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Judicial Q&A: Chip Wells

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Chip Wells

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Clinton “Chip” Wells and I am the Democratic nominee for Judge in the 247th Family District Court of Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This Court presides over divorces, suits affecting the parent-child relationship, adoptions and enforcement matters.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for Judge in this particular Court because in 2010 this Court had become one of the most inhospitable Court in the Family courthouse. Judge Hellums was seeking re-election in 2010 and I entered the Democratic primary for the opportunity to challenge her on that Bench. I lost that primary. I was approached again in 2014 and asked to consider running for a Family Bench again. I chose to seek election in the 247th District Court because Judge Hellums was retiring from the Bench after many years of service and I believed that I could bring my experience and willingness to serve to that Court for a positive improvement.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been practicing law in the State of Texas for more than 37 years. I have handled cases across this State from El Paso to Beaumont and Brownsville to Dallas. I have tried many cases with and without juries in matters involving family law, plaintiff’s personal injury law, civil litigation, criminal law and probate. In addition to my legal experience I am a certified mediator having received training at the AA White Dispute Resolution Center. In addition to my mediation training I am certified in family mediation.

5. Why is this race important?

The race in the 247th Judicial District Court is important for many reasons. You are more likely to find yourself, your friends, family members or neighbors in a family law court than any other court in this State. Because these courts deal with our most precious possessions, our children and our families, these courts require a Judge who has the experience and training to render a fair and impartial judgment. Justice matters. Experience, compassion, and a common sense approach to problem resolution is required for any Judge elected to serve in our Family District Courts.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am the choice for Judge in the 247th Family District Court. I have the training and experience that I have gained over 37 years practicing law representing individuals and families across this State. I have a reputation for compassion, equality and common sense resolution necessary to sit in Judgment of disputed matters. I have the life experiences that assure a compassionate, understanding approach to oversee the resolution of these disputed matters. If justice and experience matter then Clinton “Chip” Wells is the choice to serve as a Judge in the 247th Family District Court of Harris County, Texas.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Lyceum: Abbott 49, Davis 40

Pretty decent result that will hopefully put the “double digit lead” narrative out to pasture.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott leads Democratic opponent Wendy Davis by 9 percentage points, 49 percent to 40 percent, according to the latest Texas Lyceum poll, released Wednesday.

The poll showed Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, held a “clear lead” among Hispanics, by 36 points, and African Americans, by 80 points, while Abbott, the state attorney general, held a “slight lead” with independent voters, by 6 points, and women, by 2 points.

“Davis is running slightly ahead of other Democrats on the ballot and over- performs compared to Democrats from recent statewide races,” University of Texas Professor Daron Shaw, who conducted the poll, said in a statement. “But the number of candidates who have made up this kind of deficit in the last month, in a state where party ID favors the other side so consistently, is close to zero.”

Immediately following the release of the poll, Abbott sent out a press release noting his campaign had $30.1 million on hand for the “final push” of the race, raising $7.8 million since July. In July, Abbott had $35.6 million on hand, the largest amount ever recorded in the state, while Davis had $8.8 million.

The poll showed that in the lieutenant governor’s race, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, was ahead of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, by 14 percentage points, 47 percent to 33 percent. Van de Putte led with African Americans by 64 points and Hispanics by 24 points, but did not perform as well as Davis with either group.

The Lyceum did actually poll this race before, last September. Most likely the reason you (and I) hadn’t heard of that poll before now is because fully half the voters who responded had no opinion. Abbott led 29-21 among the rest.

The Lyceum’s index page for their 2014 polls is here. Their press release, on which just about all of the coverage I’ve seen has been based, is here, and the Executive Summary is here. Questions and toplines are here, and crosstabs are here. You have to be a little careful in reading their summaries (and therefore the coverage), because they don’t always specify when they are talking about likely voters (LVs) instead of registered voters (RVs). Scroll down to page 111 of the crosstabs to see where the raw numbers are. I’ve summarized below:

Governor RV tot RV pct LV tot LV pct =========================================== Abbott 362 43.04 265 48.89 Davis 314 37.34 215 39.67 Glass 32 3.80 12 2.21 Parmer 20 2.38 9 1.66 Lt Gov RV tot RV pct LV tot LV pct =========================================== Patrick 330 39.29 256 47.23 Van de Putte 289 34.40 177 32.66 Butler 32 3.81 18 3.32 Courtney 28 3.33 12 2.21

There are also Senate numbers, which I’ll get to in a minute. The point here is to notice that the RV numbers are much tighter than the LV numbers – indeed, the Lt Gov race is close to being within the margin of error for the RV numbers. This is the clearest illustration of what the effect of turnout may be, and it’s why I’ve been so critical of the polling we’ve seen to date. I don’t think previous public polls have considered the question of turnout and the Battleground Texas effect at all so far. Sure, not all of these registered voters will show up, but you can see the potential here. The contrast in the Lite Guv race, where for reasons I don’t comprehend they’ve decided there are a lot fewer “likely” voters, is especially stark. If you need a reason to believe in what BGTX is doing, this is it, right here.

One other point to note is in the reporting of female voters, where the topline shows a lead for Abbott. The crosstabs tell a slightly different story, however:

Governor Male Male % Female Female % ============================================== Abbott 198 46.48 164 39.42 Davis 142 33.33 173 41.59 Glass 18 4.23 15 3.61 Parmer 12 2.82 7 1.68 Lt Gov Male Male % Female Female % ============================================== Patrick 181 42.49 149 35.99 Van de Putte 129 30.28 160 38.65 Butler 21 4.93 11 2.66 Courtney 20 4.69 8 1.93

Yes, I noticed the one-vote discrepancies for Davis, Glass, and Parmer, and no, I don’t know what’s up with that. My point is that the press release is apparently giving LV totals for female voters, but they don’t break out those numbers in the crosstabs. We don’t therefore know what the exact RV/LV gap is there, but we know there is one. Like the single digit/double digit distinction, this would change the narrative if anyone other than me were to notice it. It’s also where the rubber meets the road for BGTX, given the heavy Democratic lean that exists for single women and women of color along with their lesser propensity as a rule to show up. If the final result winds up being more Democratic than what the polls have suggested so far, the first place to look for an explanation in the exit polls will be among female voters.

As for those Senate numbers:

Senate RV tot RV pct LV tot LV pct =========================================== Cornyn 358 42.62 263 48.43 Alameel 237 28.21 163 30.02 Paddock 33 3.93 20 3.68 Sanchez 63 7.50 22 4.05

Here I would submit that Alameel’s poorer numbers are one part much lower name recognition, and one part “Spicybrown” Sanchez getting a disproportionate share of the total. Third party candidates tend to poll higher than their final totals, and that’s what I expect is happening here. In the end, it is likely that most of Spicybrown’s supporters (who, if you check the crosstabs, are disproportionately Latino) will wind up voting D anyway. It won’t shock me if she does better than the average Green statewide candidate, but her ceiling is maybe five percent, probably lower. PDiddie, Texas Politics, and TRail Blazers have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

DeLay gets off

Sure is nice to have friends in high places.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

Siding with a decision made a year ago by a lower appeals court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday refused to reinstate money-laundering convictions against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

In an 8-1 decision, the state’s highest criminal court backed a Texas 3rd Court of Appeals decision that reversed DeLay’s 2011 convictions on money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The court had ruled there was not enough evidence to prove that DeLay’s actions were criminal.

“We agree with the court of appeals that, as a matter of law, the State failed to prove facts to establish that the appellant committed either the object offense of money laundering or the inchoate offense of conspiracy to commit the same,” the criminal appeals court ruled.

[...]

Court of Criminal Appeals Judges Cheryl Johnson and Cathy Cochran wrote in a concurring opinion that although there was evidence DeLay knew — after the fact — of the transfer of the funds, there was no proof “he was directly involved.”

“Like some of Goldman Sachs’s dealings with a Spanish bank, the wheeling and dealing was a tad shady, but legal,” they wrote.

Judge Lawrence Meyers, the lone dissenter, says that the majority opinion “places a burden on the State that is impossible to overcome,” because an individual would have to be aware that his or her actions violates the Texas election code.

“In addition to placing this ridiculous burden on the State, which effectively repeals the statute, this holding also allows corporations who simply cannot be bothered to look up the law to get away with making illegal contributions,” Meyers said.

Here’s the decision. Given the way oral arguments went, this can’t be considered a surprise. Those of you looking for partisan angles, note that the one dissenter was the guy who decided to run for the Supreme Court as a Democrat. We’ve come an awfully long way to wind up here, but that’s the way it goes. I don’t really feel like thinking about this right now – too much else going on, and I always did think the case against DeLay was weaker than the cases against his henchmen. Whatever else, the world is a better place without Tom DeLay in a position of power, and at least we’ll always have that. Juanita has more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 29

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes everyone read at least one banned book last week as it brings you this weeks’ roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Endorsement watch: Chron for Collier

Add the Houston Chronicle to the list of papers endorsing Mike Collier for Comptroller.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

[Sen. Glenn] Hegar knows politics; Collier knows the numbers. In our view the choice is clear: Texas needs the numbers man, not a politician who wants to use the office as a stepping stone to higher office.

Texans know what can happen when a comptroller gets the numbers wrong. In January 2013, the outgoing comptroller, Susan Combs, produced a Biennial Revenue Estimate that showed she had grossly underestimated what the state’s revenue would be in the 2012-13 biennium. That mistake, which prompted Collier to run for the office, played havoc with budget choices during the 2011 legislative session, including a $5.4 billion cut in education funding that didn’t have to be made.

Hegar, who has said he was proud of the education cut, seemed to suggest during the GOP primary that his chief qualifications for serving as comptroller were his opposition to abortion and his enthusiasm for the 2nd Amendment.

Since then, he has offered suggestions about how to run the office more effectively – more transparency, more training, a top-down review of the office’s basic functions – but it’s our impression he’d be learning on the job, and probably biding his time for the next office to open up.

Collier, one of the more engaging and articulate candidates we interviewed during the campaign season, clearly has the experience to run the comptroller’s office. He also has ideas for making it function more effectively – among them, producing quarterly revenue estimates so that lawmakers would have a better understanding of the state’s fiscal health.

The Chron joins the Statesman and the Caller and recommending Collier. I feel confident they won’t be the last paper to do so. Again, does this mean much? No, certainly not in this day and age, and in a partisan election. But it’s not nothing, and every little bit of reinforcement for the message that Collier is easily the better choice helps. Look for my interview with him on Monday.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Interview with Laura Nicol

Laura Nicol

Laura Nicol

I know I previously said that I would only have two interviews with legislative candidates this year. That was indeed my plan originally, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years that I’ve been doing these interviews it’s that things often diverge from my plans. The good news is that generally winds up being an improvement, and it definitely winds up meaning more interviews. So with that in mind, here is my interview with Laura Nicol, the Democratic candidate for State Rep. in HD133, in the Westchase area of town. A native of Austin and a UT graduate, Nicol has a degree in electrical engineering and has worked as an EE, but now spends her time as a volunteer in the community, her kids’ schools, and in Democratic politics, having become active during the 2008 presidential primary. Here’s what we talked about:

I’ll be wrapping up candidate interviews the week after next, and will continue to run the judicial Q&As for as long as I get responses to them.

