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Settlement talks in Waller County landfill suit

Here’s an update on where things stand with the litigation in Waller County over the proposed landfill outside Hempstead. A jury in December ruled that Waller County Commissioners Court violated Texas’ open meetings laws in deciding to allow the project to move forward, but the question of whether or not that made the landfill itself illegal has not been determined.

StopHwy6Landfill

The plaintiffs – the city of Hempstead and a citizens group opposed to the project – were expected to ask the presiding judge Wednesday to decide outstanding legal questions in the civil case, including the validity of the county’s 2013 ordinance allowing the landfill, said Blayre Peña, an attorney for the citizens group.

However, the Jan. 21 hearing was postponed at the last minute in light of ongoing settlement talks.

[…]

“I’m hoping that by next week we get something that we can act on,” [Waller County Judge Trey] Duhon said.

If no settlement is reached, a hearing will be held Feb. 20 in retired state District Judge Terry Flenniken’s court.

See here for the background. If the end result is that the 2013 ordinance is invalidated and the landfill is barred, you can be sure there will be further litigation. Given Greg Abbott’s hostility to local control, one wonders if the state might get involved at that point. One way or another, this is a long way from over.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

January campaign finance reports – PACs

PetitionsInvalid

Mayoral reports
Controller reports
Council reports

There are a lot of PACs that play in Houston’s elections. It’s hard to keep up with all of them, and I say this as someone who reads far more campaign finance reports than is healthy. Very few of them file finance reports with the city of Houston – I presume this is because most of them are state organizations that operate in elections elsewhere as well, so they file their reports with the state. This year there were three special purpose PAC (SPAC) reports that caught my eye and that I thought were worth examining, so here they are.

Citizens to Keep Houston Strong
Equal Rights Houston Committee
Houstonians for Family Values

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== CtKHS 0 539 0 65,405 Eq Rts Hou 67,143 39,712 0 27,430 HFV 3,401 47,689 44,238 0

Citizens to Keep Houston Strong lists one William H. “Bill” White as their filer and treasurer. I have no idea what this PAC is for. It’s been around since White was Mayor – Penny Butler was the filer through 2010 – and has basically done nothing since he left office. If you go to the city’s campaign finance webpage and choose “Specific-Purpose Political Committee”, you will see that PACs come and go over the years. Some are for (or against) particular candidates, others are for specific referenda, like Renew Houston and red light cameras. I’m not sure what if any rules exist for disposing of PAC funds – candidates have a certain amount of time to dispose of campaign funds once they are no longer in office or seeking office – so who knows, this one could be around for awhile.

The purpose of the other two is more obvious. “Houstonians for Family Values” is Dave Wilson’s ugly baby – that $44K in loans is all from him. The reason the amount is so specific is because the total amount spent represents the cost of printing and postage for a mail piece. The fact that this PAC has no cash on hand should not lead anyone to conclude that it will be inactive this year. It surely won’t be the only such PAC this year whether or not we have to vote on HERO repeal, but at least we can say that Dave Wilson was there first. As for Equal Rights Houston, most of their money was spent on consultants. I’m going to guess that they’ll have other things to spend their money on this year.

Posted in: Election 2015.

HERO petition repeal trial starts

It could actually be over before it really starts, though I would not expect that.

PetitionsInvalid

For the next three to four weeks, the Harris County Civil Courthouse will be the stage for the trial over Houston’s controversial equal rights ordinance.

If everything works out according to plan, opening statements will begin next Tuesday.

That is, unless Judge Robert Schaffer comes back with a summary judgment ruling that would end the trial before it has started.

That’s what attorneys for the city hope for. One of them is Geoffrey Harrison with the firm Susman Godfrey LLP.

“I think that the clear legal entitlement is that the plaintiffs’ petition failed, that the plaintiffs and their coalition members did not comply with the election code and the City Charter, and so summary judgment throwing out their case is appropriate,” Harrison said.

[…]

During Tuesday’s four-hour hearing, the different sides also discussed the number of potential jurors, among other procedural matters.

Jury selection is set to start on Monday, Jan. 26.

See here for the background. I will be surprised if the city’s motion to dismiss is accepted, mostly because I think you have to give a fair amount of latitude in litigation like this. Which is not to say that the plaintiffs should be given free reign to spew whatever baloney and half-baked conspiracy theories they may have up their sleeves, but I think the bar to clear to proceed is pretty low. That said, I sure as heck don’t envy the people that may get selected for this circus. It’s going to be a long trudge for them.

For whatever the reason, that story and this KPRC story are the only coverage I could find of this. I guess the inauguration and the State of the Union were just too much competition for it. I did find this HuffPo story in which the plaintiffs claim that they did not submit a bunch of forged signatures.

“From what we can tell, they had to engage in a lot of fraud to collect these signatures,” said Kris Banks, an LGBT activist and lawyer who helped organize an independent citizen review of the petitions and the signatures. “I just don’t think they have the support.”

Attorney Andy Taylor, who filed the lawsuit in Harris County court, did not respond to request for comment.

Welch didn’t dispute that some of the signatures didn’t meet the city’s standard, but insisted to HuffPost that his group had gathered enough legitimate signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

That would be Dave Welch, who is also busy plying his trade in Plano. According to the DMN, those petition signatures should be verified one way or the other by the end of the month, and the item could be on Plano City Council’s agenda by February 9. Stay tuned.

Posted in: Legal matters.

RIP, two-thirds rule

Not a surprise.

With a new lieutenant governor installed for the first time in over a decade Wednesday — and over the cries of Democrats — the Texas Senate voted to break from an almost 70-year tradition intended to encourage compromise among its 31 members.

Now the approval of only 19 senators instead of 21 will be required to bring legislation to the floor for debate. The change — passed on a vote of 20-10 — has the practical effect of allowing Republicans to consider a bill without a single vote from one of the chamber’s 11 Democrats. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has targeted the tradition known as the two-thirds rule since he first entered the Legislature in 2007.

Fighting to protect the rule, Democrats said the change would strike a blow to the democratic process.

“I think it’s a sad day for the Senate, and one that we will look back on with regret,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

But Republicans argued that the rule allowed for too much abuse of procedure for political purposes.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said while he had supported the rule in the past and he believed it had helped craft better policy, that the time had come to reform it.

“I don’t have to tell you how hard those special sessions we had two summers ago were for the Senate,” he said. “It was a tense time for all of us.”

I was going to write some long-winded blather about this, but this Observer article sums up the main point I was going to make succinctly:

The two-thirds rule was broken anyways, [Sen. Eltife] said. The most partisan bills the Legislature has passed in recent years found a way around the requirement. When bills are brought up during a special session, as 2013’s abortion restrictions were, only a simple majority is needed to get them through the sausage factory. And legislators have plenty of ways to ignore or avoid the two-thirds rule when they really want to during session—that’s the way they passed voter ID.

He has a point. Many Democrats stormed social media today with the hashtag #lockout—the rule change, many said, was patently unfair and would make Texas government dramatically less transparent. But this isn’t a tipping point—it’s more like the Legislature has taken a few more steps down the grand staircase of partisanship that it’s been descending for years. Democrats had very little leverage last session, and they have less now.

This. Basically, the two-thirds rule has been decorative since the second special session in 2003 that enabled the passage of the DeLay re-redistricting. It was a comfortable fiction that among other things gave Eddie Lucio an undue amount of influence. I seriously doubt that any bill will pass this session that wouldn’t have passed via some loophole or other circumvention of the two-thirds rule as it had recently existed. This is the world we live in now. Adapt or die. Newsdesk has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 19

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes the Supreme Court finishes the job on marriage equality as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

January campaign finance reports – Council

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

Mayoral reports
Controller reports

Four Council members are term limited this year. Two, CMs Stephen Costello and Oliver Pennington, are running for Mayor. The other two, CMs CO Bradford and Ed Gonzales, do not have any announced plans at this time, though both were on the list of Mayoral possibilities at one time or another. While there are some known candidates for these offices, there are many more to come. No one who isn’t or wasn’t a candidate before this year has a finance report, and no one has any contributions to report, so the data we have is somewhat limited.

Brenda Stardig (SPAC)
Jerry Davis
Ellen Cohen
Dwight Boykins
Dave Martin
Richard Nguyen
Robert Gallegos
Mike Laster
Larry Green

David Robinson
Michael Kubosh

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Stardig 0 21,191 0 59,517 Davis 0 6,091 0 97,563 Cohen 0 23,304 0 63,769 Boykins 0 5,845 0 1,129 Martin 0 20,345 0 34,339 Nguyen 0 20,120 0 15,020 Gallegos 0 7,326 0 45,021 Laster 0 5,791 0 78,216 Green 0 45,671 0 55,983 Gonzales 0 35,987 0 29,603 Brown 0 3,858 0 34,900 Robinson 0 1,565 0 48,334 Kubosh 0 17,403 10,000 0 Bradford 0 12,282 0 20,088

I’ve included the totals for Helena Brown above, since rumor has it that she’s aiming for a rubber match against Brenda Stardig in A. Beyond that, the two numbers that stand out to me are Boykins’ and Nguyen’s. Boykins was the big dog in 2013, nearly winning a first round majority in a very crowded field. I presume he emptied his coffers in the runoff, I haven’t gone back to look at his last reports from 2013 and his January 2014 report to confirm that. He burned some bridges with his vote against the HERO last year, so it will be interesting to see how things develop from here. As for Nguyen, he came out of nowhere to knock off Al Hoang in F. He then made a courageous vote for the HERO and announced that he was a Democrat. All of these things would put a target on his back even if he had a big cash on hand balance. As for Kubosh, he did a lot of self-funding in 2013, and I’d expect at least some more of the same. It will be interesting to see how much of the usual suspect PAC money he gets. We’ll have to wait till July to find out.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Plano equality opponents turn in their petitions

Yesterday was the deadline for the opponents of Plano’s equal rights ordinance to turn in petitions to force a repeal referendum, and the haters of Plano duly did so.

