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September, 2012:

Weekend link dump for September 30

Is San Francisco too high tech for its own good?

Warp speed, Mr. Sulu.

A positive solution for plagiarism.

I had no idea Sparky Lyle was the (unwitting) pioneer of entrance music for relief pitchers.

A candy bar that stays with you long after you’ve eaten it.

Stephen King, public intellectual.

Data centers are big energy wasters.

Mitt Romney was against ERs acting as health insurance of last resort before he was for it.

The white working class is more diverse than you might think.

A TV adaption of Fargo? I hope they get it right.

The true face of “voter fraud”.

Google Maps goes under the sea.

“No aspect of our 21st-century lives is more parched of gayness than weddings. They are desperate for a fairy makeover.”

So why are the polls shifting now?

Those polls aren’t assuming a 2008 turnout model, either.

Is the Texas twang going extinct? You couldn’t tell by my mother-in-law, that’s all I know.

RIP, Herbert Lom. I refuse to acknowledge the existence of those other “Pink Panther” movies, because scenes like this cannot be replicated.

Hey, look, voter registration fraud. By an outfit hired by the Florida GOP. Oops. There’s some context to this you should be aware of as well.

Yale Street Bridge load limit reduced again

From the inbox, via CitizensNet:

Yale Street Bridge Load Limit Further Reduced by TxDOT

City of Houston Takes Proactive Steps to Monitor Bridge Usage

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has reduced the load limit on the Yale Street Bridge just south of Interstate 10 from 8,000 lbs. per single axle to 3,000 lbs. per single axle. A standard passenger car with two single axles and a maximum weight of 6,000 lbs. (3,000 lbs. x 2 axles) would meet the new limit, but certain pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles may exceed the new limit.

The change is not indicative of any recent deterioration in the bridge’s physical condition. It remains safe, but should be used within the new posted load limits. All required signs are now posted, north and south of the bridge, establishing the new load limit.

The Houston Public Works and Engineering Department is exploring options for additional signage to better notify motorists of the new limits. The Houston Police Department will continue to monitor traffic in the area to assure the load limits are enforced. Additionally, the City of Houston will, initially, monitor bridge traffic using a donated camera to assess compliance with the new limits.

The Yale Street Bridge is on a TxDOT prioritized list for statewide funding for replacement, with construction anticipated to start in late 2016. In the meantime, the Houston Public Works and Engineering Department will continue to routinely inspect the bridge for any change in conditions and intends to perform low-cost rehabilitative actions that will allow the bridge load restrictions to be raised back to those previously posted.

With the completion of Koehler between Heights and Yale, there is now an easy alternative route around the Yale Street Bridge via the Heights Boulevard Bridge for northbound and southbound truck traffic. The Heights Boulevard Bridge does not have load limits.

For more information contact Alvin Wright at Alvin.wright@houstontx.gov.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Chron explains what this means in practical terms.

That will put most sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks – even some minivans – over the limit, said Sgt. Teresa Curry with the Houston Police Department’s truck enforcement unit.

“The problem is that pretty much everyone is going to be violating that provision,” she said.

Janice Evans-Davis, spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker, said Friday that city and state engineers have determined that the bridge is safe but cautioned that people need to be aware of the load limit.

“If your vehicle is outside the limit, we urge you to go one block east and use the Heights Boulevard bridge as an alternative,” she said. “It doesn’t have a load limit.”

[…]

Given the impossibility of going after every violator, Curry said police will focus on large trucks, which arguably do the most damage to the bridge that’s near the new Heights-area Walmart under construction at 111 Yale.

“My theory is that the 80,000-pound truck is much more of a problem than the smaller vehicle,” she said. “Our enforcement efforts will be directed to trucks that are disregarding the signs.”

Enforcement will include having truck scales at the bridge, said HPD spokesman Victor Senties.

I’d avoid this if at all possible. This press release from RUDH has more.

Yet another reason to expand Medicaid

Grits:

A friend forwarded me a handout being circulated at the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council detailing a pair of studies of “Kendra’s Law” out of New York, which provides court-ordered outpatient mental health treatment to a small subset of probationers in the “most desperate need for psychiatric treatment.”

According to the handout, “Taken together, the two reports establish that assisted outpatient treatment (“AOT”) drastically reduces hospitalization, homelessness, arrest, and incarceration among people with severe psychiatric disorders, while increasing adherence to treatment and overall quality of life. The independent evaluation further indicates that the effectiveness of Kendra’s Law is not simply a product of systemic service enhancements, but is in part attributable to the value of AOT court orders in motivating treatment compliance.”

[…]

It's constitutional - deal with it

Who knows if these outcomes would be replicable in Texas, but these data – particularly the bit about outcomes sustained beyond the probation period – made me think once again about the proposed Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act. And since we’re on the subject, I should reference a recent report referenced at Sentencing Law and Policy titled, The Affordable Care Act: Implications for Public Safety and Corrections Populations. That analysis noted that “About half of all people in jails and prisons have mental health problems and about 65 percent meet medical criteria for alcohol or other drug abuse and addiction,” so clearly Medicaid expansion would impact many people who cycle through the justice system. What’s more, “Pre-release and reentry programs might also be better able to connect people who are leaving jail or prison with community-based intervention services,” which would definitely have implications for folks mandated to receive intensive services under some version of Kendra’s Law. The report concluded that:

The ACA is not a panacea – it will not eradicate the societal factors that contribute to excessive poor health among African Americans and other minorities, nor will it eradicate other biases within the criminal justice system that contribute to disparate rates of incarceration. It does, however, pose an opportunity to level at least one dimension of the playing field – access to treatment for mental illness and addiction – two problems that increase the likelihood of arrest and recidivism. In doing so, it may help reduce racial/ethnic disparities in incarceration.

Mandating mental health services for folks with the most severe psychiatric problems could prevent them from cycling through the criminal justice system, as is depressingly common, and if the NY results are any indication, could also prevent a good deal of crime and substance abuse among those with the most severe mental health needs. And if Texas were to expand Medicaid eligibility in 2014, it would present an opportunity for financing such services that at the moment seem fiscally out of reach.

It would help if we had a Governor who cared about the lack of access to health care that so many Texans deal with, but of course there’s nothing in Rick Perry’s decade-plus record as Governor to indicate that he does. And if he really is running for President again, we should all fear the 2013 legislative session as much as we feared the last one, no matter how the elections go.

Pauken responds to Hammond

Tom Pauken responds to Bill Hammond on the subject of school accountability.

Hammond encourages us to “stay the course” of the existing high-stakes testing system and “4×4” curriculum that have come to dominate public education in Texas. Implicit in this expensive testing system (the cost to Texas taxpayers is an estimated $450 million over a five-year period) and the 4×4 curriculum is the idea that everyone should be prepared to go to a four-year university. I call it the “one-size-fits-all” approach to education, which doesn’t acknowledge that students have different talents and interests. The current system clearly isn’t working all that well to prepare students to be “college ready.” And it is doing a particularly poor job for those students who would benefit from a greater emphasis on career and technical education at the high school level.

So why should we “stay the course” of an overly prescriptive curriculum and a high-stakes testing system that haven’t delivered on its promises since they were first put in place in the mid-1990s? Rather than acknowledging that this state-mandated system isn’t working, the response from the defenders of the status quo is to roll out a new test, make a few changes to the accountability system and promise everything will be better if we just give it a chance to work. That’s what they said when TAAS became TAKS, and that’s what they are saying now that TAKS is becoming STAAR.

What can we do to inject some common sense into the discussion on education policy? We need multiple pathways to a high school diploma — pathways that reflect student goals. Every student should get the basics. Then, for those students wanting to go on to a university, there would be a college preparatory curriculum with emphasis on math and science, or one that focuses on humanities and the fine arts. There would be a career-oriented curriculum for students so inclined which would prepare them with an industry-certified license or credential by the time they graduate from high school.

I fully support holding schools accountable. But the current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students; rather, it makes them beholden to performance on a single test. Success and accountability can be measured in a variety of ways.