Posted in: Election 2014.

The Lite Guv debate

It was lively, and it was a good reminder of who Dan Patrick really is.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

In the only scheduled debate in their race for lieutenant governor, state Sens. Dan Patrick and Leticia Van de Putte faced off on Monday night in a lively exchange that displayed their divergent positions on everything from health care and immigration to school finance and taxes.

Both candidates played offense: Patrick, Republican of Houston, attempted to portray Van de Putte, Democrat of San Antonio, as “out of step” with Texas voters. Van de Putte used the back-and-forth to try to pin Patrick down on votes he’d taken on cuts to public education. But one of the biggest points of contention in the hourlong showdown in Austin was over the state’s tax structure.

Patrick recently called for reducing the state’s dependence on the property tax to fund public schools and relying on the state’s sales tax instead. On Monday, Van de Putte used Patrick’s position to argue that he would raise the sales tax, which she said would negatively affect businesses and consumers. Patrick sought to clarify his proposal, saying he would only support increasing the sales tax “by a penny or two” to compensate for reduced revenue from property taxes.

“There are two candidates on this stage, and I’m the only one that doesn’t want to raise your sales taxes,” Van de Putte said. “To burden Texas businesses and families with a sales tax increase … well, that’s not being pro-business.”

There’s video of the debate here if you missed it or want to share it with someone else that didn’t see it but needs to. The Observer liveblogged it. Writer Forrest Wilder expressed amazement at Patrick’s admission that he’d raise the sales tax to finance a property tax cut, but he’s been saying this all along. I’ve been saying all along that someone needs to point out just how much Dan Patrick himself would benefit from the kind of tax swap he’s proposing. It’s not like we haven’t seen this before, after all.

Burka summed it up as follows:

The most interesting thing about the debate was Patrick’s persona. He felt no need to soften his message or appeal to more mainstream voters. This is exactly who he is, and who he wants to be: a true conservative radical.

Good to know his phony claims of being compassionate didn’t last long. I still don’t know why anyone would have believed him in the first place. The Chron story is here, and PDiddie, EoW, Juanita, Newsdesk, the TSTA Blog, and the Current has more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Austin gives early approval to Uber and Lyft

It’s temporary pending a second Council vote and further study.

Uber

After nearly four hours of testimony and debate, council members gave initial approval shortly after midnight to new rules that would temporarily legalize ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, whose drivers have been providing rides-for-hire for months in defiance of city code. The measure, which could still be amended before a second vote next week, would last for a year while permanent rules are drawn up.

Simply legalizing the ridesharing services, which connect passengers with drivers through a location-based smartphone application, is no trivial matter. As council members discussed a range of details, they kept returning to an essential question: Should the city treat those drivers the same way it treats cabdrivers?

The proposed ordinance would allow ridesharing companies to operate without having to adhere to many of the regulations the taxi industry abides by, such as fares approved by the city, disability-friendly vehicles, city-performed background checks and exhaustive vehicle inspections.

[...]

Lyft

The council did vote to make some changes to the ridesharing ordinance — for instance a Tovo amendment requiring that ridesharing companies report data about their pricing, rider pick-up and drop-off patterns, and driver information monthly instead of quarterly.

But for the most part, efforts to add stronger regulations failed, either because of a lack of votes or because the council wanted more time to examine such complex issues as insurance requirements before coming back for a second vote. Some council members warned they might change their votes of support when the ordinance comes up for a final vote.

A lot of the same issues as in Houston came up – insurance, background checks, access for disabled riders. One interesting twist on the safety argument was noted by BOR:

Traditional taxi supporters argue TNCs are a public safety hazard because drivers are not required to have a chauffeur’s license, but many supporters of TNCs, including the Austin Police Association believe the public safety priority remains reducing the number of drunk drivers on the road.

That’s definitely a concern in Austin. For the rest of it, they can look at what Houston and plenty of other cities have done. Check back in a year when a new City Council adopts a final ordinance.

UPDATE: The Trib has a story today about the Austin Uber/Lyft debate.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Like a bridge over Memorial Park

Some fascinating ideas for ensuring the long-term health of Memorial Park.

Today Memorial Park is a land divided.

The city’s premiere park stretches across 1,500 acres, almost twice as large as New York’s Central Park. But to Thomas Woltz of the internationally renowned landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, it feels much smaller. Over time the land has been divided into 24 tracts by roads, an elevated railroad, a power easement and recreational amenities.

That could change during the next 20 years if a long-range master plan being proposed by Woltz’s firm is adopted next spring by the Houston City Council. Hired in 2013 by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone and the privately funded Memorial Park Conservancy, the firm is nearly three months into a 10-month design process.

At a public meeting Wednesday, Woltz presented his firm’s initial design strategies and the reasoning behind them – ideas driven by previous public input and a year’s research by a team of about 70 local experts in fields like soil science, ecology, history and archaeology.

He shared maps, drawings and aerial views to explain the park’s ecological and cultural histories, also unveiling a dramatic solution to one of the landscape’s biggest problems. He’s proposing a grass- and tree-covered land bridge, 800 feet long, that would rise gently across Memorial Drive, over a tunnel, to reconnect the park’s north and south sides.

While it’s not realistic to remove the street, which is crucial to Houston’s traffic circulation, the land bridge is “a kind of triumph … the park wins,” Woltz said.

The current pedestrian bridge on the park’s western side, completed in 2009, was an important first gesture toward stitching the park’s landscape back together, Woltz said. “This land bridge builds on that beginning at a much larger scale.”

[...]

Project director Sarah Newbery of Uptown Houston said the Uptown Houston TIRZ is committed to spending $100 million to $150 million on the restoration projects and infrastructure; a figure that could change with property values. Memorial Park Conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold said her group is studying how much it can raise in the next 10 or 20 years toward the effort.

“But we think of this in terms of a 100-year or 75-year plan. We’ll execute large parts of it in the next three to 15 years; but there can be a road map for the next generation as well.”

Woltz expects to reveal designs that incorporate Camp Logan remnants at the next public meeting on Nov. 10.

“We’re looking for ways the landscape could function as a memorial to the soldiers and maybe even reveal some of the grid,” he said.

A Jan. 12 meeting is titled “Spaces and Places: How Will It Look?” The final March 9 meeting promises a more comprehensive revealing of the plan.

See here, here, and here for some background. The TIRZ in question is also the one helping to fund the Uptown BRT line. Some more material from the architect is here. What do you think about this? Link via Swamplot.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Judicial Q&A: Jason Luong

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Jason Luong

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Jason Luong, and I am running to be the Judge of Harris County Criminal Court 13. I come from a family of civil servants who value public service. My family came here from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. My father took a job with the City of Houston where he worked as accountant for over 20 years. My mother has worked as a civilian employee for the Houston Police Department for over 20 years.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court handles criminal cases, namely, Class B misdemeanors, where the range of punishment is up to 6 months in jail, and Class A misdemeanors, where the range of punishment includes up to a year in jail. The most common misdemeanors that this court handles are DWIs, assaults charges, theft cases, possession of marijuana and domestic violence cases.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running because I want to bring change to our Harris County criminal courts. Our courts need to be more responsive to the people they are intended to serve. Currently, our courts are run inefficiently, and cases often take too long to get resolved. This hurts both the person accused of a crime and to the victims.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have over 14 years of legal experience with strong Texas roots. I am a graduate of Rice University and the University of Texas School of Law, with honors. I started my legal career as a law clerk to a U.S. District Court Judge, where we handled one of the largest criminal dockets in the country. I am also a former Harris County Assistant District Attorney, where I was the chief prosecutor for 2 different County Criminal Courts. As a prosecutor, I prosecuted thousands of cases on behalf of Harris County residents, including one of the only prosecutions of members of Aryan Brotherhood under Texas’s Hate Crime Statute. Currently I have my own criminal defense practice where I handle both court-appointed and retained cases. I have tried over 40 cases to a jury verdict. I am passionate about bringing my experience to serve the people of Harris County.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because our criminal courts are important. Harris County is one of the most important criminal jurisdictions in the country. And this court handles the cases—DWI’s, domestic violence cases, thefts, animal cruelty—that most directly affect the lives of ordinary Harris County residents. These crimes and the courts have handle them have direct, severe and long term consequences on the people lives—both on the lives of the victims and the people charged.

This race is also important it is a chance for the citizens of Harris County to bring meaningful change in our courts. Right now, there are no Democratic judges in any misdemeanor court. Furthermore, if elected, I would be the only Asian-American judge on any county-wide criminal bench, and I would be the first Vietnamese-American judge elected in Harris County. I believe that our courts, like our juries, should reflect the diversity of our population.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

First and foremost, I am the most qualified candidate for Harris County Criminal Court 13. Last year, I was recognized as one of Houston’s “Highest Rated” Attorneys in Houstonia Magazine. Having been a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney, and a judicial law clerk, I would bring a balanced and broad perspective to this Court. I would ensure that all persons appearing in my court whether a defendant or a victim, would be treated fairly.

Furthermore, I want to bring meaningful change to our criminal courts. Right now, too many people—victims, witnesses and the people charged with crimes—have to wait too long get their cases resolved. This is the hidden cost of our criminal court system. I would use my real world experience as a business owner and my over 14 years of experience as a trial lawyer to ensure that Harris County Criminal Court No. 13 provides the meaningful and timely justice that Harris County residents deserve.

Posted in: Election 2014.

And we’re still talking about the 2015 Mayor’s race

Here we go again.

Mayor Annise Parker

Still the Mayor

The mayor’s race may be more than a year away, but nearly all candidates have launched shadow campaigns – and not all shadow campaigns are created equal.

[State Rep. Sylvester] Turner and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, considered early frontrunners if both launch bids for City Hall, already have the name recognition from years of holding public office. That advantage may be multiplied by their ability to raise money through their existing campaign committees – an opportunity they have capitalized on over the last month.

City ordinances prevent candidates from raising money for a mayoral bid before Feb. 1, but because Turner and Garcia currently hold non-city offices, they can raise cash through their committees.

Come February, they are expected to transfer the lion’s share of that money to their mayoral bids, turning the well-liked frontrunners into well-funded frontrunners.

“It’s a little bit of a head start for sure, but the people who are talking about it are lining up their donors the same way they are,” said Lillie Schechter, a Democratic fundraiser. “One person will have to pick up checks, the other person will have to transfer checks.”

[...]

In what is expected to be the most crowded mayoral field since the last open race in 2009, a dozen potential candidates have effectively launched their bids, hiring consultants, meeting with labor and business groups, and telling the political class that a campaign is imminent. They must sit on their hands, however, when it comes to raising the money that determines their political viability, unable to collect a single check until the nine-month brawl for the mayor’s office begins in February.

As many as seven Republicans are looking into entering the race: Ben Hall, who squared off against Mayor Annise Parker in 2013, and councilmen Steven Costello and Oliver Pennington said they will announce bids, while councilmen Jack Christie and Michael Kubosh and former Kemah mayor Bill King are waiting to assess the field.

