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The dry run for the Super Bowl

It went pretty well.

In less than a year, the Super Bowl is expected to draw almost twice as many as the 70,000 out-of-towners who flocked here for the Final Four. More than 1 million are expected to come downtown and to NRG Park from the Houston region, presenting even greater logistical and security challenges than those posed by the Final Four.

For Super Bowl planners, the NCAA Tournament was a test to see if, after 13 years, Houston is ready for the return of America’s most popular sporting event.

“We were helping them; they’re going to help us big time, make sure that we’re ready for our event,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the Super Bowl Host Committee, of Final Four planners. “There’s a lot of great lessons to be learned. You always can learn from on the ground in terms of what works and what doesn’t.”

Organizers said the Final Four affirmed Houston’s ability to host high-profile sporting events, with dozens of city and county agencies working together to manage traffic and crowds. Approximately 75,000 people attended the semifinals and the championship games, organizers said. About 165,000 attended the maxed-out Discovery Green concert. Organizers said the value in having a free concert outweighed the possibility of having to turn people away.

More than 55,000 went to a Final Four Fan Fast – featuring games and sports – at George R. Brown Convention Center.

“The surprise would be that for the most part, things went as we had planned,” said Doug Hall, president and CEO of the Final Four local organizing committee. “You never take that for granted in the event business.”

[…]

The Final Four also highlighted how the Super Bowl will be different. Instead of four days of activities, the Super Bowl likely will span 10 days, mostly focused on downtown, Campo said, including an expo in George R. Brown Convention Center with player and football events and Houston history and culture in the streets.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president for events, said the NFL will release a more detailed schedule of events in the summer.

Campo said there will be 50 percent more street space available. While some 3,500 volunteers worked the Final Four, Super Bowl organizers are hoping to recruit up to 10,000 volunteers. So far they are about halfway to that total, but Campo said the window to sign up is closing.

“You need to get involved before it’s too late,” he said.

I doubt that Houston will have any difficulty being ready for the Super Bowl. We’ve done it before, and several other major sporting events as well. The light rail system, which was brand new and had multiple issues with cars not knowing how to stay out of its way back in 2004, is mature and running mostly smoothly. Downtown is a lot more visitor-friendly than it was in 2004. Basically, as long as the weather cooperates, all should go well.

Posted in: Other sports.

The Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund

From the inbox:

After receiving calls from corporations and others who want to help financially, Mayor Sylvester Turner is establishing The Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund, to accept flood relief donations.

“We’ve been hearing from residents who are confused about where they should donate to get assistance directly to the residents of our city who are suffering, said Mayor Turner. “The creation of this fund will ensure the dollars donated stay in our community. The fund will focus on aiding storm victims and relief organizations in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties.”

Mayor Turner thanked Waste Management for making a $50,000 donation, the first since the fund’s creation.

The Greater Houston Community Foundation, a 501 (c)(3)nonprofit public charity, will administer the fund at no cost, so 100% of all donations will go toward helping flood victims. However, online credit card donations will be assessed a small fee, typically 3%, by the credit card companies. Donors have the option of increasing their credit card donations to cover this fee.

To donate, go to www.houstonrecovers.org and follow the instructions.

Donation instructions are here. If you’re looking for a way to help, this is a pretty good one.

Also from the inbox:

Commissioner Gene L. Locke’s crews will be picking up water-soaked debris that people re-move from their homes in unincorporated areas. Workers also will remove trees that have fallen on streets and sidewalks. Here’s how the program works:

Residents can place furniture, carpet and other items on curbside
Inform Commissioner Locke’s office about downed trees
Call Precinct One at 713-991-6881

In addition to the flood recovery that Precinct One is conducting in unincorporated areas of Harris County, Commissioner Locke has spoken with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and pledged to provide debris removal resources in portions of the city limits that are located in Precinct One.

A copy of the Commissioner’s flyer is here. Cleanup is a huge job, so if you’re in Precinct 1 and you need the help, reach out and get it.

In other news: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he would lead a project to develop a barrier system to prevent people from repeatedly driving into high water areas. Joke if you want, but three of the eight deaths reported in the Houston area attributed to the flooding happened in underpasses like these. If there’s something we can do to prevent them, we should.

The Addicks and Barker reservoirs are at record levels, and roads near them will be under water, likely for several days. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Mayor Turner was scheduled to give his first State of the City address this past Monday. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Sometime between now and whenever that gets rescheduled, he will be appointing a flooding czar. That person will have “the sole responsibility of pulling together all the different stakeholders and coming up with a definitive plan on how to address flooding in the city of Houston.” Best of luck to whoever that is.

Finally, if you’re still thinking about helping out, give a thought to the folks in Greenspoint who were flooded out. They could definitely use a little help right now.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Harriet Tubman will be on the new $20 bill

Good.

The U.S. Treasury has decided to keep Alexander Hamilton on the front of the new $10 bill, after encountering fierce opposition to its plans to replace the founding father with a woman, Treasury officials said Tuesday. The Treasury will feature the portrait of African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, which now features former president Andrew Jackson, while Jackson will appear on the reverse of the bill, officials said.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will announce decisions regarding several bills on Wednesday, officials said.

Last summer, Lew announced that the Treasury was considering removing Hamilton from the $10 bill, to allow a woman to appear on the front of the currency for the first time since Martha Washington was taken off the $1 silver certificate.

The Treasury was moved in part by a viral campaign in early 2015 to put a woman’s portrait on the new $20 bill in 2020, to mark the 100 year anniversary of women’s right to vote. The group “Women on $20s” received more than 600,000 online and in person votes a choice of 15 different women. Tubman received the most votes.

Treasury announced plans in June 2015 to honor a woman on the $10 bill, which was already slated for a redesign in 2020. The bills are regularly reworked to stop counterfeiting.

I like this better than replacing Hamilton on the $10, and I say that as someone who has not seen the musical. ATMs dispense a lot of $20s, so they will be more visible, and Jackson was problematic, to say the least. Now let’s see about getting more than one woman on our paper money. We’ve had multiple concurrent designs for the quarter and the dollar coin, why not have multiple designs for the various dollar bills as well? There’s already going to be an alternate design for the $5 that will have civil rights leaders on the flip side from Abe Lincoln. Why not choose one or more of these women for that, then do the same on the $1, the $2, the $10, the $50, and the $100. We’ve gone over 200 years without having women on most of our currency. We’ve got a lot of making up to do. NPR, The Intersect, Daily Kos, Kyrie O’Connor, the Slacktivist, and Kevin Drum have more.

Posted in: National news.

Business as usual with the Texas Enterprise Fund

Raise your hand if this surprises you.

BagOfMoney

In July of 2013, Gov. Rick Perry announced that he had closed another deal. Chevron would build a 50-story tower in downtown Houston next to one of its existing office buildings. The $662 million capital investment was slated to create 1,752 high-paying jobs.

“The state is providing $12 million through the Texas Enterprise Fund to close the deal on this expansion and job creation,” Perry said in a press release at the time.

A Chevron executive added: “our new office building underscores Chevron’s long-term commitment to Houston and Texas.”

Nearly three years later, 1600 Louisiana Street, where the 1.7 million square foot building was supposed to rise in the Houston skyline, remains a grassy lot. The company, it turns out, was not actually required to build its new tower in exchange for drawing state funds.

What’s more, Chevron has announced layoffs of more than 1,500 workers in Houston over the past year, prompting questions about whether the petroleum giant employs fewer area workers than it did before Perry allowed it to tap taxpayer funds.

And yet Chevron remains in full compliance with its Enterprise Fund agreement with the state, according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. A close examination of the 14-page contract reveals language so vague that the company does not legally have to deliver on much of what it promised publicly.

Texas has doled out more than half a billion dollars through the Texas Enterprise Fund since 2003, with dozens of firms agreeing to create jobs in Texas in exchange for a subsidy. The fund has long been championed by Perry as a way to reel in businesses that might otherwise land elsewhere. It drew close scrutiny two years ago, in the Republican’s final days in office, after an audit found the fund riddled with weak oversight. Critics honed in on the news that grants were awarded to companies that didn’t formally apply and that state agencies repeatedly failed to check whether companies were adhering to their contracts.

There’s more, but you get the idea. I’ve written plenty about the Texas Enterprise Fund and its various cousins; go search the archives if you want a taste. I’m just going to say now what I said before about tax breaks that the city hands out: There’s a place for this kind of economic incentive, but there ought to be an annual review of each deal, with a public accounting of what was promised, what’s been done, what’s still left to do, and what the timeline is for doing them. For the TEF, there needs to be a better process for deciding how they are granted as well. I don’t think any of this is rocket science, or particularly controversial. Ultimately, it’s up to the voters to elect people who will make that a priority, and then to hold them to that promise. Until that happens, why should anything change?

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 18

The Texas Progressive Alliance stands with the LGBT community of North Carolina and Mississippi as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Federal appeals court sides with transgender teen in bathroom case

This could be big.

A federal appeals court in Richmond has sided with a transgender high school student, saying that he can proceed with his lawsuit arguing that his school board’s decision to ban him from the boys’ bathroom is discriminatory.

In backing high school junior Gavin Grimm, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit deferred to the U.S. Education Department’s interpretation of policies that give transgender students access to the bathrooms that match their gender identities rather than their biological sex. The federal department has said that denying transgender students access to the school bathrooms of their choice is a violation of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

“It’s a complete vindication for the education department’s interpretation of Title IX,” said Joshua Block, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Grimm.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the 4th Circuit reversed a lower court ruling, saying that court had used the wrong legal standard in denying the student a preliminary injunction that would have allowed him to use the boys’ bathroom at his high school in Gloucester County, Va. Judge Henry Floyd, who wrote the majority opinion, also ruled that the boy’s discrimination lawsuit could move forward. The appeals court remanded the case to the lower court to be reheard.

The 4th Circuit is the highest court to weigh in on the question of whether bathroom restrictions constitute sex discrimination, and the decision could have widespread implications on how the courts interpret the issue as civil rights activists and local politicians battle over school bathrooms.

“The Department’s interpretation resolves ambiguity by providing that in the case of a transgender individual using a sex-segregated facility, the individual’s sex as male or female is to be generally determined by reference to the student’s gender identity,” the court wrote.

[…]

The decision’s legal implications are far broader than just Grimm’s case, as it could shape other court battles, including one in North Carolina, where a transgender university student and employee already have sued to overturn the new law there. Other judges outside the 4th Circuit, which includes North Carolina, could look to the court’s ruling in future legal fights because it is the highest court so far to weigh in on the legality of bathroom restrictions for transgender students.

The Obama administration has taken the position that such restrictions for students are a violation of Title IX, and officials in Washington have warned school districts that they risk losing federal funding if they fail to accommodate transgender students. Following a civil rights complaint, the U.S. Education Department found that an Illinois school district violated Title IX when it barred a transgender girl from a girls’ locker room.

But lower-court rulings have gone against the Obama administration’s position, including in Grimm’s case, when a district judge ruled that Title IX protects students from discrimination based on biological sex, not gender identity.

There are a lot of caveats to this story, beginning with this:

Judge Floyd’s opinion does contain some language that could create trouble for trans equality in the future, especially if a new president who opposes LGBT rights is elected. Though the Obama administration reads the regulation at issue in this case in a way that promotes trans rights, the regulation itself, Floyd writes, “is silent as to how a school should determine whether a transgender individual is a male or female for the purpose of access to sex-segregated restrooms.” Thus, his opinion concludes that “the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading— determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia—and the Department’s interpretation—determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity.”

