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One year of the Green and Purple light rail lines

Ridership keeps trending up, but it’s hard to get a handle on the details from this story.

HoustonMetro

Monday marks one-year of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s two newest rail lines. Well, most of Metro’s two newest rail lines. The last mile or so to the Magnolia Park Transit Center will not open until after a long-delayed overpass is completed early next year.

The lines, which were years behind schedule, also have struggled to exceed expectations each month in terms of average daily ridership, but remain above Metro’s earliest estimates.

The Green Line along Harrisburg failed to average the 2,014 daily riders in its earliest months, but use has since picked up. For the past six months, it has averaged more than 2,600 riders on weekdays.

Meanwhile, the Purple Line, which connects the central business district to neighborhoods southeast of downtown  — passing by Texas Southern University and the University of Houston – has not reached the 3,913 riders Metro predicted each work day consistently, but is close to that over a six-month average.

Still, as some critics note, buses often outperform the new lines, though sometimes the comparisons are not ideal. In Metro’s previous bus system, prior to August, the Route 52 Scott bus that served the universities and southeast Houston residents around MacGregor Park averaged 5,511 daily trips, nearly 1,600 more than the Purple Line.

The bus, however, covered a larger route and hit other major spots the rail line does not.

Though the Red Line – Houston’s original light rail – far exceeds the ridership of bus lines, the Green and Purple lines are still outperformed by some buses. In March, the most recent month for which route-specific ridership is available, 14 frequent bus routes had more than 4,000 riders daily, something neither rail line achieved.

See here, here, and here for some background. I wish reports Dug Begley would just give us the actual numbers, instead of describing them to us. What does “the Purple Line…has not reached the 3,913 riders Metro predicted each work day consistently, but is close to that over a six-month average” even mean? Just give me the numbers and let me figure out the rest. As for the comparison to bus line ridership, it’s apples and oranges. Those high-ridership bus lines also outperform all the other bus lines, too. That’s why they’re part of the high-frequency bus network. If you look at the chart, one of the bus lines with a lot of riders cited is the #25 line, which runs on Richmond. There’s a reason why the Universities Line had the highest ridership projections of all the light rail lines other than the Main Street line. If you can draw a comparison between the new rail lines and the bus lines they supplanted, that’s one thing, though even that would be limited since the old bus lines were longer than the rail lines are. Otherwise, it’s contextless noise. The next comparison of consequence will be next May, when we see if the Green and Purple lines have continued to grow or if they have stalled out.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Typhoon Texas

Someplace new for the summer.

Not far from Katy Mills Mall, rainbow-colored slides tower seven stories high over a new water park that has taken shape on 25 acres.

A short hill with a waterfall running through it greets visitors. Inside, they’ll find nine water rides, a 25,000-square-foot wave pool, a lazy river and a Texas-style barbecue restaurant. About 18 acres sit next to the park for a planned expansion.

“It’s finally come to reality,” said Johnny Nelson, a former city administrator for Katy who first discussed the idea of a water park next to the 175-store outlet shopping mall back when it opened in 1999.

Katy has been known more for its powerhouse high school football team and popular mall than for any particular tourist attractions. The Katy MKT Depot and a nearby caboose stand as proud reminders of Katy’s railroad past, but they’re off the beaten path and not huge draws.

The rapid growth of the region, and surveys indicating residents wanted more in the way of family entertainment in the suburb induced city officials to come up with amenities that would attract large numbers of visitors. The water park may be one of them.

Interest in the $50 million Typhoon Texas facility, which [opened] Saturday, has been high on social media. It is anticipated to draw 400,000 visitors each year during its summer operating seasons, according to Byron Hebert, the current city administrator.

It will serve as a main lure in a burgeoning suburban district that already boasts restaurants, hotels and store chains. These attractions will soon be complemented by a $150 million public-private development that includes a 2.5-mile boardwalk around a pond, a hotel, a 55,000-square-foot convention center and an 89-acre nature park.

“To have a water park, to have a mall like Katy Mills, to be doing the work they’re doing in downtown Katy to renovate it too, and then the boardwalk – that’s millions of millions of dollars in capital investment that the community sees,” said Chris Tanea, marketing manager at the Katy Area Economic Development Council. “The city is going to reap huge benefits because of it, but it extends beyond that.”

[…]

Hebert noted that city leaders were pitched water park proposals on six prior occasions; they rejected each, deciding to wait for a private developer to tackle the project. They got their wish last year, and ground was broken in August.

He predicts that the city’s sales tax revenue will increase by at least 2 percent because of the water park, but said it’s too early to say what will be generated by the coming Boardwalk District, which will take several years to finish.

“Katy has really begun to brand itself as a regional destination for this area,” Tanea said. “The goal is to bring more people in because there is so much to offer here, and we still have space for growth.”

One expert, however, sees “virtually no economic impact” for the Houston area as a whole.

“It’s just increasing the entertainment dollars in Katy that would have otherwise gone to other parts of Houston, so it’s more of a direct impact on the immediate Katy area,” said Bill Gilmer, director for the Institute of Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston. “Certainly, San Antonio has its own water park, and so does Dallas, so nobody will be driving from over there.”

Maybe, I don’t know. I’m well familiar with the argument that new entertainment options don’t really have an economic impact but instead just redistribute the collective budget for leisure spending in an area. It’s one of the linchpins of the case against subsidized stadium construction. I feel like big-ticket items like a water park have more than a basically zero-sum effect, however. They’re an indulgence that I think a fair number of people will splurge on, with the payment for it not necessarily coming out of their existing allocation for fun. For sure, it will have a positive effect for the area, and will no doubt put a few bucks into many teenagers’ pockets. For an awful lot of people, it’s now the closest option for that experience. Even for me, it’s not really much farther than Splash Town, and it’s closer than Schlitterbahn Galveston. I admit, I’m thinking about taking the kids out there sometime this summer. The park hours are a little odd; they’re open till 10 most Fridays and even some Thursdays, but generally only till 7 on Saturdays. Not sure why they do it that way – why not till 10 on Saturdays, too? – but whatever. We still like going to the Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels – I have family there as well, which is another reason we go – but this will be on my list as well. What do you think?

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for May 29

How to deal with “Your issue is trivial, you should spend more time on what I find most important” arguments.

Can changing birth certificates change the bathroom access debate?

Maybe get a second opinion before you decide whether or not to have surgery.

“Three and a half billion years ago, a mega asteroid slammed into Earth, triggering massive tsunamis and leaving craters bigger than many U.S. states. […] Now, for the first time, remnants of that impact have been uncovered in ancient sediments in Australia, and they’re revealing more intriguing details about the Earth at that time.

Spider silk is some amazing stuff.

RIP, Nick Menza, former drummer for the rock group Megadeth.

Florence + The Machine are mensches. Have some Kleenex handy, you may need them.

I had no idea horse racing was so deadly.

Oh, Florida. I don’t even know what to say.

“Two decades ago, [Ken] Starr spent millions in taxpayer money to figure out if a consensual blowjob between adults took place.[1] Today he runs an institution that, from what journalists have uncovered, turned a blind eye repeatedly to sexual assault and domestic abuse allegations.”

RIP, Burt Kwouk, actor best known for playing Cato on the Pink Panther movies.

What Jon Ralston says.

Why robocalls are such a problem again.

RIP, Beth Howland, best known as Vera on the sitcom Alice.

“What Trump did was the equivalent of promising five bucks to a veteran’s charity and then trying to weasel out of it. What kind of person would do that?”

RIP, Mell Lazarus, creator of the Miss Peach and Momma comic strips.

“I’d love to trumpet hypocrisy in the recent scandal around the possible ouster of the Baylor University president, but the gravitational pull toward hypocrisy is more than a salacious twist; it’s a distraction from the critical conversation we need to be having on sexual assault and the institutions that cover it up.”

How an indie rock band’s well-intentioned homage became a $50,000 mistake.

Get to know Phyllis Randolph Frye, the grandmother of the transgender rights movement.

“So, there’s a long record here that spans a half a century at this point, and it tells a clear story. The story is that Democratic presidents and Democratic congresses have created the regime and the standards that are being used to judge Hillary Clinton harshly, and that those rules and regulations wouldn’t even exist if the Republicans had had their way.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Memorial residents file lawsuit over flooding

This ought to be interesting.

A group of residents sued the city of Houston and one of its local redevelopment authorities Wednesday, alleging that they approved commercial development in the Memorial City area without requiring adequate storm water mitigation, resulting in increased flooding in residential neighborhoods.

Claiming federal and state constitutional violations, the west Houston group Residents Against Flooding, joined by several individuals, is seeking to require the city to prioritize neighborhood flood relief by expediting drainage projects in residential areas and halting commercial building permits for projects on large lots unless those developments are found to not increase residential flood risks.

The plaintiffs also are looking to bar the redevelopment authority for Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone 17 from executing new private development agreements until further drainage infrastructure improvements are made to residential areas.

“The defendants’ actions and inactions — knowingly sending stormwaters into the residential neighborhoods that lack adequate infrastructure, without mitigation or necessary infrastructure improvement, and favoring projects for the private commercial interests at great expense to the residential interests — should shock our collective conscience,” the plaintiffs wrote.

See here for some background. You can see a copy of the lawsuit here; the plaintiffs had threatened last month that this was in the offing. There’s a good summary of what it’s all about at Swamplot – short answer is that the plaintiffs aren’t seeking damages, but to undertake and/or finish previously recommended drainage mitigation projects, and to put a halt to commercial development permits in the area until those projects have been done. I have no idea what their odds of success are, but I will be keeping an eye on this. The Press has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Two runoff recounts in the works

It’s not over yet in HD128.

Rep. Wayne Smith

In a reversal, state Rep. Wayne Smith is now pursuing a recount in his narrow loss in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff.

Deer Park attorney Briscoe Cain beat Smith, a longtime incumbent from Baytown, by 23 votes in the runoff. As soon as the outcome became clear in House District 128, Smith conceded the race, and his campaign confirmed the next morning that he was not interested in a recount.

But in a statement issued Thursday night, Smith indicated he had changed his mind.

“After much thought and careful consideration, I have decided to move forward with a recount,” Smith said. “Whenever a race is this close, the option for a recount must be considered. In the past two days, I have been overwhelmed by friends and supporters who have encouraged this option.”

Smith lost in the closest race of the runoffs, though not the closest race of the cycle. I was surprised when he initially declined to ask for a recount, so I’m not surprised he changed his mind.

The other recount was announced immediately in the aftermath of Tuesday’s runoffs.

Tuesday’s Republican primary runoffs may not be over yet for at least one candidate.

The contests produced a number of narrow margins — including in House District 54, where Killeen Mayor Scott Cosper won by just 43 votes. His opponent, Killeen optometrist Austin Ruiz, said late Tuesday night he has “decided to pursue filing for a recount.”

[…]

A losing candidate can ask for a recount if the number of votes by which he or she lost is less than 10 percent of the total number of votes his or her opponent received, according to the secretary of state’s office. The deadline to apply for a recount is by the end of the fifth day after the election or the second day after the vote totals are canvassed.

