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December, 2012:

Happy birthday, Lady Bird

Lady Bird Johnson would be celebrating her 100th birthday today if she were still with us.

Lady Bird Johnson

Catherine Robb’s eyes blurred with tears and she paused, overcome by the emotion of trying to find the right words to express how much she misses “Nini” – the affectionate name she called her grandmother, Lady Bird Johnson.

After all, the nation’s former first lady, catapulted into history after President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination in Dallas, came closer than she ever expected to attending her 100th birthday celebration Saturday. She died at her Texas Hill Country ranch in 2007 at age 94.

“My grandmother probably never thought she’d get that old. After all, her mother died very young when my grandmother was only 5,” said Robb. By comparison, Lady Bird founded the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin on her 70th birthday and was still swimming laps in her late 80s. Only one other presidential wife, Bess Truman, lived longer.

In 2002, Lady Bird was slowed by a debilitating stroke. She completely lost her voice and macular degeneration claimed her eyesight.

“Even though her body was no longer cooperating with her, she managed to find different ways to communicate through her expressions or jotting things down. She also utilized audiobooks,” said Robb, 42, an Austin lawyer, who for many years had a standing dinner date with her grandmother nearly every Thursday night. “She found ways to keep up with what was happening with her family and the world until very close to the end.”

Her centennial celebration is being commemorated by the U.S. Postal Service with the release of a stamp featuring her in a canary yellow gown from her official White House portrait; a wildflower sculpture made in her honor; and a massive, multimillion-dollar renovation of the LBJ Presidential Library, to be unveiled Saturday and that for the first time features excerpts from 643 hours of telephone conversations that President Johnson secretly recorded of his political dealings in that era.

I don’t really have a point to make, but like Catherine Robb, I had a grandmother that I was very close to, so reading this story got me a little misty-eyed as well. Happy birthday, Lady Bird.

Are two courts better than one?

Why exactly do we need two top courts in Texas?

A proposal for the upcoming legislative session is resuscitating a debate that goes back to the writing of the Texas Constitution in 1876.

The bill, authored by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, would abolish the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for all criminal matters, and bring all criminal cases under the Texas Supreme Court, which now hears only civil and juvenile cases.

Texas and Oklahoma are the only two states with their highest courts divided between civil and criminal jurisdictions, though others have considered it as a means to deal with large case backlogs. Last year, lawmakers in Florida considered splitting the state’s Supreme Court, particularly to deal with a growing list of death penalty appeals, but a political battle killed the proposal.

Raymond’s bill and joint resolution, pre-filed last month, would allow the Texas Supreme Court to decide which criminal cases to review but would require that it look at all death penalty appeals.

He says that the change should be a no-brainer, because 48 other states and the federal court system have a single highest court. “The model is there for most of the country,” he said. “The more people talk about it the more they will agree.”

It’s an interesting story, which includes some of the history of the CCA and how it came about. Though the attempt to do away with the CCA has come up multiple times before in the Lege – Rep. Raymond filed similar legislation two years ago that got nowhere – I confess I’d never heard about any of those efforts before. According to Scott Henson, who is quoted in the story and who elaborates on his remarks and the history of the court here, it’s usually the minority party pushing these efforts, as it would result in fewer offices for the dominant party to occupy. That’s as may be, but for what it’s worth I’ve never heard a Democrat talk about this before now. I personally am agnostic on the idea. I doubt it will actually save much money – the extra caseload on a single court would necessitate a much larger staff to handle it – and I do think it will make the appeals process take longer. Having said that, the fact that 48 other states survive with one top court suggests that we’d be just fine, and the fact that “we’ve always done it this way” isn’t really a justification. And hey, if it means that Sharon Keller would be finally put out of a job, then you’d better believe I’d vote for it.

Greanias officially resigns, interim Metro CEO named

George Greanias may have stepped down as CEO of Metro, but he’ll still be around for awhile, as Metro searches for his successor.

George Greanias

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday accepted Greanias’ resignation, named an interim replacement and approved a six-month, $117,500 contract with Greanias – equivalent to half his annual salary – to consult for Metro.

“Don’t think you’re getting away scot-free,” board member Carrin Patman told Greanias after a 90-minute closed session. “We have a job for you.”

Greanias’ consulting duties will focus on leadership transition, increasing bus and light rail ridership and improving the MetroLift service for disabled passengers. These are key areas where Greanias can be an invaluable asset, said Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia.

“Who better than someone who has been here that knows all the parts, all the intricacies,” Garcia said.

To replace Greanias, the board appointed Tom Lambert, Metro’s executive vice president and the agency’s former police chief, as interim CEO. Lambert, a 32-year Metro veteran, told the board he is not interested in the position permanently.

He said Greanias leaves the agency after 30 months in much better shape than he found it. Lambert said his goal for his time at the helm is to keep the staff directed on its long-term goals of improving bus and train service.

“I think the real issue is how can we take the system today and make it even better tomorrow,” Lambert said.

Greanias didn’t give any specific reason for leaving – he did deny that a difference of opinion over the Metro referendum was a factor – he just said he was ready to do something else. Easy enough to understand – he inherited a mess and turned it around, which has to have been exhausting as well as satisfying. The next CEO will be more in run-and-maintain mode, though he or she will have to figure out how to expand bus service and getting the new rail lines going while still working towards building the University line. It’ll be a challenge of a different kind, but a challenge nevertheless. The Board has a big task ahead of it in finding the right person for that job.

Friday random ten: The annual Christmas list

The staff of Popdose has their fifty favorite holiday songs for your consideration. Those of you familiar with the Mellowmas tradition will note with amusement a few crossovers, but theirs is a pretty solid collection. As is my tradition, here are ten songs from their list in my iTunes library:

1. Christmas Wrapping – Waitresses
2. Fairytale of New York – The Priestess and The Fool (orig. Pogues/Kirsty MacColl)
3. Christmas in Hollis – Run DMC
4. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
5. Blue Christmas – Collective Soul (orig. Elvis Presley)
6. Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid
7. Mele Kalikimaka – Asylum Street Spankers (orig. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters)
8. Winter Song – Lindisfarne
9. Christmas Time Is Here – Vince Guaraldi Trio
10. – You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch – Michael Gaither (orig. Thurl Ravenscroft)

Tastes differ, and this is Just Another List, so the usual caveats apply, but overall I thought it was solid even if I myself can’t abide “The Little Drummer Boy”. There are other songs on their list for which I have one or more versions – I mean, does anyone not have at least one “White Christmas” in their collection? – so I let myself skip around a bit. What are your favorite Christmas tunes, this year or any year?

One year of Helena

The Observer‘s Emily dePrang takes a look at CM Helena Brown, one year after her upset win in District A.

CM Helena Brown

When she took office, Brown made waves for her nearly satirical level of budget hawkery. She made simplistic government-bad, free-market-good speeches that evoked The Colbert Report to justify voting against funding meals for the elderly, storm sewers, and fire trucks. Then people started to get wind of the weirdness. Brown, 34, still lives with her parents. She proposed fixing the city budget deficit by defaulting on the city’s pensions and tax bonds, and by outsourcing emergency services. And she allegedly tried to get a staff member to take medical leave because Brown was worried she’d be liable for complications with the staffer’s pregnancy.

In this way, Brown’s story is a corrective to the perennial Hollywood myth of the everyman candidate, the Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington type, the underdog who beats the odds and refuses to cave to the establishment, thus changing the game forever. What that fantasy looks like in reality, playing out week after week in Houston City Council meetings, is agenda items passing 16 to 1, with Brown’s vote the lonely, irrelevant “no.”

But Brown’s is also a mystery story. The more attention you pay, the murkier it gets. The smidgen of professional history available about her turns out to be less than true. She’s been involved with radical Catholic groups whose beliefs fall between esoteric and fringe. And then there was her trip to Korea—a trip she paid for with public funds, though it’s not clear whether she was conducting city business or why she went in the first place. Back in Houston, much of her staff quit a few months into her term, and her volunteer “chief advisor” is a disgraced financier whom some believe secretly directs her council votes. Explanations for these mysteries haven’t been forthcoming; Brown never answers media questions after City Council meetings, and rarely grants interviews.

In a state full of wingnut politicians, Helena Brown stands out. It’s not that she’s the most extreme or conservative or outspoken, or even the most incompetent yahoo in public office. It’s that, unlike her confederates, there’s no apparent method to her madness. She’s not following the money, building coalitions to help her climb some ladder, or even adhering to a particular party. She’s fumbling forward, drawn on by a voice only she can hear.