For the time being, this conclusion that the regulation is ambiguous is good news for trans individuals seeking access to the appropriate restroom, because Supreme Court precedents also call on federal courts to defer to agencies in cases such as this one. As Floyd writes, the Supreme Court’s decision in Auer v. Robbins “requires that an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation be given controlling weight unless the interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation or statute.” Nevertheless, a new administration could rewrite the underlying regulation, if it chose to, and Floyd’s opinion does little to prevent such a rewrite from relegating trans students to a bathroom that does not correspond with their gender identity.

So long as Barack Obama — or a similarly-minded president — sits in the White House, however, Judge Floyd’s reasoning will protect trans students who are impacted by discriminatory policies governing which bathroom they may use. Floyd’s opinion was joined by Judge Andre Davis, also an Obama appointee. Judge Paul Niemeyer, a Bush I appointee, dissented from the relevant parts of Floyd’s opinion.

It’s one appellate court, and this ruling – which sent the original lawsuit back to district court – only affects states in the Fourth Circuit. Other appeals courts may rule differently, and of course this will eventually end up before SCOTUS, where who knows what will happen. So the future and the timeline are both uncertain, but the direction is right. If it acts as a deterrent to even one city or state that contemplates a similar bathroom ordinance or law, so much the better. Daily Kos has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

On drainage and flooding

Two items of interest from Gray Matters, both on the subject of the week. First, from Cynthia Hand Neely and Ed Browne of Residents Against Flooding:

Man-made, preventable flooding has surged dirty, sewage-ridden water through Houston living rooms three times now in seven years, yet city government fails to prevent these recurring emergencies.

Really? If losing homes, livelihoods, retirement savings, health and sanity (and at least one life) aren’t reasons enough to make emergency detention and drainage improvements, what in the world does it take?

Right now, too many real-estate developments do not detain storm water run-off from their new construction, and instead allow it to flow downstream into other neighborhoods, into people’s homes. This new development is responsible for unnecessary flooding of neighborhoods that previously weren’t flood plains, weren’t prone to flooding. That new development is also responsible for flood insurance rising 100 to 200 percent (before the Tax Day flood) in these non-flood plains.

City government is allowing this to happen. Developers use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do. Is it ethical to allow a new office building to flood an entire neighborhood even if a loophole makes it legal?

And two, from Bruce Nichols:

We can live without zoning. We’ve proved that. What we cannot live without, especially in a no-zoning environment, is sufficient regulation and administrative municipal clout to make sure commercial development is done in a way that doesn’t harm its neighbors.

Politicians and bureaucrats excuse themselves for repeated flooding, blaming flat terrain, tropical rain and semi-permeable soil. This amounts to hiding behind Mother Nature’s skirts in a city with a tradition of overcoming natural challenges — digging a ship channel to the Gulf, putting a man on the moon, building the Astrodome and finding oil in impossible places.

Commercial developers are able to summon the technical imagination and political will to get the water off their property. Why can’t the city — why can’t we — do more to keep developers from dumping their excess runoff into our homes?

While homeowners spend their time making a living and raising families, the city’s developers, engineers, contractors and their hired minions lobby — and fund campaigns — to keep city development rules weak. We need a leading developer to recognize his or her enlightened self-interest in protecting neighborhoods that house the people who shop and work in developer-built malls and office buildings.

There have been feints in the direction of improvement. Houston in recent years enacted rules that, to the casual reader, require developers to create detention basins to keep from flooding their neighbors. But there are loopholes that developer lawyers use to avoid doing so. They can cite previous development of a plot to get it “grandfathered,” exempting it from detention requirements.

These loopholes offends common sense. If we really want to master our special Gulf Coast environment and topography, if we really want to have meaningful flood prevention, we should require detention under all commercial developments and redevelopments, even if the plot were previously paved over completely.

Why is this essay more focused on detention than on bigger pipes and ditches, although we need them, too? It is because our bayou-based drainage system is overtaxed. The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Harris County Flood Control District say flow rates into Buffalo Bayou are maxed out. The bayou cannot accept runoff any faster than it already does. That doesn’t mean it can’t accept more water over time. It can. But detention is needed to slow the rate of discharge and allow more time for the bayou to drain.

I don’t agree with everything said in these two articles, but I’m sure we can all agree that this is a problem and it needs to be addressed right away. What I would add to this discussion is that it’s not just a Houston problem. It’s very much also a Harris County problem, because an awful lot of formerly permeable grasslands and prairie have been paved over and developed into houses, shopping malls, parking lots, and our ever-expanding toll road network. What used to be absorbed is now runoff, and like everything else it flows downriver, which is to say in the direction of our fair city. We can enforce all of Houston’s ordinances to the letter, and we’re still going to have a problem thanks to the last 20 or 30 years of growth and development. What are we going to do about that?

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Lone Star Rail: Not dead yet

Just a flesh wound, actually.

The decision by Union Pacific to end its working relationship with Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) in February, was a blow in efforts to develop a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin.

But in a special meeting Friday in San Marcos, district directors reaffirmed their commitment to find a solution to growing traffic congestion along the Interstate 35 corridor.

The district’s board of directors voted 12-1, and asked the organization to continue its current Environmental Impact Study process, and ensure that the process includes all alternative options.

[…]

LSRD board members, in a special meeting, went over the progress of the district’s environmental impact process and current list of options. The district did pause work on the alternative involving UP, and moved onto focusing on exploring other options.

Many board members said Union Pacific’s choice to stop working with Lone Star Rail was disappointing, but that they hoped the company would return. The completion of the impact study is crucial to the project, because it would enable future funding, including federal money. The district expects to finish the environmental impact process by 2018.

John Rinard, senior programs director at Parsons Corp., an international construction and engineering organization, told the board that Union Pacific has a history of taking part in large-scale transit projects elsewhere in the country only to step back or withdraw altogether. In some cases, UP would return to a project.

“What you’re experiencing is not unique in the business world,” Rinard said, adding that rail companies such as UP are often concerned about project factors such as liabilities.

[…]

Rinard suggested that the Lone Star board, which includes several elected city and county leaders from all along the I-35 corridor, assert its political will and press forward with its goal of passenger rail.

“I wouldn’t say stop,” he said. “I cannot see them walking away from the project permanently. It’s a fantastic project. It has all the good points.”

Other alternatives being evaluated by LSRD include using the State Highway 130 corridor, the abandoned MoKan rail alignment, and new right-of-way parallel to the Union Pacific mainline, as well as hybrids of these options.

See here for the background. I have no idea how badly UP’s pullout affects the long-term likelihood of this project, but it can’t be good. I have always believed the concept has merit, but if they can’t use existing tracks, the price tag may well be too high. We’ll see if the governments that had been involved in this so far remain on board or not. The Statesman and the Current have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

How you can help or get help in Houston

Via email from State Rep. Gene Wu:

I hope this email finds you safe after yesterday’s flooding. While we are seeing most of the high water receding from our neighborhoods, there is still a good deal of cleanup work to do today. Please stay safe as we anticipate even more rain throughout the day.

For those of you able to help your fellow Houstonians, you are always encouraged to donate to the Red Cross.

The Red Cross is also seeking volunteers who are available to commit 6-8 hours to assist at Houston-area shelters. There are different roles volunteers can play during a shelter operation:

  • provide immediate emergency services to individuals and families
  • greet families and provide comfort as they arrive.
  • provide meals, comfort kits, etc.
  • help oversee shelter operations.
  • entertain families.
  • assist in overnight security.

Other volunteer opportunities are available as well. To volunteer, contact the Red Cross at 713.313.5491.

Shelters in the Greater Houston area are located at:

Shelter                         Address
----------------------------------------------------
Chinese Community Center        9800 Town Park Drive
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Johnston Middle School          10410 Manhattan Dr.
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Willow Meadows Baptist Church   4300 W Bellfort Blvd
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MO Campbell Education Center    1865 Aldine Bender
----------------------------------------------------
Jersey Village Baptist Church   16518 Jersey Drive (Jersey Village)
----------------------------------------------------
South County Community Ctr      2235 Lake Robbins Rd. (Spring)
----------------------------------------------------
Pine Island Baptist Church      36573 Brumlow Road (Hempstead)
----------------------------------------------------
Knights of Columbus Hall        1390 Highway 90 W (Sealy)
----------------------------------------------------
First United Methodist Church   4308 W. Davis Street (Conroe)
----------------------------------------------------
Royal High School               2550 Durkin Road (Pattison)
----------------------------------------------------
East Montgomery County          21679 McClesky (New Caney)
Community Center
----------------------------------------------------

As a reminder, here are some helpful links and phone numbers in case they are needed:

 

Thanks and stay safe!

From Sen. Rodney Ellis:

As our community continues to deal with flooding, please keep in mind these important tips to stay safe:
  1. Follow evacuation orders and do not attempt to return until officials say it is safe to do so.
  2. Head for higher ground and stay there.
  3. Stay away from floodwaters. If you come upon a flowing stream where water is above your ankles, stop, turn around and go another way.
  4. Turn around, don’t drown. If driving, turn around and go another way. If you are caught on a flooded road and waters are rising rapidly around you, get out of the car quickly and move to higher ground. Most cars can be swept away by less than two feet of moving water.
  5. Keep children out of the water.
  6. Be especially cautious at night when it’s harder to see flood danger.
Area services
These services will help you as you begin to recover from the flood’s impact.
  1. Report flooding: the City of Houston Office of Emergency Management is asking any residents who experienced flooding inside their home or business to report it to the Houston 311 Help & Information Line by calling 311 orsubmitting the report online here.
  2. Legal assistance: the State Bar of Texas offers a legal hotline to help connect people with legal aid providers following disasters: 1-800-504-7030. Additional resources are available at texasbar.com/disasters and texaslawhelp.org.
  3. Abandoned car: if your car was towed during the flood, call 713-308-8580 or visit findmytowedcar.com to determine where it is currently located.
  4. No power or downed power lines: please report a power outage or downed power lines to CenterPoint Energy at 713-207-2222.
  5. Food: if you need food or water, please contact the Houston Food Bank at 832-369-9390.
  6. Free storage: U-Haul is offering 30 days of free storage and U-Box container usage to flood victims. Call one of the Houston offices for more details: U-Haul of East Houston 281-377-3380; U-Haul of West Houston 281-495-6683; U-Haul of Gulf Coast Texas 713-750-7701; U-Haul Storage Centers of Houston 281-531-4022

And from CM Greg Travis:

