The Texas Progressive Alliance is thankful for the mothers in their lives as it brings you this week’s roundup.
There are two types of people in Texas: Those for whom the tax code is written to favor, and everybody else.
The Dallas Country Club, not a place usually thought of as needing a huge tax break, used a quirk in state law to reduce its taxable value by nearly half.
Valero, one of the largest oil companies around, also used this provision to twice to force the Texas City school district to repay millions in collected taxes.
At a time when budgets are tight and school districts are hurting, counties statewide are watching their tax bases shrink by hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases as big business takes advantage of a 1997 amendment to the tax code that was intended to make sure homeowners were treated fairly.
The tax clause allows companies to file lawsuits year after year to reduce taxable value on their properties without any regard for the true market value, slowly shifting the tax burden to homeowners, officials in several Texas counties say.
In Bexar County, the clause allowed a new $600 million J.W. Marriott resort, in 2010 the largest Marriott in the world, to reduce its taxable value by more than half.
To Michael Amezquita, Bexar County’s chief appraiser, “It’s the equivalent of backing up the Brink’s truck to the public trough and driving away.” In his opinion, “It’s a legal way to steal dollars.”
As of Jan. 1 this year, there were 4,222 lawsuits challenging property values in Harris County, about 98 percent of them using the tax clause. The lawsuits represent about $35 billion in taxable value.
Lawsuits using the tax clause flooded the courts after the Texas 14th Court of Appeals ruled in 2005 that tax consultants testifying for the property owner did not need to use approved methods for determining value. The judge only has to believe that the testimony is reasonable.
“It’s like the Legislature just gave them a big red ‘easy’ button to reduce property taxes on the basis of equity,” said Sands Stiefer, attorney and deputy chief appraiser for the Harris County Appraisal District.
The lawsuits are nearly always successful, and most are settled out of court.
“It’s going to shift the tax base back to residential property,” said Ken Nolan, chief appraiser for the Dallas County Appraisal District.
Amezquita, the Bexar County appraiser, said that after Marriott lowered its tax value, he was sued by nearly every hotel in the county for tax rate reductions.
In El Paso County, a refinery used the law to slash its $781 million taxable value by 60 percent.
In Harris County, Houston 8th Wonder Properties purchased 104 acres of unimproved land for $77 million and a judge reduced the taxable value to $38 million. The appraisal district is appealing to the Texas Supreme Court. Houston 8th Wonder Properties officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The key element of the 1997 law allows companies to reduce their taxable value to the median value of similar properties. But because there is no definition for a comparable property, businesses are able to pick properties that in reality are dissimilar, appraisal district officials say.
In Harris County, HCA Gulf Coast compared 62.5 acres of prime, undeveloped property with a strip of property 90 feet wide, so narrow that it cannot be easily developed, according to an example of unfair property comparison given to legislators by the Harris County Appraisal District. The court reduced the value of the prime property by half.
Isn’t that nice? The effect of this ridiculous largesse is in the tens of billions statewide; it cost HISD $11 million just last year. There was a bill by Sen. Wendy Davis to try to limit the damage of this by restricting these lawsuits to properties valued at under $1 million, but it never had a chance in the Senate. Way too much money at stake to for that.
Hand in hand with this kind of generosity towards the wealthiest taxpayers is the notion of tax “reform” that lowers their taxes even more but does nothing for anyone else.
When the Texas House began debating HB 500 last Tuesday, the proposal would have reduced the collective tax bills of Texas businesses by $400 million. After several hours of debate, that figure had ballooned to $627 million as lawmakers eagerly tacked on amendments for various industries who said they had been treated unfairly under the state’s “margins” tax.
After all, Gov. Rick Perry has promised the Legislature will approve $1.8 billion in tax relief. Why say no to any exemption?
“HB 500 takes a stupid tax policy and makes it stupider,” a frustrated Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, told the House at the end of the lengthy debate. The bill, especially with all the amendments just approved, he said, would make the margins tax “more inequitable and more arbitrary.”
What the Legislature should be doing, he said, is a complete overhaul of the tax.
As Tuesday’s debate showed, that is easier said than done.
Texas’ tax system is “unbalanced, inefficient and inequitable,” said Bernard Weinstein, an adjunct professor of Business Economics at SMU’s Cox School of Business. And yet, elected officials view tax studies as opening a Pandora’s box, said Weinstein, a member of the 1987 Select Committee on Tax Equity,
“It’s great to sit down and talk about the big picture, but I don’t know too many politicians who are willing,” he said.
“Tax reform to many people equals tax increase.”
For those who are already winning, maybe. For the rest of us, it might mean we’d be screwed a little bit less. Again, we can’t let that happen.
“When the state cuts, local governments have to pick up the pieces,” said Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “You can’t just cut taxes. We need tax reform.”
[Former Deputy Comptroller Billy] Hamilton agreed that it made sense to view “state and local tax structure as a unit.”
“High property taxes are the price we pay for the tax system we’ve got,” he said.
When the governor promises tax relief, added SMU’s Weinstein, an important question is: “For whom?”
Unless you have a lobbyist there in Austin schmoozing for you, the answer is not you. You don’t get the breaks, you get the tab. It’s not by accident, it’s the system we’ve put in place.
Finally, on a related note, Mayor Parker’s office put out this statement on property tax fairness yesterday.
Property tax fairness is an issue important to the city’s bottom line and that of every residential property owner because they are bearing an unequal tax burden. Clearly, all properties need to be valued appropriately. The current system is obviously inequitable and rewards a lack of transparency by the owners of many commercial properties. All too often, sound valuations made by Harris County Appraisal District (HCAD) are unfairly attacked by these owners, and HCAD, bound by a system that favors the owners, is forced to defend its actions with one hand tied behind its back. It is time for a change, and the state legislature is the primary place to make that change. The City of Houston will work with HCAD, the Houston Organization of Public Employees and other groups to achieve that change.
See here for more. It’s a little late to address this in the current legislative session, but the sentiment is correct, and I hope the fight for more tax fairness is a highlight of the next session.
Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.
Most discussion of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone’s plan, which goes before City Council this week, has been about a proposal to annex Memorial Park into the zone and spend $100 million restoring the drought-stricken park. The centerpiece of the zone’s plan, however, is a $187.5 million vision to widen and rebuild Post Oak Boulevard with dedicated bus lanes in the middle, build 7,500 feet of elevated bus lanes on the West Loop, and finance a transit center and parking garage at Westpark and the West Loop.
“We’re doing a lot to improve streets in the Uptown area to help make it more convenient for people to get around, but getting to the Uptown area, we’ve done about all we can with the automobile,” said John Breeding, director of the Uptown zone. “What we need to do is find some way to grow our transportation supply, and that is by bringing in transit.”
Breeding stressed that Post Oak’s existing six lanes and protected left turn lanes would be preserved.
More than 65 percent of Uptown workers live to the southwest and northwest in areas served by HOV lanes and Metro’s park and ride service, Breeding said, but just 10 of 300 daily park and ride buses visit the Galleria; most go downtown.
“We are badly underserved right now,” said Kendall Miller, an Uptown zone board member. “We have some local routes that kind of go through us, we have some van pools that are organized by the big companies. It’s very ad lib.”
About 37 percent of all downtown workers take a Metro vehicle to work, Breeding said, and 62 percent of them make more than $80,000 a year, showing people choose transit for many reasons and that everyone from oil executives to retail clerks would use the buses if they served Uptown.
Metro board member Christof Spieler said about half the people who live in areas served by park and rides use the service, adding that Metro has long wanted to add Uptown to that list.
“It’s never been possible because, in order to get from the Northwest Transit Center or the Southwest Freeway to Uptown, those buses would have wound up stuck in same traffic with everyone else,” he said. “I really think this is a game-changer for transit in one of our most important job centers.”
City Councilman Oliver Pennington, who represents the area, said Greater Houston Partnership data show there are almost 200,000 jobs in his district, 91 percent of which are filled by workers living elsewhere, creating “a terrific traffic nightmare.” The proposed transit plan would make the area more competitive and more livable, he said.
“I’m a firm believer that we need some things to show what a great city we are. I think it will not only serve the people, but it will show the world that Houston is doing things for its citizens. We need some physical evidence of the kind of life that we enjoy here.”
See here, here, here, and here for the background. I think this is the first mention I’ve seen of elevated bus lanes for the West Loop, which would enable the park and ride buses to avoid the traffic of the Loop and thus be more attractive to potential riders. It certainly makes sense to expand the park and ride network into Uptown, and I do think it will be heavily used once that happens. Having the support of CM Pennington makes approval of the TIRZ expansion very likely, though I’m sure there will be some lively discussion given the Memorial Park concerns that have been raised.
Expansion of the TIRZ is still a necessary condition for any of this to go forward. Funding for this plan is dependent in part on a grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council, which has not yet approved said funding but could take the matter up once soon.
The proposals could come for consideration before the regional group’s Transportation Policy Council – the body responsible for allocating the federal grants – on May 24 or June 28, said Alan Clark, H-GAC’s transportation director.
“The council allocated around $400 million in grants at its April 26 meeting. The projects in question were not slated for action, but money was held back so these projects can be considered,” Clark said.
Before the proposals go for a TPC vote, an H-GAC advisory committee will consult with the Texas Department of Transportation about one phase of the plan that would involve linking bus service on Post Oak to Metro’s Northwest Transit Center, Clark said.
Current ideas include creating a grade-separated bus way above the main lanes of Loop 610 that would be connected to a Post Oak transit line, he said.
“Because this (the connection between Post Oak and the Northwest Transit Center) is so integral to the overall plan and its anticipated benefits, the Technical Advisory Committee wants to do further study,” Clark said.
Again, I feel confident that this will go through, but it’s fine if H-GAC wants to take its time and think about it some.
One other point to stress about all this is that by extending Metro’s park and ride network into Uptown, which includes the BRT lanes on Post Oak, we are also building for even more expansion and connections in the future. The Westpark transit center would obviously be of use when the University line finally gets built. If there is ever a commuter rail line along US 290, the Northwest transit center, which is the northern endpoint of this project, would be the gateway from it into Uptown. Adding a node to a network has value beyond the node itself. This plan has a lot to offer for Uptown, but it’s potentially very good for the big picture as well.
Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Usually, the city election season doesn’t get into full swing until summertime, safely after the legislative session has ended. But clearly, it’s on in District I.
Houston City Council District I candidate Graci Garces is calling for opponent Ben Mendez’s apology after Mendez — or someone with his campaign — allegedly e-mail blasted a photo of….um, Garces enjoying a meal at a restaurant.