That deadline is Thursday, June 2, at 5 PM, according to the Secretary of State. I can’t imagine there will be any other requests, as the only other runoffs for which the races were close have had the losing candidates concede. But if Wayne Smith can change his mind then someone else could, too.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Remembering Buckyballs and the Nobel Prize they won

Twenty years ago, two Rice University chemists won the Nobel Prize for a revolutionary idea about carbon molecules.

The discovery of Buckyballs, a new form of carbon that ushered in the era of nanotechnology and won a Nobel Prize, happened largely by accident.

In 1985, Rice University chemists Robert Curl and Richard Smalley hosted British chemist Harry Kroto for a series of experiments in Houston. Kroto had a theory about how long carbon chains were formed in the atmospheres of carbon-rich giant stars, and Smalley had built a laser beam apparatus that could vaporize molecules and test the theory.

Over 10 days, the three professors and three graduate students conducted tests in which they vaporized carbon molecules with Smalley’s laser beam apparatus and then measured how the carbon atoms clustered together. To their surprise, in addition to the long chain molecules they were seeking, they found a high number of clusters consisting of 60 carbon atoms.

The professors tasked their graduate students with finding ways of changing the parameters of the experiment to increase the number of C60 molecules and tried to theorize what their structure would look like. They knew the structure had to be something more stable, like a sphere, that would protect the bonds between the carbon atoms from being easily broken.

“What was the chemical structure?” Curl recalled in his Rice office earlier this month. “How can you put 60 carbon atoms together and come up with something really stable?”

Kroto remembered he had built with his children a paper star dome that consisted of both pentagons and hexagons. He wanted to call his wife in England to have her find the construction.

“But it was getting late, and it seemed highly improbable that he had done this,” Curl said.

Instead, that night, Smalley fiddled with paper, scissors and scotch tape, creating a paper sphere made up of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons with 60 corners. It fit all the parameters for a stable form of carbon with 60 atoms.

The structure resembled the geodesic domes that American architect Buckminster Fuller designed for the 1967 Montreal World Exhibition. They decided to name the structure buckminsterfullerene in his honor. They called the spheres Buckyballs for short because they resembled soccer balls.

The trio was excited about what they came up with, but it was only a theory. They had no proof other than the high number of C60 molecules they were seeing in their experiments.

“That didn’t deter us,” Curl said.

Read the rest, it’s worth your time. Smalley passed away in 2005; Curl is now an emeritus professor. They didn’t have to win the Nobel for this research – there was another team that had made a similar discovery. Buckyballs themselves were never of much practical use, but the discovery led to the field of nanotechnology and the creation of nanotubes, among other things. It’s fair to say we live in a different world today because of Robert Curl and Richard Smalley.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Saturday video break: Just A Little Lovin’

How about a little throwback country/pop from Dusty Springfield?

Such a great voice. I need to find more of her stuff. For a more modern take on that song, here’s Adrian Lynne:

Very nice, though I kind of like the fact that Springfield does that in about half the time. And for a different song of the same name – dropped “g” in “lovin'” and all – here’s perennial favorite the Hot Club of Cowtown:

I always have some love for what they do.

Posted in: Music.

Anyone want to help me sue the feds?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Wednesday that he had filed a lawsuit challenging federal guidelines for transgender students, he said it was to protect a Texas school district that had adopted a policy requiring students to use bathrooms according to the gender cited on their birth certificates.

He didn’t say his office asked the district to pass the policy.

Nor did he say what The Texas Tribune has now learned: that his staff had approached another North Texas school district about pursuing the policy — and the lawsuit — 10 days earlier.

On May 16, two top Paxton aides attended a Wichita Falls school board meeting. The board was considering an agenda item regarding gender-specific restrooms and requesting legal representation from the attorney general’s office.

In a video recording of the meeting, Trey Sralla, the Wichita Falls school board president, introduces Paxton senior adviser Ben Williams and Assistant Attorney General Andrew Leonie, explaining that they are there to answer questions about the proposed policy.

“This has come down from the attorney general’s office, who have asked us to look at a policy here and [said] that they would be willing to on our behalf go and take this to the court system,” Sralla said at the meeting, which came three days after the federal government released guidelines instructing school districts to let transgender students use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Leonie then fielded several questions from board members, including whether getting involved in legal action would mean the district would lose federal funding.

“I wish I had brought my crystal ball with me but I left that in Austin,” Leonie said. “We are here to reassure you that if you should adopt a policy like is under consideration, we will do what we can to back you and to protect you from the federal government, whether that means being proactive in filing a suit or whether it is responding to a suit, I don’t know.”

After about an hour of discussion, board members ultimately decided against adopting the policy, concluding that the district already had appropriate practices in place to address the needs of transgender students.

“I feel like in this situation we’ve been put between a rock and a hard place by both the federal and our state government where we are the ones who would be the sacrificial lambs effectively in this fight,” said board member Elizabeth Yeager. “I think that would be completely a waste of time and a distraction from our school business of educating students.”

Wichita Falls Superintendent Michael Kurht also came out against adopting the policy, citing legal counsel that the school district’s current policies were in compliance with the new federal guidelines.

“I don’t know that my time and the district’s time is best suited to do this,” he said.

[…]

Asked to clarify how many school districts the attorney general’s office approached about adopting the transgender policy, Paxton spokesman Marc Rylander did not provide a specific number.

I’m sure. There were many questions raised when this lawsuit was first announced, but the question of how many times the AG’s office had to ask and got a No answer is one that ought to be pursued. The fact that they didn’t immediately say “no one else, just Wichita Falls ISD” suggests to me that there was at least one other school district besides them. Let’s find out who they were. There was also a question about whether they looked anywhere other than the Wichita Falls area. Given that Pearland already has the policy in place that Paxton was seeking Wichita Falls ISD to adopt, one wonders why they needed them or Harrold ISD or whoever else they might have pursued. Well, OK, we do know the reason, we just don’t know how vigorously Paxton pursued it before finding his mark. Like I said, that would be nice to find out.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The high-speed rail fight has officially shifted to Congress

Nothing like a little eminent domain action to spur some people on.

In the four years Texas Central Railway unveiled plans to link Dallas and Houston with the country’s first bullet train, officials with the private company have talked a lot about how quickly the line will whisk travelers between two of the country’s largest, fastest-growing urban areas, about how darn Texan the early investors are, about the stellar safety record of the Japanese rail technology they’ll be using.

By contrast, the company has talked very little about its planned use of eminent domain, which is the legal term for when a government, or frequently a private company that has the government’s endorsement, takes someone’s land. When the topic has come up, the company has typically responded by stressing its strong preference for negotiating with landowners to find a mutually agreeable price for their land.

The problem with that response is that it fails to acknowledge some fundamental truths about human beings in general and landowners in the rural areas along the bullet train’s proposed route in particular. People, as a rule, don’t like having their property sliced in two by large infrastructure projects. People in places like Ellis and Grimes counties really, really don’t like having their property sliced in two by a private, Japanese-backed venture whose only benefit for them will be the privilege of marveling at the wondrous bullet-train technology as it zooms by atop a 14-foot berm. If the line is ever going to get built, Texas Central will have to use eminent domain against hundreds, maybe thousands, of landowners.

Texas Central now admits as much. In filings last month with the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates the operations of the freight and passenger rail market, the company indicated that it’s ready to start acquiring right-of-way for its track.

“In many cases, that involves negotiating agreements with landowners who are willing sellers,” the company wrote. “Texas Central is already beginning those negotiations. Inevitably, however, some landowners along the route will not be willing to sell, or even negotiate. If some of those negotiations reach an impasse, Texas Central plans to use its statutory eminent domain powers to establish the properties’ condemnation value.”

In the weeks since the filling, the Surface Transportation Board has become the site of a pitched battle between Texas Central and its opponents, with powerful surrogates on both sides. Several members of Texas’ congressional delegation, and about a dozen state legislators, have waded into the debate. Congressmen Joe Barton of Ennis and Kevin Bradyof suburban Houston have filed letters opposing Texas Central while Dallas’Eddie Bernice Johnson and Corpus Christi’s Blake Farenthold offering statements of support.

The stakes are high. Texas Central says it needs Surface Transportation Board approval in order to begin using eminent domain under Texas law, an obvious prerequisite for actually building and operating a railroad.That means the Surface Transportation Board represents a regulatory choke point, a rare point where opponents can conceivably derail the project in one fell swoop.

See here for some background. If you look at Rep. Johnson’s letter, you will see that it was also signed by Rep. Gene Green of Houston. No surprise, since urban Democrats have been big supporters of the rail line so far. The surprise was Rep. Farenthold, as his district isn’t in the path of the train and is more rural than urban. Gotta give him credit for that – he didn’t have to get involved, and having at least one Republican in their corner will help TCR make its case. I don’t know what the timeine is for the Surface Transportation Board, but I agree that this is a potential choke point, and it could have a disproportionate effect on the ultimate outcome. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

George Scott hangs on after recount

A win by six votes is still very much a win.

George Scott

George Scott

A longtime Katy ISD board member conceded defeat Tuesday to a district critic in a closely watched race after a recount did not show him closing the narrow margin.

Trustee Joe Adams’ concession means that conservative blogger George Scott will be joining the board of the fast-growing suburban district west of Houston.

Adams has served on the board for 27 years.

Two four-member counting committees began recounting votes at 9 a.m. Tuesday. After mail-in ballots were recounted and votes did not swing Adams’ way, the incumbent conceded the race, not waiting for electronic votes to be recounted.

Before the recount, the district had said unofficial results showed Scott had defeated Adams by three votes out of nearly 3,000 votes cast. The recount showed Scott with 1479 votes to Adams’ 1473.

[…]

Scott blamed Adams for a lack of leadership on the board, though he softened his tone on Tuesday.

“Joe conducted himself with class and dignity in every way he interacted with me. He had a right to a recount,” Scott said Tuesday. “Obviously, I’m very excited. The issues that I campaigned on have not changed … but today is not about the issues. Today is about this incredible process.”

See here and here for the background. Scott had started with a three-vote lead, which expanded to six as the absentee ballots were counted and led to Adams’ concession. Scott’s swearing in date has not been announced, but he has been in attendance at recent board meetings, so I’m sure he’ll hit the ground running. Covering Katy, which includes a statement by Scott in the comments to their story, has more.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Texans say they favor Medicaid expansion

This comes with a huge “but” attached to it.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

More than 60 percent of Texans support an expansion of Medicaid here and plan to take those views into the voting booth in November, a new survey commissioned by the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute finds.

The survey results, unveiled Wednesday at the annual Medical World Americas convention in Houston, show the public at odds with the state’s Republican leadership, which has steadfastly refused to consider such an expansion, calling it wasteful and a bad solution.

“I understand people in Austin have been reluctant, but I believe what this survey demonstrates is that people want something done to improve access,” said Dr. Arthur “Tim” Garson, director of the Health Policy Institute. “People are looking for help and their choice seems to be Medicaid expansion. A uniquely Texas solution would be best, but we have to do something.”

