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Hauling Glass

In times of change, there are always opportunities to do well.

Where some saw rubbish, 8-year-old Pan Berlanga saw opportunity.

He launched his first business after the city of Houston and Waste Management in March negotiated a new recycling contract that cut glass from the curbside pickup program.

To recycle their glass, Houstonians now must go to recycling centers to drop off their used bottles. “People have to drive all over,” Pan said.

Or they could call Berlanga.

Pan and his brother-in-law, David Krohn, 28, now run a company they call Hauling Glass. They go door-to-door collecting glass bottles that the city’s new curbside recycling agreement leaves behind.

[…]

They now serve more than 160 households in three inner-Loop 610 ZIP codes – 77007, 77008 and 77009. Requests from residents in those Heights-area neighborhoods in the three ZIP codes and inquiries from outside those areas are flooding the business email account and phone line, they said.

Subscribers, who pay $10 a month, can either purchase a $15 bin or use their own.

Pan and Krohn also are learning logistics lessons from their fledgling business. Once every two weeks, they rev up a white 1977 Jeep Wagoneer and roll through neighborhoods to clients’ yards, staggered by ZIP code and day of the week.

They leave their loads in an industrial-size bin and warehouse just east of downtown. They’re working with major glass-recycling businesses to take the glass from there.

By picking up glass only, Krohn said they’re adding convenience for households and eliminating any extra processing those companies would have to do.

Here’s their website. Going by the requests they say they have received for this service, the 77006 ZIP code would be next in line when and if they expand. We’re signed up for their service, with the first pickup scheduled for this Thursday. Yeah, it would be nice if we all still had curbside recycling for glass, but sacrificing that (at least for now) was the sensible thing to do to keep the rest of the service. I used to haul my own glass to the now-defunct recycling dropoff location on Center Street, and to Westpark before that. I can live with this until things change again. In the meantime, kudos to Pan Berlanga for seeing things as they could be rather than how they are. If young Mr. Berlanga doesn’t already have a personal theme song, I have a suggestion for him:

Live long and prosper, sir.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Feds grant 15 month Medicaid waiver extension

I sure hope they keep the pressure on to expand Medicaid during this time.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Obama administration has agreed to temporarily keep some federal Medicaid money flowing into Texas to help hospitals treat uninsured patients, a relief to health care providers that feared losing the funds over state leaders’ refusal to provide health insurance to low-income adults.

State health officials said Monday they have struck a deal with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to keep the program going for another 15 months, with hospital reimbursements remaining at their current level.

Those were the exact terms the Texas Health and Human Services Commission asked for last month. Agency leaders said the negotiations were a “big win for Texas.”

“We’re pleased these innovative programs will have the opportunity to continue,” Chris Traylor, the agency’s executive commissioner, said in a statement. “These programs are improving health care for Texas’ Medicaid clients and creating cost-savings for taxpayers.”

[…]

The 15-month extension also includes an additional $3.1 billion for DSRIP initiatives.

The Obama administration had previously signaled it was likely to stop footing the bill for at least some of Texas’ uncompensated care costs. Under the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature health law, Texas was encouraged to expand its Medicaid program to cover nearly 1 million additional adults living in poverty — a move that would have given more poor patients a means to pay for care. The state’s Republican leadership hasvehemently opposed that option, criticizing Medicaid as an inefficient government program.

Federal health officials were unswayed by that argument, repeatedly telling state leaders they had no desire to use waiver funds to pay for costs that would otherwise be covered by a Medicaid expansion.

[…]

Texas health officials say they will continue negotiating a longer term extension of the funding over the next 15 months.

Those negotiations will likely be influenced by a study of the effectiveness of the uncompensated care pool, which the federal government asked Texas to commission. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission contracted with outside firms Health Management Associates and Deloitte to submit the study by the end of August. It will address questions such as how hospitals’ uncompensated care costs would be reduced under a Medicaid expansion.

If Texas and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services do not reach an agreement at the end of the 15-month extension, in December 2017, the Obama administration said it “expects” that uncompensated care funding would be reduced after that.

“Specifically, the reduction will limit the size of the Uncompensated Care pool to the costs of uncompensated and charity care for low-income individuals who are uninsured and cannot be covered” under a Medicaid expansion, wrote Vikki Wachino, a senior federal health official, in a letter to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Additionally, the DSRIP pool would be reduced by 25 percent in 2018 and by an additional 25 percentage points each year after that, according to federal officials.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for a copy of the letter CMS sent to Texas. I don’t really have anything to say that I haven’t said before. Texas needs to expand Medicaid, and if the state continues to refuse to do so, the federal government should not take any steps to mitigate the consequences of that decision. It’s up to the next Legislature now. State Rep. Garnet Coleman, Trail Blazers, and the Austin Chronicle have more.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Paxton prosecutor payment lawsuit tossed again

And again I say, good.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

The Fifth Court of Appeals has dismissed a challenge to the payments being made to three sets of special prosecutors appointed in connection with criminal charges against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Collin County taxpayer Jeffory Blackard filed a civil suit late last year challenging the $300-per-hour fees charged by the attorneys appointed to prosecute Paxton over allegations of securities violations. The suit argued that the amounts deviate from the Collin County fee schedule. After the case was dismissed in March, Blackard filed an appeal.

In its opinion issued Friday, the appellate court noted that taxpayers have limited standing to challenge the lawfulness of government acts. But that standing “does not, however, authorize a taxpayer to challenge an order in a criminal case in which he is not a party,” the opinion stated. “Because relator lacks standing to challenge the trial court’s order, we dismiss the petition.”

[…]

At a meeting earlier this week, Collin County commissioners approved payments to two other sets of attorneys.

Two attorneys were appointed to investigate a 2004 real estate deal involving Paxton. They presented their findings last month, and a grand jury voted to take no action. Their bill for legal fees and expenses totaled $50,626.

Commissioners also approved a $32,130 interim payment for legal fees and expenses for attorney David Feldman. He was appointed to represent Schaffer, Wice and DeBorde in the Blackard case.

Feldman also represents the trio in a separate case against the attorney general’s office to prevent the release of documents filed in the criminal case. The Dallas Morning News had filed a request in October for all records that prosecutors had given to Paxton’s attorneys. Paxton’s office ordered in January that the records be released. The special prosecutors filed suit against the AG’s office to prevent their release.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the court’s order is at the top link. Having come this far, I would expect Blackard to appeal to the Supreme Court, but as yet there’s no word of that. Even if that doesn’t happen, there’s still plenty of other action happening, as you can see. Ken Paxton is a terrible Attorney General, but he is a fee generator for our state’s lawyers. You have to give him credit for that. The Chron has more.

Posted in: Legal matters, Scandalized!.

Help a brick out

From Swamplot:

AN INDIEGOGO PAGE has just been launched to crowdfund the removal and reuse of an unexpectedly large group of well-preserved 1930s bricks from thenow-under-deconstruction Yale St. bridge over White Oak Bayou. The group calling itself Friends of Houston’s Yale Bridge Bricks says the funds will be used to preserve the bricks for reuse both around the bridge and elsewhere around the city.

The fundraising effort shares some organizers with Friends of the Fountain, which launched the late-February campaign to crowdfund the de-restoration and subsequent repair of the Mecom Fountain following its short-lived experiment with limestone couture. That effort raised more than $50,000 toward a $60k goal in one month; Bill Baldwin (of both Friends groups) says it the fountain’s fundraiser received over $100k in total, including offline donations. This latest round of online crowdfunding the preservation of National Register of Historic Places structures is starting the bar higher, with a goal of $100,000 shown on the fundraising page.

Here’s a fuller description from the fundraising page:

Because of the bridge’s status on the National Registry of Historic Places, the bridge was technically eligible for publicly funded relocation. After investigation by several local and national historians and engineers, it became unfortunately clear that preserving the entire bridge through relocation would be unfeasible, though the design of the new bridge would incorporate some bricks under its asphalt surface and historical elements from the balustrades and lampposts.

TxDOT originally reported that, “The condition of the bricks would not be known until the asphalt is removed before demolition starts…it is likely that the bricks would be damaged during removal of asphalt layer. The use of bricks on the new bridge would add deadload to the bridge and thus would require increasing support requirements, as well as cost of construction.”

However, once the asphalt of the bridge was removed last week, a treasure trove of beautifully intact, original brick greeted workers spanning the length of the bridge. Over 40,000 bricks dating back to at least the 1931 construction of the bridge are in prime condition to be used elsewhere and saved from the landfill. This has been astonishing discovery that opens up a world of possibilities.

Through a partnership with the Houston Parks & Recreation Department, the Houston Parks Board, the Historic Preservation Office of the Planning Department, TxDOT, the Mayor’s Office, and others, Bill Baldwin and friends are seeking to privately fund the careful removal and storage of these historic bricks.

The bricks will be used in surrounding infrastructure and beautification projects, not just in the immediate area, but in other historically significant locations throughout the city as well.

The fundraising goal for this project is $100,000. Fundraising efforts will be led by Baldwin, who recently co-chaired with Phoebe Tudor the astonishingly successful Friends of the Fountain crowdfunding campaign to restore Mecom Fountain, which raised over $100,000 including off-line donations.

This is a worthy cause, and we would love to have your support!

They’re off to a slow start. I suspect this is the kind of project that will need a few deep pockets, because I don’t think there will be enough small-dollar donations to make the cut. I don’t know what the deadline is for this, but if it’s the sort of thing that floats your boat, have at it.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Meyers’ voter ID lawsuit gets appellate hearing

I hope he gets to keep it going.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

[Court of Criminal Appeals Justice Lawrence] Meyers filed his state lawsuit in October 2014, while another legal challenge to the state’s voter ID law was pending in federal court in Corpus Christi. A federal judge overturned the law, but it has remained in effect during the state’s appeals to higher courts.

Meanwhile, state and local officials in Texas tried to get Meyers’ challenge dismissed. A Dallas trial judge — former state lawmaker Dale Tillery, a Democrat — refused that request. Now those officials are asking the state’s 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas to toss it. That hearing is set for Tuesday.

Meyers is lapping this up. His challenge is the sort of technical thing you would expect from a long-time judge. He points to this sentence in the Texas Constitution (emphasis added): “In all elections by the people, the vote shall be by ballot, and the Legislature shall provide for the numbering of tickets and make such other regulations as may be necessary to detect and punish fraud and preserve the purity of the ballot box; and the Legislature shall provide by law for the registration of all voters.”

“It does not include ‘prevent,’” he says, adding that the voter ID law is “a prior restraint against your constitutional right to vote.”

As he put it in his original filing, the voter ID law forces voters to prove they are innocent before they cast their ballots rather than requiring the state to prove that someone is actually guilty of voter fraud once they have voted. Someone who doesn’t have the required identification “will be denied his right to vote and will be presumed to be guilty of voter fraud,” he wrote.

Proponents of the voter ID law say it’s no more burdensome than presenting identification in routine commercial transactions, and say the law has built-in workarounds for people who don’t have drivers’ licenses to show voting officials.

