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May, 2014:

Saturday video break: Brain Damage

An iconic song from an iconic album:

Two iconic songs, really, since “Brain Damage” leads inexorably to “Eclipse”; I’d say 90% of the time the former is played on the radio, the latter comes along as well. By the way, the notes on the video says this is an “Early 1972 mix”, so if it sounds a little different to you, that’s why.

An iconic song needs an iconic cover:

That was the first Austin Lounge Lizards song I ever heard; it was immediately followed by “Jesus Loves Me But He Can’t Stand You”. Needless to say, I had to learn more about them, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sriracha dispute settled

The City of Irwindale’s long national nightmare is finally over.

Sriracha’s spicy relationship with the City Council cooled off a bit Wednesday after officials unanimously dismissed a lawsuit and public nuisance declaration against manufacturer Huy Fong Foods.

The standoff between the city and Sriracha creator David Tran began in October when the city filed a lawsuit against his iconic company. The battle sparked fears among Sriracha fans there would be a global shortage of the popular condiment and its bottle with the tell-tale green cap.

An informal meeting Tuesday between Tran and city officials, accompanied by a written statement from Tran, provided the council the assurance it needed that Huy Fong will address residents’ odor complaints.

“We forged a relationship. Let’s keep that going,” City Councilman Julian Miranda said Wednesday.

[…]

Before the vote to dismiss the public nuisance order, Irwindale Chamber of Commerce President Marlene Carney gave a presentation to the council announcing the chamber will launch a marketing campaign “to talk about the positives of doing business” in Irwindale.

Tran on Tuesday credited representatives from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development for bringing the city officials to his factory.

Residents complained last fall the fumes seeping from the factory during the chile grinding season burned their eyes and throats and forced them to stay indoors.

The company recently installed stronger filters on its rooftop air filtration system, which Tran said he tested with pepper spray.

It is unknown if the new filters will be adequate until the company begins to process chiles, which is expected to begin in August.

“At the commencement of this year’s chile harvest season, if the air filtration system does not perform well, then Huy Fong Foods will make the necessary changes in order to better the system right away,” Tran wrote in a letter to the council.

With the settlement of this dispute, there’s now no impetus for Huy Fong to consider relocation, so this should bring the entire sriracha saga to a close. There may yet be expansion possibilities, but the prospect of moving the manufacturing facility, which never really progressed the “vague threat” status, is no longer operable. We can all now resume our normal lives.

I will say, it’s a bit mind-boggling that Huy Fong and the city of Irwindale could have had such a breakdown in communication. You would think this was the sort of routine disagreement that could have been resolved with some ordinary conversations and negotiations, instead of turning into international news. David Tran says in this LA Times story that he “fears that he’s lost market share because he has been forced to reveal so much about his production process”. Maybe, but I think he’s also discovered just how strong his brand is, and by all indications his business is continuing to grow. I’m pretty sure this will all be a net positive for Huy Fong in the end, if it isn’t already.

Finally, regarding that expansion possibility, a Google News search for “Jason Villalba”, the State Rep that has spearheaded the wooing of Huy Fong shows nothing new since his much-ballyhooed visit earlier this month. If there really is something to this possibility, I figure it’ll get mentioned as part of whatever ceremonial recognition of the peace accord with Irwindale takes place. If nothing like that happens, I figure it’s at best a long-term, not-yet-on-the-road-map idea. We’ll see.

Game room enforcement back on in Harris County

Better choose your eight liner provider carefully.

After clearing a few legal hurdles, Harris County’s new game room regulations – on which the city of Houston is piggybacking – are set to take effect Friday.

Late Tuesday after a hearing, a federal judge denied a request from a game room owner and operator for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked the new rules from being implemented. The accompanying lawsuit against Harris County – the second filed since Commissioners Court approved the regulations in December – still is active, with another hearing set for next month.

Under the regulations, game rooms with six or more video poker or “eight liner” machines will be required to obtain permits, pay a $1,000 annual fee, shut down between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., and leave windows unobstructed. The shops also will be required to identify themselves with signs reading “Game Room” and would be barred from requiring a membership for entry, a practice officials say keeps police out.

The new rules were originally set to take effect in March, but the Harris County Sheriff’s Office decided to delay implementation until May 30 to allow more time for game rooms to comply.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. According to Hair Balls, a motion for preliminary injunction is set for June 23, but enforcement is now happening. So be careful where you gamble, you never know when the heat may be on.

Somebody doesn’t like something about the Astros

I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to conclude from this long but mostly unsourced screed about how the Astros are running their team.

The Astros have become one of baseball’s most progressive franchises as they try to rebuild and avoid a fourth consecutive 100-loss season.

But general manager Jeff Luhnow’s radical approach to on-field changes and business decisions has created at least pockets of internal discontent and a potential reputation problem throughout baseball.

“They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it’s kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it,” said former Astros pitcher Bud Norris, now with Baltimore. “When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there’s going to be some opinions about it, and they’re not always pretty.”

The criticism, through interviews with more than 20 players, coaches, agents and others, comes in two parts:

On the field, the Astros shift their defenders into unusual positions to counteract hitter tendencies more than any other team, including in the minor leagues. They schedule minor league starting pitchers on altered and fluctuating rotation schedules, what they call a “modified tandem” system, a development strategy unique in baseball.

Off the field, the Astros are said to handle contract negotiations and the timing of player promotions with a dehumanizing, analytics-based approach detected by some across their operation.

The central question is how much criticism should be inherent to their process and how much should signal trouble in a game where word of mouth spreads quickly?

“Ninety-five percent of what we do is very similar to what all of baseball does,” Luhnow said. “We’re being a little bit different for very good reasons in some areas that we think are important.

“It doesn’t affect our ability to make people happy at the big league level. It just doesn’t. It affects their ability to perform better and be more prepared. That’s at least our hypothesis, and what we believe. And to tie that together with (how we handle) contracts is ridiculous.”

As far as the shifting goes, we all know that the basic idea for this dates from the 1940s, right? Lots of teams are employing it heavily these days, due to a combination of much better data about where each individual batter tends to hit the baseball plus a crop of managers and GMs that are willing to do what the plain facts say they ought to do. As the widespread deployment of this tactic is still new there are sure to be adjustments and countermeasures taken along the way, but for now whatever griping there is about it – the story basically had none – is the usual reactionary BS that tends to dominate baseball conversations. This is why we can’t have a better Hall of Fame balloting process.

As far as the “tandem rotation” system in the minors goes, that’s another stathead pet rock that goes back at least 30 years. The basic idea behind it is to develop young arms while minimizing the risk of injury. For all the advances we’ve made in tracking and measuring what happens on the field, we still have no idea what causes some pitchers to thrive and others to blow out their arms. A team that can crack that enigma, or just show some tangible advantage over doing what everyone has always done, will reap a huge benefit. I have no idea if this particular idea will work, but it can’t hurt to try, and the minors is the place to do it since player development and not a team’s won-loss record is the primary goal.

It almost feels silly to even discuss these things because despite being prominently mentioned early in the story, the rest of it has nothing to do with them. I guess those things are proxies for the real gripe, about how the Astros evaluate players and handle contracts.

When players are first promoted to the majors, they need not be paid more than the standard minimum salary of $500,000. Once in the majors, a player’s service-time clock begins, which eventually will determine when he is eligible for salary arbitration (three years, or two-plus in some special cases) and free agency (six years) – both vehicles for bigger paydays.

The Astros have benefited from making contract offers to young players at low rates and holding back players in the minors for service-time reasons.

Last year, Jose Altuve, signed a guaranteed four-year, $12.5 million deal (the Astros can extend it to six years) that made him even more valuable than his statistics alone – players who are productive and inexpensive are the game’s most valuable commodity.

Top prospect George Springer, who was promoted to the Astros after the season started, will not be eligible for free agency until he is 30 after the team delayed his move to the majors. The Astros said service time wasn’t a factor in the move that could potentially save them millions.

The Astros saved themselves money. But the question is whether the team handles these matters in a way that fosters confidence, and how much they should care about that perception in a business worth half a billion dollars based on a core product of 25 players.

“Players are people, but the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria,” one player agent said, echoing the comments of others. “They plug players into it to see what makes sense from a development or contractual perspective, and it does not engender a lot of goodwill in the player or agent community.

“They wield service time like a sword (in contract extension negotiations) and basically tell a player, ‘This is what you are worth to us, take it or leave it.’ ”

Extension offers for players who have little or no major league experience have grown in popularity in recent years as teams try to get them at a bargain price, and the Astros have made several such offers.

The premise is not what some agents said bothers them, but how the Astros approach dealings and appear to handle clients.

Springer had an offer last year that reportedly was worth about $7 million guaranteed with the potential to earn more. The Astros also have made third baseman Matt Dominguez an offer worth $14.5 million for five years, plus two options, and outfielder Robbie Grossman received at least one similar offer – $13.5 million for six years plus two options, a person familiar with the offers said.

None of the players accepted. Luhnow has a policy of commenting on contracts only if a deal is finalized.

None of this is unusual. Every team does it to some extent. Offering multi-year extensions to young players that might sign for huge amounts elsewhere once they become free agents is standard practice now, to the point that teams like the Yankees that have traditionally done business by signing such players have had to make adjustments because the free agent talent pool ain’t what it used to be. Generally speaking, teams make this kind of offer to their rising stars with a year or two left in their team-control years – it doesn’t make sense to do it much earlier than that. If the Astros are insulting or alienating the kind of players they’d like to retain at a competitive salary, they’ll find those players will choose instead to play out the string and sign with another team. It’s just too early to say whether they’re headed down that path or not.

What was really amazing about this story was just how few people were quoted in it. One unnamed Astro, one unnamed agent, and two former players – Jed Lowrie and Bud Norris. Lots of potential axes to grind in there, but no objective outsider/analyst perspective, other than one positive statement about the effect of the shift defense. I have no idea what we’re supposed to make of this. Sure, it’s easy to point at the on-field performance, but we all know they started from a point of having zero talent. They’re finally developing that talent now, and it would be nice if they could keep the players they grow. It’s fine to point out that their managerial style – talking contract negotiations here, not player positioning or pitcher rotations – might be a hindrance to that. There was so much smoke in this piece it’s hard for me to say if that’s a legitimate concern or a bunch of mindless nattering by the handful of malcontents that every organization has. If it’s the former, there will be plenty of visible evidence for it soon enough. I’m not going to worry about it until then. Chron columnist Randy Harvey, who sees things more or less as I do, and PDiddie, who sees it differently, have more.

