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Weekend link dump for December 21

Happy winter solstice, y’all. Now let’s have some longer days, please.

The pros and cons of science stories and their pedagogical value.

Instant replay in baseball hasn’t prevented managers from getting ejected for arguing calls.

It’s about time – way past time, really – that Democrats and progressives paid some attention to state issues. The Republicans figured that out years ago.

What Manhattan would have to look like if everyone who commuted there drove.

I felt like this when Olivia was a baby. I expect to feel that way again when she’s a teenager. I also figure we’ll all survive, one way or another.

There’s money to be made fighting the War on Christmas.

From the “It takes ID to get ID” department.

“But revelations that the T-shirts were made by a company that has faced criticism for mistreating workers — an accusation the firm rejects — is now raising questions about whether a movement for racial justice has a responsibility to make sure it also advances economic fairness.”

“The Tea Party understands this. It taps into a simmering anti-elitist rage on the Right, exploits it and stands firm to its convictions. There’s not only nothing wrong with that—it’s admirable. That’s not the problem with the Tea Party. The problem with the Tea Party is that the things it stands for are almost universally immoral, and its policy prescriptions are disastrous.”

Coke with a green label. That’s just wrong.

Why did the Red Cross refuse to work with Occupy Sandy?

You can now eat more kale and not get sued.

“But when it comes to making change happen on a legislative or judicial level, the anti-choice movement is borrowing a plan of action from climate change denialists and creationists: Create the illusion of a scientific controversy where none exists, and use that as a pretext to push a right-wing agenda.”

“This is what patriotism looks like when it’s cut off from any notion of a higher morality that could limit or rein it in. All that counts is whether an action benefits the political community. Other considerations, moral and otherwise, are irrelevant.”

Nerf Legal Warfare: 5 Tales Of Foamy Fun Gone Wrong

“It turns out that the problem of rising antimicrobial resistance is as much about economics as it is about science or medicine. Left unchecked, it will kill millions of people every year, and have serious adverse economic consequences for the world.”

I have no patience for junk food marketing that tries to lure kids with cartoon characters, video games, and thinly veiled promises of being cool.”

The mumps had a pretty good year this year.

Anthony Tarantelli is my new favorite football player.

“What is the one common trait uniting all of that 69 percent of white evangelicals applauding CIA torture? They’re “pro-life,” of course.”

For shame, Greenpeace. You’ve got a lot of amends to make.

RIP, Norman Bridwell, creator of “Clifford, the big red dog”.

“Since when do far-right Republicans criticize the U.S. private sector looking for expanded trade?”

All the celebrities, more or less, who helped send off The Colbert Report.

Has it really never occurred to Chris Christie that there are a lot of Eagles fans in New Jersey?

The Dr. Dre-del is what you need.

RIP, Mandy Rice-Davies, central figure in the Profumo scandal.

RIP, Lowell Steward, former Tuskegee Airman and veteran of nearly 200 missions in Europe during WWII.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Urban Land Institute report on the Astrodome

Is this, at long last, The Plan for the Astrodome?

The iconic, yet aging Astrodome is worth saving from the wrecking ball and could find new life as a massive indoor park and green space, a national land use group said Friday.

A panel of experts with the Urban Land Institute released a preliminary proposal for the former Eighth Wonder of the World that would convert it into a public space that includes an indoor lawn, outdoor gardens with a promenade of oak trees, and exhibit space for festivals and community events.

It would also include a play area with zip lines, trails and rock climbing walls.

“The Astrodome can and should live on,” said panel chairman Wayne Ratkovich, president of Los Angeles-based Ratkovich Co., which specializes in urban infill and rehabilitation projects.

The panel that included urban planners, designers and economists from around the country, spent this week interviewing stakeholders and Houstonians about the former home of the Houston Astros. It presented its preliminary findings at a public meeting at the NRG Center and will present a final report to Harris County within 90 days.

The study by the non-profit education and research institute was paid for by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation and a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the Astrodome a National Treasure in 2013.

While the costs and details were not firm, the panel agreed that the structure is worth saving. The panel proposed a public-private funding structure that would include a mix of philanthropy, historic tax credits, hotel occupancy tax funds, money from tax increment reinvestment zones and county funding, possibly in the form of a bond proposal.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who previously proposed an indoor park idea, said he did not know if the proposal would require a bond initiative to fund. Yet, Emmett said, the proposal has an “almost 100 percent chance” of succeeding.

“They unanimously came back and said, ‘The Dome needs to be saved. Yes, it’s usable. Now, go do it,'” he said. “Now begins the hard work.”

Ideally, Emmett said, a portion of the park project would be completed in time for 2017 when Houston hosts the Super Bowl at NRG Stadium.

You can see the presentation here. The ULI got involved in September. The plan is basically a synthesis of a number of ideas that have been advanced before, and there is a lot to like about it. As has always been the case, the question is how to fund it, and how to get public support for it if it comes to a vote. The one bit of recent polling evidence that we have is not positive on that latter point, but we haven’t had a plan that everyone with a stake in it has bought into and worked together to sell. If Commissioners Court and the Rodeo and the Texans and the preservationists are all on board and pulling in the same direction, we could have something. I don’t know how big an “if” that is yet, but we’ll see. What do you think of this?

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Feldman resigns

Mayor Parker loses a key member of her team going into her final year as Mayor.

David Feldman

City Attorney David Feldman on Friday announced that he plans to resign next month, citing, among other reasons, that he could better defend the city’s embattled equal rights ordinance as a key witness than as a lawyer in an upcoming case.

Feldman has played a crucial and at times controversial role in Mayor Annise Parker’s administration, alternately acting as chief negotiator, attack dog, policy wonk and spokesman. He said Friday that the main reason for his departure was a desire to work at a law firm with his son, also an attorney. Feldman spent 33 years in private practice, running his own firm after serving as a partner at Vinson & Elkins, before Parker appointed him in May 2010.

“The primary driving force is the desire to go back into private practice and frankly to go back into private practice at a time when I think there are people out there who I used to represent who still remember me,” Feldman said. “And my son has been after me continuously. There’s a draw there, there’s an allure: ‘Feldman and Feldman.’ ”

Feldman said he long had planned to leave by early 2015 but acknowledged the precise timing of his resignation was driven by the lawsuit against Parker’s signature equal rights ordinance, set for trial Jan. 19.

[…]

The Louisiana native and Army veteran appeared on the verge of leaving last January, when Parker gave him a hefty 43 percent raise, to $350,000. The raise made Feldman the second highest-paid municipal employee in the state, according to the City Controller’s office, which questioned the decision.

Feldman then called his work with the city “the most challenging and interesting chapter” of his career, and argued that his experience – many city attorneys are young lawyers on their way up; Feldman is 65 – had allowed him to shift the focus of the job from defensive advice to proactive solutions.

This fall, for instance, Feldman spearheaded the effort to ban synthetic drugs in Houston. He also has touted his effort to force developers who illegally remove trees on public land to pay damages to the city.

“I’d like to think I’ve set the tone for city attorneys in the future to have a more expansive role,” Feldman said. “They’re not just caretakers, and they’re not just super­visors of other lawyers, but they have the opportunity to help shape where the city is going.”

This approach made Feldman a piñata long before the equal rights fight. There was his role in ending a law firm’s monopoly on collecting delinquent city property taxes, an ordinance he drafted prohibiting wage theft that was unpopular with business groups, and a much-criticized strip club settlement that saw 16 clubs get clearance to allow fully topless dancing in exchange for funding a police unit to combat human trafficking.

It was indeed Feldman’s style to swing for the fences, which was not how it was with most City Attorneys before him. And like baseball players who take that approach, sometimes he hit it out of the park, and sometimes he swung and missed. Overall I’d say he had more wins than losses, though I’m sure those who didn’t like him would argue with me. One can only imagine what the last five years would have been like with someone who had a different philosophy in the City Attorney’s office. Be that as it may, to a large degree Feldman’s tenure as City Secretary will be judged by the result of the HERO repeal lawsuit, as his actions during the process are a big part of the reason why we are where we are now. The implications and repercussions of that lawsuit could wind up being far bigger than just the Houston ordinance, as Texas Leftist points out. The stakes are really high, so we’d all better hope that Feldman’s work on this will hold up. Texpatriate, PDiddie, and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Metro gets some new rail cars online

Finally.

Eight of the long-delayed railcars needed to expand light rail service in Houston are expected to start ferrying passengers in the first week of 2015, promising some relief from rush-hour crowding, transit officials said Thursday.

The cars, the first of 39 from CAF U.S.A. to clear their testing, are ready to roll, according to Metropolitan Transit Authority president Tom Lambert. Drivers are about a week from completing their training. The new arrivals are the third brand of railcar to run along Houston’s light rail system.

Seven had completed their “burn-in period” as of Thursday, Metro executive vice president Terence Fontaine said. An eighth was likely to finish its 1,000 miles of testing along Houston’s lines by Christmas.

“Our intent is to put those cars into service first of next year,” Lambert told Metro board members.

The railcars, built in Elmira, N.Y., are months behind original schedules. Manufacturing problems delayed delivery, and issues with the first cars caused further setbacks. The final train isn’t expected to arrive in Houston until May and will need weeks of testing before it can enter service.

[…]

Additional cars also allow Metro to pull some of the older trains for service, agency planning director Kurt Luhrsen said. The original Siemens cars, which opened the Red Line in 2004, are ready for some scheduled maintenance. The new trains allow for those to be pulled without disruptions to service.

The surplus won’t last long, however. Officials plan to open the Green and Purple lines east and southeast of downtown on April 4. By then, Luhrsen said, officials plan to have 14 of the new trains in service. A minimum of 12 are needed to have a single car arrive every 12 minutes along the two new lines.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have anything to add here, I’m just glad to see some good news on this. Let’s hope we’ve seen the last of the delays.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Et tu, nickels?

I’ve blogged a few times before about pennies and the effort some people have made to eliminate them. Now it looks like we may need to add the nickel to the endangered coin list.

The U.S. Mint has some good news and bad news in its latest biennial report to Congress. The good news is that we’re wasting less money on pennies and nickels. The bad news is we’re still wasting money on pennies and nickels.

