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Defending HERO

It’s a big job, but we can get it done.

RedEquality

“We’re going to do everything we can to win HERO at the ballot box,” [Houston GLBT Political Caucus] president Maverick Welsh said.

It would be Houstonians’ third time voting on protections or benefits for gays, which they rejected in 1985 and again in 2001.

Then, too, the caucus threw its political weight behind the efforts – first to a resounding 4-1 defeat and then to a slimmer margin of three percentage points, or some 7,500 votes.

In recent years, the group formed in 1975 to support gay-friendly candidates has continued to regain the traction it lost in the 1985 election, when no one seeking city office sought its endorsement. This year, more than two thirds of the mayoral contenders are striving for the caucus’ backing, now seen as a stamp of approval for progressive voters.

Only 2013 runner-up Ben Hall and former Kemah mayor Bill King declined to participate in the pre-endorsement screening process, though King responded to the group’s questionnaire.

“Everybody wants to dance with us right now,” Welsh said. “The fight that we’ve been fighting for 40 years is now very mainstream, I think, for most voters.”

According to the Kinder Institute’s recent Houston Area Survey, support for gay rights in Harris County, which includes Houston’s more conservative suburbs, has increased consistently since the early ’90s.

Between 2000 and 2014, support for homosexuals being legally permitted to adopt children grew to 51 percent from 28 percent among Harris County survey participants, while support for giving the same legal status to homosexual and heterosexual marriages increased to 51 percent in 2015 from 37 percent in 2001.

[…]

Welsh, caucus president, said he expects the group to be involved in any campaign for HERO, adding that caucus mailings undoubtedly will include pro-HERO information.

However, political observers said the ordinance may present a turnout problem for the caucus, which has established its sphere of influence primarily in low-turnout elections.

“They have shown the ability to motivate a fairly decent share of the vote when you get less than 200,000 people voting,” University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. “But if the turnout goes up, then you expect the caucus-influenced vote probably declines as a fraction of the total electorate.”

The city’s last open-seat mayor’s race in 2009 drew just 19 percent of about 935,000 registered voters. On the other hand, more than 28 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls in 2001, when the ballot contained a proposed charter amendment barring the city from providing unmarried partners of the same or opposite sex with employment benefits.

Given that the caucus’ progressive base already consistently shows up at the polls, political observers questioned whether the group would be able leverage its organizational strength and volunteer capacity to appeal to new portions of the electorate.

“It’s a risky vote for them,” Murray said.

Couple things here. First of all, if I have learned anything from studying recent electoral history in Houston, it’s that interesting ballot referenda drive turnout in a way that elections without such referenda do not. Go read that post I just linked to about Houston elections in the 90s and you’ll see what I mean. The 2003 election, which everyone points to as the pinnacle for 21st century turnout in Houston, was greatly aided by the Metro referendum. (This is why the Republicans in the Legislature put the tort “reform” constitutional amendment on the ballot in September – they didn’t want Houston turnout affecting the outcome.) Given all this, I do expect turnout to be higher than usual. Our past history, the stakes of the election, and the amount of attention that will be focused on it all point to that.

Is that an advantage for the anti-HERO crowd? Not necessarily. We know there’s a strong correlation between age and opposition to equality – the younger you are, the more likely you are to favor it, with older folks often being the only group opposed. I’ll have more details on this in a future post, but take my word for this: Houston’s electorate in most municipal election years is already pretty darned old. A strong plurality of voters are over the age of 60. These are the reliable regular voters. There will be more of them in a year like this, but there are a lot more people younger than that who have at least some voting history who are available to turn out. This is – or at least it damn well better be – the first priority for the HERO defense effort. Get out every voter you can under the age of 40. Hell, under 50 is likely to be good enough.

But younger people don’t vote in local elections, I hear you cry. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. As you can see at that link, one reason why younger people don’t vote in local elections is because they are often fairly new to the city where they are registered to vote. They don’t know the local landscape, they don’t know who represents them in local government, and they don’t feel the same connection to local issues as they do to national ones. (They also tend to not get contacted by the campaigns, since they aren’t reliable voters. It’s a bit of a vicious circle.) But a referendum like the HERO repeal vote is tailor made for them. They don’t need to know anything about the candidates. The issue in question is one they already have established opinions about. It strikes at why they might have chosen to live in this city in the first place – its diversity, its tolerance, its general friendliness to a young/urban lifestyle. If there was ever an opportunity to get a bunch of Presidential-year-only voters to the polls, this is it. If the HERO defenders aren’t putting a huge effort into IDing and targeting the under-40/under-50 crowd, they’re committing malpractice.

That’s the first thing. The other thing is that I don’t believe this election will be about gay rights, per se. I think even hammerheaded jerks like Dave Wilson and Steven Hotze and the rest have begun to figure out that direct homophobia is a losing tactic these days. Strong majorities approve of the Obergfell decision. Gay culture is all around us, and nobody but them objects. Their mostly-fraudulent petition effort was based on the idea of “no unequal rights”, but nobody outside their small group of signatories buys into that. No, what this election will be about is bathrooms and fevered lie-driven fears of sexual predators. You can already see and hear this in the rhetoric of some campaigns and candidates – see Ben Hall for Exhibit A – and I’ve heard it in a couple of interviews so far. Given the character and morals of the people that will be pushing the repeal campaign, you can expect to be soaking in this kind of hateful and dishonest rhetoric once things begin in earnest.

The good news about that is that I don’t think a lot of people have yet given much thought to this issue. Oh, they’re vaguely aware of it, in the way that most people are vaguely aware of most local issues, but it’s not locked in their consciousness yet. For these folks, a different kind of outreach is needed. They will need to hear, from voices they like and trust, why voting the right way on the HERO referendum is something they should do. For that, HERO defenders – and here I’m looking at Mayor Parker, who needs to be the one to make most if not all of the requests I’m about to suggest – should reach out to high-profile Houstonians in sports, music, business, and religion to deliver a message about Houston being the kind of place where everyone is treated equally and respectfully. Given the support of the major sports leagues and the individual teams for equality and non-discrimination ordinances, I’d move heaven and earth to get JJ Watt, James Harden, Jose Altuve, and Carli Lloyd to do a PSA-style ad in which they say something like “My league supports equality. So does my team, and so do I. The Houston we love is open and accepting to all. That’s why I’m [voting the right way] on [whatever the ballot proposition is called], and I ask you to do so, too.” I can’t think of anything the haters could do to counter a message like that, coming from people like that.

There are plenty of other people that could be plugged in to a spot like that, with the script modified to fit them. Bill Lawson. George and Barbara Bush. Beyonce. The members of ZZ Top. Former newscasters Ron Stone and Dave Ward. UH President Renu Khator and Rice President David Leebron. You get the idea. Sure, some may say No for whatever the reason, but I bet many would say Yes, especially if Mayor Parker asked them personally. The key here is to get those spots out quickly, before the haters get their mail and whatever else going. You don’t have to spend much on TV for this – buy a few slots during the evening news and stuff like that, but the real value will be in having them on YouTube. This is about good will, coming from good people. It’s worth a lot, and we should take full advantage of it, because the other side can’t touch it.

So that’s my plan to defend HERO. Maybe it’s unrealistic, but I don’t think it’s unsound. Gear up a ground game to turn out younger voters, and spread a positive message about what makes Houston the city we love to everyone else. I’ll take my chances with that.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Ken who?

State Republican leaders don’t have much to say about our allegedly felonious Attorney General.

Ken Paxton

Texas’ Republican leaders Sunday continued their radio silence on the indictment of Attorney General Ken Paxton on three felony fraud charges.

Paxton, who was elected as part of a conservative GOP sweep that put Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick into office, will reportedly surrender to authorities Monday in North Texas on felony charges stemming from an alleged investment scheme into the McKinney-based technology company Servergy, as well as his failure to register as an investment advisor representative with the state.

Republicans’ silence comes in stark contrast to the support that followed then-Gov. Rick Perry when he was indicted on felony charges last year. Party leaders were quick to publicly decry those charges as politically motivated and insist Perry would prevail.

Paxton’s indictment could spell trouble for the state’s GOP leadership – generally with voters who may see it as symptomatic of ethics problems in Austin, and even among the conservative grassroots groups that helped elect Paxton but insist that elected officials should be squeaky clean.

Democrats and government-watchdog groups continue to blast the indictment Sunday as high-lighting cronyism among the state GOP leaders. Several called for his resignation.

Neither Abbott nor Patrick, who both championed ethics during the campaign and in the legislative session earlier this year, has commented on Paxton’s predicament.

[…]

The Texas Republican Party did not return calls and emails seeking comment since the news broke Saturday. Other Paxton supporters, including state legislators who count the same conservative groups among their supporters, remained silent over the weekend.

Calls to a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz were not returned Sunday.

But they have not always been so silent. During last year’s campaign, an array of GOP luminaries from Abbott to Cruz, now a presidential contender, were effusive in their praise for Paxton even after he admitted and was punished for violating state securities.

Cruz, a star among Christian conservatives and tea party activists, referred to Paxton as “a good friend” at campaign rallies and cited Paxton’s support of straight-line conservative causes from opposing Obamacare and federal overreach to support of voter ID and more border security.

“You’re a good, strong conservative leader,” Cruz said of Paxton in one speech.

Paxton, in return, ran heavily on Cruz’s support, a key proof of his conservative bona fides that some political observers said helped him clinch a victory in the GOP primaries against Rep. Dan Branch, a favorite among establishment Republicans.

Privately, some Austin insiders said the issue was Paxton’s to address. Since it did not involve allegations of wrongdoing in his role as a state official, and because the case involved private business dealings, they said state business was not involved.

No doubt, this is going to cause heartburn for some people, from Cruz to Abbott to Dan Patrick and on down. That will be one of the fun parts about this saga. It’s not like no one could have seen this coming – Dan Branch and Sam Houston both made an issue of it in the elections last year. There were enough voters who cared more about Paxton’s stances on social issues than his integrity or capability, and so here we are. Still, let’s not forget how much better we could have done in this department.

Paxton’s Democratic opponent from 2014, attorney Sam Houston, said when the November election rolled around there was a cloud of controversy hanging over the Republican nominee. By then, Paxton had already easily defeated state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who had made Paxton’s alleged ethical lapses the centerpiece of his primary runoff.

“Dan Branch and I both talked about a pattern in the election. So I don’t think this is anything surprising or new,” Houston said. “I hate to say I told you so because that doesn’t make me feel better, but we were saying that it was likely that once he was elected that he could be indicted and sure enough, it’s happened. It’s just been even more counts than I even thought would happen.”

[…]

As word of the indictment spread, it was Tea Party activists who were the most willing to speak out about it. Writing for Empower Texans, an influential conservative group, its general counsel Tony McDonald questioned whether the investigations of Paxton had ties to the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus.

Saying House leaders’ “motives are obvious,” McDonald wrote hours before word of the indictment spread: “Paxton rose to statewide prominence when he challenged Straus for the speakership in 2011. Further, the three are still stinging from Paxton’s defeat of their ally and Straus’s boyhood friend, Dan Branch, in the 2014 primary for Attorney General.”

Those voters who have sided with Paxton through the controversy, [SMU poli sci prof Cal] Jillson said, need to “blink hard twice and ask themselves what they were thinking.”

Some conservatives are taking a less defensive approach to Paxton’s legal troubles, though. North Texas Tea Party activist Mike Openshaw wrote on Facebook that Paxton should “step aside” if the reports about his indictment were true.

“Texas conservatives need to maintain a higher standard,” Openshaw wrote. “We aren’t Democrats.”

Yeah, we Democrats knew he was a crook a long time ago. Welcome to the table, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for your colleagues to come along with you. They’re all doing their best to pretend nothing has happened.

“Judge [George] Gallagher has specifically instructed both parties to refrain from public comment on this matter, and we are honoring the judge’s instructions,” Paxton attorney Joe Kendall, a former federal judge, said in a statement.

