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Davis keeps up the attack on Abbott over pre-k

She is not letting up.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

While addressing the Texas State Teachers Association’s convention in San Marcos on Saturday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis accused her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, of backing away from his early education policy proposal.

Abbott, the state’s attorney general, recently came under fire from Democrats and education advocates for language in a policy proposal that appears to call for the biannual testing of pre-kindergarten students. Although Abbott’s campaign said earlier this week that his plan does not call for such tests, Davis is keeping up the attacks.

“Under the guise of quality, he calls for putting these tests first — not our kids,” Davis said. “In his plan, his first assessment idea calls for another test for 4-year-olds. And if they don’t pass the mark, they get the rug pulled out from under them.”

Davis bashed Abbott for remarks made by campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch, who told The Texas Tribune earlier this week that assessment methods mentioned in the attorney general’s plan were “there for informational purposes only.”

“They are not part of Greg Abbott’s policy recommendations,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I don’t really have anything to say about this, I’m just using it as an excuse to reproduce beneath the fold an amazingly snarky press release from the Davis campaign that made fun of that “for informational purposes only” disclaimer. I continue to be amazed at the aggressiveness of the Davis campaign lately. As I’ve noted before, she has been setting the terms of the debate for basically the entire campaign. I don’t know how long that will last, and I don’t know how much effect it may have on the outcome, but I do know this is something we are not used to seeing, and I do know I’m enjoying it. Click on for the press release.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Election 2014.

Council considers hoarding ordinance

I hadn’t realized Houston didn’t already have an ordinance to deal with hoarding. Apparently, we are not at all unique in this regard.

HoardersOne

A proposed ordinance would begin to expand the city’s options for resolving hoarding situations even when the hoarder owns the property. The measure, which would not apply to single-family homes, would create fines, clarify when police could enter a property with a warrant and refer violators to social services.

If City Council approves the proposal next week, Houston could be the first city in Texas to create a specific ordinance to address hoarding, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. Other cities have discussed the hoarding issue when adopting building and fire codes, he said.

“In society it’s becoming more noticeable, probably because of the notoriety from TV shows,” Sandlin said.

The Greater Houston Chapter of the Community Associations Institute, a group for local homeowner associations, supports the proposed ordinance as a starting point, but called for the inclusion of single-family homes. The group also would like to see a mechanism to assist with cleanup since the bill often falls to neighbors, President-Elect Sipra Boyd said.

Sherri Carey, a board member of the group and a property manager who has dealt with three hoarding cases in the last two years, said she wants the ordinance to mandate mental health treatment or follow-up visits to ensure the problems do not resume.

“Just like parole,” she said. “Someone to make sure they’re not breaking the law still.”

[...]

The Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County consulted with the city on the development of the ordinance and its executive director, Stephen Schnee, submitted a letter of support to council.

I would support including single-family homes in this ordinance. Hoarding is both a mental health problem and a public health problem. The goal of this should be to better identify people who need help, to connect them with services that can help them, and to get their property cleaned up. That’s a win all around. Fines should be used as leverage rather than as actual punishment if possible. I look forward to the discussion on this. Texpatriate has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

We really should have expanded Medicaid

We know it would have done a lot of good, at a very reasonable cost. Turns out that cost was even less than what we had been told.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

News reports and state officials have commonly stated that expanding the Medicaid program in this fashion would cost the state about $15 billion over 10 years. Except, that figure, provided by the state Health and Human Services Commission, is actually an estimated total cost for all aspects of the Affordable Care Act, many of which the state is going to have to pay for even though state leaders have remained steadfastly opposed to almost all aspects of the law.

“What?!?,” you say?

In a presentation given to lawmakers in March 2013, state Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek estimated that because of the publicity and outreach involved with the Affordable Care Act, more people who are eligible for Medicaid but not currently part of the program would likely enroll. The estimated price tag? About $6 billion over 10 years, or approximately 40 percent of the total Affordable Care Act implementation cost.

According to that presentation, the estimated cost for expanding Medicaid eligibility to all adults who make less than the 138 percent of the poverty level was about $8.8 billion over 10 years. However, the Legislative Budget Board, the Legislature’s budget arm, came up with a far lower cost estimate of about $4 billion over 10 years. The differences can be attributed to two factors, HHSC spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said. First, HHSC projects that more people will join the Medicaid program than the LBB does; and second, HHSC projected it would cost more to provide the coverage than the LBB does.

Secondly, assume that $1.5 billion figure is correct and that adding it to the state budget would cause taxes to skyrocket and the state’s economy to crumble. However, it begs the question why that hasn’t already happened. Taxpayers in the five major urban counties in Texas — Harris (Houston), Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), Bexar (San Antonio) and Travis (Austin) — already shell out more than $1.5 billion a year in hospital district taxes to provide care and facilities for their largely indigent populations. A study commissioned by Methodist Healthcare Ministries and Texas Impact estimated total local government spending on providing health care at roughly $2.5 billion a year.

Thirdly, expanding Medicaid would produce additional revenue for hospital districts, potentially allowing county governments to cut their tax rate. In Bexar County, hospital district officials estimate that expanding Medicaid would save them $52 million a year, roughly 20 percent of the amount of revenue they get from the hospital district tax, and County Judge Nelson Wolff said he would cut property taxes to pass on the savings if it were approved. In Harris County, hospital district officials say the expansion of Medicaid would mean they would receive an additional $77.5 million in reimbursements, or roughly 15 percent of their tax revenue, based on 2013 financials.

Sure would have been nice to get that extra revenue to help pay for what we’re already paying for, wouldn’t it? We can still take advantage of it if we want to. All it takes is a different set of leaders in our state government.

On a side note, remember that the 7.1 million figure you’ve been hearing for Obamacare signups is just for people going through the healthcare.gov webpage. It doesn’t count state exchanges, Medicaid enrollments, or people who got ACA-compliant policies outside of the exchange. Those first two numbers would surely have been a lot higher nationally had it not been for the cruel and mulish refusal by governors like Rick Perry to create state exchanges and expand Medicaid. There was an increase in Medicaid enrollments across the country, as people who had been eligible all along but didn’t know it or hadn’t gone through it did so thanks to the publicity push from Obamacare. Of course, the total enrollment count was much higher in states that expanded Medicaid, but Texas saw new enrollments as well. That 7.1 million number will likely be higher as well when all is said and done, thanks to some lag in the system. I’ll say it again – just imagine how many more people this law could have helped if only everyone agreed that providing coverage to as many people as possible was a worthy goal and not something to fight against. EoW has more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

The Super Bowl is making us get stuff done

Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.

The 2017 Super Bowl not only will drive thousands of football fans to Houston, it will put a hard deadline on projects from office and hotel construction to a light-rail extension, a local developer said Wednesday.

Ric Campo, CEO of Houston-based Camden Properties and chairman of the Houston Super Bowl bid committee that successfully lobbied the NFL for the big game, said over the next three years developers and the city plan to invest $3.5 billion in downtown. By contrast, he said, the business community and city have invested a total of $5 billion there over the last 14 years.

“It creates incredible deadlines and amazing pressure to get projects done,” he said. “We’re trying to turn downtown into a 24-hour city.”

Campo told a real estate group at its monthly meeting that the Super Bowl would have a combined $500 million positive impact to the city.

He cited several projects that are now under pressure to finish in time, including a Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites, a Hyatt Place, the Marriott Marquis Convention Center Hotel and a Spring Hill Suites. At least six planned residential towers and seven office projects planned for downtown are expected to be completed in time for the big event.

As you know, there’s nothing I like more than an economic impact estimate for a major sporting event. At least for this major sporting event, the construction work being done is for things that will have a benefit for the city before and after The Big Game and would have been good to have even in the absence of said game. Now that I work downtown I have a much better appreciation of all that’s going on there. All this construction is a pain to deal with now, but it’ll be great once it’s finished. It’s reassuring to have a deadline for that.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Baby Got Back

I trust this needs no introduction:

Have you read the oral history of that video yet? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Besides, you know what’s coming next, right?

You’re probably also aware of the Latin translation of the lyrics, which qualifies as an Internet classic these days. But perhaps you haven’t seen this:

Yeah, I’d say that’s a wrap.

Posted in: Music.

HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

The good news is that the testing of backlogged rape kits has led to the identification of a serial rapist in Houston.

Houston police on Tuesday for the first time identified a criminal suspect – a possible serial rapist – from testing of sexual assault kits that once gathered dust in the police property room.

HPD sex crime investigators said Herman Ray Whitfield Jr., 43, has been charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault going back to 1992, and said he may have had more victims.One of his victims, police said, was a 12-year-old.

The identity comes one year after two independent labs began processing about 10,000 cases, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, that were stored in the HPD property room. The city turned to an outside lab after DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended when an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work.

In February, Houston Police Department brass said partial results of a DNA testing had not resulted in any false arrests. And while HPD confirmed the testing had led to a number of arrests, they would not reveal the exact number or identify any suspects.

“I don’t think it’s surprising. You have thousands of untested rape kits, and when you start testing them you’re going to start making connections,” said Mark Bennett, a veteran Houston criminal defense attorney.

“If there are rape victims who wouldn’t have been raped if the authorities had done their jobs properly, we should all be outraged by that.”

[...]

Whitfield was sentenced in 1994 to 30 years in prison for kidnapping and served 12 years before being paroled in 2006, [Sgt. John] Colburn said.

He confirmed the evidence in the sexual assault cases was developed by DNA testing by the independent labs.

From 2006 to 2009, Whitfield was living near Airport Boulevard and Texas 288 in the Sunnyside area but had several different addresses before being sent back to prison in 2009 on a parole violation, according to officer Holly Whillock.

At some point during his parole, Whitfield’s DNA was entered into a national database, allowing police to later link him to the four local cases, Colburn said.

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

Three of the assaults occurred before he went to prison: Dec. 15, 1992, 4300 block of Alvin; Feb. 16, 1993, 4300 block of Alvin; and Aug. 30, 1993, 4400 block of Wilmington.

The other charge stems from an attack on June 11, 2008, in the 4300 block of Wilmington. In that case, police released a composite sketch of the attacker, based upon the victim’s description.

Grits was the first to publish about this, and he notes that there will likely be more such identifications when all is said and done. It’s great that this criminal will be held responsible for his rapes, hopefully to the tune of a life sentence, but as Mark Bennett said in the story, the fact that he wasn’t tied to those crimes before now is a tragedy and an outrage. The failures of HPD’s crime lab are well known, but there has been plenty of other bad news for HPD in recent weeks, all of which led to this blistering editorial in the Chron, in which they call for a third-party investigator to do a thorough examination of HPD’s practices.

It seems like a month can’t go by without HPD landing itself in another controversy. There were two HPD lieutenants who retired, with full benefits, amid allegations of sexual harassment. The crime lab faces an internal investigation after reports that a former employee did not follow proper procedures over the last two years. This comes on the tail of untested evidence, faked results, inaccurate fingerprinting and contaminated blood tests. We thought those days were over.

HPD has also yet to properly address a lauded two-part article by Texas Observer writer Emily DePrang documenting rampant and unpunished police brutality in Houston. Nor has HPD taken significant steps to address police shootings, even after a series of articles by Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton revealed that a quarter of civilians shot by HPD over the past five years had been unarmed.