Pauken’s piece is a response to one that Hammond wrote, which may or may not have been in response to a column by Patti Hart, which continues a debate that flared up after Hammond and the Texas Association of Business threatened to take school finance hostage if they didn’t get their way. As I’ve said before, I agree with Pauken, and I’m not really sure why this is even controversial. But apparently this is how we do things these days.

Endorsement watch: HAR for the bonds

The Houston Association of Realtors has announced its endorsement of all of the referenda on the November ballot.

The Houston Association of REALTORS® (HAR) board of directors has approved motions supporting the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas (METRO) General Mobility referendum and bond packages proposed by the City of Houston, Houston Independent School District (HISD) and Houston Community College (HCC). Houston voters will decide on all four proposals on the November 6, 2012 ballot.

“As Houston REALTORS®, we know that good schools, transportation, public safety and quality of life are fundamental to a healthy real estate market,” said Wayne Stroman, HAR chairman and CEO of Stroman Realty. “These ballot initiatives are essential to keep Houston growing, prosperous and vibrant for generations to come,” Stroman said.

The METRO General Mobility referendum will ask voters to allow METRO to continue to allocate 25 percent of METRO’s 1-cent sales tax revenue to pay for the construction and maintenance of transportation infrastructure including streets and roadways, bridges, traffic signals, and drainage improvements.

The City of Houston’s bond package consists of five propositions to increase funding for public safety, enhanced green spaces in our parks and along our bayous, library improvements, sanitation/recycling, and the demolition of dangerous and abandoned buildings.

HISD’s bond proposal includes plans to replace twenty high schools, partially replace four and renovate four others. The bond package would also replace five elementary schools with K-8 schools and fund the building of three new elementary campuses. HCC’s bond package proposes upgrades to all of the system’s campuses, including facility upgrades, new technology and increased capacity for new students.

Jared Woodfill is apparently robocalling against the HISD bonds, but beyond that I’m not aware of any organized opposition to any of them. Have you seen or heard of any campaign against the bonds? Leave a comment and let us know.

Oh, and because I need to put this somewhere:

You’re welcome. Via K12 Zone and many people on Facebook.

Saturday video break: Black Magic Woman

Song #49 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Black Magic Woman”, originally by Fleetwood Mac, and covered by Santana. Here’s the original:

Yeah, I’ve never heard that version before. Of course, most radio stations don’t play anything of theirs prior to 1975, so there you have it. Here’s Santana:

Such a pity that the Afro went out of style. This is a song that’s as recognizable by its bass line as it is by its signature guitar work. Like Jimi Hendrix, Santana sure could make a song his own.

No help from SCOTUS on voter registration

Bummer.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The U.S. Supreme Court late Tuesday denied an emergency request by a voter registration group that sought to block the state from enforcing changes made last year. The legislation adds hurdles for canvassers or groups that seek to increase voter participation through registration drives.

A trial will be held later to determine whether the new law is constitutional or violates state and federal law.

[…]

Project Vote Executive Director Michael Slater said he was disappointed with the Supreme Court’s action.

“The most important issue is that several million Texans are still not registered to vote,” Slater said. “Texas law should make it easier, not harder, for community members to help one another to register.”

See here, here, here, and here for more. The good news, I guess, is that the voter registration deadline is October 9, so a favorable ruling would not have had that much effect. This is all about a preliminary injunction – there has not been a final ruling in the lawsuit yet. One there is, we’ll undoubtedly go through more rounds of injunction- and stay-seeking and appealing, and eventually we’ll get a final answer. For now, we have to live with those petty little laws the Lege passed last year.

More on the foodie caucus

The Trib has an update.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

On a mission to advance the local food movement, a Democrat from Austin is finding common ground with Republicans and rural Texans.

When Republicans hear a Democrat saying there’s “too much regulation, their ears perk up,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, that Democrat, said with a smile. He founded the Farm to Table Caucus, the nation’s first bipartisan legislative caucus focused on advancing the local production of healthy food. Ultimately, Rodriguez says, the caucus could help address health issues in Texas like obesity and the scarcity of healthy food options in poor urban neighborhoods.

While their large-scale counterparts receive agricultural tax relief, urban and small-scale family farms do not qualify under many county appraisal districts’ definitions of agricultural land use. And a lack of consistency in local health regulations makes it difficult for farmers and chefs to know what is permitted, what requires a permit and what is off-limits when selling or distributing locally produced foods.

[…]

“We have to look at the balance of the concern about food safety versus food freedom,” said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who co-chairs the Farm to Table Caucus. Although she usually favors local government control, Kolkhorst said the state should provide consistent definitions on what type of food production is allowable.

She authored the Cottage Food Law, which was passed in 2011 and allows Texans to sell baked and canned goods from home as long as they meet certain requirements.

Rodriguez has drafted a variety of ideas for the caucus to consider, such as reducing barriers to tax exemptions for urban farms, allowing onsite processing of feral hog and deer meat that could be prepared at soup kitchens, and expanding the Cottage Food Law.

See here for the background. While I generally agree with the goals here, I’d feel better about adding more exemptions to our tax code if we had a sunset-like process in place to review them periodically see which ones are still useful and desirable and which have morphed into money-sucking boondoggles and special-interest-protected sacred cows. But that’s a separate fight. In the meantime, as I said I generally support this effort and wish them well in the next session.

Endorsement watch: A useful explanation

The Chron endorsed the two Republican incumbents for Harris County Civil Court At Law – they were both appointed to fill vacancies, so it’s not accurate to say they’re running for re-election – but the interesting thing about the endorsement is the lucid explanation of what exactly the Harris County Civil Courts At Law do:

The four Harris County civil courts at law are important utility players in the state court system. They hear civil matters ranging from $200 to $200,000, and act as appellate courts for the municipal and justice of the peace courts a rung below them on the judicial ladder.

They’re busy places, dispensing with approximately 1 million cases annually for ordinary folks. One of their most crucial tasks is to offer access to litigants with matters that are personally important, but whose means are often limited. County court at law judges must bring an “everyman” sensibility to the bench, which frequently means patiently explaining the legal system to pro se clients – those who choose to represent themselves.

Perhaps the most high-profile duty of these civil courts at law is their role in the eminent domain process that decides “takings” of private property for public uses such as roads and highways, and can have an impact in gentrification of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

More information on the county courts can be found here. As with algebra, this is probably not something that most people need to know to get through their daily lives, but you’re better off if you at least have some familiarity with it. I couldn’t have told you what the County Courts did before. That concludes the civics lesson for today.

Friday random ten: Back to work

In honor of the now-resolved NFL referee lockout, here’s a ten song salute to working.

1. Dirty Work – Steely Dan
2. Honest Work – Todd Rundgren
3. Let’s Work – Prince
4. Whistle While You Work – NRBQ
5. Work To Do – The Isley Brothers
6. Workin’ Together – Ike & Tina Turner
7. Working For The Man – Roy Orbison
8. Working Man – Rush
9. Working My Way Back To You – The Spinners
10. Working On The Highway – Bruce Springsteen

Enjoy all the adulation while it lasts, zebras. One bad call and it’ll be business as usual.

What kind of debt is it?

Comptroller Susan Combs is real worried about city and county debt, y’all.

Local governments are loading down Texas taxpayers with debt without providing them enough information about the amount already owed for roads, schools and other public projects, State Comptroller Susan Combs contends in a report released Wednesday.

Titled “Your Money and Your Debt,” the report notes that the current level of government debt approved by Texas cities and counties soared from 2001 through 2011, with tax-supported debt of cities increasing 126 percent to $27 billion. Tax-supported county debt, the report said, grew by 131 percent to $10.3 billion.

“As taxpayers step into a voting booth to approve new debt, government should tell them how much debt they are already responsible for repaying and how much debt service is included,” Combs said in a statement. “Elected officials are responsible for telling the taxpayers they serve about the price tag associated with new and existing debt.”

[…]

Although Harris County has no bond proposals on the ballot this fall, County Judge Ed Emmett criticized the report’s use of population growth and inflation as a benchmark to compare spending and debt. The state built the University of Texas and Texas A&M University with proceeds from oil discoveries, Emmett said, and could not have done so if it had been constrained by that alone. “The Ship Channel, the highway system, all those things were built in anticipation of future growth, not waiting until you get the growth and then saying, ‘OK, now you can spend the money,’ ” he said.

