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Revising the historic preservation ordinance

Gird your loins.

Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell

Houston officials are preparing to revise the city’s historic preservation ordinance, a signature issue for Mayor Annise Parker that spurred a prolonged and divisive fight over property rights in her first term.

That contentiousness has never fully subsided in some neighborhoods, most notably the Heights, where redevelopment had seen numerous original structures razed before Parker’s sweeping revisions to the ordinance meant, for the first time, that the city’s Historical and Archaeological Commission could block owners from carrying out alterations to historic structures that it deemed inappropriate. Previously, a denial meant a 90-day wait, after which applicants could do as they wished.

The coming revisions will be modest, city officials say, but related efforts in the works may make the law’s application more predictable.

In the Heights’ seven historic districts, redevelopment has continued through the lens of the historic commission’s interpretation of the ordinance, which some residents and developers complain is arbitrary.

[...]

[Planning and Development Director Pat] Walsh said tweaks under consideration include:

  • Increasing the director’s ability to approve or deny minor alterations, preventing applicants from having to wait for approval at the historic commission’s monthly meetings; an example would be an addition to the back of the home not be visible from the street;
  • Clearing up vague or contradictory language. For instance, the ordinance says new construction projects should match “typical” structures of their type, but does not clarify what “typical” means. The law also says changes to roofs are exempt but, in another section, says roof changes are handled by staff.
  • Barring owners who make changes without city approval or violate their historic permit from receiving tax breaks for renovating historic structures, and lengthening the waiting period for applicants to get new building permits if they commit “demolition by neglect,” allowing an existing home to crumble to make construction of a new one easier.

Perhaps most important, Walsh said, are two related efforts that will not affect the wording of the law itself.

One is a pending study of the dimensions of homes in the Heights districts, providing staff and commissioners more information about how a proposed renovation compares to other homes. The other is Walsh’s commitment to pursue design guidelines for the three largest Heights districts, which generate the most activity.

It’s not terribly surprising that the preservation ordinance will need some maintenance. It’s a big change, and we have no history to go by for something like it. The story references former CM Sue Lovell, one of the main forces behind the ordinance who is now – and has been for awhile – working with developers and homeowners to get clarity on what is and isn’t allowed. All I can say is that whatever revisions are made this time, there will come a time to make more, and a time after that. This is a process, not a destination. The Leader News has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Interview with David Rosen

David Rosen

David Rosen

Once you get past the District Attorney race, there’s not a lot of high-profile electoral action in Harris County this year. County Judge Ed Emmett has no Democratic challenger, and while there are things happening at the legislative level most of the focus has been statewide. A race doesn’t have to have a high profile to be important, however, and local races always matter. Which brings me to the remaining countywide races for which I’ll be running November interviews. I published an interview with Harris County Clerk candidate Ann Harris Bennett for the primary, and I encourage you to listen to it if you haven’t already done so. This week we’ll be focusing on the other two county executive offices on the ballot. First up is County Treasurer, where after two full terms the question remains “Just what exactly does Orlando Sanchez do all day?” There are some mysteries even I can’t plumb, but if you want to know what could be done with this office, meet Democratic candidate David Rosen. Rosen, who was a candidate for HCDE Trustee in 2012, is young and bright and has some good ideas for how to make the Treasurer’s office something useful again. His candidacy is also potentially historic, in that I’d bet he would be the first elected official to have been raised by same sex parents in the state of Texas, possibly in the country. See here for a campaign video he released about his parents, and listen to the interview for more about David Rosen and how he would make the office of Harris County Treasurer work for you.

I will have more interviews in the coming weeks.

Posted in: Election 2014.

The best coverage of the voter ID trial

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

You want to know what’s going on with the voter ID trial, which enters its second and likely final week today, go check out the Brennan Center for Justice, which has daily coverage that would put any newspaper to shame. Here’s a sample of what they’ve written so far:

Further daily dispatches will be on this page, and there’s also their Twitter feed if you can’t wait that long. The main page has more information in addition to their trial reporting, so go take a nice long look. If that still isn’t enough, copies of all the court documents can be found at the Moritz Law School repository. I trust that will be enough to hold you off. Thanks to the Texas Election Law Blog for the heads up.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Abbott issues bag ban opinion

It’s complicated.

plastic-bag

Do plastic bag bans and restrictions in cities like Austin, Laredo, and Brownsville violate Texas law?

According to an opinion issued by Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office handed down on Friday afternoon, that depends on how you define two phrases: “container or package” and “solid waste management.”

Opinions on Texas law from the attorney general’s office are not binding, though they do carry weight statewide and could make other cities reconsider possible bans or restrictions on the use of single-use bags. Abbott said outright bans on single-use bags, which have been passed in in Austin and Laredo, are legal if they weren’t passed for the purpose of “solid waste management,” which isn’t clearly defined by state statute.

When it comes to restrictions on single-use bags, like Brownsville $1 fee-per-bag or Dallas’ recently passed nickel-per-bag fee, Abbott has a narrower view: He doesn’t think Texas law allows fees for bags at all, though it’s still not totally clear if single-use bags are indeed “containers or packages” in the law his office refers to.

The Texas law in question, from the state’s Solid Waste Disposal Act, was added to the Health and Safety Code in 1993. It says that cities can’t “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law … [or] assess a fee or deposit on the sale or use of a container or package.”

That raises two questions: What’s a “container or package?” And what does “solid waste management” mean?

For the purposes of plastic bag bans and fees, that isn’t clear. Brian Sledge, an environmental attorney and lobbyist in Austin, said the 1993 law stemmed from backlash against new packaging that food companies were using. The packaging mixed recyclable material, like aluminum, with nonrecyclables. Cities in states like California banned the packaging, causing the companies to head to states like Texas and ask for legislation that would avoid the same problem.

“Plastic bags weren’t really on the radar screen” in 1993, said Sledge. “It’s hard to think that a bag’s not a container. It holds stuff. But I don’t think that is the intent of the statute.”

See here for the background. My layman’s opinion is that Abbott quite reasonably concluded that the 1993 law really doesn’t speak to the municipal restrictions being placed on plastic bags these days. Either the Lege can address it with a newer law, or the courts can decide when the matter comes before them. The Texas Retailers Association, which asked Rep. Dan Flynn to request the opinion and which is suing Austin and may sure Dallas, has been pushing for a state law to prevent these municipal ordinances in addition to its legal actions, so they’re working both fronts. Expect this to come up again in the 2015 Lege.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The trouble with the Southwest Freeway

I think the problem is easy enough to identify. The solution is another matter.

Houston-area transportation planners are considering some novel strategies – at least for Texas – for managing traffic to ease congestion on U.S. 59 between downtown Houston and the Sam Houston Tollway.

Among the steps that may be considered are clearing accidents more quickly, restricting trucks to certain lanes and allowing buses to use freeway shoulders.

First, though, planners are running ideas by the public.

A variety of agencies, corralled by Houston-Galveston Area Council planners, have been discussing options for short-term fixes to U.S. 59 traffic. The puzzle regional planners are hoping to solve has one major constraint.

“The approach for this study is not taking more right of way or adding more lanes,” said Bill Tobin, chief transportation planner for H-GAC.

Using the same lanes more efficiently is a big challenge along the 14-mile stretch of U.S. 59. Officials estimate 300,000 vehicles use the freeway on an average work day.

Often, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said at a recent meeting, the congestion defies common assumptions.

“It has baffled me for many, many years why inbound the Southwest Freeway backs up in the afternoon,” Emmett said, noting one would expect most traffic to be heading away from downtown jobs and back to suburban homes.

All due respect, but I don’t think there’s anything to be baffled about. Heading northbound on 59, when you hit Loop 610 there are five lanes. At the downtown spur, north of Greenbriar, it narrows down to three lanes, as the two leftmost lanes peel off onto the spur. Then when you get to the I-45 junction a mile or so farther north, it squeezes down to two lanes as the leftmost lane is exit only. This is also the point at which 288 merges into 59, which returns to three lanes and stays that way till you get north of I-10. And this isn’t really “inbound” traffic in the traditional sense, either. It’s people heading from employment centers like Greenway Plaza and the Galleria, not to mention the Medical center for all those 288 folks, to the various suburbs via 59 and 45. It’s the same reason why 288 northbound backs up in the afternoon. What to do about it, I have no idea – the suggestions proffered are fine, though I doubt they’ll make much difference – but putting a finger on the cause is easy enough.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for September 7

Ten things college professors hate. I’m going to guess teachers at other levels don’t like most of those things, too.

Some employers are still being jerks about contraceptive coverage.

“If we want to write Ulysses, our generation may not be sexting enough.”

“A few colleges are doing something else about the problem of campus rape: They’re buying new insurance policies designed to protect them when sexual misconduct scandals arise.”

“To many Americans, a towed car is a nuisance. A real one, yes, but in the scheme of things, no more than that. That’s wealth. That’s privilige. For many others, a couple hundred bucks is all it takes to destroy the fragile framework of what passes for security in their lives.”

“She took off his shirt, his skin glistening in the sun like a glazed doughnut. The glaze part, not the doughnut part.”

“Thanks to science (no, really, thanks), we now know that we all probably have tiny mites living on our faces.” You may now be thoroughly skeeved out.

In case you needed a reminder why workers’ rights and working conditions really, truly do matter.

Wage theft continues to be a major problem.

Please don’t try to donate human skulls to Goodwill.

What do you do with colleges that are trying to do right by their students but not doing a good job of it?

“What will happen to Baby Boomers stuck in suburbia once they can’t drive anymore? Where will an aging population with more disabilities live when we’ve built so little accessible housing?”

The best way to ruin a protest.

“I’d like to make two very specific points. Ms. Lawrence and the other victims have absolutely nothing to apologize for in terms of the contents of the photos or the nature in which they were leaked. The story itself should not be addressed as if it were a scandal, but rather what it is: A sex crime involving theft of personal property and the exploitation of the female body.”

“There are a few different issues that a criminal act like this brings up, but before I get into them it’s necessary to make one thing clear: If you deliberately seek out any of these images, you are directly participating in the violation not just of numerous women’s privacy but also of their bodies.”

If you must blame someone other than the thieves for all this, blame Apple and their crappy security. As a former BlackBerry admin, I still don’t understand why companies would think that iPhones are a good choice as enterprise devices.

What Nielsen rating numbers actually mean.

A five step plan to success as a foreign policy pundit.

If you’re making money via slut shaming, you really can’t call yourself a feminist.

“It never fails to astonish me that the same conservatives who argue that every last aspect of big government is irreparably broken and corrupt inevitably see a capital punishment system that is perfect and just.”