1. Report Flooding to 311:
Please report all flooding to 311. As you have no doubt heard, the ReBuild Houston program is “worst first,” meaning the areas with the greatest flooding will receive reconstruction prior to areas with less severe flooding. Self-reported 311 information is the main data point going into the SWEET (Storm Water Enhanced Evaluation Technique), which aids in prioritizing drainage projects. It is vitally important that everyone who experienced structural flooding (flooding inside their home or business) report it to 311.
There are four ways to make reports to 311:
Phone: 713-837-0311 (or 3-1-1)
Smartphone: download the mobile app from the site above (or from the Apple App site or the Google Play site) and use it to report matters directly to the City of Houston
If you are reporting flooding online please select “Traffic, Streets, and Drainage,” then select “Report Flooding” from the “Maintenance & Repairs” menu. If you experienced flooding on a prior date you did not report (for instance, May 2015 or October 2015), you may also use this same process to report the prior flooding event.
If you have pictures of the flooding you wish to submit, you may report flooding by email and attach pictures, or once you have received the service request number for your report, you may email 311 the number with your pictures and ask to have the pictures attached to your flooding report.
2. Flood Recovery Information:
For flood recovery information, please visit http://www.houstonemergency.org/go/doc/2263/2620898
Currently, this site only has flood recovery information from May 2015 and October 2015, but the city is in the process of updating the information. This site will contain information about flood mitigation assistance, hazard mitigation grants, repairing flood damage if you live in a floodplain, making a flood insurance claim, and other important information to get you and your family back on your feet.
3. City of Houston Trash Pick-Up:
There was no City of Houston trash pick-up yesterday due to the floods. For information regarding the pick-up schedule for the rest of the week, please visit http://www.houstontx.gov/solidwaste/press-04182016.html
If you have questions about City of Houston trash pick-up, please contact one of the following Solid Waste Department representatives during normal business hours:
Irma Reyes
Tyra Wilkins
4. Information Regarding Late Filing of Your Federal Income Tax Return:
Yesterday was the deadline to file your federal income tax return. If you were not able to file due to flooding, and you did not timely request an extension, you will find information to assist you here: https://www.irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/Houston-Area-Taxpayers-Affected-by-Severe-Weather-May-Qualify-for-Relief-from-Penalties-on-Late-Tax-Returns
5. Find your Towed Vehicle:
If you were forced to abandon your vehicle on a public roadway and it was towed, you will find information regarding the location of your towed vehicle here: http://findmytowedcar.com/tvrmscitizen/mainpage.aspx
6. Utility Outages:
CenterPoint Energy crews have been working since the storm began Sunday night to restore service to affected customers. Overall, an estimated 170,000 customers have been impacted with a peak of approximately 120,000. The most heavily impacted areas are Cypress, Greenspoint, Humble and Spring Branch. As of 2:30 p.m. yesterday, approximately 45,000 customers remain without power. CenterPoint will be bringing an additional 30 crews from neighboring utilities and their contractors to assist in the most heavily impacted areas.

CenterPoint crews are having difficulty making it through floodwaters, which is slowing power restoration efforts. Customers should be prepared for extended outages, particularly in some of the harder-hit areas. Estimates of when power will be restored will also be delayed.

Safety is CenterPoint Energy’s No. 1 priority, and the company has provided these important electric and natural gas safety tips:
Electric:
  • Stay away from downed power lines. Be especially mindful of downed lines that could be hidden in floodwaters, and treat all downed lines as if they are energized.
  •  If you experience flooding and water has risen above the electrical outlets in your home, contact a licensed electrician before turning on the main circuit breaker or trying to restore power.
  •  All electrical appliances and electronic equipment that have been submerged in water need to dry thoroughly for at least one week. Then, have them checked by a qualified repair person before turning them on. Attempting to repair a flood-damaged appliance could result in electrical shock or death. Attempting to restart it could result in further damage and costly repairs.
  •  If the outside unit of an air conditioning system has been under water, mud and water may have accumulated in the controls. Have the unit checked by a qualified air conditioning technician.
  Natural Gas:
  • Do not turn off your natural gas service at the meter; doing so could allow water to enter the natural gas lines.
  •  Be alert for the smell of natural gas. If you smell gas, leave the area immediately and tell others to leave, too.
  •  If you smell gas, do not turn the lights on or off, smoke, strike a match, use a cell phone or operate anything that might cause a spark, including a flashlight or a generator.
  • Do not attempt to turn natural gas valves on or off. Once safely away from the area, call 888-876-5786, and CenterPoint Energy will send a trained service technician.
  • If your home was flooded, call a licensed plumber or gas appliance technician to inspect your appliances and gas piping to make sure they are in good operating condition before calling CenterPoint Energy to reconnect service. This includes outdoor gas appliances including pool heaters, gas grills and gas lights.
  • Before conducting debris cleanup, or to locate underground natural gas lines and other underground utility lines before digging on property, call 811 – the nationwide Call Before You Dig number.
  • Be aware of where your natural gas meter is located. As debris is put out for heavy trash pickup, make sure it is placed away from the meter. In many areas the meter may be near the curb. If debris is near a gas meter, the mechanized equipment used by trash collectors could pull up the meter, damaging it and causing a potentially hazardous situation. If this happens, leave the area immediately and call CenterPoint Energy at 888-876-5786.
 For the latest information on power outages:
The District G office will provide additional information as it becomes available.  Above all, please stay safe.

See here and here for more from the Red Cross. There’s a reason why I don’t unsubscribe to the zillions of email lists I manage to get onto. Times of crisis are always good times to give blood as well – go to the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center to arrange for a donation. Remember that the general rule is that it’s better to give money to a charitable organization than stuff unless they are specifically asking for stuff. Don’t buy canned goods and bring them to the food bank. They can get those canned good more cheaply than you, so give them the money you would have spent.

HISD schools were closed yesterday but at last report were to be open today, while city and county offices reopened and Metro resumed service yesterday. Some other school districts remain closed. There’s still rain in the forecast through tomorrow though nothing like Monday, so there’s still a risk of flooding. Hopefully that won’t happen, but be prepared and stay off the roads as much as possible.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Why North Carolina and not Houston?

John Nova Lomax asks why Houston has not suffered the same backlash as North Carolina after the repeal of HERO last November.

HoustonUnites

In the aftermath of the repeal of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance in November, the bill’s proponents predicted dire economic consequences. Then-Mayor Annise Parker predicted a “direct, economic backlash” for the Bayou City. A #boycotthouston campaign erupted on Twitter. Greater Houston Partnership President Bob Harvey fretted about possible consequences for the city’s convention and tourism business, plus the future of corporate relocations. Some HERO supporters hoped that one or both of the organizers of the men’s 2016 Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl would choose to move those events in retaliation.

None of that has happened. To be sure, by the time the polls closed, it was probably too late for the NCAA or Roger Goodell to take such a drastic step. Yanking a Final Four or a Super Bowl from one city and dropping it the lap of another on such short notice is a recipe for logistical chaos and red ink. But thus far, Houston has suffered no other consequences—nothing, nada, zilch—thus emboldening the Houston anti-HERO leadership to lend both their support and their tactics to legislators in Mississippi and North Carolina.

Earlier this month, Dave Welch, president of the Texas Pastors Council, wrote an open letter to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant claiming that threats of economic consequences stemming from anti-HERO-type legislation were hollow:

As you know, the Final Four of the NCAA was just held in Houston and the radical LGBT movement’s threat to get this event, the Super Bowl, conferences and corporate bases out of Houston was shown to be a paper tiger and the raw use of intimidation. The churches and concerned citizens by the thousands refused to bow to the god of political correctness, the terrible ordinance was defeated overwhelmingly by the people and Houston continues to grow.

In other words, “We got away with it, and you can too.”

Or maybe not. At least not in North Carolina, where last month the state legislature enacted a law banning cities and counties from establishing their own anti-discriminatory policies based on gender identity, thus nullifying a recently-approved HERO-type ordinance in Charlotte and others elsewhere in the state.

[…]

The fact that HERO was defeated in a referendum rather than the legislature is one reason Houston has not been subjected to the same ire as North Carolina, according to Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, a group advocating LGBT equality on business grounds.

“In Georgia the business response was to prompt a veto from Nathan Deal,” she tells Texas Monthly. “There was a recourse. And in North Carolina there is pressure on the governor and the legislature to rethink and repeal, but in Houston, it wasn’t the decision of a governor, mayor or state legislature or city council. It was the voice of voters. And that’s a very different decision for businesses, having to punish voters.”

Southall believes that the Houston vote was an anomaly, one that took place in an odd “bubble in time” just a few months ago, when public awareness about transgender people—whose bathroom privileges formed the crux of the Houston vote—was still very low.

“We have all been going to the bathroom with transgender people this whole time and nothing has happened,” Southall says. “This is a solution in search of a problem. I think the calculation on their part was, ‘This is an easy wedge issue, because nobody’s gonna stand for transgender people. Nobody even knows a transgender person.’ And that’s turning out not to be true anymore.”

Netflix hit Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner, and Orange Is The New Black‘s Laverne Cox are all raising awareness about transgender issues, Southall believes, and the process is taking mere months rather than years. “People got to know gay people through popular culture,” she says. “Will & Grace mattered. Glee mattered. Maybe they didn’t know a gay person up to then, but then they start to know gay people in their lives and then that person is not the ‘other’ anymore, it’s my friend or my relative or whatever. And now that’s happening with transgender people too, and it’s happening so fast, I think people on both sides of the issue are surprised.”

Even so, the fact that Houston skated away from any kind of meaningful backlash is surprising. Residents of Charlotte are being punished because of the actions of their governor and state legislature, but the people of Houston are not being singled out for their own vote.

And where was the Houston business community on this score? Yes, pro-business groups like the Greater Houston Partnership (Houston’s chamber of commerce) spoke out in favor of HERO, but the actual components of Houston’s business community were silent in both the run-up to and the aftermath of HERO’s defeat.

Of the 26 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Bayou City, all but three are in oil and gas. That industry has thus far been content to maintain a stony silence on LGBT equality, at least in Texas. According to their web site, exactly none of the Houston-based O&G behemoths have signed on as Texas Competes supporters, though 34 Fortune 500 companies (and scores of smaller ones) have. Houston voters were neither advised how to vote by the CEOs of Phillips 66, Halliburton and Baker Hughes nor did those same captains of industry urge voters to reconsider or express regret after last year’s referendum.

Perhaps they feared a backlash from their customers or their employees. O&G is not known as the most socially liberal of fields. But neither is pro-sports, but that has not stood in the way of teams outside of Texas. Each of Atlanta’s four pro-sports teams urged Deal to veto the Georgia measure. That was not the case in Houston, where the Astros and Rockets made no statement on the vote, and Texans owner Bob McNair actually went the other way, for a time, at least, pledging (and then quickly rescinding) a $10,000 donation to opponents of HERO. Of the eight “Big Four” pro-sports teams in Texas, only the Dallas Mavericks are supporters of Texas Competes.

So there are two claims that Lomax examines, and two more that I can think of that I’ll discuss after those.

1. Lack of advocacy from the business community. Businesses have been heavily involved in the fight in North Carolina (and in Georgia, and in Mississippi), but were johnny-come-latelys in Houston. There’s been a lot of focus on the businesses that have canceled planned expansions or other future work, like the filming of a movie. Some of this, I think, is just fortunate timing: These projects had to be in the queue, but not so far along that canceling them would be logistically difficult or expensive. If there was anything like this in Houston similar to the PayPal and Deutsche Bank projects, I don’t know what they were. People here fixated mostly on the Super Bowl and Final Four, but these were never likely to be in doubt – they would have been prohibitively costly to relocate, and there was a serious risk that any substitute city could not provide the same level of experience. You will note that despite the calls to the NBA to take next year’s All Star Game out of Charlotte, they have declined to do so. Maybe if there had been a PayPal or a Deutsche Bank for Houston at the time, and a credible threat to not go through with it, things would be different.

2. The “bubble in time” theory, which says that Houston’s repeal occurred at a time when people hadn’t yet given much thought about transgender people or issues. There may be something to that, but remember that Houston was not the first city to repeal a civil rights ordinance, and like Houston those cities suffered no blowback. Again, something to this, and something to #1, but I think there are other reasons why Houston was different.