Emmett stressed the difference between debt backed by property taxes and that backed by revenues, such as tolls paid to the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

The Comptroller’s press release is here, and the report can be found at www.TexasItsYourMoney.org. I agree with what Judge Emmett says, and while Comptroller Combs acknowledges in the story that there’s good debt and there’s bad debt, it would have been nice if her report had used methodology to make that distinction. I would also note that with interest rates being at all-time lows, and with the pledge from the Federal Reserve that they will continue to be low for the foreseeable future, there’s never been a better time to borrow than now.

Another point is that cities and counties are doing what the state refuses to do.

Kevin Wolff, the only Republican on the Bexar County Commissioners Court, pointed out that, legally, county governments are a subset of state government and that cities and counties across the state had been forced to deal with legislative budget cuts and unfunded mandates.

“A lot of the debt that counties have had to incur is really through the process of unfunded mandates that come through Austin,” Wolff added. “They’re notorious for passing responsibility onto us for (programs) but not giving us funding sources to do it.”

And sometimes they do this by doing nothing. I am of course speaking of the refusal to expand Medicaid, which will hit counties and hospital districts hard. There’s a reason some counties want to do Medicaid expansion on their own.

It must be time for another Speaker’s Race

Those fun-loving chuckleheads at FreedomWorks are at it again.

FreedomWorks, which helped insurgent Ted Cruz snatch the GOP nod for U.S. Senate from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, said Monday it will put its muscle behind toppling Texas House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio from his leadership post.

The group is backing Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, for speaker. House members will elect the speaker after the Legislature convenes in January.

FreedomWorks is led by former U.S. House Majority leader Dick Armey, who endorsed Matt Beebe’s long-shot challenge to Straus in the GOP primary this year. FreedomWorks also endorsed a Straus challenger for speaker two years ago.

Blah blah blah, Straus is too liberal, he has Democratic committee chairs, we will bury you, etc etc etc. Straus has the right response to these nattering nabobs. I’m going to get an early start this time around and commence ignoring these guys now.

Texas Freedom Network’s guide to the SBOE elections

The Texas Freedom Network has put out a useful little voter’s guide to the 2012 State Board of Education elections, which covers a range of topics from creationism and climate change to bullying and SBOE procedures. You might look at the answers that the candidates who responded submitted and think “Hey, cool, everyone is basically sane and rational”, but look again. Only one Republican incumbent (Thomas Ratliff) and one Republican running for an open seat (Laurie Turner, running for the seat currently held by Democrat Mary Helen Berlanga), submitted answers. Seven Republican incumbents, and three Republican candidates for Republican-held open seats, did not. Donna Bahorich, who is running for Terri Leo’s seat in SBOE6 and who is opposed by Traci Jensen, did not submit answers. Bahorich doesn’t much like talking to audiences that don’t already agree with her so no surprise here. Of course, for a number of these issues we already know where the Republican incumbents stand as their records are quite clear and they’re generally not shy about saying what they believe, but you wouldn’t know it from this. Anyway, take a look and see if your SBOE candidates gave answers. If they didn’t, you probably have a pretty good idea why not.

Sale of Dynamo to Les Alexander falls through

From the weekend:

Anschutz Entertainment Group has turned down Rockets owner Leslie Alexander’s offer to purchase the Houston Dynamo and the 30-year lease on BBVA Compass Stadium, effectively ending any further negotiations between the sides.

“Ownership evaluated the offer,” Dynamo president Chris Canetti said. “At the end of the day, they determined that they’re not prepared to accept the offer, thus meaning they will continue in their ownership.”

“(AEG) reiterated the commitment to the team and the stadium and the belief in both properties and are committed to both entities.”

For more than a month, Alexander had been in the final stages of negotiations to purchase the Dynamo and secure the 30-year lease and development agreement on new BBVA Compass Stadium, which opened in May.

As recently as two weeks ago, Rockets CEO Tad Brown expressed optimism about completing the deal.

Not sure what happened, because it sure sounded like a done deal when it was first reported. Too bad, I thought Alexander would have been a fine owner for them. I guess they’ll keep looking. Surely there’s some other rich dude in Houston who would like to own a professional sports team.

Fifth Circuit upholds Texas Open Meetings Act

Good.

A Fifth Circuit federal appeals panel on Tuesday upheld the criminal penalty provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act against a challenge by a cadre of city officials who argued it chills free speech.

Texas government officials sued the state, arguing the open meetings act restricts their First Amendment rights.

The law requires that most state and local government meetings be open to the public, with a few notable exceptions, including the state legislature, governors and mayors and other executive-level policymakers. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $500 and up to six months in jail.

The three-judge panel on Tuesday unanimously affirmed a district court decision that found the law’s criminal penalties do not curtail free speech, and instead are designed to compel its disclosure.

[…]

Attorneys for the city officials argued the law discourages political speech and is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.

The panel found that the city officials only offered one example of why they would have to discuss public business privately: When the city of Hurst was considering the prohibition of a then-legal substance and did not want to disclose where it was being sold. The attorneys for the city officials argued that having that discussion privately would not lead to corruption, so it should be considered outside of the law’s sweep.

But the panel wrote that “notion fails, because it ignores (the law’s) other goals apart from reducing corruption.”

“Having that discussion privately would decrease government transparency, and the state has determined that the benefits of making these discussions public outweigh any harm done by the disclosure of information,” the judges wrote.

Here’s the opinion. Nice to know that the Fifth Circuit is still capable of making a decent ruling. The plaintiffs say they will appeal to the full Fifth Circuit court, and if necessary to SCOTUS, and who knows what they’ll make of it. But until then, good sense has prevailed. Grits and the Trib have more.

Fort Bend ISD goes BYOD

Students in the Fort Bend Independent School District may now bring their own mobile device to class to connect to the school’s WiFi and be part of the curriculum.

Fort Bend ISD’s policy allows students to use electronic devices to access the WiFi network in the classroom.

Before this year, the district forbade cellphone use on campus, and any technology use required permission from administrators. The policy follows a similar Katy ISD program, begun last school year. And Spring ISD has launched a pilot project this year at a high school and two middle schools.

Teachers have incorporated smartphones into math lessons by replacing flash cards with game apps and creating class blogs for language arts classes, where students question each other about their assigned reading. Students can also use smartphones in class to take pictures of concepts on the chalk board or to take part in class polls.

Jarret Reid Whitaker, the executive director of the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship at Rice University, said the “bring your own device” trend is catching on around the state.

“This is an area that every district will have to face,” Whitaker said. “I think right now the only issue of concern raised is making sure students use it appropriately.”

Critics have pointed to insufficient evidence of a link between more access to technology and student success. Others note the potential for more cheating and the temptation to use the devices for non-academic purposes.

The Aldine Independent School District altered its strict cellphone policy this year to allow devices at school, although they must be turned off at all times. The Houston Independent School District still forbids cellphone use in its classrooms.

FBISD had a pilot iPad program last year, so this is presumably an extension of that; McAllen ISD is also using iPads in a big way. I think this is a good idea, assuming that every teacher still has the right to set their own policies in their classrooms. There’s a debate that the story touches on about the devices being a distraction and an enabler of cheating, and that there’s no evidence as yet that the use of such devices improves test scores. I get that, and again I believe no teacher should be required to use technology they don’t like or don’t believe makes their jobs easier, but I think not taking advantage of mobile devices where possible is like what ignoring would have been like 20 years ago. Smartphones, iPads, and the like are part of kids’ worlds these days, and they’re where all of the innovation is happening in computing. If we’re serious about wanting to graduate students who are ready for the challenges of the job market they’ll be facing, I don’t see how we can ignore such a key component to that market. As for the point about not improving test scores, all I can say is that even if there’s a sufficient body of research to make firm conclusions for technology that’s only been in existence for a couple of years, if this is our excuse for not integrating new technology into the classroom then we really are putting too much emphasis on standardized tests. I think school districts need to figure this out and get on with it, and I think it’s only a matter of time before the Lege makes them do it whether they want to or not. Better to get started on it now, if you ask me.

