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There’s still time for bad bills to be passed

Bad bill #1:

Never again

Never again

After four hours of debate and more than a dozen failed amendments offered by Democrats, the Senate on Monday gave preliminary approval to far-reaching restrictions on minors seeking abortions in Texas without parental consent.

On a 21-10 vote, the upper chamber signed off on House Bill 3994 by Republican state Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria to tighten the requirements on “judicial bypass,” the legal process that allows minors to get court approval for an abortion if seeking permission from their parents could endanger them.

The vote was along party lines with one Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, joining Republicans to pass the measure.

[…]

After it reached the Senate, [Sen. Charles] Perry did some rewriting on HB 3994 to address two of the bill’s most controversial provisions on which both Democrats and some conservatives had raised concerns.

As expected, he gutted a provision that would have required all doctors to presume a pregnant woman seeking an abortion was a minor unless she could present a “valid government record of identification” to prove she was 18 or older.

The ID requirement — dubbed “abortion ID” by opponents — raised red flags because it would apply to all women in the state even though the bill focused on minors.

Under Perry’s new language, a physician must use “due diligence” to determine a woman’s identity and age, but could still perform the abortion if a woman could not provide an ID. Doctors would also have to report to the state how many abortions were performed annually without “proof of identity and age.”

Perry said the revised language “gives physician more latitude” to determine a woman’s age.

But Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who spoke in opposition to the bill and questioned Perry for almost an hour, questioned the ID requirement altogether.

“I can’t think of another instance where we presume women are children,” Watson said. “I certainly can’t think of any situation where we presume a man is a child.”

Perry also changed course on a provision that would have reversed current law such that if a judge does not rule on the bypass request within five days, the request is considered denied. Under current law, the bypass is presumed approved if a judge does not rule.

Perry cut that denial provision from the bill, saying it is now “silent” on the issue. But that did little to appease opponents who pointed out a judge’s failure to rule effectively denies the minor an abortion.

“In essence, the judge can bypass the judicial bypass by simply not ruling,” Watson said, adding that the appeals process is derailed without a denial by a judge.

HB 3994 also extends the time in which judges can rule on a judicial bypass case from two business days to five. Perry said this was meant to give judges more time and “clarity” to consider these cases.

But Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, who also offered several unsuccessful amendments, questioned whether Perry’s intentions were rooted in a distrust of women and judges.

“I’m not really sure who it is you don’t trust — the girls, the judges or the entire judicial system?” Garcia asked.

See here for the background. The Senate version is not quite as bad as the original House version that passed, but as Nonsequiteuse notes, it’s still a farce that does nothing but infantilize women. It’s a cliched analogy, but can anyone imagine a similar set of hoops for a man to jump through to get a vasectomy or a prescription for Viagra? The only people who will benefit from this bill are the lawyers that will be involved in the litigation over it. Oh, and Eddie Lucio sucks. Good Lord, he needs to be retired. TrailBlazers, the Observer, and Newsdesk have more.

Bad bill #2:

In a dramatic turn of events, the House Calendars Committee on Sunday night reversed course and sent a controversial bill prohibiting health insurance plans sold on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace from covering abortions to the full chamber for a vote.

Earlier in the night, the committee voted not to place Senate Bill 575 by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor on the lower chamber’s calendar for Tuesday — the last day a Senate bill can be passed by the House. After fireworks on the House floor instigated by a lawmaker who believed he had entered into an agreement to get the bill to the full chamber, the committee reconvened and reconsidered its vote.

Under SB 575, women seeking coverage for what Taylor has called “elective” abortions would have been required to purchase supplemental health insurance plans.

On Saturday, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, had threatened to force a House vote to prohibit abortions on the basis of fetal abnormalities by filing an amendment to an innocuous agency review bill. But Stickland later withdrew the amendment, telling the Austin American-Statesman that he had agreed to pull it down in exchange of a vow from House leadership that they would move SB 575 forward.

The bill did make it out of the House State Affairs Committee, chaired by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. But when it got to Calendars, that committee voted it down, leading Stickland to go after Cook on the House floor. Stickland had to be separated from Cook, and House sergeants immediately ran over to prevent a lengthier tussle.

Again, infantilizing women. And speaking of infants, what more can be said about Jonathan Stickland? I know there’s a minimum age requirement to run for office. Maybe there needs to be a minimum maturity requirement as well. Hey, if we can force doctors to assume that women seeking abortions are children, we can assume that any first-time filer for office is a callow jerk. We sure wouldn’t have been wrong in this case.

Bad bill #3:

Senate Republicans on Monday voted to move the state’s Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. The action was spurred in part by last year’s indictment of former Gov. Rick Perry.

The legislation by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would move key decisions about investigating public officials to the Texas Rangers and away from the Democratic-controlled Travis County District Attorney.

The bill was approved in a 20-11 vote, with Democrats casting all the no votes.

[…]

Under the proposed law, any district attorney looking at suspicious activity by a state official would refer the matter to new Public Integrity Unit within the Texas Rangers. That office would then use a Texas Ranger to further investigate the allegation, with expenses handled by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

If confirmed, the recommendation for further action would be sent to the district attorney in the home county of the public official. That district attorney could pursue or drop the investigation.

See here for the background. As I said before, I don’t think this is the worst bill ever, but I do think it’s a guarantee that some future scandal will result from this. And as others have pointed out, it sets up legislators to be treated differently than every other Texan in this sort of situation. That’s never a good precedent to set.

And finally, bad bill #4:

Gays and same-sex couples could be turned away from adopting children or serving as foster parents under an amendment filed by a social conservative House member and expected to be heard Tuesday.

The measure also would allow child welfare providers to deny teenagers in foster care access to contraception or an abortion under a wide umbrella of religious protections for the state contractor.

Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, has filed the measure that gives state contractors for child welfare services the right to sue the state if they are punished for making decisions based on their religious beliefs.

The state could not force contractors to follow policies providing for contraception or allowing same-sex couples to adopt, for instance. If the state tried to terminate a contract or suspend licensing for the state contractors’ failure to abide by such polices, the contractor could sue, win compensatory damages, relief from the policy and attorneys fees against the state, according to the proposal.

Sanford tried to pass as separate bill earlier in the session, but it failed. The proposal now has resurfaced as an amendment to the sunset bill that would reconstitute the Department of Family and Protective Services.

I’m just going to hand this one off to Equality Texas:

TUESDAY, MAY 26TH, Rep. Scott Sanford will try again to pass an amendment allowing child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBT families

Tell your State Representative to oppose the Sanford amendment permitting discrimination in Texas’ child welfare system.

Rep. Scott Sanford has pre-filed an amendment that he will seek to add to SB 206 on Tuesday, May 26th. This cynical “religious refusal” amendment would authorize all child welfare organizations to refuse to place a child with a qualified family just because that family doesn’t meet the organization’s religious or moral criteria.

If enacted into law, the Sanford Amendment would allow child welfare providers to discriminate against not just gay and transgender families, but also against people of other faiths, interfaith couples and anyone else to whom a provider objects for religious reasons.

The only consideration of a child welfare agency should be the best interest of the child – not proselytizing for a single, narrow religious interpretation.

SB 206 is not objectionable. However, adding the Sanford Amendment to SB 206 must be prevented.

Urge your State Representative to OPPOSE the Sanford Amendment to SB 206.

Amen to that.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Questioning the new Sheriff’s staff

That didn’t take long.

Ron Hickman

Among Ron Hickman’s initial moves as sheriff was filling each of his first eight command posts with white males, a choice critics said shows a lack of vision in a jurisdiction as diverse as Harris County.

These employees range from a major in charge of criminal investigations to an assistant chief who oversees the jail.

Hickman called it insulting to question whether race or gender were considerations in his early staffing assignments.

“I’m still researching the top-level personnel. Given that I haven’t finished assembling it,” he said, “I think it would be unfair for me to say anything.”

However, Adrian Garcia, the county’s first Latino sheriff, called it “unconscionable” that all those on Hickman’s command staff to date are white and male. Garcia resigned to run for mayor of Houston.

Some rumblings of discontent also have begun among the rank and file.

“A lot of African-American deputies have approached me … asking me to say something about this. We are going back to the days of (Sheriff) Tommy Thomas,” said J.M. “Smokie” Phillips Jr., president of the Afro-American Sheriff’s Deputy League. “They are expressing concern that we are going backwards to the old days of racism, the good old boys’ system, discriminatory practices and disparity in treatment.”

Robert Goerlitz, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, which endorsed Hickman’s appointment, said, “I think the choices are being made more based on ability than based on what race or gender (the individuals) are. It’s detrimental to an organization when you make your decisions based on race or gender.”

The president of the Mexican American Sheriffs Organization, Marty Rocha, declined to weigh in until Hickman completes his assignments.

“We’re going to have to give him the opportunity to set up his command,” Rocha said. “We’re going to wait until he finishes. … It’s not a done deal, and he’s still moving folks back and forth.”

Let’s stipulate up front that the new guy gets to put in his people. That’s expected and understood. Garcia’s people had to know this was coming, and Campos is correct that none of this happens if he had stayed put. And he still has some slots to fill, so this isn’t the end of the story. But come on, you can’t have an all-white-guy command staff at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in 2015. Anyone who claims that the best-qualified candidates in every case so far just happen to be white guys is not in touch with reality. I mean, we all know this, right? Give Sheriff Hickman the benefit of the doubt for now, but let’s keep an eye on this. In the meantime, I agree with Stace: It would be nice to have a Democratic candidate or two announce their intention to run. This is the marquee race now, let’s get it going.

Posted in: Local politics.

HCDE happenings

The Chron paints an unflattering portrait of the Harris County Department of Education.

HCDE has operated in relative obscurity for decades, fighting off lawmakers’ occasional efforts to eliminate it by bankrolling lobbyists and political consultants.

Advocates for the agency say it provides indispensable support services to the 25 independent school districts in Harris County. But a prominent Senate Republican is leading a push for a state-led Sunset Advisory Commission Review of HCDE, saying its finances need to be scrutinized and its programs streamlined to avoid duplication with other agencies. And he has plenty of ammunition.

The Houston Chronicle requested to review HCDE’s financial records in January and found a reticent agency that had violated its own spending rules and declined to explain why its former superintendent, John Sawyer, stepped down three months into a new contract – and received a buyout.

Records show that Sawyer had doled out stipends to employees without notifying the Board of Trustees or seeking its approval, a policy violation.