“I was appalled that Ben Mendez and his campaign would distribute a photo of me that is intended to bully, harass, and discriminate,” Garces explained in her statement.
She continued: “The Mendez campaign crossed the line of decency and should be held accountable.”
Hair Balls has to admit: we’re a little confused by the whole thing. We’re not sure what the Mendez hoped to gain by distributing the photo, or if it was just someone’s idea of a joke. What’s the message of this photo? That Garces is not a size 2, and therefore is a freak of nature whose very existence must be documented and shared with the rest of the world?
We think Garces and her supporters — some of whom have written their own open letter demanding an apology — are raising too much of a stink over this, but that’s politics. What bothers us most of all is the way Mendez’s campaign is(n’t) dealing with this.
Campos, who is Graci Garces’ campaign manager, has copies of the open letters. The first one has links to pages that talk about bullying and fat shaming, which is the direction I assume Garces intends to go with this. You can see the photo embedded above, which was included in the open letters. Garces is not a size zero, and nobody looks good in a photo taken while eating, especially a non-thin person and double especially a non-thin female person, who is likely to be reduced to an object of ridicule and derision by some number of people who see said photo. (See, for example, some of the comments on that Hair Balls post.) Garces wants to head that off, and I understand and admire that impulse. On the other hand, she herself has now made that photo of her more widely known than it was likely to become without her actions, and it’s not clear that the message she’s sending with it will accompany all of those images or sink in with the people who see them. One can argue that from a strategic perspective, she should have let it go. I think her course of action was the right thing to do, but not necessarily the best way to win the election.
As for Mendez, I don’t know the story behind this, and if you read through that Hair Balls piece, you can see that his campaign is not exactly on top of things response-wise. Whatever his intent was, let’s hope this steers the campaign for this open seat back to more substantive matters. District I voters – really, all of us – deserve that much. Texpatriate has more.
Posted in: Election 2013.
What Nonsequiteuse says:
I’m really upset that the Houston Astros have left the Houston Area Women’s Center in the lurch as far as the gala this year. I know the people and the programs that will suffer without those funds, and let me tell you, it will hurt.
I’d like to suggest some constructive next steps the parties involved in this meltdown might take to not just repair the damage, but to launch a new partnership that is beneficial to each party and the larger community.
You can read the basics at KHOU (which broke the story), CultureMap (and an update here, with comments from the Astros), the Houston Press (which brings in some additional elements of recent developments with the ball club), and undoubtedly many other places. Great, long history and details on the Houston Chronicle. But the quick history:
- The Astros, through their Astros’ Wives organization, traditionally held a black-tie gala benefiting theHouston Area Women’s Center, our region’s oldest, largest, and exceedingly well-respected nonprofit organization supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence and educating the community on how to create a world free of such violence.
- The gala has happened for so long, and been so well-received by the community, that the proceeds have become a key line item in the agency’s annual operating budget.
- The ball club just announced that it is “officially” disbanding the Astros’ Wives, and that the club will redirect its charitable focus toward troubled youth and inner-city baseball programs.
- KHOU broke the story [Tuesday] morning.
My thoughts, which I hope might form the basis for constructive move-aheads:
Fill the Gap
The immediate need is making sure HAWC has the funds they need to finish their budget year. Making do without the gala proceeds is like asking a team to play without a shortstop.
Let’s not wait for the team to act. You can donate here. Share the link once you’ve kicked in your bit, and remember, even $15 or $50 helps.
You should read the full post by Nonsequiteuse for a number of ways that this can be fixed or mitigated. The HAWC does great and necessary work, and it doesn’t deserve to be left hanging like this. While the Astros Wives Organization is a separate non-profit that is not affiliated with the ballclub, surely Jim Crane could have given the Women’s Center more notice about this change in policy. Maybe one last gala for old times’ sake, then part ways with plenty of time for the HAWC to plan for the next year. Failing that, there are some fine ideas in NS’ post, so check it out. I hope we can all come together and find a way forward for the HAWC this year.
UPDATE: More this morning, on the Astros’ response and what could have been done about the things they brought up.
UPDATE: Sean Pendergast piles on.
Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.
There are three points of interest in this Statesman story about Battleground Texas. Point One: They’ve convinced the people who most needed convincing, the money people and the dedicated volunteers.
Battleground Texas quickly won the allegiance of Steve Mostyn and Mary Patrick.
Mostyn is a Houston trial lawyer who, with his wife, Amber, is the foremost contributor to Democratic and liberal causes in Texas. He was among Obama’s top donors nationally. Big, bald and bold, Mostyn has emerged as the Daddy Warbucks of Texas Democratic politics.
Mary Patrick, slight, gray and indefatigably determined, is the epitome of the long-suffering progressive Austin uber-volunteer, on whom Battleground Texas’ success will depend every bit as much as on Mostyn’s money.
It was Patrick signing people in at the Battleground Texas organizing event at the AFL-CIO hall in Austin in early April. It was Patrick, an active volunteer with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin, who has opened the doors of its fellowship hall every Saturday morning since mid-April so that Battleground Texas can train its recruits and have them sworn in as volunteer deputy voter registrars, phase two of their battle plan.
“I’ve been real pleasantly surprised,” said Mostyn over a bowl of gumbo at Shoal Creek Saloon on Lamar Boulevard. “When they came and met with me, the question we had for them was, ‘How do you replicate any enthusiasm when you don’t have a candidate?’”
“They said, ‘We may have to build excitement,’” he said. And, so far, they have.
Persuaded, Mostyn traveled to New York, California, Colorado and D.C., “meeting with people from all over the progressive movement who understand that there are four majority-minority states, and Texas is the only one that’s Republican.”
“We’ve never seen the money commitment that’s coming and the money commitment that I’m going to put in,” said Mostyn. “It’s large, and that’s new and it’s sustaining. All of us are talking – those of us in the donor world – about a long-term plan.”
What kind of money are we talking about?
Mostyn pauses: “Battleground’s budget is millions and millions and millions and millions and millions.” (Battleground Texas doesn’t have to file its first semiannual fundraising report until July 15.)
The Battleground crew likewise impressed Patrick, who has been active in Democratic campaigns and liberal causes in Austin since graduating from the University of Texas in 1968.
“This is a very smart group of people. If they had never done this before, I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ But they’ve done it before, and they know what to do,” said Patrick.
“It’s very exciting, and I’m very eager. I want this to happen before I get too old; please, sometime before I’m 90,” she said. “For those of us who have been slogging it out for years, we want it now.”
Money matters, of course. Battleground Texas needs smart, dedicated people at the helm, crafting strategy and directing resources and crunching data and so on and so forth. People like that – the Jeremy Birds and Jenn Browns and Christina Gomezes – are in demand, and can work on any campaign they want to work on. They need office space and computers and access to data and the people who can make sense of the data, and they need those things now and will continue to need those things after the next election is over. Having the money to pay for those things, and knowing that the money will continue to be there to pay for those things, is critical to this effort. But as important as that money is, the core value of Battleground Texas is people power, neighbors talking to neighbors. If the worker bees don’t buy into the vision, all that money won’t really do very much. We need both. Getting both sides of this equation on board was BT’s first challenge, and they met it. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Point two: Nobody is really sure what to make of all this.
But, those who study political demography, such as Robert Stein and Mark Jones at Rice University, project that Democrats could start winning statewide in the 2020s – a long time from now, but, considering the enormous stakes nationally, well worth a protracted Democratic effort to lay the groundwork.
Still, Richard Murray, director of the Survey Research Institute at the University of Houston, is dubious that national Democrats will pour money into a sustained long-term effort in a state as vast and expensive as Texas when the money could be used to far greater tangible effect elsewhere.
“To my knowledge, there is no precedent nationally of an attempt to change a state that is pretty solidly in the other party’s political base by investing surplus resources that don’t have any immediate payoff,” Murray said.
Texas Democrats have romantic notions about what Hillary Clinton as the potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 could do in Texas, but Murray observes that if Clinton were within striking distance of winning Texas, she would be on her way to an electoral landslide that wouldn’t require Texas.
For now, Brown finds herself having to tamp down the expectations her very presence has excited.
“I’d like to do well in 2014 and convince somebody we are here for them,” she told the Austin organizing meeting at the AFL-CIO hall on Lavaca Street.
But if not, “that’s OK,” she said. And if Democrats don’t carry Texas in 2016, “that’s totally OK too. If 2020 is the year we turn this state blue, that’s OK with me.”
Despite what Steve Mostyn said about BT’s budget, I don’t think it’s going to take a ridiculous amount of money for BT to have an effect. It’s not BT that’s going to be buying TV ads for candidates, which is where the real expenses are – it will be the candidates themselves, and whatever third parties that want to get involved. Frankly, if even half of the money that flows out of Texas to candidates elsewhere in the country stayed here in Texas, that would go a long way towards powering BT. That said, I agree with Dr. Murray that there really isn’t a model for what BT is trying to do. Sure, they’re trying to replicate the Obama campaign in states like Ohio and Florida, but in a state that hasn’t seen a Presidential campaign in the lifetimes of the BT braintrust. But just because something hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t. I don’t see that as a blocker for BT. I do think it will need to show some kind of results beginning next year to help maintain the energy that it has generated so far. I do think BT will need to set some goals – it’s OK if they wait till there are some actual candidates before they do – and I think that an overall turnout goal is a fine place to start. But this is a long-term project, and we have no idea how it will go.
Point three: Republicans say they’ll spend a ton of money if BT is effective. I say “So what?”
“They talk about they’re going to be putting tens of million into Battleground Texas,” said [state GOP Chair Steve] Munisteri. “If there ever were a significant threat because somebody put $20 million in, our business community would probably spend that on Republicans by a factor of several-fold; $75 million was raised just from Texas for Romney. None of that money was spent in the state. Over a six-year period, the RNC raised $41 million in Texas and spent about $400,000. Those dollars can easily flow back the other way if we need them, so if they spend $10 million, we can spend $100 million.”
If so, for a national Democratic donor that would mean for every dollar spent in Texas, Republicans would spend $10, money they wouldn’t be spending elsewhere. That’s not a bad return on investment.
All that money didn’t do much to help Republicans nationally, either. The vast majority of that money, once the consultants and other bottom-feeders like Karl Rove skimmed off their piece, went to TV ads, which were of minimal effectiveness last year. I’ll take engaged volunteers over that, thanks. Be that as it may, doing nothing is not an option. If we’re going to get scared about what the Republicans might do when we try to win, we may as well not try.
Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.
Council will vote on the proposed Uptown/Memorial TIRZ this week, which may or may not put an end to some of the wild speculation about what expanding the Uptown TIRZ boundaries to include Memorial Park may mean.