As someone who has never understood the appeal of “I’m not a professional politician!” campaigns, dePrang’s characterization of Brown as a “corrective to the perennial Hollywood myth of the everyman candidate” resonates with me. Politics is a collaborative business, and as much as it may need to be shaken up at times no one person can change things if they can’t relate to and communicate with those other people who were elected and feel like they have a mandate from their voters, too. DePrang covers a lot of familiar turf in her story but also uncovers some new things (new to me, certainly) about CM Brown, reminding me in the process that I do still have the capacity to be amazed. Check it out.

Former HPD lab supervisor files sues Lykos, county

Here’s a nice little going away present for District Attorney Pat Lykos.

DA Pat Lykos

Two former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisors have filed a federal lawsuit against Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, saying the county’s top prosecutor retaliated against them after they spoke out about problems with HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vans.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, was brought against Lykos, prosecutor Rachel Palmer and Harris County by Amanda Culbertson and Jorge Wong, identified as “citizen whistle-blowers” in the lawsuit.

Among several allegations, the lawsuit says that officials with the DA’s office retaliated against Culbertson and Wong by lobbying the Harris County Commissioner’s Court to cancel a contract with a local private laboratory, where the two found jobs after leaving HPD.

The lawsuit also alleges that retaliatory actions taken by Lykos and Palmer included harming Culbertson and Wong’s reputations and putting their licenses as technical supervisors for the state’s breath-alcohol testing program at stake.

Culbertson and Wong said the retaliation began after they expressed concerns about the reliability of tests conducted in HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vans.

“It’s important for citizens to be able to speak openly and publicly about matters of public concern, such as problems with the (breath-alcohol testing) vans and problems with the crime lab,” said attorney Scott Cook, who represents Culbertson and Wong. “That is the heart of the First Amendment.”

I didn’t follow this saga very closely, so let me refer you to some other people who did:

Grits for Breakfast

Paul Kennedy

Murray Newman

See also this Grits post, in which he makes the point that breathalyzers and their efficacy should be under the purview of the Forensic Science Commission but aren’t, and this Big Jolly post, which has video from the plaintiffs’ press conference and a copy of their statements and the lawsuit itself. I’m sure there’s more but that’s plenty for now. I’m also sure Murray’s prediction that this will move along slowly is accurate. Anyone in the peanut gallery want to add something to this?

City-county cooperation

It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

At 9:27 p.m. on Election Day, when it was clear a Metro referendum crucial to both of their road-building budgets had passed, Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack’s phone buzzed with a text message from Houston Mayor Annise Parker: “Maybe we can tackle world peace next.”

The note hinted at the unlikeliness of their pact. As recently as August, before the cooperative push for a “yes” vote on the Metro referendum, the bombastic Radack, long a city critic, could be counted among the anti-Parker crowd.

And while it is not world peace, this political odd couple’s new alliance could spur progress on several languishing projects, most notably a joint city-county inmate processing center that first was proposed in the 1990s.

Over his steak salad, her bowl of chili and two iced teas at Tony’s last Wednesday, Parker and Radack decided movement could come on the processing center as early as next month, perhaps in the form of a clear plan presented to Commissioners Court and City Council.

“The processing facility is something that’s been brewing for a very long time. We need some resolution,” Parker said. “Commissioner Radack was previously in law enforcement, and he understands these issues. He’s interested in taking some lead on it in the county.”

Radack, a former Houston policeman and county constable, already has talked to other members of Commissioners Court and the county’s top budget and social services directors about moving forward.

“There’s a strong possibility we can help a lot of people, like the mentally ill,” Radack said. “I think we can operate much more efficiently, save taxpayers’ money, and do a better job. That potential is there. It’s time to seize the opportunity and get it going.”

It all sounds good, and this is certainly a sensible project. They’re also continuing to talk about jointly doing a crime lab that is independent of HPD – the city’s crime lab proposal is still a theoretical entity at this point – and about dealing with the city’s great backlog of rape kits. If all this comes together, it would be a pretty nice legacy for Parker no matter what happens in next year’s election.

Craft versus crafty

Just because that beer you’re drinking has a quirky name and a whimsical label on the bottle doesn’t mean it came from a microbrewery.

In a biting opening salvo, a trade group for the nation’s craft brewers on Thursday accused Anheuser-Busch InBev and other major manufacturers of “deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.”

“We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking,” the Colorado-based Brewers Association said.

The group singled out Blue Moon and the Shock Top line. Those popular beers are owned and produced by, respectively, SABMiller, the same company that makes Miller Lite, and AB-InBev, the Belgium-based purveyor of the ubiquitous Budweiser and Bud Lite.

“You would not know that from looking at the labels,” said Julia Herz, craft beer director for the Brewers Association, which represents such locally owned breweries as Saint Arnold, Southern Star, No Label and Karbach.

There’s more information from the Brewers Association here and here. I don’t think it’s asking a lot to clearly state on the label that thus-and-such beer is a product of whichever brewery. A lot of people are choosy about which businesses they support and which they don’t. More generally, I favor customers getting full information about the products they buy. How can you make an informed choice if you don’t have all the relevant information? Beer, TX has more.

Not just vouchers, corporate-sponsored vouchers

You can’t make this stuff up.

Speaking in a Catholic school classroom in Austin, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state Sen. Dan Patrick gave the first details of what they promised would be a wide-ranging set of proposals for public education policy during the upcoming legislative session.

Patrick, a Houston Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he would carry legislation that would increase the options for public school students through lifting the state’s cap on charter schools, fostering open enrollment within and across school districts, and creating a private school scholarship fund through offering a state business tax savings credit to corporations. When asked for further information about how such a scholarship program would operate, Patrick said the plan was still in its formative stages, and earlier, Dewhurst indicated that it may begin through a smaller-scale pilot program.

Because we just don’t offer enough tax breaks for businesses in this state. When I read about that ludicrous proposal to let teachers be voluntary cops, I thought it was the pinnacle of Republican philosophy in this state. I may have to reconsider that now.

Though the set of reforms the two men described at the news conference did not contain a plan for what are often called private school vouchers, which allow parents to use public funding to send their children to private schools, Patrick said afterward that the legislation was still evolving. He indicated that it could include a measure that would be along the lines of “what some people might call vouchers.”

Take your time, Danno. After all the thought that must have gone into this proposal, I’m sure you need to catch your breath. To his credit, Speaker Joe Straus is skeptical of this plan, but I wouldn’t count anything out. The Texas Freedom Network has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, and here’s a press release from the Coalition for Public Schools, which as you might imagine is critical of the proposal.

Responding the only way they know how

That’s our Legislature.

In response to last week’s Connecticut school shooting, state Rep.-elect Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, says he will file legislation to allow public school teachers to carry concealed weapons while on campus.

The bill, which Villalba is calling the Protection of Texas Children Act, would permit Texas schools to appoint a member of their faculty as a “school marshal.” The marshal, with training and certification, would be able to “use lethal force upon the occurrence of an attack in the classroom or elsewhere on campus,” according to a press release from Villalba, a newly elected state representative.

“Unfortunately, law enforcement personnel cannot be everywhere at all times,” Villalba said in a statement. “We need to talk very frankly about how we can protect our children if the unthinkable should occur.”

So, to recap:

Will the state of Texas do anything to increase access to mental health services? Well, we’re not going to expand Medicaid, which will put a large burden on counties because of the loss of funding for uncompensated care at public hospitals, and counties are the largest providers of mental health services, so that would be a “no”.

Will the state of Texas do anything to restrict access to the kind of weaponry whose only use is to hunt humans? Please. Don’t you know that the right to high-capacity magazines is protected by the Constitution?

And we haven’t even gotten to the best part:

Villalba’s proposal would create a training system for potential concealed-weapon holding employees of public schools, which would be paid for either by school districts or the employees themselves. Under his plan, there would be one armed employee for every 400 students, marshals who would be unidentifiable except to the school principal, law enforcement and school district administrators. The employees would purchase and maintain their own weapons.

So these “school marshals”, who will presumably be expected to put themselves in the line of fire in the event there ever is an armed intrusion of a school, will be volunteers using their own equipment, and they may have to pay for their own training, because the state of Texas won’t be providing any funding for it. How will principals ever be able to choose from the flood of applicants they’ll surely get for this plum assignment? I’m hard pressed to think of a “solution” to a problem that more thoroughly embodies the current philosophy of the Republican Party than this. Bravo, Rep. Villalba.

