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Another trip down Demography Lane

From the Sunday Chron op-ed pages:

Texas is headed for the ditch, but few people are aware of the state’s perilous path. The demographers have seen the future, though, because it’s foretold in their numbers. And they’ve been sounding the alarm.

There hasn’t been much of a public-policy response, so far.

Texas could be the pacesetter: It has a young and rapidly growing population. Educate that workforce and Texas becomes a vibrant, thriving state for decades. Unfortunately, that young population is overwhelmingly minority and under-educated, and there appears to be little political interest in addressing the needs of that demographic group.

Increasingly, Texas stands to become poorer and less competitive, according to demographers who study the numbers for a living. Neither state leaders nor the media is paying adequate attention. Few Texans are aware of the state’s rapidly changing population. Hispanics will surpass whites as the largest population group some time before 2020.

By the numbers, here’s what’s been taking place: The state lost 184,486 white children between 2000 and 2010 while gaining 931,012 Hispanic children over that decade, according to the U.S. Census. Stated another way, in 2000, Texas white kids outnumbered Hispanic children by 120,382; Flash forward to 2010 and Hispanic children outnumbered white kids by 995,116.

This gap will continue to widen. Demographer Steve Murdock notes the average white female is 42 years old compared to an average age of 28 for Latinas. And the fertility rate is 1.9 children for the white female compared to 2.7 for the Latina. Demographers say replacement of a population group requires a fertility rate of at least 2.1.

Whites are projected to make up fewer than 4 percent of the state’s population growth between now and 2040, compared to 78 percent for Texas Hispanics.

Here’s the most important figure: All of our K-12 enrollment growth over the past decade comes from low-income children – that is, children whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced-cost school lunches. Those low-income students now make up a little more than 60 percent of our public school enrollment.

Many are way behind when they arrive in the first grade. Too many drop out years later. A whopping 47 percent of low-income high school students from the Class of 2015 were off track to graduate, according to testimony in last year’s public school finance trial.

Why does this matter? Murdock, who served as director of the U.S Census Bureau in the administration of President George W. Bush, projects that three out of 10 Texas workers will not have a high school diploma by 2040. Also, in 25 years, the average Texas household income will be some $6,500 less than it was in the year 2000. The figure is not inflation-adjusted, so it will be worse than it sounds. Basically, today’s children, collectively, stand to be worse off than preceding generations.

How can we address the trend line? The first step is to increase access to high-quality pre-K, Murdock says.

[...]

The demographers are warning us about the not so-rosy future if we fail to act. Education is the answer. Education is the best ticket out of poverty. We simply need state leaders to understand a universal truth: It doesn’t cost to educate a child; it pays to educate a child.

This is a condensed version of a longer piece by former Chron and Express-News reporter Gary Scharrer, which first appeared on Texas To The World. Scharrer was more recently on the staff of now-former Sen. Tommy Williams. Steve Murdock is a familiar name in this blog – he’s been singing this tune for well over a decade now, not that the powers that be have been listening. Here’s an interview I did with him in 2011, just as the Legislature was getting set to cut $5.4 billion from public education and $200 million from pre-k, because they suck like that. As we know, these issues are salient in the election for Governor this fall. You tell me whose pre-k plan, not to mention whose overall vision for education, is a better fit for our future.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Perry lawyers up

It’s getting real.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has hired a high-profile Austin defense lawyer to represent him in an investigation into whether he illegally withheld money from the Travis County District Attorney’s office.

KVUE News and the Austin American-Statesman confirmed Sunday evening the hiring of David L. Botsford.

The hiring comes as a special Travis County grand jury is set to be seated Monday to hear evidence into whether Perry broke state laws concerning bribery, coercion and abuse of authority.

[...]

