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New Precinct 4 Constable chosen

Now that Ron Hickman is Sheriff, that left a vacancy in his old job as Precinct 4 Constable. Commissioners Court has now filled that vacancy.

At a special meeting Tuesday morning Harris County Commissioners Court selected Mark Herman, assistant chief deputy in Precinct 4, to fill the spot vacated when Constable Ron Hickman was tapped last week as Harris County’s fill-in sheriff. Herman, who has worked at Precinct 4 for three decades, will serve the remainder of Hickman’s term, through 2016.

County Judge Ed Emmett administered the oath of office, as Herman’s wife held a family bible for him.

Herman thanked his family, God and the entire staff of Precinct 4, telling the court members he looked forward to working with them. He took the opportunity during his acceptance speech to introduce Captain Donald Steward who works in patrol for the precinct and whom Herman announced would serve as his chief deputy.

Hickman’s term as Constable would have been up at the end of 2016, so Herman will (presumably) be running for a full term next year. Hickman was unopposed in 2012, but Herman will not be, at least in the primary.

In an abrupt change of heart, state Rep. Allen Fletcher said Tuesday he no longer intends to run for Harris County sheriff in 2016.

Instead, he will seek the Precinct 4 constable’s job vacated by the county’s new sheriff, Ron Hickman.

[…]

“I want to run out in my home district and I want to represent the people out in northwest Harris County,” he said, explaining that he does not want to run against Hickman after commissioners selected him for the job.

Fletcher, a former Houston police officer, cited support from local lawmakers for his constable’s bid. He also voiced concerns about running as a Republican in a county-wide race in 2016.

“I don’t want to depend on Hillary Clinton being on the top of the ticket for the Democrats and trying to run county-wide when I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he said.

A wise choice, I’d say. I went back and looked at 2012 election data, and Constable Precinct 4 was carried by Mitt Romney by a 64-36 margin. I’d take my chances in a primary for those odds in November if I were a Republican. I’m guessing Fletcher came under some pressure to leave Sheriff Hickman alone as well, though I’ll be surprised if no one else jumps into that primary. I’ve not heard any word on potential Democratic candidates for Sheriff yet. Anyone out there hearing anything? Leave a comment and let us know.

Posted in: Local politics.

Pointless “pastor protection” bill comes to the House

From the Observer.

RedEquality

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) said Wednesday he doesn’t plan to introduce an anti-gay marriage amendment to the so-called Pastor Protection Act scheduled for a House vote Thursday.

However, with 12 days remaining in the session, Bell said he continues to look for another means of resurrecting House Bill 4105, which was designed to undermine a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, and died on the House floor last week.

LGBT advocates feared Bell would attempt to add the provisions of HB 4105 to Senate Bill 2065, by Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), which would reaffirm that pastors and churches can’t be forced to participate in same-sex weddings. But Bell said he doesn’t believe such an amendment would be considered germane to SB 2065, aka the Pastor Protection Act, thus threatening the bill’s chances.

“A lot of work’s been done on that bill, and I don’t want to compromise that bill,” Bell told the Observer. “The intent is to assert the sovereignty of the state of Texas. If I can find a place to do that, then I’ll do that. But I’m not going to compromise the very structure and value system that I’m trying to affirm in that process.”

[…]

With other anti-LGBT legislation stalled, social conservatives have made SB 2065 a top priority in recent days. However, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch acknowledged recently that its passage wouldn’t be a significant victory.

Supporters of SB 2065 have used committee hearings on the bill to give general testimony in opposition to same-sex marriage, which some witnesses compared to bestiality and pedophilia.

“It suggests that really the goal here to increase hostility and animosity toward gay and lesbian couples who want to get married, rather than to protect pastors from having to perform their marriages, because pastors are already protected from doing that if they don’t want to,” [Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network] said.

Nevertheless, if SB 2065 is the only unfavorable measure that passes out of more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals that were introduced, advocates won’t hang their heads.

“It’s certainly encouraging that some of the really bad bills appear to be going nowhere, and that the only bill that’s moving forward does essentially what the law already does,” Quinn said. “If we can get out of the session without any of those other bills passing, it would clearly be a big step forward.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Equality Texas had sent out an email alert about HB4105 being attached to SB2065 earlier in the day. I’m glad to see that turned out to be a false alarm. There are reasons to be concerned about SB2065 as is, and we can’t rest easy on HB4105 until the session is well and truly over, but so far so good. I’ll update this post if anything notable happens during the House debate.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 18

The Texas Progressive Alliance doesn’t need hindsight to know that invading Iraq was a tragically stupid decision as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Where the education reform bills stand

As we know, the attempt to take a first stab at school finance reform did not make it to the House floor. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some action on school-related issues. This Chron story from the weekend recapped a couple of the major bills that did make it through.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Lawmakers likely could have killed House Bill 2804, the A-F and accountability legislation, by delaying debate until midnight Thursday, the deadline for passing House bills out of that chamber. Instead, out of respect for [Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock, the bill’s opponents chose to allow a vote even though they knew it would win approval.

On Friday, Aycock said he would be proud if the bill is the last piece of legislation he helps shepherd to passage.

“I was pleased and surprised that some people who opposed the bill, had every right to oppose the bill, chose not to kill it on the clock,” said Aycock, who is mulling whether to retire from politics. He was elected in 2007 and quickly rose to become chairman, but at nearly 70, says he wants to return to his central Texas ranch life.

[…]

Originally, House Bill 2804 sought solely to revamp the way schools are held accountable by placing less emphasis on state standardized test performance in grading campuses.

Sensing he didn’t have the political support to pass the bill as it was, however, Aycock amended it to mandate schools be given A-F grades, a proposal popular with many Republicans. Educators and many Democrats oppose the A-F scale, saying it stigmatizes low-performing schools.

Aycock says having an A-F system won’t be an issue if the grades are determined fairly: “It’s not the horrible deal that everybody thinks it will be if you have an accountability system on which to base it. If you have the present accountability model, then it’s just totally unacceptable.”

Schools are graded now either as “met standard” or “improvement required,” based largely on student performance measures. Under House Bill 2804, 35 percent of a school’s grade would be determined by measures like completion and dropout rates, and by how many students take AP and international baccalaureate classes. Ten percent would be based on how well the school engages with its community, and 55 percent on state test scores with a particular emphasis on closing the gap between the top- and bottom-performing students.

[…]

House Bill 1842, which would force districts to improve failing schools or face tough consequences, passed the House the day before with little of the discussion Aycock’s other legislation generated. Aycock called the bill “one of the most far-reaching bills of the session,” and said while he carried it, Dutton was the architect.

“I think House Bill 1842 is the best bill on public education that helps students more than any bill that I’ve seen in this Legislature, and I’ve been here 30 years,” [Rep. Harold] Dutton said Friday. “We have never pressured districts to do something about (low-performing schools). This does that. This says to the school district, ‘Either you do it, or we’ll get someone who can.’ ”

The legislation would require any school that has received a failing grade for two straight years to create an improvement plan to take effect by the third year. If the school has not improved by the end of the fifth year, the commissioner of education would have to order the school’s closure or assign an emergency board of managers to oversee the school district.

Schools that have received consistently failing grades, such as Kashmere and Jones High Schools in the Houston Independent School District, would have one less year to implement a turnaround plan.

“Kashmere is what started me down this road,” Dutton said.

Kashmere earned the state’s “academically acceptable” rating in 2007 and 2008, but it has failed to meet standards every other year over the last decade. Its enrollment has fallen to about 500 students, most of whom come from poor families. Last school year, more than a quarter were in special education and 2 percent were designated as gifted, state data show.

“We’re just going to wait and see what the state does,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said about Aycock’s legislation. “If the state gives us the option of trying to manage it, we would implement some of the same strategies we have found to be successful in North Forest.”

I don’t care for the A-F grading system. I tend to agree with the critics that say it will stigmatize some schools. Not just the schools that get a D where they might have gotten a “meets standards”, but perhaps also the ones that get a B instead of an “academically recognized”. Who wants to send their kids to a B school if an A school is available? As for HB 1842, I don’t have any problem with the concept, but I’d like to know there’s some empirical evidence to suggest something like this can work, and has worked before. We haven’t done much to track the progress of students that were taken from failing school districts that the state shut down, so there’s not much of a track record here. What happens if we try this and it doesn’t work? What comes next?

The Observer updates us on some other education bills.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.

Vouchers

After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

Here’s Raise Your Hand Texas testifying against the “parent trigger” bill. I can’t say I’ll be sad to see any of these die.

And finally, there’s still the budget, which as always has an effect on schools. Here’s some information of interest for anyone who lives in HISD from local activist Sue Deigaard:

HB1759, that would have made structural modifications to school finance and added $800 million more to the $2.2 the House added in their budget for public education, was pulled from the floor on Thursday. Basically, there were so many amendments it was unlikely there was time left to get it to a vote and the time spent on a HB1759 vote would have preempted other bills from being discussed. It also sounds like the vote in the Senate for HB1759 would have been especially steep even if it had been approved by the House.

So, HISD will go into “recapture.” That means that per Ch 41 of the Texas education code, because HISD is a “property rich, student poor” district, instead of HISD receiving money from the state we will have to send local tax revenue TO the state to redistribute to other districts. We are projected to lose as much as $200 million over the coming biennium. Here’s the fun part…the electorate in HISD gets to decide whether or not to send that money back to the state. Yet, not really. First, the HISD board will have to vote on whether or not to even have such an election. If they don’t hold an election, the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. If they do hold an election and voters do not approve to give money to the state (which is the likely outcome), then the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. The “ask” now is for the budget conferees, which include a few members of the HISD legislative delegation, to approve the House pub ed allocation that increases basic allotment for pub ed by $2.2 billion instead of the Senate version that increases it by $1.2 billion. Also, at least as I understand it, that “increase” still does not restore the per pupil allocation that was cut back in 2011, and like last session mostly just funds enrollment growth. As logic would dictate, adding the extra $1 billion in the House version over the Senate version infuses the system with more money so HISD has to send less back to the state through recapture. Basically….House budget = better for HISD.

Unfortunately, the Senate won this skirmish.

