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Lawsuit filed over Senate map

From Texas Redistricting:

[Monday] morning, two Texas voters filed a suit in federal court challenging the state senate map drawn by the Texas Legislature on the grounds that it violated the equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment by using total population rather eligible voters to draw districts.

The plaintiffs in the case are backed by the Project for Fair Representation, which also helped back Shelby County’s challenge to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as well as efforts to overturn affirmative action policies at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Center’s press release announcing the new Texas suit can be found here.

More information here.

What’s at issue?

The plaintiffs argue that the current Texas senate map (Plan S172) must be redrawn using “eligible voters” rather than “total population” – the measure long used by the Texas Legislature – because the latter now results in districts with significantly differing numbers of voters.

By not using eligible voters, the plaintiffs say the Texas Legislature violated the “one-person, one vote” principle of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment by allowing some voters’ votes to count for more than those of others.

Why are there disparities?

In Texas, the major driver of disparities in the number of eligible voters is the high number of non-citizens in parts of the state – mainly its urban and suburban cores. For example, in places like Dallas and Houston, commonly accepted estimates are that around half of adult Hispanics are non-citizens.

Of course, disparities also can exist for any number of other reasons, including higher numbers of children under 18 in fast growing parts of the state or a larger number of people who are unable to vote because of felony convictions.

However, differing citizenship rates are, by far, the largest driver of disparities in the number of eligible voters.

[...]

How would drawing districts using “eligible voters” change the current map?

At present, Texas senate districts have a target population of 811,147 people.

If courts were to require maps to be drawn using some measure of eligible voters, the target size of districts also would change.

For example, although Texas has over 25 million people, its citizen voting age population in the most recent Census Bureau report was estimated to be just 15,583,540. Using CVAP to draw districts would mean that each district would have a CVAP target of 502,695.

That target population would require significant reworking of districts that presently have large Hispanic populations.

In the Houston area, for example, SD-13, represented by State Sen. Rodney Ellis, has a CVAP population of only 419,035, and SD-6, represented by State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, fares even worse with just 377,505 citizens of voting age. Likewise, in the Dallas area, SD-23, represented by State Sen. Royce West, has just 456,955.

Even with permitted deviations from the target population, these districts would need to add population, mostly likely by drawing from neighboring Anglo-dominated districts. Though those people might or might not be Anglo, the need to add large numbers of people mean the demographics and electoral performance of the districts could change materially. In fact, the need to add people might very well jeopardize the protected status that those districts currently enjoy under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

In other words, this could be a very big deal not only for Hispanics but also potentially African-Americans.

There could be practical impacts as well for legislators since urban districts would likely end up with far greater numbers of total people – who, although they might not be able to vote, still have need for constituent services – and be much larger physically as well.

Wasn’t there a similar case recently about the same issue?

Yes. In fact, it involved many of the same players.

In Lepak v. City of Irving, the lawyers in the Texas senate case – also backed by the Project for Fair Representation – represented Irving residents in arguing that the city’s new single-member council district map was unconstitutional because it had been drawn using total population rather than CVAP.

Both the district court and the Fifth Circuit ruled against the Irving plaintiffs, citing the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Chen v. City of Houston, which held that the question of whether to use total population or CVAP was a political question and thus not reviewable by courts.

The Irving plaintiffs sought to have the decision reviewed by the Supreme Court, but the high court declined last April to take the case.

However, the Texas senate case potentially represents another opportunity to have the Supreme Court take up the issue since any appeal would go directly to the Supreme Court as a matter of right.

More background on Lepak here.

There’s more at the link, but basically this is a nuisance action being brought by some professional grievance-mongers. It would serve them right not only to have the case dismissed with prejudice, but also to be assessed full court costs and attorneys’ fees for wasting everyone’s time. The Observer and Rick Hasen have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Rick Perry really wanted Rosemary Lehmberg to quit

From the Trib.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Even after Gov. Rick Perry stripped funding for the agency that prosecutes state public corruption cases, his emissaries worked to swap the resignation of embattled Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg for restoration of the money, several sources told The Texas Tribune this week.

The Tribune learned of the proposal as a grand jury considers whether Perry overstepped his authority last year when he threatened to veto the public integrity unit’s state funding if Lehmberg did not step down after she was arrested for drunken driving. The sources said the offer was made to Lehmberg through several back channels: If Lehmberg — a Democrat whose office was in charge of investigating state officeholders — would resign, Perry would restore the two years in state funds, about $7.5 million, that he had vetoed following her April 12, 2013, arrest and subsequent guilty plea.

“It was communicated to me if she stepped out, [Perry] would restore the funding,” said Travis County Judge Samuel T. Biscoe, a Democrat who said he was one of several people made aware of the proposal from Perry’s office. “I was told his office made the representations.”

[...]

Several sources, who asked not to be identified, citing the grand jury investigation, told the Tribune that Lehmberg was informed of the proposal last July. She was also told, they said, that the proposal came from the governor’s office, about a month after Perry made good on his threat to veto the state funds to the public integrity unit.

“It happened,” one of those sources told the Tribune.

The same sources said Lehmberg rejected the proposal outright because of concerns that such an offer may be illegal.

Reached late Tuesday, Lehmberg declined to comment for this story because of the ongoing grand jury investigation.

Rich Parsons, a spokesman for Perry, said no one from the governor’s office met with Lehmberg.

“Neither the governor nor any member of staff met with or spoke with Ms. Lehmberg,” Parsons said.

Asked if anyone from the governor’s staff told others to convey any offer, he declined to comment, citing the pending grand jury investigation.

That’s a pretty specific, and pretty limited, denial. It does not in any way negate the thesis of this story. Turns out, according to Texas Politics, that’s because Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican on that Court, was the go-between. He confirmed that the key point was Lehmberg resigning; Daugherty blamed her refusal to budge as the reason nothing happened. Now can we agree that – if this story is true – this is about more than just a run-of-the-mill veto by Rick Perry? The Observer, which points out what may turn into Perry’s defense strategy, has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Your daily Uber/Lyft update

From the Tuesday Council committee hearing at which the draft ordinance was reviewed.

Despite having a newly-released draft ordinance in hand, City Council members spent a Tuesday committee hearing asking many of the same questions about regulating ride-sharing services as they did months ago.

Echoing concerns raised by taxi and limousine companies, council members grilled Parker administration officials about setting rules for emerging services that connect riders to willing drivers via smartphone applications.

Repeatedly throughout the three-hour hearing, cab and limo drivers stood up as council members asked questions that centered on their fears that new regulations would create an unfair business advantage for the new services and eat away at their livelihoods.

“What will the effect be on the public if the taxicab companies are no longer viable?” Councilman Oliver Pennington asked.

“The taxicab companies will continue to be viable,” said Tina Paez, director of the city’s Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs. “They probably will lose some market share.”

[...]

The administration’s conclusion is that existing operators will adjust, pointing to studies from other cities that have chosen to regulate, rather than ban, the ride-sharing services.

“What we’ve seen, especially if you look at that Seattle data that just came out from last year with two years of operations … they’ve actually seen a growth in the number of trips and a growth in revenues,” Paez said. “It’s only 3 percent, but if they were having a significant impact where they were cannibalizing, you would have seen a significant decrease.”

Lauren Barrash, founder of The Wave jitney shuttle service, disagreed.

She said her business already has seen a decline because her target market is the same as Uber and Lyft, which have been operating in Houston since February.

Ahead of a City Council decision, both services had offered free trips until last week, when Uber said it would charge riders.

Critics, however, say the two have been charging customers for weeks.

“My April revenue is the lowest in 2014 and 2013,” Barrash said. “January is traditionally our lowest month. Currently, for April, we’re at half of what January 2014 was. … I might not be as big as Yellow Cab, but I will be impacted the quickest. It will put me out of business.”

That would be unfortunate if it happens, and I confess I hadn’t given much thought to non-cab operators like The Wave. With all due respect, however, Council is no more obligated to protect jitneys like The Wave than they are to protect legacy cabs. I’d hate to see The Wave go under, but I’d also hate to see Houston try to deny the existence of change in the business. The basic idea behind the draft ordinance, which will make Uber and Lyft comply with the same safety and inspection requirements as the cabs, seems like the right direction to me. I look forward to Council finishing the job. PDiddie, who is not a fan, Campos, who thinks the lack of representation by Uber/Lyft supporters at the meeting could upset the conventional wisdom about how this turns out, and The Highwayman have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 21

The Texas Progressive Alliance is busy enjoying springtime as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Draft ordinance on vehicles for hire is out

Mayor Parker puts another item on City Council’s to do list.

A proposed Houston ordinance could legalize hundreds of for-hire drivers providing rides through smartphone applications, but would require those drivers meet the same permitting and safety requirements as taxicab and limousine drivers already regulated by the city.

Under the proposal by the city’s Department of Administrative and Regulatory Affairs, the ride-sharing services would have to meet the same standards for fingerprint-based background checks and vehicle inspections already required of cab and limo drivers.

Other city and state governments have allowed the companies to do their own record checks based on Social Security numbers, or loosened inspection rules.