Botsford said Sunday night, “The matter at hand pertains to the power of the governor to issue vetoes as allowed under the Texas Constitution. I have been retained to ensure that (the special prosecutor) receives all the facts, which will show that the governor’s veto was carried out in both the spirit and the letter of the law.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Attorney Botsford must be good at what he does, because he’s already obfuscating the facts. The issue, as I’ve said repeatedly, is not that Perry vetoed the funds but that he threatened to veto them unless Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg resigned. Trying to force out another elected official in this manner is the no-no. Had Perry simply vetoed the funds without yapping about it beforehand, there would be no allegation of wrongdoing. I can’t wait to see what the grand jury, which has been seated, makes of this. Jason Stanford and Juanita have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Regulating Bitcoin in Texas

Bitcoin regulations. We have ‘em.

Texas will not treat Bitcoin and other virtual currencies as legal money, according to a new memo from the Texas Department of Banking. Yet some companies that deal in Bitcoin transactions could draw state oversight, even if they are based outside of Texas.

Texas Banking Commissioner Charles Cooper issued a memo this month outlining the agency’s policies involving virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

“At this point a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is best viewed like a speculative investment, not as money,” Cooper said in a statement.

In his memo, Cooper provided reasoning that echoed the IRS. Last month, the federal agency announced that, for tax purposes, it would treat Bitcoin as property instead of currency because no government recognizes the virtual currency as legal tender.

“Because neither centralized virtual currencies nor cryptocurrencies are coin and paper money issued by the government of a country, they cannot be considered currencies under the statute,” Cooper’s memo reads.

While Texas does not have a state income tax, the state’s Department of Banking does regulate certain financial transactions and license financial institutions. An exchange of Bitcoin for U.S. dollars between two parties would not draw the agency’s interest, according to the memo.

But some third-party Bitcoin exchanges are already drawing state scrutiny because of the way they handle transactions involving U.S. currency and Bitcoin, according to Daniel Wood, assistant general counsel at the Department of Banking. Cooper’s memo states that such exchanges are involved in “money transmission” because they act as an “escrow-like intermediary” that holds onto a buyer’s funds “until it determines that the terms of the sale have been satisfied before remitting the funds to the seller.”

Such exchanges do not need to be based in Texas to fall under the state’s regulations, Wood said. “If they do business with Texas consumers, we can force them to get a Texas license,” he added.

I’ll admit, I had no idea there was a Texas Department of Banking. I don’t know what effect this will have, but I suppose it’s good to be one of the pioneers in setting this sort of regulatory framework. I personally think that Bitcoin is more toy than currency, though I could see it maybe being useful for campaign contributions. Assuming all disclosure and other requirements are met, of course. What do you think about this?

Posted in: Bidness.

The downtown lifestyle

Demand for residences in downtown Houston is up.

For Krishnan Iyer, moving downtown meant a lot of things: Not having to use his car in auto-dependent Houston, being able to walk to work, to restaurants, to the movies.

The 34-year-old consultant left The Woodlands two years ago for a one-bedroom apartment in the Post Rice Lofts at Main and Texas and hasn’t looked back. Iyer expects many others to follow him in the coming years.

“I think for sure the rising oil prices will have an effect on people moving inward to a place near where they work, and there is a trend of renting among younger people rather than buying,” Iyer said. “There’s going to be demand to live here. It’s not going down.”

With people like Iyer in mind, developers are proposing six residential projects for downtown Houston that could add more than 2,200 new apartments to the urban core, fueled by a $15,000-per-unit city subsidy program that officials now want to expand.

Most of this story is about whether Council should expand an incentive program for developers that build downtown. I’ve no strong opinions about that, I’m more interested in the attitude expressed above. As we know, there are many job centers in the greater Houston area, but it seems to me that downtown is one of only a couple where you could reasonably live and walk to your job. You could probably do that if you lived and worked in the Rice/Medical Center area, and maybe in Greenway Plaza or the Galleria. I can’t imagine doing it in the Energy Corridor or Greenspoint, or in a suburban location like The Woodlands. That’s a niche market, but one that downtown is very well positioned to serve.

