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Tesla makes its pitch

It’s a start.

At a packed committee hearing Monday evening, advocates for Tesla Motors told a panel of Texas House members that it was time to bring state car sales laws into the 21st century and allow the company to sell its luxury electric vehicles in Texas.

“The future is here,” said state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, author of a bill that would allow Tesla to operate up to 12 stores in Texas. “The way in which we buy and sell goods is changing and we must adapt.”

The California-based company builds cars and sells them directly to consumers, bypassing car dealerships — a business model prohibited by Texas law. Tesla currently operates three “galleries” in Austin, Dallas and Houston, but employees there are barred from normal dealership activities like discussing prices or offering test-drives.

Rodriguez told the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee that innovative technology companies like Tesla cannot succeed under the current system. His legislation, House Bill 1653, is similar to deals the company has struck in other states like New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

[…]

Opponents pushed back against Rodriguez’s bill on Monday, arguing that it creates two separate systems for car sales — one for Tesla and one for everyone else.

“Everyone should play by the same rules,” said Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business.

“It’s a solution looking for a problem. Tesla’s problems are self-imposed,” said Carroll Smith, who represents Texas on the National Automobile Dealers Association board in Washington, D.C.

See here for the background. I’ve said before that I support allowing Tesla into Texas, and that it wasn’t them that was asking for special treatment, but according to RG Ratcliffe, that’s not exactly true.

First, understand that this is not a fight over whether a car or truck can be sold over the Internet. That already happens through dealerships across the state. Go online, look at the dealer’s inventory and make a purchase.

Second, know this bill is not really about bringing free markets to Texas retail sales of new autos by busting the monopoly of licensed franchise dealers. House Bill 1653 would exempt manufacturers such as Tesla from having to sell through a state licensed franchise dealership, but the manufacturer would be limited to having a dozen or fewer sales locations in the state. Limiting the number of manufacturer dealerships just gives Tesla a competitive advantage over the giant motor companies of Detroit while trying to be unthreatening to the majority of Texas dealerships. Such a carve-out for Tesla is not exactly about bringing consumer choice to Texas, even if Tesla In Texas tries to claim otherwise.

[…]

Whether the Legislature carves out an exception for Tesal or not, this debate is no more about free markets than was the Candy Bin Bill that I once covered.

Once upon a time, bulk sales of beans and grains and candy were found just in health food stores for hippies, not the upscale groceries of today. Only two companies delivered food to the consumer in bulk. One used gravity shoots that dropped product directly into the consumer’s paper bag. The other used bins and scoops for the consumer to measure out how much product they wanted.

The gravity dealer pushed legislation that banned bins and scoops as health code violations. Imagine, their lobbyists said, a plumber coming from auguring out a toilet drain and sticking his unwashed hands into the bin to scoop up food. Ugh! Gross!

The bin dealer countered by claiming the gravity shoots should be outlawed because they were anti-consumer – get too much product and you have to buy it anyway because there is no way to return the excess to the bin. Let the consumer have freedom of choice!

In the end, a compromise piece of legislation passed giving the health department the power to regulate bulk food sales, no matter how it is delivered. Think of the auto dealers as the gravity shoot dealers and Tesla as the bin and scoop. They both want to be regulated, just to their own advantage.

Read the whole thing, it’s a great overview. I don’t get the licensed franchise dealership model, just as I don’t get the three-tier distribution system for beer. It’s great for those who get to participate in it, but it’s hardly a “free market” and it doesn’t do anything for the customers. I say we should let Tesla sell its cars the way it wants to, but that doesn’t mean they should be the only ones. If Ford or Toyota or whoever wants to set up their own shops to sell their cars directly to the public, I don’t see the problem with that. Last I checked, other manufacturers in other industries can do this (do the words “Apple Store” ring a bell?) and the republic remains on its feet. I understand why TADA wants to maintain the status quo, and I understand why Tesla is seeking this limited entrance, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way things ought to be.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Our corporate allies

Whatever else you may think, they represent our best chance to beat back anti-LGBT legislation this session.

With more than 20 anti-LGBT bills pending in the Texas Legislature, a coalition of major employers in the state — including Dell, Samsung and Southwest Airlines — is making the business case for fair treatment of gay, bisexual and transgender people.

More than 50 businesses have joined the coalition, called Texas Competes, by signing a pledge saying LGBT inclusion is essential to maintaining the Texas brand, attracting top talent and new companies to the state, and supporting a healthy tourism industry.

The full list of businesses, which includes 13 from the Fortune 500, will be unveiled Tuesday at a press conference in Austin featuring representatives from the Texas Association of Business, South By Southwest and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Texas Competes spokesman James Shackelford said the coalition won’t take positions on specific legislation and that the effort has been in the works for months, long before anti-LGBT religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas sparked historic backlash from the corporate sector.

“But obviously the timing, when it’s launching and when we’re going public with it, is important,” Shackelford told the Observer.

As Texas Competes says in its About page, they’re not a grassroots or lobbying organization, and they won’t endorse specific bills. They’re here to make a straight-up economic case for embracing equality. Maybe that’s not your preferred line of reasoning, but if it keeps a few legislators from voting Yes on some of those hateful bills, it’s all for the good. As I said before regarding the Texas Association of Business, which is lobbying against bad anti-LGBT bills, we can take advantage of this alignment while still keeping our eyes on the ball. We’d be crazy not to gather all the allies we can get for this.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Friday random ten: Parenthetically speaking, part 11

More great parentheticals coming right at you.

1. Remember (Walking In The Sand) – Aerosmith
2. Right Next Door (Because Of Me) – Robert Cray
3. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) – Bruce Springsteen
4. S.I.M.P. (Squirrels In My Pants) – 2 Guys N The Parque
5. Set Me Free (Rosa Lee) – Los Lobos
6. (She’s) Sexy & 17 – Stray Cats
7. Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours) – Stevie Wonder
8. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – Beyonce
9. So Long Mom (A Song For World War III) – Tom Lehrer
10. Star (Of The County Down) – Enter The Haggis!

Song #4 is of course a Phineas and Ferb song. You’re not familiar with Phineas and Ferb? Maybe this will help you get acquainted:

There’s an extended version here, because of course there is. We’re big P&F fans around here. Spend an hour or so searching the Disney Channel on YouTube for Phineas and Ferb videos, it’ll be well worth your time. The rest of the songs above are pretty good, too.

Posted in: Music.

Mayor Parker pressures Uber

Good.

Uber

After two weeks of rising tensions between the city and the ride-sharing service Uber, Mayor Annise Parker on Wednesday warned the company it risks losing the right to operate in Houston unless it submits a plan to bring its drivers into compliance with city regulations.

Parker’s message, conveyed in a letter she distributed to reporters, was her most aggressive step yet in an effort to ensure that the company, which has clashed with state and local regulators across the country, complies with city rules intended to protect its customers.

“What I want is for them to come in and I want a count of how many people are on their app as drivers and match those names and driver’s licenses with the ones who have registered, and I want everybody to come into compliance,” Parker said. “It’s that simple.”

Parker released a letter to Uber’s Texas manager, Chris Nakutis, demanding the company submit a detailed plan by Friday to bring drivers operating without city permits into compliance. Otherwise, the letter says, Uber could risk “further steps toward revocation” of its permit to operate as a so-called Transportation Network Company.

[…]

Uber officials have indicated the city’s process is cumbersome for the drivers, many of whom drive part-time. The city’s license requires an in-person vehicle inspection, and drivers must obtain their warrant history from the municipal courthouse.

Parker on Wednesday rejected many of the company’s arguments.

“Uber likes to pretend that if there are drivers operating without local permits that it’s either beyond their control, which is patently absurd, or it’s because there’s some fault on the part of the city in terms of the permitting process,” Parker said. “You can come in and in a day take care of everything.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the letter Mayor Parker sent is here. Uber has been a bad actor for awhile now. The fact that they and Lyft were operating in Houston prior to Council updating the vehicles for hire ordinance, which is something they have done in numerous other cities, was a big part of the argument against letting them in under anything but taxi-like regulations. I don’t agree with this. I continue to believe that the transportation network company idea is a good one, one for which there is clearly a lot of demand, and I don’t think it makes any sense for cities to pretend that they don’t exist. It’s unfortunate that Uber appears to be incapable of playing by the rules, and I’m not sure what it will take to change that, given that the main weapon against them is punishing the drivers that don’t actually work for them. This is where the Legislature could have a positive effect if they cared about that sort of thing, but in the absence of that I think this is the right approach to take. If this doesn’t make them take background checks more seriously, then go ahead and rescind their ability to get their drivers permitted and see what happens. Hopefully a little pain in their bottom line will make them come around.

Posted in: Local politics.

Mostly positive reviews for the Aycock school finance plan

So far, so good.

Jimmie Don Aycock

A plan from a top House lawmaker to overhaul the state’s public education funding system received largely favorable reviews from school districts during a marathon legislative hearing that ended late Tuesday night.

“While this bill, some consider it not to be perfect, for us fortunately it is a significant step in the right direction,” Houston Independent School District Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones said during a meeting of the House Committee on Public Education.

Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has argued since the legislative session began that lawmakers shouldn’t wait for the outcome of a school finance lawsuit to consider changes to the school finance system.

[…]

Aycock’s proposal removes multiple provisions in the current school finance system.