Imagine you’re jogging through Memorial Park, squinting past rows of neon signs in front of fast food joints, the music from bars in a kitschy corridor akin to San Antonio’s Riverwalk barely audible over the roar of nearby bulldozers.
This is the dystopian portrait some citizens paint of a proposal to annex the park into the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. They say the move is a takeover of the city’s most precious green space by an unelected board, and fear the process could result in disruptive projects being built before the public has a chance to weigh in.
The problem with this view is that there is no evidence to support it, as city leaders repeatedly have said; Mayor Annise Parker bemoaned the “really goofy theories” that have been swirling.
Adding the park to the nearby Uptown zone is simply a way to funnel $100 million during the next 27 years from one of the city’s richest redevelopment boards into a park ravaged by the 2011 drought and in need of erosion control projects, irrigation, a new jogging trail and other repairs, officials say. Though the Uptown zone or Memorial Park Conservancy may take the lead on select projects, officials stress any improvements in the park must be specified in advance and approved by the city Parks and Recreation Department and by City Council.
Parker pointed out the Uptown zone already is working in a small portion of the park in its boundaries, and that a similar arrangement is succeeding in Emancipation Park.
That has not stopped Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, whose District C includes Memorial Park, from fielding numerous calls and emails from concerned residents.
“What I want to hear from you is that we’re not looking at Ferris wheels along Memorial Park, fast food restaurants lining Memorial Park,” she said to parks director Joe Turner at a hearing last week. “We’re not looking at any of the kinds of things that really would destroy the integrity of the park if this program goes through.”
Turner assured her no such plans are being discussed. The only specific project on the table today is the Uptown zone contributing $1 million toward a new master plan for Memorial Park, which he said would include ample time for public comment, including at least four public meetings, in addition to several hearings before City Council.
They make some important points – none better than Olive Hershey, the stepdaughter of Terry Hershey, the determined conservationist and life member of the conservancy who fought government agencies trying to pave parts of Buffalo Bayou in the 1960s.
“There’s been virtually no disclosure of the real details of this scheme and the public stands to lose any meaningful control of an irreplaceable park in our public lands and waterways,” Hershey told the council Wednesday. “Memorial Park must not be turned over to a group of bureaucrats who may have little understanding of how to nurture and defend this fragile jewel. If the city needs money to reforest the drought-damaged landscape there, it seems a shame to basically turn the park over to TIRZ 16 because the city can’t afford to protect the remaining trees.”
She wondered aloud whether the powerful influence of developers and other interests over a relatively few conservancy members could lead to “neon signs” along trails and retail developments similar to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. The mayor dismissed such scenarios as “far-fetched” and stressed that the park can only be used for “park purposes.”
I didn’t address this when I wrote about it then because it seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I understand the concerns about transparency and public input, but I just don’t find the scenario being put forth here as remotely realistic. If there were ever even a rumor of this sort of thing being proposed or in the works, people would storm city hall with pitchforks and torches. Nobody who could be elected to anything in Houston would allow this to stand. I don’t understand where this is coming from. There may be less-farfetched things that could happen, but I don’t know what they are, and it’s still not clear to me what level and form of public input would be acceptable to assuage these fears – I still haven’t seen any suggestions to that effect. As noted in the story, the TIRZ meetings are open to the public, and five of the eight members are appointed by the Mayor and Council, which gets back to that pitchforks and torches thing. I totally get the desire to ensure that Memorial Park is preserved. I’m right there with that. I just want to know what the remedy is that would also allow for the needed improvements and infrastructure repairs to be made to the park.
Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.
I still think it’s dead, but I could be wrong about that.
The fate of Medicaid reform in Texas could rest solely on an up-or-down vote on the 2014-15 budget.
State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, a member of the conference committee that is hashing out the differences between the House and Senate budget plans, said Monday he’s relatively confident that a rider stipulating the Legislature’s preferred Medicaid reform terms — like cost containment measures and private market reforms — for any deal with the federal government is “sticking” to the 2014-15 budget. The rider does not expand Medicaid, he clarified, and said he would be “happy to defend it” to his colleagues.
The 2014-15 budget is not yet finalized. Budget conferees are meeting Monday evening to discuss the health and human services section and could discuss the rider. It could also come up in future discussions on the proposed budget this week.
Republican lawmakers have made it clear that they won’t approve an expansion of Medicaid eligibility this session. And although some conservative GOP House members have vowed to reject the budget proposal if such a rider is included, Zerwas said the rider has the support of the majority of budget conferees. The budget does not include financing to expand Medicaid eligibility in the upcoming biennium.
“No amount may be expended to modify Medicaid eligibility unless the [Health and Human Services Commission] develops a plan to create more efficient health care coverage options for all existing and newly eligible populations,” states the budget rider, which was authored by Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.
The rider also says the Legislative Budget Board, which includes the lieutenant governor and House speaker, must ensure that any deal reached with the federal government to expand Medicaid eligibility cuts uncompensated care costs; promotes the use of private coverage and health savings accounts; establishes wellness incentives, cost-sharing initiatives and pay-for-performance initiatives; and reduces the state’s need to gain federal approval to make “minor changes” to the program.
(You can read the budget rider here, under contingent provisions in Article 9, Sec. 17.12. Certain Medicaid Funds.)
The Senate has approved the rider, but the House approved a nonbinding motion directing budget conferees not to include the rider on the budget.
State Rep. Van Taylor, a Tea Party favorite from Plano, told the Tribune on Tuesday that the conservative faction of the House was prepared to vote down the budget, if it called for an expansion of Medicaid.
“John wants it. I want it — so there’s two of us” who want to include the rider in the budget, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said on Tuesday.
I presume Sylvester Turner, who is also on the House conference committee, would be in favor of this as well. If so, then that should be enough support to include it. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. I’m sure Pitts is smart enough to not doom his own budget, but I don’t know how much faith I’d put in the Republicans; Democrats will have their own incentives, which may or may not line up with what Pitts wants. And if we are going to a special session as Burka is convinced we are, then I wouldn’t put it past Rick Perry to veto the budget out of spite. Let’s just say that the conference committee, which is meeting again and making some progress, is likely the lowest hurdle for this to clear.
Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.
This has been in the works for a long time.
The [HISD Board of Trustees] voted unanimously on a revised policy governing its beloved magnet school program, saying the schools would be held more accountable for academic performance and their ability to attract students.
While some of the 113 magnet programs are nationally recognized and draw waiting lists, others have languished over the years.
“Woo! We finally passed a magnet policy,” board president Anna Eastman said immediately after the vote.
Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier took his excitement to Twitter.
“HISD approves Magnet Policy after four years of discussion!” he wrote.
The policy does not address individual schools – a politically tougher topic. Grier and the board have said no changes will take place for the coming school year.
Yeah, it’s when the board gets around to deciding the fate of individual schools that stuff will start to get real. Be that as it may, I think this is sensible. HISD has a lot of great magnet schools, but that doesn’t mean they’re all worth keeping, or at least worth keeping as is. It’s perfectly reasonable for them all to have to demonstrate their value. This preview story has some more details.
The policy that the school board is set to approve Thursday is general, but makes a point that magnet programs should have “fair and equitable” resources and should be held accountable for academic performance. The proposal also calls for magnet schools to strive for at least 20 percent of their students to come from outside the neighborhood, but Eastman suggested this week that the provision should be loosened.
“We have to use common sense,” Grier said in response. “We’re not interested in hurting schools that are attracting kids.”
Data obtained from HISD show that 50 of 113 magnet programs don’t meet the 20 percent standard.
The programs drawing the fewest students from outside the neighborhood – fewer than 15 – are Worthing, Scarborough, Kashmere and Lee high schools, Long Academy and Ryan Middle. Combined, those schools are receiving more than $558,000 in special magnet funding this year, the data show.
The school board already has agreed to close Ryan and reopen it next year as a magnet school focused on health careers, modeled after the prestigious DeBakey High School for Health Professions.
In all, HISD gave about $17 million extra to its magnet schools this year, and the district spends another $10 million on transportation. The funding for programming varies widely. Six magnet programs got no extra money this year while three – Carnegie Vanguard High School, Parker Elementary and Garden Villas Elementary – received more than $400,000 each.
Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who helped revise the magnet policy, said she hopes it will spur better programs with more relevant themes. Once the board approves the new policy, Grier’s staff plans to write more detailed standards such as specific academic benchmarks.
There’s certainly room to massage the 20 percent standard – at the very least, if things are working well at a school otherwise, there should be some discretion to leave things be. Ultimately, the goal should be to keep what’s good and fix or get rid of what isn’t. The details are obviously important, but let’s not get so bogged down in them that we lose sight of that.
Posted in: School days.
With the Thursday midnight deadline for bills to pass on second reading in the House, I figured this would be a good time to take a look at the status of some major legislation and legislative priorities. There are two weeks left in the regular session, and the specter of overtime is hazy but present. A full list of failed House bills is here, I’m going to aim for the highlights.
Budget – In conference committee. The two chambers weren’t that far apart on how much they spent and what they spent it on, but there were real differences and things have gotten a little testy. Still, I don’t expect there to be too much drama on the basics.
Water and transportation – This is where it has gotten sticky. The Senate passed a joint resolution to allocate up to $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day fund for water and transportation projects, with some extra for public education. The House has rejected this approach, and compounded the issue by failing to pass a bill to fund water projects and pulling a bill to raise vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation matters. Both are stated priorities of Rick Perry, who says we’ll go to a special session if something isn’t done about these things. Complicating matters further is an opinion from AG Greg Abbott that Rainy Day fund spending counts towards the constitutional spending cap. The Senate’s approach would have avoided that, but Speaker Straus says it’s a non-starter in the House. The House would prefer to just vote to raise the cap, which requires only a majority, but David Dewhurst doesn’t want to do that because many Republicans (like him) might get attacked in the 2014 primaries for doing so. It’s quite the dilemma. Everyone is saying that one way or another these things will get done, but it’s not clear to me what the path forward is.
Education – We know that some more money will be spent on public education than in 2011, but the full cuts from 2011 will not be restored, and the final amount that will be added is still up in the air. The charter school expansion bill has not yet been heard in the House, and it’s not clear how it will go. Vouchers appear to be dead. HB5, the big bill to cut back on standardized testing and revamp the high school curriculum, was amended by the Senate after being passed by the House, and is now in conference committee after the House rejected the Senate’s amendments.
Medicaid expansion – Dead. As with all things, there are ways to raise the dead in the Lege while it’s still in session, but it ain’t happening here.