Opponents of Plano’s Equal Rights Ordinance say they’ve met the deadline and collected the necessary signatures to force the Plano City Council to repeal the ordinance or place it on the ballot.

The group has collected about 7,000 signatures, far more than the 3,822 signatures needed by today’s deadline.

“We applaud the citizens of Plano who turned out to have their voices heard on this important religious liberty issue,” said Gregg Wooding, a spokesman for the Liberty Institute, a Plano-based non-profit legal organization.

Plano City Secretary Lisa Henderson confirmed today that she received the petitions and now must verify all the signatures.

See here for the background. A couple of things to keep in mind here: One, the initial claim by Houston’s haters was that they had collected over 50,000 signatures, nearly three times the required amount of 17,269. That number later shrank to 31,000 that they claimed to have verified. We know what happened from there. Conventional wisdom says you want to have at least double the number of signatures needed to feel confident that you’ve made the cut. They’re not quite there, so their margin of error is a bit small. The question is how careful their signature gatherers were, and how closely the petitions get scrutinized. I strongly recommend that anyone in the area that wants to get involved get in touch with People in Support of the Equal Rights Policy of Plano TX and/or Plano Citizens for Equality. I hope there is an organized effort to review each and every page and signature like there was in Houston. Regardless, the good guys will need all the help they can get. You feel disappointed by November’s elections? You still want to make a difference? Plano is one place you can, right now and through their municipal elections in May, even if the petition drive winds up falling short, as Council members who supported and opposed this ordinance will be on the ballot regardless. So don’t sit around and wait. Go get involved and make a difference. The Trib, Unfair Park, and the Dallas Voice have more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

What will happen with pre-K this session?

They say it’s a priority, though I would advise tempering one’s expectations.

Currently, Texas funds a half day of preschool for 4-year-olds whose first language is not English, whose families have low incomes, whose parents are active duty military or who are in foster care.

Texas has some of the weakest quality standards for preschool, with no limits on student-to-teacher ratios or class sizes, according to reports from the National Institute for Early Education.

A Republican-led Legislature cut about $5.4 billion from public education funding in 2011, including $200 million for a pre-K grant program that helped some school districts offer full-day classes.

Lawmakers restored a portion of the funding in 2013, including about $30 million for the grant program.

[…]

Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said that while there’s more bipartisanship support for pre-K this year, Democrats and Republicans likely will split on whether to make it a funding priority.

“I think we’re getting past the point where we have to convince folks of the importance of pre-K,” he said.

But even though more people “are recognizing and acknowledging the importance of that early investment, it’s still going to be determined by the action of the folks in charge and whether they’ll put money behind their assertions that there is a value,” he said.

Greg Abbott put forth a pre-k plan during the campaign, though it didn’t get a lot of discussion and he was vague about details and cost. Even at the high end of his proposal, the amount the state would spend on pre-k would still be down from 2011. With other priorities likely to take precedence and little to no room for growth, my expectation is that we may get some new standards and maybe some incentive money, but nothing beyond that. So again, to sum up in three words, don’t expect much.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

January campaign finance reports – Controller wannabes

CarrollRobinson

Like the Mayoral race, the 2015 race for City Controller is wide open, as incumbent Ronald Green is term-limited. There are three candidates of which I am aware so far – HCC Trustee and former At Large city Council member Carroll Robinson, who formally announced his entry last November; 2013 Controller candidate Bill Frazer, who hasn’t made a formal announcement of which I am aware, but whose campaign website is still live; and Metro Board member Dwight Jefferson, who was kind enough to publicly acknowledge his interest in the office yesterday. I have heard other names bandied about for this office as well – former Council member and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown has come up in conversation, and I have heard rumors that Some People are trying to get Council Member Stephen Costello to switch races to this one – and I’m sure there are other possibilities.

As far as finance reports go, the only ones to reference are for Robinson and Frazer. Robinson has to file biannual reports as an HCC Trustee. They don’t have their January reports posted yet on the HCC Trustees website, so the best I can do for now is his July 2014 report. Frazer still has a city account from 2013, so he has a report on the city’s website.

Carroll Robinson
Bill Frazer

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Robinson 1,820 3,700 25,000 21,637 Frazer 0 3,503 0 160 Green 0 14,402 0 28,563

Incumbent Ronald Green’s totals are included as well for comparison. Not a whole lot to see here. Robinson was first out of the gate with a fundraising email on January 13, right after the injunction against the city’s blackout ordinance was handed down, but that wouldn’t have affected his January report anyway. Frazer ran a solid campaign in 2013 and gained a fair amount of traction against incumbent Green, who had some baggage to carry, but it’s not clear how much of that will stick in an open seat race. Controller races are often low-key, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the many Mayoral hopefuls makes the strategic decision to shift into this race, which if nothing else might provide a nice head start on the 2021 Mayoral campaign. And yes, my soul just died a little by the act of me typing that sentence. Anyway, this is what we have for now.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Hyperloops

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a hyperloop!

Entrepreneur Elon Musk announced Thursday that he wants to build a “test track” for his idea for a futuristic high-speed transportation system called the Hyperloop, adding that Texas is “the leading candidate” to host the track.

Musk’s Hyperloop concept involves transporting passengers via pods in above-ground tubes that move as fast as 800 mph. The system quickly proved to be a polarizing concept when Musk introduced the idea in 2013, with some praising it as visionary and others deriding it as wildly impractical.

“In order to kind of help things along, we’re going to create a Hyperloop test track,” Musk told Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith during an interview at the Texas Transportation Forum, an annual conference hosted by the Texas Department of Transportation. “Something that’s maybe on the order of a five-mile loop.”

Musk’s talk was part of a public relations blitz Thursday in Austin, as the Tesla Motors CEO hopes to persuade the Texas Legislature to allow Tesla to sell cars directly to Texans and circumvent the state’s requirements that cars be sold through dealerships. After his transportation forum interview, he spoke to a crowd of supporters gathered at the Texas Capitol.

During Thursday’s interview, Musk said the facility would be privately funded and not require the kind of incentives that his private space firm, SpaceX, received to develop a test facility in Texas.

“We’re not asking for any money from the state,” Musk said.

The idea for the test facility is apparently in the very early stages as Musk said that “it sounded good last night after a couple of drinks.” He explained that he envisioned the track as allowing for “teams of students” and companies interesting in developing the Hyperloop concept to test out different pod systems.

See this Ars Technica story, which links to and summarizes this overview document of hyperloops from Tesla. The basic idea was to build a better high-speed transportation system between San Francisco and LA, but the Houston/Dallas/San Antonio triangle would work for it as well. Assuming it’s feasible, of course, which Lord only knows. But hey, I wouldn’t mind a test track being built here. From skimming the doc, I suspect that anyone who is currently freaking out over the Texas Central High Speed Railway proposals would also freak out over this. We’re a long way off from that being a practical concern, and who knows, maybe the test track will prove it to be a bust. You have to admit, Elon Musk thinks big. Texas Politics, Dallas Transportation, Ars Technica, The Verge, and Swamplot have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Tuition re-regulation on the menu

There are different ways it could go.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Tuition at Texas universities has more than doubled in the 12 years since state lawmakers authorized colleges to set their own rates.

Now legislators are pushing to take back that control. It’s not a new idea, but it stands a chance for the first time since 2003, when the state deregulated tuition, largely because it enjoys rare bipartisan support.

At least three lawmakers, including Houston Democrat Sen. Rodney Ellis, have filed bills to re-regulate tuition in some way. The chair of the Senate’s higher education committee Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican, plans to pitch tying tuition increases to performance by colleges – essentially making them earn a tuition bump. And Dan Patrick, the state’s new lieutenant governor, said last week that the “issue will be addressed this session.”

“It marries together Democrats, who want to make higher education more affordable, and tea party conservatives who are inherently suspicious of higher education,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “In some ways this is a way for the Legislature to do something about education, but with relatively low cost.”

[…]

Deregulation essentially transferred costs to the universities and their students. That’s something Texas and other states have done for decades.

A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says students are now paying public colleges more than the states are. Tuition accounted for 25 percent of the average public colleges’ revenue in 2012, up from 17 percent in 2003, the study found. That surpassed state funding, which accounted for 23 percent of schools’ budgets in 2012.

Texas now funds less than 20 percent of the University of Texas at Austin’s budget, for example, compared to 85 percent in the 1970s. State funding accounts for 22 percent of UH’s budget now, compared to 61 percent in 1985. Students now pay for 42 percent of the budget, compared to 11 percent 30 years ago.