RIP, Joan Rivers. I don’t care what anyone else says, I always thought she was funny.

Meet the millionaires behind the Democratic Party.

“We’re all foreigners in a strange land … And besides, we don’t really have curse words in Japanese, so I like the fact that the Western languages allow me to say things that I otherwise can’t.”

“Heterosexuals get drunk and pregnant, producing unwanted children; their reward is to be allowed to marry. Homosexual couples do not produce unwanted children; their reward is to be denied the right to marry. Go figure.”

Why the power to make judicial appointments really matters. Someone please explain that, using small words if necessary, to Ralph Nader.

For all of the cold, calculated, business decisions that sports teams, especially NFL teams, make every day, it’s nice to know that they can still act with compassion when they choose to. Kudos to the Bengals.

If contraception isn’t covered by insurance, it’s not helpful if it’s sold over the counter.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Davis’ abortion disclosure

I agree with PDiddie that this is the big story of the weekend, and likely most of the upcoming week, too.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, reveals in her new book that she terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons, both more than 15 years ago.

Davis’ new book, Forgetting to Be Afraid, officially goes on sale on Tuesday. Details of the book were first reported by The Associated Press and the San Antonio Express-News on Friday evening.

The book reveals that Davis terminated a pregnancy in 1997 during the second trimester due to the fetus having an acute brain abnormality after Davis received multiple medical opinions suggesting that the baby would not survive. Davis describes in heart-wrenching detail how the experience crushed her.

“I couldn’t breathe. I literally couldn’t catch my breath,” Davis wrote of her reaction when she first learned the diagnosis. “I don’t remember much else about that day other than calling [husband] Jeff, trying to contain my hysterical crying. The rest of it is a shocked, haze-filled blur.”

The doctor said that the baby wouldn’t survive to full term, and if she did, she would suffer and probably not survive delivery. “We had been told that even if she did survive, she would probably be deaf, blind, and in a permanent vegetative state,” Davis wrote.

“At some point in the almost two weeks of second and third and fourth opinions and tortured decision making, I could feel her little body tremble violently, as if someone were applying an electric shock to her, and I knew then what we needed to do,” Davis added. “She was suffering.”

After their doctor “quieted” the baby, who Davis and her husband had named Tate, Davis delivered the baby by cesarean section. The next day, she wrote, “we asked an associate minister from our church who was a trusted friend to come and baptize her. We took photographs of her. And we said our goodbyes.”

She said a nurse brought the baby to her and “had dressed her in a tiny pink dress and placed a knit cap on her enlarged head.”

“On her feet were crocheted booties, and next to her was a small crocheted pink bunny. Jeff and I spent the better part of the day holding her, crying for her and for us,” Davis wrote. After the baby was “taken away and cremated,” Davis describes the despair that followed.

“An indescribable blackness followed. It was a deep, dark despair and grief, a heavy wave that crushed me, that made me wonder if I would ever surface,” she wrote. “It would take me the better part of a year to ultimately make my way up and out of it. And when I finally did come through it, I emerged a different person. Changed. Forever changed.”

An earlier pregnancy in 1994 was terminated as it was an ectopic pregnancy, in which an embryo implants outside the uterus. This time, Davis and her husband were pregnant with a baby boy, who they referred to as “Baby Lucas.”

Davis says that her doctor said it would be dangerous to her health to continue the pregnancy. “The only medical option was to have surgery to terminate the pregnancy and remove the affected fallopian tube — which in Texas is technically considered an abortion, and doctors have to report it as such,” she wrote.

“We all grieved the loss, but I grieved most deeply — a sadness and an emptiness took root in me where Baby Lucas had been,” Davis wrote.

There are excerpts available here. I trust that folks who had been complaining that Davis hadn’t spoken enough about abortion during her campaign will give that a rest now. Everyone agrees that this is A Very Big Deal, but I doubt anyone knows how it will play out politically. Just as we’d never had a President announce support for same sex marriage until 2012, I can’t offhand think of a similar statement of this magnitude in a high-profile election. Certainly, nothing like this that wasn’t considered to be shameful, if not career-ending, from infidelity to pot-smoking to divorce to mental illness and so on and so forth. Oh, there will be people who will believe this to be shameful, but I doubt any of them were the least bit sympathetic to Davis in the first place. It will be interesting to see if the troglodyte brigade – Erick Erickson and the like – manages to keep a lid on their baser impulses or not. I wouldn’t hold my breath on it, but you never know. As for this election, I’d say the conventional wisdom is as follows, from that Express News story:

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said he doesn’t expect the revelation to lose any votes for Davis, since he said it’s a relative small proportion of voters who oppose abortion in cases of severe fetal abnormality.

“The group that will be most bothered by her having an abortion of a baby with a severe fetal abnormality is a group that wasn’t going to vote for her anyway,” he said.

“The positive side of it for her is it humanizes her, and also makes it a little tricky for opponents to attack her on the abortion issue because now, it not only is a political issue for her, but it’s a personal issue,” Jones said.

Like I said, we’ll see what the trolls do. They never truly go away, and they can be clever sometimes. It’s hard for me to believe that at least one prominent member of the Republican political establishment won’t find a way to step in it between now and November.

Two numbers to keep in mind. Here’s one:

In the June 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, we asked registered voters in Texas under what circumstances they felt it would be okay for a woman to obtain an abortion, including when the woman’s life was in danger and when “there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby.” Overall, 76% of Texans thought a woman should be allowed to have an abortion when her life was in danger, and 57% thought that a woman should be able to obtain an abortion when there was a strong chance of a serious fetal abnormality.

And two.

Talking about abortion is rare — but the actual experience isn’t. More than one in every five pregnancies — 21 percent, excluding miscarriages — are terminated, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit research organization that supports abortion rights. Each year, 1.7 percent of American women between 15 and 44 have an abortion.

You can feel however you want to about that. I’m not going to change your mind, and you’re not going to change mine. But it’s a fantasy – a very dangerous, deadly fantasy – to think that we can somehow eliminate abortion. For a wide variety of reasons, a large number of women every year want them, need them, and get them. Making abortion illegal won’t make it go away any more than making marijuana illegal made people not smoke pot. We can allow women to have unfettered access to this medical procedure in safe places by medical professionals, or we can put up all sorts of needless, petty, and harmful barriers between her and her doctor and hope against all evidence that she’ll change her mind. My fantasy is that someday we recognize the cruel fallacy of that. The Trib has a video clip from Davis’ appearance on Good Morning America to be aired tomorrow as well as more excerpts – clearly, someone has been busy reading over there – and BOR and Texpatriate have more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

No gigafactory for Texas

They’re going to Nevada.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval announced Thursday that Tesla Motors will build a massive battery factory in the state as long as legislators approve tax breaks and other incentives worth up to $1.3 billion over 20 years.

Sandoval revealed terms of the deal he negotiated with the electric car maker at a Capitol news conference attended by Elon Musk, CEO of California-based Tesla. The governor called it a “monumental announcement that will change Nevada forever.”

Sandoval didn’t mention the total value of the package and his remarks seemed intended to pre-empt critics who will see it as too generous.

“Is this agreement good for us?” the governor asked. “This agreement meets the test, by far.”

Later, he said that for every $1 Nevada gives up, the project will produce $80 in economic impact.

“Even the most skeptical economist would conclude that this is a strong return (on investment) for us,” Sandoval said.

Musk told the audience that Nevada didn’t offer the biggest incentive package among the five states that tried to lure the factory, though he didn’t specify which did among California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

The most important considerations were not incentives, he said, but rather a high confidence that the factory will be ready by 2017, followed by assurances that batteries can be produced cost efficiently.

Later, Musk told reporters that Tesla would stop looking for another state as a backup, in case Nevada did not come through. “Nevada is it,” he said.

Well, I’m a bit skeptical of that 80-to-1 return claim, but I’m not an economist, so there you go. Texas was in the running for this, but there was a big obstacle in the way.

Despite the state’s advantages, the company had indicated that Texas’ long-standing state laws protecting auto dealerships – a challenge to Tesla’s business model – did not help the state’s case. Texas laws prevent car manufacturers from selling directly to Texas consumers, as Tesla does. Texas requires manufacturers to sell their cars through tightly regulated franchised dealers. A few other states restrict Tesla sales through franchise laws, but Nevada is not one of them.

I’ve blogged about that before. I wonder if this will have an effect on the effort to change that law in 2015. Because of this, Texas was thought to not be a serious contender for the gigafactory. I won’t claim to be a big fan of the money that was being thrown at Tesla by the competing states, but there’s no reason to keep that archaic setup for auto sales. The Rivard Report, the LA Times, and Think Progress have more.

Posted in: Bidness.

Petition forgery case (probably) resolved

Hadn’t seen an update on this in awhile.

An appeals court has ruled that forged signatures will keep a candidate off the November ballot, a decision the Pasadena justice of the peace hopeful said she will appeal,

But unless Leonila Olivares-Salazar gets some kind of decision from the Texas Supreme Court within days, voters will not see the Republican candidate’s name.

“I’m hoping they make the right decision for the community,” Olivares-Salazar said Thursday before referring questions to attorneys drafting emergency motions asking the state’s highest court to keep her name on the ballot while they take the time to consider the case.

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart’s deadline for completing the ballot is Friday, and he said he can push that back only five days.

“I need to have a ruling by Sept. 10,” he said. The county office must comply with laws mandating when printed ballots are mailed to Harris County citizens who are overseas.

On Wednesday, Houston’s 1st Court of Appeals ruled that Olivares-Salazar’s name will not appear on the ballot because of fraudulent signatures on her party application.

She is challenging longtime Precinct 2 Place 2 Justice of the Peace George Risner for the seat.

Risner, a Democrat first elected in 1987, sued Olivares-Salazar and the Harris County Republican Party in January claiming the party violated state election law, claiming hundreds of signatures were forged.

[...]

A Beaumont judge presiding over the lawsuit allowed the Republican to correct the situation, by handing in valid signatures after the deadline.

Two of the three appellate judges, all Republicans, ruled Wednesday that the law does not allow Olivares-Salazar to try again. The dissenting judge did not issue an opinion.

