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April, 2013:

Look out, Lamar

There’s big money coming after you.

The anti-incumbent super-PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability is coming back for 2014 after shutting down last election cycle — and it’s already making a wish list of targets, including Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas). 

The organization, which targets long-serving House incumbents in safe districts, spent $3 million to defeat a number of lawmakers in 2012 before running out of money last July.

A group spokesman tells The Hill the organization’s efforts will be “much more robust” this time around and says plans for new House targets are in the works.

The group has its eye on five incumbents: Rangel, Smith and Reps. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

Rangel, Bachus and Bonner were targets in the last election cycle and faced tough races; Schiff and Smith are new.


[Spokesman Curtis] Ellis said his organization’s research shows Smith’s constituents in Texas are less than thrilled with him, partly because of his failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Smith could face a tough challenge from a libertarian-leaning Republican named Matt McCaul.

“There’s a sense Smith is not universally loved, respected or regarded. He was the author of SOPA, and that worked out really well, didn’t it?” Ellis said. “He was one of the authors, leadership got behind it, the establishment told everyone ‘there’s nothing to see here, just vote for it’ and that blew up in everyone’s face.”

Ellis added: “We’ve heard through our channels that McCaul is viable and serious, he has the potential to run a real race.”

I’m pretty sure they mean Matt McCall, who does appear to be interested in running. Burka speculated briefly about Joe Straus challenging Smith, but quickly shot it down for the obvious reason that Straus would have no good reason to give up what he has now for a Congressional campaign that would be at best a coin toss.

Lamar Smith is awful for a lot of reasons – he’s a longstanding xenophobe and anti-immigration activist; if comprehensive immigration reform dies in the House, you can be sure Lamar Smith’s fingerprints will be on the corpse – but as I said when the CPA targeted Joe Barton and Ralph Hall last year, I have little reason to believe Matt McCall would be any better. By all means, primary him good and hard – it’ll be entertaining to watch him squirm – but win or lose I hardly see it as an improvement on the status quo in CD21.

Questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Lisa Falkenberg reports that some people have raised questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ.

Reforestation is sorely needed in a park devastated by hurricane damage and drought. This is a great deal, city leaders and supporters say, a great way to restore our crown jewel to its former beauty. And we should all trust the Memorial Park Conservancy – a private body whose members aren’t elected and which acts as both fundraiser and watchdog for the park – to make it happen.

But some meddlesome environmentalists aren’t so trusting. This week, they walked into City Hall and demanded the public have a say, a real say, in the deal. They asked for details beyond a press release. They asked for more than a couple of weeks to sort it out and read the small print.

When they were assured by Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members that the city would have to sign off on any decisions, the environmentalists continued to argue that the public should be involved from the get-go. Not after the fact. Not left holding a rubber stamp.

After all, it’s a public park, a very special one with a rare wildness that offers a unique escape in a city as large as Houston. It belongs to all of us, they say. It is not for sale.


There are details in a “Letter of Intent” on the project that didn’t make it into the press release. The letter outlining details of the plan states that the Conservancy would be responsible for major decisions including design, bidding, and managing construction projects in the master plan. The city would later have to approve those decisions, but it’s unclear if that leaves enough time for a thorough public vetting.

A troubling section of the letter called “Coordination of Public Relations” points out that the conservancy isn’t subject to public information requests. And the agreement would require all parties – even the public ones that are subject to information requests – to coordinate through private parties before disclosing any information to the public.

When I asked Joe Turner, Houston’s parks director, about that provision, he said it had been awhile since he’d read the letter. He said he’d read it and get back with me if he had anything to add. He didn’t call back.

“The public is a missing piece of this organization. It’s political appointees, private nonprofits and a TIRZ. Where’s the public?” Evelyn Merz, with the Sierra Club, told me. Merz said she’s “appalled” by the plan, but not because she doubts the motives of conservancy members.

“I know they care about the park. That’s not the issue. Are they the same as the public? I would say they aren’t,” she told me.

My first thought upon reading this was to wonder what kind of public input on the management of Memorial Park exists now. If the TIRZ were to go away, I presume the Conservancy would still be responsible for major decisions concerning the park and any attempt to reforest it via grants and private donations, just as it has always been. If the public has been involved in that in any substantive way, I couldn’t tell you what it is.

The difference here is the addition of public funds via the TIRZ. Public money requires public accountability, so it is perfectly reasonable to demand that. Unfortunately, just as there’s no mention of what public involvement currently exists for Memorial Park governance, there is no mention of what type of new or further involvement would make the Mayor’s proposal acceptable. Falkenberg notes that Council would have to approve any decisions made by the Conservancy, but what is being asked for is involvement in the process, before the signoff. I think that’s a fine idea, I’d just like to know what that involvement might look like.

I sent an email to Ms. Merz to ask her what she would like to see done to involve the public more directly, but I didn’t get a response. It’s not unreasonable to me for the Mayor to suggest that Council signoff on any proposal gives the public a voice in the process, but it’s also not unreasonable for Ms. Merz to suggest that the public should have its say earlier in the process, while the ideas are still being debated and proposed. I suppose the ordinance that creates the TIRZ could put some requirements on how the Conservancy operates – open meetings, outreach via social and traditional media for feedback, etc. Again, it’s not clear to me what the specific concerns are. I wish Falkenberg had considered that question. Maybe she felt she didn’t have the space for it in her column, but she does have a Facebook page for her column as well as a long-dormant blog, so she did have avenues to explore it that wouldn’t have cost her space in the news hole. Maybe she’ll write a followup, I don’t know. Campos has more.

UPDATE: Here’s an FAQ about the TIRZ proposal that Campos forwarded to me. Note the following:

How will transparency in the development of the Master Plan be ensured?

The process for creating the Memorial Park Master Plan will follow the same pattern that the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan was developed under. Public meetings will be held during the draft stages; drafts will be circulated for public comment and prior to any finalization of the Master Plan by the consultants selected a public meeting will be held. After that the Master Plan will be brought to the City’s Quality of Life Committee for review and then to City Council for final consideration.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. What do you think, Lisa?

Abbott opines against domestic partnership benefits

This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

On the right side of history

The state Constitution prohibits government entities from recognizing domestic partnerships and offering insurance benefits to those couples, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in an opinion on Monday.

In the nonbinding opinion, Abbott determined that local jurisdictions that offer such benefits “have created and recognized something” — domestic partnerships — “not established by Texas law.”

“A court is likely to conclude that the domestic partnership legal status about which you inquire is ‘similar to marriage’ and therefore barred” by the state Constitution, he wrote.

The opinion was a response to a question asked by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who had raised concerns about the Pflugerville school district, as well as the cities of El Paso, Austin and Fort Worth, extending such benefits to domestic partners.

“The voters of the state of Texas decided overwhelmingly that marriage is between one man and one woman in 2005,” Patrick said in a statement responding to Abbott’s opinion. “This opinion clearly outlines that cities, counties and school districts cannot subvert the will of Texans.”

You can read the opinion here. I called this back in November when Patrick asked for the opinion, not that this is anything to be proud of. A few thoughts:

– Remember back in 2005 when those of us who opposed that awful anti-gay marriage amendment pointed out that it would do a lot more than merely make gay marriage extra super illegal (since it was already illegal in Texas)? This is the sort of thing we were talking about. Legislative Democrats that still haven’t gotten on board the marriage equality bus, this is especially on you.

– Note that since the language of Abbott’s opinion is all about how the amendment banned anything “similar to marriage” and how that encompasses the term “domestic partner”, this isn’t strictly about LGBT folks. If you’re shacking up with your opposite sex partner but have chosen not to tie the knot, you’re SOL if you work for a non-federal government entity in Texas.

– Of course, if you are one half of a straight unmarried couple, you can always tie the knot to get your hands on health insurance. Gay people can get married now, too, but the state of Texas does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this would be the seed of that law’s downfall in the event that SCOTUS throws out DOMA. If we’re lucky, this will turn out to be a massive and petty waste of time.

– If you read the opinion, Abbott tries to play a little jiujitsu by claiming that the intent of the law was not to bar cities from offering same sex partners insurance benefits, just from recognizing the status of a marriage-like thing such as a domestic partnership:

Representative Chisum’s statement simply explains that article I, section 32 does not, in his view, address whether a political subdivision may provide health benefits to the unmarried partner of an employee. The constitutional provision does, however, explicitly prohibit a political subdivision from creating or recognizing a legal status identical or similar to marriage. The political subdivisions you ask about have not simply provided health benefits to the partners of their employees. Instead, they have elected to create a domestic partnership status that is similar to marriage. Further, they have recognized that status by making it the sole basis on which health benefits may be conferred on the domestic partners of employees.

For extra credit, please detail a scenario in which an insurance company would offer a benefit for the unmarried partner of an employee that didn’t require some kind of legal affirmation of a relationship between the applicant and the employee that would also be constitutionally acceptable to Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and other deep thinkers such as Drew Springer.

– This absolutely, positively has to be a campaign issue in 2014. I can’t emphasize this enough. People may remain largely opposed to gay marriage in Texas, but by a two to one margin they approve of either gay marriage or civil unions. I’m willing to bet a decent majority will not like this opinion. More to the point, this is an issue that Democrats can rally around, since it illustrates in unmistakeable terms a key difference between the two parties. Even better, this can be hung around Abbott’s neck. Sure, he’s only taking his best guess at how a court would decide the issue, but it’s also unambiguously the same as his own position. Let him explain why it’s technically inaccurate to say that Greg Abbott outlawed domestic partnership benefits in Texas. This goes for Drew Springer and all of his coauthors, too. This is a big deal. We need to treat it like one.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but let’s keep our eyes open for the reactions to this. Trail Blazers, Hair Balls, and BOR have more.

UPDATE: Equality Texas goes glass-half-full on the opinion:

It means cities, counties, and school districts seeking to remain competitive with private business can offer employee benefit programs that provide health and other benefits to unmarried household members if the eligibility criteria are properly structured.

However, eligibility should not use the term “domestic partner”, or be based upon proving the existence of a “domestic partnership”, or use criteria usually associated with marriage (like current marital status, or related by a certain degree of consanguinity).

It means political subdivisions can offer employee benefit programs to unmarried household members if their eligibility criteria don’t look like marriage, or create something that resembles marriage.

I appreciate their optimism, and I hope they’re right. But I still think that the challenge of fashioning such a thing will be too daunting. I’ll be glad to be proven wrong.

UPDATE: The cities of Austin and San Antonio are not quite ready to accept Abbott’s opinion.

UH goes smoke-free

Good for them.

The University of Houston, which educates more than 40,000 students each year on its 667-acre campus, will become tobacco-free June 1, school officials announced Thursday.

The new policy, approved by UH Chancellor Renu Khator, bans the use of tobacco products in all university buildings and grounds, including parking areas, sidewalks and walkways. It will apply to all employees, students, contractors and visitors to the campus.

“We are very well aware that this will be an inconvenience to the UH community of smokers,” said Kathryn Peek, assistant vice president of university health initiatives and co-chair of the school’s tobacco task force. “But nobody has to quit smoking. What we’re trying to do is eliminate second-hand smoke on the campus.”

For smokers, UH will provide 20 designated open areas for tobacco use mostly situated away from buildings and walkways. People will be able to smoke there, but after a year the task force will decide if it will allow those exemptions to continue.


UH is a recipient of more than $9.4 million in funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, which began requiring its recipients in 2012 to have tobacco-free policies in and around all locations where research is conducted.

The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University banned tobacco on their campuses in 2012. Texas A&M is awaiting approval of the president to establish a tobacco-free campus. All are CPRIT grant recipients.

“CPRIT accelerated the university’s tobacco-free campus policy, but that isn’t the sole reason,” Peek said. “This was a student-led movement from the beginning.”

