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May 14th, 2013:

Another Battleground Texas story

There are three points of interest in this Statesman story about Battleground Texas. Point One: They’ve convinced the people who most needed convincing, the money people and the dedicated volunteers.

Battleground Texas quickly won the allegiance of Steve Mostyn and Mary Patrick.

Mostyn is a Houston trial lawyer who, with his wife, Amber, is the foremost contributor to Democratic and liberal causes in Texas. He was among Obama’s top donors nationally. Big, bald and bold, Mostyn has emerged as the Daddy Warbucks of Texas Democratic politics.

Mary Patrick, slight, gray and indefatigably determined, is the epitome of the long-suffering progressive Austin uber-volunteer, on whom Battleground Texas’ success will depend every bit as much as on Mostyn’s money.

It was Patrick signing people in at the Battleground Texas organizing event at the AFL-CIO hall in Austin in early April. It was Patrick, an active volunteer with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin, who has opened the doors of its fellowship hall every Saturday morning since mid-April so that Battleground Texas can train its recruits and have them sworn in as volunteer deputy voter registrars, phase two of their battle plan.

“I’ve been real pleasantly surprised,” said Mostyn over a bowl of gumbo at Shoal Creek Saloon on Lamar Boulevard. “When they came and met with me, the question we had for them was, ‘How do you replicate any enthusiasm when you don’t have a candidate?’”

“They said, ‘We may have to build excitement,’” he said. And, so far, they have.

Persuaded, Mostyn traveled to New York, California, Colorado and D.C., “meeting with people from all over the progressive movement who understand that there are four majority-minority states, and Texas is the only one that’s Republican.”

“We’ve never seen the money commitment that’s coming and the money commitment that I’m going to put in,” said Mostyn. “It’s large, and that’s new and it’s sustaining. All of us are talking – those of us in the donor world – about a long-term plan.”

What kind of money are we talking about?

Mostyn pauses: “Battleground’s budget is millions and millions and millions and millions and millions.” (Battleground Texas doesn’t have to file its first semiannual fundraising report until July 15.)

The Battleground crew likewise impressed Patrick, who has been active in Democratic campaigns and liberal causes in Austin since graduating from the University of Texas in 1968.

“This is a very smart group of people. If they had never done this before, I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ But they’ve done it before, and they know what to do,” said Patrick.

“It’s very exciting, and I’m very eager. I want this to happen before I get too old; please, sometime before I’m 90,” she said. “For those of us who have been slogging it out for years, we want it now.”

Money matters, of course. Battleground Texas needs smart, dedicated people at the helm, crafting strategy and directing resources and crunching data and so on and so forth. People like that – the Jeremy Birds and Jenn Browns and Christina Gomezes – are in demand, and can work on any campaign they want to work on. They need office space and computers and access to data and the people who can make sense of the data, and they need those things now and will continue to need those things after the next election is over. Having the money to pay for those things, and knowing that the money will continue to be there to pay for those things, is critical to this effort. But as important as that money is, the core value of Battleground Texas is people power, neighbors talking to neighbors. If the worker bees don’t buy into the vision, all that money won’t really do very much. We need both. Getting both sides of this equation on board was BT’s first challenge, and they met it. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Point two: Nobody is really sure what to make of all this.

But, those who study political demography, such as Robert Stein and Mark Jones at Rice University, project that Democrats could start winning statewide in the 2020s – a long time from now, but, considering the enormous stakes nationally, well worth a protracted Democratic effort to lay the groundwork.

Still, Richard Murray, director of the Survey Research Institute at the University of Houston, is dubious that national Democrats will pour money into a sustained long-term effort in a state as vast and expensive as Texas when the money could be used to far greater tangible effect elsewhere.

“To my knowledge, there is no precedent nationally of an attempt to change a state that is pretty solidly in the other party’s political base by investing surplus resources that don’t have any immediate payoff,” Murray said.

