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Bikes on buses update

Keeps going up.

More METRO bus rides are bringing along their bicycles to complete their trip and get from point A to point B.

In June, the number of bikes on buses hit a record 21,941, a 32 percent increase over June a year ago. For the first nine months of this fiscal year (Oct. 2013 to June 2014), bike boardings rose 50 percent over the same period a year ago to 178,401.

Biking in the city is a trend that’s being promoted by city and county officials. METRO’s Kingsland Park & Ride bike partnership included $84,000 donated by METRO to build a bridge, path and parking that leads to a trail expanded by Harris County. The city donated bike racks for parking.

The trend continues, as did the good B-Cycle news. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s important for these networks to intersect and act as extensions of one another. The more we can do to facilitate nor-car travel, the better off we’ll all be. That includes the drivers, who will find themselves in less traffic. Adding other kinds of capacity will also serve to add capacity to the roads.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for July 20

“And that means that the Koch brothers, who spent an estimated $30 million on ads opposing Obamacare, might have actually had a hand in getting people signed up for insurance coverage.”

Reading the polls is a little trickier than usual this year.

As Neil Gaiman once said, George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

Financial literacy is overrated.

I loved the World Cup this year, but I’ve really been waiting for the Women’s World Cup to begin. I hope the third time can be the charm for professional women’s soccer in the US.

You think that traffic jam you’re sitting in now is bad?

Yogi Berra is a mensch.

Don’t use hotel business center computers if you know what’s good for you.

Were you a Prodigy user? Do you still have the hard drive from the computer where you logged on to Prodigy? If so, then this may be of interest to you.

“The Church of England has voted to allow women to enter its top ranks as bishops.” In other news, it is the year 2014.

RIP, Alice Coachman Davis, first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Clearly, I need to encourage my daughters to keep busy on their rainbow looms.

“I’ll be the first to admit that the Texas medical system has its problems. But if the biggest “health threats” these kids from Central America bring are head lice, some twisted ankles and 23 cases of chickenpox, well, Texas can handle that.”

“There have always been cranky old people asserting that things were better when they were kids and whatever is happening now is terrible [...] and presumably there always will be cranky old people. But a confluence of circumstances has created a situation in which conservative politics has gotten bound up with crankly oldersterism in a somewhat weird way.”

As one of the commenters to this said, “If anyone in history has ever deserved a religion more than Weird Al, I don’t know who it is.”

“Not to let facts intrude on their paranoid fantasies, but let’s not forget what the IRS scandalette actually involved. There’s never been any credible allegation that anyone was audited because of their political beliefs. There’s never been any allegation that the IRS “targeted” donors to Republican super PACs. The worst thing that happened was that some Tea Party groups that had applied for 501(c)(4) status—claiming, utterly falsely, that they were charitable, non-political organizations, I might add—had to wait longer than they should have to get approval on their applications. (And, I have to repeat, when you’re waiting for your approval, you’re permitted under the law to act as though you’ve gotten your approval. You can raise and spend money, which they did.)”

“Down with pipe shots. Up with throwing a fastball and letting destiny take over after that. Just make sure you call it what we’re all expecting. Even better, don’t call it anything at all.”

RIP, Johnny Winter, Texas blues legend.

Whatever you may think about NFL cheerleaders and how they are treated by the various teams, you have to admire Kriste Lewis and her determination to live life to its fullest.

Tort “reform” for thee, but not for me.

Want to buy one of the Pearls Before Swine strips that featured art by Bill Watterson? Go here, and be prepared to spend some big bucks. It’s for charity, if that helps.

Quit disappearing Rickroll videos, YouTube!

RIP, James Garner, iconic leading man.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

When is that appeal of the Texas same sex marriage ruling going to happen?

A little later than originally planned.

RedEquality

It’s been five months since a federal judge struck down Texas’ bans on same-sex marriage.

But Attorney General Greg Abbott says he needs more time to file a brief appealing U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s February decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court.

Abbott’s brief was initially to the 5th Circuit on July 9, but his office has now requested — and received — two extensions. The brief is now due July 29, according to court records.

“Applicants do not seek this extension for purposes of delay, but rather so that appellate counsel Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell has sufficient time to prepare a brief that is thorough, accurate, and helpful to the Court,” Abbott’s office wrote in a July 15 motion requesting the second extension of 10 days. “The issue in this case, the constitutionality of Texas’ same-sex marriage laws, is important and complex. The additional time would allow Mr. Mitchell to give this case the attention that it deserves. Besides this case, Mr. Mitchell also has obligations with respect to other multiple lawsuits including challenges to Texas’ voter ID laws, redistricting, an upcoming bench trial concerning Texas’ abortion laws, and a United States Supreme Court capital case undergoing merits briefing. Even with the previous seven-day extension, appellants are still within the court’s usual limit of forty days.”

Attorneys for two same-sex couples challenging Texas’ marriage bans in the case, known as De Leon v. Perry, opposed Abbott’s request for an extension.

“The Solicitor General’s vague claim of being too busy to prioritize this appeal simply does not justify further delaying this dispute,” attorneys for the couples wrote. “Appellees are suffering irreparable harm due to the violation of their Constitutional rights, and that harm should not be extended merely because nearly five months have proven an insufficient amount of time for the Solicitor General to prepare Appellants’ opening brief.”

In May, the 5th Circuit denied a request from the plaintiffs to expedite consideration of the case.

Neel Lane, one of the attorneys representing the couples, told Lone Star Q this week that Abbott’s office had given him “no clue as to why they had to seek the extension.”

“But I should add that extensions are not unusual at all,” Lane said. “A total of three extra weeks won’t be material.”

Lane said under the new timeline, his side’s response brief will be due Sept. 2, with the state‘s reply due Sept. 19. The court has not scheduled oral arguments.

You can see a copy of the request for extension at that link. The original ruling was on February 26, so it will be seven months from then till all briefs are due, assuming no further delays, then oral arguments at a later date and finally the ruling. I figure that’s at least a nine or ten-month span, optimistically putting the ruling at around the end of the year. As a point of comparison, yesterday the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the earlier ruling that struck down the Sooner State’s anti-same sex marriage law. A survey of the press releases I’ve received on this case shows that the original ruling was made on January 14, oral arguments concluded on April 17, and the ruling by the 10th Circuit was handed down on July 18, or a hair more than six months total time. That’s a month less than it’s taking Texas just to get all the briefs filed. I’m sure they’re stretched pretty thin at the AG’s office between this and redistricting and voter ID and all those other lawsuits they file against the federal government every day, but that doesn’t mean we ought to feel any sympathy for them for it. Juanita has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Beaver versus beaver

It’s a trademark infringement lawsuit. What did you think I was referring to?

In the animal world it may be that no two beavers are the same but semi-aquatic rodent diversity does not extend to the world of the convenience store, at least according to Buc-ee’s.

The Texas-based legends of convenience store bathrooms and beef jerky have issued a trademark infringement lawsuit against beaver rivals Frio Beaver, a new store opened in Concan, Texas.

The suit, filed in federal court earlier this month, contends that the new store is attempting to trade off Buc-ee’s success by copying its logo and store concept.

[...]

In the animal world it may be that no two beavers are the same but semi-aquatic rodent diversity does not extend to the world of the convenience store, at least according to Buc-ee’s.

The Texas-based legends of convenience store bathrooms and beef jerky have issued a trademark infringement lawsuit against beaver rivals Frio Beaver, a new store opened in Concan, Texas.

The suit, filed in federal court earlier this month, contends that the new store is attempting to trade off Buc-ee’s success by copying its logo and store concept.

The Southeast Texas Record appears to have had the first report on this. You can judge for yourself how similar the two logos are and how likely a person might be confused by it. It’s not the first time Buc-ee’s has gotten litigious over a potential competitor it thought was too close to its own concept or design. TM Daily Post has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

More on the partisan lines of the Uber fight

From Wonkblog, another interesting look at how the fight over the so-called “sharing economy”, in particular transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, is playing out nationally.

In its short life, however, the sharing economy has seldom reflected a clear schism between Republicans and Democrats — an argument Grover Norquist tries to make today in a provocative opinion piece for Reuters. Companies like Uber, he writes with Patrick Gleason, can help the GOP “gain control” of cities where they’ve been all but absent for years. Their logic:

Yet despite the Democrats’ urban dominance, cities may soon be up for grabs. For the party’s refusal to embrace the innovative technology and disruptive businesses that have greatly improved city life presents a challenge to Democrats — and an opportunity for Republicans.

Democrats are facing a tough choice. A big part of their base is the unions now facing off against such disruptive innovations as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and charter schools. Do Democrats support the regulations pushed by taxi and other unions that help to protect the status quo but can also stifle competition? Or do they embrace innovative technologies and businesses that expand transportation options, create jobs and are increasingly welcomed by another key Democratic constituency: urban dwellers, particularly young urban dwellers?

Norquist and Gleason are right that there will no doubt be political fallout from the sharing economy. I recently met a number of cab drivers in Chicago who pledged to me that they would fight against the reelection of Mayor Rahm Emanuel because of his support for services like Uber and Lyft there. But it’s not at all clear that this fallout will favor Republicans.

[...]

The point here isn’t that Democrats are all supporters of the sharing economy. It’s that support isn’t as contingent on ideology as Norquist and Gleason suggest. And the political lines are definitely not so tidy as to suggest that Republicans can leverage liberals’ “refusal to embrace the innovative technology” to sweep back into favor with urban voters. There’s room here for Democrats to acknowledge that markets can partly regulate themselves — with the help of technology — in ways that weren’t possible in the past; there’s room for Republicans to acknowledge that we need laws mandating commercial auto insurance anyway.

We’ve heard a lot from Democrats on these issues precisely because they’re playing out in cities so far. And, inevitably, elected Democrats like Rahm Emanuel will be forced to take positions that will please some core constituents at the expense of others. The tension between unions and young consumers is particularly compelling. Republicans should absolutely jump into that fray. They haven’t found a lot of reasons to talk to urban voters lately — if people like Norquist think this is one, that’s great.

But the fact that this debate isn’t neatly drawn into liberal and conservative camps is a testament to the policy issues raised by the sharing economy: They’re incredibly, incredibly messy. They also aren’t purely about big-picture ideological battles over less regulation or more union power, the kind of divisive themes that animate federal policy debates. They’re about the gritty details of auto insurance policies and tax receipts and access for disabled consumers. That’s not the stuff of pithy partisan slogans.

As author Emily Badger notes, this issue has not played out along partisan lines so far. Uber and Lyft have made their way into cities like San Francisco and Seattle working with the local governments there. Trying to make this into an R-versus-D fight will surely be a loser at least in the short term precisely because cities are overwhelmingly Democratic right now. Uber and Lyft can’t get approved in Houston without at least two Democrats supporting it, and indeed can’t even come up for a vote without Mayor Parker putting it on the agenda.