Expanded gambling – Also dead. Check back in 2014, if the Supreme Court upholds the school finance ruling.
Guns – The House did manage to pass a number of gun-expansion bills in the days before their Thursday deadline, including at least one truly demented bill. Many of them likely have no future in the Senate, which ought to make everyone whose bills died on the vine on Thursday from lack of time rethink their priorities (not that it will), but the campus carry bill may get a chance to be heard.
Abortion – A combination of resistance by two normally anit-abortion Democrats to some noxious bills in the Senate and that slow-roll calendar in the House have caused all of the major anti-abortion bills to be held at bay so far. The advocates of these bills in the House at least are unlikely to give up, and I for one have a very bad feeling that if there is a special session for any reason, Perry will add this legislation to the call. If the two-thirds rule is not adopted by the Senate for the special, then that’s all she wrote. If there is a special session, I expect a lot of people will pressure Perry to address this, and I expect he’ll listen to them. I hope I’m wrong, but as I said, I have a very bad feeling about it.
Redistricting – Who knows? I’ve seen several people mention that they have heard Perry will call a special on redistricting, but I have not seen Perry himself mention this, though he has talked about a special for water and transportation if they don’t get done. The idea of a special for redistricting came up late in the 2011 session, so this is certainly a possibility, but in my experience Perry usually telegraphs his intentions. But seriously, I have no idea. For updates on other election-related legislation, see Texas Redistricting.
Criminal justice – I defer to Scott Henson on this.
Beer – In case you were wondering, the craft beer bills were passed by the Senate and thus were not subject to the House Thursday deadline, as that was for House bills that had not yet been heard on the floor. The package of Senate craft beer bills should be heard in the House this week.
That’s about all I can think of. if I’ve missed anything obvious, let me know.
Posted in: That's our Lege.
Modified again, this time enough to garner support from the teachers.
Teachers, the state of Texas and school districts all would pay more to help support the Teacher Retirement System of Texas under a bill passed by the Texas Senate Wednesday.
Under Senate Bill 1458, the $117 billion TRS fund would get a boost from members, whose contributions would increase from 6.4 percent of their salaries to 7.7 percent over four years. Meanwhile, the state’s contribution would increase from 6.4 percent to 6.8 percent, and school districts that do not pay into Social Security would contribute 1.5 percent. Additionally, about 102,000 teachers who have retired since 1999 would receive a 3 percent cost of living adjustment under the new bill.
See here and here for the background. The main points of objection from the teachers had to do with the size of the state’s contribution, and with increasing the teachers’ contribution all at once instead of phasing it in. While this story has no details, the Texas AFT spells out the changes since the last time:
The combination of grass-roots pressure and hard negotiating by our legislative allies has led to this substantial improvement in the TRS bill. Sens. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), and Royce West (D-Dallas) played crucial roles in winning the Senate-passed improvements. Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) too gets credit for leaving his door open to negotiations to modify his bill.
As this legislation now moves over to the House and ultimately to a House-Senate conference committee, the same combination of grass-roots communication and tough negotiations in the capitol could bring further improvements sought by Texas AFT for retired and active school employees, such as an immediate benefit increase for all rather than just one-third of retirees, as well as prospective-only application of a new minimum retirement age for full pension benefits. (As it now stands under SB 1458, school employees who do not have five years of service credit by September 1, 2014, would be subject to the new minimum age of 62 for full, unreduced retirement benefits). So be prepared to launch another wave of messages to members of the Texas House!
To review: Under SB 1458 as amended on the Senate floor today, employee contributions would remain at 6.4 percent in fiscal 2014 (starting September 2013), while the state contribution would rise to 6.8 percent. In fiscal 2015, the employee contribution would be 6.7 percent, while the state continues to contribute 6.8 percent, plus school districts that do not contribute to Social Security would kick in another 1.5 percent. In fiscal 2016, the employee contribution would go to 7.2 percent, while the state and district contributions would hold at 6.8 percent and 1.5 percent; in fiscal 2017, the employee contribution would rise to 7.7 percent, which still would be less than the combined state/district total of 8.3 percent.
If the state were to reduce its contribution below 6.8 percent, employee and district contributions would fall by an equal percentage.
They released a statement thanking Sen. Duncan and the Democrats that worked to improve the bill and called on their members to support it. There are still issues to be settled, so don’t file this one away just yet. The Morning News has more.
On a related note, things were happening for the bill to modify the Employee Retirement System, but it didn’t get to a vote in time on Thursday, so whatever happens there will come from the Senate bill. At last report, labor had dropped its opposition to the ERS bill after some changes had been made. We’ll see what happens from here.
Posted in: That's our Lege.
I didn’t pay much attention to Saturday’s elections, since there was nothing on the ballot for me and there were few races of interest around the state. One place where there were races worth watching was in Farmers Branch, and the news from there was excellent.
Ana Reyes became the first Hispanic to win a seat on the Farmers Branch City Council in the new District 1 after historic single-member district balloting forced on the city by a federal judge. The 39-year-old Reyes maintained her 2-to-1 ratio in balloting throughout the night.
Reyes, the district manager of state Rep. Rafael Anchía, beat 48-year-old William Capener, a print shop manager with Tea Party ties.
In another upset, incumbent David Koch, a 51-year-old attorney, lost his re-election bid to 73-year-old Kirk Connally, a retiree who had served on the planning and zoning board for years. Koch fought hard against the voting rights charges and led an effort to appeal the lower court judge’s order. Connally had said he was fed up with all the spending on litigation.
“I’m excited and excited about Kirk Connally’s win as well,” Reyes said in a phone interview. “Together, we can do great things and move forward.”
Single-member districts generally make it easier for minorities to gain political position in venues where there’s been polarization in vote patterns. Voting rights suits have increased in North Texas as Latinos challenge governments with at-large electoral systems that result in all-white city councils and school boards.
The Justice Department sent election monitors to the city on Saturday — for their fourth poll watch since 2007.
Farmers Branch, a suburb of 29,000, has been a fount for litigation since 2006 when it passed an ordinance to bar immigrants in the U.S. illegally from rental housing. The measure led to shouting matches inside and outside of council sessions and a chain of litigation that has cost the city nearly $6 million. A federal judge ruled the latest version of the rental ordinance was unconstitutional and it has yet to be enforced. The ordinance is on appeal.
The acrimony seeded Reyes’ interest in politics in Farmers Branch, where she has lived nearly all her life. She is the daughter of two immigrants from Mexico. The naturalized citizens, Antonio and Maria Reyes, voted for their daughter in the historic election. They were also two of the ten plaintiffs that sued the city of Farmers Branch.
Saturday night, Maria Reyes said she was “very content” with election results. She never hesitated in being a part of the civil rights suit, she said. “We had no representation and now we do.”
Reyes’s campaign treasurer was Amelia Baladez, another of the plaintiffs in the voting rights suit. One of her biggest donors was Bill Brewer, a Dallas corporate attorney whose pro-bono affiliate launched the successful suit against the city of Farmers Branch. The firm, the Bickel & Brewer Storefront, also sued the city over the rental ordinance, inspiring one councilman to criticize the law firm for “bullying.”
[Saturday night], Brewer said, “Farmers Branch is so obviously polarized in voting among the races. It was a suit that needed to be brought. She is going to be great councilwoman.”
BOR had a preview of the race and a brief chat with CM-elect Reyes that you should read. Farmers Branch has been a cesspool of racism and xenophobia these past few years, spending millions of dollars in pointless efforts to punish people who committed no crime. The elections of Reyes and Connally are the first step towards draining that swamp and getting Farmers Branch back on the road to productivity and good stewardship of its resources. Congratulations to Ana Reyes and Kirk Connally, and best of luck to both of you on Farmers Branch City Council.
Posted in: Election 2013.
Five great years for a great park and an awesome city amenity.
Five years after its opening, more than 1 million people annually come to stretch out on the grassy slope to take in live music and movies with the skyline as a backdrop, to play with Frisbees and soccer balls, to splash in the water fountains. People come to the 12-acre park to ice-skate and walk dogs, to attend festivals and flea markets, to stroll under a canopy of live oaks toward the gardens. Once, they came for balloon rides.
Hotels, office and apartment towers have been shooting up nearby, a good deal in part because of Discovery Green. It’s become the city’s “town square,” said Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. It’s helped change the city’s image, he and other civic leaders say.
“It corrects the misconception that Houston is mostly concrete and asphalt and acres and acres of nothing to do,” Ortale said.
“Driving from the airport is one impression, and being in Discovery Green is another,” Hagstette said.
About $1 billion in construction or planned construction has or will go up around Discovery Green, “all of it influenced” by the park, said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District. About 80 percent of that development is private, he noted. More Discovery Green-influenced projects have not yet been made public, he said.
Eury noted that Hess Tower, overlooking Discovery Green, recently sold for more per square foot than any Houston building.
Marvy Finger, developer of the 37-story One Park Place apartment tower, said he had considered building on the west side of downtown. After discussions on that proposed project fell through, he began eyeing other property. “But I certainly wasn’t going to look at land east of Main!” he said.
He changed his mind after hearing of the Discovery Green plans. One Park Place, the first new residential construction downtown in 30 years, has a 95 percent occupancy, in great part because its residents want to be across from the park, Finger said.
Finger has begun building a two-block-long apartment complex across from Minute Maid Park, and it, too, would not be going up on if not for Discovery Green four blocks away. He credits the park with establishing “a renaissance on the east side of downtown.”
You have to remember that before Discovery Green, there really wasn’t that much east of Main downtown. The Discovery Green site and a lot of the surrounding blocks were just empty concrete lots. Now we have a beautiful and heavily used park, and new downtown residential construction that was built specifically because that park is there. The George R. Brown is much more attractive now as a convention center because this lovely park is right outside its front door, and there’s a lot of related construction set to happen in the coming years. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.
It’s the time of the season for Mayor Parker, who has a serious challenger this time, but also a stronger hand to play.
In her tenure, Parker has given teeth to the city’s historic preservation rules, broken a deadlock with Harris County to help build the Dynamo stadium, gave scandal-ridden Metro new leaders and revised key city codes governing parking and development, the latter of which had languished for six years.
She gave priority in city contracting to local firms, moved to make the troubled city crime lab independent from Houston Police Department, opened a facility to divert drunks from city jails and saw passage of a plan to erase a decades-long backlog of untested rape kits.
Parker oversaw a successful $410 million bond election last fall, and in 2010 welcomed voters’ approval of Rebuild Houston, an ambitious infrastructure renewal program.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said all signs favor Parker, whose only fear should be a low turnout that could see a small group swing the results. Jones said Parker lately has been able to focus on her own plans instead of inherited ills, such as replacing the Metro regime, scrambling to defer pension costs and dealing with legal wrangling over an inflexible red-light camera contract after voters banned the cameras in 2010.