It was a far cry from the full-throated and indignant denials of other Texas leaders who have — on not entirely rare occasions — found themselves indicted. And it indicated that the state’s top law enforcement official is facing months, if not years, of his office and his stature being diminished under the weight of criminal charges.

“His situation is darkened,” said Republican political consultant Bill Miller.

The difficulties of Paxton’s defense are already stacking up: The investigation was run by the Texas Rangers; a hometown Collin County grand jury indicted him; and the charges spring from his questionable involvement in troubled financial deals, Miller said.

Paxton is accused of encouraging investors in 2011 to put more than $600,000 into a McKinney-based technology company, Servergy Inc. He is charged with failing to disclose to investors that he was making a commission on their investment. And he is alleged to have misrepresented himself as an investor in the company.

In the wake of the allegations has come a deafening silence from Republican colleagues.

“That’s the loudest noise in the room,” Miller said.

“The Democrats will yell for his resignation, and the Republicans will be silent,” he said. “However it’s resolved, he’s seriously wounded.”

They may have to say something now that Paxton has turned himself in for booking and a spectacularly ugly mugshot – seriously, where was Rick Perry’s stylist when Paxton needed him? The state Republican Party did issue a a perfunctorily snotty statement reminding us that even someone like Ken Paxton is innocent until proven guilty (and not subsequently cut loose by the Court of Criminal Appeals). Here’s one reason why at least some Republicans may not be out there standing by him: At least one, Rep. Byron Cook, is a complainant. Awkward! Several other Republicans lost money in a deal involving Paxton as well, though I don’t know if that one is part of the charges against him. Point being, as this is about money and not politics, the lines could get just a little blurry. Settle in and enjoy the ride going forward. Newsdesk, BOR, Hair Balls, Paradise in Hell, Texas Leftist, Trail Blazers, the Lone Star Project, the Observer, the full-of-ennui Burkablog, the Trib, and the Current have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Republican Party of Texas’ statement on Paxton’s indictment. I did mention that they put out a statement in my writeup above, but there’s a pull quote from a story earlier in the cycle when they hadn’t yet put a statement out, so I’m putting this here for clarity.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Not everyone wants Texas to sue the EPA again

It won’t mean anything to those that are hell-bent on suing, but it is worth keeping in mind.

President Obama is set to unveil the nitty-gritty of his sweeping, state-by-state plan to fight climate change this week — his most determined effort yet to tackle the effects of global warming by reshaping the nation’s power sector.

When he does, no one doubts that Texas will sue.

Taking the federal government to court over environmental regulations has been a palpable source of pride and political capital for Gov. Greg Abbott, who filed dozens of lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as attorney general. Both he and his successor, Ken Paxton, have promised the same approach with the so-called Clean Power Plan, which seeks to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants.

But some of those who will bear the brunt of complying with the new regulations are calling that knee-jerk reaction shortsighted.

Some Texas electric utilities are joining environmentalists in hoping policymakers — after securing another campaign trail talking point — eventually will craft a strategy to meet the new requirements to avoid being slapped with a mystery plan devised by the EPA and to bolster regulatory certainty.

“I think it’s always better for the state to participate in the plan rather than having the feds do the plan and tell you how it’s going to be,” said John Fainter, president and CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, referencing a similar situation in 2013 involving greenhouse gas permits. “So I hope when the litigation is concluded that there’s time and willingness to do so.”

[…]

Under a draft proposal outlined last year, Texas — home to about 20 operational coal-fired power plants — would have to slash roughly 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions in the next two decades. The state’s ultimate target will become known when the EPA unveils its final rule, expected as early as Monday.

The plan already has drawn one lawsuit from more than a dozen coal-friendly states. But a federal appeals court dismissed the challenge in June, concluding it was premature since the EPA had yet to finalize the rule.

While not part of that early lawsuit, the Texas attorney general’s office has spent $24,000 devising another that it has yet to file, according to information obtained by the Tribune under a public records request.

Initially, states were to submit plans by next summer detailing how they would reach compliance with the new standards by 2020. Word on the street, said Fainter, is that the EPA may give states extra time, responding to concerns from some utilities and states.

An EPA spokeswoman would not confirm or deny that change, but if true Fainter said it would make even less sense for Texas not to come up with a plan. Some utilities agree.

“If, in fact, the states are afforded more time to craft their (implementation plan), it seems logical that they would want to avail themselves of this time to develop a solution which addresses the individual and unique situation of each state,” said Brett Kerr, a spokesman and lobbyist for Calpine, the largest independent power producer in the nation.

Texas doesn’t “necessarily have to stand alone” and could team up with other states to craft a compliance plan if it makes the process smoother, Kerr said. “We believe that the state would be best served by participating in the process.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. It would be nice to think that Texas could participate in the process rather than file another pointless lawsuit, but then it would also be nice to think I could eat pizza and ice cream every day while losing weight. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Texas AGs gotta file lawsuits against the public interest. It’s the way of the world. The plan has now been released, so cry havoc and let slip the lawyers of war. We’ll know in a couple of years if this is going anywhere or not.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Lone Star Rail faces Council vote in San Antonio

It’s a big step.

While there is little opposition to the idea of a commuter rail line (the LSTAR) between San Antonio and Austin, the City takes serious pause when confronted with the yearly costs of operation and maintenance.

But there are no tax or fee increases on the table, [Lone Star Rail District Director Joe] Black explained. “And we have not asked any city to make a dollar commitment.”

Instead, LSRD has been working with municipalities to form Transportation Infrastructure Zones (TIZ) unique to each city. The zone would establish a perimeter around each station – there are five proposed so far in San Antonio – and a percentage of property tax increases within the zone would go directly towards LSRD’s operation and maintenance costs.

Where are these property tax increases coming from? The stations themselves, as the property value surrounding them will, almost certainly, rise as the amenity comes to the neighborhood. Most agreements, like the one with San Marcos, also includes a sales tax revenue contribution. Austin City Council approved a 56-year agreement, with commitment stipulations, in December 2013.

LSRD is currently working with City staff on an agreement unique to San Antonio, but will likely have the same elements of agreements with other cities, Black said. The cities of Kyle, Buda, and Round Rock have yet to draft final agreements. Georgetown, New Braunfels, and Shertz city councils will likely vote on final agreements in August. Once local agreements are met, LSRD will be hunting for investment from federal, state, and private entities to foot the $2-3 billion bill for the commuter and freight lines. Once the Environmental Impact Statements are complete, and the new freight line relocation is complete, then work can begin on the commuter rail.

If all goes as planned, Black said, the LSTAR will begin trips in 2021 or 2022 – about 17 years in the making.

Interstate 35 is one of the most congested interstate segments in the U.S., most of which is because of commuter and truck traffic. About 80% of Mexico’s trade with the U.S. and Canada comes through the bottleneck on I-35. More than 9,000 accidents occur between San Antonio and Georgetown, the LSTAR’s northernmost stop, resulting in about 100 deaths per year.

“The LSTAR could provide the (transportation) equivalent of eight additional highway lanes (four lanes in each direction),” Black said. “The space implications are huge — moving more vehicles isn’t going to do it, we have to move people.”

The 118-mile commuter line would utilize existing Union Pacific lines, but not until after a new freight line is constructed in the east – a critical step for the LSTAR operation. While local freight will still use the old line through San Antonio, regional freight will be diverted to the new line, freeing up time and space for the LSTAR to provide reliable, frequent trips.

[…]

Black said there will also be consideration for bicycles on the LSTAR. Connecting the stations to transportation options that complete that “first mile/last mile” portion of travel – like bikes, bikeshare, rideshare, or bus transit to get to final destinations.

See here for the most recent update. I’ll be interested to see how this debate plays out as the vote approaches. LSRD is going to need federal money to make this happen – I suppose they could be in line for some state money, but I don’t have much belief that TxDOT will do anything – and they will have a much easier time making a case for themselves if the cities along the way have all bought in. I’ll keep an eye on this.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Interview with CM Richard Nguyen

Richard Nguyen

CM Richard Nguyen

One more set of District Council interviews before we move on to the At Large races. District F covers a stretch of fast-growing, very diverse southwest Houston. It was the location of the biggest political upset of the 2013 election, when a little known and lightly funded candidate knocked off a two-term incumbent. That candidate was CM Richard Nguyen, an employee of the city’s Solid Waste department who was recruited to run by constituents who were unhappy with the prior incumbent and beat him with an old-fashioned shoe leather campaign. CM Nguyen made a bigger name for himself last year when he made a moving speech in favor of the Equal Rights Ordinance. He is now running for his first re-election, and I was happy to have a chance to talk to him:

(Note: This interview took place before the Supreme Court ruling that required a repeal or referendum on HERO.)

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Still reviewing the video on the line item vetoes

Any day now.

NO

With varying degrees of concern, a smattering of government offices and higher education institutions around the state are waiting to learn the fate of more than $200 million in funds that the governor might — or might not — have excised from the state budget.

The Legislative Budget Board is challenging several of Gov. Greg Abbott’s line-item vetoes, arguing in a July 21 letter to Comptroller Glenn Hegar the governor has no authority to veto some of the items because they were included in budget riders. The challenged vetoes include funds for public projects and money for research at colleges and universities.

“The Comptroller’s Office is reviewing the documents provided and working to determine next steps,” spokeswoman Lauren Willis said Thursday.

Abbott is pushing back against the challenge, even encouraging potential political donors to help.

“Unelected bureaucrats want to strip Governor Abbott of his line-item veto authority in order to grow government and increase spending and debt. Join our fight with a contribution!” his campaign wrote in an email Wednesday that linked to his donation page.

Abbott has repeatedly boasted he cut off $386,000 meant for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit that helps states develop education policies, that would have been used “to finance the promotion of Common Core,” a charge the Board has denied.

The largest item vetoed would have provided $132 million to build a new state office building in San Antonio to replace the G.J. Sutton State Complex.

“The renovation project was intended to play a major role in the revitalization of the East Side and would have been an enormous boon to the City of San Antonio,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, wrote in an email to the San Antonio mayor and city council last week. “I find Governor Abbott’s unprecedented and possibly unconstitutional actions deeply worrisome.”

Martinez Fischer encouraged the city to consider legally challenging Abbott’s veto if necessary.

See here for the background. It’s hilarious to see Abbott fight this by appealing to donors decrying his battle against “unelected” enemies – you know, like Joe Straus and Dan Patrick, who has been his typically weaselly self in all this – but that’s your modern Republican Party for you. In the end, the amount of money involved is a pittance, though the project in San Antonio sounds like a fairly big deal, but the spectacle is what it’s all about. It’s just a matter of posturing and trying to be the most macho, as that’s what they care about the most. See this Trib story and Burkablog for more.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

Hall for all the haters again

Enjoy the attention while it lasts, dude.

RedEquality

Already a staunch opponent of the nondiscrimination law, Hall has become more vocal in the wake of last week’s Texas Supreme Court ruling that City Council must repeal the ordinance, known as HERO, or place it on November’s ballot.

From Twitter to television, Hall is using his criticism of HERO to set himself apart from the largely progressive mayoral field.

“There’s only one candidate in this race who has consistently for the last two years opposed HERO and supported the right of voters to vote,” Hall said in a Fox 26 segment that aired Tuesday. “When the pastors wanted to fight in the court system, none of the other candidates was present. I was.”

Most of Hall’s competitors have remained out of the HERO limelight, issuing a single press release about the Supreme Court’s decision or staying silent.

Five of them – former Congressman Chris Bell, City Councilman Stephen Costello, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, state Rep. Sylvester Turner and businessman Marty McVey – have said they support the ordinance, while former Kemah mayor Bill King has tried to straddle the fence.

“I do not see the empirical need for a discrimination ordinance,” King said last Saturday, after previously saying he would not have put the item on City Council’s agenda.

Like Costello, King is seeking the support of Houston’s conservative west side.

