should be on the table for the purpose of talking about it.”

Dwight Boykins said he is supportive of the garbage fee concept, but is far more comfortable with the lower amount than leaving a $15 to $20 monthly fee in place indefinitely, particularly for low-income residents.

Councilmen Larry Green and Jerry Davis are against the idea, saying constituent surveys have found more opposed than in favor.

All due respect, but the “Houston exceptionalism” argument is hooey. Sometimes, when you’re the only one not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re the one that’s doing it wrong. I get where CMs Green and Davis are coming from, but one of the things that a garbage fee can help finance is better surveillance and enforcement of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem in District B. I hope the potential benefit of this can be made clear – perhaps Director Hayes could put together a short presentation detailing some of the dumping hotspots that would be first in line for enhanced attention with a garbage fee – before any vote is taken.

Posted in: Local politics.

Harris County settles with HCAD

Not sure about this.

Less than two months after formally challenging the way the local appraisal district calculates the value of vacant commercial land, Harris County has backed down.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday OK’d the withdrawal of a petition filed in early June by the county attorney challenging the Harris County Appraisal District after the two sides reached an information-sharing agreement. The vote came a day before the petition was scheduled for a hearing in front of HCAD’s independent Appraisal Review Board.

The county’s petition was based on the preliminary findings of a study the court ordered earlier this year that concluded the appraisal district had undervalued undeveloped commercial property by more than 80 percent this year. That finding was based on a random sampling of two dozen vacant commercial lots across the county with a combined assessed value of $75.3 million. An expert consultant the county hired in January found that empty lots meant to hold apartments or retail space – making up only about 2 percent of the county tax base – were worth a combined $140.8 million, or 83 percent more than HCAD appraised.

Unlike home and business owners, who can protest appraisal values for individual properties, counties can challenge appraisal values only for entire categories of property.

On Tuesday, though, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard told the court that county staff had reached an agreement with HCAD and asked for permission to withdraw the challenge petition submitted to the district on June 2.

See here and here for the background. I’m not totally clear on the details here, if this is an advance for the cause of better appraisals of commercial properties or not. All that’s been agreed to is better information sharing, not that we’ll get better outcomes. There’s no quote in the story from any of the prominent critics of HCAD, and I haven’t seen any reaction from them on their sites, either. So, I’m not sure what to make of this. If you’re in a better position to judge, please leave a comment.

Posted in: Local politics.

Another San Felipe highrise lawsuit

It’s like deja vu all over again, only different.

A NEW LAWSUIT filed last week against the developers of the 2229 San Felipe office tower currently under construction between Shepherd and Kirby is a bit different from the one that a group of neighbors initiated against the same party back in February, a reader notes. The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit are the owners of a River Oaks home directly across the street from the construction site, and they appear to have studied the ruling issued in the Ashby Highrise lawsuit carefully. (Back in May, Judge Randy Wilson ordered the developers of that building to pay neighbors $1.2 million to compensate them for “lost market damages,” but denied their request to halt the building’s construction)

Unlike their neighbors who sued before them, the residents of 2237 Stanmore Dr. are not seeking to prevent or delay the construction of Hines’s neighborhood office tower. Instead, it appears they are only seeking compensation for both public and private “nuisances” created by the 17-story building, including pollution, noise, and ground vibration during its construction and the resulting loss of sunlight and rain on their property.

See here and here for the background. Funny thing about precedent, it just keeps popping up again and again. If the developer community didn’t like the Ashby result, they’re really going to hate this lawsuit. Not much else to do for now but keep an eye on it. Prime Property has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for July 27

We have nothing to fear but people who fear inflation itself.

Take a tennis ball and a soccer ball and blow the mind of some little kids.

Three words: Aerosol cake batter. And you “bake” it in the microwave. Or save time and just spray it directly into your mouth, because of course you would.

Hooray for Earlene Moore, helping Texas women buy better-fitting bras since 1939.

Medicare’s financial health has greatly improved lately.

“But in the hands of an inflation truther, this mathematical banality achieves a kind of totemic significance. It’s the grassy knoll inside Area 51 where Janet Yellen is playing a record backwards that says hyperinflation is coming.”

Who’s playing what game on immigration?

The NFL is now not the only defendant in concussion litigation.

What Kevin Drum says.

Hospitals are hurting in the states that refused to expand Medicaid.

One place where Sweden trails the US: in the amount of nudity on its reality TV programming.

“It’s not that you want a law degree without having to suffer the consequences of your actions, it’s that God wants it. Nothing reflects the model of Jesus Christ more than getting what you want without suffering at all.”

Want to buy the piano played by Dooley Wilson in Casablanca? Well, now you can.

“Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey is impacted by environmental issues, particularly climate change and freshwater scarcity. The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of the League’s history and culture. Many of the NHL’s players, both past and present, learned to skate outside on frozen lakes, ponds and backyard rinks. The game of hockey is adversely affected if this opportunity becomes unavailable to future generations.”

Citing Third Way as evidence of a division on the left is actually pretty good evidence that there is no such division.

What Tony Dungy doesn’t get is that the reason “things will happen” with Michael Sam is because of guys like Tony Dungy.

Better read the fine print on that AirBnB agreement before you lease out your place.

You’re probably overpaying your CEO.

Don’t ask me why Americans stink at math. I’m one of those annoying people that has no trouble with it.

Never surrender, Brooklyn!

“Tennessee is being sued for depriving eligible residents of Medicaid coverage.”

“Tara Reid presents her findings on the scientific possibility of sharknados“. Go ahead, I dare you to not click on that.

It was a pretty good week for Weird Al Yankovic.

I really can’t think of any good reason why Russia should be hosting the 2018 World Cup.

Twenty-four years later, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act still lags.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Ogg proposes marijuana prosecution reforms

I like the sound of this.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg, the Democratic nominee for Harris County district attorney, said Friday she will ticket and enforce community service for, instead of arrest and jail, thousands of people arrested each year in Houston for low-level marijuana possession.

“We can save up to 10 million dollars a year, folks,” Ogg told campaign supporters and reporters at a Friday news conference. “We think that taxpayers deserve to have their money spent wisely.”

Ogg said more than 12,000 people were charged in 2013 with marijuana possession of less than 4 ounces, then jailed for an average of five days, costing taxpayers $4.4 million a year.

Under her plan, if she is elected in November, those suspected of misdemeanor possession would be cited, have to go to court, then spend two days cleaning up litter. If the community service is successfully completed, offenders would not have a conviction on their record.

“This is the future of marijuana prosecution in Harris County,” she said. “Our tagline is ‘No jail, no bail, no permanent record, if you earn it.’ ”

This is a concept Ogg has discussed before, among other places in her interview with me for the primary. When President Obama made a statement back in January about pot not being more harmful than alcohol, Ogg supported that position. What matters about Ogg’s plan here is that the goal is to keep this kind of arrest off someone’s record, because being tagged with such an arrest, even for a tiny amount of pot, can have all kinds of negative effects for things like higher education, employment, child custody, and so on. Short of actual legalization, this is probably the best way to minimize the disproportionately serious consequences for such a minor offense.

What’s interesting is seeing DA Devon Anderson’s stance evolve over time. She was quite critical of President Obama’s words in January but was supportive when Rick Perry spoke about decriminalization a week later. In this story she said the DA’s office is working on something similar to Ogg’s proposal, which is as far as I know the first we’ve heard of that. This is to her credit, but I think it’s fair to say that Ogg was there first, and that Ogg has put more thought and planning into her idea. That’s probably why the group Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), last seen opining in the Baker Blog about when marijuana might be legalized in Texas, sent out a press release applauding Ogg and calling on Anderson to “clarify her position on handling low-level marijuana possession offenders”. Kudos to Ogg for being front and center on this. Texpatriate and John Coby have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

The marriage equality economic boost

From Equality Texas:

RedEquality

The Williams Institute released a report today estimating that marriage for same-sex couples in Texas would add $181.6 million to the state and local economy over a three-year period. The report predicts that 23,000 Texas couples would marry, spending an average of more than $6,000 per wedding. Up to 1,500 jobs would be created in the state.

“Overall these numbers seem, if anything, conservative for the long run,” said Dr. Daniel S. Hamermesh, Professor in Economics, Royal Holloway University of London, and Sue Killam Professor in the Foundation of Economics, University of Texas at Austin. “Further, marriage for same-sex couples allows couples to be better off – creating what economists call a ‘marital surplus’ which provides an even greater economic benefit.”

The Williams Institute utilized state-level data, as well as the 2010 U.S. Census and the American Community Survey, to conservatively estimate the impact of extending marriage to same-sex couples in Texas.

“The Williams Institute report affirms that the freedom to marry is good for business in Texas,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Allowing gay couples to marry here would give an economic boost to caterers, florists, event venues, and others who make a living through wedding planning. Our economy is already one of the strongest in the country, and marriage for same-sex couples would only add to that prosperity, while doing the right thing morally and constitutionally.”

You can see the study here. It’s a three-year projection that includes things like spending on the wedding itself by the couples, spending by out of state guests, and sales taxes. One item they don’t single out is the fees for marriage licenses, which provided a nice little boost for New York City in the first year that same sex marriages were allowed there. Every county clerk in Texas ought to be in favor of this if they know what’s good for them. Now to be fair, in the context of an economy the size of Texas’, this is pocket change. But given the many, many other good reasons for marriage equality, it’s another cherry on top of the sundae. There’s no good reason not to support it.

(I must note that there is one reason professed to disagree with this study and oppose same sex marriage, given by usual suspect Jonathan Saenz. It’s so incredibly stupid and bizarre that I can’t even bring myself to quote it. It’s here if you want to see for yourself. Don’t blame me if your head explodes.)