See here and here for the background. Olivares-Salazar had hired people to collect signatures for her, and four of them wound up going down on charges related to them faking the signatures that were turned in on her behalf, though she herself was never alleged to have engaged in any wrongdoing. I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that our system of democracy is better served when all races feature at least two well-qualified opponents, which pending quick Supreme Court action will not be the case here. I have more sympathy for the judicial candidates that do the hard work of collecting signatures themselves, and I have a harder time being sympathetic for candidates that would be the beneficiaries of a fraud that has already been proven to have taken place. It is certainly true that this sort of thing could eventually befall a candidate that I like, as Olivares-Salazar’s attorney, the infamous pecksniff Andy Taylor, asserts. But if that ever happens, I won’t defend said candidate, I’ll be pissed off at him or her, because they should know better and we their supporters deserve better. Olivares-Salazar herself may be innocent of any bad behavior, but there’s nothing innocent about the behavior that would have out her on the ballot. That to me is the critical difference.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Two data points on e-cigarettes

The World Health Organization wants them to be regulated more strongly.

Governments should ban the use of electronic cigarettes indoors and in public places and outlaw tactics to lure young users, the World Health Organization said in a report released on Tuesday. It also raised concerns about the role of big tobacco companies in the fast-growing market.

Considering the numerous uncertainties surrounding e-cigarettes, which have been on the market for less than a decade, the United Nations organization said it was appropriate to prohibit their use indoors “until exhaled vapour is proven to be not harmful to bystanders.”

It also called for regulation to ensure the products contain a standard dose of nicotine, as the drug content now varies widely between manufacturers. And to stop children from picking up the habit, it said that e-cigarette sales to minors should be banned and that fruity, candy-type flavorings should be prohibited.

[...]

Electronic nicotine delivery systems “are the subject of a public health dispute among bona fide tobacco-control advocates that has become more divisive as their use has increased,” the report notes. Some experts embrace them as a means of reducing the harm associated with traditional cigarettes while others view them as a threat to the progress that has been made in “denormalizing” the use of tobacco.

Proponents of e-cigarettes argue that they are safer than tobacco, because they do not contain the carcinogens found in tar and other tobacco components. Anecdotal evidence suggests e-cigarettes may hold promise as smoking cessation aids, too. But the World Health Organization report noted that there is scant evidence for their effectiveness in helping smokers give up the habit; the only randomized trial to date to have compared e-cigarettes with nicotine patches “showed similar, although low, efficacy for quitting smoking.”

The organization said e-cigarette advertisers should be prohibited from making any health claims, including on the product’s purported value as a smoking cessation aid, “until manufacturers provide convincing supporting scientific evidence and obtain regulatory approval.”

The report is here. I’ve been following this stuff because while some municipalities are treating e-cigarettes like traditional tobacco products, others like Houston have made no move to amend their existing anti-smoking ordinances. Some jails in Texas are allowing the use of e-cigarettes on the less-harmful-than-tobacco theory, while others aren’t. It’s a coming public debate, and as things stand right now there’s a lack of information about their effects. A lot of entities are waiting to hear more from organizations like the WHO and the Surgeon General.

Also in the news: adolescents who use e-cigarettes are much more likely to try tobacco, according to the CDC.

The morass of conflicting information about e-cigarettes and tobacco use grew deeper Monday, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new study showing that adolescents who vape say they are much more likely to smoke conventional cigarettes.

The results show that 43.9 percent of sixth- through 12th-graders who had used e-cigarettes said they intended to light up conventional cigarettes over the next year, compared with 21.5 percent of youth who had never used the electronic nicotine delivery systems.

Overall, more than 263,000 adolescents who had never smoked before used e-cigarettes in 2013, up from 79,000 in 2011, the CDC reported in a study in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research. The data come from the agency’s National Youth Tobacco Surveys for 2011-2013.

The study also showed that 21.9 percent of the youth who had never smoked traditional cigarettes intended to give them a try in the next year — almost exactly the same proportion as the 21.5 percent who had never tried an e-cigarette — and that, overall, the percentage of youths who reported an intention to smoke declined “significantly” in the 2013 survey.

We all know that smoking is terrible for you, but we don’t yet know how much, or even if, e-cigarettes are “better” than tobacco. If there is a correlation between vaping and smoking among teenagers, that’s a pretty strong piece of evidence that they’re not any better.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Saturday video break: Crocodile Rock

You know what you need? A video of Elton John on “The Muppet Show”, singing “Crocodile Rock” backed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and a chorus of crocodiles, that’s what. The singing begins at about 1:46:

How awesome was that? There are some celebrities that were just born to perform with the Muppets. Elton John is one of them. And if there’s one group that was born to cover “Crocodile Rock”, it’s The Beach Boys:

Fun video and a great arrangement, but it’s tough to follow Elton and the Muppets.

Posted in: Music.

Davis proposes minimum wage increase

The Chronicle buries the lede.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Down in the polls and facing an opponent with a cash advantage, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis on Thursday took her campaign to the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she told supporters the battle for the governor’s mansion has just begun.

“No matter who you are, no matter your gender, no matter your race and no matter who you love, I am going to fight for you,” Davis told the crowd of a couple hundred college students.

Davis’ 20-minute speech broke little new ground, sticking to familiar attack lines and applause points, speaking about the struggles she faced during the early part of her life and calling her Republican opponent Attorney General Greg Abbott the friend of “insiders.”

Speaking to the audience, Davis called for raising the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour.

“$7.25 an hour is $15,000 a year, and I know from experience that is not enough to support a family,” Davis said.

“It’s not even enough to afford college,” someone in the crowd shouted, to laughs from the audience.

Yeah, “little new ground”, except of course for that whole “raising the minimum wage” proposal, which while perhaps not a game-changer nonetheless swiftly drew the usual pearl-clutching horror from Greg Abbott and his cronies in the business lobby as well as plaudits from labor and affiliated groups. But who cares, all that issues stuff is boring. Horse race stories, that’s where it’s at.

The Chron did catch up on some of those details a bit later.

Calls to increase the minimum wage became the latest flashpoint in the Texas governor’s race on Friday, after Democrat Wendy Davis called for the minimum to be raised to $10.

Davis weighed into the national controversy that has fast-food workers demanding a hike to $15 an hour, from the current $7.25 an hour, during a campaign appearance at the University of San Antonio, where she had targeted Republican Greg Abbott for being a political insider out of touch with working Texans.

“I’ll fight to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 because this is a family issue,” Davis said Thursday.

A 40-hour-a-week worker currently would make about $15,000 a year at minimum wage, an amount that Davis said is too little to support a family. She repeated her stance in appearances Friday.

“From working to strip our children’s schools of more of than $5 billion that has led to overcrowded classrooms and massive teacher shortages to his opposition to giving 2.8 million Texans a raise that will help them support their families and improve our economy, Greg Abbott is fighting against hardworking Texans,” Davis said at a rally in Denton.

So yes, I think that counts as something new, and as someone who wholeheartedly supports the idea because people need to be paid a wage they can actually live on, I’m delighted to see Davis stand up for this. It would be a big boost to a lot of people who could really use it, and it polls better than you think, too. More like this, please. Statements from the Davis campaign and from the Texas Organizing Project in support of this policy are beneath the fold; Stace and Progress Texas have more.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Election 2014.

Louisiana breaks the streak

One in every crowd, I guess.

RedEquality

A federal judge [in New Orleans] upheld the state’s ban on same-sex marriage on Wednesday, going against what had been a unanimous trend of federal court decisions striking down such bans since the Supreme Court ruled on the matter last year.

In his ruling, Judge Martin L. C. Feldman of Federal District Court said that the regulation of marriage was left up to the states and the democratic process; that no fundamental right was being violated by the ban; and that Louisiana had a “legitimate interest … whether obsolete in the opinion of some, or not, in the opinion of others … in linking children to an intact family formed by their two biological parents.”

That this ruling ran counter to a wave of other federal decisions across the country in recent months was immediately noted by opponents of the ban.

“We always anticipated that it would be a difficult challenge,” said J. Dalton Courson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, adding that the ruling would be appealed to the Fifth Circuit. “We certainly are disappointed considering the string of rulings in favor of same-sex marriage.”

Since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year in the case of United States v. Windsor, there have been 21 consecutive federal court decisions finding that gay marriage bans were unconstitutional, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.

This tally includes cases that have made it to the appellate level: the 10th Circuit, in Denver, affirmed such rulings in Utah and Oklahoma, and the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., upheld the overturning of Virginia’s ban as well. Other cases are still waiting at the appellate level; a decision striking down Texas’s gay marriage ban has already been appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

With so much activity in the federal courts, legal experts believe that the Supreme Court is likely to rule more definitively on gay marriage during the next term, potentially rendering Wednesday’s decision moot within the next year.

TPM has a copy of the ruling. Judge Feldman apparently bought into the lurid slippery-slope arguments that hapless true-believer AGs have been unsuccessfully peddling elsewhere. The Fifth Circuit already has Texas’ appeal to deal with, once it gets around to putting it on their calendar. And in the time it took me to write this, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ban on same sex marriages in Wisconsin and Indiana, thus starting a new win streak for the forces of equality. One way or another, this question will be decided by SCOTUS. One hope this time they don’t duck the big issue, and that they get it right again.

Posted in: Legal matters, National news.

The Third Ward

Good story about a great historic neighborhood.

In 1872, four influential African-American ministers and businessmen pooled $800 to buy 10 acres of land along Dowling Street. That was the birth of Emancipation Park, a safe place to celebrate Juneteenth and freedom from slavery.

TSU, still thriving in the Third Ward today, got its start as the Colored Junior College in 1927. In the next 25 years, the school would grow into a four-year university with its own 53-acre campus and law school. But the intent of state leaders at the time was to preserve segregation and the notion of “separate but equal” in higher education.

The Third Ward grocery store and luncheonette that was the site of Houston’s first sit-in is long gone, replaced by a post office. At the edge of the parking lot is a state historical marker that describes the students’ nonviolent protests, which eventually led to the peaceful desegregation of lunch counters, department stores, movie theaters and other local businesses.

“I realized fairly soon that ignoring these students was not the best thing to do,” [Rev. Bill] Lawson says. “Part of my calling as a minister was to be concerned about the vulnerable. It was not to maintain the standards of the powerful, which included the Ku Klux Klan.”

The Third Ward still is a real place in the hearts and minds of most of its residents and former residents, including the self-proclaimed “queen of the Third Ward,” Beyoncé. No matter that the geographical and political demarcations that established four wards in 1839, then a fifth after the Civil War and a sixth in 1876, were essentially erased in 1905.

At that time, the city covered only 16 square miles, and none of the wards extended much more than two miles from the intersection of Main and Congress. Roughly, most of the historic Third Ward extended south and east from that dot on the map. Today, what is known as the Greater Third Ward has more than doubled in size and extends south to Old Spanish Trail and east to the University of Houston.

[...]

Problems. Issues. Controversies. Certainly there are plenty in the Third Ward.