Through a spokesman, King declined to comment Thursday on whether he would vote to repeal HERO.

“He’s between a rock and a hard place,” said University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray. “The right conservative base doesn’t like HERO, but the people who write big checks are more moderate on this issue.”

[…]

Even with the resurgent HERO issue, Murray said it is unlikely that Hall, who earned little conservative support in 2013, will have the votes needed in November to make the expected runoff.

As it was two years ago, Hall’s campaign largely is self-funded; he received contributions from just 36 individual donors in the first half of the year, taking in some $94,000, according to his finance report. Hall lent himself an additional $850,000.

“I don’t think you can ride that single issue into the runoff,” Murray said. “I don’t think it has enough resonance with voters that are so much more concerned about infrastructure and the deterioration of the streets.”

See here for the background. Let’s also not forget, Hall’s 2013 campaign was a disaster – no issues, no coherence, no organization. I don’t see any reason why this year would be different, even if this time he actually has a reason for running. It’s just that it’s a bad reason, and it won’t get him very far. I do agree it could cause problems for other candidates, primarily Turner and King, but that’s for them to sort out. Hall gets to have his name in the paper more often, and he gets some love from the bottom feeders. Beyond that, not much is different.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Connecting trails

Always good to see.

WhiteOakBayouPathAlabonsonAntoine

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Houston Parks Board recently celebrated the completion of the White Oak Bayou Path, the first in a series of projects creating a more connected system of hike-and-bike trails in the city.

Mayor Annise Parker and District A council member Brenda Stardig joined the organizations for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 9.

Joe Turner, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said that funding for this project was made possible through a $15 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for regional bike and pedestrian trails.

The grant will fund six projects.

The White Oak Bayou Path covers a stretch from Alabonson Road to Antoine Drive where pedestrian traffic had been previously blocked.

“We’re trying to close up gaps in different pieces of our trail system,” Turner said. “It’s an eighth of a mile, but it was a crucial piece with a bridge.”

These gaps, where the paths don’t meet, caused users to stop and turn around. Closing the gaps they connects paths to make thoroughfares.

The other projects include the White Oak Bayou Path between 11th Street and Stude Park, as well as a connection to residential neighborhoods from the path and to Buffalo Bayou Path, which will also include a .3 mile gap closure between Smith and Travis.

East downtown will gain connections between transit, residential and commercial spaces, totaling 8.6 miles of gap closures.

Brays Bayou Path will also benefit from a 1.6 mile gap-closure project and a .6 mile alternative transit path.

Turner said that once all of the projects are completed, the city will have an alternative transportation system with connected off-road hike-and-bike trails.

[…]

Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, said this segment is an important piece of the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which will create a continuous system of parks and 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails along Houston’s major waterways.

“We have a fairly large and ambitious project underway,” she said.

Okan-Vick said the Houston Parks Board was successful in securing a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.

“We did the legwork, and we were lucky enough to be approved for the grant,” she said.

Okan-Vick said that there are three gaps on White Oak Bayou that needed to be addressed.

“This is the first one, and if you go further downstream, there is another we are working on,” she said.

When all trail sections are completed, it will be possible to travel the path along White Oak Bayou from far northwest Houston to Buffalo Bayou and downtown Houston, Turner said. “It gives us an alternative to our current transportation system,” he said. “And the hike-and-bike network allows us to connect pieces we’ve never connected before in our city. Lots of trails have been built over time, but they weren’t connected.”

I’m a big fan of this project, which covers a lot of territory and will greatly add off-road capacity for walkers and bicyclists. Longer term, other parts of this project will help make some dense infill development better for residents and neighbors. It will be an enduring legacy of Mayor Parker’s administration. Good work, y’all.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for August 2

Baby-crawling races are apparently more complicated than you might think.

Minivan evolution. Of course, as we know, all minivans were created less than 6,000 years ago.

Remains of four-legged snake discovered, strongly suggesting snakes evolved on land.

“On every major piece of public policy in which lives are taken needlessly, we don’t limit ourselves to empty prayers for the victims. We actually do something to stop it from happening again.”

“I’ve never seen a drunk squirrel before. He was sozzled.”

Nuke deal with Iran = McD’s in Tehran + much cleric freaking out.

“I am absolutely sure that the irony of what kicked the Fall of Cosby into high gear was Hannibal Buress, another man, calling Bill Cosby out on stage was not lost on these women, or women in general. The information was out there; women had been saying these things for years. They still needed a man to say it in order to have the world pay attention.”

The Bugs Bunny Sesquicentennial was this past Monday. Hope you enjoyed it.

Congrats to Jen Welter, the first woman to coach on an NFL team.

Donald Trump, evangelical hero. Insert your own “sanctity of marriage” joke.

“As it turns out, knowing when and how to apply lethal force in a potentially life-or-death situation is really difficult.”

RIP, Ann Rule, pioneering true crime author who wrote about Ted Bundy.

The Donald and La Sarah. It just makes sense.

“From 2011 to 2015, 468 voting restrictions have been introduced in 49 states. Half the states in the country have passed new laws making it harder to vote. None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the 2000 election in Florida.”

Killing a single lion in 2015 is mathematically equivalent to murdering 400,000 of the planet’s roughly eight billion people. And because Cecil’s six cubs will likely be killed by the next male to take over the pride, Palmer’s wayward arrow and days-later mercy shot may be as devastating to the lion population as the death of three million people would be to humanity.”

Windows 10 will share your WiFi key with your contacts unless you tell it not to.

“The situation is a startling example of a cash-strapped federal agency seeking to offload an expensive, world-class facility to the private sector—at the potential cost of compromising its ability to perform world-class scientific research.” Also, aliens may be involved. Seriously.

RIP, William R. White, Tuskegee Airman and humble hero.

“Now, with Pluto more than 18 million kilometers behind the New Horizons spacecraft, all I can say is: I want more. More new worlds, more first looks.”

RIP, Rowdy Roddy Piper, WWE wrestling legend.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Paxton indicted

It just got real, y’all.

Ken Paxton

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been indicted on three charges in Collin County, according to KXAS-TV NBC 5, The Dallas Morning News’ media partner.

The grand jury’s indictments were issued on Tuesday, then immediately sealed. Paxton was indicted on two counts of first-degree securities fraud and one-count of third-degree failure to register. Sources tell KXAS’s Scott Gordon they will be unsealed Monday.

According to WFAA-TV, a Tarrant County judge has been appointed to the case.

[…]

“We went into this knowing that the Texas Rangers would uncover whatever evidence was there and if there was a sufficient amount that we would present it to a grand jury, so that’s what we did,” Kent Schaffer, one of the special prosecutors assigned to the case told The New York Times. “The grand jury elected to indict, and the indictments all speak for themselves.”

The Trib fills in some details.

Kent Schaffer, one of two special prosecutors who took the Paxton case to the grand jury, told The New York Times that the indictments include three felony counts — two alleging first-degree securities fraud and another alleging a third-degree charge that he failed to register as a securities agent.

Schaffer said Paxton is accused of encouraging others to invest more than $600,000 in a company called Servergy Inc. without telling them he was making a commission and misrepresenting himself as a fellow investor. The grand jury also charged him with failing to register with state securities regulators for soliciting clients for Mowery Capital Management in return for fees.

[…]

State officials do not have to step down from office if they are indicted, but convicted felons cannot serve.

[…]

Another potential problem for Paxton is the cost of defending himself. If he were charged for something he did as a state officeholder or as a candidate, his campaign funds could be used to pay the lawyers who defend him. In the case of charges that stem from his private or personal business activities, his campaign funds are out of bounds, according to experts in state ethics laws. Paxton would have to pay for his defense out of personal funds or find some way to set up a separate defense fund that could solicit contributions on his behalf.

I doubt he’ll have too much trouble raising money to defend himself, but we’ll see how things look on Monday when the indictment is unsealed. Not too many people want to hop on board a ship that’s going down. I also doubt that Paxton will step down any time soon, as it’s much harder to raise the kind of dough he’s going to need to defend himself as a private citizen than as a statewide officeholder, but there will be plenty of calls for him to do so. Here’s the official statement from Texans for Public Justice, whose complaint last year got this ball rolling:

“The only acceptable response to today’s indictment of Attorney General Ken Paxton is his resignation. The state’s highest law enforcement officer must be held to the highest standards of conduct. Ken Paxton’s behavior disqualifies him from serving as Texas’ top cop.”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The real question, as Nonsequiteuse asked a month ago, is at what point will Greg Abbott begin to consider Ken Paxton a problem? How long is he going to be happy to work alongside an indicted felon? These are serious charges, and Paxton has already admitted to one of them. Up to you, Governor. Thanks to Scott Braddock for being the first to call my attention to this. The Lone Star Project, Newsdesk, and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

HISD and HCC finance reports

Here’s what we know, though it’s incomplete.

BagOfMoney

Fundraising among most HISD board members was slow during the first half of 2015.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who plans to seek re-election to her District 2 seat this November, raised the most money this reporting period ($4,000) and has the most on hand ($8,195), according to the July campaign finance reports.

Three other board seats are on the ballot in November. Trustees Manuel Rodriguez Jr. (District 3) and Juliet Stipeche (District 8) have told me they plan to seek re-election. Trustee Paula Harris (District 4) has not returned messages, but she has raised no money and reports none on hand — a good sign she is not running again.

The first day to file the formal paperwork to be on the ballot was Saturday. Only one candidate, Ramiro Fonseca, who’s seeking the District 3 seat, had filed as of Monday morning. The last day to file is Aug. 24.

Three others have filed reports naming a campaign treasurer, indicating they were interested in running: Jolanda “Jo” Jones (District 4), Ann McCoy (District 4) and Darlene “Koffey” Smith (District 2).

July reports for all of the HISD and HCC Trustee candidates that I know of are now up on the 2015 Election page. Note that only reports for HISD incumbents are available through the HISD website. HCC posts non-incumbent candidate reports as well, and good on them for doing so. HISD, you need to do something about this.

Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand ================================================ Skillern-Jones 4,000 5,150 0 8,195 Rodriguez 3.325 808 0 2,856 Stipeche 0 5,733 0 9,884 Tamez 16,750 248 0 15,820 Evans-Shabazz 0 0 0 0 Hansen 200 1,826 5,000 3,374 Loredo 4,147 779 0 4,805 Aguilar 0 4,827 10,000 5,172

Compared to some of the other races we’ve seen, these are Dollar General to their Niemann Marcus. In HISD IV, everyone I’ve spoken to has told me that Paula Harris is not running for re-election. It’s annoying that the non-incumbent reports are not online, but they do exist in paper form, and Ericka Mellon was kind enough to track them down.

Former City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones has raised more than $8,100 in her run for the HISD school board, nearly twice as much as competitor Ann McCoy.

Jones’ contributions for the District 4 race include more than $2,800 from her council campaign. She served on the council from 2008 through 2011.

Community activist Larry McKinzie also has filed a campaign treasurer report to run for District 4 but did not submit the fund-raising report due July 15, indicating he had not raised money at that point.

[…]

In District 3, incumbent Manuel Rodriguez Jr. faces a rematch with Ramiro Fonseca. Rodriguez has more than $2,800 on hand. Fonseca has filed a treasurer report but said he has not raised funds yet.

In District 2, incumbent Rhonda Skillern-Jones, the board president, raised $4,000 during the last six-month reporting period. Darlene “Koffey” Smith, also running for District 2, has not raised any money but reports spending $1,800 that she intends to reimburse with donations. Youlette McCullough, who lists her nickname as “Baby Jane,” has filed a treasurer report for the District 2 seat, indicating her plans to run.

No word yet on whether HISD trustee Juliet Stipeche will face an opponent in the District 8 race.

There’s more at the link, so go check it out.