Now we’re learning that the homicide division simply ignored stacks of cases and failed to keep track of documents. The problems go all the way to the top: City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police sergeant, kept homicide case files after leaving the force (“Council member imposes penalty on self,” Page A1, Thursday). Because of this incompetence, a man charged with murder now sits out of reach in Honduras. How many other murderers roam free because Houston’s police officers refused to do their jobs?

Neither Mayor Annise Parker nor District Attorney Devon Anderson should be satisfied with HPD’s performance. The department’s failures undermine its reliability in the courts and its trustworthiness in the hearts of citizens. All of Houston suffers when HPD falls down on the job, yet it seems like officers get off with a slap on the wrist.

See here and here for those two Observer stories by Emily DePrang; I’ve got links to the Chron stories about shootings here. I’d like to see this be an issue in the DA’s race and in next year’s Mayoral race. Frankly, given that DePrang’s stories were published last summer, it should have been an issue in the 2013 Mayor’s race. Instead of his half-baked reform ideas, Ben Hall should have been all over HPD’s discipline problems and used them to attack Mayor Parker hammer and tong. Sure, a lot of this stuff predates her, and institutional change is hard, but hey, the buck stops here. Every Mayoral wannabe next year needs to be pressed on this. It’s embarrassing, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

While there’s no doubt standardized tests are an important part of student assessment, somewhere along the way, they became too important. We’ve tethered them to everything from student promotion to teacher pay to school reputation. And it’s not just the test days that take away from meaningful learning but the months-long test prep.

Opting out is one way of saying enough’s enough. Principals and teachers aren’t as free to send that message to lawmakers. They’re bound to follow the law. The power rests with parents. But parents are only empowered if they know their rights and band together.

Falkenberg’s column is about two sets of parents, in Waco and in Houston, who try to get their kids out of their STAAR tests. I can’t add anything to that first paragraph above; it’s exactly how I feel. There’s also the stress to the students, which we have had to deal with this year. All tests are stressful, of course, but it’s the pervasiveness and the emphasis on the STAAR that takes it up a notch.

It’s the second paragraph that I want to focus on, because it really is the case that we the parents have the power to affect this. But it’s not just us parents that have this power, and it’s not because we’re parents. The power we have is at the ballot box. If you don’t like the testing regime we have now, don’t support candidates or incumbents that do. In Texas, that means knowing how your legislators stand, and vote, on testing matters. Falkenberg writes about Kyle and Jennifer Massey, parents from Waco who fought a battle with Waco ISD to allow their son to not take the STAAR this year. Kyle Massey runs a blog and has written several entries about his testing beliefs and their fight to opt out their son. Well, the city of Waco is represented in Austin by Sen. Brian Birdwell and Reps. Kyle Kacal and Doc Anderson. I searched Massey’s blog but didn’t find any of those names mentioned on it. I don’t know what these legislators’ records are on standardized testing matters, but they’re the ones the Masseys should have their beef with. Waco ISD is just doing what the Legislature has directed them to do. If you want them to take a different direction, it’s the folks in Austin you need to convince, or defeat.

I bring this up in part because it’s important to keep in mind which office and which officeholders are responsible for what, and partly because doing so can be hard work. I was chatting the other day with a friend who wasn’t previously much engaged with politics and elections. She asked me if there was a website that kept track of which candidates supported or opposed which issues. I said no, that kind of information tends to be widely dispersed. You can check with various interest groups to see who they endorse and for those who keep scorecards like the TLCV how they rate the performance of various incumbents, and you can check out the League of Women Voters candidate guides when they come out. But there may not be a sufficiently organized interest group for the issue you care about, LWV candidate guides don’t come out till just before elections and not every candidate submits responses, and non-incumbents aren’t included on scorecards. You have to track that information down for yourself, via their website or Facebook page or by asking them yourself. It can be a lot of work.

But it’s work that needs to be done if you want a government that’s responsive to you and your preferences. One reason why there’s often a disconnect between what people actually want and what gets prioritized is because there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they know about the candidates they’re voting for and against. You ultimately have to do the work to know you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Partisan affiliation is a reliable indicator for some things, but not for everything. Standardized testing and curriculum requirements fall into the latter group. Be mad at your school board trustee for this stuff if you want, but they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The dealers are on the ballot this fall. Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?

Posted in: School days.

Time is running out to undo Pratt’s mass dismissals

Remember when now-former Judge Denise Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases at the end of 2013 without notice? Since her abrupt resignation last month, other Family Court judges have been trying to clean up the mess she left behind. This includes reaching out to lawyers and clients that were affected by the New Year’s Eve purge.

Denise Pratt

With deadlines looming, Harris County administrative judges are asking lawyers who had cases dismissed as part of a mass purge by former Family Court Judge Denise Pratt to tell them if they had filed motions asking those cases be reinstated or risk having to start over from scratch.

Pratt, who abruptly resigned late last month, dismissed more than 630 cases on the final two days of 2013. Lawyers said she did not notify them or their clients of the dismissals or schedule hearings for them, as required by law.

[...]

At least 260 of the cases were not inactive, with about 230 having been reinstated before Pratt’s March 28 departure, according David Farr, administrative judge for the county’s nine family courts.

Farr said he has found about 30 paper copies of motions to reinstate cases in the 311th courtroom that were filed on time by lawyers but had not been signed or scheduled for hearings by Pratt.

“I strongly suspect that there are other motions to reinstate which were timely filed … but that were not set for hearings prior to Judge Pratt’s departure,” Farr wrote in an email blast to family lawyers on Tuesday. “The Harris County Administrative Judge Robert Schaeffer and I are currently attempting numerous measures in order to identify those ‘lost motions to reinstate,’ which include this email … ‘”

Farr said he has asked the district clerk to track down all electronic motions but is concerned he may not find all of them before deadlines next week. The deadline for reinstating any of the 630-plus cases dismissed at the end of December is April 14 and 15.

Judge Farr had found unsigned orders and other paperwork that may or may not have been filed and processed as part of the triage on Pratt’s files. I think it’s safe to say at this point that if you had any unfinished business in Pratt’s court, now would be an excellent time to inquire with Judge Farr about the status of your case, to make sure that they know about it and that all the paperwork is accounted for so that it can be handed to another judge for disposition. Don’t assume and don’t wait, there’s a deadline approaching.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Ralph Garr

On the anniversary this week of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, the Chron profiles his teammate and resident of nearby Richmond, Ralph Garr.

With Henry Aaron sitting on 714 career home runs as the Braves prepared to play the Dodgers on April 8, 1974, Atlanta leadoff hitter Ralph Garr badly wanted to be on base when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record.

Garr made it for Aaron’s 714th, but not for 715. He was in the Braves’ dugout as Aaron connected off pitcher Al Downing to become baseball’s home run king, 40 years ago Tuesday.

Garr went 0-for-3 that night, but he had 25 hits over the next 11 games en route to his own milestone. As baseball celebrates the anniversary of Aaron’s record-breaking homer, Garr this year commemorates the 40th anniversary of his 1974 National League batting title.

He and his wife, Ruby, traveled from their Fort Bend County home in Richmond to Atlanta for Tuesday’s ceremony honoring Aaron, 80. After that, it’s back home to his job as a part-time scout for the Braves.

“You never think about it, but 40 years, that’s a long time,” Garr said. “I had a good year because everybody was worried about Henry Aaron hitting a home run. They weren’t paying much attention to me.”

Garr, 68, was known as “the Road Runner” for his speed (3.85 seconds from home plate to first base). He had 1,562 hits in 1,317 games over 13 major league seasons, including 803 hits in his first four full seasons. His lifetime batting average was .306, including his league-best .353 in 1974, and he twice led the National League in triples.

Columnist Jim Murray once said of him: “Ralph Garr is as hard to get out as an impacted tooth.”

But Garr’s thoughts this week are on Aaron’s skill and the quiet grace with which he handled the threats and abuse that accompanied his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record.

“He had taken Dusty Baker and me under his wing, and while all that was going on, he would tell us in the dugout, ‘Don’t sit too close to me,’ ” Garr said. “He didn’t want anything to happen to us.

“Whenever he got to the ballpark, he was all business, regardless of what was going on around him. I’ve never seen a person who could shed things and do his job so well. He is one of the nicest human beings you would want to meet, and he’s a better man than he was a baseball player.”

It’s a nice story about a very good player who had a front seat to history, so go check it out. I’m old enough to have been a baseball fan at the time Aaron broke The Babe’s record, but I don’t have any specific memories of it. Like many people I’m sure, it wasn’t till years later that I learned about the terrible, horrifying racism Aaron faced as he chased down Ruth. He talks about it in this USA Today story – he kept every nasty letter he received, some choice quotes from which are documented at Braves blog Talking Chop. Over at Time, Jon Friedman makes the case that Aaron would have faced worse in today’s troll-laden social media environment. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps not, some wingnut sites do their best to prove his point. (I have no desire to link to them, but here are the URLs I found on the same page as the Google search that led me to Friedman’s piece: http://hotair.com/archives/2014/04/07/time-hank-aaron-wouldve-faced-more-racism-today-because-twitter/ and http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tom-blumer/2014/04/07/times-jon-friedman-fails-show-hank-aaron-would-face-worse-social-media-d) Anyway, these are all good reads for your weekend, as is Craig Calcaterra’s take on that USA Today story. I’ll close with a quote from Hammerin’ Hank in that article:

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 40 years, and I think more people appreciate it now than 20 years ago,” Aaron says. “History has a way of doing that. People appreciate it more the longer it lasts.”

Aaron acknowledges [Barry] Bonds as the the recordholder. There will be a day, he says, when Bonds’ mark will be broken.

Aaron, who has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, might not be alive to see it.

Yet when it happens, Aaron says, he hopes he’ll find joy in the chase.

“I just hope we can all enjoy the game and celebrate the next athlete who hits 60 homers or even 50 homers,” Aaron says, “and not worry about whether he’s taking anything or he’s on anything.

“Most of all, I pray that no one ever again, in any walk of life, has to go through what I did.”​

Amen to that.

Posted in: Baseball.

Friday random thirteen: Presidenting is hard work, part 2

Finishing the job I started last week:

1. We’ve Only Just Begun – Grant Lee Buffalo
2. Buns O’Plenty – Isaac Hayes
3. Mary Ann – Ben Arthur
4. Devil’s Radio – George Harrison
5. Sweet Old Chicago – Roosevelt Sykes
6. Ballad Of The Pines – Jonathan Wilson
7. Come Together – Ike & Tina Turner
8. Claudette – Robert Johnson
9. Ain’t Got Nobody – Mojo Nixon
10. I Don’t Care What You Call Me – David Ford
11. Blue Lou – Benny Carter
12. Ballad of Ronald Reagan – Austin Lounge Lizards
13. Rocket Man – Kate Bush

A little cheating in there, but that’s what makes these lists fun. Clearly, I need to get some George Clinton tunes. What contributions can you make this week?

Posted in: Music.

Abbott denies his pre-k plan means standardized testing for 4-year-olds

Glad we cleared that up.

Still not Greg Abbott

After questions were raised about language in a policy proposal that appears to call for the biannual testing of pre-kindergarten students, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s campaign is clarifying his early education plan, saying he is not calling for such tests.

