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January campaign finance reports – HISD trustees

Four HISD Trustees are up for re-election this year. There are nine Trustees in all, and they serve four-year terms, so in a normal year either four or five are up for re-election. As things stand right now, all four incumbents would be running for re-election, which would be the first time there would be no open seat since at least 2001; Harris County Clerk election records only include HISD results as far back as that. Here’s a brief look at those incumbents, along with their January finance reports and a summary of their campaign balances.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, District 2

Skillern-Jones is serving her first term as HISD Trustee. She was the only candidate in 2011 to succeed Carol Mims Galloway. After serving as Board Secretary last year, she was elected to be Board President this year. Prior to the redrawing of Trustee district boundaries last year, hers was one of two districts to absorb schools and students from the former North Forest ISD. She officially announced her intent to run for another term a few weeks ago via email and Facebook. As far as I know, she was the first Trustee to make such an announcement, and is the only one whose plans are known so far.

Manuel Rodriguez, District 3

As noted, there are four Trustees that would be on the ballot this year if they all do run. Of the four, I’d gladly vote for three of them if I lived in their district. The fourth is Manuel Rodriguez, who disgraced himself in 2011 by sending an anti-gay mailer as an attack against his opponent, Ramiro Fonseca. (Fact I did not realize until I scanned through old election results in researching this post: Fonseca also opposed Rodriguez in 2003, when the seat was last open. He finished third in the field of four.) Rodriguez eventually offered a lame apology for his actions, which caused the Houston Chronicle to retract their endorsement of him, after winning an excruciatingly close vote. There was a bit of a hubbub initially, then everyone moved on to other things. I hope everyone remembers this, and that the voters hold Manuel Rodriguez responsible for his despicable behavior if he does choose to run this year.

Paula Harris, District 4

Paula Harris is serving her second term on the HISD board, having won an open seat race in 2007. A prominent supporter of HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, she served as Board President in 2011, during some of the more turbulent times of the Grier era. She was also the focal point of some conflict of interest allegations at that time, which eventually led to a revamp of the Board’s ethics policies. Despite that, she won re-election in 2011 easily over token opposition, and has had a much quieter second term. Harris is an engineer who has published a children’s book encouraging kids to explore engineering, and has been a booster of STEM education on the board.

Juliet Stipeche, District 8

Juliet Stipeche, who served as Board president last year, is finishing her first full term in office. She won a special election in 2010 to fill a seat left vacant by the resignation of then-Trustee Diana Davila. She was one of the driving forces behind that ethics policy revamp, which occurred in 2012, before the last bond referendum. She has also been one of the more active critics of Superintendent Grier, though as noted things have been quieter on that front of late. Her district also contains some former North Forest ISD territory. In my opinion, she’s one of the Board’s best members.

So that’s my brief overview of the incumbents who are up for re-election. As noted, so far there are no open seats. I am also not aware of any declared opponents as yet. Here are the January finance reports for these four:

Skillern-Jones
Rodriguez
Harris
Stipeche

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Skillern-Jones 18,215 12,119 0 9,345 Rodriguez 0 0 0 340 Harris 0 1,500 12,000 0 Stipeche 5,500 7,162 0 15,618

The HISD Board does not have a Council-like blackout period, so incumbents and candidates were able to raise money during 2014. Rhonda Skillern-Jones was the busiest of the four, but I wouldn’t read too much into any of this. We’re very early in the cycle, and the one thing I feel confident saying is that we don’t know what kind of Trustee races we’re going to get yet.

Posted in: Election 2015.

School finance case timeline announced

Mark “later this year” on your calendars.

The Texas Supreme Court will hear the state’s appeal of last year’s far-reaching school finance decision later this year under a timetable laid out by the high court on Friday. Justices gave the state 80 days to file their briefs in the case and the plaintiff school districts will have 80 days after that. Both sides will then have 40 days to submit replies to the briefs.

Under the timetable, all documents related to the appeal won’t be received for more than six months, meaning that a hearing before the high court probably won’t occur any earlier than the fall. It also probably indicates that a decision on the state’s appeal will not come until 2016. Many lawmakers have predicted that if the school finance decision by state District Judge John Dietz is upheld, the Legislature won’t respond any earlier than a special session in 2016.

So there you have it. The one thing that could shorten this would be a settlement agreement. Suffice it to say, that ain’t happening.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Don’t look for a meet-and-confer bill in the Lege this year

Buried in this story about the city and the county preparing to play defense during the legislative session is this update on the state of relations between the city and the firefighters.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In her first two sessions, Houston Mayor Annise Parker failed to gain traction with legislation that would grant the city meet-and-confer powers that give City Hall the legal authority to negotiate changes to the city’s fire pension system. And now that the city and fire pension board are engaged in what appears to be some introductory conversation, the topic already appears to be a non-starter in Austin.

In fact, the city may not even aggressively pursue a remedy in the Legislature unless local talks show signs of dissolving. That resonates with Harris lawmakers who have a clear message for City Hall: Solve this yourself.

“We’re not going to do anything or move anything that doesn’t have an agreement,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, a senior Democrat who echoed half-a-dozen other area legislators that a meet-and-confer bill opposed by firefighters would languish. “That’s a dead bill no matter what.”

That does not mean that concerns over the city’s unfunded liabilities are fading. Supporters of pension reform characterized the current discussions between the city as healthy and are expressing hope that they could yield a solution the Legislature would never produce.

“This issue is fraught with political risk for elected officials,” said Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which supports pension reform. “They’re more than willing to give this back to the city if they see any signs at all that the city is willing to take it on.”

I had no idea that the city and the pension board were talking. I always thought one of the sticking points from the city’s perspective is that the pension board didn’t have to talk to them. They got to make their own determination about things like cost of living adjustments, which was one of the things the city had been trying to get a say in, legislatively or otherwise. I’m not sure what led to this conversation, but it’s an encouraging sign. If nothing else, if they can come to an agreement, I’ll never have to listed to Mayoral candidates or newspaper editorial boards talk about pension reform again. I’d be happy to send some pizzas to the negotiations room if that will help facilitate such an outcome.

Posted in: Local politics.

The Farenthold files

The Farenthold lawsuit continues to have promise as the underrated scandal of the year.

Rep. Blake Farenthold

In his first interview since the suit was filed in December, [Rep. Blake] Farenthold said he was shocked by the allegations made by Lauren Greene, the former staffer.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I didn’t imagine us having any problems in the office. And the things she alleges are just so far out in left field. I’m just stunned.”

Farenthold suggested that the suit could be reprisal for Greene’s termination.

“Somebody gets fired, you never can tell how they’re going to take it,” he said.

Congressional lawyers, who are handling the case, have asked him not to discuss the grounds for Greene’s dismissal. Farenthold will say only that he “had good reason.”

[…]

Greene’s suit focuses mainly on her alleged mistreatment at the hands of Farenthold’s top staffer, Bob Haueter, with whom she apparently had a difficult relationship. There are no allegations that Farenthold touched or tried to hit on Greene – on the contrary, she said he tried to avoid her, a situation that she found “awkward.”

Instead, in her lawsuit she recounts feeling “awkward” after another staffer, executive assistant Emily Wilkes, allegedly told her that Farenthold had confided in Wilkes and Haueter about his attraction to Greene.

Greene also alleges that the congressman regularly made comments about her appearance or made other remarks that she thought were designed to gauge whether she was interested in a sexual relationship. She also claims that staffers who accompanied Farenthold to Capitol Hill functions joked that they had to be on “redhead patrol” to keep him out of trouble.

Friends and associates say a certain off-the-cuff personality can easily be misinterpreted.

“Sometimes you can make a comment that you think is totally innocent, and it gets misconstrued,” said Mike Pusley, a Republican leader and Nueces County Commissioner. “From the times I’ve been around Blake in mixed company, I’ve never seen anything to indicate that he has any issues in that regard. When I read about those allegations, I just went, ‘Eh, man, I have a very hard time believing that.’ ”

See here for the background. All due respect, but if you want to check on the credibility of Ms. Greene’s allegations, you might do better to talk to someone who isn’t a) a dude; and b) a political ally of Farenthold’s. I mean, as a general matter we dudes aren’t always the most reliable sources for how women may interpret some of the things we say. Hell, entire industries are built on that fact. Might have been a better idea to ask a few women who regularly deal with Rep. Farenthold, off the record as needed, what they think of his demeanor. It wouldn’t anything definitive, but it might at least provide a little perspective. I’m just saying. And may I just add that I encourage Rep. Farenthold to speak as freely as he likes about this ongoing litigation. Forget what the lawyers say, Blake! They’re all just a bunch of killjoys. Speak your mind and let the chips fall where they may!

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Weekend link dump for January 25

“If Westerners can overcome their disgust of crickets—or any bug—as food, the environmental benefits could be significant.”

“That’s why the new plan from House Democrats is so encouraging. It seems they are finally beginning to internalize the fact that American workers have been left behind for over a generation, and proposing the kind of brute-force transfer policies that could actually make a difference.”