As for HCC, the only contested race so far is in my district, District 8, where first-termer Eva Loredo faces Art “brother-in-law of Abel Davila” Aguilar. John Hansen is running for the seat being vacated by Sandie Mullins Moger, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson after he stepped down to run for Controller, and Adriana Tamez is running for a full term after winning the remainder of Mary Ann Perez’s term in 2013. I have heard that Dave Wilson plans to back some candidates for the Board, including Aguilar, but there are no other candidates as yet. His own finance report shows no funds raised or spent and nothing but an outstanding loan on hand; if he does play in any races I’m sure he’ll do it via a PAC, however, so don’t read too much into that. If you hear anything about that, let me know. Otherwise, not too much of interest here to report.

Posted in: Election 2015.

No, we shouldn’t have any kind of elections for SCOTUS justices

Your junior Senator, ladies and gentlemen.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

Dismayed by a pair of Supreme Court decisions upholding Obamacare and gay marriage, Republican Ted Cruz presided over a packed Senate hearing Wednesday calling for judicial elections and term limits to rein in what he called “judicial tyranny” and “the abuse of judicial power.”

While term limits or recall elections for Supreme Court justices are considered a distant long-shot, both ideas have gained traction with some legal theorists – and especially with social conservatives who are a key part of Cruz’s strategy to win the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

As chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee on the federal courts, Cruz took center stage in an afternoon hearing that aired a host of conservative grievances with recent high court decisions that have remade the political landscape on health care and same-sex marriage.

“So long as justices on the Court insist on behaving like politicians, acting like a political body, and making policy decisions instead of following the law, they should not expect to be exempt from the authority of the voters who disagree with their policy decisions,” Cruz said.

The idea of retention elections has been widely panned by critics on the left and right, many of whom fear it would politicize the highest echelon of the judicial branch and expose the justices to unseemly political campaigns.

Delaware U.S. Sen. Christopher Coons, the ranking Democrat on the panel, suggested that the proposal is an overreaction to a pair of court decisions that went against the views of conservatives.

“We cannot decry judicial activism and create a Constitution crisis every time that a big case comes out against us,” Coons said. “The Supreme Court has been a vital arbiter of political interests precisely because it is insulated by the vagaries of politics and political interests.”

Coons and other opponents of Cruz’s plan argued that the current Supreme Court has delivered a string of conservative victories on guns, voting rights and campaign spending limits.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: For a guy that’s supposed to be so freaking smart, Ted Cruz sure says a lot of stupid things. Putting aside the obviously sore-lose-crybaby motivation for this proposal and the fact that the Founders intended Supreme Court justices to be above politics (hence the lifetime appointments; you’d think a self-styled “Constitutional conservative” would have some respect for that), electing Supreme Court justices is an objectively terrible idea. The public will be woefully under-informed about the candidates, who will necessarily be limited in what they can campaign on. All of the conflict-of-interest problems with judicial elections at lower levels will exist times a billion. And speaking of “billion”, the amount of super PAC/special interest money that would flood into these campaigns would be enough to choke a Koch brother. There’s just nothing to recommend this.

Now, some people have suggested perhaps limiting SCOTUS terms to something like 18 years, which would allow for regular turnover while still shielding the Justices from electoral politics. (Which is not to say they’re not themselves political, just that they could continue to make rulings without wondering about their existential future.) I could be persuaded to support such a plan, if I thought there was a chance it could be approved. But Cruz isn’t interested in improving anything other than his own side’s advantage. I suppose that much is smart, but so would be having a plan that had a chance of actually succeeding.

Posted in: National news.

Bridal Extravaganza happily adjusts to a same-sex marriage world

Love is love, and business is business.

RedEquality

Vendors in the industry, from florists to caterers, are seeing a bumper crop of same-sex Texas weddings.

“I think there’s going to be some pent-up demand, and that’s exciting,” said Laurette Veres, Bridal Extravaganza producer.

In Texas, same-sex weddings could generate at least $182 million in total spending in the first three years, according to projections by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy.

“That could be a lot of business,” said Carol Wyatt, who plans to marry her partner of two years, Sallie Woodell, on Aug.  2. The weekend bridal show really came too late for Wyatt and Woodell – they’ve been planning their Aspen, Colo., wedding since December – but they see a lot of other weddings in the works. “With almost every couple we know,” Wyatt said, “they’re either getting married or have gotten married in another state” and want to renew their vows closer to home.

Some of the show’s vendors made special efforts to welcome same-sex couples. Dream Bouquet Floral and Event Decor displayed a bouquet of roses with rainbow-hued petals. Who Made the Cake!, a Houston cake design studio, brought in a multi-tiered cake called “Love Around the World” that featured same-sex couples traveling together – two men riding a gondola, two women in a hot air balloon.

“We’ve always done cakes for LGBT marriages, so this is nothing new for us,” said the cake shop’s owner, Nadine Moon. “My view has always been love is love, and you deserve a great cake to celebrate, I don’t care who you are.”

The show’s name isn’t going to change, Veres said, because it’s been known (and trademarked) as the Bridal Extravaganza for three decades. But organizers are tweaking other details to make the show more inclusive to same-sex couples. Instead of signing up as bride and groom, couples now register as “Partner 1″ and “Partner 2.” And for years, Veres said, engaged attendees have been given stickers that identify them to vendors as a “Bride to Be.” “We’ll use up the ‘Bride to Be’ stickers, but we won’t reprint those,” she said. The new stickers simply say “Engaged.”

[…]

Mark Phariss and Vic Holmes, who will marry in November after 18 years together, came to the show on Saturday. The two live in Plano and already have booked and ordered most of the things they want for their North Texas wedding, but they wanted to see what else they might find.

“Everyone was very accepting when they learned we were a same-sex couple,” Phariss said. “We had no issues at all.” But then, he said, that’s been typical of their experience since he and Holmes started planning their wedding in March. “Everyone we’ve called, we’ve told them that we’re a same-sex couple and asked if that would be an issue,” he said. “Everyone has said it’s not, and, in fact, said they were sorry we had to ask.”

Wyatt, who’s marrying next month, has heard talk that a same-sex wedding expo might be in the works in Houston, something made by and for the gay community. But she prefers the idea of same-sex couples “mixing and mingling in the broader wedding market,” as they did at this weekend’s show.

“Any time we can present ourselves as ‘We’re just normal; we’re happy to be getting married just like you are,’ it removes stigma from us,” she said.

God bless the Supreme Court and capitalism, eh? You’d think that if someone told Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick that a $60 million a year business was coming to Texas, they’d shout about it – and claim credit for it – everywhere they could. I guess Texas isn’t open for business for everyone. Still, it’s always good to be reminded who the mainstream is, and who the mainstream isn’t. They may raise a big fuss and may never quite go away, but they’re a shrinking and increasingly irrelevant minority.

Posted in: Bidness.

Saturday video break: Happy

Did you know Bruce Springsteen recorded a song called “Happy”? It’s true.

That’s from his four-CD B-sides-and-other-miscellania collection Tracks, which you probably don’t own unless you’re a big Springsteen fan. Not a whole lot that’s memorable, but hey, it’s Springsteen. More Springsteen is better than less Springsteen.

Sheryl Crow also has a Happy song:

Yeah, I know, that’s called “If It Makes You Happy”. What I have in my collection is from the Live Room Sessions, and it’s just called “Happy”. I started this post before I realized the difference and couldn’t find a video of the song that I have. Sue me.

And yes, I know what song you were expecting:

1. Holy schnikes, that video has over 676 million views.
2. Minions! And Magic Johnson!
3. Seeing the original video always makes me appreciate the Weird Al version that much more.

The man is a genius. And I can’t wait to see the live version of that when he comes to Houston in August.

Posted in: Music.

Harris County will have a bond issue on the ballot

More things to vote on this November.

HarrisCounty

Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to put four bond measures totaling $848 million on the November ballot to address tremendous population growth in Harris County during the past two decades.

“When you consider that Harris County has more people than 24 states, it really isn’t that much,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“This is in anticipation of further growth.”

Approximately 1 million more people now live in the county than in 2000; and 75 percent of those new residents live in the unincorporated portions of the county where government-funded roads and infrastructure projects have had to hustle to catch up with vast commercial and residential development.

The referendum will create four separate ballot items: a $700 million bond for roads and bridges, a $60 million bond for parks, $24 million to update the overcrowded animal control facility and $64 million for flood control improvements.

[…]

The commissioners agreed to review the actual ballot language at their next meeting Aug. 11.

But Emmett said the commissioners should get going immediately in their efforts to educate voters about why bonds are on the ballot in the first place: “Once we approve this this morning, then it’s time to start getting people engaged in the process of supporting the bond election. That’s important.”

See here for the background. In that post, I said that Judge Emmett and Commissioners Court had better make sure they ran a vigorous campaign for their bonds if they wanted them to pass, because recent history of ballot propositions in Harris County strongly suggests that in the absence of a campaign, even non-controversial issues don’t do as well as you might think. This year, there will be the HERO repeal vote and possibly also the Dave Wilson you-must-show-me-yours vote, either of which may have the effect of bringing out more of the type of voter who is inclined to vote No on anything related to spending because spending is bad and raises their taxes. (Yes, I know, this bond issue does not come with a tax increase. Try convincing the kind of voter I’m talking about of that.) What could be potentially more troubling for Commissioners Court is that there’s likely to be a significant number of voters outside the city limits who are well aware of the HERO issue and think they’ll get to vote on it, too. I suspect a lot of those voters will be in the no-spending-ever bucket as well. Maybe I’m overstating the extent of the problem, and for sure I believe that a sizable number of the people who will be spurred to turn out for this will do so to support HERO, but it’s a factor that didn’t exist at the time this bond issue was first being discussed. They need to plan for it.

There’s another factor to consider here, which is that as things stand now, there’s not much in this bond issue that does anything for city residents. The vast majority of it goes to the unincorporated areas. Granted, that’s where most of the growth is, but it’s still nice to get something beyond a sense of civic duty in return for one’s vote. I may be misjudging things – it’s early days, details may still be getting worked out, I’m sure I’ll have a chance to interview Judge Emmett about this – but that’s a consideration. Municipal voters are usually the ones who do the heavy lifting when it comes to passing bond issues. Let’s hope we’re not being taken for granted.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Pasadena City Council member Cody Ray Wheeler announces for HD144

From the inbox:

Cody Ray Wheeler

I am excited to announce that I have decided to seek the Democratic nomination for State Representative District 144.

As a Pasadena City Councilmember, I have worked hard to ensure that under-served communities have a voice in city government. But it is clear that now more than ever, working people need a champion at the state level.

When I was growing up, my father provided a good life for me and my family without a high school diploma because he held a good paying union job at a refinery. I was able to afford college, and eventually grad school because of my service in the Marines. Yet, I am increasingly worried that future generations will not have the same opportunities that my family had.

Working families are being neglected by the Texas Legislature. Our public schools, healthcare and workers’ rights are under attack. Politicians at the capitol today are more concerned with pleasing big corporations and scoring political points than they are with helping the middle class.

As a legislator, I will fight to protect the American Dream for every Texas family–and I won’t back down from Tea Party Republicans or lobbyists who cater to special interest groups.

Wheeler is one of the Pasadena Council members who was targeted by Mayor Johnny Isbell, so he has some experience running in and winning tough elections. HD144 should be a slightly Democratic district in 2016 – every Democratic candidate carried it in 2012, though not by a lot; Mary Ann Perez outpaced them all in winning what was then an open seat – with a bigger challenge to hold it in 2018 as Rep. Perez was unable to do; she again led the Democratic field, but the baseline dropped by about five points in 2014.

Almost as if on cue, a day later an announcement that former Rep. Perez would be making another run in HD144 hit my mailbox.

Mary Ann Perez

Mary Ann Perez

Today, Mary Ann Perez announced that she will be running for the Texas House of Representatives in District 144, which includes parts of Houston, South Houston, Baytown, Deer Park and Pasadena.

“Hard-working Texas families deserve a strong, effective voice in the Texas House. I have a proven track record for getting things done,” said Mary Ann Perez.