The proposed ordinance also would set fees for the new services based on revenues, allow all for-hire drivers to charge for no shows, mandate all companies accept credit cards, eliminate a 30-minute wait requirement for “pre-arranged” pick-ups, and drop a $70 minimum limo fare originally designed to shield the taxicab industry.

“We see this as leveling the playing field,” said Tina Paez, head of the city’s regulatory affairs department. “Uber and Lyft will probably tell you we’re overreaching. If there is some compromise that council makes, I hope it’s one that still works for passengers in terms of public safety.”

[...]

Yellow Cab lobbyist Cindy Clifford said technological advancement does not preclude businesses from following existing law, nor should it weaken standards set in the proposed ordinance.

The city, she said, should set a cap on the number of licensed drivers and keep the $70 minimum limo fare intact.

“If you flood the market with drivers, it will be very hard for anyone to make a decent living,” Clifford said.

For example, she said, existing rules require cab and limousine companies to serve all neighborhoods at all hours, regardless of profit margins and overhead costs. Under the proposed ordinance, she said it appears Uber and Lyft could ignore low-profit calls.

“A lot of our business is taking people to the grocery store, to their doctor’s appointment,” Clifford said. “They’re not always lucrative trips. That’s balanced by the fact drivers have access to other trips.”

You can see the draft ordinance here. As you know, I don’t agree with the belief that the vehicle for hire market in Houston is zero sum. The market will definitely change when Uber and Lyft are allowed in, and those changes may well not be beneficial to the legacy cab companies, at least in the beginning, but I am persuaded that on balance these changes will be beneficial for customers. It’s interesting to me that the cab companies are now touting the Seattle solution, which suggests to me that they don’t think they can keep Uber and Lyft out all together. Falling back on limiting the total number of drivers seems to me to be their way to mitigate the damage. There may be some merit to this approach – I’m a bit dubious, but I am willing to give it six or twelve months to see what the effect on the market has been.

Anyway. I sent emails to spokespeople for Uber and Lyft to ask for their comment, as they hadn’t had much to say in time for the Chron story. This is what I got from Lyft:

The proposed ordinance marks a starting point to a thoughtful discussion around Lyft in Houston. The people of Houston have enthusiastically welcomed Lyft to the city for affordable, convenient and safe rides. We will continue working with city leadership toward a solution that prioritizes safety, innovation and consumer choice.

I didn’t get a response from Uber by the time this was published. If I get one later, I’ll add it. What do you think of the draft ordinance? Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Paxton’s disclosure issues

Oopsie.

Sen. Ken Paxton

State Sen. Ken Paxton, the leading Republican candidate for attorney general, has launched an internal review of his disclosures to state regulatory authorities and the Texas Ethics Commission to determine whether he violated any laws by failing to report several business and professional relationships.

Paxton launched the review after The Texas Tribune obtained 2006 letters showing the McKinney lawmaker was being paid to solicit clients for a North Texas financial services firm at a time when he was not registered with the State Securities Board. Registration in such circumstances is typically required. Nor did Paxton ever reveal his solicitor work on the employment history section of his personal financial statements, which must be filed regularly with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Also missing from his ethics filings is any disclosure of his service on the boards of at least a half-dozen nonprofit corporations, the Tribune investigation found. Ethics laws require legislators to reveal service on corporate boards, including nonprofit ones.

[...]

This much is known from regulatory filings and the 2006 letters obtained by the Tribune: Paxton began working as a solicitor for companies run by his friend and business associate Frederick “Fritz” Mowery as far back as the summer of 2001. While Paxton has been associated with Mowery’s firm as a solicitor on and off for a decade or so, records show he was registered with the State Securities Board for a total of about two years.

Solicitor is the informal title for “investment adviser representative,” an official designation for people who refer investors — for a fee — to an investment adviser.

Records from the Securities Board show Paxton was registered once between July of 2003 and the end of 2004 for Mowery’s Oxford Advisors Corporation. He got registered again for Mowery Capital Management on Dec. 13 of last year, and that registration remains active.

Robert Elder, spokesman for the State Securities Board, confirmed that Paxton was not registered as a Texas investment adviser representative between Jan. 1, 2005, and mid-December of 2013. He said that he cannot discuss the hypothetical oversight of an individual solicitor or comment on whether Paxton should have been registered in other years.

The Texas Securities Act defines a solicitor, in part, as “each person or company who, for compensation, is employed, appointed, or authorized by an investment adviser to solicit clients for the investment adviser.” The law also says that unless a person is specifically exempted, he or she “may not act or render services as an investment adviser representative for a certain investment adviser in this state unless the person is registered.”

Paxton’s campaign has not said whether the senator believes state or federal securities laws required him to register when he was working as a solicitor. When asked specific questions, Holm, the campaign spokesman, referred to his written statement about the campaign’s promised review of Paxton’s disclosure obligations.

According to Elder, the Securities Board spokesman, penalties for acting as a solicitor while failing to register “can range from those administrative penalties to include suspension, up to revocations, to fines, and then things could move into, obviously, the criminal arena as well.”

“But it is all completely fact-specific,” he added, emphasizing that he was speaking in broad terms and not about any individual.

The facts in at least one case from 2006 demonstrate that Paxton was being paid at a time that he wasn’t registered with the state to do paid solicitor work.

The case involved two of Mowery’s customers — Teri and David Goettsche of Dallas. In a September 2006 letter, Mowery informed a concerned and apparently surprised Teri Goettsche that Paxton — whom she had previously retained as a lawyer on a separate matter — was being paid a 30 percent commission for referring her to Mowery’s investment firm.

“Mr. Paxton receives a percentage of Mowery Capital Management’s quarterly investment management fee for certain clients referred to us,” Mowery’s letter said. “This fee arrangement was a verbal arrangement between Mr. Paxton and us and therefore no documentation exists.”

Teri and David Goettsche later sued Mowery and Paxton, alleging that their actions helped lead the couple into a doomed real estate investment scheme with one of Mowery’s own business partners, who soon declared bankruptcy. David Goettsche entered into a separate investment arrangement with Mowery in 2005 and was later told in writing that Paxton was getting a 30 percent cut from his fees, too.

The Goettsches’ lawyer, John Sloan of Longview, said the couple lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the failed land deal, and only found out about Paxton’s role when things started to go south in the summer of 2006. Teri Goettsche was referred to Mowery after hiring Paxton to prepare a post-nuptial agreement in 2003 and didn’t realize the lawyer-turned-politician was also getting paid as a solicitor, they said in the lawsuit.

According to state and federal court records, Mowery declared bankruptcy a little more than a month after David Goettsche and Mowery jointly signed a brokerage account agreement. Paxton received referral fees for David Goettsche as well, letters from Mowery indicate.

“They were shocked that this Paxton guy was getting a kickback. They just thought he was doing them a favor,” Sloan said. “He saw an opportunity for himself to profit and did.”

There’s more at the link, so go read the whole story. Paxton’s been an elected official since 2002 when he won a race for State House. You’d think a guy that wants to be Attorney General would have a better understanding of what the laws are in these cases, and you’d hope that such a person would have a better record of complying with the law. His runoff opponent, Rep. Dan Branch – who came under some pressure by fellow Republicans to drop out of the race since Paxton had a pretty big lead in March – is now making noise about this and calling on Paxton to drop out. Seems to me that if perhaps the campaign prior to March had included a bit more discussion of the candidates’ credentials and a bit less about guns, abortion, President Obama, and who loves or hates each in the proper amount, we might have had this discussion at a more opportune time for Rep. Branch. Oh, well. Whether any of this hurts Paxton for the runoff, or whether the faithful read it as just another attack by the liberal media remains to be seen. Consider this further evidence of the Republican statewide slate being woefully underqualified, and another reason to support Sam Houston now and in November. PDiddie and John Coby have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

First wage theft complaints filed in Houston

I hope these workers get the justice they seek.

For three years Erik Lopez and his three brothers say they each often worked 80-hour weeks, building highway ramps and trash landfills for city projects.

Yet they say their employer refused to pay them overtime. Nor did the company provide tax forms, such as a W-2, instead giving them cash or personal checks so the brothers couldn’t pay their taxes – and stayed off the company’s books.

“(My boss) would tell me it didn’t really suit him to pay me overtime,” said Lopez, 30, a native of Guerrero state in Mexico, who came to Houston 14 years ago seeking work. “I worked all the time, but we struggled paying our bills.”

It was not until he heard about Houston’s wage theft ordinance, passed last November, that he realized he had some recourse. With the assistance of the nonprofit Faith and Justice Worker Center, Lopez and 12 others on Tuesday became the first to file a complaint under that law, saying they’re collectively owed more than $200,000 in unpaid wages for work performed for sub-contractors on city-funded sites.

[...]

Yet workers most affected by rogue employers are often those too afraid to complain. Jose Santa Cruz, a 33-year-old father of two from Michoacán, Mexico, said his employer didn’t provide safety equipment and threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if his workers reported violations.

Finally, when the boss said he might stick employees with the bill for broken heavy machinery, Santa Cruz just didn’t come back.

Now he said his employer owes him more than $900 in wages and he’s yet to find steady work. “I’m counting on some friends to pay the bills,” he said.

About half of all construction workers in Texas are foreign-born, many of them lacking work authorization, according to a 2013 survey led by the Workers Defense Project.