Good to know CPRIT has been good for something. More seriously, I’m somewhat amazed that UH didn’t already ban smoking in these places. Most public places have been smoke-free for so long that I suppose I just took that for granted. This has been in the works at UH since June but it’s just coming up now. Better late than never, I guess.

Not just Austin, dammit

What Flavia Isabel says:

The single purpose of this post is to eradicate the phrase “Oh yeah, Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red” from the vocabulary of anybody who cares about turning Texas blue.

I am so incredibly sick and tired of hearing this refrain. It’s part of the Austin mythology. And it needs to die and get buried six feet under because it is not helpful. Every time someone says “Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red”, a voter in a swing district registers as a Republican.

Battleground Texas just set up shop and they have the incredible, sisyphean task of convincing people that Texas can go blue. We all have that incredible task. In fact, I had that task last week, when trying to convince my partner, a native Texan, that we can go blue. I made him listen to me rant while cooking, which involved a lot of banging of pots and pans. This is a dangerous activity. I almost picked up a hot pan with my hands. No ranting while cooking. Also, this blog post is to spare him more ranting. Tangent over.

Anyways, perpetuating the myth that Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red is not helpful because it isn’t true.

More than one blue spot

More than one blue spot

Flavia goes on to cite a bunch of evidence in support of her thesis, and you should go read what she has to say. I’m right there with her on this, and spewed a rant of my own in the comments of this dKos post where that tired old trope was trotted out in the first paragraph. To me, belief in that shibboleth is de facto evidence that you don’t understand Texas politics – if you believe this, you probably also believe that the office of Ag Commissioner is more powerful than the Governor, since someone told you that once.

I don’t want to reiterate Flavia’s arguments, but as a numbers guy I can’t help but pile on a little. The city of Houston voted over 60% for President Obama in 2008 and in 2012. In terms of margin of victory, no county was more Democratic than Dallas County, which Obama carried by 110,000 votes; he carried Travis County by 93,000. More votes were cast for Obama in Harris County – which he carried twice – in 2012 than there were total votes cast in Travis County (587K Obama votes in Harris, 387K total votes in Travis). And Travis County represents about 7% of the Texas total Democratic vote, so 93% of Obama voters lived elsewhere. Throw in the counties from the greater Austin metro area – Hays, Bastrop, and Williamson, at least – and you get to about 10% of the statewide total, leaving 90% of the Obama vote from everywhere else. Convinced yet?

More broadly, there were more votes cast for President Obama in Texas in 2012 than there were votes cast for him in every other state except California, New York, and Florida. Let me repeat that: More Texans voted for President Obama last year than residents of every other state except California, New York, and Florida. There were more Texas votes for Obama than there were Illinois votes for Obama. Go look it up for yourself.

Now obviously, a lot of this is due to our sheer size – Texas is the second most populous state in the country. And of course, there were a lot more votes cast for Mitt Romney in Texas than there were for President Obama; we wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise. My point is simply that there are a lot of us Democrats in Texas, and we’re everywhere in the state. To imply otherwise is ignorant and insulting. Please don’t do that.

I do agree that if you look at a map of Texas’ electoral results, you will see a lot of red. Texas has a lot of counties – 254 of them – and a lot of them are truly Republican turf. Of course, a lot of those counties are lightly populated – by my count, there were 25 counties that cast fewer than 1000 votes in 2012 – and a lot of those sparsely populated areas tend to be heavily Republican. Still, the way to make the map look less red is to turn more counties blue. Democratic activist Robert Ryland, the Chair of the Bastrop County Democratic Party, has an idea for how to facilitate that, one that’s so clear and obvious in retrospect that the rest of us should all be slapping our foreheads and saying “Why didn’t I think of that?” Here’s the pitch from his email:

Please stop whatever you’re doing and make whatever contribution you can to The Texas County Democratic Campaign Committee (TCDCC) on ActBlue!

Some of you already know that against my better judgment (but with the encouragement of many others), I have started a PAC.

The Texas County Democratic Campaign Committee will focus on addressing one of our biggest weaknesses: recruiting & supporting county-level Democratic candidates outside of our current urban strongholds.

This organization is designed to bring Democratic county officials together under an umbrella of mutual interest, expand their numbers wherever possible, and support their efforts to serve their constituents effectively once they’re in office.

Working at the county level, TCDCC will be helping to rebuild the Democratic brand where our candidates can, in theory at least, shake hands with every voter who will cast a ballot in their election. We can build new coalitions through one-on-one contact with voters on a level that State Lege and Congressional candidates cannot, at what is frankly a bargain price tag. I don’t have to explain to y’all the positive ripple effects that can have for every Democrat in Texas down the road, and our work will feed into the efforts of groups like HDCC, DCCC, Annie’s List and others.

The long-term goal is about rebuilding our bench of candidates for higher office and rehabilitating the Democratic brand where we need it most. With Battleground TX and TDP ramping up efforts to register and engage more voters and rebuild organizational infrastructure, having quality candidates up and down the ballot will be critical to consolidating that work into actual electoral gains. It’s also about better local government, and electing folks who can cope sensibly with the burdens and baloney that our Republican-led legislature is passing on to them.

“So, what drove you to this, Rob?”
Glad you asked.

After working with candidates and running campaigns for the last three cycles in Bastrop County, I’ve come to understand how difficult it is for Democrats to run for local office out here and across much of Texas. With little support available from the state party and few resources of any kind to help them deliver a strong message and drive turnout on the margins, these brave souls often feel like they’re on an island, with a hostile political landscape to navigate. After talking with a number of Democratic commissioners and county judges, I’ve found a lot of them have felt this way for awhile. No organization has previously existed to help them, and – from what I can tell – this is the one piece of the grassroots puzzle we we’ve been missing – until now.

We have already begun to identify many commissioner and county judge seats across the state as possible Democratic pickups in 2014. The potential playing field is vast, but to ensure success in our first cycle we need to keep our challenges manageable while being disciplined about raising the funds needed to run a robust operation in 2014 and build for the long term. After the wipeouts of 2010 and redistricting, there’s actually plenty of low-hanging fruit to be found, but we need to bring a smart and coordinated effort to this fight or we could miss some great opportunities.

This is a fantastic idea. I’ve made a contribution to the TCDCC, whose website ( will be operational shortly, and I strongly encourage you to do so, too. It’s going to take all of us to dispel those pernicious myths about Texas. This is a great place to help with that effort.

The 2013 Houston Area Survey

The 2013 Houston Area Survey shows that tolerance is prevalent in our region.

The results, according to institute co-director Stephen Klineberg, may reflect the region’s growing ethnic diversity, younger residents’ acceptance of change and the emergence of live-and-let-live “tolerant traditionalists.” Part of a larger survey of attitudes in the 10-county Houston metropolitan region, the 32nd annual poll queried 991 county residents in February and March. The margin of error is plus- or minus three points per 1,000 respondents.

“The theme is one of new realities across the board.” Klineberg said. “There’s a kind of recognition that we’re in a different world, that the 21st century is a different place.”

Some of the poll’s most significant findings centered on immigration. In results influenced by younger participants, 83 percent of respondents favored offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, providing they speak English and have no criminal record. That is up 19 points from just four years ago.

On other immigration-related questions, 68 percent supported admitting as many or more immigrants in the coming decade as were admitted in the last; 61 percent said immigration strengthens American culture; 51 percent said relations among Houston’s ethnic groups are good or excellent.

Respondents endorsed mandatory background checks for all firearms by an overwhelming 89 percent. They told pollsters they favored equal marriage rights for same-sex couples by 46 percent, up nine points from 2001.

You can see more on the 2013 survey here and here, and more on the Kinder Institute, including archives of previous surveys, here. The Chron story begins by characterizing Harris County as “consistently conservative”, which may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the 2008 and 2012 election results, but never mind that. The trend is what matters, and it’s pointing in the right direction. That’s good news for all of us.

HISD to begin laptops for all program

Starting small, and presumably growing from there.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Houston ISD officials announced Thursday that they are prepared to give students at up to 18 high schools their own laptops next school year, becoming among the first big-city districts to launch a one-to-one computing program.

“This is a way of transforming what and how we teach,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier told the school board.

Grier first pitched his laptop idea to the public during his State of the Schools speech in February. His chief technology officer, Lenny Schad, confirmed to the school board Thursday that the district is ready to proceed with the first batch of high schools next school year, doling out the laptops to teachers first semester and giving them to students in January. Schad’s team is finishing up an analysis of the high schools to see exactly how many are technologically ready to get the laptops next year. The number won’t be more than 18, he said, emphasizing that the district doesn’t want to rush the roll-out.

See here for the background. Starting with this pilot program would address one of the concerns raised in February by board President Anna Eastman, who was concerned about rolling out a program like this all at once. It’s not clear yet where the money will come from for this – the story estimates the price tag at $10 million – but I’m confident there will be grant money and/or partnership opportunities out there for it. HISD is not the first school district to propose something like this, so there will be examples to follow if need be. I look forward to seeing the results of this experiment.

Statement from Jim Henley

On Sunday afternoon, I received the following statement from Jim Henley, who submitted his resignation as HCDE Trustee earlier this year:


I submitted my resignation as Trustee of The Harris County Department of Education in January of 2013. The Texas Constitution requires that I remain in office until the HCDE Board of Trustees appoints my successor.

I was elected in November 2008 to a six year term which will end in December of 2014. I have submitted to the board the name of a person who is uniquely qualified to complete my term, as provided by the law regarding the resignation of trustees. The board is not bound by my nomination.

My most significant contribution as a trustee was in leading the effort for an independent performance review of HCDE. It was the first such review in the recent history of the department. The review found HCDE to be effective and efficient in most of its services, while making recommendations for improvement in several areas.

While HCDE has been reluctant to embrace several of these essential recommendations, the department remains a vital resource to the twenty six independent school districts in Harris County. The current effort by opponents of public education (House Bill 945) to eliminate HCDE would decrease services to school districts while increasing their need to raise taxes. I urge the defeat of this ill-advised legislation.

The Texas Constitution prohibits trustees from being employed in public education. I have a passion for teaching and plan to return to the classroom as well as enjoy some time working on my farm. I am grateful for the trust the voters of Harris County bestowed upon me. I hope my conduct in elective office has been an example of honest and ethical public service.

Jim Henley

Trustee Position 7, At Large HCDE

See here and here for the background on HB945, which was heard in the Public Education committee on April 16 but has not yet come up for a vote in that committee. If I’m reading the Dates of Interest page correctly, if that bill isn’t reported out of committee – that is, if it hasn’t been voted out of committee – by next Monday, May 6, it’s too late for it to be voted on by the whole House this session. As we know, such deadlines are not necessarily the last word in these matters, but it is an obstacle. Keep an eye on the clock. In any event, my thanks again to Henley for his service, and I look forward to hearing who he has in mind as a successor.

Weekend link dump for April 28

Better music through data. Metadata, that is.

It’s hard to find a scripted drama that hasn’t used rape and/or murder as a plotline at least once. I will note that their list is incomplete – by my reckoning, “Royal Pains” and “Veep” are not listed, and there may be others. But you get the point.

“When you bump, it shows your nearest common ancestors. If you bump with someone who’s too closely related, you get an alarm sound and a text warning.”

“It must be tough to co-author a book that reveals that the creator of one of your favorite comic strips was a pretty horrible human being. I guess that point is unavoidable when you write about a serial rapist.”

A carbon tax has much to recommend it.

A kid’s view of Houston, in photos.

“[Maureen] Dowd’s real problem is that she hasn’t kept up with either academic research or simple common sense over the past half century.” Hell, she couldn’t even cite a recent Hollywood production to back up her ridiculous claims.

The GOP will not be moving to the center in 2016. I expect Maureen Dowd to write a column about how that is all President Obama’s fault any day now.

When Uhuru and Spock were supposed to have kissed.

