Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

San Antonio has begun curbside recycling of plastic bags

As of August 1, to be exact.

“We are starting with a new recycling processor that can accept the bags so that allows us to add it to the list of items we can accept,” [Solid Waste Management Department Public Relations Manager Tiffany] Edwards said, adding that the move gives San Antonians another option to recycle the bags, in addition to major grocers and retailers that will typically take the bags back and recycle them.

The new recycler is Recommunity Recycling, which has its corporate headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.

Edwards said residents should take one plastic bag and stuff all the other ones in it until it is about the size of a soccer ball before tossing it in the bin.

But not all plastic bags are accepted.

“We’re telling everybody no black bags, no trash bags,” Edwards said. “We want the translucent ones. We can take dry cleaning bags, sandwich bags and Zip Loc bags, as long as the zip is taken out. Tortilla and bread bags can be recycled, just clean them and get the bread crumbs out.”

And don’t forget to take your receipts out of you grocery bags either, she said.

Black bags aren’t accepted because the bags are a different grade of plastic than the translucent ones and because workers can’t see into the bags, they pose a hazard, Edwards said.

So why start accepting plastic bags now?

“Across the nation, a lot of processors can’t take them because they get stuck in the machinery,” Edwards said.

But the city’s new processor can.

Pretty cool. San Antonio has been on a journey that began in November last year. We first heard about their plan to do curbside recycling of plastic bags in March, but they still ultimately intend to implement a ban of some kind later. They have yet to determine what direction that ban will take, but it’s in the works. You can learn more at SA Recycles and the city’s Solid Waste Management page. Note that they take all forms of plastic plus styrofoam containers in their bins; you can’t put #6 plastic in the city of Houston’s bins, though you can drop of some styrofoam at the various service centers. We need to catch up here, Houston.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Wait, there’s another special Senate election coming up?

Yes, there is. And you thought (okay, I had thought) SD04 was the last election till November.

Robert Duncan

The field is taking shape for the special election next month in Senate District 28, with at least five people announcing they’re running to replace Robert Duncan, who stepped down to lead the Texas Tech University System.

The filing deadline was 5 p.m. Friday, and the secretary of state’s office plans to release an official list of candidates later this week. Among those who’ve said they’ve filed: Republican state Rep. Charles Perry; Jodey Arrington, a former Texas Tech official and adviser to President George W. Bush; former Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham, a Democrat; former state Rep. Delwin Jones, the Republican whom Perry unseated in 2010; and Wolfforth resident Epifanio Garza.

Perry and Arrington are the early favorites, with both men getting into the race relatively early and each heading into July with about $200,000 in the bank. They’re expected to vie for GOP voters, with Perry tapping the tea party support he received during his run for the state House.

Last month, Gov. Rick Perry announced the election will be held Sept. 9, surprising some local Republicans who assumed he’d schedule it for November. Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said he picked the earlier date to ensure the winner could be sworn in before the beginning of the legislative session, even if a runoff occurs.

“Senate District 28 will gain seniority this way,” said Carl Tepper, chairman of the Lubbock County Republican Party. “This gives our guy a little of an advantage heading in to the session.”

Remember how long it took Perry to get around to scheduling the SD06 special election after the death of Mario Gallegos? God forbid a Republican Senate seat should sit open one minute longer than necessary.

This is a Republican seat, but unlike in SD04 there is a Democrat running, and if you read this profile of Greg Wortham, you’ll agree that he’s a Democrat worth supporting. Bill White scored 28.74% in SD28 in 2010, which needless to say isn’t close to winning but which ought to be good enough to get into a runoff. I don’t know how active Battleground Texas is in Lubbock – unfortunately, a Google search of “Battleground Texas Lubbock” and a look at the Lubbock County Democratic Party webpage and Facebook page don’t provide much fodder for optimism – but to whatever extent they hope to gig turnout for Wendy Davis and the rest of the Democratic ticket in November, they have a great opportunity to field test their methods next month, in the service of maybe getting a good Democrat into a special election runoff. I hope they take advantage of it.

Posted in: Election 2014.

From the “Those that disregard history are doomed to repeat it” department

This is the state of environment protection in Texas.

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Texas’ top environmental regulator suggested Thursday that the state may ignore a proposed directive from the Obama administration in June to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

“I’m concerned that if this is not contested, if we don’t dispute this, if we don’t win, the implications … are only the camel’s nose under the tent,” Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said at an event in the Texas Capitol sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The last time Texas refused to follow federal environmental rules, there were unintended consequences that caused a slow-down of the permitting process that prompted the energy industry to cry foul after losing millions of dollars.

About 150 people attended the event Thursday to hear Shaw and two other panelists speak about the proposal from the Obama administration, which could require Texas to reduce its carbon emissions from power plants by close to 200 billion pounds in the next two decades.

The general consensus among both the panelists and the audience was that the state should sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the rules if they are finalized, and should refuse to follow them. Karen Lugo, director of TPPF’s Center for Tenth Amendment Action, said she is working with state lawmakers on legislation affirming that Texas should ignore the rules unless Congress acts on climate change legislation, which it has never done.

The last time Texas regulators refused to implement federal environmental rules, lawmakers ended up reversing the decision. In 2010, the Obama administration started requiring companies that wanted to build new industrial plants to get “greenhouse gas permits” before beginning construction. When the TCEQ refused, the EPA had to take over, causing delays for some companies that lasted up to two years.

The result was legislation — supported by Koch Industries and the Texas Conservative Coalition, among others — that explicitly gave the TCEQ authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions so that companies could get their permits quicker.

Asked whether Texas could avoid the same result this time around, Shaw acknowledged that the delays did cause some “economic development costs.” But he said the costs would have been greater had Texas acquiesced to what state regulators say is federal overreach.

“I think those costs were smaller … than not making a principled stand,” Shaw said.

Remember, that’s the guy who’s in charge of the agency that is supposed to enforce environmental regulations in Texas. You will note that nowhere in the story – or really, any story involving people like Bryan Shaw and the TPPF chuckleheads – is there any concern expressed about the cost of not enforcing these regulations on people. I assure you, that is not an oversight. There’s only one cost taken into consideration, and it isn’t about you or me.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Collier keeps up the attack

I really like the way he’s running his campaign.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

Democratic comptroller nominee Mike Collier says his Republican opponent Glenn Hegar bragged to a Houston-area tea party interviewer last year that he was proud of the Legislature’s 2011 budget cuts to public schools. On Friday, Collier released a web video to prove it.

“It’s embarrassing and unacceptable that Glenn Hegar takes pride in cutting education despite our extraordinary prosperity,” Collier said in a statement.

“Hegar does not share our values, and he poses a profound threat to something Texans have held dear since our founding, … a great educational system,” said Collier, a Houston businessman.

Hegar spokesman David White called Collier’s 40-second video “a distortion.”

Though Hegar, a state senator from Katy, joined other Republican lawmakers in approving $5.4 billion in cuts to schools in the budget-cutting session of 2011, “Senator Hegar believes in adequately funding our education system,” White said.

Collier’s “entire campaign amounts to a distortion of truth and negative campaign commercials,” said White, Hegar’s senior adviser.

You can see the ad and the video from the Montgomery County Tea Party event from which the quote was taken at the link above. Note first that Hegar doesn’t actually deny saying what Collier accuses him of saying. He just says it’s not as bad as Collier makes it out to be. When he says he supports “adequately funding our school system”, he doesn’t say what he thinks “adequate” means. Remember, the state’s argument in the school finance lawsuit is that the current level of funding, which is still billions less than it was before 2011, is perfectly (and constitutionally) adequate. Glenn Hegar isn’t going to argue with that. Funny how these guys will proudly say something to one audience, then try to obfuscate what they actually said when it’s presented to a wider audience, isn’t it? The more Hegar complains, the more you know Collier is hitting the mark.

Posted in: Election 2014.

TxDOT to spur research on driverless cars

Among other things.

The state could fund research into self-driving cars, jet packs and hover cars if a new proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation is funded.

In a presentation Thursday to the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton said the agency plans to begin working with universities around the state to explore and test “emerging transportation technologies.” He said the initiative would make the state’s transportation system more efficient and better prepared for transformative technologies that are already in development such as Google’s driverless car.

“The disruptive force of the Google car is a dominant issue we have to be aware of,” Barton said.

Along with self-driving cars, Barton also suggested that TxDOT might test out jet packs, hover cars and drones. He also touted the idea of “solar panel roadways,” in which solar panels would be embedded in roads, generating energy and melting snow and ice.

“These are the technologies that we know are real and are coming upon us quickly,” Barton said.

Barton said the project would involve launching “test beds” to try out futuristic concepts and determine how to implement them. It would also use “think tanks” to draw “the brightest minds across the globe” to explore challenges facing the state’s transportation system and to make recommendations to TxDOT and state lawmakers.

TxDOT plans to request $50 million from lawmakers during next year’s legislative session to fund the initiative for two years. The proposal will come on top of the agency’s biennial budget request of $20 billion, which agency officials have said is as much as $5 billion short of what is needed to maintain current congestion around the state as population grows.

“We’re asking them to fund the program for us,” Barton said. “If they choose not to, we may continue to move forward trying to find other funding strategies.”

That’s…surprisingly cool, especially coming from an inside-the-box organization like TxDOT. It should be noted that technology of tomorrow like driverless cars could help ameliorate TxDOT’s long-term budget shortfall, though probably not soon enough to make a difference. There was a bill to enable the use of driverless cars in Texas filed in the last Legislature. I’m sure that will come up again next year, perhaps a bit earlier in the session this time. I’m glad to see TxDOT take a leadership role in this. Perhaps now we can finally get those flying cars we were promised so many years ago.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

If you read just one more story about Wendy Davis’ campaign

I would recommend you read this one, by Andrea Grimes.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In four months, Texans are guaranteed to elect a new governor for the first time in 14 years, and Davis’ battle stance is appropo: She’s been under attack from naysayers, pundits, and even members of her own party since before she announced her candidacy for Texas governor back in October. Today, she continues to fall well behind her Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in statewide polls, though the most recent financial reports show that Davis out-raised Abbott in the last fundraising period, and she often boasts about a grassroots base that she says puts Abbott’s small but monied good-ole-boy network to shame.

But politicos on both sides of the aisle have worried that Davis, who took her Fort Worth, Texas, Senate seat in 2008 and held on to it in a hard-fought battle in 2012, has skyrocketed to fame too quickly, taking on the burden of running for statewide office before she, or the State of Texas, is ready. Following her filibuster of an omnibus anti-abortion bill that is expected to shutter all but a handful of abortion providers in Texas, even one of her fellow Democrats situated Davis as being unable to break away from accusations that she’s a one-issue candidate who peaked on a summer night in 2013.

And the national media has expressed a singular fascination with Davis’ footwear, cooing over the pink Mizuno sneakers she wore on the floor of the Texas Senate on June 25, 2013. That day, Davis stood for 13 hours, reading Texans’ abortion stories and unheard testimony from citizens who had, days earlier, been shut out of a committee hearing by a Republican lawmaker who called their concerns about reducing access to reproductive health care “repetitive.”

That bill eventually passed in a second special legislative session, with pro-choice Democrats and Republicans roundly outnumbered by their anti-choice colleagues. A Republican pundit quickly gave Davis the glib and sexist nickname “Abortion Barbie,” and conservatives have worked hard to try and make it stick.