Neanderthals: Smarter than you thought they were.

The decline of ATMs is another sign of our transition to a cashless society.

On the effectiveness of flu shots.

2001: The Soderbergh Cut

How crime in America has changed over the last decade, in one map.

The origin and history of the Trix Rabbit.

President Obama’s long game on climate policy.

The religious right is obsessed with Beyoncé, for reasons they themselves can’t quite explain.

“Whoever has two pair of leggings must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

The case for expansion in Major League Baseball.

A look at some of the most common forms of credit card fraud.

RIP, Tony Verna, inventor of TV instant replay.

RIP, Reies Lopez Tijerina, Chicano movement leader.

The success of American Sniper may cause real life complications for the trial of Chris Kyle’s accused killer.

Rick Riordan on Newberry awards and books kids actually like to read.

An online anti-harassment task force, led by someone who knows what it’s like to be the focus of an online harassment effort.

There sure are a lot of people accusing the Pope of not being Catholic enough for them. Maybe being a cafeteria Catholic isn’t such a terrible thing after all.

“The president has spent the first six years of his presidency waiting for the moment he could take that credit, knowing it was coming. On Tuesday night, it came. Even with five separate responses to the president’s address, there was nothing Republicans could say to fight the growing sense that Obama’s policies are working and that the GOP has been wrong for the past six years.”

“So, let’s take sick leave’s detractors at their word: If it really comes down to a choice between paid sick time and higher wages, Americans overwhelmingly choose the sick time. So why not give them that choice?”

In case you were wondering, five hundred pounds of pennies is worth about eight hundred bucks.

“It’s a simple enough story: star-crossed lovers go on multistate crime spree! We’re rooting for ya, white kids!”

Good news, everyone: At long last, Rick Springfield has prevailed in the buttocks assault lawsuit.

Mike Huckabee = Sarah Palin 2.0

The physics of Deflategate.

As someone who grew up watching Yankee games on WPIX (Channel 11), this makes me very happy. Now if they promise to bring back the theme song, I’d consider moving back to New York.

Anti-vaxxers are the worst. That is all.

RIP, Ernie Banks, Hall of Fame shortstop for the Chicago Cubs and all-around good guy.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

First three runoff dates are set

Greg Abbott completes a bit of business left to him by Rick Perry.

Diego Bernal

Diego Bernal

Gov. Greg Abbott has scheduled runoffs from the Jan. 6 special elections for Feb. 17, according to his office.

The decision officially sets head-to-head match-ups in state Senate District 26, state House District 17 and state House District 123. Early voting in the runoffs will be held from Feb. 9-13.

In SD 26, two Democrats — Trey Martinez Fischer and Jose Menendez — are facing off for the seat being vacated by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. In HD 17, Republicans John Cyrier and Brent Golemon are vying to replace Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington. And in HD 123, Democrat Diego Bernal is up against Republican Nunzio Previtera for the seat formerly held by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

As you may recall from the January 6 election, TMF, Bernal, and Cyrier all led in their races, each collecting at least 43% and leading by a minimum of 18 points. No lead is ever insurmountable in a runoff, but I’d have to make them all strong favorites. Cyrier and Bernal are endorsed by the Texas Parent PAC, while Bernal and TMF have the backing of the San Antonio Central Labor Council and Texas AFL-CIO COPE. Bernal’s opponent in particular is a nut, so I especially look forward to him winning.

This means that the runoff for the HD13 special election will be scheduled separately, presumably a week later. Seems to me it would have made more sense to put all four of them together, but I guess that election hadn’t been canvassed yet. I’ll keep my eyes open for that announcement. The Rivard Report has more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

By the way, Dave Wilson also hates transgender people

I mean, no surprise, right? What’s more, he puts his money where his mouth is.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Now, anti-LGBT activist Dave Wilson is circulating another petition that would place a charter amendment on the ballot to repeal trans protections in both HERO and Mayor Annise Parker’s 2012 executive order covering city employees.

Wilson, of Houstonians For Family Values, led efforts to pass a charter amendment prohibiting domestic partner benefits in 2001. He also made headlines in 2013 when he deceived voters into thinking he was black to get elected to the Houston Community College board.

Houston resident Sheri Taylor Bockelman, the mother of trans activist Nikki Araguz, said she received the petition in the mail along with a letter from Wilson on Saturday. (View images of the mailing below.)

“Enclosed please find our petition to prohibit men from using the women’s restroom and women from using the men’s restroom,” Wilson’s letter states. “Yes, you read the first sentence correctly.”

The letter goes on to state that both HERO and the executive order prohibiting discrimination against trans city employees “allow men to use the women’s restroom if they perceive or express themselves as women.”

See here for some background. Unless I’m confused, the executive order in question was in 2010, not 2012. There’s an image of Wilson’s latest mailer at the link above. Note that it is dated January 9, which means that it’s a separate expense from the one recorded in the January 15 finance report of his PAC. We won’t know till July how much he dropped on this one. If his address database includes people like Nikki Araguz’s mom, it’s highly likely that most of what he’s spending will be wasted. Which is fine by me – I hope he keeps it up till he bankrupts himself. TransGriot has more.

Not really related to this but worth including: We don’t really know much about the state of the transgender community in America, but what we do know tells us that these people face a lot of obstacles. I for one favor doing what we can to remove those obstacles. I definitely do not favor adding more of them. Finally, if you haven’t already done so, go read Nancy Sims’ account of how she came to understand and love her transgender child.

Posted in: Local politics.

Reusing wastewater

Get used to it.

Reclaimed wastewater soon will irrigate the trim lawns and wooded parks of some Houston suburbs. Instead of being dumped into the bayous, some of it might even undergo more extensive treatment in order to flow from kitchen taps.

Economics is starting to trump the yuck factor of reusing water flushed down toilets and drained from sinks.

“It’s becoming more real than theoretical,” said Mark Latham, who oversees Houston’s two “reuse” agreements with golf courses and the growing number of queries to contract for city wastewater.

As suburban water providers aim to meet state benchmarks for reducing reliance on groundwater, they have cringed at undertaking costly expansions to draw more water from Lake Houston via the city system. With the 2011 drought still fresh in the minds of many, treating wastewater for landscaping has advanced beyond mere discussion in many Houston suburbs. Unlike other water sources, the availability of wastewater grows with the population.

“We’ve had clients look at reuse for a long time,” said David Oliver, a public law attorney who works with several utility districts. “As the price of water has gone up, people are realizing the economics of the projects that may have been unreasonable 10 or 20 years ago now are feasible from a cost standpoint.”

[…]

Most water in the Houston area is pumped from underground aquifers or piped in from Lake Houston to treatment plants before flowing out of home faucets and sprinkler systems. After toilets are flushed, wastewater is sent to plants where it is minimally treated before being dumped into bayous along with rainwater, much of which eventually flows into Galveston Bay. Similarly, most of the water pumped from Lake Houston is treated wastewater that flowed downstream from Dallas and other cities.

Although reclaiming wastewater – also called recycling or reusing – remains rare in Texas, it has become more popular in recent years as drought-stricken towns have tried to meet local water needs. Wichita Falls was the second in the state to construct a costly treatment plant that takes waste­water “from toilet to tap.” Defying doubters, the city’s utility manager drank a full, clear glass while giving reporters a tour. San Antonio pioneered indirect reuse of wastewater decades ago, treating it for a variety of nonconsumptive uses.

I’ve discussed this before, and I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach. Certainly, it makes no sense to use clean, drinkable water on watering lawns and other similar uses. The main argument against wastewater reuse seems to be that it provides disincentives to conserve water. Be that as it may, this is a cheaper and surely more sustainable option than building a lot more water infrastructure for our region’s (and our state’s) growing population.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Robinson Warehouse, eight years after

From the Free Press Houston Worst of 2014:

What once was there

WORST WASTE OF SPACE: CORNER OF ALLEN PARKWAY AND MONTROSE

In 2006, The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the massive swath of land at the Southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose. This sprawling piece of property is centrally located, is adjacent to some of Houston’s most beautiful natural landscapes, and could serve so many important purposes.

For nearly 10 years, there have been rumors that this property would be developed into one of the largest mosques in Texas, and I am excited for the controversy that will most definitely ensue once that begins to happen. But that said, having such a huge property with huge potential stay dormant and fenced off in the interim is a missed opportunity.

If I had my way, folks would be allowed to play soccer there, a massive urban garden could be temporarily installed, and the space could serve as a rad destination along the Art Car parade route.

It was just before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I first noticed the demolition equipment out in front of this old, abandoned warehouse at the aforementioned corner. It had been a sad bit of urban decay for as long as I’d been aware of it, and as I obsessively documented over the ensuing two months, it vanished, leaving behind a large green field and the promise of something that would eventually be built. For awhile, the space – which goes all the way from Allen Parkway to West Dallas – was open, and was used a few times as parking for the Art Car Parade. Now it has that ugly hurricane fence around it – presumably, for liability insurance purposes – and Lord only knows what its future might hold. I’ve never heard a peep about its status in all this time.

