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May 5th, 2013:

Weekend link dump for May 5

It was Cinco de Mayo, I was down on the bayou…

Here’s a video of a cat, dressed as a shark, chasing a duckling while riding on a Roomba. Also features a dog in hammerhead shark costume, because of course it does. If this doesn’t represent the pinnacle of the Internet, I don’t know what would.

Ron Paul returns to his roots, surrounded by crazy people.

“There is little sense in shouting against the wind, but the blog—the blog as a thematically or personally coherent space containing an individual’s or a subject’s specific interests, commitments, attitudes—was a great thing, and its decline is saddening.”

Here’s a fascinating story about a comedian allegedly stealing the act of another, who happens to be there to see it. It all takes place during an audition for “America’s Got Talent”, and it wasn’t the stolen-from comedian who pointed out the apparent theft.

“As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the [Civil War], it is amazing to consider that offspring of those who fought are still among us. It doesn’t seem possible that the math could add up. But it does.”

Twenty Sony World Photography Award winners.

“Even if you believe, as I do, that the predators are not confused and can’t be educated, there are two good reasons to believe that consent education can make the climate better.”

One could argue that Disney villains are better role models for girls than Disney princesses.

What will the etiquette rules for Google Glass be?

Sometimes, late isn’t better than never.

RIP, Alan Wood, who provided the flag for that iconic photo of the Marines at Iwo Jima.

This is what the fight for marriage equality is all about.

“I don’t see any good reason for the rest of us not to remind the world that the majority of elected Republicans in the country have pledged their allegiance to someone with some pretty damned unsavory connections.”

Women’s soccer needs to take concussions seriously, too.

Maybe if Twitter wants news organizations to beef up their security, they should provide them some better tools for doing so.

“The future is extremely hard to see through the lens of the present.” Always in motion the future is.

As is TBogg with Sarah Palin, Charlie Pierce is our foremost interpreter of Maureen Dowd.

Perhaps a Plan C is in order, Mr. President.

If nothing else, I hope this recent bout with austerity-mania helps cure the notion that austerity is good public policy during down times.

“Unlike other types of crimes, [cellphone theft] is a crime that could be easily fixed with a technological solution.”

Yogi Berra is a mensch.

We need to view bicycling as more transportation than exercise if we want to get more people to bike.

“There’s wrong, there’s very wrong and then there’s Niall Ferguson.”

You know what they say about payback.

Is this the end for the Railroad Commission?

For the name, I mean, not the Commission itself.

They may need a new logo

After 40 minutes of discussion about a bill that would rename the Railroad Commission of Texas and make other significant changes to the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, the Senate passed the measure Thursday with a 21-0 vote.

Senate Bill 212, carried by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would rename the agency the Texas Energy Resources Commission. That would reflect its current duties, which no longer include railroads.

A companion bill, House Bill 2166, is moving through the House. [Thursday] morning the House Energy Resources Committee voted to forward the measure to the full House.

SB 212 would also tighten some of the ethics rules governing the Railroad Commission. The commission is headed by three elected officials, who get many of their contributions from the oil and gas groups, despite also regulating them.

The legislation came about because of “sunset,” the periodic review of state agencies that evaluates their effectiveness and results in a bill to address problems.

The bill would require the Railroad Commissioners to resign before running for another office, and it would prevent them from receiving contributions from groups arguing cases before the commission as those cases were being argued. It would also forbid the commissioners from accepting campaign contributions except during the 17 months before their election. (The commissioners are each elected for six-year terms.)

The three commissioners have opposed these ethics changes, arguing that they single out the commission. Commissioners should be treated like other elected officials, they said.

See here for the background. I’m sad that Sen. Glen Hegar’s suggested name “T-DOG” wasn’t adopted. As for the commissioners’ complaints, I don’t have much sympathy. Because the have six-year terms, they have a lot more freedom to go shopping for other offices than other statewide candidates do. They’re guaranteed one shot at the four-year cycle offices every term if they want to take it. I for one would be happy to support extending the same campaign finance restrictions to the other statewides as well, but the lack of such a restriction on them right now is not a sufficient reason to not have such a provision in SB212. HB2166 doesn’t have some of the ethics restrictions that SB212 does, and the way things go around here it won’t surprise me at all if that’s the version that prevails. It’s fine by me if the restrictions stay, though.