Of course, Norquist is playing a long game, and a few losses up front aren’t a setback to him but a catalyst. I still have a hard time buying this as a wedge issue. Norquist envisions a future army of disillusioned Uber (and Lyft and AirBnB and whatever other sharing economy companies are out there trying to gain a foothold) users turning to his brand of small-government deregulators as the saviors of their smartphone apps. But most people who live in cities like having a certain level of service and infrastructure, and they accept that there’s a higher level of taxes to provide for that. It’s not exactly a coincidence that cities tend to be Democratic, after all. If what you really want is lower taxes and you don’t care so much for things like sewer systems and professional fire departments, well, that’s what the suburbs and unincorporated areas are for. It’s not like these are hard to find or move to in most metro areas.

Again, though, this is a long game. Norquist is hoping to bring younger people – those who are way more likely to be Uber users in the first place – to a more generalized preference of deregulation and less government. I like to think that the millennial crowd already has a clear view of what he’s trying to sell them, but let’s all admit that predicting what politics will look like in 20 or 30 years is considerably sillier than trying to predict what it will look like in 2 or 3 years, or even 2 or 3 months. One reason for that is because nobody knows what society will look like in 20 or 30 years. Uber thinks driverless cars will eventually replace their human chauffeurs. Some other people think driverless cars will be the end of Uber and its ilk. Who knows? Maybe society won’t accept driverless cars and unions like SEIU make a push to organize Uber drivers. Anything can happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Collier hits the road

Talking taxes, and our state’s screwed-up appraisal process.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

With about as many local candidates as voters in attendance, the Travis County Democratic Party hosted a “town hall” on property tax reform Friday morning, where everybody agreed with would-be County Commissioner (Precinct 2) Brigid Shea: “The appraisal process is broken.” To fix it – in the current state political climate – will take some doing.

The event, introduced by TCDP Executive Director J.D. Gins, was headlined by Shea and Mike Collier, candidate for state Comptroller, who each spoke briefly and then responded to audience questions. Among the several dozen attendees, Newsdesk counted at least a dozen local candidates – most of them for Austin’s fall City Council elections – and among them likely County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who took the mic for a moment to rattle off some estimates of the financial benefits to county homeowners of substantial tax reform. The forum was also webcast across the state; Shea introduced a brief video produced by Real Values for Texas, a new statewide coalition “taking action to expose the impact of our state’s broken property tax system on homeowners, kids, and local communities.”

The gist of the problem, reiterated Collier and Shea, is that the property tax appraisal system has been allowed to become radically inequitable – even unconstitutional, said Collier. Under the Texas Constitution, properties are required to be assessed at market value for taxation purposes. For individual homeowners, said Collier, that’s mostly what happens; but big industrial and commercial property owners have managed, over the years, by various mechanisms – e.g., limiting exposure, concealing sales prices, and using greater resources to appeal – to be taxed at much lower valuations.

According to Real Values for Texas, the result is a system that, statewide, taxes major commercial and industrial properties at roughly 60% of market value, thereby moving much of that additional burden onto residential homeowners. Shea said that during her campaign visits, the subject is on everyone’s lips (especially in Travis County, where property values continue to surge). “It is hurting people all across our state,” Shea said, “literally driving people out of their homes.”

Collier noted that statewide, the problem must be addressed by the Legislature, which has largely relied on across-the-board spending cuts – especially to public schools – instead of attempting to make the system more equitable. He recommended three basic fixes: 1) tightening the definition of capital property; 2) requiring some form of sale price disclosure (as is required in 46 states); 3) addressing the imbalance in “negotiating power.” Commercial property owners, he pointed out, not only have teams of lawyers to appeal their valuations, but also, if they should win a lawsuit, the appraisal districts must pay any legal costs (not so in reverse). As a result, appraisal officials are motivated to capitulate rather than risk losing contested appeals.

Collier acknowledged that substantial reform will require legislative action, but the comptroller has a “voice, and the data,” to press the Legislature to comprehend the problem and restore equity to the system. He said that the Republican Party in Texas has become the spokesman and representative of big business, and “small businesses need at least one comptroller.” Rather than think first about the needs of big business, he added, state officials need to consider, in order, the needs of “homeowners, consumers, small business, and then big business.”

We’ve talked about this before, and you know how I feel about it. I’m glad to see Collier out and about talking about this – he’s on a two-week statewide tour, including a stop in Atascocita today, to discuss the issue. If he can get his message out, he can put himself in a position to win.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Saturday video break: Cherry Bomb

It’s time for another edition of Same Name, Different Song. Today’s song “Cherry Bomb” is fairly well known in either rendition, though I’d venture to guess that the John Mellencamp version has been on the radio a lot more.

I had Mellencamp’s album “Scarecrow” on vinyl (still have it, I believe), and “Lonesome Jubilee”, from whence this song came, on CD. Tiffany was the big Mellencamp fan in our house – she had all his CDs from “Lonesome Jubilee” forward. We saw him play at the Woodlands Pavilion some 15 years ago, and it was a great show. I don’t know if he’s still touring these days, but if he were to come to Houston again I feel reasonably sure we’d get tickets.

The other song by this name was by The Runaways:

Yeah, no question about these two songs being different. This one was in at least two movies, “Dazed and Confused” and of course “The Runaways”. Maybe not a radio staple, but it got plenty of exposure.

Posted in: Music.

Emmett doesn’t like Astrodome Park

And he’s not afraid to say so.

Hoping to jump-start another discussion about redeveloping the Astrodome, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Thursday called the Houston Texans and the Rodeo’s proposal to demolish the iconic stadium and replace it with a park-like green space “a silly plan” and pleaded with members of the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston to give repurposing a second chance.

“The Astrodome is the only building in the world that’s 350,000 square feet of column-free space,” he told a luncheon crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. “There are a lot of creative people in the world who would love to figure out ways to use the space if we just keep it and make it an option for them.”

The county’s top elected official was not advocating for a specific redevelopment proposal and told association members there is not one currently under consideration by the Harris County Commissioners Court, which will have the final say on any plan to renovate or demolish the structure. Rather, he said that tearing it down would be a waste of a valuable taxpayer-funded asset and that demolition would come back to haunt him in retirement.

The 49-year-old structure “is going to become a critical piece of who we are as a community. It’s not about nostalgia,” he continued. “It’s an asset that belongs to the taxpayers of Harris County and it would be a shame, because I know that I would wake up in retirement at my log cabin 10 or 12 years later and somebody would come forth and say ‘If we just had the Astrodome.’ So, I just wanted to bring that out. I’m starting that discussion again.”

In the last week, Emmett has expressed opposition to a $66 million proposal by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Texans to demolish the stadium and turn it into a grassy, outdoor space like downtown’s Discovery Green where festivals, tailgating and concerts could take place. He did so again on Thursday.

“It’s a silly plan,” he said after his remarks. “I told them: If you’re going to tear it down, just tear it down. I mean, is anybody going to care this is where Harmon Killebrew hit a home run?”

Well, I think some nod to the history of the place if it gets torn down is the least we can do, but that’s a valid point. Judge Emmett was the only distinctly negative voice on Commissioners Court when the idea first surfaced, so this isn’t a big surprise. I’m happy to restart this conversation as well, but the problem is that after all these years there still isn’t an agreed-upon idea for What To Do With The Dome nor a way to pay for it. You’d think that if it was ever the time for a private investor to come forward with a plan, it would be now while we’re experiencing a huge real estate and construction boom. Alternately, the county could float another bond proposal; Emmett acknowledged in an earlier version of this story that they did a lousy job selling the last one, so maybe the next time, if there is one, they’d do better at it.

I don’t know if this is going to go anywhere. The rest of Commissioners Court appears to be receptive to the Astrodome Park idea, though perhaps their enthusiasm will wane a bit if the Rodeo and the Texans get weaselly about how much they’d be willing to pony up for it. Emmett sort of called them out on that, saying he’d oppose the idea even if they picked up the entire tab, which I’m sure they never had in mind. Things are on hold while the Texas Historical Commission is deciding whether or not to grant the Dome historical status. Like I said, I don’t know where we go from here, but one way or another the matter is still open for discussion. Hair Balls, Texas Leftist, and PDiddie, who does like the Astrodome Park idea, have more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Four for interim Mayor

Four of out five San Antonio City Council members that had said they would like to file a letter of interest for the post of interim Mayor actually filed those letters of interest.

Submitting letters of interest by Wednesday’s 5 p.m. deadline were District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez and District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg.

The 10-member council has called a special meeting for 9 a.m. Tuesday to select a replacement for Mayor Julián Castro, whose term ends May 31. Castro has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Castro plans to resign as mayor once his successor is chosen, and later will be sworn in as HUD secretary.

Not filing a letter of interest was District 7 Councilman Cris Medina, who had expressed interest in the appointment but last week was the target of an anonymous email alleging official wrongdoing, which he vigorously denied. Medina announced Wednesday that he would take a brief leave of absence from council for military training in the Air Force Reserve, adding that fulfilling that commitment prevented him from pursuing the mayoral appointment.

See here for some background, and see The Rivard Report for more on the candidates. The fact that there are only four candidates instead of five changes the nature of the process a bit. Here’s a relevant quote from that Rivard Report post to illustrate why:

Candidates cannot vote for themselves, but they are allowed to abstain from voting and thus avoid giving their vote to anyone else.

A candidate needs six votes to win, and now there are six Council members that are not candidates. In theory, now one of the four contenders could win on a first round vote instead of needing one of his or her competitors to drop out and support their candidacy. The special meeting to do all of this is this coming Tuesday, July 22. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

The wheels on the bus go round and round, even in The Woodlands

Welcome to the wonderful world of transit.

If only…

With help from regional officials, The Woodlands is entering the bus business, a decision that might give south Montgomery County commuters more options down the road.

Population gains pushed the Woodlands-Conroe area from a “small urban area” to a “large urbanized area” of 230,000 residents for the 2010 Census. That bump means someone has to take responsibility for federally awarded transit money.

“Now those dollars are coming to us,” said Nick Wolda, spokesman for The Woodlands Township, the local governing organization.

With the money, however, comes responsibility for overseeing a bus system and stocking up on buses. To get the fleet started, Woodlands officials reached out to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out federal transit money in the Houston area.

Council officials Tuesday approved a $14.1 million agreement that uses $11.3 million in federal funds and $2.8 million from The Woodlands to buy 25 buses over a number of years, starting with five in the first year.

“It is not all the buses they need, but it is gives them a great start,” said Alan Clark, manager of transportation air quality programs for H-GAC.

[...]

Controlling bus service in their communities means the township and city can adjust service more to their liking and move more quickly, Clark said. By owning buses – and potentially having the funding to invest in more lines – transit officials in southern Montgomery County can start to position the buses to meet the area’s explosive growth.

“This is kind of the maturity of these communities,” Clark said. “Everything is coming together on this. They have made additional investments in sidewalk infrastructure.”

I wish them all the best with that. They’re still going to have to deal with the fact that their lack of a street grid and the resulting traffic congestion will severely limit the utility of their bus network, but it’s a start. At least every bus passenger will be one less car on those crowded streets. It ain’t much, but it’s a start.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Friday random ten: What the H?

