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October, 2012:

Endorsement watch: For Ann Johnson

I noted on Monday that the Chron listed Ann Johnson as one of its endorsed candidates. Yesterday they wrote the endorsement editorial to go along with that.

Ann Johnson

The tea party turnout of 2010 gave Republican candidate Sarah Davis the narrow victory she needed to win in District 134, a prosperous swing district that covers areas from River Oaks to Meyerland and the Medical Center, as well.

Davis speaks about politics with a fiery passion, but her passion often seems aimed more at Washington than Austin.

She successfully navigated the minefield of wedge-issue votes that defined the previous legislative session – voting no on the sonogram bill, for example. But voters deserve a representative who doesn’t just avoid bad votes, but leads on good ones. We believe Democratic challenger Ann Johnson can be that sort of leader.

[…]

Issues like education and health care aren’t just matters of compassion, they’re necessary to ensure that Texas has the healthy, educated workforce we need to power our economy.

In this race, Ann Johnson is the better bet for Texas’ future.

It’s interesting to see the Chron buy into the “independent” image that Rep. Davis is peddling. As I did before, I would challenge them to come up with two bills of significance besides the sonogram bill on which David voted against her party. On Monday I saw for the first time a broadcast of Davis’ TV commercial, for which Texans for Lawsuit Reform bought her $100K worth of airtime. Not surprisingly, Davis pushes this idea hard, claiming to support public education despite voting to cut $10 billion from it and to oppose restrictions on women’s health care despite voting to de-fund Planned Parenthood and to kill the Women’s Health Program if Planned Parenthood is successful in its lawsuit against the state. It’s very simple: Sarah Davis was a reliable Republican vote in the 2011 legislature. Her record bears this out. You would think that a reliable Republican, running in a district drawn by Republicans to elect a Republican, would be willing to tout her Republican-ness for her re-election rather than try to obfuscate it. In the case of Rep. Sarah Davis, you would be wrong about that.

Anyway. The Chron made the right call with Ann Johnson, whose interview with me is here if you haven’t had the chance to listen to it. You can also watch this TV ad that Texas Parent PAC did on Johnson’s behalf:

And here’s that ad by the Johnson campaign that I’ve seen on Headline News:

In case you’re wondering, Bill White beat Rick Perry by a 51.0-47.7 margin in 2010. Maybe that’s why Davis is pressing her “independent” credentials. I guess I would too if I were her. Neil has more.

Finally, on a tangential note, the San Angelo Standard Times joins the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in endorsing Keith Hampton over Sharon Keller. Has anyone seen a newspaper endorse Keller yet? Again, this probably doesn’t matter much, but it could matter just enough.

I-45 public forum tomorrow

From the inbox:

I-45 Public Forum ~ October 24th!

Many people who attended the TxDOT public meeting last week (October 9th or 11th ) left with more questions than answers!

Why?

It appears that TxDOT is listening & trying to come up with several alternatives to help the traffic on I-45 … in fact, they came up with 33 alternatives! Alternatives from tunnels to an elevated roadway on Houston Ave to converting the Pierce Elevated to ALL one-way and more!  If you did not have a chance to attend or if you still have questions, you have a great opportunity to get all your answers on

Wednesday, October 24.  The I-45 Coalition is working with TxDOT and hosting a Public Forum at Jeff Davis High School at 6:15 pm.

This Public Forum will be in a completely different format! – TxDOT will go over each of the alternatives and answer any questions that you may have.  Hopefully you will get enough information at this meeting to help determine the best choices … the deadline to get your comments into TxDOT regarding the project is Friday, October 26th.   This meeting is perfect for getting all the answers you are looking for. 

This meeting is important because your comments will impact the future of I-45 from IAH airport to the Pierce Elevated.You need to be invloved!  Please come to:

I-45 Public Forum        Wednesday, October 24        6:15 – 8:15

Jeff Davis High School      1101 Quitman Street       77009

You can see all the TxDOT information on their web site: www.ih45northandmore.com  and go to ‘2nd Scoping Meeting Documents’.

Please plan on attending – tell your neighbors! 

You must tell TxDOT what you want or don’t want or they will do what TxDOT wants to do!!

As Marty Hajovsky notes, that email came from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition. Marty summarizes the highlights:

The suggestions and information from the meetings earlier this month are all on the website atwww.ih45northandmore.com at ‘2nd Scoping Meeting Documents’. But among the interesting tidbits for residents of Grota Homestead/Germantown, those interested in Woodland Park and the easternmost parts of theWoodlands Heights is that all the alternatives for Segment 2, meaning the stretch of I-45 between 610 and Quitman, would stay within the existing right-of-way. We’ll see if that stays true.

After the meetings, TxDOT placed a public comment period extending to Oct. 26, but after the intervention of Texas State Representative Jessica Farrar, a Lindale Park resident, the agency extended to public comment deadline to Nov. 9. Public comments can be made at the www.ih45northandmore.com site.

Be there if you can, and whether you can or you can’t, please submit your feedback to www.ih45northandmore.com. Thanks.

Ticket splitters

For better or worse, we live in a polarized world. Often, knowing a candidate’s political party tells you most of what you need to know in a general election. But definitely not always, and this year in particular there are plenty of examples of candidates who aren’t worthy of the support of their partisan brethren (and sistren, as Molly Ivins used to say) as well as a few who for a variety of reasons are able to transcend political barriers. I feel like this year I’ve seen more mixed-company yard signs than I have in years past. Here are a few examples:

My guess is that this homeowner is a Democrat who is also supporting incumbent District Civil Court Judge Tad Halbach, who has a reputation for being one of the better inhabitants of the judiciary.

My initial suspicion was that this was a Republican who prefers Vince Ryan and Adrian Garcia for Harris County. I drove by this location yesterday and there was another sign touting a GOP judicial candidate whose name I have forgotten, so that makes me a little more certain in that assumption.

This one’s a little hard to see – it was late afternoon, I was facing west, and any closer would have put me directly in the sunlight. Anyway, the red sign is for Vince Ryan, and the other one is for GOP judicial candidate Elizabeth Ray.

Greg sent me that one. Probably a Republican crossing over for Gene Wu if I had to guess, but Greg could say for sure.

Another one that could go either way, but as that house in the background is actually a law office, I suspect the sign-placer just likes incumbent judges.

I feel quite confident saying that the person who put out these signs is a Republican, crossing over to vote for Ann Johnson and the HISD bonds. (As well he or she should.) The Halloween decoration nearby is a nice touch.

So there you have it. I don’t have any broad point to make, I just noticed these signs around and thought it would be fun putting something together on them. I have a Flickr set for these pics, so if you find any more examples, send them to me via email or post them on the Off The Kuff Facebook page and I’ll add them in.

That Chron story on True The Vote

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

For a variety of reasons, I never got around to reading that Sunday Chron story about True The Vote, that self-styled “watchdog” group that claims to be interested in ferreting out all those instances of “vote fraud” that nobody else can find, mostly because they don’t exist. I just couldn’t bring myself to read it, because I find the existence of organizations like that to be equal parts mystifying and infuriating. I always thought it was understood by all that this country was founded on the principle that everyone gets to have a say in how we are governed. Sure, our definition of “everyone” was pretty narrow back in 1788, and we’ve generally done a piss-poor job of living up to that principle, but still that principle was and is a cornerstone of our democracy. As such, the idea of people working to make it harder for their fellow citizens to vote is anathema to me. The right to vote is precious and should be defended, not challenged by a bunch of vigilantes. It’s utterly shameful that in the last decade or so that voter suppression has become such a key strategy for the Republican Party, with the effort being spearheaded by misguided and often malevolent individuals like Catherine Engelbrecht, Hans Van Spakovsky, Kris Kobach, and many others.

Anyway. I didn’t read the story, but Juanita did, and you should go read what she has to say. If you need more than that, go read Abby Rapoport’s report on True The Vote. May this be the last election we ever hear from them.