Along those lines EqTX is also calling on AG Abbott to drop the appeal of the ruling that tossed Texas’ ban on same sex marriage, on the grounds that plaintiffs have won 26 straight rulings. I totally agree on the merits, but it must be noted that in the recent Tenth Circuit ruling, one of the three judges bought the bogus traditional argument, and Abbott gets to plead his case before the Fifth Circuit, which as we know sucks. (Well, he’ll eventually get around to pleading his case.) As such, I can’t claim this is a slam dunk for the good guys, even though it should be. By the way, just as a reminder, Sam Houston would drop the appeal if he were AG. Just saying.

Finally, last week’s Houston Press had a cover story about being a same-sex married couple in Texas, which was similar in nature to the Observer article from earlier this month. I’m pretty sure every publication in Texas could do their own story and not repeat any of them. Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Society and cultcha.

Commuter rail status

There’s still a push for commuter rail in Houston.

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

With freight trains on Houston area tracks teeming with cargo, supporters of commuter rail to the suburbs are focusing on three spots where they can potentially build their own lines for passengers.

The Gulf Coast Rail District – created in part to find a way to make commuter rail work in Houston – is studying three possible routes for large passenger trains.

What’s clear, at least for the near future, is that commuter trains will not share any track with local freight railroads, or buy any of their land.

“There is a lot of freight moving through the region because of all the new business, and the freight carriers are trying to meet the demand for that,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district. “They are not willing to discuss the use of their rail for passenger rail operations.”

[...]

Without access to the freight lines, Crocker said, commuter rail must find its own way. Focusing on land owned by local governments or the state, and near current freight lines, officials identified three possible routes for study: along U.S. 290, U.S. 90A and the Westpark corridor.

The plan is to further study all three, looking at how much ridership they could expect while analyzing the type of property that would have to be purchased, engineering challenges and costly factors such as bridges.

Each of the routes includes some easily obtainable land and could connect suburban commuters to the city. The goal would be to develop commuter rail from the suburbs to Loop 610 – or farther into the central city under some scenarios – and connect it to local transit.

Both the Westpark corridor and U.S. 290 offer close access from western or northwestern suburbs to The Galleria and Uptown areas, where a single bus or light rail trip could carry travelers from a train station to their final destination. The U.S. 90A corridor, which Metro has studied before, offers access from the southwest to the Texas Medical Center.

Developing rail along any of the corridors would pose many challenges. In the case of the Westpark and U.S. 290 routes, both would abut local roads, meaning ramps and entrances would have to undergo serious changes. Other projects, such as light rail and toll roads, also are being considered for the space.

The terrain poses challenges as well. A U.S. 90A commuter rail system would need to cross the Brazos River and would pass by the southern tip of Sugar Land Regional Airport.

“There are challenges out in Fort Bend County,” Crocker said. “But the demand is so high we would like to take another look at it.”

To me, US90A is the clear first choice. I’ve been advocating for Metro to turn its attention back to what it calls the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC). As recently as two years ago, they were holding open houses to get community support and finish up a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which would put them and that project in the queue for federal funds. Unfortunately, as of September of 2012, the plans are on hold. I would hope it wouldn’t be too difficult to revive that process, in partnership with the GCRD. Note that while Metro’s original plan for the SWRC stopped at Missouri City, just across the Fort Bend County line, while the GCRD plan goes all the way to Rosenberg. The latter would clearly have much greater ridership potential, and would include destinations that would be of interest outside the regular commute, such as the airport and Skeeters Field. You only get to do this sort of thing right the first time, so it would be best to plan to maximize ridership from the beginning.

As for the other two, it must be noted that the corridors in question are already fairly well served by Metro park and ride. There’s some overlap with the US90A corridor, but not as much. Both Westpark and US90A continue well into Fort Bend County and thus beyond Metro’s existing service area, so I suppose the Westpark corridor would be the next best choice for commuter rail. The other key factor at play here is that the US90A line would connect up with the existing Main Street Line, thus potentially carrying people all the way from Rosenberg and elsewhere in Fort Bend to the Medical Center, downtown, and beyond. The 290 corridor will at least have the Uptown BRT line available to it as a connection, and if it were to happen it might revive discussion of the Inner Katy Line for a seamless trip into downtown via Washington Avenue. As for Westpark, well, go tell it to John Culberson. You know what we’d need to make any Westpark commuter rail line the best it could be. Anything the GCRD can do about that would be good for all of us.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Vaping in jail

Not sure how I feel about this.

As a way to allow some inmates to get their nicotine fix and sheriffs to shore up tight budgets, county jails across the country have begun selling electronic cigarettes. Though the trend has largely bypassed Texas, jail officials say that could change as sheriffs begin to warm up to the smokeless technology.

While traditional cigarettes are banned from most jails, vendors of e-cigarettes, which vaporize a liquid solution for inhalation, see a big market in Texas. The 245 jails regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards have a combined capacity of about 95,000.

Shannon Herklotz, the commission’s assistant director, said he knew of only two county jails in Texas that allowed electronic cigarettes. But more sheriffs, primarily in rural counties with smaller facilities, have expressed a cautious interest in selling them, asking questions about the technology, he said.

“It’s not that it’s not allowed. It’s up to each individual sheriff,” said Herklotz, who supports banning e-cigarettes to prevent issues with contraband at jails. With county jails facing budget shortfalls, e-cigarette vendors are pushing their products as a way for sheriffs to supplement revenue and help inmates suffering from withdrawal.

[...]

One vendor, Precision Vapor, recently began selling e-cigarettes to the Titus County Jail in Northeast Texas.

“It was at the request of inmates that we started selling them,” said Michael Garcia, a lieutenant at the jail, which sells the item from its commissary. “The inmates report that they feel more at ease and not as nervous,” he said. “They don’t have the agitation of going from two packs a day to zero.”

The jail, which has an average daily population of about 110 inmates, buys each e-cigarette for $3 and sells about 80 a week at $6 apiece, Garcia said. That profit helps pay for inmate uniforms and other supplies, which “eases the burden of the taxpayers.”

Brian McGiverin, a prisoner rights lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that most jails strictly banned tobacco but that sheriffs were likely to view e-cigarettes more favorably because they are less of a fire hazard than traditional cigarettes.

“It doesn’t seem like a terrible idea, setting aside the idea of whether it’s a smart idea to smoke in the first place,” he said. “The people are buying it, so that means it’s something that they want.”

Out of curiosity, I sent an email to Alan Bernstein, the Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to inquire about their policies on e-cigarettes. Here’s what he sent me:

The Harris County Jail, the state’s largest, does not allow inmate use of e-cigarettes because of the negative health effects of nicotine, the potential for these items to be traded among inmates as “currency” and the potential for misuse of the lithium battery and vaporizing function of the items. We are not aware of any vendors approaching our staff to discuss adding e-cigs to our list of inmate commissary products.

As noted before, my main concern is that the health effects of e-cigarettes are not well understood at this time. If they turn out to be helpful in getting people to quit tobacco and they don’t have any harmful effects of their own, then I can see the merit in this, though Bernstein’s point about the potential for misuse is well taken. The bit about e-cigarette sales being helpful to counties with tight budgets and “easing the burden” on taxpayers, however, makes me queasy in the same way that expanded gambling does. Being dependent on a potentially volatile income stream that is in turn highly dependent on the habits – in many cases, addictions – of a small number of mostly vulnerable people but which is invisible to most everyone else strikes me as bad public policy, one that comes with a built-in set of skewed incentives. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe e-cigarettes don’t have much in common with the tobacco kind – but until we know that I’m very skeptical of this.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Saturday video break: Cold Shot

The one and only Stevie Ray Vaughan, ladies and gentlemen:

I had no idea SRV even did MTV-style music videos. That one was amusing, if somewhat disturbing. I like how he has an endless supply of guitars at his fingertips. And speaking of fingertips, here’s Doctor John tickling the ivories for his cover of “Cold Shot”, from the tribute to Stevie Ray CD:

If you’re even a little fan of Stevie Ray’s, the “A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan” CD is well worth your money. I especially like this cover because by necessity it’s different than the original, what with Doctor John being a piano virtuoso instead of a guitar god and all. The other covers are great, awesome versions, but other than this and Buddy Guy’s transcendant slowed-down version of “Long, Long Way From Home” they’re all very faithful to the originals. A little stylistic variety is always nice.

Posted in: Music.

TPJ files criminal complaint against Ken Paxton

From the inbox:

TPJ Calls for Formal Investigation of AG Candidate Ken Paxton – Criminal Complaint Filed With Travis County DA’s Office

TPJ has filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County District Attorney against State Senator and Attorney General candidate Ken Paxton. The complaint, filed on July 18, seeks a formal investigation into allegations that Paxton committed one or more felonies when, over several years, he failed to register as an investment adviser representative of Mowery Capital Management as the state securities law requires. Paxton previously admitted to state regulators that he solicited clients and was compensated for his services when he was not a registered agent. Paxton also admitted hiding the income he received on his state personal financial disclosures.

Here’s the letter they sent to DA Rosemary Lehmberg and Public Integrity Unit lead prosecutor Gregg Cox. It’s pretty straightforward so I’ll reproduce it here:

Dear Ms. Lehmberg and Mr. Cox,

I believe that Mr. Kenneth Warren Paxton, Jr. has committed one or more criminal felony offenses related to his activities as an investment advisor representative for Mowery Capital Management, LLC (MCM). I encourage your offices to investigate and, if warranted, appropriately prosecute Mr. Paxton for his felony criminal conduct.