Researchers found more than 20 percent of Texas workers say they were denied payment for their construction work and 50 percent reported not being paid overtime.

See here, here, and here for the background. The city ordinance isn’t about enforcement per se, it’s about barring firms that have had wage theft complaints enforced against them from doing business with the city. The workers themselves are generally left to pursue the complaints. What isn’t discussed is what the penalties are for committing wage theft. These are usually treated as civil offenses, and as Catherine Rampell documents, the problems are widespread and involve much bigger players than construction firms.

In the past few weeks, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman extracted settlements from dozens of McDonald’s and Domino’s locations around the state for off-the-clock work. Last month, workers in California, Michigan and New York filed class-action lawsuits against McDonald’s alleging multiple charges of wage theft. These suits have upped the ante by implicating the McDonald’s corporation, not just individual franchisees, in bad behavior. The plaintiffs allege that McDonald’s corporate office exerts so much control over franchisees — including by monitoring their hourly labor costs through a corporate computer system — that it had to have known what was going on.

“It doesn’t take a company dictating the specific method for violating the law in order to obtain those violations,” Michael Rubin, an attorney with Altshuler Berzon LLP who filed the California suits, told me. “If you keep coming with this directive that labor costs must be lowered, there are only a finite number of ways that can be done, most of which are unlawful. The lawful ways get exhausted quickly.” (McDonald’s said in a statement that it is “undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the allegations.”)

These cases aside, wage theft mostly goes unreported. Workers who do report the stolen wages to authorities — lately, at the urging of national labor campaigns such as Good Jobs Nation — can wait months before an investigation is resolved, even though they probably need the missing money to pay their next electricity bill. (This has been the case with fast-food workers employed by government contractors at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, who filed a wage-theft complaint with the Labor Department last summer.) The consequences for wage theft are rare, small and not particularly deterring. Even when government investigators pursue these complaints, for example, criminal charges are rarely filed.

Harsher penalties, including prison time, should be on the table more often when willful wrongdoing is proved. Thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s home can go to jail; the same should be true for thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s paycheck.

Can you even imagine our Attorney General filing lawsuits and pursuing these complaints against corporations? I know, right? Greg Abbott would be in court arguing that the workers have no right to sue and that the companies are immune to such lawsuits in Texas. Such amusing thoughts aside, it’s a good question why complaints like these aren’t generally punished with jail time. I mean, if someone reached into your bank account and took a week’s pay from you, you’d call that theft and would consider jail time to be a possibility for the thief. How is this any different? It’s a disgrace that this happens to anyone. As a society, we should not tolerate it and we should take all reasonable steps to prevent and punish it.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Will the Ashby Highrise ever be built?

The Chron reviews the bidding so far prior to Monday’s Ashby hearing.

Sue me!

Key to the jury’s finding was that the project should be considered a nuisance. The residents’ attorneys will ask the judge to grant a permanent injunction for the Ashby high-rise, stopping the project from being built. The developers’ side will ask the judge not to enter judgment on the jury’s findings and allow the project to go forward, arguing in part that the evidence was not presented in trial to prove the project was “abnormal and out of place.”

“It’s very hard to balance the interests and assign a remedy that will compensate anyone who suffered harm, but try not to impede the property rights and system of development for the state as a whole,” said Matthew Festa, professor at South Texas College of Law, who specializes in land use and testified during last year’s trial.

[...]

Festa said the judge can take the jury finding of nuisance and award a permanent injunction, compensate residents with the monetary award or rule that the verdict did not comply with the law. He said the court will likely factor in the delays to the project, the investments and costs to developers in his decision.

“This could have some pretty interesting implications for development, not just in Houston and Texas, but nationally,” he said. “The idea of being able to stop something otherwise legal before it’s built is novel.”

It’s a tough call. If the project is a genuine nuisance, then it doesn’t make sense to let it be built as is. But if that’s the case, then what can be built there? And if it’s not a nuisance, then what’s the problem? The residents will be awarded damages, which in theory at least makes them whole. It’s no wonder the city submitted a brief asking for the project to be allowed. It’s a big mess from a regulatory perspective otherwise.

I don’t envy the judge in the case, who is fully aware that all eyes are on him.

Having heard the last of the legal arguments on Monday, state District Judge Randy Wilson acknowledged a dilemma he faces in having to rule whether the Ashby high-rise can go forward: If he stops the 21-story tower, could developers come back with, say, a 20-story model that might spark another lawsuit from outraged neighbors?

The case of 1717 Bissonnet differs from some previous nuisance cases that were more clear-cut, he said, such as a slaughterhouse or tanning facility that was planned alongside private residences. In this case, a permanent injunction would block a residential tower that would replace the two-story Maryland Manor apartments that were demolished.

“It’s not putting a racetrack next to somebody, so what type of residences should be permitted?” Wilson asked. “We know a Maryland Manor is fine, but 21 stories is not fine. But what is? That’s a horse of a different color.”

The judge asked for a final set of documents from attorneys on both sides and promised to make a decision promptly.

“This case has intense public interest and has stretched for some time,” Wilson told a courtroom packed with observers interested in the outcome of the seven-year-long battle. “Because of this, I will rule quickly.”

I have no idea what he will rule. We’ll just how quickly he produces his opinion. Prime Property and Stop Ashby Highrise have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Wallace Jefferson is still going on about judicial elections

In an interview in The Atlantic, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson rides his favorite hobbyhorse of partisan judicial elections.

Hon. Wallace Jefferson

I’ve been talking about this for a long time. And I am not the first one. Republican or Democrat Chief Justices for the last 30 or 40 years have been calling on the legislature to change the way judges come to the bench in Texas. It is a broken system. We shouldn’t have partisan elections. I do not like the concept of a Republican or Democratic judge. I think fundraising undermines the confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system. So I would change it completely if I were king.

The sad reality, given the system that we have, is that if a judge wants to remain on the bench they have to find a way to reach the voters. And the only way to do that in Texas is in the media market. If you are running a statewide campaign, there are about 26 million people in Texas. You have Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, and all are major media markets. Even to mail campaign literature, you’ve got to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I don’t defend the system. I would want to change it.

[...]

In your free time one day, take a look at the ballot in Harris County—that’s Houston—in a presidential year. If you look at that ballot, there will be several pages of judges who are standing for election, from the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals … There are district court judges, county court judges, probate judges, municipal court judges. In that one year in Harris County, there are probably 60 or 70 judges on that ballot. The voters have no clue about the experience or background of these candidates for office, and so what happens in Texas is that voters increasingly vote based upon partisan affiliation.

And we have the ability to straight-ticket vote here and so, in 2008, when I was on the ballot, it was McCain versus Obama, and Republicans in Texas by a large margin voted for McCain but they voted straight-ticket. So they voted McCain and every single Republican down the ballot. And in Harris County that year, Obama was extraordinarily popular so they voted for Obama and every Democrat down the ballot. I won [my] election easily, [but] in Houston there was almost a complete sweep of Republican judges — they were replaced by Democrats.

That makes no sense. These votes are not based upon the merits of the judge but on partisan affiliation and if its not party affiliation it’s the sound of your name. I said that almost all the Republican judges in Harris County lost—well, there were three exceptions. And in each of those cases, the Democratic candidate had an ethnic-sounding name. That’s no way to differentiate among candidates. And if it’s not partisan affiliation or the sound of your name, it’s how much money you can raise—which, as I said, undermines confidence in impartial justice.

We’ve discussed this before. I’m just going to note the following tidbit I learned from querying the Contributor records at the Texas Ethics Commission:

Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 05/21/2001
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 8,015.00, 02/20/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 06/27/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/31/2005
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 03/05/2007
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 7,500.00, 06/27/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 10/14/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/14/2008

When Wallace Jefferson is ready to talk about how judicial elections are financed, then I’ll be ready to take him seriously. Until then, as far as I’m concerned none of his proposals have any chance of actually achieving the reforms he says he wants.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

No restraining order against Uber and Lyft

The ridesharing services in Houston and San Antonio can continue to operate, at least for now.

A federal judge Monday declined to issue a temporary restraining order sought by Houston and San Antonio cab companies hoping to block ride-sharing services that permit riders to use smart phone applications to catch rides.

Houston-based U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore set a July 15 date for an injunction hearing, which could result in stopping the smartphone-based companies from operating or give city ordinances as chance to catch up with the technology.

Gilmore said she had some “real concern” about whether the taxi and limousine companies had standing for a temporary restraining order, and added that she was particularly concerned about doing anything that stands in the way of a political process that already is under way.

[...]

Gilmore said she believes the current situation simply is an instance of technology outpacing laws.

“I think technology has gotten ahead of the law,” she said. “It happens all the time.”

That much is clearly true. The rest is subject to debate. Mark July 15 on your calendars, y’all.

In the meantime, here’s a Sunday Express-News story about ridesharing services and their entry into Texas markets. Think of it as a primer for those who are just tuning in. A couple of points:

Lyft and Uber are disrupting the long-established industry of taxi and limo services that, in most cities, “really haven’t had a need to evolve,” said Paul Supawanich, a senior associate with Nelson\Nygaard, a transportation planning consulting firm.