3. I believe a basic difference between North Carolina (and other states that have taken or come close to taking similar action) and Houston is that NC represents a step backwards, while Houston was a return to a previously existing status quo. It’s not a good status quo, of course – it’s one that absolutely needed changing, a long time ago – but it’s how things were as recently as 2014. North Carolina didn’t just undo Charlotte’s version of HERO. They took away the right of any other city to pass their own HERO, and they took away the remedy of suing in state court for any LGBT person who wanted to pursue a claim of discrimination, among other things. It was these extra, punitive steps, as well as the clear singling out of the LGBT community, that made what North Carolina did worse, at least in the public eye.

4. Elections matter. The biggest difference between Houston and North Carolina, in my opinion, was briefly touched on but not explored in Lomax’s article. HERO was repealed by a vote of the people. HERO’s supporters deplored this vote and the lies and hatred that led to it, but we accepted it as legitimate and moved on with a vow to try again, learn from our mistakes, and win the next fight. (Having the pro-HERO Mayoral candidate win the December runoff against his anti-HERO opponent probably helped mitigate things a little, too.) By contrast, North Carolina’s law was passed in a one-day special session of their legislature, called hastily after Charlotte passed its non-discrimination ordinance. There were no hearings or testimony on the bill – most legislators never even had a chance to see it before they voted on it – and in the end Democrats in North Carolina’s State Senate walked out on the vote to protest its non-legitimacy. The game was rigged from the beginning, and a part of the protest has been about the scurrilous way the law was passed, with the process being entirely about haste and avoiding scrutiny. The surprise of what happened in North Carolina, especially when no one had a chance to put up a fight about it, has magnified the pernicious and discriminatory effect of the law, and thus produced a louder and more visible outcry.

So yes, I do believe there were substantial differences between Houston’s HERO repeal and North Carolina’s broadside on LGBT equality, and that these differences contribute to why Houston escaped any significant loss of business post-HERO. I suspect that a part of Lomax’s point in this article is to suggest that Houston should have suffered more for repealing HERO, and on that I agree. I believe it’s clear that the lack of consequences to that vote have emboldened the bad guys and led to laws like those that were passed in North Carolina and Mississippi and vetoed in Georgia. Perhaps that will change now that we have seen what NC and MS have gone through, but don’t be too optimistic about that. I’m afraid the fight is once again just beginning.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

The DAPA arguments at SCOTUS

Hard to say how this will go.

A shorthanded Supreme Court heard a Texas-led challenge against President Barack Obama’s 2014 immigration plan Monday with sharp questions about whether the state could bring the case to begin with and if the president had overstepped.

The eight justices appeared largely divided with the four liberal justices asking questions that seemed to indicate it supported the president’s plan while the four conservative justices questioned the limits of his executive authority.

[…]

Chief Justice John Roberts is considered a contender to side with the four liberal judges in deciding that Texas isn’t able to bring the suit in the first place because it can’t prove it will suffer as a result of the program, necessary for it to sue in federal court.

Texas said it would lose money if it is required to provide driver’s licenses to the nearly 600,000 immigrants who would be eligible for a provisional work permit through the president’s plan. The state subsidizes the document by about $130.

But U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued Monday that Texas could simply change its policy and not offer these immigrants licenses or choose not to offset the cost of the documents.

Roberts, who has taken a narrow position on so-called standing in the past, noted that not granting licenses to certain immigrants with work authorization when others with a similar status have them could be considered discriminatory, putting Texas in a tough spot.

He asked Verrilli whether the injury Texas argues it might suffer is similar to a 2007 environmental case in which Massachusetts sued the Environmental Protection Agency about its refusal to regulate vehicle emissions linked to climate change.

“There wasn’t a way for Massachusetts to avoid the effects of climate change but there is a way here,” Verrilli said, because Texas isn’t required to discount the license.

Massachusetts had argued that rising seawater, a result of global warming, would erode its coastline and hurt the state, giving it sufficient claim to sue the federal government. The state prevailed but Roberts led the court’s conservative dissent, arguing Massachusetts could not prove it was hurt by the government’s policy.

Monday Justice Stephen Breyer noted that the state’s main argument that it would be harmed is that it would lose money.

“We can’t just let you sue on the basis that you as a taxpayer would pay more money,” he said. “Because if we do, taxpayers from all over the country would sue” about their unhappiness with any number of federal programs.

See here for more. TPM‘s report on the oral arguments sounded a pessimistic note for the feds, while Daily Kos and Think Progress were more buoyant. The key question seems to be whether the states have standing to sue. If SCOTUS rules that they don’t, then this is over and the program can be implemented immediately, though at this point it’s unclear how much effect it may have, given its uncertainty past November. If they do have standing, then the case goes back to the district court for a hearing on the merits (which won’t go well for the feds, given the original judge and his ruling to suspend the program), and nothing will get resolved for several years. That may also open the floodgates for other litigation like this. A 4-4 tie is a win for the plaintiffs, since the lower courts ruled in their favor. The Obama administration needs at least one conservative judge to buy into its arguments about standing. The Trib, SCOTUSBlog, Daily Kos, Think Progress, and Trail Blazers have more.

Posted in: La Migra, Legal matters.

Ghosts of Allison

I sure hope everyone made it through yesterday’s ferocious rain all right.

The storm that flooded the greater Houston area on Monday – drenching the region with the most rain since Tropical Storm Allison dumped more than 24 inches in June 2001 – packed a mighty punch in mere hours.

Some areas saw as much as 4 inches of rain fall in an hour Monday morning. Unfortunately for some motorists, the heaviest downpours occurred between 6 and 7 a.m., just as they had started their commute to work.

Parts of Harris and Waller counties to the west of Houston were swamped with as much as 18 inches. For that section of Harris County, and much of central Waller County, the rainfall totals matched those expected during a one-in-200-year rain event, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Totals were much lower for eastern Harris County, where fewer than 4 inches of rain fell in some locations.

Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, said between Sunday night and mid-afternoon on Monday, an average of 7.75 inches of rain fell in neighborhoods across the county. That’s the equivalent of 240 billion gallons of water.

“The big problem with this storm was the volume of rain it produced in such a short amount of time,” said Don Oettinger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office.

[…]

As the heavy rainfall moved out of the Houston region on Monday afternoon the question became: what comes next? Fortunately, drier air contributed to a quiet Monday evening, in terms of rain showers.

Unfortunately, the greater Houston region is not done with the potential for heavy rainfall this week, as moisture will continue flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico to recharge the atmosphere, and the atmospheric instability that led to Sunday night’s and Monday’s downpours isn’t going away entirely. However, another gargantuan, slow-moving system that Houston just experienced seems unlikely.

The National Weather Service forecast for the Houston region calls for additional showers and thunderstorms over the next three days, with accumulations of perhaps 1 to 4 inches more rain between Monday night and early Friday.

It is possible there will be higher levels in certain areas. Meteorologists say Wednesday is the day when the region could see the most organized rain showers.

HISD schools are closed again today. Some parts of town experienced terrible flooding yesterday, and they are in danger of further damage today and tomorrow. I haven’t seen any information about what to do to help those who have been affected. If and when I do, I’ll post something about it. In the meantime, stay safe, and for God’s sake heed all warnings about high water on the roads. The Press has more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Get Me goes to Galveston

Swooping in to fill the gap left by Uber’s departure.

Galveston is close to getting app-based transportation back.

Get Me, a Dallas-based company that started serving Houston in October, has submitted an application with Galveston to provide ride services on the island, city spokeswoman Kala McCain said Monday.

Galveston has not had any competition to cabs since Uber – the most popular ride-hailing service – left the city over its decision in February to regulate the company exactly as it does taxi firms. The loss of Uber was predicted to mostly hit tourists, especially the cruise lines.

Get Me, which provides both ride and delivery services via smartphone app, has started Galveston’s application process, McCain said. Licensing is a multi-step process that includes providing detailed insurance and licensing information.

“It is my understanding everything is going well,” McCain said, saying the company could be operating in a matter of a few weeks.

Get Me is a new entrant on the scene, operating in a handful of places so far. Galveston was recently dumped by Uber, so this is an opportunity for them to come in and have this market to themselves. They have said that they will comply with municipal ordinances that mandate fingerprinting as part of the background check process for drivers, so that opportunity for them is potentially lucrative, especially if Austin rejects that referendum to repeal its ordinance. Has anyone used Get Me? I’m curious what you think, in particular how the experience compares with Uber and Lyft.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Interview with Jerome Moore

Jerome Moore

Jerome Moore

As we know, everyone is focusing on the Presidential race, but here in Harris County there are some races of great local importance. You can order them however you like, but the Sheriff’s race is certainly up there. I had the opportunity to talk to two of the original four candidates in this race for March, and now I’ve caught up with the one of the other two that made it to the runoff. Jerome Moore is a longtime veteran of law enforcement, starting out in the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s office before moving to the Constable’s office in Precinct 5. He has worked in Patrol and Property & Evidence and is currently a Lieutenant who supervises the Motorcycle, Warrants and Property & Evidence Divisions. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates from the 2016 Democratic primary on my 2016 Election page.

Posted in: Election 2016.

DAPA’s day at SCOTUS

Another day, another huge Supreme Court case involving Texas, a big policy item from President Obama at stake, and the fate of millions of people hanging in the balance.

The Supreme Court on Monday will hear the matter, one of its most significant this term, and a decision could be the most important related to immigration in decades. At stake is the extent of power the executive branch can wield and the fate of about 4 million immigrants potentially eligible for the program, most of whom have lived here illegally for more than 10 years.

It’s put Texas in the peculiar position of arguing against an initiative that essentially already exists and that as a policy once held bipartisan support. If the state prevails, it could signal the end of Obama’s original youth permit program too. It all underscores how far the pendulum against immigration reform has swung since President George W. Bush pushed a comprehensive overhaul nearly a decade ago.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the state’s lawsuit is not about immigration per se but whether the president has the authority to make a sweeping policy change that Texas argues is at odds with Obama’s obligation to enforce immigration law.

“This is fundamentally about the constitution and the future of this country, not just about immigration law or a Democratic president but about what can a president, no matter what his or her philosophy is, do,” Paxton said. “Do they have the ability now under the constitution to make law and step into the role Congress traditionally had?”

The Obama administration argues that it’s not in fact making new law, but prioritizing whom it should deport as mandated by Congress itself. Legislators allocate about $6 billion a year to enforce immigration, enough to deport roughly 300,000 immigrants, a fraction of the 11 million in the country illegally, Justice Department lawyers said in their brief filed last month with the Supreme Court.

At issue in both programs – deferred action for childhood arrivals, known as DACA, and deferred action for the parents of Americans, or DAPA – is a practice the government has employed as far back as the 1960s. But it was first publicly revealed when the Nixon White House tried to deport Beatles frontman John Lennon in 1972.

[…]

Texas doesn’t dispute the administration’s right to grant deferred action. But it contends the president’s programs allow a mass group of immigrants to apply, who are almost all approved. Typically deferral is granted on a case-by-case basis for people already in deportation proceedings. The state argues the initiatives improperly grant immigrants a “lawful presence,” while the administration contends the permits can be repealed at any time and their recipients deported.

In its brief, the government said more than 20 such policies for large classes of people have been enacted since the 1960s, including for Cubans after the island’s revolution and more than 1.5 million spouses and children of immigrants who were granted residency under President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 reforms. It also cites its 2012 youth program, which is similar in scope, but was not challenged by Texas.

Paxton said he didn’t know why the state didn’t argue the constitutionality of DACA.

