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Friday random ten – Dance Party!

I mentioned Scalzi’s 80s dance party playlist a couple of Fridays ago, and also mentioned that it had some oversights on it. Well, no party lasts forever, so you have to cut it off somewhere. Be that as it may, what songs would I have included that Scalzi didn’t? Here are ten additions from my collection:

1. What I Like About You – The Romantics
2. Modern Love – David Bowie
3. Sussudio – Phil Collins
4. Walking On Sunshine – Katrina and The Waves
5. Walk This Way – Run/DMC
6. Dancing In The Dark – Bruce Springsteen
7. Would I Lie To You? – Eurythmics
8. Heart And Soul – T’Pau
9. 99 Red Balloons – Nena
10. One Night In Bangkok – Murray Head

What songs would be must-haves on your 80s dance music playlist?

Posted in: Music.

The games our tax system plays

I find this just fascinating.

BagOfMoney

It’s been described as bribery, taxation without representation and a shady political maneuver. Others have called it an innovative way to deal with budgetary problems and get things done.

Ever since Texas lawmakers made it more difficult for cities to absorb suburbs into their boundaries 15 years ago, Houston has been quietly cutting deals with municipal utility districts to levy a 1 percent sales tax on purchases in neighboring communities.

The agreements for “limited purpose annexations” now generate tens of millions for Houston and for the utility districts, which split the revenue. But some question the appropriateness of the deals.

Houston seems to play off suburban fears of annexation to demand taxes in exchange for promises to leave them alone, said Paul Lewis, a professor of local politics and urban development at Arizona State University.

“It’s a kind of bribery,” he added.

Some local officials wonder whether the agreements lead to wasteful spending that lacks transparency. The revenue is not subject to the voter-approved revenue cap that has forced the city to lower its property tax rate and slash budgets. Critics also note that Houston provides no services to most of these suburban areas, whose residents can’t vote in city elections.

“It’s unconstitutional,” Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert said. “I thought we fought a war back in the 1700s on ‘taxation without representation.’ ”

Utility district leaders defend the agreements, noting that they take half the money collected and receive a contractual promise they will not be fully annexed for 30 years.

City officials agree that the agreements are fair. Census figures show that nearly two-thirds of those who work in Houston live outside of the city limits. City officials note that suburban residents attend plays in the Theater District, watch free concerts at Memorial Hermann Park and put wear and tear on city property.

“It is the primary tool we have to deal with the growth that goes on outside the city and the burden put on infrastructure by suburban citizens without our property tax,” Houston Finance Director Kelly Dowe said.

You can read the story and decide its morality and/or constitutionality for yourself. Personally, as a resident of Houston, I have no problems with it. What occurs to me in reading this is that it’s a natural outcome of our overall system of taxation in Texas, which is heavily dependent on sales and property taxes, and also on legal ways to minimize one’s sales and property taxes. There’s one way we could avoid all the problems associated with a tax system designed around political boundaries, and that’s to switch to one that is primarily dependent on income taxes instead. Of course, there are plenty of ways to game an income tax system, too, so it would most likely substitute one set of shenanigans for another. But at least it would be something different for us to argue about.

Posted in: Local politics.

HD13 runoff date set

We are now all set on special election runoffs.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday scheduled a Feb. 17 runoff in the special election for Lois Kolkhorst’s old seat in the Texas House.

Austin County Judge Carolyn Bilski and Caldwell attorney Leighton Schubert — both Republicans — were the top two finishers in the Jan. 13 special election to replace Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican. Last year, she won a promotion to the upper chamber, vacating her seat in House District 13, which includes parts of seven counties west of the Houston area.

Early voting in the HD13 runoff has been set for Feb. 9-13.

See here for the first round result in HD13. This means that all four runoffs are now scheduled for the same date, which makes the most sense. I presume the delay in adding this runoff to the calendar was because it hadn’t been canvassed yet. I approve of the quick turnaround, and I hope the special election that will be needed to succeed either Trey Martinez-Fischer or Jose Menendez in San Antonio gets the same consideration. On that note, the Express News’ Gilbert Garcia identifies MALDEF attorney Marisa Bono as a likely candidate in HD116 if TMF is the runoff winner. I can’t see the story, so I can’t tell you more than that (Ms. Bono is on Twitter, if you’re interested), but I’m sure we’ll start to hear about who might be interested in either of those seats soon enough. If we do get the kind of short turnaround I’m hoping for, they’ll need to hit the ground running.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Appeals court reverses ruling about pension retiree information

So much for that.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A state district court’s 2013 ruling that Houston’s fire pension board must turn over detailed information on its retirees to help city officials better project future pension bills has been overturned on appeal.

Justices with the 1st Court of Appeals issued the opinion Tuesday, arguing that, in essence, state law protects the city’s ability to request information on its pensioners but not at the breadth and depth the city originally sought when it sued the pension fund in May 2012. At the time Mayor Annise Parker argued she needed better data to project future pension costs.

Todd Clark, chairman of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, cheered the ruling, and said the city has all the information it needs on retired firefighters.

“The city took a run at trying to convert the plain meaning of a statute providing for an independent audit into a license to rummage through a decade of pension members’ personal information,” Clark said. “Both taxpayer and pension resources were wasted by the city’s lawsuit.”

City Attorney Donna Edmundson said she and her staff still are reviewing the ruling and weighing the city’s options, which could include appealing the ruling or narrowing the city’s request for information.

Houston originally sought individual data on each retiree from 2000 forward, and later amended its request to target group data from that period. Edmundson said the ruling suggests state law may protect the city’s access to retiree information if it requests only group data dating back to only 2011.

“I think basically, on our part, we just need to go back in and refine our request a bit, just tweak it,” Edmundson said. “Obviously we’re reaching out to the firefighters trying to come to agreement on numerous issues. We’re just going to sit back on this for the time being since we do have other litigation pending, as well.”

Assistant City Attorney Judith Ramsey added that it was important for the city to pursue the case because state law requires Houston to audit its pension funds every five years, “and we felt that we needed the level of detail we originally asked for in order to do the kind of audit we were required to do.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the court’s opinion. Narrowing the request is probably the shorter path to some kind of resolution, though I suppose the firefighters could still appeal if the First Court of Appeals accepted a revised petition. I’m just guessing – if anyone knows better what the possible paths are, please leave a comment. Barring some kind of settlement agreement, which I would not bet on, I presume this will not be resolved by the end of the year, meaning that the next Mayor will inherit this. I wonder what legal strategy the various candidates would prefer to see Mayor Parker pursue. A statement from the HFRRF is beneath the fold.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Legal matters.

Paxton evades prosecution

In Travis County, anyway.

Ken Paxton

New Attorney General Ken Paxton, who in 2014 was found to have violated the Texas Securities Act, will not be prosecuted by the state’s office that investigates public corruption, officials said Thursday.

Paxton, a former state senator from McKinney, violated the Securities Act by soliciting investment clients without being registered, as required by law, according to a disciplinary order last year from the State Securities Board. Under the order, Paxton was “reprimanded” and fined $1,000. But Thursday’s announcement signals that the case may be closed.

“Our investigation did not find any additional criminal activity over which our office has venue, so we are concluding Travis County’s involvement in this matter,” said Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, whose office includes the state’s public integrity unit.

[…]

Lehmberg’s office said it had forwarded a portion of its investigation to prosecutors in Collin and Dallas counties, which could investigate the securities board’s findings further.

See here for the background. In addition to possible action in Collin and/or Dallas Counties, there’s also still the SEC complaint, the state bar grievance, and the lawsuit to get his records from the State Securities Board out there. Paxton may have dodged one bullet, but he shouldn’t feel lucky just yet. Trail Blazers and the Statesman have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

A bill to outlaw cities

That would appear to be the effect of this.

Sen. Don Huffines

Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican from Dallas, has filed a bill that would prohibit cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.

Huffines’ Senate Bill 343, introduced Friday, is a sweeping proposal that would bar local governments from implementing ordinances that are more stringent than state law on the same subject, unless otherwise authorized by statute.

Since Texas law doesn’t prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, cities couldn’t do so, either.

[…]

Although in line with some of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent statements, Huffines’ proposal seems extraordinarily broad and would block cities from implementing an array of local laws.

You can say that again. Here’s SB343, and here’s the relevant bit from the text:

Sec. 1.006. CONFORMITY WITH STATE LAW. (a) Where the state has passed a general statute or rule regulating a subject, a local government shall restrict its jurisdiction and the passage of its ordinances, rules, and regulations to and in conformity with the state statute or rule on the same subject, unless the local government is otherwise expressly authorized by statute.
(b) Unless expressly authorized by state statute, a local government shall not implement an ordinance, rule, or regulation that conflicts with or is more stringent than a state statute or rule regardless of when the state statute or rule takes effect.