Friday random ten: B sides

Continuing the Name Of The Artist Game with the letter B:

1. Telephone Song – B.B. King
2. Dance This Mess Around – The B-52’s
3. Venus – Bananarama
4. Walk Like An Egyptian – The Bangles
5. Alternative Girlfriend – Barenaked Ladies
6. Daniel – Bat For Lashes
7. Human Thing – The Be Good Tanyas
8. Be True To Your School – Beach Boys
9. Help Me Make It Through The Night – Big Daddy
10. Billie’s Blues – Billie Holliday

And as with the letter A, I managed to create this list without resorting to the two artists for whom I have the most songs, in this case Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. Variety! Of course, the fact that I had ten artists before I reached either of them alphabetically helped some, too.

Post HERO, watch for the petition drives

Here’s the full Chron story about the passage of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. I’m going to skip ahead in the story and focus on what the haters are saying and planning to do.

Opponent Dave Welch, of the Houston Area Pastors Council, said his group will begin gathering signatures against the ordinance to trigger a referendum seeking its repeal this November. The group would need to gather roughly 17,000 signatures – or 10 percent of turnout in last fall’s mayoral race – in the next 30 days.

“Once we correct this grievous act through the ballot this fall,” Welch said in a statement, “we will then remind those members that patronizing a tiny interest group and outgoing mayor instead of serving the people leads to a short political career.”

[…]

Houston voters twice have rejected protections or benefits for gays, in 1985 and in 2001.

The most recent vote was spearheaded by Houston Community College trustee and longtime anti-gay advocate Dave Wilson, who said he plans to gather signatures to seek a recall election against “three or four” council members who voted yes.

Only the number of signatures equivalent to one-quarter of the votes cast for mayor in a given council district are required, which Wilson said makes some districts with poor turnout particularly ripe targets.

The signatures must be gathered within a 30-day period and a recall petition must list grounds related to “incompetence, misconduct, malfeasance or unfitness for office.” The target of such a petition could then object, triggering a vote of the City Council on whether the grounds are sufficient. City Attorney David Feldman said the city’s 100-year-old recall process has never been used, and added a single ordinance vote would not be valid grounds.

“Some people say it’s intimidation, et cetera, but I look at it as accountability,” Wilson said, adding he views Feldman as a biased source. “People are elected to represent their district. They’re not up there to propagate their own personal views.”

Wilson said he also is gathering the signatures needed to seek a charter amendment banning a biological man from using a women’s restroom. The ordinance passed Wednesday offers such a protection for transgender residents citywide, as does an executive order Parker signed in 2010 applying to city facilities.

The earliest a charter vote could appear would be May 2015, but Feldman said such an effort may be too relevant to the ordinance passed Wednesday, meaning the signatures gathered would need to fall within the 30-day window.

A petition to repeal the ordinance would require fewer than half the signatures needed to mount a recall effort against Mayor Parker. That’s a more attainable target, but we’ll see how it goes. As I said before, I don’t fear any of this. It’ll be a fight, but we have the numbers, we have the will, and we have the pleasure of being in the right.

It seems clear that anything other than a straight repeal effort within the 30 day time frame will generate a court fight. I rally don’t know how much weight to put on the wording of the petition versus the lack of any mention of grounds for recall elsewhere in the charter. I’d hate to have it come down to a judge’s ruling on that.

By the way, you know who’s an unsung hero in all this? Ben Hall, that’s who. Thanks to Ben Hall, Mayor Parker took the 2013 election a bit more seriously than the 2011 election, and drove up turnout to near-2009 levels as a result. If turnout in 2013 had been the same as in 2011, the haters would only need about 27,000 signatures to get the recall process started instead of the 42,500 they need now, and they’d need fewer than 11,000 sigs to force the repeal referendum instead of 17,000. So thanks, Ben Hall! You did something good with your campaign! Hair Balls, Juanita, BOR, Texas Leftist, Free Press Houston, and TransGriot have more.

Where are all the ladies?

Christy Hoppe of the DMN notices something missing on the Republican side of the 2014 ballot.

Rep. Kay Granger

The Texas Republican Party has a girl problem.

A glance down the list of GOP nominees set after Tuesday’s runoffs makes it look as if U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth has signed up for shop class.

She is the lone woman among the 50 congressional, statewide and top judicial Republican candidates.

In a year when the marquee races for governor and lieutenant governor will feature Democrats Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, the Grand Old Party looks like it’s going stag.

Candidate Lisa Fritsch warned during the primaries of “the party of all these men and the same old recycled candidates.”

And Fritsch is a staunch conservative who was challenging Greg Abbott for the nomination for governor.

State party chairman Steve Munisteri said he’s noticed.

“I would tell you I’ve had discussions with elected officials and party leaders about this very issue,” he said Tuesday. “Frankly, it is a concern.”

He said he is placing women in high-profile jobs and hoping to recruit more women to run for office.

The story has gone national, but it should be noted that Rep. Granger isn’t quite as lonely as Hoppe says. There is one more Republican lady among the statewide and Congressional candidates – there is also Susan Narvaiz, who is running for CD35 against Rep. Lloyd Doggett. And it’s not like there were a bunch of viable female candidates that filed but couldn’t make it through the primaries. The only serious contender for a statewide office on the R side was Debra Medina, who finished third for Comptroller with 19% of the vote despite that crappy Trib poll that I’m still not tired of mocking that showed her leading, and the only serious contender for a Congressional seat was Katrina Pierson, who was defeated easily by Rep. Pete Sessions despite having Ted Cruz as her overlord. The lack of Republican ladies on the ballot was a problem that one could see coming from a good ways away.

To be fair, there’s not an overabundance of ladies on the Democratic side, but there are three women running statewide. Two of them you’ve probably heard of, plus Justice Gina Benavides of the 13th Court of Appeals, who is running for Supreme Court. There are also two Congressional incumbents – Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Eddie Berniece Johnson – plus two more Congressional candidates, Shirley McKellar and Tawana Cadien. That’s two Democratic incumbents to one Republican incumbent even though Republican incumbents overall outnumber Dems in this group by more than three to one, and seven Democratic candidates to two for the GOP. I’d have liked for there to be more female candidates on our ballot – I did vote for Maxey Scherr in the Senate primary, after all – but given the historic nature of the Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte candidacies – the first time ever that a party has nominated women for both of the top two slots – it’s still something we Ds can be proud of. Better luck next time, Republicans.

We’ve got some budget challenges coming

Some chickens are coming home to roost.

BagOfMoney

Beginning next summer with fiscal year 2016, Houston will face a projected $142 million gap between expected revenues and expenses in its general fund, which is fed chiefly by property and sales taxes and funds most basic city services. That exceeds the $137 million budget gap Houston had to close during the economic recession, when Mayor Annise Parker laid off 776 workers in making numerous cuts in 2011.

And the projected gap will widen in the years to follow. By fiscal year 2018, the budget deficit is expected to top out at a projected $205 million.

The calculations resulting in those projected deficits assume no raises for city workers or added investments in vehicles and technology that cannot be put off forever, said Councilman Stephen Costello, meaning the actual deficits could be higher.

“There’s still not enough attention directed toward the next four years, which is really the problem that we have,” said Costello, who chairs the council’s budget committee. “We need to start looking long-term.”

[…]

About 51 percent of the increase in the proposed budget is driven by employee contracts, 18 percent represents dollars transferred to specific funds and not available for spending, and another 17 percent is an increase in debt service, Dowe said.

The revenue cap cannot alone be blamed for the looming crisis. The cap will allow revenues to rise, after all, but they will rise at the combined rates of inflation and population increase, not at the breakneck pace of property appraisals many homeowners have seen this year.

Driving the problem are soaring pension payments and a spike over the next four years in the cost of servicing debt.

The single largest expense increasing in the proposed 2015 general fund budget is a 21 percent hike paid into the city’s three pension funds, to $261 million. That’s more than what is spent on libraries, parks, trash pickup and municipal courts combined.

And pension payments are only projected to increase. Next year, Dowe said, the city expects to cough up $50 million on top of its scheduled payment to the police pension thanks to a contractual trigger that requires the account to maintain a funding level of at least 80 percent.

In refinancing debt, Dowe added, past mayors put off principal payments for future leaders to pay, creating a debt bubble that now is coming due. General obligation debt payments will jump from $297 million this fiscal year to $355 million by fiscal 2018, before falling.

The good news is that the debt service cost is a four-year speed bump, so it’s at least a temporary situation. The pension issues are ongoing, and no matter how many columns Bill King writes about it, I don’t see it getting resolved in a way that satisfies, or at least doesn’t completely alienate, everyone involved any time soon. While ridding ourselves of that stupid revenue cap may not be a whole solution to this, it would still at least minimize the problem. To me, priority one is working to repeal the revenue cap, and priority two is coming to grips with the fact that no matter how much we gripe about pensions, the fact remains that public safety is by far the largest budget item. If we want to, as CM Bradford put it, define what our core services are, then we need to do that exercise for all of the budget. If 65% of the budget is off limits for considerations about efficiencies and savings, then we’re kidding ourselves. If any member of City Council is unwilling to do that, I will thank them to spare me the usual talk about “making tough decisions”.

Eat ’em all up

It sure would be nice to think that we could solve our invasive species problems by eating them all, but we probably can’t.

Would you want this for dinner?

It seems like a simple proposition: American lakes, rivers and offshore waters are filling up with destructive fish and crustaceans originally from other parts of the world, many of them potential sources of food.

So why not control these invasive populations by getting people to eat them?

The idea has gained momentum recently from the lionfish, which invaded the Gulf of Mexico but was successfully marketed to restaurants and today appears to be in decline.

But businesses and scientists have struggled to repeat this apparent triumph with other species. Some, such as Asian carp, are not appetizing to Americans. Others, like feral hogs, reproduce too quickly to make a dent. And then there’s the question of whether turning them into sought-after cuisine undermines the larger goal of eliminating them.

“Eating invasive species is not a silver bullet,” said Laura Huffman, the Nature Conservancy’s director in Texas. But it can still be “a way to get people engaged in the topic and in the solution.”

The lionfish, a striped saltwater species with a flowing mane of venomous spines, is native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and was first spotted in parts of the Gulf and off the East Coast a little more than 10 years ago. The skilled predators damage reefs and devour native fish, and they are eaten only by sharks — or larger lionfish.

People soon learned that beneath the lionfish’s spiky skin lies a buttery, flaky meat that is perfect for ceviche, taco filler or as an alternative to lobster. After a few years of intense fishing and brisk fillet sales, the population is dropping.

But similar efforts targeting feral hogs, Asian carp and the Himalayan blackberry have been far less successful.

