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Friday random ten: You don’t mess around with Jim

For a letter worth 8 points in Scrabble because it doesn’t appear very frequently in English language words, there sure are a lot of names that beging with J.

1. Last One – James “Blood” Ulmer
2. I’ll Go Crazy – James Brown
3. Bayou Tortous – James McMurtry
4. Carolina In My Mind – James Taylor
5. Lose This Skin – Jim Allen
6. Look Here – Jim Duffy
7. Spiders And Snakes – Jim Stafford
8. Foxy Lady – Jimi Hendrix
9. Texas Flood – Jimmie Vaughan
10. The Harder They Come – Jimmy Cliff

I could have done the same thing with Johns or Joes, too. If you’re wondering, James McMurtry is the son of Larry. He’s been a working musician in Texas for 20 years or so.

Posted in: Music.

I’m not the only one who thought Abbott’s same sex marriage appellate brief was ridiculous

Of course, his arguments were ridiculous, so I shouldn’t be the only one who thinks so.

RedEquality

Attorney General Greg Abbott is defending the state’s same-sex marriage ban using a widely rejected “responsible procreation” argument, bolstering gay rights advocates’ hopes and raising questions about his chances of success.

“None of the arguments (against gay marriage) have prevailed, but I think that one especially is not compelling and has not persuaded the judges,” said University of Richmond School of Law Professor Carl Tobias.

Tobias added, “The courts so far that have discussed that argument have pretty much rejected it out of hand.”

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national nonprofit aimed at overturning same-sex marriage bans across the country, went further: “It’s the last desperate argument of those who don’t have an argument.”

[...]

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and pro-gay marriage activists were surprised Abbott led with the “responsible procreation” argument since it has been rejected in the 10th and 4th Circuit Courts.

“It hasn’t succeeded very often because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and it doesn’t really comport with what most of us think about marriage,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “(State law) doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be reasonable.”

Any outcome in the 5th Circuit would be a win for the gay marriage movement, said Steve Rudner of Equality Texas.

If the court upholds Judge Garcia’s ruling overturning the ban, it will bolster LGBT activists’ case. If it becomes the first appeals court to toss out such a ruling, creating a circuit court split, it could put the Texas case on a fast-track to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think Greg Abbott, in a strange way, if he succeeds in the 5th Circuit, will be doing people a favor,” said Rudner.

The New Orleans court is widely considered one of the nation’s most conservative, making it a likely source of such a split, experts agreed.

“If you’re going to get a circuit court split, it would probably be here,” said Kyle Duncan, a former Louisiana solicitor general most recently with the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. In February, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell hired Duncan on contract to handle that state’s gay marriage case.

Yes, we all agree that the Fifth Circuit sucks. It’s just a question of whether they suck enough to buy this load of hooey or not.

One more thing, from the Statesman story:

In their effort to preserve Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage, state lawyers have repeatedly argued that the restriction doesn’t single out homosexuals for different treatment.

Like every other Texan, the argument goes, gays and lesbians are free to marry — as long as their betrothed is a member of the opposite sex — and therefore the ban on same-sex marriage doesn’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

I hadn’t really thought about it this way till I saw this summary of the brief, but when I read it I was reminded of Michael Li’s analysis of Abbott’s brief from the redistricting lawsuit, filed last August. You may recall that the state’s argument for that case is that the Republican Legislature did not discriminate against minority voters, they were just acting in partisan self-interest, which just happened to have an unfortunate but completely unavoidable and not at all illegal effect on minority voters. As Li put it, this is basically saying that Republicans would be fine with non-Anglo people voting, as long as they voted Republican. There’s a Grand Unification Theory of Greg Abbott’s legal philosophy in there somewhere, if you’ve got the time to pursue it. Forrest Wilder, who read through the entire brief so we don’t have to, and the AusChron have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

County Attorney asks judge to overturn Wilson verdict

I’m not sure what the point of this is.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Although a jury decided Dave Wilson lived where he claimed when he ran for the Houston Community College seat he holds, the drama surrounding the perennial candidate continues.

Harris County attorneys filed a motion Wednesday asking Judge Mike Engelhart, who oversaw Wilson’s three-day residency trial earlier this month, to overturn the jury’s unanimous finding and rule in the county’s favor. The county argues Wilson does not live in a warehouse on W. 34th Street that he claimed as his residence when running for the HCC seat in November.

[...]

“We are asking the judge to rule that as a matter of law Mr. Wilson should not be entitled to enjoy the benefits of having two different domiciles such that he derives benefits from both,” Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said in an email. “We believe that claiming one domicile for one purpose (tax exemption) precludes, as a matter of law, simultaneously claiming a second domicile for a different purpose (qualification for public office). We are asking the judge to rule on this issue.”

Wilson won his case two weeks ago. I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure on what grounds the County Attorney is asking Judge Engelhart to throw out the jury verdict. Isn’t this what appeals courts are for? This story at least answers that question.

The county is using a legal tactic wherein a party can argue that the facts in a case are indisputable and a judge can determine a jury’s verdict was wrong. It’s called non obstante veredicto, Latin for notwithstanding the verdict, and is essentially the after-trial version of a summary judgment. While it’s not unusual, it’s not typically successful, legal experts said.

“You take your shot at it and see if it works – and usually it doesn’t. Ninety-nine times out of 100 it doesn’t,” said David Crump, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who teaches civil procedure courses, among others.

[...]

Jury verdicts tend to be regarded as final, said Frank Carroll, who runs TexAppBlog.com, an appellate law blog for non-appellate lawyers, and coaches moot court and mock trial at the University of Houston Law Center.

“There’s almost a dogma that when a jury makes a verdict, we don’t like to upset those verdicts,” Carroll said. “As far as the odds go, it’s kind of a long shot. It’s not the longest shot, but certainly the odds are against you.”

However Judge Mike Engelhart rules after an Aug. 18 hearing, the dispute is likely far from over.

“No matter which way he rules, it’s going to go to the appellate court for a better answer,” Ray said.

Well, now I understand what the County Attorney has in mind. They say that if Wilson didn’t violate residency requirements, then those requirements have no meaning. I agree, but as much as I don’t like the jury’s verdict, I don’t see how you can say that it’s objectively wrong. The issue all along has been the vagueness of the legal requirements for residency, which is why I’ve suggested an easily verifiable standard that the Legislature could implement. But that has no bearing on this case. Here, the county claimed Wilson didn’t really live at that warehouse, Wilson claimed he did, and the jury believed him, or at least they didn’t believe the county enough. Not the result I wanted, but I can respect it. What am I missing here?

Posted in: Legal matters.

Oakland Raiders to San Antonio?

There’s more than one Oakland-based sports team that’s been scoping out San Antonio as a possible place to relocate.

Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis and two top lieutenants met recently with several San Antonio officials to discuss the potential of moving his NFL team from the Bay Area to the Alamo City, local leaders involved in the talks confirmed Tuesday.

On the weekend of July 18, Davis met with the officials, including Henry Cisneros, then-Mayor Julián Castro, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Mario Hernandez of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, and both Richard Perez and David McGee, the president and chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, respectively.

Late Tuesday, after the Express-News published a version of this story on its websites, Sculley issued a memo to the City Council.

“I was asked to meet two weeks ago with the owner of the Oakland Raiders, Mark Davis, and members of his staff. Mr. Davis has expressed interest in a possible relocation of his NFL team to San Antonio and we are engaged in preliminary due diligence,” she wrote. “The agenda for this visit included a tour of the Alamodome and meetings with local business leaders.”

Sculley wrote that those discussions were preliminary and confidential and that she would update the council as things progressed.

San Antonio has often been used as a bargaining chip for pro sports franchises trying to negotiate better deals in their own respective cities, but sources have characterized Davis’ interest in San Antonio to be at least somewhat more serious. He is clearly perturbed with his current situation in Oakland, where the team’s lease expires after the 2014-15 season.

Cisneros, who led the charge to build the Alamodome when he was mayor, has been described by sources as the architect of the meeting. His son-in-law, Brad Badger, is in corporate sponsorship sales for the Raiders.

[...]

With some upgrades, the Alamodome could be ready for a 2015-16 NFL season, though it would be a temporary home at best. NFL teams likely would need 100 suites, and the Alamodome currently has 52. It physically could facilitate the addition of 48 more, but funding has yet to be earmarked by the city for such upgrades.

If the Raiders moved here, though, Davis is expected to seek a new stadium within a few years, after the team had proved itself in the Alamo City.

Color me shocked by that. As we know, the Oakland A’s have sniffed around San Antonio lately. They share the same stadium as the Raiders and have had similar concerns about its condition and their lease, but they just re-upped for ten years (with an escape clause after two), so that would seem to be off the table for now. While I’ve argued that San Antonio isn’t really suitable for a Major League Baseball team, I don’t think they’d have any trouble selling out ten NFL games (counting two preseason ones). San Antonio hosted the New Orleans Saints in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and there was some talk about the Saints staying there, but obviously that never happened. The main issue from the NFL’s perspective would be that San Antonio is a much smaller media market. Media market size is one reason why the NFL continues to be obsessed with putting a team back in Los Angeles, even by convoluted means. San Antonio makes for a nice bargaining chip, but for now at least it’s hard to see it as anything else.

There’s one more factor to consider:

NFL owners — including the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans — would have to vote on the deal.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has responded to an Express-News report that the Raiders are interested in relocating to San Antonio.

“San Antonio is very important to the Dallas Cowboys. We have the exact same percentage of fans in San Antonio as we do in Plano, Texas, about 98%. I don’t make a lot of this. At all.”

Jerry Jones is already saying that he would be an obstacle to any such relocation. The Raiders would need to get the support of 24 out of the 32 franchises to make the move, meaning that Jones would only need to convince eight of his buddies to vote No. (Texans owner Bob McNair seems to be more willing to accommodate the idea if it comes down to that.) So file this under “interesting stuff that will probably never amount to anything more” and let’s move on for now. Randy Harvey and the unequivocally negative Robert Rivard have more.

One more thing, from Trail Blazers:

Here’s a question: Gov. Rick Perry has spent millions luring businesses to Texas from his business-subsidy fund. If this is a real effort by Oakland to consider Texas as home for its NFL team, might the future governor — either Greg Abbott or Wendy Davis — be amenable to sweetening a deal if necessary to bring the Raiders to the Alamo City?

My personal answer is no, they shouldn’t. The NFL, its owners and franchises, they all have plenty of money. Especially given the likelihood of money being thrown at the Raiders for a new stadium, whether here or in Oakland or elsewhere, there’s no need to pour even more sugar on top of that.

Posted in: Other sports.

First phase of redistricting trial ends

Not much of interest must have happened, because news reports have been sparse, to say the least.

The first phase of the federal trial examining claims that state lawmakers discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters when redrawing Texas House districts in 2011 came to an end Tuesday, as both sides made closing arguments to a three-judge panel hearing the case.