Personally, I like author Omar Afra’s vision for the space, but there are plenty of other possibilities as well. Just about anything would be better than the unusable nothing that is there now. I wish there were something the city could do to entice the current owners to either do something with it or sell it to someone else that will.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Exactly Like You

Nobody does western swing these days like the Hot Club of Cowtown:

I’ve been a fan of theirs for awhile, though I haven’t seen them in Houston recently. For a clear demonstration of their instrumental chops, see this blazing rendition of “Digga Digga Do”, check out their other videos, and visit their webpage. Come play at the Mucky Duck again, y’all.

For an example of how a more traditional jazz trio tackles this song, here’s Ray Brown:

Piano, upright bass, and drums – it doesn’t get any more old school than that. If you can listen to that song without moving at least one part of your body in rhythm, you might want to schedule a visit with your doctor.

Posted in: Music.

Bell makes his announcement tomorrow

Making official what we had long known.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Former Democratic congressman Chris Bell will announce his mayoral bid this Sunday afternoon in Sam Houston Park, becoming the first candidate in a crowded field to officially kick off a run to lead City Hall.

[…]

In recent weeks, Bell has hired finance and policy staff, and he has been working with Bill Hyers, who mostly recently advised Bill de Blasio’s come-from-behind campaign for mayor in New York, to plot his campaign moves.

Bell’s most aggressive step toward a mayoral run has been his lawsuit against the city charging that Rep. Sylvester Turner should not be allowed to transfer much of his $1 million in his officeholder account to Turner’s mayoral run. That suit, heard in state district court earlier this month, will likely move to federal court.

Bell will host his first fundraiser on Feb. 12.

Here’s the event information, on his newly-created campaign page. As previously noted, Bell starts from scratch in the fundraising department, so I expect him to hit that hard in the coming weeks. Being unable to raise a sufficient amount of funds to run a viable campaign and get one’s message out is going to be the grim reaper for some number of Mayoral candidates this year. With the now-expected entry of Adrian Garcia into the race, everyone’s task there just got harder. I am very interested to hear what all candidates will have to say about policy and issues, because in times of non-crisis, one’s campaign says a lot about who that candidate really is. PDiddie has more, including a fairly in depth look at who Bell will have on his campaign team.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Minding Houston

Want to know about mental health issues and how they are being addressed by the Legislature? Tune in to Minding Houston, the legislatively-focused blog of Mental Health America of Greater Houston. From their About page:

Mental Health America of Greater Houston is pleased to offer the blog, “Minding Houston,” which covers legislation and issues associated with the current Texas Legislative Session.

Mental Health America of Greater Houston’s mission is to enhance the mental health of all Houstonians and improve the lives of those with mental illnesses. We accomplish this through collaborative education, outreach and advocacy.

Mental Health America of Greater Houston, founded in 1954 by Miss Ima Hogg, has a long history of service to the community. We are an affiliate of the state organization Mental Health America of Texas and the national organization Mental Health America. We have been a United Way agency since 1958.

For more information, visit our website www.mhahouston.org.

Their most recent post is an overview of budget issues for mental health in Texas and Harris County. Check ‘em out.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Meet your Harrisburg overpass

Looks nice enough. Going to be painful getting to the finished product, though.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are set to approve a $30.66 million construction contract on the half-mile overpass next week. The overpass is needed to complete the Green Line rail along Harrisburg to the Magnolia Park Transit Center, near Gus Wortham Golf Course, and to cross the Union Pacific freight rail tracks.

[…]

To mend fences with the community, Metro worked with neighbors to make the overpass look better than just a concrete riser. Plans include special lighting and designs in the concrete that reflect the area’s business and cultural heritage.

“The East End might have the most attractive overpass along the lines when this is built,” Metro board member Burt Ballanfant said.

McCarthy Building, the winning construction company, has 18 months to build the overpass, with incentives to finish sooner and costs if the project is delayed. Roberto Trevino, Metro’s capital programs manager, said some factors outside Metro and McCarthy’s control could affect the schedule. Union Pacific Railroad and local utilities must be consulted, and their issues and actions could affect when the work is finished, Trevino said.

Timing is crucial, and important to area residents, because the overpass work will require closing six blocks of Harrisburg for about four months, from Caylor to 66th Street. Detours are planned between Lockwood and Wayside to route traffic to Navigation during the closings.

See here and here for the background. This would take forever without closing that stretch of Harrisburg, but closing a street like that for any length of time is going to be a bug hardship on the neighborhood. This article doesn’t have any reactions from locals about either the design or the schedule, so it’s hard to say offhand how well received they are. Still, this needs to get done, and depending on when the actual start date for this part of the construction is, it could be done by mid- or late-2016. That should be a relief and a cause for celebration for everyone.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Judge Richardson will stay on the Perry case

Good to know.

Bert Richardson

The way is cleared for Judge Bert Richardson of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to continue presiding over former Gov. Rick Perry’s criminal case, under an order by the judicial region’s presiding judge.

The order was necessary to allow Richardson to rule on a pending effort by Perry’s lawyers to dismiss the case, because Richardson has stepped up to the state’s high criminal court since he first was assigned the case.

[…]

Richardson has overseen the Perry case since 2013, when he was a visiting judge who presided over cases in different counties. He won the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seat in the November election.

Richardson since last year has been considering a Perry effort to dispose of the indictment on constitutional grounds. He ruled against Perry in November when he sought to get the case dismissed on technical grounds.

Presiding Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield of the Third Administrative Judicial Region on Friday signed an order assigning Richardson to preside in the case. The step was necessary to authorize Richardson to make rulings in the case.

It was Judge Stubblefield who originally assigned Judge Richardson to the Perry case, so I suppose the circle of life is complete. I had wondered before if Richardson’s election to the CCA would force his removal here, but as a commenter on this post noted, Texas law allows for this, and so here we are. We’ve been waiting on that ruling regarding the motions to dismiss on constitutional grounds for quite some time now. At least now we know that it will be Judge Richardson making that ruling.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Friday random ten: My year in music, part 3

Here’s Part One, and here’s Part Two. I hadn’t originally intended for there to be a Part 3, but there was enough music in that post-Christmas splurge to make it worthwhile, so here we go.

1. Diga Diga Doo – The Hot Club of Cowtown
2. Welcome To New York – Taylor Swift
3. It’s The Hard-Knock Life – from “Annie”
4. It Takes Two – from “Into The Woods”
5. Heart Attack – Demi Lovato
6. Still Crazy After All These Years – Paul Simon
7. I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water – Asylum Street Spankers
8. Paper Doll – Fleetwood Mac
9. Time Warp – from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”
10. Mayor of Simpleton – XTC

Many of these were from album purchases. We saw Fleetwood Mac at the Toyota Center here in December (awesome show, highly recommended), so The Very Best of was bought to fill a big hole in my collection. (I had “Rumours” on cassette years ago, but it had long since been lost.) Similarly, I once owned Paul Simon’s “Concert In The Park” on CD, but it must have gotten lost in a move. We got Taylor Swift’s “1989” because, duh. Into the Woods and Annie were movies we saw over Christmas break, so of course we got the soundtracks. The Hot Club of Cowtown (two CDs) and the Asylum Street Spankers (“The Last Laugh” – who knew they had a new CD?!?) are bands I’d thought had broken up. “Heart Attack” was an Olivia request, “Mayor of Simpleton” was a song I rediscovered thanks to the Classic Alternative station on Sirius XM, and “Time Warp” was because I’d realized I didn’t have it.

And that was my year in music, more or less. What new tunes are you grooving to that I should consider for my year in music this year?

Posted in: Music.

January campaign finance reports – San Antonio

As we know, while we wait for the Mayoral field to shape up here in Houston, there’s already a hot open-seat race going on in San Antonio, featuring now-former State Rep. Mike Villarreal, State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (who has submitted a letter of resignation but is staying on until her successor is sworn in), and former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson. Let’s get the easy part of this post out of the way first:

Tommy Adkisson
Leticia Van de Putte
Mike Villarreal

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ================================================== Adkisson 0 5,000 5,013 0 Van de Putte 129,679 62,465 0 197,516 Villarreal 201,454 149,466 0 189,801

Those are just the city campaign reports. As former (or soon to be former) holders of other offices, all three also have at least one other finance report for January out there:

Tommy Adkisson – Bexar County
Leticia Van de Putte – TEC report
Leticia Van de Putte for Lt. Gov. SPAC – TEC report
Mike Villarreal – TEC report

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Adkisson 80,975 54,779 0 0 Van de Putte 152,094 54,790 0 197,516 VDP SPAC 754,295 1,525,162 0 237,432 Villarreal 82,195 86,989 0 189,801

The identical totals for Van de Putte and Villarreal are not coincidences. They have one balance, but two accounts that are presumably used for different purposes. (I don’t know what if anything Van de Putte may be doing with her SPAC account.) Randy Bear summarizes the situation.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

You see, whereas the City of San Antonio has campaign finance limits of $1,000 from either individuals or SPACs, the state has no limits. In fact, it’s not uncommon for donors to give in the tens of thousands to state candidates during the course of the year. So these accounts could reflect donations that exceed the limits imposed by the City in its attempts to control special interest influence.