Meyers contends that the state’s effort to prevent voter fraud — he doesn’t think such fraud exists in any serious way — creates an obstacle to voting that does more harm than good. Voter fraud is already illegal, he points out, and the state can and should prosecute it whenever it occurs.

“We’re just asking that our Constitution be enforced,” he says. “Voter ID is almost identical to what the old poll tax was. … It suppresses the vote.”

In its legal filings, the state argues that Meyers doesn’t have grounds to sue because he hasn’t shown how he the voter ID law has done him any harm. Those state lawyers also contend that the law does not add to the “qualifications” of voters but is more akin to other requirements, like when the polls are open or when elections are held.

See here and here for the background. Obviously, I agree with Meyers on the merits; the questions about standing are beyond my non-lawyerly capabilities to analyze. Meyers has said that he’ll drop this lawsuit if the federal courts uphold the ruling that Texas’ voter ID law was unconstitutional. We may have some indication by July of that. In the meantime, I’m rooting for the courts to allow this challenge to keep going.

Posted in: Legal matters.

A personal story of CPS’ failure to protect children

I can’t begin to tell you how angry this makes me.

The new foster parents opened the door last September to a child they can only describe as feral.

At 3, he was obese, his brown saucer eyes shell-shocked, his chocolate skin pocked with a rash the CPS caseworker dismissed as eczema but a doctor later said was likely mites burrowing below. His shoes were two sizes too small, and he possessed one toy: a miniature motorcycle, broken.

He had but two words, not in his own tongue, but that of the previous foster placement in Wharton County. Más and luna, more and moon.

The boy – we’ll call him Dion – loved the moon. On a clear night, he would make his new foster parents stop the car to gaze at it. Maybe, in his young life – rootless, churning, abusive – the moon was the only thing standing still, safely out of reach of what was happening here on Earth.

Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffrey would never know the horrors he’d seen. He didn’t come with photos, or a written history. Only violent outbursts and fear in his eyes where trust should have been.

More than anything, Sugarek and Jeffrey wanted to shield him from any more trauma. But this, they say, was the one thing they couldn’t do in a Texas foster care system where abuse is so rampant it was recently found unconstitutional by a federal judge.

The trauma would continue – according to interviews and a review of more than 100 court documents, emails and medical records – this time at the hands of the state.

From the beginning, it was clear Dion’s only chance at a future was a stable, loving home with parents willing to endure bites and black eyes, willing to turn their lives upside down to help him heal.

There’s a shortage of such homes, of such people.

But Dion hit the jackpot. Sugarek, 44, the charismatic principal of Hogg Middle School in the Heights, and her wife, Jeffrey, a 38-year-old science teacher at nearby Travis Elementary, had dedicated their lives to helping children. They had bottomless hearts, energy, education and tools.

A month later, they took in Dion’s 4-year-old brother – we’ll call him Darius – who was much more verbal, but also suffered from behavioral issues and PTSD. According to court records obtained last week, the boys’ parents had a history of family violence, and their mother was a drug addict. Their father has been charged with attempted capital murder. In a little over a year, they’d each lived in four different homes. Dion’s most recent was shut down for abuse and neglect, Sugarek said.

[…]

All the while, the foster parents arranged visits with a teenage half-brother- we’ll call him Bobby – who was also in foster care.

Knowing that CPS strongly prioritizes keeping siblings together, Sugarek and Jeffrey in October asked to increase the number of children they’d accept from two to three. They considered adding a room to their house.

But early on, they say, red flags popped up whenever Bobby was around Dion.

[…]

Texas has been criticized for not tracking child-on-child abuse. But the notion that CPS would actively discourage foster parents from reporting abuse, and even punish them for doing so, is beyond outrageous. Even for a broken system.

No doubt, the 15-year-old had survived his own hell. In 2008, one record shows, CPS received an allegation of sexual abuse involving Bobby and “an unknown perpetrator,” but the case was closed before the investigation started due to allegations being “too vague or general.”

When Sugarek and Jeffrey kept reporting incidents, and it became clear they would not agree to adopt the teen, they say CPS officials began “shopping the boys around” to other families and at an adoption fair.

This, despite glowing reviews about the boys’ care.

[…]

According to the foster mothers and emails they sent to the boys’ therapist, Dion at one point told one mom that Bobby had put something in his rear end that felt like marshmallows. He said Bobby had hurt him.

At mediation, with all parties at the table, the foster moms say they asked for an investigation. Again, denied.

Finally, the final straw. All three boys attended a CPS-supervised adoption fair earlier this month. When they returned, the moms say Darius told them Bobby had taken Dion to the bathroom for a long time. The 3-year-old complained his backside hurt. He wouldn’t let his moms wipe him. Days later, after a swim lesson, he bent down in the changing room, revealing a swollen rectum.

His foster mothers notified the therapist, and their private case manager, and they rushed him to the doctor. Medical records show the boy had an anal “abrasion” and irritated skin, but a forensic sexual assault test was inconclusive.

The foster mothers say they had a duty to report it to CPS, and they say their DePelchin case manager encouraged it, but she warned them: CPS would take the children.

She was right. Almost immediately, CPS announced it was moving the boys to a “respite” placement.

Read the whole thing. That action by CPS happened a few weeks ago. They’re still fighting to get Dion and Darius back. I know all four people involved. Sugarek is Olivia’s principal, Jeffrey was her fourth and fifth grade teacher, and I’ve met both boys since they first brought Dion home at the start of the school year. I’m furious that the system could fail in so obvious a way, and heartbroken for two good people who had gladly taken on a tough job and done so beautifully with it. I have compassion for CPS’ caseworkers, who have an impossible job themselves, and get no support from a state government that just doesn’t care. As angry as I am about the particulars of this case, it’s the indifference from the state, which is busy defending itself from lawsuits while piously proclaiming at every opportunity how much they value babies and human life. Don’t worry, kids, Dan Patrick will stand outside every bathroom you ever use to make sure nothing bad ever happens to you. Beyond that, though, you’re on your own. These tax cuts we’re going to pass next year won’t pay for themselves, you know, and we mustn’t go around throwing money at problems we’re not really interested in solving anyway.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

State Auditor asked to investigate Paxton

Come join the party.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

A liberal advocacy group wants the state auditor’s office to investigate whether Attorney General Ken Paxton broke the law by continuing to pay top staffersafter they resigned from the agency.

Progress Texas, a self-described “progressive” public relations firm based in Austin,sent a letter to the auditor Friday asking the office to look into whether Paxton “committed abuse and violated state law by misusing government funds” to pay two ex-staffers after they quit working at the agency.

“Paid leave policies are great, but it looks like Paxton violated state law. The facts clearly warrant a State Auditor’s Office investigation, particularly since Paxton’s justification for doling out 64 days of paid leave to two ex-employees has changed multiple times,” Progress Texas Advocacy Director Lucy Stein told The Dallas Morning News. She added: “We welcome a thorough and independent investigation. It’s important that Texans are confident that no elected official is abusing or misusing taxpayer dollars, especially to advance the work of a political campaign.”

[…]

First Assistant Attorney General Charles “Chip” Roy and Communications Director Allison Castle left the agency on March 9. A month later, both remained on the payroll,The News first reported.

Roy formally resigned the next day and backdated his departure from the agency, but Castle remains on the payroll and is scheduled to be paid a second full month’s salary of nearly $13,000 on May 2.

After more than a week of refusing to answer questions about the issue, the agency’s human resources director, John Poole, wrote a piece for a conservative websitedenying Paxton did anything wrong.

“Attorney General Paxton acted in a compassionate, legal, and ethical manner when he granted paid leave to two staffers who had worked tirelessly for the state of Texas,”Poole argued. “I stand by his decision.”

Poole added that Paxton had extended the offer to Roy and Castle under Texas’ emergency leave law, which allows officials to approve paid time off for employees who give “good cause.”

But Roy – in remission for Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma – said he was never on emergency leave and was only using up his accrued vacation time. He had been extended the option to take advantage of his health care benefits as a state employee,he added, if his health took a turn for the worse.

See here for some background. As of this writing, I don’t know if the State Auditor will follow up on this request or not. I don’t believe the Auditor has any power to issue fines or other punishment, but his findings could be used to spur another agency, like the Ethics Commission or a district attorney, to take a look. In the meantime, the Trib talks to one of the other beneficiaries of Paxton’s largesse.

A former aide to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday that he asked for her resignation and that she did not ask for nor negotiate a now-controversial departure package that left the state paying her thousands of dollars in salary and benefits.

“The attorney general wanted to bring in a new team and go in a different direction, and that is certainly his prerogative,” said Allison Castle, who resigned as senior communications director for the embattled attorney general on March 9.

Paxton’s request for her resignation was unexpected, said Castle, who was a veteran adviser to former Gov. Rick Perry before she joined Paxton’s team. After being handed a pre-written resignation letter including the terms of a compensation package, she said she signed it, packed up her belongings and was out of the AG’s office that afternoon.

Castle said she had no reason to question the appropriateness of the terms.

The benefits and compensation deal granted Castle 64 days of paid leave.

[…]

In addition to Castle and Roy, the agency has recently lost a number of other employees, including chief of staff Bernard McNamee, scheduler Katie Lawhon and two spokeswomen, Katherine Wise and Cynthia Meyer.

Lawhon, who, like Roy and Castle, also received administrative leave upon her resignation, told The Texas Tribune on Friday she did not negotiate paid leave beyond her earned vacation time. She said she was informed that she would be getting additional administrative leave, details that appeared in a pre-written resignation letter she later received.

Amid the staffing shakeup, Paxton, a McKinney Republican, has filled several key positions with longtime allies from North Texas.

Here’s the Chron story on Employee #3. My guess is that the payoff to Chip Roy was a favor for a friend, and the other two were motivated by a desire to get more of Paxton’s cronies in the door, with the payout being an incentive to go quietly. I’m just guessing here. You’d think the state’s top attorney would understand the law better than this, but then no one ever claimed Ken Paxton was a legal genius. I do hope the auditor takes this up, if only to see what official explanations are offered.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Video fraudsters to go to trial

All righty then.

Right there with them

Right there with them

David Robert Daleiden, 27, and his colleague, Sandra Susan Merritt, 63, both of California, have rejected a plea deal that would have effectively put an end to the criminal charges against them, their lawyers confirmed Friday.

“I don’t advise my clients to accept responsibility for cases that they haven’t done anything wrong in,” said Dan Cogdell, Merritt’s attorney.

The pair were charged in January with tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony with a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Daleiden also faces a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy human organs.

After a brief status hearing Friday, attorneys said they will not accept offers of pretrial diversion, a low-level probation that would have allowed the charges against them to be dismissed if they did not break the law for a year. It’s commonly offered by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to first-time offenders with minor charges such as shoplifting.

Earlier this month, attorneys for Daleiden filed motions to quash the indictments against him, arguing that the Harris County grand jury that handed down the indictments was not properly empaneled.

See here and here for the background. The defense has alleged that DA Devon Anderson is in cahoots with Planned Parenthood, the defendants are utterly convinced of their righteousness and are prepared to martyr themselves for their cause. This will be…interesting. There’s no mention of a court date, so we’ll just have to be patient.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Lone Star Rail reboot: It’s all about the money

Isn’t it always?

