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Paxton’s contempt saga officially ends

I’m sure he’s so relieved.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge has canceled next week’s contempt-of-court hearing for Attorney General Ken Paxton, saying it is not needed because Texas government agencies have begun acknowledging same-sex marriages.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia had ordered Paxton and a state health official to appear in his San Antonio courtroom last month to explain why the state was not listing same-sex marriages on death certificates. Garcia postponed that hearing until Sept. 10 after Paxton said state policies were being changed to allow same-sex marriages to be listed on all state documents, including birth and adoption records.

Paxton last week asked Garcia to cancel the postponed hearing, saying Texas was complying with his order to treat same-sex marriages no differently than opposite-sex unions.

Garcia agreed, saying in an order Tuesday that state officials were properly recognizing same-sex marriages as required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s June opinion that struck down all state bans on gay marriage.

Garcia, however, noted that his office had received letters complaining that gay couples were still being denied marriage licenses in a few counties he did not identify.

See here, here, and here for the background. It would be nice to have more details about those letters Judge Garcia received, but at this point it does seem like the system is finally working as it’s supposed to. If all else fails, Judge Garcia can always reschedule that hearing. He may now be in compliance, but it’s not clear to me that Paxton has learned anything from the experience.

Though that decision marks something of a win for Paxton, the attorney general’s first assistant bristled at the notion that it was even necessary.

“For better or worse, Tx was never ‘not complying,’” First Assistant Attorney General Chip Roy wrote on Twitter. “There was never basis for contempt hearing for AG or otherwise.”

All the legal wrangling came after Conroe resident John Allen Stone-Hoskins sued the state to amend his husband’s death certificate and add his name as a spouse. Pressure also mounted for the Department of State Health Services to address other such forms.

The death certificate of Stone-Hoskins’ husband, James, has since been amended. And Neel Lane, Stone-Hoskins’ attorney, said in August that fixing those documents “should be the final chapter” in the state recognizing the same-sex marriage ruling.

Garcia’s order did note complaints that some county clerks continue to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. While pointing out those issues weren’t before the court, Garcia highlighted the attorney general’s pledge to not represent those clerks in litigation.

“The court expects that Ken Paxton … will utilize [his] unique position to ensure proper implementation of the law across the State of Texas,” Garcia wrote.

He’d better. And please spare us the whining, Chip. Go talk to people like John Stone-Hoskins about how they were being treated and see if you can stand by your statement. Someone needed to get Paxton’s undivided attention, and Judge Garcia was the one to do it. I’m very glad he did.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Churches and recall elections

This ought to be interesting.

BagOfMoney

Are Texas churches prohibited from campaigning to recall politicians?

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals [weighed] that question Thursday in a case set to clarify if and how a church as a corporate entity can influence the political process of ousting a sitting elected official.

A San Antonio congregation, Faith Outreach International Center, and two Houston churches, Joint Heirs Fellowship Church and the Houston First Church of God, sued Texas last year arguing state election code prevented them from supporting recall efforts in the two cities.

Ordinances to protect gay people passed in both cities in 2013. Upset with those measures, the churches planned to launch coordinated recall movements targeting former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, along with the entire City Council at the time, and Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

A lower court tossed the case, ruling the coordinated plans from the churches would have amounted to a “prohibited political contribution” because of their corporate status. The court also said the churches could band together under Texas law and form the equivalent of a state-level super PAC, which is allowed to accept corporate contributions to electioneer without coordinating with a candidate.

The state attorney general’s office has taken the position that there is nothing in state law preventing the churches from spending money in a recall election. Like the lower court, however, the state argues the churches would simply have to register as a super PAC, which is formally called a “direct expenditure only committee.”

“Not every payment of money, or transfer of a thing of value, by a corporation in connection with a recall election is prohibited by” state law, the attorney general’s office argues in a brief. “And the statute permits all the conduct in which Plaintiffs want to engage.”

However, lawyers for the churches have dismissed the idea of registering as any type of PAC and are taking aim at the state’s law banning corporate contributions in recall elections, claiming it infringes on their First Amendment rights.

“This is a very live dispute,” said Jerad Najvar, a campaign finance lawyer representing the three churches. “More issues like this are going to arise in which religious groups are going to want to participate in the political process.”

[…]

Corporations are currently allowed to give to a political action committee that is set up to support or oppose a specific ballot measure. But state election code also “specifies that a corporation is prohibited from making political contributions in connection with a recall election, including the circulation and submission of petitions to call an election.”

Lawyers representing the churches are arguing the two statutes dealing with corporate contributions are unclear.

They also point to a court ruling from a case out of El Paso, in which the former mayor successfully sued a pastor and a church spearheading recall efforts, as part of the “chilling effect” for churches wanting to engage, said Najvar, the lawyer representing the three congregations.

In the El Paso case, a state appeals court reached the conclusion that a corporation engaged in the support of a recall. The court said the church failed to use a political action committee designated for a specific ballot measure.

“As far as Texas law is concerned right now, the courts have already applied what is the law,” Najvar said.

I don’t remember the original filing of this lawsuit, so I don’t have any background to give you. I guess I don’t know why the law makes that distinction for recall elections, and without knowing any more than that it sure does seem like a fair target. Against that, I’m not sure what the problem is with using a PAC, as state law allows. Fortunately, this Press story on the oral arguments gives us some insight.

The hearing [Thursday] largely centered on whether the churches even had standing to bring the suit in the first place.

A lawyer representing the Texas Ethics Commission, which oversees political contributions, argued that the churches’ concerns that they would be breaking the law was actually a moot point. He held that, as long as the churches wouldn’t be making contributions to individual political candidates or officeholders, they could post as many recall promotions on their websites and submit as many petitions as they wanted. “The reason they don’t have standing is because there is no case for controversy,” he said. “It is the commission’s position that it is not going to enforce any provision of the election code in a way that restricts political contributions, as long as they’re not coordinated to a political candidate or officeholder.”

Nevertheless, the churches’ counsel continued to claim the churches faced discrimination, despite the state’s continued promise that everything they wanted to do—on the record, at least—was already allowed under state law. When Jerad Najvar, the attorney arguing on behalf of the churches, continued to press the issue, one Fifth Circuit judge told him, “Your clients can’t take yes for an answer.”

Najvar claimed that the “restrictions” the election code placed on his clients’ ability to promote a recall—which no one else seemed to believe were restrictions—were still content-based speech restrictions. Najvar said he worried that if his clients proceeded with recall efforts, they could still face legal troubles. He cited a 2012 case in El Paso , Cook v. Tom Brown Ministries, in which church officials faced jail time for trying to oust the El Paso mayor. The state, however, more than once reminded Najvar and the court that a 2013 case brought against the commission by Texans for Free Enterprise made the Cook case irrelevant and ensured that the churches’ actions would be deemed legal by the state.

Najvar wouldn’t buy it. “Our clients are very fearful,” Najvar said. “There should be confidence that you can proceed in the democratic process and not be concerned that your actions might somehow put you subject to criminal sanctions.”

Which led one judge to ask, “Isn’t that a little paranoid?”

OK then. It will likely be awhile before we hear back from the court. In the meantime, if you have more familiarity with these issues, please feel free to weigh in.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Rep. McClendon to step down

She’ll be missed.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat and 19-year veteran of the Texas House who tenaciously championed social justice reform, said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election.

McClendon was elected in 1996 to represent East Side voters in House District 120 and has emerged as a fixture in the Legislature as the dean of the Bexar County delegation.

However, McClendon’s health has been an ongoing concern. She was diagnosed in 2009 with stage 4 lung cancer and underwent surgery to remove water from her brain last year.

Her fragile physical state was emphasized during the latest legislative session when she relied on an electric scooter to navigate the Capitol and had noticeable trouble speaking.

In a statement, McClendon said she plans to stay in office until her term expires in December 2016 but that “it is time for someone else to take up the mantle.”

“Although I will not return to the Legislature in 2017,” she said, “I will still be engaged to ensure that the issues I have fought for will have a voice.”

[…]

McClendon has possibly become best known for her quest to have the state study wrongful prison convictions. She achieved the long-time goal during the last legislative session to create a commission to study exonerations, a triumph that helped earn her recognition from Texas Monthly as one of 2015’s best lawmakers.

Lawmakers said McClendon’s presence will be missed.

“Ruth is not only the dean of our delegation, she’s also our Capitol mother. Knowing that she’s not coming back is something that’s going to be hard to overcome,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat. “She’s always been the leader of our delegation, but now its time for her to make sure she’s taking care of her health and her family.”

All respect to Rep. McClendon, who has battled health issues for several years but went out on a high note this session with the passage of that exoneration commission bill. Go read the story at the end of that post linked above; if it doesn’t make you at least a little misty, you might want to adjust your meds. Her departure means that the ten-member Bexar County House delegation will have at least four members who were not there this past January – Rep. Diego Bernal, the successor to Mike Villarreal, who resigned to run for Mayor; Rep. Ina Minjarez, who won a special election for the seat vacated by now-Sen. Jose Rodriguez; and whoever follows the retiring Reps. McClendon and Joe Farias. If the Dems win back HD117 in this Presidential-turnout year, that will be half of the delegation turned over. Getting some new blood is always good, but losing such distinguished veterans is hard. I wish Rep. McClendon all the best as she enters the next phase of her life. The Trib has more.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Who needs wetlands?

Development is all that matters, right?

More than 38,000 acres of wetlands vanished in greater Houston over the past two decades despite a federal policy that “no net loss” can be caused by encroaching development.

That’s an area about the size of The Woodlands and Sugar Land combined turned into neighborhoods, office buildings, strip malls, parking lots and roads.

To remedy the damage, federal permits require developers to create man-made wetlands or preserve them elsewhere, often by a ratio of at least 2 acres for every one destroyed. But the Army Corps of Engineers, by statute the nation’s primary steward of wetlands, doesn’t track whether most developers satisfy the requirements of their permits, a recent study found.

More than half of the permit records reviewed by researchers revealed little or no evidence of compliance in an eight-county region. The lack of documentation suggests wetlands probably are not being protected as the federal Clean Water Act requires, said John Jacob, director of Texas A&M University’s coastal watershed program, which worked on the study with the Houston Advanced Research Center.