Brown says rising property taxes are making it hard for her to stay in her beloved neighborhood. “Those taxes are making it hard for everybody. I don’t know if they’re trying to push us out.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman is worried about the most often discussed problem in all six wards – gentrification. He welcomes new residents who want to become part of the neighborhood and respect the Third Ward traditions and culture.

For those moving in only because “they’re dying to get to downtown as fast as they can,” forget it, Coleman says. “We don’t need more three-story boxes, either.”

That’s a tall order. The Third Ward isn’t just close to downtown, it encompasses or is close to UH, Midtown, and the Museum District, too. People are going to want to live there, and short of applying historic status to various neighborhoods there’s not much you can do to prevent the three-story boxes and other high-end, non-traditional properties from being built. Personally, I’m a big fan of the foursquare brick architecture that you see around the Third Ward and the few remaining un-gentrified areas of Montrose, but I’m not buying up lots out there, either. Anyway, read the whole thing, especially if you don’t know much about the history of the Third Ward. For a town that paves over its past with brutal regularity, Houston sure has a rich one.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

A bike lane to connect to bike trails

Makes sense.

Houston may get its first protected on-street bike route as early as October, as city officials prepare to convert a lane of Lamar Street downtown into a two-way cycling path connecting the popular Buffalo Bayou trails west of downtown to Discovery Green and points east.

The nearly three-quarter-mile connector, from the east end of Sam Houston Park to the edge of Discovery Green, will be painted green and separated from the remaining three lanes of traffic by a two-foot barrier lined with striped plastic humps known as “armadillos” or “zebras,” said Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director.

Signals will be added at intersections to direct cyclists headed east on one-way westbound Lamar. Officials hope to begin work in September and open the lane in October.

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, said the 11-block dedicated lane will be a crucial link to safely get cyclists from the Buffalo Bayou trails to the well-used Columbia Tap Trail east of downtown that runs past Texas Southern University. A link from that trailhead to the George R. Brown Convention Center is under construction.

“The key here is that physical separation, which makes cyclists feel more comfortable, that their space is defined,” Payne said. “When you’re on a bike route you’re right out there with the traffic. The whole objective here for Houston is to develop infrastructure that makes people feel comfortable, safe and encourages them to get out of their houses and out of their cars and use their bicycles both for recreation and for transportation.”

[...]

Jeff Weatherford, who directs traffic operations for the city’s Department of Public Works and Engineering, said Lamar was chosen in part because the lane being converted is devoted to parking except during rush hours.

The other available streets that had a parking lane to give were Walker, McKinney and Dallas, but Weatherford said Walker and McKinney see higher speeds and more traffic movement because they become Interstate 45 on-ramps. And along Dallas, downtown boosters plan retail-oriented improvements. Lamar is the default choice, he said.

Average traffic counts show Lamar also carries fewer cars daily than the other three streets considered. At its busiest, between 4 and 5 p.m., Lamar averages 1,240 vehicles between Allen Parkway and Travis. East of Travis, the counts drop sharply; the blocks of Lamar closest to the convention center, at their busiest, see fewer than 200 cars per hour.

There are a few complainers, of course, but there always will be for something like this. You can see with your own eyes that Lamar is less trafficked than Walker or McKinney, and the connections to I-45 are definitely a key part of that. What makes bike trails effective as transportation, not just as leisure or exercise, is connectivity. The trails themselves are great because they’re safe, efficient ways to travel by bike. Connecting the trails in this fashion makes them that much more effective and gives that many more people reasons to use them. Is it going to magically un-congest our streets of vehicular traffic? No, of course not. Nothing will do that short of a massive paradigm change. But it will give a larger number of people the option of not being part of that congestion, for little to no cost. What more do you want? Houston Tomorrow has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Friday random ten – O rly?

Names that start with vowels are more interesting than names that start with consonants. I believe they had a lively debate on that topic on one of William F. Buckley’s shows.

1. Don’t Look Back In Anger – Oasis
2. Little Talks – Of Monsters And Men
3. Instant Karma – of Montreal
4. Fire – Ohio Players
5. Capitalism – Oingo Boingo
6. This Two Shall Pass – OK Go
7. Murder (Or A Heart Attack) – Old 97′s
8. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me – Oleta Adams
9. Hard Times In The Land Of Plenty – Omar and The Howlers
10. If You Leave – Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark

I don’t recall if they addressed the issue of whether or not band names that start with prepositions should be capitalized in the same way as other band names or not. I’m not sure where I come down on that question.

Posted in: Music.

Fifth Circuit will hear HB2 enforcement arguments next Friday

The temporary reprieve will last at least one more week.

Texas abortion providers’ next hurdle in their legal fight against strict abortion regulations is set for next week in a hearing scheduled for federal court.

State attorneys and lawyers representing a coalition of abortion providers will face off on Sept. 12 in New Orleans, where the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will consider whether to allow Texas to enforce a key provision of a new law that the providers say would lead to the closure of most abortion clinics in the state.

[...]

A decision from the 5th Circuit could allow the regulation to go into effect as the case goes through the appeals process. But on Tuesday evening, the appeals court rejected the state’s emergency petition to enforce the law, pointing out that state attorneys — led by Attorney General Greg Abbott — had submitted a “tardy motion.” In its rejection, the 5th Circuit’s clerk wrote that Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, and his team had waited to file the motion until 11:59 p.m. the day before the ambulatory surgical center provision was set to take effect.

“This did not allow time for a response, or for the court to adequately to consider the motion, before the scheduled effective date” despite the state’s claims of “irreparable harm,” wrote court clerk Lyle W. Cayce in a short response from the court.

Yeakel also sided with the abortion providers on a separate provision of the law, which requires all doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic. The providers argued that the provision was unconstitutional as applied to two clinics that shut down because of it: Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen and Reproductive Services in El Paso.

State attorneys contend in their petition that Texas should be allowed to enforce the admitting privileges provision during the appeals process because language in Yeakel’s ruling “appears to be intended” to invalidate the provision statewide. Both parties are now questioning how to interpret the ruling.

See here for the background, and the Chron story linked above for more. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of “harm” the state might suffer if it’s not allowed to enforce this godawful law. Even putting my personal feelings aside, what does “harm” mean in this context? To me, “harm” implies some kind of loss, which in this context I would think means revenue, or land, or natural resources, that sort of thing. Maybe I’m being too narrow in my thinking. Even if the state is saying that their lessened ability to “protect” fetuses is the harm, isn’t that argument undermined by their claim that HB2 doesn’t present an “undue burden” to women who seek abortions? I mean, if the state is saying HB2 is no big deal because women can just drive a little farther, then what exactly do they think they’re protecting? I swear, the logic they’ve employed in case after case lately is enough to give you the bends.

Esha Bhandari, an attorney representing the abortion clinics, said she was encouraged by the 5th Circuit’s initial rejection of the state’s petition because it will give the providers an opportunity to make their case at next week’s hearing on why the regulations are inappropriate.

Like I said before, I’m not willing to put any faith in the Fifth Circuit just yet. I hope this is a valid inference to draw, but they’re going to have to prove it to me. RH Reality Check has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Complaint filed against Whitmire

I think this is more a political stunt than anything else, but we’ll see.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

A conservative group has filed a criminal complaint against state Sen. John Whitmire, accusing him of coercion in an exchange of text messages with University of Houston President Renu Khator that was published in the Houston Chronicle.

In the Aug. 16 conversation, Whitmire told Khator he would “stop dead and pass leg (legislation)” unless she killed a plan to require freshmen to live on campus. Khator agreed to withdraw the proposal and asked Whitmire to forgive her.

The complaint, filed Aug. 29 with Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit by the Conservative Action Fund, cites the exchange. Representatives of the unit, which investigates claims against elected officials, could not be reached for comment Monday.

“Senator Whitmire directly attempted to influence – and did in fact influence – a public servant (the UH President) ‘in a specific exercise of [her] official power,’ ” the complaint says. “He achieved such influence by means of ‘coercion,’ that is, by threatening to ‘take … action as a public servant’ in the Legislature if UH did not bow to his demand.”

Whitmire dismissed the complaint as “absolutely silly.”

“I haven’t even given it a second thought,” Whitmire said. “Obviously a group of lawyers have got too much time on their hands.”

The complaint seems intended, in part at least, as a defense of Gov. Rick Perry, who was indicted last month on similar charges. Perry threatened to, and later did, veto funding for the Travis County-based Public Integrity Unit, if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg did not step down after being arrested for drunken driving.

Here’s the letter they sent. I’ll leave it to the lawyers in the audience to analyze. I agree with the story’s suggestion that this is more about Rick Perry than it is about John Whitmire, but if Rosemary Lehmberg thinks it merits the attention of a grand jury then so be it. I will just note again that we have only the barest of outlines of the case against Rick Perry. Assuming the indictments survive the motion to dismiss, we’ll finally start to see what the evidence against Perry looks like. I’m going to guess that it will add up to just a wee bit more than what is being cited against Whitmire, but I guess you never know. Campos and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Paxton’s “poll”

Oh, please.

Sen. Ken Paxton

State Sen. Ken Paxton‘s campaign is touting a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent in the race for Texas attorney general, citing a poll commissioned for his campaign and released Tuesday.

The poll was performed by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, a Republican polling firm with locations in Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City and Austin. The poll surveyed 1,003 likely general election voters Aug. 24-26, 2014. They were asked: “If the general election for Texas Attorney General were held today, for whom would you vote for if the candidates were?”

Crosstabs provided to the Chronicle by Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm showed 52 percent chose his client and 28 percent chose Paxton’s Democratic opponent, lawyer Sam Houston, with 17 percent undecided. Paxton fared far better among conservatives, garnering the support of 75 percent of those polled.

Of those surveyed, 54 percent self-identified as conservative and 31 percent as independent. “Liberal” was not parsed out in the provided crosstabs. The margin of error was +/- 3.1 percent.

The polling memo, such as it is, is embedded in the linked post or available here. I’ll note that WPOA did a fairly decent 2012 Presidential poll, so they’re not complete hacks over there, but that just makes this result that much more ridiculous. The same poll also claims Abbott is leading Davis by 18. Note that they give zero information about question wording or overall composition of their population, and provide very little about how subsamples responded. The one bit of subgroup data they provide is the laughable claim that Paxton is leading with Hispanic voters 50-29. Putting aside how completely out of character that would be, consider that if the rest of his sample is 69% Anglo and 10% black, and assuming he gets 5% of the black vote, he’s be collecting only about 59% of the Anglo vote to land at 52% total. With this configuration, if Paxton were actually at 40% Hispanic support, he’d be in danger of losing. Do you think Ken Paxton is counting on 40% support among Hispanic voters for his win total? I don’t. Trying to distract from Sam Houston’s call for a debate? That I can believe.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Body cameras for HPD

I’ll be very interested to see how this goes.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland is asking City Hall for $8 million to equip 3,500 police officers over three years with small body cameras to record encounters between law enforcement and residents as a way of improving accountability and transparency.