It’s an interesting exclusion, given that the legal arguments for both DACA and its 2014 spin-off for parents, DAPA, are basically identical, said Stephen Legomsky, a law professor at Washington University and former chief counsel to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s hard for me to think of any ground striking DAPA that wouldn’t apply to DACA,” he said. “So why not challenge DACA? They might have worried the court wouldn’t want to strike down such a popular program. So they think go after DAPA and if they win, then they have a nice precedent to go after DACA.”

See here and here for some background. There will be a ton of coverage of the arguments and the Justices’ reactions to them and all that, and I’ll post about that tomorrow. This is just a placeholder to remind you that today is the day for this, and what it’s all about as we wait.

UPDATE: The Trib has a nice comprehensive timeline of events in this case.

Posted in: La Migra, Legal matters.

Weekend scandal news roundup

If anything comes from the Texas Rangers investigation into his questionable expenditures, Ag Commissioner Sid Miller would be prosecuted in Travis County.

Sid Miller

If embattled Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is prosecuted for misusing government funds, his trial would be in Travis County, officials said Friday, despite a new law that sends some corruption cases against state officials and employees to their home counties.

Before December, the public integrity unit in the Travis County district attorney’s office investigated and prosecuted alleged corruption by state officials and employees. House Bill 1690 changed that, moving investigation of accusations such as bribery, gifts to public servants, perjury and tampering with government records to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Under the new law, charges can be brought in the official or employee’s home county.

The Rangers are investigating Miller for two February 2015 trips he reportedly took on the state’s dime. Liberal advocacy group Progress Texas requested an investigation into Miller’s state-paid trips, following reports that he participated in a rodeo and received an injection called the “Jesus Shot” while he was supposed to be on the job.

But if Miller’s case leads to a prosecution, it wouldn’t be heard in his home county of Erath because the events in question occurred before the new law took effect in December, officials from DPS and the Travis County district attorney’s office told the Tribune.

See here for an apparently inoperative discussion of the issue. I’m sure Miller would prefer it that way, since it will be much easier for him to complain about political motivations if it’s the Travis County DA and not the Erath County DA prosecuting him.

In the meantime, the Travis County DA already has an investigation going on.

The Texas state auditor’s office has referred its investigation into possible misuse of state workers by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes to Travis County prosecutors, the Austin American-Statesman reported late Friday.

The Texas Tribune reported in February that the auditor’s office was investigating Dukes’ use of state workers for her personal project, the African American Heritage Festival, a nonprofit event Dukes has overseen for 17 years.

The auditor’s investigation was prompted by complaints from Dukes’ former chief of staff, Michael French, who approached House officials in January with concerns about the legality of the staff’s work on the festival.

Dukes acknowledged her staff worked on the festival but said their role was minimal. A Jan. 12 email obtained by the Tribune shows Dukes directing her staff to make the festival a priority.

“Festival is all hands on priority,” Dukes wrote in the email. “I don’t want any delays or fall throughs.”

Two members of Dukes’ staff also expressed concerns over personal errands the lawmakers asked them to run, a list that included smoothie runs, vet visits and babysitting. One staffer moved in with Dukes for three months last summer in exchange for helping the Austin Democrat care for her daughter.

Something to keep in mind amid all the calls for Ken Paxton and Sid Miller to resign. Want another reason to be wary of such an outcome? Here you go.

Texas doesn’t have a cabinet form of government, but in Gov. Greg Abbott’s case, it might soon have the next best thing.

Two of the state’s relatively new elected officials — Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — are in deep political trouble at the moment. If worst comes to worst for either or both of those fine gentlemen, Abbott would appoint their replacements.

That’s a lot more say than he had when they won the positions in 2014.

Yeah, I don’t want that. From a purely partisan perspective, it’s much better for Paxton and Miller to stay where they are and be embarrassments to the rest of the GOP than to let Greg Abbott swoop in and clean up the mess.

And finally, let’s get back to Ken Paxton for a minute.

The state is paying thousands of dollars in salaries and benefits to at least two former high-level staffers in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who haven’t worked there for over a month.

Charles “Chip” Roy resigned as first assistant attorney general March 9 but remains on the state’s payroll. He received his full month’s salary of $16,220.62 on April 1, according to the state comptroller, and remains on the payroll as an employee of the state even while working a new job for a national political committee.

Roy declined to comment about the payment arrangement, which the agency confirmed Wednesday after The Dallas Morning News raised questions. Despite its earlier public statement that Roy resigned, an agency spokeswoman said Thursday that he’s also on “emergency leave.”

“Roy resigned on March 9th. He is currently on emergency leave through June 10th,” spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said late Thursday.

If Roy’s arrangement continues until then, he will make $48,660 for the three months of emergency leave.

The agency at first offered no further explanation of the reason for the leave. When asked to clarify the emergency, Meyer said: “I’m not sure the answer.”

Texas’ “emergency leave” law says a state employee who has experienced a death in the family can take time off without seeing his or her pay cut. Agency heads also can approve other reasons for emergency leave if the employee “shows good case to take emergency leave.”

Employment law prohibits state workers from pulling down full-time salaries if they don’t work at least 40 hours a week for a public entity. There is no severance for workers who leave state employment, and the law that gives agency heads discretion in granting administrative leave also caps such time at 32 hours per year.

Austin-based campaign finance and ethics attorney Buck Wood questioned the arrangement.

“So, the emergency wasn’t so great that this person can’t work, or has any problems working? They just want to give her or him the money,” said Wood, who was not told the name of the individual or the agency in question. “This person obviously didn’t provide ‘good cause’ because they’re working. They’re just feeding you a line.”

So what was the emergency? Chip Roy needed health insurance.

Former First Assistant Attorney General Chip Roy on Friday defended receiving thousands of dollars in salary and benefits after leaving the attorney general’s office to join a pro-Ted Cruz super PAC.

[…]

Roy’s statement indicates that he will receive much less than that because he took the leave option partly for medical reasons that were resolved Thursday.

“The terms of my resignation included from the OAG [office of the attorney general] an option for leave beyond my earned vacation and holiday time,” Roy said in the statement. “The primary benefit to me would have been healthcare coverage in light of being in the five-year window after Stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma. My plan has been to go off payroll at OAG using only my earned vacation and holiday time unless it were absolutely necessary to stay on pending the uncertainty of medical tests and subsequent employment. Yesterday I was blessed to receive an all-clear from my Oncologist and my complete departure from the OAG is effective at the time of the expiration of only earned vacation and holiday time.”

So a former top lieutenant of the Texas Attorney General’s office is worried about not having health insurance. Let that sink in for a minute. Then go read what Lize Burr has to say.

Let me put it this way:

Chip Roy was given the option to keep his state-paid health insurance past the normal point of his compensation because he was facing health uncertainty.

Now we come to the genuinely important news this week from the Center for Public Policy Priorities. It’s very simple and completely awful: 1.7 million Texas children live in poverty. 1.7 million children. That means 1.7 million children being raised by adults living in poverty. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, guardians. All in poverty.

And what is one of the greatest threats facing Texas families living in poverty? The cost of health care. Not just the kids’ health care–the parents’ health care. Texas has both the highest number and rate of adults with no medical insurance. These Texans live with an uncertainty that borders on a form of terror. And that is fear is shared by everyone in the home.

Chip Roy probably understands that fear. It’s probably the reason his employer was willing to place him on a special type of leave that continued his state-paid insurance while he was facing health unknowns. That was a humane act that I can understand. However, for a Republican office holder who is committed to the overturning the ACA and is against Medicaid expansion for low income Texas–the rejection of which costs the state of Texas $6 billion in uncompensated care a year–making that gesture isn’t a sign of compassion. It’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

I can’t say it any better than that.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Supreme Court dismisses effort to dissolve state’s first same-sex marriage

I could be wrong, but I believe this closes the books on all the same-sex marriage litigation from last year.

RedEquality

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday tossed out Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to undo the union of the first gay couple to legally wed in Texas. The court-ordered same-sex marriage of two Austin women had occurred months before such unions were legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark June ruling that same-sex marriage is protected by the U.S. Constitution, the state’s highest civil court dismissed Paxton’s request as moot.

The case dates back to February 2015 when Austin residents Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant were legally wed after obtaining a marriage license from the Travis County clerk under direction from state District Judge David Wahlberg.

At the time, Texas’ constitutional ban on marriage was still in effect. But Wahlberg ordered Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to issue the license under special circumstances because Goodfriend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year earlier. Wahlberg ordered the county to “cease and desist relying on the unconstitutional Texas prohibitions against same-sex marriage.”

Although Wahlberg’s court order was specific to the Austin couple, Paxton challenged the marriage before the Texas Supreme Court, which later blocked Wahlberg’s ruling to prevent other same sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses. A day after the couple wed, Paxton asked the court to overturn the order and void the marriage license to “avoid the legal chaos” that could arise.

See here and here for the background. Paxton had dropped his appeal of a similar case in July, after the Obergfell ruling; I had thought at the time that he’s also drop this one, but clearly he did not. Three of the Supreme Court justices were critical of the judge who granted the license and of the attorney who represented the plaintiffs, and I can see where they’re coming from on that, but in the end that didn’t matter. The marriage is valid, as it should be and should have been, and this is now a settled question. There are still plenty of battles to wage, but we can cross this one off the list.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Weekend link dump for April 17

That Amazon Galaxy Quest project will sadly not be happening in part due to the death of Alan Rickman.

A richly deserved honor for Sonia Manzano.

I do love a good Joel Kotkin takedown, yes I do.

What’s at stake in Texas’ lawsuit against the Obama immigration order, which will be heard by the Supreme Court tomorrow.

“A brown goat with a white marking that bears a striking resemblance to one of NASCAR’s most famous car numbers will have a permanent home at Texas Motor Speedway.”

“What might it mean to have five justices on the Supreme Court who were appointed by Democratic presidents?”

Begun, your training has.

“Born in 1982, my childhood was filled with more biblical prophecy than Sesame Street good times. The urgency of avoiding hell surpassed any trivial education the world had to offer. After all, if you’re staring down the barrel of eternal torment, who has the time for algebra?”

Know your Panama Papers people.

“How many trans people have been arrested for sex acts in bathrooms? As best as we can tell, zero. How many GOP politicians? At least three.”

“Since 1977, there have been 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 185 arsons, and thousands more incidents of criminal behavior directed at abortion providers, according to NAF’s press release.”

Same sex couples do just fine as parents.

What Martin Longman says.

My dog can just about climb a tree when he’s chasing squirrels, so I can totally believe that a Great Dane could tree himself if he got a good running start.

Now that hurts.

Good for you, Stan Van Gundy.

Those ubiquitous anti-microbial soaps aren’t such a good idea.

“There is no substantive-due-process right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship.”

Nobody likes Ted Cruz, no matter what his wife may say.

“This is the worst argument about the national debt you’ll ever find”.

“The NCAA constantly punishes athletic departments that show a lack of institutional control over sports programs and athletes. So it would seem that the NCAA should really be checking out head coach Art Briles and the Baylor football program, because if anything speaks of an institutional lack of control over an athletic program, it’s got to be a football program thats seems to implicitly condone criminal sexual misconduct.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Turner announces his budget

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Utilizing a shared sacrifice approach, Mayor Sylvester Turner today unveiled a proposed Fiscal Year 2017 General Fund budget that eliminates a projected $160 million shortfall that was the result of cost increases, voter imposed revenue limitations, a broken appraisal system and the economic downturn. The budget totals $2.3 billion, which is about $82 million less in spending than the current FY2016 appropriation. The decrease was accomplished while still meeting $60 million of contractual and mandated cost increases the City is forced to cover in FY2017. The mayor is unveiling his preliminary budget plan more than a month ahead of the normal schedule and has requested accelerated City Council approval in an effort to send a positive message regarding City budget management.