It drops the number of districts that must send money back to the state under “recapture,” or what’s commonly known as Robin Hood. The nickname comes from the practice of taking property tax revenue from richer districts and redistributing it to poorer districts in an attempt to equalize school funding throughout Texas.

That adjustment, Skillern-Jones said, was a life raft for school districts that are “property rich, but poor in students,” like Houston. The district faces sending $200 million back to the state in the 2016-2017 school year.

(See how individual school districts would fare under Aycock’s plan here.)

It also eliminates the “Cost of Education Index,” which gives districts extra money based on characteristics like size, teacher salaries in neighboring districts and percentage of low-income students. Under Aycock’s proposal, that money would instead go to overall per-student funding.

That change that generated the most discussion Tuesday. Both smaller school districts that would lose money meant to help them account for economies of scale and districts with high numbers of the low-income and English-language learning students that the index is supposed to help raised caution about the effects of such a shift.

“While I never say no to money… I would ask that it would be looked at in the way that it is distributed,” said Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers. “I believe that our most needy students … are perhaps are going to get left out.”

See here for the background. The Observer notes the points where there is still work to be done.

But the biggest change Aycock proposes is the elimination of the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which steers more funding to urban and high-poverty districts to pay for higher teacher salaries. In the last few weeks, Aycock has stressed that the index is hopelessly outdated—it was created in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since—and nobody argued that point Tuesday night. But many weren’t willing to simply let it go.

“The underlying premise of the CEI is undeniably sound,” said Lori Taylor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, who has conducted a series of studies since 2000 on how the Legislature could update the index to reflect current costs.

Former state Rep. Paul Colbert (D-Houston), a school finance leader in the ‘80s and ‘90s, agreed that while the index is flawed, its purpose—steering more money to urban and high-poverty districts that must pay higher salaries—is still vital. “You can’t just do away with it and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. You’re merely not addressing an uncontrollable cost,” Colbert said. “And that’s not equitable.”

Aycock agreed the change would affect districts unevenly; changing any piece of the school finance system creates winners and losers. Aycock has said he’s trying to minimize the pain of simplifying the system. “The party that gets hit the worst removing the CEI is the Valley area,” he noted at one point last night.

“How do we fix that?” wondered Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston).

“I don’t know that I can,” Aycock told her. “I’ve done everything I think I can to fix that.”

[…]

Aycock has suggested his bill would improve equity by moving more districts closer to the state average of per-student funding. But it would also enrich wealthy districts more than poor districts, which some analysts last night noted was basically the opposite of equity. San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD, with 96 percent students are from low-income families, would gain $171 per student under Aycock’s bill, while nearby Alamo Heights—with 22 percent low-income students—would gain $469. In South Texas, Los Fresnos CISD would gain $54 per student while the wealthier Point Isabel ISD. which includes South Padre Island, would gain $289.

Analysts outside the Capitol realm have noted these disparities too. Bellwether Education Partners analyst Jennifer Schiess recently told Education Week that Aycock’s bill “isn’t negative on equity. It just doesn’t move very far.” Schiess wonders whether such modest improvement is truly worth the fight.

Representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Intercultural Development Research Association urged the committee to focus on steering money to students who need it most, and to follow Travis County District Judge John Dietz’s suggestion last year by updating the adjustments for poor students and those with limited English. Like the CEI, those weights have been untouched for decades.

None of these problems are going to get solved until there’s more money allocated to public education. That ain’t gonna happen until the Supreme Court says so.

Aycock’s bill has not yet been voted on in committee, and while I expect it will eventually pass who knows what will happen when it hits the Senate, which has shown little appetite so far for anything positive for public education. Even if this does get signed into law, there will still be questions of adequacy of school funding for the Supreme Court to rule on, as well as to decide whether or not this satisfies the equity issue. There’s still a long way to go.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

High speed rail opponents go to Congress

Here’s a press release from Texans Against High Speed Rail:

Lawmakers in Austin who represent thousands of Texans along the proposed Dallas Houston high-speed rail project being promoted by Texas Central Railway (TCR) have officially requested opposition to the project from the Texas delegation in Washington, DC. With an application to the federal level Surface Transportation Board (STB) likely, all five state senators and nine state house members who represent the areas between Dallas and Houston called on the federal delegation representing those areas to preemptively oppose any application for public convenience and necessity by the high-speed rail company at the STB.

Texas State Senators Brian Birdwell, Brandon Creighton, Lois Kolkhorst, Robert Nichols and Charles Schwertner, as well as State Representatives Trent Ashby, Cecil Bell, Jr., Byron Cook, Kyle Kacal, Mark Keough, Will Metcalf, John Raney, Leighton Schubert and John Wray, signed the April 10 letter siting TCR’s intent to use eminent domain to acquire land, loss of property value, project viability concerns and widespread opposition as their reasons for opposing the proposed bullet train.

“For the rural counties impacted by the proposed routes, this project would only serve as a detriment. Although rural counties may benefit from a few jobs during the construction phase, the long-term costs far outweigh any temporary benefit. This project holds real consequences for rural constituents, their property and their livelihoods. Private property interests will be taken by eminent domain. Farm and ranchland, often held by families for generations, will be divided, creating a loss in access and a loss in revenue for those who rely on farming and ranching to make a living. The value of nearby land will decrease due to sight, noise and restricted use of property caused by the high-speed rail.”

The letter went on to state, “We appreciate any assistance you can provide in opposing any TCR application at the STB…As duly-elected officials representing our constituents at the federal level, each of you has a unique opportunity to have an impact on this project before it is unilaterally advanced by the appointees who comprise the STB.”

The federal government is your enemy until you need it to do something for you, I guess. The link comes via Rodger Jones of the DMN, who analyzes it thusly:

What that tells me is this: These 14 rural lawmakers who oppose high-speed rail in Texas fear they’ll fall short of blocking the project in the Legislature, so now they’ve opened up a second front. That makes a better show of things for the folks back home.

Even if Sen. Lois Kolkhorst gets her rail-killing SB 1601 through the Senate, it would have to survive the choke-points in the House.

I agree with his view of the prospects for Sen. Kolkhorst to get her bill passed. The fact that two Republicans on the committee, both from the Metroplex, suggested this would be a tough fight for her, as she couldn’t simply count on partisan advantage.

If you follow this link from Jones’ piece, it’s about the invocations by rail opponents of the much-hated Trans Texas Corridor. While there are some parallels between these two projects, there are some major differences as well, with the amount of right-of-way needed – about 100 feet for Texas Central Railway versus nearly 1000 feet for the TTC – being a key one. I have some sympathy for these rural counties, as there’s not much the Texas Central Railway project will do for them, but I don’t care for fearmongering. To address the allegations that high speed rail opponents have been making, TCR released Texas Central Rumor vs Reality, which is included in Jones’ post. I’ve had the experience of riding the shinkansen in Japan, so I can speak directly to the noise issue: That train is actually amazingly quiet. It’s no louder than Houston’s light rail line, and in comparison to, say, truck traffic on a highway, it’s barely noticeable. There’s more in the document, so go check it out. There are arguments to be made against the TCR, and opponents in rural areas have a point when they argue that they are not beneficiaries of this project. But they lose me when they start making stuff up. The Star-Telegram has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Widening I-10 to San Antonio

Like, all the way.

The roughly 200-mile stretch of Interstate 10 from San Antonio to Houston could become more spacious, as the Texas Department of Transportation has raised the idea of adding a third lane to the highway in each direction.

An expansion of I-10 between San Antonio and Houston would be the latest effort to widen the triangle of roads that link the state’s largest cities, Clayton Ripps, TxDOT’s advanced transportation planning director for the San Antonio district, told the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization recently. New lanes are planned or are already under construction on parts of Interstate 35 that connect San Antonio, Austin and Dallas and on Interstate 45 between Houston and Dallas.

The I-10 project is in the early phases of development, and an environmental review process is just getting underway, TxDOT officials said. Funding for most of the construction has not been identified, but the work likely will be divided into sections, with some stretches being worked on before others, according to Ripps.

[…]

As census data released last month attested, the areas along I-35 between Austin and San Antonio are some of the fastest-growing in the country. That growth combined with more people in the state overall — Texas added more people than any state from 2013 to 2014 — mean a higher demand on the highways.

“It’s been a gradual increase, but it seems like it has increased quite a bit over the past year or two,” Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher said about traffic on I-10. “It’s been pretty consistent with the growth we’ve seen in the county and the region.”

Kutscher said he had not seen the additional traffic lead to major problems other than slower travel times.

TxDOT measures daily traffic flows in multiple spots along I-10, and the data generally reflect the increase in vehicles on the highway. In 2010, for example, an average of 33,000 vehicles traveled on I-10 every day at a spot near Seguin. In 2013 at the same place, the average was 36,324.

Gotta say, the last couple of times we’ve driven westward on I-10, things bogged down to a crawl as we reached Brookshire, where it slims down to two lanes. It eventually sped back up to highway velocity, but it took awhile. It was crowded on the way back in the same area as well. I can see the justification for this, but I have to wonder what the price tag might look like. On the plus side, there should be little to no need to take property via eminent domain, and what property does need to be taken should be mostly unimproved rural land, so it would be cheap. On the other hand, we’re talking well over 100 miles of construction. That’s a lot of material and labor. Let’s see what the initial cost (under)estimate will be, and we can go from there. The Chron has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Bill to ban anti-fracking ordinances likely to go forward

Disappointing.