The budget conference committee — made up of five senators and five House members — approved a $1.5 billion boost to public education beyond enrollment growth, according to the LBB. The figure matches what the Senate had requested. The House had pushed for a $2.2 billion increase, and had briefly considered an additional $800 million on top of that tied to reforms in the state’s convoluted school finance system.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was the lone “no” vote on the committee’s decisions to set the level of public education funding, in large part because he felt the amount was too little compared to how much the state was putting toward tax cuts and border security, he said.

“Conservatives spend money like they’re printing money,” Turner said, except on education.

Budget conferees included Rep. Sarah Davis and Sen. Joan Huffman. When HISD has to raise taxes or cut programs to cover this loss, you can thank them for it.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

What next for Metro now that peace with Culberson has broken out?

We’ve all had a chance to read over and digest the agreement Metro struck with Rep. John Culberson now. It looked good to me up front (though not to everyone – more on that in a bit), but as always with something this involved, there are many questions. What do some of these items mean, and when might we start to see some of the effects of this deal? I had much to ask, and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia had the answers. He took a few minutes to talk to me and address my queries. Here’s what we talked about.

We spoke over the phone, so the audio quality isn’t the best, but I think you can get the picture. As I said, I like what I’ve seen, and I like what I heard from Chair Garcia. I mentioned that not everyone is sold on this just yet, so let me turn it over to Jeff Ragsdale:

HoustonMetro

What has been the hook in Culberson’s jaw to make him come to the table and put out this grandiose agreement with Gilbert Garcia? In my estimation, that hook can only be coming from elements in his district wanting clarity on the rail-on-Richmond/Post Oak issue. Afton Oaks once again, for better or for worse, dictates to the rest of METRO’s service area its light-rail policy.

Wanting clarity on the Richmond/Post Oak rail issue makes Culberson’s agreement this week not so surprising. He simply wants new votes, and I don’t much blame him for that.

Another hook in Culberson’s jaw may be the rest of the Houston congressional delegation as well as elements in the Republican Party wanting the federal money-faucet to start going in earnest.

What this agreement does, I think, is codify, though not in law, a broad regional strategy for public transport as well as lay a foundation for future regional inter-government cooperation. More importantly, the fast-tracking of the METRO Board composition change takes away from a future rogue Mayor of Houston the ability to completely stymie the process of mass-transit improvement, as Mayors Holcombe, Lanier, and White did with such effect.

It also gives a new perspective on Houston Mayor Lee Brown’s work in the late 1990s to bring light rail to our city. However, this work also set a precedent for light rail that is at-grade and stops for red lights, the wisdom of which is to my mind still to be proven.

My friend, Wayne Ashley, in his blog is far-more effusive about this ‘Culberson-Garcia Accord’ than I. Culberson could still be forced to go back on his word, and this year’s election for Mayor of Houston could produce a maverick with his own ideas about Houston mass-transit which include not so much cooperation with the County and Multi-Cities, which for Houston-area bus riders will not be a good thing. Yes, I am very guarded about all of this.

If Culberson keeps his word and the next Mayor of Houston does not sabotage everything with a new rogue Board, the agreement between Culberson and Garcia could go down in history as one of the brilliant moments in the history of Houston mass-transit.

We shall see.

I would note, as Chair Garcia did in our conversation, that Metro was already prohibited by law from using any federal money on the Universities Line as currently designed. This agreement allows for a way forward, which we didn’t have before. Of course it requires Rep. Culberson to keep his word, but then that’s true of any contract. Metro has an end to hold up, too. Sure, a rogue Houston Mayor could undo or undermine a lot of this, but it has always been the case that a non-transit-oriented Mayor could do a lot of damage. That’s why I’ve been so obsessed with where the Mayoral candidates stand on mobility and transit and other issues. We need to know these things, and we need to not be satisfied with platitudes and evasions. We also need to not be satisfied with any Mayor that isn’t fully on board with taking advantage of this great opportunity Houston has been given. We have been presented with a great opportunity. Let’s grab it with both hands and run with it.

UPDATE: You should also listen to this Houston Matters segment about the agreement, in which Craig Cohen speaks to Rep. Culberson and a couple of media types. Culberson is still spewing the same untruths about the 2003 referendum, and pointedly said that while he would not obstruct future rail construction if the voters approved it he would absolutely oppose such a referendum. So yes, one should maintain one’s level of skepticism. One correction to something Bob Stein said after Culberson was on: The 2012 referendum forbids Metro from spending the extra money they would get from the sales tax from scaling back the 25% give back on rail. They’re not restricted on spending other money on rail. I’ll agree they don’t have it to spend, at least in the absence of new federal funds, but the 2012 referendum isn’t the cause of that.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Stickland not out of the woods

Despite what he says.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

A state investigation into allegations that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland improperly registered witnesses to testify on a bill banning red light cameras has cleared Stickland of wrongdoing, his office announced Monday. But two officials involved in the investigation disagreed with the Bedford Republican’s declaration Monday evening.

“I can confirm that we have met with the Texas Rangers working on the case and the investigation is still ongoing,” said Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit at the Travis district attorney’s office. Asked about Stickland’s claim that he was personally cleared of wrongdoing, Cox said, “I would not agree with that statement.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee referred an investigation into the hearing to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Stickland has denied any wrongdoing.

“Late Friday I spoke with one of the Rangers assigned to the case,” said Trey Trainor, Stickland’s lawyer. “I was told that the investigation was over and that I would not be hearing from DPS anymore.”

Trainor said the Travis County district attorney’s office declined to take up the case based on DPS’s evidence.

Cox said Trainor’s assessment is not accurate.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger also said the investigation remains ongoing.

“At this time, this investigation is under final review by the Texas Ranger management team,” Vinger said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I really have no idea why his lawyer would say something like this if he wasn’t one hundred percent sure he was right. Maybe he just jumped the gun a little, in which case no harm done, but if he’s wrong, you’d have to wonder about his competence. Note that even if this investigation ends with no charges being filed, Stickland may still face sanctions from the House, though in that case I wouldn’t expect much. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

More on Sheriff Hickman

A profile of appointed Sheriff Ron Hickman that’s long on biography but short on policy.

Ron Hickman

Hickman is 63 and has spent his entire career doing police work. No step on his path has been sudden or unanticipated. Hickman expressed interest in the sheriff’s job when there were hints of a vacancy, before Garcia had announced his run for mayor. He was the candidate the Harris County Deputies’ Organization endorsed, the first person Commissioners Court members considered.

In terms of gravitas, law enforcement experience and proven political skills, the county chiefs felt, he was unmatched.

But the job ahead is significantly bigger and more bureaucratic than anything Hickman has tackled. During his four elected terms as Precinct 4 constable, he supervised 425 employees and managed a $42 million budget. As sheriff, he will oversee a staff of 4,600 and a budget of $437 million.

An astute measurer of expectations, the Republican lawman understands what the majority Republican Commissioners Court wants to see during his first days in office.

Commissioners, most vocally Precinct 3’s Steve Radack, have articulated an interest in a sheriff who would be willing to relinquish supervision of the jail.

Hickman does not see this as a sacrifice, since the detention portion of the job doesn’t appeal to him. It is not aligned with his skill set, he said, “I am cop at heart.”

Hickman was appointed last week, and about all I know about him is that he’s been a cop for a long time, and Steve Radack really likes him. The headline to this story says that he hopes to “shine a light” at the Sheriff’s office, but the story doesn’t say anything about what that might mean. He’s also open to the idea of handing off jail administration duties to an appointed overseer. That may be a good idea and it may be a bad idea, but it seems to me that it’s a substantial enough idea that it ought not to happen without there being some vigorous public debate about it. In particular, maybe it ought not to happen until someone has gotten himself elected Sheriff on a platform that includes this as a plank. Just a thought.

In the meantime, while it’s nice to know that our new Sheriff likes to hunt and fish and stuff like that, it would also be nice to know what he thinks about things like Secure Communities and the the jail’s nondiscrimination policy and so on. You know, Sheriff stuff. Maybe we could ask if his willingness to cede control of the jail to a separate administrator extends to handing the jail over to a private operator, which is something that’s been on Commissioner Radack’s radar for awhile. Sheriff Hickman’s now-former primary opponent Allen Fletcher has connections to the private prison business, so perhaps that subject will come up in the next few months. Sooner would be better than later, if you ask me.

Posted in: Local politics.

Senate still trying to pass “sanctuary cities” and DREAM Act repeal

Time is running out on these bad bills, but as the man said, it ain’t over till it’s over.

After sitting idle in the Senate for more than a month, a controversial bill to eliminate in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants is back on the upper chamber’s calendar.

But it remains unclear whether the Senate has the votes to bring the measure up for debate.

Senate Bill 1819 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would do away with what has been standard policy in Texas since 2001: allowing non-citizens, including undocumented students, to pay discounted in-state tuition rates if they have lived in Texas for three or more years.

The proposal was originally placed on the Senate’s intent calendar on April 15 after an hours-long and emotional committee hearing — but it was taken off that calendar next day. During the first 130 days of the session, Senate rules require a bill to stay on the calendar for two days before being brought up for debate.

On Tuesday, the bill was back on the calendar along with another controversial measure, Senate Bill 185 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. That proposal seeks to give local law enforcement expanded immigration enforcement powers.

SB 185 has been on and off the intent calendar several times since passing out of committee on April 13, a sign that the measure didn’t have support from 19 senators — the threshold needed to bring it up for a debate. The upper chamber’s 11 Democrats have stood united in their opposition to both measures, and at least two Republicans are firm against it.

See here for the background. The two Republican Senators that are helping hold these bills back are Sens. Kevin Eltife, who is not a surprise, and Craig Estes, who is. Without their resistance, these bills would have already passed the Senate thanks to the two thirds rule change. We appreciate the support, fellas. Hold fast, there’s not much farther to go. Stace, Texas Leftist, and the Chron’s Bobby Cervantes have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Metro and Culberson announce the terms of their agreement

Gotta say, this all sounds pretty good.

HoustonMetro

First, Congressman Culberson supports METRO’s proposed legislation pending in the State Legislature that expands the size of the METRO Board, increases the eligible length of Board member service and allows the existing board to elect a chairman in October with an odd initial term. These changes will help ensure better regional cooperation in designing and building successful transportation projects while smoothing the transition from the current board size to the larger board size that current law will require in the near future.