He also had hired lobbyists and political consultants, including a convicted felon, for amounts just under limits that would have required the board’s OK.

Records also show that HCDE paid more than $1.5 million during the past decade to a nonprofit educational foundation accused of endorsing political candidates for HCDE’s board. The nonprofit’s president, its lone full-time employee, has received more than $1.5 million in salary and benefits since 2005, tax records show. His annual compensation has averaged about $182,000 – more than Harris County’s chief executive officer.

Board President Angie Chesnut said trustees took swift action after they learned in June about the stipends, which were paid for extra work. The total payments to 60 employees came to about $450,000 over the past decade, according to the agency’s records.

Chesnut said the board stopped pending payments, tightened the policy and meted out discipline. She would not disclose who was punished or exactly what action was taken.

The new superintendent can only approve cellphone and travel allowances without board approval. All political contracts – regardless of cost – now must go before the board.

“Do we make mistakes? Of course we do. Every organization makes mistakes,” Chesnut said. “The key to me, as a business manager, is that when you find those, you act to correct them, and that’s what we do.”

There’s more, so go read it. One always wonders what the genesis of such stories is. In this case, given that it opens with an anecdote from Trustee Michael Wolfe, who was ousted in 2012 but re-elected in 2014, and that much of the story focuses on now-former Superintendent John Sawyer, that would be my guess. There’s no shortage of bad blood between Wolfe and Sawyer, so if there was an opportunity for a bit of retribution on Wolfe’s part, I’m sure he grabbed it with both hands. It might have been nice to mention Wolfe’s tumultuous tenure on the HCDE board instead of just quoting him and moving on, but bygones are bygones, I suppose.

As for the substance of the story, I received the following email from former Trustee Debra Kerner, which she also sent to the Chron as a letter to the editor. I’ll let it speak for itself:

Dear Houston Chronicle Editorial Page Editor,

Regarding “HCDE draws sharp look” (Sunday, May 24, 2015, pg.1), I served as a countywide elected Trustee for the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) from January 2009 to January 2015. During that time, I held various Board positions including Vice President. I read the article, “HCDE Draws Sharp Look” from Sunday, May 24, 2015 with intense interest and felt that as a private citizen and former board member, I had to respond. I would ask that the public consider these clarifying facts.

1) HCDE serves students, educators and school districts. Their services are provided at the request of Harris County school districts. They seek to enhance and innovate and provide services to the school districts and the residents of Harris County. All 25 of the school districts in Harris County choose to use at least some of the services from HCDE. HCDE provides even more services than are listed in the article, including Safe and Secure Schools. As told to me by the head of Region 4, all of these services cannot be duplicated by the Education Service Center (Region 4). Who would provide these services, if HCDE had to close?

2) During my tenure, HCDE underwent several audits and a Texas legislative study. These studies determined that HCDE’s education services saved taxpayer dollars and that it would cost school districts significantly more to replicate. While areas for improvement were identified, none of the studies recommended closure. The Board had always taken steps to improve the department and continues to do so.

3) One example that was noted in the article was the policy on hiring political consultants. The Board did not have the chance to vote on the Eversole contract. Once the board learned about these hirings, the policy was changed to bring more transparency to the process of hiring political consultants. While I understand, the concern about using tax dollars for this purpose, I believe it would be unfair to the students and educators served by HCDE to not give them a voice regarding the educational resources that are so valuable to them. Many school districts also hire lobbyists and political consultants to help educate legislators and others about their needs. In addition, HCDE has a group consistently seeking its abolishment. Three year olds and other students with severe disabilities cannot go to Austin to indicate the true value of HCDE, so HCDE does it for them. HCDE is a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.

4) Ms. Vera and the Houston Chronicle have initiated countless open records request. HCDE has been compliant and constantly sought to increase transparency. Responding to these requests has been costly; however, none of these requests have yielded information that rises to the level of criminal activity. Any issues that were found, the Board had already initiated steps to improve the situation. At the same time, HCDE has continued to educate students, train teachers and provide valuable wraparound services.

5) We should focus on what HCDE is doing now. HCDE has hired a new superintendent, James Colbert, who is moving forward. The Board has made changes to address policies and procedures to ensure that things are done correctly and transparently. HCDE continues to respond to the needs of partner districts. I participated in the hiring of Mr. James Colbert and from what I’ve seen thus far, he is a true leader who is very responsive to the educational needs in Harris County. The reason HCDE has fought against additional studies regarding abolishment is that it is hard to plan for the future when the threat of closure hangs over their heads.

I was honored to serve with Trustees who truly cared about enhancing education in our county in a fiscally responsible way. It is a shame that the voices of a few are taken as fact when thousands of students and the 25 Harris County school districts find value in HCDE every single day.

Thank-you,
Debra Kerner
Former Trustee,
Harris County Department of Education

It must be noted that it was Kerner who lost to Wolfe in 2014. I’m the only one who’s making something out of Wolfe, so make of that what you will. I have always believed that HCDE serves a good and useful function – there’s plenty of testimony out there from teachers and many of Harris County’s smaller school districts to back that up – and have never understood the hate on that some people have for it. That’s politics for you, I suppose. Stace has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Still debating where to put the Houston high speed rail terminal

While people in the rural counties are trying to kill the proposed high speed rail line between Houston and Dallas, some other people here in Houston are thinking about where a station should be.

[Lynn] Hardwin was among a few dozen people attending an open house held by Texas Central Partners on April 23 at the venerable Tin Hall dance hall, situated on a quiet 40 acres in Cypress since 1890. TCP is the development arm of the project and would own and operate the rail service.

Members of Houston High Speed Rail Watch, a coalition of central Houston neighborhoods that includes Super Neighborhoods 12, 22 and 51 as well as other groups, also attended the event, which focused on dispelling misconceptions that have erupted since the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation began an environmental review process of the privately-funded project last summer.

It will be months before new details emerge about the proposed rail’s exact route and where it might terminate in Houston. From 290 and Loop 610, TCP is eyeing an alignment on Interstate 10 into downtown, but Union Pacific lines in the Washington Avenue area have been considered, too.

The coalition is advocating a path that avoids residential neighborhoods, says spokesman Mark Klein, who is president of Super Neighborhood 12 along the North Loop east of U.S. 290.

The group argues that only a small percentage of Houston residents will use the new rail service – not enough to justify the potential impact to well-established neighborhoods located in its path to the Central Business District downtown.

“We envision a rail terminus located northwest of the 610 Loop, such as at the Northwest Mall, or routing the line to a downtown terminus along freeways or through industrial areas,” Klein said.

[…]

Details about the exact route and how much property will be needed outside of existing rail or other public rights-of-way won’t be known until the draft environmental impact statement is completed, by early 2016. Two station locations are being eyed in Dallas, but TCP has not settled on a Houston station location. While it hopes to put a station downtown, officials say the line could terminate elsewhere.

Jersey Village might be another option for a station location, says City Manager Mike Castro, who also attended the Cypress open house.

The city created a transit-oriented development district on U.S. 290 at Jones Road in its master plan in anticipation of commuter rail a few years ago, Castro said, adding that the zone could accommodate a station for the high-speed rail service, too.

“We’ll wait for the environmental review,” Castro said. “Noise impacts are always a concern of ours, but overall, I see a very positive impact for Jersey Village, particularly if there is potential for a station location there.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The original idea was to have the high speed rail line come into downtown, since that is likely to be a common destination for business travelers and it’s also well connected to other transit options. That means routing the line through residential neighborhoods, which is a big problem if you’ve got these elevated tracks. Having the terminal be farther out, such as at the Northwest Transit Center, solves these problems but creates others, since an isolated terminal is less useful to someone who doesn’t want to have to park at it or doesn’t want to rent a car. Having the Uptown Line in place would help with that, and having the Uptown Line plus at least one other line that connects to it – the Universities Line and/or an Inner Katy Line – would help a lot more. Maybe Metro’s peace treaty with John Culberson can help make these things happen. Who knows? There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of possibilities here, some more promising than others. We’ll know more as the environmental impact statement process concludes.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Memorial Day video break: No Forgotten Man

This great song by Solas seems appropriate for today:

Have a happy and safe Memorial Day, everyone.

Posted in: Music.

New rail lines officially open

At long last.

Two new light rail lines might have been the ones debuting Saturday, but for many riders it was the East End, Third Ward and MacGregor Park neighborhoods themselves that were on display.

After years of construction and months of testing, riders began boarding Green Line trains headed from downtown east along Harrisburg and Purple Line trains toward the University of Houston and Palm Center Transit Center on Saturday morning.

The dual openings mark the end of a sometimes controversial six years for Metropolitan Transit Authority, which first approached voters and won approval for the lines in 2003, with the hopes of opening them in 2012. Numerous delays and setbacks pushed opening day farther away from those original plans, as anticipation grew in the neighborhoods.

With the lines open and shuttling thousands of people around, the communities turned out for various celebrations, where Metro and residents celebrated the end of construction and the beginning of what is predicted to be a major change in how people get around, especially those more dependent on transit for daily trips.

[…]

Local officials hope the area, which hasn’t enjoyed the redevelopment of some areas of Houston during the recent boom times, is helped by the addition of the Purple Line. Already there are some signs of investment in apartments and townhomes, notably around the University of Houston and Third Ward.

“It is kind of nice to see the redevelopment,” Stan Leong said. “It is changing their whole neighborhood, and that is kind of interesting.”

The same hopes are pinned on the Green Line, running along Harrisburg in Houston’s east side, elected officials said.

“This is a $1 billion investment in your community,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, told a crowd along Harrisburg, flanked by Mayor Annise Parker and city and Metro officials.

Along with the Greater East End Management District, Metro redeveloped Harrisburg to make the rail line the center of a bustling retail corridor, with signature intersections and sidewalks dotted with brick designs.

See here for the background. There is still construction ongoing, as the Harrisburg overpass gets built and that line eventually gets extended by a couple more stops. One of the effects of the Culberson accord will likely be to build another station on the Southeast line as well. But the trains are running, and that’s the big deal. It was nice to read a story about these lines that didn’t include a quote from some hoary rail critic. Now the onus is on to perform and get riders. I look forward to seeing what those numbers look like. Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Once again, drowning doesn’t look like drowning

Time again for this public service announcement:

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine; what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not 10 feet away, their 9-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know—from 50 feet away—what the father couldn’t recognize from just 10? Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life.