To top that off, remember that Van de Putte also ran for Lieutenant Governor this past year? In that election, where the stakes were much higher, her campaign raked in over $2 million. In fact, some donors gave as much as $100,000 to the campaign. At the January 15th filing, that warchest still had almost a quarter of a million dollars in it. That’s after transferring over a half a million dollars to the state party right before the election.

So, this starts to unfold some questions about where the money came from and might end up. So far, Van de Putte has transferred a little over $17,000 from her Lieutenant Governor campaign fund to her candidate fund. Since she’s still a state officeholder, there are technically no limits on those amounts.

The City’s Campaign Finance Code allows a candidate to maintain a single candidate fund for both offices. But there is a limitation as stated in the Code – “However, if the candidate seeks a municipal office which is subject to lower campaign contribution limits than the previously sought office, the candidate shall return all contributions in excess of the limits for the municipal office sought.”

Mike Villarreal

Mike Villarreal

Furthermore, the Code states that “Contributions transferred must be aggregated with any contributions made by the same donor to the committee receiving the transfer. Amounts that would cause a contributor to exceed his or her pre-election cycle contribution limit must be excluded from the transfer.”

What this means is that any contributions exceeding the city’s limits must be returned to the donor. The problem is that since Van de Putte is still a state officeholder, she continues to incur expenses in fulfilling the duties of that office. In fact, with regards to activities, it’s difficult to tell when she is acting in the role of state senator or candidate for mayor at functions. So any expenses could be construed to be for her role as a state officeholder, such as tickets to events or traveling around the city.

Villarreal has already resigned from his state office and has publicly stated in his report that no expenditures were paid from the account for the final acts as state representative. In other words, he’s closed the books as a state representative and all actions forward are for the mayoral race.

This is the first time since our city enacted these campaign finance regulations that such a situation like this has presented itself. It creates a challenge for our City’s Ethics Review Board on what money is legal and what may cross a line.

It’s not clear what Van de Putte plans to do with her money in the Lieutenant Governor SPAC. Until she resigns the senate, she can continue to transfer money into her candidate fund since she is still a state officeholder. That could give her a substantial financial advantage over Villarreal, even if the money was contributed to an entirely different race from people with different intentions for the money.

As you can see, one candidate has worked to establish a clear delineation of the money. The other has left it ambiguous while remaining a state officeholder. It’s just part of the fun we can expect with this mayoral race.

Emphasis in the original. There are some obvious parallels to Houston here and the legal jousting over Rep. Sylvester Turner’s campaign account, but there are also two key differences. One is that as far as I can tell San Antonio doesn’t have a fundraising blackout period, so that the activity by these candidates didn’t come at a time when others would have been locked out. The other is that there isn’t (again, as far as I can tell) an interested party with a similar grievance as Chris Bell in Houston. All three San Antonio Mayoral hopefuls were incumbents of some kind last year, and all three were running for one office or another. One could argue that Villarreal, running for an easy re-election against a Green Party opponent, had the advantage during this time. Regardless, no one in this race has a financial advantage of the order that Sylvester Turner does in Houston. Given that, it may not be in any of their interests to make an issue out of this. No guarantees there, and if another candidate emerges all bets may be off, but if I had to guess right now I’d say that this is something none of these candidates are that interested in talking about.

Others may make an issue of it, however, and it is at best a very gray area. Some clarity would certainly be nice, but I have this nagging feeling that if push comes to shove, the most likely outcome is for San Antonio’s contribution limits, which are considerably smaller than Houston’s ($5K for individuals and $10K for PACs), to get thrown out for being too restrictive. As Randy notes, there are no limits on contributions to state campaigns, and while there are federal contribution limits, the rise of super PACs make them almost irrelevant. In our post-Citizens United world, I have a hard time seeing how strict contribution limits – in either city – could withstand close legal scrutiny if someone chose to push the issue. (And just so we’re clear here, that is very much an outcome I would not like.) As a matter of crass political calculation, the best move by folks who think there’s already too damn much money in politics might be to recognize the unusual nature of this year’s race and let things play out as is. We may never see another race like this one in San Antonio again, and with the blackout period disabled in Houston we may not have another situation like the Bell/Turner one again. Just a thought.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Garcia appears to be in for Mayor

Not official yet, but stories like this don’t get run without justification.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia is sending every possible message that he intends to run for mayor this year, aggressively increasing his political operations and signaling to some of his closest advisers and fiercest backers that a campaign may be imminent.

Garcia, under the Texas constitution, would have to resign as a county official immediately upon declaring his candidacy. That presents Garcia, who watchers expect to rocket to the field’s top tier if he joins the burgeoning mayoral fray, with a fateful decision: Does he step down as the county’s premier Democratic officeholder to make a bid that will make him Houston’s first Latino mayor or politically unemployed?

“At the end of the day, it’s like standing at the craps table, placing the bet – and you could walk away with nothing,” said Garcia confidant Greg Compean.

It is a bet Garcia allies said this week he has grappled with and seems willing to make.

“I’d be really surprised if he didn’t,” Compean said.

Garcia, who said last week he still is listening to others and has not yet officially committed to the race, has met with many of the city’s political leaders in advance of an announcement and privately is telling some close allies that he will run. And other evidence is mounting.

[…]

Backers of Garcia have high hopes he could raise the money to compete and that he could win voters beyond Houston’s Latinos, who comprise more than 40 percent of the city but at the most only 15 percent of the electorate. The county’s highest vote-getter in 2012, Garcia is expected to make appeals to some Republican voters in the nonpartisan election.

Garcia also would open himself up to personal attacks over a yearlong political brawl. Some in political circles for months quietly have questioned whether Garcia, who has no college education, can handle the rigors of the city’s top job. And if Garcia resigns as sheriff, some Democratic judges and Latino leaders worry whether the party and the Hispanic community would be hurt without him leading the local ticket.

My thoughts, in no particular order.

1. Garcia would have the advantage of being likely to be the clear frontrunner among at least one segment of the electorate – Latino voters – in the same way that Sylvester Turner would be among African-Americans and Oliver Pennington would be among conservatives. Sure, that is generally a smaller slice of the electorate, but it’s still an advantage, one that most other candidates don’t have. It also makes the pool of voters outside of Turner and Pennington’s bases, which those other candidates will be relying on, that much smaller. Remember that in Mayoral elections, turnout is not immutable. We had some 300,000 voters in 2001 and 2003, 190,000 in 2005 (spurred mostly by the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage constitutional amendment), between 175,000 and 180,000 in 2009 and 2013, and in the 130,000 range in 2007 and 2011. Remember also that the goal in November is to make it to the runoff. In a multi-candidate field where a couple thousand votes could be the difference between going on to December and going home, being able to coax out some irregular voters is a big deal.

2. I’m not worried about the implications for 2016. The Presidential race will be the driving force for 95%+ of all voters. Hell, if anything having a spirited campaign between an appointed Sheriff that wants to hold the job and a Democratic challenger that wants to win it back is more likely in my opinion to generate excitement than Garcia trouncing another hapless Republican challenger. Note that this isn’t me arguing that Garcia should run for Mayor, or that I’m shrugging off him stepping down as Sheriff if it happens. I’m just thinking through the implications, and that’s how I see it.

3. What Garcia and his backers should be worried about is how pissed off Democratic loyalists could be at the prospect of handing over the Sheriff’s office to a Republican. I mean, everyone is still very raw and angry about what happened this past November. Losing a high profile office, especially one that wasn’t on the line and in the service of someone’s ambition, is going to be a bitter pill for some to swallow. How many is “some”? I don’t know. How hard will it be for Garcia to win them back? Again, I don’t know. I do know that there are two viable Democratic alternatives to Garcia, so those that do decide to carry a grudge have someplace decent to take it. This is their problem to solve, and if they haven’t given it a lot of thought then his path to City Hall is going to be rockier than they might think.

4. The one thing I do know for sure if Garcia gets in is that the current field of hopefuls – declared, soon-to-be-declared, still-thinking-about-it, and so on – will not be what we get on the ballot. Some number of current candidates – at least one – will drop out or decide not to gear up at all. There are a finite amount of resources to help a campaign, and there’s only so much to go around. Fundraising is a component of that, of course, with the proviso that the ability of some candidates to at least partially self-fund may minimize that effect, but it’s not the only one. There are only so many able and willing volunteers, and only so much support from endorsing organizations, many of which may choose to keep their powder dry until a runoff. Some number of candidates – at least one – will not be able to mount the campaign they want to mount. Those candidates will not make it to the starting line. Bank on it.