Republican Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia, [Chris] Bell, City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford and private equity executive Marty McVey are said to be considering bids.

See here for the previous roundup of wannabes, could-bes, and never-will-bes. I have four things to say.

1. Most of what I think about this story I’ve already said in that previous post. I do consider Rep. Turner to be the frontrunner, for whatever that’s worth, but we’re a long, long way from being able to assess the field. Hell, there really isn’t a field to assess right now. As I said, there are only so many max-dollar donors, only so many endorsements that are worth chasing, and only so much grassroots/volunteer energy to go around. The market, if you will, just can’t support more than about four serious candidates. Most of the names you see and hear now will disappear long before we get to put-up-or-shut-up time.

2. Like Texpatriate, I remain skeptical that Sheriff Garcia will throw his hat into the ring. He must know that a fair number of Democrats will be unhappy with him if he leaves his post to a Republican appointee, which is what we’ll get from Commissioners Court. I do not speak for Sheriff Garcia, I do not advise Sheriff Garcia, and I have zero inside knowledge of what Sheriff Garcia has in mind for his future. If I were advising him, I would tell him to line up a strong successor for 2016, then set his sights on running for County Judge in 2018, when we know Ed Emmett will step down. We all know that Sheriff Garcia has ambitions for bigger things. I’ll be delighted to see him on a statewide ballot some day. Mayor of Houston would certainly be an excellent springboard to something statewide. So would County Judge. I think he’d have a clearer shot at that, and he’d risk angering fewer current allies with that choice. This is 100% my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

3. Listing Ben Hall as a Republican made me guffaw, followed by some giggles. Any article that can do that to me is all right in my book.

4. I still don’t think we should be talking about the Mayor’s race now, and we shouldn’t be talking about it until after the election this November. That’s far more important right now. That said, I am thinking about what I do and don’t want in my next Mayor. I’ll publish it when it’s done, which I guarantee you will be some time after November 4.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Abbott’s Enterprise Fund issues

It’s a bit of a problem for him, isn’t it?

Still not Greg Abbott

While critics were hounding Gov. Rick Perry a decade ago about his job-luring Texas Enterprise Fund, his lawyers went to Attorney General Greg Abbott to block the release of applications that supposedly had been filled out by the entities requesting taxpayer subsidies.

Abbott’s office, tasked with deciding which government records have to be made public, told Perry’s lawyers they must keep the applications secret under exemptions to state transparency laws, according to attorney general rulings and news reports.

Now, though, information contained in a blistering state audit shows that at least five of the recipients that were named in Abbott’s 2004 rulings — and which got tens of millions of dollars from the fund — never actually submitted formal applications. And if no applications ever existed, it’s not clear what Abbott was telling Perry he had to keep secret or why the public is just now learning that millions were awarded without them.

This is the sort of thing that people have in mind when they say the optics of something don’t look good for whoever. Stuff like this doesn’t help, either.

Republican governor nominee Greg Abbott has collected more than $1 million in campaign contributions from beneficiaries of a state business fund cited in a scathing audit for lax oversight of taxpayer dollars.

State law requires Abbott as attorney general to monitor state accounts and recover misspent money.

[...]

While state law requires that “at least monthly the attorney general shall inspect” state accounts, an Abbott spokesman said the state auditor has primary responsibility to check on funds.

Jerry Strickland of the attorney general’s office said Abbott has recovered millions of dollars in cases that have been referred by the comptroller during his tenure.

“Attorney General Abbott has successfully collected more than $740 million in funds owed to the state of Texas since 2003,” said Strickland.

None of that money involved the Texas Enterprise Fund, which has distributed $500 million since it was created 2003.

That may just be the weakest response to a reporter’s inquiry about a Bad Thing in the history of spokespeople. Pick a better boss to work for next time, Jerry.

One never knows how the public will respond to stories like these, or if they’re even aware of them. At least this one’s an easy one to tell – Rick Perry gave away hundreds of millions of your tax dollars in grants to big companies that didn’t even ask for them, and Greg Abbott said it was okay for him to not tell anyone about it. The word coverup does trip off the tongue easily enough.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis accused her Republican opponent Monday of using his power as attorney general to “orchestrate a cover-up” of misspending inside the Texas Enterprise Fund that, according to an audit, handed out taxpayer subsidies to businesses with little oversight.

Davis seized on reports over the weekend detailing Attorney General Greg Abbott’s decade-old rulings that various Texas Enterprise Fund records be kept secret. Abbott’s office, in charge of ruling what government records must either be released or withheld, found that numerous “applications” for the grant money were exempt from state transparency laws.

But a damning new state audit found that many of the companies never submitted applications, making it unclear what applications Abbott sought to block. Davis claims to have found the answer: She is accusing Abbott of declaring the records to be secret in order to hide what the audit turned up years later — a lack of oversight over millions of dollars in grant money.

“We need an independent investigation by appropriate state or federal authorities regarding the actions by the attorney general and the attempts to use the power of his office to cover up the transfer of millions of taxpayer dollars to companies whose applications he knew didn’t exist,” Davis said Monday at a news conference in Fort Worth.

Representatives of the Abbott campaign for governor and the attorney general’s office did not immediately return phone calls.

Not even to give a perfunctory quote about how Greg Abbott has always done whatever it is he says he’s done to protect our interests? My, my, they must be in a tizzy over there. This could really be something.

The growing scandal over the mismanagement of the Texas Enterprise Fund is having a major impact in the state’s political races, and has the potential to upset the conventional wisdom as we move into the final six weeks of the political season, officials tell Newsradio 1200 WOAI.

[...]

One Republican Party consultant, who asked not to be named, told Newsradio 1200 WOAI that this could be a ‘game changer’ in the race for governor, which has repeatedly shown Abbott leading Davis by between 8 and 12 percentage points.

“People can understand that this represents the concerns they have that politicians don’t take their tax money seriously,” the consultant said. “This reaffirms the attitude that ‘it’s not real money’ because it comes from the taxpayer.”

The expert added, “misusing and mismanaging taxpayer money is something that will stick with conservatives. They won’t like it at all.”

It’s a little premature to call something a “game changer”. If we’re still talking about this a week from now, if we haven’t been distracted by some other shiny object, then maybe. Believe me, I hope that’s an accurate assessment. I’ve just seen too many other “game changers” turn out to be not so much to get too giddy just yet. The best thing that can happen is for more information about this to come out, to add to the existing story. We’ll see about that. Burka, Trail Blazers/a>, and PDiddie have more.

Posted in: Election 2014, Scandalized!.

UTMB continues to do well post-Ike

Good to see.

Ashbel Smith building at UTMB

The morning after Hurricane Ike crashed into Galveston Island six years ago, David Callender surveyed the sea of mud coating the 84-acre University of Texas Medical Branch campus.

The UTMB president saw oak tree limbs blocking the doors to John Sealy Hospital, which would be knocked out of service for the rest of the year. The 13-foot storm surge caused $1 billion in damage, plunging UTMB’s finances into the red and prompting the layoffs of nearly 3,000 workers. A consultant even recommended that the hospital be moved off the island, an idea that found favor with the University of Texas Board of Regents and a few legislators.

Six years later, UTMB is not only off life support, it appears to have made a full recovery.

The university is close to completing more than $1 billion in improvements and repairs to protect against future hurricanes, ranging from moving essential functions to a higher level to adding protective walls that can rise around certain buildings.

It is building a 13-story hospital in Galveston and a smaller medical center in League City. Last week, UTMB officially announced its takeover of the Angleton-Danbury Medical Center in Brazoria County.

[...]

While struggling to operate after the storm, UTMB officials made a discovery that would fuel eventual expansion, said Donna K. Sollenberger, CEO of UTMB Health Systems. With UTMB’s hospital shut down, patients were sent to Texas Medical Center and other hospitals. Meanwhile, UTMB rented offices in Texas City and other mainland cities to treat outpatients.

“In doing that” Sollenberger said, “we found we had a whole subset of patients who preferred or liked being seen closer to home.”

Galveston County, especially the League City area, was growing rapidly and suffered a doctor shortage. Within the next six years, Sollenberger said, the area will be short by about 1,000 doctors of what it needs.

UTMB opened clinics that were close to people who were going without primary care either because doctors were too far away or because they faced waits of as long as six months for an appointment. Patients normally will forgo primary care if they have to drive more than 15 or 20 minutes, Sollenberger said.

“If you have primary care services within that radius, they will come to you,” she said.

UTMB now operates 40 clinics at 30 sites in Galveston and Brazoria counties and 34 regional child and maternal clinics, including clinics outside the Galveston-Brazoria region in Orange, New Caney and McAllen.

Read the whole thing, it’s a good overview of what’s happened with UTMB and its environs over the past 6 years. I’ve had a few things to say about it as well, not all of it positive. More recently, UTMB was in the news for its Ebola-related work. Hurricane Ike was a tremendous disaster for Galveston, and recovery from it would have been a lot tougher had the island lost UTMB and all the services and jobs it provides. It’s good to see them thrive.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Interview with Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

As we head into the home stretch of the campaign – early voting begins in three weeks, and the deadline to be registered for this election is one week from today – we turn to the statewide candidates for the final round of interviews. I’ve said before that not only is this year’s slate of statewide Dems the strongest top to bottom that we’ve seen since 1994, this is also the weakest group of Republicans we’ve seen since at least then. Nowhere is this dichotomy clearer than in the race for Attorney General, where the Democratic candidate is the excellent Sam Houston, and the Republican hopeful is the ethically challenged and possibly future felon Ken Paxton. A native of West Texas, Sam is a well-regarded attorney in Houston. He was a candidate for State Supreme Court in 2008 and had the highest vote percentage of any statewide Democrat that year. The stark contrast between Houston and his underqualified opponent has been noticed by the press, whose attentions Paxton has been diligently ducking ever since he secured the Republican nomination. Houston has been racking up the endorsements, and should have a clean sweep when all is said and done. He’ll be a breath of fresh air and a return to the original purpose of the office of Attorney General, which at one time represented the interests of the state of Texas and not just the Republican Party. Here’s the interview:

I’ve got two more of these set to go. Let me know what you think.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Perry doesn’t have to show up at his court hearing

He’s excused this time. But don’t push it.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

My corndog can’t be there either

Gov. Rick Perry does not have to appear at an Oct. 13 court hearing in his case, but that does not mean he has a pass to skip all future hearings, Visiting Judge Bert Richardson ruled on Friday, according to the special prosecutor in the case.

This week, Perry’s legal team asked Richardson, a Republican, to excuse the governor from the Oct. 13 hearing and every other pretrial hearing. Perry faces felony charges of abuse of official power and coercion of a public official. In that same motion, the lawyers noted that the special prosecutor in the case, lawyer Mike McCrum, had requested that the governor be present in every pretrial hearing. McCrum had responded that there’s nothing in the criminal code that allows a defendant to be excused from every hearing.

On Friday, Richardson notified lawyers in the case that he granted the Perry team’s request that the governor skip the Oct. 13 hearing because it is a status conference or a check-in by both parties. But the judge denied the request that the governor does not have to make any future appearances at pre-trial hearings.

