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Endorsement watch: A bit of a surprise

The Chron endorses Ann Harris Bennett for Harris County Tax Assessor.

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

When Mike Sullivan first ran for Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, he promised that he would: “Bring the office into the 21st century by embracing new technology.”

By Sullivan’s standard, we look forward to Apple releasing the Post Card 7, complete with four easy-to-handle sides and a convenient stamp location. Because if you want to register to vote in Harris County, or anywhere in the state of Texas, you have to do it by snail mail – and state legislators point to Sullivan as the reason why.

A majority of the state House had co-sponsored a bill to allow online voter registration during the last legislative session. However, testimony by Sullivan redirected the sure-fire bill into the garbage.

Whatever his other accomplishments in the office, whatever the deficits of his challenger, Sullivan’s failure to bring voter registration into the 21st century should disqualify him in the minds of voters. There is no excuse.

[…]

That is why we endorse Ann Harris Bennett for Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector. An experienced administrator with more than 14 years’ service as a district court coordinator, Bennett, 63, has long advocated for better registration and election processes. She also recognizes how our property tax system treats homeowners unfairly in contrast to commercial property owners.

I say this is a bit of a surprise for three reasons. One is that this means the Chron endorsed all Democrats for countywide offices. Given the dynamics of the other three such races, this was really the only one in which they might have endorsed the Republican and thus achieve some partisan balance, if that was a consideration. The Chronicle did not endorse Bennett in the primary, and they were not very complimentary to her at the time. Given those facts, and given that Mike Sullivan has been a considerable improvement over the two clowns that preceded him, I figured he would be an easy call for them. I did not expect them to put that much weight on the electronic voter registration issue. I’m glad they did, because this is easily my biggest point of disagreement with Sullivan. I fear that the moment may have passed for online voter registration – whatever consensus there was for it in 2015, I have a hard time imagining it being there in 2017. I hope I’m wrong, and for sure we should try again. Online voter registration would certainly be easier to make happen if the state’s biggest county officially supports it. Ann Harris Bennett is the one candidate who would offer that support.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Interview with Jon Harris

Jon Harris

Jon Harris

It is time to start the fall 2016 interview season. I don’t plan to do a whole lot of these – in particular, I don’t plan to revisit races that I had covered during primary season – but I do have a few to do, as well as the judicial Q&As (again, for candidates not covered during the primaries). For the first interview, we venture a bit outside the Houston area, over into Edwards County where Jon Harris is running for Sheriff. Why am I interviewing a Sheriff candidate in Edwards County? Well, because the incumbent Sheriff there is a dangerous loon who interprets and enforces the law as she sees fit. This particular Sheriff, Pamela Elliott, was profiled in this Observer story, which I blogged about here. You should read that story if you haven’t already – it’s hard to believe this kind of thing exists, but it does. In this case, there is something that can be done about it. Harris is a military veteran with years of law enforcement experience, in Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He’s running to restore sanity and to get that law enforcement agency back to doing what it is supposed to do. Here’s what we talked about:

Interviews and Q&As from the primaries are on my 2016 Election page. I will update it as we go along to include links to fall interviews.

Posted in: Election 2016.

The MOB and Baylor

So you’ve probably heard about this by now.

If it’s possible for a band to steal headlines away from a football game, Rice’s Marching Owl Band found a way.

While Rice made strides but ultimately fell against No. 21 Baylor 38-10 on Friday at Rice Stadium, it was what happened at halftime that was the focus.

The MOB dedicated its halftime routine to satirizing Baylor’s sexual assault scandal. It sparked controversy throughout social media and the college football world.

Some believe the band was rightfully shining light on Baylor’s handling of the assaults. Some believe the band went too far in satirizing a serious matter.

It appears Rice officials agree with the latter. The university released a statement Saturday apologizing for the MOB’s performance.

The statement reads:

“The Marching Owl Band, or MOB, has a tradition of satirizing the Rice Owls’ football opponents. In this case, the band’s calling attention to the situation at Baylor was subject to many different interpretations. Although the band’s halftime shows are entirely the members’ projects with no prior review by the university administration, we regret any offense, particularly if Baylor fans may have felt unwelcome in our stadium. While we know that the MOB did not intend in any way to make light of the serious issue of sexual assault, we are concerned that some people may have interpreted the halftime performance in that vein. Sexual assault is a matter of serious concern on campuses across the nation, and all of us have an obligation to address the matter with all the tools at our disposal. The MOB sought to highlight the events at Baylor by satirizing the actions or inactions of the Baylor administration, but it is apparent from the comments of many spectators and Baylor fans that the MOB’s effort may have went too far.”

In the performance, the band started with Muppet Fozzie Bear on the video board and the narrator saying “some jokes can be unbearable”, a miniscule jab at Baylor’s mascot.

The announcer then said “There are nine judges on the Supreme Court or is it?” The band proceeded to align in a formation to resemble the Roman numeral nine representing Title IX – poking fun at the multiple Title IX lawsuits Baylor is facing over the school’s handling of sexual assaults.
It took another turn when the band aligned in a star formation meant to represent former Baylor president Ken Starr and his resignation, all the while playing the song “Hit The Road, Jack.”

You can see the full script for the show here; the embedded image contains the bit that this story elides over. As you may know, I play with the MOB and I was there on the field for this show on Friday night. All I’m going to say is that Rice University may feel the need to apologize for something, but I don’t. They are not speaking for me on this. Nor, apparently, are they speaking for the editor of the Rice Thresher, who is for more eloquent than I. The Trib and Deadspin have more.

UPDATE: More from the Press and Underdog Dynasty.

UPDATE: Even better commentary in this Observer piece, written by a former MOB member.

Posted in: Other sports.

Texas v. the Feds: Telemedicine edition

Here’s a new one.

Teladoc, the Dallas-based company that sued Texas over its telemedicine regulations, has a new ally in the Federal Trade Commission.

In a letter sent to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court late Friday, the federal antitrust agency sided with Teladoc in the company’s legal battle, criticizing the Texas Medical Board for allegedly misinterpreting case law.

The telehealth company sued last year to block board rules that in most cases require face-to-face contact between a patient and a physician before a physician can issue a prescription.

That threatened Teladoc’s business model, which virtually connects Texas patients to remote, Texas-licensed doctors, some of whom are based out-of-state. The company says its physicians consult patients over the phone for routine medical issues, and patients can upload photos or other information describing their symptoms and medical history.

Teladoc filed an antitrust lawsuit against the regulatory Texas Medical Board in federal court last year, alleging that the 19-member board made up mostly of doctors had behaved like a cartel by passing rules intended to limit competition.

The state has asked the appeals court to throw out Teladoc’s lawsuit, and federal regulators on Friday urged the court not to.

The Texas Medical Board failed to show that “any disinterested state official ever substantively reviewed” the telemedicine rules “to determine whether the rules promote a clearly articulated state policy to displace competition rather than the private interests of active market participants,” federal regulators wrote.

I hadn’t noticed this before now, and I don’t know much about this, though on the surface it sounds like Teladoc has a good argument. I was hoping to find an analysis of this via Google, but the best I could do was this by the hacks at the TPPF that was just boilerplate business/free market rah-rah. Here’s an interview with Teladoc’s CEO from January about the lawsuit, if you’re interested. The suit was filed by Teladoc, the AG’s office is defending the Texas Medical Board, and the feds have only just gotten involved, so this isn’t a typical Texas-versus-feds situation. It is a reminder that not all such cases fall into the usual narrative.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Abbott says something about high speed rail

Something vague, and a bit confusing.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday expressed caution about high-speed rail in Texas, warning that any investment in transportation must not be a “money-losing proposition.”

It was one of several notable topics that came up during a wide-ranging Q-and-A with the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, where Abbott also vouched for the continuation of the Texas Enterprise Fund and provided a brief preview of the next legislative session.

[…]

Abbott had previously expressed hesitation about high-speed rail, a perennial flashpoint in Texas that sparks debate over how to pay for it and its impact on property rights. He was again somewhat skeptical-sounding Thursday at the luncheon for the Chamber of Commerce, which supports high-speed rail. Waco is along a potential route being studied for a high-speed rail alternative to Interstate 35 that would go from Oklahoma City to Laredo.

“It is important to be able to invest in anything that works, but when you invest, you don’t want to lose money,” Abbott said, bringing up a high-speed rail project in California that ended up costing much more than originally projected. “You’ve got to proceed with caution.”

Abbott instead pointed to the freight shuttle system recently unveiled at Texas A&M University, which would move containers on elevated highways using automated transporters. Abbott noted that the system does not rely on taxpayer dollars and would “not involve taking anyone’s property.”

“You have to look at certain issues so that it works for all the different pieces of all the different constituencies, but most importantly look at at the bottom for the taxpayers in Texas, which is the thing that we have to be the greatest guardian of,” Abbott said.

At first reading, I thought Abbott was speaking of high-speed rail in general, including the Texas Central Railway. That didn’t make much sense, since they’re a private company, and what does he care if they wind up making money or not? He still might have had them in mind when he said this, but at this point I think he was just referring to the Oklahoma/Texas line, which is a TxDOT project. Too bad, because it would be nice to hear what he thinks about Texas Central, given the target it has on its back in the 2017 Legislature. Will he support or undermine the efforts to kill it? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

As for this project, I think talk about the California HSR experience is premature. I suspect the escalating cost estimates for the California line – which is still in the conceptual stage – have as much to do with the price of real estate as anything else. I’m pretty sure that would be less of an issue with this proposal, but if Abbott wanted to know more about that, he could ask TxDOT to provide him with some answers. And sure, HSR isn’t cheap, but then neither is our road infrastructure cheap to operate, maintain, and especially expand. Building highways also involves a lot of eminent domain, though for some reason the uproar over that is always more muted. You tell me what the difference is, I have no idea.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for September 18

Two-factor authentication still has its limitations.

Deep Space Nine was my favorite Star Trek, too.

“So maybe more than any issue right now, Putin has become the ultimate test of GOP loyalty to Trump. Do you agree or disagree with Trump on Putin? That question will separate the ardent Trump supporters from the Republicans who aren’t.”

A timeline of Earth’s average temperature, as only XKCD can do it.

RIP, Alexis Arquette, transgender actress and member of the Arquette acting family.

“While this may seem like the quintessential underdog story, it isn’t. Underdogs have to win (or at least come close), which Bright and company never do. But getting as far as they do counts as success nonetheless.”

“But the truly scary thing is that Trump is redefining the concept of a gaffe out of existence. It turns out that if you just boldly repeat something often enough, it goes away as a story. We’ve become numb, as a society, to what Trump is doing.”

What Ta-Nehisi Coates says, times a million.

Hey, remember when President Bush “lost” 22 million emails? Boy, those were the days.

“And that, above all, is what they can’t stand. That is what infuriates them and offends them — the prospect of being judged, being assessed according to any standard not in their immediate control.”

“But what’s most deplorable is the knee-jerk pushback against anyone who dares point out this reality, as though exposing the deplorable is worse than the deplorable things themselves. Maybe the best way to avoid being labeled deplorable is to stop doing and saying and standing for deplorable things.”

Ballot selfies should be legal. I’m not sure what the argument against is.

Sometimes, “deplorable” really is the best word.

“The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade.”

Quantifying the deplorables.

What Samantha Bee says.

If anyone deserves a wonderful, joyful bar mitzvah more than Israel Kristal does, I don’t know who it would be.

RIP, Edward Albee, playwright of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and many others.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

So what’s going on with these polls of Texas?

Republicans are feeling a little touchy about them.

