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Sung and Vilaseca sworn in at HISD

The HISD Board is back at full strength.

Anne Sung

As Anne Sung and Holly Flynn Vilaseca took their oaths of office and became Houston ISD’s newest Board of Education trustees on Thursday, their husbands swaddled their months-old babies in one hand and held holy books in the other.

Sung’s 11-month-old daughter, Sarita, and Flynn Vilaseca’s 13-month-old, Nicolas, hardly made a peep as their mothers became leaders of the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Sung was elected as the District 7 trustee and will replace Harvin Moore, who resigned from the board last summer. Vilaseca was unanimously appointed by the board Monday to fill the District 6 seat vacated by Greg Meyers, who resigned at the board’s December meeting.

Both new members will serve through 2017. Then their seats will be back up for election.

[…]

Holly Flynn Vilaseca

Sung and Flynn Vilaseca said top priorities include ensuring equity in terms of the number of talented teachers, funding and facilities across Houston’s campuses. Flynn Vilaseca said she would also like to focus on lobbying the state to abandon “recapture,” which takes money from so-called property-rich districts to assist those with lower property values.

Houston ISD officials have argued that because 75 percent of district students are considered low income, the money it pays to the state for recapture would be better spent locally.

Sung also hopes to make sure the board and district are operating ethically and transparently, particularly in the way it spends money.

Both also plan to focus on improving student achievement, especially among the district’s lowest-performing students.

“We need to bring attention back to doing what’s right for students and preparing them for life after high school,” Sung said. “We need to make sure we align what we’re teaching with what’s happening in the world.”

See here for more on Vilaseca. I’ve heard some chatter that she does plan to run for a full term in November, which will be a race to watch. I look forward to interviewing her down the line. In the meantime, the Board (which elected its officers for the year; Wanda Adams is now Board President) has a lot to deal with, including lobbying the Lege to do something about recapture, dealing with the revelations about special education, continuing the bond-funded construction projects, and so on. Welcome aboard, ladies (*), let’s get to work. The Press has more.

(*) In case you hadn’t noticed (I only just did), with the election of Sung and the selection of Vilaseca, the HISD Board is now comprised of seven women and two men.

Posted in: School days.

Where we begin with school finance

A nice overview from the Trib on school finance, where the problems are many and the budget situation is non-optimal.

The current system is held together by a number of short-term fixes that have not been updated or reformed in decades. The Texas Supreme Court upheld the funding system as constitutional in May, and at the same time put the onus on state lawmakers to reform it — but few believe a major overhaul will come without a court order.

Even if legislators decided to tackle an overhaul of the whole system, experts say there is not enough money in state coffers to increase state spending, lower local spending and relieve Texans upset about rising property taxes. For now, some lawmakers are backing a simple plan to increase money to all school districts through the general appropriations bill, instead of taking apart the complex school finance system. Others have filed bills to tweak individual weights in the system, which provide additional money for disadvantaged student populations.

[…]

Legislators will also have to decide this year whether to re-up a program that provides extra funding for fewer than 200 districts that would otherwise have lost money in previous school finance rewrites. When the Legislature reduced property taxes by a third in 2006, it guaranteed school districts at least the same state funding they received for the 2005-06 school year by creating the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction initiative.

That aid expires Sept. 1, but the districts still receiving the money are clamoring for an extension. “At some point, it does need to go away for the sake of more equity. But it can’t fall off a cliff at this point in time,” said Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition, which represents the fastest-growing districts in the state. “It does the entire system no good if any part of the system effectively goes bankrupt.”

So far, five legislators have filed bills to extend the funding program. State Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, filed House Bill 811, which would extend funding through 2020-21. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, proposed an extension through 2022-23. Both lawmakers were members of their chambers’ public education committees last session.

King, who is on the short list to chair the House Public Education Committee this session, said some districts are still getting a large chunk of their overall funding through this program and that they cannot be cut off immediately. “I’m going to put a mechanism in place for school districts to roll off of the aid in 2021 and hopefully replace the dollars with another school funding system,” he said.

Other school finance advocates oppose the extension, calling it a “Band-Aid” that exacerbates the inequity among districts.

“It maintains an already inefficient portion of the system,” said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor districts. Instead, he said, legislators should reform the base formulas so districts have access to a stable source of funds.

The Houston Independent School District will be a major focus this session because its voters in November rejected sending $165 million in local property taxes to poorer school districts. In the Texas finance system, districts with a wealthier tax base spend local money to help educate students in districts with less property tax money, as part of the “Robin Hood” or “recapture” system.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has warned that the state will probably move commercial properties from Houston ISD tax rolls to those of a nearby district. Houston legislators will be under pressure to find a way to ease the burden, as those property owners could face higher tax rates in their newly assigned districts.

David Thompson, an attorney representing Houston ISD, said a legislative win for Houston on school finance could also mean a win for other districts. “There are particular issues that would address some of the concerns in Houston and at the same time be helpful for schools across the state,” he said.

The state should update its formulas for determining which districts get transportation funding, and the state should also provide full-day pre-K funding for all districts, Thompson said.

“Everybody starts by saying, ‘There’s no money.’ There is,” he said. The state should allow the local dollars people are already paying to stay in education, instead of “siphoning local property taxes” for non-education purposes, he said.

But some legislators are saying Houston ISD voters dug themselves deeper into a school funding hole and should live with the repercussions. “I don’t think the Legislature has a lot of appetite to let Harris County out of recapture when everybody else is paying it,” King said.

[…]

School finance experts agree that increasing the basic allotment, the base funding each district receives per student, is likely to be the most popular way of changing the system. The House Public Education Committee recommended this approach in its interim report.

“The amount we set for the basic allotment drives the entire school finance system and, given our current system, increasing that amount would be a prudent move to help all districts,” said State Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin. “It’s important to note, this method can also be achieved through the General Appropriations Act alone, so it may also be the most realistic thing the Legislature can do this session without having to pass a stand-alone bill.”

It’s likely to be a favored proposal in the House, Ashby said. But like many other plans, it requires more dollars to public education, a difficult challenge this session, given that lawmakers have less money to spend than they did when they last met in 2015.

There’s also vouchers, the A-F grading system for accountability ratings, continued discontent with STAAR, curriculum and graduation requirements, etc etc etc. It’s important to remember that the local property tax boom that helped lead HISD and other districts into recapture is also a huge boon for the state budget, and not something legislators will give up easily. I think the best case scenario is some more money from general revenue, adjustments to the funding formula for transportation and pre-K as David Thompson noted, and a temporary extension of the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction initiative with a plan to fix it next session. HISD will still owe recapture money even if all that is done, but I for one would feel a lot less aggrieved by recapture if these things happened, and would support a recapture re-vote to take place before detachment could begin. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

Who wants to rent their house out to Super Bowl visitors?

I don’t, but some people hope to make a lot of money renting theirs.

With the Super Bowl heading to Houston next month, locals are starting to see dollar signs as well, hoping to cash in on visitors’ willingness to pay thousands to rent their homes or apartments during the biggest football game of the year.

While Beyonce isn’t likely to hit up Airbnb this year – she’s hails from Houston, after all – plenty of other celebrities will need places to stay. So will countless corporate executives with sky-high lodging budgets, and, of course, all the others simply unable to get a hotel room in town.

Exactly how many takers, and how much they’re willing to spend, will become clearer after the participating teams have been determined. In the meantime, a couple of thousand hopeful Houstonians already are checking their emails waiting for the alert that shows their place has been booked during the game.

“My hope is the market is going to get really tight for premium properties,” said Michael Salinas, a CPA who’s listing his three-bedroom townhouse in Montrose for $3,699 a night during Super Bowl LI.

Local listings on the popular Airbnb rental website have increased 40 percent in just the last two months, the company said.

The city expects about 140,000 out of town guests and there are roughly 84,000 hotel rooms in the metro area, according to A.J. Mistretta, a spokesman for the city’s tourism bureau.

“We believe most properties will be full but there are a lot of factors that play in, including who ends up in the game and how far their fans will travel for the experience,” Mistretta said in an email.

Chris Bisel is listing his four-bedroom Meyerland home for $5,500 per night. With that, Bisel is offering free chauffeur service in his GMC Yukon XL Denali. He hasn’t had any takers yet.

“Frankly, we put it up there at sort of a crazy price just to see what would happen. If we rent the place out for five or six nights, we clear 25 or 30 grand,” he said, enough to pay for the first year of college for his daughter, a high school senior.

[…]

As of Jan. 1, Houston had about 5,700 listings on Airbnb, according to the company’s most recent data, up from about 4,100 listings at the beginning of November.

During Super Bowl weekend last year, Airbnb guests stayed in more than 4,000 listings in the Bay Area, said Laura Spanjian, public policy director for the San Francisco-based company. The average rate was $225 per night.

“There are some very expensive listings, but there are also some very affordable ones,” Spanjian said.

Yes, that’s the same Laura Spanjian who had been the city’s Sustainability Director under Mayor Parker. The wide disparity between what some AirBnB listers in Houston are asking and what people actually got on average in San Francisco makes me think the folks here are dreaming a little too hard, but I guess you never know. Maybe San Francisco had more hotel space available, and maybe fewer people made the kind of last-minute arrangements that can lead to premium prices being charged. I do know people in Austin who have made a bundle renting out their places during SxSW, so it is possible. It’s not practical for me and my family at this time, but if it works for you, go for it. Just avoid renting to Johnny Manziell and you should be fine.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Nowhere To Run

Let’s throw it back with Martha and the Vandellas:

I love that music videos were being made in the 60s. MTV was a decade and a half away, something like this might get shown once on an “American Bandstand”-type show, and yet here we are fifty years later watching it on Youtube. What a serendipitous fluke.

Now here are The Commitments, paying homage on their extended soundtrack:

My fellow Orphan Black fans will recognize Maria Doyle “Mrs. S” Kennedy in the front row, second from the right. Last season coming up, I sure hope they tie it all together.

Posted in: Music.

City loses appeal of procedural argument in term limits lawsuit

Stay with me, because this is going to take a bit of explaining.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

A state appeals court on Thursday rejected the city’s procedural challenge to a lawsuit that could force Houston’s mayor and city council members to revert to three two-year terms, from the two four-year terms voters approved in November 2015.

The Texas First Court of Appeals ruling did not address the merits of the underlying case, which centers on whether the city’s ballot language was misleading.

Rather, the court’s decision marks an incremental step in what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process that plaintiffs hope could trigger municipal elections as early as this fall.

Austin election lawyer Buck Wood, however, said he considers November mayoral and city council elections improbable, given the speed with which courts typically move.

[…]

The appellate court’s ruling affirms state District Judge Randy Clapp’s decision last year to reject Houston’s procedural challenge, which sought to get the case thrown out.

Clapp was not considering the substance of the case at the time, though he tipped his hand by calling the city’s ballot language “inartful” but not “invalid.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said Thursday the city attorney’s office is considering whether to appeal the procedural decision to the state Supreme Court.

