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October 27th, 2012:

Saturday video break: Every Time You Go Away

Song #46 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Every Time You Go Away”, by Hall and Oates and covered by Paul Young. Here’s the original:

Okay, that’s not actually Hall and Oates, but how could I resist Daryl Hall backed by Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, and the most amazing flowing-locks-and-sideburn combination since, I don’t know, Nic Cage in “Raising Arizona”. Seriously, who knew Daryl Hall had hair like that? Anyway, here’s the Paul Young cover:

Another fine example of 80s hair, as well as 80s imagery – Ballerinas! Men who might be gangsters! Gratuitous fog! – all rendered in both black and white and color. Pretty good song, too.

Cuts are not increases, no matter how you spin it

This is the Chron overview of HD134, which is once again the highest profile legislative race in the county, in part because it’s a referendum on the 2010 election and the cuts to public education funding that resulted from that election.

Ann Johnson

In an area that takes great pride in its schools, [Rep. Sarah Davis] went along with her fellow Republicans and voted for major cuts in education funding.

As a result, District 134 is one of the few House seats believed to be in play. Although Davis has the incumbent’s edge in a Republican-leaning district, the race has become one of the most competitive – and expensive – in the state. Both candidates are spending freely, blanketing the district regularly with mailers.

“We knew there were funding cuts coming down the line for Texas schools,” said Sue Deigaard, a stay-at-home mom, “so, as a community, on a grass-roots level, we organized, we engaged other parents to give Sarah Davis the support as a legislator to say, ‘Hey, as you’re casting your vote on the budget, you have hundreds of parents, 400 petitions, hundreds of letters, phone calls, emails in a district you won by 750 votes.’ ”

Their message, Deigaard said, was “to, basically, give her the support, so that she could vote in a different direction from her party. And, as her record shows, she didn’t do that. So now we have this very motivated base of parents, bipartisan – Republicans and Democrats – who are supporting Ann Johnson.”

Davis, a fiscal conservative who is moderate on social issues, insists that Deigaard and other parents should not have been surprised.

“When I was campaigning, we all, particularly me, were campaigning on a message that we had a $27 billion budget deficit, and we’re going to have to balance the budget,” she said one evening recently. “I am opposed to increasing taxes or finding revenue, and I won, as did a hundred other Republicans, probably campaigning on the exact same message.”

So Davis, who as I have said before is a reliable, down-the-line Republican representative, claims that she campaigned and won on a promise to cut spending in 2010. Which is fine, as far as it goes, except for one small thing: She is now running away from those cuts that she made as fast as she can. Patti Hart calls Davis out for a blatantly dishonest campaign mailer that tries to claim she didn’t do what she actually did.

I called [Scott] McCown to get his reaction after seeing Republican Houston Rep. Sarah Davis’ latest campaign mailer, which claims that her Democratic challenger, attorney Ann Johnson, is spreading fiction in her assertion that Texas Republicans cut $5.4 billion from public education last year. On the cover, Davis invokes the dictionary, sharing this definition of fiction: “A belief or statement that is false, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so.”

To back up her allegation that school budget cuts are a figment of Johnson’s imagination, Davis then asserts that Texas lawmakers actually added $1 billion to our schools. Johnson’s math, she tells us, includes “President Obama’s one-time stimulus money, that simply wasn’t available the following year.”

The mailer goes on to assert, with great umbrage: “So Johnson is blaming Republicans in Austin for what a Democratic President did in Washington. This happens all the time: liberals in Washington throw a bunch of money at programs, and then in later years leave the state to find the money to keep them going.”

In a campaign season full of tall tales, this may be the whopper that tops them all. State lawmakers in 2009 used $3.6 billion in federal stimulus money instead of state dollars to fund public education – essentially supplanting federal support for state support. In 2011, the Legislature added back only $1.6 billion in state money to replace the federal dollars.

To claim that the Legislature “increased” funding to public ed is, as I wrote when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made this claim, to have giant amnesia about the stimulus.

Now, Davis is using the state’s 2009 contribution to education as a baseline for comparison to state funding in 2011, and blaming Obama that the dollars fall short. It’s as if Davis is saying, two meals a day is more than what those kids were getting before Uncle Sam stepped in!

This outrageous claim – that Republicans didn’t cut public education funding – has been rated “Pants on Fire” by the newspaper fact-checking service, Politifact, on several occasions this year.

And Politifact’s researchers didn’t rely on the opinions of Democrats, noting that during the legislative session, Senate Education Chairman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said: “Nobody wants cuts. But we have to have them.” And House Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, predicted the cuts would amount to 4 percent to 5 percent, which he characterized as “not that big a cut.”

