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Harvey and the oysters

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Oyster lovers will shell out more for the marine delicacy this fall, as freshwater runoff from Hurricane Harvey’s historic floods killed virtually all of the bivalves in the prolific seabeds of Galveston Bay.

The storm was the latest setback to a multimillion-dollar commercial fishing and seafood-processing industry that appeared poised to finally rebound from floods, including two devastating tropical weather systems, and an extended drought in less than a decade. Shrimpers, crabbers and other fishermen who work the bay also will feel an impact.

But it’s most lethal in the case of the oysters, as Harvey-spawned rains and rainwater runoff drove down the bay’s salinity to fatal levels. Salinity levels of 12 to 30 parts per thousand are ideal for a healthy oyster harvest in Galveston Bay, which researchers say is the nation’s most bountiful. Yet preliminary tests performed by commercial fishers on Tuesday revealed salinity levels at 0 to 5 parts per thousand – and excessive water continues to drain into the bay.

Industry leaders fear no more than 10 percent of oysters in the bay prior to the storm have survived. It’s possible, they said, that the entire crop is lost.

“That much freshwater in the bay has taken its toll on us,” said Mark Lewis, sales representative for wholesaler, Jeri’s Seafood. “There’s nothing in Texas to buy.”

From Hurricane Ike to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the drought to the other big floods of the last two years and finally Harvey, it’s been an extremely rough time for the oyster population and the industry it sustains. Things aren’t much better in Louisiana right now, either. Maybe we should work a little harder at being good stewards of the environment? Just a thought.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Saturday video break: Shout

Here’s a song called Shout you probably don’t know, from Miles Davis:

That’s from the Fluxblog 1981 list. I always thought of Miles Davis as a musician of the 60s, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that he was still making great music at that time. A song you are familiar with, also from the 80s, is by Tears for Fears:

Unlike some other 80s acts, I liked Tears for Fears back in the day, though I probably heard them a bit too much. As one critic noted at the time, they are kind of repetitive. I have a greater appreciation for them now, helped by the fact that the Sirius First Wave station plays more than this and “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” from them.

Posted in: Music.

More Beto in the national news

From Splinter, part of the Gawker universe, a story that was front-paged on Deadspin and Jezebel:

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke sticks around to meet every single person in Burnet who wants to meet him. He doesn’t leave until the last hand has been shaken, the last selfie snapped. It wouldn’t be impressive—that’s what politicians are supposed to do—except that nobody in Burnet can remember the last time a Senate candidate stopped by to talk to them at all, let alone hung around until he’d met everybody personally.

People are enthusiastic about him—because he showed up, sure, and also because of how he comes off. His staff is protective of his time; even though I was in the truck with him for more than an hour, we were only slated for ten minutes of interview time, so he can make calls to the coast and stream the drive on Facebook Live. But he’s not particularly guarded in how he talks. He’s a legit cusser, and he talks about how he came to conclusions about policy—even ones that may seem contradictory to his party or his background—in a naturalistic way.

He’s big on working with veterans because of the community in El Paso around the army base in town. He’s for ending marijuana prohibition because he grew up across the border from Juarez, where cartel violence once made the city the world’s most dangerous. He’s in favor of term limits, even though they’re an idea mostly championed by conservatives, because he believes that Washington is inherently broken and corrupt—but he thinks that maybe limiting the amount of time people spend in office could fix it. He’s to the left of most of the Democratic Party, but he cherishes bipartisanship as an ideal and an end unto itself.

“When you look at the DNC or the RNC or national politics, it’s corporate rock and roll. It has very little soul to it. Maybe no soul at all.”

That all matters for O’Rourke in order to have a chance of defeating Ted Cruz. He’s running an innovative campaign, avoiding the pitfalls of doomed candidates like Wendy Davis. He hasn’t hired a single out-of-state consultant or pollster, and with the exception of the volunteer driving the car, everybody I’ve met from his campaign is either from El Paso or from the congressman’s D.C. office. But it’s still as uphill a battle as there is in politics right now.

Turning Texas blue, or at least purple, has been a dream of progressives for decades. It’s also one that seems, somehow, to always be at least four to six years away. So can a former punk rock guitar player from a part of Texas that’s never produced a statewide elected official be the one to break the streak?

It’s a good profile, and it has a few things I hadn’t seen before, so go check it out. The whole visiting-places-no-one-usually-goes-to thing has been the main news hook in stories about Beto O’Rourke. It’s sexy, it appeals to people who disdain consultant-driven campaigns, and it makes a lot of intuitive sense. Whether it works or not remains to be seen. Texas is a big state (I know, where else can you get this kind of cutting-edge analysis?), and something like 4.5 million people normally vote in off year elections. I don’t care how much time you spend driving around, it’s hard to speak in person to a significant fraction of that amount, and that’s a number that implies the usual low level of Democratic turnout. Beto needs a lot of Presidential-year Dems to vote to have a chance. The good news is that by doing what he’s doing, he’s building a narrative for those voters, one that tells them he’s something different, someone who isn’t following a playbook that hasn’t worked since Beyonce was in kindergarten. Again, it may not succeed – Vegas sure wouldn’t give good odds on it – but at least it’s not doing the same thing again and hoping for a different result.

And from Mother Jones, which devoted four stories this past week to Texas politics:

When O’Rourke announced his candidacy for what, on paper, could be the party’s tie-breaking 51st seat in the Senate, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was tempered in its enthusiasm. “Wild things can happen in 2018,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the DSCC’s head, but he emphasized that the committee’s focus would be on protecting incumbent senators. “We’re realistic.” (Translation: Good luck!)

O’Rourke, well aware of the long odds he faces, reasons that if nothing Democrats have tried before has worked, he might as well attempt something completely different. He announced early on that he would not hire a pollster or contract with consultants, with the exception of Revolution Messaging, the firm that built Bernie Sanders’ online mint in 2016. (O’Rourke outraised Cruz in his first full quarter as a candidate.) He is his own press secretary. Many of O’Rourke’s early trips have focused on deep-red areas that see ambitious Democrats about as often as they see snow—when he visited George W. Bush’s hometown of Midland in March, the local newspaper wrote an editorial congratulating him “for being able to find Midland.”

His approach to campaigning is similar to his approach to his day job—he does things differently. O’Rourke moved quickly into the senior ranks of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he tells supporters, not just because of El Paso’s high concentration of military personnel, but because his colleagues had flocked to other committees such as finance that offered more access to donors. He is a rare politician who has actually given himself a term limit in the House, and he promises to serve no more than 12 years in the Senate. He was one of the last members of Congress to endorse Clinton during the 2016 Democratic primary, but he supported Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s bid for leader of the Democratic caucus in November, arguing that Rep. Nancy Pelosi had reached a dead end.

What he’s offering instead of the status quo is a post-Clinton (and for that matter, post-Obama) style of politics. The party’s leading lights have run from the idea that they’re soft on drugs and immigration, but backing a border fence and a surge of Border Patrol agents didn’t fix Democratic politics—it just made things worse for Texas. So why not run on marijuana legalization and against militarization of the border? The same goes for a hawkish foreign policy. He’s proposing to turn off the spigots for overseas interventions and instead pour money into student-loan forgiveness and Medicare-for-all—a single-­payer system, he tells voters, will save them “somewhere between a lot and a shit ton.”

O’Rourke’s independent streak is a reflection of El Paso itself, which feels a world away from the rest of the state and its political power brokers. He has met Cruz just twice in the four years they’ve served together in Congress, even as Cruz and other Texas Republicans have treated O’Rourke’s beloved borderlands as a piñata.
“Ted Cruz doesn’t have an office anywhere near El Paso. John Cornyn doesn’t have an office anywhere near El Paso. Presidential candidates don’t come to El Paso. Gubernatorial candidates don’t come to El Paso. People who are focused on power don’t come to El Paso,” he said. “And I was saying that in front of the crowd in Tex­arkana, and this lady in front of the crowd said, ‘That’s how I feel!’”

“That’s how a lot of Texas feels—they feel forgotten, left behind, unrepresented, unimportant to the centers of power and the system as it currently works,” he added. “It doesn’t work for them. A lot of the state feels like El Paso feels, and a lot of the state wants their state back and wants to be recognized and represented and served. I think this campaign is all about that.”

In its simplest form, the challenges facing candidates like O’Rourke are the same ones that have confounded Democrats everywhere since 2008, only, as Texas would have it, bigger. They have to help voters navigate a system that is designed to be difficult if not discouraging. They have to battle the kind of political disengagement that sank Clinton; in Texas, “It’s not a Republican state, it’s a nonvoting state” may as well be the official Democratic Party mantra. Obama-era progressives approached the electorate with a scientific rigor, believing they could selectively target and activate different groups as needed, but huge setbacks in three of the last four national elections—including in Texas—exposed holes in that theory. By narrowing their focus in the name of precision, Democratic campaigns left millions of votes on the table, particularly in places like Texas. Awakening that sleeping giant may require connecting with communities where they are rather than expecting them to connect to the ongoing national debate. The folks at the Texas Organizing Project believe that many of those people live in Houston. O’Rourke is betting they’re in Amarillo and Texarkana, too.

That story actually covers quite a bit of ground, so reading it will not be a rerun of the first piece. There’s also a Q&A with O’Rourke here, a story about Texas’ voter ID saga here, and a brief overview of “women who are leading the resistance” here. How much does the positive press help O’Rourke? Like chemistry on a professional sports team, it’s hard to quantify. We’ll see what his third quarter finance report looks like, that’s the closest proxy for that we’re going to get.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Now is not a good time for HHSC to be dysfunctional

And yet here we are.