“The disappearance of wetlands is widespread and pervasive,” Jacob said. “These are the wetlands that improve water quality and reduce flooding, but there is no mitigation.”

Upstream development worsens downstream flooding, said Jim Lester, president of HARC, based in The Woodlands. “It’s crazy to me that we cover up wetlands, and then we spend a lot of money to build retention ponds.”

[…]

The study comes amid political anger over new Obama administration rules that aim to clarify which wetlands, streams and tributaries should be protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act. Texas and 15 other states have filed suit to block the rules, which were proposed last year by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers.

Farmers, developers and landowners say the rules are an overreach by the government.

But the researchers say the new rules could help protect wetlands that are hydrologically isolated from bays, rivers, streams or other “waters of the United States.” Since 2001, the Corps’ office for the Houston region has claimed jurisdiction only over wetlands within the 100-year floodplain or with distinct channels.

“We’re not arguing for no development, but we can be smarter about it,” [Lisa Gonzalez, one of the study’s authors and vice president of HARC] said. HARC was started by the late oilman and developer George Mitchell, who used the natural drainage of The Woodlands to structure its development.

The isolated wetlands found in the Katy Prairie and wooded Montgomery County, for example, are prime targets for builders as the region continues to grow. With a projected wave of some 4 million new residents over the next four decades, it’s possible to lose another 100,000 acres of wetlands to development.

“This is the time in the next 20 to 30 years that we really need to save stuff,” she said. “It’s going ever so quick, and we need that mitigation hammer.”

I can’t find a copy of the study on the HARC website; this link is the best I can do. None of this should be a surprise – there’s vastly more incentive to not comply than to comply, and there’s basically no enforcement mechanism. Just keep in mind that when you read or hear about all that booming growth out in the far-flung suburbs, a lot of it is making the flooding problems we see here in the older parts of Houston worse. There’s only so much that ReBuild Houston and all the Mayoral promises you’re going to hear over the next few months can do about that.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Friday random ten: Revisiting the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs list, part 11

Here’s their list.

1. Rockin’ In The Free World – Neil Young (#216)
2. Gloria – Van Morrison (#211; also covered by Patti Smith and Santa Esmerelda)
3. Reach Out, I’ll Be There – The Four Tops (#209)
4. Try A Little Tenderness – The Commitments (orig. Otis Redding, #207)
5. Come Together – Aerosmith/Ike & Tina Turner/John Lennon (orig. The Beatles, #205)
6. Bizarre Love Triangle – Frente! (orig. New Order, #204)
7. Don’t Be Cruel – Cheap Trick (orig. Elvis Presley, #200)
8. Sweet Child O’Mine – Guns ‘n’ Roses (#198; also covers by Slash, Sheryl Crow, Taken By Trees, Eliza Lumley, and Banda Do Sul)
9. There Goes My Baby – The Drifters (#196)
10. Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell (#195)

Song I don’t have but should, part 1: “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, Hank Williams (#217). Yeah, I know. That’s a pretty big hole in my collection.
Song for which my favorite cover version was never recorded: “1999”, Prince (#215). The Asylum Street Spankers did an amazing version of this in their early days, which is to say before Y2K. I heard them do it live several times, but as far as I know they never recorded it. I suppose there could be a bootleg out there somewhere, but I suspect this one will have to live in my memory.
Song I used to have but don’t any more: “Bye Bye, Love”, Everly Brothers (#210). The version I had – on vinyl, of course – was from the All That Jazz soundtrack. It’s, um, a very different arrangement.
Song I don’t have but should, part 2: “Lean On Me”, Bill Withers (#208). I like the more modern version that got a lot of radio airplay, by an artist whose name I don’t think I’ve ever known, but for these purposes I’ll take the original.
Best song to play as background music for an opposing sports team: “Loser”, Beck (#203). I have attended one Houston Texans game, and this is the song their stadium sound person had going when the PA announcer introduced the starting lineup for the other team. It made me laugh.

Technically, “Gloria” was done by Them, but Van Morrison wrote it and was the lead singer, and the version I have comes from his greatest hits CD, so. Yes, I really have that many versions of “Sweet Child O’Mine”. The covers were all free downloads from Popdose.

Posted in: Music.

Abortion providers go to SCOTUS

I sure hope this works out.

Texas abortion providers on Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up their legal challenge to two provisions of the state’s strict abortion law.

After losing at the appellate level, a coalition of abortion providers is asking the high court for a reprieve from restrictions passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013. Those rules will require some abortion facilities to retrofit their clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, from minimum sizes for rooms and doorways to pipelines for anesthesia and other infrastructure. A separate provision, which has already gone into effect, requires doctors who perform the procedure to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic.

Originally, the abortion providers challenged the ambulatory surgical center provision while asking for an exemption from the admitting privileges for two clinics: Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen and Reproductive Services in El Paso. But the providers are now asking the Supreme Court to permanently block enforcement of both provisions.

The providers’ request, which was expected, comes after the Supreme Court temporarily put that requirement on hold in June, delaying the closure of about half of the 19 abortion facilities open at the time in Texas.

See here, here, and here for the background. There’s no middle ground or fallback position here. Win big or lose big, with national implications either way. I guess we should all be lighting candles in hope that the good Anthony Kennedy will show up on the day of oral arguments, assuming they take the case in the first place. It’s going to be a nerve-wracking few months till we get a resolution. The Observer, RH Reality Check, Daily Kos, and Trail Blazers have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Houston pleads its case to the Supreme Court

We’ll see how they did.

Bill White

Bill White

“The point of all this is to protect the public and the environment, to have clean air, and the TCEQ, for the Texas Clean Air Act, envisions that it be vigorously enforced,” [Houston attorney Robert] Higgason said. “This is what the statute makes reference to — cities being allowed to enact and enforce their own ordinances to achieve the goal of the Texas Clean Air Act.”

BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of industrial facility owners including ExxonMobil, the Dow Chemical Company and ConocoPhillips, has sued to strike down the ordinances, arguing Houston is exceeding its authority under state law.

“The Legislature has already addressed what cities can do to address this problem…and they’ve turned what should be an administrative and civil regime, that should be consistently applied, into a local criminal statute,” BCAA attorney Evan Young argued. “To convert it from something very different from what the Legislature intended degrades and erodes the meaning of the act.”

[…]

Higgason repeatedly argued that it was incumbent upon cities like Houston to enforce the clean air act where the state agency is unable to do so. “If the TCEQ is letting something go, and not enforcing its own standards, there’s something wrong with that,” Higgason said.

Justice Eva Guzman, a former Harris County district and appellate judge, challenged his stance, asking if local actions might compromise the TCEQ’s right to use discretion in enforcement. She said the TCEQ’s sluggish ability to respond to air pollution violators was not necessarily Houston’s concern.

“When cities exercise their own discretion, that discretion could or could not be consistent with what the TCEQ would have done under their regime,” Guzman said. “It seems to me like that defeats your argument.”

Young emphasized that Houston was indeed allowed to enforce the state’s regulations — so long as it used the state’s preferred method of civil enforcement actions in civil courts.

In contrast, the Houston ordinances allow polluters to be charged in criminal courts, with convictions leading to a range of penalties including fines up to $2,000 per violation for repeat offenders.

“If we’re going to have a statewide, uniform comprehensive regulatory regime that actually gives predictability, it is essential that the TCEQ be involved in that decision-making,” Young said. “If a city wants to enforce the regulations in court, it can do that — by bringing a civil suit.”

See here for the background. The Press, which takes a closer look at the plaintiffs in this action, notes that the stakes are higher than they might appear.

What’s intriguing about this case is that the outcome might ultimately do more than just decide whether Houston has the right to regulate its own air quality. The case gives the Texas Supreme Court the chance to wade into a seldom-explored area of law looking at whether cities have the right to enact local regulations without clashing with state law, according to Law360. Should the high court decide in favor of Houston’s ordinance, that, for instance, could potentially give the city of Denton some legal legs to bring back its anti-fracking ordinance. (Hester, however, contends the chances of that happening are still slim.)

But a ruling against Houston would limit the city’s ability to enact environmental regulations and that would mean the TCEQ would be the agency deciding how to penalize companies that pollute in Houston. “It’s really a question of who gets to make the call on what type of enforcement should take place,” [Tracy Hester, an environmental law professor at University of Houston] says. “If the ordinance is upheld and the city feels like an enforcement action doesn’t address their concerns, then they will be able to have their own enforcement actions.”

So there’s that. Doesn’t make me feel any more optimistic about the likely outcome, that’s for sure. Hope for the best, of course, but I’m not expecting it.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Another floodgate proposed

Third time’s the charm, right?

Academic leaders have long beseeched government officials to learn from the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and harden the upper Texas coast against future threats.

Finally, on Monday, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of projects to limit flood and storm surge damage.

“It is time to take action,” said Bush, who came into office in January. “This has been a priority of mine since the campaign.”

That effort will build upon several previous studies, including one to be released Tuesday, which have found that a gate system in Galveston Bay, costing less than $3 billion, could provide protection from future hurricanes for $37 billion in chemical and other facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, as well as$9 billion in residential property.

These academic studies, funded by the Houston Endowment and managed by academic leaders from Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas A&M University at Galveston and other institutions, have presented a range of options to protect the coast.

The latest possibility calls for building a floodgate across the Ship Channel near San Leon.

This “mid-bay” gate would be tied to an extensive network of man-made reefs and island berms, most of which already exist, to safeguard not only industry along the Ship Channel but also homes in rapidly developing areas such as League City along the west side of Galveston Bay.

See here, here, and here for the background. Credit where credit is due, Bush is the first public official to get behind this idea, and if he can take it somewhere it will be a good thing. Cost has always been the main obstacle, but as the Trib reminds us, it’s not the only one.

Everything about the $2.8 billion plan from the Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, screams compromise.

The proposed location is roughly halfway between the upper-bay Centennial Gate and the lower-bay Ike Dike — and borrows certain features from the latter, including some new levees and elevated roadways. Its estimated price tag also falls somewhere in the middle, but closer to the $1.5 billion Centennial Gate than the $4 billion to $8 billion estimate for the Ike Dike.

The “mid-bay” plan — contained in the first of three annual reports from the center, and so far lacking a catchy moniker — calls for installing a storm surge-deterring gate as tall as 25 feet across the nearly 700-foot-wide Houston Ship Channel near the community of San Leon. The manmade channel connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Houston, the busiest seaport in the U.S. by some measurements.