“This was the largest fiscal challenge the City has faced since before the Great Recession,” said Mayor Turner. “By bringing all parties to the table to engage in shared sacrifice, we have closed the budget gap and started addressing the long-standing structural imbalance between available revenues and spending. Each City department, the employee unions, the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, City Council and various other parties have worked together to identify cost savings and efficiencies while preserving a healthy fund balance, minimizing employee layoffs and maintaining the City services our residents rely on and deserve.”

Due to an arrangement negotiated by the mayor, the City’s tax increment reinvestment zones will send $19.6 million back to the City to help cover increased operating costs citywide. The rest of the budget gap was closed utilizing a combination of savings from debt restructuring, spending reductions, revenue from anticipated land sales and a small contribution from the City’s fund balance. Even with this fund balance contribution, the City’s savings account will remain well above the threshold necessary to satisfy the credit rating agencies.

The budget includes the elimination of 54 vacant positions and 30 to 40 layoffs, most of which the mayor hopes to accomplish through attrition. There are no significant reductions to park and library operations, which have been hit hard in the past and there will be no layoffs of police officers or fire fighters. There is funding included for an additional police cadet class, for a total of five classes and the mayor continues to look for ways to streamline operations to get more officers back on the street.

The budget was balanced using both recurring and non-recurring initiatives. If non-recurring items had been taken off the table, there would have been drastic cuts in City services and another 1,235 City employees would have lost their jobs.

The recurring initiatives mark the start of institutionalizing a new way of running City government. The elimination of redundancies and increased efficiency in operations has generated $36.2 million in recurring annual savings. In addition, the TIRZs will continue to contribute at least $19.6 million in subsequent years. Yet to come is a new approach for the City’s pension liabilities. Productive discussions are underway with stakeholders and I am committed to having an agreement ready to take to the legislature by the end of this year.

“I strongly urge City Council to resist the urge to tinker with this budget,” said Turner. “Even one small change will upset the delicate balance we’ve achieved as a result of shared sacrifice and put the City at risk for a credit rating downgrade. This plan prepares us for the additional fiscal challenges anticipated in FY18 while also improving public safety, increasing employment opportunities and meeting the critical needs of the less fortunate in our city.”

City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 25, 2016, nearly a month ahead of last year. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2016.

Details are here, and the Chron story on the budget is here. I confess, I’ve only scanned the details so far – sorry, but it was a long week, and it’s been a busy weekend. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss the details between now and May 25. Have a look for yourself and feel free to tell us what you think.

Posted in: Local politics.

UberACCESS debuts in Houston

Good to see.

Uber

A partnership that has helped disabled people connect with a popular ride service launched in Houston at midnight.

Uber officials confirmed UberACCESS, which offers wheelchair-accessible rides for the same price as UberX, began service Wednesday. Like all Uber service, it is available via smartphone app, 24 hours a day.

“I’m thrilled to see Uber applying the same creative ingenuity to provide more consumer choices and opportunities for Houstonians with accessibility needs,” former California Congressman Tony Coelho, co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said in a statement. “UberACCESS will empower people requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles to get a ride when they need one by simply pressing a button.”

The service fulfills a goal of the city’s transportation accessibility task force that helped write regulations related to allowing Uber to operate legally in Houston. As part of its suggestions, the task force allowed taxi companies and app-based companies a choice of having a set number of vehicles that were wheelchair accessible or provide service to disabled residents based on how quickly they could provide a ride.

Toby Cole, who led the accessibility committee, said the goal of both options is improved quality of service for those who are blind, wheelchair-dependent or otherwise in need of assistance.

“I am hopeful,” Cole said of the rules leading to better service. “We tried to close down as many loopholes as possible.”

[…]

In other markets where UberACCESS has debuted, the company has partnered with other firms capable of providing rides to wheelchair-bound riders. Company officials would not disclose the name of the Houston area partner.

See here for the background. The story emphasizes that the regulations for UberACCESS were agreed to by Uber and the cab companies, in addition to the disability activists. One hopes that means this will work well for everyone, and will provide a decent, cost-effective option for a greater population. If it does work as hoped, then it ought to attract the attention of Metro, since like many other transit agencies around the country it has had to deal with an increasing budget for its MetroLift service, and needs to seek less expensive alternatives to provide that.

Several U.S. transit systems looking to defray costs of providing services for the disabled are weighing partnerships with Uber and Lyft, unsettling some advocates who note that ride-hailing services have themselves faced criticism over accessibility.

Paratransit, better known under names like “The Ride,” ”Access-a-Ride,” or “Dial-a-Ride,” is required under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. But the costs, which include door-to-door pickup and drop-off, can be steep.

The average cost of operating a single paratransit trip is about $23 in the U.S., compared with less than $4 for the average trip on bus or light rail. In Boston, the average cost per ride is about $45, in Washington, about $50, and in New York, nearly $57, officials said.

Transit agencies nationwide logged about 223 million paratransit trips at a cost exceeding $5.1 billion — about 12 percent of total transit operating costs — in 2013, according to the most recent data from the American Public Transportation Association. The price tag is particularly high in major cities, where agencies struggle with regular service and maintenance.

[…]

A potential incentive for riders: Uber or Lyft can be summoned immediately with an app; trips on MBTA vehicles must be scheduled a day ahead.

“My guess is it will be very appealing to people who need to go shorter distances where the fares are under $15 and they can get an on-demand ride as opposed to booking 24 hours in advance,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the agency’s chief administrator.

But convenience comes with a catch.

With a limited number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, the ride-hailing services would be available largely to people who can walk. And while a majority of individuals certified to use paratransit fit that bill, advocates worry about creating an unfair and possibly even illegal two-tiered system for the disabled — one serving people who can walk, the other those whose needs the private vehicles can’t accommodate.

“We don’t want racial segregation, and we also don’t want disability segregation,” said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst for the California-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.

Uber and Lyft have both cited efforts to improve offerings for disabled riders. But the services have argued they are technology, not transportation, companies, meaning they are not required to provide accessible vehicles. Advocates for the disabled have filed a handful of lawsuits.

Again, if the service works as designed in Houston, then perhaps that can serve as a model elsewhere. The first indicator will be if Metro gets in on it. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Here come the drones

Look! Up in the sky!

Companies in Austin and Addison on Wednesday became the first two firms to become officially credentialed to operate unmanned aircraft systems under a new training and safety program that officials said promises to boost Texas’ place in the emerging drone market.

At a statewide conference hosted by the Texas A&M University System’s Corpus Christi campus and its engineering extension service, officials presented HUVRdata, of Austin, and Aviation Unmanned, of Addison, with their certificates, among the first granted in the nation since the Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules governing the use of drones.

The new program, though voluntary, provides a way for drone operators who register with the Federal Aviation Administration to become certified in safety and operational procedures, a step advocates say will be key to expanding the commercial applications of low-level unmanned aircraft without endangering commercial air traffic or clogging airspace since drone use mushroomed in recent years.

Under current FAA rules, “it’s like getting a tag for your car but not having to get a driver’s license,” said Joe Henry, director of outreach and commercialization at the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence and Innovation, which is part of new program. “This certification is the driver’s license.”

“Through this credentialing program that will ensure the safety of operations for unmanned aircraft systems, Texas is in a position to be a leader in this emerging industry,” he said.

With the new credentials, which the A&M center and similar programs in five other states have been approved to grant, conference officials said operations safety can be assured, a step that will allow the drone industry to grow as more companies find ways to utilize the technology, and perhaps slow a surge of new state laws aimed at privacy and safety issues.

[…]

In Texas, drones already are used by the wind-power, oil and gas and transportation industries to provide aerial inspections and mapping, and for port and border security and coastline monitoring. As a business hub for many of those concerns, as well as home to the NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which is developing unmanned craft to explore Mars, Houston stands to be a center for the growing industry.

“If you have a public company that’s trying to integrate this new technology into their operations, they want to make sure that whomever they hire to do that work is qualified to it properly and safely,” said Bob Baughman, CEO and founder of HUVRdata. “This credentialing program is important because it’s an industry partnership with the FAA to make sure that operators know the FAA rules, know how to safely operate their UAS, and so companies know who is certified and qualified when they hire them. As this technology develops, as UAS isused more, credentialing will become even more important.”

Drones have also been used by, among other things, environmental scientists to track bird habitats and invasive species, and S&R groups like Texas EquuSearch, which had to fight for their right to employ them. They’re employed for movie and TV filming as well, as the Mythbusters can attest. The drone has flown, so it’s a matter of how we regulate them now. I won’t be surprised to see this issue come up in the 2017 Legislature.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

I now pronounce you man and machine

Yeah, no.

Chris Sevier says he’s being denied his right to marry – his computer.

The persistent Tennessee lawyer – who has carried his challenge to same-sex marriage to courthouses across the nation – has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Houston saying he and his 2011 MacBook were rejected for a marriage license in Harris County.

He is suing the Harris County District Clerk, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, saying his 14th Amendment right to marry is being denied. Sevier has filed similar challenges for the right to marry a machine in Tennessee and Utah.

Paxton’s office, however, is asking U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett to hit the delete button on the lawsuit.

His office filed court papers asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell decision in June allowing same-sex marriage does not extend to man and machine.

“The right to marry one’s computer is not an interest, objectively, deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition such that it qualifies as a protected interest,” Paxton’s brief argued.

You will, I’m sure, be shocked to learn that the plaintiff is an activist who believes that same-sex marriage has “hijacked the Constitution”, whatever that means. I had thought it would be impossible to make an argument against same-sex marriage that is stupider than the “man on dog” and box turtle claims of the recent past, but clearly I was wrong.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Saturday video break: Inside Out

From their second album, which was of course called “Volume 3”, the Traveling Wilburys:

Not bad, and a treat to see George Harrison again. They just weren’t quite as good without Roy Orbison, though.

And for a completely different song with the same name, here’s Phil Collins from his third album, which was not called “Volume 2”:

Collins went in a different direction stylistically with “No Jacket Required”, a direction that his subsequent work with Genesis emulated, but it still holds up all these years later. And who knew he played the piano? Nice live rendition of this song – not everything from the synth era translated well to the stage, but Collins managed it nicely.

Posted in: Music.

It’s a conspiracy!

Oh, noes! Planned Parenthood is in cahoots with the Harris County DA! Run for your lives!

The anti-abortion activist accused of falsifying records to secretly videotape Planned Parenthood officials in Houston is accusing the Harris County district attorney’s office of illegally colluding with the nonprofit.

The allegations were raised in court documents filed Thursday seeking to dismiss the charge against David Robert Daleiden, of Davis, Calif.

[…]

On Thursday, his attorneys filed motions to quash the indictments, saying the Harris County grand jury that handed down the indictments was not properly empaneled.

“The DA’s office has chosen to wage a war on the pro-life movement,” said attorney Jared Woodfill. “We believe there is clear evidence of Planned Parenthood actually colluding with and pushing the District Attorney’s office to move forward with these indictments.”

At a press conference on the courthouse steps that Daleiden did not attend, Woodfill and attorney Terry Yates said the indictments are “fatally flawed.”

The motions filed to quash the felony charge is here, and for the misdemeanor charge is here. I’ve read through the first one, and with the usual reminder that I Am Not A Lawyer, it looks to me like the bulk of the issue being taken is with the grand jury being held over:

The investigation of Planned Parenthood was brought before the 232nd grand jury [in] September [of 2015].