Under Charles Smith, the longtime ally of Gov. Greg Abbott picked to lead the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, Texas’ government health care infrastructure is hemorrhaging veteran employees and facing criticism for its response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Dozens of experienced senior staff members have left the agency since Smith took over last year. Current and former employees attribute the exodus to widespread dissatisfaction with the executive commissioner, who they say lacks technical knowledge of the agency and pushes a political agenda backed by the governor.

Interviews with 11 current and former long-serving health commission staff, ranging from senior executives to mid-level managers, paint a picture of a state agency in disarray, with veteran staff clashing regularly with Smith and his supporters in the governor’s office. The internal conflict has spurred a wave of resignations, leaving the agency with a void of talent that critics say is hampering the state’s ability to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey.

“It’s hard to watch,” said one former high-ranking health commission official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an ongoing professional relationship with the health commission. “Anybody with any knowledge or experience is not going to stay.”

[…]

Critics point to the agency’s actions in the month after Hurricane Harvey as evidence of its dysfunction.

Specifically, sources inside and outside of the commission told the Tribune that the agency was slow to act in providing guidance and assistance to Texans affected by Harvey who qualify for public programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Doctors have complained that basic information, such as whether displaced Medicaid patients could seek care outside of their insurance network or get prescription medications refilled, was slow to emerge from the agency, and advocates for low-income Texans were frustrated to see a flurry of revisions to information posted on the agency’s website as victims sought government assistance.

Others pointed to the delay in rolling out disaster food stamps benefits. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, and the health commission began rolling out disaster food stamps on Sept. 13, nearly three weeks later, but only in some counties. Houston, Corpus Christi and other areas that suffered some of the most extensive damage from the storm were not included in the initial rollout.

By comparison, when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008, then-Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins announced the agency would provide emergency food stamps five days after the storm made landfall.

“When I see the response to Harvey, I am quite concerned about the level of expertise in the agency,” said one former commission official who has closely followed the hurricane response. “This stuff is not rocket science. We’ve had disasters before. There are templates for this.”

The Texas State Employees Union said this week that falling employee morale and a shortage of workers has hampered the state’s ability to provide recovery after Hurricane Harvey. Union officials say the health commission has lost nearly 11 percent of its eligibility operations staff — the workers who help connect Texans with public benefits.

In a statement for the union, Rashel Richardson, a caseworker in Houston, asked, “How are we supposed to work this much forced overtime week after week while our homes have been destroyed? How are we supposed to concentrate and get people services when we need services ourselves? It’s as if the state has no sympathy for workers who lost everything.”

There’s more, so read the whole thing. Not that there’s ever a good time for such a large agency that affects so many people to be dysfunctional, but in the aftermath of a huge natural disaster that has done so much damage? That’s a really bad time. Of course, HHSC has been a problem child for a long time, so none of this should be a big surprise. On the other hand, the HHSC under Greg Abbott has been particularly hostile to women’s health, so it’s all good as far as he’s concerned.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

MUDs and Harvey

City governments have their pros and cons, and their challenges getting things done. But at least their existence means residents of said cities have places to go when they need various services. Not everyone has that, and in times of crisis like what Harvey has wrought, that’s a big deal.

Cinco Ranch, a master-planned community 25 miles west of downtown Houston, is governed by a patchwork of municipal utility districts – MUDs for short – obscure entities that sell bonds and collect taxes to pay for water systems, sewage plants, roads and other infrastructure.

The closest thing to a mayor for Cinco Ranch is G. Timothy Lawrence, 74. He’s a semi-retired businessman and president of the board of the community’s main MUD. He and his four fellow board members set the property tax rate and hire lawyers, engineers and financial advisers. Yet he has never lived in Cinco Ranch and did not set foot there during the flooding. His home is a 20-mile drive away, in the Royal Oaks section of Houston.

Drawdy and many of his neighbors had never heard of him.

MUDs have proliferated in the Houston suburbs, helping to power the region’s runaway growth, because they offer developers an advantageous way to fund infrastructure. In unincorporated stretches of suburbia, they have evolved into permanent mini-governments largely invisible to the taxpayers they serve.

The devastation wrought by Harvey has stirred fresh questions about whether MUDs and similar special purpose districts are sufficiently transparent and accountable, and whether they’re capable of putting the public interest ahead of developers’ interests – particularly in protecting neighborhoods from flooding.

Typically, MUDs are created at the initiative of developers, who pick their initial board members, lawyers and other professional advisers. The districts sell bonds to reimburse developers for infrastructure costs. Residents pay off the debt through property taxes.

MUDs usually do not have websites, nor any physical presence in their communities. In Cinco Ranch, which is divided into 16 separate MUDs, there is no city hall and no civil servants. Water and sewage facilities are operated by contractors hired by the main MUD. That MUD’s board members usually hold their monthly meetings not in Cinco Ranch, but in the offices of the district’s law firm near downtown Houston.

“It’s the difference between paying your monthly bills to a nameless organization with an acronym and a number versus someone you know, who could be held responsible for what happens in a crisis,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

You know how I feel about MUDs. It should be abundantly clear that MUDs are no substitute for government, which will mean different things to different people. Is this a good deal for the people of Cinco Ranch, who are dealing with the effects of Harvey without having any of the services and information dissemination capability that people who live in Houston expect? Is it the sort of thing that would make them reconsider their situation, and maybe work towards incorporating? I suppose if there’s no urge to think about those things now, there never will be. I wish the residents of Cinco Ranch and other such developments the best in getting the assistance they need, and in assessing their options going forward.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Friday random ten: Big talker, part 2

Big list, no kidding.

1. Big Hat, No Cattle – Randy Newman
2. Big Legs, Tight Skirt – John Lee Hooker
3. Big Love – Matthew E. White
4. Big Love – Fleetwood Mac
5. Big Man On Mulberry Street – Billy Joel
6. Big Mess – Devo
7. The Big Muddy – Bruce Springsteen
8. Big Trouble – Trout Fishing In America
9. Big Noise from Winnetka – Asylum Street Spankers
10. Big Ol’ Bone – Austin Lounge Lizards

“Big Hat, No Cattle” could be the theme song for a majority of Congress. I assigned it to Rick Perry back in 2012 when he first disastrously ran for President, but it’s quite adaptable. One more of these to go, next week.

Posted in: Music.

Some voting locations were damaged by Harvey

Not a surprise, but we’re not doing much about it.

More than three dozen polling sites were damaged in Hurricane Harvey and might not be available for the upcoming November elections, Harris County election officials announced Wednesday.

Voters in Harris County are urged to cast an early ballot. Those displaced by Harvey or voters who might be registered at one of the damaged polling sites will be able to vote without disruption.

Early voting begins Oct. 23. Voters can go to any of 45 locations through Nov. 3 to cast early ballots. Election Day is Nov. 7.

Harris County had 765 polling locations in November during the presidential election and about 5 percent might not be available for the upcoming election, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart said during a news conference Wednesday. He stressed the early voting option outside the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on West Gray, making the plea while flanked by renderings of yellow billboards that will be posted in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese across the county to promote early voting.

“You can go anywhere in the county,” he said. “That makes it simple.”

Storm survivors can continue to claim residency at their damaged addresses if they are displaced.

“It’s still your home,” Stanart said. “It’s still your residence even though you’re not physically there.”

Oct. 10 is the registration deadline to sign up to vote, to change addresses for those intending to permanently relocate or to register in another county.

Voters who are displaced outside of Harris County and those within the county who are 65 or older or are disabled, can ask for mail ballots. Requests must be received by Oct. 27. The clerk’s office is sending teams to about a dozen nursing homes where at least five voters per address have requested ballots by mail, Stanart said.

As noted by the Press, Stanart did not provide a list of damaged polling places, so it will be up to you to check the harrisvotes.org website to see where you would be voting on November 7. Beyond that, their advice is to vote early, and apply for a mail ballot by October 27 if you’re over 65 or were displaced from your home and are now living outside Harris County. There’s more that could have been done, but this is what we’re getting. Guess it’s a good thing that this is such a low profile election. Hope we get all these places fixed by the March primary, because there doesn’t seem to be a plan B if we don’t.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Paxton being investigated for bribery

Sounds sexy, but don’t get too excited just yet.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton is being investigated under bribery and corrupt-influence laws for accepting a six-figure gift from a CEO whose company was under investigation by the state for fraud, the district attorney leading the probe confirmed Thursday.

In July 2016, Austin-based medical device company Preferred Imaging LLC agreed to pay a $3.5 million settlement after a multiyear Medicaid and Medicare fraud investigation. The year before, Preferred Imaging CEO James Webb had given $100,000 to help Paxton fight criminal fraud charges the attorney general has been battling since July 2015.

On Thursday, Kaufman County District Attorney Erleigh Wiley confirmed to The Dallas Morning News that she has been investigating whether Paxton broke state laws that put limits on gifts public servants can receive from people “subject to [their] jurisdiction.”

“There is an active investigation looking into that matter,” Wiley told The News. “We are carefully and thoroughly going through every piece of evidence.”

The complaint that led to the investigation was originally made to the Texas Rangers by the attorney of the same whistleblower that launched the probe into Preferred Imaging. Instead of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate, Wiley took it over at the behest of the regional administrative judge.