See here for the background. This seems like a reasonable ruling to me, but we’ll see what it becomes in practice. I’m sure at some point Judge Richardson will have to set some guidelines.

In the meantime, this case takes yet another strange turn.

In a criminal complaint sent Monday to the Travis County district attorney’s office, Houston criminal defense attorney David Rushing says special prosecutor Michael McCrum is abusing his official capacity by billing the county $300 per hour, or more than three times the highest possible rate set by a state law.

Travis County’s guidelines for the law, however, make it possible for an attorney in McCrum’s situation to earn less or more per hour if the circumstances are unusual. Perry, who has characterized the case against him as politically motivated, is the first Texas governor to be indicted in nearly a century.

“These attempts of character assassinations against our great governor here is bad enough on its own, but when you really analyze it, it’s not just a political game but lining the defense’s pockets at the taxpayers’ expense,” Rushing told the Chronicle.

The district attorney’s office confirmed it received the complaint but declined to comment further. McCrum did not respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.

Rushing’s argument is based on the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and Travis County’s guidelines for the Fair Defense Act, a state law dealing with the right to counsel. The guidelines say appointed attorneys should be paid an hourly rate of $70 to $100 for time spent in court and $60 to $90 for time spent out of court. The guidelines also say an appointed attorney can be paid less or more in an “unusual case.”

[...]

Acknowledging some may see the complaint as a political ploy, Rushing said he has not been involved in Texas politics for nearly a decade. He served until 2005 as the chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas, a group of college students that has backed Perry for governor and had him speak at its annual convention.

If the name “David Rushingsounds familiar to you, this would be why. I’m delighted to know that some things never do change. As for his complaint, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that McCrum’s hourly rate and the invoices he submits will have to be approved by Travis County Commissioners Court, one of whose members is a Republican, and you’d think they might have noticed if McCrum’s fees were illegally high. (Who had his own role to play in this ongoing saga, not that it matters now.) My guess is that the main effect of this complaint will be the need to appoint another special prosecutor, since I’m sure the Travis County DA won’t want any part of this investigation, either. I doubt it gets any farther than that, but who knows? I’m sure we have not seen the last surprise this story has for us.

And then if that wasn’t enough, this happened late Friday.

An Austin lawyer with Democratic ties has sued Gov. Rick Perry and Comptroller Susan Combs, arguing that the Republican leaders had no authority to spend taxpayer money on criminal defense attorneys for the governor, who is fighting an abuse-of-office indictment.

Larry Sauer, an Austin defense attorney who specializes in drug cases, is asking a state district court in Austin to declare the expenditures unlawful and to slap an injunction on the governor’s and comptroller’s offices to prevent future spending on outside criminal lawyers for Perry.

“State law is clear that public officials cannot use taxpayer or other state funds to defend a criminal charge, unless and until the official has been found not guilty,” the lawsuit said. It was filed Thursday and issued a docket number Friday afternoon, an attorney for the plaintiff said.

The lawsuit is being waged by attorneys with deep Democratic connections. Sauer has made numerous contributions to Democrats, according to state ethics records. He also gave $300 to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, according to a 2008 story in the Austin American-Statesman.

[...]

When it comes to paying the legal bills incurred in connection with the grand jury investigation, Perry has never wavered from his argument that he has the right to use taxpayer money to pay for criminal defense lawyers.

After his aides said last month that Perry would pay for the attorneys out of his flush state campaign account, the governor said during a stop in Midland that he decided to use political funds only because people complained about it.

“I look at this as an appropriate defense of a state official,” Perry told reporters, according to news reports. “But just to keep from having folks grouse about it, we’ll pick up the cost as we go forward.” That statement is a central feature of the lawsuit.

Because Perry has asserted a right to tap taxpayer money for the legal bills, the lawsuit says taxpayers have no way to stop it from happening again.

“Governor Perry claims the right to pay criminal defense attorneys fees and expenses out of taxpayer funds at his whim, and Defendant Combs claims she must pay such expenses if Perry makes such a request,” the lawsuit alleges. “This leaves the taxpayer without the ability to prevent them, without judicial review.”

No doubt there are partisan motives here as well, but at least the legal question is more interesting. State Rep. Joe Deshotel requested an AG opinion about what the limits and requirements are for an indicted Governor billing the state for his or her legal fees. According to the Trib story, then-AG John Cornyn opined in 2000 that public servants who bill the government for criminal defense lawyers must be declared innocent first. So whatever the motivation, it seems fair to say that the issue here is not settled. Any thoughts on how this one might play out?

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Early Matters presents its case

They’ve got a good coalition. Let’s see where they can go with it.

Access to preschool programs – and their quality – varies widely across Texas. A broad coalition of Houston-area executives, educators and nonprofit groups assembled by Houston’s premier business organization is working to change that, though a major hurdle remains: securing funding in a state that ranks toward the bottom in pre-K spending per pupil.

The coalition’s 10-year plan, to be released Friday, calls for full-day pre-K classes for all disadvantaged 4-year-olds, with tuition required for wealthier families; lower student-to-teacher ratios; higher standards for private child care providers; and parent education to help ready their toddlers for school.

Leaders of the local group, called Early Matters, say they plan to lobby the state for more money – an estimated $700 million to extend full-day pre-K to the hundreds of thousands of 4-year-olds from disadvantaged families in Texas.

“This is really going to be the job of the Legislature, to really understand that this early investment has a big return,” said Jim Postl, chairman of the coalition, organized by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, have declared preschool education a priority, though they differ on the details. Abbott has focused on improving quality; Davis has championed expansion.

[...]

The Early Matters report calls for no more than 20 students in a class – with one teacher and one aide. Like Alief, several local districts assign one aide to work with two or three teachers to save money.

Postl, the retired chief executive of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., said he expects the Early Matters group will gain more traction than a smaller effort last year – made up of some of the same members – that tried unsuccessfully to get a 1-cent tax hike on the Harris County ballot to increase funding for early childhood education.

In the short term, Postl said, the group does not expect to seek city or county funding for its effort.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Early Matters page on the GHP website. I’ll say again, I think Davis’ plan is the better, but even if you think Abbott’s plan has merit, I see no reason to believe that it’s something he really cares about. There’s nothing in his rhetoric or his record to suggest to me this is a priority for him.

A followup story on Saturday showed some more support for Early Matters.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, in short speeches, expressed general support for the early childhood effort.

“Money is not sufficient, but it is necessary,” Parker said. “So we’re going to have to have hard conversations about how we fund what we need to do.”

Leaders of Early Matters, a group organized by the Greater Houston Partnership, have said they don’t plan to turn to the city or county for significant funding in the short term. An effort last year to get a 1-cent tax increase on the Harris County ballot under an obscure law failed after Emmett said that approach wasn’t legal.

“Early Matters is a program worthy of all our support,” Emmett said Friday about the new initiative, “and we need to make sure that it bears fruit and actually becomes a reality.”

It’s going to take all the voices we can get for that to happen, and if we want the Legislature to take action, we’re going to need to talk to them, and to the Governor. We can make that conversation easier or harder depending on how we vote this year.

Posted in: School days.

Endorsement watch: Ogg for DA

The Chronicle endorses a change in thew Harris County DA’s office.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Houston has changed since the hang ‘em high days of Holmes’ tenure. Our region has grown more diverse, our mentality more mature. While some may look back with nostalgia, for many people – minority communities, taxpayer watchdogs, the wrongly convicted – the old days weren’t that good. The Harris County Criminal Justice Center needs a new direction, and Democratic candidate Kim Ogg is the woman to lead the way.

Devon Anderson has done an admirable job as district attorney, appointed to the position after her husband died of cancer less than a year after his election. She has made important progress in the way the office handles mental health treatment and human trafficking. In spite of these improvements, her eyes are still firmly fixed on the past. As Anderson told the Houston Chronicle editorial board, she wants to restore the office to what it was in the 1990s. Those may have been the best days to be a prosecutor. They weren’t the best days for everyone else in the judicial system. The Criminal Justice Center needs someone who will look to the opportunities of our future. We need someone who understands the big picture. We don’t need a chief prosecutor; we need a CEO.

As a candidate for district attorney, Ogg, 54, already seems better prepared to discuss the office’s policies than the incumbent. This challenger understands that her decisions can have an impact far beyond the courtroom, and she plans to rely on empirical data to direct county resources (and taxpayer dollars) to their best and highest use. Instead of wasting time and money on minor offenders, Ogg will refocus on serious crimes. These may seem like obvious policy solutions, but it is hard to move forward when you’re looking backward.

[...]

When she met with the Chronicle editorial board, Ogg said that her job would be to run one of the largest law firms in the country. It is a job of developing strategy for the future and directing funds to support that strategy. It is a job of setting an attitude that is right for our time, the way Holmes set an attitude for his. It is a job for Kim Ogg.

It’s a good, solid recommendation, for good reasons. The Chron had previously endorsed Mike Anderson in 2012 as the obvious choice over the idiot Lloyd Oliver, and they endorsed Pat Lykos in 2008. I’d thought this might be their first nod to a Democratic DA candidate since the pre-Johnny Holmes era, but an archive search reminded me that they did endorse Reggie McKamie, Chuck Rosenthal’s 2004 opponent. Rereading that article, I see that the Chron was calling for a change in direction for the DA’s office ten years ago as well. Maybe this is the year they’ll get it. Here’s my interview with Kim Ogg if you haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet.

In other recent endorsement news, the Chron went with incumbent County Commissioner Jack Cagle in a race where I didn’t realize he had an opponent, and they recommended five more incumbent Civil District Court judges in their second round of Civil Court endorsements. As was the case in round one, they had nice things to say about the Democratic challengers, most notably Barbara Gardner, whose Q&A responses will run next Tuesday. Finally, they tout a Yes vote for Proposition 1, the sole constitutional amendment on the ballot, which will allocate some rainy day funds for road construction. The Chron has done a good job so far getting these done in a year where there’s a full ballot. They have three more weeks before early voting starts to keep getting it done.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Weekend link dump for September 28

Immunization rates in the toniest LA preschools are in line with immunization rates in developing countries like Chad and South Sudan.

“In short, mainstream economics – and the concept of homo economicusrecognizes only half of what makes us human. We are undoubtedly motivated by self-interest. But we are also fundamentally social creatures.”

I think any time a lawyer dresses like Thomas Jefferson to argue a case in court, there’s a valid claim to be made of incompetent counsel.

Four words: Deep fried sweet tea. I got nothing.

A not so brief history of Wonder Woman.

“Republicans bristle at being called racist in their policies: they feel that Democrats use every opportunity brand any conservative policy as racist. But that’s because they’ve grown so used to their own dog whistles that they don’t even realize that other people can hear them and take offense.”

On Popeye and his pipe and how decisions get made in the business of making cartoons.

I would just about be willing to accept medical malpractice caps if the scammers that foisted that bit of one-percent-protection on us would go after crap like this with an equal amount of fervor.

“A Very Important Celebration Of Bill Cosby’s Greatest Sweaters From ‘The Cosby Show’”.