5. I am now, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, officially undecided in the Mayoral race. There are several candidates I could support. I will need to know more about what they want to do before I make any decisions.

Posted in: Election 2015.

USAA to offer “rideshare” insurance

Noted for future reference.

Uber

USAA has launched a pilot program in Colorado that gives rideshare drivers the opportunity to sign up for a policy that extends their existing USAA coverage and deductibles and provides enhanced coverage the moment rideshare application is turned on until to the moment they are hired to pick up a customer.

This interim phase of the rideshare process, when a driver is technically on the job or driving to the job, but not yet connected with a customer, has proven difficult to resolve in terms of liability and exactly who is responsible for coverage, the driver or the rideshare company.

Commercial use of a personal vehicle may void personal insurance policies in the event of an accident and TNCs don’t want to foot the bill for drivers that aren’t technically “working” for them en route to a specific customer. Many drivers wait in their living rooms or at coffee shops to be hired.

Lyft

“It (the pilot program) covers that gap,” said Jesse Mata, USAA product management director based in San Antonio.

USAA’s pilot policy will act as the primary insurance during this “unmatched phase” of ridesharing, Mata explained. USAA is not the first insurance company to work with rideshare, but it is one of the first major companies to begin to experiment with a new product to cover ridesharing.

According to USAA, the pilot policy costs about $6-$8 more per month, or roughly $40-$50 more for a six-month insurance policy.

The insurance question has been around for as long as Uber and Lyft have been around. It’s come up in all of the city debates about making Uber and Lyft legal to operate as vehicles for hire, and was a particular point of contention in San Antonio. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Colorado, and at what point the question gets revisited here in Texas if it is a success up there.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Settlement talks in Waller County landfill suit

Here’s an update on where things stand with the litigation in Waller County over the proposed landfill outside Hempstead. A jury in December ruled that Waller County Commissioners Court violated Texas’ open meetings laws in deciding to allow the project to move forward, but the question of whether or not that made the landfill itself illegal has not been determined.

StopHwy6Landfill

The plaintiffs – the city of Hempstead and a citizens group opposed to the project – were expected to ask the presiding judge Wednesday to decide outstanding legal questions in the civil case, including the validity of the county’s 2013 ordinance allowing the landfill, said Blayre Peña, an attorney for the citizens group.

However, the Jan. 21 hearing was postponed at the last minute in light of ongoing settlement talks.

[…]

“I’m hoping that by next week we get something that we can act on,” [Waller County Judge Trey] Duhon said.

If no settlement is reached, a hearing will be held Feb. 20 in retired state District Judge Terry Flenniken’s court.

See here for the background. If the end result is that the 2013 ordinance is invalidated and the landfill is barred, you can be sure there will be further litigation. Given Greg Abbott’s hostility to local control, one wonders if the state might get involved at that point. One way or another, this is a long way from over.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

January campaign finance reports – PACs

PetitionsInvalid

Mayoral reports
Controller reports
Council reports

There are a lot of PACs that play in Houston’s elections. It’s hard to keep up with all of them, and I say this as someone who reads far more campaign finance reports than is healthy. Very few of them file finance reports with the city of Houston – I presume this is because most of them are state organizations that operate in elections elsewhere as well, so they file their reports with the state. This year there were three special purpose PAC (SPAC) reports that caught my eye and that I thought were worth examining, so here they are.

Citizens to Keep Houston Strong
Equal Rights Houston Committee
Houstonians for Family Values

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== CtKHS 0 539 0 65,405 Eq Rts Hou 67,143 39,712 0 27,430 HFV 3,401 47,689 44,238 0

Citizens to Keep Houston Strong lists one William H. “Bill” White as their filer and treasurer. I have no idea what this PAC is for. It’s been around since White was Mayor – Penny Butler was the filer through 2010 – and has basically done nothing since he left office. If you go to the city’s campaign finance webpage and choose “Specific-Purpose Political Committee”, you will see that PACs come and go over the years. Some are for (or against) particular candidates, others are for specific referenda, like Renew Houston and red light cameras. I’m not sure what if any rules exist for disposing of PAC funds – candidates have a certain amount of time to dispose of campaign funds once they are no longer in office or seeking office – so who knows, this one could be around for awhile.

The purpose of the other two is more obvious. “Houstonians for Family Values” is Dave Wilson’s ugly baby – that $44K in loans is all from him. The reason the amount is so specific is because the total amount spent represents the cost of printing and postage for a mail piece. The fact that this PAC has no cash on hand should not lead anyone to conclude that it will be inactive this year. It surely won’t be the only such PAC this year whether or not we have to vote on HERO repeal, but at least we can say that Dave Wilson was there first. As for Equal Rights Houston, most of their money was spent on consultants. I’m going to guess that they’ll have other things to spend their money on this year.

Posted in: Election 2015.

HERO petition repeal trial starts

It could actually be over before it really starts, though I would not expect that.

PetitionsInvalid

For the next three to four weeks, the Harris County Civil Courthouse will be the stage for the trial over Houston’s controversial equal rights ordinance.

If everything works out according to plan, opening statements will begin next Tuesday.

That is, unless Judge Robert Schaffer comes back with a summary judgment ruling that would end the trial before it has started.

That’s what attorneys for the city hope for. One of them is Geoffrey Harrison with the firm Susman Godfrey LLP.

“I think that the clear legal entitlement is that the plaintiffs’ petition failed, that the plaintiffs and their coalition members did not comply with the election code and the City Charter, and so summary judgment throwing out their case is appropriate,” Harrison said.

[…]

During Tuesday’s four-hour hearing, the different sides also discussed the number of potential jurors, among other procedural matters.

Jury selection is set to start on Monday, Jan. 26.

See here for the background. I will be surprised if the city’s motion to dismiss is accepted, mostly because I think you have to give a fair amount of latitude in litigation like this. Which is not to say that the plaintiffs should be given free reign to spew whatever baloney and half-baked conspiracy theories they may have up their sleeves, but I think the bar to clear to proceed is pretty low. That said, I sure as heck don’t envy the people that may get selected for this circus. It’s going to be a long trudge for them.

For whatever the reason, that story and this KPRC story are the only coverage I could find of this. I guess the inauguration and the State of the Union were just too much competition for it. I did find this HuffPo story in which the plaintiffs claim that they did not submit a bunch of forged signatures.

“From what we can tell, they had to engage in a lot of fraud to collect these signatures,” said Kris Banks, an LGBT activist and lawyer who helped organize an independent citizen review of the petitions and the signatures. “I just don’t think they have the support.”

Attorney Andy Taylor, who filed the lawsuit in Harris County court, did not respond to request for comment.

Welch didn’t dispute that some of the signatures didn’t meet the city’s standard, but insisted to HuffPost that his group had gathered enough legitimate signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

That would be Dave Welch, who is also busy plying his trade in Plano. According to the DMN, those petition signatures should be verified one way or the other by the end of the month, and the item could be on Plano City Council’s agenda by February 9. Stay tuned.

Posted in: Legal matters.

RIP, two-thirds rule

Not a surprise.

With a new lieutenant governor installed for the first time in over a decade Wednesday — and over the cries of Democrats — the Texas Senate voted to break from an almost 70-year tradition intended to encourage compromise among its 31 members.

Now the approval of only 19 senators instead of 21 will be required to bring legislation to the floor for debate. The change — passed on a vote of 20-10 — has the practical effect of allowing Republicans to consider a bill without a single vote from one of the chamber’s 11 Democrats. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has targeted the tradition known as the two-thirds rule since he first entered the Legislature in 2007.

Fighting to protect the rule, Democrats said the change would strike a blow to the democratic process.

“I think it’s a sad day for the Senate, and one that we will look back on with regret,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

But Republicans argued that the rule allowed for too much abuse of procedure for political purposes.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said while he had supported the rule in the past and he believed it had helped craft better policy, that the time had come to reform it.

“I don’t have to tell you how hard those special sessions we had two summers ago were for the Senate,” he said. “It was a tense time for all of us.”

I was going to write some long-winded blather about this, but this Observer article sums up the main point I was going to make succinctly:

The two-thirds rule was broken anyways, [Sen. Eltife] said. The most partisan bills the Legislature has passed in recent years found a way around the requirement. When bills are brought up during a special session, as 2013’s abortion restrictions were, only a simple majority is needed to get them through the sausage factory. And legislators have plenty of ways to ignore or avoid the two-thirds rule when they really want to during session—that’s the way they passed voter ID.

He has a point. Many Democrats stormed social media today with the hashtag #lockout—the rule change, many said, was patently unfair and would make Texas government dramatically less transparent. But this isn’t a tipping point—it’s more like the Legislature has taken a few more steps down the grand staircase of partisanship that it’s been descending for years. Democrats had very little leverage last session, and they have less now.

