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Abbott puts on a moderate act

He cares about education!

I guess I need to find a new Abbott avatar

During a Capitol news conference in which he announced the selection of his senior staff, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott said Monday that education will be his top policy priority.

Abbott said he wants to improve the educational foundation that students receive in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. “I want to ensure that all children finish the third grade reading and doing math at or above grade level,” he said.

He also said he wants to ensure that students are graduating from high school “and moving on to the next phase of their lives” — whether that is college or a career. For those seeking higher education, he said his administration intends to work toward making that goal more affordable. They also hope to elevate the status of the state’s public universities.

“One of the areas that disturbs me is the fact that five of the top 10 public universities in the country are from California, with none being from Texas,” Abbott said.

You’d think a guy that committed to improving education would have wanted to settle the school finance lawsuit so the Legislature would be compelled to adequately fund those improvements he says he’d like to achieve. As for the higher ed stuff, apparently a dislike of tuition deregulation is now the new hotness among some Republicans. We all remember that the reason why tuition was deregulated in the first place back in 2003 was so the Lege could cut higher ed funding, right? How much is Abbott willing to add to that to do something about this?

Also, too: He doesn’t have an ideological agenda!

The Republican governor-elect framed education as his top priority, pledging to boost pre-kindergarten programs, ensure high school students are prepared upon graduation and make college more affordable.

He also promised to use an expected budget surplus to put more manpower on the border and add $4 billion annually for roads, while reducing business and individual taxes, ending some regulations and restraining government growth.

He did not mention much-talked-about legislation to allow Texans to openly carry handguns, to further restrict abortion or to end in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, among other high-profile ideas.

“Now, more than ever is a time for Texans to unite because we see increasingly that as Texas goes, so goes America,” said Abbott.

The 12-minute news conference, which included an unveiling of Abbott’s staff leadership team, eschewed both controversy and detail, instead sticking to many of themes emphasized during the campaign, said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.

“It was a good summary of a lot of the things that we heard him talk about on the campaign trail, especially during the general election,” Jones said. “He announced very much a general election policy agenda, and not a Republican primary agenda.”

How nice. But of course all those other Republicans that got elected last month did quite a bit of campaigning on Republican primary agendas, including our newest State Senator and of course our Lite Governor. The question – which was asked and generally dodged during the campaign – is what does Governor Abbott do when some piece of hot button legislation gets put on his desk? We all know that the answer is that he signs it – he’s already said as much for DREAM Act repeal. Everybody, including Mark Jones, knows this. Why pretend his genial little detail-free press conference means something it doesn’t?

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Plano passes equal rights ordinance

How about that?

In a split vote Monday, the Plano City Council passed the controversial Equal Rights Policy over the objections of many residents in the standing-room-only crowd.

The amendment to the city’s 1989 anti-discrimination policy extends protections from housing, employment and public accommodation discrimination to include sexual orientation, gender identity and other categories.

“Providing equal rights for everyone is the right thing to do,” Mayor Harry LaRosiliere said after the 5-to-3 vote. Council members Pat Gallagher, Ben Harris and Jim Duggan cast the dissenting votes, preferring to table the matter until January.

The vote drew angry responses from some residents who shouted that they would vote council members who supported the amendment out of office at the next election.

“Suffice to say, if you pass it, we will sue you,” Jeff Matter, general counsel for the Liberty Institute told the council during the lengthy public hearing.

The Liberty Institute is based in Plano, so you can imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth this engendered, not to mention the lying and the threatening of lawsuits. Unfair Park reveled in teh schadenfreude of it all.

While Frisco has supplanted Plano in the public imagination as North Texas’ most irritatingly shiny and self-satisfied outpost, Plano remains a byword for the deep-crimson conservatism of the Texas suburb. Nevertheless, it’s LGBT ordinance zipped through city government with lightning speed, passing only three days after the item was posted on the City Council agenda. Plano is also different because nowhere else in Texas has the religious right been so satisfyingly brushed aside.