This subject comes up a lot, mostly in the context of feral hogs. Indeed, two years ago Texas Monthly proposed a culinary solution to our invasive species problem. It’s worked pretty well for lionfish and giant prawns, but some invasives just aren’t that appetizing, while the aforementioned hogs just reproduce too much to make an appreciable dent in their population that way. Plus, as the story notes, turning invasive species into a cash crop provides for some perverse economic incentives, and likely isn’t a net winner. Make some lemonade if you can, but don’t expect it to be more than that.

HERO passes

Finally.

After nearly nine hours of chanting and tears from seas of opponents and supporters in color-coded T-shirts, Houston City Council passed an ordinance on Wednesday extending equal rights protections to gay and transgender residents.

Despite weeks of discussion and dissent over the measure, the final vote was 11-6, a count that matched guesses made months ago, when Mayor Annise Parker — the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city — said she planned to bring forward such a measure.

The approval was greeted with thunderous applause from the audience, largely full of supporters, and chants of “HERO,” for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

“While much of the debate has centered around the gay and transgender section of the ordinance, it is a comprehensive ordinance,” Parker said after the vote. “It is a good step forward for the city of Houston.”

That’s the early version of the story. I’ll update later from the full story when I can. While the vote was 11-6, it was a little different than I thought it might be – CM Richard Nguyen, who movingly said that his 6-year-old son told him to “just be brave”, was a Yes, while CMs Jack Christie and – very disappointingly – Dwight Boykins were Nos. The other four Nos, from CMs Stardig, Martin, Pennington, and Kubosh, were as expected. I don’t have much to add right now – despite the final passage, this story is far from over, so there will be much more to say later. I have no idea if those half-baked recall and repeal efforts will go anywhere – we’ll deal with them if we must – but I do know that a lot of folks will have some very long memories in 2015. I’m proud of my city, proud of the Council members who voted with Mayor Parker, proud of Mayor Parker for getting this done, and really really proud of all the supporters who packed City Hall to tell their stories and witness history being made. Well done, y’all. Think Progress, PDiddie, and Rep. Garnet Coleman have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story, which includes a heaping dose of Dave Wilson and his many petition drive threats. I’ll deal with all that in a subsequent post.

Some postmortem thoughts

The Trib leads with the obvious.

As the results of Republican primary runoffs began to roll in Tuesday evening, Texas Democrats realized they were getting exactly what they wanted — and exactly what they feared.

The victories of Dan Patrick over incumbent David Dewhurst for lieutenant governor and Ken Paxton over Dan Branch for attorney general were just the most high-profile examples of Republican runoff races in which the candidate widely viewed as farther right prevailed.

The outcome means Democrats will have an easier time contrasting their ticket to the Republican option in November.

“You really can’t have a competitive election that voters pay attention to unless you have a clear contrast between the nominees,” Texas Democratic consultant Harold Cook said. “To the extent you’re going to have a Republican opponent, if that opponent can be just as far to the right as possible, that’s just what any Democratic nominee would want.”

Yet Tuesday’s results also raise the stakes for Democrats, who last won a statewide office in Texas 20 years ago. Most notably, a failure by Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte to win her bid for lieutenant governor will mean, come January, Patrick will be standing at the Senate dais, gavel in hand, ready to kick off a new legislative session. It’s an outcome that many Democrats fear will lead to the passage of even more conservative legislation on immigration, education and access to abortion, some of which their party’s members have managed to block so far.

“Some Democrats have said they want me to be the nominee,” Patrick said during his victory speech. “Well, they’ve got me, and I’m coming.”

We’ve discussed this before. As I said then, it’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy for Democrats, who as underdogs can’t afford to play it safe. At this point, given the elevated stupidity level of the Senate after Bob Deuell’s loss and Robert Duncan’s retirement, it’s not clear to me that the downside risk is all that great. Sure, Dan Patrick will do things as Lite Gov that David Dewhurst didn’t or wouldn’t, like not name any Democratic committee chairs, but does anyone think Dewhurst would have had the spine to push back on whatever crazy-ass legislation this next Senate is likely to want to pass? I’m not saying Dan Patrick wouldn’t be worse – he most assuredly would be – I’m just saying that the upside is much, much greater than the downside. Whatever the actual odds of the preferred outcome are, you have to like that kind of bet.

As noted yesterday, the anecdotal evidence of Republican crossover support for Leticia Van de Putte against Dan Patrick is already coming in. For sure, she’ll need that in order to win, though first and foremost she needs the base level of Democratic support to rise so that she can be within striking distance. One interesting perspective on this comes from Erica Greider:

A second problem for Texas Republicans in the wake of yesterday’s “conservative” victories is that, as a result of an election in which less than 6% of registered voters in Texas bothered to vote, the party now has several standard bearers that Republicans themselves aren’t exactly crazy about. Some of the nominees aren’t even popular among grassroots activists. You’ll have to take my word for that, because in public, they’re all circling the wagons, but my sense is that the Tea Party establishment is genuinely excited about a couple of candidates, including Konni Burton. They’re tepid about others; there weren’t many tears shed for Wayne Christian last night, and there won’t be many shed for Sid Miller in November when American hero Jim Hogan turns Texas blue with his bare hands. Perhaps most odd is how little sympathy there is between the Patrick and [Ken] Paxton crowds. Those two posted the biggest wins of the night, and apparently drew almost exactly the same voters, but I’ve met very few conservatives who are equally excited about both–and a number of Paxton supporters, in particular, who can barely conceal their disdain for Patrick.

This may be because Patrick and Paxton are temperamentally opposite (Patrick is a showman, and Paxton is very shy). It may be that Cruz supporters are skeptical of Patrick–Patrick attacked Cruz freely on behalf of Dewhurst in 2012, and Paxton would never do such a thing. My own unpopular opinion is that Patrick has the potential to do well as lieutenant-governor, whereas Paxton’s nomination to succeed Greg Abbott as attorney-general is a huge victory for the state’s lesser prairie chickens, who will soon roam free over federally protected habitats, enjoying their newly expanded Medicaid benefits–but that’s a post for another day, perhaps. For now, I’ll conclude by saying this: whatever the cause, the tension within the Tea Party or conservative movement is subdued at the moment. But this year’s Republican nominees, many of whom will be propelled to high office by support from 3 or 4% of the voters in Texas, can’t really afford for any further faultlines to emerge.

First I’ve heard of tension between Patrick and Paxton. Patrick has alienated a number of his Republican colleagues along the way so that’s not too surprising. The question as always is how many of them are good soldiers in November, and how many of them, however secretly, either undervote or cross over. It won’t surprise me if polling in this race winds up being more than a little wonky. Anyone know more about what Greider is saying here?

Frequent Burkablog commenter WURSPH makes an intriguing quantitative observation on Burka’s post lamenting the Tuesday results:

One feature of interest in yesterday’s balloting is the major DROP-OFF in the number of voters who participated in the GOP Run-off. A smaller turnout in the run-off was to be expected especially with it being a Tuesday election right after a holiday. But the drop was significant with total turnout down more than 580,000 from the original primary (748,000 to 1.3 million). And BOTH Patrick and Dewhurst received fewer votes than they did in the first primary (Patrick was down 63,000 and Dewhurst by 114,000).

It looks like this is attributable to two factors:

First, a lot of voters, including a good number who had voted for Patrick and Dewhurst the first time, thought it was effectively all over in March and didn’t bother to come out again.

And, secondly, the Staples-Patterson voters basically stayed home.

I doubt anyone was running exit polls yesterday, but if someone did it would be interesting to see what it says about the percentage of voters who voted for Staples or Patterson who voted this time. If they were turned off by the two other candidates it could have a small impact in November….Being Republicans most of them will probably come back into the fold in the fall, but if any perceptible percentage sit that one out too, it could have some impact on the November elections.

You know me, any time there are numbers to inspect my ears perk right up. Runoffs are tricky beasts to analyze for many reasons, but a look at the 2014 and 2012 Republican runoffs do illustrate what WURSPH is talking about. Here are the numbers for the two races that involved David Dewhurst, the 2012 Senate primary/runoff and the 2014 Lite Guv primary/runoff:

Year Primary Top Two Runoff ====================================== 2014 1,333,896 930,548 749,915 2012 1,406,608 1,108,289 1,111,938

There aren’t any runoffs of interest to look at before 2012, so these are the data points we have. All numbers are from the races that featured David Dewhurst – Dewhurst/Cruz in 2012, Dewhurst/Patrick in 2014. “Primary” is the total number of votes cast in those races, “Top Two” is the number collected by Dewhurst and his eventual runoff opponent, and “Runoff” is of course the total number of votes in that race. WURSPH is on to something here, as at least a few people who didn’t vote for either Dew or Cruz in the first round came out for one of them in overtime, while the total votes for Dew and Patrick dropped by almost 20%. Does that mean anything for November? Eh, I don’t know – maybe, maybe not. Either way, it’s interesting.

Finally, a few words about the Democratic side.

When the Associated Press declared the Dallas-area dentist millionaire David Alameel won, he was described as a “former major GOP donor.”

Here’s a fun fact. We all know about Alameel’s past history of contributions to some GOP officeholders. He stopped doing that in 2008, and the bulk of his activity was in 2002 and 2004. Did you know that when Wendy Davis first announced her candidacy for State Senate in 2008, the then-Chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party had some harsh words for her based on her vote in the 2006 GOP primary? That happened more than a few days ago, so of course no one remembers it. My point here is simply that there are two ways Democrats can catch up to Republicans. One is the much-heralded demographic wave, in which old white Republicans die off and are replaced in the electorate by young progressive Latinos. That’s happening, but in slow motion, and is not going to be much of a factor this year even with Battleground Texas ginning up Democratic turnout. The other is for people who currently identify as Republicans to start voting for at least some Democrats. Both Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte are basing their campaigns in part on luring crossovers. You can look at Alameel’s history as a negative, as some people once looked at Wendy Davis’ 2006 GOP primary vote as a negative, or you can recognize that we need a lot more people like David Alameel, who spoke in his interview with me about how couldn’t support such a radical, reactionary Republican Party any more, this November.

While Democrats believe they are fielding their strongest gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial candidates in at least a decade, with Sens. Wendy Davis and Leticia Van De Putte, the state party struggled once again to recruit top-tier candidates to fill out the rest of their statewide slate.

Beyond the questionable candidates for U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent John Cornyn, and to run the state’s Department of Agriculture, Democrats also lack a compelling candidate for Texas Attorney General and Republicans just nominated a candidate in Sen. Ken Paxton, who was recently admonished by authorities for violating the state’s securities laws.

