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Friday random ten – Baby, You Can Drive My Car Part 1

There are lots of songs about different kinds of cars. Here are ten of them.

1. Cadillac Ranch – Bruce Springsteen
2. Elvis Rolls Royce – Was (Not Was)
3. Hey, Little Minivan – Austin Lounge Lizards
4. Jaguar – Cities Aviv
5. Jeepster – T. Rex
6. Little Red Corvette – Big Daddy
7. Look At That Cadillac – Stray Cats
8. Mid Life Chrysler – Madverb
9. My Bloody Yugo – The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group
10. Volkswagon Thing – Asylum Street Spankers

I limited myself to two selections from the two Car Talk “Disrespectful Songs About Cars” CDs that are in my collection. Note that none of these have the generic word “car” in the title. That’s next week. What are your favorite songs about a make or model of car?

Posted in: Music.

Sorry, the Sriracha factory will not be coming to Texas

The ongoing battle between the makers of Sriracha sauce and their hometown flared up again last week.

The Irwindale City Council has voted unanimously to declare the spicy smell of Sriracha hot sauce production a public nuisance.

Once the council adopts an expected official resolution at its next meeting, hot sauce maker Huy Fong Foods will have about 90 days to mitigate the odor, which residents say burns their eyes and throats at certain times of day.

The 4-0 vote during a Wednesday night hearing came despite assurances from company attorney John Tate that Huy Fong Foods planned to submit an action plan within 10 days and have the smell fixed by June 1.

Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District have been performing tests at the facility and have offered to help the company craft a mitigation plan. Although they would not release the test results, AQMD officials indicated that the smell issues could be resolved with active carbon filters — a technology the company has used in the past.

“The City Council is determined to assert its authority regardless of the status of the odor remediation efforts,” Tate said.

[...]

No demonstrators showed up Wednesday night. But state Sen. Ed Hernandez sent a representative to deliver a statement, calling Huy Fong Foods one of the “shining stars” of the San Gabriel Valley’s vibrant business community and offering to help the sauce maker find a home in a neighboring city.

“I ask that the city of Irwindale reject this inflammatory and unnecessary ‘public nuisance’ designation and constructively work with Huy Fong Foods to resolve these issues,” Hernandez said in a statement.

Councilman Albert Ambriz said that the city wants to keep the hot sauce factory.

“I respect the fact that they are here. But they know there’s a problem and it needs to be fixed,” Ambriz said.

The fuss is basically a tempest in a Rooster Sauce bottle.

But company owner David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who founded Huy Fong Foods in 1980, has insisted the odor concerns are overblown — and indeed there are signs the controversy may be as manufactured as Sriracha itself.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which includes Irwindale, has never issued a citation to the company and Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the district, says that many of the 70 odor complaints the district had received as of April 7 came from just a handful of households. The first person to file a formal complaint was the relative of a city official, according to court documents. Atwood says inspectors from the district visited the Huy Fong Foods factory and determined the company was not in violation of current air quality regulations. If a smell is bad enough that the district would take action, he says, “You’re going to get dozens if not hundreds of complaints.”

That hasn’t happened yet, but the factory remains in danger of being shut down. Irwindale officials have even said they may have the right to install air-filtering equipment inside the factory and bill Huy Fong Foods for the expense.

Some locals seem baffled by all the fuss. Tania Bueno, who owns a salon a few blocks from the factory, told TIME in February she’s never detected an odor from the Huy Fong Foods factory. “None of my clients have mentioned any smells.” Tran recently opened his doors for public tours to allow Irwindale residents to decide for themselves how strong the smell is.

But then maybe it’s more than that.

After a months-long battle with the city of Irwindale over complaints about a spicy odor, Sriracha sauce creator David Tran said Wednesday he is now seriously considering moving his factory to another location.

Tran responded Wednesday to the politicians and business leaders from 10 states and multiple cities in California that have offered to host the Sriracha factory. He invited them to tour the facility in Irwindale and decide if their communities would complain about the odors that arise during production.

Tran stressed he has not decided whether to move, but would like to explore his options.

The Irwindale City Council voted unanimously to designate the factory a public nuisance last Wednesday despite promises from the saucemaker that they would submit an action plan and fix the smell by June 1.

Tran said he fears the city won’t accept any solution he proposes. If Irwindale residents continue to complain even after smell-mitigation technology is installed, Sriracha’s legal troubles could have no end, Tran said.

“[City officials] tell you one thing, but think another,” Tran said in an interview at Huy Fong Foods on Wednesday. “I don’t want to sit here and wait to die.”

Irwindale City Attorney Fred Galante said he was confused and disappointed by Tran’s actions. Irwindale officials just want an action plan to be submitted, and Galante said that Tran has not proposed any solutions for the city to reject.

“This seems very extreme,” Galante said. “It’s disappointing giving that [air quality officials] have explained that there are readily available solutions.”

[...]

Relocating Sriracha production would not be simple. Tran has been working with a single pepper grower in Ventura County for years, and the businesses have shaped their operations around each other, expanding in tandem. Since peppers for Sriracha hot sauce must be fresh ground on the day they are harvested, Tran said he’ll have to find a new grower if he moves, as well as replace or relocate 60 to 200 employees.

Tran said his first choice is to stay in Irwindale, but the city government’s actions have created an uncertain business climate.

“I have had the bad luck to move into a city with a government that acts like a local king,” Tran said.

See here, here, and here for the background. State Rep. Jason Villalba has been beseeching Huy Fung Foods to consider moving to Texas, where we care a lot less about such niceties as clean air, and he’s back on Facebook pitching his message again. Until this week, his message had not been received by Huy Fung, but now Villalba may get his chance.

Villalba says he’s received a call from the Sriracha maker about setting up a meeting “as soon as possible.” Says the state rep, “We’re assembling our team now and getting ready to go to California.” That meeting will likely take place in early May, he says, and include Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples and other state politicians.

“We’re pretty excited,” says Villalba.

Well, good luck with that, but as the title of this post suggests, I remain highly skeptical. Not being near their supplier of peppers would be a significant change to their business, and likely a significant cost increase. Lots of other groups are lining up to make their pitch as well, including other cities close by in California. Anything is possible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Posted in: Food, glorious food.

Mail ballots being mailed out for primary runoffs

From the inbox:

EarlyVoting

The first batch of over 38,000 postal ballots for the May 27, 2014 Primary Runoff Elections have been mailed and will be arriving in voters’ mailboxes this week. This mailing represents the highest number of mail ballots issued for a mid-term runoff election in the history of Harris County. The previous high of 31,468 was recorded during the 2010 Primary Runoff Election.

“It is likely that a portion of the increase in mail ballots issued is due to a measure passed by the State Legislature during the 2013 Legislative session that makes the mail ballot request process more efficient,” informed Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the largest county in Texas and third largest county in the nation. “Effective this year, voters who are 65 years of age or older, or who are disabled, have the option of submitting an annual ballot by mail application. The annual application is valid for all elections conducted by my office in the calendar year.”

Of the over 38,000 initial mail ballots issued for the Primary Runoff Elections, 96 percent were addressed to senior citizens and disabled voters who have taken advantage of the new law, one percent were sent to qualified voters who specifically requested a ballot for the Primary Runoff Elections, and three percent were mailed to Military and Overseas voters. For the May 27 Runoff Elections, the last day to apply for a ballot by mail is May 16, 2014.

There are a little over 300,000 registered voters on the Harris County voter roll who are 65 years of age or older and are qualified to submit an annual mail ballot application. “I encourage senior citizens and disabled voters who wish to vote by mail to submit an annual ballot by mail application,” asserted Stanart. “I want to ensure that every ballot by mail voter has sufficient time to vote their ballot and return it to my office by Election Day.”

“Permitting qualified voters who have difficulty going to a poll the opportunity to submit a single application to receive a postal ballot for multiple elections is good public policy,” concluded Stanart who supported the annual ballot by mail application for senior citizens and disabled voters.

For more information about the process to apply for a ballot by mail, or to download the new application for a ballot by mail, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com.

Yes, the runoff isn’t until May 27, but early voting will begin before you know it. If you plan to vote by mail for the primary runoff, now would be a good time to request your ballot if you haven’t already done so. Remember, if you didn’t vote in March you can vote in either runoff, but if you did vote in March you must vote in the runoff of the same party.

Speaking of parties, I was curious what the partisan breakdown of the mail ballots was, since that is something we know for primaries and primary runoffs. I sent the question to the County Clerk’s office, and this was the answer I got:

As of 4/15/2014:

DEM-13,547
REP-24,547

Interestingly, that’s a fairly significant increase for Democrats, but not for Republicans. For the March primary, there were 12,722 Democratic ballots mailed, of which 8,961 were returned. For Republicans, there were 24,548 ballots mailed, of which 20,026 were returned. There’s still time for more ballots to be requested, so these tallies should increase. I fully expect there to be more action on the Republican side, but clearly at least the usual Democratic suspects are planning to vote.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Boats N Hoes

With friends like these

The name of a fundraising group made waves in the tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats over women voters on Wednesday.

Political consulting firm employee Shaun Nowacki registered the political action committee, “Boats ‘N Hoes PAC,” with the Texas Ethics Commission on April 1, according to state records.

Nowacki is listed as comptroller for Blakemore and Associates Consulting Firm, whose namesake, Allen Blakemore, is the “senior strategist” for Republican Dan Patrick’s lieutenant governor campaign. The firm also advised Greg Abbott, the GOP nominee for governor, during eight previous campaigns from 1991 to 2004, according to Blakemore’s website.

Democrats on Wednesday were quick to pounce on the unorthodox PAC name, calling it “derogatory and offensive” toward women. Abbott, meanwhile, quickly distanced himself from the group.

“The terminology used in the name of this PAC is reprehensible and Greg Abbott denounces any person or entity that uses such offensive language,” said Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch, emphasizing that the consulting firm has not worked for him in years.

Abbott would not take money from the committee, Hirsch said.

That didn’t stop state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, from suggesting a correlation between the language and her opponent’s policies.

“Greg Abbott’s consultants are clearly taking their cues from Abbott himself, who campaigns with an admitted sexual predator of underage girls, who pays women less than men for doing the same work and who forms his education plan with the ideas of a man like Charles Murray, who argues women are inferior to men,” said Davis spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña. “The language used by Greg Abbott’s consultants is offensive to every Texas mother and daughter — and the men who love them — and has no place in politics.”

Nowacki and Blakemore each did not return requests for comment. The name appears to be a nod to a gag in the 2008 movie “Step Brothers.”

For your edification. The lyrics are Not Safe For Work, so shut your door or plug in your headphones.