[…]

While Ellis says he will advocate for additional funding for higher education, his bill to end deregulation is actually the stricter of the two senate bills that have been filed so far, because it would cap tuition at 2015 rates and require universities to get legislative approval to raise it. Mary González, a House Democrat from Clint, has proposed a similar bill.

The other Senate bill, by Schwertner, would allow for annual tuition increases based on inflation. Ellis and Schwertner have talked about finding a compromise bill, but Ellis said last week that he wouldn’t support inflation-based increases, which he said is “almost like institutionalizing the thievery from middle class families.”

The third possible route to re-regulation could fold in another popular higher education proposal: tying funding for universities to performance measures such as graduation rates. Seliger said he plans to file a bill that would tie tuition increases to those performance measures. He calls it “performance-based tuition.”

Seliger pointed out that while tuition has increased at a faster clip since deregulation, lawmakers weren’t doing much to keep it down before. From 1994 to 2002, tuition and fees went up 102 percent.

“It was still increasing at a pretty good rate, because people wanted to see universities make big increases in improvement,” he said.

See here for the background. Sen. Schwertner’s bill is SB233. Neither Sens. Ellis nor Seliger have filed their bills yet, but Sen. Ellis’ bill from 2013 was SB125; I would presume what he files this year is identical or almost identical to it. I prefer his approach, because the problem is that the state is not contributing enough to cover the cost of higher education. That was the deal made to cut costs in 2003; it was rotten then, and it’s rotten now. I don’t expect Sen. Ellis’ approach to be adopted, but now that Republicans have come to regret their past actions – most likely because they’ve finally started hearing it from their constituents – I have some hope that he and Sen. Schwertner can work out a deal that at least comes closer to his approach.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Sen. Ellis’ bill is SB255.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Flying to Cuba

You can get there from Houston, or at least you will be able to soon.

United Airlines made it clear Thursday it intends to offer regular commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba, saying it would look to offer service from its Houston and Newark hubs to the Caribbean island.

The Chicago-based carrier’s statement came Thursday, following the administration’s announcement that it would begin steps to ease restrictions against Cuba starting Friday.

“We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston,” the airline said in a statement.

Many details remain to be worked out before such service could begin.

The Department of Transportation said Thursday the U.S. regulators will work with Cuba to explore air service expansion. A specific air service agreement between the two countries would be required before regular commercial flights could start between the countries.

[…]

The infrastructure is in place here to capitalize on the travel changes. In 2011, Bush Intercontinental Airport was designated as one of the airports that could legally charter flights to Cuba. The first one took off in February 2012 with 80 passengers. Several charters have flown from the airport since, but none on a regular basis.

American Airlines, which has operated flights to Cuba for 15 years, dominates U.S. travel there. JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines were among the companies that started flying charters in 2011 from Florida

We’ve already discussed Cubans coming to Houston to visit and shop, so this is only fair. Houston is a hub for a lot of Latin American travel anyway, so the surprise would have been if United didn’t plan to play in this market, whenever it officially happens. Until then it’s a matter of dumping enough money on recalcitrant Republicans lobbying Congress to get the ball rolling.

Posted in: Around the world.

January campaign finance reports – Mayoral wannabes

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

I wrote yesterday about the start of the 2015 campaign season in Houston, and how it’s started a bit early thanks to the ruling in the lawsuit filed by Trebor Gordon that invalidated the blackout period. This week also marked the January 15 finance report filing deadline, so now is as good a time as any to see who has what. The Gordon ruling really had no effect on the January filings – it came way too late for that – so as I’ve said before, the real story of its effect will be told in the July reports, when we can see who raised what during January. Because the blackout was in effect last year, several Mayoral candidates have no reports to file as yet – Chris Bell, Marty McVey, and Joe Ferreira fall into that category. Bill King did file a report, but only had some expenditures to list. Folks like Stephen Costello, Oliver Pennington, and Jack Christie have existing city finance accounts and thus had reports to file for their activity; Ben Hall still has his account from the 2013 race; and of course current holders of other offices like Rep. Sylvester Turner, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, and Treasurer Orlando Sanchez filed reports with their respective authorities. (In Sanchez’s case, since he would not be on the ballot until 2018 if he stays put, he was not required to file a January report he does not have a January report on the County Clerk website that I can find; I have his eight-day report from last year linked.) So without further ado:

Sylvester Turner
Stephen Costello
Oliver Pennington
Ben Hall
Jack Christie
Bill King
Adrian Garcia
Orlando Sanchez

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Turner 657,227 121,719 0 1,014,424 Costello 0 35,324 15,000 273,001 Pennington 0 126,039 0 116,632 Hall 0 26,300 2,000,000 59,300 Christie 0 11,404 0 4,080 King 0 7,300 0 0 Garcia 175,681 350,030 0 57,213 Sanchez 18,041 14,115 200,000 1,258 Locke 0 0 0 4,065 Parker 0 57,109 0 350,695

I included reports for 2009 candidate Gene Locke and Mayor Parker for the heck of it as well as for purposes of comparison. It will be interesting to see if Mayor Parker, who has her eye on a future statewide run, does any fundraising this year.

Turner’s report, with its sizable cash on hand total, and Garcia’s report, with its much less sizable COH number, are the ones that have attracted the most attention. You can see why Chris Bell really wants to enforce a $10,000 limit on the amount Turner could transfer to a city account. A million dollar head start is a big obstacle for him or anyone else to overcome. Turner, for his part, ramped up his fundraising last year in the expectation of being able to transfer it all because now that the Lege is in session, he’s on the sidelines until at least May unless he decides to resign, which I would not expect. As for Garcia, who has held some recent fundraisers for his county account, he could likely bring in some money quickly once he announced, if he does. But as Campos notes, the clock is ticking. The longer he waits, the harder it will get and the more likely that some of the deeper pockets will commit themselves to someone else. You have to figure that if he intends to get into the race, it will happen in the next month or so.

Beyond that, not too much to see. Jack Christie and Bill King can both do a certain amount of self-funding, though probably not to the extent that Ben Hall has done. I can only marvel at his outstanding loans figure, which I’ll bet goes up even more. Costello and Pennington have both shown to be strong fundraisers in past elections. I have no idea about McVey and Ferreira or whoever else might be thinking about it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s only so much space for viable candidacies in the Mayoral race. With a cap on how much and individual and a PAC can give in a cycle, there are only so many deep pockets to tap. Mayor Parker has done very well with a big network of small-dollar donors, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen overnight, and one usually has to have an extensive personal network to begin with. Like I said, the July reports will tell us a much more detailed story. I’ll check out the other finance reports in future posts. Stace has more.

UPDATE: A couple of people have asked me about the statement that Orlando Sanchez didn’t need to file a January report. I could swear that I saw something to that effect in the Chronicle, but now I can’t find where I saw it. So, since I can see that Stan Stanart, who also would not be on the ballot till 2018, has a January report filed, I’ve changed my wording above. My apologies for the confusion and for not being more skeptical of that.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Expect to hear more about Perry vetos and no-bid contracts

Bring it on.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Democratic lawmakers and government watchdog groups on Saturday called for the reopening of an investigation into no-bid state contracts that ended in 2013 after Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the team conducting it.

The critics decried the millions of dollars in Department of Public Safety contracts and another set of similar deals given by the state health commission under Perry, who will step down Tuesday after 14 years in office and is considering a 2016 presidential run. They said a thorough evaluation of contracting is needed to assure taxpayers that their money is being spent responsibly.

“Hell, yes, we need to review everything,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has served in the upper chamber longer than any other member. “There seems to be an awful lot of no-bid this and no-bid that, and I just think we need to look at it all so we can tell where the problems are and what needs to be changed.”

[…]

Democratic state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Armando Walle of Houston were among those calling Saturday for the investigation of no-bid contracts to be reopened.

“Using state resources to bolster a political career by fomenting a non-existent border crisis, then giving no-bid contracts to a company that has limited experience in border security seems like an issue the Public Integrity Unit should be investigating,” Walle said.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based government watchdog group whose complaint initiated the investigation that led to Perry’s indictment, agreed. He added that if the investigation had continued, it may have prevented some of the issues now surfacing with state health contracts.

Four high-ranking Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials have so far resigned as a result of those issues, stemming from no-bid Medicaid fraud detection contracts with Austin technology company 21CT that got tentative approval to balloon to $110 million before being canceled.

The deal is now being investigated by the Public Integrity Unit.

Unit director Gregg Cox on Saturday cited that investigation as a reason why it was unlikely that his office could reopen the probe into DPS contracts.

“I just don’t have the horsepower right now to open new investigations, with everything else we have going,” said Cox, who added that he would review the option next week. He added that for now, he “would prefer to see other agencies investigate this, and then we can work with them.”

See here for the background. If nothing else, one hopes this is the fulcrum by which the Public integrity Unit gets its funding restored, which is something the House budget would do but not what Dan Patrick wants. Regardless, this is a giant turd that Rick Perry is leaving in Greg Abbott’s punch bowl, and I plan to enjoy watching the fallout.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

How the appraisal game is rigged

The Observer tells the tale of how we got to where we are with the appraisal process and how easy it is for the big boys to get their taxes drastically reduced.

BagOfMoney

At the heart of Valero’s lawsuits in Moore County was a complicated question: What is a refinery worth? For that matter, what is any property worth?