But Davis’ policy bench goes deep, as does her bipartisan record: the Harvard-educated lawyer served on the Fort Worth City Council for nine years, overseeing remarkable economic development initiatives and voting in Republican primaries, even donating to Republican campaigns. When she ran for state senate as a conservative Democrat in 2008, she took the office from a Republican incumbent and later held on to the seat in a costly and combative race against Tea Partier Mark Shelton in 2012. In 2011, Davis filibustered in the state senate for the first time, opposing a $4-billion cut to education funding and forcing Gov. Rick Perry into a special legislative session. In 2013, she shepherded through a Texas version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act with nigh-unprecedented bipartisan support, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

If, despite this record, Davis is considered a one-trick pony in pink sneakers, what must we make of her opponent, Greg Abbott? Abbott frequently describes, only half-jokingly, most of his 12 years on the job as attorney general thusly: “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”

[...]

Despite the fact that both parties are running very different, very big-personality candidates, Davis has almost exclusively borne the brunt of both legitimate and bad-faith criticism, and she has been the primary subject of an outsized share of the 2014 Texas statewide race coverage, perhaps because of her novelty as a viable Democrat—and a woman, at that.

And yet the strengths that make Davis a potential winner are, simultaneously, the very weaknesses that seem to bring her down. It all depends on who you ask.

To the anti-choice talk-radio crowd, Davis continues to be “Abortion Barbie,” too blonde and not nearly matronly enough to garner anything but outright misogynistic derision from Erick Erickson, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk. To the national media, Davis is the sneaker-wearing—never, never forget the pink sneakers—underdog about whom a steady stream of “Can she or can’t she?” stories must be written until election day. To Texas political wonks, she’s a charismatic leader playing a losing hand as poll after poll shows her trailing Greg Abbott by double digits. To Texas’ long-beleaguered liberal media, she’s Moses without a map.

And Davis is also under tremendous political pressure to appeal to a wide array of moderate, liberal, and progressive voters that an ever-rightward leaning Texas GOP has long left behind.

To those who would or could support her, she variously: talks too much about abortion, doesn’t talk enough about abortion, secretly wants to militarize the border, wants to give all immigrants citizenship starting tomorrow, is an out-of-touch capitol insider, needs more experience in the capitol, should focus on Medicaid expansion, should get tougher on environmental concerns, should spend more time in the Rio Grande Valley, should stop pandering to people in the Rio Grande Valley, needs to recapture that filibuster spirit, should stop relying on the filibuster to carry her through November, and so-on and so-forth, and lo, the list lengthens as November 4 grows closer.

Wendy Davis just can’t seem to do anything right, and nobody on either side of the aisle seems to mind weighing in on the nuances of why, and how, she’s setting herself—and by extension, all Texas Democrats—up to fail this November.

Meanwhile, Greg Abbott—whose Republican party just weeks ago recommended “reparative therapy” for gay people and called for easing foster parents’ ability to use corporal punishment on their wards—is taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Koch chemical companies before handing down favorable AG rulings that lessen the corporate behemoth’s public safety obligations, and all folks seem to want to know is what he’s thinking for the window treatments in that big, pretty governor’s mansion at 11th and Lavaca in downtown Austin.

If things look a little off to you, you’re not the only one who thinks so.

Grimes’ story is by far the best one I’ve read about the campaign, and it gets at a number of things I’ve thought about but haven’t been able to express nearly as well as she has done. It’s the first story I’ve seen that does more than just writes about what’s right in front of someone’s nose, or which complains about the campaign not doing the things that the writer wants the campaign to do.

I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated I’ve been at the lack of coverage and analysis on Battleground Texas and the Davis ground game. We’ve never seen anything like it before, and while I get plenty of email from BGTX telling me how awesome it’s all going, it would be nice to get an objective evaluation now and again. Yet one critic of Davis and her campaign after another, from Lisa Falkenberg to Bob Ray Sanders to Paul Burka write as if Davis is acting in a vacuum. (Forrest Wilder has been the exception to this.) Davis and BGTX clearly understand that she can’t win – hell, she can’t really compete – with the same Democratic electorate and turnout levels that we’ve seen since 2002, but no one analyze the polls beyond the headline numbers. How effective a job is BGTX, which wasn’t originally intended to be a force in 2014, doing? What are their targets, realistic and reach, for this year? How are they doing in high-growth, generally red suburban areas like Collin and Williamson, how are they doing in places Democrats have long abandoned like West Texas, and how are they doing in the critical Dem-heavy but turnout-light places in South Texas and the Valley? Do the Team Obama methods translate from Ohio and Florida, where voters are used to being harassed frequently contacted by campaigns, to a (shall we say) more laissez-faire state like Texas? How do the BGTX foot soldiers feel about the bad polls for Davis? So many questions, so little interest in the media in exploring any of them.

Actually, I’ve been saying all along that the Davis/BGTX ground game effort has never been seen before in Texas, but is that really true? The Bill White campaign had a lot going on, and Lord knows the Tony Sanchez campaign spent money like it was going out of style. What had they been doing by this point in the campaign? What is Davis/BGTX doing that they didn’t, and vice versa? I’m sure there’s a great story to be told there, if someone cared to look into it.

I honestly have no idea what to expect from the BGTX effort. I believe they’re having an effect, and I believe that effect will show up on Election Day, but I have no clue how much of an effect. One can certainly criticize the choices the Davis campaign has made in its messaging, and one can certainly believe that emphasizing various themes differently could put Davis in a better position to succeed – Grimes does so with gusto – but there’s no way to know. Nate Silver can simulate a thousand elections based on exogenous factors like the economy and various approval ratings and the accuracy of polls, but I don’t know how to predict the efficacy of a turnout operation, even one with the pedigree of Team Obama and its BGTX founders. They could be wildly successful at boosting base turnout from the recent anemic levels yet still fall well short of victory for Davis and the rest of the statewide Democratic ticket. The post mortem will have plenty of evidence to dissect, but until then we’re all talking out of our nether regions.

Anyway. Go read the whole thing and see what you think.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Redistricting II: Congressional Boogaloo

Phase Two of the redistricting lawsuit trial begins today, in which the 2011 Congressional maps go under the microscope. That’s as good a time as any for the mandatory How Much All This Redistricting Litigation Is Costing Us story.

BagOfMoney

Texans are on the hook for $3.9 million in costs for Attorney General Greg Abbott to fight for Republican-championed redistricting maps, and that number will only grow as a years-long legal fight continues Monday in federal court in San Antonio.

A big tally is expected in complicated redistricting litigation, experts say, particularly with the Abbott legal team’s aggressive defense of the congressional and legislative maps approved by the GOP-majority Legislature.

“Abbott’s attitude has been very much ‘I’m going to litigate this to the ends of the earth,’” said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center at New York University School of Law.

Abbott’s staff said he simply is doing his job as the state’s top lawyer and that the responsibility for the costs lies with those who have challenged the maps. Democrats said Abbott is using taxpayer funds as an ATM to defend discriminatory maps.

[...]

The $3.9-million tab so far, provided to the San Antonio Express-News in response to a Public Information Act request, includes more than $2.2 million in costs for in-house salary and overhead at the state attorney general’s office.

Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean said internal costs include employee salaries that would have been incurred regardless of the cases. The state lawyers have spent 26,986 hours on redistricting litigation.

The total also includes $887,327 for high-powered outside counsel, $447,567 for expert witnesses and $339,996 for travel and other expenses.

“This litigation is fairly complex. It has a number of issues with voting rights concerns, and it has been drawn out over a long period of time. Those two things together, I think, are really what are driving the cost here of this effort,” said Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert who is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

[...]

In what Li called an example of the state’s aggressive court strategy, Abbott in 2011 filed a federal lawsuit to get a federal stamp of approval of the state’s maps from a court, rather than going through the administrative process at the U.S. Department of Justice.

He did not get that federal “pre-clearance,” required of states with a history of discrimination. But the formula used to determine whether a state is required to obtain pre-clearance to make voting changes was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a separate case.

Li said Abbott’s aggressive strategy has worked in the state’s favor on occasion, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Texas in rejecting an initial set of interim maps drawn by a three-judge panel in San Antonio back in 2012.

“They’ve had some victories, though mostly they’ve come out with losses,” he said.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. It is Abbott’s job to defend the state’s maps, and much of the cost comes from salaries his own lawyers would be earning anyway, but Michael Li is absolutely right. Abbott is all about maximal ideological (and partisan) gain, without any other consideration. It’s not like the redistricting defense is out of character for his office, after all.

Like the fight over redistricting itself, the squabble about how much it costs to defend redistricting maps tends to sort itself out along partisan lines, so let’s move on. As Phase One, which concluded a couple of weeks ago amid little scrutiny, was about the State House, Phase Two is about the 2011 Congressional maps. The Texas Election Law Blog has a summary of what to watch for.

III. For Those of You Keeping Score

If Congressional districts were apportioned based solely on race, about 13 of the old 32 seats would have been apportioned to minority-favored candidates, and 14 seats would have to be apportioned out of the new 36 seats. As it happened, only 10 of the old seats were so apportioned (3 to African-American-favored candidates, and 7 to Hispanic and Latino-favored candidates).

That’s discriminatory, but not addressable as retrogressive (10 seats was better than what voters had been given previously). A redistricting plan isn’t retrogressive if it preserves an existing level of racial discrimination. If the state’s population hadn’t increased, Texas would not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by continuing to provide the same 10 total minority districts.

But as the number of seats increased from 32 to 36, Texas at least wasn’t legally entitled to make minority voters even worse off. They would have at least not been the author of worse discrimination than before by increasing the number of minority districts from 10 (which was three seats less than what it should have been) to 11 (which would have been three seats less than the new ideal of 14 seats out of 36).

So to recap – when Texas had 32 Congressional seats, 10 of the seats were apportioned as minority districts (3 African-American districts and 7 Hispanic or Latino districts). With 36 seats, either 10 (or 9 – there’s some disagreement among the parties about CD25 being a minority district or not) seats are now minority districts, meaning that depending on how one counts the districts, minority voters are either worse off (i.e., more discriminated against than before) by one Congressional district, or two.

IV. Remember the Real Issue

The State of Texas could admit that the 2011 redistricting plan was retrogressive, and still avoid any sanction. That’s because the 2011 plan was never actually used for an election, it was replaced with a court-drawn plan that was substantially adopted by the Texas Legislature in 2013, and that will be used for the 2014 election.

The real issue is whether the State of Texas engaged in intentional racial discrimination when it enacted the 2011 redistricting plan.

To keep track of the (surprisingly spotty and inconsistent) media coverage of the trial, and to make sense of the outcome, remember that the question isn’t so much that the 2011 redistricting plan was “bad,” but that the plaintiffs allege that the people drawing the maps made the plan intentionally bad in order to discriminate against minority voters.

I will be keeping track of the coverage, such as it is. There are still the 2013 maps to litigate, and of course whatever happens this will get appealed, so don’t be too anxious for a ruling anytime soon. If you need further incentive to get out and vote this fall, do keep in mind that Attorney General Sam Houston would be considerably more likely to find a reasonable settlement for the litigation than AG Ken Paxton would be.
Harold Cook has more on the Phase One part of the trial.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Chron on One Bin

The Chronicle is ambivalent about the city’s One Bin for All proposal.

Details of the One Bin For All recycling proposal aren’t even solid yet, but groups like the Sierra Club have already started to line up against it. This gut rejection seems misguided, but people should have a healthy skepticism of this relatively untested new plan.

The premise of One Bin is that, instead of people sorting recycling at home, recyclable material can be sorted out of garbage en masse at centralized locations through a mix of manpower and mechanized processes. It isn’t as effective as sorting by hand, but it gets more recyclables in the end because it handles the entirety of the city’s garbage rather than whatever people decide to sort at home.