If only it were that easy to get our act together

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has some blunt words for Houston about light rail.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likes Houston’s light rail that’s up and running but warns that regional transit officials have squandered opportunities the past decade by not building greater consensus.

“The region needs to get its act together,” LaHood said during a brief question and answer session after an unrelated news conference Wednesday in Houston.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board Chairman Gilbert Garcia conceded a tarnished transit image and political opposition has slowed progress, but the past three years have seen Metro make significant progress.

“It may not go the pace we all want but we’ve gone very far,” he said.

Going further, Garcia said, will take more buy-in from local congressional and statehouse lawmakers.

Though the Main Street line has been a success, and three more lines are under construction, LaHood said the area is coming up short because more hasn’t been done to extend lines to the suburbs where most people live.

He said he spent the morning in Houston talking about projects to extend transit farther from the downtown area. Suburban taxpayers who supported referendums in 2003 and 2012 especially have demonstrated a desire for development, only to have officials shortchange them.

“The fact that these people voted for a referendum and are paying these taxes and have never seen any benefit from it is just not right,” LaHood said.

LaHood, who is stepping down as transportation secretary as soon as a successor is confirmed, said in other cities that have won rail funding, it’s been because everyone from City Hall to Capitol Hill has shown their support for transit funding. In Houston, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s going to hamper getting federal funds.

“If there is not going to be universal agreement then it is not going to happen,” LaHood said.

I certainly agree that as long as we are all rowing in different directions, we’re going to get nowhere, and that’s very much to our detriment. But that’s the reality we live with. Rep. John Culberson is a staunch opponent of the University Line, and has done everything he can to block its construction. While I appreciate Secretary LaHood’s honest assessment, the best thing he could have done to help us all get on the same page would have been to use whatever Republican street cred he had left to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with his former colleague Culberson and tell him to quit being such a jackass. The sad fact is that there is no leverage to be had on Culberson. The voters he answers to agree with him, and if there’s a way for someone else to put pressure on him, I don’t know what it is.

Now to be sure, there’s plenty of responsibility for the excruciatingly slow progress on light rail in Houston that extends beyond Rep. Culberson. Metro itself did a lot of things wrong in the years immediately following the 2003 referendum, including the BRT flipflop, the Buy America fiasco, and just generally being lousy at community engagement and communication. Bill White did a lot of good things as Mayor, but Metro was broken on his watch – it wasn’t until after he’d left office that it became clear just how badly Metro was broken during his tenure – and even if it had been a well-oiled machine, he never spent much time or energy pushing the light rail expansion projects. Commissioners Court, in particular Steve Radack, has been another burdensome obstacle for Metro. Metro is in much better shape now, thanks in large part to the Board that Mayor Parker selected and the tenure of George Greanias as CEO. Radack got what he wanted in the Metro referendum from last year. It would be delightful to get Metro, the city, Commissioners Court, and the entire Congressional delegation all on the same page, but as long as some members of that group are pushing for the opposite of what everyone else wants, I have no idea how to make that happen.

Finally, Secretary LaHood’s comment about suburban taxpayers struck me as a bit odd. For one thing, Metro has spent a ton of money on the park and ride network, which very much serves the suburbs. For another, though I don’t have precinct data from the 2003 referendum in front of me, I’d bet money that the suburban parts of Houston voted against Metro’s 2012 Solutions plan. What he’s talking about sounds a lot like commuter rail, which strictly speaking outside of the US90/Southwest Corridor rail project, which was part of the 2012 Solutions plan and for which work continues, commuter rail is outside Metro’s scope, at least as far as planning and seeking funds go. Still, any viable commuter rail plan will also require everyone to work together in perfect harmony, so in a larger sense it does speak to LaHood’s overall point. Ultimately, we work together or we get nothing done. The message is clear, it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do about it.