Since most litigation against appraisal districts settles out of court, juries rarely get to answer that question. But that’s what a Galveston jury did in 2013 when it lowered the tax value of Valero’s Texas City refinery from $527 million to $337 million, though Valero had agreed to the higher number only two years before. A local jury, in a town far from rich, sided with the world’s largest independent refiner in its perennial quest to drastically cut the taxes it owes to public schools and local governments.

Appraisal district officials across Texas were flabbergasted. Refineries are a complicated, opaque business, and the technical testimony took a whole mind-numbing week—“a battle of experts,” said Ken Wright, the chief appraiser for the Galveston Central Appraisal District. Yet members of the jury took only four hours to decide in Valero’s favor. It proved what every trial lawyer knows, that the battle is almost always won by the side that not only tells its story best, but has the simplest story to tell. “It’s taken me many years to figure this out,” said a rueful Wright, who is retiring this year.

The story, Valero’s whole case, depended on a one-sentence amendment to the property tax code that whisked through the Legislature in 1997. The details of how that happened are hazy—the legislator who introduced the amendment died years ago—but the man who wrote it is a respected Austin tax attorney, Jim Popp. His firm, Popp Hutcheson, has represented some of the most prominent plaintiffs in lawsuits against appraisal districts, among them Western Refining, the JW Marriott hotels, H-E-B, Walgreens, the Formula 1 racetrack in Austin and Valero.

There are basically two ways to challenge a tax appraisal—on value and on unequal appraisal. The first claims that a property has been appraised above market value. The second claims that while a property may be appraised at market value, others like it are appraised for much less. Before 1997, an unequal appraisal claim required an expensive property analysis called a ratio study, and it was seldom used.

Popp’s amendment created an easier, cheaper way to claim unequal appraisal and gain an automatic reduction in value—so easy that it is now routinely used in tax protests and dominates big-ticket litigation. You simply select a “reasonable” number of “comparable” properties (available on the appraisal district’s website), adjust their values up or down (your house has a swimming pool, mine doesn’t) and find the median—the middle number on the list. What’s reasonable or comparable isn’t spelled out. Market value is beside the point. If your valuation is higher than the median, it gets lowered to that number. The amendment is now called the equity statute, or simply “equal and uniform,” echoing the Texas Constitution’s dictum that taxation be “equal and uniform.”

David Hugin, a Popp Hutcheson lawyer, argued the case in Galveston. Fairness was the theme: The appraisal district had wronged Valero by overvaluing its refinery, and the law showed the jury exactly how to set things right. It produced a breathtakingly simple answer to the vexing question of worth.

All the jury had to do was look at the comparables, the other two refineries in Galveston County—Marathon’s little 84,000-barrel-per-day plant, which processes only light sweet crude oil, and BP’s 451,000-barrel-per-day behemoth (now also owned by Marathon), which runs all kinds of crude oil, sprawls over 1,200 acres and is one of the largest, most complex refineries in the U.S. It had been appraised for $800 million more than the smaller refinery. “They are massively different,” said Wright. “Like comparing a corner grocery to a Kroger’s.”

Read the whole thing. If your blood isn’t boiling by the end of it at the ease with which the lucky few can screw the rest of us, you’re probably one of the lucky ones making a killing off of this. The Legislature could of course fix this, but we all know what the odds of that are. In the meantime, cities, counties, school districts, hospital districts, and ordinary homeowners are all getting squeezed.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Texas Obamacare enrollments top 850K

And counting.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services Wednesday announced nearly 860,000 Texans so far have enrolled in health insurance marketplace coverage with a month left still left to go until the 2015 open enrollment period ends.

It’s unclear how many of those signups are new marketplace customers. Last year, nearly 734,000 Texans, many of whom had never been insured, signed up for coverage. About 198,000 of them were in the Houston area.

“As of Jan. 9, 859,377 Texans have access to quality, affordable health coverage for 2015 through the Health Insurance Marketplace,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in a written statement.

Good to hear. National enrollments have been strong as well. It seems eminently reasonable to me that Texas could top one million signups by February 15, given the likelihood (as was the case last year) of some number of people waiting till the last minute to get it done.

There’s also an intensified focus on the Latino community.

Officials plan more than 600 enrollment events nationwide, including a few in the Houston area, that target Hispanics in an effort to get more signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In the meantime, grass-roots organizations and the Department of Health and Human Services are spreading the word about the marketplace by using webinars, Twitter, advertising and Spanish television telethons.

“We’re doubling down,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told reporters Wednesday, noting that the agency has dedicated a third of its advertising budget to Spanish speakers. “The Latino community is one of the fastest growing communities in the country. We’re specifically focused on this community because of the health disparities that exist for them and we think having insurance will help.”

[…]

Researchers have found Texas Latinos were more than twice as likely as Anglos to enroll in marketplace coverage. They also discovered Hispanic adults in Texas have more difficulty affording health care and are three times as likely to be uninsured.

Burwell repeatedly has said Spanish speakers would be targeted for more outreach this enrollment period. Insurers and enrollment organization trained more application assisters to accommodate Latino applicants and marketplace officials simplified the insurance application process, expanded the number of documents people could use to verify their identities and income and made it easier for applicants to use hyphenated names, which are common in Latino communities.

“We’re working to meet Latino consumers where they are, whether that’s online, over the phone or in person,” Burwell said.

There’s a lot of potential there, and one thing we learned from the first round of enrollments was precisely that these customers needed more engagement to get signed up. I hope this has the desired effect, and that we can learn more for the next time.

What would happen to all these people if SCOTUS takes the opportunity to gut subsidies for the national exchange? My guess is that as are the million or so folks that would qualify for Medicaid under a normal expansion plan, they’d be SOL. Oh, I’m sure that Rep. John Zerwas will put forth a bill to create a Texas state exchange, as he has done before. He’ll have the support of all the Dems, a few honorable Republicans, every non-crazy local official, and the business establishment, but it won’t be enough. Nothing will change till we start to win more elections. I wish I had a sunnier outlook than that, but I don’t. Sorry.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Weekend link dump for January 18

John Travolta will star as Robert Shapiro in the FX anthology American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. This is a thing that will happen.

“If we ever build a Moon base, I think we should absolutely build a big swimming pool there.”

So what does the E in “Wile E. Coyote” stand for, anyway?

The leap second on June 30 is going to cause some problems for the Internet and related devices. But not for Google, because nothing causes problems for Google.

“A nine-ton block of sandstone that was pulled from a Utah mountain late last year holds the biggest fossil trove ever found of the giant predatory dinosaur known as Utahraptor.”

What JK Rowling says.

An open letter to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. And a good followup as well.

Go home, Dick Morris. Nobody likes you.

“ACCORDING to data gathered by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), deaths caused by cars in America are in long-term decline. Improved technology, tougher laws and less driving by young people have all led to safer streets and highways. Deaths by guns, though—the great majority suicides, accidents or domestic violence—have been trending slightly upwards. This year, if the trend continues, they will overtake deaths on the roads.”

The only way Obama could have avoided unified Republican opposition is just to not support any significant legislative initiatives. I’m sure this is Caldwell’s preferred outcome — he’s arguing in transparent bad faith here — but it’s absurd to think that historians will be incompetent enough to think that Obama is to blame for Mitch McConnell’s legislative strategies.”

“At the office, the encouraging reactions of the younger partners make me hopeful that a commitment to family won’t necessarily mean a future of depreciated income and stunted professional advancement. But if it does, I can live with that tradeoff. I’d far prefer it to a future of maximized career potential and personal regret.”

“Here are a few thoughts about how a federal breach law could produce fewer yet more meaningful notices that may actually help prevent future breaches.

I agree, this would indeed be hell.

“Is it possible that Ari Fleischer was totally wrong about a position he advocated in public with total certainty?”

“A top lobbyist for food and beverage giant PepsiCo Inc. who was formerly a top aide to Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts is taking over as the Agriculture Committee’s chief of staff as it prepares to rewrite federal child nutrition policy.” What could possibly go wrong?

“Do I think any of this should be a social requirement for real women in the real world like it was in days of yore? No and no. Is it how my fantasy self would be attired in my self-insert pulp fanfic? So very much yes.”

Farm animal winter wear. Go on, you want to know what a goat coat looks like.

“Because contrary to what NBA owners argued during the lockout, owning an NBA team is a really good financial deal, even if some of them are losing money on an operating basis.”

It’s very expensive being poor in America.

“My toaster shouldn’t be more advanced than the NFL’s on-field technology.”

From the “And STAY out!” department.

“Meet Eclipse, a two-year-old black lab-mastiff mix who knows how to take the bus three stops to a downtown dog park … by herself.”

RIP, Lowell Paxson, founder of the Home Shopping Network.

Sharknado 3 is a thing that will happen. It will be set in Washington, DC, and will “cause mass destruction in the nation’s capital” on a scale previously achieved only by Ted Cruz. (I may have made that last bit up.)