The findings further resonate in a state that continues to lead the nation in the number of uninsured. Texas remains one of 19 states that has chosen not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The second annual Medical Center study gauging public opinion on health care issues covered topics ranging from access to health care to the wisdom of raising the price of foods that contribute to obesity.

Of the 1,000 people polled by Nielsen in five states, close to 100 percent said they feel it is deeply important to have insurance for themselves and their family. In Texas, 96 percent value health insurance.

The study’s margin of error is 3 percentage points overall and close to 5 percentage points in Texas.

Beyond self-interest, 91 percent of respondents in Texas, California, New York, Ohio and Florida said it was important to them that everyone in the nation have health insurance.

The sticking point has always been how to get there.

In Texas, 63 percent of those polled said they support an expanded Medicaid program. Similarly, 68 percent in Florida also favored a Medicaid expansion. These numbers are significant because of the states surveyed, only Florida and Texas did not expand the safety-net program, which is jointly paid for with federal and state dollars.

I couldn’t find a copy of the poll googling around, so you’ll have to take the story at its word. The caveat over this, of course, is that none of it matters until someone loses an election over it. Let me say that again in capital letters, for emphasis: NONE OF THIS MATTERS UNTIL SOMEONE LOSES AN ELECTION OVER IT. Greg Abbott doesn’t care what opinion polls say, and there’s not nearly enough support in the Legislature to push the issue. Various county-level Republicans, who feel the effect of paying for health care for a substantial uninsured population directly, support Medicaid expansion, but again, Greg Abbott doesn’t care what they think. Until someone loses an election because they oppose expanding Medicaid – and by this I mean someone who was otherwise expected to win, not someone who was vulnerable because of varying turnout patterns or other exogenous factors – nothing will change.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten: In the city, part 12

A very California-centric episode today.

1. San Francisco Bay Blues – Eric Clapton
2. San Jacinto – Peter Gabriel
3. San Lorenzo – Pat Metheny Group
4. Santa Ana – Bruce Springsteen
5. Santa Ana Woman – The Bobs
6. Santo Domingo – Rodrigo y Gabriela
7. Say Goodbye To Hollywood – Billy Joel
8. Silver Springs – Fleetwood Mac
9. Snow In Austin – Ellis Paul
10. Sommerset – Zoot Sims

Here come those Santa Ana-related song lyrics again. After a couple of weeks where songs with city names were few and far between, it’s nice to see that the letter S didn’t let me down. Have a happy holiday weekend, y’all.

Posted in: Music.

Council unanimously passes Turner’s first budget

Good job.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner achieved his goal of securing unanimous passage of his first general fund budget Wednesday morning, a month ahead of the typical schedule and after an unusually brief and uncontentious discussion of council members’ proposed changes.

The $2.3 billion general fund budget, which pays for most basic city services with revenues from taxes and fees, represents only the second budget cut for Houston in two decades. The first came after the 2008 nationwide financial crisis.

“It’s not my budget, it’s our budget,” Turner told City Council. “There are fewer than 20 amendments today, which I think speaks to the collaborative nature of the partnership we have. I want to thank you for the trust you’ve placed in me.”

[…]

Turner’s budget proposal in general , which spends $82 million less than was budgeted in the current fiscal year, despite an additional $27 million for employee raises and an increase of $29 million in pension payments, cuts 54 vacant positions and includes roughly 40 layoffs.

The document pulls $10 million from reserves, makes $56 million in permanent changes, mainly cuts within departments, and relies on $94 million in one-time fixes to bridge the $160 million gap the city had faced between its revenues and expenses.

The Mayor’s press release is here, and a longer version of the Chron story is here. This is the “easy” budget, in the sense that it doesn’t yet do anything related to pensions, and was able to use a number of one-time items to help boost revenue and mitigate the need for deeper cuts. Next year will be harder, especially if sales tax revenue continue to sag. The relative ease and widespread harmony with which this budget was passed gives Turner some momentum and a fair amount of political capital to deal with that budget as it comes. The Press has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Baylor fires Art Briles

About time.

Baylor University, in response to allegations of sexual assaults made against students — including by several football players — announced Thursday that football coach Art Briles has been suspended with intent to terminate, and Kenneth Starr will no longer serve as the president but will stay at the school.

Baylor’s actions come after the university’s board of regents received an independent report from a law firm that investigated the school’s response to sexual assault allegations.

“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus. This investigation revealed the University’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students,” Richard Willis, chairman of the Baylor board of regents, said in a statement.

“The depth to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us. Our students and their families deserve more, and we have committed our full attention to improving our processes, establishing accountability and ensuring appropriate actions are taken to support former, current and future students.”

Starr will transition into a role as chancellor and remain as a law school professor. Starr’s duties as chancellor will include external fundraising and religious liberty; he will have no operational duties at the university.

Athletic director Ian McCaw was sanctioned and placed on probation. He is working to find an interim football coach, according to Richard Willis, who is a member of Baylor’s Board of Regents.

Dr. David Garland, a former dean and professor at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, will serve as interim president. The school said in the release that additional members of the administration and athletics program have also been dismissed but declined to identify them.

Baylor officials said in a news release that the school had hired a New York law firm to contact the NCAA about potential rules violations.

A copy of the report is here, and Baylor’s press release announcing their actions is here. I have no sympathy for Art Briles, and I hope he never coaches again anywhere. Let him spend the rest of his life regretting his actions, or lack of same. And as you read the zillions of stories on the Internet about this, please spare a thought for the victims of those uninvestigated assaults, and give the stories that spend any time contemplating what this means to the Bears’ football fortunes the contempt they deserve. If you need a little extra focus for that, or just a reminder of how we got here, go read this Texas Monthly story from last August, and this Outside the Lines report from last week. Think Progress, Texas Monthly, Martin Longman, and Deadspin’s Diana Moscovitz, who is not impressed, have more.

Posted in: Other sports.

Ellis v. Radack

From the inbox:

Sen. Rodney Ellis

Sen. Rodney Ellis

On Tuesday, Commissioner Steve Radack said during a public session of the Harris County Commissioner’s Court that Senator Rodney Ellis should “shut up” about criminal justice reform. Click here and scroll to the 30 second mark of the Executive Session.

Today, Senator Ellis offers the following response:

“In an outburst more in the style of Donald Trump rather than the more staid Commissioner’s Court, Commissioner Radack called me out by name and told me to ‘shut up’ about criminal justice reforms in our community,” said Senator Ellis. “As long as I have the privilege of public service, I’m not going to shut up.”

Ellis continued: “I’m not going to shut up about our broken criminal justice system and people dying in jail. I’m not going to shut up about a bail system that keeps people in a cage just because they’re poor. And I’m not going to shut up about the fact that the attorney you can afford too often determines the quality of justice you receive.”

“This isn’t an argument about statistics – it’s an argument about whether or not Harris County continues to needlessly destroy lives, jeopardize our communities, and waste taxpayer dollars with its broken justice system. I’m going to speak up for all people and especially the most vulnerable in our society, just as I’ve always done. And I will not be bullied by any Commissioner, regardless of where my public service takes me.”

“I challenge Commissioner Radack to sit down for a public debate about the criminal justice reforms needed in our community.”

All righty then. The video link above is to Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting. Note that what comes up is the Call To Order – you need to then click on the Executive Session link to see the bit in question. That clip is only 2:28 in length, so you may as well just watch the whole thing. Radack is referring to the lawsuit filed against Harris County by the non-profit Equal Justice Under Law over the county’s bail practices. That lawsuit has since been updated to add another plaintiff. See Grits for more details about that, and for a long-overdue move on the county’s part to actually use Pretrial Services in a meaningful way. Along the way, it would appear that some nerves have been touched and things may get a bit contentious. Bring it on, I say. Oh, and by the way, Commissioner Gene Locke sided with Sen. Ellis on this one. The Court is one of the chummier political institutions we have around here. This little bit of disharmony was welcome and refreshing.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

More on the effort to make the Heights less dry

From the Chron:

beer

With the intention of building a new store in the Heights, H-E-B said Wednesday that it has been working with a political consulting firm in Austin to help change a law precluding beer and wine sales in a dry part of the historic Houston neighborhood.

The grocer said it has contracted with Texas Petition Strategies to collect signatures needed to secure a place on the November ballot where residents can vote to make beer and wine sales – for off-premise consumption – legal.

The effort has led to a petition drive by a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which has been seeking some 1,500 signatures needed.

H-E-B spokeswoman Cyndy Garza Roberts said a location in the Heights has been identified, but the company is still in negotiations on the site and commenting on specific details would be premature.

“We definitely want to be in the Heights, but in order to do so we need to make sure we provide those customers with the same quality products that they’re able to find at our other stores,” she said.

[…]

The group has 60 days to gather the signatures from residents who live in the area formerly known as the City of Houston Heights. Once the signatures are gathered, they will be verified by the City Secretary with Houston City Council then calling the election for November, according to a news release.

The signatures are being collected by a door-to-door effort and they can also be signed at area establishments, including Coltivare and Revival Market, said Hatch. The coalition has secured more than half of the signatures needed.

See here for the background. The one thing I know for sure is that a lot of Heights residents have been hoping for an HEB to be built in the neighborhood. I’d recommend playing that angle up, both in the signature-gathering and the election itself. I’ll be interested to see what if any opposition arises to this as well. Given the November date, turnout won’t be an issue.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Paxton sues over Obama directive on transgender bathroom access

A more transparent publicity stunt you would be hard-pressed to find.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Texas, joined by 10 other states, filed a lawsuit Wednesday to stop a federal directive instructing school districts to let transgender students use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Wednesday.

Calling the Obama administration guidelines “outside the bounds of the constitution,” the McKinney Republican said that the state was taking action to protect a school district near the Oklahoma border that had passed a policy earlier this week requiring students to use bathrooms according to the gender cited on their birth certificates.

“Harrold Independent School District fulfilled a responsibility to their community and adopted a bathroom policy puts the safety of their students first,” said Paxton. “Unfortunately the policy placed them at odds with federal directives handed down earlier this month. That means the district is in the crosshairs of Obama administration which has maintained it will punish anyone who doesn’t comply with their orders.”

The other states in the lawsuit are Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Paxton said they had joined because the issue was of national importance.

“It represents just the latest example of the current administration’s attempt to accomplish by executive fiat what they couldn’t accomplish democratically in Congress,” he said.

The Obama administration guidelines stated transgender students have the right to use their preferred bathrooms in public schools because of Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at education institutions that receive federal funding. It does not have the force of law, though school districts could risk losing federal money if they do not comply.

Harrold superintendent David Thweatt, who joined Paxton at the Austin news conference, said his school board had passed the policy out of concern for the “safety, security, and dignity of the children.” None of the 100 students currently enrolled there identify as transgender, he said.

Concerns about the safety of allowing transgender people to access the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identities draw deep skepticism from LGBT advocates. With virtually no evidence of attacks coming from such policies in any states, they say, efforts like those ramping up in Texas instead serve to further stigmatize transgender people and perpetuate violence against them.

When asked Wednesday, neither Paxton nor Thweatt could point to instances where allowing transgender students access to the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identities had threatened anyone’s safety.