What the hell? Sam Houston is a respected and well-qualified attorney who unlike nearly everybody else on both parties’ ballots has actually run statewide before – he got 46% as a candidate for Supreme Court in 2008, which was the highest percentage any Democrat received. I have no idea who Nolan Hicks is talking to or if he just pulled that out of his own posterior, but it’s gratuitous and misinformed. BOR and Texpatriate have more.

Redefining residential streets

Streets are about more than just cars. Where the rubber will meet the road on this, as it were, is on busy residential streets like Dunlavy in Montrose, where new city planning codes will have an effect.

Dunlavy is, at least in theory, a four-lane street between Allen Parkway and U.S. 59. Some drivers question whether the outside lanes really count.

Uneven gutters, often filled with debris or small mounds of dirt deposited by passing cars and trucks, line the traffic lanes. Cyclists willing to brave the road dodge potholes and passing cars. Trucks, and most cars, tend to stay in the inside lanes.

“It is not effectively working as a four-lane roadway,” said Amar Mohite, who manages the transportation group in Houston’s planning department.

So in a departure from what many consider the Houston model, the city is calling for reducing the space for cars and trucks. Plans for Dunlavy, along with a handful of other street segments between River Oaks, downtown and U.S. 59 and along the Washington Avenue corridor, will decrease driving room in favor of retaining trees and making parking, bicycling and walking easier.

The proposals, part of a list of amendments to the city’s transportation plan, guide future construction and give developers an idea of what to expect. The changes would appear in the 2014 major thoroughfare and freeway plan.

What’s significant, officials said, is the decision to reduce driving lanes in some spots. The traditional Houston method of improving a four-lane road – turning it into a five- or six-lane road – is falling out of favor in many neighborhoods, with residents reluctant to lose more private land to roads.

[…]

Residents along Dunlavy, and generally around Neartown, told planners they wanted their streets maintained to allow for biking and walking, rather than widened to accommodate more traffic.

“What we said was, make it a neighborhood where you could ride your bike or take a walk,” said Greg LeGrande, president of the Neartown Association, a coalition of civic groups.

Here’s a map, for those of you not familiar with the area. Let’s be very clear about something: Dunlavy is not a thoroughfare. It’s a residential street, with stop signs, houses, cars pulling into and out of driveways, bikes, and pedestrians. Other than a brief stretch just north of West Gray by the post office where it is striped for two lanes on each side, it really is just a little one-lane-each-way road, meant for neighborhood traffic at neighborhood speeds. What distinguishes it from the other little north-south roads between Shepherd and Montrose that cross over US 59 is 1) it goes all the way to Allen Parkway, which gives it easy access to downtown and Upper Kirby, and 2) it has no speed humps. Those things help attract traffic to it, and people treat it like it’s meant for that kind of traffic. My friend Andrea, who used to live on Dunlavy near Gray, would complain bitterly about the drivers that zipped past her house at 40 MPH plus. That’s not what that street is for.

So I’ll be very interested to see what the city proposes to do. I predict there will be lots of whining, mostly from people who don’t live on or near Dunlavy. The city’s planning department will host an open house in late June to explain the amendments, and City Council is expected to consider the changes in September. One thing I’m not sure about is how they propose to make Dunlavy more bike-friendly while reducing the lane widths yet maintaining street parking. As I think about it, it should be doable – Dunlavy really is four full lanes wide, even if it’s almost never used as a four-lane road; there’s plenty of space between moving vehicles and parked cars – I’m just not sure how to visualize it. I look forward to seeing the proposal.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 26

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes everyone had a wonderful Memorial Day as it brings you this holiday week roundup.

(more…)

Today really is the day for the NDO vote

And as we finally head for a vote, the hysteria and fearmongering have reached a fever pitch.

RedEquality

In just five words, Mayor Annise Parker handed her increasingly vocal opponents exactly what they wanted in the battle against her proposed equal rights ordinance: “The debate is about me.”

That comment, part of a longer utterance at Houston City Council’s last meeting, at which the body delayed a decision on the ordinance to this Wednesday, was just what political and religious conservatives have accused Parker – the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city – of doing for weeks: Pushing the ordinance to further her “gay agenda,” or to reward gay advocates for their political support.

In laying out the proposed ordinance last month, Parker acknowledged the debate would focus on gay and transgender issues because those groups are not protected under existing laws, but she stressed the proposal was comprehensive. It would ban discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

Parker’s recent comments undercut that comprehensive message, however, as she sought to remind council members the issue is “intensely personal.”

“It’s not academic. It is my life that is being discussed,” said Parker, who faced death threats and had her tires slashed as a gay activist in the 1980s. “And while we can say around this council chamber that it applies to the range of protected groups – and it does and it is right and appropriate that the city of Houston finally acknowledges a local ordinance that respects African-Americans and Hispanics and those of different religions – the debate is about me. The debate is about two gay men at this table.”

Parker added to her comments after the meeting, saying she understands how “incredibly painful” it is for gay residents to hear opponents say, “I don’t hate gay people, I don’t hate transgender people, I just ought to have the right not to let them come into my business.”

[…]

Councilman Michael Kubosh – elected with a coalition of conservative and black voters last fall – drew scattered yells of support from the otherwise civil audience in rebutting Parker’s comments minutes later.

“I know you say it’s about you, but, mayor, this is really about all of us,” Kubosh said. “It’s not really about you; it’s about everybody here.”

Every successful politician in America has had personal reasons for running for office, and personal motivation for the causes they sought to advance through legislation. Most of them are very clear about this, as it’s a big part of the answer to the question of why they are running for that office. The personal connection they have to the cause they’re advancing – the hurt they’ve felt, or the help they’ve received – is a key component of who they are as a candidate and later (they hope) as an officeholder. It’s how they hope to win the support of the people they think should be voting for them. I’ve been there. I know how you feel. I can help. Would Michael Kubosh have established residency in the city of Houston to run for City Council if he had not been personally affected by red light cameras? I rather doubt it. Of course he will say that it wasn’t just about him but about all of the people that were affected by red light cameras and who felt they lacked a voice in the process. He wouldn’t have gotten himself into a position to be elected if it weren’t for that, and if he couldn’t make a connection to the people who felt the same way he did. How is that any different from Mayor Parker?

And I have to laugh at the “accusations” that Mayor Parker is pursuing the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance as some kind of sinister payback for her “core” (read: gay gay gay gay gay) supporters. Because of course only the gayest of her gay supporters support the HERO as something that is just and fair and right, obviously. And because of course no politician in America has ever been so crass as to pursue policies that their most ardent supporters wanted. I laugh because I can envision how the Dave Wilsons and Steve Riggles and apparently Michael Kuboshes imagine this must have played out in the backroom scented-candle-filled Secret Gay Power Broker Centers around Houston: “Our plan is foolproof! We will win multiple elections, then attempt to pass an ordinance via the public legislative process involving many opportunities for feedback and a majority vote of the democratically-elected City Council! That’ll show the bastards! Bwa ha ha ha ha!” I can sure see why that would be front page news.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s grant Dave Wilson and Steve Riggle and Ed Young and Michael Kubosh and Max Miller their fondest wish and stipulate that Mayor Parker is ramming this ordinance down their throats to appease her most ardent supporters The Gays, because as noted no politician in the history of America has ever done something like this before. Let’s remind ourselves what it is that she – and, you know, a majority of the members of City Council – are pushing: An ordinance that forbids the official discrimination against people because of who they are. Under this ordinance, you can’t be fired, or denied service at a bar or restaurant or retail establishment, or evicted, or any other thing that Wilson et al take for granted for themselves because you’re gay, or black, or Jewish, or a woman, or disabled, or whatever. It’s an ordinance that guarantees equal treatment for all people, with a mechanism to enforce it. I’m always…”amused” isn’t quite the right word, but it will have to do…when I hear a Dave Wilson or one of his intolerant brethren screech about LGBT folks demanding “special rights”, as if the right to hold a job or buy a house or not be arbitrarily tossed out of a restaurant is “special” in any meaningful sense. If you look up the word “projection” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of one of these clowns begging to be allowed to keep his special right to discriminate against people he doesn’t like while complaining that their demand to be treated as equals constitutes the real special treatment. It would be kind of funny if it weren’t so very, very pathetic.

And finally, to bring it back to those five little words Mayor Parker said, I have to agree with Campos: With all due respect to the Mayor, this debate really is about all of us. I want to live in a city that values all of its residents. I want to live in a city that embraces its diversity and makes no group of people feel second class. I’m one of an increasing majority of people that sees the so-called “morality” of people like Dave Wilson for the toxic injustice that it is. I see where the country is going, and I want to get there now. There’s more people like me in this town than there are people like Dave Wilson. If we’re forced to prove it again at the ballot box this November, we’ll be ready.

[Council Member Ellen] Cohen said she expects, however, to see the mayor’s comments become fodder for a push to overturn the ordinance by referendum, an effort for which opponents say they already are gathering signatures. Houston voters twice have rejected protections or benefits for gays, in 1985 and in 2001.

“People who are opposed to the ordinance will use any and all methods they possibly can to destroy the credibility of anyone who’s trying to vote for it,” Cohen said, pointing to threats of recall elections targeting council members who vote in favor. “It saddens me. Intimidation is a terrible way to conduct a democracy.”

That’s presumably in addition to the recall effort, which who knows what will happen. In this case, we know from the red light camera experience that there’s a 30 day window after the ordinance passes to gather the signatures for a vote to repeal. We’ll cross that bridge when and if we get to it, too. The SEIU and Mustafa Tameez have more.

Primary runoff results

So long, Dave.

So very sad

Riding a wave of conservative sentiment that Texas Republicans were not being led with a hard enough edge, state Sen. Dan Patrick crushed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff election for lieutenant governor, ending the career of a dominant figure in state politics for the last dozen years.

The Associated Press called the race shortly after 8 p.m., just an hour after polls closed in most of the state. As votes were still being counted, Patrick was winning by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.

Patrick’s victory marked the end of a rough campaign for Dewhurst, who trailed Patrick, a second term senator, by 13 percentage points in the four-way March primary. The incumbent sought to define Patrick, who is far less well-known statewide, as an untrustworthy figure more given to self-serving publicity stunts than the meticulous business of governing.

[…]

Dewhurst, who built a fortune in the energy industry and entered politics as a big-dollar Republican donor, won his first election as land commissioner in 1998 which laid the groundwork for a successful run for lieutenant governor in 2002, twice winning re-election in 2006 and 2010.

But Dewhurst’s luck turned when he lost the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2012 to Ted Cruz, a former solicitor general, who captured the spirit of the rising tea party movement in Texas. Cruz took advantage of an election calendar delayed by redistricting fights, holding Dewhurst to less than 50 percent in the primary and surging past him in the mid-summer runoff.

