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Precinct analysis: Abbott versus Perry in Latino districts

District level election data for 2014 has been available for a few weeks now. Seems like as good a time as any to return to a favorite topic, namely how Greg Abbott did in heavily Latino areas. An exit poll from November claimed Abbott drew 44% of the Latino vote, which would be a very impressive accomplishment. My complaint whenever I read a story like that is that no one ever bothers to go back and check the actual election results later to see if that kind of number makes sense. No one but me, of course, because I’m a crank about that sort of thing. Now that we have this data, how does it look? Here’s a comparison to Rick Perry in 2010 in the most heavily Latino districts:

Dist SSVR% Perry Abbott ============================= 031 76.46% 42.01% 44.80% 035 76.58% 37.19% 39.11% 036 87.34% 29.55% 31.21% 037 81.21% 36.96% 38.13% 038 80.92% 39.11% 40.39% 039 85.14% 27.03% 32.12% 040 88.14% 25.37% 28.59% 041 71.98% 46.69% 47.84% 042 88.70% 22.58% 29.69% 075 83.70% 29.04% 30.84% 076 84.73% 23.57% 24.32% 079 72.70% 38.89% 39.26% 080 80.84% 34.79% 37.78%

SSVR data is from here. I’d like to think that this would put those 44% assertions to rest, but I know better by now. Abbott clearly did better than Perry, though by only a point or two in most districts. Some of that may simply be due to Perry doing worse overall than Abbott. Still, his actual number among Latino voters is nothing to sneeze at. But as I’ve said before, while the actual results provide a reality check on exit polls and from-the-ether assertions, they’re more suggestive than conclusive. We don’t know what percentage of actual voters in these districts was Latino. To see what I mean, consider a district with 10,000 voters and an SSVR of 80%. Imagine also that Abbott gets 70% of the Anglo vote, which is likely to be at least what Abbott would need to get to almost 60% overall. How does the vote break down if Abbott scored 40% (i.e., 4,000 votes) in that district?

If the actual mix of voters is 80% Latino and 20% Anglo, then Abbott got 1,400 Anglo votes, which means he needs 2,600 Latino votes to get to 40% overall. 2,600 votes out of 8,000 is 32.5%.

If the actual mix of voters is 70% Latino and 30% Anglo, then Abbott got 2,100 Anglo votes, which means he needs 1,900 Latino votes to get to 40% overall. 1,900 votes out of 8,000 is 23.75%.

Basically, the share of the Anglo vote, even though it is relatively small in a district like this, has a large effect on the share of the Latino vote. Changing the assumption that Abbott got 60% of the Anglo vote in this district instead of 70% doesn’t make that much difference. In scenario 1, Abbott needs 2,800 Latino votes instead of 2,600, or 35%. In scenario 2, it’s 2,200 instead of 1,900, or 31.4%. Even in a scenario where you assume the Latino vote exceeds the SSVR%, you get the same kind of result. In a 90/10 situation with a 70% Anglo vote, the corresponding Latino percentage is 36.7%; with a 60% Anglo vote, it’s 37.8%. The only way for the Latino vote percentage to be higher than the overall percentage is if the Anglo vote is less than the overall. I suppose it’s possible Abbott could fail to break 40% of the vote in these districts, but I’ve yet to see anyone offer objective evidence of it. Therefore, the numbers I present above represent the upper bound for Abbott among Latinos in these districts. Anyone who wants to claim otherwise needs to show me the numbers.

(To be completely fair, one scenario under which the Latino vote could be higher than the overall would be if some other segment of the electorate was voting disproportionately against Abbott. A significant portion of African-American voters in these districts could do that. Take the first scenario above and change the voter demography to 80% Latino, 10% African-American, and 10% Anglo. Now assume a 70% Anglo vote for Abbott and 10% A-A vote for him. With those assumptions, 3,200 Latino votes are needed to get to 40% overall, and as it happens that’s a 40% share of the Latino vote. However, in the districts above, the largest African-American population is four percent; it’s less than one percent in most of them. As such, this variation pretty much can’t exist.)

Another way we can look at this is to see if other Republicans did better in these districts as well, or if the effect was limited to Abbott. For that, we turn to a comparison of David Dewhurst in 2010 to Dan Patrick.

Dist SSVR% Dew Patrick ============================= 031 76.46% 45.47% 40.46% 035 76.58% 37.99% 34.86% 036 87.34% 29.04% 26.67% 037 81.21% 35.77% 33.85% 038 80.92% 38.91% 35.40% 039 85.14% 26.44% 27.50% 040 88.14% 25.11% 23.00% 041 71.98% 48.27% 42.16% 042 88.70% 24.68% 23.67% 075 83.70% 30.16% 29.72% 076 84.73% 24.67% 23.37% 079 72.70% 41.50% 37.98% 080 80.84% 35.40% 34.59%

With the exception of HD39, Dewhurst did better than Patrick. Obviously, Dewhurst did better overall than Perry, while Patrick was roughly equivalent to Abbott. That suggests that while Abbott may have improved on Perry’s performance, he wasn’t necessarily a rising tide. To be sure of that, we should compare him directly to his comrades on the ballot. I’ve thrown in Perry as well for some perspective.

Dist Abbott Perry Patrick Paxton Hegar Bush ========================================================== 031 44.08% 42.01% 40.46% 41.36% 40.97% 45.24% 035 39.11% 37.19% 34.86% 35.93% 35.70% 39.45% 036 31.21% 29.55% 26.67% 27.89% 28.06% 32.42% 037 38.13% 36.96% 33.85% 34.16% 34.13% 39.77% 038 40.39% 39.11% 35.40% 36.30% 36.15% 41.98% 039 32.12% 27.03% 27.50% 28.58% 28.68% 33.18% 040 28.59% 25.37% 23.00% 23.92% 24.24% 29.45% 041 47.84% 46.69% 42.16% 44.51% 44.77% 49.92% 042 29.69% 22.58% 23.67% 22.48% 23.40% 33.23% 075 30.84% 29.04% 29.72% 29.33% 29.21% 28.75% 076 24.32% 23.57% 23.37% 23.52% 22.91% 24.76% 079 39.26% 38.89% 37.98% 37.94% 37.41% 37.76% 080 37.78% 34.79% 34.59% 34.14% 33.71% 39.13%

A few observations:

– Clearly, Abbott did better in these districts than anyone except Baby Bush. Playing up their own Latino connections – wife in Abbott’s case, mother in Bush’s – helped them, at least to some extent. We have seen this before, with several other candidates – Ted Cruz, Eva Guzman, Hector Uribe, and as you can see above, Leticia Van de Putte. The effect isn’t much – a couple of points – but it exists. It should be noted that since these candidates’ overall totals don’t differ much from their ballotmates’, there’s an equivalent but opposite effect elsewhere. Just something to keep in mind.

– Note that the effect for Abbott was greater in South Texas and the Valley, and lesser in El Paso (HDs 75, 76, and 79). Bush also did worse in El Paso, no doubt due at least in part to having former El Paso Mayor John Cook as his opponent. Consider this a reminder that the Latino electorate is not monolithic, even within the same nationality. What works well here may not be as effective there. This should be obvious, but I feel like we all sometimes act as if that’s not the case, and yes I include myself in that.

– Along those lines, I wish that the SSVRs were high enough in the urban Latino districts to include them here, but they’re not really comparable. Having written that, I’m now curious enough to do that comparison in another post, just to see what I get.

– At the end of the day, Greg Abbott in 2014 was a lesser known quantity than Rick Perry in 2010. He had a chance to introduce himself as a more or less clean slate. That won’t be the case in 2018, if Abbott is on the ballot for re-election. He’ll have a record to defend, for good or bad. We’ll see how much his wife and madrina can help him then.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Once again to SCOTUS for Texas and the EPA

Plus ca change, and all that.

Texas again went head-to-head with the Environmental Protection Agency before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, this time challenging federal limits on the emission of pollutants like mercury, acid gases and other toxic metals from power plants.

Joined by 20 other states, Texas is arguing that the EPA didn’t properly consider the $10 billion annual price tag of its regulations, which “threatens to drive a number of coal-fired electric utilities out of business.” The rules target more than 50 coal- and oil-fired power plants across Texas, and industry and labor groups are also challenging them.

The EPA counters that Congress never directed the agency to consider costs the way Texas and other states think it should have. And in any case, the agency argues, the benefits far outweigh the costs. The agency asserts that the rule prevents up to 11,000 premature deaths per year. Mercury, a highly toxic chemical that can build up in the human body, is linked to brain abnormalities and developmental disorders.

“The [mercury] rule will importantly reduce serious hazards to the public,” the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote in a legal brief supporting the EPA. “Those hazards … are particularly acute for vulnerable groups, including children who can suffer debilitating, lifelong effects” from toxic pollution.

[…]

At the heart of the case is whether deeming regulations “appropriate and necessary” should include an aggressive consideration of costs early in the process. The plaintiffs say yes; the defendants say no. The D.C. Circuit Court agreed with the defendants last year, pointing out that the courts have previously said the EPA doesn’t need to consider costs that way unless Congress directly tells it to.

If the high court disagrees, a key issue will be how the benefits of environmental regulations should be quantified. Right now, the EPA says the benefits of the mercury rule could total as much as $80 billion, which dwarfs the estimated $10 billion cost.

Opponents say the $80 billion figure is misleading. Only $4 billion to $6 billion of it comes directly from reducing mercury pollution, they argue; the rest is a “co-benefit.” That’s because removing mercury from the air also removes the particulate matter it’s often attached to — leading to increased health benefits.

During oral arguments on the case Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts said that type of co-benefit calculation “raises the red flag” and looks like the EPA is trying to reduce particulate pollution through the back door. That would be an “end-run” around a separate part of the Clean Air Act that the agency must follow for that type of pollution, he said.

“It’s not an end-run, and it’s not a boot strap,” responded U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who was defending the EPA. Calculating co-benefits is “a perfectly appropriate way to deal with getting at metals and other pollutants that would be hard to get at directly,” he said.

I’m sure there’s some subtle legal reason why removing the particulates attached to the mercury shouldn’t count, but I’m too simple a soul to see the logic of it. That won’t be an issue if SCOTUS agrees with the DC Circuit about the bigger question of whether or not the EPA had to consider costs in the first place. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that Anthony Kennedy is the swing vote. Let’s hope we get the good Justice Kennedy this time. The good news is that Texas has an abysmal won-lost record on matters like these. But there’s always a first time, so let’s not get too confident.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Eversole to seek Presidential pardon

For real.

Three years after pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents and resigning his post as a Harris County commissioner to avoid further prosecution, Jerry Eversole is seeking a presidential pardon for his misdeeds.

In a letter sent to at least one of his supporters, lawyers for the disgraced Pct. 4 commissioner are asking for character affidavits that will accompany the eventual application to the Pardon Division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

“Jerry now intends to seek a pardon from the President of the United States,” according to the letter. “He is doing so with the support and encouragement of people who believe a pardon is appropriate.”

[…]

A letter dated March 13 asking for a positive recommendation for the former GOP commissioner was sent to lifelong Democrat and First Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke, who said he plans to write a personal letter of support.

He said he was impressed that Eversole worked to help settle an acrimonious lawsuit between the county and Waste Management Inc. over industrial pollution in the San Jacinto River.

“I plan to ask for a pardon because of what he did after he was convicted,” O’Rourke said. “He really worked to bring us together.”

O’Rourke said Eversole relied on his long-standing relationship with the administration of Waste Management, which has a facility in Precinct 4, to help put together a settlement.

