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What else is at stake in the redistricting trial

It’s about more than just the maps.

Efforts by the Obama administration to wring protections out of a weakened Voting Rights Act begin Monday in Texas over allegations that Republicans intentionally discriminated against minorities when drawing new election maps.

A federal trial in San Antonio comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that Texas and 14 other states with a history of voting discrimination no longer need permission from Washington before changing the way elections are held.

The Justice Department and minority rights groups now want a three-judge panel to decide that Texas still needs that approval under a historically obscure portion of the Voting Rights Act that has drawn new attention since the heart of the 1964 civil rights law was struck down.

Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to use “every tool at our disposal” to preserve voter safeguards after the Supreme Court decision.

“This is a case that will make law,” said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

[...]

Republican legislative leaders have long argued the maps were drawn merely to benefit their party’s candidates and have rejected accusations of intentional discrimination.

But if judges find intentional discrimination, Texas could be required to continue seeking federal preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. It has rarely been employed because the same effect was formerly achieved through the more muscular part of the law that is now eliminated.

See here and here for more on what the plaintiffs and the Justice Department are aiming for, and here for more on the state’s response. Section 3 came out of obscurity last year after Section 5 was gutted, and this is its first major test. If it fails here, I suspect it’s unlikely to succeed anywhere else.

Salon fills in some more details on why the plaintiffs and the DOJ are pursuing this course.

On Nov. 17, 2010, Eric Opiela sent an email to Gerard Interiano. A Texas Republican Party associate general counsel, Opiela served at that time as a campaign adviser to the state’s speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio; he was about to become the man who state lawmakers understood spoke “on behalf of the Republican Congressmen from Texas,” according to minority voting-rights plaintiffs, who have sued Texas for discriminating against them.

A few weeks before receiving Opiela’s email, Interiano had started as counsel to Straus’ office. He was preparing to assume top responsibility for redrawing the state’s political maps; he would become the “one person” on whom the state’s redistricting “credibility rests,” according to Texas’ brief in voting-rights litigation.

In the Nov. 17, 2010, email, Opelia asked Interiano to look for specific data about Hispanic populations and voting patterns.

“These metrics would be useful to identify the ‘nudge factor’ by which one can analyze which census blocks, when added to a particular district [they] help pull the district’s Total Hispanic pop … to majority status, but leave the Spanish surname RV [registered voters] and TO [turnout] the lowest,” Opiela writes to the mapmaker.

Interiano responded two days later: “I will gladly help with this Eric but you’re going to have to explain to me in layman’s terms.”

Two years and seven months after that email exchange — and one year ago on June 25, 2013 — the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder,which struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had allowed the federal government to “pre-clear” redistricting maps proposed by Texas and other states with a history of discriminating against minority voters.

In a follow-up email on Nov. 19, 2010, Opiela explained to Interiano that he called his proposed strategy: “OHRVS” or “Optimal Hispanic Republican Voting Strength.” Opiela defined the acronym-friendly term as, “a measure of how Hispanic, and[,] at the same time[,] Republican we can make a particular census block.”

Lawyers for the African-American and Hispanic voting-rights plaintiffs consider Opiela emails “a smoking gun.” The correspondence will play a starring role at a trial scheduled to start today in a San Antonio federal court in a redistricting case, Perez v. Perry. The litigation pits the plaintiffs, who have been joined by the Obama administration, against Texas and its Republican state leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry in his official capacity.

There’s more, so read the whole thing. The trial is expected to last a week, though the ruling won’t be for months. The one thing I feel confident saying is that this will wind up back before the Supreme Court. PDiddie, Texas Election Law Blog, and Texas Public Radio have more.

UPDATE: From his new perch at the Brennan Center, here’s Michael Li’s preview of the trial and its implications.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The interim and non-interim Mayoral hopefuls of San Antonio

Robert Rivard previews the sausage-making process in San Antonio.

It takes six votes to win, a majority that will be harder to achieve if some of the announced candidates exercise their right to abstain. If all five abstain from voting for someone else, it will be impossible to gain the necessary majority. Such a stalemate would open up the process to all 10 council members, according to the rules of procedure outlined by City Attorney Robbie Greenblum at a recent council meeting.

If the interim mayor is, however, successfully elected on the first round of voting, you will know the real vote occurred behind closed doors and out of public view. I hope that doesn’t happen, and I don’t necessarily believe it will.

What is more likely is an inconclusive first round in which at least two of the candidates, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and District 7 Councilman Chris Medina, receive no votes and are eliminated from the next round. It’s also possible, of course, that both will reach this conclusion before July 22 and reverse their stated intentions to seek the mayor’s seat.

Either way, that would leave three candidates.

One is District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, the presumed frontrunner who has stated her willingness to serve out Castro’s one year unexpired term and then step down without seeking election as mayor next May. She would be San Antonio’s first African-American mayor and in a strong position to seek a seat in the state Legislature afterwards if state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) does not run again.

Taylor’s pledge not to run in next May’s city election makes her an appealing compromise candidate to council members who want to run in May themselves or who want to support a candidate not on the Council.

It also would leave San Antonio with a figurehead leader lacking the political power of an interim mayor perceived as a possible candidate for election to a full term in May.

The others two candidates are District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez, the senior member of Council, and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, both of whom have expressed an interest in winning the interim seat and going on to run in May.

Two suburban Council members, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier and District 10 Councilman David Gallagher, were said to be provisionally committed to Taylor, if you believe city hall chatter. That’s still four votes short, but it’s a start.

Lopez is experienced and believes he would be effective as mayor, but younger Council members seem more inclined to look at candidates from their generation. Gonzales has entered the contest, in part, because she and others feel it’s time for San Antonio to elect its first Latina mayor. She also believes she is just as qualified as anyone else pursuing the job. Gonzales had no mayoral aspirations before Castro’s Cabinet nomination, but circumstances have placed her and everyone else on the Council in a position none anticipated.

The unique nature of Council politics has thrust all of them into an uncomfortable position. The Council members who might have been the most likely to try and succeed Castro in 2017, had he sought and won a fourth term, aren’t the Council members with the strongest hand in the July 22 contest.

Makes your head spin a little, doesn’t it? Rivard is absolutely right that the San Antonio City Council needs to amend the city’s charter to include a less-crazy, more-democratic Mayoral succession process. A special election on the next viable uniform election date makes the most sense to me. In the meantime, the main question seems to be is it better to put in a placeholder till next May so all of the wannabees for a full term can start out on even footing, or is it better to put in someone that will be auditioning on the job for a full term?

How you answer that may depend on who you would like to support in 2015. One person who won’t be tapped to fill Julian Castro’s shoes for the next few months is State Rep. Mike Villarreal, who is busy building up support for his 2015 campaign.

For 35 years, the most successful candidates and most effective mayors have been practical Democrats who have won the backing of the business community.

This is not just because these candidates have well-financed campaigns. It is because a mayor with an ambitious agenda needs the support of the majority of voters — who in San Antonio are Democrats — and the support of the business community, which is practical.

The most effective San Antonio mayors of the past 35 years — Henry Cisneros, Nelson Wolff, Phil Hardberger and Castro — all fit that profile.

For the past 10 years, the best political harbinger of business support is Mike Beldon, head of one of the city’s largest roofing companies, former chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and former chairman of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. In 2005, he served as treasurer and finance director for Hardberger’s campaign against a young Castro. Four years later, he did the same for Castro in his successful campaign against Trish DeBerry.

Now Beldon has signed on as the mayoral campaign manager for state Rep. Mike Villarreal.

Other than the Council members named above that would run for “re-election” if they win the Council beauty contest, there aren’t any serious contenders that are openly working it for 2015. Villarreal is known to have statewide ambitions, and Mayor of San Antonio would be a nice jumping-off point for a future statewide campaign, certainly one with greater potential than State Rep, at least at this time. One interesting twist on this is that Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is said to have expressed some interest in being Mayor before, and could conceivably jump in if she’s not presiding over the Senate next spring. I trust Rep. Villarreal will see that as extra incentive to work even harder on behalf of her candidacy for Lite Gov.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Believing in – and lying about – monsters

This Chron editorial about the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance and the frenzied, fanatical opposition to it gets right to the heart of the matter.

On its face, there is nothing controversial in the NDO. One could even claim that it is rather conservative, in the sense that this policy has been tested elsewhere time and again. The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of categories already covered by federal law. It also extends protections to gay and transgender residents, following nondiscrimination laws that other cities and states have had on the books for years. Religious organizations and small businesses are exempted, and the maximum fine is $5,000.

But the rather staid nature of the nondiscrimination ordinance has not stopped opponents (mostly a few limited political and religious groups) from labeling it the “Sexual Predator Protection Act” and pursuing a ballot referendum to eliminate the new law.

The crux of this ad hominem invective is that opening the doors of civil society to transgender people – including restroom doors – will somehow also benefit criminals. This is an accusation based more in fear than fact.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. More than 160 cities and counties have passed their own individual laws, including Atlanta, Nashville and New Orleans. Dallas has had similar protections for a decade. Minnesota first prohibited discrimination against transgender folks in public accommodations more than 20 years ago. Even the Houston Independent School District added a transgender category to its nondiscrimination policy in 2011.

Houstonians have patiently studied these others’ experiences, and the results are overwhelmingly positive. A city of sex criminals run amok only exists in the perverse fantasies of those prone to moral panics, desperately yearning for evidence that their fears were rightly founded. That evidence simply does not exist beyond the anecdotal urban legend.

Emphasis mine. I don’t know if anyone on the Chron editorial board reads The Slacktivist, but the subject of people – in particular, evangelical Christians – inventing monsters to be afraid of and stand in opposition to is one he has examined on multiple occasions. They are lying, and they have no excuse for it. What’s more, they know they’re lying, which is even more evidence of their wrongness. I’m clearly not as cynical as I sometimes think I am, because the lying – the brazenness of it, the ease with which they do it, the utter lack of compunction or conscience about it – still shocks me. But the facts speak for themselves.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Is this really the end for Kinky Friedman?

I’ll believe it when I see it on my 2018 ballot.

Kinky Friedman

Kinky Friedman

It’s been more than a month since he lost his bid to be the Democratic nominee for Texas agriculture commissioner, and the cigar-smoking author-musician can’t shake the loss — or how he was treated by fellow Democrats.

Friedman, in D.C. for a recent performance at the Washington Jewish Music Festival, wanted to talk about being sabotaged by party officials in the May 27 runoff.

“Democrats came after me personally with robocalls,” he told the Star-Telegram. “I thought a primary was sacred for people to choose.”

Friedman, who ran on a pro-hemp, pro-marijuana platform, lost the runoff by nearly 10 points to Jim Hogan, a rancher who did not campaign.

Asked whether it was the end of his political career, Friedman likened himself to Winston Churchill, who was booted out of office after leading Britain through World War II.

“I’m to be cremated and the ashes are to be thrown into Rick Perry’s hair,” he said. “Yeah, I’m done. I’m not whining. I’m liberated.”

I admit that I feel a small amount of sympathy for Kinky, who sincerely tried to be a decent candidate this time around, even if he was a one-trick pony. But look, he’s never tried to make amends for the 2006 campaign or the things that he said during (and after) that campaign. Instead, he’s basically parachuted into two races acting as if he’d been a good Democrat all along and not quite understanding why a substantial number of Ds weren’t buying it. If I have to explain why that was a less than optimal strategy for winning a Democratic primary, even if he was saying the right things this time around and could plausibly claim to be a downballot candidate with upside, then you’re unlikely to comprehend the explanation. We’ve been through this swan-song routine with Kinky before, so until the 2018 filing deadline passes I’ll remain at least a little skeptical. But if he does mean it, then let me suggest that he find other ways to pursue issues like hemp legalization that Friedman obviously does care about, ways that don’t involve him running for office. I’m sure he can find another worthwhile path to take if he really does intend to get off the candidacy bus.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Travis County pursues new voting machines

Very, very interesting.

Dana DeBeauvoir

With the nation facing what a January government report described as an “impending crisis” in voting technology, officials in Travis County are taking matters into their own hands by seeking to create a unique, next-generation system of voting machines.

The efforts put Travis County, along with Los Angeles County in California, at the cutting edge of a race against time to create an alternative voting technology system.

The new machines would have voters use off-the-shelf electronic equipment like tablets, but also provide them with receipts and printed ballots to allow for easier auditing. The development and implementation process won’t be finished in time for the 2016 elections, though officials hope to have the system ready by the 2018 gubernatorial race.

[...]

Some election administrators have said the status quo will likely fall apart within a few years. Across the country, “it’s all just a guessing game at this point: How long can we last?” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk.