More broadly, if one really wants to avoid traffic, one has to be in a position to stay off the roads. That means walking, bicycling (on trails and side roads if possible), and taking the light rail, with buses as the next best thing and carpools or vanpools another step down. You can reduce your exposure to traffic by having a shorter commute or by taking HOV lanes, but you can’t avoid it. Something I keep coming back to in this space is that while we’ve done a lot to make it easier to travel by highway, with more of that to come once TxDOT reveals its master plan for I-45 inside the Beltway, we’ve not done nearly as much for those who aren’t on the highway, which includes all those extra highway drivers once they reach their destinations. This is why I remain skeptical of the grandiose plans to transform I-45 in and around downtown or to build dedicated connectors to the Medical Center from 288. You can increase the capacity all you want on the highways, but the streets and especially the parking lots where all these people will be going aren’t getting any bigger or faster.

The inescapable truth is that we can’t solve traffic problems by adding highway capacity. All that extra capacity winds up generating bigger problems elsewhere. Widening I-10 west of the Loop has caused traffic on I-10 inside the Loop to become a mess, and that mess extends to the surface roads that access I-10, as anyone who remembers what Studemont and Yale and Shepherd were like pre-widening can attest. Ultimately, we are going to have to put more effort and resources into options that get people out of their cars, at least some of the time. That means more transit, more walking and biking, and more affordable housing close to or right in employment centers. That brings us back to the more transit and walking and biking options, because density without those things is just more cars on streets whose capacity can’t be – and shouldn’t be – increased. Downtown has all of that already, which is why it’s so attractive for people who don’t care about having their own plot of land. Near downtown – Midtown, EaDo, Heights, Montrose, and eventually Fifth Ward – has these things in varying amounts, but is struggling to keep up with demand for housing and the strain on infrastructure. Neighborhoods farther out also have these things to varying degrees, at least until you start getting into master-planned-with-cul-de-sacs territory. I don’t think I’m stretching to suggest that the less walkable a place is, the less amenable it will be to transit as well. Places like that are going to have a lot more trouble with traffic going forward because they just don’t have as many alternatives.

And that brings us back where we started. Council did approve the tax break to encourage more downtown residential construction, and I expect that it won’t be long before we start seeing more projects on the drawing board. In the meantime, more and more people will just have to learn to cope with traffic.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

What’s the health insurance enrollment status in Texas?

The short answer is that we don’t know. The longer answer, as this Express-News story indicates, is that we’ll never really know.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Self-sufficiency. Distrust. Desire for flexibility.

Those are some reasons many consumers bypassed health insurance plans sold on government-run exchanges and instead chose to buy coverage directly from insurance agents or brokers before open enrollment ended March 31.

No one is sure exactly how many people did this. There is no singular source that aggregates nationwide health insurance enrollment numbers outside the exchanges. But these consumers will push the total number of enrollments for 2014 health coverage beyond the 7.1 million Americans who went through the federal- and state-operated exchanges.

In Texas, “it could be a big number,” said Stacey Pogue, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “It could be more people than enrolled in the marketplace in Texas. But we don’t know. It certainly will be a significant number of people.”

The state Department of Insurance doesn’t collect enrollment figures.

Those who did not go through the exchange weren’t able to apply for tax credits or subsidies to reduce their premiums. That’s because tax credits can only be obtained through government-run markets.

There are a number of reasons why some consumers went a different route, independent agents and brokers say. Some made too much money to qualify for tax credits. Some didn’t believe in accepting subsidies. Others feared giving personal information, such as Social Security numbers, to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

“Frankly, I have talked to a number of consumers who are concerned about what they feel is an invasion of privacy,” said Carla Adams, president-elect of the San Antonio Association of Health Underwriters and an independent agent. “All of the information that they have to provide once you go on to the exchange … that makes some consumers nervous.”

[...]

Some consumers bypassed the exchange because they wanted the flexibility to choose doctors or hospitals they preferred instead of being limited to a smaller network, several agents said.