If the trial court’s 2016 procedural decision holds, the case likely would return to Clapp for a hearing on the substance of whether Houston’s term limits ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms.”

See here for the background. Where this gets confusing is that the original story didn’t explain all of what was happening in that first hearing. There was a motion by the plaintiffs for summary judgment, which was denied. That was the win for the city, as now a trial is required to settle the question of whether the ballot language was misleading or not. The rest of it was about procedural matters: Whether plaintiff’s attorney Eric Dick properly served the city notice of his lawsuit, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether attorney Andy Taylor could intervene to assist Dick. District Court Judge Clapp ruled against the city’s motion to dismiss on these matters. The city appealed that ruling, and the First Court of Appeals upheld Judge Clapp.

The city can appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. If they do and they win, the lawsuit will be dismissed. If they lose, or if they choose not to appeal, the matter will be returned to Judge Clapp’s court for a trial on the merits of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are hoping to get a ruling in time for there to be city elections this November; they claim August is the deadline for that, though I’d argue that more time would be needed for real campaigns to occur. However, as the story notes, even if the plaintiffs win, there’s no guarantee that city elections would follow as a result. What might happen instead is that the city would have to put a differently-worded term limits referendum on the ballot. That maybe could happen this November, or it might happen in 2018. Or even later than that, depending on how long it takes to get a ruling and how long the appeals of that ruling take. Remember how long it took to get a Supreme Court decision in the Renew Houston lawsuit? The 2010 referendum was subsequently voided more than a year ago, and yet here we are, with no new election for it in sight. Mayor Turner has joked that it will be up to his successor to get the term limits issue straightened out because it won’t be settled till after his eight years in office. I’m not sure he’s joking about that.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The coming legislative border battle

Here we go again.

House Republicans on Wednesday said they aren’t backing away from recent efforts to secure the southern border despite an incoming president who made beefed-up immigration enforcement a hallmark of his campaign.

And as a final admonishment of President Obama, they said they intended to bill the federal government more than $2.8 billion for state spending on border security since January 2013. The amount includes a combination of expenses incurred by the Department of Public Safety ($1.4 billion), Texas Parks and Wildlife ($20.2 million), Texas Military Forces ($62.9 million), Texas Health and Human Services ($416.8 million), the Texas Education Agency ($181.1 million) and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission ($671,000), according to House Republicans. Another $723.8 million has been spent by local and state governments related to incarceration, they said.

“We understand the principles of federalism, and while we surely don’t want the federal government meddling in our schools and deciding our environmental policies or setting our health care policies, we sure as heck want them doing their limited duties, which are: enforcing the border, standing up for a strong military and delivering the mail,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Two years ago, Bonnen was the author of House Bill 11, an omnibus border security measure that increased by 250 the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border. The legislation was part of the record $800 million lawmakers appropriated for border security during that legislative session.

Lawmakers learned earlier this week they will have billions of dollars less in state revenue to work with this year as they craft the next biennial budget, even as the Department of Public Safety has said it would ask lawmakers for an additional $1 billion for border security. Bonnen said he hadn’t yet reviewed the request.

Although they said they had high hopes that President-elect Trump would fulfill his promise to secure the border and let Texas off the hook, House Republicans reiterated that lawmakers will need to wait and see what the incoming administration does and how soon it acts on border security before making a decision on future expenditures.

“We’ll have to see, [but] I think the Trump administration has made clear that they intend from day one, starting next Friday, to get to work on this issue,” Bonnen said, citing the day of Trump’s scheduled inauguration.

State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, left the door open to Texas lawmakers approving more funding for state-based border security efforts if necessary.

“Republicans in the Texas House are absolutely committed to continuous border security — be it from the state of Texas and what we’ve been doing all these years or from our federal government,” he said.

Part of Trump’s proposed solution includes building a wall along parts of the southern border. When asked what he would tell a Texas landowner whose property could be seized by the federal government for that effort, Bonnen said: “My response would be whatever we need to do to make our border secure and controlled by the federal government.”

If you’re going to pass the buck, as it were, why not skip the middleman and send the invoice straight to Mexico? It’s what Trump (says he) would do, and it has about the same odds of getting paid. It’s a stunt, so make it as stunt-y as you can. As for the claims that Dear Leader Trump will spend more money on “border security”, thus enabling the state to spend less, who knows? It’s a bad idea in general to believe a word the guy says, but there is certainly enthusiasm in Congress to spend money on it, so I won’t be surprised if it happens. Note that whether or not it does happen, legislative Republicans plan to spend more on it as well, which highlights again the sham nature of their “invoice” for what they (quite happily) spent in the last session. As Rep. Cesar Blanco says in the story, they all have primaries to win. Look for even more speeding tickets to get written in the area.

The Observer highlights the resistance.

Legislators and advocates on Wednesday announced Texas Together — a new effort that aims to resist anti-immigrant proposals in the Texas Legislature, including those that would revoke funding from so-called sanctuary cities and repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students. The campaign is an initiative of the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, a coalition of immigrant advocates and activists from across the state.

“We are here to stand against the attempt to put anti-immigrant rhetoric into bills,” said state Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, at a Capitol press conference Wednesday. “We oppose these politics that have become poisoned with misinformation about immigrants and border life.”

[…]

Captain Shelly Knight of the Dallas Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that SB 4 would strain law enforcement budgets and damage trust between communities and officers.

“All of that [trust] we’ve built up will be gone,” Knight said. “So therefore they won’t come and report violent crimes, such as family violence.”

Stand and fight, y’all. The Republicans are going to pass whatever they’re going to pass. Don’t give them any help on this.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Fire ant-killing robots

Let’s just luxuriate in the glory of that headline for a moment, shall we?

Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

The idea is to use a camera to identify the species the same way computers and sites like Facebook can recognize faces, and then fire at them with a blue laser taken from inside a DVD burner, he said.

Sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they just got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding. He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to that.

“The marine biologists were [saying], ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,'” he said. Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

I just want to say three things. One, Harley Myler is now my favorite scientist ever. Two, the only way this project could be any better is if the ant-killing laser-firing robots were built to resemble Star Wars AT-AT walkers. I mean, it’s obvious, right? And three, for the love of God please don’t let the Defense Department or the NSA give this guy a grant. I can’t wait till May to see what the prototype looks like, but until then if you want some more practical advice about fire ants, here’s the A&M fire ant page for you to peruse. You’re welcome.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math, The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten: Ladies’ night, part 28

This is the last one of these during the Obama presidency.

1. Nowhere Man – Of Montreal (Dottie Alexander)
2. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me – Oleta Adams
3. Magic – Olivia Newton-John
4. The Cap And Bells – Paisley Close (Amy Price, Cidnie MacNamee)
5. Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted – The Patridge Family (Shirley Jones, Susan Dey, Suzanne Crough)
6. Hit Me With Your Best Shot – Pat Benatar
7. Crazy – Patsy Cline
8. Symphony Of Love – Patti Austin
9. Gloria – Patti Smith
10. Useless Desires – Patty Griffin

I was going to say something about these songs, but once the realization of the opening sentence hit me, I lost my train of thought. Maybe next week.

Posted in: Music.

Precinct analysis: Texas Congressional districts

From Daily Kos:

Texas’s GOP-drawn congressional map was designed to create 24 safely red seats and 11 safely Democratic districts, with only the 23rd District in the western part of the state being truly competitive. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried the state 57-41 and won those 24 red seats by double digits, while Barack Obama easily carried the 11 Democratic districts; the 23rd backed Romney 51-48.

Things were a lot more interesting in 2016, with Donald Trump defeating Hillary Clinton by a smaller 52.5-43.5 margin, the closest presidential election in Texas in decades. Clinton won all the Obama districts, as well as the 23rd and two solidly Romney seats, the 7th and 32nd. However, the GOP still holds all the districts that Romney won in 2012, while Democrats have all the Obama/Clinton districts. The map at the top of this post, which shows each district as equally sized, illustrates all this, with the three Romney/Clinton districts standing out in pink.

We’ll start with a look at Texas’s 23rd District, which stretches from El Paso to San Antonio and went from 51-48 Romney to 50-46 Clinton. However, the swing wasn’t quite enough for Democrats downballot. Republican Will Hurd narrowly unseated Democrat Pete Gallego in the 2014 GOP wave, and he won their expensive rematch by a similarly tight 48-47 margin.

Surprisingly, two other Texas Republicans have now found themselves sitting in seats Clinton won. Romney easily carried the 7th, located in the Houston area, by a wide 60-39 spread, but the well-educated seat backed Clinton by a narrow 48.5-47.1. Republican Rep. John Culberson still decisively turned back a challenge from a perennial candidate 56-44, and it remains to be seen if Democrats will be able to field a stronger contender next time—or whether the GOP’s weakness at the top of the ticket was a one-time phenomenon due solely to Trump.

The 32nd in the Dallas area also swung wildly from 57-41 Romney to 49-47 Clinton. However, Democrats didn’t even field an opponent against longtime GOP Rep. Pete Sessions, a former head of the NRCC who’s capable of raising as much money as he needs to in order to win. This is another well-educated seat where we’ll need to see if Democrats will be able to take advantage of Trump’s weaknesses, or if The Donald’s 2016 problems don’t hurt the GOP much downballot in future years.

Seven other Republican-held seats also moved to the left by double digits. The closest result came in Rep. Kenny Marchant’s 24th District in the Dallas-Forth Worth suburbs, which Trump won just 51-45 after Romney cruised to a 60-38 win four years earlier. Marchant beat a penniless opponent 56-39, so this district could also wind up on Democratic watch lists.

They mention a few other districts in which Clinton exceeded Obama’s numbers by a significant amount; I’ll get to that in a minute. I’ve discussed CD07 and CD32 before. We know that while Clinton carried CD07, it was largely due to Republican crossovers, as the average judicial race clocked in at a 56.5% to 43.5%b advantage for Trump. I can now make a similar statement about CD32, as I have been working my way through the canvass data in Dallas County. (CD32 reaches into Collin County as well, but I don’t have canvass data for it. The large majority of the district is in Dallas County, however.) Hillary Clinton won the Dallas County portion of CD32 by ten thousand votes, basically 127K to 117K. No other Democrat in Dallas County carried CD32, however. Looking at the judicial races there, Trump generally led by 20K to 25K votes, so the crossover effect was significant. The closest any Dem came to matching Clinton in CD32 was two-term Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who trailed in the Dallas portion of CD32 by a 125K to 116K margin.

