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August 15th, 2013:

Early To Rise submits its petitions

From here it gets real.

The Harris County School Readiness Corp., a new nonprofit led by business and civic leaders, is calling for a ballot intiative to levy a 1-cent-per-$100 tax through the Harris County Department of Education to generate about $25 million a year for training teachers and buying school supplies for child care centers serving children up to age 5.

Chairman James Calaway touted the proposal Tuesday as he stood ready to roll a dolly stacked with five boxes filled with more than 150,000 signatures into the office of one of the plan’s most vocal critics, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“Let’s deliver these to the county judge so he can begin his five days of verification to get it on the ballot,” he said.

Here’s their press release. There’s already a dispute over how quickly the signatures must be certified. Calaway says Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan has five days to randomly verify a subsample of the signatures. Sullivan and County Judge Ed Emmett say he has until the deadline for putting items on the ballot, which is August 26. That’s also the deadline for the Attorney General to render an opinion that would be relevant and timely. At the behest of Judge Emmett, County Attorney Vince Ryan has submitted a request for an AG opinion that asks “whether the Harris County Judge is authorized to deny a petition to order an election to levy and collect an equalization tax for the Harris County Department of Education and related questions”. (Sen. Dan Patrick has also requested an opinion.) You can hear all the attorneys limbering up in the background as they prepare for the inevitable lawsuit. I presume the fact that Ryan submitted the request means that Judge Emmett was told he couldn’t do it himself, a fact that Lisa Falkenberg pointed out awhile back. So at least this is known to be kosher.

I don’t know what will happen next, but if I had to guess I’d say this makes it to the ballot. Barring a ruling that the law being used is invalid, I’m not sure what the pretext would be for stopping it. Doesn’t mean Abbott couldn’t come up with a reason if he wants to, of course. But let’s say it does make it onto the ballot. I’m wondering now if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation has had any second thoughts about its reasons for pushing this in 2013 instead of waiting till 2014. As I understand it, they thought that they’d have a better shot in 2013, when voters from the city would be a disproportionately large share of the electorate. While I don’t think that support or opposition to the Early To Rise plan will cleave exactly along partisan lines, I do think it’s reasonable to think the Democrats are more likely to support it and Republicans are more likely to oppose it, and given that, you’d like for the mostly-Democratic city to be the bulk of the voters. Of course, in our generally low-turnout city elections, the voters who show up aren’t necessarily representative of what a high-turnout electorate would be. With the addition of the Astrodome referendum, it’s impossible to say what the county electorate will look like, and it’s no longer a guarantee that city of Houston voters will be the bulk of it. If the key to getting this passed is a Democratic electorate, then maybe it would have been better to wait till next year and the hoped-for Wendy Davis Express to serve as a tailwind. Of course, no one could have known all this six months ago, or whenever the Harris County School Readiness Corporation first geared up. They picked their target, now we’ll see how wise they were to do so.

That’s getting ahead of ourselves, because we still don’t quite know exactly what we’d be voting for.

For months, corporation members have been negotiating with the Harris County Department of Education on a governance agreement.

“We’ve been working to find the right balance of public oversight,” Calaway said, declining to talk specifically about details until the proposal is presented publicly to the department’s board of trustees Tuesday.

Wishing to dispel myths that the nonprofit simply would be cut a check for the tax dollars and left free to spend it on its own operations, Calaway said much of the finance and accounting work would be handled by the Department of Education.

The nonprofit’s three-person staff would coordinate with existing early education providers to spend the money, he said.

The challenge is sorting out how much public oversight to mandate for a private entity spending public dollars, Calaway and education department Superintendent John Sawyer agreed.

Sawyer said the proposal is unlike any other private-public partnership he has seen.

“Elected officials would allow the operations to be overseen by a board different from themselves,” he said. “My board has got to come to grips with that. Or not.”

The suggestion of having HCDE name a board member has been dropped by agreement. I suspect they’ll get the details hammered out, but I’m wondering what happens if they don’t. Does it make sense for the Harris County School Readiness Corporation to push a proposal that the HCDE hates? The whole reason why the Harris County School Readiness Corporation was able to mount this petition drive is because the HCDE still exists, unlike most other county school boards. It’s HCDE’s tax rate that we’re being asked to increase. Being harmonious with them would seem to be the first order of business. We’ll see what they come up with by Tuesday. Campos, who thinks the “right balance of public oversight” is “100%”, has more.