Production costs for all four major coin types fell in fiscal year 2014 due to the falling price of copper, one of the primary metals used to make coins. The Mint estimates it saved $29 million this year compared to last year on account of lower copper prices.

But it continues to lose money on pennies and nickels. It now costs $1.62 to make a dollar’s worth of nickels, and $1.66 to make a dollar’s worth of pennies. By contrast it costs only 36 cents to make a dollar’s worth of quarters, and 40 cents for a buck of dimes. Paper dollar bills are even more cost-effective.

As recently as the early 2000s, the Mint was still turning a small profit on the nickels and pennies it produced. But the costs of those coins spiked in 2006, and haven’t broken even since then.

As of 2013 taxpayers were losing $105 million annually on penny and nickel production. This report doesn’t include total production numbers, so we can’t calculate costs at the moment. But it’s safe to assume that losses on pennies and nickels decreased this year, in line with their falling cost.

As is the Wonkblog way, there are charts to illustrate each of those points above, so click over and take a look. The author suggests that eliminating the penny and nickel could save $100 million annually, but as you know I’m not a big fan of killing off coins. An option that may be less objectionable would be to revalue each coin so that it is now worth ten times its face amount – the penny goes to ten cents in value, the nickel becomes like the half dollar, and so forth. It would make these coins cost effective again, and would produce a modest boost to the economy, which of course means that there’s a greater chance I’ll dance the lead in Swan Lake at the National Ballet before that happens. Just by talking about it we could make Ted Cruz’s head explode. Anyway, while there does’t seem to be much chatter for eliminating the nickel, certainly not at the same level as the penny-killers, at these prices it’s just a matter of time.

Posted in: National news.

Saturday video break: Dumbledore

And now for something a little different. We love Weird Al Yankovic here. You know that Weird Al does a lot of original songs in addition to his trademark parodies. Well, what do you get when someone parodies one of Weird Al’s originals? You get this, from Steve Goodie:

The slightly disturbing video of the studio version shows how faithful Goodie is to the source material, which I’ll get to in a moment. I’m greatly impressed by his ability to cram all those lyrics into such a small space, and to do so in a mostly comprehensible way. That song, along with other covers, tributes, and parodies of Weird Al tunes can be found here, and if you’re a fan it’s well worth the ten bucks.

In that spirit, here’s a tribute video to the original song, “Hardware Store”:

If there’s an official version of this video, I can’t find it, but that’s OK. It’s more fitting this way.

Posted in: Music.

Commissioners Court approves body camera purchase

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved District Attorney Devon Anderson’s plan to spend $1.9 million in seized assets to equip Houston police officers and Harris County sheriff’s deputies with body cameras.

County officials also said they would move toward giving about 700 deputy constables the same equipment, though the precise amount of funding has not been determined.

“If we’re going to go in this direction, which I think is a good direction to go, give all our patrolmen body cameras,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said.

[…]

Radack asked county budget chief Bill Jackson to determine how much it would cost to equip some deputy constables with the cameras.

After the meeting, Radack predicted the cost would be relatively low, perhaps totaling $700,000 if each camera costs $1,000.

“If it costs $700,000, it’s a necessary expenditure,” Radack said.

Jackson, however, cautioned that the cost could go beyond the cameras, pointing out that back room technology would increase the total.

“You’re holding a telephone in your hand, but it has to connect to something,” Jackson explained. “That’s just a piece of it.”

If approved, funding for outfitting constable deputies with cameras would come from the county’s general fund.

See here for the background. Adding in the constables is a great move, as they’re the next biggest law enforcement group after HPD and the Sheriff’s office. I’ll be interested to see what the back office costs of this are, and of course what policies get put in place to manage the video data and allow access to it. But for now, the main thing is getting the cameras. Kudos to all for that.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Landfill opponents win in Hempstead lawsuit

Good news.

StopHwy6Landfill

A jury on Thursday found that Waller County commissioners met illegally in closed sessions among themselves and with developers of a controversial landfill proposal over more than two years before agreeing to host the project.

After a three-week jury trial that was the talk of this rural county, the 12-member jury sided with the city of Hempstead and a citizens group that had challenged the Commissioners Court’s February 2013 approval of the 250-acre landfill just outside the Hempstead city limits.

The verdict does not block the landfill, but it does represent an important victory for those fiercely opposed to the project, who fear it would hurt property values and pollute an aquifer that serves the Houston area.

[…]

Landfill opponents say Thursday’s victory will strengthen a separate case as they contest a draft permit issued two years ago to the developer, Pintail Landfill, by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The judge presiding over Thursday’s civil case, retired Judge Terry Flenniken, could invalidate a 2013 ordinance allowing the landfill now that a jury has found commissioners met illegally. That would reinstate a 2011 city ordinance that had prohibited the landfill, said Corey Ouslander, attorney for the city of Hempstead. Pintail maintains that the ordinance has no weight because it was adopted after they had filed their application with the state.

Flenniken is also set to rule at a Jan. 21 hearing on whether the county had authority to approve the project given that 106 acres falls within Hempstead’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, a bubble around it that could be pulled within city limits once the population increases.

A ruling in opponents’ favor on that element could allow the city to block the project through health and safety codes or other means, Ouslander said.

The developer maintains that it has the necessary permits to proceed, regardless of the verdict.

“We plan to build a state-of-the art facility that will be an asset to Hempstead and to Waller County,” said Brent Ryan, attorney for Pintail Landfill, a subsidiary of Georgia-based Green Group Holdings.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the charge of the court, which includes the questions the jury was asked to resolve and their answers, is here. This may be a short-lived victory for the plaintiffs regardless of this verdict or the rulings to come from Judge Flenniken, as the landfill developers plan to go forward anyway and claim that all they need is TCEQ approval, but it’s still a good win. We’ll see what happens from here. KUHF has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Plastic bag makers fight back

I expect they will be busy during the legislative session working to block municipal laws that tax, limit, or ban single-use plastic bags.

plastic-bag

For years, Superbag in northwest Houston quietly manufactured the sacks that grocers and retail chains hand out to customers in the checkout line. The business garnered little attention.

Now, however, the industry that for years promoted the theme “Plastics make it possible” feels under attack, forced to justify a product that opponents have made a symbol for litter and waste.

After dozens of cities enacted bans, California in September became the first state to prohibit stores from handing out single-use plastic bags to customers, requiring them instead to purchase reusable bags or pay at least 10 cents for a paper bag or thicker plastic sack.

“Now, it’s ‘Oh, you’re the bad guy,’ ” said [Laura] Ledbetter, who oversees sales and project management at Superbag, one of Houston’s largest plastic bag manufacturers. “I feel like I’m constantly trying to educate people, and it’s sad that someone along the way taught people the wrong thing.”

The industry is starting to fight back. Led by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, bag manufacturers launched a campaign in California to collect enough signatures on a petition to force the ban to a statewide referendum.

“We are vigorously going to defend these high-paying manufacturing jobs, especially when the reasons for these plastic bag bans are based on a lot of mythology,” said Mark Daniels, alliance chairman and senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy at Novolex, the largest paper and plastic bag manufacturer in North America. It has three plants in North Texas.

The alliance has until Dec. 30 to gather signatures from about half a million people – 5 percent of the state’s registered voters.

[…]

Proponents of bag bans say plastic bags trash the environment, pose threats to wildlife and cost municipalities millions to clean up. They argue that the country is better off if bag manufacturing jobs get replaced.

“We’re trying to create a new economy,” said Stephanie Barger, founder and executive director of Earth Resource Foundation, which helped push for the California ban.

If bans threaten companies’ business, they still have other opportunities to sell cleaner, more durable containers, like reusable sacks, said Jennie R. Romer, attorney and founder of PlasticBagLaws.org. She counsels cities on the best ways to pass bans and avoid litigation.

“People are going to have to put their products in something,” she said.

The California ban won’t shut down machines hundreds of miles away in Texas, where only a handful of cities including Austin, Laredo and South Padre Island have bans. Starting Jan. 1, Dallas will require retailers to collect an environmental fee of 5 cents for every paper and plastic sack customers use.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, now the state’s governor-elect, in August issued an opinion that suggested bans initiated for managing solid wastes may violate the state’s health and safety code, a ruling that could have a chilling effect on cities eyeing similar action.

But the state’s manufacturers are worried anyway.

[…]

“The more plastic stuff is banned, the more the industry is going to struggle and go away,” said Ken Holmes of American Plastic Manufacturing, a small bag manufacturer in Seattle. “And plastics are a good thing. We can’t have big-screen TVs, we can’t have computers, we can’t have toys. We can’t have a lot of stuff without plastic.”

But environmentalists say that as consumption runs rampant and landfills fill with waste, something must be done to stanch the American appetite for single-use disposable products.

“It’s not about attacking products; it’s about working to eliminate badly designed products,” Barger said. “And overall, we’re helping to practice reduce, reuse, recycle and create a zero-waste economy.”

See here for more on the AG ruling. I’m a little disappointed this story didn’t discuss what the bag makers’ legislative strategy might be, since I’m sure they have one. In addition to Dallas and its bag fee, the city of San Antonio has been discussing some kind of curb on single use plastic bags, and now collects them with curbside recycling, which is a nifty thing. The city of Houston approved a budget amendment in 2012 to “address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags city-wide”, but as far as I can tell nothing has happened since then. I for one continue to be open to the idea of a bag fee, but someone who is or wants to be Mayor needs to bring it up first.

Of course, all of this is contingent on the Lege not nullifying municipal laws on the subject. I don’t think plastic bags or their manufacturers are evil, but we live in a world where our oceans are overflowing with plastic trash, and we really ought to do something about that. Emphasizing reuse and recycling over use-once-and-throw-away sure seems like a small enough place to start for that.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten: Yes, there are Christmas songs I like

Quite a few of them, really. Here are ten from my collection:

1. Another Christmas Song – Stephen Colbert
2. Blue Christmas – Asylum Street Spankers
3. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses
4. The Eleven Cats of Christmas – Trout Fishing In America
5. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
6. Go Tell It On The Mountain – Christmas On The Border
7. Happy Christmas (War Is Over) – John Lennon & Yoko Ono
8. Linus and Lucy – Vince Guaraldi Trio
9. Mele Kalikimaka/Waters of Babylon – The Preistess and The Fool
10. Mr. Heatmiser – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

“Go Tell It On The Mountain” is one of my favorite religious Christmas songs – it’s underrated and greatly underused. As for “Linus and Lucy”, it’s my considered opinion that it’s the best known jazz song in the world. Play just about any part of it to anyone, and they’ll know it. What are your favorites?