Has no one ever explained to the Family Research Council that lying is a sin? It’s right there in the Bible!

Eats, shoots, and leaves commas out of sentences that need them.

RIP, Chrissy Amphlett and Richie Havens. Monday was a rough day for singers.

A little public shaming of the individuals who don’t know the difference between Chechnya and the Czech Republic would seem to be in order.

Thankfully, that hasn’t stopped the Czech Republic from helping out the people of West, Texas, many of whom are of Czech descent.

RIP, Professor O Z White, the kind of person they don’t make like that any more.

I’ll say it again – Mariano Rivera is a mensch.

RIP, Allan Arbus, a/k/a Dr. Sidney Freedman on “M*A*S*H”.

Ten ways to reduce crime that probably won’t offend the voices in Wayne LaPierre’s head.

Generally speaking, when a powerful interest wants to keep something secret, it’s because they really really don’t want you to know what that secret is.

Add Regal movie theaters to your list of businesses to avoid, at least until their management learns how not to be obnoxious greedheads.

Conjunctive adverb, I wish I had a rhyming couplet for you.

Dull and Boring, together at last.

Shark fin soup should be banned.

The past and future of organizing committees on labor.

Speaking of such things, a little collective action at the LA Times could go a long way.

Happy 80th birthday, Willie Nelson.

The Senate sucks. Sequestration sucks, too. We’re doing exactly what austerity-loving government-hating shills have said we need to do to grow the economy. Still waiting for it to happen.

RIP, George Jones. This really has been a rough week for musicians. Katherine Geier’s heartfelt tribute to the man and his music is the best thing you will read about his life and times, and most importantly his music.

HCDE Trustee Jim Henley to resign

Got this in my inbox late Friday afternoon:


Trustee Jim Henley (Democrat at-large) submitted his resignation from the Board earlier this year.  The Harris County Department of Education Board will have an open application process to fill the remainder of his term that goes until January 2015.

The HCDE advertisement and FAQs regarding filling a board vacancy are now available via our website under FEATURED NEWS.  Applications are due Thursday, May 2, 2013 by 5 PM.

Link to our website: (look under the headline FEATURED NEWS).

Direct link to the notices:

I haven’t seen any reporting on this as yet. I’ve sent an email to Henley to ask him about it, and will update when I hear from him. In the meantime, if you’ve always harbored the secret desire to be an HCDE trustee, here’s the Board Vacancy FAQ to tell you everything you need to know:

Q: How will the vacancy be filled?

A: The HCDE Board of Trustees approved procedures to fill the vacant position on April 23, 2013. Qualified applicants who would like to serve as an HCDE trustee must submit application packets by 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 2, 2013. If more than six applications are received, the Board will meet to screen the applications and select no more than six finalists to be interviewed by the Board of Trustees. If six or fewer applications are received, all applicants will be interviewed by the Board. The interviews are expected to take place on Monday, May 13, 2013, beginning at 3:30 p.m. and if necessary, continue on Tuesday, May 14, 2013, beginning at 3:30 p.m. Interviews will be open to the public, but only members of the HCDE Board of Trustees shall be permitted to comment or ask questions of the finalists.

Q: When will the HCDE Board of Trustees make its decision?

A: The HCDE Board of Trustees anticipates that the Board will vote to appoint an individual to fill the vacancy at its meeting on Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

Q: How long will the appointed trustee serve?

A: In accordance with former Tex. Educ. Code § 17.04, which governs HCDE, the individual appointed to fill Position 7 shall serve the unexpired portion of the Position 7 term that runs until November 2014, when elections will be held. If the appointed individual chooses to run for election, he/she may do so and if he/she wins, he/she would serve a full six-year term. If the appointed individual chooses not to run for election in 2014, he/she would serve until January 2015, when the elected trustee for Position 7 would assume office.

There’s more, so click over if this interests you. I’m sad to see Henley step down – he’s a fine person, and he did an excellent job on the HCDE Board. With his departure, the remaining Board is evenly divided among Rs and Ds, so party will not be the deciding factor in naming his replacement. As I said before, elections for these offices are pretty much determined by the partisan tide, though one presumes a candidate of either party that can get enough support to be selected might have a small edge on the margins. I thank Jim Henley for his service, and I wish the Board good luck in finding someone of his quality to fill out his term.

Veasey v Garcia, Round Two?

Looks like we’ll have at least one high profile Democratic primary next year.

Domingo Garcia

Domingo Garcia

Domingo Garcia’s pursuit of the national presidency of the League of United Latin American Citizens has just as much to do with politics as activism.

The former state representative is considering whether to seek a rematch against Rep. Marc Veasey in the 33rd Congressional District, the seat created last year that stretches across Dallas and Fort Worth.

The presidency of the nation’s oldest Hispanic civil rights group would give him a bigger platform. In theory, he would get the group to focus on North Texas voter registration and turnout efforts, which would ultimately help him if he decided to re-enter the political arena.

Marc Veasey

Marc Veasey

Meanwhile, Veasey has already begun his re-election campaign, including a recent mega-fundraiser in Dallas. He’s made a strategic effort to appeal to Hispanic voters and make inroads into Dallas County.

Veasey won the Democratic runoff by 1,100 votes in July and the seat overall in November. But the campaign never really stopped. While it’s still a question whether Garcia will opt for another campaign, the actions of both men suggest a second round is likely.

“Last year was just a warm-up,” said former LULAC president Hector Flores, a Garcia supporter. “I believe Domingo will run again.”


Garcia and others are registering voters on both sides of the county line, hoping to add enough to the total to overcome Veasey’s advantage.

With the support of Sal Espino and others, Garcia is finding open ears with Tarrant County Hispanics that didn’t know him last year.

“My goal is to register 20,000 new voters,” Garcia said. So far, he added, 4,000 have signed up.

Garcia’s campaign for the LULAC presidency has been contentious. He’s running against incumbent Margaret Moran of San Antonio. The election is scheduled for June at a Las Vegas gathering.

But LULAC officials say Garcia isn’t eligible to run. They sued to keep the Democrat off the ballot. Last week, Garcia countersued.

Veasey has stepped up his outreach to Hispanic voters and residents in Dallas County. He’s opened an office in Dallas, as well as Fort Worth.

And Veasey has tried to become a player in Congress on immigration. He invited a so-called Dreamer, a young immigrant brought to the country illegally by her parents, as his guest to the president’s State of the Union address.

Later, he hosted an immigration roundtable discussion on the issue in Dallas with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. And he participated in an immigration reform rally in Washington and met with Proyecto Immigrante, a North Texas group.

His local staff has been a fixture at various Hispanic events, some where there were fewer than a dozen people.

“I’m meeting people in Oak Cliff and new people in areas I’ve never represented in Fort Worth, Irving and Grand Prairie,” Veasey said.

It may be awhile before anyone can take a breather in this district. On the plus side, if that incentivizes voter registration, it’s all good. You can listen to the interviews I did for the 2012 primary with Veasey and Garcia. Really, the right answer here is for there to be two new minority opportunity districts – as Rep. Yvonne Davis has demonstrated, one can certainly draw such a map – but that ain’t happening without a court order. Assuming it doesn’t, all things considered I’d prefer to see Veasey hold the seat – he has a higher ceiling than Garcia, and Veasey has done all the things I’ve wanted him to do. But as Veasey himself says in the story, no one is entitled to a seat. I’m sure he’ll keep working hard for it, and that’s just fine by me.

Check this out

Scan while you shop, and other technological advances to get you checked out faster.

In February, San Antonio-based H-E-B invited customers to try out a new scanning “tunnel” for the first time at its McCreless Market location on South New Braunfels Avenue.

The company spent about three years developing the so-called Fast Scan technology, which lets cashiers at the end of the register focus on bagging the already-scanned items, said Jaren Shaw, H-E-B’s vice president of customer service. She said the company is in the “very early stages” of testing the checkout system and will wait to decide on expanding the concept.

“We were introduced to the concept of 360-degree item scanners in Europe a few years ago and have been watching the technology emerge since then,” Shaw said in a statement. “H-E-B took an inclusive approach and developed the checkout fixture based on feedback from customers” and employees.


Like H-E-B, Wal-Mart cited customer feedback as the catalyst behind the development of its mobile scanning app that it has piloted at more than 200 locations across the U.S.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer offers its Scan & Go service at stores in the Austin, Dallas and Houston areas.

There, shoppers can scan items on the Wal-Mart app, which then transfers the shopping list to one of the store’s self-checkout registers so customers can pay without re-scanning the products.

Wal-Mart plans to roll out the app to other mobile devices in the near future, spokeswoman Hardie said.

“We began testing the feature late last year in two markets, and so far this year, more than half of our customers have come back to use the technology a second time,” she said.

Recently, H-E-B has pulled the self-checkout registers from some stores.

“H-E-B’s top priority in checkout is to offer the best customer service while getting our customers through the line quickly,” spokeswoman Dya Campos said in an email. “We are not completely satisfied with the technology of self-checkout and the satisfaction of our customers as they interface with it.”

Eliminating self-checkout lanes follows a trend in other supermarkets. Wal-Mart is going the other way, with more reliance on self-checkout. That figures, since it means they can pay less on labor, which is the Wal-Mart way. That said, I like the idea of being able to scan purchases with one’s cellphone while shopping, so that when you’re done all you have to do is pay. Someday, that will be handled by your smartphone, too. I think that’s great as an option, but it’s not going to be for everyone, and it will be smart of retailers to give people more than one way to do it. What do you think?

Saturday video break: You Really Got Me

Song #22 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “You Really Got Me”, originally by The Kinks and covered by Van Halen. Here’s the original:

Man, I love these old black and white videos – you can tell this one was dubbed from a VHS tape. And I have no idea what that was after the song, but it was easily freakier than most of what you would have seen on MTV in the 80s. Speaking of which, here’s Van Halen:

Ah, David Lee Roth. Why did you ever leave? I love me some Kinks, but I have to agree that VH owns this song. Here’s Eddie Van Halen playing “Eruption”, if you must hear that before you hear “You Really Got Me”.

And for those of us who remember the 90s:

The sad Ken doll at the end slays me every time. Whoever came up with this idea was a genius.

Tweet My Jobs Houston

On Friday, Mayor Parker delivered the State of the City 2013. Her address was heavy on accomplishments from the past year – there are a lot of them, and there is an election coming up – but there were also announcements of new things to come. One is Tweet My Jobs Houston, and I’ll refer you to the press release for the details.

Mayor Annise Parker announced the launch of a new citywide online jobs platform to help Houstonians find work during her State of the City address. “Tweet My Jobs, Houston” uses innovative technology to combine the popularity of social media and the convenience of a smart phone application. The free service already has more than 150,000 Houston job postings from entry level to senior level corporate positions.

“Houston is the biggest economic success story in America, but the best can always get better,” said Mayor Parker. “This free and user-friendly online tool is the new way to find a job and hire in Houston. Job seekers will have instant and direct access to thousands of jobs via Facebook, Twitter, email or their mobile phone. Starting today, you can walk down the street and view on your smart phone all the jobs available in your immediate proximity. Likewise, this will greatly simplify the hiring process, providing any employer, regardless of size, with the same fast and free access to the best and brightest recruits available. This is truly a game-changer for Houston.”

Tweet My Jobs, Houston is available at or in the application store for your mobile device. Just push a button to find jobs or to post a job listing to every corner of the digital landscape. The unique integration with Twitter and Facebook allows job seekers to receive job notifications via text message, email or through social media. It’s also possible to see if Facebook friends are connected with the hiring company.

The online platform will allow the city to track the number of residents pursuing job opportunities, the type of positions being sought, the level of position and the industries in which job seekers want to work. It will also be able to show the number of jobs employers are posting over time as well as the type, industry and location of available opportunities.