Last December, McClelland announced a pilot program that fitted 100 officers with the recording devices at a cost of $2,500 per officer, explaining that body cameras were more likely to record officers’ contact with residents than dashboard cameras in patrol cars.

[...]

Proponents of body cameras – roughly the size of a pager that can be clipped to the front of a uniform shirt- say the technology can be key in lowering use of force by police and citizen complaints. However, the effort to equip additional officers with the devices faces uncertainty as Mayor Annise Parker’s administration acknowledged Wednesday it is having trouble finding money to pay for the project.

Amin Alehashem, director and staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project office in Houston, called the proposed camera expansion a “huge victory for transparency” in assessing the actions of local law enforcement.

“Often times a lot of what happens with interactions on the street between an officer and an individual ends up being a ‘he said, she said’ altercation,” Alehashem said. “It’s great if we have cameras there. For the criminal process, it will allow juries in the future to see what happened and make up their mind as far as guilt or innocence of the individual or even the officer.”

Capt. Mike Skillern, who heads HPD’s gang unit and is involved in testing the cameras, said his fellow officers act “a little more professionally” when wearing the devices.

Obviously, there’s a sense of urgency for the adoption of this kind of technology in the wake of Ferguson. There are questions about how these cameras will be used, in particular how available the data will be, but these are a better option than dashboard cams, which are often not facing the right direction to capture what’s happening, and don’t have audio either. As with video recording interrogations, having these cameras in wide use will protect both the public and the police, since unfounded complaints can be dispatched easily. Having a clear record of what happens when there’s a violent confrontation, especially a shooting, should help restore some trust. I hope a funding source can be identified and the potential of this technology can be fully exploited. See Grits and Hair Balls for more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Judicial Q&A – Tracy Good

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Tracy Good

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is TRACY D. GOOD. I am running for the 313th Juvenile Court.

I’m a native Houstonian. I have been married to my wife for almost 25 years. We have two adorable twin daughters. I am a graduate of the University of Houston with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. In addition, I obtained my Juris Doctorate from the University of Houston Law School. I am a Certified Public Accountant and a Certified Internal Auditor. Despite these credentials and many years of experience in corporate America, my passion and focus has always been defending the defenseless, ensuring that the rights of individuals are upheld to the full extent of the law. I want to carry these traits to the bench so that the powers of the government are equally balanced with the rights of individuals. This balances is especially important when it comes to protecting the rights of children.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Juvenile and CPS termination cases.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I have a passion for justice. I believe everyone regardless of economic status, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference should all be seen equally in the eyes of the law. This is especially true with respect to the rights of children. The old cliche that “the children are our future” is a profound truism. OUR CHILDREN ARE YOUR FUTURE!

The question is: what type of future are we creating? I believe that the laws of the state of Texas with respect to juvenile justice are designed with a goal, in part, to ensure that the children of the state of Texas have a promising future as contributing members of our adult society. However,

bureaucracy,
an inefficient governmental administration,
and a broken ad litem appointment system.

are negatively impacting THIS goal of the juvenile justice system. These are just some of the problems that I see. These are the reasons why I am running. In my courtroom, I will efficiently manage juvenile and Child Protective Services (CPS) cases, and I will ensure that ad litem attorney caseloads are manageable.

I want to exam the juvenile justice and child protective services issues from a complete perspective including:

teen pregnancy/prenatal care
family therapy/unity
mental health issues
socioeconomic disadvantages
teen peer pressure/gang-related pressures
law enforcement and community outreach

I want an impactful and critical examination of the “cradle to prison” pipeline concluding in resolutions to positively address this serious issue.

Harris County has an annual budget of over 92 million dollars devoted to the Juvenile Justice System. It is important that the people elected by Harris County are good stewards of these funds. A primary characteristic of good stewardship is independence. Because of my internal audit background, I am a firm believer in not only the actuality of independence but the appearance of it. Therefore, I will not accept any campaign contributions from attorneys seeking ad litem appointments in my court!

With a 92 million dollar annual budget, the residents of Harris County deserve to be among the nation’s top ranked Juvenile Justice Systems. As your judge, it will be my passion and focus to make Harris County a model for the nation.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Nine Years of practicing primarily family law. I am a CPA with many years of corporate experience.

5. Why is this race important?

Families and children are important, not distribution of MONEY to favored Lawyers.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am the better candidate for the job.

Posted in: Election 2014.

All married city employees may continue to receive spousal benefits for now

Good news.

RedEquality

Married same-sex couples will continue to receive health and life insurance benefits from the city of Houston, a federal judge ruled Friday, pending the outcome of an appeal in a separate lawsuit.

[...]

[Mayor Annise] Parker’s policy change spurred two lawsuits.

The first lawsuit came from conservatives, who argued the policy change violates Houston’s city charter, the state’s Defense of Marriage Act and the Texas Constitution. A state district judge quickly signed an order preventing the city from offering the benefits, but that order was lifted in January after the city moved the case to federal court. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal moved the proceedings back to state court, saying she did not have jurisdiction over the case, but adding that “the substantive issues are likely to be decided, in a federal forum, regardless of this remand.”

The second lawsuit came from city employees whose benefits were denied by the temporary restraining order. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake on Friday granted the plaintiffs’ motion to leave Houston’s same-sex benefits in place pending a ruling from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on whether Texas’ Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional. A federal judge in San Antonio in February ruled the law unconstitutional.

Feldman and Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, argue the state’s ban is superseded by the recent federal actions related to same-sex benefits.

See my summary from Sunday of Judge Rosenthal’s ruling, which you can read here thanks to Robbie Westmoreland. The Lambda Legal summary page for this lawsuit, Freeman et al. v. Parker and City of Houston, is still not updated. The Fifth Circuit still has not scheduled its hearing on the appeal in the DeLeon v. Perry case; they had to wait for Greg Abbott to file his incredibly lame brief first. As for the first lawsuit, the District Clerk records for it shows its status as “Disposed (Final)” as of May 9, which confuses me a little. Perhaps the case information hasn’t been updated to reflect the remand from federal court yet, or perhaps there’s a different plaintiff now and I’m not finding the correct case? I’m not sure. In any event, this is where things stand for now.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Let there be an AG debate

I can’t think of any good reason why there shouldn’t be a debate between Sam Houston and Ken Paxton.

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Democratic candidate for attorney general Sam Houston wants his opponent, state Sen. Ken Paxton, to agree to a debate ahead of the November general election.

Houston is expected to issue the challenge Wednesday at a news conference in Austin, demanding his Republican opponent “quit hiding from the media and the voters,” spokeswoman Sue Davis confirmed.

“To me, this is fair. He’s either going to debate me or explain to somebody why he hasn’t,” Houston said Friday. “How is this guy going to be attorney general if he won’t even address the issues?”

Houston contends his opponent hasn’t made a public appearance in months, ever since Paxton admitted to repeatedly soliciting investment clients over the last decade – a service for which he pocketed up to a 30 percent in commission – without being properly registered with the state as an investment adviser representative.

[...]

In response, Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm called Houston’s debate demand a desperate ploy from an underdog candidate.

“It’s not surprising that anyone losing by 20 points – and unable to raise meaningful campaign funds – would want free publicity. Rabidly pushing debates is most often the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass,” said Holm.

He did not answer follow-up questions about whether Paxton would agree to a debate. Houston was unchallenged in the Democratic primary.

I should amend my statement to say that Ken Paxton has plenty of reasons to not want to be asked questions in a public forum. Houston touched on all that at a press conference where he called out Paxton.

Speaking to reporters at the Austin Club, Houston said the public should question his Republican opponent’s openness and trustworthiness after Paxton admitted to repeatedly soliciting investment clients over the last decade without being properly registered with the state as an investment adviser representative.

“Mr. Paxton has voted to make certain conduct a felony. He then has knowingly violated that conduct before and since,” said Houston. “Now he says, ‘don’t indict me, don’t punish me even though I’ve made that a felony for other people. In fact, make me attorney general so I can enforce that statute.’”

Speaking after the event, Houston said “I have faith he won’t” accept the challenge to debate. “He hasn’t so far. Look, I don’t think he can. I mean, he’s going to have to answer that question and I don’t think he can answer it.”

Issues he’d like to address in a hypothetical debate include his opponent’s litigation experience as well as recent open records rulings dealing with volatile chemicals and Gov. Rick Perry’s travel schedule issued by outgoing Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Looking very much the trial lawyer, Houston stood between three exhibits showing the Texas Securities Act and the disciplinary order Paxton signed in early May admitting to the violation. Paxton was fined $1,000 and issued a reprimand. Texans for Public Justice, the same watchdog group that filed the original complaint against Gov. Rick Perry that eventually led to his August indictment, has also filed a complaint over Paxton’s noncompliance with the state ethics commission.

Houston repeated criticisms Paxton hasn’t spoken to the media “as far as I know” in 120 days, specifically citing an incident in late-July when Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm physically blocked San Antonio Express-News reporter Nolan Hicks from asking him questions.

“You can’t hide behind spokespeople,” said Houston. “That’s Exhibit A that this man should not be attorney general.”

Paxton’s spokesperson then denied the charge, which kind of proves the point. I mean, the dude has issues, and I’m not talking about the kind that candidates like to discuss. There’s a Debate Challenge Clock on Sam Houston’s website now. I don’t expect it to need to be stopped.

Honestly, though, Paxton’s sins aside, I can’t think of any good reason why we shouldn’t have at least one debate among the candidates for all offices, especially this year when every single one is open. Not that I’d expect, say, Glenn Hegar to want to square off against Mike Collier any more than Paxton would want to face Houston, but you’d think it would be a worthwhile endeavor on its face. I mean, when city elections roll around next year I guarantee that nearly every candidate for every office, from the top Mayoral challengers down to the most anonymous district Council wannabees, will do their best to make it to every candidate forum put on by every club, organization, or random group of concerned citizens around. I’ve been to a bunch of these events myself. All we’re asking for here is one lousy debate. That really ain’t much.