I may go back later and look at CD24, about forty percent of which is in Dallas County, and I will definitely look at CD23 when we have full statewide numbers. If you had told me that Clinton would carry CD23, I’d have been sure that Pete Gallego would reclaim the seat, but that didn’t happen. I’ve got to give credit to Rep. Will Hurd for that, though I doubt he will ever have an easy time of it going forward. As for the other districts, I’ll just say this: Back when we were all getting intoxicated by the alluringly tight poll numbers in Texas, I ran the numbers in every district to see what might happen if you adjusted the 2012 returns to reflect a 50-50 Presidential race. The short answer is that while several Congressional districts become a lot more competitive, none of them swing to majority Dem, even under those much more favorable circumstances. This is a testament to how effective that Republican gerrymander is, and a sobering reminder of how much ground there is to recover before we can make any gains. The 2016 Presidential numbers may tantalize, but they are illusory.

One more thing: The full 2016 Congressional numbers, along with the corresponding 2012 numbers, are here. Let me break them down a bit:


Trump up, Clinton down

Dist   Romney   Trump   Obama  Clinton  R Diff  D Diff
======================================================
CD01     71.6    72.2    27.5     25.3    +0.6    -2.2
CD04     74.0    75.4    24.8     21.8    +1.4    -3.0


Trump down, Clinton down

Dist   Romney   Trump   Obama  Clinton  R Diff  D Diff
======================================================
CD05     64.5    62.7    34.4     34.3    -1.8    -0.1
CD11     79.2    77.8    19.6     19.1    -1.4    -0.5
CD13     80.2    79.9    18.5     16.9    -0.3    -2.6
CD14     59.3    58.2    39.5     38.4    -1.1    -1.1
CD15     41.5    40.0    57.4     56.7    -1.5    -0.7
CD19     73.6    72.5    25.0     23.5    -1.1    -1.5
CD27     60.5    60.1    38.2     36.7    -0.4    -1.5
CD28     38.7    38.5    60.3     58.3    -0.2    -2.0
CD30     19.6    18.3    79.6     79.1    -1.3    -0.5
CD34     38.3    37.7    60.8     59.2    -0.6    -1.6
CD36     73.2    72.0    25.7     25.2    -1.2    -0.5

Trump down, Clinton up

Dist   Romney   Trump   Obama  Clinton  R Diff  D Diff
======================================================
CD02     62.9    52.4    35.6     43.1   -10.5    +7.5
CD03     64.3    54.8    34.2     40.6    -9.5    +6.4
CD06     57.9    54.2    40.8     41.9    -3.7    +1.1
CD07     59.9    48.5    38.6     47.1   -11.4    +8.5
CD08     77.0    72.7    21.7     23.9    -4.3    +2.2
CD09     21.1    18.0    78.0     79.3    -2.9    +1.3
CD10     59.1    52.3    38.8     43.2    -6.8    +4.4
CD12     66.8    62.9    31.7     32.7    -3.9    +1.0
CD16     34.5    27.2    64.2     67.9    -7.3    +3.7
CD17     60.4    56.3    37.7     38.8    -4.1    +1.1
CD18     22.8    20.0    76.1     76.5    -2.8    +0.4
CD20     39.7    34.3    58.9     61.0    -5.4    +2.1
CD21     59.8    52.5    37.9     42.5    -7.3    +4.6
CD22     62.1    52.1    36.7     44.2   -10.0    +7.5
CD23     50.7    46.4    48.1     49.7    -4.3    +1.6
CD24     60.4    50.7    38.0     44.5    -9.7    +6.5
CD25     59.9    55.1    37.8     40.2    -4.8    +2.4
CD26     67.6    60.9    30.7     34.4    -6.7    +3.7
CD29     33.0    25.4    65.9     71.1    -7.6    +5.2
CD31     59.6    53.5    38.3     40.8    -6.1    +2.5
CD32     57.0    46.6    41.5     48.5   -10.4    +7.0
CD33     27.1    23.7    72.0     72.9    -3.4    +0.9
CD35     34.6    30.5    63.0     64.1    -4.1    +1.1

You want to know why we’ll never get rid of Louie Gohmert? He represents CD01, one of two districts where Trump improved on Mitt Romney’s numbers. That’s why we’ll never get rid of Louie Gohmert. In the other districts, the main difference between 2016 and 2012 is the performance of third party candidates, especially Libertarian Gary Johnson. I don’t have vote totals, and the dKos spreadsheet doesn’t include the other candidates, so it’s hard to say exactly what happened at this time. For sure, in some of these districts, there was a shift towards the Democrats. I’ve noted before that the “true” level of Democratic support in CD07 was about 43.5%, but that’s still four or five points better than it was in 2012. When the full statewide numbers come out, probably next month, I’ll be able to do more detailed comparisons. For now, this is what we have. Look over the dKos data and see what you think.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Paxton’s trial date set

Mark your calendars, and stock up on the popcorn.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s trial on criminal securities fraud charges is set to begin May 1.

Jury selection will be held April 20-21 and April 27-28, according to a recent order by George Gallagher, the judge presiding over Paxton’s case. He also scheduled a hearing on pretrial motions for Feb. 16.

The trial will unfold in the heat of the legislative session, which began Tuesday and ends on May 29, and as campaigns get underway for the 2018 elections. Paxton plans to seek another term.

[…]

In the criminal case, Paxton faces three felony charges of breaking Texas securities law. If convicted, he could be sent to prison for five to 99 years.

Last year, Paxton exhausted his options in trying to put an end to the criminal case. The final blow came in October, when Texas’ highest criminal court declined to hear a Paxton appeal.

I think you know the background on this one. I’m not one for making predictions, but I will make one here: If Paxton gets convicted, he will not lose the support of any current statewide incumbent. They will rally around him, they will blame everyone but him for the outcome, and they will endorse him next March when and if he draws a primary opponent. I fully expect that he will be on the ballot next November. What happens if he wins re-election and loses his appeals, and has to serve time in jail? I guess we’ll find out. The DMN, the Chron, and the Lone Star Project have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, Scandalized!.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s staff

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez combines diversity with experience in his braintrust.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

New Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has tapped a diverse wave of law enforcement veterans to fill his top command staff, sharply increasing the number of minority leaders and naming the first female assistant chief ever in the sheriff’s office.

In his first week as sheriff, Gonzalez named three Latinos, three African-Americans and two Asians to leadership positions, and promoted Debra Schmidt to assistant chief. Another woman, who is African-American, is also among the new leadership.

Ten of those selected for the 15 top command posts are longtime members of the sheriff’s office, a sharp break with the actions of the two previous administrations. One major’s position is not yet filled.

“There are a lot of wonderful, highly skilled, quality individuals within the sheriff’s office,” Gonzalez said. “Part of being a leader is doing that – identifying bright people that can really help, that are smart and capable.”

Before Gonzalez took office Jan. 1, four of the top command staff retired and nine were asked to leave, according to Ryan Sullivan, a sheriff’s office spokesman. Two officers have been retained.

The appointments are the first indication of how Gonzalez will approach the county’s top law enforcement job. His decision to pick department insiders with knowledge about the operations drew immediate praise for boosting morale.

“By selecting a diverse staff internally he has shown he recognizes the experience and cultural knowledge of those deputies within his own office while also understanding the expectations of the diverse community the department serves,” said Lawrence Karson, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown.

David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, likewise praised the decision to promote from within.

“Morale has instantly skyrocketed,” Cuevas said. “The consensus around the department is we finally have upward mobility and institutional knowledge in place to move the sheriff’s office forward and into the future. … The rank-and-file see that if they are on a promotional list and take their time, their hard work and leadership is not going to be stifled because people outside are brought into command positions.”

[…]

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican, said the moves should help Gonzalez get up to speed quickly on operations at the state’s largest sheriff’s office.

“He is certainly showing he has figured out a way to make up for the fact he hasn’t worked in the sheriff’s office,” he said. “It’s very intelligent of him to take advantage of the vast amount of experience within the department that he doesn’t have yet.”

I presume Steve Radack plays tennis, because that’s quite the backhand he’s got there. Back when Ron Hickman was installing an all white-guy command staff, he responded to criticism about it by saying “Diversity for diversity’s sake is not always effective”, and pointed to his team’s “vast education, experience and devotion to police work”. Turns out, you can have both diversity and experience. Who knew?

Posted in: Election 2016.

Feds officially file appeal in transgender bathroom directive lawsuit

This may be the last stop.

With two weeks left, the Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to throw out a lower court’s decision that suspended policies designed to protect transgender people’s access to restrooms — a sign the current leadership of the Justice Department will close shop mid-fight on one of its signature LGBT issues.

Federal lawyers said in a brief filed Friday with the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that the previous ruling was incorrect and overly broad.

[…]

With their remedies waning in the lower court — and time running out — the Justice Department’s Civil Division made three arguments to the Fifth Circuit.

The Justice Department said the case is not ripe for judicial review because the government did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act, as Texas and the other states claimed. The guidance for schools and workplaces are not final acts by any agency, the appeal says, and therefore did not require a rule-making process under the APA.

Federal lawyers further contend the states lack standing to bring the case because they “can ignore [the guidance] without legal consequence.” They note that enforcement stems from civil rights laws, not the guidance itself. In the past, the states have bristled at that argument, noting in briefs and oral arguments that the government cited the guidance when threatening to sue school districts that banned transgender students from certain facilities.

Finally, the Justice Department argues that the lower court, under Judge O’Connor, erred by ruling too broadly. O’Connor did so by in applying the injunction nationwide, rather than just within the states that brought the lawsuit, the government lawyers say.

See here and here for the background. As Kerry Eleveld notes, Judge O’Connor cited the fact that this directive did not go through the federal rule-making process in his injunction against it, but other directives, including the health directive that O’Connor also injuncted, did go through that process. As always, it sucks to have to depend on the Fifth Circuit for anything, but there’s not much choice. We’ll see what happens.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The other “faithless elector” speaks up

Meet Bill Greene, political science professor at South Texas College, and the other Texas member of the Electoral College who did not cast a vote for Dear Leader Trump.

Greene, who has kept a low profile since the vote, explained his decision Monday, telling The Texas Tribune he had wanted to “bring the process back into the classroom” and affirm the founders’ view that the Electoral College should not necessarily be a rubber stamp for the popular vote.

“I take very seriously the oath of office that we had to take and what the framers of the Constitution, what the founders, wanted electors to do … to basically come up with their idea for who would be the best person in the entire United States to be the president,” Greene said in a phone interview. “I take the job very seriously, and I did. I felt Ron Paul was the best person in the United States to be president, and that’s who I voted for.”

[…]

Unlike Suprun — who became a well-known Trump critic weeks before the vote — Greene said he “had no desire for publicity or anything like that in advance.” He immediately went on vacation for a week after the vote then fell ill when he came home. He said Monday he was just catching up on emails and calls — which electors were deluged with in the lead-up to the vote, many begging them to vote against Trump. (For the record, Greene said he was “not swayed by the 80-100,000 emails I received.”)

Greene said the “vast majority” of feedback he has gotten since the vote has been positive. Top Texas Republicans, however, have taken a different view, using the defections by Suprun and Greene to push for legislation that would require electors to vote in accordance with statewide popular vote. That’s currently the rule in 29 other states.

