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Friday random ten – In N Out

Starting the second half of the alphabet, though we’re more than halfway through thanks to letters like Q, X, and Z.

1. Take Me Away – Napoleon XIV
2. Break My Heart – Natalie Merchant
3. The Needle And The Damage Done – Neil Young
4. People Got A Lotta Nerve – Neko Case
5. 99 Red Balloons – Nena
6. Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine – Nick Lowe
7. Come A Day – Nils Lofgren
8. Not So Pretty Now – Nine Inch Nails
9. You Are My Sunshine – Norman Blake
10. Good Old A Capella – The Nylons

You have to listen to the whole song to realize just how heart-breakingly sad “You Are My Sunshine” is, because it’s not obvious from the title or the well-known refrain. I know YouTube is a treasure trove of oddball novelty songs, but I doubt there will ever be as good an outlet for the likes of Napoleon XIV and the people that know his music like the Dr. Demento Show was. I doubt anyone is ever going to put out a collection of YouTube’s Greatest Novelty Songs.

Posted in: Music.

School finance system ruled unconstitutional again

A little light reading for your holiday weekend.

BagOfMoney

Nearly three years after more than 600 Texas school districts filed litigation challenging the state’s school finance system, a Travis County district judge has ruled in their favor.

In an almost 400-page opinion released Thursday, District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin said that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional not only because of inadequate funding and flaws in the way it distributes money to districts, but also because it imposes a de facto state property tax. It is certain to be appealed by the state to the Texas Supreme Court.

Though Dietz made no public remarks on Thursday, his decision is a reprise of an earlier oral ruling in February 2013. From the bench at the time, Dietz discussed what he called the “civic, altruistic and economic” reasons for supporting public education.

“We realize that others provided for us when we were children. We realize that children are without means to secure their education. Just as others provided for us when we were in school, now is the time when we provide for others,” he said, going on to describe the societal benefits of a well-educated population: lower crime rates, fewer people who need public assistance and a greater state income.

Here are the final judgment, findings of fact, and Judge Dietz’s remarks. Like I said, your reading assignment for the weekend. The Chron has a couple of reactions.

The Texas Democratic Party was quick to release a statement tying Dietz’s decision to Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, as well as GOP lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick and Glenn Hagar, the GOP candidate for Texas comptroller.

“Republicans like Sens. Dan Patrick and Glenn Hegar have touted their education cuts as a victory, and Attorney General Greg Abbott defended those cuts in court,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “The decision today is clear: these cuts were bad for Texas students and our state. Classes have started this school year, and our students should not have to wait for another lengthy court appeal to force Republican politicians in Austin to do the right thing. There should be no compromise on the quality of our students’ education and securing a strong, educated workforce for Texas’ future.”

David Hinojosa, Southwest Regional Counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said the ruling was especially important for Texas’ Spanish speaking students.

“This is a resounding victory for Texas public schools and schoolchildren, especially for the state’s most at- risk and vulnerable children like economically disadvantaged and English language learner students,” said Hinojosa, whose group represents five school districts representing low-income students. “Although low income students constitute the majority of public school students, clearly they constitute the minority when it comes to a political interest. And this judgment holds the states feet to the fire.”

Given Wendy Davis’ education policy releases this week, I’d say this was both fortuitous timing for her, and a solid defense against the usual complaints about she’s proposing things that will have to be paid for (heaven forfend). Pending the outcome of the inevitable Supreme Court appeal, the status quo is no longer operable. We have a good idea what Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte would do the make the state compliant. Greg Abbott, who spent the past couple of years defending the original $5.4 billion in cuts and the subsequent patch job, and his ideological buddy Dan Patrick have no credibility on this. Who do you want to solve a problem, someone who wants to solve it as well, or someone who resents being told there is a problem to solve? Seems pretty clear to me. EoW, Stace, Texas Leftist, BOR, John Coby, the Observer, the AusChron, and the SA Current have more.

UPDATE: Two more Chron stories worth noting. First, plaintiff reactions:

Dietz’s 404-page ruling and findings of fact represent the latest development in nearly three years of litigation over the issue. It’s a decisive victory for four plaintiff groups representing more than 600 school districts, including Houston ISD and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD.

But teachers, parents and students won’t see any tangible change this year, since the judge postponed any effects until after the upcoming legislative session.

“Judge Dietz’s ruling is stayed (until July 1), and therefore will have no immediate impact during this school year,” said Mark Trachtenberg, an attorney representing property-rich school districts including Alamo Heights in Bexar County. “We of course hope the Legislature, when it meets again in January 2015, will take steps to address the constitutional infirmities in the system.”

[...]

David Thompson, who represented 84 school districts including Houston and Cy-Fair in the case, applauded the ruling and said it put the onus on lawmakers.

“Since 2006, we have increased standards without regard to whether districts have the resources to meet them, all while adding hundreds of thousands of students who come to school with more needs and challenges,” said Thompson. “We respectfully believe that now is the time to begin to address the fundamental question over the resources that are needed to meet our state’s high standards.”

Leaders of Houston ISD, Texas’ largest school system, and Cy-Fair ISD both said they were pleased with the ruling.

“Education must be a statewide commitment,” said Houston ISD spokeswoman Sheleah Reed. “While HISD and the property owners of Houston have stepped up to the plate, it is time for our state to join us in ensuring that Texas schools have the resources needed to meet the high expectations we have for our students’ education.”

Cy-Fair Superintendent Mark Henry agreed: “We are pleased with the ruling and look forward to working with the Legislature to find a way to adequately fund all Texas public schools.”

The ruling wasn’t a victory for all the plaintiffs, however. Dietz denied relief for a group of charter schools that joined the suit, as well as a sixth group pushing school vouchers and reforms to teacher tenure laws.

And from the Missing The Point department:

It may not be that easy for Democrats to score political points off of the ruling, however.

Several political experts said education is an issue that often resonates more with mainstream liberals than the independent and moderate conservatives that Democrats will need to persuade to have a chance at victory.

Bryan Gervais, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, predicted the ruling may fire up the Democratic base in the short term, but is unlikely to be on the forefront of the minds of those who enter the voting booth.

“In November, is anybody going to be thinking about this case, really?” Gervais said.

Dude. Firing up the base is exactly what Democratic candidates need to do. I’ve said it repeatedly, it doesn’t matter how many “swing” voters Davis and/or Van de Putte can persuade to cross over if the Democratic base vote isn’t considerably higher than it’s been in the past three off-year elections. We need Presidential year voters to come out, just like the Republican benefited from in 2010. Do you not get that?

Gervais and [UT Politics Project director Jim] Henson said past battles repeatedly have taken center stage in the Legislature, but have not played the same starring role in political campaigns.

Democrats said this time could be different because of the $5.4 billion in cuts and how Republicans expressed pride in cutting spending afterward.

“The difference now is that back then, lawmakers never, ever cut $5 billion from public education and then bragged about it during a time of enrollment growth,” said Harold Cook, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Cook and other Democrats added they will benefit from being able to directly tie the ruling to several of the candidates, especially Abbott, because of his role defending the state.

The Davis campaign has been attacking Abbott for months on education and for defending the state against the lawsuit.

Yes, this time it really is different. That may not be enough, and maybe we really will look back and say it made little to no difference in turnout. But this campaign has always been about changing the turnout pattern, and the cuts to education have always been a part of that message. You could at least acknowledge that.

Posted in: Legal matters.

More on the Emmett Astrodome Park plan

Good to know that an architect thinks its feasible, but it will need more than that to become reality.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Kinder Baumgardner, president of SWA Architects, the firm behind several public projects in Houston involving parks, said plenty of big-idea architectural concepts that have been successfully carried out around the world initially were dismissed as impractical, including an indoor ski resort attached to a Dubai shopping mall.

“It is ridiculous, but it’s also very successful,” he said of Ski Dubai. “People love it.”

Baumgardner said he was excited and inspired by the concept Emmett proposed, but that “whatever this thing is,” or turns out to be, should complement, rather than duplicate, amenities the city offers, such as pavilions, amphitheaters, exercise facilities and hike and bike trails.

Emmett mentioned all of those as possibilities Tuesday when he announced his vision for the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has not housed a professional team in 15 years.

Preservationist Ted Powell, who helped prepare an application to have the state designate the Dome a protected historic landmark, said “at face value, it seems like a reasonable repurposing plan.” He said he is concerned, however, that the plan is a last-ditch effort by the county, and that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo or the NFL’s Texans – NRG Park’s two primary tenants – could block it or at least scare away private investors. Another bond election likely would fail, he said.

Last November, voters rejected a $217 million bond issue to turn the Dome into an events center that would have increased the property tax rate by half a cent.

“If it comes down to another bond issue, then is that it?” Powell said. “Is that when the county says ‘No, there’s no other way to do this?’ ”

Emmett refused to speculate Wednesday about what would happen if his plan does not succeed, calling it “a hypothetical I can’t consider right now.”

“It’s gained traction,” he said. “The question is, how do we make it happen?”

See here for the background. I think at a minimum, three things are needed:

1. A clear statement of what the final product will be. After all this time and all the various plans that have been floated – some boring, some exciting, some completely hair-brained – you will have to be able to say “This is what it will be, and this is what it will do”. Saying this is what it can be or what it could do won’t cut it. It would be nice, and would make for an easier sell, if what it will be is something people are enthusiastic about, but I think a sense of cautious optimism will suffice.

2. A clear statement of how this will be paid for, and how it will maintain itself going forward. If there is a bond issue involved, be very clear about the plan to pay it off. Will it rely on a future revenue stream? Is that projected revenue stream realistic or pie in the sky? Don’t create another Reliant Stadium parking revenue situation, is what I’m saying. If there’s any chance this could have an effect on property taxes, be up front about it, but do everything possible to avoid the need for even a tiny increase in property tax rates so that you can decisively crush any fearmongering about it. I believe cynicism about the 2013 plan was a major factor in its defeat (as was the lack of a real campaign in its favor), but the usual anti-tax hysteria surely played a role as well. Learn from the defeat of the 2013 referendum is the lesson here.

3. Have everyone on board, not just in the “won’t oppose it” sense but in the genuine, holding-hands-and-singing-Kumbaya sense. What drives the cynicism I’m talking about is the sense that the Texans and the Rodeo are just sandbagging until they can force the demolition of the Dome, and that Commissioners Court is playing along with them. The only way to counter the view that this is all a game is to have all the stakeholders front and center in support of the plan, and to communicate that support by all means possible. Have I mentioned that the lack of a real campaign in 2013 was a factor in that referendum’s defeat? Because it was, and that’s a mistake you don’t want to repeat. Be loud and proud about the fact that everyone wants this to happen and that good things will result if it does. That will also mean talking about what happens if the plan goes down. If this is the last chance to save the Dome, say so. Don’t do so to frighten, just to be clear. Let people know what the choices are.

I make no guarantees about any of this. There’s plenty of ways that this can all fall apart, even if all the stakeholders do get on board, for which there’s also no guarantee. But if you want a path to success, where “success” is saving the Dome and using it for something useful, then this is the way I would want it to go. What do you think? PDiddie has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

The slow decline of the death penalty in Texas

Maybe a little.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes this state’s swagger over being tough on crime like “Old Sparky,” an electric chair that was used to execute 361 inmates and is now the centerpiece of a prison museum.

