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October 18th, 2012:

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.

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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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