“Larry, the only way I’m trying to influence people is to be more kind and compassionate with one another. That is the message that I’m sending out. I don’t have an agenda.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

The veto that keeps on giving

I haven’t closely followed the burgeoning scandal at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which involves no-bid contracts, up front tuition reimbursements for top level staffers, and rampant cronyism. It’s already cost three people their jobs and will likely eventually result in the HHSC Commissioner, Kyle Janek, either falling on his sword or getting defenestrated. If nothing else, it’s been a nice little stink bomb for Greg Abbott and a timely reminder as Rick Perry exits the main stage that there’s a damn good reason why everyone should be glad to see him go. And since this is a scandal that happened on Rick Perry’s watch, there is as always more to it than meets the eye.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

A year and a half before a no-bid state contract collapsed in scandal last month, a criminal investigation into tens of millions of dollars worth of deals awarded through the same process by Rick Perry’s administration was derailed by the funding veto that got the governor indicted, according to the prosecutor who led the probe.

The earlier inquiry, which concerned Texas Department of Public Safety contracts for Perry’s highly touted and controversial border-security program, lasted more than a year before abruptly shuttering, said Gregg Cox, director of the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s office.

“We lacked the resources to continue that investigation,” Cox said. “Because the staff was cut when our budget was vetoed.”

[…]

The news also raises questions about whether a continuation of the inquiry could have alerted officials much earlier to vulnerabilities in the so-called “Cooperative Contracts” process.

The process, which allows state agencies to bypass competitive-bidding, but was designed for smaller purchases, was used for both the Department of Public Safety contract and the scandal-ridden Medicaid fraud detection deal given by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to Austin technology company 21CT.

That contract, which eventually was set to cost $110 million before abruptly being canceled last month, already has led to the resignations of four high-ranking state health officials, led some lawmakers to call for Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek to step down and triggered investigations by Cox’s Public Integrity Unit, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and the State Auditor’s Office.

Officials said the earlier Public Integrity Unit investigation focused on more than $20 million in no-bid contracts given to Virginia defense contractor Abrams Learning and Information Systems, Inc., to help Texas develop its border security strategies.

The Virginia firm, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, initially got a $471,800 contract in March 2006 to help the state establish a Border Security Operations Center in Austin, according to a state documents. The deal went through the no-bid process because officials said it was in response to “an emergency.”

An internal memo that later surfaced in news reports showed that the declaration of an emergency was based on public statements by Perry, who at the time was in a tough re-election campaign in which border security was a big issue.

Three months after its first contract, Abrams received a second emergency deal, for $679,600, that greatly expanded the company’s responsibilities.

Over time, state records show, officials quietly added more and more responsibilities to the contracts until they grew to more than $20 million and covered work in most segments of the state’s growing border-security programs.

See, that’s the sort of thing that happens when the one law enforcement authority over state government gets declawed. At the time that the threat and the veto were happening, the conspiracy theory was that Perry wanted to cut any investigations into the scandal-plagued Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). I don’t think there was any specific intent like that – though if some evidence turned up to suggest there was, I would hardly be shocked – I think Perry just didn’t care about any collateral effects of his actions. He had his own objective, and that was all that mattered. And stuff like this is the result. Thanks for interminable years of service, Rick.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

First hearing in Abbott’s immigration lawsuit

No clue what will happen with this.

JustSayNo

Saying South Texas is where the “rubber meets the road” on immigration issues, a federal judge used a folksy reference Thursday to note his court is the right place to decide whether to block President Obama’s recent order protecting millions of immigrants from deportation.

“Talking to anyone in Brownsville about immigration is like talking to Noah about the flood,” quipped U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in the first of what could be many hearings before a lawsuit is settled over Obama’s action.

Hanan, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, questioned both sides but gave no indication how he would rule. He gave the government until Jan. 30 to respond to the lawsuit.

But he cautioned against turning his courtroom into a venue to air grievances, something best done “over beer and nachos, but not in this courtroom.”

[…]

Abbott has said that Texas shouldered the financial brunt of Obama’s 2012 executive action on deferred action for children, which opponents say spurred a surge of immigration through the Rio Grande Valley, and cost the state tens of millions of dollars to send additional state troopers to police the border, along with added education and health care costs.

When Hanen pointed out that states are already responsible for covering those expenses under existing law, [deputy solicitor general Andrew] Oldham said the costs included more bureaucracy.

But Hanen questioned whether Obama had in fact taken executive action, noting that it was Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson who issued the six-page directive on the deferred action program. “It makes this even more lawless,” Oldham said in response.

See here, here, and here for the background. Judge Hanen had been publicly critical of Homeland Security’s policy of reuniting immigrant children with their parents, which he classified as DHS choosing not to enforce US immigration law. Judge Hanen’s words and the decision by Abbott and others to file the suit in his court have led some folks to fret that the fix is in. Judge Hanen addressed that perception himself during the hearing.

The judge acknowledged that he had criticized U.S. immigration policy in two prior rulings but pointed out that he ruled in favor of the federal government in both those cases.

We’ll see how it goes. I presume there will be another hearing after the feds file their response on the 30th, but beyond that the schedule is anyone’s guess. An earlier lawsuit against the federal government over this was briskly thrown out of court on grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing. That would be a fine result for this lawsuit, too.

Posted in: La Migra, Legal matters.

Feldman’s parting memo

Outgoing City Attorney David Feldman shares his thoughts on the state of the city’s campaign finance rules as he makes his exit.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

City Hall began its attempt to use a federal court ruling declaring its own election rule unconstitutional to its advantage it in a second, unrelated suit in a letter this week.

In the below memo to City Council on Thursday, City Attorney David Feldman argues that the U.S. District Judge’s ruling last week that tossed the city’s blackout period had a broad impact: It invalidated the concerns of Chris Bell, a mayoral candidate suing the city for not strictly enough enforcing campaign finance rules.

In the four-paragraph letter, Feldman writes that case law is building that governments cannot outlaw campaign spending merely for its own sake. And Feldman says that without the previous restriction on when candidates can raise money, there is no reasonable challenge to be made by Bell as to why Rep. Sylvester Turner, Bell’s opponent, can’t spend it.

Turner is not merely attempting to spend money, however, but transfer it. He eventually hopes to transfer almost all of the $1 million in his legislative account to a to-be-created mayoral account. Bell believes that Turner’s legislative account should be able to only donate $10,000, the maximum that any political action committee can contribute in a city election.

See here and here for the background, and click that Houston Politics link to see the memo. Not a whole lot to add here, though I should mention that while I believe Turner should be able to transfer his funds as he sees fit (Bell will likely file suit over that), that outcome would be a raw deal for Chris Bell. I’m sure he would have been raising money last year if he could have, and the late-breaking injunction against the blackout rule not only doesn’t give him much time back to catch up, there are now more candidates out there that may be competing with him for the money. But that’s the way it goes, and if Bell manages to get a favorable ruling in his lawsuit, it’s Turner that will be in a world of hurt. You know what they say about the fairness of life.

Posted in: Local politics.

It’s skunk vaccination time

Again.

Fresh from victories over rabies strains in the coyote and gray fox, Texas [launched] its annual aerial assault on one of the state’s top remaining carriers: skunks.

The state health department Wednesday [began] dropping 1.4 million doses of edible rabies vaccines over a 17-county area between Houston and Austin, where laboratories have consistently confirmed skunk cases. The area covered has been expanded since the strategy first was attempted on skunks in 2012.

“It makes sense to turn our attention to skunks since they’re now the most likely terrestrial animal in Texas to have rabies,” Dr. Laura Robinson, director of the Texas Department of State Health Services’ Oral Rabies Vaccination Program, said in a statement. “Every year, hundreds of animals are infected with the skunk strain of rabies, and there’s a risk they could spread the virus to livestock, pets or humans.”

Texas has more laboratory-confirmed cases of rabies in wildlife than any other state, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of confirmed cases in 2014 topped 1,000, though final data are not yet in. In 2013, the state confirmed 937 cases, including 432 in bats and 402 in skunks. The oral rabies vaccination program eliminated the coyote strain and virtually eliminated the gray fox strain.

A Texas map of the sites where rabies cases in all wildlife has been confirmed can be found here.

See here and here for the background. If you’re out in the countryside and you see some odd little plastic packets lying on the ground, please don’t touch them. They’re for the skunks. The program has been quite successful so far, so kudos to the DSHS for their work. If only we could vaccinate more people this easily.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Saturday video break: Everybody Hurts

An REM classic, as done by the Meat Puppets:

And by Amanda Palmer and Cormac Bride:

I have some more versions of this, all in a similar style. They’re from a tribute to REM called “Drive XV”, which is still available as a free download from Stereogum. To save time, if you want to see other videos from that album, whether more version fo “Everybody Hurts” or other songs from Automatic for the People, there’s a YouTube playlist for you. Enjoy!

Posted in: Music.

SCOTUS will take up same sex marriage

This is it.

The Supreme Court announced on Friday that it will take up four cases challenging state bans on same-sex couples’ marriages — a long anticipated move that could lead to nationwide marriage equality.

The cases ask the justices whether Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee bans on same-sex couples’ marriages and bans on recognition of same-sex couples’ marriages from out of state violate the Constitution’s due process and equal protection guarantees.

The two questions granted by the court for argument are: 1) “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?” and 2) “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?”

There will be 90 minutes of argument on the marriage question and 60 minutes of argument on the marriage recognition question, per the court’s order.

The coming showdown before the justices over same-sex couples’ marriage rights has quickly become seen as inevitable following the Nov. 6, 2014, decision of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. The ruling set up a disagreement with other appeals courts to have considered the issue; the 4th Circuit, 7th Circuit, 9th Circuit, and 10th Circuit courts of appeals all have struck down such bans on various grounds.