I’m not a lawyer, but even I can recognize that “stringent” isn’t exactly a well-defined legal term. As noted by Jay Aiyer on Kris Banks’ Facebook page, this would effectively end all local control by cities and would contradict the Home rule provisions that already exist in state law, thus making cities more or less like counties. The entire Eagle Ford Shale formation isn’t big enough for this can of worms. You have to hate gay people really hard to come up with something as demented as this. I doubt this will get any traction, but it does put Huffines in the running for worst bill of the session (Cecil Bell remains in the pole position for that) and clearly establishes his bona fides for the Texas Monthly Ten Worst list later on. Kudos to you for that, Don.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Front and center with the fraud allegations

The city goes on offense as it defends the equal rights ordinance at the repeal petition trial.

PetitionsInvalid

In his opening argument in court Tuesday, Alex Kaplan, an attorney for the city, said the petition is “full of problems.”

“It is precisely these kinds of cases where there are high public passions where the rules must be followed,” Kaplan said.

Andy Taylor, attorney for the plaintiffs, said any claims of fraud are untrue and the city’s argument is “laughable.” He said “well-intentioned voters from time to time didn’t follow all the rules” but there was no fraud.

“They’re talking about ticky-tacky deficiencies like we’re missing a comma or our signatures are hard to read,” Taylor said. “Give me a break. Did our forefathers die in battle so that commas could prevent their children from voting?”

[…]

University of Houston law professor Richard Alderman said it is common in such cases for signatures to be challenged and thrown out, and the case ultimately will be a numbers game of how many valid signatures remain. Still, Alderman said, substantiated fraud claims could influence jurors’ perception of the case.

“If the city were to allege five or six problems and the jury believed one or two, then when they’re on the fence they’re more likely to believe one of the others,” Alderman said.

City attorneys focused heavily on claims of fraud in a lengthy motion, filed this month, asking state District Judge Robert Schaffer to rule on important pieces of the case before it even began. Schaffer largely declined to do so, allowing jury selection to begin Monday and opening arguments to be given Tuesday.

Still, the filing cited depositions of people who gathered signatures in arguing the effort was tainted by “fraud, perjury, and other dishonest acts.”

According to the city, some of those involved in the petition drive admitted signature gatherers had an incentive not to follow the city charter because they were paid by the signature, regardless of validity. Others involved said residents signed for people other than themselves.

See here for the background. The depositions, detailed in the story, were first publicized by HouEquality, and I encourage you to click those two links and see the evidence for yourself. I tend to agree with Professor Alderman that the more credible allegations that the petition gatherers were egregiously sloppy, if not outright fraudulent, that the city can make, especially given the video evidence that they knew exactly what the rules were, the less sympathy a jury is going to give them. I’m very interested in seeing how they explain some of this stuff. And speaking of the jury:

On Monday, lawyers for HERO opponents said they wanted to be allowed to ask — directly — whether any potential jurors were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They argued that this was important information because they wanted to be sure jurors aren’t biased. In other words, they wanted to force potential jurors who might be closeted either to out themselves as LGBT or perjure themselves. Moreover, the folks who argue that LGBT people don’t face discrimination wanted to discriminate by keeping LGBT people off the jury.

The judge said no.

It’s increasingly hard to believe that that these guys can win – or that they think they can win – unless they have the playing field tilted in their favor. KUHF, Towleroad, Project Q, the Christian Examiner, and Media Matters have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The Senate’s opening budget

Could be worse, I guess.

BagOfMoney

Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson presented a $205.1 billion two-year base budget Tuesday morning, vowing to provide property tax cuts that Texans “actually feel” while keeping the state’s economy humming along.

The Senate budget is $3 billion larger than the $202.4 billion House budget that Speaker Joe Straus released nearly two weeks ago. However, the Senate budget includes $4 billion allocated for tax cuts. Straus opted to leave tax cuts out of the House’s opening proposal to allow members to formulate their own ideas on how to cut taxes.

At a Tuesday news conference, Nelson said that the Senate budget plan includes $3 billion set aside for “meaningful” property tax relief that homeowners would notice, as well as $1 billion for business franchise tax cuts. She and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the mechanisms by which they intend to cut property and margins taxes were still being worked out and could end up higher than the $4 billion currently proposed.

“We are taking in substantial revenue, and we have an obligation to return a large share of those dollars to the people who have worked hard and earned that in the first place,” Nelson said.

One could argue, as Rick Casey deftly does (via), that there’s a greater obligation to provide for the state’s many unmet needs. One could also argue that we just had an election to settle that argument, and we know which side won. Be that as it may, I guaran-damn-tee you that the people – and corporations – that will benefit the most from whatever tax cuts Patrick and Nelson have in mind will be those that need them the least. And yes, tax cuts we will get – for some value of “we”, anyway – oil prices be damned. I’m sure there will be plenty of “waste” to cut in the 2017 budget when we need to pay the piper. If we need a suggestion for where to look first on that score:

The Senate budget would add $815 million for border security, more than the previous seven years combined, according to Nelson’s office. The House budget allocates $396.8 million for border security, which House officials described as enough to maintain the increased presence of DPS officers that were sent to the border in June as part of a high-profile border surge.

I can’t even imagine what that will mean in practical terms. But I’m sure that whatever it is, it will be declared a success in two years’ time. PDiddie and Trail Blazers have more.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 26

Well more than two thirds of the Texas Progressive Alliance thinks this legislative session is off to an inauspicious start as we bring you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

January campaign finance reports – HCC Trustees

There are nine trustees on the HCC board. With them serving six-year terms, in a normal year three trustees are up for re-election; 2013 was an abnormal year, with two extra races to fill out unexpired terms. We are back to normal this time, so we have three races. As with HISD, at this time all incumbents that are up are currently expected to run for re-election, and no opponents have emerged at this early date. Here are the incumbents in question.

Adriana Tamez, District III

Dr. Tamez won one of those two special elections from 2013, to fill out the term of Mary Ann Perez, who stepped down after winning in HD144 in 2012. The candidate she defeated in the runoff was one of two supported by Dave Wilson, so that was extra sweet. (Speaking of Wilson, he nominated himself for Board President at the start of this year, but had to withdraw after no one seconded him. Then, to add insult to injury, Zeph Capo, who defeated Wilson’s buddy Yolanda Navarro Flores in 2013, was elected Board President. Sucks to be you, Dave.) Tamez was elected Board Secretary for this year.

Sandie Mullins, District VI

Sandie Mullins, formerly Meyers, is serving her first term on the Board. She was elected in 2009 without facing an opponent to fill the seat formerly held by now-State Rep. Jim Murphy. (Mills Worsham was named to replace Murphy in 2007 after his initial election in HD133, then Worsham ran for Council in 2009 instead of a full term on HCC.) Like Murphy and her ex-husband, HISD Trustee Greg Meyers, Mullins is a Republican, one of two on the board along with you-know-who. She is herself an alumna of HCC, and serves or has served on a number of other boards.

Eva Loredo, District VIII

Under normal circumstances, Eva Loredo would not be on the HCC Board. She didn’t file for the race in 2009, against incumbent Abel Davila. No one did, and on filing deadline day Davila was expected to run unopposed for re-election. Except that he decided at the last minute not to run, and instead his brother-in-law Art Aguilar filed. That led to a medium-sized crap storm, which led to Aguilar’s withdrawal. Loredo had by then submitted paperwork to be a write-in candidate, with some assistance from the late Sen. Mario Gallegos, and with no other candidate on the ballot, she won. She would be on the ballot this time.

As for finance reports, you may recall that as recently as 2011 it was damn near impossible to lay one’s hands on HCC Trustee finance reports. I claim a small measure of the credit for changing that situation. Be that as it may, the fact that these reports are now available online at this link doesn’t mean that they’re available in a timely fashion. Despite the fact that the city, the county, the school board, and the state all had theirs up within a day or so of the January 15 deadline, HCC still had nothing more recent than last July’s as of yesterday. So those are the totals I will include, pending them getting off their butts and updating this information.

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Tamez 7,150 15,392 7,000 610 Mullins 0 1,878 0 18,400 Loredo 0 492 0 2,004 Oliver 8,225 6,060 0 2,165

So there you have it. I’ve included the totals for Chris Oliver as well, since he is now running for Council. I’ll update all this in July, and ought to have my Election 2015 page up by then as well.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Perry still under indictment

Oops.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog has done nothing wrong

A judge on Tuesday rejected former Gov. Rick Perry’s attempt to throw out a two-count indictment against him, saying it’s too early in the case to challenge the constitutionality of the charges.