The problem with this method, according to some environmentalist advocates, is that it removes the responsibility of recycling and cultivates a culture of waste. Out of sight, out of mind.

[...]

In a meeting with the Chronicle Editorial Board, the city’s Sustainability Director, Laura Spanjian, said the entire plan is supposed to be cost neutral, keeping the city’s trash budget essentially the same. A private contractor will design, build and operate the One Bin plant, in exchange for a contract on the city’s garbage. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and Houston won’t be stuck with the bill – unlike when a bond-funded trash incinerator project drove the city of Harrisburg, Pa., into bankruptcy.

Still, dumping garbage is cheap in Texas, and it seems inevitable that the price the city pays on each ton will increase, despite claims otherwise. The real cost offset comes from One Bin’s one bin, meaning that the city only needs one truck instead of two for garbage and recycling. Slimming down unnecessary city operations is healthy for the long-term budget.

Conservative skepticism still leads to an arched eyebrow. Houston government shouldn’t be the testing ground for new technology, and a few more years of experience in other cities could help refine the process. The Montgomery plant does not accept items such as kitty litter and dirty diapers, which are supposed to be tossed in a separate container. Their experience should lead Houstonians to worry whether we’ll just end up with a One Bin for (Almost) All.

As we know, the city received five proposals in July. We don’t know a whole lot about them just yet, but I expect we’ll hear more soon. The Chron lists three concerns about One Bin – cost, effectiveness, and the “out of sight, out of mind” problem – but they didn’t mention the two biggest ones that opponents have harped on. One is the possibility/likelihood that some amount of waste will be incinerated, and the other is that the so-called “dirty MRFs” will have less value as recyclable material than they would as separated materials. The city strongly disputes these arguments, and I’m not sure why the Chron didn’t at least mention any of that. I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to arbitrate that. I’m still waiting on a response from Laura Spanjian to what Zero Waste Houston has been saying, some of which was in that post of mine linked to above. I would love for this to work and I hope that the latest generation of technology can make it work, but it remains to be seen what has been proposed.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

More on the Abbott-Duntsch connection

The Observer advances the ball.

Dr. Christopher Duntsch

How immune are hospitals? Under the current law, for Baylor to be liable for Duntsch’s mistakes, the plaintiffs have to prove that hospital administrators let him operate because they specifically intended to harm patients.

Soon after the three plaintiffs sued, Abbott’s office announced that it would be jumping in to defend the statute that shielded Baylor. In statements at the time, the attorney general’s office was clear: Abbott wasn’t defending Baylor or Duntsch. He was simply defending state law.

Earlier this week, Wayne Slater at the Dallas Morning News suggested that Abbott may have had other incentives to intervene. In June 2013 and January 2014 Abbott received two large donations to his gubernatorial campaign—$100,000 and $250,000 respectively—from one Drayton McLane, a Temple transportation exec and Republican who is also the chairman of the the board of trustees for Baylor Scott & White, the company that owns the Baylor hospital system.

The timing is a little suspicious. The $100,000 donation came the day after the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, ending an 18-month surgical career that had left two dead and many more paralyzed or in chronic pain. The $250,000 donation came the week after the second of the three lawsuits.

McLane has given Abbott money before, but it’s generally been much less; the most he had given in the past, according to the campaign filings the Morning News references, was $25,000.

See here for prior posts on Dr. Duntsch, and here for the DMN story on which the Observer piece is based. By the way, I can only presume that Observer author Saul Eblein is not a baseball fan or else he might have recognized Drayton McLane as the former owner of the Houston Astros. McLane, who gave more to Abbott in that one fell swoop than he had to Rick Perry in a dozen years, insists there was nothing fishy about the donation, its size, its timing, or Abbott’s subsequent defense of Duntsch. And we should believe him because that’s how people like Drayton McLane got to be where they are in the world today, by tossing their money around indiscriminately without even a passing thought to the possible return on investment. I’m sure Greg Abbott won’t treat him or the things he values any differently than he’d treat any other rich Republican donor. They’re all equals in his eyes.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Weekend link dump for August 10

Now Republicans would like for you to believe that “reproductive health” and “women’s health” are two different things.

Don’t trust USB devices. Like, at all.

This guy hates being stuck in traffic more than you do.

“The [Harry] Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry.”

“In summary, it’s common for traffic light controllers to speak to each other over a 5.8GHz wireless channel (much like WiFi, but a dedicated frequency) with no cryptography, default usernames and passwords, and well-known and exploitable bugs. Oh boy. And what can we do with that?”

“Apparently, if Obama is using his executive authority to advance a policy House Republicans support, it’s a meritorious exercise of presidential authority; if he uses that same authority to aid a policy they oppose, it’s time to write up articles of impeachment.”

From the “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” department. And by “those”, I mean “us”.

How does an all female Ghostbusters reboot sound to you?

“The share of poor people living in distressed neighborhoods (those with 40 percent poverty or more) grew by nearly 78 percent during the 2000s, writes Brookings fellow Elizabeth Kneebone. And that growth came overwhelmingly in the suburbs.”

You do know that the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance includes protections for pregnant women, right? This is why such protections are needed.

“Yes, you heard that right. Red states Texas and Arizona now have an employee owned and operated *gasp* “socialist” company which can provide groceries at the same or cheaper prices than Wal-Mart.”

RIP, James Brady, former White House press secretary and leading figure of the gun control movement.

More like this, please.

The case for a soda tax.

JK Rowling is a mensch.

Why American doctors might have been the the first to receive experimental anti-Ebola drugs.

From the “If you want to talk the talk, you better walk the walk” department.

Congrats to Becky Hammon, who I’m sure will be a great hire for the Spurs.

All about those stolen email addresses and what those Russian hackers might do with them.

“The Yankees are the Road Runner, who isn’t going to fall into the canyon because he doesn’t look down.”

This is probably not the best way to “prove” that you’re not a racist.

“There’s nothing immoral about taking care of your health. There’s nothing immoral about making the decision to not become a parent before you want to become one. There’s more than one way to understand religion and spirituality and God. I do have belief in God. That’s why I do this work. My belief in God tells me that the most important thing you can do for another human being is help them in their time of need.”

“An aside: the correct thing to do when three murder-eyed, placid-lipped, notoriously temperamental immortals show up on your doorstep in the nude and ask you to rank them in order of beauty is to BEG OFF.”

The subscription model works.

Remembering Mickey Leland, 25 years later.

Happy 70th birthday, Smokey Bear. And yeah, I thought his name was Smokey the Bear, too.

To my fellow WordPress users – check your plugins and make sure they’re up to date.

RIP, Jonathan Vela, a/k/a Aquaman-San Antonio.

“Ebola is exotic, frightening and headline-worthy when the virus surfaces in humans, but it’s not even a blip on the list of the world’s most important killers. If you want to worry about a cause of death, look to car accidents, influenza or even lightning strikes — all are bigger worldwide killers than Ebola.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

LVdP calls out Patrick on debates

You tell him, Leticia.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Letitica Van de Putte said Thursday that her Republican opponent, Sen. Dan Patrick, has yet to respond to her proposal for a series of debates ahead of the Nov. 4 election.

Van de Putte and Patrick spoke separately at the Texas Association of Broadcasters annual convention in a rare opportunity to see the two candidates address the same audience back to back.

A state senator from San Antonio, Van de Putte used the opportunity before cameras and microphones to reiterate her call for a robust schedule of debates.

She has challenged Patrick, a tea party favorite from Houston, to five debates, part of an aggressive plan to pit the candidates head-to-head in the state’s four largest markets and in the Rio Grande Valley. Neither Patrick nor his team have responded since she laid out the debate proposal more than a week ago, Van de Putte said.

“This is a race where there’s a big difference in candidates … and the people of the state need to hear the candidates,” she said. “He knows my phone number. I’m waiting.”

For a guy that normally loooooooooves the spotlight, Danno sure has been quiet about this.

Patrick, with less than 90 days before voters pick a new lieutenant governor, is showing no public signs of how he plans to respond to Van de Putte’s debate proposal.

The campaign has said it is “working to establish a debate schedule that is respectful to and complementary of the debates agreed to by the gubernatorial candidates.”

On Thursday, Patrick’s team used that more-than-week-old statement to shield itself from media inquiries about Van de Putte’s comments to reporters and in front of the broadcast industry trade group.

Minutes after his speech wrapped up, Patrick and his team zoomed out of the hotel lobby without answering media questions (both speeches were about a half-hour behind schedule).

Patrick did stick around just long enough to declare he has a “Huckabee event to attend” and that “I’ve been the most media-friendly guy in the Legislature.” Then he vanished.

Patrick figures, not without reason, that he has little to gain by actually engaging with Van de Putte, or doing much campaigning at all, really. He’s got the wind at his back and it’s his plan to let it blow him across the finish line. But as Stace reminds us, Lite Guv is a position with real power. The voters deserve a chance to hear what the candidates have to say for themselves. What are you afraid of, Danny?

Posted in: Election 2014.

On beautifying the city for the Super Bowl

Chris Andrews has some thoughts about what Houston should and shouldn’t do in preparation for Super Bowl LI in 2017.

Things More Important Than Beautification Projects to a Super Bowl Visitor

As a sports fan, and through my own experience, I would have to guess that a visitor’s experience in a host city will be impacted mostly by:

1. Transit to and from the game
Transit is where cities as a whole may be the most vulnerable during a Super Bowl, but it will probably be the thing that people will care about the least in terms of their lasting experience as a Super Bowl visitor. Hosting major events can help raise interest in local or regional transit systems, but it can also expose deficiencies in transit planning, as evidenced in New York’s latest Super Bowl hosting. Even the “Mass Transit Super Bowl” could not live up to its name. No matter who you’re cheering for or whether you’re a VIP or tailgate fan, everyone will depend on some form of transit to get to the game. Everyone will get to the game somehow. (Hopefully the NFL will not impose the ridiculous restrictions on travel as they did with New York in 2014). Houston will be tested in 2017, but the yearly testing of the transit system with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo had provided the city a regular opportunity to plan for the influx of transit riders.

(As a note for Houston: If plans to demolish the Astrodome and expand the NRG Park complex take shape before the Super Bowl, transit riders may find themselves walking around a complex of semi-truck loading docks and exhibition halls. The plans of the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo depict “Phase 2″ of their NRG Park expansion and Astrodome demolition as having additional exhibition halls and a new parking garage, which stand between NRG Stadium, the NRG Astrodome and the METRO light rail. Surely the Texas, the Rodeo and Gensler, the architecture, planning and design firm responsible for creating this plan, can do better to serve their visitors. I give them the benefit of the doubt for allowing transit riders to navigate through the exhibition halls, but this is not depicted or considered on their renderings.)

2. Stadium and official event venues
In order to even be considered to host the Super Bowl, your city needs to have an updated stadium. Official event venues typically have sponsors who are keenly aware of their image. It can be expected that at a minimum your host stadium will be appealing and will contain updated amenities.

3. Private event venues
Private party events surrounding the Super Bowl can create just as much of a buzz as the game itself. Sometimes tickets to these events can cost as much as game tickets. With the exclusivity of these VIP events, there can be no doubt that visitors will not be let down by their design or conditions.

4. The teams involved
If you’re a die-hard fan of either team that is playing in the Super Bowl, I would venture to guess that nothing short of seeing your team on that field will matter much. Sure, newly landscaped medians or pocket parks may be nice to look at as you walk inside the stadium, but unless you are an urbanist, these improvements will likely be lost on you as you enter the stadium and see your team on the field.