I almost feel a twinge of sympathy for poor Shaun Nowacki, who I’m guessing is a 20-something bro that maybe likes Will Ferrell movies a little too much and doesn’t have the sense God gave a turnip if it didn’t occur to him that maybe “Boats N Hoes PAC” wasn’t such a hot idea. I will note that this story has gone national, and all I had to do at Youtube to find that video was type in “boats” – autofill knew exactly what I was looking for. I should probably have something more intelligent to say about this, but I’m laughing too hard to think straight. I bet so is Molly Ivins, wherever she may be.

Posted in: Election 2014.

The dino turtle

Please don’t go extinct.

The extremely rare, utterly impressive and scary looking alligator snapping turtle is actually even more rare than first thought, according to a study out of Florida this week.

Researchers in in the sunshine state have found that the scaly creature, once common to Houston, is actually just one of three different kinds of the turtles.

Until this week the species has been collectively known as macrochelys temminckii and nicknamed the ‘dinosaur of the turtle world’ because of it’s fiercesome look and massive size. It can reach up to 200 pounds in weight.

Now two new species names have been added after scientists found distinct differences between the turtles that have grown up in river systems across the Gulf states.

The new study looked at data from turtles still in the wild as well as fossils that date back 15-16 million years and determined the turtles developed differently according to their geographical placing.

[...]

It means that the few who still live in East Texas are the last remaining of their kind, with just close relatives living across state lines, rather than direct decsendents.

A figure for how many of these prehistoric-looking beasts remain does not exist. Their shy nature and nocturnal lifestyle make it almost impossible to count them.

Some estimate the Suwannee still has around a 1000 of them but that figure could be much lower in East Texas and Louisiana because of the love of local populations for turtle soup.

“Whenever the (federal authorities) banned sea turtles from harvest, all the people, especially in New Orleans, who wanted turtle soup, turned to freashwater turtles,” said Thomas, “That was alligator snapping turtles, they hit them hard and they hit them hard in a short amount of time.”

I’m sorry, but a magnificent creature like this deserves a better fate than being wiped out by foodies. They’re not currently listed as endangered, but perhaps this re-classification will cause a review of that. At the very least, chefs ought to find more plentiful turtles to use in their soup.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Uber goes rogue

That sound you hear is me shaking my head.

At least one ride-sharing company has decided to openly defy city law that bans its unlicensed drivers from charging for rides.

While a few free-ride promotions remain ongoing, Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian confirmed Tuesday that the service, which connects interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone apps, is indeed charging for rides and will “stand by” any drivers who receive city citations.

“The support of city users and drivers has been absolutely tremendous.” Hourdajian said. “There have been tens of thousands of trips in Houston in the time we’ve been here, and we’re thrilled by that reception.”

She said the growing use of the service since its launch in February is a sign Houstonians think City Council should “have a sense of urgency” in approving regulatory revisions that would allow legal operation for Uber, Lyft and similar mobile-centric operators.

A draft of possible changes will be reviewed early next week by a joint committee on transportation and public safety. How quickly that proposal moves to the full City Council for a vote depends on suggested changes from concerned council members and taxi industry officials.

Jim Black, executive vice president of governmental relations for Lyft, said he was unaware of plans for the service to mimic Uber and begin regular, for-fee operations before council’s decision. He did note that the Houston Lyft app still offers riders the option to donate to their drivers.

In other cities, the company has swapped out that feature for fees once legal wrangling has been resolved.

See here, here, and here for the background. I mean, seriously, Uber. You’re going to get what you want soon enough. The Chronicle editorial board continues to be on your side. Could you just chill a little? I’m going to let William Shatner speak for me here:

I’m sure I speak for many people when I say I’ll be glad when this matter has been dealt with.

On a related matter, the Express News has a brief update on the lawsuit filed against Uber and Lyft by the cabbies:

The 23 plaintiffs that filed the lawsuit April 8 — among them, two taxi companies from San Antonio including the city’s largest, Yellow Cab San Antonio — have asked a federal judge to rule the companies are violating vehicle-for-hire ordinances in San Antonio and Houston. They are also seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction to prevent Lyft and Uber from operating.

But an injunction has not yet been issued. A hearing on the matter could be scheduled soon, said Michael A. Harris, one of two Houston-based attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

A pre-trial conference has been scheduled for July 18 in U.S. District Court in Houston.

I’ll be glad when this is over, too. Texpatriate has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Castro v Patrick

Who do you think won?

Mayor Julian Castro

Democratic Mayor Julián Castro and GOP lieutenant governor candidate Dan Pat- rick of Houston clashed over immigration policy on Tuesday in a rowdy debate that left both politicians claiming victory.

The politicians stood by the sharply different stances that brought them to their much ballyhooed face-off, at times in conciliatory tones and occasionally with biting rhetoric.

Repeating banter that initially erupted on social media, Castro pleaded for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law and portrayed Patrick as too harsh on immigrants, while Patrick painted Castro’s approach as too liberal and unfair to citizens.

Taped before guests at Univision studios and streamed live on the Web, the hourlong showdown gave Castro an opportunity to dispute Patrick’s campaign claims about the extent of unauthorized immigration and the lack of border security, while Patrick assailed Castro and other Democrats for embracing immigrant law-breakers seeking citizenship.

The encounter was the first meeting for the two officials, whose conversation was guided by Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith, and it started out on a lively note with Castro as the aggressor, calling Patrick “part of the problem” in the political stalemate over immigration reform.

“On Twitter, in front of the Alamo, in your campaign, you’ve been huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf and now you’re dancing around like Little Red Riding Hood. That is not leadership,” Castro said.

“Nobody is disagreeing with you, senator, when you talk about the need to clamp down on coyotes (smugglers), on people who are crossing here illegally,” Castro said.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that the clear loser of this debate was David Dewhurst. Not that anybody cares about David Dewhurst. Beyond that, I would suggest that one way to evaluate a contest like this is to measure how fired up each side’s supporters are afterward. I’ll let someone else check on Patrick’s fans, but it’s clear that Team Castro was pretty happy with how it went.

Another way to assess the outcome is the “If you’re lying, you’re losing” metric:

The exchange grew heated when Castro questioned Patrick’s claims, based on a state report, about the extent of crime tied to immigrants.

“The Express-News and Houston Chronicle looked into that and they said that’s bogus,” Castro said. “You have a way with statistics and trying to exaggerate them,” Castro said.

Patrick denied that and repeatedly urged Castro to “read the report” he had cited.

Yes, Patrick is lying about immigration and crime. He also has a history of lying about immigration and disease:

In 2006, Patrick claimed that undocumented immigrants were responsible for spreading diseases largely banished from developed countries.

“They are bringing Third World diseases with them,” Patrick said, according to The Texas Observer, listing “tuberculosis, malaria, polio and leprosy.”

State health officials say there’s little basis for those claims.

Take polio for instance. The Department of State Health Services couldn’t provide any information about cases because the disease has been “eradicated in the Western hemisphere,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the DSHS.

All of Texas’ malaria cases are imported, he said, and not by immigrants. Instead, those infected typically were traveling to or from a part of the world, such as Africa, where the disease is rampant.

While there is a link between immigration and leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, Van Deusen said, there is an equally strong link between contracting it and contact with armadillos or coming from an old European family that has a genetic quirk making them susceptible to the disease.

Most humans, he pointed out, are genetically immune from getting Hansen’s, which is not easily spread.

To paraphrase Daniel Davies once again, good debaters do not need to tell lots of lies to win their debates. The Trib, Erica Greider, and the Observer have more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

HISD unveils new mascots

Here they are.

The cafeteria at Hamilton Middle School showcases a painting of a Native American in a feathered headdress. Students wear collared shirts with a similar symbol. They were, until Tuesday, the Hamilton Indians.

Now, with a new school district policy banning mascots deemed culturally offensive, the Houston Heights campus has adopted the Huskies as their symbol, as have the Westbury High School Rebels. The Lamar High Redskins become the Texans, and the Welch Middle School Warriors are now the Wolf Pack.

The mascot changes – including painting over old logos, buying new uniforms and replacing marquees – could cost the district an estimated $250,000, officials said.

Superintendent Terry Grier, who won school board approval for the stricter mascot policy in December, said the expense was worth it.

“For us here at HISD, while this day marks the end of an era and sends a message about nurturing our cultural diversity, we do understand the importance of tradition and history,” Grier said while unveiling the new mascots in the Hamilton school cafeteria.

Grier said he was troubled by the Lamar Redskins name shortly after arriving in Houston in 2009, but he didn’t push for a change until last year when state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Native American students and parents upped the pressure.

[...]

An HISD handout about the mascot changes said new uniforms for football and volleyball in the fall would cost about $50,000, while the four schools expected to spend more than $38,000 to replace logos on their campuses. Uniforms for all other sports could drive the total cost up to about $250,000 according to district spokeswoman Sheleah Reed.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I figure uniforms have to be replaced periodically anyway so the cost doesn’t bother me. Besides, this was simply The Right Thing To Do. I’m glad HISD got it done. Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: Other sports.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 14

The Texas Progressive Alliance honors the legacy of LBJ and the continuing struggle for civil rights as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

PPP: Abbott 51, Davis 37

Another discouraging poll from PPP.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In the Governor’s race Greg Abbott’s at 51% to 37% for Wendy Davis. Those numbers are largely unchanged from our last poll of the state in early November when Abbott had a 50/35 advantage. Davis had a 39/29 favorability rating right after her famous filibuster last June, but since then voters in the state have mostly moved toward having negative opinions about her and now she’s at a 33/47 spread. Davis’ name recognition is actually 12 points higher than Abbott’s, but his reviews break down favorably with 40% having a positive view of him to 27% with a negative one.

One thing that may be working to Abbott’s benefit is that for the first time ever in PPP’s Texas polling Rick Perry has a positive approval rating, with 48% of voters approving of him to 44% who disapprove. Perry’s net approval has improved 18 points from where it was 2 years ago at this time in the wake of his failed Presidential bid, when only 39% of voters gave him good marks with 53% disapproving.

There’s been some thought that Democratic prospects might be better in the race for Lieutenant Governor but Leticia Van de Putte actually trails by slightly more than Davis, regardless of who her Republican opponent ends up being. Dan Patrick leads her by 16 points at 51/35 and incumbent David Dewhurst leads her by 18 points at 50/32. Even with a divisive Republican nomination fight between Patrick and Dewhurst there doesn’t appear to be much risk of the party failing to unify before the fall- they lead 83/9 and 82/5 respectively with GOP voters in the general election.

Although it hasn’t really been on anyone’s radar screen the likely US Senate match up between John Cornyn and David Alameel is actually just about as competitive as the state races. Cornyn leads the contest 49/32. Cornyn is not particularly popular, sporting a 31/40 approval rating. That’s largely because Republican voters are pretty tepid toward him- a 46/27 spread- he’s lucky that he got Steve Stockman instead of a more serious challenger in the GOP primary last month.
We also looked at the race for Land Commissioner and it looks like the Bushes should be back in statewide office in Texas- George P. Bush leads Democratic opponent John Cook 50/32.