SSPEED Center officials say sophisticated storm modeling shows the structure would — in a Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds about 15 percent higher than those during Ike — “significantly reduce storm-surge flooding in both the Houston Ship Channel and in the heavily populated west Galveston Bay communities that are difficult to evacuate.”

That’s a direct response to the main criticism levied against the Centennial Gate, which coastal residents argued shielded the refineries along the ship channel at the expense of surrounding neighborhoods. (As for the Ike Dike, it has been criticized for its high cost and potential environmental impact.)

The mid-bay plan “is a much superior alternative in my mind at least than what we had previously looked at,” said Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, noting that “the consensus was that the Centennial Gate did not offer sufficient protection to the public and so we went back to the drawing board.”

Sometimes compromises satisfy everyone, and sometimes they piss everyone off. If this is more the former than the latter, then there ought to be some consensus to move forward, however slowly, towards a funding mechanism. If not, I figure we’ll see another story about another floodgate being proposed sometime next year. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

More good news for Hempstead landfill opponents

This could be the end of the line for the proposed landfill.

StopHwy6Landfill

Opponents of a proposed landfill in Waller County won another victory in a years-long legal fight to prevent the project. The executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a decision supporting the Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead’s request for summary judgment on the permit application.

“This is the best news we have received thus far in this case, which has been going on three to four years now,” county judge Trey Duhon wrote in an e-mail. “It is clear that the current application does not meet state requirements for a landfill, as the landfill opponents have been saying all along.”

[…]

“We’re pleased to see that decision by the executive director which acknowledges the position we’ve taken all along,” said Bill Huntsinger, president of the Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, representing opposition in the small town roughly an hour northwest of Houston.

Following the decision from the executive director, it falls to the administrative law judges of the State Office of Administrative Hearings to make a determination about the permit. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would then rule on the findings.

“We are hopeful that the judge will do the right thing and dismiss the application,” said Duhon.

[…]

In his decision, the executive director of the state’s environmental commission, Richard Hyde, wrote, “the current application does not meet TCEQ rule requirements by the Applicant’s own admission.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The final step in the process is the actual Contested Case Hearing, which is set for November 2. At that hearing, the case – which may take two weeks – will be heard by two Administrative Law Judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). At the end of the hearing, these SOAH Judges will issue a “Recommendation for Decision” to the Commissioners of the TCEQ, and then finally the TCEQ will make its decision. (There’s currently a vacancy on the TCEQ, awaiting an appointment from the Governor, so I suppose this could affect the timeline.) One presumes the decision by the Executive Director of the TCEQ bodes well for the landfill opponents, but there’s still that hearing to go through. Stay tuned.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

2015 candidates’ voting history

vote-button

Regular commenter Mainstream took the time to investigate and document the recent voting history of the candidates on the 2015 city of Houston ballot. Here it is, for your perusal. A couple of caveats: Data is for Harris County, with some additions for a couple of candidates included and noted on the document. Voting history goes back to 2002, except for the 2003 and 2005 municipal elections. Runoffs and special elections are not included. Not everyone has lived in Houston for this whole time period, and I can think of at least one candidate (Philippe Nassif) who is too young to have a voting history that goes as far back as 2002; there are likely some others as well. So don’t make too big a deal out of the difference between voting in every election, and voting in almost every election.

Having said all that, this is a fairly engaged group. I was surprised to not see anyone who has no voting history, as it always seems like there’s one such candidate every election. Only four had no primary voting history in Harris County, while ten have voted at least once in each party’s primary. Sometimes people switch preferences, sometimes they have tactical reasons for choosing one over the other, sometimes there may be something else going on. You’d have to ask the candidate in question why he or she made those particular choices. Also, the Greens and Libertarians don’t do primaries, they do conventions, so if someone has a history of participating in those, this document would not show that. You can’t do both a primary and a convention, just like you can’t vote in more than one primary (or in a D primary and an R runoff or vice versa), so someone who does this regularly will look like someone who doesn’t participate in primaries.

Twenty candidates voted exclusively in Republican primaries, while 37 are Dem-only. That doesn’t quite tell the full story. CM Richard Nguyen voted twice in GOP primaries, but declared himself a Democrat last year and was featured in some Democratic campaign emails in 2014. Demetria Smith (one), Ben Hall (five), Willie Davis (three), and Andrew Burks (five) have all voted exclusively in Democratic primaries but are all HERO opponents of varying vitriol; on the other hand, John LaRue is a HERO supporter and a three-time GOP voter. You still have to get to know the candidates to make an informed decision. Voting history is good to know, but it’s just one piece of a bigger puzzle. I hope this information is useful to you, and my sincere thanks to Mainstream for putting it together.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Once again to the Supreme Court for school finance

Like deja vu all over again, and again and again and…

BagOfMoney

The Texas Supreme Court is again faced with determining whether the state’s method of funding public schools is unconstitutional, the latest in a series of school finance challenges stretching back more than 30 years.

In oral arguments Tuesday, lawyers representing the state argued that the current system lives up to constitutional mandates that it provide a “general diffusion of knowledge” to public school students. Attorneys for the more than 600 school districts who sued the state said money cut from public education was never fully restored even as lawmakers instituted tougher standards on students.

“This is a case about who gets to decide and who sets education policy in the state. Our argument is simple: It’s the people’s representatives. It’s the Legislature,” Solicitor General Scott Keller said after the hearing. While the system isn’t perfect, he said, lawmakers rather than the courts should determine the future of school finance.

“The state’s interest here is (to) end this perpetual cycle of litigation,” Keller said.

I would certainly agree that the Lege has it within its power to fix this problem once and for all, or at least for longer than seven years at a time. The fact that we do keep coming back to the courts strongly suggests that they do a lousy job of it. There’s a reason why the conventional wisdom – backed by quite a bit of reality – is that the Lege only really addresses this when the Supreme Court orders them to do so. For a different perspective:

Richard Gray III, representing 443 school districts including Pflugerville and Hutto, said other statistics prove the state education system is falling short of its goals — including that only 38 percent of low-income students and English-language learners capable of earning a passing grade on entry-level college courses.

“I think that screams at you that this system is not doing what it desires to do,” Gray said.

Marisa Bono, representing school districts with high numbers of low-income students, said the state finance system “provides more advantages to students who already live in the most advantaged school districts.”

“Every year, the state delivers tens of thousands of young people into our economy who are wholly unprepared,” Bono said.

Arguing on behalf of large school districts, including Austin, Wallace Jefferson said the Legislature has failed to create a finance system that meets its goal of preparing high school students for college or a career.

“We believe we have proved that the system fails the Constitution because we have done the analytical work that the Legislature has failed to do,” said Jefferson, former chief justice of the court.

One hopes former Justice Jefferson knows how to get through to his erstwhile colleagues. We will get a decision when they’re damn good and ready, which for school finance cases usually means in a few months, so early-ish in 2016. Don’t worry, any special session will be for after the primaries. Trail Blazers and the Observer have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

More on voting centers

I’ll be interested to see how this goes in Galveston.

vote-button

Just in time for the November election, Galveston County has launched the first mobile app of its kind in the state, called “Galveston Votes.” It uses GPS to direct people with lightning speed to the closest voting center.

Fort Bend County in November will make its first foray into using “voting centers” that are open to all voters county-wide, rather than restricting them to their neighborhood precinct.

Montgomery and Harris counties are studying whether to do the same thing.

These efforts are part of a growing trend to counter Texas’ low voter turnout – ranked nationally in 2014 third from the bottom. More and more counties across the state are moving toward using these voting centers. They are looking for any way they can to make voting more accessible and entice voters to the polls.

The centers, which can be located anywhere from grocery stores to shopping malls, may be used by any eligible voter within a county. Voters will no longer be restricted to one precinct site.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says the possible advantages include convenience, financial savings and increase in turnout. Possible drawbacks include a loss of the tradition of neighborhood voting, confusion if the scheme isn’t properly explained to voters and the cost of new equipment and technology.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart plans to test new infrastructure at a few polling locations during the primary next March that could be used for future voting centers.

But Stanart warns that converting a county as large as Harris, with its 4.3 million people and 769 polling stations, would be logistically challenging and costly. Each polling station has to be electronically linked to update in “real time” the names of those who are voting at various stations.

“We do that now in early voting with 41 stations, but don’t have the ability to do 769 yet,” he said.

About 13 percent of all Texas counties are now using county-wide voting centers and the number keeps rising, said Alicia Pierce, spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State, who said many voters enjoy the convenience it affords.

“I live in Travis County, where they have adopted this system, and was able to cast my vote at a Fiesta store while getting groceries,” she said.

While the centers have proven convenient, the state is continuing to assess their impact on turnout.

See here, here, and here for some background. Fort Bend (as noted in the last link) is implementing voting centers for this election, which will have some effect on the Mayor’s race since there are a few thousand Houston voters in Fort Bend. Voting centers basically replicate the early voting experience on Election Day – there are a smaller number of locations, but you can use any of them – though this story makes it sound like there could be a lot more of them than the traditional early voting places, at locations that aren’t currently used. It would be nice to have a better idea of how many voting centers there are compared to EV locations and traditional polling places. Enough counties in Texas are doing this already, that data ought to be readily available.

As for claims that voting centers will help increase turnout, I’m skeptical. There is concern (again, in that last link above) that it could have the opposite effect, partly due to voter confusion, and partly due to vote centers not being as close to or as convenient for voters with mobility issues. I’ve said before that I believe these obstacles can be overcome, with sufficient outreach and care in the selection of vote center sites – perhaps some existing precinct voting locations can be used as vote centers – but the concerns need to be taken seriously. It’s not out of the question that if done poorly, vote centers could increase turnout in affluent areas while depressing it in lower income and minority neighborhoods, which would be completely unacceptable. Vote centers have existed in Texas since 2005, with 23 counties currently employing them and nine more piloting them this fall. We really should have some hard data by now to show the effect of this idea. Again, it would be nice to know more. I support the idea behind voting centers, but I’d like to know that we’ve been doing them right.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 31

The Texas Progressive Alliance remembers the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and honors the spirit of its survivors as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Interview with Philippe Nassif

Philippe Nassif

Philippe Nassif

We wrap up City Council interviews with At Large #5 challenger Philippe Nassif. Nassif is a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Mexico and Lebanon. A founding member of New Leaders Council Houston and member of Leadership Houston, Nassif has spent time working in the White House, for President Obama’s campaign, and for Mayor Parker’s administration. He currently works at a women’s empowerment organization where he leads advocacy efforts across 14 states to improve women’s rights around the world. Before I present his interview, I should note that I did do an interview with Durrel Douglas, but as he ultimately did not file for the race, I’m not running it. Here then is my conversation with Philippe Nassif:

(Note: This interview took place after the Supreme Court ruling that required a repeal or referendum on HERO.)