The proposal — the first detailed glimpse at Abbott’s education policy — aims to increase accountability for pre-kindergarten programs in the state by tying their funding to academic outcomes. Announced a little more than a week ago, it asks Texas lawmakers to require school districts with such programs to “administer assessments at the beginning and end of the year.”

After Democrats and education advocates said Abbott’s policy opened the door to standardized testing for pre-K students, the Abbott campaign said Tuesday the language in the attorney general’s proposal would not amount to standardized exams for 4-year-olds.

“Suggestions to the contrary are absurd,” spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.

[...]

Abbott’s proposal would provide an additional $1,500 in state funding for each student enrolled in half-day pre-K programs  — which the state currently funds for children who cannot speak English or are from homeless, low-income, foster or military families — if those programs meet state-set “gold standard” performance requirements. The biannual assessments are necessary, the proposal states, to provide the state with “data necessary to properly evaluate” whether districts would qualify as “gold standard.”

In the section describing how the state should monitor pre-K performance, the proposal cites a 2012 report published by the Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit organization that develops and administers tests worldwide, that details policies related to “assessing preschoolers’ learning outcomes.” It explains that there are three methods of evaluating pre-K students: through “norm referenced standardized tests,” observations based on predetermined checklists and scales, and portfolios of children’s work. Most states use either the first or second approach, and Texas, it notes, is one of four states that do not require any kind of assessment for pre-K programs.

On Tuesday, Hirsch said that the assessment methods mentioned in the plan were “there for informational purposes only.”

“They are not part of Greg Abbott’s policy recommendations,” he said. “As the plan states, TEA should publish a list of approved assessments that districts may use.”

Under the plan, local school districts would chose from a list of approved assessments to be published by the Texas Education Agency, which it states should avoid “granting any one testing organization a monopoly.”

Asked whether the attorney general would call on the TEA to not include standardized testing as an approved assessment, Hirsch said Abbott “would discourage the use of standardized testing for pre-K students.”

See here for the background. The TSTA, no fans of Abbott’s, remain skeptical. All I can say is that when your education-related plan uses words like “assessment”, people are naturally going to think you’re talking about standardized tests. Abbott’s plan may not actually lead to such testing, but if people think it will, he’s going to have a hard time convincing them otherwise. Sucks to be you, dude.

On a related note, Lisa Falkenberg covers the subject of pre-k education with a candidate comparison.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks among Texas gubernatorial candidates about pre-K, and how the state should invest in it. Yes, I said “how,” not “if.” It’s a good thing that both candidates, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, can agree that early education is a priority. One that deserves time on the campaign trail. One that deserves a pledge of funds in support.

So far, the biggest difference between the candidates’ proposals seems to be that Davis wants to expand access to full day pre-K to all 4-year-olds in Texas, while Abbott wants to channel limited state funds into the highest quality half-day programs that meet what he calls “the gold standard.”

In general, I side with Abbott on spending limited resources on quality programs, as long as they serve the neediest students. Only high-quality pre-school programs have been shown to produce initial academic gains and long-term character and social benefits that make at-risk kids less likely to commit crimes later in life and more likely to graduate from high school and hold down a job.

Davis’ vision of a Texas where “every eligible Texas child has access to quality, full-day pre-K” is noble, as was President Barack Obama’s similar goal. Davis’ idea about a sliding scale that would allow families to pay what they can is tempting. I’d love to stop paying a second mortgage for private tuition.

But let’s face it. Texans, in our current political incarnation, are simply not willing to make that investment. While the state spent about $727 million on pre-K in the 2012 school year, Davis has estimated her plan would cost an additional $750 million per year.

We don’t even adequately fund our current programs.

The Legislature’s decision in 2011 to cut $200 million from a grant program that helped school districts provide full-day pre-K had disastrous effects. Only $30 million was restored, which is one factor in a lawsuit against the state. And state-funded pre-K seems to be dropping in quality.

In its “quality standards checklist” for 2012, the National Institute for Early Education Research found that Texas meets only two out of 10 benchmarks for pre-K. Teacher education and training, class size and staff-to-child ratios were not among those met.

Abbott’s plan to boost good half-day schools, meanwhile, would cost an estimated $118 million for the years 2016 and 2017. That’s far less than the amount the state once provided for expansion. So, while his strategy is smarter, if he really wants us to believe early education is a priority for him, he needs to put his money where his mouth is.

We can easily afford Davis’ plan. The state is awash in revenue right now, with $2.5 billion left unspent from the last biennium on top of rising projections. We have so much revenue that the usual greedhead fat cats are calling for tax cuts, because they don’t care about spending money on the things Texas needs. This isn’t about making hard choices, it’s about making good choices. Davis’ plan, which amounts to less than two percent of the revenue that will be available in 2015 for the biennium, will likely wind up costing less overall, as schools will be able to spend less money on remediation in the early grades. Abbott’s plan, once you get past the Charles Murray issue and the testing questions and the bizarre animus towards Head Start, still at its maximal amounts to a 40% cut from 2009 spending levels. How much clearer a choice do you need?

Posted in: Election 2014.

Planned Parenthood petitions Fifth Circuit for en banc review of HB2 ruling

From the inbox:

Today, Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas filed a petition on behalf of their patients to request that the full bench of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals consider the constitutionality of harmful abortion restrictions that were struck down by  a federal district court last fall. On March 27, a three-judge panel of the court upheld the Texas law, making safe and legal abortion virtually impossible for thousands of Texas women to access. Similar laws have been blocked by federal courts in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit last December affirmed a preliminary injunction against enforcement of Wisconsin’s law.

In the petition filed today, Planned Parenthood argues that the three-judge panel’s ruling warrants closer review by the full court because it conflicts with decades of applicable Supreme Court precedent and if allowed to stand would have terrible implications for women’s health and rights.

Statement from Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes Action Fund:

“The three-judge panel’s ruling on March 27  failed the women of Texas, and severely limits a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion in vast regions of the state. This hardship further impacts women who have already lost access to birth control and preventative health care at the hands of a small group of politicians who are trying to impose their beliefs on all Texans.

Planned Parenthood will continue providing services, including abortion, to women across the state and we will work to combat these laws in the state house and the court house. Texas women need leaders who will defend the ability to make decisions about their own reproductive health, and who will protect women’s access to basic health care – including birth control.”

The three-judge panel that ruled on March 27 includes a judge who is openly hostile to Roe v. Wade. The Fifth Circuit has repeatedly upheld laws that impose medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion and take health care away from Texas women in need. In a highly unusual move, last October, it abruptly stayed a lower court’s permanent injunction issued after a three-day trial on the abortion restrictions.  In 2012, it allowed Texas to bar all Planned Parenthood health centers from participating in a preventive health care program. Earlier that year, it upheld an especially cruel and demeaning forced ultrasound law. 

The March 27 ruling upholds a law requiring doctors who provide abortions to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital — a requirement that leading medical associations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Medical Association (AMA) oppose because it harms women’s health and interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.

The lawsuit, Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, was jointly filed on September 27 on behalf of more than a dozen Texas health care providers and their patients by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Texas law firm George Brothers Kincaid & Horton.  In striking down the measure as unconstitutional after a three-day trial, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said the admitting privileges requirement has “no rational relationship to improved patient care” and also “places an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion.”  Despite that ruling, a panel of the Fifth Circuit allowed the law to take effect on November 1, 2013, while the case was on appeal and a different panel held it constitutional on March 27.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the Trib story. Needless to say, I expect exactly zero joy out of this, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do. The real question is whether or not to press our luck with SCOTUS when the Fifth Circuit rejects this petition.

Posted in: Legal matters.

No hiding behind privilege

Here’s your latest voter ID litigation update, from the Brad Blog:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Just over a week ago, it was North Carolina legislators ordered by the court to cough up documentation relating to passage of new, draconian restrictions on voting rights in their state. Now, legislators in Texas are facing much the same thing, as that state’s extreme polling place Photo ID restrictions also face legal and Constitutional challenge.

By way of an eight-page Order [PDF]issued late last week, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos has directed the State of Texas to serve upon the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) documents that relate to the question of whether “state legislators, contrary to their public pronouncements, acted with discriminatory intent in enacting SB 14,” the Lone Star State’s polling place Photo ID restriction law.

[...]

As the DoJ explained in a supplement [PDF] to its motion to compel the release of documentation relating to legislative deliberation before enactment of the law, Texas refused to turn over a wide array of relevant documents, including “numerous communications concerning SB 14 and prior photographic voter identification proposals amongst Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, Speaker Joe Straus, Senator Troy Fraser (Senate sponsor of SB 14), Representative Patricia Harless (House sponsor of SB 14), and their top aides.”

Texas Republicans asserted that they could conceal such evidence because of what they claim to be an “absolute” legislative privilege — this despite numerous cases in which courts have not only held otherwise, but have relied upon such things as emails between legislators as evidence of discriminatory intent, according to the DoJ filing.

Federal judges, in this case, and in the pending federal challenge to North Carolina’s massive election “reform” bill have now both rejected the effort by Republicans to hide documentary evidence of discriminatory intent behind a shield of “absolute” legislative privilege.

As occurred in the North Carolina case, Judge Gonzales recognized the existence of a “qualified” legislative privilege to protect such documents from being released. The question as to whether documents must be produced is arrived at by applying a five-part test: “(1) the relevance of the evidence sought to be protected; (2) the availability of other evidence; (3) the seriousness of the litigation and the issues involved; (4) the role of the government in the litigation; and (5) the possibility of future timidity by government employees who will be forced to recognize that their secrets are violable.”

That five-part test weighs the need for confidentiality amongst legislators and their aides against the need to eliminate “racial discrimination in voting — the bedrock of this country’s democratic system of government,” as described by Ramos in her ruling.

Click over for further details. Texas Redistricting was also on this. There’s also an update to the scheduling order for the trial, which remains on September 2.

Posted in: Legal matters.

SBOE does something OK

I know, I’m as surprised as you are.

Instead of making Mexican-American studies an official high school course, the Texas State Board of Education has settled on a tentative compromise that would allow school districts to decide whether to offer the course.

“It wasn’t necessarily what we were hoping, with a stand-alone course for Mexican-American studies,” member Marisa Perez, a San Antonio Democrat, said in an interview after the meeting. “But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

In an 11-3 vote, board members added the class — along with African-American studies, Native American studies and Asian-American studies — to the list of instructional materials that publishers will develop for Texas social studies standards in the 2016-17 school year. That means schools will have a list of state-approved textbooks and other resources to choose from if they opt to give the class.

“This will enable districts to teach courses in Mexican-American studies, African-American studies, Native American studies if they choose to do so,” said board member Marty Rowley, who spoke in favor of the motion, supporting local development of the courses for school districts. “There is curriculum out there, there are materials out there, and publishers are free to submit those materials.”

The board will have a final vote on Friday.

See here for the background. While the vote is encouraging, the Observer notes that the crazy people are reacting to this about as you’d expect them to, so don’t get overconfident about this. Stace and TFN Insider have more.

Posted in: School days.

Taxi companies file suit against Uber and Lyft

Color me skeptical.

Taxi companies in Houston and San Antonio took their turf war with two online companies to federal court Tuesday, saying Uber and Lyft are operating illegally and skimming money from taxi firms that abide by the law.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court in Houston, asks a federal judge to declare the companies are violating city ordinances in Houston and San Antonio by accepting payments for taking riders to destinations.