Physically hailing a taxi or having to phone a dispatcher, Sundararajan said, becomes less efficient than using a smartphone app.

With Lyft and Uber, customers input their credit card information into each services’ smartphone app first, so any monetary withdrawal is done electronically without the driver and passenger having to exchange funds directly.

The ridesharing companies want to be thought of as technology platforms, not taxis, because their drivers aren’t professionals and usually only work a few hours at a time. Lyft has billed itself as more like getting a ride with a friend. Drivers are encouraged to give their vehicles themes or hand out snacks.

But taxi drivers and companies are frustrated because a taxi driver can’t operate without a city permit, and drivers pay hundreds of dollars every week for the right to use those permits — expenses Lyft and Uber drivers currently don’t have to bear.

“If they want to play in this game and be in this business, then play by the rules,” said John Bouloubasis, president of San Antonio’s largest taxi company Yellow Cab San Antonio and one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

Bouloubasis pays $455 annually for each basic taxi permit and another $175 for permits that authorize vehicles to pick up and drop off passengers at the San Antonio International Airport.

Bouloubasis leases the right to use the taxi permits back to the cab drivers. Some drivers lease Yellow Cab vehicles, which costs $88 a day. Other drivers own their vehicles but pay for the right to use a Yellow Cab permit, the company’s brand, its dispatching services, and to be covered by its insurance, a cost that runs $267 a week.

In effect, drivers have to make up a financial deficit every day if they want to at least break even, said Richard Moreno, a driver for Star Taxis who pays $75 a day to rent his vehicle and use the permit.

“There’s no sympathy in this business,” said Moreno, who said he’s already started to feel the effects of Lyft’s and Uber’s presence on his bottom line. “It’s cutthroat.”

All new taxi drivers also have to pay a $2,000 driver deposit, which they can choose to pay in a lump sum or in increments.

Lyft and Uber drivers don’t have to pay any of these fees.

Both companies keep 20 percent of every fare; the rest of the profits, plus tips, go to the drivers. Drivers don’t have to pay any base cost for the right to drive for Lyft or Uber.

Another difference: Lyft and Uber have set their own rates; taxi drivers’ rates are regulated by the city.

One thing that hasn’t gotten much discussion in Houston is that not all taxi permit holders do things to add value to the permits. Basically, they lease them out to cabbies for a flat fee, which makes them excellent cash cows, but it’s on the cabbies themselves to earn the money to pay for the leases. The permit holders themselves don’t offer dispatch service or any other means of directing riders to the cabbies that lease the permits. This isn’t true for most permit holders, of course, but there’s a non-trivial number of the non-value add types. Rideshare services, or TNCs if you prefer, are a direct threat to them, as well they should be.

They’re a threat to the permit owners that do provide value to their leaseholders, too, and I don’t see any resolution that allows Uber and Lyft into the market that doesn’t diminish the return on those permits. But as I’ve said all along, I don’t see the market for paid rides as being static. I think with innovation and some new ways to access these services, the market can and will grow, and this growth can benefit the legacy companies if they work for it. This bit of the story resonated for me:

The new companies are becoming popular because they are filling a need, said Supawanich, with Nelson\Nygaard.

“If no one in San Francisco (where Lyft started) ever complained about getting a taxi,” Supawanich said, “these services would not exist.”

“We’ve had the same basic transportation options for a really long time,” he said. “It’s kind of been a new splash for the market.”

The 80/20 Foundation, the private foundation of Rackspace founder Graham Weston, launched a petition on Change.org last week to encourage City Council members to adjust the city ordinance to allow Lyft and Uber to operate because the foundation believes millennials want other transportation options.

“There is research showing that fewer and fewer young people are interested in owning cars,” 80/20 Foundation Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez III wrote in an email this week. “So any city that wants to attract young talent will need options that make it easier for them to get around. Ride share is one of them.”Muñoz hasn’t tried Uber yet and hasn’t used Lyft since she first took a ride last month. But she’s thinking about using it again this week when she and some of her coworkers head to the Night In Old San Antonio Fiesta event. To her, the fact that these ridesharing services operate exclusively via smartphone apps is just an example of companies adapting to changing times.

I haven’t taken a cab in Houston in at least a decade. In recent days, however, I’ve been thinking about how I might use a service like UberX or Lyft. I’d consider using it as transportation to and from a sporting event downtown, for example. The round trip likely won’t cost much more than parking, and it could avoid a lot of hassle. Another possibility is using it as a shuttle to and from an event like the Art Car Parade, where parking is free but really hard to find unless you get there very early. If I do any of these things, it’s not coming at the expense of the existing cab companies. Along the same lines, if I were thinking about living downtown or in Midtown, or some other parking-challenged part of town, I’d strongly consider the possibility of giving up at least one car – which would be a significant savings – and using a combination of transit, ridesharing, car sharing, and bicycling in its place. The amount one spends in a given year on gas, insurance, maintenance, fees, parking, and so forth even on a paid for car could probably buy you a lot of rides. If we ever want to nudge people towards a higher-density, lower-carbon lifestyle, ridesharing services need to be in the mix.

Finally, The Atlantic Cities reminds us that as in all things, the past is never dead and everything old is always new again.

These services might feel radically different from the traditional taxi model, but in fact American cities have seen this movie before. Long before TNCs captured public attention, the low-tech jitneys of the 1910s disrupted the existing transportation order by promising a more customized service at a similar price to public transit.

The rise of the low-tech jitneys coincided with a spike in unemployment at the outset of World War I, and the availability of affordable secondhand cars. With more cars on the road and fewer jobs to occupy the labor force, drivers began picking up rides for a nickel. The appeal of flexible service — in conjunction with streetcar dissatisfaction, low rates of automobile ownership, and shifting housing and travel patterns in many cities — led to a dizzying increase in jitney operations across the country. “The mushroom growth of the jitney has been so rapid that cities which were in blissful ignorance of it in the evening found cars in operation the next morning,” The New York Times reported in 1915.

As quickly as jitneys flooded into cities, however, local regulations washed them back out to sea. Streetcar companies, which paid more in state and local taxes and maintained roads adjacent to tracks, complained that the jitneys reaped the benefit of these roads without paying for their upkeep. Municipalities largely sided with streetcar interests because they didn’t believe jitneys could handle the same passenger loads, and thought the loss of streetcars would be disastrous at a time when the vast majority of Americans relied on transit for travel. Between 1915 and 1918, the number of jitneys operating nationally declined from 62,000 to 6,000.

The jitney more or less disappeared by 1920, but the idea of car-like convenience at the price of transit never disappeared — most U.S. cities still run public vanpool and dial-a-ride services — and with TNCs it’s returned with a vengeance.

Funny how these things go, isn’t it?

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Mayor Parker releases draft of non-discrimination ordinance

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker today released a draft of her proposed Equal Rights Ordinance. The document is the result of more than two months of collaborative discussions with various stakeholders.

“As I stated in my State of the City Address earlier this month, the Houston I know does not discriminate, treats everyone equally and allows full participation by everyone in civic and business life,” said Mayor Parker. “We don’t care where you come from, the color of your skin, your age, gender, what physical limitations you may have or who you choose to love. It’s time the laws on our books reflect this.”

Houston is currently the only major city in the country without civil rights protections for its residents. The draft ordinance will prohibit discrimination in city employment, city contracting, housing, public accommodations and private employment at businesses with at least 50 employees. To avoid First Amendment issues, religious organizations are exempt from the definition of an employer.

Complaints about violations of the ordinance and decisions regarding prosecution are to be handled by the City’s Office of Inspector General and the City Attorney. If the subject of a complaint refuses to cooperate with an investigation, the City Attorney may ask City Council to approve the issuance of a subpoena to compel cooperation.

In addition, the mayor has the discretion to create an advisory task force to study and report on matters related to the ordinance.

“Equal protection under law is a cornerstone of our democracy and the Equal Rights Ordinance will help to ensure that all Houstonians are protected from discrimination,” said District C City Council Member Ellen Cohen, who has been involved in the drafting of the ordinance. “As the most diverse city in the nation, I’m pleased that we will offer these protections in public accommodations and employment to all our citizens.”

“This ordinance gives us another tool to demonstrate that Houston is a world class city that is open for business,” said District J City Council Member Mike Laster, who has also played an integral role in the drafting of the ordinance. “If you are willing to work hard, and treat your neighbors with respect and fairness, you will be welcome in Houston, and you will succeed in Houston!”

Mayor Parker intends to present the draft ordinance to City Council’s Quality of Life Committee on April 30. Consideration by the full City Council is scheduled for May 7. The ordinance may be viewed by clicking the Ordinance Feedback icon under the mayor’s photo on the homepage of the city’s website at www.houstontx.gov.

See here and here for the background. A direct link to the ordinance is here, and if you’re wondering why we need such a thing in Houston, I recommend you read this Equal Rights Ordinance Guide helpfully put together by the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats. As we know there had been some concern about private employers not being included in the ordinance, but as you can see that has been addressed. Nothing like a little public engagement on an important issue.

The Chron story gives us a feel for the lay of the land.

Parker initially had talked of creating a human rights commission to hear complaints, but that idea was left out of the proposal announced Monday.

