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May 3rd, 2013:

Friday random ten: The city never sleeps, part 4

“Ah, The City. My The City.” What, am I the only one that ever watched The Tick?

1. Galveston Bay – Bruce Springsteen
2. Galway Farmer – Ceili’s Muse
3. The Girl From Ipanema – Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto
4. The Girl From New York City – The Beach Boys
5. Goodnight Houston – Leah White and the Magic Mirrors
6. Goodnight Saigon – Billy Joel
7. Halfway to Memphis – Sammy Hagar
8. Hamilton County Breakdown – Elana James
9. A Heart In New York – Art Garfunkel
10. Hideaway Tokyo – Pretty & Nice

There’s Memphis again. We’re not even to the M’s yet. I remember reading a “Peanuts” comic as a kid in which Linus said he got the only A on his geography test because no one else in his class knew where Ipanema was. Took me years to get that joke. “Goodnight Houston” is a riff on “Goodnight Moon” and is thus completely unlike “Goodnight Saigon”.

Drivers licenses for all – maybe

Not quite drivers licenses, exactly, but close enough.

TDL_Sample

A Dallas Democrat has teamed up with two powerful Republicans to craft a compromise version of a bill that would give immigrants here illegally the ability to drive legally in Texas and obtain insurance – but only after they submit to a criminal background check, fingerprinting and prove state residency.

The proposal is being sold by supporters as anything but a tool to expand the rights of people residing in Texas illegally. And they caution that a new form of driving permit will be granted, not an actual driver’s license.

Rather, they are pitching it as a law enforcement measure to fix an unintended consequence of a law passed last session that requires people to prove their citizenship to renew a driver’s license.

That 2011 measure has left immigrants who drove legally in Texas for decades unable to renew their licenses or buy insurance, a problem that has caused major headaches for law enforcement officials across the state.

“It’s good for law enforcement. It’s good for security,” said Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, who authored the measure, House Bill 3206. “We have already gone past the immigration debate, and now we’re into the law enforcement debate.”

Major business groups across the state, including the Texas Association of Business and the Greater Houston Partnership, are backing the bill, as are local law enforcement, including Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

“This bill is a good idea. It would make the streets of Harris County safer for everyone,” Garcia said. “We would learn a lot more than we know now about drivers who are already traveling our roadways every day, but have been unable or afraid to obtain a driver’s permit and insurance. Having more legal, insured drivers helps all drivers.”

This is one of those situations where the right thing to do is simple and obvious and most rational people recognize it as such, but the politics of it are dicey because the opposition is so fierce. HB3206 has every single one of Rep. Alonzo’s Democratic colleagues as coauthors, and it passed out of the State Affairs committee on an 8-1 vote last week, so it does have some bipartisan appeal; Sen. Tommy Williams and Rep. Byron Cook, the Chair of State Affairs, are the Republicans noted in the story as Alonzo’s allies. It’s starting to get late in the session, though, so if it doesn’t have enough support soon it’s likely to become a casualty of the calendar.

Ben Hall’s tax problem

Oops.

Ben Hall

A campaign video shows Ben Hall, the former city attorney who is now running for mayor, sitting in a classroom amid a group of schoolchildren as his voiceover talks about the importance of education.

“Our children are our future,” Hall says, with music swelling in the background. “They deserve the very best education that any school district can offer.”

Funny thing about education, though. Somebody has to pay for it.

That’s the irony in Hall’s video. In Texas, public schools are funded mainly by property taxes. And Hall has a bad habit of paying his property taxes late.

Tax records obtained by KHOU 11 News show the candidate has paid more than $130,000 in late fees, penalties and interest on property taxes he’s owed during the past decade. Indeed, he owed more than $50,000 to the Spring Branch ISD that was due in January, a bill he hastily paid after KHOU contacted him with questions about his tax troubles.

“It’s not deliberate, but I’ll be honest with you, I don’t rush to pay my tax bills,” Hall said. “And I’m sure that there are a lot of us that struggle with this obligation, but at the end of the day you have to pay them. And we pay them.”

Hall, a wealthy plaintiff attorney, recently sold a mansion in Piney Point that cost him enough in late fees to buy some Houstonians’ homes. During a ten-year period, he and his wife paid more than $84,000 in penalties, interest and collection fees. They moved into a house inside the city limits, where he didn’t pay his Spring Branch ISD until a reporter started asking questions.

He’s also paid more than $46,000 in late fees on a historic home in Montrose that houses his law office.