Trips generated by Uber and Lyft – which connect interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone apps – have led to 26 citations in Houston; 15 were issued to drivers and the rest to the companies.

[...]

The number of citations for accepting payment has jumped in recent weeks, leading taxi companies to file the lawsuit, lawyer Martyn Hill said. It became clear, he said, that the citations hadn’t discouraged the two companies from operating and accepting payment.

Hill said city penalties aren’t strong enough to keep the companies from violating strict rules that govern taxi companies and drivers.

“If I could run a bar and all I had to do was pay a fine for $500 for not paying taxes, I might still run the bar and pay the fines,” Hill said. “That’s what’s happening here.”

Uber had not seen the lawsuit, spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian said, but planned to continue operating.

“As they see the demand for services like Uber in Houston and they see city officials taking an informed look at the services, they are taking desperate measures,” Hourdajian said of the taxi and limo companies. “Their time and energy might be better spent improving that service.”

She said courts have repeatedly ruled in the company’s favor. In Dallas, the city took the company to court accusing it of advertising an illegal limo service, Hourdajian said.

“It took a jury 10 minutes to bring back a unanimous verdict,” Hourdajian said.

Texpatriate notes some other suits that have been filed against the newcomers. I’ll talk about this more in a minute, but first here’s a story from the weekend about those citations.

As city officials consider changes that would permit two new companies to permanently enter Houston’s paid-ride market, the companies continue racking up citations.

Uber and Lyft – which connect interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone apps – have been issued a combined 11 citations for improperly charging for rides. Drivers have been issued 15 citations since the companies launched locally in late February.

[...]

In a letter to city elected officials Wednesday, regulatory affairs department head Tina Paez said 26 citations had been issued thus far, 15 to Uber or its drivers and 11 to Lyft or its drivers. City officials are making efforts to serve the citations levied against the companies – six against Uber and five against Lyft, Paez said.

“Uber and Lyft do not have registered agents in Texas and will need to be served in California,” Paez wrote. “Once served, Uber and Lyft will have two options: Pay the fines or go to trial.”

Twenty-six is not a whole lot. For some context, I reached out to spokespeople for the two companies to ask them about their ridership numbers in Houston so far. According to them, there have been over 20,000 rides via UberX, and five thousand via Lyft. Now obviously enforcement is dependent on the number of enforcement officers out there, but still that’s a pretty high trip-to-ticket ratio, and I don’t know that I want a swarm of cops out there policing ride sharers – surely there are higher priorities than that. The number I’d really like to know is the volume of cab rides since February, and how it compares to previous months and to the same months a year and two years ago. A lot of people have been using Lyft and Uber, but how much of that is coming out of the cab companies’ hides, and how much of it is new volume? I’m sure some of it has come at the expense of the cabbies, but it would be nice to know how much. If their decline is significantly less than the number of rides that Uber and Lyft have provided, then I’m not sure how much sympathy I have.

I will say that I have a copy of a taxi demand study in Seattle, conducted after the entry of ridesharing companies and provided to me by a representative of Lyft, that shows an increase in demand for limo services and a flat demand curve for traditional taxis, which goes back well before the newcomers’ entries. It may well be that the effect on Houston’s cabs has been minimal. (Here’s a copy of the taxi study done for Houston that was to be discussed with Council yesterday.) I’m sympathetic to the concerns about Lyft and Uber skirting the law, and I agree with Texpate that Uber’s overly aggressive email campaign has been off-putting. Pretty much every city these companies have entered, there have been complaints about how they have gone about establishing themselves and interacting with local governments. Be that as it may, I’m not sure how this is a matter for the courts, and I’d like to know what the cab companies say their losses are. And yes, I’m ready for Council to put this to bed.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Counting votes on the non-discrimination ordinance

From the Houston GLBT Political Caucus Facebook page:

Members have asked for the responses on our questionnaires to the questions below. The President of the Caucus, Maverick Welsh, has asked me to post the information. As the chair of the Screening Committee, I have reviewed the questionnaires from 2013 and below is the result:

Mayor–We asked:

Question: If elected, would you be willing to introduce a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

She answered:

Annise Parker: Yes

City Council–We asked:

If elected, would you publicly advocate for and vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

They answered:

Jerry Davis: Yes
Ellen Cohen: Yes
Dwight Boykins: Yes
Ed Gonzalez: Yes
Robert Gallegos: Yes
Mike Laster: Yes
Larry Green: Yes
Steve Costello: Yes
David Robinson: Yes
C.O. Bradford: Yes
Jack Christie: Yes

There’s been a lot of speculation about who may or may not support the ordinance that Mayor Parker has promised to bring before council. As yet, there is not a draft version of the ordinance, and that seems to be the key to understanding this. As CMs Bradford and Boykins mention to Lone Star Q, without at least a draft you don’t know what the specifics are. Maybe it’ll be weaker than you want it to be. Maybe it’ll be poorly worded and you will be concerned about potential litigation as a result. It’s not inconsistent for a Council member to say they support the principle and the idea of the ordinance, but they want to see what it actually says before they can confirm they’ll vote for it.

Nonetheless, everyone listed above is on record saying they would “vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation”, and they will be expected to do exactly that. If they want to make arguments about making it stronger, that’s fine. That list above is more than enough to pass the ordinance, so there should be no waffling, no fretting about vote counts, and especially no fear of a backlash. When the time comes, everyone needs to keep their promises. Now would be an excellent time to call your Council members and let them know you look forward to seeing their vote for this NDO.

Posted in: Local politics.

First Sunday Streets seemed like a success

The weather was kinda lousy but there were plenty of people out on White Oak Street on Sunday.

The city of Houston closed a 2.5 mile stretch of Quitman and White Oak to motor vehicles for four hours on Sunday, encouraging Houstonians to play in the street and explore their neighborhoods pushing strollers or riding bikes.

It was the first closure in the Sunday Streets HTX pilot program, which will close stretches of major thoroughfares the first Sunday of every month. The “open streets” concept started in Bogota, Colombia, more than 30 years ago and has become more popular in American cities in recent years.

Free DJs, Zumba classes, sidewalk chalk art, booths with information on community groups and a farmers market lined the route. But unlike a street festival, the options were spread out and, for the most part, offered by neighborhood businesses rather than vendors who had set up a temporary shop.

One of the core goals, after all, is to get people moving and to see their own communities in a new way, said Laura Spanjian, the city’s director of sustainability.

“We want people to get out and exercise and bike and walk and skate, and really enjoy the open space,” Spanjian said, standing in the middle of White Oak Drive near Houston Avenue.

She smiled as a father rode past on a bicycle with his giggling son, dressed in a Batman costume, balanced on his knee.

“It’s also to have people enjoy the street in a way they aren’t able to most of the time, to see things they might not get to see because they’re driving by in their cars,” Spanjian said.

See here for the background, and the Houston Press for a photo slideshow of the event. We walked over to White Oak and had lunch at Christian’s Tailgate, and it was a fun thing to do on a dreary and wet Sunday. There was a decent amount of people out and about given the rain, but it’s hard to say what the crowd might have been like if the weather had been better. I don’t know what the city was expecting or hoping for. It’s a neat idea and we’ll try at least one if not both of the next ones, on Westheimer May 4 and on Washington June 1. I would be interested to hear some numbers after these events, especially if Mother Nature does her part. If you were there on White Oak on Sunday, what did you think?

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 7

The Texas Progressive Alliance always comes in ahead of projections as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

A grassroots fighting force of extraordinary magnitude

At least, I hope it is.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Addressing hundreds of volunteers on Saturday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis highlighted her efforts to mobilize Texas voters and once again attacked her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, for being what she called a political “insider.”

Davis also talked gender equality in the workplace — which she’s made a centerpiece of her campaign — and reaffirmed her stance on making pre-K accessible to Texas children.

“The real priority of Texas is to make sure our kids, every child, gets an opportunity to be a part of 21st century education,” she said.

The crowd at Davis’ event on Saturday was made up of the campaign’s neighborhood team leaders — the top layer of her grassroots campaign. Polls show Abbott is leading Davis, who faces a steep uphill climb to win in a state that hasn’t seen a Democrat elected governor in decades.

The statewide volunteers had traveled to Austin Community College for an all-day summit on how to mobilize voters. The event was preparation for next Saturday, when Davis’ campaign officially kicks off its door-to-door canvassing. Davis campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said volunteers would head out in their own neighborhoods to provide a “local emphasis.”

“You’ve recruited an army the likes of which Texas has never seen,” Davis said to a boisterous crowd, many of whom she identified in her speech as being public school teachers.

The Davis campaign says it currently has 14,225 volunteers, and that the number is climbing. It has the sizeable support of Battleground Texas, a PAC founded by former Obama campaign field director Jeremy Bird and devoted to optimizing the blue vote in Texas by targeting eligible minority voters who are not registered.

This all sounds fantastic, and as with LVdP, I really want to believe. I want to believe it can and will make a difference this November. But what I need is the answer to some questions:

- How is the Wendy Davis campaign different than the Bill White campaign? White was well-funded and invested a lot in GOTV activities. For all the scorn he’s gotten in some quarters, he did draw hundreds of thousands of votes away from Rick Perry. In a less terrible year for Democrats overall, he could have won. How does Wendy’s campaign compare to his?

- That volunteer figure is awesome, but I’d like some context to it. How many volunteers did BGTX think they’d need for this campaign? How many voters do they think they can reach with this number?

- We all know BGTX is an outgrowth of Team Obama’s legendary organizing in states like Florida and Ohio. How does what BGTX is doing compare to what was done in those states, or any others? What learnings from Florida and Ohio were implemented here? What did they have to completely un-learn and do differently? What did they find here that was brand new to them?

I don’t expect to see these answers in my newspaper anytime soon, of course. Maybe someone will publish a memoir in 2015 or so, in time for the ramp-up to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign, with some of the answers. Even without these answers, I don’t doubt we’re seeing something new, and that it has the potential to be transformative. The one thing I’d caution about is that we’re unlikely to see any effect of this in the polls, at least early on. If the goal is to bring out people that aren’t in the habit of voting in off-year elections, then by definition they’re going to be caught in pollsters’ “likely voter” screens. It will be noticed at some point if there is a real effect, but it may not be till late and it may only be one pollster. None of the public polls really captured the 2010 dynamic, after all. BOR has more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

James O’Keefe is a lying liar

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the special prosecutors that investigated the allegations by O’Keefe’s group Project Veritas made against Battleground Texas.

A conservative activist’s allegations that Democratic group Battleground Texas illegally acquired voter information in San Antonio have been rejected by a Bexar County district court after a pair of special prosecutors called it “political disinformation.”

The ruling was based on an investigative report from those special prosecutors who found no wrongdoing and described hidden-camera evidence produced by conservative activist James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas group as deliberate falsehoods.

Three people had alleged that a Battleground Texas staffer violated state election law last year by mining voters’ personal data while registering them.

The Democratic group steadfastly denied the claim, saying its activities followed the law. The group called the allegation another fiction from O’Keefe, who has been criticized for his video editing and investigative tactics.

His Project Veritas uses hidden cameras to film Democratic Party and liberal politicians and activists.