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Fifth, METRO wants to eliminate confusion for property and business owners on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive and on Post Oak Boulevard. Therefore, the METRO Board will adopt a resolution pledging not to use any federal or state funds to build rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond unless METRO service area voters approve it as part of a future METRO service area referendum. Likewise, no local funds can be spent on such a rail project without a referendum except expenditures of local funds necessary for the proper studies and engineering to present to the voters in the required referendum. Any such referendum will be part of a multi-modal transportation plan including reasonable cost estimates and a description of the project’s pathway and end points, realizing that pathways could undergo minor adjustments as a result of unforeseen environmental problems.

Sixth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to memorialize this agreement in both federal and state law. Thus, METRO does not oppose Congressman Culberson’s language amending Section 164 of the FY16 THUD appropriations bill to memorialize this agreement. And, Metro does not oppose his efforts to memorialize this agreement in state law.

Seventh, if METRO service area voters approve the referendum, Congressman Culberson pledges to support the will of the voters and he will work to secure the maximum level of federal funding available for the transit projects described in the referendum.

All of that is from a “letter to our fellow Houston area citizens” signed by Rep. Culberson and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia, which you can see here, following an announcement on Friday that the two had reached an accord. It’s about everything I could have wanted – getting the US90A extension moving, providing a path forward for the Universities line, and more. I don’t know how Metro accomplished this, but wow. Major kudos all around. I’m sure there will be more to come, and I am eager to hear it. The later version of the Chron story adds a few details, and Texas Leftist has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Ken Paxton continues to be an ethical morass

We continue to learn more about just how compromised our Attorney General is.

Ken Paxton

Ken Paxton earned thousands of dollars by referring his private legal clients to a financial adviser now accused of “unethical and fraudulent conduct” by the state, records obtained by The Dallas Morning News show.

Paxton, now Texas attorney general, did not tell them he was getting paid. He steered his clients to a financial adviser who had declared bankruptcy and who now faces losing his state license over questionable business dealings.

Paxton’s referral agreement with Frederick “Fritz” Mowery, the head of McKinney-based Mowery Capital Management, has created a yearlong political and legal headache for the Republican attorney general. He acknowledged last year, in the middle of his statewide campaign, that he violated state securities law by failing to register as an agent for Mowery. He paid a $1,000 administrative fine in April 2014.

Failing to register can also be a third-degree felony under state law. Complaints by a watchdog group have led to a Texas Rangers investigation and appointment of special prosecutors.

A Paxton aide said Paxton was unaware of Mowery’s financial trouble and business conduct. Mowery, reached by The News, deferred to his lawyer, who declined to comment. In court proceedings, the attorney has acknowledged his client’s mistakes with paperwork and other matters but said he did not defraud his clients.

[…]

Paxton referred at least six of his law clients — twice as many as previously reported — to Mowery for financial advice.

After being questioned by state securities officials, Mowery sent letters in April 2014 to clients referred by Paxton. The letters, which clients were asked to sign, disclosed the fee arrangement with Paxton. But the letters were back-dated to years earlier, when the clients first hired Mowery. The securities board was sharply critical of the practice.

Mowery’s fees were a percentage of how much a client invested. Calculations based on those disclosures show that Paxton received payments amounting from hundreds to thousands of dollars annually.

Paxton apparently made the referrals without knowing Mowery had struggled financially and declared bankruptcy in 2005.

Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Paxton, said the attorney general does not believe he “vouched” for Mowery when he referred his clients to him.

“If someone’s asking you about a financial manager, it’s reasonable to say, ‘There’s one in my building,’” Holm said.

Mowery’s business dealings have only recently surfaced, he said. “We’re all reading it now. But in real time, I don’t believe the community was aware,” Holm said.

[…]

In the course of the board’s hearing, most of Paxton’s former clients, whose names had previously been unknown, came forward to testify.

Mark Dickerson, a Paxton law client who opened an account with Mowery in December 2011, testified that had he known of the fee arrangement, “I just would have felt it was a conflict of interest and probably would have looked elsewhere for another financial adviser.”

In addition, most of the clients said they either weren’t informed or had no recollection that Mowery said he was paying Paxton for the referral.

The state also showed that after the investigation began, Mowery asked the clients to sign back-dated letters outlining the fee arrangement. Such letters could have suggested to investigators that the clients were informed in advance, when they were not.

Evidence also showed that Mowery tried to alter his letterhead to match the address he used at the time the client contracts were signed.

Mowery testified that he saw the forms were missing from his files and was just trying to replicate the letters. He said that he forthrightly admitted to investigators when asked that he had created the disclosure letters in April 2014.

Several Paxton clients reached by The News declined to discuss the business deals. But records of the hearing show Dickerson and another client, David Goettsche, refused to sign the post-dated letters.

“I didn’t feel like it was a truthful statement for me to make,” Dickerson testified.

For the sake of argument, let’s accept Paxton’s word that he had no idea his buddy Mowery was treading water at the time that he was referring clients to him. The reason why Paxton looks like such a sleaze here is not that he was tossing some business to a friend, but that he was getting a kickback for it without disclosing it to the clients he was sending Mowery’s way. If I recommend a product or service to you, and then later you find out I got a commission for making that recommendation but didn’t tell you that up front, doesn’t that make you wonder about my motivations and objectivity? Wouldn’t it make you feel like you had been used, even just a little?

A few years back there was a big kerfuffle in the world of mommy bloggers, some of whom had been busy doing just that – promoting products and services for which they were being compensated but not disclosing that they were being rewarded for doing so. In the end, after much kvetching and tsouris, everyone agreed to the should-have-been-blindingly-obvious-from-the-get-go solution that the ethical thing to do in this situation is to say up front that you receive a boon from this product or service that you are currently shilling. This is what Ken Paxton failed to do. Shouldn’t we expect our Attorney General to hold himself to the same standards of integrity as these mommy bloggers? I don’t think that’s too much to ask here.

Note that this is a separate matter from the criminal complaint against Paxton, which is about him failing to file the requisite paperwork with the state before soliciting clients for his buddy. Clearly, though, if Paxton had been an ethical person, he would not have gotten himself into this kind of trouble. One wonders if he has truly learned that lesson, or if he’s just hoping to get away with it at this point. PDiddie and the Lone Star Project have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

House approves limited medical marijuana bill

And there it is.

On a 96-34 vote, the House passed Senate Bill 339, from state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. If the House gives final passage in a follow-up vote, the measure will be Gov. Greg Abbott’s to sign, veto or allow to become law without his signature. If it becomes law, the state would be able to regulate and distribute the oils to patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Before the vote, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor, repeatedly stressed to House members that the product she was trying to legalize should not be confused with marijuana.

“It is also not something you can get high on. It has a low risk of abuse,” Klick said. “This is not something that can be smoked. It is ingested orally.”

[…]

Several Republican lawmakers brought up those concerns during the House floor debate. At one point, over the shouts of House members booing, state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, yelled, “This is a bad bill.”

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, and a House sponsor of the bill along with Klick, responded. “It is not a bad bill. It is a great bill and it is going to save lives.”

See here for the background. This is not a bad bill, but it’s not a great bill, either. It should do some good, and it’s a step in the right direction, but remember that some CBD proponents opposed this bill because it didn’t do very much for them. I hope the Lege is as kind to Rep. Joe Moody’s bill to reduce marijuana penalties, but if this is all we get, I won’t be surprised. A statement from RAMP is beneath the fold, and Trail Blazers and the Current have more.

Continue reading →

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Montgomery and Fort Bend

The Houston Area Survey covered a bigger area than usual this year.

One is mostly white and mostly Republican. It hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate since native Texan Lyndon Johnson a half-century ago.

The other is as racially and ethnically diverse as any place in the country, swelling with black, Asian and Hispanic residents and much harder to bring under one umbrella.

But Montgomery and Fort Bend counties are much more similar than they are different. A new poll by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research shows that the two contrasting suburbs share common ground with their attitudes on traffic, development and immigration, among other key local issues.

The shared perspective matters as Houston goes through another growth boom, extending deeper into these counties. They will play an important role in the region’s future as it becomes bigger, busier and more diverse.

Separated by 50 miles of Houston sprawl, the two counties see bumper-to-bumper traffic as the region’s biggest problem, ahead of crime and the local economy, the poll found. And despite the car-oriented cultures of both places, four in 10 people surveyed say they would prefer to live within walking distance of work, restaurants and shops.

On new immigration, Montgomery County residents generally have stronger reservations, while Fort Bend County is more enthusiastic about its increasing diversity. But the differences are slight, said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice sociologist who has conducted the Houston Area Survey for more than 30 years.

“In this time of such political polarization, you would expect to see greater divergence on the issues,” Klineberg said. “But there is a surprising degree of consensus on what we need to do to succeed as a larger community, and that’s reassuring.”

[…]

The poll found that 45 percent of those surveyed – in each county – say improving public transit, such as light rail, buses and trains, is the best way to confront traffic woes. Fewer than one-third of people in the counties say they prefer building bigger freeways and roads.

In Fort Bend County, Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen said the poll’s results are not surprising considering the explosive growth in both counties.

“We’re dealing with the same issues,” including an aging infrastructure and the need for more water, Owen said. “I don’t care which side of Houston you live on, you have these problems.”

Missouri City, for one, is expected to nearly double its current population of 70,000 people by 2025. The growth is being driven by people working in and around the Texas Medical Center, 15 miles away.

Owen, echoing the poll’s results, said the area needs light rail to get people where they need to go.

“We have to get people out of their cars,” he said.

The recently released Kinder survey was based on interviews with 1,611 people, with about half in Harris County. The other half of the interviews were conducted in Fort Bend County and, for the first time, Montgomery County. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Klineberg expanded the poll to understand how these communities view the “dramatic” changes unfolding across greater Houston.

The rail numbers are interesting, though I don’t know how exactly to interpret them. I’ve browsed through the HAS page but have not found where (or if) they broke that data out by county. I’m guessing that support for rail in Montgomery is noticeably less than in Fort Bend and Harris. Which wouldn’t be a surprise, since there’s nothing on the drawing board for Montgomery (not counting the high speed rail proposal, which may not touch Montgomery anyway). Fort Bend has the possibility of the US90A rail extension, which may be in a better place politically now. They’d still have to enable Metro to operate inside the county for it to worthwhile, though. Anyway, as always the Houston Area Survey is a wealth of useful information. It’s good they’re including responses from outside Harris County now. The “Houston Area” isn’t complete without Fort Bend and Montgomery.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Keeping up with Team Hillary

Just checking in, but this story does address a question I’ve been wondering about.