But I don’t expect it. Paxton, like his debate-phobic colleagues elsewhere on the ballot, figure they’ve already talked to all the voters they actually care about. At this point they figure it’s just Democrats and people who don’t pay attention anyway, so why give themselves an opportunity to say something stupid that will turn into headlines? It would be nice if people demanded more, but the people who’d be doing the demanding aren’t the people these guys listen to, so there you have it. Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 1

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes everyone had a good Labor Day as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

It’s about more than the Davis campaign

Gromer Jeffers highlighted something recently that I think hasn’t gotten enough attention.

In her race for Texas governor, Wendy Davis’ sisters have her back.

I’m not talking about her biological family. Davis is getting support from a group of female House candidates who are piggybacking on her policy proposals and helping her take aim at Republicans, including Greg Abbott, the attorney general and GOP nominee for governor.

Last week, for instance, Davis proposed the elimination of the statute of limitations in rape crimes. Quickly afterward, four House candidates, all women, issued news releases backing the state senator’s proposal.

They included House District 108 candidate Leigh Bailey, House District 105 candidate Susan Motley, House District 23 candidate Susan Criss in Galveston and House District 43 hopeful Kim Gonzalez in Kingsville.

There’s political strategy to the “we are family” approach.

Democrats across the state are running as a team in hopes of encouraging straight-ticket votes that will not only help Davis, but down-ballot candidates.

In Dallas County, for instance, County Judge Clay Jenkins and District Attorney Craig Watkins hope to benefit from a base voter turnout.

They will work with local campaigns, Davis and groups like Battleground Texas, a Democratic group that aims to make the state competitive long-term.

In previous years, Democratic House candidates have had to largely fend for themselves, since many of them are stuck in districts drawn to benefit Republican candidates.

A countywide mobilizing helps them, but it has fallen short for many, as the Democratic base is outside their individual districts.

But this year, with Battleground Texas helping, the candidates are using issues seen as important to women — equal pay, early childhood education, and health care, for instance — to go after more voters.

If Davis manages to woo crossover voters, so will the House candidates. That’s the theory.

“What unites all these campaigns, from Wendy on down the ballot, is that they’re fighting for Texas families instead of insiders,” Jenn Brown, executive director of Battleground Texas, said.

That approach, which I agree is something we haven’t really seen before despite the obvious benefit of it, is actually broader than what Jeffers documents. BOR wrote about BGTX’s Blue Star Project, from which all this comes. Here’s a list of candidates that BGTX has highlighted on their site, some with videos, so far:

SD 10 – Libby Willis

HD 23 – Susan Criss
Video Post

HD 43 – Kim Gonzalez
Video Post

HD 105 – Susan Motley
Video Post

HD 107 – Carol Donovan

HD 108 – Leigh Bailey

HD 113 – Milton Whitley

HD 117 – Phil Cortez

HD 144 – Mary Ann Perez

That list is not final – Battleground says they are seeking opportunities to get involved where they think they can make a difference. You can’t be everywhere at once, and resources are always finite, but it’s great to see this kind of strategic thinking. In places like SD10 and HD23, two Republican-leaning districts that Democrats currently hold, it could be the difference between winning and losing. In marginally Republican districts like HD43 and the four Dallas locations, it could be the difference between gaining seats and keeping the status quo. That’s all about increasing turnout, which is something everyone wants and which should be very conducive to joint efforts like this. Again, we could certainly find that BGTX did a stellar job boosting Democratic base turnout but still fell short at the state level. Where a gap exists in these districts, however, it’s much smaller. Keep an eye on this, and if you live in or near one of those districts, you now have twice as many reasons to get involved.

Posted in: Election 2014.

What next for school finance?

That depends on the Attorney General and the Supreme Court, but one way or the other it’s up to the Legislature.

State lawmakers from both parties agreed the responsibility for funding public schools falls on them. But history suggests the Legislature is reluctant to act until its hand is forced.

“I would be surprised if the 2015 Legislature does more than put this issue on hold waiting for a Supreme Court ruling,” said Scott Hochberg, a former Democratic state representative from Houston and one of Texas’ premier public education experts. “Historically, legislatures want to know exactly what it is that is being expected of them before they’ll take on these hard choices.

“Members like to say, ‘I wouldn’t have done this but the court required it,’ ” Hochberg added.

Statements made by incoming leaders in response to Dietz’s ruling seemed to support Hochberg’s predictions. While many Democrats hailed the ruling and urged lawmakers to address the issue immediately when the Legislature convenes in January, Republicans in leadership positions were less eager to promise action addressing the deficiencies identified in Dietz’s ruling.

“It is our job in the Legislature to develop the next education budget, regardless of what happens in the next phase of the legal process, and to address problems in education that go well beyond dollars and cents,” said Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the incoming chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

“As a former teacher, I believe in the power of education. Our budget will prioritize education and prepare our students to succeed in today’s workforce,” Nelson said. She did not take a specific stance on Dietz’s ruling.

She didn’t say much of anything, really. Hochberg is exactly right. The Lege will do what the court tells it to do, more or less. They’ve been told multiple times and still haven’t gotten it right, but I suppose hope springs eternal. The most accurate way to characterize this is that the Lege will do the least they think they have to do in order to comply. Certainly, if they are forced to find more funding for public education, they’ll do the least they can do to clear the bar. It’s hard to believe we won’t be back here again some day.

As for when the Lege gets to work on this, it depends on the Attorney General.

The school finance case could take any number of paths in the courts.

In one scenario, the Legislature takes some action next session – allocating more money to public education, for example – before the Supreme Court hears arguments. This could make the entire case moot, or it could prompt the justices to kick it back to the district court level. By that time, Dietz will have retired. His spot on the bench will be filled by Karin Crump, a Democrat who ran unopposed.

If the Legislature fails to act, or delays, the Supreme Court will take up the case. Arguments would not be heard until late spring or summer of next year at the earliest, just as the Legislature adjourns.

This could signal the need for a special session, either to address just education funding, or even the budget in general. Education accounts for 37 percent of all state funds.

A less likely, but still possible, outcome is that Abbott’s replacement in the attorney general’s office decides not to advance the case.

Sam Houston, the Democratic underdog in the race, said Thursday the ruling was further evidence of Texas’ flawed public education funding model. Signaling he might choose to end the appeal, he added, “School finance issues need to be resolved by the Legislature, not at the courthouse.”

The Lege isn’t going to act without a direct order, so you can throw scenario #1 away. If Sam Houston wins, I think there’s an excellent chance he’ll drop the appeal, just as he’s promised to drop the appeal of the same sex marriage ruling. Wendy Davis has called on Greg Abbott to drop the appeal and let the Lege get to it, but just as that’s not going to happen neither would I expect it to happen if Ken Paxton gets elected, even though the story suggests he might be open to it. There’s nothing in Paxton’s record to support that hypothesis, and I can’t imagine he’d be willing to do anything Abbott wouldn’t have done. To me, the only realistic possibilities are Abbott/Paxton appeal the ruling, either straight to the Supreme Court or to the Third District Court of Appeals first, or Houston wins and drops the appeal. As long as Abbott and Paxton believe that Judge Dietz’s ruling isn’t the final say and thus they may not have to find more money for the schools, I think it gets appealed. Abbott has 30 days to file the paperwork to get it started, so we’ll know soon enough. Burka, the Observer, and the Trib have more.

Posted in: Legal matters, That's our Lege.

Abbott appeals HB2 ruling

As expected.

As expected, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott filed an appeal to the 5th Circuit Court Sunday to overturn a recent federal court ruling that found parts of Texas’ abortion law, House Bill 2, unconstitutional.

Abortion providers filed suit over a regulation, that was set to take effect today (Sept. 1) that would mandate clinics spend up to $3 million to comply with the same building standards as ambulatory surgical centers. They also challenged a portion of the law that requires physicians to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where any procedure is performed for recently closed clinics in underserved communities – the Whole Woman’s Health clinic of McAllen and Reproductive Services of El Paso.

U.S. Judge Lee Yeakel concluded the two provisions of the law posed an “undue burden” on abortion-seeking women, in a ruling issued late Friday afternoon.

In its “emergency motion” to stay the ruling, pending appeal, the state argues Yeakel’s ruling, “fails to recognize or apply the binding precedents of this Court and the Supreme Court.” Plaintiffs could not prove that the ASC law would subject a “large fraction” of the state’s abortion patients to “unduly burdensome driving distances,” the state writes.

While Yeakel found the ASC statute was enacted with the purpose of imposing an undue burden on abortion patients, the state countered there was no evidence of the legislature’s motives during trial. The state also took issue with the court’s “inexplicable” decision to place a statewide injunction against HB2’s admitting-privileges law despite its applied challenge for just two clinics.

Further the state claims it is, “suffering immediate injury” from the purported injunction against the already in effect admit privileges law; the state requests the Court immediately stay this ruling (regardless of a response from plaintiffs).

Defendants have asked the appellate court to respond by Friday, Sept. 5.

So Friday’s reprieve could last no more than a week, depending on how much the Fifth Circuit sucks this time around. I’m one of those people that can’t help but hope for the best even when he knows better, so I’ll try to be prepared for disappointment. For a look at what will happen if the Fifth Circuit does its thing again, see RH Reality Check.

UPDATE: Ha ha ha ha!

A federal appeals court on Tuesday evening declined Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s request for permission to immediately start enforcing a key piece of the state’s tough new abortion law, instead scheduling a hearing about the issue for next Friday in New Orleans.

The move almost certainly means that a federal judge’s decision declaring the provision unconstitutional will remain in effect at least through next week, saving most abortion facilities in the state from planned closures.

[...]

A three-page order from the appeals court criticized Abbott, saying he “waited until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday August 31 to file the stay motion; a corrected version was sent at 12:08 a.m. on Monday September 1. This did not allow time for a response, or for the court adequately to consider the motion, before the scheduled effective date, though the appellants claim irreparable harm from the statute’s not being enforced. Moreover, the tardy motion was well in excess of the number of pages that are allowed.”

The order set arguments on the motion for 10 a.m. next Friday.

The pessimistic view of this is that it’s just the court expressing its annoyance at Abbott for not following procedure so they could swat down the court order as they’d always planned to do. This is the Fifth Circuit we’re talking about, after all. Nonetheless, I’m going to enjoy this little moment of schadenfreude while I can. If Greg Abbott were marginally competent, he’d truly be dangerous.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Abbott keeps moving the debate goal posts

It’s like he’s afraid to directly engage on the issues or something.

Four days after Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott backed out of a planned debate with Democrat Wendy Davis in Dallas, it was unclear Tuesday whether there would be a gubernatorial debate in the city at all.