“He really thought it was not in the interest of Waste Management or Harris County to be at each other’s throats,” O’Rourke said.

As hard as I’ve been on Jerry Eversole, I don’t have a problem with him applying for a pardon. It’s his right to do so, and if he really did help facilitate that agreement with Waste Management, then good on him for it. I wouldn’t consider his application to be high priority – I’d put everyone with a felony conviction for drug possession ahead of him – but sure, go ahead and ask. The world needs more pardons.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

One way to lower speed limits

Purple City makes an interesting observation.

One of the quieter actions of the late Parker administration has been to slowly alter speed limits from 35 or 40mph to 30mph. These reductions aren’t based on an engineering study or field measurements, but on a creative interpretation of state law. Texas sets the default urban speed limit at 30mph in lieu of a study justifying higher speeds. The City is interpreting that to post 30 on roadways which were formerly determined to be safe at 35 or 40.

I first began to notice this about a year ago, and had it confirmed by sources within PWE last summer. Thus far, it seems to be restricted to thoroughfares inside the Loop. The existing signage is allowed to disappear (through collisions, failure, theft, etc). When most of the old 35/40 is gone, the road is re-signed at 30. This provides a more gradual transition period than simply changing the signs out overnight.

Recently, I noticed that all of the 35mph signage is missing between Allen Parkway and IH-10.

He’s got a Google Maps image with the various sections of Studemont/Montrose highlighted to show what the speed limit is on each. It’s signed for 35 between Allen Parkway and Westheimer, but either signed for 30 or not signed elsewhere. Unless the next Mayor changes direction, my guess is that at some point in the not too distant future, this road will have a 30 MPH speed limit all the way.

And you know what? That’s just fine. Twenty-five years ago, when there was little retail or residential development north of Westheimer, a 35 MPH speed limit was reasonable. Nowadays, with pedestrians and bikes and cars slowing down to turn into driveways and side streets, a slower speed makes a lot more sense. Slower speeds save lives, and the streets in Houston’s dense urban areas aren’t just for cars any more. We should be updating the speed limits on these streets to reflect that.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for March 29

There’s no scientific proof that mosquito shield bands actually work.

The $500 million art theft you’ve never heard of.

Just another reminder that James O’Keefe is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person.

Au pairs deserve better pay.

No FEMA funds for you, climate-change-denying red-state Governor.

How to draw a better sci-fi or fantasy book cover. Key word: agency.

“Darwin’s strangest animals have now been placed in the biological family tree, after more than 180 years of disagreement over their relationships to other species.”

“No, the government isn’t lying about slower health-care costs — they really are going up slower than they used to. But all those savings? They’re not going to you, or me, or other consumers. They’re accruing to the rest of the health-care system.”

“In short, a sentence that outlasts an offender’s desire or ability to break the law is a drain on taxpayers, with little upside in protecting public safety or improving an inmate’s chances for success after release.”

Four words: I Pity The Tool. You’re welcome.

I’ll totally watch the Mo’Ne Davis biopic. Normally it’s crazy to do a biopic of someone who isn’t even at college age yet, but not in this case.

And speaking of Mo’Ne Davis, she’s a real mensch.

“More than 7 million tons of biosolids—treated sewage sludge—pass through US wastewater facilities annually. Contained within our shit are surprisingly large quantities of silver, gold, and platinum.”

Cloning a historic giant redwood tree.

In case you were wondering what South by Southwest is really like.

“All of Wendy’s fast-food competitors have committed to buy only from farms where farmworkers are guaranteed basic human rights, and yet Wendy’s has so far rejected that responsibility.”

Mallory Ortberg has spent more time thinking about the movie Cast Away than you have.

White chocolate M&Ms. That is all.

“Of course, the thing about classic rock is that it mostly didn’t respond to 9/11 at all, since most of it was written in the decades beforehand.”

An open letter to Ted Cruz, from Galileo.

Dean Smith really was a mensch.

The NCAA made a great response to the state of Indiana enacting a right-to-discriminate law. Now they need to follow through and move the 2017 Women’s Final Four and 2021 Men’s Final Four to a less-discriminatory state. Moving their headquarters out of Indianapolis should be on the table, too. The NFL can do its part and move the Combine to another state. Salesforce threw down the gauntlet. It’s time for others to follow. That will be the only way to get through to these people.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Injunction granted against FMLA benefits for same sex couples

What a load of crap.

RedEquality

A Wichita Falls federal district judge on Thursday granted Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to temporarily stop the federal government from revising the Family and Medical Leave Act to include federal employees in same-sex unions.

Paxton and attorneys general from Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska who sued the federal government “have demonstrated that irreparable injury would occur” if the change went into effect Friday, as scheduled, Judge Reed O’Connor said in his order.

O’Connor, a President George W. Bush appointee, said the new rule would require Texas to recognize out-of-state same-sex unions in direct violation of state’s Family Code, which expressly forbids Texas agencies from giving any legal protection to same-sex couples.

“The Obama Administration’s attempt to force employers to recognize same-sex marriages would have put state agencies in the position of either violating Texas law or federal regulations,” Paxton said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “We are pleased that the Department of Labor’s effort to override our laws via federal rulemaking has been halted, and we will continue to defend our sovereignty in this case.”

Starting Friday, the labor agency had planned to change the FMLA definition of “spouse” to include gay federal employees who were legally married in states where those unions are legal – even if they move to a state that does not allow or recognize same-sex unions. The federal government may request a hearing on the injunction pending a final ruling on the merits of Paxton’s lawsuit.

See here for the background. I’m sorry, but I have a hard time seeing what harm Texas or any other state would suffer under this. These benefits only go to federal employees. Private companies are free to recognize and offer benefits to same sex couples despite Texas’ absurd prohibition against same-sex marriage, and last I checked nothing bad had happened. And seriously, this is all going to be moot soon enough. It’s just more fearmongering from the people who have lost this fight.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Hearing set for appeal of immigration order ruling

Coming soon.

A court hearing has been set for April 17 on whether a temporary hold on President Barack Obama’s immigration executive action should be lifted, a federal appeals court announced Tuesday.

[…]

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said each side will have an hour to make their arguments about the injunction during the April hearing.

The scheduling of the hearing was part of a court order that granted a request by the Justice Department to expedite its appeal of Hanen’s Feb. 16 ruling.

The Justice Department had asked Hanen to lift the injunction while the case was appealed to the 5th Circuit. But Hanen put that request on hold until he heard from federal prosecutors about allegations that the U.S. government had misled him about the implementation of part of the immigration plan.

During a court hearing last week, a Justice Department attorney apologized to Hanen for any confusion about how more than 108,000 people received three-year reprieves from deportation before the judge made a decision on the injunction.

Hanen has yet to decide if he will issue sanctions against the Justice Department if he decides that the U.S. government had begun implementing an expansion of a program that protects young immigrants from deportation if they were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Here’s the Chron story about the allegations that the feds had misled Judge Hanen. I have no idea how serious that is. MSNBC adds some details to this story.

In agreeing to fast-track the appeal, the 5th Circuit is signaling that it is taking the timing of the process as a whole very seriously.

“It all shows how the 5th Circuit seems to recognize that it is a very important case,” said Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond.

[…]

The expedited schedule means those individuals waiting in limbo will get a final decision sooner than what is typically seen in most appeals. But that does not necessarily mean that every step of the process is on the fast-track. Melissa Crow, legal director at the American Immigration Council, said she was surprised to see that the appellate court would be hearing hour-long oral arguments from both sides of the case before making a determination on the emergency stay.

“It is highly unusual for courts to schedule oral arguments on requests for an emergency stay and it’s even more unusual for each side to have an hour of legal arguments,” Crow said.

Tobias agreed, calling the hearing “extremely rare.” Pointing to same-sex marriage appeals as examples of similarly important, time-sensitive cases that impact a number of people, Tobias said courts in the past have held no hearings, left very little briefing time and made very quick decisions. “I think it shows how important the court believes this particular case is,” he said.

Obviously, I’m rooting for the Fifth Circuit to grant the request to lift the injunction, but you never know what you’ll get with them. Politico has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Diabetes

What happens when you expand access to health care in America? More people with previously undiagnosed illnesses can get the diagnosis and treatment that they need.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Putting off visits to the doctor because you don’t have insurance is common, says Dr. Vivian Fonseca, a professor of medicine and endocrinology at Tulane University, in New Orleans. And that’s particularly a problem for people with diabetes, he says.

“We’ve known for a long, long time that a lot of people with Type II diabetes go unrecognized for many years because they don’t get screened,” Fonseca says. And one of the main reasons they don’t get screened, he says, is that they don’t have health insurance.

Fonseca and his colleagues wondered whether Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which became law five years ago Monday, has improved the detection of diabetes. That possibility seemed likely because more poor people now have insurance.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that states could choose whether to expand their Medicaid programs under the ACA. In January 2014, about half the states, including Ohio, expanded and about half did not. This created what Fonseca calls a natural experiment — an opportunity to compare the impact of Medicaid programs on diabetes care.

Using data collected by the clinical laboratory Quest Diagnostics, Fonseca and his colleagues first looked at states that did not expand Medicaid. They saw a very small percentage increase (compared to the previous year) in diabetes diagnoses.

Then they looked at states that expanded Medicaid, and saw, among Medicaid patients, a much bigger increase — 23 percent. That translated into thousands of people with previously undiagnosed Type II diabetes being discovered because of Medicaid’s expansion, Fonseca says. He and his colleagues have published the study online this week in Diabetes Care, the journal of the American Diabetes Association.

Dr. Robert Ratner, the chief medical officer for the American Diabetes Association, says the study is important because early diagnosis and treatment are particularly crucial with diabetes. Left untreated, the disease can lead to blindness, heart attack, kidney failure or complications that require amputation of the foot or leg.

“Early and aggressive therapy of diabetes has a major impact on long-term complications and on quality of life,” Ratner says.

Early intervention may also reduce long-term costs, which account for a large percentage of overall health care spending.

But Ratner points out an irony of the study: Many of the states that did not expand Medicaid are in what he calls the “diabetes belt.” It’s a region stretching from Louisiana to North Carolina.

“Those states that did not expand Medicaid missed that opportunity and they still have large percentages of people, perhaps as high as 20 percent, living with diabetes who don’t know it,” he says.

The study is here. Not everyone buys into the conclusions – this NYT story quotes one skeptic of the result and one who cautioned that the cost effect of early diagnosis has not been established – but it’s easy enough to see how early diagnosis and treatment could have a large benefit for the people who receive it. In Texas, nearly ten percent of adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, with the prevalence among blacks and Hispanics being about double what it is for whites. I don’t know how many have it but don’t have not been diagnosed, but I’d guess it’s a lot. As you might imagine, folks who have diabetes but don’t have health insurance visit the emergency room a lot. And yet we’re supposed to believe that expanding Medicaid is something we can’t afford. It makes no sense at all. Daily Kos has more.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Saturday video break: Georgia On My Mind

Legendary big band drummer Gene Krupa leads his troupe and an unnamed female vocalist in this classic:

Of course, the version we all know is by Ray Charles:

Some years ago I was visiting a school friend in Atlanta, and she took me to Stone Mountain to see the laser show. This number got a rousing cheer from the crowd, as you might imagine.

Posted in: Music.

Still counting HERO repeal petition signatures

After more than a month, we finally have an update on the signature counting from the HERO repeal petition trial.

PetitionsInvalid

The first publicly disclosed tally since the heated trial surrounding the city’s equal rights ordinance wrapped up last month leaves opponents of the law about 3,000 valid petition signatures shy of triggering a repeal referendum, though 8,500 more signatures are still in question and will decide the case.