More on the microbrewers’ legislative strategy

The Statesman returns to our favorite subject.

The small brewers, generally a young and passionate group, always have been better at creating hoppy and original brews than navigating the Legislature and the network of big-money lobbyists who are experts at quietly influencing politicians. The lack of political savvy among craft brewers has hampered their efforts to make Texas more friendly to craft beers, as Oregon, California and Colorado are.

“Part of our frustration in the past is we have seemingly been fighting against invisible enemies,” [Freetail Brewing CEO Scott] Metzger said. “We never really felt like we got our fair shot.”

They will try again during the next legislative session, which begins in January. But this time, they have a new tactic: befriend the two powerful wholesale beer distributor lobby groups that opposed their measures in the past: the Beer Alliance of Texas and the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas.

“We’re trying to build consensus with the stakeholders who have been in opposition in the past,” said Metzger, founder and CEO of Freetail Brewing Co. in San Antonio and an economics professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

The lobby groups have said recently that they appreciate craft brewers and support them. Still, they have been reluctant to back the small brewers for fear that fracturing the three-tier system could threaten their ability to make money.

Craft brewers selling at breweries might take a small piece of distributors’ business, but if larger beer makers somehow exploit exemptions to the three-tier system to self-distribute, then distributors could find themselves losing money.

Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance, said his organization is in the middle of “delicate negotiations” with the craft brewers and that his group might be on board next time. “We’re not closing the door,” he said. Still, he has concerns. He said he fears federal court challenges if the three-tier law is changed too much. He wasn’t specific, but he said a federal case could open floodgate for legal issues that could hurt his clients.

Keith Strama, a general counsel for the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, said his organization sees “craft brewers as a strong ally to promote the industry in the state” and gladly will work with them. But, he said, “we’re reluctant to support proposals that further deregulate the system.”

Yes, God forbid we should ever have a free market for beer in Texas. It’s a good thing for the distributors that they have clout in Austin, because if this were ever put to a vote of the people, they’d get creamed. See here for more.

Endorsement watch: Three out of four ain’t bad

The Star-Telegram becomes the third of the four major papers to endorse Paul Sadler for Senate.

Paul Sadler

Sadler can be aggressive, even abrasive, as he demonstrated in an early-October debate with Cruz. But Sadler has specific, practical notions about improving how the federal government functions for Texans. He also understands how policies translate into reality.

For instance, where Cruz would abolish the U.S. Education Department and disburse federal funds to states through block grants, Sadler said that fixed-sum grants shortchange growing states like Texas and that doling out federal money without sufficient controls would diminish state and local accountability.

Where Cruz has made repealing the entire Affordable Care Act a prominent part of his message, Sadler said wiping the slate clean would erase good parts of the law and remove lawmakers’ leverage in dealing with insurance companies.

Cruz says more competition in the marketplace will improve the healthcare system. Sadler understands that Texas’ Republican leaders’ stubborn resistance to the law’s Medicaid expansion could end up shifting more costs for indigent care onto local taxpayers and jeopardize rural hospitals.

Where Cruz has criticized President Barack Obama’s directive allowing certain young illegal immigrants to seek temporary work authorization instead of being deported, Sadler supports a reasonable temporary work-permit program and a “reasonable path to citizenship.”

Both men support improved border security, but Sadler’s approach shows a firmer grasp of Texas’ trade relations with Mexico and the human dimension of reforming the immigration system.

Had it not been for that pathetic Chron endorsement of Cruz, Sadler would have gotten the same sweep as Keith Hampton. (At this point, I’m assuming that the Statesman isn’t bothering to endorse this year.) Given how everyone expects Cruz to win easily, it strikes me as a pretty strong statement of just how outside the mainstream Cruz is. The choice we have here is to prevent an error from happening, or to have to wait till 2018 to fix it. That seems like it ought to be a pretty easy call to me.

All the interviews for 2012

As we begin early voting for the November election, here are all the interviews I conducted for candidates who are on the ballot as well as for the referenda. These include interviews that were done for the primary as well as the ones done after the primary. I hope you found them useful.

Senate: Paul SadlerWebMP3

CD02: Jim DoughertyWebMP3

CD07: James CargasWebMP3

CD10 – Tawana CadienWebMP3

CD14: Nick LampsonWebMP3

CD20: Joaquin CastroWebMP3

CD21: Candace DuvalWebMP3

CD23: Pete GallegoWebMP3

CD27: Rose Meza HarrisonWebMP3

CD29: Rep. Gene GreenWebMP3

CD33: Marc VeaseyWebMP3

CD36: Max MartinWebMP3

SBOE6: Traci JensenWebMP3

SD10: Sen. Wendy DavisWebMP3

SD25: John CourageWebMP3

HD23: Rep. Craig EilandWebMP3

HD26: Vy NguyenWebMP3

HD127: Cody PogueWebMP3

HD131: Rep. Alma AllenWebMP3

HD134: Ann JohnsonWebMP3

HD137: Gene WuWebMP3

HD144: Mary Ann PerezWebMP3

HD146: Rep. Borris MilesWebMP3

HD147: Rep. Garnet ColemanWebMP3

HD150: Brad NealWebMP3

Harris County Sheriff: Sheriff Adrian GarciaWebMP3

Harris County District Attorney: Mike AndersonWebMP3

Harris County Attorney: Vince RyanWebMP3

Harris County Tax Assessor: Ann Harris BennettWebMP3

HCDE Position 3, At Large: Diane TrautmanWebMP3

HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1: Erica LeeWebMP3

Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Sean HammerleWebMP3

Constable, Precinct 1: Alan RosenWebMP3

HISD Bond Referendum: Interview with Terry GrierMP3

City of Houston Bond and Charter Referenda: Interview with Mayor Annise ParkerMP3

HCC Bond Referendum: Interview with Richard SchechterMP3

Metro Referendum: Interviews with David Crossley, Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler, Sue Lovell, and County Commissioner Steve Radack

School finance lawsuit starts today

Ready or not, the latest school finance lawsuit, which Judge John Dietz has called “the granddaddy of them all”, begins today in Travis County. The Statesman takes a look at the history of school finance and associated litigation, and how we got here.

In a 2006 special legislative session, lawmakers reduced local school property tax rates by one-third and dedicated more state money to the schools to replace the local money. So that no district suffered as they rebalanced the share of state and local dollars, legislators temporarily froze districts at the amount of per-student funding they were spending at the time and planned to implement a long-term solution the next year.

But the freeze was never lifted. There was no appetite in 2007 to dive back into school finance after years of tortured debate over the issue, and the problems with the temporary system were not immediately evident to legislators.

For some districts, the freeze came at a bad time. Pflugerville, for example, was in the middle of a growth spurt and a leadership change and had yet to invest in the programs needed to serve the districts burgeoning population of low-income students and English-language learners. Yet the district was locked at a low level of funding.

Compared with neighboring Round Rock, Pflugerville gets about $720 less per student. If funded at the higher level, Pflugerville would have an additional $19 million a year in its $160 million budget — or nearly 12 percent more, Superintendent Charles Dupre said.

There is no rational policy reason for the difference, said Dupre, who is also president of a coalition of more than 430 school districts that are advancing theequity argument.

“Pflugerville has always been fiscally lean. We have never had fluff or waste in our budget,” Dupre said. “Since 2006, we have been living in a stressful, perpetual state of budget reduction. … When they set in stone the target revenue, they basically codified inequity in our system.”

Past court rulings have found a $600 funding gap to be “minimally acceptable,” but the funding disparities now have increased by two and three times that amount, according to MALDEF, which is representing one of the plaintiff groups. Funding now ranges from about $4,000 per student to more than $12,000.

School districts with the most wealth have the most to lose, and they are making a different argument against the current finance system. They have avoided the equity argument in their briefs because of concerns that the potential remedy would probably hurt them without helping the overall public education system, lawyer Mark Trachtenberg said.