This. Basically, the two-thirds rule has been decorative since the second special session in 2003 that enabled the passage of the DeLay re-redistricting. It was a comfortable fiction that among other things gave Eddie Lucio an undue amount of influence. I seriously doubt that any bill will pass this session that wouldn’t have passed via some loophole or other circumvention of the two-thirds rule as it had recently existed. This is the world we live in now. Adapt or die. Newsdesk has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 19

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes the Supreme Court finishes the job on marriage equality as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

January campaign finance reports – Council

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

Mayoral reports
Controller reports

Four Council members are term limited this year. Two, CMs Stephen Costello and Oliver Pennington, are running for Mayor. The other two, CMs CO Bradford and Ed Gonzales, do not have any announced plans at this time, though both were on the list of Mayoral possibilities at one time or another. While there are some known candidates for these offices, there are many more to come. No one who isn’t or wasn’t a candidate before this year has a finance report, and no one has any contributions to report, so the data we have is somewhat limited.

Brenda Stardig (SPAC)
Jerry Davis
Ellen Cohen
Dwight Boykins
Dave Martin
Richard Nguyen
Robert Gallegos
Mike Laster
Larry Green

David Robinson
Michael Kubosh

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Stardig 0 21,191 0 59,517 Davis 0 6,091 0 97,563 Cohen 0 23,304 0 63,769 Boykins 0 5,845 0 1,129 Martin 0 20,345 0 34,339 Nguyen 0 20,120 0 15,020 Gallegos 0 7,326 0 45,021 Laster 0 5,791 0 78,216 Green 0 45,671 0 55,983 Gonzales 0 35,987 0 29,603 Brown 0 3,858 0 34,900 Robinson 0 1,565 0 48,334 Kubosh 0 17,403 10,000 0 Bradford 0 12,282 0 20,088

I’ve included the totals for Helena Brown above, since rumor has it that she’s aiming for a rubber match against Brenda Stardig in A. Beyond that, the two numbers that stand out to me are Boykins’ and Nguyen’s. Boykins was the big dog in 2013, nearly winning a first round majority in a very crowded field. I presume he emptied his coffers in the runoff, I haven’t gone back to look at his last reports from 2013 and his January 2014 report to confirm that. He burned some bridges with his vote against the HERO last year, so it will be interesting to see how things develop from here. As for Nguyen, he came out of nowhere to knock off Al Hoang in F. He then made a courageous vote for the HERO and announced that he was a Democrat. All of these things would put a target on his back even if he had a big cash on hand balance. As for Kubosh, he did a lot of self-funding in 2013, and I’d expect at least some more of the same. It will be interesting to see how much of the usual suspect PAC money he gets. We’ll have to wait till July to find out.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Plano equality opponents turn in their petitions

Yesterday was the deadline for the opponents of Plano’s equal rights ordinance to turn in petitions to force a repeal referendum, and the haters of Plano duly did so.

Opponents of Plano’s Equal Rights Ordinance say they’ve met the deadline and collected the necessary signatures to force the Plano City Council to repeal the ordinance or place it on the ballot.

The group has collected about 7,000 signatures, far more than the 3,822 signatures needed by today’s deadline.

“We applaud the citizens of Plano who turned out to have their voices heard on this important religious liberty issue,” said Gregg Wooding, a spokesman for the Liberty Institute, a Plano-based non-profit legal organization.

Plano City Secretary Lisa Henderson confirmed today that she received the petitions and now must verify all the signatures.

See here for the background. A couple of things to keep in mind here: One, the initial claim by Houston’s haters was that they had collected over 50,000 signatures, nearly three times the required amount of 17,269. That number later shrank to 31,000 that they claimed to have verified. We know what happened from there. Conventional wisdom says you want to have at least double the number of signatures needed to feel confident that you’ve made the cut. They’re not quite there, so their margin of error is a bit small. The question is how careful their signature gatherers were, and how closely the petitions get scrutinized. I strongly recommend that anyone in the area that wants to get involved get in touch with People in Support of the Equal Rights Policy of Plano TX and/or Plano Citizens for Equality. I hope there is an organized effort to review each and every page and signature like there was in Houston. Regardless, the good guys will need all the help they can get. You feel disappointed by November’s elections? You still want to make a difference? Plano is one place you can, right now and through their municipal elections in May, even if the petition drive winds up falling short, as Council members who supported and opposed this ordinance will be on the ballot regardless. So don’t sit around and wait. Go get involved and make a difference. The Trib, Unfair Park, and the Dallas Voice have more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

What will happen with pre-K this session?

They say it’s a priority, though I would advise tempering one’s expectations.

Currently, Texas funds a half day of preschool for 4-year-olds whose first language is not English, whose families have low incomes, whose parents are active duty military or who are in foster care.

Texas has some of the weakest quality standards for preschool, with no limits on student-to-teacher ratios or class sizes, according to reports from the National Institute for Early Education.

A Republican-led Legislature cut about $5.4 billion from public education funding in 2011, including $200 million for a pre-K grant program that helped some school districts offer full-day classes.

Lawmakers restored a portion of the funding in 2013, including about $30 million for the grant program.

[…]

Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said that while there’s more bipartisanship support for pre-K this year, Democrats and Republicans likely will split on whether to make it a funding priority.

“I think we’re getting past the point where we have to convince folks of the importance of pre-K,” he said.

But even though more people “are recognizing and acknowledging the importance of that early investment, it’s still going to be determined by the action of the folks in charge and whether they’ll put money behind their assertions that there is a value,” he said.

Greg Abbott put forth a pre-k plan during the campaign, though it didn’t get a lot of discussion and he was vague about details and cost. Even at the high end of his proposal, the amount the state would spend on pre-k would still be down from 2011. With other priorities likely to take precedence and little to no room for growth, my expectation is that we may get some new standards and maybe some incentive money, but nothing beyond that. So again, to sum up in three words, don’t expect much.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

January campaign finance reports – Controller wannabes

CarrollRobinson

Like the Mayoral race, the 2015 race for City Controller is wide open, as incumbent Ronald Green is term-limited. There are three candidates of which I am aware so far – HCC Trustee and former At Large city Council member Carroll Robinson, who formally announced his entry last November; 2013 Controller candidate Bill Frazer, who hasn’t made a formal announcement of which I am aware, but whose campaign website is still live; and Metro Board member Dwight Jefferson, who was kind enough to publicly acknowledge his interest in the office yesterday. I have heard other names bandied about for this office as well – former Council member and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown has come up in conversation, and I have heard rumors that Some People are trying to get Council Member Stephen Costello to switch races to this one – and I’m sure there are other possibilities.

As far as finance reports go, the only ones to reference are for Robinson and Frazer. Robinson has to file biannual reports as an HCC Trustee. They don’t have their January reports posted yet on the HCC Trustees website, so the best I can do for now is his July 2014 report. Frazer still has a city account from 2013, so he has a report on the city’s website.

Carroll Robinson
Bill Frazer

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Robinson 1,820 3,700 25,000 21,637 Frazer 0 3,503 0 160 Green 0 14,402 0 28,563

Incumbent Ronald Green’s totals are included as well for comparison. Not a whole lot to see here. Robinson was first out of the gate with a fundraising email on January 13, right after the injunction against the city’s blackout ordinance was handed down, but that wouldn’t have affected his January report anyway. Frazer ran a solid campaign in 2013 and gained a fair amount of traction against incumbent Green, who had some baggage to carry, but it’s not clear how much of that will stick in an open seat race. Controller races are often low-key, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the many Mayoral hopefuls makes the strategic decision to shift into this race, which if nothing else might provide a nice head start on the 2021 Mayoral campaign. And yes, my soul just died a little by the act of me typing that sentence. Anyway, this is what we have for now.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Hyperloops

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a hyperloop!

Entrepreneur Elon Musk announced Thursday that he wants to build a “test track” for his idea for a futuristic high-speed transportation system called the Hyperloop, adding that Texas is “the leading candidate” to host the track.

Musk’s Hyperloop concept involves transporting passengers via pods in above-ground tubes that move as fast as 800 mph. The system quickly proved to be a polarizing concept when Musk introduced the idea in 2013, with some praising it as visionary and others deriding it as wildly impractical.

“In order to kind of help things along, we’re going to create a Hyperloop test track,” Musk told Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith during an interview at the Texas Transportation Forum, an annual conference hosted by the Texas Department of Transportation. “Something that’s maybe on the order of a five-mile loop.”

Musk’s talk was part of a public relations blitz Thursday in Austin, as the Tesla Motors CEO hopes to persuade the Texas Legislature to allow Tesla to sell cars directly to Texans and circumvent the state’s requirements that cars be sold through dealerships. After his transportation forum interview, he spoke to a crowd of supporters gathered at the Texas Capitol.

During Thursday’s interview, Musk said the facility would be privately funded and not require the kind of incentives that his private space firm, SpaceX, received to develop a test facility in Texas.