I love how a single letter can represent a swear word.

1. Philadelphia Freedom – Hall and Oates
2. Stompin’ At The Savoy – Harry Connick, Jr
3. Big Rock Candy Mountain – Harry McClintock
4. Jump Into The Fire – Harry Nilsson
5. My Best Friend’s Girl – Hayseed Dixie
6. Well You Needn’t – Herbie Hancock
7. White Wedding – Herman’s Hermits
8. Black Eyed Suzi – The Honeycutters
9. I Can’t Tame Wild Women – The Hot Club of Cowtown
10. Back In Time – Huey Lewis & The News

Yes, that’s Herman’s Hermits covering Billy Idol. I see nothing wrong with that.

Posted in: Music.

Wilson wins residency fight

That was quick.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson lives in the residence he claimed and can keep his seat on the college system’s board, a jury decided Thursday.

“Thank you,” Wilson shouted when the verdict was announced about 4:30 p.m.

Harris County officials filed a lawsuit seeking to remove Wilson from office on grounds that he did not actually live in an apartment at 5600 W. 34th St. in the HCC district he represents. Because of this, county officials said, he was unqualified to hold his seat.

Jurors disagreed.

[...]

A slew of exhibits by the defense showed that if Wilson doesn’t live in the warehouse, he’s gone to great lengths to make it look like he does.

Wilson’s blood pressure medicine is mailed to 5600 W. 34th St. His bank statements and bills go to the warehouse. His numerous magazine subscriptions – from Forbes to National Geographic and Hemmings Motor News – go there, too. He’s also registered to vote there and lists the address on his driver’s license.

The sticking point is that Wilson’s wife lives on Lake Lane. It’s also where Wilson’s children were raised, where Wilson says he spends his weekends and where the family gathers to celebrate holidays. Wilson also listed the home as his address on tax returns. Wilson says that’s because he wants the check sent to the house, so he can sign it over to his wife.

I’ve said all along that if nothing else I hope we get some kind of standard out of this, because the residency laws as they stand now are ripe for gamesmanship. I don’t know if this definitively settles the matter, but it certainly sets an outer bound, which we could call the Wilson Line. Anything less egregious than what he did is apparently okay.

Yesterday’s story, which focused on the county’s case, showed how Wilson tests boundaries better than any toddler or teenager you’ve ever known.

Houston Community College Trustee Dave Wilson, whose name has become a staple on local election ballots, has made a habit of claiming one residence after another to qualify for his numerous runs for office, a Harris County attorney argued in court Wednesday.

Wilson has also claimed tax exemptions at a home on Lake Lane, which is in the Lone Star College System district. Lake Lane is where his wife lives and where he raised his children, spends his weekends and has his family gatherings, Douglas Ray, an assistant county attorney, told a jury in his opening argument in a case to determine where exactly Wilson lives.

Wilson lives exactly where he says he lives: in a “fully furnished” apartment in a warehouse on W. 34th Street, in District II of the HCC system, defense attorney Keith Gross told the jury. Just because his wife lives on Lake Lane does not mean it has to be his residence, Gross argued.

[...]

Wilson has stated on voter registration cards, drivers licenses, tax and other forms that he has lived at four addresses since 2005, and those addresses all line up with some motive – whether that is to run for office, or take out a tax exemption – Ray told the jury.

“When it’s convenient for him to claim for some economic reason he lives on Lake Lane, he’s lives at Lake Lane,” Ray said. “When he wants to run for office, well he lives wherever he needs to live.”

Wilson lived, and still does live, exactly where he claimed when he filed to run, his attorney said,adding his client spends “more than 70 percent” of his time on 34th Street. He has a driver’s license there, is registered to vote there and has all of his bank statements sent there. He’s lived there since early 2012.

But since moving there, he’s also registered to vote at another address, on Claremont Street, where he never lived, so he could run for an open state Senate seat, Wilson testified during questioning. Wilson said he “intended” to live there, but he did not end up running.

His defense attorney says “nowhere is it ever written” that you can’t live somewhere, if your motive is to run for political office. Wilson, an anti-gay activist, only wants to “improve the community” and has offended people in his quest to do so, Gross said. The case against him is politically motivated and that’s proven by the fact that more than 4,500 Harris County voters are registered at commercial buildings, as Wilson is, and the county isn’t going after any of them, Gross said.

Residence, Wilson and his attorney argued, is based on three factors: volition, intention and action. People can choose to live wherever they want. That they intend to live there, and that they actually hang their hat there make the place a residence.

Basically, Wilson says he lives wherever he says he lives at the time, and that’s sufficient for the law. Nothing else matters – the homestead exemption on the house where his wife lives, the ever-changing nature of the address on his voter registration, the fact that some of his “residences” are not permitted as residential, etc. The law is vague and he’s hardly the first person to take advantage of that. He’s just the most blatant and least apologetic about it.

And now a jury has accepted it. So be it, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s right. More to the point, I don’t think this is how it should be. As you know, I have an idea what I’d like to see the Legislature do about it. I plan to start my lobbying effort shortly.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Council votes to sue over bad pension projections

Game on.

BagOfMoney

Houston City Council on Wednesday paved the way for city attorneys to sue an actuarial firm the city claims gave inaccurate pension estimates that spurred costly changes to firefighters’ retirement benefits in 2001.

[...]

Houston’s contribution rate to the fire pension skyrocketed soon after the changes were approved, despite an actuarial report from Towers Perrin, now Towers Watson, that predicted the payment rate would remain flat for a decade. This year, the city is contributing 33 percent of payroll to firefighters’ retirements, more than double the rate prior to the changes.

In the event of a payout in the proposed lawsuit, the money would be used to reimburse the city for the Susman Godfrey’s fees and expenses up to $970,000, and the firm would get a third of the remaining cash, with the city keeping the rest.

See here and here for the background. Based on past history, the city would have a decent chance of winning. How much they might stand to collect remains to be seen, but it likely would fall in the “not nothing, but not going to make a big dent in the unfunded liability” bucket.

Posted in: Local politics.

It really is about more than just marriage

Jo Ann Santangelo writes for the Observer about what it means to be in a same-sex marriage that isn’t recognized as legal by the state of Texas.

RedEquality

In 2012, my wife, Kate, and I traveled more than 3,400 miles from Austin and back to marry legally in New York City. Seven years earlier, in November 2005, our fellow Texas voters had approved Proposition 2, amending the Texas Constitution to declare that “Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman,” thereby banning same-sex marriage within the state’s borders.

Like other same-sex couples who live in Texas, we are denied access to 1,138 federal rights, benefits and privileges because our marriage is not recognized here. That list, tallied in a 2003 report by the General Accounting Office, includes Social Security, military and veterans’ benefits, employment rights, and immigration and naturalization privileges.

In the eyes of Texas, Kate is not my next of kin. To approximate the status that a legally recognized marriage would confer, our attorney has recommended that we file six different contracts: a medical power of attorney and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act release; statutory durable power of attorney; declaration of guardian; directive to physicians; appointment of agent to control disposition of remains; and a last will and testament.

We have recently begun trying to become parents. Kate will be the birth mother. A lawyer has been necessary in this process as well. Months ago we started discussing the paperwork that will be required for me to adopt our child. We discovered that even after I file this paperwork, am screened and declared a fit mother by Child Protective Services, and appear in front of a judge, my name can never appear on our child’s birth certificate due to Texas Health and Safety Code 192.008, which states, “The supplementary birth certificate of an adopted child must be in the names of the adoptive parents, one of whom must be a female, named as the mother, and the other of whom must be a male, named as the father.”

You can see that GAO report here; it’s actually an update to a report from 1997, prepared after the passage of the now-unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act that listed a mere 1,049 “federal statutory provisions classified to the United States Code in which benefits, rights, and privileges are contingent on marital status or in which marital status is a factor”. All these rights that the rest of us get to take for granted were a part of the argument against Prop 2 in 2005, but unfortunately they fell on deaf ears. The courts are likely to grant same sex couples the right to have their marriages recognized and to get married wherever they want, but a lot of those “benefits, rights, and privileges” are codified into state laws as well, and their practical effect won’t disappear overnight when and if SCOTUS makes a favorable ruling in the Utah case. As the Riggs and Hanna case showed, there are lots more issues to be sorted out, and this will take time because the Lege is unlikely to deal with the business of repealing these soon-to-be-unconstitutional laws. I mean hell, the anti-sodomy statute struck down by the Lawrence ruling of 2003 is still on the books. It’s going to take a lot of court cases clear these matters up one by one, which will mean a lot more harm and hardship to many same sex couples.

In her essay, Santagelo talked to six other same sex couples about their experiences, including one of the two couples that served as plaintiffs in the case that struck down Texas’ marriage law, which is now pending appeal.

Nicole: “[When we were discussing having children] we thought, ‘Do we get married now even though it’s not legal in our own state?’ We knew we wanted to have kids, but we didn’t want to have kids and not be married. We’re both pretty traditional people. There’s just no way we’re going to have kids out of wedlock, and I wanted to be able to tell [our son] that we’re as married as we can possibly be. … She had an inordinately hard labor, a C-section that wasn’t planned. It became an emergency. For about 30 minutes we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Cleo: “It only comes up in some of the most vulnerable times. During the labor and delivery—you can’t adopt a child while he or she is in utero, so if something had happened … they become essentially orphans, they don’t have a second parent. The [legal arrangements] that we had, she could make decisions for me. She couldn’t make health decisions for him. We didn’t even think of that. You don’t think about those things. You think that you’re covered, you talk to your lawyer, you’ve got everything filed and prepared and ready, and then you’re in this situation and all of a sudden it dawns on you, ‘Oh my God.’ It really drove home the need to change the laws in this state. … So we are vulnerable, and that’s one of the reasons why we feel so strongly about the lawsuit that we’re in. We want to make sure that all the default laws that are afforded to different-sex couples are given to us as well, because we’re a family and we feel that if the state really wants to promote responsible procreation, then why are you making it harder for us?”

Nicole: “You don’t have an accidental kid in a gay relationship. There is so much intention and planning that goes into having a kid. There’s nothing irresponsible about that.”

Reading that just kills me. I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the hell that Nicole Dimetman and her son would have faced if tragedy had struck, but the point is that she shouldn’t have had to think about that. The sooner we as a society fix this injustice, the better.

Posted in: Society and cultcha.

B-Cycle keeps racking up good numbers

Great to see.

From meager beginnings, Houston’s bikesharing program has blossomed into a big draw for visitors and locals looking for a quick ride.

For the first six months of 2014, Houston B-Cycle logged 43,530 checkouts, according to agency data. The system had about 2,000 checkouts in all of 2012, the year it started with three stations and 18 bikes.

“We are excited about continuing the expansion and operations,” Houston B-Cycle director Will Rub said. “We still feel like we are on track for our five-year plan for having 100 stations and 1,000 bikes by 2017.”