The dozen or so Hillary Clinton supporters gathered here late Tuesday had no illusions that ruby-red Texas would play a key role in electing the next Democratic president. They acknowledged they may get sent to other states to phone bank and block walk, and they were told — repeatedly — not to expect Clinton’s campaign to open a brick-and-mortar outpost in the Lone Star State anytime soon.

Yet they held out hope that the former secretary of state could put up a fight in Texas, where Democrats are desperately looking for a boost after devastating losses in last year’s statewide elections.

“She may not win this state,” said Terry Adkins, a former union official who recalls registering voters with the Clintons decades ago in the Rio Grande Valley. “But I do believe she’s going to really scare some Republicans.”

The meeting at the back of the Llano Public Library — held on a dreary evening in the heart of the Hill Country, 90 minutes outside Texas’ liberal refuge of Austin — highlighted the Clinton campaign’s first public efforts to build an organization in a state that rejected President Barack Obama by double-digit margins in 2008 and 2012. The campaign is decisively concentrating on the primary in Texas and elsewhere, reflective of a humble approach to a presidential race in which Clinton has long been presumed as the Democratic nominee.

Still, as they rally donors and volunteers, some Texas Democrats cannot help but imagine a general election in which Clinton shakes the party out of its statewide slump.

“I’m not giving up on the general election in Texas because I think she’s the kind of candidate who could build on the work Battleground Texas and other groups have done and make a credible showing,” said Carrin Patman, a Houston trial lawyer who is helping raise money for the campaign. “It may sound quixotic, but I wouldn’t rule out her putting Texas in play in 2016.”

[…]

For Texas Democrats, it remains an open question how the campaign will mesh with the network of state-level groups working to turn the state blue, especially as those groups find their footing after getting crushed up and down the ballot in 2014. Battleground Texas Executive Director Jenn Brown said in a statement Tuesday that it is “too soon to tell what things will look like in Texas in 2016 or how Battleground Texas and its supporters will interact with the president campaign.”

Clinton’s fans in Texas nonetheless see Battleground as an eventual partner for the campaign. Some believe the benefits of its work last year will not be evident until a presidential election cycle, when Democrats tend to turn out more than they do in midterm elections.

See here and here for the background. This is the first explicit mention of BGTx I’ve seen in one of these stories, though we still don’t know how they will interact with Team Hillary. All I know is that whatever it turns out to be, if it works well we need to keep it going from there. We need for 2018 to be a lot better than 2014 and 2010 were.

Posted in: The making of the President.

No expedited appeal for HERO opponents

From HOUEquality, on May 13:

Today the 14th Court of Appeals denied HERO opponents’ request to force a trial in less than 30 days. The trial will proceed, but at a regular pace. This is another setback for opponents, but the case will still be heard by the Court of Appeals.

PetitionsInvalid

HERO opponents filed their request for an expedited appeal on April 30, nearly two weeks after the city prevailed in district court. I don’t know about you, but I think if part of my argument was that my case would somehow become moot if the appeals process took too long, I’d file that appeal a bit more quickly. The city responded on May 7, arguing that the plaintffs’ request was “unnecessary, unreasonable, and unfair”, and as you can see in the very brief ruling, the appeals court agreed. I don’t know what the appeals schedule will be, but I do know that unless there’s a ruling in place by about mid-August ordering a repeal referendum, there ain’t gonna be one this year. One hopes there will never be one, but this year is increasingly unlikely.

Oh, and it might help the plaintiffs’ case if they actually paid the appellate filing fee. I mean, it would be fine by me if they didn’t, as that will lead to a dismissal of their case. But if they do want their case to go forward, in however timely a fashion, this is a detail they might want to tend to. Just FYI.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Another redistricting update

Once again from Russ Tidwell, writing at Letters from Texas.

The three judge federal panel in San Antonio is nearing a final decision on redistricting litigation for the Texas House and congressional delegation.

As previously discussed here, multiple weeks of trial have provided a mountain of evidence of intentional discrimination and dilution of the opportunity for minority citizens to elect the candidates of their choice. The post-trial briefs were filed in December.

However, it appears the panel in San Antonio was waiting for further guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court in the form of a ruling in an Alabama redistricting case. That ruling came down on March 25, and it was a victory for the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference. The San Antonio panel immediately ordered the Texas litigants to file additional briefs in light of this ruling. The last of those was filed Monday.

The Alabama case involved claims of improper racial gerrymandering and provided significant clarification to this distinct line of case law stretching back to the Shaw case in North Carolina. While minority plaintiffs in Texas felt they had adequately proven their claims of vote dilution and intentional discrimination, this ruling provided an additional clear roadmap for successful resolution of their claims.

[…]

In response to the San Antonio panel’s order, attorneys representing the Perez Plaintiffs, LULAC, and the NAACP filed a brief outlining how the evidence already before the court supports racial gerrymandering findings under the Alabama opinion. The brief documents the plaintiffs’ claims in eleven state house districts in Dallas, Tarrant, Harris, McLennan, Bell and Fort Bend Counties. Reversing the fragmentation of these districts would re-enfranchise over 1.2 million people of color in these six counties.

While MALC’s brief was consistent with and supportive of the Perez/NAACP/LULAC filing, it made additional claims in Nueces, Midland/Ector and Lubbock Counties. They rightfully argue that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the Fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution should override the state’s constitutional “county line rule”. This would provide for the creation of three additional majority Hispanic districts.

See here and here for some background, and here for the LULAC demonstration Congressional map. The main piece of news here is that the San Antonio panel is nearing a decision. I do wonder if there’s time for this case to make it through the process for the 2016 election – I mean, we’re seven months out from the filing deadline, and we’re barely down the road. Would we have another election under the current maps, or would we get a different map in the interim? At this rate there won’t be a whole lot of elections left before it’s time for the next set of maps to be drawn. We’ll know more when we hear from the court, I guess.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

New rail lines set to officially open

I’m so ready.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, after numerous delays, will christen the Green and Purple lines Saturday with free rides and community celebrations, just in time for Memorial Day. The openings signify the end of a long, sometimes painful journey that tested nerves and frustrated supporters and opponents alike.

Officials are encouraged the process has led to greater understanding of rail among supporters and opponents. Prospects for additional rail in Houston brightened late last week, meanwhile, with the announcement that Metro had reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, softening the language Culberson added to a transportation bill to block a long-planned line on Richmond that was part of the same 2003 referendum that led to the Green and Purple lines.

Completing construction is hardly the end of the discussion about rail and its place in Houston, however. How efficiently the new lines operate, and how well they serve the residents, students, workers and travelers looking for an alternative to driving, will determine if the political fighting and price tag were worth it for Houston area taxpayers and Metro riders.

If riders flock to the lines, elected officials and transit board members agreed, it could wash away the stain of political infighting and many missteps – including a controversy over buying American rail car components that threatened hundreds of millions of federal dollars, a botched design of a signature downtown station, repeated delays and a failed attempt to build an underpass along Harrisburg that nearby residents preferred.

A lackluster rollout, weak community support and a rash of accidents as drivers adjust to the new trains could give currency to critics’ predictions of a boondoggle “danger train.” Metro officials acknowledge the opening is a huge opportunity for the agency, but they warn that nothing goes perfectly.

“There are going to be accidents,” chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “But those in my view are not the litmus test. There are accidents on (U.S.) 59.”

[…]

Officials point to the extension of the Red Line, from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons, as an indication of the demand. Since the 5.3 mile extension opened in December 2013 its ridership has exceeded expectations and continues to grow.

March light rail ridership was 12.5 percent higher than March 2014, while overall bus ridership dropped by 3 percent. Even accounting for bus lines the train replaced, rail is carrying more riders, and its expansion north has meant more people can make direct trips downtown and to the Texas Medical Center.

It’s been a long road to get here. Some of that is Metro’s fault and some of it isn’t. The Main Street Line and the North Line extension have both been very successful, easily reaching ridership milestones well ahead of schedule. I am confident the new lines will do the same, even more so for the Harrisburg Line when its extension is finished. Should we continue to build on to the system – if we extend the Main Street Line out to Fort Bend and into Fort Bend via US90A, if we build the Universities Line to connect the current system to Uptown, if we build an Inner Katy Line, perhaps to connect a high speed rail terminal to downtown – who knows how big an effect we can have. We’ve already been more successful with this than we thought we could be. There’s no reason we can’t continue to be.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for May 17

You do not have the constitutional right to sing in a post office. Does Ted Cruz know about this?

A whole bunch of African rhinos may get relocated to South Texas.

“The bottom line is that Brown Recluse spiders are extremely common in some areas but hardly ever bite anyone, and totally absent from vast areas where they are blamed, incorrectly, for the occasional lesion.”

“Republicans keep saying they’ll be ready to act if the Supreme Court upholds the big legal challenge to Obamacare, thereby wiping out financial assistance for millions of people in two-thirds of the states. With the clock ticking down to a ruling, it’s gotten awfully hard to take the GOP’s vows seriously.”

“The birth rate for unmarried women has actually gone down 14 percent since its peak in 2008.”

Blame your parents if you get bitten by mosquitoes a lot.

“But I’d like to talk about the next four months, in which Simmons is still with ESPN but is essentially a lame duck. What does employment law say about this awkward interim period?”

There’s a petition to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Yogi Berra.

Is this the end of the line for Bill Cosby?

“For those keeping score at home, if you’re white, you can apparently refuse to take your hands out of your pockets and threaten to kill a cop while sporting a tattoo of the Number of the Beast on your forehead. But Freddie Gray is dead because he “made eye contact” with a police officer.”

Lawsuit filed against Rolling Stone and the reporter who wrote that bogus UVa rape story.

“The Obama administration said Monday that health plans must offer at least one option for every type of prescription birth control free of charge to consumers.”

Deflategate class. Lawyers, man.

Grissom and Willows will return as CSI gets a two-hour movie finale.

“Harriet Tubman won an online poll asking which woman should be featured on the $20 bill, as part of a movement to push President Obama to support the idea.”

“Asian workers are far less likely than whites to end up in the leadership ranks.”