Endorsement watch: Criminal district courts

Nine of the 22 Criminal District Court benches are up for election this year in Harris County. Democrats hold seven of those nine positions. The Houston Chronicle has endorsed for of those seven incumbent judges for re-election.

176th Criminal District Court: Since her election to the bench in 2008, Democratic Judge Shawna Reagin has applied important caseflow management techniques that have reduced her docket. She has also used intervention programs to provide intensive supervision of probationers who need help staying on track. Smart choices like these mean a better run courthouse and better use of taxpayer dollars. Voters, take note.

178th Criminal District Court: In a race between two thoughtful, qualified candidates, we endorse incumbent Judge David Mendoza. This Democrat takes a smart approach to the judicial system, focusing on 18- to 25-year-old criminals and punishments that make sense. Before being elected in 2008, Mendoza worked in private practice and also had served for eight years as judge of Harris County Court at Law No. 8. His Republican opponent Roger Bridgewater has deep roots in the courts, having worked as clerk, coordinator, prosecutor and defense attorney, and addresses the justice system with a thoughtful, philosophical attitude in his own right. But in this close match, we endorse Judge Mendoza.

179th Criminal District Court: Judge Randy Roll works hard, putting in long hours, skipping lunches and even vacations to get the job done. And it pays off, with his court’s docket cut in half over his four-year term. In a diverse city like Houston, this multilingual Democrat – he speaks Spanish, Russian, German and French – is an especially important asset to an efficient and effective courthouse. His Republican opponent Kristin Guiney is extremely well qualified, and we hope that she stays involved in judicial politics. But in this race between two top candidates we endorse Judge Roll.

339th Criminal District Court: Judge Maria T. Jackson has the sort of tough but fair disposition that makes for a good judge. She has implemented stringent DWI procedures that have since been adopted by other courts, but also recounts stories of thank you notes from offenders set straight when she put them on probation or through a drug court instead of prison. With experience at the National Computer Forensics Institute – important background in an increasingly cyber world – and five years as judge in the municipal courts before being elected to her current bench, this Democrat is the right choice.

The Chron also endorsed the one Republican judge that had been re-elected in 2008, and the Republican judge that was appointed to replace Kevin Fine, who resigned a couple of months ago. That’s it for the countywide judicial races, but there are still the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, First and 14th Courts of Appeals, and Justice of the the Peace races to go.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 24

The Texas Progressive Alliance is enjoying the change of season as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Interview with Terry Grier

Terry Grier

In addition to the many races for office this year, there are several referenda on the ballot that are worthy of your attention. I will be conducting interviews to discuss them as well. The first one up is the HISD bond referendum, and for that I have a conversation with HISD Superintendent Terry Grier. As you know, the referendum is for $1.9 billion in bonds, primarily for the renovation or reconstruction of numerous HISD high schools. The referendum recently picked up the endorsement of State Rep. Sylvester Turner, who had been the biggest critic of the last referendum, in 2007. I should note that this interview was conducted prior to the adoption of new ethics rules by the Board of Trustees. Here’s the interview:

Terry Grier MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

It’s all about the pensions

I didn’t stay up to see the end of the Monday Night Football debacle. Whether you endured it or not, perhaps you’re wondering what exactly this particular labor dispute is about. To be blunt, it’s about the NFL attacking the referees’ retirement plan.

The referees’ union and NFL team owners remain at odds on several issues — pay, staffing levels and the arbitration system, to name a few. But Scott Green, the referee who’s head of the NFL Referees Association, says there’s one proposal above all others that he and his colleagues can’t manage to swallow: the league wants to freeze their long-running pension plans and switch them to less attractive 401(k)-style retirement plans.

“The key is the pension issue,” Green told HuffPost, adding that the pensions have been around since the mid-1970s. “A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there.”

In facing a pension freeze, the NFL refs have plenty of company. Corporations across the country have been trying to switch their employees from traditional defined benefit pension plans to cheaper, less reliable defined contribution plans. Just one example is Con-Ed, which recently locked out workers as it tried to phase out employees’ traditional pensions and move them to 401(k)s.

A lockout, it should be noted, is different from a strike. The workers do not elect to stop working — they are forced to do so by management, putting them on the defensive. (Writing at The Nation, Dave Zirin and Mike Elk compared locking out 119 referees to “using an Uzi on a field mouse.”) The prevalence of lockouts during labor disputes has soared in the weak economy.

But in this case, employees are squaring off with an ownership that doesn’t pretend to be under financial duress. According to Forbes, the average NFL team is now worth $1.1 billion, up 7 percent over the previous year. To draw a blue-collar parallel, the league is a bit like the manufacturer Caterpillar, which has been pressuring its workers to bend to concessions despite the company’s record profits.

Indeed, when HuffPost asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to address the pension issue on Wednesday, he didn’t argue that the league’s retirement contributions to referees had grown too onerous. Instead, he simply noted the fact that American workers in general are losing their defined benefit pensions. Even Roger Goodell, Goodell noted, doesn’t enjoy such a pension plan.

“From the owners’ standpoint, right now they’re funding a pension program that is a defined benefit program,” said Goodell, who was in Washington on Wednesday attending a luncheon hosted by Politico’s Playbook. “About ten percent of the country has that. Yours truly doesn’t have that. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily.”

“What we agreed to do and offer as ownership,” he added, “is that they would have a defined contribution plan, in the form of 401(k), so they’ll still have a pension plan but the risk, like [for] most of us, would be on individuals.”

As I said before, this fight is entirely of the NFL’s choosing. The refs don’t make that much money. Their pension plan isn’t some out-of-control cost for a staggering industry. The league is straight up trying to screw them, same as they tried to screw the players last year. The Players’ Association, to its credit, has called on the league to end the lockout. The players have the right under their agreement to refuse to play if they believe their safety is in danger, and I hope they are prepared to take that step if the league won’t back down. And as for Goodell’s claim that the refs would be like him if they didn’t have a defined benefit plan, well, when the refs are paid as well as Roger Goodell, then he might have a point. Even people who don’t much care for unions, especially those in Wisconsin, are calling for the NFL to end the lockout before it gets any worse. I fear it is going to take something truly awful for the NFL to finally see reason on this. I don’t even want to think about what that might be. You can sign this petition at Change.org if you want to call on the NFL to end the lockout. See this Deadspin chat with George Atallah, the spokesman for the NFLPA, for more.

A national view on redistricting

The Atlantic has an interesting view of the redistricting process.

Old school redistricting

Every 10 years, after U.S. census workers have fanned out across the nation, a snowy-haired gentle­man by the name of Tom Hofeller takes up anew his quest to destroy Democrats. He packs his bag and his laptop with its special Maptitude software, kisses his wife of 46 years, pats his West Highland white terrier, Kara, and departs his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for a United States that he will help carve into a jigsaw of disunity.

[…]

Hofeller maintains an office at the Republican National Committee on Capitol Hill, though he is now the RNC’s paid consultant rather than, as in years past, its official redistricting director. At 69, he is a professorial if somewhat impish fellow (in his early days, a California House speaker dubbed him “the kid with the shit-eating grin”) who is more than content not to be a household name. His after-hours life includes singing tenor in his church choir and reading multitudes of books that seldom have anything to do with politics. Hofeller’s earliest clients included Democrats, and today he describes himself as a moderate Republican. The adjective is irrelevant, however. His chosen field is, according to Georgia Congressman and House Republican redistricting vice chair Lynn Westmoreland, “the nastiest form of politics that there is”: Tom Hofeller’s objective is to design wombs for his team and tombs for the other guys.

And so his cyclical travels take him mainly to states where the Republicans are likely to be drawing the new maps. (In most states, an appointed committee consisting of legislators from the majority party produces the map, which is then brought to the legislative body for a vote. Other states relegate the duties to an appointed commission.) At meetings, Hofeller gives a PowerPoint presentation titled “What I’ve Learned About Redistricting—The Hard Way!” Like its author, the presentation is both learned and a bit hokey, with admonitions like “Expect the unexpected” and “Don’t get ‘cute.’ Remember, this IS legislation!” He warns legislators to resist the urge to overindulge, to snatch up every desirable precinct within reach, when drawing their own districts.