Maybe Qatar won’t host the World Cup in 2022 after all.

“Ten years ago, on Wednesday, September 22, ABC premiered an epic adventure drama that had a stratospheric budget, a big premise and a sprawling cast, none of whom were stars [...] You know it as Lost.” See also this amazing timeline of everything that happened on Lost.

Now you can have it your way at McDonald’s, if having it your way involves eating at a McDonald’s. Oh, and there is no “assembly line” at Five Guys.

It’s not easy being America’s worst Republican, but Kris Kobach is up to the task.

Google finally concludes that ALEC is evil.

“So, yes: Giant fire-breathing tarantulas attack Los Angeles and, inexplicably, the cast of the 1980s cop comedy franchise Police Academy.” If that’s not a call to set your DVRs, I don’t know what is.

We throw away way too much food.

You can always make a bad situation worse by bringing in Frank Luntz to do your messaging.

I have to admit, Pope Francis is doing a lot to make me almost proud to have been raised Catholic.

But then stuff like this reminds me why I’m not.

Don’t like having your favorite TV shows spoiled? You need more Canadian friends.

Pondering the deep legal questions on the new Gotham show.

A few modern heroes of the ebola epidemic.

Sure is a good thing these guys are the intellectual elite of the conservative movement.

This is the problem in the debate about Obamacare. The two sides live in different informational universes.”

A “Left Behind” throwback Friday. Come mock it all over again, from the beginning.

Yes, beating Sam Brownback would be sweet. But I’m hoping to aim a little higher than that.

The Once Upon A Time/Frozen drinking game. Please enjoy responsibly.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

A thought about the stealth campaign

Forrest Wilder writes about the un-campaigns being run by most statewide Republicans.

“Oozing charm from every pore I oiled my way around the floor”

But now comes a new twist: the art of the non-campaign. The candidate who doesn’t even bother to put on a show, doesn’t even pretend to reach the broad middle of the citizenry and instead appears behind closed doors to small groups of like-minded voters, if he or she appears in public at all.

That’s the kind of campaign that some Texas Republicans are now running, in particular Ken Paxton, who’s favored to become attorney general, and Dan Patrick, who’s the frontrunner for lieutenant governor. Their campaigns are marked by a general refusal to speak with reporters, engage with their opponents, hold press conferences, meet with newspaper editorial boards, publicly announce events in advance, or even run TV ads.

Instead, the two men are running “stealth” campaigns—as the Houston Chronicle recently put it—speaking to tea party gatherings or events closed to the press.

A talk-radio show host not known for his reticence, Patrick ran a boisterous campaign against his three rivals during the GOP lieutenant governor primary and later in a head-to-head runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Now, he’s like the chupacabra: rumored but rarely seen in the flesh.

[...]

Ted Delisi, a GOP consultant quoted in the Chronicle, acknowledged that it’s “not the typical campaigning” but then implausibly tried to coin the approach as not being “covert,” but rather “the new overt.”

If anything, state Sen. Ken Paxton is even more covertly overt. Paxton is the overwhelming favorite to be the next attorney general—he faces an underfunded Democratic attorney with the somewhat helpful name Sam Houston. The highlight of Paxton’s resume so far is that he’s admitted to violating state securities law by accepting kickbacks from an investment firm without disclosing that relationship to regulators or his clients. And apparently he’s not eager to talk about it: Paxton has been almost completely AWOL.

I can find precisely one news account of a public appearance in the last month. On Sept. 8, he was the special guest of honor at a San Jacinto County Republican Party event, where he told the crowd that Obamacare would be “obliterated” if unspecified lawsuits were successful.

This isn’t news, of course. I’ve said before and I’ll say again here, Patrick and Paxton and the other Republican statewides (not counting Greg Abbott) simply aren’t interested in talking to anyone who isn’t a Republican primary voter. They don’t care about them, they’re not going to represent them, so why bother? They’ve already won the races that matter to them, the rest is a mere formality.

Again, none of this is new. But it got me to wondering: What if this lack of overt campaigning has a negative effect on turnout for Republicans?

We all know that the Democratic strategy for this year is based in large part on the unprecedented organizing efforts of Battleground Texas and other groups, with a healthy dose of energy from the Davis and Van de Putte campaigns and a general “had enough” feeling among the faithful. We also know that just as Democratic turnout had been flat for three elections running, Republican turnout had varied. In the landslide of 2010, some 500,000 Republican voters showed up that hadn’t voted in 2006; the vote total was also about 300,000 higher than it was in 2002. The big question – to me, at least – has always been “will those non-habitual 2010 voters show up again in 2014?” Clearly, if they do, then Patrick and Paxton and the rest are indeed on easy street, and they may as well start measuring the drapes and hiring staff. Polling models sure seem to think this is the case, which may be where those gaudy leads for Greg Abbott et al are coming from. Battleground Texas is doing great work, but it would take more than a miracle for Dems to be competitive if the Republican base vote is going to top three million as it did four years ago. If this is the expectation, then Patrick and Paxton’s behavior makes perfect sense even without taking into effect Patrick’s poisonous personality and Paxton’s equally toxic ethics issues.

But what if this isn’t the case? Voting tends to be a habit, which is why pollsters (among others) are so enamored with “likely” voters. Why would we assume that the first-time Republican voters of 2010 will be back for more in 2014? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure some of them will. I don’t know how big a number that “some” is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be 500,000. Suppose instead that their base number is about 2.7 million, or about what they had in 2002. Now things maybe aren’t such a slam dunk for Patrick and Paxton. Let’s say the efforts of BGTX are enough to boost Democratic base turnout to 2.3 million or so, an ambitious and impressive total given the starting point, but hardly out of the question. That brings the GOP’s polling lead down to eight points – right in line with that Wendy Davis internal poll, in other words – and you can imagine the potential to peel away a few more votes from those that might find Patrick and/or Paxton unacceptable. How likely is that? I don’t know, but it’s greater than zero. It’s a very different scenario from the 2010 turnout possibility.

Now I know, turnout is mostly driven by the top of the ticket. But Greg Abbott is running a very different campaign than Rick Perry did in 2010. Where Perry was his usual swaggering self, Abbott has been trying to put a softer face on the same kind of hard-right politics. He’s all about madrinas and overcoming adversity, and has arguably spent more time wooing Democratic voters than any other bloc. That may pay off for him, but there’s no reason to believe that such a voter would continue on to vote for Patrick and Paxton and so forth. More to the point, he’s not running the kind of base-revving campaign that Perry ran in 2010, at least not visibly. There may be stuff going on covertly that I’m not tuned in to, but surely we agree that Perry 2010 and Abbott 2014 are two different beasts. I don’t know how to compare them quantitatively. Maybe they will perform about the same in the end. I just know they’re different, and I wonder what the implications are. If we’re assuming that these previously unlikely Republican voters are going to turn out in droves again this year, and we see that Abbott is running a different campaign than Rick Perry did – whether Abbott’s campaign is different because 2014 is different, or 2014 is different because Abbott’s campaign is different is a rabbit hole I don’t care to climb down – then what else might be driving these people to vote this year?

The obvious answer to that question is “President Obama”, and the Republicans’ unrelenting animosity towards him. I can’t deny the strong possibility of that, but I will offer two points. One is that when given the chance to vote against him in 2012, Republicans turned out at about the same level as they did in 2008, and 2004 for that matter. That’s a different voter universe, of course, but it at least suggests to me that there are some limits to this as a motivating factor. The other is mixed into that chicken-or-egg question I posed above, which is simply that 2014 is different than 2010. The campaigns are different, the candidates are different – remember, outside of the judicial candidates not a single Republican is running for re-election statewide, and only Greg Abbott has been on most people’s ballots before – the issues are different, the economy is in much stronger shape…you get the idea. The end result may well look the same, but right now this election doesn’t resemble 2010 at all. Why should we assume that it will?

And that’s my main point here. A lot of what we’re seeing in this campaign seems to be based on the assumption that this election will be like the 2010 election, despite all of the obvious differences. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t – maybe these differences won’t amount to much – but I’d at least like to see it acknowledged that the assumption is being made.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Abbott appeals school finance case to Supreme Court

No surprise.

Still not Greg Abbott

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Friday appealed to the Texas Supreme Court a district court finding that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional.

State District Judge John Dietz’s Aug. 30 ruling called Texas’ current school finance system inefficient and inadequate, saying it created an de facto statewide property tax in violation of state law. The decision, a reaffirmation of his 2013 ruling, was a huge victory for the 600 school districts that sued the state after $5.4 billion was stripped from the public education budget in 2011.

Abbott’s office could have appealed to a lower appellate court. But it was widely suspected he would expedite the legal process by requesting the state’s highest civil court hear the case.

Lawmakers could avoid further litigation by addressing the system’s problems in the session that begins in January, but many agree they will wait for a court ruling to take action. Education leaders and policymakers are expecting a special session next year on school finance, since the state Supreme Court is unlikely to hear and issue a decision on the case before the regular session is over in June.

See here for the last update. Abbott of course also had the option of seeking to settle the suit rather than continue to pursue appeals, for which the Texas AFT took him to task. Despite his claim in the debate that he is barred by law from seeking a settlement, he is empowered to do so as long as he gets legislative approval of any settlement he wishes to make. That he doesn’t want to settle but instead is hoping to prevail at the Supreme Court so he wouldn’t have to spend more money on education as Governor should be clear by now. It’s his choice to make, and now he’s made it. The Trib has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Dan Patrick loves the poor folks

He says so himself, so it must be true.

“Oozing charm from every pore I oiled my way around the floor”

State Sen. Dan Patrick told a wealthy Houston business group Thursday that he would advocate for the poor and people of color if elected lieutenant governor in November, at one point advocating compassion toward immigrants who brave dangers to cross Texas’ southern border.

The shift in tone was noteworthy coming from the Republican Houston senator and talk radio host, whose earlier rhetoric on immigration and border security often included talk of an “illegal invasion” and claims that immigrants are bringing Third World diseases into this country.

Instead, Patrick, who rode that tough talk and tea party support to a trouncing of incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a May primary runoff, pitched his education and immigration platforms as a recognition of the disadvantages that low-income Americans face.

Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told the Houston Realty Business Coalition that the rich already have school choice, but the poor do not.

“If you’re rich enough – some of you in here, or maybe you work a second job to make it happen – send your kids to private school. And if you’re mobile enough, you move to the suburbs for better schools,” Patrick said. “We don’t have white flight in Texas – we have school flight.”

Children in inner-city schools – who Patrick said mostly are “black or brown” – are poorly represented by the Democratic Party, he said. The candidate said he would champion these families.

So he’s basically pushing vouchers, which is to say the same old shibboleth despite the utter lack of evidence that it solves any problems or serves as anything but a wealth transfer to people whose kids already attend private schools. Lisa Falkenberg takes him to task on this, and I’ll leave the heavy lifting to her. She doesn’t have the space to get into Patrick’s self-professed “compassion” for immigrants, which is pretty damn rich from a fervent supporter of “sanctuary cities” and fervent opponent of the 2001 Texas DREAM Act. There’s also his support for raising the sales tax to finance a property tax cut, which would benefit rich people like Dan Patrick at the expense of just about anyone that doesn’t own an expensive house. One could go on and one, but you get the point.

