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Friday random ten: Ladies’ night, part 15

And on we go…

1. Criminal – Fiona Apple
2. Tusk – Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie)
3. Kiss With A Fist – Florence And The Machine (Florence Welch)
4. Prisoners Of Their Hairdos – Four Bitchin’ Babes (Patty Larkin, Christine Lavin, Megon McDonough, Sally Fingerett0
5. Don’t Break The Heart That Loves You – Connie Francis
6. Band Of Gold – Freda Payne
7. Bizarre Love Triangle – Frente! (Angie Hart)
8. Enemy Within – Frida Hyvonen
9. Sweeter In History – Gabriella Cimli
10. Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go) – Garbage (Shirley Manson)

No, I don’t know why Connie Francis sorted as an F and not a C. Maybe iTunes is trying to tell me something. This set has a real 90s feel to it. I sometimes wonder what kind of playlists a radio station that markets itself as a “music of your youth” for younger-than-me Gen Xers will be like. I’ll still be listening to the 80s music stations, so I guess I’ll never know.

Posted in: Music.

More on Republican turnout concerns

It’s a thing that is happening, though it’s hard to say to what extent.

On Monday, one of the most prominent Republicans in Texas has a warning for supporters that Texas could go blue this election.

Governor Greg Abbott is sounding the alarm, citing recent poll numbers.

Democrats couldn’t be happier, especially because the email from Governor Abbott to supporters wasn’t meant to be seen publically. It was sent to the governor’s donors, and now Democrats are sensing a real opportunity to push ahead.

Anyone who knows anything about Texas politics knows Texas is a solid red. Although, polls have been showing Hillary Clinton running very close to Donald Trump in Texas.

The sobering email from Governor Abbott is giving legitimacy to the possibility Texas could vote Democratic this year.

It’s a fundraising email, and the point of a fundraising email is to get the recipient to give you some money, for which sometimes scaring the bejeezus out of them is the most effective tactic. That said, this is an uncommon tactic for state Republicans – they usually go for things like “standing firm” and “sending a message” and stuff like that. How much of it is driven by genuine concern about the state-level polls, and how much of it is just trying out a different marketing technique, I couldn’t say. If the polls shift a bit one way or the other and their tactics change as well, then maybe that’s our answer.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Clean Power Plan’s day in the DC court

We’ll see how it goes.

Dozens of lawyers from the government, industry and public interest groups packed the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, to hear the divisive case that comes just weeks before a heated presidential election and illustrates how a President’s picks for the lower court might impact his own agenda.

The plan is currently frozen because last February, the Supreme Court voted to delay implementation until the appeals process could play out.

Opponents to the plan claim that the EPA went too far under the law to push the rule.

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh at one point questioned EPA’s authority.

“This is a huge case,” he said and noted that it could “fundamentally” transform the industry. Kavanaugh said the administration’s policy is “laudable” but questioned under the separation of powers whether Congress, and not the EPA, had to speak clearly on the issue.

Judge Thomas B. Griffith chimed in asking, “why isn’t this debate going on in the floor of the Senate?” rather than before a panel of judges. But Judge Patricia A. Millet reiterated at one point that the Supreme Court “has already said” that the EPA has the authority to regulate in the area.

Other judges questioned whether by 2030, the rule would be any more transformative to the coal industry, for example, than market forces would be.

Judge David S. Tatel asked whether the agency was simply “invoking existing authority.”

While the morning session in court was dedicated to statutory arguments, in the afternoon the court heard arguments concerning whether it was unconstitutional. The challengers’ constitutional arguments did not appear to to get much traction with the judges.

[…]

During complex arguments before a multi-member court is dangerous to try to determine — based on questions posed at oral arguments — how a judge will ultimately rule. It’s worth noting however, that Tuesday’s case comes before an appellate court that has been transformed during the Obama administration.

Before Obama took office the appeals court tilted toward conservative appointees with six judges nominated by a Republican president and three nominated by a Democratic president. There were also two vacancies.

Currently, the active judges on the court consist of four GOP appointees and seven Democratic appointees. In 2013, Obama placed four judges on the court, three of them immediately after the Senate changed its filibuster rules. Tuesday’s case was heard by all the active members of the court except for Chief Judge Merrick Garland who has recused himself from hearing cases because he has been nominated to the Supreme Court.

“The party of an appointing president surely makes a difference in some types of cases — environmental for example — more than others,” said Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. “When the full court meets is when the party of appointing president is likely to matter most because the great majority of decisions are made by three-judge panels, randomly drawn and not necessarily reflective of the overall composition of the court.”

See here for the background. ThinkProgress agrees with the basic vote counting, with the possibility of a GOP judge siding with the Dems. The long and short of it is that we’ve seen this basic fight play out multiple times before – the Obama administration proposes a regulatory enforcement plan for the EPA, various Republican states led by Texas freak out and file suit, and the courts sort it out, usually with the feds winning. But do keep in mind that all of this is happening because 1) a Democratic President who cares about fighting climate change proposed this regulatory scheme, among others, and 2) an appeals court that has more Democratic appointees than Republican ones will make the decision that is likely to stand thanks to the current makeup of the Supreme Court. The fastest way to undo this is to not have a Democratic President in place after November. I’m just saying.

Posted in: Legal matters.

More lawyers for the bail practices lawsuit

I’m still not thrilled about this.

HarrisCounty

Harris County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to add another law firm to the county’s court fight against bail reform, a group whose job will be representing 16 county criminal judges who were recently added to a pending federal civil rights lawsuit.

[…]

Records show Harris County already has paid another law firm, Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP, $169,464 for six lawyers who have worked defending the county against the ODonnell civil case through July, according to a bill obtained through an open records request. Those bills included 113 hours of work by lead attorney Katharine David, who has charged $525 per hour, and 64 hours of work by Mike Stafford, a former Harris County attorney, who charges $610 per hour, according to new details released Tuesday.

So far, the county’s lawyers for the case have charged for, among other things, meeting with the county’s own hearing officers who set bond via video hearings, as well as sheriff’s officials, the 16 judges, the district attorney and other county officials. They’ve also drafted replies and motions in so far unsuccessful attempts to get the case dismissed, according to records obtained from the county attorney Tuesday.

Commissioners voted Tuesday to add another firm, Winston & Strawn LLP, to represent criminal county court at law judges.

Those judges were recently added as defendants to the case, which originally named the sheriff, hearing officers and the county as defendants. Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle pointed out he was voting in favor because the county attorney recommended approving the additional counsel.

“With the large number of people and entities being sued by the plaintiffs, there is the possibility of a conflict of interest,” said Robert Soard, first assistant county attorney. “Because of the possibility of a conflict and at the request of the judges, the Office of the County Attorney and Commissioners Court decided to retain separate counsel for the judges.”

Soard said the firm is assigning four lawyers to work on the matter and as agreed to charge $450 per hour with a cap of $40,000.

See here for the background. Again, I don’t have a specific objection to hiring outside counsel, and I agree that there could be a conflict of interest for an attorney who was representing, say, both the judges and the Sheriff’s office. But seriously, this lawsuit needs to be settled, like yesterday. This is a mess that the judges have created, and it needs to be fixed as expeditiously as possible. Fighting this lawsuit in court cannot be an option and should not be something that we the taxpayers are asked to support.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, Legal matters.

Endorsement watch: Continuing a trend

The Chron makes their criminal district court endorsements, and in doing so they stick to a pattern.

HarrisCounty

174th Criminal District Court: Hazel B. Jones

In this race to replace Judge Ruben Guerrero, voters should go with Democratic candidate Hazel B. Jones. The former criminal court judge has the necessary background to step onto the bench and administer justice without a learning curve. A Howard University School of Law graduate, Jones was elected to office in 2008 but lost her seat in 2012. She has also served as a federal and Harris County prosecutor, and now practices criminal defense law. Jones, 50, vows if reelected to be aggressive with respect to the use of personal recognizance bonds.

176th Criminal District Court: Stacey W. Bond

This first-term Republican judge was one of the most impressive judicial candidates that the Houston Chronicle editorial board met during this election cycle. Stacey W. Bond, a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, had a crystal clear vision of the problems facing the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, which often does more to punish the poor than the dangerous.

177th Criminal District Court: Ryan Patrick

At age 37, Judge Ryan Patrick says that he’s the youngest district court judge in Texas, and after four years on the bench he’s developed a reputation as a fair and well-respected judge. A graduate of the Houston College of Law (formerly the South Texas College of Law), Patrick, a Republican, told the editorial board that the county needs to give more funding to pre-trial services so that fewer people have to wait behind bars. He’s also a self-described “tech geek” and serves as chairman of the executive committee that oversees the Harris County Criminal Justice Center’s management system.

178th Criminal District Court: Kelli Johnson

As Judge David Mendoza steps down from this bench, voters should back Democratic candidate Kelli Johnson.

Johnson, 44, has been a Harris County assistant district attorney for 17 years, and over the past eight years she has served as felony chief prosecutor in the trial bureau. If elected, the Houston College of Law graduate promises to increase the use of personal recognizance bonds and speed up the appointment process for court-appointed lawyers.

179th Criminal District Court: Kristin M. Guiney

Republican incumbent Kristin M. Guiney, 41, is an able jurist who deserves a second term. The University of Houston Law Center graduate is board certified in criminal law and enjoys overseeing her probation docket because it grants her an opportunity to witness lives transform. Guiney reports a gradual shift in the criminal courts toward rehabilitation, which she believes is appropriate.

337th Criminal District Court: Renee Magee

When she met with the editorial board, first-term Judge Renee Magee, 57, made an argument for herself with two statistics: She said that she has the second-most cases in the courthouse but the lowest number of people in jail. The 21-year prosecutor accomplished this by focusing on drug rehabilitation, getting people off probation who don’t need supervision and refusing to let prosecutors delay their cases. Magee, a Republican, is also one of the four mental health judges.