For instance, some shoppers who selected certain types of plans on the exchange after verifying their doctor was part of the network learned two weeks later that the doctor was no longer accepting patients with that form of coverage. Loretta Camp, co-owner of Davidson Camp Insurance Services in San Antonio and an independent agent, said her agency intervened in such cases so patients could stay with their doctors.

Local agents also helped consumers going through the federal exchange who wanted professional help to select the most cost-effective plans.

There is no extra cost for consumers who use agents’ or brokers’ services, several experts in the insurance field said. Insurance carriers pay agents’ commissions.

“The reality is, what I’m experiencing with consumers, they’re confused when they try to get on the exchange themselves,” Adams said. “They have no idea what the true differences are between these plans or how to compare, and they’re overwhelmed. Someone like an agent who understands the inner workings of these plans can help them navigate through the differences.”

The state of Texas, of course, tried to make it as hard as possible for non-profits and charitable organizations to provide navigator services, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. We don’t know how many Texans got coverage through the federal healthcare.gov exchange yet. The most recent numbers were 295,025 enrollments as of March 1 – see here for the breakdown – but I haven’t seen anything more up to date than that. The main thing to keep in mind is that whatever the final figure for Texans enrolling via healthcare.gov is, the real number – the number of people who got coverage is higher, perhaps much higher. It would be nice to know how much higher, but that number isn’t available. We’ll have to rely on polling data for that. Here’s hoping we get that soon for Texas.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Wilson whines to Commissioners Court

Dave Wilson would like to not be sued any more, so he went to Commissioners Court to air his grievances over the lawsuit that stemmed from his controversial election last year.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

After Wilson won the election, and County Attorney Vince Ryan sued Wilson, trying to keep him from office. To prove it before trial, Ryan combed over Wilson’s family Facebook pages and added his wife and kids to a witness list.

After he found that out Wilson told us, “They’re abusing their power. Vince Ryan is totally out of control.”

On Tuesday, Wilson was at commissioners’ court to ask it all to stop.

“I apologize for taking your time and I especially apologize for the county attorney wasting valuable taxpayer resources on his frivolous lawsuit against me,” he told Commissioners.

He claimed the county attorney has spent $100,000 on the case. The county attorney says the real amount (not counting staff time) is just under $8,000.

Among the costs, the county spent $3,000 on private investigators to trail Wilson. At least one of those PIs rented a room at the Super 8 across from Wilson’s claimed residence capturing video of Wilson coming in and out of that warehouse apartment.

When he saw the video Wilson told us, “He caught me red handed living at my residence.”

The county attorney’s office says this is important work to protect voters who deserve a representative who lives where he says he does.

“Mr. Wilson likes the publicity. He likes to make these appearances and he likes to make allegations that are difficult to respond to,” Robert Soard, Ryan’s chief of staff, told Eyewitness News.

That trial was originally set to start this week, but this story says it’s been moved back to July. Not sure what’s up with that. The fact that Wilson has been filmed at the warehouse he’s claiming as a home address is irrelevant; the question is whether he was living there in some meaningful sense before the election. The difficulty for Vince Ryan is how do you prove he wasn’t? If their case is based on the assertion that it isn’t habitable, Wilson can say “is too, I’m living there now!” I don’t want to think about how insufferable Wilson will be if he wins and can credibly claim to have been victimized by that mean old Vince Ryan. And I’ll say again, if Wilson does win we may as well just abandon the idea of residency requirements, because if his setup is kosher I can’t imagine what wouldn’t be. May as well just leave it to the voters if there isn’t an enforceable standard and an enforcement mechanism.

Posted in: Election 2013.

Uptown BRT update

From Swamplot:

HERE ARE SOME of the purty watercolor renderings the Uptown District has been presenting of what Post Oak Blvd. will look like after the addition of 2 dedicated bus lanes down its middle. The proposed changes to the thoroughfare won’t take away any of the 6 existing car lanes or 13 existing left-turn-signal lanes. There’ll be a few modifications, though: new protected-left-turn signals will be put in at West Briar Lane and Fairdale, for example, and 3 median openings will be closed. The space for the buses and 8 transit stations along the Boulevard between the West Loop and Richmond Ave will come from acquiring 8 feet of right-of-way from each side of the existing street. The bus lanes and light-rail-style stations will go in the median.