Three years ago, DeBeauvoir decided that something had to change. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m fed up. I’m going to design my own system.’” Part of her frustration stemmed from complaints lodged against the county that she felt blamed officials for things beyond their control. Travis County voters filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging that electronic voting machines lacked reliability and security. The case was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court in 2011.

After deciding to create a new system, DeBeauvoir gathered a citizens’ study group, and then a panoply of experts, to iron out the details.

The group is now close to finishing the design of a prototype known as the STAR (Security, Transparency, Auditability and Reliability) Voting System. The county intends to issue a request for proposals within a couple of months and hopes to select a winning bid by the end of the year, DeBeauvoir said.

[...]

The designs already posted on the Travis County clerk’s website lay out a multi-step process: A voter checks in, signs a roster and receives a ticket. Then, she gives the ticket to a poll worker to get a unique ballot code from a ballot control station, which sends information to a voting device. At the device, she makes her choices, prints out a completed ballot and deposits it in a ballot box with a scanner. She also receives a receipt that allows her to check online the next day to ensure the ballot was counted.

All the devices communicate with each other to update and confirm data. To ensure security, the system employs cryptography that “has never been done before” in voting technology, DeBeauvoir said.

The printed paper ballot is particularly crucial, as it addresses one of the principal criticisms of the existing electronic systems. The touchscreen machines common in many counties lack “a paper trail that actually captures the intent of the voter so that you can audit the machines,” said Alex Russell, a University of Connecticut professor of computer science and mathematics and faculty member at the school’s Center for Voting Technology Research. During recounts, auditors can only double-check what the machines say, without any way to verify that the machines reflect voters’ choices.

The presentation is here. It’s pretty technical in places, but the main gist of it is easy to understand and well-summarized by the Trib story. There’s an accompanying video of the presentation on this page, with the presenter being Rice University computer science prof Dan Wallach, who has been studying this stuff for years. Other materials are here on the Travis County Clerk website.

As noted, the STAR-Vote collaboration is close to issuing an RFP for this. One key requirement for the hardware will be sufficient battery life – Election Day and some early voting days last for 12 hours, so your voting machines will need to do so as well. The collaboration will be approaching other counties to participate, which will allow for cost-sharing while making the RFP more attractive to vendors since there would be more potential customers for their proposed devices. I need to check and see if Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart has any interest in this. Our eSlate machines are as old and outdated as Travis County’s are, after all. One other potential hurdle is that this idea is very new and contains aspects that are not addressed by existing federal laws, so either the laws will need to be updated (as if Congress is capable of doing that) or waivers will need to be obtained. The latter ought to be doable, but as with anything new and unprecedented you never know what potholes may exist in the pathway. Be that as it may, this is a thorough and thoughtful design that addresses all kinds of concerns and would put electronic voting machines on a much more sustainable path. I look forward to seeing how the RFP process goes. What do you think about this?

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Palau catches a little heat for hiring John Bradley

Hilarious.

The president of Palau has defended appointing a US lawyer who left his previous role as Texas county prosecutor amid controversy over an innocent man who spent almost 25 years behind bars.

President Tommy Remengesau confirmed former Williamson County district attorney John Bradley would take up a position as assistant attorney general in the tiny Pacific nation later this month.

[...]

Remengesau said Bradley acknowledged he was wrong to block the DNA testing and “is painfully aware that his actions kept an innocent man locked up for longer than he should have been”.

But he said Bradley deserved a second chance and was seeking it in the island nation of 22,000 people, which is best known for its spectacular diving sites.

“Mr. Bradley says that the Morton case has changed him as a person and has made him a more balanced, fair, and humble prosecutor,” Remengesau said in a statement.

He said Bradley had more than 25 years of prosecution experience and had never been found to have violated any law or ethical rule over the Morton case.

“The Republic hired Mr. Bradley because our nation needs experienced and skilled prosecutors to help keep our community safe Mr. Bradley fits that bill,” he said.

See here for the background. Like Grits, who found this story, I don’t buy Bradley’s claims that he’s a changed man. As noted in that previous post, he has made claims to that effect before, but so far has not backed them up with action. I hope, for his sake but more importantly for the sake of the people of Palau, that he’s sincere this time. I’d nonetheless advise President Remengesau to keep a close watch on him.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

The Trib on the AG race

What do you do when you have an ethically compromised candidate on your ticket? Thank your lucky stars that you’re the majority party and hope like hell the challenger can’t get any traction.

Sen. Ken Paxton

A political candidate’s troubles are supposed to be a gold mine for the opposition, but that has not been the case with state Sen. Ken Paxton, the Republican nominee for attorney general.

His easy win in the Republican primary runoff in May was either a bafflement or a relief, depending on whether you were rooting for Paxton or his rival, state Rep. Dan Branch, of Dallas.

For Branch, it looked like a perfect setup. He’s a veteran legislator, a partner in a well-known Texas law firm, a member of the establishment.

And Paxton was in trouble.

The job in question is attorney general, the functional head of the state’s in-house law firm. Candidates like to talk about it as the top law enforcement position in the state — a bit of a stretch, since most criminal cases fall to local district and county attorneys, but a useful and effective exaggeration in a campaign.

Paxton committed a foul by failing to tell his clients and the State Securities Board about his relationship with a securities investment adviser. He looked into it, admitted the wrongdoing, amended some reports and paid a fine, then left Branch, who hoped to benefit from the revelations and admissions, in the dust. Branch received 36.6 percent of the vote to Paxton’s 63.4 percent.

That result was a vindication. Republican voters ignored the blot on Paxton’s résumé and looked instead to his conservative credentials, including a near endorsement from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Ideology trumped biography, and it will take some new twist to get voters to reconsider.

Now Sam Houston, the Democratic nominee (no relation to the 19th-century soldier and politician), lies in wait. He starts from a weaker position, with less money, no experience in state office and no natural political base. It makes sense that Paxton, in a competitive primary and runoff, had to raise money and Houston did not. Experience is a mixed bag at a time when voters find incumbency suspect.

This time, the Democrats are trying to stir the pot, suggesting that prosecutors are looking at Paxton’s file and could act at any time. They are hoping to succeed where Branch failed, but an investigation or an indictment — especially in Travis County, that blue Democratic smudge on the bright red Republican map of Texas — could bounce the wrong way.

Those suggestions come from the Lone Star Project, which sent out this email last week with those claims. Among other things, they say that emissaries for House Speaker Joe Straus have met with Travis County prosecutors to urge quick action against Paxton. I’ve got to say, I find this all highly dubious. For one thing, it’s not clear that any criminal laws were broken by Paxton – the original story gave no indication that there was something for a DA’s office to look into. Paxton’s already received a slap on the wrist from the Texas State Securities Board, and again it seemed like that’s all the action there was going to be at the state level. There’s still the matter of the SEC complaint that was filed against Paxton. That could certainly turn into something, though I’m sure Paxton and his buddies would be just as happy to run against the evil federal government trying to persecute him as they would be running against the evil Travis County DA’s office. Whether that would work for him or not I couldn’t say, but it’s certainly a possibility.

Strategy-wise, to me the best tactic is to raise enough money for Sam Houston for him to run ads featuring these quotes from that same email the LPS sent out:

If that draws out Dan Branch to denounce Houston for implying that he now opposes Paxton’s November candidacy, that’s fine. I seriously doubt the publicity would be anything but a net positive for Houston. One million dollars is enough to run a week’s worth of TV ads statewide. Surely that’s not too much to ask for. This accompanying story on Houston quotes Republican operative Matt Mackowiak saying that $5 to $10 million is needed for “first-rate, truly competitive” race for attorney general. That would be ideal, sure, but give him enough for a week’s worth of ads plus some faith in the outrage machine driving some earned media of it, and I’d take my chances.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Studemont Junction

Swamplot has an update and some pictures from the to-be-redeveloped Grocer’s Supply truck lot near Studemont and I-10, basically on the north doorstep of my neighborhood.

SIGNS ARE UP at the soon-to-be-former Grocers Supply distribution center across Studemont from Kroger just south of I-10 announcing Studemont Junction, the name meant to bring some . . . uh, conjunction to the odd-shaped 15-acre food-storage facility Capcor Partners bought late last year. To judge from the proposed site plan for the project, that’ll be quite a task.

Developers plan to rope in (beginning at the northern end of the property) some sort of fast-food drive-thru, a bank (with its own drive-thru in back), and enough retail operations to fill a couple of “pad site” retail boxes and a more conventional broken-L shopping center on the site, each structure surrounded by its own dedicated rows of parking. Later, Capcor’s partner Kaplan Management plans to build a 400-unit apartment complex on the western end of the site.

According to the marketing copy on the leasing broker’s website, this multifamily structure, bounded by a small railyard on its south, will “reinforce the urban character of the site and will encourage heavy pedestrian activity along the corridor.” Residents will be able to get to the new complex’s front door from Studemont St. either by wending their way through the retail parking lot or by driving along a proposed new extension of Summer St. past Olivewood Cemetery to a circular drive at Wichman St.

The developer’s webpage for this is here; I encourage you to click the links under “Downloads” to see how they envision things. The comments on the Swamplot post are always useful to read – reaction is more negative than positive, due mostly to the size of the parking lot and the general feeling that this stretch of land near I-10 between Yale and Taylor is being turned into East Katy. My reaction can be summed up thusly – it’s hardly an urbanist’s dream, but given the constraints of that particular property, what did you expect? As I said before, what I really want to see out of this is an improved sidewalk along Studemont/Studewood, all the way from Washington to White Oak, and better bike access, which a couple of commenters on my post say will be part of the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, then I’ll be happy. Basically, don’t do anything that will later be an impediment for future developers in this area or the city to improve mobility in all forms. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for July 13

Same-sex marriage may soon be the law of the land, but you can still be fired for being gay, and you can still be discriminated against in a lot of other ways, too.

Ted Cruz lies every time he opens his mouth. This is not a surprise.

Want more Frozen? It’s on your teevee this fall.

In other news, Bigfoot still doesn’t exist.

“In the future, regulators may be less willing to seek compromise lest their efforts be similarly used against them — and it is bad news for all of us if health policy can be made only through polarization and rancor rather than compromise.”

“I can think of another reason a craft store might oppose birth control: Non-procreative sex is the enemy of crafting. Who would latch hook if they could be having sex?”

“149 rare Bob Dylan demos found in boxes marked ‘Old Records’”.

“It seems almost pointless to mention this but there is simply no state Democratic party in any of the 50 states that is so clearly, obviously demented. This is the Republican Party. Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru are not. In fact, I think all those bold conservative thinkers of whom the New York Times thinks so much should bring their Big Ideas down to the next Texas state Republican convention and see how far they get. John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell, and especially obvious anagram Reince Priebus, who nominally presides over Bedlam, need to be asked every day which parts of the Texas Republican platform they support and which parts they don’t.” This is true of Greg Abbott too, of course.

The love letters of President Warren Harding, who was Anthony Weiner before Twitter and cellphones, will soon be on display.

RIP, Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet official and president of the republic of Georgia.

“People profess doubt about climate science not because of any rational evidence about the fallibility of science, but because it’s in their interests to do so.”

How Seinfeld changed television, for better and worse.

“There is nothing inherently inconsistent between religion and living our lives freely as LGBT people. We do not need to settle for a law that has a loophole this large, that will embolden our opposition and that has the potential to curb our progress on other federal, state, and local laws protecting LGBT people and their families.”

Quantifying the most shocking result in World Cup history.

Is mass deportation worth $200 billion plus to you?

The main differences in the Colorado and Washington pot markets.

You only think you wiped all your data off your Android phone.

“Geraghty supported the idea that we should devote $2 trillion and thousands of lives to invading and occupying Iraq to bring them freedom. But that was different, of course: We got to kill people. Also we didn’t have to hang around with them. Huddled masses yearning to breathe free are the worst!”

“We have gone from learning that the law has failed to cover anybody to learning it would cover a couple million to learning it would cover a few million to learning that it has probably insured fewer than 20 million people halfway through year one. The message of every individual dispatch is a confident prediction of the hated enemy’s demise, yet the terms described in each, taken together, tell the story of retreat.”

What does it mean to be an “employer”?

Happy tenth anniversary to the Comics Curmudgeon!

“Disgraceful. No wonder dinosaurs became extinct. Sickos like this kill every last one of them as soon as they are discovered. He should be in prison.”

“If the fertilized egg in the female American citizen is of more value to you than the Guatemalan child who has just crossed the border illegally…”

RIP, Eileen Ford, founder of Ford Models.

One hundred years of babe Ruth.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Could Astrodome Park actually work?

Lisa Gray asks a good question about the proposal to turn the Astrodome into green space.

Could that really be a park like Discovery Green? It’s easy to imagine that green space being useful, say, for a Super Bowl party, tailgating during home games, or as an extension of the Rodeo. But outside of those occasional events, what would lure people to an out-of-the-way, surrounded-by-asphalt park? What would it take to convince them to go there seven days a week, even in July?