Wiley, a Republican, added she was close to deciding whether to send the case to a grand jury and said she’s received “great cooperation” from both the Texas Rangers and Paxton’s legal team.

[…]

To help pay for his lawyers, Paxton set up a legal defense fund in 2015. In its first year, he raised $330,000 from friends, family and business associates.

He listed the amounts under the “gifts” section of his annual financial disclosures, and last year, added this note to the end of the form: “All gifts for legal defense were conferred and accepted on account of a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of General Paxton’s official status.”

Webb’s 2015 donation was the largest single gift to Paxton’s legal defense fund. He did not contribute last year.

Texas’ bribery laws prohibit elected officials from taking “any benefit from a person the public servant knows to be subject to regulation, inspection, or investigation by the public servant or his agency.” Excepted are gifts “conferred on account of kinship or a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of the official status of the recipient.”

The Texas Ethics Commission has not signed off on elected officials receiving donations that aren’t campaign-related from out-of-state friends and business associates. In 2016, it punted a request to sign off on such an arrangement made by an anonymous official in Paxton’s agency.

It’s a long story and kid of hard to summarize, so go read it and see what you think. I think this is unlikely to turn into an indictment, but perhaps there’s more to it than it appears. If it does, I’m sure Paxton and his squadron of defense attorneys will find a way to claim it’s another partisan witch hunt, despite Kaufman County being more Republican than Collin. We’ll see how it goes. The Trib and the Chron have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Sure would be nice if we could not kill CHIP

Just a thought.

Insurance coverage for more than 390,000 Texas children and pregnant women is in jeopardy after Congress failed to renew authorization for a federal program.

Congressional authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health insurance for children from low- and middle-income families, expires Sept. 30.

Without federal funding, Texas has enough money for CHIP to last until February 2018, according to estimates by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. However, federal lawmakers say they’re working on a plan to continue the program before funding runs out for Texas.

“States don’t want to have to disenroll their kids,” said Maureen Hensley-Quinn, senior program director at National Academy for State Health Policy, a non-partisan group that advises states on health policy. But “there may come a time when [they] have to send families letters” letting them go.

Some other states are in worse shape than we are, not that that’s much consolation. You’d think it would be – what’s that word? – pro-life to not want a program that keeps 400,000 children healthy to not go down the budgetary toilet. I’d feel more reassurance if there were some public statements about this from state leaders, but you know how that goes. As a wise man once said, hold on to your butts. TPM and the Chron have more.

Posted in: National news.

SOS halted from handing over voter info

Good.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A Texas district judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos from handing voter information to President Donald Trump’s voter fraud investigation commission.

The order, which came out Tuesday, adds Texas to a growing list of states not complying with the president’s investigation into the 2016 elections, which Trump says suffered from large-scale voter fraud.

Judge Tim Sulak of the Austin-based 353rd Texas Civil District Court issued the order in response to a lawsuit filed July 20 by the League of Women Voters of Texas, its former president Ruthann Geer and the Texas NAACP against Pablos and Keith Ingram, the Texas Elections Division director in the the secretary of state’s office. The lawsuit seeks to stop the state from handing over voter data from the state’s computerized voter registration files to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The suit argues that doing so would reveal voters’ personal information, “which may be used to solicit, harass, or otherwise infringe upon the privacy of Texas voters.”

[…]

The League’s current president, Elaine Wiant, said the organization is especially concerned that releasing the data could make millions of voters’ personal information public, making it vulnerable to commercial use. Texas law forbids public voter information from being used commercially, but with the presidential commission, Wiant said “there is no guarantee how it will get used.” Wiant also said the League is concerned that releasing the data would make voters’ birthdates public.

“In today’s world, that is just way too much information to be made available to the public,” Wiant said. “There are serious security concerns.”

The order, which expires Oct. 17 or with further order from the court, says that handing over voter information could cause “irreparable” injury. Without “appropriate safeguards,” the order argues, the data is likely to become public, potentially violating voters’ privacy rights, their interests in “avoiding commercial solicitation, chilling of their First Amendment rights, and the diminution of their efforts to encourage voting.”

See here and here for the background. There will be a hearing on the 16th, at which time this will presumably be extended or rescinded. In the meantime, the Trump commission has other legal problems to worry about. Let’s hope this is the end of it in Texas.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Pasadena City Council approves settlement in redistricting case

It’s over.

The Pasadena City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a $1.1 million settlement agreement of a lawsuit challenging a city voting plan that a federal judge found diluted Latino voting influence.

Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler said that after four years of litigation and $3.5 million in legal fees he was glad to see the appeal come to an end.

“It all started out as a power grab that has now run its course,” Wheeler said. “In addition to the financial hit, the lawsuit gave the city a black eye in the national spotlight. It cost us progress and it cost us time.”

Councilman Phil Cayten said he would vote to end the lawsuit to save money even though he thought the city could have prevailed on appeal.

“I think the three more conservative judges of the appeal court would rule in favor of the City of Pasadena,” said Cayten, who apologized to constituents who favored continuing the appeal. “Let me just say that I believe in my heart that the City of Pasadena did not violate the Voting Rights Act or adopt a discriminatory election system.”

The settlement, recommended by new Mayor Jeff Wagner, calls for the city to pay for the plaintiffs’ legal fees and court costs, and to drop its appeal of U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s ruling regarding the 2013 council election system.

See here for the background. One of the consequences of this is that Pasadena is will be put under preclearance for six years, meaning that any changes they make to district lines or other election procedures will have to be approved before they can be implemented. The Trib explores this aspect of the settlement.

The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color. The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color.

As things stand now, the dispute won’t set broader precedent across Texas or beyond state lines. But in a state embroiled in court-determined voting rights violations on several fronts, the federal guardianship of Pasadena’s elections is meaningful, particularly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 finding that conditions for voters of color had “dramatically improved.”

“I think it’s significant that in 2017 we have a trial court finding of intentional racial discrimination by a city in Texas and that the drastic remedy of preclearance has been successfully imposed,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s law school who specializes in election law. “The Pasadena ruling indicates that in some places racial discrimination in voting is very much a thing of the present.”

[…]

Rosenthal’s ruling was decisive for voting rights litigation playing out after that ruling, and the city’s move to drop its appeal and let the ruling stand sets up the possibility that Pasadena’s voting rights fight could play an outsized role in other court battles.

In 2013, the Supreme Court left open the possibility that political jurisdictions could be placed back under preclearance — through the Voting Rights Act’s “bail-in” provision — if they committed new discriminatory actions. Rosenthal set a possible standard that other courts can look to in deciding whether to bail in other jurisdictions, legal experts observed.

“It’s one more black mark against Texas” that could help in other voting rights litigation, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has studied voting rights cases for decades.

Pasadena’s vote to settle the case is likely to disappoint state leaders who had already filed an amicus brief in support of the city’s appeal that warned of “unwarranted federal intrusion.” State attorneys had deemed Rosenthal’s preclearance ruling improper because it was imposed for a single incident of discrimination instead of pervasive and rampant discrimination.

See here for more on that. I don’t know what if any precedent Pasadena will set, but I’d rather have this outcome going forward than the alternative.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Paxton trial delayed again

This will happen some day. I hope.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s trial has been put off for a third time.

The judge in the securities fraud case against Paxton sided Wednesday with prosecutors who had been pushing for another trial delay because of a long-running dispute over their fees. The decision by Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson scrapped Paxton’s current Dec. 11 trial date and left the new one to be determined, possibly at a Nov. 2 conference.

Paxton had been set to go to trial on Dec. 11 on the least serious of three charges he faces. The date for that trial had already been pushed back twice because of pretrial disputes, first over the venue and then the judge.

[…]

In a feisty hourlong hearing Wednesday, the prosecutors and Paxton’s lawyers sparred over a familiar subject: whether they should hold off on a trial until the prosecutors could collect a paycheck — an issue currently tied up in a separate legal battle. Earlier this year, when the case was before a different judge, he denied the prosecutors’ first request to delay the trial until they could get paid.

Johnson had a different take Wednesday, granting the prosecutors’ latest motion for continuance. He asked both sides to come up with a new trial date, preferably in late February or early March. After some back and forth — a Paxton lawyer proposed a new trial date on March 6 — they all agreed to continue the discussion at the Nov. 2 pretrial conference.

The prosecutors had been seeking to put off the trial until the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, could sort out the payment issue. Last week, the Court of Criminal Appeals stepped into the dispute over the prosecutors’ pay, issuing a stay of a lower-court ruling last month that invalidated a six-figure paycheck for them. In its decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals gave all sides 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ contention that the lower court, the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals, overstepped its authority when it voided the payment.

If the Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately rules against the prosecutors — effectively leaving them without pay for the foreseeable future — they will move to withdraw from the case, Wice said.

Paxton’s team had none of it. His lawyers contended the prosecutors were seeking to undermine Paxton’s right to a speedy trial and repeatedly pointed to the prosecutors’ previous failures to get the trial delayed due to the payment issue.

“It’s time,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said. “It’s time to try the case.”