Despite vociferous opposition from local elected officials, environmentalists and citizens, many Democrats in the Texas Legislature are supporting controversial legislation that would strip local governments of the power to regulate or ban fracking.

House Bill 40, by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), is one of 11 measures in the Legislature filed in response to a fracking ban approved by Denton voters in November. Darby’s bill, which was temporarily delayed on Tuesday, would overturn Denton’s fracking ban, Dallas’ de facto prohibition on drilling and other cities’ oil and gas regulations, possibly even rules about the distance between rigs and homes not deemed “reasonable.”

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a progressive Democrat and the longest-serving woman legislator in the House, is one of eight Democrats sponsoring the legislation.

“I think that fracking is a safe mechanism, which they can use to be able to extract oil,” she said. Asked about the practical impact of the bill and whether it would allow oil and gas companies to challenge ordinances they don’t deem “reasonable,” Thompson said, “You’re asking me a legal question and I haven’t had oil and gas law since I was in law school.”

Most of the Democrats who signed onto HB 40 are from areas that don’t contend with the hazards of urban drilling: earthquakes, noise, pipelines through yards and air and water pollution. None are from North Texas, where drilling rigs and other oil-and-gas infrastructure often sits uncomfortably close to homes, churches and businesses.

“The cities are the ones who are truly affected and we’re taking that out of their hands and saying that we’re going to be the ones doing it?” said Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat from Fort Worth who plans to vote against HB 40. “They’re the ones who have to answer every day and we’re taking that out of their hands.”

Floor discussion of HB40 was delayed till Friday due to a point of order. The bill is now a substitute version that was agreed upon by the Texas Municipal League, which had initially opposed it, and the Texas Oil and Gas Association. Here’s the TML’s guide to the updated HB40, which they say addressed their larger concerns about pre-empting city ordinances. I appreciate their efforts and I can see where they’re coming from – it was highly likely that some kind of bill of this nature was going to pass, so they did what they could to mitigate it – but I’m more in line with RG Ratcliffe.

The core argument against bans such as the one in Denton is that they take away the property rights of the drillers, the people and companies that buy or lease land to exploit it for mineral production; i.e., frack it for gas. But what about the property rights of people driven out of their homes because of a potential explosion, or who have the value of their homes driven down by a nearby well? And, ultimately, what about the hypocrisy of attacking local control? The state of Texas has been fighting against the federal government over unwanted laws and regulations, so is the Legislature going to grind down local voters in a similar fashion? Denton and Arlington are not cities filled with tree-hugging environmentalists; they typically vote about 60 percent Republican.

[…]

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the oil industry’s desire to drill on land it has owned or leased, but isn’t it also a “taking” if a homeowner cannot sell a house or loses value on a home because of its proximity to an oil or gas well? These are not wells down a caliche road a quarter-mile from a farm house. These are wells in residential neighborhoods. It looks like the legislative leadership is putting jingoism and campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry ahead of the very real concerns of Texas voters and communities.

Well, we know whose takings are more important. Like I said, I can see TML’s rationale. They saw how the wind was blowing and they did what they could to make the best of a bad situation. You don’t have to like what they agreed to, but it was a respectable effort. What I don’t like is Rep. Thompson’s rationale for not only supporting but sponsoring HB40. I’m no expert in oil and gas law, either, but I understand local control and I can see that cities and homeowners are getting the short end of the stick. More to the point, we progressives need to do a better job of sticking together on stuff like this. Pissing off our own allies isn’t helpful. We’re never going to get anything done if we can’t get people who are broadly aligned with us but not direct stakeholders in a given issue when there’s a fight. I mean, if I’m not willing to scratch your back, why should I expect you to scratch mine?

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Pothole progress

Hooray.

Two months after Mayor Annise Parker called Houston’s pockmarked streets a “crisis situation” and pledged to clear a mounting pothole repair backlog, the city has reduced open work requests by about 1,000 despite a steep increase in calls for repairs.

The welcome news for Houston drivers tired of dodging pesky potholes is tempered by the fact that crews are still more than two months behind keeping pace with incoming requests. But the city’s response has dramatically improved, Deputy Public Works Director Eric Dargan told a City Council committee Tuesday.

Using increased funding made available last summer but only recently spent, added crews and contractors on the streets along with more hours worked have helped winnow the 3,794 requests for pothole patches in January down to 2,769, Dargan said. The city has also nearly tripled the number of potholes filled during the past two months compared with the same time period in 2014.

Council members largely lauded the improvements Tuesday and commended Dargan for leading a response to what he called a “heightened sense of urgency” around the city’s pothole problem.

“Voters want the pensions fixed and the potholes fixed,” Councilman Jack Christie said. “That is the two greatest things that you could please the citizens with.”

Other changes the department has made since Houston’s pothole problem came to a head in 2014 are largely administrative and, seemingly, long overdue: using a Google maps-based management system to more efficiently map service requests, sorting out duplicate complaints and tracking time spent investigating problems.

[…]

Houston’s increasing pothole problem is driven by a range of factors, but chief among them is under-investment in city streets over the years that have left drivers facing ever bumpier roads, especially in older parts of the city.

But Dargan also attributed the steep rise in calls to media attention. A slew of reports about the lingering pothole problem spurred Parker to call the situation an emergency in early February.

In particular, Parker and the public works department came under fire for having spent only about 20 percent of a $10 million pot of extra funding the city approved last summer specifically to speed up street repairs.

Parker said the city took too long to get contracts in place to complete the work, and she vowed to speed up the process before she leaves office.

As of the end of March, the city had spent more than $7 million of the money allocated for street repair, lining up on-call contractors to supplement city staff.

I haven’t really followed this, but it’s been a thing on Teh Twitters – with hashtags! – so I’m sure you can find some background if you want. Could this have been managed better by the city? I’m sure it could have been. Is this the most important campaign issue of the year? No.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Fort Bend ISD

A lot going on over there.

With a fifth-grader in Palmer Elementary School in Missouri City, Steve Brown has begun to think about where his son should attend middle school. The campus is just a two-minute drive from the current one but the change has him concerned.

According to the latest accountability rating, the middle school met standards but earned no distinctions. Plus, he’s heard it has discipline issues. Some parents even move to avoid it, said Brown, to the other side of “the tracks.”

“Even in middle-class, suburban Fort Bend County, there are tracks and that track is Highway 6,” said Brown, “It’s unfortunate, but it signifies that we still have not come as far as we thought.”

Brown’s story was part of a discussion with a panel of parents, lawyers and advocates held Thursday in the library at the University of Houston Sugar Land campus to discuss racial discrepancies in the district’s truancy complaints and disciplinary actions. What emerged was a picture of a divided district, often along racial and socioeconomic lines, that touches almost every aspect of a student’s life.

Like neighboring school districts such as Lamar, Katy and Houston, the Fort Bend ISD reports a consistent overrepresentation of black, Hispanic and special education students who are disciplined. The district also refers cases to a special truancy county court, which some see as contributing to a culture of criminalization of black and Hispanic students.

The district has responded, creating a special office to review discipline data weekly as well as expulsions and discretionary placements at alternative education campuses. Early data from this school year shows success in bringing the number of African American students punished down. And Superintendent Charles Dupre has promised the community that the district will hold a series of dialogues to address the disparities, the focus of an Office for Civil Rights investigation. He has said he shares “concerns about the number of African-American and Hispanic students who are subject to disciplinary actions in Fort Bend ISD and across the state.”

The Steve Brown in this story is the same Steve Brown who ran for Railroad Commissioner last November. He’d emailed me a couple of weeks ago about the race for Fort Bend ISD Trustee, Position 6, which takes place in May. As Steve pointed out to me, and as this story does not note, the FBISD student body is very diverse, while its Board of Trustees is not. At that time, there was a story in Houston Style Magazine about one of the candidates in the race, Stuart Jackson. Look at the stock photo at the top of that story, then look at Stuart Jackson’s webpage. There was a bit of fuss over that, and then this happened.

With less than a month until Election Day, Stuart Jackson, one of four candidates for Fort Bend ISD Position 6, has terminated a contract with a political consultant because of a misleading magazine article.

Jackson, a software company owner and first-time political candidate, decided to part ways with Burt Levine, a Houston-based paid political consultant who represents candidates from both major political parties and from many different ethnicities in Fort Bend County and throughout the Greater Houston area.

The contract was terminated over a story that Levine wrote in Houston Style Magazine on Feb. 25. Jackson was contacted by a former FBISD board candidate, Vanesia Johnson, who wrote a letter to the community, including The Star, stating that the article misled voters to believe that Jackson, who is white, was African-American.

The Missouri City resident is running against incumbent Jenny Bailey as well as Addie Heyliger and J.J. Clemence for the position.

[…]

Jackson said he discovered the story after it was published, and that he’s never tried to conceal his race or ethnicity to any portion of the electorate.

He’s attended several events throughout the community and has his face featured prominently on his campaign website.

Jackson thinks issues such as the article take away from the substance of the election – which he says, is finding the best person to represent the students of FBISD.

“I feel good about the campaign,” Jackson said. “We need more local control and and more community control. What frustrates me more than anything is the (article) takes the wind out of any message I am trying to push forward.”

Jackson reached out to Johnson, who was defeated by board trustee and then-board president Jim Rice, 70.4 to 29.6 percent, for the FBISD Position 3 seat in 2013.