After reviewing the YouTube video from Project Veritas, the appointed prosecutors said there was “no applicable criminal offense for the alleged act and insufficient evidence to suggest potential offenses.”

Project Veritas had no immediate comment Monday.

The attorneys, Christine Del Prado and John M. Economidy, summed up their findings with a harsh assessment of the allegations.

“The Veritas video was little more than a canard and political disinformation,” their 18-page report stated. “The video was particularly unprofessional when it suggested that the actions of Battleground Texas were advocated by a Texas gubernatorial candidate and that the actions of a single volunteer deputy registrar may even involve private health data, which is not involved in the voter registration process.”

See here and here for the background. I said at the time that these allegations were the tortured reading of the law in question being made by a known liar. No one should be surprised by the end result. BOR, who has a copy of the court’s order to dismiss here, Media Matters has a coy of the special prosecutors’ report, and PDiddie have more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

No, there won’t be a flood of equal pay lawsuits in Texas

There wasn’t one before, when the federal Lilly Ledbetter Act passed. There’s no reason to believe there will be one if a state version of the Ledbetter law is approved.

Candidates for statewide office have wrangled recently over an effort to address sex-based wage discrimination by extending the window for lawsuits. But as the campaigns have kicked up dust, the issue has gotten cloudy.

Opponents of the proposed Texas Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Gov. Rick Perry vetoed last year, say it duplicated federal law and would increase unfounded lawsuits. Meanwhile, Democrats say conservatives are standing in the way of equal pay for women.

Experience with the federal law, which was enacted in 2009, suggests both claims are overblown. The federal law hasn’t brought about a flood of frivolous discrimination charges. But there’s little evidence that the pay gap between men and women has narrowed.

The issue of equal pay is important, but the Ledbetter act is “a very narrow fix,” said University of Texas professor Joseph Fishkin, who teaches discrimination law. Among the reasons it hasn’t had much impact, he said, are that pay gaps are driven in part by difference in education and types of job. But the fight, Fishkin said, is nonetheless significant.

“This has become an argument between the parties about equal pay in general. That’s a good discussion to have,” he said. “I don’t think the Ledbetter act is a cure-all, but it is a focal point. The politics go beyond this bill, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

[...]

“There’s no indication that the Ledbetter act would increase lawsuits,” said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, which supported the federal measure. “It hasn’t at the federal level, and there’s no indication that it would do so in Texas. It certainly wouldn’t increase the number of lawsuits without merit.”

The number of charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which handles claims of wage discrimination on the federal level, didn’t increase substantially after President Barack Obama signed the Ledbetter law.

Data from the EEOC going back to 1997 shows that an average of 250 charges a year originated in Texas before the act passed. Afterward, the state averaged 259. The most came in 2002, when 339 sex-based wage discrimination charges originated in Texas.

The charges represent complaints made under both the Equal Pay Act of 1964, which targets sex-based wage discrimination specifically, and broader provisions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin.

The numbers don’t include every charge filed, but they do present a picture of the Ledbetter act’s minimal impact on the volume of sex-based wage discrimination charges. Though women filing under the Equal Pay Act don’t have to go through the commission, “many charging parties do,” said EEOC spokeswoman Justine Lisser.

The Ledbetter act reinstated a long-standing position by the commission that the 180-day time frame to file wage discrimination lawsuits starts over with each individual discriminatory paycheck, Lisser said, explaining the lack of an increase in charges.

Not really a whole lot to add to this. Litigation is never an easy path to take, and hand-wringing about “frivolous” lawsuits, especially in a state as hostile to (non-corporate) plaintiffs as Texas, is just fearmongering. The reason a state law is needed when a federal law exists, as Katherine Haenschen patiently explains to Matt Mackowiak, is that a state law makes bringing a suit just a little easier for someone who has been wronged. Not easy, mind you, just easier. Fixing the underlying problem will take a lot more of that, and most of the things that will be needed to accomplish that will likely be even less palatable to Mackowiak and the interests he represents. No one ever said life was fair, fellas.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The microbreweries aren’t done with the Legislature

Microbreweries took a big step forward in 2013, but there’s still more to be done.

The 2013 legislative session, which featured the largest overhaul of the beer industry since 1993, was viewed by many observers as a watershed moment for craft brewers in Texas. But in testimony before the House Economic and Small Business Development Committee on Thursday, Scott Metzger, who sits on the board of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, said the state can still do more for the industry.

At a hearing on how to make Texas more attractive to venture capital investment, Metzger predicted that over next 10 years, the brewing industry could be the most dynamic growth sector of the Texas economy. That potential is limited, he said, because of remaining restrictions on brewers that make it difficult to attract investors.

“The restrictions the state of Texas places on our businesses dictate that it often makes better economic sense to deploy capital in a different state,” Metzger, a former economics professor, told lawmakers.

[...]

Asserting that New York, Washington, Colorado and even California had more brewer-friendly environments than Texas, Metzger said Thursday that the industry is encumbered locally by “restrictive franchise statutes” and “a regulatory scheme that restricts our ability to sell and market our products and, in one particularly egregious instance, to realize any of the actual value of the brands that we have created.”

In addition to approving a slate of bills in 2013 that opened up the industry in ways his group appreciated, including allowing brewpubs to distribute their beer off-site via third-party distributors, Metzger said lawmakers also passed a bill that they were less enthusiastic about that prevented brewers from receiving compensation from wholesalers for their distribution rights. He also raised objections to rules that he said essentially lock in distribution agreements “for life.”

Metzger encouraged lawmakers to think of the three-tiered system as “a living, breathing thing that needs to evolve with the changing marketplace.”

I pointed this out last July, via a post from the Jester King brewery. Here’s a quote:

While the new laws represent major progress for Texas beer, there are some realities that we are not pleased with. There still exist exorbitant licensing fees in Texas that keep beer from small, artisan brewers out of our state. We still will not be seeing beer from Cantillon or Fantome on Texas store shelves anytime soon. We feel strongly that in order for Texas to become a truly world-class beer state, it must eliminate the massive licensing fees that keep out beer from small, artisan producers. We have written extensively on this topic before, which you can read here.

We are also not pleased with the passage of SB 639, which makes it expressly illegal for breweries to sell the right to distribute their products to wholesalers, while making it expressly legal for wholesalers to sell those same rights to one another. This law is tantamount to legalized theft, and we will join future efforts to see it overturned. For our complete commentary on SB 639, please follow this link.

See here and here for the background. The situation is unquestionably better, but it’s also unquestionably not what one would call a free market. I personally don’t see the value in the existing three-tier system, but as long as the political will to dismantle it doesn’t exist, we should push to loosen it as much as possible. I presume the craft brewers will have a wish list of specific legislation they’d like to pass by the time the session starts. It won’t be any easier this time around, because the big breweries will do everything they can to protect their legally mandated piece of the pie. I won’t be terribly surprised if they have one of their toadies introduce a bill to scale back in some way the gains the craft brewers won. We’ll need to keep an eye out for that.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

The farm team

Roll Call takes a look at the Texas Democrats of the future.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Democrats rarely fielded competitive Senate candidates over the past two decades — the party’s three best performers in that time span received 44 percent, 43 percent and 43 percent — but that may change by the next midterm cycle. State and national Democrats are gearing up for a competitive Senate bid as early as 2018, when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is up.

The first potential candidate names out of the mouths of most operatives are the Castro twins, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and freshman Rep. Joaquin Castro — though there are mixed opinions about which one is more likely to jump. Wendy Davis’ name comes up as well, should she comes up short in this year’s gubernatorial race, and the buzz in some Democratic circles is that Davis’ running mate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, has as promising a political future as Davis.

Beyond those four, there is a second tier of candidates who could possibly run statewide but don’t quite yet have the same star power. It includes freshman Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ousted eight-term Rep. Silvestre Reyes in 2012. He is young and attractive, but his geographic base is weak — El Paso is remote and actually closer to the Pacific Ocean than it is to the Louisiana border.

Democrats also named state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Chris Turner as possible statewide contenders and pointed to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, albeit with caution. Parker is openly gay, and some say that while Texas is evolving on a number of issues, gay rights is not likely to be one of them in the immediate future.

We’ve discussed the 2018 election before. Based on her comments so far, I don’t see Mayor Parker as a potential candidate for the US Senate. I see her as a candidate for Governor or Comptroller, assuming those offices are not occupied by Democrats.

Among the future contenders for [Rep. Gene] Green’s seat, Democrats identified state Reps. Armando Walle, Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez, plus Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

There is perpetual scuttlebutt in the state that [Rep. Lloyd] Doggett is vulnerable to a Hispanic primary challenge. Other Democratic strategists discount that line of thinking, citing Doggett’s war chest and ability to weather whatever lines he’s drawn into.

Whenever he leaves office, Democrats named Martinez Fischer and state Rep. Mike Villarreal as likely contenders. Martinez Fischer could also run in Joaquin Castro’s 20th District if he seeks higher office.

As for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s Houston-based 18th District, state operatives pointed to state Reps. Sylvester Turner and Garnet F. Coleman, who could also run for Rep. Al Green’s seat.

Working backwards, Rep. Sylvester Turner is running for Mayor in 2015. That would not preclude a future run for Congress, of course, but I doubt it’s on his mind right now. I love Rep. Garnet Coleman, but I’ve never really gotten the impression that he has his eye on Washington, DC. Among other things, he has school-age kids at home, and I’m not sure how much the idea of commuting to DC appeals to him. The same is true for Sen. Rodney Ellis, whose district has a lot of overlap with Rep. Al Green’s CD09. Ellis has by far the biggest campaign warchest among them, which is one reason why I had once suggested he run statewide this year. Beyond them, there’s a long list of current and former elected officials – Ronald Green, Brad Bradford, Jolanda Jones, Wanda Adams, Carroll Robinson, etc etc etc – that would surely express interest in either CD09 or CD18 if it became open. About the only thing that might alter this dynamic is if County Commissioner El Franco Lee decided to retire; the line for that office is longer than I-10.

As for Rep. Gene Green, I’d add Rep. Carol Alvarado and James Rodriguez to the list of people who’d at least consider a run to replace him. I’m less sure about Sheriff Garcia. I think everyone expects him to run for something else someday – he’s starting to get the John Sharp Obligatory Mention treatment – but I have no idea if he has any interest in Congress. And as for Rep. Doggett, all I’ll say is that he’s shown himself to be pretty hard to beat in a primary.

Texas’ 23rd, which includes much of the state’s border with Texas, is the only competitive district in the state and turns over regularly. If Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego lost re-election and Democrats were on the hunt for a new recruit, one could be state Rep. Mary González.

Should 11-term Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson retire, Democrats said attorney Taj Clayton, along with state Reps. Yvonne Davis and Eric Johnson would be likely contenders for her Dallas-based 30th District.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez is also a rising star. But his local seat in the Brownsville-based 34th District is unlikely to open up any time soon — Rep. Filemon Vela, from a well-known family in South Texas, was elected in 2012.

The great hope for Democrats is that continued Texas redistricting litigation will provide an additional majority Hispanic district based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. State Rep. Rafael Anchia is the obvious choice for that hypothetical seat, along with Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio L. De Leon.