Modified teacher retirement bill put forth

Sounds like progress, though we’ll have to see how it goes from here.

Members of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas objected strongly last week to a legislative proposal that would have required about half of current employees to work until age 62 to receive full retirement benefits. They now have no minimum retirement age but must achieve the “Rule of 80,” in which their years of service and age equal 80.

The latest counteroffer, released Thursday by state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, would apply the higher retirement age only to employees with less than five years on the job, about 20 percent of Teacher Retirement System members. They were hired under a different set of rules and already have a minimum retirement age of 60.

But everyone, in turn, would have to contribute more from their paychecks: 7.7 percent beginning in 2015, up from the current 6.4 percent. And school districts, most of which aren’t part of Social Security, for the first time would have to chip in 1.5 percent for their workers’ retirement to supplement the state’s 6.8 percent contribution.

The compromise addresses concerns that the state was changing the retirement rules in the middle of the game, said Duncan, who chairs the State Affairs Committee and authored Senate Bill 1458. And it provides long-term funding sources that don’t depend on the vagaries of the investment markets or the Legislature, which have taken their toll on the pension funds over the years.

The combined effect would significantly improve the financial health of the $112 billion pension fund and allow a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment this year for members who have been retired for at least 15 years, about 102,000 people.

See here for the background. Reaction from teacher groups was mixed but more positive than negative, but there were no quotes from any school district superintendents about the proposed contribution from them. They may make the loudest objections, since that could be a significant hit to their budgets. The state is upping its contribution from 6.4% to 6.8%, and one could reasonably argue that it could do a little bit more. There is a cost of living increase built in for existing retirees, the first in a number of years, and this bill ought to help keep the jackals that want to do away with the defined benefit plan and convert it all to a 401(k) plan, so there is definitely reason to keep working on this. Time is running short, though, so it needs to happen soon. Texas Politics has more.

The red light camera debate keeps raging on

Elsewhere, thankfully. Not here.

They still have these in some cities

League City is the latest to put the plug on red light cameras at intersections. Cameras at three League City intersections were to be turned off by midnight Wednesday, after the City Council voted to cut short its five-year agreement with Arizona-based contractor Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. The contract was set to expire in October 2014.

In Texas, roughly 60 cities have the camera programs, with fewer than 10 in the Houston area, according to data from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

The League City decision follows action by Montgomery County commissioners last week to end its contract with Redflex, the company that runs 10 red light cameras in The Woodlands.

Redflex spokeswoman Jody Ryan said the contract with Montgomery County is still operational, and it is under discussion with the county.

Use of the cameras spiked to nearly 700 cities by some estimates, but has declined to 530, based on the latest count by the insurance institute.

“They are dropping and adding so much we don’t count their use,” said Nancy White, a spokeswoman for AAA in Washington.

Can I just say how glad I am that we’re no longer debating this in Houston? I had no problems with the cameras, and I still don’t quite understand the fuss they generated, but this is one of those debates that has no resolution. Either you think they’re a good idea or you don’t, and there’s really no middle ground – you either have them in your city or you don’t, and if you don’t like them the only acceptable number to have is zero. It’s useless to cite accident data in the debate – small sample sizes and imprecise definitions render the statistics largely meaningless, with as many studies showing a benefit to having the cameras as there are studies showing the opposite. There’s no compromise – ultimately, one side wins and one side loses. I suppose one advantage to the anti-camera forces winning is that at that point the argument generally ends, since the pro-camera folks no longer have anything to fight about. I have no doubt that had the 2010 camera referendum gone the other way in Houston the anti-camera folks would still be looking for a way to prevail. I’m wearing myself out just thinking about it. Anyway, like I said I’m just glad we’re done with this here. There are plenty of other things to be arguing about, and some of those things do have outcomes that are generally satisfactory to most people. I’m happy we’ve moved on.