Actions have consequences, even for loutish soccer fans.

“A first of its kind study has found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual men and women face troubling amounts of homophobia at all levels of sports, from the youth ranks to the pros.”

“However, now that same-sex marriage is possible in a majority of states, a number of employers there are cutting benefits for same-sex couples who don’t legally wed”.

“One woman was desperate enough to ask her rapist to help fund the abortion.”

RIP, William Zinsser, teacher and author of On Writing Well.

RIP, B.B. King, legendary bluesman.

“But the truth is painful and clear: Iraq wasn’t a good faith mistake. It was a calamity based on lies and willful deceptions. Much of that was clear at the time. It’s all clear now.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

The Mayoral candidates and public transportation

It’s a start.

HoustonMetro

When it comes to traffic, Houstonians and their mayoral candidates agree: The city is gridlocked and only getting worse.

Judging by the candidates’ fledgling campaign platforms, many of which mention traffic as a top concern, road improvements are the answer.

Houston-area residents, however, beg to differ.

So says the Kinder Institute’s recent Houston Area Survey, which found that 43 percent of those surveyed in Harris County said “making improvements in public transportation, such as trains, buses and light rail” is the best-long term solution to the city’s congestion. Just 26 percent of survey respondents said the fix is “building bigger and better roads and highways.”

That perspective is not new – those polled have said they prefer a public transportation solution to Houston-area traffic problems for a few years running – but recent surveys show declining support for road improvements.

“You cannot solve the traffic problem by simply building more roads, and the public understands that,” said sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who conducts the annual poll.

Some say the discrepancy exists in part because people envision public transportation as a way to get others off the roads, even as they show little interest in riding the train or bus to work themselves. The survey also incorporates those who live outside the city.

Rice University political science professor Bob Stein framed the seeming disconnect in terms of voter turnout.

“We wonder why we don’t get mass transit,” Stein said. “It’s because the people that vote, they drive cars, and their vote has more influence on the policy decisions than the people’s who don’t vote,”

The full Kinder survey is here. I’m sure that low turnout has something to do with it, mostly in the sense that the issue of public transportation rarely gets much discussion during election season, but until the Kinder folks start doing a likely voter screen we can only guess how much of an effect it is.

The story also reports on what the Mayoral candidates have to say about public transportation, which at this point isn’t much; only Sylvester Turner, in his announcement video, mentions public transportation on his website. I know, I know, it’s still early in the cycle, but it’s not that early any more, especially now that the field is set. Since I’ve been incessantly complaining about the way that various issues affect the 2015 Mayor’s race have been ignored in the Chron’s reporting on these issues, I should be glad to see a story like this, and indeed I am. I’d like more – much more – but for now I’ll take what I can get.

Posted in: Election 2015.

HISD mostly declines to rezone its schools

Lots of noise, not nearly as much action.

HISD School Map

A divided Houston school board on Thursday rejected most of the rezoning proposals designed to reduce class sizes after dozens of parents expressed concerns about families having to send their children to different campuses.

Only two of the six proposals passed, with parents and board members in those areas generally supportive of the changes.

In the booming Energy Corridor, the attendance zone for the popular Bush Elementary School will shrink, and Shadowbriar Elementary in the area will become a specialty school designed to relieve overcrowding for nearby campuses.

In southwest Houston, the Tinsley Elementary boundaries will decrease, with homes rezoned to Anderson Elementary.

Current students and incoming kindergarten students will be grandfathered and can stay.

[…]

Superintendent Terry Grier said the proposals were an attempt to cut the number of waivers that the district receives from the Texas Education Agency to exceed the state’s cap of 22 students per class in elementary schools. The district requested about 1,500 waivers this fall, more than double the number five years ago.

Hair Balls details who was and wasn’t shuffled around.

Schools that won’t see their lines redrawn include Rice, Roberts, Twain and West U elementaries in one group. Another group that won’t be reconfigured includes Smith, Crockett, Love, Memorial Sinclair, Steven, Harvard and Travis elementaries – mostly on arguments from Sinclair supporters who said they’d built something special and didn’t want to see it diminished and trustees who agreed with that.

A third group including Hartsfield, Bastian, Kelso and Young elementaries will stay as they are. It’ll be status quo for Kennedy, Burbank, Lyons and Northline elementaries. Lyons in particular was pointed out as a school that has done well and shouldn’t be disturbed.

The schools that will see their boundary lines change include the Anderson, Tinsley and Halpin group as well as the Shadowbriar, Ashford, Bush, Askew, Daily, Emerson and Walnut Bend group. In the second case, there were several parents supporting the change as well as those who criticized it.

This was brought up in January and then put on hold in March, as it proved to be as challenging and contentious as any other form of redistricting is. The main reason why parents argued for the status quo is that they were willing to trade a few fuller classes for not messing with something that was working, as it was generally highly-rated schools that were overpopulated. Ultimately, what we need is for more neighborhood schools to be doing as well as their most-crowded peers. Lot easier said than done, I know.

Posted in: School days.

Fighting illegal dumping

Illegal dumping of trash is a huge problem in some Houston neighborhoods. Enforcement is especially tricky because unless you catch someone in the act, there’s little to no evidence to go on. One way to help catch dumpers in the act is with cameras at locations where dumping frequently occurs. Council Member Jerry Davis has been working to get a camera program to fight illegal dumping going. He was able to get some money from the budget to work on this but couldn’t work out the details with HPD. We pick up the story from there.

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

So last year, Davis and his staff instead turned to Harris County for help. He offered Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen the $250,000 to purchase, assemble and monitor 25 cameras in areas where people frequently cast off garbage.

Deputies from constable precincts 1 and 5 make up the county’s environmental crimes unit but have jurisdiction throughout the county. The deputies would largely focus on areas in council districts with the most illegal dumping complaints, ranging from Sunnyside to Kashmere Gardens to the East End. The county would own the cameras and keep any funds generated from prosecuting crimes.

In Houston, any amount of illegal dumping can result in fines, and more than 5 pounds can yield jail time.

On Wednesday, City Council approved the agreement, which could span three years with renewals. Harris County commissioners are expected to take it up early next month.

“It was a lengthy process and, yes, we did get a little bit upset at times,” Davis said. “But we just persevered and worked with the legal department to make sure this gets done because the people are counting on it.”

HPD environmental senior officer Stephen Dicker largely agreed with Davis’ assessment of why the city opted to work with the county. Dicker said HPD talks fell apart two years ago when he told the city he would need to add 15 people, effectively doubling the investigations unit, to set up, man and track the new cameras to the tune of $1.7 million. The money simply wasn’t there.

The city’s environmental unit also tends to focus on larger commercial and industrial offenders that have a bigger public health impact, Dicker said.

“The emphasis just doesn’t match up,” Dicker said. “He’s looking at just trash on the streets. We do water pollution, air pollution. Those are much bigger impacts. But we do hope the program with the county works.”

I’m glad to see this because it really is a problem, and for those of us who are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where it doesn’t happen, we have no idea what it’s like to put up with this. I get why HPD focuses its environmental enforcement efforts on commercial and industrial offenders, but I’m still disappointed that the department didn’t have the capability to take this on, given what a big quality of life issue it is. This is one reason why I keep saying that we need to have a much better understanding than we currently do about how HPD prioritizes its budget, which very much informs how it prioritizes what crimes it pursues. I have no doubt that there wasn’t an additional $1.7 million to be found in the HPD budget as it currently stands, but I also have no doubt that we could re-prioritize that budget in a way that would have allowed this. Maybe we would still not choose to pursue this, but we can’t know that until we have a clearer picture of what HPD does and why it does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t do.

I will also note that one of the things that a garbage fee could help finance is a stronger enforcement organization against all forms of illegal dumping. We fund the Solid Waste department through general revenue, which makes Houston different than other Texas cities. They do a great job, but they could do more of it, and there would be more room in the budget for other things. And no, I don’t expect this to be brought up for discussion any time soon. I’m just saying.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Bikes now allowed on light rail all day

Some good news from the inbox:

BikesOnRail

METRORail is opening its doors to bikes during all regular service hours just in time for Houston’s Bike to Work Day observance, Friday, May 15, 2015. The new hours are made possible with the introduction of a new fleet of rail cars for METRORail’s Green/East End and Purple/Southeast Lines launch on May 23.

The expanded hours coincide with the announcement that one million bikes have been boarded on METRO’s fixed-route fleet of 1,200 buses since the Bikes On Buses program was instituted in 2007. This year in the month of April alone METRO buses carried nearly 21,500 bikes as compared with 1,500 for the month of April 2008.

Riders are showing a strong desire to use both buses and trains as part of their daily commutes. The restricted access hours will be rescinded effective immediately in an effort to keep riders moving in the right direction. For information about how to access and maintain safety on METRORail with your bicycle please refer to www.ridemetro.org.

Beginning Saturday, May 23, 2015 there will be more transit options as two new light-rail lines start serving the community. The Green Line (East End Line) and the Purple Line (Southeast Line) will open to the public and there will be a huge community celebration to mark the occasion. For details about METRORail Fest, including free tickets to the celebration and performances, visit www.ridemetro.org. or click here now.

The effort to get bikes on trains dates back to at least 2008, with Metro allowing them on for most of the day in 2010. I found out about the peak hours restriction the hard way a few years ago – I’d dropped my car off for service at a garage in Montrose near Midtown, and had cleverly brought my bike with me so I could ride to the Ensemble/HCC station and take the train to work. I wound up having to hang out at the station for almost an hour before I was allowed to board. Not any more! Metro has also done very well with bikes on buses – I feel like about half the buses I observe have at least one bike on the rack. I look forward to seeing what the numbers are like for bikes on trains. Kudos all around for this.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Saturday video break: Gold

One from the kids, by Britt Nicole:

Chad Orzel recently wrote about how having a six-year-old means he’s fairly up to speed on pop music today. I’m not quite as familiar with the Top 40 list he presented, but I can definitely relate. I’ll put it to you this way: We have the 2015 Radio Disney Music Awards show on our TiVo right now, and we had the 2014 RDMAs on the last one. So yeah, I have some knowledge about What The Kids Are Listening To These Days, or as someone else once put it, the Tunes The Young People Will Enjoy.

And now for a tune that the somewhat less young people will enjoy, here’s Emmylou Harris’ song of the same name:

What can I say? I enjoy them both.