We all know why that’s true, right? Paxton had previously sent a letter to the feds asking for some “clarifications” on the directive, which was clearly some laying of groundwork for the lawsuit. It’s not the first time Paxton has expressed a deep interest in people’s potty usage, nor is he the first Republican to do so. To get some idea of how ridiculous this all is, Andrea Grimes digs in a bit:

Harrold ISD passed its policy, which according to Paxton makes “accommodations for special circumstances on a case-by-case basis,” on Monday. That’s two days ago. The Obama administration issued its guidelines nearly two weeks ago.

Apparently one of President Obama’s many skills is oppressing people from the past, using time travel. What a mighty coincidence that, on May 23, Harrold ISD, which says it has no transgender students, decided to pass a papers-please bathroom policy that affects none of its students. And then on May 25, Harrold just happened to become the lead plaintiff in an 11-state federal lawsuit against the federal government, arguing that guidelines Obama issued before Harrold even had a bathroom policy violate Harrold’s right to have whatever non-existent policy it wanted, two weeks before.

When I pressed the Harrold ISD superintendent on the curious timing of the policy’s passage, he responded: “We passed the policy because we believe in it. We think it’s necessary to protect the security and safety and dignity of children.”

Well, speaking of security and safety — from what, exactly? At Wednesday’s presser, reporters put pressure on Paxton to cite any examples of transgender people of any age doing harm to others in public facilities. Because it would be impossible, even for a great legal mind like Paxton’s, to present evidence for something that doesn’t actually happen, the AG spun questions back to familiar territory: defending the Constitution, bad Barack Obama, the evil fed, etc.

She documents the more recent previous cases of potty panic from the state GOP, which shows no sign of letting up. Think Progress adds on:

The entire lawsuit is based on a false premise. As Paxton explained at the beginning of Wednesday’s press conference, the federal government’s directives “open all school bathrooms to people of both sexes.” The lawsuit similarly suggests that the guidance requires that “persons of both sexes have a right to use previously separate sex intimate facilities.”

Drawing this conclusion requires both a deliberate misreading of the guidance and a rejection of who transgender people are. The letter issued earlier this month by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) specifically affirms that “Title IX’s implementing regulations permit a school to provide sex-segregated restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, housing, and athletic teams, as well as single-sex classes under certain circumstances.” It simply adds that when doing so, schools must allow transgender students to participate in accordance with their gender identity.

The Texas lawsuit doesn’t even use the word “transgender” except when quoting from other documents, and it uses scare quotes to mock the concept of “gender identity” throughout. After describing the guidance as a “massive social experiment” that runs “roughshod over commonsense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights,” it proceeds to layout an unrecognizable understanding of gender identity.

The suit also claims that the guidance requires “seismic changes” to how the schools operate, because they must allow students to “choose the restrooms, locker rooms, and other intimate facilities that match their chosen ‘gender identity’ on any given day.”

The notion that a gender identity can be chosen or that it can flipflop by the hour ignores the definition provided by the DOJ and DOE — that it is “an individual’s internal sense of gender.” The guidance also repeatedly refers to providing treatment that is “consistent” with students’ gender identity, something that could not be done but for the assumption that their identity is, in fact, consistent.

[…]

The lead counsel on the case is Austin Nimocks. Before working for Paxton, Nimocks was senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), where he helped them repeatedly lose caseschallenging marriage equality. ADF is behind multiple other lawsuits challenging the transgender guidance and has also persuaded schools to pass anti-trans policies like Harrold’s by promising to provide free counsel.

Despite the losing record Nimocks brings to the case, he may prevail at the district court level. The only judge on the bench in the federal district court in Wichita Falls, where Harrold ISD is located and where the suit was filed, is Judge Reed O’Connor. In 2014 and early 2015, when federal judges were ruling in favor of same-sex marriage across the country, O’Connor was one of the only judges — and indeed, one of the last judges anywhere — who ruled against it.

So there may be a step or two backwards before we can move forward. Though who knows, maybe it will be harder than even Ken Paxton thinks to get a judge to buy his mishmash of baloney and fact-free fearmongering. I look at it this way: The reason why the courts began ruling against same-sex marriage bans is that the argument against same-sex marriage ultimately boiled down to discredited studies claiming that children raised by same-sax couples did worse than other children, and a general animus towards the whole idea. The former couldn’t stand courtroom scrutiny, and the latter was ruled to be an insufficient cause for a law that targeted a class of people. This is a different kind of case here, since it’s the plaintiffs who are seeking restrictions, but I think this basic principle will eventually play out in the courts. There’s no justification for the anti-trans laws, and I am confident that the courts will, by and large, rule that way. It may yet take awhile, and Ken Paxton may get the legal victory to go with the political bonanza that he hopes to reap, but in the end I believe justice will prevail. The Chron, the Current, Trail Blazers, the AusChron, and the Press has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

RideAustin

Another new player gets set to enter the Austin rideshare market.

Adding to the growing number of ride-hailing options in Austin since Uber and Lyft’s wholesale evacuation, a new nonprofit, community-based app called RideAustin was introduced today at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar.

The app is being described as “innovative,” as well as made “by Austin, for Austin,” according to Joe Deshotel, RideAustin’s PR representative.

The initiative is a collaboration of Austin-based tech entrepreneurs and community leaders, for service that “[brings] the community together to build local solutions for Austin’s ridesharing future.” Formed as a nonprofit, and led by billionaire Austin tech giant and Trilogy founder Joe Liemandt and Crossover founder Andy Tryba, RideAustin’s overarching goal to become a “community asset,” per Deshotel, begins with uniting tech advancement with social responsibility.

Only two weeks in the making – Deshotel himself joined the group a week ago – the app joins Get Me, zTrip, Wingz, and still-in-the-works Warp Ridesharing. The RideAustin app will go live for iPhone users this morning, with service starting in June. (The Android version of the app is also expected to roll out in June.) Prospective drivers can start the on-boarding process, and get themselves scheduled for fingerprinting.

Blue-sky success would involve a smooth scale out from its initial services areas: the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the Downtown area, for which exact parameters haven’t been set. Not having “to worry about shareholders” as a nonprofit, it “will allow drivers to earn more [RideAustin will take a smaller than industry-standard commission] and riders pay less while helping local charities.”

Initial ride pricing itself is unknown, but unlikely to be as low as Uber and Lyft, at least to start. As reported previously, the best current option, Get Me, has been struggling with driver/rider matches, often forcing riders to wait longer than 10 minutes – Uber took an average of three minutes – and pay significantly higher prices.

Two unique RideAustin app features include a fare roundup option and “optional surge pricing,” says Deshotel. The fare roundup feature would allow riders round their fares up to the next dollar over the fare, to be given to a choice of as-yet-determined charities.

The more interesting (and potentially problematic) feature, optional surge pricing, would allow riders to opt-in to surges, allowing them first ride at premium cost. Riders electing not to opt-in, or financially unable to do so, will remain in driver queues, placed behind those accepting surge pricing. Though RideAustin is surely a business in all contexts, even with its additional aims at targeting the underserved and disabled, locating balance will be paramount, and could throw its first-look presentation as community-facing into immediate question.

Having this be a nonprofit is an interesting variation, and while I’m not exactly sure how well that will work, I see no reason why it can’t work. The point is that we should all hope that at least a couple of these new ventures find success, which they are then able to bring to other cities. I’ve heard an awful lot about the “free market” in ridesharing over the past several months, but the truth is that the rideshare market was and currently is entirely dominated by two enormous firms. That’s a “competitive” market in the same way that the broadband and cable/satellite TV markets are competitive. Surely that’s not what we really want here, right? I’ll say again, the single best outcome here is for multiple viable alternatives to Uber and Lyft to emerge. That would be good for riders, good for drivers, and good for city governments that don’t want to be held hostage by a couple of would-be monopolists. The Statesman and Buzzfeed have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

The Sugarek/Jeffery family is back together

Wonderful news.

Seven weeks after Child Protective Services caseworkers removed the boys following their foster mothers’ repeated complaints about suspected abuse by an older sibling living elsewhere in foster care, a CPS supervisor brought them back.

The move followed a contentious court hearing and a series of private meetings in which the mothers say CPS never acknowledged an error but agreed it was best to return the boys to the home where they had flourished. A CPS spokesman declined comment.

[…]

In a series of meetings last week, Ketterman and the foster mothers say CPS told them an investigation found the teen had not abused the 3-year-old. They said CPS and the CASA advocate suggested the problem was miscommunication, even though the foster mothers had meticulously detailed every concern for months. At one point, Sugarek said, CPS suggested the anal injury may have been caused by pinworms. She found that ridiculous, saying Dion’s pinworms had healed months earlier after he came to live with them.

But the foster mothers agreed to disagree on the abuse and negotiated to have the children returned. Sugarek and Jeffery say they’re back on track to adopt the two boys and look forward to discussing that at a hearing next month.

Meanwhile, the boys will have only supervised visits with their older brother. The foster mothers say CPS has asked for help in finding a placement for the teen somewhere in the close-knit Heights community.

See here and here for the background. I was at Hogg for their end-of-year awards ceremony on Monday evening, and the first people I happened to see on campus as Olivia and I arrived were Carol Jeffery and the two boys. It was so awesome to see them together. As Lisa Falkenberg notes, the outpouring of support from the community was overwhelming, but Sugarek and Jeffery and the boys were ultimately very lucky. Far too many people, adults and children, don’t get this kind of happy ending from CPS. It sure would be nice if our state leaders cared more about that.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 23

The Texas Progressive Alliance does not get paid to not work for Ken Paxton or George P. Bush as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Democratic primary runoff results

vote-button

Harris County results

Fort Bend County results

Statewide results

Trib liveblog

Just for the record, we didn’t get any precinct results until 8:34, at which time only 8% of precincts had reported. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because of overwhelming turnout this time. We did get a big batch just after 9, but thanks to some close races, Harris County results will be the last ones I write about in this post.

Grady Yarbrough cements his position as this generation’s Gene Kelly by winning the Railroad Commissioner runoff. I’ll say again, you want a decent candidate to win these downballot primaries, especially against a perennial candidate, you’re going to need some investment in those races.

On a more interesting note, first-time candidate Vicente Gonzalez won the runoff in CD15 to succeed retiring Rep. Ruben Hinojosa. Gonzalez drew support from a bunch of Congressional incumbents, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Someone at least thinks he has a bright future, so keep an eye on him.

In Bexar County, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins will succeed retiring Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon in HD120.

In fairness to Stan Stanart, the Fort Bend County result reporting was even worse. They posted some precinct results a few minutes before Harris did, then bizarrely went back to showing early votes with zero precincts in. That was still the case as of 9:45 PM, then finally at 10 PM all the results came in at once. The deservedly maligned Rep. Ron Reynolds led 59-41 after early voting, then held on for a 53-47 margin. I wonder if voters were changing their minds, or if it was just the nature of Reynolds supporters to vote early. Whatever the case, he won.