Perez grew up in a working class family in East Harris County. A mother of two, she worked her way through college to earn a degree in Business Administration from the University of Houston – Downtown. While building a successful insurance agency, she was never too busy for her two sons or her community. She was an active member of her local neighborhood association and volunteer at her sons’ Little League and school functions.

Elected to the Houston Community College Board of Trustees in 2009, Perez increased higher education access for local students and developed programs to connect graduates with local employers to address regional workforce needs.

The announcement goes on to make the same point I did about her performance relative to the rest of the ticket last year. That’s to her credit, and I’m sure it will be a part of the discussion in the primary, but then so will be the fact that she lost. I’d like to hear Perez talk a bit about what she learned from that experience and how she might avoid a repeat in 2018 if she gets re-elected. I’m sure that will come up in the interviews I’ll eventually do. As for Wheeler, he’s been fighting the good fight in Pasadena, and he ought to have as good a chance at holding HD144 for more than one term as anyone. Got to win in 2016 first, of course, so take a look at his website (hers appears to be the same as it was in 2014) and see what you think.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Where the forest and the trees collide

Headline atop Tuesday’s Chronicle: Spike in Metrorail crashes prompts a second look at safety measures.

Metro recorded a record 17 accidents on its rail system in June, and most of them involved the kind of action Marchetti narrowly avoided: people or cars moving into the train’s path or, in one case, a bicyclist riding into the side of a train, Metro officials said. Even so, the incidents renewed criticism that at-grade trains like Metro’s are rolling disasters. Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, meanwhile, are looking for new ways to keep drivers, cyclists and pedestrians from wandering into the paths of the trains.

The 17 June crashes – which involved 13 vehicles, three pedestrians and one bicyclist – were the most in any month since the agency began rail service in 2004. It was only the third time the number of accidents exceeded nine in a month. The spike was alarming, Metro officials said, but was not an indication of flaws in operations.

Metro said three of the collisions might have been prevented if agency employees had acted differently. For example, a train was exceeding Metro’s maximum speed for the area when it collided with an ambulance in the Texas Medical Center. The cause, however, was the ambulance turning illegally in front of the train.

Metro officials said no single factor determines the level of safety on the rail system. Different segments face different challenges, they said.

The June numbers, in fact, might have been an aberration. As of July 24, Metro had logged five rail accidents in the month, within the agency’s normal range.

In fact, if you look a little farther down in the story, you’ll see a graphic that shows the monthly accident totals going back to June 2013. In the 24 months from June 2013 to May 2015, there were 106 total accidents, or 4.4 per month. Also farther down in the story is this paragraph:

Traffic accidents in general in the Houston area are up, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council. Based on miles traveled, the regional accident rate increased 13 percent in 2014 from the previous year, to 229 vehicle collisions per 100 million miles of driving. Bus crashes increased 9 percent from 2013 to 2014.

And here’s what the top of the houstonchronicle.com homepage looked like a bit later on Tuesday:

OverturnedBigRigHeadline

The story:

Traffic was snarled early Tuesday morning on portions of Interstate 10 after a big-rig overturned near the 610 Loop just west of downtown.

The single-vehicle crash happened about 5:40 a.m. on the inbound Katy Freeway ramp to the West Loop.

No information was available about possible injuries or what caused the crash.

The wreck forced officials to block the ramp from the westbound Katy Freeway to both the northbound and southbound West Loop while crews cleared the scene. It was not known when the ramp would reopen.

Just for grins, I did a search on “overturned truck” on the Chron. On the first two pages of results, I got eleven results for just this year. Here are the story links:

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Overturned-truck-blocks-freeway-ramp-6171566.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Overturned-truck-slowing-traffic-at-I-10-and-US-59-6067056.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Overturned-truck-snarls-Beltway-8-East-6050920.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Truck-crash-snarls-I-10-downtown-6332716.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Lost-load-causing-serious-accident-backups-on-6068407.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Overturned-big-rig-snarls-Eastex-Freeway-6161012.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Accident-has-I-10-closed-for-hours-6150578.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Truck-crash-slows-East-Freeway-6089338.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Around-the-area-state-Truck-spills-hot-tar-6069099.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Fiery-tanker-crash-blocks-North-Loop-6399486.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Crash-blocks-East-Loop-6096418.php

That’s one search term and likely not all possible results. Lord knows, plenty of things besides overturned trucks can cause huge problems on the freeways. My point is this sort of thing happens all the damn time, without being front page news. But by all means, let’s worry about a weird one month jump in the number of accidents involving the train. Unlike all the overturned rigs, at least Metro is trying to do something about it.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Friday random ten: Revisiting the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs list, part 6

Here’s their list, and here we go.

1. La Bamba – Los Lobos (orig. Ritchie Valens, #354)
2. Jim Dandy – Black Oak Arkansas (orig. Lavern Baker, #352)
3. The Harder They Come – Jimmy Cliff (#350; also a cover by Joe Jackson)
4. Baba O’Riley – The Who (#349)
5. Walk This Way – Aerosmith (#346; also a cover by Hayseed Dixie)
6. Beat It – Pomplamoose (orig. Michael Jackson, #344)
7. Sweet Jane – Cowboy Junkies (orig. The Velvet Underground, #342)
8. I Can’t Make You Love Me – Bonnie Raitt (#339)
9. We Will Rock You – Queen (#338)
10. Baby Love – The Supremes (#332)

Song I’ve never quite wanted to have: “Candle In The Wind”, Elton John (#356). It’s a good song and all, but eh. And I heard it enough back in the day.
Song I used to have but don’t any more: “Runaround Sue”, Dion (#351). From that same album that also had Del Shannon’s “Runaway”.
Song whose name I never understood until I saw this list: “Baba O’Riley”, The Who (#349). Apparently it “takes its name both from Townshend’s spiritual guru, Meher Baba, and minimalist composer Terry Riley, whose work inspired the track’s repetitive electronic textures”. Who knew?

Posted in: Music.

If HERO then no other ballot items

Makes sense.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With her signature nondiscrimination law likely to appear on the November ballot, Mayor Annise Parker left in doubt Wednesday whether she will ask City Council to also place before voters long-discussed changes to term limits and the city’s revenue cap.

Parker said she has no interest in putting the latter two items to amend the city charter to a vote only to see them fail because they lacked robust campaigns behind them.

“It was my full expectation that I’d be spending my remaining campaign funds and my personal time advocating for these two good-government items, but because of the presence of HERO (the Houston equal rights ordinance) on the ballot, I’m going to be having to split my energy over there,” she said. “There is no – at this point – group willing to step up and advocate for the other two. I’m not going to put some things out there just to fail. It may be more timely to bring the charter amendments to next November’s electorate, and I can leave that decision to the next mayor.”

Term-limited Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, said she will discuss with council members and make a final decision in the coming days on what items to place on the agenda for the group’s Wednesday meeting.

[…]

Political observers say the divisive ordinance’s appearance on the ballot may skew the electorate by rallying conservatives to show up for what are typically extremely low-turnout municipal elections, and could undercut discussion of other issues in the mayoral and council races, such as the city budget and crumbling streets.

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said Parker’s wariness of moving forward with complicated governance issues when such a clear-cut social issue will be on the ballot is well founded.

“You’ll have pro and con on HERO, and that’s going to create a politics and a set of voters that may not reflect the kind of voters that would otherwise come out for an issue of importance to city finances,” he said. “I think she’s wise in that way to push things off to make sure those issues get the kind of hearing they deserve instead of the kind of hearing they’d otherwise get in the politics of the moment.”

I don’t believe the turnout effect of having HERO repeal on the ballot is going to be entirely one-directional, but I do agree that it’s going to consume a lot of the oxygen in the campaign. It’s also going to require a lot of financial resources. Mayor Parker has $233K cash on hand as of the July finance report, which might have been enough to push the other changes she had in mind but likely isn’t enough to defend HERO and certainly isn’t enough to do both. Clearly, the first priority is defending the gains that we’ve made. It’s unfortunate that the other items will have to be left for the next Mayor to sort out – I strongly suspect the next City Council will wish they didn’t have to deal with the extra cuts that the revenue cap will impose on them – but it is where we are.

Posted in: Election 2015.

I’m not the only one who thought the state’s response to the birth certificate lawsuit was specious

Actual legal experts didn’t think much of it, either.

The state of Texas can’t hide behind sovereign immunity to escape a lawsuit for denying birth certificates to U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants, the director of the University of Texas’ Transnational Worker Rights Clinic said Tuesday.

That state’s claim of immunity is mere “boilerplate,” said Bill Beardall, who also serves as executive director of the Equal Justice Center, and the lawsuit against the Department of State Health Services should proceed.

“The state filed a standard boilerplate response that states and state officials always file in these lawsuits,” Beardall said. “This is a form of discrimination.”

[…]

While some sovereignty claims have merit, Beardall said, U.S. Supreme Court case law includes precedents that private parties can sue state officials in their official capacities to enforce federal rights.

Michael Gerhardt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina’s School of Law, said states often reply to lawsuits with an 11th Amendment argument. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s illegitimate, but it also doesn’t necessarily have merit,” he said.

Instead, it could be a part of what he calls the state’s “rich judicial history” that could influence how the case moves forward. He cites specifically Plyler v. Doe, the case where the Texas Legislature’s attempt to deny undocumented students access to public education was rejected by the Supreme Court. In essence, Gerhardt said, the court decided that the children should be admitted and not punished based on something their parents had done.

“It’s not hard to extrapolate from that that someone born in this country [is] going to be, presumably, a U.S. citizen,” he said. “In this case you’re talking about a federal right, and states cannot deny a federal right.”

See here and here for the background. The plaintiffs will file their response shortly, and the state will then respond to that response. I presume we’ll get a better idea of what their real argument is then. In the meantime, more plaintiffs are expected to join the suit. I suspect there’s no shortage of them to be found.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Who’s afraid of a little climate change?

We should be in Texas, but we’re not.

Texas probably will see a sharp increase in heat-related deaths and coastal storm-related losses in the coming decades if nothing is done to mitigate a changing climate, according to a new study commissioned by a bipartisan group of prominent policymakers and company executives aiming to spawn concern – and action – in the business community over the much-debated warming trend.

The study is the third region-specific analysis by the so-called Risky Business Project, an eclectic coalition led by former banker and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr., former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire hedge fund manager-turned-environmentalist Tom Steyer. The men co-chair a bipartisan 20-member governing committee made up mostly of former presidential Cabinet members – including President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state – who agree that climate change is occurring and that it will have negative economic consequences, but have consciously avoided the debate over whether human activity is causing it — or how to respond.

The first step in their mission? Highlighting the potentially devastating economic impact of climate change in the not-too-distant future. And, of course, not everyone is buying it.

Published Tuesday, “Come Heat and High Water: Climate Risk in the Southeastern U.S.” found that Texas will be one of the states most negatively impacted by climate change by mid-century absent any changes.

Among the findings of the study, Texas will probably see by the 2050s:

  • The number of extremely hot days per year – with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees – more than double, from an average of 43 to 106.
  • About 4,500 additional heat-related deaths per year with nearly half that increase coming in the next five to 15 years. (For comparison’s sake, the study points out there were about 3,400 total automotive fatalities in Texas in 2013.)
  • A sea level rise of up to 2 feet in Galveston.
  • A $650-million-per-year increase in storm-related losses along the coast, bringing the state’s total annual damages to more than $3.9 billion.
  • A marked decrease in both worker productivity and crop yields.

The idea is that if the group can convince business leaders that climate change is a true risk, they will in turn pressure policymakers to do something to address it, said committee member Henry Cisneros, a former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We’ve seen that happen time and time again” with other divisive topics, Cisneros said, adding, “The implications for the productivity of the workforce are immense.”

[…]

That does not mean the business community will accept the findings of the study, however. And that reluctance appears largely rooted in the parts of the climate change debate the Risky Business Project has avoided amid a lack of clear-cut consensus among its leadership.