It sits just minutes from the Texas penitentiary where it was forever unplugged 50 years ago this summer following the execution of Houston’s Joseph Johnson Jr. for murdering a grocer.

While the oak chair is now a capital punishment relic photographed daily by visitors, this state’s death row is undergoing what looks to be a historic shift.

Texas forged an international reputation as it has executed far more inmates than any other state in the nation since 1982, when it resumed capital punishment with lethal injection. But this year, Texas just may lose its distinction as the state carrying out the most executions annually, sitting in a three-way tie with Missouri and Florida. Each state has executed seven people so far this year.

In Texas, a slew of changes in capital punishment that have been trotted out over the past decade or so and are taking hold. Those include requiring better legal representation for people facing the death penalty, giving jurors the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison without parole, and increasing the use of DNA and other scientific testing. And significant to the change is the realization by lawmakers and others that the system that condemns someone is not bulletproof.

The state executed an average of 29 people annually from 1997 to 2007, with 40 in 2000, according to statistics maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center. But it is now on track to have no more than 11 this year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the fewest number in 23 years.

Texas is not getting weaker on crime, but getting smarter about who is sentenced to death by reducing the chances of condemning an innocent person, said former Texas Gov. Mark White.

“We are starting to recognize that being tough on crime doesn’t mean you have to be tough on innocent people,” White said. “We have learned a lot: use the cutting edge of science, and not just the fast draw of the Old West.”

Not sure how much credit I’m willing to give the Lege for this, other than the passage of life without parole, which has definitely had an effect. If there’s a greater awareness about wrongful convictions and the need to safeguard against them, it’s mostly due to the efforts of groups like the Innocence Project, local officials like Dallas County DA Craig Watkins, and the compelling stories of exonerated men like Michael Morton, Anthony Graves, and the late Timothy Cole. The fact that insufficient enthusiasm for the death penalty can still be used as a political attack suggests we haven’t come that far from the old days. Though I am not a death penalty abolitionist, I will be perfectly happy if this trend continues.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

More about TPJ

The Chron profiles Texans for Public Justice, the group that filed the complaint that led to Rick Perry’s indictments.

[Craig] McDonald’s Texans for Public Justice, which operates out of a small office west of the University of Texas-Austin campus and currently has less than $1,000 in the bank, is known as the state’s preeminent group for analyzing campaign donations, building lobbyist databases and filing ethical complaints. It is at least partially responsible for the downfalls of former state Rep. Gabi Canales, former state Board of Education member Rene Nuñez and, most notably, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The only thing unusual about the two-page Perry complaint, McDonald said, was how long it took him and longtime colleague Andrew Wheat to put it together: just two days.

That, and the reaction.

Since the indictment was handed up Aug. 15, Texans for Public Justice has received dozens of interview requests and hundreds of expletive-filled letters, calls and emails, 10 times what followed DeLay’s 2005 indictment, McDonald said.

The group has played no role in the case since filing the complaint, but it nonetheless has become a part of the story as Perry has waged an aggressive campaign to cast the indictment as politically motivated.

[...]

Most of the group’s most high-profile targets have been Republicans, including DeLay, Perry and Ken Paxton, the current GOP nominee for attorney general, who last month became the subject of a TPJ complaint over his failure to register as an investment adviser as required by law.

Texans for Public Justice has gone after Democrats too.

One of the group’s earliest efforts targeted Canales, a Corpus Christi Democrat, for allegedly selling her power as a legislator to delay lawsuits. Canales lost her 2004 re-election bid, and the Legislature passed a law requiring all members to disclose when they used legislative continuances during legal proceedings.

Two other Democrats, Nuñez and fellow state Board of Education member Rick Agosto, were targeted in 2009 for not reporting gifts from a firm with business before the board. Nuñez was fined and lost his re-election bid.

National campaign-finance watchdog Ellen Miller said the group likely would target more Democrats if there were more of them in power.

“Texans for Public Justice has a national prominence and recognition for their very active state-based work around issues having to do with money, power and politics,” said Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which donated $1,200 to the Texas group in 2012.

So there you have it. Elect more Democrats, including some statewide, and you’ll see more of them get into trouble. It’s a lot harder to abuse power when you don’t have it.

Anyway. This story is a lot like the Trib story from last week, and undoubtedly like the others that have been written as well. I hope that in addition to all the attention they’re getting, a few people have also made contributions to TPJ so they can keep doing what they’re doing. If you want to be one of those people, see below the fold for the text of a fundraising email they sent out, with a donation link included. Someone has to do what TPJ does, and they’ve shown they’re pretty good at it.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Scandalized!.

More education policy from Davis

A lot to like here.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Saying she wants to expand Texas high schoolers’ access to technical job training programs, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis announced a plan to create a Career-Technical Coordinating Board.

The plan is the latest in a string of education reform proposals from Davis. It also includes recommendations on college affordability and improving graduation rates.

Davis promoted the proposal Tuesday at an event in San Antonio, saying she hoped to build cooperation among “local industries, community and technical colleges” in helping prepare Texas students for the the technical jobs of the future, according to the proposal.

“At the very time when we need an educated workforce to lead the economy of the future, we need to put quality education within reach for Texas families,” Davis said.

The campaign of her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, noted that Davis’ proposal did not mention how much the plan would cost.

“Sen. Davis continues to present talking points and press releases dressed as policy proposals that contain few details, lack any cost information and will grow the size of government,” said Amelia Chassé, an Abbott campaign spokeswoman. “If this were an assignment, her grade would be ‘incomplete.’ Texans deserve a leader that presents real solutions, not more slogans and fuzzy math.”

Davis said she would work with the Legislature to “find the resources in existing resources to be able to carry forth” the proposal.

See also this subsequent Trib story for more details. Stace, who liked what he saw especially on higher education, correctly predicted the “how much will it cost?” reaction, though to be honest it wasn’t that hard to see it coming. The irony here is that much of what Davis is calling for, and what Lt. Gov. candidate Leticia Van de Putte has called for in her proposal to subsidize community college directly addresses a lot of the things that the business community through mouthpieces like Bill Hammond says it wants. They just don’t want to have to pay for any of it. You’ll see that reflected when Greg Abbott gets around to releasing his education plan after Labor Day. It will, I am certain, be full of things like higher standards, greater accountability, more ways for people to move their children to other schools, and maybe a few other shiny objects, but not a dime of new spending, no assistance for the many, many students who need it to graduate or to be able to afford any kind of higher education, and no mention of how any of those standards or accountability measures can be achieved at current – or, hopefully for Abbott, lower – funding levels. Everyone just needs to work smarter, that’s all that it takes. Davis’ press release with the full outline of her plan, and a release from Battleground Texas about her plan, are beneath the fold, and BOR has more.

UPDATE: This DMN story from day two of Davis’ release touches on paying for her proposals.

Wendy Davis acknowledged Wednesday that her proposals to improve public schools will cost more money, but she said revenue is available if lawmakers will make education a priority and eliminate some corporate tax breaks.

“We need a governor who will lead the Legislature in a bipartisan way to find the smart ways to create that investment,” said Davis, the Democratic nominee, at an Austin news conference.

Davis said that because of Texas’ booming economy, budget writers next year are expected to have a $4 billion surplus and billions more in the state rainy day fund.

She said that existing revenue, coupled with “closing corporate tax loopholes that have been on the books in Texas for decades,” should provide lawmakers with the money needed to balance the budget and boost funding for education without new taxes.

Republican nominee Greg Abbott says his Democratic opponent would raise taxes if elected governor.

Asked what corporate tax breaks she would close, Davis’ campaign cited as an example property tax breaks for greenbelts used exclusively for recreation and parks, including private country clubs. Another tax break targeted by the Davis campaign is $111 million a year the state loses by rewarding large stores for paying their sales taxes on time.

Davis said she and Abbott offer “starkly different paths for our state” on investment in public schools.

It’s going to take more than that to fully fund all the things she’s talking about, but those items are a start, and they have the advantage of being good policy on their own. The story also reminds us that the state may soon be under a court order to find more money for education, so it sure would be nice if someone were thinking along these lines.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Election 2014.

HERO repealers try their luck with the Supreme Court

Because sure, why not?

PetitionsInvalid

Opponents of Houston’s equal rights ordinance have asked the Texas Supreme Court to force the city secretary to certify the signatures on a petition they submitted seeking to trigger a repeal referendum on the law.

Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals denied a similar request on Aug. 15, ruling that the emergency writ of mandamus would have the same result as a favorable ruling in the pending lawsuit opponents filed against the city earlier this month. The plaintiffs, the judges wrote, could appeal after a ruling comes down at the trial court level.

Trial in that case is set for Jan. 19.

The new filing with the Supreme Court, turned in late Tuesday, is similar to the group of conservative pastors and activists’ previous requests. It seeks to have the court force the city to suspend enforcement of the ordinance, to put the ordinance to another vote of the City Council and, if the council does not repeal it, to put the issue before voters.

Mayor Annise Parker already has agreed to suspend enforcement until a legal ruling is issued. Officials have said the deadline for placing items on the November ballot was Aug. 18, meaning a favorable ruling for opponents would appear to result in a vote in either May or November of 2015.

City Attorney David Feldman pointing to the appellate court’s denial of the similar mandamus filing, said opponents will face the same legal hurdles in going to the Supreme Court.

“It doesn’t change because the venue changes,” he said. “The law is still the same.”

Plaintiff Jared Woodfill said his side simply disagrees with the appellate court’s ruling and is hopeful the Supreme Court justices will see things differently.

See here, here, and here for the background. Remember, Woodfill et al are suing to get their referendum on the ballot. The writ of mandamus they have filed with the Supreme Court asks that the referendum be put on the ballot. You may wonder, as did Judge Shaffer and the 14th Circuit Court of Appeals, what the point of the lawsuit is if the mandamus gives them what they’re suing for. But like me, you probably don’t have the brilliant legal mind of Jared Woodfill. It doesn’t cost them anything but Andy Taylor’s exorbitant legal fees to ask, so what the hell. Texpatriate has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Teachers are doing it for themselves

I know this is intended to be an upbeat story, but I can’t help but find it a little depressing.

Some tech-savvy teachers turned to the Web this summer to try to offset the nearly $500 typically spent to ready a classroom for the first day of school.

Numerous Houston-area educators posted pleas on social media sites, including GoFundMe.com, donorschoose.org and Houston-based PledgeCents.com, asking for money for everything from Kleenex to graphing calculators.

[...]

Teachers spend an average of $485 of their own money on supplies for their students and classrooms, according to a 2012-13 study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. First-year teachers have among the highest expenses, with few resources of their own to get started, experts said.

“We definitely have had a bunch of teachers who have raised funds for basic classroom needs,” said Andyshea Saberioon, CEO and co-founder of PledgeCents.com. “We keep seeing all the ‘back-to-school’ sales going on, but that means that a teacher has to spend money out of their own pocket for those items. So we are seeing more teachers being proactive and raising funds for those supplies for this year.”

In Houston ISD, some teachers are eligible to be reimbursed up to $50 for classroom supplies. The Fort Bend Education Foundation provides its new teachers – about 250 this year – with $100 gift certificates for supplies.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, where more than 500 teachers will begin their careers Monday, does not give first-year teachers money to start their classrooms but tries to provide basic supplies such as poster board, pens and sentence strips, spokeswoman Nicole Ray said. Some campuses have parent-teacher organizations that provide teachers gift cards to help offset start-up costs.