Greene made clear he is not a fan of so-called “elector-binding” laws.

“God forbid they actually do what the Constitution bounds them to do,” Greene sarcastically said of electors. The elector-binding bills, he added, are “completely unconstitutional legislation, and my hope is that it does go into the courts.”

See here for the full saga, and here for the first time we heard Bill Greene’s name. Greene has a long history with Ron Paul, whom he supported in past Presidential campaigns. You just knew that there would be a Ron Paul connection, right? It would have been an upset if there hadn’t been at least one elector going full on for Ron. Beyond that, I agree with him about the unconstitutionality of forcing electors to cast their votes for a specific candidate. Whatever you think about the Electoral College, the intent of the framers is pretty clear, and in the absence of an amendment I don’t see how you get around that. I don’t have any particular point to make, I just wanted to note this for the record. What do you think are the odds that the state GOP does a more thorough job of vetting their electors for the 2020 campaign?

Posted in: The making of the President.

Patrick will run for re-election in 2018

In case you were worried that he was planning to “spend more time with his family”, or whatever.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick formally announced Monday he’s running for re-election, looking to finally quell speculation he’s interested in higher office.

“Put it in cement,” Patrick told reporters a day before the start of the 85th legislative session.

Patrick, who’s been beating back such rumors since he took office in 2015, also endorsed Gov. Greg Abbott for re-election. Abbott has not formally announced he is running again but is expected to.

“We are a great team,” Patrick told reporters. “We work well together. We agree 96, 97 percent of the time – I can’t even name the 3 percent we don’t.”

[…]

Patrick has repeatedly said he plans to run for re-election, but has been dogged by rumors he could challenge Abbott, which were the focus of a recent Associated Press story. Patrick emphatically denied Monday he was interested in taking on Abbott, saying he has “never even thought about it.”

“Let me put this to bed once and for all: I’m not running against Greg Abbott — not in ’18, not ever,” Patrick said. “If he wants to be governor for the next 20 years and I’m still running, that’s the same story.”

Whatever. As with most things Dan Patrick-related, there’s a distinct whiff of the-gentleman-doth-protest-too-much about this. I mean, either the rumors that he wants to run for Governor in 2018 are either completely unfounded, in which case sooner or later people will get tired of them, or there really is something to them, in which case all the denials in the world will be dismissed as not meaning anything. All I care about is who else may be running for Lite Gov – anyone know what Trey Martinez-FIscher is thinking about these days? – and there’s plenty of time to worry about that. The Lone Star Project has more.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 9

The Office of Texas Progressive Alliance Ethics remains intact as we bring you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

The Trib looks at Fort Bend’s Democratic trend

It’s worth noting.

Despite long being considered a Republican county, Fort Bend went blue on Nov. 8 when Hillary Clinton won the county with an almost seven-point margin of victory. It wasn’t just an electoral flip — it was a 13-point swing from the 2012 presidential election.

And it marked the third presidential election in which the Republican presidential candidate did not win the county by double digits.

Political observers say it’s still too early to call Fort Bend a battleground county after just one election in which it flipped from red to blue. But given its demographics — and the possibility that those could help it turn reliably purple in the future — they acknowledge that something is afoot in this diverse pocket of Texas.

“This phenomenon is a direct result of the fact that the two population groups Trump did the worst with was college-educated voters and minority voters,” said Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University assistant professor of political science and public administration. “Fort Bend is unique in that it has a high share of both.”

Like most suburbs, Fort Bend’s landscape is a combination of affluent neighborhoods, old ranch homes, rows of new subdivisions, strip malls and open space. About 45 percent its residents have bachelor’s degrees — well beyond the state’s overall rate of 28.4 percent.

But unlike most suburban counties, Fort Bend is home to minority working and middle classes — except here they aren’t in the minority.

Black and Asian Texans have long made up a larger share of the county’s population compared to their small numbers statewide. And as the share of the county’s white residents dropped from 40.7 percent in 2005 to 34.5 percent in 2015, the share of Hispanic and Asian residents has steadily grown.

[…]

The numbers are still being crunched, but political observers attribute Clinton’s win in the county to a boost in minority voters, particularly Asian Americans, splitting their tickets to vote against Trump.

Fort Bend County had the highest share of straight-ticket voters in November among the state’s 10 biggest counties, but Democrats outnumbered Republicans among the 76 percent of voters that cast straight-ticket ballots.

At a time when the Republican party both in Texas and nationwide is generally moving farther to the right, the challenge for Fort Bend Republicans in the future will be bringing back those typically Republican voters who switched over this year, said Aiyer, the political scientist.

“That’s the question: Has the shift become more permanent?” he added.

A lot of this is stuff I’ve covered before, so I don’t have any great insights. I do think the shift is more durable, given the numbers in the downballot races, but Fort Bend is a dynamic place, and the steady influx of new residents makes it hard to say what things will look like politically going forward. Democrats will have some opportunities this year to make gains in local elections, and that’s something we need to watch. A big piece of the puzzle here is just believing that it can be done, which maybe the 2016 results have helped to do. Fort Bend is still Republican-dominated, but it is not a Republican stronghold any more. It’s just a matter of time before the first part of that assessment changes as well.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Dawnna Dukes case to go before grand jury

Awesome.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Travis County prosecutors and Texas Rangers will present evidence to a grand jury that state Rep. Dawnna Dukes abused the power of her office, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore told the American-Statesman.

Among possible charges: abuse of official capacity and tampering with public records, Moore said.

Dukes was sworn into office for a 12th term Tuesday after reneging on a plan to step down before the Legislature convened.

Moore said that the grand jury proceedings will begin next Tuesday.

[…]

The case against Dukes began when members of legislative staff in early 2016 questioned her requiring them to do personal errands for her and work full-time on a nonprofit event. In one instance, Dukes gave a state employee a raise to cover gas money for driving her daughter to and from school.

See here for the background. KXAN was first with the story, and adds some more detail about the resignation that wasn’t.

When asked why she decided to retract her resignation, Dukes told KXAN’s Political Reporter Phil Prazan that she made her decision because her experience and qualifications make her the best person for the job. She said she had to listen to her constituents.

“I listened to the constituents who requested over and over and over again, since my announcement, that I would reconsider that I would come back,” says Dukes, who has served HD 46 since 1995. Dukes says she worked with her doctors to make sure she was healthy enough to make sure she would not be absent from the 2017 session.

[…]

There are currently five people who are vying for House District 46 and all appear to still be moving forward with their campaigns. Former Austin Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to say that she’s still in the race, whether it will be in a special election or the Democratic primary for 2018.

Chito Vela also sent out an advisory for his official campaign kickoff, which is scheduled for Thursday. In his message, he says, “East Austin needs a progressive voice that will fight for the interests of working class voters.”

Gabriel Nila, the only GOP candidate going for the seat, knew he had an uphill battle in a district that typically votes at least 80 percent Democrat.

“Our concern, mine and several other people, is that she will do the exact same thing that she did in 2015—make a couple of appearances here and there, but not take care of the issues that need taking care of,” said Nila.

That sound you hear is me banging my head on my desk. The Trib has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, Scandalized!.

HISD Board appoints Meyers replacement

Meet your new Trustee.

Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca

Houston ISD’s Board of Education voted unanimously Monday night to name former Teach for America staffer Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca as its new District VI trustee.

Flynn Vilaseca, who will replace outgoing Trustee Greg Meyers, will be sworn in at the board’s Thursday regular board meeting along with Anne Sung, the winner of a December special election to replace District VII Trustee Harvin Moore.

Moore submitted his resignation in the summer, and Meyers submitted his in December.

Flynn Vilaseca was the first in her family to attend college and worked for Teach for America in underprivileged HISD and Bryan ISD schools. Most recently, she worked as chief relationship coordinator with ThinkLaw, which aims to enable teachers to teach critical thinking skills through case law. She said she wanted to join the board to help parents and students better navigate the system and their options.

“Public education has played such an important role in my life,” Flynn Vilaseca said. “I found out when I’m a teacher here that my story is not unique. Social capital should be built into the system.”

[…]

Board President Manuel Rodriguez Jr. said of the nine applications the board received, Flynn Vilaseca’s background and understanding of the community in district VI gave her the edge.

“With her education and research backgrounds, being bilingual and having a different cultural experience, having Colombian heritage, those were attributes that gave her an advantage,” he said.

See here and here for the background. The embedded photo is from Ms. Vilaseca’s LinkedIn profile. Here’s a slightly longer bio of her on her employer’s webpage. Among other things, she serves on Mayor Turner’s Hispanic Advisory Board, on the Civic Engagement and Promotions Subcommittee. The official HISD press release announcing her appointment is here. It remains to be seen if she will run for a full term in November or not. Regardless, congratulations and welcome to the Board to Ms. Vilaseca and to Anne Sung, who will also be sworn in on Thursday. Stace has more.

Posted in: School days.

Here comes the fully extended Green Line

Hallelujah.

Oh what a rocky ride it’s been.

Political opposition. A Buy America violation. Construction delays. Contaminated soil that sank an underpass. Overweight and badly-manufactured railcars. More construction delays.

When trains finally start rolling along the new Green Line into neighborhoods east of downtown on Wednesday, the last leg in Metro’s controversial multi-billion dollar project to establish light rail in Houston will be open for business.

But the occasion, coming just days before the Super Bowl, also marks the end, for now, of any light rail expansion in the city.

What the future now holds for Houston’s rail dreams, however, is hard to predict – and that may me the only opinion pro-rail advocates and longtime train critics share.

Officials, namely leaders at Metropolitan Transit Authority, acknowledge the completion of the agency’s $2.2 billion rail expansion is both exciting and a relief because of the detours, setbacks and struggles to complete the last line and the effect it had on East End businesses and residents.

[…]

The final piece of the line, a $30 million overpass at Harrisburg, was competed late last year, ending detours and roughly seven years of construction on the $587 million project, the bulk of which opened in May 2015. The last mile remained closed until the overpass could be completed and Metro could conduct testing required before ferrying passengers along the route.

Service for all riders starts Wednesday, and is free until Jan. 22 along the Green Line.

There’s a long litany in the story on the problems that occurred during the project. There were a lot, and some of them were bad, but let’s keep two things in mind: One, every major infrastructure project has problems, and two, many of the issues with this project originated with the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro administration, which were then left for subsequent boards and CEOs to clean up. It’s all water under the overpass now, and the final completion of this line will do a lot of good, so let’s focus on that.

The end of the line for the Green Line and the most recent rail expansion, however, will not bring an end to talk of rail in Houston. Though there is no funding identified, officials are already dusting off plans for commuter rail to Missouri City along U.S. 90A and looking at what possibilities appear practical to complete other train lines voters approved more than 13 years ago.