[…]

For the past month, attorneys on both sides have been counting signatures using [Judge Robert Schaffer]’s rulings. As expected, they have come to different conclusions; the city contends the opponents again failed, while opponents say they have plenty more valid signatures than they need.

But attorneys on both sides agree that the legibility of circulator signatures on certain pages, affecting 8,500 total signatures, will now decide the case.

The plaintiffs argue that legibility should not be a factor.

“We can’t empower the government with the right to be the judge, jury and executioner on whether somebody has a right to vote based on penmanship,” said Andy Taylor, attorney for the plaintiffs.

The city, however, contends that if they can’t determine who a circulator is based on their signature or printed name, all the other signatures collected on that page should be discarded, per city charter and the judge’s ruling.

“The plaintiffs are mounting every desperate challenge they possibly can to try to overcome the effect of the jury’s verdict and the effect of the judge’s post-verdict rulings,” said Geoffrey Harrison, lead attorney for the city. “The plaintiffs lost at trial. They lose on the law. They lose on the facts. But they are prolonging this process by refusing to accept reality.”

Taylor said he’s reviewed the signatures thrown out on legibility grounds, and he believes the judge will agree with him that many are legible.

[…]

It was Schaffer’s ruling several weeks ago that further complicated the case. More than one month ago, the jury found that many high-volume signature-gatherers made mistakes in signing and subscribing the pages they collected, often failing to both print and sign their names at the bottom of the page. After that ruling, city attorneys said barely more than 2,000 petition signatures were valid.

But Schaffer’s ruling was more lenient, requiring only a legible signature or printed name. Under that interpretation, Harrison said the plaintiffs now have between 14,000 and 15,500 valid signatures, still shy of 17,269.

See here for the background, and here for Judge Schaffer’s ruling. Basically, the city is not counting any of these 8,500 signatures because the circulators’ names are illegible. If they were counted, that may put the plaintiffs over the top; the plaintiffs certainly think so. Via HouEquality, the plaintiffs filed a post-trial motion arguing that these circulators’ signatures could be determined by comparing them to petition signatures elsewhere, or if all else failed by tracking down the notary public affidavit for them. They concede that could cause time issues, since the city has 30 days to validate the signatures, and it’s not clear that the city is required to take such a step. For that matter, it’s also not clear that the city is required to do the detective work of comparing hard-to-read circulator signatures to petition signatures to try to find a match. If these circulators had printed their names in addition to scrawling them like they were supposed to, this wouldn’t even be an issue. Judge Schaffer’s ruling that either a signature or a printed name is sufficient is why we’re here arguing over how to tell whose chicken scratch belongs to whom. The plaintiffs argue in their brief that they were able to match signatures to other signatures in pages representing over 8,000 of the 8,510 that are still in limbo. Now it’s back to Judge Schaffer to decide, and he says he’ll have a ruling in early April. Given the forgeries and other problems that had been found before, I’m not sure how much more benefit of the doubt these guys deserve. We’ll see what the judge thinks. KUHF and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

State-run Women’s Health Program continues to be a failure

Quelle surprise.

Right there with them

Right there with them

Thousands fewer women are getting health services through the now state-run Women’s Health Program after Planned Parenthood was barred from being a provider.

A report released Monday by the state Health and Human Services Commission showed that almost 30,000 fewer women were served through the program in 2013 than in 2011, and 63,581 fewer claims were filed for birth control.

The program became fully state-funded in 2013 after lawmakers voted to prohibit taxpayer dollars from going to abortion providers or their affiliates. Planned Parenthood served about 40 percent of the women in the program before it was excluded for being affiliated with separate, privately funded abortion clinics.

Texas lost federal matching money that kicked in $9 for every one dollar the state spent, now costing the state about $36 million annually.

The program provides well woman’s exams, cancer screenings, contraception and tests for sexually transmitted diseases and infections to low-income women between the ages of 18 and 44.

“These numbers are so distressing and I think it shows Texas moving backwards pretty quickly,” said Sarah Wheat, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

Several Planned Parenthood family planning clinics closed after they lost funding. The report showed that the areas with the highest drops in the number of women served by the program occurred in areas where Planned Parenthood clinics shuttered.

I’ve blogged about this plenty – see here and here for a couple of examples – and by this point it should be clear to everyone that this is a feature, not a bug. The Republicans who did this were told, repeatedly and in detail, exactly what would happen when the cut the funding, gave up the federal match, and kneecapped Planned Parenthood. They went ahead and did it anyway, for the basest of political reasons. And after last year’s elections, who can blame them? It’s not like anyone has been held accountable for it. They should have the courage of their convictions and embrace studies like this with pride. It’s what they wanted to do, and they’ve been hugely successful at it. Newsdesk and the Observer have more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Metro writes off old light rail studies

What might have been.

Houston transit officials Thursday wrote off $104 million wasted on multiple studies related to the controversial University and Uptown light rail projects that ultimately stalled due to a lack of funding and fierce opposition from the neighborhoods they would impact.

The studies for the two lines, which were approved by voters in a 2003 referendum, were conducted prior to 2010. The value of those studies have since been carried as assets on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s books, just like buses or real estate, a common practice as major projects are compiled.

Thursday, by approving Metro’s 2014 certified financial report – an audited assessment of the agency’s finances – board members authorized the removal of the studies from the agency’s ledger.

In other words, they paid $104 million for detailed engineering and analysis and got very little in return.

Metro officials remain adamant that transit improvements in the area remain a priority. But if plans for the two light rail lines ever move forward, many alignment studies will have to be redone, reflecting more current conditions.

“It is very frustrating,” said Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “That’s why, when we came in, we stopped that practice.”

[…]

Many of the studies were related to repeated demands by residents or elected officials vehemently opposed to the two lines to reconsider some of the alignment proposals, particularly along the University Line, which would have, in part, run along Richmond Avenue.

“Between 2004 and 2009, 46 additional alternatives, were looked at along the corridor,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, explaining some of the $61.8 million in work related to the University Line.

About $34.2 million was spent to study portions of the Uptown Line, along Post Oak Boulevard. The board also wrote off $8.6 million related to a failed effort to build an underpass along Harrisburg for the Green Line, currently under construction.

Probably all of those Universities Line studies were the result of Metro trying to accommodate all of the malcontents who kept demanding alternatives to the Richmond route we all know was best. All water under the bridge now, but I still get mad every time I remind myself how far along the process Metro got on the Universities Line before it was brutally murdered by John Culberson.

Meanwhile, we finally have an official grand opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines.

Even though trains have been running for several months, Metro CEO Tom Lambert says they’re still in the testing phase mandated by the federal government.

“We’re really working through all the operational experiences, so before we get into revenue service we have a good understanding how that’s going to work,” Lambert says.

[…]

The two new lines will take riders into the East End and Southeast Houston. They’ll link up with the current North Line downtown. The new opening date is now set for May 23.

At last report, the opening was aimed for the end of April. Maybe now that we have an actual date and not a vague time period, it will happen. That date was also noted by The Highwayman, which includes this tidbit about rail ridership:

Peak rail ridership for the rodeo, which ended Sunday, topped out March 19 with about 71,500 boardings on the light rail line, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said. That’s well short of the record day Metro had last year, when the line logged 76,925 boardings.

“Overall (rail) ridership for that three week period is up by about 21,000 boardings, but rodeo ridership specifically was down, apparently due to all the wet weather we had,” Gray said.

Metro did log record ridership for a week, with 448,000 boardings from March 14 to March 20, but that had less to do with the rodeo and more to do with incremental increases in general rail use, officials observed. Gray said last year during the rodeo, there were about 1.28 million rail trips, with 471,000 of those attributed to the rodeo. This year, officials estimate 1.3 million rail trips were taken, but rodeo-related rides slipped to about 421,000.

Overall, since the expansion of the Red Line in December 2013, light rail use has increased. In February, average daily ridership was 46,633, an 8 percent increase over 2014 and 24 jump from February 2013, before the line opened north of downtown Houston.

I’ll take the tradeoff of lower rodeo ridership for higher overall ridership every day of the week. I can’t wait to see what it looks like once these two lines finally come online. The Highwayman has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Rural hospitals

If this story was meant to evoke my sympathy, I’m afraid it failed.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Since the hospital closed in Paducah, a town 30 miles to the north, patients in Guthrie have 60 long miles to travel to Childress for care. It’s a feeling of isolation that has crept up on other rural corners of the state following a spate of 10 hospital closures in the past two years. And financial data collected by the state and federal government shows revenue is falling for other rural hospitals, suggesting more may be on the brink.

Policymakers, operating on tight budgets, must decide whether they are willing to spend more money on small hospitals serving a limited number of patients, hospitals that in most cases could not keep their doors open without government assistance. But without them, people, inevitably, will die.

“We’ve all seen the crash that’s coming in the next five years,” said Kell Mercer, an Austin-based lawyer who has worked on hospital bankruptcy cases. “The Legislature’s more interested in cutting revenue and cutting services than providing the basic services for these rural communities. This is a perfect storm of events that’s going to hit the state, hard.”

Texas’ rural hospitals have long struggled to stay afloat, but new threats to their survival have mounted in recent years. Undelivered promises of federal health reform, payment cuts by both government programs and private insurers, falling patient volumes and a declining rural population overall have been tough on business — a phenomenon one health care executive called “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Add to that Texas’ distinction as the state with the highest percentage of people without health insurance and you get a financially hostile landscape for rural hospital operators.

“Hospital operating margins, and this is probably true of the big guys and the small guys, too, are very small, if not negative,” said John Henderson, chief executive of the Childress Regional Medical Center. “In a way, Texas rural hospitals are kind of in a worst-case scenario situation, because we lead the nation in uninsured, and we took Medicare cuts hoping that we could cover more people.”

[…]

The sum of all these changes has people like Don McBeath, who lobbies for rural hospitals, warning of a repeat of the widespread hospital closures Texas experienced three decades ago. In 1983, the federal government restructured the way Medicare made payments to hospitals, meant to reward efficient care. Those changes proved untenable for small hospitals with low patient volume, heralding decades of closures that claimed more than 200 small Texas hospitals as casualties, McBeath said.

Some counties can afford to raise taxes to keep their hospitals open; others cannot, or find that raising taxes is politically impossible.

And when a small county hospital closes, often the hospital in the next county over must shoulder a bigger burden of uninsured patients. Even patients with insurance face higher deductibles and often can’t pay their bills.

“When it closes, you’re forced to make other decisions, other plans,” said Becky Wilbanks, a judge in East Texas’ Cass County, which saw a hospital closure last year. “That’s an economic hit that we took.”

Rural hospitals are often one of the biggest and highest-paying employers in a community, Wilbanks said.

And when they close, it can have a domino effect on other local businesses, said Hall County Judge Ray Powell. When his county’s hospital closed in 2002, it prompted the local farm equipment dealership to close its doors and move to Childress.

“It was a big loss,” he said. “It was devastating.”

Across Texas, rural counties are seeing their populations dwindle. King County, home to Guthrie, is one of Texas’ 46 rural counties that are projected to lose population over the next four decades — at a time when the rest of the state’s population is expected to double.

Maybe I’m just a jerk, but my first reaction to stories like this is to check the most recent election results in the counties named.

In Cass County, Greg Abbott got 74.64% of the vote.
In Hall County, Greg Abbott got 85.09% of the vote.
In King County, Greg Abbott got 96.77% of the vote. Ninety-three people voted in total, and 90 of them went for Abbott.