To be fair, Land Commissioner/Lite Guv candidate Jerry Patterson has a sensible suggestion for closing the gun show loophole, which ought to help keep a few guns away from bad guys. Obviously, no single solution will cover all contingencies, and ultimately there’s only so much that can be done to deter a determined criminal. But there are simple and obvious things we can and should do to try and prevent gun-related tragedies, and if there’s ever a time to be seeking those answers, it’s now. Kudos to Patterson for taking it seriously. I just hope he has some company.

UPDATE: The following press release just hit my inbox:

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten react to proposals by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, and William Bennett to arm teachers as a way to prevent school violence.

“Our duty to every child is to provide safe and secure public schools. That is the vow we take as educators. It is both astounding and disturbing that following this tragedy, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, Bill Bennett, and other politicians and pundits have taken to the airwaves to call for arming our teachers. As the rest of the country debates how to keep guns out of schools, some are actually proposing bringing more guns in, turning our educators into objects of fear and increasing the danger in our schools.

“Guns have no place in our schools. Period. We must do everything we can to reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools, and concentrate on ways to keep all guns off school property and ensure the safety of children and school employees.

“But this is not just about guns. Long-term and sustainable school safety also requires a commitment to preventive measures. We must continue to do more to prevent bullying in our schools. And we must dramatically expand our investment in mental health services. Proper diagnosis can and often starts in our schools, yet we continue to cut funding for school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists. States have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. It is well past time to reverse this trend and ensure that these services are available and accessible to those who need our support.

“Greater access to mental health services, bullying prevention, and meaningful action on gun control—this is where we need to focus our efforts, not on staggeringly misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms. Lawmakers at every level of government should dismiss this dangerous idea and instead focus on measures that will create the safe and supportive learning environments our children deserve.”

I completely agree.

Transition, schmansition

Don Sumners, ladies and gentlemen.

We won’t miss you, Don

“There is no transition,” said lame-duck Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners.

The occasionally cantankerous 73-year-old anti-tax taxman said he and his two predecessors came in cold, and [Tax Assessor-elect Mike] Sullivan will have to do the same.

“Frankly, I guess, it’s a little bit of bitterness on my part that he chose to run against me when really there wasn’t anything that I had done that would justify an opponent from my own party, and that he chose to, in effect, buy his way in with the slate votes,” Sumners said, referring to endorsements Sullivan received after contributing to prominent conservatives’ groups or advertising in their newsletters. “I just don’t feel like I owe him anything. He’s not qualified, he shouldn’t have run, so he’s just going to have to work it out when he gets here.

“I just decided to be uncooperative, I guess,” Sumners continued. “I was, quote, pissed.”

Sumners is the embodiment of the philosophy that says just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you have to act like a grownup. I don’t need to note Sumners’ many, many screwups as Tax Assessor to point out how ridiculous he sounds here, do I? I don’t know how much actual transition is needed for a job like this, but it shouldn’t matter. We expect elected officials to not act like spoiled children, even after losing an election. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Don.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 17

The Texas Progressive Alliance sends its deepest condolences to the people of Newtown as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Off the Kuff says that the voters have done a pretty good job of imposing term limits on the Legislature.

BossKitty at TruthHugger asks when is enough enough? What is it with sick white boys?

Governor “Fetal Pain” finally called the special election in SD-6, and some candidates jumped in and some are staying out. PDiddie at Brains and Eggs has the latest.

It’s unlikely that the candidate of the”middle of the road” business/corporate interests for Texas House Spekaer, aka Joe Straus, will lose. But Texas Democrats should have some fun with the race for Speaker anyway, In race for Speaker Democrats should stir the pot, says WCNews at Eye on Williamson.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme was surprised to find out that RedState hates Texans for Lawsuit Reform, too.

Neil at Texas Liberal wrote about the real St. Nicholas. He might have had a hard time in Texas as he was against the death penalty.

A personal view of judicial elections

I’ve mentioned in this space before that my father Charles A. Kuffner, Jr. was a Supreme Court justice in New York. (Note: The Supreme Court in New York is basically the equivalent of a District Court in Texas. The top court in New York is the Appellate Court.) He was elected to that position in 1982, and lost his re-election bid in 1996. (Yes, they have 14 year terms in New York.) As you might imagine, he has followed my series of posts about judicial elections with interest, and while discussing it in a recent phone conversation, I encouraged him to write about his experience for publication here. Here’s what he sent me:

Is there a best way to select a Judge?

I have had this discussion with my son and many others over the years. Since I have been exposed to both the election of Judges and the selection process for the Judiciary I offer this commentary.

Both systems have their obvious flaws but over all I prefer the election of Judges with some limitations. Let me tell you my experience.

In 1982 the State of New York funded additional Judgeships Statewide with 13 new positions for the 2nd Judicial Department, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The political leaders worked out a formula, 10 Democrats, 3 Republicans, 2 Republicans from Brooklyn and 1 for Staten Island. (Staten Island was included since the Senate Finance Chair was from Staten Island).

A joint committee selected by the politicians interviewed all candidates and if approved the person would run in November dually endorsed by the Brooklyn Democratic Party and the Republicans. You should know that without the Democratic endorsement a person had no chance for election.

12 Republicans interviewed from Staten Island, but for one reason or another consensus could not be reached. I was candidate #13 and interviewed just before the judicial convention. Previously, I was on that screening committee and was not a candidate for the position. I was passed by the joint committee and was elected in 1982, and served from 1983 until 1996.

In 1996 I sought the Democratic dual endorsement, which previously was automatic, but denied that endorsement. I ran as a Republican and was defeated. A little history; I was endorsed by every Bar Association in the district as “Highly” qualified and even a “Highly” qualified rating was obtained by the umbrella group representing the “white shoe” lawyers. Interestingly, I was the only trial court Justice to received the “highly” qualified rating. Even with these credits, along with being President-elect of the Association of Supreme Court Justices, it meant nothing to the straight line Democratic voters in the 2nd judicial district. Add to that was my reversal rate after trial which was about nil.

I then applied to the State and the City for an appointed judicial position. I interviewed at the State level and even though I had an affirmance rate after trial of about 98% I was not recommended to Gov. Pataki. More history; I opposed the Pataki plan to limit judicial discretion in sentencing defendants and was so quoted in the New York Times.

The appointment process for the NYC Criminal Courts mirror that of judicial selection set up I originally went before when I was elected in 1982. I came out of the Mayor’s committee as recommended and was even interviewed by Mayor Giuliani but all for naught. I was not appointed: thus ended my judicial career.

Reality check: there isn’t a major party leader that will give up the power over judicial candidate selection whether by election or appointment. Jobs are the life blood of political parties and judicial patronage appointments mean untold millions of dollars that find their way back to the party in power. From my own experience I can tell you that every mortgage foreclosed meant at least $500 to the lawyers I appointed as referee to sell; for every commercial property that goes into foreclosure, a receiver is appointed to collect rents, etc. That fee is usually 5% of monies collected. For every person in need of guardianship, a lawyer is appointed as an evaluator and is paid a percentage of the estate to be managed; in the Probate courts the amount of patronage paid to politically connected lawyers is staggering. Need I say more?

If I had to recommend a system for appointment of judicial candidates, I would have as a committee membership roster, Court employees who work in the Courts where the vacancy exists; lawyers who routinely practice in that court; former jurors who sat for trials and a psychiatrist/psychologist. Why these folks? Easy, court employees are keen observers and evaluators of courtroom demeanor; lawyers want to practice before a colleague whose work habits and scholarship are known; jurors because they also have 1st hand knowledge of the stresses and strains in a courtroom during trial and lastly mental health professionals who can gauge the all important qualifications of demeanor, temperament and character of the candidate.

Once the candidate or candidates are selected they are appointed and sit for 2 years and then run for a longer term in a non-partisan election on their record.

Pie in the sky? You bet, but if you want to eliminate party politics from the Judiciary radical changes have to me implemented.

So there you have it. The system is a little different in New York, but the parallels are obvious enough. Again, my point is not to defend the status quo but to point out that the question of how best to do this is complex, and we are not well served by simplistic solutions such as eliminating straight-ticket voting for judicial races. More discussion is needed, and I hope I’ve provided some useful items towards that end.

Chapter 42 is back

This is going to be fun.

Sprawling, boomtown Houston may be in for another battle over land use and development, this time driven by the most significant changes proposed to the city’s building rules in 13 years.

The rewrite would further a push for density in single-family development, begun inside Loop 610 when the rules were last changed in 1999, by extending those guidelines citywide. The proposed changes also would address problems that have cropped up with the townhomes that proliferated after the 1999 revision, which designated the Inner Loop “urban” and areas outside “suburban.”