However, at the close of the 2015 term, no action had been taken in the investigation of Planned Parenthood. A grand jury “hold over” order was drafted by the Harris County District Attorney’s office and presented to the 232rd Court for entry on December 16, 2015. (Exhibit “B”). However, in that order, the prosecutor failed to specifically state or articulate any specific individual or case that the grand jury was holding over to investigate. The order recites boilerplate language set forth in Section 19.07 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure; however, due to the lack of specificity required the order is deficient.

From there, they complain that evidence from the grand jury hearings was provided to lawyers for Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation, including video evidence that was supposed to be covered by a temporary restraining order, and that Daleiden’s lawyers were never notified that he had become a target of the investigation. They cite various mainstream media accounts published after Daleiden and Merritt were indicted as evidence of this.

I’ll leave it to the attorneys in attendance to comment on the claims made by Woodfill and Yates. My layman’s impression is that hold over grand juries are fairly routine – whether they need specific instructions about who or what is being investigated is not something I know – and as for the alleged collusion, I kind of have a hard time believing the lawyers involved, including the assistant DAs, would be that stupid if this was indeed something shady. I would also note that Tamara Tabo, who unlike me is a lawyer and who also unlike me opposes abortion, believes it is clear that Daleiden did indeed break the law. Which doesn’t mean that the indictments weren’t compromised and won’t be tossed, but it is worth keeping in mind. Woodfill and Yates aren’t arguing Daleiden isn’t guilty of anything, they’re arguing the process went bad. I can’t wait to see what the judge makes of this. The Trib, which supplied the defendant’s motions, and the Press have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

HPD rolls out its body cameras

The first wave has been deployed.

The Houston Police Department handed out Thursday the first wave of 4,100 body cameras being distributed to all first-line officers over the next 12 to 18 months, initiating a new policy that will require officers to wear the cameras for all law-enforcement related activities.

About 200 officers – those on duty at Central Patrol – received their body cameras Thursday. Mayor Sylvester Turner joined Acting Police Chief Martha I. Montalvo, District Attorney Devon Anderson and several city council members at a press conference at Central Patrol to announce the new policy.

[…]

Under the plan, officers are required to wear the camera on their chest, so it is clearly visible to anyone interacting with law enforcement. They’re expected, according to HPD’s policy, to keep the devices in standby mode and then to activate them before arriving at any call, initiating a traffic stop, detaining or arresting someone, conducting a search, interviewing witnesses, or engaging in a pursuit, among other interactions. Officers are not permitted to turn the cameras on and off at their own discretion.

The footage will be downloaded and stored on a server at the station and transferred to a disaster recovery site. Video involving an incident classified as Class B or above will be retained for 10 years, or until the statute of limitations expires. For some crimes, including homicides, the statute never expires.

Class C traffic violations will see footage stored for one year. Informational cases, in which an officer interacts with a citizen but no crime is committed, will have footage stored for 180 days.

Right now, only first-line officers are receiving cameras, though the department hopes to extend the policy to officers in Investigations after the full rollout, Skillern said. Officers in the traffic enforcement division, who have a high volume of interactions with citizens, will receive cameras next. Then, it’s southeast patrol, followed by a different patrol group each month. The staggered distribution is meant to handle any training and technical issues.

Questions still remain about how the camera data will be stored and how it will be accessed. No one questions the utility of these things, though. Let’s see what they can do, and let’s make sure that any questions that arise get answered in a way that promotes transparency. The Press has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Meet the toucan light

The first of its kind in Houston, though maybe not the last.

Not that kind of toucan

The new traffic signal suspended above Appel at Yale and Seventh is a first for Texas, but also an adjustment for residents – some of whom are unsure of its benefit.

Called a toucan, as in “two can go,” the signal gives pedestrians and bicyclists a red-yellow-green signal and stops vehicular traffic with a traffic light at the touch of a button. In other spots around Houston, pedestrians can activate walk signs or flashing red lights. Cyclists along Lamar receive a special traffic light along the street’s green cycle path.

The toucan takes the signal to another level, said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works, who oversees traffic management.

“The (traffic) volumes on 7th are not really there,” he said. “It will never meet the warrants for a regular traffic signal.”

However, the trail – often bustling with joggers and cyclists and strollers – has enough demand to command its own green lights to stop traffic. Trail users can activate the signal with a button, similar to pedestrian crossings at major intersections. Drivers stop as they would in any other traffic signal circumstance.

“It’s a traffic signal to them, no difference at all,” Weatherford said.

The timing is set to give pedestrians time to cross the street. As trail use increases in various spots around Houston, Weatherford said the toucan signals could be installed in other spots where practical and when funding allows it.

[…]

Trammell Crow Residential, developers of two apartment buildings along Yale near the trail, paid for the toucan’s analysis and construction, estimated to cost between $150,000 and $200,000, said Ben Johnson with Trammell Crow.

The company agreed to pay for the signal during discussions with residents skeptical about the developments, which are expected to increase traffic on Yale.

The city will pay for maintenance and operations, including the cost of electricity to operate the signals.

The trail’s new location, however, has alarmed some. To line up the signal with Seventh, a requirement of state traffic codes, the trail curves headed east and deposits cyclists and pedestrians on the east side of Seventh into a median installed in the middle of the street.

The center location is less safe, said Shirley Summers, as she pushed her daughter Molly, 2, in a stroller.

“Cars turning right can’t see where I’m going,” she said last week.

I’m glad to see this, because crossing Yale at that location is indeed scary – traffic is heavy, there’s four lanes of it, and pretty much nobody pays attention to the speed limit. If this works as hoped, I’d suggest the city look at installing another one of these on 11th Street where the trail that runs along Nicholson crosses, because it’s the exact same situation. A word of warning, via a comment on Facebook, is that cars apparently don’t always respect the light at the head of the TC Jester trail. Having now driven past this light on Yale headed northbound, I can tell you that it’s actually kind of hard to see the light as you approach it from 6th Street. There’s a tree on the east side of Yale that blocks your view of the light (or at least, it blocked mine) until you’re quite close to it. Might be a good idea for the city to look into that, and also for HPD to have some traffic enforcement there in the early going. I sure hope this does what it promises to do. What do you think?

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Sid Miller’s spokesperson jumps ship

Who could blame her?

Sid Miller

The top spokeswoman for Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller resigned Monday, citing a “tremendous lack of communication” at the agency.

The spokeswoman, Lucy Nashed, a former aide to then-Gov. Rick Perry, said she was leaving after just five months on the job without having another position lined up.

“I have appreciated the opportunity to serve the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas agriculture industry, but I’m leaving to pursue other opportunities,” Nashed said. “It’s clear that there’s a tremendous lack of communication at the TDA, which makes it difficult for me as a (communications) person to do my job.”

No replacement has been chosen, according to the agency.

[…]

Perhaps most significantly for a communications officer, the department twice withheld public records about the Oklahoma trip.

The agency also gave differing explanations about the Mississippi trip: Nashed told the Chronicle (and the Texas Tribune) that the airplane travel mistakenly was booked using an agency credit card, but Miller acknowledged to the Chronicle that it was done intentionally because he hoped to schedule a work-related meeting during the trip.

See here for some background. I meant to run this earlier in the week, but was overwhelmed by events. It’s tempting to feel sorry for Lucy Nashed, who must have felt under siege this past month, but she’s a big girl who’s been around Republican politics for awhile and surely must have known who and what Sid Miller is. It was hardly a secret when he was in the Lege, after all. Better luck with the next gig, but maybe do a little due diligence this time.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Friday random ten: In the city, part 6

Some old familiar places this week.

1. Halfway To Memphis – Sammy Hagar
2. Halley Came To Jackson – Mary-Chapin Carpenter
3. A Heart In New York – Art Garfunkel
4. Hello Hopeville – Michelle Shocked
5. Hey Marseilles – Heart Beats
6. Hideaway Tokyo – Pretty & Nice
7. HOOPS Yes! (FC Dallas) – Polyphonic Spree
8. I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu) – Constantine (from “Muppets Most Wanted”)
9. In London So Fair – Susan McKeown
10. Independence, Indiana – Eddie From Ohio

If Sammy Hagar teamed up with Mott the Hoople, we could get all the way to Memphis and then halfway back. I’m not sure that’s an improvement, now that I think of it. I’m not sure that Hopeville is an actual place and not a metaphor, but thankfully we don’t worry about that sort of thing here.

Posted in: Music.

More on Paxton’s SEC troubles

The short answer is, he’s gonna lose.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton may have some history on his side, but as of this week the numbers appear to be against him.

Paxton, who is trying to become the latest in a long line of Texas officials to beat prominent allegations, unwittingly entered treacherous waters Monday when the federal Securities and Exchange Commission announced it had sued him for allegedly committing securities fraud, the same charge he is facing in a state district court.

Over the past two years, the SEC has won 95.9 percent of the cases not related to insider trading that it has taken to a federal courtroom, according to a new study from Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance.

“If we were in Vegas making book, the odds would be that the attorney general is going to lose,” said Joseph Grundfest, a senior faculty member at the center and a former SEC commissioner.

Part of the reason for those odds is that the SEC does not make formal accusations until giving defendants a chance to argue in writing and in person why a case should not be filed – a process Paxton almost certainly exhausted before the commission moved forward, experts said.

The attorney general’s challenge is heightened by the fact that two of his co-defendants already have agreed to large financial settlements.

[…]

Although it has taken place more quietly, the SEC investigation has been going on for at least [as] long [as the state criminal investigation]. Its existence first was reported by the Associated Press in early last July.

Paul Coggins, a former federal prosecutor who now leads the white-collar criminal defense practice for the Dallas-based Locke Lord law firm, said the SEC process dictates that the agency long ago had to notify Paxton of its intent to file a lawsuit and offer him an opportunity to submit a brief and to argue in person that nothing should be filed.

The federal complaint filed Monday quotes Paxton defending himself, statements that may have been taken from a brief or from testimony.

During the SEC’s investigative process, two of Paxton’s co-defendants agreed to settle their cases by paying a combined $266,000, according to the federal government. Those settlements, by Servergy and former firm official Caleb White, were signed in mid-March, court records show.

White, who was accused of the same crime as Paxton but received one-fifth of the shares in the company, paid the SEC $66,000, suggesting Paxton could be on the hook for at least that much.

That could be a problem for Paxton, who already is spending heavily on a five-person defense team and faces legal barriers to raising money through donations.

In cases that were not settled, a 2015 analysis by the Wall Street Journal found, the SEC won 69 percent of cases litigated in federal courts from October 2010 through March 2015.

Grundfest, the Stanford professor, said the SEC’s win rate has improved recently. He also pointed out that the newspaper’s analysis included insider trading cases, which are much harder for the commission to win.

In insider trading cases, the agency loses about half the time. In cases unrelated to insider trading, the SEC almost always wins, the professor said.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this could be a precursor to federal criminal charges being filed. Even if that doesn’t happen, he’s going to lose this lawsuit. I feel a song coming on:

One way or another, this is not going to end well for Ken Paxton. If he deserved any sympathy, I’d feel it for him, but he doesn’t.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, Scandalized!.

Immigrant harboring law blocked

Good.

A federal judge has blocked part of the state’s omnibus border security bill that makes harboring undocumented immigrants a state crime.

Under a provision of House Bill 11, which went into effect in September, a person commits a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

[…]

In an order signed on Thursday, federal District Judge David Alan Ezra said the plaintiffs would likely succeed on the Supremacy Clause claim, and ruled that state and local officials had no authority to enforce the harboring provision until a final decision on the case is made.