The writers’ conclusion: “So, lawmakers ultimately cut public school aid, with key leaders even acknowledging so as those decisions were sealed. To tell constituents otherwise is not only inaccurate, it’s misleading and ridiculous. Pants on Fire!”

Even Hart is understating how egregious this is, because Davis and her fellow Republicans all voted for the House budget that cut $10 billion from public education. It was the Senate’s refusal to accept that budget, and to restore half of the cuts made by the House, that left us with the $5.4 billion in cuts that we got. Try to square that with a claim that Davis “increased” funding to public education.

Maybe none of this will matter. It’s still a Republican-leaning district. Johnson may well not be able to convince enough people what happened and what they need to do about it now. Maybe that day of reckoning isn’t here yet, though if it hasn’t come by the 2014 elections I don’t know when it ever will. Be that as it may, I’m happy to have any campaign be waged on these terms. The more that candidates an officeholders run away from the idea of cutting education funding, the better.

The 85 MPH toll road is now open

So far, it seems like the only people on the newly-opened 85 MPH Texas 130 toll road are reporters writing about what it’s like to legally drive that fast.

About an hour after road workers removed the hundreds of bright orange cones blocking the entrances and exits to the new State Highway 130 toll road, I gave the fastest highway in the country a test drive.

From Austin to Seguin, the road has a posted speed limit of 85 mph, a number my speedometer doesn’t reach on a regular basis. On the occasions I have found myself driving that fast, it’s usually been unintentional. I would be moving along on an open stretch of some rural highway, glance down and see the needle higher than I had expected and slightly ease off the gas pedal.

Along with far too many references to a terrible Sammy Hagar song and not enough nods to the best line from Back to the Future, the new toll road has generated a vigorous debate over whether the 85 mph speed limit is just too fast.

A “terrible Sammy Hagar song”? Those are fighting words, my friend. Let’s see if this Chron story is less incendiary.

Within seconds of reaching 85 mph, I hit another milestone without even trying.

90 mph. Just like that.

I didn’t realize how fast 85 mph really is until I started passing everyone else on the road, or when I suddenly had to slow down. There’s not much wiggle room when a car travels those speeds.

[…]

For the next two weeks, drivers can test out the speeds for free. The tolls kick in on Nov. 11; rates will be based on the size of the vehicle, method of payment and how far the vehicle travels.

A Lockhart pastor who wouldn’t give his name because, he said, he didn’t want to make any enemies, described the two-week moratorium on tolls like a pretty woman or an illegal substance. Both lure you in. But a little taste of those high speeds, and you’re hooked:

“It’s gonna be like alcohol,” he said. Soon, you “can’t put that bottle down.”

Caldwell County Precinct 1 Constable Victor “Smitty” Terrell worries about vehicles coming off the toll road to feeder roads with 55 mph speeds.

And don’t get Terrell started on wild hogs and the hazard they pose as they travel in packs. Texas 130 was built in an area where there has been little or no development. That’s meant a lot of wildlife displacement.

He looked at my car and predicted the worst.

“If a couple hundred pound hog went underneath that Honda Civic, and it went on the corner and hit you just right,” he said, “it’d flip you.”

There’s a vivid image for you. Apparently, a couple of hogs have already been hit, but so far no humans have reported injuries as a result.

Finally, for a lighter look at the experience, the Statesman’s Ken Herman tried the new road out in a Smart car.

My car for opening day was a Smart microcar, less than half the length of a Suburban, rented from Car2Go. My dual mission was to be among the first on the nation’s fastest highway and to see whether a Smart could go 85. Perhaps this is a boy thing.

First, some safety notes. Though tiny, the Smart gets pretty good safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There was, however, a 2009 IIHS report noting the Smart and two other microcars were “poor performers in the frontal collisions with midsize cars.”

“These results,” we’re told, “reflect the laws of the physical universe.”

I’m thinking you’re going to pay a hefty hourly rate for a lawyer to get you around those laws.

As you can see, he lived to tell the tale. All three writers report zipping past the 85 MPH mark without realizing they had done so, which isn’t terribly surprising. I suspect that will be a common occurrence. I’d say I’m looking forward to seeing what the accident rate is on this highway, but I’m really not. Anyway, I suspect this road won’t be this empty for long, so take advantage now if you can.

Metro’s new trains

Last week, Metro announced that it had received delivery of a new train, the first of a batch of new light rail vehicles (LRVs) scheduled to arrive in town.

Gilbert Garcia, METRO board chairman, said the light-rail Siemens S70 represents a savings of almost a year’s time in getting optimal service to our riders. METRO was able to do this by exercising a contract option with the Utah Transit Authority when it “piggybacked” in an inter-agency agreement to procure the light-rail cars from Siemens.