338th Criminal District Court: Brock Thomas

It sometimes feels like the Houston Bar Association judicial qualification questionnaire tells you more about prosecutors’ opinions than judicial performance.

Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that Brock Thomas received more “well qualified” votes than any other candidate for criminal district court. The University of Houston Law Center graduate, who was first elected in 2002, lost in 2008 and reelected in 2012, has a passion for criminal justice that is evident in his volunteer work.

339th Criminal District Court: Maria T. (Terri) Jackson

In this hotly contested race, we endorse the Democratic sitting judge, Maria T. Jackson, over her court’s former chief prosecutor, Mary McFaden, a Republican.

Both have had an inside seat as to the other’s performance and neither candidate thinks highly of the other’s abilities. After listening to both sides, we believe Jackson, 52, who has been on the bench since 2008, deserves another term.

351st Criminal District Court: Mark Kent Ellis

Although he has served on this bench for 20 years, Mark Kent Ellis has demonstrated a willingness to learn and evolve on the job that should earn him another term. During our screening, the Republican judge heralded the Michael Morton Act for improving the criminal justice system and ensuring that the defendants get needed material from discovery. The Houston College of Law graduate has used his institutional knowledge to compel change by instituting and continuing to improve the Harris County Mental Health Court, which works with people diagnosed with mental illness to assist them in completing probation.

The pattern is that as with all but one of the civil district court races, they either endorsed the incumbent, or the candidate from the same party as the departing judge. Elaine Palmer and the appointed judge on the new County Criminal Court at Law #16 bench are the only exceptions. One way to look at this is that for all of the sometimes justified bitching people do about our system of electing judges, we must be doing a pretty good job of it here in Harris County, since nearly every single one of them was found to be worthy of the Chron’s endorsement for re-election. It seems likely that some of these judges will get booted from the bench anyway, for reasons beyond their control, but the Chron likes the challengers in most of these races, too. So maybe our system doesn’t suck quite as much as some people would have you think. Just saying.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Taco the vote

Now you’re talking.

MI FAMILIA VOTA is accustomed to registering voters in unusual places, such as the food court at the UH Student Center where we caught up with Maria Villenas last month. Villenas is Houston’s civic engagement lead for the national non-partisan organization, which encourages political participation, primarily among Latinos, and seeks to register potential voters wherever they can find them—especially right now, as the October 11 voter registration deadline looms.

Starting today, that list of unusual places for voter registration grows by eight: That’s how many local taco trucks have signed on with Mi Familia Vota as mobile registration booths. It’s an idea sparked by a comment from Latinos for Trump supporter Marco Gutierrez, who told MSNBC earlier this month: “My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

In Houston, meanwhile, where we’ve lived comfortably and happily with taco trucks on every other corner for at least the last few decades, it occurred to one local designer that while taco trucks may be omnipresent here, voter registration booths aren’t. Texas had the second-lowest voter turnout in the nation in the March primaries, while Houston itself has long trended downward in voter turnout during elections of all kinds. Thomas Hull of design firm Rigsby-Hull decided to join forces with Mi Familia Vota in an effort to turn those numbers around.

“We’re also handing out information on where to vote,” Hull told Houston Public Media of the eight taco trucks who’ve signed up to participate. So if you’re one of the undecided voters who was swayed by last night’s debate, here’s your chance to grab a delicious lunch and register to make your voice heard. Head to one of these trucks below, and bring cash—for the tacos, that is; registering to vote is free, but you only have until October 11.

Click over for a map and list of locations. Voter registration overall is sharply up, but there’s no reason not to continue that. And everything goes better with tacos. KUHF and the Chron have more.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Early eminent domain dispute for Texas Central

It was over before it started.

Lawyers for a proposed high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas withdrew their request for entry to a local landowner’s property, after opponents and the landowner opposed it in front of a Harris County judge, according to opponents of the project.

“It is a great day for the vindication of landowner rights,” lawyer Blake Beckham of Dallas said.

In a statement, Texas Central confirmed the hearing, but was less decisive about its significance.

“No ruling was issued.,” the company said. “The parties agreed to come back to the court as soon as possible to have another hearing.”

Beckham represented Calvin House, owner of 440 acres in northwestern Harris County. Texas Central, planners of the high-speed rail line, want access to House’s property as they determine the best route for the train line. In its filings, the company cited its power of eminent domain as a railroad.

Opponents, however, argued the company is not a railroad because it is neither operating a rail system, nor does it own any tracks or trains.

As part of their filing, Beckham listed the dictionary definitions for “railroad” and “operating” among the exhibit he planned to enter. Texas Central’s lawyers opposed those exhibits in a filing Thursday.

Beckham called the hearing significant in a video statement released by Texans Against High-Speed Rail, a group formed to oppose Texas Central’s plans.

“This was the first case where this issue was to be decided,” Beckham said. “We had a complete victory.”

Perhaps, but I doubt any precedents were set since there was no decision rendered. It’s hard to draw any conclusions from this case since the details about it are so sparse, but even if I did know more I’d still rank it no higher than third on the list of existential threats that Texas Central faces, well behind the forthcoming AG opinion on whether it is a “railroad” for the purposes of using eminent domain, and whatever mischief the Legislature will cook up in the next session. On that score, Rep. Ron Simmons (R, Carrolton), who serves as the Chair of the Transportation Subcommittee on Long-term Infrastructure Planning, predicts TCR will survive. I don’t know that I would take that bet, but Rep. Simmons (whose district is in the Dallas suburbs) is in a better position than I to judge.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Commissioners Court approves Astrodome parking plan

Here we go.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County commissioners approved the first piece of a $105 million plan to transform the stadium into part parking garage and part event space for things like concerts and trade shows.

After years of indecision, advocates for preserving the Dome are hailing the move as one that might breath new life into the stadium’s future long after many Houstonians had written its obituary.

“We’re really happy to see some concrete action taken,” said David Bush, acting executive director of Preservation Houston, which has been advocating for the Dome’s preservation for 16 years. “This is a significant first step.”

The $105 million plan, first unveiled by county officials in June, calls for the floor of the Astrodome to be raised two floors, or 30 feet, to ground level. Two levels of parking or 1400 spaces will be installed underneath.

The new ground floor could be used by conferences like the Offshore Technology Conference, or for music festivals or other events. Officials from OTC wrote a letter earlier this month in support of the plan with the Houston Auto Show, Houston International Boat, Sport and Travel Show and the Houston Ballet Nutcracker Market, a ballet fundraiser, among others.

In the future, the 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core could be used for retail, commercial or other options, though none have been determined yet.

No events have yet made any formal commitments to use the re-purposed dome, a point acknowledged by Precinct 1 Commissioner Gene Locke whose precinct includes the Astrodome.

“I’m more confident that doing this is better than doing nothing,” he said.

[…]

Despite Tuesday’s vote, not everything is final. [County Judge Ed] Emmett and other county officials believe as the $105 million project enters the design phase, the overall price tag will go down, especially if other funding sources like Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funds or tax credits can apply.

But the cost could also go beyond $105 million, something several commissioners have said they will watch out for.

Regardless, commissioners will have to vote again likely next year to spend the rest of the money on the actual construction.

See here for the preview. To address some things I’ve seen here and elsewhere, the point of this is to begin the process of making the Astrodome viable for other uses, whatever those may turn out to be. The extra parking would presumably make the space more amenable for the Texans and the Rodeo as well, though those two entities have remained firmly uncommitted to the whole idea so far. As there is no money being borrowed to pay for this, there is no need to hold a public vote. If and when we get to a point where financing is needed, then there will have to be a referendum to get the public’s approval to borrow the money – in other words, a bond referendum. While the rejected 2013 referendum was often seen as a vote for demolition, it was in the strictest sense just a rejection of that financing/renovation plan. Not everyone will agree with that last statement, of course. If you’re one of those people, you’ll either get another chance to vote against a bond issuance, or you’ll get to (have to) take comfort in the knowledge that any financing will be done by a private entity.

In the meantime, there’s always the possibility that the bill will go up once design phase begins, which may lead to further reckoning. If we get past that with no worrisome cost estimate increase, then Commissioners Court will need to commit to an actual design, of which there have been many. One presumes it would be some version of the Urban Land Institute plan, though that isn’t exactly fully-formed, and besides, the county has gone through Astrodome plans like Spinal Tap has gone through drummers, so who knows what we’d get. For now, what we’re getting is underground parking. At least that is something we can all comprehend. KUHF and Swamplot have more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 26

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes Tom “Smitty” Smith a happy and healthy retirement as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Mike Engelhart

(Note: I ran a series of judicial Q&As for Democratic candidates in contested primaries earlier this year. I am now doing the same for the candidates who were unopposed in March, which includes most of the sitting incumbent judges. As always, this is to help you the voter know a little bit more about the candidates on your ballot. I will be publishing these in the order I receive them. You can see the Q&As and interviews I did for the primaries on my 2016 Election page.)

Judge Mike Engelhart

Judge Mike Engelhart

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

Judge Mike Engelhart, 151st Civil District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Civil disputes where one side is suing the other for money, usually arising from a business dispute, real estate issues, or a personal injury matter.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

I was the first Judge in the history of Harris County to issue a standing order for all new lawsuits that required them to be filed electronically. This caused a ripple effect that, within a few years, led to statewide mandatory electronic e-filing as ordered by the Texas Supreme Court. This has saved countless jobs and millions of dollars for taxpayers, and millions of trees as well.

In 2016, I was awarded the Public Sector Achievement Award by the University of Houston Law Center Alumni Association, as well as the Trial Judge of the Year Award by the Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

First, I would like to keep moving the courts forward technologically. We need to update courtroom AV equipment with Bluetooth and sound equipment and projecting whiteboards, etc.