The message was clear: If San Antonio-area officials aren’t willing to commit millions of dollars to planning a regional passenger rail line, Austin-area officials will reconsider their financial commitment to the project.

The Capital Area and Alamo Area metropolitan planning organizations met Wednesday to discuss the status of a proposed passenger rail line known as LSTAR and what role the agencies should have in it. The project, which would connect San Antonio and Georgetown, recently suffered a setback when Union Pacific pulled its tracks from a possible route.

In February, UP nixed the Lone Star Rail District’s proposal to use the company’s freight line tracks that parallels Interstate 35 for passenger rail service. The district, a government-funded agency that represents counties, cities and organizations in the I-35 corridor, is in the midst of an environmental study that has focused heavily on that route.

The district’s board met last week to discuss alternate routes — which could include building new tracks parallel to I-35 or Texas 130 — and voted to continue the environmental study by examining those options. But several officials at the joint MPO meeting expressed concern about the effect UP’s decision could have on the cost and timeline of a project that already has been under discussion for more than a decade.

“The financing of it is really a big question mark,” said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, vice chairman of the Alamo Area MPO. “We’ve already done a lot of work (on planning). Will we be able to utilize any amount of that data in choosing a different alternative?”

In 2007, the Alamo Area MPO set aside $20 million for the passenger service. Those funds, reserved for final design, right-of-way acquisition and construction, have not been spent yet.

In 2011, CAMPO also gave the district $20 million, nearly $12 million of which has been spent on planning the line. The board debated freezing the remainder late last month but ultimately decided to take a closer look at the project and reconsider the issue in June.

Hays County commissioner Will Conley, CAMPO’s chairman, said the board’s final decision on the matter could depend on whether the Alamo Area MPO agrees to foot some of the costs of planning the rail service. He said that commitment would demonstrate San Antonio-area officials’ confidence in the direction of the project.

“There are a lot of us — a majority of us — on the CAMPO board who have lost a lot of confidence in where we’re currently at,” he said. “Are you comfortable with the status quo? If you’re comfortable with the status quo, we would very much like you to make a commitment on the rest of the environmental document.”

See here and here for the background, and click over to the Express News story to see a map with the different route options specified. If the Union Pacific decision to not allow LSR to use its right of way is the death knell for this project, then the planning organizations’ eventual decision to reallocate funding will be the shovel and dirt to bury it. If they vote to keep the funding going, then there’s still a chance. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for May 1

Is Gwyneth Paltrow wrong about everything? Signs point to Yes.

“The emergence of companies as social activists is complicating traditional attitudes on both the left and the right.”

“Wall Street executives would have to wait at least four years to collect most of their bonus pay and could be forced to return money if their companies lose big under rules being proposed to install one of the last major planks of the Dodd-Frank Act.”

What Kevin Drum and Michael O’Hare say.

“Between 40% and 53% of Firefox users running Windows XP are Stuck (which is to say, they can’t be upgraded past Windows XP because they fail at least one of the requirements).”

“In the Philippines, call centers have become havens for gender-nonconforming people, a place where they can experiment with their gender presentation and identity.”

A scientific explanation for “manspreading”. (Via.)

Jocelyn Benson is a bigger badass than you (or me).

“The problem with the Kindle Unlimited scammers isn’t really the compensatory triggers of KU or the fact that everyone, legit author or otherwise, is looking for the way to squeeze as much money as possible from it. The problem is: who bears the immediate economic brunt of the scammers taking advantage of whatever scheme Amazon decides upon?”

A fantastic behind-the-scenes look at how TV – in particular, The Americans on FX – gets made.

Have you ever wondered what a live action Calvin and Hobbes might look like? Well, wonder no more.

How the NFL won the Deflategate appeal.

“But I knew, all the way in Minnesota, Prince could tell he was speaking to a person who had, moments ago, spit a dumpling out of her mouth.”

RIP, Harry Wu, former Chinese political prisoner and human rights activist.

RIP, Blackie Sherrod, legendary Texas sportswriter.

“We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists.”

“What happened to [Laremy Tunsil] Thursday night shouldn’t happen to anyone, never mind a 21-year-old kid about to celebrate the night of his young life.”

What Steve Benen and Bill Scher say.

RIP, Father Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest and longtime peace activist.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Houston’s anti-pollution ordinance killed by Supreme Court

Alas.

Bill White

Bill White

In passing two ordinances designed to regulate air pollution, the city of Houston overstepped its authority and illegally subverted state law, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday. The ruling is a victory for a coalition of industrial facilities whose emissions were subject to inspection and possible prosecution by the city.

The case pit the BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of companies including ExxonMobil, the Dow Chemical Company, and ConocoPhillips, against the city of Houston, which sought to penalize companies in criminal court when those companies violated state emission guidelines.

Attorneys for the city of Houston argued that the city was simply trying to enforce the standards set out by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state agency, by putting in place a parallel enforcement mechanism that would impose fines on the companies even if the Commission chose not to act.

“If the TCEQ is letting something go, and not enforcing its own standards, there’s something wrong with that,” attorney Robert Higgason told the justices in September.

In an 8–1 ruling Friday, the justices made it clear that they disagreed – saying that if the Commission chose not to enforce any given law, that did not clear the way for Houston authorities to do so.

“By authorizing criminal prosecution even when the TCEQ determines an administrative or civil remedy—or even no penalty at all—to be the appropriate remedy, the City effectively moots the TCEQ’s discretion and the TCEQ’s authority to select an enforcement mechanism,” Justice Paul Green wrote. “This is impermissible.”

See here and here for the origin story, and here and here for the most recent updates. The Chron story adds more.

City Attorney Donna Edmundson issued a statement saying the court’s decision “will not dampen the city’s efforts” to assist the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with the enforcement of environmental laws. The statement said the city will employ “other legal mechanisms” allowed under state law to monitor and take action against polluters. A spokeswoman said the city hadn’t decided whether to appeal.

Adrian Shelley, executive director of the advocacy group Air Alliance Houston, said the decision was “not the least bit surprising” but dismaying nonetheless.

“It’s pretty in-keeping with both previous judicial decisions and the direction in which our state government is moving,” he said. He cited the state Legislature’s passage of a bill last session that caps the amount local governments can collect through environmental lawsuits, Gov. Greg Abbott’s filing of a brief in support of the industry advocates in this case, and a prior legal case that made its way to the Texas Supreme Court.

“There will be more polluters who pollute with impunity,” Shelley said. “There will be a little poorer public health in the city as a result.”

Houston battled smoggy skies for decades and has failed to comply with federal ozone standards. The 10-county area includes the largest petrochemical complex in the country, hundreds of chemical plants and a bustling port.

Under the ordinances, the city collects registration fees from companies in order to investigate potential violations of air pollution laws.

City officials have defended the ordinances since their passage in 2007, arguing they helped fill an enforcement gap created by understaffing at TCEQ, the state agency responsible for monitoring and punishing polluters.

The city said legal mechanisms it could use against polluters include requesting that TCEQ investigate suspected polluters, seeking injunctive relief and penalties in civil court against suspected violators and notifying TCEQ of violations deemed to be criminal in nature.

Former Mayor Bill White pushed for the ordinances after growing frustrated with TCEQ. He and City Council members voted to amend a 1992 ordinance and start requiring businesses to pay registration fees based on their size and emissions. The fees range from $130 for a dry cleaning plant with fewer than six employees to $3,200 for plants emitting more than 10 tons annually of airborne contaminants.

The ordinances also authorized city health officers to seek civil, administrative and criminal sanctions for violations that can be prosecuted in municipal court, with fines of up to $2,000 per day for repeat violators.

The ordinance was based on the premise that these facilities are outside Houston’s boundaries, but their emissions directly affect the city and its residents, not to mention Houston’s non-compliance with EPA regulations. The Supreme Court wrote that allowing such ordinances might lead to uneven enforcement around the state. I can see the logic of that, but as is so often the case with the TCEQ, if they bothered to enforce the law in the first place, the city wouldn’t have passed that ordinance. It’s the same impetus that drove Denton to ban fracking, and as was the case there, it’s the same impulse to squash inconvenient expressions of local control that led to this result. How long can you hold your breath, Houston? The Press and the Observer have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Reynolds hit with $500K judgment

Geez.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

State Rep. Ron Reynolds has been ordered to pay $504,000 in damages for failing to give a grieving mother her share of settlement money from a 2010 lawsuit.

The embattled lawmaker, who is also an attorney, failed to give his former client, Nancy Ann Calloway, her share of a $250,000 settlement from a lawsuit stemming from her 23-year-old daughter’s death in a car crash, a Harris County judge ruled Friday.

After the award was handed down, the 55-year-old flight attendant teared up as she described Reynolds repeatedly putting her off when she asked for money that she had earmarked for a tombstone for her daughter, April Cherisse.

“It’s more pain in a painful situation,” Calloway said. “It’s a tragedy.”

[…]

State District Judge Grant Dorfman agreed with Calloway that the lawyer owed her $168,000 in actual damages and $336,000 in punitive damages.

Reynolds had given Calloway about $82,000 – about half of what he owed her – about 18 months after he received the settlement check, according to testimony.

On Friday, the judge agreed that Reynolds should forfeit his share of the mediated settlement because of his misdeeds.

After he ruled, the judge told Calloway that he had seen other consumers wronged by unethical business practices, but said Calloway’s circumstances were “crueler” than most.

“It’s especially troubling that it is a member of the state bar, much less a state rep,” the judge said.

It was in his capacity as a state representative that Reynolds approached Calloway, she testified Friday. He came to her home to console her two days after her daughter’s death in his role as her local legislator, she said. He then offered to represent her in a lawsuit.

Calloway’s attorney, Jim Culpepper, said authorities may also look at the case as another charge of barratry or in a grievance to the state bar, the agency that licenses attorneys and has the power to disbar them. Culpepper said he has not pursued those kinds of actions because he did not want to be accused of seeking criminal charges to leverage his position in the lawsuit.

As you know, I’ve been following both the primary and runoff in HD27, between Rep. Reynolds and Angelique Bartholomew, and the ongoing saga of Ron Reynolds’ legal problems – see here for plenty of related posts. I’ve said before that I like Rep. Reynolds personally, and I understand why his friends have continued to support him. But I have to say, with each of these stories, it gets harder for me to understand it. Beneath the fold is a long missive from Annie’s List, which is backing Bartholomew, detailing Reynolds’ history of judgments against him by former clients. To be as blunt as I can, this shit is unacceptable. I don’t know all the facts in all these cases, and I’m sure that as his political opponents in this runoff, Annie’s List has put everything in as unflattering a light for Reynolds as they can. But you can grant all the mitigating circumstances and more-to-the-story explanations you like, the pattern of behavior is clear, and we haven’t even mentioned the barratry conviction. Just look at the list of excuses and justifications Reynolds gives in this Trib story, and you’ll see that he’s still not willing to own the problems he has caused. I’m sorry it’s come to this, and I feel terrible for Rep. Reynolds’ family, but we do him no favors by continuing to support his political career. He needs to drop out of the runoff, and get his affairs in order. He owes that to his constituents, his clients, his family and friends and supporters, and himself.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Election 2016, Scandalized!.