And then there are a handful of Texas Democrats who stir up chatter but have no obvious place to run for federal office. Democrats put former state Rep. Mark Strama and Jane Hamilton, the current chief of staff to Rep. Marc Veasey, in this category.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Lily Adams, granddaughter of Ann Richards, is a respected political operative in Washington, D.C., and recently earned attention as a possible candidate talent.

I’m rooting for Rep. Gallego to win re-election this fall, but no question I’d love to see Rep. González run for higher office at some point. Taj Clayton ran against Rep. Johnson in 2012, getting support from the Campaign for Primary Accountability (which appears to be in a resting state now), along with Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who also appears in this story as someone to watch. Rep. Anchia is someone I’ve been rooting for and would love to see get a promotion. Mark Strama is off doing Google Fiber in Austin. I have no idea if he’d want to get back in the game – like several other folks I’ve mentioned, he has young kids – but he’s been mentioned as a possible candidate for Mayor in Austin before; if he does re-enter politics, and if he has an eye on something bigger down the line, that would be a good way to go for it. Lily Adams is 27 years old and has never run for any office before, but she’s got an excellent pedigree and has apparently impressed some folks. In baseball terms, she’s tearing up it in short season A ball, but needs to show what she can do on a bigger stage before anyone gets carried away.

Anyway. Stuff like this is necessarily speculative, and that speculation about 2018 is necessarily dependent on what happens this year. If Democrats manage to beat expectations and score some wins, statewide hopefuls may find themselves waiting longer than they might have thought. If Democrats have a crappy year, by which one in which no measurable progress in getting out the vote and narrowing the gap is made, some of these folks may decide they have better things to do in 2018. As for the Congressional understudies, unless they want to go the Beto O’Rourke route and mount a primary challenge to someone, who knows how long they may have to wait. It’s entirely possible all this talk will look silly four years from now. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Posted in: Election 2018.

HISD board votes for Mexican-American studies class

You would think this wouldn’t be a big deal.

Juliet Stipeche

Juliet Stipeche

The Houston school board, representing the largest district in Texas, threw its support Thursday behind the creation of a Mexican-American studies course in Texas public schools.

The 9-0 vote followed some debate over whether the district would appear to be favoring one culture over another.

“Unanimous is beautiful,” advocate Tony Diaz said after the decision.

HISD board president Juliet Stipeche, who brought the resolution to the board, argued the course was important given that Hispanic enrollment in the state’s public schools tops 51 percent.

She asked her fellow trustees and district officials whether they could name five Mexican-American leaders in U.S. history. They struggled to name a fifth.

“It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we don’t know,” she said.

In Austin [this] week, the State Board of Education plans to discuss developing new elective courses, including a Mexican-American history and culture class for high school students.

You can imagine what will happen when the SBOE gets involved.

On Wednesday, the Texas State Board of Education is expected to vote on developing state curriculum standards for new courses – including, controversially, a high-school elective class in Mexican-American history.

To proponents, the proposal seems to fill an obvious need. Fifty-one percent of Texas’ public-school students are Hispanic. And in the past, the state has created curriculum guidelines for a host of elective classes, including subjects such as floral arrangement, musical theater, landscape design and turf-grass management.

“If we can inspire a child by teaching about Mexican-Americans’ struggles and difficulties, why wouldn’t we do that?” asks Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, the state board member who proposed the course.

Opponents – likely in the majority on the Republican-dominated state board – answer that question in many ways.

Some argue that school districts don’t need an official state curriculum to offer the class, and say that the Texas Education Agency is too busy now creating guidelines for other classes required by House Bill 5′s sweeping changes to the state’s graduation requirements.

“I think it is up to the local school districts whether or not to offer a Mexican-American studies course,” board chairman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, wrote via email. “Several districts in Texas already do.”

Other opponents of Cortez’s proposal believe it’s simply wrong to offer a state-endorsed ethnic-studies course. They say that it undercuts Texan and American identity.

“I’m Irish,” says board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont. “So I’d like to propose an amendment to create an Irish-American Studies class.

He noted that many HISD students speak Urdu: “Why not Indian-American Studies? That may sound silly. But I’m raising a serious point. In Texas public schools, we teach American history and Texas history. We don’t teach Irish-American history and Italian-American history.”

Board member Patricia Hardy, R-Weatherford, said the state already includes a considerable amount of Mexican-American history in the curriculum. A former social-studies teacher, she argues that a Mexican-American studies class would do students a disservice if it displaces other social-studies offerings.

“World geography or world history would be more to a student’s advantage,” she says. “They need more global courses that are broader than Mexican-American.”

I mean, come on. Do we really need to explain why in Texas a more in depth examination of Mexican-American history might be a worthwhile addition to the curriculum? I might have had a bit more patience for the SBOE’s excuses here if it weren’t for the fact that they had previously voted to remove a specific requirement that students learn about the efforts of women and ethnic minorities to gain equal rights, as part of an overall effort to make the social studies curriculum more acceptable to the tender sensibilities of aggrieved right wing interests. It was bad enough that even conservative scholars and Republican legislators were critical of the changes. All this is doing is trying to undo some of that damage. Stace has more.

Posted in: School days.

What the Burnam case is about

I’m still not sure what to think about Rep. Lon Burnam’s electoral challenge against Ramon Romero in HD90.

Rep. Lon Burnam

In a case that election officials statewide are monitoring — because it involves the use of electronic devices such as iPads — attorneys say enough ballots are in question to make a difference in the race Burnam lost by 111 votes to local businessman Ramon Romero Jr.

“We feel like there’s basically voter fraud and illegality that went on out there,” said Art Brender, a local lawyer and former Tarrant County Democratic Party chairman who is on the legal team representing Burnam. “We’ll know pretty soon.”

Romero, a businessman who owns A-Fast Coping Tile and Stone, said he believes this case will be resolved soon — in his favor.

“We didn’t have tablets. What he’s alleging has nothing to do with our campaign,” he said. “I don’t believe there was anything illegal that happened. It is sad that this is where we are. We should be moving forward.”

[...]

Burnam’s lawsuit alleges that some voters in the district were approached by campaign workers who asked them to fill out applications to vote by mail on an electronic device such as an iPad.

Burnam wants to review these applications, saying he believes “that these documents and other testimony will establish beyond question that the computerized-signature operation was illegal and that I won the election.”

His legal challenge claims that of the nearly 5,100 votes cast in this race, 951 were mail-in ballots — more than enough to decide the election.

But his request for copies of all applications for mail-in ballots was rejected Friday during a hearing before state District Judge Robert McFarling of Denton, who recently was appointed to oversee the case.

Ann Diamond with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office argued against releasing all the applications, saying they are not publicly available and they include private information (telephone numbers, addresses and more). About 30 of the forms have been released.

Brender maintains that the records are public information and what he has reviewed already shows that at least three people may have voted twice — once in early voting and once on election day. A review of all the applications could show even more problems and potentially invalidate enough ballots to flip the election results.

McFarling chose to not order the release of that information, saying even if there was a problem with the way a ballot was requested, the vote should still be counted.

And he said there was no proof that data requested would lead to “admissible evidence” in the case.

“You have to have a factual basis … before we start messing with the rights of individuals to vote,” he said. “I don’t think it’s sufficient to say … we think there might be something wrong … and we want to check it out.”

See here and here for the background. I have no opinion on this particular ruling, I’m more interested in the big picture.

A key issue in this case is the use of electronic devices to request mail-in ballots — and whether that’s legal in Texas.

Political observers say the state’s Election Code only addresses electronic signatures at polling places, such as when voters cast their ballot during early voting or on Election Day.

“The use of an iPad to fill out forms to request an absentee ballot would not appear to comply with the letter of state election law, but would appear to be in line with the spirit of the law,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“The law simply has not been updated to take account of the rising use of iPads and other mobile devices, leaving a vacuum in the state’s election law.”

Stephen Vickers, chief deputy elections administrator in Tarrant County, said he couldn’t comment on the case because of the pending litigation.

The ultimate ruling in this case may well determine how election officials statewide process mail-in ballots for at least the rest of the year.

“This case also should hopefully spur the Texas Legislature to modify the state’s election law during the 2015 legislative session to allow for the use of electronic devices to complete mail-in ballot request forms,” Jones said. “Perhaps that reform will be the first bill that Rep. Romero files.”

[...]

Officials with both major political parties say they are watching this case.

“We trust the courts will take the issue seriously … [and] determine the best manner in which to proceed,” said Manny Garcia, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Said Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri: “We are interested observers to see what the court rules to see if we are following the law correctly.”

There’s been some trolling about voter ID on this, but of course the voter ID law is only about in person ballots, and this challenge is all about absentee ballots. Technically, it’s not about the ballots themselves, but about the process to request an absentee ballot, and whether an iPad or similar device is allowable under the law as written. By the letter of the law I’d say not, but by the spirit – the law does allow for “telephone facsimile machines” – it’s clearly a Yes. I have no idea how the courts – or the Legislature, if this eventually winds up as an election contest to be adjudicated by the Lege – will rule, but I definitely agree (and have already said) that the law should be updated to allow this usage. There’s no good reason for it not to be allowed. There is good reason to be concerned about the peripheral effects of this case:

Romero said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit. But he believes this isn’t something “as Democrats that we should be insinuating.”

“Lots of people came out and were excited about being part of the primary. Now they don’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “They hear words of illegality and that scares people and makes them stay away.

“He should be welcoming me in Austin, helping with the transition. Instead, he’s doing this,” Romero said. “But he has a right to do this and we’re not mad at him. We’ll be down in Austin come January.”

I agree with Romero on this, and if his magnanimity is any indication, he’ll make a fine State Rep if he prevails in this case. Whatever the outcome, let’s make sure we update that law.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Would pot be a cash crop?

The Trib takes a serious look at Kinky Friedman’s campaign platform.

Zonker

Currently, it is illegal to grow and possess marijuana in Texas and most other states, and while hemp is legal for consumption, Texas and most other states do not allow farmers to grow it.

Experts with experience in the legal pot industry in other states, though, say a host of regulatory and environmental factors could complicate any potential benefits growing marijuana might have in Texas.

States that have recently legalized marijuana growing, including Colorado and Washington, have just gotten started, so they are difficult test cases to assess. But in California, where medicinal marijuana cultivation has been legal since 1996 and is plentiful, many farmers say the crop hasn’t been as good for agriculture as Friedman has suggested.

Much of the problems farmers and scientists in California report stem from the fact that under federal law, the plant remains illegal, so states cannot legally regulate its growth as they do other crops.

“Without prohibition, you wouldn’t have this problem,” said Tony Silvaggio, an environmental sociologist at Humboldt State University in California, who has researched the effects of marijuana farming in California.

[...]

“We don’t know anything empirical about what happens when serious professional farmers are allowed to do this,” said Jonathan Caulkins, who has studied the economics of marijuana growth at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in Pittsburgh. But he suspects the price of marijuana would fall if it was mass produced, which could reduce its demand in the black market and reduce crime.

That doesn’t mean Texas farmers would benefit, though. Marijuana plants are difficult to harvest because the buds must be individually snipped from each plant. That work is labor intensive, and most farm workers today don’t have those skills.

The market for marijuana producers is also unlikely to get very big, Caulkins said, because it’s a high-yield crop. Only about 10,000 acres nationwide would be needed to satisfy the country’s demand, he said. If farmers grow more marijuana, they could oversaturate the market and drive down prices.