[…]

The same-sex couples plaintiffs’ briefs will be due by 2 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27. The states’ briefs will be due by 2 p.m. Friday, March 27. The reply briefs from the plaintiffs will be due by 2 p.m. Friday, April 17.

Then, likely in late April, the justices will hold arguments over the issue — which would mean a decision, and possible nationwide resolution of the issue, would be expected by late June.

Freedom to Marry has reactions from many of the people that have been directly involved in the litigation, while TPM reports that the Obama administration will formally ask SCOTUS to rule in favor of same sex marriage. This is what we’ve been waiting for, and while I suppose it could all go horribly wrong it’s hard not to feel optimistic. I look forward to seeing the analyses of the case as the briefs get filed and replied to and whatnot. In the meantime, I wonder if this will spur the Fifth Circuit to issue its ruling prior to SCOTUS, or if they’ll be happy to let the Supremes take that task out of their hands. The Trib lists some possibilities:

  • At the very least, the Supreme Court’s ruling — which will likely come in June — will make the 5th Circuit’s decision in the Texas case less consequential, said Aaron Bruhl, an associate law professor at the University of Houston. The 5th Circuit could issue its decision in the case in a few weeks.
  • The Supreme Court’s action on Friday could also delay the 5th Circuit’s decision in the Texas case. “It is possible that at this point [the 5th Circuit] could say, ‘Whatever we say, the authoritative decision is going to come not too much later than we would rule anyway. Maybe we should just wait,'” Bruhl said.
  • Lawyers for each side in the Texas case have said they hope the 5th Circuit rules before the U.S. Supreme Court. Bruhl said it’s possible the parties in the case will ask the court to issue a ruling even though the Supreme Court has taken up the issue again.

I also wonder what the backlash from the bad guys will look like. If all goes well, this ruling could do a lot of good for a lot of people in Texas, but as we have seen, marriage is only a piece of the puzzle. There’s a lot more to be done, and it’s not clear yet who will be more energized by a nationwide defenestration of anti-gay marriage laws. But that’s a thought for another day. For now, let’s celebrate coming this far. SCOTUSBlog and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: Legal matters, National news.

And they’re off

Gentlemen, start your fundraising engines.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The Twitter handles have been rechristened, the first attacks have been fired and the “DONATE!” buttons have gone live.

The yearlong slugfest for mayor of Houston has begun.

In what is expected to be Houston’s most wide-open mayoral race in recent history, most of the dozen potential candidates are shedding their coyness after the traditional Feb. 1 starting gun was quieted by a federal court ruling last Friday that cleared the way for them to begin asking for their first dollars immediately.

Seven candidates have not been bashful about their intent to run: Rep. Sylvester Turner, former Congressman Chris Bell, former Kemah mayor Bill King, current council members Stephen Costello and Oliver Pennington, former airline executive Joe Ferreira; and 2013 candidate Ben Hall, who lost to Mayor Annise Parker, who is in her third and final term.

“Let the games begin,” Parker said Wednesday.

And they have.

Nearly every campaign has hired its top strategist and is sifting through the resumes of the potential campaign managers, fundraisers and spokesmen who they can now pay to implement that strategy.

[…]

For the candidates still dithering over a bid, they no longer have the luxury of effortlessly keeping pace with their competitors. Businessman Marty McVey, who previously said he was considering a run, now plans to designate a campaign treasurer next week. Sean Roberts, a personal injury lawyer, is a probable entrant, but has not committed to the race. And council member Jack Christie, who also is weighing a bid, continued to indicate this week that he would hold off on a race unless he knew if the business community would finance his bid.

Two other candidates, who must at least pretend to be undecided for legal reasons, still loom over the race: Harris County Sherriff Adrian Garcia, considered a top-tier candidate if he launches a bid as expected, and Orlando Sanchez, the county treasurer. Both would have to resign their offices under state law to run in a race they very well could lose.

Yes, that ruling has had an effect. I expect my inbox to fill up with invitations and solicitations shortly and quickly. With still more new names surfacing (Joe Ferreira?), no one’s email address is going to be safe.

Finance reports are slowly appearing on the city of Houston reporting site. I’m going to try to slog through the interesting ones this weekend and post a few tidbits. Later, I’m going to post a series of mini-manifestos to highlight the sorts of things I want to see discussed in this campaign. I’ve also got an opening look at the other races that will be on the ballot on my to do list. It’s going to be a long campaign, and it’s already well underway. Houston Politics has more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Saving money by throwing away less

Good strategy all around.

As a committee mulls an ambitious and controversial “one bin” project that could overhaul recycling and waste collection in Houston, the city’s traditional mode of getting rid of trash just got cheaper.

A renegotiated contract with the city’s primary waste hauler, approved by City Council late last month with little fanfare amid a deluge of end-of-year requests, is set to save the city about $600,000 annually, according to the city’s Solid Waste Management Department.

The $226 million contract to handle much of the city’s waste belongs to BFI Waste Services of Texas, whose parent company is industry giant Republic Services. The coveted contract underwent a massive rewrite in 2009 that did away with a painful “put or pay” clause that meant the city had to deliver a guaranteed amount of waste or cough up the monetary difference. Through the life of the contract, those changes will save the city an estimated $70 million.

The most recent savings, smaller but still significant as the city whittles away at a looming budget deficit, come courtesy of lowered tipping fees – the amount, per ton of trash, the city pays at the gate to a company to process its waste at transfer stations and landfills. Those fees can add up, and in some large urban cities run more than $50 per ton. In Houston, the city has now scaled the fees back by about $1.50 per ton, amounting to about $23.50 per ton. Set annual price increases will continue as scheduled, but the city has essentially reset the clock on its landfill fees to a few years ago.

“We’ve been very mindful and particular with how we spend the public dollar,”Solid Waste Management DirectorHarry Hayes told City Council members last year during a budget meeting.

The city is Republic’s biggest local customer, deputy solid waste director of operations Victor Ayres said , which offers some leverage in negotiating lower rates. The city has sent less trash to the landfill during the past five years. In fiscal year 2014, the city sent 628,978 tons to the landfill, 10,000 tons fewer than the year before and about 21,000 tons fewer than in 2012.

Can you imagine having to pay more for not providing enough garbage to the landfill? It’s so wrong on so many levels I can’t even wrap my mind around it. The city is going in the right direction here, and saving a few bucks in the process, but there’s a lot more to be done. Recycling rates, or diversion rates if you prefer, are still well below the national average. A big part of it is that too many people just don’t have a recycling mindset. I get ill at the sight of so many aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastic containers pitched into trash cans wherever I look. That’s part of the allure of the One Bin proposal, for which the RFPs are still being evaluated by the city. But whether we go that way or not – and please, I’m not looking to get bogged down in that debate right now – just having people think twice before they toss their beverage container or whatever into a waste bin would be nice. Throwing it away like that is wasteful in more ways than one.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Andy Fastow’s second act

I don’t know what to make of this.

Andrew Fastow

“I’m always surprised when people ask me to speak about business ethics; it’s like getting Kim Kardashian to speak about chastity.”

These words, from the lips of Andrew Fastow, elicit generous laughs from a roomful of bankers and attorneys at Dallas’s Belo Mansion this past September. Over the course of the next hour, he will give a talk on the subject of corporate ethics entitled “Rules Vs. Principles” to the local chapter of the Turnaround Management Association, a talk regularly punctuated with lines like the above, lines designed to show he is fully aware of the evening’s irony. Fastow is bluntly, emphatically apologetic throughout, regularly returning to a mantra he seems to genuinely embrace: “I went to jail because I was guilty.”

He is in his early 50s but looks younger, especially for a man who spent five years in federal prison following his indictment by a federal grand jury—and subsequent guilty plea—on 78 counts of money laundering, fraud, and conspiracy. He looks handsome in an Aaron Sorkin sort of way, charming and charismatic, brilliant and quick-witted. Watching Fastow in Dallas, it’s easy to see how he became Enron’s financial wunderkind, CFO of what would become the seventh-largest company in America, at 36.

And then, a month and a half after his Dallas engagement, his nationwide redemption tour makes a stop in Houston.

It is a cool, rainy night downtown, and the ballroom at the Magnolia Hotel is as packed as Belo’s was. The speaker and his talk are the same, and the resemblance between Houston’s well-groomed, besuited TMA members and Dallas’s is uncanny. Still, something seems different. We notice that Fastow doesn’t seem to have gotten a haircut in the intervening weeks. We notice that he appears a bit disheveled and fidgety as he ascends to the podium.

“This is very uncomfortable for me,” he begins after a short, pensive silence. “Every time I do one of these presentations it’s uncomfortable, but especially so in Houston. I apologize ahead of time if I seem nervous, but I am.” A few minutes later, he gains enough footing to address the scandal head-on: “It embarrassed Houston tremendously. The impact on Houston was substantial. I wake up to this every day. I am tremendously embarrassed, ashamed, and most importantly, I’m very sorry.”

Many people, even former Enron employees, don’t seem to realize that Fastow is back. Released from a Louisiana federal prison camp in 2011, he returned to the Bayou City, his wife, Lea, and the couple’s two sons. Lea spent only one year in prison for her small role in the Enron financial scandal—she pled guilty to income tax fraud—while Andrew served a year for nearly every one he spent as CFO, every year he spent concocting new special-purpose entities to mask Enron’s enormous debts and support the off–balance sheet financing and mark-to-market accounting schemes that finally brought the company down. Enron presaged later scandals at Wall Street’s “too big to fail” banks and ushered in the Sarbanes-Oxley act, aimed at preventing such failures and frauds from disrupting the American economy in the future.