See here for some background. The first I’d heard of this motion was Tuesday when the Trib and the Chron reported on it. You know where I stand on this, and while I agree with Team Paxton that I’d like to get on with this already, I would note that it is well within their power to ask Paxton’s buddies Jeff Blackard and the Collin County Commissioners Court to drop their vendetta against the prosecutors, since that is the main stumbling block at this time. I really don’t see how anyone can object to them wanting to get paid what they were told they would be paid, nor can I see how anyone would expect them to work for free. The solution is simple if they want it to happen. Until then, we await the November 2 hearing at which everyone argues over a new court date.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Texas blog roundup for the week of October 2

The Texas Progressive Alliance again urges our government to take utmost care of our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

SCOTUS takes up partisan gerrymandering

So much coverage on this potentially ground-breaking and earth-shaking case. Here’s the Washington Post:

Opponents of political gerrymandering had reason for optimism at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the likely swing vote, appearing more in sync with liberal colleagues who seemed convinced that a legislative map can be so infected with political bias that it violates the Constitution.

But it’s what Kennedy didn’t say that could determine whether the court, for the first time, strikes down a legislative map because of extreme partisan gerrymandering. While he has previously expressed concerns about the political mapmaking practice, he has yet to endorse a way of determining when gerrymandering is excessive, and Kennedy give no sign at oral arguments Tuesday that he had found one.

In a case from Wisconsin that could reshape the way American elections are conducted, the Supreme Court heard from challengers that it was the “only institution in the United States” that could prevent a coming wave of extreme partisan gerrymandering that would distort the basic structure of democracy.

“Politicians are never going to fix gerrymandering,” said Paul M. Smith, representing Democratic voters who challenged a 2011 redistricting plan drawn by Wisconsin’s ruling Republicans. “They like gerrymandering.”

Even conservative justices skeptical of Smith’s argument seemed to agree that it was unsavory for members of the party in power to draw legislative districts to protect themselves and their own, and make it hard for opponents to ever gain power.

“Gerrymandering is distasteful,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “But if we are going to impose a standard on the courts, it has to be something that’s manageable.”

Finding a test that courts could use to determine when political favoritism had become too great — the “Rosetta Stone,” Alito called it — has always been the hurdle. Kennedy said as much the last time the court examined the issue, in 2004.

If anything, Kennedy seemed more convinced this time around that the courts have a role in finding that partisan gerrymandering can be so extreme as to be unconstitutional.

He pressed lawyers for the state and its legislative leaders about whether it would be unconstitutional for a state to undertake the redistricting process by forthrightly saying it intended to favor one party over another.

Erin Murphy, representing the legislative leaders, hesitated and said that was not the case in Wisconsin.

Kennedy was undeterred. “I’d like the answer to the question,” he said.

Murphy and the state’s lawyer, Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin, agreed that would be unconstitutional.

See here, here, and here for some background. Basically all the coverage was focused on Justice Kennedy, who is not only our supreme overlord the main swing vote in the chamber but also who had suggested that a partisan gerrymander could be illegal if there were a good, objective standard to determine it. That’s what this case is about, and it seems likely that if this isn’t where he draws a line, there isn’t a line he’ll be willing to draw. This case is about Wisconsin, but if SCOTUS sides with the plaintiffs it would surely have a broad impact, as many other purple or even blue states – Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina – have similarly extreme gerrymanders in them. We’ll know by the spring. SCOTUSBlog, the NYT, Rick Hasen, Ari Berman, Kevin Drum, Mark Joseph Stern, Dahlia Lithwick, and ThinkProgress have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Fifth Circuit hears bail lawsuit arguments

Big day in court.

Amid a stream of pointed questions from the bench, lawyers for Harris County Tuesday asked panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to toss a lower court ruling that the county’s criminal justice system violated the constitution by holding poor defendants on low level offenses simply because they could not afford bail.

The arguments challenge an April ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in Houston that the county’s bail system violated due process and equal protection by discriminating against poor misdemeanor defendants, when people with the money to could await trial at home.

A trio of appellate judges heard 30 minutes of oral arguments from the county, which has spent $4.2 million combating the lawsuit, and another 30 minutes from lawyers for a group of indigent defendants who languished in jail for days because they couldn’t afford to post bail.

[…]

[Judge Catharina] Haynes commanded the questioning throughout the morning, including when Chuck Cooper, a seasoned appellate lawyer who heads the Washington, D.C. law firm Cooper & Kirk, argued for the county that the bail hearings were not perfunctory.

Haynes interrupted Cooper mid-sentence, with a rhetorical question, “Now they know they’re under scrutiny so they add an extra sentence to their rubber stamp?”

To Alec Karakatsanis, director of the Civil Rights Corps in D.C, who represents the indigent defendants who sued the county, Haynes repeatedly asked about why the defendants needed to be released from jail by the 24-hour mark.

“I’m asking a very specific question you’re not answering,” she said. “Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say you’re required to release… within 24 hours.”

“It doesn’t,” Karakatsanis said.

Haynes also asked what’s the value of the affidavit inmates sign to swear they can’t afford bail.

“What if they’re lying on this affidavit–I don’t know, if they’re a millionaire or something?” she queried.

Karakatsanis said they could face further prosecution for contempt if they misrepresented their means.

See here and here for some background, and here for a Chron preview; I’ve been following this for awhile so if you’re a regular reader this should mostly be familiar. The Trib adds some details.

The judges repeatedly peppered Cooper with questions about the county’s probable cause hearings, in which judicial officials called hearing officers hear the charges against a defendant, evaluate reports from pretrial interviews and occasionally alter bail. The plaintiffs have argued that defendants are not allowed to speak at these hearings, which Haynes and Prado jumped on.

“They’re called hearing officers. Is there a hearing or do they just look at the form and make a decision?” [Judge Edward] Prado asked.

When Cooper contended that they did, Haynes cut him off: “But they can’t speak. What is a hearing if you’re not going to listen?”

[…]

In his argument, Cooper cited multiple county reform efforts that have taken place since the court order took effect in June. In July, the county began using a new risk assessment tool to better recommend to judicial officers setting bail when low-risk offenders should be released on personal bonds. He said, though no data has been recorded in the court, that release on personal bonds has increased.

Haynes questioned whether it was worth sending the case back to the lower court to find new facts since the reforms have taken place. Karakatsanis argued the new facts are unknown, and that there is nothing in the court record to corroborate Cooper’s statements.

County Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Harris County judge who rejected money bail for indigent defendants before the ruling, was at the arguments and said afterward that he wished there was an opportunity to talk about the system under the changes. Overall, he said, the process hasn’t changed.

“If it is sent back to the lower court, then the numbers will show what is going on,” he said. “People are still being placed in jail, and they can’t afford to get out.”

It is unknown when the judges will make a decision whether to uphold Rosenthal’s ruling, overturn it or send it back to the lower court. But after the ruling, Karakatsanis said he was optimistic the court will stand by Rosenthal’s injunction.

“The order that they’re appealing from is based on very solid evidence, and they’re asking for it to be overturned,” he said. “You can’t just come in front of higher courts and say, ‘Well, facts are totally different from what happened…’ without any citation.”

All three judges were Bush appointees, by the way, one by 41 (as was trial judge Rosenthal) and two by 43. My layman’s reading of this is that the judges were far more skeptical of the county than of the plaintiffs, but they clearly found the 24-hour requirement to have a hearing or release a defendant questionable. If they want to modify that it’s probably not a big deal, but beyond that I hope they uphold the ruling. They’ll issue their opinion when they’re damn good and ready.

Posted in: Legal matters.

HFD and disaster preparedness

There’s a lot here to think about, and to do something about.

The Houston Fire Department’s limitations quickly became clear as Harvey’s floodwaters rose.

Just one high-water rescue vehicle. Decades-old evacuation boats. Sparse training for swift-water rescues. And limited staffing after an 11th-hour decision not to call in major reinforcements to face the catastrophic storm.

The department had been warned. Lethal flooding two years ago exposed shortcomings and prompted sweeping recommendations to improve future responses.

And yet, when firefighters rushed fearlessly into Harvey’s currents in late August, they were again hobbled by a lack of resources, old equipment and a shortage of manpower ready to go when the storm hit, according to a Chronicle review of internal reports and emails, and dozens of interviews with firefighters and other officials.

The review found a department – and a city – that failed to follow the hard-earned lessons of previous storms, even as one of the worst in U.S. history descended on the region.

“Civilians had to step up – which was a great thing – but that’s not their job,” one high-ranking fire official said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the public. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have what we needed.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who stepped in to lead the department in December, defended the response and commended his firefighters, who performed 7,000 rescues and answered more than 15,000 calls for help during the first five days of the storm.

But he acknowledged that Harvey exposed shortcomings in the department’s fleet and training.

“Harvey punched us in the mouth,” Peña said. “No municipality is ever going to have the number of resources to be able to respond to a catastrophic incident the size of Harvey. But we know the anticipated risk in this community. We know that the 500-year flood is going to come again next year … We don’t have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community.”

Critics, however, say the department’s response suffered from more than neglect.

“Anyone with common sense could see with relative certainty there was going to be an enormous rescue effort that was going to be required following the impact of Hurricane Harvey,” said Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “It’s expected a department would allocate enough resources – in terms of staffing alone – to make sure they’re capable of responding.”