You know the old bumper sticker about how it will be a great day when schools are fully funded but the Pentagon has to hold bake sales to be able to buy more bombers? That was the first thing I thought of when I read this. DonorsChoose and others like it are the modern-day bake sale. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad these organizations exist to help fill the funding gap we’ve created for schools and teachers nationwide. I’m just pointing out that the need that DonorsChoose and its cohort are filling isn’t some accident of nature that we have no choice but to work around. It really would be a great thing if that need didn’t exist.

Posted in: School days.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 25

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a Happy Back To School Week as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

How about Astrodome Indoor Park?

County Judge Ed Emmett gives his vision for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday proposed turning the Astrodome into “the world’s largest indoor park” and recreation area, a concept he said would honor the reason his predecessor built the iconic stadium 50 years ago: “To provide for traditional outdoor activities in an indoor space.”

“Rather than try to convert the Dome into something it was never intended to be, I think it’s time to look back to the vision of Judge Hofheinz,” Emmett told reporters gathered on the floor of the 49-year-old structure.

Among potential attractions Emmett said he could envision at the domed stadium were a large open green for festivals and other community gatherings, general exercise facilities, an amphitheater, a pavilion for music and other events, and special educational facilities for children, even museums. The Dome also could house permanent or temporary sports facilities, such as an archery range or horseshoe pits, he said.

Emmett said he has discussed the idea with members of Commissioners Court, as well as NRG Park’s major tenants, the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

He acknowledged his proposal was open-ended and did not include any funding plan, the lack of which has been his major criticism of previous proposals to redevelop the stadium.

“I think it’s important to layout the vision and call on the public and experts to help implement that vision,” he said.

Funding would consist of a combination of private and public funds, including rental fees, Emmett said. He gave no cost estimate for the proposal, saying that would be revealed once the plan is firmed up.

“Let me stress again, converting the Dome into the world’s largest indoor park is a vision worth pursuing,” Emmett said. “But in order to realize that vision, we must look to the public sector, the private sector and the general public for that support.”

Emmett’s statement about his vision for the Dome, which Swamplot notes has some similarity at a high level to the kind of plan that the Rodeo and the Texans were touting as having public support, is here. Getting enough of the public behind a vision for the Dome, enough to overcome the persistent cynicism that many people feel and that I think helped lead to the defeat of the 2013 referendum. People are going to need to be convinced that this is a good idea, that it really will save the Dome, that it’s not just another boring proposal being put before them so Commissioners Court will have cover to do the Rodeo and Texans’ bidding and finally tear it down, and that the value proposition for whatever the county will spend and the taxpayers will be asked to fund is there. The vision is good, but the sooner we have details and some pretty pictures to ponder, the better, especially if the idea is to have something ready in time for the 2017 Super Bowl. Texpatriate has more.

UPDATE: Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Trying again with pre-K

Different approach, hopefully a different result will follow.

On the first day of school for most Houston-area children, a coalition called “Early Matters” organized by the Greater Houston Partnership announced Monday it would release a 10-year “game plan” at a summit next month to expand pre-kindergarten and child care programs and assist parents so they can “become the best parents they can be for their growing child.”

Coalition members, including Chair Jim Postl, the retired president and CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., also made clear they would be looking to the Texas Legislature, which gutted state funding for full-day pre-K in 2011, saying restoring that money would be “a very important first step” to carrying out a plan they say will increase the likelihood that kids will stay in school and be prepared to join the workforce or go to college when they graduate.

[...]

The Partnership, Houston’s most influential chamber of commerce group, helped commission a study in 2012 that found that the vast majority of brain development occurs before age five and that greater investment in early childhood programs would be crucial to the region’s future economic success. The resulting report inspired the formation of another coalition of local business and community leaders called Early to Rise that launched a petition drive last year to place a 1-cent property tax hike on the November ballot to generate funding for these types of programs. The effort was based on an obscure, decades-old law that said the county judge must call an election to raise the tax rate of the Harris County Department of Education if enough valid signatures are gathered.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett refused to place on the item on the ballot, however, saying he supported improving early childhood education but that the petition language the group had used did not comply with the law. He and others also did not like that the proposal would have diverted the tax dollars to the coffers of a private group.

The group sued, but an appeals court backed Emmett’s decision.

Harvey said he and other GHP committee members convened a few months later and decided to launch another effort with “more active involvement of the business community” and “a much broader coalition.” In addition to business leaders, the coalition was joined Monday by a half-dozen local school superintendents, including Houston ISD’s Terry Grier.

“I think there was a lot of answered questions in a lot of people’s minds” about last year’s proposal, including “how you raise the money and how you have a countywide tax rate, who is going to be in charge of those dollars,” Grier said. “I think that this has the full support of the Greater Houston Partnership and it’s a wide coalition, a much broader coalition than it was a year ago. I’ve seen both programs. This is not the same program repackaged. This is totally different.”

Clearly, going for a statewide plan is the optimal path, but it’s also the heavier lift politically since it would involve spending money. I know the GHP and their partners in this effort would like to be nice and bipartisan and all, but there are some fairly significant differences between the two major candidates on the issue of pre-K. If you don’t feel like clicking those links, just ask yourself who as the next Governor will be more amenable to fully funding a statewide pre-K program. The question answers itself. The Early Matters coalition, who have County Judge Ed Emmett on board with the idea, haven’t zeroed in on how they would fund this, and still have a lot of blanks to fill in policy-wise, but it’s the goal that matters. I personally would have no problems with the Lege doing this via appropriation, but we should certainly take advantage of whatever federal and private grants exist, too. Let’s make this happen, and let’s make it happen in a lot less than that ten-year time frame.

Posted in: School days.

No one gets to dictate that the Uptown line must be BRT forever

So as we know, the Uptown line is moving ahead as BRT. It will be paid for with a variety of funds, coming from the city, from an Uptown/Memorial TIRZ, from grants, and so forth. A key component of this is an HOV lane on 610 for the buses that will carry the passengers for this line. The Uptown Management District and Metro were recently given $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission to facilitate this part of the construction. That money came with the proviso that this was really and truly going to be a BRT project, not a light rail project. Apparently, the recipients haven’t pinky-sworn hard enough on this to convince the TTC of their sincerity.

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state’s transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

State officials and skeptics of Metro’s regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won’t be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said “Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail.”

Moseley suggested Metro’s pledge on not building rail “could be stronger,” according to an email the same day. He suggested noting that any construction would not facilitate rail conversion.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia reiterated Metro’s lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can’t take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

“I am being respectful of the will of the voters,” Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance. The one-page document says all the parties “agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component.”

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

“I don’t think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not,” Garcia said. “Likewise, I don’t think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion.”

His partners disagree.

“We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail,” Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. “We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed.”

See here for the background. I for one agree with Gilbert Garcia. The casual disregard for the 2003 referendum by light rail opponents continues to astonish me. The Uptown line was intended to be light rail. That’s what the voters approved. I’m okay with it being built as BRT for now, because we do need to do something today and because at this point it doesn’t make sense to do the more expensive investment of light rail infrastructure until we know for sure that the Universities line will be built and/or until a commuter rail line along US290 gets going. But how does it possibly make sense to cut off, or at least make much less viable, a transit option that may not be on the table for ten years or more by putting a ridiculously long-term condition on a measly $25 million grant today? It would be better to forfeit those funds now than to sign away future enhancements that may someday look like a great idea or that may never happen. What authority does the TTC have to impose such a short-sighted condition? As far as the Uptown board goes, no future Metro is going to go ahead with a light rail conversion for the Uptown BRT line without the cooperation and co-funding of the Uptown Management District. The current board has no more right to shackle its future successors than the TTC does to shackle Metro. Can we please quit with the posturing and get on with the plans already? Sheesh.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

“Environmental tort reform”

Oh, hell no.

After failing in their attempt to limit cities and counties’ ability to take industrial polluters to court, some Houston businesses and statewide lobbyists now want to limit how much local governments can collect in penalties, a sort of environmental tort reform effort aimed squarely at a Harris County Attorney’s office they say is seeking high-dollar payouts at the expense of cleanup efforts.

At a legislative committee hearing earlier this year, the powerful Texas Association of Business and attorneys for Waste Management Inc. and a wealthy Houston family being sued by Harris County told lawmakers that the County Attorney’s office has started seeking outrageous penalties unrelated to environmental clean-up costs from entities already cooperating with remediation requirements imposed by the state or federal government. If allowed to continue, they told members of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, the lawsuits could have a “chilling effect” on development and erode property values.

“As a practicing lawyer who advises companies as to what liabilities they may face, like becoming involved with a contaminated property, I have to advise them – based on some of the recent cases – that there is a possibility, as remote as it might be … that you could be penalized for coming on to that site and seeking redevelopment because it is not precluded by the laws as they exist now,” said John Riley, a lawyer for Houston-based Waste Management.

The mega-company and two of its affiliates are facing nearly $2 billion in fines in a lawsuit brought by the county – set to go to trial next month – involving one of the state’s biggest pollution headaches: two industrial waste pits that leached paper mill sludge containing cancer-causing dioxins into the San Jacinto River for almost half a century.

McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. owned and operated the pits – now a federal Superfund site – in the 1960s, filling a 20-acre tract with waste from a now-closed paper mill near the Washburn Tunnel. The company later became part of Houston-based Waste Management.

The County Attorney’s office sued Waste Management, and International Paper Co., in 2011, asking the companies be fined as much as the law allows – $25,000 a day – all the way back to the site’s 1965 opening.

Last year, the companies supported legislation that would have diminished the power Texas cities and counties have had for decades to file such environmental enforcement lawsuits. Two bills that died in a House committee after being fought by Harris County lobbyists would have required the Texas attorney general to settle all such litigation filed by local governments and barred them from hiring outside lawyers on a contingency fee basis.

[...]

At the May hearing, Harris County officials told committee members they were “not sure what the problem is,” emphasizing that the TCEQ typically is listed as a “necessary and indispensable party” in these cases and that they must be approved by Commissioners Court.

“These cases are not filed willy-nilly,” First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

Soard and other officials who testified, including a TCEQ employee, said such lawsuits are reserved only for the most egregious cases. The county, they said, simply is attempting to recuperate clean-up, legal and other costs associated with contaminated sites and has every legal right to do so.

“Every time we file a case against a large company now we now expect to see them run to Commissioners Court and the press screaming about how unfair we are,” said Rock Owens, who heads the County Attorney’s four-lawyer environmental division. “This never used to happen and now it’s par for the course. Maybe this is an indication that we are finally hitting where it hurts, even if it’s only a little ding.”

Hey, you know what these powerful business interests and wealthy families can do to stop getting sued over these ginormous environmental messes they’re responsible for? They can clean them up in a timely fashion, and they can take all necessary steps to ensure that they don’t create any more such toxic hazards. Until then, as far as I’m concerned, they can STFU.

Posted in: Legal matters.

We need more mobile ID stations

From the inbox, from the League of Women Voters.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF TEXAS CALLS ON SECRETARY OF STATE TO EXPAND AND IMPROVE EFFORTS TO PROVIDE ELECTION IDENTIFICATION CERTIFICATES

AUSTIN, TX – “We are deeply concerned that eligible voters could be disenfranchised this November and we urge the Secretary of State to expand her efforts to provide Election Identification Certificates to voters who need them,” according to Elaine Wiant, President of the League of Women Voters of Texas.”