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Houston’s environmental protection ordinances go to the Supreme Court

Where, sadly, they’ll likely get killed.

Bill White

Bill White

State environmental regulators don’t adequately enforce air pollution laws, the city of Houston believes, and on Wednesday it will ask the state’s highest civil court to let it keep trying to do the job itself.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case challenging a pair of ordinances the city enacted in 2007 and 2008 requiring industrial polluters within Houston to register with the city, and subjecting the polluting companies to fines if they operate without registering.

BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of industrial facility owners including ExxonMobil and the Dow Chemical Company, sued the city seven years ago, claiming the ordinances improperly preempt state law. The First District Court of Appeals has already weighed in on Houston’s side, finding in 2013 that the Legislature had not foreclosed such local regulations with anything resembling “unmistakable clarity.”

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, BCCA argues that the city is allowed to enforce air regulations only if it uses the weaker enforcement tools laid out by the state.

But Houston, and a host of environmental groups filing amicus briefs in the city’s support, say it is perfectly within its rights to enforce state laws using alternative regulatory strategies, including levying fines where the state won’t.

“The city’s looking for accountability, and this is a streamlined way of trying to do that,” said Rock Owens, who co-authored an amicus brief submitted by the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “There should be something that happens if you don’t follow the law, and the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] isn’t in a position where they can provide enforcement. They don’t have the resources, or, frankly, the will.”

Owens said he believes the Houston ordinances simply put some muscle behind the regulations the commission laid out. “It’s just a matter of layering — a matter of making the law effective,” Owens said.

[…]

Given how political tides recently have turned against local efforts to police industries, Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said he isn’t optimistic about the city’s chances in front of the state’s highest civil court.

Shelley cited House Bill 40, signed by Abbott in May, which preempts local control over most oil and gas activity, as one reason for his concern.

“I think it needs to be said that there’s a larger trend here — a problematic trend — and that’s bad for public health in Texas,” Shelley said. “We’re likely to lose this case.”

See here and here for some background on this, which was an initiative of then-Mayor Bill White. I’m sure I have more entries on this, but my older archives aren’t quite as organized. I wish I was more optimistic about this, but I think Shelley nails it. As the story notes, Greg Abbott supports the BCCA, because of course he does. Local control only matters to Abbott when the locals are doing things he approves of. We should know in a few months how the Court rules, and I guess you can add this – “what, if anything, should the city do to improve air quality if the Supreme Court invalidates the city’s air quality ordinances of 2007 and 2008?” – to the list of questions that we ought to be asking the Mayoral herd. See this op-ed by Adrian Shelley and Jen Powis for more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Houston Unites’ first ad

Not bad:

The story:

HoustonUnites

Supporters of Houston’s equal rights ordinance released their first official radio ad Friday, countering opponents’ claim that the law presents a public safety threat and seeking to reframe the debate before voters consider the issue in November.

The ad, airing on seven local stations during the next two weeks, features Servants of Christ United Methodist Church Rev. Will Reed tackling the message that critics of the law released last week in a one-minute radio spot. In the piece, a young woman said the non-discrimination ordinance allows men to enter women’s restrooms – which she called “filthy” and “unsafe.”

Critics of the law have long alleged that it would allow male sexual predators dressed in drag to enter womens’ restrooms.

“What’s being lost is that it’s already illegal to go into a bathroom to harm or harass someone,” Reed says in the ad. “This law won’t change that. We looked into it, and HERO is actually about providing a needed local tool to protect Houstonians from discrimination based on their race, religion, age, gender, military status, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”

Houston Unites staff said the media buy cost about $100,000 and will air for two weeks on KHMX-FM, KKBQ/KTHT-FM, KODA-FM, KPRC-AM, KTRH-AM, RODA-FM and RTRH-AM.

That’s as much as the antis’ ad buy. If you listed to terrestrial radio in Houston, you’re probably not going to be able to avoid these ads for the foreseeable future. As for the content itself, it’s good, I like it. I hope it’s effective. There will be a lot more to the campaign than this, but it’s good to get this part of it going. Soundcloud link via Stace.

Posted in: Election 2015.

State files its appeal of Perry indictment dismissal

It’s official.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog has done nothing wrong

State Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McMinn on Friday asked the state’s highest criminal court to reverse the decision by the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, which tossed out the charge that Perry coerced a public servant when he tried to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg out of office. The state’s involvement ratchets up scrutiny of the ruling, the first major breakthrough in the more than yearlong case for Perry, a Republican who is now running for president.

McMinn’s appeal also puts her in the company of Perry’s legal team, which has its own challenge pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Recognizing the potential for an “unnecessary, significant expenditure of resources,” special prosecutor Michael McCrum on Monday requested a hold on all trial court proceedings while the case plays out at the Court of Criminal Appeals.

McMinn was expected to file her appeal, saying earlier this month that the state had an interest in the ruling because the 3rd Court of Appeals struck as unconstitutional a part of the Texas penal code that defines coercion.

In a filing with the Court of Criminal Appeals that became available Monday, McMinn argued the 3rd Court of Appeals “erroneously blended two different First Amendment doctrines” when it tackled the coercion issue. McMinn also suggested the court failed to take into account all the potential consequences of declaring the statute unconstitutional.

See here and here for the background. I have no idea what the CCA will do, and I have no idea how long it will take them to do it. I’ll just say that I’ll be surprised if Rick Perry’s fate in the Presidential race isn’t determined by the time they come to a decision.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

The anti-HERO horde

There’s a lot of them out there, though many of them claim their mostly last-minute filings didn’t really have to do with HERO.

HoustonUnites

Members of the anti-HERO campaign and other prominent conservative activists disputed suggestions of a widely-coordinated effort, saying the candidates ended up on the ballot for a variety of reasons.

“We have been approached by candidates who oppose the bathroom ordinance,” said Jared Woodfill, spokesman for the anti-HERO campaign. “And we have encouraged people to run who oppose the bathroom ordinance, as have other organizations who have the same goal of defeating the ordinance.”

[…]

Of City Council members running for re-election, five oppose the ordinance, which applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting, though not religious institutions. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

They are joined by at least 11 council hopefuls, many of whom launched their bids before it became clear the ordinance would be on the ballot.

Others, such as pastors Willie Davis and Kendall Baker, as well as former teacher Manny Barrera and Siemens sales executive Carl Jarvis, filed to run on the last day.

Most of the last-minute candidates said they launched their bids for reasons other than the ordinance, listing city finances, infrastructure and incumbents’ records among their motivations.

Candidates and charlatans like Jared Woodfill and Dave Welch who enable them can say what they want about why they chose to run. How they run and what they ultimately talk about is what you need to know. While the story goes to great length to discuss candidates who may or may not have been motivated to run by opposition to HERO and those that encouraged them, I should note that there are a few candidates on the ballot who cited the opposition to HERO by an incumbent as a motivating factor for them – Doug Peterson and John LaRue in At Large #3, and Philippe Nassif in At Large #5. You can listen to their interviews (Philippe’s will be up tomorrow) to hear what else they had to say, which in all three cases definitely did go beyond this issue.

Beyond that, I don’t think the presence of some extra candidates makes that much difference in terms of outcomes. Turnout will be driven by the Mayor’s race and the HERO referendum. Obviously, some candidates are going to tie themselves to the referendum, one way or the other, but given the high undervote rates for At Large candidates, I’m not sure how much difference that will make. It’s certainly possible that this election will be unlike all the others, and it’s certainly possible that some HERO haters will get into a runoff. If you’re an even-years-only voter, I’d expect to be targeted in a way that you’re not used to in these odd years. How it all shakes out, I have no idea. Polling is going to be tricky, since turnout will be anyone’s guess. I don’t think we’ll have much of an idea about how things are going until voting actually starts. Don’t take anything for granted – get involved, and help make a difference.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Chron Mayoral profile: Steve Costello

Here’s “the second in a series of profiles on the top candidates running for mayor in Houston”.

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

It was July 2007, and Steve Costello, leading a crowded meeting of the region’s most influential engineers, had just silenced the room.

“You know, we participate in a lot of campaigns now,” Costello said. “We need to get someone on City Council who can be our spokesman for infrastructure investment.”

Heads nodded. Many in the room long had contributed to candidates who, in their view, had focused elsewhere while Houston’s street and drainage systems crumbled. But then he added: “Who wants to volunteer to become a council member?”

Three dozen men sat studying their hands, the mood having grown tense. The pause lingered.

“OK,” Costello said. “I’ll do it.”

His peers’ sense of relief, Costello recalls now, grinning, was obvious. Less obvious was how this buttoned-down engineer with a Long Island accent would transform himself into a politician.

[…]

Costello reads constantly, and if a book doesn’t catch his interest in 20 pages, he picks up the next one. If a run is scheduled for 5 a.m. and a friend arrives at 5:02 a.m., she should expect Costello to be two minutes down the trail.

“If we were planning on running at 4:45 a.m., he’d get there at 4:30 a.m. and fall asleep in his car waiting for me every day,” said Donna Rickenbacker, with whom Costello trained for 15 years. “He’s fiercely competitive – but he never used that competitiveness to go out there and try to beat me on the runs or not hold back if I were having a bad day. He just had to get the park first.”

Even his mannerisms suggest impatience, in part because the former smoker always has something in his hands. In the office, he bounces a tennis ball. At council, he trades the dark chocolates he keeps in his desk for rubber bands.

His approach has flaws. In a political culture that assumes council members must praise every civic leader present, Costello never speaks just to speak. As a result, when he weighs in, his colleagues listen – but they do not necessarily fall in line.