Last November, PPP had Abbott up 50-35, so this represents little change since then. You can see the full poll memo here. There are two things I want to note here, the first of which was captured by Michael Li on Facebook, which is that there are a lot more undecided voters among Hispanic and African-American voters than there are among Anglo voters, which suggests this poll is underestimating Davis’ true level of support. Another way of looking at this is to compare this poll with the PPP polls from June 2010, which had Bill White tied with Rick Perry at 43-43, and from October 2010, which had White losing 53-44, not far off from the final result. I’ll throw in the November result as well. I’m going to highlight the results by race and by partisan ID:

Candidate Anglo Hispanic Af-Am Dem Rep Ind ========================================================= Perry 6/10 55 21 7 10 74 36 White 6/10 35 55 70 76 15 42 Undecided 10 24 23 14 11 22 Perry 10/10 65 38 11 11 88 44 White 10/10 34 55 85 87 11 50 Undecided 1 7 4 3 1 6 Abbott 11/13 60 43 12 18 81 44 Davis 11/13 28 38 62 65 6 44 Undecided 12 19 26 17 14 13 Abbott 4/14 65 33 11 14 84 40 Davis 4/14 27 43 72 74 8 40 Undecided 8 24 17 12 8 20

By these results, Davis has a fair amount of room to grow among her own voters, and she has already done so to some extent from November. Other Dems had basically the same breakdowns as Davis, so the diagnosis I’d give is “it’s too early for a lot of folks to be thinking about this”. I don’t want to read too much into the variations among small subsamples, but I think it’s reasonable to say that a sizable majority of the undecided voters are those that would lean towards her. So just as the June 2010 poll underestimated Rick Perry’s support, based on the Anglo and Republican numbers, I suggest this poll underestimates Davis’ true level.

Of course, she would need more than that to make up this gap, which is where point #2 comes in. Point #2 is, of course, turnout. As we’ve discussed ad infinitum, Republican turnout has varied wildly over the past three off-year elections, while Dem turnout has been consistently and depressingly flat. This year, Battleground Texas is in operation, doing the sort of grassroots GOTV work that we haven’t seen for Dems in forever and which the Republicans are doing their best to unskew. Turnout models matter a lot for this kind of election, and this year especially they’re anybody’s guess. We won’t know how well BGTX has done until the votes are counted, and for something like this it’s pure speculation to assign it a value. I’ll say this much – they could add 500,000 base Democratic votes to the bottom line, which would be about a 30% increase in base turnout and one hell of an impressive achievement, but it would still fall below Republican base turnout even for a low tide year like 2006. They could do better than that, and the candidates like Davis and Van de Putte can work to pick off voters from their opponents, but BGTX could also easily fall short of this, and the other side can make their case to our voters, too. We just don’t know. What I do know is there’s still a lot of work to be done, so don’t go flinging yourself out any windows, and keep those gloom and doom predictions to a minimum. BOR and EoW have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

City issues One Bin RFPs

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker today announced the issuance of a Request for Proposals and creation of an advisory committee for the One Bin for All waste management and diversion project.

The City of Houston invites submittals from short-listed firms that participated in an earlier Request for Qualifications process.

“One Bin for All will revolutionize the way we handle trash, achieving high-volume recycling and waste diversion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, new jobs and lower operating costs,” said Mayor Parker. “We have reached another key milestone in this process and are eager to move forward as this technology has the potential to improve health and quality of life not only in Houston, but around the world.”

The City is seeking a public-private partnership that will significantly increase its overall waste diversion rate, create jobs, reduce expenses to the City, reduce emissions compared to current processes, and protect and educate local communities.

“The City’s One Bin concept is a pioneering program that strives to make recycling easier for citizens, which will make us more successful as well as reduce emissions and improve our environment,” said Rice University Professor Jim Blackburn. “Technology and innovation will have important roles in the changes that we as a society must make to recycle and reuse efficiently.”

“Mayor Parker and Houston are once again leading, and working smart and diligently to find state-of-the-art solutions to improve the quality of life of Houstonians,” said Houston Director for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Brian Yeoman. “Developing new tools that can be replicated to increase recycling and waste diversion, will help many cities who grapple with this same problem.”

The RFQ can be downloaded at http://purchasing.houstontx.gov/Bid_Display.aspx?id=T24905

Submissions are due July 12, 2014. A pre-proposal conference will be held on April 29, 2014.

In addition to the issuance of the RFP, Mayor Parker also announced the creation of a One Bin for All Advisory Committee. The panel will provide expertise to the City regarding financing, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental justice and outreach and education issues as the City moves forward to significantly increase its waste diversion. Advisory Committee members include:

Jim Blackburn – Partner, Blackburn & Carter; and Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University
Winifred Hamilton, Ph.D. – Director of Environmental Health, Baylor College of Medicine
Barry L. Lefer, Ph.D. – Associate Department Chair and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Houston
Jim Lester, Ph.D. – President, HARC
Cheryl Mergo – Sustainable Development Program Manager, H-GAC
Laurie Petersen – Sustainability Champion, NASA JSC
Lalita Sen, Ph.D. – Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy, Texas Southern University
Adrian Shelly, III – Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston
Alan Stein – President & CEO, A&E Interests
Jeff Taylor – Vice President, Freese and Nichols, Inc.

“Houston is advancing creative solutions and embracing new technologies to continue to improve our air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in areas such as waste operations,” said Barry Lefer, Associate Department Chair and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston. “For example, using anaerobic digestion to convert organics, including food, to fuel, is an important breakthrough concept for large scale waste diversion and methane reduction.”

Last year, Houston’s One Bin for All idea was one of the five winners in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire American cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life – and that ultimately can be shared with other cities to improve the well-being of the nation. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ mission is to ensure better, longer lives for the greatest number of people. Houston was selected as a Mayors Challenge winner out of a pool of over 300 applicant cities, based on four criteria: vision, ability to implement, potential for impact, and potential for replication. One Bin for All was also the first place winner of the Mayors Challenge Fan Favorite Selection.

For more information please visit www.houstontx.gov/onebinforall.

The RFQs were issued last June, and I noted recently that the city was expected to issue the RFPs this month. It remains the case that some environmental groups strongly oppose this approach – see Zero Waste Houston, put together by a coalition of enviro groups, for their argument. I reached out to Melanie Scruggs with the Texas Campaign for the Environment for a statement, and this is what she sent me:

Groups and individuals who oppose the One Bin for All proposal include the National Sierra Club CEO Michael Brune, Annie Leonard, Founder of the Story of Stuff Project, the local Sierra Club Houston Regional Group, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), the San Jacinto River Coalition, Houston Peace and Justice Center, Public Citizen TX, Texas Campaign for the Environment and thousands of Houstonians who have written letters or emailed City Council since last March. We all believe that commingling trash and recycling will lower real recycling rates and that bringing incineration technologies like gasification or pyrolysis to Houston or any other city will threaten public health, compete with recycling and waste reduction, and put the City of Houston and its taxpayers at financial risk.

While the City claims the public-private partnership will reduce costs to the City, the proposal clearly calls for tax incentives including 380 Agreements and tax-exempt financing that will lock the City into a decades-long public subsidy for technologies that have a horrendous track record of cost failures, emission violations and failures to produce energy. While the One Bin plant may produce a little over 100 jobs, expanding recycling to the entire City could produce thousands and thousands more if curbside composting is implemented. Real recycling and composting will do more to reduce greenhouse gases than incineration ever could, because incineration of recyclable materials means that raw materials will have to be extracted again. And yes, gasification and pyrolysis are incineration technologies according to the EPA, despite what the City’s public relations people want to think.

The announcement of the “Advisory Committee” has been made for PR purposes and raises more questions than hopes. What exactly is the Advisory Committee supposed to produce? Why were they not invited to participate during the RFQ process wherein the City heard from respondents about the technologies under consideration? None of the local groups who have voiced concerns about a One-Bin program been asked to serve on the Advisory Committee, and no one from the neighborhoods where this facility will be built has been invited either. It is also ineffective to evaluate “One Bin for All” in isolation while groups have proposed alternatives, including keeping recycling and trash separate, implementing organics recycling, creating new incentives and investing in education programs to boost participation.

The participation rates with recycling have been increasing since the City has started to switch to the “big, green bins” and we believe the “One Bin for All” will waste the progress Houston is currently making in real recycling. Without any investment in public education whatsoever, the participation rates have still increased from 22% to 62% with the big, green recycling bins simply because they are a better design. Far from “innovation,” what City Hall is proposing is a proven failure that will set real progress on waste reduction, recycling and sustainability back for years to come. Houston needs a long-term plan to eliminate waste at its source and provide universal recycling where we live, work and play, the way other cities in Texas and across the country are now doing. City Hall needs to abandon this terrible proposal that would turn our trash in to air pollution, harming the environment, our health and the recycling economy.

So there you have it. I will be very interested to see what kind of responses the RFP gets. What are your thoughts on this?

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

SA City Council to begin the plastic bag debate

I look forward to seeing what direction they go.

plastic-bag

City staffers Wednesday plan to recommend to the City Council’s Governance Committee that San Antonio move forward with a ban on single-use plastic and paper bags.

The recommendation comes after vetting by the Solid Waste Management Department, which researched policies in other cities across the state and the nation.

The committee, led by Mayor Julián Castro, could direct David McCary, director of the waste management department, to present his recommendations to the full council. But it’s too soon to tell what the city’s governing body might do with the proposal.

“There has not yet been a robust discussion among council members on this issue,” Castro said. “We look forward to examining the staff’s analysis and going forward from there.”

The bag-ban proposal took flight in November when Councilman Cris Medina filed a request asking that his council colleagues consider a prohibition on single-use plastic bags.

[...]

During a February round-table meeting with retail business leaders, environmentalists and others, Medina directed McCary to recommend a single approach for the council to consider.

According to city documents, those possibilities are:

  • Allow the local business community to handle the issue on its own through education and outreach;
  • Establish a fee for all distributed single-use bags, both paper and plastic;
  • Ban all single-use plastic and paper carry-out bags;
  • Approve an ordinance requiring businesses to offer incentives for customer usage of reusable bags;
  • Maintain the status quo with a continued focus on outreach to the 340,000 customers of the waste management department and inform them of an Aug. 1 start date for the city’s plastic-bag recycling program.

See here and here for the background. As we know, the city of Dallas recently adopted a bag fee, which came on the heels of a request for an AG opinion on the legality of municipal bag laws. Assuming San Antonio takes some action – and I believe they will – then the focus may shift to Houston, since every other large city will have done something except for us. Mayor Parker has a lot on her plate, but I continue to believe this issue will come up here sooner or later.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

The Rick Perry grand jury convenes

Game on.