I asked Barry Mandel, president and park director of Discovery Green.

“What’s their goal?” Mandel said. “Is it to have a space that’s active only during events? Or do they want to draw people in, to have it be active seven days a week? Do they want it to be a catalyst for development?”

If everyday activity is a goal, Mandel says, it has to be baked into the plans from the very beginning. Discovery Green started its planning with the goal of having people come to the park — in what was then considered a very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown — every day of the year. “That was a bold idea,” says Mandel. “Planning started by getting community input. Project for Public Spaces went out to the community and asked two questions: What would it take to bring you here? And what are your concerns?”

Those planners returned with an almost comically long list of features to be packed into the small space: A lake, multiple stages, a dog run, a micro-library, a playground, a quiet garden, permanent public art, green space suitable for Frisbees or ball-throwing, and not one but two restaurants. Only then, knowing what needed to be included, did anyone draw plans.

The park’s baked-in permanent features draw an important steady stream of park visitors: Even when nothing special is going on, people believe the park is an interesting place to be.

In addition, of course, Discovery Green deploys intense “programming” — a dizzying array of events, all through the week, intended to draw people from all walks of life. Concerts. Movie nights. Yoga. Zumba. Dog shows. Temporary public-art exhibits. Kayak classes. Flea markets. Circus performers.

Those events cost money. “Since the park started, we’ve probably spent $5 million on programming,” says Mandel.

Putting this another way, Discovery Green was founded with a lot of foundation money behind it. How much money did it take to make Discovery Green happen? A lot.

The total cost to acquire the land that became Discovery Green was approximately $57 million, and the total cost to build, landscape, and complete the project was approximately $125 million.

The Astrodome Park plan carries a $66 million price tag; the Rodeo and the Texans say they’ll contribute some amount to that, but they don’t say how much. If they’re serious about this, and the invocation of Discovery Green is more than just grabbing for the easy analogy of “urban public parks created from previously unused space”, then I say show me the money. In particular, show me the private and non-profit partners in this venture and their plans for what to do with the place after it opens. I’ll still be skeptical – Discovery Green may have once been in a “very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown” – but it was still close to a lot of people in a way that Astrodome Park isn’t. What’s the plan to bring people there, and what’s the funding source to pay for it? That’s what we need to know.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Close enough for Greg Abbott

What more do you need to know?

Attorney General Greg Abbott first stirred things up by saying the state would not release information about the locations and amounts of hazardous chemicals held by private companies, reversing nearly three decades of public disclosure.

The Republican front-runner for governor then suggested Texans could “drive around” to find companies and ask them for the information, prompting his Democratic opponent, Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis, to launch a seven-city “Texans Deserve to Know” tour lambasting Abbott.

Still battling criticism over his office’s ruling restricting the state release of information about hazardous chemical stockpiles – a position that Abbott said simply applies state homeland security law – the attorney general this week told Texans they can go to the state Department of Insurance website for “general” information about the storage of the volatile chemical ammonium nitrate.

That “general information,” it turns out, consists of little more than a yes or no answer to whether ammonium nitrate may be present in a ZIP code.

“It’s useless,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, of watchdog group Public Citizen. “ZIP codes are by their nature relatively large geographic areas. The presence of ammonium nitrate on one side of the ZIP code or another doesn’t give you the information about how close it is so you can make a decision on whether you want to buy a house in the neighborhood, nor does it give you enough information to determine the relative risk based on the quantity of ammonium nitrate.”

The site has a disclaimer saying it is “for informational purposes and is not prepared for or suitable for legal, engineering, or surveying purposes. It does not represent an on-the-ground survey and represents only the approximate relative location of property boundaries. … No warranty is made by TDI regarding specific accuracy or completeness. It is the user’s responsibility to verify all data represented in the maps.”

“I would think that it would be more informative to simply post a map of Texas with all of the storage sites identified by location,” said Wendy Wagner, an environmental law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The embedded image is included to give you an idea of what a ZIP code can look like in Texas. Doesn’t really tell you much, does it? But hey, at least it’s an answer.

Abbott’s justification for giving these increasingly convoluted non-answers is that he’s just interpreting state law. If we accept for the sake of argument that this is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then this must be a bad law. You’d think that the natural thing for a politician to do is say that maybe the law ought to be changed so that The People can have a better idea if they might be living next to a potential explosion. Greg Abbott hasn’t done that. I don’t think Greg Abbott is capable of doing that, because I don’t think Greg Abbott thinks this is a problem. Oh, he recognizes that there is a problem, because people keep asking him about this, but he thinks the problem is that people just won’t accept that they don’t need to know this information, that the corporate interest trumps theirs. So he’s going to keep saying the say thing, in however many different ways, and hope that the questions eventually stop. So I don’t think this is going away any time soon.

In the meantime, of course, this is a hanging curveball for the Davis campaign.

After several reporters tested the theory and were shown the door at various chemical facilities, Abbott acknowledged that citizens did not have easy access to the information and has since proposed a new law that would require fire departments to make the data available during normal business hours.

Although his campaign had earlier suggested that local fire departments already could give out that information, Abbott told The Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday that they were not allowed to disseminate the information.

“Right now they can’t,” he said. “That’s why my proposal is to make this information more conveniently accessible, is to allow people to seek and obtain the information from the fire marshals who already have this information.”

Abbott was asked what might prevent a terrorist from gaining access to the information through the fire marshals or the departments they work for. He said it would be up to those local officials to determine whether the people asking for it were up to no good.

“If this information can be obtained from a fire marshal, it can be done in a way where they’re going to know who it is seeking the information and they can make assessments about whether or not the people acquiring the information can pose any type of terroristic threat.”

Davis told reporters Saturday that Abbott’s proposal was “absurd.”

“He’s trying to have it both ways,” she said. “He’s trying to say that this information should not be disclosed to the public because of terrorist fears, and then on the other hand he wants to tell the public, ‘Look, here’s how you can find the information.’ It makes no sense.”

Abbott had previously claimed that making this information available to the public meant that terrorists could get it, too. Thus his plan to delegate the task of telling terrorists from ordinary folks to firefighters. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to take on that responsibility. Did I mention that there’s a much easier answer to this problem that would be obvious to a lot of people that aren’t Greg Abbott?

Posted in: Election 2014.

CFPB makes its presence felt in Texas

Good for them.

Texas-based payday lender ACE Cash Express has agreed to pay $10 million to settle allegations by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that it used harassment and other illegal tactics to push borrowers into a cycle of debt.

Under the agreement, the company, one of the nation’s largest payday lenders, will pay $5 million in refunds to consumers and will also pay a $5 million fine, the bureau said Thursday.

“ACE used false threats, intimidation and harassing calls to bully payday borrowers into a cycle of debt,” bureau Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. “This culture of coercion drained millions of dollars from cash-strapped consumers who had few options to fight back.”

Supporters of payday lending say it offers a needed service to consumers who have few options for short-term loans. Critics say the companies prey on struggling people by charging high fees and trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt.

Nice. The CFPB has been making noise about payday lenders for awhile, with some new regulations still to come. Hey, if you’re not lucky enough to live in a city that has passed a payday lending ordinance, the CFPB is what you’ve got. More like this, please.

Posted in: Bidness.

Meet your first parklet

It’s in the Heights, because of course it is.

A parking space converted into Houston’s first parklet brought a mini-media frenzy — and fun street party — to 19th Street in the Heights, where New Living artisans, city officials and community supporters gathered to officially dedicate the green space outside New Living Bedroom Thursday morning.

“This is a way to connect people — to the streets, to the sidewalk, to the shops,” Mayor Annise Parker told the crowd. “The parklet provides a little respite in our busy, bustling city.

“I’m amazed to see so many media here for what once was a parking space,” she added with a laugh.

The 125-square-foot parklet, a raised platform with benches and shade canopy surrounded by planter beds filled with drought-resistant yuccas, was built by Made at New Living artisans led by industrial manager Jose Martinez using reclaimed materials from right here in the city — including 300-year-old wood salvaged from the old Mercantile building. Artisan Heath Brodie constructed the benches, while Jenny Janis handled the landscape design. The Ground Up provided the soil for the bed. More sponsors and partners include Sherwood Design Engineers and Bobby Goldsmith.

“It’s one single parking space that I was happy to give up,” Jeff Kaplan, founder of New Living, said. “I believe 19th Street is to become a major urban street in the city, and the parklet will provide a common space to gather, to rest, even a place where musicians can perform.”

See here for the background. I still don’t know what to make of these things, but next time I’m on 19th Street I’ll check it out. Swamplot and Prime Property have more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Centerfold

I’m sure you’re familiar with the original, by the J. Geils Band:

J. Geils was one part quality classic rock band, one part novelty act. This was probably their biggest hit, and it seems somehow fitting that my favorite cover of it was done by a novelty band, Hayseed Dixie.

Like cheesy lounge versions, corny country covers are a bit of a cliche, but Hayseed Dixie does it well enough that it’s easy to forgive them. They do mostly covers in the same vein, but they have some funny originals, too. Worth your time to check them out if you’re into that sort of thing.

And finally, because Centerfold is also a Same Name, Different Song entrant, here’s Randy Twigg with her version:

Well, that was…different. They can’t all be hits.

Posted in: Music.

The Rodeo and the Texans would like to demolish the Dome now, please

Yeah, I don’t know how well this will go over.

County leaders said Thursday they are open to considering a $66 million plan devised by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Houston Texans to demolish the iconic Astrodome and turn the nearly 9-acre site into a massive outdoor space reminiscent of downtown’s Discovery Green.

The two organizations – the primary tenants of the South Loop sports complex where the vacant stadium stands – briefed commissioners on their proposal this week.

The project, titled the “Astrodome Hall of Fame,” calls for tearing down the dome, bringing the floor to ground level and installing an open-air structure where the walls once stood, according to a 37-page proposal obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The plan, drawn up by two architecture and construction firms, is designed to pay tribute to “the Astrodome’s history” and realize its potential as an “outdoor fulcrum” of NRG Park.

Renderings show what looks like the ribs of the former stadium circling a vast, grassy space with multiple event stages. Tributes to the various events, athletes and entertainers – from Elvis to Earl Campbell – who have played and performed at the stadium throughout the decades would be installed on each of 72 structural columns that would stand as tall as the 49-year-old structure.

“We think they came up with a tremendous idea and it’s the one thing we don’t have out there right now,” Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said of the plan devised by Gensler and Linbeck Construction. “This puts a park right in the center of our NRG park complex.”

Shafer and Texans President Jamey Rootes said they are open to helping foot the bill for the project, describing it as “affordable,” but would not say how much they would contribute.

Mighty thoughtful of them. You can see their proposal – which has a February, 2014 date on it, by the way – here; the embedded image comes from that document. The inspiration for turning the Dome into green space comes from Discovery Green. I love Discovery Green and I’m generally favorable towards more parks, but I am skeptical of this analogy. Discovery Green is a park surrounded by city blocks that are full of people who can walk to it. Astrodome Park would be surrounded by acres of parking lot that abuts a highway on one side. Who’s going to walk to it? I admit, it’s true that a significant number of Discovery Green visitors arrive by car, so I may be overblowing this. But as I look at the renderings, I can’t escape the feeling that this is something that’s being grafted on to the space. It just doesn’t feel natural to me.

Maybe that’s not important to the proponents of this idea, which include at least two members of Commissioners Court, Steve Radack and Jack Morman. (El Franco Lee is undecided but not obviously opposed, Jack Cagle did not comment for the story, and County Judge Ed Emmett is strongly against it.) Perhaps all that matters is that it would be used Rodeo attendees and Texans fans, and would make a pleasing backdrop for Super Bowl LI. I wonder if they’ll be happier about paying to maintain a lightly-used park than they are about upkeep on the aging Dome.

Reactions I’ve seen so far to this range from ambivalence and resignation to outrage, with a healthy dose of the latter on Facebook. I fall more into the first two camps. I’ve never had an emotional connection to the Dome but I don’t relish the idea of tearing it down, and I still think repurposing it is the better way to go. But after the bond referendum was voted down last year, even if one interpreted that as a rejection of that specific idea rather than of preserving the Dome, it wasn’t hard to imagine this kind of scenario playing out. The powers that be would like to have a plan in place to Do Something by 2017, when the Super Bowl arrives. There’s no consensus for a preservation plan, and no funding source, either. Demolition is the easy way to go, and hey, at least this beats more parking lots, right? If you feel strongly about this one way or another, I advise you to contact your County Commissioner and let him know how you feel. Time is running out. Hair Balls and Swamplot have more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Judge rules that the voter ID lawsuit will go to trial

In addition to the start of the redistricting trial, we have some news on the voter ID lawsuit front, and it’s generally good news for the good guys.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Last week’s ruling, in which U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos denied almost all of a set of motions filed by [AG Greg] Abbott’s office to dismiss the case before it goes to trial, suggests that keeping the law in place won’t be a slam-dunk for the AG and his allies.