Second, I want to experiment with new approaches to involving the jury more in the process of trial itself, including some manner of jury questions during the course of the trial.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because we need to continue to have a balanced courthouse, and judges who are not driven by ideology. I have demonstrated that I am fair and provide a level playing field. There is a real danger that that could change if my opponent were to win.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

People should vote for me because I am efficient, and because I am the most qualified for this position.

I routinely have among the 3 lowest (if not the lowest) inventories of cases in the 151st of the 24 civil district courts because I work my cases and try my cases.

I am the most qualified because I am a Board Certified attorney and my opponent is not, and because I have outperformed him by a 6.5 to 1 margin on the Houston Bar Association poll of attorneys who practice before our courts.

The taxpayers of Harris County are getting an excellent bang for their tax buck.

Posted in: Election 2016.

It’s not just Precinct 4

There are problems with evidence rooms in other Constable precincts as well.

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

With Harris County’s Precinct 4 Constable’s Office mired in scandal over the improper destruction of 21,000 pieces of evidence, serious evidence cataloging and control problems also have been uncovered in the constables’ offices in Precincts 3,6 and 7, according to interviews and audits obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

While there is no proof yet that evidence has been unlawfully destroyed in those other three offices, 2,000 items were initially reported missing in Precinct 3; guns, jewelry, electronics and cash were misplaced in Precinct 6; and Precinct 7’s evidence room has been described as “a shambles.”

In Precinct 4, where the evidence destruction scandal is still unfolding, prosecutors so far have dismissed 100 criminal cases and are still determining how many convictions could be affected by years of careless work blamed on a corporal fired for illegally disposing of drugs, guns and evidence. The episode remains the subject of a criminal probe.

Only time will tell whether chaotic evidence handling practices reported in Precincts 3,6 and 7 will result in case dismissals, appeals or further investigations.

Harris County auditors in May 2015 uncovered evidence problems – never made public – in a review of the overstuffed property room inside the Precinct  6 Constable’s Office in the East End. There, auditors reported finding 28 percent of the evidence missing along with $54,000 in cash in a review of a sample of 799 items, the audit shows. Their visit to the office came only months after the previous constable, Victor Treviño, resigned after pleading guilty to misappropriating money from a charity he ran out of his office.

Constable Heliodoro Martinez, who replaced Treviño, said in an interview Friday that he immediately contacted the Harris County district attorney after receiving those results. It took five months for a team of two Harris County sheriff’s deputies and two of his own officers to locate the missing cash and other items. Martinez said he is still trying to impose order in an evidence room that hadn’t been cleaned out or organized in 26 years.

Unlike the Precinct 4 scandal, neither defense attorneys nor front-line prosecutors have been notified to review cases. So far, county lawyers have not deemed that any notifications or criminal investigations are necessary.

“To this point, we haven’t been made aware of any pending cases that have been affected in any way, shape or form,” Martinez said.

JoAnne Musick, a defense attorney who is past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said she is skeptical that no cases have been adversely affected.

“Every property custodian comes in and testifies how great their system is – but in these audits that’s not what they’re finding,” she said. “They’re having to dig stuff up. … How do you know it’s not been tampered with, it’s not altered, it’s not decayed?”

See here, here, and here for the background. None of the other precincts have had anywhere near the problems that Precinct 4 have had, but it’s too early to say that no cases have been affected. There are also some questions about the way the audits were conducted and the results communicated. The current auditor for the county is retiring, so perhaps there should be a high priority on re-reviewing all eight Constable precincts and ensuring we know what issues there are. And then maybe, as suggested by some people in the story and by commenter Steven Houston in an earlier post, it’s time to take these evidence rooms away from the constables and put sole authority for them in the Sheriff’s office.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Coming back to the US90A rail extension

Lots of talk, and a case for action sooner rather than later.

HoustonMetro

A Metro rail extension from southern Houston to Missouri City is gaining momentum, fueled by rare near-unanimous support from local, state and federal officials who represent the area.

The hope is one day whisking commuters from Fort Bend County into the Texas Medical Center and other nearby job hotspots. But as the rail project picks up speed, a few officials worry the transit agency might get ahead of itself, to the detriment of other possible bus and rail improvements as money and resources perhaps shift to the rail line.

“I don’t know that I see it as being the next project,” said Metro board member Lisa Castaneda, who urged officials to slow down on some aspects of studying the rail link and soliciting possibilities for private investment in it.

The issue earlier this week touched off a sometimes-contentious exchange between Metropolitan Transit Authority board members, though most were supportive of moving forward with some of the rail plan. Still, even those eager to advance the line stress Metro has not made any final decisions, and still has no firm way for how to pay for the line despite vocal support from U.S. Reps. Al Green, D-Houston, and John Culberson, R-Houston.

[…]

At a Metro committee meeting last week, board members had what one called a “spirited” discussion about potential private investment in local commuter rail projects. The discussion was prompted by a request for information prepared by Metro staff, which could be circulated to gauge interest in development deals.

Metro board chairwoman Carrin Patman said while staff was authorized to release the request without board approval, she sought their input before sending it out. The action, however, was delayed when board members, primarily Castaneda, chafed at moving ahead.

While not opposed to the rail line – as it requires much more study – Castaneda balked at some of the eagerness other board members showed to press ahead and seek proposals from private developers interested in joining with Metro for a Missouri City rail line.

“I am not optimistic we are going to get a back a product that doesn’t require a lot of commitment from Metro,” she said.

Patman countered during the discussion that transit officials won’t know their options unless they explore them, especially when local elected leaders are eager to press ahead. Mayors, including those outside the Metro service area such as Stafford Mayor Leonard Scarcella, have offered full-throated support for the line for more than a decade.

“The lost capital of not doing something… is going to send I believe the wrong signal, and I believe a very costly one,” Patman said.

Green, who has committed to use his role in Congress to muster support and potentially federal money for the line, said “it is my hope that the real prospects for this continue to move forward judiciously as well as expeditiously.”

See here for some background. The main issue here is how to pay for this line, as for once there’s basically no political opposition. Metro has no more funds available from the 2003 referendum, and the short-term budget outlook is not optimal. Metro could float another bond referendum, but I can’t see them doing so until they have a full rail package put together to vote on all at once. There would likely be some federal money available for this, but that would not cover the whole thing. Metro will have to come up with something, which includes the money needed to do environmental impact statements. There’s also the question of how this would work inside Fort Bend County given that Fort Bend is not part of Metro. (Look for my interview with County Commissioner Richard Morrison next week, as this question will come up with him.) A public-private venture is certainly one option, one that we may also consider when and if a rail line connecting the proposed high speed rail terminal to downtown happens. I’d like to see this line get built – it makes a lot of sense, and we did vote for it back in 2003 – but I want it done in a way that works for Metro as well as for the potential riders. Let’s keep this moving, but don’t rush it. Get it right and go from there.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Endorsement watch: Sung in the special

The Chron endorses Anne Sung in the HISD special election.

Anne Sung

Anne Sung

Out of the four names on the ballot, Anne Sung is the only candidate who will be prepared to do a good job immediately. Sung, 38, a product of HISD schools, not only says that “education is the foundation of the American Dream,” but her life demonstrates that dream. The Bellaire High School alumna went on to graduate from Harvard University.

Sung has been a Teach for America Corp member, an award-winning HISD physics teacher, and the cofounder of an education advocacy group, Community Voices for Public Education. She’s currently filling another role in the education landscape by serving as the chief strategy office and vice president of the nonprofit Project GRAD Houston. Her opponents, John Luman and Victoria Bryant, both seem to have what it takes to become strong board members. As a practicing lawyer, Luman would bring analytical skills to board deliberations. Bryant’s background in pharmacy would be useful in a district where 75.5 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. But the breadth of Sung’s professional career has given her a multi-faceted and nuanced perspective on the district that her opponents Luman and Bryant don’t come close to matching. Candidate Danielle D. Paulus did not answer our requests for a screening.

The Chron had endorsed Harvin Moore over Anne Sung in 2013, though they were “impressed” by her at the time. Looks like that good impression has remained. I’ll have candidate interviews for this election in the coming weeks. There’s a lot going on and thus a lot to talk about. If you live in this district, what are your impressions of the candidates? Leave a comment and let us know.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Voter registration way up statewide

That’s a lot.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Nearly 15 million people are now registered to vote in Texas, a state record.

Texas currently has more than 14.8 million voters registered — over 1 million more than were registered in the 2012 presidential election, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state, told the House Elections Committee on Wednesday that about 14.3 million voters were registered in time for the March primaries.

The increase could be attributed to higher voter interest in a presidential election year, as well as a growing Texas population, according to Alicia Pierce, spokeswoman for the Texas secretary of state.

“We can definitely see there’s historical trends that presidential elections tend to attract more attention,” Pierce said.

There are still two weeks left before the registration deadline, so expect the final number to be higher, perhaps over 15 million. To put this into some context, here are the registration totals from previous years:

2016 (est) – 14.8 million
2012 – 13,646,226
2008 – 13,575,062
2004 – 13,098,329
2000 – 12,365,235

So to put this another way, the increase from 2012 to 2016 is almost as big – and in the end, may be at least as big – as the increase from 2000 to 2012. At 15 million registrations, if turnout of registered voters is the same as it was in 2012 (58.58%), total turnout would be nearly 8.8 million, or some 800,000 more than what we had in 2012. One possible reason for the polls being what they are is a belief that all of this will lead to a surge in Democratic numbers. For example, a result of 4.6 million for Trump, 3.9 million for Clinton, and 300,000 for the others would be an eight-point Trump win (52.3% to 44.3%), certainly in line with polling. We’re deep into speculation here, and of course the polling numbers may change, so don’t take any of this seriously. We’ll begin to get some idea when early voting begins. In the meantime, let’s just call this further evidence that this is a different election.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes to resign

Our first special election for 2017 is now on the clock.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, who is facing a criminal investigation over her use of state funds, will resign from her seat in the Texas House in January, according to the Quorum Report, a Texas political news website.