“To focus on equity doesn’t really capture the real problem with the current system,” Trachtenberg said. That problem, he said, is inadequate funding: The Legislature is asking districts to get students to ever-higher levels of academic performance without providing them sufficient resources to do so.

“We are making claims that, if successful, will benefit all districts,” said John Turner, another lawyer representing the property-wealthy school districts.

And you thought early voting was the biggest thing going on this week. The stakes here cannot be overstated. We won’t have a final answer until the Supreme Court has its say, but there’s an awful lot hanging in the balance for them.

Early voting begins today

Shamelessly stolen from Greg, here’s a convenient Google map of the early voting locations in Harris County:

For the more traditional view plus hours and other information, visit Harris Votes. I intend to bring the girls with me when I vote this year, so I may have to do it over the weekend or next week, since the hours this week aren’t particularly accommodating for that. What’s your preferred early voting location, and when do you plan to do your duty? Leave a comment and let us know.

I will of course be tracking the daily EV totals as I get them from the County Clerk’s office. Here’s a Google spreadsheet I put together in 2008 that compared early voting that year to 2004. I’ll update this spreadsheet to include 2012 numbers as well.

Endorsement watch: For Wendy Davis

Very nice.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Two state legislators are running to represent a demographically changing senatorial District 10: the incumbent, Democrat Sen. Wendy Davis, and Republican state Rep. Mark Shelton.

Davis, who defeated an entrenched incumbent four years ago, did not take long to make her mark on the Senate, enhancing the populist image she honed as a forceful but consensus-building member of the Fort Worth City Council.

During her first term in Austin, she emerged as one of the best-known and most respected Democrats in the Legislature and, as a result, the most targeted by the political opposition.

Davis is a successful attorney with a powerful personal narrative, the story of a woman who overcame obstacles to achieve at the highest level. At 19, she was a single mother who began to work her way through school beginning at what is now Tarrant County College, eventually earning a law degree from Harvard with honors.

Because she understands the value of education, she fought hard in the last legislative session against large funding cuts for public schools and universities, filibustering a bill that ultimately resulted in the state losing more than 28,000 education jobs.

Davis has also been a champion of women’s health issues, consumer protection and a bill to replenish funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, legislation her opponent — a physician — voted against.

I’d quote the whole thing if I could. It’s as strong an endorsement as you could want, in the most important single race in the state. Go read it, and show your support for Sen. Wendy Davis.

You may also have noticed the Chron’s embarrassing endorsement of Mitt Romney on Sunday. I say “embarrassing” because I have to wonder if the Chron’s editorial writers have been reading their own editorials, never mind following the Presidential campaign. They criticize cuts to Planned Parenthood, but endorse the candidate who would “get rid of” Planned Parenthood. They advocate for expanding Medicaid in order to reduce the number of uninsured people in Texas, yet they endorse the candidate whose promised budget would devastate Medicaid and whose promised repeal of Obamacare would leave millions more uninsured and without access to health care. One wonders if they’re too dumb to understand the issues they claim to support, too easily bamboozled by Romney’s ever-shifting positions, or just too hidebound to overcome their historic preferences. Whatever the case, it’s not one of their prouder moments.

One last thing: The Chron’s page that lists all their endorsements includes a few races for which they have not written an endorsement editorial yet. Those races are CD14, in which they endorse Nick Lampson; HD134, in which they recommend Ann Johnson; and Harris County Tax Assessor, in which they go with Mike Sullivan. I presume we will see the editorials for these this week. Whether they will endorse in other legislative and/or Congressional races, I couldn’t say.

Weekend link dump for October 21

“The Shikse’s Guide to Jewish Men”, published in 1978. Exactly as awesome as it sounds.

“Now I’ll bet you didn’t wake up wondering today how turtles go pee. But that’s what I want to talk about.”

If there wasn’t some kind of biblical prophecy about this kid, there should have been.

RIP, Arlen Specter, former Senator from Pennsylvania.

“Contemporary American elites, by acting exclusively according to what is in their interest in the short term by extracting our collective wealth for themselves and closing off opportunities for social mobility to others, are in the long-run sowing the seeds of destruction for themselves, our economy, and our society.”

Republican legislators in states like Texas have convincingly proven by their actions the continuing need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But in the end, it will still come down to what five Supreme Court justices want to do.

The Candwich gets its day in the sun.

Hell hath no fury like David Stockman scorned.

All this talk about raising the Social Security retirement age is an example of the comforted afflicting the afflicted, not courageous truth-telling.

The next time someone tells you that it doesn’t matter who wins the Presidential election, show them this and tell them you beg to differ.

Sorry, but I have no sympathy for those who violate the privacy of others when they complain about their own privacy being invaded.

Is it just me, or is the idea of a Rolling Stones Golden Anniversary Tour just wrong?

RIP, Professor Earl Lewis.

Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.

Michael Bérubé on why he resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University.

More punctuation marks, please.

So where did that binder full of women come from, anyway?

We don’t “go online” anymore, because we’re already there.

“While this is a lovely, multi-purpose binder, IT DOES NOT COME WITH WOMEN. Presumably, one is expected to find women on one’s own, or contact women’s groups, who are supposedly eager to help you stock your empty binder with women.”

Vote John Edwards for President if you know what’s good for you.

RIP, George McGovern.

Who doesn’t like parks?

The usual suspects – cranks, malcontents, and the Harris County GOP, that’s who.

Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot asks you to pay for part of that plan, of course. Not with increased taxes, though, [Mayor Annise] Parker insists. The bond measure asks voters to authorize $166 million in borrowing that the city plans to pay back through existing property tax collections.

Parker has said she would consider the Proposition B projects a legacy achievement in what she hopes will mark her place in city history as “the infrastructure mayor.”

But Dave Wilson, who has formed a PAC to oppose all five city bond measures, and like-minded anti-tax activists see a price tag, not just green space and infrastructure.

They have not targeted Proposition B specifically. Instead, they say the five propositions – combined with tax hikes proposed by Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College on the same ballot to pay for borrowing to fix those campuses – amount to too deep a dive into taxpayers’ pockets by government that cannot be trusted to spend money wisely.

While the measure calls for $166 million in taxpayer spending, it actually would cost $291 million to pay back with interest, according to one city estimate.

In a resolution opposing all city bond measures, the county Republican Party states: “Some of the proposed projects, such as creating ‘an integrated system of … bicycle trails’ seems a frivolous use of tax dollars when the city says it cannot find money to test thousands of stored rape kits.”

The resolution does not acknowledge that bond money cannot be used to pay for crime lab operations and other functions.

Of course, the city has found a way to pay for the rape kit backlog. It’s even one that I’m sure no Republican will ever, ever have to contribute towards. What could be better than that?

Honestly, I don’t get the Republicans’ opposition to this. There’s no tax increase. There’s never been a better time to float bonds, with interest rates at historically low levels. The city will only borrow as much as a private fundraising effort will generate. Everyone agrees that amenities like parks and bike trails are key to attracting businesses and knowledge workers to a city. The C Club, which last I checked was populated almost entirely by Republicans, has endorsed the parks bond. Even Republicans like riding bikes. What am I missing? Yes, I can see that this is part of a larger effort to sink all of the bonds, and whatever else you think of them the HISD and HCC bonds will have tax increases accompanying them. But that lack of distinction between the bonds shows that this is all about reflexive ideology and not about any policy rationale. I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s all very unserious.

One more thing: The story sidebar lists CM Oliver Pennington as an opponent to the parks measure. While it is true that CM Pennington voted against putting the entire bond package on the ballot, he also called himself “particularly supportive” of the parks bond. It is possible to distinguish, even if the Harris County GOP won’t do it.

Margins tax survives another challenge

Mighty quick ruling from the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of Texas on Friday struck down a challenge by Nestle Inc. and two other businesses targeting the state’s franchise tax.

Lawyers for Nestle and two Texas-based companies, Switchplace LLC and NSMBA, sued the state this year and argued that the tax violated the Texas Constitution’s statement that taxes must be “equal and uniform.”