Perry’s attorneys immediately filed notice that they will appeal the 21-page ruling, which was issued Tuesday afternoon by Bert Richardson, a Republican; the appeals process could take months. The appeal will be considered by the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals. All five justices elected to that court are Republican; a sixth justice, who has not yet run in a partisan race, was appointed by Perry before he left office.

[…]

Attorneys for the former governor have been trying to get the two-count felony indictment thrown out. Perry’s attorneys have argued that the indictments — one count of abusing official capacity and one count of illegally coercing a public servant — violate both the Texas and U.S. constitutions.

“Texas law clearly precludes a trial court from making a pretrial determination regarding the constitutionality of a state penal or criminal procedural statute as that statutes applies to a particular defendant,” Richardson wrote.

However, the judge agreed with Perry’s attorneys that the second count of the indictment – coercion of a public servant – did not “sufficiently” explain why Perry’s actions were not protected because he was acting in his official capacity as governor.

Rather than dismissing this count, the judge said state law allows prosecutors to amend that count, and he granted them permission to do so.

You can read Judge Richardson’s order here. It gets technical in places, but it’s worth your time to read it; it will make enough sense even if you don’t possess a law degree. Judge Richardson has clearly not foreclosed Perry’s claims about constitutionality, but unless the appeals courts grant him his wish – which my reading of the order suggests would be unusual – those would be questions to ponder after the trial concludes. Needless to say, Perry doesn’t want to wait that long; as this companion Trib story reminds us, that could take years to play out. My guess at this point is that we’re headed towards a trial. I welcome any feedback from the lawyers out there. The Statesman has more, and a statement from TPJ is beneath the fold.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Scandalized!.

From the “Good problems to have” department

Metro will have a few million dollars left over when it is done building the remaining light rail lines.

After more than three years of construction, Metro officials estimate $39.9 million of the $900 million awarded by the Federal Transit Administration is left over and unlikely to be spent as work wraps up. Contingencies for cost overruns often are built into financial estimates for large transportation projects, notably rail. Metro’s costs have stayed largely in line with estimates of $1.58 billion for the two lines.

None of the federal money applies to the Green Line, which was locally funded. Both the Green Line to the East End and the Purple Line to the southeast are scheduled to open in April.

[…]

Most of the leftover money, $24.9 million, is dedicated to the northern segment of the Red Line light rail route, which opened in December 2013. Another $14.5 million is available along the Purple Line, between downtown and the Palm Center Transit Center south of MacGregor Park in southeast Houston.

If the money from the October 2011 agreement isn’t spent, it would go back to federal coffers.

The money can be used only for those two lines, and only for projects related to developing the rail routes, though that does give Metro officials leeway.

Officials on Thursday outlined for a Metro committee some projects they are considering, though more talks are likely as the list is winnowed.

Two of the most significant projects are at the ends of the rail lines, near Northline Commons along the Red Line and at Palm Center Transit Center where the Purple Line terminates.

Metro has a bus transit center near the Red Line terminus, a few steps from the tracks on land owned by Houston Community College. Officials said tying the bus center and rail line together with an elevated walkway would improve conditions for riders.

Metro’s lease for the bus center land expires in 2021, and the agency is working with HCC on a long-term plan for the area incorporating the campus and the transit connection.

Lambert said a rail-bus terminal at the location would be years in the making but would be more affordable if included in the long-term, federally backed rail development.

Additional parking spaces at Palm Center Transit Center would serve a similar purpose, giving more potential riders a way to park at a rail station.

Board members Thursday said it was vital the money be used in ways that benefit riders and residents near the rail lines.

“I think we should be looking at projects that increase ridership,” Christof Spieler said, noting rail use can often be affected by how people arrive at the station. “I absolutely want to look at bus stops.”

Board member Dwight Jefferson said more stations closer to where people live could be beneficial.

“You have the station at Elgin and you do not have another station until a mile down on the other side of the freeway,” Jefferson said. “You have a whole huge stretch of neighborhood that is totally not served on the rail line.”

Remember how the I-10 widening was originally supposed to cost $1 billion, then wound up costing about $2.7 billion? I love having another excuse to bring that up. As far as this goes, I’m with Spieler – projects that would help boost ridership should take priority. That leaves a lot of possibilities, and I hope Metro takes the time to brainstorm and get public input for more suggestions. This is a great opportunity, so let’s make the most of it.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

HISD considers a different kind of redistricting

It would likely be just as contentious as the usual kind.

HISD School Map

Houston school officials may rezone students from roughly two dozen elementary schools over the next few years in an effort to meet the state’s class size limits.

District officials presented a proposal to the school board Thursday morning. It would be the largest redrawing of attendance boundaries in years.

HISD trustee Harvin Moore acknowledged that he expects concerns from parents.

“It’s hard to find a popular change in boundaries,” Moore said.

The Houston Independent School District required 1,499 waivers from the Texas Education Agency this year to exceed the state’s 22-student class size cap. The district’s goal is to cut the number of waivers by 50 percent next school year.

The full Chron story is here, and you can see the current school boundary maps here. There’s a list of potentially affected schools at the first link above. This sort of thing is never easily done or lightly undertaken, but the goal of reducing the number of class size waivers is a good one, and will hopefully make everyone want to get this done. The Board will vote on this in March, so contact your board member if you have any questions or concerns.

Posted in: School days.

The situation in Plano is complicated

I had not realized this.

The nation’s largest LGBT political advocacy group indicated this week it is unlikely to help defend a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano due to exemptions affecting the transgender community.

The announcement from the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign could amount to a costly setback for supporters of the ordinance, as the organization recently poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a similar fight in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

[…]

Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy, told the Observer on Thursday that the organization hasn’t made a final decision about its role if the ordinance appears on the ballot. However, Oakley also made clear that HRC would be reluctant to join the fight due to exemptions including one that appears to bar people from using public restrooms according to their gender identity—a provision which she called “transphobic.”

“The language in Plano is very problematic and in terms of investing a lot of resources in an ordinance that has a lot of problems, it’s difficult to see why that’s necessarily the best use of resources,” Oakley said. “If we had been consulted in the drafting of this bill, we would have withdrawn our support, and given that, it’s hard to justify defending it as valid.”

[…]

Nell Gaither, president of Dallas-based Trans Pride Initiative, has posted blistering attacks on social media saying exemptions in the ordinance amount to bigotry and accusing other LGBT groups of signing off on them.

“This is not a Plano issue. This is a Texas issue, and more,” Gaither wrote recently. “If they get away with the lie that this is an LGBT equality policy it will set a dangerous precedent that will be very difficult to overcome for many, many years.”

I confess, I totally missed this aspect of the Plano equal rights ordinance. My fault for not paying sufficiently close attention to the details and for not having more trans resources in my regular reading list. The Dallas Voice covered Gaither’s criticisms:

Nell Gaither isn’t having it with Plano’s equal rights ordinance.

If anything, the Dallas transgender activist and Trans Pride Initiative president says she thinks the nondiscrimination ordinance, passed by the Plano City Council in December, is not just flawed but actually harmful.

On Wednesday, Jan. 21 TPI released a position statement denouncing the ordinance. And the organization did not hold back: “[We are] publishing this statement to express our conviction that the Plano Code of Ordinances Section 2-11, as modified by the so-called ‘Equal Rights Ordinance,’ is detrimental to the trans community and other marginalized persons who may experience discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Among the seven types of exemptions in the ordinance are nonprofit (except for city contractors), religious and educational organizations. Gaither also believes the ordinance contradicts the announcement by outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last year that Title VII of the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act protects gender identity and sexual orientation.

Exempting organizations from the ordinance means any complaint filed under Title VII could be disregarded, Gaither said.

“It’s a green light to discriminate with no recourse,” she added.

[…]

Gaither says Plano and its elected officials don’t bear all the blame.

“Plano shut out the trans community because they didn’t understand the issues or the tactics of the conservative religious groups,” Gaither said. “GALA [ Gay and Lesbian Alliance of North Texas ] has no interest in the trans community so didn’t do the right thing in their communications by insisting that the ordinance actually be an equal rights ordinance. [So] we have a lose/lose situation that is incredibly problematic for the broad community.”

Gaither also chided Equality Texas for accepting an ordinance that doesn’t adequately protect anyone in the LGBT community, especially trans people.

So here we have another object lesson in the need for diversity, and the vital importance of ensuring adequate representation of all stakeholders when undertaking a project like this. I encourage you to read the Trans Pride Initiative’s position paper on the Plano ERO and the specific points of concern it has with it. Their belief is that repealing the ordinance now would lead to a better outcome later. I’m sure some people will disagree with that. I don’t know how I feel about that as a strategic move. But I get where Gaither is coming from, and she totally has a point. Discrimination is still discrimination, and if this law fails to fully address it, indeed if it makes some forms of discrimination easier to get away with, then the bad of this law outweighs the good.

