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May 11th, 2019:

Cable franchise fees

Hey, remember how the city of Houston had to lay off a bunch of workers to to close a $179 million budget deficit? Well, there’s more where that came from.

The Texas House on Thursday approved legislation that would limit fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way, likely opening up a new spending gap of at least $12 million two days after Mayor Sylvester Turner laid out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Senate Bill 1152, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, passed the House on a 92-50 vote on the third and final reading Thursday. The legislation, which had received Senate approval early last month, heads back to the upper chamber, where lawmakers will decide whether to approve the House version.

The measure would eliminate what cable companies and some lawmakers say is an outdated double tax levied on companies that transmit cable and phone services over the same lines. The bill would eliminate the lesser of the two charges, starting next January.

Opponents say the bill amounts to a gift for large telecom firms, which would not be required to pass the savings on to consumers because the state is barred from regulating cable rates. Turner had urged lawmakers to oppose the measure, saying it would deliver a financial hit to Houston.

Those who back the bill say companies still would pay millions for the remaining charge, arguing that cities would lose only a small portion of their revenue. The House companion bill’s author, state Rep. Dade Phelan, noted Wednesday that only one other state — Oregon — still charges both fees.

Turner blasted lawmakers in a statement Thursday, accusing them of attempting to “unconstitutionally take the value of Houston’s right-of-way” through the bill. He also lauded state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, for attempting to stop the legislation through a procedural maneuver.

[…]

A Legislative Budget Board analysis determined that Houston would take in $17.1 million to $27.5 million less revenue under the bill. Estimates for other cities include $9.2 million in Dallas, $7.9 million in San Antonio and $6.3 million in Austin.

An updated estimate provided by the city Thursday projected it would receive $12.6 million to $24.4 million less revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

It sure has been a great session for cities, hasn’t it? Here’s that earlier story, which I confess I never got around to blogging about. You know who else has had nothing to say about it? Bill King and Tony Buzbee. Way to be looking out for the city’s financial interests, y’all.

As for the fee itself, I can see the argument for getting rid of it, but let’s be clear about two things. One, if you believe this will result in a reduction in your cable or internet bill, I have some oceanfront property in Lubbock you might be interested in. And two, given the financial hit this will impose on cities, would it have killed anyone to phase this in after a year or two, so cities – all of which are required to have balanced budgets – could have had some time to adjust? What exactly was the rush here? Look at the roll call vote, and if you’re in one of those cities – especially Houston – and your Rep supported this, please call their office and ask them that question.

Senate protects Confederate monuments

I will never understand this.

Sen. Brandon Creighton

After nearly four hours of testimony and an emotional show of opposition from some legislators of color in the Texas Senate, the upper chamber approved Tuesday a bill that would expand protections for historical monuments.

While the legislation doesn’t explicitly single out Confederate markers for protection, several Democrats needled the author of the bill, Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, since his measure would effectively shield such landmarks from being removed.

“The bill that you’re carrying on the Senate floor today is disgraceful,” said state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. “I ask that you consider some of the pain and heartache that we have to go through — myself and some of the brothers and sisters on this floor of color and what we’ve had to go through as it relates to our Texas history.”

Creighton’s Senate Bill 1663 would require two-thirds of members in both legislative chambers to approve of the removal, relocation or alteration of monuments or memorials that have been on state property for more than 25 years. City or county monuments that have been up for at least 25 years could only be removed, relocated or altered if approved by a supermajority of the governing board.

Monuments and memorials that have been around less than 25 years could not be altered without approval from a state agency, state official or local government body, depending on who erected it. State or local entities who skirt the law would be subject to a fine for each violation. The bill tentatively passed the upper chamber in a party-line 19-12 vote. (Update: The Senate gave the measure final approval later in the night.)

“Our history is part of who we are and part of the story of Texas, but history is never just one person’s account,” Creighton told other senators Tuesday. “We’ve seen a trend across the nation and the world where controversial monuments are removed or destroyed, often without any input, study or process. I fear that we’ll look back and regret that this was a period where deleting history was more important than learning from it.”

Democrats, meanwhile, pushed back on the notion that tearing down landmarks amounted to erasing history. At one point, members of the Texas House’s Legislative Black Caucus left the lower chamber, which was also in session, crossed the Capitol and congregated in the upper chamber to stand in solidarity against the bill. Meanwhile, other senators advised Creighton to remember the lawmakers of color in the chamber — saying the issue surrounding Confederate monuments hits closer to home for them.

“Are you aware as we’re having this discussion the pain and hurt of state Sens. Miles and [Royce] West?” state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked Creighton of the two black lawmakers in the Senate. “Do you have any idea on how you’re removing the scabs of some of their most painful experiences? … Are you aware of what you’re putting them through?”