But let’s not get bogged down in details here. Let’s note instead the great humor of Patrick saying all this stuff in front of a bunch of wealthy business types, none of whom care about any of that and who were all no doubt impatiently waiting for him to get to the part where he tells them how much he’s gonna cut their taxes and all. Let’s take him at his word for a moment that he’s filled with compassion for the poor and the immigrants and that he’d like nothing more than to help them. What’s stopping him from delivering his message directly to the people that he so badly wants to help and the advocacy groups that work with the Legislature on their behalf? Instead of glad-handing a bunch of fat cats that are already in his pocket, why not address a group of low-income residents at a Neighborhoods Center or the like? Tell them you understand their concerns, listen to their stories, answer their questions, propose your solutions, and ask for their votes. It’s called “campaigning”. Patrick could have done that any time he wanted to this summer, instead of sneaking around from one tea party event to another. He could still do it now, though he’d also have to address the question of what took him so long. But hey, better late than never, right? Maybe Sen. Van de Putte can ask him about it at tomorrow night’s debate. Regardless, when he does do that, then we can talk about how genuine his “compassion” is and how seriously we ought to take his ideas. Until then, a healthy dose of skepticism and a regular serving of snark remain the recommended responses.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Food trucks arrive downtown

Welcome.

Houston’s foodie community rejoiced Friday as Mayor Annise Parker welcomed propane-fueled food trucks downtown after a years-long ban, but more plans to loosen the city’s mobile unit rules are not likely to meet the same fanfare at City Council in the coming months.

Parker bypassed council to remove the restriction on propane-fueled food trucks downtown, citing a fire marshal opinion that tanks weighing up to 60 pounds are safe.

“It may not seem like the most important issue the city could address,” said Parker, standing in front of a colorful food truck, The Modular, across from City Hall on Friday. “But believe me, if you invest in a food truck, you want to serve great food to Houstonians, this absolutely makes a difference.”

Two other industry changes on Parker’ food trucks agenda – letting the trucks use tables and chairs and removing 60-foot spacing requirements between mobile units – need to go through council members, whose opinions on food trucks vary by district.

[...]

Council Member Brenda Stardig has proved a particularly vocal critic, calling for more food truck inspectors.

“I’m not against food trucks,” Stardig said. “There are some really cool ones. But some of the ones that historically we’ve had in District A, they set up shop permanently. Until we have the ability to have more inspectors, less regulation and opening it to a broader market is a concern.”

Council Member Robert Gallegos also said he would like to ramp up enforcement before loosening the rules. Gallegos’ district runs from downtown to the East End.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” he said. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

See here for the background. CMs Stardig and Gallegos have valid concerns, and the city says they are working to address those concerns. It should be noted that the city has more food truck inspectors per capita (three for 800 trucks, or one for every 267) than it does restaurant inspectors (30 for 13,000, or one for every 433). I hope we can agree on what needs to be done to address the issues that have been raised so we can move forward on this.

Posted in: Food, glorious food.

Saturday video break: Dancing Queen

All hail ABBA:

Did they know how to craft pop music or what? It’s not a surprise that the concept of a jukebox musical, where all the songs are taken from a single artist, has had its best success with “Mamma Mia” and its killer mix of ABBA tunes.

My daughters have seen this movie about a billion times, because my in-laws have it and my father-in-law has a thing for Meryl Streep. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Posted in: Music.

Metro board approves updated bus reimagining plan

With some provisos.

Despite vocal opposition, Metropolitan Transit Authority board members tentatively approved sweeping changes to the bus route system that restructure routes and change daily habits for nearly everyone who uses a bus today. The approval authorizes staff to move forward with scheduling and other features, but it doesn’t close off public comment.

“We can continue to work with the community and continue to work with elected officials,” said board member Christof Spieler, one of the champions of the so-called reimagining plan.

Community leaders and elected officials asked Metro to delay their decision for a month.

“Once you vote on it, they are in concrete,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat who represents large portions of northeast Houston affected by the service changes.

Board members settled on letting staff move forward, but in a way that permits concerned riders to voice their opposition over the next two months.

[...]

To pull off the major changes, staff will have to plan schedules for 270 routes. Some have different hours for weekdays and weekends, while others have peak schedules when ridership is highest. It is expected to take months to finalize the work, then hold more public meetings to gauge reaction before switching to the new routes in June.

Metro will continue to solicit input from the public on the plan, and will continue to make adjustments as they go. A lot of the opposition came from residents of the Fifth Ward, and a lot of their concern had to do with the proposed flex routes, which are a new and unproven idea in Houston though they’ve been used elsewhere. The Fifth Ward has a population that is both transit-dependent and shrinking, which is a tough problem to grapple with. As Christof Spieler points out in the story, there are places in Houston like Gulfton that are of a similar socioeconomic profile and equally transit dependent but which have much denser populations. These areas, which have been underserved by Metro in the past, stand to be big winners from the new bus service. How do you balance the needs while staying within the budget? There are no easy answers. Metro’s press release is here, Texas Leftist has more.

The Metro board took action on a couple of other items as well. The Highwayman reports:

Metro moved forward with other issues, but many uncertainties remain. Board members approved resolving a spat between Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation over a planned elevated bus lane along Loop 610 in the Uptown area.

The elevated lane is part of a project, led by the Uptown Houston Management District, involving dedicated bus lanes and rapid service along Post Oak Boulevard. TxDOT, which previously committed $25 million to the elevated lane, asked Metro for assurances that the project was not a precursor to rail development.

Metro officials balked at the TxDOT agreement, fearing it violated the 2003 referendum voters approved for rail projects in the Houston area. Thursday, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia proposed approving the agreement, with the caveat that Attorney General Greg Abbott verify it doesn’t violate the referendum.

“I don’t want Metro for any way to be the reason this project is not going forward,” Garcia said.

The board also agreed that any future rail development along Post Oak would require voter approval.

Meanwhile, after acknowledging delays in opening the new Green and Purple light rail lines, Metro officials said they expect both new lines will open April 4. The delay was caused by downtown hotel construction that severed a chilled water line that required repairs to the rail system, and problems with axle counters along the lines caused by a manufacturer’s defect.

See here for the background on the former, and here for the latter. I hate giving in to the TTC’s strongarming, but the project does need to go forward, and Metro was in a precarious position. At least they have an option if the AG opinion goes their way. As for the new opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, all I can say is that I sure hope this is the last time it needs to be pushed back. Metro’s press release on that is here.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Paxton investigation put off till after the election

I can’t really argue with this.

Sen. Ken Paxton

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office will not pursue legal action against attorney general candidate state Sen. Ken Paxton until after the election, if at all, because of an internal policy aimed at preventing politically motivated investigations in campaign season.

The postponed timeline could be problematic for Paxton, a Republican from McKinney, regarded as the race’s front-runner. If the district attorney launches criminal proceedings after November, Paxton potentially could face a grand jury investigation in his first few months as a statewide elected official.

Gregg Cox, head of the Travis County District Attorney Office’s Public Integrity Unit that investigates cases of public corruption, would not address Paxton’s case, but said the policy is long-standing.

“That’s been the policy for many, many years and we’ve always pretty much adhered to it,” Cox said. “We get so many complaints, especially around election time.”

[...]

On Wednesday, [Democratic AG candidate Sam] Houston called again for Paxton to address the issue with the public – either in a press conference or debate – before the election.

“I am not sure why there has been no action in investigating Mr. Paxton, but justice should never be delayed,” said Houston, a Houston lawyer and former candidate for the Texas Supreme Court. “He is running for office and refuses to answer all questions at all. How can we expect him to defend Texas if he can’t defend himself?”

Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald said he did not think the policy was applicable to Paxton’s case.

“In our mind, compelling circumstances means an election in this case. He’s running to be the top law enforcement officer of this state and if he’s broken the law, people need to know before November,” said McDonald, who added the TPJ does not align itself with Houston.

“We’re disappointed that the policy is working against a Ken Paxton investigation. But, we understand that the policy is appropriate in other circumstances.”

It would have been better to get an answer to this question before the election, but I can totally see where the Public Integrity Unit is coming from. They would rather not get caught in a political crossfire, and I can’t blame them for it. Ultimately, what matters is that we get an answer one way or another. Ken Paxton, if he has any capacity for self awareness, knows if he’s truly in trouble or not, and if he had any honor and knew he was headed for a fall he’d do the right thing and withdraw from the race. Needless to say, I don’t expect him to do that. The Trib has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Free WiFi finally comes to Houston’s airports

Hallelujah.

Travelers to Houston’s largest airports will now have access to free WiFi.

The service will be available in all terminals at Hobby Airport and in Terminals A and D at Bush Intercontinental for the tens of millions of travelers through the airports each year, the Houston Airport System announced Monday.

The service will roll out in phases at Intercontinental over the next few months to be completed by year’s end.

Airport officials say the new free network will have faster speeds than the previous fee-based system.

“This new system improves speed and reliability, and it also introduces our customers to one of the most robust WiFi networks found in any U.S. airport,” Houston aviation Director Mario Diaz said in a statement.

[...]

In Texas, Hobby and Bush will be among the last major airports to offer mostly free WiFi access. The main commercial airports in Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso all offer complimentary connections.

George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, which tracks the WiFi options at domestic and international airports, said airports always compete with each other for service and traffic and WiFi has become expected among travelers. He said almost everyone will use the WiFi with either a tablet, smartphone or laptop during long layovers or between flights.

“People can connect with different airports, they don’t have to go through Houston,” Hobica said. “Some hotels have gyms that nobody uses, but people will use WiFi. Everybody has a device when they travel. … When airports don’t have free WiFi, people say, ‘Really?’ ”

I’ll just say this: Last year, my family and I flew to Denver for a wedding. The best fare we got included a four-hour layover in Amarillo on the return flight. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much to see or do at the Amarillo airport, but they did have free WiFi, so it was bearable. If the Amarillo airport can have free WiFi, there was no reason on God’s green earth why Houston’s airports couldn’t have it. I’m delighted we finally have it, but geez it took ‘em long enough. The HAS press release is here, and the Fly2Houston webpage has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

On school districts selling stadium naming rights

Raise your hand if this surprises you.

YourNameHereStadium

When Bert Brocker wanted to advertise his auto business on the entrances of New Caney ISD’s new football stadium recently, the district offered another, bigger possibility: Naming rights to the entire $20 million, 8,000-seat facility.

Brocker, who runs the Texan GMC and Texan Dodge auto dealerships in Humble, said the new complex was right in his market, so he jumped at the opportunity.

“It was for me almost a no-brainer,” Brocker said.

For $60,000 per year for five years, Brocker bought the rights – and New Caney’s facility was named Texan Drive Stadium, part of a larger partnership between the business and the school district that also includes live streaming of athletic events and sponsoring sports camps.

The New Caney district has joined the growing ranks of Houston-area school districts to sell the naming rights for its sports facilities, allowing them to be used to promote private businesses. The practice has stirred debate in recent years over the role and effect of advertising in education.