The smooth ride to a 29-station, 225-bike system hasn’t been all downhill, however. Use of a couple of stations meant to move B-Cycle into targeted areas is well below expectations, and three bikes, valued at about $1,200 each, have gone missing.

The bumps are balanced by good ridership even in the city’s hotter months, if June is any indication. As the weather warmed, the system still averaged more than 220 checkouts a day. Based on calculations of how long the bikes were checked out and an average travel distance, officials estimate the bikes have traveled more than 143,000 miles this year.

[...]

Denver’s growth is a good aspiration for Houston, however. Its system, one of the country’s largest, logged 263,000 trips last year. Denver has 84 stations and 624 bikes.

Houston’s long-term plans mirror what Denver has already built in some sections of the city. Stations are spaced about every 1,000 feet, making it easy for a rider to grab a bike for a quick trip down the street for lunch or an appointment. From there, stations have been added to expand the edges of the system.

Although Houston has a group of committed, frequent riders, it hasn’t hit the level where grabbing a bike becomes a viable option for most people, Rub said.

“Right now we don’t have the station density that really contributes to it being a really integrated network,” Rub said.

Houston B-Cycle is hoping to lure a title sponsor – like New York’s 6,000-bike system did with Citibank – to commit $4 million over five years. Paired with grant money and federal funds for air quality improvements, the title sponsor would give Houston the capital to blanket many areas, such as the Texas Medical Center.

“I think that network in and of itself is going to create some very impressive numbers when we are in the (medical center),” Rub said.

I renewed my membership this weekend. I don’t use B-Cycle as often as I thought I would, but when I do use it, it’s been for the reasons I expected – to get me places in and near downtown that are too far to reasonably walk but which make no sense for me to drive to. A lot of folks – some visitors, some locals – have used B-Cycle on impulse, which is good for the system since they pay a slightly higher rate than members do. It would be nice to understand why some of the stations have been lightly used, and as I’ve said before I hope all interested parties are talking about how best to integrate B-Cycle with the new bus routes going forward. I can’t wait to see what B-Cycle’s numbers look like next year and the year after.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Dave Wilson residency lawsuit is underway

Almost missed this.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

A trial is set to begin Tuesday morning to determine whether Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson actually lived in the district in which he ran last November.

Wilson, who ousted former HCC Chairman Bruce Austin in the Nov. 5 election by 26 votes, is being sued by the Harris County attorney. The lawsuit says Wilson did not live in the college system’s District II – the bulk of which sits in northeast Harris County – when he ran for office. Wilson has contended that he lives in “a 1,140-square-foot apartment upstairs” at his office, located at 5600 W. 34th St., which is in the district.

The building there is an 11,340-square-foot commercial metal warehouse, according to county records. A city inspection in January determined Wilson doesn’t have permission to use the warehouse as a residence.

Wilson, a 67-year-old businessman, gained national attention when he beat a 24-year incumbent for the predominantly black district after leading voters to believe he was black. Wilson – who is white – mailed campaign fliers without his photo that said he was endorsed by Ron Wilson – his white cousin, who happens to share the name of a black former state representative.

Jury selection begins this morning, and the trial is expected to last about a day and a half.

See here and here for the background. The trial was originally scheduled to begin April 15, but you know how these things go. The trial may have already concluded by the time you read this, or maybe it will stretch till tomorrow. In any event, I presume we’ll get a ruling soon. I hope there’s some more news coverage to go with it when that happens – this blurb on the free chron.com and this News 92 FM piece were all I saw for it. A search in houstonchronicle.com came up empty, and if there was something in the dead tree edition I missed it. I’d have missed this as well if Houston Legal hadn’t included it in its daily link roundup yesterday.

I have no idea what will happen in this trial. As we’ve discussed before, there’s little precedent to go by, and a lot of vagueness when it comes to what constitutes “residency”. If nothing else, I hope this will help with that. If Wilson loses, I expect him to appeal, going all the way to SCOTUS and maybe the World Court in the Hague if need be, because that’s how he rolls. If Wilson wins, I don’t know if Vince Ryan will pursue it any further. I’m not sure it would be worth the effort unless there’s good reason to think the trial judge screwed up.

I’ve been giving some thought to how this could be better addressed via legislation, and what I’ve come up with is this: A bill that says you are not eligible to serve as a trustee or the equivalent on a school board, community college board, MUD or RUD board, and anything else I might be overlooking, if you or your legally married spouse claims a homestead exemption outside the boundaries of the political entity in question. Note that this wouldn’t prevent someone like Dave Wilson from running for something like the HCC Board of Trustees, but it would require him to sell the house on which he has the exemption, divorce his wife, or give up the exemption. (I put the “spouse” requirement in there because you know the first line of escape by this kind of scoundrel would be to put the home in question in the spouse’s name. It also provides a loophole for same sex couples, at least until same sex marriage is officially legal in Texas. Yeah, I’m evil like that.) If you want to run for something here while owning a home there, you can still rent an apartment or claim a spot on someone’s couch and re-register as a voter here to qualify. You just have to forfeit the tax advantage on that house over there. I think that’s a suitable answer.

Now this is the part where I remind everyone that I am not a lawyer, and so there may be some legal or practical reason why this idea is nuts and completely unworkable. If so, please let me know in the comments. If you want to point out that this would affect some politicians that I happen to like as well as Dave Wilson, my answer is that I’m fine with that. They can make whatever choice to get right that they want, and we’ll have one less fig leaf in politics. If there isn’t a good reason why this idea is stupid, then I plan to start lobbying a few of my favorite State Reps about it. I didn’t include cities in my fantasy bill because I think they should come up with their own requirements for office, but if this can work at the Lege then I’d certainly support amending Houston’s charter to this effect as well. What do you think? Like I said, if this is crazy, go ahead and tell me why.

UPDATE: Today’s Chron reports on the first day of the trial. I’ll have a full post about this tomorrow.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Fracking ban on the ballot in Denton

This has the potential to be even bigger than the HERO repeal referendum.

Voters will decide whether this North Texas college town will become the state’s first city to ban hydraulic fracturing.

After a public hearing Tuesday night that stretched into Wednesday morning, the Denton City Council rejected a proposal to ban the method of oil and gas extraction inside the city, which sits on the edge of the gas-rich Barnett Shale. The 5-2 vote kicked the question to the city’s November ballot, the next step in a high-profile property rights clash that will likely be resolved outside of Denton.

“It’s a high-stakes game,” said mayor Chris Watts, who said he voted against the proposal so that citizens would have a say. “This issue is going to be decided in one of two places: the statehouse or the courthouse.”

Fracking opponents forced the council’s vote after gathering nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for a ban. The proposal would not prohibit drilling outright; it would apply only to fracking, which involves blasting apart rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water.

Denton, population 121,000 and pockmarked with more than 270 natural gas wells, is one of several Texas cities wrangling with questions about where to allow drilling and how strictly to regulate it.

As drilling increasingly moves into urban areas, tension is growing between property rights above ground and sub-surface mineral rights. States, along with the federal government, regulate most aspects of drilling, including well integrity, pipeline safety, and air and water impact. Cities, however, have sought to regulate noise and to control the location of wells or related sites like compressor stations.

No Texas city has tried to ban fracking, and the prospect of a ban in Texas prompted state officials and energy industry representatives Tuesday to join an overflow crowd at city hall.

“The whole world is watching Denton, Texas,” said Chris Faulkner, CEO of Dallas-based Breitling Energy, who urged the council to reject the ban.

I think that’s fair to say. It’s also highly likely that there will be a ton out outside interest and money in this referendum, and if it passes you can be sure there will be litigation.

A Chron story from Tuesday morning set the scene.

“I think everyone all along assumed this was going to go to a citywide vote, given the uncharted waters we find ourselves in,” Councilman Kevin Roden said in an interview. “My guess is there’s comfort in letting it go to an entire city vote as opposed to seven of us trying to decide this.”

Denton sits over the Barnett Shale, one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields.

[...]

Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, sent a 4-page letter to the mayor and council members blasting the ban proposal as “extremely misguided.”

“Increased production of natural gas, natural gas liquids and crude oil has greatly enhanced the Texas economy,” Smitherman wrote. “Over 400,000 Texans work in the oil and gas industry and the average wage per employee is a staggering $128,000.”

Smitherman [didn't] attend Tuesday’s public hearing because of a prior commitment, but asked that his written comments be considered.

Although Roden, the councilman, declined to state his position on the ban, he was unimpressed with Smitherman’s letter.

“We’ve been struggling with how to make natural gas drilling compatible in residential areas and largely because of the regulatory environment we find ourselves in, the state is pulling the shots and we’re not able to regulate from a local perspective,” he said.

“For him to write us a letter in the 11th hour with no policy suggestions on how to get better, only advocating for an industry he’s supposed to be regulating, I found it pretty out of touch.”

Here’s Smitherman’s letter. Perhaps if the RRC had any credibility as a watchdog, this sort of advocacy would not have arisen. State Rep. Myra Crownover, who represents Denton, is quoted in the Trib story saying that she will work with Sen. Craig Estes “to find a finely crafted fix for these issues”, but again, I don’t know how much credibility that carries. We all know whose interests come first around here. The Observer, Unfair Park, and Texas Sharon, one of the leaders of the petition effort, have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

How to solve the traffic problems of The Woodlands

All that growth has its downsides.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, along with local entities including The Woodlands, Montgomery County, the City of Oak Ridge North and the Texas Department of Transportation, are working on a South Montgomery Mobility Study that they hope will ultimately ease the woes of commuters.

Officials say they realize there are no easy answers. But they say the blueprint will help guide transportation planning for years to come.

“It’s obvious. The traffic situation is getting worse,” said Thomas Gray, a Houston-Galveston Area Council planner who is helping to lead the study. “The existing road network can barely sustain current traffic, and they won’t be able to handle the anticipated volumes.”

Preliminary findings reveal that most of the main arterials in and surrounding The Woodlands, such as Woodlands Parkway, Gosling Road and Kuykendahl Road, are either at or over capacity.

Congestion will only worsen as new residential communities and companies break ground in the coming years, according to early data and area council officials.

Township board members said that some residents believe the township and other regional leaders are not working quickly enough, as growth stresses the local infrastructure.

For many, completion of the study can’t come soon enough.

“I have residents calling and saying, ‘Why can’t you do something?’” said Jeff Long, a member of The Woodlands Township board. He said the No. 1 concern he hears from residents is that they’re spending too much time in traffic.

My advice is to invent a time machine, travel back to 1975 or so, and try to convince George Mitchell to do a traditional grid design for the streets instead of the mishmash of self-contained cul-de-sacs that exists now. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t known for some years now that this funnel everything to a single main road approach doesn’t work so well. Doing a grid would also allow for the creation of a public transportation network, and would also allow people to, you know, walk or bike to certain destinations instead of having to drive everywhere. It’s so crazy it just might work!