On Monday afternoon, the Liberty Institute warned in a last-minute press release that the ongoing assault on religious liberty that the inability to discriminate against gay people represents was encroaching on its home territory. Despite the late notice, they marshaled a nicely sized roster of indignant Christian conservatives to speak against the ordinance and, in no uncertain terms, promised a lawsuit.

But before the vote, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere delivered an immensely satisfying rebuttal that can best be described as badass. He ticked off an incomplete history of injustices inflicted upon minority groups in the United States: the constitutional definition of slaves, i.e. African Americans, as 3/5 of a person; women being deprived of the franchise; deed covenants barring the sale of homes to Jews and others; signs in New York windows saying “Irish need not apply.”

In each case, he said, attempts to redress those wrongs were greeted with objections similar to the ones that are being offered in opposition to the equal-rights ordinance, claims that extending rights to minority groups somehow infringed upon the rights of the majority.

LaRosiliere dismissed those concerns and answered the question he’s been fielding most frequently: Why now?

“Frankly, the question is not ‘why now?’ the question is ‘what took us so long?'”

I’d never heard of Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere before, but I’ve got to say, he just became one of my favorite Mayors in the country. Well done, sir.

It should be noted that despite the caterwauling of the Liberty Institute, Plano’s newly amended non-discrimination policy is actually pretty restrained.

The ordinance comes with quite a few restrictions. Religious, political, governmental, educational and non-profit organizations are exempt, except those doing business with the city.

There’s a bathroom clause that allows businesses to segregate restrooms based on gender. That condition may be taken by some as a green light to discriminate against transgender employees and patrons of businesses, despite protection based on gender identity.

The governmental exemption doesn’t exempt Plano from discriminating, but it doesn’t require Collin County to provide the same protections in order to continue working with the city.

It’s still progress, and it’s still encouraging to see. We’ll need to keep an eye out for the promised litigation as well as the May election results up there. BOR, Lone Star Q, and Think Progress have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a more comprehensive story from the DMN on the new policy.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Will the TNCs leave San Antonio?

The upcoming Council vote in San Antonio over vehicles for hire could have some repercussions.

Lyft

City Council will meet Thursday to vote on proposed rules that would allow rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber to operate legally in San Antonio. But the new regulations and requirements are so onerous, say rideshare company representatives and advocates, the net result would be to chase the services out of San Antonio.

Rideshare advocates say that more than 250 cities now offer rideshare services, and only a small number of cities with strong taxi unions prohibit the services from operating entirely. Houston and Austin have approved rideshare and Dallas is expected to approve its ordinance this week. Houston’s more demanding rules, which passed earlier this year, are similar to those proposed in San Antonio. Lyft suspended operations in Houston while Uber continues to operate.

Many observers believe the new rules are really meant to exclude rideshare from San Antonio and protect a small but aggressive taxi industry that has made a visible show of force at City Hall over several months of hearings.

Both Lyft and Uber have distributed online petitions and email campaigns that ask for a “no” vote from City Council members. The outcome of the vote is unclear, but at least five council members appear to support the taxi industry.

See here for the background. As noted before, Lyft did exit Houston, but their dispute with Houston’s ordinance was about background checks, where the fight here is about insurance. Uber is operating in Houston and never offered any complaint that I can recall about the revised ordinance. In San Antonio, they not only have a complaint, they put it in writing.

Uber

The ride-share firm Uber sent an email Sunday to San Antonio’s mayor and City Council, threatening to shutter operations in the area if new, burdensome regulations are adopted this week.

[…]

“Uber creates a marketplace where these people can use their own car to provide a ride to their neighbors when, where, and how often they want, a strong contrast to taxi, where multiple full-time drivers drive one car 24 hours/7 days a week with high mileage and significant wear and tear with the majority of the profit going to the taxicab company,” wrote Dallas-based Leandre Johns, an Uber general manager. “Simply put, there is virtually no comparison between taxis and TNCs that use smart apps to connect riders looking for transportation to drivers that provide transportation.”