Texas Democrats have romantic notions about what Hillary Clinton as the potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 could do in Texas, but Murray observes that if Clinton were within striking distance of winning Texas, she would be on her way to an electoral landslide that wouldn’t require Texas.

For now, Brown finds herself having to tamp down the expectations her very presence has excited.

“I’d like to do well in 2014 and convince somebody we are here for them,” she told the Austin organizing meeting at the AFL-CIO hall on Lavaca Street.

But if not, “that’s OK,” she said. And if Democrats don’t carry Texas in 2016, “that’s totally OK too. If 2020 is the year we turn this state blue, that’s OK with me.”

Despite what Steve Mostyn said about BT’s budget, I don’t think it’s going to take a ridiculous amount of money for BT to have an effect. It’s not BT that’s going to be buying TV ads for candidates, which is where the real expenses are – it will be the candidates themselves, and whatever third parties that want to get involved. Frankly, if even half of the money that flows out of Texas to candidates elsewhere in the country stayed here in Texas, that would go a long way towards powering BT. That said, I agree with Dr. Murray that there really isn’t a model for what BT is trying to do. Sure, they’re trying to replicate the Obama campaign in states like Ohio and Florida, but in a state that hasn’t seen a Presidential campaign in the lifetimes of the BT braintrust. But just because something hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t. I don’t see that as a blocker for BT. I do think it will need to show some kind of results beginning next year to help maintain the energy that it has generated so far. I do think BT will need to set some goals – it’s OK if they wait till there are some actual candidates before they do – and I think that an overall turnout goal is a fine place to start. But this is a long-term project, and we have no idea how it will go.

Point three: Republicans say they’ll spend a ton of money if BT is effective. I say “So what?”

“They talk about they’re going to be putting tens of million into Battleground Texas,” said [state GOP Chair Steve] Munisteri. “If there ever were a significant threat because somebody put $20 million in, our business community would probably spend that on Republicans by a factor of several-fold; $75 million was raised just from Texas for Romney. None of that money was spent in the state. Over a six-year period, the RNC raised $41 million in Texas and spent about $400,000. Those dollars can easily flow back the other way if we need them, so if they spend $10 million, we can spend $100 million.”

If so, for a national Democratic donor that would mean for every dollar spent in Texas, Republicans would spend $10, money they wouldn’t be spending elsewhere. That’s not a bad return on investment.

All that money didn’t do much to help Republicans nationally, either. The vast majority of that money, once the consultants and other bottom-feeders like Karl Rove skimmed off their piece, went to TV ads, which were of minimal effectiveness last year. I’ll take engaged volunteers over that, thanks. Be that as it may, doing nothing is not an option. If we’re going to get scared about what the Republicans might do when we try to win, we may as well not try.

Memorial Park will not become the Riverwalk

Council will vote on the proposed Uptown/Memorial TIRZ this week, which may or may not put an end to some of the wild speculation about what expanding the Uptown TIRZ boundaries to include Memorial Park may mean.

Imagine you’re jogging through Memorial Park, squinting past rows of neon signs in front of fast food joints, the music from bars in a kitschy corridor akin to San Antonio’s Riverwalk barely audible over the roar of nearby bulldozers.

This is the dystopian portrait some citizens paint of a proposal to annex the park into the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. They say the move is a takeover of the city’s most precious green space by an unelected board, and fear the process could result in disruptive projects being built before the public has a chance to weigh in.

The problem with this view is that there is no evidence to support it, as city leaders repeatedly have said; Mayor Annise Parker bemoaned the “really goofy theories” that have been swirling.

Adding the park to the nearby Uptown zone is simply a way to funnel $100 million during the next 27 years from one of the city’s richest redevelopment boards into a park ravaged by the 2011 drought and in need of erosion control projects, irrigation, a new jogging trail and other repairs, officials say. Though the Uptown zone or Memorial Park Conservancy may take the lead on select projects, officials stress any improvements in the park must be specified in advance and approved by the city Parks and Recreation Department and by City Council.