There are a lot of reasons why HFD’s ability to deal with mass flooding events isn’t any more advanced now than it was a few years ago, before such things had become annual occurrences. You can come to your own conclusions about who shoulders how much of the responsibility for that. I would just point out that any effective solution to this is going to cost money. Equipment costs money. Training costs money. Firefighters who have better training can earn more money, if not here then elsewhere. We can and should review how HFD uses the resources it has now – as we know, most of the demands on the department are for emergency medical services and not for fire, and HFD has a track record of being profligate with overtime – but there’s only so far you can squeeze before you start displacing things you’d rather keep. If we want HFD to be better at responding to these events, we’re going to have to make an investment in them, and not just a one-time investment. That means we the voters are going to have to come to grips with the need to spend more money, or with the reality that we’re going to keep getting what we’re already paying for. If there are hard choices to be made by our leaders, we have to be prepared for what that means to us.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Interview with Robert Lundin

Robert Lundin

I have one more interview to bring you in HISD Trustee District VI, where longtime Trustee Greg Meyers stepped down last November and Holly Flynn Vilaseca was appointed to fill out the remainder of his term. Robert Lundin is a Rice graduate who has served as a bilingual 5th grade teacher and school support officer at HISD. In between those gigs, he opened YES College Preparatory School – Southwest, consulted on recruiting and training teachers in the UK, and taught at both the University of Saint Thomas and Rice. Here’s the interview:

You can see all the interviews I’ve done as well as information about candidates and races at my Election 2017 page.

Posted in: Election 2017.

You don’t have to attend those tax rate hearings now

They’re not a thing any more.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said he would withdraw a proposed property tax rate hike after Gov. Greg Abbott handed him a check for $50 million to help fund the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

That also likely means few public hearings on the proposed rate hike, which would have been the first from City Hall in two decades.

  • The first was held last Monday, and featured a few fireworks.
  • The second hearing remains scheduled for tonight at 6 p.m., since the governor’s check (which matched the $50 million Turner had intended to collect from raising taxes) was delivered too late to change the meeting time.
  • Council on Wednesday will consider cancelling the third hearing, which had been set for Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

Turner initially had announced plans to enact an 8.9 percent tax rate hike, noting that a voter-imposed cap on property tax collections allowed him to propose a one-year exemption in the event of a federally declared disaster. Such a hike would produce about $113 million in additional revenue.

[…]

Some council members opposed to the increase said they believed the mayor lacked the votes to pass it. And if it had passed — days before the start of early voting — many at City Hall believe the rate hike could have angered voters enough to threaten the city’s plans to issue $495 million in general obligation bonds in November, in addition to $1 billion in bonds tied to Turner’s landmark pension reform plan.

See here for the background. I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in the claims that the proposed tax rate hike didn’t have the votes to pass. None of that would have mattered until the day Council actually voted on it. Besides, the goal wasn’t raising the rate, that was just a means to an end. The goal was paying the bills that were coming due – trash removal, insurance deductible, and the next insurance premium. Council members would have been welcome to argue against those things, or to propose alternate ways of paying for them, at the meeting when a vote was scheduled, or any time before then. Now they don’t have to. If Mayor Turner is relieved to not have to push this through now, I daresay the Council members who didn’t want to oppose him on it are relieved, too.

Posted in: Uncategorized.

Lawsuit filed over untested rape kits

This could be a big deal.

A former Houston woman is suing the City of Houston and a long list of current and former mayors and police chiefs for failing to investigate a backlog of more than 6,000 untested rape kits, and not identifying her attacker as a man who had been in a national police database for decades.

In one of several cases brought by victims against officials around the country in recent years, the victim of a 2011 sexual assault in Houston claims in a federal civil rights lawsuit this week that her perpetrator could have been apprehended and prosecuted for earlier crimes if officials had kept on top of the massive backlog of DNA samples in the city’s possession.

DeJenay Beckwith, 35, who now lives in Milam County, contends city officials failed to pursue a serial offender in her case, or investigate rape kits for other victims, because they don’t take women or child victims seriously. She is seeking damages, saying city officials violated her rights to due process and equal protection, and officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

[…]

Houston tackled the backlog of rape kits in early 2013 under former Mayor Annise Parker and ex-Chief Charles McClelland, drawing on $4 million in federal grants to outsource DNA testing with private forensic labs. Parker led the initiative to remove the crime lab from HPD management in April 2014 – although it remains in the HPD headquarters building – after the creation of an independent city-funded lab now overseen by civilian forensic experts.

According to court documents, Beckwith met her assailant on April 2, 2011, when he pretended to be a mechanic and offered to fix her broken down car. He asked to come inside her Southwest Houston home for a glass of water.

According to the lawsuit, he proceeded to throw her to the floor, strike her repeatedly and rape her. She chased him on foot, and a neighbor joined the chase, but he escaped in his car.

A rape kit taken at Memorial Hermann Southwest as a result of her police report was taken to the city’s crime lab.

Beckwith’s lawyers say the kit went untested for five years. During that time, she got one phone call from a detective who wanted to know what she was doing wandering on Bissonnet when she met her assailant, implying she was a prostitute and saying, “These things happen.”

The detective discouraged her from filing a report, telling her it was unlikely the suspect would be caught, according to the lawsuit.

She next heard from Houston police in 2016, when they contacted her to say they tested the DNA and they had a suspect. She later learned the man’s name was David Lee Cooper. Cooper had prior sexual assault convictions, including one from 2002 involving minor child. His DNA had been in the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS and managed by the FBI, since 1991.

The details of what happened to Ms. Beckwith are awful and troubling, and if the account of what the detective told her is accurate, I hope he’s no longer in that job. It’s too late to do anything to help Ms. Beckwith in any meaningful way, but we sure can get to the bottom of why this all happened and take steps to make sure it never happens again. The Press and ThinkProgress have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Interview with Holly Flynn Vilaseca

Holly Flynn Vilaseca

We turn now to HISD District VI, where longtime Trustee Greg Meyers resigned last year. Holly Flynn Vilaseca was selected by the remaining Trustees to fill out the last year of Meyers’ term, and now she seeks election to a full term. The first member of her family to go to college, Vilaseca has degrees from the University of Michigan and Columbia. She was a bilingual pre-k and early childhood teacher for six years via Teach for America, and currently works as Chief Relationship Officer at thinkLaw, an organization that uses real-life legal cases to teach critical-thinking skills. Here’s the interview:

You can see all the interviews I’ve done as well as information about candidates and races at my Election 2017 page.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Trump nominates two to the Fifth Circuit

This is why Republicans put aside their doubts to vote for Trump, and it’s why they stick with him. This is the prize they kept their eyes on, and it’s paying off for them bigtime.

Don Willett

President Donald Trump on Thursday said he is nominating two Texans to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett and Dallas attorney James Ho.

“Both of these gentlemen, I think, will do an outstanding job,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said during a conference call with reporters.

They would need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Willett, a well-known Twitter user, has served on the state Supreme Court since 2005. During the 2016 presidential race, Trump had named Willett as a potential choice for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ho is the former solicitor general of Texas. He has also served as chief counsel for Cornyn.

[…]

Even after Thursday’s announcements, Trump has a host of vacancies left to fill in Texas. He has yet to fill two U.S. attorney positions, including the post in the Southern District, which is the busiest in the country. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s son Ryan Patrick is rumored to be the president’s choice for that post.

Trump also has six federal district court seats to fill, several of which have been classified as judicial emergencies. One of those seats has been open since 2011.

Neil Gorsuch gets all the attention as a tainted selection that resulted from extreme partisan obstruction, but don’t overlook all those district court and appellate court positions that have been open for years, with our two Senators refusing to allow any Obama nominations to be considered, let alone voted on. Willett and Ho are the beneficiaries of this from a professional standpoint, but one young and reliably conservative guy in a robe is as good as any other. This isn’t about qualifications – Willett and Ho are perfectly credible choices – it’s about opportunity, and about partisan cohesion. Don Willett and James Ho will be affecting public policy way longer than Donald Trump will. The Chron has more.

As I said, Willett and Ho are qualified to be judges – they’re not who I’d pick, but they fall within accepted norms for the job. Some nominees do not, but it’s going to take recognition of that in the right places to keep them out.

Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn raised fresh doubts Thursday about the White House nomination of assistant state Attorney General Jeff Mateer to be a federal judge in Texas.

Mateer, in a pair of speeches in 2015, reportedly referred to the rights of transgender children as part of “Satan’s plan” and defended the controversial practice of “conversion therapy” for gays.

Cornyn, commenting publicly for the first time since Mateer’s speeches were unearthed this month by CNN, said the speeches apparently were not disclosed to him as they should have been under a screening process set up by him and Sen. Ted Cruz.

“We requested that sort of information about speeches and the like on his application,” said Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. “And to my knowledge there was no information given about those, so it’s fair to say I was surprised.”

[…]

Cornyn said Thursday that he is reevaluating Mateer’s nomination in light of the undisclosed speeches as well as other public utterances.

“I am evaluating that information, and I understand there may be even addition information other than that which has previously been disclosed,” he said in a conference call with Texas reporters.

Cornyn, formerly a Texas Supreme Court Justice, said there should be no “religious test” for judges. “But it is important,” he added, “that all of our judges be people who can administer equal justice under the law and can separate their personal views from their duties as a judge.”

He added: “Because the information had not been previously disclosed, we were not able to have that kind of conversation with Mr. Mateer, so we’ve got some work to do.”