“Bill White left her with a lot of messes to clean up. That, combined with a very tight budget as a result of the recession, led to a difficult first two years,” Jones said. “The second term has been much smoother sailing. The voter mood is going to be much more positive as people go to the polls this fall, and there’s going to be less of a tendency to want to cast a protest vote against the mayor than there was in 2011.”
Perhaps easing the incumbent’s road is the mood of the 16-member City Council, which lately has been more amenable than in recent years. A new convention center hotel, in which the city will invest $138 million, a rewrite of the city’s affirmative action policy and a law allowing motorists to be cited for failing to give cyclists and joggers a wide enough berth all passed without even a “tag,” the one-week delay typical on complex, controversial or high-profile topics.
The difference between the Mayor’s first term and the second is night and day. The first term was all about defense, which is to say all about things she had to deal with rather than things she wanted to deal with. That’s what her second term has been all about, and while she got a lot done in each term it’s much easier to build a campaign around offense. I’ve thought all along that she’d be in better shape this time around, and I still think that. A stronger opponent in 2011 and she’d have been in a runoff. She could still have a tough race this year, but at least the wind isn’t in her face.
The bit about Council is worth noting as well. Part of this is good luck on her part. Two of her biggest antagonists, Jolanda Jones and Mike Sullivan, are no longer on Council. The third, CO Bradford, was appointed Vice Mayor Pro Tem and has largely been a team player ever since. Her main thorn in the side is Helena Brown, and it’s hard to say that’s been a bad development for her since it’s a lot easier to look reasonable and accomplished opposite the likes of CM Brown. Basically, not only has the Mayor had the money to restore or enhance city services, the ability to move her own agenda forward, and a Council that has worked with her a lot more than it has worked against her. If she doesn’t feel better about this campaign than the last one, she ought to.
She entered the 2011 election with an approval rating of 47 percent, the lowest of any mayor in decades, narrowly avoiding a runoff despite spending $2.3 million and facing five poorly-funded unknowns. Political observers had said Parker needed a decisive win to prevent a challenge this year, and 50.8 percent of the vote was not it.
Enter Ben Hall, a wealthy lawyer capable of financing his own campaign who served as City Attorney from 1992 to 1994. Hall says city taxes and fees are driving residents to the suburbs. He says Parker lacks vision and wastes time tinkering with smartphone apps and food trucks while Houston misses opportunities for international business growth.
“A mayor must do more than simply balance a budget,” Hall has said. “We need more than just a manager, we need a leader.”
University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said there may be some truth in Hall’s statements, but he said these are not significant enough to ignite anti-incumbent passions, adding that Hall’s message has lacked the specificity voters need to choose him over Parker.
“Motivations for mayoral elections are more about tremendous things that have gone wrong as opposed to more or less a tweak to what’s going right,” Rottinghaus said. “He’s got to make a really compelling case as to why things need to be changed, and as of yet, I’m not sure we’ve seen that.”
Hall has made criticism of Parker’s vision, or lack of it, a main point of his campaign. That’s certainly a valid line of attack, but as I’ve said before, Hall’s own vision isn’t apparent. Rottinghaus makes a good point as well, in that generally speaking when trying to knock off an incumbent, you have to give people a reason to fire that incumbent before you can convince them that you’re a viable alternative. The case to fire the Mayor is harder to make when times are good and things are getting done. Plus, I think people generally like the Mayor. She has her share of opponents to be sure, but it’s not like we’re inundated with anti-Parker chatter. Her biggest challenge is going to be making sure that the people who do like her get out to vote. If I were her, I’d want turnout to exceed 2011′s anemic levels. Complacency is her enemy. Work that ground game and don’t settle for a small voter universe. In the meantime, I’ll be very interested to see what the June campaign finance reports look like, not just for how much each candidate raises but also for who is giving to whom. Parker has always had a broad fundraising base, and she starts out with a fair amount of cash. Hall can write his own check, but having his own broad base and getting support from sources that have given to Parker before would be a strong statement on his part. We’ll see how that goes.
Posted in: Election 2013.
Meet your new area code, Houston.
The Public Utility Commission (PUC) on Thursday announced the addition of area code 346 to accommodate continued growth in and around Houston.
The 346 area code will overlay existing area codes 713, 281 and 832 in Harris, Fort Bend, Waller, Austin, Montgomery, San Jacinto, Liberty, Chambers, Galveston and Brazoria counties.
A map of the affected region is at: http://www.puc.texas.gov/industry/maps/areacodes/Houston.aspx
The North American Number Planning Administrator (NANPA) assigned the 346 area code after projecting that the three existing area codes will run out of numbers by Sept. 30, 2014.
The new area code will not require any reprogramming changes to existing equipment because an area code overlay requiring 10-digit dialing for local calls already exists in the affected region.
The PUC decision allows for industry preparation and customer education from Aug. 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. Beginning July 1, 2014, new phone numbers can be assigned with a 346 area code.
Unlike previous area code changes, this will not require anyone to change their own number, and as noted in the press release it won’t require a change to how we dial, since we already do ten digit dialing. You wouldn’t think this would be anything but a routine, boring administrative announcement, but apparently there’s something about area codes that get people all het up.
We’ve all seen the Seinfeld episode where the subject of area code discrimination came up, right? The 212 area code ran out of numbers, and 646 was utilized leading to typical Seinfeldian situations of existential dread.
It’s amazing to think that in 2013 when area codes largely have no consequence, that there would be pride in three little numbers. Now zip code pride I can sort of understand. 77002 has a certain cachet, since people immediately think you live at the top of a skyscraper chewing cigars and eating brisket. 77007 shows that you pay too much to live near Washington Avenue. 77006 means that we’re probably neighbors.
346 is an ugly number. 281 is dumpy. 713 is sort of sleek, like a sports car. Maybe it’s the 7. Sevens are sexy. I know people with a 409 area code and they seem to get along alright, besides the dumb Beach Boys references. You know that a 409 area code means that the person is probably adept at a number of farming tools and maybe raised an animal in high school.
My first beeper had a 713 area code, which in Pearland denoted a cosmopolitan air. A worldliness rarely found in such a ‘burb.
(No, it did not.)
Houston rap loves repping area codes. I can’t wait to hear the first 346 area code themed mix tape. Sadly Mike Jones’ 281-330-8004 is no longer a working number. Can you still hit up Paul Wall at the 8-3-2?
I have never heard a rap song that shouts out the dirty 409, have you?
I haven’t seen that episode of “Seinfeld”, actually, but as someone who grew up in New York I do remember when Brooklyn and Staten Island were spun off from the 212 area code into the 718 area code. I don’t remember having any existential angst about it, but I was in high school. I probably had other things to be angsty about. In any event, I just wonder what we’ll do when we run out of area codes.
Posted in: Technology, science, and math.
The state of Texas and our pollution-loving Attorney General do it because they think the EPA does too much to protect us from harm. Some other groups do it because they think the EPA isn’t doing enough.
In the suit filed on Thursday, Air Alliance Houston and three other groups accuse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of using outdated and inaccurate formulas to estimate levels of air pollution.
The groups say studies show that actual smog-forming emissions can be 132 times greater than EPA estimates, which are based on data provided by the industry. The agency, as a result, does not possess reliable data to protect public health, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“The EPA has a history of dragging its feet on this issue,” said Jennifer Duggan, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, a legal group representing Air Alliance Houston and the other organizations in the case. “It has been aware of these inaccuracies for some time.”
The lawsuit comes five years after the city of Houston raised similar issues with the federal agency, which uses the emissions data to develop pollution controls, establish limits and guide enforcement.
In response, the agency acknowledged flaws in its formulas and promised to make changes.
See here for the background; this was a part of then-Mayor Bill White’s plan to reduce benzene emissions in Houston. You can see a copy of the lawsuit and the notice of intent to file suit that was sent by the plaintiffs to the EPA in 2012 here. I think we can safely assume that Greg Abbott will not be filing an amicus brief for the plaintiffs on this one.
Posted in: Legal matters.
There is no doubt that it is a pivotal moment for the 89-year old-park. Decimated by the drought of 2011, Memorial Park lost thousands of trees. The conservancy – whose stated mission is to “restore, preserve and enhance Memorial Park for the enjoyment of all Houstonians, today and tomorrow” – has a lot of work to do.
Arnold brings an exceptional skill set to the task. Her expertise in strategic planning, team building and leadership was honed over a 20-year career at Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer Corporation and the management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.
Previous to accepting the position with the conservancy, Arnold volunteered her time as both a writer and a speaker for the Parks by You Parks Bond Initiative, which passed in November 2012, providing $166 million in parks funding.
Jim Porter, board chair of the Memorial Park Conservancy and a certified Texas naturalist, feels confident that they have the right person for the job.
“Shellye has a history of getting things done and delivering results,” he said.
She notes that it was human intervention that uniformly forested Memorial Park with pine trees so heavily to begin with and that even before the drought, many of the park’s trees were already approaching their life expectancy.
About 15,000 new trees have been planted thus far. But there is also a need to restore and enhance the natural balance of the park on a larger scale. As Arnold notes, “you can’t water a forest.”
The diversity of Memorial Park with its three distinct eco-systems – East Texas Piney Woods, Post Oak Savanna and Coastal Prairie – will help sustain it. Clearing out non-invasive plants, which compete for water and sunlight, and planting native grasses are some of the items which could help with the restoration.
Arnold is supportive of the TIRZ proposal, in part because Mayor Parker is clear that Memorial Park will not be commercialized. It will remain a park, which is in line with the Hogg family stipulations when they made the land available to the city of Houston.
She sees potential down the road for linking the park to Uptown for cyclists. There has also been feedback about connecting Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou, thereby giving people more access to the 150 mile trail system that is being completed through the Parks Bond Initiative.
Making those connections would be awesome, and very useful. Wouldn’t it be nice to have ways to get to Memorial Park that don’t involve driving? Throw in the Uptown BRT line and hopefully someday the University Line, and you’ve greatly expanded the bike-to-the-park range. That’s down the line, to be sure, but this is a long-term project. KUHF has more on what is being considered for the park.
Shellye Arnold is executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy, a group that works with the Houston Parks Department to fundraise for the park. Driving west on Woodway, she pulls over to a spot where the park meets Buffalo Bayou and points out an area where TIRZ 16 money is already allocated for an erosion project.