Rosemary Lehmberg

A grand jury was sworn in Monday to look into whether Gov. Rick Perry acted improperly last year when he threatened to kill funding for the Travis County district attorney’s public corruption division unless District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned after her drunken driving conviction.

The office of the governor – who carried through on the veto threat – has hired defense lawyer David Botsford to “ensure the special prosecutor receives the facts in this matter,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.

“The facts will show this veto was made in accordance with the veto power afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution,” she said. “As we have from the beginning, we remain ready and willing to assist with this inquiry.”

Because the inquiry concerns actions by Perry in his official capacity, Botsford’s $450-an-hour fee is expected to be paid from general revenue, Nashed said.

Much as it pains me to say it, that is appropriate. Perry could of course offer to pay for it from his ample campaign funds, and I’m sure he’d have no trouble getting a sugar daddy or two to cover the tab, but he’s not required to do so.

Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in politics, last year filed a complaint with prosecutors over Perry’s threat, contending he violated laws against coercion of a public servant, abuse of official capacity, official oppression and, potentially, bribery.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, emphasized that the group’s focus is on Perry’s threat. He said the group does not question Perry’s right to veto the funding itself.

“He’s got the authority to veto whatever he wants. He just can’t threaten to use his official pen or his official act against anyone, let alone the DA,” McDonald said.

[...]

Political experts suggested a criminal case against Perry for the veto threat is a long shot.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to prison for signaling that they would utilize their veto power to try to encourage an outcome. If that were the case, then I think pretty much every governor in the United States at one point or another would be guilty as charged,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

Oh, for crying out loud. Can we not agree that there’s something problematic with an elected official demanding that another elected official resign her office, and using the power to veto funding for her office as a threat to make her resign? As District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg can convene a grand jury to investigate anyone she thinks might have committed a crime. If she had demanded that a member of Austin City Council resign for whatever the reason, and threatened to convene a grand jury to investigate every member of that Council person’s staff if he didn’t resign, then followed through on it afterward, would we not agree that that is an abuse of her power? It doesn’t matter if this hypothetical Council member has done anything that might merit a grand jury investigation. The point is that there are limits on the power, and going beyond those limits is at the least a concern and may be a crime. I don’t see what’s so hard to grasp about that. If the grand jury comes back with a no-bill based on their understanding of the law and the evidence presented, then so be it. We built limits on the powers of our elected officials in Texas for a reason. It’s appropriate to check when we think an elected official may have attempted to exceed the power of his or her office. Texas Politics has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Another trip down Demography Lane

From the Sunday Chron op-ed pages:

Texas is headed for the ditch, but few people are aware of the state’s perilous path. The demographers have seen the future, though, because it’s foretold in their numbers. And they’ve been sounding the alarm.

There hasn’t been much of a public-policy response, so far.

Texas could be the pacesetter: It has a young and rapidly growing population. Educate that workforce and Texas becomes a vibrant, thriving state for decades. Unfortunately, that young population is overwhelmingly minority and under-educated, and there appears to be little political interest in addressing the needs of that demographic group.

Increasingly, Texas stands to become poorer and less competitive, according to demographers who study the numbers for a living. Neither state leaders nor the media is paying adequate attention. Few Texans are aware of the state’s rapidly changing population. Hispanics will surpass whites as the largest population group some time before 2020.

By the numbers, here’s what’s been taking place: The state lost 184,486 white children between 2000 and 2010 while gaining 931,012 Hispanic children over that decade, according to the U.S. Census. Stated another way, in 2000, Texas white kids outnumbered Hispanic children by 120,382; Flash forward to 2010 and Hispanic children outnumbered white kids by 995,116.

This gap will continue to widen. Demographer Steve Murdock notes the average white female is 42 years old compared to an average age of 28 for Latinas. And the fertility rate is 1.9 children for the white female compared to 2.7 for the Latina. Demographers say replacement of a population group requires a fertility rate of at least 2.1.

Whites are projected to make up fewer than 4 percent of the state’s population growth between now and 2040, compared to 78 percent for Texas Hispanics.

Here’s the most important figure: All of our K-12 enrollment growth over the past decade comes from low-income children – that is, children whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced-cost school lunches. Those low-income students now make up a little more than 60 percent of our public school enrollment.

Many are way behind when they arrive in the first grade. Too many drop out years later. A whopping 47 percent of low-income high school students from the Class of 2015 were off track to graduate, according to testimony in last year’s public school finance trial.

Why does this matter? Murdock, who served as director of the U.S Census Bureau in the administration of President George W. Bush, projects that three out of 10 Texas workers will not have a high school diploma by 2040. Also, in 25 years, the average Texas household income will be some $6,500 less than it was in the year 2000. The figure is not inflation-adjusted, so it will be worse than it sounds. Basically, today’s children, collectively, stand to be worse off than preceding generations.

How can we address the trend line? The first step is to increase access to high-quality pre-K, Murdock says.

[...]

The demographers are warning us about the not so-rosy future if we fail to act. Education is the answer. Education is the best ticket out of poverty. We simply need state leaders to understand a universal truth: It doesn’t cost to educate a child; it pays to educate a child.

This is a condensed version of a longer piece by former Chron and Express-News reporter Gary Scharrer, which first appeared on Texas To The World. Scharrer was more recently on the staff of now-former Sen. Tommy Williams. Steve Murdock is a familiar name in this blog – he’s been singing this tune for well over a decade now, not that the powers that be have been listening. Here’s an interview I did with him in 2011, just as the Legislature was getting set to cut $5.4 billion from public education and $200 million from pre-k, because they suck like that. As we know, these issues are salient in the election for Governor this fall. You tell me whose pre-k plan, not to mention whose overall vision for education, is a better fit for our future.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Perry lawyers up

It’s getting real.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has hired a high-profile Austin defense lawyer to represent him in an investigation into whether he illegally withheld money from the Travis County District Attorney’s office.

KVUE News and the Austin American-Statesman confirmed Sunday evening the hiring of David L. Botsford.

The hiring comes as a special Travis County grand jury is set to be seated Monday to hear evidence into whether Perry broke state laws concerning bribery, coercion and abuse of authority.

[...]

Botsford said Sunday night, “The matter at hand pertains to the power of the governor to issue vetoes as allowed under the Texas Constitution. I have been retained to ensure that (the special prosecutor) receives all the facts, which will show that the governor’s veto was carried out in both the spirit and the letter of the law.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Attorney Botsford must be good at what he does, because he’s already obfuscating the facts. The issue, as I’ve said repeatedly, is not that Perry vetoed the funds but that he threatened to veto them unless Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg resigned. Trying to force out another elected official in this manner is the no-no. Had Perry simply vetoed the funds without yapping about it beforehand, there would be no allegation of wrongdoing. I can’t wait to see what the grand jury, which has been seated, makes of this. Jason Stanford and Juanita have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Regulating Bitcoin in Texas

Bitcoin regulations. We have ‘em.

Texas will not treat Bitcoin and other virtual currencies as legal money, according to a new memo from the Texas Department of Banking. Yet some companies that deal in Bitcoin transactions could draw state oversight, even if they are based outside of Texas.

Texas Banking Commissioner Charles Cooper issued a memo this month outlining the agency’s policies involving virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

“At this point a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is best viewed like a speculative investment, not as money,” Cooper said in a statement.

In his memo, Cooper provided reasoning that echoed the IRS. Last month, the federal agency announced that, for tax purposes, it would treat Bitcoin as property instead of currency because no government recognizes the virtual currency as legal tender.

“Because neither centralized virtual currencies nor cryptocurrencies are coin and paper money issued by the government of a country, they cannot be considered currencies under the statute,” Cooper’s memo reads.

While Texas does not have a state income tax, the state’s Department of Banking does regulate certain financial transactions and license financial institutions. An exchange of Bitcoin for U.S. dollars between two parties would not draw the agency’s interest, according to the memo.

But some third-party Bitcoin exchanges are already drawing state scrutiny because of the way they handle transactions involving U.S. currency and Bitcoin, according to Daniel Wood, assistant general counsel at the Department of Banking. Cooper’s memo states that such exchanges are involved in “money transmission” because they act as an “escrow-like intermediary” that holds onto a buyer’s funds “until it determines that the terms of the sale have been satisfied before remitting the funds to the seller.”

Such exchanges do not need to be based in Texas to fall under the state’s regulations, Wood said. “If they do business with Texas consumers, we can force them to get a Texas license,” he added.

I’ll admit, I had no idea there was a Texas Department of Banking. I don’t know what effect this will have, but I suppose it’s good to be one of the pioneers in setting this sort of regulatory framework. I personally think that Bitcoin is more toy than currency, though I could see it maybe being useful for campaign contributions. Assuming all disclosure and other requirements are met, of course. What do you think about this?

Posted in: Bidness.

The downtown lifestyle

Demand for residences in downtown Houston is up.

For Krishnan Iyer, moving downtown meant a lot of things: Not having to use his car in auto-dependent Houston, being able to walk to work, to restaurants, to the movies.

The 34-year-old consultant left The Woodlands two years ago for a one-bedroom apartment in the Post Rice Lofts at Main and Texas and hasn’t looked back. Iyer expects many others to follow him in the coming years.

“I think for sure the rising oil prices will have an effect on people moving inward to a place near where they work, and there is a trend of renting among younger people rather than buying,” Iyer said. “There’s going to be demand to live here. It’s not going down.”

With people like Iyer in mind, developers are proposing six residential projects for downtown Houston that could add more than 2,200 new apartments to the urban core, fueled by a $15,000-per-unit city subsidy program that officials now want to expand.

Most of this story is about whether Council should expand an incentive program for developers that build downtown. I’ve no strong opinions about that, I’m more interested in the attitude expressed above. As we know, there are many job centers in the greater Houston area, but it seems to me that downtown is one of only a couple where you could reasonably live and walk to your job. You could probably do that if you lived and worked in the Rice/Medical Center area, and maybe in Greenway Plaza or the Galleria. I can’t imagine doing it in the Energy Corridor or Greenspoint, or in a suburban location like The Woodlands. That’s a niche market, but one that downtown is very well positioned to serve.

More broadly, if one really wants to avoid traffic, one has to be in a position to stay off the roads. That means walking, bicycling (on trails and side roads if possible), and taking the light rail, with buses as the next best thing and carpools or vanpools another step down. You can reduce your exposure to traffic by having a shorter commute or by taking HOV lanes, but you can’t avoid it. Something I keep coming back to in this space is that while we’ve done a lot to make it easier to travel by highway, with more of that to come once TxDOT reveals its master plan for I-45 inside the Beltway, we’ve not done nearly as much for those who aren’t on the highway, which includes all those extra highway drivers once they reach their destinations. This is why I remain skeptical of the grandiose plans to transform I-45 in and around downtown or to build dedicated connectors to the Medical Center from 288. You can increase the capacity all you want on the highways, but the streets and especially the parking lots where all these people will be going aren’t getting any bigger or faster.