The closing statements reiterated points both sides made during the trial, which ended July 19.

U.S. Justice Department attorneys and minority groups reiterated claims that the majority white, GOP-dominated Texas Legislature aimed to dilute minority voting strength when redrawing Texas House districts.

Attorneys for the state said there isn’t sufficient evidence to show the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities. Instead, they argued the process was intensely partisan and driven by an effort to create as many Republican seats as possible and protect incumbent lawmakers.

Assistant Texas Attorney General Patrick Sweeten told the court the plaintiffs were relying on “red herrings” to prove their claims of intentional discrimination.

Justice Department attorney Bryan Sells argued the state’s argument was flawed.

“Partisanship is not a defense to intentional vote dilution,” Sells said.

See here and here for the background. For a trial that spawned multiple articles about its deeper meaning and the possibility of reviving preclearance requirements for Texas, this time under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, not a whole lot of attention was paid to the nuts and bolts of it. This report from Lubbock about testimony concerning claims that there should be two Latino opportunity districts in West Texas, is the only hard reporting I saw after the initial Chron story.

Anyway. Part Two of this trial, to cover the 2011 Congressional maps, will begin August 11. Perhaps that will be better covered by the press. The trials for the 2013 maps will be later, date TBD. In the meantime, the Texas Election Law Blog has an overview of who’s who in the litigation – Part One, Part Two – with more to come. There’s still a lot of this story to be written, even if this part of it wasn’t written about much.

Posted in: Legal matters.

One more week till vehicles for hire

You didn’t expect Council to vote on it so quickly, did you? They’ll get to it next week.

Uber

The proposed changes would place specific requirements on the independent drivers and the technology companies, which connect drivers willing to ferry people around with people looking for a ride. The companies must acquire permits to operate in the city and must carry $1 million in commercial liability insurance on its drivers. The drivers and the vehicles they use would face their own safety and inspection standards.

Local cab and limo companies have fought the proposed reforms and remain opposed.

If the council approves the changes, Uber officials have said the firm could operate its existing Uber X service, as well as Uber Black, a private car service that teams the company with existing local limo firms.

Lyft’s future in Houston is less certain. A spokeswoman said the company is unwilling to use the driver background check system proposed by the city, which includes fingerprinting, believing its own procedure is better.

Lyft

Lyft representatives circulated amendments to the proposal related to background checks this week, but no council member presented them on Wednesday. The amendments still could be put forth next week.

In discussing the measure before delaying the vote, council members focused largely on what have been key talking points for the cab industry throughout the debate: the new firms’ insurance coverage and their ability to accommodate those with disabilities, particularly those in wheelchairs.

“I’m not satisfied with what has been presented so far, and we need to make sure we have this covered properly with regard to people with disabilities,” said Councilman Robert Gallegos, who noted his brother is in a wheelchair.

Gallegos and Councilman Dave Martin both mentioned that the council last week passed an equal rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination against more than a dozen protected groups, including those with disabilities, and should be consistent.

Can’t say I’m surprised. I don’t want to read too much into the quotes from Council members in this story, since they can certainly get their questions answered and concerns addressed between now and next Wednesday, but I continue to wonder what the whip count is for this ordinance. We know CM Costello is in favor, and I daresay we can add Mayor Parker and CM Gonzalez to his side. After that, I have no idea. I don’t know that there are any clear-cut No votes either, but I’m sure there are a few. My point is that it’s rare for an issue to be both high-profile and contentious without really knowing much about who stands where. Everyone had a pretty good idea of how the vote on HERO was going to go, for example. Unless we see some public statements between now and next week, this one could go either way and I won’t be too surprised. Texas Leftist and PDiddie have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Repealing the revenue cap is only part of the answer

Repealing the dumb revenue cap charter amendment from 2004 won’t solve the impending fiscal problems by itself. It’s still a good idea to repeal it.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With an estimated $144 million budget shortfall looming next summer, the city’s finance director delivered a harsh message Tuesday: even lifting a voter-imposed revenue cap will not save the day.

Instead, city officials will have to cobble together a package of contentious reforms, including possible service cuts, layoffs and new revenue sources, to close a budget gap that could swell to more than $200 million by fiscal year 2018 if nothing is done. Though the city’s revenue cap is among the problems facing the budget, removing or reducing that cap would not solve the city’s spiking pension costs and debt obligations.

Surging property tax appraisals are expected to run the city into the voter-imposed revenue cap next summer, forcing a cut in the property tax rate. But projections put the revenue lost to the cap at just 12 percent, or $17 million, of the deficit next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2015.

Changing or modifying the cap, which would require going to the voters, may be part of the city’s solution. But budget chief Kelly Dowe warned the budget and fiscal affairs committee that it can’t be the whole solution.

“There’s no silver bullet for bridging these gaps going into the future,” Dowe said.

So city officials are left with a long list of possible fixes, from service cuts to a garbage collection fee to a shift in health care costs to ambitious pension reforms.

See here, here, and here for the background. I never expected eliminating the revenue cap to eliminate the short-term fiscal problems the city faces, but the point is that having the cap in place makes the hole deeper than it needs to be. The last thing in the world anyone would suggest at a time like this would be to cut the property tax rate and thus reduce the funds available to the city to meet its obligations, but that’s exactly what the revenue cap would do. It forces a priority on the city at a time when there are many other things that should come before it. It’s stupid and short-sighted, and that’s why I have always opposed it.

Posted in: Local politics.

Another look at Perry’s slush fund

Like everything with Rick Perry, there’s less to it than meets the eye.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Even corndogs don’t taste better than corporate subsidies

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has distributed $205 million in taxpayer money to scores of technology startups using a pet program designed to bring high-paying jobs and innovation to the nation’s second most-populous state.

But a closer look at the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, one of Perry’s signature initiatives in his 14 years as governor, reveals that some of the businesses that received money are not all they seem. One actually operates in California. Some have stagnated trying to find more capital. Others have listed out-of-state employees and short-term hires as being among the jobs they created.

A few have forfeited their right to do business in Texas by not filing tax reports.

An Associated Press review of the program found that some of the same companies credited with creating a share of the program’s 1,600 new jobs have actually stalled and in some cases blamed Perry’s office for their struggles.

[...]

The tech fund works like this: In exchange for money, startups give the state an equity position in their businesses. If the companies are successful, the state recoups its investment or even makes a profit. If they go bankrupt or shut down – and at least 16 have so far – the dollars are lost.

Those failures represent only a fraction of the fund’s full portfolio of more than 130 companies, some of which are clearly thriving. Venture capital funds are risky by nature and often endure losses. About 1 in 4 venture-backed startups fail, according to industry groups. Some studies put the rate of flops much higher.

But questionable job-creation figures and undisclosed business struggles in the fund’s annual report heap fresh doubts about transparency onto the fund, which has long been criticized as too opaque, including in a scathing 2011 report by state auditors.

Julia Sass Rubin, a venture capital expert at Rutgers University who studies economic development, said the lack of transparency runs counter to the private sector, where investors get more detailed information about performance.

“If this were a traditional venture capital fund, this would never fly,” Rubin said.

Funny how the private sector is so much better at doing everything, except giving money to the private sector. The lack of transparency with the Emerging Technology Fund, as well as the Texas Enterprise Fund, is a feature, not a bug.

Targazyme Inc. is one example of a problematic startup. On paper, the San Antonio-based startup is developing stem-cell breakthroughs with 14 employees and the help of $1.25 million in state funds. But the rural address listed for its Texas headquarters is actually a weedy horse pasture. During a recent visit by a reporter, the ex-husband of the CEO was warning his guest to watch for rattlesnakes.

Targazyme founder Lynnet Koh said her company is moving forward but that she left Texas because Perry’s office withheld additional funding, a complaint echoed by other recipients. She now lives in California and said many of the jobs created by the company were short-term hires outside Texas, none of which is mentioned in the fund’s 2013 annual report.

“If you ask me on a scale of 1-to-10 satisfaction with the state, I give it a zero,” Koh said. “Never, ever. Not for any money in the world would I do business with ETF.”

So I guess these are some jobs Rick Perry didn’t manage to steal from California, despite his best efforts. It’s like noting makes any sense anymore. Scott Braddock has more on a tangential subject.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 28

The Texas Progressive Alliance prioritizes due process over expediency as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

YouGov: Abbott 50, Davis 34

Whatever.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

With just under 100 days to go until the gubernatorial election, an overwhelming majority of voters have made up their minds and favor Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott over Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis by double digits, according to a poll released this weekend.

The survey, done by polling firm YouGov in collaboration with CBS and The New York Times, shows 34 percent supporting Davis and 3 percent leaning toward voting for her, while the same numbers split 50-4 for Abbott. Perhaps the worst news from the poll for the Davis campaign is that only 2 percent aren’t sure for whom they’re going to vote, leaving a very small slice of a red-state electorate to vie for over the next three months.

The poll relies on a somewhat new and unusual method — an online panel as opposed to live or automated calling. It is seen as a response to the kind of surveys that were criticized following the 2012 presidential race, when President Barack Obama’s margin of victory beat most pollsters’ expectations. The New York Times’ Upshot site Sunday provided a more detailed explanation of the method.

The Davis campaign pushed back on the poll as flawed because it didn’t reach voters who don’t have an Internet connection, people who tend to be less wealthy and vote for Democrats.

For what it’s worth, even in the disaster of 2010, nearly every Democrat received at least 34% of the vote. That’s been the issue all along with these polls, including the UT/Trib polls that operate under a similar model. If the pollsters are assuming an electorate similar to the one we had in 2010, then of course we’re going to get poll results like these. As we know, Democrats – specifically, the Davis campaign and Battleground Texas – are trying to change the turnout dynamic. Maybe they’ll succeed, and maybe they won’t. Maybe even if they succeed it only moves the needle a few points. Maybe Republicans will get the kind of turnout boost they got in 2010 and maybe they won’t. Maybe these pollsters are assuming something other than a 2010 scenario, though I doubt they’re very far off from that. After all this time I still don’t feel like we know what’s really happening in this race. dKos, which has a broader critique of the YouGov methodology, PDiddie, who has his own thoughts about the YouGov way, and Texpatriate have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Abbott’s appellate brief on same sex marriage is a complete loser

How weak does your case have to be to have to rely on this?

RedEquality

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed an appeal with the U.S. 5th Circuit Monday regarding the state’s same-sex marriage ban, which was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in February.

According to the brief, Abbott said Texas can ban same-sex marriage based on the State’s interest in procreation.

The State contends that marriage between a man and a woman “increases the likelihood” that they will produce and raise their children in “stable, lasting relationships.”

“Because same-sex relationships do not naturally produce children, recognizing same-sex marriage does not further these goals to the same extent that recognizing opposite-sex marriage does,” the brief reads. “That is enough to supply a rational basis for Texas’s marriage laws.”