“He brought my outrage down to confusion,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe completely that (Jackson) didn’t know (about the article beforehand).”

Consider that another reminder that these smaller, lower-profile local elections really matter. The candidate that Steve Brown and Vanesia Johnson are supporting is Addie Heyliger. Each FBISD trustee is elected at large, which is another wrinkle in all this; there’s a bill by Rep. Ron Reynolds to create single member districts, but it hasn’t had a hearing and seems to me to be unlikely to pass at this point. If you live in Fort Bend, are you following this race at all?

Posted in: School days.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 13

The Texas Progressive Alliance revels in the start of another baseball season as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

As usual, the Fifth Circuit is where hope goes to be strangled

Ugh.

JustSayNo

Judge Jerry E. Smith’s presence on the panel that will hear oral arguments in Texas v. United States on Friday is simply a disaster for the DAPA and expanded DACA programs. Smith, the self-described former right-wing activist, once described feminists as a “gaggle of outcasts, misfits and rejects.” He is one of five judges on the Fifth Circuit who once voted to allow a man to be executed despite the fact that the man’s lawyer slept through much of his trial. In a case involving an obscure provision of the Affordable Care Act, Smith badgered a Justice Department attorney and ordered the department to produce a letter explaining whether they agreed with an inartful statement by President Obama.

Smith’s conservatism is tribal and, at times, belligerent. It would be very surprising if he cast a vote in favor of politically controversial programs spearheaded by Barack Obama.

He is joined on the panel by Judge Jennifer Elrod. Elrod is a George W. Bush appointee, while Smith is a Reagan appointee, so her record is not as thick as Judge Smith’s. Nevertheless, in her eight years on the bench she has generally behaved as a loyal conservative. Judge Elrod is perhaps best known for her decisions reading what remains of Roe v. Wade narrowly to permit Texas to enact strict restrictions on abortion. Indeed, in a decision last October, Elrod practically begged the Supreme Court to hear a challenge to the Texas abortion law, most likely because she believed that the justices would affirm her decision reading abortion rights narrowly. The tactic backfired, at least temporarily, as the Supreme Court blocked the law while the full merits of the case was still pending before the Fifth Circuit.

Elrod’s record on immigration suggests that she will take a similarly conservative approach. In Villas at Parkside Partners v. City of Farmers Branch, the full Fifth Circuit voted 9-5 to strike down a local ordinance that effectively made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to rent a home. Elrod dissented from this decision, claiming, somewhat improbably, that the ordinance “does not constitute a regulation of immigration.”

Judges Smith and Elrod will be joined by Judge Stephen Higginson, an Obama appointee who is likely to dissent from Smith and Elrod’s decision.

See here and here for the background. I swear, Judge Smith has been on every high-profile panel in recent memory. The universe has a sick sense of humor sometimes. It is what it is, and this isn’t the end of the road if things go as past history suggests they will. As Daily Kos notes, this is the hearing on the Obama Administration’s motion to stay (lift) the injunction while the Fifth Circuit ponders the appeal of the ruling itself. That hearing will presumably have a different panel. Even still, good Lord do we need some new judges over there.

Posted in: Legal matters.

More Uber safety debating

It’s a topic that’s not going away.

Uber

With the new, smartphone-based services, drivers and passengers said, the relationship between the person behind the wheel and the person paying for the trip is unique: “It’s just you and them,” one driver said, asking not to be identified. “That’s a big level of trust.”

Accommodating the model of Uber and competitors such as Lyft is proving to be a tumultuous process for state and local governments, experts say.

“It is a disruptive technology and we are in a period in which we are trying to examine how these companies should be regulated,” said Janice Griffith, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston.

The companies’ disputes with officials in many cities and states – including Houston, San Antonio and Texas – focus on how best to regulate a new way of providing paid rides. For example, the companies have pressed for their type of background check, which relies on Social Security information, while some cities demand a fingerprint-based system.

“If they would just start doing that, it would solve a lot of the issues,” said Jeanne Christensen, a partner at the New York law firm Wigdor LLP. The firm represents women who say they were assaulted by Uber drivers in Boston, Detroit and New Delhi.

[…]

Passenger safety is a key issue in the discussions of how best to regulate the new paid-ride companies.

“I think societies make decisions about where they want to put extra filters on,” said Deborah Hersman, president of the nonprofit National Safety Council. “School bus drivers face greater scrutiny, for example.”

Truck drivers and drivers for public transit agencies also undergo fingerprint background checks, Hersman said, because of a consensus that is in everyone’s best interest to screen them more thoroughly.

Christensen said repeated incidents have demonstrated that the less expensive background check used by Uber puts riders at risk.

“Everyone likes the service, the concept is great, but it is not working out great,” she said, adding that additional checks and in-person interviews of drivers would probably ward off some less-desirable applicants and give the company more scrutiny of its drivers.

Local officials in many cities agree. During a December news conference announcing a consumer protection lawsuit filed by district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon called Uber’s background check “completely worthless.”

The company has declined comment on many issues surrounding the Houston incident, but has repeatedly said it stands by its safety standards.

“We’ll continue innovating, refining, and working diligently to ensure we’re doing everything we can to make Uber the safest experience on the road,” the company says on its website.

Christensen isn’t convinced. As the company expands to more cities worldwide, she said, she believes the problem will only get worse until public perception turns.

“The problem is people like the service, so the word is not getting out,” Christensen said.

Well, that and the face that Uber wants to do as little as possible about it. Using fingerprints isn’t perfect, but it may be the only way to uncover someone who has used different identities in the past. Mostly, they just need to put some real effort into it, and their claims that they already do are not credible right now. There is a case to be made for having the state set the standards for Uber and Lyft to follow, but that’s only worthwhile if they don’t simply pass a bill based on Uber’s wish list.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Who will pay for Super Bowl stadium improvements?

Gotta say, I’m with Steve Radack on this one.

If the NFL has its way, luxury boxes and club seats at NRG Stadium will undergo major upgrades at the expense of Harris County or its tenants before Super Bowl LI arrives in Houston in 2017.

But if the decision is up to Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, using public funds to improve suites for corporate executives and billion-dollar companies would be a non-starter.

“I’m not about to vote to spend a single dollar of county money updating these luxury suites,” Radack said.

With 21 months to go until the sporting event that launches Houston onto the world stage for one glorious Sunday, much work still remains to prepare for the big party. One of the most significant tasks appears to be dressing up NRG Stadium. The price for seating updates and other improvements could rise as high as $50 million, including $5 million to enhance the facility’s WiFi capacity, sources previously have told the Houston Chronicle.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, said Monday that upgrading the stadium’s WiFi is something the bid committee has agreed to do. In terms of sprucing up the seating, he said he noted on a recent visit that NRG “is in a very good place at this stage in its stadium life, but there are opportunities to upgrade that are common across Super Bowl stadiums as they prepare and continue to make sure they are state-of-the-art.”

O’Reilly said the burden for the costs of upgrading the facility rests with Harris County or its tenants – the Texans and the rodeo. But so far, none of the parties involved has volunteered to pick up the tab. County officials seem resolute that they won’t be forking over any funds.

Jamey Rootes, president of the Texans, explained that the team is 13 years into its 30-year lease and O’Reilly was merely noting “that there could be some improvements that would help Houston put its best foot forward.”

“Anything that as a fan you might come into contact with might be a factor because you’re going to be in that facility for a long time,” Rootes said.

[…]

For NRG Park, the question of fixing up the premises comes down to a landlord-tenant issue under glaring stadium lights.

The county, through its sports and convention corporation, serves as landlord to NRG’s tenants, which include the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. [Commissioner Jack] Cagle said WiFi costs are “currently a responsibility of the current tenant.”

“WiFi wasn’t really around when our contracts were set up,” Cagle said. “It’s not one of our landlord responsibilities. We have a contract that is in place, and perhaps that needs to be renegotiated.”

See here for the background. The “landlord-tenant” characterization sounds right to me. I can see the case for upgrading WiFi – who installed it in the first place, if it wasn’t there originally? – and of course if there are actual repairs to be made, that’s a landlord responsibility. But if we’re basically talking about fancier party decorations and accoutrements, that’s on the tenant. Stand firm, y’all. Paradise in Hell and Campos have more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Al Bennett confirmed to federal district court

Great news.

Judge Al Bennett

After months of delay, a unanimous U.S. Senate on Monday confirmed Alfred Bennett to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, cracking open slightly a national logjam of judicial nominations and a backlog of cases.

Bennett’s 95-0 vote, though welcomed by legal reformers, still leaves in limbo at least two other pending confirmation votes for Texas judges – a vestige of congressional gridlock despite assurances by Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and other GOP leaders who had vowed to push for swift confirmation.

No final votes have been scheduled for Texas judges George Hanks Jr. and Jose Olvera Jr., although Senate aides said they could be confirmed in the coming weeks. Texas’ 11 federal judicial vacancies are the most of any state.

Bennett’s is the first judicial nomination to clear the Senate since Republicans took over in January.

[…]

None of the Texas judges are considered controversial. Originally nominated in September, they represent a diverse new generation of judges: Bennett and Hanks are black; Olvera is Latino.

During confirmation hearings in February all three won praise from Cornyn and fellow Republican Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas. At the time, Cornyn said he expected the three Texas judges to be confirmed expeditiously.

But the decision by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to hold back Senate votes on Olvera and Hanks has mystified court watchers.

“Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, need to oil the judicial confirmation machinery they’ve allowed to rust over since they’ve taken control, and get the gears of justice moving efficiently again,” said Judith Schaeffer, vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center.

Of the Lone Star state’s 11 federal judicial vacancies, nine are in district courts and two on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews cases from Texas.

That is one-fifth of 55 total current vacancies nationwide, according to Glenn Sugameli, who tracks judicial appointments for Judging the Environment, a Defenders of Wildlife project. Meanwhile, the nation faces a record backlog of more than 330,000 civil cases.

I know Judge Bennett – in the Small World department, one of his cousins was a coworker of mine for many years – and he will be an excellent addition to the federal bench. He was first elected in 2008, so he’d have been on the ballot next fall. Greg Abbott will get to appoint his replacement (would that be his first?), so there will be a new Civil Court bench for Democrats to aim at. I’m guessing that will be a contested primary. Indeed, as of Tuesday afternoon former District Court Judge Dion Ramos, who was elected to complete a term on the 55th Civil Court bench in 2008 but then lost in 2010, has announced his intent to run for the 61st. I expect others will follow. Anyway, congratulations to Judge Al Bennett, a swell guy who truly deserves this appointment. May judges Hanks and Olvera join him soonest.

Posted in: Legal matters.

No HERO ruling quite yet

There was a hearing, but still no ruling quite yet.

PetitionsInvalid

Opponents of the city’s legally embattled equal rights ordinance say they collected about 200 more valid petition signatures than they need to trigger a repeal referendum, a figure a district court judge will consider this week as he issues the final ruling in what has a been a lengthy and complicated case.

At a hearing Monday morning, Judge Robert Schaffer said he intends to rule by the end of the week.

[…]

Though the two sides still adamantly disagree on whether the petition was valid, their respective signature tallies are closer together than ever before. The city’s motion for judgment, submitted Friday, leaves the plaintiffs with 16,619 signatures, short of the 17,269 signatures they need.

Andy Taylor, attorney for the plaintiffs, said he intends to submit a count Monday afternoon that credits opponents with about 17,500 valid signatures. He is challenging some of Schaffer’s rulings as to whether certain signatures were legible, among other issues.

Schaffer will now review both motions, reconsidering legibility and challenges to whether or not circulators who signed the petition also signed as voters, as required by City Charter. The plaintiffs also said there were examples of the city eliminating signatures belonging to voters who lived in city limits at the time they signed the petition but have possibly since moved out of Houston.

The city’s attorneys have also argued that plaintiffs are incorrectly matching circulator signatures with those of voters on the petition.

“I feel I was conscientious in what I was doing and how I did my tally,” Schaffer said. “But I’m not perfect and I don’t have a problem or an issue with going over a few more to see if I might have missed one.”

See here for the background. Man, I wish I knew what Judge Schaffer’s tally is, but we’ll have to wait till he’s ready to tell us. HouEquality fills in some details.

When last we checked there were over 5,000 signatures that the City had deemed illegible, and on Friday of last week we were told that opponents were lacking sufficient signatures by about 660. At today’s hearing the attorney for the opposition, Andy Taylor, was attempting to make the argument that some individuals who had been declared invalid because they did not reside within the City of Houston, had simply moved since the time they signed the petition.

Judge Schaffer reminded Mr. Taylor that he had absolutely no evidence to support that claim and when pressed on it Taylor admitted that he was making an assumption to that end.

We have continued to see opponents of HERO moving the goal posts when it comes to this trial. After demanding a trial by jury, which they got, they are now pretending as if the jury’s verdict has no bearing on the final tally. To be clear, the jury uncovered widespread forgeries in the submitted petitions, among other problems. It is easy to see why the Plaintiffs want to ignore the jury’s findings.

The numbers as we know them today are as follows:

The City of Houston is saying they have been able to confirm 16,619 signatures, 650 fewer than required to trigger a referendum vote.

The HERO opponents are not offering a firm number on their count. They are stating that they have validated at least 17,500 (231 over the requirement) and as many as 25,000 signatures – again, they would not offer an actual count.

I’m trying really hard to temper my expectations. That said, the fact that Andy Taylor did not have an exact number as the city did as well as his desperate-sounding attempt to argue that several hundred people might have moved since signing the petition makes me think the plaintiffs have lost and they know it. They’re just making as much noise as they can to make the city look like bullies. One can certainly argue that petitioners deserve a fair amount of latitude, and that in general courts should err on the side of people asking for access to the ballot box. I have expressed such beliefs myself, and I think there should be a fairly lenient standard for counting signatures. On the other hand, one can quite reasonably argue that the plaintiffs have been given a lot of latitude, yet even with that they’re still trying to conjure up new ways for signatures that have been rejected to be accepted instead. The requirements for petition pages to be deemed valid are not burdensome, but these guys failed to meet them despite having the resources to pay circulators and a high-priced attorney like Andy Taylor. Furthermore, while I do believe that in general access to the ballot should be fairly easy to accomplish, we are talking here about an effort to single out a group of people and restrict their rights. The plaintiffs deserve zero sympathy for that. I hope so hard that they get the verdict they have earned. Towleroad has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Call to action: Bypass laws

What Nonsequiteuse says:

Never again

Never again

Teenagers have sex, which means some have unintended pregnancies, which means some have abortions.

Is your preference that parents be involved when a minor wants to have an abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy?

You might be surprised to know how many minors in that situation desperately wish they could involve a parent in that decision. The judicial bypass procedure that allows a minor to seek permission from the court to get an abortion without parental consent exists because for some, consent is either impossible to obtain or dangerous to seek.

In 2012, there were 68,298 abortion performed in Texas. Only 2.7% of those abortions, or approximately 1,844, were sought by minors. Of that small number, only a few hundred teenagers sought a judicial bypass.

It is rare for a teenager to seek an abortion, and even more rare for a teen to need to access the judicial bypass process, but when they do, it’s for a good reason. According to Jane’s Due Process:

  • In 2013, more than half of the teenagers who obtained a judicial bypass through Jane’s Due Process were abused at home or feared they would be kicked out of their home for being pregnant.
  • In 2014, 39 percent of the teenagers who were assisted by Jane’s Due Process did not live with a parent because of the parent’s death, incarceration, deportation, or abandonment.

The bypass procedure is intended to help minors obtain constitutionally protected abortion services, not slow down the process. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in Bellotti v. Baird. Allow me to repeat. Access to an expeditious and reasonable bypass procedure is the law of the land.

Rep. King’s bill, HB 723, is intended not only to slow down the process, but also to make the process nearly impossible to complete, setting an unreasonably high barrier that, if it became law, would be overturned by the Supreme Court.

Rep. King’s bill does not make the medical process of getting an abortion any safer. Teens who cannot get consent, and cannot get a bypass, are put in a truly dangerous and desperate place with nowhere to turn but internet pharmacies or illegal, unregulated, unlicensed clinics.

These teens are already incredibly vulnerable. They are either alone without a parent or other adult who is legally qualified to help them, or trapped with one who is abusive. We owe it to these young people to speak out in opposition to HB 723, and we owe it to our system of constitutional democracy to protect rights when they are under constant attack.

Join us at the capitol in Austin [today] to register as opposed to this bill, or to testify against it. If you can’t go to Austin, you can call committee members to ask them to oppose it. Click over to yesterday’s blog post information on where to go in Austin, or the list of whom to call from home. It is at the end of the post.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of focus on abortion this session, partly because tax cuts and assaults on local control have been on the front burner, and partly because after last session there’s not a whole lot left to do short of a full-on ban to restrict access to abortion any further. This is one of those places, and frankly I’m a bit surprised it hadn’t come up before now. Like the sonogram and TRAP bills from prior sessions, it does nothing to make anyone safer but does a lot to make people more vulnerable, all while wrapped up in deceptively reasonable-sounding rhetoric. The calendar is going to be our best friend on this one, so please do what you can to make your voice heard and maybe make the legislators that would otherwise be hellbent on this pause for a moment and think about it. Thanks.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Ted Cruz really dislikes gay people

In case you were wondering.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

Riding a wave of conservative fervor over gay marriage and “traditional” social values, Texas Republican Ted Cruz has surged upward in national presidential polls and major donor support.

But even as he rallied Thursday with Christian home school parents in Des Moines, Iowa, metrics chronicling a major national swing in favor of same-sex marriage and gay rights threatens the senator’s long-term prospects – not only in a general election but in the GOP primaries.

Cruz has aimed squarely at religious conservatives in his quest to be president, but a raft of polls suggests that he and other evangelical candidates could be mining a shrinking older demographic that remains morally opposed to gay marriage.

While the entire GOP field also opposes same-sex marriage on religious or moral grounds, so far only Cruz has made religious values the centerpiece of his campaign as he seeks to lock down evangelical voters who make up a majority of GOP voters in South Carolina and the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

[…]

Rolling out his campaign March 23 at Liberty University, the Christian college founded in Virginia by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, Cruz noted that “roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting,” and called on “courageous conservatives” to rise up.

Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said that despite the polls, the campaign’s message on religious freedom resonates with voters who don’t believe government should be able to force people and businesses to accept practices that go against their religious beliefs.

“There are still millions of Americans who believe in the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman,” Tyler said. “It’s not only evangelicals. The Catholic Church is pretty clear on this also.”

Cruz’s campaign announcement dovetailed with the controversy over new religious freedom protections in Indiana that critics see as a way to discriminate against gays.