Here’s a video to help illustrate the concept:

I’ve said it before, I read this story every time I see it, and it scares me out of my wits. Both my girls love the water, and though they’re good swimmers, anything can happen and it only takes a minute for catastrophe to strike. Educate yourself, keep your eyes open, and your summer will be that much better.

Posted in: Society and cultcha.

Weekend link dump for May 24

I’m a white guy, but even if you count the ones I was required to read in school I’ve only ever owned eleven of these 79 books. Many of them I have zero interest in reading, and some of them I’d sooner undergo root canal than read. I am ashamed to admit I’ve never owned a copy of Godel, Escher, Bach, however.

This may help illustrate why passions were so inflamed over the Ashby Highrise.

The NHL has its own concussions and lawsuits problem.

Remembering the eruption of Mount St. Helens, 35 years later. My uncle was chief of staff for the Mayor of Portland in 1980. He was in his car driving to a political engagement of some kind when he saw the smoke billowing from the apparently not dormant volcano. He immediately turned the car around and headed straight to City Hall, where he knew there was going to be a lot of work to do.

“The outrage over Lena is less about the intrinsic properties of the image itself, but rather about the image’s provenance. Maddie argued that by using the Lena image, women are turned away from computer science.”

The annotated version of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video.

Your favorite parking lot could be targeted by hackers.

Don’t like spiders? Be glad you don’t live in Australia.

An interview with Merrill Markoe, the original head writer for Late Night with David Letterman.

“And the Very Serious People enabled all this, much as they enabled the Iraq lies.”

“Exercise — no matter how many gym memberships you buy or how often you wear your Fitbit — won’t make you lose weight.”

What young feminists think about Hillary Clinton.

“What’s the moral to this story? Two morals: One, the Internet is awesome because, sometimes, if you ask, you will get pictures of squirrels playing polo on the backs of Pomeranians.”

“For those lawmakers who actually voted against the war, and those journalists who reported skeptically before the attack, this is misleading at best and self-serving at worst. Watching the revisionist story take hold 13 years after they opposed the invasion is reviving the frustration and marginalization they felt back then.”

“The tech community is stepping up its pressure on the White House to oppose any requirement that could force companies to compromise security to guarantee government investigators access to data.”

Is “The Left” obsessed with “The Sex”, as Ted Cruz believes? I’m afraid only Norbizness can answer that authoritatively.

How two healthcare reporters changed their behaviors in response to things they learned by reporting on healthcare.

David Letterman’s final Top Ten list, in case you somehow managed to miss it.

“All the yokels—Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, etc.—will go on first. They’ll be sort of the warm-up act. Then they’ll get shuffled off the stage and the big guns will have prime time all to themselves. This is pretty humiliating for the also-rans, but presumably if they play by the rules they’ll have a chance to move up, just like in English Premier League soccer. Perhaps Rick Perry will stumble and get relegated to the minor leagues for the next debate, while Jindal will knock everyone’s socks off and get promoted to the show.”

“Now we’ve reached the bottom 40 percent of Americans, but guess what? We’ve run out of stuff. Sorry guys, you get nothing.”

“Most pro-life women oppose abortion with four exceptions: rape, incest, the life of the mother, and me.”

The Duggars are no ordinary spokespeople for the religious right; they are super-spokespeople. For years, they have been held up as exemplars of biblical living, of devotion to Christ, and of, especially, homespun honest living and sexual purity. It’s long been obvious to many that this is a product of marketing and packaging, not reality. But now no one can pretend anymore.”

In the meantime, let’s revel in the many times Josh Duggar has lectured us about “family values”. We could have been binge-watching the show while doing so. I for one am still waiting for anyone in that hellish family to express even the smallest amount of concern and empathy for the girls that Josh Duggar molested.

RIP, Marques Haynes, legendary member of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Red light camera bill dies in House committee

Better luck next time.

Gone

Gone

A drive to outlaw red-light cameras in Dallas and other Texas cities has reached a red light of its own.

The House Transportation Committee on Friday voted to reject a Senate bill that would’ve gradually phased out the divisive cameras. That means the effort, opposed by police departments, is effectively dead even after passing the Senate last month with ease.

A factor that apparently weighed down the proposal was that it would’ve also prohibited the cameras that capture drivers who ignore stop signs on school buses. And some lawmakers said that time simply ran out this session to sort through those kinds of issues.

“It’s just something that needs a little bit better vetting,” said Rep. Ron Simmons, a Carrollton Republican who voted against the bill in committee. “At least on the House side, we didn’t really have enough time.”

[…]

In years past, the House had passed red-light camera bans only to see them stopped up in the Senate. So Rep. Gary Elkins, long a critic of the cameras, decided to wait this year on the Senate, rather than needlessly put the House through another heated debate.

But when the Senate finally acted this year, he found himself unable to get the measure out of a House committee.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Elkins, R-Houston.

See here for the background. Remember the motto o the Legislature: It is designed not to pass bills, but stop them from passing. Those of you that oppose cameras will have to continue to vote them out of cities that have adopted them; as the story notes, that happened in Arlington this month. Beyond that, try again in 2017.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Bike plan meetings

From CM Ed Gonzalez:

CM Ed Gonzalez

CM Ed Gonzalez

Our city has made great strides in improving people’s ability to bike to more destinations. New trails are being built along our bayous, new protected bikeways have been installed, and more people are riding all over town.

Now, we’re kicking off the Houston Bike Plan Project, a 12-month planning effort to update the City’s Comprehensive Bikeway Plan and to build on recent achievements to help make Houston a safer, healthier, more bike-friendly city.

The plan will:

  • clarify a vision and goals for biking in Houston and identify future projects to create a citywide bicycle network;
  • develop better connections for more people to key destinations like job centers, entertainment venues, parks and schools;
  • identify supporting programs like bicyclist safety education, expansion of facilities like bike racks and bike share, and improved integration with transit; and
  • examine best practices in bicycle facility maintenance, bike program funding, and bicyclist and driver enforcement.

The Houston Bike Plan Project kicks off next Saturday with the Bike Ride and Open House. This fun event will include a bike tour, raffle prizes, and activities to hear about your vision and goals for biking in Houston. Four community meetings will be held throughout the month of June at various locations around the city, where the project team will present information on the Houston Bike Plan and solicit input from the public on their vision for biking in Houston. I encourage you to attend!

UPCOMING COMMUNITY MEETINGS

Bike Ride & Open House Kickoff
Saturday May 30th
9:00am-1:00pm
Ensemble Theater | 3535 Main Street, Houston, TX 77002

Community Meeting – Kashmere
Thursday, June 4, 2015
6:00-8:00 pm
Kashmere Multi-Service Center
4802 Lockwood Drive | Auditorium #172 Meeting #3

Community Meeting – Palm Center
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
6:00-8:00 pm
Palm Center Business Technology Center | 5330 Griggs Road, Conf. Room C101

Community Meeting – Memorial City
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
6:00-8:00 PM
HCC Memorial City Performing Arts Center | 1060 W Sam Houston Pkwy N,
Theater II, Room 411

Community Meeting – Baker-Ripley
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
6:00-8:00 PM
Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center | 6500 Rookin

I couldn’t be more proud of all we’ve done in our city to offer residents more options to commute. Please help us continue our record of success, and improve the quality of life for even more Houstonians.

See here and here for the background. Plan your calendars accordingly.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Quidditch, Texas-style

We are a hotbed of quality Quidditch in this state.

As cars drove by the soccer fields at Texas State University on a gray Sunday afternoon this past February, they slowed down to take in a strange scene: a dozen people running around holding broomsticks between their legs.

Anyone familiar with the Wizarding World of the Harry Potter universe would immediately recognize the activity as quidditch, the fictional sport invented by the books’ author J.K. Rowling. Of course, the version described in the books and seen in the movie adaptations is, well, magical, with the wizard characters flying on broomsticks across a field of play that takes place primarily in the sky. But a decade ago, it was adapted to real-life play by the only group of people who have the time and inclination to do such things: college students.

In 2005, some enterprising kids at Vermont’s Middlebury College created “muggle quidditch,” and since then the sport has rapidly grown. The US Quidditch Association formed in 2010 and now oversees more than 4,000 athletes playing for nearly 200 teams across seven regions in America. An International Quidditch Association formed in 2013 governs the dozens of teams that span more than twenty countries across the globe. The sport even has its own World Cup, which will be in its eighth iteration this weekend, when 80 teams from the US and Canada will battle it out for the championship in South Carolina.

Almost as astounding as the sport’s explosive growth is Central Texas’s now total domination of it. Five of the eight teams that made the quarterfinals for last year’s World Cup—UT, Baylor, Lone Star, Texas A&M, and Texas State—were from the area; three of them—UT, A&M, and Texas State—played in the semifinals. (UT beat Texas State in the final match, clinching its second World Cup championship in a row.) And going into the 2015 World Cup, four central Texas teams are listed in the top 10 overall standings, with Lone Star sitting at the top.

“The level of play in the southwest region is at such a higher level than the rest of the country,” says Beth Clem, a first-year graduate student at Texas State who plays on the university’s team. She credits this, partly, to the state’s football culture. Despite its cutesy origins, quidditch is a high-intensity contact sport, an advantage in Texas, where kids grow up on gridiron. “Half of the guys on our teams played football. They want to tackle; they want to be aggressive. We’re big, so we just wanna go through people.”

Ethan Sturm,* a player from Tufts University who is the co-founder and current managing editor of the quidditch analysis website, The Eighth Man, puts it a bit more bluntly: “You’ve got this hub in Texas where the players are simply more athletic than in other parts of the country.”

I’ve actually seen “muggle Quidditch”, a couple of years ago at Rice. There was a tournament featuring teams from a half dozen or so area colleges, including Rice, and someone in the MOB had the bright idea to put together a pep band for it. How could I resist, especially given how much my kids love Harry Potter? The matches themselves were oddly compelling to watch, though as with most sports the perspective from field level wasn’t as good as the more elevated stadium view would have been. Still, we enjoyed it, and I can see why it’s taken off. If I were 30 years younger, I might give it a try myself.