The franchise tax was revised during a 2006 special session, part of a plan to create more funding for public schools. The revision expanded the kinds of businesses subject to the tax, and made eligible companies like Nestle who manufactured outside of Texas. Retail and wholesale businesses now pay one-half of a percent of their taxable margins, while manufacturers pay 1 percent.

But the Legislature designated companies like Nestle “unitary entities,” meaning that even if they did not manufacture in Texas, they should pay the higher rate.

According to a statement by Supreme Court of Texas staff attorney Osler McCarthy, Nestle argued that it was forced to pay double what it owes. It said the differentiation between manufacturing businesses and retailers violates both the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, because it discriminates against “interstate commerce,” and the Texas Constitution’s call for “uniformity.”

Six justices of the state’s Supreme Court, agreeing with lawyers for the comptroller and the attorney general, wrote that where the manufacturing happens does not matter in the context of the franchise tax. Because it is applied equally to manufacturers who do business in Texas, there is nothing wrong with Nestle’s being charged the higher rate. “Location is not the basis for different treatment because in-state companies that manufacture will pay the same rate as Nestle,” wrote Justice Nathan Hecht in the court’s opinion, “and out-of-state companies that do only wholesaling and retailing will qualify for the lower rate.

Justices Don Willett and Debra Lehrmann dissented from the opinion, explaining that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. “The Tax Code disallows taxpayer suits like this,” Willett wrote, “and as a prudential matter, deciding whether a statute is constitutional is simply not the stuff of mandamus,” or in other words, not the kind of thing the court should address.

See here, here, here, and here for the history. I suppose there was one Justice who either was recused or sided with the plaintiffs; the story doesn’t say. The deadline for the court’s decision was November 9, so clearly they weren’t letting any moss grow. This apparently brings to an end the aspects of the law that can be challenged in state court, but an appeal to the Fifth Circuit and ultimately SCOTUS is possible, since the Texas Supreme Court relied on the Commerce Clause in its ruling. So no new lawsuits, but the final chapter of this story has not yet been written. SCOTX Blog

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

Endorsement watch: HCDE and District E

The Chron endorses three Democrats for the Harris County Department of Education.

At-Large Position 3: Democratic challenger Diane Trautman would bring expertise and professionalism to the job. As a professor of education at Stephen F. Austin State University, she taught courses in ethics and leadership – areas that would be useful on the county board, which astoundingly lacks an ethics policy. With previous banking experience, she’s strong in finance. And knows first-hand how the department helps schools. As principal of Tomball Junior High, Trautman saved enough by ordering supplies through the co-op that she was able to fund a science program.

Position 6, Precinct 1: Democratic nominee Erica Lee would be a strong advocate for Head Start and Early Childhood Intervention. As a first-grade teacher at HISD’s Lantrip Elementary, she says, she could easily tell which kids had benefited from those programs.

Position 4, Precinct 3: Silvia Mintz knows first-hand the importance of education to achieving the American dream. In 1998, when she came to the United States from Guatemala, she worked as a janitor. “My first words in English,” she says, “were ‘Windex’ and ‘mop.'” After attending community-college classes, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of St. Thomas; then received her law degree at South Texas College of Law. Now in private practice, she’d be a strong advocate for expansion of Head Start.

Trautman is of course running against the ridiculous Michael Wolfe. Lee, who thankfully won the runoff in that screwed-up primary, will easily complete the single easiest pickup opportunity that 2012 has to offer. As I said before, Silvia Mintz is the kind of person I want to see get elected to something. I’m just glad she showed up for the editorial board screening. If at least one of Trautman and Mintz join Lee in being elected, the HCDE board will become majority Democratic, not too shabby considering that four years ago at this time it was all Republican.

Meanwhile, the Chron makes the establishment choice in the special election for City Council District E.

David Martin

With a resume that boasts companies like Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers, [David] Martin has the accounting background that Houston needs in a time of pension problems and budget challenges. But in addition to this financial expertise, Martin also has an energetic optimism about the city that voters should want in their elected officials. He talks about his time on the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority – where he has served as chairman of the finance committee and secretary/treasurer – like a microcosm of Houston: a diverse group of people all pulling in the same direction. As Martin explains, it is that diversity and energy that makes Houston a wonderful place to live and work, not to mention how they create an appealing location for business.

[…]

Martin already has several projects in mind for his extensive district. He’d like to build a fire station on the west side of Kingwood and another for Clear Lake. Martin’s also interested in integrating flight training and engineering at Ellington Field with science programs at local schools, better tourist passes for the Lone Star Flight Museum and Johnson Space Center … the list goes on. This is the sort of on-the-ground knowledge you’d would expect from an incumbent.

With an eye on fiscal responsibility and a heart for Houston, Dave Martin offers the best choice for District E voters.

See here for the Chron overview of that race. With three candidates, there is the possibility of a runoff, and with a special election looming for SD06, things could get a little complicated. The sensible solution would be to schedule both elections at the same time.

[Harris County Clerk Stan] Stanart said his office is coordinating with Perry’s as to when a special election for the senate seat could be held — perhaps in tandem with a city runoff, and perhaps not.

“There’s potential logistics roadblock that could come up if we had a runoff already scheduled,” Stanart said. “You don’t want to confuse voters having two early votings going on at the same time. We’re looking at calendars, what makes the most sense.”

As we know from the special election in District H in 2009, only the early voting centers in the affected district would be open for SD06 and District E. It certainly would be best to have them all open at the same time, and only once if there’s any overlap. We’ll see how that plays out.

Saturday video break: 20 years of “Smells Like Nirvana”

I’m a big fan of Weird Al Yankovic, and a big fan of his classic “Smells Like Nirvana”. After reading this story about how the video for that song got made, I’m an even bigger fan of each.

I can’t watch that and not laugh. It’s just brilliant. Hope you enjoyed it as well. I’ll return to the Popdose Top 100 Covers list next week.

Texas appeals DC Court redistricting decision

I suppose this was inevitable.

Texas is appealing a federal court decision that denied preclearance to legislatively drawn redistricting maps, saying the court overstepped its authority under the federal Voting Rights Act, Attorney General Greg Abbott announced late Friday.

That appeal won’t affect the current election.

[…]

Earlier this year — after the elections were under way — that court decided that the new maps intentionally discriminated against voting minorities in the state; it’s that ruling that Abbott is appealing. (Here’s a copy of the full filing.)

While that was in the works, a separate three-judge federal panel operating out of San Antonio drew maps for use in the current elections, and those are being used now. Abbott is hoping to free the Legislature’s preferred maps for future elections, and that’s why he’s appealing the ruling.

This was always going to SCOTUS, it was just a matter of when. Michael Li has more details.

The brief argues the panel erred by ruling that Texas needed to increase the number of majority minority congressional districts to keep up with population growth and in holding that Anglo majority crossover districts, such as CD-25 and SD-10, are protected under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

The brief also argues that the panel erred by allowing private litigants to intervene and make claims about the state senate map despite the fact that the Justice Department initially did not find problems with that map.

In the alternative, Texas argues that section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.

Once the jurisdiction statement is docketed, DOJ and intervenors will have 30 days to respond. If the Supreme Court decides that the questions raised on appeal are substantial enough to be considered (almost a certainty), the parties will have an opportunity for additional briefing before the case is set for oral argument in the early part of next year.

A decision in the case is not expected until late spring at the earliest.

In the mean time, the parties are due to submit proposals to the San Antonio court by December 1 how to they would propose to have the San Antonio court fix the maps or oversee efforts by the Texas Legislature to fix the maps.

The state’s brief can be found here.

There is still the matter of what the San Antonio court does with the DC Court’s ruling, since they’re the ones that drew the interim maps. That court has both Section 2 and Section 5 issues to deal with. I’m a bit uncertain, but I believe this means that ultimately SCOTUS will get two cases before it, unless they gut Section 5 and make that part of the issue moot. Am I on the right track here? If you know better, leave a comment and let us know.