Harris County takes a step towards jail reform

Good.

go_to_jail

Harris County commissioners voted Tuesday to back a sweeping plan to reform the criminal justice system, a week after the Harris County Jail began shipping inmates to other counties to avoid reaching capacity.

Commissioners voted to accept a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation and to allocate more than $3.3 million from general-fund reserves to help pay for the reforms, which were announced by District Attorney Devon Anderson earlier this month.

[…]

The county’s plan calls for hiring two coordinators, implementing a new case-management system, funding a new court and allowing defendants to pledge personally to appear in court without requiring them to obtain a bond.

Of the two new positions, one would be a racial and ethnic diversity coordinator who would build and maintain ties between criminal justice officials and minority communities.

The other position would be a jail coordinator who would troubleshoot problems in the jail complex to ensure that detainees are released as expeditiously as possible.

Overall, the goal is to reduce the jail’s daily population by about 1,800 – or 21 percent – over three years. The jail, one of the largest in the country, typically holds 8,500 to 8,700 inmates.

On April 15, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, shipped 133 inmates to private jails in Jefferson and Bowie counties to avoid overcrowding.

The transfers – which are expected to cost the county about $180,000 a month in boarding fees – mark the fourth time in the past year that the sheriff’s office has had to send inmates to jails in other parts of the state.

These are all good ideas, but I want to see them in action before I get too excited. I mean, criminal court judges in the county could have been using Pretrial Services to set more reasonable bail amounts and issuing recognizance bonds well before now if they had wanted to. It’s not clear to me how this plan will change their longtime behavior on this. If it does happen, great! Long overdue, but still an important step forward. All I’m saying is I need to see it happen to believe it.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Saturday video break: It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie

Combining two of my favorite things in this post, beginning with the Asylum Street Spankers:

Man, I miss these guys. I caught every show they did in Houston for several years running, including some in the most smoke-filled room in town, a dive called Rudyard’s, back before the city’s no-smoking ordinance was extended to bars and other non-eateries. Probably took a couple of years off my life, but it was worth it. They owned any stage they were on, and their range and musicianship could not be beaten. Oh, and they all had potty mouths, as I probably should have warned you before you played that clip. Oh, well.

Did you know that Brent Spiner, a/k/a Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation released an album back when that show was on the air? It was called Ol’ Yellow Eyes Is Back, and it featured this song. You can probably guess what happened next:

With bonus Patrick Stewart, even. This, THIS, is why the Internet was invented. Anyone who tells you otherwise is telling you a lie. And you know what telling a lie is.

UPDATE: How about this, from the Quebe Sisters?

Awesome. Thanks to Ginger in the comments for the recommendation.

Posted in: Music.

SCOTUS declines to intervene in voter ID case for now

Not what I would have wanted, but not the end of the line.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Even as a federal appeals court prepares to review the constitutionality of Texas’ controversial voter ID law, the law will remain in effect, the U.S. Supreme Court said in an order Friday.

However, noting the time-sensitive nature of the case as the November elections approach, the Supreme Court also hinted that if the full U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals hasn’t issued a definitive ruling by July 20, the justices may revisit the issue.

[…]

Oral arguments are scheduled for May 24.

In the interim, civil rights groups filed a petition with Justice Clarence Thomas, who sits at the head of the 5th Circuit to review emergency appeals. One the groups, the Campaign Legal Center, asked the Supreme Court to strike down the questionable laws while their legality is determined, so that there is sufficient time to spread information about who can vote in the November general elections.

Texas officials asked the justices to let the law stand, arguing that Texas will ultimately win the case. If the law were struck down temporarily and then restored later, it would cause “irreparable injury,” they said.

On Friday, the Supreme Court sided with Texas officials – but seemed to push the 5th Circuit toward making a speedy ruling as the presidential election approaches.

“The Court recognizes the time constraints the parties confront in light of the scheduled elections in November,” the Supreme Court’s order said. “If, on or before July 20, 2016,” the 5th Circuit hasn’t taken any action, the nine justices might revisit the issue, it added.

See here, here, and here for some background. A fuller quote from the SCOTUS ruling, via the Chron story, is “If, on or before July 20, 2016, the Court of Appeals has neither issued an opinion on the merits of the case nor issued an order vacating or modifying the current stay order, an aggrieved party may seek interim relief from this Court by filing an appropriate application. An aggrieved party may also seek interim relief if any change in circumstances before that date supports further arguments respecting the stay order.” We’ll see if this at least puts a bit of a fire underneath the Fifth Circuit’s robes. A statement from the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) is beneath the fold, and the Lone Star Project and Trail Blazers have more.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Legal matters.

GetMe waits in the wings

No matter what happens with the rideshare repeal referendum in Austin, there will be at least one vehicle for hire company in the capital city.

Early voting is underway in Austin on Proposition 1, where residents will decide which regulations the city should adopt for vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft.

Both companies have pledged to leave the city if the proposed ordinance is not adopted — a claim they’ve made good on in three Texas cities this year. But at least one ride-hailing company insists it can fill the gap Uber and Lyft would leave behind.

“We’re not going to be the donkey or the elephant,” said Jonathan Laramy, the chief experience officer for Get Me LLC, which the company has stylized as getme. “We’re here to stay. Vote Prop. 1, vote Prop. 2 – we don’t care.”

[…]

Laramy said getme — which currently operates in Austin, Dallas, Houston and Las Vegas — is willing to adhere to any local regulations, as long as the process for obtaining fingerprint-based background checks is “fast, easy and cost effective.”

“We’re a good corporate citizen,” Laramy said, adding that the company is willing to collaborate with cities on their regulations.

While his company is still working out the specifics, Laramy said that “at some point, we will fingerprint all of our drivers” — even in cities without a requirement.

If Austin voters do not approve the proposed ordinance, Uber and Lyft have said they will leave the city — although The Daily Dot reported last week that Uber fully intends to stay, regardless of the outcome of the election. If the companies leave, Laramy said getme would be prepared to process a potential influx of driver applications.

“We have a platform where we could actually — and we already have this in place and ready to go — sign up conceivably 5,000 drivers in a month, if not more,” Laramy said. He would not elaborate on specifics of the plan, but he said it involved “using information that’s already been done and then verifying and showing us that.”

After starting up in Dallas in February 2015, getme recently relocated its headquarters to Austin. Laramy said it has more than 10,000 drivers across the four cities where it operates, more than 2,000 of whom are in Houston. The company boasts 6 corporate employees and a handful of contractors, making it a significantly smaller operation than ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft.

Laramy says the company soon plans to offer services in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and Atlanta. In Texas, he said, the company is launching operations in Galveston next week and Corpus Christi this summer.

This follows Uber’s cessation of operations in Galveston and Corpus Christi earlier this year after both cities adopted fingerprint background check requirements. Laramy said getme’s interest in both cities was unrelated to Uber’s actions and that they had planned to launch in both locations well before Uber left.

“You can’t get home if you take a ride down there,” said Laramy, describing someone looking to travel between Houston and Galveston using getme. “It’s silly not to have both cities.”

See here and here for more on GetMe, which will likely get a little extra exposure here in Houston now as well. That Daily Dot report seems thinly sourced and contradicts everything we’ve heard so far, but who knows. Regardless of the outcome on May 7, I suspect there will be more than a few people in Austin looking for an alternative to Uber and Lyft, so whether they clear out or not, this is a smart move on GetMe’s part. Has anyone out there used them?

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Cornyn files bill to speed up floodgate construction process

Credit where credit is due.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation Wednesday that he says would expedite the long process of constructing a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast, including the particularly vulnerable Houston region.

But while local officials cheered the high-profile support, it’s unclear how much the measure would actually speed anything up.

Most agree on the need to build a project known as the “coastal spine” — a massive floodgate and barrier system — to protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane that could kill thousands and cripple the national economy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

Cornyn’s bill is intended to hurry things along by requiring the Corps to take local studies into account and by eliminating the need for Congress to authorize construction of whatever project the Corps recommends.

The Corps has already said it would consider locally done studies, however. And while getting rid of the need for Congressional authorization could shave off a small amount of time, the real hurdle will be getting Congress to help fund what is sure to be a multi-billion-dollar project.

“The devil’s in the details, right?” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. “But I will tell you that for the senator to step up and start this process is very positive, and it can’t do anything but help … the positive is Senator Cornyn has done something, and we’ve got to build on it.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Shortly thereafter, Cornyn’s bill had a House companion.

Two days after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation seeking to expedite a hurricane protection plan for Texas, U.S. Rep. Randy Weber said he expects to introduce a companion bill in the U.S. House in the coming weeks.

The two Republicans hope their efforts will speed up the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ long process of studying, approving and building a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast. (The Army Corps has estimated that under a normal timeline, construction on such a system could not start until 2024 at the earliest.)

“We’re heightening awareness, we’re trying to get this ratcheted up as quickly as we can, so that when appropriations do come into play, we can say, ‘OK, here’s the project we’ve been talking about, here’s why it’s important, and we’re just one step closer to getting funding for it,'” Weber said Friday in a phone interview.

As you know, I have zero faith that Congress will pay for any of this. I think Cornyn will have a hard enough time just getting his bill to a vote in the Senate, and I have less faith that Weber can do the same in the dismal catastrophe that is the Republican-controlled House. Nonetheless, someone still has to file a bill like this, so kudos to Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Weber for taking the first step. They has their work cut out for them from here, and they are both a part of the reason why it’s basically impossible to get stuff like this done nowadays, but they did file their bills, so good on them for that. The Press has more.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Don’t let the mosquitoes bite

That’s going to be a challenge.

Mosquitoes don’t breed in flood waters. They drown in them, said Dr. Mustapha Debboun, director of the Mosquito Control Division at Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services.

But it’s after the flood waters subside that mosquito breeding becomes an issue, he said. And with the Zika virus on everyone’s radar over the past few months, Debboun said they’ll be heading into neighborhoods to mount an education campaign once the high waters recede in order to keep the spread of the virus under wraps as much as possible.

[…]

Debboun said that, even after the floods, there is no need to panic. There are several things that people can do to keep potential Zika-carrying mosquitoes away. For one — and this one’s a bit of a no-brainer — people should wear insect repellent, especially as the temperatures begin to rise in May, Debboun said, if they don’t want to get bitten. Most importantly, though, people need to drain any small or large containers that filled with water during the flood, Debboun said. The mosquitoes like to breed in shallow, stagnant water, whether in big buckets or flower pots or even a water bottle left outside. And mosquitoes that carry Zika are exactly the types of mosquitoes that live in your backyard, who like these environments. “People have to help us in denying mosquitoes the chance to breed in those containers full of water,” Debboun said.

At a meeting in Greenspoint Wednesday night, Mayor Sylvester Turner also urged residents not to leave wet debris and ruined furniture from their homes out on the curb or their front lawns so as to not attract mosquitoes. He said Waste Management has pitched in by providing dozens of large dumpsters in those worst-hit neighborhoods.