City planners and developers say greater single-family density – allowing more homes to be built on a single acre – will spur redevelopment of blighted areas and provide more affordable housing in the city because builders will be able to fit more buyers on each piece of land, lowering the price they have to charge for each house or townhome. They stress the changes would not encourage more apartment towers.

Many residents are wary. Some say the push for greater density inside the Loop has sacrificed neighborhood aesthetics and created infrastructure problems, compounded by a lack of city enforcement. Others fear how the proposal will affect their neighborhoods.

Change can be scary for residents, Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick acknowledged, but said redevelopment is better than decline.

“We have an aging city. We need to think about how we go in and allow for our city to be updated,” she said. “To some extent, these rules will encourage the redevelopment of property. We’re trying to encourage more single-family residential development outside the 610 Loop.”

On the one hand, this update should allow more dense development throughout the city of Houston, which in turn should make new development in Houston more affordable, and thus make living within the city more competitive with living out in the burbs. This is a good and necessary goal, and though I have expressed concerns about this in the past, I support it, as I have come to the view that the city needs to do what it can to encourage people to live inside its boundaries. Making housing more affordable is a good step in that direction. But the concerns I had before still remain, in that the city’s infrastructure will be greatly taxed by an influx of denser development. Rebuild Houston will deal with some of this, Parks By You will deal with some of this, and the rail lines that are currently under construction and whatever expansion of the bus system we get will deal with some more of it, but it’s not enough. We’ll need a lot more transit – all the rail we voted for in 2003 and then some, and a much bigger emphasis on sidewalks, walkability, and bicycle access. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction, but I worry about how long it will take us to get where we need to be.

Student RFID case in federal court

Good luck sorting it all out, Your Honor.

Because she has a religious objection to Northside Independent School District’s new student tracking system, Andrea Hernandez and her father testified in federal court Monday, she should not be transferred to another school for refusing to carry a student I.D. badge.

Hernandez, 15, a sophomore in a science and engineering magnet program at John Jay High School, and her father, Steven Hernandez, each testified that they believe the tracking system — which uses radio frequency identification tags inserted in student badges — is a sign of submission to the Antichrist as described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

Northside began trying out the RFID technology at two schools this fall. It allows an attendance monitor to locate students at specific areas on campus in real time.

It’s a way to maximize state funding, which is partly based on daily attendance, to cope with budget cuts, Northside Superintendent Brian Woods told U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. The system allows a more accurate count of which students are at school and could help locate individuals quickly in case of emergencies, Woods said.

[…]

Steven Hernandez teared up on the stand after reading a passage from the Bible and explaining how deeply he holds his faith on the issue. He said supporting the program “would compromise our salvation for NISD to make some money.”

Andrea told the judge that her educational goals would be harmed if she goes to Taft because she wouldn’t be able to take certain classes in pursuit of a career as an interface web designer. Garcia repeatedly asked Andrea and her father why she could not wear the badge with the chip removed. That would be “falling in line with the rest and showing support for the program,” Steven Hernandez testified.

After the hearing, when asked who he thought was assuming the role of the Antichrist, Steven Hernandez replied, “In this case, Northside is the Antichrist.”

Garcia said he would decide this week on Andrea’s request for a permanent injunction to keep her at Jay.

I can’t wait to see what he decides. See here and here for more.

SCOTUS voter ID update

The matter is officially with the Supreme Court now.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal court deferred further proceedings in a lawsuit filed by Texas over the state’s voter identification law until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on whether part of the Voting Rights Act is constitutional.

A three-judge panel in Washington said today that “in the interest of efficiency and judicial economy” it will wait for the Supreme Court to review a provision of the 1965 law requiring all or part of 16 mostly Southern states to get federal approval before changing their voting rules. The Texas suit challenges the same provision.

The judges today issued a final judgment on their earlier rejection of the identification law, allowing Texas to seek an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court.

The high court said Nov. 9 it would consider a case in which Shelby County, Alabama, objects to the formula in Section 5 for determining which jurisdictions must get pre-clearance of laws affecting voting qualifications and procedures. The court will hear arguments in the case on Feb. 27.

According to Texas Redistricting, the Dc panel also stayed any consideration of the state’s claim that section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional pending the Supreme Court’s resolution of the Shelby case. The final order denying preclearance is what the state wanted. Intervenors opposed the request for an immediate appeal:

They told the court the state’s request for an immediate appeal was “inexplicabl[e]” given that the request had come only “[t]hree months after this Court’s August 30 decision denying preclearance.”

Instead, the intervenors’ filing told the court that it would be a more efficient use of judicial resources – and less burdensome to the parties – to let the Supreme Court first decide the constitutionality of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in the pending Shelby County case:

The Supreme Court’s affirmance of the circuit court’s decision in Shelby County, for example, may effectively end the preclearance dispute in this case given the extent to which Texas has invoked constitutional concerns in arguing for preclearance. If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court in Shelby County does not affirm the circuit court’s decision, a direct appeal of this case to the Supreme Court of the preclearance decision would, most likely, constitute a waste of judicial resources.

In a short filing Friday, lawyers for the Justice Department told the court that they did not oppose granting the relief sought by the court.

Click over to see the filings, and click over to Texas Redistricting to review the history of this case if you need it. Between this and the redistricting appeal/map redraw, there’s a lot to look forward to from SCOTUS and the San Antonio court in the next month or so.

Where redistricting stands with SCOTUS

From Texas Redistricting:

What happens now in the Supreme Court?

With the filing of motions to affirm or dismiss last week by the Justice Department and intervenors, Texas’ appeal of the preclearance ruling is now ready for review by the Justices.

Under Rule 18 of the Supreme Court rules, the clerk of the Supreme Court must submit the briefs to the Justices by December 17. (While the state has the right under the court’s rules to respond to the motions filed last week by DOJ and the intervenors, the rules provide that the submission of the case to the Justices “will not be deferred pending its receipt” and the author understands that the state has already told the clerk that it will not be submitting any additional briefs.)

Because the Justices have already finished the December series of conferences where they review cases, the earliest opportunity the Justices will have to decide what to do with the Texas redistricting case would be at their January 4 conference. After that, the Justices have conferences scheduled January 11 and 18 and then February 15 and 22.

Though the deadline was yesterday, the briefs were submitted to the Justices last week for their consideration at their January 4 conference. Which doesn’t mean they will consider it at that time, but they could, and if they decide to affirm the ruling, which would be the best thing to happen from the intervenors’ perspective, or to dismiss the appeal (the next-best thing), that could come down as soon as January 7. There’s a lot more than this, so go click over and read it, and see here for some background. The state would like for nothing to happen until the Shelby County challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has taken place. We’ll know what SCOTUS intends to do when they’re damn good and ready to tell us.

Rodeo buys part of old Astroworld site

Unclear what this means.

Rest in peace

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is acquiring half of the old Six Flags AstroWorld property for $42.8 million.

The organization’s board of directors on Thursday authorized show officials to acquire 48 acres of the former amusement park site to diversify its investments, the nonprofit announced in a news release on its website.

The land, which is near Reliant Park, is used for tailgating at Texans games, and for several years the rodeo has had an agreement to use the property for patron parking.

“This actually is a piece of land that’s next door,” RodeoHouston chief operating officer Leroy Shafer said. “Immediately, we know we can park there. … We can do some improvements to the parking that will help us more with the inclement weather.”

[…]

The rodeo’s acquisition abuts Chuck Davis Chevrolet and generally runs north to south from Loop 610 to West Bellfort. It includes a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the loop to the Reliant Park parking lot.

Here’s the HLSR press release. The story notes that this land last changed hands in 2010. In 2007, the owners at that time sought the creation of a municipal management district to help pay for infrastructure, which included the possibility of extending the Main Street rail line into the property. What all this means for any future development on this site is unknown, but I for one hope it doesn’t mean 48 more acres of parking lot. Surely there’s a better use available than that. Swamplot has more.

Dude, I’m serious!

House Speaker Joe Straus is ready to have a “serious” legislative session. You know, totally unlike the last one.

Despite organized efforts to unseat him, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said Wednesday he is confident his colleagues will re-elect him to the post so he can focus the 2013 legislative session on “serious issues” for a fast-growing state.

[…]

Straus said his priorities for the upcoming session are broad: education, transportation, water, jobs and budget transparency.

“It’s 2013 in a couple of weeks,” he said. “We have 17 years before 33 million people live here. They need to be educated. They need to have opportunities and we have not done a very good job in recent years of addressing serious issues. That’s what we’re going to do starting in January.”