Fastow has apparently been giving lectures on business ethics for awhile now. I’d have gone with a Willie Sutton analogy rather than a Kim Kardashian one, but props to him for keeping up with pop culture. As I said, I don’t really know what to think about this. He’s done his time, and he’s hardly living large these days. I can’t honestly say that I wish him well, but I have no reason at this point to wish him ill. I hope he can do something good with the rest of his life.

Posted in: Enronarama.

Friday random ten: My year in music, part 2

Here’s Part One. These are some of the songs we got between July and December.

1. Problem – Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea
2. The Princess Who Saved Herself – Jonathan Coulton
3. Alienation’s For The Rich – They Might Be Giants
4. Count Me In – Dove Cameron
5. What I Like About You – The Romantics
6. Happy – Pharrell Williams
7. Tacky – Weird Al Yankovic
8. #SELFIE – The Chainsmokers
9. Song For Someone – U2
10. Ghostbusters – Ray Parker, Jr.

Again, TV (“Count Me In”) and movies (“Ghostbusters” – I recorded a showing on the TiVo for the express purpose of watching it with the girls, who loved it) were common inspirations. “The Princess Who Saved Herself” was a Kickstarter reward. “Alienation’s For The Rich” was on a free download of TMBG performing their first album live. We too were sucked in by Weird Al’s song-and-video-a-day album release, thus “Tacky” and subsequently “Happy”. I still don’t understand the fuss over Songs of Innocence. It’s a good album, and hey, free music. “What I Like About You” was inspired by Scalzi’s 80s dance party music set list, as it was a grievous oversight on his part. “Problem” and “#SELFIE” were songs the girls asked for, I forget the reason.

That’s not quite the end of the story. I went on a fairly sizable post-Christmas buying binge, which I’ll detail in Part 3. Among other things, that means I no longer have credit at the iTunes store. That may or may not change our often spontaneous buying habits, I don’t know. I’ve been reviewing some “Best of 2014″ lists to see if there’s anything there I should have known about but didn’t. You can assume anything that results from that will be on my 2015 year in music review.

Posted in: Music.

The bigger threat than the Plano petitions

This could be a big problem.

RedEquality

Four Republican lawmakers from the Plano area plan to introduce legislation that would bar cities and counties from adopting ordinances prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, the Observer has learned. The proposed legislation also threatens to nullify existing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances in cities that are home to roughly 7.5 million Texans—or more than one-quarter of the state’s population.

The bill comes in response to the Plano City Council’s passage last month of an equal rights ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

“There is legislation that’s being worked on,” Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) told a group of pastors who gathered in mid-December at Plano’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in response to passage of the city’s equal rights ordinance, according to an audio recording obtained by the Observer.

[…]

Texas Pastor Council Executive Director David Welch, whose group is leading efforts to repeal equal rights ordinances in Plano and Houston, told the Observer the legislation would prohibit political subdivisions of the state from adding classes to nondiscrimination ordinances that aren’t protected under Texas or federal law—neither of which covers LGBT people.

“It should be a uniform standard statewide, and cities can’t just arbitrarily create new classes that criminalize a whole segment of the majority of the population,” Welch said. “It’s just self-evident that they’re going to try to do it city by city. We’re dealing with a broad public policy that creates criminal punishments. That’s a pretty serious issue, and when it’s based on a special agenda by a small, tiny fragment of the population … that’s a legitimate need and reason for the state Legislature to act.”

As I say, this as yet unfiled bill is a bigger threat than the petitions and the proposed constitutional amendments, since this would only need majority support to pass and would surely be signed into law by Greg “Local control means me in control” Abbott. I suppose we could hope that the business community, which is generally very favorable to municipal NDOs, might apply some pressure in Austin to stop this in its tracks. Given how effective they’ve been at dissuading their Republican buddies from doing other things they don’t like – you know, killing immigration reform, slashing funds for education and infrastructure, that sort of thing – it’s not a strategy I’d want to be dependent on.

Currently, the only state with a law prohibiting cities from enacting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances is Tennessee. The Tennessee law, passed in 2011, prompted a lawsuit from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, but a state appeals court recently dismissed the case, saying plaintiffs didn’t have standing because they couldn’t show harm.

Shannon Minter, a Texas native who serves as legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he now plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the Tennessee ban.

Lawmakers in several other states have introduced proposals to ban local nondiscrimination ordinances, but none has passed. Minter said in the last few years anti-LGBT lawmakers have shifted to a religious freedom approach to counter local nondiscrimination ordinances because the strategy is more appealing politically.

“Because the Tennessee-style bill is so punitive toward all localities, I think that it’s so blatantly taking democratic power away from local governments that legislators just don’t have the stomach to do it,” Minter said.

The lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s law was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado law banning local protections based on sexual orientation. Authors of the Tennessee bill attempted to to get around Romer v. Evans by enacting a general prohibition on classes that aren’t covered under state law, rather than specifically targeting LGBT protections. However, Minter believes the law is still unconstitutional.

“Legislatures are not permitted to enact laws that are designed to disadvantage a particular group, and it’s as clear as it could possibly be that the purpose of these laws is to prevent gay and transgender people from gaining local anti-discrimination protections,” he said.

Tennessee lawmakers introduced the legislation in response to a nondiscrimination ordinance in one city, Nashville, and Minter said the Texas proposals broader impact would also make it more vulnerable to legal challenges.

Yes, there’s the courts. One can’t know how that might play out, and even if one felt confident that any such law would be unconstitutional on its face, these things take time and cost money and leave a lot of people in harm’s way in the interim. These are the consequences of not winning enough elections. Keep your state rep on speed dial, you’re going to need to let him or her know how you feel about this. Texas Leftist and Unfair Park have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Rallying to save the Texas DREAM Act

It won’t be easy.

With a new Texas legislative session underway and incoming state leaders indicating a desire to repeal the Texas Dream Act, supporters of the law are gearing up for a renewed fight to keep it in place.

A group of about 60 students, businessmen and legislators gathered on the south steps of the Texas Capitol on Wednesday to voice their support for the act, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition after graduating from high school if they have lived in Texas for three years and have signed an affidavit promising to seek legal residency.

State Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, a former undocumented immigrant who benefited from the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, was one of several speakers with a personal connection to the issue.

“I know that measures like [the Texas Dream Act] and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 can change a young adult’s life path, as it did mine,” she said.

[…]

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has introduced legislation to repeal the Texas Dream Act. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick said he wants to end the act, and Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has indicated he wouldn’t veto any repeal efforts. Patrick and others have characterized the Dream Act as a reward and incentive for illegal immigration.

At Wednesday’s rally, Bill Hammond, the CEO of the Texas Association of Businesses — which endorsed Patrick for lieutenant governor but has opposed him on this issue — spoke about the economic and social impact of the law.

“They work hard, they go to school, they graduate, they do what we want them to do,” Hammond said. “They will be the future teachers, doctors, architects, engineers in Texas if we allow this program to continue.”

Just as a reminder, the Texas DREAM Act was passed in 2001 with near-unanimous support in both chambers. Times may or may not have changed, but the Republican Party sure has. As for Hammond, he and and his group are going to spend a lot of time fighting the candidates they endorsed on multiple issues. You’d think they’d eventually get tired of that, but I guess a corollary to the definition of insanity is that you believe that this time you really will get a different outcome. (The same problem exists in Congress, too, but, well, you know.) This session is going to be all about what the Republicans want to do, and what (if anything) anyone can do to stop them. Sure hope you kept your receipts on these guys, Bill. Stace, the Observer, the DMN, and Texas Politics have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Still no consensus on how to deal with the criminal justice complex

And it’s back to the Mayor.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Pushed by Mayor Annise Parker to decide whether Houston’s aging police and courts buildings should get patchwork repairs or be fully replaced, with both options carrying staggering price tags, City Council members instead opted for indecision.

By a 12-4 vote, the body sidestepped both options – one of which could cost more than $1 billion – and referred the item back to the Parker administration. The measure was a nonbinding resolution, meaning any choice would have seen no money spent and no plan formally committed to.

Parker, however, said she presented the item to gauge whether council was willing to move forward with building a new cops-and-courts complex, as several million dollars are needed to continue the planning process, money that could be wasted if the council has no plans to ultimately approve the project itself.

“It’s either put hundreds of millions of dollars into the existing buildings or put hundreds of millions of dollars into new construction,” Parker said. “Council members want to vote ‘none of the above,’ and my job is to tell them you can’t say ‘none of the above.’ The buildings are becoming hazardous. It’s clear council members don’t want to take a position. When there’s no good answers, if they can duck, they’re going to duck as long as they can.”

City Hall insiders saw hypocrisy on both sides, however.

Just as Parker complained that council members, many of whom often complain about being excluded from key decisions, punted when given the chance to make a hard call. However, those suspicious of the mayor griped that Parker sought council input only when it was convenient for her to share the heat over a potentially unpopular proposal.