The public record appears to be unambiguously clear that Mr. Paxton violated provisions of the Texas Securities Act in 2004, 2005 and 2012 by failing to register as an investment adviser representative of Mowery Capital Management as the law requires.

As widely reported in the media, on April 30, 2014, by sworn acknowledgement, Mr. Paxton admitted to conduct that violated the Texas Securities Act. His sworn acknowledgement resulted in Disciplinary Order No. IC14-CAF-03 entered against him on May 2, 2014 by Texas Securities Commissioner John Morgan.

By agreeing to the Disciplinary Order Mr. Paxton has acknowledged that he solicited clients for MCM and was compensated by MCM for each client he delivered. Mr. Paxton also acknowledged that he was not registered with the Texas Securities Board as a representative of MCM during 2004, 2005 and 2012 when he actively solicited clients and potential investors.

The Texas Securities Act prohibits a person from acting as an investment adviser representative for an investment firm in Texas unless the person is registered as a representative for that particular firm. The Texas Securities Act provides that any person who renders services as an investment advisor representative without being registered as required by
the Act is guilty of a felony of the third degree.

I therefore request that you fully investigate this matter and prosecute any violations if justified by the law and the facts.

Respectfully,

Craig McDonald
Director, Texans for Public Justice

See here and here for the background. That disciplinary order was little more than a slap on the wrist, unless this develops into something. There’s also an SEC complaint pending against Paxton. That’s an awful lot of baggage for a candidate to carry, and one imagines it will have to take a toll on him. I figure at least a few Dan Branch supporters are going to avoid voting for Paxton in November, though how many that may be is anyone’s guess. The one thing about all this that worries me is that once the Democratic District Attorney from Democratic Travis County gets involved, Paxton and his supporters can claim it’s all about partisan politics and that he’s the real victim here. He’s already traveling down that road. If there’s one thing that can overcome revulsion against an ethically-compromised candidate, it’s tribal identity. Still, the facts here are quite plain – Paxton signed legal documents stipulating to what he did – and for sure someone was going to file a complaint. Now we wait and see what Lehmberg and her staff make of it. The Statesman has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Another lawsuit against Uber and Lyft

That’s three lawsuits that I know of.

Lyft

A coalition of Texas disability advocates sued ride-share companies Uber and Lyft on Thursday as part of dozens of lawsuits filed around the state ahead of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Uber and Lyft are up and coming in terms of transportation companies, and they don’t really have any means to provide wheelchair accessibility,” said plaintiff David Wittie, of the advocacy group ADAPT of Texas. “They are socially irresponsible and not accessible and equivalent for people with disabilities.”

Wittie said denials of services to disabled Texans led ADAPT and the Texas Civil Rights Project to target the companies, which connect interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone applications.

[...]

Uber

The suits were filed in Travis County, but theoretically could affect the rest of the state, Wittie said. Uber and Lyft operate – albeit illegally – in several Texas cities, including Houston.

Houston City Council is scheduled to vote next week on regulations proposed by Mayor Annise Parker that would allow them to operate legally if they acquire permits and carry commercial liability insurance, among other requirements. Taxi and limousine companies oppose the rules because they oppose the ride-sharing companies, and have filed federal lawsuits of their own to stop the companies.

Last month, three wheelchair-using Texans in Houston and San Antonio sued Uber and Lyft in federal court for alleged discrimination under the ADA, according to the Courthouse News Service.

Also sued Thursday as part of the coordinated effort was Austin-based Yellow Cab, which Wittie said routinely makes people with disabilities wait hours before sending an accessible taxi. Wittie said he has experienced that. The company did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Here’s what I had on the earlier federal lawsuit. It was reported in Courthouse News and pretty much noplace else, so if it’s news to you, I understand. I suppose it’s possible that lawsuit could get combined with this one, but I’m just guessing. There’s also the lawsuit filed by cab companies in an effort to enjoin Uber and Lyft from operating in Houston. Am I missing anything? All this is happening as Council gets set to (maybe) take up the vehicles for hire matter again next week. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

How are those new Chapter 42 regs working?

A little too soon to tell.

Planning and Development Director Patrick Walsh said the changes were designed to make the city competitive with its suburbs by creating more housing options, holding down prices and spurring redevelopment outside the Loop.

“It’s going to be hard to quantify the degree to which these rules are supporting the objective of affordability, but I do think we’re starting to see these rules used to accomplish the goal of reinvestment,” Walsh said. “In even just a couple of months after the rules are in place, we’re seeing some applications for these shared-driveway type developments with some smaller lots. That is a sign of some degree of modest success, and we’re hoping for more.”

[...]

Civic club leaders, concerned about waves of tightly packed two- or three-story patio homes invading established neighborhoods, negotiated for the rules to be phased in over two years. The first phase took effect in late May, with tracts larger than an acre and smaller tracts that are not residential and are not adjacent to residential areas becoming available for development under the new density rules. The rules will apply citywide starting next May.

The Planning Commission has considered or soon will consider three applications that would not have been possible previously.

In east Spring Branch, at Silber and Purswell, Soleil Livin’ Homes plans to build 27 units on a 1.2-acre vacant industrial site. In southwest Houston’s Willowbend neighborhood, a developer seeks to build six lots on half an acre.

And at the northwest edge of the Loop in Garden Oaks, homebuilder Miguel Facundo is building 14 units on the half-acre site of a former roofing business at Alba and Judiway.

Facundo said he plans to build at least 50 more townhomes in the area. He said he has heard chatter about industrial and commercial sites nearby selling to other developers for more such projects. In pushing for the rule changes last year, representatives of Spring Branch-based David Weekley Homes discussed numerous projects they would be able to build in their area once the higher density was allowed.

Facundo acknowledged that the prices he will offer, while perhaps $100,000 cheaper than the homes built under the old rules, will be aimed far above middle-income buyers, in the high $500,000s. Examples from Weekley representatives’ rarely listed price points below $300,000.

“My product’s a little bit different than most of the patio and townhome builders,” Facundo said. “I’m trying to do more of an upscale, a quality build. Then the neighborhood continues to go in the right direction.”

See here for the last update. It’s good that projects like these are being built, though there’s clearly still some work to be done on affordability. Another recent story adds to the anecdotal evidence with the news that over the last 12 months, residential permits within Beltway 8 were up 22.8 percent over the same period last year, which is more than twice the rate as the rest of the city. Beyond that, who knows? I liked the changes made, and I definitely agree with the idea behind them that it’s important to attract development inside city lines – it matters politically and economically. There’s plenty of empty and underused land that’s begging to be put to better use. I hope these new rules will facilitate that, but we need to carefully watch the effects and be prepared to make further changes if needed.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Expanding Medicaid the hard way

A lot smaller than it should have been, but it’s still something.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

More than 80,000 additional Texans have enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program since the rollout of the Affordable Care Act last fall despite Republican state leaders’ decision not to expand eligibility to poor adults, according to federal figures.

The 80,435 new enrollees as of May — mostly Texans who already qualified for coverage but did not previously seek it — represent a 1.8 percent increase over pre-Obamacare figures. That places Texas, which has the nation’s highest uninsured rate, in the middle of the pack among states that chose not to expand access to those programs to everyone under 138 percent of the federal poverty line under the president’s signature health law. The expansion, a key tenet of Obamacare, was deemed optional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This “woodwork effect” or “welcome mat effect” — in which people hear about Medicaid expansions around the country and learn they qualify in Texas — has not been huge. Roughly 874,000 Texans eligible for Medicaid or CHIP have still not enrolled, according to Kaiser Family Foundation estimates. That includes more than 700,000 children, said Christine Sinatra, state communications director for Enroll America, a group seeking to get the uninsured covered under the federal health law.

Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said her agency started seeing enrollment rates rise a couple of years ago, when the conversation on Obamacare was heating up. After the act took effect, and parents took to the federal marketplace to purchase private insurance plans, many discovered that their children were eligible for Medicaid, Goodman added.

[...]

Get Covered America and Enroll America, which are leading the charge to bring more people into the coverage fold across the country, also cited the Affordable Care Act’s simplification of the sign-up process as a driver of Texas’ recent enrollment growth, which took off in the spring.

And though Texas leaders did not expand Medicaid, the criteria for eligibility here and elsewhere did broaden slightly: The act raised from 21 to 26 the age at which people formerly in the foster care system have to give up their Medicaid coverage.

Absent the Medicaid expansion that Texas chose not to join, Medicaid and CHIP eligibility in the state is generally limited to members of several vulnerable groups, including children under 200 percent of the federal poverty line and some low-income seniors, pregnant women and parents, Sinatra said.

Texas has historically put up a lot of obstacles to enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP. In addition to the exceedingly stingy income requirements, there has been a six-month enrollment period at times, meaning you have to sign up twice a year. The state, and in particular the Republican leadership, does all this in a deliberate effort to keep enrollment down, since that allows for less spending. By the state, anyway – sucks to be you, counties and hospital districts. I for one would consider it justice if every currently eligible person managed to get themselves enrolled, however much it wound up costing the state. We’d be far better off overall regardless of the price. Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Friday randon ten: I of the tiger

The letter I was the first one in this series that I was worried about. Turned out to be no big thing.

1. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Iam Dury & The Blockheads
2. Vehicle – Ides of March
3. Honky Tonk Woman – Ike & Tina Turner
4. Sweet Georgia Brown – Illinois Jacquet
5. Closer to Fine – Indigo Girls
6. The Way I Am – Ingrid Michaelson
7. Devil Inside – INXS
8. Time Is On My Side – Irma Thomas
9. Buns O’Plenty – Isaac Hayes
10. Work To Do – Isley Brothers

I think we have a new record for most ampersands in a song title/artist name combination. Also, am I the only person that spent a non-trivial amount of time convinced that it was Blood, Sweat & Tears that did “Vehicle”? Please tell me I’m not the only one.