Posted in: Music.

Bell’s anti-marriage bill goes down

From the inbox, a celebration of victory:

RedEquality

Civil liberties and LGBT rights groups tonight are hailing the failure by the Texas House of Representatives to pass HB 4105, which would bar the state from granting, enforcing or recognizing marriage licenses for same-sex couples even if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down state bans on such marriages as unconstitutional. A growing number of major Texas-based companies, including Dell in Round Rock and Celanese in Irving, have come out publicly against the bill this week. Emails and calls have also flooded legislative offices in opposition to the bill. Moreover, House opponents successfully managed the bill schedule to keep HB 4105 from coming up for a vote. Following are statements from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Equality Texas, Texas Freedom Network and the Human Rights Campaign.

Terri Burke, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas
“HB 4105 would have accomplished nothing constructive. That this hateful, retrograde legislation has failed is an encouraging reflection that most Texans value equality.”

Chuck Smith, executive director, Equality Texas
“Thanks to the leadership of our allies in the Texas House, the clock ran out on HB 4105 at midnight. Unfortunately for LGBT Texans, there are still 17 days remaining in the legislative session – 17 days during which homophobic and transphobic lawmakers will continue to look for amendment opportunities to inflict discrimination. We must continue to fight their efforts to defy the Supreme Court and to deny equality to LGBT Texans – through the end of the legislative session and beyond.”

Kathy Miller, president, Texas Freedom Network
“We hope today’s action means the death of this irresponsible bill and are grateful to all of the legislators who have worked hard to ensure that it never gets out of the House. This was just one bill among many in a broad strategy to lock in discrimination against gay and transgender Texans and subvert a Supreme Court ruling on the freedom to marry. Bad actors will continue to push their discrimination legislation, including as amendments to other bills, until the final gavel. So we’re not letting our guard down now.”

Marty Rouse, national field director, Human Rights Campaign
“As a deplorable last-ditch effort to try to stop marriage equality from reaching the state if the Supreme Court rules in favor of equality this summer, this destructive and divisive bill would have sent the wrong message about the future of the Lone Star State and the ability of all Texans to live and thrive there. We urge lawmakers to ensure neither this bill nor the more than twenty other pieces of discriminatory legislation targeting LGBT Texans and their families move any further.”

Both the Trib, which also provides a profile of Rep. Bell, and TrailBlazers both note that he can (and will try to) attach his bill or some part of it to a Senate bill. The Austin Chronicle explains how it all came to this.

Its failure is a self-inflicted wound. If Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, had filed it before March 13, it might have stood a chance of earlier, safer passage. As was, it was a minor miracle that it made it this far. Bills with a number in the 4,000s, filed two months into the session, aren’t really supposed to get a second hearing.

Think about that.

But this measure was a favorite of the House Republican caucus, with three authors and 86 co-authors, and so it sped through committee, making it on to the calendar for the final day that it could conceivably pass to third reading.

Think about that.

If it had passed, then Texas lawmakers could tell fundamentalist, homophobic primary voters, “look what we did!”

At the same time, they would have to explain to the business community what they did.

The fate of this measure shows the fine balancing act that the modern GOP must strike, between the fringe right and the corporate right. Businesses of all scales have made it completely clear that they oppose such legislation: not only because is it cruel, but because it’s a great way to scare off potential customers and investors. This session, new group Texas Competes, comprising commercial power players like Southwest Airlines, Dell, Samsung the Alamo Drafthouse, PR firm GSD&M, and SXSW made a vocal commitment to LGBT equality. Even the normally loyal fiscal conservative Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business has chastised lawmakers for such bills.

The fight against anti-LGBT bills is not over yet. Yesterday, Senate Bill 2065, the Texas version of Indiana’s “religious freedom bill” (see Bill of the Week, May 8) was referred to the House State Affairs Committee. As for the gist of HB 4105, Bell has told the Dallas Morning News that he may try to get it tacked onto another bill as an amendment. SB 2065 could be a primary contender, and Republicans still have until May 26 to get it back to the chamber for a second reading. The question is, do they really want to?

As is always the case in the Lege, nothing is well and truly dead until sine die. Moreover, if there is a special session for whatever the reason, Greg Abbott could add this to the call. Ninety-three of the 98 Republicans in the House have signed a letter swearing to love, honor, and cherish the idea of opposite marriage till death do they part. But for today at least, the goal of killing this piece of crap has been accomplished. Let us hope we never see its like again. The Observer and PDiddie have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Metro reaches detente with Culberson

Holy cow!

Metro and U.S. Rep. John Culberson have called a truce in their war over a planned light rail line on Richmond Avenue, suggesting an end to an impasse that has stymied local transit development.

Culberson, a Republican from Houston, has stood in the way of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s federal funding efforts for years. While the new agreement does not necessarily mean the Richmond line will be developed, it could help Metro move forward with other transit projects.

“We have got to make progress or we are in gridlock,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

The announcement follows months of discussions and comes days before Metro is set to open two new rail lines serving east and southeast Houston. The Green and Purple lines open May 23, the next step in development of a light rail system that has divided Metro and many critics, notably Culberson, since voters approved it in 2003.

From his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, Culberson has stopped Metro from receiving any Federal Transit Administration funds related to rail on Richmond or a similar rail plan along Post Oak, later converted to a fixed-route bus system.

Culberson represents voters west of Shepherd along Richmond, many of whom vigorously oppose the rail line.

Just as a reminder, while the anti-rail faction is highly vocal, there’s little evidence to suggest they’re any kind of majority. Precinct analysis from the 2006 election, when funding for the Universities line and the debate about whether or not it belonged on Richmond Avenue were hot items, suggests that Culberson and then-State Rep. Martha Wong did not gain any votes by being anti-rail, and may have lost some votes for it. That was a long time ago and 2006 was an oddball election, so I wouldn’t stake too much on any of that, but it always annoys me to see these loudmouths presented as the prevailing opinion.

Recently, Culberson announced he would seek to continue cutting off the Richmond money in the next federal funding bill, but he softened his stance by saying Metro could seek money for the lines if they receive local voter support in a new election.

He said current leaders have made the agency more financially transparent, helping him to find common ground with them.

“I am especially pleased that our agreed-upon amendment today will make Metro the first transit agency in America to require voter approval of a very detailed and very specific transportation plan before they can move forward with construction,” Culberson said in a statement.

The change in tone drew praise from Rep. Ted Poe, another Houston-area Republican, who sparred with Culberson over his blocking the federal funding for rail along Richmond.

“While we would prefer to have no limiting language, this compromise allows the voters of Houston to have a voice in this matter, which has been Congressman Poe’s concern the whole time,” said spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.

We’ll have to wait and see exactly what this means, but if we can settle this matter once and for all and get the ball rolling on the US90A rail extension into Fort Bend County, that would be a big step forward. The fact is that sooner or later, we’re going to need the Universities line and we’re going to want to build it. It doesn’t make sense to have the Uptown line as an island unto itself. The system as a whole will be far more valuable if it is all connected. If we do wind up with the high speed rail line terminal being out at the Northwest Transit Center, that makes connections to the Uptown Line (including perhaps an Inner Katy line, which by the way was also part of the 2003 referendum) all the more necessary. All I ask is that if we have to re-vote on the Universities line that we get full cooperation from our entire Congressional delegation if it passes as well as the possibility of building on what we already have. It doesn’t have to happen right away, it just has to happen. Houston Tomorrow and Texas Leftist have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

It’s hard out here on a recycler, part 2

As if they didn’t have enough to deal with.

As low commodity prices have left recyclers short on cash to invest in technological upgrades, product manufacturers are coming out with new types of packaging that make business even tougher.

These products include lighter-weight plastic bottles, resealable pouch containers and other items that are popular with consumers and often better for the environment because they require less energy to produce and transport. Water bottles are made with less plastic now, for example, and thin plastic film is replacing heavier packaging.

But poor consumer education means that items like trash, grocery and dry cleaning bags end up in recyclers’ sorting facilities where they don’t belong and can jam machines.

“Flexible packaging has a very positive environmental footprint,” said Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy at the National Waste & Recycling Association. “Very hard to recycle, however, so there’s a trade-off there.”

Clear plastic pouches also have become popular. In addition to their convenient zip-close tops, they use less material. But in sorting facilities, machines often mistake the flattened pouches for paper and end up placing them in the wrong place. Thinner plastic bottles are now more easily flattened, too.

[…]

For recyclers, the challenge remains in keeping consumers educated about film and other materials that don’t belong in recycling bins.

“With more complexity in materials that consumers are purchasing, it makes it a lot harder for customers to know what they can recycle and what they can’t, so I think it makes it harder to ensure that we get the right materials in the recycling stream,” Susan Robinson, directors of government affairs for Waste Management. “It used to be a lot more simple.”

See here for the background. I don’t have anything to add here, just to note that it’s another item on the “educate the public about how to recycle” to do list.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Good news for Texas lakes

All that rain has had a positive effect.

Lavon Lake

Statewide, estimates from the National Weather Service indicate the first four months of this year have been the fifth wettest since 1895 and the wettest since 1997. So far this year, estimates show the state has gotten 11.5 inches of precipitation, or about 160 percent of the normal 7.1 inches. March and April each provided 200 percent of the state’s normal rainfall.

And the news going forward is good.

A weaker-than-anticipated El Nino that brought with it rain, snow and sleet to Texas is expected to persist and intensify through next winter.

This summer’s temperatures may be the lowest since 2007-2008, according to state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammons, which could lead to less evaporation from lakes, weather officials said. Also, the state’s wettest two months – May and June – are still ahead.

[…]

Lakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are faring well. Across the seven reservoirs serving Dallas County, lake levels are up nearly 30 percent from three months ago, at 94 percent full on Friday. Fort Worth’s seven reservoirs were almost 82 percent full Friday, up from 63 percent three months ago.

Other areas too have gotten good precipitation, including Houston, Corpus Christi and Midland. The Edwards Aquifer, which serves San Antonio and much of the Hill Country, has risen nearly 20 feet since Jan. 1.

The one area where lake levels remain low is around Austin, where Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan were 38 percent full Friday; that’s the second-lowest level for this time of year since the 1960s.