“TweetMyJobs has launched in other cities throughout the U.S. and we have seen firsthand what our mobile platform can do to bolster job growth and economic development,” said Robin D. Richards, Chairman and CEO of TweetMyJobs. “We are excited to bring this unique tool to the 4th largest city in America and we commend Mayor Parker for her proactive approach and desire to adopt the latest recruitment technology available to support her initiatives for job creation in Houston.”

Tweet My Jobs, Houston is being funded through a $300,000 grant from the Houston Housing Finance Corporation. It will be administered by the City’s Office of Business Opportunity (OBO). “The Office of Business Opportunity, through its Houston Business Solutions Center, provides a suite of services to help small and medium businesses get started, sustain and grow,” said OBO Director Carlecia Wright. “Tweet My Jobs, Houston will expand the network of candidates available for hiring, while reducing recruitment costs. This platform is directly aligned with the Mayor’s priority to create and sustain jobs, right here in Houston.”

Mayor Parker’s State of the City speech also included an announcement about a business plan competition to engage individuals seeking to start a new business utilizing resources available at the Houston Public Library and OBO. Participants will be provided with the resources and mentoring to research, develop and present their business plans. They will receive more than $1,000 in in-kind services. There will be three cash prizes ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 for the top finalists.

See here and here for more about Tweet My Jobs., and here for more about the business plan competition. I confess that I’m not terribly up to date on job-hunting methodology, and I tend to do my networking in person. Needless to say, there are limits to that, and one can never be sure when job hunting will need to move up the priority list, so having tools like this available and customized for your area is a very good thing, especially with the inclusion of openings from smaller businesses. Texas Leftist and Nancy Sims, who was at the State of the City address, have more.

Weekend legislative threefer

That sound you heard on Friday was Rick Perry stamping his feet if he doesn’t get his way.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

I can eat these all summer if I have to

Gov. Rick Perry is warning state legislators that it could be a long, hot summer in Austin if they don’t pass his top priorities: funding water and transportation projects and cutting business taxes.

With a month left in the regular session, Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said Friday that the governor is prepared to bring lawmakers back in special session if they don’t act on his signature issues.

“The governor laid out his priorities in January to ensure a strong economy for the next 50 years, including instituting fiscally sound budget principles, significant tax cuts and making sure Texas has the necessary roads and water infrastructure to support our growing state,” she said. “His priorities haven’t changed.”

Castle said the Legislature still has plenty of time to act before the clock runs out on the 83rd Texas Legislature next month. But she said Perry won’t stand for incomplete work on his top items.

“He’s been very clear that he won’t sign the budget until he signs significant tax relief,” she said. “And if they don’t address all of these priorities by the end of the session, the governor is willing to keep them here as long as it takes to get it done.”

Whatever. Perry is very likely to get the first two items on his wish list regardless of any threats. His ridiculous tax cut, I hope not. I note that story came out the same day as this one about legislative Republicans pushing back against Perry this session. Not a coincidence, I daresay, but we’ll see whether that attitude survives Perry’s meetup with the GOP caucus.

Meanwhile, the House approved a supplemental budget that included more money for public education.

Debate over a routine budget bill in the Texas House became unusually topical Friday as lawmakers touched on a fertilizer plant explosion in West, the murder of two Kaufman County prosecutors and the Travis County district attorney’s drunken driving arrest.

Lawmakers ultimately voted 129-9 in favor of House Bill 1025, which would add $874.9 million to the state’s current two-year budget. The bill includes $500 million more for public schools and more than $170 million in payments to state and local agencies to cover costs related to wildfires in 2011.

Lawmakers filed 20 amendments to the bill ahead of Friday. Nearly all of them were eventually withdrawn or rejected by the House. Members agreed to an amendment by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, that allows the governor’s office to “prioritize” the use of $2 million for recovery efforts after this month’s disaster in West. Kacal’s district includes the town of West.

One of the amendments that was subsequently withdrawn came from Rep. Phil King, who is trying to force Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg to resign. He attempted to use the process to move the Public Integrity Unit from Lehmberg’s office to that of the Attorney General, but did not succeed. I wouldn’t put it past him to try again later, however. In any event, the best thing to come out of this debate was the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the slash-and-burn crowd.

Finally, the Texas Association of Business has endorsed the Zerwas plan for Medicaid “expansion”.

“If we can take the money on our terms and conditions then it is something we ought to do,” said Bill Hammond, president of the group, whose board voted in January to oppose expanding Medicaid as called for under the federal Affordable Care Act. The basis of Zerwas’ plan is to negotiate a deal that allows the state to use federal Medicaid expansion dollars to subsidize private coverage, which Hammond said is a workable solution. “We encourage them to march to Washington to try to cut a deal,” he said.

House Bill 3791, authored by Zerwas, R-Simonton, has four parts: It outlines what the state’s request for a federal block grant to reform the current Medicaid program could look like; identifies Medicaid reforms that Texas could implement already, such as cost-sharing requirements and co-payments; sets up a separate program to potentially draw down federal financing to help individuals at or below 133 percent of the poverty level find private market coverage; and sets up an oversight committee for both programs.

“This is not an expansion of Medicaid — this is the creation of a new program that leverages our private sector,” Zerwas told the House Appropriations Committee, which voted 15 to 9 on Tuesday to move the legislation out of committee and continue debate on the House floor.

Like I said, I’m lukewarm on the idea, but it is the best we could get at this time. Lord, we need a new government in this state.

Senate examines pensions

This sort of thing always makes me nervous.

Legislative proposals to shore up Texas’ two largest public pension funds could require teachers and state employees to work years longer than they must today to get full retirement benefits.

For example, a teacher who started in the classroom at age 23 may now take full retirement at age 52; that would increase to age 62 under House and Senate bills that are set for committee votes Monday.

Workers nearing retirement, such as those 50 or older, would not be subject to the new rules. But the changes would apply to about half of the active school employees, including everyone from cafeteria workers to superintendents, and about 64 percent of state employees.

Such major changes are necessary to protect the pension funds for the long term, given rumblings that taxpayers can no longer afford them, said Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.

Under Texas’ pension plans, the state and active members contribute a portion of pay to the funds, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and the Employees Retirement System of Texas. That money is invested over time and guarantees a monthly check to a retiree until death.

“There is real hostility toward pensions. Even though we’ve done a better job in Texas, other states haven’t,” Duncan said, and that is fueling a national effort to convert public pensions to 401(k)-type retirement plans in which the employee bears all the risk of saving enough money for retirement.

New accounting rules could soon make the pensions’ funding gaps look a lot bigger, which, in turn, would expose the pensions to the political attacks that so far haven’t gotten traction in Texas.

“We can survive this if we make fundamental changes,” said Duncan, who has been an ally of public employees and carries a lot of weight on pension issues in the Capitol. “You just can’t throw money at it. You’ve got to make fundamental changes.”

But people who would be affected by those changes say the state is reneging on its promise to public servants.

“There is no excuse for defaulting on the framework of expectations that we have been working under for all these years,” said Hart Murphy, a high school social studies teacher in Austin.

Sen. Duncan’s bill is SB13. It has changed since that story was written. The TCTA has an update:

The TRS bills imposing a minimum age of 62 for full retirement on about half of current school employees passed out of committee Monday. SB 1458 passed the Senate State Affairs Committee on a vote of 6-3, and HB 1884 passed out of House Pensions on a 5-2 vote.

Both bills continue to include these major provisions:

  • a new minimum age of 62 for full retirement benefits for those not meeting the grandfather provision
  • a grandfather provision that exempts employees who, as of Aug. 31, 2014, are at least age 50, or meet a Rule of 70, or have at least 25 years of experience
  • a requirement that the employee meet the Rule of 80/age 62 criteria in order to be eligible for levels 2 or 3 of TRS-Care health insurance (A retiree under age 62 would be eligible only for the catastrophic coverage of level 1.)
  • an increase in active member contributions to TRS to match an increased state contribution
  • a benefit increase of 3 percent for retirees who retired prior to Sept. 1, 1994, capped at $100 per month

The bills were both amended to reduce the penalty for retiring under age 62 from 5 percent per year to 2 percent. This change would apply to employees who have at least five years in the system as of Aug. 31, 2014; anyone with fewer years, and future hires, would still be subject to the 5 percent reduction.

So, for example, a person not included in the grandfather provision, but who has at least five years of service credit by Aug. 31, 2014, who met the Rule of 80 but was only age 57 at retirement, would have had their benefit reduced by 25 percent (five years times 5 percent) under the previous version; under the new version, the penalty would be 10 percent (five years times 2 percent).

The minimum age of 62 is favored by some because of the large positive actuarial impact it has on the TRS pension fund. TCTA and other groups have met extensively with the bill authors (committee chairs Robert Duncan and Bill Callegari) and other legislators, and we can report that these lawmakers are working with members of the budget conference committee to try to get a higher state TRS contribution, which would help further improve the bill (such as extending the grandfather and/or providing an increase to more retirees).

At the very least, the state can kick in more to TRS. If the employees are being asked to sacrifice, the state can give up something as well, to minimize the impact. It’s only fair. The state made a promise and it needs to do everything it can to keep that promise.

Who’s afraid of Battleground Texas?

The Republican Party of Texas for one, if you believe their fundraising appeals.

In a heated fundraising letter sent this week to donors statewide, the Texas GOP calls the new Democratic voter-mobilization effort “a clear and present threat to you and your family.”

“They’re coming to take away your guns,” the letter signed by GOP state chairman Steve Munisteri says. “They’re coming to confiscate more of your paycheck. They’re coming to hijack your rights and freedoms.”


The GOP letter urges Republicans to give anywhere from $15 to $5,000 so the party can “immediately undertake our own effort to identify thousands of Texas conservatives.”

The letter warns that the former Obama operatives “have become masters of the slimy ‘dark arts’ of campaigning: creating massive databases; collecting information on every voter and non-voter; and then using that information to do whatever it takes to drive these voters away from Republican candidates and principles.”

Not to be outdone, the Battleground Texas folks are now using the Munisteri letter as their own fundraising tool. “I’ve been around Texas politics for a long time, but I have never seen desperation like this,” said Christina Gomez, digital director for Battleground Texas, in a statement that features an image of the GOP letter and asks Democrats to chip in to help.

Politics sure is easier with a boogieman, isn’t it? I know, this doesn’t mean they’re actually afraid of Battleground Texas, but it pays to make the seething masses believe there’s something to fear out there. It would be strange if they didn’t do something like this.

And speaking of boogiemen, here’s Greg Abbott taking things to the logical extreme.

Abbott also said a group working to make Democrats more competitive in Texas represented a “far more dangerous” threat than anything uttered by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The comments came during a lunchtime speech to the McLennan County Republican Club that featured frequent criticisms of President Barack Obama’s efforts on gun control, health care reform and environmental regulation.


Abbott also weighed in on Battleground Texas, a group formed by veterans of Obama’s presidential campaigns hoping to make Democrats more competitive in Texas, where the party hasn’t won a statewide election in nearly two decades.

“One thing that requires ongoing vigilance is the reality that the state of Texas is coming under a new 
assault, an assault far more dangerous than what the leader of North Korea threatened when he said he was going to add Austin, Texas, as one of the recipients of his nuclear weapons,” Abbott said. “The threat that we’re getting is the threat from the Obama administration and his political machine.”

Battleground Texas realizes Republicans can’t win a presidential election without Texas’ 38 electoral votes, which makes the state “the last line of defense” in protecting the country’s future, he said.

In an interview after the speech, Abbott said he made the comparison to North Korea partly because he doesn’t think the country is a serious threat to the U.S. He also wanted to stress the idea that “complacency kills” in politics, he said.

“Republicans who are complacent are kidding themselves if they think Battleground Texas is not a threat,” he said.

Yes, I’m sure that’s what you meant, Greg. Hey, you fearmonger with the bad guys you have, not the bad guys you wish you had, am I right? Now it’s on us to give them all something to be afraid of.