Posted in: Music.

Ty McDonald for HD17

Ty McDonald

As you know, the special election to replace Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt in HD17 has been set for January 6, with early voting to begin on December 29. This is the same schedule as the elections in HD123 and SD26. As you also know, I have been an advocate for running a Democrat in HD17, on the grounds that in a low-turnout election unpredictable things can happen, and with a bit of a GOTV push the Dems could steal a seat, even if it would only be a one-term rental.

Given all that, you will be as pleased as I am to see that there is a Dem running in HD17, and that Dem is Ty McDonald, wife of former Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald and a former school board trustee in Bastrop. As had her husband, who eventually made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for CD27 in 2012, Ty McDonald considered running for HD17 last year before deciding instead to try to succeed her husband as Bastrop County Judge. She lost that race in a year that wasn’t friendly to Democrats in Bastrop or elsewhere, and has now decided to toss her hat into this ring. With the filing deadline on Monday the 22nd, there are at least two announced Republican candidates (see the comments here), so at the very least she ought to have a decent shot at making it to a runoff.

I don’t know what Battleground Texas is doing now that it’s completed its post-election explanation tour of the state, but my reason for championing this special election, other than it being a free shot at a pickup, is that it just doesn’t take that many votes to win, or at least advance. Here are the vote totals from the last three State House special elections, plus two runoff elections:

Date Dist Votes Win ========================== 12/10 044 11,036 5,518 11/11 014 13,519 6,760 12/11 014 6,736 3,368 11/13 050 14,936 7,468 01/14 050 10,520 5,260

Note that the specials in HDs 14 and 50 took place in November of 2011 and 2013, so they got a bit of an artificial boost in turnout, though probably not that much. I skipped the special elections in HDs 16 (from this November) and 84 (in 2010) precisely because they coincided with high-turnout general elections and thus would extreme outliers on this list. My guess is that turnout for this race is more likely to resemble the HD14 runoff, from December 2011, than anything else. That suggests an electorate of between (say) 6,000 and 10,000 voters, meaning that to win outright you’d need between 3,000 and 5,000 votes.

Now then. There were 35,196 total votes cast in 2014 general in HD17. Democratic candidate Carolyn Banks received 12,459 votes of them. Obviously, a lot of those folks are November-only types. If we want to narrow it down to just the hardcore Dems, the kind of people that might be receptive to a “Hey! We have a special election and we need your vote!” campaign, there were 4,492 votes cast in HD17 in the 2014 primary, and 5,259 votes in the 2012 primary. It shouldn’t be that hard to figure out who those people are and send them some mail, and maybe follow it up with a phone call or two.

That’s assuming that we want to try to win, of course, and if there’s someone to underwrite this expense. I’d assume sending mail to five thousand or so voters in this district would run in the low to medium five figures, not exactly a back-breaking expense for a campaign, and I feel reasonably confident that if BGTX put out a call for volunteers to do some phone banking they’d get a decent response from people who’d love a chance to put the taste of this November behind them. The odds are that this won’t work – HD17 was drawn to elect a Republican, and they have plenty of their own voters to contact – but again, what is there to lose? Not doing anything here would be a much bigger loss, in my opinion, than trying and coming up short. We have a race, we have a candidate, we have a win number, and we have a reasonable idea of how to achieve it. What else do we need?

Posted in: Election 2015.

Treating all fares the same

Good idea.

A six-month test starting in February will gauge the effects of letting cash-paying rail riders switch to buses for free.

The vast majority of riders use a Q card, day pass or some other form of Metro payment. Transfers with those items are free, provided subsequent trips are along the system and not just a reverse of the current trip. That prevents a rider from making a round trip on one fare, officials said.

About 10 percent of riders use cash, and about 4 percent use cash and transfer, according to Metro. The cash trips don’t include a free transfer because Metro eliminated a way to track transfers when it moved to the Q card in 2008.

[…]

A lack of convenient transfers is especially cumbersome for rail users who don’t use Q cards. Riders who pay with cash or a credit card receive a paper ticket. During the pilot, those tickets will be good for bus trips within three hours after the ticket was purchased.

As part of the pilot program, bus drivers will have day pass cards to give to riders, which they can load with money on board the bus.

“Fundamentally, I think this solves our biggest problem,” said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

The details are a bit unclear in this story, but the basic idea is that if you transfer from a rail line to a bus on the same trip you don’t have to pay a second fare, regardless of how you paid for your initial trip. This is how it should be, and how it was before the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro team undid it. This is one of many things Metro is doing to boost ridership, with rail expansion and bus route reimagining being high on the list. Honestly, just the fact that Metro is doing a better job engaging with the community – you know, the people that actually ride the buses and trains – is a big step forward. I hope it translates into better numbers, but whatever it does, this needed to happen.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Lane Lewis announces for At Large #1

Interesting.

Lane Lewis

Lane Lewis

Harris County Democratic Party chair Lane Lewis will run for an at-large city council position, he told Democratic activists Wednesday evening.

Lewis, who has led the county’s party operation since 2011, is running to succeed Stephen Costello in At-Large Position 1, one of two open-seat at-large races next year. Lewis will remain party chair during his campaign.

Several other candidates already have appointed campaign treasurers in advance of runs for at-large positions, though only Philippe Nassif, a local Democratic activist, has specified that he will run for Position 1.

As does Texpatriate, I like Chairman Lewis. Also like Texpatriate, I’m not sure why there’s so much more focus on At Large #1 right now than on any other position. Jenifer Pool may not have officially specified what position she’s running for, but she has been telling people it’s AL1, and her business cards identify her as a candidate for that office. At Large 4, currently held by CM Bradford, will also be open, though no one has yet indicated they will run for it. At Large 5 may be open as well if CM Christie runs for Mayor, and even if he doesn’t I believe he has a glass jaw. I will be more than a little surprised if no one files to run against CM Kubosh in At Large 3. It’s early days and we should expect a lot of activity to begin in a few weeks, but as things stand right now I don’t look forward to the choice I’ll have to make in At Large #1. Stace has more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

I’ll see you in C-U-B-A

Among the many likely winners of the new US policy towards Cuba will be the city of Houston.

As an established travel gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, Houston is positioned to benefit from any potential easing of tourism restrictions in Cuba.

“There’s a lot of fascination with Cuba,” said Michelle Weller, a travel agent with Travel Leaders in Houston.”It’s human nature to want to explore that final frontier. … If Cuba opens for American tourism, it’s going to be great for Houston.”

Much is already in place to capitalize on any travel changes that might follow President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday that put the U.S. a step closer to re-establishing ties with the island nation. In 2011, for example, Bush Intercontinental was designated as one of the airports that could legally charter flights to Cuba. The first one took off in February 2012 with 80 passengers.

Several charters have taken off from the airport since, but none have flown on a regular basis, Houston Airport System spokesman Bill Begley said Wednesday. He said the airport welcomes the latest changes in the U.S. relationship with Cuba.

“Houston currently is enjoying an unprecedented increase in the number of passengers flying aboard international flights and the possibility of adding yet another global destination to the route map is always appealing,” Begley said in a email.

While most Cuban travel activity is based in Florida, three travel agencies in Houston are authorized to arrange trips for Americans. Observers say the new initiative could lead to regular flights between Houston and Cuba as there is a pent-up demand for leisure and business activity.

“It means daily flights from Houston to Havana,” predicted Philip Howard, an associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Houston. The potential change has him thinking he’ll be able to “take some grad students and maybe undergraduates to Cuba.”

[…]

The Houston Airport System has already been working to broaden the Bayou City’s reach to Latin America, citing demand from business and leisure travelers. Several new nonstop flights have been announced in the last year, including to Mexico City, Monterrey and Cancún in Mexico; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; and Santiago, Chile. Southwest Airlines, which is building a new international terminal at Hobby Airport, also recently applied for federal approval to fly from Houston to destinations in Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize and Aruba.

“We are very spoiled in Houston. We can have a weekend trip to Mexico and now we have so many other new flights,” Weller said. “Cuba is so close. … It’s something exotic and people will want to try something different.”

I have no doubt there will be daily flights from IAH to Havana, probably within a year of the formalities being worked out. It’s a no-brainer. Energy companies will be right there to do business as well. I know that Texas Republicans are currently goin berserk over this. Gotta say, I think they’re letting their Obama hatred get the best of them again.

Who else will benefit from this? Major League Baseball, for sure.

Major League Baseball said in a statement that it is monitoring the president’s announcement.

“While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba,” the statement read.

The players’ association released its own statement: “We will watch this situation closely as it continues to unfold and we remain hopeful that today’s announcement will lead to further positive developments.”

Jaime Torres, who has been the agent for numerous major leaguers who have defected from Cuba, told “Outside the Lines” that “this is the beginning of something big, and I was hoping for it shortly after President Obama was elected in 2008. It’s finally on the way.”

However, Torres, who is based in Miami, said that “it’s too early to jump up and be excited” about the potential effects on Major League Baseball.

“I’ve seen what MLB and the MLBPA said, but now we have to see how they proceed and what is done,” he said.

More here, here, here, and here for more. Existing Cuban teams will do well, as any system MLB and Cuba come up with will pay them well for signing their players. The players themselves will do well for the simple reason that they won’t have to defect and make often very perilous journeys to the US to play.

And finally, you will benefit from hearing this classic Irving Berlin tune:

The Austin Lounge Lizards have a great version of this song, but I couldn’t find a video of it. I’m glad I came across this one.

Posted in: Around the world, Baseball, National news.

Lawsuit filed against the office of Rep. Blake Farenthold

Um, wow.

Rep. Blake Farenthold

A woman who worked for U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold filed a federal lawsuit against his congressional office, alleging she experienced gender-based discrimination and that a hostile work environment prompted her termination in July.

Former Communications Director Lauren Greene alleges that Farenthold, the two-term Republican from Corpus Christi, made lewd and inappropriate comments, according to the lawsuit filed Friday, and “regularly drank to excess, and because of his tendency to flirt, the staffers who accompanied him to Capitol Hill functions would joke that they had to be on ‘red head patrol’ to keep him out of trouble.’”