Even when trying to rally support, Costello often lays out his logic just once, even if opponents peel away votes by chiming in again and again. He trusts his solution is right, and expects others to recognize that.

Some colleagues find his style refreshing; others think it overconfident.

Like the first entry, about Chris Bell, this one is long on biography and what-makes-him-tick and not so long on policy. Unlike the first one for me, it did tell me things I didn’t already know. I like Steve Costello and I think he’s been a good and effective member of Council. I’ve said before, I think the main obstacle he has to overcome is affinity. Both Republicans (who think he’s a RINO) and Democrats (who are aware of his voting history and continued sponsorship of the annual Harris County GOP fundraiser) have alternatives to him who are equally strong on the issues they care about as Costello, but are one of them. I believe he’d be the second choice, or at worst the third choice, of a lot of voters. That would work in his favor if he makes it to the runoff, but it won’t help him get there in the first place.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Supreme Court to hear school finance appeal

We near the end of the road. This road, anyway.

BagOfMoney

Shut out by lawmakers in their efforts to overhaul the state’s troubled education funding system, more than 600 school districts are now pinning their hopes for relief on the Texas Supreme Court.

The high court will hear arguments on the volatile issue of school finance Tuesday, once again taking up the question of whether the current funding system is unfair and inadequate.

It will be the seventh time in the last quarter-century that the court has been called on to settle a legal challenge over the way Texas funds the education of millions of children.

Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue last week, filing a brief that urges the justices to reverse the decision of now-retired state District Judge John Dietz of Travis County, who ruled for the districts last year. The governor argued that judges should not second-guess the Legislature’s decisions on education.

“Both as a matter of constitutional law and as a matter of responsible policymaking, the courts are not the appropriate forum for making decisions about statewide education policy,” Abbott said. “It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.”

The Republican governor argued that the Legislature “substantially increased” funding for public schools earlier this year. The plaintiff school districts note that the actual increases amount to about 1 percent a year for the past five years — less than the rate of inflation.

And those small hikes came after lawmakers enacted record funding cuts in 2011 to help offset a massive shortfall in state revenue without raising taxes.

Yeah, about that

Three years later, as the state prepares to argue an appeal before the Texas Supreme Court, a Texas Tribune analysis shows that schools still are grappling with the fallout from the lean budget times even as the Legislature has restored a majority of the cuts.

An examination by the Tribune found:

  • Public school staffing remains lower than it was before the cuts, with at least 3,700 fewer teachers in regular, non-charter districts last school year, according to state data. That’s as student enrollment in those schools grew by more than 220,000.
  • The state still is approving far more waivers allowing elementary schools to exceed a 22-student class size limit established in 1984. Last year, the total number of campuses requesting waivers exceeded 2,100, according to state data; In the five school years leading up to the 2011 budget cuts, it never topped 1,375.
  • Scores on the high-stakes STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exam remain flat — with success rates hovering in the 70th percentile — even though students have now had several years to get used to the more difficult testing regime, implemented in early 2012.
  • Per-student state funding has recovered to pre-2011 levels for some districts, but many still are behind. Under the two-year budget state lawmakers passed this year, lawmakers have restored more than 90 percent of what they cut four years ago, yet nearly 30 percent of school districts will receive less per-student funding from the state than they did before the reductions, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board.

And all that is happening as enrollment continues to grow, largely with kids who are economically disadvantaged, and standards continue to be raised by the Legislature. (Both of those links contain a lot more, so go read them in full.) The state’s response to the lawsuit is basically “hey, money isn’t everything, they should, like, work smarter or something”. Which unfortunately may be good enough for the Supreme Court, but we’ll see. We should have a decision in early 2016, thus allowing any special session (if one is needed) to take place after the primaries. The Rivard Report and Better Texas Blog have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The Press on the high speed rail line

The Press devotes a cover story to the proposed Houston-Dallas high speed rail line. Most of what’s there will be familiar to anyone who has been following this along with me, but this bit from the story caught my eye.

Financing will be complex. Tim Keith, a North Texas native with a quarter century’s experience in finance, was named Texas Central’s CEO in July. Keith says about a third of the project, around $4 billion, will be funded by institutional investors — pension funds, insurance companies and the like looking for projects likely to yield reliable dividends for years. “There’s a very large appetite by institutional investors for U.S. infrastructure investment,” Keith says.

The rest of the money will come from loans. Keith expects the Japan Bank for International Cooperation to front several billion dollars. In a subtle shift away from Texas Central’s long-standing pledge that the project won’t be backed by public funds, Keith said the company plans on pursuing loans through a couple of federal sources, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program. Texas Central officials may also look into securing approval to sell private-activity bonds, a form of tax-exempt debt often used for public-private infrastructure projects. ([Texas Central President Robert] Eckels, meanwhile, says that the company never pledged not to pursue loans and bonds that are available to any company.)

Various high-speed-rail experts have speculated that Texas Central will rely on real estate development around its stations for revenue. Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association, says that JR Central gets more than a third of its revenue from station-related development, including the 774-room Marriott in Nagoya, Japan.

Baruch Feigenbaum, a Reason Foundation analyst who supports Texas Central despite his skepticism concerning most U.S. high-speed rail projects, expects the company to charge between $50 and $60 per ticket. However, Feigenbaum’s calculations are based on the assumption that the company will own and develop the land around its stations. Otherwise, fares will have to be set significantly higher. Such speculation intensified when Jack Matthews, a powerhouse Dallas developer, was appointed to Texas Central’s board. Matthews has holdings in the Cedars neighborhood south of downtown Dallas, where Texas Central plans to build its Dallas station.

But Texas Central officials insist that their business model relies almost entirely on fares, not on making money off things like parking and concessions. The company expects to pull in some profit from station-related development, but that’s not what it’s focused on when selling the concept to potential investors.

The real estate stuff is interesting, but I don’t know how much to make of it. In theory, at least to begin, there will only be two stations, one at each end, so the amount of investment available may be limited. To some extent, this is related to the opposition to the rail line – the rural counties that the line may pass through don’t see any benefit to them because there won’t be any stations outside of Houston and Dallas, at least not in the foreseeable future. If there were talk of stops between Houston and Dallas, perhaps some of the opposition would be geared towards lobbying for a station instead. Just a thought.

It’s the ticket price speculation that I want to talk about. I recently had to drive to Dallas for a memorial service. For a variety of reasons, I went up and came back on the same day. Had there been the option to take a train, I’d have gladly done so, because driving for eight hours even in benign traffic conditions is hell, and I’d have had more time to spend with the people I went to see if I could have ridden the rail. More to the point, gas was $2.49 a gallon at the Madisonville Buc-ee’s, where I stopped each way. If you assume this is about a 500 mile round trip – from where I enter I-45 to where it becomes US 75 is about 235 miles – then the average traveler probably uses at least 20 gallons of gas, which at that price is $50. In other words, for what I spent on gas, I could have bought a ticket for a trip that would take less than half the time (even factoring in the trips to and from the train station) and would have been free to read, surf, nap or whatever while in transit. That sure sounds appealing to me.

Now, how many people need to make this kind of trip on a given day is an open question, and the economics changes when you have more than one people involved – if I’d brought Tiffany and the kids with me to Dallas, I’d have spent the same amount on gas, but four times as much on train tickets. The calculations get way too complex for me very quickly. I do believe this is a good idea, I know for a fact it will never get any easier to build something like this, and while I have sympathy for the rural folks who won’t see the benefit of the line, it has always been the case that large infrastructure projects create some amount of hardship for some number of people. Ask the former residents of the Fourth Ward about the effect I-45 had on their neighborhood, for example. We should do what we can do mitigate the effects of these hardships, but their existence should not be a reason to not do this.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Interview with CM Jack Christie

Jack Christie

Jack Christie

We enter our final week of City Council interviews with a tour of the other contested At Large Council race, in At Large #5. CM Jack Christie is in his second term, having first been elected in a close-fought race against then-CM Jolanda Jones in 2011. A chiropractor, CM Christie serves on the Budget and Fiscal Affairs and Ethics, Elections and Council Governance Committees while also serving as Vice Chair of the Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee. He has also served on the Texas State Board of Education and the Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustees. Here’s the interview:

(Note: This interview took place after the Supreme Court ruling that required a repeal or referendum on HERO.)

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Posted in: Election 2015.

State asks for full Fifth Circuit review of voter ID ruling

As you’d expect them to do.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Continuing to protect a voter identification law that courts say discriminates against Hispanics and African Americans, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked a full federal appeals court to hear his arguments about why the state’s requirements at the polls do not violate the Voting Rights Act.

In a series of filings Friday, the Republican asked the full U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the case, weeks after the court’s three-judge panel ruled that the four-year-old law has a “discriminatory effect” that violates the federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

“Plaintiffs point to no person, and certainly no named plaintiff, whose right to vote will be denied or even substantially burdened by maintaining the status quo” while the legal battle continues, Paxton argued.

Paxton also asked the court to keep the law intact for the next election, prolonging a long-winding legal battle that could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

[…]

Earlier this month, a 5th Circuit panel unanimously ruled that the law – Senate Bill 14 – discriminated against minorities and other voters less likely to have certain forms of identification (though it disagreed with a lower court, which had called the law an unconstitutional “poll tax”).

For now, the law is still on the books.

Plaintiffs, which include minority rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice, want the case sent back to the lower court, to decide how Texas could fix its law for the next election.

In a filing last week, plaintiffs suggested adding voter registration certificates to the list of acceptable ID.

“The order could also direct that, consistent with current practice, county registrars should make replacement registration certificates freely and readily available to registered voters who seek them and whose registration certificates are lost or destroyed,” they wrote.

But on Friday, Paxton asked the court for the full 5th Circuit to hear the case, arguing that the panel erred in several respects. He also said that changing the law before the next election would “only generate more confusion.”

See here and here for the background. I can’t say what the full Fifth Circuit Court might do, but this was a unanimous opinion, so it seems likely to not be successful. The main question at this point is can we get a remedy in place for this year, and especially next year? We’ll need action on the former quickly if it’s going to happen. The Chron has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Three Metro updates

The Metro board has its first meeting post-system reimagining, and gets some feedback on the new routes.

HoustonMetro

At Metro’s first board meeting following the launch of the new network, officials heard about two hours of public comment from unhappy riders.