But Hofeller’s helpful tips give way to the sinister warnings of a gimlet-eyed, semi-­clandestine political operative: “Make sure your security is real.” “Make sure your computer is in a PRIVATE location.” “ ‘Emails are the tool of the devil.’ Use personal contact or a safe phone!” “Don’t reveal more than necessary.” “BEWARE of non­-partisan, or bi­-partisan, staff bearing gifts. They probably are not your friends.”

Be discreet. Plan ahead. Follow the law. Don’t overreach. Tom Hofeller relishes the blood sport of redistricting, but there is a responsible way—as Hofeller himself demonstrated this past cycle in the artful (if baldly partisan) redrawing of North Carolina’s maps—and also a reckless way. So that his message will penetrate, he tells audiences horror stories about states that ignored his warnings and went with maps that either were tossed out by the federal courts or created more political problems than they solved.

Already Hofeller has picked out which cautionary tale he will relay during the next decennial tour. The new horror story, he’s decided, will be Texas, which stood, this past cycle, as a powerful example of how reckless a redistricting process can become. That mangled effort also provides a stark contrast to the maps Hofeller helped create in North Carolina—­drawings that demonstrate how in the blood sport of redistricting, the most cravenly political results are won with calculating prudence.

It’s an interesting story, one that will likely either shock you or confirm everything you’ve ever believed about politics. Other than a little bit of name-calling between national and Texas Republicans, I didn’t really learn much about why there was such reckless overreach by the GOP here. It’s just not that kind of a story. Perhaps a few things will shake loose now that this first shot has been fired, but until then it’s more tease than anything else. And while it’s certainly true that the state GOP could have gotten just about everything they wanted if they’d been slightly less greedy, it must be noted that the last laugh may yet still be theirs. Until SCOTUS rules on their Section 5 claims, anything is still possible. Burka and EoW have more.

Doesn’t he know that Valjean was French?

Poor, pitiful Tom DeLay.

I know who I am but who are YOU?

DeLay, and his attorney, Brian Wice, are hoping to get his convictions overturned. On Oct. 10, they will finally get a chance to make their case to the 3rd Court of Appeals, arguing the once-powerful Republican leader did nothing wrong and is the victim of a political vendetta, a claim that prosecutors deny.

DeLay, 65, was found guilty in November 2010 of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering for helping illegally funnel corporate money to Texas candidates in 2002.

Sitting with DeLay in his office in downtown Houston on Wednesday, Wice used a literary allusion to explain the case. He compared DeLay to Jean Valjean, the kind-hearted protagonist of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” He called Ronnie Earle, the now-retired Democratic Travis County District Attorney in Austin who charged the former lawmaker, a modern-day Inspector Javert, who pursued Valjean at all costs.

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office says the case was never about politics but about someone who broke Texas law.

“Our office has always been fair and never been politically motivated in prosecuting this defendant or any other,” said prosecutor Holly Taylor.

I believe it was Ronnie Earle who said “Being called partisan by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a toad.” But never mind that, I feel a song coming on:

Yes, Jean Valjean was exactly like Tom DeLay, with his book deal and his touring the country giving speeches and rubbing elbows with power brokers, and of course his gig on “Viennese Waltzing With The Stars”, which was a big hit back in the day. Valjean also had a legal defense fund that helped keep him afloat all those years he was being pursued by Javert. It’s like they’re twins separated by a couple of centuries and the fact that one of them is fictional.

If I hadn’t been a math major, I might have read enough Great Books to have a better fictional doppelganger for DeLay to suggest, but I didn’t and I don’t. So I’ll leave that to you. Make your nomination for DeLay’s true literary counterpart in the comments. I’m sure we’ll get a better answer than this.

Judicial Q&A: Michele Petty

Note: As I have done in years past, I am conducting written Q&As with judicial candidates. This one is a little different in that the questions were originally asked by someone else, but the idea is the same. Further explanation after the post.

Michele Petty

1. Please explain why voters should elect you over your opponent.

Justice Hecht thought it was OK to stick the taxpayers with nearly half a million dollars of his personal legal bills at a time when Texas is closing its parks and laying off its teachers. The cronies who submitted special appropriations bills on his behalf did not get the bills passed, so Justice Hecht sent letters to lawyers and litigants with cases pending asking for donations to pay off his debts. Some got handwritten notes. Those who paid $5000 or more according to Texas Watch won 8 out of 9 times. Those fees arose out of his appeal of the Judicial Conduct Commission Admonishment for “willfully and persistently violating” the judicial canons. The Admonishment was overturned on appeal by a panel comprised of a majority of Republican judges from his home Court of Appeals who were appointed by the Chief Justice who sits next to him on the Court.

Justice Hecht also has an unresolved $29,000 ethics fine from 2008 for accepting an illegal campaign contribution and then failing to report it. His appeal should have been dismissed want of prosecution over two and a half years ago under Travis County local rules, but the attorney general’s office has not filed the motion, and has not set the case for trial. (Attorney General Greg Abbott sat on the court with Justice Hecht.)

I have recent jury trial experience, run my own firm and am Board Certified in Civil Trial Law. Justice Hecht has not tried a case in 30 years and is not Board Certified in anything. I have been nationally recognized for a top ten verdict and have handled cases against multinational corporations. The Court is all Republican with only two women and no contingent fee or plaintiff’s practice attorneys. I would bring much needed perspective and balance to the court.

2. The Texas Supreme Court has been described as a “conservative court” for more than 15 years. Do you think that conservatism is a product of the justices themselves or of laws of the Texas Legislature that the high court must interpret?

Six of the nine Justices currently on the Court were appointed by Governor Perry, and some have advertised themselves as the most conservative on the court. While the Legislature has enacted conservative legislation in the last fifteen years, the court has gone beyond what was enacted and engaged in judicial legislation to further restrict the rights of injured Texans. Laws that did not pass legislatively were adopted by the Court, and the court has interpreted statutes in favor of businesses even though such language is nowhere in the statute nor legislative history.

3. The Texas Supreme Court has a reputation for being pro-business, especially in tort cases. Do you agree or disagree and what can be done to correct that impression?

The Texas Supreme Court deserves its reputation for being pro-business. Wal-Mart has been to the Texas Supreme Court 12 times and has won all 12 times between 1998 and 2005 according to UT law professor David Anderson. ( Wal-Mart prevailed in only 56 percent of the 81 cases in other states.) In a 2007 study of 69 opinions written by the court in 2004 and 2005, Anderson found that defendants won 87% of the time. From 2000-2010, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against consumers 79% of the time according to Texas Watch. Recent cases have eliminated entire causes of action and elements of recovery to insulate businesses from future suits.

The Justices have received so much business related PAC money that realistically Texas must change the way Justices are selected so that campaign contributions are no longer part of the equation. (Justice Don Willett received and spent over $1.4 million for his May primary.) Otherwise, Texas will have to turn blue with voters sweeping out a majority of the incumbents in the next election cycles to restore balance to the court.

4. Some critics of the court believe it goes out its way to disregard jury verdicts. What are some of the reasons the Texas Supreme Court should overturn a jury verdict?

A ten year study by Texas Watch reports that the Texas Supreme Court overturns jury verdicts 74% of the time; however, jury verdicts should be overturned when the trial court has committed reversible error or there has been jury misconduct. Trial judge mistakes in admission and exclusion of evidence, improper jury argument, defects in the jury charge and errors of law can justifiably cause the jury verdict to be reversed.

5. What do you hope to accomplish during a six-year term on the Texas Supreme Court?

I will work to provide better access to justice for the people of Texas. I have direct experience with legal services for indigent and low income clients in contested family law matters. I am sensitive to the needs of the indigent for legal services, but am also respectful of the family bar and those administering legal aid programs and will act to make sure that the solutions implemented are in fact workable and are not riddled with the “80 substantial defects” identified by the Family Law Foundation in the forms proposed by Justice Hecht’s committee. Access to justice also includes the opportunity to redress grievances in a court of law before a jury of peers. I will act to curb the court’s judicial activist trend that inhibits Texans’ ability to meaningfully have their day in court.

I believe that judges should not be career politicians and will work toward the adoption of sensible term limits. I will work to change the way justices are selected.

