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February 6th, 2013:

A Republican view of 2014 in Harris County

Big Jolly is feeling pessimistic about his team’s chances in Harris County next year.

Now let’s look at who will be on the playing field for us. There will be a lot of statewide action, with unknown Dems – let’s ignore them for now. Sen. John Cornyn is a good conservative senator but at this point, I don’t see anyone rushing out to vote for him. Abbott in the governor slot will draw a few people out but Harris County isn’t his base and remember that the Dem won Harris County in 2010. Who knows with Lt. Gov., but again, I don’t see any excitement.

So drop down to county races. Once again, it will be up to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to carry the load and pull a terrible field with him. Problem is, there is a large faction (let’s call them the SD7 bunch for now) that are begging people to run against him in a primary. And frankly, if they get the right candidate, Ed’s in trouble. As we saw this year when Mike Anderson damaged the party by defeating Pat Lykos, it is difficult to recover from a nasty primary at the top of the ticket. If Ed survives the primary, he’ll be fine in November but not able to carry the field with him. If he doesn’t survive the primary, say hello to County Judge Democrat.

County Clerk Stan Stanart has had problems running the office and the people he’s hired are suspect. I’ve heard rumors that former District Clerk Charles Bacarisse will challenge him in the primary – if so, that would certainly make for a stronger ticket but those are just rumors. Personally, I’d like to see former candidate for State Rep 149 candidate Jack Lee take a crack at it. If Stan is on the ballot again, he’ll go down.

District Clerk Chris Daniel has done a good job and is out in the county every day talking up the office. That hasn’t stopped people talking about challenging him in a primary. The most prominent name I’ve heard is former HCRP Executive Director, now some sort of communications guy for Commissioner Steve Radack, and miracle survivor of a plane crash, Court Koenning. Regardless of the candidate, this office will probably switch to the D’s.

Then, you have a problem with some gosh awful incumbent judges (who will cost some very good incumbent judges their bench). I, and many of us in the party, will not push a “Vote Straight R” message unless these judges are upset via the primary, which is a very difficult thing to do. The Straight R campaign has been the bedrock of the last two campaigns – without it, we’re going to lose a few points and certainly increase the down ballot undervotes. Imagine a Harris County judicial system 75% in the control of Democrats because that is what it will look like after 2014.

Combine all this and BAM!, Harris County Republicans have got a real problem. Just a little straight talk for your weekend.

As I see it, the Republicans have three advantages going into 2014, and three disadvantages. On the plus side:

1. All those non-habitual off-year voters who came out for them in 2010 must now be considered to be likely voters. Voting is a habit, and all those people now have a track record of voting in non-Presidential years. Even with some amount of dropoff, that’s huge. They can all be identified and targeted by Republican campaigns, which will make GOTV efforts that much easier and more accurate. As I said before, we can’t know for sure how many people were responding to a unique political environment, but the simple fact is that the political universe expanded, and that’s going to have an effect going forward. Any discussion of 2014 needs to take this into account.

2. Ed Emmett has the best political brand in the county. He’s established a reputation for being a low-drama get-things-done type who works well with others, and he still has the luster of his performance during Hurricane Ike. Only Sheriff Garcia is in his class for attracting crossover support. As I said in my early look at 2014, I’d consider him a favorite in any scenario outside of a 2010-style wave for the Democrats. If I were a Republican running for county office in 2014, I’d grab onto Judge Emmett with both hands.

3. It remains the case that Republicans start out with a turnout advantage in off years. 2010 was the extreme edge of this, but even under normal conditions they have the edge in likely voters. That won’t last forever – one can argue that it already won’t be the case in Harris County in 2014 – but until demonstrated otherwise, this is how it is.

So they have those things going for them, which is nice. On the down side:

1. Demography, demography, demography. The GOP is the party of white people, and white people are shrinking as a share of population in Harris County. Remember, Democrats had decent turnout in 2010, and despite a perceived advantage in enthusiasm last year, Republicans still lost most of the judicial races and had a countywide incumbent get knocked off. If the HCDP has a decent turnout plan, and if there’s anything to all that talk about a national investment in Texas Democrats, the Harris County GOP could well be in deep trouble.

2. Infighting and personality conflicts are always a problem, but I think the Republicans have bigger issues here than the Democrats do. This is partly because they’d been in control for so long – if your opponent can’t put up a decent fight, you’ll eventually start fighting among yourselves – and partly because of the same forces that have riven the Republican Party around the country. Big Jolly is more in tune with that than I am, so I’ll just say that primarying Emmett would be nuts. Jolly is right – if the GOP wants to hand that office over, go right ahead and take Emmett out next March.