You can see the brief at the Trail Blazers link above. I mean, seriously, they needed how many delays to come up with that? I guess after nearly 30 courts in a row have ruled against you there are only so many arguments one can reach for, but seriously? Procreation? As many people have been snarking on Facebook and elsewhere, lots of procreation takes place outside of marriage, and lots of marriages do not include procreation. Some people choose not to have children, others are unable to for whatever the reason. Some people get married after having had a vasectomy, or a hysterectomy, or some other permanent form of contraception (often, it should be noted, for reasons having nothing to do with procreation). Some people get married after reaching an age where having children is no longer possible. And on the flip side, not to put too fine a point on it but plenty of same-sex couples, including two of the litigants in the Texas case, are raising children. Some are their own biological children, which as we know has way more obstacles for them to overcome than we straight folks have to deal with, some have adopted, and some have children from previous relationships and marriages. There’s nothing about Abbott’s argument that wouldn’t deserve to be laughed out of a first-year mock trial court.

And hey, if the state of Texas really did care about “furthering the goals” of reproduction, I can think of plenty of far more effective ways for them to do it. Let’s start with expanding Medicaid, since a significant number of births in Texas are already paid for by Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid would also provide health care for more children and their parents. You could raise the minimum wage, which would make having children more affordable for many people, and you could implement sensible and meaningful family leave policies. Did you know that in the absence of a comprehensive non-discrimination law you can get fired for being pregnant? Did you know that workplaces are not required to make any accommodations to pregnant workers? I’ll bet a law that made those accommodations mandatory would have a salutary effect on our state’s fertility rate. Truly universal pre-K would also be a boon for people who have or want to have children. Oh, and then there are all those obstacles I mentioned earlier for same-sex couples that want to have children. We could maybe do something about those, too. In fact, I’m pretty sure that losing this appeal and having our state’s hurtful and discriminatory ban on same-sex marriage struck down would do more to improve the lives of families in Texas than any bullet point in Greg Abbott’s gubernatorial platform. Lord knows, he doesn’t support any of the things I’ve highlighted here.

Which suggests the conclusion that maybe Abbott tanked the appellate brief because he came to these conclusions himself, but of course can’t bring himself to say any of this out loud. That’s would be a better and more sensible rationale for filing this idiotic brief than sincerely believing it’s a winning argument, even for the sucky Fifth Circuit. Even I have a hard time believing they’d buy something that stupid. It’s also possible that he’s making this argument because there are no other arguments he can make. In which case, too bad for him. The Trib, Lone Star Q, and LGBTQ Insider have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Checking in on Uber and Lyft in San Antonio

San Antonio City Council will soon be taking up with vehicles for hire issue, and so far things have gone about as smoothly as you’d expect.

Lyft

A proposal from City staff to integrate rideshare companies into the existing Vehicle for Hire Ordinance, and therefore legalizing rideshare operations in San Antonio, was met with unanimous opposition from the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) Monday evening. It seems arguments from all sides of the issue remain unresolved – and just as heated.

The TAB is made up of citizens, representatives from transportation, tourism, and hospitality industries. The board’s vote to reject the proposal that would legalize rideshare was not surprising.

The traditional vehicle for hire (taxi, limo, shuttle, carriage) industry claims that the transportation network companies are unfairly and unsafely circumventing regulation under the guise of mobile technology. The TNC’s, and San Antonio Police Department Assistant Director Steven Baum, claim that regulations need to be changed to accommodate for an evolving industry – including its technology.

Uber

“The (proposed) system’s a little different, the system for the transportation network companies puts responsibility on the companies to vet the drivers (and vehicles) according to city standards,” Baum said. Traditional companies go through a testing and verification process through the City.

“The way we validate (those standards) is we do random, unannounced inspections,” he said, compared to the regularly scheduled inspections granted to traditional vehicles for hire and their drivers. Baum assured TAB members that neither public safety nor the city’s economy would be put at risk.

“I can’t believe you’re shoving this ordinance down our throat,” said TAB member George Alva during one of the most heated exchanges between a board member and Baum. “From the very beginning your mind was made up.”

Three months ago Baum was tasked by the City Council Public Safety Committee to see if there was a way to integrate rideshare into the current ordinance (Chapter 33 of City Code) and present his findings at the committee’s Aug. 6 meeting. From there, the committee can decide if further research is required or if the proposal should proceed to a City Council vote.

See here and here for the background. The Council committee will have both the committee report and the TAB’s rejection of it to take into consideration. Good luck with that, y’all.

On a tangential note, Joshua Sanders, one of the people that has been representing Lyft in Houston, sent me this update to Lyft’s insurance policy. The point of this is that once a ride has been accepted, Lyft’s commercial policy is the primary policy in all instances now. As we know, there have been questions about how insurance works with TNCs like Uber and Lyft, and recent stories have indicated that representatives of Texas’ insurance industry see gaps in the coverage. I would be interested to know what they think about this.

Finally, there’s a provocative op-ed in the Chron from Michael Zoorob, who is an intern working as a research assistant at the Southwest ADA Center, a nonprofit disability organization in Houston. He takes Uber and Lyft to task for their lack of accessibility for disabled folks.

So why can’t the disabled community just use other modes of transportation? For one thing, the rapid entrance of Uber and Lyft – following a pattern of “break the rules and ask questions later” – has eroded the supply of accessible taxis, as seen in some cities. In San Francisco, a quarter of the wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet is unused as taxi drivers have flocked to ride-sharing companies.

For all the complaints about ride-share companies, you’d have a tough time finding a best-practices model among traditional taxi services. In Houston, there are only 50 accessible taxis on the market covering more than 600 square miles. They make up about one-fiftieth of all taxis. So if you use a wheelchair, good luck hailing a cab.

As a society, we have decided that people with disabilities deserve equal opportunity to participate in public life. This logic compelled Congress in 1990 to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. In his signing remarks, analogizing the ADA with the fall of the Berlin Wall, President George H. W. Bush declared: “We will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America. … I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

It is precisely this “shameful wall of exclusion” that Uber, Lyft and other transportation providers seek, however unwittingly, to maintain with their standards of service to the disabled community. And it is wrong.

It is wrong to relegate citizens with disabilities to a separate, segregated system of transportation, just as it is wrong to deny them access to City Hall or to a grocery store because accommodating them is costly. It is a fact of American history that when marginalized groups are allowed access only to segregated services, these services tend to be inferior. This is the reality for many people with disabilities who must rely on state-provided paratransit services.

Uber and Lyft must play by the same rules as everyone else in the taxi marketplace, including providing service to everyone – a standard that also bears improving among taxi companies. Being innovative does not excuse trampling on the rights of people with disabilities.

As Zoorob notes, there was a lawsuit filed recently against Uber and Lyft by disability rights activists. I’ve said before that I’m not sure how their business model, which relies on the personal vehicles of their drivers, can handle making these accommodations. Zoorob makes a compelling case that they need to figure it out, or else.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, the Chron opines again in favor of Uber and Lyft, while CM Stephen Costello and Texpatriate’s Noah Horwitz, who is working for Cindy Clifford’s firm, have dueling op-eds in TribTalk about it.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Please watch out for the trains

Seriously, people.

Three MetroRail collisions this week highlight persistent safety concerns that arise when trains share the road with cars – a problem that Metro officials hope to control as they prepare to open two new rail lines.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has experienced a relatively high number of accidents in its decade running light rail along Main Street. The agency has made adjustments to improve safety, but this week’s accidents show the problem is far from solved.
Raw Video: Car swerves into path of Houston…

A car veered into the path of an oncoming Metro train headed north. The Tuesday morning crash…

The collisions occurred Tuesday and Wednesday over a period of less than 36 hours. The Tuesday crash occurred along Fannin in the Texas Medical Center, where cars can cross onto the tracks to make left turns. The Wednesday incidents were in the Medical Center and along Harrisburg, where Metro is testing trains in advance of a December opening of its Green Line.

Preliminary analysis indicates the train operator was at fault in one of the Med Center crashes, and motorists likely caused the other incidents. Two of the accidents led to reported injuries.

Metro officials said Thursday that they don’t see the need for any immediate changes to address problems at the crash locations, but they are always looking for ideas to improve safety. Many Metro critics have cited an at-grade system’s potential for accidents in arguing that Metro should have built its lines above or below street level.

Of course, it costs a lot more money to elevate or build below street level. These same critics would have been first to declare that Metro couldn’t afford to build any lines if that had been the plan. I’m just saying.

From October 2013 until the end of June, Metro reported 47 light rail collisions. None of the months has exceeded Metro’s goal of no more than six collisions per month.

Regardless of cause, Metro has seen far more collisions than other light rail systems when the system’s size is factored in.

The eight serious collisions Metro reported last year were the same number as Portland, Ore., where the light rail system travels five times as many miles. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which also travels five times as many miles as Metro, had one fewer accident. Both cities have at-grade systems, but most of Dallas’ system is separated from auto traffic.

Based on Metro’s analysis, 22 of the accidents in the past decade – an average of about two per year – were deemed preventable by the train’s operator.

“In a large sense, it is a motorist who is making a call that is not a good one,” said Margaret O’Brien-Molina, spokeswoman for Metro.

In fact, accidents among automobiles as a whole are up in 2014, compared to the past four years, according to Houston TranStar. In June 2014, emergency officials responded to 874 accidents along major freeway and highway corridors, compared to 799 in June 2013 and 733 in June 2012.

Clearly, this is the fault of the red light cameras. (Sorry, my sarcasm reflex was on autoplay there.)

As MetroRail officials prepare for the December openings of the Green Line along Harrisburg east of downtown and the Purple Line along Scott and Wheeler southeast of downtown, they have focused on community awareness.

“Metro has been out talking to every citizen group it can get itself in front of,” said Diane Schenke, president of the Greater East End Management District. “They have lights at every intersection that flash. It is very difficult to think what else can be done.”

Still, Schenke said, the new line is “weighed against years and years of people driving on this road. Change is hard.”

[...]

Few of the conditions present in the Medical Center – spots where cars sit on the tracks to make left turns – exist along the Green and Purple lines. In many spots along the two new routes, the track is on a slightly elevated platform and largely fenced in, said Andy Skabowski, operations director for Metro.

That might be enough of a buffer to make a difference, Schenke said. Still, she acknowledged transit officials face a challenge.

“There are people to this day that do not pay attention to pedestrians and bicyclists,” she said. “We are conditioned in Houston not to expect anything but cars on the street. That’s what some people think.”

And a lot of those people think they’re the only car on the street. We’ve all experienced drivers like that. There’s only so much Metro can do to prevent accidents. Maybe you think they’ve done enough and maybe you don’t, but at some point it’s on all of us to avoid them. We have a role to play, too, and it’s far from clear that we’re doing what we should be doing.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds marriage equality

That’s two federal appeals courts, to go along with however many federal district courts and state courts.