The League of Women Voters of Texas along with Public Citizen, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund and Texas Freedom Network Education today called on the Secretary of State, Nandita Berry to expand the 2013 efforts to provide EICs to voters who need them.

The League and its partners recommend that the State provide mobile ID stations in each of the major metropolitan areas (Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, McAllen and San Antonio) for at least seven days, including at least two weekend days, between now and Election Day. Additional locations outside of the major metropolitan areas including rural communities should also be provided to adequately respond to the needs of Texas voters.

In order to make the mobile ID stations accessible to those without the required IDs, we recommend that weekend and non-traditional work hours such as evenings be emphasized in all communities. The groups asked that the dates and locations of the mobile ID stations be set at least 21 days in advance, in order to give individuals sufficient time to obtain the underlying documentation required, such as birth certificates, to obtain EICs.

According to Wiant, “Local leaders are best positioned to identify the communities with the greatest need for this service and the places that community members can most easily access. Therefore, we ask that the Secretary ask local leaders for recommendations for selecting locations for the mobile ID stations.”

The State had previously estimated that a substantial number of registered Texas voters-between 600,000 and 800,000-lack an approved form of photo ID. The data provided to the United States Department of Justice as of September 2011 and January 2012 show that minority communities could be disparately impacted. In addition, a federal court found that “a substantial subgroup of Texas voters, many of whom are African American or Hispanic, lack photo ID” and that the “burdens associated with obtaining ID” will weigh most heavily upon the State’s racial minorities. Young people ages 18 to 24 and the elderly are also believed to be among those who are more likely than the general population to not have an approved form of photo ID.

The November 2014 election is the first major election under the Texas photo ID requirement. To be accepted, the ID must be current or expired no more than 60 days, and be one of the following:
Texas driver’s license, personal ID card, concealed carry license, or election identification certificate, or

  • United States passport, military ID, citizenship or naturalization certificate
  • Photo IDS that cannot be accepted at the polls include out-of-state driver’s licenses, employer IDs, and school IDs.

An exact match between the name on the photo ID and the list of registered voters is not required to be accepted to vote a regular ballot. If names don’t match, additional information will be considered in accepting the voter. Voters without acceptable ID will be able to vote a provisional ballot and provide ID within 6 days of the election.

An Election Identification Certificate can be obtained by voters without one of the other acceptable IDs by providing proof of citizenship and identity at Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) offices.

Battleground Texas, which has joined the call for more mobile ID stations, put out this helpful backgrounder on the issue. That state estimate of 600,000 to 800,000 voters who lack ID is the low end – up to 1.2 million registered voters may lack the accepted forms of ID, and black and Latino voters are far more likely to be in that bucket than white voters. The state of Texas and Greg Abbott in his role as its attorney have claimed repeatedly that there was nothing discriminatory or suppressionist about the voter ID law. Doing their best to ensure that all eligible voters who lack ID can get it would be a step in the direction of backing up those claims.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Rick Perry was actively searching for Rosemary Lehmberg’s replacement

The plot thickens.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Gov. Rick Perry personally called a well-known Austin Democrat to discuss her interest in replacing Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg days before the public learned Perry was threatening to withhold state funding from Lehmberg’s office unless she resigned.

Austin defense attorney Mindy Montford, who previously ran as a Democratic candidate for state district judge and district attorney in Travis County, confirmed her conversation with Perry — which took place in early June 2013 — to the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV on Sunday.

She said Perry informed her he intended to veto money to the Public Integrity Unit unless Lehmberg stepped down following her high-profile drunken driving arrest. Under the law, Perry, a Republican in his 14th year in office, would have named Lehmberg’s replacement pending an election.

“I think I told him, of course, it would be an amazing opportunity, and I thanked him for considering me,” Montford said. “The fact that I am a Democrat was surprising, and I think I mentioned that to him. I told him I would think about it, and thanked him.

“There was no acceptance because I didn’t feel like it was timely at that point,” she said. “We never spoke again because it became irrelevant when she did not resign.”

[...]

The revelation shows the level at which Perry was directly involved in attempts to force Lehmberg’s resignation and appoint a successor in the days leading up to his June 14 veto — rather than high-level aides coordinating the effort and briefing the governor.

To be clear, this information doesn’t add anything to the first round of legal arguments over whether or not the indictments are valid. Perry’s high-priced lawyers are arguing that the statute is unconstitutional, and if that’s true it’s true whether or not Rick Perry was behind the curtain trying to shove Lehmberg off the ledge. What it does is definitively ties Perry to the alleged criminal action of trying to coerce Lehmberg’s resignation. Remember that in the Tom DeLay case, one of the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case was the lack of direct evidence that linked DeLay to the money transfer. Mindy Montford provides that evidence for the Perry case quite nicely. No question, if there’s a trial, she’ll be a star witness.

This also brings up a point that Christopher Hooks in the Observer illustrates. Perry kind of needs the indictments to go away quickly, because the longer this plays out, the more revelations like this we’re likely to get, and the more dots that can be connected. Ed Sills in his email newsletter riffed off that Statesman piece to show the lengths that Perry spokespeople went to back in April to avoid saying anything that would later prove to be false. Hooks elaborates:

Separately, the story of the indictments is set to give new life to old stories about Perry’s improprieties, in much the same way Chris Christie’s bridge-related indiscretions gave rise to a narrative about his temper and vindictiveness toward political opponents. And Perry’s personality—best suited to offense—was well tailored to the first stage of this ordeal, but may trip him up going forward.

Here’s Perry’s story about the indictments, as outlined in a video released by his political action committee, PerryPAC: He saw a damaged public official, a woman who shouldn’t possibly hold office or any kind of responsibility, and took firm, narrowly targeted action to try to remove her. Now he’s facing political retribution from Democrats.

Parts of that narrative fall apart as soon as you look at them closely—particularly the notion that special prosecutor Michael McCrum, appointed to the case by a Republican judge in San Antonio, is an agent of Battleground Texas. But much of the rest of it could fall apart over the course of a trial, too.

Perry says his veto was about unseating Lehmberg, but it had significant consequences. As the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg wrote on Thursday, Perry’s veto of the funding for the Public Integrity Unit “derailed more than 400 felony level tax and insurance fraud investigations allegedly committed against the State of Texas.”

In other words, Perry’s action didn’t just punish Lehmberg for her refusal to step down—it punished the state as a whole and Texas citizens generally. Think about that: Perry zeroed out the funding for more than 400 felony investigations because a local official wouldn’t step down when he wanted. Kronberg:

The Travis County Public Integrity Unit is the most under-appreciated law enforcement apparatus in the state. Fully 95% of what it does is pursue white collar crime in Texas and on behalf of the State of Texas – motor fuels tax fraud, insurance fraud and legal support for the smaller of Texas 254 counties that do not have the funding or expertise to pursue white collar crimes in their jurisdictions.

When Perry derailed the unit, the Travis County Commissioners Court stepped in and restored a portion of the funding—but the PIU had to slash staff and caseload. The state’s side in serious criminal cases that had nothing to do with Lehmberg’s troubles—or even, politics generally—suffered needlessly.

But the PIU investigates political corruption too. Kronberg dismisses the relevance of the investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas as a factor in Perry’s motivation for wanting a friend in control of the DA’s office, but points to other possibilities.

“It is far more interesting to look at the Public Integrity Unit investigation of Republican AG candidate Ken Paxton and Perry Regent appointment Wallace Hall,” Kronberg writes. “Had Lehmberg resigned, it is doubtful Perry’s appointed replacement would be very interested in either criminal referral.” There’s no shortage of possible motives for Perry’s intervention in the PIU, even if those motives don’t necessarily matter to the legal case against him.

If the trial gets going, there’s really no telling what’s going to get dredged up in the discovery process. What internal communications, what private conversations will we become privy to? This trial might be the most penetrating look at Perry’s workshop in the 14 years since he took office. There’s no politician that comes away from that level of scrutiny looking good.

Some of this will come out anyway, but in the context of a trial, it’s going to look worse. And Perry may not get to hide behind privilege as much as he usually gets to. There are a lot of rocks to look under, and who knows what we’ll find. Harold Cook and Grits have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

The overcrowded jails of Montgomery County

Sometimes it’s hard to be a County Commissioner.

go_to_jail

Montgomery County officials are facing a dilemma partly of their own making: What to do with an ever-growing jail population after selling off another lockup.

The county’s jailers are struggling to find space for inmates — with dozens on occasion being forced to sleep on the floor or be shipped to a jail outside the county. The 1,200-bed jail is one of only five statewide — and the only one in the Houston region — rated “at risk” for overcrowding by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Next door to the county jail, separated only by a cyclone fence topped with razor wire, sits the Joe Corley Detention Center, built by the county in 2008 for $45 million. While the 1,500-bed facility was planned to someday handle jail overflow, the inmate population didn’t rise quickly enough, prompting the county to sell it to a private company in May 2013, said Commissioner Craig Doyal, who is poised to become county judge in January after a Republican primary win.

Commissioners said they felt pressured into the sale because of an Internal Revenue Service deadline that could have cost the county the tax-exempt status on the bonds used to build the center.

Commissioners had pledged during the bond election that local inmates would fill 30 percent of the center within five years — but not a single inmate had ever been placed there. They had instead been allowing the U.S. government to pay to house federal prisoners there.

Florida-based Geo Group Inc. bought the center to house undocumented immigrants, leaving commissioners on Monday with little choice but to begin reviewing new proposals, costing in the $200 million range, to expand the jail.

Doyal points out that the county earned a $20-million profit from selling the center to Geo for $65 million. At the same time, Geo pays the county an additional $250,000 per year in taxes for the center and $500,000 for managing its federal prisoner contracts.

In addition, the proposed jail expansion, if completed, would be four times larger than the detention center.

Yeah, $20 million plus $250K per year is still a long way away from $200 million. I know I was a math major and all, but I don’t think you need any particular expertise to realize that. And if the last new facility never needed to be used, why would you need a new one that’s four times bigger than the one you have now? And another thing…you know, I’m just going to hand the mike to Grits.

The main difference between this situation and a circus is that clowns in the circus are professionals. The commissioners court’s ill-considered launch and inept (and possibly corrupt) handling of the whole private jail mess has been a comedy of errors and misjudgements that would be funnier if local taxpayers weren’t footing the bill. I’d be rather surprised if voters approve a nine-figure jail bond so they can go through the whole jail-building brouhaha again. (Wanna bet commissioners try to issue the debt without voter approval?)

Grits fails to understand after all these years why, whenever public officials suggest new jail construction in response to “overcrowding,” reporters don’t immediately begin to question the causes and solicit solutions for excessive pretrial detention. More to the point, why didn’t the consultants hired by the county suggest those options? Like other jails in the state with an overcrowding problem, most Montgomery jail inmates have not been convicted of a crime (and will receive probation even if convicted). Instead, just more than two thirds of them, according to a 7/1 TCJS report, are in jail awaiting trial, still technically presumed innocent. Most simply cannot afford bail. Statewide, about 58 percent of defendants in county jails are awaiting trial; half is not at all an unreasonable goal.

Whether the old jail needs renovation I cannot say. But to the extent the issue is building more capacity, it’s likely Montgomery County officials – particularly local judges – could resolve that  without new jail construction just by expanded use of personal bonds for lower risk defendants who can’t make bail. They should try that before asking taxpayers/voters to trust them with another jail building scheme.