Ted Cruz, of course, has no such qualms, because he’s Ted Cruz. Note that Cornyn has left himself a lot of wiggle room here. His primary concern here is that Mateer may have more such, let’s say “intemperate”, remarks in his past that he hasn’t told the likes of Cornyn about. Big John can handle a little gay-bashing, but he doesn’t like to be surprised. As long as Mateer makes a few perfunctory statements about how of course he believes in equal justice for all and would never ever ever treat anyone unfairly in his courtroom, and as long as no more embarrassing video turns up, Cornyn will be happy to support him. Eyes on the prize, you know.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

DA’s office ends trace case prosecutions

Good.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has stopped prosecuting thousands of so-called trace drug cases, which typically stem from glass pipes seized from users containing little more than residue of crack cocaine, officials said Thursday.

The recent change means it is not prosecuted at all, unless there are extenuating circumstances said Tom Berg, First Assistant District Attorney. Houston police officials have given the new policy their approval, but with an important caveat.

“We want to go after people who are a real danger to the community, violent against people, violent against property,” Berg said. “It’s a smarter practice that everybody agreed to go forward on without a great deal of controversy.”

Berg said several factors combined to push the policy change, including limited resources, a raft of exonerations in recent years because of erroneous field tests and the rise of lethal drugs. He singled out fentanyl, a chemical which is 100 times more powerful than heroin and is used to cheaply spike more expensive drugs.

“Fentanyl and carfentanil – horrible substances – potentially fatal substances on contact,” he said. “Inadvertent contact, in the context of trying to scrape up some crud out of carpet in a car, could have catastrophic effects on the officers. They could be inhaling it without knowing it.”

[…]

The change is being eyed with cautious optimism by police representatives who had previously argued against the change.

“We’re not opposed to it as long as the DA is going to hammer hard these (burglary of motor vehicle) suspects who are crackheads anyway,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “These are the ‘trace case’ people, that’s who they are. They’re the people who are breaking into cars to steal change.”

The police union has argued that arresting people for drug possession because of residue on paraphernalia keeps them from burglarizing cars, homes and businesses.

In the past, much less than a gram of the illegal drug – often just scrapings – could be prosecuted as a felony adding 2,000 to 4,000 people a year to Houston’s crowded dockets.

Hunt said the district attorney’s office promised to vigorously prosecute car burglars in exchange for police support of the policy.

“If we start getting cases where we have BMV (burglary of a motor vehicle) suspects and it’s a crackhead with a pipe on them and that person gets one or two days in jail, then it’s a serious problem and they’re not living up to the deal,” Hunt said.

This was indeed a campaign promise of Ogg’s, and it had been the policy under Pat Lykos, before Devon Anderson put a stop to it. Getting buy in from the police union, however tentatively, is a big deal since they were a big part of the reason why it was so contentious under Lykos. Refocusing on property crimes is also a good move, as those offenses are seldom punished now and affect a lot of people in a tangible way. All in all, a big win. Let’s hope the follow-through is as successful. The Press has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Weekend link dump for October 1

Sabrina, the Gritty Reboot, next on The CW.

“For the first time in over 60 years, Brigham Young University will sell caffeinated soft drinks on campus.”

“Artificial Colors are Back in Trix Because Nobody Liked Natural Ingredients”.

Equifax sends an email to people affected by their data breach with instructions for how to protect themselves, succeeds in making everyone think it’s a phishing scam. Good Lord, these people are idiots.

BUT HER EMAILS!!!

“In fact, the weaponization of betrayed military sacrifice is a common, almost universal feature of rightist political movements.”

There are many reasons why paying minor league baseball players a living wage is a good idea.

“After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

“It’s impossible not to be struck by Trump’s selective patriotism. It drives him to curse at black football players but leaves him struggling to create false equivalence between Nazis and anti-Fascists in Charlottesville. It inspires a barely containable contempt for Muslims and immigrants but leaves him mute in the face of Russian election intervention. He cannot tolerate the dissent against literal flag-waving but screams indignation at the thought of removing monuments to the Confederacy, which attempted to revoke the authority symbolized by that same flag.”

“If we wish to get partisan politics out of sports dominated by black athletes, perhaps we should try to make support for reversing racial inequities a nonpartisan issue.”

The “Six Million Dollar Man Christmas Album”. How did I not have this as a kid?

“So it’s time for Jubilee. Cancel [Puerto Rico’s] debt. Erase it from the books.”

“The engagement is announced between Kit, the younger son of David and Deborah Harington of Worcestershire, and Rose, middle child of Sebastian and Candy Leslie of Aberdeenshire.”

RIP, Hugh Hefner, who I’m sure you know. See here for many tweets by famous people about him, and this article from 2010 about why he is considered a civil rights icon.

“[Aaron] Judge is a brobdingnagian big boy from beneath the Earth’s crust, and when he plays the Astros, [Jose] Altuve is forced to orbit around him. It’s Hank Pym vs. Hank Pym, and the real winner is us.”

“Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson donated his first game check to three women who work in the NRG Stadium cafeteria and who were especially affected by the flooding from Hurricane Harvey.”

“9 ways Trump’s tax plan is a gift to the rich, including himself”.

Very best wishes to Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

RIP, Monty Hall, game show host and creator of Let’s Make A Deal.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Pasadena will settle voting rights case

Excellent news.

Pasadena Mayor Jeff Wagner on Friday asked the City Council to settle a voting rights lawsuit that led to national portrayals of the Houston suburb as an example of efforts to suppress Latino voting rights.

The proposed settlement with Latino residents who sued the city in 2014 over a new City Council district system calls for the city to pay $900,000 for the plaintiffs’ legal fees and $197,341 for court costs. The item will be on Tuesday’s City Council agenda.

“While I strongly believe that the city did not violate the Voting Rights Act or adopt a discriminatory election system,” Wagner said in a statement, “I think it’s in the best interest of the city to get this suit behind us.”

[…]

Approval of the settlement would end the city’s appeal of Rosenthal’s January ruling that the new council system intentionally diluted Latino voting strength. Voters approved the new system, which added two at-large council positions and removed two district seats, in a 2013 charter change election initiated by the former mayor.

Rosenthal ordered the city to use the previous system of eight district positions in the city elections last May. The city has paid more than $2 million to attorneys for the trial and appeal.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a big decision to make – Pasadena could possibly have prevailed in the lawsuit, in which case they would not have owed the plaintiffs’ attorneys or the courts any money. That came at significant risk, as they would have had to spend a lot more on their own attorneys to see this all the way through, and would have owed a lot more if they had lost in the end. And then there was the whole matter of justice, which didn’t mean anything to the last Mayor but which thankfully seems to mean something to this one. All in all, this was very much the right thing to do. Council still has to approve it, but that should not be a problem. Well done, Mayor Wagner. Rick Hasen has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

So were we targeted by Russian hackers or not?

Depends who you ask, I guess.

A top state official is pushing back against the federal government’s claim that Texas was among states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

“At no point were any election-related systems, software, or information compromised by malicious cyber actors,” Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security said the election infrastructure of 21 states, including Texas, was targeted by Russian hackers. Being targeted does not mean that votes were changed but that a system was scanned.

Shortly after the announcement, officials in California and Wisconsin said they’d received contradictory information from the department that suggested they’d been incorrectly included on that list.

Pablos, in his letter, made a similar claim and asked the department to “correct its erroneous notification” that the state agency’s website had been the target of malicious hackers. Pablos argued that federal officials had based their assessment on “incorrect information” and that an investigation by his office with the state’s Department of Information Resources had found no such targeting.

“In order to restore public confidence in the integrity of our elections systems, it is imperative for DHS to further clarify the information provided,” the letter says. “Our office understands that you have provided similar clarification to election officials in Wisconsin and California. We respectfully request you provide the same clarification to the State of Texas.”

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman told Reuters Thursday that “additional information and clarity” had been provided to several states, and that the department stood by its assessment “that Internet-connected networks in 21 states were the target of Russian government cyber actors seeking vulnerabilities and access to U.S. election infrastructure.”

See here for the background. I’d need to see the specifics before I can make a judgment here. Saying the SOS systems weren’t “compromised” isn’t a contradiction of what was said by Homeland Security, which merely said the SOS website had been “scanned and probed”. That’s basically background noise on the Internet, though depending on the source of the probe it can be of interest. It would be nice for everyone to get their story straight so we know for sure who is claiming what.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

We’re going to need another jury building

Good luck with that.

Harris County is unlikely to repair Hurricane Harvey flood damage to the six-year-old, $13 million jury Assembly Building that sits beneath a park in downtown Houston’s courthouse square near Buffalo Bayou, County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday.

While no official action has been taken, the county will likely find a replacement facility that is not underground, Emmett said after Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting.

“We’ll build another one somewhere, and I doubt if we’ll put it underground next time,” Emmett said. “That’s not my decision yet, but we don’t have basements in Houston for a reason.”

He characterized it as a “complete replacement of the Jury Assembly Building.”

“I don’t think there will be a re-do of that building,” he said.

[…]

When it was built in 2011, the architect said they reviewed 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, which flooded the tunnels. They built the new jury center’s above-ground portion well above the historic high-water mark.

The above-ground part of the building is a glass structure the size of a bus covering an atrium staircase leading down to the auditoriums. The almost completely glass structure meant natural light poured into the subterranean facility.

To protect from rising floodwaters, the lower level and related tunnels were equipped with flood doors the size of cars.

The floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey went well over the underground building, apparently crashing out windows along the ground and flooding the building from the roof. It is still unclear if the massive submarine doors worked. If they did, they created a giant watertight bowl next to the bayou.

If we learned from TS Allison, then what happened here? If the answer is, “we just never anticipated a storm as big as Harvey”, then I guess this was an expensive lesson. Good luck figuring out what to do next. In the meantime, jury service is suspended through October 16.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina, Local politics.