3. Fears of contested primaries, even acrimonious ones, holding down turnout in November are generally overrated. Elaine Palmer won a nasty, divisive primary against Judge Steve Kirkland last year, but that didn’t stop her from winning in November. That said, Republicans tend to have higher rates of undervoting in downballot elections – 2010 was the exception to this – so they are more vulnerable to these issues. With the exception of the two HCDE At Large offices that are on the ballot plus Judge Jim Sharp, the Republicans are playing defense up and down the ballot, and that’s harder to do. It’s hard to know what the national mood will be like in another eighteen months, but a repeat of 2010 sure seems unlikely. Anger is a strong motivator, but it burns out after awhile. Again, I think Jolly puts his finger on the issue – what exactly will motivate Republicans to go to the polls next year? The scenario to ponder is not 2010 but 2006, when GOP turnout lagged statewide. That could have some interesting implications, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Point is, I can think of lots of things that may wind up driving Dems to the polls next year. That’s something for the GOP here to be concerned about.

Ready or not, here comes Chapter 42

Changes are coming to Chapter 42, the section of Houston’s ordinances that deal with density and development, and to Chapter 26, the section on off-street parking for bars and restaurants and what have you.

The revisions would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door, and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

Bar and restaurant owners would be most impacted by the new rules. Some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with bars going from 10 to 14.

“We’re trying to redevelop our city, we’re trying to bring renewal and think over the next 10, 15, 20 years. Part of that is to build more walkability into our city,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez. “I don’t want the parking requirements to be onerous for a small mom and pop shop. The focus should be on building more businesses in those communities, not building more parking lots just to meet, maybe, an arbitrary number that we’re coming up with.”

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that works on quality of life issues, has quibbles with both proposed rewrites, but said his key concern is broader.

“We’re not having the right conversation,” he said. “Rather than do all these Band-Aids – and there’s so many of them going on and they often actually disagree with each other, they’re in conflict – why don’t we just do a general plan for the future in which you say, ‘This is how we want to develop and these are the goals we want to have, and so we’ll build transportation and so forth to meet those goals.'”

[…]

“If council fails to adopt these amendments, many areas between 610 and the Beltway will remain underdeveloped, blighted and abandoned, while development will rapidly continue inside the Loop and outside the city limits,” said builder Ed Taravella.

Some residents are wary, however, saying the push for density inside the Loop has hurt neighborhood aesthetics and created infrastructure problems, compounded by a lack of city enforcement. That would only worsen if development density extends citywide, they say.

The evidence from the 1999 changes to the ordinance is clear, said Jane West, president of Super Neighborhood 22 in the Washington Avenue area.

“Although it was hoped that this redevelopment would create transit-served pedestrian-friendly environment, in most cases that has not happened. And in many cases, problems such as flooding, inadequate drainage, traffic congestion, and lack of sufficient on-street parking have worsened,” she said. “There’s no reason to believe the expansion of Chapter 42 urban standards beyond Loop 610 will yield a different result.”

What I said about this the last time still holds true. There is a need to unify the development code and treat outside the Loop in the same fashion as inside the Loop, but the issues Jane West addresses are real. Ideally, what I want to see out of this is the encouraging of development in parts of town that really need redevelopment, greater emphasis on walkability, more investment in transit, and a sense of urgency about making life closer in more attractive and affordable. A lot to ask, I know, but we only do this every couple of decades, so let’s try to get it right.

Some of the concerns about revising Chapter 42 and the effect it would have on inner Loop neighborhoods can be addressed via increased enforcement, as Mayor Parker noted in the story. I would hope that this acknowledged need for increased enforcement can be addressed in the next budget, since I’m sure there aren’t enough inspectors and whoever else is needed to handle the current caseload, let alone the caseload that would result from the hoped-for boom in construction that updating Chapter 42 would bring. I feel this is even more true for Chapter 26, the off-street parking ordinances.

Heugel’s Anvil bar is just south of the Cherryhurst neighborhood, where June Spencer is civic club president. Heugel has been a good neighbor, she said, but other area bars and clubs and the popular Hugo’s restaurant, despite its on-site parking lot, have created parking problems.

“I have them parking all along the side of my house, the front of my house. They’re loud at night, they don’t even try to be considerate. They throw garbage,” Spencer said. “They shouldn’t give these people permits to open businesses unless they have the appropriate parking.”

While I have some sympathy for folks like Ms. Spencer, let’s be real here: We don’t own the street space in front of our homes. People are allowed to park there. This is a totally normal thing in most cities. Requiring more off-street parking, especially in inner neighborhoods, will result in more parking lots and fewer new establishments being opened. Neither of these are good things. People parking on the street and then walking to a nearby restaurant or bar are not a problem. People creating disturbances and littering are problems. That can and should be dealt with in a way that doesn’t necessitate restricting parking to a special, permitted few. Let’s please aim for that. While we’re at it, let’s also encourage alternatives to more car parking such as more bike parking. We just approved $100 million plus for expanded bike trails, let’s act like we plan to use them.

Finally, as I noted yesterday, you can give feedback on these and other proposed ordinance here. This affects all of us, so if you have something to say, please make sure you say it.

TMA sort of endorses Medicaid expansion

Hard to say what this means.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Trustees of the Texas Medical Association passed a resolution urging state leaders to snare all federal Medicaid matching dollars that are on the table.