As the story notes, Zika is already here. How much of a problem it becomes remains to be seen. I’m sure there will be plenty of spraying and other mitigation done by the city and the county, but do your part, too. Get rid of standing water, and use mosquito repellent. Let’s try to keep the little bastards under control.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Friday random ten: In the city, part 8

More Memphis!

1. Leningrad – Billy Joel
2. Lisdoonvarna – Ceili’s Muse
3. Liverpool Sunset – Gerald Jay Markoe
4. Lodi – Creedence Clearwater Revival
5. London Homesick Blues – Flying Fish Sailors
6. (Making The Run To) Gladewater – Michelle Shocked
7. Marching Bands Of Manhattan – Death Cab for Cutie
8. Memphis Exorcism – Squirrel Nut Zippers
9. Memphis in The Meantime – John Hiatt
10. Miami – Shorty Long

Manhattan isn’t technically a city, unless Death Cab for Cutie was writing about Kansas, but it is a county (New York County, technically) and I did allow for counties before, so we’re good. Memphis currently has a 5-2 lead on New York, though I have two versions of “Fairy Tale of New”, so you could look at it as 5-3. It’s still a lead, though having looked ahead a couple of weeks, I can tell you (spoiler alert) it’s a lead that won’t last. Enjoy it while you can, Memphis.

Posted in: Music.

More on the Uber ultimatum

Initial reaction is not terribly receptive.

Uber

Ride-hailing giant Uber threatened Wednesday to stop operating in Houston unless city leaders amend local regulations the company said are making it tough for them to recruit drivers.

The ultimatum, the latest skirmish in what has been a contentious relationship between Uber and the city since it started operating here two years ago, drew a strong rebuke from city leaders.

“This is just not how we do business in Houston,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who added the city “will not compromise on public safety.”

[…]

The Uber announcement, which officials viewed as a threat to meet the company’s demands or lose the service, was met with frustration by city leaders, some of whom have grown increasingly exasperated by the tumult.

“If you don’t want to follow the rules we all agreed to, have a good opportunity in another city,” District E Councilman David Martin said. “But we cannot be blackmailed when it comes to public safety.”

[…]

Uber and its supporters argue that part-time driving for the company helps people make money while keeping rates for riders cheap.

The company in its report said drivers take an average of four months to sign up with Uber and complete the city permitting process. Houston officials said the longest a driver has waited is two months, and that the average time to clear the regulations is 11 days. About 47 percent of drivers received a license within a week, officials said.

“What they are putting out is factually incorrect,” Turner said, adding that he thought the company’s motive is to put pressure on politicians to capitulate.

See here for the background. I didn’t expect Uber’s announcement to be greeted warmly, but I am a bit surprised that no one stepped forward to defend them, or at least to criticize the fingerprint policy, in the story. CM Martin’s comment is of particular interest, since Uber’s main allies on Prop 1 in Austin are a couple of conservative Republican Council members there. I’ve look around at other coverage but have not seen any other reactions from Council members. I will be very interested to see who, if anyone, is in Uber’s corner on this. It was one thing to advocate for allowing Uber to operate here. This is a whole ‘nother level, and unless a Council member comes under pressure from constituents, it’s rather a large stretch.

The Press brings up another aspect of this fight.

Notwithstanding the curious timing (voters in Austin will decide May 7 whether to keep similar regulations; early voting for the ballot measure started this week), it’s hard to know what to make of Uber’s claims. Officials with the City of Houston insist that, by pretty much any trackable measure, Uber has been a resounding success here. The city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs department says that every month it sees an increase in drivers who want a license to drive for the company. And, according to city officials, judging by the company’s revenue in Houston (under the regulations passed in 2014, Uber pays 2 percent of gross bookings to the city), Uber is doing quite well.

It seems there’s either fundamental difference of interpretation or someone’s not telling the whole truth. We’d love to get to the bottom of this, but here’s the problem: Uber has sued to block the city from releasing pretty much any internal data that could show whether Houston’s regulations have been a success or unreasonable burden for rideshares.

Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs department, insists that Uber has had an undeniably good run here since the city began enforcing its rules for licensing drivers for so-called transportation network companies (or TNCs) like Uber, limo services and taxi companies. “The number of drivers is increasing, their revenue is increasing, everything seems to be working out for them very, very well,” Cottingham told us. “But because Uber sued us to stop us from releasing [those numbers], I can’t tell you how successful they are.”

[…]

While Uber claims it takes drivers on average four months to get a city license, Cottingham says that’s just not the case. She says that according to a survey the city conducted this spring (which, of course, she can’t release because of Uber’s lawsuit), nearly half of all drivers got their license within a week of applying – almost all (about 84 percent) had al license within three weeks of applying, she claims. Whatever the case, Uber’s Meridia said in the letter to city leaders yesterday that demand in Houston “continues to grow approximately twice as fast as our ability to onboard qualified drivers.”

Cottingham says the city has streamlined the process as much as possible, but what Uber’s really asking for – axing the city’s additional background check provision – isn’t an option.

KTRK also noted that some of the facts in dispute cannot be checked on either end. That makes this more of a PR battle than anything else. Do people, who clearly like using Uber’s service, side with them against the city and buy into the argument that needless regulation is making it impossible to operate? Or do they see the fingerprint requirement as a basic safety measure, which Uber should have no issue with complying? That seems to me to be the basic outline of the dispute, and it’s why I’m so interested in who Uber’s proxies will be in the fight. I’m sure Mayor Turner’s response to this has been along the lines of “I don’t need this $#!+ right now”. Who will be on his side? BOR has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Rangers investigating Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Busy days for them.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

The Texas Rangers have joined a Travis County District Attorney office criminal probe into state Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ use of staff, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed.

“At the request of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the Texas Rangers are assisting in an investigation into alleged criminal misconduct of Dawnna Dukes,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said in a statement released Tuesday.

The Texas Tribune reported in February that the State Auditor’s Office had launched an investigation after Dukes’ then chief of staff, Mike French, asked whether it was legal for the Austin Democrat to ask staff to work on the annual African-American Heritage Festival. The festival is an event Dukes helped create 17 years ago to raise money for scholarships to Huston-Tillotson University.

The auditor’s office referred the case to Travis County prosecutors on April 15, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

See here for some background. I’m sure if Rep. Dukes winds up getting indicted for something, Ken Paxton and Rick Perry will stand with her in solidarity over these overly politicized investigations. Until then, we’ll see what happens. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Council approves body camera storage funds

Good.

City Council voted Wednesday to spend $1 million to buy servers and other equipment to store video collected by city police officers equipped with body cameras.

The vote, passed with relatively little fuss following months of sometimes-contentious public debate, marks the next step in the Houston Police Department’s ongoing effort to equip more than 4,000 patrol officers with the devices.

The storage will cost the city about $8 million over five years, with about $585,000 more per year in additional staffing costs, officials said. An alternate proposal to use cloud-based storage would have cost the city even more.

[…]

The city plans to purchase 4,500 body cameras, of which about 400 would be spares. Wednesday’s vote cleared the way for the city to purchase Dell Compellent computer servers with space to hold 1.5 petabytes of data, and a similar amount of space to hold a duplicate copy of the data.

One copy would be stored in HPD’s data center, with a separate copy stored in the city’s Disaster Recovery Center, according to the police department.

The move to store the data in-house had prompted worries from some that the data could be more easily tampered with, a concern Mayor Sylvester Turner brushed aside in brief remarks after the meeting.

“I’m comfortable the integrity of the system is sound,” he said.

See here and here for some background. I’m a little surprised that a cloud solution was more expensive, but no big deal. A petabyte, by the way, is one step up from a terabyte, which is one step up from a gigabyte. If your PC has 500 GB of hard disk space, then 1.5 petabytes is like 3000 of your hard drives. So yeah, a lot of storage space.

The city wasn’t the only entity taking action on body cameras. From the inbox:

In a move to strengthen service, the METRO Board unanimously approved issuing body cameras to METRO police (MPD) officers as part of their regular uniforms.

“Our officers are excited about this. We see this as an enhancement not only for our officers but for our employees and patrons,” said MPD Chief Vera Bumpers.

The $184,125.00 contract with Watch Guard covering the purchase and implementation of the 195 cameras, will provide new surveillance capability for security purposes. Each camera costs $699.00, and all officers as well as sergeants will all wear the units.

“We are pleased to take this step. We expect this program to enhance our police department from a investigative and training perspective as well as strengthen community trust in law enforcement with increased transparency and accountability,” said Board Chair Carrin Patman.

Anticipated delivery and roll-out of the new security program is projected to take six months.

Camera data is planned for storage on MPD’s video management system for 90 days unless it is classified as evidence. Storage of the video data will require the purchase of additional hardware with an estimated cost of $253,015. The METRO Board has not yet approved that expenditure.

Good for Metro. I hadn’t been aware before now that they had been working on getting body cameras for their 191 officers. We should remember that there are a whole lot of law enforcement agencies in Texas, and the more of them that equip their officers with body cameras, the better off we’ll all be. The school districts, community college districts, universities like Rice and UH and TSU, and the many small cities in the area should all have plans of some kind to get on board with this. Don’t be the last holdout.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Another FEC complaint filed against Cruz

We’re up to two.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

The Texas Democrats have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz and his associates violated campaign finance laws.

The complaint, dated April 22, asserts that Cruz national co-chair, J. Keet Lewis, broke election laws at an official campaign fundraiser in December by asking attendees to donate unlimited amounts, as well as to make corporate contributions to the pro-Cruz Stand for Truth PAC.

Cruz and his wife, Heidi, reportedly attended the Dec. 30 event in Dallas.

Federal law prohibits coordination between candidates and Super PACs. While a candidate or agent of a candidate can solicit donors to a PAC, it is illegal for them to solicit unlimited contributions or corporate contributions to a Super PAC. They can only solicit up to $5,000 from individuals.

The Texas Democrats say Lewis clearly violated those terms when he told donors “If you hit your max then we have a table for you that is the unlimited table. It can take corporate dollars, it can take partnership dollars, and that’s the Super PAC, Stand for Truth…” according to the complaint.

Lewis also said “The method to our madness is this: You max out and then get engaged in the Super PAC,” the filing states.

Lewis has denied wrongdoing and told Politico, which reported the potential violation earlier this month, that he is not an agent of the campaign under federal standards. Lewis was one of roughly 50 co-hosts. Texas Democrats argue that he is, given his national co-chair role.

A copy of the complaint is here. As the story notes, there was another complaint filed with the FEC against the Cruz campaign in January, this one alleging that he failed to disclose financial support from Goldman Sachs and Citibank for his 2012 Senate campaign. I have no idea what the timetable is for either of these, but I won’t be surprised if they are not concluded till after the campaign. The Trib has more.

Posted in: The making of the President.

Uber says it will leave Houston if it does not change its fingerprinting requirement

I called it.

Uber

Uber announced Wednesday that the company plans to cease operations in Houston if the city council does not repeal its existing regulations relating to vehicle-for-hire companies.

Houston is one of two cities in the country where Uber continues to operate despite a local requirement that its drivers undergo fingerprint-based background checks. Uber has recently left three cities in Texas for approving similar regulations and has threatened to do the same in Austin.