RedEquality

Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional on Monday in the first such decision by a federal appellate court in the South.

“We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable. However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws,” Judge Henry F. Floyd wrote.

The 2-1 ruling applies throughout the circuit that also includes West Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, where the attorneys general split Monday on what they’ll do next.

Virginians voted 57 percent to 43 percent in 2006 to amend their constitution to ban gay marriage. Virginia laws prohibit recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. Floyd said such measures “impermissibly infringe on its citizens’ fundamental right to marry.”

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond is the second federal appellate court to overturn gay marriage bans, and the first to affect the South, a region where the rising tide of rulings favoring marriage equality is testing concepts of states’ rights that have long held sway.

Gay marriage proponents have won more than 20 legal decisions around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year. Most are still under appeal. More than 70 cases have been filed in all 31 states that prohibit same-sex marriage. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow such marriages.

The U.S. Supreme Court could have at least five appellate decisions to consider if it takes up gay marriage again in its next term, beginning in October.

The 6th Circuit in Cincinnati will hear arguments on Aug. 6 for Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. The 7th Circuit in Chicago is set for arguments on Aug. 26, and the 9th Circuit in San Francisco for Sept. 8. The 10th Circuit in Denver overturned Utah’s ban in June.

As we know, the Fifth Circuit is still waiting on Greg Abbott to get his act together. For all we know, we could have several more affirmations before they get around to it.

North Carolina’s top lawman, Roy Cooper, quickly announced that he’ll stop defending his state’s ban, saying it is “time to stop making arguments we will lose.” But a spokesman said South Carolina’s attorney general, Alan Wilson, sees no need to change course.

Maryland already allows same-sex marriages. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, for his part, said he’s reviewing the decision and won’t comment until it’s final.

The ruling came as Colorado’s attorney general, John Suthers, asked his state Supreme Court Monday to stop county clerks from issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples. But North Carolina’s Cooper said his fellow attorneys general should give up the fight.

“In all these cases challenging state marriage laws, our office along with other attorneys general and state attorneys across the country have made about every legal argument imaginable,” Cooper said in a statement. “All the federal courts have rejected these arguments each and every time. So it’s time for the State of North Carolina to stop making them.”

Along those lines, here’s the latest missive from Equality Texas.

Despite prearrangement plans made last week, Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office this morning refused to accept over 5,200 petitions asking him to stop defending Texas’ unconstitutional restrictions on marriage.

Equality Texas and several same-sex couples and their families had planned to deliver over 5,200 petitions to Attorney General Greg Abbott urging that he and Governor Rick Perry drop their defense of the state’s hurtful and discriminatory ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Despite the plans prearranged last week in which a staff member would meet us in the lobby and take possession of the petitions, the Attorney General’s office said they would only accept the petitions if they were mailed via an acceptable ground carrier.

Not to be deterred, the families trucked the wagon down the street to a nearby UPS Store and the petitions will be delivered to the Attorney General’s office on Tuesday.

That would be today. I doubt it will have any effect, of course. Abbott may well still depend on the suckitude of the Fifth Circuit for a favorable ruling, he can’t cross his wingnut supporters, and not to put too fine a point on it, but he himself is firmly against equality. It would be nice to imagine otherwise, and it’s certainly worthwhile to put the pressure on him, but let’s keep this in perspective. TPM, dKos, and Texas Leftist have more.

Posted in: National news.

More on the Denton fracking referendum

I think everyone agrees the Denton anti-fracking referendum will wind up in court if it passes. It’s just a question of how wired the courts will be for the plaintiffs.

Voters will decide whether the city will become the state’s first to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – the method of oil and gas extraction that has led to a domestic energy boom. But passage of a ban would probably trigger another fracking fight: a legal clash over a city’s power to regulate for health and safety and the rights of mineral owners to develop their resources. The outcome could reshape Texas law at a time when drilling is causing tension in some of its urban areas.

“It’s going to be one of those first-time tests, and I don’t think there’s a clear answer out there in Texas law,” said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth-based lawyer who focuses on environmental and energy issues.

The Denton measure would not prohibit drilling outright; it would apply only to fracking, which involves blasting apart rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water hauled in by trucks. After gathering nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for a ban on fracking, opponents forced the City Council to vote on it. Council members rejected the proposal last week, leaving the decision to voters.

Denton, a city of 121,000 with more than 270 gas wells scattered among its neighborhoods, is one of several cities that has tried to ban fracking. That includes towns in New York, whose highest court last month upheld local ordinances banning the practice. The state of Colorado has sued its cities that have banned fracking and is pushing back against ballot measures that would toughen regulations. The prospect of such a ban in Texas – a leading oil and natural gas producer — has put Denton in a bright spotlight, rankling industry leaders and the state”s Republican leadership.

“If one community after another continues to say ‘Not in my backyard,’ then before long, a tsunami of exclusion will jeopardize our freedom as a country profits as a corporate entity,” said Chris Faulkner, the chief executive of Breitling Energy in Dallas, one of many industry representatives who spoke at City Hall before the Council”s vote.

I fixed your quote for you, Chris. The debasement of the word “freedom” is one of the great travesties of the 21st century so far.

Though Texas courts have occasionally considered cities’ drilling regulations, they have yet to see a case of such size and scope, legal experts say.

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power is not absolute. The Railroad Commission has jurisdiction over all oil and gas wells in the state, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities, including Denton, the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.”

The state has long regulated most aspects of drilling, including well integrity, pipeline safety, and air and water impact, while cities have typically controlled noise and authorized the location of wells or related facilities like compressor stations. Now, a key question is where fracking falls in that spectrum.

Tom Phillips, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1988 to 2004, said he would expect courts to side with the energy industry — by ruling that the ban unconstitutionally supersedes state law or that it makes gas beneath the city too difficult to tap and amounts to a taking.

Phillips, now a lawyer with the firm of Baker Botts, who was asked to review the proposal for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said state law gave cities less stringent options for protecting health and safety at well sites, and that Denton “can’t just say no” to fracking.

Other legal experts acknowledge that state high courts tend to favor oil and gas interests, but say that Denton could make a compelling argument that a fracking ban would not wipe out all options to drill.

“To say that this is a slam dunk, it’s a taking, I think that’s painting with an overly broad brush,” said Terrence Welch, a lawyer who has helped write drilling ordinances in several Texas cities. “The property — the mineral estate isn’t left valueless. You can drill, but you just can’t frack.”

See here for the background. It’s hard to be optimistic about how the courts might rule if you’re a ban supporter, but I suppose anything is possible. And I’ll say again, if the Railroad Commission wasn’t such an utter lapdog for the industry and people in places like Denton had any reason to believe that true regulatory oversight with actual enforcement was in place, this referendum would not exist. There would be no need for it.

One more thing:

Jerry Patterson, Texas’ outgoing land commissioner, warned in a letter last week that the state would “pursue any available remedy to ensure the right to develop” those minerals.

George P. Bush, the Republican nominee in this year’s election to succeed Patterson, said he supported that stance. “We don’t need a patchwork approach to drilling regulations across the state,” he said. But John Cook, Bush’s Democratic opponent, disagreed, saying that “local communities need to have a say” in quality-of-life issues.

Know who you’re voting for this fall, people of Denton.

Posted in: Election 2014.

City smoking ban extended to parks and libraries

Who knew they weren’t already, right?

Houston public parks, golf courses and pools will be smoke-free zones come September, marking one of the most sweeping tobacco bans at city facilities.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Joe Turner announced the new policy at a City Council Quality of Life Committee meeting Wednesday, following an announcement by Library Director Rhea Lawson that the ban on smoking inside libraries will expand to the property outside.

The new policies will affect the more than 365 developed parks facilities, which include golf courses and pools, and 42 libraries across the city.

Both department heads said the expanded bans are driven by public health and concerns.

“It’s a welcome family-friendly environment, it’s a safer park experience and it gives us a cleaner facility,” Turner said.

The parks ban mirrors policies in at least 36 other Texas cities and seven of the largest U.S. metros.

[...]

A city ordinance already bans smoking within 25 feet of a public facility, places of employment, bars and restaurants and at outdoor sports arenas and stadiums. Those restrictions, all within the last decade, came with controversy, often drawing droves of people to testify at City Council meetings.

Wednesday’s bans came more quietly as both department heads have the ability to govern and change rules of conduct on their grounds without going through City Council.

Here’s the city’s press release on this. I joke about not having realized this, but I can attest that a lot of the people that congregate near the downtown library on Smith Street smoke. Perhaps this will change that. Regardless, I’m always in favor of less smoking.

Note, by the way, the utter lack of any controversy around this. Sure, that’s partly because this was an administrative decision, and partly because there isn’t really a constituency for smoking at parks and libraries like there was for smoking at bars and restaurants. But man, remember the fuss that all kicked up? The apocalyptic predictions? Well, eight years later Houston is a booming, nationally-recognized restaurant scene, and last I checked we still had bars and live music. In fact, the oft-cited Rudyard’s bar in Montrose is alive and well, as is The Next Door. I don’t remember the last time I heard any complaints about Houston’s smoking ban. As someone who remembers being forced by occasional circumstance to sit next to smokers on airplanes, I cannot begin to tell you how much nicer the world we live in now is. Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Yale Street Bridge replacement set to begin

And inevitably there’s an issue.

Time is running out for the historic Yale Street bridge over White Oak Bayou as its condition deteriorates and surrounding development places increasing demands on it.

Some in the Heights- area community believe more should be done to preserve the 1930s-era structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But state transportation engineers say it can’t handle the required loads.

The bridge, just south of Interstate 10, was teetering on closure in 2012 when Texas Department of Transportation engineers lowered its load limit – the maximum weight of a vehicle – to 3,000 pounds per axle. A large, loaded sport utility vehicle could exceed that limit, not to mention the delivery trucks becoming a more common sight as commercial development flourishes along Yale and nearby Washington Avenue.

The lowered weight limit concerned neighbors, who pressed for answers.

“What was agreed upon then was, ‘When we can make it happen, we need a new bridge,’ ” said City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who represents the area. “We have got to be able to accommodate the traffic.”

[...]

Construction of a replacement bridge is scheduled to begin in September 2016. Yet some are not convinced that this is necessary.

“I take the position that the bridge can stay and it has been improved,” said Kirk Farris, a local historic preservationist who has worked with TxDOT to preserve other bridges.

Farris, president of Art & Environmental Architecture Inc., and the Texas Historical Commission prepared the 2011 application that placed the Yale Street bridge on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the application, preservationists said the bridge “is one of a few remaining examples of bayou crossings constructed during the city’s street improvement bond program of the 1930s.”