Presidential campaign contributions in Texas

I suspect there’s not much in this story that will surprise you.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign raised nearly twice as much money in the greater Houston area than that of President Barack Obama – most of it from wealthier upscale communities – but more people overall contributed to the president’s re-election, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of campaign contributions.

Though Romney’s numbers are hardly surprising in a Republican-dominated state, the money trail reflects both the political diversity of the Houston region and the two candidates’ eclectic support in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Nearly 6,000 people donated $3.6 million to Obama from April 2011 through August of this year, compared with Romney’s nearly 5,260 contributors who gave $6.6 million. Across the state, a total of $20 million in individual contributions went to Romney’s campaign, about $6 million more than Obama received, the analysis shows.

“Obama draws from a middle- and lower-middle class base of voters who make frequent and smaller contributions,” said Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University. “Romney’s contributions come from a wealthier base who make fewer but larger contributions.”

That’s pretty much the story nationwide, with the Obama campaign raising more money. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to link to this story at all, but I had to note this fascinating bit of sentence construction:

In Houston, individual donors gave Obama on average $607 and Romney on average $1,260. The geographic trend reflects distributions of strict party voting and in Obama’s case, race, experts say.

In other words, contributors to the Obama campaign include people who are not white. Because race is only something we note when we are not talking about white people. Or something like that. If anyone would like to explain to me why this sentence would have been any less appropriate or accurate without the words “in Obama’s case”, I’m all ears.

Amazon wine

You may soon be able to order wine from Amazon.com, depending on where you live.

Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -0.88% is planning an online marketplace for wine sales directly to consumers, said executives for several California wineries, marking the Seattle Web giant’s second foray into the business in three years.

Amazon hosted a workshop [last week] at a resort in Napa, Calif., and invited members of the Napa Valley Vintners association, said Terry Hall, a spokesman for the group. He said about 100 wineries attended the event.

At the event, Amazon said the marketplace would begin in the coming weeks and the online retailer will charge wineries a 15% commission of the sale price, as well as a monthly fee of about $40, according to people familiar with the workshop.

[…]

In 2009, Amazon pulled back from an effort to sell and ship wine after its partner, New Vine Logistics, suspended operations amid financial troubles. This latest effort would spare Amazon the cost and difficulty of shipping fragile and heavy wine bottles by passing that responsibility on to the vineyards themselves.

Wine sales online are challenging due to a patchwork of state-by-state rules that limit which companies can sell alcoholic beverages. And shippers must ensure that recipients signing for packages are at least 21-years-old, the legal limit.

The question you may be asking now is “Will I be able to order wine through Amazon to be shipped to Texas?” And the answer is…I’m not sure. Last year, the TABC cracked down on out of state resellers who were shipping to Texas without a state sales tax permit. The TABC addresses the question of direct shipping of wine to Texas consumers, and one of the things they say is “Under current state law, wholesalers / distributors are not authorized to ship wine directly to consumers in Texas”. However, out of state wineries may ship to Texas if they obtain a direct shipper’s permit, pay sales and excise taxes, and ship to a TABC permitted carrier. So I guess the question is whether Amazon would be considered a wholesaler/distributor in this scenario, or if the fact that the wineries themselves are doing the shipping opens a loophole for this to be permitted. I sense a legislative opportunity here, or failing that, future litigation. Anyone want to be a test case?

Endorsement watch: DMN for Sadler

It’s a strange endorsement, at least from my perspective, but it’ll do.

Paul Sadler

Texans face a decision in this election that has come before them only twice over the last four decades: How to fill a Senate seat that has carried with it a proud lineage of service to the state and nation.

Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is stepping down after almost 20 years in Washington, where she made it a top priority to look out for Texans’ national, state and even personal needs. She first won her post in 1993, succeeding Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who served for 22 years. Like Hutchison, he provided consistent constituent aid as well as leadership on national and state matters.

The committed work of these two bipartisan leaders to their state creates an impressive, demanding legacy for their successor. Recommending the right candidate to follow in the Hutchison-Bentsen tradition is a responsibility this newspaper takes seriously. That’s why we’ve interviewed both candidates multiple times, examined their public careers, reviewed their answers to our questionnaire, spoken with others who know them well and followed their activities on the campaign trail.

After that thorough examination, we believe Democrat Paul Sadler, 57, is the best person to uphold this legacy of service to Texas and to keep our state relevant where it matters most.

[…]

Sadler also is more in tune with our state’s needs. The moderate Democrat speaks knowledgeably about water challenges, the border and defense facilities. He has praised Hutchison for Texas-specific efforts, such as helping El Paso secure a water desalination facility.

Cruz says he’ll fight for Texas projects “if it’s legitimate expenditures.” When asked to elaborate, he didn’t mention specifics beyond assuring that Washington properly funds “roads, freeways and ports.” He’s more focused on interpreting constitutional principles and applying them generally.

The Republican candidate has gained nationwide attention for articulating his beliefs. Since capturing the nomination, the Houston attorney has appeared on numerous talk shows and addressed the GOP convention. If he wins, he will be a rising star in national Republican politics. This newspaper is left with the feeling that he is pushing his personal star more than the star of Texas.

It’s a bit of a surreal experience reading this editorial, as the DMN comes from the perspective of a bizarro fantasy world in which President Obama is an unbending partisan warrior and the biggest problem in Washington is a lack of good manners. Whatever it is they’re smoking, it’s premium stuff. Still, I’ll take the DMN’s delusions over those of the Chron, who seem to think that after arriving in Washington Cruz will shed his ideological trappings and morph into the second coming of Kay Bailey Hutchison. It was exactly the belief that Cruz is unlikely to do so that led the DMN to join the Express News in making the pragmatic choice of Sadler. At least, the Chron is hoping Cruz will morph into KBH; it’s not clear to me that they actually believe it. The Chron also cites Sadler’s lack of financial resources as a reason for picking Cruz, which is just sad on so many levels. Anyway, that makes the endorsement scoreboard 2-1 in Sadler’s favor for now, with the Statesman and the Star-Telegram still to go.

Friday random ten: For the ladies, part 2

More songs named for ladies, from my binder full of Friday Random Ten lists.

1. Caroline – Georgetown Chimes
2. Cassidy – Suzanne Vega
3. Cecilia – Simon and Garfunkel
4. Cindy – The Chieftains
5. Claudette – Robert Johnson
6. Clementine – Tom Lehrer
7. Daria – CAKE
8. Darlene – Carolyn Wonderland
9. Dinah – Asylum Street Spankers
10. Eleanor Rigby – Ray Charles

Full names are less common in these songs, but there are a few. More songs like these next week.

YouGov: Romney 55, Obama 41

YouGov has an updated poll of Texas.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney gets a solid majority of the votes of likely voters over Democratic President Barack Obama in Texas, 55% Romney to 41% Obama, in a YouGov poll of 958 likely voters from the Lone Star state (recontacted from an initial September poll).

In the race for Senate, Republican Ted Cruz holds a 51%-36% lead over Democratic candidate Paul Sadler in the race to replace the retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

[…]

Sampling method: Respondents were initially selected on September 7-14 from 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.

Respondents were recontacted on October 4-11 for the second wave of the YouGov poll. The percentage of likely voters who were successfully recontacted was 83.4%.

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: 958 likely voters. Margin of error ±4.5% (adjusted for weighting).

The September result they refer to above showed Romney leading by a 52-41 margin. If I understand their methodology correctly, they asked the same people from September again in October, and applied a likely voter screen, the details of which they do not share. After fiddling around with a margin of error calculator, I estimate they had a weighted sample size of about 475.