Posted in: Music.

We will have exit polls this year

Good.

Two years ago, a consortium of news outlets that conducts nationwide exit polls during every November election announced it was scaling back efforts in Texas and 18 other states. The move left political researchers with little data to study shifts in the Texas electorate.

This year, with a high-profile gubernatorial race on the November ballot, the National Election Pool confirmed on Tuesday that it plans to conduct more robust exit polling in Texas this year, giving researchers and political analysts the means to better examine the outcome.

“The current plan is to do a full-state exit poll in Texas,” said Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Research, the New Jersey firm that conducts polling for the National Election Pool, a consortium that includes The Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News.

Every two years, Edison hires nearly 3,000 people to interview more than 15,000 voters around the country after they cast their ballots. The surveys ask not only about how participants voted but also about their opinions on major issues and about their backgrounds, including age, education, income, religion and ethnicity. In Texas, the NEP has traditionally conducted a mix of in-person exit polling and telephone interviews to account for early voters, who can cast more than half of the ballots in some races.

Lenski said that the decision to return resources to Texas this year could change until plans are finalized in September. The sponsoring media organizations decide how to divide polling resources among the 50 states. And over the last year, the gubernatorial race between Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis has drawn national interest.

“The states get more resources the more competitive and newsworthy the races are,” Lenski said. “That’s an editorial decision that the news organizations make.”

That National Election Pool link in the story is broken, so try this instead. You’ve seen my increasingly exasperated posts since Election Day 2012 about Latino voting for Republicans in Texas. That exasperation is based in part on the fact that the support level in question for Mitt Romney or Ted Cruz or Rick Perry or whoever is inevitably unsourced, and the fact that even a cursory check of the actual available evidence would put those numbers into question. With actual exit polling in place, at least we won’t be guessing about the numbers this year. As someone who could use a little less exasperation in his life, I appreciate it.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Dems prep for voter ID

It’s good to have a plan.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas Democrats are renewing their opposition to the state’s voter-identification law, rolling out a program to educate voters ahead of a decisive few months that could see the controversial statute become a top issue in the governor’s race.

The law is considered one of the toughest of its kind in the country, requiring voters to show one of a few types of identification cards at the polls. Those whose actual names do not match the names on their IDs must sign an affidavit attesting to their identities.

The gubernatorial campaign of state Sen. Wendy Davis, Battleground Texas and the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday announced a “voter protection” program to tackle the issue by dispatching more than 8,000 volunteers to help with voter registration and making sure voters know what the law requires. The project will also raise awareness for the early voting period, during which an “election protection” hotline will go live. On Election Day, the program will send thousands of volunteers to monitor polling locations across Texas, confirm the sites are overseen by both Democratic and Republican election judges, and open “command centers” in eight cities staffed with election law experts and lawyers “ready to go to court if necessary,” according to Democratic officials.

“We have certainly never accomplished anything in America with less democracy, and we aren’t going to start now,” Davis told volunteers on a conference call. “We want more Texans to participate in this election, not less.”

Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said the project is probably more aimed at highlighting Republican support for voter ID than “actually combatting it in the trenches.”

See here for the plan outline. I don’t know how much that fits into Mark Jones’ narrative, but it does fit in with the overall plan to increase base turnout. Remember, most voters statewide have had no experience with voter ID. The first step is making sure people understand what they will need, and what they do and don’t have to worry about. It would be best if this were to go away, but we can’t count on that and even if we could it likely wouldn’t happen before November. Hope for the best, plan for all the other contingencies. The Observer and Texas Public Media have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Three Uber stories

Uber

We’re still waiting for Council to take action on vehicles for hire, so here’s some more reading on the subject to keep you up to date on what’s happening elsewhere.

Wonkblog: Are Uber and Lyft responsible for reducing DUIs?

Wonkblog: Uber is tapping into the too-drunk-to-drive market, user data suggest

A question asked and then tentatively answered about a possibly beneficial side effect of having companies like Uber and Lyft and the added transportation options they would bring to one’s city. It’s hardly a ridiculous question to ponder – Grits was pondering the same thing over two months ago, after some high-profile DUI fatalities in Austin, including one particularly tragic on at South by Southwest. More transportation options was the subject of a Statesman story at the time, and Uber and Lyft were suggested as possible remedies. The data so far is extremely preliminary and comes from Uber itself, but again, the premise is sound. It’s worth considering and keeping an eye on.

Techblog: How Uber is disrupting the taxi business: It’s simply great.

Chron tech writer Dwight Silverman and his wife visited Atlanta, used Uber exclusively to get around, and generally had a great experience with it. Note that in Atlanta, as in Houston, Uber is currently operating without the authorization of city officials, and they are as fast and loose with the rules there (picking up people at the airport even though their not supposed to) as they are here. Make of that what you will.

WSJ: Seoul Moves to Ban Uber, Plans Own App

For those of you that think cab companies should just adapt to changing technology or suffer the market consequences, I give you this:

Uber Monday evening called Seoul city government’s earlier statement a sign that it lags behind in adopting what it called an innovation in transportation. “Comments like these show Seoul is in danger of remaining trapped in the past and getting left behind by the global ‘sharing economy’ movement,” the statement said. An Uber spokesman in Seoul denied that the service was illegal as Uber is “a technology company that connects drivers with passengers” and doesn’t directly run a taxi service with rented cars.

The Seoul city government said Monday it would seek a ban on a car-hailing smartphone app from Uber Technologies Inc., joining a global battle by municipalities and traditional taxi services against the service.

The local authority said in a statement that Uber is illegal under South Korean law, which forbids fee-paying transport services using private or rented motor vehicles unregistered with the authorities.

The city added that it will launch in December an app that will provide similar features to Uber for official taxis, such as geo-location data on cabs nearby, information about them and their drivers, as well as ratings.

A Seoul-based Uber spokesman said the company was preparing a response to Seoul’s move, which follows a string of other actions taken by the city against the service in recent months.

Be careful what you wish for, I suppose. Definitely worth keeping an eye on this as well.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

HERO repeal petitions announcement today

Today’s the day we find out what happens.

The city’s controversial HERO ordinance prohibits discrimination based on federally recognized groups such as race and age, but also extends those rights to sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents of the ordinance led a petition drive to bring the issue to a public vote. It now appears the city attorney will announce whether that petition drive is valid this Friday.

Rice University Political Science Professor Bob Stein is a longtime city hall observer. He says there are a few possibilities at Friday’s announcement.

“One, of course, is they have enough signatures that have been validated, I think about 17,000. Second option is they don’t have enough and if that’s in contention you might see those who petitioned the city go to court and have them checked,” Stein said.

A third option, Stein says, is that the city attorney could rule the petition inappropriate or ill-timed under ballot initiative law. The city previously used that rationale on the petition to overturn red light cameras but lost that battle in court. Stein says the most likely outcome is that the opponents do have enough signatures to put the ordinance on the November ballot.

Actually, that was the opposite of what happened in the red light camera lawsuit. That referendum was presented as a charter amendment, with the petitions presented well after the 30 day window for repeal. Council voted to put it on the ballot at the urging of Mayor Parker and over the objections of CM Anne Clutterbuck, who argued that it really was a repeal effort and thus invalid. That’s exactly what Judge Lynn Hughes ruled. Here there’s no question this is a repeal effort, and the petitions were submitted within the required time frame. This is not to say that there couldn’t be an issue with timing, or other issues we don’t yet know about. I have no idea what Feldman might pull out of his hat. But we’ll find out soon enough.

Having said that, I do agree that the single most likely outcome is that the number of valid signatures is found to be sufficient, at which point it goes to the ballot. (I’m assuming there’s no Council vote for that.) From there it’s a matter of campaigning and turning out voters. You can see the petitions and their signatures for yourself here, by the way. Note that there are claims about how the signatures were collected that may lead to legal action of some kind, so whatever Feldman has to say, it likely won’t be the final word.

Posted in: Election 2014.

July finance reports for Harris County candidates

All of the July finance reports for Harris County candidates are in. You know what that means.

County Judge

Ed Emmett

Ahmad Hassan

Candidate Raised Spent Loan On Hand ================================================== Emmett 312,885 177,017 0 532,257 Hassan 0 0 0 0

Judge Emmett is the big dog, and he has the finance report to show it. Lots of donations in the one to ten thousand dollar range, from lots of PACs and recognizable people. Just over half of what he spent went to Paul Simpson’s successful campaign for Harris County GOP, $90K in total. One of the things I plan to do on each of these reports is search for evidence of any connection to the HERO repeal effort. It’s early enough in the process that the absence of such evidence is not conclusive, but if there’s one Republican in Harris County that I expect to stay away from that, it’s Emmett. I did not see any donations that made me think otherwise in this report.

As for AR Hassan, his report is an adequate summary of his campaign.

District Attorney

Devon Anderson

Kim Ogg

Candidate Raised Spent Loan On Hand ================================================== Anderson 282,834 95,345 0 224,228 Ogg 83,458 99,312 0 61,678

Devon Anderson has been busy, and she has an impressive haul, with a large array of big dollar and not-so-big dollar donors. Former DA Chuck Rosenthal, who wrote a check for $5K, is the most interesting name among her contributors. No surprises or HERO repeal connections among her expenditures. Allen Blakemore gets his usual cut – $30K in consulting fees ($5K per month) plus $8K in fundraising fees.