And from Harris County:

– Dakota Carter wins in SBOE6.
– Ed Gonzalez will be the nominee for Sheriff.
– Judge Elaine Palmer easily held off JoAnn Storey for the 215th Civil District Court. Kristin Hawkins had an easy win for the 11th. The closest race of the evening was in the 61st, where Fredericka Phillips nosed out Julie Countiss by 210 votes after overcoming a small early lead by Countiss.
– Eric William Carter won in JP Precinct 1, while Hilary Green held on in JP Precinct 7.
– Chris Diaz romped in Constable Precinct 2, while Sherman Eagleton cruised in Constable Precinct 3.

And finally, Jarvis Johnson won in HD139, entirely on the strength of absentee ballots. Kimberly Willis won the early in-person vote as well as the Runoff Day vote, but not by a large enough margin given the modest number of people who turned out. Johnson will have the seniority advantage over his fellow freshmen thanks to his win in the special election, but this is not the kind of result that will scare anyone off for the next cycle.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Republican primary runoff results

vote-button

Harris County results

Statewide results

Trib liveblog

Your new State Senators are Bryan Hughes, who defeated his former House colleague David Simpson, and Dawn Buckingham, who defeated former Rep. Susan King. Hughes is a Dan Patrick buddy, who will fit right in to the awfulness of the upper chamber. Buckingham is a first-time officeholder who needs only to be less terrible than Troy Fraser, but I don’t know if she’s capable of that. She has a Democratic opponent in November, but that’s not a competitive district.

The single best result in any race on either side is Keven Ellis defeating certifiable loon Mary Lou Bruner in SBOE9. Whether Bruner finally shot herself in the foot or it was divine intervention I couldn’t say, but either way we should all be grateful. State government has more than enough fools in it already. Here’s TFN’s statement celebrating the result.

Jodey Arrington will be the next Congressman from CD19. There were also runoffs in a couple of Democratic districts, but I don’t really care about those.

Scott Walker easily won his Court of Criminal Appeals runoff. Mary Lou Keel had a two-point lead, representing about 6,000 votes, with three-quarters of precincts reporting, while Wayne Christian had a 7,000 vote lead for Railroad Commissioner. Those results could still change, but that seems unlikely.

Two incumbent House members appear to have fallen. Rep. Doug Miller in HD73 lost to Kyle Biedermann after a nasty race. Miller is the third incumbent to be ousted in a primary since 2006. They sure are easily dissatisfied in the Hill Country. Here in Harris County, Rep. Wayne Smith has been nipped by 22 votes by Briscoe Cain. That race was nasty, too. You have to figure there’ll be a recount in that one, with such a small margin, but we’ll see. For other House runoffs, see the Trib for details.

Last but not least, in another fit of sanity Harris County Republicans chose to keep their party chair, Paul Simpson. Better luck next time, dead-enders. Final turnout was 38,276 with 927 of 1,012 precincts reporting, so well below the Stanart pre-voting estimate of 50,000. Dems were clocking in at just under 30K with about the same number or precincts out. That’s actually a tad higher than I was expecting, more or less in line with 2012 when there was a Senate runoff.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Voter ID’s day before the full Fifth Circuit

Here we go again.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A top lawyer for Texas fiercely defended the state’s strictest-in-the-nation voter identification law on Tuesday, in a high-profile case that could ultimately determine at what point states that assert that they are protecting the integrity of elections cross over into disenfranchisement.

Standing before all 15 members of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller argued that judges were wrong to conclude in two previous rulings that the Texas Legislature discriminated against minority and low-income voters in passing a 2011 law that stipulates which types of photo identification election officials can and cannot accept at the polls.

If those rulings are left as written, “all voting laws could be in jeopardy,” Keller said before a packed courtroom that included his boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Lawyers representing the U.S. Department of Justice, minority groups and other plaintiffs disagreed, asking the judges to affirm what a lower court — and a three-judge panel in this same courthouse — previously concluded: that Senate Bill 14 has a “discriminatory effect” on Hispanic, African-American and other would-be voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Only a handful of judges asked questions at length on Tuesday, making it difficult to know where the majority stands. But the 5th Circuit is considered among the nation’s most conservative, with 1o of its members having been appointed by Republican presidents.

Paxton left the courtroom Tuesday feeling “optimistic” that the law, “which has worked” in preventing voter fraud would survive, he told the Tribune.

“There’s been no discriminatory effect shown – they never provided any evidence,” Paxton said. “We’ve done everything we can to provide a way for people to vote. It’s clear.”

Chad Dunn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he wouldn’t bother trying to read the judges’ leanings based on their questions, but be nevertheless felt confident, calling the Texas law “indefensible.”

In the courtroom, opponents of the rul argued that not all voter ID laws violate the federal law, but that the state’s unusually short list of what election workers can accept at the polls is particularly burdensome for certain voters — particularly minorities.

“The question is whether there are requirements in SB 14 that are needlessly hard” for certain voters, Dunn told the judges. “The details of this law – which have never been justified — are what make this unconstitutional.”

See here for the background. You pretty much know the story by now, but if you want to engorge yourself on coverage from before the morning of the hearing, here’s the Trib, the Express News, the Associated Press, and Think Progress. The Fifth Circuit will issue a ruling when it is good and ready, but SCOTUS has indicated that there’s a July 20 deadline for deciding whether or not to put an injunction on the law for the November election or not. In the meantime, the Washington Post reminds us what it is like to be on the business end of this law:

In his wallet, Anthony Settles carries an expired Texas identification card, his Social Security card and an old student ID from the University of Houston, where he studied math and physics decades ago. What he does not have is the one thing that he needs to vote this presidential election: a current Texas photo ID.

For Settles to get one of those, his name has to match his birth certificate — and it doesn’t. In 1964, when he was 14, his mother married and changed his last name. After Texas passed a new voter-ID law, officials told Settles he had to show them his name-change certificate from 1964 to qualify for a new identification card to vote.

So with the help of several lawyers, Settles tried to find it, searching records in courthouses in the D.C. area, where he grew up. But they could not find it. To obtain a new document changing his name to the one he has used for 51 years, Settles has to go to court, a process that would cost him more than $250 — more than he is willing to pay.

“It has been a bureaucratic nightmare,” said Settles, 65, a retired engineer. “The intent of this law is to suppress the vote. I feel like I am not wanted in this state.”

If anyone can give me a good reason why Mr. Settles has to go through all that crap in order to be able tovote as he had been voting for nearly 50 years, I’d love to hear it. Actually, I’m tired of arguing the minutiae of this stupid law and its cousins. It’s way past time to establish voting as a constitutional right for all citizens of adult age. Either we’re a democracy or we’re just kidding ourselves. I prefer the former. Trail Blazers has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Lawsuit filed over STAAR exams

Interesting.

A backlash against this year’s STAAR exams escalated Monday when a group of parents sued the state in an attempt to keep schools from using 2016 test scores to rate students — including deciding whether students should advance to the next grade or attend summer school.

The lawsuit, filed against the Texas Education Agency in Travis County district court, argues that this year’s scores are invalid because the exams were not administered under parameters laid out in House Bill 743. The legislation, passed last year with bipartisan support, requires the state to design STAAR exams so that a majority of elementary and middle school students can complete them within a certain period of time (two hours for third-through-fifth-graders and three hours for sixth-through eighth-graders.)

The law was set to take effect during the 2015-16 school year, but the education agency — which did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article — has taken a phased-in compliance approach. Fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests administered this spring were revamped to comply with the law, but the rest of the exams were not.

“TEA will gather data during the spring 2016 administrations to determine how to adjust the remaining grades 3-8 assessments to meet the testing time requirements of HB 743,” according to the agency’s website. “The remaining redesigned grades 3-8 assessments will be administered beginning in spring 2017.”

“Despite knowing that the assessments did not comply with statute, and despite a lead time of over nine months to comply, the TEA failed and refused to develop assessments that comply with the statute,” according to Monday’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of four parents from Houston, Wimberley, Austin and Orangefield, who are members of a grassroots group called The Committee to Stop STAAR.

“As a result, approximately 2 [million] Texas students were administered illegal assessments. The results of these illegal assessments are now being used to enact punitive measures against students, teachers and schools across the state.”

I don’t know enough about this to have a comment on it, but as a parent of two kids who both took STAAR exams this year, it is of interest to me. There were definitely some screwups related to the administration of the STAAR test this year, and it would not have been unreasonable for the TEA to declare this year a wash. Whatever happens in court, I feel confident that the Lege will do further tweaks and revisions to the standardized test system, and that a significant number of people will not be happy about whatever they do. The Observer and the Press have more.

Posted in: Legal matters, School days.

The Commissioners Court candidates forum

El Franco Lee

On Sunday, I attended the candidate forum held by the HCDP for the people who are interested in being named to replace the late El Franco Lee on the ballot this November. The Chron has a report on it here, but I’m just going to give you my impressions of the event and the candidates.

The event started with an introduction by HCDP Chair Lane Lewis, who gave a long and obviously written by a lawyer explanation that just because someone was participating in this event does not mean that person has declared himself a candidate for the office. In fact, one doesn’t ever have to declare oneself a candidate for this office, but instead can graciously accept the spot on the ballot if the precinct chairs in their wisdom call upon one to take it. I’ll give you three guesses which candidate present for this event this was aimed at.

There were six candidates in attendance for what was to be a fairly standard candidate forum, in which a moderator (KPRC’s Khambrel Marshall) would ask questions (some prepared beforehand, some solicited from the audience) that participants would answer. Each candidate got to make a two-minute intro speech, and the questions would be assigned to two candidates each, though some of them were answered by all. Marshall picked the candidates and the order in which they responded. Overall, it went pretty well, and I’ll get to the candidates and my view of them in a minute, but first I want to share the two most important things I learned from this event.

First and foremost, if on the initial round of voting at the Precinct Executive Committee meeting on June 25 at which the nominee is picked no candidate receives a majority of the precinct chairs in attendance, then the top two will go to a runoff, to be conducted immediately following that vote. There had been a lot of confusion on that point – several people at the event asked me this specific question, which was finally answered by Gerry Birnberg after the debate part was over. He also emphasized that as per Robert’s Rules of Order, only the relevant precinct chairs in attendance at the event could vote. No proxies or phone-ins would be allowed. To say the least, that puts a lot of emphasis on the most concentrated get-out-the-vote effort you’ll ever see.

The other item had to do with the selection of candidates for the 507th Family Court and Harris County Criminal Court At Law #16, for which I’ll write a separate post. I had originally been under the impression that we would take care of all of this business on the same day, June 25. That is not the case. As Lane Lewis told me, we need to keep those things separate to ensure that only chairs in Precinct 1 are involved in the selection of the Commissioners Court nominee. The judicial nominees will be chosen five days later, at the next County Executive Committee meeting on Thursday night, June 30.

As for the candidates at this forum for this race:

Ricky Tezino: I have no idea what he was doing here.