Davis agreed to Abbott’s format preferences for a debate on Sept. 30 to be hosted by WFAA-TV in Dallas, the Davis campaign said Tuesday. But Abbott has committed to debating at a different venue in the city, Davis hasn’t accepted the invitation to the second one and WFAA says it’s no longer pursuing a debate. (The Texas Tribune had been a partner with WFAA on its original debate.)

Davis and Abbott had both agreed to the WFAA debate — as well as another debate in McAllen — but Abbott backed out of the WFAA event on Friday because of what one of his advisers said was “an inability to agree on specific details of the format.” The debate was to be a roundtable conversation with no specific time limits for candidate remarks.

Davis campaign spokesman Zac Petkanas issued a statement Tuesday after the campaign met with WFAA.

“We have spoken with WFAA this afternoon and expressed our willingness to alter the previously agreed upon debate format to accommodate the Abbott campaign’s concerns about the lack of timed responses,” Petkanas said. “Wendy looks forward to meeting Mr. Abbott in this more structured debate setting at WFAA on September 30th.”

[...]

WFAA President and General Manager Mike Devlin said the station will no longer pursue the debate because of Abbott’s unwillingness to cooperate.

“We expect people running for the governorship to behave in an honorable fashion,” Devlin said. “At a certain point when you are dealing with somebody who doesn’t keep commitments, why would we keep going back?”

After backing out of the WFAA debate Friday, Abbott agreed to another Dallas debate on Sept. 30 hosted by KERA, NBC5/KXAS-TV, Telemundo 39 and The Dallas Morning News. However, Davis did not agree to that debate because she had already committed to the WFAA event, the Davis campaign said Tuesday. But in a statement issued later Tuesday, Petkanas said the campaign “will open discussions with KERA tomorrow regarding the possibility of a debate.”

Emphasis mine. Can’t really say it any better than that, though the full statement from Zac Petankas is worth highlighting as well:

“If Greg Abbott isn’t tough enough to handle a roundtable discussion in front of a statewide audience, it’s hard to see how he’s tough enough to be Governor of Texas,” said campaign spokesman Zac Petkanas. “However, the fact that Greg Abbott isn’t willing to keep his word shouldn’t deprive voters of the chance to see both candidates debate issues like his defense of $5.4 billion in public education cuts. In that spirit, we will open discussions with KERA tomorrow regarding the possibility of a debate.”

Indeed. See here for more.

UPDATE: We have an agreement on a new debate.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Interview with Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

It’s time to start the interview series for the fall elections. As you know, I did interviews with various Democratic primary candidates earlier this year. As a rule, I’m not going to re-interview candidates that made it to the fall ballot, since in most cases there isn’t much ground to cover that wasn’t already discussed. The one exception to this rule is Kim Ogg, the Democratic candidate for District Attorney in Harris County. There has been a lot that has happened since March – the day I did this interview with her was the day she was making her charges public about DA Devon Anderson’s handling of the Ryan Chandler case – so this was a chance to catch up on those items. I don’t think Ogg needs much of an intro at this point, but you can go read what I wrote for her primary interview if you need to. Here’s the latest version:

I will have more interviews in the coming weeks.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Abbott’s voter registration persecution

Now this is what a partisan witch hunt looks like.

Still not Greg Abbott

On an overcast Monday afternoon, officers in bulletproof vests swept into a house on Houston’s north side. The armed deputies and agents served a search warrant. They carted away computers, hard drives and documents.

The raid targeted a voter registration group called Houston Votes, which was accused of election fraud. It was initiated by investigators for Attorney General Greg Abbott. His aides say he is duty-bound to preserve the integrity of the ballot box.

His critics, however, say that what Abbott has really sought to preserve is the power of the Republican Party in Texas. They accuse him of political partisanship, targeting key Democratic voting blocs, especially minorities and the poor, in ways that make it harder for them to vote, or for their votes to count.

A close examination of the Houston Votes case reveals the consequences when an elected official pursues hotly contested allegations of election fraud.

The investigation was closed one year after the raid, with no charges filed. But for Houston Votes, the damage was done. Its funding dried up, and its efforts to register more low-income voters ended. Its records and office equipment never were returned. Instead, under a 2013 court order obtained by Abbott’s office, they were destroyed.

And the dramatic, heavily armed raid never was necessary, according to Fred Lewis, president of Texans Together, the nonprofit parent group of Houston Votes. “They could have used a subpoena,” he said. “They could have called us and asked for the records. They didn’t need guns.”

The previously unreported 2010 raid coincided with agitation by a local tea party group and Lewis’ testimony in the trial of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. Lewis had filed a complaint against DeLay that, in large part, led to his indictment on corruption charges.

Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, declined interview requests. A spokesman, Jerry Strickland, said the attorney general does not recall being briefed by staff members on the Houston Votes investigation.

“In this investigation — and all other investigations conducted by the Office of the Attorney General — evidence uncovered dictates direction,” Strickland said in an email. “To insinuate there were other factors at work in this case is ludicrous and unfounded.”

Read the whole thing and see for yourself how “unfounded” it is. It’s a toxic mix of True The Vote paranoia, bad practices and bad faith from the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, and Abbott’s zeal to prove that somewhere, somehow there exists justification for voter ID laws. And then there’s the best part:

Abbott’s office said the Harris County district attorney in October 2011 “declined to accept for prosecution the case as prepared by investigators of the Texas Attorney General office,” according to a court document filed last year.

The document said the case related to a violation of an identity theft law in the Penal Code, which is a felony. It did not list names or details.

Strickland, the Abbott spokesman, said the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute that section of the Penal Code. As a result, the information was given to the Harris County district attorney’s office, he said in an email.

The News on June 10 filed a public records request with the attorney general for the case file. Abbott’s office, which is in charge of enforcing the state’s open records law, asked itself for a ruling on whether those records must be released. In an Aug. 28 letter, the attorney general’s office ruled that it may withhold the records under state law.

The records are exempt from required release because they pertain to a criminal investigation that did not result in a conviction or deferred adjudication, wrote Lindsay Hale, an assistant attorney general in the Open Records Division.

It’s unclear how often Abbott’s office investigates allegations similar to the ones leveled at Houston Votes.

In response to requests from The News, the attorney general’s office provided a list of 637 potential violations of the Elections Code referred to Abbott since he took office in late 2002.

Strickland said he could not say how many were investigated or how many involved alleged voter registration fraud. “The office does not ‘compile or keep statistics,’” he said.

The Harris County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the Houston Votes case. Terese Buess, assistant district attorney over the public integrity division, told The News that her office doesn’t discuss cases that don’t result in criminal prosecution. But “generally, criminal charges are only authorized when there is evidence that establishes probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed.”

Emphasis mine. So Greg Abbott asked Greg Abbott if Greg Abbott needs to release information about Greg Abbott’s half-baked partisan-driven investigation, and Greg Abbott said that Greg Abbott didn’t have to if Greg Abbott didn’t want to. Makes sense to me. Be sure to read the whole thing, there’s a lot to digest. PDiddie, Nonsequiteuse, and Texpatriate have more.

UPDATE: Definitely read this update from Nonsequiteuse as well.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Voter ID trial starts today

As one trial ends, the next one begins.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi will begin hearing arguments Tuesday on one of the nation’s most stringent voter ID measures, which Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed into law in 2011.

A ruling is unlikely before Election Day, meaning that 13.6 million registered voters in Texas would still produce a photo ID this November. That hasn’t stopped Democrats from wielding the law as a campaign cudgel, particularly Wendy Davis, who has attacked Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott over his office defending the measure in court.

The Texas law requires voters to show one of six kinds of photo ID. A Texas concealed handgun license is valid while a college student’s university ID is not, which opponents say shows Republicans trying to imposes obstacles on voters who typically vote Democrat.

The Justice Department is taking an aggressive role in trying to dismantle the law after the U.S. Supreme Court last year threw out a key portion of the federal Voting Rights Act, which had thwarted a flurry of recently passed voter ID measures in conservative states from taking effect.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made Texas a top target after vowing to go into states to wring out whatever remaining voter protections he could.

Minority rights groups that sued Texas over the voter ID law say the Justice Department has added muscle — and money — since joining the lawsuit last year.

“It’s leveled the playing field,” said Joe Garza, a San Antonio-based attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “I think the overall evidence is going to show significant impact on the minority community.”

The trial is expected to last two weeks. Although Gonzales Ramos could issue an immediate ruling from the bench that could affect the November elections, attorneys believe that is unlikely.

NPR adds some context.

The difference between this case and the one before the federal court in 2012 is that now the burden of proof is on the law’s opponents. Still, they think they might have an advantage. The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who was appointed by President Obama.

But the voter advocacy groups also know — if they prevail in her court — the state will almost certainly appeal the decision to a federal court with a more Republican tilt. The state wants to keep the ID requirements in place for this November’s election.

All this is important, says Edward Foley, an election law expert at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, because there are similar voter ID laws being challenged or considered in other states, including North Carolina and Wisconsin. Those involved are watching this case to see how effective Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act will prove to be in the fight against such laws.

“That’s a major, major issue,” says Foley. “All states are bound by the obligation not to impose a discriminatory burden on voting rights on the basis of race, and so if a voter ID law [is found to have imposed] that burden … that would be very significant new voting rights law.”

Foley says it could be applied not only to ID laws, but to other things such as cutbacks in early voting. He and other experts think the issue might very well end up before the Supreme Court.

Enrique Rangel reminds us of that 2012 decision, by the DC Circuit Court, when the state and AG Greg Abbott bypassed the Justice Department to sue for preclearance.

“The State of Texas enacted a voter ID law that — at least to our knowledge — is the most stringent in the country,” the three-judge Washington court said in its 56-page opinion.

“It imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas disproportionately likely to live in poverty,” part of the opinion reads. “And crucially, the Texas Legislature defeated several amendments that could have made this a far closer case.”

Yes, as I’ve said multiple times, the Republican-dominated legislature went out of its way to make this law as harsh and unforgiving as it could, all in ways to inconvenience or incapacitate voting blocs that leaned Democratic. One of the more egregious examples of that was making concealed handgun licences acceptable for voter ID purposes, but not student IDs. That led to another group of plaintiffs getting involved.

Voter ID requirements and other new voting restrictions not only pose unique barriers to African-American, Latino and low-income voters, they say, but also disproportionately affect students and youth, despite the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that declares the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age."

[This] week, a federal court will begin hearings over a lawsuit filed to block Texas' voter ID bill, which went into effect in 2013. Late last year, the Texas League of Young Voters, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, joined the U.S. Justice Department in suing Texas over the bill, which allows military IDs and concealed handgun licenses to be shown at the polls — but not student photo ID cards.