Note: This Q&A was sent to me by Petty; it was originally slated to run in Texas Lawyer but they edited out her charges against Justice Hecht, and she objected to that. The questions were all asked by Texas Lawyer. Petty added the following bits of information in a followup email:

This is the Texas Ethics Commission order Justice Hecht appealed http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/sworncomp/2007/2707161.pdf

This is the Texas Judicial Conduct Commission Public Admonitition: http://texasweekly.com/documents/tcjc-hecht.pdf

It’s usually a bad idea to bet on any kind of overhaul in the Lege

I agree that it’s a sucker’s bet to think that the Lege will try to fix Texas’ tax code in any meaningful way. Nobody likes having to take votes that may later be used as clubs against them in a campaign, and the lobbyists swarm like no other time when someone’s tax break is on the line. But such an overhaul has to happen eventually.

For Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat who serves on the House Ways and Means and Appropriations committees, it amounts to financial mismanagement by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“Frankly, when you have a governor who says he will veto anything that even looks like a tax bill – even if it’s a reform of an existing, broken tax – it gives little reason for legislators to devote resources to proposing tax legislation,” Villarreal added.

Not that Villarreal and others haven’t tried.

Former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican who is retiring from the Legislature, last year sought a revamp of the chronically underperforming business tax, warning that local school property taxes would otherwise rise. The business tax was expanded in 2006 to help pay for lower local school property tax rates, but it has fallen short of projections. Ogden also has called the exemption-riddled sales tax system a “rickety” thing.

[…]

Villarreal has pushed to create a special commission to recommend exemptions ripe for elimination. It’s an uphill battle, he said, since tax code reform is “the right thing to do in the long term” but presents little short-term political gain.

“We do not scrub our tax code the way we scrub our budget. Every legislative session we open up the budget. We go line by line down the expenses that we approved in the entire session asking ourselves, ‘Is this working?’ ” he said. “In the tax code you can put an exemption in place and have it never be seen again.”

As I’ve said many times before, nothing will change until the state’s leadership changes. It makes no sense that tax expenditures never get the kind of scrutiny that every other kind of expenditure gets. To use the overworked analogy, it’s like going over your household expenses line by line every month, but never reviewing your investment portfolio to see what’s performing well and what isn’t. Of course, every exemption, exclusion, and loophole in the tax code was put there to benefit some interest group with the power to fiercely defend it, and that makes it a much harder fight. But we can see the consequences of avoiding that fight. Those chickens are going to roost whether we’re ready for them or not.

The case against the food trucks

Reggie Coachman, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, tries to make a case against giving food trucks freer rein downtown.

Currently there are more than 939 active mobile units permitted in the city of Houston, including 774 trucks and trailers equipped with kitchens. The Mobile Food Unit Coalition primarily represents a small number (less than 50) of those trucks. These trucks are chef-driven, entrepreneurial, comply with city codes and primarily serve the inner-loop community.

The city of Houston has two inspectors and one supervisor for these 939 units. Many of these trucks operate around the clock or during off hours, while the inspectors primarily work normal business hours. With only two inspectors, it is not possible for the city to enforce the existing regulations, much less loosened regulations.

If all food trucks complied with regulations, there would not be as much concern. However, neighborhoods across the 656 square miles of the city have had many problems with food trucks. Some of the trucks rarely move. Some have been witnessed disposing of their grease in city storm sewers. They have patrons that loiter nearby and engage in inappropriate behavior late into the night. Regulations require that a truck be moved and visit a commissary at least once during a 24-hour period. The current regulations were strengthened in recent years to better manage the problems created by quasi-permanent food trucks.

Mobile food units are by the very definition mobile businesses. In most cities, they are banned from having tables and chairs. They serve walk-up customers who are taking their food elsewhere to eat. To allow these vehicles to add tables and chairs in front of their trucks is allowing them to essentially operate a restaurant without complying with full standards required of restaurateurs or paying the accompanying taxes. Again, we do not believe that this is an issue with the proponents of these changes, but we already have serious issues with trucks operating in the parking lots of existing brick-and-mortar restaurants outside of Loop 610.

And to that point, let’s consider the impact to existing businesses. The Chronicle editorial claims that Houston is a foodie city. We agree. It is the existing restaurants that have brought us to this point. Restaurateurs who are strong entrepreneurs, many who started in small shops or as busboys for someone else and then built their own unique spaces, have helped elevate Houston to a food destination. These restaurants pay significant property taxes to the city. In a brick-and-mortar restaurant, sales taxes are tightly regulated and regularly submitted to the state. They hire many workers and add jobs to the economy.

In other words, it all boils down to benighted self-interest. We’ve all got bills to pay, and we’d all like to go about our business without more interference than necessary. I get that, and I don’t hold it against anyone, but that generally doesn’t make for a compelling argument. As Katharine Shilcutt documented at Tuesday’s council meeting where MFU Houston encountered resistance from various Council members and the GHRA, there are actually more inspectors per food truck than there are inspectors per restaurant, and as anyone who has ever watched the local news in this town well knows, brick-and-mortar restaurants have cleanliness issues sometimes, too. All this would be excusable, but then I read this:

New York City, which was mentioned in the editorial, is actually moving food trucks out of the city.

That piqued my curiosity, so I did a little Googling. I found the NYC Food Truck Association, and on their FAQ page, I found this:

Q – Why do NYC food trucks need advocates?
A – Running a food truck in NYC right now is very challenging. The current regulations make it very hard to find parking to vend and to hire staff quickly enough to keep up with seasonal demand. There have been a number of articles documenting these challenges:
Food Trucks Shooed From Midtown, New York Times
The rise and stall of food trucks, Crain’s NY
The NYCFTA is working with the Administration, City Agencies, City Council, Business Improvement Districts, and communities throughout New York City in order to help reinvent food truck vending in a way that is beneficial to the City, food truck entrepreneurs, and New Yorkers.

The key bit in that NYT story about why food trucks are now being ticketed by the cops is as follows:

David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association, which represents 24 vendors, said the police activity is a result of a May 24 ruling by Justice Geoffrey D. Wright in New York State Supreme Court (*). The decision reinforced a city Transportation Department regulation, believed to date from the 1950s, stating that no “vendor, hawker or huckster shall park a vehicle at a metered parking space” to offer “merchandise for sale from the vehicle.”

“Until now this law was very inconsistently enforced,” Mr. Weber said, “but now Judge Wright’s decision is trickling down to the precincts.”

In other words, the change in attitude towards food trucks in New York was not the result of a deliberate policy decision made by Mayor Bloomberg and/or New York’s City Council, but the sudden application of an obscure old city ordinance. Characterizing this as the city “moving the trucks out” – itself a falsehood, as trucks have recently established a presence near downtown – is a total distortion, and makes me much less inclined to take anything the GHRA says on the issue seriously. If there is a case to be made against the food trucks, let’s make it honestly, OK? CultureMap has more from the Council meeting.

One more thing: MFU Houston is asking for access to the Medical Center as well as downtown. Coachman’s piece mentions the Medical Center in passing, but focuses on downtown. Whatever the argument for keeping the current regulations on food trucks for downtown, I don’t see how they apply for the Medical Center, because there are no brick-and-mortar restaurants there. There’s hardly anyplace to eat in the Medical Center. I don’t know where the trucks would park in the Medical Center if allowed there, but their presence is desperately needed.

(*) – In New York, the Supreme Court is more or less the equivalent of a District Court in Texas. The top court in NY is the Appellate Court. My dad was a Supreme Court Justice in NY, so I know these things.

Will voters understand the Metro referendum?

That’s the question that people on both sides of the issue are asking themselves.

“You have some people who will read it and maybe they don’t like Metro and so they’re going to vote against it, without realizing that by voting against it they’re really going to be damaging the county and the city and everybody else,” County Judge Ed Emmett said earlier this month, after Commissioners Court formally endorsed the referendum. “We need to educate people because it’s a little bit of a convoluted ballot item.”

[…]

If the ballot item fails, Metro would keep all of its sales tax dollars for transit.

That is the outcome Jay Blazek Crossley, of the nonprofit Houston Tomorrow, wants. His group and the Citizens Transportation Coalition have raised about $6,000 of their $10,000 goal, he said, acknowledging the money war is lost. Instead, his group is organizing volunteers to post yard signs, campaign door-to-door and speak about the referendum at house parties.