Dewhurst’s defeat at the hands of Cruz exposed Dewhurst’s vulnerability and when it turned out that he was going to try for a fourth term as lieutenant governor as the capstone of his career, Patrick, Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples proceeded with their candidacies to try to take him out.

Let’s be clear that while Dan Patrick is a terrible human being who should never be entrusted with political power, David Dewhurst deserves no sympathy for his plight. He brought it on himself, and no one should be surprised by what happened. I doubt Dewhurst could ever have been sufficiently “conservative” to satisfy the seething masses that Dan Patrick represents, and I doubt he could have been powerful enough to have scared Patrick and his ego from challenging him, but there was nothing stopping him from being a better and more engaged Lt. Governor. I’m sure his many millions of dollars will be an adequate salve for his wounds, so again, no need for sympathy.

Democrats were obviously ready for this result. I’ve lost count of the number of statements and press releases that have hit my inbox so far. This statement from Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, was the first to arrive:

“Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are two peas in a pod when it comes to women’s health, having led the fight to block Texas women from their rights and access to health care. Both oppose access to safe and legal abortion, even in cases of incest or rape. And both have worked to cut women off from preventative health services, and to close health centers, including Planned Parenthood clinics, that offer affordable birth control and cancer screenings.

Abbott and Patrick have made clear that they do not trust Texas women to make their own health care decisions. But the decision Texas women make at the ballot box this November will decide the election. You can’t win in Texas by working against Texas women. We’ve had enough of politicians like Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, who want to impose their personal agenda on all Texas women – and between now and Election Day, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes will be working around the clock to make sure that Texas women know what the Abbott-Patrick ticket will mean for their access to health care.”

Others came in from Sen. Van de Putte, the Wendy Davis campaign, who wondered when we’d see Patrick and Abbott together, the Texas Organizing Project, and Annie’s List. The van de Putte campaign also released a statement announcing the support of “two prominent business leaders”: William Austin Ligon, the co-founder and retired CEO of CarMax, and Republican Louis Barrios, with whom we are already familiar. It’s a nice move to deflect a bit of attention, but I sure hope that list grows and grows and grows.

In other Republican news, the deeply unethical Ken Paxton won the AG nomination, the deeply unqualified Sid Miller won the Ag Commissioner nomination, and Ryan Sitton won the Railroad Commissioner nomination. As I’ve said before, this is easily the weakest Republican statewide slate in my memory. Doesn’t mean they won’t win, just that there’s no reason to be scared of them – as candidates, anyway. They should scare the hell out of you as officeholders, but they’re no electoral juggernaut.

On the Democratic side, the good news is that David Alameel won easily in his runoff for the US Senate nomination, with over 70% of the vote. All I can say is that I sincerely hope this is the last we hear of Kesha Rogers, and if it’s not I hope enough people know who and what she is so that she won’t be a factor in whatever race she turns up in. In other news – whether good or bad depends on your perspective – Jim Hogan defeated Kinky Friedman for the Ag Commissioner nomination. Hogan’s a zero, but I guess too many people weren’t ready to forgive Friedman for his prior offenses. I voted for Kinky in the runoff, but I understand the feeling. The main lesson here is that a first-time candidate in a statewide primary needs more than just endorsements to be successful. Either they get the funds they need to get their name out to a few hundred thousand voters, or you get a random result. Ask Hugh Fitzsimons, and ask David Alameel.

Dem statewide results are here and Republican statewide results are here. Bob Deuell lost in the SD02 runoff, making the Senate that much more stupid next year than it needed to be, while 91-year-old Congressman Ralph Hall appears to be finally headed for retirement. Some reasons for guarded optimism downballot: Ben Streusand lost in CD36, SBOE member Pat Hardy defeated the truly bizarre Eric Mahroum, and most of the Parent PAC candidates appear to have won. You take your victories where you can. Also, as noted below, Denise Pratt was soundly defeated in her runoff. So there’s that.

There will be plenty of time to talk about these races in more depth as we go. I may do some number-twiddling with them if I think there’s anything of interest in the county and precinct results. For now, it’s on to November, with a brief pause along the way in June for the SD04 runoff. For various reactions and liveblogs, see the Observer, the Trib, BOR, PDiddie, Juanita, and the always full of wit John Coby. And in closing, this may be the saddest thing I’ve ever read:

As the early voting totals rolled in, showing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst behind by nearly 20 percent, supporters trickled in to a small election watch party north of the Galleria.

Members of the press outnumbered the early crowd, but campaign staff said they expected nearly 200 people to arrive. Many were still working the polls, they said, hoping to eke more votes out of a rainy day.

Almost enough to make me feel sorry for him. Almost.

Pratt campaign sign mystery apparently solved

Nice detective work.

Denise Pratt

Last week, when campaign signs for disgraced former family court judge Denise Pratt popped up at some early voting locations in Houston, several sources said they had seen local Republican political consultant Burt Levine putting them up.

Levine’s name did not make the story, however, as he did not return the calls and messages I left for him (after he hung up on me). A photo sent to me Tuesday would appear to confirm those source reports. In Levine’s right hand, you can see a Pratt campaign flier peeking out.

Despite Pratt’s announcement on March 28 that she would immediately resign and suspend her re-election campaign – later revealed to be part of a deal with the Harris County District Attorney to avoid indictment – her name appeared on the GOP ballot as she missed a deadline to withdraw. Her resignation was, according to a recent statement issued by District Attorney Devon Anderson, “in exchange for her voluntary and permanent resignation from the judiciary.”

Given that stipulation, the questions raised by Levine’s apparent campaigning are: Does Pratt know he is doing this? Is she paying him to do it or is he just a diehard supporter who had some extra signs, fliers and buttons laying around? If Pratt is in on it, would Anderson consider it a violation of their agreement?

See here for the background, and click the story link above for the photo and the circumstantial case that Levine was paid by the Pratt campaign for the sign work. I’m sure a denial will be forthcoming from one or both of them, but again, it’s not like the Pratt campaign has established a baseline of trustworthiness. In one sense it doesn’t matter since Pratt got creamed in the runoff, and can now slink off into a well-deserved obscurity. In terms of her secret resignation deal with DA Devon Anderson, it does matter. Anderson should answer the questions reporter Kiah Collier poses, and frankly she should demand that Pratt prove she had nothing to do with Levine’s actions. I don’t expect either of those to happen, so let that stand as a lesson for why sticking to the normal process and doing it transparently is the better way.

Give Metro your feedback on the new bus routes

A public service announcement from Metro:

METRO is excited to share the Draft Reimagined Network Plan with everyone, so if you would like a speaker to present the plan to your organization or community group, or have a question about the plan, please email Reimagining@RideMETRO.org.

We will also be conducting a series of public meetings to share more information and receive feedback on the Draft Reimagined Network Plan. Scheduled meeting locations and dates are shown on the map with orange pins and listed below. You can also keep an eye out for METRO staff at certain Transit Centers (blue pins on the map) sharing details of the project with riders and the public.

# Location Address Date Time
1 Magnolia Multi-Service Center 7037 Capitol St., Houston, TX 77011 Wednesday, May 28 6pm-8pm
2 Metropolitan Multi-Service Center 1475 W. Gray Street, Houston, TX 77019 Thursday, May 29 6pm-8pm
3 Ellis Memorial Church of Christ 412 Massachusetts St., Houston, TX 77029 Tuesday, June 3 6pm-8pm
4 Trini Menenhall Sosa Community Center 1414 Wirt Road Houston, TX 77055 Thursday, June 12 6pm-8pm
5 HCC – Northwest College (Spring Branch Campus) 1010 W. Sam Houston Pkwy. N., Houston, TX 77043 Monday, June 16 6pm-8pm
6 HCC – Southwest College (Alief Hayes Campus) 2811 Hayes Rd., Houston, TX 77082 Thursday, June 19 6pm-8pm
7 Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center 6500 Rookin St., Houston, TX 77074 Thursday, June 26 6pm-8pm
8 White Oak Conference Center 7603 Antoine Dr., Houston, TX 77088 Wednesday, July 9 6pm-8pm
9 Hiram Clarke Multi-Service Center 3810 W. Fuqua Street, Houston, TX 77045 Thursday, July 10 6pm-8pm
10 Westbury Baptist Church 10425 Hillcroft Street, Houston, TX 77096 Tuesday, July 15 6pm-8pm
11 Third Ward Multi-Service Center 3611 Ennis St., Houston, TX 77004 Thursday, July 20 6pm-8pm
12 Sunnyside Multi-Service Center 9314 Cullen Blvd. Houston, TX 77051 Monday, July 21 6pm-8pm
13 Mangum-Howell Center 2500 Frick Road, Houston, Texas 77038 Thursday, July 22 6pm-8pm
14 Northeast Multi-Service Center 9720 Spaulding St., Houston, TX 77016 Thursday, July 24 6pm-8pm
15 Acres Homes Multi-Service Center 6719 W. Montgomery Road, Houston, TX 77091 Monday, July 28 6pm- 8pm
16 Kashmere Multi-Service Center 4802 Lockwood Dr., Houston, TX 77026 Thursday, July 31 6pm-8pm

See here and here for the background. Now go forth and tell them what you think. Texas Leftist has more.

Recall effort against Mayor Parker?

The haters huff and puff with their last breath.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Opponents of Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed Houston equal rights ordinance have vowed to take the issue to voters in a referendum, but now they’re seriously discussing a sort of nuclear option at the polling place: a recall election to remove her and some council members from office.

Although recalling the mayor wouldn’t be easy and the opposition would have to work quickly, the threat alone could cause problems for some city council members.

“This is absurd, it’s unheard of,” said Dave Wilson, a longtime anti-gay activist and critic of Parker who’s fighting the proposed ordinance. “It’s nothing but pure payback for the mayor. She’s paying back her core constituents that supported her.”

Houston’s city charter prescribes the criteria for which an elected official can be recalled – incompetence, misconduct, malfeasance or unfitness for office – but opponents argue the proposed ordinance contradicts state law.

“We consider them to be incompetent,” Wilson said.

The charter decrees that citizens have 30 days to gather enough signatures on petitions to mandate a recall election. The number of signatures required varies for each office, because it amounts to 25% of the number of voters who cast ballots for the elected official involved.

And that’s where it gets interesting. Since fewer people vote in district city council races, it’s much easier to gather enough signatures to trigger a recall election.

Look at the numbers. About 170,000 Houstonians voted for mayor in the last election, so opponents would have to gather about 42,500 signatures to recall Parker. Given only 30 days, that would be difficult.