[…]

Greene worked for U.S. Rep. John Sullivan, R-Oklahoma, from September 2009 to January 2013, according to her Linkedin profile, and worked her way up from an intern to deputy press secretary. She took a job with Farenthold’s office two months later.

In January, another staffer told Greene that Farenthold had privately admitted to having sexual fantasies about her, according to the lawsuit, which adds that Farenthold later told Greene that he was estranged from his wife.

“On one occasion, prior to February 2014, during a staff meeting at which plaintiff was in attendance, Farenthold disclosed that a female lobbyist had propositioned him for a ‘threesome,’” according to the lawsuit.

The comments made Greene uncomfortable, according to the lawsuit, and she seldom had one-on-one meetings with Farenthold.

“Farenthold regularly made comments designed to gauge whether plaintiff was interested in a sexual relationship,” according to the lawsuit, and made inappropriate comments about her clothing.

Greene also had problems with Chief of Staff Bob Haueter.

Haueter excluded her from staff meetings and publicly humiliated her when she did attend, according to the lawsuit.

During a June 2010 meeting, Haueter announced he was sending Greene home to change because her shirt was too revealing, according to the lawsuit, but Farenthold and another staffer disagreed.

In the lawsuit, Greene alleged that she was fired less than a month after complaining about the hostile work environment.

Ew. This is only one side of the story, and I’m sure that the defense will have plenty to say about what happened. But still: Ew. More worrisome for Farenthold is that the filing of this lawsuit has spawned other problems for him.

The unseemly nature of the accusations already has operatives on Capitol Hill mulling the immediate consequences of Farenthold’s place on the Republican food chain.

“I don’t know about locally, but it’s going to continue to push him on the outside of leadership and the folks that influence the Republican Conference,” a GOP Capitol Hill staffer said on condition of anonymity because of close ties to leadership.

Two GOP Capitol Hill staffers predicted the matter would probably go before the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics. Just last week, the House Ethics Committee cleared a Florida Democratic lawmaker of sexual harassment allegations. But in the process, the committee warned lawmakers “to scrupulously avoid even the impression of a workplace tainted by sexism.”

[…]

As Texas Republican operatives digest the reports, some are already speculating on a potential 2016 primary challenger. One potential rival would be Debra Medina, a former Wharton County Republican Party chair who lost a primary bid for comptroller this year.

Getting a little ahead of ourselves there, but still. The next two years are likely to be a bit tumultuous for Farenthold, poor baby. The Chron covered this here, and Politico, Jezebel, BOR, Trail Blazers, TPM, and Juanita have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Bill to reduce pot penalties filed

Here we go.

Zonker

A coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans introduced a proposal Monday to make possession of a small amount of marijuana in Texas a civil infraction, instead of a crime.

House Bill 507, filed by state Rep. Joe Moody, would make those caught with an ounce of pot or less subject only to a $100 fine. Currently, some of those people could face up to six months in jail, a fine of up to to $2,000 and a criminal record.

Moody, D-El Paso, said during a news conference at the Capitol that the change would save thousands of mostly-minority Texans from a lifetime record while saving money through reduced jail costs. Similar moves in other states have shown that the policy would not increase marijuana usage, he said.

“A civil penalty is good government, and good government is always good for Texas,” Moody said.

Ann Lee, executive director of the Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, agreed, arguing that reducing penalties for drug violations is in line with the philosophy of conservatives who “stand for freedom.”

Basically, this is one of the things that Grits for Breakfast was proposing to reduce local incarceration costs. The Sheriffs’ Association of Texas will apparently be the main opponent to this, and the general reaction to the bill has been muted, which is about as good as you could hope. It will be very interesting to see who else signs on to this bill or one like it, and if it gets any headway in the chambers. I wouldn’t bet on it passing, but it might get somewhere.

Reducing penalties for pot possession isn’t legalization – I still think that won’t happen this decade, if at all – but it will help keep a lot of people out of jail, and it may help keep them from having their lifetime employment potential wrecked. Still, there is a bigger issue out there, and sooner or later it needs to be acknowledged. Lord knows, there’s plenty of pot being grown around here. Growing it legally here might not only help declutter the jails, it might also help put the drug cartels out of business. At some point, you have to ask what it is we want out of our policies. Grits, BOR, Hair Balls, and Unfair Park have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

On game rooms and gambling

Looks like Fort Bend County wants to follow in the footsteps of Harris County when it comes to dealing with game rooms.

Last weekend, Fort Bend County sheriff’s deputies raided the H-90 Game Room on U.S. 90A east of Richmond, hauling away 97 slot machines, interviewing and releasing about 30 customers and charging one employee with a misdemeanor.

Unlike many places that get shut down, though, the business that opened in July had not been the subject of any police calls for service.

The raid has prompted a discussion about how much of a threat game rooms actually pose to community safety.

Some Fort Bend residents had been pressing authorities to crack down on game rooms that sprouted up in the wake of Harris County’s enforcement of new rules targeting the establishments, often the scenes of shootings and other criminal activity. They didn’t want a proliferation of game rooms bringing the same problems to Fort Bend.

Sheriff Troy Nehls acknowledged that residents’ concerns prompted his department’s recent action, which involved four divisions of his office.

“We’ve received calls from the community, so we did what we could to address the issue,” the sheriff said. “This one was right off Highway 90, so it was more visible. Thus, we had more people calling concerned about the operation.”

Nehls said he takes game rooms seriously, but he played down their impact so far. He noted that he has seen no evidence of an uptick in violence, nor had there been any calls for police service at either the H-90 Game Room or another gambling parlor, on FM 359. It was open just a few months before voluntarily closing under pressure from nearby homeowners.

[…]

Other residents say authorities are wasting time cracking down on an activity they think should be legalized, even if it is only to discourage the gang activity that was often attracted to the cash-based operations in Harris County.

Larry Karson, a criminology professor at the University of Houston, said it’s the responsibility of police leaders not only to crack down on illegal activity, but to educate communities about the actual level of crime, particularly when an issue becomes a public debate.

“One generally expects any law enforcement official to recognize the concerns of the community,” Karson said. “If, based on that officer’s experience, it’s not quite as dangerous as might be assumed, he obviously needs to communicate that.”

The Texas Constitution bans most forms of gambling, but the poker-based eight-liners common to game rooms are legal to own as long as the prizes do not exceed $5 per play. Police, prosecutors and other Houston-area officials argue that most game rooms do not operate within those narrow rules, awarding larger cash sums illegally and drawing other criminal activity. To thwart enforcement of the state’s ban, officials say, many game rooms require paid memberships designed to keep out undercover officers.

Karson differentiated between the risk of crime at game rooms and at casinos, both of which attract robberies because of their cash payouts.

“You run into that security nightmare that legitimate casinos deal with by coordinating with police,” Karson said. “Any business that’s illegal doesn’t have that option. That leads to a potentially nasty cycle.”

As we know, Harris County has tightened its enforcement on game rooms thanks to some legislative help, and after surviving a lawsuit, enforcement is on in full swing. It’s not a surprise that some of this activity might cross the border into Fort Bend, or that Fort Bend might be a bit proactive about trying to stop it. I figure Fort Bend will get the legislative help it now seeks in expanding its authority against game rooms, much as Harris did in 2013, and I won’t be surprised if other counties follow suit.

What did surprise me in that story was the almost casual mention of the “other residents” who think game rooms should be legalized. I’m not sure if there are actual people making that case, or if that’s just sort of a clumsy shorthand for support for expanded gambling in Texas, as there wasn’t any further exploration of it. I wouldn’t have given it much more thought had I not also received this email from Houston Controller candidate Carroll Robinson, which discusses the very subject of game rooms and legalized gambling:

The Houston Chronicle has recently reported that “local investigations have revealed how lucrative the illegal gaming trade can be, providing operators with as much as $20,000 per day. With such establishments spread across some 700 strip centers in the county, their total proceeds could be larger than the [$1.55 billion] budget for all Harris County government.…”

Not only are illegal gaming rooms generating hundreds of millions of dollars per year in untaxed revenue, they are also magnets for crime. Wouldn’t it be better to legalize slot machines (at existing legal horse and dog racing tracks) and Casinos in Houston and allow the city to regulate them and collect extra revenues to pay for city services?

Legalizing slot machines at existing race tracks and legalizing casinos would also help eliminate illegal gaming rooms and the crime associated with them.
Even Metro would receive revenue from the increased sales tax revenue generated from legalized gaming.

The City of Houston should investigate and evaluate all its options for legalizing and regulating slot machines and casino gaming under its Home Rule Authority.

I can’t say I’ve seen many city candidates take a position on expanded gambling in Texas, as that’s a matter for the Legislature and not likely to directly intersect with Houston. Sam Houston Race Park is outside city limits, and I can’t imagine a casino being built here. I’m sure there would be some effect on the city if one or both of these things were to be legalized, but I doubt it would be much. I don’t know how much effect it would have on the game rooms, but my guess is that we’d still have them regardless. You can like the idea of expanded gambling or not – as you know, I’m very ambivalent – I just don’t think it has much to do with the game room issue.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 15

The Texas Progressive Alliance is dusting off its recipes for wassail and figgy pudding as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Romo to run in SD26

The race to succeed Sen. Leticia Van de Putte just got a little more interesting.

Sylvia Romo

Sylvia Romo

Sylvia Romo, former tax assessor-collector for Bexar County, on Tuesday morning entered the race to replace state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, bringing to four the number of candidates in the special election for Senate District 26.

For two terms in the 1990s, Romo represented Texas House District 125, which covers a swath of northwest Bexar County. She unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett in the 2012 Democratic primary for Texas’ 35th congressional district.

“I am truly humbled by the bipartisan support from our community that has encouraged me to run for state senator,” Romo said in a news release. “As a mother and proud grandmother, I will stand up for Texas families, support small businesses, work to create high-paying jobs, and fight to give our children the chance to succeed.”

Romo joins three other Democrats vying for Van de Putte’s seat in the Jan. 6 contest: San Antonio state Reps. Jose Menendez and Trey Martinez Fischer as well as Converse Mayor Al Suarez.

