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June 16th, 2014:

Of course some people will split their votes

It’s just a matter of how many of them do so, and if the races in question are close enough for it to matter.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Democrats are hoping the Republicans will eventually make some of the mistakes Democrats themselves made back when they were on top and the GOP was trying to break down the doors of power. They ran candidates — particularly at the national level — who were too liberal for conservative Texas Democrats to stomach. They developed a split between conservatives and liberals that made it possible for Republicans to peel away the conservatives and form the beginnings of what is now a solid Republican majority.

The notion behind the current Van de Putte proposition is that — to Democrats — Patrick is so extreme that even some Republicans will rebel and vote for the Democrat. In a debate with Patrick this year, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro said the Houston Republican would be the Democrats’ “meal ticket” in November.

The differences between the two top candidates (there are also a Libertarian, a Green and an independent in the race) are stark: gender, ethnicity, party, ideology, roots. She is likely to attack his positions on immigration, health care, abortion, equal pay and education. He is likely to attack her positions on some of those same things, characterizing her as a liberal who wants to expand government and poisoning his darts with the unpopularity of the Democratic president.

To be the only Democratic statewide winner in November, Van de Putte would need to make sure Patrick doesn’t perform as well as Greg Abbott. And that requires one to imagine the voter who will vote for Abbott and then turn and vote for Van de Putte — who will vote against Wendy Davis for governor and against Patrick for lieutenant governor. Republicans are betting there won’t be many of those. Democrats are hoping that women and minorities will have an allergic reaction to his rhetoric and positions, creating an opportunity for their candidate.

It happened before, but this was a different state when voters elected George W. Bush, a Republican, and Bob Bullock, a Democrat, to the top two positions on the ballot. It nearly happened again four years later, when Bush won re-election against Garry Mauro by 37 percentage points and Republican Rick Perry beat Democrat John Sharp by less than 2 points in the race for lieutenant governor.

It’s true you have to go back to 1994 to find an example of a party split at the top of state government, but you don’t have to go back nearly that far to find a significant split in how people voted for those two offices. Just in 2010, more than 300,000 people voted for Bill White and David Dewhurst. That always gets overlooked because the races were not close in 2010, making White’s effort little more than a footnote, but the point is simply that people – many people – can and will split their vote in the right set of circumstances.

We also saw plenty of examples of this in 2012, though not at the statewide level. Congressman Pete Gallego, State Rep. Craig Eiland, and *ahem* State Sen. Wendy Davis all won races in districts that voted majority Republican otherwise. In Harris County, some 40,000 people voted for Mitt Romney and Adrian Garcia, while in the other direction another fifteen or twenty thousand voted for Barack Obama and Mike Anderson. In all of these cases, those ticket splitters very much did matter – the first three could not have won without them, while the latter two could have gone either way, as Harris County was basically 50-50 that year. This is why the efforts of Battleground Texas mean so much. Democrats have to get their base vote up, or else it won’t matter how much crossover appeal Leticia Van de Putte – or Wendy Davis, or Sam Houston, or Mike Collier – may have. It’s not either-or, it’s both or nothing.

On cops and the revenue cap

Mayor Parker again calls attention to the city’s stupid revenue cap and the things it will prevent the city from doing if it is left in place.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

If Houston voters do not want police pulled from the streets next year, Mayor Annise Parker says, they better think twice about a cap on city revenues they imposed a decade ago.

That is the message the mayor has pushed in the days following the release of a study on the Houston Police Department’s operations that showed the understaffed agency ignored 20,000 cases with workable leads last year.

“We need more police officers. The only way we can have more police officers is to have more tax revenue to pay for them,” Parker said. “It’s really easy to say, ‘Well, the government should spend less money.’ We’ve been funding the police department by one of the most efficient, effective uses of resources anywhere to get us to today. I can’t fund the Houston Police Department with less money.”

Unless voters adjust the revenue cap, soaring property appraisals are expected to force a cut in the property tax rate next year, carving millions of dollars from the city budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015. The cap limits the growth in city revenues to the combined rates of inflation and population growth. As a result, Houston faces a projected $142 million gap between expected revenues and expenses in its general fund next summer, a figure that tops the $137 million shortfall the city had to close during the economic recession, when Parker laid off 776 workers.