But substantially fewer people vote in races for district council seats, which are more like neighborhood campaigns. If 10,000 ballots are cast in a council race, only 2,500 signatures are required to trigger a recall election.

I’ll get to some details on this in a minute, but let me say this first: Bring it. Seriously. Let’s settle once and for all who the real majority is. I don’t think Dave Wilson is going to like the answer.

Now then. You can find Houston’s charter and city ordinances here. The provisions for recalling officers is Article VII-a. A few points of interest:

  • “The holder of any public office in the City of Houston, whether elected thereto by the people or appointed by the City Council, may be removed from office by recall.” That’s right there in Section 1. The only place where “incompetence, misconduct, malfeasance or unfitness for office” are mentioned is in the wording of the recall petition. Based on that, I don’t think there are any special criteria for initiating a recall – either you get enough signatures in the prescribed time or you don’t.
  • From Section 3a: “The petition may consist of one or more papers circulated separately, and the signatures thereto may be upon the paper or papers containing the formal petition, or upon other papers attached thereto; each signer of a petition shall sign his name in ink or indelible pencil. The verification may be made by one or more petitioners, and the several parts of the petition may be verified separately and by different persons, but no signature to such petition shall remain effective or be counted which was placed thereon more than thirty days prior to the filing of such petition or petitions with the City Secretary.” Emphasis mine. My read on this is that the clock starts when the first signature is collected. The petition itself is submitted when/if enough signatures have been gathered. I didn’t see anything in there to suggest there was a constraint on when the signature-gathering effort could begin, nor any cutoff point for when no further signatures could be collected. I sense the possibility of some shenanigans here, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here.
  • If this goes forward and if the haters manage to get enough signatures, the actual recall election would be this November – section 7, “the election shall be held on the next available uniform date prescribed by state law”. This would not be a low-turnout off-schedule affair. I’ll leave it to you to decide which side that favors.

So these are the conditions as I understand them. The one thing I know for sure is that if this happens – if the haters manage to collect enough signatures to force this issue onto the November ballot – it’s going to go national. I guarantee this recall election will be as big as anything else in November, and it will draw all kinds of attention and money. You have to wonder what kind of effect this will have on the other races. Like I said, you can make your case for who benefits from this, but generally speaking, the favorite doesn’t want anything unexpected. Look at it this way – to whatever extent Dave Wilson thinks his coalition includes black voters, do you think Greg Abbott wants there to be a campaign to boost black turnout in Harris County? Do you think all the Republican District Court and County Court judges on the ballot want that?

By the way, as long as we’re discussing the possibility of recalling public officials, does anyone know what provisions (if any) exist to recall HCC Trustees? I’ve seen some chatter on Facebook about mounting a counter-recall effort against Council members that vote against the ordinance. I don’t know how effective that might be, given that most of the No votes are likely to come from members in heavily Republican districts. Anyone else will be up for re-election in 2015 anyway, so one way or another they’ll be made to account for their actions. Personally, I think it would be nice to give Dave Wilson a taste of his own medicine. He can’t win if he can’t hide his identity as he did in 2013. If no such provision exists for recalling HCC Trustees exists, then perhaps one of our local legislators can file a bill to that effect. It probably won’t get anywhere, but it would make a point.

Like I said, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance actually has to pass. The vote happens tomorrow, after a public comment session, and you should be there to register your support for the HERO. After that, we’ll take it as it comes. The haters’ webpage is here, and I’m sure it will be more than just a landing page soon. I don’t fear these jackasses, but we can’t afford to not take them seriously. Be ready for the next fight, it’s as important as this one is. TransGriot has more.

More on the Metro bus system reimagining

Christopher Andrews has a practical look at Metro’s reimagined bus network.

Nearly two weeks ago METRO released the System Reimagining proposal, arguably the biggest service adjustment in METRO’s existence. METRO is currently welcoming feedback on the system. I hope most feedback will be positive, as the reimagined system should provide an opportunity for ridership for more people, and to a larger area of the Houston region, without an increase in costs or major infrastructural improvements. The reimagined system helps to reduce redundancies in coverage and increases the number of “frequent” bus routes throughout the region, creating a grid-like network of bus routes in which riders rely on transfers to reach their destinations.

I looked at the map of new routes and how they would impact my commute, and I thought about improvements needed to accommodate more riders and transfers. Examine proposed routes yourself to learn their physical coverages, frequencies, and surrounding conditions. I could think of no better way to examine the proposed routes than by bike. You can do the same. Then send your comments to METRO or attend a public meeting. It’s time for Houstonians to own their transit routes.

I followed the northwest portion of the proposed 11-Heights-Dallas-Telephone route that goes through the Heights and Montrose into Downtown and then on to the East Side. I kept in mind any infrastructural improvements that are needed, like bus stops, curb cuts, benches, signalization, crosswalks, or bus shelters that would make transferring and ridership more accommodating and comfortable.

He has a lot more at his personal blog. I really like the approach he’s taking here. People get to bus stops by walking or biking to them. If we really want to maximize the potential gains in ridership from the new routes, we need to make sure people can get to the bus stops easily and safely. The city of Houston needs to work with Metro to ensure that sidewalk improvements are in place or in the works for the new routes, and B-Cycle should examine the new map to see where new kiosks might go. I hope to hear more about this as we go.

Reading those posts led me to two others that came out at the time of Metro’s reimagining announcement: one from Jarrett Walker, who was one of the consultants Metro used on the new map, and one from Citylab, which mostly summarized the work Metro and Walker had done. Remember how I said in my post about the reimagining announcement that I wondered if some of the usual light rail-hating suspects would have anything to say about this, since they all claimed to be big bus fans? Well, I haven’t gone trawling through their blogs – life is too short – but I do know that Bill King, the Chron’s one and only op-ed page columnist, has written four pieces since then, and none of them have been about Metro and buses. Nope, it’s been pension, pension, pension, and I hate light rail, always a classic. I’m sure he’ll get around to it sooner or later.

On the bayou and erosion

A portion of the work being done on Buffalo Bayou, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, is drawing opposition for being too big a change to the natural state of the bayou.

Borne of a 2010 workshop hosted by the Bayou Preservation Association, the project calls for reshaping the banks of the bayou that wind past the [River Oaks Country Club], the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a residential neighborhood and the southernmost border of the 1,503-acre park.

The plan calls for the segment of Buffalo Bayou – stressed, both sides agree, by the increased runoff that has come with urban development – to be widened, its course adjusted in some places and its crumbling banks shaped into stable slopes. A mass of vegetation would be stripped away from its banks and trees removed. Replanting would occur toward the end of the project, the cost of which Harris County, the city of Houston and the country club have agreed to share.

According to the Harris County Flood Control District, which will oversee the project, the plan would “create a self-sustaining bayou that would slow the erosion process” and potentially serve as a model for future projects – if it works. The project would be the first along the bayou to employ “natural channel design techniques,” as opposed to traditional concrete lining, something Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett describe as a sign of progress. It has been dubbed a “demonstration” project because officials say it would showcase the benefits of the methodology.

Groups such as the Sierra Club and the Houston Audubon Society, however, say the plan would destroy all wildlife habitat along that stretch of the bayou, and that the science behind it has not been proven to reduce erosion.

“If we strip off 80 percent of the vegetation, if we remove the trees that shade the water, we will actually ruin a mile and a quarter of the main channel of Buffalo Bayou,” said Evelyn Merz, conservation chair of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The group is proposing an alternative that involves promoting the existing habitat by planting native vegetation. It would impact the area less “because it will be aimed at the areas that most need support,” Merz said.

Save Buffalo Bayou is leading the activism against this. Two of its members had an op-ed in the Chron recently, reprinted here, that lays out their case. I haven’t followed this closely, but the way they illustrate what the plan is sure doesn’t make it look appetizing. If you want to offer your feedback, you have until June 30, when the public comment period closes. Here are their recommendations for what to say. CultureMap has more.

Runoff Day is finally here

It’s the day on which the toxic idiocy of the GOP runoffs for Lt. Governor and Attorney General finally come to an end and we get a brief respite before the general election gets into full swing. But first, you have to vote if you didn’t vote early, and that means you have to find your polling place. From the inbox:

vote-button

Voters should visit www.HarrisVotes.com to verify their Election Day polling location before going to the polls on Tuesday, May 27th. Due to precinct consolidations, polling locations for the Democratic and Republican Primary Runoff Elections have changed from the March Primary Elections for many voters.

“Voters participating in the Primary Elections are reminded on Election Day that they may only vote at their designated polling location,” said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, “To avoid frustration and confusion, please check www.HarrisVotes.com to find your Election Day voting site.

The Democratic & Republican Parties, who select the locations in primaries, have significantly reduced the number of polling locations. Primary Voters should not assume that they will be voting in the same location they voted in the March Primary. Election Day polling locations will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Voters, who voted in the March Primary, are only able to vote in the same party’s election for the Primary Runoff. If they did not participate in either Party’s March 4th Election and are eligible to vote, they may participate in the Runoff Primary of their party choice.

“Voters may also use the website’s ‘Find Your Poll and Ballot’ feature to print out a sample ballot to review,” said Stanart, who is also the county’s Chief Elections Officer. “The election webpage provides voters the information they need for the who, the when, the where, and the how to accessing the polls.”

To view a list of acceptable forms of Photo ID that can be presented to vote at the poll, Election Day polling locations and other voting information, voters may visit HarrisVotes.com or call 713.755.6965. On Twitter, voters can obtain timely voting updates by following the County Clerk’s Voter Outreach Office: @HarrisVotes.

Definitely check where your polling place is before you head out. I’ll have results later and tomorrow.

It’s hurricane season prediction time

And this year’s forecast is for a fairly quiet summer.

On Thursday, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released their seasonal outlook for 2014, predicting eight to 13 named storms would form. This means, most likely, the Atlantic season total will fall below the normal 12 tropical storms and hurricanes during a given year.

Like NOAA’s, other seasonal forecasts issued this spring have predicted 75 to 90 percent of normal activity levels this year. The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

[…]

Principally, they expect El Niño to develop this summer in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño, a rise in tropical Pacific sea temperatures, has global weather effects including stronger wind shear in the Atlantic tropics, which reduces the number and intensity of tropical systems.

“Atmospheric and oceanic conditions across the tropical Pacific are already taking on some El Niño characteristics,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.

Other factors are suggested as well. A number of signs suggest water temperatures in the area of the Atlantic Ocean where storms most commonly form, between Africa and the Caribbean Islands, will be a bit cooler than normal later this summer.