While I maintain that the time machine approach would ultimately be cheaper and less disruptive to The Woodlands and other parts of southern Montgomery County and far north Harris County – I wonder if all those soon-to-be-relocated ExxonMobil employees are aware of this? – I daresay that’s not likely to be the way the folks that are charged with fixing this will go. What the next best alternative is, I have no idea. Whatever solutions they do come up with, I’ll bet they can’t afford them with their current level of taxation. Good luck, y’all. You’re going to need it.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 14

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes you all a Happy Bastille Day as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Astrodome Park: The population isn’t the problem

Greg Wythe addresses one of the central questions about the proposed Astrodome Park in this comment that I thought was worth highlighting on the front page.

As it turns out, there are a number of apartments situated to the east and north of the Dome. Checking Census data, the counts on the area “un-highlighted” in this map view comes to 13,360 for the immediate Dome walking area.

If we look at just downtown, we have only 4,690 total people there to seed Discovery Green with foot traffic. So, on the surface, the Dome area is significantly better situated. If we factor in Midtown and a generous interpretation of EaDo, we get 13,243 people in the “un-highlighted” version of the downtown map. Still less than would be accessible to the Dome park.

Both maps are from roughly the same elevation, so the expanse of territory of those maps should give a good interpretation. Obviously, not all parts of downtown (let alone Midtown or EaDo) are considered “walkable” to Discovery Green and not all parts of the Med Center apartments are going to be “walkable” to a Dome park.

But even if the downtown area were more populated, I don’t think it would make a case in and of itself – highways and a rail line to the Dome generally mean easier access. If there’s a problem with the proposal, proximate population and access aren’t going to be among them.

Greg’s input – and his maps! – are always appreciated around here, so I’m glad he was inspired to do this bit of research. I have three takeaways from it.

1. It seems clear that the residential population around the Astrodome is not an impediment to it becoming a successful park like Discovery Green. Honestly, when you think about it, Houston’s best parks – here we include Hermann and Memorial, for starters – are destinations. People get there by whatever means is most practical to enjoy their amenities. If Astrodome Park is worth going to, people will go to it.

2. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the walkability question, nor the point that Astrodome Park would be a small oasis of green surrounded by a sprawling desert of asphalt, which may have a dampening effect on attendance. Walkability is about more than just distance to travel, it’s about the experience and utility of walking as a mode of transportation. People associate walking with downtown, if only because wherever you’re going downtown, you’re likely going to park a couple of blocks away from it, and once you do park it’s often expensive and inconvenient to move and re-park. That asphalt desert that would encircle Astrodome Park feels like it might be a psychological barrier to the park. I don’t know how to test that hypothesis without actually building the park, and even I will admit that the total effect of what I’d describing here is likely to be minimal in reality, but I do think one reason why people are skeptical of the idea is because of this. It just doesn’t fit with our perception of the place. Of course, there were people saying the same thing about Discovery Green not too long ago, so take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

3. Really, what Greg highlights here just enhances what Lisa Gray wrote about and I commented on: It’s the programming. The people that conceived, built, and now run Discovery Green have put a ton of work and a few million bucks into making it a place that people want to go. The evidence that we have so far is that other than invoking Discovery Green as an optimistic analogy, the proponents of Astrodome Park haven’t done any of that thinking or planning or fund-seeking. If and when they show their work on this, we can evaluate their plans and compare them to Discovery Green and see how we feel. Until then, it’s just some pictures on a set of PowerPoint slides.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

The relevant numbers in the finance reports

The headlines will say one thing but you need to dig a little deeper to get the picture.

BagOfMoney

Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott has amassed a $35.6 million war chest in his campaign for Texas governor, a figure his aides called unprecedented Tuesday.

Abbott’s cash-on-hand figure dwarfs the $13.1 million that his Democratic opponent, Sen. Wendy Davis, said she had piled up so far. The figures from the Davis campaign include money destined for the Democrats’ separate turnout operation.

Both campaigns released their fundraising totals ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. The actual reports, which provide details about donors and expenditures, were not immediately available.

Though Abbott has far more money to spend on the race, Davis had her own reason to brag. She claimed raising $11.2 million for the most recent fundraising period, which ran from late February through June 30. Abbott pulled in $11.1 million over the same time frame, his campaign said.

It’s true that Abbott has a huge wad of cash, much more than anyone else, but what the story fails to mention is that he’s had a twelve year head start in raising that cash. Look at it this way: In his July 2013 report, Abbott showed $20,978,129.91 on hand, which means that in the year since then, he’s netted about $14.7 million in cash. That’s not bad at all, but remember, Wendy Davis hadn’t even declared for Governor at that point. Her first gubernatorial finance report is from January of 2014. Her comparable cash on hand figure can be seen by looking at her July 2013 Senate fundraising account, which had
$1,063,108.05 on hand. This means that she has amassed a bit more than $12 million in net cash since then, or about $2.6 million less than Abbott. When you consider that she outraised him in three of the four reporting periods, and that she had to invest a lot more in building a statewide infrastructure from scratch, that tells a rather different story.

That doesn’t change the fact that Abbott has over $20 million more on hand than she does, and that he could start carpet-bombing the airwaves with nonstop ads from now through November if he wanted to. It’s not clear to me what the marginal effect of another $10 or $20 million in TV ads or mailers or what have you may be – I suspect people start to tune them out long before the end – but Abbott has that capability. My point is that Davis may be outgunned, but she’s hardly outclassed. We expected her to give Abbott a run for his money, and she has done that. Kudos to Wayne Slater for acknowledging that.

There’s a similar dynamic in the Lt. Gov. race.

Since defeating incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a May 28 runoff, [Dan] Patrick has raised $1 million. [Leticia] Van de Putte, who ran unopposed, raised about $1.2 million in the same time period. Four months ahead of the general election, the two candidates are working with similar balances in their respective war chests, with Van de Putte reporting $1.1 million cash on hand while Patrick has $946,982 in the bank.

The two campaigns released some fundraising totals ahead of the Texas Ethics Commission’s Tuesday deadline for reports covering fundraising activity and expenditures through June 30. The reports were not immediately available.

Patrick raised $2.2 million during a crowded, four-way primary election, and $4.5 million during his runoff against Dewhurst. His overall haul so far — $7.8 million since last summer — dwarfs his Democratic opponent’s. Since announcing her candidacy in late November, Van de Putte has raised almost $2.3 million.

The news that LVdP outraised Patrick since May 28 is encouraging, and may be an indicator that she will have real crossover potential. We’ll have to see what the full report looks like for that. Patrick’s overall fundraising lead is largely due to the race dynamic so far – he had two competitive elections to win while she was unopposed and didn’t really start fundraising until after the primary. She will have to do at least as well on a monthly basis to keep up or (one hopes) surpass him, as Patrick has much higher name recognition than she has. That’s a double-edged sword for him, of course, but people will need to know about LVdP for it to really matter. I’d love for her to reach $10 million overall, but if she can at least pull in another $5 million by the start of early voting, I’ll feel like she can do what she needs to get her name out there.

UPDATE: Davis’ cash total is a bit less than originally reported due to a large in-kind donation and some deadline shenanigans with BGTX’s payroll. A little annoying and a needless distraction, but in the grand scheme of things not that much actual money.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Sam Houston enters the chemical disclosure fray

From the inbox:

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Sam Houston, Democratic Nominee for Texas Attorney General, today promised to reverse the current AG’s letter ruling on the release of the locations of dangerous chemicals, putting the safety of our families and children first.

“I have reviewed the law that General Abbott cited when his office upheld the state health department’s decision to withhold this vital information,” Houston said. “That opinion is wrong. Under the Texas Public Information Act, information is open to the public absent any specific exception. Federal and state statutes specifically make this information available to the public. General Abbott took a nonspecific statute and said it overrode the public right to know statutes. Legally, this is incorrect.

“Texans have the right to know whether their homes, schools or churches are located near facilities with dangerous chemicals,” Houston said. “As soon as I receive a request for an opinion on this issue , I will re-review the issue and, absent any new information, will reverse the decision.”

Houston noted that information on chemicals stored at corporate facilities has been available for decades under state and federal law. He said the suggestion that Texans could just “drive around” and ask these facilities what chemicals they have on site is insulting and leaves thousands of Texans vulnerable to another incident like the one that occurred in West. Additionally, Houston said General Abbott’s “drive around and ask” suggestion contradicts his claim that this information is confidential.

“Texans need to know that their attorney general will aggressively defend the rights of all Texans,” said Houston. “I will re-establish trust in the attorney general’s office.”

I’d been hoping Houston would jump on this, as it seemed to be an obvious opportunity to make some noise on an issue that’s already in the news and where he can boost his own candidacy while aiding that of Wendy Davis as well. It’s totally fair game for him to say that he disagrees with something the incumbent AG has done and that he would do it differently if he were in office, and given Abbott’s blinkered view of the law this is a pretty fat target. Houston has done this before, and honestly I wish he’d do it more often. It’s not like there’s a shortage of issues on which Abbott has been worthy of criticism as AG, and the news hook for Houston would be bigger when he aims up.

Speaking of which, Houston’s release did in fact make the news.

Kicking off a four-city tour to keep the issue on voters’ minds, Houston charged Abbott, the GOP front-runner for governor, with disregarding public right-to-know laws when he ruled the Texas Department of State Health Services does not have to disclose information about hazardous chemicals kept at private facilities, citing a 2003 anti-terrorism law.

“All that they’re relying on is a vague statute that’s not specific enough,” Houston said during a news conference at a union hall in Houston. “That’s not good enough.”

[...]

“Voters are always going to want to hear about it because it’s going to come home in the future if we don’t change this and they don’t find out about the information,” Houston told reporters, brushing off the idea that voters have heard enough about an issue that has dominated the governor’s race for most of the month so far.

It’s also an opportunity for a free shot at his actual opponent.

Houston speculated [Ken] Paxton has avoided speaking about the ruling because “he’s got his own issues about openness,” an apparent reference to Paxton’s violation of a a state securities law. He was fined $1,000 for not informing clients of his relationship with an investment adviser.

It’s okay to be a little less oblique about that, but otherwise, well done. More like this, please.

Posted in: Election 2014.

More MLB-to-San-Antonio rumors

Believe them at your peril.

Could the Oakland A’s find a home in San Antonio?

At least one Oakland elected official thinks so, but Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff says San Antonio sports fans shouldn’t hold their breath.

“There’s nothing happening over here,” Wolff said.

“Our name’s been thrown out, but we went through that with the New Orleans Saints. I went through that with the Marlins. We didn’t spend a lot of local money but we spent a lot of time on it. You get these owners telling you one thing, and the baseball guys, administration, telling you something else. They’re going to have to be a hell of a lot more serious and a hell of a lot more coordinated to expect any of these communities to express any interest in it.”

However, Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid said he doesn’t believe the A’s are bluffing in their threat to leave the city if they don’t get a 10-year lease extension at the Coliseum.

Reid told San Francisco Chronicle blogger Phil Matier that San Antonio and Montreal are possible destinations should the A’s not get the deal they want.