“We’re not asking for any money from the state,” Musk said.

The idea for the test facility is apparently in the very early stages as Musk said that “it sounded good last night after a couple of drinks.” He explained that he envisioned the track as allowing for “teams of students” and companies interesting in developing the Hyperloop concept to test out different pod systems.

See this Ars Technica story, which links to and summarizes this overview document of hyperloops from Tesla. The basic idea was to build a better high-speed transportation system between San Francisco and LA, but the Houston/Dallas/San Antonio triangle would work for it as well. Assuming it’s feasible, of course, which Lord only knows. But hey, I wouldn’t mind a test track being built here. From skimming the doc, I suspect that anyone who is currently freaking out over the Texas Central High Speed Railway proposals would also freak out over this. We’re a long way off from that being a practical concern, and who knows, maybe the test track will prove it to be a bust. You have to admit, Elon Musk thinks big. Texas Politics, Dallas Transportation, Ars Technica, The Verge, and Swamplot have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Tuition re-regulation on the menu

There are different ways it could go.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Tuition at Texas universities has more than doubled in the 12 years since state lawmakers authorized colleges to set their own rates.

Now legislators are pushing to take back that control. It’s not a new idea, but it stands a chance for the first time since 2003, when the state deregulated tuition, largely because it enjoys rare bipartisan support.

At least three lawmakers, including Houston Democrat Sen. Rodney Ellis, have filed bills to re-regulate tuition in some way. The chair of the Senate’s higher education committee Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican, plans to pitch tying tuition increases to performance by colleges – essentially making them earn a tuition bump. And Dan Patrick, the state’s new lieutenant governor, said last week that the “issue will be addressed this session.”

“It marries together Democrats, who want to make higher education more affordable, and tea party conservatives who are inherently suspicious of higher education,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “In some ways this is a way for the Legislature to do something about education, but with relatively low cost.”

[…]

Deregulation essentially transferred costs to the universities and their students. That’s something Texas and other states have done for decades.

A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says students are now paying public colleges more than the states are. Tuition accounted for 25 percent of the average public colleges’ revenue in 2012, up from 17 percent in 2003, the study found. That surpassed state funding, which accounted for 23 percent of schools’ budgets in 2012.

Texas now funds less than 20 percent of the University of Texas at Austin’s budget, for example, compared to 85 percent in the 1970s. State funding accounts for 22 percent of UH’s budget now, compared to 61 percent in 1985. Students now pay for 42 percent of the budget, compared to 11 percent 30 years ago.

[…]

While Ellis says he will advocate for additional funding for higher education, his bill to end deregulation is actually the stricter of the two senate bills that have been filed so far, because it would cap tuition at 2015 rates and require universities to get legislative approval to raise it. Mary González, a House Democrat from Clint, has proposed a similar bill.

The other Senate bill, by Schwertner, would allow for annual tuition increases based on inflation. Ellis and Schwertner have talked about finding a compromise bill, but Ellis said last week that he wouldn’t support inflation-based increases, which he said is “almost like institutionalizing the thievery from middle class families.”

The third possible route to re-regulation could fold in another popular higher education proposal: tying funding for universities to performance measures such as graduation rates. Seliger said he plans to file a bill that would tie tuition increases to those performance measures. He calls it “performance-based tuition.”

Seliger pointed out that while tuition has increased at a faster clip since deregulation, lawmakers weren’t doing much to keep it down before. From 1994 to 2002, tuition and fees went up 102 percent.

“It was still increasing at a pretty good rate, because people wanted to see universities make big increases in improvement,” he said.

See here for the background. Sen. Schwertner’s bill is SB233. Neither Sens. Ellis nor Seliger have filed their bills yet, but Sen. Ellis’ bill from 2013 was SB125; I would presume what he files this year is identical or almost identical to it. I prefer his approach, because the problem is that the state is not contributing enough to cover the cost of higher education. That was the deal made to cut costs in 2003; it was rotten then, and it’s rotten now. I don’t expect Sen. Ellis’ approach to be adopted, but now that Republicans have come to regret their past actions – most likely because they’ve finally started hearing it from their constituents – I have some hope that he and Sen. Schwertner can work out a deal that at least comes closer to his approach.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Sen. Ellis’ bill is SB255.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Flying to Cuba

You can get there from Houston, or at least you will be able to soon.

United Airlines made it clear Thursday it intends to offer regular commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba, saying it would look to offer service from its Houston and Newark hubs to the Caribbean island.

The Chicago-based carrier’s statement came Thursday, following the administration’s announcement that it would begin steps to ease restrictions against Cuba starting Friday.

“We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston,” the airline said in a statement.

Many details remain to be worked out before such service could begin.

The Department of Transportation said Thursday the U.S. regulators will work with Cuba to explore air service expansion. A specific air service agreement between the two countries would be required before regular commercial flights could start between the countries.

[…]

The infrastructure is in place here to capitalize on the travel changes. In 2011, Bush Intercontinental Airport was designated as one of the airports that could legally charter flights to Cuba. The first one took off in February 2012 with 80 passengers. Several charters have flown from the airport since, but none on a regular basis.

American Airlines, which has operated flights to Cuba for 15 years, dominates U.S. travel there. JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines were among the companies that started flying charters in 2011 from Florida

We’ve already discussed Cubans coming to Houston to visit and shop, so this is only fair. Houston is a hub for a lot of Latin American travel anyway, so the surprise would have been if United didn’t plan to play in this market, whenever it officially happens. Until then it’s a matter of dumping enough money on recalcitrant Republicans lobbying Congress to get the ball rolling.

Posted in: Around the world.

January campaign finance reports – Mayoral wannabes

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

I wrote yesterday about the start of the 2015 campaign season in Houston, and how it’s started a bit early thanks to the ruling in the lawsuit filed by Trebor Gordon that invalidated the blackout period. This week also marked the January 15 finance report filing deadline, so now is as good a time as any to see who has what. The Gordon ruling really had no effect on the January filings – it came way too late for that – so as I’ve said before, the real story of its effect will be told in the July reports, when we can see who raised what during January. Because the blackout was in effect last year, several Mayoral candidates have no reports to file as yet – Chris Bell, Marty McVey, and Joe Ferreira fall into that category. Bill King did file a report, but only had some expenditures to list. Folks like Stephen Costello, Oliver Pennington, and Jack Christie have existing city finance accounts and thus had reports to file for their activity; Ben Hall still has his account from the 2013 race; and of course current holders of other offices like Rep. Sylvester Turner, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, and Treasurer Orlando Sanchez filed reports with their respective authorities. (In Sanchez’s case, since he would not be on the ballot until 2018 if he stays put, he was not required to file a January report he does not have a January report on the County Clerk website that I can find; I have his eight-day report from last year linked.) So without further ado:

Sylvester Turner
Stephen Costello
Oliver Pennington
Ben Hall
Jack Christie
Bill King
Adrian Garcia
Orlando Sanchez

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Turner 657,227 121,719 0 1,014,424 Costello 0 35,324 15,000 273,001 Pennington 0 126,039 0 116,632 Hall 0 26,300 2,000,000 59,300 Christie 0 11,404 0 4,080 King 0 7,300 0 0 Garcia 175,681 350,030 0 57,213 Sanchez 18,041 14,115 200,000 1,258 Locke 0 0 0 4,065 Parker 0 57,109 0 350,695

I included reports for 2009 candidate Gene Locke and Mayor Parker for the heck of it as well as for purposes of comparison. It will be interesting to see if Mayor Parker, who has her eye on a future statewide run, does any fundraising this year.

Turner’s report, with its sizable cash on hand total, and Garcia’s report, with its much less sizable COH number, are the ones that have attracted the most attention. You can see why Chris Bell really wants to enforce a $10,000 limit on the amount Turner could transfer to a city account. A million dollar head start is a big obstacle for him or anyone else to overcome. Turner, for his part, ramped up his fundraising last year in the expectation of being able to transfer it all because now that the Lege is in session, he’s on the sidelines until at least May unless he decides to resign, which I would not expect. As for Garcia, who has held some recent fundraisers for his county account, he could likely bring in some money quickly once he announced, if he does. But as Campos notes, the clock is ticking. The longer he waits, the harder it will get and the more likely that some of the deeper pockets will commit themselves to someone else. You have to figure that if he intends to get into the race, it will happen in the next month or so.

Beyond that, not too much to see. Jack Christie and Bill King can both do a certain amount of self-funding, though probably not to the extent that Ben Hall has done. I can only marvel at his outstanding loans figure, which I’ll bet goes up even more. Costello and Pennington have both shown to be strong fundraisers in past elections. I have no idea about McVey and Ferreira or whoever else might be thinking about it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s only so much space for viable candidacies in the Mayoral race. With a cap on how much and individual and a PAC can give in a cycle, there are only so many deep pockets to tap. Mayor Parker has done very well with a big network of small-dollar donors, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen overnight, and one usually has to have an extensive personal network to begin with. Like I said, the July reports will tell us a much more detailed story. I’ll check out the other finance reports in future posts. Stace has more.

