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August 18th, 2019:

Weekend link dump for August 18

The “Bin Laden” bill is finally going out of circulation.

“A multibillion-dollar business that embraces advanced technology and cherishes precision, Major League Baseball would prefer not to need an oozy substance harvested by one family in a secret location along the Delaware River. But for decades it has, and that won’t change anytime soon.”

Leaders of the “religious right” continue to be a bunch of fatuous, immoral troglodytes.

A Charlie Pierce article about the awfulness of NFL owners is a joy forever.

“As we’ve seen both before his election and since, Trump is a minority candidate, essentially a factional leader, who has incredibly durable support of between 35% and 45% of the population. He really, really needs the presence of spoiler candidates to pull the contest down into the mid-40s where it was in 2016. I’d never say never. But I think there’s a good argument that a significant third party/spoiler candidacy – or ideally more than one – are the necessary predicate of Trump’s reelection.”

“While the idea of breaking the United States into separate racial territories is, of course, ludicrous, it doesn’t come without an audience. And if anything, that audience is growing, with flames fanned by actors both foreign and domestic. American state fracture — breaking up the country, outright — has gained increasing credence among the far-right over the past few years. And with last weekend’s terrorist attack, the domestic push to dissolve the United States outright entered a new phase — one whose end remains unclear.”

My kids loved Legos when they were younger. They love watching Friends now. I am not going to tell them that a Friends-themed Lego set is a thing you can buy now.

“By now, Trump’s party in Congress, the members of his Cabinet, and even his White House entourage all tacitly agree that Trump’s occupancy of the office held by Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower must be a bizarre cosmic joke, not to be taken seriously.”

Tumblr has been sold again, but there are no plans for the naughty pictures to come back.

“That weirdly reduced notion of blasphemy is, itself, a kind of blasphemy. It allows white evangelicals to chant white supremacist slogans at a rally for a white supremacist president and to imagine that’s all hunky dory just as long as they don’t cuss while doing so.”

“By its very definition, white privilege is the ability to film yourself conducting a “social experiment” with military-grade weapons at the same store where a mass shooting just happened, without being shot dead in your tracks.”

That bizarre story about the Harvard law professor and the women who allegedly sex-scammed him has gotten even more bizarre.

“A guide to driving in America from a hapless Brit.”

“Our galaxy’s black hole suddenly flashed a bright light — and scientists don’t know exactly why”.

“It’s not perplexing to me that Christians have a multitude of beliefs that don’t all come together as a uniform and internally logical system. But I do notice what is negotiable and what is not. With evangelicals, not much is supposed to be negotiable, but it turns out that the truth is almost the complete opposite. You can be the worst, most disrespectful person towards the actual tenets of the faith so long as you insult and belittle the people who don’t share the faith.”

“There have been hundreds of articles and broadcast stories since the attack in El Paso, reporting with depth and compassion about this moment. But the banner headlines and the segments at the top of newscasts reflect the value editors assign to aspects of a story. The front page still speaks volumes. The top story in a broadcast signals to the audience which topics matter most. And despite the fact that the attacker purposefully targeted Latinos, that is not what most outlets chose to emphasize.”

“If Trump were correct that China pays the entirety of his tariffs, as he has repeatedly claimed, why would the commerce secretary say the decision to delay tariffs was made to protect U.S. consumers for holiday shopping?”

“Trump has never been a reasonable man, but for two years, he has gotten worse. He literally cannot tell the truth from a lie, he often seems completely unable to comprehend even basic information, and he flies off the handle in ways that would make most of us take our children to a pediatrician for evaluation.”

Serena Williams versus drones. What more do you need?

The world is terrible, but there’s a new John Coltrane album, so at least we’ve got that going for us.

“NO-ONE COULD HAVE PREDICTED THIS: unintended yet entirely foreseeable results of boneheaded trade policy.”

RIP, Richard Williams, animator best known for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

RIP, Peter Fonda, actor best known for Easy Rider, son of Henry and brother of Jane.

Beto is still not running for Senate

Sorry, y’all.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke will return to the presidential campaign trail Thursday for the first time since the Aug. 3 massacre of 22 people at a Walmart in his hometown by a suspect who told police he was hunting “Mexicans” and who O’Rourke said drew “vile inspiration” from President Donald Trump.

According to O’Rourke’s campaign, he will relaunch with a morning speech in El Paso that will outline the path forward for a presidential campaign that began with great promise five months ago but is now mired at 2% in national polls.

O’Rourke has been importuned with increasing urgency, both publicly and privately, to consider swapping his struggling presidential campaign for a more promising and potentially more consequential second run for the U.S. Senate, challenging the reelection of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“He just needs to get home and take care of business,” former Houston Mayor Annise Parker told The New York Times in the aftermath of the El Paso tragedy. “We wouldn’t have five people running for Senate if Beto came back.”

An Emerson College poll conducted during the first three days of August found that more than half of Texas Democrats thought O’Rourke should run for Senate instead of president.

The poll found that most Democratic voters had not formed an opinion on the Senate race without O’Rourke, and that none of the candidates already in the race had gained much traction.