“These units will help us offer timely and comfortable trips,” said Garcia.

This train is the first of 19 light-rail trains METRO secured in an $83 million contract.

George Greanias, METRO president & CEO, called it a great day for METRO.

“METRORail has a very busy fleet, which this year surpassed 90 million boardings. The new units will take the strain off those already in service and provide more flexibility to our current system,” said Greanias.

Step inside, and you’ll see more standing room and a bike rack that allows a passenger to secure his or her bike upright vertically. Each car will also be equipped with two designated wheelchair spaces. A knee-to-back seating arrangement and a big standing area, with extra hand straps and grab bars, maximize interior space, designed for about 200 passengers.

Train No. 201 is expected to be operational sometime after Jan. 1, said Scott Grogan, senior director of METRORail Service Delivery. Purchasing these 19 Siemens cars would allow us to operate two-car trains all day on our Main Street line.

There’s video at the link above, and more pictures in the accompanying press release, which says there will be two bike racks in each car, one at the front and one at the rear. You know how I feel about bikes on trains, so I sent an inquiry about whether this meant that the hours for which bikes are currently allowed on the trains, which begin at 9 AM, will be extended. The response I received was as follows:

There is no change to the hours currently in effect. We will be evaluating the situation as the new vehicles come on line, however, to see if there is an opportunity to add hours for bike boardings without compromising passenger safety. The remaining Siemens units will be delivered and put into service over the next year.

I remain hopeful.

Endorsement watch: Martin and Sullivan

The Chron can’t quite believe that Steve Stockman is on the verge of being foisted on us again as a member of Congress, so they do what they can by endorsing his opponent, Max Martin.

Max Martin

Max Martin is a credible, if long-shot, candidate. Martin, a retired pilot who now owns an education software business in Clear Lake, is our endorsement choice over the stealth candidate Stockman to represent this economically diverse district. Martin is an old-school Texas Democrat, whose moderate, pro-business views should have appeal to many Republicans in the district, which includes refineries, Gulf fisheries, ranches and timbering operations. Constituents include blue-collar workers, small business owners and a growing number of retirees from out of state.

Martin, who came to live in southeast Houston with his family in 1955, has an admirable history as a self-starter. He also possesses an encyclopedic geographic knowledge of the area from his many years as a short-haul pilot for private businesses and Metro Airlines. In every sense he presents himself as someone truly representative of this district. By contrast, Stockman strikes us as a political opportunist whose out-of-the-mainstream views would not serve District 36 residents well.

We recommend a vote for Max Martin to represent Texas House District 36.

Martin had previously collected the endorsement of the Beaumont Enterprise as well. Sadly, CD36 was drawn to be heavily Republican, and even with the financial resources to mount the kind of campaign needed to alert people to what a whackjob Stockman is, it would be an uphill climb. And with the likes of Louie Gohmert in Congress these days, Stockman doesn’t even stand out as particularly crazy anymore.

Elsewhere, the Chron writes the last of the endorsement editorials for candidates listed on their master list by recommending Mike Sullivan for Harris County Tax Assessor.

Mike Sullivan

Over the past 15 years or so, the office of Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector has been deliberately but needlessly politicized. It shouldn’t have been – and we’re confident it won’t be again if county voters elect Mike Sullivan in the Nov. 6 election.

Sullivan, the current Houston City Council member and former trustee of the Humble Independent School District board, has built a reputation as a straight shooter with facts and public finances. That is precisely what is required of a tax assessor-collector.

The assessor-collector’s office is where residents and taxpayers go, often online, to register their vehicles, pay their property taxes and register to vote.

It is, by definition, a service department, not a roost for partisans, whether Republican or Democrat, to spread their views on political issues.

The reason is clear: The constitutionally ordained duty of voter registration does not mix well – or at all – with politicking.

Perhaps it is churlish of me to point this out, but “over the past 15 years or so”, the office of Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector has been exclusively held by Republicans. Paul Bettencourt won a special election in 1998 to replace Carl Smith after he passed away earlier that year, and after him came Leo Vasquez and now Don Sumners. Maybe, just maybe, that might have had something to do with the problem that the Chron so astutely identifies, and if so maybe electing another Republican isn’t the optimal solution to it. I’m just saying. Sullivan, to his credit, says the right things about focusing on the clerical aspects of the job. If he is elected, I sure hope he lives up to that. But I still think that a real change is needed here, and to that effect I’ll be voting for Ann Harris Bennett. By the way, in case you missed it, here’s the Chron overview story of this race – there’s a Libertarian candidate as well – which appeared in the print edition a week ago but which I couldn’t find online until a few days after that.