“I think the emerging picture is one that looks a little bit tighter in the presidential election than we’ve seen in recent elections in the state,” said Joshua Blank, whose Texas Lyceum poll, released Thursday, found GOP nominee Donald Trump leading Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by only 7 percentage points among likely voters. “The Lyceum poll is another data point in a trend for a race that increasingly looks in the single digits at this time.”

That means Trump is behind where a generic Republican would be at this juncture in a general election in Texas — 10 to 12 points ahead of his Democratic opponent, added Blank, the manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

[…]

The Lyceum Poll was the third survey in recent weeks to find a single-digit race in Texas, which the past two GOP nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, won by 16 and 12 points, respectively. According to a polling average compiled by the website RealClear Politics, Trump is now ahead of Clinton by 7.2 points in Texas.

Democrats are expressing cautious optimism about the state of the race in Texas, saying the polling, at the least, bodes well for down-ballot candidates and the post-2016 future of the beleaguered state party. Few are openly talking about winning the state this time around, though they cannot help but wonder what the margin will look like on Election Day if it is so irregularly narrow two months out.

“Three polls in a row can’t be wrong, right?” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told the Texas Tribune on Saturday as he left the opening of a Clinton campaign office in Houston. It was there that U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston declared, “We are going to win Texas,” on the heels of a Washington Post/SurveyMonkey poll that showed the race tied in the Lone Star State.

Such declarations draw long eye rolls from Texas Republicans, who frequently refer to Democrats’ largely failed efforts to move the state in their direction during the 2014 elections. While some concede Trump may not carry the state as much as, say, Romney did, GOP operatives are skeptical of the methodologies used for recent public polls and suggest private surveys have found Trump leading by double digits, a more normal result.

“The theory that Texas is in play from the presidential standpoint — currently, as of right now — is just not the case,” said Chris Perkins, a top Texas pollster.

If the Trump campaign is worried about the numbers, it is not entirely showing it. While the nominee has taken the unusual step of tacking public appearances on to his fundraising swings through Texas, his advisers and allies have not given the impression it is meant to do anything more than soak up the free media attention that greets him wherever he goes.

“The margin in Texas from the public polls may be different from what we saw a few years ago, but it’s not enough to warrant a change in going after the true battleground states,” said Mike Baselice, a seasoned Austin-based pollster working for the Trump campaign. “The short of it is … anybody that’s looking at these polls may see some difference with what few polls existed in 2012, but the difference s irrelevant because this is going to go Republican.”

The list of GOP objections to recent public surveys is long and varied. The polls have been criticized for being conducted online, leaving out cell phone interviews, over- or under-sampling certain groups, ignoring the fact Texas does not have party registration and generally producing results out of sync with national trends.

Some pollsters, their critics say, just have a bad record in Texas. Emerson College, for example, released a poll shortly before the Texas Republican presidential primary that showed Cruz up by only 3 points. He went on to win the contest by nearly six times that.

Such a litany. As someone who has done his own fair share of whining about polls in the past, let me just say that while any one poll can be wrong, if a bunch of them are saying the same thing, you’re the one that’s probably wrong if you’re whining about them. Sure, the Washington Post result is an oddball done in a weird way, and a couple of the other pollsters don’t have much of a track record in Texas, but polls by the Trib/Texas Policy Project (which gave Mitt Romney a 55-39 edge in late October of 2012) and the Lyceum (which had Romney up 58-39 in early October of 2012) are also showing a single-digit Trump lead. At some point, the numbers speak for themselves.

Does that mean Texas is a swing state? Not by any reasonable measure – even if we accept that the real, true lead for Donald Trump in Texas is seven points, that’s a pretty comfortable lead by any objective standard. It’s just that it’s less than what we’re used to seeing. It is a big deal – Romney won the state by 16 points in 2012, remember – and it is kind of hilarious seeing the way it’s being downplayed. I think Republicans are a little nervous about the numbers; the fact that Greg Abbott is now all in for Trump and Ted Cruz is publicly worrying about holding the Senate are tells. They’re concerned about turnout in a way that you don’t usually see Texas Republicans be concerned about turnout.

Of course, we don’t know who these unnamed “critics” of the recent polls are, so it’s hard to say how ridiculous they’re being. The people who are quoted are the two GOP pollsters, both of whom seem to take the numbers at face value and make the far more valid point that Texas is still strongly favored to be carried by the Republican candidate this fall, if perhaps at a lesser margin. Those same two pollsters did their own surveys of Texas in 2012 and could certainly provide their own data for this year if they wanted to. The fact that they haven’t is also suggestive.

Maybe things will change in October. I won’t be shocked if polls begin to show Trump moving into double-digit lead territory. There are a lot of undecided/no answer respondents, and it seems likely a decent share of them normally vote Republican. Gary Johnson is also likely pulling some votes from Trump, which may wane as Election Day draws nearer. Against that is a slew of ancillary and anecdotal evidence suggesting that a larger number of non-traditional voters plan to come out this fall to vote against Trump. People are becoming citizens at a record rate. Voter registration is up. Polls of Latino voters show they are more engaged and say they are more likely to vote than in years past. Maybe that all doesn’t add up to much, but to the extent that it does, it probably isn’t being reflected in the polls. Good luck with picking a turnout model this year.

Posted in: The making of the President.

HISD board members against the HISD ballot item

I missed this when it first appeared.

Three Houston school board members on Thursday evening publicly urged voters to oppose a measure that would authorize the district to forfeit $162 million to the state.

Trustees Jolanda Jones, Harvin Moore and Rhonda Skillern-Jones went on the offensive at the live-streamed board meeting, asking voters to join them in voting “no” on the Nov. 8 ballot measure required under the state’s school-finance system.

The board members are taking a gamble, calling on state lawmakers to revamp the funding system to relieve the Houston Independent School District when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“We are King Kong in this state,” Jones said, noting that the Houston school system is the largest district in Texas and should have influence.

[…]

Here’s the rub: If the ballot measure fails and the education commissioner detaches property from HISD — an unprecedented move — the district will not be able to tax those properties to fund the repayment of debt. And the district has significant debt, including the ongoing $1.9 billion construction bond program approved by voters in 2012.

The district overall cannot take a position on the measure. However, it has launched an educational campaign, focused on the confusing state-mandated ballot language that will ask voters whether they approve purchasing attendance credits from the state. A “yes” vote to the credits means the district sends the $162 million.

If the funding system does not change, the Houston school district estimates that its “recapture” payment will rise to $257 million in 2017-18, $308 million in 2018-19 and $386 million the following year.

See here for the background. As the story notes, former HISD board member and current “education czar” for Mayor Turner Juliet Stipeche is also opposed to the referendum. I get where they’re coming from, and the escalating recapture payments are daunting, if not crippling. There is definitely an urgency in trying to get the Legislature to do something to avert the problem, or at least to mitigate it. The problem is that there’s no sign that the Legislature, or Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, have any interest in lifting a finger for HISD. Indeed, it’s quite clear that at least on the Senate side, all the energy in 2017 is going to be on making things worse for public education in general. I get the idea, and I don’t think approving the issue does any good. I’m just not sure that defeating it isn’t worse, even if it does have the potential for an upside. See here for the official HISD page on recapture. What do you think about this?

Posted in: Election 2016.

Obamacare: Still working

Down doobie doo down down

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texas’ rate of uninsured people fell to 17.1 percent in 2015 as part of a steady decline in the share of uninsured residents following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, according to new Census estimates released Tuesday.

The state’s rate of uninsured fell two percentage points from 2014 to 2015, but Texas still has the highest percentage of people without health insurance in the country. Texas is also home to the largest number of uninsured people in the country with about 4.6 million uninsured residents.

About 5 million Texans were uninsured in 2014, or 19 percent. That’s down from 5.75 million the year before. The 2014 rate — part of the first comprehensive Census data to include a full year of enrollment under President Obama’s signature health law — marked the first time Texas’ uninsured rate fell below 20 percent in more than a decade.

Advocates for the uninsured have argued that Texas could grant insurance coverage to more than 800,000 adults living in poverty here if the state were to expand Medicaid — an optional tenet of the federal health law. But the state’s Republican leadership remains vehemently opposed to any sort of expansion. They’ve criticized Medicaid, the federal-state insurer for the poor and disabled, as an inefficient and broken program.

Also, too:

The number of Americans without health insurance declined to 9.1 percent last year, according to federal data released Tuesday. A set of maps released by the Census Bureau suggests an obvious way to decrease the uninsured rate even more: expand Medicaid in the 19 states that haven’t.

[…]

The report notes that the uninsurance rate decreased among poor people in both kinds of states. The drops in the uninsured rate were bigger for people who made below the poverty level or up to 399 percent of the poverty level in states that expanded Medicaid. Not all the uninsured in each state would qualify for insurance, but a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis, based on last year’s data, found that 19 percent of the population of those states that haven’t expanded Medicaid — close to 3 million people — fell in the coverage gap and would be eligible if Medicaid were expanded.

If it seems like I post this same basic story – with slightly different numbers – every few months, it’s because I do. That’s because the uninsurance rate continues to decline, and the lack of Medicaid expansion is the main reason why it hasn’t declined further than it has. Some 800,000 more Texans could have access to health care if we expanded Medicaid, and that would bring along a long list of other benefits as well. But we haven’t and we won’t, at least not with our current leadership, because they just don’t care about these people. So I’ll keep repeating myself, if only to serve as an ongoing reminder of this.

Oh, and one last thing:

A federal judge faulted the state Medicaid program in a strongly worded order, ruling the program had improperly denied 2,000 out-of-network emergency claims submitted by a nonprofit health care provider that treated indigent children.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled last week that the state had failed its obligation to reimburse out-of-network services under the Medicaid Act.

“Without intervention from the Court, the State will continue to refuse to reimburse Legacy for such services,” he wrote.

In May, Ellison found the state had unlawfully handed off in-network reimbursement duties to a managed care organization. The latest ruling came on the second set of arguments by Legacy Health.

Maybe the reason our state leaders hate Medicaid so much is because they’re so lousy at it.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

The Houston Furniture Bank

Get to know them, they do great work.

[Oli] Mohammed, a native of Bangladesh who has devoted his life to helping the poor, came to Houston after several years of working with refugees in Kenya.

“I’m from Bangladesh, and poverty and people in need are not foreign to me,” Mohammed said. “But when I saw the way some people are living in America … I didn’t expect it to be that bad.”

He worked as a housing specialist with the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County and in 1992 set out to find furniture for those moving from mental health facilities into government-subsidized housing.

It was a pilot project meant to serve 140 families. It worked, and within a few years, Mohammed proposed something with a broader reach: a furniture bank with partner agencies whose clients could all be served.

The partner agencies would buy vouchers and exchange them for gently used furniture for their clients. Just $250 to $300 worth of vouchers could buy the basics to fill a one-bedroom apartment: a place to sit, a place to sleep and a place to eat.

By 2003, the furniture bank had become an independent agency, a move made necessary by MHMRA budget cuts. All MHMRA could offer was warehouse space in exchange for furniture for its clients.

Mohammed and his nonprofit were living week to week when he heard that 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus would be in Houston for a lecture.

Yunus, a fellow Bengali, won the honor for his work founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of social business and microcredit.

Mohammed asked his board of directors to join him at the lecture. They all left inspired to find new ways to not just stay afloat, but to thrive.

In 2008, they opened their first outlet center, which now generates about half of the furniture bank’s $500,000 annual budget.

It is open to the public as a thrift store with both new and gently used furniture. And it follows a social business model: its paying customers make it possible for Mohammed to provide for 1,500 families a year who cannot.