You may recall that this was a similar point of contention in the process that led to Houston’s equal rights ordinance. In the end, it was resolved favorably. It’s truly unfortunate that this didn’t happen in Plano, especially if it was a calculated move.

Although adamant they didn’t sign off on the exemptions, both Equality Texas and GALA North Texas indicated they plan to defend the ordinance if it appears on the ballot.

“While the ordinance is not perfect, it is a fact that it includes protections from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations for LGBT residents and veterans in Plano that did not previously exist,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said in a statement to the Observer. “While criticisms expressed by leaders in the transgender community are valid, it is imperative that we work together to ensure that this ordinance is not repealed in the short term and is improved in the long term.”

Jeanne Rubin, a spokeswoman for GALA North Texas, called HRC’s likely decision to sit out the ballot fight disappointing.

“In politics, as much of a bummer as it is, everything is incremental, and I know that’s sort of a dirty word for our community,” said Rubin, who’s also an Equality Texas board member. “If this ordinance goes down, not only will Plano not touch this issue with a 10-foot pole, but no other suburban city out here will, and that doesn’t do L, G, B or T any good.”

Rubin and others said they believe the exemptions were included because officials hoped to head off attacks seen in other cities over transgender protections in public accommodations.

But if that’s the case, the strategy hasn’t worked. Despite the exemptions, opponents have repeatedly and publicly asserted that the ordinance would allow men to enter women’s restrooms and prey on children.

In other words, the same lies and bullshit being spread by the same kind of people who call themselves “Christians” as what we’re seeing here. I don’t know how some of these people can look at themselves in a mirror. The real tragedy here is that if we had passed ordinances like the HERO years ago, we wouldn’t be having these problems now. This Trib story, which provides an overview of the ongoing fights in Houston and Plano, provides this tidbit at the end:

In 2000, Fort Worth became the first major Texas city to update its nondiscrimination ordinance to include protections for sexual identity. Then-Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr said he couldn’t remember facing the kind of opposition council members in Houston and Plano have faced.

“Frankly, I don’t remember any specifics of the debate about it,” Barr said this week. “That speaks to the fact that we passed it without a whole lot of fanfare.”

And to how our politics and our discourse have gotten so debased. Let that be a lesson to us all. Unfair Park has more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

It’s going to be a long trial

Settle in and get comfortable, the HERO repeal petition trial is going to take some time.

PetitionsInvalid

Ultimately, though, the trial is expected to be tedious and technical. So much so, that even after the city lost a significant motion two weeks ago to send the trial before a judge rather than a jury, Parker focused her concern on the jurors.

“What I do feel sorry for is the jurors who are going to have to go through page by page, signature by signature over a matter of weeks,” Parker said. “A trial that could have taken a week or two is probably going to take a couple of months to get through, and that’s a lot to ask for the jurors, but we will do whatever we need to do to defend the position.”

[…]

“The reason why you don’t typically get a jury trial in election-related cases is it’s a time issue,” election law attorney Doug Ray said. “They need to either get on the ballot or decide the results.”

The case likely will unfold slowly as attorneys on both sides have the luxury of time – with the deadline for placing the repeal referendum on the November ballot about six months away.

Judge Robert Schaffer already has indicated that not only will jurors need to review petition pages, but he will as well.

The trial officially started last week, with some administrative details being handled. Jury selection is the first order of business. Among the things the jury will get to hear are allegations of fraud and forgery in the petition process. This is going to be a long and tedious trial, but it won’t be a boring trial.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Chris Oliver joins the At Large #1 crowd

From the inbox:

Chris Oliver

Chris Oliver

Houston Community College Trustee Chris Oliver has announced his candidacy for the open Houston City Council, At-Large Position 1 seat to be filled this November. Chris brings years of experience as a businessman, legislative advocate, and Houston Community College Trustee for District IX to his campaign for Houston City Council.

“It’s exciting,” said Oliver. “I’ve spent a significant portion of my professional career working for the people of Houston helping to empower them through the catalyst of education. I look forward to serving them further as their At-Large City Council Member for Position 1.”

As Houston Community College Trustee for District IX Chris has sought to deliver every student a quality, affordable education. Chris’ long list of accomplishments as Trustee includes overseeing several HCC expansion initiatives, including the opening of Willie Lee Gay Hall on U.S. 288 and Airport. This milestone for the city represents the first time an academic institution of higher learning has reached this corner of the community.

“Education is crucial to the current and future success of all of Houston’s diverse communities,” explained Oliver. “I’ll look to add my perspective to Houston City Council by not just concentrating on community education, but also by focusing on the city’s fiscal future, its infrastructural issues, and the safety of all of our communities.”

Chris was elected to the Houston Community College Board of Trustees in 1995 and served as Board Chairman from 1999 to 2007. His diverse professional career spans serving in the United States Congress as legislative aid, the U.S. Department of Labor overseeing contractor compliance, and owning his own business – Tekoa Property Management Group, Inc., a construction final cleaning company. He will look to leverage these experiences in his role as City Council Member At-Large for Position 1.

“I am looking forward to talking with Houstonians about myself, my candidacy, and my vision for our city,” said Oliver. “I believe that my diverse background as a public servant, small business owner, and as a legislative professional has not only prepared me to lead – it has equipped me with the skills to do so on day one.”

You can see the email here, and you can listen to the interview I did with Oliver for his 2011 re-election here. There’s now at least five candidates in this race, and as I have observed about the Mayor’s race, there likely isn’t the room for all of them to run viable campaigns. At some point, it’s going to make sense for someone to shift to another race, whether the open At Large #4 race, for which there is currently one candidate, or a challenge to an incumbent. We are still very early in the cycle, so there is plenty of time for things to happen.

Posted in: Election 2015.

918K and counting

Obamacare enrollment numbers in Texas keep going up.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

More than 7 million people, including 918,890 Texans, have selected a plan or were automatically re-enrolled in coverage in the federal health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act, according to government data released Wednesday.

[…]

But the figures released Wednesday aren’t separated between new enrollments and renewals. The figures indicate more Texans have bought 2015 coverage than they did on 2014. We just don’t know how many. We also don’t know how many previously were uninsured.

“You’d have to know that to assess the impact on the uninsured rate,” said Elena Marks, President and CEO of Houston’s Episcopal Health Foundation, in a recent email. She also is a non-resident fellow of health policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Marks and Vivian Ho, the Baker Institute’s health economics chair, began studying the effects the health insurance marketplace could have on Texas’ uninsured rates long before the marketplace’s October 2013 launch.

Texas has the largest percentage of uninsured residents nationwide. About 6 million Texans are uninsured.

“If there were about 6 million uninsured (statewide) before, if even half of these are newly insured, that would be a big dent in the number,” she said. “Perhaps, most importantly, it reverses a decade of flat or declining rates of insurance in this state.”

Karen Love, senior vice president of Community Health Choice, the Houston area’s largest managed care organization and a marketplace health insurance provider, said Wednesday the updated numbers show new consumers bought coverage. With a month of open enrollment left, more will continue to do so, she said.

“We will easily top the 1 million mark,” Love said, adding that most people who needed to maintain continuous coverage into 2015 probably renewed by Dec. 15. That was the deadline to ensure coverage on Jan. 1. “Anyone enrolled in January and February is bound to be new.”

I felt pretty good about topping one million at the last update. At this point, who knows what the limit is. At a national level, ten million is not out of the question. I can’t wait to see the full final numbers.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

January campaign finance reports – HISD trustees

Four HISD Trustees are up for re-election this year. There are nine Trustees in all, and they serve four-year terms, so in a normal year either four or five are up for re-election. As things stand right now, all four incumbents would be running for re-election, which would be the first time there would be no open seat since at least 2001; Harris County Clerk election records only include HISD results as far back as that. Here’s a brief look at those incumbents, along with their January finance reports and a summary of their campaign balances.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, District 2

Skillern-Jones is serving her first term as HISD Trustee. She was the only candidate in 2011 to succeed Carol Mims Galloway. After serving as Board Secretary last year, she was elected to be Board President this year. Prior to the redrawing of Trustee district boundaries last year, hers was one of two districts to absorb schools and students from the former North Forest ISD. She officially announced her intent to run for another term a few weeks ago via email and Facebook. As far as I know, she was the first Trustee to make such an announcement, and is the only one whose plans are known so far.