“We think our job is to reach out to Houstonians, talk about transit, and make people understand that we can have a much better transit future. But yes, a lot of people will vote no just because that’s what people do,” Crossley said, adding that some people also may vote yes – mistakenly thinking they’re supporting transit.

Referendum supporters set the ballot language, he said, so if voters are confused, supporters have themselves to blame.

The referendum language is here. I think it’s pretty straightforward, but you have to know what the General Mobility Fund is to comprehend it. As such, I do believe some people will vote based on a flawed understanding of it. I’m going to do what I can to facilitate a better understanding of the issue by running a series of interviews next week on the referendum and its effects. I hope you’ll find it useful.

Interview with Brad Neal

Brad Neal

Also up in the northern parts of Harris County is HD150, home of the notorious Rep. Debbie Riddle, for whom I trust no introduction is necessary, though this is a good start if you need it. Opposing The Riddler for a third time is Brad Neal, whom I interviewed in 2010 after not having the chance to meet him in 2008. Neal is an East Texas native and a veteran of the Marine Corps who holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M. He lives in Spring and works for an oil and gas equipment supplier. Here’s what we talked about:

Brad Neal MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

YouGov: Romney 52, Obama 41

Another new poll of Texas, from YouGov:

Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney holds a solid, eleven-point lead over Democratic President Barack Obama in Texas, 52% Romney to 41% Obama, in a poll of 1,254 registered voters statewide, conducted by YouGov.

In the race for Senate, Republican Ted Cruz holds a 50%-31% over Democratic candidate Paul Sadler in the race to replace the retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

[…]

Sampling method: Respondents were selected from the YouGov’s panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by age, gender, race, education, and region) was selected from the 2005–2007 American Community Study. Voter registration, turnout, religion, news interest, minor party identification, and non-placement on an ideology scale, were imputed from the 2008 Current Population Survey Registration and Voting supplement and the Pew Religion in American Life Survey. Matching respondents were selected from the YouGov panel, an opt-in Internet panel.

Weighting: The sample was weighted using propensity scores based on age, gender, race, education, news interest, voter registration, and non-placement on an ideology scale.

Number of respondents: 1,254 registered voters statewide.

Their poll data are here. For those of you thinking that Internet-based polls are necessarily bogus, let me refer you to Steve Singiser:

It would seem appropriate, given that they were solely responsible for half of the data collected today, to say a few words about YouGov. The firm is a British firm, that moved into the American market in 2007 when they bought out Polimetrix, a California-based firm that had done a lot of internet-based polling in 2006 in an arrangement with Stanford University.

Their polling is based on internet samples, a method which some find problematic (some aggregators of polling, indeed, refuse to utilize their data). It is a methodology that I also confess to qualms about, because when you have a sample that is essentially volunteering to participate, and a smaller universe from which to draw from, the potential pitfalls are pretty self-evident.

However, the true measure is performance. Some internet-based polling has a track record of missing the fairways. Indeed, the only poll that is specifically barred from inclusion in the Wrap is an internet-based survey: polls from JZ Analytics (once called “Zogby Interactive”). John Zogby is an established veteran who has some impressive hits on his resumé, but his foray into internet polling was pretty awful. 2006 was a particular low water mark, whether it was the insistence that Democrat Bill Ritter was enmeshed in a coin flip for the Colorado governor’s race (he won by 17), or that Herb Kohl was being hard-pressed for re-election (he wound up winning by 38). The lack of movement in the polls also made clear that Zogby was trying to make do with what were very small collections of voters in each state.

YouGov, however, has earned at least a cycle’s worth of benefit of the doubt. Their 2010 track record was more than reasonable. Indeed, of the 18 pollsters that offered up a substantive number of polls, YouGov came in fourth place in terms of their accuracy (defined as the percentage of races where they came within three percent of the final margin).

So we’ll see how we do. It would be nice to have another outfit regularly polling Texas, if they’re halfway decent at it.

My thoughts on the poll data:

– Because of their weighting, I can’t say for sure what they project the racial makeup of the electorate to be. Whites make up 74% of their actual sample, and I’m pretty sure no one expects that. I fiddled around with the numbers a bit, and if I set the white share of the vote to be about 67% and distributed the difference to black and Hispanic voters in proportion to their actual shares, I get pretty close to their totals. All pollsters make guesses about the makeup of an electorate, so there’s nothing particularly odd about this exercise.

– White voters go for Romney by a 66-26 margin. Assuming the 3% of “not sure” voters are unlikely to vote, and that the “other” vote is probably overstated at 5%, that puts Romney close to 70% of white voters once you reallocate. That’s higher than what pollsters other than Wilson Perkins have found, and if true it puts the GOP in the safe zone for continuing to win statewide.

– Obama leads among Hispanic voters by a 58-36 margin. That’s a smaller lead than what other pollsters have found, and it feels understated to me. One reason why I think this is that the poll sample is heavily female (55%), and Hispanic women are among the strongest supporters of President Obama nationwide. Perhaps they’ve weighted out the gender disparity, and perhaps Texas Latinas aren’t like their sisters elsewhere, but still, this feels understated to me.

– The results by age are almost the complete opposite of the Wilson Perkins poll, which had Obama doing best (though still losing) among respondents 55-64 while getting stomped among younger voters. In the YouGov sample, Obama wins the 18-29 and 30-44 age groups, but gets creamed among older voters. Make of all that what you will.

– The Senate result is nearly identical to the poll released by the Sadler campaign, though obviously without the push component. I strongly suspect that a lot of the “don’t knows” in this result are Democratic voters who just don’t know much about Sadler but will ultimately vote for him. 23% of black respondents and 32% of Hispanic respondents were “don’t knows”. In the end, I suspect Sadler’s percentage will mirror Obama’s fairly closely. Ted Cruz didn’t do any better among Hispanic voters than Mitt Romney did, by the way – Sadler led him by a 36-31 margin.

That’s all I’ve got. I’m a bit dubious of this poll, but as Singiser said, they’ve earned some benefit of the doubt based on their 2010 track record. I’m glad we’re getting more data. We’ll see how good it turns out to be.

What the microbreweries want from the next legislative session

Scott Metzger of Freetail Brewing has an update on what he and his craft-brewing colleagues have been working on.

Brock Wagner (of Saint Arnold of course) and I have been Co-Chairing the Texas Craft Brewers Guild Legislative Committee and have come a long way. There is still a ton of work to do, and nothing is certain, but I feel better about our chances than ever before. For the first time this issue is being tackled from the perspective of economic development and helping Texas-born businesses flourish. From that angle, there is really no denying that changes must be made to grant Texas craft brewers greater access to market.

The Texas Craft Brewers Guild has released this position paper laying out our legislative agenda. Specifically, we have four goals (all equal in importance):

  • Gain the ability for packaging breweries to sell their products to consumers on the premise of their breweries
  • Gain the ability for brewpubs to sell to the wholesale tier
  • Protect small brewer’s existing rights to self-distribute
  • Achieve these goals while protecting the integrity and viability of the 3-tier system

As I wrote here last November, protecting a viable, independent 3-tier system is vital for the health of the craft brewing industry. Without independent wholesalers, craft beer would never see the light of the shelves or taps we’d be stuck in a world without the wide variety of choices we enjoy today.

See here for more about their economic impact study. I’m less sanguine about the three-tier system than they are, but if they’ve found a way to overcome the resistance to any change while living within that system and not making it any harder for further newcomers to the industry, then who am I to complain? I wish them all the best of luck next year.

The “dead voter” saga still has some life in it

Looks like I spoke too soon when I said that the “dead voter” purge story was over. Remember that lawsuit filed by four voters and the temporary injunction granted by a Travis County judge forbidding the Secretary of State from further instructing the counties to remove any other names from the voter rolls? On Friday, AG Greg Abbott filed a motion asking the judge to lift that restraining order.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Four voters who sued Secretary of State Hope Andrade, arguing that their voting rights were jeopardized by being listed as “potentially deceased,” lack the standing to sue because they were not harmed by the program, Abbott argued in a court filing.