I’m glad to see that someone in state leadership recognizes that the last legislative session was an exercise in frivolity and perfervid fulminations that not only did nothing to advance any solutions for any of those serious issues, it did a lot to set us back. I trust you’ll forgive me if I lack any faith that Straus will be able to get a majority of his members to address these serious issues in a serious fashion. Even if he can, the chucklehead quotient in the Senate is dangerously high – they could be a clown show to rival the SBOE – and of course there’s Rick Perry all set to veto anything sensible as he fantasizes about another Presidential campaign. So yeah, color me skeptical.

Asked about a so-called fetal pain measure to ban abortions after 20 weeks, legislation touted on Tuesday by Gov. Rick Perry, Straus declined to say whether he would support it, but strongly implied that he doesn’t view the proposal as a priority.

“I don’t see how it directly affects the agenda of education and transportation and water resources and budget transparency and manufacturing jobs,” Straus said. “But there are thousands of bills that will be filed as there always are and it sounds like that may be one of them. But the top of the agenda for me will be education, resources, infrastructure, the things that will help Texans cope with the tremendous growth we’re seeing in this state.”

I’ll say this much, if Straus actually succeeds at deep-sixing any of these bullshit bills, I’ll refrain from saying anything snarky about him until 2015. It’s the least I can do.

You can have a say on how the Railroad Commission conducts its business

From Texas Sharon:

STEPS TO CHANGE THE RRC.

The Sunset Advisory Commission is the agency that regulates all Texas agencies.ONCE EVERY 12 YEARS, they examine the agencies and decide what needs to be changed and if the agencies should continue. This year it’s the RRC’s turn for examination.

How to Participate.

On Wednesday, December 19th, you can testify (3 minutes) at the public hearing in Austin.

Since there is no drilling in Austin, it doesn’t make much sense to hold the hearings there. This is one of the many things we need to change about the RRC. Hearings should be held in the areas where people are most affected. What Austin does have is plenty of oil and gas lobbyists. This puts us at an unfair advantage and is why it is so important for you to show up if you can.

Comment on the Staff Report (November 2012)

The Sunset Commission staff has written a Staff Report from their examination of the RRC. You can submit your comments on their report. I will give you examples and walk you through submitting comments.

  1. Write up a general comment about your experiences with the RRC and living in the gas patch. HERE are Earthworks comments I prepared to give orally at the hearing.
  2. Write up your response to the items on the Staff Report. (You can just say agree or do not agree) HERE are Earthworks responses. These responses will be tallied and you can bet that the oil and gas industry will submit plenty of responses.

3.  Submit your comments through the form or through email sunset@sunset.state.tx.us.

I don’t follow the RRC like Sharon does, but she’s right, this is a rare opportunity to provide feedback on a Texas state agency. If you have any interest at all in the RRC and/or the natural gas business in Texas, you should take advantage of that opportunity.

Once more to the judicial elections well

I swear, I thought I was done talking about judicial elections, at least for now until one or more of the bills that would affect them comes up in the Lege, but then there was this op-ed in the Chron, and I just couldn’t help myself.

In states across the country, the selection of judges has become increasingly political. Big money is pouring into state judicial elections, much of it coming from special interest groups that do not disclose their sources of funding. In 2012, of the $28 million spent on TV advertising in certain state supreme court elections, more than half was spent by outside groups unconnected to a candidate. In Michigan, where three state supreme court seats were on the ballot, 75 percent of the nearly $15 million in TV advertising was spent by outside groups that invested heavily in attack ads.

I’ve said repeatedly that I consider the influence of large campaign contributions and expenditures to be a much more pernicious threat to the judiciary than any partisan or straight-ticket issues. I’m glad to see op-ed authors Dennis Courtland Hayes and Martha Hill Jamison recognize this. But as is so often the case when an op-ed writer raises the point, they then never get around to discussing what if anything can and should be done about it. As I’ve also said, it may well be that in a post-Citizens United world, there isn’t a damn thing that can be done about this. But if that’s the case, then we all ought to be honest about it and couch whatever other reforms we’re proposing in terms of how they may or may not be affected by free-spending individuals and interest groups. How much different will non-partisan elections or judicial retention elections be if, say, Texans for Lawsuit Reform is free to spend millions of dollars touting the candidates they like and attacking the ones they don’t?

In Harris County in 2008, 19 incumbent judges were defeated in one election, not necessarily based on experience, knowledge, fairness or legal ability, but simply because they were identified with one party. In 2010, the sweep was reversed. Party-based sweeps have affected communities across Texas. This year, 11 of 12 judicial races in San Antonio were won by candidates of a single party. In her Nov. 16 Chronicle column (“Bill aimed at ending judicial campaigning worth a try,” Page B1), Patricia Kilday Hart cites former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips’ estimation that partisan sweeps caused by straight-ticket voting have defeated more than 100 district judges statewide.

I really don’t intend to inflict any further beatings on this particular horse, but I missed Phillips’ comments in Hart’s column the first time around, so let me address it here. I’d like for him to be more specific about who exactly lost elections in that past decade due to straight-ticket voting. As we’ve discussed before, it’s not straight-ticket voting that matters so much as it is the general partisan preference of a given county or the state as a whole. By the way, only two of the judicial candidates on the ballot in 2010 in Harris County were incumbent Democrats – Dion Ramos and Kathy Stone, both of whom had won elections for unexpired terms in 2008. I can only imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth that would have ensued if political conditions in 2010 had been more like 2008 or 2012, or hell even 2006. We may find out in two years if the system hasn’t been radically changed by then.

One change that could reduce the role of politics in judicial selection, which is the subject of legislation filed by Sen. Dan Patrick in the Texas Senate, would be to remove judges from the system of straight-ticket voting. This would require voters to make choices in individual judicial races, rather than simply voting for an entire party roster.

The proposal has potential benefits and drawbacks. It would likely prevent political party sweeps of the bench. Unfortunately, it’s also likely to drive down voter participation in judicial elections. Election data show that nationally, approximately a third of voters neglect to vote in down-ballot races.

At least Hayes and Jamison don’t accept Patrick’s bill as That Which Will Solve All Our Problems, for which I’m grateful. But look, isn’t it obvious that if judicial races are exempted from straight-ticket voting, local parties and other interested bystanders will adjust their behavior and tout or oppose judicial candidates by name? If anything, Sen. Patrick’s bill will encourage more money to be spent on judicial races because it will be harder (read: more expensive) to advocate for or against whoever you want to win or lose. Same thing if judicial races are all made non-partisan. I concede that it’s probable that fewer people will vote in judicial elections under these conditions, and if so then those races are at least somewhat more likely to be decided by voters who are more informed about those races, which I suppose is a step in the direction that Judge Mark Davidson advocates. But again, if the goal is simply to get fewer people to vote in a given election, we should at least be honest about that and not hide behind platitudes and palliatives about partisanship. The logical conclusion here is to do away with judicial elections altogether, and indeed Hayes and Jamison do call for a merit appointment system, though they don’t get into any details about how that might work for the 2000 non-municipal judges statewide or what its pros and cons might be. Maybe the real problem here is that this issue is just too complex to be adequately explored in a 500 word newspaper op-ed.

Early extension for Grier

This was a surprise.

Terry Grier

The Houston school board gave Superintendent Terry Grier a big but not unanimous vote of confidence Thursday, extending his contract through 2016 and awarding him $115,000 in bonuses for the last year.

The board voted 6-2 to approve the surprise two-year extension, and the lone absent trustee said later that she opposes the longer term.

Trustees supporting the extension said the move sends a strong message that Grier has performed well, while opponents lamented that the decision gives the board less leverage to hold him accountable.

[…]

The board’s action comes one month after voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.9 billion bond issue pushed by Grier. HISD also was a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

“His success in continuing to build and retain the world-class team he has created in Houston depends on top-notch people believing the superintendent has the confidence of his board and is here for the long term,” said trustee Harvin Moore.

Grier, who has run the state’s largest district for three years, said he was “pleased, honored and humbled by the board’s vote of confidence.”

“While we’ve made good progress, we have much work to do, and I’m very excited to be part of a school district and city that values consistent, rigorous education for all of its children,” he said.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche said she opposed the extension, particularly because it was only 10 months ago that the board agreed to extend Grier’s contract through 2014.

“We as a board have a tremendous responsibility of holding the superintendent accountable,” she said. “And if we’re consistently and chronically extending his contract, then the board cannot serve that function.”

I agree with Stipeche. I think Grier has generally done a good job, and it was right to extend his contract through 2014, but there was no reason to take this action now. What if we’re not as happy with the next two years? If it is the Board’s job to hold the Superintendent accountable, then the Board needs to wait until it has full information before undertaking a vote like this. They should have waited.