Manuel Rodriguez, District 3

As noted, there are four Trustees that would be on the ballot this year if they all do run. Of the four, I’d gladly vote for three of them if I lived in their district. The fourth is Manuel Rodriguez, who disgraced himself in 2011 by sending an anti-gay mailer as an attack against his opponent, Ramiro Fonseca. (Fact I did not realize until I scanned through old election results in researching this post: Fonseca also opposed Rodriguez in 2003, when the seat was last open. He finished third in the field of four.) Rodriguez eventually offered a lame apology for his actions, which caused the Houston Chronicle to retract their endorsement of him, after winning an excruciatingly close vote. There was a bit of a hubbub initially, then everyone moved on to other things. I hope everyone remembers this, and that the voters hold Manuel Rodriguez responsible for his despicable behavior if he does choose to run this year.

Paula Harris, District 4

Paula Harris is serving her second term on the HISD board, having won an open seat race in 2007. A prominent supporter of HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, she served as Board President in 2011, during some of the more turbulent times of the Grier era. She was also the focal point of some conflict of interest allegations at that time, which eventually led to a revamp of the Board’s ethics policies. Despite that, she won re-election in 2011 easily over token opposition, and has had a much quieter second term. Harris is an engineer who has published a children’s book encouraging kids to explore engineering, and has been a booster of STEM education on the board.

Juliet Stipeche, District 8

Juliet Stipeche, who served as Board president last year, is finishing her first full term in office. She won a special election in 2010 to fill a seat left vacant by the resignation of then-Trustee Diana Davila. She was one of the driving forces behind that ethics policy revamp, which occurred in 2012, before the last bond referendum. She has also been one of the more active critics of Superintendent Grier, though as noted things have been quieter on that front of late. Her district also contains some former North Forest ISD territory. In my opinion, she’s one of the Board’s best members.

So that’s my brief overview of the incumbents who are up for re-election. As noted, so far there are no open seats. I am also not aware of any declared opponents as yet. Here are the January finance reports for these four:

Skillern-Jones
Rodriguez
Harris
Stipeche

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Skillern-Jones 18,215 12,119 0 9,345 Rodriguez 0 0 0 340 Harris 0 1,500 12,000 0 Stipeche 5,500 7,162 0 15,618

The HISD Board does not have a Council-like blackout period, so incumbents and candidates were able to raise money during 2014. Rhonda Skillern-Jones was the busiest of the four, but I wouldn’t read too much into any of this. We’re very early in the cycle, and the one thing I feel confident saying is that we don’t know what kind of Trustee races we’re going to get yet.

Posted in: Election 2015.

School finance case timeline announced

Mark “later this year” on your calendars.

The Texas Supreme Court will hear the state’s appeal of last year’s far-reaching school finance decision later this year under a timetable laid out by the high court on Friday. Justices gave the state 80 days to file their briefs in the case and the plaintiff school districts will have 80 days after that. Both sides will then have 40 days to submit replies to the briefs.

Under the timetable, all documents related to the appeal won’t be received for more than six months, meaning that a hearing before the high court probably won’t occur any earlier than the fall. It also probably indicates that a decision on the state’s appeal will not come until 2016. Many lawmakers have predicted that if the school finance decision by state District Judge John Dietz is upheld, the Legislature won’t respond any earlier than a special session in 2016.

So there you have it. The one thing that could shorten this would be a settlement agreement. Suffice it to say, that ain’t happening.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Don’t look for a meet-and-confer bill in the Lege this year

Buried in this story about the city and the county preparing to play defense during the legislative session is this update on the state of relations between the city and the firefighters.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In her first two sessions, Houston Mayor Annise Parker failed to gain traction with legislation that would grant the city meet-and-confer powers that give City Hall the legal authority to negotiate changes to the city’s fire pension system. And now that the city and fire pension board are engaged in what appears to be some introductory conversation, the topic already appears to be a non-starter in Austin.

In fact, the city may not even aggressively pursue a remedy in the Legislature unless local talks show signs of dissolving. That resonates with Harris lawmakers who have a clear message for City Hall: Solve this yourself.

“We’re not going to do anything or move anything that doesn’t have an agreement,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, a senior Democrat who echoed half-a-dozen other area legislators that a meet-and-confer bill opposed by firefighters would languish. “That’s a dead bill no matter what.”

That does not mean that concerns over the city’s unfunded liabilities are fading. Supporters of pension reform characterized the current discussions between the city as healthy and are expressing hope that they could yield a solution the Legislature would never produce.

“This issue is fraught with political risk for elected officials,” said Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which supports pension reform. “They’re more than willing to give this back to the city if they see any signs at all that the city is willing to take it on.”

I had no idea that the city and the pension board were talking. I always thought one of the sticking points from the city’s perspective is that the pension board didn’t have to talk to them. They got to make their own determination about things like cost of living adjustments, which was one of the things the city had been trying to get a say in, legislatively or otherwise. I’m not sure what led to this conversation, but it’s an encouraging sign. If nothing else, if they can come to an agreement, I’ll never have to listed to Mayoral candidates or newspaper editorial boards talk about pension reform again. I’d be happy to send some pizzas to the negotiations room if that will help facilitate such an outcome.

Posted in: Local politics.

The Farenthold files

The Farenthold lawsuit continues to have promise as the underrated scandal of the year.

Rep. Blake Farenthold

In his first interview since the suit was filed in December, [Rep. Blake] Farenthold said he was shocked by the allegations made by Lauren Greene, the former staffer.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I didn’t imagine us having any problems in the office. And the things she alleges are just so far out in left field. I’m just stunned.”

Farenthold suggested that the suit could be reprisal for Greene’s termination.

“Somebody gets fired, you never can tell how they’re going to take it,” he said.

Congressional lawyers, who are handling the case, have asked him not to discuss the grounds for Greene’s dismissal. Farenthold will say only that he “had good reason.”

[…]

Greene’s suit focuses mainly on her alleged mistreatment at the hands of Farenthold’s top staffer, Bob Haueter, with whom she apparently had a difficult relationship. There are no allegations that Farenthold touched or tried to hit on Greene – on the contrary, she said he tried to avoid her, a situation that she found “awkward.”

Instead, in her lawsuit she recounts feeling “awkward” after another staffer, executive assistant Emily Wilkes, allegedly told her that Farenthold had confided in Wilkes and Haueter about his attraction to Greene.

Greene also alleges that the congressman regularly made comments about her appearance or made other remarks that she thought were designed to gauge whether she was interested in a sexual relationship. She also claims that staffers who accompanied Farenthold to Capitol Hill functions joked that they had to be on “redhead patrol” to keep him out of trouble.

Friends and associates say a certain off-the-cuff personality can easily be misinterpreted.

“Sometimes you can make a comment that you think is totally innocent, and it gets misconstrued,” said Mike Pusley, a Republican leader and Nueces County Commissioner. “From the times I’ve been around Blake in mixed company, I’ve never seen anything to indicate that he has any issues in that regard. When I read about those allegations, I just went, ‘Eh, man, I have a very hard time believing that.’ ”

See here for the background. All due respect, but if you want to check on the credibility of Ms. Greene’s allegations, you might do better to talk to someone who isn’t a) a dude; and b) a political ally of Farenthold’s. I mean, as a general matter we dudes aren’t always the most reliable sources for how women may interpret some of the things we say. Hell, entire industries are built on that fact. Might have been a better idea to ask a few women who regularly deal with Rep. Farenthold, off the record as needed, what they think of his demeanor. It wouldn’t anything definitive, but it might at least provide a little perspective. I’m just saying. And may I just add that I encourage Rep. Farenthold to speak as freely as he likes about this ongoing litigation. Forget what the lawyers say, Blake! They’re all just a bunch of killjoys. Speak your mind and let the chips fall where they may!

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Weekend link dump for January 25

“If Westerners can overcome their disgust of crickets—or any bug—as food, the environmental benefits could be significant.”

“That’s why the new plan from House Democrats is so encouraging. It seems they are finally beginning to internalize the fact that American workers have been left behind for over a generation, and proposing the kind of brute-force transfer policies that could actually make a difference.”

Neanderthals: Smarter than you thought they were.

The decline of ATMs is another sign of our transition to a cashless society.

On the effectiveness of flu shots.

2001: The Soderbergh Cut

How crime in America has changed over the last decade, in one map.

The origin and history of the Trix Rabbit.

President Obama’s long game on climate policy.

The religious right is obsessed with Beyoncé, for reasons they themselves can’t quite explain.

“Whoever has two pair of leggings must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

The case for expansion in Major League Baseball.

A look at some of the most common forms of credit card fraud.

RIP, Tony Verna, inventor of TV instant replay.

RIP, Reies Lopez Tijerina, Chicano movement leader.

The success of American Sniper may cause real life complications for the trial of Chris Kyle’s accused killer.

Rick Riordan on Newberry awards and books kids actually like to read.

An online anti-harassment task force, led by someone who knows what it’s like to be the focus of an online harassment effort.