Notably, the Uptown District presentations never use the phrase “Bus Rapid Transit,” or BRT in describing the upgrades, though a BRT system has been pitched as a replacement for Metro’s earlier proposal for an Uptown light-rail line. Uptown Houston got approval for a $61.8 million federal grant to fund the street reconstruction last year. It appears that the lanes will be used for commuter buses as well: “This joint project of the City of Houston and Uptown,” an executive summary of the program reads, “will develop a system designed to connect workers to Uptown via Houston’s highly successful HOV network.” The dedicated bus lanes are an additional piece of the project.

[...]

The buses will still have to stop at intersections, and move through lights only when cars do. “All travel time savings for the buses will be generated by simply being the ‘first-in-line’ at the signalized intersections made possible by the dedicated bus lanes,” the summary notes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Construction is set to begin next year, which will be exciting. The Uptown folks may not care for the BRT appellation, but I’m under no such obligation. Calling it “rapid” may be a tad bit of an overbid, but I’m sure travel times will compare favorably to what people experience now, especially for those who are eventually able to take advantage of this as park-and-riders. Add in some B-Cycle kiosks when this is finished, and people in and around the Galleria area will have some good non-car options for getting around and not adding to the traffic congestion. Now if only we can get the University Line going to connect this to the rest of the light rail network. Some day, by God, some day…

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Recycling cartons

More curbside recycling options.

Houstonians accustomed to throwing out glossy cardboard cartons of milk, juice, soup and others foods and beverages now can send them to the curb in a green container for recycling.

The Carton Council, a consortium of carton manufacturers, has helped the city’s existing paper recycling processors purchase equipment that will keep much of these materials out of landfills.

The predominantly paper cartons can be repurposed into paper towels, tissues and even building materials, said Gary Readore, chief of staff in the city’s Solid Waste Management Department.

“We know it’s important to recycle. Citizens are always confronted with, ‘Is this recyclable or is it not?’ ” Mayor Annise Parker said. “When you have too many choices to make, people end up saying, ‘Oh well, I’m just not going to recycle it.’ We’ve … been working to expand options for what you can put in those big, green bins.”

See the City of Houston Solid Waste Facebook page for more. I’m excited by this, because cartons – milk and orange juice, mainly – are a big component of our trash volume these days. Beyond that, it’s things like #6 plastics, plastic bags and wrappings, and food waste. Some forms of #6 plastic – polystyrene – can be taken to city recycling centers, things like plastic bags can be taken to grocery stores, and we compost non-animal product food waste, but more curbside options would be nice, and would help increase participation rates. I don’t want to get into the One Bin debate here, I’m just saying that I look forward to the day when I hardly have any trash to put out. This is a step towards that and that’s a very good thing.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for April 13

How to bake scientifically accurate cake planets. Because who wouldn’t want a Uranus cake for their birthday?

It’s hard out here on a pregnant TV star whose character isn’t pregnant.

All about Aereo in Houston.

If Alfred E. Neuman were a real person, you’d never be able to un-see his face.

It’s never too early to start learning how to be a hacker.

Bring PBR back to Milwaukee.

“Typography is not typically in the realm of transportation policy, and for a layman it’s a little hard to appreciate the subtle differences.”

RIP, Mickey Rooney. Here’s hoping he and Judy Garland are putting on a show in heaven.

From the Can’t We All Just Get Along? department.

David Ortiz may bring about the end of Presidential selfies.

I’m glad that Chili’s has come to its senses about what autism awareness groups to support. I just wish they’d done their homework ahead of time.

From the Don’t Know Much About Geography files.

Some bug fixes are more literal than others.

I’m down with blaming Camille Paglia regardless of the question.

On Archie Bunker, and what happens when an audience identifies with a character they’re supposed to revile.

It sure is good to be rich.