One of those riders was Jennifer Williams. She commutes from southwest Houston to her job in the Texas Medical Center. Williams says she can get back to her neighborhood okay, but it’s the last bus home that’s a problem.

“I either have to wait for the 63 to take me down the street and wait there 25 minutes nervously, not knowing who’s going to approach me,” says Williams. “Or I could walk in the dark, by myself, down the street to my apartment.”

Metro officials say they know it’s not a smooth transition for everyone, but they’re hoping the newly redesigned routes will encourage more ridership after years of declining numbers. Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia says they fully expect to make some tweaks after the first of the year.

“We’re going to just frankly, compile our list, take a look to see if there are any adjustments we need to pivot to, whether we can solve them by a different vehicle, or solve them by a slight alteration on the route,” says Garcia.

Again, I don’t want to minimize anyone’s problems, but as I said before, if this is the extent of the problems, then this was a big success. I continue to not see other stories, so either there’s a lot of unreported bad news, or there’s not much to report. I lean towards the latter. I had my own first experience with the new system last week, and once I realized I’d been reading the map incorrectly (I’d mixed up the direction of the #30 route downtown), I made it home in fairly short order via the #85 (Washington Avenue) and the #56 (Montrose/Studemont). I had to wait only about five minutes for the second bus. Not bad at all. Anyone else have an experience to share?

Ultimately, this will be judged by how it affects ridership. On that score, the numbers from the first week were encouraging.

METRO’s first week of the New Bus Network brought in 24 percent more riders than the average August ridership.

Boardings on both bus and light-rail trains totaled 1.7 million, thanks to two factors: an improved, high-frequency system which integrates bus and rail in a seamless network and free rides which were offered all week from Aug. 16 to 22.

“This is good news as we work to create a system that promotes public transit and connects more people to more places,” said METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “Our region continues to grow, and we need to maximize usage of our transit system, including local bus and rail.”

[…]

The biggest increase in METRO’s ridership last week came over the weekend, with boardings on local buses totaling 270,000 on Aug. 16 and Aug. 22. That compares to 191,500 average weekend boardings in August 2014.

“We anticipate consistent increases in ridership after two years of implementation. By then, we expect a 20 percent hike in ridership,” said President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Now of course this was a week with no fares, and even without that one week’s totals tell us little. The increase is weekend ridership is a big deal, and one that should persist, because a big part of the system reimagining was increasing weekend service – in many cases, implementing it in the first place. Let’s see what ridership looks like by the end of the year.

And speaking of ridership numbers.

A just-completed METRO ridership forecast for the Uptown Dedicated Bus Lane Project Mixed Flow option shows ridership in the year 2018 to be about 12,050 boardings per day, approximately 15 percent lower than the 14,100 boardings forecast when the project was first developed in 2013.

A second set of projections were developed should an elevated busway be constructed for the Uptown Management District. That calculation is roughly 20% fewer riders projected for the year 2018. Another set of figures, based on the year 2020, was requested by METRO recognizing that Elevated Bus Lanes will not be operational by 2018. In that year 14,850 daily boardings are projected.

METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia, who requested the second study, said, ” It’s interesting to note while the ridership projections in the early years are lower in this new study the 2035 numbers for the mixed flow lane jump to about 18 percent higher than projected in the original 2013 study. Whether it’s the early years or later, the numbers overall justify the need for improved transit along this corridor.”

For the Elevated Busway option, the revised ridership forecast for 2035 is 30,900 boardings per day which is about 19 percent higher than the previous forecasts of 25,800 boardings per day developed in 2013.

The updated ridership forecast for the Uptown Dedicated Bus Lane Project uses revised assumptions developed by METRO in July 2015. The assumptions reflect changes occurring between the 2013 to 2015 timeframe and are more consistent with current operating and budget principles.

The original assumptions used in the 2013 analysis were based on Uptown’s project description and operating scenario. There have also been significant changes in both population and employment in the region as captured by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) in their demographic forecast. H-GAC is the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Houston-Galveston region and manages the regional demographic forecasts. The new ridership forecast integrates the regionally adopted H-GAC demographic forecast.

See here for some background. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what the difference is between the Mixed Flow and Elevated Busway options, and I didn’t get to send an email and ask before the weekend, so don’t ask me for specifics. I’ll say again, I think people will use this if it’s a worthwhile service, and I don’t think there’s any better option for adding capacity to Uptown. I also think that Uptown will be an excellent place for future B-Cycle expansion, and a working Uptown line would make having a future high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610 feasible. Just a thought.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Does your JP still do marriages?

Some do and some don’t.

RedEquality

Last Wednesday, Judge Dale Gorczynski, a justice of the peace in Harris County, heard 19 eviction cases, sent 147 traffic and misdemeanor cases to trial and presided over five weddings: Three for same-sex couples and two for heterosexual couples.

It was the first time gay couples outnumbered straight ones in his north Houston office. The judge estimated that during the two peak wedding season months since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage about 10 to 20 percent of the couples he has married are gay or lesbian.

But that trend is not playing out with at least three of the county’s 16 justices of the peace who previously performed weddings but no longer do. Judges Laryssa Korduba, Russ Ridgway and Jeff Williams, all Republicans who officiated weddings prior to the decision, are taking down their shingles, although they have done so gradually. These judges, who operate in Humble, near Bellaire and Addicks, still adjudicate criminal, civil and traffic proceedings, but despite phone prompts and online links at their offices that indicate otherwise, marrying couples is no longer among services they offer, staff members confirmed last week.

Korduba performed her last ceremony Aug. 7, according to the county clerk’s data through Aug. 20. That data shows that Ridgway last officiated Aug. 11; and Williams held his last wedding Aug. 14. The county clerk, Stan Stanart, said Tuesday these JPs performed weddings after the Supreme Court ruling, but in a limited capacity. Stanart said Ridgway told him, “I had these commitments beforehand.” The others made similar comments: “That’s what Laryssa [Korduba] told me, too, and Jeff [Williams]. They had commitments. They booked them up beforehand. But there are no new bookings. That’s what I’ve been told at this time,” Stanart said.

[…]

To be clear, these JPs will not be breaking the law or shirking their duties by halting weddings, legal experts say. In fact, they are opting to forego thousands of dollars of personal income, based on the rates they charged in recent months. Justices of the peace may keep this income. They have complete discretion to set their rates. Costs range from $50 to $400 per ceremony.

Although the Ohio Supreme Court issued an opinion this month stating judges may not refuse to perform marriages altogether based on personal, moral or religious objections to same sex marriage, officiating weddings in Texas is a choice.

In other words, all JPs in Texas may marry same-sex couples, but the law does not oblige them to marry anyone, according to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.

As far as turning away same-sex couples, Ryan said, “As long as they are not doing any weddings they can make that choice. If they do any marriages, they have to do all the marriages.”

Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, agreed: If you choose to opt out of marrying all couples, that is perfectly legal. If you marry anyone, you may not discriminate, she said.

“If they feel this strongly, at least they’re being fair about it,” said Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, adding he thought, “They are on the wrong side of history.”

Daniel Williams, spokesman for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender rights group Texas Wins, said he applauded judges who abstained from marrying anyone if their personal beliefs guided them to pick and chose who to marry.

“To the JP who says, ‘In order to follow the law, I need to set aside the optional power of my office to perform weddings,’ Kudos.”

I agree. I’m glad that at least around here none of the JPs have tried to be jerks in the way that some county clerks were, to their detriment. I think they’re missing out – my dad was a judge for 14 years in New York, and he always says that performing marriages was the best part of the job – but it’s their choice. I sincerely hope some of them come to the realization that they’re no better off this way and get themselves back in the game. Everyone would benefit if they do.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Weekend link dump for August 30

Scientists accidentally create an entirely new kind of glass. Of all the things they could have accidentally created, that doesn’t sound too bad.

Can DraftKings be sued or not?

Don’t get arrested on a reality TV show if you can possibly help it.

The Thames River is back to being a body of water that can sustain wildlife.

The Carlton dance was created when it said in the script: ‘Carlton dances.’ It was never even intended to be funny; it was just that he was dancing. The dance is ultimately Courteney Cox in the Bruce Springsteen video ‘Dancing in the Dark'; that’s the basis.”

For those of you who have followed the Hugo Awards saga, the end result was not a favorable one for the provocateurs. Also, what Scalzi says.

“Now, nobody needs a reason to hate Burning Man; it can just be a feeling you have, like the way you hate strawberries or The Wire. But, if you ever need to justify your loathing of the annual pilgrimage to Black Rock City, here’s a great reason: Burning Man is bad for the planet.”

What Rowan Blanchard says.

Born to Run just turned 40. In case you weren’t feeling old today.

RIP, Dr. “Red” Duke, iconic Houston surgeon and founder of the Life Flight helicopter ambulance system.

“Tom Cotton, in case anyone has forgotten, wrote a letter to Iranian officials in March, telling them not to trust U.S. officials, all in the hopes of sabotaging American foreign policy and derailing the international diplomatic talks.”

Josh Duggar jokes aside, who actually did the hacking of Ashley Madison?

RIP, Amelia Boynton Robinson, civil rights icon and first woman to run for Congress in Alabama.

RIP, Marcy Borders, known as the “Dust Lady” from 9/11.

The pro-Hillary case for Biden 2016.

“Because there is no getting away from it. This American way of accepting killing as a way of life. And I am sick to death of it.”

“But guess what? The most successful nerds have always been the ones who are also willing to figure out what makes people tick. And the most successful politicians have been the ones who are willing to marry themselves to policy solutions that fit their time and place.”

“So here’s my question: What does it say about the deep GOP bench that none of them have managed to outperform a guy who has no comparative political advantage except celebrity and a willingness to insult anyone who crosses his path?”

“When you look at the evidence, it’s hard to deny that the overwhelming majority of men using Ashley Madison weren’t having affairs. They were paying for a fantasy.”

RIP, Darryl Dawkins, backboard-breaking basketball legend and one of the most colorful characters ever to play pro sports. My favorite Dawkins line: “I’m six foot eleven. My birthday covers three days.” You will be missed, sir.