Eighteen minutes into the game, the “snitch” entered the pitch. In J.K. Rowling’s version of quidditch, the snitch is a small, gold, winged ball that is introduced to the game after an arbitrary and unspecified period of standard play. The magical item flies around the pitch, and a “seeker” from each team (this is Harry’s position in the books) is tasked with attempting to capture it, winning his or her team 150 points and ending the game. In IRL quidditch, the snitch is actually a person dressed entirely in yellow running around with a tennis ball in a tube sock tucked into the back of a his pants. When the snitch enters the field (the referee signals him to jump in), each team deploys a seeker to try and grab the ball from the snitch, who can use both of his arms to hold off them off. It’s a highly physical battle, and the interaction between the seekers and the snitch looks like a cross between a game of tag and a wrestling match. The game is over when a seeker pulls the sock with the tennis ball off the snitch’s body, with that seeker’s team getting 30 points for the effort. When Lone Star’s seeker finally tackled the snitch, the team claimed victory—and the top spot in the US Quidditch Association’s rankings going into the World Cup.

This makes me happy. While I have no doubt that actual wizard Quidditch would be awesome to watch, the scoring rules never made sense to me. Scoring 150 points for the snitch means that the goals scored by the chasers are basically meaningless. I’ve always considered Quidditch to be a sport invented by someone who doesn’t understand sports. Changing the score for getting the snitch to 30 points makes the job of the chasers a lot more relevant, and introduces an element of strategy that the original game sorely lacked. Now it may or may not be in a given team’s interest to grab the snitch, and that situation can change in an instant. I know, I know, it’s a silly, geeky thing, but if you’re going to do this you may as well do it in a sensible way.

Posted in: Other sports.

Ireland votes to approve same sex marriage

As the old song goes, when Irish eyes are smiling, all the world seems bright and gay.

Irish voters have resoundingly backed amending the constitution to legalize gay marriage, leaders on both sides of the Irish referendum declared Saturday after the world’s first national vote on the issue.

As the official ballot counting continued, the only question appeared to be how large the “yes” margin of victory from Friday’s vote would be. Analysts said the “yes” support was likely to exceed 60 percent nationally when official results are announced later Saturday.

Gay couples hugged and kissed each other amid scenes of jubilation at counting centers and at the official results center in Dublin Castle, whose cobblestoned central square was opened so thousands of revelers could sit in the sunshine and watch the results live on big-screen televisions.

“We’re the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in our constitution and do so by popular mandate. That makes us a beacon, a light to the rest of the world, of liberty and equality. So it’s a very proud day to be Irish,” said Leo Varadkar, a Cabinet minister who came out as gay at the start of a government-led effort to amend Ireland’s conservative Catholic constitution.

“People from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Ireland are a minority. But with our parents, our families, or friends and co-workers and colleagues, we’re a majority,” said Varadkar, who watched the votes being tabulated at the County Dublin ballot center.

“For me it wasn’t just a referendum. It was more like a social revolution,” he said.

[…]

The “yes” side ran a creative, compelling campaign that harnessed the power of social media to mobilize young voters, tens of thousands of whom voted for the first time Friday. The vote came five years after parliament approved marriage-style civil partnerships for gay couples.

I included that last paragraph strictly for academic interest. I’m sure it has no relevant application to any other election anywhere else ever. Well done, Ireland. I’ll sing a song to you today.

The Slacktivist has more.

Posted in: Around the world.

Saturday video break: Good Enough

Here’s Cyndi Lauper with a song from an iconic 80s movie:

I suppose technically that’s called “The Goonies R Good Enough”, but it’s in my library simply as “Good Enough”, and that’s good enough for me.

Here’s Sarah McLachlin with a song of the same name:

With bonus French introduction. Very classy.

Posted in: Music.

Budget deal

What Christopher Hooks says.

BagOfMoney

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

[…]

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

At least the teabaggers aren’t happy, though I suppose that’s the default state for them. The best thing I can say about this session is that it’s almost over, and at least a few of the awful bills that could have passed didn’t.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

Save Uptown from what?

From Swamplot:

The Uptown Property and Business Owners Coalition is out today with a new website (portrayed here) meant to drum up opposition to the Uptown District and Metro’s plans to install dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak Blvd. The lanes, the last vestige of what was once a plan for an Uptown light rail line, would run from dedicated bus lanes linking to the Northwest Transit Center all the way to the proposed Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center near U.S. 59 and Westpark, where they might someday intersect with a University Line traveling eastward from that point. But the team behind the website wants none of it: “Uptown is a Houston masterpiece. Why do they want to ruin it?” reads the copy on the home page. Meanwhile, an introductory blog post on the site encourages readers to attend a friendly “town hall” meeting, [Tuesday] night at the Uptown Hilton, in the company of “hundreds of angry business owners and Uptown area residents.”

Here’s their website; if you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see the name Daphne Scarbrough, one of the fanatical anti-rail on Richmond types who has long since morphed into an all-purpose rail hater. Given the Metro/Culberson peace treaty, the timing of their launch – the Facebook page was created Friday the 15th – isn’t exactly sublime for them. Remember that Metro has nothing to do with the construction of this line – it’s entirely being done by the Uptown Management District. Metro will eventually operate the buses, but that’s it. As far as what they’re fighting for, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever heard anyone call Uptown a “masterpiece” – hell, twenty years ago I’d have said I’d never heard the term “Uptown” used in conjunction with that part of the city. It’s not like there’s a historic preservation angle in play. My personal description of Uptown is a mess that I try to avoid at all times. I believe this plan will help, and I have no idea what alternative to help alleviate the awful traffic Save Uptown or any other group might have. Doing nothing isn’t an option, it’s just sticking your head in the cement. But here they are, and one should know one’s opponents. We’ll see if they get any traction. KHOU has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

House passes AG butt-in bill

Boo.

Ken Paxton

The state attorney general is on the verge of having new powers to influence cases on school finance and legislative redistricting, as part of the GOP’s latest efforts to diminish Democratic challenges to their policies.

The House on Monday voted 91-49 to give preliminary approval to a bill that would allow the attorney general to demand that two additional judges be appointed to hear those divisive cases if he or she is unhappy with the district judge assigned the case.

Most lawsuits on those topics are currently heard in the Democratic stronghold of Travis County, home to the state capital.

Pending final approval in the House on Saturday, the bill would head to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. That would mark a major victory for GOP lawmakers, who cheered the measure as a way to allow more Texans a voice in that high-profile process.

“This is the result of decades of seeing just one county have any say in the school finance bills, and not wanting the same thing with any redistricting bills,” said Rep. Mike Schofield, a Katy Republican who sponsored the legislation.

Democrats, however, said the bill would give too much power to the attorney general, who represents the state in such cases. They argued that the attorney general, currently Republican Ken Paxton, could use the system just to find more sympathetic judges.

“It is forum shopping and judge shopping at its very core,” said Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio.

[…]

Under the measure, an attorney general could petition the Texas Supreme Court’s chief justice to appoint two additional judges – a district judge from another county and an appeals court judge – to hear evidence along with the original district judge.

The chief justice would have to appoint the two extra judges.

Because why shouldn’t we give an ethical paragon like Ken Paxton more influence? The good news, as I suggested before, is that the practical effect of this will likely be limited. The current school finance case is already on the Supreme Court docket. We went about seven years from the previous Supreme Court school finance case ruling to the filing of the current lawsuit, so you have to figure that the next case, if and when there is one, is close to a decade away. And who knows, the Lege might actually try to fix it this time. (OK, yeah, probably not.) As for redistricting, here again I will say that as far as I know these cases are all filed in federal court, and I don’t see how this bill could apply to that. This bill is about partisan advantage, but partisan advantage is a fleeting thing. It says a lot about the priorities of the Republican majorities, but not much that we didn’t already know.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Friday random ten: Pseudorandom, anyway

After a long string of theme lists, I thought it would be nice to have a true Random Ten this week. And just to be different, rather than have the iPod pick them, I went to Random.org and generated numbers there to select the songs from my master playlist. Here’s what it spun up for me:

1. Black Is The Color – Six Mile Bridge
2. Either Way – Wilco
3. Francis – Rexway
4. Bird On The Wire – Leonard Cohen
5. When I Change Your Mind – Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
6. Hanukkah Blessings – Barenaked Ladies
7. Long Long Time – Guy Forsyth
8. Crazy ‘Cause I Love You – The Hot Club of Cowtown
9. Hold On – Corey Hart
10. Anahuac – Austin Lounge Lizards

Keeping in mind what John von Neumann said about arithmetical methods of producing random digits, I think that worked pretty well. I may do it again next week just to see how they compare. Have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend.

Posted in: Music.

Pointless “pastor protection” bill passes House

Whatever.

RedEquality

The House tentatively approved Thursday a bill saying that Texas pastors, churches and religious institutions can’t be sued by private parties or penalized by government for spurning gay weddings.

Many clergy, especially Southern Baptist ministers opposed to gay marriage, have testified they very much need the legal shield.

“Maybe pastors won’t be sued. But we need some protection in case they are,” said Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, bill supporter.

The bill’s critics, though, have expressed skepticism that same-sex couples would try to coerce a reluctant religious leader to officiate at their unions. Even if some did, the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1999 already protect pastors, opponents have said.

Rep. Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and out lesbian, said she hopes the U.S. Supreme Court soon will declare a constitutional right to marry.

If it does, though, Israel said she and her partner of 20 years would never ask to be married by a pastor who interprets the Bible as against loving, same-sex unions.

“Rest assured [we] will not be going to them to bless our union,” she said. “We will be going to someone who loves us and respects us for who we are and how we take care of one another.”

[…]

Estes’ bill would confer legal immunity on clergy and religious institutions if they refused to open facilities, provide services and sell goods to same-sex couples because it would violate “a sincerely held religious belief” to do so.

Rep. Scott Sanford, a McKinney Republican who is a Baptist pastor, filed a companion bill that died in last week’s bill-killing maelstrom before a key House deadline. Sanford also sponsored the Senate-passed version.

Following Sanford’s example, Estes agreed to one change. He deleted a phrase saying clergy and religious institutions could refuse to treat a same-sex marriage “as valid for any purpose.” Bill opponents warned those words could shield, say, a religious hospital from challenge if it barred a spouse legally married to someone of the same sex in another state from making medical decisions for a partner.

See here for the background. The vote was 141-2 in favor. If you’re wondering why it was so lopsided, the Trib has the answer.

“I truly believe that there is space for LGBT justice and religious freedom and this, I feel, is the space for that,” said state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, who has called herself the only openly pan-sexual elected official in the nation.

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said in a speech supporting the bill that she will one day marry her longtime lesbian partner in Texas. Pastors that don’t support their union shouldn’t worry about her trying to get them to conduct the ceremony, she said. SB 2065, Israel argued, would ensure that a clergy member that wants to support the ceremony can.