To be sure, the ruling itself wasn’t a surprise—and election law experts caution not to read too much into it. All Ramos did was give permission for the law’s challengers to make their case, as any good judge would have done, they say. The final ruling, of course, will come down to whether the plaintiffs can present facts that prove that case during the trial, scheduled to start September 2.

Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at the Ohio State University, said some of Texas’s arguments “don’t pass the laugh test,” so it makes sense that Ramos didn’t give them the time of day.

But the approach taken by Ramos, an Obama appointee—and in particular, the unequivocal way in which she rejected Texas’s effort to narrow the scope of federal voting protections—suggests the trial could play out on favorable terrain for the law’s challengers.

Here’s why: Central to the lawsuit challenging the ID measure is the claim that it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination in voting. In its motion to dismiss the case, Texas argued that Section 2 bars only intentional discrimination, not actions that have a discriminatory effect. In other words, the law’s challengers should have to show that the state consciously set out to make voting harder for blacks or Hispanics—which would be a heavy lift indeed.

That’s not a view that’s won much acceptance from the courts—but it is championed by some prominent conservative legal scholars, who say interpreting Section 2 more broadly risks going beyond what the Constitution allows.

Ramos gave that argument short shrift. “Defendants are incorrect,” she wrote, noting that Congress’s explicit expansion of Section 2 to cover results, not just intent, “has been held to be consistent with the scope of the 15th Amendment.”

And Ramos went on to offer a clear statement of just what the VRA requires that the law’s challengers show: that the law’s disproportionate impact on racial minorities is not just incidental, but is the result of how the ID requirement interacts with past discrimination.

“Plaintiffs have alleged that Hispanic and African-American voters are disproportionately without photo identification and without the resources to easily obtain [state-issued ID cards],” Ramos wrote, rejecting Texas’s claim that the case should be scrapped because the challengers had merely shown an incidental “disparate impact” on minorities. “Plaintiffs have alleged that this disproportionality is related to past intentional discrimination and its lasting socio-economic effects. Thus they do not rely on disparate impact alone.”

That holistic approach was at the heart of the ruling in April that struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law—an opinion that voting-rights groups praised for its nuanced and sophisticated understanding of how discrimination works.

Ramos took a similarly broad view of the Voting Rights Act when she dispatched the state’s claim that the ID law doesn’t encroach on the right to vote because even Texans without an ID can get a state-issued identification card. To support that view, Texas argued that the plaintiffs must show that at least somebody faced an insurmountable burden in voting. Under that interpretation, the law’s challengers would have faced a high bar at trial, even if Ramos allowed the case to go forward.

“Defendants argument is incorrect,” Ramos wrote. “Plaintiffs are required to show a denial or abridgement [Ramos’s emphasis] of the right to vote. Whether the right to vote is completely prevented or partially restricted, the matter is actionable under Section 2.”

That’s a pretty clear statement, and it’s what plaintiffs would have hoped for. There hasn’t been a trial date set, and this is still going to be a tough fight, but it won’t be any tougher than it needs to be. Which is tougher than it used to be before the Shelby case, since now the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs, not the state. For a preview of how things may go here, keep an eye on the North Carolina lawsuit, because if their abrogations of voting rights aren’t illegal, it’s hard to say what would be. The Morning News editorial board is rooting for the plaintiffs in that case, and by extension in Texas. Oh, and remember also that voter fraud just doesn’t exist, meaning that the justification of these voter ID laws is built entirely on fiction. Well, the stated justification for them, anyway.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Going where the payday lenders are

The most frequent defense I hear of payday lenders it that there’s a demand for the kind of short-term low-dollar loans that they provide that aren’t provided by other financial institutions, and even if they were those institutions don’t exist in the neighborhoods that generate the demand for these loans. That doesn’t come close to justifying the payday lenders’ exorbitant rates and fees or their predatory practices, but I admit that there’s a need that will get fulfilled one way or another. Given that, wouldn’t it be preferable by far to have more reputable financial institutions in the neighborhoods that need these services, operating in a manner that serves the customers rather than preys on them? One such institution is giving that a try in San Antonio.

Select Federal Credit Union (SFCU), an outspoken opponent of the payday lending industry, is trying to fill the gap from two directions: accessibility and availability.

One reason payday lenders were successful is that they were densely present in their target markets. While their clients fall across a range of income brackets, the highest concentration is in low income areas, where many are unbanked.

“We definitely have a proliferation of payday lenders, and bank branches are sparse,” said District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor.

SFCU realized that to be effective, they needed to be in the neighborhood. They needed to find places along people’s pathways. Convenience is an issue for those who take public transit or walk to and from work with their paycheck in their hands.

So SFCU found a home in the middle of their target market: Ella Austin Community Center, affectionately known around the neighborhood simply as “Ella Austin” or “Ella.”

[...]

SFCU seized the moment to set up shop on the campus, giving them access to senior citizens and families who use the services offered at Ella Austin. They also have access to the employees of Ella Austin and the resident businesses. Employed people are statistically just as likely to use payday lenders as those without steady income.

SFCU goes a step further even, as they have the technology to bring banking directly to the homes of those who have trouble accessing in person or online. They are also working on other partnerships with local businesses and institutions to bring virtual or mini-branches to their facilities.

Ella Austin is easily walkable for neighborhood residents, and the branch has a slower, more relational atmosphere.

“We want to dedicate this branch to sitting down and talking with people,” said John Garcia, head of Business Development and Marketing at SFCU.

From their post at Ella Austin, SFCU is poised to offer not only accessible financial services, but also financial education. SFCU is a designated Community Development Financial Institution, one of only two in San Antonio. They keep their footprint small and nimble, with a focus on increasing financial stability for their members.

“We welcome Select Federal Credit Union because they have the flexibility to do more outreach than a traditional bank,” said Taylor.

The basic idea here is simple and well-conceived. Any business wants to be where the potential customers are, and Lord knows there’s plenty of room to compete with payday lenders on price and service. Those are the pillars behind the concepts of allowing post offices and WalMart to act as banks – they exist everywhere, including a lot of places where there are no traditional banks, and they can provide standard services like checking, savings, and low-dollar loans at very reasonable costs. Getting credit unions into the game is even better, as they wouldn’t need to seek regulatory approval to take on this business and they’ve generally been a force for good overall. I will be very interested to see how this plays out – there are no guarantees, of course, but this is a great idea that has real hope of succeeding. I hope their peers in other cities are watching how this goes, too.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten: G whiz

Back to the alphabet…

1. Blues Music – G. Love & Special Sauce
2. Behind The Lines – Genesis
3. Cloud 9 – George Harrison
4. Bad To The Bone – George Thorogood & The Destroyers
5. Rose Room – Gerry Mulligan
6. Little Brown Jug – Glenn Miller
7. Crazy – Gnarls Barkley
8. Unforgiven – The Go-Go’s
9. One More Saturday Night – Grateful Dead
10. Drunken Sailor – Great Big Sea

Some quality tuneage in this group. “Crazy” will reappear in a few weeks for a Saturday video break – I’ve got four different songs called “Crazy”, all by different artists. I think that’s the largest “same name, different song” group I’ve got.

Posted in: Music.

One Bin For All RFPs

Yesterday was a big day for the One Bin for All proposal.

Thursday [was] the deadline for private companies to submit bids to the city to build and run the facility. The bid guidelines call for a 75 percent diversion rate — that is, only 25 percent of solid waste should end up in landfills. The rest would be recycled, composted or converted into energy sources.

Currently, the city recycles 6 percent of its waste and diverts 19 percent overall, mostly lawn waste. Those numbers are well below state and national averages.

[...]

[Sustainability Director Laura] Spanjian pointed to a brand-new facility in Montgomery, Alabama, as proof that a one-bin system can work. Kyle Mowitz, the CEO of Infinitus Energy, which runs the Montgomery facility, said it has achieved 60 percent diversion since opening in April.

“I would’ve never done this project three years ago,” he said.“The technology wasn’t there.” Recent advances in optical technology and air density classification, Mowitz said, have “gone through the roof,” making mixed waste processing more practical.

“This is really the first facility in the country that’s doing what we’re doing.”

Mowitz, who said he expects to start turning a profit over the next year, added that the diversion rate should go up once the facility adds an anaerobic digestion system, in which microorganisms break down organic waste that might otherwise end up in landfills. The Houston plan also calls for anaerobic digestion. Critics argue that the technique may not work for unsorted municipal solid waste streams, which lack the uniformity that the microorganisms prefer.

“The problem is the critters are very finicky,” said Reid Lifset, a researcher at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “If you don’t give them the organic materials they want, it’s hard to run a successful process.”

Paper and steel industry groups have opposed One Bin for All. In a letter to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who supprts the plan, Gregory L. Crawford, executive director of the Steel Recycling Institute, which represents steel manufacturers, warned that the program “would produce unacceptable levels of contamination” in steel cans.

Mowitz disputed that argument, saying the Montgomery facility has had no problem selling recyclables “at a premium.”

The RFPs were issued in April. I sent a query to the Mayor’s office yesterday afternoon asking how many proposals were submitted, from whom, and if information about them were posted somewhere. I have not yet received a response, but when I do I will write about it.

As we know, the One Bin proposal is controversial, with several environmental organizations, banding together under the Zero Waste Houston banner, leading the opposition. Here’s their latest response to One Bin For All.

“No facility like this has ever achieved anything close to what our recycling goals are in Houston—and most have been outright disasters.” Melanie Scruggs with Texas Campaign for the Environment said. “City officials have set a 75% recycling goal for this proposal, but when we researched similar facilities, none have ever exceeded 30%. It’s been shown over and over that real, successful recycling will never be possible if the City tells residents to mix their garbage with recyclable materials in the same bin.”

The new report examines dozens of “one bin”-style waste facilities (known as “dirty material recovery facilities,” or dirty MRFs) that have failed in other cities or are only used as a last resort for the garbage stream. Their research contradicts claims made by proponents at the City who say the technology is now capable of recycling the vast majority of residential trash.

The report also cites massive air pollution problems with trash gasification or pyrolysis, which are incineration technologies the City of Houston is also considering under its proposal. Not a single trash gasification incinerator has operated successfully in the U.S., but overseas they have caused health-threatening pollution violations such as dioxin emissions.

“Bad proposals like incinerators and landfills have a way of uniting communities against a known threat to their health and safety, not to mention the safety of the workers in the facility who would be sorting through Houston’s trash.” Dr. Robert Bullard, dean at Texas Southern University and “Father of Environmental Justice” said. “Wherever the City attempts to build the ‘one bin’ incinerator, that neighborhood is going to fight it because no one wants all the City’s trash coming into one community, and nobody wants more air pollution.”

Opponents point out that such an incinerator would likely be built at an existing waste facility, all of which are in working-income communities that are already saddled with disproportionate pollution problems. And it wouldn’t be the first time: The report also shows that Houston has a well-documented history of siting incinerators and landfills in communities of color. In 1979, The City contracted with an experimental “mini-incinerator” technology that the industry promised would be “pollution-free.” Those mini-incinerators were shut down when such claims proved to be false.

“The City needs to quit trying to make bad ideas work and stick with the good ideas that other cities are implementing, such as real recycling and curbside composting.” Ms. Scruggs said. “We’re all very pleased with the expansions of the big, green bins, and we know Houston residents can and will recycle where they live, work and play, if given the opportunity. That’s the foundation of moving toward a more sustainable city.”

The Zero Waste report is here. It’s long and detailed, and largely boils down to the arguments that “mixed materials recovery facilities” are more about incineration than recycling, while separating organics from recyclables is much more effective at actually reducing waste. Melanie Scruggs of the Texas Campaign for the Environment wrote a guest post here recently discussing how Houston could improve its recycling rate with the big green bins that are now being used. Zero Waste also produced two letters, from coalitions of paper recyclers and steel recyclers that advocate for keeping organics away from these items. Finally, there’s a report by Dr. Bullard about the likely effect on minority neighborhoods, since they tend to be where waste facilities get located.

The city’s argument is that modern technology renders most of the objections moot. Zero Waste marshals a lot of evidence against that, and I’ll leave it to you to read their report and judge for yourself. Perhaps we’ll get a better feel for the city’s rebuttal when we see the proposals that they received.

UPDATE: Got a press release this afternoon saying the city got five proposals, and “will have a recommendation by the end of the year”. I will have more on this next week.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Diverting ReBuild Houston funds

I don’t know about this.