There’s a lot more, so read the whole thing. Andrews noted a Chron story from a few days back about the creation of a “Stadium Park Redevelopment Authority” to bankroll some improvement projects via private donations; it was tagged when it first came up on Council’s agenda, though I presume it passed but was swallowed up in the Uber/Lyft news this week. He thinks overall we’re taking the right approach, and certainly after the recent Brazil World Cup and Russia Winter Olympics debacles, I think we can all be happy we’re not committing to a bunch of new construction that won’t have any obvious use after the event is over. As far as transit is concerned, having the Southeast and Harrisburg lines in place (even if the latter may not be fully complete as well as Metro bus reimagining in place should be helpful. If we get some roadwork done and some sidewalks improved by then as well, so much the better. Via Lisa Gray.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

More on the Postal Service as financial service provider

I still think it’s a good idea, and so do a lot of other people.

The Postal Banking Consumer Survey [PDF] asked more than 1,600 consumers, many of whom do not have access to traditional banking services, whether or not USPS should enter the banking arena.

Most consumers, about 63%, reported that the addition of services, such as bill paying, check cashing, and small-dollar loans, would not matter to them.

However, a majority, about 58%, of consumers support the argument that providing financial services at USPS branches would expand access to safe financial products for low- and middle-income Americans while providing a new sources of revenue for the Postal Service.

Nearly 64% of consumers who identify as using alternative financial services believe the expansion of safe financial services would be beneficial to both consumers and the postal service.

Conversely, only 32% of those surveyed said they believe that providing financial services at Postal Service branches would divert resources from mail delivery and give the government-run Postal Service an unfair advantage over privately-run companies that already offer financial services.

“There is a market here but it’s limited,” Alex Horowitz, research officer for Pew Charitable Trusts, says. “When we look at people who already are using alternative services it changes. There is quite a bit of interest for lower-cost services among those who already use alternative services.”

[...]

Consumers who currently use alternative financial services were more likely to use lower-cost services though their local post office branch.

Nearly 46% would use check-cashing, 27% would purchase prepaid cards, 46% would use bill-pay services and 41% would consider payday loans through the postal service.

See here for the background. We all know that payday lenders are a big issue for a lot of people, but so are things like check cashing services, mostly because of the large fees they charge. The point of this idea is that the Postal Service could be a lower cost provider of conveniences like check cashing and bill paying. Another advantage of using the USPS for this is that there are post offices everywhere.

The USPS Office of Inspector General first made the case for expanding into financial services this January, calling itself “well positioned” to meet the needs of underserved Americans. It didn’t take long for the idea to garner attention from high-profile legislators like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass), who joined other lawmakers and experts at a Pew conference Wednesday to debate the merits and pitfalls.

There’s consensus on the easy part: the problem. Most people agree that an astounding number of Americans live outside the mainstream financial system and this often has a negative impact on their financial lives and futures. In total, they comprise a quarter of US households and spend tens of billions on fees and interest each year. To put this in perspective, Warren likes to point out that these Americans spend as much money on financial services as they do on food, which is to say they spend $2,412 a year per household, or roughly 10% of their income.

Clearly the big question that remains is whether the post office is the right vehicle for delivering change.

Postal services in dozens of other countries, including Japan, Switzerland and the UK, already do it. Many make big money from it. The USPS itself offered a savings program for over fifty years, but discontinued it in 1967.

One thing the post office has going for it is an extensive brick-and-mortar network, with over 30,000 locations in nearly every zip code. While there are three times as many bank branches, they don’t cover as many zip codes. In Montana, as in many rural places, “you can find yourself more than 75 miles from the nearest bank branch,” but close to two or three post offices, says Pew’s Clint Key. There’s a term for this: bank desert. Indeed, Pew found that 10% of census tracts (neighborhoods, essentially) don’t have a bank branch within five miles, but most do have a post office close by.

The problem is getting worse, not better, for America’s underserved families. Since 2008, 93% of bank branch closings have been in zip codes with below-national median household income levels. Meanwhile, banks have been opening branches in areas with median incomes above $100,000.

The post office also touts its trusted brand, saying consumers who walk in to any location would know they were getting safe, simple financial products. A Pew finding shows that 71% of people view the US Postal Service favorably, compared to 9% for payday lenders, 21% for check cashiers and 56% for banks.

“This is an opportunity for the post office to use its space and its employees more efficiently to bring needed services to more Americans,” said Warren.

If the post office were to get into banking, it wouldn’t just be out of the goodness of its heart. It estimates a revenue of $8.9 billion each year. If true, this is a big deal for an agency in crisis. The post office loses money every year. Thanks to the internet, mail volume has plunged 22% over the last five years. Meanwhile, the USPS is struggling with a Congressional edict that it pre-fund employee benefits.

“This is an existential crisis,” said James Gattuso, senior research fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation.”The postal service needs a new line of business.”

Sure seems like a good fit all around. Getting into the short-term loans business is another matter, as it’s inherently risky and would require Congressional approval, which these days is nigh impossible to achieve. Still, this has the potential to do a lot of good for a lot of people. It’s worth serious consideration.

Posted in: Bidness.

Saturday video break: Come Together

I think we’re all familiar with the original version of this one, so since I just have cover versions of it, let’s go straight to those. First, here’s Aerosmith:

Steven Tyler was two years younger than I am right now when that was done. I should look so good without a shirt. On that note, here’s Ike and Tina Turner:

Yeah, I could spend a lot of time watching Tina Turner videos. It would not be time wasted.

Finally, while I don’t actually have the Beatles’ version of this, I do have a John Lennon live version. Like this one:

One and one and one is three. Which is your favorite?

Posted in: Music.

Rasmussen: Abbott 48, Davis 40

Make of it what you will.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

The gubernatorial race in Texas is slightly closer than it was earlier this year.

A new Rasmussen Reports statewide telephone survey of Likely Texas Voters finds Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott picking up 48% of the vote to Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis’ 40%. Three percent (3%) prefer some other candidate in the race, while nine percent (9%) are undecided. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

In our first look at the race in March, Abbott led Davis by 12 points – 53% to 41%.

Texas moves from Safe Republican to Leans Republican on the Rasmussen Reports’ 2014 Gubernatorial Scorecard.

Both candidates are backed by 86% of voters in their respective parties. Abbott leads 43% to 35% among unaffiliated voters, compared to 50% to 37% in March.

Abbott continues to hold a double-digit lead among men, 52% to 35%. But while Davis held a 12-point lead among women in March, the two candidates are now tied among these voters.

I hadn’t realized Rasmussen had polled in March; if there was any news coverage of it, I missed it. Both results are on the sidebar now. It’s nice to see a trendline in Davis’ favor but I’m not going to hang too much on that, especially when it all comes from Abbott losing a few points of support, which could mean little more than a higher number of his likely supporters saying “I don’t know” this time around. Rasmussen doesn’t provide crosstabs, so we can’t say for sure what that’s about. While Ras notes Davis’ loss of support among women from their March result to this one, you have to click the link for their March poll to see that she made a big gain among men, going from down 66-29 to down 52-35. I doubt either of these represent much more than odd fluctuations among smaller subsamples. Again, I’m not going to make too much of this – no more than I did of the less friendly Internet polls – but I do wonder if this one will attract any coverage, as that YouGov poll did, and if it will change even slightly the narrative from “Davis trails Abbott by double digits” to “Davis trails Abbott by double digits in most polls” or something more favorable to her. We’ll see about that. (And just as I was writing that, Texas Politics posted about the poll, followed a bit later by the SA Current and finally the Austin Chronicle. One daily paper blog post, two alt-weeklies, so far.)

Finally, Ras also polled the Senate race, showing Big John Cornyn leading David Alameel by a score of 47-29. You can credit that bigger lead almost entirely to Davis’ much higher name recognition than Alameel’s. We don’t have the crosstabs, but I’d bet a non-trivial amount of money that they show a much greater proportion of Dem-friendly demographics going “don’t know/no answer” on Alameel than they did on Davis. Cornyn’s equivalent level of support to Abbott is the tell here.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Sobering center status report

It’s working as planned, which is great news.

When Mayor Annise Parker opened the center at 150 North Chenevert St. last year, the idea was to cut police costs and reduce recidivism, creating a place other than jail for those whose only crime is public intoxication. Prior to the center’s opening, police were making about 17,000 arrests a year in Houston for public intoxication, racking up between $4 million and $6 million in police costs.

The sobering center has reduced that number significantly: From June 2013 to June 2014, Houston police booked just shy of 2,500 people on public intoxication, according to sobering center numbers. The center admitted more than double that number during the same time period.

[...]

Officials said the sobering center is still not being used to its full capacity, but the numbers should pick up as more jurisdictions turn to the facility. In April, Metro, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, constable precincts and University of Houston police started dropping off intoxicated people at the location.

The center started with a roughly $4 million contract with the city. Last month, council gave the center $1.2 million more out of a health waiver to expand services at outpatient recovery clinics. It’s part of an effort to make the center not just a glorified “drunk tank,” but also a place for people with addiction problems to connect with long-term treatment.

“Is it a cure-all? Is it the silver bullet for everything? It’s not,” said City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, one of the original backers of the recovery center idea. “But an intoxicated person a year ago would have been taken to jail and put through the bureaucratic system, and they probably wouldn’t have left with the help they need.”

Houston is one of just 10 or so U.S. cities – San Antonio included – with a partially or completely local or state government-funded sobering center. Most are spread out along the West Coast, from Seattle to Portland to San Diego. Another 20 to 25 cities are now considering the model, said Shannon Smith-Bernardin, deputy director of San Francisco’s sobering center. She is studying the growing number of sobering center models and their potential cost savings for her graduate school dissertation.

“There is no one definition of a sobering center right now – they all offer different services and programs,” Smith-Bernardin said. “But we know it’s becoming a trend.”

See here, here, and here for the background. There’s so much to like about this – it’s cost-effective, it keeps police officers on the streets instead of dealing with low-level offenders, it is far better equipped than the jails to direct people to real options for assistance, and it was a key step in closing the city’s jail. This is a win all around and an idea I wish we’d thought of years ago. Keep up the good work, y’all.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Moving out of Fitzgerald’s

Big music news in Houston.

The successful concert promotion group behind Houston’s Free Press Summer Festival has secured land just north of downtown Houston to build a three-stage music venue complex with two indoor stages and an outdoor stage.

Pegstar Concerts head Jagi Katial said Monday the project has been two years in gestation. Plans for the development at 2915 N. Main and North Street were leaked onto Houston’s Reddit outpost Saturday afternoon in part from a resident who attended a meeting about the development, which lead to Katial wanting to clear the air on some details that were bandied about.

This new venue would call for Pegstar to leave its current digs at Fitzgerald’s music venue on White Oak Boulevard, and set up shop at the new site five minutes away. This new complex as of now does not have a name, Katial says. He predicts that the doors could be open by late 2015.

“It’s very much a work still in progress,” Katial says, surveying the grounds late Monday afternoon. As of now there is nothing on the property aside from a real estate sign, trees and a concrete slab. A group of tight-knit investors has been working on the nuts and bolts for some time, he said.

The property backs up to what is called Little White Oak Bayou. Katial says engineers have said that flooding should not be an issue. It’s located just a few blocks from Metro’s North rail line, which could make it easier for concert-goers to commute to the venue.

There are a handful of vacant homes on the western end of the property which will be converted into other things, like parking, farmer’s markets and storage. He wants to get Houstonians acquainted with the area when they aren’t there for a show.