Yeah, what he said. To be as fair as I can be to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court, they do represent a fast-growing county, so it’s not completely unreasonable that their current jail needs are growing as well. That doesn’t detract from Grits’ point, of course. There are dumb ways to handle that kind of growth, and there are smart ways to handle it. You can see which way they’re leaning up there. Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Shine a light on dark money

I totally favor this.

BagOfMoney

Secret campaign donors in Texas may soon be forced out of the shadows.

The Texas Ethics Commission, already fighting a conservative group in court over whether it can regulate dark money disclosure, appears poised to approve a proposal aimed at requiring some politically active nonprofits to start revealing their anonymous donors.

The eight-member commission rolled out a draft proposal Thursday, signaling how the state campaign finance regulator plans to move forward on tackling the growing concern over secret campaign spending in Texas elections.

Under the draft regulation, the commission would require a nonprofit to start disclosing donors if 25 percent or more of the group’s expenditures can be classified as politically motivated. It also would require disclosure if political contributions account for more than 25 percent of the group’s total contributions in a calendar year.

“We’re tying to figure out how we get to the public information about who is contributing to candidates,” said commission Chairman Jim Clancy, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Separately, the commission on Thursday clarified that dark money groups may spend up to 20 percent of their revenue on politics without having to disclose donors.

The commission referred to it as a safe harbor, of sorts, in an opinion that represents one of the first concrete pieces of guidance provided to campaign finance lawyers since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums on electioneering.

As I’m sure you know, I am all in favor of more disclosure. I honestly don’t understand the argument against it, though I’m aware that the courts don’t necessarily share my view. The usual anti-transparency suspects are kicking up the usual fuss and threatening to take this to court, where they unfortunately will have a good chance of prevailing. It’s still the right thing to do, and who knows? Maybe some day we’ll have better judges. Texas Politics has more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Perry’s legal team to try to get indictments tossed

It’s what any defense attorney would try to do.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog has done nothing wrong

A lawyer for Gov. Rick Perry said Friday he will challenge felony charges that the governor overstepped his authority when he said he would veto state funding for Travis County prosecutors if District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg would not resign her post.

David Botsford, an attorney for Perry, informed Visiting Judge Bert Richardson he plans to file a writ of habeas corpus challenging the constitutionality of the laws underlying the two-count indictment against Perry.

“It will speak for itself,” Botsford told reporters. He said his challenge would be based on the governor’s power to veto and his First Amendment rights.

[...]

Both Botsford and Michael McCrum, the San Antonio defense attorney who was appointed the special prosecutor in the case, met with Judge Richardson Friday. After a 35-minute meeting in the judge’s chambers, the two attorneys came out and Richardson informed the court Botsford would turn in his challenges to the indictment by Aug. 29.

Once those objections have been filed, McCrum will file his responses and the first full hearing in the Perry criminal case will be scheduled.

Outside the courtroom, McCrum declined to talk about his strategy or address criticism about the indictment returned against the governor.

“I think it’s appropriate to approach this case in a court of law,” said McCrum, who anticipated that a trial in the matter would not take place until next year.

Novel idea, that. Just as a reminder, the complaint was filed before Rick Perry vetoed the Public Integrity Unit funds, so we’ll see how far that gets with the judge. Costs them nothing to try, and hey, you never know.

An earlier story about the defense strategy contained some interesting legal analyses.

“If I was on the Perry defense team, I would be asking for the quickest trial date I could get,” said Paul Coggins, a defense attorney with the Locke Lord law firm and a former U.S. attorney in Dallas. “Let’s load it up in 30 days. Let’s go.”

Coggins, a Democrat, said the next thing to watch for is Perry’s team challenging the Texas statute behind the two felony counts.

“They’ll take a swipe at the statute,” he said. “The statute is too vague. You’re going to do that at least. I think the judge is going to have some real issues with the statute.”

The two-page indictment gave few clues as to how grand jurors were convinced Perry may have done something illegal. And Coggins said that unless McCrum can prove to jurors that Perry’s veto threat was illegal, it will go nowhere.

“Based upon what we know so far, if there isn’t some incredibly powerful, smoking gun that we’ve heard nothing about, then I don’t think this case should have gone to the grand jury,” Coggins said.

Not so fast, says Bill Mateja, a defense attorney in the Dallas office of Fish & Richardson. Mateja is a former federal prosecutor who knows McCrum, the San Antonio defense attorney tapped by Richardson, well.

“I’ve worked with Mike McCrum,” Mateja said. “I cannot believe that Mike McCrum decided to indict Rick Perry based solely on Rick Perry playing politics. I can believe that Mike McCrum indicted Rick Perry because there is something more than we’ve seen.”

Mateja, who described himself as a conservative Republican and a Perry supporter, said that if McCrum’s case doesn’t show more than what is already known, then it’s a “bad indictment.”

I think we all agree on that. As for McCrum, he had a few things to say as well.

McCrum said he would respond in court to Perry’s filing.

“At this time, I feel confident of the charges. I feel confident of the facts as applied to the law, and I will move forward,” he said.

McCrum said he expects the case to go to trial because “I anticipate that Mr. Perry will never plead guilty.” He said he thinks a trial would not be until next year.

[...]

McCrum was asked by reporters about the drumbeat from Perry and his team that the case against him is politically motivated.

The San Antonio lawyer said he didn’t plan to discuss strategy or evidence in the case, pointing out that Perry’s lawyers are “talking about the theories of law and whether or not the facts support those theories.”

“On this situation, I think it’s important that I approach it with dignity and respect for our system of justice,” McCrum said.

He also declined to supply his own political affiliation.

“I don’t feel that anything about politics is relevant to this case insofar as my politics are concerned,” McCrum said in response to a reporter’s question. “And so with all due respect, sir, I can’t dignify the question because by answering it, I give it relevance, and I don’t think it has relevance.”

It shouldn’t have any relevance, but you know how that goes. Going back to the earlier story, Mateja also predicted the defense would try to get the indictments tossed. If that happens, that would be a huge victory for Perry and an equally huge egg to Mike McCrum’s face. Again, I’m not a lawyer and I have no expertise in this matter, but again there’s nothing in Mike McCrum’s history to suggest that he’s gone off half-cocked. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that McCrum has more up his sleeve than he’s shown so far. Maybe that won’t be enough. We’ll get some idea of that this week.

On a side note, the two-man team at Texans for Public Justice wrote a piece for Politico that called out various liberal pundits for their embarrassing ignorance in the Perry matter. They didn’t break any new ground, but at least the word is getting out there that the indictment isn’t about what a lot of people leaped to conclude it was about.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

The limits of lobbying

They do exist, as Houston’s cab companies recently discovered.

Uber

More than a year of intense lobbying by established cab companies and tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to City Council members were not enough to hold off a pair of upstart tech-taxi firms that now can operate legally in Houston.

In the end, city regulators made few changes to their original proposal revising Houston’s vehicle-for-hire rules. Of the two dozen amendments proposed by council members before they approved the item earlier this month, neither of the cab industry’s top priorities – capping the number of drivers who can sign up with the new companies and requiring them to carry round-the-clock commercial insurance – passed.

To the extent the proposal did evolve, the changes are unlikely to hamper new entrants, Uber and Lyft, or other firms that use smartphone applications to connect willing drivers with interested riders using the driver’s personal car.

Perhaps, said Councilman Michael Kubosh, a staunch opponent of the new rules, the vote simply reflected that the app firms have an idea whose time has come.

“I let the cab companies know right off when they came to talk to me, and I certainly told the cab drivers, ‘Guys, technology always trumps tradition. This is coming and you guys have to prepare yourselves for it,’ ” he said.

Lyft

[...]

Tina Paez, director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department that drafted the new rules, credited Yellow Cab with pushing for disabled access. The final ordinance requires at least 3 percent of vehicles for hire to be wheelchair accessible, that no one company can meet that goal, and that a task force will make further recommendations to City Council.

Paez pushed back on the other victories [Yellow Cab lobbyist Cindy] Clifford claimed, however, saying her department’s original draft was based on research, not suggestions from the cab industry or the new app companies.

The city always planned to place the same public safety rules on all companies, Paez said, though she acknowledged taxi lobbying forced the new firms to submit to city background checks and vehicle inspections rather than let third parties conduct them. And, Paez said, the language clarifying the effect of new entrants’ insurance policies changed the wording but not the content of the law.

“There was very, very little that changed from what we originally proposed to council, except for the disabilities part,” Paez said.

I think CM Kubosh summed it up pretty well. There’s clearly a demand for the type of service being offered by Uber and Lyft, and the main argument against them largely boiled down to “we’ve always done it this way”. Yes, there were legitimate concerns raised about insurance, background checks, and access for disabled folks, but there was never any reason those couldn’t be addressed. I’ve said before that I’d like to see the changes reviewed in (say) twelve months’ time because we don’t have any history to guide us with these changes and we don’t know what the long term effects will be, but again that’s no reason not to try to deal with the evolution of the market. I still think that much of the demand for Uber and Lyft will come from people who weren’t cab riders to begin with and that the existing cab business will be affected much less than they fear, but we’ll see. It’s my hope that we’ll look back on this in a year or two and say that the market has grown and that people have benefited from the expansion of their choices.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Astrodome Park proponents tout a survey showing people like the idea of Astrodome Park

How can you argue with that?

The NRG Astrodome should be turned into a green space similar to Discovery Green downtown, said a majority of people recently surveyed about the future of the former sports arena.

The survey, ordered by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and conducted by the University of Houston Hobby Center for Public Policy and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, questioned RodeoHouston committee volunteers, adults in Harris County and Texans season ticket holders about the future of the dome. RodeoHouston and the Texans proposed the idea, which includes demolishing the dome, last month.

Among other findings, the survey revealed 57.1 percent of those surveyed supported the idea of a green space.

Leroy Shafer, RodeoHouston’s chief operating officer, said Thursday he was surprised at the response.

“I wasn’t expecting such a wide wave of approval for it,” Shafer said. “People don’t seem to want to spend public money on renovating the Astrodome and this idea seems favorable.

“The other option is to continue to let it sit there hoping some white knight comes along with money enough to save the thing but that doesn’t seem to be happening,” Shafer said.

[...]

After the survey was released Thursday, [County Judge Ed] Emmett was baffled by its contents.

“I hesitate to even call it a survey since the questions asked were so slanted,” Emmett said Thursday evening. “It was designed to get a certain result, which they got.”

“I don’t know why he’s so fixated on tearing down a landmark that doesn’t belong to him. Additionally, how can they call it a reuse plan when it calls to tear something down?” Emmett asked.

Here is the survey and its results and methodology. It’s a YouGov Internet survey, but since they’re sampling adults and not some voting universe, I see no issues with that. Emmett’s complaint is that the survey refers to the Astrodome Park plan as a “Public/Private Reuse Proposal” that includes a “Visitor’s Center/Museum Complex In The Center Of A Green Space”, which conveniently avoids mentioning the fact that the Dome would be demolished in order to create that green space in which the visitor’s center/museum complex would be located. I think it’s fair to say that people, even those that had been following this issue closely, might be misled into thinking that this represents a proposal to renovate the Dome into a museum and not a proposal to tear it down and build the (outdoor, open air) museum on the spot where it used to be.