See here for more on the fire that set them back, but didn’t put them down. We’ve made some donations to the Furniture Bank in the past – it’s a great cause, and you know you’re helping people who need it. It makes me happy to see them back doing what they do after that calamity a year ago. Visit their webpage and learn more about them.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Meant To Be

Remember the Squirrel Nut Zippers?

I remember them well, and I wish they had made more CDs. I’ve been a fan of various forms of swing/jazz/ragtime music since my earliest exposure to jazz band in school. Of the bands that rode the swing revival wave of the 90s, the SNZs were my favorites. Turns out some form of the Zippers played a free outdoors concert in Houston last night, but I was unable to make it.

That song is of course called “Meant To Be”. A song by that same name provided a critical plot point in Disney’s Teen Beach Movie, a more-fun-than-it-had-any-right-to-be mashup of West Side Story, Back To The Future, Grease, and, well, teen beach movies.

Long story short, the girl with pigtails and the blond boy need the girl in the red polka dot dress and the boy with the guitar to be the “meant to be” in question. Watch the movie for yourself if you want to know more – it ain’t Shakespeare, but I’ve watched way worse. There was of course a Teen Beach Movie 2, which believe it or not generated some controversy in how it ended. It also generated this reprise of that song:

No word yet if Teen Beach Movie 3 will be a thing that happens or not.

Posted in: Music.

Another story about the possible Trump Effect on downballot races

It’s mostly about one legislative race in particular, but that’s okay.

Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley

Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley

When he worked in the oil industry, Thomas Benavidez traveled to drilling sites across Texas and northern Mexico. The work was exciting, and the pay was good. He rarely paid attention to politics.

But after being laid off two years ago, the 24-year-old South Texas native moved back to the public housing complex where his parents live in Alice. He has been working as a roofer. And he’s been paying attention to the presidential election, especially to Donald Trump.

“I haven’t ever voted before, but I really don’t want him to be president,” Benavidez said. “It’s the way he acts and talks about other races. I think he’s a racist.”

Benavidez said he doesn’t know who his local representatives are but plans to vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in November.

Voters like Benavidez likely won’t make a difference for Trump, who is expected to win deep-red Texas. But they mean a lot to state Rep. J.M. Lozano, a Republican who represents Alice, Kingsville, Portland and part of Corpus Christi.

[…]

[Lozano’s] opponent, Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley, said that Trump’s candidacy is a “perfect storm” for Democratic challengers in districts with large numbers of Hispanic and black voters.

“With Trump really ticking (Latinos) off, all I hear is they’re coming out full-swing, and they’re voting straight ticket,” said Garcia-Utley, who owns a women’s fitness center. “It’s to my advantage. I need 25,000 (votes) to win this district, and I feel like that is going to happen because of Trump — and because of my hard work, but Trump is really helping me.”

Twenty-five thousand votes is a good estimate – Lozano won with 24,074 votes in 2012. What should concern Lozano is that Democrats swept HD43 in 2008 (outside of the Presidential race, as there were a fair number of crossover votes for John McCain in heavily Latino districts that year), with every Dem except one reaching that 25,000 vote threshold, with the one who missed it falling only 39 votes short. Personally, Lozano’s party switch before the 2011 session began after he had won a contentious Democratic primary really pissed me off, and I’ve been rooting for him to lose ever since. Here’s Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley’s Facebook page if you want to learn more about her.

The rest of the story touches on a couple of other races, including HD144, which Dems won in 2012 by a five-point margin without any help from an albatross Republican Presidential candidate, and HD134, which could end up as a district carried by Hillary Clinton but no other Democrat. There’s an embedded chart pointing out some other races, including (weirdly) two Democratic-held seats: HD78, which President Obama carried 54.3 to 44.0 in 2012, and HD149, carried by Obama 58.8 to 40.1 that year. Go figure. Mentioned in passing but deserving of more exploration is a sentence about how “local Democrats are hoping an anti-Trump wave allows David Holmes to unseat Gerald Daugherty, the only Republican on the Travis County Commissioners Court”. I figure there are quite a few more races for county offices that could be swung to Democrats this year thanks to Trump, but those are a lot less sexy and harder to report on. Maybe we’ll learn after the election how many such offices there were this year.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Family of Sandra Bland settles its lawsuit

I hope this brings them some peace, but more importantly I hope it leads to fewer inmate deaths, in Waller County and elsewhere.

Sandra Bland

The family of Sandra Bland — who died last year in a Waller County Jail cell — has reached a settlement with Texas officials in a wrongful death lawsuit, a lawyer for the family said Thursday.

Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family a total of $1.9 million and the county has agreed to policy changes, according to attorney Cannon Lambert. The terms were finalized Wednesday, Lambert said.

[…]

Terms of the settlement:

  • Waller County will pay the family $1.8 million. The Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family $100,000.
  • “To prevent future document falsifications, Waller County jail will use automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks.”
  • “From here forward, Waller County jail will now provide an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts.”
  • “The Waller County Judge pledges to actively seek passage of state legislation providing for more funding for jail intake, booking, screening training and other jail support like telemedicine access for Texas county jails AND HE SUPPORTS HAVING ANY RESULTING LEGISLATION NAMED IN SANDRA BLAND’S HONOR!”
  • “The Waller County Sheriff’s Office shall provide additional jailer training (including ongoing continuing education) on booking and intake screening.”

“The case is settled in its entirety,” Lambert said, but “this is the beginning, not the end.”

Lambert said Bland’s mother is pleased with the settlement “particularly because of the non-economic components.”

See here for all prior bogging on this. I too hope this is a beginning and not an end. “No more inmate deaths” is a goal we should have as a society, and while we’ll never get there, we should do all we can to get as close as we can. Grits for Breakfast, which goes into detail on the terms of the settlement, ThinkProgress, the Current, and the Press have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, Legal matters.

TEA will review special ed limits

It’s a start.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday that his office is reviewing a monitoring system that sets an 8.5 percent benchmark for special education enrollments and strictly audits school districts with enrollments that exceed that rate for students with disabilities.

The Chronicle reported Sunday that TEA officials had arbitrarily selected the 8.5 percent rate in implementing the system a decade ago. Since then, Texas’ special education enrollment has declined from 12 percent in 2004 to exactly 8.5 percent in 2015, by far the lowest in America.

“The Texas Education Agency is committed to conducting a detailed review of this monitoring system and how it impacts Texas students,” Morath said in a statement. “The agency will continue to convene special education advisory groups for feedback and guidance on all aspects of special education policy, as it has for years as part of its annual public rulemaking processes.”

Asked about the Chronicle’s findings at a meeting of the State Board of Education, Morath said that “we’re assessing the detailed list of statements to determine what the real impact is. … It’s a topic of high priority here.”

See here and here for the background. I might suggest that Commissioner Morath begin by speaking to his predecessors, since at least one of them had to have known all about this. It would also be nice to hear what Morath thinks the policy should be, in broad strokes if not in detail. Promising a review is not the same as promising a change. What might we expect to happen when that review has been completed?

But at least Commissioner Morath has acknowledged the issue and is doing something about it. That’s more than we can say for Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick. Thankfully, the third leg of the state leadership stool has now also acknowledged the issue.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Thursday he would work with the Texas Education Agency to address concerns about a monitoring system that has led school districts to keep thousands of children with disabilities out of special education.

“Students who need special education should not be kept out of it,” Straus said in a Facebook post, which indicated his office had delivered the same message to Education Commissioner Mike Morath. “The House appreciates the Commissioner’s attention to this issue and will work with him to address these concerns,” added Straus, R-San Antonio.

[…]

Several lawmakers, officials, teachers and advocates have expressed outrage at the target, saying it has deprived tens of thousands of disabled children an adequate education.

The Texas Education Agency has denied depriving any students of proper instruction and defended the monitoring system but promised to conduct a “detailed review” of its impact.

In his statement, Straus said the monitoring system was “designed to prevent schools from identifying students for special education when it isn’t necessary.”

However, he stressed “the importance of providing services to all students who need them while continuing to make sure that students are not improperly identified for special education.”

Straus’s legislative district is in the North East ISD, which serves northeastern San Antonio and is the second largest district in Texas’ second largest city. Its special ed enrollment has dropped from 15.3 percent in 2004 to 9.2 percent today, a 40 percent decline that is the biggest among Texas’ largest school districts.

Good for Speaker Straus. Note that his statement does include a statement of what the policy should be. It doesn’t actually promise any changes, either, but it does provide a basis for comparison with the review we’re getting. Still waiting on Abbott and Patrick, who have had the time to talk about plenty of other things in the past week, to say something about this. One might get the impression it’s not that important to them, since if it were they would have said something about it by now.

Posted in: School days.

Let’s cooperate on animal welfare

Yes to this.

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett called Tuesday for a summit of county and Houston city leaders, along with animal welfare organizations, to address the region’s “outrageous” problem with stray animals.

While the details are still being developed, Emmett said one focus would be better collaboration between Harris County, which focuses primarily on unincorporated areas despite having a shelter located inside the city limits, and the city of Houston.

Last month, Harris County shelter employees drew criticism for apparently refusing to pick up and euthanize a German shepherd mix that lay dying from a gunshot wound across the street from the facility because it was not in the county’s jurisdiction.

“I’m going to try and call everybody together, get everybody in one room and say ‘What do we really need to be doing here’ so we’re more coordinated,” Emmett said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner “looks forward to hearing from Judge Emmett,” said Janice Evans, a spokeswoman for Evans. She said the city and county have successfully worked together on road projects, including Precinct 1 Commissioner Gene Locke’s plan to invest up to $45 million in city roads that fall within his precinct.

“It’s probably worth exploring similar arrangements for other areas,” Evans said.

The city and county shelters run at or above capacity almost every day. The county shelter takes in some 23,000 animals each year from unincorporated areas while the city shelter accepts 25,000 to 27,000. Both generally only take in animals from their respective jurisdictions, though both also report making exceptions, especially when an animal is sick or injured.

On most occasions, people are asked to take an animal to the appropriate shelter. Sometimes they don’t, choosing to dump animals near one shelter rather than drive the seven miles to get to the other.

There are things that the city and county do separately that make sense to do separately, and there are things they do separately that really ought to be done jointly. This is a clear examplae of the latter. There’s probably some savings to be had, but more importantly it’s about delivering the service more effectively. If you’re dropping off an animal at a shelter, you shouldn;t have to figure out if you’re inside city limits or not. Kudos to Judge Emmett for pursuing this. I feel confident that Mayor Turner will be willing to work with him on it.

Posted in: Local politics.

Friday random ten: Ladies’ night, part 13

Turns out there are a lot of girl names that begin with the letter E.

1. Oklahoma Home – Elana James
2. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Eliza Lumley
3. Freight Train – Elizabeth Cotton
4. A Little Luck – Elizabeth Daily
5. Sleigh Ride – Ella Fitzgerald
6. Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King
7. Moments In The Woods – Emily Blunt (from “Into the Woods”)
8. Must Have Been A Mighty Day – Emily Hurd
9. Atta Blues – Emily Wolfe
10. Gold – Emmylou Harris

A good blogger would have something clever to say about at least one of these songs and/or singers. Today I am not that blogger. Have a nice weekend, y’all.

Posted in: Music.

Lyceum: Trump 39, Clinton 32

From the Texas Lyceum, another single-digit poll result.

If the U.S. presidential election were held today, ballot tests show a tighter race at the top of the ticket in deep red Texas than recent history would suggest, according to independent poll results released today by the Texas Lyceum, the nonprofit, nonpartisan premier statewide leadership group.