Hemp, on the other hand — which comes from the same plant as marijuana but has less THC, the chemical that produces a high — is easier to harvest, and demand in the U.S. is rising. Friedman has suggested that the first step to marijuana legalization is to allow Texans to grow hemp, which is used in a variety of products, from clothing and twine to edible seeds, protein powder and cosmetics such as moisturizers and essential oils.

Hemp has long been legal in Canada, but only a few hundred growers have licenses to produce there, Caulkins said. That doesn’t bode well for predictions of a hemp revolution in Texas that Friedman argues would occur if the state legalized growing it. A Congressional Research Service report on hemp last year came to a similar conclusion, noting that hemp crops can also cross-pollinate with marijuana crops. That means farmers growing hemp could suddenly find that their product has enough THC content to make people high, putting them in the crosshairs with the law — or that marijuana growers’ products would lose their potency.

Even if hemp and marijuana growth become possibilities for Texas farmers, it’s not clear that it would be a moneymaking enterprise. Those who profit most from agricultural production are typically at the end of the supply chain, like grocery stores or bakers, Caulkins said — not farmers.

“The people who are going to make money are going to be the bakeries that buy [it] … and put it into brownies,” he said.

I don’t know, given the local food movement these days, I wouldn’t underestimate the appeal of artisanal, locally-sourced reefers. It’s all in the marketing. Most of the problems cited in the story stem from the federal prohibitions against marijuana. That’s not something Texas can address directly, but just as action by cities tends to lead to a legislative response from the state, I expect that having more states legalize pot in some fashion will lead to changes in federal law. Attitudes about marijuana are shifting, thanks in large part to growing concerns about the cost of the War On Drugs. I won’t be surprised to see some kind of federal action, even if it’s strictly on the incarceration end, by the end of President Obama’s term in office. Texas could almost certainly accelerate that process if it reformed its marijuana laws, even if that just means accommodating medical marijuana. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and if the main obstacle to Kinky Friedman’s fondest dreams is the feds, there are things we can do to affect that.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Who’s afraid of the Republican slate?

I was reading this story about a kerfuffle in the Republican runoff for Railroad Commissioner when a thought struck me.

A Republican candidate seeking a post that regulates the state’s oil and gas industry said he won’t cut ties to his energy business if elected to the Texas Railroad Commission – a state board that historically has had a poor track record disentangling itself from industry interests.

Ryan Sitton is co-founder and chief executive officer of PinnacleAIS, which advises companies about maintenance of equipment used in oil and gas operations.

Sitton said he will maintain an ownership stake in Pinnacle­AIS if he becomes a commission board member – a declaration that raised questions by his GOP and Democratic opponent, ethics experts and tea party Republicans.

“That is a conflict of interest and it is very frightful,” said Wayne Christian, a former state representative also seeking the post.

I’m not terribly interested in the particulars of this fight because the overly cozy relationship between the energy industry and the elected officials that regulate them is a very old story, and typically neither candidate has clean hands. What occurred to me in reading this story is how undistinguished the two candidates are, and how that seems to be the case up and down the statewide ballot for the GOP this year. Consider this: Among the leading candidates in the primaries, including the two that won outright, Wayne Christian and Sid Miller are clowns, George P. Bush is a legacy whose advisers prefer to keep under wraps, Glenn Hegar and Ken Paxton are a couple of basically undistinguished legislators, and Dan Patrick is Dan Patrick. Murderer’s Row these guys ain’t. The fact that they’ve all spent the bulk of their campaigns talking about nothing – they all hate abortion, the Obama administration, illegal immigrants, and Sharia law, and they all love guns – adds to the overall picture of ridiculousness.

The Republicans did have some substantial candidates on their ballot. Malachi Boylus and J. Allen Carnes never had a chance to get out of their primaries. Jerry Patterson and Dan Branch, who is still alive but a big underdog, had to degrade themselves in their races in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to separate themselves from their mostly solid records of public service. Those past accomplishments, and their at least occasional willingness to talk about issues and – heaven forfend – what the office they’re running for actually does were anchors for them, not assets. I get that they’re running in a primary, and they have to address what the voters in that primary want to hear. Democratic primaries are often contests of personality as well, and the winner is often who loves what the base voters love the hardest, but the spectacle of these campaigns has been on another level.

And then there’s the top of the ticket. For all his status as the heir apparent to Rick Perry, Greg Abbott hasn’t exactly been setting the terms of the debate in the Governor’s race. I would argue that Wendy Davis has driven the story of this election from the beginning. That’s not always been good for her – indeed, for about two months running it was mostly bad news about her and her campaign – but good or bad, it’s been about her. Say what you want about Rick Perry, but all of his gubernatorial campaigns have been on his terms. Since February, Abbott’s tone-deafness and Davis’ attacks have been the main event. Oh, he tried to knock her back with his ethics proposal about bond lawyering that maybe ten people in the state understood, but it’s been a steady drumbeat Ted Nugent, Lilly Ledbetter, Charles Murray, and school finance. Neither Abbott’s own words nor those of his surrogates have done anything to help him or change the narrative, and there’s still more out there. At some point you have to wonder what else there is to him beyond a ginormous campaign warchest and a long history of being a Republican on statewide ballots.

Now in the end, of course, none of this may matter. We all know what Texas’ proclivities are, we know how historically weak the state Democratic Party has been and how far behind they are in building infrastructure and a GOTV machine. However you feel about the polls we’ve seen so far, none of them have shown a shift in the fundamentals. The next poll to give Wendy Davis 44% or more of the vote will be the first such poll since John Sharp roamed the earth. These guys may be clowns and empty suits, but they’re also the favorites to win. What I know is that I don’t fear them, at least not as opponents. If they beat us, it’s not because they can run faster or jump higher or lift heavier things. It’s because they have a head start. We may not be able to overcome that this time, but if this is what we’re up against, it’s all that we have to overcome. We will get there.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Look out for LVdP

Do not underestimate her.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

In the lavish Belo Mansion, tucked in the heart of this city’s downtown, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is locked in a back-and-forth with small-business owners from the region.

Van de Putte, the San Antonio Democrat running for lieutenant governor, is courting support — and cash — from the mix of lawyers, restaurateurs, real estate investors and nonprofit managers in the room.

And she brings a clear message: Erase any notion that her campaign exists solely to lend a Hispanic face on the Democratic ticket for Sen. Wendy Davis, the gubernatorial nominee, to court Latino voters. Van de Putte is in it to win it.

“I’ve never been good at being a martyr. I wish I was that noble, but I’m way too competitive,” she said. “I know I can do this.”

Donation envelopes, marked with ranges from $50 to $5,000, are laid at one end of a conference table where the small group is huddled.

“But I need your help.”

Currently trekking through the state on a giant campaign bus, Van de Putte is by all accounts the underdog in the race for the state’s No.2 office, likely to be outgunned and outspent by an entrenched Republican machine.

Yet political analysts think the San Antonio pharmacist, mother of six — and grandmother of six more — could be the strongest candidate on the Democratic ticket.

“Her prospects for victory are very unlikely,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “But they are probably the best odds of any Democrat this cycle.”

[...]

For Van de Putte to be competitive in the race, she’s also going to have to raise big bucks. Jones, the political scientist from Rice, estimates she’ll need in the range of $15 million to compete against Patrick or Dewhurst.

“Republicans just start off with a built in advantage when it comes to fundraising,” he said.

On the tour, Van de Putte has been hitting the fundraising circuit hard. On occasion, she puts in several hours of “call time” with potential donors from the back the campaign bus.

Private fundraisers were scheduled throughout the trip. And the donation envelopes are present at most of the stumps.

I had the opportunity, along with several of my blogging colleagues, to meet briefly with Sen. Van de Putte while she was in Houston on Saturday. The thing about Sen. Van de Putte is that she’s as personable as anyone you’re likely to meet. She’s funny, she’s direct, she’s very comfortable in her own skin. As Molly Ivins would have put it, she’s got a ton of Elvis in her. That’s an asset we’ve not had in abundance on the Democratic side of the statewide ballot in recent cycles, and it’s no small thing.

To know Sen. Van de Putte is to like her, but the challenge is ensuring enough people know her. As she was uncontested in her primary, the last finance report she filed was in January, so we don’t know how her campaign is doing on the fundraising front. I don’t know how much she really needs to raise, but it is in the millions. I get the impression she’s doing well on that front, but we won’t know for sure until July. By the same token, we keep hearing bits and pieces about support for her from Republicans that are not happy with the prospect of Dan Patrick as Lite Gov. I try to keep stuff like that in perspective because I really want it to be true. My hope is that we’ll hear more of this, and have more names attached to the stories, after Patrick (presumably) wins his runoff in May. It would be nice to see some of those same names show up in her finance report, and of course there’s the matter of groups like the Texas Farm Bureau putting their money where their mouths are. Sen. Van de Putte won’t have any trouble firing up Democrats for November. Stuff like this will let us know if it’s contagious outside of the base. Juanita and Stace have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Don’t forget about Kesha

From the HuffPo:

David Alameel

David Alameel

Texas Democrats are working hard in the U.S. Senate race — against a member of their own party.

Activists in the state want to make sure that Kesha Rogers doesn’t get their party’s Senate nomination because she is a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, who heads a fringe political movement that has been compared to a cult.

Rogers has already advanced further than most people expected; she came in second in the March 4 primary, meaning she and Dallas dentist David Alameel are facing off in a run-off election on May 27.

“Having her on the ballot would just be bad,” Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) told Fox4 in Dallas-Fort Worth.

“She’s a member of the LaRouche Movement, which has a history of violent exclusionary and discriminatory rhetoric,” added Taylor Holden, Dallas County Democratic Party executive director. “The Dallas County Democratic Party does not recognize members of the LaRouche Movement, including and especially Kesha Rogers.”

Dallas County Democrats also tweeted on Monday, “Friends don’t let friends vote Kesha Rogers in the Primary Runoff (May 27).”

Honestly, I haven’t heard that much about the Senate runoff so far. David Alameel isn’t on every webpage I visit these days, as he was leading up to the primary. With few runoffs in local races, this should be a low turnout affair – I’ll set the under/over at 200,000 votes, about what there was in the 2006 Democratic Senate primary runoff. Which is fine, since these should be the most plugged-in voters, thus the most likely to know not to vote for Kesha. As previously noted, returns from March in Harris County look promising for May. Kesha herself is doing what she can to stay in the news, which I believe works in favor of sanity. Still, talking up the need to vote for Alameel in the runoff is everone’s job, and I expect Alameel will spend a few bucks on mail and other forms of outreach as we enter May. Just remember to do your part by showing up and voting for Alameel, and it’ll be fine.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Pratt Mess gets messier

How much worse can it get?

Judge Denise Pratt

Hundreds of divorce, child support and custody cases dating back to 2012 will have to be revisited – and possibly sent back to trial – as a court administrator sorts out what he called the “random chaos” left behind by former District Family Court Judge Denise Pratt.

The freshman jurist, who abruptly resigned late last month, left nearly 300 court orders stacked on the floor and desk of her 311th District Court, according to Judge David Farr, the administrative judge for Harris County’s nine family courts.