First, however, Patman said Metro and others need to develop a regional transportation plan to gauge needed projects and where there is political support for transit investments.

“We have to know where we are going for me to tell you how we’ll get there,” Patman said.

Once the plan is in place, officials could go back to the voters to seek funding, or explore alternatives such as public-private partnerships. Metro has already approved seeking proposals to determine what private partnerships are available.

Any step in the direction of rail, however, has always been politically charged in Houston. The 2003 referendum remains controversial, particularly in relation to a line planned along Richmond. That project remains bitterly opposed by some landowners and businesses, as well as Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

We’ve discussed the possibility of a Metro referendum this November. There will always be opposition to a referendum that includes financing for rail, but that opposition will be a lot greater if the Universities Line is a part of it than if it is not. Of course, a rail system that doesn’t include a connection between downtown and the Uptown Line doesn’t make any sense, so one way or the other this needs to be reckoned with. But first we need a plan and a plan to pay for it, then we can decide whether to vote on it this year or not. I’ll be keeping a close eye on that. Write On Metro and KUHF have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Here’s your 2018-19 revenue estimate

It’s pretty mediocre.

Facing sluggish economic forecasts amid low oil prices along with billions in tax revenue already dedicated to the state highway fund, Comptroller Glenn Hegarannounced Monday that lawmakers will have $104.87 billion in state funds at their disposal in crafting the next two-year budget, a 2.7 percent decrease from his estimate ahead of the legislative session two years ago.

Hegar told state lawmakers he expected a “slow to moderate” expansion of the Texas economy. Still, he said, the amount of revenue they will be able to negotiate over has fallen. That’s largely because lawmakers in 2015 moved to dedicate up to $5 billion in sales tax revenue every two years to the state’s highway fund, rather than being spent on other priorities such as schools, health care or reforms to the embattled Texas foster care system.

“We are projecting overall revenue growth,” Hegar said. “Such growth, however, is more than offset” by the demands of the state highway fund and other dedicated funds.

The revenue estimate does not determine the scope of the entire Texas budget. Rather, it sets a limit on the state’s general fund, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. The general fund typically makes up about half of the state’s total budget.

Two years ago, Hegar estimated that the Legislature would have $113 billion in state funds, also known as general revenue. Adding in federal funds and other revenue sources, lawmakers would have $221 billion in total for its budget, as well as $11.1 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, he said at the time. Lawmakers ultimately passed a $209.4 billion budget, which included billions in tax cuts.

On Monday, Hegar estimated lawmakers would have $104.87 billion in general revenue, and $224.8 billion in total revenue to write a budget for the 2018-19 biennium which begins in September.

See here for more on Hegar’s 2015 estimate, which would up being a tad bit optimistic, but not too far off. It won’t be surprising if this one is off a bit one way or the other – this is why 2014 Comptroller candidate Mike Collier called for more frequent revenue estimates during his campaign, so the course can be corrected as needed more often – but again I expect this to at least be in the ballpark. Assuming the economy doesn’t crash and burn and/or we don’t have ten percent annual growth under Dear Leader Trump, of course.

There are a lot of ingredients that go into making the budget sausage, and there are various things that can and will be done to avoid doing anything too painful. We could of course just assume this was a temporary dip and take a few bucks out of the Rainy Day Fund to smooth out the curve – that was its original purpose, after all; now it serves as a hole in the back yard into which we bury sacks of cash for no clear reason – but that isn’t going to happen. We do have your local property taxes bolstering the state’s bottom line, so be sure to send a thank you note to the State Supreme Court for that. And as always, remember that the biggest boost to spending in 2015 was tax cuts, but that’s never what the leadership has in mind when it says we need to “cut back” on expenses. We do things one way in this state, and will continue to do them that way until there are different people running the state. The Chron and BurkaBlog have more.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

Dukes un-resigns

Ugh.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes confirmed to the Texas Tribune in an email Monday that she is not resigning from her post with House District 46, just two days after blindsiding supporters and fellow lawmakers with her reverse decision.

Dukes, an Austin Democrat, announced in September that she would retire from office on Jan. 10, the first day of the legislative session, after more than 20 years in the Texas House. She cited ongoing health issues and concerns over caring for her 9-year-old daughter but it came while the Travis County District Attorney office was conducting a criminal investigation over her alleged misuse of staff and government funds.

On Saturday, just days after her own spokesperson confirmed to the Tribune that her resignation would go forward, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Duke had told the new Travis County District Attorney, Margaret Moore, that she had changed her mind about retiring. The decision came as a surprise to candidates intending to vie for her seat after she resigned.

See here and here for the background. I feel like an idiot now for ever believing her, but at least I’m not as big an idiot as her spokesman.

On Friday, Bill Miller a spokesman for Dukes, confirmed to the Tribune that Dukes still planned to resign on Tuesday. “She won’t be answering questions prior to that date,” he wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Asked Saturday about the report Dukes wouldn’t resign after all, Miller told the Tribune that he had breakfast with [Travis County DA Margaret] Moore last week and “presumably, it would be a topic of conversation between us if Dukes told her she would not resign.”

“I know what I was told long ago and no one has told me otherwise. [Dukes] is going to do whatever she is going to do,” Miller wrote in an email.

Bet the next staff meeting is a bit awkward. The Statesman reported on this over the weekend, and it gets even weirder.

It wasn’t clear Saturday whether Dukes’ health had improved or why she had reversed course. She has kept a low profile since news broke of possible ethics violations nearly a year ago, and has not responded to repeated requests for comment from the Statesman over the past several months. She did not immediately respond when contacted on Saturday.

[…]

Dukes’ decision did not come on the advice of Fort Worth defense attorney Michael Heiskell, who had been representing her.

“That was not my advice to her,” said Heiskill, who said Dukes had not consulted with him before reversing her decision to step down.

Is he still her attorney?

“Apparently not,” Heiskill said.

Heiskill said he had been contacted earlier in the week by Houston attorney Dane Ball who said he was looking into the matter at Dukes’ request.

Heiskill said it had been his hope that if Dukes had stepped down, the Travis County district attorney would not have sought an indictment.

“But all that’s been scuttled now if what I am hearing is true,” Heiskill said.

Well, maybe the DA will force the matter. Regardless, I look forward to supporting someone in the 2018 primary against Dukes. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Business really doesn’t want a bathroom bill

Because this can’t be said enough.

Texas business leaders are gearing up for a fight with state lawmakers over Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s push to bar transgender Texans from bathrooms tied to their gender identity.

Business groups vehemently oppose the legislation, which they say would discriminate against the LGBT community, make the Lone Star State less attractive for businesses, drive away major events and tourists and hamper the state’s ability to retain young, top-tier workers who view LGBT workplace equality as a must-have.

If the bill became law, business leaders say, it would flush away up to $8.5 billion in economic activity while distracting lawmakers from more pressing issues, such as cutting and reforming taxes and bolstering the state’s economic incentive funds. The business leaders didn’t say if that would be an annual amount.

“Many are questioning why we’re even bringing it up when it’s not needed,” Chris Wallace, Texas Association of Business president, said in a phone interview. “Why are we spending a lot of taxpayers’ money on these types of issues when we have too many other core issues to be concentrating on?”

[…]

Almost 1,200 companies – including Microsoft, Texas Instruments, Whole Foods Market, SeaWorld San Antonio and Amazon – have signed the Texas Competes pledge, which states that long-term economic competitiveness and productivity in Texas are tied to creating a fair environment for the LGBT community. Texas Competes Managing Director Jessica Shortall said the bathroom bill could undercut that goal.

I refer you back to my earlier piece, which has most of what I think about this. While Patrick takes it as a personal affront that anyone thinks his bathroom bill could have any negative effects on Texas, the business lobby thinks his bill is a pointless waste of time. I continue to believe that it will be difficult to repair this relationship after this fight is over, and that the best thing Democrats can do is help sow and nurture those seeds of discord. In the meantime, as one looks at the long and growing list of Texas Competes supporters, I have to ask: What businesses, if any, are on Dan Patrick’s side on this? I’m guessing it’s a lot smaller, and represents much fewer employees and much less economic activity. Sure, that isn’t everything, but if you claim to be the stewards of Texas’ prosperity, it must mean something. So who is Dan Patrick representing here? Besides himself, of course.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Booker T still running for Mayor

He says he’s serious. We’ll see.

Booker T. Huffman

On Tuesday, [Booker T. Huffman] sat down with KHOU 11 News to tell us how he plans to court voters in this new year, nearly three years before Election Day.

“I want the people of Houston to know that I’m one of them,” Booker T said.

You may know him from his days in the ring, but now he wants to be Houston’s next mayor.

“More than anything, I don’t go in to this thinking I know everything, I’m not a politician,” he said.

The 51-year-old grew up in South Houston and even spent time in prison before making his name with a pro wrestling career.

“This is my little crew right here,” he said in his home surrounded by his 6-year-old twins.

Now he wants to focus on helping kids in the inner city and getting people off the streets.

“In our city, there’s a law we can’t even feed the homeless. I just feel like instead of having a law like that, we should have a law on how we are going to feed the homeless,” he said.

We asked him if he was prepared to run against Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“Actually, that’s a foregone conclusion. I know I’m going to win the election,” Booker T said.

He admits people will question if he is qualified for the job.

“Over the next three years, you are going to realize it’s not a publicity stunt…This is real. This is not about me, like I said, it’s about the young people in the city of Houston,” he said.

See here for the background. Booker T sounds earnest and sincere and I don’t want to make light of that, but at some point he’s going to need to come up with a more comprehensive answer to the question of why he wants to run for Mayor, and why he should be elected Mayor in place of Mayor Turner. More specifically, he might consider registering to vote in Houston sometime between now and whenever he takes a formal step towards becoming a candidate. I searched the voter registration databases in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery Counties and did not find anyone by the name “Booker Huffman” or “Booker T. Huffman” in any of them. Just a friendly suggestion from someone who pays attention to this sort of thing.

Posted in: Election 2019.

This fight feels different

The more I read about the forthcoming fight between Dan Patrick and his minions and everyone else over the bathroom bill, the more I am struck by the thought that we have never seen anything quite like this before in Texas.

Standing in front of reporters Thursday, Patrick was still a man on the mission, but the political moment had shifted. In the months prior, a Texas judge had blocked the Obama guidance and the bathroom issue had largely cooled off on the national stage — even contributing to the re-election loss of North Carolina’s governor, by some accounts — and opposition to similar legislation in Texas had begun to gain momentum.

Patrick is now in for a self-admitted “tough fight” in the Texas Legislature, where he faces fierce opposition from the business community and lukewarm support from fellow Republicans, at least outside his Senate. That reality did not immediately change Thursday, when he joined state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to roll out the highly anticipated Texas Privacy Act, which would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex.” The bill would also pre-empt local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Patrick ally and a fellow Houston Republican who chairs the Texas Senate GOP caucus, acknowledged Thursday that it is “going to take some time to talk to the business community, make sure they understand what that bill is” — especially after alarm-sounding by business groups that Patrick allies have criticized as unfounded.