Friday random ten: The city never sleeps, part 3

Just a city boy with some city songs…

1. Dallas, Texas – Austin Lounge Lizards
2. Detroit Rock City – KISS
3. Do You Know The Way To San Jose? – Dionne Warwick
4. The Duke of Dubuque – Manhattan Transfer
5. Dusty In Memphis – Dusty Springfield
6. East St. Louis Toodle-Oo – Duke Ellington
7. Ellis County – Buddy and Julie Miller
8. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
9. Fasting in San Francisco – Y La Bamba
10. Flowers of Edinburgh – Jim Malcolm

That’s three Detroit songs, but as you will see, Memphis is the most popular destination for song titles in my collection. Not exactly sure why that is, but there you have it. Oh, and for the second week in a row there’s a song featuring the name of a county instead of a city. I figure that’s close enough.

Revamped Chapter 42 ordinance finally passes

Strangely enough, in the end it was not very contentious.

Houston City Council on Wednesday voted 14-3 to allow greater single-family home density outside Loop 610, while also strengthening the proposal’s already robust protections for neighborhoods concerned about unwelcome development.

Council voted to drop the threshold of support needed to impose a minimum lot size in an area – preventing the subdividing of lots for townhomes – from 60 percent to 55 percent, and agreed to phase in the new rules, keeping new development out of residential areas for two years.

Mayor Annise Parker, who has said the changes will spur redevelopment of blighted areas and lower housing prices in the city, praised the first fundamental changes to the city’s development rules in 14 years.

“It’s about time,” Parker said. “The city of Houston has to grow, and we have to have a more flexible development tool. ”

Parker said she will engage a group of home-builders and civic leaders to continue the dialogue that allowed the package to come to a vote as related reforms move forward. Neighborhood support largely was won through city promises to improve standards in regulations outside the development code, known as Chapter 42.

In the ordinance itself, the Super Neighborhood Alliance got its phase-in of the new rules. The alliance raised concerns about eyesore Dumpsters at townhome developments; developers now must show where large garbage bins will sit when seeking permits. The alliance also worried about structures being built on property lines, leaving inches between homes; builders now must get written agreement from neighbors to come inside 3 feet.

There are still more things that the neighborhoods wanted, having to do with things like stricter drainage requirements and Complete Streets. Houston Politics goes into some detail on that.

On drainage, Councilman Stephen Costello has worked with engineering colleagues to draft reforms. Today, developers are not required to add detention when developing tracts of less than 15,000 square feet as long as they do not make more than 75 percent of the site impervious.

Costello’s proposal would drop that to 50 percent, a number he said is supported by data collected as part of the Rebuild Houston program. His proposal also would make developers add detention when they redevelop a dormant site in a way that makes water run off more quickly, something current rules do not address.

“I’m pretty pleased with what we have,” he said. “I’m always a little concerned about what happens after the development is done and how we manage the existing infrastructure in place. As areas start to redevelop, we need to make sure the city is there with Rebuild Houston to take care of any existing infrastructure that needs to be replaced.”


On drainage, Councilman Stephen Costello has worked with engineering colleagues to draft reforms. Today, developers are not required to add detention when developing tracts of less than 15,000 square feet as long as they do not make more than 75 percent of the site impervious.

Costello’s proposal would drop that to 50 percent, a number he said is supported by data collected as part of the Rebuild Houston program. His proposal also would make developers add detention when they redevelop a dormant site in a way that makes water run off more quickly, something current rules do not address.

“I’m pretty pleased with what we have,” he said. “I’m always a little concerned about what happens after the development is done and how we manage the existing infrastructure in place. As areas start to redevelop, we need to make sure the city is there with Rebuild Houston to take care of any existing infrastructure that needs to be replaced.”

The references letter is here. Jane Cahill West was quoted at the end of the story saying that “overall, we’re happy” and that working together on this was beneficial for all. The three No votes were CMs Jerry Davis, Andrew Burks, and of course Helena Brown, who tried but failed to pass an amendment that would have exempted District A from the new Chapter 42 rules. Texas Leftist has more.

MBIA lawsuit against Sports Authority dismissed

I haven’t seen a story about this in the print edition for whatever the reason.

A state district court judge on Tuesday ruled that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority cannot be sued by the company that insures the $1 billion in debt that the agency services on local sports stadiums.

Bond insurer MBIA, with the National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., sued the Sports Authority in state district court in January, requesting that the cash-strapped agency be forced to collect more money to cover its obligations. Other local entities were listed as defendants, including the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., the county agency that manages Reliant Park.

In granting two pleas to jurisdiction, 215th District Court Judge Elaine Palmer also ruled that the Sports Corp. cannot be sued. The Houston Texans and Livestock Show & Rodeo were also listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

Attorneys representing both sides made their cases in front of Palmer on Friday with the Sports Authority arguing it is immune from suit as a governmental agency created by the state Legislature.

Some folks from MBIA reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, presumably because I’d been blogging about this and had expressed some befuddlement about the finer points of the issues. As a result of that conversation, I now have a copy of the original complaint and response filed by MBIA, and a slightly better understanding of the whole thing as well. Though I am not a lawyer in addition to not being a finance guy, I confess that I am somewhat uneasy with the idea of a quasi-government entity like the Sports Authority being granted immunity like this. Hypothetically speaking, what if there had been an allegation of actual malfeasance? What would be the recourse in a case like that? I suppose the answer is that the County Attorney would investigate and hand things over to the DA if appropriate. While I have no doubt that Vince Ryan and his staff would be more than equal to that task, it seems there might be the potential for a conflict of interest. I don’t know. Any lawyers out there want to offer an opinion on this?

Anyway. I also received the following statement from Kevin Brown, a spokesman for National:

National and MBIA respect but disagree with the Court’s decision. This ruling raises a red flag for anyone doing business with governmental entities in Texas and calls into question whether their contracts are enforceable. We intend to appeal promptly and look forward to presenting our arguments to the Court of Appeals.

So it ain’t over yet. I’ll let you know when I hear more.

Improved payday lending bill passes the Senate

Good news, if it goes anywhere.

The Texas Senate approved a bill to regulate short-term lenders on Monday night, a milestone some thought the chamber wouldn’t reach after a personal and divisive floor fight on Thursday.

But with the measure’s author, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, calling the highly-altered bill an “ugly baby,” it remains to be seen whether the measure is viable enough to get through the House.

The bill passed with versions of the six amendments Carona brought with him to the floor last week – but seven other amendments got tacked onto the bill, including one from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, which would bring payday lenders back under the control of existing small-loan regulations.

That provision is similar to one in a bill state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, introduced, which was lauded by consumer advocates but has long been seen as politically troublesome.

Another potential poison pill comes in the form of an amendment from state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, which prevents state regulation of payday lenders from preempting local regulations. Previously, the bill established a statewide minimum level of regulation and preempted local ordinances regulating short-term lenders.

The statewide regulations and preemption were welcomed by payday lenders, who were willing to negotiate certain reforms in return for the expectation that they would be operating under uniform rules. With that provision gone, it remains to be seen whether the two sides can come together to reach an agreement. Carona acknowledged as much on the Senate floor.

“This has the effect, I think,” he told Whitmire, “of perhaps not leaving us any hope of passage.”

Whitmire, for his part, seemed to doubt that the amendments would survive the House, leaving it with no hope of passage later when it returns to the Senate.

“What are the odds,” he asked, that “the House returns your bill with these amendments? This ain’t my first rodeo.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The Observer calls the bill “surprisingly tough”, and it’s certainly a pleasant surprise. The Chron adds a few more details.

Another amendment, by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, capped annual percentage rates at 36 percent for all borrowers – the amount lenders are allowed to charge military families.

The bill prohibits lenders from extending more than one payday or auto title loan to the same borrower at one time, limits the number of times the loan could be refinanced, and mandates that lenders must permit partial payments so that borrowers can reduce the size of their loans.

Pointing out the industry’s strength, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said that there are more payday lending storefronts in Texas than Whataburger and McDonald locations. “We’ve heard many, many stories about lives that have been ruined as a consequence of this state’s failure to appropriately regulate this industry so that consumers are treated fairly,” she said.

I have to say, after all the twists and turns this bill took, I did not expect this result. Kudos to Sens. Whitmire, Ellis, and Davis for strengthening the bill, and to Sen. Carona for not standing in the way. Maybe this means the bill now has no chance of passing the House, but maybe the House will take a cue from the Senate’s insistence on passing meaningful reform. I choose to be hopeful, as foolish as that often is with the Legislature. EoW has more.

For the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Ed Wulfe never mentions Mattress Mack or his recent diatribe in the Chron about the proposed Uptown/Memorial Park TIRZ, but his op-ed in the Chron is clearly aimed at countering naysayers like Mattress Mack.

Uptown is one of the most successful mixed-use urban environments in the United States and a leading economic driver of Houston; yet, Uptown has been historically underserved by public transportation. This is a major concern expressed by employers in the area or those considering a new location in Uptown because a functional and efficient means of mobility for their employees is critical to productivity and an ability to retain and attract workers.

More than 75,000 people work at the 2,000 plus businesses in approximately 23 million square feet of offices, 5 million square feet of retail and 7,000 hotel rooms. Sixty-five percent of Uptown’s workforce currently lives in the Sugar Land, Westpark, Katy or Cypress areas, and the ability and need to connect workers to Uptown is an ongoing and increasing challenge.

This plan, while primarily designed to serve the workforce of the Uptown area, also enables movement to, from and through the corridor more efficiently in both directions.

The widening of Post Oak Boulevard will allow for construction of bus rapid lanes within a landscaped median while still preserving six lanes totally dedicated for automobile traffic.

The plan is designed to connect with Metro’s Northwest Transit Center and the proposed Westpark Transit Center. Exclusive bus lanes will remove buses from general traffic lanes while augmenting pedestrian access. The existing traffic signal system and left turn lanes will remain as is, and Post Oak Boulevard’s signature oak trees will be preserved.

The plan before City Council has evolved based on growing transit needs in and around Uptown, and discussions with the city and the Memorial Park Conservancy to ensure the restoration, preservation and improvement of Memorial Park, a major amenity and connector to downtown Houston.

Two points come to mind. One is that this plan isn’t just about Uptown mobility, it’s also about reforesting Memorial Park, which abuts Uptown to the northeast. Mack never touched on this in his rant, but the two are a package deal. There may be a way to fund Memorial Park reforestration that doesn’t involve Uptown, though such a thing isn’t on the table as far as I know, and one could argue that the Uptown mobility part of this plan should be removed, but then what does Uptown get out of it? Basically, this is the plan to reforest Memorial Park. If you approve of that idea but don’t like the other parts of the plan, then you need to propose an alternative plan. What other options are there?

Point two is that the same thing holds true for Uptown mobility. Mattress Mack, as is often the case with opponents of mass transit in general or to specific plans, doesn’t offer a competing vision for Uptown. The closest he comes to that is at the end of his piece when he says “More than 80 percent of our region lives and works in the suburbs, so obviously that is where we need to concentrate our efforts”, which is both a dubious statistic (he gives no citation) and beside the point – it’s not the city of Houston’s responsibility to abet mobility in the non-Houston suburbs, though plenty of our Harris County tax dollars do just that. Assuming that you agree that doing nothing is not a good option for Uptown, what would you do to improve mobility there? Remember, this isn’t just about building dedicated lanes for BRT on Post Oak, it’s about connecting Uptown to the greater Metro park and ride network, via the Northwest and Westpark transit centers. If you don’t support that, what do you support?

Anyway, the plan is still in flux, as Council has not had a chance to discuss it yet. The BRT plan depends in part on grant funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, but that funding has not been approved and may not be guaranteed despite strong support from the Greater Houston Partnership. It’s possible this could all fall apart, in which case Mack will have ranted for nothing. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but nothing is certain until it’s done.