The inescapable truth is that we can’t solve traffic problems by adding highway capacity. All that extra capacity winds up generating bigger problems elsewhere. Widening I-10 west of the Loop has caused traffic on I-10 inside the Loop to become a mess, and that mess extends to the surface roads that access I-10, as anyone who remembers what Studemont and Yale and Shepherd were like pre-widening can attest. Ultimately, we are going to have to put more effort and resources into options that get people out of their cars, at least some of the time. That means more transit, more walking and biking, and more affordable housing close to or right in employment centers. That brings us back to the more transit and walking and biking options, because density without those things is just more cars on streets whose capacity can’t be – and shouldn’t be – increased. Downtown has all of that already, which is why it’s so attractive for people who don’t care about having their own plot of land. Near downtown – Midtown, EaDo, Heights, Montrose, and eventually Fifth Ward – has these things in varying amounts, but is struggling to keep up with demand for housing and the strain on infrastructure. Neighborhoods farther out also have these things to varying degrees, at least until you start getting into master-planned-with-cul-de-sacs territory. I don’t think I’m stretching to suggest that the less walkable a place is, the less amenable it will be to transit as well. Places like that are going to have a lot more trouble with traffic going forward because they just don’t have as many alternatives.

And that brings us back where we started. Council did approve the tax break to encourage more downtown residential construction, and I expect that it won’t be long before we start seeing more projects on the drawing board. In the meantime, more and more people will just have to learn to cope with traffic.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

What’s the health insurance enrollment status in Texas?

The short answer is that we don’t know. The longer answer, as this Express-News story indicates, is that we’ll never really know.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Self-sufficiency. Distrust. Desire for flexibility.

Those are some reasons many consumers bypassed health insurance plans sold on government-run exchanges and instead chose to buy coverage directly from insurance agents or brokers before open enrollment ended March 31.

No one is sure exactly how many people did this. There is no singular source that aggregates nationwide health insurance enrollment numbers outside the exchanges. But these consumers will push the total number of enrollments for 2014 health coverage beyond the 7.1 million Americans who went through the federal- and state-operated exchanges.

In Texas, “it could be a big number,” said Stacey Pogue, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “It could be more people than enrolled in the marketplace in Texas. But we don’t know. It certainly will be a significant number of people.”

The state Department of Insurance doesn’t collect enrollment figures.

Those who did not go through the exchange weren’t able to apply for tax credits or subsidies to reduce their premiums. That’s because tax credits can only be obtained through government-run markets.

There are a number of reasons why some consumers went a different route, independent agents and brokers say. Some made too much money to qualify for tax credits. Some didn’t believe in accepting subsidies. Others feared giving personal information, such as Social Security numbers, to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

“Frankly, I have talked to a number of consumers who are concerned about what they feel is an invasion of privacy,” said Carla Adams, president-elect of the San Antonio Association of Health Underwriters and an independent agent. “All of the information that they have to provide once you go on to the exchange … that makes some consumers nervous.”

[...]

Some consumers bypassed the exchange because they wanted the flexibility to choose doctors or hospitals they preferred instead of being limited to a smaller network, several agents said.

For instance, some shoppers who selected certain types of plans on the exchange after verifying their doctor was part of the network learned two weeks later that the doctor was no longer accepting patients with that form of coverage. Loretta Camp, co-owner of Davidson Camp Insurance Services in San Antonio and an independent agent, said her agency intervened in such cases so patients could stay with their doctors.

Local agents also helped consumers going through the federal exchange who wanted professional help to select the most cost-effective plans.

There is no extra cost for consumers who use agents’ or brokers’ services, several experts in the insurance field said. Insurance carriers pay agents’ commissions.

“The reality is, what I’m experiencing with consumers, they’re confused when they try to get on the exchange themselves,” Adams said. “They have no idea what the true differences are between these plans or how to compare, and they’re overwhelmed. Someone like an agent who understands the inner workings of these plans can help them navigate through the differences.”

The state of Texas, of course, tried to make it as hard as possible for non-profits and charitable organizations to provide navigator services, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. We don’t know how many Texans got coverage through the federal healthcare.gov exchange yet. The most recent numbers were 295,025 enrollments as of March 1 – see here for the breakdown – but I haven’t seen anything more up to date than that. The main thing to keep in mind is that whatever the final figure for Texans enrolling via healthcare.gov is, the real number – the number of people who got coverage is higher, perhaps much higher. It would be nice to know how much higher, but that number isn’t available. We’ll have to rely on polling data for that. Here’s hoping we get that soon for Texas.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Wilson whines to Commissioners Court

Dave Wilson would like to not be sued any more, so he went to Commissioners Court to air his grievances over the lawsuit that stemmed from his controversial election last year.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

After Wilson won the election, and County Attorney Vince Ryan sued Wilson, trying to keep him from office. To prove it before trial, Ryan combed over Wilson’s family Facebook pages and added his wife and kids to a witness list.

After he found that out Wilson told us, “They’re abusing their power. Vince Ryan is totally out of control.”

On Tuesday, Wilson was at commissioners’ court to ask it all to stop.

“I apologize for taking your time and I especially apologize for the county attorney wasting valuable taxpayer resources on his frivolous lawsuit against me,” he told Commissioners.

He claimed the county attorney has spent $100,000 on the case. The county attorney says the real amount (not counting staff time) is just under $8,000.

Among the costs, the county spent $3,000 on private investigators to trail Wilson. At least one of those PIs rented a room at the Super 8 across from Wilson’s claimed residence capturing video of Wilson coming in and out of that warehouse apartment.

When he saw the video Wilson told us, “He caught me red handed living at my residence.”

The county attorney’s office says this is important work to protect voters who deserve a representative who lives where he says he does.

“Mr. Wilson likes the publicity. He likes to make these appearances and he likes to make allegations that are difficult to respond to,” Robert Soard, Ryan’s chief of staff, told Eyewitness News.

That trial was originally set to start this week, but this story says it’s been moved back to July. Not sure what’s up with that. The fact that Wilson has been filmed at the warehouse he’s claiming as a home address is irrelevant; the question is whether he was living there in some meaningful sense before the election. The difficulty for Vince Ryan is how do you prove he wasn’t? If their case is based on the assertion that it isn’t habitable, Wilson can say “is too, I’m living there now!” I don’t want to think about how insufferable Wilson will be if he wins and can credibly claim to have been victimized by that mean old Vince Ryan. And I’ll say again, if Wilson does win we may as well just abandon the idea of residency requirements, because if his setup is kosher I can’t imagine what wouldn’t be. May as well just leave it to the voters if there isn’t an enforceable standard and an enforcement mechanism.

Posted in: Election 2013.

Uptown BRT update

From Swamplot:

HERE ARE SOME of the purty watercolor renderings the Uptown District has been presenting of what Post Oak Blvd. will look like after the addition of 2 dedicated bus lanes down its middle. The proposed changes to the thoroughfare won’t take away any of the 6 existing car lanes or 13 existing left-turn-signal lanes. There’ll be a few modifications, though: new protected-left-turn signals will be put in at West Briar Lane and Fairdale, for example, and 3 median openings will be closed. The space for the buses and 8 transit stations along the Boulevard between the West Loop and Richmond Ave will come from acquiring 8 feet of right-of-way from each side of the existing street. The bus lanes and light-rail-style stations will go in the median.

Notably, the Uptown District presentations never use the phrase “Bus Rapid Transit,” or BRT in describing the upgrades, though a BRT system has been pitched as a replacement for Metro’s earlier proposal for an Uptown light-rail line. Uptown Houston got approval for a $61.8 million federal grant to fund the street reconstruction last year. It appears that the lanes will be used for commuter buses as well: “This joint project of the City of Houston and Uptown,” an executive summary of the program reads, “will develop a system designed to connect workers to Uptown via Houston’s highly successful HOV network.” The dedicated bus lanes are an additional piece of the project.

[...]

The buses will still have to stop at intersections, and move through lights only when cars do. “All travel time savings for the buses will be generated by simply being the ‘first-in-line’ at the signalized intersections made possible by the dedicated bus lanes,” the summary notes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Construction is set to begin next year, which will be exciting. The Uptown folks may not care for the BRT appellation, but I’m under no such obligation. Calling it “rapid” may be a tad bit of an overbid, but I’m sure travel times will compare favorably to what people experience now, especially for those who are eventually able to take advantage of this as park-and-riders. Add in some B-Cycle kiosks when this is finished, and people in and around the Galleria area will have some good non-car options for getting around and not adding to the traffic congestion. Now if only we can get the University Line going to connect this to the rest of the light rail network. Some day, by God, some day…

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Recycling cartons

More curbside recycling options.

Houstonians accustomed to throwing out glossy cardboard cartons of milk, juice, soup and others foods and beverages now can send them to the curb in a green container for recycling.

The Carton Council, a consortium of carton manufacturers, has helped the city’s existing paper recycling processors purchase equipment that will keep much of these materials out of landfills.

The predominantly paper cartons can be repurposed into paper towels, tissues and even building materials, said Gary Readore, chief of staff in the city’s Solid Waste Management Department.

“We know it’s important to recycle. Citizens are always confronted with, ‘Is this recyclable or is it not?’ ” Mayor Annise Parker said. “When you have too many choices to make, people end up saying, ‘Oh well, I’m just not going to recycle it.’ We’ve … been working to expand options for what you can put in those big, green bins.”

See the City of Houston Solid Waste Facebook page for more. I’m excited by this, because cartons – milk and orange juice, mainly – are a big component of our trash volume these days. Beyond that, it’s things like #6 plastics, plastic bags and wrappings, and food waste. Some forms of #6 plastic – polystyrene – can be taken to city recycling centers, things like plastic bags can be taken to grocery stores, and we compost non-animal product food waste, but more curbside options would be nice, and would help increase participation rates. I don’t want to get into the One Bin debate here, I’m just saying that I look forward to the day when I hardly have any trash to put out. This is a step towards that and that’s a very good thing.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for April 13

How to bake scientifically accurate cake planets. Because who wouldn’t want a Uranus cake for their birthday?

It’s hard out here on a pregnant TV star whose character isn’t pregnant.

All about Aereo in Houston.

If Alfred E. Neuman were a real person, you’d never be able to un-see his face.

It’s never too early to start learning how to be a hacker.

Bring PBR back to Milwaukee.

“Typography is not typically in the realm of transportation policy, and for a layman it’s a little hard to appreciate the subtle differences.”

RIP, Mickey Rooney. Here’s hoping he and Judy Garland are putting on a show in heaven.

From the Can’t We All Just Get Along? department.

David Ortiz may bring about the end of Presidential selfies.