Among likely voters, GOP nominee Donald Trump leads Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by just 7 points, 39 – 32 percent among likely voters. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson polls at 9 percent and Green Party Candidate Jill Stein garners 3 percent in the trial ballot.

Among registered voters, Clinton trails Trump by only 1-point in the 4-way race, and holds a surprising 4-point lead over Trump in a two-way trial ballot, not including Johnson and Stein, 39 to 35 percent. (The margin of error among registered voters is +/- 3.34%, n = 862.)
With only six weeks away from early voting, another 17 percent won’t say or don’t know who they would support. (The margin of error among likely voters is +/- 4.37%, n = 502.)

The Lyceum Poll comes one week after the Washington Post / Survey Monkey Poll 50-state poll showing a tight presidential race in Texas with Clinton leading Trump by one point among registered voters in a two-way matchup, not including Johnson and Stein.

“Registered voters are more diverse than the pool of voters who historically show up in Texas elections, but the combination of the slow march of demographic change and Trump’s rhetoric appears to have made Texas’ registered voter pool more Democratic than we have seen in previous presidential races,” said Joshua Blank, Ph.D., Texas Lyceum Research Director.

Split-Ticket Voting Unlikely

With the low favorability ratings of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, many political pundits have speculated about the possibility of increased split-ticket voting, in which voters vote for one party’s candidate at the top of the ticket and another party’s candidate in down ballot races. However, the Texas Lyceum Poll does not find much evidence for this among Texas’ likely voters.

Only 2 percent of Trump supporters, in the two-way trial ballot, say that they’ll vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress, and only two percent say that they’ll vote for a Democratic candidate for the Texas Legislature. Among Clinton supporters, only 6 percent say that they’ll vote for a Republican candidate for Congress, and only 4 percent say that they’ll vote for a Republican candidate for the Texas Legislature.

Texans’ Economic Views Steady

Economic evaluations of Texas’ economy appear to have improved somewhat over last year. Texans aren’t overjoyed about the national and state economy or their own economic situation, but they’re more optimistic.

Looking at personal economic evaluations, the poll asked, “compared to one year ago, are you better off, worse off, or about the same economically?” A majority of Texans (50 percent) say their economic status remains unchanged compared with one year ago and 30 percent say that their personal economic situation is better off (up from 25 percent in 2015), while 19% say they are worse off (down from 23% in 2015).

President Obama and Governor Abbott Enjoy High Job Approval Ratings

Among adult Texans, during his last few months in office President Obama enjoys a high job approval rating (58 percent) in the Texas Lyceum Poll. This result combines those saying that the President is either doing a “very good” or “somewhat good” job as president. Among registered voters, the President’s job approval rating drops by only 2 points to 56%.

As expected, Democrats overwhelmingly approve of the President’s job performance while Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove. Hispanics and African American adults in Texas also give the president high marks, 74 percent and 90 percent respectively, while a majority of Anglos, 63 percent, disapprove of the president’s job performance.

Meanwhile, Governor Abbott maintains a high job approval rating of 61 percent with sharp partisan differences similar to that of the President.

While 88 percent of Republicans hold a favorable view of the job that Abbott has done as governor, only 40 percent of Democrats agree. Abbott’s job approval among racial groups is generally positive, with a majority of Anglos (69 percent), African Americans (51 percent), and Hispanics (53 percent) indicating that the governor is doing a good job — similar to last year’s results.
Methodology

From September 1-11, 2016, The Texas Lyceum conducted a statewide telephone survey of adult citizens. The survey utilized a stratified probability sample design, with respondents being randomly selected at the level of the household. The survey also employed a randomized cell phone supplement, with 40 percent of completed interviews being conducted among cell phone only or cell phone dominant households. A Spanish-language instrument was developed and bilingual interviewers offered respondents a chance to participate in English or Spanish. On average, respondents completed the interview in 19 minutes. Approximately 6,100 records were drawn to yield 1,000 completed interviews. The final data set is weighted by race/ethnicity, age and gender to achieve representativeness as defined by the Texas Department State Health Services 2016 population projections. The overall margin of error for the poll is +/- 3.1 percentage points.

The executive summary is here, toplines and question wording is here, crosstabs are here. There was also an issues-based poll released the day before, which I’ll touch on later, for which the press release is here, the executive summary is here, and the toplines are here. The “who do you support for President?” question is really two questions, with RV and LV results for each. Here’s how that all looks:

Q8A. If the 2016 election for president were held today, would you vote for [RANDOMIZE] the
Republican ticket of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, the Democratic ticket of Hillary Clinton and
Tim Kaine, or haven’t you thought enough about it?


(Among likely voters: n = 502, MOE +/- 4.37%)

1. Trump/Pence                     42%
2. Clinton/Kaine                   36
3. Haven’t thought enough about it 15
4. DON’T KNOW / REFUSED / NA        6

(Among registered: n = 862, MOE +/- 3.34%)

1. Trump/Pence                     35%
2. Clinton/Kaine                   39
3. Haven’t thought enough about it 18
4. DON’T KNOW / REFUSED / NA        8

Q8B. And what if the candidates were [RANDOMIZE] the Republican ticket of Donald Trump and Mike
Pence, the Democratic ticket of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, the Libertarian ticket of Gary
Johnson and Bill Weld, the Green Party ticket of Jill Stein, or haven’t you thought enough about it?


(Among likely voters: n = 502, MOE +/- 4.37%)

1. Trump/Pence                                39%
2. Clinton/Kaine                              32
3. Johnson/Weld                                9
4. Stein                                       3
5. Haven’t thought enough about it/Don’t know 14
6. DON’T KNOW / REFUSED / NA                   3

(Among registered: n = 862, MOE +/- 3.34%)

1. Trump/Pence                                30%
2. Clinton/Kaine                              29
3. Johnson/Weld                               10
4. Stein                                       3
5. Haven’t thought enough about it/Don’t know 24
6. DON’T KNOW / REFUSED / NA                   3

Not sure why there’s a seemingly redundant “Don’t know” option with the “Haven’t thought enough about it” response in Q8B, but whatever. The two points to take home from this are that 1) yet another poll shows a single-digit difference between Trump and Clinton, and this is true in all race combinations, and 2) lower-propensity voters tip the race into tossup status, suggesting that higher turnout really would benefit Democrats. The question about crossover voting suggests that at least in this sample, there aren’t that many Republicans voting for Clinton, though there are more of them than there are Democrats voting for Trump. This is borne out by the crosstabs, which also shows that the “Haven’t thought enough about it” crowd is fairly evenly split among Dems, Republicans, and indies. Some previous polls, like the Beatty poll, suggested that Trump’s lower numbers came primarily from lack of Republican support. There is some evidence of that here, in the slightly higher rate of Republican support for Clinton, which is still in the six percent range, but there is a proportionate share of uncommitted voters across the spectrum. Point being, both Trump and Clinton have the potential to grow. We’re going to need a lot more polls in October to really get a feel for how this will wind up.

One more thing about the crosstabs: Clinton wins the under-45 crowd, by a lot with the under-35 cohort, while losing (by 10-12 points) the 45+ age group. A change is coming, even if it isn’t here yet.

As for the issues poll, there’s something there for everyone. Here’s a bullet-point list from the press release I got:

· A majority of Texans (59 percent) oppose GOP nominee Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to try to stop illegal immigration.

· Texans continue to believe that immigration is the number one issue facing the state, but a plurality of Texas adults (45 percent) also say that immigration helps the U.S. more than it hurts.

· Texas adults oppose (51 percent) a ban on immigration from countries with a history of terrorism against the West.

· When asked broadly, Texans (74 percent) believe that requiring an ID at the polls in order to vote is a good idea.

· Texas adults are inclined to think that transgender students should use the public school facilities that match their birth gender (54 percent), but with sharp partisan and age divides.

· Texans’ attitudes about Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act remain unchanged since 2013, with a plurality (49 percent) preferring to keep Medicaid as is.

· A majority of African American, Texas adults (51 percent) say they’ve had a specific instance in which they’ve felt discriminated against by the police because of their racial background, compared to 23 percent of Hispanics and 6 percent of Anglos.

· Texans believe that ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft should be regulated like taxis, and, by a slim margin, that this regulation should take place at the local level – not in the Texas Legislature.

· The economy remains the most important issue facing the country, with national security/terrorism jumping to number two, followed by immigration.

Compare that to the priorities and agenda of the Republicans for the 2017 Legislature, and you may think that maybe they’re just a tad bit out of sync with the population at large. Of course, it’s the population that votes that matters, and among that crowd there are still a significant number of people who disagree with Republicans on a broad range of issues but vote for them anyway. That may be because they do agree with them more strongly on some other issues, it may be because they don’t care for the alternatives or in the case of legislative races don’t have any alternatives, it may be because they don’t know enough about where various candidates stand on issues, it may be because of habit and comfort, or it may be for any number of other reasons. Whatever the case, that’s the challenge. As I keep saying, nothing will change until the people who get elected change.

Posted in: The making of the President.

More on the pension deal

The full version of the Chron story adds a lot of detail.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Under the tentative deal, the funds would assume more realistic investment returns – 7 percent rather than 8 percent to 8.5 percent – and would recognize all recent market losses on their books at once. The city also would erase the plans’ underfunding within 30 years and make its full annual payment to all three funds.

These changes would help ensure the pension problem does not linger for decades to come, but they first make the hole deeper, increasing the underfunding to $7.7 billion.

To dig back out of the hole created by more realistic funding calculations, Turner asked the funds to reduce benefits enough to slash the underfunding by roughly a third, or $2.5 billion. That would put the unfunded liability at about $5.2 billion.

Turner stressed that he has left it up to each pension fund to decide how precisely to adjust benefits to achieve those cost reductions.

However, he said there is no way to achieve meaningful reform without reducing annual cost-of-living increases for retirees, workers and new hires, and changing the city’s deferred option retirement program, or DROP, which lets current workers eligible for retirement stay on the job and earn a salary while accruing the pension payments they would have received in retirement, with interest.

He also said employees would need to contribute more of their paychecks toward their pensions.

To further reduce the funding gap, Turner plans to issue at least $1 billion in bonds and invest three quarters of the money into the police pension fund and the remaining quarter into the municipal pension fund. The idea, common among governments with pension shortfalls but also deeply controversial among finance experts, is that the city would pay less interest on these so-called pension obligation bonds – say, between 3 percent and 4.5 percent – than it would pay at the pensions’ new 7 percent assumed rate of return.

Turner said this would lower the city’s pension payments so that the combination of funding retiree benefits, paying down past underfunding and paying down the pension bonds would cost the city the same amount it is paying today.

Arnold Foundation pension expert Josh McGee said he thinks the plan is a step in the right direction, but he worried about issuing so much in pension bonds.

“Pension obligation bonds are troubling, especially pension obligation bonds of this size, $1 billion,” McGee said.

If the interest the city must pay on the bonds exceeds the investment returns on their proceeds, McGee said, “you could end up in a situation where you cost the city more than if you’d just paid the money into the pension plan over time.”

The Government Finance Officers Association and the Society of Actuaries both oppose the use of pension obligation bonds.

Houston still has roughly $600 million in pension debt outstanding from former Mayor Bill White’s 2004 reforms that sought to shore up the funding while cutting benefits for new hires.

See here for yesterday’s post. We are still awaiting the specifics, and just because there is a plan doesn’t mean it will work out the way we want it to. The contingencies for when things don’t go as expected will be crucial. This is still a big step forward, one that has been very elusive in the past. I look forward to the council discussion when Mayor Turner brings it all to them. Campos has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Who’s afraid of Uber’s driverless car test?