Kim Ogg’s report isn’t bad, but it’s a definite step down from Anderson’s. One big difference is what while Ogg had a decent number of small dollar contributors, she had far fewer big check-writers. Anderson had multiple donors at the $10K level. Ogg had none, with only three donations at or a bit above $5K, one of which was in kind. She had a number of other in kind donations as well. Her biggest expenditures by far went to Grant Martin, who is also a campaign consultant for Mayor Parker – $39K in fees, plus another $27K for mailers sent during the primary.

County Clerk

Stan Stanart

Ann Harris Bennett

Candidate Raised Spent Loan On Hand ================================================== Stanart 15,750 23,619 20,000 38,728 Bennett 15,663 17,397 10,324 2,251

$15K of Stanart’s contributions came from Commissioner Jack Cagle. He spent $20K on two ads – $15K to Conservative Media Properties, and $5K to The What’s UP Program. He’s the first one to show up with a connection to HERO repeal – not surprising since he attended at least one of their events at City Hall – with a $150 donation to the Houston Area Pastors Council.

Bennett’s contributions included $7,933 in in-kind donations – $3,000 to Thomas Thurlow for campaign office space ($500 per month since January) and $4,933 to Allan Jamail for robocalls for the primary. She had one $1,000 contribution from Jim “Mattress Mac” McIngvale, a couple of $500 contributions, and the rest were small-dollar donations. She spent $5,574 from personal funds on signs and $2,400 on sign placement, all before the primary, and another $3,866 on push cards and door hangers since the primary.

District Clerk

Chris Daniel

Judith Snively

Candidate Raised Spent Loan On Hand ================================================== Daniel 11,800 32,081 74,500 500 Snively 9,300 9,730 4,000 1,774

Daniel had three big contributors – Thomas Morin for $5,000, James Sibley for $2,500, and Sarah McConnell for $2,000 – but the most interesting donation he received was for $250 from the Law Offices of Jack “Father of Kim” Ogg. Most of the money he spent was in the primary – $10K to the HCRP for a print ad, $5K to GOP PAC for a “public promotion”, and $10,500 of the $11,625 total he spent on consulting fees to Blakemore & Associates. If he had any financial connections to the HERO repeal effort, I did not see them.

Snively’s contributions were all small-dollar, the biggest being $500 from CM Mike Laster. Several past Democratic candidates for judicial office – Snively was a candidate for one of the county courts in 2010 – were among her contributors as well. Her biggest expenditure was $7K to the HCDP in two equal increments for the coordinated campaign. Both were made after the primary; unlike Daniel, she was unopposed for the nomination.

County Treasurer

Orlando Sanchez

David Rosen

Candidate Raised Spent Loan On Hand ================================================== Sanchez 7,250 52,838 200,000 200,172 Rosen 8,641 3,984 0 798

You’d think a guy willing to loan himself $200K to stay in an office that pays half that much per year might be willing to spring a few bucks for someone capable of downloading the software needed to fill out the forms electronically instead of doing them in pen and paper and illegible handwriting, but then you’re not Orlando Sanchez. Actually, for reasons I can’t understand, his small list of contributions is done electronically, while his much longer list of expenditures is done by hand. Go figure. Anyway, Sanchez spent $11K on advertising in The What’s UP Program, $5K on an ad in The conservative Review, and a bit more than $5K in fees to Dolcefino Communications. Yes, that’s Wayne Dolcefino, who also has Kim Ogg as a client. No HERO repeal connections for him just yet.

To be fair, if I’m going to gripe about Sanchez filing a (poorly) handwritten report, I’ll gripe about David Rosen doing the same. Seriously, people. Adobe Acrobat is your friend. Rosen didn’t raise much money, and more than half of what he did report was $4,500 in kind from the TDP for access to the voter file, but all things considered he had a decent number of small dollar donors. Money won’t make that much difference this far down the ballot, but having dedicated supporters sure is nice.

County Commissioner

Jack Morman, Precinct 2

Jack Cagle, Precinct 4

Candidate Raised Spent Loan On Hand ================================================== Morman 534,770 79,580 0 1,274,471 Cagle 450,683 108,457 0 363,884

Did I say that Ed Emmett was the big dog? Jack Morman would clearly disagree. I’ve referred to several candidates’ success with small dollar contributors. If you want to know what a campaign based on big dollar contributors looks like, these are the reports to examine. Neither one has an opponent this November, but I looked at their reports because we only get so many opportunities to see what our elected officials are really up to. I’m also checking for HERO repeal activity. I didn’t find any on these reports, but as noted it’s still early days. We’ll have to check back in January for these two since as unopposed candidates they don’t have to file 30 day or 8 day reports. The one point of interest I’ll flag from Morman’s reports is $2,500 to Jared Woodfill’s re-election campaign. Easy come, easy go.

I’m not going to go through the Constable or Justice of the Peace reports at this time, so that’ll wrap it up for now. Like I said, I do expect to see some HERO activity in the next set of reports. That’s why it’s important to look, because you never know what you’ll find.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Who watches the fox while he guards the henhouse?

The Railroad Commission needs an ethics upgrade.

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

The race for Texas railroad commissioner has revived — at least in the short term — debate around a series of thwarted legislative proposals to overhaul the state’s curiously named oil and gas agency.

Calling the Railroad Commission too heavily influenced by the industry it regulates, Steve Brown, a Democrat, last week unveiled a slate of proposals aimed at reworking its image — measures first proposed by a panel of state lawmakers in 2013. The proposals include changing the commission’s name, shortening the period in which commissioners can fundraise, barring commissioners from accepting contributions from parties with business before the commission, expanding its recusal policy and requiring commissioners to resign before running for another office.

“The agency is broken itself, and so, you know, because of that, there are so many people in the community — out in the state of Texas — who just don’t trust the process,” Brown, the former chairman of the Fort Bend Democrats, said in an interview.

The move revealed stark differences between the campaign priorities of Brown and Ryan Sitton, his Republican opponent and the clear front-runner in the race, as they vie for an office that toes a line between industry champion and watchdog.

Sitton’s campaign criticized Brown’s announcement but did not directly weigh in on the bulk of the proposals, saying Sitton’s attention is focused on other issues. “We’re focused on making sure that Ryan is communicating his message, not in responding to ideas from his opponent,” said Jared Craighead, a spokesman for Sitton. Sitton is an oil and gas engineer who touts his industry expertise in his campaign credentials.

Which is to say, the status quo suits him just fine.

Brown’s proposals are the word-for-word recommendations of the 2012-13 Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, the legislative body that periodically reviews how state agencies operate. Lawmakers last session debated but failed to pass several pieces of legislation incorporating the recommendations. The Railroad Commission opposed the overhaul, arguing that commissioners should not be subject to stricter fundraising standards than other statewide officials and that the agency’s current ethics policies were plenty robust.

Brown called it a “vast mistake that the Legislature has been unable to pass these reforms.”

But Craighead panned Brown’s proposal as unoriginal. “I think to cut and paste the Sunset review commission’s work shows a lack of thought, and certainly, those are not the types of things that Ryan is talking about,” he said. He added that Sitton considers ethics and transparency issues important.

Again, the status quo suits Ryan Sitton just fine. Look, there’s a reason why the RRC gets singled out for special ethics rules. For one thing, Commissioners serve six-year terms with no resign-to-run requirement, which means they all get one guaranteed shot at another office without having to step down first. More to the point, Commissioners and Commission candidates, much like judges and judicial candidates, tend to draw financial support exclusively from the parties that have business before them. For judges that means lawyers, and for Railroad Commissioners that means the energy industry. In both cases, it creates at least the appearance of impropriety. And in both cases, the answer is campaign finance reform. I’ve been arguing for public financing of judicial races, which is a long enough shot on its own and even less likely here. The Sunset recommendation of limiting the dates for contributions doesn’t really solve the impropriety issue but at least provides a bit of separation, and it has a chance of passing the Legislature. I’ll take what I can get. If you want more of the same old same old, Ryan Sitton’s your man. If you want a change, vote for Steve Brown.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Endorsement watch: Chron for Creighton

Hey, did you know that there’s an election coming up? It’s the special election runoff for SD04 to succeed Tommy Williams and it features the ghastly Rep. Steve Toth and the slightly less ghastly Rep. Brandon Creighton. The Chron, who had endorsed third-place finisher Gordy Bunch back in April, now chooses the lesser evil of Creighton in the runoff.

Rep. Brandon Creighton

To understand the difference between the two candidates seeking to replace state Sen. Tommy Williams in state Senate District 4, look at their reactions to the surge of Central American children crossing our border. For state Rep. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, it is a “full-blown humanitarian crisis.” For state Rep. Steve Toth of The Woodlands, it is a “full-blown invasion.”

Both men have sterling conservative credentials, but Creighton doesn’t have to tarnish children to prove his. In the runoff for the SD-4 special election, Creighton deserves voters’ support.

[...]

Creighton isn’t always the most impressive candidate, but we’ve seen him work well behind the scenes, particularly during fights last session over the state’s water funding. On the campaign trail, he’s pushed for local law enforcement to bolster Department of Public Safety efforts along the border while avoiding counterproductive fear-mongering.

In contrast, Toth spreads conspiracy theories about disease outbreaks and advocates for Montgomery County to reject temporary housing for any of the children who have made it to our border. You would expect more compassion from a former pastor.

“Sterling” isn’t perhaps the word I would have used in paragraph 2, but I will concede there’s a matter of perspective involved. As for Toth, given the state of what Fred Clark calls “white evangelical Christianity” today, I actually would not expect any more compassion from a “pastor” like him. I can think of quite a few other “pastors” right here in the Houston area with an equal lack of compassion, and I’m sure the Chron’s editorial board could as well if they put their minds to it. Be that as it may, I agree that Creighton is the less distasteful choice. Too bad we can’t do any better than that. Runoff Day is August 5, if you’re keeping score at home, with early voting set to start next week. Let’s see how many votes are needed to send one of these two to the upper chamber.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 21

The Texas Progressive Alliance mourns the tragedy of MH17 as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Ivy Taylor named interim SA Mayor

Congratulations, Madam Mayor.