I mean, I don’t know how else to put this, but in the Civil War, the Confederacy was the bad guys. You want to honor its heritage, go crowdfund a museum for it. Don’t litter the streets with monuments to people who took up arms against the United States.

The Observer ties this to the ongoing war against cities being conducted by the Republicans in the Legislature.

It’s just another example of how Republicans are using their unprecedented control of state legislatures to dismantle political power in the country’s increasingly liberal cities. Creighton is at the center of that fight this session. He also authored a sweeping set of bills that would eviscerate municipalities’ power to set their own local labor standards, such as mandatory paid sick leave. Creighton insisted those measures are simply about protecting struggling small businesses and low-wage workers from those same overzealous city-hall liberals. That package passed out of the Senate and could soon get a House vote.

Texas isn’t alone. For years, red states have enacted laws prohibiting cities from establishing local minimum wages and other labor protections. In the face of renewed public opposition to Confederate monuments, several Southern states have passed laws making it extremely difficult to remove historical monuments.

Call it the “Monuments and Minimum Wages” doctrine. For state-level conservatives, preemption is about both consolidating economic power and preserving cultural power. But at its core, it boils down to one thing: maintaining political power. This multi-front attack on local control falls disproportionately on the shoulders of people of color in the South.

The blue dots in those red states — Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Jackson, Memphis, Dallas — have long served as epicenters for black political power. But the mostly white Republicans who control these states’ legislatures have systematically undercut the authority of democratically elected city leaders.

Take Birmingham, for example. Alabama’s largest city is majority black, as is its city council. When local activists first called for the removal of a 52-foot Confederate monument in 2015, Republican state legislators (most, if not all, of whom are white) rammed through a bill preventing cities from removing historical monuments. When that city council and the city’s black mayor passed an ordinance in 2016 raising Birmingham’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, the state legislature quickly rushed through a law preempting local minimum wages.

Now Texas Republicans want to follow suit.

Did you notice that two-thirds majority requirement to approve changes? The Republicans may not think they’ll ever be a governing minority in this state, but they’re preparing for it anyway.

The law mandates a fine of up to $1,500 per day for a first violation, and up to $25,000 per day for subsequent violations. I have this fantasy of a city just straight up defying this law, declaring it to be invalid, and refusing to pay the fines. Strike a blow for local control and racial justice, all at once. It’ll never happen, and the rational part of my brain can’t actually endorse it, but that’s how contemptuous I feel of this bill. We cannot vote these guys out of power soon enough.

Flying motorcycles

Look out above.

A team of engineers at Texas A&M University is participating in the $2 million-plus GoFly Prize competition, an event sponsored by the aerospace company Boeing to challenge engineers to develop flying devices that are relatively quiet, fit in the garage and can carry one person for 20 miles without refueling or recharging.

The College Station team, called Texas A&M Harmony, and its motorcycle-like device has so far received $70,000 as a winning team in the competition’s paper design and prototype phases. It’s now preparing for the final competition in which teams fly full-scale designs in early 2020.

[…]

“People have been trying to build flying cars for the last 70, 80 years,” said Moble Benedict, team captain and assistant professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. “We still don’t see flying cars anywhere. And that’s because there are some inherent issues with the designs people are coming up with.”

Some designs would produce flying transports that are too loud for neighborhoods, he said, others that are too large for the typical commuter. The GoFly Prize competition addresses such problems by requiring that competing devices be no larger than 8½ feet in any direction. And from 50 feet away, they can’t be louder than 87 decibels – the sound level of a hair dryer.

“At first we thought this was impossible,” Benedict said. “We thought these were unrealistic requirements from GoFly. But then we said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

They soon came up with Aria. Like its namesake, the operatic aria sung by just one person, the flying device is designed for one person sitting upright. Two stacked rotors, essentially large fans that sit on top of each other and turn in opposite directions, enable it to fly.

The Aria could reach top speeds between 80 mph and 90 mph when the driver throttles forward. A flight computer stabilizes the vehicle and allows it to be controlled with a flight stick, almost like playing a video game. For the GoFly competition, the team will pilot the vehicle remotely and have a 200-pound dummy in the driver’s seat.

The rotors are specially designed to hold down the noise and not to pester neighbors when early-morning commuters take off for work.

“It won’t sound like a swarm of hornets in the morning,” said Farid Saemi, the team’s lead on electric powertrain propulsion and a doctoral student studying aerospace engineering.

Between this and the Uber flying cars that are (supposedly) being tested by NASA, 2020 could be a banner year for flying vehicles. Or possibly a banner year for internal combustion engines falling from the sky. I don’t envy the next head of the FAA when the rulemaking process gets started. The cost of thie A&M flying motorcycle is $500K, and I presume that’s without the customization options. Start saving your pennies now if you want one of these babies, is what I’m saying. I’ll try to keep an eye on these developments, while hopefully remaining safely under cover. The downtown tunnels have never looked better.