Transportation safety officials, at least some of them.

Uber

Uber’s decision to bring self-driving taxis to the streets of Pittsburgh this week is raising alarms among a swath of safety experts who say that the technology is not nearly ready for prime time.

The unprecedented experiment will launch even though Pennsylvania has yet to pass basic laws that permit the testing of self-driving cars or rules that would govern what would happen in a crash. Uber is also not required to pass along any data from its vehicles to regulators.

Meanwhile, researchers note, autonomous cars have been thrown off by bridges, a particular problem in Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other major U.S. city.

“They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”

But advocates of autonomous vehicles say that the technology might never have happened if companies had to wait for governments to pass rules first. With nearly 37,000 Americans dying in car crashes every year, largely because of driver errors, technologists have stressed the critical need to push forward on testing driverless cars on public roads.

[…]

[Roger Cohen, policy director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation] and Bryant Walker Smith, an autonomous-vehicle expert at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, are both comfortable with the tests because of the safety drivers. Still, they acknowledged that doesn’t mean it will be collision-free. “You’re not going to have perfection. There is going to be trial and error, and it’s not going to be problem free,” Cohen said.

Even so, the effort is raising concern from safety experts who say the technology has major limitations that can be very dangerous. Self-driving cars have trouble seeing in bad weather. Sudden downpours, snow and especially puddles make it difficult for autonomous vehicles to detect lines on pavement and thereby stay in one lane.

Walker Smith added that self-driving cars have sometimes confused bridges for other obstacles. “People need to understand both the potential and the limitations of these systems, and inviting them inside is part of that education,” he said.

The vehicles also have difficulty understanding human gestures — for example, a crosswalk guard in front of a local elementary school may not be understood, said Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, at a Senate hearing in March. She recommended that the vehicles not be allowed to operate near schools.

Then there’s a the human factor: Researchers have shown that people like to test and prank robots. Today, a GPS jammer, which some people keep in their trunks to block police from tracking them, will easily throw off a self-driving car’s ability to sense where it is, Cummings said.

For perspective, autonomous vehicles in Google’s fleet have driven just shy of 2 million miles as of Aug. 31. New York City taxicabs drive 1.4 million miles in just over a day, Cummings said. Uber declined to reveal how many miles its driverless cars have logged on public roads but said it will be testing Ford Fusions there, then Volvos. The program will be opt-in, with a select group of Uber customers getting an email asking if they want to participate. Both vehicles have been vetted on test tracks in Pittsburgh, the company said.

See here for some background. We’ll get some data on the safety question one way or the other, and while I’m wary of this it is important to remember that the point of comparison is not “no problems at all” but “the amount of problems one would expect with human drivers instead of robot drivers”. These things could experience some problems and still be an improvement in safety. Or not – like I said, we’ll find out. I’m more interested in the rider experience. How many of Uber’s customers that they have invited to give this a try will do so? What will they think, and how many of them will want to do it again? How will the people who aren’t invited to try this feel about it – jealous, relieved, something else? I can’t wait to hear the answers.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

ACC makes it three

So long, North Carolina.

Just two days after the NCAA announced they were moving scheduled tournaments out of North Carolina in protest of the state’s anti-LGBTQ House Bill 2, the Atlantic Coast Conference—which includes North Carolina’s biggest Division I programs like Duke, UNC, NC State, and Wake Forest—announced it would also relocate several of their conference championships elsewhere.

“As members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the ACC Council of Presidents reaffirmed our collective commitment to uphold the values of equality, diversity, inclusion and non-discrimination,” ACC officials said in a statement. “Every one of our 15 universities is strongly committed to these values and therefore, we will continue to host ACC Championships at campus sites. We believe North Carolina House Bill 2 is inconsistent with these values, and as a result, we will relocate all neutral site championships for the 2016–17 academic year.”

That includes the ACC football championship game, which has been played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte since 2010. In February 2014, the conference announced a deal to keep the football championship game in Charlotte through 2019. Men’s basketball, the ACC’s other preeminent sport, held its conference tournament in Washington, D.C. in 2016 and is scheduled to hold the tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next March. It was last held in North Carolina in 2015.

[…]

“It’s embarassing for our state, and it’s cost our state immense money and jobs,” said longtime Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “But even more so, it’s hurt our image.” When asked on Tuesday if he hoped the ACC would follow the NCAA’s lead, he told Bloomberg Markets that he “hoped that they would.”

Duke Athletics Director Kevin White also issued a statement on Monday after the NCAA’s announcement, saying on behalf of the university that “we agree with the NCAA’s decision. Our position has been clear on this matter, which is that this legislation is discriminatory, troubling and embarrassing.”

This follows the NCAA’s decision to relocate all its 2016-17 championship games from North Carolina, which in turn followed the NBA’s decision to move the 2017 All-Star Game. You can whine about this all you like, but you can’t say you couldn’t have seen it coming. If Texas Republicans follow suit next year, they will have made the conscious decision to sacrifice these kind of events – and there’s more, of the non-sporting variety, where these came from – in the name of discrimination. Won’t that burnish our reputation as a “business-friendly” climate? The choice is theirs.

Posted in: Other sports.

Mayor Turner announces pension fund deal

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Negotiators for the City, the Houston Police Officers’ Pension System, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund and the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System have developed Preliminary Points of Understanding on a structural approach to long term, sustainable, defined benefit pension reform. Detailed formal plans continue to be developed and will need to be presented to the governing bodies of the three pension systems, City Council and the state legislature for approval.

“This reform accomplishes the objectives I set at the beginning of this process,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “The plan I am outlining today immediately reduces and later eliminates the unfunded pension liability, controls costs going forward, allows us to retain employees and allows us to present to the state legislature a much more united front. It is a budget neutral, 30-year fixed payoff plan that includes significant cost avoidance from what the City would need to pay in the absence of reform. No other plan does this and takes the issue off the table permanently. We will have fully funded, secure, sustainable and affordable defined benefit pension plans that our employees can rely on and our taxpayers will find fiscally responsible.”

With implementation of the changes, the City’s unfunded pension liability immediately drops by $2.5 billion and continues dropping for the next 30 years, at which time it will be paid off. This approach replaces the present practice of restructuring the liability every year with a 30-year closed amortization model that is a pension best practice and a requirement of the City’s financial policies. Just like a fixed rate consumer mortgage, the liability will be paid off at the end of 30 years.

To substantially reduce risk related to market performance and in keeping with the national trend for pension systems, the assumed rate of return on pension investments will be reduced to 7%.

To further stabilize the pension funds, the City will be required to make the full annual contribution to all three pension systems. Payroll contribution rates will be fixed over the 30-year period, providing more predictable budgeting. The proposal cuts the City’s annual obligation to a manageable level and, most important, is budget-neutral while significantly reducing what the City would need to pay to cover the full annual contribution without reforms.

The plan also employs $1 billion in pension obligation bonds for funds that have not received the full annual required contribution from the City in recent years. This will increase the City’s debt, but earnings from pension investments are anticipated to more than offset the borrowing costs.

To ensure the City does not find itself in the same place again, there is a cost-management component. If future market changes cause costs to exceed specified limits, the City and the pension systems will return to the negotiating table to work out adjustments to bring costs back in line. Mayor Turner characterizes this as a cost management corridor that contains a thermostat that must be kept at a set temperature. The thermostat concept is the only point on which all of the parties lack unity. The police and municipal pension systems have gotten comfortable with it, but the firefighter pension system has not, so far. Talks are continuing.

“These points of preliminary understanding are historic in nature because of how impactful they are,” said Mayor Turner. “I have discussed them with numerous stakeholders and key members of the state legislature. The response has been very positive. To my knowledge, no other city in the nation has crafted a plan that addresses the problem in quite the same way. We have a way to solve our pension issues for good, and our approach can serve as a model for other cities.”

There will be changes in employee benefits. They are different for each pension system but, basically, will affect one or more of the following: cost of living adjustments, future benefit accrual rates and the DROP program. More details will be forthcoming once the finer points of negotiation are finalized and the governing bodies of the pension systems consider these agreements.

“These changes are being made in a manner that minimizes the impact on the thousands of police, fire and municipal workers eligible to retire today,” said Turner. “We must retain these employees to continue to serve the residents of this city. I appreciate the pension system representatives who have recognized the status quo must change and have been willing to move away from previously held fixed and non-negotiable positions. The pension systems have also shared more data than ever before and are committed to continue working on the right way to share the data we need to manage our costs going forward. There is still much work to be done, and I know there will be disagreements along the way, but we have come so far since we first began talking seven months ago.”

Mayor Turner has never wavered from his promise to accomplish pension reform while still maintaining defined benefit plans. However, he did have his financial analysts study implementation of defined contribution plans. They found that option would increase immediate costs and provide no financial relief for at least 30 years.

This contribution from City employees is step one of the shared sacrifice model Mayor Turner is asking everyone to help with. He does not expect City employees to shoulder the entire burden. Once pensions are fixed, he intends to ask voters to repeal the revenue cap that handicaps the City’s ability to keep up with the needs of a growing population. No other governmental body in the state has such a restraint.

“I took this job knowing that our City faced difficult public policy challenges,” said Turner. “I promised pothole repairs in record time, and we delivered. We followed that achievement by closing Houston’s biggest budget gap since the Great Recession. We delivered a budget built on sustainable, recurring improvements, and it was adopted by City Council unanimously and in record time. Now, we bring you a solution to Houston’s pension challenge that meets the needs of our City, its employees and its taxpayers. To all concerned, I say you can trust this solution to deliver on our promise of pensions that protect our employees’ retirement security while remaining affordable and sustainable for the City and its taxpayers”

The proposed pension reforms announced today have been discussed with numerous stakeholders and key members of the state legislature with very positive results.

The annoucement of the press conference for this came out just after midnight last night. ABC’s Miya Shay posted news of it on Facebook a couple of hours before then. The actual press release shown above hit may mailbox at 3:45 PM. As the Chron story notes, representatives of the police and municipal employees’ pension funds were there, but no one from the firefighters’ pension fund was in attendance. This press release, which I received maybe ten minutes after the one above, explains why:

The Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (“the Fund”) is continuing to work with the City of Houston, but as yet, no agreement has yet been reached on adjustments to the Fund’s current plan “We have discussed economic changes that would fit within the guidelines set forth by the Mayor. We have also presented issues that are important to us. However, no resolution has been made,” says David Keller, the Fund’s Chairman.

“This has been a challenging process for numerous and various reasons along the way. The HFRRF became the strongest of the three Houston pension funds and one of the most successful in the State by careful deliberation and due diligence. We have been applying the same approach here. Every adjustment proposed was considered based on the impact it would have on the various populations of the membership.”

The Fund began discussions with the City of Houston with the purpose of helping to shape reforms rather than having them imposed by the Legislature. It is the Fund’s goal to resolve issues with no threat to the earned benefits to Houston firefighters. The Fund believes these benefits are part of the total compensation of its members.

The statutes that govern the Fund are thorough and reasonable, employing a sound formula that determines contributions and solid funding. The Fund is one of the best funded public pension plans in the State of Texas. The City of Houston pays only about 20% of the cost of benefits going to retired firefighters with the remaining 80% or so coming from the Fund’s investments over the long term of the Fund’s existence and the firefighters’ own contributions to the Fund.

Still a few things to be worked out, I guess. Even without that, there are still plenty of details to be filled in about how this will work and what legislation will be needed to enable it. As for the pension obligation bonds, Mayor White floated some of them while in office. It would be nice to know whether the experts think that was a good idea or not. In this case, interest rates are sure to be lower than they were then, and this time there will be an overall plan in place for paying down the long-term liability. If this is everything Mayor Turner claims it is, and if all three funds and the Legislature are on board, it’s a huge win and a big item to cross off his to-do list. As always, the devil is in the details, and we’re waiting on those. But it sure does sound promising.