Grier’s bonus structure may be tweaked, too.

Several school board members said Friday, a day after granting Grier more job security, that they plan to discuss revising his new contract to increase the size of the bonuses he can earn. Grier received bonuses totaling $115,000 out of a possible $125,000 for his performance last year.

Houston Independent School District trustees declined to reveal the amounts they are considering but said they first want to revamp the criteria that determine the bonuses.

Grier’s base salary is $300,000, plus $19,200 in stipends for his car and cellphone. Several trustees said they don’t foresee giving Grier a standard raise – teachers received 2 percent this year – but instead will look to increase his bonus potential.

“What I think is appropriate is having a significant portion of his remuneration be based on performance,” said trustee Harvin Moore.

I’m okay with this, as long as the standards for achieving the bonuses make sense and are easy to quantify and understand. Let’s take a little more time with this, and put a little more thought into it, than we did with the contract extension, OK?

The Controller’s travels

This is me shaking my head.

City Controller Ronald Green

Houston controller Ron Green, the city’s top elected financial watchdog, has flown first class and frequented high-end hotels in New York and Chicago at taxpayer expense for more than two dozen publicly funded excursions, booking lodgings that cost as much as $460 per night and often exceeding maximum rates set by city policy, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle show.

In all, Green has billed for more than $35,000 in expenses for out-of-town trips in his first three years as the city’s elected financial watchdog – taking far more city-funded jaunts than Houston’s better-known mayor.

[…]

When asked about the trips, Green’s spokesman Roger Widmeyer said Green did nothing wrong, saying the Chronicle’s questioning of expenses bordered on “insulting.” Widmeyer said Green’s hands-on participation in travel and meetings involving bond deals pays off in savings and costs little.

“As a department director, elected official and CFO, Ronald Green has elected not to be a ceremonial controller. As a result, this office has been the most productive in decades,” said Widmeyer, who emphasized Green’s role in overseeing the city’s $14 billion debt portfolio and its $2.5 billion in investments.

Green minimizes expenses by staying at hotels booked by city financial consultants who sometimes passed on their corporate discounted room rates and organized working lunches and dinners for the controller and other staff, Widmeyer said.

“Most importantly the municipal bond refinancing that has taken place during Controller Green’s tenure in this office amounts to more than $200 million saved over the last nine years without extending the term of the debt. That has been the objective of bond travels,” Widmeyer said.

On frequent bond-related trips to Manhattan and Chicago, Green has been accompanied by an entourage of up to six other employees from various departments. Records show other city staff stayed in the same expensive hotels and sometimes took flights that cost more than $1,000.

In contrast, Harris County officials banned bond pricing trips for employees as unnecessary in 2010. They use teleconferencing technology to monitor the process without leaving Houston.

“We live in a world where you don’t need to go up there,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “There’s no benefit to the county, and if you’re using tax dollars to do it, it’s a waste.”

[…]

Beyond the controller’s expenses, his staff filed another $28,000 in travel bills for a dozen bond-related trips since 2010. Sometimes, they filled out waivers to justify hotel bills that exceeded spending limits in the city’s travel policy, records show. However, some waivers were incomplete or missing from files provided to the Chronicle.

Furthermore, controller staffers said they could not guarantee that the more than 1,200 pages of travel records provided to the newspaper were complete since the office relies on an outdated paper process for filing and reviewing travel expenses instead of tracking them electronically.

Houston’s three previous elected controllers, including Mayor Annise Parker, controller from 2003 to 2009, rarely traveled for bond business.

Through a spokesman, Parker confirmed she did not go along on any bond-pricing trips at all in her last two years as city controller because she had “staff with bond expertise and believed they could handle it.” Even as mayor, Parker has traveled less often than Green – taking 17 trips at city expense from 2010-2012, compared with 27 for Green.

I know Ronald Green well enough to know that he’s a smart, accomplished person who has ambitions to run for Mayor. I’m at a loss to understand why such a smart, ambitious person would have such a blind spot about something like this. If you truly believe that taking these trips is returning value to the taxpayers, then it’s on you to proactively make that case, and to do so before the newsies start sniffing around your expense account. Especially after there’s already been a negative story about you that might lead people to question your judgment. I still don’t have any concerns about Green being challenged for Controller by the likes of Don Sumners, but Green ought to be concerned about being challenged by someone of a higher caliber than that. He’s certainly going to face better opponents in 2015, if he does indeed run for Mayor. I’d try to address those concerns sooner rather than later if I were him.

The Municipal Equality Index

From the inbox:

A new report on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality in America’s cities by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, in partnership with the Equality Federation Institute and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute,  rated 137 cities across the nation, including seven Texas cities.  TheMunicipal Equality Index (MEI), the first ever nationwide rating system of LGBT inclusion in municipal law found many U.S. cities lack sufficient protections for LGBT people, while many cities diligently protect their LGBT workers and citizens.  The average score for cities in Texas is 60 out of 100 points, which is in line with the national average. Arlington scored 16 points, Austin scored 91 points, Dallas scored 76 points, El Paso scored 49 points, Fort Worth scored 89 points, Houston scored 52 points, and San Antonio scored 48 points.

Key findings from the MEI create a snapshot of LGBT equality in 137 municipalities of varying sizes drawn from every state in the nation – these include the 50 state capitals, the 50 most populous cities in the country, and the 25 large, 25 mid-size, and 25 small municipalities with the highest proportion of same-sex couples.

The 100-point cities in the MEI serve as shining examples of LGBT inclusivity, with excellent policies ranging from non-discrimination laws, equal employee benefits, and cutting-edge city services.  As America moves forward in support of LGBT equality, cities across the country are on the forefront of this movement.  Cities in every region of the country are fighting for equality at the most intimate level of government.  At the same time, cities across the country also have room for improvement.  The MEI articulates a path forward and celebrates the success of cities doing this important work.

MEI at a glance:

•    Eleven of the 137 cities surveyed earned a perfect score of 100 points – these cities came from both coasts and in between, were of varying sizes, and not all are in states with favorable laws for LGBT people;
•    A quarter of the cities rated scored over 80 points;
•    45 percent of cites surveyed obtained a score of 60 or higher;
•    Nearly a third of cites scored between 40 and 60 points, showing good intentions on behalf of municipal governments but also opportunity for improvement; and
•    Just under a quarter of the cities scored less than 20 points, including eight cities that scored under ten points and three that scored zero.

The MEI rates cities based on 47 criteria falling under six broad categories:

•    Non-discrimination laws;
•    Relationship recognition;
•    The municipality’s employment practices;
•    Inclusiveness of city services;
•    Law enforcement; and
•    Municipal leadership.

In today’s world, cities must compete for business and brain power.   Research shows that to do this, they must treat their LGBT citizens with dignity and respect. Acclaimed Professor Richard Florida authored the forward for the MEI. Professor Florida is a pioneer in research into how the nurturing of a “creative class” (entrepreneurs, artists and architects, researchers, scientists, engineers, and other professionals) creates prosperous, economically competitive cities.

“Municipal work is especially important in Texas given the less-than-friendly (some would say “hostile”) current composition of the State Legislature,” said Equality Texas Foundation Executive Director Chuck Smith. “However, the environment for progressive policy change affecting LGBT Texans is considerably more positive at the local level with progressive mayors and/or council majorities in many of the state’s largest cities, including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio. It is these local efforts that will provide at least some level of equal protection at the municipal level until we are able to secure full equality statewide. The MEI is a valuable tool that we can use to measure our progress toward full equality in Texas,” Smith said.

“Our nation is on an irreversible path forward in LGBT equality and local and state-level advocacy ensures our voices are heard in public squares across the country” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “This index gives advocates and municipallawmakers a potent tool to improve the lives of LGBT people.”

“Advances at the local level are often unheralded, but they are critical to building the momentum we need for statewide and federal victories,” said Rebecca Isaacs, Executive Director of Equality Federation Institute. “The Municipal EqualityIndex not only recognizes the remarkable progress that state equality groups and local partners have made in cities and towns across the country, but is a powerful tool to help push local governments to do better.”

“The freedom to be ourselves is most important where we live, work and raise our families.  That’s why it’s so crucial that local and municipal governments understand the need to make life better for LGBT people. We work hard to make sure openly LGBT people participate in government as elected and appointed officials, and the MEI will be a great resource for them,” said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute.

The full report, including long form scorecards for every city and a searchable database, is available online at www.hrc.org/mei.

Check it out and see how your city rates. All I can say is that I’d like to see Houston’s score improve. There’s no reason for it to be below average.