Mayor Ivy Taylor

The City Council appointed Councilwoman Ivy Taylor to become San Antonio’s next mayor.

She did not win a majority of the council vote, as her colleagues split 5-3 over her and Councilman Ray Lopez.

Lopez then withdrew from consideration, saying that it was important for the city to move forward.

Mayor Julián Castro then submitted his official letter of resignation, reading it aloud in council chambers.

He then congratulated Taylor for becoming the city’s new mayor. She is the first African-American woman to hold the seat.

She pledged to “work with everyone” to make San Antonio a great city. She thanked her family from traveling to San Antonio for Tuesday’s meeting and her husband and daughter for their support.

See here and here for some background. I’ve expressed some reservations about Taylor based on her vote against San Antonio’s expanded non-discrimination ordinance, but clearly she was able to overcome any reservations her fellow Council members had. She addressed the issue afterward.

When Taylor began her speech at the beginning of the process, she ran down a list of accomplishments and said she would like to serve in the interim role to continue moving Castro’s vision forward. Taylor mentioned the streetcar, balancing the city budget, working toward a resolution to police and fire health benefits, and rebuilding relationships with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community following her vote against the revised non-discrimination ordinance passed last September.

Members of the community, including those from the LGBT community, spoke at the special council meeting before votes were cast, telling the council who their interim mayor of choice is and why. From the podium, Daniel Graney told the council that he feels passionate about the new mayor embodying the core principle that everyone in the city should be treated equally and fairly.

“We need a face that is a welcoming one that embraces fairness and equality,” Graney said. “I therefore respectfully implore you to appoint an interim mayor who championed and voted for including LGBT protections in the NDO last year and is committed to furthering its implementation expansion.”

Following the council meeting, Taylor answered questions about repairing those relationships.

“I’ve always been committed to working with everyone in our community, even though we may not always agree on every issue,” said Taylor. “I’ve talked with them about some of the things they’d like to see moving forward as far as implementation and I pledged that I’d be willing to work on that.”

Other members of the LGBT community said there is a trust issue because Taylor said she would vote in favor of the NDO but then voted against it.

Q San Antonio addressed that issue as well.

Many in the LGBT community lobbied actively against Taylor because she voted against the nondiscrimination ordinance and because of remarks she made prior to her vote against the ordinance. (See related links below.) However, she did have a handful of LGBT supporters who felt she should not be denied the position because of that one vote.

In remarks posted on Facebook, Chad Reumann, a governor for the local chapter of the Human Rights Campaign said, “I hope we as a community can regroup and now focus on how we can work with Mayor Taylor. I had hoped for something else. Yet I know now we must try and work together.”

Local blogger Randy Bear, who supported Taylor’s appointment, posted, “So here’s my suggestion to CAUSA. Take time to work through your anger, but then start working with Mayor Ivy Taylor to get the NDO implemented. She has committed to it and you can make this a success for the community by taking her up on that commitment.”

I wish Mayor Taylor, who becomes the first African-American Mayor of San Antonio, all the best. I hope she follows through on that commitment and that her critics now will look back on her time in office as a success. Randy Bear, the Rivard Report, the SA Current, Equality Texas, and Texas Leftist have more.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Don’t sweat that court ruling on Obamacare tax credits just yet

It’s too soon to say what effect, if any will be felt in Texas.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Opposing rulings from two federal courts Tuesday left unclear the future prospects of federal financial aid to Texans who qualify for assistance to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the ACA legislation made federal subsidies available only to individuals who purchased insurance through state-run exchanges. That would make federal subsidies illegal in the 36 states, including Texas, that use the federally facilitated insurance marketplace.

That announcement was followed by a decision from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, which ruled that individuals who enroll using federally facilitated exchanges are eligible to receive subsidies.

Texas, like dozens of other states with Republican leaders, declined to create its own state-based insurance exchange under the ACA. Instead, Texas relies on a federally managed marketplace. More than 730,000 Texans enrolled for health coverage through the federal marketplace during the first period of open enrollment.

[...]

Individuals whose annual incomes range from one to four times the federal poverty level — $11,490 to $45,960 for an individual and $23,550 to $94,200 for a family of four — typically qualify for the subsidies.

Christine Sinatra, state spokeswoman for Enroll America, which has worked to enroll individuals in the federal marketplace, said the availability of financial assistance was “obviously a big factor” for that encouraged many in Texas to get insurance.

“What’s most important at this stage is for consumers to know that no one will lose their coverage or their financial help while this judicial process plays out,” Sinatra said. “And today’s decision isn’t making anyone newly uninsured.”

As noted in the story, some 734K people signed up for insurance via the federal exchange, and they generally got a good deal when they did. Put that aside for now, because as Josh Marshall suggests, the en banc reviews are likely to result in both courts agreeing, in which case there’s no dispute for the Supreme Court to resolve. But they could still take the case, or maybe something goes sideways with the en banc reviews. What happens if the adverse ruling is ultimately upheld? Kevin Drum suggests one possibility.

The key point here is that people respond much more strongly to losing things than they do to not getting them in the first place. For example, there are lots of poor people in red states who currently aren’t receiving Medicaid benefits thanks to their states’ refusal to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. This hasn’t caused a revolt because nothing was taken away. They just never got Medicaid in the first place.

The subsidies would be a different story. You’d have roughly 6 million people who would suddenly lose a benefit that they’ve come to value highly. This would cause a huge backlash. It’s hard to say if this would be enough to move Congress to action, but I think this is nonetheless the basic lay of the land. Obamacare wouldn’t be destroyed, it would merely be taken away from a lot of people who are currently benefiting from it. They’d fight to get it back, and that changes the political calculus.

Six million people nationwide, 734,000 in Texas. Remember, while it would take Congress to fix the national problem if it comes to that, there’s nothing stopping Texas or any other state from setting up their own exchange, as the law (as interpreted by two federal judges in Washington, DC) says. State Rep. John Zerwas tried to pass a bill in 2011 to establish an exchange in Texas, on the very reasonable grounds that a state-run exchange would be a better fit than a national one would. Sadly, though not surprisingly, it went nowhere, thanks in large part to Rick Perry’s fanatical opposition. My point is that if Drum is right then any pressure on Congress to fix this would also translate to the state Legislature. Who knows what effect that might have in 2016, or even 2018? Or for that matter, how about this year, too? Seven hundred thousand people losing something that they now have, that sure is a lot. Surely there’s something we can do with that.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Southeast and Harrisburg rail line openings pushed back

Well, at least it’s still in 2014.

THERE’S STILL “some uncertainty” over the exact schedule, but all the pieces needed to allow Metro to open Houston’s second and third light-rail lines won’t be in place until late December, according to reports delivered to a committee of the transportation organization’s board of directors last Friday. Previously, an opening date sometime this fall had been projected for the Southeast and East End lines (though the far eastern end of the East End line won’t come on line until a newly planned overpass is built under over the Union Pacific East Belt freight rail line between the future Altic and Cesar Chavez stations). Delays in the delivery of trains aren’t the sole reason for the late openings, however.

The contractor building the lines won’t be ready to turn over the completed tracks until September 30th to Metro, which will then need approximately 60 days to prepare for their operation. Other factors affecting the schedule: delivery of hundreds of newly redesigned axle counters to monitor train traffic on the rail lines, and construction of Houston First’s new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the downtown convention center.

I suppose the optimistic way to look at this is to observe that hopefully this renders the rail car shortage problem moot. And technically, if the opening is on or before December 20, it’s still “sometime this fall”. Right?

If officials can resolve a handful of remaining issues, the Metropolitan Transit Authority will open its two new rail lines in December, according to a revised schedule. It’s a delay from the fall 2014 estimate officials provided earlier this year.

“It is scheduled as of now to open Christmas week,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “It is going to open before the end of the year.”

Missed it by that much. Look, just get it done this year, OK? Thanks.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Wonkblog on Texas cities’ efforts to combat payday lenders

It’s always nice when the national media notices something positive happening in Texas instead of the usual.

The number of payday and auto title loan outlets has skyrocketed since 2005. (Texas Appleseed)

Four years ago, ACE Cash Express was the company that turned Dallas Council member Jerry Allen into the payday loan industry’s worst enemy.

The day before he was about to celebrate the launch of the Bank On Dallas program, which helps people get bank accounts, Allen got a call from a lobbyist asking if he would meet with the ACE’s executives. He didn’t have time, and declined. But the next day, along with regular council business, it became apparent that two council members had taken the meeting: They made a proclamation declaring ACE a model corporate citizen, after it donated $100,000 to relief efforts in Haiti. “It irritated me that these guys thought they could play that game,” Allen said. “It was game on.”

Texas has been a gold mine for payday lenders since 2005, when a court ruling sanctioned a loophole in usury laws that allowed them to charge whatever interest they pleased. Storefronts proliferated to the point where, according to a 2012 report by Texas Appleseed, the state accounted for 60 percent of the four biggest publicly traded firms’ profits. A major push by religious and community groups to pass restrictions in the state legislature failed in its last biannual session, in 2013; they only managed to require that borrowers be provided with certain disclosures when they took out loans.

Allen, however, had already started pushing on a different front. In 2011, he got an ordinance passed that limited the number of installments on a loan to four, each of which must pay down 25 percent of the loan principal, and can’t exceed 20 percent of a borrower’s paycheck. On top of that, the council passed zoning restrictions that prevented new shops from opening within certain distances from highways, residential areas, and other payday lenders.