He consistently describes himself as being “on the front lines defending life and standing up for marriage.” He has drafted a “State Marriage Defense Act” which would give states the right to define marriage, keeping it out of the purview of Congress as well as the Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a ruling on same-sex marriage by June.

Given Cruz’s general inability to tell the truth, I don’t know how seriously one should take his assertion about the number of “born-again Christians” who don’t vote. The story cites the usual polling evidence about how far the country has come on attitudes towards same sex marriage. As far as that goes, however, remember that the opinions one expresses to pollsters and the opinions one expresses at the ballot box are two different things. I’m sure there are plenty of people who do support same sex marriage who don’t vote, too.

Cruz isn’t limiting his crusade to the campaign trail, either.

Sen. Ted Cruz has joined five other Republican senators–and 51 representatives–in filing an advisory legal brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the right of states to make gay marriage illegal. Eight of the 51 representatives are also from Texas, including Reps. Pete Olson, Michael Conaway, John Culberson, Bill Flores, Louie Gohmert, Randy Neugebauer, Pete Sessions, and Randy Weber.

In the brief, the lawmakers make two broad arguments: That the states, not the federal government, have long had the almost exclusive right to set rules for marriage, and, that “seven principles of federalism and judicial restraint” counsel caution as the justices ponder whether to decide such a weighty and fast-evolving issue.

[…]

Today’s brief on behalf of Cruz and other lawmakers takes a similar approach. It doesn’t attempt to raise the arguments against gay marriage that have been disproved at trial. Instead, it simply argues that it’s not a decision that the Supreme Court should force on states.

It could prove to be a risky strategy, but given the results of the Prop 8 federal trial, when evidence in support of policy claims against gay marriage was obliterated, it may well be all the defenders of traditional marriage have.

If nothing else, it’s kind of refreshing that the haters have given up on the idea that “marriage is for procreation” and “children do best with one man and one woman” and all those other pathetic arguments that have been repeatedly shredded. Even they seem to recognize that’s a loser – I suppose losing so many times has that effect. I don’t see how this argument is any better, mind you, but at least they’ve moved on. It’s a twisted kind of progress, I guess.

Posted in: The making of the President.

La Marque ISD gets a stay

Not so fast.

Galveston County’s La Marque ISD received a lifeline Wednesday when state Education Commissioner Michael Williams agreed to put the district’s closure on hold.

Williams said he would not shut down the district in July, as he had previously ordered, but would wait to make a final decision until the Texas Education Agency issues the new round of academic and financial accountability ratings later this year.

“The commissioner felt this would be a good way to give the district a chance to try to improve and address those issues that they’re substandard in,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the education agency.

[…]

The district’s new academic accountability rating will be based on mandatory state exams that students will complete in coming weeks. Williams has ordered that monitoring take place at all campuses to “ensure the security and preserve the integrity of the testing instruments,” according to a memo he sent Wednesday.

See here for the background. As I said last time, my main concern here is that it’s not at all clear where these students would go if la marge ISD gets closed down. LMISD had asked for an extension, claiming that they were headed in the right direction. This may give them the chance to demonstrate that. I wish them the best of luck.

Posted in: School days.

How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.

go_to_jail

Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Robinson resigns from HCC Board

Yeah, it’s campaign season.

Carroll Robinson

Carroll Robinson

Carroll Robinson, who has served as a Houston Community College trustee since 2012, will leave the college board to focus on his run for city controller, he announced Friday.

In a letter announcing his resignation, Robinson counted among his accomplishments helping with the creation of a sixth-grade pre-admission program, pushing to increase funding for scholarships and his involvement in establishing the Texas Academic Scholarship Day.

“All these things have helped bring a greater focus to improving the graduation rate and job placement rates for HCC students,” Robinson said. “The policies I implemented at HCC are a part of my broader commitment to ensuring that all Houstonians — our families, children, entrepreneurs and businesses — have An Opportunity To Do Better.”

There’s a full field for Controller, including Bill Frazer, Jew Don Boney, Dwight Jefferson, and Chris Brown, so one can understand the reason behind the resignation. As the story notes, Robinson’s brief tenure on the HCC Board has not been without some controversy. Robinson;s departure means that the Board will appoint a replacement Trustee, who (I believe) will be on the November ballot. That makes four Trustee elections on tap; as noted in January, fellow Trustees Adriana Tamez (who won a special election in 2013 to complete the unfinished term of now-former State Rep. Mary Ann Perez), Eva Loredo, and Sandie Mullins Moger (formerly Meyers), are up for re-election. Moger, however, is now confirmed to be running for City Council District G, so someone else will run for that position. Chris Oliver, who is not up for re-election, is as we know running for Council At Large #1, so there may be another vacancy to fill next year. And finally, as long as I’m mentioning At Large #1, this seems like as good a place as any to note that candidate Tom McCasland, who had announced his intention to run without specifying an office, has now officially declared AL1 to be his target. So there you have it.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Castro-for-VP watch

He’s in “training camp”.

Mayor Julian Castro

His allure as a potential veep gives [HUD Secretary Julian] Castro a platform for the issues he cares about, and he is serious about governing and giving a voice to people struggling to get into the middle class, or to stay there. His top program goal is meeting President Obama’s call of effectively ending veterans’ homelessness, which means pushing housing authorities across the country to give priority to vets in granting public housing and housing vouchers. HUD is also expanding housing vouchers for victims of domestic abuse, a program that Vice President Biden highlighted when he visited HUD for a fair housing event on Tuesday.

[…]

The way Washington politics works, HUD is rarely headline news unless there’s a scandal, but Castro sees an opportunity, and he’s savvy enough to use it to present himself and his department in the best light. With candidate Clinton, it will be about confidence and chemistry. They don’t know each other well; they’ve met a couple of times, and they shared a panel on renewing America’s cities last month at the liberal think tank, Center for American Progress.

Castro is a careful politician, prepared and respectful, and if you assume Clinton, if nominated, will look for someone other than a white male as a running mate, he’s got to be near the top of the list.

Is he ready to be president should the need arise, the first qualification of any vice president? “If we’re setting the bar at Sarah Palin, he’s well more than qualified,” says Paul Equale, a longtime lawyer in Washington who is active in Democratic politics. “If we’re setting the bar at Joe Biden, he has a ways to go.”

For the next year or so, Castro will be auditioning, and Democrats will be taking his measure. “I haven’t met him, I don’t know him, I only know what I’ve seen,” says Equale, “and in the modern arena of politics, he’s a natural.” With the Hispanic vote a rising tide for Democrats, he has the potential to turn key electoral states. “A state like Texas could be in play,” says Equale. “There are things that could happen in terms of turnout that are mind-boggling.”

We are familiar with the speculation. I never know how seriously to take any of it, and talk about “putting Texas in play” after the last election feels more tormenting than tantalizing. Still, you can’t deny the potential, and now that Hillary is officially in, it’s only going to intensify from here.. I’ll keep an eye on this until we know one way or the other how it will be.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Crusading against court fees

This is important work.

Jani Maselli Wood

Houston attorney Jani Maselli Wood scanned the itemized list of “court costs” that people pay when they get in trouble with Texas law to see how much her indigent client owed even while sitting in a prison cell.

Among other things her client was obligated to pay was a $250 DNA record fee, money that was divided to fund the state highway system and an account that issues criminal justice grants.

Maselli didn’t think the fee was a legitimate court cost, and relying in part on a 70-year-old case, Maselli convinced Houston’s 1st Court of Appeals that it was a tax collected by the judiciary. Attorneys for the state appealed that ruling and she is now scheduled to argue the issue before the highest court in Texas.

The defense attorney’s attempts to hold the state accountable for the money collected as “court costs” may sound quixotic, but the courts are taking her challenges seriously.

It could change the way Texas collects money and pays the bills.

“I’m trying to make sure the money goes to where you think it goes,” Maselli said. “If you look behind the court costs, statutorily, where the money goes, it rarely goes back to the courts.”

The courts have defined “court costs” as a recoupment of the cost of criminal prosecution. Maselli is arguing against fees that sound like they are connected to criminal cases, but which she says are not.

One of the fees charged to defendants after trial is a 14-item bundle called the Consolidated Court Cost.

Maselli has followed the money for each of the fees in that bundle to find they support things like the state highway fund, a criminal justice institute at Sam Houston State University or end up in biggest pot of all, the state’s general revenue fund.

“Only a small amount, like 12 percent, goes to the courts,” Maselli said. “It’s just not connected.”

The Observer wrote about Ms. Maselli last month. The Chron story doesn’t mention that she’s employed by the Harris County Public Defender’s office, which enables her to do this kind of work since she’s not tied to billable hours. I suspect many people, including myself, assumed that the courts were mostly funded by taxes, not “user fees”. It’s not like the “users” chose to be there, after all. If that’s the route we’re going to go, the least we can do is spell it all out. Kudos to Ms. Maselli for forcing that kind of reckoning on us.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Weekend link dump for April 12

There are so many better ways to spend tax dollars than spending them on prisons.

“Brand owners are now expected to pay a fee to register the .sucks of their domain, or else face a third-party potentially misusing the domain. Coupled with the pricey per year cost, it’s hard to see ICANN’s confirmation of a .sucks domain as anything other than a brand’s nightmare.”