Weekend link dump for December 16

Happy birthday, Aunt Judy!

More apps = less television. I don’t think this is what all those people with the “Kill Your TV” bumper stickers had in mind, though.

Less whining about Christmas is a good idea in general.

Ten ways to reduce inequality without raising tax rates. Which does not mean that raising tax rates is not also necessary.

Is this the end of Windows as a brand?

Mike Judge takes on Silicon Valley. I’d watch that.

Vaccines save lives. I’ve always been flummoxed that this somehow became controversial.

Do you want some Texas-themed ornaments for your Christmas tree? Silly question – of course you do.

“I’ve said a lot of contemptuous things about Republicans over the last several years, but their degree of disarray right now exceeds anything I might have anticipated. And to think: if the elections had turned out differently, they might all be focused with amazing unanimity and specificity on enacting the Ryan Budget. Elections do have consequences.”

“Romney’s somehow like the anti-Zelig. He’s seemingly everywhere.”

This is why you need a longer password. Eight (characters) is not enough.

Remember when TV commercials on kid’s shows was the biggest threat to their sensitivities?

John Stewart and Stephen Colbert have a chat. Worth your time to read about it.

Our long national hot yoga nightmare is finally over.

If you’re staying in a hotel over the holiday, you might want to ask the manager if the hotel door lock hack affected them, and if so if they have received and implemented the fix.

Cracking the Roger Williams code. Very, very cool.

Idiots gotta be idiots, I guess.

“Have you ever thought, Montrose Boulevard is pleasant enough, but it would be vastly improved by a giant vuvuzela? Me too. Our long wait is almost over.”

On Ben Affleck, whitewashing, and identity.

RIP, Ravi Shankar.

Put this kid down as the early frontrunner for the 2060 GOP Presidential nomination.

A pink slime lawsuit.

Truly, this is the end of an era.

The “a-hole factor”. Hilarious.

Mitch McConnell unskews himself into a knot.

My man card never expired, thanks.

On school shootings

I have four things to say about this.

In the national collective grief rising from Friday’s mass shooting in Connecticut, one apparent trust seems to have completely shattered: that an elementary school was sacred and safe ground.

Left in the wake of 20 children and eight adults massacred by a lone gunman is a renewed debate over how secure should schools be and at what cost. Closer to home at least one teacher’s union is now calling for more armed guards on Houston school campuses.

Several local school districts acknowledged they focus their full-time security staff on high school and middle school campuses and only send patrols to elementary schools. They said it was too early to say if that strategy would be changed or if there was money to pay for it.

Other officials and experts questioned the expense of providing enough security – the kind that could turn a school into a virtual fortress – to repel a heavily-armed intruder.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union, said she favors placing more armed police officers in schools, even on elementary campuses. It’s a proposition she recognizes would be “very expensive.”

“We really need more security,” she said. “You never know what nutcase is suddenly going to decide that shooting up the local school is a good idea.”

Fallon, however, said she does not support arming teachers with pistols, as a small school district in Harrold, Texas, did in 2008, drawing national attention.

[…]

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer noted HISD has 279 campuses, and only 200 full-time officers who are assigned to high schools, middle schools and secondary school campuses. HISD officers patrol the elementary schools.

“We don’t have enough officers to have one stationed full time at each campus,” Spencer said. “We do the best we can with the resources we have.”

1. What does it say about us as a society that we are talking about the benefits of having armed guards stand over our children? I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not what I want for my kids.

2. For those like Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who do believe that having armed guards in place is the key to preventing this kind of violence, I’d like for you to please explain the Fort Hood shooting to me. (Patterson conveniently omitted that tragedy from the list he gave in support of his argument.) Surely the problem there was not the lack of armed and trained personnel in the vicinity.

3. After cutting $5.4 billion from public education in 2011 and causing the layoff of thousands of teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses, support staff, bus drivers, and God knows who else, we’re going to find the money to hire thousands of armed security guards? Seriously?

4. If we really want to do something constructive, and spend our money in a way that might actually help the problem, then let’s finally get serious about mental health in this country. Right now, it’s far easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to access mental health services, and the latter is much more expensive if you can get it. I hope we can all agree this is a problem.

Actually, I have five things to say: Screw Mike Huckabee. That is all.

Greanias to step down from Metro

Bummer.

George Greanias

George Greanias, appointed to lead the Metropolitan Transit Authority in September 2010 after political squabbling and inefficiencies led to widespread criticism of the bus and train system, is resigning, a Metro spokeswoman confirmed Friday.

Greanias has stated his intent to resign from his position as president and chief executive officer, but a formal letter isn’t expected until Monday, said spokeswoman Margaret O’Brien-Molina.

Metro’s board of directors will discuss Greanias’ departure Thursday. A closed session scheduled at the end of the board’s monthly meeting includes “consideration of the resignation of the president and CEO,” as well as consideration of a transition and consulting agreement with Greanias and appointment of an interim chief executive.

[…]

Greanias took over an agency mired in problems related to the expansion of light rail. Greanias, who had no transit agency experience, was tasked with turning the agency around. His first step, he said in a recent speech to the Greater Houston Partnership, was to change Metro’s internal culture.

“When I got there, the employees were afraid to raise their hands and make decisions,” he said.

Frank Wilson, Greanias’ predecessor, agreed to leave after months of rancor over the validity of the agency’s rail efforts, and after scandals about money mismanagement and alleged document shredding worsened Metro’s image.

[Mayor Annise] Parker campaigned in 2009 on a platform to clean up Metro. She appointed five new members to the nine-member board, and the new board hired Greanias, who had deep ties to the city and once ran for mayor.

Greanias did a great job at Metro, and accomplished pretty much everything he set out to do. He was an excellent hire by the Board, which has also done some fine work in the time they’ve been there. No question that Metro is in a much better position now than it was when Greanias took over as CEO, and whoever is hired to replace him will have some large shoes to fill. Best of luck with whatever comes next, George Greanias.

Two minus five is still less than zero

It’s nice that Speaker Joe Straus wants to restore public education funding, but let’s be clear about what that means.

Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday he’s committed to pumping billions of dollars back into the state’s public schools, even though the Legislature approved historically deep cuts just last year.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the San Antonio Republican said “we will fund enrollment growth going forward,” which he estimated will be a $2 billion item when lawmakers head back to work Jan. 8.

“The good news is we’re dedicated to doing that, committed to doing that,” Straus said.

Texas’ booming population means its current 5 million-plus public school enrollment increases by as much as 80,000 every year. But the 2011 legislative session failed to provide enough new funding to keep up with enrollment, instead passing $5.4 billion in overall cuts to public education and classroom grant programs for things such as pre-kindergarten programs — sparking the state’s first decrease in per-student spending since World War II.

Straus wouldn’t say he will push to find the additional $5.4 billion necessary to roll back all of those funding cuts. He did say, though, that since Texas’ economy has weathered the recession and is strong again, lawmakers have more options.

Covering growth for this two year period and going forward is one thing – in fact, it’s what the Lege always used to do. Putting schools back where they would be if the $5.4 billion in cuts from the 2011 had never occurred is another, and it’s hard for me to see how adding in $2 billion will do that. The Lege changed the way the basic funding formula was calculated. Is Speaker Straus talking about reverting that back to how it was, or coming up with a better formula, perhaps in anticipation of the ruling in the school finance lawsuit, or is he talking about a one-time band-aid? What about the money that was cut from pre-K, is that in scope here or not? I’m just trying to understand whether this is a real attempt to undo something bad, or just a little sleight of hand to make it look like such an attempt. We can’t tell from this story. Perhaps Democrats can get some clarity on this as they discuss whom they might support for Speaker this session.

One more thing:

More than 600 school districts have sued the state for failing to meet Texas constitutional mandate to fund public schools. Most observers expect them to win, but it could be years before the case works its way through the appeals process.

Actually, as I understand it, there’s just one appeal, to the Supreme Court, and it is supposed to be expedited. The expectation is that the Supreme Court will make its ruling in 2014, in time for the 2015 legislative session.

Craft beer is good for Texas

Because it can’t be said too often, am I right? Here’s a brief Q&A with Charles Valhonrat, the executive director of the Texas Craft Brewer’s Guild.

Q: What are your goals for the 2013 legislative session, and how do you plan to get lawmakers on board?

A: There are two primary goals we are driving with respect to legislation. One is legislation that will allow package breweries – breweries that today keg, cask, bottle or can their beer for sales into the distribution tier – to sell a limited amount of beer at their breweries directly to their patrons. This would mean selling beers in a tap room setting for enjoyment while on premises.