Expressing impatience with the pace of street repairs under the Rebuild Houston program, City Council on Wednesday voted to siphon off some of the drainage-fee supported funds to speed up projects and help resolve smaller neighborhood problems sought by their constituents.

In an amendment to the city’s five-year $7.8 billion capital improvements program, the council voted to draw down $31 million from ReBuild Houston, prompting a warning from Mayor Annise Parker and Department of Public Works and Engineering officials, who said the move could drive the program’s cash flow into the red within two years and force the delay of other projects.

“Council members today would get a lot of short-term relief, but council members in a couple years may see delays,” Parker said.

Councilman Jerry Davis and other council members pushed back, saying constituent concerns have forced them to look for new funds.

“I respect the voices of the engineers and I respect the voices of Public Works,” Davis said. “But again, this is why we’re voted in to be here to make these decisions based upon the wants and needs of the people.”

Davis said council members would revisit reserve spending if a cash flow problem proved imminent.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who proposed the amendment with Davis, said the $31 million still would be spent using ReBuild Houston’s “first-worst” prioritization model.

[...]

Under the amendment, the $6 million would be made up of any money left over from bond-funded library, parks and street projects. If there is no leftover money – which Parker said was likely – the $6 million would come from ReBuild Houston funds. Those funds, however, would come with charter-prescribed spending restrictions.

Parker warned council members that the $1 million-per-council-district funds would not solve larger neighborhood problems.

“One of the challenges for council members is going to be managing expectations,” Parker said, adding that the funds approved Wednesday are “not going to pave a lot of streets.”

I get why Council did this – ReBuild Houston hasn’t exactly moved at breakneck speed – but that’s not what this fund was for, and I worry that this will set a precedent. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea, and maybe any future delays will be offset by the earlier completion of some other work. Maybe there won’t be complaints about what gets prioritized from these diverted funds. Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see. A statement from CM Costello, who opposed this proposal, is beneath the fold.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Local politics.

We don’t need no (sex) education

Here’s the state of Texas leading the nation in yet another unflattering category.

In Texas and across the country, the rate of teenage births has declined significantly since its peak in 1991. Birth rates among teenagers in Texas dropped 43 percent between 1991 and 2012. In states like California and Connecticut, the drop was even larger, and nationwide, the rate declined 52 percent in that period.

But despite the improvements in the Lone Star State, it is faring worse than most. Texas has the nation’s fifth-highest birth rate among teenagers, behind Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and New Mexico. And Texas, where schools are not required to teach sex education, has the highest rate of repeat births among teenagers ages 15 to 19. Teenage birth cost Texas taxpayers $1.1 billion in health care, foster care and lost tax revenue in 2010, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Teenage mothers often drop out of school, specialists said, and their children are also likely to become teenage parents.

Gov. Rick Perry’s office said a drop in the birth rate among teenagers in the last decade corresponded with the state’s abstinence education program.

“Teen pregnancy is a multifaceted issue with many contributing factors,” a spokesman for Perry, Travis Considine, said. Among those factors, advocates said, are race, ethnicity and economic status.

Dr. Janet Realini, president of Healthy Futures of Texas, a nonprofit that works to prevent teenage and unplanned pregnancy, said that Texas’ often ineffective sex education helped explain the state’s comparatively high teenage birth rate. Other factors, she said, include the limited access to health care and insurance for the poor as well as the high rates of school dropouts and poverty.

“It’s this mentality that we’re Texas, we do it our way, we ignore science and kind of go with our gut,” said David Wiley, a professor of health education at Texas State University in San Marcos. “That Wild West mentality about public policy is not helpful.”

One state with similar demographics to Texas is faring much better: California, which cut its teenage birth rate by 64 percent from 1991 to 2012. Melissa Peskin, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, said Texas could lower its teenage birth rate by following California’s example in areas like sex education and access to contraception.

Others are not convinced. Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, which promotes family values and abstinence-focused sex education, said California’s abortion rate is higher than Texas’.

“In Texas, since when did we think it was a good idea to adopt any policy from California?” Saenz said.

“I don’t think the proper measure is how do we compare to other states,” he added. “It’s undeniable that not only in our state but across the country, teen birth rates are at historic lows.”

The real problem, he said, is the glamorization of sexual activity.

Boy, you couldn’t come up with a better illustration of what Professor Wiley is talking about if you tried. Jonathan Saenz is the perfect distillation of the idiotic theocracy that our state is beholden to. If you need to be reminded what 2014 is all about, think about him.

Anyway. As you might imagine, the recent budget cuts that slashed family planning funds and forced the closure of dozens of clinics didn’t help. It was so bad even some Republicans are now dimly aware that there’s a connection between unprotected sex and pregnancy. As usual, we’re in the position of hoping we can maybe get back to where we were a few years ago, which is better than where we are now but still way behind where we should be given the state’s robust population growth. Which means we’ll fall even farther behind California, and Colorado, too. Happy now, Jonathan?

On a side note, according to the Trib this story is one entry in a 10-part series on the flip side of state leaders’ aggressive pursuit of the “Texas Miracle”. Other entries will be found here, and see also their Hurting For Work series for more. Kudos on the reporting here, because Lord knows there’s a ton of stories like these out there needing to be told.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Next phases of redistricting lawsuit scheduled

Part One takes place next week.

The trial over 2011 House district boundaries begins July 14 in U.S. District Court, where a hearing Tuesday shed light on how the case could unfold.

The proceeding are expected to last at least six days — Monday through Saturday — with testimony from about 50 witnesses.

The court will make extensive use of technology to display versions of district maps and communications that went into drawing them.

[...]

Some of the plaintiffs’ requests for relief already were granted in Houston and El Paso, and plaintiffs said they’re seeking to preserve those changes and push for more minority “opportunity districts” in areas including Midland-Odessa and Lubbock.

As the trial draws near, judges were asked to rule on several requests to allow testimony.

On Monday, the judges granted the state’s request to exclude testimony from Austin civil rights attorney James Harrington, who MALC sought to present as an expert.

Left pending were rulings on whether to allow testimony from two other potential plaintiffs’ witnesses, including St. Mary’s University political scientist Henry Flores. State attorneys on Tuesday said their testimony should not be allowed because it wouldn’t be relevant or helpful.

Also to be decided before trial is whether attorney-client privilege applies to potential witnesses including Denise Davis, former chief of staff and legal adviser to House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

That’s the State House map we’re talking about. Part Two is for the 2011 US House map, and it will be argued in August.

A federal three-judge panel in San Antonio said Thursday it will commence the second phase of a trial challenging Texas’ redistricting maps on Aug. 11.

The first phase, which will look at claims made against political boundaries drawn in 2011 for the Texas House, will kick off July 14 and is expected to last about six days.

Redistricting maps drawn the same year for the U.S. House will be argued starting Aug. 11 and will “continue day to day until finished,” according to a court entry Thursday.

At some point in the yet-to-be determined future, there will be a phase for the 2013 Texas House and US House maps. (Recall that all claims related to the Texas Senate map have been settled, with the exception of the legal fees.) This is the Section 2 part of the fight – remember, we used interim maps for 2012, and will use them again this November. The point of this litigation is to settle one way or another the claims about discrimination in the 2011 and 2013 maps. Possible outcomes include:

1. All of the 2011 and 2013 maps are declared illegal and new maps that are presumably more favorable to Democrats get drawn, most likely for 2016 and then to be used for the remaining elections until the 2021 redistricting cycle.

2. The 2011 maps are thrown out but the 2013 versions, which the state intended to address the previously raised judicial concerns about the 2011 maps, are deemed acceptable and put into place. Note that you could have this result for one of the maps and result #1 for the other.

3. The 2011 maps are declared to be legal and are implemented as is. Again, you could have one map be this way and the other fall into either of the first two buckets.

Any of these outcomes could be affected by further challenges to the Voting Rights Act – if SCOTUS strikes down Section 2, needless to say that all bets are off – or by some miraculous and unlikely Congressional action to update the VRA. I’m no Michael Li, so I could be all wet on any or all of this, but that’s my layman’s understanding. Those of you that know better, please tell me where I’ve gone wrong.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Castro confirmed for HUD

Congratulations, Secretary Castro!

Mayor Julian Castro

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved the nomination of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The nomination was approved 71-26 on a roll call vote. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, voted for the nomination; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, voted against it. Republicans cast all of the no votes.

The San Antonio Democrat would serve on President Barack Obama’s Cabinet for the remainder of the president’s term, which ends in January 2017.

He will officially become secretary once he is sworn in.

“I’m very honored to be confirmed as the 16th secretary of Housing and Urban Development,” Castro said Wednesday afternoon at City Hall.

Amazing what the Senate can accomplish when it puts its mind to it, isn’t it? All attention now turns to the Alamo City and the selection of an interim Mayor to serve out the remainder of Castro’s term. The Rivard Report has all the details.

“My intention is to resign after the new mayor has been selected, and within the next couple of weeks we will likely have that specially-called meeting to select the new mayor,” Castro said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “I’ll leave my advice and comments for the new mayor to the conversation that the new mayor and I have. However, I am very confident that among the council members there is the leadership abilities to continue to do a great job, to lead this city well. No matter what job you are in, it’s never about one person. It’s about a strong team effort and the fact is we have very strong Council when you think about the modern history of San Antonio public service.”

Castro said he sees “several people on the council” who he believes would make strong mayors.

[...]

City Attorney Robbie Greenblum, Castro’s former chief of staff, was busy Wednesday contacting the 10 city council members to confirm their availability for a special meeting of City Council on Tuesday, July 22, or Wednesday, July 23. Council members typically plan vacations for July when the City Council is in summer recess. At that special meeting, Castro will preside over the council’s vote to select an interim mayor to serve out the final year of his unexpired term. Castro will not vote for his replacement. A general election to select a new mayor for a full two-year term will be held in May 2015.

Castro is expected to be sworn in as the new HUD Secretary before the end of July. Jaime Castillo, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the swearing-in could occur on Monday, July 28, meaning Castro would enjoy a few days as a private citizen, time that presumably will be spent getting settled in to his new life and work in the capital.

According to the protocol established by the city attorney’s office for selecting an interim mayor, interested candidates among the 10 council members will be required to submit a public “letter of interest” prior to the special city council meeting. Only current city council members are eligible for consideration, according to the 1951 city charter. Council members will then meet to select one of the declared candidates. Council members cannot vote for themselves but are allowed to abstain in any given round of voting to prevent a candidate they oppose from winning a six-vote majority, or they can abstain at the outset to avoid taking a position. In the event none of the declared candidates can muster a six-vote majority, council members will be allowed to nominate a colleague who did not submit a letter of interest. There also is a process to deal with deadlocked votes, and eliminating candidates who win the least votes if more than two council members apply. As many as five of the 10 council members are believed to be leaning toward seeking the interim mayor’s position. That means the process could lead to a stalemate with no candidate able to muster the six votes needed to win.

Castro said Wednesday he hopes charter reform will be on the November 2016 November ballot. It could be placed on this November’s ballot, but the deadline is Aug. 16, making that highly unlikely.

Yeah, I’d say that charter could use a bit of updating. As for who may succeed Castro, this year and next, Texpatriate discusses a couple of possibilities, including Mayor Pro Tem Cris Medina, and State Rep. Mike Villarreal; there’s also CM Ivy Taylor, whose candidacy I have discussed, and others. We are way into uncharted waters here, so expect an action-packed year for the political junkies of San Antonio and elsewhere.

As far as Castro’s future in Texas post-Obama, I’ll say again what I’ve said before: Barring a scandal of some kind, Julian Castro can run for whatever interests him and is available in 2018. The main effect of having served in the Obama administration will be better access to the national campaign funders. Maybe this improves his chances of sharing a ticket with Hillary Clinton in 2016 and maybe it doesn’t – perhaps we should at least wait for Hillary to formally announce her candidacy before we get too deep in those weeds. If he’s not on the national ticket, the main curveball that could get thrown at him for a 2018 Governor’s race might be if his brother Joaquin gets recruited to run against Ted Cruz for the US Senate. I’m honestly not sure if a two-Cruz Texas ticket would be extra exciting or hard for some people to handle. But again, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Congratulations on your confirmation, Secretary Castro. Do a great job at HUD and I figure the future will take care of itself.

Posted in: National news.

Another pension-related lawsuit coming?

Here’s a little blast from the past.

BagOfMoney

The city of Houston may sue a company whose advice it relied upon in making changes to firefighters’ retirement benefits in 2001, saying the firm’s inaccurate predictions left the city on the hook for pensions it cannot afford.

Houston’s contribution rate to the firefighters pension skyrocketed soon after the changes were approved, despite an actuarial report from Towers Perrin, now Towers Watson, that predicted the payment rate would remain flat for a decade. This year, the city is contributing 33 percent of payroll to firefighters’ retirements, more than double the rate prior to the changes.