Senate officially taps the Rainy Day Fund

Well done.


Texas senators hammered out a sweeping deal to increase state funding for water and transportation projects and schools on Tuesday, tackling some of the thorniest issues of the legislative session all at once.

The senators voted 31-0 for Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would ask Texas voters to approve taking $5.7 billion out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Of that amount, $2.9 billion would go to transportation, $2 billion to water infrastructure projects and $800 million to public education.

“I woke up at 2:30 this morning worried about how I was going to get this bill out of the ditch,” Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and the bill’s author, said. “It’s a miracle.”

Senators also annonunced plans to allocate an extra $1.4 billion for schools that came about after the Comptroller’s office informed the senators that property valuations have come in higher than previously estimated. Put together, the Senate’s actions would restore $3.7 billion of the $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made in 2011, Williams said.


The measure passed Tuesday is significantly different than what Williams originally proposed. His original plan had no money for education. The $800 million in the package approved Tuesday includes $500 million in formula funding and $300 million in merit pay for teachers.

On transportation, Williams had wanted to spend $3.5 billion on a State Infrastructure Fund that would either loan out money to local communities for road projects or help them borrow money more cheaply to fund the projects. Williams said late Tuesday that a majority of Senators made clear to him they were not interested in a plan that increased public borrowing.

The measure approved Tuesday will put $2.9 billion directly into the state highway fund, which the Texas Department of Transportation will use instead of issuing that much in bond debt. That will save the agency about $6 billion over the next 30 years in avoided debt service costs, Williams said.

All things considered, not too bad. I prefer this way of using the RDF for transportation, and if the Senate water plan emphasized conservation in the same way as the House plan, it’s all to the good. There will still be plenty of money left in the RDF after these expenditures, and the way the energy business is going these days, it’ll fill back up soon enough. Comptroller Susan Combs has endorsed the idea. The best part of all this is that as a joint resolution, it doesn’t need Rick Perry’s signature, just 100 votes in the House. Of course, that could be a heavy lift, but if the likes of Patrick, Birdwell, Campbell, Paxton, et al can vote for this, there’s no reason why the House teabaggers can’t as well. A statement from Sen. Jose Rodriguez on the passage of SJR1 is here, and the Observer has more.

Medicaid “expansion” bill passes out of House committee

Forgive me for tempering my excitement about this, but it’s not that much to be excited about.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Despite opposition from conservative Republicans, the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday advanced a proposal that would reform Medicaid by allowing the state to request a block grant from the federal government and expand coverage to low-income Texans.

“This is not an expansion of Medicaid — this is the creation of a new program that leverages our private sector,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, the author of House Bill 3791. Members of Appropriations voted 15 to 9 to move the legislation out of committee and continue debate on the House floor.


The revised bill has four parts: It outlines what the block grant would look like; identifies Medicaid reforms that Texas could implement already, such as cost-sharing requirements and co-payments; sets up a separate program to potentially draw down federal financing to help individuals at or below 133 percent of the poverty level find private market coverage; and sets up an oversight committee for both programs.

Trail Blazers fills in some details.

[HB 3791] would, among other things, attempt to appease hospital leaders and urban county judges and commissioners who are irate over state GOP leaders’ apparent determination to walk away from about $100 billion in additional federal funds that Texas could draw down over the next decade. The money would flow to Texas if it expands Medicaid to more adults — a move that would pull forward to government coverage more than 400,000 poor children who are already eligible but haven’t enrolled. Texas would have to put up just more than $15 billion of its money through 2023.


The bill by Zerwas, though, would at least force Team Perry to go through the motions [of negotiating with the Obama administration]. Governors in other states have reached some deals with federal Medicaid czars, some involving private insurance subsidies as an alternative to traditional Medicaid.

Zerwas’ measure says any Texas-specific premium assistance plan must include features near and dear to conservative lawmakers’ hearts. The deal must include outcomes-based provider reimbursements, “meaningful cost sharing requirements and wellness initiatives,” tailored benefits, nudges for existing Medicaid recipients to take the premium subsidies and for people to accept employer-offered coverage — and of course, health savings accounts, which allow patients to spend from a pool of dollars that rolls over at the end of the year and they keep.

“I understand the kind of political radioactivity around this particular bill,” Zerwas told colleagues. “But I … am hearing and many of us are hearing especially from our county and local governments that this would have a profound effect not only on the provision of care [but] some of the collateral effects are its potential to reduce property tax rates” charged by county hospital districts, such as one in Dallas County that supports Parkland Memorial Hospital, he said.

Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, praised Zerwas’ hard work but said she had to vote no because his bill needs more vetting. Carter questioned how many of her constituents would benefit.

Democrats weren’t thrilled by the laundry list of conservative “health care reforms” in the bill but went along.

“Cautiously, yes,” said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, announcing her vote.

What Rep. Giddings says. As with the Arkansas option, this is a Rube Goldberg monster whose complexity is a direct result of Republican intransigence to the obvious solution. It’s a kluge on top of a kluge that starts out by wishing for a pony – block grants – then resigns itself to coming up with something that won’t require the state to give up on billions in funding. It’s still better than nothing, which once again gives you an idea of how awful the status quo is. Better Texas has more.

On a side note, the House also instructed conference committee members to not expand Medicaid in the budget reconciliation negotiations. Which they couldn’t do anyway, since you can’t use the budget to make new law, but never mind that. The Republicans in the Legislature are wise to Barack Obama and his sneaky tricks, yes they are. Whatever happens from this point, it needs to happen quickly because time is running short in the session. The issue could be picked up again in a special session, but only if Rick Perry wants that to happen. Getting it done now is the best bet by far.

Legislative quick hits

This is the time of the session where there’s lots happening, and there isn’t always the time or space to stay on top of it all. So here are a few quick updates on things that are happening in an attempt to at least not be too far behind.

A bill to give Tesla Motors an opportunity to operate in Texas moves out of committee in the House.

The House Business and Industry Committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would allow Tesla Motors to circumvent the state’s franchise dealer system and sell cars directly to Texans, giving a shot in the arm to the company’s efforts to operate in the state.

Tesla says an exemption from the franchise dealer system is the only way the company can operate successfully in Texas, but the owners of state auto dealer franchises have objected, saying the effort weakens a business model that has been key to their success.

House Bill 3351, by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, was replaced by a committee substitute that offered auto dealers another layer of protection: If Tesla ever sells more than 5,000 cars a year in the state, it will become subject to existing regulation and must start to franchise its operations.

With Tesla projecting sales of only a few hundred cars a year in the state, the bill’s supporters, including Diarmuid O’Connell, the vice president of business development for Tesla motors, called this a workable approach.

“This would give us the space we need to introduce our technology in the state,” he said.

See here for the background. I’m rooting for this one.

A bill to allow online voter registration has passed the Senate.

[Tuesday] afternoon, the Texas senate approved SB 315, a bill proposed by State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) to allow holders of unexpired Texas driver’s licenses or state-issued IDs to register to vote online.

Currently, registered voters in Texas may change their addresses online if they move within the same county but must complete a paper application if they are registering to vote for the first time or have moved to a different county.

In testimony on the proposed bill, election administrators said the legislation would both save significant money by reducing the need to manually enter information and eliminate transcription mistakes that happen with the current process.

The version of the bill approved by the Texas senate differs slightly from the original filed version in that the passed bill no longer requires voters to use the address listed on their license or ID as their voter registration address.

A similar bill – HB 313 – by State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) is currently pending in the state house.

See here for the background. Another bill I’m rooting for. BOR has more.

Sen. Dan Patrick’s charter school expansion bill had its hearing in the House

Lawmakers didn’t let on too much of their feelings about the bill—but Killeen Republican Jimmy Don Aycock, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he didn’t consider the bill watered-down, because it allows the state’s charter network to grow. Charter school officials seemed to agree.

The bill still gives charter schools priority access to unused public school facilities, which Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of NYOS Charter School, said is the bill’s most important improvement. Zimmerman said she has to give up her office for tutoring sessions because unlike public schools, charters don’t get facilities funding.

Under the Senate version, the education commissioner would revoke charters of schools that performed poorly in three out of five years.

Zimmerman said she didn’t focus on those higher standards because she wanted to highlight the positives. But, she said, “as a charter operator, I don’t want poor performing charters either.”

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said she’s concerned that charters may have a hard time getting loans because some banks want them to plan to be open for more than five years.

Charles Pulliam, chief development officer of Life School charter in Dallas, said that prospect would undermine the flexibility charters need to test out innovative education strategies.

“It scares me a little,” Pulliam said. “To have one blanket way of determining if they are successful is a mistake.”

The bill is SB 2, and it easily passed the Senate after adding a bunch of mostly Democratic amendments. It is pending in the House Public Ed committee.

Speaking of charter schools, a bill to limit the role ex-SBOE members can play at one has advanced.

A measure to bar former State Board of Education members from taking a job at a charter school or related foundation within two years of serving on the board is headed to the full Senate.

Senate Bill 1725 by state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, is intended to close the revolving door between the SBOE and charter schools.

An amendment by Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, would allow former board members to take a job at a charter school within the two-year period so long as that member did not vote to create that particular school.

The Senate Education Committee passed the bill 6-3 late Tuesday.

The three nays all came from Republicans, which suggests this bill could have problems getting any farther.

The Lege has been trying to change the name of the Railroad Commission to something more reflective of reality for as long as I can remember. They’re still trying, and working on some other reforms as well.

The bill, SB 212 by State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, embodies a previous Sunset review of the Railroad Commission that didn’t pass in the last legislative session that would forbid certain campaign contributions. For instance, commissioners could not accept donations from a party involved in a contested case hearing. It would also limit campaign contributions to the 17 months before an election and 30 days after. Commissioners are elected to six-year terms.

A contested case hearing is the way citizens protest against an oil and gas company permit or action.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Railroad Commission, said during testimony that the campaign restrictions were “tricky” because the commissioner position is elected statewide, the state is big, travel is necessary and commissioners must raise money.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sits on the committee, said the Sunset Commission had thought hard about how to put reasonable limits on the campaign financing.

“Sitting there for a six-year term, being able to raise unlimited amounts of money from the industry that they regulate, there clearly is a perception problem,” said Ellis.

The Railroad Commission should be subject to restrictions that differ from other statewide elected officials, like senators and representatives, because the nature of the commission is unique, Nichols said, because the commissioners have six-year terms, they regulate a specific industry and they set rates.

Similar Sunset legislation for the commission originating in the House, HB 2166 by State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, recently passed out of committee, but largely stripped of the campaign and ethics reform, according to Texas Energy Report. That bill could end up competing with the Senate bill discussed Tuesday.


No one testified specifically against the name-change provision. [Commissioner Christi] Craddick suggested the more succinct Texas Energy Commission. State Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, who worked on the Sunset review that failed to pass in the last legislative session, also suggested a new name.

“I’d like to change it to Texas Department on Oil and Gas because it sounds cool … TDOG,” Hegar said.

The official name in the bill is Texas Energy Resources Commission. But I like Sen. Hegar’s suggestion.

We close with two from the inbox. First, from Equality Texas:

Moments ago, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence advanced House Bill 2403 by Rep. Mary González of El Paso on a committee vote of 5-3.

HB 2403 would remove existing inequity in Texas’ “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense law. The “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is a logical approach to the reality that adolescents sometimes make sexual decisions that adults wish they had not made, but that adolescents have been making since the beginning of time.

Under current law, if teen sweethearts are of opposite sexes, consensual intimate contact remains a matter between parents and their children. However, the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is not currently available to dating teens of the same gender. The state should not intrude on the right of parents to instill their values about sex into their children. Nor should the state interfere if teenage sweethearts make decisions that their parents believe are not what is best for them.