In other words, the voters in these counties have gotten what they voted for. Perhaps someone should point that out to them if and when more of these rural hospitals close.

This isn’t entirely fair. Declining population in these counties is nobody’s fault. A change in Medicare payments in 2002 caused a lot of upheaval. But the problems they’re facing now are entirely the result of Republican intransigence on Obamacare and hostility to Medicaid. It’s abundantly clear by now that Medicaid expansion has been a boon for the states that have done it, while states like Texas are feeling the downside good and hard. If you want to blame Wendy Davis for not adequately communicating the issue to these voters, you have to equally blame Greg Abbott for continually lying about the need for “freedom” from the “tyranny” of Obamacare. Elections have consequences. This is one of them.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten: Parenthetically speaking, part 8

They keep making songs with parentheses in the titles, I keep writing about them.

1. Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) – Katy Perry
2. Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out) – John Mellencamp
3. Let’s Be Friends (Skin To Skin) – Bruce Springsteen
4. Life Is Real (Song For Lennon) – Queen
5. (The Lights Went Out In) Massachusetts – Bee Gees
6. (Listen To The) Flower People – Arrica Rose
7. Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel) – Billy Joel
8. Luminous Times (Hold On To Love) – U2
9. (Making The Run To) Gladewater – Michelle Shocked
10. ¿(Mamacita) Donde Esta Santa Claus? – Charo

A Christmas song, a U2 song – it’s like there’s a pattern or something – and a Spinal Tap cover, too. That makes for a pretty good week, I think.

Posted in: Music.

Backlash anti-gay marriage bill heard in committee

Turns out bigotry has a price tag.

RedEquality

House Bill 1745, by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), seeks to bar Texas officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples or recognizing their marriages—regardless of whether courts determine the state’s ban is unconstitutional.

More than a dozen witnesses gave nearly two hours of sometimes emotional testimony during a hearing on the bill—also known as “the Preservation of Marriage and Sovereignty Act”—before the House Committee on State Affairs. They debated the “biblical” definition of marriage, religious freedom and the principles of U.S. government, such as states’ rights, federalism and checks and balances.

However, the bill’s fate may ultimately hinge on something far more simple: dollars and cents.

HB 1745 would shift authority over marriage licenses from county clerks to the secretary of state, prompting a representative from the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas to testify against it.

“The fiscal impact of that would be devastating to counties who are already struggling to balance their budgets,” said Teresa Kiel, legislative chair for the association and Guadalupe County clerk.

See here for the background. Bell filed his bill after the Travis County Clerk issued a marriage license to two women in response to a district judge’s order. That matter is still being litigated, not that that stopped the likes of rep. Bell.

The Trib goes into more detail.

During the committee hearing, state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, questioned the bill’s effect on government employees if the nation’s highest court does legalize same-sex marriage.

“Am I hearing you all to say that the state of Texas, county employees and others be given the right to disregard the United States Supreme Court ruling?” Turner said.

[…]

Under Bell’s measure, the secretary of state would be the sole issuer of marriage licenses and could contract out to county clerk’s office. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, expressed some anxiety about leaving this up to the secretary of state’s office.

Members of the committee were also wary about the bill’s cost to the state — an estimated $1.4 million in fiscal year 2016 and $1 million every year thereafter. The bill’s pricey fiscal note, prepared by the Legislative Budget Board, includes salaries for 18 full-time employees who would be required to issue marriage licenses.

Texas counties issued 185,510 marriage license applications and declarations of informal marriage in 2013.

No vote on the bill was taken, and Bell told the committee he intended to present a revised version that will address the fiscal impact. Geren said he would also like Bell to address the local impact on individual counties.

“The fiscal note says there’s no local impact. My [county clerk] disagrees with that, and I think the testimony here shows several clerks disagree with that,” Geren told Bell. “I think there is a local impact in the millions of dollars, and I don’t know how we address that, but I hope that you will in the substitute that you’re working on.

Turner seemed less interested in considering Bell’s bill substitute, saying the measure would create “chaos and confusion.” When Bell reiterated he would present a bill substitute, Turner responded, “I don’t care how much lipstick you put on it.”

Amen to that. While I agree that there’s no prettifying this stinker up, I would point out that the financial hit counties would take is even bigger than the clerks testified. Not only would counties lose out on the funds they get now from straight marriages, they’d lose out on the economic bonus that same sex marriages would bring. Again, this bill and its Senate companion should be killed on their own lack of merit. But the ancillary issues matter, too. Trail Blazers has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Endorsement watch: Pushback on the process

The early endorsement by the firefighters’ union – and now the Houston Police Officers Union – of Rep. Sylvester Turner for Mayor has ruffled some feathers.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

The Houston Police Officers’ Union on Tuesday followed their firefighter counterparts who on Monday endorsed Turner, a 25-year state representative who long has maintained close ties to first responders. Both organizations said that Turner’s legislative record placed him head and shoulders above his competitors and that the decision to endorse him was easy.

The endorsements arrived as various mayoral campaigns are only beginning to roll out their platforms and before the organizations knew the full field of candidates available to consider. In 2009, the last open mayoral race, the unions only chose to endorse in August. Sometimes, the organizations have made endorsements for a November election as late as September.

The firefighters union endorsement is drawing particular scrutiny because the group did not screen any candidates other than Turner, who brokered a deal this month between the city and the fire pension board that earned plaudits from firefighters.

Scott Wilkey, spokesman for the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, said a more extensive interview process was unnecessary. Given the public statements of the well-qualified field, Wilkey said, the union already knew the positions of most of the candidates.

“Screening candidates who are on record as hostile to firefighters or who are profoundly ignorant of public safety issues just wastes everyone’s time,” Wilkey said in a statement.

[…]

Asked why former congressman Chris Bell and businessman Marty McVey, who have expressed conceivably less threatening positions on pension reform, were not considered, Wilkey said the union compared “a 25-year history versus a 10-year absence in politics versus a neophyte.”

See here for the background. It’s obvious why the HPFFA did not bother to screen candidates like CM Stephen Costello, CM Oliver Pennington, and Bill King. Everyone knows where each side stands on the single issue that matters the most to the firefighters, so why waste everyone’s time? As for the likes of Chris Bell and Marty McVey, endorsing organizations are free to set their own rules and follow their own procedures. The tradeoff for a streamlined process in this case is the possibility of alienating someone who could have been friendly or at least neutral to you. Now that person’s supporters might be less inclined to listen to you, a non-trivial factor in a race that will surely go to a runoff, and you might wind up with a Mayor you’ve annoyed by your process. You pay your money and you take your chances.

But wait, I hear you cry. What about that other guy?

That process snubbed not only McVey but also Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who has not yet announced a mayoral run though people with firsthand knowledge of his plans say he will formally launch his bid in the next few weeks. Garcia, who declined to comment through an adviser, spent 23 years as a Houston police officer.

“Adrian would have been screened Friday if Adrian had announced prior to Friday,” said Houston Police Officers Union president Ray Hunt, who defended the process as thorough and welcoming.

Sources may say that Sheriff Garcia is running for Mayor, but until he himself says it, he’s not a candidate. No organization is going to consider or screen a non-candidate. It happens every two years that some late-entering candidates miss out on endorsements they might have won if they’d been in the race earlier. In this case, the endorsement process was a lot earlier than usual, but them’s the breaks. It’s all part of the process.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Uber and Lyft for the San Antonio suburbs

If the rules in the big city aren’t amenable, maybe the rules in the smaller nearby cities will be.

Lyft

San Antonio’s new rules for rideshare companies go into effect April 1 and controversy over the regulation of transportation network companies (TNCs) continues as Uber and Lyft prepare to leave San Antonio. Company representatives say the rules are too restrictive and burdensome to operate within city limits.

The mayors of Windcrest, Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Hollywood Park, however, feel otherwise, and joined forces at a Wednesday press conference to express support for Uber to stay in the local service area and continue to operate in Bexar County suburban municipalities.

Windcrest City Council is to vote Wednesday evening on a resolution that would lead to an interim operating agreement with Uber, allowing that company to keep serving its city. Windcrest is home to a host of small and large businesses, including Rackspace‘s corporate headquarters at the former Windsor Park Mall, as well as a large number of retired military veterans.

Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Terrell Hills city councils each will consider a similar resolution in April.

Uber

[…]

The big questions now is whether Uber drivers picking up a passenger in Windcrest or another Bexar County suburb can be allowed to drive San Antonio roads to deliver passengers to their destinations within San Antonio, such as the San Antonio International Airport.

“If it originates in Windcrest (or another permitted city), they can take the passenger anywhere, whether it’s Bexar County or Houston. That’s how I interpret the law. Then again that’s something for lawyers to squabble over,” Windcrest Mayor Alan Baxter said.

Olmos Park Mayor Kenneth Farrimond has talked with City Attorney Frank Garza and that their feeling is that even with these suburban agreements, Uber drivers and passengers will still be limited in what they can do in San Antonio city limits. Cooper questioned whether San Antonio law enforcement could enforce Uber drivers transporting suburban passengers in any way.

Sgt. Javier Salazar, spokesperson for the San Antonio Police Department, later said if and when Windcrest or another Bexar County suburb issues a driver’s permit, TNCs may use San Antonio streets only to drop off fares initiated in a city where the permit was issued.

So, if approved in Windcrest, you can call an Uber within its city limits and have it drop you off in San Antonio, but you’ll have to find another way back.

“If a pick-up begins in another city, other than a permitted city, they may not travel through San Antonio,” he added. Salazar said San Antonio’s ordinance can be enforced in a number of ways, including a sting operation or via routine traffic enforcement.

Interesting. I’m not sure how economically viable that will be – Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, Terrell Hills, Windcrest City, and Hollywood Park have a combined population of about 22,000, so the potential customer base they could offer is pretty small. That said, as the Express News story says, mayors of 25 out of 26 non-San Antonio towns in Bexar County attended a meeting called by County Judge Nelson Wolff (a suporter of ridesharing) to discuss this. If the rest of Bexar County is on board, that changes things, though it’s still complicated. Worth keeping an eye on, and Windcrest City Council did approve the resolution, with several others to follow soon. I wonder if Harris County and the other cities it has will make a pitch as well. The Current has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Beautifying Broadway

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Not that Broadway

Broadway between Hobby Airport and Interstate 45 may offer a first impression of Houston to first-time visitors, but not the one many civic boosters would like.

The 2 miles along the main road between the airport and the highway include strip developments and aging apartment complexes. Grassy medians along the road are scattered with few trees and shrubs. Little landscaping or lighting welcome travelers or residents coming home.

“Tired” is one word used to describe the area by Anne Culver, the president of Scenic Houston, a nonprofit working to raise $7.5 million to upgrade the area.

“You only have one shot at a first impression,” Culver said. “For many coming to Houston, that first impression is Broadway. … It’s not welcoming.”

Civic leaders envision a Broadway lined with oaks trees, flowers and shrubs in median. Gravel pathways and benches would be placed along the road in the now patchy esplanades. Art Deco-style LED lights would illuminate newly paved walkways and crosswalks.

The push to improve the street comes as Hobby is expected to bring an estimated 1.5 million new passengers annually into the area once its international terminal opens in the fall and as the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston nears.

[…]

Scenic Houston and the Hobby Area Management District, the district set up to boost economic development in the area, say it’s the right time to do whatever they can to make the area look as good as it can. They have set out a $7.5 million plan for trees and LED light fixtures up and down the roads. Along the esplanades, gravel and walkways would wind in between benches, flowers and the new lighting. Sidewalks would be improved. The groups are working to raise money from private donors and some funding will come from the management district.