Saturday video break: Ship of Fools

I give you Bob Seger and his amazing 70’s-era hair:

If we must have a musician from Michigan run for the US Senate, shouldn’t it by right be Bob Seger? I’m pretty sure it should. A different song by this name is a Grateful Dead standard, and while I don’t have that in my library, I do have Elvis Costello’s cover of it:

I found a video of him doing this live at Radio City Music Hall that was great, but annoyingly it cut off about halfway through. So this is the best I can do.

Posted in: Music.

Houston gets state recovery funds, property tax rate hike shelved

Was that so hard? I ask you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said he would withdraw a proposed property tax rate hike after Gov. Greg Abbott handed him a check for $50 million to help fund the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

The exchange came as the mayor and governor held a joint City Hall news conference, a sharp departure from the last several days when the pair had traded letters and criticism over each other’s Harvey response.

Turner had tried to pin his proposed tax hike on the state’s unwillingness to tap its $10 billion savings account, while state officials viewed the city as seeking a blank check rather than targeting specific emergency funds in the state budget.

Ultimately, Abbott said he would draw upon a disaster fund within the discretion of his office, producing the $50 million amount Turner had intended to collect from residents’ property taxes.

See here and here for the background. The Trib adds some details.

The money, which comes from the $100 million disaster relief fund appropriated to Abbott’s office during the last legislative session, will go toward immediate relief needs such as reconstruction, Abbott and Turner said at a joint news conference in Houston. Abbott said long-term recovery and preventive measures would be funded by the federal government and the state’s $10 billion savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, but not until exact costs for recovery are known.

“The time to use the thrust of the Rainy Day Fund is when the expenses are known,” Abbott said. “So the members of the Legislature know how best to use the Rainy Day Fund.”

[…]

During the Friday news conference, Abbott said there “is a possibility for a special session” to allocate funds for recovery and prevention once those costs are better known.

“Now that the hurricane winds are calm … it’s time that we begin the process of rebuilding Texas, and that’s a tall task,” Abbott said. “This is what the state of Texas is for … We’re proud to be here wearing the same jersey working for the same team.”

Still, Abbott said the $10 billion Rainy Day Fund would only be able to cover a “fraction of the costs” of longer term recovery and prevention. Turner added that he and Abbott have discussed future preventative measures such as a third reservoir for flood waters, which could cost up to $400 million, and expanding bayous, which could cost $311 million. The two said they have also discussed a “coastal spine” — a protective seawall and floodgate system — along the coast, which Turner estimated to be a roughly $12 billion project.

So the money ultimately came from a funding source Abbott controlled, not the Rainy Day Fund, though as noted there may be some use of that later on. I don’t care what the provenance of the money is, but I do wonder why this was handled so clumsily by Abbott. Was this always what he intended to do but just never could explain it lucidly, or was this where he ended up after realizing how ridiculous he looked? I have no idea. That said, one must give credit where it is due, so kudos to Abbott for eventually figuring this out and doing the right thing. Even bigger kudos to Mayor Turner for getting the job done. This is what we elected him for.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

What should the people living near the dams have known?

More than they were told, is what they’re saying.

A federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claims government officials knew for years that water impounded behind Addicks and Barker dams would flood thousands of suburban homes during an extreme storm – and yet did nothing to advise or compensate property owners.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Christina Micu, a homeowner in the Canyon Gate neighborhood in Cinco Ranch, a subdivision that essentially became part of the Barker Reservoir during Harvey. The case is pending in the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Canyon Gate was inundated for more than a week when the Army Corps allowed water impounded behind the dams, called the “flood pool,” to reach record size as more than 50 inches of rain fell between August 25 and 29th.

The suit was filed as a class action on behalf of everyone who owns property that flooded behind both dams. Though other lawsuits have been filed on behalf of those whose properties were flooded by dam releases, this is the first case filed on behalf of those whose property flooded directly from what engineers call “reservoir pools” or “flood pools.”

More than 30,000 people own property and more than 140,000 people live in areas that Harris and Fort Bend county officials have identified as subject to inundation from those flood pools, according to a Chronicle analysis of evacuation orders issued during Harvey.

There’s already one lawsuit over the issue of compensation for the damages caused by the dam releases – basically, that’s a takings claim, like when eminent domain is used. This one has that element and more in it, and there’s still more where those came from.

In the weeks since the storm, a slate of high-powered law firms have coordinated to recruit as many as 10,000 plaintiffs in Houston. Other lawyers — particularly those who specialize in eminent domain and environmental law — are operating independently. Most of them are pursuing cases for downstream residents like Pledger who live along Buffalo Bayou and were impacted by the Army Corps’ controlled releases.

On a recent weeknight, Pledger and dozens of other flood victims packed into a private meeting room at a local Mexican food restaurant to consider a pitch from yet another legal firm over complimentary fajitas. Other than flooding during Harvey — most for the first time — the residents all had one thing in common: They live downstream of two federally owned reservoirs that got so full during the unrelenting rainstorm that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to release an unprecedented amount of accumulated water into a bayou that snakes through their neighborhoods.

[…]

All told, lawyers and legal experts say the spate of lawsuits may become one of the largest inverse condemnation-related legal challenges in U.S. history, driven in part by the high value of the impacted homes, which are all on Houston’s wealthier west side.

But they are mixed in their forecasts of how the cases might play out. Many say the property owners have little chance of winning, citing a variety of state and federal legal opinions; others say property owners have a fighting chance, although many admit it’s not a slam dunk.

They all agree on one thing: It will take years and untold millions of dollars to litigate.

“Generally speaking, I think it’s easy to say the government will win,” said New York University law professor Richard Epstein, who has been called the nation’s leading academic expert on eminent domain and takings law. But, he added, “There’s nothing about this which is straightforward or simple.”

If there are still legal battles being fought over this ten years from now, I won’t be surprised. Neither will I be surprised if there are a flurry of bills in the next legislative session to expand or abridge the rights of those who are suing. Get settled in for the long haul, we’ll be watching this for awhile.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina, Legal matters.

Harris County files lawsuit against Arkema

More trouble for that nasty and troublesome chemical plant.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized the county attorney to file a lawsuit against Arkema over its struggles to manage stores of hazardous chemicals during Hurricane Harvey.

The county’s Pollution Control Services Department found serious violations of the Texas Clean Air Act by Arkema, County attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. The county will try to recover the costs from responding to the crisis at the company’s Crosby plant. It will ask the court to review Arkema’s emergency preparedness plan and its environmental practices. The commissioners made the decision to approve the suit as part of its agenda wide unanimous vote.

“We’ve shown if you’re a bad actor, we’ll hold you accountable,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman.

[…]

Arkema lost control of its Crosby facility after floodwaters cut the power and wiped out its back up generators. With the power out and cooling systems failing, volatile organic peroxides exploded multiple times over a week, producing towering pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke.

A 1.5 mile evacuation zone was set up when government officials got access to the company’s chemical inventories. About 300 homes were evacuated during the crisis.

“During the height of this storm event, we had to have literally dozens of first responders tied up at this facility when they could have been in other areas of the county,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the county attorney’s environmental group.

Arkema’s claims that there was no way to anticipate six feet of water inundating the Crosby plant isn’t believable, Owens said. “We all knew for a week that we might get up to 50 inches of rain,” he said. ,” Owens said. “That’s not true. We all knew it was coming.”

See here for some background. Basically, the allegations in this lawsuit and the one filed by first responders are that this plant was woefully inadequate on safety measures, and they covered up their inadequacies as much as they could, which put residents and those first responders in needless danger. I would very much like to see them held responsible for this.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina, Legal matters.

Huffman gets a Republican challenger

This is definitely one to watch.

Kristin Tassin

Kristin Tassin, the president of the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees, is running against state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, in the 2018 GOP primary.

“I’m officially running,” Tassin told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “The final decision really came down to the fact that the state Legislature is just not getting the job done on many issues that are important to families in Texas.”

Tassin citied issues including property tax reform and public education. “I feel like we need somebody in the Legislature who’s going to stand up for those things and bring real solutions and not be afraid to stand up to special interests,” she said.

Tassin has been an outspoken advocate for public education, penning a number of op-eds that have taken aim at the Senate — and Huffman — for how they have approached the issue. In one of those op-eds, Tassin took Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to task for his derisive use of the term “educrats.” 

“Most of us are parents, many with conservative views and values, who ran for the school board or got involved in our school districts in order to improve education and make a difference for the children in our communities and across the state of Texas,” Tassin said.

In the interview, Tassin said Huffman has “really been no friend to education,” pointing to Huffman’s vote during the regular session paving the way for a private school tuition subsidy bill to reach the floor. Huffman was among three Republicans who ultimately voted against the bill, but Tassin has argued the legislation would have never been able to make it to the floor without Huffman’s initial sign-off.