Former Mayor Lee Brown’s administration also based its support for 2001 changes to municipal workers’ pension benefits on a separate Towers Perrin report that projected the city’s contributions to that fund would not top 14 percent of payroll; by 2003′s end, the rate was 42 percent.

Both reports were commissioned by the employee- and retiree-controlled pension boards; the city did not seek second opinions.

City Attorney David Feldman said the proposed lawsuit is targeted at the actuary’s fire pension projections because the specifics of the situations make the fire report a “cleaner” case; he did not rule out bringing suit based on the flawed municipal estimates.

“When we were closely studying how we got to where we are today, I started collecting all the historical information, and I came across this and said, ‘Wait a minute, look at these projections. What happened?’ ” Feldman said. “Even if we weren’t in the ditch we’re in, if I came across that information I’d have a duty to my client to say, ‘You have a cause of action here.’ ”

[...]

While relatively rare, disputes between local governments and pension actuaries do occur, and have yielded damages.

In Alaska, where state pensioners have their retirement and health care benefits covered, the state sued its actuarial firm, Mercer, for allegedly projecting rising health care costs incorrectly; the firm ultimately settled for $500 million.

Mercer also was sued by Milwaukee County, Wis., which accused the firm of underestimating the cost of new benefits offered in 2001; the firm settled for $45 million.

I had to go back ten years to find the last mention of Towers Watson (née Perrin) on the blog. The fact that some other governments have collected for crappy pension forecasts in the past is intriguing, but suffice it to say we’re a long ways off from any kind of settlement. If we do ever get to that point it’ll be nice, but probably not transformative. I figure it can’t hurt to at least explore this, but we’ll see how it goes.

Posted in: Local politics.

Utah will take same sex marriage fight to SCOTUS

This could be the ballgame.

The Utah attorney general’s office announced Wednesday that it will appeal the 10th Circuit Court’s decision last month upholding same-sex marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wednesday was the deadline for the state to seek a full-court review by all 12 judges of the 10th Circuit Court, but, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office, Utah will instead push onward to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The announcement came as dozens of Utah families delivered more than 3,800 petitions to Gov. Gary Herbert’s mansion, asking the state to pull back its appeal of same-sex issues on which judges — both state and federal — have already ruled.

This includes Utah’s landmark Kitchen v. Herbert case, the first in the nation to topple a state ban on gay marriage, as well as a case over whether or not the state is obligated to recognize the nearly 1,300 same-sex marriages performed in the wake of the Dec. 20, 2013 decision by a federal district court judge in Utah striking down the states ban on same-sex marriages.

The timing of the state’s announcement Wednesday was “interesting,” said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, who attended Wednesday’s march.

“We don’t really know if the Supreme Court will take this up or they won’t,” Balken said. “Unfortunately, today we have families, couples, children who are living in legal limbo.”

A statement from the Utah attorney general’s office reiterated the state’s call for “clarity” and “resolution” on the issue of same-sex marriage.

“To obtain clarity and resolution from the highest court, the Utah Attorney General’s Office will not seek en banc review of the Kitchen v. Herbert Tenth Circuit decision, but will file a Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United State Supreme Court in the coming weeks,” according to a statement from the attorney general’s office. “Attorney General Sean Reyes has a sworn duty to defend the laws of our state. Utah’s Constitutional Amendment 3 is presumed to be constitutional unless the highest court deems otherwise.”

The 10th Circuit made its ruling two weeks ago, so Utah isn’t wasting any time. SCOTUS doesn’t have to accept Utah’s appeal – if they decline, it simply means that the 10th Circuit Court’s ruling stands and would be the end of the line for Utah and I presume the other states in the Tenth Circuit – but at least some marriage equality proponents would like to see SCOTUS take it up. Freedom to Marry put out a statement saying if by doing so they could “swiftly move to end marriage discrimination across the country”, instead of just in these few states. If SCOTUS does decide to sit this one out, they may be forced to take action later if a different appeals court, like say the Fifth Circuit issues a contradictory ruling. We’ll just have to wait and see.

If SCOTUS does take this up, that could set the stage for a ruling from them in 2016, or possibly late 2015. That in turn might make the 2016 Presidential election an even bigger deal.

So Ohio Senator Rob Portman is considering a run for president, and he claims his support for gay marriage would be a plus in a general election, allowing Republicans to make an economic case to key demographics that are culturally resistant to the GOP. “You can’t become a national party unless you do a better job reaching those between 18 and 30,” Portman says.

This raises the possibility of a scenario that Republicans who agree with Portman — and believe the party must evolve on gay marriage to stay in step with the country’s cultural and demographic shifts — might want to start worrying about right about now.

It’s not hard to imagine that Senator Ted Cruz might make precisely the opposite case from Portman, making the case that the party must reaffirm its support for “traditional marriage” key to his GOP presidential primary run. This could come after the Supreme Court has declared a Constitutional right to gay marriage — which Cruz would then be vociferously calling on Republicans to help roll back.

Gay advocates believe lower court rulings overturning state gay marriage bans on Constitutional equal protection grounds could portend an eventual SCOTUS ruling that enshrines a national right to gay marriage. That could happen in time for the 2016 primary.

That would amount to a powerful declaration that this debate is, or should be, culturally and legally settled. But at that point, unrepentant foes of gay marriage could seize on the ruling to redouble their call for a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Such a measure was introduced by House Republicans as recently as last year. And Senator Cruz supports the idea.

Yes, leave it to Ted Cruz. Do what he says, Republicans! Follow him all the way over that cliff!

Anyway. In other same sex litigation news, a judge in Colorado has struck down that state’s marriage ban. I’ve lost track of how many such wins in a row the good guys have had, but it’s a lot. The biggest prize of them all may be coming soon.

Posted in: National news.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 7

The Texas Progressive Alliance has been driving around asking about incendiary chemicals as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Davis takes her attack on Abbott’s chemical info obstruction on the road

Keeping it going.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis on Tuesday recalled the deadly explosion just up the road in West as she lambasted her GOP opponent for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott, over his decision restricting disclosure of information about chemical facilities’ hazardous caches.

“Texans deserve to know where these chemicals are located,” Davis told supporters at the Waco building that houses the Democratic Party, her campaign and Battleground Texas, a group working to make the state competitive for Democrats.

“A candidate for governor should have more concern for the people of the state that she wants to run than to let them sleep next door to explosives and not only not say a word about it, but actively seek to hide that information from them,” said Davis, who has seized on the issue as part of her effort to paint Abbott as an insider who is not working for everyday Texans.

She launched a “Texans Deserve to Know” tour across Texas Tuesday to pound on the issue, starting in Fort Worth and traveling to Waco. The tour also will include San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Austin and El Paso. Davis has said if elected, she will make disclosure of the information a priority.

There’s a lame explanation from one of Abbott’s spokespeople claiming that he’s just interpreting a law from 2003, which even if one is inclined to believe that still leaves one wondering why this information continued to be routinely disclosed in the 11 years since. What there still isn’t, as I noted yesterday, is anything resembling a counterattack from Abbott on this. It’s duck and cover all the way. That right there says more than anything Davis could say. Trail Blazers, which embeds a long video segment that Rachel Maddow did on this, has more.

UPDATE: I take it back. Abbott is now responding, and he’s playing the terrorist card. Perhaps someone should ask him 1) why didn’t he take this threat seriously before now, and 2) if homeowners can find out about dangerous chemicals by “just driving around” and asking, can’t the terrorists do that, too?

Posted in: Election 2014.

The real reason we need border security

To protect us from these guys.

Several anti-government groups – many of which participated in the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch – are recruiting armed volunteers to travel to the Texas-Mexico border as a citizen militia to participate in “Operation Secure Our Border,” which aims to stop the surge of immigrants into the country.

The groups, who identify themselves as “Patriots,” “Oathkeepers” and “Three Percenters,” are using social media, blogs and a 24-hour hot line to recruit and mobilize volunteers to travel to Laredo, carry firearms and attempt to assist law enforcement agencies on the border.

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it does not “endorse or support any private group or organization from taking matters into their own hands as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences.”

What could possibly go wrong with an effort like that? I kid, but there’s really nothing funny about this. The potential for violence and tragedy is far too great. Stace has more.

On a related note, we know this is happening as President Obama comes to Texas to do what he usually does here (fundraising) while Rick Perry is doing what he usually does (make a fool out of himself), while in the meantime everyone acknowledges that immigration reform is dead for this year, and likely till at least 2017, because the Republican-controlled House will not take up the (highly imperfect but still better than nothing) bill that passed the Senate even though it almost surely would pass the House if it came to a vote. There’s no bigger obstacle to comprehensive immigration reform than Texas Republicans. If you need evidence of that, have a look through this massive collection of quotes from our GOP Congressional delegation on the matter. We all know about the crazies – Louie Gohmert, Steve Stockman, Ted Cruz, etc – but certainly on this issue it’s really all of them. Go read and see for yourself. If you want to do something constructive and helpful, Stace has you covered there, too.

Posted in: La Migra.

Students against voter ID

A new front is opened in the fight against voter ID.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Civil rights groups have spent a decade fighting requirements that voters show photo identification, arguing that this discriminates against African-Americans, Hispanics and the poor. This week in a North Carolina courtroom, another group will make its case that such laws are discriminatory: college students.

Joining a challenge to a state law alongside the N.A.A.C.P., the American Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department, lawyers for seven college students and three voter-registration advocates are making the novel constitutional argument that the law violates the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. The amendment also declares that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”

There has never been a case like it, and if the students succeed, it will open another front in what has become a highly partisan battle over voting rights.

Over the past decade, Republicans have campaigned to tighten rules for voters, including requirements for photo ID, in the name of preventing fraud. Democrats have countered that the real purpose of those laws is to make voting more difficult for people who are likely to vote Democratic.

“There’s an unprecedented effort nationally by Republican-controlled legislatures to restrict the franchise in a way we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Marc Elias, the Democratic election lawyer bringing the age-discrimination claim. “Young voting in particular is a part of that effort.”

Proposals to change voting rules have frequently affected younger voters, particularly college students.

[...]

Multiple lawsuits against North Carolina, including the age-discrimination case, have been combined into one. A hearing on Monday is over whether to delay the law until a judge decides whether it is constitutional.

Lawyers for the students believe they can make the case that the law is intentionally discriminatory. As proof of this intent, they note that the state prohibited the Division of Motor Vehicles from registering 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by Election Day this fall. All other eligible voters could register there. In court documents filed in late June, the state said it had reversed that policy but did not say why.

The lawyers also point to the state’s decision to allow military and veteran identification cards, but not student IDs, as “strong evidence that the legislature wanted to make it difficult for young citizens to vote.”

Lawyers for North Carolina argue that the state’s voting law is neither discriminatory nor an impediment to voting. They note that most of the law’s provisions have taken effect, and state election data showed no decline in minority turnout in the recent primary.

“One way of maintaining confidence in elections is to ensure that only those who are qualified to vote are actually registered to vote,” the state’s lawyers wrote in court documents. They did not address the 26th Amendment claim, and a phone call seeking comment on it was not returned.

While courts have held that refusing to register students is as unlawful as refusing to register African-Americans, they have never been asked to address allegations of more subtle age discrimination, like those charged in North Carolina.

“If that’s a winning claim, that’s a big deal,” said Edward B. Foley, an Ohio State University law professor who runs the school’s election law center. But, he said, “there is a big ‘if’ here.”

See the Charlotte Observer and the Washington Post for more. North Carolina’s law, like the one in Texas, does not consider student IDs or out-of-state drivers licenses to be valid for voter ID purposes. You can see how that might have a disproportionate effect against college students. The arguments this week are about whether to grant an injunction blocking the law for now, with the full trial to take place in 2015. Definitely worth keeping an eye on this one. Via the Texas Election Law blog, and read Ari Berman for more.

Posted in: Legal matters, National news.

White return flight

Some interesting demographic trends going on.

Between 2000 and 2010, [Harris] county, like much of the U.S., saw a sharp decline of its white population, losing about 12 percent of Anglos or about 83,000 people.

The drop mirrors demographic shifts across the nation as white birthrates have slowed. But in the past three years, Harris County added about 25,000 white residents, about 11 percent of its approximately 227,800 new residents, according to U.S. Census data released Thursday.

While the greatest drivers of the county’s growth are still Hispanics, it’s the reversal of the decadelong white decline that grabs demographers.

“It’s a surprising pattern given what we saw in the last decade, and indicative of the overall pervasiveness of population growth in Texas and especially in Houston,” said Steve Murdock, a onetime state demographer and former Census Bureau director who now leads the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University.

“The amount of growth, percentage-wise, is almost the same as the decline … that’s a fairly substantial change,” Murdock said.