Here’s their September data and here’s their October data. If you just look at the unweighted numbers on page 3 of each, the results are very similar. In September, 500 out of 1087 unweighted respondents (46.0%) said they voted for Obama in 2008, and 487 out of 1090 unweighted respondents (44.7%) said they were voting for Obama this year. Putting it another way, Obama’s 2012 level of unweighted support was 97.1% of his 2008 level of unweighted support. In the October sample, 385 out of 874 unweighted respondents (44.1%) said they voted for Obama in 2008, and 391 out of 906 unweighted respondents (43.2%) said they were voting for Obama this year. Putting that another way, Obama’s 2012 level of unweighted support was 97.8% of his 2008 level of unweighted support. How they get from there to those weighted numbers, I got no clue. I presume some of that weighting is to correct for the oversample of white voters (74.2% in September, 75.8% in October), but the final, weighted racial distribution is unknown. For what it’s worth, Obama did better among Hispanics in the unweighted October sample than he did in September (61-35 versus 55-33) but worse among independents (39-48 versus 40-40). Make of all that what you will. It’s another data point, and I’ve added it to the sidebar.

One more thing to note is that I can’t recall seeing any mainstream media coverage of either of the two YouGov polls. That crappy Lyceum poll was cited everywhere, and the Wilson Perkins poll got a lot of play, too. Of course, they’re both in-state pollsters, and they clearly did a fair amount of publicity of their efforts, whereas if it hadn’t been for the Tuesday night dKos elections polling wrap I’d have had no idea about the new YouGov numbers. To me, that says that YouGov needs to do a better job letting people (i.e., the media) know they’re out there, and the media needs to broaden their web horizons.

Maybe the fourth time will be the charm

The city of Houston is once again bidding for a Super Bowl.

If everything goes according to an ambitious plan devised by city and county leaders, Houston will host its third Super Bowl in 2017.

The NFL informed the Texans and the city on Tuesday that Houston will be one of two finalists for Super Bowl LI, to be played in February 2017.

At the conclusion of the league’s winter meetings in Chicago, commissioner Roger Goodell disclosed that San Francisco and South Florida had been selected to bid on Super Bowl L. Goodell said the runner-up will compete with Houston for Super Bowl LI.

[…]

Houston’s Super Bowl bid is a joint venture among the Texans, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Harris County/Houston Sports Authority, and Reliant Park.

Houston wants the 2017 Super Bowl because the Final Four is here in 2016, and two big events like that two months apart is a lot. Previous attempts to land Super Bowls XLIII, XLIV, and XLVI all came up short.

The owners will vote in May on the two games. The first vote will be between San Francisco and Miami for 2016, followed by a second vote between Houston and the 2016 runner-up for the next year.

“I think the chances are really good,” said Janis Schmees, executive director of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

The 50th Super Bowl in 2016 will be a special-anniversary celebration. If San Francisco wins, the game will be played at the 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara. That stadium is set to open in 2014. If South Florida wins, the game will be played in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, which still faces questions about possible renovation, including a partial roof.

We know that the owners love awarding the Super Bowl to cities that have built new stadia – this is, after all, mostly why Houston got the game in 2004 – so if you want to see this happen, you should root for San Francisco to win the bid for 2016. We’ll see if the optimism is warranted this time.

Precinct 1 Constable overview

The Chron takes a look at the Constable race in Precinct 1, which will determine the successor to disgraced former Constable Jack Abercia.

Alan Rosen

[Republican Joe] Danna, 59, and a Precinct 1 deputy for 18 years, pledged to reorganize an office top-heavy with administrators and move them from offices to patrol duty. He started the constable’s first motorcycle escort service and manages escort services for other law enforcement agencies.

Danna wants to establish an undercover unit to combat street crime, as well as a group to investigate credit card fraud and identity theft.

“I’ve been in the streets protecting and serving the citizens and business owners, assisting them with what the constable’s office does best, enforce the law,” Danna said.

His opponent, [Democrat Alan] Rosen, is a private investor who has spent 21 years in law enforcement. He currently serves as a volunteer reserve major in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and runs the criminal warrants and fugitive warrants unit. He began his law enforcement career in Precinct 1, where he was a patrol deputy, and notes he is the only candidate with a college degree, experience as a patrol deputy, and experience supervising other law officers.

“One of the biggest things the office needs is an ethical cleansing,” Rosen said. “If elected constable, I intend to put forward a very comprehensive ethics policy to include everybody in the office, to include myself.”

Here’s the interview I did with Alan Rosen for the Democratic primary, and here’s a guest post he wrote before the runoff. Rosen has the Chron endorsement and has been a strong fundraiser throughout the cycle. By 2008 partisan numbers, he’s also the favorite to win. I think Rosen will do a good job, and I’ll be voting for him.

Endorsement watch: For the city bonds

The Chron gives its approval to the city bond referenda.

While all eyes seem to be on the presidential election, the upcoming city bond measures on the ballot this year may have more immediate impact on Houston than any federal changes.

Broken down into five propositions, the bonds will fund much-needed repairs and construction projects throughout the city. But the bond package, which will be relatively small – $410 million, in contrast to $625 million in 2006 – represents a smart, efficient and targeted program to let the city borrow money for projects where it can do the most good without having to raise taxes.

Houston voters should give their across-the-board approval to these smart investments.

They detail each of the five propositions, about which you can learn more in my interview with Mayor Parker. They did not mention the two charter amendments that are also on the ballot. Other than some caterwauling from the usual naysayers, these issues look to be in good shape. I support them and will vote for them. Just please remember to go all the way down the ballot and vote on them yourself.

More on Sen. Gallegos

For better or worse, we must discuss the politics of Sen. Mario Gallegos’ death this week. The first question to address is what happens next?

Sen. Mario Gallegos

Rich Parsons, a spokesman for Secretary of State Hope Andrade, this morning clarified the timing of a special election in state Senate District 6 if the late Mario Gallegos Jr. wins re-election posthumously.

Gallegos, 62, a Houston Democrat and retired firefighter, died Tuesday from complications of a liver transplant several years ago.

Explained Parsons:

Gallegos’s name cannot be removed from the November general election ballot because it is within 74 days of the election. If he wins on election day, the seat will be declared officially vacant, and Gov. Rick Perry will call an expedited special election to fill it.

It must be held within 21-45 days after Perry calls for the election, officials said, meaning the special election would be held sooner than the May date that Houston officials said late Tuesday was expected.

Gallegos is on the ballot with Republican R.W. Bray, who is considered a long-shot. If Bray should be elected, he will take the seat.

Here’s the relevant statute for why Sen. Gallegos will remain on the ballot. We had a similar situation in 2006 when State Rep. Glenda Dawson passed away in September. As was the case with Rep. Dawson, I fully expect Sen. Gallegos to win re-election and thus trigger a special election to replace him. The real question is when will that special election be? The Trib notes the math.

It’s not a swing district. President Obama got 63.5 percent of the vote in 2008. Republican Gov. Rick Perry got 31 percent in 2010. It’s not a race the Democrats were sweating.

[…]

Bray would be the 20th Republican in the 31-member Senate. If Democrat Wendy Davis of Fort Worth were to lose her hotly contested re-election race, Republican Mark Shelton would become the 21st Republican. That’s consequential: Under current rules, it takes consent from two-thirds of the senators to bring up legislation for consideration. With 21 senators, the Republicans would have two-thirds and, on partisan bills, enough votes to disregard the Democrats.

Here are the relevant laws for filling the office of a state legislator who has died. While I expect Sen. Gallegos to defeat Bray (a former staffer of CM Helena Brown, if you’re wondering where you heard that name before), it becomes critical if Sen. Wendy Davis does not win. If Sen. Gallegos wins re-election, then the Democrats will continue to have at least 11 Senators, which is enough for them to block legislation via the two thirds rule, or whatever is left of it when the Senate adopts its rules for the session. At least, they will have that many once the special election is settled, which if it is indeed expedited should be well before any serious votes come up. The important thing if you live in SD06 is that you still have a responsibility to vote for Sen. Gallegos.

At least, that’s how it would be until the special election is held to replace Sen. Gallegos, assuming that he wins in November. But here’s the thing – Rick Perry isn’t required to call the special election until the next uniform election date, which will be in May. Given the near certainty of a runoff in what will be a multi-candidate race, that means that SD06 would go unrepresented for the entire session. Which would be mighty convenient for the Republicans.

