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January 21st, 2013:

More on Hall’s announcement

Here’s the full Chron story from the weekend about Ben Hall’s announcement that yes, he really is running for Mayor this year.

Ben Hall

“Hall is a formidable challenger but is a long shot to unseat the mayor,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said in an email.

Rottinghaus noted Hall’s funding capability, his vision and his qualifications but suggested that “with Parker’s nationalizing profile and perceptions of her doing a good job, it is a more uphill fight.”

Rottinghaus added that Parker’s most formidable challenge may not be Hall, per se, but a crowded primary field that could squeeze her out of a runoff.

“In a runoff, a well-funded candidate like Hall that can put the right coalition together could have a chance,” he said. “This may be the model – almost successful for Gene Locke – that Hall is looking to create.”

Jared Woodfill, Harris County Republican Party chairman, said he could see a squeeze play of sorts developing, with challenges coming from Hall and, potentially, at least two Republicans.

“Annise Parker could be the odd person out,” Woodfill said. “She doesn’t have the constituencies that the other three would have, plus I don’t think she has lived up to her campaign promises. She promised to stay out of party politics, but she was an outspoken supporter of Obama.”

Woodfill and others recall just such a scenario in 1990 when mayoral candidates Lanier and state Rep. Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, squeezed out five-term incumbent Kathy Whitmire, who finished a distant third.

Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said he and Woodfill discussed the possibility of him running for mayor but said his interest was predicated on the possibility that Parker may leave office early to take a position in the Obama administration, thus necessitating a special election.

“In a special election, I could see what the party chairman is pitching, because that’s a low-turnout scenario that would be favorable to Republicans,” he said.

Bettencourt also suggested that Hall’s candidacy was based, at least initially, on the possibility that the mayor would leave office early.

“The glacier’s moving,” he said. “The question is, where is it going to stop?”

I have no idea what that glacier is supposed to signify. The flow of candidates moving towards running? The flow of Mayor Parker moving towards a job in the Obama administration that’s she has already denied and which never made any sense anyway? I generally agree with the basic thesis that a special election will have lower turnout, but a special Mayoral election ought to have enough attention and money in it to be a fairly reasonable facsimile of a normal election.

Not that it really matters, because we’re not going to find out. I’ve already said what there is to say about the squeeze-play hypothesis, but I suspect I’ll have to say it again (and again) between now and November, so here are the bullet points: Kathy Whitmire was a six-term Mayor coming off a bruising political defeat at the hands of her eventual opponent (and election winner) Bob Lanier. She wasn’t squeezed in that race, she was crushed, barely topping 20% of the vote. Lanier isn’t so much a Republican as a creature of the downtown establishment, and he’s certainly not a Republican in the way we think of them today. Sylvester Turner was a young up-and-comer, which Ben Hall is not. Besides all that, sure, there’s plenty of parallels if a serious Republican gets into the race. Knock yourselves out finding them. I just don’t think they’ll matter all that much in the end.

Looks like we’ll be waiting on SCOTUS for awhile

Texas Redistricting:

The Texas redistricting appeal wasn’t on the list of cases reviewed by the Justices at their screening conference today.

With the passage of time – and the case not even being listed for review – the calendar now makes it highly unlikely that the court could take up the case even if it later decides to grant full review.  The four cases which the court did grant today are expected to be argued in April at the court’s last scheduled oral arguments.  So taking the Texas case and hearing it this year would require an unusual special setting – and there has been no indication that the court sees that kind of urgency in the case.

Instead, many observers have speculated that the high court has deferred deciding what to do with the Texas case until it decides in Shelby Co. v. Holder whether section 5 of the Voting Rights Act remains constitutional.

Of course, it is possible that the court later could summarily affirm the opinion below or dismiss the appeal as requested by the Justice Department and redistricting litigants (which would not require argument), but it looks increasingly likely that any action on the Texas redistricting appeal could be an issue for the 2013-14 term and not this one.

If so, the question then becomes whether the San Antonio panel takes any action to begin drawing remedial maps as well as address other legal challenges – or whether the San Antonio panel also decides to wait for Shelby Co.  To date, the court has not taken any action since receiving scheduling proposals from the parties in early December.

While waiting arguably makes sense, the challenge could become having to quickly draw remedial maps if section 5 is upheld – since a decision in the Shelby Co. case very likely might not come until late June.  Any changes to the maps would require redrawing precinct lines and a number of other technical steps, and the countdown to the filing date for the Texas primary starts in September.

While early dates could be tweaked, the court will have to balance not taking unnecessary steps against the possibility that the Texas primary election schedule could be messed up again.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this. It makes sense to wait, but it sure does ratchet up the stakes. I presume that there may need to be remedial maps even if SCOTUS makes changes to or throws out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, because the San Antonio lawsuit wasn’t about preclearance. There may not be all that much to do because as I recall the interim maps used for the 2012 elections made changes to most if not all of the districts that had been challenged and for which the DC court ruled against Texas. But I’m not a lawyer, so don’t take my word for it. We’ll know more after SCOTUS does its business.

Here come the tax cut proposals

When the sunny revenue forecast came in, we immediately got one crappy tax cut idea, to eliminate the margins tax at a cost of $4.5 billion. The Texas Association of Business didn’t care for the idea, at least at first, but are now warming up to it, because this is what they do.

For Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, it’s a simple formula: Keep taxes low and the Texas economic engine keeps on chugging. Hammond says making permanent the business tax exemption for companies that bring in less than $1 million in gross receipts would fuel the economy, as would allowing those making more than that to exempt their first $1 million.

“Currently if you do $900,000 in receipts, you pay no tax,” Hammond said. “If you have $1.1 million in receipts you pay tax on the entire amount.”

With a million-dollar exemption, the latter company would pay taxes on just $100,000.

Hammond also wants to lower the franchise tax rate by a quarter of a percent. And lest consumers feel left out, the proposal includes a sales tax exemption for college textbooks.

[…]

Hammond’s proposals would cost the state more than $4 billion, money he says should be off limits to lawmakers, because spending it would put the state over a constitutional cap on state budget growth.

“Unless there’s a vote of two-thirds of both bodies to bust the constitutional cap, that money will either be sitting in the treasury forever maybe, or, as we believe, it should be returned to the taxpayers,” he said.

But Hammond’s numbers don’t exactly add up. The $4 billion would be off limits based on the current size of the 2012-13 budget. But lawmakers are expected to add about $7 billion to that budget in a supplemental appropriation early this spring. That would increase the cap for the new budget and erase that $4 billion overage.

Hammond calls his proposal a starting point and expects more tax cut ideas in coming weeks.

Well, the margins tax was born on fuzzy math, so it would be somehow poetic if its demise began with more fuzzy math. The Statesman has more:

Hammond said the rate cut proposed by TAB could be the the first step in phasing out the franchise tax.

Until the latest revenue forecasts, Hammond had said he doubted the state would have the revenue to phase out a franchise tax that has accounted for about 10 percent of all state tax revenue. But he said Texas Comptroller Susan Combs’ forecast for the next two years changed his mind.

“We needed to see how much money was available,” Hammond said. “There’s money to fund some or all of it.”

Dick Lavine with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income families, disagrees.

Lavine said state funding for education is $500 per student less than before the 2011 cuts. He also noted Texas’ needs for water and transportation infrastructure.

Although the Legislature is expected to be even more conservative this year than in 2011, Lavine said he’s begun talking to GOP lawmakers and they aren’t in lock step for tax cuts.

“Not all of them are enthusiastic about tax cuts because they realize the state has higher priorities,” Lavine said.

Priorities, remember those? You know, like water and transportation and Medicaid and weaning the budget off of accounting tricks and paying off all those bills the Lege deferred from 2011. Those things. Oh, yeah, and public education, which the Lege won’t address this session beyond maybe funding enrollment growth but which Lt. Gov. Dewhurst wants to set some money aside in anticipation of a court ruling that more must be spent. This is why if you think in terms of what Texas actually needs, we’re falling well short of what we should be spending. Even without that, it’s hard to see where the room for a multi-billion dollar extravagance like this comes from. You can pay for the things Texas needs, or you can throw a bunch of money down the tax cut drain. You can’t do both.

And as a reminder, it’s not just the big ticket items that are clamoring for their fair share of the pie, it’s the smaller line items, too.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would close seven state parks during the 2014-2015 biennium under preliminary budget proposals from the House and Senate, and at least one group is ready to fight to keep them open.

In discussions before the legislative session began, the parks and wildlife department requested that the Legislative Budget Board allocate an additional $18.9 million from the sporting goods sales tax to keep all parks operational. The preliminary House and Senate budgets, released Tuesday, call for only an additional $6.9 million over the next biennium from that tax.

Ian Davis, the directof of Keep Texas Parks Open, said parks improve Texans’ quality of life and stimulate local economies, especially in smaller counties. His organization will hold town hall meetings around the state and organize Texans online to advocate for additional funds so the department can keep all its parks open.

“We are trying to mobilize people across the state so they understand that it could be their park that closes,” Davis said.

Here’s their Facebook page if the idea of not spending less than 0.1% of the revenue we have to keep Texas’ parks open offends you. We have a choice to make. We really ought to try to make a good one.

Yale Street Bridge work set to begin

Good to hear.

Work to rehabilitate the Yale Street Bridge south of Interstate 10 is scheduled to begin in April.

According to the Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering, the process will involve installation of external carbon-strip reinforcement along the bridge beams, significantly increasing the load-bearing weight of the structure, which now is set at 3,000 pounds per axle. Bids are expected to be received in February, with contracts awarded in March and rehab work beginning in April.

The bridge is on a Texas Department of Transportation prioritized list for statewide funding for replacement, with construction anticipated to start in late 2016.

The bridge’s capacity was downgraded by TxDOT from 8,000 pounds per axle last September.

Until the work is completed, monthly inspections of the bridge are slated to continue. Most cars, SUVs and light trucks do not exceed the restrictions, but some do. You can check the weight limit of your vehicle on the sticker attached on the driver’s side door.

The Houston Police Department continues enforcement efforts, as anyone who drives that regularly can attest. Also, the city is remotely monitoring bridge traffic to identify possible overweight vehicle violations. Perhaps the biggest reduction of traffic to the bridge is that with the completion of Koehler between Heights Boulevard and Yale, there is now an easy alternative route via the Heights Boulevard Bridge for northbound and southbound truck traffic. The Heights Boulevard Bridge does not have load limits. For more about the bridge and the rehab project, contact Alvin Wright at 832-395-2455 or alvin.wright@houstontx.gov.

See here, here, and here for some background. With the Alexan Heights project on the drawing board there’s even more reason to get this going. Hopefully this will make the situation a little better until full-on reconstruction can begin.