Claiming you can accurately model climate change over the short or long term is “arrogant” and “unrealistic,” said Stephen Minick, the head lobbyist for the Texas Association of Business.

While the powerful group believes climate change is occurring and businesses should account for it, Minick said that whether it is being caused by human activity — namely greenhouse gas emissions — is far from proven, along with the extremity and accuracy of the study’s predictions.

“We absolutely acknowledge the fact that the climate is changing and that sea levels are changing, partly because of climate, partly because of other reasons, and they always have and they always will,” he said.

“We have a long, long way to go in terms of our scientific knowledge … before we can make valid assumptions along those lines,” Minick added, asserting that accurate predictions are difficult in large part because big changes take place “over millenia.”

I believe that response can be summed up as follows:

shrug_emoji

You can see why this is unlikely to be taken seriously here. Hey, most of the people who don’t want to do anything about this will be dead long before 2050 anyway, so let the kids worry about it, amirite? The Observer and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: Bidness.

Got questions about the new bus routes?

You can get answers, in person, from a Metro staffer. From the inbox:

METRO makes it easy for riders to learn more about the New Bus Network through a series of customer information sessions being held across the METRO service area:

MetroInPersonNewBusAssistance

On-hand staff can provide trip planning assistance and answer specific rider questions on the New Bus Network, their routes and bus stops.

The table discussions and one-on-one meetings show customers rider tools, like the Dual Trip Planner, which is a side-by-side trip display tool, helpful for riders whose routes are changing.

Patrons now have access to a printable map showing the New Bus Network along with individual route maps and videos of the more complex routes.

Metro also has a call center that will handle customer issues, and there will be Metro personnel out on the routes on the first days of the changeover. Yes, it will be hard, because change is always hard, but we will get through it. Take a few minutes to check out what your routes look like, and contact Metro via whatever means appeals to you if you have questions.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Is this the plan that will save the Dome?

Maybe.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A few months ago Ed Emmett had a breakthrough moment about how to save the Astrodome, a goal he’s been chipping away at for the better part of eight years. The Harris County judge was driving out of the county administration building lot headed straight for the historic 1910 courthouse in downtown, and he thought, “There’s a building we completely re-purposed without bond money.”

Meanwhile, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation was mulling over a 38-page report by the Urban Land Institute outlining details for transforming the Astrodome into an indoor park with 1,200 parking spaces underneath it. What remained unclear was how to fund it.

And that’s where Emmett’s idea comes in. His plan has now become the blueprint for a public-private partnership overseen by a conservancy that would unite the city, county, the sports and convention corporation and other governmental entities with private investors to revive the Astrodome without requiring voter approval. Under the conservancy model, Emmett said, the Dome would earn tax credits, which would help significantly with covering expenses for renovation.

The details for the partnership – and who will commit to covering what percentage of the costs – are being discussed in meetings between representatives of various stakeholders, including during a session on Tuesday and another one scheduled for Friday.

The finished funding plan will come before county officials likely before year’s end, and, if the majority of the five-member Commissioners Court backs the proposal, the Astrodome revival will commence.

[…]

The two newest commissioners, Jack Cagle and Jack Morman, said in interviews Tuesday that they might ultimately support a conservancy to oversee a Dome project; however, neither could say for certain without reviewing the actual proposal.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he would want to hear comments from the public, adding that “a plan that does not involve taxpayers’ money is certainly going in the right direction.”

Commissioner El Franco Lee expressed wholehearted backing for Emmett’s new strategy.

“I support and am pushing for the conservancy approach,” he said. “It gives philanthropic givers an opportunity to participate, and it takes us down the road much faster by doing some creative things.”

Lee said participants in the conservancy discussions are fully aware that the majority on Commissioners Court does not support taxpayer money going toward the Astrodome project, and he said the planning group will certainly keep that in mind as it crafts a proposal.

“At this point, I’m very optimistic,” Emmett said, “that it’s going to happen without a bond issue. That’s the direction we’re moving in. People seem to be coalescing around the idea of re-purposing the Dome as a green space, adding parking underneath, and adding a conservancy to oversee the upper parts.”

That’s the key right there, no bond issue, which would mean no vote need be taken. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of reason to be optimistic about any further Dome-related votes, so avoiding that would be a big deal. As Judge Emmett notes, this is the same concept that the Houston Zoo and Discovery Green use. That would require some kind of board that would be responsible for management and – more importantly – funding, with some operations money coming from the county and likely the city. I expect that would be easy enough to work out. This makes so much sense that you have to wonder why no one thought of it before. Better late than never, I guess. What do you think about this? Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Allen Parkway 2.0

Changes are a-comin’.

Lane closings are scheduled to start soon along Allen Parkway – slowing traffic – so workers can complete a redesign of the road – meant to slow traffic.

The long-planned overhaul, which will add parking along Buffalo Bayou’s popular trail system and improve connections between the parkway and intersecting streets, starts next Monday, officials with the Houston Downtown Redevelopment Authority said. Work on the $11 million redesign should conclude before the Free Press Summer Festival at Eleanor Tinsley Park in late May or early June.

In the interim, motorists on the parkway will have fewer lanes in some places and will lose access to certain streets for a few weeks. The payoff, eventually, will be a much better, slower parkway, officials said.

“For us this project has been about safe access and parking,” said Ryan Leach, executive director of the downtown redevelopment authority. “Safety was foremost in our minds and getting access to this great asset we have been building for the past few years.”

Joggers and cyclists now must make a mad dash from one side of the parkway to the other.

“It’s Frogger,” said Cliff Eason, 30, comparing the trip to a video game.

[…]

By the time thousands descend on the music festival – which downtown officials said will return to the bayou from its site this year at NRG Park – the parkway will be a parkway again. It will still have three traffic lanes in each direction, but with wider, tree-lined medians and improved pedestrian crossings at Taft, Gillette and Dunlavy. A special pedestrian crossing signal will be installed at Park Vista Drive, making it much easier to access Buffalo Bayou and the park and trail system from south of the parkway.

City officials say the changes are vital to make the most of the bayou park system and to return Allen Parkway to its intended purpose as a slow drive. As changes were made over the years to help facilitate automobile traffic, many drivers got into the habit of speeding up.

Drivers on the road commonly exceed the 40 mph posted limit. A number of high-profile crashes also have occurred on the road, including a 2009 crash that killed lawyer John O’Quinn. Investigators said O’Quinn was speeding on the rain-slicked street and he and a passenger, Johnny Lee Cutliff, were not wearing seat belts. Cutliff also died in the accident.

In addition to crossings and intersection changes, the project will add another critical component for access to the park: parking. By shifting the parkway south – eliminating a frontage road that runs along the eastbound lanes – officials are adding 149 diagonal parking spaces along the bayou trail.

See here for some background. Swapping the little-used service road for parking makes a lot of sense, given how much the trails and the dog park have become a destination. I’m never crazy about adding traffic lights in this town, but I can’t argue with the one at Dunlavy. I don’t know that lowering the posted speed from 40 to 35 will actually slow things down – I think there would need to be a steady presence of traffic cops writing tickets to make that happen – but again given the presence of a lot of non-car traffic, that makes sense. As the story notes, the total time added for a trip all the way from Kirby to downtown at 35 instead of 40 is less than a minute. Surely we can all live with that.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Split decision on cross-state air pollution rule

Not too bad, actually.

Texas’ Republican leaders and environmentalists are both claiming victory Tuesday following an appeals court ruling that requires the federal government to ease limits on certain emissions for Texas and a dozen other states.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to revisit caps on nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions — set in an effort to limit the effects of air pollution across state boundaries. But the court also upheld the agency’s right to enforce such a regulation.

Texas was among 13 states, joined by industry and labor groups, that sued over the so-called Cross-State Air Pollution rule in 2011, challenging the EPA’s framework and complaining states weren’t given enough time to comply.

The regulation requires Texas and other “upwind” states in the South, Midwest and Appalachia to cut certain emissions that contribute to air pollution in East Coast states like New York.

In a 6-2 decision last year, the U.S. Supreme Court largely upheld the rule in a major win for the Obama administration. But the justices told the lower courts to resolve lingering questions about how to implement it.

Tuesday’s ruling addressed those issues, with the court noting “the petitions for review are therefore granted in part and denied in part.” It opted to leave the current emissions rules in place as the EPA revises them.

See here for the background. The DC Court had previously ruled against the CSAPR, but SCOTUS overruled them. The EDF explains what this ruling means.

The D.C. Circuit Court decision recognizes that, when the Supreme Court upheld the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule in April of 2014, it affirmed EPA’s fundamental methodology for implementing the “good neighbor” protections of the Clean Air Act. Today the D.C. Circuit Court granted claims by Texas and other states challenging particular emissions budgets while firmly rejecting associated requests to vacate the state-based emissions protections and rejecting several additional fundamental legal claims.

The court directed EPA to carry out additional analyses on remand, stating, “We remand without vacatur to EPA for it to reconsider those emissions budgets. We reject all of petitioners’ other challenges to the Transport Rule, including all of their facial challenges to the Rule. (Decision, page 36, emphasis added)

The rule’s life-saving pollution reductions remain in full effect.

So that’s pretty good. I trust the revised rules the EPA comes up with will also be pretty good. Tough luck, polluters.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 27

The Texas Progressive Alliance is always on the side of equality as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Interview with Jim Bigham

Jim Bigham

Jim Bigham

District J is a geometrically compact district with a high population density, carved mainly from the former District F and anchored in the Sharpstown area. It is in Sharpstown that we meet Jim Bigham, who is challenging two-term incumbent CM Mike Laster. Bigham is an Army veteran and business operations manager who has been active in civic and neighborhood groups since arriving in Houston in the late 80s. He has also maintained a blog, the eponymous jimbigham.com where he writes on subjects like neighborhood crime prevention and TIRZes; more recently, he laid out his rationale for running for Council. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Judge rules Wilson petitions must be counted

Thanks, Supreme Court. Thanks a hell of a lot.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

City of Houston officials must count the signatures on a petition filed by anti-gay activist Dave Wilson, who is seeking a vote to amend the city charter and bar men “who perceive or express themselves as women” from entering women’s restrooms, a judge ruled Tuesday.

State District Judge Brent Gamble ruled Tuesday that City Secretary Anna Russell has a “nondiscretionary ministerial duty” to count and certify the signatures Wilson submitted in early July, and to present the count to City Council by Aug. 8.

City attorneys, however, intended to file an immediate appeal late Tuesday, said Mayor Annise Parker’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans. She did not comment further.

[…]

Wilson submitted a similar petition in April, but apparently misunderstood state law and was 300 signatures shy of the 20,000 names needed for a charter amendment. He said he started over and said he submitted more than 22,100 valid signatures on July 9.

For months now, Parker’s legal team has contended that Wilson’s proposed charter revision too closely resembles a repeal petition pertaining to the city’s equal rights ordinance that had been tied up in court. His effort is too late and should not be considered, they have said, because those seeking to repeal an ordinance must submit their petition within 30 days of the law going into effect; City Council passed the ordinance in May 2014.

Regardless of the future of Wilson’s petition, the equal rights ordinance itself likely will be put to a vote in November, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court ruling last week.

See here and here for the background. I suppose the good news, if you want to call it that, is that thanks to that awful Supreme Court ruling, we’re going to have a HERO repeal vote anyway, so what difference does this make at this point? Because let’s be clear about two things: One, Wilson’s efforts have totally been about trying to damage HERO. Anyone who believes otherwise also believes in the tooth fairy. And two, if we take that Supreme Court ruling on its face, Wilson could have simply signed the names of the first 22,000 or so registered Houston voters himself on his petitions. If all Anna Russell is supposed to do is check that yep, those are the names and addresses of registered Houston voters, then why not cheat a little to make sure you make it across the goal line? Who’s ever going to know?