This needs to be a conversation between parents and their children. Not between parents, their children, an arresting officer, a prosecuting attorney, and a trial judge. That is why the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense exists.

HB 2301 will ensure that it applies equally to straight & gay teens.

Today’s House committee action follows advancement of identical legislation by the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. On April 9th, Senate Bill 1316 by Senator John Whitmire of Houston was advanced by the committee on a 4-1 vote. SB 1316 is on the Senate Intent Calendar for Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

See here for more. As far as I can tell, the full Senate has not taken up SB1316 as yet.

Last but not least, a non-good bill from Empower the Vote Texas:

HB 148 by Rep. Burkett is scheduled to be voted on by the full House tomorrow, April 25th. Please contact your State Representative and tell them to vote NO on this bill. If you are not sure who is your State Rep, you can use the “Who Represents Me” lookup tool. Emails addresses for all House members are firstname.lastname @, however phone calls are much more effective.

Attached are the letter ETVT sent to all Representatives opposing this bill along with supporting documents. The original text of the bill as introduced, the new text of the committee substitute, witness list, and bill analysis can be found here.

A copy of the letter is here. The hearing is today, so we’ll see how it goes.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 22

The thoughts and prayers of the Texas Progressive Alliance are with the people of Boston and West as we bring you this week’s roundup.


On HCAD and rigging the system

This Houston Press cover story on the Harris County Appraisal District is provocative, to say the least.


A months-long investigation by the Houston Press finds that Brookfield isn’t the only mega-dollar company that’s sitting pretty with a momentous tax break.

According to a June 2012 Service Employees International Union report, corporate giants such as Chevron, Exxon and Hines Real Estate Investment Trust successfully protested the appraised value of 350 large commercial office properties in Harris County. The impact: a total reduction of more than $2.4 billion in tax base on which tax ­liability is calculated.

Critics of HCAD — which is responsible for valuing a complex mix of 1.4 million parcels in no-zoning Houston that includes Baytown’s ExxonMobil, the largest refinery chemical complex in the country — say the agency has purposely and knowingly shifted the tax burden from the filthy rich onto folks who own homes that cost under $150,000.

That’s “a false issue,” according to Jim Robinson, HCAD’s chief appraiser since 1990. Guy Griscom, HCAD’s assistant chief appraiser, also fervently denies the claim.

“No. There’s no truth in that,” says Griscom, who adds that in 2013, HCAD has increased the value of 12.2 percent of the homes in the $80,000-to-$150,000 range.

Instead, HCAD, the third-largest appraisal district in the country, points a finger at the Texas Legislature. In 1997, a provision was added to the Texas state tax code that cripples the ability of appraisal districts to hold the true market value of high-end commercial property, Griscom explains.

“Not only do they have to be valued at market value, but the value has to be uniform and equal. But the measure of equity that’s in the tax code is really junk science [because] it isn’t statistically based,” says Griscom. Texas is one of the few states that don’t require sales-price disclosure on taxable property, which means appraisal districts around the state rely on private contracts to compile sales data that are often incomplete.

“[The tax code] says the median value of a group of comparable properties properly adjusted, whatever in the world that means. Obviously, you can have major disagreements over what are comparables,” explains Griscom, who thinks that a bill filed recently in Austin aimed at changing the equity provision might not have any traction.

In the meantime, lawsuit-prone corporations and their attorneys are beating up HCAD and taking its lunch money. “When you’re talking about major commercial or industrial properties, those property owners have deeper pockets than the appraisal districts,” Griscom says. Vinson & Elkins and Fulbright & Jaworski are two Houston-based international law firms that have represented class A property owners in successful property-tax protests and lawsuits.

Due to the manipulation of the system by the rich and powerful, in 2011 alone, the City of Houston and Harris County lost out on $15.4 million and $9.4 million in tax revenues respectively, while the Harris County Hospital District was deprived of more than $4.6 million in revenue. Local school districts, including Alief, Spring Branch and Katy, were shorted $29.1 million in property-tax revenue.

The thesis of the story, which is worth your time to read, is that HCAD rigs the appraisal process to over-value low-end houses, while big dollar office towers routinely knock millions off their assessments via the appeals process; they also win a greater percentage of their appeals than homeowners. All of this shifts a lot of the tax burden for Houston, Harris County, HISD, and other taxing entities from the high end to the low. HCAD blames the Legislature for tying their hands on commercial appraisals; having discussed this issue before, I have some sympathy for that argument. I don’t have enough information to evaluate the claim about screwing homeowners – I wish that the Press had published the data they collected during their months-long investigation so we could play with the numbers ourselves. Whatever the case, I don’t expect to see a sales price disclosure bill to get passed out of the Lege, so nothing will change anytime soon. Anyway, read the story and see what you think, then go visit George Scott’s blog for more.

Today is Chapter 42 day

Actually, today is almost certainly the day that the Chapter 42 revisions get tagged by multiple members of Council, thus pushing it back for a week. Nonetheless, this is the beginning of the end of a long, long journey. Here’s another story about what that will mean.

The Fourth Ward would not look quite the way it does now, however, if not for a change in city development rules in 1999. That change hiked the density allowed in single-family housing construction inside Loop 610, allowing the building of several homes on what had been one residential lot.

City Council is poised Wednesday to extend that Inner Loop home density citywide in the first rewrite of Houston’s development rules, known as Chapter 42, in 14 years. And that has [Ray] Washington and other south Houston civic leaders on edge.

“You’ve got different developers. Some are going to be good, and you’re going to get a few bad ones. Our goal is to upgrade this community,” said Homer Clark, president of south Houston’s Five Corners Management District.

“If they say, ‘Hey, this is a nice place, I think I’ll go out here and buy me a little piece of land and I’ll just put this out here,’ that’s our fear, that it won’t be consistent with what we’re doing.”

To address concerns about incompatible development, the proposed rules include protections that would allow neighborhoods to impose minimum lot sizes for up to 500 homes at a time, preventing the subdivision of lots for townhomes. The requirement, which would last 40 years, also would restrict any residential or vacant land to single-family homes, keeping out apartment towers and condominiums.

“In Houston, because we’re not a zoned city, deed restrictions are the one thing that’s relied upon to keep your neighborhood consistent and retain that character,” said Suzy Hartgrove, spokeswoman for the city Planning Department. “It (minimum lot size) is a protection that really is akin to a deed restriction that will be established for these neighborhoods that apply and are designated. It’s a strong protection to have.”

The minimum lot size process has existed since 2001, and is applied only on a block-by-block basis. Under the proposed change, 10 percent of property owners in an area must apply, triggering a balloting process through which 60 percent of owners must vote yes to impose the restriction. City staff could revise an area’s boundaries to secure the necessary support.

The proposal is an acknowledgement that deed restrictions are difficult to amend, said Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers.

“We understand the neighborhood concerns, and we think there should be more tools made available to them to protect against any sort of development,” he said.

“It’s not like these rules are in place to protect against bad development. They’re in place to protect the integrity of a neighborhood. We could go in and build something great on one piece of property, but it’s still an issue because it’s damaging the character of the neighborhood.”


The lot-size proposal is a “huge achievement,” said Jane West of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, though she is concerned areas with many rental properties will struggle with the petition process. That concern led civic leaders to negotiate a phase-in: one year to give neighborhoods time to petition, and a second year during which the new density would be allowed only on tracts larger than an acre; smaller tracts could be developed if most surrounding properties are not residential.

“It will help all the people it can help,” West said. “It depends a lot on the stamina and the abilities of the people in the neighborhood and how badly they want to save the neighborhood.”

See here, here, here, and here for the recent history. This ordinance and the effort to revamp it are big, complex beasts with lots of moving parts and no one really knows what the effect of this or that change will be, but it sounds like the lot size part of it is being well received by all. If both Jane Cahill West and Joshua Sanders think it’s a good idea, that’s saying something.

On a related note, I want to call attention to this comment left by Ed Browne to one of my earlier posts on Chapter 42:

I think that I can speak for the SNA when I say that everyone agrees that the City needs to grow and densify, but there are good ways to grow and bad ways. Tomaro Bell, president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance (SNA), and Jane Cahill West, its Vice President, have experienced the negative aspects of Chapter 42 inside Loop 610 where it has been the law for over 10 years. They and others inside the Loop decided that the rules need to be cleaned up before subjecting the entire City to them. SN 22, along the Washington Avenue corridor, has been a test case for a lot of these issues. Jane gave a tour for City Council members and SN leaders in her area of problems created by Chapter 42 and although many have been addressed by the City, some of the more important ones still need attention.

We had been told by the Mayor and developers that the main thrust for Chapter 42 was to redevelop run-down apartments and strip centers, but no sooner had the SNA removed its objections, then the Mayor started backpedaling – offering to reduce the wait time for neighborhoods to establish minimum lot sizes and setbacks from 2 years for lots under an acre to 1 year for lots under 1/2 acre. Small lots like this are not run-down apartment complexes. They are neighborhoods like yours.

Under street infrastructure for most of Houston is old and antiquated, so we want to be sure that high density building does not occur where the streets have inadequate storm sewers, water lines, and sanitation sewers. When the toilet flushes next door, will you get scalded? But Jane pointed out that high density also makes every detail more important. Where are trash cans stored? Where are mailboxes? Air conditioners? With a requirement of one guest parking spot for every 6 homes, where do guests (and homeowners) really park? In Cottage Grove, emergency vehicles cannot access many homes because too many vehicles are parked on narrow streets. Ladder trucks needed for the 3 or 4 story buildings need a place for the support pads so they don’t topple over. These were Fire Marshall concerns, too, not just Jane’s.

Average lot size can be as low as 1400 square feet, but there is no minimum lot size. Permeable ground can be no less than 150 square feet on a 3500 square foot lot – tiny. Chapter 42 and Chapter 9 are not harmonized; i.e., they contradict one another. Chapter 42 requires green space which increases as the lot sizes reduce until at 1400 square feet 600 square feet of green space is required, but there is no minimum lot size .

Very dense development makes sense in areas that have good mass transit because then people can do without a car, but multiple small shared driveway developments scattered throughout a neighborhood would be messy and would remove the trees and shade that redefine its character. That doesn’t matter to somebody who only wants to make money, but it does matter to the people who’ve searched for the perfect house for their family.

There’s a lot more to what Ed has to say, so go read the whole thing. Just as the changes from 1999 are being revisited now, the key to making this work as best as possible is to be willing to go back and make further tweaks and revisions as issues and problems arise. This is an ongoing concern, it’s not something you can do and be done with. If we see that something isn’t working the way we though it would, let’s not wait another 14 years to fix it.

Texas Lottery Commission dies and is reborn

And we have our first curveball of the legislative session.

Is this the end?

The House voted Tuesday to defeat a must-pass bill reauthorizing the Texas Lottery Commission, a stunning move that casts doubt on the lottery as a whole and may potentially cost the state billions in revenue.

House Bill 2197 began as a seemingly routine proposal to continue the operations of the commission that oversees the lottery until September 2025. But opposition mounted after one lawmaker called it a tax on the poor, and the House eventually voted 82-64 to defeat the measure.

A short time after the vote, the House called an abrupt lunch recess and could reconsider the measure if any lawmaker who voted against it offers such a motion. Unless lawmakers reconsider, the commission would begin a one-year wind down, and cease to exist by Sept. 1, 2014.

“There are more members than I thought who are against the lottery and just have a psychological aversion of it,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who sponsored the failed bill.

The state Senate has yet to consider the matter, but it can’t because the so-called “sunset bill” on the Lottery Commission initiated in the House.

For now, there’s no one to operate the lottery, which means a potential loss of $1.04 billion in annual revenue for the Permanent School Fund and $27.3 million to cities and counties from charitable bingo.

The state budget already under consideration in the Legislature has factored in the $1.04 billion — and losing the lottery proceeds would create a deficit lawmakers would need to fill.