There sure are a lot of people accusing the Pope of not being Catholic enough for them. Maybe being a cafeteria Catholic isn’t such a terrible thing after all.

“The president has spent the first six years of his presidency waiting for the moment he could take that credit, knowing it was coming. On Tuesday night, it came. Even with five separate responses to the president’s address, there was nothing Republicans could say to fight the growing sense that Obama’s policies are working and that the GOP has been wrong for the past six years.”

“So, let’s take sick leave’s detractors at their word: If it really comes down to a choice between paid sick time and higher wages, Americans overwhelmingly choose the sick time. So why not give them that choice?”

In case you were wondering, five hundred pounds of pennies is worth about eight hundred bucks.

“It’s a simple enough story: star-crossed lovers go on multistate crime spree! We’re rooting for ya, white kids!”

Good news, everyone: At long last, Rick Springfield has prevailed in the buttocks assault lawsuit.

Mike Huckabee = Sarah Palin 2.0

The physics of Deflategate.

As someone who grew up watching Yankee games on WPIX (Channel 11), this makes me very happy. Now if they promise to bring back the theme song, I’d consider moving back to New York.

Anti-vaxxers are the worst. That is all.

RIP, Ernie Banks, Hall of Fame shortstop for the Chicago Cubs and all-around good guy.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

First three runoff dates are set

Greg Abbott completes a bit of business left to him by Rick Perry.

Diego Bernal

Diego Bernal

Gov. Greg Abbott has scheduled runoffs from the Jan. 6 special elections for Feb. 17, according to his office.

The decision officially sets head-to-head match-ups in state Senate District 26, state House District 17 and state House District 123. Early voting in the runoffs will be held from Feb. 9-13.

In SD 26, two Democrats — Trey Martinez Fischer and Jose Menendez — are facing off for the seat being vacated by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. In HD 17, Republicans John Cyrier and Brent Golemon are vying to replace Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington. And in HD 123, Democrat Diego Bernal is up against Republican Nunzio Previtera for the seat formerly held by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

As you may recall from the January 6 election, TMF, Bernal, and Cyrier all led in their races, each collecting at least 43% and leading by a minimum of 18 points. No lead is ever insurmountable in a runoff, but I’d have to make them all strong favorites. Cyrier and Bernal are endorsed by the Texas Parent PAC, while Bernal and TMF have the backing of the San Antonio Central Labor Council and Texas AFL-CIO COPE. Bernal’s opponent in particular is a nut, so I especially look forward to him winning.

This means that the runoff for the HD13 special election will be scheduled separately, presumably a week later. Seems to me it would have made more sense to put all four of them together, but I guess that election hadn’t been canvassed yet. I’ll keep my eyes open for that announcement. The Rivard Report has more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

By the way, Dave Wilson also hates transgender people

I mean, no surprise, right? What’s more, he puts his money where his mouth is.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Now, anti-LGBT activist Dave Wilson is circulating another petition that would place a charter amendment on the ballot to repeal trans protections in both HERO and Mayor Annise Parker’s 2012 executive order covering city employees.

Wilson, of Houstonians For Family Values, led efforts to pass a charter amendment prohibiting domestic partner benefits in 2001. He also made headlines in 2013 when he deceived voters into thinking he was black to get elected to the Houston Community College board.

Houston resident Sheri Taylor Bockelman, the mother of trans activist Nikki Araguz, said she received the petition in the mail along with a letter from Wilson on Saturday. (View images of the mailing below.)

“Enclosed please find our petition to prohibit men from using the women’s restroom and women from using the men’s restroom,” Wilson’s letter states. “Yes, you read the first sentence correctly.”

The letter goes on to state that both HERO and the executive order prohibiting discrimination against trans city employees “allow men to use the women’s restroom if they perceive or express themselves as women.”

See here for some background. Unless I’m confused, the executive order in question was in 2010, not 2012. There’s an image of Wilson’s latest mailer at the link above. Note that it is dated January 9, which means that it’s a separate expense from the one recorded in the January 15 finance report of his PAC. We won’t know till July how much he dropped on this one. If his address database includes people like Nikki Araguz’s mom, it’s highly likely that most of what he’s spending will be wasted. Which is fine by me – I hope he keeps it up till he bankrupts himself. TransGriot has more.

Not really related to this but worth including: We don’t really know much about the state of the transgender community in America, but what we do know tells us that these people face a lot of obstacles. I for one favor doing what we can to remove those obstacles. I definitely do not favor adding more of them. Finally, if you haven’t already done so, go read Nancy Sims’ account of how she came to understand and love her transgender child.

Posted in: Local politics.

Reusing wastewater

Get used to it.

Reclaimed wastewater soon will irrigate the trim lawns and wooded parks of some Houston suburbs. Instead of being dumped into the bayous, some of it might even undergo more extensive treatment in order to flow from kitchen taps.

Economics is starting to trump the yuck factor of reusing water flushed down toilets and drained from sinks.

“It’s becoming more real than theoretical,” said Mark Latham, who oversees Houston’s two “reuse” agreements with golf courses and the growing number of queries to contract for city wastewater.

As suburban water providers aim to meet state benchmarks for reducing reliance on groundwater, they have cringed at undertaking costly expansions to draw more water from Lake Houston via the city system. With the 2011 drought still fresh in the minds of many, treating wastewater for landscaping has advanced beyond mere discussion in many Houston suburbs. Unlike other water sources, the availability of wastewater grows with the population.

“We’ve had clients look at reuse for a long time,” said David Oliver, a public law attorney who works with several utility districts. “As the price of water has gone up, people are realizing the economics of the projects that may have been unreasonable 10 or 20 years ago now are feasible from a cost standpoint.”

[…]

Most water in the Houston area is pumped from underground aquifers or piped in from Lake Houston to treatment plants before flowing out of home faucets and sprinkler systems. After toilets are flushed, wastewater is sent to plants where it is minimally treated before being dumped into bayous along with rainwater, much of which eventually flows into Galveston Bay. Similarly, most of the water pumped from Lake Houston is treated wastewater that flowed downstream from Dallas and other cities.

Although reclaiming wastewater – also called recycling or reusing – remains rare in Texas, it has become more popular in recent years as drought-stricken towns have tried to meet local water needs. Wichita Falls was the second in the state to construct a costly treatment plant that takes waste­water “from toilet to tap.” Defying doubters, the city’s utility manager drank a full, clear glass while giving reporters a tour. San Antonio pioneered indirect reuse of wastewater decades ago, treating it for a variety of nonconsumptive uses.

I’ve discussed this before, and I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach. Certainly, it makes no sense to use clean, drinkable water on watering lawns and other similar uses. The main argument against wastewater reuse seems to be that it provides disincentives to conserve water. Be that as it may, this is a cheaper and surely more sustainable option than building a lot more water infrastructure for our region’s (and our state’s) growing population.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Robinson Warehouse, eight years after

From the Free Press Houston Worst of 2014:

What once was there

WORST WASTE OF SPACE: CORNER OF ALLEN PARKWAY AND MONTROSE

In 2006, The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the massive swath of land at the Southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose. This sprawling piece of property is centrally located, is adjacent to some of Houston’s most beautiful natural landscapes, and could serve so many important purposes.

For nearly 10 years, there have been rumors that this property would be developed into one of the largest mosques in Texas, and I am excited for the controversy that will most definitely ensue once that begins to happen. But that said, having such a huge property with huge potential stay dormant and fenced off in the interim is a missed opportunity.

If I had my way, folks would be allowed to play soccer there, a massive urban garden could be temporarily installed, and the space could serve as a rad destination along the Art Car parade route.

It was just before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I first noticed the demolition equipment out in front of this old, abandoned warehouse at the aforementioned corner. It had been a sad bit of urban decay for as long as I’d been aware of it, and as I obsessively documented over the ensuing two months, it vanished, leaving behind a large green field and the promise of something that would eventually be built. For awhile, the space – which goes all the way from Allen Parkway to West Dallas – was open, and was used a few times as parking for the Art Car Parade. Now it has that ugly hurricane fence around it – presumably, for liability insurance purposes – and Lord only knows what its future might hold. I’ve never heard a peep about its status in all this time.

Personally, I like author Omar Afra’s vision for the space, but there are plenty of other possibilities as well. Just about anything would be better than the unusable nothing that is there now. I wish there were something the city could do to entice the current owners to either do something with it or sell it to someone else that will.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Exactly Like You

Nobody does western swing these days like the Hot Club of Cowtown:

I’ve been a fan of theirs for awhile, though I haven’t seen them in Houston recently. For a clear demonstration of their instrumental chops, see this blazing rendition of “Digga Digga Do”, check out their other videos, and visit their webpage. Come play at the Mucky Duck again, y’all.