The last update I had was last January, though I know there’s been action since then. Far as I can recall, this is the first time the subject of preservation has come up. I have to say, as someone who has driven over this bridge many times, I’m not clear on what the historic architectural features of it are. If it’s the exterior barriers, then surely something can be done to save at least a piece of them. If it’s something underneath the bridge, I gotta say, I’m not sure what the value of preservation is. I’d value a bridge that we can all feel comfortable will not collapse under the weight it’s now bearing. If there’s a sensible way to avoid demolition while making it safe, then sure, go for it. If not, well, I can’t say I’ll mourn the loss. I value preservation, but I’m not sure what the value of it is here. In any event, there’s a public meeting tonight at 6:30 at 7600 Washington Avenue to discuss the possibilities. That’s the place to be if you want to know more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Will we finally get a vote on vehicles for hire this week?

Remember last month when Council was supposed to vote on a vehicles for hire ordinance change to allow Uber and Lyft to operate here in some fashion? It was put off till July 30 to allow for some form of “consensus” to emerge among the stakeholders. How’s that going? Slowly, it would seem.

Lyft

At least 2 percent of vehicles for hire in Houston would be capable of serving disabled passengers who require special treatment under revised rules proposed by city officials.

The changes, part of the debate about new companies barging into the Houston paid ride market, would meet what officials said is the anticipated demand for cabs and other vehicles in Houston by those who are in a wheelchair or who require a lift to get into a car.

Far more than 2 percent of Houston cabs and limousines are accessible to disabled passengers now.

Service to the disabled was one of the chief concerns expressed by City Council members as they debated regulatory changes that would open the local market to new companies such as Lyft and Uber. The companies pair drivers using their own vehicles with customers interested in hitching a ride. Lyft and Uber use smartphone applications to pair drivers and riders, then take a cut of what the rider pays.

[...]

Uber

Other than the provisions for the disabled, little of the 140-page Chapter 46 of the city code changed since council members delayed a decision last month. Beyond the 2 percent standard, the regulations would require city officials to periodically gauge the demand and progress of disabled for-hire vehicle availability.

Yellow Cab alone already meets the 2 percent threshold for the entire city, in part because the agency is a provider of disabled rides for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which pays for rides for some clients. According to a 2013 study, Yellow Cab has more than 200 vehicles compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and equipped with wheelchair lifts.

Currently the city has fewer than 2,500 taxi permits and fewer than 1,900 limo permits issued. It would take more than 5,000 new vehicles entering the paid ride business before the industry would risk having too few vehicles to meet the 2 percent standard.

You’d think we could have arrived at this point in less than 45 days, but whatever. Cab companies were reviewing the revised rules as of last report. I’m going to step out on a limb here and guess that they still won’t be happy about them. On the one hand, it’s not clear to me that just because there will be an increase in the total number of vehicles for hire in Houston that there will also be an increase in demand for rides by folks that need vehicles that are accessible to the disabled. But that doesn’t mean that the newcomers shouldn’t need to carry some of that load as well. How you ensure that Uber and Lyft have some number of cars that can give rides to people with disabilities is still an open question. You could require them to have a certain number of such vehicles available and make their app have an option to request one, which means in effect that they’d be operating like traditional cab companies in this respect. Or I suppose you could require them to have some number of drivers who own such vehicles among their troupe of available drivers for at least some set number of hours per day. I have no idea if that could work.

Perhaps it would be useful to see how other cities are handling this issue. The city of Minneapolis just voted to allow Uber and Lyft to operate. The question of rides for folks with disabilities came up there as well.

The new ordinance distinguishes the companies from taxicabs, creates a process for them to become licensed and specifies what insurance they must carry. Insurance is a particularly complicated issue for the services, since they typically use hybrid plans that complement a driver’s personal policy.

But taxi industry representatives weren’t happy with a two-tier fee structure that will charge major taxi companies significantly more than transportation network companies. Others have concerns that changes to the wheelchair-accessible vehicle requirements could backfire.

Minneapolis follows California, Colorado, Seattle, Chicago and Baton Rouge in passing legislation to specifically regulate the services; St. Paul is crafting its own version, while other cities have interim agreements.

[...]

Another point of contention related to how a proposed incentive program for wheelchair-accessible vehicles will work. The city will fund it using a $10,000 surcharge, which replaces an existing requirement on companies to provide the vehicles themselves (which never acheived compliance).

“I dont think there’s a taxicab company that will do it,” said Waleed Sonbol, owner of Blue and White Taxi, following the vote. That concern that no one will bid on the program was reflected in a letter earlier this week from disability advocates.

[Ordinance sponsor Jacob] Frey said the new system will actually work better, however. “If you’re an individual with disabilities and you need transportation, you call one number and you will get service that is fully ADA accessible,” Frey said. “And we aready have four or five different companies that are chomping at the bit” to provide that service.

Council Member Cam Gordon, who expressed concerns Thursday with the disability provisions, said the entire process convinced him that the Twin Cities should be tackling transportation regulations as a region.

“This whole process has only reaffirmed for me my conclusion that having the city regulate this industry is no longer necessarily appropriate,” Gordon said.

Cabs got several breaks in the new law. New regulations spearheaded by council member Abdi Warsame allow non-city facilities to inspect vehicles, extends the maximum age of vehicles by five years and gives drivers more parking privileges.

“What we have in front of you is the wish list of the taxi companies,” Warsame said.

Some possibilities there for Houston, perhaps. I certainly hope someone has at least placed a call to the cities with existing ordinances to see how they handled some of the concerns that have arisen.

There’s also the insurance question.

It’s a transportation company that’s growing at record speeds, but some are saying slow down and put on the brakes because when it comes to insurance coverage you may not be safe.

“It does concern us,” said Mark Hanna with the Insurance Council of Texas as he spoke of Uber. “We have 20 different states looking at this and no one really has come up with a solution.”

Uber connects a passenger to a driver via an app on a cell phone. That’s the only way the driver and passenger are supposed to communicate. All fare transactions go through a credit card already on file.

But rivals of Uber, such as local cab companies, say that isn’t always happening and that can put everyone in danger. And that has the insurance industry concerned.

“You’ve got gaps,” said Hanna. “In fact, there may not be any insurance coverage whatsoever.”

According to Uber, unless you go through the app and abide by Uber’s platform, Uber’s insurance policy does not apply.

And according to Hanna most personal insurance policies don’t cover drivers if they charge a fare. And that could leave people exposed.

[...]

And it’s concerns like that that have the Texas insurance industry asking Uber to put on the brakes.

“We’re just asking them to slow down,” said Hanna, “Let us put some mechanism in place that lets us provide coverage for everybody, so everybody is safe.”

Uber declined and on-camera interview, but in a written statement said if a driver is accepting trips through other means that the Uber platform, Uber’s insurance policy does not apply.

Here’s another story about how the insurers in Texas are saying that there’s a gap.

Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the industry group the Insurance Council of Texas, said insurance companies across the U.S. are looking to state regulators and legislatures for guidance as they prepare to offer expanded policies.

“Everyone is trying to come up with a solution,” Hanna said.

California might be the place where model legislation or regulation will be crafted.

Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, said lawmakers in the California Assembly and state Senate are working on bills, and state insurance regulators are pondering new regulations.

In Texas, insurance regulators haven’t made much progress in dealing with ride-sharing companies.

Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Jerry Hagins said that state law requires auto liability coverage, but it doesn’t distinguish between personal and commercial coverage, and local municipalities must set requirements for insurance for taxis and livery operations.

So far, Austin city officials have deemed Lyft and Uber to be operating as illegal and unpermitted taxis. Officials have gone so far as to impound vehicles and ticket drivers.

Hagins also said that most insurers offering personal auto policies do not rate their policies for commercial uses.

Patti Kelly, a State Farm spokeswoman, confirmed that Uber and Lyft drivers in Texas generally wouldn’t be covered by their personal policies while earning extra money shuttling people around.

Both Uber and Lyft have liability policies that insure drivers who take on passengers under their name. But they are supposed to pick up where personal polices leave off, the companies have said.

Advice from the Texas Department of Insurance echoed the guidance from the Insurance Information Institute: Call your insurance company to confirm you’re covered.

Again, you’d think some progress would have been made on this by now. At the very least, can we get a definitive answer on whether those Uber and Lyft liability policies do in fact pick up where the personal policies leave off? Perhaps the Legislature needs to get involved here.

In any event, that’s the lay of the land as Council prepares to maybe vote on this on Wednesday. Assuming it doesn’t get tagged for a week – I’m not sure if that’s still in play after the current delay – or any further delays are proposed.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

It’s past time for a garbage fee

Yes, this.

For years, Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes has suggested the city implement a garbage fee to expand curbside recycling and pay for other initiatives. And for years, Mayor Annise Parker has demurred.

Now, with a looming budget deficit that could force widespread layoffs and cuts to services, the idea may see serious discussion at the council table for the first time.

Though Parker has not endorsed any particular path, she acknowledges a garbage fee is among the most important of the dozens of ideas officials are considering as they try to close a $150 million budget gap by next summer.

[...]

For Hayes’ part, he said he has “been like the North Star on this,” pushing roughly the same fee for the same reasons for six years, always reminding council members that Houston is one of the only major cities in the country, and the only one in Texas, without a garbage fee.

“I have consistently stated the same things to both mayors, who have both been huge recycling advocates, and the same thing to all the council members,” Hayes said. “If you’re asking me what to do and I’m your appointed and confirmed expert, here’s what we should do as a best practice in this particular city business.”

The fee Hayes has pitched – $3.76 a month or $45.12 per home, per year – would ensure recycling trucks and containers are replaced on time and without taking on too much debt, would deploy officers to better enforce rules against illegal dumping, and would add neighborhood depository sites.

Hayes said any broader proposal in line with what other Texas cities charge would be designed to generate enough revenue to cover his department’s $76 million budget, removing waste operations from the tax-supported general fund entirely. Such a fee in Houston, Hayes said, would be $15 to $20 a month per home, or $180 to $240 a year.

Using fees for 96-gallon bins, the type Houston distributes, Dallas charges residents about $21.92 a month, San Antonio $17.69 to $19.93, Fort Worth $22.75, Austin $33.50 and El Paso $16. Austin also levies a monthly $6.65 fee that funds other waste operations.

I’ve supported the idea of a garbage fee for some time now. The city would have been able to roll out the single-stream recycling bins a lot sooner with a dedicated fee, instead of having to wait till it had collected enough money from the program itself to finance the purchase of the equipment. How much better it would have been to deal with this back in one of the good budget years when the focus could have been on the improved service that a garbage fee would have meant instead of now when it’s all wrapped up in a deficit-reduction veneer.

The oddball argument was unconvincing to Councilman C.O. Bradford.

“When you look at business magazines, trade publications, economic forecasts, Houston is separate,” he said. “Houston is doing much better than those other cities because we do things differently. We don’t have to do it just because other cities are doing it.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said an informal survey of civic clubs in her district last year showed general support for the $3.76 monthly fee.