“The beginning of that was obviously” Thursday, Bettencourt said. “Once people can understand what the bill is, certainly the fear of [economic harm] will obviously disappear because it wasn’t real in the first place.”

Patrick was characteristically combative at Thursday’s news conference, saying he had never seen so much misinformation about a piece of legislation before it was filed. He singled out one recent report that suggested he had struggled to find a senator to carry the bill, revealing that he and Kolkhorst had been working on it since Sept. 1. Kolkhorst, for her part, said some of her staff did not even know she was taking up the cause.

The bill’s supporters are betting big that public opinion will overpower whatever resistance they encounter at the Capitol. Their reference point is polling that Patrick’s political operation commissioned last year, which it says shows there is broad support for making it “illegal for a man to enter a women’s restroom.” They also point to the 2015 demise of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, better known as HERO, which featured much of the same message Patrick is now using with the statewide legislation.

[…]

In the House, state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, has been outspoken on the issue. On Thursday, he said he was crafting legislation that would only “prevent any local government from regulating bathrooms,” which would be similar to one component of Senate Bill 6. By solely focusing on local governments, the House bill would avoid the more incendiary debates sparked by a potential statewide mandate, Shaheen suggested.

“This bathroom issue is just sucking up a bunch of time and resources,” Shaheen said. “I think because my approach is more of a scope-of-government-type of discussion — I avoid the whole bathroom dialogue in general — I think there’ll be a receptiveness to the bill.”

In any case, the business community has spent months looking to derail any bill related to the issue, warning it could lead to the same turmoil that visited North Carolina when its lawmakers pushed similar legislation. The Texas Association of Business and its allies have been the most vocal, touting a report the group released last month that said such legislation could cost the state between $964 million and $8.5 billion and more than 100,000 jobs.

Caroline Joiner, executive director for the Texas and the Southeast for TechNet, a technology industry group opposed to the bill, said one of its challenges is convincing “individual legislators and their constituents that this is not hypothetical — we will have real, devastating economic impacts.” And while Joiner, like many others, expects the issue to be better received in the Senate than in the House, she said TechNet has an interest in educating lawmakers from both chambers about the potential economic consequences.

“I think we absolutely need to be telling that story as aggressively in the House as we are in the Senate,” Joiner said. “Yes, it’s going to be less of a priority for Speaker Straus, but we want to make sure he has the support from his members to oppose it.”

For Democrats, the debate provides an opportunity to capitalize on the growing schism between the increasingly conservative Texas GOP and the more moderate business community. On Thursday, the state Democratic Party quickly branded Kolkhorst’s legislation as an “$8.5 billion bathroom bill,” citing the Texas Association of Business study.

The report itself has been a source of controversy, with Patrick and his allies denouncing it as misinformation and fear-mongering. Bettencourt said the study “had some holes you could drive a Mack truck through,” while Shaheen said he wants it known that he and several colleagues are “highly disappointed in TAB about they’ve misrepresented the business impact of these types of bills.”

Patrick continued to rail against the report Thursday, suggesting in a radio interview after the bill unveiling that the study’s findings were not uniformly supported by the business community.

“The members of the Texas Association of Business have already said they don’t even believe their own report,” Patrick told Tony Perkins, president of the socially conservative Family Research Council. “That report was based on not any economic data, but just extracting some numbers that some people who I believe are with the TAB who are just against the bill. Period. Just want to try to make their argument, but it’s no real data. It’s ridiculous.”

See here for more on SB6. Let me start by addressing the ccomparisons to the HERO fight being made by Patrick and Bettencourt, among others. They want us to think that because there were no real consequences for repealing HERO, there will be no consequences for passing SB6. This argument fails on a number of levels. First, it is legal today for a transgender woman to use a ladies’ room today, in Houston and anywhere else. It was legal before HERO was passed, and it is legal today. HERO didn’t make it legal, because it was already legal. SB6 would make it illegal, as HB2 in North Carolina did. Repealing HERO, as bad as that was, merely reset things to the previous status quo. SB6 would actively make it worse for transgender people, as was the case in North Carolina. This is why HERO repeal didn’t cause much of a stir, while SB6 passage would.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but we’ve already seen what those consequences are. We saw sporting events get relocated, conventions get canceled, business expansions get called off, jobs get lost. It happened, right before our eyes, in North Carolina. Sure, maybe the Texas Association of Business is presenting a worst-case scenario, pushing the biggest number possible in an attempt to ward off SB6. But even something that falls short of a worst-case scenario is still bad, and there’s nothing hypothetical about it. The warnings are there. The North Carolina experience – and the Indiana experience before that – happened. We all saw it. It’s on Dan Patrick to explain why it wouldn’t happen here. He’s not very convincing when he tries.

Which brings me to the nature of the disagreement between Patrick et al and the business community. There have been schisms between business and the Republicans before. The biggest one in recent years has been over anti-immigration policies, but the TAB has had things like improving education and infrastructure on their agenda as well. In the past, though, these disputes have been characterized as “disagreements between friends”, who are “held in high regard”. Look at the way Patrick and Bettencourt refer to the TAB study. They’re dismissive, to the point of being contemptuous. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this feels to me like it’s more personal, with each side maybe feeling disrespected by the other. And remember, the session hasn’t even started yet, which is to say that this fight hasn’t really gotten started yet, either. It could get a lot nastier.

Again, I may be overstating this. The invective has gone only one way so far, and it’s hardly anything that couldn’t be walked back later if it had to be. The TAB has no choice but to at least maintain a cordial relationship with Dan Patrick, and the “business as usual” urge is strong. I’m putting a marker down on this now because I noticed it, and if it does continue to develop this way I will point to this as the start of it. What I’m saying for now is that this looks and feels different to me. I’ve been saying for a long time now that at some point the business community needs to come to terms with the fact that Dan Patrick is not with them a significant and increasing amount of the time, and that maybe they need to think about doing something else. We should do what we can to encourage that line of thinking.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

New school grading system looks pretty harsh

Brace yourselves.

Schools in poor neighborhoods overwhelmingly received the worst grades under Texas’ new rating system — but even typically high-performing districts got C’s and D’s, according to scores that will be released Friday.

The “what if” grades show how schools and districts could fare in the new A-F system, which won’t take effect until 2018.

The plan to give public schools letter grades has infuriated educators across the state. As of Thursday, 152 districts have adopted resolutions opposing it. Critics say the approach is over-simplistic and stigmatizes poor schools.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath — who cautions that the new system is a work in progress — has said grades will give families a better understanding of how their schools are doing while crediting schools for the progress they are making.

All North Texas districts meet current state standards according to results released this summer. But 11 would have earned an F in at least one of four categories in the new grading system, including Mesquite, Wylie, Farmersville, Lancaster and Cedar Hill. Highland Park, Plano, Allen and McKinney each got at least one C.

“That’s amazing when you consider that they all met the standard two weeks ago and the scores, the data, haven’t changed,” Mesquite Superintendent David Vroonland said. Both the new and old system are largely based on the same STAAR results and other data.

Dallas ISD got a D in student performance and B’s in three other categories.

DeSoto got an F in student performance and in preparing kids for life after high school.

“We continue to wait for more information from TEA on the methodology of the new system, however, this continued attack on public schools, your DeSoto public schools, is an attack on the foundation of our country,” superintendent David Harris said in a prepared statement on Thursday.

“The government ‘ranking’ and comparing schools, feeds the agenda of those claiming our schools are failing and vouchers are the answer. Meanwhile, public schools tend to be underfunded and over mandated by the state and federal governments.”

The Legislature approved the grading system during the 2015 session. Other states, including Oklahoma and West Virginia, have similar accountability measures. But Virginia killed its plan to give letter grades over concerns of fairness to schools.

The Texas Education Agency is releasing grades in four areas: how well students performed on state tests; how much progress students made from year to year on those tests, how well schools are closing the gaps between poor children and their peers; and students’ college or career readiness. Next year, a fifth measure will allow schools to grade themselves on student and community engagement. Schools and districts will also receive an overall grade.

Critics of the system say it doesn’t actually reflect what’s going on in classrooms and will only stigmatize schools in poor neighborhoods that will have a harder time meeting standards. Those schools already struggle to recruit and keep talented teachers and engaged families.

See here for a bit of background. The A-F grading system was part of a larger bill authored by outgoing Education Chair Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock. It generated controversy at the time, but as is sometimes the case when the end of the session is approaching and things need to get done, it was passed in spite of the concerns about that part of the bill. The story above is from the Dallas Morning News, but similar stories are coming in from all over the state.

Various Central Texas districts, including Austin, Leander, Hays, Georgetown, Bastrop, Manor, Elgin, San Marcos, Hutto, Dripping Springs and Elgin received unacceptable grades of Ds and Fs in certain categories, according to a report sent to the Texas Legislature last week that was obtained by the American-Statesman.

Even some nationally ranked campuses, including Round Rock’s Westwood High School and Eanes’ Westlake High, didn’t muster straight As under the new system, and schools that received top marks from the state just a few months ago received unacceptable scores. The grades are meant to give districts and the public a glimpse of how the new system will work when it is finalized next year, and are not official or punitive. The accountability ratings doled out in August still stand.

[…]

Austin school district Superintendent Paul Cruz said having an A through F system is confusing if it is not the same A through F system that people know and understand. Under this system, a school can have a 90 and still be failing, he said, and “that’s not the grading system we use in our schools.”

Blackshear Elementary, for example, is a national Blue Ribbon school, and has been recognized by the Texas Education Agency for the work it has done with a high concentration of students from low-income families. Yet it received an F under the postsecondary readiness category because of absenteeism, he said.

And of course, from here in Houston.

Houston ISD, Texas’ largest school system, earned B’s for closing achievement gaps and learning gains on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness. It earned a C for student achievement on the STAAR, and its lowest mark – a D – came in postsecondary readiness, a stumbling block for many Texas schools.

Educators argue that this new system relies too much on standardized tests and fails to take into account the complexities of individual schools and districts, like whether their student body is predominantly poor or non-native English speakers.

“The real education experts are pretty united on this one. We see it doing more harm than good,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents 68,000 teachers and support staff.

[…]

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt lambasted the preliminary grades on Friday as an attack on public schools for political gain.

“Our legislators’ ‘ranking’ and comparing of public schools feeds the agenda of those claiming our public schools are failing and vouchers, tax credits, scholarships, etc. are the answer,” Hindt said. “Meanwhile, public schools are underfunded and overmandated by the state and federal governments. Our private school counterparts would never accept funding that tied them to the mandates the Legislature and the TEA place on our public schools – essentially eroding communities’ local control.”

The final system that will be used to calculate letter grades in 2018 is expected to include five domains. Friday’s tentative grades included just four categories, similar to those in the state’s current accountability system.