“We’re looking at a big pipe that carries water down into the bayou. And what happens with the water is that it causes erosion, it causes the land around it to erode into the bayou itself. And over time, it eats and eats away at the bayou, so what we’re looking at is probably hundreds of feet of erosion from the banks of the bayou that has been caused over years of time.”
As for what else the money might do, nobody knows for sure because the master plan hasn’t been developed yet. As Arnold points out, there’s only a plan to make a plan.
“There are things that people have expressed that they’d like to do. There are many people that would like to put a prairie on the utility easement area. That’s a great example. Those are things that could be considered in the context of a master planning process, which will take, you know, will take some time.”
Council will vote on the TIRZ next week, on Wednesday. We don’t need to have a master plan by then, but some kind of vision or outline would be nice.
Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.
Song #20 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Der MKmmissar”, originally by Falco and covered by After the Fire. Here’s the original:
I guess I have to add this to the “originals I’d not heard before” list, since I didn’t know the original was in German. Unlike many other unknown-to-me originals, this one is the same basic song as the better-known cover, so other than the language it wasn’t a surprise. And 80s videos, man, gotta love ‘em. Here’s After the Fire:
This is the first time in this series where I knew the cover but didn’t know the name of the covering band. All these years I heard that song on the radio, I can’t ever recall a DJ mentioning their name. How does that happen? Anyway, this video is even 80s-ier than I remember. Such a beautiful synergy between medium and art form, isn’t it?
Posted in: Music.
- Davetta Daniels, who ran for HISD Trustee against Paula Harris in 2007 and 2011
- Sue Deigaard, who has been active in matters relating to public education funding
- Louis Evans, UH-D Executive Director, Distance Learning and former HCDE Board member in Position 4, Precinct 3
- Rey Guerra, engineer, community activist, and guest blogger
- Traci Jensen, 2012 candidate for SBOE 6
- Mubeen Khumawala, a former teacher at YES Prep who is now a project analyst for Deloitte
I know Sue, Rey, and Traci, and think any of them would be fine. Stace is supporting Rey Guerra; as he notes, the current Board lacks Latino representation. According to the Board Vacancy FAQ, the successor will be chosen at the next HCDE Board meeting on May 21. If you have a preference, you might want to contact your precinct Board member and the two remaining At Large members (Diane Trautman and Debby Kerner) and let them know.
Posted in: Election 2014.
That’s the plan, and I think it makes a lot of sense.
Texas’ vehicle inspection stickers would become a thing of the past under legislation approved unanimously Monday by the state Senate.
But there’s a catch: Vehicles still would have to be inspected before they could be registered with the state, and diesel vehicles would, for the first time, have to pass an emissions test.
“Technology allows Texas to move away from vehicle inspection stickers, so we can combine the inspection with the registration,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, the author of Senate Bill 1350.
Twenty-seven other states already use a single-sticker system, Department of Public Safety officials said Monday.
“It will mean there will be one registration sticker on your windshield, instead of that sticker and an inspection sticker. That’s one less sticker on your windshield that you can get a ticket for,” West said. “It’s about less stickers, less government.”
A study by DPS and the state Department of Motor Vehicles showed that the switch would reduce fraud, which has plagued the vehicle inspection system for years.
Here’s SB 1350, which still has to pass the House. The fraud issue is bigger and more extensive than you might think. By eliminating stickers and tying inspections to your vehicle registration, this would mean no more sticker stealing, and no more “surrogate” vehicles being inspected on behalf of some other car. I’m sure there will still be ways to cheat the system, but this is a step in the right direction. Plus, emissions testing for diesel vehicles is something we should have been doing for years. Good idea, good bill, let’s hope the House passes it.
Posted in: That's our Lege.
Jeffrey Skilling’s day in court will come to an end.
Responding to a federal appeals court mandate, lawyers for former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and the U.S. Department of Justice Wednesday reached an agreement that could knock a decade off the disgraced CEO’s 24-year sentence.
Skilling, 59, was convicted in 2006 of conspiracy, securities fraud, making false statements to auditors and one count of insider trading in connection with the energy company’s 2001 collapse.
The new agreement provides for a jail term of 14 to 17 years and a financial penalty of $40 million. He would be credited for time already served. Skilling’s sentencing is set for June 21 in Houston.
“Today’s agreement will put an end to the legal battles surrounding this case,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said. “Mr. Skilling will no longer be permitted to challenge his conviction for one of the most notorious frauds in American history, and victims of his crime will finally receive the more than $40 million in restitution they are owed.”
See here for the background. Counting time served, which I presume began in 2006, would make him eligible for parole as early as 2020, which isn’t exactly soon but is a lot sooner than 2030. Fine by me, I guess. Hair Balls has more.
Posted in: Enronarama.
It’s hard to be a saint in the city, y’all.
1. I’ve Been To Memphis – Lyle Lovett
2. (I’ve Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo – Glenn Miller
3. In London So Fair – Susan McKeown
4. Independence, Indiana – Eddie From Ohio
5. (Is Anybody Going To) San Antone – Doug Sahm And Band
6. Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – They Might Be Giants
7. Jock In London – The Mollys
8. Kansas City – The Beatles
9. Lafayette – Lucinda Williams
10. The Leaving of Liverpool – Flying Fish Sailors
More Memphis and London, with some Liverpool and Istanbul thrown in to add to the worldliness of the set. And yes, there is still more Memphis to come.
Posted in: Music.
Her incarceration may be over, but Rosemary Lehmberg’s problems are far from it.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was released from jail early Thursday after serving half of a 45-day jail sentence for pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated.
Lehmberg, who was sentenced April 19, served half of her jail term under a law that gives two days credit for every day served for good behavior.
Travis county jail records no longer showed Lehmberg booked by 3 a.m. Thursday.
“She’s been released,” said Travis County sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade.
Wade said there were no immediate reports of any incidents or security concerns during Lehmberg’s release early Thursday. A day earlier, Wade said Lehmberg could be released anytime after midnight Thursday, but did not have immediate details as to what time she would be released.
Though some inmates are able to to get three days credit for every one day served if they work while incarcerated, Wade said Lehmberg didn’t qualify.
Lehmberg also was sentenced to a $4,000 fine and a 180-day license suspension under a plea agreement.
Upon her release, Lehmberg issued a statement saying she would seek treatment as well. At the time of her sentencing, I thought that if this story remained in the news throughout her incarceration that it meant the political pressure to oust her was not abating. Well, it’s not abating, but if she’s lucky it may run out of time.
State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, went on the offensive against the Travis County district attorney Tuesday night, pushing for an amendment to transfer power over the state’s public integrity away from Rosemary Lehmberg, who is serving jail time over a drunken driving conviction.
King pulled the amendment, which had been attached to House Bill 3153, before it reached a vote, but he said he believes he has the support to attach it to future bills.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the two videos that are out there,” King said, referencing jail booking footage where an intoxicated Lehmberg kicked doors and shouted at authorities. “She showed incredible belligerence and disrespect.”
King’s amendment would have moved authority over the public integrity unit, which is housed in the Travis County DA’s office and is responsible for investigating malfeasance by the state’s elected officials, to the Texas attorney general’s office in instances when the local DA is convicted of a crime.
He pulled the amendment after members of both parties suggested that it would wreak havoc on the unit.
“The office is being run today very competently without her being there,” state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said. “I don’t believe we need to take the money away from them, especially with ongoing investigations.”
“The amendment disrespects, in my view, disrespects the office,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said.
So far, Rep. King is the only legislator actively pursuing Lehmberg’s resignation, but he claims that he has the support to get his amendment adopted and will try again. Put that on your list of shenanigans to watch out for in the last two weeks of the session. BOR has more.
Posted in: Crime and Punishment.
I don’t understand this at all.
A bill that would have increased vehicle registration fees to raise money for transportation projects met its demise in the Texas House on Thursday.
House Bill 3664 by state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, was designed to generate money to pay down the state’s transportation-related debt and fund improvements on non-tolled roads across Texas.
After a spirited discussion, Darby postponed the bill until May 28 — one day after the session ends and lawmakers go home. He cited pressure from outside forces that made voting for the measure difficult for some legislators.
Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday he would call a special session if fees were increased for transportation.
“Send me a balanced budget that has no fee increases for transportation and $2 billion for infrastructure for water, and everyone can go home and enjoy their summer,” he told reporters, explaining that he would call a special session if legislators don’t approve $1.8 billion in tax relief.
The bill highlighted divisions within the Legislature’s Republican majority. While some disagreed with the revenue raising approach to addressing transportation concerns, supporters of the bill said transportation funding needs were reaching a critical point.
“There’s no doubt that our transportation system is in dire crisis,” said Transportation Committee Chairman state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, who amended Darby’s bill to reduce the proposed fee increase from $30 to $15.
Phillips said the state was facing a $4 billion transportation funding shortfall, and he asserted that not addressing it was “a failure to lead.”
“Are you going to be a leader or are you going to just follow?” Phillips shouted at his colleagues.
“Baaaaaaaaaaa”, most of his colleagues replied. What’s truly amazing about this is that the original proposal for vehicle registration fees was to double them, which is to say increase them by $50, three times as much as Darby’s watered-down bill. That was proposed by Sen. Tommy Williams and endorsed by the Texas Association of Business, who I would think is a little miffed to be dissed like this, both by Perry and the nihilists at Empower Texas, who pushed a typically dishonest alternative instead. I didn’t think raising the registration fee was the best solution, but it wasn’t a terrible idea, and I was crazy enough to think it might be an acceptable solution for a serious need. That’ll learn me. So now we’ve got no transportation solution, no water solution, and no easy way to fund those solutions if we make another attempt at it. What once looked like a productive session is rapidly devolving into a big mess. Good luck sorting it all out in overtime. Trail Blazers has more.
Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.
The invasive species keep coming, and there’s only so much we can do about it.
Ominous red dots pepper the war room maps, and the story they tell is ugly. Foreign enemies are advancing on Texas by the millions – by wing, by foot and free ride. They are coming to chomp, sting, slime and clog, and in their arrival’s wake lies the prospect of devastation and disease.
In the advance guard are zebra mussels, Russian immigrants that have vanquished Michigan lake species and clogged water intake pipes with their concreted shells; red-streaked leafhoppers capable of transmitting devastating disease to sugar cane; and giant east African snails, rat-size intruders with voracious appetites for more than 500 varieties of plants.
The mussels, which colonized 100 Michigan waterways in just 25 years, have hit the Trinity River in Denton County. The leafhoppers, natives of Australia, Asia and the Mediterranean, are in the Rio Grande Valley and marching across Texas to Louisiana sugar fields. The snails, known to charm unwary humans with their soulful eyes and mucilaginous good looks, have landed in Austin.