[...]

Greater Houston Partnership President and CEO Bob Harvey said his group’s key concern with the idea had been the commission.

“At this juncture, admittedly upon a very quick review, I would say there is plenty in this proposal that we can support,” Harvey said, noting that a majority of GHP members already have anti-discrimination policies. “We now must take the time to review the proposal in detail, and we plan to take it before our board for discussion in the next several days.”

The Houston GLBT Caucus, during last fall’s elections, asked the mayor whether she would introduce, and council members whether they would support, a nondiscrimination ordinance; Parker and 11 council members said yes. Caucus President Maverick Welsh said he is pleased private employers were included.

“She kept her commitment to the GLBT community and I’m hoping the council members that made a commitment will keep theirs, too,” Welsh said. “Houston is competing with other cities for the best and brightest talent out there and if Houston has these protections in place we’re more competitive and welcoming.”

Councilman Michael Kubosh said he is concerned Parker is stressing the ordinance’s sweep when her goal is adding protections for gay and transgender residents. If accurate, he said, that is where discussions should focus.

“The mayor needs to come out and just say what it’s really about. Let’s start from there and go on,” Kubosh said. “The most important thing is transparency.”

Councilman Jack Christie said the draft’s dropping of a commission makes it an improvement over earlier discussions.

“Just have direct access to the city attorney, if the state and federal hasn’t helped you,” Christie said. “I just don’t hear that much discrimination, but if there is, if there’s less than 1 percent, we need to stop that.”

There was a quote in there from one of the usual suspects that can be summed up as “haters gonna hate”, but beyond that I find these reactions to be encouraging, and boding well for passage. Still, I am sure there will be more opposition now that this is out, and I’m sure some members of Council will need a bit of pushing, so don’t quit engaging just yet. Just remember, when the predictions of doom and employers fleeing and whatever else begin to crop up, plenty of other cities in Texas and elsewhere have passed ordinances like this one, and last I checked the earth was still rotating on its axis. Nothing bad will happen, but a lot of good will. Texas Leftist, Lone Star Q, Texpatriate, TransGriot, and PDiddie have more.

Posted in: Local politics.

East Enders want the underpass

We’re talking about the long-debated Harrisburg rail line extension, for which three residents of the East End took to the Chron op-ed pages to make their case for their preferred solution.

East End residents worked for years with Metro to work out a solution for the light rail to cross the “east belt” heavy-rail trunk line near Hughes Street. Two and a half years ago an underpass was deemed the best option to cross the railroad tracks because it would preserve the urban character of Harrisburg Boulevard, the commercial and cultural spine of the East End.

Metro now says an overpass is the only option. Metro tells us they have found an underground plume or accumulation of gasoline in shallow groundwater that might pose a liability if it moves under adjacent properties due to the construction of the underpass. There is no danger. It is strictly an issue of liability, based on perception alone.

[...]

The contaminated plume in question occurs only in the eastern half of the underpass excavation zone, and at most is only 2 feet thick. Contaminated soil thus makes up only about 10 percent of the total volume of the area to be excavated. This amount is not a deal-breaker for the excavation. Procedures are in place to deal with this kind of contamination during construction, and Metro was fully prepared to deal with this until it started worrying about the lateral underground migration of the plume.

These kinds of contaminated water bodies occur all over Houston. So much so that the city, in conjunction with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has a procedure that allows contaminated zones of groundwater that pose no human risk to be left in place with limited or no liability on the part of landowners who had nothing to do with the original contamination. This is exactly the situation of the Harrisburg Boulevard plume.

There are relatively few viable businesses today along the underpass construction zone on Harrisburg, which is exactly how it will stay if an overpass is built there. Let’s not make decisions based on the used-car lots and pawn shops that are there today. Let’s make those decisions based on what is coming if we do the right thing. This is a generational decision.

See here and here for the background. It seems to me that the real issue here, going back to the bad old days of David Wolff and Frank Wilson, is that it costs more to build an underpass than an overpass, and Metro – which is paying for the Harrisburg line with strictly local funds – has been reluctant to spend the extra money. I can understand that, but at some point you have to recognize reality and try to accommodate a community that has been strongly pro-rail and strongly anti-overpass. Before the discovery of these underground plumes, the New Metro agreed to build an underpass with some financial help from the city. If the price of the underpass is now higher because of this discovery, Metro and the city owe it to the East End residents to try to figure out a way to absorb this extra cost, or to find some other source of funds to help cover it. Surely there must be some way to do this.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Texas insurance enrollment update

Enrollments are up and the number of uninsured are down, though both could have been a lot better.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The sky-high rate of Texans without health insurance has dropped only slightly since the launch of the federal Affordable Care Act’s online health insurance marketplace, according to a new report from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Episcopal Health Foundation.

During the open enrollment period from September through March, the rate of uninsured adults in Texas fell to 23.5 percent from 24.8. And most of that change was attributable to an increase in employer-sponsored health coverage, the report found, rather than new signups in the federal marketplace.

Texas’ decline in the rate of its uninsured was commensurate with those in other Republican-led states that elected not to expand Medicaid to cover poor adults. But while the number of Texans applying for coverage in the online marketplace — about 746,000, according to the report — pales in comparison to the more than 5 million who lack insurance, ACA proponents may see reason for optimism, the authors wrote. The 746,000 figure represents a significant increase in Texas enrollments from the 295,000 reported by the federal government as of March 1.

“You look at the absolute numbers and say, ‘Wow! This is a good start,’” said Vivian Ho, a co-author.

The report, which draws its conclusions from survey data rather than figures that are gradually being released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers new insight into what kinds of people are signing up for insurance under the ACA.

For example, only about 30.2 percent of those seeking coverage in the online marketplace were previously uninsured, researchers found. Employer-provided health insurance seemed to be responsible for the biggest drop in the uninsured.

“If I had to guess, a large portion of that is just the upswing in the economy,” Ho said. “There are more people getting jobs.” But she added that some businesses are also preparing to comply with the upcoming coverage mandate for their employees, offering low-cost insurance options for low-wage workers, a trend that may be reflected in the data.

We also now have some specific information about Houston enrollments.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated report, the Associated Press found more than 177,000 Houston residents signed up for health coverage, exceeding expectations and indicating a last-minute enrollment push just before the March 31 deadline might have helped Texas meet projected targets despite months of lagging.

The news service, citing an email by Marjorie McColl Petty, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Dallas regional director, and obtained by the Associated Press, reported that as of April 5, some 177,825 Houston residents signed up for coverage. A previous email by Petty said that as of March 29, 149,273 Houston residents had signed up for insurance, the AP said.

The expectation had been that 138,000 Houston residents would sign up.

You can see the Baker Institute report here. This answers some of the questions raised in my earlier post, though the Kaiser numbers have not yet been updated. As noted, there’s no official tally of who does or does not have health insurance in Texas. We’ll have the healthcare.gov enrollment totals, and I presume HHSC has Medicaid and CHIP numbers, but beyond that it’s all estimates and speculation.

We all know how this has gone down in Texas, where the party line from the Republican leadership has been one of unrelenting hostility and obstacles. Not surprisingly, in states like Texas the ranks of the uninsured decreased at a lower rate than in states that are not run by heartless assholes. With the grace period for people who began but were unable to complete the enrollment process now over, the official tally for healthcare.gov enrollees is eight million. That doesn’t count state exchanges, Medicaid expansions, the under-26 set that can be on their parents’ insurance, or people who will now have insurance through their employers; the grand total is at least 14 million, and counting. And it could have been so much more.

Opponents of the ACA said the report spelled bad news for President Obama’s signature health law. John Davidson, a policy analyst for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, called the number of previously uninsured people who signed up for coverage on the exchange a “drop in the bucket” compared to Texas’ total uninsured population.

“I believe that cost is driving these numbers,” Davidson said. “Coverage on the exchange is very expensive, and it’s expensive even if you get a subsidy, in many cases.” He compared the report’s projection that 746,000 Texans had enrolled in the marketplace to a recent HHS brief that estimated that 2.2 million Texans could qualify for subsidies.

“Something’s going on there,” Davidson said. “Why so few?”

I’m going to be charitable and not assume that the oft-quoted token Davidson is sufficiently stupid as to be genuinely baffled. The organization for which he is employed is a malignant force in Texas, but they are quite clear-eyed about their goals. He knows what the truth is, and he knows what his role in relation to it is. The real question is why the Tribune, or any self-respecting news organization, thinks there is value in including his disinformation. Why do you think it’s a good idea to let someone lie to your readers, Evan Smith? I can’t think of a good reason for that. The LA Times has more.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Burnam challenge awaiting appeal

Another update on the ongoing legal challenge by State Rep. Lon Burnam, who wants his loss in the primary to Ramon Romero thrown out on the grounds that some applications for absentee ballots by Romero voters involved the use of iPads, which are not included as permissible devices in the relevant state law.

Rep. Lon Burnam

In a hearing earlier this month, attorneys representing Burnam asked that county election officials release all the applications turned in for mail-in ballots in this race to investigate potential illegalities such as an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation.”