The 11-term Austin Democrat cited medical issues stemming from a 2013 car accident as the reason for her departure.

“This has been a very difficult decision to make. However, in light of my ongoing health issues and concerns, I find that I can no longer provide the active, effective leadership that is needed to continue my sworn duties,” she said. “I must take the time to focus all of my energy to heal and continue to provide for my young daughter and extended family.”

Dukes’ announcement comes as the Texas Rangers and the Travis County district attorney’s office investigate, among other issues, her use of state resources for nongovernmental purposes, including having staff do personal errands for her and work on a nonprofit event she co-founded.

[…]

Dukes will retire Jan. 10, and her name will remain on the Nov. 8 ballot, according to the Quorum Report. If Dukes beats Republican Gabriel Nila, her post-election resignation will mean Gov. Greg Abbott will have to call a special election to fill her seat, the site reported.

Dukes’ district includes parts of North and East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor.

Dukes missed almost all of the 2015 legislative session and has said her frequent absences are because of medical issues related to the August 2013 car crash, in which she was rear-ended while driving on Interstate 35.

See here and here for some background; the QR story is here if you’re a subscriber. I’ve never been a big fan of Rep. Dukes, stemming from her days as a Craddick D, so given her recent ethical issues I’m not broken up by her forthcoming departure. Her district went 76.6% to 20.1% for President Obama in 2012, and 78.4% to 19.2% for Wendy Davis over Greg Abbott in 2014, so I think it is safe to say that she will win in November. I think it’s also safe to say that there will be a lot of interest in her seat, and the special election to fill it, which I presume will take place in February or March with a runoff following, will have a full slate of mostly Democratic candidates. The Trib already has one possible candidate for this office:

Former Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, a longtime resident of East Austin, said Monday she might run for Dukes’ seat.

“This morning I have received an incredible outpouring of support and encouragement from community leaders and my family,” Cole, a Democrat, said in a statement. “It is with their support that I am seriously considering running to House District 46.”

I don’t know Austin local politics well enough to have an opinion on that, but I’m sure I’ll be hearing plenty about all the hopefuls for HD46. For now, let’s just hope for a good outcome. All that said, I wish Rep. Dukes well in whatever comes next for her. The Austin Chronicle, which mentions a few other possible candidates, has more.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Back to court for the Clean Power Plan

Here we go.

One of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s final acts on Earth may have been to doom it.

Last February, on the final Tuesday of Scalia’s life, the Supreme Court handed down a 5–4 decision suspending the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. It was a surprising development — a lower court panel that included a conservative Republican judge previously denied a request to stay this plan — and a chilling development for anyone who cares about the planet. The Clean Power Plan is the Obama administration’s most ambitious effort to fight climate change. And it is difficult to exaggerate the consequences if these efforts fail:

In the relatively short term, the Environmental Protection Agency predicts that the Clean Power Plan will “avoid thousands of premature deaths and mean thousands fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations in 2030 and every year beyond.” In the longer term, major cities could be swallowed by the ocean. Displaced residents will trigger a worldwide refugee crisis. Entire regions of the United States could be converted into a permanent Dust Bowl. The sheer magnitude of the catastrophe will rival any tragedy that has faced humanity since the Book of Genesis.

Scalia’s vote to stay the Clean Power Plan was enough to delay it, but not enough to destroy it. Now, however, the effort to permanently kill the plan is about to face its first big test.

A ten judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — arguably the second-most powerful court in the country — will hear arguments on the fate of the plan on Tuesday. With Scalia dead, and the Supreme Court evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the D.C. Circuit’s decision could be the last word on the plan’s legality.

While Scalia did not live to cast a vote eradicating the plan, his ghost still haunts this case. It lingers over the parties’ briefs, casting doubt upon long-settled doctrines viewed as rock solid just a few years ago. West Virginia v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, the challenge to the Clean Power Plan, is the culmination of a years-long effort by conservatives to hobble the executive branch — an effort Scalia started to embrace during his final years on the Court. And, if the Clean Power Plan falls, it will be because this effort scored just enough victories during the twilight of Scalia’s life.

See here, here, and here for the background. Needless to say, Texas is leading the charge in this litigation.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Monday accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of trying to “force Texas to change how we regulate energy production,” through what he called an “unprecedented expansion of federal authority.”

“What we need is more reliable energy — not less, and the EPA is trying to stop that,” the Republican said while appearing on a panel in Washington, D.C.

Paxton specifically targeted the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s state-by-state effort to fight climate change by shifting away from coal power to cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable resources.

His appearance on the panel, organized by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, came one day before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is to hear four hours of oral arguments over the carbon dioxide-cutting rule. Those watching the litigation say the outcome could make or break Obama’s legacy on climate change.

[…]

The regulations would force states to slash carbon dioxide emissions from power plants however they see fit — accelerating a shift from coal that started years ago. Carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas that directly contributes to climate change.

For Texas — the nation’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter by far — that would mean cutting an annual average of 51 million tons of emissions, down about 21 percent from 2012 levels.

Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republicans have argued that doing so would cost the state jobs, push electricity costs too high and threaten reliability on the grid. They say the regulations subvert state power.

Eighteen states and a litany of health and environmental groups have joined the Obama administration in defending the Clean Power Plan.

On Monday, one environmental group criticized Paxton for championing coal interests while challenging the regulation.

“Dirty coal just doesn’t make sense anymore, economically or environmentally, but Attorney General Paxton appears to want to go down with a sinking ship,” Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, said in an email. “Texans support transitioning to clean energy and the Clean Power Plan is helping make that possible.”

Proponents of the rules, backed by early analyses, suggest that market forces and existing policies alone would push Texas most of the way toward its target.

One study released in May predicted that coal generation would shrink from about 28 percent of state power generation to 6 percent by 2035 — not factoring in the controversial federal regulation.

Aside from inflation, Texans would see “virtually no price increase” if natural gas and solar prices continue to get cheaper as some expect, concluded the study by the Brattle Group, a global research firm that often crunches numbers for Texas regulators. Funding for that study came from the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, which supports natural gas and renewable energy sources.

boy, nothing says “forward-thinking” like protecting the interests of coal-burning power plants. The DC Court’s decision here is very likely to be the final word. If it comes down to a Supreme Court that has a ninth member that was appointed by President Trump, it won’t matter anyway since the EPA will cease enforcing environmental regulations because global warming is a myth. So, you know, no big deal. The Observer and the Chron have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Endorsement watch: Against recapture

The Chron recommends a No vote on the forthcoming HISD referendum to authorize recapture.

BagOfMoney

Voters will face a test on Election Day, and whether they answer correctly will determine the future of the Houston Independent School District. It should be a simple question, but it’s written in the obtuse vernacular of lawmakers who really don’t want voters to understand it.

The ballot provision will ask voters to authorize the board of trustees of HISD to purchase attendance credits from the state with local tax revenue. That sounds like a good, progressive measure, but be warned – it is a trick question.

The ballot is really asking whether HISD should submit itself to state recapture and send $162  million in local property tax dollars to Austin. The correct answer is “NO.”

If this misleading ballot provision passes, HISD will not only be required to send $162 million in local property tax dollars to the state next year. The district will also likely face higher annual payments for the foreseeable future under the state’s broken school finance system.

[…]

Technically these recaptured funds are supposed to help schools that need the resources. If the provision worked like a true Robin Hood, it would “rob” from the rich and “give” to the poor. But in reality, the system robs from the poor and gives to legislators so that they don’t have to raise state taxes. There’s no guarantee that poor schools will receive a single extra dime if HISD pays up.

How does this work? Simply put, the state keeps two bank accounts: one for general revenue and one for the recaptured Robin Hood sums. Every dollar that the state pays from Robin Hood frees up general revenue money that the state otherwise would have to spend to help poor schools. So instead of giving extra money to needy districts, any HISD money will essentially be spent on highways, border security or some other appropriation besides education.

If this passes, then HISD is projected to send more than $1 billion of our local property taxes to the state over the next four years. Not only does that hurt HISD, but it looks an awful lot like a state property tax – which is prohibited in the Texas Constitution.

See here and here for the background. I should note that if the referendum goes down and the state takes properties away from HISD, that also has the effect of diminishing HISD’s bonding abilities. Let me quote from a Facebook discussion on Jay Aiyer’s page, with the following coming from Aiyer, who strongly disagreed with the Chron’s position:

I am in no way advocating for the current system. The issue is the basic math behind recapture means that HISD and local taxpayers will lose MORE money by voting against it. Under the recapture system the choice is either make a recapture payment or lose the taxable value of property that would yield the amount in question. In the case of HISD that approaches nearly $18 billion in commercial real estate. There is no third option. The value of that property removed would be lost permanently for M&O and all future debt payment–reducing the debt capacity for the district and increasing the cost of borrowing, shifting that cost to local taxpayers. The loss of revenue from the property and the increased debt service cost is greater than the recapture payment. It is precisely why no ISD has chosen the loss of property route. The argument to vote NO is entirely based on a political argument that it will force the legislature to change the system, which would in effect require the legislature to appropriate billions more to public education. Absent a legal requirement to do so–I am very skeptical. I recognize the desire to want to vote no–but it’s an act of political defiance not a data driven decision. It’s a gamble that could cost local taxpayers.