At least two Houston-area schools, including HISD’s Sterling High and Spring Branch ISD’s Sherwood Elementary, scored straight F’s in Friday’s preliminary grades despite having “met standard” in their official accountability rankings.

At least 78 Houston-area schools, including charters, earned D’s and F’s, even though they “met standard” in the current system. Of those, 12 schools and five districts got straight F’s on the preliminary letter grades but “met standard” in the current accountability system.

The two systems are not meant to be compared, said Lauren Callahan, a TEA spokeswoman.

“When you’re looking at the current system, you really don’t have a good idea as a parent whether your campus barely met standard or they are knocking it out of the park,” she said. “There is a lot more that goes through the A-F system than is in the pass-fail system.”

Still, the mismatched results baffled leaders at schools that earned F’s but still “met standard,” as was the case at Sherwood.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez has filed a bill to rescind the A-F grading system. I don’t think that will pass, but given the massive problems with the STAAR test, I do think some action will be taken, with a delay in implementation being the most likely possibility. As always, you should contact your legislators to let them know what you think about this. A statement from the TEA is here, and the Trib has more.

Posted in: School days, That's our Lege.

Rep. Sam Johnson to retire

One of Texas’ longest-serving members of Congress will call it quits next year.

Rep. Sam Johnson

U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson announced Friday morning that he will not seek re-election to represent his Plano-based seat in Congress.

Johnson, a Vietnam War veteran, made the announcement over email Friday.

“After much prayer, I have decided I will not seek re-election to serve the Third District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018,” he wrote. “This will be my final term in the appropriately named ‘People’s House.'”

[…]

His 3rd District is strongly Republican, and the GOP primary will most likely determine who will replace him in Congress. Names floated as possible contenders include state Sen. Van Taylor, a Plano Republican, and Collin County Judge Keith Self.

Johnson has been in Congress since 1991, though offhand I can’t think of much that he has done. He did serve in the Korean War as well as the Vietnam War, and was a prisoner of war in Hanoi for seven years, so to say the least he has a compelling personal story. I wish him all the best in his future retirement.

As it happens, the Daily Kos database of Presidential results by Congressional district now includes Texas CDs. Here’s a look at the numbers in CD03:

2012 – Romney 64.3%, Obama 34.2%
2016 – Trump 54.8%, Clinton 40.6%

The data only includes percentages and not vote totals, so it’s hard to say how much of that difference can be accounted for by crossover votes. The data on the Texas Redistricting webpage likely won’t be updated to include 2016 numbers for a few more weeks, so I won’t be able to do any comparisons till then. I did apply the 2016 percentages to the actual result in CD03 to get an estimate:

2012 – Romney 175,383, Obama 93,290
2016 – Trump 173,424, Clinton 128,486 (estimated)
2016 – Johnson 193,684, Bell 109,420

Like I said, I’ll know more once I see the full 2016 data. The 2012 data is here. The Presidential numbers make it look like maybe there could be something competitive under the right circumstances, while the numbers from Johnson’s own race do not. Of course, Dems would have to find a candidate first, and given that they don’t hold any state or county offices in Collin County, that limits their options. Maybe a City Council member from Plano or something like that might be willing to give it a go? I’m just spitballing here. At least we have plenty of time to locate someone. The DMN has more.

Posted in: Election 2018.

The history of the Chicken Ranch

Chron columnist and Texas historian Joe Holley writes about an attempt to put a marker by the site of the infamous Chicken Ranch.

Rumors spreading round that Texas town

Rumors spreading round that Texas town

It’s been 43 years since KTRK-TV’s crusading consumer affairs reporter (“Slime in the ice machine!!”) rolled into town with a cameraman to bust the unassuming, little country brothel that had flourished just beyond the city limits for more than a century. Zindler’s over-the-top theatrics not only resulted in the demise of the brothel – and the reporter’s own beat-down at the hands of the local sheriff, Big Jim Flournoy – but also set in motion the media cavalcade featuring Larry L. King’s famous “Playboy” article, the subsequent Broadway musical and the movie version starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. “‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ remains one of the most infamous brothels ever to operate in the United States, if not the world,” says Jayme Lynn Blaschke, author of the newly published “Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse.”

The front parlor of the rambling, old frame house ended up in Dallas in 1976, reconstituted as a combination disco and chicken-themed restaurant on Greenville Avenue. “Lots of men showed up thinking it was still a brothel,” a former waitress told Blaschke. The owners hired Miss Edna, the Chicken Ranch’s last madam, to act as hostess, but she couldn’t draw the (fried) thigh and breast trade the way she could in La Grange. The restaurant lasted less than a year.

Back in Fayette County, a Waco used-car salesman named Mike McGee acquired the Chicken Ranch property in a 2009 swap with a Houston businessman. “I didn’t know what I got when I traded for it,” McGee told me by phone earlier this week.

What he got were the ruins of an old house surrounded by mesquite, huisache and prickly pear on a gravel road less than a mile off state Highway 71. Vandals, the weather and the travails of time have done their work, and by now the house is too far gone to restore. Last month McGee began the process of applying for a state historical marker at the suggestion of the local tourism board. “There’s so much interest in the Chicken Ranch, they wanted a place they can send people to, so they can look at something,” he said.

A few influential folks were not pleased, said Blaschke, who helped McGee with the application. “I’d say 45 percent of the population think it’s part of Texas history, and they should exploit it,” he said from his office at Texas State University, where he’s director of media relations. “Another 45 percent don’t give it any never mind. And maybe 10 percent of the population just about spews blood out of their eyeballs if you even mention it.”

Among the more adamant opponents – and the most influential – is longtime County Judge Ed Janecka, whose Czech ancestors settled the nearby community of Dubina in the 1850s.

McGee and Blaschke have withdrawn the application for a historical marker due to Judge Janecka’s opposition, which makes sense because Janecka would have to approve it. They may try again another time, and I hope they do. I don’t live there and it’s none of my business, but I think this is an interesting and worthwhile piece of history that ought to be remembered. I understand that some of the locals are still sensitive about this, and I can’t blame them. Maybe it would be best to wait, out of consideration for the folks who do remember the place and don’t want to be reminded of it. I do hope that someday there will be a plaque or some such to tell visitors and others who are curious that on this spot once stood the most famous brothel in Texas, if not America.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Weekend link dump for January 8

“But none of that will dampen the fact that for these last eight years, the President of the United States actually listened to Native Americans and kept his promises to them. That is historic.”

Just so we’re clear, there was no great crime wave last year.

I’m sure this is how the inaugural speechwriting process has been going.

The politics of genetics and race are messy and fraught.

“So let’s start with that very basic reminder: Jesus did not have a single book collecting a canon of 66 scriptures. He did not live in a world of books or in a world that treated or thought of or related to books the way we have learned to do. Invoking Jesus, then, as the authoritative source for the idea of the Bible as an authoritative reference handbook is wrong in a way that is several large steps removed from the possibility of being right.”

Businesses are already sucking up to Dear Leader Donald in an attempt to curry his favor.

RIP, William Christopher, best known as Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H.

Four things that were supposed to have happened by now because of President Obama’s re-election.

“Under Obamacare, senior citizens pay less for Medicare coverage and for their prescription drugs. Many Americans have received free contraceptives, mammograms, colonoscopies and cholesterol tests. And small business employees with older and sicker workers have not been slapped with super-high premiums.”

“That means we report on 16 million Americans gaining access to medical care as something other than Good News. And that’s wrong. That’s factually wrong. It’s inaccurate. It’s wrong in the same way it would be wrong not to recognize that the local family surviving the house fire was Good News.”

An Anecdote About Campus Microgressions and Intolerance.

“When it comes to immigration and refugees, presidents and Congress get to say, but mayors have to do.”

Be careful about telling your Amazon Echo about your criminal plans.

Gregg Popovich is a mensch.

Krebs does a deep dive on the DNC hacks.

“A major survey released last week revealed that just 7,100 adult cheetahs remain in the wild, and that the species faces extinction without urgent new protection measures.”

The political error of secretly gutting the House ethics committee.

Maybe it wasn’t just the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

“Beijing will create 13 million jobs by 2020, investing $360 billion in clean energy, while Trump vows to abandon the sector.” Sad!

Julian Assange is a very useful idiot for Vladimir Putin. As is Donald Trump. Remember when conservatives didn’t trust Russia? Boy, those were the days.

Hope you’ll enjoy paying for “fencing and other technology along the southern border”, Trump voters.

That new Drew Barrymore series on Netflix looks, um, interesting.

“Funny how pornography normalizes sexual assault, but electing a man who has bragged about sexual assault somehow doesn’t.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Judge rules for Pasadena plaintiffs

Wow.

Pasadena City Council

A federal judge in Houston dealt a major blow Friday to the city of Pasadena in a closely watched voting rights case, ruling that officials deliberately diluted the clout of Hispanic voters by revising the system for electing City Council members.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Pasadena to revert to its previous use of single-member districts for the upcoming May elections and ruled the city would need preclearance from the Department of Justice for any future changes.

“In Pasadena, Texas, Latino voters … do not have the same right to vote as their Anglo neighbors,” Rosenthal concluded in the 113-page decision released late Friday.

Patricia Gonzales, one of the plaintiffs who filed the federal lawsuit, said fairness can be restored to the city election system.

“All right,” she said, when informed of the ruling. “Now each section will be able to vote on who they want and their voices will be heard. I’m very pleased with the outcome.”

The ruling could provide a key test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 that gutted portions of the Voting Rights Act, legal experts said.

“It is a great win,” said Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “This case shows that there is something you can do, at least if you have the facts, lawyers and resources.”

[…]

Rosenthal cited witness testimony in her opinion, noting that both Texas and Pasadena had histories of exclusionary practices and that discriminatory attitudes toward Latinos still endured among Pasadena residents.

In recent years, the political balance in Pasadena had begun to shift, the judge wrote. But just as Latino voters were poised to elect a majority of single-district representatives to the City Council, longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell and his backers proposed changes to the election system, the judge said.

“In short, Pasadena’s elections are racially polarized,” Rosenthal wrote. “The City’s 2013 racially polarized vote in favor of the 6–2 redistricting map and plan and the Council’s 2014 vote to approve the change were narrowly decided. The effect was to dilute Latino voting strength. That effect was foreseeable and foreseen.”

The city is likely to appeal the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the ruling could have a significant impact nonetheless on the May elections. All City Council seats and the mayor’s post are up for election; Isbell is facing term limits and cannot seek re-election.

See here for the last update. Rick Hasen has a copy of and some excerpts from the decision. This is a big deal, and as the city of Pasadena has now been put back under preclearance, it’s a possible preview of what could be in store for Texas when we get a final decision on voter ID. Of course, being under preclearance now means a lot less than it would have under President Hillary Clinton, but it’s still something. We’ll see if there is an appeal, and if so if the Fifth Circuit steps in to halt any reversions to the old system before the May election. For now, I say congratulations and well done to the plaintiffs. A statement from the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus is here.