Enter Sam Houston State University’s Institute for the Study of Invasive Species, a consortium of biologists from four universities whose mission is to track, analyze and defeat the nastiest of nonnative plants, animals, insects and microbes that imperil the state’s well-being.
In the war between Texas and voracious invaders, the institute may be the best hope.
“The scope is giant,” says institute Director Jerry Cook. “The truth is, we don’t know how much damage is being done. Texas is a big state. We have the longest border with Mexico. We have major highways along which invasive species can travel. We have Chihuahuan desert to piney woods and everything in between.”
Also of concern are zebra mussels, which likely traveled to the Trinity River via contaminated boats, and the giant African snails, which, although illegal to possess, have been dispersed through the pet trade.
The snails, which can grow to 8 inches, arrived in Miami in 1966. Within seven years of being released in a garden, 18,000 of the creatures were munching their way across Florida.
“We like to say they’re ‘rat-sized,’ ” says Smith-Herron, emphasizing the intruder’s least-endearing quality. “The problem is that people think they have cute eyes.”
Yes, someone thought that a giant African snail would make a good pet, and the ne=xt thing you know they’re wreaking havoc on ecosystems across the country. Don’t be a part of the problem, OK? Hair Balls has more.
Posted in: The great state of Texas.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said Sunday that he believes rejecting LGBT people is similar to fighting slavery during the pre-Civil War era.
Appearing on the Family Research Council‘s program “Stand With Scouts Sunday,” the arch conservative governor urged the Boy Scouts to stand strong against any impulse to “tear apart” the organization’s values and replace them with the “flavor of the month.”
“The fact is, this is a private organization,” Perry said of the Boy Scouts. “Their values and principles have worked for a century now. And for pop culture to come in and try to tear that up, which happens to be the flavor of the month so to speak, and to tear apart one of the great organizations that has served millions of young men, helped them become men and great fathers, that is just not appropriate and I hope the American people will stand up and say, ‘Not on my watch.’”
Perry added that the greatest governor in Texas’s history, Gov. Sam Houston, opposed slavery and opposed leaving the union in the pre-Civil War era. “That’s the type of principled leadership, that’s the type of courage, that I hope people across this country, on this issue of scouts and keeping the Boy Scouts the organization it is today, [will have],” he said.
“And if we change and become more like pop culture, young men will be not as well served,” he concluded. “America will not be as well served, and Boy Scouts will start on a decline that I don’t think will serve this country well as we go into the future.”
Generally speaking, if you have to try to persuade people that you’re on the same side of an issue that MLK or Gandhi or Frederick Douglass or Jesus Christ would be, instead of letting people reach the obvious conclusion that you’re on the same side of the issue as those people would be, then you’re probably not on the same side as they. And opposition to inequality isn’t a fad, no matter how much Rick Perry wants it to be. So you tell me which way leads to the Boy Scouts continuing on the decline that has long since started for them. Hair Balls has more.
Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.
From Texas Redistricting:
The Texas Legislature is in the final stretch of its regular session (sine die on May 27), and, at this point, in the calendar, if anything gets done, it looks like it will have to start on the Senate side.
Although a couple of redistricting bills – along with some proposals for redistricting reform – got filed in the House, the House redistricting committee never met before the bill-reporting deadline to consider the bills.
A short-lived effort to take up redistricting did take place on the Senate side where the Senate state affairs committee held a hearing on April 18 to consider SB 1524, a bill by State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) to make the three interim maps permanent.
But that effort seemingly faltered when the Senate’s 12 Democrats made clear that they were opposed to the efforts and would use their voting strength in the Senate to block consideration of any bill to simply the interim maps permanent. The House’s 55 Democrats similarly signed a letter to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott urging Abbott to drop further challenges to the maps and negotiate in good faith over additional changes to maps.
While there was talk at the time of a committee substitute to SB 1524 that would address just the non- (or less-) controversial state senate map, there seems to be little movement toward that since Democrats said they worried a standalone senate-only bill would be amended on the House side to address the state house and congressional maps.
Nor has there been any indication that there are serious discussions with Democrats about changes to the interim map that would address concerns of African-American and Latino groups.
Instead, most observers are now expecting a special session on redistricting this summer.
In that scenario, the Senate’s two-thirds rule would no longer apply, and Republicans could move the bill without any Democratic support – though some Democrats have cautioned taking a ‘cramdown’ approach would merely repeat the exclusion of minority groups from the process – and the resort to unusual processes – that gave rise to findings of discriminatory intent in the prior legislative maps.
As for whether the expected special session comes in June before the date of an anticipated Shelby Co. ruling or in late June/early July post-Shelby remains to be seen, though reports are that a number of legislators are expecting a short session post-Shelby Co.
But, of course, the legislative session isn’t done yet, and it remains possible- if not the most likely – that SB 1524 could yet spring back to life.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that if there is a special session that there will be no two thirds rule in the Senate. The Senate sets its rules at the beginning of each session, and can choose to use that rule or not by a majority vote. Obviously, if the Republicans want to pass a bill, such as SB1524, without interference from the Democrats, that is what they will do. I think if there is a special session and redistricting is one of the items on the agenda for it, then it is odds on that the Senate will be majority rule only, but it is not certain to be that way. There are other possible reasons for a special session – I will note that there has been at least one special session every legislative year except 2007 since 2003, so it’s hardly an unusual prospect – but for what it’s worth the Trib’s insiders didn’t bring redistricting up as a potential catalyst. Who knows with Rick Perry? He’ll tell us when he’s damn good and ready.
Posted in: That's our Lege.
Someone’s getting a tax break. Probably not you, though.
The Texas House on Tuesday tentatively cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s primary business tax — cuts that proponents say will keep the Texas economy humming and opponents argue cost too much.
House Bill 500 is the primary legislative vehicle to address the state franchise tax, commonly called the margins tax, but it is just one in a series of bills this session that either cut taxes broadly or target specific industries.
The price tag for House Bill 500 has yo-yoed through the session, as Gov. Rick Perry last month called for $1.6 billion in franchise tax cuts, only to see a House committee shrink it to $396 million three days later.
The bill permanently exempts small firms from paying the tax if they have less than $1 million in gross annual receipts. It also attempts to fix inequities between certain classes of taxpayers.
On Tuesday, the House added amendments that swelled the bottom line to $667 million.
[Rep. Harvey] Hilderbran, chairman of the House tax writing committee, said the Legislature must reconcile the appropriations bill and several bills that cut taxes during the final days of the session. The Legislature adjourns May 27.
In 2006, the margins tax was part of a deal to cut property taxes for homeowners and businesses. Critics argue that it never raised as much as was projected, but it accounted for $4.5 billion in revenue in fiscal 2012 — or about 10 percent of the state’s tax revenue.
It remains unpopular among many small businesses, in part because it taxes companies whether they are profitable or not.
State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, echoed that complaint, saying HB 500 makes an inequitable system more inequitable.
“House Bill 500 takes a stupid tax policy and makes it stupider,” Strama said. “We should have a profit-based tax on revenue.”
Hilderbran said the tax bill returns money to taxpayers to grow the economy, but [Rep. Sylvester] Turner said it did nothing for working families.
“Did you give anything to anybody who’s not a business owner?” Turner asked.
“If they work for these businesses, they’ll be better off,” Hilderbran said.
Here’s HB500. It should be noted that Rick Perry is still threatening to call a special session if taxes aren’t cut further. Remember that both the House and the Senate have passed budgets that didn’t take into account hundreds of millions less in revenue (some of these cuts won’t kick in till the next biennium), so that’s something the conference committee will have to deal with once they resume speaking to each other. And of course if the Supreme Court upholds the school finance ruling, that’s that much more money the Lege will have to scrounge from somewhere else to fill in the now-larger hole. But hey, all in a day’s work. The good news is that this still has to pass the Senate, and there’s no guarantee of that. The Trib and the Observer have more.
Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.
From the press release:
Mayor Annise Parker and Houston City Council Members today unanimously approved an ordinance to protect Houston’s cyclists and other vulnerable road users by requiring cars and other motor vehicles to keep a separation of more than three feet while passing, and trucks or commercial vehicles to keep a separation of more than six feet. The ordinance is effective immediately.
Vulnerable road users are defined as a walkers or runners; the physically disabled, such as someone in a wheelchair; a stranded motorist or passengers; highway construction, utility or maintenance workers; tow truck operators; cyclists; moped, motor-driven cycle and scooter drivers; or horseback riders.
“As a city, we need to protect everyone and anyone who uses our roads,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “This ordinance will make our city even more attractive to those who want to enjoy traveling in forms other than by car.”
In addition to requiring safe passing and trailing distances from vulnerable road users, this ordinance prohibits any motor vehicle occupant from throwing or projecting any object or substance at or against them.
“BikeHouston is pleased to see this ordinance pass and proud of the Mayor’s continued efforts on helping Houston become a more bicycle-friendly city,” says Kathryn Baumeister, Chair of BikeHouston. “Houston is a city of cars, but also has a big population of people who rely on cycling for transportation and recreation. We feel it is important for cyclists and drivers of automobiles to respect one another on the road. This ordinance will help provide a measure of safety for the vulnerable road users.”
In addition to BikeHouston, several state and local leaders and groups advocated and/or voiced support for this ordinance, including: Senator Rodney Ellis, BikeTexas, AARP, Better Houston, Bikin’ Babes, Citizen Transportation Coalition, Houston Access to Urban Sustainability Project, Houston Tomorrow, Northwest Cycling Club and Richmond Rail.
Similar ordinances have already been enacted by Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio.
See here and here for the background. A similar ordinance was also passed by the Texas Legislature in 2009, but Rick Perry vetoed it, thus leaving it up to municipalities to take their own action. Via Houston Tomorrow, another version of this bill, HB 2225, has passed out of committee in the House and is on the calendar for today, which is the last day for House bills to be passed to the Senate. I’m not sure why Perry would be less likely to veto this bill than the prior one, but you never know. Regardless, kudos to the Mayor and Council for getting this done. Texas Leftist has more.
Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks the state is a safer place without Wayne LaPierre in it as it brings you this week’s roundup.
Posted in: Blog stuff.
The Senate has passed its version of House Bill 5, which makes sweeping changes to standardized testing and curriculum requirements for high school students.
Texas high school students would have new curriculum requirements under legislation unanimously passed by the Senate on Monday — but they won’t be the ones the House envisioned when it approved its version of the legislation more than a month ago.