For an example of how a more traditional jazz trio tackles this song, here’s Ray Brown:

Piano, upright bass, and drums – it doesn’t get any more old school than that. If you can listen to that song without moving at least one part of your body in rhythm, you might want to schedule a visit with your doctor.

Posted in: Music.

Bell makes his announcement tomorrow

Making official what we had long known.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Former Democratic congressman Chris Bell will announce his mayoral bid this Sunday afternoon in Sam Houston Park, becoming the first candidate in a crowded field to officially kick off a run to lead City Hall.

[…]

In recent weeks, Bell has hired finance and policy staff, and he has been working with Bill Hyers, who mostly recently advised Bill de Blasio’s come-from-behind campaign for mayor in New York, to plot his campaign moves.

Bell’s most aggressive step toward a mayoral run has been his lawsuit against the city charging that Rep. Sylvester Turner should not be allowed to transfer much of his $1 million in his officeholder account to Turner’s mayoral run. That suit, heard in state district court earlier this month, will likely move to federal court.

Bell will host his first fundraiser on Feb. 12.

Here’s the event information, on his newly-created campaign page. As previously noted, Bell starts from scratch in the fundraising department, so I expect him to hit that hard in the coming weeks. Being unable to raise a sufficient amount of funds to run a viable campaign and get one’s message out is going to be the grim reaper for some number of Mayoral candidates this year. With the now-expected entry of Adrian Garcia into the race, everyone’s task there just got harder. I am very interested to hear what all candidates will have to say about policy and issues, because in times of non-crisis, one’s campaign says a lot about who that candidate really is. PDiddie has more, including a fairly in depth look at who Bell will have on his campaign team.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Minding Houston

Want to know about mental health issues and how they are being addressed by the Legislature? Tune in to Minding Houston, the legislatively-focused blog of Mental Health America of Greater Houston. From their About page:

Mental Health America of Greater Houston is pleased to offer the blog, “Minding Houston,” which covers legislation and issues associated with the current Texas Legislative Session.

Mental Health America of Greater Houston’s mission is to enhance the mental health of all Houstonians and improve the lives of those with mental illnesses. We accomplish this through collaborative education, outreach and advocacy.

Mental Health America of Greater Houston, founded in 1954 by Miss Ima Hogg, has a long history of service to the community. We are an affiliate of the state organization Mental Health America of Texas and the national organization Mental Health America. We have been a United Way agency since 1958.

For more information, visit our website www.mhahouston.org.

Their most recent post is an overview of budget issues for mental health in Texas and Harris County. Check ‘em out.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Meet your Harrisburg overpass

Looks nice enough. Going to be painful getting to the finished product, though.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are set to approve a $30.66 million construction contract on the half-mile overpass next week. The overpass is needed to complete the Green Line rail along Harrisburg to the Magnolia Park Transit Center, near Gus Wortham Golf Course, and to cross the Union Pacific freight rail tracks.

[…]

To mend fences with the community, Metro worked with neighbors to make the overpass look better than just a concrete riser. Plans include special lighting and designs in the concrete that reflect the area’s business and cultural heritage.

“The East End might have the most attractive overpass along the lines when this is built,” Metro board member Burt Ballanfant said.

McCarthy Building, the winning construction company, has 18 months to build the overpass, with incentives to finish sooner and costs if the project is delayed. Roberto Trevino, Metro’s capital programs manager, said some factors outside Metro and McCarthy’s control could affect the schedule. Union Pacific Railroad and local utilities must be consulted, and their issues and actions could affect when the work is finished, Trevino said.

Timing is crucial, and important to area residents, because the overpass work will require closing six blocks of Harrisburg for about four months, from Caylor to 66th Street. Detours are planned between Lockwood and Wayside to route traffic to Navigation during the closings.

See here and here for the background. This would take forever without closing that stretch of Harrisburg, but closing a street like that for any length of time is going to be a bug hardship on the neighborhood. This article doesn’t have any reactions from locals about either the design or the schedule, so it’s hard to say offhand how well received they are. Still, this needs to get done, and depending on when the actual start date for this part of the construction is, it could be done by mid- or late-2016. That should be a relief and a cause for celebration for everyone.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Judge Richardson will stay on the Perry case

Good to know.

Bert Richardson

The way is cleared for Judge Bert Richardson of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to continue presiding over former Gov. Rick Perry’s criminal case, under an order by the judicial region’s presiding judge.

The order was necessary to allow Richardson to rule on a pending effort by Perry’s lawyers to dismiss the case, because Richardson has stepped up to the state’s high criminal court since he first was assigned the case.

[…]

Richardson has overseen the Perry case since 2013, when he was a visiting judge who presided over cases in different counties. He won the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seat in the November election.

Richardson since last year has been considering a Perry effort to dispose of the indictment on constitutional grounds. He ruled against Perry in November when he sought to get the case dismissed on technical grounds.

Presiding Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield of the Third Administrative Judicial Region on Friday signed an order assigning Richardson to preside in the case. The step was necessary to authorize Richardson to make rulings in the case.

It was Judge Stubblefield who originally assigned Judge Richardson to the Perry case, so I suppose the circle of life is complete. I had wondered before if Richardson’s election to the CCA would force his removal here, but as a commenter on this post noted, Texas law allows for this, and so here we are. We’ve been waiting on that ruling regarding the motions to dismiss on constitutional grounds for quite some time now. At least now we know that it will be Judge Richardson making that ruling.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Friday random ten: My year in music, part 3

Here’s Part One, and here’s Part Two. I hadn’t originally intended for there to be a Part 3, but there was enough music in that post-Christmas splurge to make it worthwhile, so here we go.

1. Diga Diga Doo – The Hot Club of Cowtown
2. Welcome To New York – Taylor Swift
3. It’s The Hard-Knock Life – from “Annie”
4. It Takes Two – from “Into The Woods”
5. Heart Attack – Demi Lovato
6. Still Crazy After All These Years – Paul Simon
7. I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water – Asylum Street Spankers
8. Paper Doll – Fleetwood Mac
9. Time Warp – from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”
10. Mayor of Simpleton – XTC

Many of these were from album purchases. We saw Fleetwood Mac at the Toyota Center here in December (awesome show, highly recommended), so The Very Best of was bought to fill a big hole in my collection. (I had “Rumours” on cassette years ago, but it had long since been lost.) Similarly, I once owned Paul Simon’s “Concert In The Park” on CD, but it must have gotten lost in a move. We got Taylor Swift’s “1989” because, duh. Into the Woods and Annie were movies we saw over Christmas break, so of course we got the soundtracks. The Hot Club of Cowtown (two CDs) and the Asylum Street Spankers (“The Last Laugh” – who knew they had a new CD?!?) are bands I’d thought had broken up. “Heart Attack” was an Olivia request, “Mayor of Simpleton” was a song I rediscovered thanks to the Classic Alternative station on Sirius XM, and “Time Warp” was because I’d realized I didn’t have it.

And that was my year in music, more or less. What new tunes are you grooving to that I should consider for my year in music this year?

Posted in: Music.

January campaign finance reports – San Antonio

As we know, while we wait for the Mayoral field to shape up here in Houston, there’s already a hot open-seat race going on in San Antonio, featuring now-former State Rep. Mike Villarreal, State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (who has submitted a letter of resignation but is staying on until her successor is sworn in), and former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson. Let’s get the easy part of this post out of the way first:

Tommy Adkisson
Leticia Van de Putte
Mike Villarreal

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ================================================== Adkisson 0 5,000 5,013 0 Van de Putte 129,679 62,465 0 197,516 Villarreal 201,454 149,466 0 189,801

Those are just the city campaign reports. As former (or soon to be former) holders of other offices, all three also have at least one other finance report for January out there:

Tommy Adkisson – Bexar County
Leticia Van de Putte – TEC report
Leticia Van de Putte for Lt. Gov. SPAC – TEC report
Mike Villarreal – TEC report

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Adkisson 80,975 54,779 0 0 Van de Putte 152,094 54,790 0 197,516 VDP SPAC 754,295 1,525,162 0 237,432 Villarreal 82,195 86,989 0 189,801

The identical totals for Van de Putte and Villarreal are not coincidences. They have one balance, but two accounts that are presumably used for different purposes. (I don’t know what if anything Van de Putte may be doing with her SPAC account.) Randy Bear summarizes the situation.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

You see, whereas the City of San Antonio has campaign finance limits of $1,000 from either individuals or SPACs, the state has no limits. In fact, it’s not uncommon for donors to give in the tens of thousands to state candidates during the course of the year. So these accounts could reflect donations that exceed the limits imposed by the City in its attempts to control special interest influence.