“They have options,” Reid said, citing sources among the Coliseum Authority negotiators who have been working for 14 months to try to reach an A’s lease extension.

When asked if he thought the threat was real, Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Nate Miley said, “I’d put money on it.”

Here’s the blog post on which this story is based. It mentions that Montreal is another possible relocation option for the A’s, and in doing so broke my brand-new Irony-O-Meter. I paid forty bucks for the damn thing, too – guess I better mail in that warranty form. Anyway, as noted before, San Antonio may be a viable landing place (or expanding place) for a MLB team someday, but that day is not today, and likely won’t be anytime soon. San Antonio and – I can’t say it with a straight face, so please pardon the guffaw – Montreal are much more useful to MLB right now as points of leverage in this sort of negotiation. If it ever gets more serious than that, I trust that grassroots folks like MLB in San Antonio will be a bit more chatty on social media about it than they are currently. Enjoy the All-Star break, y’all. There should be some real baseball news again soon.

Posted in: Baseball.

What else is at stake in the redistricting trial

It’s about more than just the maps.

Efforts by the Obama administration to wring protections out of a weakened Voting Rights Act begin Monday in Texas over allegations that Republicans intentionally discriminated against minorities when drawing new election maps.

A federal trial in San Antonio comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that Texas and 14 other states with a history of voting discrimination no longer need permission from Washington before changing the way elections are held.

The Justice Department and minority rights groups now want a three-judge panel to decide that Texas still needs that approval under a historically obscure portion of the Voting Rights Act that has drawn new attention since the heart of the 1964 civil rights law was struck down.

Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to use “every tool at our disposal” to preserve voter safeguards after the Supreme Court decision.

“This is a case that will make law,” said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

[...]

Republican legislative leaders have long argued the maps were drawn merely to benefit their party’s candidates and have rejected accusations of intentional discrimination.

But if judges find intentional discrimination, Texas could be required to continue seeking federal preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. It has rarely been employed because the same effect was formerly achieved through the more muscular part of the law that is now eliminated.

See here and here for more on what the plaintiffs and the Justice Department are aiming for, and here for more on the state’s response. Section 3 came out of obscurity last year after Section 5 was gutted, and this is its first major test. If it fails here, I suspect it’s unlikely to succeed anywhere else.

Salon fills in some more details on why the plaintiffs and the DOJ are pursuing this course.

On Nov. 17, 2010, Eric Opiela sent an email to Gerard Interiano. A Texas Republican Party associate general counsel, Opiela served at that time as a campaign adviser to the state’s speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio; he was about to become the man who state lawmakers understood spoke “on behalf of the Republican Congressmen from Texas,” according to minority voting-rights plaintiffs, who have sued Texas for discriminating against them.

A few weeks before receiving Opiela’s email, Interiano had started as counsel to Straus’ office. He was preparing to assume top responsibility for redrawing the state’s political maps; he would become the “one person” on whom the state’s redistricting “credibility rests,” according to Texas’ brief in voting-rights litigation.

In the Nov. 17, 2010, email, Opelia asked Interiano to look for specific data about Hispanic populations and voting patterns.

“These metrics would be useful to identify the ‘nudge factor’ by which one can analyze which census blocks, when added to a particular district [they] help pull the district’s Total Hispanic pop … to majority status, but leave the Spanish surname RV [registered voters] and TO [turnout] the lowest,” Opiela writes to the mapmaker.

Interiano responded two days later: “I will gladly help with this Eric but you’re going to have to explain to me in layman’s terms.”

Two years and seven months after that email exchange — and one year ago on June 25, 2013 — the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder,which struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had allowed the federal government to “pre-clear” redistricting maps proposed by Texas and other states with a history of discriminating against minority voters.

In a follow-up email on Nov. 19, 2010, Opiela explained to Interiano that he called his proposed strategy: “OHRVS” or “Optimal Hispanic Republican Voting Strength.” Opiela defined the acronym-friendly term as, “a measure of how Hispanic, and[,] at the same time[,] Republican we can make a particular census block.”

Lawyers for the African-American and Hispanic voting-rights plaintiffs consider Opiela emails “a smoking gun.” The correspondence will play a starring role at a trial scheduled to start today in a San Antonio federal court in a redistricting case, Perez v. Perry. The litigation pits the plaintiffs, who have been joined by the Obama administration, against Texas and its Republican state leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry in his official capacity.

There’s more, so read the whole thing. The trial is expected to last a week, though the ruling won’t be for months. The one thing I feel confident saying is that this will wind up back before the Supreme Court. PDiddie, Texas Election Law Blog, and Texas Public Radio have more.

UPDATE: From his new perch at the Brennan Center, here’s Michael Li’s preview of the trial and its implications.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The interim and non-interim Mayoral hopefuls of San Antonio

Robert Rivard previews the sausage-making process in San Antonio.

It takes six votes to win, a majority that will be harder to achieve if some of the announced candidates exercise their right to abstain. If all five abstain from voting for someone else, it will be impossible to gain the necessary majority. Such a stalemate would open up the process to all 10 council members, according to the rules of procedure outlined by City Attorney Robbie Greenblum at a recent council meeting.

If the interim mayor is, however, successfully elected on the first round of voting, you will know the real vote occurred behind closed doors and out of public view. I hope that doesn’t happen, and I don’t necessarily believe it will.

What is more likely is an inconclusive first round in which at least two of the candidates, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and District 7 Councilman Chris Medina, receive no votes and are eliminated from the next round. It’s also possible, of course, that both will reach this conclusion before July 22 and reverse their stated intentions to seek the mayor’s seat.

Either way, that would leave three candidates.

One is District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, the presumed frontrunner who has stated her willingness to serve out Castro’s one year unexpired term and then step down without seeking election as mayor next May. She would be San Antonio’s first African-American mayor and in a strong position to seek a seat in the state Legislature afterwards if state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) does not run again.

Taylor’s pledge not to run in next May’s city election makes her an appealing compromise candidate to council members who want to run in May themselves or who want to support a candidate not on the Council.

It also would leave San Antonio with a figurehead leader lacking the political power of an interim mayor perceived as a possible candidate for election to a full term in May.

The others two candidates are District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez, the senior member of Council, and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, both of whom have expressed an interest in winning the interim seat and going on to run in May.

Two suburban Council members, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier and District 10 Councilman David Gallagher, were said to be provisionally committed to Taylor, if you believe city hall chatter. That’s still four votes short, but it’s a start.

Lopez is experienced and believes he would be effective as mayor, but younger Council members seem more inclined to look at candidates from their generation. Gonzales has entered the contest, in part, because she and others feel it’s time for San Antonio to elect its first Latina mayor. She also believes she is just as qualified as anyone else pursuing the job. Gonzales had no mayoral aspirations before Castro’s Cabinet nomination, but circumstances have placed her and everyone else on the Council in a position none anticipated.

The unique nature of Council politics has thrust all of them into an uncomfortable position. The Council members who might have been the most likely to try and succeed Castro in 2017, had he sought and won a fourth term, aren’t the Council members with the strongest hand in the July 22 contest.

Makes your head spin a little, doesn’t it? Rivard is absolutely right that the San Antonio City Council needs to amend the city’s charter to include a less-crazy, more-democratic Mayoral succession process. A special election on the next viable uniform election date makes the most sense to me. In the meantime, the main question seems to be is it better to put in a placeholder till next May so all of the wannabees for a full term can start out on even footing, or is it better to put in someone that will be auditioning on the job for a full term?

How you answer that may depend on who you would like to support in 2015. One person who won’t be tapped to fill Julian Castro’s shoes for the next few months is State Rep. Mike Villarreal, who is busy building up support for his 2015 campaign.

For 35 years, the most successful candidates and most effective mayors have been practical Democrats who have won the backing of the business community.

This is not just because these candidates have well-financed campaigns. It is because a mayor with an ambitious agenda needs the support of the majority of voters — who in San Antonio are Democrats — and the support of the business community, which is practical.

The most effective San Antonio mayors of the past 35 years — Henry Cisneros, Nelson Wolff, Phil Hardberger and Castro — all fit that profile.

For the past 10 years, the best political harbinger of business support is Mike Beldon, head of one of the city’s largest roofing companies, former chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and former chairman of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. In 2005, he served as treasurer and finance director for Hardberger’s campaign against a young Castro. Four years later, he did the same for Castro in his successful campaign against Trish DeBerry.

Now Beldon has signed on as the mayoral campaign manager for state Rep. Mike Villarreal.

Other than the Council members named above that would run for “re-election” if they win the Council beauty contest, there aren’t any serious contenders that are openly working it for 2015. Villarreal is known to have statewide ambitions, and Mayor of San Antonio would be a nice jumping-off point for a future statewide campaign, certainly one with greater potential than State Rep, at least at this time. One interesting twist on this is that Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is said to have expressed some interest in being Mayor before, and could conceivably jump in if she’s not presiding over the Senate next spring. I trust Rep. Villarreal will see that as extra incentive to work even harder on behalf of her candidacy for Lite Gov.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Believing in – and lying about – monsters

This Chron editorial about the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance and the frenzied, fanatical opposition to it gets right to the heart of the matter.

On its face, there is nothing controversial in the NDO. One could even claim that it is rather conservative, in the sense that this policy has been tested elsewhere time and again. The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of categories already covered by federal law. It also extends protections to gay and transgender residents, following nondiscrimination laws that other cities and states have had on the books for years. Religious organizations and small businesses are exempted, and the maximum fine is $5,000.

But the rather staid nature of the nondiscrimination ordinance has not stopped opponents (mostly a few limited political and religious groups) from labeling it the “Sexual Predator Protection Act” and pursuing a ballot referendum to eliminate the new law.

The crux of this ad hominem invective is that opening the doors of civil society to transgender people – including restroom doors – will somehow also benefit criminals. This is an accusation based more in fear than fact.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. More than 160 cities and counties have passed their own individual laws, including Atlanta, Nashville and New Orleans. Dallas has had similar protections for a decade. Minnesota first prohibited discrimination against transgender folks in public accommodations more than 20 years ago. Even the Houston Independent School District added a transgender category to its nondiscrimination policy in 2011.

Houstonians have patiently studied these others’ experiences, and the results are overwhelmingly positive. A city of sex criminals run amok only exists in the perverse fantasies of those prone to moral panics, desperately yearning for evidence that their fears were rightly founded. That evidence simply does not exist beyond the anecdotal urban legend.

Emphasis mine. I don’t know if anyone on the Chron editorial board reads The Slacktivist, but the subject of people – in particular, evangelical Christians – inventing monsters to be afraid of and stand in opposition to is one he has examined on multiple occasions. They are lying, and they have no excuse for it. What’s more, they know they’re lying, which is even more evidence of their wrongness. I’m clearly not as cynical as I sometimes think I am, because the lying – the brazenness of it, the ease with which they do it, the utter lack of compunction or conscience about it – still shocks me. But the facts speak for themselves.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Is this really the end for Kinky Friedman?