“People were willing to consider that,” she said. “For me, we have serious issues ahead and I think everything should be on the table for the purpose of talking about it.”

Dwight Boykins said he is supportive of the garbage fee concept, but is far more comfortable with the lower amount than leaving a $15 to $20 monthly fee in place indefinitely, particularly for low-income residents.

Councilmen Larry Green and Jerry Davis are against the idea, saying constituent surveys have found more opposed than in favor.

All due respect, but the “Houston exceptionalism” argument is hooey. Sometimes, when you’re the only one not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re the one that’s doing it wrong. I get where CMs Green and Davis are coming from, but one of the things that a garbage fee can help finance is better surveillance and enforcement of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem in District B. I hope the potential benefit of this can be made clear – perhaps Director Hayes could put together a short presentation detailing some of the dumping hotspots that would be first in line for enhanced attention with a garbage fee – before any vote is taken.

Posted in: Local politics.

Harris County settles with HCAD

Not sure about this.

Less than two months after formally challenging the way the local appraisal district calculates the value of vacant commercial land, Harris County has backed down.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday OK’d the withdrawal of a petition filed in early June by the county attorney challenging the Harris County Appraisal District after the two sides reached an information-sharing agreement. The vote came a day before the petition was scheduled for a hearing in front of HCAD’s independent Appraisal Review Board.

The county’s petition was based on the preliminary findings of a study the court ordered earlier this year that concluded the appraisal district had undervalued undeveloped commercial property by more than 80 percent this year. That finding was based on a random sampling of two dozen vacant commercial lots across the county with a combined assessed value of $75.3 million. An expert consultant the county hired in January found that empty lots meant to hold apartments or retail space – making up only about 2 percent of the county tax base – were worth a combined $140.8 million, or 83 percent more than HCAD appraised.

Unlike home and business owners, who can protest appraisal values for individual properties, counties can challenge appraisal values only for entire categories of property.

On Tuesday, though, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard told the court that county staff had reached an agreement with HCAD and asked for permission to withdraw the challenge petition submitted to the district on June 2.

See here and here for the background. I’m not totally clear on the details here, if this is an advance for the cause of better appraisals of commercial properties or not. All that’s been agreed to is better information sharing, not that we’ll get better outcomes. There’s no quote in the story from any of the prominent critics of HCAD, and I haven’t seen any reaction from them on their sites, either. So, I’m not sure what to make of this. If you’re in a better position to judge, please leave a comment.

Posted in: Local politics.

Another San Felipe highrise lawsuit

It’s like deja vu all over again, only different.

A NEW LAWSUIT filed last week against the developers of the 2229 San Felipe office tower currently under construction between Shepherd and Kirby is a bit different from the one that a group of neighbors initiated against the same party back in February, a reader notes. The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit are the owners of a River Oaks home directly across the street from the construction site, and they appear to have studied the ruling issued in the Ashby Highrise lawsuit carefully. (Back in May, Judge Randy Wilson ordered the developers of that building to pay neighbors $1.2 million to compensate them for “lost market damages,” but denied their request to halt the building’s construction)

Unlike their neighbors who sued before them, the residents of 2237 Stanmore Dr. are not seeking to prevent or delay the construction of Hines’s neighborhood office tower. Instead, it appears they are only seeking compensation for both public and private “nuisances” created by the 17-story building, including pollution, noise, and ground vibration during its construction and the resulting loss of sunlight and rain on their property.

See here and here for the background. Funny thing about precedent, it just keeps popping up again and again. If the developer community didn’t like the Ashby result, they’re really going to hate this lawsuit. Not much else to do for now but keep an eye on it. Prime Property has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for July 27

We have nothing to fear but people who fear inflation itself.

Take a tennis ball and a soccer ball and blow the mind of some little kids.

Three words: Aerosol cake batter. And you “bake” it in the microwave. Or save time and just spray it directly into your mouth, because of course you would.

Hooray for Earlene Moore, helping Texas women buy better-fitting bras since 1939.

Medicare’s financial health has greatly improved lately.

“But in the hands of an inflation truther, this mathematical banality achieves a kind of totemic significance. It’s the grassy knoll inside Area 51 where Janet Yellen is playing a record backwards that says hyperinflation is coming.”

Who’s playing what game on immigration?

The NFL is now not the only defendant in concussion litigation.

What Kevin Drum says.

Hospitals are hurting in the states that refused to expand Medicaid.

One place where Sweden trails the US: in the amount of nudity on its reality TV programming.

“It’s not that you want a law degree without having to suffer the consequences of your actions, it’s that God wants it. Nothing reflects the model of Jesus Christ more than getting what you want without suffering at all.”

Want to buy the piano played by Dooley Wilson in Casablanca? Well, now you can.

“Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey is impacted by environmental issues, particularly climate change and freshwater scarcity. The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of the League’s history and culture. Many of the NHL’s players, both past and present, learned to skate outside on frozen lakes, ponds and backyard rinks. The game of hockey is adversely affected if this opportunity becomes unavailable to future generations.”

Citing Third Way as evidence of a division on the left is actually pretty good evidence that there is no such division.

What Tony Dungy doesn’t get is that the reason “things will happen” with Michael Sam is because of guys like Tony Dungy.

Better read the fine print on that AirBnB agreement before you lease out your place.

You’re probably overpaying your CEO.

Don’t ask me why Americans stink at math. I’m one of those annoying people that has no trouble with it.

Never surrender, Brooklyn!

“Tennessee is being sued for depriving eligible residents of Medicaid coverage.”

“Tara Reid presents her findings on the scientific possibility of sharknados“. Go ahead, I dare you to not click on that.

It was a pretty good week for Weird Al Yankovic.

I really can’t think of any good reason why Russia should be hosting the 2018 World Cup.

Twenty-four years later, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act still lags.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Ogg proposes marijuana prosecution reforms

I like the sound of this.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg, the Democratic nominee for Harris County district attorney, said Friday she will ticket and enforce community service for, instead of arrest and jail, thousands of people arrested each year in Houston for low-level marijuana possession.

“We can save up to 10 million dollars a year, folks,” Ogg told campaign supporters and reporters at a Friday news conference. “We think that taxpayers deserve to have their money spent wisely.”

Ogg said more than 12,000 people were charged in 2013 with marijuana possession of less than 4 ounces, then jailed for an average of five days, costing taxpayers $4.4 million a year.

Under her plan, if she is elected in November, those suspected of misdemeanor possession would be cited, have to go to court, then spend two days cleaning up litter. If the community service is successfully completed, offenders would not have a conviction on their record.

“This is the future of marijuana prosecution in Harris County,” she said. “Our tagline is ‘No jail, no bail, no permanent record, if you earn it.’ ”

This is a concept Ogg has discussed before, among other places in her interview with me for the primary. When President Obama made a statement back in January about pot not being more harmful than alcohol, Ogg supported that position. What matters about Ogg’s plan here is that the goal is to keep this kind of arrest off someone’s record, because being tagged with such an arrest, even for a tiny amount of pot, can have all kinds of negative effects for things like higher education, employment, child custody, and so on. Short of actual legalization, this is probably the best way to minimize the disproportionately serious consequences for such a minor offense.

What’s interesting is seeing DA Devon Anderson’s stance evolve over time. She was quite critical of President Obama’s words in January but was supportive when Rick Perry spoke about decriminalization a week later. In this story she said the DA’s office is working on something similar to Ogg’s proposal, which is as far as I know the first we’ve heard of that. This is to her credit, but I think it’s fair to say that Ogg was there first, and that Ogg has put more thought and planning into her idea. That’s probably why the group Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), last seen opining in the Baker Blog about when marijuana might be legalized in Texas, sent out a press release applauding Ogg and calling on Anderson to “clarify her position on handling low-level marijuana possession offenders”. Kudos to Ogg for being front and center on this. Texpatriate and John Coby have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

The marriage equality economic boost

From Equality Texas:

RedEquality

The Williams Institute released a report today estimating that marriage for same-sex couples in Texas would add $181.6 million to the state and local economy over a three-year period. The report predicts that 23,000 Texas couples would marry, spending an average of more than $6,000 per wedding. Up to 1,500 jobs would be created in the state.

“Overall these numbers seem, if anything, conservative for the long run,” said Dr. Daniel S. Hamermesh, Professor in Economics, Royal Holloway University of London, and Sue Killam Professor in the Foundation of Economics, University of Texas at Austin. “Further, marriage for same-sex couples allows couples to be better off – creating what economists call a ‘marital surplus’ which provides an even greater economic benefit.”

The Williams Institute utilized state-level data, as well as the 2010 U.S. Census and the American Community Survey, to conservatively estimate the impact of extending marriage to same-sex couples in Texas.

“The Williams Institute report affirms that the freedom to marry is good for business in Texas,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Allowing gay couples to marry here would give an economic boost to caterers, florists, event venues, and others who make a living through wedding planning. Our economy is already one of the strongest in the country, and marriage for same-sex couples would only add to that prosperity, while doing the right thing morally and constitutionally.”

You can see the study here. It’s a three-year projection that includes things like spending on the wedding itself by the couples, spending by out of state guests, and sales taxes. One item they don’t single out is the fees for marriage licenses, which provided a nice little boost for New York City in the first year that same sex marriages were allowed there. Every county clerk in Texas ought to be in favor of this if they know what’s good for them. Now to be fair, in the context of an economy the size of Texas’, this is pocket change. But given the many, many other good reasons for marriage equality, it’s another cherry on top of the sundae. There’s no good reason not to support it.

(I must note that there is one reason professed to disagree with this study and oppose same sex marriage, given by usual suspect Jonathan Saenz. It’s so incredibly stupid and bizarre that I can’t even bring myself to quote it. It’s here if you want to see for yourself. Don’t blame me if your head explodes.)

Along those lines EqTX is also calling on AG Abbott to drop the appeal of the ruling that tossed Texas’ ban on same sex marriage, on the grounds that plaintiffs have won 26 straight rulings. I totally agree on the merits, but it must be noted that in the recent Tenth Circuit ruling, one of the three judges bought the bogus traditional argument, and Abbott gets to plead his case before the Fifth Circuit, which as we know sucks. (Well, he’ll eventually get around to pleading his case.) As such, I can’t claim this is a slam dunk for the good guys, even though it should be. By the way, just as a reminder, Sam Houston would drop the appeal if he were AG. Just saying.

Finally, last week’s Houston Press had a cover story about being a same-sex married couple in Texas, which was similar in nature to the Observer article from earlier this month. I’m pretty sure every publication in Texas could do their own story and not repeat any of them. Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Society and cultcha.

Commuter rail status

There’s still a push for commuter rail in Houston.

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

With freight trains on Houston area tracks teeming with cargo, supporters of commuter rail to the suburbs are focusing on three spots where they can potentially build their own lines for passengers.