Parker pointed out the Uptown zone already is working in a small portion of the park in its boundaries, and that a similar arrangement is succeeding in Emancipation Park.

That has not stopped Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, whose District C includes Memorial Park, from fielding numerous calls and emails from concerned residents.

“What I want to hear from you is that we’re not looking at Ferris wheels along Memorial Park, fast food restaurants lining Memorial Park,” she said to parks director Joe Turner at a hearing last week. “We’re not looking at any of the kinds of things that really would destroy the integrity of the park if this program goes through.”

Turner assured her no such plans are being discussed. The only specific project on the table today is the Uptown zone contributing $1 million toward a new master plan for Memorial Park, which he said would include ample time for public comment, including at least four public meetings, in addition to several hearings before City Council.

The concern about “neon signs” and comparisons to the Riverwalk come straight from that Lisa Falkenberg column about whether there is sufficient transparency built into the TIRZ plan:

They make some important points – none better than Olive Hershey, the stepdaughter of Terry Hershey, the determined conservationist and life member of the conservancy who fought government agencies trying to pave parts of Buffalo Bayou in the 1960s.

“There’s been virtually no disclosure of the real details of this scheme and the public stands to lose any meaningful control of an irreplaceable park in our public lands and waterways,” Hershey told the council Wednesday. “Memorial Park must not be turned over to a group of bureaucrats who may have little understanding of how to nurture and defend this fragile jewel. If the city needs money to reforest the drought-damaged landscape there, it seems a shame to basically turn the park over to TIRZ 16 because the city can’t afford to protect the remaining trees.”

She wondered aloud whether the powerful influence of developers and other interests over a relatively few conservancy members could lead to “neon signs” along trails and retail developments similar to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. The mayor dismissed such scenarios as “far-fetched” and stressed that the park can only be used for “park purposes.”

I didn’t address this when I wrote about it then because it seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I understand the concerns about transparency and public input, but I just don’t find the scenario being put forth here as remotely realistic. If there were ever even a rumor of this sort of thing being proposed or in the works, people would storm city hall with pitchforks and torches. Nobody who could be elected to anything in Houston would allow this to stand. I don’t understand where this is coming from. There may be less-farfetched things that could happen, but I don’t know what they are, and it’s still not clear to me what level and form of public input would be acceptable to assuage these fears – I still haven’t seen any suggestions to that effect. As noted in the story, the TIRZ meetings are open to the public, and five of the eight members are appointed by the Mayor and Council, which gets back to that pitchforks and torches thing. I totally get the desire to ensure that Memorial Park is preserved. I’m right there with that. I just want to know what the remedy is that would also allow for the needed improvements and infrastructure repairs to be made to the park.

Maybe I buried Medicaid expansion too soon

I still think it’s dead, but I could be wrong about that.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The fate of Medicaid reform in Texas could rest solely on an up-or-down vote on the 2014-15 budget.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, a member of the conference committee that is hashing out the differences between the House and Senate budget plans, said Monday he’s relatively confident that a rider stipulating the Legislature’s preferred Medicaid reform terms — like cost containment measures and private market reforms — for any deal with the federal government is “sticking” to the 2014-15 budget. The rider does not expand Medicaid, he clarified, and said he would be “happy to defend it” to his colleagues.

The 2014-15 budget is not yet finalized. Budget conferees are meeting Monday evening to discuss the health and human services section and could discuss the rider. It could also come up in future discussions on the proposed budget this week.

Republican lawmakers have made it clear that they won’t approve an expansion of Medicaid eligibility this session. And although some conservative GOP House members have vowed to reject the budget proposal if such a rider is included, Zerwas said the rider has the support of the majority of budget conferees. The budget does not include financing to expand Medicaid eligibility in the upcoming biennium.