Though Anglos remain the nation’s largest racial group, it’s the only demographic group which is shrinking rather than growing. Last year, it was the sole group to count more deaths than births.

Texas, on the other hand, saw the largest numeric increase of white residents in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, gaining about 51,000 Anglos

Within Harris County, where Anglos make up about 32 percent of the population or about 1.3 million, some 9,000 white residents were added last year.

“There’s a significant amount of Anglos moving into the region from outside of Houston,” said Patrick Jankowski, vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development organization.

“They’re coming here because of the jobs. … If you look at all the growth in the Energy Corridor and the Medical Center, and the new Exxon campus in The Woodlands, we’re attracting workers who are more skilled, and many of them are white.”

But he suggested there might be a more subtle shift as well. Because Houston is attracting more single or young workers seeking to cash in on the energy and medical booms, an increasing number, like Carey and Bowen, are choosing to live in Houston rather than more suburban, neighboring counties.

“There’s no white flight anymore,” Jankowski said. “People are more and more accepting of different races and different ethnicities. They don’t care about their next-door neighbor as long as the lawn is mowed.”

As we know, some parts of town were getting whiter long before this. There are lots of questions one could ask about this, but for me I always come to the political implications. While it’s true that the increase in Harris County’s Anglo population is a reversal of earlier trends, the overall trend of Harris County getting less white hasn’t changed, it’s just decelerated a bit. I doubt there will be much change at a macro level, but there could be some effects here and there, especially in lower-turnout environments. It would be nice to know more about where these folks are coming from and what their existing proclivities are, but without that information we’ll just have to hypothesize.

One related tidbit from a different story.

Demand for high-density living grew across the state, according to the report. San Antonio saw the biggest increase in sales at 18 percent, followed by Austin at 14 percent. In Dallas, sales were up 4 percent.

“There is little available land for housing development in Texas’ major metro areas, particularly in its urban centers where housing demand is strongest,” [Jim Gaines, an economist with the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University] said in the report. “Developers are now looking upward for opportunities to build and invest in multifamily developments both in these centers and even in some suburban areas. Condo sales will likely be a strong driver in the Texas housing market for the rest of the year.”

Developer Randall Davis said rising single-family housing prices are driving expansion in the condominium market. Builders can put multiple units on one site, he said, and “deliver a product that’s almost equivalent but at a lesser price.”

More of Houston’s big builders, too, are interested in developing in the central city, said Gary Latz of Bohlke Consulting Group, a consulting firm for the housing industry.

Over the last 12 months, residential permits within Beltway 8 were up 22.8 percent over the same period last year. That’s compared with the overall Houston area, which was up 9.3 percent.

“People love the idea of living in closer and being close to all the amenities Houston has to offer,” Latz said.

Again, that’s a trend that’s been happening for some time now. Maybe if it keeps up we can get some more infrastructure spending inside the Beltway, too? Because that would be nice.

The story from Dallas is similar but not quite the same.

“Let’s look at Dallas County,” said Steve Murdock, director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University. “There was growth in the Asian population, no doubt about it. But we also see a turnaround in growth in the non-Hispanic white population.”

While Dallas County showed a loss of 1,436 non-Hispanic whites from the 2010 census through July 1, 2013, that’s minuscule compared with losses in the previous decade, Murdock said.

“If you had the same pattern going on as you had in the last decade, you would have lost a good number more,” he said. “At this rate, you might lose 5,000 over this decade, compared with the loss of 198,000 over the last decade. We’re seeing the same thing in Harris County, where it changed from a negative to a positive.”

While non-Hispanic whites continue to move to suburbs, it could be that some younger folks and empty-nesters are finding urban centers more attractive for lifestyle reasons. And, demographers say, those leaving are being replaced by others looking for jobs, either from other parts of Texas or out of state.

“When you look at the state level,” said Lloyd Potter, the Texas state demographer, “we’re seeing positive immigration of non-Hispanic whites.”

The splashy numbers, though, came from growth rates in the Asian population — up 20 percent in Denton County, 18.5 percent in Rockwall, 18.1 percent in Collin, 14.9 percent in Dallas and 10.8 percent in Tarrant — over the last three years. In many ways that’s a continuation of the trends from 2000 to 2010, when Asians and Hispanics were the two fastest-growing groups in the state.

Hispanic growth rates were still double-digit in Collin, Denton and Rockwall counties at 11.2, 13.7 and 14 percent, respectively, for the three-year period, “but the rate of growth is down in Collin” compared with the previous decade, Murdock said.

[...]

The non-Hispanic black population is growing rapidly as well — up 19.6 percent in Denton, 18.1 percent in Collin, 12.5 percent in Rockwall, 10 percent in Tarrant and 5.8 percent in Dallas.

Much of the growth across the region and the state comes from migration, Potter and Murdock agreed, and that migration is driven largely by jobs.

“Overall, I think we’re seeing that Hispanic growth rates are down, but the non-Hispanic white losses have been significantly reversed,” said Murdock, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

He used Travis County as an example.

“From 2000 to 2010, Travis County added about 59,000 non-Hispanic whites,” Murdock said. “This time, it has added 41,000 non-Hispanic whites in the first three years,” an annual rate that roughly doubles that of the previous decade.

I don’t really have anything to add to that, I just find stories like these to be fascinating. Whatever else you can say about Texas, it’s not static.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Dan Wallach: Home power analysis, 2014 edition

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

It’s July and that can only mean one thing: time to worry about my electrical contract for the next year. As we saw in last year’s installment, I ended up going with TriEagle Energy’s 100% renewable product. They want to jack my rates by 10% over last year, so clearly it’s time to run the numbers again.

This year, I decided to try to sort out what each plan would cost based on my power usage data for the past year (thanks again to SmartMeterTexas.com). For five months, my usage went over 1000 kWh/month and for seven it was well below. I then downloaded the full spreadsheet of available offers from PowerToChoose.org, built an equation to estimate my monthly charges, and then all I have to is sort to find the cheapest, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy. The spreadsheet data they give you is a disaster. Rather than just listing the fees, there’s now a textual column titled “Fees/Credits” and there’s no standard way in which they’re reported. Some companies report what you’d pay per kWh, inclusive of monthly fees, while others report what you pay exclusive of those fees. This meant I had to go through every row in the table and try to interpret their mumbo jumbo. Deregulation!

If you just try to just naively scale the 500 or 1000 kWh numbers, you end up with a wrong answer by 2% or more, but the EFLs often fail to give you enough data to do any better. So, with that caveat, here’s a histogram of how much money I’d spend in a year with each of the nearly 200 fixed rate electricity contracts on offer. Higher points in this histogram mean there are more plans that would end up costing me that price.

WallachPowerAnalysisChart2014

While I don’t want to name names for companies with unhelpful Electric Facts Labels and PowerToChoose-published data, I do want to give kudos specifically to Our Energy for doing it better. They say explicitly what CenterPoint expenses they are passing through, and they themselves have a flat rate on the power they’re selling. This allows me to calculate my real expenses, not a cheesy approximation of them. That would adjust them from $1316/year (as everything else in the histogram above is computed) to $1277/year, moving them into the top competitive position on my chart. Would others be cheaper as well? Probably, but PowerToChoose doesn’t give me enough information to choose. Should I reward Our Energy with my business for having the best and most transparent EFL? It’s tempting, but first, a rant…

Can’t we please go back to having a centrally regulated traditional utility company?

San Antonio still has this. I had a friend there send me a copy of her utility bill. She’s paying approximately $0.11 / kWh. Her bill breaks out the fixed and variable charges, much like I appreciate from Our Energy. On my histogram above, she’d be somewhere in the far left — getting an exceptionally good rate and not having to do this stupid analysis every year. All of our lovely free market competition in Houston is really just a series of opportunities for fools and their money to be quickly separated from one another.

Hey, what about solar power and saving the earth and stuff?

When I first started writing this year’s analysis, I said to myself, “Surely solar power must be a real option by now!” After way too much investigation, the short answer is, “maybe, if you can afford the big payment up front.” After spending the last month getting quotes and doing the research, I’m this close to pulling the trigger on a solar installation. Here are the high points:

Solar works hand-in-hand with the grid. When you install a solar system, it’s generating power during the day that you probably don’t need, and you need power at night that your solar system isn’t providing. This means your meter gets to run backwards during the day and forwards at night. If you have a month where you generated more than you used, you get a negative electric bill, which is then “banked” for future months. (Curious side-effect: you don’t want to over-size your solar system, because you’ll never get all your money back from the “bank”.) Also notable: if grid power goes down, so does your solar system. You can install a backup battery system or a gas-powered generator, but that’s a whole separate animal.

The financial incentives are okay, not great. In rough terms, the system I’m contemplating, which might generate 9-10 kW from the mid-day sun, will cost $20k after federal tax incentives. After that, you have small or even negative electric bills, and you start making money back on your initial investment. You stir in a bunch of assumptions about the depreciating value of the asset you’ve bolted to the roof, and you come out with a bottom line that you can look at with standard financial investment terms (internal rate of return, etc.). The proposal I’m considering from Texas Solar Outfitters would have an IRR of 7.4%, under their standard set of assumptions. Under different assumptions, you’re better off just getting power from the grid. (The same numbers in a place like California are in the “no brainer” category, both from additional up-front incentives and from the tiered electrical pricing they have. Solar helps keep you out of the higher tiers.)

What about leasing vs. buying, warranties, etc. In short, a lease is a lot like a loan. You’re paying less up front and you’re making monthly payments. The leasing company is trying to make money. The net effect is that the IRR goes down to the point that the deals are less likely to be worthwhile. (Again, this varies on a state by state basis. Nobody’s subsidizing those leases here.) Solar lease deals also act like an extended warranty on your gear. If your panels aren’t up to spec, they repair them for you. Most solar parts have very long warranties of their own, so this is less of a big deal than you’d think.

The environmental impact of solar is less abstract than the premium you pay for a “green” grid electricity plan. No matter what grid plan you purchase, green or not, the same mix of mostly coal and gas-fired generators are still producing the power your house is consuming. The only difference is that you’re paying your utility middleman to also buy you “renewable energy credits”, which are sold by wind farms and other such things and which may or may not be feeding their electrons to your house. It’s at best unclear whether you’re incentivizing somebody to install more “green” generation capacity versus building another traditional plant. On the flip side, when you’re turning sunlight into power, you’re directly removing your demand from the grid. This sort of logic is especially attractive if you’ve got an electric car and you’re worried about the “long tailpipe” emissions problem.

Aren’t you just a leach on the electric grid, then? Umm, no. By installing solar, you’re doing the grid a favor by supplementing its power during the peak draws in the hot summer sun. If more houses could run their meters backwards, that would effectively supplement the big generators and help avoid brownouts. Also, you’re paying the same monthly fee that everybody else pays for connecting to the grid.

So, what’s your new electricity plan then?

I need to pick a new electricity provider now, even though it might be a while before I can get a solar panel system installed on my house. The set of plans that support solar sellback is very small. So far as I can tell, I’ve got precisely three choices: Green Mountain, Reliant Energy, and TXU. The winner among these seems to be Green Mountain, who will buy your first excess 500 kWh/month from you at full retail price and half price thereafter. TXU buys from you at 7.5 cents/kWh no matter what. I can’t seem to find the Reliant number.

Green Mountain says you can sign up for any of their plans and switch without penalty to the plan that supports buying your power back from you, so that’s probably the way for me to go.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has provided this annual analysis three times before.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Davis presses the attack on Abbott’s obstruction on chemical info

I know, it’s a little lazy of me to do a post based on a campaign email, but this missive from the Wendy Davis campaign is the best roundup of the incendiary chemical disclosure issue and the potential fallout from it. So here it is, which will both serve to catch you up if you missed any of this last week and to keep it in the forefront for at least another day.

After weeks of backlash, Greg Abbott is in full-blown damage control mode. First, Greg Abbott said the location of dangerous chemicals shouldn’t be public, and then he says parents need to drive door to door in order to find them, which multiple news outlets have found is next to impossible.

Abbott is clearly scrambling to paper over his hugely unpopular decision any which way he can – especially after the Dallas Morning News reported that his ruling came after the Koch Industries Fertilizer Division – which own at least one dangerous chemical facility — gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Attorney General.

Take a look at two blistering editorials from this weekend.

Dallas Morning News Editorial, 7/5/14: Abbott Steps In It On Chemicals Issue: “Boy, did Attorney General Greg Abbott step in it. The occasion was Abbott’s explanation for how Texans could find out about volatile chemicals in their neighborhoods, in the wake of a ruling by his office restricting access to records on chemical inventories. “Drive around,” was the AG’s advice. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not.” That simple? To test Abbott’s “just ask” advice, a WFAA-TV news crew visited two Dallas plants to inquire about the chemicals on hand. The response from one place was the corporate runaround. The response from the other sounded like “get lost.’”