“In this case, Plaintiffs risk subjection to criminal penalties under laws that might be pre-empted by federal law and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution,” he wrote. “Thus, the Court finds that Plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreparable harm.”

[…]

Although MALDEF was victorious on one front, the judge rejected the group’s claim that the bill violates the plaintiffs right to due process and equal protection. Perales said the equal protection argument was made because the bill did not have a “rational purpose” and was arbitrary.

But in his order, Ezra said that although HB 11 might be pre-empted, the harboring provision fits in with the state’s intended goal of securing its borders.

“HB 11’s harboring provisions are rationally related to their stated purpose of ‘strengthen[ing] the state’s border security measures and help[ing to] stem the rising tide of human smuggling and human trafficking in Texas,’” he wrote.

See here for the background. The concern over this bill was that churches who work with immigrants, immigrants’ rights groups, and landlords who rent to immigrants may be criminalized by it. The plaintiffs in this case were in fact two landlords and the director of an immigrant services agency. The AG’s office didn’t say what they would do, but given their usual track record, it’s hard to imagine them not appealing the injunction. In either case, this will take awhile to resolve. Trail Blazers has more.

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

Ken who? Sid who?

Whatever you do, don’t mention the indicted Republican officeholders!

The Texas attorney general has been indicted for allegedly duping investors in a tech startup, and the agriculture commissioner reportedly used tax dollars to travel to obtain a so-called Jesus shot supposedly offering long-term relief from pain.

So far, fellow Republicans are all but ignoring the troubles.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been charged with two felonies, and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who last year unapologetically shared a Facebook post that suggested using a nuclear bomb on the Muslim population, coasted to election in 2014 as part of a new slate of GOP leaders. Other Republicans who won that year included Gov. Greg Abbott and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, son of Jeb Bush.

Democrats, who have called on Paxton to resign, lament what they call the pitfall of a politically one-sided state. Republicans seem content to stay quiet.

[…]

At least one former GOP state official said the lack of competitive elections in Texas has made current officeholders less responsive to voters and more focused on not alienating their base.

“They’re good guys, but they’ve been kind of leading with their chins,” said Jerry Patterson, who led the Texas General Land Office for more than a decade before being replaced by Bush. “Whether the allegations are right or wrong, it does negatively impact the Republican brand.”

Not exactly sure what Patterson means by that, but it’s kind of weak tea for a normally blunt guy. It’s entirely possible to believe that Paxton and Miller are good guys, as I believe Ron Reynolds is a good guy, and also believe that they did some shady things, for which they at least may need to suffer some consequences. But if the best you can do is fret about damaging the brand, then you surely can appreciate that the brand isn’t going to fix itself. Someone is going to have to be the grownup.

In that spirit, I must note that Greg Abbott has finally said something about all this.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott believes allegations that Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller misused state funds when he took two out-of-state trips a year ago should be investigated, a spokesman for the governor said on Thursday.

“The governor believes these allegations of misuse of taxpayer dollars warrant a thorough investigation by the Texas Rangers,” said the spokesman, John Wittman.

As a partisan Democrat, of course, I’d have preferred to see something stronger. As a political realist, I recognize that this is about as strong as it gets in this kind of situation. The fact that he actually mentioned “allegations” of “misuse” of state funds puts it in another class than the wishy-washy “let the system run its course” pablum he issued when Ken Paxton was first indicted. Someone in the Governor’s office recognizes a rotten egg when they smell it, so kudos to them for that. Anyone else got anything to say, about Miller or Paxton? Again, it’s fine by me if they don’t. Go ahead, whistle past the graveyard all you want. Tomorrow may never come. In the meantime, Texas Monthly has put together a couple of helpful overviews and FAQs about the Paxton and Miller situations. Who knows what the next chapter will be.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Take transit to the game

If you can, you should.

HoustonMetro

The transformation of downtown from a work place that empties after dark to a true community is finally underway in earnest, with residents, retail shops, and restaurants that remain open long after the lunch rush. The building boom is everywhere, and that includes the area around Minute Maid, which had been the domain of abandoned warehouses and repeating squares of blacktop.

As new development gradually alters the timeworn tableau of skyscrapers, hotels and parking lots, the matter of where to put all the cars that flood into the area – be it for work in the day, governmental dealings, or nighttime entertainment – becomes a bit less obvious. Nowhere is that more true than in downtown’s eastern precinct, home to the Astros, Rockets, Dynamo, George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green.

For the sold-out baseball games, competition for the close-in surface lots will become increasingly fierce. The Astros control about 3,000 parking spaces in their own lots east of the stadium, but high-demand games see most of those spaces sold when tickets are purchased. Parking in their lots is reserved for ticket buyers, though a small number last-minute cash sales typically are offered for lower-demand games.

Another 4,000 to 5,000 parking spaces can still be found in surface lots mostly north of the stadium. The pricing for many of them is dynamic, fluctuating game to game, or sometimes hour to hour, depending on attendance. Some parking management companies offer advance online purchase, some don’t. An Astros spokesman said that a range of $10-20 is likely for lots within a two to three-block radius.

When those lots are filled, drivers will have to look toward the garages to be found to the west and south. Costs will vary according to distance from the stadium. Fans willing to walk a half-mile can get a good deal, well below $10, though the sweaty summer months make for a challenging trade-off.

One option, which may become more common in future years, is for drivers to park on the west side of downtown in or near the theater district and take the Metro rail purple line across town. It has a stop just two blocks north of Minute Maid. A drop-off lane also is available in front of the stadium on Texas Street.

The Downtown Houston Management District says that 26 construction projects with an estimated cost of $2.2 billion currently are underway. Another $2 billion worth of projects are on the drawing board, it says. There will be a day, perhaps sooner than once thought, when a majority of the remaining surface lots will give way to new development.

[…]

Because Houston’s central business district is large, plenty of parking remains available and will continue to be. It’s just not so close anymore. Or as cheap. For high-demand games, the available lots near the stadium will go early, with the choicest locations fetching $50 or more for the most desirable games.

The eventual thinning out of the visually unappealing and space-hogging surface lots will please urban designers and downtown advocates, but no doubt will annoy some baseball fans. As [Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations] points out, Houstonians love the freedom that comes with their cars and the easier ingress and egress that these lots offer. Some may fondly recall the old days at the Astrodome, which was surrounded by acres of parking and nothing else.

But in a broader sense, the replacement of blacktop by new homes and businesses means that the decades-old dream of a lively city center is taking form. When it comes to taking in a ball game, a new way of thinking will be required.

“It’s neat to see this resurgence,” Braithwaite said of the residential development as well as new clubs and restaurants. “The city is getting life back into it. I’m excited about the urban redevelopment, but that means change. There is no getting around that.”

As was the case for lots of people with the Final Four and the rodeo, taking transit to the game is going to be cheaper and in many cases more convenient than driving. Just the prospect of paying $20 to park, never mind $40 or $50, should make most people at least consider this. It’s also in the Astros’ best interests to get people to not drive to the game if it’s feasible for them. It’s like I’ve said about bike parking in places like Montrose and on White Oak where parking is scarce: It’s in everyone’s interests for the people for whom it is reasonably convenient to take transit to be encouraged and enabled to do so. Note that you don’t have to actually live near a bus or train stop to do this. Drive to a station that has adjacent parking, like the Quitman stop (which has a small Metro-owned free parking lot) or the Ensemble/HCC stop (where there’s a parking garage), and go from there. Again, those of you that have no choice but to drive and park really ought to want everyone for whom this is a decent option to choose it, for they each represent one fewer car competing with you for a parking space and clogging up the roads after the game. Are there any park and ride buses that run to and from the games like they do for the Rodeo? If not, maybe the Astros should inquire with Metro about that. Everyone wins with this.

Posted in: Baseball, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Second complaint filed against Miller

You do the crime

Sid Miller

A liberal advocacy group has filed another complaint against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who found himself in hot water recently over possible misuse of state and campaign funds.

The complaint, filed Wednesday by Progress Texas,asks the Texas Rangers to investigate Miller for using campaign funds to pay for a flight to Mississippi, where he won money in a rodeo competition. Miller, who said he met with donors while in Mississippi, has said he has done nothing wrong.

The group also has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Miller’s trip was revealed by a Houston Chroniclestory last week. Earlier this year, the Chronicle also reported that Miller may have used state funds to take a trip to Oklahoma for a controversial medical treatment. Miller reimbursed the state for that trip.

“This isn’t Sid Miller’s first rodeo,” said Lucy Stein, advocacy director of Progress Texas. “Miller has yet again demonstrated a pattern of abusing his office by misusing taxpayer and campaign funds.”

See here for the background. As with the previous complaint, the Texas Rangers would do the up front investigation before handing anything off to a District Attorney. The Rangers have now agreed to do their part, and Miller is totes sad that everybody is picking on him.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Wednesday called complaints filed against him over questions surrounding two taxpayer-funded out-of-state trips “harassment.”

The complaints were “filed by a very liberal left-wing organization, Progress Texas. They are just harassing me,” the Stephenville Republican said in a phone interview. “There’s nothing absolutely illegal or wrong with either of those trips … There is absolutely no validity to the complaint.”

[…]

One of the trips Miller took was to Oklahoma, where he received a controversial injection known as “the Jesus Shot” that is supposed to cure all pain for life.

When asked by the Houston Chronicle about the trip, Miller said he made it so he could tour the Oklahoma National Stockyards and meet with Oklahoma officials. But when those officials were contacted by the Chronicle, they said they had no plans to meet him in their state that day. Internal emails from the Agriculture Department later indicated that Miller had planned the trip around receiving the shot. After details about the trip became public, Miller said he would repay the state for the trip out of an “abundance of caution.”

Miller also traveled to Mississippi in February on the state’s dime. While there, Miller, who is a calf roper, participated in the National Dixie Rodeo. When asked about the trip, the Agriculture Department gave contradictory reports to media outlets.

I mean, come on, y’all. Why do there have to be all these rules and things taking all the joy out of life? Why can’t Sid Miller just be the Ag Commissioner he was always meant to be, without these professional busybodies poking their noses into his business? It’s just not fair, I tell you. The Trib and the Chron, which quotes a DPS spokesperson saying that the Travis County DA’s office will get this hot potato if there’s anything to it, have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Texas-filed birther lawsuit against Ted Cruz dismissed

No surprise.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

A Houston federal judge tossed out a lawsuit Wednesday that challenged Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s eligibility to run for president.

U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller dismissed the suit with prejudice, meaning that Houston lawyer Boris Schwartz cannot file the suit again. He found that Schwartz, as a citizen and taxpayer in Texas, had no legal standing to bring the case.

Schwartz, who is 85 and wore an American flag lapel pin with a red, white and blue striped tie, had asked the judge during oral arguments Wednesday morning to rule as swiftly as possible.

He said he planned to buy an airline ticket as soon as the judge handed down an order for dismissal so he could file an appeal in person at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

[…]

The judge heard arguments Wednesday morning and didn’t mince words about dismissing the case.

“It seems to me the weight of authority is on the side of dismissal for standing,” Schwartz said, after Schwartz finished his argument.

See here and here for the background. Not sure where the “Boris” came from; in earlier stories, the litigant was identified as Newton Schwartz. Regardless, similar lawsuits have been dismissed in other states, with one of those plaintiffs petitioning the Supreme Court for a hearing. While anything is possible, I don’t expect them or the Fifth Circuit to touch this. Any lawyers out there see it differently?

Posted in: Legal matters, The making of the President.