“Cooler water means less heat content available for hurricanes to intensify, resulting in fewer strong hurricanes than normal,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a Houston-based company.

See here for the official NOAA forecast page. Last year’s prediction of a busy season didn’t work out so well, but even the best are going to strike out now and again, and if the process is sound then the results will be there more often than not. Of course as noted even in an otherwise very light season, all it takes is one hurricane to hit where you are and the rest doesn’t matter. So be prepared and remember that if you live in Katy it’s never too early to start evacuating.

Look out for zebra mussels

Take proper care of your boat, y’all.

Zebra mussel

Fishing and boating enthusiasts take note: you’re probably going to need a little extra time as you head out on the lake this year. Rules to prevent the spread of the invasive zebra mussel will be going into effect statewide.

“All boats operating on public fresh water anywhere in Texas be drained before leaving or approaching a lake or river,” according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TWDB).

The mussels have spread rapidly since 2009, and now “the Highland Lakes are in the cross hairs, as are many of the public waters in Central Texas,” says Brian Van Zee, Parks and Wildlife Inland Fisheries Division regional director, in a statement.

The rules will go into effect July 1.

[…]

The rules originally applied to 17 North Texas counties. Now they’re being expanded along the I-35 corridor to try and beat the mussels before the spread further. “The Interstate Highway 35 corridor, which traverses the basins of the Trinity, Brazos, Colorado, and Guadalupe rivers, facilitates relatively easy movement of vessels by large numbers of boaters and anglers,” the commission writes, so it’s the route by which the mussels are most likely to spread.

The mussel is originally from Eurasia, and has traveled across Europe, “where it is considered to be a major environmental and industrial menace,” the department writes. It first showed up on our shores in the late 1980s, and within a decade “it had colonized in all five Great Lakes and the Mississippi, Tennessee, Hudson, and Ohio river basins.” The department says that once the invasives establish themselves, “they are impossible to eradicate with the technology available today.” And you can’t eat them, either.

See here for more. It’s likely a futile effort, but what else can you do? Preserving Texas’ natural resources is everyone’s job.

Weekend link dump for May 25

“All of which is to say: There are many different ways to measure the same data. When I was putting together this list, I had Pedro Martinez and Warren Spahn coupled in my mind. One is the ultimate example of a brilliant shooting star career. One is the ultimate example of the sun rising every day. Which career would you rather have?”

Random things I happened to run across on the Internet: The General Slocum disaster was the New York area’s worst disaster in terms of loss of life until the September 11, 2001 attacks, and remains the worst maritime disaster in the city’s history. And until recently, I had never heard of it.

Meet the next Bud Selig.

Dr. Evil should have demanded one undecillion dollars. The sheer size of the number should be pleasing to him.

This kid should go into business as a “how to be smooth” guru. Well, as long as his mom doesn’t ruin it for him.

RIP, Jeb Magruder, Watergate figure and Doonesbury star.

“And then there is … the Balboni record, which at this point has to be considered one of the eight wonders of the baseball world.”

“I know it seems like you’re the cool guy who managed to score a date with a model or an actress, but no one is actually thinking that. They are thinking that you couldn’t get an actual date from one of your peers, and had to resort to a goofy social media prank to guilt someone into going with you. That’s why these women have shown up. You realize that, right? It’s not because they want to go on a date with an underage civilian, it’s because they’re worried they’ll look bad in the public eye if they say no.”

Get a piece of the Pontiac Silverdome while you still can. And try not to think too much about the Harris County Domed Stadium when you do.

A sweet, sentimental story to warm the cockles of your cold, cynical heart.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s big opportunity in 2016 is to help recruit and get elected a bunch of Senators like her.

“Republican officials confidently predict Obamacare’s unpopularity will flip control of the Senate in a massive repudiation of the President’s signature domestic accomplishment. Yet multiple GOP candidates in top-tier races are unwilling or unable to take a real position on one of the central pillars of the law, one that will impact tens or hundreds of thousands in the states they’d represent.”

Nice doggie. Please don’t eat me.

“It has everything: privacy, headrests, storage spaces. And it’s only drawbacks are possible major safety concerns and making its user look like a big, antisocial baby in a big-baby sling.”

Your guide to food-based baby names in America. Who knew so many people thought “Kale” would be a good name for a little boy?

“Nearly eight in 10 young adults favor gay marriage”. You almost have to feel sorry for all those not-young adults that are now feeling so very threatened by that. Almost.

“The issue here is not and has never been women consenting to sex and then trying to do a take-back because they had a couple. The issue, and is usually explicitly stated as, rapists targeting women who are incapacitated from alcohol or drug use.”

“Something, it appears, happened around 2003 that caused the rate of traumatic brain injuries in the U.S. military to spike. Now what could that have been?”

“Put another way, in Justice Scalia’s world, people get gay-married. In Justice Kennedy’s, gay (and straight) people get married. See the difference?”

In which Tara the hero cat throws out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game and reveals she is a southpaw.

Why you should ditch Adobe Shockwave.

“Meanwhile, if McDonald’s was hoping to keep our concerns out of the public eye by suppressing our participation in the meeting Q&A, their strategy seems to have failed.”

“Yeah, that’s it. It was about the doctrine of sanctification and pastoral practice and such. Nothing to do with defending the defenders of child abusers. Nothing to do with that at all.”

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act was a big success. Now let’s build on that success.

Mean tweeters respond to celebrities reading their mean tweets about them. Self awareness (mostly) not included.

Early runoff turnout higher than expected

Not high, you understand, but higher than expected.

EarlyVoting

More than 73,000 Harris County residents cast ballots in person or by mail in the five days of early voting before next week’s primary runoffs.

While the total of 73,259 was low compared with the number of eligible voters, political experts said the actual tally of ballots cast was higher than expected.

“I was quite surprised to see how high it was,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “I think it just references the fact that there are several competitive Republican races.”

Residents voting in the Republican runoff cast 59,122 ballots. Democrats accounted for one-quarter of the ballots at 14,137.

The totals fell short of the July 2012 runoff pitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst against now-U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in a heated campaign for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. About 89,500 voters, including 72,300 Republicans, cast ballots in that runoff.

[…]

While early voting numbers are comparable to the 2012 runoff, University of St. Thomas political scientist Jon Taylor asserted that they are “just as crappy,” when looking at the larger picture, blaming it, in part, on “Texas’ traditional voter apathy that goes back decades.”

Harris County has 2 million registered voters.

In addition to the lieutenant governor’s race, the GOP ticket in Harris County includes runoffs for the nominations for attorney general, agriculture commissioner, railroad commissioner, and four local judicial races. There are only two races on the Democratic ballot: One for U.S. Senate, another for state agriculture commissioner.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones estimated the total statewide turnout for the runoff will be between 130,000 and 160,000 for both parties.

I’ve got the daily EV totals here. The prediction made by County Clerk Stan Stanart was for 75,000 Republicans and 20,000 Democrats. While I thought his Democratic prediction was too optimistic, I’d say now that both guesses are a bit low, even if you assume that two thirds of the total vote has already been cast. I have no idea about statewide turnout other than to say I expect Republican totals to be higher. If you’re waiting till Tuesday to vote, be aware that you almost certainly won’t be able to go to your usual precinct location. I’ll have info about that Tuesday morning. In the meantime, who did vote and who is planning to vote on the 27th? Leave a comment and let us know.

California AG office does better on pay equity than Texas AG office

That’s gotta sting.

Female lawyers in the California state prosecutor’s office don’t fall as far behind their male counterparts in pay as do female lawyers in the Texas attorney general’s office, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.

Since March, the question of equal pay has been a key issue in the Texas gubernatorial contest between Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis and Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott. Davis has criticized Abbott for not paying female lawyers in his office as much as men. Abbott has deflected the criticism, saying he believes women should be paid as much as men.

The Tribune gathered payroll information from California and Texas, and compared the differences in median and average pay for male and female lawyers at both prosecutors’ offices. Though each state’s agency has some unique responsibilities, both are charged with representing their respective states in litigation and with serving as legal counsel to state agencies, boards and commissions.

The comparison, which took seven weeks to complete because California did not immediately turn over relevant information, revealed that while there were some discrepancies in compensation for male and female lawyers at both state agencies, Texas female lawyers fell further behind than their California counterparts.

See here for the background. The shame of it all, for Greg Abbott to be bested by California. In the grand scheme of things this isn’t much, just another anecdote in a long story. But still, losing to California. The horror, the horror.

Walk carefully

Texas cities are not so safe for pedestrians. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are.

dont_walk

Houston pedestrians better cross with care. The city is the seventh most dangerous in the nation for people on foot, according to a new report from the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit that advocates for neighborhood safety.

Texas ranked as the 10th most dangerous state for walking commuters, with nearly 4,200 pedestrian deaths between 2003 and 2012. That’s roughly 10 percent of such deaths nationally during that time period, according to data compiled from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.

Although the total number of traffic fatalities has decreased nationally, the number of pedestrian deaths has grown. In 2012, 15 percent of all traffic fatalities involved people on foot.

As Congress considers reauthorizing MAP-21, a 2012 law that funds national transportation infrastructure, nonprofits like Smart Growth America and their pro-public safety allies are urging lawmakers nationwide to pass additional federal policy that would ensure pedestrian safety.

“This is about making smarter choices, investing our transportation dollars in projects that help achieve multiple community goals, including public health and supporting local economies,” said Roger Millar, the director of the coalition.

Using numbers from the National Weather Service, the reports says the number of pedestrian deaths in the past decade — 47,000 — is 16 times higher than the number of people who died in natural disasters. But “pedestrian deaths don’t receive a corresponding level of urgency,” Millar added.

[…]

There are two key explanations for the danger of Houston streets, said Jay Blazek Crossley, a policy analyst at Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that examines urban issues in the region. One is the design of city streets, which he said prioritizes speed over safety. The other is that the region has chosen to spend on toll roads over safer urban design, he said.

“Our money is focused on building toll roads in the middle of nowhere,” Crossley said. “Instead of redesigning streets with safety in mind, we’re putting our attention there.”

Crossley added that Houston has made some recent strides. In October, Mayor Annise Parker announced an executive order establishing a citywide Complete Streets policy aimed at protecting pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and public transit riders.

Dallas and San Antonio are also on the list, though not as high up as Houston. I don’t think there’s any question that the way our streets are built, to accommodate cars first and foremost, is the main reason behind this. As Wonkblog points out, cities that are safer for pedestrians tend to be older ones where the main street grid was built before cars existed, and thus were engineered for walking. The Complete Streets directive will help, but to say the least that’s a long-term fix. I don’t know what there is to do in the short run, but raising awareness can’t hurt. Ed Kilgore has more.