Austin American Statesmen, 7/6/14: Want to find out what chemical plants are storing inside? You must ask: “Particularly troubling are Abbott’s comments last week defending a ruling his office made blocking public access to state records specifying the location of dangerous chemicals… “You know where they are if you drive around,” the Tribune’s Jay Root reported Abbott as saying. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

FIRST ABBOTT RULES THAT TEXAS CHEMICAL FACILITIES CAN KEEP SECRET THE CONTENTS OF THEIR PLANTS

  • WFAA reports on Greg Abbott’s ruling to keep dangerous chemical storage locations secret from parents: “Hazardous chemical lists no longer public record in Texas” [WFAA, 6/12/14]
  • DMN: Want to know about chemicals stored near you? Don’t expect Texas to tell you anymore: “The AG’s Office, which rules on open-records matters, said the department did have to keep the information from the public, according to a May 22 letter. WFAA-TV (Channel 8) first reported on the ruling Thursday night. As a result, the state health department will no longer release its inventory reports unless told otherwise by the AG, a spokeswoman told The News Friday.” [Dallas Morning News, 6.13.14]

COMMUNITIES START EXPRESSING OUTRAGE

  • Houston Chronicle, 6.15.14: “I have no clue what they’re doing over there,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said, referring to the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.”
  • KXXV (Waco), 6.17.14: Local officials won’t change procedures on chemical reports, despite state changes
  • Waco Tribune Editorial: Attorney general decision hinders public from readily learning of chemical threats: “That’s why we have trouble understanding the reasoning behind state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s abrupt decision to refuse to give the public key information about where plants stockpiling ammonium nitrate are located…The attorney general’s decision is definitely at odds with growing efforts to prevent another West…” [Waco Tribune, 6.19.14]
  • Houston Chronicle Editorial: Coming clean: “Texans have a right to know what dangers to our health and safety we are being exposed to – especially now, when Texas, and particularly Houston, is riding high, with a vibrant and welcoming economy that is the envy of the nation. If we are to continue to attract the best and the brightest, it is essential that we intelligently address quality-of-life issues on which we base our choices of where to live and raise our children – such as clean air, clean water and a safe environment.” [Houston Chronicle, 6.20.14]

ABBOTT THEN TELLS PARENTS TO “JUST DRIVE AROUND” AND “ASK EVERY FACILITY” IF THEY HAVE DANGEROUS CHEMICALS

Abbott Said, “You Know Where They Are If You Drive Around.” The Texas Tribune reported, “[Abbott] said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored – as long as they know which companies to ask. ‘You know where they are if you drive around,’ Abbott told reporters Tuesday. ‘You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.’” [The Texas Tribune, 7/01/14]

Abbott Tells Parents to

MEDIA OUTLETS TRY TO “JUST DRIVE AROUND” TO NO AVAIL

July 2: WFAA Reporter Brett Shipp @brett_shipp

Abbott refuses to release chemical inventory lists…tells citizens to get their own. We tried. We failed. What now?

  • WFAA Was Not Able To Obtain Information On Dangerous Chemicals From Private Companies. On July 2, 2014, WFAA reported, “Abbott says the public can still go knock on chemical company doors and ask…So, WFAA attempted to do just that…First up was Oxy Chemical…WFAA left empty handed. Next stop was Buckley Oil Company just down the road…Not only did they not give hand over their Tier II report, they said not to record images of their chemical inventory stored on site, which was clearly visible through an open gate.” [WFAA, 7/02/14]

Fact Checking Abbott, Houston Chronicle Proved The Public Cannot Get Information On Dangerous Chemicals From Any Private Company. [Houston Chronicle, 7/03/14]

WFAA once again denied access to chemical lists by state officials: “At issue was the Texas Attorney General’s decision to deny public access to chemical inventory lists called Tier II. Those lists were mandated by Congress in the mid 80s and are supposed to be available to the public to alert citizens of dangers posed by the handling of hazardous chemicals by local businesses. They were public records in Texas until two months ago when Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled they were off limits.” [WFAA, 7/03/14]

DALLAS MORNING NEWS REPORTS ABBOTT HAS RECEIVED THOUSANDS FROM KOCH INDUSTRIES, WHICH OWN AT LEAST ONE DANGEROUS CHEMICAL FACILITY

Abbott Received More Than $75,000 After The April 2013 Explosion in West From Koch Interests, Who Own the Georgia-Pacific Gypsum Plant in Sweetwater.The Dallas Morning News reported this week that five months after the April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion in West, the president of Koch’s fertilizer division sent Abbott a $25,000 campaign donation. Koch’s chief and the Koch political committee also gave Abbott $25,000 checks. And Abbott rode on a company jet to a Koch-related retreat last year in New Mexico that introduced political candidates to wealthy donors.” [The Dallas Morning News, 7/02/14; 7/03/14]

  • Koch Owns at Least One Fertilizer Plant in Texas. The Georgia-Pacific Gypsum plant in Sweetwater is a Koch subsidiary. “The subsidiary now makes a nitrogen fertilizer.”[The Dallas Morning News, 7/02/14]

Koch Industries “and its subsidiaries are collectively one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of fertilizers.” The Dallas Morning News reported, “According to its website, Koch “and its subsidiaries are collectively one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of fertilizers … Koch Fertilizer’s expanded product portfolio includes ammonia, urea, UAN, phosphate, potash, and sulfur-based products, in addition to a variety of high-performance” nitrogen fertilizers.” [The Dallas Morning News,7/03/14]

Scrambling, Abbott Says That Getting Information About Dangerous Chemicals Is “Challenging.” [AP, 7/02/14]

ABBOTT TRIES TO ESCAPE CULPABILITY OF HIS RULING

Abbott Claimed He Wasn’t Aware That His Office Made A Ruling On Dangerous Chemicals Until The Decision Made Headlines…[AP, 7/02/14]

…Despite having taken credit for it previously. “That statement to the AP – that the ruling was “not a law or conclusion that I created” – was different from the “I ruled” phrase Abbott used on Tuesday, where he seemed to take credit for the decision.” [Texas Tribune, 7/03/14]

So there you have it. The one thing I will add is that if Abbott had any response to any of this yesterday, I didn’t see it in the news. I’m not sure what there is for him to say at this point – he’s already contradicted himself and made himself look more than a little foolish – so perhaps he’s just lying low and hoping it will blow over or some other shiny object will pop up. Good luck with that.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Charles Sebesta may finally have to face responsibility for his actions against Anthony Graves

Very good news.

Anthony Graves

It’s been eight years since the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the DA who prosecuted Anthony Graves for capital murder had done something unconscionable : withheld favorable evidence and used false testimony to secure a conviction—a conviction that sent Graves to death row.

Since that federal ruling came down in 2006, granting Graves a retrial, many good things have happened: Anthony was freed from prison in 2010, after all charges against him were dropped; he was formally exonerated by the State of Texas; and he received $1.4 million in compensation for the eighteen years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. But the man who secured his 1994 conviction—former Burleson County DA Charles Sebesta— never faced any consequences. The state bar took no action against him. Even when he continued to impugn Graves’ character, telling Texas newspapers as recently as this January that Graves was guilty of murder, he did so with impunity.

Finally, last week—twenty years after Graves’ wrongful conviction—the bar took a small but significant step toward ensuring that Sebesta would have to answer for his actions. The bar’s chief disciplinary counsel determined that there was “just cause” to believe that the former prosecutor had engaged in misconduct in Graves’ case. This finding followed a lengthy investigation, which the bar conducted after Graves brought a grievance against Sebesta this January. (Graves was only able to do so because lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 825, which changed the existing statute of limitations, allowing exonereees to file such grievances with the bar up to four years after their release from prison.)

A legal proceeding will now follow, in which the bar will decide whether or not to dismiss the grievance, or sanction Sebesta. If the bar decides to sanction him, he could receive a punishment as light as a reprimand—essentially a slap on the wrist—or as severe as disbarment.

Though Sebesta has always put great stock in trying people before the court of public opinion—to this day, he continues to insinuate on his website that Graves is a murderer —he has asked that the bar hear his case in a confidential proceeding, rather in than open court. (The bar allows attorneys who are the subject of such grievances to choose whether they will have their cases heard in a district court before a judge or jury, or privately, before a panel of lawyers who serve on the bar’s grievance committee.) “His conduct against Anthony Graves was in a public proceeding and he continues to make public attacks on Mr. Graves,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a non-profit organization that represents Graves, along with attorneys in the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey. “He should defend his conduct in a public proceeding, for all to see.”

See here and here for the background. I find it utterly risible that Sebesta wants a closed hearing given the way he has (and continues to) run off his mouth about Anthony Graves, but whatever. Have a fair hearing and then disbar the SOB. Anything less would be insufficient. The Trib, the AusChron, and Grits, who has statements from Graves, the Texas Defender Service, and Kathryn Kase (all of whom amusingly and appropriately reference the actions of “honest” prosecutors in getting to the truth of the matter), have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Helping the hungry of Montgomery County

I have three things to say about this.

Though many are familiar with [Montgomery County]‘s growth, thanks to the wealth of The Woodlands and the coming Exxon corporate campus just down Interstate 45, fewer see the poverty and hunger dispersed across the suburban and rural communities.

School officials see it. Over the past decade, every district in the county has seen an increase in the percentage of students designated “economically disadvantaged,” according to the Texas Education Agency.

Last month, meanwhile, the Montgomery County Food Bank opened a new center, boosting its capacity from 220,000 pounds of food to 42 million pounds. The large increase was necessary to meet a rising need from the community that’s being driven in large part by an influx of low-paying service jobs that coincide with the boom, said Rodney Dickerson, the food bank’s president.

In 2013, the food bank served 25,000 to 30,000 individuals per month. This year, the number rose to 40,000 to 45,000 per month.

“The challenge is that people in Montgomery County don’t really see the poverty because they’re pockets that are hidden,” said Julie Martineau, president of the Montgomery County United Way. “Because everything looks beautiful, and the people in poverty are away from the main roads, (many people) don’t know it’s here.”

Some parts of the county, such as New Caney and Splendora, have long struggled with poverty.

[...]

Even with the school’s breakfast and lunch programs in the first half of the summer, Dickerson said, the summer months are a difficult time for many.

“For us, we see it immediately,” said the food bank president. “We see the jump as soon as school is out.”

It’s the combination of rising electrical costs to cool homes and the gaps in meals for school-age children that hurt the most in summer, he said.

The food bank operates four mobile pantries once a month throughout the county, in addition to supplying food to various daily programs and hosting periodic “food fairs.” Since the mobile pantry service began three years ago, Dickerson said, there’s been a steady increase in demand.

Growing suburban poverty is part of a national trend, according to the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. So while the country added some 12 million new poor people from 2005 to 2009, that growth tended to occur outside city limits.

“The growth we saw in poverty was located more frequently in the suburbs than in the cities,” said Carey Anne Nadeau, a research analyst who worked with the Brookings program and is now a masters student at MIT’s urban studies and city planning department. Houston ranked in the top 10 metropolitan areas where suburban poverty grew most rapidly in the 2000s, along with Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta.

That decade also saw more concentrated poverty, or neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty. In the suburbs, that sort of isolated poverty can be harder for families to combat, said Nadeau, because it tends to come with fewer affordable housing options and a lack of access to public services like mass transit.

Even suburbs that seem to be booming, like Montgomery County, experience the suburbanization of poverty, she said.

“It’s a trend regional economists talk about all the time, where higher-wage employment can create low-wage employment,” Nadeau said.

Three major groups contribute to hunger in Montgomery County, according to Dickerson: the working poor, children and seniors.

“When you experience the growth that Montgomery County has, in The Woodlands in particular, that brings the need for additional minimum wage workers,” Dickerson said.

1. While poverty is rising nationwide, much of that poverty is concentrated in southern states where not surprisingly, and not coincidentally, the safety net is all but non-existent. If it’s not from the federal government or local government – if you’re lucky enough to be in the right locality – there’s nothing to help you or your kids if you’re poor. Go ahead and starve, the governors and legislatures of these states couldn’t care less.

2. Speaking of local government, there’s nothing in this story to suggest that Montgomery County, which is overall a fairly wealthy place currently experiencing a huge economic boom, has anything to offer the folks on the bottom of the ladder. Given the nature of local government in a place like that, it wouldn’t shock me if their basic plan is to push anyone who needs services into neighboring counties that actually have a heart. I don’t know this to be true about Montgomery County – again, the story says nothing on the subject – but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true, and it shouldn’t surprise you.

3. You know what would really help all those minimum wage workers? Raising the minimum wage, that’s what. Please spare me the BS sob stories about how national fast food chains and multi-national energy companies are going to be put out of business by being forced to pay their cashiers and janitors three dollars an hour more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.