The Houston mayoral candidate readily owned up to his tax troubles and agreed to a television interview, conceding that he fully expected the embarrassing problem to come up during his campaign. Indeed, he tried to spin the questions into an argument that his tax woes make him more sensitive to the problems faced by average taxpayers.

“I think we need to seriously look at whether it is good policy to assess an additional 20 percent load on taxpayers who are already struggling to pay their taxes,” Hall said.

The story was abetted by a tip from the Parker campaign, though one presumes it would have come out one way or another sooner or later. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the attack ad potential here. Part of the problem for Hall is that this isn’t a one-time thing, which can be reasonably understood as a mistake. By his own admission, he’s not that diligent about paying on time, which is a pretty remarkable thing to say for someone whose “struggles” are not related to his bank account but his apparent inability to set a reminder on his calendar. Hall makes a decent point about the punitive nature of late-payment assessments, but perhaps not the one he intended to. I mean, if each time he fails to pay his taxes on time he just shrugs and writes a check for the fine, then the penalty in question is clearly insufficient as a deterrent, at least for some folks. I’m not sure how much sympathy he’s going to get with that line of argument, but you play the hand you’re dealt.

One more thing to think about here. While the Parker campaign is clearly interested in defining Ben Hall in a particular way before he can get his campaign off the ground, it’s worth wondering why they’d let loose this piece of intel so early on, when hardly anyone is paying attention and the story may do as much to make people aware that there is someone named Ben Hall running for Mayor as anything else. My guess as to why they’d do this now and not in, say, September, is that there’s more where this came from. We’ll know for sure soon enough. Texpatriate has more.

Fare enforcement for Metro

Dodging the fare on the light rail lines could become more difficult to do.

Provided a key piece of state legislation comes through, Metro officials said the plan is to have new monitors in place when the new North, East and Southeast lines start ferrying passengers along the city’s rail system.

“It is growing a bunch, and this is the first time Houston’s had transit like this,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “I see this as a great opportunity to reach out to new customers who’ll need to know how to ride.”

Garcia said he prefers to consider the new hires “ambassadors” as opposed to officers, but agency officials acknowledge a critical role will be to enforce payment of fares, a key lapse in Metro’s current system.

[…]

A bill by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, to allow Metro to hire nonpolice fare checkers passed the House last week by a wide margin. Fletcher said last month Metro approached him about the bill, and he thought it made sense as the rail system grew.

Fletcher’s bill allows Metro to hire fare enforcement officers who do not have to be deputized law enforcement officers, but who can inspect and verify fare payments on behalf of the transit agency. They would also issue citations.

“We want them to have fare enforcement authority,” Metro interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

But he added that revenue related to fines will not fund them. Lambert said under the current rules, that fine money goes to the county if the person pays the fine in court, and not to recoup Metro’s operating costs.

“This has nothing to do with fines coming back to Metro,” Lambert said.

The bill in question is HB3031. If you had asked me to guess who carried it, or if you had asked me before the session to suggest someone from the Harris County delegation to carry a bill like this for Metro, I would not have come up with Rep. Fletcher. He got the job done, though, so kudos to him. Metro estimates that about 15% of rail riders currently do not pay the fare when they ride. At about 5,700 fare-shirkers a day, that works out to about $2.6 million in annual revenue, not a huge piece of Metro’s budget but not nothing either. It will be very interesting to see what the effect of this bill will be, assuming it makes it through the Senate.

No gay Scouts for Houston

Despite a proposed change at the national level, if you’re gay the Boy Scouts in Houston still don’t want you.

On Monday, Sam Houston Area Council members said they would continue the current national policy of the Irving-based Boy Scouts of America.

Like the military’s former “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy about gay troops, the Boy Scouts don’t ask about the sexual orientation of a prospective member or adult volunteer but won’t grant membership to openly gay people or those who engage in behavior that would “become a distraction’ to their mission, the Sam Houston Council said in a statement.

A recent survey of parents, volunteers and backers in the Sam Houston Council showed strong support for keeping the policy as it is, officials said.

They said 75 percent of respondents to the survey were against changing the current national membership policy.

The Boy Scouts of America recently proposed to change its policy to allow scouts who are gay, but not scout leaders. Apparently, that was too inclusive for the Sam Houston Area Council. I haven’t had a positive view of the Boy Scouts for a long time because of their retrograde policies, so stuff like this doesn’t surprise me. I don’t know what to say, so I’ll just post this:

Of course, the BSA hasn’t voted on that inclusion for some but not for all policy yet. If the Sam Houston Area Council is any indication, even that small step forward may not happen.