Now, Governor Perry does have the discretion to call an expedited election. That’s what he did in the case of Rep. Dawson – the special election to fill her seat came six weeks after the November election, with the ensuing runoff a month later, in plenty of time for all the action of that session. This stands in contrast to his actions in 2005, following the tragic death of State Rep. Joe Moreno, who was killed in an auto accident towards the end of the regular session. Perry called for the special election to replace him in November, despite subsequently calling two special sessions in the interim. What choice do you think he’ll make?

I know it’s distasteful to talk about this while we’re all still grieving the loss of Sen. Gallegos, but I know I’m not saying anything out loud that isn’t being said in private. We may as well be prepared for what is to come.

In the meantime, here are some more tributes to Sen. Gallegos, from Marc Campos, Stace Medellin, State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Lone Star Project, and beneath the fold from SEIU Local 1.

UPDATE: Here’s information on the memorial services in Austin and Houston for Sen. Gallegos.

UPDATE: I clearly misread that Postcards story when I first saw it, and as such it renders my speculation moot. The election will take place earlier than May in the event Sen. Gallegos wins, and that’s what matters. All Democrats in SD06 need to remember that they must still vote for Sen. Gallegos so that they can then choose a proper successor. I apologize for the confusion.

(more…)

But was it worth it?

No doubt that traffic on the Katy Freeway moves a lot more smoothly now than it used to. But there’s a lot more to the question of whether the $2.8 billion that was spent to widen it was a good investment or not.

Four years after the project was completed, a comparative analysis of drive-time data for a three-year period before and after the expansion shows that at both peak and non-peak periods of the day, it takes less time to traverse the Katy Freeway than it used to.

It’s a matter of mere minutes – the morning commute from Barker-Cypress to Taylor, for instance, a distance of 19 miles, now takes, on average, 27 minutes. It used to take about 33 minutes.

But added together, the users of the Katy Freeway are spending a lot less time in their cars.

The evening commute on that stretch now takes an average of 28 minutes as opposed to 38 minutes and 30 seconds.

Data show there is still congestion at peak periods, particularly the evening commute out of the city, but what was once a daylong traffic jam is now for the most part smooth sailing.

“Before they did all that construction, inbound basically was congested all day long,” said Darrell Borchardt, a senior research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. “You would get stop-and-go speeds out there at 11 o’clock in the morning. Now, since that construction has been completed, with the additional capacity, they don’t have those issues in the middle of the day.”

I’ll stipulate to that. I remember driving back in to Houston on Sundays from Austin or San Antonio before the expansion and hitting traffic from Highway 6 on in. That doesn’t happen any more unless there’s been a wreck. The average commute time differences seem rather minimal to me, but I suppose the main thing is that it’s much less likely to take an hour to get where you’re going than it used to. For sure, there’s real value to that.

But no one ever argued that a widened I-10 would shave a few minutes off commute times. The argument was that there were better design options for this project. The Katy Corridor Coalition’s website is long defunct, but this Chron story from 2003 covers the gist of their case.

The Katy Corridor Coalition – a group of west Houston residents fighting the state’s plans to widen the Katy Freeway – will offer a plan today that calls for sinking several miles of the interstate and planting thousands of trees to filter out air pollution.

The coalition, which has filed a lawsuit to stall the massive freeway expansion, said its plan is a more intelligent way to combat air pollution, traffic noise and congestion.

Practically and politically, the new plan might have little chance of becoming reality. But it does seem to echo successful efforts by affluent residents of the Museum District in the mid-1990s to convince state highway planners to sink part of the Southwest Freeway.

“We’ve already seen what the Texas Department of Transportation does doesn’t work,” said Polly Ledvina, a member of the Katy coalition. “Just using a bigger version of the same strategy on the Katy Freeway will just result in a bigger version of the problems we already face.”

Jim Blackburn, the coalition’s attorney, said Wednesday that the proposal is a reasonable alternative to current plans to expand the freeway from 11 lanes to 18, including toll lanes down the middle of the interstate.

Although coalition plans call for sinking the freeway about 20 feet below ground level from the West Loop to Beltway 8, Blackburn estimated it will only add about $100 million to the $1.1 billion project. The work, he added, could still be done within the six-year timetable officials are already using.

And though it would mean massive redesign, the coalition’s proposal leaves room for toll lanes the Harris County Toll Road Authority wants to build and provides dedicated space for a future commuter rail line, Blackburn said.

Boy, remember when this project was only supposed to cost $1.1 billion? Those were the days, I tell you. The KCC’s design plan – which, presumably, would have wound up adding more than $100 million to the final cost, given how much more expensive everything else turned out to be – was generally well-received by those whose interests were broader than simply adding more lanes as fast as possible, but in the end none of what they pushed for was used. We can’t know what things would look like now if the KCC had been taken more seriously by TxDOT, HCTRA, and John Culberson, but it is worth asking if the money we spent was spent as wisely as it could have been. Is a six to ten minute reduction in peak travel time about what we expected? How long do we expect this effect to last – I mean, you have to think that when that new Grand Parkway segment is built it’s going to increase volume on I-10 – and what if anything is there to be done about it when traffic starts backing up again? Sure might have been nice to have that commuter rail option that was rejected. Do we have any idea what the effect of the expansion have been on air quality and flood control, which were two of the things that the KCC plan tried to address? Travel time is just one dimension of this project. It’s good that it’s worked out well so far, but that should be where the conversation begins, not where it ends.

Strip clubs sue city over $5 fee

Remember the $5 per customer strip club fee that was added as a budget amendment by CM Ellen Cohen as a way to fund clearing HPD’s backlog of rape kits? The clubs threatened to sue the city at the time this was debated, and last Thursday they followed through on that threat.

CM Ellen Cohen

In the lawsuit the strip clubs argue that the $5 per-customer fee on sexually oriented businesses passed by Council in June is unconstitutional on several grounds:

  • That state law requires that fees be based on the cost of processing permits and investigating applicants, whereas Cohen pushed the fee simply to raise money for the rape kits.
  • That a city cannot levy a tax targeting an occupation unless the state has already done so. Cohen’s state legislation applies to live nude entertainment. The plaintiffs offer what the city calls “semi-nude” entertainment, so their businesses are exempt from the state fee and therefore can’t be targeted by the city.
  • That it violates state law requiring that such taxes be equal across an industry. Here the strip clubs argue that they’re being singled out by a fee because of high prostitution, violent crime and drug use near adult establishments while the areas around bars without strippers have even higher rates of such crime.
  • It’s an infringement of the right to free speech. While a state court rejected this argument as it applied to Cohen’s state legislation governing nude entertainment, the ruling did not find that the spillover crime effects justifying free-speech restrictions were not as great for businesses that present semi-nude entertainment.

The ordinance and requested council action from June can be seen on starting on pdf page 123 here.

The story doesn’t have a copy of the suit, so the best I can do is tell you that it’s case number 201260353, which you can find on the District Clerk webpage. I reviewed the history of the strip clubs’ lawsuit against the state over that fee here. I’ll leave it to the legal experts to opine whether this suit has a better chance of success than that one did.

Texas blog roundup for October 15

The Texas Progressive Alliance and this week’s roundup are both certified 100% malarkey-free.

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Interview with Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

To wrap up my interviews for 2012, today we have Ann Harris Bennett, the Democratic candidate for Harris County Tax Assessor. Bennett is a former Court Coordinator and was the Democratic candidate for Harris County Clerk in 2010 – you can see what I wrote about her, and listen to that interview here. Suffice it to say that the Tax Assessor’s office could do with having someone more experienced in and competent with the kind of organizational and clerical tasks that the job entails. Here’s the interview:

Ann Harris Bennett 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.

The opposition to the bonds

Noted for the record.