The company’s main competitor, Lyft, pulled out of Houston over a year ago in response to the new rules requiring its drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks. Uber had continued to operate in the city while publicly criticizing the regulation as burdensome.

“We have worked hard and taken extraordinary steps to help guide drivers through the current process in Houston,” said Uber General Manager Sarfraz Maredia in a letter to Houston City Council on Wednesday. “However, a year and a half later, it is clear the regulations are simply not working for the people of this city.”

Uber also released a report Wednesday detailing, “The Cost of Houston’s Ridesharing Regulations.” The report claims Houston’s regulations have led to a decrease in Uber drivers and in turn, “fewer safe rides.”

Here’s Uber’s press release, their letter to Council, and the report mentioned in the story. Before I get into any details, here are some further news bits. First, from the initial Chron story.

No departure date has been set, Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said.

“We have not set a specific deadline,” she said. “We want to work with the city to develop regulations that work for riders, drivers and the entire community. We understand this process may take a few months.

[…]

Meanwhile use of Uber in Houston surges, something both sides have said bolsters their case. The city argues use means Uber is profitable even with the regulations, though the company says they stifle supply of drivers.

From the Statesman:

The company does not disclose to the media or public how many drivers it has working in Houston, and it obtained a court order preventing city of Houston officials from releasing that information. (Lyft does not operate in Houston.)

The report released Wednesday by Uber includes a chart purporting to show drivers-per-million residents in Houston, Austin and Los Angeles, and the chart is presented in such a way as to imply that Austin (with no fingerprinting required until Feb. 28) has many more drivers per million residents.

But the chart has no numbers listed on its vertical scale of drivers per million residents, rendering it qualitative in nature, not quantitative. Given that and the company’s refusal to release driver figures, it is impossible to confirm the company’s claims about driver supply there.

The letter and report do not mention that Houston has a process under which a driver can get a 30-day “provisional” license without first going through fingerprinting. But according to Uber, a Houston driver, even to get that provisional license, must complete a physical, take a drug test, appear at Houston municipal court to get a check of outstanding criminal warrants, buy a fire extinguisher for the car, get his or her car inspected by a city inspector and get an Uber identifying marker for the car.

From the Houston Business Journal:

According to the letter and a corresponding report on Uber’s Houston operations, 59 percent of its Houston fleet drives less than 10 hours a week. That’s compared to 79 percent of drivers in Austin, and 77 percent in Houston’s outer limits. Uber argues that for these part-time drivers, the regulations are too oppressive and prevents new drivers from signing up.

Mayor Turner held a press conference yesterday at 4 to give his reaction. The Chron story that contained it was updated too late for me to see it last night, so I’ll do another piece tomorrow to discuss that. Click2Houston reports him saying he was “surprised” and that when he had last spoken to Uber reps a few months ago they gave no indication they were dissatisfied; I received another statement from Uber later in the day that takes issue with that, but I’ll get to all that tomorrow. The one thing that surprises me about this is that Uber announced it before the results of the Austin referendum are known. I had assumed they’d wait and pounce if they were successful in repealing Austin’s ordinance; if they failed, I figured they’d still make some move in Houston, but they might be more circumspect about it. Winning the referendum in Austin gives them leverage, which I strongly suspect is part of the point. Maybe this is a show of confidence on their part, maybe it’s just bravado, or maybe this was the plan all along. Who knows?

There are three logical ways Houston can go with this:

1. Do what Uber wants, which would surely have the effect of bringing Lyft back as well. That would not be my first choice, but if Prop 1 passes in Austin, there may be a lot of sentiment here for that.

2. Stand pat and let Uber do what it’s going to do. Get Me is operating in town, so it’s not like there’s no vehicle for hire alternative. One could argue that Uber’s abandonment of many Texas cities, potentially including Austin, would pave the way for another competitor to arise. The demand clearly exists for this service, and opportunities like this don’t come along every day. This is a better strategy if Prop 1 fails, and the bigger the margin the better. It also assumes a commitment to ensuring that no legislation that pre-empts local rideshare ordinances gets passed in the 2017 Legislature.

3. Try to negotiate a compromise. I still kind of like Austin Mayor Adler’s proposal for voluntary fingerprinting, which then becomes part of a driver’s profile and which customers can request. Let’s see what the free market has to say about that, shall we? There are certainly other possibilities, and again, this is likely to be more feasible if Prop 1 goes down.

Anyway. I don’t know as I write this what Mayor Turner had to say beyond his surprise, nor do I know what the prevailing opinion on Council is. Whatever the case, I’m sure this will be a big part of the discussion over the next few months, which I’m sure is exactly what the Mayor wanted given the forthcoming budget battle, the ongoing flood cleanup, the continuing search for an HPD chief, and everything else on his agenda. Well timed, Uber.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Dan Patrick supports potty package check legislation

Of course he does.

RedEquality

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, weighing into a national controversy over transgender restrooms, said Tuesday he supports keeping men out of women’s restrooms, even if it takes legislation to do so.

Since the issue erupted into controversy nationally, some Texas lawmakers have said they will support a state law for single-sex restrooms, and the endorsement of that position by Senate-leader Patrick is likely to give that movement momentum.

“I think the handwriting is on the bathroom wall: Stay out of the ladies’ room if you’re a man,” Patrick said outside his Capitol office, confirming a post on his Facebook page that affirmed his opposition to cross-sex restrooms.

“If it costs me an election, if it costs me a lot of grief, then so be it. If we can’t fight for something this basic, then we’ve lost our country.”

[…]

Patrick, who last year along with Gov. Greg Abbott and other GOP officials supported the repeal of a Houston ordinance on transgender restrooms, dismissed threats of boycotts and business opposition in other states as “bluff and bluster.” he noted that since Houston repealed its so-called HERO ordinance, by a wide margin in an election, the city has hosted the Final Four basketball championships and will host the Super Bowl in 2017.

I guess the North Carolina experience doesn’t enter the equation. I mean, look, this is what the modern Republican Party is. The business community has been closely aligned with them for a long time due to shared interests on taxes and regulations and stuff like that. The same business community also supports comprehensive immigration reform, greater investment in infrastructure and public education, and LGBT equality. All of these things stand in opposition to what the GOP supports. Heck, the North Carolina Republicans are wearing the backlash as a badge of honor, and you can see in Dan Patrick’s language the same sentiment. Will this ever cause a schism? I keep thinking that one of these days it will, but I keep being disappointed, and they keep supporting the same old politicians who keep opposing the same things they say they support. I wish I could say I expect something different from the business community this time, but as of now at least, I can’t. Trail Blazers, the Trib, and the Current have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Kill that trash subsidy

Works for me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner, working to close a $160 million budget deficit, has proposed scrapping payments that scores of Houston neighborhoods served by private trash haulers receive to help offset the cost of their waste contracts.

The idea when the program started in the 1970s was that residents should not have to pay property taxes for city trash services they were not receiving – particularly because they were already paying for waste pickup in their homeowner association dues. The city also came out ahead because the $6 monthly per-house subsidy was cheaper than the cost of the city serving each home itself, now estimated at $18 per home per month.

In scraping together a balanced budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, however, Turner felt the program was expendable. In many cases, the subsidies go to residents who have chosen to pay for more extensive services than those the city provides, such as having the trash picked up more frequently than once a week, or having workers walk up a resident’s driveway to retrieve the trash rather than the homeowner rolling a bin to the curb.

Cutting these “sponsorship” payments to the 48,000 homes participating would save the city $3.5 million.

“When I drilled down in every department and every line item and I saw that line item sticking out, my question was, ‘Is this one that people can give up without hurting them and the core services, things that are essential to the city?'” Turner said. “I decided this was something the city at this particular point in time was not in a position to continue to sponsor.”

City Council will begin hearings on Turner’s proposed budget on Monday, leading up to a final vote that could come as early as May 25.

[…]

“If they end up saying it’s that big of a difference, that they will give up their contracts and will turn to the city, then yeah, OK, more than likely I’ll remove it,” Turner said. “I’m not trying to make their situation bad, I’m simply trying to balance a budget that’s $160 million short, and I’ve asked people to engage in shared sacrifice.”

The mayor also suggested, wearing a slight grin, that reporters examine the subdivisions now receiving trash subsidies.

The three City Council districts home to 83 percent of the city’s sponsorship agreements, records show, also are the three districts with the highest median household incomes in the city: District G on the west side, District E in Kingwood and Clear Lake, and District C, which covers much of the western half of the Inner Loop.

[CM Dave] Martin acknowledged that he and many of his neighbors receiving private trash service in District E can cover a $6-per-month increase in their civic association dues.

“If you’re used to getting your trash picked up twice a week and you’re used to backdoor service, most people are probably going to say, ‘Keep my six bucks,'” Martin said. “They’re mostly the people that have the means to pay an extra $6 a month.”

Yes indeed. And now is the time for the city to say to these folks that we can no longer afford to subsidize their premium trash collection service. We all have to make sacrifices in these lean times, don’t you know. The irony is that if enough people decide that the sacrifice they’d prefer to make is the higher level of service, in return for saving a few bucks a month, then it won’t be worth the city’s effort to make them make that sacrifice. I suspect that the vast majority of them will take the original deal, of keeping the service but paying full price for it. If nothing else, it will allow those who are so inclined to piss and moan about how hard they have it now. Surely that’s worth the six bucks a month to them. KUHF has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 25

The Texas Progressive Alliance is gathered here today to get through this thing called mourning the loss of Prince as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Houston Area Survey 2016: Harris County becoming more Democratic

Whoa.

A majority of Harris County residents lean Democratic for the first time ever, propelled by plummeting support for Republicans among Latinos, according to a survey released Monday by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The finding, in the midst of a particularly divisive presidential campaign, could signal an important shift in arguably the nation’s largest swing county, which narrowly went to President Barack Obama in 2012 by only about 970 votes. It might also portend that the long-sleeping giant of Latino voters will, finally perhaps, be roused from slumber in an election that has featured decidedly anti-Latino and anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly from billionaire Republican contender Donald Trump.

“Frankly I’m not all that surprised,” said Jim McGrath, a Republican political consultant in Houston and spokesman for former President George H. W. Bush. “These are the fears realized by those on the Republican side who are worried about the irresponsible rhetoric surrounding the illegal immigration issue.”

According to the annual survey, which was conducted between January and March, 52 percent of Harris County residents said they identified more with the Democratic Party compared to 46 percent in 2012. Only 30 percent of residents leaned Republican this spring, about the same as in 2012, meaning that it is the share of undecided and new potential voters whom have swung largely Democratic.

[…]

Support for the GOP has stayed steady among white and African-American residents for the past decade, with 54 percent of the county’s white population swinging Republican and 39 percent Democrat, though there was a slight increase in Democrat support among Anglo voters in the county over the past two years. Similarly 82 percent of African-American residents lean Democratic and 8 percent Republican.

Among Latinos, however, there has been a sea change.

From about 2000 to 2008, some 40 percent of the county’s Hispanic residents identified as Democratic compared to fewer than 30 percent who felt Republican, Klineberg said. That began to change around 2009 when their support for Democrats increased to nearly 50 percent and the share of those leaning Republican dropped to 25 percent.