The Senate version of House Bill 5, which the upper chamber reached consensus on after weeks of extensive negotiations that continued through Monday afternoon, still drops the number of required state exams for graduation from 15 to five in biology, U.S. history, algebra I, and English I and II. It would still allow students to complete diplomas in specialized areas or “endorsements,” like humanities, science and technology, and business and industry.
But it changes the courses that students must complete to graduate under those endorsements, most significantly requiring four years of math for all of them.
The legislation now goes to conference committee, where representatives from both chambers will meet to work out their differences.
Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said HB 5 provided the structure for “the most rigorous, most flexible” high school graduation plan in the country. He also emphasized the legislation’s commitment to reducing high-stakes testing, which he said had taken the “fun out of teaching.”
Many Senate Democrats, along with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, favored preserving the current “4×4″ curriculum — which includes four years each in science, social studies, English and math — but adding more options for career skills and advanced math courses. Patrick pushed to keep the plan passed out of his committee, which has four years of English but drops to three years of science, math and social studies in certain endorsements to give students chances to take specialized courses.
The proposal that emerged from Senate negotiations, which Patrick called the “flex 4×4,” puts all students on track to completing four years of math and English, with algebra II as a requirement for all endorsements except the business and industry track. The advanced math course, which some education researchers say increases students’ chances at post-secondary success, would be required for automatic admission to state colleges under the top 10 percent rule and to apply for certain state scholarships.
Under the House version, students would opt into a college preparatory curriculum with the additional years of math, science and social studies. That plan has encountered criticism from groups like the Texas Association of Business, La Raza and the Education Trust, who believe it would reverse the state’s progress in improving students’ preparation for post-secondary education and result in fewer low-income and minority students heading to college.
Here’s HB5, and here’s what I wrote about the House passage of it. The main points of contention were about the algebra II requirement and whether the default endorsement was the most rigorous one or not – in other words, whether a student had to opt in or opt out. The person pushing the opt out path was Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, and the Observer reports on her activities.
Under an amendment tacked on by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), students on the foundation plan must complete four years of science and four years of math with Algebra II to qualify for automatic admissions to state universities under the Top Ten Percent Rule.
That means some students who graduate with the career endorsement may not qualify for automatic admissions, depending on which math classes they choose. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who led Friday’s negotiations, introduced an amendment that would have required Algebra II for all students.
“I tell ya, I find it quite insulting,” Van de Putte said of people who insinuate that some students just can’t succeed in Algebra II, which is considered a college-ready indicator.
Van de Putte said her amendment would reduce the possibility of reverting to an old system that tended to steer minority students into career and technology fields instead of college—a concern that prompted groups like the National Council of La Raza to agitate against the bill. Van de Putte said today’s system already funnels minority students into the lower degree plan.
“I want to make sure with this amendment that we’re not failing our kids because we’re so afraid with failing ourselves,” Van de Putte said.
However, Van de Putte ultimately withdrew her amendment so lawmakers could discuss her idea in conference committee.
In a statement after the bill passed, she explained her lingering concerns with a graduation path that isn’t built for college readiness. ”I worry that some ninth-graders, especially from families without a history of higher education, won’t realize what they can achieve. I fear that choosing the minimum plan will lead to a minimum wage job,” she said.
Van de Putte also tried, unsuccessfully, to require multiple notifications to students reminding them that choosing the career endorsement may disqualify them from automatic college admissions. “If we’re going to let 15-year-olds decide what their endorsements are, we need to let them be fully informed,” Van de Putte said.
Several legislators from both parties said one notice would be enough, and Patrick raised his voice saying that he didn’t want blue collar work to be stigmatized.
Among Van de Putte’s successful amendments was an option for school districts to offer a seal of bi-literacy on qualifying students’ diplomas, and another protecting dropout recovery schools from being penalized for low test scores.
The Texas Association of Business, which continues to veer between being a force for good and a petulant bully, continues to be unhappy with the thrust of this legislation.
Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond criticized the Senate bill, saying the weaker requirements will “doom generations of students to a mediocre education and low-wage jobs.”
He noted that only about 25 percent of Texas high school graduates are college- or career-ready.
The requirements are “meant to increase that number and put in place [higher] standards,” he said.
The bill now goes to conference committee to get the differences worked out. I doubt what emerges will be any more to Bill Hammond’s liking than the Senate version is now, but perhaps the final bill will resemble the Senate version more than the House version. It’s mostly been parent groups like TAMSA that have pushed for limits on end of course exams, and they have proven to be a fairly loud voice in this process as well. I’m really not sure what to make of all of this. I do think we test too much, but I also think algebra II should be taught, and I’m a little concerned about weakening curriculum requirements. I have a hard time sorting out all the data on this. If there’s one thing I am sure of it’s that we will revisit this subject again in 2015, and probably 2017 and 2019 and who knows how many future sessions. I don’t think this will ever be anything but a work in progress.
Posted in: That's our Lege.
The calendar is a harsh mistress.
The House’s lead health care budget writer says his bill to force Gov. Rick Perry’s administration to explore the potential for a “Texas solution” on Medicaid expansion is dead.
Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said Tuesday that his bill outlining an expansion of coverage for poor adults using private insurance, health savings accounts and cost sharing by the beneficiaries “got hung up in Calendars.”
He was referring to the House Calendars Committee, which is the traffic cop deciding which bills go to the House floor — and in what order.
“Wasn’t anybody there to rescue it,” Zerwas said of Calendars and his measure.
Although the Calendars Committee is expected to meet Tuesday, Zerwas said the only way his bill could avoid Thursday’s midnight deadline for passing House bills would be if it were placed on Thursday’s major state calendar. That would bump it ahead of scores of bills.
“I don’t think that’s in the cards at all,” said Zerwas, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services.
I can’t claim to be surprised. It just wasn’t a priority for the powers that be. The Trib notes that even though Zerwas bent over backwards to try to accommodate Rick Perry and the slash-and-burn crowd at the TPPF, they were still agin’ it, and that was enough to bottle it up. Yes, Calendars could still schedule it ahead of a bunch of other bills, which would endanger them all since HB3791 would surely take all day to debate, and yes it could get attached as an amendment to a so-called “Christmas tree” bill, but I wouldn’t count on either of those things happening, and even if they could they probably shouldn’t. Whatever you think about this – and to me, this bill barely rates a D minus – it deserved a real hearing, with everyone having the opportunity to amend it. It shouldn’t be tacked on to something else, and it shouldn’t get its time on the floor at the expense of everything else. Let’s start talking now about how our tax dollars will now go to help expand Medicaid in New York and California, and how we won’t even get that much money to enroll people in subsidized coverage through the exchanges in large part because Rick Perry didn’t give a crap about that, either. This was always about politics, so let’s make the failure to take action be about politics, too. Texas Politics has more.
Posted in: That's our Lege.
You would think that once the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional that that would settle things, but then you would not be Steve Hotze.
Steve Hotze, a Houston-area physician and major Republican campaign donor who has built his career around alternative medicine, says he is filing suit against the federal government to try to prevent the enforcement of the Affordable Care Act in Texas.
He’ll announce the suit, to be filed against U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, on Tuesday morning in a press conference hosted by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Hotze, the president of Conservative Republicans of Texas, said his suit will address “new and unconstitutional problems that stem from Obamacare.”
“It is imperative that Texas challenge this unwarranted federal overreach and ensure that Texans maintain the most innovative and economically viable health care system in the country,” he wrote in a statement.
Hotze has built a lucrative practice in suburban Houston around nontraditional therapies and treatments for allergies, thyroid problems and yeast infections. He’s best known for promoting natural progesterone replacement therapy for women, a treatment the FDA has questioned the effectiveness of. As recently as 2011, he had a daily health and wellness show on Republican Sen. Dan Patrick’s Houston radio station, KSEV.
At first I thought this was just another example of wingnut rage against the machine, another desperate act by another impotent Obama hater who doesn’t care about the millions of people that lack access to health care. But then I remembered that Hotze is not a traditional doctor as we tend to think of them, and as a commenter on that Trib story suggests this may simply be about reforms in Obamacare affecting his own bottom line. It’s not clear to me how or why that might be the case, however, since alternate medicine is largely included in the Affordable Care Act, and as that Press story notes, insurance companies had already refused to pay for Hotze’s drugs, supplements, and what have you that you could only get at his in-house pharmacy. The Trib story is now updated, and it fills in some details:
The lawsuit presents two constitutional challenges: First, it argues that the ACA violates the rule that requires revenue-raising bills to begin the U.S. House, because the original bill began as a tax credit bill for veterans —not a revenue-raising bill. Second, the lawsuit argues that the ACA violates the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution by essentially requiring citizens to pay money to other citizens by compelling employers to pay private insurance companies for health coverage.
Because Hotze’s business, Braidwood Management, has more than 50 employees, the law requires him to purchase employee health insurance or pay a $2,000 penalty for every full-time employee above a 30-employee threshold.
“This is going to be a huge expense. I’m grateful that Dr. Hotze is stepping forward,” state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said at the press conference. “I think he’ll have the support of many business owners and people around the state.”
Hotze said Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott were made aware of his intention to file a lawsuit, and none objected. Dewhurst was originally scheduled to speak at the press conference but did not attend.
The state of Texas will not be involved in pursuing or paying for the lawsuit. Hotze plans to cover the costs of the suit and has established a legal defense fund for other individuals and businesses to donate to his cause.
I’m not a lawyer, and having read numerous analyses when the first lawsuit was filed about how it was going to get slamdunked by SCOTUS I’m not going to say that it’s bogus and doomed to fail. But I will note that none of Perry, Dewhurst, or Abbott bothered to show up to Hotze’s press conference, and none will be helping out with it. I mean, if Greg “I sue the Obama administration for fun” Abbott isn’t right there holding Hotze’s hand, that suggests to me that maybe he’s not all that high on the merits of the suit. Indeed, Texas Politics adds on about that:
Phillip Martin of the progressive activist group Progress Texas said: “Hotze’s lawsuit appears to be a copy-cat lawsuit of one already filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation. As the Department of Justice has already stated, the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act actually began as House Resolution 3590. It went through a ‘gut and amend’ process in the Senate, and became the law as it is today. In the history of the Supreme Court, only 8 “Origination Clause” cases – like the one presented by the Pacific Legal Foundation and copied, months after the fact, by Hotze – have been heard, and not once has the court invalidated an act of Congress because of it.”
The Progress Texas blog cites that same Houston Press story I linked to above, which includes a summary of some of Hotze’s wacko beliefs. I haven’t seen a copy of the lawsuit itself so I can’t tell you any more about it, but hopefully it will appear online eventually. The Observer has more.
Posted in: Legal matters.