It’s not really an aggressive set of rules. Because municipalities aren’t allowed to legislate much on top of an area already regulated by the state, Dallas didn’t limit the actual interest or fees the lenders could charge, so as to remain safe from legal challenges. Still, Allen says, not one single new “credit service organization,” as they’re called in the state, has applied to set up shop in Dallas since it passed. And meanwhile, 17 other cities — including most of the largest, besides Fort Worth — have passed similar rules. That’s left advocates, especially Allen, feeling triumphant.

“You can run, but you better run fast, because we’ve got jets on,” Allen says. “Go down your rabbit holes, because we’re going to put concrete in ‘em. We’ve got ‘em on the run, and we’re shooting ‘em in the back.”

Allen doesn’t hold out much hope that Texas’ next legislative session will significantly strengthen or standardize the ordinances that cities have been adopting on their own; he’s just hoping the conservative House won’t overrule them. In the mean time, he’s waiting for the CFPB’s expected rulemaking in the fall, which could include national requirements for a borrower’s ability to pay back loans, even though the agency can’t cap the interest rates outright. And importantly, he’s working to develop alternative banking services, so people don’t find themselves in Gail Rowland’s shoes in the first place — a common critique of the industry, which says people will just seek out even worse options if they can’t borrow against their next paycheck.

One possible substitute: Community loan centers, like this one in Brownsville, Tex., which offer more affordable small-dollar loans. They’ll have an easier time expanding once payday lenders retreat, as they have in most places that place serious limits on their operations.

“If there’s a situation where people don’t have access,” Allen says, “well then dad gummit, we’ve got to get it to them.”

The “go where the customers are” approach of Select Federal Credit Union (SFCU) in San Antonio is another possible substitute. I’m glad to see people paying some attention to that, because it undercuts the one argument that the payday lenders have for themselves, and I strongly suspect they will not be able to handle this kind of competition. I had forgotten about the zoning restrictions in the Dallas ordinance. The Houston ordinance doesn’t have anything like that. Not because of the Z-word – we have no problem restricting where bars, liquor stores, and strip clubs can operate; there should be no reason we couldn’t do the same with payday lenders. That’s something I’d like to see considered as an extension of our ordinance down the line, maybe next year. I understand CM Allen’s pessimism about state action on payday lenders, but do keep in mind that one candidate for Governor has helped lead the fight against payday lenders, while the other candidate greatly enabled their expanded presence. Just look at that chart above to see the effect. You want to improve the odds of state action, or at least greatly reduce the odds of any attempt to claw back what the cities have done, you know who to vote for this fall.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Another perspective on residency requirements

The Texas Election Law blog looks at my coverage of the Dave Wilson residency saga and offers his thoughts on the matter.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

The saga of gaming residence for the sake of running for office – what a tangle of legal precedent it provides. Mr. Kuffner has used the occasion of the Wilson lawsuit to suggest some sort of legal reform to our statutory definition of residence, mindful of the weeds and quicksand. Mr. Kuffner’s suggestion is to treat an out-of-territory homestead exemption as a bar to holding office within a territory (assuming the jurisdiction in question has a residence requirement for holding office).

I. IS DOMICILE THAT IMPORTANT?

I guess another way to ask the question is to ask why a person’s domicile is important to office holding, voting, paying taxes, or what-have-you. The short answer is that domicile isn’t important, except when we want it to be important.

[...]

I bring all this up as a reminder that there’s no inherent necessity to link residence with office. If we do make a requirement that someone has to consider a district their “home” in order to represent that district, such a policy choice is just that – a choice. Supporters of such requirements would likely argue that members of … say for example … the Houston Community College District Board of Trustees … should be residents of the community college district so that they will be personally invested in the problems and conditions of the district, forced by geographic proximity to share the experience of living in the Houston Community College District. We certainly don’t want those outsiders and strangers who live across the street from the Community College District to come in and impose their seditious ideologies and strange ways, do we?

II. RESIDENCE REQUIREMENTS MIGHT BE A LITTLE ARBITRARY, BUT SO WHAT? GIVEN THAT SUCH REQUIREMENTS DO EXIST FOR MOST LOCAL ELECTIVE OFFICES, HOW DO WE DEFINE THOSE REQUIREMENTS FAIRLY?

Well, what is “fair?” I mean, any definition of domicile will involve some subjective standard for determining the sincerity of a person’s … hearth-cleaving. (Hearth-cleaving is my made-up term for domiciliary intent; it means, “emotional and physical ties to the one place in all the world that is home.”)

Legislatures, disgruntled losing candidates, judges, juries, voters, and angry political rivals have searched high and low for some universally applicable sure-fire objective test or standard for hearth-cleaving that would guarantee the exclusion of the carpetbagging outsider from office. But for every bright line test, there will come some sympathetic officeholder whose exclusion is unfair. Because there is really just one test underlying all these tests of domicile and residence. Is the candidate or officeholder one of us, or is the candidate or officeholder not one of us?

III. SO, TO SUM UP, RESIDENCE REQUIREMENTS ARE ARBITRARY, SUBJECTIVE, AND A SOURCE OF ENDLESS FACTUAL DISPUTE, AND THEY ALWAYS WILL BE, AND THAT’S JUST INHERENT IN THE IDEA OF HOME, COMMUNITY, AND BELONGING OR NOT BELONGING TO A PLACE?

Yup.

Fair enough. As I’ve said, at least we now have a standard for our residency requirements, and clearly that standard is pretty loose. It’s loose enough that one could certainly make a reasonable case that they have no meaning and we ought to get rid of them. I’ve already expressed my preference for having some kind of meaningful requirement, and as the TELB notes you know what I would like to see done about it. Your mileage may vary on that, and while I can see the appeal of leaving this as a campaign issue rather than a legal issue, that’s not my first choice. This is why we have elections, I suppose.

I’ll stipulate that I was driven in part by animus for Dave Wilson, a man who has richly earned the animus of many, many people. It’s also about my dislike of people who are not residents of Houston but are nonetheless hellbent on meddling in its political affairs. I get the argument that some people have made that they work here, they own businesses here, and so forth. I get it, I’m just not persuaded by it. Some arguments can be settled by existing laws, empirical data, analogous examples, or cold hard logic. This isn’t one of those arguments. This is how I see it, and I make no apologies for that. If you don’t see it the same way, that’s fine. I’m not claiming that I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m just stating my preference, with which you’re welcome to disagree. I’m okay with that, and I hope you are, too.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Perry’s border surge

Stupid.

Gov. Rick Perry, leaping again into the national spotlight on illegal immigration, announced Monday he is sending up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border, where an influx of young Central Americans has overwhelmed the federal government.

Democrats blasted the decision as a political stunt by a governor with presidential ambitions. But Perry, who has the power to call up Guard troops to deal with a broad variety of crises, said Texas had to act because the federal government has offered nothing but “lip service and empty promises” while the border is overrun with illegal activity.

“I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children from Central America are detained in squalor,” Perry told a packed press conference at the Texas Capitol. “We are too good a country for that to occur.”

Monday’s announcement marked the second time this month that Perry, who is considering another run for the White House in 2016, has thrust himself into the center of national debate about the crisis along border. He met with President Obama in Dallas on July 9, in part, to press his demands that the feds send — and pay for — a National Guard deployment.

Absent a federal activation, Perry said he acted on his own, meaning that Texans will pick up the $12 million-a-month tab authorities say the deployment will cost. The governor and other Republican elected officials said they would ask the federal government to pay for the mobilization.

I know what my answer to that request would be. Look, we all know the reason for this. It’s one part Perry 2016, and one part a response to the fear and fear of the voters he’s trying to woo. I know what Perry hopes to accomplish by this, but I have no idea what the Guard is supposed to be doing. These are children, for Christ’s sake, not criminals. God help us all if something goes wrong. TPM, PDiddie, and Stace, who has reactions from numerous Democratic officials, have more.

Posted in: La Migra.

SH 130 operator in default

But it’s not default-default just yet.

Speed Limit 85

Although the company that built and operates the southern leg of the Texas 130 toll road recently managed to work out a payment extension with its lenders, an investor service that monitors the project still considers it in default.

Moody’s Investor Service issued a report last week, saying SH 130 Concession Company LLC did not have enough money to make a June 30 loan payment, which Moody’s predicted last month would likely happen.

“Moody’s view is that the failure to meet the full payment that was originally scheduled … constitutes a ‘default’ under Moody’s definition,” the July 8 report said.

However, the concession company worked out a deal with its senior lenders June 26, “which allowed for an undisclosed partial payment” and which also pushed back the deadline to pay off the remaining payment until Dec. 15, the report said.

That means the project is not in legal default. The report said the extension also gives the senior lenders time to restructure the debt.

[...]

In the case of a legal default, control of the project would transfer from the borrower to the lender, said Karan Bhanot, a finance professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Business. That’s not what’s happening in this case.

Instead, Moody’s is applying its own, stricter definition of default.

See here for the background. I think the odds that they can escape legal default are slim, but I suppose one should never underestimate the ability of companies like that to wheedle extensions and exceptions for long periods of time. I just hope TxDOT is ready to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

San Antonio’s “Little India”

I love stories like this.

On a recent Saturday morning, about two dozen men in team jerseys gathered on grounds in the far North Side with their kits of helmets, bats and protective gear, pumped to play cricket.

The scoreboard went up. Stumps were placed 66 feet apart, defining the wicket. Morning drizzle gave way to sunshine, and the match started, with a jumble of sounds — the crack of leather-covered balls against willow cricket bats and eight Indian dialects as players shouted encouragement to teammates on the pitch.