See here for the background, and see here for Romo’s official announcement. Romo’s entry basically guarantees a runoff. What that means is that if one of the State Reps running for SD26 is the eventual winner, the special election to replace him would probably be in early March, with a runoff if needed in early April. That’s getting pretty close to the end of the session, and it could have an effect on the Dems’ ability to block noxious Constitutional amendments from being put on the ballot.

Be that as it may, Romo is certainly a qualified candidate. I interviewed her in 2012 when she was challenging Rep. Lloyd Doggett in CD35. I thought she would have been a perfectly acceptable Congressperson, with perfectly acceptable views, I just never could get a good answer from her as to why it made sense to swap out Doggett’s seniority and track record in favor of her candidacy. Here, seniority isn’t an issue, but there is another issue that I at least would consider if I lived in SD26. Both Reps. Martinez-Fischer and Menendez are in their 40s. Romo is, I believe, 71. My general preference these days when given a choice between otherwise similar candidates is to put a premium on youth and future statewide potential. TMF and Jose Menendez both strike me as someone who could run statewide in the next four to ten years if given a bigger springboard. I can’t honestly say that about Sylvia Romo. I’m not saying this is a decisive factor. If the campaign shows her to be the best choice, then she deserves to win. But at least for me, it would be a factor. Whether that’s true for anyone else or not, we’ll see. The filing deadline is Monday the 22nd, with early voting to begin on the 29th.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Valero’s special deal

I’m sorry, I just can’t get behind this.

Companies routinely relocate to the city or state that lures them with the best tax break, but Valero wants Houston City Council to give its eastside refinery the same treatment without having to pack its bags.

Valero wants most of its Manchester facility, the only refinery inside Houston city limits, be considered outside the city boundaries for tax purposes. The rare move would let the energy giant pay lower fees than if it remained in the city and paid property taxes, and would, officials say, ensure a planned $800 million expansion – and the jobs that would accompany it – happens here and not at a Valero facility in Louisiana.

Some community leaders in the struggling Manchester neighborhood that borders the refinery question the proposal, saying the plan amounts to corporate welfare for a firm they blame for polluting the air and devaluing their homes.

The proposal, which City Council will consider this week, would see 161 acres of the refinery’s 190-acre site transition to a so-called industrial district. The remaining 29 acres at the plant sit more than 2,500 feet from the Houston Ship Channel, and, per a provision in state law, must remain inside city limits.

A Houston Chronicle analysis shows Valero would pay a projected $37.7 million in fees under the 15-year industrial district deal. If the refinery remained in Houston and paid property taxes, it could pay an estimated $10 million to $18 million more than that depending on the city’s future tax rate. Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, said a voter-imposed cap on the revenue Houston can collect from property taxes means the Valero tax break would not cost the city money. Icken said Houston has already hit the cap and will collect all the property tax revenue it is allowed to collect whether those dollars are paid by Valero or by other taxpayers.

Houston attorney Beto Cardenas, who negotiated the deal for Valero, said the Manchester refinery is at a disadvantage by being inside city limits when all adjacent facilities are in industrial districts. Valero, he said, simply seeks “parity” with its competitors.

Houston has used industrial districts since the 1960s, and today has 104 such agreements in place, generating $16 million in fees annually. Most were initiated in past decades when the city aggressively sought to annex surrounding areas. The agreements, which typically are renegotiated every 15 years, are a sort of economic standoff: The city gets revenue without having to provide services, and companies pay less in fees than they would pay if the city annexed them and levied its full property tax rate.

The Valero proposal would be the second public tax break granted to its refinery this year, and for the same expansion plan. Valero also has come under fire in recent years for seeking controversial state tax breaks and stressing local school districts’ budgets by suing to lower its tax bills.

The previous subsidy, which was approved by City Council and then by Gov. Rick Perry’s office, per the rules of the governor’s Texas Enterprise Zone program, saw Valero commit to the expansion plan in exchange for an up to $1.6 million rebate of state sales and use taxes.

“It’s a perfect corporate double-dip,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen Texas. “There’s an ongoing assumption now that tax abatements and so forth are going to be given to any existing company that says, ‘We’re threatened,’ even though they may be some of the most profitable companies in the country.”

[…]

Unlike other industrial district agreements, which typically give a company’s existing buildings and equipment an immediate tax break, the Valero deal would ensure the city collects no less than the $2.2 million property tax bill the refinery will owe in January. Also unlike other such agreements, Valero would be annexed back into the city in 2017 if it has not begun the expansion, and in 2020 if it hasn’t completed the project. The facility also would be annexed back into the city at the end of the agreement in 2027 unless the agreement is renegotiated.

Valero also has agreed to continue paying its drainage fee under the ReBuild Houston program, which Icken said is about $200,000 a year.

I get the rationale for this, and the two paragraphs quoted at the end make it all a bit less disagreeable. But it’s stuff like this that makes too many people feel like the system is stacked against them, with one set of powerful interests currying favor from another, to their detriment. Who else can get this kind of deferential treatment, and for what? A handful of jobs whose security are tied to the price of a commodity? In the spirit of the season, let me offer up a two-word summary of this and my feelings towards it: Bah, humbug. Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Repair or replace?

Consider this an object lesson in the cost of deferring maintenance.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A new Houston police headquarters and courthouse complex, discussed for decades, could reach a key turning point this week as Mayor Annise Parker seeks to force City Council members to choose between repairing the city’s existing facilities or tackling an enormous project to construct new buildings – a move that could trigger a tax increase.

If not for the staggering expense of both the “repair” and “replace” options – from $250 million up to $1.2 billion – the choice would be simple: Few, if any, council members question that the city’s criminal justice facilities are fading.

The current complex, on 18 acres just northwest of downtown, houses 1,000 Houston Police Department staff, the main municipal courthouse, a city jail and numerous other operations spread among a dozen buildings, most of them built between 1950 and 1980.

Officials say the facilities are decades beyond their useful lives, cramped, lack adequate parking and sit in the 100-year floodplain. A shoddy sewer line recently created a sinkhole under the courts building, and chunks of the police parking garage have been known to crumble off.

“If you’ve been in through 61 Riesner, it is dilapidated and you’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars to keep putting Band-Aids on that serious problem over there,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, referring to the main police building on the site. “That complex needs to be leveled, and a new complex needs to be built there.”

The mayor’s decision to place the item up for a vote Wednesday as a non-binding resolution was spurred in part by a desire not to allocate more than the $2.3 million already spent preparing to build a new complex if council was not ultimately going to pursue the project.

[…]

Councilman Jerry Davis said his concerns about the proposed financing mechanisms have not been adequately addressed. He also said it makes more sense to relocate the complex to an underdeveloped area like his district, where it would spur development, rather than rebuilding on the edge of downtown.

“I don’t think you have everyone’s buy-in right now. There’s too much uncertainty,” Davis said. “Before this council member says yes or no, I need to exhaust every question.”

CM Davis’ suggestion may have some merit, especially if it means lower real estate costs. I don’t know what the logistical issues may be in having the justice complex not be as close to the county’s courthouses. Let’s put all the cards on the table and see what the options are and what they might cost. We know that doing nothing costs a lot more than nothing, so let’s see what the best way to fix that is, and let’s not freak out at it.

Posted in: Local politics.

HSPVA groundbreaking

Looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

A slab of cracked cement painted over with yellow parking lines sits at the corner of Rusk and Austin – with downtown skyscrapers looming overhead.

Come Tuesday, the cement will be ripped up and construction will begin on a new five-story, 168,000-square-foot building for the Houston ISD’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts.

The sleek, $80-million project will include a 200-seat mini-theater, 200-seat black box theater, 150-seat recital hall, rooftop garden and outdoor art studio. The centerpiece will be an 800-seat main theater, complete with a balcony, that will fit the prestigious magnet school’s entire faculty and student body with room to spare.

“We’re downtown and so close to the arts district, you can just feel the energy down here. It’s going to be amazing to have the kids down here,” said HSPVA principal R. Scott Allen, who was among the dignitaries to help break ground on the site Sunday at a celebration that included several student and alumni performances. “We already have great partnerships with the (local) arts organizations, but us being so much closer now, I think it makes it easier to make those even stronger. … To be able to even connect with businesses that don’t have an arts focus would give some kids some opportunities. That’s a dream of mine.”

The new space, approved by voters in a 2012 bond, will allow the school to move from its current Montrose campus. It will also provide room for the new creative writing program, whose students currently take classes in the library and in portable trailers.

See here and here for some background. HSPVA is one of HISD’s crown jewels, and this project sounds like it’s going to be awesome. It’s not far from where I work, I should wander over periodically and see how it’s going. It’s possible one of my kids could wind up going there, so we’ll just call it research. Anyway, I can’t wait to see what it winds up looking like.

Posted in: School days.

Three thoughts on the state of the Mayor’s race

Inspired by this story, which doesn’t name any potential additions to the ever-large field of Mayoral wannabes for 2015 but which does put some things in context.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Most observers consider Rep. Sylvester Turner, with his support base from the African-American population that could cast a third of next year’s vote, to be the man to beat in November. Yet his fortunes to win in a December runoff – all but guaranteed to be needed in a large field – depend heavily on whom he faces in a one-on-one comparison.

Councilmen Oliver Pennington and Stephen Costello have committed to the race, with Pennington going as far as to send mailers to potential supporters in July, 18 months before the first votes are to be cast. Ben Hall, who lost to Parker in 2013, launched radio advertisements last month, and former Kemah mayor and Chronicle columnist Bill King designated a campaign treasurer. Former Democratic congressman Chris Bell also is an all-but-filed entrant.

Six weeks before the campaign fundraising floodgates open, the field is settling save for a potential entrant who looms over much of the discussion in Houston power circles: Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who has not yet declared his intentions. Legally, Garcia cannot make an affirmative move toward running without being forced to resign his county post, though he has acknowledged the pressure he faces from others.

That pressure, though, is pushing him in both directions. Commissioners Court likely would replace Garcia with a Republican sheriff ahead of the next election cycle.

“You’re going to be giving them an early 2016 gift,” said Democratic Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who had the sheriff at her home this month and expressed concern about a run. “Nobody wants a Latino mayor more than I do, but it’s got to be the right time.”