“Give Trump credit for one thing: exposing, in plain view, that much of the religious right is driven more by politics than by religion; that is, more by mythology than theology. The usual demands that candidates pledge their fealty to the Bible, to the Christian nation, to the idea that America is in decline because of secularism have been suspended for Trump. That’s befuddling many observers. But the Trump phenomenon exposes how the piety test is often a proxy for other, irreligious motives.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Wilson denied by Supreme Court

Some good news that came in late Friday.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Anti-gay activist Dave Wilson’s attempt to amend City Charter and bar men “who perceive or express themselves as women” from entering women’s restrooms will likely not appear on the November ballot after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday denied his request for emergency action.

Instead, Wilson’s legal arguments will now play out in district court. With ballot measures due by the end of the month, there does not appear to be time for the city to count the signatures on Wilson’s petition and have it certified for the fall ballot.

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said the city had yet to receive a copy of the decision Friday.

“But we’re pleased that the court has ruled in the city’s favor,” Evans said. “We were confident in our argument.”

Wilson, a Houston Community College trustee, warned that he will continue to push the issue in district court.

“I’m not gonna give up,” Wilson said. “I’ll be back. I will get this on the next election.”

[…]

[In late July] a state district judge ruled that the city secretary had a “nondiscretionary ministerial duty” to count and certify the signatures.

The city appealed that decision and Wilson, meanwhile, sought intervention from the Texas Supreme Court to force City Secretary Anna Russell to immediately count the signatures.

Wilson said the city had engaged in a “series of illegal stall tactics,” adding that he was not satisfied that voters will already get a chance to repeal the city’s equal rights ordinance in November.

See here, here, and here for the background, and see here (second from the bottom) for the Supreme Court order. To be clear, this is not the end of the story – far from it. What it means is that the city can continue its appeal of the district court judge’s ruling without having to count the petitions and potentially put the issue on that ballot now. Those things still may happen if Wilson wins on appeal. All this means for now is that we won’t see it on the ballot this November. I continue to believe that Wilson’s argument about this not being a backdoor attempt to alter HERO is a load of hooey, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win in court. The responsibility for continuing that fight will fall on the shoulders of the next Mayor. Perhaps someone should ask them all how they feel about this.

Both Wilson and the city filed their petitions with the Supreme Court this week – the city’s was filed on Thursday – so the turnaround on this was quick, as you’d expect with a deadline coming up. From here it goes back to the normal speed of litigation, meaning it could be months before we have an appellate ruling, and years before we get final word from the Supreme Court. Who knows what can happen in the meantime.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Feds approve a preferred corridor for the high speed rail line

One more step in the process.

The Federal Railroad Administration announced this month that the general route preferred by the project developer of a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston is indeed the best choice.

Known as the “utility corridor,” it runs somewhat along high-voltage electrical transmission lines and capitalizes on relatively straight, existing easements.

“It’s of interest to us because it provides a source of power for our system, is straighter for a larger portion and therefore more suitable for the engineering,” said Tim Keith, chief executive of Texas Central Partners, the developer.

The utility easement runs only to about Palmer in Ellis County. Between Dallas’ Union Station and the Trinity River, the path follows a railroad corridor.

The federal report issued Aug. 10 does not outline a specific route but a broad path with many possible alignments. Corridor choices were wide swaths. Elements of each could still make it into the final plan.

“There’s not a whole lot of clarity even with the declaration of the corridor,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High Speed Rail.

But Texas Central Partners says it’s enough of a definition to host open houses in towns along the line.

“As we identify that final alignment, we will know which parcels are effective and which landowners we will engage with,” Keith said.

See here for the background. It’s a little hard to tell from the picture I have embedded above, even if you click on it for the larger image, but if you look at the picture in this Houston Business Journal story, it’s the gold-colored line, not the red one. as to what actually happened, the Press dug a little deeper:

Basically, what happened is that Texas Central agreed to fund the environmental impact study, but the FRA is the one actually conducting said study. The FRA had simply reviewed the four proposed corridors for the bullet train. Texas Central had concluded that three of the four corridors were not viable options for various reasons, but the fourth corridor, which will run along or nearby high-tension utility lines, met the company’s criteria.

So yeah, two weeks ago the FRA posted a report stating that it had checked Texas Central’s information and reported that it was accurate and that Texas Central’s preferred line was the one option of four submitted that fit various criteria. But that doesn’t exactly mean the FRA approved anything. Now the FRA will simply continue with its environmental impact study of Texas Central’s proposed route. Agency reviewers are set to look at alignments, meaning they’ll consider the specific route instead of a broad swath of land — such as scouting specific locations and property near nearby the proposed line, along with tackling right-of-way issues. When you get to the alignments stage you have to know exactly where things will be in a fairly precise way, according to the FRA staffer. Texas Central is responsible for doing the proposals and approaching landowners and the FRA is responsible for reviewing these options and figuring out the best options and alternatives.

Once the alignment study is done, the FRA will finish up its environmental impact study – there’s months of work to do so it won’t be completed until next year at the earliest. Then there will be meetings and feedback and the FRA will issue it’s findings.

So, to sum it all up: The FRA didn’t so much approve the utility route as a corridor as it agreed that based on Texas Central’s work, and information reviewed by the FRA, that they would take Texas Central’s word that the utility corridor was the most viable option. Also, this happened two weeks ago. Also, Texas Central reps don’t seem to know when it actually happened.

Got all that? The utility corridor is preferred because the freight rail corridor has too many curves to accommodate the speed of the bullet train, and because there were issues in sharing tracks. Some of that will still need to be done under this alignment, as the utility corridor doesn’t run all the way to Dallas, but this will minimize that. Either way, the Houston end of the corridor is currently northwest of downtown, near 610 and 290. Whether the train continues into downtown or the terminal is built there – assuming all of the political opposition is overcome, of course – remains an open question, one that I hope the Mayoral candidates have given at least a passing thought to. Be that as it may, the next step in the process is the draft environmental impact statement. According to the Chron story, that’s about halfway done, though as noted above it’s still months away. That’s the point at which things start to get real.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Three views of traffic in Texas

It’s getting worse.

Houston-area leaders love to trumpet the region’s affordable cost of living and low taxes, but the costs of sitting in traffic are taking a record share of workers’ incomes, according to a comprehensive annual study.

The average peak-period commuter in Houston pays $1,490 annually in lost time and wasted fuel because freeways are not flowing, according to the Urban Mobility Scorecard. The scorecard, developed by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, assesses congestion in America’s 471 urban areas. It is considered a reliable barometer of whether traffic conditions are worsening or improving.

Congestion delays more than 2.4 million commuters daily along the Houston region’s 90,000 lane-miles of streets and highways, the study found. Though nearly the same number of workers traveled in the area daily in 2012 and 2014, last year motorists collectively sat in traffic for more than 200 million hours for the first time. This means every worker in the Houston area who travels at peak times wastes on average 61 hours annually because traffic doesn’t move as intended.

[…]

Despite having a lower cost of living than many other congested urban areas, Houston ranks fourth nationally when the cost of congestion is calculated. The area’s total wasted time and fuel value is $4.9 billion annually; an estimated 94.3 million gallons of fuel are lost to stop-and-go traffic.

Freight movement also suffers. Congestion adds $1.1 billion annually to the price of delivering and shipping goods via truck, according to the scorecard. Only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago shippers lose more money to congestion.

Even adjusting to the value of $1 in 2014, the money lost to commuting is at an all-time high in Houston. With a more diverse economy and growth seemingly inevitable, experts do not expect the cost of congestion to decline.

“If Houston grows by a million people, just keeping that at $1,500 is going to be hard,” [scorecard co-author Tim] Lomax said.

Here’s the scorecard and press release, with additional commentary from The Highwayman. I’m sure all of this will sound familiar.

What may not be so familiar is this critique of the study:

The trouble with TTI’s work is that, to put it bluntly, it’s simply wrong. For one, their core measure of congestion costs — the “travel time index” — only looks at how fast people can travel, and completely ignores how far they have to go. As a result, it makes sprawling cities with fast roads between far-flung destinations look good, while penalizing more compact cities where people actually spend less time — and money — traveling from place to place. These and other problems, discussed below, mean that the TTI report is not a useful guide to policy.

Moreover, its authors have been consistently indifferent in responding to expert criticism, and the report has not been subjected to peer review. The authors continue to report data for 1982 through 2007, even though TTI’s model for those years doesn’t actually measure congestion: it simply assumes that increased vehicle volumes automatically produce slower speeds, which is not necessarily accurate. The report’s data from 2007 and earlier isn’t comparable the data that comes afterwards, and can’t legitimately be used to make claims about whether traffic is better or worse than in earlier periods. And for decades, TTI used a fuel consumption model to estimate gas savings that was calibrated based on 1970s-era cars, and which assumed that fuel economy improved with higher speeds — forever.

At City Observatory, we’ve spent a lot of time digging through TTI’s work and similar congestion cost reports. A summary of our work is in the City Subjects card deck “Questioning Congestion Costs.”

Click over to see the summary of what City Observatory learned. More along these lines comes from Transportation for America:

The report focuses only on drivers — not commuters as a whole. The millions of people using growing modes like transit, walking or biking or skipping the trip entirely by telecommuting at peak aren’t included in the analysis. So when the report says “person” or “commuter,” what they’re really saying is “car commuter.” The nearly 1 million trips taken per day in Washington, DC —#1 on the “list of gridlock-plagued cities — on metro (bus and rail) and therefore not in a car? Not included in this analysis.

Trips not taken can be crucial, yet they’re ignored here. In February 2009, Inrix, the company partnering with Texas A&M on this release, reported that just a 3.7 percent drop in vehicle miles traveled in 2008 resulted in a 30 percent drop in congestion in the 100 most congested metro areas. We don’t need everyone to shift their trip, take transit, move closer to work, or telecommute — among many possible options. But smart investments and incentives that lead to very small reductions in trips taken can have huge benefits in reduced congestion. And they’re often far cheaper than massive projects proposed to shave a few seconds off of average commutes.

Live close to where you work? Oops. Your short commute can come out looking worse than someone else’s much longer commute. TTI completely ignores the actual time and distance of commutes. If you have a 20-minute commute home but move at a lower speed, your commute scores worse than the person driving 80 minutes at a higher speed. Yet who has the better experience each day?

[…]

Ranking congestion is fine, but what should we do about it? How can we manage congestion in the most cost-effective way possible given limited transportation dollars?