Astrodome referendum officially on the ballot

It’s been a long, strange trip, but at last you will get to vote on the fate of the Astrodome.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously voted to place a bond election for up to $217 million to convert the iconic stadium into a massive, street-level convention hall and exhibit space, saying residents should take part in deciding the historic structure’s fate.

Should voters reject the bonds, County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said Tuesday they see no other alternative than to demolish the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has sat vacant since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009. The Reliant Astrodome has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000.

“If it does not pass in November, then that should be the death knell for the Dome,” Morman said.

[…]

While the vote to put the measure on the ballot was unanimous, court members’ personal support for the project is not.

Only Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee said they definitely will cast a vote in favor of the bond referendum. Both, however, said they have no plans to launch – or, in Emmett’s case, participate in – campaigns to get the measure passed.

“There needs to be some plans made to do it, if it’s going to be a success,” Lee, who wants to save the Dome, said of a campaign. “The judge is our leadership, so we’ll just see what occurs from there.”

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday also approved $8 million for work that needs to be done to the half-century-old stadium regardless of whether it is torn down or renovated. That work includes asbestos abatement, demolition of the exterior spiral walkways and the sale of signs and other salvaged items that qualify as sports memorabilia.

County engineers and consultants, who estimated it would cost $217 million to repurpose the Dome, also determined it would cost $20 million to demolish it, not including the $8 million.

If the bond fails in November, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it “would make no sense to me at all” to spend millions of dollars demolishing the structure.

“There’s another day to have another election,” he said. “Why are you going to spend $8 million and then tear it down?”

The vote to call the bond election was made with one condition championed by Radack: That the ballot language explicitly say that the project would require an increase to the county property tax rate, which has not been raised in 17 years.

See here for the last update. We were headed towards a referendum in 2008 back when Astrodome Redevelopment was proposing a convention center as the Dome replacement, but the economic collapse knocked that off track, and so here we are now. The big question at this point is who lines up to oppose this. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, whose renovation plan is what the Court approved for the ballot, will take the lead in communicating the referendum and the reasons to vote for it to the public. I have no idea how much money they’ll have to mount a real campaign, however. It’s certainly possible that some deep-pocketed types could show up to fund a campaign in favor of this, or in opposition to it. It’s also possible that there will be little more than earned media and some online presence to inform the voters. If I had to guess, I’d say this passes, but who knows? How do you plan to vote on this? Leave a comment and let’s get a totally unscientific data point to bat around. Texpatriate and Swamplot have more.

Keller accepts a plea deal on ethics charge

She gets off pretty lightly, if you ask me.

BagOfMoney

Sharon Keller, the state’s top criminal court judge, has reached a deal to substantially reduce a record $100,000 fine levied by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to fully disclose millions of dollars of real estate and income in financial statements.

Under the settlement, released Friday, Keller will pay $25,000 to resolve repeated violations of the section of state law that governs personal financial disclosures for elected officials.

In a move that surprised even state watchdog groups, the commission in April 2010 slapped Keller with a $100,000 fine – the largest-ever civil penalty against a politician – after finding that she did not report a total of at least $3.8 million in earnings and property on two annual financial statements.

Keller fixed the omissions on the financial statements, but appealed the commission’s fine to a Travis County state District Court, where it languished for three years.

On Thursday, the Ethics Commission approved the settlement with a 7-0 vote, but referred questions to the attorney general’s office, which represents state agencies in legal matters. The attorney general’s office declined comment.

[…]

In 2007, she became mired in national controversy and fought to hold onto her bench on unrelated charges raised by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that she improperly closed the court to a death row inmate’s appeal, just hours before he was executed. A special master found Keller did nothing legally wrong in that case.

During the death-row case, Keller claimed she could not afford to pay her high-powered attorney, Charles Babcock, prompting a state watchdog group to dig into her personal financial filings, said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice.

Keller’s financial form omissions first were reported by the Dallas Morning News in March 2009. Texans for Public Justice then filed the ethics complaints with the commission that led to the original $100,000 fine.

“We’re disappointed the fine was rolled back by 75 percent,” McDonald said. “We thought the $100,000 fine sent a message to politicians like Keller that they can’t hide assets from the public and their personal financial statements need to be taken seriously.”

See here, here, and here for some of the background on this long and faith-destroying saga. In my opinion, Sharon Keller is the second luckiest politician in the state, trailing Rick Perry by a hair. It’s rare to find someone who has done so much for so long to bring down the wrath of karma on themselves only to get off scotfree again and again. She’s a one-woman rebuttal to the concept of justice in society. I don’t even know what to say.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 12

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks sine die are the two sweetest words in the Latin language as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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