“This was a great opportunity to step into the breach,” Culver said. “If you’re coming in from the airports, the first impression for miles is that the city is unattractive.”

I’d argue that the stretch of I-45 in from IAH, with its unending stream of used car lots, strip clubs, and billboards, is the uglier and worse-impression-making of the city’s entry points. At least Broadway provides a nice view of Sims Bayou. Still, I take their point. Any reasonable thing we can do to make the city look better is worthwhile. Given that TxDOT is already paying to rebuild the street, it makes all kinds of sense to make the upgraded street more functional, which in itself should help to make it more attractive. I tend to fly United so I don’t get this way that often, but I will look forward to seeing how this turns out.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

House will address school finance

Good.

Jimmie Don Aycock

With a plan that would add $3 billion to the state’s public education budget, the Texas House has decided to take on school finance reform this legislative session.

As he announced a deal Wednesday that would put $800 million on top of the $2.2 billion the chamber had already allocated to public schools, Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, called the decision a “significant change in direction.”

The topic of school finance was largely expected to go unaddressed this legislative session while a massive lawsuit involving more than two-thirds of the state’s school districts awaits a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.

After months of private discussions and meetings, Aycock said House leaders no longer wanted to wait for a long-needed overhaul of the system. The proposal will be filed as House Bill 1759.

“We had to ask the fundamental question: Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around and try to play lawyer and outguess the courts?” Aycock told reporters at a Capitol news conference.

The Observer fills in some details.

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with limited English proficiency, which haven’t been updated in more than 25 years. Tinkering with any of those would upset the delicate equilibrium of a system that, despite its flaws, has been in place since 2006.

“The fact is that when you change these complicated formulas, some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” Aycock said. “In order to mitigate that pain politically, you can only do this sort of modification when there’s more money going into the system.”

Some, but not all, members of the crowd around Aycock this morning have been meeting since last fall in an informal working group on school finance reform. The group includes Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural districts.

In an interview, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said Aycock’s plan wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with Texas’ school finance system, but to Democrats who’ve been railing against the state’s chronic underfunding of schools, the extra money was welcome. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Still, adding more money this session to Aycock’s plan wouldn’t address the system’s basic flaws, or allow for reforms like pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I think it’s a huge step toward addressing what the court said we need to address,” Howard said, but “I take Chairman Aycock at his word that this is not about trying to make the lawsuit go away.”

[…]

David Thompson, an attorney representing one group of school districts suing the state, told the Observer that without a bill to look at yet, it’s impossible to guess how the case might be affected. “I do very much appreciate the House’s willingness to spend some time to address the issue,” Thompson said, adding that the plans Aycock described include “some very positive features.” Thompson said he’s most interested in seeing a proposal that steers more money to districts that educate the state’s neediest children.

Had lawmakers completely punted on school finance reform—or if the House’s plan eventually falls through—a Supreme Court ruling against the state would likely prompt a special session in 2016 dedicated to fixing the system. If nothing else, the new reform effort could serve as a practice run for new members getting to know the arcane system for the first time.

Rep. Aycock had previously filed a different school finance bill, HB654, to simplify the school funding mechanism by grouping the state’s 1,026 regular school districts into at least 30 “school finance districts”. This is something else entirely, and it’s not clear to me what the status of that bill is. Regardless, considering that Rep. Aycock talked about “nibbling around the edges” back in December, it’s quite a step forward. Whether it can survive the tax-cuts-uber-alles mania that is gripping the Senate remains to be seen, but for now this is a hopeful sign.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

Two challengers emerge in At Large #5

After Jan Clark bowed out in At Large #5, incumbent CM Jack Christie was left with no opponents after he announced his intent to run for re-election. That lasted until yesterday. Early in the morning, this email hit my inbox.

Philippe Nassif

Philippe Nassif

Philippe Nassif is proud to announce his candidacy for Houston City Council At-Large Position 5. This seat is currently held by a council member whose out of touch policies and outdated ideas do not reflect the entrepreneurial spirit of Houston.

“Houstonians deserves an elected official that will represent the changing demographics of the city, and who can accurately represent their needs and vision for Houston’s success.” Philippe said.

Philippe is a proud Houstonian, non-profit leader, and community organizer. As the son of two successful immigrant parents—a Mexican mother and a Lebanese father—he believes strongly in the power of this city’s economy. His story is Houston’s story. This city has provided unparalleled opportunity for both newcomers and Houstonians that go back generations. He is running for City Council to tap into the potential of all of Houston’s communities and help lead the city into the future.

Philippe is the first of his family to be born in America–his parents moved to Houston because of the opportunities the energy industry offered them. The opportunities Houston has afforded Philippe drove him to give back through public service– which includes a career working for Mayor Annise Parker’s administration, The White House, President Barack Obama’s campaign, and now at a women’s empowerment organization where he lead advocacy efforts across 14 states to improve women’s rights around the world.

He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas and a Masters degree from St. Mary’s University, and currently lives in The Heights neighborhood. He is building his campaign the grassroots way — from the ground up.

“My campaign will focus on addressing our traffic crisis, pushing our city further to welcome startups and new businesses, fairness in policing, and ensuring equality for all Houstonians.” For more information visit www.NassifForHouston.com.

Nassif had previously been a candidate for At Large #1. He had previously criticized Lane Lewis for remaining on as HCDP Chair while running for that position. My guess is that Lewis has sucked some of the oxygen out of that race for other Democrats, as many people thought might happen, and Nassif decided to take his chances elsewhere.

And for a brief while, Nassif was the only Democrat and the only challenger in the AL5 race against CM Christie. Then later in the day, this email arrived.

Durrel Douglas

Durrel Douglas

I’m running for Houston City Council, At-Large Position 5. Visit www.douglasforhouston.com and save the date for our campaign kick-off:

Sunday, April 12th
5:30-7:30 PM
The Ensemble Theater
3535 Main
Houston, Texas 77002

I’m running because I’ve seen the amazing strides we make as a city when we work together, and, what happens when our elected officials ignore the voices of the people they serve. As your city councilman, I’ll continue to fight for hard-working families and together we’ll build a better Houston.

I grew up in Houston’s South Park on Selinsky street. After High School I went to college online majoring in Social Science at Western Governors University and worked full time for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as a correctional officer–eventually moving up the ranks to sergeant and lieutenant. After five years, I decided to leave the prison system and instead work to improve the communities that led so many people from neighborhoods like mine to prison. After resigning, I worked for the Harris County Democratic Party before moving to Austin to work for a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives. After the 2011 legislative session, I eventually moved back to Houston with the goal of empowering communities here. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting amazing Houstonians while working to make our city a better place.

For the past five years, I’ve worked as a community organizer standing shoulder to shoulder with Houstonians. From the fight for the HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) to recent wins with justice reform through the grass-roots organization I co-founded, I’ve seen great things happen.

In 2011, I met Debra Walker and Betty Gregory who were among those leading fighting for IKE repair funding.

In 2012, when our city considered expanding Hobby Airport, I worked with community leaders like Pat Gonzalez to include community members in the decision making process.

CLICK HERE FOR HOBBY AIRPORT NEWSCLIP

In 2013, we came together at city hall to pass the #DownWithWageTheft Ordinance which ensures an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. That same year we challenged HCAD to make wealthy downtown commercial building owners to pay their fair share of property taxes into the revenue stream. CLICK HERE FOR HCAD ARTICLE. We can address our city’s looming budget problems if we work with other government entities to close loopholes like this one.

In 2014, I met Houstonians like Fran Watson and Kristopher Sharp who worked together to pass the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) protecting every Houstonian from discrimination. That same year we fought school closures and launched a grass-roots organization to address local criminal justice reform CLICK HERE FOR LINK.

In 2015, we’re running for city council. Together.

I ask not only for your support during our campaign and vote in November, but for your ideas for our campaign and our great city. I’m inviting Houstonians to add their thoughts and ideas to our campaign platform titled “#OneHouston.” Sending suggestions via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, our platform will be of the people, by the people, for the people. With our fresh, bold ideas we’ll build a better Houston. Feel free to email info@douglasforhouston.com or give me a call/text at 832.857.5737.

Not too long ago, my opponent Jack Christie voted to give Valero a projected $17 Million tax break. CLICK HERE FOR LINK. With our crumbling roads, infrastructure and pension gaps, we don’t need elected officials who make decisions like this one. The men and women who work for the city (like my father who’s worked 29 years for the City of Houston) shouldn’t have to take a furlow day or cut in benefits at the expense of elected officials like my opponent who’d prefer to balance our budget on the backs of hard working families.

We have two choices. We can either sit back and allow others to continue making decisions on our behalf, or, we can seize this opportunity to change the way Houston does business. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, transgendered or cisgendered, all of us deserve an equal seat at the table.

Let’s build a better Houston.

To say the least, the race for At Large #5 just got a lot more interesting. I know both Phillippe and Durrel – I noted that Chron story he linked above about the new generation of black leaders in Houston – and they’re both exciting candidates. Between them and Atlas Kerr in AL3, they are also among the youngest candidates we’ve seen for city office recently. If they can succeed in boosting the participation rate among younger voters this November – it wouldn’t take much to do that – they could have a big effect on the composition of the electorate, and maybe on the issues that get discussed. I look forward to seeing how they campaign.

Finally, on a tangential note, Metro Board member Dwight Jefferson announced his intention to resign from the Board and run for City Controller. Jefferson had been considering a run for some time, so this will make it official. He joins a crowded field that includes HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson, 2013 Controller candidate Bill Frazer, former Council member Jew Don Boney, and Deputy Controller Chris Brown.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Metro board seeks to expand

It’s change that has been anticipated since the 2010 Census data was released.

HoustonMetro

With all indications pointing to more people in the Metropolitan Transit Authority service area living outside Houston than inside the city, Metro officials are asking to accelerate a state-mandated expansion of the transit agency’s board. The change would mean more members appointed by Harris County and smaller municipalities and a dilution of Houston’s majority control of the board.

“I believe this region is ready for this to be a regional agency,” said Allen Watson, Metro’s vice chairman. “This is the time to do it.”

The board is made up of nine members – five appointed by Houston, two by Harris County and two by the smaller 14 cities included in Metro’s service area, covering 1,303 square miles. That composition has been in place since 1982, when, by state law, the Metro area population grew to warrant four non-Houston slots.

The next step would be an 11-member board, with the county getting another appointee, and the chairman’s post shifting from Houston to a choice made by the 10 Metro board members. Houston would continue to have five appointments.

A board expansion would be triggered once the population outside Houston within Metro’s area is larger than the city’s population, as calculated by the U.S. Census. The balance nearly shifted as part of the 2010 decennial census.

Rather than wait for the official census in 2020, Metro officials – working with state lawmakers – are seeking to speed up the transition, saying it is the right way to apportion transit power in the area, and something they will have to do eventually. State laws govern how transit boards are organized, so any early move to an 11-member board would take legislative action. State Rep. Garnett Coleman and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, both Houston Democrats, have filed bills to help Metro make the move.

The legislation also would clear up some hiccups in board rules and procedures, setting deadlines for cities and Harris County to make appointments and staggering terms so board members rotate in and out annually. Board member terms still would be two years, with a maximum of eight years.

[…]

The change also would allow Metro to pivot to serve an increasing demand for service to and from suburban communities into the city, which comes with more non-Houston seats at the table, said Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

“There needs to be additional focus on commuter rail, versus what you see in downtown,” Radack said. “Right now, Houston has total control, but the service area and needs are bigger than that.”

Radack balked at the idea more county-chosen Metro members would dilute and weaken core transit service.