OK, I’m being a little bitter here, but just a little. We’ll see what if anything comes of the city’s emergency appeal, but consider this: if we take to heart the core of the Obergfell and Windsor decisions – and Lawrence v. Texas before them – a law that is based on animus against a group of people cannot be constitutional. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems clear to me that Wilson’s hateful proposal could not survive judicial scrutiny if it were approved. But putting all that aside, thins is just wrong. It’s wrong to use the weight of a majority to push around a minority, and it’s wrong to put people’s humanity to a vote. Funny how a heathen like me understands that better than a “Christian” like Dave Wilson.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Paxton girding for indictment

So are we, Kenny. So are we.

Ken Paxton

A Collin County grand jury is expected to weigh evidence brought by two temporary district attorneys assigned to the case. Paxton’s advisers are furiously preparing for a criminal indictment.

The looming showdown has the camps bickering. Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Paxton, contends the AG should not face criminal prosecution.

“As we’ve said for 14 months now, there was no criminal action because there was no crime,” Holm said. “This was solely a civil event with a $1,000 civil penalty.”

Holm took aim at the special prosecutors assigned to the case, calling Houston lawyers Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice lawyers “whose careers are built on defending the sort of child molesters and Mexican drug cartel leaders that Attorney General Paxton was elected to prosecute.”

Holm also accused a local lawyer who provided information about Paxton to a previous grand jury of having a vendetta.

“The Collin County situation is a drastic departure from objectivity, legal precedent or common sense, and it’s time for people to understand a respected public official is the target of a political vendetta,” Holm said. “This witch hunt must end.”

In a written statement, Schaffer and Wice fired back, saying their investigation was “neither a political vendetta nor a witch hunt.”

“The PR shell game Mr. Paxton’s hired gun employs once again seeks to change the conversation from his client’s conduct to personal attacks on us,” they wrote. “He knows full well that we were appointed by a Republican judge in one of the most conservative counties in Texas to conduct a full, fair and impartial investigation, and that is exactly what we intend to do.”

As the story notes, Paxton admitted to breaking the law to avoid a campaign issue. In his mind, that means the matter was settled, even though it had not yet come to the attention of any prosecutor. Now as we know a complaint has been filed and a special prosecutor appointed with a grand jury waiting in the wings, but Team Paxton wants everyone to believe that it’s all ancient history. It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid. At least, not for normal people.

But prosecutors now say that at the least, there’s evidence that Paxton violated securities law by not registering with the securities board, a third-degree felony. And Schaffer has said he’ll ask for a first-degree felony indictment, though he won’t elaborate on the charge.

The prosecutors could submit evidence of the securities law violation that Paxton admitted to as a slam dunk case. But at least one legal expert says few people are criminally prosecuted for such offenses.

The state securities board did not refer the case for criminal prosecution.

“It’s technically a violation, but you don’t often see that type of violation charged criminally,” said Dallas lawyer Jeff Ansley, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas and a former Enforcement Attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “That’s very rare.”

So the key question remains: What’s the evidence of a first-degree felony?

I assure you, we are all on pins and needles waiting to find out. One hopes that these two career defense attorneys will not pursue excessive charges on flimsy evidence – you know, the sort of thing they are critical of other prosecutors for – so we’ll see what goods they have.

That Paxton is in legal trouble can be attributed in part to the efforts of a watchdog group, and the determination of a local lawyer.

The public integrity unit within the Travis County district attorney’s office said it lacked jurisdiction and forwarded information to Dallas and Collin counties for lack of jurisdiction. Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk didn’t touch the case either, saying she was not aware of any alleged crimes being committed in the county.

That left Collin County, where Paxton’s friend and business partner, Greg Willis, is district attorney.

After receiving a complaint from Texans for Public Justice, Willis stepped aside and said that “appropriate investigation agencies, including the Texas Rangers,” should handle the allegations against Paxton.

“As soon as we saw what he signed with the State Securities Board, it was obvious that he was admitting to felony conduct,” said Craig McDonald, executive director for Texans for Public Justice. “If Greg Willis hadn’t stepped aside, this thing would have died.”

Meanwhile, Dallas lawyer and blogger Ty Clevenger took the extraordinary step of sending information about Paxton to members of a Collin County grand jury, including three from the same church. He said he also dropped off information to a grand jury member’s home. He got their names from Collin County officials by asking; in Dallas, Hawk declined to release the grand jury’s names.

The grand jury that will hear the Paxton evidence from the special prosecutors is not the same as the one Clevenger sought out. One should always be a little wary of crusaders, no matter how enticing their claims are, but again, one hopes that the evidence will back up whatever comes out. There’s been a lot of trash talk from Team Paxton, which is either bravado or whistling past the graveyard. That grand jury is now in, and it’s put up or shut up time. The Observer suggests what may be coming.

William Mapp, the disgraced founder of Servergy, Inc., was identified at the courthouse by WFAA reporter Tanya Eiserer. Servergy, based in McKinney, claimed to produce energy-efficient servers for corporate clients. The company made extraordinary claims about its core product, the Cleantech-1000, claiming it consumed “80% less power, cooling, and space in comparison to other servers currently available.” But there was a problem: The federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleges that Servergy’s claims about its product were false. And the company, the SEC says, produced fraudulent pre-orders from tech companies like Amazon and Freescale to sell itself to investors.

Servergy raised some $26 million from selling stock between 2009 and 2013, as detailed by information released by the SEC. And it profited from grants from the McKinney Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a local fund that reinvests money collected by local sales taxes. Servergy continued to receive money from MEDC even after a formal SEC investigation began in 2013. Servergy is also connected to a wide variety of other improprieties and shady activities.

Paxton was a prominent Servergy shareholder, owning at least 10,000 shares. But while other investors simply lost their shirts, Paxton’s role in the Servergy case has generated lingering interest from authorities. In 2014, Paxton’s name was included in a list of search terms used by the SEC to subpoena the company, along with several other prominent figures in McKinney. Mapp’s presence at the courthouse today suggests that Servergy’s case is connected to evidence special prosecutors are presenting against Paxton.

That would be a significant escalation in the case against the state’s AG. A large part of the public defense laid out by Paxton’s spokesman Anthony Holm revolves around the assertion that Paxton’s original violation of securities law, regarding his legal clients, was a simple mistake and civil matter that he corrected when it was brought to his attention. The Servergy episode is a whole different kettle of fish, and while it remains to be seen what the prosecutors have against Paxton in connection to this particular episode, it should be a source of significant concern in the AG’s office.

See here for the background. All I can say is “oh please, oh please, oh please”. We’ll see what happens.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Three panels investigating Sandra Bland’s death

One was appointed by the Sheriff:

Sandra Bland

In the wake of the controversial arrest of Sandra Bland and her jailhouse suicide, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith has asked for an independent panel of civilians to evaluate all aspects of the way he runs his department, from the cell blocks to the streets, and make public recommendations for change.

“He wants to use this tragedy as a growth opportunity,” said long-time defense attorney Paul Looney, who has been asked by the sheriff to form the five-member committee.

[…]

“We have been given carte blanche. We have been told we’ll have access to any piece of paper we want. We can visit with any prisoner or person without notice,” Looney said. “We can go on ride-alongs,” he said of riding in patrol cars with deputies to observe them first-hand.

Looney said the committee will be a diverse group of leaders and that none will be in law enforcement. He also said they won’t pull any punches in making recommendations, which will be shared with the public.

“In a time period of great tragedy, there is also a great opportunity for growth, and he doesn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Looney said of the sheriff. “I don’t intend to be kind, the people I include on the committee will not be kind. We intend to be constructive.”

One was appointed by the District Attorney:

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis formed a second independent committee Monday to review the arrest and death of Sandra Bland and also released a toxicology report that one expert said suggests the 28-year-old woman used marijuana shortly before jailers found her hanging in her Waller County Jail cell.

Mathis said he was bringing in defense attorneys Lewis M. White and Darrell W. Jordan, both of whom are African-American, to lead a panel that will oversee the work of his office and make recommendations about charges for possible criminal conduct during the arrest and confinement.

“There are many lingering questions regarding the death of Sandra Bland,” Mathis said, explaining why he has asked for help just days after Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith formed a similar committee to review jail procedures.

[…]

The announcement that officials were forming another independent review committee did not build much trust with critics.

Former Waller County Justice of the Peace Dewayne Charleston said he didn’t know White or Jordan, so he couldn’t speak to their abilities or loyalties, but questioned any committee whose leaders are “appointed by the same person they are providing oversight for.”

“He’s not bound to take their advice, suggestions or recommendations, so it’s just window dressing,” said Charleston, who has called for Mathis to recuse himself from the case. “They could give him the best, most accurate recommendation but if he’s not obligated to accept it or just takes parts of it, it doesn’t really matter.”

Both White and Jordan have limited prosecution experience, graduated from Texas Southern University’s law school and work in small firms with five or fewer attorneys, according to the Texas State Bar’s website.

White, who passed the State Bar in 2002, worked under Mathis as a prosecutor for a year. Jordan, who passed the bar in 2006, has served as a prosecutor in the Army National Guard, where he still is a defense attorney. Jordan also has worked as a talk radio host for KCOH, part of the broadcasting company owned by Houston mayoral candidate Ben Hall.

Vivian King, a prominent Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor, said she did not know White, but had confidence in Jordan, who she had as a student at TSU.

“I think he’s confident and smart and will ask for guidance where he needs it,” she said. “He does care about getting it right.”

JoAnne Musick, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers, said the decision to bring in someone familiar with the county, like White, might give the duo a useful perspective. But she said that insider status also could undermine the public’s trust in the process.

“Houston is a very close and large area with tons of experienced former prosecutors and defense attorneys that could undertake that review,” she said, noting she knows neither White nor Jordan. “Their selection seems a little odd.”

Musick is one of five people selected by Hempstead and Houston attorney Paul Looney to serve on the sheriff’s review committee, which has not yet met. On Monday, Looney identified the others: Juan L. Guerra Jr., criminal defense lawyer; Randall Kallinen, civil rights attorney; Morris L. Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; and former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington.

Jordan ran in the 2010 Democratic primary for judge of the 180th Criminal District Court. Here’s the judicial Q&A he did if you want to know a little more about him. The Sheriff’s panel has several well-known people on it, and I think they will live up to Looney’s promise that they will not hold back.

There will also be a legislative hearing:

The same day Waller County officials released results of Sandra Bland’s autopsy report, state lawmakers announced they will meet next week to discuss jail standards and police relations.

Members of the House County Affairs Committee, chaired by Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman, on Thursday will discuss “jail standards, procedures with regards to potentially mentally ill persons in county jails, as well as issues stemming from interactions between the general public and peace officers.”

That hearing will be tomorrow, July 30. Here’s the press advisory from Rep. Coleman, who can always be counted on to do a thorough job, and more on the hearing in the Trib. We need to learn all we can from this tragedy, and then to actually follow through on it, or we’re just going to keep having more like it. Still more here from the Trib.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

A closer look at Controller finance reports

Last week I took a closer look at the campaign finance reports for Mayoral candidates. Let’s do the same for the Controller candidates.