The Gulf Coast Rail District – created in part to find a way to make commuter rail work in Houston – is studying three possible routes for large passenger trains.

What’s clear, at least for the near future, is that commuter trains will not share any track with local freight railroads, or buy any of their land.

“There is a lot of freight moving through the region because of all the new business, and the freight carriers are trying to meet the demand for that,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district. “They are not willing to discuss the use of their rail for passenger rail operations.”

[...]

Without access to the freight lines, Crocker said, commuter rail must find its own way. Focusing on land owned by local governments or the state, and near current freight lines, officials identified three possible routes for study: along U.S. 290, U.S. 90A and the Westpark corridor.

The plan is to further study all three, looking at how much ridership they could expect while analyzing the type of property that would have to be purchased, engineering challenges and costly factors such as bridges.

Each of the routes includes some easily obtainable land and could connect suburban commuters to the city. The goal would be to develop commuter rail from the suburbs to Loop 610 – or farther into the central city under some scenarios – and connect it to local transit.

Both the Westpark corridor and U.S. 290 offer close access from western or northwestern suburbs to The Galleria and Uptown areas, where a single bus or light rail trip could carry travelers from a train station to their final destination. The U.S. 90A corridor, which Metro has studied before, offers access from the southwest to the Texas Medical Center.

Developing rail along any of the corridors would pose many challenges. In the case of the Westpark and U.S. 290 routes, both would abut local roads, meaning ramps and entrances would have to undergo serious changes. Other projects, such as light rail and toll roads, also are being considered for the space.

The terrain poses challenges as well. A U.S. 90A commuter rail system would need to cross the Brazos River and would pass by the southern tip of Sugar Land Regional Airport.

“There are challenges out in Fort Bend County,” Crocker said. “But the demand is so high we would like to take another look at it.”

To me, US90A is the clear first choice. I’ve been advocating for Metro to turn its attention back to what it calls the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC). As recently as two years ago, they were holding open houses to get community support and finish up a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which would put them and that project in the queue for federal funds. Unfortunately, as of September of 2012, the plans are on hold. I would hope it wouldn’t be too difficult to revive that process, in partnership with the GCRD. Note that while Metro’s original plan for the SWRC stopped at Missouri City, just across the Fort Bend County line, while the GCRD plan goes all the way to Rosenberg. The latter would clearly have much greater ridership potential, and would include destinations that would be of interest outside the regular commute, such as the airport and Skeeters Field. You only get to do this sort of thing right the first time, so it would be best to plan to maximize ridership from the beginning.

As for the other two, it must be noted that the corridors in question are already fairly well served by Metro park and ride. There’s some overlap with the US90A corridor, but not as much. Both Westpark and US90A continue well into Fort Bend County and thus beyond Metro’s existing service area, so I suppose the Westpark corridor would be the next best choice for commuter rail. The other key factor at play here is that the US90A line would connect up with the existing Main Street Line, thus potentially carrying people all the way from Rosenberg and elsewhere in Fort Bend to the Medical Center, downtown, and beyond. The 290 corridor will at least have the Uptown BRT line available to it as a connection, and if it were to happen it might revive discussion of the Inner Katy Line for a seamless trip into downtown via Washington Avenue. As for Westpark, well, go tell it to John Culberson. You know what we’d need to make any Westpark commuter rail line the best it could be. Anything the GCRD can do about that would be good for all of us.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Vaping in jail

Not sure how I feel about this.

As a way to allow some inmates to get their nicotine fix and sheriffs to shore up tight budgets, county jails across the country have begun selling electronic cigarettes. Though the trend has largely bypassed Texas, jail officials say that could change as sheriffs begin to warm up to the smokeless technology.

While traditional cigarettes are banned from most jails, vendors of e-cigarettes, which vaporize a liquid solution for inhalation, see a big market in Texas. The 245 jails regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards have a combined capacity of about 95,000.

Shannon Herklotz, the commission’s assistant director, said he knew of only two county jails in Texas that allowed electronic cigarettes. But more sheriffs, primarily in rural counties with smaller facilities, have expressed a cautious interest in selling them, asking questions about the technology, he said.

“It’s not that it’s not allowed. It’s up to each individual sheriff,” said Herklotz, who supports banning e-cigarettes to prevent issues with contraband at jails. With county jails facing budget shortfalls, e-cigarette vendors are pushing their products as a way for sheriffs to supplement revenue and help inmates suffering from withdrawal.

[...]

One vendor, Precision Vapor, recently began selling e-cigarettes to the Titus County Jail in Northeast Texas.

“It was at the request of inmates that we started selling them,” said Michael Garcia, a lieutenant at the jail, which sells the item from its commissary. “The inmates report that they feel more at ease and not as nervous,” he said. “They don’t have the agitation of going from two packs a day to zero.”

The jail, which has an average daily population of about 110 inmates, buys each e-cigarette for $3 and sells about 80 a week at $6 apiece, Garcia said. That profit helps pay for inmate uniforms and other supplies, which “eases the burden of the taxpayers.”

Brian McGiverin, a prisoner rights lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that most jails strictly banned tobacco but that sheriffs were likely to view e-cigarettes more favorably because they are less of a fire hazard than traditional cigarettes.

“It doesn’t seem like a terrible idea, setting aside the idea of whether it’s a smart idea to smoke in the first place,” he said. “The people are buying it, so that means it’s something that they want.”

Out of curiosity, I sent an email to Alan Bernstein, the Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to inquire about their policies on e-cigarettes. Here’s what he sent me:

The Harris County Jail, the state’s largest, does not allow inmate use of e-cigarettes because of the negative health effects of nicotine, the potential for these items to be traded among inmates as “currency” and the potential for misuse of the lithium battery and vaporizing function of the items. We are not aware of any vendors approaching our staff to discuss adding e-cigs to our list of inmate commissary products.

As noted before, my main concern is that the health effects of e-cigarettes are not well understood at this time. If they turn out to be helpful in getting people to quit tobacco and they don’t have any harmful effects of their own, then I can see the merit in this, though Bernstein’s point about the potential for misuse is well taken. The bit about e-cigarette sales being helpful to counties with tight budgets and “easing the burden” on taxpayers, however, makes me queasy in the same way that expanded gambling does. Being dependent on a potentially volatile income stream that is in turn highly dependent on the habits – in many cases, addictions – of a small number of mostly vulnerable people but which is invisible to most everyone else strikes me as bad public policy, one that comes with a built-in set of skewed incentives. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe e-cigarettes don’t have much in common with the tobacco kind – but until we know that I’m very skeptical of this.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Saturday video break: Cold Shot

The one and only Stevie Ray Vaughan, ladies and gentlemen:

I had no idea SRV even did MTV-style music videos. That one was amusing, if somewhat disturbing. I like how he has an endless supply of guitars at his fingertips. And speaking of fingertips, here’s Doctor John tickling the ivories for his cover of “Cold Shot”, from the tribute to Stevie Ray CD:

If you’re even a little fan of Stevie Ray’s, the “A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan” CD is well worth your money. I especially like this cover because by necessity it’s different than the original, what with Doctor John being a piano virtuoso instead of a guitar god and all. The other covers are great, awesome versions, but other than this and Buddy Guy’s transcendant slowed-down version of “Long, Long Way From Home” they’re all very faithful to the originals. A little stylistic variety is always nice.

Posted in: Music.

TPJ files criminal complaint against Ken Paxton

From the inbox:

TPJ Calls for Formal Investigation of AG Candidate Ken Paxton – Criminal Complaint Filed With Travis County DA’s Office

TPJ has filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County District Attorney against State Senator and Attorney General candidate Ken Paxton. The complaint, filed on July 18, seeks a formal investigation into allegations that Paxton committed one or more felonies when, over several years, he failed to register as an investment adviser representative of Mowery Capital Management as the state securities law requires. Paxton previously admitted to state regulators that he solicited clients and was compensated for his services when he was not a registered agent. Paxton also admitted hiding the income he received on his state personal financial disclosures.

Here’s the letter they sent to DA Rosemary Lehmberg and Public Integrity Unit lead prosecutor Gregg Cox. It’s pretty straightforward so I’ll reproduce it here:

Dear Ms. Lehmberg and Mr. Cox,

I believe that Mr. Kenneth Warren Paxton, Jr. has committed one or more criminal felony offenses related to his activities as an investment advisor representative for Mowery Capital Management, LLC (MCM). I encourage your offices to investigate and, if warranted, appropriately prosecute Mr. Paxton for his felony criminal conduct.

The public record appears to be unambiguously clear that Mr. Paxton violated provisions of the Texas Securities Act in 2004, 2005 and 2012 by failing to register as an investment adviser representative of Mowery Capital Management as the law requires.

As widely reported in the media, on April 30, 2014, by sworn acknowledgement, Mr. Paxton admitted to conduct that violated the Texas Securities Act. His sworn acknowledgement resulted in Disciplinary Order No. IC14-CAF-03 entered against him on May 2, 2014 by Texas Securities Commissioner John Morgan.

By agreeing to the Disciplinary Order Mr. Paxton has acknowledged that he solicited clients for MCM and was compensated by MCM for each client he delivered. Mr. Paxton also acknowledged that he was not registered with the Texas Securities Board as a representative of MCM during 2004, 2005 and 2012 when he actively solicited clients and potential investors.

The Texas Securities Act prohibits a person from acting as an investment adviser representative for an investment firm in Texas unless the person is registered as a representative for that particular firm. The Texas Securities Act provides that any person who renders services as an investment advisor representative without being registered as required by
the Act is guilty of a felony of the third degree.

I therefore request that you fully investigate this matter and prosecute any violations if justified by the law and the facts.

Respectfully,

Craig McDonald
Director, Texans for Public Justice

See here and here for the background. That disciplinary order was little more than a slap on the wrist, unless this develops into something. There’s also an SEC complaint pending against Paxton. That’s an awful lot of baggage for a candidate to carry, and one imagines it will have to take a toll on him. I figure at least a few Dan Branch supporters are going to avoid voting for Paxton in November, though how many that may be is anyone’s guess. The one thing about all this that worries me is that once the Democratic District Attorney from Democratic Travis County gets involved, Paxton and his supporters can claim it’s all about partisan politics and that he’s the real victim here. He’s already traveling down that road. If there’s one thing that can overcome revulsion against an ethically-compromised candidate, it’s tribal identity. Still, the facts here are quite plain – Paxton signed legal documents stipulating to what he did – and for sure someone was going to file a complaint. Now we wait and see what Lehmberg and her staff make of it. The Statesman has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Another lawsuit against Uber and Lyft

That’s three lawsuits that I know of.

Lyft

A coalition of Texas disability advocates sued ride-share companies Uber and Lyft on Thursday as part of dozens of lawsuits filed around the state ahead of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Uber and Lyft are up and coming in terms of transportation companies, and they don’t really have any means to provide wheelchair accessibility,” said plaintiff David Wittie, of the advocacy group ADAPT of Texas. “They are socially irresponsible and not accessible and equivalent for people with disabilities.”