Sarah Fitzgerald, who has owned the Fitzgerald’s venue since 1977, said Monday that Pegstar’s lease is up in September 2015.

Pegstar has leased it from her since September 2010, when they remodeled the venue and began booking live music and comedy on the two stages, downstairs and upstairs, most nights of the week. The revitalization of the building has been a boon for development on White Oak Boulevard, which now has a number of bars and restaurants that are full almost every night.

“This is a bittersweet thing for me, straight up, because I love Fitzgerald’s and the idea of me being a concert producer was forged at that venue years ago,” says Katial. “I’ve seen some of the best shows that I will ever see there.”

Swamplot has a view of the new location plus some design illustrations. Fitzgerald’s, which is walking distance from my house, is an institution in Houston. I have no idea what will happen to the space after the current tenants leave. The owner could make a fortune if she sold the place to developers, but I kind of hope she doesn’t. There’s not many places like it left in Houston, and I’d hope the music scene is big enough here to accommodate both Fitzgerald’s and the new place. As for the new place, it sounds really interesting, and I love that it will be near the North Line. I’m looking forward to seeing what Pegstar does with it. See this Chron gallery of 1980′s photos at Fitz’s for more.

Posted in: Music.

Working on Ebola in Galveston

Given what’s been going on lately I thought this would be of interest.

As the worst recorded Ebola outbreak in history sweeps across West Africa, hope for a cure is centering on scientists thousands of miles away at the Galveston National Laboratory, where researchers are working on three of the most promising potential cures.

The National Lab, on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has been awarded $6 million from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense to develop cures for Ebola and the equally deadly Marburg virus, UTMB said this week.

The Ebola virus that has infected more than 1,000 people in West Africa and killed more than 700 is a new strain, which could complicate efforts to develop a cure, said Scott Weaver, the National Lab’s scientific director.

The outbreak is the longest-lasting and most widespread Ebola outbreak ever recorded, Weaver said, and cases are being reported for the first time in highly populated cities.

The National Laboratory is the only academic lab in the country to be rated Level 4, meaning it is equipped to research the deadliest biological agents known because of the sophisticated safeguards in place. Weaver said scientists at the National Laboratory have been working with the Ebola virus for 10 years, making them a natural choice to pursue the cures.

[...]

Even if an infected person arrives in the U.S., there is little chance that Ebola could get a foothold here, said T.G. Ksiazek, a pathology professor at UTMB. Ebola can only be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids and is easily controlled with modern medical techniques, said Ksiazek, who will leave for Africa this month to assist in efforts to halt the spread of Ebola.

“We do occasionally have diseases like this imported into the U.S. and we fare well,” he said.

Good to know. I don’t even want to think about the panic and overreaction that would occur here if there ever was such an outbreak, even though there’s not that much danger of actually catching it. This is one of those times when being – how shall I put this? – less scientifically literate that we might be as a society would be a major negative. The politics of ignorance and fearmongering that we already have are quite enough, thanks.

One more thing:

The bulk of the research on Ebola is being done in the U.S. because the federal government has been willing to fund research into cures of what are known as “emerging diseases,” such as the Ebola and West Nile viruses. Private companies are reluctant to invest the millions – or hundreds of millions – of dollars needed to develop a cure for a disease like Ebola because there is little chance of making a profit.

“There is really no market for this in a typical sense,” Weaver said. “There is no company that thinks they can market this in West Africa for a profit.”

Sarah Kliff explored that question in more detail a few days ago. Keep that in your back pocket the next time a debate about the role of government comes up in your vicinity. I wish the scientists working on this problem and others like it all the success in the world.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Friday random ten – Kiss me, Kate

Another all-in-one-name list for the letter K.

1. Pull Me Out Alive – Kaki King
2. Differently – Kat Parsons
3. Rocket Man – Kate Bush
4. Village Green Preservation Society – Kate Rusby
5. Best Song Ever – Katie Armiger
6. By My Side – Katie Hanley & Company (from “Godspell”)
7. Jumping Trains – Katie Herzig
8. Walking On Sunshine – Katrina and The Waves
9. Hitsville U.K. – Katrina Leskanich
10. Roar – Katy Perry

Yes, Kaki is a variant of “Katherine”, too. Oddly, I have no music by a woman whose name is a variation on “Catherine”. Make of that what you will.

Posted in: Music.

HERO repeal lawsuit moves back to state court

Are we dizzy yet?

PetitionsInvalid

Conservative activists seeking to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance trumpeted a small victory Thursday when a court hearing resulted in the ordinance being suspended pending an Aug. 15 hearing.

Mayor Annise Parker, anticipating a lawsuit, had already said she would not enforce the ordinance until there was more legal clarity, but plaintiff and conservative activist Jared Woodfill said Thursday’s result was important.

“I think it makes a big difference because now you have a court order saying you can’t enforce it, even if you change your mind and you wanted to,” Woodfill said.

Woodfill characterized the suspension as having been ordered by visiting State District Judge Jeff Shadwick, a suggestion that prompted a chuckle from City Attorney David Feldman.

“This is not the judge ordering us, this is the city stipulating that it would not enforce, consistent with the mayor’s public representation,” he said.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of Judge Shadwick’s order. A hearing on August 15 is cutting is awfully close for this year’s election. If the petitioners ultimately win but can’t get onto the ballot till 2015, will the suspension of enforcement continue? Because if it is allowed to be enforced, I think the haters are going to have an awfully hard time maintaining the illusion that there’s anything harmful about the HERO. Who will believe their lies if they can see for themselves that they’re not true? So much easier to get away with lying when there’s no time for a fact-check. Oh well, sucks to be them.

Posted in: Legal matters.

State bar grievance filed against Paxton

It’s getting to be hard to keep track of all of the complaints and legal actions being filed against the man who would be the state’s top lawyer. This one is a grievance filed with the State Bar of Texas by another watchdog group.

Sen. Ken Paxton

In its grievance, the Austin-based Texas Coalition on Lawyer Accountability requests that the state bar investigate whether Paxton broke at least four rules involving the disclosure of conflicts of interest.

“Like every other Texas lawyer, Mr. Paxton must comply with the legal ethics rules that govern the legal profession,” the coalition said in a news release.

Once a grievance is filed with the state bar, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel’s lawyers review it to see whether it actually alleges violations of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. If it does, it becomes a complaint that can lead to an airing of the issue in district court or before a panel of state bar lawyers from across Texas. If sustained, the complaint can result in the suspension or disbarment of an attorney.

Anthony Holm, a spokesman for the Paxton campaign, called the grievance “yet another political stunt” by a group with Democratic ties, pointing out the acting executive director does not have a law license. “Frankly, it’s a bit silly,” Holm said in a statement.

The coalition did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but in announcing the grievance said it aims to hold lawyers accountable regardless of their political affiliations.

As you may recall, a criminal complaint was filed in July, and a complaint with the SEC was filed in May. I didn’t recall hearing about the Texas Coalition on Lawyer Accountability before, but I did note the complaint they filed in 2011 against Ken Anderson, John Bradley, and Mike Davis over the Michael Morton case. As a reminder, to myself as much as to you, they are “a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to educating the public and advocating the public interest to hold the Texas Legal profession accountable to its statutory, constitutional, and ethical obligations”. Their origin story is that the TCLA was established in 2010, initially to provide input from the public perspective on the proposed amendments to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Here’s a letter they sent to then-Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson outlining their concerns. They eventually won a victory over this issue in 2011, when the proposed changes were voted down by the bar members.

Anyway. They’re definitely on the do-gooder side of things, but I wouldn’t dismiss their track record. Here’s their statement on the grievance, which outlines the basics of Paxton’s admitted and alleged bad deeds, the complaint narrative, which is the long version of the story, and the actual complaint form that they filled out. Any lawyers want to weigh in on this?

Posted in: Election 2014.

The state’s puppet witnesses in the HB2 lawsuit

The Austin Chronicle tells the story.

Among the state defense witnesses who took the stand on the third day of trial against Texas’ abortion-restricting House Bill 2 were two women with overt objections to abortion and one physician whose testimony in support of abortion regulations was recently discredited by a federal court.

Additionally, questions arose whether the Attorney General’s office coached and aided in witness testimony.

After two days of plaintiff testimony in U.S. Judge Lee Yeakel’s courtroom, it was the state’s turn to offer its witnesses. On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Mayra Jimenez Thompson, a Dallas-based OB-GYN testified, and it was clear from the outset that Thompson was anti-choice; she said had not performed an abortion in 20 years because of her “religious” beliefs. In cross-examination, plaintiffs repeatedly asked Thompson if the Attorney General’s office and specifically, Dr. Vincent Rue, a representative of the office, had provided guidance or advice in her expert testimony report.

Initially, Thompson steadfastly denied any involvement from the OAG, saying she alone had drafted the document. However, in hopes of “refreshing her recollection,” plaintiffs produced several damning e-mail exchanges between her and Rue indicating constant assistance in drafting and modifying versions of the report. (Correspondence from Rue included: “I’m still drafting, will keep you posted”; “Tried to use as much of your material as I could, but time ran out”; “Just want you to review, I’ll keep working on the draft.”) Thompson defended the assistance, saying she was a medical doctor, not trained in legalese and the proper “wordage” of court testimony.

Rue isn’t just lending a hand to the Texas case; he’s a behind-the-scenes fixer for other states that are imposing anti-abortion laws, including Alabama and Wisconsin. Rue coined the term “post-abortion stress syndrome” – an alleged disorder thoroughly discredited by major medical groups, including the American Psychological Association, yet still endorsed by anti-choice activists. Rue’s testimony in previous cases, including the landmark Planned Parenthood v Casey, was rejected for lack of credibility. It’s reported that for his services in other states, Rue has received nearly $50,000.

While Thompson answered “no” when asked if she had financial/ownership interests in ambulatory surgical centers, plaintiffs recounted her deposition testimony, which showed Thompson is affiliated with the North Central Surgical Center in Dallas. Thompson countered the center was no longer an ASC and had become a full-fledged hospital in recent years. Thompson also admitted to failing to review eight of the nine studies on abortion mortality rates provided by plaintiffs before giving testimony.

Similarly, the next witness, Dr. James Anderson, an emergency room and family practice physician, also received aid from Rue, or as he phrased it, “wordsmithing.” In fact, Anderson holds a prior professional relationship with Rue, assisting him with reproductive rights and anti-abortion legislation in other state cases since 1997, including some concerning parental consent laws.

When questioned about Rue’s influence on his testimony, Anderson downplayed the degree of involvement, saying the legal draft was a “team effort” and “a collaboration.” Anderson said Rue provided sources for his testimony, including material from the Susan B. Anthony List, a national anti-choice group. When asked about the group’s ideological motivations, Anderson conceded the source “risks bias, but still validates the need for the law.” Plaintiffs pointed out that just this week a federal district judge in Alabama discredited the majority of Anderson’s testimony in support of anti-abortion legislation in a suit filed by Planned Parenthood “due to concerns about his judgment or honesty.”

The witnesses provided by the state grew even weaker as the day wore on.

Hard to imagine, I know. See here for the background, here for the AusChron’s coverage of the plaintiffs’ case, and here for the rest of the state’s case. Some recent rulings from the federal courts give hope for the good guys, but remember that we’re still ultimately dealing with the Fifth Circuit here, so don’t get too much hope just yet. See Andrea Grimescoverage in RH Reality Check for more.

Posted in: Uncategorized.

Lots of same sex marriage appeals about to happen

Busy times in the federal appeals courts.

RedEquality

Federal appeals courts soon will hear arguments in gay marriage fights from nine states, part of a slew of cases putting pressure on the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a final verdict.