The gap widened once more around the 2012 presidential election when Republican Mitt Romney received the lowest share of the Hispanic vote — 27 percent — than GOP nominees had tallied in the previous three election cycles in a campaign during which immigration was particularly divisive.

This spring, Harris County’s Hispanic residents registered the lowest amount of support ever for Republicans — only 18 percent — compared to 68 percent of Latinos who said they lean Democrat.

“It’s a powerful message to the Republican party, reach out to these Latino voters, don’t push them away,” Klineberg said. “And for the Democrats, get out the vote.”

The survey is conducted by land line and cell phone calls among a statistically representative sample of 808 residents, not eligible voters, in Harris County. Among 604 Harris County residents who can vote, 46 percent leaned Democrat and 41 percent Republican.

See the Urban Edge blog for more details on the poll. There’s quite a bit more to the 2016 Houston Area Survey than this, but for now we’ll just focus on this particular data point, for obvious reasons. This is not a poll in the standard sense – it doesn’t ask which candidate you will support, nor does it try to determine who is a “likely” voter – but it is consistent with what we are seeing in national data as well as swing states. Latinos were slightly more likely to vote Republican in Texas in 2012 than they were elsewhere, though that was partly a turnout function, as polling data at the time showed that lower-propensity voters were more strongly Democratic. If – the big if – Latino voters are more strongly motivated to turn out this year, it is consistent for them to be more Democratic even without taking the Trump factor into account.

What could this mean in practical terms?

Some advocacy groups, such as the William C. Velásquez Institute, a national Latino public policy research group in San Antonio, predict Hispanics in Texas this year will account for more than 3 million registered voters and cast more than 2 million votes, both of which would be records. Overall, the state has about 14.2 million registered voters.

Their expectations are largely predicated on population growth. Since 2012, Texas gained 600,000 eligible Hispanic voters, expanding to 4.8 million – second only to California, according to the Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The Latino share of Texas’ eligible voters increased 2 percentage points in that period, to 28 percent.

Bearing in mind all of the usual disclaimers, let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope math for the fun of it. Here are three statewide scenarios for this year:


Total votes    Latino  Not Latino     Pct
=========================================
  4,650,000    480,000  4,170,000  58.75%
  3,350,000  1,120,000  2,230,000  41.25%

  4,570,000    400,000  4,170,000  54.40%
  3,830,000  1,600,000  2,230,000  45.60%

  4,670,000    500,000  4,170,000  53.00%
  4,230,000  2,000,000  2,230,000  47.00%

Scenario 1 is basically what happened in 2012. No change in Latino turnout, which based on 2012 polling is 20% of the total, or Latino propensity for voting Democratic, which was about 70% that year. Scenario 2 is the “two million Latino voters” possibility that the Velasquez Institute mentioned. For that, I’m assuming 80% Democratic support, which is consistent with the polling data we have so far for matchups against Donald Trump, and with the data noted above that lower-propensity Latino voters are more heavily Democratic than Latinos overall. Sure, this may be a bit optimistic, but I’m playing a what-if game here, so stay with me. Scenario 3 is the bluer sky version of #2, where Latino turnout is 2.5 million at the same 80% Democratic rate. Note that in all cases, non-Latino turnout and propensity is the same. This is mostly to make the calculations simple; basically, I’m isolating the Latino voting variable. One could play around with the hypothesis that a Trump candidacy might also depress base Republican turnout, but I’ll leave those calculations to you. In scenario 2, Latinos make up about 24% of the voter universe, while in #3 they are 28% of total turnout, which as noted is about their share of total eligible voters.

I’m not arguing any of this is likely, or even realistic. I am showing that the ground is shifting, and even a relatively modest change could have a sizable effect. It’s not enough to turn Texas blue, but the state would be a lot less red. As noted before, that effect would surely be felt downballot, with Harris County likely being an epicenter. The bigger question would then be if any of that might carry over into a non-Presidential year, or if the same patterns we have observed in recent elections would persist. That’s beyond my scope here, and depending on how things end up may be irrelevant. But clearly something is happening. Even if it’s not enough to change the state, it’s more than enough to tilt Harris County, whether there is a concerted turnout effort (which I hope there is!) or not. Campos has more.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Paxton’s pity party

Oh, boo hoo hoo.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton has blasted his indictments and other legal problems – including a previously undisclosed IRS investigation and frozen accounts – as a political witch-hunt fueled by fellow conservatives and the media.

At a Tarrant County tea party meeting Saturday that also featured Glenn Beck and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, Paxton asked the crowd to imagine a trusted neighbor who gets a new job and then is plagued by all kinds of problems – including having his accounts frozen and being subject to an IRS audit.

“He’s got some of his bank accounts have been shut down. Some of his retirement accounts are being shut down,” said Paxton. “You find out the guy is being investigated by the Travis County DA, and then the Dallas County DA, and then the Collin County DA. And then you find out the person is being investigated by the SEC.”

He then added, “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is there a character problem here? This person has been no trouble for 35 years and then, suddenly, they’re having all this trouble.’ Well that’s, in that sense, what’s happened to me. I have no speeding ticket in my life. Never been audited by the IRS. Never been investigated by—never, no bar grievances with the state bar. I get sworn into office and everything I just mentioned happened.”

[…]

Also on Saturday, Paxton said that one of his biggest challenges in state government has been Republican disunity.

“Since been running for AG, you may have noticed I’ve been under a little bit of a political attack. You might have noticed the media doesn’t cover me very well, says a few unflattering things,” he said. “The reality is when you go down to Austin and you’re going to stick to your conservative principles, there are people in our own party often times that find that too enlightening.”

Poor, poor baby. There’s audio at the link if you can stomach it. It may well be that Ken Paxton was a complete choirboy for the first forty-something years of his life, and then he got corrupted by his years in Austin. We know Paxton has made a tidy little fortune since first being elected, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine. And isn’t that “power corrupts” narrative something that teabaggers love to believe?

Anyway. Turns out Paxton is not being audited, just hyperbolic. That link has video of the speech, if you’re even more morbid. It may well be that Texas voters will tolerate a scoundrel or two – or at least, it may well be that the current Republican voting majority will tolerate a Republican scoundrel – but a whiner? There’s also the inconvenient fact that our scoundrels have for the most part not gotten themselves convicted. Someone who gets accused and gets off is an underdog who beat the system. Someone who gets convicted (if it sticks, anyway), is just another crook. That story has not yet been written about Ken Paxton.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

“Space City” fight escalates

It’s getting real.

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau is asking a federal judge to stop a rival comic convention from using the phrase “Space City” for its three-day festival scheduled for NRG Center over Memorial Day weekend.

The convention bureau filed a request Friday for a temporary restraining order to prevent Space City Comic Con from continuing to use the phrase the bureau trademarked 12 years ago to promote the city.

The bureau owns 50 percent of another comic convention, Comicpalooza. That show is scheduled for the George R. Brown Convention Center in mid-June.

U.S. District Judge Nancy F. Atlas heard the request at 3 p.m. Monday, but did not issue a ruling. The dispute has been brewing for months but reached the courthouse earlier this year when the bureau sued Space City Comic Con along with its owner George Comits over alleged trademark infringement. The bureau is seeking profits from previous shows in which Comits used “Space City” as part of its name.

That was the early story. The judge has since declined to issue the TRO to the Visitors Bureau.

Instead of a court order, she suggested a much simpler solution: adding a disclaimer on tickets and brochures that Space City Comic Con event is not affiliated with the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I’m not prepared to shut the conference down,” Atlas said.

[…]

The convention bureau calls Comicpalooza, which drew about 45,000 visitors last year, “Houston’s Official Comic Con.” In its request for a temporary restraining order, the bureau said the use of “Space City,” is causing irreparable harm to its business of promoting tourism, trade and conventions in the Houston area.

Not only will it likely cause public confusion, it will also destroy the bureau’s goodwill and reputation with its current and prospective customers, the convention bureau said in court documents.

During the hearing Monday, Atlas pointed out that the bureau’s arguments gave her pause, since many businesses already use “Space City,” a nod to Houston’s long-time connection to the space industry through NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She also questioned why the bureau waited so long to seek a restraining order after filing suit in February.

[Space City Comic Con owner George] Comits testified that the bureau won’t even put Space City Comic Con on its calendar of events because of its investment in Comicpalooza. Atlas was surprised to learn that the convention and visitors bureau had a financial interest in Comicpalooza. “Really?” she asked.

See here for the background. Judge Atlas has scheduled a hearing on the request for the TRO today at 8 AM, so we could have an answer to that part of the fight shortly. I personally remain lukewarm to the idea that “Space City” is a term that requires traademarking or that people will be confused by two different events at two different locations in two different months, but then considering how little information people have about other things, I can see an argument. I like the disclaimer suggestion and hope the two sides can work this out peacefully.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston, Legal matters.

Endorsement watch: Against Prop 1

The Statesman urges a vote against the divisive referendum to repeal Austin’s ordinance regulating transit network companies like Uber and Lyft.

Uber

Voting against Prop. 1 is the best way to ensure that Lyft, Uber and other ride-hailing service drivers, undergo the most thorough criminal background checks endorsed by law enforcement: fingerprint checks. By contrast, Lyft and Uber are demanding name-based background checks. Prop. 1 would accomplish that by eliminating fingerprint checks. But you won’t see or hear mention of “fingerprint checks” in ads or fliers Uber and Lyft are floating.

You also won’t hear or see an equally important issue at stake in the May 7 election: Whether it should be corporations or Austin’s elected leaders that write the rules for doing business in the city. That power, in our view, should remain in the hands of the democratically elected officials who represent Austin residents — not private companies with deep pockets. Voting against Prop. 1, crafted by Lyft and Uber, keeps that authority with Austin’s elected City Council.

On those terms, the question on the ballot is relatively simple, but the issues are being cleverly camouflaged in the high-dollar ad campaign being waged by Lyft and Uber through the companies’ political action committee, Ridesharing Works for Austin. Lyft and Uber contributed $2.2 million to the group — an unprecedented amount for an Austin election. The primary group opposing Prop. 1, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, reported raising and spending less than $15,000.

[…]

Lyft

Over the past months, Lyft and Uber have used various messaging to drive support for their Prop. 1. Initially, the companies threatened to bolt if the City Council required fingerprint checks. Then they said approving Prop. 1, which eliminates fingerprint checks, would keep the companies operating in the city.

Their step away from that message might signal that the public favors fingerprint-based background checks or is divided over that point. Either would be risky for Prop. 1.

Certainly a city like Austin needs as many transportation options as possible, so if Lyft and Uber left it would greatly diminish the ability of Austin residents to move around in an increasingly congested city. And no one denies that Lyft and Uber contribute to public safety in taking drunk drivers off the road. That is why we urged the City Council to compromise with Lyft and Uber through incentives or other voluntary measures to get drivers to undergo fingerprint checks — rather than requirements.

The council could modify its current ordinance to work toward that goal. But if voters approve Prop. 1, fingerprint checks will be eliminated and Lyft and Uber will have little — if any — incentive to compromise.