Longtime City Hall naysayer Dave Wilson and other anti-tax activists gathered on the grounds of an elementary school that was slated to get $3.7 million from the last Houston Independent School District bond measure but instead was closed for lack of enrollment. Their message was that politicians cannot be trusted to spend your money wisely.

“There hasn’t been transparency. There is no accountability so that with this present bond election there’s no way anybody can vote for it. What we’ve got to do is send them back to the drawing board, look at something a little more reasonable,” Wilson said, focusing largely on HISD.

HISD has pledged a bond oversight committee, quarterly reports on spending on a special website, independent construction audits and project bidding managed by school procurement officials as safeguards against waste.

“There is going to be accountability,” campaign spokeswoman Sue Davis said, which includes a Web page for every affected school “that says how much they’re going to spend, what the problems are, what problems they’re going to correct and what they’re going to do.” Each school also will have its own oversight committee with parents, teachers and community leaders to tell architects what they want done. “I don’t know how much more accountability you can add.”

Here’s the HISD bond overview page, and here’s my interview with Superintendent Terry Grier. Since Wilson also opposes the city bonds and the HCC bond, because of course he does, see the links I included with my interviews with Mayor Parker and Richard Schechter for more information on those issues.

When asked if she believed Wilson’s message would gain traction, Mayor Annise Parker answered simply, “No.”

Sounds about right to me. Campos has more.

Overview of the HCDE races

The Chron has an overview of the races for the Harris County Department of Education, and in describing the one At Large race between incumbent Michael Wolfe and Democratic challenger Diane Trautman they do the useful service of describing what the HCDE does.

Diane Trautman

The department supports the county’s 26 independent school districts. It operates a co-op that allows the districts to buy food and supplies at lower prices. The department also runs adult-education programs, administers federal Head Start grants and Early Childhood Intervention programs, and supports after-school initiatives.

Most of the department’s budget comes from state and federal grants and fees for service paid by the districts.

Trautman said her opponent wants to abolish the department and has been censured by the board for unethical behavior.

Wolfe acknowledged that he would support abolishing the department, saying that he believes taxpayers pay twice for education. The 2008 censure, he said, was in retaliation because he was pushing for lower taxes.

In 2009, the board tried to remove him from office because they said he had a disregard for the department and its procedures and disrespect for the board.

Here’s what was said about Wolfe at the time:

Fellow trustee Jim Henley said the movement to oust Wolfe is based on his numerous absences and Wolfe’s “lack of acting in the best interests of the department.”

The board considered removing Wolfe for incompetence last year, but Wolfe appealed for a second chance and pledged to adhere to a list of ethical practices.

Henley said Wolfe has violated that pledge and continues to miss meetings without informing the board ahead of time of his absences — or explaining them afterward.

Board members voted 6-0 Monday night to seek Wolfe’s ouster from the $72-a-year position.

See here, here, and here for more on this. Henley is one of only two Democrats on the board right now, so that means four fellow Republicans voted to pursue ousting Wolfe. If you think they did so because they didn’t like him pushing for lower taxes, I’d say that’s pretty naive. Plus, as you may recall, it wasn’t just Wolfe’s board colleagues who didn’t like him. Read this letter from County School Superintendent John Sawyer to Wolfe from December of 2007 for a reminder of that. Wolfe is a clown, and in a just world he’ll be sent back to the private sector in a couple of weeks.

The race for Position 4, Precinct 3, between Republican Kay Smith, who successfully primaried the more moderate Raymond Garcia, and Silvia Mintz, is frustrating to me.

Silvia Mintz

In the Position 4 race, Smith, 61, a Republican, said she wants to bring more department transparency. She said it often is difficult to get information about operations and how money is spent.

“I want to know what we are doing with those tax dollars to ensure better education,” Smith said.

Mintz, her Democratic opponent, did not return calls.

On her campaign website, Mintz, 38, said she entered the race because she believes it is important to “protect the American Dream through education.”

Mintz ran for HD132 in 2010. She has a compelling personal story, and I was impressed by her when I interviewed her for tat race. She’s the kind of person I’d like to see get elected to something. But I have no idea what she’s doing in this race. She reported nothing raised and nothing spent on her 30 day finance report, after minimal activity on her July report. I made numerous attempts to reach her for an interview, but like the Chron never heard from her. Her campaign website appears to have been last updated in December, when she announced her candidacy. Her Facebook page indicates some activity, but that’s about it. She would be a distinct underdog in this race, but then so are people like Paul Sadler and Traci Jensen and Cody Pogue, all of whom have run active, highly visible campaigns. All I can say is that I’m terribly disappointed. I wish I knew what was going on with her.

Which way for Hays?

I have two things to say about this.

Two years after Republicans trounced Democrats in Hays County, the GOP again is aiming to win.

Ten incumbents are running for re-election in Hays County races, but the six Republican candidates are all unopposed.

All four Democratic incumbents, however, have drawn Republican challengers, including Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe, the longest-serving member of the current Commissioners Court. Democrats are also being challenged in a justice of the peace race and two constable races.

The county went red in the 2010 elections as Republicans swung the Commissioners Court from four Democrats and one Republican to four Republicans and one Democrat. Republicans also replaced the Democratic sheriff and district clerk.

Hays County had long been known as a purple county — in which both Democrats and Republicans were elected — but even Democrats at the bottom of the ballot were swept out of office during the midterm elections as Republicans expressed disappointment with President Barack Obama’s policies.

Do I really have to explain the difference between Presidential election years and non-Presidential election years? Basing expectations for 2012 on what happened in 2010 is foolish. I’m no expert on Hays County, and I have no idea what the past history of the County Commissioner/Constable/JP precincts looks like – the Hays County Election Results page is completely useless. For all I know, the Republicans will win all of these races. But if they do, it’s not because the 2010 election results said they would.

The proper comparison is to another Presidential year. Here are the last two Presidential results for Hays County:

2004 Votes Pct ===================== Bush 27,021 56.50 Kerry 20,110 42.05 2008 Votes Pct ===================== McCain 29,638 50.18 Obama 28,431 48.14

Now this doesn’t tell us what’s going to happen, either. None of the races cited in the story are countywide, and again I’ve no idea what the electoral data looks like in the political subdivisions. Hays County has experienced a lot of growth in recent years, and who can say how these new residents will vote. As I’ve said before, I just don’t have a good feel for where things are in the state, and the recent polls we’ve seen lately have raised more questions than they’ve answered. The one thing I do know is that I’ll be taking a long look at county data after the election is over.

RIP, Sen. Mario Gallegos

Sad news.

Sen. Mario Gallegos

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, 62, a Democratic lawmaker whose 22-year career in the Texas Legislature was marked by courage, controversy and dogged commitment to issues of importance to the Hispanic community, died Tuesday afternoon at Methodist Hospital in Houston from complications of liver disease.

Gallegos, the first Hispanic elected to the state Senate from Harris County, took a special interest in public education, minority hiring, criminal justice, redistricting and other issues he believed would have an effect on the lives of the predominantly working-class residents who made up the majority of his state Senate district.

“Sen. Gallegos had a long and dedicated record of service to the people of Houston, both as a firefighter and long-time member of the Texas legislature,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker in a statement.

In 2007, only weeks after undergoing a liver transplant, a sick and weakened Gallegos ignored a doctor’s call to return to Houston and installed a hospital bed in the office of the Senate sergeant-at-arms so he could cast his vote against a bill requiring voters to show photo identification. Gallegos argued the bill would discriminate against minority voters.

Sen. Gallegos’ courage in 2007, literally putting his life on the line for something he believed in, is one of the most enduring and inspiring political acts of recent memory. I was his constituent since moving into the Heights in 1997, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple of times, most recently in 2010. He was a fighter, a friend of the working man and woman, a trailblazer, and a stalwart defender of progressive values. I am one of many, many people who will miss him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.

I have received numerous statements and tributes to Sen. Gallegos in my inbox, all of which you can see beneath the fold. Harold Cook, the Trib, PDiddie, Burka, and BOR have more. Rest in peace, Sen. Mario Gallegos.

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