Jay’s point is well taken, but I don’t know how many people will be with him. There is already opposition to the referendum, and it is my understanding that there will be a formal campaign against it, while any official support for it has been invisible so far. The case against is easy to understand, even if the ballot language is unclear. I just think there’s a greater chance that Dan Patrick will win the next season of RuPaul’s Drag Race than of the Lege taking any action to fix the underlying problem. I’m still leaning towards a No vote on this, as I hate the idea of rolling over, but I just don’t know what happens after that. It’s a losing choice either way.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Interview with Ben Rose

Ben Rose

Ben Rose

There are basically two interesting legislative races in the Houston area this November. The first is HD144, where former Rep. Mary Ann Perez should reclaim her seat against 2014 winner Rep. Gilbert Pena. I did an interview with Perez for the primary, which you can revisit here if you care to. The other is in HD134, which has had three incumbents lose November races since 2002 but has been fairly stable since the most recent victor, Rep. Sarah Davis, took over in 2010. Davis had an easy cycle against an invisible challenger in 2014, but this year she is opposed by Ben Rose, who has been far more active in both campaigning and fundraising. A fourth-generation Houstonian, Rose is an attorney and a member of the Anti-Defamation League’s Glass Leadership program. He is also a new father, and for you Bachelor fans, the brother of former contestant Erica Rose. Here’s what we talked about:

Interviews and Q&As from the primaries are on my 2016 Election page. I will eventually get around to updating it to include links to fall interviews.

Posted in: Election 2016.

The Astrodome parking proposal is about to get real

Here it comes.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County commissioners are poised to make their largest investment yet in the Astrodome’s future next week.

They are slated to vote on the first piece of a $105 million plan to raise the ground level two floors to fit in roughly 1,400 parking spaces, which would make the Dome suitable for festivals or conferences and usher in potential commercial uses in the more than 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core.

A majority of the county’s governing body indicated support for the plan Friday. If approved, it would begin to provide a future for the stadium more than 16 years removed from hosting its last Astros last game.

“This is making something happen, finally, with the Dome,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

[…]

Tuesday’s vote would be on whether to allocate $10.5 million of the “design phase” of the parking project. If approved, the county would hire an architectural and engineering team and, over 12 months, lay out the blueprints of the overall project. It’s not another study, Emmett said.

“No, this is actually doing the engineering to raise the floors, put the parking in,” he said.

The county also, for the first time Friday, detailed how it plans to pay for the stadium’s $105 million redevelopment. Budget officer Bill Jackson said about one-third of the project, or roughly $35 million, would come from the county’s general fund, made up largely of property tax revenue.

Another third would come from hotel taxes, with the remaining third coming from county parking revenues. These new covered spaces inside the Dome could generate top dollar.

Emmett noted the general fund component, around $30 million, is roughly equivalent to the amount the county estimates it would cost to demolish the Dome. In other words, money the county would have to spend even if it wanted to get rid of the facility.

Currently, the Dome costs close to $170,000 a year to maintain, Jackson said.

“There are some that just really don’t want to save the Dome. They want it torn down,” Emmett said. “This saves it in a very conservative way that makes it useful and preserves options for the future.”

There are still several unknowns. It’s possible, Jackson said, that after the design phase, the cost for construction might push the project above the $105  million goal, at which point commissioners would have to decide whether to move forward.

What happens to the 550,000 square feet of space surrounding the area where the field was is also still not firmed up. Emmett said it likely will be hammered out over the next year.

The plan still would have to be approved by the state historical commission, which currently considers the Astrodome a “state antiquities landmark,” meaning it cannot be “removed, altered, damaged, salvaged, or excavated without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission,” a spokesman said.

See here, here, and here for the background. It sounds like the Texans and the Rodeo aren’t fully on board with this, but I don’t know that it’s worth worrying about that. The idea behind this is that once the underground parking is available, then other redevelopment plans for the Dome become more feasible. I guess we’ll find out. The Chron editorial board, which supports the plan, has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

The next abortion lawsuit should be on its way

We were warned it would need to happen.

Despite intense outcry from the medical community, reproductive rights advocates and funeral directors, Texas isn’t budging on a proposed rule to require the cremation or burial of fetal remains.

Following an initial public comment period that sparked medical concerns and a legal threat, Texas health officials have re-submitted for public consideration a proposed rule change that prohibits hospitals, abortion clinics and other health care facilities from disposing of fetal remains in sanitary landfills, instead allowing only cremation or interment of all remains regardless of the period of gestation — even in instances of miscarriages.

After considering hours of public testimony at an August hearing and more than 12,000 comments submitted in writing, the state made no changes to the rules, which are set to be published in the Texas Register on Sept. 30.

The rules were re-published “after reviewing the feedback and comments we received,” health commission spokeswoman Carrie Williams said on Wednesday. This will require another 30-day public comment period before the rules can go into effect.

[…]

The proposed rule has prompted outrage from the reproductive rights community, which has accused state leaders of enacting unnecessary regulations. Medical providers — including the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Hospital Association — also questioned why the rule change does not allow an exception for miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.

Despite making no revisions to the rules themselves, the commission has amended its analysis on the financial impact of the rule on health care organizations that must comply, saying the rules won’t increase “total costs” for health care facilities.

Medical professionals and funeral directors had raised concerns about who would bear the costs associated with cremation or burial — a figure that can reach several thousands dollars in each case — and questioned whether the new would trigger a requirement for death certificates so that fetal remains could be cremated or buried. (Under current rules, the state requires funeral directors or a “person acting as such” who take custody of a dead body or fetus to obtain an electronic report of death before transporting the body, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Texas.)

The amended fiscal analysis indicates that the methods allowed in the proposed rules “may have a cost” but “that cost is expected to be offset” by costs currently incurred by facilities. Hospitals and abortion providers currently contract with third-party medical waste disposal services.

See here and here for the background. All this happened by executive order, with no legislative input or public hearings, in the immediate aftermath of the SCOTUS decision striking down the odious HB2. If the words “undue burden” have not formed in your head by now, you need to go back and read that decision again. I guarantee, once this rule is in place, a lawsuit will follow.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

McMullin will “appear” on the ballot

To the extent that a write-in candidate “appears” on the ballot, anyway.

Will not be on the ballot

Will not be on the ballot

Texas voters will be able to vote for former CIA operative Evan McMullin for president in November.

The Texas secretary of state’s office on Friday certified McMullin, who is running as an independent, as a write-in candidate for the general election. McMullin, a former chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, said on Twitter that his campaign had “resolved the misunderstanding” with the state over his application.

As part of the approval process, McMullin was required to submit written statements of consent from 38 presidential elector candidates. But one of the electors originally submitted by McMullin was deemed ineligible. He was certified after submitting a replacement elector.

Raise your hand if you knew this was the process. Now put your hand back down, because I don’t believe you. At least we now have an answer to the question that no one was asking, namely “What do Evan McMullin and Robert Morrow have in common?” Also, too, I presume this means that McMullin is no longer pursuing a lawsuit to be allowed to get on the ballot as an independent. Google has no news about Souraya Faas, the candidate who actually did file such a lawsuit, then apparently lost interest in it. As such, I think it’s safe to say that the lineup is now set. I will note that there were over 13,000 write-in votes for President cast in 2008, with the vast bulk of them going to Ralph Nader and Chuck Baldwin. I will be very impressed if Evan McMullin can approach either of their totals.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Weekend link dump for September 25

Density is easier said than done.

Beware of ransomware, and know how to protect yourself.

If you want to know how much time you’re going to spend watching TV this fall, this can tell you. You’re on your own for how you cope with that information.

This is why I don’t plan to see that Sully movie.

RIP, Charmian Carr, best known for playing Liesl in The Sound Of Music.

“In other words, I think we can safely say that Trump’s plan would create approximately zero jobs. However it would blow a huge hole in the deficit (about $6 trillion without pixie dust) and it would be a huge windfall for the rich, increasing their after-tax income by a whopping 16 percent. And make no mistake: unlike a lot of Donald Trump’s fanciful ideas, a Republican Congress would be delighted to pass something like this. And they’d do it in a way that couldn’t be stopped by a filibuster.”

Don’t be afraid to make assumptions, even about spherical cows.

“Just 3 percent of American adults own half of the nation’s firearms”.

“The Clean Power Plan is almost certainly headed to the Supreme Court, but it’s fate there could depend on a 9-judge hearing next week.”

Amazon games its pricing algorithm to advantage itself.

RIP, W.P. Kinsella, author best known for Shoeless Joe.

How Google fights back against Internet trolls.

“But their answers illustrate just a few of the different ways that pollsters can handle the same data – and how those choices can affect the result.”

Bad call, OUT Magazine. You should know better.

Trump lies with such reckless abandon – about himself, about his opponent, about policy, about current events, about details large and small – it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether he has some kind of allergy to the truth.”

We’re gonna need a bigger surfboard.

It’s hard out here on a plutocrat.

“But, win or lose, the Republicans invited the far right in and lost control of them. Contrary to a lot of people’s perceptions, Trumpism doesn’t need Trump and it’ll be with us for some time now.”

In defense of a terrible person.

RIP, Stanley Dural, Jr, better known as the Louisiana music legend Buckwheat Zydeco.

RIP, Jack Garman, NASA engineer who made a judgment call that allowed the first moon landing to happen.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Kinder Institute analyzes Mayor Turner’s pension reform plan

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Rice University’s Kinder Institute has done the preliminary math on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s historic pension reform plan and determined the numbers appear to add up if all of the components are implemented as envisioned. The institute is one of several agencies to analyze the mayor’s proposal since it was unveiled last week.

“I welcome scrutiny of this plan by experts because it helps address the unfounded arguments being made by others who have no financial background,” said Mayor Turner. “There is no doubt this plan relies on a complex package of reforms. Without implementation of each piece, we will not achieve the anticipated results. Thankfully, the pension systems are sharing more data than ever before and are committed to continue working on information sharing so we can manage costs going forward.”

According to Kinder Institute Director Bill Fulton, the mandatory cost containment provision in the mayor’s plan, if executed properly and consistently over time, could provide a way for both sides to share in the upside and sacrifice when times are tough. Fulton said the plan outline seemed to show “shared sacrifice” on the part of both the city and its workers.