[…]

If Garcia does not enter the race, Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a close friend of Garcia, could look to capture Latinos’ support. Other prominent Hispanic leaders look to pass on the race, including Metro chairman and Parker ally Gilbert Garcia and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce head Laura Murillo. Both expressed some signs of interest earlier, but do not appear to be joining the field.

Garcia’s exit also could create political lanes for other Democratic alternatives to Turner, like Bell. Though Bell has not formally committed to the race, he has filed a lawsuit challenging Turner’s fundraising strategy and plans to make an official announcement in January.

The other four candidates most seriously weighing bids are: Councilman Jack Christie, an at-large councilman uncertain whether he can raise the money needed to compete; County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, who like Garcia would have to resign to run for mayor; Sean Roberts, a local attorney; and businessman and political neophyte Marty McVey.

Councilmen Michael Kubosh and C.O. Bradford considered the race earlier this year, but both now say they are unlikely to launch campaigns. And despite floating the idea that he was open to a run, outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said this month he had no plans to do so.

Conservatives have not yet coalesced around any of the six non-liberal candidates: Pennington, Costello, Hall, King, Christie or Sanchez.

“Right now, there’s no clear conservative choice yet, but people are obviously angling for being it,” said Paul Bettencourt, the new Republican senator from northwest Harris County.

1. It may be useful to think of these candidates as falling into one of three groups: Candidates with an obvious base of support, coalition candidates, and gadflies. Turner and Pennington fall into the first group, and as such you can sort of guess about what they might expect to get in November if that’s the limit of their appeal. It’s a decent position from which to start, especially in a multi-candidate race, but it’s no guarantee, as Turner himself could attest from his 2003 experience. Coalition candidates don’t have an obvious base of support, but can reasonably hope to draw from a broad range of constituencies. Bill White is the poster boy for such candidates, and folks like Bell, Costello, King, and Christie will all be competing for the kind of voters that propelled White to victory in 2003. Coalition candidates have a higher ceiling, but with so many people fishing in the same pond, it will be harder to stand out. White also had the advantage of lots of money to spend and no activity from anyone else at the time he launched his campaign. No one has that this year. Another consideration is that Turner and Pennington could have their bases eroded by Hall and Sanchez. I’d consider Sanchez a much bigger threat to Pennington if he runs than Hall would be to Turner – and Sanchez would have some appeal to Latino voters as well, not that he did so well with them in 2003 – but in a race where the difference between first and fourth or fifth could be a few thousand votes, I’d still be worried about it if I were Turner.

As for gadflies, he’s not mentioned in this story but Eric Dick, who I feel confident will run again since the publicity is good for his law firm’s business, is the canonical example. From what I have heard, Sean Roberts may be following in those footsteps. One could argue that Hall is a gadfly at this point based on the ridiculousness of his ads so far, but anyone with that kind of money to spend is still a threat to do better than the three to five points a typical gadfly might get.

Yes, there’s one candidate I haven’t mentioned here, and no I don’t mean Marty McVey, about whom I know nothing. I’ll get to him in a bit.

2. Conservatives may be better off not falling in line behind a single candidate just yet. Getting someone into the runoff is nice and all, but any Republican candidate will likely be an underdog in that runoff. The dream scenario for conservatives is what happened in the 2013 At Large #3 race, where three well-qualified Democratic candidates split the vote so evenly that none of them were able to catch up to the two Republicans. Michael Kubosh and Roy Morales were splitting a smaller piece of the electorate, but their two shares of that smaller group were greater than each of the three shares of the larger group. I still think Sylvester Turner is the frontrunner right now, but it’s not insane to imagine a Pennington-Sanchez runoff, especially if Ben Hall can be serious enough to put a dent in his numbers.

3. And then there’s Adrian Garcia. Will he or won’t he? You already know how I feel, so I won’t belabor that here. Garcia is both a candidate with a base and a coalition candidate, which is why he was as strong as he was in 2008 and 2012. Running against flawed opponents those years didn’t hurt him, either, so a little tempering of expectations may be in order here. I’m sure Garcia is carefully measuring the support he might have if he ran. I wonder if he’s trying to gauge how many Democrats he’d piss off by resigning and handing his office to a Republican, and how long said Dems would nurse that grudge when they will have at least two viable options in Turner and Bell to go with instead. It would be one thing if this were December of 2008, and Democrats had just had a great election and were feeling good about themselves. After last month’s debacle, I don’t know how forgiving anyone will be about any Dem that yields a freebie like that to the Republicans. I may be overestimating the effect, especially given how much time Garcia would have to make up for it, and I personally think the Presidential race will have a much larger effect on Democratic fortunes in Harris County in 2016 than Garcia would. But I think it’s real and I think Garcia needs to be concerned about it. Whether it’s enough to affect his decision or not, I have no idea.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Legislative special elections set

Gear up quickly, here they come.

Mike Villarreal

Mike Villarreal

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday afternoon set three special elections for Jan. 6, including the race to replace state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

Van de Putte, who lost her bid for lieutenant governor last month, is stepping down to run for mayor of San Antonio, leaving a vacancy in Senate District 26. State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, resigned earlier this month to also launch a campaign for City Hall, a move that created an open seat in House District 123.

In addition, Perry scheduled a special election for Jan. 6 in House District 17, where Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, is resigning to become general counsel for the Texas Department of Agriculture. The district covers a five-county area east of Austin.

Democrats have already lined up to vie for the two seats in solidly blue Bexar County. San Antonio State Reps. Jose Menendez and Trey Martinez Fischer as well as Converse Mayor Al Suarez are running to replace Van de Putte. Former San Antonio Councilmen Diego Bernal and Walter Martinez as well as public relations consultant Melissa Aguillon are competing for Villarreal’s House seat.

See here for the background. Al Suarez is a new name for the SD26 seat; Converse is a small town inside Bexar County, but beyond that I know nothing about him. I can’t find any news about potential candidates for Kleinschmidt’s seat – as you know, I’m rooting for a Democrat to file for it – but I’m sure we’ll hear something soon enough. I wasn’t expecting it to be part of this set, but it makes sense for it to be. If either Martinez-Fischer or Menendez wins in SD26 we’ll need one more special, and then I presume we’ll be done for the near term. The Current has more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Promote equality, promote the economy

It’s a simple enough formula.

RedEquality

When the courts finally declare Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage illegal, which most people think they will, it could mean a boost for the wedding and hospitality industry as 23,200 couples tie the knot, according to a new interactive by the Williams Insititute at UCLA and Credit Suisse.

Whether or not you agree with same-sex marriage, there is money to be made from weddings.

Gay and lesbian Texans are expected to spend $181.6 million on weddings and receptions within three years of same-sex marriage becoming legal, adding $14.8 million in tax revenue and creating 523 jobs, according to an extrapolation of the experience in states where same-sex marriage is already allowed.

My colleague Lauren McGaughy wrote this in October and how 18,700 children in Texas are being raised by same-sex couples.

California saw 51,319 couples marry in the first three years after the ban there was lifted, and they spent $392.3 million dollars. More than 24,000 couples married in New York since it became legal there in 2013, spending $228.6 million and generating $19.4 million in tax revenue for the state.

The study is here if you want a closer look. This subject has come up before, and New York’s relatively early entry in marriage equality business was definitely good for them. Florida is estimated to have about the same economic benefit in store as Texas, so now that same sex marriage is legal there we should look to them for a good approximation of what we’re missing out on. The longer we take to get around to this, the more likely we’ll see a significant portion of this boon going to other states as Texas’ same-sex couple opt for destination wedding rather than wait it out. But hey, if Greg Abbott and the rest of the Texas GOP are happy to send that business off to California or wherever else, I guess that’s just the way it is. Wonkblog has more.

Posted in: Society and cultcha.

Houston gets a Bitcoin ATM

Just what you were waiting for, I’m sure.

Houston unveiled its first bitcoin ATM on Wednesday, hoping to attract international travelers and more conventions to the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Bitcoin is like digital cash. And this ATM, on the downtown center’s second floor next to a Starbucks, allows users to convert cash to bitcoin and vice versa.

“Houston First always wants to be the first in offering amenities to its attendees and guests,” said Mark Goldberg, assistant general counsel for Houston First Corp., the quasi-public organization that manages the convention center. “With us now having this ATM machine … we’ve proven that we’re on the cutting edge of technology.”

Bitcoin is gaining momentum in Houston, although the adoption rate here lags behind Austin and Dallas, said Adam Richard, president of the Houston-based nonprofit Texas Coinitiative.

He predicts local awareness will continue rising as Apple Pay makes consumers more familiar with digital payments and as merchants begin offering incentives for people to pay with bitcoin.

“The interest keeps rising every week,” he said. “I’m excited to see where we’re going to be in a year from today.”

[…]

The downtown convention center’s ATM charges a 5 percent fee based on the real-time market rate for bitcoin. A user can create an account at the ATM. Then, each time the ATM is used, a text is sent to the user’s phone with a six-digit authentication code. This number needs to be typed in to the ATM, for security purposes, before any transactions can be made.

Weisfeld said he believed this ATM would help attract business to the convention center.

“The bitcoin community is the world’s largest loyalty population,” he said. “People that have bitcoin around the world have a tendency to want to do business in places that will do business in bitcoin. So we see the George R. Brown Convention Center establishing a first that is going to bring conventions to Houston.”

These types of ATMs can also be a draw for international travelers. Michael Cargill, who installed a CoinVault ATM at his Central Texas Gun Works in Austin in March, said visitors from other countries come in to exchange their virtual currency for U.S. dollars.

“We’re keeping up with technology,” he said. “A lot of gun stores are still on fax machines.”

Well okay then. I’m still not convinced that Bitcoin is going to go the distance, but certainly there are people who use it now. I rather doubt there are that many people who base their travel or business location decisions on the presence or absence of a Bitcoin ATM, but I will readily concede that a large international city like Houston ought to have one. So good on Houston First for making this happen.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Republicans will push pro-discrimination bills

I have three things to say about this.

RedEquality

Two days after the Plano City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, a Texas legislator filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the ability of cities to enforce such laws.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) filed House Joint Resolution 55, which is similar but not identical to Senate Joint Resolution 10, filed last month by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), one of several lawmakers who sent a letter to the Plano City Council opposing the nondiscrimination ordinance, also announced on Twitter Tuesday that he’s drafting a bill “to protect Texas business owners from unconstitutional infringements on their religious liberty.” As of Thursday morning, Leach’s bill hadn’t been filed, and he didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Nevertheless, a month before the session begins, the flurry of legislation suggests that, thanks in part to the legalization of same-sex marriage across much of the nation, conservatives will challenge gays rights in the name of religious freedom in the 84th Texas Legislature.