As Parker prepares to ask voters to reconsider the revenue cap next year – in May at the earliest, or perhaps November – the staffing study is an obvious tool.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad this article makes it clear that the revenue cap would mean that the city is forced to reduce the property tax rate, because so far most of the emphasis has been on spending cuts. The reason for the spending cuts is because the city is essentially forbidden from having a year in which revenue growth is especially robust. In the absence of this cap, if the city has a particularly good year – you know, because the economy is humming, new construction is on a roll, or maybe just because we’ve fully recovered from a downturn – we could invest that extra revenue in ways that would not otherwise be available to us during normal years. What the revenue cap does is it imposes a priority above all others, to roll back the property tax rate until we’re back into normal territory. And if we have any unexpected costs or unmet needs or wish list items? That’s just too bad.

So if you think we should take extra revenue and use it to help meet our pension obligations? Too bad, we can’t do that.

If you think we should take extra revenue and use it to bolster the city’s reserve fund? Too bad, we can’t do that.

If you think we should take extra revenue and use it to fix more roads? Too bad, we can’t do that.

If you think we should take extra revenue and use it to hire more cops? Too bad, we can’t do that.

Now of course, we can try to do those things from the more limited amount of revenue that the cap would allow us to have, once we’ve cut property taxes. In normal times, this might not be that big a deal other than being a lost opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s happening at a time when the city has some deferred debt payments coming due, and every dollar we reduce from available revenue means that much less is available for the city’s normal and ongoing obligations. Tax cuts come first, everything else gets in line after it. This is of course exactly what the wealthy proponents of the revenue cap, all of whom will benefit greatly from the ensuing reduction in the tax rate, had in mind from the beginning. They want to be the city’s top priority, and this is the means by which they can achieve that. You have to hand it to them, it’s a pretty clever trick.

Having said all that, I do agree with this:

City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former police chief, said he does not support raising the cap without more work to find savings in all city departments.

“You cannot show me in that work demands analysis where it said the $5 billion operating budget for the city of Houston requires more money. It doesn’t say that,” Bradford said. “It says we need more police officers, not more money. I’m not willing to make that big hop yet because we haven’t done the necessary groundwork to support ‘more money.'”

Councilman Stephen Costello, who chairs the council’s budget committee, agreed. The police staffing study cautioned against rushing to hire more officers without ensuring no police are doing jobs civilians could do, he said, adding the study examined only part of the department.

“You can’t just use one work demands analysis that’s not totally complete to justify raising the cap to bring in more police officers,” Costello said. “There are plenty of areas of efficiency available to us.”

I too am skeptical about the need to spend more money on HPD, at least without having a much better idea about how they’re spending the money they have now. Regardless of what happens with the revenue cap or with anything else, we really need to put the Public Safety portion of the budget under closer scrutiny, in the same way we put the rest of the budget under closer scrutiny back in 2010. If you want to cite the consultant’s report as a reason to get rid of the revenue cap, that’s fine, but these are really two separate issues and should be dealt with as such.

Perry appoints Pratt replacement

As expected.

Alicia Franklin

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday appointed Houston family lawyer Alicia Franklin as presiding judge of Harris County’s 311th state District Court, a position left vacant in March after the resignation of disgraced freshman jurist Denise Pratt.

Franklin won a May 27 Republican primary runoff against Pratt, who appeared on the ballot despite her resignation, which came after a deadline to withdraw her name and later was revealed to be part of a deal with the Harris County district attorney to avoid indictment. She will face Democrat Sherri Cothrun in the November general election.

Franklin, who applied for the appointment, said she has already consulted with the visiting judges who have been hearing cases in the 311th since Pratt’s resignation and plans to work with them closely during her transition. The 36-year-old, who has no prior judicial experience, said she also has sought the advice of other family court judges about how they run their courts and keep their caseloads manageable.

“I’m very, very excited and eager to get started,” Franklin said.