The voters, notified by letter that federal records indicated they might be dead, were given 30 days to prove otherwise before their voter registration would be canceled.

“No plaintiff has pled any facts from which it could be found that he is unable to provide such information,” Abbott said.

[…]

Abbott’s filing urged dismissal of key claims made in the lawsuit, including:

Allegations that Andrade’s rule violated the Voting Rights Act. Only a three-judge federal court panel has the legal authority to hear such claims, Abbott said.

Allegations that Andrade did not follow state law requiring public input on new rules. Andrade’s actions were mandated by state law and are not considered a “rule” under Texas statute, Abbott said.

A hearing will be held Oct. 4 to determine whether to make the restraining order permanent. Abbott’s motion to dismiss will be heard at that hearing, said Buck Wood, a lawyer for the four voters.

Wood said the filing did not worry him.

“With one or two little exceptions, everything in there was what they already argued at the temporary restraining order hearing,” he said.

I guess we’ll see about that. Clearly, there is no stone Greg Abbott will leave unturned to restrict voting. The original filing by the plaintiffs is here, the TRO issued by the judge is here, and the AG’s response is here. I welcome comment from the lawyers out there.

Weekend link dump for September 23

Let judges perform weddings. Who cares if they’re active or not?

Making it easier to fire teachers has no effect on student performance.

I want to ride my tricycle, I want to ride my trike.

What Faith The Vampire Slayer’s mom has to say about Mitt Romney.

Are Apple products not so easy to use any more?

Ten “fun” facts from the Values “Values” Voter Summit.

Well, this is what most people use the Internet for.

The Incred-Obamas.

We need to build a lot more of that, and the sooner the better.

Comedians and blog-snark purveyors are fervently hoping this happens.

Rush Limbaugh is a big fat liar. Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.

Another reminder to not dump non-native species into the local ecosystem.

“So whenever you hear that half of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes, remember: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush helped build that.”

RIP, Steve Sabol, guru of NFL Films.

Another “be careful what you like on Facebook” story.

Mitt Romney will of course never give this speech, but Lord knows, he should.

I sure hope that Chick-Fil-A is ceasing donations to anti-gay groups. It would be great news, and a big win for social justice and public pressure.

The budget sequester would be bad for science, too.

Everyone deserves to participate in our society.

Always remember Rule #1.

Happy 95th birthday to June Foray, the first lady of cartoon voices.

Poll claims lead for Gallego in CD23

A poll commissioned by the League of Conservation Voters shows Democratic challenger Pete Gallego with a lead in CD23.

Pete Gallego

Democratic challenger Pete Gallego is leading Republican incumbent Quico Canseco (43% Gallego / 38% Canseco) in the race to represent Texas’ 23rd Congressional District. The 23rd is a swing district that is very competitive at the top of the ticket, and Gallego is well-positioned to take advantage of Canseco’s unimpressive popularity and job rating. Gallego not only leads Canseco, but also critical undecided voters show a propensity to break for Gallego. If Gallego and his allies are able to fund a robust communication plan rebutting Canseco/GOP attacks, Gallego stands an excellent chance to oust the Republican incumbent.

Pete Gallego leads Quico Canseco by five points, and undecided voters appear more likelyto break Democratic than Republican.

Despite Canseco’s incumbency and name -ID advantages, Democrat Pete Gallegocurrently leads Canseco 43% to 38%.

Undecided voters (18% of the electorate) are disproportionately Hispanic, a group among whom Gallego overwhelmingly leads (60% Gallego / 20% Canseco).

That’s all from the polling memo, which doesn’t tell us much else beyond the fact that Obama led in their sample by a 46-45 mark, and Democrats were preferred to control Congress by 44-41. I don’t have the questions, partisan breakdown, or crosstabs, so I can’t give you any kind of analysis of this. However, I disagree with the assertion that this poll should be taken with a “big grain of salt”. It is just one data point, and it is of limited value since it has limited information, but as Steve Singiser pointed out awhile back, internal polls do tell us something, especially when only one side is releasing them. Far as I know, there’s been no counter-poll released by the Canseco campaign or an ally of it. For sure, they have their own data. If they’re not sharing it, they either feel sufficiently confident in their position to not bother with a response, or they don’t have a suitable rebuttal at hand. Which do you think is more likely? Canseco also has his own 47% issue, which I’m sure will come up in the voluminous advertising for the race. This will be a hard-fought race to the end, but it’s clearly one Gallego can win.

Once more with the margins tax and the Supreme Court

Here we go again.

The Texas Supreme Court could blow a hole in the state’s budget if it finds the business tax unconstitutional, as pressed Tuesday in a lawsuit led by food giant Nestlé USA.

“The Legislature can’t violate the constitution to promote even a legitimate interest,” said attorney Peter A. Nolan, arguing on Nestlé’s behalf that the tax violates a state constitutional requirement that taxes be equal and uniform.

If the Supreme Court throws out the law, the scope of the court’s decision will determine whether the state needs to quickly find another way to come up with some $4.5 billion annually or more.

“Should they rule for the plaintiff, they could throw out the tax in its entirety. They could require the state to provide four years of refunds, which is the statute of limitations period,” said Dale Craymer, president of the business-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. The business tax “is about 10 percent of all the taxes the state collects. It’s a sizable part of the budget,” Craymer said.

The court could, however, give the state some leeway to come up with a remedy, he said. It must rule in the case by Oct. 23, according to court staff.

See here, here, and here for some background. The Statesman gives November 9 as a rule-by date. Regardless, there will be a decision this year. The Lege was likely to tweak the margins tax anyway; they may wind up having to do a lot more than that. The Trib explains the legalities involved.

Dale Craymer, president of Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, says the suit boils down to questions over equal treatment.

Craymer explains the franchise tax charges one-half of 1 percent to wholesalers but a full 1 percent to businesses engaged in manufacturing. Nestle, a national manufacturer and wholesaler, does not manufacture anything in Texas, but is still subject to the 1 percent rate.

The company claims the distinction violates equal protection provision in the Texas and U.S. constitutions.

Texas designates Nestle and the other companies in the suit as “unitary entities,” or companies that have various components but operate as one organization. Unitary entities are subject to the 1 percent tax rate under current franchise tax rules that were revised in 2006.

Texas has had a version of the franchise tax since the 19th century. Sometimes called the margins tax, it’s a tax on doing business in Texas. Craymer says the dollars it brings in “generally pale in comparison to property and sales tax” on businesses.

Lawyers for the Texas Attorney General’s Office wrote in a brief to the court that Nestle’s equal-protection challenges hinge on an erroneous premise that the franchise tax was solely meant to cover the value of doing business in Texas and that the value should be assessed as if it were property. But, they wrote, the Legislature has wide latitude to create tax classifications.

My first impression when I read that was that Nestle’s argument sounds a lot like the one Amazon had made to argue that they weren’t subject to the sales tax in Texas because they didn’t have a “physical presence” in the state, just a distribution center. They eventually lost that fight as we know, but I couldn’t say what might happen here. Between this and the school finance lawsuits, the Supreme Court will have a big say over what Texas’ budget looks like in the coming years.

Bike maps

The Chron has a request about bicycle trails.

Unfortunately, navigating via bicycle can sometimes be a difficult feat for people unfamiliar with these neighborhoods – especially downtown. While the central business district’s grid of one-way streets is easy enough, the bicycle routes for getting out of downtown are less obvious.

The ideal solution would be clearly marked signs and designated bicycle paths, but that will take time and money. Until then, the city could make sure that the maps at B-cycle stations do a better job of showing how to get to key bicycle paths. And putting mini-maps on the bikes themselves will help riders traverse Houston while sticking to designated bicycle-friendly routes.

I’ll take this request a step further. There needs to be a better map of the bike trail system online. I’m sorry, but the maps on Houston Bikeways just don’t cut it. They’re all PDFs, and they may be fine as printed documents, but even zoomed in they’re hard to read and don’t have enough street detail. You can see existing bike paths on Google Maps, but you can’t see designated bike lanes on city streets, and you can’t see what paths are currently under construction. There ought to be something easier to use, and it ought to be equally usable on smartphones. Having an app that can suggest a route in the absence of dedicated trails or lanes would be awesome, too. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.