“The modern American jail — which is distinct from prison, the place where those convicted of crimes go — primarily houses the legally innocent. There are 731,200 people inside American jails — substantially more than the population of Washington, D.C. — and three out of five of those inmates have not been convicted of anything at all.”

“An unintended consequence of this and other recent court rulings knocking holes in the wall between church and state is that Satanists, pagans, and pranksters have eagerly embraced their newfound right to express their spiritual beliefs on public time and property.”

Use your smartphone as a particle detector – for Science!

Urban farming could be the wave of the future.

The other “I” word needs to be said aloud.

The Hugo Award nominations are a debacle again this year. More here from Scalzi.

A cable cord-cutting FAQ for those of you who are not like me and thus don’t watch too many live sports to even consider this.

Low oil prices are really bad news for recycling companies.

“Are we really prepared to send women to jail for decades if they have abortions? Even illegal ones?”

“This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. […] To mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.”

Beware the scourge of pay-to-publish journals that will run any crap “scientific” study for the right price.

Also beware unaccredited non-scientists who make scary but bogus claims about all the things that will kill you and your children.

RIP, James Best, better known as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane.

RIP, Stan Freberg, comedy and voice acting legend. See here for more.

If they can bring back Brontosaurus, they can make Pluto a planet again. Who’s with me on this?

Spoiler alert: Google now has a patent for spoiler blocking technology.

“The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.”

“But what if we apply Cheney’s analytic method to his own administration’s Iran policy?”

A Golden Girls Lego set. Sure, why not?

Why are we still looking at courtroom sketches of Dzokhar Tsarnaev?

“So here’s the thing, Southwestern Christian University: is Dave Bliss really the man you want leading your students? A serial rule breaker who smeared the reputation of a dead man?”

RIP, Lisa Simon, longtime producer and director on Sesame Street.

RIP, Lauren Hill, basketball player and national inspiration. Cancer really, truly sucks.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Where’s Adrian?

I suspect a lot of people have been wondering the same thing.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Standing on the cusp of what could easily be the most competitive mayoral race in Houston history many wonder what Adrian Garcia is waiting for.

Still officially on the sidelines, the longtime cop, former councilman and current Harris County Sheriff appears to be clinging to the benefits of his badge as long as politically possible.

“In many ways being Sheriff provides him with a level of visibility that he’s going to lose when he announces for mayor,” said Mark Jones, Chairman of Political Science at Rice University.

But there’s also a price exacted for remaining in office and running a sort of shadow campaign. For Garcia, cash, the life-blood of any successful run, is in short supply for a contest that will likely cost well north of $1 million to win.

“Every day that you don’t announce that’s less money that you raise and that’s less of a campaign that you can put together,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Fox 26 political commentator.

But political analyst Jones believes the Sheriff, unlike his competition, can afford to wait a month or two longer and still raise big money.

We’ve had signals, we’ve had sources, we’ve had replacement Sheriff discussions, but we’ve still not had any word from the man himself. Of course, he can’t do any of the considering/exploring/announcing that he’s going to announce stuff that others get to do, because at the first whiff of anything announcement-like, he has to resign. I presume he’s not ready to do that yet, and that this is about timing and not that there isn’t anything to say. As far as the ability to raise big money on a shortened schedule, well, maybe, I don’t know. It’s not like the other candidates are sitting still, and remember there are contribution limits. You can’t just ask a few sugar daddies to write six-figure checks in Houston, you have to raise money from small and medium donors, too. These things take time, and it’s the amount of time on the calendar we’re discussing. I don’t know what the plan is, but we’ll find out when he’s ready for us to know. Campos has more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Injunction against immigration executive order stays in place

Not a surprise, I guess.

JustSayNo

A Brownsville-based federal judge on Tuesday denied the Obama administration’s request to let a controversial immigration program proceed while the issue plays out in the courts.

United States District Judge Andrew Hanen ruled that his initial decision to halt the president’s November executive action — which seeks to grant deportation relief and a work permit to up to 5 million undocumented immigrants, including a portion of the 1.6 million currently living in Texas — was the right one.

Hanen initially ruled that the White House violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the way federal policies are crafted and how much input the public gets.

[…]

Hanen blocked the measure in February and the Obama administration immediately requested that the judge delay his own order. But on Tuesday, Hanen reiterated that wasn’t going to happen.

“Having considered the positions of all parties and the applicable law, this court remains convinced that its original findings and rulings in the Order of Temporary Injunction and Memorandum Opinion and Order issued on Feb. 16, 2015 … were correct,” he wrote in a 15-page opinion.

See here and here for the background. The Obama administration has filed an appeal to the Fifth Circuit, which will hear oral arguments on April 17. How long they take from there is anyone’s guess. There is some good news for the Obama administration – as Vox reported, the Fifth Circuit just threw out a different lawsuit, filed by Mississippi, over its earlier immigration actions. It’s not an exact parallel, but there’s evidence in their ruling to suggest they might disagree with Judge Hanen. Check it out.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The scourge of selfie sticks

Presented (mostly) without comment.

The Blanton Museum, in Austin, as well as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Perot Museum of Natural Science, in Dallas, all have bans on tripods and monopods that extend to selfie sticks, leaving visitors to settle for mediocre, arm-length-only selfies. Bummer! Most museums have rules against bringing tripods into their exhibition halls anyway—taking a family portrait in front of your favorite Pollock piece is a tad disruptive to other visitors—and these three museums are following a recent pattern of outlawing selfie sticks in places where they might infringe upon another person’s experience.

There are plenty of people who argue that taking selfies in museums is great, and you should just do you when it comes to enjoying some of the world’s greatest works of art. Selfies are cultural artifacts too! There are entire Tumblr blogs dedicated to memorializing some of our time’s greatest moments of digital self-portraiture, think pieces have been written, and Kim Kardashian is releasing what could be the definitive piece of selfie literature. Take all the selfies you want—just check to make sure your new selfie stick is allowed before you head out for your next museum day.

I have taken a selfie or two, although they have so far all been group shots. To be honest, I’m of a sufficiently advanced age that I probably couldn’t see the screen clearly enough at greater than arm’s length to know if the picture I’m lining up is worth taking. I’d probably feel a little ridiculous carrying a selfie stick around with me anyway. If neither of those conditions apply to you, then go ahead and knock yourself out. Just don’t, you know, knock over any priceless works of art.

Posted in: Society and cultcha.

Who’s up for a macrobrewery tour?

This used to be a thing in Houston, and now it is once again.

beer

The local Anheuser-Busch plant was under construction at the same time as the Astrodome, and its ambitions were just as grand. With an annual capacity of 900,000 barrels of beer, it would be the biggest brewery Houston had ever seen when it opened in 1966.

It would draw its fair share of visitors as well. For a couple of years in the early 1970s, the 105-acre plant grounds were home to an avian-themed park called Busch Gardens, which included an Asian-style pagoda, boat rides and a domed ice cave. College students in miniskirts worked as hostesses during the summer.

Even after the park closed, Houstonians curious about malt, hops and “beechwood aging” made their way east down Interstate 10 to tour the brewery and hoist complimentary beers in the hospitality room.

But by 1996, attendance had fallen to the point that the corporate owners decided to do away with regular tours. The workers would remain focused on producing Budweiser, Bud Light and other well-known beers by the hundreds of millions of cans and bottles, but the public would be kept at bay.

Nineteen years and a sea change in the U.S. beer industry later, the company is throwing open the doors again in an effort to reconnect with consumers. An array of craft breweries unheard of two decades ago has nibbled away at market share, gaining fans not just with innovative products but also with wildly popular tours and special events that pack in crowds and send them home in branded T-shirts and ballcaps.

Damola Oshin, general manager of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, credits Houstonians’ growing interest in beer with the decision to reinstate tours here next week.

“We are the largest brewery in the state and we do need to get people in through our doors and show them what we do,” he said Thursday.

Beginning April 10, the brewery will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Visitors will be guided through the brewing and packaging areas and wrap up in a renovated tasting room for complimentary samples. A gift shop includes souvenirs from hats, T-shirts and coolers to stuffed Clydesdale toys.

[…]

Saint Arnold Brewing, the only local craft that was open in 1996, draws an estimated 70,000 visitors annually to its tours and tastings and another 30,000 to other events at the brewery, owner Brock Wagner said.

Now Anheuser-Busch wants the public to know its employees are as passionate and as proud of their work as are craft brewers, Oshin said.

Good for them. My wife, who grew up in Houston, has some fond memories of the bird park at the brewery that kids played in while their parents could quaff a cold one after a tour. I’d be interested in touring the place just to see what it’s like; I vaguely remember a visit to Busch Gardens in Tampa while on spring break in the 80s, which included a brewery tour. I have no desire to sample or buy any of their product, but I’m sure the operation would be cool to see.

Posted in: Food, glorious food.

Get ready for the HERO ruling

Should happen on Monday.

PetitionsInvalid

With a ruling expected next week in the protracted legal battle surrounding Houston’s equal rights ordinance, city attorneys entered a motion for judgment late Friday afternoon that says opponents of the law are 650 signatures shy of triggering a repeal referendum.

District Judge Robert Schaffer will hold a formal hearing Monday morning.

The city’s latest count puts conservative opponents of the law closer to triggering a vote than ever before, but still short of the needed 17,269 valid signatures.

“Under the jury’s verdict, and under any honest application of the court’s rulings, plaintiffs lose, the city wins, and civil rights are safe in Houston, Texas,” said Geoffrey Harrison, lead attorney for the city.