If the appeals judges continue the unbroken eight-month streak of rulings in favor of gay marriage, that could make it easier for the nation’s highest court to come down on the side of supporters.

If even one ruling goes against them in the four courts taking up the issue in the coming weeks, it would create a divide that the Supreme Court also could find difficult to resist settling.

“We’re going to be racking up more courts of appeals decisions, and every one we get puts more pressure on the Supreme Court to weigh in,” said Douglas NeJaime, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine. “It’s very likely the Supreme Court ultimately settles this question. Given how quickly things have moved, it’s hard for the court to avoid this in the short term.”

[...]

Arguments similar to those [that were] heard Wednesday will take place Aug. 26 in the 7th Circuit in Chicago, for bans in Wisconsin and Indiana, and for Sept. 8 in the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, for bans in Idaho and Nevada. The 5th Circuit in New Orleans is expected to soon set a date to hear arguments on Texas’ ban.

The flurry of arguments means an upcoming spate of rulings, possibly all issued this autumn, that could profoundly alter the nation’s marriage laws.

If the four federal circuit appeals courts rule in favor of gay marriage, then nine states with pending appeals stand to have their bans stricken down altogether or ordered to recognize out-of-state gay marriages: Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Idaho and Nevada, though the decisions likely would be put on hold for a Supreme Court ruling.

Five additional states under those four circuit courts have gay marriage lawsuits awaiting decisions by federal judges: Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Montana.

Observers say the 6th or 5th circuits could deliver the first victory for gay marriage opponents.

We know about the Sixth Circuit, in which arguments were heard this week. We still don’t know when the Fifth Circuit will hear arguments there, but we do know that 63 Texas legislators have signed a brief in the appeal in which they declare that same sex marriage is icky and they totally have Greg Abbott’s back. Hey, remember when something like that would have been bipartisan? This one was an all-R effort, with the TDP and these troglodytes’ two LGBT colleagues firing back. I’m so glad those days are over, even if there are still a few laggards on the issue. In any event, the national picture will almost certainly be a lot clearer, or a lot more complicated, in the next few months.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Council approves vehicles for hire overhaul

At long last.

Lyft

Technology companies that have unapologetically disrupted vehicle-for-hire markets in cities across the country will be able to operate legally in Houston after City Council on Wednesday ended 16 months of wrangling by approving new rules.

Council voted 10 to 5, with two absent, to open the heavily regulated paid ride market in Houston to new entrants, such as Uber and Lyft, that use smartphone applications to connect willing drivers with interested riders, using the driver’s personal car.

Mayor Annise Parker, who supported the rule changes but has made no secret of her desire to move on to other topics, said the months of delay were driven by the difficult issues at play, as well as the measure acting as a “full employment opportunity for lobbyists” as an entrenched, regulated industry fought well-funded, innovative startups.

“This is something that’s been a contentious issue in cities all across the United States,” Parker said. “I think we did the right thing and I think we did something positive for the citizens of Houston who rely on vehicles for hire to navigate the city without doing something I think would have a negative impact on existing providers.”

Uber

Yellow Cab President Roman Martinez said he also is happy the discussion is over so his contracting drivers can return to the streets. He said he does not see the vote as a loss, though he acknowledged the failure of an amendment to cap the number of Uber and Lyft drivers allowed to enter the market – by a 9-8 vote – was significant.

“We’ve always said we are not afraid of competition,” Martinez said, surrounded by colleagues in bright T-shirts. “Everybody here that’s in this room today, who are cab drivers, limousine drivers, jitney operators, we’re going to compete. We just wanted to make sure the playing field was level and that everybody was going to play by the same rules. Council had a little bit different opinion about what those rules are, but now we get back to work.”

Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin said the vote shows the power of citizen support for her company’s services, and said it shows Houston’s commitment to innovation.

[...]

In opposing the ordinance itself, Council members Laster, Jerry Davis, C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh and Jack Christie pointed to the absence of caps and round-the-clock insurance as key reasons. Kubosh echoed Martinez’s comment about a level playing field.

“We’re not even close to the same rules,” he said. “It’s really lopsided, it really favors the transportation network companies; it doesn’t favor the cab companies at all.”

The mayor said drivers for Uber’s luxury sedan service, UberBLACK, can begin registering with the city immediately, while drivers for the taxi-style services Lyft and uberXmust wait 90 days to sign up.

That likely will not stop Uber or Lyft from continuing to operate, given that the firms launched illegally in February and have racked up more than 800 citations between them and their drivers since then.

There were a bunch of amendments offered, with perhaps the most interesting being proposed by CM Laster that would have limited the number of Uber/Lyft-type drivers to 250, Seattle-style. That was defeated 9-8, which may be just as well. There was a requirement added for a minimum of 3% of all vehicles for hire to be wheelchair accessible (see this press release from CM Brenda Stardig) with a proviso that it can’t be met by one company alone. Whether that will have an effect on the recent litigation filed by disability rights activists or not, I don’t know. I do know I’m glad that this is over, and I suspect you are, too. Your turn now, Dallas and San Antonio. The Houston Business Journal and The Highwayman have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

HERO repeal lawsuit moved to federal court

And the bad guys are very unhappy about it.

PetitionsInvalid

Conservative activists seeking to repeal Houston’s equal rights ordinance accused the city of stalling the issue Wednesday after city lawyers moved the opponents’ lawsuit over rejected ballot petitions from state to federal court.

Opponents blasted the move, calling it a delay tactic aimed at keeping the issue off the November ballot. City officials called it a routine move invited by the plaintiffs’ decision to cite federal law in their suit.

[...]

Plaintiff Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist, said the city’s move was less about federal rights and more about putting off a ruling. Woodfill and opponents sought an injunction in state court Tuesday night, asking Visiting Judge John Coselli to suspend enforcement of the ordinance, effectively triggering the referendum process. Parker, however, already has said the city will not enforce the ordinance until there is a legal ruling.

Coselli did not rule on the injunction request Tuesday and by Wednesday afternoon the city had filed its notice of removal.

“They’re doing everything they can to keep the people and the courts from ruling on this,” Woodfill said.

Aw, poor baby. Here’s the original story on the lawsuit, which as noted was filed late Tuesday.

The lawsuit asks a state district judge to declare that City Secretary Anna Russell met her legal duty by verifying a sufficient number of signatures to force a vote, only to have City Attorney David Feldman illegally insert himself into verifying the petition, invalidating more than half of the petition’s 5,200 pages for failing to satisfy legal requirements in the city charter. That left opponents roughly 2,000 names short of the 17,269-signature threshold needed to force a referendum.

In a memo to Mayor Annise Parker and the City Council, Russell said she had found 17,846 valid signatures before Feldman reviewed the pages, and attributed the lower count to her review of his office’s work. At an injunction hearing Tuesday night, plaintiffs argued Russell’s initial count was the important one by law and should have triggered a referendum. City attorneys disagreed, saying Russell ultimately found there were not enough signatures.

“If he (Feldman) felt there were underlying problems with the petition then he, like us, has the right to file a lawsuit if he doesn’t agree with what the city secretary did,” said conservative activist Jared Woodfill, one of the four plaintiffs. “Going in before she’s ever made the decision and influencing her is inappropriate, it’s illegal and we believe the court will agree with us and that folks will have their voices heard in November on this issue.”

[...]

Feldman strongly disputed the idea that his involvement crossed ethical or legal lines, saying he has a specific duty under city ordinance to interpret the law and give legal advice.

“There’s nothing that would preclude me from giving legal advice to the city secretary,” Feldman said. “In fact, that’s what our ordinances would expect me to do: Give advice to her on an issue which is really a legal issue. The question of whether or not those pages are valid because of the issue of meeting or not meeting the requirements of the charter is a legal issue.”

As noted yesterday, you can see a copy of the lawsuit here, but those paragraphs above basically capture it. Woodfill and his playmates claim that only Anna Russell can determine the number of valid signatures. I thought their argument was kinda thin, but I am as always Not A Lawyer, so what do I know. As far as the complaints about delays go – remember, August 18 is looming as the last day for any measure to be put on the ballot – they are cordially invited to cry me a river.

One more thing, from the first story:

During her weekly press conference after Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Parker referred to a training video that shows Dave Welch, of the Houston Area Pastor Council and a leading opponent of the ordinance, explaining the rules signature gatherers needed to follow. With a power point presentation behind him, Welch tells the audience the unique repeal referendum process “makes it more challenging for us.”

Signature gatherers must be registered city voters, Welch said. If they are not, the entire page gets thrown out.

“Let me repeat that so everybody really understands that,” Welch said.

Parker said she had not seen the video, but that her staff had been “enjoying” it.

“So, it’s kind of amusing if, in fact, his own language is used against him in court,” Parker said.

Here’s the video in question. Skip ahead to 6:30 to hear the bit Mayor Parker is referring to. I don’t know that this makes any difference legally, but it’s pretty funny anyway.

Finally, on a side note, the Forward Times hosted a public forum recently to discuss the HERO and its effects. Supporters and opponents were invited to come and speak, but at the last minute the opposing speakers dropped out. TaShon Thomas is not impressed.

Puss in Boots tells the story of a cat that uses trickery and deceit to gain wealth, power, and the hand of a princess for his lowly master. Much like the mischievous cat, the opponents of the ordinance used every manner of trickery and deceit to get their point across and try to sell their side to the citizens of Houston. But when given the opportunity to actually talk about the ordinance in a sensible approach, none of the leaders of the petition drive decided to show up.

I have always been one who is open to hearing opposition and trying to understand where they are coming from, but it is impossible for me to do that if they do not show up when it is important. The mayor’s announcement should have not deterred the petition leaders from attending the forum; it should have been a rallying cry.

If you truly care about bettering the city of Houston and believe the ordinance would lead to its downfall, then you should use whatever avenue is given to you to get your point across. Do not just say you are going to attend and back out at the last moment as though you are cowering in defeat. Especially now since the window for the repeal to be placed on the ballot is approaching fast.

I hope this serves as a cautioning for anyone, especially elected officials or anyone trying to bring something to our community, who make commitments and fail to live up to his or her promises.

How can we support or trust you if you can’t even face the people you are trying to persuade to join your cause and go your way? In other words, do not let your mouth write a check that your behind can’t cash!

Amen to that.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Ike Dike versus Centennial Gate

It’s an academic storm surge mitigation smackdown!

Lawmakers on Monday told representatives of two of Texas’ most distinguished universities to stop feuding and come together on a plan for protecting the Houston region from a storm surge similar to the one spawned by Hurricane Ike six years ago.

At a hearing at Texas A&M University Galveston, members of the Joint Committee on a Coastal Barrier System expressed frustration that the universities who took the initiative to devise a storm protection plan – Texas A&M Galveston and a Rice University-based center – were still arguing over the best approach.

“The fact is that Hurricane Ike was six years ago and we are still talking about how to come to a consensus,” said Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood and the co-chairman of the joint committee. “We’ve got to move forward.”

Legislators said they wanted a proposal they could turn into legislation soon. “You have to come up with a plan that can be passed,” said committee Co-Chairman Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont.

If the two sides fail to come together by the time the committee reconvenes in September, legislators said, they will take steps to bring about an agreement. “We’ll do something to encourage them,” Taylor said, adding that it could include picking a person or a committee to work out a deal.

“We have ways of making you achieve consensus,” Sen. Taylor did not say, definitely not twirling his mustache while not saying it. Sorry, got carried away for a minute there. Won’t happen again, I promise.