Georgia Provost: She got a lot of audience response from making numerous provocative, mostly anti-establishment statements. That’s an interesting strategy to pursue in an election that will be decided entirely by precinct chairs, but she did have some support in the crowd. She and the other two candidates who are not current officeholders pitched themselves as scrappy outsiders not beholden to anyone who would come in and shake things up. There’s a place for that kind of candidate – City Council, for which Provost has made two recent campaigns, is one example – but I for one am not sure that’s a good idea for the lone Democrat on Harris County Commissioners Court. YMMV and all that.

DeWayne Lark: Of the three “outsider” candidates, he made the best impression on me. At one point during the forum, there was a somewhat bizarre question about the need for a public defender’s office in Harris County. Georgia Provost, answering first, gave a rambling response in which it was not at all clear she understood that there was a PD’s office already and that it had been in operation for several years. Lark followed that with an unequivocal statement that we already have such an office, and the main issue with it is that judges in Harris County are not required to use it instead of the old system of assigning an attorney themselves. Lark was in general fairly well informed, he gave concise answers, and he offered the best slogan of the evening, “Come out of the dark and vote for Lark”.

Dwight Boykins: He was at his best when he was talking about the things he has done on Council and how he would implement them as a County Commissioner. He spent a lot of time talking up his second chance job programs in particular. He also had two bad moments that stuck out. Late in the forum, there was an audience-submitted question regarding HERO. Ellis gave a short answer stating his firm support for HERO. Locke also strongly supported HERO, but criticized the way the campaign in support of it was handled. Lark said something about opposing discrimination but having issues with the wording of the ordinance, which was not a good answer but at least was short. Boykins’ response began with his intent to work with Mayor Parker to pass a non-discrimination ordinance, until he started getting calls from constituents who didn’t like it, so he had to vote against it. The whole thing was a mess. Later, he walked right into the biggest haymaker of the evening, in response to a question about why were the candidates Democrats. Ellis was first, and he gave a rousing, red meat answer that got a big cheer from the crowd. Boykins followed, and after beginning by saying he was born a Democrat, he took a shot at Ellis for having previously referred to him as a Republican. Ellis responded to that by saying well, what do you call someone who votes in a Republican primary? (The crowd responded as you might expect to that.) Boykins tried to salvage things by saying he voted for Kay Bailey Hutchison over Rick Perry, and the Democrats didn’t have a candidate. The crowd didn’t appear to catch that he had just publicly overlooked Bill White in 2010, but everyone I talked to about it afterwards noticed. It was not Boykins’ finest moment.

Gene Locke and Rodney Ellis: I’m putting these two together because they both had the most visible presence at the event. They had display tables in the lobby, they brought a bunch of supporters wearing their campaign T-shirts, and more importantly, they both made it through without saying or doing anything that would make a supporter change his or her mind about them. They emphasized their experience and credentials, with Ellis making a spirited defense of his 30+ years in public office, and they both brought their A games rhetorically. The Chron story said that Locke’s discussion of his plan to help fix the streets in front of Reliant Stadium for the Super Bowl was contentious, but I have to confess I missed any negative response to it from the crowd. The bottom line is that if you came in thinking these two were the frontrunners, I saw nothing in the event to change that perception.

Posted in: Election 2016.

You get a severance! And you get a severance!

Everybody gets a severance package!

BagOfMoney

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has spent nearly $1 million in taxpayer money to entice dozens of people fired by his administration to agree not to sue him or the agency, a practice that may run afoul of a ban on severance pay for state workers.

Bush, a first-term Republican, has directed the General Land Office to keep at least 40 people on the payroll for as long as five months after ending their employment, according to an analysis of records obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The ex-staffers did not have to use vacation time, and, in fact, continued to accrue more time for as long as they were on the payroll. In return, they agreed in writing not to sue the agency or discuss the deal.

Many of the recipients were top aides to former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson who were fired during an agency “reboot” in which Bush replaced more than 100 employees.

Such separation arrangements are made frequently in the corporate world, but are not allowed in Texas government, where there is no severance and staffers generally are required to work to be paid, according to employment lawyers, union leaders and former state officials.

“I can understand the thinking of an agency head who wants to get rid of someone and thinks that this is an easy way to do it, but this is not the way to do it,” said Buck Wood, an ethics expert and former deputy state comptroller, noting the detailed rules that govern how agencies can spend money do not authorize that purpose. “Keeping someone on the payroll when they’re not coming to work so you can avoid the hassle of a lawsuit is just illegal.”

Malinda Gaul, a San Antonio employment lawyer who has represented state workers for 33 years, said she had never heard of such an arrangement.

[…]

Steve Aragon, a former general counsel for the Health and Human Services Commission, said he thinks there are justifiable reasons to pay employees for not working, including to prevent litigation in cases in which it was clear that a staffer likely would not come back. However, he said, it is not something that state agencies should do frequently.

“These situations should be exceptional and would not be expected as a matter of routine,” Aragon said.

Others objected to any use of the practice, including Seth Hutchinson, a spokesman for the Texas State Employees Union.

“It’s not an appropriate use of state funds,” Hutchinson said. “If people are being wrongfully fired, they’re being wrongfully fired, and they shouldn’t be using state funds to cover it up.”

After being told that it is not uncommon in the corporate world, Hutchinson scoffed.

“State government should be held to a higher standard of accountability,” he said.

This is getting to be quite the pattern, isn’t it? It’s almost like Baby Bush and Ken Paxton and Sid Miller have no regard for the law but only care about their own interests. I presume someone will file a complaint about this, thus providing Greg Abbott another opportunity to profess ignorance about what’s happening in his government. Keep it up, fellas.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Japanese high-speed rail operator to open Dallas office

To be close to the action, no doubt.

The Dallas Regional Chamber announced Thursday afternoon that Central Japan Railway Co. will station about 20 employees in Dallas.

The company’s technical and operations experts will help privately-backed Texas Central Partners with the development of what could be America’s first high-speed rail line. Texas Central plans to use the same train and rail technology that Central Japan uses on its Tokaido Shinkansen line that connectsTokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

“This new train service will drive continued economic growth across Texas, relieve congestion along Interstate 45, and connect our business community with the Houston market in a highly efficient manner,” Dallas chamber president and CEO Dale Petroskey said in a prepared statement.

Plans for a Dallas-Houston bullet train have drawn cheers from federal officials and the state’s two largest urban areas. But it’s fiercely opposed in the rural counties that sit between the two regions.

The Dallas station is planned to be near or atop Interstate 30, just south of downtown. That station and development around it are seen as a way to reconnect downtown to theburgeoning Cedars neighborhood.

Texas Central has some opponents in Congress, too, primarily from suburban areas in between Dallas and Houston. No one ever said this would be easy. Central Japan Railway has been involved in other ways as well, no surprise given the technology and their significant investment in the project. I don’t know that having a Texas presence for CJR will help, but it can’t hurt.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Primary runoff day is today

From the inbox:

vote-button

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart strongly urges voters to visit www.HarrisVotes.com to find their designated Election Day polling location for the May 24, Primary Runoff Election.   There, voters can also find their personal sample ballot and the answers to most of their voting questions.

“In Runoff Elections, there are significantly less Election Day locations.  The Democratic Party has consolidated the voting precincts into 85 voting locations and the Republican Party has consolidated into 78 voting locations,” informed Stanart, the county’s chief election official. “Please remember that on Election Day, voters must vote at the designated polling location for their precinct, so please check www.HarrisVotes.com for your location.”  Per Texas Election code and Secretary of State guidelines, each political party determines the polling locations, as well as the allocation of equipment and election clerks at each poll.

“Please be aware that voters may only participate in the Primary Runoff Election of the party for which they voted in March,” alerted Stanart. “A voter may not cross-over between parties from the Primary and the Primary Runoff Elections.  Voters who did not vote in March may vote in either political party’s Primary Runoff Election, but not both.”

The Harris County Primary Runoff election ballot includes twelve contests for Democrats and six for Republicans.

On Tuesday, voters determine their party’s candidates for several important local and statewide races.  I encourage every eligible voter to do their homework and then go vote,” concluded Stanart.

For more election information, voters may call 713.755.6965 or visit www.HarrisVotes.com.

Democratic precinct locations for Runoff Day are here, and Republican locations are here. Don’t just assume you can show up at your usual place, or even the place you voted in March. There’s a good chance you will be wrong about that. Check first, then vote. Early voting turnout was low, so your vote really counts in these races. Get out there and make your voice heard.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Overview of the Commissioners Court Precinct 1 “race”

I put “race” in quotes because it’s not like any other race you’v ever seen.

El Franco Lee

The campaign for the next Harris County Precinct 1 commissioner appears in many ways like any other: candidates are raising money, seeking endorsements and sending out targeted mailers touting their credentials.

But this is not a typical election, and voters won’t be heading to the ballot box. Instead, the task of picking a commissioner who will represent 1.2 million people – more than the populations of nine states – and control a $200 million budget falls to a group of 125 Democratic precinct chairs.

That’s because longtime Commissioner El Franco Lee’s name remained on the March 1 primary ballot after his death in early January, leaving the precinct chairs to select the party’s new nominee, who will be unopposed in November.

The unusual nature of the nominating process means the campaign is less democratic than most local elections and far more intimate – built around in-depth policy conversations and targeted wooing of party insiders.

Example: The presumed frontrunners, Rodney Ellis and Gene Locke, both sent flowers to female precinct chairs for Mother’s Day.

[…]

City Councilman Dwight Boykins has not formally announced his candidacy, citing concern that he could forfeit his municipal office by doing so. But he has been actively campaigning for the job.

Because voters last November extended the terms of Houston elected officials to four years, from two, those who become a candidate for another office now are subject to the so-called “resign-to-run” provision of the Texas Constitution, which applies to municipal officeholders with terms longer than two years. Though a Texas attorney general opinion issued in 2000 states that running for the nomination of a political party’s executive committee does not prompt an automatic resignation, the courts have yet to formally resolve the issue.

“My best bet is that the courts would rule that (then-Attorney General John) Cornyn is correct and you don’t trigger resign-to-run by seeking the nomination of the executive committee,” former Harris County Democratic Party Chair Gerry Birnberg said. However, he added, “Until the courts decide the issue, there is no way to say for sure, definitively, that Attorney General Cornyn was correct.”

So Boykins and other interested council members – Jerry Davis and Larry Green – have approached the campaign gingerly.

“I can neither admit or deny my interest in the seat because of the way the current law is drafted,” Green said recently. “However, I can say I have been approached by several precinct judges and other community members requesting that I do move forward in trying to run for the seat.”