I’m glad that Chili’s has come to its senses about what autism awareness groups to support. I just wish they’d done their homework ahead of time.

From the Don’t Know Much About Geography files.

Some bug fixes are more literal than others.

I’m down with blaming Camille Paglia regardless of the question.

On Archie Bunker, and what happens when an audience identifies with a character they’re supposed to revile.

It sure is good to be rich.

“The moral panic of the anti-D&D crusaders was sheer nonsense, but those fundie moral crusaders weren’t wrong to fear the threat that such games posed to their ideology. Fundamentalist ideology is a fragile thing, after all, so almost anything other than itself is correctly viewed as a subversive threat.”

Did you attend a Kings of Leon concert in Seattle on March 28? If so, you may have been exposed to the measles. Better check in with your doctor just to be safe.

I for one am very glad to hear that Captain Janeway is not a geocentrist.

“This is just one example of the price-fixing and taxpayer-gouging features built right into Medicare by a system that lets medical specialists figure out their own reimbursement rates behind closed doors and bars the government from negotiating on Rx drug prices.”

“If nothing else can be learned from this bizarre hunt, one thing has become clear: There’s a ton of trash in the Indian Ocean.”

Bad ways for Mad Men to end.

Jim DeMint is a truly awful person.

What you can do about the Heartbleed bug, including resources to check if websites you use were vulnerable to it. And if you don’t know what the Heartbleed bug is, XKCD explains it in a way that everyone can understand.

“I kissed her deep and hard, my tongue slapping her uvula back and forth like a speed bag. She tasted good: like sin, Altoids, and an oyster po’ boy. Maybe shrimp, I wasn’t sure. I was dizzy with lust.”

I’m old enough to remember when the movie Splash made “Madison” a hot name for girls, so the surge in babies named Khaleesi and Arya doesn’t surprise me at all.

Obstructing health care access is a life and death matter for a lot of people.

As the renowned philosopher Robin Williams once said, “When all else fails, go for the dick joke”.

Outstanding Buzzfeed story on Tom Lehrer. Read it even if you somehow don’t know who Tom Lehrer is. Via Mark Evanier, who has a video of what may be Lehrer’s last public performance in 1998.

The Todd Akin of 2014 is in Mississippi. Actually, he’s even worse, and what’s even worse than that is he’ll likely be elected.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Davis keeps up the attack on Abbott over pre-k

She is not letting up.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

While addressing the Texas State Teachers Association’s convention in San Marcos on Saturday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis accused her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, of backing away from his early education policy proposal.

Abbott, the state’s attorney general, recently came under fire from Democrats and education advocates for language in a policy proposal that appears to call for the biannual testing of pre-kindergarten students. Although Abbott’s campaign said earlier this week that his plan does not call for such tests, Davis is keeping up the attacks.

“Under the guise of quality, he calls for putting these tests first — not our kids,” Davis said. “In his plan, his first assessment idea calls for another test for 4-year-olds. And if they don’t pass the mark, they get the rug pulled out from under them.”

Davis bashed Abbott for remarks made by campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch, who told The Texas Tribune earlier this week that assessment methods mentioned in the attorney general’s plan were “there for informational purposes only.”

“They are not part of Greg Abbott’s policy recommendations,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I don’t really have anything to say about this, I’m just using it as an excuse to reproduce beneath the fold an amazingly snarky press release from the Davis campaign that made fun of that “for informational purposes only” disclaimer. I continue to be amazed at the aggressiveness of the Davis campaign lately. As I’ve noted before, she has been setting the terms of the debate for basically the entire campaign. I don’t know how long that will last, and I don’t know how much effect it may have on the outcome, but I do know this is something we are not used to seeing, and I do know I’m enjoying it. Click on for the press release.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Election 2014.

Council considers hoarding ordinance

I hadn’t realized Houston didn’t already have an ordinance to deal with hoarding. Apparently, we are not at all unique in this regard.

HoardersOne

A proposed ordinance would begin to expand the city’s options for resolving hoarding situations even when the hoarder owns the property. The measure, which would not apply to single-family homes, would create fines, clarify when police could enter a property with a warrant and refer violators to social services.

If City Council approves the proposal next week, Houston could be the first city in Texas to create a specific ordinance to address hoarding, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. Other cities have discussed the hoarding issue when adopting building and fire codes, he said.

“In society it’s becoming more noticeable, probably because of the notoriety from TV shows,” Sandlin said.

The Greater Houston Chapter of the Community Associations Institute, a group for local homeowner associations, supports the proposed ordinance as a starting point, but called for the inclusion of single-family homes. The group also would like to see a mechanism to assist with cleanup since the bill often falls to neighbors, President-Elect Sipra Boyd said.

Sherri Carey, a board member of the group and a property manager who has dealt with three hoarding cases in the last two years, said she wants the ordinance to mandate mental health treatment or follow-up visits to ensure the problems do not resume.

“Just like parole,” she said. “Someone to make sure they’re not breaking the law still.”

[...]

The Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County consulted with the city on the development of the ordinance and its executive director, Stephen Schnee, submitted a letter of support to council.

I would support including single-family homes in this ordinance. Hoarding is both a mental health problem and a public health problem. The goal of this should be to better identify people who need help, to connect them with services that can help them, and to get their property cleaned up. That’s a win all around. Fines should be used as leverage rather than as actual punishment if possible. I look forward to the discussion on this. Texpatriate has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

We really should have expanded Medicaid

We know it would have done a lot of good, at a very reasonable cost. Turns out that cost was even less than what we had been told.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

News reports and state officials have commonly stated that expanding the Medicaid program in this fashion would cost the state about $15 billion over 10 years. Except, that figure, provided by the state Health and Human Services Commission, is actually an estimated total cost for all aspects of the Affordable Care Act, many of which the state is going to have to pay for even though state leaders have remained steadfastly opposed to almost all aspects of the law.

“What?!?,” you say?

In a presentation given to lawmakers in March 2013, state Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek estimated that because of the publicity and outreach involved with the Affordable Care Act, more people who are eligible for Medicaid but not currently part of the program would likely enroll. The estimated price tag? About $6 billion over 10 years, or approximately 40 percent of the total Affordable Care Act implementation cost.

According to that presentation, the estimated cost for expanding Medicaid eligibility to all adults who make less than the 138 percent of the poverty level was about $8.8 billion over 10 years. However, the Legislative Budget Board, the Legislature’s budget arm, came up with a far lower cost estimate of about $4 billion over 10 years. The differences can be attributed to two factors, HHSC spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said. First, HHSC projects that more people will join the Medicaid program than the LBB does; and second, HHSC projected it would cost more to provide the coverage than the LBB does.

Secondly, assume that $1.5 billion figure is correct and that adding it to the state budget would cause taxes to skyrocket and the state’s economy to crumble. However, it begs the question why that hasn’t already happened. Taxpayers in the five major urban counties in Texas — Harris (Houston), Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), Bexar (San Antonio) and Travis (Austin) — already shell out more than $1.5 billion a year in hospital district taxes to provide care and facilities for their largely indigent populations. A study commissioned by Methodist Healthcare Ministries and Texas Impact estimated total local government spending on providing health care at roughly $2.5 billion a year.

Thirdly, expanding Medicaid would produce additional revenue for hospital districts, potentially allowing county governments to cut their tax rate. In Bexar County, hospital district officials estimate that expanding Medicaid would save them $52 million a year, roughly 20 percent of the amount of revenue they get from the hospital district tax, and County Judge Nelson Wolff said he would cut property taxes to pass on the savings if it were approved. In Harris County, hospital district officials say the expansion of Medicaid would mean they would receive an additional $77.5 million in reimbursements, or roughly 15 percent of their tax revenue, based on 2013 financials.

Sure would have been nice to get that extra revenue to help pay for what we’re already paying for, wouldn’t it? We can still take advantage of it if we want to. All it takes is a different set of leaders in our state government.

On a side note, remember that the 7.1 million figure you’ve been hearing for Obamacare signups is just for people going through the healthcare.gov webpage. It doesn’t count state exchanges, Medicaid enrollments, or people who got ACA-compliant policies outside of the exchange. Those first two numbers would surely have been a lot higher nationally had it not been for the cruel and mulish refusal by governors like Rick Perry to create state exchanges and expand Medicaid. There was an increase in Medicaid enrollments across the country, as people who had been eligible all along but didn’t know it or hadn’t gone through it did so thanks to the publicity push from Obamacare. Of course, the total enrollment count was much higher in states that expanded Medicaid, but Texas saw new enrollments as well. That 7.1 million number will likely be higher as well when all is said and done, thanks to some lag in the system. I’ll say it again – just imagine how many more people this law could have helped if only everyone agreed that providing coverage to as many people as possible was a worthy goal and not something to fight against. EoW has more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

The Super Bowl is making us get stuff done

Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.

The 2017 Super Bowl not only will drive thousands of football fans to Houston, it will put a hard deadline on projects from office and hotel construction to a light-rail extension, a local developer said Wednesday.

Ric Campo, CEO of Houston-based Camden Properties and chairman of the Houston Super Bowl bid committee that successfully lobbied the NFL for the big game, said over the next three years developers and the city plan to invest $3.5 billion in downtown. By contrast, he said, the business community and city have invested a total of $5 billion there over the last 14 years.

“It creates incredible deadlines and amazing pressure to get projects done,” he said. “We’re trying to turn downtown into a 24-hour city.”

Campo told a real estate group at its monthly meeting that the Super Bowl would have a combined $500 million positive impact to the city.

He cited several projects that are now under pressure to finish in time, including a Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites, a Hyatt Place, the Marriott Marquis Convention Center Hotel and a Spring Hill Suites. At least six planned residential towers and seven office projects planned for downtown are expected to be completed in time for the big event.

As you know, there’s nothing I like more than an economic impact estimate for a major sporting event. At least for this major sporting event, the construction work being done is for things that will have a benefit for the city before and after The Big Game and would have been good to have even in the absence of said game. Now that I work downtown I have a much better appreciation of all that’s going on there. All this construction is a pain to deal with now, but it’ll be great once it’s finished. It’s reassuring to have a deadline for that.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Baby Got Back

I trust this needs no introduction:

Have you read the oral history of that video yet? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Besides, you know what’s coming next, right?

You’re probably also aware of the Latin translation of the lyrics, which qualifies as an Internet classic these days. But perhaps you haven’t seen this:

Yeah, I’d say that’s a wrap.

Posted in: Music.

HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

The good news is that the testing of backlogged rape kits has led to the identification of a serial rapist in Houston.

Houston police on Tuesday for the first time identified a criminal suspect – a possible serial rapist – from testing of sexual assault kits that once gathered dust in the police property room.

HPD sex crime investigators said Herman Ray Whitfield Jr., 43, has been charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault going back to 1992, and said he may have had more victims.One of his victims, police said, was a 12-year-old.