To top that off, remember that Van de Putte also ran for Lieutenant Governor this past year? In that election, where the stakes were much higher, her campaign raked in over $2 million. In fact, some donors gave as much as $100,000 to the campaign. At the January 15th filing, that warchest still had almost a quarter of a million dollars in it. That’s after transferring over a half a million dollars to the state party right before the election.

So, this starts to unfold some questions about where the money came from and might end up. So far, Van de Putte has transferred a little over $17,000 from her Lieutenant Governor campaign fund to her candidate fund. Since she’s still a state officeholder, there are technically no limits on those amounts.

The City’s Campaign Finance Code allows a candidate to maintain a single candidate fund for both offices. But there is a limitation as stated in the Code – “However, if the candidate seeks a municipal office which is subject to lower campaign contribution limits than the previously sought office, the candidate shall return all contributions in excess of the limits for the municipal office sought.”

Mike Villarreal

Mike Villarreal

Furthermore, the Code states that “Contributions transferred must be aggregated with any contributions made by the same donor to the committee receiving the transfer. Amounts that would cause a contributor to exceed his or her pre-election cycle contribution limit must be excluded from the transfer.”

What this means is that any contributions exceeding the city’s limits must be returned to the donor. The problem is that since Van de Putte is still a state officeholder, she continues to incur expenses in fulfilling the duties of that office. In fact, with regards to activities, it’s difficult to tell when she is acting in the role of state senator or candidate for mayor at functions. So any expenses could be construed to be for her role as a state officeholder, such as tickets to events or traveling around the city.

Villarreal has already resigned from his state office and has publicly stated in his report that no expenditures were paid from the account for the final acts as state representative. In other words, he’s closed the books as a state representative and all actions forward are for the mayoral race.

This is the first time since our city enacted these campaign finance regulations that such a situation like this has presented itself. It creates a challenge for our City’s Ethics Review Board on what money is legal and what may cross a line.

It’s not clear what Van de Putte plans to do with her money in the Lieutenant Governor SPAC. Until she resigns the senate, she can continue to transfer money into her candidate fund since she is still a state officeholder. That could give her a substantial financial advantage over Villarreal, even if the money was contributed to an entirely different race from people with different intentions for the money.

As you can see, one candidate has worked to establish a clear delineation of the money. The other has left it ambiguous while remaining a state officeholder. It’s just part of the fun we can expect with this mayoral race.

Emphasis in the original. There are some obvious parallels to Houston here and the legal jousting over Rep. Sylvester Turner’s campaign account, but there are also two key differences. One is that as far as I can tell San Antonio doesn’t have a fundraising blackout period, so that the activity by these candidates didn’t come at a time when others would have been locked out. The other is that there isn’t (again, as far as I can tell) an interested party with a similar grievance as Chris Bell in Houston. All three San Antonio Mayoral hopefuls were incumbents of some kind last year, and all three were running for one office or another. One could argue that Villarreal, running for an easy re-election against a Green Party opponent, had the advantage during this time. Regardless, no one in this race has a financial advantage of the order that Sylvester Turner does in Houston. Given that, it may not be in any of their interests to make an issue out of this. No guarantees there, and if another candidate emerges all bets may be off, but if I had to guess right now I’d say that this is something none of these candidates are that interested in talking about.

Others may make an issue of it, however, and it is at best a very gray area. Some clarity would certainly be nice, but I have this nagging feeling that if push comes to shove, the most likely outcome is for San Antonio’s contribution limits, which are considerably smaller than Houston’s ($5K for individuals and $10K for PACs), to get thrown out for being too restrictive. As Randy notes, there are no limits on contributions to state campaigns, and while there are federal contribution limits, the rise of super PACs make them almost irrelevant. In our post-Citizens United world, I have a hard time seeing how strict contribution limits – in either city – could withstand close legal scrutiny if someone chose to push the issue. (And just so we’re clear here, that is very much an outcome I would not like.) As a matter of crass political calculation, the best move by folks who think there’s already too damn much money in politics might be to recognize the unusual nature of this year’s race and let things play out as is. We may never see another race like this one in San Antonio again, and with the blackout period disabled in Houston we may not have another situation like the Bell/Turner one again. Just a thought.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Garcia appears to be in for Mayor

Not official yet, but stories like this don’t get run without justification.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia is sending every possible message that he intends to run for mayor this year, aggressively increasing his political operations and signaling to some of his closest advisers and fiercest backers that a campaign may be imminent.

Garcia, under the Texas constitution, would have to resign as a county official immediately upon declaring his candidacy. That presents Garcia, who watchers expect to rocket to the field’s top tier if he joins the burgeoning mayoral fray, with a fateful decision: Does he step down as the county’s premier Democratic officeholder to make a bid that will make him Houston’s first Latino mayor or politically unemployed?

“At the end of the day, it’s like standing at the craps table, placing the bet – and you could walk away with nothing,” said Garcia confidant Greg Compean.

It is a bet Garcia allies said this week he has grappled with and seems willing to make.

“I’d be really surprised if he didn’t,” Compean said.

Garcia, who said last week he still is listening to others and has not yet officially committed to the race, has met with many of the city’s political leaders in advance of an announcement and privately is telling some close allies that he will run. And other evidence is mounting.

[…]

Backers of Garcia have high hopes he could raise the money to compete and that he could win voters beyond Houston’s Latinos, who comprise more than 40 percent of the city but at the most only 15 percent of the electorate. The county’s highest vote-getter in 2012, Garcia is expected to make appeals to some Republican voters in the nonpartisan election.

Garcia also would open himself up to personal attacks over a yearlong political brawl. Some in political circles for months quietly have questioned whether Garcia, who has no college education, can handle the rigors of the city’s top job. And if Garcia resigns as sheriff, some Democratic judges and Latino leaders worry whether the party and the Hispanic community would be hurt without him leading the local ticket.

My thoughts, in no particular order.

1. Garcia would have the advantage of being likely to be the clear frontrunner among at least one segment of the electorate – Latino voters – in the same way that Sylvester Turner would be among African-Americans and Oliver Pennington would be among conservatives. Sure, that is generally a smaller slice of the electorate, but it’s still an advantage, one that most other candidates don’t have. It also makes the pool of voters outside of Turner and Pennington’s bases, which those other candidates will be relying on, that much smaller. Remember that in Mayoral elections, turnout is not immutable. We had some 300,000 voters in 2001 and 2003, 190,000 in 2005 (spurred mostly by the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage constitutional amendment), between 175,000 and 180,000 in 2009 and 2013, and in the 130,000 range in 2007 and 2011. Remember also that the goal in November is to make it to the runoff. In a multi-candidate field where a couple thousand votes could be the difference between going on to December and going home, being able to coax out some irregular voters is a big deal.

2. I’m not worried about the implications for 2016. The Presidential race will be the driving force for 95%+ of all voters. Hell, if anything having a spirited campaign between an appointed Sheriff that wants to hold the job and a Democratic challenger that wants to win it back is more likely in my opinion to generate excitement than Garcia trouncing another hapless Republican challenger. Note that this isn’t me arguing that Garcia should run for Mayor, or that I’m shrugging off him stepping down as Sheriff if it happens. I’m just thinking through the implications, and that’s how I see it.

3. What Garcia and his backers should be worried about is how pissed off Democratic loyalists could be at the prospect of handing over the Sheriff’s office to a Republican. I mean, everyone is still very raw and angry about what happened this past November. Losing a high profile office, especially one that wasn’t on the line and in the service of someone’s ambition, is going to be a bitter pill for some to swallow. How many is “some”? I don’t know. How hard will it be for Garcia to win them back? Again, I don’t know. I do know that there are two viable Democratic alternatives to Garcia, so those that do decide to carry a grudge have someplace decent to take it. This is their problem to solve, and if they haven’t given it a lot of thought then his path to City Hall is going to be rockier than they might think.

4. The one thing I do know for sure if Garcia gets in is that the current field of hopefuls – declared, soon-to-be-declared, still-thinking-about-it, and so on – will not be what we get on the ballot. Some number of current candidates – at least one – will drop out or decide not to gear up at all. There are a finite amount of resources to help a campaign, and there’s only so much to go around. Fundraising is a component of that, of course, with the proviso that the ability of some candidates to at least partially self-fund may minimize that effect, but it’s not the only one. There are only so many able and willing volunteers, and only so much support from endorsing organizations, many of which may choose to keep their powder dry until a runoff. Some number of candidates – at least one – will not be able to mount the campaign they want to mount. Those candidates will not make it to the starting line. Bank on it.

5. I am now, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, officially undecided in the Mayoral race. There are several candidates I could support. I will need to know more about what they want to do before I make any decisions.

Posted in: Election 2015.