In Texas and other states, lawmakers have typically justified leaving student IDs off the list of accepted forms of voting identification on the grounds that students frequently move so their address may not be current. But students and voting rights advocates counter that the purpose of voter ID laws has never been to verify a voter's address — it's to confirm their identity, as the photo will ostensibly prove that the voter is truly who he or she claims to be.

"We haven't heard really good rationale for [not allowing student IDs]," Dale Ho of the American Civil Liberties Union told Time magazine. "It doesn't make any sense to exclude student IDs on the basis of an address. It leads us to think the only reason why they're excluding student IDs is that they don't want students to vote."

That's exactly what seven North Carolina college students alleged was a factor in the state's passage of a passel of voting restrictions last year, including a voter ID requirement that will go into effect in 2016. Like Texas, North Carolina's law also doesn't recognize student ID cards as legitimate for voting, although military and veteran cards are acceptable. That led students to join a set of lawsuits brought by the ACLU, NAACP and the Department of Justice that were combined into one seeking to block North Carolina's so-called "monster" voting bill [pdf]. (Earlier this month, a judge denied a preliminary injunction to block key provisions of the law from going into effect for this November's election.)

I don’t believe that group is directly involved in the Texas litigation, but the North Carolina case is just as important. Hair Balls reminds us who in Houston would not be able to vote right now.

What we see here is the higher cost to participate in the voting process for people already living in poorer parts of town. If you want to vote, you must take time away from work to travel to a DPS office within the city in order to obtain a photo ID.

That gets even harder when there’s no access to personal transportation, which obviously puts low-income residents at a disadvantage. And in Houston, that disadvantage is pretty significant. The average travel time to a DPS office for a person with a vehicle, one-way, is about 10.5 minutes. Not too bad for a city as spread out as Houston. But if you’re taking a bus to a DPS office to get that photo ID, you’re looking at about 66.7 minutes worth of travel time — in one direction. Oh, and that’s not factoring in the distance from one’s home to the bus station, and from the bus station to the DPS office — which can add even more travel time.

So, it basically takes Houston’s bus-riders — i.e. folks in areas where they can’t afford a car — about 6.3 times longer to get approved ID so that they can vote. That might be a slight hindrance, no?

If you’re already poor and you can’t access your local DPS office in a feasible, cost-effective way, chances are you’ll be less likely to get an approved ID than those living in richer neighborhoods who have cars. Which means you’ll be less likely to vote.

That’s cause and effect.

That also doesn’t take into account the fact that DPS offices are generally open only during regular business hours, and a lot of the working poor don’t get paid time off, meaning that an hours-long trek to their DPS office to get the ID they need also costs them a day’s pay. Again, the Lege could have provided for these folks by funding a program to reach out to people who lack ID and help them get it without going through all that, but they have shown no real interest in that. All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion.

Suppose that you were a member of a state legislature, and you drafted a new proposed law regarding voting procedures. Further suppose that as you shopped your proposed law around, everyone you met told you that the sole effect your law would have would be to suppress voting by the poor and minority voters.

Suppose you asked for second and third opinions, but again kept hearing the same thing – that whatever your law was meant to accomplish, or claimed to combat, or was at least nominally supposed to resolve, it would simultaneously utterly and completely fail to achieve that stated objective, while at the same time limiting access to the polls for minority voters.

A law that punishes felony theft at least accomplishes the goal of punishing people who steal things. The people who are punished may be disproportionately likely to be members of a protected class, which could either be the result of social factors not considered in the drafting of the penal law, or the result of disproportionate poverty and incitements to crime that are not uniformly distributed throughout society. It could also be the result of intentional design in the penal law, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the law punishing theft wasn’t consciously written to disenfranchise minority groups.

In contrast, everyone who looked at the picture I.D. law before it was ever made into law said the same thing – the law addressed no actual need or concern on the part of the State, but solely accomplished one goal – limiting voting access by the poor (and disproportionately, by minorities, the elderly, and the young). That is not just an incidental consequence of the law, that is the law’s purpose, function and design. Additional picture I.D. requirements were added to the voting process in order to limit access to voting.

Everyone knows this. No one sincerely believes the alternative narrative that is offered (“voter I.D. protects against fraud”). No one on the defense believes that narrative, and (with the possible exception of some hypothetical population of credulous fools) no one in the general public believes it. The State’s attorneys have the unenviable task of dying on the hill of “electoral integrity” to salve the egos of Texas elected officials.

So if everyone (your friends, your enemies, your colleagues in the Legislature) told you the same thing, over and over again, and yet you persisted in promoting your draft law, ultimately getting it passed by a majority of like-minded self-interested legislators, wouldn’t any rational observer say that you had passed a law that was not merely accidentally or incidentally racist, but intentionally targeted at a group of voters you could not possibly hope to win over to your side?

It’s up to the judge now, and ultimately to SCOTUS. I’ll be keeping an eye on this as it goes.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Second phase of redistricting trial over

Much like the first phase, with some insults for one of the state’s key players thrown in for effect.

Lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department and minority groups said in closing arguments in federal court Tuesday that state lawmakers illegally targeted Latino and African-American voters when redrawing congressional districts in 2011.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the Texas attorney general reiterated their claims that the 2011 redistricting was the product of political concerns — incumbent protection and attempting to secure Republican seats in the GOP-led Legislature — not intentional discrimination.

However, the state’s attorney making its closing arguments in defense of the Legislature’s congressional redistricting plan, came under heavy questioning from the federal three-judge panel hearing the case, with most of the questions asked by the two judges appointed by Republican presidents.

District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, appointed by President George W. Bush, asked Texas Assistant Solicitor General Matthew Frederick about a string of emails from Eric Opiela, then counsel for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, which focused on Anglo voters.

Frederick responded that while Opiela had some role in the redistricting process, that role was limited. He went on to describe Opiela as “an endless source of ideas,” adding “most of which were bad.”

Someone write that down so we can haul it out the next time Opiela runs for something. “Endless ideas, most of which were bad”, that’s comedy gold. Anyway, as was the case with Phase One of the trial, this phase was partly about whether or not the maps are lawful or discriminatory, and partly about whether Texas should be subject to preclearance again, this time under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. We still have to get through the two-phase trial over the 2013 maps before we can get to a decision and the inevitable appeals. As yet, the next trial has not been scheduled.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Now how much would you pay for Rick Perry’s lawyers?

The tab has gone up.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog came at no cost to the taxpayers

Gov. Rick Perry has billed taxpayers $133,000 to hire several lawyers to defend him against public corruption allegations, his office confirmed Friday.

That’s more lawyers and more state money spent than previously disclosed.

After Perry was criticized about the taxpayer expenditures, the governor’s office announced he would use campaign funds from now on to compensate his legal team.

But taxpayers have already spent $98,000 to hire Botsford & Roark, the firm of his lead criminal defense attorney David Botsford, who charges $450 an hour. Previously, state records — which take a while to show up in the government’s accounting system — showed taxpayers had spent $80,000 on Botsford’s firm.

Perry’s office also spent $15,000 to hire the Houston-based law firm Baker Botts and $19,890 to hire attorney Jack Bacon. The total came to $132,890.

Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in an email that the cost of the legal fees were “associated with the grand jury case involving Gov. Perry and Governor’s Office staff.”

Mm hmm. Look, I’ve already that Perry has a decent argument to make that at least the grand jury portion of his legal bills ought to be paid for by the state, even if that would be unprecedented. The total cost isn’t up that much, and I’m sure this was just a matter of some paperwork being filled out later than some other paperwork. But I’m also sure that Perry’s team knew when they made that announcement about his campaign paying his legal costs going forward just how much we the people were about to be stuck with. They could have been up front about it, but given their usual desire to hide the facts plus Perry’s self-serving reasons for the change in policy, I wouldn’t be surprised if this figure isn’t the full and final total, either. It’s just how Rick Perry operates.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

It’s a great time to be a construction worker

For most people, anyway.

On a conference call earlier this month, the president of Houston-based developer Camden Property Trust described what it’s like building apartments in markets where construction is booming and skilled workers are in short supply.

“It’s a catfight to get subcontractors to fully staff at your jobs,” said D. Keith Oden. He added, “It’s hand-to-hand combat.”

The labor shortage has become so severe that the company recently started putting guards on job sites to keep its workers from being poached by competitors willing to pay more.

“We’ve had specific instances where people would come on site and try to round up workers,” Camden’s chief executive Ric Campo said in an interview. “During the World Cup, we actually put big screens on our sites to get people to stay.”

[...]

[Pat] Kiley, principal of Kiley Advisors said licensed trades are in high demand: “electrical, mechanical, plumbers, sheet metal workers, iron workers, operating engineers, certified crane operators. These are all crafts in short supply,” he said.

Labor unions are recruiting workers.

“You’re getting people moving here from out of state like they did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Kiley said. “The unions have brought in people.”

Ed Vargocko, business manager of the Iron Workers Local 84, said the amount of construction taking place in the Houston area is attracting workers from other parts of the country where development remains slow.

“A lot of them come from California and quite a few from Detroit,” he said.

In some cases, the shortage is evident in higher wages.

Between the first quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2014, the average weekly wage in the local construction industry rose 24.5 percent, Jankowski said, citing the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. That’s higher than the 19.9 percent boost in the overall average weekly wage here over the same period.

The wage and benefit package for millwrights will increase by 4 percent for each of the next few years, Donahou said.

“It’s a strong market out there,” he said. “Everybody’s going after the same people.”

Still, a segment of the construction worker population, mostly immigrants, is underpaid and facing other problems.

A report on the challenges facing the construction industry in Texas, released last year by the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas, found that the state’s construction industry is characterized “by dangerous working conditions, low wages, and legal violations that hurt working families and undercut honest businesses.”

The report cited a widespread practice of payroll fraud, where more than 40 percent of construction employees were misclassified as independent subcontractors.

In such cases, employers avoid paying payroll and unemployment taxes and workers are deprived of overtime and other employment benefits.

That gives an unfair cost advantage to companies that don’t abide by employment rules, said construction veteran Stan Marek, CEO of the Marek Family of Companies.

The report cited is here. It’s yet another reason why comprehensive immigration reform is so desperately needed, and another reason why I cannot fathom how business interests can say with a straight face that they support CIR while continuing to support the politicians that oppose it. But in a state where employers can legally lie to their employees, I suppose such duplicity isn’t that surprising. Anyway, it sure would be nice if this kind of leverage for workers made its way to other industries as well. After decades of stagnant wages, we could all use it.

Posted in: Bidness.