The identity comes one year after two independent labs began processing about 10,000 cases, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, that were stored in the HPD property room. The city turned to an outside lab after DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended when an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work.

In February, Houston Police Department brass said partial results of a DNA testing had not resulted in any false arrests. And while HPD confirmed the testing had led to a number of arrests, they would not reveal the exact number or identify any suspects.

“I don’t think it’s surprising. You have thousands of untested rape kits, and when you start testing them you’re going to start making connections,” said Mark Bennett, a veteran Houston criminal defense attorney.

“If there are rape victims who wouldn’t have been raped if the authorities had done their jobs properly, we should all be outraged by that.”

[...]

Whitfield was sentenced in 1994 to 30 years in prison for kidnapping and served 12 years before being paroled in 2006, [Sgt. John] Colburn said.

He confirmed the evidence in the sexual assault cases was developed by DNA testing by the independent labs.

From 2006 to 2009, Whitfield was living near Airport Boulevard and Texas 288 in the Sunnyside area but had several different addresses before being sent back to prison in 2009 on a parole violation, according to officer Holly Whillock.

At some point during his parole, Whitfield’s DNA was entered into a national database, allowing police to later link him to the four local cases, Colburn said.

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

Three of the assaults occurred before he went to prison: Dec. 15, 1992, 4300 block of Alvin; Feb. 16, 1993, 4300 block of Alvin; and Aug. 30, 1993, 4400 block of Wilmington.

The other charge stems from an attack on June 11, 2008, in the 4300 block of Wilmington. In that case, police released a composite sketch of the attacker, based upon the victim’s description.

Grits was the first to publish about this, and he notes that there will likely be more such identifications when all is said and done. It’s great that this criminal will be held responsible for his rapes, hopefully to the tune of a life sentence, but as Mark Bennett said in the story, the fact that he wasn’t tied to those crimes before now is a tragedy and an outrage. The failures of HPD’s crime lab are well known, but there has been plenty of other bad news for HPD in recent weeks, all of which led to this blistering editorial in the Chron, in which they call for a third-party investigator to do a thorough examination of HPD’s practices.

It seems like a month can’t go by without HPD landing itself in another controversy. There were two HPD lieutenants who retired, with full benefits, amid allegations of sexual harassment. The crime lab faces an internal investigation after reports that a former employee did not follow proper procedures over the last two years. This comes on the tail of untested evidence, faked results, inaccurate fingerprinting and contaminated blood tests. We thought those days were over.

HPD has also yet to properly address a lauded two-part article by Texas Observer writer Emily DePrang documenting rampant and unpunished police brutality in Houston. Nor has HPD taken significant steps to address police shootings, even after a series of articles by Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton revealed that a quarter of civilians shot by HPD over the past five years had been unarmed.

Now we’re learning that the homicide division simply ignored stacks of cases and failed to keep track of documents. The problems go all the way to the top: City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police sergeant, kept homicide case files after leaving the force (“Council member imposes penalty on self,” Page A1, Thursday). Because of this incompetence, a man charged with murder now sits out of reach in Honduras. How many other murderers roam free because Houston’s police officers refused to do their jobs?

Neither Mayor Annise Parker nor District Attorney Devon Anderson should be satisfied with HPD’s performance. The department’s failures undermine its reliability in the courts and its trustworthiness in the hearts of citizens. All of Houston suffers when HPD falls down on the job, yet it seems like officers get off with a slap on the wrist.

See here and here for those two Observer stories by Emily DePrang; I’ve got links to the Chron stories about shootings here. I’d like to see this be an issue in the DA’s race and in next year’s Mayoral race. Frankly, given that DePrang’s stories were published last summer, it should have been an issue in the 2013 Mayor’s race. Instead of his half-baked reform ideas, Ben Hall should have been all over HPD’s discipline problems and used them to attack Mayor Parker hammer and tong. Sure, a lot of this stuff predates her, and institutional change is hard, but hey, the buck stops here. Every Mayoral wannabe next year needs to be pressed on this. It’s embarrassing, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

While there’s no doubt standardized tests are an important part of student assessment, somewhere along the way, they became too important. We’ve tethered them to everything from student promotion to teacher pay to school reputation. And it’s not just the test days that take away from meaningful learning but the months-long test prep.

Opting out is one way of saying enough’s enough. Principals and teachers aren’t as free to send that message to lawmakers. They’re bound to follow the law. The power rests with parents. But parents are only empowered if they know their rights and band together.

Falkenberg’s column is about two sets of parents, in Waco and in Houston, who try to get their kids out of their STAAR tests. I can’t add anything to that first paragraph above; it’s exactly how I feel. There’s also the stress to the students, which we have had to deal with this year. All tests are stressful, of course, but it’s the pervasiveness and the emphasis on the STAAR that takes it up a notch.

It’s the second paragraph that I want to focus on, because it really is the case that we the parents have the power to affect this. But it’s not just us parents that have this power, and it’s not because we’re parents. The power we have is at the ballot box. If you don’t like the testing regime we have now, don’t support candidates or incumbents that do. In Texas, that means knowing how your legislators stand, and vote, on testing matters. Falkenberg writes about Kyle and Jennifer Massey, parents from Waco who fought a battle with Waco ISD to allow their son to not take the STAAR this year. Kyle Massey runs a blog and has written several entries about his testing beliefs and their fight to opt out their son. Well, the city of Waco is represented in Austin by Sen. Brian Birdwell and Reps. Kyle Kacal and Doc Anderson. I searched Massey’s blog but didn’t find any of those names mentioned on it. I don’t know what these legislators’ records are on standardized testing matters, but they’re the ones the Masseys should have their beef with. Waco ISD is just doing what the Legislature has directed them to do. If you want them to take a different direction, it’s the folks in Austin you need to convince, or defeat.

I bring this up in part because it’s important to keep in mind which office and which officeholders are responsible for what, and partly because doing so can be hard work. I was chatting the other day with a friend who wasn’t previously much engaged with politics and elections. She asked me if there was a website that kept track of which candidates supported or opposed which issues. I said no, that kind of information tends to be widely dispersed. You can check with various interest groups to see who they endorse and for those who keep scorecards like the TLCV how they rate the performance of various incumbents, and you can check out the League of Women Voters candidate guides when they come out. But there may not be a sufficiently organized interest group for the issue you care about, LWV candidate guides don’t come out till just before elections and not every candidate submits responses, and non-incumbents aren’t included on scorecards. You have to track that information down for yourself, via their website or Facebook page or by asking them yourself. It can be a lot of work.

But it’s work that needs to be done if you want a government that’s responsive to you and your preferences. One reason why there’s often a disconnect between what people actually want and what gets prioritized is because there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they know about the candidates they’re voting for and against. You ultimately have to do the work to know you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Partisan affiliation is a reliable indicator for some things, but not for everything. Standardized testing and curriculum requirements fall into the latter group. Be mad at your school board trustee for this stuff if you want, but they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The dealers are on the ballot this fall. Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?

Posted in: School days.

Time is running out to undo Pratt’s mass dismissals

Remember when now-former Judge Denise Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases at the end of 2013 without notice? Since her abrupt resignation last month, other Family Court judges have been trying to clean up the mess she left behind. This includes reaching out to lawyers and clients that were affected by the New Year’s Eve purge.

Denise Pratt

With deadlines looming, Harris County administrative judges are asking lawyers who had cases dismissed as part of a mass purge by former Family Court Judge Denise Pratt to tell them if they had filed motions asking those cases be reinstated or risk having to start over from scratch.

Pratt, who abruptly resigned late last month, dismissed more than 630 cases on the final two days of 2013. Lawyers said she did not notify them or their clients of the dismissals or schedule hearings for them, as required by law.

[...]

At least 260 of the cases were not inactive, with about 230 having been reinstated before Pratt’s March 28 departure, according David Farr, administrative judge for the county’s nine family courts.

Farr said he has found about 30 paper copies of motions to reinstate cases in the 311th courtroom that were filed on time by lawyers but had not been signed or scheduled for hearings by Pratt.

“I strongly suspect that there are other motions to reinstate which were timely filed … but that were not set for hearings prior to Judge Pratt’s departure,” Farr wrote in an email blast to family lawyers on Tuesday. “The Harris County Administrative Judge Robert Schaeffer and I are currently attempting numerous measures in order to identify those ‘lost motions to reinstate,’ which include this email … ‘”

Farr said he has asked the district clerk to track down all electronic motions but is concerned he may not find all of them before deadlines next week. The deadline for reinstating any of the 630-plus cases dismissed at the end of December is April 14 and 15.

Judge Farr had found unsigned orders and other paperwork that may or may not have been filed and processed as part of the triage on Pratt’s files. I think it’s safe to say at this point that if you had any unfinished business in Pratt’s court, now would be an excellent time to inquire with Judge Farr about the status of your case, to make sure that they know about it and that all the paperwork is accounted for so that it can be handed to another judge for disposition. Don’t assume and don’t wait, there’s a deadline approaching.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Ralph Garr

On the anniversary this week of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, the Chron profiles his teammate and resident of nearby Richmond, Ralph Garr.

With Henry Aaron sitting on 714 career home runs as the Braves prepared to play the Dodgers on April 8, 1974, Atlanta leadoff hitter Ralph Garr badly wanted to be on base when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record.

Garr made it for Aaron’s 714th, but not for 715. He was in the Braves’ dugout as Aaron connected off pitcher Al Downing to become baseball’s home run king, 40 years ago Tuesday.

Garr went 0-for-3 that night, but he had 25 hits over the next 11 games en route to his own milestone. As baseball celebrates the anniversary of Aaron’s record-breaking homer, Garr this year commemorates the 40th anniversary of his 1974 National League batting title.

He and his wife, Ruby, traveled from their Fort Bend County home in Richmond to Atlanta for Tuesday’s ceremony honoring Aaron, 80. After that, it’s back home to his job as a part-time scout for the Braves.

“You never think about it, but 40 years, that’s a long time,” Garr said. “I had a good year because everybody was worried about Henry Aaron hitting a home run. They weren’t paying much attention to me.”

Garr, 68, was known as “the Road Runner” for his speed (3.85 seconds from home plate to first base). He had 1,562 hits in 1,317 games over 13 major league seasons, including 803 hits in his first four full seasons. His lifetime batting average was .306, including his league-best .353 in 1974, and he twice led the National League in triples.

Columnist Jim Murray once said of him: “Ralph Garr is as hard to get out as an impacted tooth.”

But Garr’s thoughts this week are on Aaron’s skill and the quiet grace with which he handled the threats and abuse that accompanied his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record.

“He had taken Dusty Baker and me under his wing, and while all that was going on, he would tell us in the dugout, ‘Don’t sit too close to me,’ ” Garr said. “He didn’t want anything to happen to us.