There is still some exceptional drought in Texas, in places like Palo Pinto and Childress counties, northwest of Fort Worth, but overall things are much better. Here’s a DMN story about lake levels in North Texas. Lavon Lake, in Collin County, released flood waters for the first time in three years. Its level was at a record low last July. I wish things would improve for Lake Travis, but on the whole we have a lot to be thankful about.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten: Parenthetically speaking, part 15

At long last, we bring this series to a close.

1. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Carole King
2. You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night) – Meat Loaf
3. Young Guns (Go for It!) – Wham!
4. Your Love Is (Love Song With Metaphor) – Lager Rhythms
5. (You’re My) Soul and Inspiration – The Righteous Brothers
6. You’re Only Human (Second Wind) – Billy Joel
7. Lessons of Darkness (Apology) – Supreme Cuts
8. 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) – Bruce Springsteen
9. The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) – Simon and Garfunkel
10. 90 Miles (The Tennessee Song) – The HoneyCutters

Fifteen weeks, and 150 songs with parentheses in the title. It only seemed like most of them were U2 or Christmas songs. Now I need to find another gimmick.

Posted in: Music.

House passes stricter judicial bypass bill

Unfortunate but expected.

Never again

Never again

After about four hours of debate and a barrage of failed amendments by Democrats, the House passed House Bill 3994 by Republican state Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria on a 98-47 vote. The measure would enact several restrictions on “judicial bypass,” the legal process that allows some minors to obtain abortions without their parents’ permission. The measure now awaits final approval by the House before it can go to the Senate.

Texas law requires minors to obtain consent for an abortion from at least one parent. But if obtaining an abortion could endanger the minor, she can look to the courts for judicial bypass to obtain the abortion without parental consent.

“The intent of this bill is to improve the protection of the minor girl and ensure that parental rights are protected,” Morrison said.

But the measure was met with fierce opposition from Democrats who called several points of order — a method used to delay or kills bills on a technicality — and offered several amendments to weaken the bill. Their efforts were unsuccessful.

Among the restrictions in HB 3994 is a requirement that doctors presume a pregnant woman is a minor unless she presents a “valid government record of identification” — a measure opponents of the bill have dubbed as “abortion ID.”

Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to tack on several amendments to the bill to strike the ID provision altogether and broaden the types of IDs that would be acceptable under the law.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin who offered an ID-related amendment questioned whether HB 3994 is intended to create “a defacto ban on abortion for people who don’t have IDs.” Meanwhile, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, grilled Morrison on why a student ID from a high school or college would not be acceptable or whether she expected victims of human trafficking to be able to comply with the provision.

“What kind of ID do you think a human trafficking would have?” Anchia asked Morrison.

“If they’re actually a victim of human trafficking they should be going to a police department,” Morrison responded.

It was one of few questions Morrison answered during the hours-long debate, declining multiple requests from Democrats to answer questions about the bill.

The legislation would also increase the burden of proof for minors who say that asking for parental consent could lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

[…]

Additionally, the measure would restrict where minors can seek judicial bypass. Minors can currently file applications for judicial bypass in any county in the state. But HB 3994 would require minors to file applications in their home county, unless that county has a population under 10,000, or the county where she will obtain the procedure.

An amendment by state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, to revise that population limit to 50,000 failed.

Another provision of Morrison’s bill would make public the names of judges who rule on judicial bypass cases. González also offered an amendment to strike this provision from the bill, arguing that it would “put a target on the backs of judges who rule on these cases.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Now read that last paragraph, and keep in mind this is happening at a time when unlimited “dark money” campaign contributions can be made in secret and the Lege is busy protecting the identities of those involved in making the lethal injection drugs, in each case because of fear or reprisal from some unknown foe. But the names of judges who grant judicial bypass requests? Sure, go ahead and publish them. What could they possibly have to fear? I mean, whoever heard of violence being committed against anyone associated with abortion?

There is one small glimmer of hope, as RG Ratcliffe notes.

Morrison’s bill has no Senate companion. Finding a Senate sponsor will not be difficult, but the bill comes up again today [Thursday] on third reading. That means even more time will be eaten up by debating it once more, further driving down the chances of [Rep. Cecil] Bell’s anti-same-sex marriage bill. Also, depending on how the House handles the paperwork, Morrison’s bill might not be delivered to the Senate until sometime next week. Then it would have to be read and referred to committee, where a public hearing would be required before it could be voted out. Senate rules also provide means of delaying the hearing on the bill. So the odds of the bill reaching the governor are not great.

By debating it in the House, however, the legislation gives the Republican allies of Speaker Joe Straus an anti-abortion vote they can carry into next year’s primaries.

[…]

Now, the lay of the land for Bell’s HB 4105. The legislation would bar county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses if the U.S. Supreme Court declares state bans on such marriages to be unconstitutional. The clerks could be caught between following a Supreme Court opinion and state law.

“It would be chaos,” Chuck Smith of Equality Texas told me.

Smith also believes the bill would be part of a larger strategy to keep fighting against implementing same-sex marriage in Texas. He speculated that Attorney General Ken Paxton would first argue that the Texas case, pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was not part of the national case and so the ruling does not apply. Failing that, Paxton could then litigate using Bell’s bill that the federal government cannot force the states to use state money to enforce a federal law or court ruling.

Failure tonight of Bell’s bill would make that litigation more difficult.

Ah, you say, Governor Greg Abbott could add Bell’s bill to the agenda of any special session. That is true, but the governor would be unlikely to call a session before his 20-day deadline to sign or veto bills has passed. That means the timing of a special session, particularly if the tax-cut negotiations break down, is most likely sometime in early July. By then, the Supreme Court will have ruled, and if it rules in favor of same-sex marriages, that will be the law of the land before the Legislature could resurrect Bell’s legislation.

It’s something, but remember Abbott could add the judicial bypass bill to a special session call, too. I drafted this last night so I didn’t know as I wrote if Bell’s bill would fall off the table or not. I’ll post something about it for tomorrow, but whatever does happen any opportunity to slow things down was welcome. In the meantime, as distasteful and damaging as those tax cut proposals are, it would be better if they pass now and not in the summer. Hair Balls, Newsdesk, and the Observer have more.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

One more shot at killing the high speed rail line

Never forget that the tricksiest maneuvers in the legislative handbook come in the budget.

Texas’ prospects of having the first high-speed train line in the nation hinge on two sentences in a proposed state budget that lawmakers in the House and Senate must hash out before the end of the month.

The Senate’s budget would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any resources overseeing or regulating a privately funded attempt to connect Dallas and Houston with a bullet train.

Company officials say that will effectively kill the project because Texas Central Railway needs the state Transportation Department’s knowledge and oversight for key aspects of the project, even though it’s not seeking state funds for construction.

It was unclear Tuesday which senator on the conference committee hashing out both chambers’ budgets added the lines affecting high-speed rail projects. State, local and Texas Central officials described the addition as a backdoor attempt to mandate policy outside of public view.

“This was something that came in the dark of night and we just haven’t had a public discussion on it yet,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a major supporter of the project.

Texas Central chairman and CEO Richard Lawless said the addition of the language undercuts lawmakers’ consistent portrayal of Texas as a business-friendly state whose officials don’t hamstring private entities.

“It sends an incredibly bad signal to any private company that wants to do business in Texas,” Lawless said. “It says our process is unpredictable and it isn’t transparent.”

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairs the group of senators who will work with House counterparts to reconcile both chambers’ bills. She could not be reached late Tuesday. That conference committee of lawmakers is focused on major differences on how best to provide tax cuts. It remains unclear whether or how they’ll address the Senate’s proposed language on high-speed rail projects.

Freshman Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, isn’t on the conference committee but said he’s been talking to Nelson and other members about striking the language from the bill.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Huffines said.

As are the rail opponents, who as we know have been unable to get a bill passed to do what they want. At least this is now out in the open, so everyone knows what they’d be voting on. If this particular rider makes it through the conference committee process, it’s as good as in. If not, then that’s likely to be all she wrote. I’d say at this point that the odds slightly favor it not being part of the budget, but we won’t know for sure till we see the final product.

On a side note, Southwest Airlines reiterated their position that they haven’t taken a position on Texas Central Railway.

In fact, according to the Chronicle’s Erin Mulvaney, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Wednesday the Dallas-based airline has not yet taken a stance on the high-speed rail line.

“We just haven’t taken a position,” Kelly said during a question-and-answer session in Houston. “I think we’ve been careful to say there are three options, for, against or neutral. We haven’t picked. We’ve got other things we are focused on, to be blunt, which probably sheds some light on my opinion.”

Kelly’s statement is similar to others the company has made since the rural opposition became more vocal.

Kelly said that during the dust-up in the 90s, the plan to build a rail required government subsidies. Kelly said private developers have the freedom to build whatever they can.

“If it’s privately funded venture, I haven’t spent any time thinking about that,” he said.

Nothing to add to that, just noting it for the record.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

School finance bill dies

Alas.

Jimmie Don Aycock

A months-long effort to reform the state’s problem-plagued school finance system before the Texas Supreme Court weighs in came to an end on Thursday.

Facing a slew of amendments and attempts to kill his bill on procedural grounds, House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock withdrew his measure from consideration less than an hour into a scheduled debate on proposed fixes to the way the state funds public schools.

“We could go all day with this bill,” said Aycock, a Killeen Republican. “I don’t think it’s fair to leave this bill pending with everything else that’s up when we know already the Senate is already almost certainly not even considering the measure.”

[…]

After months of private discussions and meetings, Aycock said in March that House leaders no longer wanted to wait for a long-needed overhaul of the system.

“We had to ask the fundamental question: Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around and try to play lawyer and outguess the courts?” Aycock told reporters at a Capitol news conference.

But lawmakers in the state Senate, where Aycock struggled to find a sponsor for his legislation, did not share the same appetite to tackle reform this session.

In an interview at the Capitol two days before he decided to pull his measure down, Aycock said it had “become abundantly clear” the Senate did not intend to move his bill even if it made it to that chamber.

“It’s one of the largest issues before the state, and I hope we get to talk about it,” Aycock said.”I think a lot of the membership on the House side — and apparently on the Senate side — don’t seem to realize some of the problems we are facing and how big those problems are.”

See here and here for the background. My initial pessimism turned out to be correct, though in this case I’d have been happy to be wrong. Clearly, the only way this will be addressed is at the sharp point of a court order. Thanks for trying, Rep. Aycock, we do appreciate the effort. Maybe we can use some of your work when that special session comes around. PDiddie has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Statewide Uber bill appears dead

Close, but no cigar.