“This Roman Catholic urges you to vote yes,” Israel said.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Equality Texas withdrew its opposition to the measure and encouraged House Democrats to vote for it.

So there you have it. I don’t know that I’d agree that this bill was worth supporting, but I do agree that it’s likely to not have much effect, something even its most ardent supporters concede. Gotta say, though, when the phrase “sincerely held religious belief” is invoked, the possibility exists for all kinds of unintended consequences to arise. Be careful what you ask for, pastors. Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Anti-high speed rail budget rider removed

Good.

A proposed bullet train between Dallas and Houston has survived a budgeting measure that could’ve derailed the push in Texas to have the nation’s first high-speed rail line.

Budget writers on Thursday removed a Senate-inserted rider in the spending plan that said the Texas Department of Transportation couldn’t spend any state money on “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

Backers of the planned 240-mile line had said the provision would’ve effectively killed the endeavor. High-speed rail opponents, however, said they were simply trying to ensure that the state wouldn’t bail out the costly project if private funds dry up.

The two-sentence provision in the massive, $210 billion state spending plan had proved nettlesome in late-session budget negotiations, pitting rural lawmakers against those who represent Texas’ two biggest metropolitan areas.

And though the language was deleted on a 6-4 vote of the budget conference committee, it wasn’t without stern warnings from project opponents.

“We’re being sold a potential bill of goods,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. “In the long term, the citizens and the taxpayers are going to be left holding the hook.”

Barring any further maneuvering in the Legislature’s final days, it appears that the high-speed rail proposal could emerge the session unscathed.

See here for the background. As you know, I approve of this. I disagree with Sen. Schwertner about the merits of the high speed rail line, but I’m willing to have that debate. I just don’t think that debate belonged in a back room with ten people and no one else.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, That's our Lege.

Local control still under assault

Sucks to be us, Harris County.

San Jacinto River waste pits

With Harris County in its crosshairs, the Senate on Wednesday tentatively approved legislation that could make it tougher for Texas Counties to sue big-time polluters.

If finally passed, House Bill 1794 would notch another victory for a wide range of business groups in a legislative session that’s been kind to industry at the expense of environmentalists and advocates for local control. The proposal would set a 5-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air.

A 24-6 vote with no debate set the bill up for a final Senate vote. The legislation already sailed through the House, pushed by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Proponents say that curbing civil penalties assessed on top of those doled out by state regulators would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.

“This bill is about enforcing a policy that encourages people to do the right thing and not punish them,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who carried the proposal in the chamber.

But critics say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) doesn’t do enough to hold polluters accountable, and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health.

“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County Attorney’s office. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”

[…]

Under HB 1794, local governments and the state would evenly split the first $4.3 million awarded in a suit, and the state would pocket any amount above that limit.

County officials say the cap on local government collections would make it difficult, if not impossible to prosecute the most complex, egregious cases of pollution, because contingency fee lawyers would not sign on for such lower pay.

The counties, not the state typically initiate such actions, said O’Rourke, who has been prosecuting environmental cases since 1973.

“It is only by contingent fee litigation that you can prosecute global corporations that are operating in Houston – Harris County, he said. “You can’t attract people to that if you’re going to kill them with contamination.”

Anyone who thinks that this bill will be any kind of positive for counties – not just Harris, though it is the main target of this bill – is living in a fantasyland where voluntary compliance with environmental regulations would be sufficient. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the TCEQ wasn’t a giant bag of industry-coddling suck, then lawsuits like these wouldn’t be necessary. All this will do is push the cost of pollution from the polluters where it belongs to the population at large. Hope no one reading this lives close to a site that won’t get cleaned up now.

And it’s not just county governments that are taking it in the shorts.

Norman Adams isn’t the kind of guy who is sensitive to smells, or much else. He wears cowboy boots and boasts of changing lots of his children’s and grandchildren’s diapers without gagging.

But the smell that wafts on the southerly breeze from a waste treatment processor toward buildings he owns on West 11th Street is “like an open septic tank, or worse.”

“Abusive,” he called the stench in a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opposing an application by Southwaste Disposal, to increase capacity at its liquid waste treatment facility near Houston’s booming Timbergrove neighborhood.

Adams begged regulators not to grant the expansion, instead requesting a “contested case hearing.” Such proceedings allow citizens who convince TCEQ that their health or pocketbook would be impacted by a permit to compel the company to demonstrate it can comply with environmental requirements.

But legislation awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature would make industry-friendly changes to the proceedings. It would set time lines to speed up the process, restrict who qualifies to ask for hearings and – most significantly – shift the burden of proof from companies seeking the permits to people opposing them.

The bills, which sailed through the Senate and House, have the backing of industry leaders who say contested case hearings make it harder for Texas to attract businesses by injecting uncertainty and expense into the process.

[…]

The bills tilt “the balance in favor of the polluters,” said Jim Marston, regional director with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office. He also warned that Texas could jeopardize losing the Environmental Protection Agency’s authorization to administer permitting programs if signs the bills.

EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard on Tuesday said the legislation creates a “problematic” legal presumption. “We can’t speculate what action the (EPA) should take if the bills are passed and signed into state law,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I’d feel sorry for Norman Adams, but he’s a well-known Republican activist, so in a very real sense he’s getting the government he deserves. I do feel sorry for his neighbors, and for everyone else that will be put in this position. In Houston, where residential development is encroaching on former (and sometimes still active) industrial areas, that could be a lot of people. But hey, at least our ability to attract more pollution-oriented businesses will remain strong.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

A brief lesson in the value of disclosure and transparency

I confess, I have not been following the “wingnut activists videoing everyone at the Capitol” clown show very closely, but the absurdity of it all has been kicked up to the point where I couldn’t ignore it any more.

The activist group employing people who have been secretly recording lawmakers have talked about having a bipartisan mission to root out misdeeds of lawmakers no matter the political stripe.

But four large donors to the American Phoenix Foundation — the Strake Foundation, the State Policy Network, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, and Jeff Sandefer’s Ed Foundation — are well-known backers of conservative causes.

The Strake Foundation, founded by George Strake, a former Texas Republican Party chairman from Houston, has given $30,000 to American Phoenix since the group’s founding in 2010, according to IRS filings with Guidestar.org. Sandefer, a former adviser to Rick Perry, has given a total of $200,000 through his foundation. The Arlington, Va.-based State Policy Network and the Franklin Center each gave $25,000 in 2012 to American Phoenix.

In the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2012, American Phoenix reported donations and grants totaling $182,225. IRS rules do not require the Austin-based nonprofit to reveal individual donors.

[…]

Eric Bearse, a Republican political consultant and speechwriter who has worked in the past for House Speaker Joe Straus, called American Phoenix’s claims of training journalists and trying to ferret out information about politicians of all stripes “a total smoke screen.”

“I have thought from the beginning that this is an attempt to go after Speaker Straus and Republicans in the House who have supported his leadership,” Bearse said Thursday. “They are focused on one goal, which is to undermine the speaker.”

“The speaker’s hold on the office has increased over the years, and his opponents have grown more desperate because of that,” Bearse added. “This is the most desperate attempt yet.”

Who could have guessed that a bunch of secretive operatives with close ties to the world’s least honest videographer could have been less than fully forthcoming about their motives? And now, as RG Ratcliffe notes, one of their sugar daddies is proclaiming to be unhappy with how his money has been spent.

Reached for comment Thursday, Sandefer said he was not aware of the group’s plan to secretly film lawmakers and was unhappy with his investment after he received no feedback on how the group was using his money.

“I was unaware that they were planning to film politicians. Our intent was that they were going to train journalists,” Sandefer said. “We were unhappy with a lack of progress in training journalists and asked for the money back. And we did not receive any money back.”

Just breaks your heart, doesn’t it? As Juanita notes, one should not feel too sorry for Mr. Sandefer. One should instead chuckle heartily, while noting that if we had stronger disclosure and transparency laws for campaigns and PACs and what have you – all of which these very donors are fanatically committed to opposing, mind you – they might have had a clearer idea about where their dollars were going. Can’t trust anyone these days, I tell you. PDiddie has more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Bullet train budget rider battle continues

The budget rider to derail the high speed train is still under contention as the conference committee completes its work.

Tucked in Page 682 of the budget passed by the Senate in April is Rider 48, a provision that would bar the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any state funds toward “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

The budget rider is one of several efforts by some Republican lawmakers to stop Texas Central Railway’s plan to build a high-speed rail line that would travel between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes, reaching speeds of 205 mph.

Texas Central has vowed to not take public operating subsidies. Nonetheless, company officials say the rider would kill the train because TxDOT, as the state agency in charge of transportation, would need to play a role in the project’s construction.

“If enacted the rider would constrain TxDOT’s ability to work with Texas Central Partners to perform important public safety duties,” the company argues on a website it launched this week to rally public support against the rider.

The Senate’s lead budget negotiator, Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the rider remains one of the final sticking points between the House and the Senate.

“There is some question of whether that would handicap it to the point that you couldn’t build it,” Nelson said Wednesday of the rider. “There are very strong feelings on both sides of that issue.”

[…]

Two vocal critics of the project, Republican Sens. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, are among the five senators on the budget conference committee working out a compromise version of the budget.

Schwertner said he was fighting for the rider to remain in the budget, citing concerns about how the project will impact property values and local economies.

“There’s all sorts of potential problems with the project that must be heard,” Schwertner said.

[…]

State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, is representing the House in budget negotiations related to transportation. Asked about the high-speed rail rider Wednesday, he said that it was not proposed by the House. “That was in their budget. That’s their language. Rider 48. That’s them. It was not in our budget.”

Nelson said there have been multiple discussions about how to amend the rider in an effort to find a compromise.

“I think I’ve probably looked at seven different versions of amendments to the rider,” Nelson said. “I’m trying to come up with something that both sides may not totally agree with but it may calm them down.”

See here for the background. I personally am not a fan of settling policy matters in this fashion. It’s terribly un-democratic, as the finalized budget, with or without Rider 48, is not subject to debate or further amendment, just an up or down vote on the whole thing. The folks who oppose Texas Central Railway, who make their case for keeping Rider 48 on the Texans Against High Speed Rail Facebook page, were able to get bills introduced in each chamber to impede if not completely obstruct TCR, with one of those bills getting out of committee. Neither got any farther than that, but that’s the way it goes for 90% or so of all bills. It seems likely they’ll have another crack at it in 2017, and there’s always the possibility of federal action, too. There’s nothing nefarious about what they’re doing – budget riders are a well-known part of the puzzle – I would just prefer not to see the matter settled in this fashion.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

New Precinct 4 Constable chosen

Now that Ron Hickman is Sheriff, that left a vacancy in his old job as Precinct 4 Constable. Commissioners Court has now filled that vacancy.