Posted in: Local politics.

ECPS: Trump 42, Clinton 36

Another state poll result to add to the list.

A new Emerson College poll in Texas, which has long been a Republican stronghold, shows Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton by only 6 points (42% to 36%), with 10% of respondents voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson, 6% for the Green Party’s Jill Stein and 6% undecided. Trump’s lead is within the poll’s 3.6% margin of error. The poll was completed before Clinton announced she had been diagnosed with pneumonia.

As a point of comparison, in the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney soundly defeated Barack Obama by 16 points in the Lone Star State (57% to 41%). Texas has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat GOP incumbent Gerald Ford.

Trump is having mixed success winning over voters who supported Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the state’s GOP primary last March. In the Emerson poll, 76% of Cruz voters plan to vote for Trump in November, while 10% support Johnson, 6% are unsure, and the remaining 7% are split between Stein and Clinton. Cruz won the Texas GOP primary, beating Trump 44% to 27%. Clinton is struggling to win over voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the Texas Democratic primary. Only 49% of Sanders supporters plan to vote for Clinton in November; 21% say they will vote for Stein.

Trump is winning the Independent vote 36% to 19% over Clinton, with Stein taking 16% and Johnson 15%. However, it appears Johnson is hurting Trump more than Clinton, taking 12% of registered Republican voters and 15% of Independents while only winning 3% of registered Democrats.

The text above is taken from the ECPS homepage, where you can also download an XLS with poll data. The top link is to a press release with more details than what I quoted above, but it was formatted in a funky way that made copying nearly impossible. The ECPS did poll Texas in 2014, though theirs was one of the least accurate results. It was in March, for what that’s worth, but they were way off. The Libertarian/Green numbers are quite a bit higher than they were in the PPP poll, but that’s the only point of comparison we have. The one thing we can say is that this is consistent with other results showing a less-than-usual-size lead for Trump. The Texas Lyceum has poll numbers coming out today, so we’ll see where they fit in. Link via The Hill.

Posted in: The making of the President.

Patrick whines about NCAA decision to pull events from North Carolina

Poor baby.

RedEquality

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized the NCAA on Tuesday for its decision to pull seven of its championship events from the state of North Carolina.

The action came after North Carolina passed a law regulating the use of restrooms by transgender people. The bill also excluded gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide antidiscrimination protections.

“The NCAA is attempting to be politically correct,” Patrick said in a statement in response to an inquiry. “This issue has nothing to do with discrimination. What about a woman’s right to privacy and security in a ladies’ bathroom, locker room or shower? What about male sexual predators — the ones who use the internet to go after children — who will use such policies as a means to enter a women’s dressing room, as we have seen.

“This is an issue of common sense, common decency and security for women of all ages. The overwhelming majority of Americans understand this issue even if the NCAA doesn’t.”

In the interviews with reporters in April and May, Patrick has called for the Texas Legislature to possibly consider a bill similar to the one enacted in North Carolina when it returns in January 2017.

During an appearance on KERA-FM (90.1) in May, Patrick said any sort of backlash was “fear-mongering,” citing Houston’s experience with the men’s Final Four and business after voting down an anti-discrimination measure.

But that was before the NCAA took a much harder line on such measures, especially regarding LGBT issues.

Texas is scheduled to host a number of high-profile NCAA events. The women’s Final Four is set for April 2017 at American Airlines Center. San Antonio is scheduled to host the men’s Final Four in 2018. The FCS national title game is locked into Frisco through 2020.

See here for the background. It’s fine that Patrick doesn’t like this action. He’s as entitled to criticize it as I am to cheer it. The reason he’s whining is because it clearly contradicts any claims he has made or will make that passing an anti-LGBT law in the 2017 legislative session will have no negative effect on Texas. The NCAA’s announcement about North Carolina, and especially its stated reasons for its announcement, puts the lie to that, in a way that even the likes of Dan Patrick can’t spin. I seriously doubt this will dissuade him or his compatriots, but it does make the politics harder for them. That’s what he really doesn’t like.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 12

The Texas Progressive Alliance has a secret plan to ask someone else for a plan to bring you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Hearing on voter ID outreach set for Monday

Once more into the breech, to see if the state needs to get slapped down again.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas officials will be back in federal court next week to defend the state’s voter ID law, this time against accusations that they have failed to comply with judge-ordered changes for the November election.

Monday’s hearing comes at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, which filed a complaint last week arguing that Texas was misleading voters and poll workers about acceptable voting procedures and who will be eligible to cast a ballot on Nov. 8.

Obama administration lawyers say Texas is violating U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos’ Aug. 10 order requiring state officials accept a wider array of identification — and spend at least $2.5 million informing voters of the changes — after a federal appeals court ruled that the Republican-favored voter ID law, enacted in 2011, discriminated against minority voters.

“That order is of limited use if Texas refuses to train poll workers and educate voters accurately on its plain language and scope,” Justice Department lawyers told Ramos in the complaint.

[…]

The latest legal fight revolves around language that Texas adopted to comply with Ramos’ order.

Instead of focusing on opportunities to vote, Texas adopted language saying only those with a government-issued ID or those who “have not obtained” such identification were eligible to vote, the Justice Department argued. The instructions are needlessly restrictive and would require poll officials to reject eligible voters, including those whose ID was lost or stolen and those who had to surrender identification to the state, the agency said.

In a court filing late Monday, Paxton said the language adopted by the state recognizes that Ramos ordered changes that allow registered voters to cast a regular ballot if they can demonstrate an impediment or difficulty in obtaining a government-issued ID.

“Individuals who have an acceptable form of ID but left it at home — or who choose not to show it, even if they have one — are not the intended beneficiaries of the court’s order,” Paxton told Ramos.

See here for the background. The state’s argument is certainly one way to interpret the court’s order, and as we have seen similar language has been used by at least some County Clerks, including Stan Stanart here in Harris County. It’s not the only possible interpretation, and taking such a view would seem to put local election officials as well as election judges in the position of cross-examining voters – “Are you SURE you don’t have a drivers’ license? I’m not sure I believe you” – which I trust you’ll agree opens a can of worms that would be best left unopened. The number of people who are temporarily without an accepted form of ID due to loss or theft or whatever, whom the plaintiffs argue are covered by the judge’s order, is likely small. The number of people who really do own an accepted piece of ID but who forget (or “forget”) to bring it with them to the polls is likely even smaller. I don’t see why we should worry about the latter group, especially if it is at the cost of the former. We’ll see what the judge says.

And speaking of Stan Stanart:

Monday’s hearing, set to begin at 5 p.m. in Ramos’ Corpus Christi courtroom, also will include a separate complaint filed by civil rights groups, political leaders and others claiming that Paxton and Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart have tried to intimidate voters by promising to pursue perjury charges against anybody who lies on the declaration by stating that they do not have a government-issued ID.

You can see that separate complaint here. The plaintiffs argue that the state has not responded in any way to Stanart’s comments, thus endorsing them. The concern they voice is that in the absence of any response from the state, such statements could “turn this Court’s remedy into a threat, and the right to vote in upcoming elections into a snare and a delusion”. The Lone Star Project has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Some officials take note of special education funding restrictions

It’s a start.

The vice chairman of the State Board of Education, a Houston school board member, a key state senator and scores of parents and disability advocates all expressed strong opposition on Monday to a Texas Education Agency performance-based monitoring system that has kept thousands of disabled children out of special education since 2004.

[…]

Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who is the second-highest-ranking member of the State Board of Education, expressed dismay at TEA’s 8.5 percent special education target.

“It looks awfully arbitrary and in no way mirrors reality,” he said. “The concentric circles of damage that this has done I think is immeasurable at this point.”

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, called the issue an “utmost priority.”

“We have a constitutional duty and a moral obligation to provide all Texas children with the services that are required to ensure that every student can thrive academically,” said Lucio, D-Brownsville, echoing statements made by several of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature. “By urging schools to limit the number of students they enroll in special education services, our state is turning its back on students that need our help the most.”

[…]

Gene Acuña, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency, declined further comment. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus also declined comment.

Previously, former Gov. Rick Perry, during whose administration the 8.5 percent enrollment target was first put in place, declined to discuss the monitoring system.

In Washington, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman confirmed that her office was ready to take action, if needed, to ensure that children with disabilities get services.

“We are looking into it,” she said.

See here for the background. The headline on the story is “Officials vow to end limits put on special ed”, but let’s be honest. Until at least two of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Joe Straus make that vow, nothing is going to happen. Those three, as well as Rick “Dancing Terribly With The Stars” Perry, should not be allowed to “no comment” their way out of this for more than a few days, too. I greatly admire what the Chron has done with this story, but they need to call those three’s offices every day until they have some answers. The other news outlets in this state are more than welcome to get in on that action as well. In the meantime, I hope there’s more to report on, and I definitely hope to hear of some followup from the US Department of Education soon.

Posted in: School days.

Publisher of crappy Mexican American Studies textbook defends said textbook

It’s not that crappy, she swears.

The publisher of a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook that scholars, elected officials and Hispanic activists have decried as racist and inaccurate is defending the high school text ahead of a public hearing on the book Tuesday before the Texas State Board of Education.

“There’s never been a book in the history of SBOE that’s been attacked so prematurely in the process,” said Cynthia Dunbar, a former right-wing Republican member of the education board who now heads the educational curriculum company that produced the textbook.

The text, titled Mexican American Heritage and published by Momentum Instruction, was the only submission the board received after it issued a call in 2015 for textbooks to be used in Mexican-American studies classes at the high school level. The powerful 15-member panel sets statewide curriculum and approves textbooks.

[…]

Dunbar, who had not previously responded to interview requests, told The Texas Tribune on Monday that criticisms have been overblown and that most of them are based on a draft copy that her company has since revised. Changes include corrections of at least a few factual errors — one identified by an SBOE-appointed review board — and other tweaks in response to public feedback. The passage that implied that Mexican-American laborers are lazy has been “clarified,” Dunbar said, while contending that critics took that particular bit out of context.

“It exposed a racial bias stereotyped against them,” she said, noting that the review board found that the book totally met state curriculum standards.

“The point is there’s no hidden agenda here,” she added.

See here and here for some background. It’s nice that Dunbar says the book has undergone revisions and fixed some errors since it first appeared, but Dunbar has a long history of saying and doing ugly things, so her credibility isn’t very high. I’ll wait to hear from someone more trustworthy before I believe there’s any merit to her publication. In the meantime, the advice of rejecting this book and (one hopes) getting other groups to write them remains sound. See this open letter from SBOE member Marisa Perez for more.

The good news is that there doesn’t appear to be any support for adopting this textbook.

Hundreds of Hispanic advocates, activists, students and elected officials from across the state on Tuesday called on the Texas Board of Education to reject a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook they blasted as blatantly racist and which many scholars have deemed historically inaccurate.

The 15-member education board took public input on the text during an hours-long public hearing at which some of the panel’s Republican members criticized the Legislature for diminishing the education board’s power to vet textbooks.

The panel will vote to accept or reject the text in November, when it will hold a second public hearing.

[…]

Ruben Cortez Jr., D-Brownsville, who was so concerned about the text that he convened an ad-hoc committee of scholars and educators to review it, said he believes a supermajority of his colleagues will vote to reject it. (A report his committee unveiled last week found that the text is littered with errors.) Meanwhile, Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, described the text Tuesday as “dead on arrival” and board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said he has “real concerns” about it.

Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, kicked off the public hearing with a heartfelt message dedicated to “Mexican-American colleagues, friends and neighbors,” assuring them that the board is committed to approving accurate instructional materials that adequately reflect their major role in U.S. society.

“Your story is part of the American story,” she said. “Everyone deserves to have their story told in a fair and accurate manner.”

Several Republican board members criticized Texas legislators on Tuesday for passing laws over the years that have diminished the panel’s authority to decide what textbooks local school districts use. And they warned that their weakened oversight could mean the proliferation of even more controversial instructional material.

They pointed specifically to legislation approved in 2011 that allowed school districts to choose textbooks that haven’t been approved by the board as long as they can show their instructional materials cover state curriculum standards. (Senate Bill 6, passed in the wake of a raucous, high-profile debate over social studies curriculum in which members of the board’s since-diminished social conservative block — including Dunbar — grabbed national headlines for their extreme comments.)

David Bradley, R-Beaumont, and other board members complained repeatedly Tuesday that the law allows for publishers to peddle problematic textbooks directly to school districts. He and former board chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, asked Democratic Hispanic lawmakers who addressed the board if they’d be willing to reconsider those parameters.

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, acknowledged that “legislation has a history of unintended consequences and this very well may be a case.”The Senate Education Committee is “looking at everything including this issue you’re bringing up,” state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who is a member of that panel, told the board.

But Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was not to “re-litigate” old legislation but discuss whether the text should be allowed in Texas classrooms.

“Not only does this book not belong in the classroom, it doesn’t deserve the attention it’s getting now,” he said.

I agree, but at least all the attention has accomplished one thing, and that’s the real need for a much better textbook. Let’s hope the next time around we get more than one possible candidates for that.

Posted in: School days.

City loses in appeal against firefighters’ pension statute

Here’s a pension fund-related litigation update for you.

Houston can’t overhaul a state-governed firefighter pension system that the mayor claims is pushing the city towards insolvency, a Texas appeals court ruled.

Houston sued the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund in January 2014, seeking a declaration that a state law setting how the fund is operated, and giving the city no control over the amount of its contributions, is unconstitutional.

The city paid $350 million in pensions to firefighters, police and city workers in 2015, but its unfunded pension debt is $6 billion and growing.

A state judge sided with the fund in May 2014 and granted it summary judgment.

The city appealed, pressing its argument that the subject state law, passed in 1997, gives too much power to the pension fund’s board that is comprised of a majority of firefighters who are beneficiaries of the fund, and thus are inherently self-interested in maximizing firefighter pension benefits to the detriment of the city’s financial health.

The 10-member board is made up of six active or retired firefighter fund members who are elected by other firefighters, the mayor or an appointed representative of the mayor, the city treasurer and two citizens who are elected by the other trustees.

Houston claimed on appeal the state law violates the separation-of-powers principle in the Texas Constitution by delegating authority to a nonlegislative entity, the fund board.

The city cited Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Fund v. Lewellen. In that case, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that a foundation established by the Texas Legislature to exterminate boll weevils that were threatening to destroy the Texas cotton industry unconstitutionally gave too much authority to the foundation to tax private farmers to pay for weevil killing.

But the 14th Texas Court of Appeals decided Thursday that the boll weevil foundation is fundamentally different from the pension fund board because the board includes public employees.

“The purpose of that [boll weevil eradication] foundation may be construed as protecting a private industry from a blight, albeit with an indirect benefit to the public. In contrast, eight of the 10 trustees of the fund’s board are current or retired public employees…We would have difficulty classifying the board as a private entity when the mayor and city treasurer also serve as trustees in order to administer benefits to public employees,” Judge John Donovan wrote for a three-judge panel.

The panel also rebuffed Houston’s argument that the state law is unconstitutional because it only applies to incorporated municipalities with a population of at least 1.6 million and a fully paid fire department. Houston is the only Texas city that qualifies.

The city claims the special treatment violates the Texas Constitution’s ban on the Legislature meddling in local affairs.

But the appeals court agreed with the fund’s contentions that Houston is uniquely dangerous for firefighters compared to the other four big cities in Texas—Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso—so sweeter pension terms are necessary to attract and retain firefighters.

See here for the background, and here for the ruling. There have been multiple lawsuits related in one way or another to the firefighters’ pension fund; it’s hard to keep track of them all because they go multiple months without any news. The city could appeal this to the Supreme Court, but I don’t think they will, for two reasons. One is that I doubt they’ll get a different outcome, and two is that while this lawsuit was filed by the Parker administration, the Turner administration has a much less contentious relationship with the firefighters, and is working on a pension fund deal with them. It would be a show of good faith, if not a bargaining chip, for the city to quit pursuing this lawsuit, and seek to settle or drop any other ongoing litigation for which the HFRRF is an opponent. The Chron story says the city “continues to believe the state statute is unconstitutional because it allows the firefighters’ pension fund to determine contribution levels”, and that the city intends to “seek further review”. We’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: Woke up this morning, and the following announcement was in my inbox: “Mayor Turner will unveil preliminary points of understanding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, the Houston Police Officers’ Pension System and the Houston Employees Pension System. The proposed plan will form the basis for a package of pension reforms that will be submitted for approval to the governing boards of the pension systems, City Council and the state legislature.” That’s happening today at 2 PM. So maybe this won’t have any effect on the negotiations one way or the other.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The local and state party perspective

This is the flip side of yesterday’s story about the national Democratic campaign opening an office in Houston.

Hillary Clinton

As long-beleaguered Texas Democrats look toward November, they see opportunity in the fallout from Trump’s rhetoric targeting Latinos and women. Surveys have shown Trump leading Clinton by only single digits in Texas.

“There ain’t enough white males in this state for him to win,” Garry Mauro, Texas point person for Clinton’s campaign, proclaimed when Trump breezed through the state last month.

Mauro in a recent interview expanded on his comments, saying he is not predicting a Clinton win so far ahead of the election but highlighting the encouraging political landscape. He sees no divide with party leaders who are focusing on more realistic goals of down-ballot wins and party-building.

“Considering I was the last person to win a statewide race as Democrat, I’m not stupid,” said Mauro, elected to the last of his four terms as land commissioner in 1994, one of a number of Democratic candidates to prevail that year. “But I do believe that it’s the most encouraging I’ve ever seen the numbers look.”

Texas Democratic Party officials think Trump’s campaign has the potential to help inspire their voters, sway independents, depress or switch Republican votes and, thus, help close their gap with the GOP. That can help them up and down the ballot.

They also are realists.

[…]

“We’ve been laser-focused on making sure that we build permanent infrastructure in 2016,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Our mantra is ‘Own your home turf, help mobilize your own community and let’s use 2016 as a real permanent infrastructure development year.'”

That mantra is not sexy, but it is crucial, said Democratic strategist Colin Strother.

The party has failed in the past by hanging its hopes on “gimmicks” and personalities dating back to Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez’s ill-fated effort to unseat then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2002, Strother said. Now, he thinks it is on the right track with its focus on the fundamentals.

“You can be Usain Bolt, but if you don’t tie your tennis shoes, you’re not going to beat anybody,” Strother said.

Building infrastructure means candidate recruitment and training; an aggressive communications strategy rooted in “kitchen-table issues” that seeks to showcase the Democratic Party as the mainstream choice; and a focus on strengthening the local party structure.

[…]

Mary Beth Rogers, a policy and political expert who was a campaign manager and chief of staff for Texas’ last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, said the party “is wise to say ‘wait a minute’ and to be realistic about what can happen.”

Narrowing the gap with Republicans is a crucial step, said Rogers, as is developing a vision on which the party can grow.

If Clinton can get in the 46 to 48 percent range – from the 41 percent that Obama received from Texans in 2012 – “that gives the party a larger base to work with for 2018,” said Rogers, author of “Turning Texas Blue: What It Will Take to Break the GOP Grip on America’s Reddest State.” That would give it a chance to begin building a bench in 2018 “that can then move into some of the larger offices by 2020,” when statewide posts from the governor on down will be on the ballot, she said.

Such progress builds on itself, including by sparking the interest of donors to national candidates like Clinton, who easily can pick up seven figures on a quick Texas trip for her campaign and national party.

“There are people here who will give money to Democrats. They have to be convinced that they are not throwing their money away,” Rogers said.

It’s generally pretty encouraging, and everyone author Peggy Fikac quotes says the right things. You would be forgiven if you felt some skepticism, given past results and experiences. Ultimately, what matters will be the result. We’ve talked about what some of these things are, and all of them are readily measurable: Improve on Obama’s 2008 vote total. Dominate Harris County. Carry Fort Bend County. Win CD23, at least five legislative seats, and races for the First, Fourth, Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals. Either we wake up on November 9 and feel good about what happened the day before, and thus about what we have to look forward to, or we don’t. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted in: Election 2016.

“Denied”

This is worth your time to read.

During the first week of school at Shadow Forest Elementary, a frail kindergartner named Roanin Walker had a meltdown at recess. Overwhelmed by the shrieking and giggling, he hid by the swings and then tried to escape the playground, hitting a classmate and biting a teacher before being restrained.

The principal called Roanin’s mother.

“There’s been an incident.”

Heidi Walker was frightened, but as she hurried to the Humble school that day in 2014, she felt strangely relieved.

She had warned school administrators months earlier that her 5-year-old had been diagnosed with a disability similar to autism. Now they would understand, she thought. Surely they would give him the therapy and counseling he needed.

Walker knew the law was on her side. Since 1975, Congress has required public schools in the United States to provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability.

But what she didn’t know is that in Texas, unelected state officials have quietly devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled kids like Roanin out of special education.

Over a decade ago, the officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services — 8.5 percent — and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids.

Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, have saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.

More than a dozen teachers and administrators from across the state told the Chronicle they have delayed or denied special education to disabled students in order to stay below the 8.5 percent benchmark. They revealed a variety of methods, from putting kids into a cheaper alternative program known as “Section 504” to persuading parents to pull their children out of public school altogether.

“We were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs,” said Jamie Womack Williams, who taught in the Tyler Independent School District until 2010. “It was all a numbers game.”

Texas is the only state that has ever set a target for special education enrollment, records show.

It has been remarkably effective.

In the years since its implementation, the rate of Texas kids receiving special education has plummeted from near the national average of 13 percent to the lowest in the country — by far.

In 2015, for the first time, it fell to exactly 8.5 percent.

If Texas provided services at the same rate as the rest of the U.S., 250,000 more kids would be getting critical services such as therapy, counseling and one-on-one tutoring.

“It’s extremely disturbing,” said longtime education advocate Jonathan Kozol, who described the policy as a cap on special education meant to save money.

“It’s completely incompatible with federal law,” Kozol said. “It looks as if they’re actually punishing districts that meet the needs of kids.”

Heidi Walker hoped that Humble school officials would help her son Roanin adapt and cope when he entered kindergarten.

In a statement, Texas Education Agency officials denied they had kept disabled students out of special education and said their guideline calling for enrollments of 8.5 percent was not a cap or a target but an “indicator” of performance by school districts. They said state-by-state comparisons were inappropriate and attributed the state’s dramatic declines in special educations enrollments to new teaching techniques that have lowered the number of children with “learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia.

In fact, despite the number of children affected, no one has studied Texas’ 32 percent drop in special education enrollment.

The Chronicle investigation included a survey of all 50 states, a review of records obtained from the federal government, state governments and three dozen school districts, and interviews with more than 300 experts, educators and parents.