State District Judge Robert McFarling of Denton, the visiting judge appointed to the case, turned down the request. Burnam’s attorney, former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Art Brender, has filed an appeal, asking the Fort Worth Court of Appeals to overturn that ruling.

McFarling on Monday agreed to delay the trial until the Court of Appeals rules. The case was scheduled to go to trial Tuesday.

Brender said he was glad for the delay.

“We are continuing our investigation every day,” he said. “And we are investigating other aspects of the election — and have been the whole time.”

Romero’s staff said they believe the final ruling will go their way.

“We are confident in the legal system,” said Michael “Mikey” Valdez, Romero’s campaign manager. “We feel the right decision will be made and it will confirm our victory.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume that’s the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and not the “Fort Worth Court of Appeals” since as far as I know there is no such thing. I don’t have anything to add to this story, but on a related note both Campos and Michael Li complained about an email Burnam sent out, presumably as an update on his case and as a fundraising appeal. Burnam is litigating a technicality, and technicalities don’t have much fundraising appeal. Trying to make it more than that risks alienating supporters and handing Republicans political ammunition. Burnam may win his challenge, but I’ll say again that I see nothing wrong in what Romero’s campaign did, nor do I see any reason why the law shouldn’t be amended to specifically allow it. Don’t lose sight of who you are in your quest to stay in office, Lon.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Retail medical clinics

I for one think they’re a good idea.

Here’s a prescription for pediatricians fighting to keep easy-to-treat, well-paying patients: Expand after-hours and weekend services to serve desperate parents in search of quick remedies for their kids’ late-night sore throats and upset tummies. Otherwise, parents will continue choosing the closest CVS, Walgreens or H-E-B clinic.

With the store-based medical clinic business projected to double between 2012 and 2015, analysts and doctors say pediatricians must change their business model to fit parents’ needs. Otherwise, they risk losing their relatively lucrative patients and relying more on chronically ill ones who take longer to diagnose and treat and thus reduce the number of people that doctors can see in a day.

“Well-baby cases help compensate for a Medicaid enrollee who takes half an hour,” said Devon Herrick, senior fellow at the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis. He added that the speed and convenience of retail clinics attract many of the better-paying cases, and doctors are working to keep from losing them.

Despite clear demand in the market, doctors have for years targeted retail clinics for criticism. They argue that doctors best understand their patients’ needs and provide the best care. Most recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged parents to avoid store-based health clinics, saying they don’t provide the high-quality care children need.

However, the nation’s leading professional organizations for doctors repeatedly have said there aren’t enough doctors to treat everyone now and won’t be in years to come. The American Academy of Family Physicians projects a shortage of 40,000 doctors nationwide by 2020. Texas already has a ratio of about 165 doctors for every 100,000 residents, which falls below the national average of 220 physicians for every 100,000 people.

“It’s about competition,” said Dr. Kaveh Safavi, global managing director of Accenture health business, adding that retailers came up with the idea for “embedded clinics” because people needed them.

He described pediatricians’ concerns with retail clinics as a “short-term skirmish” that doctors have been waging for years.

[...]

Texas Children’s Hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Stan Spinner, recently posted in a hospital website blog that retail clinics employ providers who lack proper training and experience treating children.

“As a pediatrician for more than 25 years, I’ve seen firsthand the inadequate care these clinics can provide,” Spinner wrote. “Numerous patients have come into our Texas Children’s pediatrics practices after visiting a retail-based clinic the night before questioning the medication or dosage they had received.”

When asked to elaborate later, Spinner said he didn’t know how many such incidents had occurred. He said parents waste time and resources at retail clinics and then follow up with pediatricians to ensure children received the correct treatment.

“(Pediatricians) should have seen them the very first time,” Spinner said, adding that some pediatricians are expanding their office hours and working weekends to accommodate patients.

All due respect, Doc, but there are bad physicians out there, too. I’d take your complaint more seriously if we had a more effective means of policing them, but between tort “reform” and the impotence of the Texas Medical Board, there ain’t much that can be done. Be that as it may, my own anecdotal evidence favors the retail clinics. A few years back, what I had figured was an insect bite on my left foot had turned into something painful and alarmingly swelled on a Saturday morning. With my alternatives being a visit to the emergency room and a fervent wish that it wouldn’t get any worse by Monday, I visited a clinic at the HEB on Bunker Hill. They prescribed some meds that did the trick, and by the time I did see my doctor on Monday, my foot looked mostly normal again, and he agreed with their diagnosis. Faced with the same situation again, I’d have no hesitation to pay them another visit.

One more thing:

Retail clinics revolve around a high-volume, low-complexity business model. Services usually range from $59 to $99. They include convenient and basic care – physicals, disease monitoring, vaccinations, and illness and infection diagnosis and treatment. The clinics usually employ nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who are less expensive than doctors.

[...]

Retail clinics will hold nearly 11 million visits annually, saving about $800 million in unnecessary emergency care costs, Accenture said.

One of the dirty secrets of health care and the amount that we spend on it is that controlling our health care costs necessarily means paying less money to doctors. It’s more complex than that, of course – prescription drug costs and a lack of transparency in pricing are other big factors – but in the end, less money being spent by consumers means less money being paid to providers. Given that there’s a shortage of general practice physicians anyway, more retail clinics and a greater use of advanced practice nurses are both modest steps in the right direction. Doctors are going to have to learn to live with that.

Posted in: Bidness.

City asks court to let Ashby Highrise be built

Interesting.

Sue me!

The city on Friday asked a judge to let the Ashby high-rise project go forward after seven years of wrangling and a recent jury verdict in favor of nearby residents who oppose the 21-story tower planned for 1717 Bissonnet.

City Attorney David Feldman said halting construction of a project that satisfied the regulations in place at the time it was granted a permit would “irreparably impair future developments in the city.”

“The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of such lawsuits would hinder developers from financing, leasing and constructing real estate developments in Houston, which require long-term secure contracts,” Feldman wrote in a letter delivered to state District Judge Randy Wilson. “We urge the court to consider the serious public policy considerations involved.”

[...]

“We’re not endeavoring to take a position in this specific situation,” Feldman said Friday. “It’s a broader question of whether, in a city such as ours without zoning, development can reasonably be expected to occur if a developer that complies with all laws and deed restrictions can be enjoined from building … What kind of effect would that have on development in a city such as ours? That’s the point that we felt was important to raise with the court.”

The city’s stance surprised Earle Martin, one of the residents who brought the suit. He said that even when the city settled a separate lawsuit with Buckhead in 2012, Mayor Annise Parker continued to insist the project was not suitable for the area.

“The letter is completely inconsistent with what the mayor has said so far,” Martin said. “I cannot understand this. I’m sure there is pressure from the development community.”

[...]

Expert testimony presented during the monthlong trial showed the building would severely damage several homes, causing walls to lean, foundations to crack and pipes to shift. The jury also heard evidence that the project would cause significant traffic problems, and that it is out of place and abnormal in the neighborhood.

Residents’ attorney Jean Frizzell said Friday that the city letter ignores evidence presented at trial that the developers misled the city to obtain permits, and that an ordinance enacted after the battle began ensured similar projects could not be built so close to existing homes.

“This letter appears to ignore that,” Frizzell said.

Josh Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit organization that represents developers, said the city weighed in on the court case because stopping the project would have a major impact on development. His group submitted a friend of the court brief, which Feldman referenced in his letter, that argued against permanent injunction.

“The city is stepping in and saying, ‘Why are you overriding our regulatory structure?’ ” Sanders said. “If a permanent injunction is granted, it throws all the rules out the window.”

See here for the last update. I’m really not sure what to make of this. I get where the city is coming from, and as you know I never really believed the plaintiffs had a case, but neither do I think the regulatory structure is sacrosanct. If this lawsuit has shown it to be fatally flawed, then let the court do its job and allow for a remedy. I’m skeptical this is the case, but let’s let the judge sort it out. Final arguments are today about whether the project can go forward, and I’m sure whatever the judge says it will be appealed. What do you think?

Posted in: Legal matters.

Weekend link dump for April 20

Personally, I think the way to deal with fans who run onto the field is to have more stadium security at the fences. Yeah, most of these guys are just drunken fools, but it only takes one evildoer to cause a possibly preventable tragedy.

The mother of all binge-watching opportunities is coming this August.

How not to succeed in show business, in one easy step.

The Darwin fish was a living, breathing, swimming, and walking thing.

When political cartoons predict the future.

Wage theft remains a huge problem.

You can have a dating site for Mormons, but you can’t call it a Mormon dating site.

RIP, Rod Kennedy, founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival and a whole lot more besides.

This is lawlessness.

TurboTax is astroturfing against free, simple tax filing. When you’re on the same side of a tax issue as Grover Norquist, you’re doing it wrong.

Of course, Norquist doesn’t want tax filing to be simple and easy, because then people won’t buy his BS about taxation in general.

Hank Aaron observed during the celebration of his 715th home run that there’s still plenty of racism in America, thus prompting a bunch of modern day racists to prove his point.

The parallels between Mad Men and the Manson Family murders.

Nothing like a trust fund baby whining about taxes he himself will never have to pay.

Munich is the place to be for gettin’ nekkid in public.

Texas Monthly sues the New York Times for poaching editor Jake Silverstein.