Conroe ISD sold the naming rights to its stadium in 2007, and Humble ISD has done so for its field, entryways and suite.

While some criticize selling naming rights or advertising in school facilities as detrimental to a child’s education, experts and industry officials say the practice has grown in recent years, as schools explore different methods for raising money and businesses recognize the value of publicizing their brand in public schools.

“It’s a win-win opportunity for Texan and for us,” said Brent Sipe, athletic director for New Caney, located about 20 miles east of The Woodlands.

[...]

Faith Boninger, a research associate at the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center, which has been researching advertising and commercialism in education for more than a decade, said selling naming rights to a stadium and other advertising initiatives like New Caney’s can promote a sense of materialism and commercialism in schools.

“We like to think of school as being separated from that, kind of protected from that, a place where students can entertain options for themselves that are other than the consumerist perspective,” Boninger said.

In some cases, Boninger said, advertisements can harm a child’s psychological and physical well-being. For example, an advertisement or sponsorship from a company that sells cosmetics might create self-esteem issues for some students, or a fast-food company ad could promote unhealthy eating habits.

The center has been looking for ways to quantify and assess the magnitude of such effects.

I feel the same way about this as I do about advertising on school buses and rooftops: In an ideal world this wouldn’t happen, but given today’s realities I can’t think of a good reason to deny schools or school districts this kind of easy money. When the Legislature truly funds our schools in an adequate and equitable manner, then we can talk. Beyond that, the only surprise here to me is that this hasn’t been going on longer.

Posted in: School days.

Friday random ten: Call me Steve

Just not Steve Jobs. I mean seriously, just try to do a Google search of “Steve” without tripping over a zillion Steve Jobs links.

1. Nothin’ To Do But Today – Stephen Stills
2. Copperhead Road – Steve Earle
3. Dumbledore – Steve Goodie
4. It’s All Too Much – Steve Hillage
5. The Joker – Steve Miller Band
6. Alfie – Steve Tyrell
7. Too Much Monkey Business – Steve Winwood
8. Landslide – Stevie Nicks
9. Willie The Wimp – Stevie Ray Vaughan
10. Fingertips, part 2 – Stevie Wonder

“Dumbledore” is of course a parody of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Hardware Store”, and it’s quite epic:

You can get it and other covers and tributes to the Weird One here.

Posted in: Music.

Abbott and the Latino vote

I have four things to say about this.

Still not Greg Abbott

When Lily Benitez pulled into her driveway in the Donesta neighborhood here Saturday morning, she was surprised to see Greg Abbott coming toward her. It wasn’t just because he’s the attorney general of Texas and a candidate for governor.

It was also because he’s a Republican, and this patch of borderland happens to be the most reliably Democratic part of the state.

“I’m a Democrat,” Benitez said somewhat sheepishly to the reporters following Abbott around as he visited several neighborhoods. “I never thought I would see him here, so I will have to look into it.”

Abbott is betting that enough voters like Benitez, who works at a local bank, will make a rare swing over to the Republican Party this year and help him break the Democrats’ near lock on deep South Texas.

“I think we have a legitimate shot at either winning the Rio Grande Valley” or coming close, Abbott told reporters Saturday after a rally here. “There has never been this level of outreach and expenditure by a Republican.”

Winning a large piece of the South Texas Hispanic vote would be a major coup for Abbott — and a sign that GOP leaders are preparing for the future. The Latino population is exploding in Texas, and Republicans could lose their grip on statewide office if their performance with Hispanic voters doesn’t improve.

1. I confess to being a little concerned about Abbott’s outreach efforts, however superficial they may be. As they say, a big part of success in life is just showing up. Abbott is doing that, which is more than all of his statewide ticket-mates are doing. There are a lot of people who need to be asked for their vote, but if you do ask them, they will at least consider giving it to you. All that said, there’s nothing in this story to indicate that Abbott is making any gains. There are no quotes from Democrats who say they will vote for him, and no quotes from local Republicans who say that Abbott’s efforts have boosted or energized them in any way. The one actual supporter they quoted was one of the people from elsewhere that Abbott’s campaign bused into McAllen for the debate. Maybe the Trib didn’t go looking for any such people, but you’d think the Abbott campaign would have been happy to point them to some if they had any at hand. Even the door-knocking event that opens the Trib story was apparently little more than a photo op, as Peggy Fikac’s account of the encounter with this same voter makes clear. Again, Abbott is making a wise investment by wooing Latino voters, and just making the effort ought to help him, but if this is any indication there’s not much there.

2. What exactly does Abbott have to offer Latino voters? According to the story, there are two things: He married a Latina, and he’s anti-abortion. All those other issues – education, health care, immigration, transportation, water, etc etc etc – go unmentioned, because who cares about them when he’s got a madrina? As far as abortion goes, Latinos are actually more pro-choice than you might think. For a more specific illustration of that, here’s the record vote in the House on HB2 from last summer. This is the list of Latino Democrats that voted FOR HB2:

Guillen; Herrero; Martinez

And here is the list of Latino Democrats that voted AGAINST HB2:

Alonzo; Alvarado; Anchia; Canales; Cortez; Deshotel; Farias; Farrar; Gonzalez, M.; Gonzalez, N.; Guerra; Gutierrez; Hernandez Luna; Lucio; Marquez; Martinez Fischer; Menendez; Nevarez; Oliveira; Perez; Raymond; Rodriguez, E.; Rodriguez, J.; Villarreal; Walle

For those keeping score at home, that’s 3 Yeas and 25 Nays. In the Senate, it was 1 Yea and 6 Nays, including two (Zaffirini and Uresti) that had voted for the sonogram bill in 2011. Any questions?

3. More generally, why do we think that pro-life Democrats are any more likely to cross over than any other partisans? If there’s been any research on this topic, I haven’t seen or heard of it. Democrats remain a fairly broad tent, but overall both parties are a lot more ideologically aligned than they have ever been. As such, the sort of culturally conservative person that had historically been a Democrat is for the most part a Republican already. This includes a lot of people that jumped ship over the abortion issue. The pro-life Dems that remain, it seems to me, must be very well aligned with the Party on most other policy matters, or maybe they’re just Democrats deep in their bones. Either way, I don’t see why they would be more likely to stray in this race than any other bloc of voters that has a beef with a particular party plank. (See, for instance, the Log Cabin Republicans, however many of them there are left.) Show me some data on this, or I will consider it to be another unsupported article of faith.

4. I look forward to the Trib’s story on Wendy Davis and Battleground Texas bringing their campaign to traditionally Republican strongholds like Collin and Williamson Counties.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Firefighter pension board makes an offer to the city

This was unexpected.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The trustees of Houston’s firefighter pension, who for years have fought the mere mention of changes to benefits as Houston’s enormous pension burden has continued to grow, now are shopping a compromise proposal.

Fire pension leaders say they simply are trying to save the city money as it approaches several years of deep budget deficits.

Reaction to the plan is mixed, however, with skeptics viewing it as a shrewd political maneuver aimed at avoiding broader reforms with an offer of modest savings, and others inclined to applaud any dialogue as progress.

The trustees’ alternative would not touch current or future firefighters’ benefits, but would have them contribute 12 percent of their paychecks into the pension fund, up from 9 percent now. The proposal also would change the way assets in the fund are valued, dropping the amount the city would need to contribute if investment returns are strong – as they have been in recent years – and increasing the city’s costs if returns are sluggish.

The fire pension board projects its plan – which assumes annual investment returns of 8.5 percent and yearly 3 percent raises for firefighters – would save the city $82 million over three years, and nearly $500 million in the next two decades.

Board Chairman Todd Clark would not discuss the details, citing ongoing talks, but said his team is “meeting with the mayor to come up with a proposal that will protect new hires and help the city with their budget issues.”

Mayor Annise Parker called the trustees’ idea “a pleasant surprise” on their willingness to talk.

“The offer from the pension is for individual firefighters to contribute more of their take-home pay toward their pension. That’s a very generous offer and we are appreciative, but it reflects no true pension reform,” the mayor said. “So, we countered back with the things we’ve been talking about since the beginning of my administration, things like caps on cost of living adjustments, the ability to have meet and confer.”

Interesting. The surprise is that they made any offer at all to the city, which has not been their strategy lately. As we know, the city has no leverage over the firefighters’ pension fund, and the the board’s position has been that the city needs to meet their obligations to them. I don’t know if this was motivated by the recent proposal by Mayor Parker to implement a different pension plan for new hires to HFD or by something else, but it’s worth seeing if this goes anywhere. What do you think?

Posted in: Local politics.

The “Everybody does it” defense

You knew it was coming.

Alicia Franklin

A prominent line of defense has emerged for a newly appointed family court judge accused this month of false billing when she was working as a court-appointed lawyer representing abused children: Everybody does it.

District Court Judge Alicia Franklin, the subject of a criminal complaint alleging she broke the law by billing for more than 24 hours of work in a single day as a court-appointed lawyer in Child Protective Services cases, has explained the high hours by saying she was billing for work done by associates and support staff.

Her supporters say the payment voucher that lawyers submit for approval to the judges who appoint them does not include a place to indicate that anyone else worked on the case, which is why it appears that Franklin did everything, from home visits to post office runs to filing court documents. They also say that billing for associates or support staff is commonplace among lawyers, including those who primarily perform court-appointed work.

See here and here for the background. There’s just one problem with this line of defense for Judge Franklin: The law says you can’t do that.

The applicable section of the Texas Family Code, which dictates what fees the attorneys can charge, says they “shall complete and submit to the court a voucher or claim for payment that lists the fees charged and hours worked by the guardian ad litem or attorney ad litem.”

An attorney ad litem is one appointed by a judge to represent the interests of a child or a person deemed legally incompetent.

“It sure does imply that it has to be hours worked by the actual ad litem and, I would think, especially for substantive work as opposed to more clerical things,” said Austin family lawyer Jimmy Vaught, chair of the family law section of the State Bar of Texas.

Vaught said he itemizes bills for private clients so they know what they are being charged for and said he would expect the same, or higher, standards for taxpayer-funded work.

His predecessor, Houston family lawyer Sherri Evans, the immediate past chair of the family law section, noted that the statute says “shall” rather than “may.”

Arlington-based family lawyer Toby Goodman, a former state representative who authored the 2003 bill that put that family code provision into place, said he has no problem with court-appointed lawyers billing for work done by associates or support staff but would expect it to be meticulously itemized and for the rates charged to be different for work done by the lawyers versus work done by their associates and staff, as it is in the private sector.

“If this particular judge is billing 24 hours out a day for her time and it’s not broken out, that’s inappropriate,” he said.

And now David Farr, the administrative judge for the nine family courts, has said he will start requiring lawyers he appoints to cases in his 312th District Court to sign a form swearing that they have billed only for time they personally incurred, unless they have permission to do otherwise. If nothing else, that ought to eliminate the wiggle room and ensure everyone is on the same page. I hope the other Family Court judges follow this lead.