Wittie said denials of services to disabled Texans led ADAPT and the Texas Civil Rights Project to target the companies, which connect interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone applications.

[...]

Uber

The suits were filed in Travis County, but theoretically could affect the rest of the state, Wittie said. Uber and Lyft operate – albeit illegally – in several Texas cities, including Houston.

Houston City Council is scheduled to vote next week on regulations proposed by Mayor Annise Parker that would allow them to operate legally if they acquire permits and carry commercial liability insurance, among other requirements. Taxi and limousine companies oppose the rules because they oppose the ride-sharing companies, and have filed federal lawsuits of their own to stop the companies.

Last month, three wheelchair-using Texans in Houston and San Antonio sued Uber and Lyft in federal court for alleged discrimination under the ADA, according to the Courthouse News Service.

Also sued Thursday as part of the coordinated effort was Austin-based Yellow Cab, which Wittie said routinely makes people with disabilities wait hours before sending an accessible taxi. Wittie said he has experienced that. The company did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Here’s what I had on the earlier federal lawsuit. It was reported in Courthouse News and pretty much noplace else, so if it’s news to you, I understand. I suppose it’s possible that lawsuit could get combined with this one, but I’m just guessing. There’s also the lawsuit filed by cab companies in an effort to enjoin Uber and Lyft from operating in Houston. Am I missing anything? All this is happening as Council gets set to (maybe) take up the vehicles for hire matter again next week. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

How are those new Chapter 42 regs working?

A little too soon to tell.

Planning and Development Director Patrick Walsh said the changes were designed to make the city competitive with its suburbs by creating more housing options, holding down prices and spurring redevelopment outside the Loop.

“It’s going to be hard to quantify the degree to which these rules are supporting the objective of affordability, but I do think we’re starting to see these rules used to accomplish the goal of reinvestment,” Walsh said. “In even just a couple of months after the rules are in place, we’re seeing some applications for these shared-driveway type developments with some smaller lots. That is a sign of some degree of modest success, and we’re hoping for more.”

[...]

Civic club leaders, concerned about waves of tightly packed two- or three-story patio homes invading established neighborhoods, negotiated for the rules to be phased in over two years. The first phase took effect in late May, with tracts larger than an acre and smaller tracts that are not residential and are not adjacent to residential areas becoming available for development under the new density rules. The rules will apply citywide starting next May.

The Planning Commission has considered or soon will consider three applications that would not have been possible previously.

In east Spring Branch, at Silber and Purswell, Soleil Livin’ Homes plans to build 27 units on a 1.2-acre vacant industrial site. In southwest Houston’s Willowbend neighborhood, a developer seeks to build six lots on half an acre.

And at the northwest edge of the Loop in Garden Oaks, homebuilder Miguel Facundo is building 14 units on the half-acre site of a former roofing business at Alba and Judiway.

Facundo said he plans to build at least 50 more townhomes in the area. He said he has heard chatter about industrial and commercial sites nearby selling to other developers for more such projects. In pushing for the rule changes last year, representatives of Spring Branch-based David Weekley Homes discussed numerous projects they would be able to build in their area once the higher density was allowed.

Facundo acknowledged that the prices he will offer, while perhaps $100,000 cheaper than the homes built under the old rules, will be aimed far above middle-income buyers, in the high $500,000s. Examples from Weekley representatives’ rarely listed price points below $300,000.

“My product’s a little bit different than most of the patio and townhome builders,” Facundo said. “I’m trying to do more of an upscale, a quality build. Then the neighborhood continues to go in the right direction.”

See here for the last update. It’s good that projects like these are being built, though there’s clearly still some work to be done on affordability. Another recent story adds to the anecdotal evidence with the news that over the last 12 months, residential permits within Beltway 8 were up 22.8 percent over the same period last year, which is more than twice the rate as the rest of the city. Beyond that, who knows? I liked the changes made, and I definitely agree with the idea behind them that it’s important to attract development inside city lines – it matters politically and economically. There’s plenty of empty and underused land that’s begging to be put to better use. I hope these new rules will facilitate that, but we need to carefully watch the effects and be prepared to make further changes if needed.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Expanding Medicaid the hard way

A lot smaller than it should have been, but it’s still something.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

More than 80,000 additional Texans have enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program since the rollout of the Affordable Care Act last fall despite Republican state leaders’ decision not to expand eligibility to poor adults, according to federal figures.

The 80,435 new enrollees as of May — mostly Texans who already qualified for coverage but did not previously seek it — represent a 1.8 percent increase over pre-Obamacare figures. That places Texas, which has the nation’s highest uninsured rate, in the middle of the pack among states that chose not to expand access to those programs to everyone under 138 percent of the federal poverty line under the president’s signature health law. The expansion, a key tenet of Obamacare, was deemed optional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This “woodwork effect” or “welcome mat effect” — in which people hear about Medicaid expansions around the country and learn they qualify in Texas — has not been huge. Roughly 874,000 Texans eligible for Medicaid or CHIP have still not enrolled, according to Kaiser Family Foundation estimates. That includes more than 700,000 children, said Christine Sinatra, state communications director for Enroll America, a group seeking to get the uninsured covered under the federal health law.

Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said her agency started seeing enrollment rates rise a couple of years ago, when the conversation on Obamacare was heating up. After the act took effect, and parents took to the federal marketplace to purchase private insurance plans, many discovered that their children were eligible for Medicaid, Goodman added.

[...]

Get Covered America and Enroll America, which are leading the charge to bring more people into the coverage fold across the country, also cited the Affordable Care Act’s simplification of the sign-up process as a driver of Texas’ recent enrollment growth, which took off in the spring.

And though Texas leaders did not expand Medicaid, the criteria for eligibility here and elsewhere did broaden slightly: The act raised from 21 to 26 the age at which people formerly in the foster care system have to give up their Medicaid coverage.

Absent the Medicaid expansion that Texas chose not to join, Medicaid and CHIP eligibility in the state is generally limited to members of several vulnerable groups, including children under 200 percent of the federal poverty line and some low-income seniors, pregnant women and parents, Sinatra said.

Texas has historically put up a lot of obstacles to enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP. In addition to the exceedingly stingy income requirements, there has been a six-month enrollment period at times, meaning you have to sign up twice a year. The state, and in particular the Republican leadership, does all this in a deliberate effort to keep enrollment down, since that allows for less spending. By the state, anyway – sucks to be you, counties and hospital districts. I for one would consider it justice if every currently eligible person managed to get themselves enrolled, however much it wound up costing the state. We’d be far better off overall regardless of the price. Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Friday randon ten: I of the tiger

The letter I was the first one in this series that I was worried about. Turned out to be no big thing.

1. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Iam Dury & The Blockheads
2. Vehicle – Ides of March
3. Honky Tonk Woman – Ike & Tina Turner
4. Sweet Georgia Brown – Illinois Jacquet
5. Closer to Fine – Indigo Girls
6. The Way I Am – Ingrid Michaelson
7. Devil Inside – INXS
8. Time Is On My Side – Irma Thomas
9. Buns O’Plenty – Isaac Hayes
10. Work To Do – Isley Brothers

I think we have a new record for most ampersands in a song title/artist name combination. Also, am I the only person that spent a non-trivial amount of time convinced that it was Blood, Sweat & Tears that did “Vehicle”? Please tell me I’m not the only one.

Posted in: Music.

We will have exit polls this year

Good.

Two years ago, a consortium of news outlets that conducts nationwide exit polls during every November election announced it was scaling back efforts in Texas and 18 other states. The move left political researchers with little data to study shifts in the Texas electorate.

This year, with a high-profile gubernatorial race on the November ballot, the National Election Pool confirmed on Tuesday that it plans to conduct more robust exit polling in Texas this year, giving researchers and political analysts the means to better examine the outcome.

“The current plan is to do a full-state exit poll in Texas,” said Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Research, the New Jersey firm that conducts polling for the National Election Pool, a consortium that includes The Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News.

Every two years, Edison hires nearly 3,000 people to interview more than 15,000 voters around the country after they cast their ballots. The surveys ask not only about how participants voted but also about their opinions on major issues and about their backgrounds, including age, education, income, religion and ethnicity. In Texas, the NEP has traditionally conducted a mix of in-person exit polling and telephone interviews to account for early voters, who can cast more than half of the ballots in some races.

Lenski said that the decision to return resources to Texas this year could change until plans are finalized in September. The sponsoring media organizations decide how to divide polling resources among the 50 states. And over the last year, the gubernatorial race between Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis has drawn national interest.

“The states get more resources the more competitive and newsworthy the races are,” Lenski said. “That’s an editorial decision that the news organizations make.”

That National Election Pool link in the story is broken, so try this instead. You’ve seen my increasingly exasperated posts since Election Day 2012 about Latino voting for Republicans in Texas. That exasperation is based in part on the fact that the support level in question for Mitt Romney or Ted Cruz or Rick Perry or whoever is inevitably unsourced, and the fact that even a cursory check of the actual available evidence would put those numbers into question. With actual exit polling in place, at least we won’t be guessing about the numbers this year. As someone who could use a little less exasperation in his life, I appreciate it.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Dems prep for voter ID

It’s good to have a plan.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas Democrats are renewing their opposition to the state’s voter-identification law, rolling out a program to educate voters ahead of a decisive few months that could see the controversial statute become a top issue in the governor’s race.

The law is considered one of the toughest of its kind in the country, requiring voters to show one of a few types of identification cards at the polls. Those whose actual names do not match the names on their IDs must sign an affidavit attesting to their identities.

The gubernatorial campaign of state Sen. Wendy Davis, Battleground Texas and the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday announced a “voter protection” program to tackle the issue by dispatching more than 8,000 volunteers to help with voter registration and making sure voters know what the law requires. The project will also raise awareness for the early voting period, during which an “election protection” hotline will go live. On Election Day, the program will send thousands of volunteers to monitor polling locations across Texas, confirm the sites are overseen by both Democratic and Republican election judges, and open “command centers” in eight cities staffed with election law experts and lawyers “ready to go to court if necessary,” according to Democratic officials.

“We have certainly never accomplished anything in America with less democracy, and we aren’t going to start now,” Davis told volunteers on a conference call. “We want more Texans to participate in this election, not less.”

Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said the project is probably more aimed at highlighting Republican support for voter ID than “actually combatting it in the trenches.”

See here for the plan outline. I don’t know how much that fits into Mark Jones’ narrative, but it does fit in with the overall plan to increase base turnout. Remember, most voters statewide have had no experience with voter ID. The first step is making sure people understand what they will need, and what they do and don’t have to worry about. It would be best if this were to go away, but we can’t count on that and even if we could it likely wouldn’t happen before November. Hope for the best, plan for all the other contingencies. The Observer and Texas Public Media have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.