The resolutions from Campbell and Villalba would amend the Texas Constitution to state that government “may not burden” someone’s “sincerely held religious belief” unless there is a “compelling governmental interest” and it is the “least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

Experts say such an amendment would effectively prevent cities that have passed LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances from enforcing them. In addition to Plano, those cities include Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

That’s because business owners could claim exemptions from the ordinances if they have sincerely held religious beliefs—such as opposition to same-sex marriage—making it legal for them to fire employees for being gay or refuse service to LGBT customers.

“It blows a hole in your nondiscrimination protections if people can ignore them for religious reasons,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal.

But Pizer and others said an even bigger problem could be the amendments’ unintended consequences.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said in addition to the First Amendment, the state already has a statute that provides strong protections for religious freedom—known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. But Williams said the proposed constitutional amendments would supplant RFRA and go further, overriding exceptions in the statute for things like zoning regulations and civil rights laws.

[…]

Williams noted that similar resolutions from Campbell have failed in previous sessions. Amending the state Constitution requires two-thirds support in both chambers as well as a majority public vote.

“That’s a very high bar, and the Legislature’s a deliberative body,” Williams said.

But Williams said the key to defeating the legislation this go-round will be economic arguments.

“This would have a detrimental affect on businesses that are looking to relocate to Texas,” he said. “Businesses that want to relocate to Texas will think that their LGBT employees and the family members of their LGBT employees are not going to be welcome.”

1. Between equality ordinances, plastic bag bans, payday lender regulations, and anti-fracking measures, the obsession that Republican legislators may have this session with nullifying municipal laws may overtake their obsession with nullifying federal laws. I continue to be perplexed by this obsession.

2. We are all clear that these “freedom to discriminate” bills are, intentionally or not, also about the freedom to discriminate against Jews or blacks or whoever else you don’t like, right? I mean, every time they get pinned down on it, proponents of such bills admit as much. I don’t suppose it has ever occurred to the Donna Campbells of the world that one of these days they themselves could be on the receiving end of such treatment, if someone else’s sincerely held religious beliefs hold that antipathy towards LGBT folks is an abomination before God. I’m just saying.

3. Assuming Speaker Straus maintains the tradition of not voting, the magic number is fifty, as in fifty votes in the House are needed to prevent any of these travesties from making it to your 2015 ballot. There are 52 Democrats in the House, plus one officially LGBT-approved Republican, so there are three votes to spare, assuming no other Republicans can be persuaded to vote against these. We know that there are four current House Dems that voted for the anti-gay marriage amendment of 2005. One of them, Rep. Richard Raymond, has since stated his support for marriage equality. Another, Rep. Ryan Guillen, may be persuadable. The current position of the others, Reps. Joe Pickett and Tracy King, are unknown. Barring any absences or scheduling shenanigans, we can handle three defections without needing to get another R on board. This is the key.

(Yes, eleven votes in the Senate can also stop the madness. Unfortunately, one of those votes belongs to Eddie Lucio. I’d rather take my chances in the House.)

Unfair Park and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

A better way to cut taxes

Grits has a suggestion for the Legislature.

go_to_jail

Reduce local jail costs – which have been a big driver of tax increases in many Texas counties – by reducing penalty categories for low-level marijuana possession (currently a Class B misdemeanor for possession of two ounces or less) and driving with an invalid license (DWLI, currently a Class B misdemeanor on the second offense). Make those two offenses a Class C or even a civil violation and local governments, especially counties, would save money a) by writing tickets instead of jailing people, b) from the fact that attorneys aren’t appointed for the indigent in Class C cases, and c) by keeping more officers, both sheriffs deputies and municipal PDs, out on patrol instead of at the jail arresting pot smokers and drivers who couldn’t pay the Driver Responsibility surcharge.

Texas already started down this road, reducing first offense DWLI from a Class B to a Class C in 2007 after the Driver Responsibility surcharge flooded county courts in the first years after its passage. The same year, the Lege passed and Gov. Perry signed legislation to allow local police departments to write tickets instead of make arrests for DWLI, marijuana possession, and several other petty Class B offenses. Only a few agencies took the Lege up on that optional authority, though, and county jails and court dockets remain stuffed with these low-level, non-violent offenders. So reducing penalties for those two Class Bs is a logical next step, as the House County Affairs discussed during an interim committee hearing on the topic earlier this year.

Unlike the feds, Texas’ budget must balance. Any claim to cut taxes will prove a mare’s nest without a correspondent reduction in spending in a long-term sustainable way. That’s why property-tax relief through the school districts can’t be certain in light of the surely soon-to-be-coming court verdict on school finance. The state has little wiggle room to spend less on healthcare. And pols have promised to spend more, not less, on transportation. After baseline reductions in 2003 and 2011, there’s not a lot of fat left to cut, particularly that would impact property taxes.

By changing state policies to reduce county jail costs, the 84th Legislature could deliver real, not just temporary or superficial, local property-tax relief, cutting costs on a big-ticket item that affects every Texas county. I can’t think of a quicker, more certain way the Lege could reduce upward pressure on local property taxes given the practical constraints imposed by law and politics on the state budget.

See here for the context, and remember that “balancing” the budget is one part rhetoric, one part prestidigitation, and about five parts hot air. As sensible as this is, and as much as it would deliver benefits beyond a reduction in costs to counties, the main obstacle this would face is that it’s not immediate gratification. Lop ten points off the tax rate and you can say “See! I cut your taxes!” Do this and you have to wait and see what all the county commissioners do, and if/when they do cut taxes as a result of the savings, they’ll claim the credit for it themselves. I completely agree with Grits’ idea here, and I think in the abstract a lot of legislators would, too. What I don’t think they would do is see this as “tax relief” in any meaningful way. The people who are talking about that want something they can point to and take all the credit for.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Tesla is back

I wish them better luck this time, but I wouldn’t expect anything to come of it.

Proposals to allow direct car sales in Texas stalled during the 2013 legislative session, but the Pala Alto, California-based automaker appears poised to rev up efforts to revive the issue as lawmakers head back to work next month.

“We’re not asking to blow up the franchise dealer system,” said Diarmuid O’Connell, Tesla’s vice president for business development. “We are looking for a narrow and reasonable window to be able to promote this new technology ourselves.”

No one has pre-filed a bill promoting direct sales yet, and few in the Legislature have publicly supported the idea. But outgoing Gov. Rick Perry in March called the state’s laws “antiquated” and said it was time for “Texas to have an open conversation about this.”

Of course, Perry said that when Texas was still one of four states in the running to get Tesla’s new battery factory, which eventually went to Nevada. Perry prides himself on being able to woo job creators, and at the height of his Tesla charm offense during a June visit to California, he even drove the company’s Model S around Sacramento.

[…]

Texas Automobile Dealers Association lobbyist Robert Brazie said he believes bills promoting direct car sales will likely be filed before the end of the 2015 legislative session, but that he expects them to garner little support. He said an offer of future Tesla investments would carry little weight in the state, because “when they had a chance to come to Texas, they didn’t.”

Brazie added that Tesla explained its choosing Nevada by pointing to “geography, cost and speed of development,” reasons that had “nothing to do” with either state’s car sales laws.

O’Connell admits that getting the law changed won’t be easy.

“Does the fact that we didn’t site the factory there complicate things? Absolutely,” O’Connell said. “But we’re going to be doing a number of big battery factories in the coming years and we’re going to need new vehicle factories as well, and there’s a certain logic to doing those in Texas.”

See here for past blogging on Tesla. I agree with TADA lobbyist Brazie that one or more bills to allow Tesla to operate will be filed, and I agree that they will go basically nowhere. That’s about the extent of my agreement with TADA on this, as I think they are completely in the wrong. Be that as it may, I’ve previously compared Tesla’s efforts to those of microbreweries, and one implication of that is that I expect them to need several sessions to really get traction on this. Some kind of grassroots outreach would be a good idea for them, too. I’ll keep an eye on this going forward.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Please get a flu shot

It’s always a good idea, even if it’s more effective in some years than in others.

The flu vaccine may not be very effective this winter, according to U.S. health officials who worry this may lead to more serious illnesses and deaths.

Flu season has begun to ramp up, and officials say the vaccine does not protect well against the dominant strain seen most commonly so far this year. That strain tends to cause more deaths and hospitalizations, especially in the elderly.

Only 48 percent of the 85 samples of H3N2 influenza viruses that have been tested since Oct. 1 are closely related to the strain that was picked for the vaccine distributed in North America, according to the agency.

“Though we cannot predict what will happen the rest of this flu season, it’s possible we may have a season that’s more severe than most,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a news conference Thursday.

CDC officials think the vaccine should provide some protection and still are urging people to get vaccinated. But it probably won’t be as good as if the vaccine strain was a match.

Flu vaccine effectiveness tends to vary from year to year. Last winter, flu vaccine was 50 to 55 percent effective overall, which experts consider relatively good.

[…]

Current flu vaccines are built to protect against three or four different kinds of flu virus, depending on the product. The ingredients are selected very early in the year, based on predictions of what strains will circulate the following winter.

The ingredients always include a Type A H3N2 flu virus. The most severe flu seasons tend to be dominated by some version of that kind of flu bug. The three most deadly flu seasons of the last 10 years – in the winters of 2003-2004, 2007-2008, and 2012-2013 – were H3N2 seasons.

In March, after the H3N2 vaccine strain was vaccine production was underway, health officials noted the appearance of a new and different strain of H3N2. “This is not something that’s been around before,” Frieden said.

But health officials weren’t sure if the new strain would become a significant problem in the United States this winter until recently, they said. Lab specimens from patients have shown that the most commonly seen flu bug so far is the new strain of H3N2. Specifically, about 48 percent of the H3N2 samples seen so far were well matched to what’s in the vaccine, but 52 percent were not, the CDC said.