Uber

A bill to establish statewide rules for “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft has apparently run out of road.

Rep. Chris Paddie, who authored the measure, said on Tuesday that looming legislative deadlines had rendered the idea all but dead. He said he would look for other avenues for the high-profile proposal, but said his options are limited in the session’s waning days.

The Marshall Republican admitted that “maybe it’s something for another time.”

“This process, which is a great process, makes it very difficult to pass legislation,” he said. “My bill, in this case, was a casualty of the process.”

Lyft

That result – common for bills at this stage – appears to mark an unspectacular end for a bill that was at the center of high-dollar lobbying efforts for and against it.

[…]

But the surest sign that Paddie’s effort faces trouble came on Tuesday, when the House voted overwhelmingly for a bill that would create statewide rules for “transportation network companies” on just one topic: insurance.

That more limited bill had the support of the city of Dallas, for instance, and representatives of Uber and Lyft. While Paddie said he obviously favored his approach, he nonetheless called that effort a “nice first step.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Lots of bills died at midnight last night, but in the parlance of The Princess Bride, Rep. Paddie’s bill is just mostly dead; it won’t be all dead until sine die. As such, it would still be nice for the Mayoral candidates to have an opinion on it, because if it does get revived it will happen all at once and with little to no notice. In the meantime, I don’t know what the bill that would establish insurance rules for TNCs is, but that’s the approach I have advocated from the beginning, so it’s fine by me. We’ll see if it makes it through the Senate. The Trib, which notes the similar deadline-caused demise of the Tesla bills, has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Mayor Parker’s last budget

Here it is.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Despite sounding the alarm for months that a multimillion dollar deficit could force service cuts, new fees and employee layoffs, Mayor Annise Parker rolled out a $5.1 billion city budget on Tuesday that largely preserves spending levels by drawing on one-time funding sources and higher-than-expected revenues to plug the gap.

Parker warned that more than 90 percent of the $130 million general fund spending increase will go to contractually obligated spending, pension obligations in particular. The city’s financial outlook also continues to be hobbled in coming years by a triple threat of rising pension costs and debt service and a voter-imposed revenue cap that limits the city’s ability to collect property taxes.

The city is “standing still, we’re not moving forward” under the proposed budget, Parker said.

[…]

A looming question as the city’s projected revenue gap dropped from $144 million to $63 million earlier this year was whether that might dampen Parker’s ability to pitch an amended or repealed revenue cap to City Council and voters. On Tuesday, Parker said she would wait to bring any such changes to City Council until after budgeting is done and the Legislature wraps up, but “there’s still room for conversations.”

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which has the details. The main items of note are $2.8 million for body cameras and an increase in the homestead exemption for seniors to comply with the stupid revenue cap. I’m glad to see that’s still something the Mayor would like to discuss, though I doubt it will go anywhere at this point. Council gets a chance to introduce its own amendments when the budget gets debated next month. Perhaps then we’ll see if there’s been some kind of shift in power.

Posted in: Local politics.

Point/counterpoint on online voter registration

Point.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texans can use www.Texas.gov for nearly 1,000 services, such as applying for concealed handgun licenses and driver records, and renewing driver licenses, vehicle registrations and many state-required professional licenses. It is time to allow Texans to use this proven, secure online portal to register voters.

Online voter registration does not allow online voting. Under the process that has been proposed for our state, Texans with a current Texas drivers license or Department of Public Safety-issued photo ID could electronically register to vote so long as the license and three other identification measures authenticate them to do so.

[…]

The National Council of State Legislatures calls online voter registration a truly bipartisan election issue. A 2014 Pew study reports states have not seen any change in the balance of party affiliation of registered voters following the introduction of online voter registration. States also report no security breaches or voter impersonation. The study further finds online registration applications five times more accurate than paper applications.

The three Texas agencies – Secretary of State’s office, DPS and Department of Information Resources – that would execute online voter registration are confident in their ability. Their representatives testified that registering voters online can work in Texas.

Department of Information Resources Executive Director Todd Kimbriel told the House Elections Committee that the state-contracted Texas.gov vendor processes more than $2 billion in annual payments from taxpayers. Since initiation in 2001, Kimbriel told lawmakers, there have been no security breaches.

An existing Texas.gov platform for voter registration is already in place, used to update residential addresses when a voter moves within a county. To initiate registration online, a person would be required to possess a valid Texas driver license or DPS ID that can only be obtained in person.

More than 60 percent of Texans polled in 2014 favor registering voters online. State Reps. Celia Israel, D-Austin and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, bill authors, agree it’s an opportunity to work together to make our voter registration system more efficient, accurate and cost-effective.

That was written by Elaine Wiant, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. The arguments are familiar, and I at least think they’re pretty persuasive.

And counterpoint:

Proponents of online voter registration point out 20 states currently have such systems in place. But that means that 30 states do not. They also point out cost savings with online registration but cannot accurately identify what those would be in Texas.

[…]

The current voter registration system in Texas works and works well. Virtually no case has come to light of someone wanting to register within the applicable deadlines and being unable to do so.

Those who wish to register can exercise several options. Eligible citizens may register at the Texas Department of Public Safety, many social service organizations, local libraries, post offices and any of the 16 Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s branch offices. Potential voters also may print an application from many websites to be completed, signed and mailed.

The Voter Registrar’s experienced and nonpartisan professionals cross check data to ensure accuracy of each application. Officials code voters for the proper voting precinct, verify the data submitted and mail out a voter certificate. This both protects the registration process and provides new voters with relevant information, including the voter’s eligible jurisdictions.

During the most recent federal election, the state’s election management system temporarily shut down on Election Day, almost crippling local voter activity. The Secretary of State’s office is scheduled to undergo a major software upgrade this year. This is long overdue but full of unknowns. It would be very risky to implement a new system for online voter registration with this pending upgrade, especially leading into a presidential election.

That of course is from Harris County Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan, who as we know opposed the bill to enable online voter registration. His arguments are familiar as well, and until that last paragraph above, not terribly persuasive to me. The one part of his case that I do find effective is the reminder about the state’s website problems last November. Add that to the problems that DPS had with the One Sticker rollout, and one can understand why someone like Sullivan might be skeptical about this kind of bill and any assurance from DPS and/or the SOS that they can handle it. That may be a reasonable justification for delaying this implementation, but not for not doing it at all. Just because something works well enough doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be improved. Online voter registration should be the goal, and whatever needs to be done to make it feasible in the next session should be on the to do list. Let’s not have the same debate in 2017.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Montgomery County rejects its road bonds

One more election result of interest.

In a hard-fought election, Montgomery County voters went to the polls in record numbers to cast ballots that ultimately defeated the $350 million in proposed road bonds.

Nearly 58 percent of the more than 28,700 voters opposed the bonds that included the controversial extension of Woodlands Parkway that critics said would channel 6,000 additional motorists daily into the heart of this master-planned community and ruin its hometown ambiance.

This marks the second defeat of a road bond proposal in the last decade. In 2011, voters rejected a $200 million proposal that opponents said lacked a specific list of projects. The last bond proposal approved was $100 million in 2005.

[…]

This bond defeat sends county commissioners scrambling back to the drawing boards to find a bond proposal that voters in one of the fastest-growing counties in the state can support. Traffic back-ups are only expected to worsen as the county’s population of a half-million is soon projected to outstrip all surrounding suburbs. Experts forecast the population will increase by 108,000 – equivalent to a community the size of The Woodlands – in just the next five years and then surge to over 2 million by 2035.

However, bond opponents such as Bunch and Texas Patriots PAC president Julie Turner believe commissioners can do a better job setting priorities for road improvements. They want them to eliminate some of the 77 proposed road projects like the Parkway extension and road repairs that they believe should be covered by the regular county budget and not done with borrowed bond money paid back over 30 years.

But bond supporters like Blair say the likelihood of commissioners coming back with a new revised bond proposal for November after two defeats is “very slim.” “Voters have shown they don’t want it. It makes me sad because we’ve gone a decade without any road bonds and the traffic is only getting worse,” she said.

Bunch, the lone member of the 11-member road bond committee to oppose the bond proposal, admitted County Judge Craig Doyal and others had threatened to significantly cut the amount of bond money allocated for The Woodlands in any revised bond package as they did not want to reward the opposition. The failed bond package had included $105 million for road improvements in the precinct that includes The Woodlands – 30 percent more than the other three precincts. The other three were to have received between $80 and $85 million each.

“I think that was a lot of pre-election posturing,” said Bunch.”They are going to get over it. They’re going to listen to the voters and make needed changes, They said we were a small group of loud people. But we’re no longer the silent majority. They need to listen to the people. We demand they put a bond proposal back on the ballot in November.”

Commissioner James Noack, who supported the bond package but was the lone commissioner opposing the Parkway extension, said this election “woke a sleeping giant” and the rest of commissioners court should listen,

Steve Toth, a former Texas representative opposing the bonds, said commissioners shuld take the $22 million allocated for extending Woodlands Parkway for six miles to Texas 249 and use to improve roads that really need it now. He wants the money applied to improvements on FM 1488 and others, rather on roads that go through areas where nobody now lives.

Meanwhile, several county commissioners, such as Jim Clark and Charlie Riley, said they weren’t likely to put a road bond proposal on the November ballot because there would already be a large school bond proposal from Conroe ISD on that ballot.

Commissioner Riley has also vowed to keep the extension project in any new revised bond proposal. “Nothing would be different,” said Riley, whose precinct includes the territory where the extension would be built. He said that he believes that he has the backing of other commissioners.

“I think this looks like another long year with no traffic improvements,” said Bruce Tough, who chairs The Woodlands Township. “Some of these groups are against government. But they demand more services and want taxes lowered at the same time.” The Township was split on the issue with three commissioners supporting the bond package, three others against and one taking no position.

There was a pre-election story that covered a lot of the same ground in this article. I have no position on the merits of this bond and didn’t follow the debate at all. I’m just amused by it all. We hear all the time about how we need to spend money to meet the transportation needs of fast-growth suburbs like Montgomery when the people who live there can’t agree on what those needs are themselves. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm, Montgomery. Good luck with that.

Posted in: Election 2015.