I can’t say for sure that people might have been misled because for all the information provided, the exact wording of the questions is not there. Still, based on the way the results were characterized, I think Emmett’s complaint has merit. Now, Judge Emmett doesn’t like the Astrodome Park idea, and I do think people will be open to that idea even if it means demolishing the Dome. But I think you’d get a different set of answers if you spelled out just what “reusing” the Dome means in this context.

By the way, if you’re wondering what the inside of the Astrodome looks like nowadays, Swamplot has some photos for you. The Dome is never going to be a sports venue again, so whatever its ultimate fate is just think of this as a transitional stage.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

The downside to downtown’s boom

More traffic, less parking, and lots of construction. Where have we heard those complaints before?

Construction crews are clearing city blocks once dedicated to surface parking, readying the sites for multistory office buildings, hotels and residential towers. Adjacent sidewalks and traffic lanes are cordoned off, and two major downtown cross-streets are tied up with light rail construction.

Combined, the parking crunch and cutoff sidewalks and streets have downtown drivers and pedestrians on edge, and many say the problem has worsened in recent months. Building occupancy is putting more workers downtown, and few have convenient transit options, so they drive. More cars means more crowded streets and a mad dash to find parking.

[...]

Development is certainly putting a premium on parking, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston and executive director of the Downtown Management District.

“We came into this period with some excess supply,” Eury said, explaining there are about 75,000 garage spaces, 28,000 surface lot spots and 3,500 to 5,000 available on-street spots in the central business district, depending on time of day. “Now there is more demand, but over time that might work itself out.”

For now, though, it’s more difficult and more expensive to find a space.

[...]

As more of the central business district shifts from surface lots to towers looming over the sidewalk, Houston’s skyline isn’t the only thing changing. Scarce parking might lead some to options like transit, Eury said.

“Look at what (the Metropolitan Transit Authority) is doing with the buses,” Eury said, referring to a planned overhaul of bus service. “That is meeting that challenge and offering a solution. Maybe not a solution for everybody, but a solution for somebody.”

Officials are looking for new nighttime parking options and discussing how to handle major events and high-traffic entertainment areas, said Angie Bertinot, marketing director for the downtown district. Some lots near Market Square Park often pull double shifts, catering to workers during the day and diners and drinkers at night.

As residential options and nightlife return to downtown, parking for visitors also is changing. The district is working on maps and signs to help visitors navigate downtown and mark parking options clearly, Bertinot said. Officials are planning another parking lot at the George R. Brown Convention Center in connection with development of a new hotel.

It’s the same basic complaint as the Medical Center, with the same underlying causes: there are only so many ways in and out, and only so much room to accommodate cars. New buildings are more valuable than space for parking. Ultimately, the solution will be for more people to enter downtown via something other than a car, or at least something other than a car in which they are the only passenger. That’s a lesson that will almost certainly have to be learned the hard way by a lot of people, but it’s got to be learned. The opening of the Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines will help, Metro’s bus reimagining will help (though as it happens that won’t help me; I’m one of the ten percent or so whose service will be a little worse with the new routes), and if we ever build commuter rail, that will help as well. In the meantime, remember that an empty downtown generally means bad economic times. What we have here is what’s known as a good problem to have. Texas Leftist has more, including some pictures.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for August 24

Have you ever said to yourself “What the world really needs is a Tumblr of motivational cat posters with Samuel Beckett quotations“? Well my friend, you are in luck.

Sometimes life really does hand you lemons.

“Several new apps offer quick ways for college students facing unsafe or uncomfortable situations to reach out to their peers, connect with resources on campus and in their communities, or notify law enforcement. These apps for the most part target sexual assault and rape, amid growing national concern about the prevalence of incidents and criticism of the ways colleges and universities are handling them.”

I for one welcome our tiny robot overlords.

“But what is it that Weird Al actually does? I don’t laugh at his songs, yet I’m delighted by his presence in the world of pop culture. With his parodic versions of hit songs, this somehow ageless fifty-four-year-old has become popular not because he is immensely clever—though he can be—but because he embodies how many people feel when confronted with pop music: slightly too old and slightly too square. That feeling never goes away, and neither has Al, who has sold more than twelve million albums since 1979.”

Why are gecko feet sticky, anyway?

“Finally, from my own perspective, while it’s true that I don’t want my son to do pornography, I’d be equally devastated if he decided to have a career issuing pay day loans or swindling the elderly out of their money.”

LGBT Americans are significantly less religious than heterosexuals. Boy, I sure can’t imagine why that might be the case, can you?

What Scott Lemieux says.

Why wearing sunscreen is important.

It was a beautiful song but it ran too long/If you want to have a hit you’ve got to make it fit/So they cut it down to 3:05.

“You can’t always trust your gut: it may be deliberately lying to you as part of the eternal microscopic war going on inside your body.”

Three words: Fried Sriracha balls. You’re welcome.

RIP, Jim Jeffords, former Senator from Vermont.

RIP, Don Pardo, announcer for “Saturday Night Live”, “Jeopardy!”, and too many other things to mention.

You survived the Srirachapocalypse, but are you prepared for Nutellamageddon?

Rick Perry is the latest beneficiary of the Hack Gap.

This is why not to do the Ice Bucket Challenge.

“This is a historic failure of leadership. Recalls were created for moments like this one. So recall the mayor. Recall the city council. Elect new officials who will fire the police chief. Success is not guaranteed, but it is quite plausible and perhaps even likely. The whole lot of them could be tossed out.”

Put Graig Nettles in Monument Park already.

Has anyone told Michelle Duggar that lying is a sin?

Apple’s iMessage system has a spam problem. BlackBerry users, however many of them are left, can gloat a little about it.

The “terror babies” zombie lie shambles on.

Elephant poachers truly suck.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

LVdP for Medicaid expansion

No surprise here.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte vowed to overturn Republican opposition to expanding the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act if elected lieutenant governor, saying the state should act to protect poor, uninsured adults.

The San Antonio Democrat’s “Texas First Health Care Plan,” which she announced Friday at the Davila Pharmacy in San Antonio where she works as a pharmacist, attempts to close the coverage gap created when Texas lawmakers refused to expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal health reform law. She says expanding Medicaid is the “right choice” for the sky-high rate of uninsured Texans.

“As lieutenant governor, I’ll forge a Texas solution to draw down federal funds back to Texas taxpayers, protect Texas businesses, and expand access to affordable health care in our state,” Van de Putte said in a statement. “One out of every four Texans lacks health insurance. That system is unsustainable, bad for business, and bad for Texas families.

She contends that changing the state’s Medicaid program to insure poor adults — a feat that would require Republican support in the Legislature — could include cost-sharing between the state and beneficiaries, consisting of co-pays, income-based premiums on health plans, or using federal funds to purchase private insurance.

I’ll spare you the usual litany of why Medicaid expansion, or some other-named facsimile of Medicaid expansion, is a good idea. I will note that while Wendy Davis is busy frying other fish, she is also out there on the stump talking Medicaid expansion, too (via). Interestingly, it seems that Republican governors in other states that have expanded Medicaid in some form are doing better in the polls than their counterparts who refused. I don’t know that you can draw any broad conclusions from that, but better than if it were the other way around.

One has to wonder how this might play out if Davis and VdP get elected. We know there was a faction of Republicans in the Legislature, epitomized by Rep. John Zerwas, that wanted to find some kind of Medicaid expansion solution that could be called something else and contained at least a couple of conservative wish list items but which would be acceptable to the Obama administration and would allow the billions that Texas would receive to start flowing. They never got anywhere because of Rick Perry’s rigid ideological stance, but they tried. Would they be able to get something pushed through for Governor Davis to sign, or would the nihilist faction react with the same ferocity that Congressional Republicans showed President Obama and shut them down? Unfortunately, I suspect the latter is more likely, but that’s no reason not to elect Davis and Van de Putte and give it a try. It’s not like electing Abbott and Patrick will placate those folks and make them sit back placidly while the Lege goes about its normal business.

Posted in: Election 2014.

The Public Integrity Unit probably won’t have to worry about a veto next year

They’ll have bigger things to worry about.

Rosemary Lehmberg

With Republican partisans campaigning loudly to strip Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg of her control of the unit, chances of getting the funding restored under her by the GOP-dominated Legislature that convenes in January do not look good.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said Thursday she thinks the unit should be moved elsewhere if it is funded.

“I have never thought this unit should be placed as an attachment to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” Nelson said. “I am certain we will have extensive discussions during the next legislative session regarding where they should be placed, but we need to move them somewhere less partisan.”

In the past, lawmakers have filed bills to move the unit to the attorney general’s office or into a separate agency. Both proposals have faltered over questions about separation of powers, as it is a judicial branch agency and not an executive branch function. Even if its investigative powers were moved out of the district attorney’s office, cases still would be referred there for prosecution.

[...]

Throughout its history, the unit has faced repeated threats of funding cutoffs or transfer of its duties to the state attorney general’s office, often when it begins a high-profile investigation or brings an indictment against a prominent official.

Sherri Greenberg, who served in the Texas House from 1991 until 2001, and is now director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, said the unit’s funding and location have been an issue off and on for years.

“That’s been looked at, but it’s never been moved, probably for a reason,” she said.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a veteran Houston Democrat who supported the PIU’s creation in 1982, has been investigated and cleared by the unit, and who has been one of its champions in recent years, said the unit was housed with local prosecutors to give it some independence from state government, which it may be investigating.

“Why would you want to fool with a unit that can investigate you? … If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t worry about the Public Integrity Unit,” he said. “I don’t know how to handicap (the chances of restored funding), but if I were working over there, I’d probably be looking for a job.”

Republicans have wanted to move the investigative function of the PIU to the Attorney General’s office for at least as long as they’ve held the AG’s office, which is to say since 1998. That’s a part of the backdrop of the Perry indictment saga, and however one feels about that I think Sen. Whitmire is reading the tea leaves accurately. One does wonder what the fallout will be if the next Attorney General gets indicted or otherwise sanctioned by the State Bar, but I rather doubt the Republicans that are pushing for the PIU to be reassigned are thinking about that very much. I also wonder if their ardor for moving the PIU’s investigative function into the AG’s office will get cooled if Sam Houston gets elected AG, but again I doubt they’re thinking about that. So just file it away for now and we’ll see if it matters later.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Some Republicans really want to make Uber a partisan thing

A little adorable, and a little desperate.

Uber

Uber hired political strategist David Plouffe this week to run what amounts to a national political campaign against the taxi industry. Ostensibly, this is a fight between large taxi medallion investors and a multi-billion dollar tech startup, between cab companies and everyday Uber drivers, between entrenched power and technological change.

But it’s hard to ignore the context of the other political battle — the one between Democrats and Republicans — within which Uber is emerging as a potent, if contested symbol.

In recent months, prominent Republicans have championed the company as a model for the kind of “entrepreneurial spirit” that so often gets smothered by government regulation. Marco Rubio is a fan of Uber’s story. So is Reince Priebus. Grover Norquist has gone so far as to suggest that Republicans can leverage Uber, and other popular disruptors like it, to get back into the good graces of young, urban voters.

The RNC is even offering a “petition in support of innovative companies like Uber” right now with this ominous warning:

Across the country, taxi unions and liberal government bureaucrats are setting up roadblocks, issuing strangling regulations and implementing unnecessary red tape to block Uber from doing business in their cities.

We must stand up for our free market principles, entrepreneurial spirit and economic freedom.