Finally, while the story goes over Greg Enos’ role in all this, Enos is hardly sitting idle. His September 16 newsletter continues his investigation into the shady practices of Gary Polland, and he provides what he considers to be a better (though not sufficient) defense of Alicia Franklin. Check it out.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Public meetings coming for Texas Central Railway

Part of the process of getting the Houston-to-Dallas line built.

A proposed high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston, already the subject of a federal environmental review, will soon be the focus of a series of public meetings in Texas, according to the president of the firm looking to build the line.

The Texas Department of Transportation will lead the six meetings next month in Dallas, Houston and other locations in between, Robert Eckels, the head of Texas Central Railway, said Saturday at The Texas Tribune Festival. Residents in the potentially affected regions will be invited to ask questions about the proposal. The meetings will be conducted as part of the federal environmental review.

“We’ll talk about alternative routes and the impact on the communities and let people actually see the route on the map,” Eckels said. “We’ll talk about what our vision is.”

Texas Central is attempting to build a multibillion-dollar direct line between Dallas and Houston that will transport travelers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes or less — without public subsidies. Eckels said Saturday that he expects the train to run daily every 30 minutes between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m.

“What we’re finding in most of these small towns is that they want this train to come through here,” Eckels said. “We’re not expecting” a controversy over this.

I wonder if that means they expect, or at least hope, that the train will make some stops in their towns. I don’t think that’s part of the plan, but who knows what the future might hold. It may be that they see benefits to them even without a station in their vicinity. Anyway, look for an announcement soon about a public meeting near you.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Judicial Q&A: Kim Bohannon Hoesl

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Kim Bohannon Hoesl

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Kim Bohannon Hoesl, and I am the Democratic candidate for judge of Harris County Probate Court No. One.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Harris County is fortunate in having four statutory probate courts which have exclusive jurisdiction over probate matters. In other counties, in contrast, probate matters may be heard in county civil courts or district civil courts. But in Harris County, the probate courts are the exclusive court for probate which generally includes two types of matters: the administration of probate estates and the administration of guardianships.
Those duties involve both administrative-type tasks such as ensuring that wills comply with state law, and judicial tasks, such as adjudicating contested issues, including formal lawsuits. On the guardianship side, the Court also has to ensure that the rights of the proposed/actual ward are respected. It is these latter functions that test the mettle of the bench. To properly perform these duties, the judge must be able to navigate the ins and outs of litigation, and must be able to put the interests of the litigants (including the wards) first.

Finally, Probate Courts Three and Four also hear the mental health docket in Harris County. This is where cases involving forced medication and commitments are heard.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I have practiced civil and commercial litigation, including in the probate context, for over ten years. The first thing a client wants is an estimate of their chances of winning in a particular dispute. As the attorney, one of my jobs is to evaluate the facts and the law as they apply to the dispute, and then provide some information on the client’s position so that the client may make an informed decision in their case. In order to do that, however, I have to assume that the judge will listen to the facts, will know the law, and will fairly and justly apply the law to those facts. In practice, this assumption is far too often wrong. When a judge is unwilling to listen to the facts of a case, or is convinced of their own knowledge as to which side should win or lose, or is unfamiliar with the law at issue, it is nearly impossible to gauge my client’s chances of prevailing on anything. There is no justice in that situation, only arbitrary ruling.

I decided to run for judge because I believe we need fresh perspectives on the bench, and our citizens need experienced judges who are willing to hear the facts and apply the law. I decided to run for probate judge in particular because I found that often times, in both Harris County and in other counties, the probate bench simply did not have the trial experience necessary to effectively manage contested issues.

This is not to say that our current probate judges have no probate experience. Oftentimes, as is true of my Republican opponent, the candidate comes to the bench with many years of probate practice under their belts. That practice generally includes estate planning, drafting estate-related documents, shepherding wills through the probate process, assisting an administrator in managing an estate, applying for guardianships, and assisting guardians. And, on occasion, a contested issue may arise.

However, a probate judge is not planning estates, drafting wills, or even drafting guardianship applications. A probate judge is not analyzing various tax consequences for different estate plans. The key role played by the probate judge is the management of disputes during the probate process. Disputes could range from will contests, to contested guardianship proceedings, and even full-blown civil litigation that could include issues as disparate as fiduciary duty claims, contract claims, business management claims, personal injury claims, and wrongful death claims. The probate judge is a critical cog in the wheels of justice, and must effectively manage the dispute at every stage. This includes pleadings, motion practice, shepherding the discovery process, managing jury trials, and faithfully guarding and protecting the rights of the litigants, all the while upholding the law.

In other words, the probate judge should be experienced in litigation and should be prepared to make tough decisions so that litigants get their day in court. It is these contested issues, the disputes and the trials, that demand the most from a judge. When the judge is not up to par, the litigants pay the price. I have seen litigants pay that price far too often. I am running for probate judge to make sure that, in my court, every litigant gets their day in court, in a timely and efficient manner, because justice delayed is simply justice denied.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced nothing but civil litigation with the same firm for over ten years. My practice involves a diverse range of cases including fiduciary litigation (for example, suits against corporate officers and directors, suits by and against executors and trustees), contract disputes, intellectual property disputes (trade secrets, copyright infringement), business divorce, personal injury, and, of course, probate and trust litigation.

My experience includes the full range of litigation activity, beginning with investigation, drafting pleadings, managing discovery, conducting depositions, working with experts, selecting juries, managing trials, and following through with appeals. I have argued legal issues before trial courts and probate courts, before the First Court of Appeals, and before the Texas Supreme Court. Finally, my practice includes transactional matters such as business filings, will drafting, probating wills, and working with executors and trustees.

I also have some experience with the behind-the-scenes organization of the Harris County courts. Before attending, and during, law school, I worked for the Administrative Office of the District Courts, which provided the office support for the district judges, including the court coordinators, court reporters, visiting judge assignments, and managing the qualification and selection process for court-appointed attorneys. A similar support system is in place for the county courts, which include the probate courts. Accordingly, while I have not yet served as a judge, I do have familiarity with the administrative system within which the judge operates.

5. Why is this race important?

When a litigant comes to the probate court, they are usually dealing with very intimate and personal family matters that involve loss, grief, and pain. Perhaps a loved one has recently passed away and their estate needs to be settled. Perhaps a beloved parent has reached a point where they can no longer take care of themselves, and a guardianship is needed. These events in our lives are difficult enough, even when there is no dispute involved.

However, if there is a dispute, such as a family member contesting the will or claiming that an executor breached a fiduciary duty, we end up with a very different scenario. Now, the pain of this family loss is drawn out in a legal battle that strains family relationships and drains family budgets. Here is where the kind of judge on the bench can make a huge difference in the justice that the litigants receive. An experienced probate judge can shepherd the dispute effectively, ensuring that the law is upheld and that justice is served in a timely and efficient manner. A judge with little litigation experience, on the other hand, can prolong the already-too long process, increase the family trauma, and essentially deny the litigants any effective resolution.

Finally, in our probate bar, there is a definite impression of what some may call “cronyism.” In other words, the small probate bench and the small probate bar are very familiar with each other. Harris County probate courts employ an appointment system for the appointment of ad litem attorneys in certain cases. The informal nature of the system and the familiarity of the bench and bar do not promote much confidence in the impartiality or fairness of the system. Instead, this situation invites the perception that the judges and the attorneys are too cozy, often using the appointments as rewards. When a litigant sees the attorneys in their dispute in cozy conversation with the bench, or learn that the opposing attorney handles many appointments from the court, it is not surprising that the litigant may believe the deck is already stacked against them.
Regardless of whether actual favoritism exists, it is the appearance of favoritism that is a problem. I bring independence to the bench because my background is from outside the probate bar. I stand apart from those attorneys and from the alliances among them. I intend to fulfill the role of the impartial justice, beholden to no lawyer or firm, relying solely upon the law and the facts. For appointments, I will endeavor to enact a selection system based on the needs of the litigant and the qualifications of the attorney, and nothing else. I believe that is the only way that justice can be served.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

Every citizen has the right to have their case heard:

  • in a timely manner;
  • by a court that listens to the facts with fresh ears, regardless of how many times similar facts may have come before the court; and
  • by a court that is knowledgeable of both the law and the process necessary for justice.

I have the right experience and the necessary independence that our probate court system desperately needs to achieve this goal.

Posted in: Election 2014.

McCrum slaps back at Perry

Interesting legal strategy.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

You can’t afford this corndog’s hourly rate

The special prosecutor in the criminal case against Rick Perry said Tuesday that the governor is asking for “special favors” and that his activities, including a rally when he was booked, are making a mockery of the justice system.

“I don’t think there’s any reason why Mr. Perry should be treated any differently from any other citizen who’s required to be in court,” special prosecutor Michael McCrum said of a request by Perry’s lawyers that he be allowed to skip a pretrial hearing.

“He’s asking for special favors, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s not entitled to it,” McCrum, a San Antonio lawyer, said in an interview.

Besides looking askance at Perry’s courthouse booking rally, McCrum referred to him “smirking.”

“I’ve never seen a defendant make such a mockery of our system of justice,” he said.

I basically agree with McCrum’s assessment of Perry, but I don’t see the point in airing these opinions publicly. It’s wrestling with a pig, with the same likely result. I think McCrum is better served playing it right down the middle and leaving the grandstanding to Perry’s team. Make your case to the judge and leave it at that.

Despite his complaints, McCrum is apparently willing to work with Perry and his travel schedule, at least for future hearings. The request for an all-purpose get-out-of-attending-the-hearings pass, however, doesn’t fly with McCrum.

“The state does object to Mr. Perry’s request to be permitted to not appear in court at all ‘future non-evidentiary hearings’ in this case,” wrote Mike McCrum, the San Antonio lawyer who was appointed special prosecutor in the case. “From carpenters to lawyers to judges accused of anything from tickets to federal felonies, all are expected to appear in court.”

McCrum’s statements came in a three-page response to a request by Perry lawyer David Botsford to Visiting Judge Bert Richardson that the governor be excused from an Oct. 13 court hearing and all other hearings before his trial.

[...]

“It is certainly not unusual for a judge to waive a defendant’s presence at a non-evidentiary pretrial hearing,” the Perry legal team wrote. “This is normally addressed by a verbal request to the Court, and in 37 years of practicing criminal defense, Mr. Botsford has never encountered a prosecutor who opposed such a request, in state or federal court. However, due to Mr. McCrum’s opposition, this motion is being filed.”

McCrum rejected the Perry team’s assertion that having the governor excused from pretrial hearings was nothing out of the ordinary.

“The common practice in Travis County, Texas, is that defendants must appear at all pretrial court settings, regardless of whether it is anticipated the court setting will be ‘evidentiary’ in scope,” McCrum wrote.

McCrum also accused the governor’s legal counsel of asking for “special favor” by requesting a “blanket” waiver of appearance to all pre-trial hearings for the governor.

Game on. I can understand McCrum’s frustration, but I still think he should stifle the urge to express it publicly in the future, at least outside the courtroom. In the meantime, McCrum has hired Austin attorney David Gonzalez to assist on the case, presumably pending approval from the judge. The next hearing in this case is October 13. We’ll see if Rick Perry is there for it or not. Trail Blazers has more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.