Most of the orders, Farr said, are final agreements needing only a judge’s signature, meaning families are waiting to hear that their cases have been concluded or think they already are.

“Somebody may be out there thinking they’ve been divorced for a couple months; not the case,” said Farr, who is charged with finding judges to staff Pratt’s court until Gov. Rick Perry announces a replacement. Farr said cleaning the administrative mess after Pratt’s sudden departure likely will take months.

[...]

Farr said a majority of the orders he found in Pratt’s courtroom, some nearly a year and a half old, are topped with sticky notes – blue, yellow, green, pink – containing hand-written messages from Pratt giving directions, expressing concerns or posing questions about the terms of an agreement to which both parties had signed off.

He said there is no way to determine whether the issues raised on the sticky notes were addressed, or the correct status of the orders without them, meaning lawyers will have to be called in for status hearings, and many families will incur additional legal costs.

“It is random chaos that’s going to have to be dealt with case by case by case,” Farr said. “Every single thing I pick up makes my head hurt, it’s so problematic.”

Austin lawyer Lillian Hardwick, co-author of the “Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics,” said a Texas judge as high ranking as Pratt has not left a “mess of this size” behind in recent memory, citing a statewide list of resignations since 2001. Some judges have been sanctioned in the past for similar administrative failures, she said.

Asked about the stacks of orders, Pratt’s lawyer, Terry Yates, said “the staff of the 311th are adamant that the numbers cited are grossly exaggerated.”

“It is kind of pitiful that people continue to beat a dead horse,” Yates wrote in an e-mail.

See here for the background. So basically, either the lawyers and clients and Judge Farr are all lying, or Judge Pratt really is a lousy judge. Seems like an Occam’s Razor situation to me. And remember – she’s still on the ballot, and still could be the Republican nominee.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Weekend link dump for April 6

The national divorce rate is a more complicated question than you might think.

Who wants to get hoaxed about marrying a prince?

The best day of the week to buy groceries is Wednesday.

“Put aside, for now, the shameless hypocrisy of these self-styled heroes of the free market secretly engaging in such grotesquely anti-competitive practices. What’s particularly interesting to witness is how, in contrast to the smarmy public face of the Silicon Valley execs (the corporate mottos of Apple and Google are “Think Different” and “Don’t Be Evil”), in fact, when it comes to protecting their profits, these companies demonstrate the kind of ruthlessness that would do the old-school robber barons proud.”

“The reason contraception operates within the health insurance system rather than with a cash grant subsidy system is that it is part of professional medical care, and not simply a commodity that is available for purchase and subsidy should society so desire.”

It’s not the one percent so much as it is the one percent of the one percent that’s really hoovering up all the wealth.

RIP, Ray Hutchison, former legislator and husband of former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Who knew Newsweek had such a weird story behind it?

Getting marginal voters to the polls is what this year’s election is all about.

“Tesla Motors Inc’s electric vehicles can be located and unlocked by criminals remotely simply by cracking a six-character password using traditional hacking techniques, according to newly released research.”

“That means it’s also the time of year for America’s second-favorite pastime: the scoreboard marriage proposal. To step up your engagement game, we reached out to all 30 MLB teams to find out the cost of putting a ring (World Series or otherwise) on it at each stadium.”

Real fame is when someone cosplays as you…and other people know who they’re supposed to be.

On writing letters of reference.

From the If At First You Don’t Succeed, You Should Probably Try Something Else department.

“No matter how you slice it, [Paul] Ryan is balancing the budget almost entirely by slashing spending on the poor.” He’s not being subtle about it, either.

“The more you learn about how debt collection works, the more you’re surprised that they ever find the right target in the first place.”

A handy guide to Republican excuses about Obamacare enrollment numbers.

RIP, Charles Keating. Take Alan Stanford and mix in Ralph Reed, you’ll get Charles Keating.

Remember, flaws are OK“.

RIP, Frankie Knuckles, godfather of house music.

Congratulations to Willard Scott on his marriage. Mazel tov, you crazy kids.

“I knew it! (I had long suspected, but this is the smoking gun!) The Kochtopus is a crypto-Schopenhauerian cult! It is all a subtle plot to deny Americans their freedom – as Schopenhauer denied human freedom!” Also, too: Cool icon, dude.

Oh, South Carolina. I mean, seriously.

David Letterman is retiring. In times like these, Mark Evanier is your best bet to make sense of it all.

Do you need another reason to hate credit reporting services? Here you go.

“This is the conservative double standard in the realm of corporate rights: When the corporation supports a right-wing pet project—say, denying women reproductive care—conservatives pen encomia to the First Amendment’s corporate protections. But when a corporation dares to support a progressive cause like gay rights, conservatives cry foul at its alleged censorship of individual views.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Pasadena lurches towards redistricting

It’s getting ugly.

Pasadena City Council

A Pasadena councilwoman was forcibly ejected by armed officers and the mayor was accused of packing a gun during recent meetings on a controversial redistricting plan.

Councilwoman Pat Van Houte was removed from a meeting Tuesday on orders of Mayor Johnny Isbell after exceeding a three-minute speaking limit. And at a redistricting hearing in March, another councilman said he was “shocked” to see Isbell carrying what looked like a handgun.

Pasadena, pop. 150,000, is among the first in the nation to test last year’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme court that weakened the Voting Rights Act. The high court voided the preclearance requirement for election changes, which had been the law of the land for nearly half a century in many Southern states.

After the ruling, Mayor Johnny Isbell pushed forward a plan, narrowly approved by the city’s voters. It switches two of the city’s eight council seats from district to citywide elections.

[...]

Van Houte acknowledged that she exceeded her time limit Tuesday before Mayor Johnny Isbell pulled the plug and ordered her removed by two armed officers.

Van Houte said she was not given sufficient time to voice her objections to the proposed new map: “If someone is trying to represent the best interests of their city, they should not be thrown out for doing it. I’ve not seen this happen in the nearly five years that I’ve been on council.”

In the map approved on first reading Tuesday, she and another incumbent from the north end, Ornaldo Ybarra, objected to being located in the same district and having to run against one another. She was evicted before the vote was taken.

Ybarra and the other two from the north end denounced the map and walked out in solidarity with Van Houte prior to the vote. The map was approved with the mayor and the four council members from the south side supporting it.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. If this fight is ugly, it’s because the power grab that’s at its heart is ugly. Isbell says he granted Van Houte an extra minute before calling the cops on her, which is awfully big of him. But c’mon, dude. You hold all the cards and you know it. The least you could have done would have been to be magnanimous in victory and let the opposition say its piece. Not doing so marks you as insecure and a bully. Can’t say I’m surprised by that, but Isbell did have a chance to show himself to be otherwise, and he failed to take it.

Anyway. The maps that were under consideration are here – it’s proposed map #2 that will be voted on. The current map is here for comparison. A memo from Mayor Isbell about the maps and their population figures is here. The numbers apparently changed from what you see in the first table. I’m sure we’ll get a clearer picture of all that really happened when litigation is filed after the map is adopted.

Posted in: Local politics.

National ag groups not happy with Republicans

It’s all about immigration reform.

Craig Regelbrugge, who co-chairs the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, says a large majority of his group’s members — which include large and small farming enterprises and growers all around the country — are Republican, and many give to the GOP. But he’s increasingly hearing from members who are so frustrated by the Congressional GOP’s failure to act on reform — which is central to maintaining a workforce in the industry — that they are considering withholding campaign donations.

“I hear from growers frequently who basically say, `I used to be a loyal check writer when the Republican Party called, but at this point, the checkbook is closed,’” Regelbrugge tells me. “I’m hearing from growers who are no longer writing checks supporting the party.”

Mike Gempler heads the Washington Growers League, which represents growers ranging from mom-and-pop outfits to enterprises spanning 10,000 acres, and he says that “well over 90 percent” of his members vote Republican, and many write checks. Some of them sit in the district of GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, a member of the GOP leadership.

But, he says, they are increasingly convinced the GOP is no longer representing their interests in the immigration debate, if the failure to move on legislation is any indication, and are concluding that Republicans are very close to squandering a rare opportunity to achieve reform.

“We’re seeing a lack of response to our needs and concerns from significant parts of the Republican caucus in the House,” Gempler tells me. “They either have ideological issues or they are catering to a more reactionary crowd.”

“We want to see the leadership, including Cathy, move on this,” Gempler continues. “The chances for getting immigration reform are lessening quickly. If we don’t get this done by August recess, we’re going to be in trouble as an industry.”

[...]

All this gets to a point about the immigration debate that keeps getting lost: Major Republican-aligned groups want reform — from growers out west to the business community to to evangelicals — and when Republicans refuse to act because they fear blowback from anti-reform conservatives, they are prioritizing them over other core constituencies. Now the growers are increasingly convinced the chance for reform is slipping away and they are getting cut out as a result.

It also gets at a point that I’ve made here many times, which is that while all these groups may want reform, they continue to support – or at least, not oppose – plenty of Republican officeholders that stand in their way. The Texas Association of Business and the late moneybag Bob Perry were and are classic examples of this in Texas. The Texas Farm Bureau has joined in this unhappy chorus this year, and it remains to be seen if they will be as all-talk-no-action as their peers. We’ll know by their actions in the Lite Gov race. As for the national groups, withholding financial support is something, though with the latest SCOTUS shenanigans it may not amount to much. The bottom line is that they have the power to do something about this. A few well-placed primary challenges could do a world of good, and wouldn’t even require them to support any icky Democrats. Until they actually try to use that power, I’m not going to waste any time feeling sympathy for them.

Posted in: La Migra.

News flash: The Bigfoot exhibition was a fake

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Steve Austin knows the truth

After a falling out with his Bigfoot crew, master tracker Rick Dyer, whose new title may be “con artist”, admitted that the 8-foot tall body named “Hank” that wooed crowds last month in Houston is a prop made to look like a Bigfoot.

The crew, including spokesman Andrew Clacy, had an apparent rift in Daytona last week with accusations, lawsuit threats and resignations that led to Dyer announcing “the truth” on Facebook, and Clacy emailing a statement to the San Antonio Express-News on Monday, admitting that the body was a prop.

“From this moment on, I will speak the truth! No more lies, tall tales or wild goose chases to mess with the haters!” Dyer said on his Facebook, which has since been deleted. “I never treated anyone bad, I’m a joker, I play around, that’s just me.”

[...]

Chris Russell, of Twisted Toy Box in Washington, admitted to manufacturing the prop, which Dyer named “Hank”, of latex, foam and camel hair last year at Dyer’s request in an interview with a Bigfoot blogging site Sunday.

It is unclear how much Dyer paid to have the prop made, but a full-body mummy suit on the site is more than $700, although a custom prop the size of the Bigfoot was significantly more expensive.

Dyer’s post said that nationwide tour that charged people $10 to see the fake body pulled in close to $60,000, with Clacy making more than $12,000 in cash, meals and entertainment, or 20 percent.

See here, here, and here for the background. You have to admit, that was a pretty good return on his investment. One wonders what Dyer could do with an honest idea if he put his mind to it. He’s still claiming to have shot a Bigfoot despite this admission of fakery, so don’t hold your breath waiting for him to come up with an honest idea. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do for his next trick. I just know I won’t give him any of my money to see it. Thanks to Hair Balls for the link.

Posted in: Skepticism.