Not perfect, but your odds are still a lot better with the vaccine than without. As the story notes, in an average year about 24,000 Americans die from the flu. I’ll have to check my math on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s more than the number of Americans that die from Ebola. (Which we still need to fight against as well, but Congressional Republicans have lost interest in Ebola since it’s not generating scary cable news stories any more.) So don’t fall for the hysteria. Please put the odds in your favor and get a flu shot, OK? Thanks.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Weekend link dump for December 14

“Indeed, evidence continues to mount that [Obamacare] is working extremely, even shockingly, well.”

“And that’s what I’m writing about here—parents who believe that they need to nurture, protect, and encourage their children, especially when they’re still impressionable and very, very young.”

“If there’s intelligent life in the cosmos, it’s probably nowhere we can get to anytime soon.” Bummer.

Turns out that “half of all marriages end in divorce” statistic is wrong. The divorce rate is on a three-decade decline, for a variety of reasons.

“The Obama recovery isn’t just a little bit better than the Bush recovery. It’s miles better.”

Learn how to code by tracking Santa’s progress.

Joe Sheehan is not impressed by the college football playoff committee.

So it’s agreed, then, that Discovery Channel’s “Eaten Alive” special was a bad idea.

Where Rolling Stone went wrong in its reporting on rape at the UVa campus.

What Paul Waldman says.

“If tolerating broken windows leads to more broken windows and escalating crime, what impact does tolerating police misconduct have?”

“The grimly protracted process over releasing this rotten report has become less an accounting of the CIA and more about whether the American government can manage even the tiniest bit of accountability for horrific war crimes. It has long been clear that there won’t be any actual legal accountability (remember that torture unto death is a capital crime), but it seems even an official report with little practical significance is more than our system can take.”

RIP, Ken Weatherwax, best known as Pugsley from The Addams Family.

President Obama learns how to code. Republicans respond that if it isn’t COBOL it doesn’t count.

David Letterman signs off on May 20. Mark your calendars.

“The bottom line is that artists’ rights are workers’ rights. You are not being progressive or radical by denying artists the right to control their own work. You are not helping the underprivileged by making it impossible for anyone who isn’t already rich and privileged to take up artistic careers. Your pirated Taylor Swift song isn’t feeding the poor. If you want to fight the power, maybe try hacking JP Morgan instead of pirating a vampire romance for your Kindle.”

“Thanks to humans, there are now over 5 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 250,000 tons, floating in water around the world.”

Kirsten Dunst will star in Season 2 of Fargo. More details are here. I’m excited.

What Atul Gawande says.

The next time someone tells you that feminists have no sense of humor, show them this, and then laugh.

More legal issues for Uber.

I’d consider buying music on vinyl if I had a record player, but I don’t, and I don’t have anyplace to put one (or an input in my stereo console for one). Hell, I still have old vinyl that I haven’t gotten around to ripping to MP3 yet.

“ObamaCare ads will now appear on 7-Eleven receipts at more than 7,000 stores nationwide as government health officials expand their outreach in the second year of healthcare sign-ups.”

For a guy that’s supposed to be brilliant, Ted Cruz sure is an idiot.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

DA’s office to help buy body cams

Very good news.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson plans to purchase hundreds of body-worn cameras for Houston police officers and sheriff’s deputies, weeks after widespread protests erupted when a white Missouri police officer was not charged for fatally shooting an unarmed black teen.

In the aftermath of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 24, civil rights groups have called for increased accountability during police encounters, including the use of small cameras worn on officers’ uniforms. This month the Chicago police department, the nation’s second-biggest force, announced a pilot program for body cameras to begin in January. The Obama administration also recently asked Congress for approval to spend $263 million to help states acquire 50,000 body cameras.

A sheriff’s spokesman and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, confirmed the purchase of the body cameras locally.

[…]

Local officials with the NAACP called the camera initiative “good news.”

“That’s a very positive step,” said Carroll Robinson, treasurer-elect with the Houston Branch of the NAACP. “The body camera won’t solve every problem but the more we can see the less we have to rely on he-said, she-said.

“They will help improve community trust in the law enforcement system and bring confidence to those who want to make sure the criminal justice system is hearing their voice and their concerns.”

Carmen Roe, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said body cameras are “essential to provide transparency out on the streets, for the protection of law enforcement as well as citizens in the community.”

Roe and others said policies and guidelines for the cameras’ use are critical.

“I hope there will be some written policies in place to ensure the cameras are not used at the discretion of officers,” Roe said. “Any time there are officers out on the street, their cameras should be activated to record any interaction with citizens in the community.”

Agreed on all counts, and major kudos to DA Devon Anderson for taking this initiative. This also addresses something I’ve been thinking of since the push for body cameras for HPD began, which is what about Sheriff’s deputies? There’s a lot more cops than just HPD, after all. Of course, there’s more than HPD and the HCSO, too, but you have to start somewhere.

You also have to keep in mind that body cameras are a tool and one piece of a much larger puzzle. They’re not a solution in and of themselves.

Justin Ready, an assistant professor of criminology at Arizona State University who has conducted research on the use of body cameras in the Mesa, Ariz., and Phoenix police departments, said the technology may not be enough to prevent another Ferguson.

“Any interaction is complex. The cameras might show you five pieces of a 10-piece puzzle, and we tend to fill in those blind spots with our own biases,” he said.

Though body cameras can raise transparency and accountability on both sides of the lens, experts also urge caution about unrealistic expectations for the devices.

One study released in September, “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program” – a joint report from the Police Executive Research Forum and the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – examined how agencies were using the devices and offered recommendations for those considering outfitting officers with cameras.

“There’s a lot of public support for it right now and agencies are really wanting to jump on board, but what we say is: Do this cautiously and think about what your policies are going to be and how this is going to impact your community and how officers are going to do their jobs,” said Lindsay Miller, the report’s co-author and a senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum.

Most cameras cost $1,000 to $1,500 each, but deploying the units also requires a more expensive component: video storage and management.

“Every video, no matter how you store it, has to be uploaded, characterized, properly tagged and sometimes linked to a document system,” Miller said. “This program requires a considerable amount of money and manpower.”

Absolutely, and it also requires a lot of thought, and ideally a lot of engagement with the public, to do this effectively and appropriately. That we are going to start thinking about these things, and again getting the public involved in the process, is a positive step. I commend DA Devon Anderson, whose action will enable all Sheriff’s deputies to get body cameras, for doing her part to make this happen. Grits, who notes pushes for body cameras all over Texas, and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

San Antonio special legislative elections appear to be set

Rumor has it.

Mike Villarreal

Mike Villarreal

State Rep. Mike Villarreal said Friday that Gov. Rick Perry has set Jan. 6 as the date for a special election to fill his position in the state House and a Senate seat being vacated by Leticia Van de Putte.

Villarreal and Van de Putte are leaving the Texas Legislature to run for San Antonio mayor.

In social media posts Friday, Villarreal divulged a snippet of a conversation he had with Ken Armbrister, a top Perry staffer, about the scheduling of the special election.

“He just called to let me know that the election will be called on Jan. 6,” Villarreal said in a phone interview. “This will minimize the possibility that there’s a vacancy in the House.”

The legislative session starts Jan. 13.

A Perry spokeswoman declined to confirm the date, saying: “We don’t have anything to announce on this. When we do, we will put out a press release.”

A formal announcement from Perry’s office could come as early as Monday.

Villarreal tweeted and Facebooked the news, which as you can see is unconfirmed at this time. Villarreal seems to be the only one willing to state this for the record, but we’ll know for sure soon enough.

Former San Antonio Councilmen Diego Bernal and Walter Martinez, who is also a former state representative, and Melissa Aguillon, who runs a public relations firm, all Democrats, are vying for Villarreal’s House seat. Nunzio Previtera, a Republican, and Libertarian Roger Gary are also eyeing the race.

[…]

State Reps. Jose Menendez and Trey Martinez Fischer, both Democrats, have launched campaigns to replace Van de Putte in the upper chamber. GOP activist Alma Perez-Jackson is also mentioned as a candidate, but has not officially announced her campaign.

I’ve said before that the special election in SD26 is a worthwhile shot for the Republicans to take, though I wouldn’t bet any money on their candidate making it to a runoff. Worst case scenario is a few fat cat donors waste some money.

Bexar County election officials already were urging reconsideration of the Jan 6. date.

Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said Friday the date wouldn’t allow the two days needed to prepare polling sites in schools that will be closed for the holidays until Jan. 5.

Surely there is an accommodation that can be made here. Both these races are near locks to need runoffs, so the sooner they are held, the better.

On a tangential note, January 14 – Day Two of the session – is the day that Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt is planning to resign to take the job of general counsel for the Ag Department. I would presume a special election to fill that seat, for which I have urged Dems to take a shot, will follow shortly thereafter. Assuming one of Reps. Martinez-Fischer or Menendez wins in SD26, we will need one more special election, likely in early March, to fill that vacancy. Barring any unforseen additional departures, that should be it for the time being.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Buc-ee’s wins logo legal challenge

Don’t mess with the beaver.

A lawsuit between two beaver-loving Texas-based businesses was dismissed before it even reached the courtroom, with the bigger company coming out victorious and the other left logo-less.

Back in early July the lawyers for popular Texas roadside chain Buc-ee’s filed a lawsuit against Frio River Grocery. Lawyers for Buc-ee’s argued in the initial suit that the signage and imagery used by the small store near the Frio River in Concan was a bit too close to what Buc-ee’s had been using for years, namely the cheerful beaver character and the color scheme.

Buc-ee’s is the brainchild of owners Beaver Aplin III and Don Wasek, based in Lake Jackson. They opened up a mega-store earlier this year between Houston and Galveston and have designs on opening many more in the coming few years.

The Frio River store complied with the Buc-ee’s camp and soon took down all of their suspect signage and promotional materials, according to Lake Jackson-based attorneys for Buc-ee’s, H. Tracy Richardson III and Jeff Nadalo.

“We got everything we asked for and they complied. The Frio Beaver is no more,” Richardson said Wednesday.

“We notified the court that we resolved it between ourselves and the other side never filed an answer to our suit,” Richardson says. Planned meetings in October and November never occurred and the judge in the case soon dismissed the case.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this is not Buc-ee’s first trip to the courtroom. They’re two for two so far. Beware the beaver, that’s all I’m saying.

Posted in: Legal matters.