[…]

The Kinder Institute did the initial analysis in a blog post the day of Mayor Turner’s announcement based only on information that is publicly available. Mayor Turner did not request the analysis. A more detailed analysis is expected later.

The Kinder Institute’s analysis can be found here: Kinder Institute Pension Analysis.

Here’s that URL again, and more on the pension deal itself can be found here and here. The KI piece basically says that if everything works out as planned and envisioned, then the long-term funding gap can be erased. If you’re thinking that’s a pretty big “if”, you’re right, but the bottom line remains that the plan is plausible. Some legislation will need to be passed next year – I have no idea what Plan B is if that fails to happen – and before we get to the point of writing a bill and finding a sponsor, we need buy-in from the firefighters. That’s a non-trivial amount of work to be done, but at least there is a roadmap that may be used by all the vehicles in the procession.

Posted in: Local politics.

Internal report on Precinct 4 evidence destruction

The more you look, the worse it appears.

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

One of the first hints of anything awry in the Precinct 4 property room came in an email from evidence manager Christopher T. Hess.

Harris County District Attorney “Investigator Kerry Gillie called today about the evidence for case 13-50054,” he wrote in the Feb. 29 email to his supervisor, Lt. Christian Nicholson. “I explained that the drugs had been recently destroyed. He then asked for a court order for destruction copy. I told him there was not one to my knowledge.”

[…]

Hess, a master peace officer who began his career with the constable’s office 25 years ago, according to state records, told investigators repeatedly that the destruction was supervised by a now-retired colleague, Cpl. Mike Lacher. Hess has claimed Lacher ordered him to destroy drugs, even if they pertained to open cases, according to the Precinct 4 internal affairs complaint that the Chronicle obtained under a public records request.

The 25-page document shows investigators believed Hess broke evidence tampering laws and Harris County policies on evidence handling and truthfulness. The documents show the constable’s property room was operated with little oversight and reveal that a string of errors led to wrongful evidence destruction.

The scope and duration of the scandal raise deeper questions about operational failures inside the Precinct 4 Constable’s Office, said Samuel Walker, professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“You get a picture of an incredibly poorly run operation,” said Walker, who studies police accountability and department management. “If the staffing is poor, if the facilities, the room itself, is overcrowded, it creates a potential problem that could jeopardize criminal cases. That’s a big deal.”

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, appointed in May after former constable Ron Hickman became sheriff, said Hess wrongfully destroyed evidence for as long as nine years and never sought court orders required to destroy guns or drugs as required under state law.

See here and here for the background. It really does boggle the mind that this could have been happening for nine years, maybe more. How is it that it hadn’t affected any cases before now? How is it no one noticed it? Why is it that Sheriff Hickman, who was the Constable in Precinct 4 for most of this, hasn’t explained himself? Lots of questions, not so many answers. The Press has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

School district to join lawsuit over STAAR test

Interesting.

Ben Becker, the Houston father who helped organize a legal fight over last year’s STAAR exams, has repeatedly challenged superintendents over the last few months to join him in court to fight for their students.

Becker describes his group as a handful of Texas parents up against the state of Texas, backed by a legal team funded through a crowdfunding campaign. In a year when the STAAR exam went so horribly awry, and outraged so many school officials across the state, Becker says, “as parents [we] look around and wonder, where are the school districts?”

On Tuesday night, one school district is set to answer Becker’s call. Administrators in Marlin ISD, a rural district about 30 miles southeast of Waco, will ask the school board to join the lawsuit filed by Becker’s group in May.

“Marlin ISD will be the first to join this lawsuit as party plaintiffs,” Superintendent Michael Seabolt told Waco station KWTX on Friday, “and essentially that makes Marlin, as a school district, ground zero for state testing accountability reform.”

The stakes on last year’s STAAR exams were probably higher for Marlin ISD than any other district in the state. After four years of low ratings from the Texas Education Agency, the district faced possible closure if its students didn’t hit state goals for STAAR scores — and they didn’t.

Seabolt took over the district in July 2015 when Marlin ISD’s situation was already precarious. He and the district’s staff worked furiously to get the schools on track to meet the state’s targets, he told the Observer, so he’s been frustrated to see TEA sidestep the Legislature’s requirements for the test.

Seabolt agrees with the parents’ complaint that TEA flouted a 2015 law that should have shortened the STAAR exams. Records obtained by Becker’s group show that hardly any of the tests were completed in the time frame required by law.

So if TEA goes ahead with plans to take over or close Marlin ISD, Seabolt wondered, “You’re gonna take that action based on illegal test scores?” He drew a comparison to the state’s low target for special education enrollment, which the Houston Chronicle showed this month has deprived thousands of students of services to which they’re entitled.

“Why is it that TEA gets to pick which laws it’ll do and which ones it won’t?” Seabolt asked.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seabolt asks a good question, for which I look forward to hearing the state’s response. And since he brought up the special education issue, I will note that as of yet, neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick has seen fit to comment on the issue. Too busy with other things, I guess. I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually.

Posted in: Legal matters, School days.

Rice prof wins MacArthur grant

Awesome!

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Babies were dying in the Malawi hospital and there was little Rebecca Richards-Kortum could do about it.

For Richards-Kortum, a bioengineering professor at Rice University, it was a heartbreaking realization, one that haunted her as she toured the modest health care facility more than a decade ago.

But her despair was quickly replaced by hope, when she noticed a room full of broken medical equipment – donated machines rendered useless by the African country’s unreliable power supply.

“I’m an engineer,” Richards-Kortum recalled saying to herself as she surveyed the equipment. “I can do something about this. I can fix this.”

Engineers are good at fixing problems, and Richards-Kortum is an exceptional engineer, so good the MacArthur Foundation on Thursday named her a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. More commonly known as a genius grant, the prestigious MacArthur fellowship comes with $625,000 paid over five years.

The MacArthur Foundation considers the no-strings-attached grants as investments in the future of recipients, usually a hodgepodge from among the nation’s best artists, historians, scientists and activists.

For Richards-Kortum, it’s a nod to the global work she’s done to deliver low-cost medical technology to Third World countries. That includes a piece of machinery she helped develop that assists babies who struggle to breathe and has significantly decreased mortality rates in countries using it.

That piece of machinery was a CPAP machine, which I blogged about here and which contributed to a 46% reduction in the infant mortality rate in one neonatal unit. She and fellow Rice engineer Maria Oden have since developed other low-cost life-saving devices, which ultimately led to this award. Congratulations, Dr. Richards-Kortum, and may the inspiration continue to flow.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Saturday video break: Mele Kalikimaka

We’re going to have a little Christmas in September these next couple of weeks, starting with this oldie from Bing Crosby:

I believe that’s the Andrews Sisters joining him as well. This is one of those songs, which were fairly prevalent in this era, that has one long verse, with no refrain, that gets sung a couple of times, possibly with a shortened version of the verse thrown in, with instrumental breaks as well. It’s a very successful form, and lends itself well to sing-alongs since everyone knows the words by the end, but there isn’t much more to say about it. So, we move on to the other version, from the Asylum Street Spankers:

See what I mean? Makes it easy to bring the song in at around three minutes, that’s for sure.

Posted in: Music.

State files inevitable voter ID appeal to SCOTUS

As expected.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas wants to take its voter identification battle to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday asked the justices to hear his arguments about why the state’s photo ID requirements for voting do not discriminate against Hispanics and African-American voters.

“Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy,” the Republican said in a statement. “Texas enacted a common-sense voter ID law and I am confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately reinstate it.”

Texas officials say the voter ID law bolsters the integrity of elections by preventing voter fraud, which Gov. Greg Abbott has called “rampant.” But the U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs — backed by court rulings — have pointed out that in-person voter fraud is incredibly rare.

Friday’s filing is Paxton’s last-ditch attempt to salvage the requirements after a string of defeats in court.

[…]

Paxton is appealing to a Supreme Court that still has just eight members, following the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia. If the justices agree to hear the case — and if they do so without a replacement for Scalia — Paxton would need five votes to overturn the appeals court ruling. A 4-4 split would allow it to stand.

Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he did not expect the justices to accept the case, and he called the 5th Circuit’s decision “comprehensive.”

“It’s really more of a political move to satisfy the right wing of the Republican Party,” he said. “I think it’s just them taking another pile of taxpayer money and setting it on fire.”

The Supreme Court appeal will not affect the Nov. 8 elections, which will take place with relaxed requirements.

We’ve always known this was coming. The only issue that matters to Ken Paxton is his need to continually prove his wingnut bonafides to the Republican primary voters. He needs them to keep the faith in him at least until after the 2018 primaries. It doesn’t matter what SCOTUS does – if Paxton comes away from this with Justice Ginsberg’s shoeprints on his ass, I assure you he’ll be happy about it – all that matters is feeding the beast. Ken Paxton knows who his voters are, and he knows what they want. That’s all there is to this.

Posted in: Uncategorized.

Good riddance to a bad judge

Meet federal district judge Walter Smith. Now say a long overdue goodbye to him.

Walter Smith

Walter Smith

One of Texas’ strictest federal judges — serving a year’s ban from hearing cases after being slapped hard by a panel of appeals court judges last year — has retired amid a renewed investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. of Waco was publicly reprimanded for sexual misconduct last fall over a 1998 incident in which he reportedly groped and kissed a court clerk. He submitted his resignation to President Barack Obama last week, effective Sept. 14, and will draw an annuity equal to his current salary, $203,100 per year, for the rest of his life.

It was unclear if the resignation will end the investigation, which was restarted this year after an appeal by Dallas lawyer Ty Clevenger, who filed the original complaint against Smith and who wants the U.S. House of Representatives to impeach him.