Here’s HB2197. I think it’s fair to say no one saw this coming. Here’s more from the Trib:

During a spirited debate on the bill, state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, got a round of applause in the House as he spoke against the bill, calling the lottery a “predatory tax” and “a tax on poor people.”

As soon as the vote was over, House leaders were already discussing possible workarounds to keep the programs going. Anchia said the House may reconsider the vote.

Texans spent $3.8 billion on lottery tickets in the 2011 fiscal year, according to the Legislative Budget Board. The majority of that was paid out to players and retailers, with $963 million transferred to the Foundation School Account. Another $8.1 million was transferred to the Texas Veterans Commission.

Anchia warned that charity groups around the state would be outraged at learning they could no longer host bingo games.

“VFW Bingo’s dead now,” Anchia said. “They’re going to have to go back to their constituents and explain why bingo is illegal.”

I don’t disagree with what Rep. Sanford says, though I wonder if he will feel the same way when the payday lending bill comes to the House floor. In the end, however, everyone sobered up after taking a lunch break.

In a 91-53 vote Tuesday afternoon, the Texas House passed House Bill 2197, continuing the the Texas Lottery Commission. An earlier vote Tuesday had failed to continue the commission.

Bill supporters spent the hour after the first vote impressing on those who voted against it the impact of cutting $2.2 billion from schools. The House Republican Caucus hastily assembled to discuss the situation.

“I think when people took a sober look at the budget dilemma that would ensue, they voted different,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, the bill’s author.

Several lottery critics in the House saw the day’s drama as a victory, setting the stage for a more thorough debate on the lottery in the future. Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said he originally voted “no” largely to make clear his opposition to gambling. Once that statement was made, it made more sense to back the Lottery Commission for now.

“I don’t like gambling, but I do like school funding,” Aycock said. ‘It was, for me, at least, a signal vote. I sort of anticipated I would switch that vote when I made it.”

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said school funding was also the primary motivator for his switch.

“When you weigh principle vs a billion dollars in public ed, I set aside my principle for a billion dollars in public ed,” Burnam said. “I still hate the lottery.”

I had always wondered why they vote on bills three times in the Lege. Now I understand. Having had their fun and having made their statements of principle, if the Lege is serious about wanting to eliminate the Lottery, let’s go about it in the next session by filing a bill and letting it go through the usual committee process, mmkay? Thanks. BOR, who notes that failure to pass this bill could have led to a special session, and Texpatriate have more.

Craft beer bills pass out of House committee

From Open The Taps.

After waiting in a long queue of bills that were sent from the Senate to the House, the Craft Beer Bills (SBs 515-518 and 639) should see some movement again this week. Our team in Austin has been in regular communication with the House sponsor (Chairman Wayne Smith) and his committee – the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee – and they are confident that the bills will be voted out unanimously this week. Because the companion bills in the House already had a public hearing, these bills only need to be brought up during a meeting of the committee to get a vote. The next step in the process will be for the Calendar Committee to schedule the bills for consideration by the full House, and we anticipate that happening sometime next week or the following week. More to follow as the week progresses, but stay tuned.

The bills in question passed the Senate on March 25. True to Rep. Smith’s word, the bills were unanimously passed out of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee yesterday afternoon, so the next step is Calendars and a vote on the House floor. We are truly in the home stretch here. I suppose there’s still the chance of something going wrong, but at this point I’m beginning to feel it. After four legislative sessions, this looks like it’s finally going to happen.

Who resigns after a DUI arrest?

The Statesman asks the question and gets some answers.

Rosemary Lehmberg

In 2006, District Attorney Tim Cole had a decision to make. The then-chief prosecutor for Montague, Clay and Archer counties had been arrested for drunken driving after a day of July Fourth celebrating at a lake across the state line in Oklahoma.

It didn’t take him long to conclude he could no longer in good conscience continue being the chief law enforcement officer in the community northwest of Dallas. “I had criticized other (prosecutors) in the same situation, and it would have been pretty hypocritical of me not to do what I expected them to do,” he recalled.

So despite the urging of other prosecutors to stay, he resigned. “I felt like I needed to do it for my own integrity and the integrity of the office,” he said. Yet today, after working for a few years in private practice, he’s back working as an assistant prosecutor, in Wise County outside of Dallas.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who pleaded guilty to DWI on Friday and was sentenced to 45 days in jail, has insisted she has no intention of quitting. Friends and colleagues say part of the reason is personal. A driven career prosecutor who ascended to the top job in 2008 after working three decades behind the scenes, her county work has been her life.

Politics are also a factor. While an obscure Texas statute allows prosecutors to be removed from office for drinking, it’s rarely invoked, although a local lawyer has filed such a petition under the law. State law calls for the governor to name a replacement for a vacated DA’s office. Rick Perry almost certainly would appoint a fellow Republican, dealing an insulting political blow to Travis County, which votes Democratic.

It’s still unclear whether Lehmberg can survive professionally. Other Texas public officials convicted of drunken driving haven’t spent stretches of time in jail. The Travis County position is also especially high profile because it includes the state’s public integrity unit, which prosecutes Texas public officials accused of misdeeds in office. And jail records described Lehmberg as uncooperative toward police and correctional workers after her arrest, details that could ratchet up public pressure for her to resign.

Cole’s professional trajectory also highlights the complicated calculus that must be performed when a law enforcement official sworn to uphold the law is caught breaking it. Elected officials, in particular, who are under no legal obligation to quit, must weigh their ambition and competence against a critical public perception that can erode the effectiveness of their work.

There is no clear course. An American-Statesman analysis shows that, unlike Cole, other district attorneys, as well as judges and elected officials, have chosen to remain in office after their DWIs.

I had wondered about this, so I’m glad to see the Statesman address the question. Besides Cole, there were two other DAs arrested for DUI – these were all in the last ten years or so; I suspect there would be more if the Statesman had looked farther back, but the value of each example would decline over time – and neither resigned, but both were eventually defeated for re-election. No District Court judges stepped down after being busted. This all strongly suggests to me that Lehmberg will stick to her original plan to not resign. It’s possible that the complaint under that obscure law about drunk DAs could eventually force her out, but color me skeptical in the absence of any precedents for that. I suspect the force that will ultimately determine if she stays or goes is pressure from the Travis County Democratic establishment. If they have her back, she’ll probably be fine. If they decide she’s more trouble than she’s worth, out she’ll go. Watch what is or isn’t being said in public, and that should tell you what you need to know.

That’ll just about do it for gambling this session

Sen. Carona calls the chances “slim”, but it sounds like slim just left town to me.

[Sen. John] Carona, chairman of the Senate’s Business and Commerce Committee, said last week he expected to vote his sweeping gambling bill out of his committee Tuesday. But the morning committee hearing came and went, and Carona declined to bring the bill up for a vote.

Carona’s fellow senators told him they didn’t want to take a vote on the controversial topic if it doesn’t have much of a chance, especially in the Texas House, Carona said.

State Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, agreed that there is not much of an appetite for gambling in the House this year.

“I don’t think it has a great chance over here,” said Kuempel, who supports expanded gambling to bring additional revenue to Texas. “It’s challenged in the 83rd legislative session in the Texas House.”


Even if his legislation fails this session, Carona said a lot has been accomplished in the past several weeks. Notably, two often clashing pro-gambling interests — those seeking slot machines at racetracks and those advocating casinos — have worked well together on a broad gambling bill.

“Time is always your enemy in a legislative session,” Carona said, adding that he is not ready to pronounce gambling dead just yet.

Sure sounds dead to me, but as always, you never know. There will almost certainly be a special session to deal with school finance next year, however, and barring anything unexpected from the Supreme Court the Lege will need to find more revenue for the schools, so expect the subject to be on the front burner. Having the cover of a court order sufficed to get the business margins tax created, and it could well do the same for some kind of gambling measure. If nothing else, we’re going to have to pay for Rick Perry’s irresponsible tax cuts somehow. So don’t bury expanded gambling too deeply just yet.

SBOE passes anti-voucher resolution

Good for them.

The Texas State Board of Education voted 10-5 on Friday to urge the Legislature to reject proposals that would result in public funds being allocated for private educational institutions.

The resolution, authored by Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr., D-Brownsville, asks the legislature to “reject all vouchers, taxpayer savings grants, tax credits, or any other mechanisms that have the effect of reducing funding to public schools.” It mirrored an amendment the House recently passed to the state budget by a wide margin banning the use of public dollars for private schools.


Though the resolution eventually passed, it initially endured stiff opposition from a number of board members – including some who said the issue was outside of the board’s purview.

Member Tom Maynard, R-Georgetown, while stressing that he was a “huge supporter” of public schools, said that the board should leave the issue to the legislature.

“I get the voucher question all the time. And my position is, this isn’t a matter for the SBoE,” he said. “This resolution puts us in a position of commenting on things that are not within our constitutional authority.”

Maynard moved to postpone the resolution indefinitely, which provoked a debate about the role of the State Board in evaluating education policy. Member Marisa B. Perez, D-San Antonio, argued that the issue was central to the Board’s responsibilities.

“Saying that it doesn’t fall under our guise is not an acceptable answer to the teachers who are asking for our support,” she said. “Siphoning money from our public schools and turning them over to our private schools is definitely something we should address.”

The question about going outside the board’s duties is a valid one. The SBOE doesn’t have budgetary authority, but they do play a role in school finance as the trustees of the Permanent School Fund. I don’t have a problem with them passing a non-binding resolution, but I admit I’d feel differently if they had voted in favor of vouchers. I wonder if they were motivated in part to take this action by getting their noses out of joint over their potential loss of charter school oversight.

Only one of the board members explicitly endorsed the proposals condemned in the resolution – Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, R-Dallas.

“I believe in the American right to educate my children in the manner that I want,” she said. In addition to Miller and Mercer, other board members that voted against the resolution were chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, and David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

Yes, of course my SBOE member supported vouchers, even though she once said she wouldn’t. Don’t blame me, I voted for Traci Jensen. Hair Balls has more.

Online voter registration bills advance

Some good news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

House Bill 313, which received praise from committee members in a Monday hearing, and Senate Bill 315, which was voted out of committee Thursday, propose allowing voters to register online and have that application automatically authenticated rather than having to wait on local election officials to reenter the data in their systems and confirm it.

Arizona, which was the first state to create a completely online registration system in 2002, now receives more than 70 percent of its applications digitally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, introduced HB 313 with a higher authentication standard than seen in Arizona and other states.

Users would have to prove their identity by providing the last four digits of their social security number, driver’s license number and driver’s license audit number, which is specific to the physical card and would prevent someone from stealing a license to register online.

“That is such a high threshold of authorization that in Texas law it constitutes notarization,” Strama said.

The Texas Association of Counties reported in the bill’s fiscal note that the proposal would yield considerable savings associated with the expedited process and not having to hire temporary staff to handle an increased influx of paper registrations near deadlines — often increasing the margin of human error.


A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts noted that in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, that online registrations cost the state three cents to offer and process while paper applications cost 83 cents.

Albert Cheng, manager of voter registration for Harris County tax-assessor collector’s office, initially listed himself on the witness list as opposing the bill, but said he would support the bill if the author would work with him to address some concerns about security and voter identification.

SB315 is by Sen. Carlos Uresti, and it was approved 7-0 by the Senate State Affairs Committee. As noted, the bills would save counties money while making it easier to register voters in a way that also helped avoid the kind of basic, fixable errors that can lead to registration forms being summarily rejected by some registrars – you know, like what we’ve seen the past few years in Harris County. Like many other things, filling out a voter registration form is something that could easily be done on a smartphone if only the law would allow it. Well, these bills could be that law. I can’t think of any good reason to oppose them. Texpatriate has more, while Texas Redistricting recaps the action in the Elections Committee.