See here for the background. The bottom line is that some significant amount of money is going to have to be spent, at a time when there isn’t much loose change lying around. Doing that means either forsaking any other capital spending for the foreseeable future, or raising taxes. Council didn’t like either of those choices, and punted it back to Mayor Parker, in hopes that there’s an option C out there. Good luck with that. Campos has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Say goodbye to some specialty license plates

Nothing lasts forever.

Dr. Pepper, the National Wild Turkey Foundation and the Fort Worth Zoo are among 56 groups that will no longer grace the bumpers of Texas cars and trucks unless sales pick up.

Under new rules set between the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and My Plates, the company that sells specialty license plates for the state, any designs that do not record sales of at least 200 by mid-December will be permanently removed from circulation as part of an effort to make more money and sell more license plates.

“We have seen a proliferation of plates in the system. Currently, we’re at 160,” said Steve Farrar, president of My Plates, which has held an exclusive contract since 2009. “It is good to do a cleanse from time to time according to what is selling. And this time, it comes as a requirement in the extension of our contract.”

The company’s new contract, which runs through 2019, includes four deadlines over the course of the year. In order to prevent removal, all plates must have 50 pairs sold and in use by March 15. That threshold jumps to 100 in June, 150 in September, and 200 by mid-December, 2015.

Any plate failing to meet sales targets will be permanently removed from the state list, though people who already have those plates could use them until they expire.

Here’s the list of plates that do not currently make the cut; there are 56 in all that are in the danger zone. Rockets and Dynamo fans, you have till the December deadline to express your automotive love for your team. My fellow Trinity alums, we have our work cut out for us. Basically, if you’ve been thinking about getting one of these plates – the website is here – check that list and see if you have the luxury of continued procrastination.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

HERO repeal petition trial will be heard by a jury

Let’s get on with it.

PetitionsInvalid

A state district judge ruled Tuesday that the lawsuit surrounding the city’s embattled equal rights ordinance will go before a jury trial rather than a bench trial, a decision that conservative opponents of the law are hailing as a major victory.

Critics suing the city over its equal rights ordinance had been pushing for the case to go before a jury, a move Mayor Annise Parker’s administration said was not in compliance with state election law.

Judge Robert Schaffer issued a brief decision late Tuesday afternoon, one week before the trial is set to begin. Schaffer’s order denied the city’s request for a bench trial, a response to the plaintiffs’ earlier filing for a jury trial.

“It’s great news,” plaintiff Jared Woodfill said. “It’s great to see that this judge is not going to allow (the city) to keep the vote from the people.”

City Attorney David Feldman said he still “firmly believes” the case is better suited to a bench trial but that he respects Schaffer’s decision. City attorneys argued at a hearing last week that the case was best defined as an “election contest” under state law. Such cases can only be decided by a judge, not a jury.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys had countered that because no election on the equal rights ordinance had taken place, the case did not qualify as an election case.

“It’s an unusual case,” Feldman said. “But we’re prepared to move forward.”

See here and here for the background. As I said before, I don’t think it should really matter whether this is a bench trial or a jury trial. The facts are the facts. What the the repealers’ excitement at this ruling suggests to me is that they’re not confident in their facts and are counting more on winning via emotional appeal. If that’s your strategy, then yes, I’d rather go before a jury.

As for those facts, HouEquality shows how they could be a problem for the bad guys.

We have included a publicly available document from the Harris County District Clerk’s website with regards to the upcoming trial. These are excerpts of a deposition from an individual who gathered signatures for the opposition’s petition efforts.

In short, he admits under oath, that he committed fraud and perjured himself by attesting that the signatures he turned in were all collected by him when, in fact, they were not.

The court document makes for an interesting read and certainly is not an isolated case.

Go read the linked document – it’s a variety of excerpts from a deposition, so there are gaps between pages – and see here for more evidence of possible bad acts on the part of the petition gatherers. I for one am looking forward to how this plays out.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Heights-Northside mobility study

Mostly of interest for folks in my area, here’s the city’s report on mobility for neighborhoods in the upper left quadrant of the Inner Loop.

HeightsNorthside

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study

The Planning and Development Department, in partnership with the Department of Public Works and Engineering and Houston-Galveston Area Council, is pleased to announce that the Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility study has been finalized and can be downloaded (see links below).

After an extensive public comment period, the City received 125 comments regarding study recommendations, and letters from area organizations. Over the last several months, the project team has worked with City staff to evaluate all comments and provide responses to questions that were raised. Where appropriate, recommendations were modified to ensure that all final recommendations resulting from this study best serve the needs of the City and community, alike.

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study
Download Full Version (31 MB)

Download by Chapter:
I. Introduction
II. Existing Conditions
III. Community Involvement
IV. Defining Future Mobility Conditions
V. Changing Mobility Considerations
VI. A Balanced Approach: Corridor Sheets
VII. Outcomes
VIII. Next Steps

Appendix A: Data Collection
Appendix B: Thoroughfare Types
Appendix C: Transit Analysis
Appendix D: Hardy-Elysian Option Considerations
Appendix E: Travel Demand Results

Here’s the project website, which has archives of past community meetings and won’t be around much longer. I was alerted to this by Bill Shirley, who highlighted the following bit from the Corridor Streets section that was of interest to me.

“Pedestrian facilities along Studewood Street are in great condition north of White Oak Drive, but virtually nonexistent along the 4-lane segment of the roadway south of White Oak Drive which includes a 4-lane bridge. However, the use of this segment by pedestrians is evident by foot paths flanking both sides of the corridor. The contra-flow lane confuses drivers who are not familiar with its function, and additional signage could help mitigate this issue. The contra-flow lane also causes problems at major intersection due to the lack of protected lefts. At its northern boundary, the corridor terminates into a 6-legged intersection with E 20th/N Main Street/W Cavalcade Street. The current intersection configuration creates confusion, particularly for the pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate.”

I wrote about this awhile back, in the context of the new housing development that will be coming in across the street from the Kroger at Studemont and I-10, and how that area could be a lot more desirable, and a lot less of a burden to vehicular traffic, if that sidewalk were finished and bike options were added. The latter is known to be coming as part of the Bayou Greenways initiative, and it’s exciting to see that the sidewalk is at least on the drawing board as well. I don’t know how long term some of these projects are, but I’m looking forward to them.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Local control, schmocal control

From Lisa Falkenberg:

So, let me get this straight.

Government is the problem, not the solution. It’s a bumbling bureaucracy run by tyrants, cronies and other self-important suits who think they know better than you or I how to live our lives – UNLESS, of course, that bumbling bureaucracy operates under a pink dome on a well-manicured lawn in Austin.

Then, my dear reader, the government is the solution. The only solution. And if you and your local community dare to come up with your own solutions, well then, it is you who is the problem.

That seemed to be the perspective expressed by our newly elected governor, Greg Abbott, earlier this week while speaking to an influential group of conservatives at an event sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” Abbott said. “This is being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans. We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

Silly me. I thought the “Texas model” was based on something called local control.

From the Express News:

Seriously, when Abbott decries the regulations that cities choose for themselves, he’s ignoring the other side of the equation. The state is so allergic to regulations, it often fails Texans. That’s why cities attempt to fill the void.

If, say, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or the venerable Railroad Commission took the environmental impacts of fracking seriously, maybe folks in the city of Denton wouldn’t have felt compelled to pursue a fracking ban.

But beyond this, local control sort of strikes us as a Texas thing. Heck, when Abbott talks about pre-K funding, he often says districts should be able to choose how they spend those additional state funds, if they choose to pursue them. That’s local control.

From Tod Robberson:

“Our public education system is too centralized. One-size-fits-all solutions are pushed down from the top. We have too many unnecessary, unfunded mandates from Austin that tie the hands of our educators. The state should set high standards, provide the tools for success, then get out of the way.”

Those exact words were written by our incoming governor, Greg Abbott, in a guest column in May for the Waco Tribune. The fundamental message there reflects how Candidate Abbott felt about local control and, as he called it, the need for the state to “get out of the way.” So why is Abbott now reversing his philosophy and declaring that the state should intervene to circumvent local rights to govern how we live?

If Dallas, Houston or Austin wants to regulate the use of plastic bags in grocery stores, that is our business, not the state’s. That is, unless the state also wants to pick up the dime for cleanup of our roadways and waterways every time one of these bags gets discarded by a careless user. It is not enough for Abbott to declare that local ordinances shouldn’t get in the way of the free conduct of business.

[…]

Abbott seems to be maneuvering this argument in a way to justify state intervention in the regulation of gas-fracking operations. Just as is the case when local governments have a right to establish zoning rules — limits on where heavy industrial sites can be located, for example — local governments also have a right to say whether they want noisy, polluting fracking operations within their city limits. Abbott wants to take that right away.

Amazing. This is the same guy who fought so hard against increased federal intervention in our lives. When it comes to his perspective of top-down governance from Washington, he’s against it. But, somehow, he believes in the McCity concept that establishes uniform rules that must apply to all cities across the state. We all must look, smell, feel and behave the same, according to state mandate. Under Abbott’s vision, top-down governance from Austin is better than what we, the citizens of Dallas, Austin, Lubbock, Clarendon, Muleshoe, Brownsville and El Paso choose for ourselves.

Thank you, Greg Abbott, for restoring the concept of Big Government that you fought so hard in your campaign to wipe out.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.