Saturday video break: Born To Add

I’ve already done the videos for Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Born To Run”. Now here’s a classic of a different kind:

Clearly, some people at the Children’s Television Workshop really get The Boss.

Castro gets the nod

As anticipated.

Mayor Julian Castro

Before a packed crowd in the White House’s state dining room, President Obama on Friday nominated San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to become the newest — and youngest — member of his cabinet, as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

“I am nominating another all-star who’s done a fantastic job in San Antonio over the last five years,” the president said between jokes about the “good-looking” mayor who had proved to be a “pretty good speaker.”

Pending Senate confirmation, Castro will replace Shaun Donovan, whom the president has tapped as the new director for the Office of Management and Budget.

Castro spoke of having “big shoes to fill,” and called the nomination a “blessing.”

“I look forward to being part of a department that will ensure that millions of Americans all across the country will have the opportunity to get good, safe, affordable housing and pursue their American dreams,” he said, adding his thanks — “muchisimas gracias” — to the people of San Antonio.

See here and here for the background. I’ve said what I’ve got to say about the politics of this, so let me just say “Congratulations” and “Don’t let Ted Cruz be a jerk to you in the confirmation hearings”. I look forward to seeing what happens next. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

Metro opts for the overpass

At this point I can hardly blame them.

Houston transit officials proceeded Thursday with a controversial overpass plan for an East End light rail line, but angry city officials and residents vowed to continue fighting for an underpass.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members rejected a request by residents and the city and state officials who represent them for a 30-day delay in deciding whether to build an overpass or underpass along Harrisburg, at freight tracks near Hughes Street. Board members cited the need to move quickly to complete the line.

The decision came after four months of discussion, which residents wanted to extend so they could further research Metro’s claims about the environmental risks of an underpass. Speakers at Thursday’s board meeting, ranging from engineers to lawyers, questioned some of Metro’s findings without citing specifics.

Metro officials said continued dialogue was unlikely to change their minds.

“We can play this game, but at some point you have to step up and build something,” said board member Cindy Siegel, a former Bellaire mayor.

[…]

Depending on details such as whether vehicle lanes are included in the overpass, Metro would spend between $27 million and $43 million to join light rail segments under construction on the Green Line, between the central business district and the Magnolia Park Transit Center. The overpass could be built in less than three years, according to Metro estimates.

Noting the additional year and up to $20 million in added costs to build an underpass, not including environmental costs, some area residents said they supported the overpass plan.

“We cannot endure any more delays,” said Jessica Hulsey, of the Super Neighborhood 63 Council, which encompasses the Second Ward.

Metro’s press release for this is here. See here, here, here, and here for the background. I have always thought that an underpass was the ideal solution, but at this point given the cost and the time frame, it’s quite reasonable for Metro to say we’re going to do an overpass and we’re going to do our best to make it okay. Various elected officials that represent the area asked Metro not to go forward at this time, so it’s certainly possible they can come under some pressure, but I don’t know what they can do to really affect it at this point. The fact that not everyone is against the decision to proceed also suggests Metro is on reasonably solid ground. The underpass would have been best, but at this point it just wasn’t going to happen. I sympathize with the holdouts, and I wish them luck in making the best of the hand they’ve been dealt.

What campaign signs?

Denise Pratt says she knows nothing about all those campaign signs advocating her re-election that she says she isn’t running for.

Denise Pratt

Campaign signs urging voters to “Re-elect Denise Pratt” have popped up outside at least three early voting locations this week, more than two months after the family court judge announced her immediate resignation and the suspension of her re-election campaign – later revealed to be part of a deal with the Harris County District Attorney to avoid indictment.

“It’s very puzzling,” said local Republican activist Joseph McReynolds, who was handing out mailers for the Spring Branch Republicans outside the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center on West Gray, where there were 18 Pratt campaign signs on Thursday, including a row of nine along the street leading up to the driveway. Pratt signs also were found at early voting locations in Kingwood and George Bush Park in west Houston.

In early April, two days after she resigned, Pratt sparked rumors that she still was campaigning when she sent a text message to supporters asking them to urge an influential endorser to hold off on switching his support to her challenger in the May 27 Republican primary runoff.

The Baytown native denied the rumors, posting a statement on her campaign website that said she had, “in fact,” suspended her re-election efforts. The statement still was there on Thursday.

Asked about the signs, Pratt’s lawyer, Terry Yates, said via email “We have no knowledge of that.”

Clearly, this is the work of some overzealous volunteers. What other possible explanation could there be? OK, OK, Texpatriate mentions rumors of some third party troublemaker planting the signs, and I have to admit that this election is more suitable than most for that kind of shenanigan. It’s a possibility that deserves at least a bit more consideration than snarky dismissal. That said, there’s no particular reason to trust anything the Pratt campaign has to say. So we’ll see what happens.

Friday random ten – A my name is Aaron

Remember how I did that list last week of artists whose names began with the letter I, and I mused that it might be a good idea to go through the alphabet like that? Yeah, so that’s a thing now.

1. Don’t Take Away My Heaven – Aaron Neville
2. Winner Takes It All – ABBA
3. Shoot To Thrill – AC/DC
4. Outer Space – Ace Frehley
5. Whenever You’re Near Me – Ace of Base
6. The Chanukah Song – Adam Sandler
7. Dream On – Aerosmith
8. Little Tornado – Aimee Mann
9. Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
10. Ukulele Anthem – Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra

Amazingly, I have way more than enough A-named bands and artists to not need to reference my two favorites, the Austin Lounge Lizards and the Asylum Street Spankers. Variety, and all that. Who are your favorite A artists?

Some grassroots action on the unfairness of commercial property valuation

From the inbox:

Parents, homeowners, teachers, and community members from Houston gathered at the park in front of Nathaniel Q Henderson Elementary School to kick off local efforts in a statewide campaign called Real Values for Texas to fix the state’s broken property tax system.

“Our broken property tax system works against kids, homeowners, and schools,” said Reverend James Caldwell of the Houston Coalition of Community Organizations. “When big building owners manipulate property tax law, they deprive schools and neighborhoods of much-needed funds.”

In Houston, most large commercial property owners exploit loopholes in property tax law that allow them to lower their property tax bills by an average of 40 percent each year. As a result, Houston schools and local communities have lost an estimated $1.4 billion over the past five years. Schools have been hit the hardest, with losses of at least $730 million.

“It troubles me that, unless we change property tax law, kids in pre-kindergarten like my daughter will face obstacles to their education every year because of funding cuts,” said Tarah Taylor, a parent of an HISD student. “Even though she is just 4 years old, my daughter is already fundraising for musical instruments at her school.”

“My students pay the price when large commercial property owners get huge discounts on their property taxes,” said Daniel Santos, an HISD teacher. “From bigger class sizes to limited supplies, each year it gets harder to give students the full attention and resources they need to succeed.”

For homeowners, the impact has been equally significant. Since 2000, the property tax burden on homeowners grew from 45 percent to 54 percent while the share that commercial and industrial property owners paid dropped to less than 20 percent, according to the Associated Press.

“I do my part and pay my property taxes each year, and it’s unfair that homeowners like me have to make up for what big commercial property owners are not paying,” said Guadalupe Avila, a homeowner from Houston’s Northside. “It’s time for a fair system where big commercial property owners pay property taxes on the real market values of their properties.”

Local public officials have also shown support for a fair property tax system.

“Property tax fairness is a simple issue,” said Houston City Council Member Jerry Davis of District B. “It is about fixing the law to ensure that children have a quality education, our streets are safe, and homeowners are not overburdened.”

In April, supporters of Real Values for Texas in San Antonio rallied in front of the Homewood Suites-Riverwalk to call on large commercial property owners to stop exploiting loopholes and to pay property taxes on the real market value of their buildings.

In El Paso, Real Values for Texas supporters are engaging the local community around the connection between property tax manipulation and the proposed budget cuts by the El Paso Independent School District.

You know how I feel about this. Real Values For Texas is a newcomer on the scene, but they’re starting to get some attention, in the Trib and the DMN, which last month had its own big story on the unequal playing field for commercial property owners plus an editorial that called for fixing it. We all know the first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one. The second step is getting organized. That’s what Real Values For Texas is about, so check them out.

Hackathon II: Son Of Hackathon

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker today announced the City of Houston will host its second annual “Open Innovation Hackathon” on May 31-June 1 at the Houston Technology Center. This year’s Hackathon is also part of the National Civic Day of Hacking series of civic innovation events being hosted across the globe during the weekend. A hackathon is an event in which software developers, designers, and data analysts collaborate intensively on data and software projects. Over the course of the weekend, Houston’s “civic hackers” will pitch ideas, form teams and develop innovative new websites, mobile apps, and insightful data visualizations to address community and city problems.

“Last year’s inaugural Hackathon attracted over 200 attendees, reinforcing why Houston leads the nation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) job growth,” Mayor Parker said. “The City is not only interested in sharing our data to help entrepreneurs and the community, but we also look forward to seeing high-impact projects that we can implement within city government to solve our problems and better serve the citizens.”

The City has identified nearly 20 “weekend projects” that a team of software developers, designers, analysts and others could reasonably complete, ranging from an Adopt-a-Hydrant app that allows citizens to adopt city infrastructure to a project to better share restaurant inspection information with the public. To help participants prepare for these projects, datasets have been made available on an interim open data portal. Participants can also work on their own project ideas at this free Hackathon event and submit their work for review by judges on Sunday.

“Last year’s Hackathon demonstrated how creating a dialogue between City officials and the region’s technology and start-up communities can create success both inside and outside City government,” said City Council Member and Hackathon Co-Chair Ed Gonzalez. “That success has been really important to how we’re thinking about technology inside the City of Houston and in the community.”

The City has implemented two projects through its civic innovation efforts – Budget Bootcamp and the 311 Performance Dashboards – and its IT staff has also benefited from the exposure to new technologies and different development techniques. Last year’s Open Innovation Hackathon featured over 200 attendees and over 20 team project submissions. Citizens interested in learning more about the event are encourage to view last year’s recap video.

Further information about the City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon, as well as registration information, is available at: http://www.houstonhackathon.com/.

See here and here for the background. The Hackathon site notes that you don’t need to be a developer – designers and graphic artists are needed, too – you don’t have to have a team put together – they can hook you up if you would like that – and you don’t even need your own idea – they have plenty of samples to choose from. The Open Data Portal is here, so go check that out as well to see what datasets are available to you. Some cool ideas came out of this last year, and there’s plenty more to do, so go give it a try. See here for more on how last year’s Hackathon went down.