UPDATE: A couple of people have asked me about the statement that Orlando Sanchez didn’t need to file a January report. I could swear that I saw something to that effect in the Chronicle, but now I can’t find where I saw it. So, since I can see that Stan Stanart, who also would not be on the ballot till 2018, has a January report filed, I’ve changed my wording above. My apologies for the confusion and for not being more skeptical of that.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Expect to hear more about Perry vetos and no-bid contracts

Bring it on.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Democratic lawmakers and government watchdog groups on Saturday called for the reopening of an investigation into no-bid state contracts that ended in 2013 after Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the team conducting it.

The critics decried the millions of dollars in Department of Public Safety contracts and another set of similar deals given by the state health commission under Perry, who will step down Tuesday after 14 years in office and is considering a 2016 presidential run. They said a thorough evaluation of contracting is needed to assure taxpayers that their money is being spent responsibly.

“Hell, yes, we need to review everything,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has served in the upper chamber longer than any other member. “There seems to be an awful lot of no-bid this and no-bid that, and I just think we need to look at it all so we can tell where the problems are and what needs to be changed.”

[…]

Democratic state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Armando Walle of Houston were among those calling Saturday for the investigation of no-bid contracts to be reopened.

“Using state resources to bolster a political career by fomenting a non-existent border crisis, then giving no-bid contracts to a company that has limited experience in border security seems like an issue the Public Integrity Unit should be investigating,” Walle said.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based government watchdog group whose complaint initiated the investigation that led to Perry’s indictment, agreed. He added that if the investigation had continued, it may have prevented some of the issues now surfacing with state health contracts.

Four high-ranking Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials have so far resigned as a result of those issues, stemming from no-bid Medicaid fraud detection contracts with Austin technology company 21CT that got tentative approval to balloon to $110 million before being canceled.

The deal is now being investigated by the Public Integrity Unit.

Unit director Gregg Cox on Saturday cited that investigation as a reason why it was unlikely that his office could reopen the probe into DPS contracts.

“I just don’t have the horsepower right now to open new investigations, with everything else we have going,” said Cox, who added that he would review the option next week. He added that for now, he “would prefer to see other agencies investigate this, and then we can work with them.”

See here for the background. If nothing else, one hopes this is the fulcrum by which the Public integrity Unit gets its funding restored, which is something the House budget would do but not what Dan Patrick wants. Regardless, this is a giant turd that Rick Perry is leaving in Greg Abbott’s punch bowl, and I plan to enjoy watching the fallout.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

How the appraisal game is rigged

The Observer tells the tale of how we got to where we are with the appraisal process and how easy it is for the big boys to get their taxes drastically reduced.

BagOfMoney

At the heart of Valero’s lawsuits in Moore County was a complicated question: What is a refinery worth? For that matter, what is any property worth?

Since most litigation against appraisal districts settles out of court, juries rarely get to answer that question. But that’s what a Galveston jury did in 2013 when it lowered the tax value of Valero’s Texas City refinery from $527 million to $337 million, though Valero had agreed to the higher number only two years before. A local jury, in a town far from rich, sided with the world’s largest independent refiner in its perennial quest to drastically cut the taxes it owes to public schools and local governments.

Appraisal district officials across Texas were flabbergasted. Refineries are a complicated, opaque business, and the technical testimony took a whole mind-numbing week—“a battle of experts,” said Ken Wright, the chief appraiser for the Galveston Central Appraisal District. Yet members of the jury took only four hours to decide in Valero’s favor. It proved what every trial lawyer knows, that the battle is almost always won by the side that not only tells its story best, but has the simplest story to tell. “It’s taken me many years to figure this out,” said a rueful Wright, who is retiring this year.

The story, Valero’s whole case, depended on a one-sentence amendment to the property tax code that whisked through the Legislature in 1997. The details of how that happened are hazy—the legislator who introduced the amendment died years ago—but the man who wrote it is a respected Austin tax attorney, Jim Popp. His firm, Popp Hutcheson, has represented some of the most prominent plaintiffs in lawsuits against appraisal districts, among them Western Refining, the JW Marriott hotels, H-E-B, Walgreens, the Formula 1 racetrack in Austin and Valero.

There are basically two ways to challenge a tax appraisal—on value and on unequal appraisal. The first claims that a property has been appraised above market value. The second claims that while a property may be appraised at market value, others like it are appraised for much less. Before 1997, an unequal appraisal claim required an expensive property analysis called a ratio study, and it was seldom used.

Popp’s amendment created an easier, cheaper way to claim unequal appraisal and gain an automatic reduction in value—so easy that it is now routinely used in tax protests and dominates big-ticket litigation. You simply select a “reasonable” number of “comparable” properties (available on the appraisal district’s website), adjust their values up or down (your house has a swimming pool, mine doesn’t) and find the median—the middle number on the list. What’s reasonable or comparable isn’t spelled out. Market value is beside the point. If your valuation is higher than the median, it gets lowered to that number. The amendment is now called the equity statute, or simply “equal and uniform,” echoing the Texas Constitution’s dictum that taxation be “equal and uniform.”

David Hugin, a Popp Hutcheson lawyer, argued the case in Galveston. Fairness was the theme: The appraisal district had wronged Valero by overvaluing its refinery, and the law showed the jury exactly how to set things right. It produced a breathtakingly simple answer to the vexing question of worth.

All the jury had to do was look at the comparables, the other two refineries in Galveston County—Marathon’s little 84,000-barrel-per-day plant, which processes only light sweet crude oil, and BP’s 451,000-barrel-per-day behemoth (now also owned by Marathon), which runs all kinds of crude oil, sprawls over 1,200 acres and is one of the largest, most complex refineries in the U.S. It had been appraised for $800 million more than the smaller refinery. “They are massively different,” said Wright. “Like comparing a corner grocery to a Kroger’s.”

Read the whole thing. If your blood isn’t boiling by the end of it at the ease with which the lucky few can screw the rest of us, you’re probably one of the lucky ones making a killing off of this. The Legislature could of course fix this, but we all know what the odds of that are. In the meantime, cities, counties, school districts, hospital districts, and ordinary homeowners are all getting squeezed.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Texas Obamacare enrollments top 850K

And counting.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services Wednesday announced nearly 860,000 Texans so far have enrolled in health insurance marketplace coverage with a month left still left to go until the 2015 open enrollment period ends.

It’s unclear how many of those signups are new marketplace customers. Last year, nearly 734,000 Texans, many of whom had never been insured, signed up for coverage. About 198,000 of them were in the Houston area.

“As of Jan. 9, 859,377 Texans have access to quality, affordable health coverage for 2015 through the Health Insurance Marketplace,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in a written statement.

Good to hear. National enrollments have been strong as well. It seems eminently reasonable to me that Texas could top one million signups by February 15, given the likelihood (as was the case last year) of some number of people waiting till the last minute to get it done.

There’s also an intensified focus on the Latino community.

Officials plan more than 600 enrollment events nationwide, including a few in the Houston area, that target Hispanics in an effort to get more signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In the meantime, grass-roots organizations and the Department of Health and Human Services are spreading the word about the marketplace by using webinars, Twitter, advertising and Spanish television telethons.

“We’re doubling down,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told reporters Wednesday, noting that the agency has dedicated a third of its advertising budget to Spanish speakers. “The Latino community is one of the fastest growing communities in the country. We’re specifically focused on this community because of the health disparities that exist for them and we think having insurance will help.”

[…]

Researchers have found Texas Latinos were more than twice as likely as Anglos to enroll in marketplace coverage. They also discovered Hispanic adults in Texas have more difficulty affording health care and are three times as likely to be uninsured.

Burwell repeatedly has said Spanish speakers would be targeted for more outreach this enrollment period. Insurers and enrollment organization trained more application assisters to accommodate Latino applicants and marketplace officials simplified the insurance application process, expanded the number of documents people could use to verify their identities and income and made it easier for applicants to use hyphenated names, which are common in Latino communities.

“We’re working to meet Latino consumers where they are, whether that’s online, over the phone or in person,” Burwell said.

There’s a lot of potential there, and one thing we learned from the first round of enrollments was precisely that these customers needed more engagement to get signed up. I hope this has the desired effect, and that we can learn more for the next time.

What would happen to all these people if SCOTUS takes the opportunity to gut subsidies for the national exchange? My guess is that as are the million or so folks that would qualify for Medicaid under a normal expansion plan, they’d be SOL. Oh, I’m sure that Rep. John Zerwas will put forth a bill to create a Texas state exchange, as he has done before. He’ll have the support of all the Dems, a few honorable Republicans, every non-crazy local official, and the business establishment, but it won’t be enough. Nothing will change till we start to win more elections. I wish I had a sunnier outlook than that, but I don’t. Sorry.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.