The plaintiffs have yet to submit their updated tally but say they’re well over the threshold.

See here, here, and here for the background. The issue here is with the legibility of circulator signatures, not the signatures on the petitions themselves. The plaintiffs filed a post-trial brief arguing that petitions with illegible circulator signatures and no accompanying printed names should be counted if the circulator signature can be matched to another signature elsewhere. The city filed a response disputing the plaintiffs’ methodology and argument, and noting that they had already benefited from the original ruling that allowed these otherwise incorrectly collected pages to be counted in the first place. Judge Schaffer gets to sort it all out on Monday, and from there it goes to appeal, no matter what he rules. It’s going to be a crazy day on Monday, that’s for sure.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Senate moves forward on sanctuary cities and DREAM Act repeal bills

One.

Senate Bill 185 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, also called the “sanctuary cities” bill, would cut off state funding for local governments or governmental entities that adopt policies forbidding peace officers from inquiring about the immigration status of people they detain or arrest.

The bill passed the Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote and now heads to the full Senate. When that chamber considered similar legislation in 2011, Democrats argued that the bill could lead to racial profiling by rogue police officers and hurt the state’s economy. The measure failed to pass during the regular and special sessions of the 82nd Legislature.

Republicans have revived their arguments that the measure is a simple way for police officers to determine who is in Texas in violation of federal immigration laws. Perry’s bill was tweaked in committee on Monday and does not apply to commissioned peace officers hired by school districts or open enrollment charter schools. Victims or witnesses to crimes are also exempted from the proposal.

And two.

The Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee took a speedy 4-3 vote on Wednesday, two days after 11 hours of emotional testimony on the contentious measure.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1819 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, repeals a 2001 provision — signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry — that allows some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. Of the 176 people who testified on Monday night, only five were in favor of Campbell’s bill.

[…]

It’s unknown when the full Senate could take up the measure, but supporters of the current policy aren’t waiting. On Monday, former Republican state Rep. Carl Isett, a co-author of the 2001 bill, will join the Texas Association of Business’s Bill Hammond and Juan Hernandez, a former aide to Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, at a news conference where they will reiterate their support for the in-state policy.

That’s your Senate, folks. I expect both bills will pass when they come to the floor. The Senate hasn’t gotten much done so far this session, and what little they have gotten done has mostly been ideological pieces, some of which (likely including these bills) may not get anywhere in the House. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to force the issue on these things if time is a factor in their demise? Maybe, but if so he isn’t talking about it – truthfully, he isn’t saying much about anything, which may be just as well. Anyway, that’s where we stand right now.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

HD124 runoff date set

Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

Ina Minjarez

The runoff in the special election in Texas House District 124 will be April 21 under a proclamation issued Thursday by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Pitted in the race to fill the unexpired term of now-state Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, are attorney Ina Minjarez and former Councilwoman Delicia Herrera, both Democrats.

Minjarez was the top vote-getter in the four-person special election on March 31, capturing 42 percent of the vote, followed by Herrera with 28.

Early voting starts Monday, as in this Monday – see here for times and locations. The short turnaround time won’t do anything to help improve turnout, but again, the longer the time between Election Days, the less time the next Representative would have to represent that district. The tradeoff seems worthwhile to me. Best of luck to both candidates.

Posted in: Election 2015.

A better year for seaweed

Good news for Galveston beachgoers.

In a lucky break for Galveston beachgoers and the Gulf Coast’s tourism industry, the masses of seaweed that plagued the area last summer seem to be turning toward the Caribbean and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

The mats of Sargassum, now carefully tracked by a NASA app unveiled Thursday, drift in from the Atlantic on Gulf currents. At a crossroads near the Yucatan Peninsula, the seaweed either turns toward the Texas Coast or is swept back to the Atlantic Ocean, Robert Webster, a marine science researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston, said at the 2015 Gulf Coast Sargassum Symposium.

“Most of the Sargassum has made that right turn,” Webster said. “They are getting killed in the Yucatan.”

Last year the seaweed took the Texas route, landing in volumes believed to be the largest inundation in history, possibly because massive flooding from Venezuela’s Orinoco River swept so many nutrients from floodwaters into the Gulf that it caused the Sargassum to flourish. The Orinoco is one of South America’s largest rivers and its mouth, although flowing into the Atlantic, is close to the Caribbean.

[…]

Although it may have its good attributes, cities want to get as much warning as possible to prepare for Sargassum landings. A new app developed by NASA, also unveiled at the symposium, uses satellites to spot seaweed and predict where and when it will land. Anybody who wants to know how much seaweed is on its way to Galveston beaches and when it will arrive can go to sargassum.tamug.edu to see orange dots representing seaweed floating across a satellite map of the Gulf of Mexico.

The automated system will replace a manual system, called the Sargassum Early Advisory System, developed by Texas A&M University at Galveston and maintained by students, said Duane Armstrong, chief of the applied science and technology products office at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center.

The original SEAS website is here. It points to a new website here, which is where I found that embedded image. The sargassum.tamug.edu didn’t have anything on it but a license agreement when I looked at it, but it may not be fully ready yet. In any event, I just thought this was cool.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Friday random ten: Parenthetically speaking, part 10

Starting to get close to the end.

1. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) – Billy Joel
2. (Nothing But) Flowers – Talking Heads
3. Papa Come Quick (Jody And Chico) – Bonnie Raitt
4. Pony (It’s OK) – Erin McCarley
5. Prepare Ye (The Way Of The Lord) – from “Godspell”
6. Pride (In The Name Of Love) – U2
7. Pulling Mussels (From the Shell) – Squeeze
8. Quartet (A Model Of Decorum And Tranquillity) – from “Chess”
9. R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (A Salute To 60’s Rock) – John Mellencamp
10. Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog) – Roky Erickson & Bleibalien

I’m thinking that U2 song might be a little lonely without a Christmas song to accompany it. Lots of classic rock on this list, plus two show tunes; three if you count the Billy Joel song. When do you suppose there will be a U2 musical?

Posted in: Music.

Uber and background checks

Uber is back in the news again, and as has often been the case it’s not in a good way.

Uber

Houston officials discovered crimes ranging from aggravated robbery to driving on a suspended license when they checked the backgrounds of prospective Uber drivers who had been cleared by the company’s review, according to a new report.

City regulatory officials cited the cases in documents prepared for a hearing in Austin on Thursday opposing a bill that would give the state control of regulating Uber and strip the city of its oversight – including criminal background checks.

Because Uber’s review, done by a company called Hirease, is based on Social Security numbers rather than fingerprints, it can be more easily manipulated, the city says.

“These companies miss applicants that use aliases,” according to a city report prepared for the hearing. “For example, a recent … driver, who had been cleared by Hirease, underwent a City of Houston fingerprint background check and it turned out she had 24 alias names, 5 listed birth dates, 10 listed Social Security numbers, and an active warrant for arrest.”

As drivers have applied for permits, “several” have been found that have criminal issues not caught by Uber, the report said.

“The charges include indecent exposure, DWI, possession of a controlled substance, prostitution, fraud, battery, assault, robbery, aggravated robbery, possession of marijuana, theft, sale of alcohol to a minor, traffic of counterfeit goods, trademark counterfeit, possession of narcotics, and driving with a suspended license.”

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday that the city is determined to enforce its rules.

“We continue to cite drivers, and we can impound cars and we have done that,” Parker said. “This is a problem with the company, and I’m beside myself right now at being angry at Uber. … I don’t want to go cite another driver. I want to hear directly from Uber.”

See here for some background. KUHF reports that the city is trying to figure out a way it can sanction Uber for its background check failures. Good luck with that.

I want to be clear here that I don’t believe that having a past conviction should necessarily be a disqualifier for would be Uber or Lyft drivers. Not all convictions represent a risk to a passenger’s safety, and I believe people deserve second chances. But any background check system worth doing should be able to discover these things. It is an issue if someone lies about their past, and we should be able to find those people out. This should not be controversial.

If the Lege insists on getting involved with the relationship between TNCs and cities, then let them set these requirements.

Lyft

House Bill 2440 by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, would grant statewide operating permits to companies like Uber and Lyft if they comply with certain regulations and pay an annual $115,000 fee. The companies use smartphone apps to connect people seeking a ride with freelance drivers using their own vehicles.

Paddie wrote on Facebook last month that his bill is about “free market principles” and would “allow innovative technology companies such as Uber and Lyft to operate under predictable, sensible statewide regulations.”

[…]

At a hearing before the House Transportation Committee on Thursday, Uber spokeswoman Sally Kay said fingerprint scans were inefficient and that Uber’s background checks were more thorough than the safety measures many cities have called for.

“This isn’t about cost,” she said. “This is about the fact that if we relied on the way many municipalities run their background checks, it wouldn’t be strong enough for us.”

[…]

On Thursday, state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, pressed Kay about how Burton slipped through the cracks.

“Did your background check find that this driver was on probation currently?” Phillips asked.

Kay said Uber is investigating the incident and she couldn’t comment. She also said Uber checks applicants for criminal activity within the past seven years, except for sexual offenses.

“That’s not really good enough for me,” Phillips said.

Nor should it be. It’s more than a little ridiculous for Uber to claim that their background checks are more thorough than what cities have called for, given what we’ve seen. The burden of proof for this is on them. Trail Blazers has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, That's our Lege.