Doing more of the same certainly won’t solve the problem. Regions that have been aggressively investing in additional travel options, eliminating trips, reducing trip length, creating more places to live close to jobs or more effectively managing demand have seen their congestion numbers get better, according to this landmark CEOs for Cities report from a few years ago.

That’s why it’s so critically important that the rule for the congestion performance measure being developed by USDOT measure success (or failure) in ways beyond just this limited and flawed TTI measure. We do need a better measure of congestion if we want to avoid making the same decisions that got us into this mess.

How far do most people have to travel for work? How long does it take them? What is most effective at reducing the amount of time it takes to get places? How many people are exposed to the congestion? Congestion may be bad, but people telecommuting, in a vanpool or on a bike might not experience it. Credit should be given to areas that allow people to opt-out of the traffic. Those are the kinds of metrics we need to use in order to find real solutions.

I’d fall into that third group above – whether we take I-45 or Houston Avenue, we move pretty slowly going into downtown most days, but we don’t have far to go, and it almost never takes more than 10 minutes total. Tiffany used to take a vanpool to The Woodlands for her job. She moved a lot faster, but was on the road a lot longer. Which would you rather do?

Just a little food for thought while you’re sitting there in traffic. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, we are reaching the end point of accommodating single-passenger-vehicle drivers. We don’t have the room to build more highway lanes in our cities, and in the places where we have done so recently, they’ve just filled right back up again. Just as we can’t economically meet our state’s water and energy needs without conservation, we can’t economically meet the needs of single passenger vehicles at the current pace. The focus has to be on reducing the number of cars on the road – more carpools, more transit, more biking and walking, more telecommuting – which is to say, on conserving road capacity. We’re too cheap to pay for anything else anyway, so we may as well embrace the option that we’re forcing ourselves into. Street Smart has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Revisiting the Texas-Amazon sales tax deal

The Statesman looks back and concludes it was a pretty good deal all around.

Amazon

In 2012, the state rolled the dice on a controversial deal with e-commerce giant Amazon.com.

To end a two-year battle, Texas said it would drop a $269 million sales tax bill due from the Seattle-based company in exchange for an incentive deal, among other agreements.

Amazon said it would begin collecting sales taxes within 60 days and create 2,500 jobs in Texas and invest $200 million in the state by 2014.

Now, as the company says it’s exceeded those benchmarks, state officials and economists say the agreement was the right call for Texas.

“I believe Texas benefited from the deal with Amazon. The agreement meant Amazon began collecting and remitting taxes to the state, which the comptroller’s office felt were legally due,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told the American-Statesman. “The agreement also allowed Amazon to start building warehouses and to greatly expand their physical presence in the state, which was largely beneficial to the economy.”

This summer, the Internet retailer told state officials it reached more than 3,500 employees in Texas and made more than $300 million in capital investment in Texas by the end of 2014, according to documents filed with the comptroller’s office.

Amazon also paid an undisclosed amount to settle the matter in 2012.

With the deal, Texas ended a two-year fight seeking the company’s uncollected sales taxes, and Amazon began collecting on July 1, 2012 — potentially adding millions of dollars in new revenue to state coffers in coming years. Now, current figures seem to prove that out.

An American-Statesman analysis of data from the comptroller’s office shows the state’s sales tax collections have risen by hundreds of millions of dollars since Amazon.com began issuing the levy on Texas residents.

Since July 2012, sales tax revenue in Amazon’s sector has gone up more than $325 million, comptroller data shows. While state law prohibits the comptroller’s office from releasing sales tax collections by individual companies, it’s clear a significant portion of that increase is a result of Amazon’s Texas sales.

Although Hegar wasn’t the comptroller at the time of the 2012 deal, he says the state has benefited from Amazon’s presence.

“We welcome and appreciate Amazon like we do all the retailers in our state,” Hegar said in weighing the company’s role in Texas today. “We encourage and benefit from the economic activity generated by both their physical activities in the state through capital investment and job creation, and also greatly appreciate their following the law by collecting and remitting taxes from our citizens when selling taxable items.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I supported this deal back then, and I’m glad to see it has basically worked as intended. The rationale from two decades ago for making online sales tax-free has long since been rendered irrelevant, and the effect of that policy has become increasingly expensive for state and local governments. It just made sense for Amazon and other online retailers to start charging sales taxes. A few years later, this isn’t even controversial any more. Like I said, a good outcome and I’m glad to see it.

Posted in: Bidness.

Saturday video break: Heart of Gold

Neil Young sings what was then his new song, once he finds the right harmonica.

That was from 1971. I’m getting old, too. Now here’s Johnny Cash and his cover version:

I so wish he were still around to do more of these. Rest in peace, Johnny.

Posted in: Music.

Hegar punts LBB veto issue to Paxton

Duck!

NO

Describing the debate as one that “goes to the heart of separation of powers within Texas government,” Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Wednesday that he will not authorize more than $200 million in funds approved by the Texas Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott as the comptroller waits for the attorney general to settle the issue.

“There are complex questions related to the governor’s vetoes, so I am seeking clarity and requesting guidance from the attorney general’s Office,” Hegar said in a statement.

[…]

For several weeks, the issue was awaiting a decision by Hegar, the state’s chief financial officer. The governor’s office strongly disagreed with the budget board, sending a 29-page memo to Hegar decrying the Legislature’s attempt to use “magic words” to block the governor’s authority.

On Wednesday, Hegar said he would not dole out the funds at issue for the time being.

“I am lapsing the funds for all items objected to by the Governor and will treat the items in question as vetoed,” Hegar said. “However, if advised otherwise, those appropriations can be made available immediately.”

[…]

Hegar’s decision comes less than a week before the start of the fiscal year on Sept 1, when the budget approved by lawmakers this year goes into effect. His 15-page request to Paxton demonstrates the complexity of the dispute. Because Abbott’s vetoes targeted budget riders rather than appropriations, Hegar seeks clarity on not only the validity of the vetoes but also what to do about the impacted agencies’ budgets if the vetoes are upheld. Should Hegar reduce each agency’s budget by the vetoed amount? And if those agencies can still get the funding, can those agencies then choose to spend some of their budgets on the projects Abbott vetoed anyway?

“This is a constitutional issue that goes to the heart of separation of powers within Texas government,” Hegar said. “I have a fiduciary duty to Texas taxpayers to ensure their hard earned dollars are spent in a manner that is consistent with the constitution of the state of Texas.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the AG opinion request. Putting aside my lack of confidence in Ken Paxton, I kind of think this one needs to be settled by the Supreme Court. The Lege can then take a crack at clarifying what the Constitution says if it wants. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

Special election set in HD118

I wonder what the record for special elections in a county in a single year is.

Rep. Joe Farias

Gov. Greg Abbott has scheduled Nov. 3 as the date for a special election to fill former state Rep. Jose Farias’ seat in the Texas House.

Abbott signed a proclamation this week to have the latest San Antonio special election take place on the same date already scheduled for elections across the state.

[…]

Democrats vying to fill the spot include Farias’ son, West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Gabe Farias, and Tomas Uresti, the brother of state Sen. Carlos Uresti and Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector Albert Uresti.

Two Republicans also are jumping into the race.

John Lujan, a 53-year-old retired firefighter who serves as the vice-president of an information-technology consulting business, ran for the House District 118 seat in 2006 but finished third in the Republican primary.

Robert Casias, a Somerset-based former Marine and member of the Army National Guard who lost to Joe Farias in 2012, is also running for the House seat as a Republican.

See here for the background. The filing deadline is September 2, so there may be a straggler or two jumping in while they can. This is just to fill out the remainder of Rep. Farias’ term; the winner of this race would still have to win his or her party’s primary in March and then the general election next November to actually serve in the Legislature. As such, it’s entirely possible that the winner of this race won’t even be on the ballot a year later. And of course, a runoff is a near certainty, so you folks in HD118, be prepared to do this again in December.

Posted in: Election 2015.

A brewpub comes back to Houston

In my ‘hood, no less.

beer

A new brewpub will open in the Heights with an accomplished veteran of the Texas craft-beer scene at the helm.

Delicious Concepts Restaurant Group, which owns Lola, Shepherd Park Draught House, Witchcraft Tavern and seven Pinks Pizza locations, announced Monday it has closed its Tex-Mex spot El Cantina Superior near the White Oak dining and entertainment area and will reopen in the same building as a restaurant that makes and sells its own beer on site.

The as-yet-unnamed “American kitchen”-style restaurant will have a pizzeria and butcher shop in-house. But the rotating lineup of lagers, India pale ales and Belgian-style and other beers – including guest beers and beers made in collaboration with other local breweries – will distinguish it from most Houston eateries.

Brewmaster Erik Ogershok, an industry veteran who helped develop the award-winning portfolio of beers at the Hill Country-based Real Ale Brewing Co., joins Delicious Concepts as a partner for this and any future brewing projects.

“This particular part of the project is just the beginning,” he said, declining to elaborate on other plans.

El Cantina Superior, 602 Studewood, had a rocky history after it launched last summer. The restaurant struggled, and Delicious Concepts brought in the management team from F.E.E.D. Texas, including the well-regarded chef Lance Fegen, to retool the menu and supervise kitchen and service.

The ambitious restaurant with colorful, quirky decor earned a positive review from Chronicle critic Alison Cook. But in May, the two restaurant groups suddenly parted ways.

Ken Sheppard, Delicious Concepts’ marketing chief, on Monday acknowledged the problems. He said the restaurant likely opened too quickly and was probably too different and too much larger physically from the others in the group. He said he was proud of El Cantina Superior’s recent work but admitted it was tough to overcome the early travails.

Plus, he said the group has wanted to open a brewpub for “a long time.”

I can attest to the El Cantina’s rocky history. It generated a ton of scathing reviews on Nextdoor Heights when it first opened, then a bunch of “no, wait, it’s really good now” emails after F.E.E.D. took over, and then back to the bad after they left. Our personal experience with the place matches that pattern. It’s a shame as far as that goes, because when it was good it was really good, and there wasn’t anything quite like it nearby. Oh, well. This will be Houston’s first brewpub since 2010 when Two Rows in the Rice Village closed down. There are a lot of good options for both food and beer within walking distance of this location, so they’re going to have to do well on both counts to survive. Not clear when the new place will be up and running, but I look forward to it.

Posted in: Food, glorious food.