But now here comes David Plouffe, the man who twice helped elect Barack Obama to the White House. And with an Obama insider helming Uber’s policy strategy, it will be that much harder to argue that Uber is the best symbol for why Republicans are right about the role of government and Democrats are wrong.

As I’ve written before, the actual politics around Uber have always been ideologically messy. We’ve seen Democratic mayors push for Uber-friendly regulation, and Republican governors stand in its way. And the most likely outcome for the company in any city resembles neither total deregulation (as GOP voices seem to be suggesting), nor stifling bureaucracy (as they hint that Democrats want).

I’ve written about this before as well. It’s hard to shoehorn an R-versus-D narrative into this when there’s no leading Democrat standing athwart Uber shouting “Stop!”, but I guess you play the cards you have. For what it’s worth, here in Houston the vote to allow Uber and Lyft was 10-5 in favor, with three Ds and two Rs voting No, and one of the members that was absent for the final vote (Dave Martin) was an R that would have voted No as well. (I don’t know who the other absentee was or how s/he would have voted.) I think most people recognize that Uber and Lyft are going to happen whether anyone likes it or not, that it’s not the government’s job to protect the business plan of an existing (and highly regulated) industry, and that there’a a place and a need for sensible regulations when a disruptive new business comes on the scene. If you prefer it all to be a battle of good versus evil, then sure, go read Grover Norquist’s bedtime stories. In the real world, people who want to make things work, on both sides of the aisle, will be busy trying to get things done.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Just a reminder that “more gambling” does not necessarily mean “more revenue”

If Atlantic City can go bust…

The winning streak has run cold for Atlantic City, N.J.

Earlier this week, the upscale Revel Casino Hotel announced it will close, bringing the total number of casinos in the city expected to close by the end of the year to four. Thousands of workers are confronting unemployment.

The state has long guaranteed Atlantic City a monopoly on gambling within New Jersey’s borders, but gambling revenues there have been declining due to increased competition from new casinos in neighboring states and the lingering effects of the financial crisis. The monthly report from the state Division of Gaming Enforcement issued Wednesday shows that the trend is continuing, as July’s take declined 7.7 percent year over year.

Pennsylvania, which only legalized casino gambling in the past decade, has replaced New Jersey as the state with the second-largest gambling industry. More casinos have been proposed in New York. Yet revenues have been disappointing across the region. In New Jersey, they have declined by around half from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006.

Most disappointing for investors has been the performance of the casinos’ new online gaming businesses. The prospect of online revenues has kept several casinos open despite declining income.

“A lot of these casinos have been unprofitable for quite some time,” said Alex Bumazhny, an analyst at Fitch Ratings.

Online gamblers haven’t anted up, though, and several casinos have folded. Bumazhny estimates that online gaming revenues for New Jersey businesses will total only around $125 million this year. Revel follows The Atlantic Club, which closed in January, and the Showboat and the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, also expected to close this year.

I like to note this sort of news item because as sure as the sun rises, at some point in the fall as the elections get settled and legislators start pre-filing bills, I’m going to get a press release from a pro-gambling expansion group touting the economic benefits of slot machines at horse racing tracks and/or casinos. Said press release and its accompanying economic study will point out the vast number of Texans that are currently gambling in Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other non-Texas states, and will lament the money that could have been spent and gambled right here. My point is that the casinos and riverboats and what have you in Louisiana and New Mexico and Oklahoma and wherever else won’t simply give up the business those traveling Texans bring them without a fight, and the competition they will bring to hold onto their existing customers as well as lure new ones may possibly have a downward effect on those numbers in those press releases and economic studies. This isn’t about whether one does support or should support expanded gambling in Texas – as you well know by now, I am deeply ambivalent about it. It’s just a reminder to keep a sense of perspective when the issue heats up as it always does every two years.

Posted in: Jackpot!.

Saturday video break: Crazy

I believe this is the mother of all “Same Name, Different Song” songs in my collection. First up, the immortal Patsy Cline:

If that doesn’t get you right in the feels, then you must not have any. Now here’s Gnarls Barkley:

That was recorded on the David Letterman show. Took me awhile to find a version that sounded like the studio version – he has several slowed-down live versions. They sounded good but they weren’t what I was looking for. One more, from Seal:

I have a fourth version, by Peter Wolf from his “Lights Out” album, but I can’t find a video for it. Four different songs, all with the same name. I’m sure there are others out there, too. What’s your best example of this?

Posted in: Music.

Ogg challenges Anderson’s handling of Ryan Chandler investigation

This gets a little complicated, so stay with me.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

A county prosecutor who was engaged to fired Houston homicide detective Sgt. Ryan Chandler emailed him an office database search of all his cases as he was under investigation for possible criminal prosecution, according to documents released Thursday by district attorney candidate Kim Ogg.

Assistant District Attorney Inger Hampton sent Chandler an email Feb. 18 with a seven-page attachment that listed criminal cases Chandler handled from 2000 to 2014. The search of the DA’s office database was sent after Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson recused her office from the Chandler investigation on Jan. 7, and asked a judge to seal the motion to keep Chandler from knowing he was under investigation.

Chandler was fired in early April after Chief Charles McClelland disciplined him and seven other homicide division investigators and supervisors for not properly investigating nearly two dozen deaths.

Anderson’s office issued a statement late Thursday saying that while the information provided to Chandler by Hampton was public, its release violated policy and the matter is being reviewed. A phone message left with Hampton’s office Thursday was not returned.

“Inger Hampton’s email to Sergeant Chandler … only involved the release of public information; however her actions were contrary to office policy and as a result, Hampton is subject to internal discipline for this violation,” said a statement from Harris County DA spokesman Jeff McShan.

Ogg is asking Anderson to release information on the transfer of the case to Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon, who for years was head of legal services at the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

[...]

At a press conference Thursday, Ogg questioned Anderson’s decision on Jan. 7 to refer Chandler’s criminal case to Montgomery County, and her refusal to unseal the motion she made to the Harris County chief administrative judge when she requested the transfer. Ogg said former prosecutors and defense attorneys in Harris County are frequently appointed as special prosecutors.

Montgomery County prosecutors said they decided the criminal allegations against Chandler of tampering with a governmental recordwere the type usually dealt with administratively by the police department. Chandler was accused of criminal conduct by HPD for falsifying a report claiming he had referred an April 1, 2011, fatal shooting of an armed robber to the DA’s office for presentation to a county grand jury. Another HPD detective presented the case to the grand jury in September 2013, after an internal investigation began into Chandler’s work.

“We thoroughly looked at and evaluated the Ryan Chandler matter, and it didn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense,” said Phil Grant, Montgomery County first assistant district attorney. “I’m the one who made the decision, and Brent’s former association with HPOU never entered into those deliberations.”

As a bit of background, Chandler is in the process of seeking to get his job back; after a second day of testimony the hearing was put on hold till September.

Here’s the press release Ogg put out for her news conference at which she made these charges, and here’s the executive summary of the report put together by Wayne Dolcefino (yes, that Wayne Dolcefino). I was at the news conference, and these are the points Ogg made:

  • Ryan Chandler’s disciplinary letter of firing indicated that he falsified official reports and lied to the IAD investigators. The former is likely to be a crime – tampering with an official document – and it is what needed to be investigated.
  • Chandler’s engagement and subsequent marriage to Assistant DA Inger Hampton creates a conflict of interest. Normally under these circumstances, there’s a process that is followed that involves the Administrative Judge for the region that in this case includes Harris County, and out of that comes a judge assigned to the case who can then appoint an attorney pro tem, which is the fancy term for “special prosecutor”. Such a special prosecutor is usually appointed from the county where the case originated. Ogg stressed that there are hundreds of qualified attorneys in Harris County who can do this kind of work, and said there have been ten or twelve who have done it recently for various cases.
  • In this case, a Harris County district court judge (we don’t know who for sure) was asked by the DA’s office to appoint Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon as the attorney pro tem. Ligon, as the story notes, is the former counsel for the Houston Police Officer’s Union, which is representing Chandler in the appeal of his firing. Ligon is also a client of consultant Allen Blakemore, as is Devon Anderson, and the HPOU donated money to Mike Anderson’s campaign in 2012.
  • The motion made to appoint Ligon as attorney pro tem was sealed. Ogg wants all documents related to that motion unsealed, which among other things will tell us the name of the judge that acted on it.
  • Ogg also raised concerns about the DA’s office not notifying defense attorneys about the Chandler investigation as is required by law, and in fact did not inform other prosecutors about it in a timely manner. Rather than summarize the evidence Ogg put forth for this, I suggest you read page 4 of the executive summary for a timeline.

From the last page of that document, here’s what Ogg is demanding:

On May 12th,Dolcefino Consulting filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act for letters to victims and Brady letters to defendants and their legal counsel on behalf of the Ogg campaign. Documents released by the District Attorney’s office show none of the letters were written until after the demand for public disclosure filed by Dolcefino Consulting.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office has not released e-mail communication between Inger Hampton and Chandler they deem “personal”. That should immediately happen.

In addition, Anderson should unseal any documents detailing her request for a prosecutor pro-tem, and call on Montgomery County District Attorney Ligon to release documents detailing the “investigation by his office”.

Anderson should also be required to detail for the public what steps she has taken to investigate the actions of Hampton and to internally investigate other personal relationships between prosecutors and testifying police witnesses that give rise to conflicts of interest and report the results to the public.

Most importantly, the District Attorney should have to explain her failure to notify victims, her lapse in notifying defendants, and her failure to warn her own prosecutors.

So there you have it. Anderson for her part released this statement via Blakemore that denies Ogg’s allegations and asserts that “Sergeant Chandler’s activities have undergone the scrutiny of HPD Internal Affairs Division, and an investigation by a Special Prosecutor appointed by the Administrative Judge of the Harris County Criminal District Courts”, but it doesn’t get into any specifics. I’ve got paper copies of the rest of the documents that Ogg provided, but I don’t have electronic versions at this time. There’s a lot here, and we’ll see if anything more comes out. KHOU has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, Election 2014.

SCOTUS halts Virginia same-sex marriages for now

Everyone’s waiting for them to tackle the bigger question.

RedEquality

The Supreme Court on Wednesday stopped Virginia officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, putting on hold a lower court ruling that said the unions could start on Thursday.

The court stayed a decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which on July 28 agreed with a district judge’s ruling that Virginia’s ban is unconstitutional. The same panel last week declined to delay its ruling.

But the Supreme Court stepped in after both defenders of the law and Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) asked for a stay. Herring believes the law is unconstitutional and joined those challenging it, but said it would be disruptive to allow marriages to begin before the Supreme Court decided the ultimate question of whether state bans violate the U.S. Constitution.

Both challengers of the ban and supporters of the voter-approved measures restricting marriage to a man and a woman have asked the court to use Virginia as a test case to decide the issue. But the justices’ order gave no indication that would happen.

[...]

Wednesday’s stay was not surprising. The justice already had taken similar action in the Utah case, after judges found that state’s ban unconstitutional and refused to issue a stay.

And the Supreme Court later put on hold a judge’s order that the state must recognize the 1,000 or so unions that took place between the decision and the justices’ ruling that the marriages should stop.

The action indicates that the high court wants more lower courts to weigh in instead of giving what might be construed as implied approval of an unbroken string of federal court decisions striking down state bans on same-sex marriages.