“I don’t think the move needs to be away from what’s been going on with Metro,” he said. “I think it needs to be expanded.”

See here for some background. At that time, this was seen as a way to shift power on the Metro board, which a lot of people including me th0ught was detrimental. As this story notes, Metro is in much better financial shape and there’s a lot less tension between it and Harris County. As such, everyone is on board with this, and it’s being seen as a way to expand service, not move things around. As Jay Crossley, who also had some concerns, said in the article, it’s a good thing if more people see themselves as represented by Metro and want to have access to its services.

Not part of the scope of this issue but worth asking anyway: Is it a good time to bring up the issue of expanding Metro’s service area, to include places like Fort Bend? If there is momentum again to build some commuter rail lines, including the US90A line that could and should go into Fort Bend, it would be nice to have that piece of the puzzle in place. Maybe that’s too complex a thing to deal with now, and maybe there are good reasons to wait till other business has been conducted, I don’t know. I just thought I’d ask, and this seemed like as good a chance as any to do so.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 23

The Texas Progressive Alliance roots for underdogs even to the detriment of its own brackets as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

ULI releases its Astrodome plan

Feast your eyes on what the Urban Land Institute has in mind for the Astrodome.

A final assessment by a group focused on sparing the Astrodome from the wrecking ball sets the price tag of reusing the iconic stadium at up to $242 million, and lays out a multi-step process to gin up the political will and business investment needed.

“Their challenge is, we need to think boldly and not be timid,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the Urban Land Institute report. “Then we have to figure out how to pay for it. This is the hard part that everybody has to put their hands around.”

The ULI panel said the next step is for local officials to flesh out a more detailed plan and see who is interested in joining forces.

The group’s concept somewhat mirrors an idea Emmett pitched last year to convert the Dome into “the world’s largest indoor park,” the latest in a 12-year search for a way to reuse the aging and deteriorating stadium. Previous ideas have included an indoor amusement park, film studios, even razing it and creating a green space amid acres of parking lot outside NRG Stadium. None of the ideas to redevelop the site has included what officials deem credible financing.

The ULI report is an extension of a December presentation where a national panel of preservationists proposed turning the former home of the Astros and Oilers into an indoor park and commercial complex while adding parking at the surrounding NRG Park. The 40-page report estimates more than half the cost, $126.6 million, would be borne by retail and commercial development within the 450,000-square-foot building.

[…]

The ULI proposal, the latest in a handful aimed at finding a use for the “8th Wonder of the World” before it crumbles into the ground, is more expensive than a county proposal voters rejected in 2013 to spend $217 million in bond money to convert the Dome into convention space.

“The past bond referendum did not provide enough detail about the redevelopment programs to the citizens, which, from the panel’s perspective, was part of the reason the bond failed,” ULI’s team said.

Emmett, a vocal supporter of saving the Dome, said it is crucial people understand public agencies and the private sector will partner on any plans. He shied away from discussing final costs.

“I know it sounds like a cop out, but it depends on what you put in it,” Emmett said of what taxpayers could expect to be asked to chip in. “That’s the conversation we need to be having.”

See here for the background, and here for the report itself. It’s not very different from the preliminary report in December. Jeff Balke is not impressed.

The problem is the ideas weren’t all that creative or bold, and they came from disparate parties without any central, nevermind determined, leadership. And there are legitimate questions that spring to mind when reading the 40-page report: Who are these 75 mystery tastemakers they surveyed? How were they chosen? What is their stake in this process?

That’s worth knowing when you consider the $243 million price tag the group estimates a project like the one proposed with cost. At least this time, the recommendation is a public-private partnership given the fact that every private investor who has come forward with a big idea has been more about trying to get the county to fund their venture.

The idea of funding renovations with public money hasn’t fared much better and has been met with skepticism from residents who clearly want to save the Eighth Wonder of the World, but only if it is really the right idea. Unfortunately, no one has managed to come forward with something to inspire the voters and, speaking of skepticism, I’m not certain this plan is going to light any fires either.

Perhaps the bigger issue is handling the other tenants of NRG Park. It’s no secret that were the Rodeo and the Texans to have their way, the Dome would have long gone from architectural marvel to rubble to additional parking spaces. Both have, since NRG Stadium was built, regarded the Astrodome as a nuisance rather than a historical landmark.

That is why it is both disappointing and unsurprising that the ULI’s report leans fairly heavily on making those entities happy. Frankly, who cares what the Rodeo or Texans want? The public spent hundreds of millions of dollars on NRG Stadium and the surrounding park and the biggest benefactors are the tenants, not the taxpayers. Generally, you don’t ask your tenants for permission when deciding to make changes to your property, but that is clearly not the case here and there are plenty of goodies in here for both.

There’s also the whole indoor park concept pushed by County Judge Ed Emmett and, naturally, a tip of the ol’ ten gallon hat to the oil interests via the space for the OTC. It’s a patchwork quilt of ideas shoehorned into one concept that feels less like a vision for the future than a way to placate a bunch of people who probably shouldn’t have a say in the matter in the first place.

I agree, the ideas are familiar, but I’m OK with that, as I think they’re also good ideas. The accommodation of the Texans and the Rodeo is an acknowledgement of political reality. The question, as always, is how to get the funding. Maybe having the Texans and the Rodeo on board – by which I mean, actively campaigning in favor of any future referendum to spend public money on this – and maybe having other money in hand up front will help. I don’t know how many more shots we’re going to get at this.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Cruz may go on Obamacare

Go ahead, laugh it up. You know you want to.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz, one of the loudest critics of Obamacare, will soon be using it for health insurance coverage.

“We will presumably go on the exchange and sign up for health care and we’re in the process of transitioning over to do that,” Cruz, a Republican candidate for president, told The Des Moines Register Tuesday.

Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is going on an unpaid leave of up absence from her job at Goldman Sachs to join Cruz full time on the campaign trail, Cruz told the Register.

Bloomberg was first to report that Heidi Cruz has taken the leave. CNN noted that Cruz, who has boasted about not needing to receive government health care benefits, would no longer be covered under his wife’s health insurance plan.

[…]

Cruz, as an employee of the government, will use the exchange to choose his employer-provided insurance. Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley pushed through an amendment on the Affordable Care Act that requires members of Congress to obtain their coverage via the exchanges. Congress pays most of the premium. But Cruz won’t be getting any extra benefit under the Affordable Care Act that a member of Congress wouldn’t have gotten before the ACA became law.

Asked if it chafes at all to have to rely on Obamacare, Cruz told the Register: “Well, it is written in the law that members will be on the exchanges without subsidies just like millions of Americans so that’s – I think the same rules should apply to all of us. Members of Congress should not be exempt.”

But, Cruz added, he’d still like to see Obamacare repealed in its entirety.

Wonkblog notes that Cruz will not be taking any of the contribution money that legislators and their staffers are entitled to, so in that sense he’s sticking to his principle. I say if he really wants to be true to his vision, he should make like Louie Gohmert and forgo health insurance altogether. That’s the kind of freedom from tyranny he wants all those newly-insured people (and lots of not-so-newly-insured people, I expect) to have once he becomes President and repeals the Affordable Care Act, right? Well, then now is not the time for half-Measures. Now is the time to show us what you’re really made of and boldly go uninsured, Ted. Hell, just the opportunity to do a little civil disobedience by refusing to pay the tax penalty should have you licking your lips and twirling your mustache, if you had one to twirl. If Louie can do it, Ted, so can you. Anything less would be a sellout.

Posted in: The making of the President.

The At Large trend

From Think Progress:

Pasadena City Council

Yakima, WA is one-third Latino, but a Latino candidate has not been elected to the city council for almost 40 years. Santa Barbara, CA is 38 percent Latino, but only one Latino has been elected to its council in the last 10 years. And Pasadena, TX is 43 percent Hispanic, but the ethnic group is not even close to being proportionately represented in the city government.

All three cities have been or are currently being sued for allegedly using discriminatory at-large voting systems, a voter dilution tactic that has been recently and frequently employed against Hispanic voters. In an at-large system, every city resident votes for each member of the governing body and the city does not divide voters into districts.

As the Latino population grows across the country, cities have employed at-large voting to dilute the Latino vote and maintain white control of local governing bodies. Instead of allowing each district to elect its own representative, an at-large system means that unless Hispanic populations reach a majority in the entire city, they will have no influence in electing their local members of government. According to Fair Vote, at-large systems allow 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of seats, typically resulting in racially homogeneous elected bodies. The tactic used to be popular in the South to discriminate against neighborhoods with large African American communities but is now targeting a new threat: Latinos.

Recently, a court in Washington struck down the city of Yakima’s at-large voting system — whose representation is elected by the city as a whole rather than by specific districts — ruling that it was discriminatory and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Lawsuits against cities attempting to dilute the Hispanic vote are gaining traction as more and more end with court orders and settlements that favor the plaintiffs, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

“A lawsuit like [Yakima] will clearly have a very important impact,” McDonald told ThinkProgress. “This was the first Section 2 challenge to an at-large system that was brought in Washington state and already the Hispanic population in Pasco, Washington has approached the city council there and asked them to adopt a single member district plan to replace the at-large system.”

Kathleen Taylor, the executive director of Washington’s ACLU branch, said the city of Pasco is likely to change its system before it is sued and ends up in a similar position to Yakima.

After ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the suit against Yakima, the judge adopted the ACLU’s voting plan, which called for an elimination of the at-large system. The ACLU is also asking Yakima for more than $2.8 million in legal fees and expenses. “If you bring a lawsuit now, these jurisdictions understand that if they lose, they will be liable for a substantial amount of costs and fees,” McDonald said. “That will have an important impact on their decision to settle these cases.”

Last month, the city of Santa Barbara, CA partially settled a similar suit, alleging its voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act. The city is currently drawing six new districts with citizen input to ensure that the Hispanic population, which makes up nearly 40 percent of the city, is not discriminated against. The lead plaintiff told the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Daily Nexus that the city is saving more than $2 million by settling the litigation for around $600,000 and not allowing it to go to trial, where the plaintiffs would likely prevail.

Because California has a state voting rights law, it “facilitates this type of challenge,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As a result, he said we will see a lot of settlements and moves away from at-large systems in California.

Yeah, we don’t have that in Texas, and with the Congress we have now, we won’t have it again nationally any time soon. I don’t have a problem with At Large districts per se, but there’s no mistaking the intent here. One only need look at a city like Farmers Branch to see what the effect can be when a more inclusive Council plan is adopted. We can also look to Pasadena, where we have an opportunity this May to minimize the damage being done. Ultimately, changes will have to be made at a higher level to prevent this kind of shenanigans at the local level.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

WaPo profiles Mayor Parker

Nothing we didn’t already know, but a nice story nonetheless.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Annise Parker keeps a leather-bound journal on the desk in her wood-paneled office in City Hall. If it had a title, she says, it would be: “Would This Have Happened to Another Mayor?” Its pages are filled with her cursive script of the stories she could tell about being the first openly gay mayor of a major American metropolis.

Parker is reserved and wonky, not the sort to tell tales, so the journal remains closed to prying eyes. In fact, she got elected mayor — and was re­elected twice — not on charisma or personal narrative but by positioning herself as an effective manager.

Because of term limits, Parker cannot run again, and as the Democrat moves through her final year as mayor, she has left her mark on the nation’s fourth-largest city and become a national figure in LGBT politics. Doing both at the same time hasn’t always been easy.