Posted in: Legal matters.

What is the environmental impact of building an Ike Dike?

Maybe we should try to figure that out.

Plans for building a massive storm-surge protection system for the Houston area are rushing ahead before officials determine whether the project could harm Galveston Bay, environmental groups say.

The Sierra Club and the Galveston Bay Foundation, the environmental groups most closely watching the planning process, worry that there’s been too much focus on how to build the so-called Ike Dike and not enough on its impact on the bay.

“The Ike Dike has gained traction and local government support,” said Scott Jones, spokesman for the Galveston Bay Foundation. “We understand that, but we don’t think the environmental questions have been answered.”

Brandt Mannchen, spokesman for the Sierra Club’s Houston Regional Group, agreed. “We really need to look at the environmental impacts and, from our standpoint, should have looked at them first. We are kind of doing this backward.”

[…]

The groups are concerned that political momentum for the existing proposal may be so strong by then that the study results will have little influence.

“Maybe the Ike Dike is the best thing since Wonder Bread, but right now we don’t know because we haven’t looked at it,” Mannchen said.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I guess we need someone to create some models of the various proposals, to simulate what the effects of building them are, as well as the effect of having them or not having them in place when a big storm hits. It may be that even with some negative effects from the construction, the mitigation in the event of nightmare hurricane is more than enough to make it worthwhile. Or not. Who knows? It sure would be nice if we did.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

More MUD muddles

Who needs collateral?

When Houston businessman David Lucyk decided to develop land in northeast Harris County, he lined up a bank loan to pay for water pipes, sewers, roads and a stormwater detention pond.

He offered the bank three items as collateral: land his company owned, an ownership stake in a business, and the promise of money in the future – millions of dollars in payments from a municipal utility district, or MUD, that he helped create to finance his project.

If everything had gone as planned, Harris County Municipal Utility District 402 would have sold tax-exempt bonds to reimburse Lucyk’s company for its infrastructure costs, and Lucyk would have used the money to repay the bank.

MUDs are highly popular among Texas developers, who hold enormous sway over how they’re created and benefit greatly from their ability to issue tax-exempt bonds and levy property taxes to cover infrastructure costs, as Lucyk was counting on. Those infrastructure costs are ultimately passed on to property owners within the MUD’s boundaries, whose property taxes go to repay the bonds.

Taxpayers’ advocates have questioned the transparency of some MUDs and see them as an increasingly problematic way to pay for infrastructure as local government debt increases, given their sweeping power to sell bonds and raise taxes. What happened with Lucyk and MUD 402 became a case in point when things didn’t work out as planned.

Lucyk’s firm defaulted on the bank loan and filed for bankruptcy. But because part of the collateral he offered the bank was proceeds from the MUD’s forthcoming bond sales, future taxpayers were on the hook for his company’s debts.

Hugh Coleman, a Denton County commissioner and critic of special purpose districts, said the state needs to better protect taxpayers by stopping developers from using future MUD bond proceeds as collateral for bank loans. When things go wrong, banks can sell that collateral.

“It’s like buying credit card debt, except you get to buy it for a developer-run governmental entity and the property owners are on the hook to pay the full amount of the debt,” he said.

It’s one thing for a developer to reach an agreement requiring the MUD to reimburse its infrastructure costs with bond proceeds. But by using that deal as collateral to get a bank loan, Coleman said, it often means a developer enters the project under-collateralized. A chunk of the financial risk of development is transferred from the developer to the taxpayers, he added.

[…]

It’s unclear how often future MUD payments to developers are used as collateral and then bought and sold after a bank loan default.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which along with the legislature creates MUDs at the request of developers, does not track how often those developers go bankrupt.

“TCEQ is not aware of any effects a developer’s bankruptcy has on bonds issued by a district,” said agency spokesman Brian McGovern.

I dunno, that sounds like a nice piece of data to have. I’ll say again, MUDs may have their merits, but I seriously doubt this is the system we’d willingly choose to have if we were designing everything over from scratch. For all the chest-thumping we are subject to by Republican legislators about being zealous watchdogs of taxpayer money, not to mention the fervor to meddle in local affairs, you’d think someone would file a bill to provide more oversight of MUDs. I guess the pander potential is insufficient for that.

Posted in: Local politics.

Saturday video break: No Questions Asked

A song I recently acquired, from the Flesh Eaters:

I got that from the 1980 collection of the Fluxblog 1980s Survey Mixes, which you absolutely need to get if you like 80s music in all its ugly beauty. It’s a lot of music, and Fluxblog also has annual mixes beginning in 2002. I haven’t gotten those yet – hell, I haven’t loaded the 80s stuff into my iTunes yet. But it’s there and you should check it out.

Moving on, here’s Fleetwood Mac with a different No Questions Asked:

Good song, but not one that comes to mind when one thinks of Fleetwood Mac music.

Posted in: Music.

O’Rourke and Dowd say they want to challenge Cruz in 2018

Rep. Beto O’Rourke upgraded his chances of running for the Senate in 2018 to “very likely”.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Thursday he is all but certain to make a run for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s seat in 2018.

“I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people around the state of Texas over the last six weeks, and I will tell you, I’m very encouraged,” he told The Texas Tribune on Thursday in an interview. “And I am continuing to listen to and talk to folks, and I’m just becoming more and more encouraged.”

“It’s very likely that I will run for Senate in 2018,” the El Paso Democrat added.

In a previous interview with the Tribune, O’Rourke kept the door open to a run in 2018 or 2020. O’Rourke just began his third term in the U.S. House and has promised to term-limit himself in that chamber.

The comments came just hours after former George W. Bush operative Matthew Dowd told the Tribune that he, too, was considering a bid against Cruz as an independent.

O’Rourke reacted to the Dowd news positively.

“Anyone who’s willing to take something like this on deserves our respect, and so I think that would be great,” he said. “I think the more voices, perspectives, experience that can be fielded, the better for Texas.”

See here for the background. I have to assume that O’Rourke’s greater interest in a 2018 run also indicates a lesser likelihood of Rep. Joaquin Castro challenging Cruz, but this story does not mention Castro. I think O’Rourke could be an interesting opponent for Cruz, if he has the resources to make himself heard, and it’s always possible that this midterm could be a lot less friendly to Republicans than the last two have been, but he would be a longshot no matter how you slice it. Given the fundraising he’d have to do to make a Senate run viable, I’m guessing we’d need to have a final decision to run by June at the latest, but we’ll see.

And as noted in that story, Rep. O’Rourke wasn’t the only person talking about a Cruz challenge.

Matthew Dowd, an Austin-based television news commentator and former George W. Bush strategist, is mulling an independent challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“I don’t know what I will do,” he told The Texas Tribune. “But I am giving it some thought, and I appreciate the interest of folks.”

Dowd said this has been a draft effort, as prominent members of both parties have approached him to run against Cruz.

[…]

The political strategist’s career tells the story of the past three decades of Texas politics. Dowd started in Democratic politics, including as a staffer to then-U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.

But Dowd eventually gravitated to then-Gov. Bush in the late 1990s, working on both of his presidential campaigns and for the Republican National Committee.

In 2007, Dowd publicly criticized Bush over the Iraq war.

More recently, Dowd used his social media and ABC News platforms to question the viability of the two-party system.

Now, he is considering a run of his own — against a man he once worked with on the 2000 Bush campaign.

“I don’t think Ted served the state well at all,” Dowd said. “He hasn’t been interested in being a U.S. senator from Texas. He’s been interested in national office since the day he got in.”

[…]

An independent run would be a heavy lift, but it would probably scramble the race far more than anyone could have anticipated a year ago. Dowd argued that an independent candidate could have a better shot than a challenge from either party.

“I think Ted is vulnerable, but I don’t think Ted’s vulnerable in the Republican primary, and I don’t think Ted is vulnerable to a Democrat in the general,” he said. “I think a Democrat can’t win in the state.”

Fundraising in an expensive state without the party apparatus would likely be a major obstacle as well.

“I actually believe money is less important now today than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s going to take money and a lot of grassroots money, and it’s going to take people frustrated at Washington and frustrated about Ted.”

This is extremely hypothetical, so let’s not go too deep here. The first challenge is getting on the ballot as an independent, which requires collecting a sizable number of petition signatures from non-primary voters in a fairly short period of time. It can be done, as Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman demonstrated in 2006, but it takes a lot of resources. That can be money or volunteer energy, but at least one is needed. And say what you want about how important money is in today’s campaign world, the challenge remains getting your name and message out to people. If voters have no idea who you are on the ballot, they’re probably not going to vote for you. I guarantee you, if a poll were taken right now, maybe two percent of Texas voters will have any familiarity with the name “Matthew Dowd”. That’s what the money would be for, to get the voters to know who he is.

If – and it’s a big if, but we love to speculate about this sort of thing – Dowd can get the petition signatures to get on the ballot, then the actual election becomes pretty interesting. Dowd may have started life as a Democrat, but he’s much more closely identified with the Republicans, and he’s now a fairly prominent Trump critic. We could assume that his base is primarily the Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, which if you add up the Clinton crossovers and the increase in Gary Johnson’s vote total over 2012 works out to maybe a half million people. That’s not nothing, but it’s a long way from a win, and the voters who remain are the more committed partisans. On the assumption that Dowd would draw more heavily from Republicans, that would help boost Beto O’Rourke’s chances, but Ted Cruz starts out with a pretty big cushion. He can afford to lose a lot of votes before he faces any real peril. Even in the down year of 2006, Republicans were winning statewide races by 500K to a million votes. Having someone like Dowd in the race improves O’Rourke’s chances of winning, but a lot would have to happen for those chances to improve to something significant.

We’re getting way ahead of ourselves. If O’Rourke says he’s running, I believe him. If Dowd says he’s thinking about running, well, I believe he’s thinking about it. Wake me up when he does something more concrete than that.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Effort to expedite redistricting ruling denied

From the Lone Star Project:

Earlier today, Federal District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez denied the motion filed by the Texas congressional and State House redistricting plaintiffs calling on the three-judge federal district court in San Antonio to rule on the pending redistricting case.  Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle released the following statement:

“While we had hoped the motion for a judgment filed by the Plaintiffs in the ongoing Texas redistricting case last week would be granted, we appreciate that the Court’s order today shows that it is looking carefully at the voluminous record that has been assembled over the 5 plus years of litigation. We trust that when the three-judge court finishes its review, the court will conclude that Texas Republican leaders have intentionally discriminated against African American and Hispanic voters to such an extent that it hurts every Texas voter.”

See here for the background. In the original statement, the plaintiffs talked about going to the Fifth Circuit if they didn’t get some action here. It sounds like they may be backing off of that. All I can say is I hope we don’t have to wait too much longer.

Posted in: Legal matters.