Candidate Raised In Kind Spent Loans On Hand ========================================================== Robinson 46,170 3,908 33,908 0 5,033 Brown 267,750 3,547 20,818 0 222,858 Frazer 128,097 1,009 120,956 32,500 53,973 Jefferson 8,653 2,943 9,255 1,860 5,521 Boney 8,390 0 5,487 0 2,902 Candidate PAC Max Non-Hou PAC % Max % Non-Hou % ================================================================== Robinson 8,500 10,000 17,000 18.4% 21.7% 36.8% Brown 2,500 140,000 42,450 0.9% 52.3% 15.6% Frazer 10,350 15,000 7,400 8.1% 11.7% 5.8% Jefferson 1,000 0 2,100 11.6% 0.0% 24.3% Boney 1,500 0 3,795 17.9% 0.0% 45.2% Candidate Overhead Outreach =============================== Robinson 1,750 28,889 Brown 10,535 1,923 Frazer 86,040 7,028 Jefferson 5,910 1,682 Boney 1,200 254

BagOfMoney

As always, all reports can be seen here. To review, PAC money is anything given by a PAC or business – basically, donations not from individuals – “Max” is the sum of donations from people who gave $5K and PACs who gave $10K (I didn’t see any of the latter on these reports), and “Non-Hou” sums up the contributions given from people who don’t have a “Houston TX” address. That was a bit more challenging in the case of Carroll Robinson, since he annoyingly only listed the state and ZIP code for his donors, but I managed. On the spending side, “Overhead” was initially intended to be the sum of money paid for items listed as “Consulting”, “Salaries/Wages/Contract labor” and payroll taxes, but as is often the case with these reports things got a little messy. Frazer had a bunch of payments to Mammoth Marketing Group that including things like Consulting Expense, Solicitation/Fundraising Expense, and Office Overhead/Rental Expense, which was for website design and maintenance. I included all of that, but listed expenses for Printing under Outreach, which is intended for advertising, mailers, yard signs, and the like. Frazer was also the only candidate to list rent for office space as an expense, so I included that under Overhead as well. Like I said, it got a bit messy.

The topline dollar figures speak for themselves. The spending is of more interest to me. Here’s a look at some of the items that caught my eye for each candidate.

Carroll Robinson – $29,200 of the money he spent went to Patriot Strategies Group, for the following items:

$1,000 for consulting fees
$8,500 for Auto Calls
$2,200 for Internet or Online Ads
$4,500 for Mailing
$9,500 for Auto Calls & Mail
$2,000 for Video Production & E-Blast
$1,000 for Social Media & Video Production
$500 for Social Media

Everything above is listed as Outreach except for the first charge. I don’t know why Auto Calls and Mail are lumped together on one item when they are separate on others, but like I said, this can get messy. $8,500 plus sounds a lot to me for robocalls, especially this early in a campaign.

Chris Brown didn’t actually spent that much – I expect that will come later – but one of his larger expenditures was $4,489 to Piryx for “online donation fees”. Piryx handles a lot of this sort of transaction = you’ll see their name on a lot of finance reports – but usually you see charges in the one to two dollar range. I have no explanation for this, unless maybe they take a cut of each donation and a bunch of those max contributions were made online.

Bill Frazer spent $22,825 from personal funds, with $6,077 in “unpaid incurred obligations”. As with Bill King, I think that burn rate could come back to haunt him.

Dwight Jefferson – All $2,963 in kind was from Coats Rose PAC for an Event Expense. On a somewhat odd note, the Andrews & Kurth PAC gave $1,500 to every candidate in this race except Jefferson, who got $1,000. I think if I were Dwight Jefferson, I’d ask them to make it up to me.

Jew Don Boney had a lot of food-related expenses listed as Solicitation/Fundraising Expense. There’s not much more of interest than that.

So that’s the Controller reports. I’ll try to see about doing the same with the Council reports.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Woodfill is still pursuing his anti-same-sex benefits lawsuit

From the inbox and the febrile mind of Jared Woodfill:

RedEquality

Last year Houston Judge Lisa Millard granted a temporary injunction and ordered Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the City of Houston to immediately stop recognizing same-sex ‘marriages’ and stop providing benefits to the same-sex couples married in other states. Judge Millard stated, “This court does not legislate from the bench” and ordered the injunction to stay in place until a trial date of December 2015. I filed the lawsuit on behalf of Larry Hicks and Pastor Jack Pidgeon. The City of Houston has appealed Judge Millard’s opinion. Mayor Parker is arguing that the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding same-sex marriage justifies her unilateral decision to use your tax dollars to fund same-sex benefits. I believe the City of Houston and Mayor Parker are wrong. The recent marriage decisions addressed a new right for same-sex marriage, but did not establish an entitlement for financial support at taxpayer expense. Consistent with the same dichotomy that resulted in the abortion decisions, which established an individual right to abortion but an equally strong right by the States to deny public funding for abortion. Accordingly, we have responded to Mayor Parker’s unlawful use of your tax dollars and filed a responsive brief. The brief can be accessed by clicking here. I am hopeful that the Houston Fourteenth Court of Appeals, like Judge Millard, will once again make it clear that Mayor Parker’s executive actions to force the funding of same-sex benefits on the people of Houston are illegal. It is time for Mayor Parker to stop wasting tax dollars on issues that have already been resolved by Texas voters and Texas state courts. I will keep you posted on the progress of this litigation.

Read Judge Millard’s order here.

To review the situation: In November of 2013, after SCOTUS knocked down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Mayor Parker issued an executive order declaring that spousal benefits for city employees extended to legally married (i.e., in other states) same-sex spouses. This was both in response to the deletion of DOMA and in recognition of the fact that the 2001 charter amendment limited benefits to “employees, their legal spouses and dependent children”. Pidgeon and Hicks, abetted by Woodfill, then filed a lawsuit challenging this, and got an initial injunction against it from Family Court Judge Lisa Millard. A second lawsuit was then filed by three City employees who would have benefited from Mayor Parker’s order, to force the action that she took. Both suits were then moved to federal court in December, where Judge Lee Rosenthal dropped the injunction against the city. The second plaintiffs, represented by Lambda Legal, moved to combine the two suits, which were eventually moved back to state court last August. Woodfill and pals filed another lawsuit in state court in November; I have no idea what happened to that one.

As far as I know, that was the last update until after the Obergfell decision, at which time the Lambda Legal lawsuit was formally dismissed for being moot. I would have assumed the same would have happened to the Pidgeon/Hicks lawsuit, but I have not seen anything to confirm or deny that. As for this current action, I have no idea what legal basis Woodfill thinks he has to draw a distinction between same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage – silly me, I thought the SCOTUS ruling was pretty clear on that point – but after what we’ve seen in the past few weeks, who knows what a Texas court might do. Any legal types out there who can explain any or all of this better than I can, by all means please do. I’ll keep my eyes open for any further developments.

Posted in: Legal matters.

We wouldn’t be having these problems if we had just expanded Medicaid

The chickens, they are roosting.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Hospitals that serve large uninsured populations in Texas stand to lose critical funding if the state can’t convince the federal government to continue helping with the cost, doctors and health advocates told the state health department Thursday.

With the expiration date of a five-year, $29 billion program approaching, the Health and Human Services Commission will attempt to negotiate a renewal of federal funds to help reimburse hospitals caring for the uninsured.

Rural Texas hospitals serve large uninsured populations and rely on the money to keep from closing, Grace Chimene, a pediatric nurse practitioner, told a panel of HHSC administrators taking public testimony on the need for an extension.

“When a rural hospital closes, lives are lost due to the lack of emergency services,” the Austin resident said. “If you have an emergency like a heart attack in rural Texas, you better hope that local community has enough insured population to support a community hospital.”

The money was originally intended to help Texas transition over five years to an expanded Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. But Texas officials decided not to expand Medicaid, the state-federal insurance program for the poor and disabled, leaving uninsured nearly one million residents who would have been eligible for coverage under the expanded program.

That was a rebuke of the Obama administration, which is now considering whether — or to what extent — it will renew the matching funds. Federal officials told HHSC in April they would consider Texas’ refusal to expand Medicaid when determining whether to renew the federal matching funds that supplement local dollars.

[…]

The month-long public comment period for HHSC’s proposal to have the funding extended another five years will end August 5. The deadline to reach a deal with the federal government is September 30.

However, many who testified said Medicaid coverage expansion itself is more important than extending the five-year program, and urged the HHSC to pressure the government to expand coverage.

“Coverage expansion must be part of the solution,” said Laura Guerra-Cardus, an Austin doctor who serves as associate director of the Children’s Defense Fund in Texas. “Without coverage, individuals do not have adequate access to preventative, chronic and ongoing care that makes the concept of health care meaningful.”

HHSC must submit its request for extending the waiver by the end of September. If it fails, the money would run out in September 2016.

See here and here for the background. I’ll say again, I hope the feds stand firm and make it clear to Texas that this money is contingent on Medicaid expansion, no ifs ands or buts about it. Ideology is the only reason for the opposition to expanding Medicaid. Let’s make it perfectly clear to the hospitals and the communities they serve that stand to get screwed by this who and why it is happening. As they say, elections have consequences.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

TOP/SEIU Mayoral forum report

From David Ortez:

After the dust settled, the forum commenced with the hosts explaining the four pillars of their platform. It boiled down to: 1) Good Jobs; 2) Neighborhoods of Opportunity; 3) Infrastructure; and 4) Immigrant Rights. At the end of the forum, all the candidates would be asked to endorse this platform by signing a large four by five foot petition. Every candidate expect Bill King would end up signing and supporting the platform.

The first question was regarding the first 100 days as mayor. Garcia and Turner employed their well-rehearsed and appropriate non responsive answers explaining that each candidate would meet with TOP and SEIU Texas to set an agenda. Garcia stated that he would welcome and support immigrants. Turner also welcomes immigrants to our city but added that he would want to help out areas that been ignored. King, on the other hand, noted that he would address the redistribution of wealth in neighborhoods, citing the current Houston decision to spend millions on Post Oak to create a dedicated bus lane in the Galleria area. McVey stated that he would implement an Identification Card program for undocumented residents and supports a $15 minimum wage in the city. It was not clear if this minimum wage would only apply to municipal employees or all employees within the city.

The next sets of questions were addressed to each candidate individually. Garcia was hit hard for not standing up against the controversial 287(g) program as Harris County Sheriff. 287(g) allows trained local law enforcement officials to conduct immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions. In Harris County, this usually takes place when a suspect is booked after being arrested regardless of culpability. Some defendants then have an immigration hold placed, which results in deportation. Garcia began his response by reminding folks, “First and foremost, I worked as sheriff to keep people safe. I worked to get criminals off the streets.” Then, he attempted to spin the question by claiming that it only applies to criminals in jail. This is a false statement. He concluded his response by claiming to have fought against the program. How? I am not really sure.

King was asked which program he would cut first as mayor. He did not hesitate to throw the Houston Crime Lab under the bus and vowed to eliminate programs that provided duplicate services. McVey was asked to share his strategy for success as an unknown candidate; he began by explaining that he was unknown because he was not a career politician, then he cited his resume as someone that comes from the private sector that knows how to create jobs. Turner had the softer question of the group when he was asked to explain how he would improve the quality of jobs for employees. Turner took the opportunity to support a $15 minimum wage. He would also like to provide Houstonians with skills to obtain new trade jobs. He noted that not everyone is destined for college.

There’s more, including a few pull quotes from candidates that aren’t in the main body of the post, so go check it out. I couldn’t find any mainstream news coverage of this event, which focused on some issues that don’t get as much attention as others. Here’s the TOP/SEIU platform, called “Houston 4 All”, from their press release:

  • Good Jobs: A strong mayor can incentivize good jobs with living wages and benefits that enable working parents to sustain a family.
  • Neighborhoods of Opportunity: A strong mayor can lead a city-wide effort to help all of our neighborhoods not just survive, but thrive. That means focusing on areas with greatest need first, supporting minority homeownership, cleaning abandoned properties and lots, and prioritizing development projects in the most neglected neighborhoods.
  • Immigrant Rights: A strong mayor can create a municipal ID program to increase public safety and symbolically welcome, engage and include vulnerable populations who face barriers in obtaining IDs accepted by Houston authorities like the police, independent school districts and city departments.
  • Sound Infrastructure: A strong mayor can invest infrastructure dollars for drainage, street, and sidewalk improvements in areas where they are needed most.

I’m not exactly sure how some of these would translate to specific policy proposals, but David’s report gives some clues from the questions that were asked. I’ve been wondering when a higher minimum wage would come up in the conversation. How far that might get with Council I couldn’t say, but I’m glad to see it get discussed.

Posted in: Election 2015.