Texas A&M is backing a storm protection barrier proposal known as the Ike Dike, which would stretch from San Luis Pass at the western end of Galveston Island to High Island on the eastern end of the Bolivar Peninsula. Skeptics have said the idea is too costly.

Texas A&M marine scientist William Merrell proposed the concept soon after Ike caused an estimated $25 billion in damage to the Houston area, making it the costliest storm in Texas history.

The SSPEED Center, which draws on ideas from all over Texas, originated the proposal for the Centennial Gate at the head of the Houston Ship Channel. That plan calls for a ring barrier around the populated portion of Galveston Island, and a storm levee along Texas 146 to protect the western edge of Galveston Bay.

After the hearing, Jim Blackburn, a professor at the SSPEED Center, said he was confident that an agreement could be reached. But when Merrell was asked if there was a chance of a compromise, he responded, “No.”

“We’ve got a concept, we think it’s a good one and we are going to keep doing it,” Merrell said. “The Centennial Gate never did hunt.”

Merrell said he would welcome the backing of the SSPEED Center.

“Save time, see it my way,” Merrell did not say. Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t do that again, but sometimes it’s just too easy.

See here and here for some background. I don’t know what the “right” answer is here. It’s a matter of how you calculate the risk and how much you’re willing to pay to mitigate that risk. There is such a thing as too much insurance, but there’s also such a thing as too little. What’s it worth to you? How will you pay for it? Answer those questions and you’ll answer the other one. Lisa Gray is right, that’s the Legislature’s call.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Texas blog roundup for August 4

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks Congress can stay in recess all the way till November as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Remember Ray Jones

PetitionsInvalid

So now that the HERO-haters’ petitions have been rejected by the city for not having enough valid signatures after all of the petition pages that were not compliant with the requirements of the city charter were thrown out, the story shifts to the courthouse. We don’t know exactly what the antis are going to claim but I think it’s fair to assume that they will assert that they city was too broad in its rejections and that at least some of the pages that were tossed should have been accepted. The rejections were for fairly technical reasons – the circulator didn’t sign his or her name, or there was a signature but no printed name, or the circulator was not a registered voter in Houston, and so on. There are many arguments one could make to get more signatures accepted, and if the haters’ legal counsel in their litigation is less incompetent than their counsel during the petition signing process was, they will make as many of them as they can and hope enough of them stick.

I’m not a lawyer and can’t really say what might or might not work, but I do know that the city has been down a road similar to this before, involving someone whose attempt to make it onto a ballot was rejected for narrow technical reasons and who didn’t settle for that answer. I’m thinking about Ray Jones, who was a candidate for District C in 2005, then tried to join the field of what ended up as nine candidates in the special election for At Large #3 in 2007, which was eventually won by Melissa Noriega. Jones, as is often the case with candidates, turned in his ballot application just before the deadline. Unfortunately for him, there was a problem with it, and the city rejected it, along with those of two other candidates. Here’s a report from the Chron about what the problem was.

Under the Texas Public Information Act, I got copies of rejected applications submitted by Ray Jones Jr., Greg Locke and Darryn Call. The city also released the form filed by Roy Morales, who is on the ballot.

Here’s what I found out about the four applications. You can download them here [PDF] and read along:

CALL: He didn’t complete the oath section. Leaving this blank is what city attorneys consider a “fatal” error. It’s the section in which candidates affirmatively swear that they’re submitting “true and correct” applications, and that they comply with all the requirements.

LOCKE: He got the oath part right, but he didn’t fill in his voter-registration number. This, too, is fatal because Article V of the City Charter requires that candidates be “qualified” voters.

[...]

JONES: He also didn’t complete the oath.

Jones got a call from the legal department about the error a few minutes before the deadline, but it was too late for him to submit a new form. He believes the city unfairly excludes candidates. He wrote [PDF] City Secretary Anna Russell and City Attorney Arturo Michel about it, too.

If you look at the forms in question, you see that the “oath” section is basically the part that you fill out and sign in order to get the document notarized. There’s blanks for your name, your county, and the office you’re seeking, then your signature, which is the one part everyone got right. I suppose it’s possible that a novice candidate might miss these places on the form, but you’d think a notary public would know to tell them to fill them in.

In any event, this is by any reasonable measure fairly small potatoes. The document is signed notarized, after all, and the missing information can be found or inferred from other boxes. One could certainly argue that the city might cut them some slack and err on the side of inclusiveness. The city for its part did try to contact Jones and get him to fix his mistake, but they weren’t able to reach him in time for him to do so – remember, he turned in his application on deadline day. After some back and forth in the press and an allegation that the city employee that received his document did not give him correct information about its accuracy, Ray Jones filed suit with the 14th Circuit Court of Appeals to get on the ballot. He got some sympathy from the Chron, but the city held fast. In their response, the city pointed out that his application was “defective on its face”, and they cited precedent in their favor:

The Court of Appeals of Waco held that an application that left blank the spaces of an oath/verification identical to the Jones application was defective and incomplete. The application failed to satisfy the “statutory requirements governing a candidate’s application.” In re Gibson, 960 S.W. 2d 418, 420-421 (Tex. App. – Waco 1998) (original proceeding); contra, Yapor v. McConnell, 597 S.W. 2d 555 (Tex. App. – El Paso 1980) (original proceeding). The court found that an official has the duty to review an application within five days and make a determination as to whether the application complies with all statutory requirements. If the application does not comply with the requirements of the Election Code, the application must be rejected. Tex. Elec. Code § 141.032 (e).

In Gibson, the candidate made the exact same errors as Jones by failing to fill in the blanks of the oath which is required by the Election Code . Tex. Elec. Code § 141.031(4)(K). Like Jones, the candidate in Gibson attempted to blame his omissions on the official that received his application or on the notary. In rejecting Gibson’s argument, the court held that “the completion of a candidate’s application rests primarily on the shoulders of the candidate.” Id. at 421. Statutory requirements are mandatory and the candidate must “ensure that the application strictly complies with state law.” Id. at 421.

The city ultimately prevailed, and an appeal to the Supreme Court also failed. Now again, I’m not a lawyer and I can’t say how the haters’ litigation will go. I don’t know if this case would be relevant to what they will put forth. My job is to remember stuff like this and bring it up at appropriate moments. The point I’m making is that just because these prohibitions may seem nitpicky doesn’t mean you’ll get any relief from a judge. Maybe there’s another precedent out there that would favor the petitioners, I don’t know. We’ll know soon enough how they plan to attack this. In the meantime, I say remember Ray Jones and the example he gave us. The Observer has more.

UPDATE: And the lawsuit has been filed. You can see a copy of it here, but the TL;dr version is that they claim Anna Russell’s is the One True Count, and none of the work done to invalidate individual pages means anything. I guess that’s one way of approaching this. The judge could rule as early as this morning.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Is there any valid evidence of Todd Willingham’s guilt left?

The Washington Post has a long piece examining the connection between the jailhouse snitch whose testimony helped send Cameron Todd Willingham to death row and the prosecutor who has long denied taking any action to influence that testimony.

For more than 20 years, the prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of murdering his three young daughters has insisted that the authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of the jailhouse informer who told jurors that Willingham confessed the crime to him.

Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.

But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.

“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness was threatening to recant. (Jackson misspelled the rancher’s last name.) “We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”

Along with Webb’s account, the letters and documents expose a determined, years-long effort by the prosecutor to alter Webb’s conviction, speed his parole, get him clemency and move him from a tough state prison back to his hometown jail. Had such favorable treatment been revealed prior to his execution, Willingham might have had grounds to seek a new trial.

Read the whole thing, it’s well worth your time. I sadly disagree with the suggestion that this revelation will have any effect on public opinion about the death penalty. I think people have long since factored in this possibility in their thinking, and generally conclude it’s an acceptable cost. People have been making the argument about possibly executing the innocent without much traction yet. Maybe the recent ghastly news out of Arizona about horribly botched executions will help move public opinion, I don’t know. I just don’t expect this to do much on that score.

What I think this could do is spark a closer examination of how jailhouse snitches are used, much like the earlier revelations of bad investigative technique have spawned a real review of arson forensics and even a look at some other cases in which discredited methods were used to secure convictions. The cellmate to whom a defendant that is otherwise loudly proclaiming his innocence confesses fully to the crimes with which he is charged is practically a cliche, and often a too-easy convenience for overzealous prosecutors. If some kind of reform of that practice, or at least a heightened sense of skepticism when a jailhouse snitch is employed at trial, comes out of this, then at least some good will have resulted from Willingham’s needless and unjust death.

Actually, there is one more thing that can come of all this. I must have missed it in the WaPo story, but in this Chron story about Willingham’s stepmother and biggest advocate, there’s more to this than just information.

At 71, Eugenia Willingham has spent more than a third of her life trying to prove jurors were wrong when they condemned her stepson, Todd, for murdering his three young children in a deliberately set fire. Her faith in Texas justice fell as court appeals failed, then collapsed as ‑ after the 2004 execution ‑ seemingly well-crafted attempts to posthumously clear her son’s name were thwarted by the state.

Now, the Ardmore, Okla., woman’s hopes again are rising as lawyers for the New York-based Innocence Project target the prosecutor in Todd Willingham’s case in a complaint to the State Bar of Texas. The complaint alleges former Navarro County assistant District Attorney John Jackson arranged for a jailhouse informant to testify against Willingham in return of special consideration in his own case. Then he tried to keep the deal secret from the judge, jurors and the defense attorney, according to the complaint.

If the allegations are found true, Jackson, now in private practice, possibly could be disbarred.

[...]

Innocence Project Co-founder Barry Scheck said Willingham’s execution “would never have gone forward … if John Jackson had played by the rules.”

The complaint is the latest effort by Scheck’s organization to prove Willingham’s innocence.

All of the elements in the WaPo story are contained in the complaint, so do read them both. If Ken Anderson and hopefully Charles Sebesta can be held accountable for their unjust actions, I see no reason why John Jackson can’t be, too. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll serve as examples for others to learn from. Grits and PDiddie have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Chron calls for end of pot prohibition

By which they mean that the federal government should repeal its anti-marijuana laws and leave it to the states to regulate.

Zonker

While there are still questions about long-term health effects of marijuana use or the policy implications of decriminalization or legalization, the United States knows all too well the consequences of continuing the war on drugs: millions spent on ineffective law enforcement, drug cartels getting rich and poor people going to jail.

The heavy burden of our national marijuana policies is uniquely borne by the black community. While black kids and white kids statistically use marijuana at equal rates, according to a study last year from the American Civil Liberties Union, black kids are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession.

Here in Harris County, blacks were 44.9 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in 2010 despite being only 18.9 percent of the population. Colorado and Washington already have legalized recreational marijuana, and 18 other states plus the District of Columbia have legal medical marijuana, but it seems like marijuana possession is de facto decriminalized if you just live in the right neighborhood. These startling statistics belie our nation’s promise of equal treatment under the law. It is time for Texas to officially change our own marijuana policies.

The discussion already has begun in the race for Harris County district attorney, where Democratic candidate Kim Ogg has said she would punish low-level marijuana possession with tickets and community service instead of arrests and jail time. By her numbers, more than 12,000 people were charged in Harris County last year with possessing less than 4 ounces of marijuana. These prosecutions left county taxpayers on the hook for $4.4 million. There’s also the social cost of taking people away from their jobs and families and shuttling them through an unforgiving criminal justice system. All this for something that is essentially a bad habit and a vice.