It’s a good overview of the process, so give it a read and familiarize yourself. I spoke to Chron reporter Rebecca Elliott on Thursday, but much like Kevin Costner in The Big Chill, my role was left on the cutting room floor. One point I want to address in this story, which is as much about the great power that’s been bestowed on some 125 precinct chairs as anything, is the question of how this process could have been done differently. One precinct chair called for a special election instead of the current process. That has some intuitive appeal, but remember, we’re not actually picking a County Commissioner. We’re picking a Democratic nominee for County Commissioner. There’s no provision in the law for a special party primary election, and I’m not sure how you could conduct one in a way that mimicked an actual primary election. Those are technically open elections, but everyone who participates has to choose which primary they want to vote in. How do you ensure conditions like that in a special election environment? Remember also, we precinct chairs – not just the 125 or so of us in Precinct 1, but the 500 or so of us in all of Harris County – are also selecting nominees for two judicial races. There’s basically no concern about us doing that, in part for the obvious reason that those offices have far less power, but also because those nominees will have contested races against Republicans in November, and unlike the Commissioners Court race there’s no guarantee they’ll win. The concern about the un-democratic nature of this process is, in my opinion, entirely about the nature of the office of Commissioners Court, which has vast power and not a whole lot of electoral accountability under normal circumstances. It’s about the office, not the process. Fixing the process in some way, if there is a way, can’t address that.

I should also point out that as weird as this process is, it could be worse. For one, if the late Commissioner Lee had died next January after being elected and sworn in, instead of this January after the filing deadline had passed, then Judge Ed Emmett would have been able to not only pick a replacement as he did to fill out the last year of Lee’s term, but that replacement would have been able to file for election himself in 2018, and would almost certainly have cruised to an easy win. This is what happened with Jerry Eversole (who resigned after the 2010 election) and now-Commissioner Jack Cagle. At least here, it’s Democrats who are picking the replacement. Yes, we’d have gotten a shot at that person in the next primary, but that could mean nearly two years of a Commissioner in the most Democratic precinct in the county being chosen by a Republican County Judge, and an awful lot can happen in two years. We got lucky here, in that Judge Emmett is an honorable man, and his choice for this year of Commissioner Locke was a good one. But there was and would have been nothing to stop a less honorable Judge from picking whatever hack or crony he wanted to. It could have been worse, that’s all I’m saying.

One more thing:

If Ellis earns the Democratic Party’s nod for commissioner, the party would need to convene another executive committee meeting to find a replacement for him on the ballot for state senator – and quickly, as all nominations must be completed by late August.

The angling has already begun.

“Of course anybody in the (Texas) House – or any other position for that matter – is going to look at that position as something to move to, and so I fall in that category of looking at it as a possibility,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, one of several politicians who have already expressed interest in Ellis’s seat. “These seats don’t change hands very often, and more than likely, whomever is selected to be the nominee for the Democratic Party, they’re going to be there for a long time.”

Naming Sen. Ellis to fill the nomination ensures at least one more round of this selection process, with the precinct chairs in SD13 moving onto the hot spot. (That does not include me, as I am in SD15.) And if the precinct chairs of SD13 select a State Rep to fill the slot left vacant by Ellis – at the very least, Reps. Coleman, Thompson, and Miles are waiting in the wings – then we get to do this a third time. There is an argument to be made that selecting Commissioner Locke to run for the seat in November puts an end to that process. Whether one considers that a pro or a con is a matter of personal preference.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Feds rescind Universities line funding

Not a surprise at this point.

A proposal for a light rail line along Richmond Avenue, long left for dead because of strong opposition and years of languishing, has lost its shot now for funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

In a letter released Friday by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, FTA associate administrator Lucy Garliauskas confirmed federal money is no longer available for the University Line light rail project “due to inactivity and lack of demonstrated progress on the project’s design and local financial commitment over the last several years.”

Culberson, a long-time opponent of the line proposed in his west Houston district because it runs along Richmond, applauded the decision.

“My primary responsibilities as a congressman include protecting the taxpayers and protecting the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Culberson said in a statement.

[…]

The effect is limited, however, because the University Line plan had been bogged down for years, and could be revived at any time should Metropolitan Transit Authority restart the process and gain voter approval for more transit funding.

Metro officials received notice of the funding recision earlier this month, spokesman Jerome Gray said.

“I am not sure it does anything with the project because the project was dormant,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

[…]

Culberson and Metro officials last year came to an agreement that any further rail development using federal funds in the Houston region first will go back to the voters. If Metro receives approval and the local money needed, transit officials could go back to Washington looking for funding.

Patman, who took over as Metro chairwoman last month, said inaction on the University Line should not be construed as the end of a broader discussion about better transit in Montrose and along U.S. 59.

“A corridor between downtown and the Galleria and Post Oak is a priority, and I expect that to be a part of the regional transportation plan,” Patman said, referring to Metro’s interest in assessing area-wide bus and rail needs. “We are looking at alternatives, of course, to going down Richmond… And we’re looking at what mode would be best.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background on the Culberson/Metro peace accord, which was announced just over a year ago. Because of the terms of that agreement, Metro was always going to have to go back to the voters to get a Universities line going, and in fact then-Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia, who negotiated the treaty with Culberson, was already talking about a sequel to the 2003 rail referendum. New Chair Carrin Patman has also spoken of a need to go back to the voters for more bonding authority. If I had to guess, such a vote is a couple of years out, almost certainly after Mayor Turner has had one to repeal or modify the revenue cap. When that happens, if it passes, Metro will have to start from scratch, including the designation of an actual route, but given how old the existing work was by now, that’s probably for the best anyway. I choose not to cry over spilled milk but to work for a better outcome next time.

Two things to think about as we look towards that hoped-for future day. First, here’s a Google Earth view of the area around Westpark at Newcastle:

Westpark at Newcastle

Westpark at Newcastle

The original Universities line route had shifted over to Westpark at Timmins, so the line was on Westpark at this point, and there would likely have been a stop at Newcastle. (My in-laws live near there, so I’m quite familiar with this area.) Notice all the apartments west of Newcastle and south of Westpark, as well as the HCC campus. Those would all be easily accessible from a train station at Westpark and Newcastle, except for one tiny thing: There’s no sidewalk on Newcastle south of Westpark. Any pedestrians would have to walk in the street, which is a two-lanes-each-way thoroughfare, or on the grass. Once you cross into the city of Bellaire, just south of Glenmont Drive, there’s a beautiful, wide sidewalk that’s basically a hike-and-bike trail that goes all the way to Braeswood, but until you get there you’re on your own if you’re on your feet. What you could do is move the fence back ten feet or so on the empty lot on the south side of Newcastle – I suspect this is Centerpoint property; the lot on the north side of Newcastle has power grid equipment on it – and build a nice sidewalk there to at least get you to Pin Oak Park, which has its own sidewalks and can get you to the other places from there. The Westmore apartment complex between Pin Oak Park and Glenmont fronts on the street so you’d have to close off a lane on Newcastle to extend this hypothetical sidewalk further, but it’s not like this is a heavily-trafficked section of road. It’s all doable if one has eminent domain power and a reason to take action. If we’re going to talk about near-future rail referenda and Universities Line 2.0, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this sort of thing as well.

Second, among the things that Culberson and Metro agreed upon last year were the following:

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Anyone know if any of these things are happening or have happened? I would hate to think that Congressman Culberson has not kept his word. An update on these items would be nice to hear.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Judge Hanen’s bizarre order

WTF?

A federal judge with a history of anti-immigrant sentiment ordered the federal government to turn over the names, addresses and “all available contact information” of over 100,000 immigrants living within the United States. He does so in a strange order that quotes extensively from movie scripts and that alleges a conspiracy of attorneys “somewhere in the halls of the Justice Department whose identities are unknown to this Court.”

It appears to be, as several immigration advocates noted shortly after the order was handed down, an effort to intimidate immigrants who benefit from certain Obama administration programs from participating in those programs, lest their personal information be turned over to people who wish them harm. As Greisa Martinez, Advocacy Director for United We Dream, said in a statement, the judge is “asking for the personal information of young people just to whip up fear” — fear, no doubt, of what could happen if anti-immigrant state officials got their hands on this information. Or if the information became public.

The judge is Andrew Hanen, who conservative attorneys opposed to President Obama’s immigration policies appear to have sought out specifically because of his belief that America does not treat immigrants with sufficient hostility.Texas v. United States was filed shortly after President Obama announced policy changes that would permit close to 5 million undocumented immigrants to temporarily work and remain in the country. As the name of the case suggests, the lead plaintiff is the State of Texas, yet the Texas Attorney General’s office did not file this case in Austin, the state’s capitol. Instead, they filed it over five hours away in the town of Brownsville.

At the time, only one active federal judge, Judge Hanen, sat in Brownsville, so the attorneys’ decision to file their case nearly 300 miles away meant that it was highly likely that the case would be assigned to a judge that once accused federal officials of engaging in a “dangerous course of action” because they permitted an undocumented mother to be reunited with her child without facing criminal charges. Hanen later issued a nationwide order halting the Obama administration’s new policies.

[…]

The legality of DAPA and this expansion of DACA (but not the underlying DACA program itself) are now before the Supreme Court.

Hanen’s doxing order arises out of a third, less consequential policy change described in the DHS directive. Before the directive, DACA beneficiaries had to reapply every two years. Under the directive, they need to reapply every three years.

At an early stage in the litigation, the plaintiffs’ attorneys and Judge Hanen asked Justice Department lawyers whether aspects of the directive would be implemented prior to a January hearing date, and the DOJ attorneys responded that “I really would not expect anything between now and the date of the hearing.” The Justice Department made similar statements at later points in the case. At that time, DAPA and expanded DACA were not yet being implemented, but the shift from two years between DACA renewals to three years was already under way.

Hanen claims that the Justice Department attorneys intentionally deceived him by not mentioning the fact that the amount of time afforded to DACA beneficiaries had changed. The Justice Department claims that, at most, they misunderstood what Hanen was asking for. They believed that Hanen was only asking about the dates when DAPA and expanded DACA would be implemented, and not about the shift from two to three years. This distinction matters because, while deliberately misleading a court is a very serious ethical breach, misunderstanding a question is not.

In a brief filed in Hanen’s court, the Justice Department attorneys offer their version of events.

[…]

Hanen’s order calls for two sets of sanctions against the Justice Department. The first requires the government to turn over the personal information — including addresses — of every single one of the more than 100,000 DACA beneficiaries that received a three-year renewal or approval. Though Hanen will initially keep this information under seal, he adds that he shall “on a showing of good cause . . . release the list or a portion thereof to” state authorities in one of the 26 states that sued the administration to halt DAPA and expanded DACA.

Additionally, Hanen ordered potentially hundreds of attorneys to attend remedial courses, regardless of whether those lawyers have ever appeared in his courtroom or even set foot in the state of Texas. Under his order, every single lawyer “employed at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. who appears, or seeks to appear, in a court (state or federal) in any of the 26 Plaintiff States” must “annually attend a legal ethics course.” The Attorney General must appoint someone to provide annual reports to Hanen for five years, which must include “the name of the lawyer, the court in which the individual appeared, the date of the appearance and the time and location of the ethics program attended.” And, in case that’s not enough, he also ordered the Attorney General herself to “report to this Court in sixty (60) days with a comprehensive plan to prevent” the alleged misconduct that Hanen believes happened in his courtroom “from ever occurring again.”

The Justice Department will almost certainly appeal Hanen’s order to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit or, if necessary, the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for DOJ, the Fifth Circuit is a conservative court and the Texas case has twice wound up in front of an especially conservative panel of Fifth Circuit judges. One of these judges has his own history of issuing questionable sanctions against the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, Hanen’s order is sufficiently unusual that it may cause even these judges to blink. Judges, after all, are lawyers. And many of them know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a judge who seems to have it in for you.