At a special meeting Tuesday morning Harris County Commissioners Court selected Mark Herman, assistant chief deputy in Precinct 4, to fill the spot vacated when Constable Ron Hickman was tapped last week as Harris County’s fill-in sheriff. Herman, who has worked at Precinct 4 for three decades, will serve the remainder of Hickman’s term, through 2016.

County Judge Ed Emmett administered the oath of office, as Herman’s wife held a family bible for him.

Herman thanked his family, God and the entire staff of Precinct 4, telling the court members he looked forward to working with them. He took the opportunity during his acceptance speech to introduce Captain Donald Steward who works in patrol for the precinct and whom Herman announced would serve as his chief deputy.

Hickman’s term as Constable would have been up at the end of 2016, so Herman will (presumably) be running for a full term next year. Hickman was unopposed in 2012, but Herman will not be, at least in the primary.

In an abrupt change of heart, state Rep. Allen Fletcher said Tuesday he no longer intends to run for Harris County sheriff in 2016.

Instead, he will seek the Precinct 4 constable’s job vacated by the county’s new sheriff, Ron Hickman.

[…]

“I want to run out in my home district and I want to represent the people out in northwest Harris County,” he said, explaining that he does not want to run against Hickman after commissioners selected him for the job.

Fletcher, a former Houston police officer, cited support from local lawmakers for his constable’s bid. He also voiced concerns about running as a Republican in a county-wide race in 2016.

“I don’t want to depend on Hillary Clinton being on the top of the ticket for the Democrats and trying to run county-wide when I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he said.

A wise choice, I’d say. I went back and looked at 2012 election data, and Constable Precinct 4 was carried by Mitt Romney by a 64-36 margin. I’d take my chances in a primary for those odds in November if I were a Republican. I’m guessing Fletcher came under some pressure to leave Sheriff Hickman alone as well, though I’ll be surprised if no one else jumps into that primary. I’ve not heard any word on potential Democratic candidates for Sheriff yet. Anyone out there hearing anything? Leave a comment and let us know.

Posted in: Local politics.

Pointless “pastor protection” bill comes to the House

From the Observer.

RedEquality

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) said Wednesday he doesn’t plan to introduce an anti-gay marriage amendment to the so-called Pastor Protection Act scheduled for a House vote Thursday.

However, with 12 days remaining in the session, Bell said he continues to look for another means of resurrecting House Bill 4105, which was designed to undermine a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, and died on the House floor last week.

LGBT advocates feared Bell would attempt to add the provisions of HB 4105 to Senate Bill 2065, by Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), which would reaffirm that pastors and churches can’t be forced to participate in same-sex weddings. But Bell said he doesn’t believe such an amendment would be considered germane to SB 2065, aka the Pastor Protection Act, thus threatening the bill’s chances.

“A lot of work’s been done on that bill, and I don’t want to compromise that bill,” Bell told the Observer. “The intent is to assert the sovereignty of the state of Texas. If I can find a place to do that, then I’ll do that. But I’m not going to compromise the very structure and value system that I’m trying to affirm in that process.”

[…]

With other anti-LGBT legislation stalled, social conservatives have made SB 2065 a top priority in recent days. However, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch acknowledged recently that its passage wouldn’t be a significant victory.

Supporters of SB 2065 have used committee hearings on the bill to give general testimony in opposition to same-sex marriage, which some witnesses compared to bestiality and pedophilia.

“It suggests that really the goal here to increase hostility and animosity toward gay and lesbian couples who want to get married, rather than to protect pastors from having to perform their marriages, because pastors are already protected from doing that if they don’t want to,” [Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network] said.

Nevertheless, if SB 2065 is the only unfavorable measure that passes out of more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals that were introduced, advocates won’t hang their heads.

“It’s certainly encouraging that some of the really bad bills appear to be going nowhere, and that the only bill that’s moving forward does essentially what the law already does,” Quinn said. “If we can get out of the session without any of those other bills passing, it would clearly be a big step forward.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Equality Texas had sent out an email alert about HB4105 being attached to SB2065 earlier in the day. I’m glad to see that turned out to be a false alarm. There are reasons to be concerned about SB2065 as is, and we can’t rest easy on HB4105 until the session is well and truly over, but so far so good. I’ll update this post if anything notable happens during the House debate.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 18

The Texas Progressive Alliance doesn’t need hindsight to know that invading Iraq was a tragically stupid decision as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Where the education reform bills stand

As we know, the attempt to take a first stab at school finance reform did not make it to the House floor. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some action on school-related issues. This Chron story from the weekend recapped a couple of the major bills that did make it through.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Lawmakers likely could have killed House Bill 2804, the A-F and accountability legislation, by delaying debate until midnight Thursday, the deadline for passing House bills out of that chamber. Instead, out of respect for [Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock, the bill’s opponents chose to allow a vote even though they knew it would win approval.

On Friday, Aycock said he would be proud if the bill is the last piece of legislation he helps shepherd to passage.

“I was pleased and surprised that some people who opposed the bill, had every right to oppose the bill, chose not to kill it on the clock,” said Aycock, who is mulling whether to retire from politics. He was elected in 2007 and quickly rose to become chairman, but at nearly 70, says he wants to return to his central Texas ranch life.

[…]

Originally, House Bill 2804 sought solely to revamp the way schools are held accountable by placing less emphasis on state standardized test performance in grading campuses.

Sensing he didn’t have the political support to pass the bill as it was, however, Aycock amended it to mandate schools be given A-F grades, a proposal popular with many Republicans. Educators and many Democrats oppose the A-F scale, saying it stigmatizes low-performing schools.

Aycock says having an A-F system won’t be an issue if the grades are determined fairly: “It’s not the horrible deal that everybody thinks it will be if you have an accountability system on which to base it. If you have the present accountability model, then it’s just totally unacceptable.”

Schools are graded now either as “met standard” or “improvement required,” based largely on student performance measures. Under House Bill 2804, 35 percent of a school’s grade would be determined by measures like completion and dropout rates, and by how many students take AP and international baccalaureate classes. Ten percent would be based on how well the school engages with its community, and 55 percent on state test scores with a particular emphasis on closing the gap between the top- and bottom-performing students.

[…]

House Bill 1842, which would force districts to improve failing schools or face tough consequences, passed the House the day before with little of the discussion Aycock’s other legislation generated. Aycock called the bill “one of the most far-reaching bills of the session,” and said while he carried it, Dutton was the architect.

“I think House Bill 1842 is the best bill on public education that helps students more than any bill that I’ve seen in this Legislature, and I’ve been here 30 years,” [Rep. Harold] Dutton said Friday. “We have never pressured districts to do something about (low-performing schools). This does that. This says to the school district, ‘Either you do it, or we’ll get someone who can.’ ”

The legislation would require any school that has received a failing grade for two straight years to create an improvement plan to take effect by the third year. If the school has not improved by the end of the fifth year, the commissioner of education would have to order the school’s closure or assign an emergency board of managers to oversee the school district.

Schools that have received consistently failing grades, such as Kashmere and Jones High Schools in the Houston Independent School District, would have one less year to implement a turnaround plan.

“Kashmere is what started me down this road,” Dutton said.

Kashmere earned the state’s “academically acceptable” rating in 2007 and 2008, but it has failed to meet standards every other year over the last decade. Its enrollment has fallen to about 500 students, most of whom come from poor families. Last school year, more than a quarter were in special education and 2 percent were designated as gifted, state data show.

“We’re just going to wait and see what the state does,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said about Aycock’s legislation. “If the state gives us the option of trying to manage it, we would implement some of the same strategies we have found to be successful in North Forest.”

I don’t care for the A-F grading system. I tend to agree with the critics that say it will stigmatize some schools. Not just the schools that get a D where they might have gotten a “meets standards”, but perhaps also the ones that get a B instead of an “academically recognized”. Who wants to send their kids to a B school if an A school is available? As for HB 1842, I don’t have any problem with the concept, but I’d like to know there’s some empirical evidence to suggest something like this can work, and has worked before. We haven’t done much to track the progress of students that were taken from failing school districts that the state shut down, so there’s not much of a track record here. What happens if we try this and it doesn’t work? What comes next?

The Observer updates us on some other education bills.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.

Vouchers

After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

Here’s Raise Your Hand Texas testifying against the “parent trigger” bill. I can’t say I’ll be sad to see any of these die.

And finally, there’s still the budget, which as always has an effect on schools. Here’s some information of interest for anyone who lives in HISD from local activist Sue Deigaard:

HB1759, that would have made structural modifications to school finance and added $800 million more to the $2.2 the House added in their budget for public education, was pulled from the floor on Thursday. Basically, there were so many amendments it was unlikely there was time left to get it to a vote and the time spent on a HB1759 vote would have preempted other bills from being discussed. It also sounds like the vote in the Senate for HB1759 would have been especially steep even if it had been approved by the House.

So, HISD will go into “recapture.” That means that per Ch 41 of the Texas education code, because HISD is a “property rich, student poor” district, instead of HISD receiving money from the state we will have to send local tax revenue TO the state to redistribute to other districts. We are projected to lose as much as $200 million over the coming biennium. Here’s the fun part…the electorate in HISD gets to decide whether or not to send that money back to the state. Yet, not really. First, the HISD board will have to vote on whether or not to even have such an election. If they don’t hold an election, the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. If they do hold an election and voters do not approve to give money to the state (which is the likely outcome), then the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. The “ask” now is for the budget conferees, which include a few members of the HISD legislative delegation, to approve the House pub ed allocation that increases basic allotment for pub ed by $2.2 billion instead of the Senate version that increases it by $1.2 billion. Also, at least as I understand it, that “increase” still does not restore the per pupil allocation that was cut back in 2011, and like last session mostly just funds enrollment growth. As logic would dictate, adding the extra $1 billion in the House version over the Senate version infuses the system with more money so HISD has to send less back to the state through recapture. Basically….House budget = better for HISD.

Unfortunately, the Senate won this skirmish.