Nobody cares about the deficit. Nor should they.

Despite the cold in the US, it’s been a very warm winter globally.

Just a beautiful story. I won’t say any more than that. Go read it.

Haters gonna hate. And threaten to file lawsuits.

The actual effect of screening mammograms is much less than you think it is.

“Yes, you read that right. Using the national popular vote to determine who wins the presidency would be stealing elections. Let that sink in for a minute.”

RIP, Bud Purdy, who was what Western ranching was all about.

Congratulations to the Clinton family on their forthcoming addition.

Hey, law school is expensive.

“If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an Internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated.”

Congrats to Curtis High School, which has clearly shed the reputation it had when I was that age of being “challenging” for negative reasons.

“It was the permanently insured speculating about the uninsured and the barely insured – and, unsurprisingly, they got it wrong.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Court rules for the EPA against Texas again

Another win for the environment.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Obama administration’s new rules that for the first time limit emissions of mercury and other harmful pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

In a split decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a Texas-based challenge to the regulations, saying the federal government acted reasonably to protect the environment and public health from poisonous gases and cancer-causing chemicals released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels.

Developers of the White Stallion Energy Center, a proposed power plant about 90 miles southwest of Houston, challenged the federal regulations, arguing that the new limits would be too burdensome and thus prevent them from securing financing for the project. Several industry groups and 22 states, including Texas, joined the fight.

But a divided three-judge panel ruled that federal law and previous court decisions do not require the Environmental Protection Agency to consider cost when imposing new regulations on electric utilities.

[...]

At the time the EPA finalized the rules in 2012, Texas was home to seven of the top 16 mercury-emitting coal plants in the nation, an Environmental Defense Fund analysis found.

“There is no other state that is going to get as much public health benefit than Texas from the mercury rule,” said Al Armendariz, a former EPA official who now leads the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign in the state.

See here and here for some background. I’ve long since lost track of which lawsuit by Texas against the EPA is about what, and I don’t think I have any previous blogging on this specific case, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all of a piece, and it’s all about whether we make the polluters be responsible for their actions or we give them a free pass. The EPA counters claims that these regulations are too costly for business with evidence that the health benefits for everyone else will outweigh those costs. That will never satisfy the polluters, of course, and I presume they’ll appeal this first to the entire DC court, then to SCOTUS. It’s a nice win for now but it’s far from over. The LA Times, the DMN BizBeat blog, the Texas Green Report, and the EDF, which has a separate statement beneath the fold, have more, while Wonkblog reminds us of the disproportionate effect of industrial pollution on minority neighborhoods.

Environmental Defense Fund applauds today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., denying legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) life-saving Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Today’s court decision rejects flawed legal claims by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, one of the opponents of EPA’s vital clean air safeguards for our communities and families.

Attorney General Abbott has sued the federal government 31 times since 2004, needlessly costing Texan taxpayer’s nearly $4 million.

The EPA emission standards at issue establish the first nationwide emission limits on the mercury, arsenic and acid gases discharged from the U.S. fleet of existing coal- and oil-fired power plants, the single largest source of these toxic airborne contaminants.

Mercury exposure can impair the brain development of infants and young children. According to the EPA, each year more than 400,000 infants are born with elevated mercury levels in their blood, but the MATS standards will eliminate 90 percent of mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants. In Texas, the rule will annually prevent up to 1,200 premature deaths, while providing between $4 billion to $9.7 billion in health benefits in 2016 and each year thereafter.

“Today’s decision comes as an unquestionable victory for Texans who care about vital clean air safeguards and protecting our most vulnerable citizens – young children and pregnant women. Rather than waste taxpayer’s money and protect the interests of big fossil fuel companies, Greg Abbott and other state leaders should champion life-saving measures that protect the health and well-being of Texans.”

Posted in: Legal matters.

HCC has not begun any 2012 bond construction yet

I hadn’t realized it was taking this long.

A divided Houston Community College board has failed to approve construction contracts for its November 2012 voter-approved bond program, potentially costing the college system tens of millions of dollars in fines.

The clock to break ground on building projects is ticking to meet federal spending deadlines that, if missed, could result in fines under a worst-case scenario, HCC’s hired bond counsel, Tom Sage, warned in March.

Some trustees, however, have said the college administration has not provided enough information about projects in the $425 million bond package. Others questioned why the college system wasn’t planning to spread contracts around to more local companies.

Concerned about delays and perceived meddling by some board members, a volunteer oversight committee called a special meeting earlier this week to urge the board to approve contracts for all 14 building projects Thursday.

“This is a gross example of the board trying to micromanage a major job,” said oversight committee member Ed Wulfe, a commercial real-estate developer who has served on numerous local boards. “ … Right now the community is back to HCC being in a state of confusion, and the perception is reality.”

Board Chairwoman Neeta Sane defended her colleagues.

“I’m here to give you the assurance, there is no hanky-panky going on,” she told the committee, which the board created to monitor the bond package.

[...]

In March, HCC Acting Chancellor Renee Byas sought the board’s approval to hire eight companies to serve as the construction managers for the 14 bond projects. The fees the firms would earn range from an estimated $575,000 to $5.6 million, depending on the project size, according to the agenda item.

The board rejected the proposal on a 6-3 vote.

A followup story indicates that at Thursday’s meeting, the Board did unanimously approve four contracts for construction, with a fifth left pending because it needed to be paired with a related issue. I’m not exactly sure what brought about the change – Campos has his suspicions – but I’m glad to see them move forward. I don’t know why this was more time consuming for HCC than it has been for HISD, which according to the first story has approved 22 contracts for projects related to its 2012 bond referendum. HCC doesn’t have the best track record in these matters, so if this is just the Board being a little extra careful then that’s fine, but let’s get on with it. There’s a reason this construction was needed, and that hasn’t changed.

Posted in: Local politics.

Uber uber alles

Very interesting.

Uber rolled out a new service in Manhattan [last] Tuesday that foreshadows the five-year-old company’s plans to become much more than a platform for e-hailing taxi and town car rides. Now, with UberRUSH, the company is piloting a bike and ped-courier service designed to move stuff, rather than people.

For at least $15 a trip, Uber wants to dispatch couriers to ferry everything from legal papers to fashion pieces around Manhattan below 110th Street (for now).

The new service signals the company’s expansion beyond local transportation and into the much larger world of urban logistics. And it’s a savvy play for several reasons: The same back-end technology that Uber has built to track drivers and connect them to riders can easily be used to order and follow deliveries. All that changes is the cargo on board and the mode of transportation, a detail around which the company is becoming increasingly agnostic.

These bigger ambitions bolster Uber’s claim that it is not, by definition, simply another kind of cab company. Most importantly, though, Uber foresees — as Amazon and eBay do, too — that the next growth opportunity in a shifting economy isn’t facilitating digital marketplaces: It’s moving physical stuff. It’s figuring out urban logistics in a world where crowded cities will only become more so, where e-commerce is actually making congestion worse, where the rise of “sharing” has created a need for coordinating the mass joint use of cars, tools, tasks and dinner.

[...]

Logistics are the logical companion industry to the sharing economy. As the latter grows, so will need for the former. Logistics also represent the unresolved territory of the digital age. The Internet has solved all kinds of other problems: It’s enabled us to communicate faster, to pay bills more easily, to shop for products that can’t be found in local stores, to open businesses that couldn’t cover the rent on a brick-and-mortar storefront. But for all those interactions that take place in the ether, we still need to move stuff in the real world. Your Airbnb keys can’t be e-mailed. You can rent a drill bit on SnapGoods, but an online platform can’t physically deliver it to you.

I don’t have anything to add to this. Frankly, the whole thing was just an excuse to use that headline. Nonetheless, this is very interesting, and if it’s successful we’ll see when it or something like it comes to Houston. TechCrunch has more.

Posted in: Bidness.

Saturday video break: Beautiful

Another installment of Same Name, Different Song. The song is “Beautiful”, and our first contestants are G. Love & Special Sauce, featuring Tristan Prettyman:

I do love me a good duet. G. Love has a new album out that you can download from Noisetrade if you like what you heard.

For a different Beautiful song, here’s the one and only Carole King:

Did you know there’s now a Broadway musical based on the life of Carole King, called “Beautiful”? I learned that when I went trawling YouTube for this song. Here’s Jessie Mueller, the actor who plays Carole King in this musical, channeling her on The Today Show:

Pretty fair impersonation there. Did you hear at the end where one of the Today Show ladies said that Carole King needed to see “Beautiful” on Broadway? Well, I’m sure you can see this coming:

Moments like that are often staged, but even without King’s assurance that they had no idea she was there, it’s obvious from the surprise and delight on the cast members’ faces that they were truly in the dark. It’s quite a moment, worth watching even with the choppy editing. Here’s the YouTube link, which has more about the show, for those of you that might want to see it.

Posted in: Music.

Council approves hoarding ordinance

I think they’re on the right track.

HoardersOne

The Houston City Council unanimously approved an anti-hoarding ordinance Wednesday without a clear idea of how it will be enforced.

The ordinance, which does not apply to single-family homes, clarifies when police can seek a warrant to enter a home and prioritizes mental health treatment before turning to daily fines of up to $500.