I’ll believe it when I see it on my 2018 ballot.

Kinky Friedman

Kinky Friedman

It’s been more than a month since he lost his bid to be the Democratic nominee for Texas agriculture commissioner, and the cigar-smoking author-musician can’t shake the loss — or how he was treated by fellow Democrats.

Friedman, in D.C. for a recent performance at the Washington Jewish Music Festival, wanted to talk about being sabotaged by party officials in the May 27 runoff.

“Democrats came after me personally with robocalls,” he told the Star-Telegram. “I thought a primary was sacred for people to choose.”

Friedman, who ran on a pro-hemp, pro-marijuana platform, lost the runoff by nearly 10 points to Jim Hogan, a rancher who did not campaign.

Asked whether it was the end of his political career, Friedman likened himself to Winston Churchill, who was booted out of office after leading Britain through World War II.

“I’m to be cremated and the ashes are to be thrown into Rick Perry’s hair,” he said. “Yeah, I’m done. I’m not whining. I’m liberated.”

I admit that I feel a small amount of sympathy for Kinky, who sincerely tried to be a decent candidate this time around, even if he was a one-trick pony. But look, he’s never tried to make amends for the 2006 campaign or the things that he said during (and after) that campaign. Instead, he’s basically parachuted into two races acting as if he’d been a good Democrat all along and not quite understanding why a substantial number of Ds weren’t buying it. If I have to explain why that was a less than optimal strategy for winning a Democratic primary, even if he was saying the right things this time around and could plausibly claim to be a downballot candidate with upside, then you’re unlikely to comprehend the explanation. We’ve been through this swan-song routine with Kinky before, so until the 2018 filing deadline passes I’ll remain at least a little skeptical. But if he does mean it, then let me suggest that he find other ways to pursue issues like hemp legalization that Friedman obviously does care about, ways that don’t involve him running for office. I’m sure he can find another worthwhile path to take if he really does intend to get off the candidacy bus.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Travis County pursues new voting machines

Very, very interesting.

Dana DeBeauvoir

With the nation facing what a January government report described as an “impending crisis” in voting technology, officials in Travis County are taking matters into their own hands by seeking to create a unique, next-generation system of voting machines.

The efforts put Travis County, along with Los Angeles County in California, at the cutting edge of a race against time to create an alternative voting technology system.

The new machines would have voters use off-the-shelf electronic equipment like tablets, but also provide them with receipts and printed ballots to allow for easier auditing. The development and implementation process won’t be finished in time for the 2016 elections, though officials hope to have the system ready by the 2018 gubernatorial race.

[...]

Some election administrators have said the status quo will likely fall apart within a few years. Across the country, “it’s all just a guessing game at this point: How long can we last?” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk.

Three years ago, DeBeauvoir decided that something had to change. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m fed up. I’m going to design my own system.’” Part of her frustration stemmed from complaints lodged against the county that she felt blamed officials for things beyond their control. Travis County voters filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging that electronic voting machines lacked reliability and security. The case was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court in 2011.

After deciding to create a new system, DeBeauvoir gathered a citizens’ study group, and then a panoply of experts, to iron out the details.

The group is now close to finishing the design of a prototype known as the STAR (Security, Transparency, Auditability and Reliability) Voting System. The county intends to issue a request for proposals within a couple of months and hopes to select a winning bid by the end of the year, DeBeauvoir said.

[...]

The designs already posted on the Travis County clerk’s website lay out a multi-step process: A voter checks in, signs a roster and receives a ticket. Then, she gives the ticket to a poll worker to get a unique ballot code from a ballot control station, which sends information to a voting device. At the device, she makes her choices, prints out a completed ballot and deposits it in a ballot box with a scanner. She also receives a receipt that allows her to check online the next day to ensure the ballot was counted.

All the devices communicate with each other to update and confirm data. To ensure security, the system employs cryptography that “has never been done before” in voting technology, DeBeauvoir said.

The printed paper ballot is particularly crucial, as it addresses one of the principal criticisms of the existing electronic systems. The touchscreen machines common in many counties lack “a paper trail that actually captures the intent of the voter so that you can audit the machines,” said Alex Russell, a University of Connecticut professor of computer science and mathematics and faculty member at the school’s Center for Voting Technology Research. During recounts, auditors can only double-check what the machines say, without any way to verify that the machines reflect voters’ choices.

The presentation is here. It’s pretty technical in places, but the main gist of it is easy to understand and well-summarized by the Trib story. There’s an accompanying video of the presentation on this page, with the presenter being Rice University computer science prof Dan Wallach, who has been studying this stuff for years. Other materials are here on the Travis County Clerk website.

As noted, the STAR-Vote collaboration is close to issuing an RFP for this. One key requirement for the hardware will be sufficient battery life – Election Day and some early voting days last for 12 hours, so your voting machines will need to do so as well. The collaboration will be approaching other counties to participate, which will allow for cost-sharing while making the RFP more attractive to vendors since there would be more potential customers for their proposed devices. I need to check and see if Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart has any interest in this. Our eSlate machines are as old and outdated as Travis County’s are, after all. One other potential hurdle is that this idea is very new and contains aspects that are not addressed by existing federal laws, so either the laws will need to be updated (as if Congress is capable of doing that) or waivers will need to be obtained. The latter ought to be doable, but as with anything new and unprecedented you never know what potholes may exist in the pathway. Be that as it may, this is a thorough and thoughtful design that addresses all kinds of concerns and would put electronic voting machines on a much more sustainable path. I look forward to seeing how the RFP process goes. What do you think about this?

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Palau catches a little heat for hiring John Bradley

Hilarious.

The president of Palau has defended appointing a US lawyer who left his previous role as Texas county prosecutor amid controversy over an innocent man who spent almost 25 years behind bars.

President Tommy Remengesau confirmed former Williamson County district attorney John Bradley would take up a position as assistant attorney general in the tiny Pacific nation later this month.

[...]

Remengesau said Bradley acknowledged he was wrong to block the DNA testing and “is painfully aware that his actions kept an innocent man locked up for longer than he should have been”.

But he said Bradley deserved a second chance and was seeking it in the island nation of 22,000 people, which is best known for its spectacular diving sites.

“Mr. Bradley says that the Morton case has changed him as a person and has made him a more balanced, fair, and humble prosecutor,” Remengesau said in a statement.

He said Bradley had more than 25 years of prosecution experience and had never been found to have violated any law or ethical rule over the Morton case.

“The Republic hired Mr. Bradley because our nation needs experienced and skilled prosecutors to help keep our community safe Mr. Bradley fits that bill,” he said.

See here for the background. Like Grits, who found this story, I don’t buy Bradley’s claims that he’s a changed man. As noted in that previous post, he has made claims to that effect before, but so far has not backed them up with action. I hope, for his sake but more importantly for the sake of the people of Palau, that he’s sincere this time. I’d nonetheless advise President Remengesau to keep a close watch on him.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

The Trib on the AG race

What do you do when you have an ethically compromised candidate on your ticket? Thank your lucky stars that you’re the majority party and hope like hell the challenger can’t get any traction.

Sen. Ken Paxton

A political candidate’s troubles are supposed to be a gold mine for the opposition, but that has not been the case with state Sen. Ken Paxton, the Republican nominee for attorney general.

His easy win in the Republican primary runoff in May was either a bafflement or a relief, depending on whether you were rooting for Paxton or his rival, state Rep. Dan Branch, of Dallas.

For Branch, it looked like a perfect setup. He’s a veteran legislator, a partner in a well-known Texas law firm, a member of the establishment.

And Paxton was in trouble.

The job in question is attorney general, the functional head of the state’s in-house law firm. Candidates like to talk about it as the top law enforcement position in the state — a bit of a stretch, since most criminal cases fall to local district and county attorneys, but a useful and effective exaggeration in a campaign.

Paxton committed a foul by failing to tell his clients and the State Securities Board about his relationship with a securities investment adviser. He looked into it, admitted the wrongdoing, amended some reports and paid a fine, then left Branch, who hoped to benefit from the revelations and admissions, in the dust. Branch received 36.6 percent of the vote to Paxton’s 63.4 percent.

That result was a vindication. Republican voters ignored the blot on Paxton’s résumé and looked instead to his conservative credentials, including a near endorsement from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Ideology trumped biography, and it will take some new twist to get voters to reconsider.

Now Sam Houston, the Democratic nominee (no relation to the 19th-century soldier and politician), lies in wait. He starts from a weaker position, with less money, no experience in state office and no natural political base. It makes sense that Paxton, in a competitive primary and runoff, had to raise money and Houston did not. Experience is a mixed bag at a time when voters find incumbency suspect.

This time, the Democrats are trying to stir the pot, suggesting that prosecutors are looking at Paxton’s file and could act at any time. They are hoping to succeed where Branch failed, but an investigation or an indictment — especially in Travis County, that blue Democratic smudge on the bright red Republican map of Texas — could bounce the wrong way.

Those suggestions come from the Lone Star Project, which sent out this email last week with those claims. Among other things, they say that emissaries for House Speaker Joe Straus have met with Travis County prosecutors to urge quick action against Paxton. I’ve got to say, I find this all highly dubious. For one thing, it’s not clear that any criminal laws were broken by Paxton – the original story gave no indication that there was something for a DA’s office to look into. Paxton’s already received a slap on the wrist from the Texas State Securities Board, and again it seemed like that’s all the action there was going to be at the state level. There’s still the matter of the SEC complaint that was filed against Paxton. That could certainly turn into something, though I’m sure Paxton and his buddies would be just as happy to run against the evil federal government trying to persecute him as they would be running against the evil Travis County DA’s office. Whether that would work for him or not I couldn’t say, but it’s certainly a possibility.

Strategy-wise, to me the best tactic is to raise enough money for Sam Houston for him to run ads featuring these quotes from that same email the LPS sent out:

If that draws out Dan Branch to denounce Houston for implying that he now opposes Paxton’s November candidacy, that’s fine. I seriously doubt the publicity would be anything but a net positive for Houston. One million dollars is enough to run a week’s worth of TV ads statewide. Surely that’s not too much to ask for. This accompanying story on Houston quotes Republican operative Matt Mackowiak saying that $5 to $10 million is needed for “first-rate, truly competitive” race for attorney general. That would be ideal, sure, but give him enough for a week’s worth of ads plus some faith in the outrage machine driving some earned media of it, and I’d take my chances.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Studemont Junction

Swamplot has an update and some pictures from the to-be-redeveloped Grocer’s Supply truck lot near Studemont and I-10, basically on the north doorstep of my neighborhood.

SIGNS ARE UP at the soon-to-be-former Grocers Supply distribution center across Studemont from Kroger just south of I-10 announcing Studemont Junction, the name meant to bring some . . . uh, conjunction to the odd-shaped 15-acre food-storage facility Capcor Partners bought late last year. To judge from the proposed site plan for the project, that’ll be quite a task.