See here for the full Pratt archives if you need a refresher. It’s been pretty standard for nominee to get appointed in a situation like this. Would have been interesting to see what Perry would have done if Pratt had managed to win the runoff, but we’ll leave that for the alternate-history books. I’ll be voting for Sherri Cothrun in November, but I wish new Judge Franklin all the best in straightening out Pratt’s ginormous mess. All the people that have been adversely affected by Pratt’s disastrous term in office will thank you for whatever progress you can make. Texpatriate has more.

Comcast wants to use your routers

For a massive WiFi network.

Comcast is expected to flip a switch Tuesday in Houston that will turn 50,000 of its customers’ home Wi-Fi routers into a massive network of public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Comcast residential Internet subscribers with one of the newer cable modem/wireless router combos will show a public network called “xfinitywifi.” Other Comcast customers will be able to connect to it free.

By the end of June, there will be 150,000 such hotspots in the greater Houston area. It’s part of an initiative that will see 8 million Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to Comcast customers around the country by the end of the year.

The move could also lay the foundation for Comcast to get into the wireless phone business with a network that blends Wi-Fi and traditional cellular service.

Amalia O’Sullivan, Comcast’s vice president of Xfinity Internet Product, told the Houston Chronicle that the goal is to make it easier for “friends and family” to use each other’s Comcast home Wi-Fi networks.

“Instead of coming over to your house and saying, ‘Hey, what’s your Wi-Fi password?’ your friends can just connect to the Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot,” O’Sullivan said.

The free network will be on by default for customers who have an Arris Touchstone Telephony Wireless Gateway Modem, which Comcast has been distributing for about two years in Houston. The black plastic device is tall, narrow and has the word Xfinity on the front. It costs $8 a month to rent, and is the standard equipment being issued to Comcast customers who don’t buy their own modems or routers.

Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee said the Xfiniti Wi-Fi hotspot will broadcast only in those cases where customers are using the Wi-Fi feature of the Arris device. Customers who have their own Wi-Fi routers won’t be broadcasting the hotspot.

Bybee said the network will be activated in “waves,” with the first 50,000 switched on Tuesday afternoon. The remaining 100,000 will be phased in through the month.

Customers were notified of the plan in a letter last month, Bybee said. An email notification will be sent after the service begins.

Remember the discussion about municipal WiFi a few years ago? That never happened, but this appears to be a successor to it. There are some details to be worked out, so we’ll see how it all goes. Dwight Silverman has been all over this, with technical details including how you can turn this off if you want to. One thing he clarified for me is that if you bought your own router, as I did, you’re not affected by this.

Extremetech considers some of the implications of this.

Will Comcast Xfinity WiFi slow down your connection to the internet?

The more curious bit is Comcast’s assertion that this public hotspot won’t slow down your residential connection — i.e. if you’re paying for 150Mbps of download bandwidth through the Extreme 150 package, you will still get 150Mbps, even if you have five people creepily parked up outside leeching free WiFi. This leads to an interesting question: If Xfinity hotspot users aren’t using your 150Mbps of bandwidth, whose bandwidth are they using?

There are two options here. Comcast might just be lying about public users not impacting your own download speeds. The other option is that Xfinity WiFi Home Hotspot uses its own separate channel to the internet. This is entirely possible — DOCSIS 3.0 can accommodate around 1Gbps, so there’s plenty of free space. But how big is this separate channel? 50Mbps? 100Mbps? And if there’s lots of spare capacity, why is Comcast giving it to free WiFi users rather than the person who’s paying a lot of money for the connection? And isn’t Comcast usually complaining about its network being congested? At least, that’s the excuse it used to squeeze money from Netflix, and to lobby for paid internet fast lanes.

With 50,000 hotspots enabled in Houston today, 150,000 more planned for the end of the month, and then 8 million more across Xfinity hotspots across the US before the end of 2014, we can only assume that Comcast has a lot of extra capacity. Either that, or it’s intentionally trying to clog up the network for its paying customers — perhaps so it can levy further charges from edge providers like Netflix, or so it has some ammo in the continuing battle for net neutrality.

I figure sooner or later there’s going to be some kind of vulnerability that may expose data on the accompanying home networks. I’m just cynical that way. Are you a Comcast user that has been or will be affected by this? What do you think about it?