I’m Team Fran Watson all the way, but Kristin Tassin would be an upgrade over Joan Huffman. Huffman isn’t a freak like Bob Hall or Don Huffines, but she is a reliable vote for Dan Patrick, and anything that loosens Patrick’s grip on power is a good thing. We’ve seen plenty of wingnut challenges to establishment Republican incumbents before, but we’ve not seen a serious (much less successful) challenge by a more moderate R to a conservative incumbent. Mainstreamers have withstood challenges and they’ve won their share of open seat battles, but this is something new. I will be very interested to see who lines up behind whom in this race. I don’t expect any establishment Republican support for Tassin – that’s the way things are when an incumbent who is otherwise in good standing gets a primary challenger – but there’s plenty of room for outsiders to support her. Surely pro-education groups like Parent PAC will have to take a look at this race, and of course she can demonstrate strength in grassroots fundraising. If that happens, this could be a fascinating race. The odds are against Tassin, but the potential for shockwaves is real, and it would be amazing. I wish Tassin all the best.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Friday random ten: Big talker, part 1

This list is so big it will take three weeks to get through it.

1. Big Balls – AC/DC
2. Big Bang Theory Theme – Barenaked Ladies
3. Big Bangs, Black Holes, Meteorites – Love Is All
4. Big Blue Sky – Sandra McCracken
5. Big Bottom – Hayseed Dixie
6. The Big Country – Magic Love Bug
7. Big Daddy Of The All – John Mellencamp
8. Big Fellah – Black 47
9. Big Generator – Yes
10. Big Tex’s Girl – Austin Lounge Lizards

Yes, the theme song to The Big Bang Theory was written and performed by the Barenaked Ladies. And honestly, Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” deserves to be interpreted as a country song. It’s all about the mud flaps.

Posted in: Music.

Abbott says he wants a list from Turner

A list of funding priorities, he says. Because he’s passive like that.

Answering Houston’s latest complaints over funding for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday told Mayor Sylvester Turner the state can step up with more money as soon as the city gets a list of its top needs to the state.

Let’s meet quickly, Abbott said, as the deadline for an initial wave of federal funding is Friday.

After some verbal back-and-forth between the two leaders in recent days over funding for debris removal among other costs, Abbott wrote a four-page letter to Turner late Tuesday outlining seven different federal programs under which Houston will qualify for additional hurricane relief — from small-business disaster loans to special unemployment assistance to funding to help with food and housing needs.

[…]

“The Economic Stabilization Fund (the official name of the Rainy Day Fund) is a limited resource, and so it is imperative we understand the statewide financial situation before draining the fund only to learn of more financial obligations,” Abbott said in his letter.

“As of now it would be impossible to determine the highest and best use of ESF, because we do not yet know the extent of the losses . . . Texas should first use the full array of state financial resources and federal resources already available already available to us to respond to our current needs.

“Those tools should sufficient to respond to our needs, and Texans’ needs, until the next (legislative) session at which time a supplemental budget can be passed to pay for the expenses Texas has incurred. That supplemental budget will almost assuredly require using money from the Rainy Day Fund.”

See here for the background. I have no idea if Abbott felt a sensation akin to “shame” or “political pressure”, or if this story follows on the heels of the other one simply because there was information made available subsequently that added to the original picture. Be that as may, to address the substance of Abbott’s letter, let me first point you to this story in the Press:

Turner did give Abbott at least three specific examples of how Houston could use the Rainy Day Fund money in his letter Monday. For one, debris removal is projected to cost Houston $25 million, since FEMA is picking up 90 percent of the projected $250 debris removal tab. Turner has said structural damage to city buildings is now in the ballpark of $175 million — but meanwhile, the city’s flood insurance plan capped out at $100 million. In order to extend the plan through April 2018, so that the city still has flood insurance should another tropical storm make landfall this year, that’ll cost $10 million. The city must also pay a $15 million insurance deductible to recover on damages.

The mayor’s spokesman, Alan Bernstein, said that if the state were to hand over the $50 million to cover these insurance and debris removal costs, that is all the city is asking for and there will be no need to raise taxes.

$50 million is less than half of a percent of the total fund.

Is that list-y enough for you, Greg? Author Megan Flynn did a nice job of talking to some fiscal conservative types, none of whom could think of a good reason not to tap into the Rainy Day Fund for this. Note also that allocating $50 million from the $10 billion fund would “drain” it in the same way that spending a nickel on a piece of gum would “drain” a $10 bill.

The Chron editorial board, which reaches back to the 70s for a good analogy, also has a few minor corrections for our only Governor.

The governor rejected Turner’s request. He and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, another Houstonian, have said the mayor can use funds held by Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones for Harvey cleanup and recovery efforts. They’re mistaken. TIRZ bond funds are legally restricted to the use for which they were issued.

The governor has said the mayor’s request is unprecedented. Again, he’s mistaken. In 2013, the Legislature tapped into the Rainy Day Fund to help the Bastrop area recover from devastating wildfires. Bastrop County residents will tell you those fires were bad, but they didn’t cause damage expected to top $150 billion. That’s the toll Harvey wrought.

The governor has said the state has given Houston money. Again, he’s mistaken. The money that’s come our way is FEMA money destined for Houston and passed through the state, which keeps more than 3 percent for administrative costs. No state money has been allocated to the city for Harvey recovery.

Other than the folly of calling either Abbott of Patrick a “Houstonian” – Abbott has lived in Austin for all 20+ years of his political career, while Patrick is a “Houstonian” in the way all rich old white guys in the far flung master-planned communities and who think all cities are cesspools of crime and corruption because they don’t have enough rich old white guys like them living in them – I agree. What Abbott wants more than anything is a pretext to not do anything. If these falsehoods don’t work, I’m sure he’ll have others at the ready. The Observer has more.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Can our dams handle the load?

Pretty important question, wouldn’t you say?

The state climatologist is warning that Texas dams will become less able to withstand extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, which are expected to occur more frequently as the earth’s atmosphere and oceans warm in coming years.

Dams are designed with a wide margin of safety and are meant to withstand extreme, worst-case scenarios that are never expected to happen. But what stunned state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon and other weather experts was that Harvey exceeded or matched the preposterous amounts of rainfall that dams in Texas are built to hold back.

“The probable maximum precipitation amount should never be reached,” said Tye Parzybok, the chief meteorologist at MetStat, a Colorado-based company that helped Texas calculate the rainfall amounts. “It should never get close to it.”

After Harvey, dam regulators will have to recalculate the maximum amount of water that dams should be capable of holding back, said Nielsen-Gammon. Climate change means that powerful storms are bringing vastly more rain than they did a century ago, he said.

“I’m not saying they’re unsafe,” said Nielsen-Gammon of Texas’ dams. “They will be less safe than they were designed to be.”

On the one hand, Harvey was an extremely unlikely event; by some estimates, a one in 500,000 year event. Nobody plans for that, and for good reason. On the other hand, if it could happen once it could happen again, and the consequences of a dam failure would be catastrophic. Even before Harvey, it was the case that the capacity of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs was declining due to the buildup of dirt and sediment over the years. Surely this is something that can be addressed.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, is calling for the replacement of the aging Addicks and Barker dams that spilled over during Hurricane Harvey.

“As we recover and rebuild from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, it is crucial that we also learn from this catastrophic storm and prepare for the next one,” she said in a statement. “A critical takeaway is that our infrastructure is ill-prepared for the ferocity of thousand-year weather events and record-breaking rainfall.”

[…]

Jackson Lee, a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, is pushing provisions in the Energy and Water Appropriations Act that would provide $3 million to fund the Army Corps of Engineers’ Houston Regional Watershed Assessment Flood Risk Management Feasibility study, as well as $100 million for flood control infrastructure.

Seems like a reasonable approach to take. What do other members of Congress that represent the Houston area, as well as our two Senators, think of this? Before you answer that, consider this:

“Addicks and Barker were not designed to impound large pools behind them for an extended period of time,” an Army Corps official wrote in a 2011 email, which was made public through a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against the Corps over a road project near the reservoirs. “These larger and longer lasting pools … [are] increasing the threat to both dams.”

Another Corps document, this one from 2010, shows that the agency was using terms like “risk of catastrophic failure” for the dams for flood events much smaller than what Houston experienced during Harvey.

That 2010 “interim reservoir control action plan” sets what it calls “maximum pool” levels for Addicks and Barker at elevations well under 100 feet, levels that could be expected during a 25-year storm — which has a 4 percent chance of occurring in any given year. Such a storm is about 30 times smaller than the rains generated by Harvey.

“The purpose of this … is to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure by [releasing water from the dams] quicker and increasing embankment surveillance,” the document says, adding that at 25-year levels, the dams “need to get additional attention.”

The document, which also became part of the 2011 Sierra Club lawsuit against the Army Corps, doesn’t specify what the true risk of dam failure might be at such levels. It also doesn’t say what exact actions the Army Corps would take when water reached that point.

[…]

“I think that the documents, and I think that the issues, are clear,” said Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental lawyer who filed the Sierra Club lawsuit. “The consequences of failure are horrific, and it would be truly frightening to the public if they really knew what the worst-case scenario looked like.”

Blackburn said the failure of the Army Corps to make the 2010 document public is just one example of the agency’s hesitance to address the risk of a dam breach.

“I think they have not wanted to have an honest conversation about it, for some reason.”

Matthew Zeve, the Harris County Flood Control District’s director of operations, said he had not seen the 2010 document before the Tribune sent him a copy. But he said he didn’t think the document expressed concern about the dams actually failing at such low water levels but rather indicated a “trigger” for when the agency should be continuously monitoring the dams and doing whatever it can to diminish risk.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, we think it’s going to fail,’” he said, stressing that he was not speaking for the Corps but offering his personal interpretation of the document.

Yeah, that’s not very reassuring. Let’s start investing in better flood mitigation infrastructure, shall we?

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.