Parker likes to present herself as mayor first, but her symbolic national significance hovers about her like Houston’s humid air — comforting for some, clammy for others.She was in her fifth year as mayor before she engaged the city in a contentious gay-rights debate, and her handling involved some political missteps.

“I was a gay and lesbian activist in my college days, so that’s always been part of my acknowledgment of the world,” said Parker, sitting at her large antique desk by a window overlooking the tangle of highways that engulfs Houston. “What is different as mayor is I’m not a spokesperson for the community. I am the public face and voice of the citizens of Houston. I just happen to be a lesbian when I’m doing it.”

The piece is one part biography, one part an overview of her term so far, and one part HERO. It’s all quite favorable but as I said nothing new to anyone who’s been living here. The main thing it does is raise her profile before a national audience, which would surely be a boon to fundraising efforts if she does indeed run for something statewide in 2018. Helpful as that would be, as we saw this past year it won’t do much beyond that. Solving the turnout problem is not something a flattering profile can assist with.

Posted in: Local politics.

Cruzing for President

I just have one thing to say about this.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

As Sen. Ted Cruz announces he will run for president, he likely has two things on his mind: money and Iowa.

Cruz will formally enter the presidential race ahead of any of his competitors Monday at Liberty University, a Christian school in Lynchburg, Va. But Texas’ junior senator will have to quickly turn his focus to raising the dollars and winning the votes in the first-in-the-nation caucuses that likely give Cruz his best chance for a victory in an early nominating contest, analysts say.

In what is shaping up to be a crowded field, two of Cruz’s Senate colleagues, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, are expected to formally join the race in the next few weeks, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson has already launched an exploratory committee. Former Gov. Rick Perry has said he would announce his bid in May or June. And many other Republican leaders – from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – have created political action committees to hire staff, travel the country and, critically, raise money in advance of announcements.

[…]

The broader Republican electorate voices more support for more moderate options, too, placing Cruz in the back of the pack in national opinion polling. Democrats on Sunday were gleeful that Cruz could drag the entire Republican field to the right, with Brad Woodhouse, the head of opposition research group American Bridge, saying that Cruz “represents everything voters hate about the modern Republican Party in one candidate.”

But the national tea party base that helped pluck Cruz from obscurity as he toiled away in a long-shot Senate campaign against then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst adores him, and Cruz will appeal to those same voters in 2016, Cruz senior advisers say, and solicit their donations.

There will be a lot of comparisons made to President Obama, who like Cruz ran for President four years into his first term in the US Senate. The original Chron story brings that out in the fifth paragraph, while the DMN goes for it in the headline. The main thing that I would point out, and that people who are easily impressed by Cruz would do well to remember is that in 2008, national Democrats – to the extent that they had any impression of him – were mostly favorable to then-Sen. Obama. He was on the right side of the big issue of the day – that the war in Iraq had been a terrible idea from the beginning – but not in a way that alienated the Democrats who had been on the wrong side of it. To this day, his popularity among Dems remains strong, which is why his overall approval ratings haven’t gone the way George W. Bush’s did late in his second term, despite universal contempt among Republicans and lukewarm at best support among independents. None of this is true for Cruz, who made an instant name for himself by treating his fellow Republicans in the Senate as a greater enemy than the Democrats, and whose take-no-prisoners tactics have largely failed to get any results. Put simply, a lot of Republicans feel strongly about him, and not in a positive way. If he were the nominee now, a lot of that would get swept under the rug, as it usually does. In a battle between Republicans, that seems to me to be a big warning sign.

But what about his upset victory over David Dewhurst in 2012? This Trib article tells the story of how he came to run in that race. Here I would point out that the widely-disliked Republican in that contest was Dewhurst. What Cruz did, better than any of his rivals, was be the focus of Republican dislike for Dewhurst. Dan Patrick did the same in 2014. Dewhurst had enough support to lead the pack in 2012, but it was shallow, and Cruz was able to capitalize. To his credit, Cruz was smart enough to realize that, and lucky enough to benefit from the delayed primary, but it’s not as if no one saw the possibility. Regardless, that dynamic doesn’t exist here and now. He’s not an ingenue but an actual elected official with a record and a long list of people who don’t like him. The people that do like him like him with a fiery intensity, but if intensity were enough to get elected President, Ron Paul would have done so.

Anyway. I doubt I’m telling you anything you didn’t know, and Lord knows there’s a billion stories and posts about Cruz out there today, with as many “Cruz”-based puns to accompany them. If you do still want to look for more, check out this TPM piece from 2013, in which Josh Marshall delves into his personal experiences with The Cruz; this reminder of what Ted Cruz actually believes; some amusing reactions to his speech by the Liberty University students that were required to attend (make your own Liberty joke there); and this screenshot from TedCruz.com, which is not owned by the man himself. Enjoy.

Posted in: The making of the President.

The scared institution of marriage

Smell the fear and desperation.

PaxtonMarriage

Several hundred Christian fundamentalists gathered on the south steps of the Capitol today in a rally that was less about the defense of traditional marriage than about preparing for civil disobedience if, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court later this year declares bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Beneath a sweltering sun on the first truly hot day of the year, the preachers who spoke at the rally alluded to the idea that a nation that allows same-sex marriage is one teetering of the edge of a fiery maw. “It’s hot,” said Rick Scarborough of Vision America. “I don’t know if it means we’re closer to the sun or closer to hell.” The Bishop Sterling Lands of the Family Life International fellowship told the crowd “family is a Kingdom priority,” and added, “Satan holds marriage as high a priority as God does.”

But there was the unmistakable feeling that they knew their triumphs over the gay rights movement were rapidly slipping away as one federal court after another around the country declares bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, as unconstitutional as racial segregation or bans on interracial marriage. We won, the speakers declared one after another, and now the federal courts are taking our victory away. (A federal judge has declared the Texas ban unconstitutional but put his ruling on hold until rulings from higher courts.)

“It’s not about being anti-anyone. It’s about being for marriage between a man and a woman,” said Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. “The second issue, which is as important, is standing up for the right of the people in a state to determine the decision for public policy in their state, not the federal government.”

I’m not interested in snarking on these fools. They’ve lost, and they’ll be judged with all the harshness that history can bring. I have no idea – and I suspect neither do they – what kind of civil disobedience they can do when same sex marriage is legalized, but if they manage to come up with something that puts them behind bars, it’ll be fine by me. I might sign up to do some prison ministry for them while they’re inside. It’d do them some good.

OK, I guess I did want to snark a little. It’s hard not to, and it’s the level of discourse they deserve. On a much brighter and more substantive note, congratulations and mazel tov to Nicole Dimetman and Cleopatra DeLeon on the birth of their daughter. Let the beauty of that stand in contrast to the ugliness these idiots brought to the Capitol. The Trib and the Observer have more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Endorsement watch: Firefighters for Turner

From the inbox:

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

HOUSTON, March 23, 2015 – State Rep. Sylvester Turner has earned the endorsement of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association in this year’s mayoral race, the HPFFA said today.

HPFFA President Alvin W. White, Jr. said 84 percent of voting fire fighters approved the recommendation of the HPFFA board of directors to endorse Turner after a review of the public safety records of the mayoral candidates.

“Sylvester has been a consistent friend of fire fighters and an advocate for public safety in Austin for 25 years,” White said. “He is clearly the best choice for us in this mayoral race. We also appreciate that he has built a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, business leaders, unions and community groups.”

White added, “Rep. Turner understands that Houston fire fighters are delivering excellent service to citizens, are good stewards of city resources, and are giving back to the community. He also has been a sensible voice – here and in Austin – in the debate about city employee pensions.”

Rep. Turner said, “I am proud to have earned the support of Houston’s firefighters. Together, we will work to keep our neighborhoods safe, teach our youth the values of courage and shared sacrifice and show the world that Houston is a place that working families are proud to call home.”

Rep. Turner has served 25 years in the Texas House of Representatives. He is a member of the Legislative Budget Board; Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Committee; Chair of the Subcommittee on Articles 1, 4 and 5 (General Government, Judiciary, Public Safety and Criminal Justice); and the House State Affairs Committee.

Born in the Acres Homes community of northwest Houston, Rep. Turner graduated from Klein High School, where he was valedictorian and student body president. He then attended the University of Houston and Harvard Law School. More information is available at www.sylvesterturner.com.

The press release is here, for when I get around to creating a 2015 Election page. I’m not going to note every endorsement that comes my way, but this one was of interest for two reasons. One is that it happened at all, especially this early on. I figure a lot of endorsing organizations are going to take their time – at the very least, until they’re sure if Adrian Garcia is in the race or not – and many may keep their powder dry till the runoff, since Lord only knows who might make it that far. The other is that it wasn’t clear early on who if anyone would be the firefighters’ preferred candidate, given the intense focus by several campaigns on the pension issue. Once the pension deal was announced that sort of settled that matter, but for awhile there it was not obvious.

This is a nice get for Turner, since every inch is going to count in a race where the difference between making the runoff and being a runnerup is likely to be small. That said, the firefighters’ record in recent Mayoral elections is not that great. They endorsed Gene Locke in 2009, Fernando Herrera in 2011, and Ben Hall in 2013; going back a bit more, they backed Orlando Sanchez in 2003. We’ll see if they have better luck this time.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Trouble in tax cut paradise

What if you propose a tax cut but the beneficiaries of it say they’d rather the money went to something else?

BagOfMoney

Major business groups pushed back Friday against a multi­billion-dollar package of tax cuts advancing in the Texas Senate, calling it inequitable and saying state needs should be funded before lawmakers consider tax relief.

The criticism highlights how, despite support for tax cuts among Republican legislative leaders, details are far from settled and are prompting dissension among lawmakers and businesses.

It also echoes concerns from some leading lawmakers that the emphasis on tax cuts could imperil efforts to address such issues, as education, transportation, state debt and pension programs.

“If, after paying our state bills, there is money left over for tax relief, that relief should be fair to those who pay the most taxes in the first place – both individuals and businesses,” said the letter signed by seven big-business groups.

“That portion of tax relief to business should encourage growth and investment, enhancing our ability to expand our production and payrolls. Unfortunately, we believe the package of bills up for consideration in the Texas Senate falls short of these principles and creates new inequities in the tax system,” they wrote.

The letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and senators is signed by representatives of the Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Manufacturers, Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, Association of Electric Companies of Texas, Texas Chemical Council, Texas Oil and Gas Association, and Texas Association of Realtors. It mirrors concerns expressed previously.

[…]

Senate leaders, including Patrick, pushed right back at the criticism.

“While traveling the state for the last 18 months, taxpayers made it clear they expect tax relief this session,” Patrick said. “Gov. Abbott and I have said that lasting franchise and property tax relief are a critical component of a successful session.”

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who is a lead sponsor of the package, defended its aims but did not dismiss the concerns.

“We are striking a good balance between tax reductions for businesses and homeowners, and we will continue to work deliberatively through the process on that issue. As a businessperson myself, I am grateful for the input from these important stakeholders and look forward to working with them moving forward,” Nelson said.

In other words, Patrick told them they’ll take what they’re given and they’ll like it and the hell with whatever the state needs. No wonder all these interests united to oppose his election last…oh, wait. Never mind. Maybe after Patrick and his crew finish wrecking the state’s finances these guys will get a clue. Hope it’s not too late by then.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

The Memphis pension cutting experience

In discussions about Houston’s pension liabilities, the city of Detroit is often trotted out as an analogy and cautionary tale. There’s another city that may be a more accurate comparison, and it’s offering an illustration right now of what might happen if things proceed as many candidates for local office and the Houston Chronicle would like, and that’s Memphis.