The Sixth Circuit is on the clock right now, with others to follow, including (eventually) the Fifth Circuit. SCOTUS should have no shortage of appellate opinions to consider by the end of the year or so.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Ninety years later, we could still use an Equal Rights Amendment

I have three things to say about this.

Drafted by a suffragette in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment has been stirring up controversy ever since. Many opponents considered it dead when a 10-year ratification push failed in 1982, yet its backers on Capitol Hill, in the Illinois statehouse and elsewhere are making clear this summer that the fight is far from over.

In Washington, congresswomen Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., are prime sponsors of two pieces of legislation aimed at getting the amendment ratified. They recently organized a pro-ERA rally, evoking images of the 1970s, outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Recent Supreme Court decisions have sent women’s rights back to the Stone Age,” said Speier, explaining the renewed interest in the ERA. The amendment would stipulate that equal rights cannot be denied or curtailed on the basis of gender.

[...]

Written by Alice Paul — a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. a century ago — the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced annually in Congress from 1923 to 1970, when congressional hearings began in the heyday of the modern feminist movement. In 1972, the ERA won overwhelming approval in both chambers and was forwarded to the 50 state legislatures in search of the needed 38 votes to ratify.

Congress set a deadline of 1979, at which point 35 states had ratified the ERA. The deadline was extended to 1982, but no more states came on board, and the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the ERA was dead.

The states that did not ratify were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

Aside from Illinois, there have been few signs that any of those states are on the verge of ratifying the ERA. In politically divided Virginia, the Senate voted 25-8 vote this year for ratification, but the measure died in a committee in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

In Congress, ERA supporters have introduced two measures in pursuit of ratification.

One — known as the “three-state strategy” — is a resolution that would nullify the 1982 deadline so that only three more states would need to ratify the ERA in addition to the 35 that did so in the 1970s.

The other measure would restart the traditional process, requiring passage of the ERA by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate and House, followed by ratification by legislatures in three-quarters of the 50 states.

1. As a child of the 70s, I remember the debates about the ERA, though I doubt I really understood them at the time. I definitely remember the lies and FUD that were being spread by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly. Given the current events in Houston, it sure is the case that some things never change.

2. Hard to believe, but not only was Texas one of the states that ratified the ERA, the Lege did so almost immediately after passage of the originating bill in Congress. I can’t even begin to imagine that now. I guess some things do change, just not always for the better.

3. The alternate history possibilities for a universe in which the ERA got ratified are endless. Bear in mind, Richard Nixon endorsed the ERA when it was passed by Congress in 1972. Needless to say, the party of Erick Erickson does things a little differently these days. I still don’t quite understand why there was a deadline on state passage back then, but it’s never too late to try again.

Posted in: National news.

Two environmental stories

Some good news, and some bad news. The bad news: We have an oyster shortage.

Add an oyster shortage in Texas Gulf Coast to the problems exacerbated by the state’s years-long drought.

But Texas’ dry spell isn’t the only reason the slimy delicacies are harder to come by lately. What was once an abundant supply of oysters in bays from Port Aransas up past Galveston has taken a succession of hits, including sediment dumps from Hurricane Ike in 2008, continually increasing water temperatures – as well as hyper-salinity due to drought and thirsty inland cities with fast-growing populations.

Heightened saltiness encourages the spread of parasites and disease.

“Drought plus a growing population equals no water entering the bays,” said Bryan Legare, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The reservoirs aren’t releasing as much water as they need to for environmental concerns.”

[...]

Legare, meanwhile, has been working to re-create habitats for oysters by pouring tons of river rock into viable locations such as Sabine Lake and the East Bay. With spat, or juveniles, already settling in, there’re hopes for market-size oysters two years from now.

For now, Legare’s take on the state of the Texas oyster habitat is that it’s “a combination of change – and not good.”

Nor is the situation much better for the Gulf’s other oyster- producing states.

“Overall, the Gulf Coast’s just been hit with a number of negative events that seem to have cumulatively depressed production,” said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Ala.

The events have included floods, droughts, hurricanes and precautionary harvesting bans in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill.

In one case, the flood was man-made, caused by the state of Louisiana’s release of Mississippi River water in attempt to push the oil away from sensitive coastal areas. The gush of river water may have saved marshlands, but it flushed out oyster beds. To make matters worse, reefs were further depleted by a naturally occurring flood in 2011.

On the other side of the Gulf in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, the problem has been continuing drought.

Nelson said there hasn’t been a good harvest since 2007, before Ike barreled in. “The impact of all these different problems, challenges along the Gulf Coast have led to an historical low point in the production of oysters,” he said.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just limited to the Gulf of Mexico. But don’t worry, climate change is still just a fairy tale invented by Al Gore. I’m sure this will all work itself out.

For the good news, the pine trees of East Texas are doing a lot better now.

From Texas 327, the two-lane highway that cuts a straight east-west line though Hardin County, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.

There are sweetgum and Texas hickory, loblolly pine and bluejack oak in the blur of green. But just beyond the dense thicket is one of the state’s last stands of longleaf pine, a towering tree that dominated these sandy flatlands before the area was heavily logged a century ago.

This remnant of a once common landscape is the centerpiece of the 5,600-acre Sandyland Sanctuary, a Nature Conservancy-managed property some 100 miles northeast of Houston. It’s also part of a new push to preserve and restore a key piece of the Southeast’s environmental heritage.

Across the eight-state region, timber companies, conservation groups and government officials are working to revert millions of acres to longleaf-pine forests and keep them free from development. It’s no small task because most of the land is privately owned, but there seems to be real interest in bringing back the native hardwood throughout its historic range.

That’s because the open piney woods are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems outside of the tropics. The red-cockaded woodpecker, bobwhite quail and eastern wild turkey – as well as nearly 900 plant species found nowhere else – live among the majestic trees.

[...]

Estimates vary, but many experts figure the Southeast has lost up to 97 percent of its longleaf-pine forest. The all-time low of 2.8 million acres came in the 1990s.

Since then, the amount of longleaf-pine forest has increased to an estimated 3.4 million acres, mostly because of a federally funded effort to restore the woodlands. Several states, including Texas, have set a goal of 8 million acres over the next 15 years.

At least half of the new acreage will come from 16 targeted areas, known as significant landscapes. In Texas, the restoration work mostly will be done in and around the Sabine and Angelina National Forests and the Big Thicket National Preserve.

“The good news is that it’s already hit rock bottom and it’s rebounding,” said David Bezanson, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect Texas land through the purchase of easements. Under such deals, timber companies hold onto ownership but agree to some restrictions on how the property is used.

It’ll never be as it was, but it’s better than it used to be and it’s headed in the right direction. That counts as a win.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten – M’s the word

Another letter with a lot of names that go with it.

1. It’s Hard To Be Humble – Mac Davis
2. Galway Farmer – Maggie Drennon
3. Oxygen – Maia Mitchell
4. Fixer Upper – Maia Wilson (from “Frozen”)
5. For You – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
6. Blue Moon – The Marcels
7. How You Carry On – Marcia Ball
8. If I Could Build My Whole World Around You – Marvin Gaye
9. Freedom Highway – Mavis Staples
10 Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad – Meat Loaf

I could have finished this list with just names beginning with “Ma” but in the end decided not to. If you don’t know who Maia Mitchell is, you probably don’t have anyone living in your home that watches the Disney Channel. Everyone knows Manfred Mann’s famous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light”, but they did two other songs from Springsteen’s debut album that have gotten radio airplay as well, “For You” and “Spirits In The Night”. Far as I know, they didn’t cover any of his songs after that.

Posted in: Music.

Perry will pay for his own defense

Wise decision, something our Governor is not known for.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog came at no cost to the taxpayers

Gov. Rick Perry, who has been using taxpayer dollars to pay his defense lawyers, will tap campaign funds from now on to compensate the attorneys who are fighting his felony indictments, his spokesman said Wednesday night.

Perry spokesman Felix Browne said the governor, who has blasted the indictments as a “farce,” did not want to saddle taxpayers with the cost of a wrongful prosecution.

“This is an assault on the Constitution,” Browne said. “We don’t want it to be an assault on the taxpayers as well.”

Perry will use funds in his state campaign account, he said. As of June 30, the account had more than $4 million in it.

State records show taxpayers have spent about $80,000 so far to represent Perry as he faced criminal investigation. He was indicted last week on two felony counts stemming for allegedly abusing his office with a threat to veto funds destined for the state’s public integrity unit, which oversees public corruption cases.

Yeah, I know, not much of a hiatus from talking about the Perry indictment, but this counts as actual news. I’ve previously said that one can make a case for the state picking up the tab for Perry’s legal bills given the connection of the indictment to his official duties, though I would not have to be the one defending that position to the voters. Turns out, according to that Trib story from which I quoted the late update, Perry billing the state for his attorneys would have been unprecedented. Nice bit of research by the Trib, and it undercuts the argument I had been willing to accept, in addition to making the optics even worse what with Perry having millions in his Rick PAC. If that means he has to cut back a bit on the high-priced legal talent or hustle that much harder to be able to afford it, well, welcome to real life as the vast majority of people know it.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Parker proposes new firefighter pension plan

We’ll see about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With the city of Houston facing huge and rising pension costs, Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday unveiled a proposal to put new firefighters in a separate, less generous plan that would do away with expensive automatic cost-of-living adjustments.

The move would not affect current firefighters covered by the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund, long insulated from reform by the Texas Legislature. It would be an unprecedented change to new firefighters’ pensions and would mark the latest chapter in the contentious relationship between Parker and the city’s firefighters. There are two lawsuits pending between the city and the pension fund; the fund is expected to sue the city over the latest proposal.

Creating a separate plan, Parker said Thursday, is her only recourse for reining in pension costs. Though the city long has had the ability to create the separate pension plan for new firefighters, Parker said, she has waited to do so until now because she wanted to attempt broader pension reforms first.

“But if I can’t solve that one – Legislature won’t help, I don’t have the ability to negotiate – let’s set up a separate pension and create one that is fair and sustainable for both sides,” she said.

[...]

Todd Clark, who chairs the fire pension board, told a City Council committee on Thursday that the proposal would “put a firefighter on welfare,” hurt morale and weaken the department’s ability to retain and recruit staff.

Council members Larry Green, Jerry Davis and Jack Christie pushed back, asking Clark whether there was room for compromise.

“I understand that you think the fire pension doesn’t have a problem, but as someone who has just gone through the budget process for the city of Houston, we have a problem,” Green said. “Our objective is not to become Detroit. What’s the solution?”

Clark responded, “The best thing you can do is just come up with the money. It’s not my job to balance the city’s budget. What the city should be doing is finding ways to meet the promises made, not trying to cut the benefits. No changes need to be made to our system. We’re a very strong and healthy pension system.”

The Mayor’s press release, with more details about her proposal, is here. I think Todd Clark is correct that the current pension is well-funded and in better shape than many others, but I think he’s got a tough sell politically to say that the city just needs to suck it up and pay whatever they’re told to pay, over which the city has no control. I’m not commenting on what’s right or wrong here, just saying that’s a tough sell. On the other hand, CM Costello, the biggest pension hawk on Council, wants this applied to current firefighters as well. That would have been the Mayor’s preference too, but she never got anywhere with the pension fund or the legislature, so it’s also a tough sell. There’s a dispute over whether this proposal can be implemented by Council or if it requires legislative action like any change to the plan for current firefighters would, so if it does get adopted expect there to be a lawsuit.

Posted in: Local politics.