“The moral panic of the anti-D&D crusaders was sheer nonsense, but those fundie moral crusaders weren’t wrong to fear the threat that such games posed to their ideology. Fundamentalist ideology is a fragile thing, after all, so almost anything other than itself is correctly viewed as a subversive threat.”

Did you attend a Kings of Leon concert in Seattle on March 28? If so, you may have been exposed to the measles. Better check in with your doctor just to be safe.

I for one am very glad to hear that Captain Janeway is not a geocentrist.

“This is just one example of the price-fixing and taxpayer-gouging features built right into Medicare by a system that lets medical specialists figure out their own reimbursement rates behind closed doors and bars the government from negotiating on Rx drug prices.”

“If nothing else can be learned from this bizarre hunt, one thing has become clear: There’s a ton of trash in the Indian Ocean.”

Bad ways for Mad Men to end.

Jim DeMint is a truly awful person.

What you can do about the Heartbleed bug, including resources to check if websites you use were vulnerable to it. And if you don’t know what the Heartbleed bug is, XKCD explains it in a way that everyone can understand.

“I kissed her deep and hard, my tongue slapping her uvula back and forth like a speed bag. She tasted good: like sin, Altoids, and an oyster po’ boy. Maybe shrimp, I wasn’t sure. I was dizzy with lust.”

I’m old enough to remember when the movie Splash made “Madison” a hot name for girls, so the surge in babies named Khaleesi and Arya doesn’t surprise me at all.

Obstructing health care access is a life and death matter for a lot of people.

As the renowned philosopher Robin Williams once said, “When all else fails, go for the dick joke”.

Outstanding Buzzfeed story on Tom Lehrer. Read it even if you somehow don’t know who Tom Lehrer is. Via Mark Evanier, who has a video of what may be Lehrer’s last public performance in 1998.

The Todd Akin of 2014 is in Mississippi. Actually, he’s even worse, and what’s even worse than that is he’ll likely be elected.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Davis keeps up the attack on Abbott over pre-k

She is not letting up.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading →

Posted in: Election 2014.

Council considers hoarding ordinance

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

HoardersOne

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

Posted in: Local politics.

We really should have expanded Medicaid

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

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

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

“What?!?,” you say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

The Super Bowl is making us get stuff done

Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Saturday video break: Baby Got Back

I trust this needs no introduction:

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

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

Yeah, I’d say that’s a wrap.

Posted in: Music.

HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: School days.

Time is running out to undo Pratt’s mass dismissals

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

Denise Pratt

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Legal matters.

Ralph Garr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen to that.

Posted in: Baseball.

Friday random thirteen: Presidenting is hard work, part 2

Finishing the job I started last week:

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

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

Posted in: Music.

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

Glad we cleared that up.

Still not Greg Abbott

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t even adequately fund our current programs.

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Election 2014.

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

From the inbox:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Legal matters.

No hiding behind privilege

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

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Legal matters.

SBOE does something OK

I know, I’m as surprised as you are.

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

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

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

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

The board will have a final vote on Friday.

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

Posted in: School days.

Taxi companies file suit against Uber and Lyft

Color me skeptical.

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Counting votes on the non-discrimination ordinance

From the Houston GLBT Political Caucus Facebook page:

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

Mayor–We asked:

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

She answered:

Annise Parker: Yes

City Council–We asked:

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

They answered:

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

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

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

Posted in: Local politics.

First Sunday Streets seemed like a success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 7

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

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

A grassroots fighting force of extraordinary magnitude

At least, I hope it is.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Election 2014.

James O’Keefe is a lying liar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Veritas had no immediate comment Monday.

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

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

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

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Legal matters.

The microbreweries aren’t done with the Legislature

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: That's our Lege.

The farm team

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

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Rep. Joaquin Castro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Election 2018.

HISD board votes for Mexican-American studies class

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

Juliet Stipeche

Juliet Stipeche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: School days.

What the Burnam case is about

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

Rep. Lon Burnam

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: Election 2014.