While the only “hard ball” format in town, which because of the weight of the ball isn’t necessarily for beginners, it wasn’t the only game of cricket played that day in San Antonio.

South Asian immigrants, primarily from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been a growing presence here, with many of them taking high-skill positions with economic powerhouses such as Valero Energy Corp., H-E-B and the South Texas Medical Center.

Off the job, they gravitate toward the game most have been playing since preschool.

Some of the players are transitory, in town on one- or two-year work contracts. But many others have brought their wives, are starting families and are pursuing permanent residency or U.S. citizenship.

As a result of the influx, clusters of Indian and Pakistani grocery stores and restaurants — known as “little India” — have sprouted near the headquarters of USAA, a major importer of South Asian information technology workers, and close to the Medical Center, the workplace of scores of Indian-born physicians and medical researchers.

[...]

[Sol Hooda, a real estate agent who was one of the founders of the Alamo City Cricket League] who was born in Bangladesh, estimates between 250 and 400 South Asians lived here when he moved to San Antonio in the early 1990s. Now, he said, the number is in the thousands.

“A lot of people are coming from California, Chicago, New York, Atlanta,” he said. “I have several clients that were (on) temporary visas, but now they’re permanent. So they decided, ‘Hey, let’s buy a home.’ And they make good money, their credit is good, so they can afford to buy.”

Dr. Jayesh Shah, president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, said there are now as many as 3,000 families of Indian origin in the city and about 300 physicians.

Largely because Shah lives here, the city hosted the association’s 32nd annual convention last week. The gathering of doctors from around the country included appearances by U.S. surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy, Miss America Nina Davuluri (the first Indian-American to win the crown) and a live video address from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Part of the event was a celebration of “Mexican-Indian” culture, Shah said, including a tribute to La Meri, a San Antonio dancer who became proficient in Indian dance.

There also was daily yoga, a fashion show and a performance by Bollywood music stars.

It was be a chance to show off San Antonio’s charms to a well-heeled demographic.

“It matches the Indian climate, kind of,” Shah said. “And San Antonio is a nice city. It’s a big city, but it’s small, you know, and everybody’s well connected to each other.”

The Indian population here is small-scale compared with cities such as Houston, New York, Chicago and San Jose, California. But its growth fits in with a wave of immigration that has made Indians the U.S.’s third-largest immigrant group by country of origin, behind Mexico and China.

One in seven patients in America is now seen by Indian-born physician, Shah said.

I worked two summers at USAA while I was in college in the 80s, and I was reasonably familiar with the “Little India” area described above, but suffice it to say it was different back then. Consider this separate but related to the other recent stories about demographic changes in Texas’ cities. The emergence of not one but two cricket leagues is a bonus.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Planned Parenthood comes out swinging

Good to see.

Planned Parenthood’s political arm is embarking on the most aggressive campaign it has ever waged in Texas, with plans to spend $3 million to turn out voters for Democratic candidates including Sens. Wendy Davis for governor and Leticia Van de Putte for lieutenant governor.

Bolstered by a $1 million donation from a single backer, Planned Parenthood’s latest Texas-based political action fund is sparking concerns among anti-abortion activists who expect to be outgunned financially by the effort that has a particular focus on women voters.

[...]

The new PAC, called Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, is intended to bolster the top of the Democratic ticket, along with a slate of state House candidates and the Democrat running for Davis’ open Senate seat. The group also endorsed Rep. Sarah Davis, the only Republican who voted against last year’s tighter abortion restrictions.

Created just four months ago, the PAC already has more than $1 million cash on hand, mostly through the $1 million donation from Planned Parenthood Chair Cecilia Boone. It’s only the third contribution of that amount recorded by any candidate or PAC this election cycle.

The endeavor will be coordinated with a new Texas-based Planned Parenthood 501c4 group, a tax exempt nonprofit that does not have to disclose contributors.

Planned Parenthood says the nonprofit is set up to handle administrative costs, while the bulk of the spending will be done through its PAC that makes contributors known to the public.

Despite having a long-established presence in Texas, state data shows it’s the first time Planned Parenthood’s political arm has dedicated this type of financial firepower to Texas’ elections.

[...]

Planned Parenthood organizers said they will parlay the PAC money into an aggressive field program to reach more than 300,000 women – including Democrats and Republicans identified as receptive to their message – through phone banks, door-to-door visits and direct mail. The campaign will also include a heavy dose of digital outreach that will include radio ads and online ads, along with social media.

That’s great and exciting and all, but I have to ask: What the hell took so long for someone to figure out this was a good idea? It’s not exactly rocket science, and the bad guys have been doing it for years now. More in the primaries than in November, I admit, but still. How is it that the light bulb never went on before now? And where are the other groups that ought to be doing the same thing? If I don’t see at least one more story like this about a similar organization between now and November, I’m going to be deeply annoyed.

Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant, said Planned Parenthood’s spending can slice two ways for Davis.

On one hand, it will put the abortion spotlight back on Davis and could stymie her messaging as a candidate focused on a broad range of policies. Mackowiak said, however, it can also provide more resources for her campaign, which is at a 3-1 cash disadvantage compared to Abbott, and maybe even provide a bit of cover on the issue.

“The campaign knows that talking about abortion is a net loser for her,” he said. “These outside groups can focus on maximizing the pro-choice vote while Wendy stays above that fray.”

I basically agree with Mackowiak, but not for the reason he has in mind. The issue here for Davis, as I’ve said before, is that there’s precious little she can do as Governor to advance reproductive rights. She can’t undo or roll back HB2, the bill she famously filibustered, she can’t restore funding to family planning services or Planned Parenthood. She can’t even introduce a bill to do any of these things, not that they’d go anywhere if she could. The one thing she can do is be the last line of defense against further assaults on women’s health and reproductive freedom, via the veto pen. Vitally important, to be sure, and something that needs to be said, but talking about defense doesn’t strike me as very inspiring. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that if she did speak more about it, the nattering types that have complained Davis has not talked enough about abortion would complain that she’s focusing on it too much.

Be that as it may, apocalyptic scenarios and desperate appeals to hold the line are exactly the sort of thing that outside groups are made for. They can get as hyperbolic as they want and do whatever they can to scare targeted voters to the ballot box. (Again, the mind boggles that we hadn’t been doing this before now.) In addition, PPVT and any other groups that want to jump in can shill for candidates other than just Wendy Davis as well. Certainly they’d want to push for Leticia Van de Putte, but including Sam Houston and Mike Collier – yes, I know that the Comptroller has little to nothing to do with abortion, but remember that Collier is running against the guy who sponsored HB2 – would also make sense and would be a nice little boost to their campaigns.

So jump in with both feet, PPVT, and invite your friends to jump in with you. There’s plenty of people in Texas to help fund this kind of effort. We need them all to keep some of their money in state and do their part to help the good guys win in November.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Texas EquuSearch wins one in court

Good.

Texas EquuSearch will resume flying drones during their search-and-recovery missions after a federal appeals court ruled Friday that a government “cease and desist” order banning their use wasn’t valid.

In February, a Federal Aviation Administration official sent the volunteer group an email, saying its use of unmanned aircraft to search for missing people was illegal.

“He was overstepping his boundaries,” Equu­Search founder Tim Miller said Friday after the Washington, D.C.-based appellate court issued its ruling.

Texas EquuSearch stopped using drones after receiving the government’s email, then filed a lawsuit against the agency.

[...]

Although the court’s decision dismissed the lawsuit, it achieved the desired results of confirming that Texas EquuSearch could continue using drones, said Brendan Schulman, who represented Texas EquuSearch in the case.

“The FAA’s instructions to stop using (drones) were not legally binding. They were just advisory in nature,” Schulman said.

See here for the background. As I said at the time, I could see no good reason why Texas EquuSearch should be barred from using drones in its search-and-rescue missions. There should certainly be some regulation of drone use, but any sensible set of rules should allow for this kind of use. (Fun question to ask at your next candidate forum: Which should be regulated more tightly, guns or drones?) I’m glad to see them get this ruling.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Chron agrees that the Astrodome Park plan is silly

So there you have it.

There is something uniquely Houston about tearing down an historic structure to build a memorial commemorating the history of that very structure. But that is exactly what the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Texans have suggested in their recent proposal for the future of the Astrodome.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett minced no words when he called it a “silly plan.”

Those two primary tenants of NRG park pitched their $66 million idea to county commissioners two weeks ago, which involves razing the Dome and replacing it with green space, including historic markers and possible event stages. It seems like a less ambitious version of the steel-skeleton idea proposed by University of Houston architecture graduate student Ryan Slattery.

We’ve previously supported the idea of turning the Dome site into something resembling a “Discovery Green – South,” but only as a last resort. This proposal falls short of that standard, lacking the ambition and easy access, not to mention funding necessary to create a park that can match Discovery Green. This plan also feels far too willing to ignore the potential that continues to exist in the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Emmett has opposed any demolition, and says that this proposal is a “nonstory.” After all, the Dome belongs to the citizens of Harris County, not a professional sports team.

But it is hard to ignore a plan sponsored by the two largest users of the NRG complex, especially given that they’ve remained generally quiet through all the past ideas, but for their own previously proposed demolition and parking lot plan.

See here for the story so far. I do think it’s a little early to completely dismiss the idea, since the Rodeo and the Texans have not said how much of the tab they would be willing to pick up and what (if any) thought has been given to programming and paying for programming. Of course, the longer we go without any word from the Texans and the Rodeo on these subjects, the more reasonable it is to view this idea through a cynical lens. As the Chron notes, the Rodeo and the Texans have made their preference for demolition clear all along. If they’re serious about this being something more than just a way to make demolition more viable, then it’s on them to spell out the details. We’re waiting.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.