For all of those reasons, as well as the other safety requirements that would be eliminated by tossing out the current ordinance and replacing it with Prop. 1, Austin residents should reject Prop 1.

See here for some background. I basically agree with everything the Statesman editorial board says and would vote No if I were in Austin. I also continue to believe that if Prop 1 passes, it’s just a matter of time before Uber takes action to eliminate Houston’s fingerprint requirements. I would very much rather not see it come to that.

In his email newsletter, Ed Sills of the AFL-CIO echoes some of these concerns and provides a bit of on-the-ground reporting:

My family has come to cherish and dread (“dreadish”?) the half-dozen calls from “Research Center” each day over the last few weeks. My wife made it clear to the Uber folks that we are unalterably AGAINST the ordinance, but evidently they noticed there are four voters in our household, so we seem to be getting four times the calls. My personal technique in answering these calls is to count to two during the delay and hang up at the moment a live voice comes on. I figure the more time they spend trying to contact a household where they are about to go 0-4, the less time they can spend talking to people who are gullible enough to believe the lies spewed in this Rich Uncle Pennybags campaign.

I have never done a block-walk as overwhelmingly locked in as the one my daughter and I went on Saturday in the Highland neighborhood in Austin, and I have walked some great progressive neighborhoods in contested elections. Nor have I ever previously experienced multiple situations in which folks were staring daggers at us until they realized we were in agreement – and then greeted us as old friends and took signs. (At one point, I told my daughter to go talk to a 78-year-old woman – her first solo encounter on a block-walk – while I knocked the house across the street. “You can probably outrun her if you have to,” I explained. When I stole a glance, the woman was practically giving Graciela a hug.)

I have never before done a block-walk in which all I had to say to get a commitment was, “Don’t you hate those ads on television?” And people still held forth on the merits about why they can’t stand what Uber and Lyft are doing.

Thank goodness I didn’t have to explain every nuance of the ordinance approved by the Austin City Council, which sets standards for fingerprint checks, fees to be collected from ride-share companies, etc. People understand the proposed ordinance written by Uber and Lyft relaxes the background check standard and lowers the fees the companies have to pay. But this is one of those rare political situations in which while the details may matter, all you absolutely have to know is that the proposal at hand is, well, Horse Feathers. (Trust me, Groucho Marx lovers, you want to click on this link.)

A large majority of voters we spoke to get that a fundamental principle is in play. If Uber and Lyft can spend millions to write their own ordinance in Austin, they will be trying the same thing next in Houston, which adopted strong fingerprinting requirements for drivers. And regardless of how that goes, Uber and Lyft will be at the forefront of the right-wing move in the Texas Legislature to take away the ability of local governments to make progress not just on ride-share regulation, but on wages, discrimination and work rules. A success by Uber and Lyft would launch a parade of corporations that would weigh options and budget millions more to overturn local laws that offend them.

The try-anything attitude among supporters of Prop 1 has continued. The Austin Chronicle reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned Austin may jeopardize its “Smart City” initiative if voters turn down the Uber/Lyft ordinance rewrite. Apparently the bald-faced lie in the pro-Prop 1 ads that Austin taxpayers would suddenly be on the hook for fingerprint checks if they vote “no” wasn’t working.

This election is about a larger issue – the ability of local voters to control their local destiny.

Sills notes that this is no prediction of victory, and that turnout in an oddball special election is paramount. It’s all about who shows up. I for one would rather live in a world where this sort of thing fails. I hope I have enough company in that regard.

Posted in: Election 2016, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Still debating the Trump effect in Texas

This time with input from trained professionals.

Republicans say it’s just wishful thinking, but Democrats are hoping that Trump’s controversial comments will make some GOP voters stay home in protest and boost the number of Democrats going to the polls to vote against him if he becomes one of the presidential nominees. If that happens, it could help Democrats down the ballot.

“Democrats know they have no choice but to turn out and vote,” said Deborah Peoples, who heads the Tarrant County Democratic Party. “The more caustic and divisive that Trump’s message becomes — and he has insulted every group in America — the more it energizes people to turn out and do something.

“And if Republicans decide to stay home and Democrats decide not to stay home, it could be a good thing for us in Tarrant County.”

Either of those options could affect candidates farther down the ballot, from state representatives to constables, who already see fewer votes than candidates at the top of the ballot.

Local Republicans say they hope Democrats don’t get their hopes too high over the possibilities if Trump is the GOP presidential nominee.

“I think there will definitely be a Trump effect,” said Jennifer Hall, who heads the Tarrant County Republican Party. “Trump affected almost every vote in the primary — people either came out to vote for him or against him.

“But we are hearing from a number of Democrats who say if Trump is our nominee, they will vote for him,” she said. “They say they like him better than Hillary [Clinton] or Bernie [Sanders].”

[…]

“County and city races may be hardest hit, along with judicial races,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. “Without a steady Republican turnout, the usual higher turnout in a presidential election will bring more Democrats and may cost the party some local seats.

“When given a reason, Democrats do turn out in big numbers, especially in presidential elections,” he said. “Trump’s bombastic political swagger may encourage less frequent Democrats to get to the polls and spike Democratic numbers around the area.”

Not only that, but GOP candidates in general might be tainted for some voters.

“The image of Republican candidates in down-ballot races would be tarnished in the eyes of some regular Republican voters due to their indirect association with Trump as their party’s presidential standard bearer,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric would be utilized by Democrats to ramp up Latino turnout and to drive a wedge between Latinos and the Republican Party,” he said. “Since Latinos in Texas tend to lean Democratic, higher Latino turnout alone will benefit Democrats, let alone if formerly Republican leaning Latinos switch their support to Democratic candidates as a result of Trump’s candidacy.”

We’ve discussed this before, and I’ll say once again that the way to move away from pure speculation and into slightly better-informed speculation is to get some polling data. Downballot races are where any effects will be felt, but a macro view of the statewide mood will help us gauge what those effects might be. Harris County, with its knife-edge balance these last two Presidential years, could definitely look a lot different after November. As for Tarrant County, it’s been an amazingly accurate mirror of statewide Presidential results over the past few cycles:


Year  Tarrant R  Texas R  Tarrant D  Texas D
============================================
2012     57.12%   57.17%     41.43%   41.38%
2008     55.43%   55.45%     43.73%   43.68%
2004     62.39%   61.09%     37.01%   38.22%

It will be interesting to see if that holds again this year. Maybe someone can just do a poll of Tarrant Count as a proxy for the state as a whole. We don’t have statewide poll numbers yet, but as do know that Latinos are extra engaged this year, that they really hate Donald Trump, and thanks to shift in Latino preferences, Harris County is more Democratic than ever. I’ll have more on that latter link tomorrow, but in the meantime what we do know points in one direction. The question is how far in that direction it points.

Posted in: The making of the President.

Don’t expect any flood project funding from Congress, either

Nice thought, but ain’t gonna happen.

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

As the flood threat across much of the Houston region lessened Friday, local leaders began shifting their focus to recovery and two Houston congressmen announced legislation to fund more than $300 million worth of regional flood control projects.

U.S. Reps. Al Green and Gene Green said their bill, which they filed Thursday, might mitigate devastation like that caused by this week’s deluge they called the “Tax Day floods”: 240 billion gallons of rain water, more than 17 inches in some areas, drenched the county in the most significant downpour in 15 years.

“It’s important for us to say that we want to take care of our city,” said Al Green.

[…]

The Houston congressmens’ bill would appropriate $311 million projects on several bayous across the county, including an ongoing widening project on Brays Bayou. Earlier this week, the bayou spilled over its banks, flooding dozens of homes, as it did last Memorial Day, when swaths of Meyerland were inundated by flood waters.

Funds would also go toward bridge replacements, detention ponds and widening and deepening measures on Clear Creek, Greens Bayou, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou.

President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget currently does not allocate funds despite multimillion dollar need, a challenge local officials said was part of an ongoing struggle

The Brays Bayou project was initially expected to be finished in 2016, but the completion is now anticipated for 2021, according to flood control district executive director Mike Talbott, in large part due to funding constraints.

Flood control district spokeswoman Kim Jackson said work on the Hunting Bayou – specifically an alteration to the shape of the channel that would allow water to better flow through – is also on hold due to lack of federal dollars. So are improvements to the White Oak Bayou, including a work on the channel from Cole Creek to upstream of Jones Road and the construction of one detention basin.

“We keep designing, designing and we’ll construct as we can,” Jackson said. “That’s what’s kind of gotten us behind.”

It’s not to say bayou improvements have not been made over the years. Three flood control basins have been built as part of the Brays Bayou project, along with 12.3 miles of improvements to the channel. Almost $212 million in federal dollars have gone toward the project since 1998.

The flood control district estimates that without some of the improvements, 2,000 homes and business would have been flooded during last year’s Memorial Day flood last year.

But flood control officials say more work is needed. If passed, the $311 million in the legislation would provide a steady stream of funding for a decade, boosting many of the projects toward completion.

Despite enthusiasm for the bill’s passage from both Congressmen, University of Houston – Victoria political science professor Craig Goodman said it would be an uphill battle, in part because the sponsors are Democrats in a Republican-controlled legislature.

“Appropriations is going to be really tough in this Congress,” Goodman said.

As with the coastal floodgate proposals, the first problem is simple partisanship. Democratic-written infrastructure bills have no chance of being passed in a Republican Congress. There are scenarios under which some of these things get some funding, but they all involve some level of Republican support. What do you think are the odds of that? KUHF has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Disaster declaration made

From the inbox:

HoustonSeal

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office today confirmed that President Obama has approved the governor’s request for a federal disaster declaration for Fayette, Grimes, Harris and Parker counties. The action paves the way for federal recovery assistance to begin flowing into the Houston area.

“I hope this leads to help for all of our residents who were impacted by the flooding, including our most vulnerable residents in the 17 apartment complexes in the Greenspoint area,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Many of these families have lost everything and they do not have the financial means to recover. They have a whole host of needs that include housing, transportation and more. I urge the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be flexible in its decision making regarding assistance for these residents.”

More than 1900 apartment units were damaged in the 17 complexes in Greenspoint. Approximately 200 of these units took in as much as six feet of water. In addition, hundreds of single-family homes in Houston along White Oak and Brays Bayous also suffered extensive damage.

Houston residents and business owners who sustained losses in Harris County can apply for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), or by a web enabled mobile device at m.fema.gov.

The City of Houston has established a website to help residents navigate the disaster recovery process, which includes the latest information from FEMA, as well as ways to receive and give help following the flooding. Visit houstonrecovers.org for more information.

Here’s the Chron story. If you or someone you know has been affected by this flood, do be sure you get the help you need.

Also of interest for county residents:

The Harris County engineering department has opened a phone line for residents seeking information on permits and inspections they may need to rebuild flood-damaged homes.

Residents can call 713-274-3880 from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily.

Depending on where residents live and the type of structural repair necessary, they might need an inspection and development permit from the county. County officials are encouraging people to call the number to sort out what steps they need to take.

Again, please get all the help you need, and take all necessary steps to protect yourself from unscrupulous operators who would try to cheat or deceive you in making repairs.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.