The ordinance does not specify how deep piles of apparent junk must be, nor how long neighbors can be expected to battle insect or rodent infestations while city officials seek treatment of a suspected hoarder and a clean-up of the property.

To a large extent, Mayor Annise Parker said, enforcement will be at the discretion of responding police officers.

Internal policies outlining possible hoarding thresholds, how agencies will coordinate a response and who will have a final say in the decision still must be written.

[...]

Council members said they expect the ordinance to reinforce the existing relationship between HPD and the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, who often perform joint welfare checks.

MHMRA Executive Director Stephen Schnee said the agency would complete assessments and recommend treatment, but not be involved in enforcement decisions.

[...]

Despite the ordinance, Parker said enforcement by authorities is not her preferred first choice for dealing with hoarders.

“Having the ability to say to a family member, ‘This is against the law. If you don’t do this, if you don’t work on this issue, if you don’t seek the help you need, there will be a police intervention,’ is one more tool that can help resolve the issue,” she said. “The goal is never to write a citation for something like this because we understand it’s a mental health issue, but this gets us in the door.”

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, as someone who was a fan of Hoarders on A&E, in nearly every episode the hoarder in question had to be backed into a corner before agreeing to get help and do some cleanup. Often, this included some kind of threat from local authorities to impose fines or even condemn the property. One gets the impression that this kind of leverage can be very useful to help persuade someone who doesn’t believe he has a problem to do something about the situation at hand. As the story notes, in the past the only legal leverage the city had was if there was a credible complaint about animal abuse. This gives them another way to open the door and assess the condition of the residence, and hopefully connect the person inside with the resources they will need to help them address the problem. I’d like to see the city revisit this in a year or so, and if it’s getting results to see about extending the ordinance to include standalone houses. I think they are pointing in the right direction, and I hope this works. Texpatriate has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

The explosion in West will change nothing

That’s just how we roll around here.

A year after the blast killed 15 people and injured hundreds, Texas lawmakers have yet to propose or put into action any major reforms in an attempt to prevent future industrial accidents, whether it’s at a small, rural fertilizer retailer or a petrochemical plant along the Houston Ship Channel.

The disconnect reflects a state famously wary of government regulations. Even in West, about 120 miles north of Austin, some residents sound more concerned about the length of freight trains rolling through town than the absence of new rules for chemical plants.

It’s impossible to know whether stricter rules would have prevented the disaster, but some say the lack of action is putting lives in jeopardy.

“The bottom line is, there hasn’t been any effort to do things that would prevent such a tragedy in the future,” said Elena Craft, a Texas-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It seems wrong that lives were lost in vain.”

Key lawmakers say changes are coming, but any new regulations likely will be tailored to improve safety at the 82 facilities permitted to store and sell ammonium nitrate, the nitrogen-rich compound that was involved in the devastating blast. It’s unlikely the yet-unseen agenda will involve sweeping legislation that alters the handling of hazardous materials at all chemical plants.

“We just cannot do business the same way,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. “I want to turn the ought-to-dos into statute. But I want something that even the staunchest anti-regulation people say it’s a good idea.”

[...]

Pickett said he would like to assign authority for overseeing the handling and storage of fertilizer to one agency, most likely the state fire marshal’s office. There were eight state agencies with some oversight of the West plant or the explosion, and critics believe the patchwork regulatory approach allowed the West plant to slip through bureaucratic cracks.

For example, plant managers submitted to state and local agencies a document, known as a Tier II report, that shows how much ammonium nitrate is stored on site for sale to farmers. But no one flagged the large stockpile at the West facility, which reported in 2012 that it had at least 270 tons of the dangerously combustible chemical.

Pickett said he wants the Tier II reports to go directly to the state fire marshal’s office, which also would be responsible for inspecting facilities and instructing plant personnel on best safety practices. He also wants additional funding for training firefighters.

[...]

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Craft is skeptical about the Legislature’s willingness to produce significant reforms.

“I don’t think they see what happened in West as a real problem,” she said. “They kind of think of it as a one-off event and that it probably won’t happen again.”

Until the next one, that is. Can we at least agree that this is a problem?

Pickett also indicated a willingness to consider strengthening rules on the storage of ammonium nitrate. Connealy, the State Fire Marshal, said today that 46, nearly half, of the state’s 96 ammonium nitrate plants are housing the fertilizer in combustible wood-frame structures—just like in the West disaster. At the West fertilizer plant, the fire originated in the seed room and spread rapidly to consume the wood structure and the wood fertilizer bins.

“We have to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate,” he said. Connealy said requiring sprinkler systems or, alternatively, mandating that ammonium nitrate be stored in non-combustible storage bins made of concrete, stone or metal could go a long way toward avoiding another West-like disaster.

“I still worry about the 46 that are dangerous wood structures and we have no authority right now to go in and say change ‘em,” Pickett said.

Please tell me this isn’t too much to ask. I really didn’t expect much, but surely this is doable. Right? The DMN has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

The equal pay issue in SD10

Just as the issue of equal pay has become a big deal in the Governor’s race, so is it an issue in the race to succeed Sen. Wendy Davis in SD10.

Libby Willis

In the battle for Senate District 10, [Konni] Burton and [Mark] Shelton head to a May 27 Republican primary runoff to determine who takes on [Democrat Libby] Willis in November.

Davis has represented the district since 2009.

Burton, a leader in the NE Tarrant Tea Party, said Willis is pushing issues like this while avoiding “tackling serious issues facing Texans,” like the “crippling” impact of Obamacare.

Shelton, a pediatrician and former state representative who lost a bid for this seat in 2012, said no more legislation is necessary.

“Equal pay for equal work is the law of the United States and the state of Texas,” he said. “Current law should be enforced and additional laws are unneeded.”

Willis said something must be done.

“Republicans, Democrats and independents support equal pay for women,” she said. “Equal pay is not only a fairness issue, it’s a family economic issue.”

To whatever extent this issue has salience in the statewide race, it ought to have a similar effect in SD10. Maybe more, since the SD10 Republicans have a harder edge than Greg Abbott. I think Abbott would rather just have this issue (and most others) go away, while Burton and Shelton will campaign loud and proud against the Ledbetter law. Whatever it takes, because it sure would be nice to hold onto this seat. Between Donna Campbell, Don Huffines, and whoever wins the special election to succeed Tommy Williams, the Senate is stupid and mean enough already. Let’s not make it any more so.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Endorsement watch: The not-so-special SD04

Before we get to the primary runoffs, we must first settle the special election business in SD04. The Chron attempts to pick the best of a mostly sorry lot of candidates to replace Sen. Tommy Williams.

Gordy Bunch

Residents of state Senate District 4 through the years have shown a penchant for electing big men to represent them. We mean that both literally and figuratively.

From 1977 until 1995, it was Carl Parker, a liberal Democrat from Port Arthur who was an outsized force for public education, the environment and industrial safety, all while serving, unofficially, as the Senate’s resident wit. (Parker: “If you took all the fools out of the Legislature, it wouldn’t be a representative body anymore.”)

From 2003 until last fall, it’s been Tommy Williams, a conservative Republican from The Woodlands who left the upper chamber after a decade in office to serve as the vice chancellor of federal and state relations for his alma mater, Texas A&M University. Williams, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, earned a reputation as a smart, no-nonsense lawmaker willing to cooperate with the other side of the aisle, despite his strongly held conservative views.

Williams and Parker both cut a wide swath through the Capitol (again, literally and figuratively). Unfortunately, the four candidates seeking to succeed Williams in a May 4 special election come nowhere close to the caliber of the senator they would succeed.

[...]

Our endorsement, almost by default, goes to Richard “Gordy” Bunch, a Coast Guard veteran, CEO of The Woodlands Financial Group and treasurer on The Woodlands township board. He also serves as chairman of The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bunch touts his business experience and his township track record of lowering property taxes below the effective tax rate and paying down city debt. In addition to his township experience, he seems to have a good grasp of issues that affect the district, including education needs in Beaumont and Port Arthur and transportation needs throughout the area.

Early voting begins April 28 and ends May 6. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be necessary.

My expectations are low for this race. Tommy Williams was hardly the end of the rainbow, but at least while he was Senate Finance chair, he proved to be less awful than someone from that district might have been. That’s about all I can ask for. I have no plans to get my hopes up that Gordy Bunch can meet that threshold, or that he can make it to the runoff, but if the Chron’s opinion is to be believed, at least I have a reason to check the election returns on May 10.

Posted in: Election 2014.

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Music.

Sorry, the Sriracha factory will not be coming to Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then maybe it’s more than that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re pretty excited,” says Villalba.

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

Posted in: Food, glorious food.

Mail ballots being mailed out for primary runoffs

From the inbox:

EarlyVoting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As of 4/15/2014:

DEM-13,547
REP-24,547

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

Posted in: Election 2014.

Boats N Hoes

With friends like these

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Election 2014.

The dino turtle

Please don’t go extinct.

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Uber goes rogue

That sound you hear is me shaking my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Castro v Patrick

Who do you think won?

Mayor Julian Castro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

HISD unveils new mascots

Here they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

Posted in: Other sports.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 14

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

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Posted in: Blog stuff.