“No amount may be expended to modify Medicaid eligibility unless the [Health and Human Services Commission] develops a plan to create more efficient health care coverage options for all existing and newly eligible populations,” states the budget rider, which was authored by Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

The rider also says the Legislative Budget Board, which includes the lieutenant governor and House speaker, must ensure that any deal reached with the federal government to expand Medicaid eligibility cuts uncompensated care costs; promotes the use of private coverage and health savings accounts; establishes wellness incentives, cost-sharing initiatives and pay-for-performance initiatives; and reduces the state’s need to gain federal approval to make “minor changes” to the program.

(You can read the budget rider here, under contingent provisions in Article 9, Sec. 17.12. Certain Medicaid Funds.)

[…]

The Senate has approved the rider, but the House approved a nonbinding motion directing budget conferees not to include the rider on the budget.

State Rep. Van Taylor, a Tea Party favorite from Plano, told the Tribune on Tuesday that the conservative faction of the House was prepared to vote down the budget, if it called for an expansion of Medicaid.

“John wants it. I want it — so there’s two of us” who want to include the rider in the budget, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said on Tuesday.

I presume Sylvester Turner, who is also on the House conference committee, would be in favor of this as well. If so, then that should be enough support to include it. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. I’m sure Pitts is smart enough to not doom his own budget, but I don’t know how much faith I’d put in the Republicans; Democrats will have their own incentives, which may or may not line up with what Pitts wants. And if we are going to a special session as Burka is convinced we are, then I wouldn’t put it past Rick Perry to veto the budget out of spite. Let’s just say that the conference committee, which is meeting again and making some progress, is likely the lowest hurdle for this to clear.

HISD revises magnet school policy

This has been in the works for a long time.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

The [HISD Board of Trustees] voted unanimously on a revised policy governing its beloved magnet school program, saying the schools would be held more accountable for academic performance and their ability to attract students.

While some of the 113 magnet programs are nationally recognized and draw waiting lists, others have languished over the years.

“Woo! We finally passed a magnet policy,” board president Anna Eastman said immediately after the vote.

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier took his excitement to Twitter.

“HISD approves Magnet Policy after four years of discussion!” he wrote.

The policy does not address individual schools – a politically tougher topic. Grier and the board have said no changes will take place for the coming school year.

Yeah, it’s when the board gets around to deciding the fate of individual schools that stuff will start to get real. Be that as it may, I think this is sensible. HISD has a lot of great magnet schools, but that doesn’t mean they’re all worth keeping, or at least worth keeping as is. It’s perfectly reasonable for them all to have to demonstrate their value. This preview story has some more details.

The policy that the school board is set to approve Thursday is general, but makes a point that magnet programs should have “fair and equitable” resources and should be held accountable for academic performance. The proposal also calls for magnet schools to strive for at least 20 percent of their students to come from outside the neighborhood, but Eastman suggested this week that the provision should be loosened.

“We have to use common sense,” Grier said in response. “We’re not interested in hurting schools that are attracting kids.”

Data obtained from HISD show that 50 of 113 magnet programs don’t meet the 20 percent standard.

The programs drawing the fewest students from outside the neighborhood – fewer than 15 – are Worthing, Scarborough, Kashmere and Lee high schools, Long Academy and Ryan Middle. Combined, those schools are receiving more than $558,000 in special magnet funding this year, the data show.

The school board already has agreed to close Ryan and reopen it next year as a magnet school focused on health careers, modeled after the prestigious DeBakey High School for Health Professions.

In all, HISD gave about $17 million extra to its magnet schools this year, and the district spends another $10 million on transportation. The funding for programming varies widely. Six magnet programs got no extra money this year while three – Carnegie Vanguard High School, Parker Elementary and Garden Villas Elementary – received more than $400,000 each.

Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who helped revise the magnet policy, said she hopes it will spur better programs with more relevant themes. Once the board approves the new policy, Grier’s staff plans to write more detailed standards such as specific academic benchmarks.

There’s certainly room to massage the 20 percent standard – at the very least, if things are working well at a school otherwise, there should be some discretion to leave things be. Ultimately, the goal should be to keep what’s good and fix or get rid of what isn’t. The details are obviously important, but let’s not get so bogged down in them that we lose sight of that.