Developers plan to rope in (beginning at the northern end of the property) some sort of fast-food drive-thru, a bank (with its own drive-thru in back), and enough retail operations to fill a couple of “pad site” retail boxes and a more conventional broken-L shopping center on the site, each structure surrounded by its own dedicated rows of parking. Later, Capcor’s partner Kaplan Management plans to build a 400-unit apartment complex on the western end of the site.

According to the marketing copy on the leasing broker’s website, this multifamily structure, bounded by a small railyard on its south, will “reinforce the urban character of the site and will encourage heavy pedestrian activity along the corridor.” Residents will be able to get to the new complex’s front door from Studemont St. either by wending their way through the retail parking lot or by driving along a proposed new extension of Summer St. past Olivewood Cemetery to a circular drive at Wichman St.

The developer’s webpage for this is here; I encourage you to click the links under “Downloads” to see how they envision things. The comments on the Swamplot post are always useful to read – reaction is more negative than positive, due mostly to the size of the parking lot and the general feeling that this stretch of land near I-10 between Yale and Taylor is being turned into East Katy. My reaction can be summed up thusly – it’s hardly an urbanist’s dream, but given the constraints of that particular property, what did you expect? As I said before, what I really want to see out of this is an improved sidewalk along Studemont/Studewood, all the way from Washington to White Oak, and better bike access, which a couple of commenters on my post say will be part of the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, then I’ll be happy. Basically, don’t do anything that will later be an impediment for future developers in this area or the city to improve mobility in all forms. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for July 13

Same-sex marriage may soon be the law of the land, but you can still be fired for being gay, and you can still be discriminated against in a lot of other ways, too.

Ted Cruz lies every time he opens his mouth. This is not a surprise.

Want more Frozen? It’s on your teevee this fall.

In other news, Bigfoot still doesn’t exist.

“In the future, regulators may be less willing to seek compromise lest their efforts be similarly used against them — and it is bad news for all of us if health policy can be made only through polarization and rancor rather than compromise.”

“I can think of another reason a craft store might oppose birth control: Non-procreative sex is the enemy of crafting. Who would latch hook if they could be having sex?”

“149 rare Bob Dylan demos found in boxes marked ‘Old Records’”.

“It seems almost pointless to mention this but there is simply no state Democratic party in any of the 50 states that is so clearly, obviously demented. This is the Republican Party. Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru are not. In fact, I think all those bold conservative thinkers of whom the New York Times thinks so much should bring their Big Ideas down to the next Texas state Republican convention and see how far they get. John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell, and especially obvious anagram Reince Priebus, who nominally presides over Bedlam, need to be asked every day which parts of the Texas Republican platform they support and which parts they don’t.” This is true of Greg Abbott too, of course.

The love letters of President Warren Harding, who was Anthony Weiner before Twitter and cellphones, will soon be on display.

RIP, Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet official and president of the republic of Georgia.

“People profess doubt about climate science not because of any rational evidence about the fallibility of science, but because it’s in their interests to do so.”

How Seinfeld changed television, for better and worse.

“There is nothing inherently inconsistent between religion and living our lives freely as LGBT people. We do not need to settle for a law that has a loophole this large, that will embolden our opposition and that has the potential to curb our progress on other federal, state, and local laws protecting LGBT people and their families.”

Quantifying the most shocking result in World Cup history.

Is mass deportation worth $200 billion plus to you?

The main differences in the Colorado and Washington pot markets.

You only think you wiped all your data off your Android phone.

“Geraghty supported the idea that we should devote $2 trillion and thousands of lives to invading and occupying Iraq to bring them freedom. But that was different, of course: We got to kill people. Also we didn’t have to hang around with them. Huddled masses yearning to breathe free are the worst!”

“We have gone from learning that the law has failed to cover anybody to learning it would cover a couple million to learning it would cover a few million to learning that it has probably insured fewer than 20 million people halfway through year one. The message of every individual dispatch is a confident prediction of the hated enemy’s demise, yet the terms described in each, taken together, tell the story of retreat.”

What does it mean to be an “employer”?

Happy tenth anniversary to the Comics Curmudgeon!

“Disgraceful. No wonder dinosaurs became extinct. Sickos like this kill every last one of them as soon as they are discovered. He should be in prison.”

“If the fertilized egg in the female American citizen is of more value to you than the Guatemalan child who has just crossed the border illegally…”

RIP, Eileen Ford, founder of Ford Models.

One hundred years of babe Ruth.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Could Astrodome Park actually work?

Lisa Gray asks a good question about the proposal to turn the Astrodome into green space.

Could that really be a park like Discovery Green? It’s easy to imagine that green space being useful, say, for a Super Bowl party, tailgating during home games, or as an extension of the Rodeo. But outside of those occasional events, what would lure people to an out-of-the-way, surrounded-by-asphalt park? What would it take to convince them to go there seven days a week, even in July?

I asked Barry Mandel, president and park director of Discovery Green.

“What’s their goal?” Mandel said. “Is it to have a space that’s active only during events? Or do they want to draw people in, to have it be active seven days a week? Do they want it to be a catalyst for development?”

If everyday activity is a goal, Mandel says, it has to be baked into the plans from the very beginning. Discovery Green started its planning with the goal of having people come to the park — in what was then considered a very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown — every day of the year. “That was a bold idea,” says Mandel. “Planning started by getting community input. Project for Public Spaces went out to the community and asked two questions: What would it take to bring you here? And what are your concerns?”

Those planners returned with an almost comically long list of features to be packed into the small space: A lake, multiple stages, a dog run, a micro-library, a playground, a quiet garden, permanent public art, green space suitable for Frisbees or ball-throwing, and not one but two restaurants. Only then, knowing what needed to be included, did anyone draw plans.

The park’s baked-in permanent features draw an important steady stream of park visitors: Even when nothing special is going on, people believe the park is an interesting place to be.

In addition, of course, Discovery Green deploys intense “programming” — a dizzying array of events, all through the week, intended to draw people from all walks of life. Concerts. Movie nights. Yoga. Zumba. Dog shows. Temporary public-art exhibits. Kayak classes. Flea markets. Circus performers.

Those events cost money. “Since the park started, we’ve probably spent $5 million on programming,” says Mandel.

Putting this another way, Discovery Green was founded with a lot of foundation money behind it. How much money did it take to make Discovery Green happen? A lot.

The total cost to acquire the land that became Discovery Green was approximately $57 million, and the total cost to build, landscape, and complete the project was approximately $125 million.

The Astrodome Park plan carries a $66 million price tag; the Rodeo and the Texans say they’ll contribute some amount to that, but they don’t say how much. If they’re serious about this, and the invocation of Discovery Green is more than just grabbing for the easy analogy of “urban public parks created from previously unused space”, then I say show me the money. In particular, show me the private and non-profit partners in this venture and their plans for what to do with the place after it opens. I’ll still be skeptical – Discovery Green may have once been in a “very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown” – but it was still close to a lot of people in a way that Astrodome Park isn’t. What’s the plan to bring people there, and what’s the funding source to pay for it? That’s what we need to know.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Close enough for Greg Abbott

What more do you need to know?

Attorney General Greg Abbott first stirred things up by saying the state would not release information about the locations and amounts of hazardous chemicals held by private companies, reversing nearly three decades of public disclosure.

The Republican front-runner for governor then suggested Texans could “drive around” to find companies and ask them for the information, prompting his Democratic opponent, Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis, to launch a seven-city “Texans Deserve to Know” tour lambasting Abbott.

Still battling criticism over his office’s ruling restricting the state release of information about hazardous chemical stockpiles – a position that Abbott said simply applies state homeland security law – the attorney general this week told Texans they can go to the state Department of Insurance website for “general” information about the storage of the volatile chemical ammonium nitrate.

That “general information,” it turns out, consists of little more than a yes or no answer to whether ammonium nitrate may be present in a ZIP code.

“It’s useless,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, of watchdog group Public Citizen. “ZIP codes are by their nature relatively large geographic areas. The presence of ammonium nitrate on one side of the ZIP code or another doesn’t give you the information about how close it is so you can make a decision on whether you want to buy a house in the neighborhood, nor does it give you enough information to determine the relative risk based on the quantity of ammonium nitrate.”

The site has a disclaimer saying it is “for informational purposes and is not prepared for or suitable for legal, engineering, or surveying purposes. It does not represent an on-the-ground survey and represents only the approximate relative location of property boundaries. … No warranty is made by TDI regarding specific accuracy or completeness. It is the user’s responsibility to verify all data represented in the maps.”

“I would think that it would be more informative to simply post a map of Texas with all of the storage sites identified by location,” said Wendy Wagner, an environmental law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The embedded image is included to give you an idea of what a ZIP code can look like in Texas. Doesn’t really tell you much, does it? But hey, at least it’s an answer.

Abbott’s justification for giving these increasingly convoluted non-answers is that he’s just interpreting state law. If we accept for the sake of argument that this is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then this must be a bad law. You’d think that the natural thing for a politician to do is say that maybe the law ought to be changed so that The People can have a better idea if they might be living next to a potential explosion. Greg Abbott hasn’t done that. I don’t think Greg Abbott is capable of doing that, because I don’t think Greg Abbott thinks this is a problem. Oh, he recognizes that there is a problem, because people keep asking him about this, but he thinks the problem is that people just won’t accept that they don’t need to know this information, that the corporate interest trumps theirs. So he’s going to keep saying the say thing, in however many different ways, and hope that the questions eventually stop. So I don’t think this is going away any time soon.

In the meantime, of course, this is a hanging curveball for the Davis campaign.

After several reporters tested the theory and were shown the door at various chemical facilities, Abbott acknowledged that citizens did not have easy access to the information and has since proposed a new law that would require fire departments to make the data available during normal business hours.

Although his campaign had earlier suggested that local fire departments already could give out that information, Abbott told The Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday that they were not allowed to disseminate the information.

“Right now they can’t,” he said. “That’s why my proposal is to make this information more conveniently accessible, is to allow people to seek and obtain the information from the fire marshals who already have this information.”

Abbott was asked what might prevent a terrorist from gaining access to the information through the fire marshals or the departments they work for. He said it would be up to those local officials to determine whether the people asking for it were up to no good.

“If this information can be obtained from a fire marshal, it can be done in a way where they’re going to know who it is seeking the information and they can make assessments about whether or not the people acquiring the information can pose any type of terroristic threat.”

Davis told reporters Saturday that Abbott’s proposal was “absurd.”

“He’s trying to have it both ways,” she said. “He’s trying to say that this information should not be disclosed to the public because of terrorist fears, and then on the other hand he wants to tell the public, ‘Look, here’s how you can find the information.’ It makes no sense.”

Abbott had previously claimed that making this information available to the public meant that terrorists could get it, too. Thus his plan to delegate the task of telling terrorists from ordinary folks to firefighters. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to take on that responsibility. Did I mention that there’s a much easier answer to this problem that would be obvious to a lot of people that aren’t Greg Abbott?

Posted in: Election 2014.