While lauding Ogg’s proposal the Chron expressed skepticism about Devon Anderson’s as-yet-revealed plan to reform marijuana prosecutions and hope that she’ll come around. They note the recent Times editorial that made the same call for “repealing Prohibition”. As far as the health effects of pot smoking and the justification of them for continuing prohibition, Wonkblog has been all over it lately.

It’s unclear what the effect in Texas would be if federal marijuana laws were magically repealed tomorrow. We can debate when the Legislature might take action, but I wouldn’t bet on anything this decade. Wendy Davis supports the legalization of medical marijuana, which is at least a more realistic possibility here, while Greg Abbott typically has nothing to say on the issue. It’s not much of a stretch to say that if repeal happened tomorrow, some states would rush to embrace their newfound freedom while others would cling to the past, maybe even more tightly in some cases. There may be a partisan divide on that, but it’s hard to say. This is of course how things usually go when we “leave it up to the states”, as a thirty-second survey of the landscape on access to health insurance, reproductive rights, and same sex marriage could tell you. I don’t know what states would do what under a no-Prohibition scenario, but I do know that for any individual American their own freedom, as well as their risk of prosecution and incarceration, would be entirely dependent on the luck of where they live. That’s why even though leaving it to the states would almost certainly be an improvement over the status quo in this case, it’s hardly a panacea. Some things need to be true for everyone and not just the ones that won the geographic lottery.

Posted in: National news.

SD04: Creighton defeats Toth

I went to bed before the final wrapup stories were written, but trust me, Rep. Brandon Creighton is now Sen. Brandon Creighton.

Sen. Brandon Creighton

In early returns in the race to succeed Sen. Tommy Williams, state Rep. Brandon Creighton was ahead of his opponent, Rep. Steve Toth,

Creighton, R-Conroe, was outpacing Toth, R-The Woodlands, for the District 4 Senate seat. It had been held by Williams for a decade before he resigned last year to become vice chancellor of federal and state relations for the Texas A&M University System.

Both candidates vying to replace him acknowledged the difficulty in luring voters to the polls for only a single race between two candidates, especially on a weekday in the summer. Creighton said this was the fourth time that a special election was held for a single Senate seat and the first time for a race between two Republican candidates.

[...]

[Creighton] will assume the Senate seat to complete Williams’ unexpired term through 2016.

Here are the vote totals. Creighton, who had led 45-24 after Round One, and he garnered the Chron endorsement for the runoff, was up big in early voting and cruised from there. About two thirds of the vote was cast early, so add that to your database of early voting behavior from this oddball summer special election runoff with a miniscule voter universe. In this case, form held as the candidate with the most initial support and by far the most money won easily. So congratulations to Sen.-elect Brandon Creighton. May you be a better and more constructive Senator than you were a member of the House.

Posted in: Election 2014.

HERO repeal effort falls short

Too bad, so sad (not really).

PetitionsInvalid

Opponents of Houston’s new non-discrimination ordinance did not get enough valid signatures to force a November repeal referendum, Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman announced Monday.

“With respect to the referendum petition filed to repeal the ‘HERO’ ordinance, there are simply too many documents with irregularities and problems to overlook,” Feldman said. “The petition is simply invalid. There is no other conclusion.”

The council approved the ordinance on an 11-6 vote in May. Opponents who took issue with the protections extended to gay and transgender people under the ordinance promised to send the issue to the voters. On July 3, they claimed to have delivered more than 50,000 signatures to the city secretary’s office.

Opponents needed a minimum of 17,269 valid signatures – 10 percent of the ballots cast in the last mayoral election – to put a referendum on the November ballot. Feldman said some of the petition gatherers did not satisfy the requirements set out for such petitions in the city charter, such as by not being registered Houston voters or by not signing the petition themselves. If such requirements were not met, he said, all the signatures the circulator gathered were invalid.

Less than half of the more than 5,000 pages opponents submitted were valid, Feldman said, leaving the final valid tally at 15,249 signatures.

The bad guys may have claimed to have turned in over 50,000 signatures, but as noted yesterday, the number they subsequently claimed to have validated on their own was much lower than that. You can see the memo from the City Secretary and City Attorney’s offices here, with the latter spelling out the reasons why each individual page was invalidated and how many signatures were on them.

Needless to say, there will be litigation to force this onto the ballot. Mayor Parker has acknowledged the inevitability of this before and does so again in her press release. We are rapidly approaching the deadline for any referendum or measure to be put on a ballot – according to the Secretary of State, that deadline is Monday, August 18, 78 days before Election Day. I have no idea what the chances are of getting a definitive answer by then. I do find it amusing that one of the head haters, Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastors Council, is claiming that they have “already assembled the top elections law attorneys in the state to review this” because by all the accounts I’ve heard the petition effort was incredibly sloppy. I mean, go back and look at those memos – you’ve got page after page of petitions being invalidated for not being signed by the circulator, or having only an illegible signature with no corresponding printed name by a circulator. How amateur night is that? They really needed to have those Top Men working on this at the beginning, not just now.

Anyway. You can still see the petitions themselves by searching Scribd for “hero petition” if you want to cross-check the City Attorney’s work. This isn’t over by a long shot – it’s certainly possible that a court could decide that the city was being too nitpicky in its review, or that some of the requirements in the charter are unconstitutional, or just that we should cut these poor bastards some slack, I don’t know. We’ll know more when we see the lawsuit that they file. KTRK, Equality Texas, Equal Rights Houston, Lone Star Q, Texas Leftist, and BOR have more.

UPDATE: More from ThinkProgress. And no, CultureMap, it’s not a bad thing that voters won’t be “allowed” to vote on whether or not to let discrimination continue to be legal.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Next lawsuit against HB2 is underway

We’ll see if the result this time is any better.

Texas abortion providers’ next attempt to block strict abortion regulations that the Republican-led Legislature passed last year begins Monday in Austin, where a federal court is considering whether to block a provision of the law that could shutter all but a handful of abortion clinics.

The lawsuit, brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of several abortion providers, seeks to prevent the state from requiring abortion facilities to meet the same regulations as ambulatory surgical centers, or ASCs. Abortion providers are asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to block the provision, which they say will leave fewer than 10 facilities operating in the state — and no abortion providers south or west of San Antonio.

The clinics argue that the measure will create an unconstitutional barrier for women seeking access to abortion. State attorneys contend that there isn’t enough evidence that the rules create an “undue burden” for the majority of women seeking abortion services.

The ASC requirement takes effect Sept. 1 and mandates that clinics have specific room and doorway sizes, along with locker rooms and infrastructure such as pipelines for general anesthesia. It’s the last remaining provision to be implemented after the passage last year of House Bill 2, which began to take effect in October.

[...]

Abortion providers say regulations that have been implemented since HB 2 took effect have already caused about a dozen abortion clinics to close. The provisions include a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation and a requirement that all doctors who perform abortion procedures have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic. The law also requires doctors to follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s protocol for drug-induced abortions, rather than evidence-based protocol.

As of April, there were 24 active abortion clinics in Texas, down from 40 before the bill took effect. Several more clinics have shuttered since then, and more are expected to close when the ASC requirements provision goes into effect.

Abortion providers previously unsuccessfully challenged the law’s admitting privileges provision. In March, a three-judge panel decided that abortion providers had not proven that the requirement for doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals would create an “undue burden.”

The panel’s ruling overturned a decision by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel that had temporarily blocked the law last October. Yeakel will preside over this week’s trial, which is scheduled to last through Thursday.

Lawyers for the abortion providers said it should be easier to prove that the ASC requirement imposes an undue burden because the effect of the provision will be immediately felt when most of the remaining clinics shutter.

“This is a little different, because we’re talking about building facilities that cost millions of dollars. Either they already exist, or they’re not going to magically appear on Sept. 1,” said Esha Bhandari, an attorney representing the abortion providers.

See here for the background. I was, as you might expect, not exactly overflowing with optimism when this lawsuit was filed, given the past history and the looming specter of the Fifth Circuit. However, since then the Fifth Circuit refused to allow a similar law in Mississippi to close the last clinic in that state. They didn’t overturn the law, because of course they didn’t, but they did that much, even if all told it’s not saying much. I don’t know what that might mean in this case, but at least there’s some hope that it might be a little better than the usual sharp stick in the eye. TPM, Trail Blazers, the Current, and RH Reality Check have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Do we really have to talk about the 2015 Mayoral race right now?

sigh All right, all right, if you insist. But let’s make it quick.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The list of possible candidates thus far includes mainly those who have held or sought public office before, though analysts said the guessing game at this point is difficult.

“There are always people who get in the race who no one expected and people everyone expects to run who don’t,” said Houston political consultant Mustafa Tameez. “At this early stage, rumors are often floated about people as an insider game.”

The list of rumored or confirmed candidates includes:

  • Chris Bell, a lawyer who was elected to City Council in 1997, to one term in the U.S. Congress in 2002, was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006, and ran unsuccessfully for Houston mayor in 2001;
  • City Councilman Jack Christie, a chiropractor in his second term;
  • City Councilman Stephen Costello, an engineer in his third term who chairs the council’s budget committee;
  • Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who is in his second term, having served on City Council and, for 23 years, in the Houston Police Department;
  • City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who spent 18 years with HPD before being elected to City Council in 2009;
  • Ben Hall, an attorney and ordained minister who was city attorney from 1992 to 1994 and who lost to Parker in last year’s mayoral race;
  • City Councilman Michael Kubosh, a bail bondsman in his first term who has helped lead several petition drives to overturn city policies;
  • Laura Murillo, the president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce since 2007;
  • City Councilman Oliver Pennington, a retired attorney in his third term who chairs the council’s ethics committee.
  • State Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Democrat and a Harvard-educated lawyer who was first elected to the House in 1988 and who is vice chair of its appropriations committee; he ran unsuccessfully for Houston mayor in 1991 and 2003.

[...]

The bottom line, [UH poli sci professor Brandon] Rottinghaus said, is that speculation about next year’s politics are, perhaps, better left to next year.

“It’s like trying to predict what the Texans’ record is going to be,” he said. “It’s shaping up – there’s no doubt there are some blocks that have been put in place here. But we still don’t know about so much of this.”

There are a few things we do know. One is that if Sheriff Garcia makes any official move towards running for Mayor, he’ll have to resign as Sheriff. Other people can talk about him all they want, but once he joins them he runs into the state electoral code. If he does resign to run, Commissioners Court gets to appoint a new Sheriff, who would almost certainly be a Republican. I know of a few Democrats that aren’t very happy with that scenario.

What else do we know? Well, after my post about Laura Murillo, I have been informed that she is registered to vote in Pearland. You know how I feel about that. I presume if there is anything to her inclusion on lists like this, the first indicator that there’s something to it will be an update to her voter registration information.

CMs Kubosh and Christie may have made themselves some friends with their anti-HERO votes, but they definitely made themselves some enemies with that vote. I figured that would translate to them getting strong challenges for re-election. I suppose running for something else instead is one way to deal with that.

Beyond that and more generally, this much I know: There’s only so much room available for Mayoral candidates. There are only so many donors, there are only so many endorsing organizations, there are only so many constituencies to court for votes and volunteer energy. Look at that list above and ask yourself who will be competing against whom for which slices of the electorate and a shot at a runoff. Sure, there are people on that list that have demonstrated various levels of ability to draw support from other parts of the political spectrum, but how well will they do when they’re up against someone for whom those parts of the spectrum are their base? This isn’t a buffet line – you can only choose one. Most of the people on this list, if they really are interested in perhaps running for Mayor and aren’t just a name some insider is floating around, will run into that reality. File this list away and take it out again next July when the first finance reports are in for 2015. That will tell you the story.

Posted in: Election 2015.