Additionally, this change would also allow the brewery to sell their packaged beer to visitors to be enjoyed at home. By taking advantage of the opportunity of having craft beer fans on site, craft brewers would be able to make the most of the marketing opportunity this creates and build greater demand for their product in the traditional three-tier system of distribution.

Another legislative goal is to allow brewpubs to sell their beer into the wholesale tier.

Today, brewpubs can sell their beer on premise, including packaged beer that usually goes out in things like growlers. But, fans of a certain brewpub cannot find that brewpub’s beer at a local liquor or grocery store.

We are advocating statutory changes that would allow brewpubs to package and sell their beer through the three-tier distribution system here in Texas.

We’ve heard this before, and there’s nothing new to add. I repeat it here as a reminder that we’ve been through this before – this is the fourth time that the craft brewers have tried to change Texas’ archaic laws regarding the sale of beer in a way that benefits consumers rather than distributors – and we’re going to have to keep saying this stuff until we finally get what we want. It may not happen this session, it may not happen in the next session, but it will never happen if we stop talking about it and advocating for it.

Saturday video break: Without You

Song #39 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Without You” by Badfinger, and covered by Harry Nilsson. Here’s the original:

Another song I didn’t recognize by the title, but once it started playing I knew what it was. Of course, it’s the cover version I’m familiar with, so here it is.

I suspect that’s the version you’re familiar with, too. I kind of like the original now that I’ve heard it, but Nilsson’s voice just works better for the song. What do you think?

The Big East is imploding

I never really believed that the reconstituted Big East was going to be viable in the long term, but I didn’t see its demise happening in this fashion, nor this quickly.

The Big East is headed for another break up. This time, the seven prominent basketball schools that don’t play FBS football are planning to break away from the ever-changing conference.

The divorce is expected to be complicated, maybe even contentious, with millions of dollars and possibly the future of the league at stake.

The Big East’s non-football members decided Thursday to separate from the conference, a person familiar with the decision told the Associated Press on a condition of anonymity because officials from those schools are still sorting through details. No official announcement is imminent.

The seven schools that don’t play FBS-level football are St. John’s, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova. Officials at those schools have concerns about the direction of the conference and feel as if they have little power to influence it.

[…]

One of the many things that will need to be sorted out is who owns the rights to the name Big East. Will it stay with new members or go with the old? Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall and St John’s were among the original members of the conference when it was formed primarily for basketball in 1979. Villanova came in a year later. Marquette and DePaul came in 2005, the Big East’s last previous major expansion.

Most importantly there are of millions dollars that both sides will likely claim at least some ownership of, including NCAA Tournament money that is paid out every five years based on appearances, about $70 million in exit fees the Big East has collected from the recent departures and future possible exit fees from the latest members to announce they are leaving – Rutgers and Louisville.

What would happen to the current and future football members also is unknown. They could simply stick together and continue on the path they are headed. But if the basketball side of the Big East is weakened it could decrease the value of the conference to television networks. The league is currently trying to negotiate a crucial TV contract, but instability has made it impossible.

See here and here for more on the original story, and keep an eye on places like CBS Sports Eye On College Basketball and ESPN College Sports for late-breaking updates. If the Big East goes kaboom, the big question is what happens to the schools that were planning to join it? To say the least, things are unclear.

Council approves Washington Avenue parking benefit district

We’ll see how this works.

The Houston City Council on Wednesday formed a special parking district along Washington Avenue, intended to ease the woes associated with the bustling corridor’s mix of bars, restaurants and residential streets.

The plan will add parking meters on about 350 spaces along Washington, and will make it easier for residents to require parking permits on sleepy side streets. The district extends one block on either side of Washington between Westcott and Houston Avenue.

After paying for the meters, two parking enforcement officers and a meter mechanic, the new revenues will be split between the district and the city, with the district keeping 60 percent for enhancements. Projects will be chosen by a committee of local business owners and residents and could include security, lighting, sidewalks, shuttles or a parking garage.

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who, with Councilman Ed Gonzalez, represents the area, cheered the approval, saying it will spur turnover for businesses and protect residents. She said data from other cities shows the meters will add patrons, not drive them away.

“People that go out to restaurants and are prepared to spend a significant amount of money want to find a place to park,” Cohen said. “They’re certainly prepared to spend a little bit more to find a place and pay for it.”

See here for the background, and here for more information about what this means. Once the meters are in place, the clock will start on the 18-month pilot period, after which the program can be modified, renewed, or terminated. I think this is a perfectly reasonable response to the problem, certainly a better solution than just giving out residential parking permits, which would only exacerbate the shortage. I look forward to the announcement of the first improvement projects that result from the revenue that this will raise.

TAB yields on testing

Retreat!

Some of the strongest advocates for high-stakes testing, Texas business leaders now want to cut the number of exams students must pass to finish high school, the latest attempt to ease tougher graduation requirements that went into effect last year.

The number of high-stakes tests would fall from 15 to as few as six under the business groups’ plan, and school districts would not have to count the exam scores as part of students’ course grades.

Bill Hammond, who leads the Texas Association of Business, on Wednesday acknowledged that the law mandating the increased testing “quite honestly overdid it a little bit.”

His comments echo concerns that educators and parents have been taking to state lawmakers in recent months. Scores on the first round of tests last spring showed thousands of students were below grade level and were at risk of not graduating.

The business groups’ plan likely will serve as a conversation starter for state lawmakers when they reconvene in January. Education Commissioner Michael Williams, at the urging at Gov. Rick Perry, already has suspended the law requiring exam scores to count in students’ grades.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of debate on all these topics before any decision is reached,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.

The first crack in the wall appeared last week, when Sen. Dan Patrick submitted a bill to give local districts more control over how STAAR results factored into students’ grades, followed by TEA Commissioner Michael Williams suspending the 15% requirement for this year. At the time I noted that we hadn’t heard from TAB about this. Now we know why. Here’s more from the Trib.

Calling their plans a constructive response to widespread criticism of the state’s new student assessments, leaders from the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Institute for Education Reform and the Texas Business Leadership Council recommended letting local school districts determine how end-of-course exams factored into students’ final grades, reducing the number of exams they must pass to graduate and providing different ways to earn a high school diploma.

Despite its high-profile backers, the proposal does not have the full support of the business community. Missing from Wednesday’s conference was the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Senior Vice President Drew Scheberle said the new proposal reduces the already low expectations students must meet to get high school diplomas — something he said would threaten their ability to compete for top-quality jobs.

“It’s trying to solve the wrong problem,” he said. “The problem I’m hearing from parents is too many tests, poor communication, not enough flexibility in courses. You can solve those problems and not sacrifice preparing kids for college and career.”

The leaders present Wednesday acknowledged the announcement represented a change from the position they took at a news conference six months ago, when they emphasized their opposition to any changes to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said then that they would “vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system” until they were certain that the current accountability system would be maintained. During the last legislative session, an attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, to make some of the changes now supported by the three groups failed in the Senate with the opposition of the business community.

But on Wednesday they laid out a plan that Texas Institute for Education Reform Chairman Jim Windham said was the result of a six-month-long “listening tour” across the state where they heard the concerns of educators, business leaders and elected officials.

But not the concerns of parents, apparently. It’s not clear to me if TAB intends to release its hostage – as recently as last month they vowed not to – or if that is contingent on them having final approval over whatever replacement system gets adopted. For now, at least, they have stepped away from the brink.

Friday random ten: Did the Mayans predict the fiscal cliff?

One more week till the end of the world, which one must admit would be a neat solution to the so-called fiscal cliff. Here’s a Friday random ten that combines the two:

1. Close To The Edge – Yes
2. It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) – Great Big Sea
3. Argument – from the soundtrack to “Chess”
4. We Just Disagree – Bob Dylan
5. Going To Hell In A Bucket – Grateful Dead
6. Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down – Lyle Lovett
7. 1999 – Asylum Street Spankers
8. On The Other Shore – Austin Lounge Lizards
9. Money – Pink Floyd
10. How Many Times A Fool – Trout Fishing In America

I must confess to some cheating here. As far as I know, the Spankers never recorded a version of their awesome “1999” cover, but I saw them play it live many times. If the world really is about to come to an end, the least they could do is reunite to play it one last time. Also, I don’t own “Going To Hell In A Bucket”, but I heard it on the radio the other day and it’s what inspired this idea. I figure “How Many Times A Fool” is what both Republicans and Democrats are singing to President Obama about now, though with perspectives on it. I could have also included “How You Carry On” by Marcia Ball, which would be Obama’s response to them both. Assuming we’re not actually doomed, I’ll have another Random Ten next week as usual.