A committee of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decided in July to continue investigating to see if Smith made advances toward other women. A spokesman for the 5th Circuit could not immediately say Tuesday whether the court’s Judicial Council will make its full investigation report public or whether the investigation will now end.

“Good riddance,” Clevenger said of Smith on Tuesday. “Thank goodness he won’t be able to hurt anybody else.”

Clevenger said he still wants Smith to be impeached “for two reasons: One, I think it’s appropriate. And, I don’t think he needs to be paid $200,000 after what he’s done.”

The Judicial Council issued the reprimand last fall, suspending Smith from hearing any new cases for a year, but did not recommend impeachment. The panel found he had made “inappropriate and unwanted physical and non-physical sexual advances” toward a court clerk in his chambers in 1998, which it deemed “in contravention of existing standards of behavior for federal judges.”

The council’s order also said Smith “does not understand the gravity” of the inappropriate behavior and “allowed false factual assertions to be made in response to the complaint, which together with the lateness of his admissions contributed greatly to the duration and cost of the investigation.”

Sounds like a heck of a guy, doesn’t he? Texas Lawyer tells us more.

The Fifth Circuit’s punishment confirmed judicial misconduct allegations originally filed by Ty Clevenger, a former Dallas lawyer who was previously sanctioned $25,000 by the judge for filing a “frivolous” racketeering case in his court. Clevenger was later reprimanded by the State Bar of Texas in 2014 because of Smith’s sanction but used the bar disciplinary proceedings to subpoena the witness who alleged Smith sexually harassed her in 1998 as part of his defense.

In her deposition, the woman stated that in 1998, Smith approached her in the courthouse smelling of liquor and told her to “come see me sometime.” Smith later called her and instructed her to come to his chambers, which she did, according to her deposition.

“He basically came over to me and put his arms around me and kissed me and I just froze. I couldn’t move,” the woman testified. “And he said, ‘Let me make love to you.’ And I—and I—I just freaked out.”

Clevenger appealed Smith’s punishment to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States in January, urging the body to suspend Smith from the bench immediately and recommend his impeachment. Clevenger also alleged that the sexual harassment incident was not isolated and submitted to the Fifth Circuit the names of other witnesses to Smith’s alleged abuse of women in the courthouse.

In July, the committee decided to send Smith’s reprimand back to the Fifth Circuit to examine whether there was a “pattern and practice” to Smith’s behavior, noting that Clevenger had provided the names of other witnesses.

You can see a copy of the woman’s deposition here, via the Current. And oh, yes, it gets worse.

According to statements the woman made during a 2014 deposition, it all started when Smith said hello to her one morning in 1998 as he was entering the courthouse — something that seemed only a little strange at first because she’d hardly ever seen the judge before, let alone talked to him. Also: his breath smelled like liquor.

After telling her good morning and asking how she was doing, Smith asked the woman to swing by and see him in his office sometime. It got even weirder when the judge called the woman immediately after she sat down at her desk upon returning from lunch later that day. “Where have you been? … I told you to come see me,” she recalled him saying. Smith told the woman to walk down the hall and tell his secretary she needed to see the judge. The woman thought that maybe Smith wanted to talk about a promotion – he was, after all, looking for a new courtroom clerk.

Instead, according to her deposition, “He basically came over to me and put his arms around me and kissed me, and I just froze. I couldn’t move. And he said, ‘Let me make love to you.’” She told him that was a stupid idea. In return, “he pulled me to him again, and he kissed me again and stuck his tongue down my throat, and he pressed himself against me. I could tell he had an erection, and he said, you know, ‘A couch right here.’”

The woman says she thought about Smith’s reputation for having a temper. Considering he also seemed and smelled drunk, the woman says she struggled with what to do. Meanwhile, Smith started to grope her. According to the deposition: “I just remember he just put his arms around me, around my back, then lower. And then he started to try [to] touch my breasts, and I kind of pushed away.” The woman ran through excuse after excuse until she finally broke away, walked out of Smith’s office and sat down at her desk. She still asks herself why she wasn’t more direct. As she said in her deposition, “I was just trying to keep him from blowing up at me.”

The woman’s story would be alarming enough if it ended there. It doesn’t. The woman says Smith called her at her desk later in the day, asking her to take a couple of days off work. He wanted to take a trip with her. He told her he’d make sure she would get paid time off. Before coming into work the next day, the woman called her supervisor to tell him about Smith’s actions. She begged her supervisor not to leave her alone with the judge. She was scared because Smith apparently wouldn’t take no for an answer.

When the woman got to the office later that day, Smith had left a dozen yellow roses on her desk. Smith was calling as soon as she sat down (she figured he’d watched her walk into the building). “Where have you been?” he asked her, according to her deposition testimony. “I’ve been waiting for you here all day.” She told Smith he shouldn’t have sent her the roses. She says he told her, “I just had to.” Later that day, he managed to get her alone in her office by sending her supervisor on an errand.

It was a Friday, and later that afternoon, Smith again called the woman at her desk. He asked what she was doing that weekend. She said she was spending it with her grandparents. Before he left the office for the day, Smith left a note on the woman’s desk saying, “I hope you have a pleasant weekend.” She went into the office that weekend, grabbed her belongings, and left the flowers on the empty desk. A coworker would later tell her that Smith just let the flowers sit there and die.

Within hours of the woman telling her supervisors she was quitting, she says higher ups in the clerk’s office offered her six weeks leave with pay in the hopes that she’d reconsider at the end of it. She said in her deposition that while she was on leave she got a strange call from Smith’s law clerk. He claimed Smith had been in the hospital, and that he was so distraught, he couldn’t come into work.

The complaint eventually reached Harry Lee Hudspeth, who was then chief judge of the Western District of Texas, which is anchored in San Antonio (Hudspeth is now listed as a Senior U.S. District Judge in Austin). The woman claims that Hudspeth ultimately called her. He was dismissive throughout the call, she claimed. He didn’t ask a single question about the actual assault or Smith’s behavior toward her in the workplace. “It was ugly,” she said of the call. “It was disrespectful. It was demeaning.”

The woman actually did try to go back to her job but quickly realized she couldn’t remain on the same floor as the judge who called her into his office, attacked her in his chambers, and then continued to harass her. “I had a fear of walking out into the hall and running – running into him,” she testified.

Feeling outraged yet? Even without Ty Clevenger’s assertion that there are more witnesses out there, I’d bet a week’s salary that this woman wasn’t the only one Judge Smith harassed. No one believed her when she first reported it, he got away with it for 18 years, and he clearly still doesn’t get it. The odds that he’s a serial offender are off the charts. And hey, unless Congress takes action, he gets to enjoy a $200K-a-year retirement on your dime. Is this a great country or what?

Posted in: Scandalized!.

ACLU intervenes in transgender health care suit

Good for them.

RedEquality

The ACLU and ACLU of Texas are getting involved in a lawsuit over a regulation in the Affordable Care Act. In August, Texas filed a lawsuit against federal regulations that prohibit healthcare discrimination against people who are transgender. The lawsuit was announced by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, representing the Franciscan Alliance. The lawsuit will be heard in Wichita Falls.

The rules state that healthcare entities are not allowed to deny or limit services – including gender transition services – based on race, national origin, sex, age or disability.

But the State of Texas, along with four other states, says the regulation in would force doctors to perform medical procedures to change the gender of children.

The ACLU says the lawsuit would have the larger implication of allowing providers to use religion to deny medical care.

Josh Block, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT project, says the lawsuit echoes the recent attempt to strike down guidance from the U.S. Department of Education to allow public school students to use the bathroom that is in line with their gender identity.

Block says the ACLU got involved because no one else had intervened to represent the interest of the people who are being discriminated against.

“It’s really crucial that the people who are being discriminated against have a voice in that courtroom to explain why the law is so necessary,” he says.

[…]

Individual doctors and hospitals are saying they should not be required to perform gender transition procedures because they violate their religious beliefs. Block says the regulations aren’t targeted at individual doctors; instead, they require the medical institution to follow the rules.

“They don’t require anyone to perform any surgery or give any treatment that the doctor doesn’t want to,” Block says. “The obligations are on the entity that’s employing the doctors. The burden isn’t on anyone’s individual conscience – this is an organization that is claiming the right to have federal funds to provide healthcare to the general public but then discriminate based on their religious beliefs.”

See here for the background. I sincerely hope the ACLU has some company in its involvement here. I put in those last two paragraphs to address a comment from my earlier post on this topic. If the rule in question really applies to institutions and not individual doctors, I’m hard pressed to see what the objection is. Truth be told, though, I believe this rule should apply to individual doctors, for the same reason why individual firefighters should respond to an alarm at an LGBT person’s house regardless of that firefighter’s personal feelings. If you can’t treat every person you serve with equal respect, dignity, and effort, then you really ought to consider another occupation, and that’s before we take the Hippocratic Oath into account for the docs. Every person deserves equal treatment. What is so freaking difficult about that?

Posted in: Legal matters.

Endorsement watch: Let your conscience be your guide

That Ted Cruz sure does stay firm to his principles, doesn’t he?

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz endorsed Donald Trump on Friday after months of withholding his support from the Republican presidential nominee who defeated him in the primaries.

“After many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience, I have decided that on Election Day, I will vote for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump,” Cruz said in a statement released to The Texas Tribune.

Cruz’s support coincided with Trump’s decision to release a list of additional people he would appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court as president. On the list was U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a close Cruz ally and another Trump holdout.

“Our country is in crisis. Hillary Clinton is manifestly unfit to be president, and her policies would harm millions of Americans. And Donald Trump is the only thing standing in her way,” Cruz said in the statement. “A year ago, I pledged to support the Republican nominee, and I will honor that commitment.”

In the heat of the pair’s feud in late July, Trump proclaimed that he had no interest in winning the backing of the man he called Lyin’ Ted. “I don’t want his endorsement,” Trump said. “If he gives it, I will not accept it.”