The budget conference committee — made up of five senators and five House members — approved a $1.5 billion boost to public education beyond enrollment growth, according to the LBB. The figure matches what the Senate had requested. The House had pushed for a $2.2 billion increase, and had briefly considered an additional $800 million on top of that tied to reforms in the state’s convoluted school finance system.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was the lone “no” vote on the committee’s decisions to set the level of public education funding, in large part because he felt the amount was too little compared to how much the state was putting toward tax cuts and border security, he said.

“Conservatives spend money like they’re printing money,” Turner said, except on education.

Budget conferees included Rep. Sarah Davis and Sen. Joan Huffman. When HISD has to raise taxes or cut programs to cover this loss, you can thank them for it.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

What next for Metro now that peace with Culberson has broken out?

We’ve all had a chance to read over and digest the agreement Metro struck with Rep. John Culberson now. It looked good to me up front (though not to everyone – more on that in a bit), but as always with something this involved, there are many questions. What do some of these items mean, and when might we start to see some of the effects of this deal? I had much to ask, and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia had the answers. He took a few minutes to talk to me and address my queries. Here’s what we talked about.

We spoke over the phone, so the audio quality isn’t the best, but I think you can get the picture. As I said, I like what I’ve seen, and I like what I heard from Chair Garcia. I mentioned that not everyone is sold on this just yet, so let me turn it over to Jeff Ragsdale:

HoustonMetro

What has been the hook in Culberson’s jaw to make him come to the table and put out this grandiose agreement with Gilbert Garcia? In my estimation, that hook can only be coming from elements in his district wanting clarity on the rail-on-Richmond/Post Oak issue. Afton Oaks once again, for better or for worse, dictates to the rest of METRO’s service area its light-rail policy.

Wanting clarity on the Richmond/Post Oak rail issue makes Culberson’s agreement this week not so surprising. He simply wants new votes, and I don’t much blame him for that.

Another hook in Culberson’s jaw may be the rest of the Houston congressional delegation as well as elements in the Republican Party wanting the federal money-faucet to start going in earnest.

What this agreement does, I think, is codify, though not in law, a broad regional strategy for public transport as well as lay a foundation for future regional inter-government cooperation. More importantly, the fast-tracking of the METRO Board composition change takes away from a future rogue Mayor of Houston the ability to completely stymie the process of mass-transit improvement, as Mayors Holcombe, Lanier, and White did with such effect.

It also gives a new perspective on Houston Mayor Lee Brown’s work in the late 1990s to bring light rail to our city. However, this work also set a precedent for light rail that is at-grade and stops for red lights, the wisdom of which is to my mind still to be proven.

My friend, Wayne Ashley, in his blog is far-more effusive about this ‘Culberson-Garcia Accord’ than I. Culberson could still be forced to go back on his word, and this year’s election for Mayor of Houston could produce a maverick with his own ideas about Houston mass-transit which include not so much cooperation with the County and Multi-Cities, which for Houston-area bus riders will not be a good thing. Yes, I am very guarded about all of this.

If Culberson keeps his word and the next Mayor of Houston does not sabotage everything with a new rogue Board, the agreement between Culberson and Garcia could go down in history as one of the brilliant moments in the history of Houston mass-transit.

We shall see.

I would note, as Chair Garcia did in our conversation, that Metro was already prohibited by law from using any federal money on the Universities Line as currently designed. This agreement allows for a way forward, which we didn’t have before. Of course it requires Rep. Culberson to keep his word, but then that’s true of any contract. Metro has an end to hold up, too. Sure, a rogue Houston Mayor could undo or undermine a lot of this, but it has always been the case that a non-transit-oriented Mayor could do a lot of damage. That’s why I’ve been so obsessed with where the Mayoral candidates stand on mobility and transit and other issues. We need to know these things, and we need to not be satisfied with platitudes and evasions. We also need to not be satisfied with any Mayor that isn’t fully on board with taking advantage of this great opportunity Houston has been given. We have been presented with a great opportunity. Let’s grab it with both hands and run with it.

UPDATE: You should also listen to this Houston Matters segment about the agreement, in which Craig Cohen speaks to Rep. Culberson and a couple of media types. Culberson is still spewing the same untruths about the 2003 referendum, and pointedly said that while he would not obstruct future rail construction if the voters approved it he would absolutely oppose such a referendum. So yes, one should maintain one’s level of skepticism. One correction to something Bob Stein said after Culberson was on: The 2012 referendum forbids Metro from spending the extra money they would get from the sales tax from scaling back the 25% give back on rail. They’re not restricted on spending other money on rail. I’ll agree they don’t have it to spend, at least in the absence of new federal funds, but the 2012 referendum isn’t the cause of that.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Stickland not out of the woods

Despite what he says.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

A state investigation into allegations that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland improperly registered witnesses to testify on a bill banning red light cameras has cleared Stickland of wrongdoing, his office announced Monday. But two officials involved in the investigation disagreed with the Bedford Republican’s declaration Monday evening.

“I can confirm that we have met with the Texas Rangers working on the case and the investigation is still ongoing,” said Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit at the Travis district attorney’s office. Asked about Stickland’s claim that he was personally cleared of wrongdoing, Cox said, “I would not agree with that statement.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee referred an investigation into the hearing to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Stickland has denied any wrongdoing.

“Late Friday I spoke with one of the Rangers assigned to the case,” said Trey Trainor, Stickland’s lawyer. “I was told that the investigation was over and that I would not be hearing from DPS anymore.”

Trainor said the Travis County district attorney’s office declined to take up the case based on DPS’s evidence.

Cox said Trainor’s assessment is not accurate.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger also said the investigation remains ongoing.

“At this time, this investigation is under final review by the Texas Ranger management team,” Vinger said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I really have no idea why his lawyer would say something like this if he wasn’t one hundred percent sure he was right. Maybe he just jumped the gun a little, in which case no harm done, but if he’s wrong, you’d have to wonder about his competence. Note that even if this investigation ends with no charges being filed, Stickland may still face sanctions from the House, though in that case I wouldn’t expect much. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

More on Sheriff Hickman

A profile of appointed Sheriff Ron Hickman that’s long on biography but short on policy.

Ron Hickman

Hickman is 63 and has spent his entire career doing police work. No step on his path has been sudden or unanticipated. Hickman expressed interest in the sheriff’s job when there were hints of a vacancy, before Garcia had announced his run for mayor. He was the candidate the Harris County Deputies’ Organization endorsed, the first person Commissioners Court members considered.

In terms of gravitas, law enforcement experience and proven political skills, the county chiefs felt, he was unmatched.

But the job ahead is significantly bigger and more bureaucratic than anything Hickman has tackled. During his four elected terms as Precinct 4 constable, he supervised 425 employees and managed a $42 million budget. As sheriff, he will oversee a staff of 4,600 and a budget of $437 million.

An astute measurer of expectations, the Republican lawman understands what the majority Republican Commissioners Court wants to see during his first days in office.

Commissioners, most vocally Precinct 3’s Steve Radack, have articulated an interest in a sheriff who would be willing to relinquish supervision of the jail.

Hickman does not see this as a sacrifice, since the detention portion of the job doesn’t appeal to him. It is not aligned with his skill set, he said, “I am cop at heart.”

Hickman was appointed last week, and about all I know about him is that he’s been a cop for a long time, and Steve Radack really likes him. The headline to this story says that he hopes to “shine a light” at the Sheriff’s office, but the story doesn’t say anything about what that might mean. He’s also open to the idea of handing off jail administration duties to an appointed overseer. That may be a good idea and it may be a bad idea, but it seems to me that it’s a substantial enough idea that it ought not to happen without there being some vigorous public debate about it. In particular, maybe it ought not to happen until someone has gotten himself elected Sheriff on a platform that includes this as a plank. Just a thought.

In the meantime, while it’s nice to know that our new Sheriff likes to hunt and fish and stuff like that, it would also be nice to know what he thinks about things like Secure Communities and the the jail’s nondiscrimination policy and so on. You know, Sheriff stuff. Maybe we could ask if his willingness to cede control of the jail to a separate administrator extends to handing the jail over to a private operator, which is something that’s been on Commissioner Radack’s radar for awhile. Sheriff Hickman’s now-former primary opponent Allen Fletcher has connections to the private prison business, so perhaps that subject will come up in the next few months. Sooner would be better than later, if you ask me.

Posted in: Local politics.

Senate still trying to pass “sanctuary cities” and DREAM Act repeal

Time is running out on these bad bills, but as the man said, it ain’t over till it’s over.

After sitting idle in the Senate for more than a month, a controversial bill to eliminate in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants is back on the upper chamber’s calendar.

But it remains unclear whether the Senate has the votes to bring the measure up for debate.

Senate Bill 1819 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would do away with what has been standard policy in Texas since 2001: allowing non-citizens, including undocumented students, to pay discounted in-state tuition rates if they have lived in Texas for three or more years.

The proposal was originally placed on the Senate’s intent calendar on April 15 after an hours-long and emotional committee hearing — but it was taken off that calendar next day. During the first 130 days of the session, Senate rules require a bill to stay on the calendar for two days before being brought up for debate.

On Tuesday, the bill was back on the calendar along with another controversial measure, Senate Bill 185 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. That proposal seeks to give local law enforcement expanded immigration enforcement powers.

SB 185 has been on and off the intent calendar several times since passing out of committee on April 13, a sign that the measure didn’t have support from 19 senators — the threshold needed to bring it up for a debate. The upper chamber’s 11 Democrats have stood united in their opposition to both measures, and at least two Republicans are firm against it.

See here for the background. The two Republican Senators that are helping hold these bills back are Sens. Kevin Eltife, who is not a surprise, and Craig Estes, who is. Without their resistance, these bills would have already passed the Senate thanks to the two thirds rule change. We appreciate the support, fellas. Hold fast, there’s not much farther to go. Stace, Texas Leftist, and the Chron’s Bobby Cervantes have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Metro and Culberson announce the terms of their agreement

Gotta say, this all sounds pretty good.

HoustonMetro

First, Congressman Culberson supports METRO’s proposed legislation pending in the State Legislature that expands the size of the METRO Board, increases the eligible length of Board member service and allows the existing board to elect a chairman in October with an odd initial term. These changes will help ensure better regional cooperation in designing and building successful transportation projects while smoothing the transition from the current board size to the larger board size that current law will require in the near future.

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.