The filing deadline for the March primary is not until December, but Thursday’s announcement by O’Rourke would seem to effectively foreclose the possibility that he would enter a race now so crowded with lesser-known candidates that it appears destined for a May runoff — potentially hobbling chances of defeating the state’s senior senator.

See here for the background. Here’s the money quote:

As I always say, nothing is certain until after the filing deadline. Up until then, Beto could change his mind if he wanted to. I don’t think he will, and you know why I don’t think he will, but until December 15 it’s at least a theoretical possibility. My advice is to accept what he’s saying at face value, and move on. The Trib has more.

Rep. Dustin Burrows steps down as House GOP Caucus Chair

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dustin Burrows

State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock has resigned as chair of the Texas House GOP Caucus, according to two people familiar with the matter. Burrows’ departure comes amid allegations that he and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen planned to politically target members from their own party in the 2020 primaries — and it marks the largest fallout yet since the accusations surfaced.

Burrows has served in the House since 2015. His resignation is expected to be announced to House Republicans sometime Friday. State Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, who serves as vice chair of the caucus, will be elevated to chair.

Burrows has not yet publicly responded to the accusations made by Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist who heads Empower Texans. Over the past few weeks, a number of House Republicans have privately expressed frustration that their caucus leader was largely remaining silent on the accusations made against him.

In a statement, Bonnen said that Burrows “was a strong leader for the caucus.” He added, “I respect his decision and I remain committed to strengthening our majority.”

Normally, this is super-deep Inside Baseball stuff, of interest to almost no one outside of the people who actually inhabit the Capitol. But these are not normal times, and Burrows is enmeshed in the current unpleasantness surrounding Speaker Dennis Bonnen and professional troglodyte Michael Quinn Sullivan. The fact that Burrows has maintained such strict radio silence is either a tribute to his loyalty to Bonnen or a measure of how deep the doo-doo is. Some day, perhaps we’ll find out which is the case.

On to the next big financial issue for the city

It’s always something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Four years ago, the main source of Houston’s deteriorating financial health — billions of dollars in unfunded pension obligations — loomed over the race for mayor, promising a massive test for the winner.

Now, Mayor Sylvester Turner, having overhauled the city’s troubled pension systems, is running for re-election and touting the reforms as his signature policy accomplishment. He faces several challengers, including Bill King, the businessman he defeated four years ago, millionaire lawyer and self-funder Tony Buzbee, City Councilman Dwight Boykins who has clashed with the mayor over firefighter pay and former Councilwoman Sue Lovell, as well as a handful of lesser known candidates.

Whoever wins will be forced to confront another simmering financial problem: Houston’s $2.4 billion unfunded liability for retiree health care costs, the result of years of deferred contributions, an aging city workforce and, experts say, growing medical costs that outpace the city’s revenue.

The total has grown in recent years by an average of $160 million a year, or more than $400,000 a day. That is less than the $8.2 billion unfunded pension liability’s $1 million-per-day growth rate, but enough to require swift and sweeping changes, experts and local officials say.

“We’re in the earlier stages in this. It’s not a crisis by any means, but it would be better to address it now,” Controller Chris Brown said. “We don’t want to let this thing grow to another $8 billion unfunded liability. … Let’s pay a little now instead of paying a lot later.”

The unfunded liability refers to the city’s obligations in the coming decades for retired employees’ medical, life and prescription drug insurance, commonly called other post-employment benefits, or OPEB. Houston has covered its OPEB expenses through a pay-as-you-go system, akin to making a minimum credit card payment while the balance grows.

[…]

“We have also been in discussions with the employee groups working toward consensus, while keeping in mind the sacrifices employees have made to help us achieve the city’s historic pension reform,” Turner said.

The proposals align with recommendations from a separate firm, Philadelphia-based PFM, which said in its 10-year Houston financial plan the city should eliminate OPEB coverage altogether for retirees or dependents who have access to other coverage.

Other cities have taken a similar approach, limiting cuts for retirees and older employees who were promised certain benefits, while requiring bigger sacrifices from younger and future employees with more time to prepare.

The good news here is that the city doesn’t need to go through the Lege to fix this, and the basic plan for a fix is already in the works. Mayor Turner will be proposing his plan later in the year, and most likely that will put the city on a path towards containing this problem. There’s still a big piece of the puzzle missing, though.

Even after reigning in the city’s OPEB liability, Brown said, the city faces numerous looming financial problems, including annual deferred maintenance and, in the recent city budget, recurring spending that outstrips recurring revenue. In addition, Houston has been operating under a voter-imposed cap on property tax revenue since 2004 and has trimmed its tax rate to avoid collecting more money than allowed.

“This is another piece of the larger problem that’s looming for the city of Houston, which is the structurally imbalanced budget,” Brown said. “Essentially, we want to be paying for all of our current expenses in the fiscal year in full. And we don’t want to defer anything out, i.e. kick the can down the road.”

Yes, the revenue cap, which costs the city many millions of dollars for no good purpose. There’s a lot the city can do to control costs, but not everything is within its power. Some things just get more expensive over time, and if the city is not allowed to reap the benefit of economic growth, it cannot deal with those expenses. If we can get past this issue, and Mayor Turner gets re-elected, then maybe, just maybe, we can get a rev cap repeal measure on the 2020 ballot. There will never be a friendlier electorate to deal with t.