The group hinged its support, though, on simultaneous actions by state officials to make doctors’ participation in Medicaid more palatable and federal dispensations of flexibility “to change the program as our needs and circumstances change.”

The association, which held its winter meeting in Austin, didn’t specify what kind of discretion Texas ought to seek. The group’s endorsement of state acceptance of a huge windfall of federal Medicaid dollars comes months after another major provider group, the Texas Hospital Association, came out unconditionally in support.

[…]

Texas has one of the least generous Medicaid programs in the country. Because of the state’s high poverty rate, though, Texas Medicaid looms larger in the state’s overall health care system than its counterparts in some states. State GOP leaders frequently complain about its cost.

Doctors complain, not just of low reimbursement, but about what they see as hassles and scary threats made against them by overzealous fraud investigators who work for the commission’s inspector general. In the Saturday session on Medicaid, several doctors complained about what they see as a lack of due process and a rush to paint doctors as greedy.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who is the Legislature’s most vocal proponent of the Medicaid expansion, downplayed the importance of the Texas Medical Association’s resolution.

He said the group is dominated by specialists, many of whom don’t see Medicaid patients.

“This is about money,” Coleman said, referring to Texas’ low Medicaid reimbursement rates. “It isn’t about anything else.”

I couldn’t find the TMA’s statement on this, if they have one, and their 2013 legislative agenda wasn’t much help. Mostly the impression I get is that they don’t want to rock the boat with the state leadership, but there were enough cranky do-gooders in their ranks that they had to throw them a bone. Rep. Garnet Coleman put out a statement regarding the TMA’s announcement that I think addresses the issue perfectly:

As someone who has advocated for Medicaid expansion from the very beginning, I applaud TMA’s statement that we need to find a way to implement the expansion here in Texas. It’s a great start, and I agree with their position that denying care to over 1 million disabled and low-income Texans is ‘unconscionable.’

However, the devil is in the details. TMA’s proposal that Texas should have more ‘flexibility’ in the Medicaid program is worrisome because of its vagueness. ‘Flexibility’ has long been a code word used by those who only want the ‘flexibility’ to reduce Medicaid services, beneficiaries, or both. Further, it’s unclear whether TMA wants more flexibility in the entire Medicaid program or just the expanded portion. Finally, the federal government already allows for Medicaid flexibility through the 1115 Waiver process, most recently seen in the 1115 Transformation Waiver that allows Texas health providers to continue to receive federal UPL funds after the switch from fee-for-service to managed care.

TMA correctly points out that the low reimbursement rate of Medicaid in Texas has resulted in only 30% of Texas physicians accepting new Medicaid patients, but I want to remind everyone that Medicaid reimbursement rates are set by the Texas State Legislature and the Governor through the appropriations process, not by Washington. We could simply pass a budget that raises them. I’d vote for it. Also, physicians are not the only providers who see Medicaid patients. Advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, and entities such as Federally Qualified Health Centers, county hospital districts, and Accountable Care Organizations will all help fill the gap. Our primary goal should be to ensure that all Texas have access to care, and this is something we can do.

Finally, Texas, not Washington, will decide whether or not we expand Medicaid in this state. Governors across the country of each party are realizing that expanding Medicaid is important and the best policy for their populations; we need to do the same. The bipartisan solution that TMA calls for is already on the table. We just need to take it.

As with the case of the business lobby and immigration reform, if the TMA wants something different from the Legislature they really ought to consider supporting different candidates for the Legislature. Supporting the same people but hoping for different results, we all know what the diagnosis is for that. The Trib has more.

Brenda’s back

But will Helena Brown be in trouble?

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig will launch her campaign Saturday to retake the District A Houston City Council seat that she lost two years ago to Helena Brown. The announcement came Sunday in the form of an invitation to a family “campaign kickoff” barbecue from 4-7 p.m. at the American Legion Hall, 3105 Campbell Road.

Stardig, a Realtor who headed her civic club for nearly a decade, then her Super Neighborhood Council, served one term before being knocked out by the Tea Party-backed Brown in 2011.

Brown’s tenure on council has been controversial, and it’s unlikely Stardig will have a clear shot against the incumbent. Amy Peck, district director for State Sen. Dan Patrick, has also indicated an interest in the seat, which represents the Memorial area to the northwest, including a narrow slice of Leader neighborhoods west of T.C. Jester Park.

Start stocking up on popcorn now, y’all. I know it seems unlikely to those of us on Planet Earth that Helena Brown could be re-elected, but in a low-turnout scenario it’s the people who care enough to bother showing up that matter. The people who cared the most last time were the ones who wanted to vote Stardig out. Can she turn that around? If not, can Amy Peck or someone else harness whatever it is that motivates Brown’s detractors? By all rights, Brown should be one and done, but there really isn’t a precedent for this kind of race in Houston. I don’t know what to expect out of this one.