Many states and cities are facing pushback from workers as they seek cutbacks on pension entitlements to existing employees—not just new workers or retirees—as they try to control their budgets and fill pension gaps. But Memphis is particularly notable because workers have moved beyond rhetoric and into action. More than 250 police and firefighters have quit and new recruits are proving difficult to attract, after Memphis opted to end its traditional defined-benefit pension and cycle a portion of retirement benefits for many current employees next year into a 401(k)-style account.

[…]

In Memphis, Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. said a widening retirement gap in his city left him with “no other option” than to trim guaranteed payments from an existing pool of employees. Obligations soared to $554 million as of Dec. 31, from a surplus of $94.1 million just six years before.

The Memphis pension’s investments were pummeled during the financial crisis, with its mid-2008 assets of $2.2 billion plummeting by 18% in a year to $1.8 billion. Its funded ratio sunk during that time from 104.5%—a surplus of assets—to 79.8%.

“We couldn’t invest our way out of this,” said Brian F. Collins, the Memphis finance director, who oversees the city pension’s investments.

Some 675 police officers, out of a uniformed force of about 1,300, took a sick day in early July to protest the proposed cuts. After a wrenching political debate, the City Council voted in December to end a defined-benefit plan common among public employers for more than 40% of its 4,100 employees.

In its place, the city installed a so-called hybrid system that moves a portion of worker retirement funds into a 401(k)-style account starting in June 2016. The changes affect workers with 7½ years of tenure or less. Memphis long ago opted out of Social Security, and the pension represents the sole retirement benefits for city employees.

Labor union representatives say they are preparing a lawsuit challenging the overhaul. The mayor said Memphis needs to attract more employers and the city’s poor fiscal health was an impediment.

“Defined-benefit pensions plans are like the dinosaurs now—they’re a dying breed,” said Mr. Wharton, in an interview from his seventh-floor office overlooking the Mississippi River. His retirement benefits with the city won’t be affected by the new changes.

Roughly 3% of the 1,500-person fire department quit their positions and dozens more retired last year amid mounting concerns about how the pension changes would affect them, according to the firefighters’ union. Both the fire and police departments are 10% below their desired staffing levels, according to union leaders, and recruiting efforts to replenish those ranks have failed to meet targets.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the comments left here by Steven Houston, who has had much to say about the pension issue. Steven’s main point is that the salaries Houston pays to HPD and HFD are low – in some cases, quite low – compared to other Texas cities. (This is also true for other municipal employees.) Pension benefits, which are tied to one’s salary level and which are really just deferred salary payments, make up some of that gap. Cutting pension benefits is therefore largely equivalent to cutting salaries and would have a very similar effect on Houston’s ability to attract and retain HPD and HFD staff. That remains true even if, as everyone is promising, any new less-generous “pension” system were only to be imposed on new employees. This should be obvious – jobs that pay less are inherently less attractive. (See the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its ongoing prison guard shortage for a close-to-home example of that phenomenon.) I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard much from the cut-the-pensions chorus about the likelihood of this effect, and what if anything they would do about it.

Having said that, there is another factor to consider:

Despite fewer employees, a city spokeswoman said service levels at the fire and police departments are largely unaffected.

That may well be spin, but there are objective ways to measure such things – crime rates and response times, for example. The WSJ story didn’t explore any of that, but it’s worth pursuing. Crime rates continue to be down nationally. A large number of arrests in Texas are for drug offenses, often minor drug offenses, for which there is a push in the Legislature to reduce penalties or even decriminalize them. There are fewer fires these days, thanks to better construction codes and safety mechanisms. We know that in Houston, the vast majority of HFD calls are for emergency medical services, not fires. Maybe a reduction in overall staffing isn’t such a terrible thing. Of course, right now we don’t really know what our staffing levels for HPD and HFD “should” be. There are a lot of issues relating to public safety that are not being addressed right now. When are we going to get around to that?

Posted in: Local politics, National news.

Compromise bill to reform property tax appraisals

Better than nothing, I guess, but not clear to me yet how much better.

State lawmakers are looking to partly close a tax loophole that has allowed big companies to drain tens of millions of dollars from local government coffers in recent years, but any reforms that pass may still not end the legal battles that have been driving down appraisals on industrial and commercial properties.

Several reform bills were filed this year as counties began putting pressure on legislators to do something about an increasing number of lawsuits by major companies trying to take advantage of the loophole, which allows property owners to avoid the traditional fair-market system of appraisals.

School districts have been among those hardest hit. Valero Energy Corp. used the loophole to force the Texas City school district to refund about $5 million, while two other lawsuits by the company compelled the Port Arthur school district to pay $32 million in refunds and other charges. The company has new lawsuits pending that could mean even more tax refunds from the two school districts.

The loophole is also costing the state an estimated $70 million to $80 million a year in six counties, according to a January report by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board that called for sweeping reforms. The state must pay its share of tax revenue lost by school districts.

Although several reform measures have been introduced, the one that appears to have the broadest support in the GOP-controlled legislature is a measure introduced jointly by state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-Richland Hills, a Fort Worth suburb.

The compromise bill would require that property values used in court cases be arrived at using generally accepted appraisal methods instead of arbitrary estimates arrived at, in the words of the budget board, “independently of the market values of those properties or the appraisal district in which they are located.”

The measure also addresses the board’s concern that the law now allows commercial and industrial property owners challenging their tax assessments to compare their properties with dissimilar ones in other appraisal districts, or even other states. The bill requires that the comparisons be made within the same county unless there are no comparable properties there.

Alvin Lankford, Williamson County’s chief appraiser, said owners of large apartment buildings in his county typically search for such properties in neighboring Travis County to make comparisons rather than use apartment buildings on the same street. “They are able to pick these properties and get the answer they want,” he said.

Many appraisers, citizens’ groups and officials in affected counties wanted a bill that included more of the reforms recommended by the budget board. However, some of the attorneys, consultants, real estate firms and big businesses that benefit tremendously from the loophole refused to negotiate, said Ed Nolan, Dallas County’s chief appraiser and the chairman of the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts’ legislative committee.

“We didn’t get as much as we wanted,” Nolan said. “But it’s a start.”

[…]

In Houston, property owners concerned about having to shoulder higher property taxes because of tax reductions on industrial and commercial property formed Real Value$ for Texas, which has chapters statewide. The group found that from 2009 to 2013, owners of large commercial properties in Texas’ six largest counties shed $5.6 billion in property taxes that were made up for through higher taxes paid by homeowners.

“It’s unfair, it’s bad public policy and it needs to be changed,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in announcing his own reform bill this month. He said large commercial property owners are using the loophole to “exploit the appeals process to drive down the appraised values of their properties to well below the market value.”

Ellis’ bill was the most ambitious of six reform bills, four by Democrats and two by Republicans. The compromise bill that emerged calls for the most modest changes. It also has the imprimatur of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

I support Sen. Ellis’ bill, and would like to know what he and groups like Real Value$ for Texas think before I decide how I feel about these compromise bills. They may represent a step forward, but they may also represent a point at which the forces who like things the way they are can say “we’ve already addressed this” and block further progress. The fact that Jim Popp, who may be the single biggest individual profiteer off the current system, appears to have signed off on the Darby/Hancock bills is the surest sign that there’s a lot more that could be done. I don’t think he’s complaining enough for these bills to do enough, but this may be the best we can do for now.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Alvarado’s term limits bill

From the inbox:

Rep. Carol Alvarado

Rep. Carol Alvarado

State Representative Carol Alvarado has filed HB 2917 that, if passed by the Legislature and approved by voters, would change the city’s term limit structure to two four-year terms for the mayor, city controller and councilmembers.

“The city’s current structure of three two-year terms restricts an elected official’s ability to truly dive into the issues that are affecting the city and their respective member’s district,” said Rep. Alvarado. “By changing the term limit structure, members would have a better opportunity to engage in long term planning for the city and have more influence in local, state and national policies that can affect the city.”

Efforts to change the city’s term limits have occurred on both the state and local levels. For the past several years, Representative Garnet Coleman has filed a bill that would amend the city’s term limit structure. Additionally, Houston’s City Council Ad Hoc Charter Review Committee, which has been studying this issue, voted to recommend changing the term limits of city officials to two four-year terms instead of the existing three two-year terms beginning in 2019. If approved by city council, this amendment could go before the voters in November of 2015.

“I would like to thank Representative Coleman, as well as the city’s Ad Hoc Charter Review Committee, for their hard work on this issue and look forward to working with them this session to get this issue passed and to the voters,” added Alvarado.

Rep. Coleman’s bill from 2009, which would have extended Houston’s term limits from six years to twelve, passed the House by a wide margin and won unanimous approval from the Senate committee, but did not come up for a vote by the full Senate. I didn’t note any of his subsequent bills, so my guess is that they didn’t get anywhere. (Sorry, too lazy to look them up.) Be that as it may, that bill was filed at a time when a commission that had been appointed by outgoing Mayor Bill White was holding hearings and soliciting feedback. In the end, they made the same recommendation of two four-year terms that the Council committee made this year, but that committee’s proposal was rejected by Council. A different proposal made in 2012 by then-CM Andrew Burks was also rejected. I presume this bill, which has the same two fours mandate as this Council committee, is there as a backup in case the Council plan goes down. I’m not sure what purpose it serves otherwise. I’ve got to say, given the attack on local control this session, I’d rather the idea be dropped if Council refuses to approve it for the ballot. Let city office holders be accountable for this decision, whichever way they go.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Driverless car legislative update

Like just about everything else under the sun, there were bills filed last week to deal with driverless cars.

As self-driving cars move from futuristic concept to plausible technology, the Texas Legislature is looking to become a magnet for the fast-developing industry.

Three lawmakers have filed bills aimed at encouraging the use of the technology in Texas while allowing for some government oversight.

“It’s the kind of futuristic thinking you easily associate with California, New York,” state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said. “Texas ought to not be behind the curve. We ought to be ahead of the curve.”

Last week, Ellis filed Senate Bill 1167, which would create a pilot program aimed at both monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in the state. Under the bill, the Department of Public Safety would create minimum safety requirements for autonomous vehicles. Companies building or working with self-driving cars would have to notify DPS before they could drive them on public roadways. Any such vehicles in use would need a “driver” with an “autonomous motor vehicle operation designation” on his or her driver’s license awarded by DPS. The bill would also allow the Texas Department of Transportation to work with private firms to test autonomous technology for freight transport.

[…]

Along with Ellis’ bill, two House lawmakers have filed legislation dealing with self-driving vehicles. State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, filed House Bill 933, a measure similar to Ellis’ bill that would also allow DPS to explore using autonomous vehicles for border security. House Bill 3690 from state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, would allow TxDOT to explore using autonomous vehicles for construction and maintenance work.

Aside from bills filed this session to encourage research in self-driving cars, TxDOT is also requesting extra funding to partner with Texas universities and study emerging transportation technology. Last year, the agency had announced plans to request $50 million for the initiative but later reduced that to $20 million.

House budget writers didn’t fund the request but added it to a lengthy legislative wish list.

“This session, members are calling for more funding for roads to address the mobility issues plaguing our state, so that is where the Appropriations Committee prioritized funding for TxDOT,” House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said. He added that the full House would have the chance to weigh in on TxDOT’s request when the budget reaches the House floor for debate just before Easter.

The Senate Finance Committee, where the Senate version of the budget is being written, has not made a decision on TxDOT’s $20 million request.

See here for more on TxDOT’s request. There was one bill filed last session dealing with driverless cars, but it never go a committee hearing. We’ll see if there’a any further action this time.

Posted in: That's our Lege.