Fifth, METRO wants to eliminate confusion for property and business owners on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive and on Post Oak Boulevard. Therefore, the METRO Board will adopt a resolution pledging not to use any federal or state funds to build rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond unless METRO service area voters approve it as part of a future METRO service area referendum. Likewise, no local funds can be spent on such a rail project without a referendum except expenditures of local funds necessary for the proper studies and engineering to present to the voters in the required referendum. Any such referendum will be part of a multi-modal transportation plan including reasonable cost estimates and a description of the project’s pathway and end points, realizing that pathways could undergo minor adjustments as a result of unforeseen environmental problems.

Sixth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to memorialize this agreement in both federal and state law. Thus, METRO does not oppose Congressman Culberson’s language amending Section 164 of the FY16 THUD appropriations bill to memorialize this agreement. And, Metro does not oppose his efforts to memorialize this agreement in state law.

Seventh, if METRO service area voters approve the referendum, Congressman Culberson pledges to support the will of the voters and he will work to secure the maximum level of federal funding available for the transit projects described in the referendum.

All of that is from a “letter to our fellow Houston area citizens” signed by Rep. Culberson and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia, which you can see here, following an announcement on Friday that the two had reached an accord. It’s about everything I could have wanted – getting the US90A extension moving, providing a path forward for the Universities line, and more. I don’t know how Metro accomplished this, but wow. Major kudos all around. I’m sure there will be more to come, and I am eager to hear it. The later version of the Chron story adds a few details, and Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Ken Paxton continues to be an ethical morass

We continue to learn more about just how compromised our Attorney General is.

Ken Paxton

Ken Paxton earned thousands of dollars by referring his private legal clients to a financial adviser now accused of “unethical and fraudulent conduct” by the state, records obtained by The Dallas Morning News show.

Paxton, now Texas attorney general, did not tell them he was getting paid. He steered his clients to a financial adviser who had declared bankruptcy and who now faces losing his state license over questionable business dealings.

Paxton’s referral agreement with Frederick “Fritz” Mowery, the head of McKinney-based Mowery Capital Management, has created a yearlong political and legal headache for the Republican attorney general. He acknowledged last year, in the middle of his statewide campaign, that he violated state securities law by failing to register as an agent for Mowery. He paid a $1,000 administrative fine in April 2014.

Failing to register can also be a third-degree felony under state law. Complaints by a watchdog group have led to a Texas Rangers investigation and appointment of special prosecutors.

A Paxton aide said Paxton was unaware of Mowery’s financial trouble and business conduct. Mowery, reached by The News, deferred to his lawyer, who declined to comment. In court proceedings, the attorney has acknowledged his client’s mistakes with paperwork and other matters but said he did not defraud his clients.

[…]

Paxton referred at least six of his law clients — twice as many as previously reported — to Mowery for financial advice.

After being questioned by state securities officials, Mowery sent letters in April 2014 to clients referred by Paxton. The letters, which clients were asked to sign, disclosed the fee arrangement with Paxton. But the letters were back-dated to years earlier, when the clients first hired Mowery. The securities board was sharply critical of the practice.

Mowery’s fees were a percentage of how much a client invested. Calculations based on those disclosures show that Paxton received payments amounting from hundreds to thousands of dollars annually.

Paxton apparently made the referrals without knowing Mowery had struggled financially and declared bankruptcy in 2005.

Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Paxton, said the attorney general does not believe he “vouched” for Mowery when he referred his clients to him.

“If someone’s asking you about a financial manager, it’s reasonable to say, ‘There’s one in my building,’” Holm said.

Mowery’s business dealings have only recently surfaced, he said. “We’re all reading it now. But in real time, I don’t believe the community was aware,” Holm said.

[…]

In the course of the board’s hearing, most of Paxton’s former clients, whose names had previously been unknown, came forward to testify.

Mark Dickerson, a Paxton law client who opened an account with Mowery in December 2011, testified that had he known of the fee arrangement, “I just would have felt it was a conflict of interest and probably would have looked elsewhere for another financial adviser.”

In addition, most of the clients said they either weren’t informed or had no recollection that Mowery said he was paying Paxton for the referral.

The state also showed that after the investigation began, Mowery asked the clients to sign back-dated letters outlining the fee arrangement. Such letters could have suggested to investigators that the clients were informed in advance, when they were not.

Evidence also showed that Mowery tried to alter his letterhead to match the address he used at the time the client contracts were signed.

Mowery testified that he saw the forms were missing from his files and was just trying to replicate the letters. He said that he forthrightly admitted to investigators when asked that he had created the disclosure letters in April 2014.

Several Paxton clients reached by The News declined to discuss the business deals. But records of the hearing show Dickerson and another client, David Goettsche, refused to sign the post-dated letters.

“I didn’t feel like it was a truthful statement for me to make,” Dickerson testified.

For the sake of argument, let’s accept Paxton’s word that he had no idea his buddy Mowery was treading water at the time that he was referring clients to him. The reason why Paxton looks like such a sleaze here is not that he was tossing some business to a friend, but that he was getting a kickback for it without disclosing it to the clients he was sending Mowery’s way. If I recommend a product or service to you, and then later you find out I got a commission for making that recommendation but didn’t tell you that up front, doesn’t that make you wonder about my motivations and objectivity? Wouldn’t it make you feel like you had been used, even just a little?

A few years back there was a big kerfuffle in the world of mommy bloggers, some of whom had been busy doing just that – promoting products and services for which they were being compensated but not disclosing that they were being rewarded for doing so. In the end, after much kvetching and tsouris, everyone agreed to the should-have-been-blindingly-obvious-from-the-get-go solution that the ethical thing to do in this situation is to say up front that you receive a boon from this product or service that you are currently shilling. This is what Ken Paxton failed to do. Shouldn’t we expect our Attorney General to hold himself to the same standards of integrity as these mommy bloggers? I don’t think that’s too much to ask here.

Note that this is a separate matter from the criminal complaint against Paxton, which is about him failing to file the requisite paperwork with the state before soliciting clients for his buddy. Clearly, though, if Paxton had been an ethical person, he would not have gotten himself into this kind of trouble. One wonders if he has truly learned that lesson, or if he’s just hoping to get away with it at this point. PDiddie and the Lone Star Project have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

House approves limited medical marijuana bill

And there it is.

On a 96-34 vote, the House passed Senate Bill 339, from state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. If the House gives final passage in a follow-up vote, the measure will be Gov. Greg Abbott’s to sign, veto or allow to become law without his signature. If it becomes law, the state would be able to regulate and distribute the oils to patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Before the vote, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor, repeatedly stressed to House members that the product she was trying to legalize should not be confused with marijuana.

“It is also not something you can get high on. It has a low risk of abuse,” Klick said. “This is not something that can be smoked. It is ingested orally.”

[…]

Several Republican lawmakers brought up those concerns during the House floor debate. At one point, over the shouts of House members booing, state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, yelled, “This is a bad bill.”

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, and a House sponsor of the bill along with Klick, responded. “It is not a bad bill. It is a great bill and it is going to save lives.”

See here for the background. This is not a bad bill, but it’s not a great bill, either. It should do some good, and it’s a step in the right direction, but remember that some CBD proponents opposed this bill because it didn’t do very much for them. I hope the Lege is as kind to Rep. Joe Moody’s bill to reduce marijuana penalties, but if this is all we get, I won’t be surprised. A statement from RAMP is beneath the fold, and Trail Blazers and the Current have more.

Continue reading →

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Montgomery and Fort Bend

The Houston Area Survey covered a bigger area than usual this year.

One is mostly white and mostly Republican. It hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate since native Texan Lyndon Johnson a half-century ago.

The other is as racially and ethnically diverse as any place in the country, swelling with black, Asian and Hispanic residents and much harder to bring under one umbrella.

But Montgomery and Fort Bend counties are much more similar than they are different. A new poll by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research shows that the two contrasting suburbs share common ground with their attitudes on traffic, development and immigration, among other key local issues.

The shared perspective matters as Houston goes through another growth boom, extending deeper into these counties. They will play an important role in the region’s future as it becomes bigger, busier and more diverse.

Separated by 50 miles of Houston sprawl, the two counties see bumper-to-bumper traffic as the region’s biggest problem, ahead of crime and the local economy, the poll found. And despite the car-oriented cultures of both places, four in 10 people surveyed say they would prefer to live within walking distance of work, restaurants and shops.

On new immigration, Montgomery County residents generally have stronger reservations, while Fort Bend County is more enthusiastic about its increasing diversity. But the differences are slight, said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice sociologist who has conducted the Houston Area Survey for more than 30 years.

“In this time of such political polarization, you would expect to see greater divergence on the issues,” Klineberg said. “But there is a surprising degree of consensus on what we need to do to succeed as a larger community, and that’s reassuring.”

[…]

The poll found that 45 percent of those surveyed – in each county – say improving public transit, such as light rail, buses and trains, is the best way to confront traffic woes. Fewer than one-third of people in the counties say they prefer building bigger freeways and roads.

In Fort Bend County, Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen said the poll’s results are not surprising considering the explosive growth in both counties.

“We’re dealing with the same issues,” including an aging infrastructure and the need for more water, Owen said. “I don’t care which side of Houston you live on, you have these problems.”

Missouri City, for one, is expected to nearly double its current population of 70,000 people by 2025. The growth is being driven by people working in and around the Texas Medical Center, 15 miles away.

Owen, echoing the poll’s results, said the area needs light rail to get people where they need to go.

“We have to get people out of their cars,” he said.

The recently released Kinder survey was based on interviews with 1,611 people, with about half in Harris County. The other half of the interviews were conducted in Fort Bend County and, for the first time, Montgomery County. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Klineberg expanded the poll to understand how these communities view the “dramatic” changes unfolding across greater Houston.

The rail numbers are interesting, though I don’t know how exactly to interpret them. I’ve browsed through the HAS page but have not found where (or if) they broke that data out by county. I’m guessing that support for rail in Montgomery is noticeably less than in Fort Bend and Harris. Which wouldn’t be a surprise, since there’s nothing on the drawing board for Montgomery (not counting the high speed rail proposal, which may not touch Montgomery anyway). Fort Bend has the possibility of the US90A rail extension, which may be in a better place politically now. They’d still have to enable Metro to operate inside the county for it to worthwhile, though. Anyway, as always the Houston Area Survey is a wealth of useful information. It’s good they’re including responses from outside Harris County now. The “Houston Area” isn’t complete without Fort Bend and Montgomery.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.