The investigation found that the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent enrollment target has led to the systematic denial of services by school districts to tens of thousands of families of every race and class across the state.

Among the findings:

• The benchmark has limited access to special education for children with virtually every type of disability. Texas schools now serve fewer kids with learning disabilities (46 percent lower than in 2004), emotional and mental illnesses (42 percent), orthopedic impairments (39 percent), speech impediments (27 percent), brain injuries (20 percent), hearing defects (15 percent) and visual problems (8 percent).

• Special education rates have fallen to the lowest levels in big cities, where the needs are greatest. Houston ISD and Dallas ISD provide special ed services to just 7.4 percent and 6.9 percent of students, respectively. By comparison, about 19 percent of kids in New York City get services. In all, among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., only 10 serve fewer than 8.5 percent of their students. All 10 are in Texas.

• Students who don’t speak English at home have been hurt the most. Those children currently make up 17.9 percent of all students in Texas but only 15.4 percent of those in special education. That 15 percent difference is triple the gap that existed when the monitoring system began.

See here for the unebeddable charts that accompany the story, and be sure to read the whole thing, as it is well-reported and deeply infuriating. I had no idea any of this had been happening, and that’s despite knowing a couple of families who were directly affected by it. Now that this is out in the light, the next step is to try to pin down some elected officials and get them on the record about it. What do Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick think about this, and more importantly what if anything do they think needs to be done about it? Perhaps Rick Perry could spare a few minutes from his cha-cha practice to answer how his happened on his watch. Regardless of what answers we get, I hope the federal government opens a big ol’ probe of this practice, and comes down like a ton of bricks as needed. I don’t know what else the Chron has in store on this issue, but whatever it is, I look forward to it. Well done.

Posted in: School days.

NCAA removes all championship games for 2016 and 2017 from North Carolina

Actions, they have consequences.

Based on the NCAA’s commitment to fairness and inclusion, the Association will relocate all seven previously awarded championship events from North Carolina during the 2016-17 academic year. The NCAA Board of Governors made this decision because of the cumulative actions taken by the state concerning civil rights protections.

In its decision Monday, the Board of Governors emphasized that NCAA championships and events must promote an inclusive atmosphere for all college athletes, coaches, administrators and fans. Current North Carolina state laws make it challenging to guarantee that host communities can help deliver on that commitment if NCAA events remained in the state, the board said.

“Fairness is about more than the opportunity to participate in college sports, or even compete for championships,” said Mark Emmert, NCAA president. “We believe in providing a safe and respectful environment at our events and are committed to providing the best experience possible for college athletes, fans and everyone taking part in our championships.”

The board stressed that the dynamic in North Carolina is different from that of other states because of at least four specific factors:

  • North Carolina laws invalidate any local law that treats sexual orientation as a protected class or has a purpose to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.
  • North Carolina has the only statewide law that makes it unlawful to use a restroom different from the gender on one’s birth certificate, regardless of gender identity.
  • North Carolina law provides legal protections for government officials to refuse services to the LGBT community.
  • Five states plus numerous cities prohibit travel to North Carolina for public employees and representatives of public institutions, which could include student-athletes and campus athletics staff. These states are New York, Minnesota, Washington, Vermont and Connecticut.

“As representatives of all three divisions, the Board of Governors must advance college sports through policies that resolve core issues affecting student-athletes and administrators,” said G.P. “Bud” Peterson, Board of Governors chair and Georgia Institute of Technology president. “This decision is consistent with the NCAA’s long-standing core values of inclusion, student-athlete well-being and creating a culture of fairness.”

These seven championship events will be relocated from North Carolina for 2016-17:

  • 2016 Division I Women’s Soccer Championship, College Cup (Cary), Dec. 2 and 4.
  • 2016 Division III Men’s and Women’s Soccer Championships (Greensboro), Dec. 2 and 3.
  • 2017 Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, first/second rounds (Greensboro), March 17 and 19.
  • 2017 Division I Women’s Golf Championships, regional (Greenville), May 8-10.
  • 2017 Division III Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships (Cary), May 22-27.
  • 2017 Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship (Cary), May 26 and 28.
  • 2017 Division II Baseball Championship (Cary), May 27-June 3.

Emmert said the NCAA will determine the new locations for these championships soon.

“The NCAA Constitution clearly states our values of inclusion and gender equity, along with the membership’s expectation that we as the Board of Governors protect those values for all,” said Susquehanna University President Jay Lemons, vice chair of the Board of Governors and chair of the ad hoc committee on diversity and inclusion. “Our membership comprises many different types of schools – public, private, secular, faith-based – and we believe this action appropriately reflects the collective will of that diverse group.”

Add that to the NBA’s decision to relocate the 2017 All Star Game, and you can see the consequences of that terrible law are starting to pile up. This was entirely self-inflicted, too, and after the blowback Indiana had gotten previously, North Carolina can’t say they couldn’t have seen this coming. Texas, if the Legislature insists on going on an anti-LGBT rampage next spring, has even less of an excuse. Surely even Dan Patrick can grasp the meaning of that first bullet point list above. The 2018 Men’s Final Four is in San Antonio, in case you had forgotten. All we have to do in order to avert catastrophe is to do nothing. Surely we are capable of that. ThinkProgress and the NYT have more.

Posted in: Other sports.

Endorsement watch: The one Family Court race

The 507th Family Court is one of the two new courts in operation in Harris County, and thus one of the two spots on the ballot for which Democrats had to choose nominees this summer. In keeping with its Civil Court endorsements, the Chron recommends the incumbent for a full term.

Alyssa Lemkuil

Alyssa Lemkuil

Alyssa Lemkuil is the right person for the 507th Family District Court. The University of Houston Law Center graduate was appointed in January by Gov. Greg Abbott to serve as the first judge for this bench. So far she is doing an excellent job and deserves to stay in office.

Lemkuil, 54, has a warm demeanor and extensive experience in family law. Before serving as judge, she spent three years as the associate judge of the 308th Family District Court. She also has worked in the Harris County Domestic Relations Office as a child support prosecutor, and as an attorney and mediator in private practice.

During her time on the bench, Lemkuil has worked to improve processes by allowing and encouraging more communication via email to ensure that everyone has the litany of necessary papers ready before setting foot in the courtroom. The Democratic challenger, Julia Maldonado, is board certified in family law and is fluent in Spanish. She would bring some much-needed diversity to Harris County’s strikingly homogenous family courts – a problem that both candidates discussed during their meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board. Maldonado is qualified for the position, but Lemkuil is the superior candidate and has earned a full term on this bench.

As we have discussed before, the winner of this race and of the Harris County Criminal Court at Law #16 will have to run again in 2018, so they may as well keep campaigning once this election is over. To go off on a bit of a tangent here, I’ve been observing the proliferation of yard signs in my neighborhood lately. I live in a mostly Democratic area – the two precincts that cover my part of the Heights voted a bit more than 58% for President Obama in 2012 – but there are always a certain number of yard signs for Republican candidates. There were several I observed for various GOP Presidential hopefuls during the primary campaign. Since then, I’ve seen nada, though there are a couple of houses that now sport Gary Johnson signs. What I do see is a couple of houses that have signs for Republican judicial candidates, of whom Alyssa Lemkuil is one. There seem to be fewer of these than I’m used to seeing as well – I don’t have any objective measure of this, just my own observation – so make of that what you will. For what it’s worth, there’s at least one visible supporter of Judge Lemkuil in my neck of the woods.

Posted in: Election 2016.

More on the ground game here

Hillary Clinton

A few days ago I wrote about the opening of a national Democratic campaign office here in Harris County. I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to the campaign over the weekend about this office and their larger plans. Here’s what we discussed:

– The office is part of the coordinated campaign between Hillary Clinton and the DNC, with the intent of helping Democrats get elected up and down the ballot.

– When I asked what the focus was, they said it was for general turnout, and they were not focusing on any specific candidates or races.

– I asked if this office was for Harris County specifically or if it was intended to encompass the broader area. They said the focus was just on Harris County, and that there were coordinated campaign efforts being run by volunteers elsewhere. I personally think that Fort Bend County deserves attention as much as Harris does, but there you have it.

– The Harris County office is the first one they will open. There will be others but did not give specifics when I asked how many or where they would be.

– They emphasized that this is part of a 50-state strategy that was announced in June, that doing this was always in the plan, and that it was not in reaction to anything. (They didn’t mention any polls, but I figured that was implied.)

– I asked about sharing data with the locals. They said they will use their own resources to develop data about voters and aim to bring in new volunteers and other people of interest, and yes, they will share information developed with local and state parties. There is a longer-term focus in that the intent is to help state and local parties build up their voter/volunteer data for beyond this election. This too is something the Clinton campaign has said they would do for some time. It’s frankly one of the reasons why I never “felt the Bern”, because I never got that impression from the Sanders campaign.

– All that said, this office is for this election. There will not be paid staff here beyond November. Hopefully we’ll get enough out of this to build on going forward.

– Those who are interested in participating in any way should go to http://hillaryclinton.com/events for more information.

Here’s a Trib story about the opening on of the office on Saturday. It’s got a fair bit of rah-rah and an excellent headline, but not really anything you didn’t already know. Anyone out there attend this? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Federal lawsuit filed in Alabama over statewide judicial elections

There are now at least two lawsuits like this in the federal courts.

Alabama Supreme Court

Alabama Supreme Court

Tuscaloosa reverend Curtis Travis has been voting his whole life in Alabama. While nearly one-fourth of the voting population, like him, is black, the three highest courts in the state are entirely white, and have been so for more than a decade.

On Wednesday, Travis and three other African American voters sued the state for conducting its judicial elections in a way they say prevents voters of color from electing the candidates of their choice. They argue that at-large elections, in which the entire state votes on all of the state’s top judges, has prevented them from electing anyone who truly represents them.

“There have been years of minorities making strides, but the white men continue to hold disproportionate power our state,” he said on a call with reporters. “Alabama is more diverse now than ever, but our judges are not.”

The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, representing these four black voters, accused Alabama on Wednesday of violating the Voting Rights Act by electing all 19 of the state’s top judges in statewide, at-large races with partisan primaries. It is one of just five states to choose their judges this way.

Jim Blacksher, an Alabama civil rights attorney working on the case, said that the state’s extreme racial polarization and history of voter suppression made it a prime target for a lawsuit.

“The Republican Party has really mobilized the majority-white electorate of Alabama,” he said. “So the only way African Americans will have a chance to elect candidates of their choice is if the method of elections is changed.”

The plaintiffs are demanding the federal district court in Montgomery divide the state up into districts that each elect a member of the state’s Supreme Court and appellate courts. That way, the few sections of the state with majority-black populations have a chance at electing a judge of their choice to the courts.

The lawsuit notes that since 1994, every African American candidate that has run for any of the three top courts has lost to a white candidate. Only two black judges have ever been elected to the state Supreme Court, and zero have served on either the Court of Criminal Appeals or the Court of Civil Appeals in the entirety of the state’s history.

“We need to create a judiciary that reflects the great diversity you see across the great state of Alabama,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law.

I note this mostly because there was a similar lawsuit filed in Texas in July. As with this lawsuit, that filing requested a district system to replace the at-large one as the solution. (The Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law is involved in both cases.) I have mixed feelings about that, as 1) any district solution would also be subject to redistricting, and that has its own set of issues to contend with, and 2) in each case, the state could effectively pre-empt this litigation by switching to an all-appointment system, which also has its own set of issues. Which is not to say that the current setup is optimal, just that I don’t know right now what might be preferable to it. I mean, getting each of those states to a place where both parties are competitive at the statewide level would probably help, but good luck with that. Daily Kos has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.