Trump shifted gears in a brief statement after Cruz’s announcement.

“I am greatly honored by the endorsement of Senator Cruz,” the statement said. “We have fought the battle and he was a tough and brilliant opponent. I look forward to working with him for many years to come in order to make America great again.”

Cruz’s endorsement is an astonishing reversal. Since he dropped out of the race in May, Cruz has declined to express any support for a Trump presidency — including during a speech at the Republican National Convention that caused an uproar and cast uncertainty over Cruz’s political future.

Those two are just made for each other, aren’t they? There’s so much more I could say, but for now let me go with this:

Boy, nobody tells Ted Cruz what to do. He just can’t be pushed around by anyone. Don’t mind me, I’m just going to be laughing my head off all weekend. The Trib, the Current, and Erica Greider, who probably needs a drink, have more.

Posted in: The making of the President.

Friday random ten: Ladies’ night, part 14

Girl groups of old and of new this week.

1. Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby – Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch
2. Pony (It’s OK) – Erin McCarley
3. I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James
4. I Love You Like A Ball And Chain – The Eurythmics (Annie Lennox)
5. Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King
6. Do Wah Diddy – The Exciters (Brenda Reid, Carolyn (Carol) Johnson, Lillian Walker)
7. Johnny Angel – Shelley Fabares
8. Joy To The World – Faith Hill
9. Mushaboom – Feist
10. Miss Movin’ On – Fifth Harmony (Ally Brooke, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane, Camila Cabello, and Lauren Jauregui)

Don’t ask me why Shelley Fabares sorted with the letter F and not the letter S. iTunes is just like that sometimes. If you’re like me, you’re probably more familiar with the Manfred Mann version of “Do Wah Diddy”, but The Exciters did it first, from the female perspective. Fifth Harmony, which got its start on “The X Factor”, is one of those groups that I’d never have heard of if it weren’t for my daughters. I’m glad I have heard of them, because I like their stuff. A good girl group is a joy to behold, or be-listen to.

Posted in: Music.

UH Hobby School (Harris County only): Clinton 43, Trump 34

I have many thoughts about this.

Hillary Clinton

Between September 1 and September 20, 2016, the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs conducted a telephone survey of 550 Harris County registered voters as part of a larger Hobby School study on voter participation and engagement under the direction of Mark P. Jones, Renée Cross, and Jim Granato with Ching-Hsing Wang and Wyman Wan. The survey was based on a stratified probability design, including both landlines and cell phones. The survey was available in both English and Spanish using bilingual operators, and lasted an average of 13 minutes. The final data set was weighted by ethnicity, age, and gender to be representative of Harris County registered voters. The margin of error for the survey results is plus or minus 4 percent (at the 95 percent confidence level).

Harris County is the third most populous county in the nation and is home to approximately one fifth of Texas voters. The 2008 and 2012 presidential contests were very close in Harris County, with Barack Obama defeating his 2008 Republican rival, John McCain, 50.45 percent to 48.82 percent, and his 2012 Republican rival, Mitt Romney, 49.39 percent to 49.31 percent.

The Presidential Election: Vote Choice

Approximately two months prior to the November 8 presidential election, the survey finds Hillary Clinton with a lead over Donald Trump in Harris County, with the size of her lead varying depending on assumptions related to voter participation.


Candidate    ELV    LV    RV
============================
Clinton      43%   43%   42%
Trump        39%   34%   32%
Johnson       7%    9%    9%
Stein         1%    1%    2%
Unsure/NA    11%   13%   15%

We divided the survey respondents into three groups of decreasing size: all registered voters (Registered Voters), voters who indicated that it is very likely or extremely likely that they will vote this fall (Likely Voters), and voters who indicated that it is extremely likely they will vote this fall (Extremely Likely Voters).

[…]

The Harris County District Attorney and Sheriff Elections: Vote Choice

The survey also queried respondents regarding their vote preference in the key races for Harris County District Attorney and Harris County Sheriff. In both contests, even among the likely and extremely likely voters, there existed a substantial proportion of respondents who were unsure about their preference in these lower visibility contests (compared to the presidential race).

Among those likely voters who did have a preference, in the District Attorney race 29 percent favored Democratic challenger Kim Ogg over Republican incumbent Devon Anderson with 27 percent support. In the Sheriff contest, 33 percent of likely voters supported Republican incumbent Ron Hickman while 32 percent backed Democratic challenger Ed Gonzalez.

Just as was the case in the presidential race, the Republican candidates fared better when the population was limited to those most likely to cast a ballot this fall: the extremely likely voters. Among this population Anderson narrowly bested Ogg, 30 percent to 29 percent, while Hickman increased his lead over Gonzalez, 36 percent to 30 percent.

Poll data is here. My thoughts:

– I find the distinction between Likely Voters and Extremely Likely Voters to be silly. I mean, why stop at Extremely Likely? Why not ask if someone is Super Duper Double Dog No Backsies likely to vote? There’s a reason why every other poll under the sun uses Registered Voters and Likely Voters, and nothing else.

– The press release for this poll claims that “neither party can depend on presidential coattails” for the donwballot races. I don’t see how they can draw that conclusion from the given data set. For one thing, there’s no breakdown of the vote by partisan affiliation, nor is there any generic “which party’s candidates are you more likely to support in other races?” question. We have several cycles’ worth of actual results to suggest that Democrats have done a pretty good job of voting all the way down the ballot, while Republicans have only really done that in 2012, and even then not quite as faithfully as the Dems. Don’t make suppositions about what the topline numbers mean. Ask the questions that could tell you the answers!

– I picked the “Likely Voter” numbers for my post title, and if one went by that without knowing anything else, one would feel really good about Democratic downballot chances. But to be secure in those feelings, one would have to know those partisan crosstabs. If one were to choose an archetype for the Republican Who Will Not Vote For Donald Trump, it’s probably a voter in HD134. How many self-identified Republicans say they are voting for a candidate who is not Donald Trump? How many are just in the “Unsure/No Answer” column? That would tell me a whole lot more about the downballot races than the actual Ogg/Anderson and Gonzalez/Hickman results do.

– How many new voters are in this sample, and how many of them are deemed “Likely” or “Extremely Likely”? We know voter registration is up in Harris County – indeed, it’s way up around the state – so who are these voters and how were they accounted for in the poll?

– I would love to see a similar poll – with my suggested modifications, of course – for other area counties as well. Fort Bend would be my first choice for this, as they are close to being the kind of swing county that Harris has been. Is the year that Fort Bend Democrats break through, or does the Fort Bend GOP maintain its hold? A sneak preview of that answer would have been nice.

– If the polls of Texas that show Clinton trailing by significantly less than the margins by which President Obama lost the state are accurate, then it stands to reason that Clinton would be doing better in Harris County than Obama (who won the county by small margins) did. Similarly, if this poll of Harris County is accurate, then it stands to reason Clinton would be running more strongly statewide than Obama did. It’s like the relationship between national polls and state polls – they may not be tightly correlated, but one is unlikely to make a big move in a given direction without the other following suit.

Posted in: Election 2016.

More on the Precinct 4 evidence destruction scandal

Lots of cases have been compromised.

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office first learned in April that the mistaken destruction of evidence in Harris County’s Precinct 4 had likely compromised more than a thousand criminal cases, including more than 400 in which defendants had already been convicted, records released Tuesday show.

Anderson immediately launched a criminal probe, but her office did not begin informing defendants, their attorneys and even her own prosecutors about the magnitude of the problem until late August.

The records show that most of the cases were minor drug offenses, although dozens involved violent felonies in which defendants either pleaded or were found guilty and in some cases sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors have dismissed more than 140 cases so far.

[…]

Anderson has emphasized in past statements that evidence went first to a prosecutor who is investigating Precinct 4 in her Public Integrity Division. Her office made the records, including lists of 21,000 pieces of evidence that had been destroyed, public for the first time Tuesday in response to a public information request from the Houston Chronicle and other media outlets.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said his office immediately informed the DA’s office in March after learning that an officer had destroyed evidence in the department’s overstuffed property room. By then, he said the DA’s office had already launched a criminal investigation into the matter.

The constable’s office began supplying a longer list of cases in April.

“We were very direct, very deliberate with the DA’s office from the very beginning,” Herman said. “When this process started … we talked to them, told them we had cases compromised due to an employee destroying evidence to open cases.”

[…]

Legal experts said deciding when to disclose evidentiary problems to defendants and their attorneys is a complex matter involving numerous factors, including the status of any ongoing criminal investigation.

Geoffrey Corn, a professor at Houston College of Law, credited Anderson with already dismissing dozens of cases instead of fighting for convictions as the scandal has unfolded.

“When you have a catastrophic failure – and this was catastrophic, a DA doesn’t expect an evidence custodian who is lazy to just destroy tons of evidence – there’s got to be a lot of assessment,” he said.

Local defense attorneys criticized Anderson for what they saw as a lack of transparency and said many defendants still have not received legally required “Brady notices” informing them of the evidence destruction.

“The response from the Harris County district attorney has been nearly non-existent,” said JoAnne Musick, former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “Despite having known of the evidence destruction since February, it took … months and a flood of negative press before they saw fit to even begin notifying defense attorneys.”

Tyler Flood, the association’s current president, praised Anderson for complying with Texas Public Records Laws and supplying the case lists.

“I think it’s commendable that they are attempting to do the right thing by releasing this information,” he said. “However, there’s an issue with the scope. We don’t know if this is covering everything that it needs to cover and how far back it goes.”

See here for the background. I don’t really have anything to add to this, I’m just noting it for the record. The big question that continues to be unexplored in all this is how the deputy in question could have been doing this for so long without longtime Constable (now Sheriff) Ron Hickman noticing. It would be very nice to get some clarity on that. The Press has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.