See here and here for lots of background. I have no idea what to make of this, but good Lord this judge is a mess. Daily Kos has more.

Posted in: La Migra, Legal matters.

The Sheriff and Lord High Executioner of Edwards County

In case you haven’t already, you really need to read this:

The first thing she noticed was Sheriff Pamela Elliott standing across the street. It was an August evening in 2014, and Rachel Gallegos had just gotten home for a meeting of the Edwards County Democratic Party. The law enforcement official was a highly unlikely candidate for a session with local Democrats. Edwards County — Rocksprings is the county seat — is solidly Republican, and Elliott is militantly conservative.

There were cars everywhere — on the street, blocking the road, even parked in Gallegos’ yard, about 30 people in all. “They were the sheriff’s staff — some in plain clothes, some in uniform,” Gallegos recalls. “There were dispatchers, jailers, friends, supporters — anyone, it seemed, that Sheriff Elliott could gather up.”

Ten minutes after the start of the meeting, all four of the executive committee members in Gallegos’ house were gabbing about the posse amassed outside. Then there was a loud knock at the door — Sheriff Elliott. “She came to the door in uniform and was about to come in, so I held the door and said, ‘May I help you?’” Gallegos says.

According to Gallegos, Elliott said she had a right to attend the meeting and that she’d received permission from the Texas attorney general to be there under the Open Meetings Act. “She held her boot in the door and I told her to have him call me — that if he said she could be there I’d let her in,” Gallegos says. “And nobody ever called me, of course.”

Caroline Ramirez, who dropped her husband off at the meeting, described the crowd outside as an “angry mob.” Later, she would state in a written complaint submitted to the attorney general, the secretary of state and the district attorney that she “was shocked that [Elliott] was in uniform but wasn’t doing anything to control the crowd, keep the peace, or protect them or us. She seemed to be encouraging the mob. I wanted to call someone, but I had no idea who I should call if the head of our law enforcement is part of the problem.”

In her own complaint, Gallegos wrote, “I can no longer assume that our Sheriff and her department will act as Peace Officers. I need some guidance as to how to protect myself.”

A month later, she received an email from Timothy Juro, an attorney in the Texas Secretary of State’s office. He confirmed that a meeting of the local party’s executive committee would not fall under the Open Meetings Act.

Gallegos believes Elliott’s sole purpose was to intimidate Democratic voters in an upcoming election for Edwards County judge. Souli Shanklin, a Republican, was Elliott’s ally, and Ricky Martinez, the Democrat, was expected to do well. Gallegos says law enforcement outside her house could have influenced the vote by making people in town think the Democrats were up to no good, or even doing something illegal. Martinez ended up losing, with 46 percent of the vote.

Andrew Barnebey, the former chair of the Edwards County Democratic Party and current county commissioner, likewise sees ulterior motives. He said it was “ridiculous” for Elliott, a Republican, and her allies to believe they had a legal right to attend a Democratic Party meeting in a private home. Equally absurd, he said, is the idea that “these folks would want to barge in to listen to this little bit of housekeeping.”

Buck Wood, an Austin attorney who has practiced election law in Texas for 45 years, says it amounts to harassment. “It’s intimidation and illegal use of the sheriff ’s office powers,” he says. “It sounds like somebody needs to bring a lawsuit, because she sounds like she’s totally out of control. It may even be abuse of office, and if so, could be a criminal offense.”

Republican Party County Chairwoman Kathy Walker told the Observer that she believed the Democrats in Edwards County had an “open door policy” for their meetings. “Why would they have it in a private home? We have our meetings at the women’s club.”

In any case, the Democrats didn’t launch any legal action against the sheriff’s office, and Elliott never apologized. Instead, the strange showdown became another in a long list of Elliott power plays that have plunged this isolated county into political turmoil. Her detractors say that since her election as sheriff in 2012, she’s waged an aggressive campaign to intimidate Democrats, voters and the Latino community.

The sheriff has arrested elected officials and gone to war with the superintendent. Her office has accused voters of electoral fraud with little evidence. And while embroiled in political combat, she’s been accused of bungling an investigation into a high profile murder case — one that’s haunted Rocksprings for 20 years. Elliott appears to be motivated in part by a growing far-right movement that exalts sheriffs as the last line of defense against a tyrannical federal government.

Elliott said she would answer questions via email, but then never responded.

Conflicts between the so-called patriot movement and the federal government have grown in recent years. High-profile incidents like the Bundy standoff in Nevada or the occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge dominate headlines. But most anti-government activists don’t carry a badge and a gun or spend their days in local communities, ostensibly serving and protecting their neighbors.

Read the whole thing, it’s scary and amazing. A couple of days after that story was published, this happened:

A voting rights organization based in Washington, D.C., has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate possible voter intimidation in Edwards County, following the publication of an Observer investigation into a West Texas sheriff.

In a letter to the head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, the Voting Rights Institute said it had “come to our attention that minority voters in Edwards County, Texas, are allegedly being intimidated by the local sheriff. We call upon the Department of Justice to conduct a federal investigation of this matter to ensure the protection of Latino voting rights.”

No word as yet from the Justice Department. I realize that calling in the feds to investigate a local autocrat who thinks the federal government is an evil oppressor bent on contaminating her precious bodily fluids makes for a potentially dangerous situation, but you can’t let this kind of petty bullying go unchecked. Sheriff Elliott is up for re-election in a county that went 72.6% to 26.2% for Romney over Obama in 2012, so unseating her will require more than just partisan outrage. The total number of voters in the county is less than a thousand, so at least there aren’t that many people to convince. I’ll put this one on my watch list for November. Good luck, y’all.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Weekend link dump for May 22

Apparently, John Stewart doesn’t think much of the coverage of this Presidential campaign.

“People who think that important legislation gets passed by presidents making opening bids far outside the expected negotiating space have no idea how presidential power works. (And, for that matter, have no idea how negotiating works. If the Mariners phone up the Angels and offer Mike Zunino for Mike Trout, that doesn’t mean that the Angels will then offer to accept Leonys Martin for Mike Trout; it means the Angels GM will stop taking your phone calls.)”

100 Naked Women Will Welcome Donald Trump to the Republican National Convention. Some guys get all the luck.

“Actually, as someone who saw Trump’s federal tax returns about a decade ago as part of a legal action in which he sued me for libel (the suit was later dismissed), I think there probably are some things to be learned from them.”

“Most of the right-wing culture war is a backlash against changes to the status quo pushed by liberals. And good for us for doing this. The culture war is one of our grandest achievements of the past half century.”

Donald Trump’s complex and often inappropriate relationships with women.

Captain America Civil War is an amazing super-hero movie. It is the model of how to have a large cast of characters in a film with action, humor, plot, and heart. The only thing it lacks is a Constitutional law. The gross civil rights violations are reason enough for Captain America to go rogue.” Beware, spoilers ahead.

Counterpoint: The Avengers should accept the Sokovia Accords.

This webcomic about Bart Simpson and Chris Griffin coming to terms with how growing up in abusive households has affected them is brilliant and disturbing.

RIP, Jane Little, musician’s musician with an impeccable sense of timing.

Lindsay Berra, Yogi’s granddaughter, eulogizes Joe Garagiola.

Bartolo Colon continues to be a national treasure. May he pitch till he’s 50.

“A series based on wonderfully weird 1984 cult science fiction classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is likely coming to TV, courtesy of Kevin Smith, and we have The Flash to thank (or blame, depending on your point of view).”

RIP, Emilia Navaira, Grammy-winning Tejano musician.

RIP, Guy Clark, Texas singer/songwriter best known for “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting For A Train”. See Texas Monthly for some personal remembrances.

Hey, remember when Mike Huckabee was a dedicated moral scold, admonishing everyone for what he considered to be bad behavior? Everyone except Donald Trump, of course.

Toronto: the Rodney Dangerfield of the NBA.

“The bottom line: You shouldn’t support Muslims’ right to practice our faith in safety because we are like you, or because you agree with us politically. You should support us because it’s our right to practice Islam in America without being threatened.”

You LinkedIn users might want to change your passwords again.

Watch out for those commas. They’re tricky.

“Venezuela is the answer to what would happen if an economically illiterate drug cartel took over a country.”

RIP, Morley Safer, longtime journalist and 60 Minutes correspondent.

RIP, John Berry, founding member of the Beastie Boys.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Final runoff early voting numbers

EarlyVoting

Here are your final early voting numbers for the Republican and Democratic primary runoffs in Harris County. Note that in both cases, mail ballots have accounted for the majority of the total so far: On the Dem side, there have been 10,913 mail ballots to 10,364 in-person votes, and for the Rs it’s 15,297 to 12,742. For that reason, I don’t expect Tuesday’s results to provide a big boost to turnout, though there are still plenty of people who could vote if they wanted to. We’ll see how good a job the campaigns do at getting their people out.

There are two legislative runoffs in Harris County. In the increasingly nasty HD128 runoff between Republican incumbent Wayne Smith and challenger Briscoe Cain, the effect can be seen in the daily totals from the County Clerk. There were 1,858 in person votes in HD128, nearly double the amount of the next busiest district. It’s more muted on the Democratic side, where 932 people have shown up to pick between Jarvis Johnson and Kimberly Willis. That total trails HDs 146 (984) and 142 (949), not to mention the 1,012 votes cast at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. Of course, the dailies from the Clerk are for in person votes only. We won’t know how many absentee ballots have been cast in each district until Tuesday night.

Speaking of Jarvis Johnson, I could swear I saw a story late last week saying he had been sworn into office after his win in the May 7 special election to fill the remainder of now-Mayor Sylvester Turner’s term, but if so now neither Google nor I can find it. Johnson did pick up Mayor Turner’s endorsement for the primary runoff last week, and he has been endorsed by the Texas AFL-CIO COPE as well. Kimberly Willis has the support of the Texas Parent PAC, but not as far as I can tell Annie’s List. The Houston GLBT Political Caucus did not make an endorsement in this runoff.

Outside of Harris County, you know about the HD27 runoff. The other legislative runoff of interest is in HD120, where candidate Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (who is endorsed by Annie’s List) kicked up a bit of a fuss with labor by appearing to give support to “right to work” laws at a candidate forum. That cost her one endorsement she’s previously received; you can read Express News columnist Gilbert Garcia for the details. By the way, the basically useless special election to fill the unexpired term in HD120, which involved four people who are not in the primary runoff, will have its runoff election on August 2. Lord help us all.

Finally, in the Republican runoff for State Board of Education, District 9, Mary Lou Bruner, this cycle’s winner of the Biggest Idiot Who May Actually Get Elected To Something award, may have inadvertently demonstrated that even in a Republican primary runoff for SBOE in East Texas, there are some limits on stupidity. Maybe. That’s not a proposition I’d want to bet my own money on, but we’ll see. SBOE 9 did elect Thomas Ratliff once, so there is hope and precedent. Ask me again on Wednesday.

Posted in: Election 2016.