“Whenever he got to the ballpark, he was all business, regardless of what was going on around him. I’ve never seen a person who could shed things and do his job so well. He is one of the nicest human beings you would want to meet, and he’s a better man than he was a baseball player.”

It’s a nice story about a very good player who had a front seat to history, so go check it out. I’m old enough to have been a baseball fan at the time Aaron broke The Babe’s record, but I don’t have any specific memories of it. Like many people I’m sure, it wasn’t till years later that I learned about the terrible, horrifying racism Aaron faced as he chased down Ruth. He talks about it in this USA Today story – he kept every nasty letter he received, some choice quotes from which are documented at Braves blog Talking Chop. Over at Time, Jon Friedman makes the case that Aaron would have faced worse in today’s troll-laden social media environment. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps not, some wingnut sites do their best to prove his point. (I have no desire to link to them, but here are the URLs I found on the same page as the Google search that led me to Friedman’s piece: http://hotair.com/archives/2014/04/07/time-hank-aaron-wouldve-faced-more-racism-today-because-twitter/ and http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tom-blumer/2014/04/07/times-jon-friedman-fails-show-hank-aaron-would-face-worse-social-media-d) Anyway, these are all good reads for your weekend, as is Craig Calcaterra’s take on that USA Today story. I’ll close with a quote from Hammerin’ Hank in that article:

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 40 years, and I think more people appreciate it now than 20 years ago,” Aaron says. “History has a way of doing that. People appreciate it more the longer it lasts.”

Aaron acknowledges [Barry] Bonds as the the recordholder. There will be a day, he says, when Bonds’ mark will be broken.

Aaron, who has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, might not be alive to see it.

Yet when it happens, Aaron says, he hopes he’ll find joy in the chase.

“I just hope we can all enjoy the game and celebrate the next athlete who hits 60 homers or even 50 homers,” Aaron says, “and not worry about whether he’s taking anything or he’s on anything.

“Most of all, I pray that no one ever again, in any walk of life, has to go through what I did.”​

Amen to that.

Posted in: Baseball.

Friday random thirteen: Presidenting is hard work, part 2

Finishing the job I started last week:

1. We’ve Only Just Begun – Grant Lee Buffalo
2. Buns O’Plenty – Isaac Hayes
3. Mary Ann – Ben Arthur
4. Devil’s Radio – George Harrison
5. Sweet Old Chicago – Roosevelt Sykes
6. Ballad Of The Pines – Jonathan Wilson
7. Come Together – Ike & Tina Turner
8. Claudette – Robert Johnson
9. Ain’t Got Nobody – Mojo Nixon
10. I Don’t Care What You Call Me – David Ford
11. Blue Lou – Benny Carter
12. Ballad of Ronald Reagan – Austin Lounge Lizards
13. Rocket Man – Kate Bush

A little cheating in there, but that’s what makes these lists fun. Clearly, I need to get some George Clinton tunes. What contributions can you make this week?

Posted in: Music.

Abbott denies his pre-k plan means standardized testing for 4-year-olds

Glad we cleared that up.

Still not Greg Abbott

After questions were raised about language in a policy proposal that appears to call for the biannual testing of pre-kindergarten students, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s campaign is clarifying his early education plan, saying he is not calling for such tests.

The proposal — the first detailed glimpse at Abbott’s education policy — aims to increase accountability for pre-kindergarten programs in the state by tying their funding to academic outcomes. Announced a little more than a week ago, it asks Texas lawmakers to require school districts with such programs to “administer assessments at the beginning and end of the year.”

After Democrats and education advocates said Abbott’s policy opened the door to standardized testing for pre-K students, the Abbott campaign said Tuesday the language in the attorney general’s proposal would not amount to standardized exams for 4-year-olds.

“Suggestions to the contrary are absurd,” spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.

[...]

Abbott’s proposal would provide an additional $1,500 in state funding for each student enrolled in half-day pre-K programs  — which the state currently funds for children who cannot speak English or are from homeless, low-income, foster or military families — if those programs meet state-set “gold standard” performance requirements. The biannual assessments are necessary, the proposal states, to provide the state with “data necessary to properly evaluate” whether districts would qualify as “gold standard.”

In the section describing how the state should monitor pre-K performance, the proposal cites a 2012 report published by the Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit organization that develops and administers tests worldwide, that details policies related to “assessing preschoolers’ learning outcomes.” It explains that there are three methods of evaluating pre-K students: through “norm referenced standardized tests,” observations based on predetermined checklists and scales, and portfolios of children’s work. Most states use either the first or second approach, and Texas, it notes, is one of four states that do not require any kind of assessment for pre-K programs.

On Tuesday, Hirsch said that the assessment methods mentioned in the plan were “there for informational purposes only.”

“They are not part of Greg Abbott’s policy recommendations,” he said. “As the plan states, TEA should publish a list of approved assessments that districts may use.”

Under the plan, local school districts would chose from a list of approved assessments to be published by the Texas Education Agency, which it states should avoid “granting any one testing organization a monopoly.”

Asked whether the attorney general would call on the TEA to not include standardized testing as an approved assessment, Hirsch said Abbott “would discourage the use of standardized testing for pre-K students.”

See here for the background. The TSTA, no fans of Abbott’s, remain skeptical. All I can say is that when your education-related plan uses words like “assessment”, people are naturally going to think you’re talking about standardized tests. Abbott’s plan may not actually lead to such testing, but if people think it will, he’s going to have a hard time convincing them otherwise. Sucks to be you, dude.

On a related note, Lisa Falkenberg covers the subject of pre-k education with a candidate comparison.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks among Texas gubernatorial candidates about pre-K, and how the state should invest in it. Yes, I said “how,” not “if.” It’s a good thing that both candidates, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, can agree that early education is a priority. One that deserves time on the campaign trail. One that deserves a pledge of funds in support.

So far, the biggest difference between the candidates’ proposals seems to be that Davis wants to expand access to full day pre-K to all 4-year-olds in Texas, while Abbott wants to channel limited state funds into the highest quality half-day programs that meet what he calls “the gold standard.”

In general, I side with Abbott on spending limited resources on quality programs, as long as they serve the neediest students. Only high-quality pre-school programs have been shown to produce initial academic gains and long-term character and social benefits that make at-risk kids less likely to commit crimes later in life and more likely to graduate from high school and hold down a job.

Davis’ vision of a Texas where “every eligible Texas child has access to quality, full-day pre-K” is noble, as was President Barack Obama’s similar goal. Davis’ idea about a sliding scale that would allow families to pay what they can is tempting. I’d love to stop paying a second mortgage for private tuition.

But let’s face it. Texans, in our current political incarnation, are simply not willing to make that investment. While the state spent about $727 million on pre-K in the 2012 school year, Davis has estimated her plan would cost an additional $750 million per year.

We don’t even adequately fund our current programs.

The Legislature’s decision in 2011 to cut $200 million from a grant program that helped school districts provide full-day pre-K had disastrous effects. Only $30 million was restored, which is one factor in a lawsuit against the state. And state-funded pre-K seems to be dropping in quality.

In its “quality standards checklist” for 2012, the National Institute for Early Education Research found that Texas meets only two out of 10 benchmarks for pre-K. Teacher education and training, class size and staff-to-child ratios were not among those met.

Abbott’s plan to boost good half-day schools, meanwhile, would cost an estimated $118 million for the years 2016 and 2017. That’s far less than the amount the state once provided for expansion. So, while his strategy is smarter, if he really wants us to believe early education is a priority for him, he needs to put his money where his mouth is.

We can easily afford Davis’ plan. The state is awash in revenue right now, with $2.5 billion left unspent from the last biennium on top of rising projections. We have so much revenue that the usual greedhead fat cats are calling for tax cuts, because they don’t care about spending money on the things Texas needs. This isn’t about making hard choices, it’s about making good choices. Davis’ plan, which amounts to less than two percent of the revenue that will be available in 2015 for the biennium, will likely wind up costing less overall, as schools will be able to spend less money on remediation in the early grades. Abbott’s plan, once you get past the Charles Murray issue and the testing questions and the bizarre animus towards Head Start, still at its maximal amounts to a 40% cut from 2009 spending levels. How much clearer a choice do you need?

Posted in: Election 2014.

Planned Parenthood petitions Fifth Circuit for en banc review of HB2 ruling

From the inbox:

Today, Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas filed a petition on behalf of their patients to request that the full bench of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals consider the constitutionality of harmful abortion restrictions that were struck down by  a federal district court last fall. On March 27, a three-judge panel of the court upheld the Texas law, making safe and legal abortion virtually impossible for thousands of Texas women to access. Similar laws have been blocked by federal courts in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit last December affirmed a preliminary injunction against enforcement of Wisconsin’s law.

In the petition filed today, Planned Parenthood argues that the three-judge panel’s ruling warrants closer review by the full court because it conflicts with decades of applicable Supreme Court precedent and if allowed to stand would have terrible implications for women’s health and rights.

Statement from Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes Action Fund:

“The three-judge panel’s ruling on March 27  failed the women of Texas, and severely limits a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion in vast regions of the state. This hardship further impacts women who have already lost access to birth control and preventative health care at the hands of a small group of politicians who are trying to impose their beliefs on all Texans.

Planned Parenthood will continue providing services, including abortion, to women across the state and we will work to combat these laws in the state house and the court house. Texas women need leaders who will defend the ability to make decisions about their own reproductive health, and who will protect women’s access to basic health care – including birth control.”

The three-judge panel that ruled on March 27 includes a judge who is openly hostile to Roe v. Wade. The Fifth Circuit has repeatedly upheld laws that impose medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion and take health care away from Texas women in need. In a highly unusual move, last October, it abruptly stayed a lower court’s permanent injunction issued after a three-day trial on the abortion restrictions.  In 2012, it allowed Texas to bar all Planned Parenthood health centers from participating in a preventive health care program. Earlier that year, it upheld an especially cruel and demeaning forced ultrasound law. 

The March 27 ruling upholds a law requiring doctors who provide abortions to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital — a requirement that leading medical associations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Medical Association (AMA) oppose because it harms women’s health and interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.

The lawsuit, Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, was jointly filed on September 27 on behalf of more than a dozen Texas health care providers and their patients by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Texas law firm George Brothers Kincaid & Horton.  In striking down the measure as unconstitutional after a three-day trial, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said the admitting privileges requirement has “no rational relationship to improved patient care” and also “places an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion.”  Despite that ruling, a panel of the Fifth Circuit allowed the law to take effect on November 1, 2013, while the case was on appeal and a different panel held it constitutional on March 27.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the Trib story. Needless to say, I expect exactly zero joy out of this, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do. The real question is whether or not to press our luck with SCOTUS when the Fifth Circuit rejects this petition.

Posted in: Legal matters.