[…]

Several months ago, the City Council created a task force that included representatives from both the taxi industry and the TNCs to craft recommendations on how to amend the city’s vehicles-for-hire ordinance to allow ride-share companies to operate legally — and under regulations — in San Antonio.

The group, overseen by Police Chief William McManus, met several times over the summer to form a series of recommendations. But when McManus presented the recommendations to the council last week, there were several key departures from what the task force had agreed upon.

Those changes, which include how TNC drivers and their vehicles are inspected, don’t protect public safety but rather make it prohibitavly difficult for TNCs to succeed here, Johns and others say.

You can read Uber’s missive to San Antonio City Council here. Council supporters of TNCs are now trying to postpone the vote, partly out of concern that there hasn’t been enough time to discuss the changes from last week, and partly because two Council seats are vacant – District 1’s Diego Bernal recently resigned to run for HD123, and Mayor Ivy Taylor’s District 2 is awaiting the results of a runoff election. In addition, as the Rivard Report notes, the two main contenders for Mayor in 2015 favor allowing the TNCs to operate:

[Mike] Villarreal supports rideshare and said a vote in favor of TNCs from council would signal San Antonio’s support for “innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship … when I think about what I want San Antonio to look like 50 years in the future, it’s a city on the cutting edge of technology.”

When it comes to attracting young professionals, reducing drunk driving, and providing another transportation option in the city, he said, rideshare helps all three.

“We should look at all of our regulations, and if we cannot justify them in the public interest, then we need to have the guts to strike them from the books,” Villarreal said. “We should not be in the business of creating artificial barriers to entry into any given market place. I think in this case I am very concerned that the city is moving forward with an ordinance that does not make us safer – that simply protects the status quo.

“(Traditional cab companies) have already overcome the (regulation cost) hurdle and they don’t want to lower that gate that would allow more competition,” he added.

Fellow mayoral candidate Leticia Van de Putte also supports a set of rules that is more rideshare-friendly.

“Major Texas cities and others across the country have found a way to welcome the services of transportation network companies to meet their city’s growing demands while ensuring the safety of their communities. I have complete confidence that San Antonio will rise to the same challenge,” Van de Putte stated in an emailed response.

San Antonio would be the first Texas city to not allow Uber and Lyft if things proceed as they currently stand. Whether or not that happens, or if that is the intent, we’ll know tomorrow. By the way, Dallas City Council is expected to approve their vehicles for hire revisions today. A pro-TNC op-ed from Rackspace co-founder Graham Weston is here, and Slate has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Revamping Secure Communities

Long overdue.

A federal jail screening program known as Secure Communities epitomized for critics the worst failings of the nation’s immigration system, causing the deportations of tens of thousands of immigrants who had committed no crimes or only minor infractions.

The program matches fingerprints of any jail inmate charged with a crime against a federal immigration database. Since it was piloted in Harris County in 2008, more than 381,000 immigrants have been deported through the program nationally. The Houston region removed the fourth-most in the nation or more than 24,400 people.

Now after years of controversy, the program will be drastically overhauled as part of President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. It could potentially significantly reduce which immigrants can be detained by federal authorities after being booked into jail.

In its new form, dubbed the “Priority Enforcement Program,” local agencies will still send all fingerprints to the Department of Homeland Security. But according to a memo from DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson last month outlining changes to the program, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials should now seek to deport only immigrants who have been convicted of felonies, several misdemeanors or gang-related crimes, or those posing serious threats to national security.

ICE will also no longer ask local agencies to detain immigrants until they can take them into custody but will request to be notified of their release date. Until now, ICE could ask local authorities to hold any immigrant accused of any crime – even if it’s a minor traffic ticket or the charge is dropped – for up to 48 hours if their prints matched the immigration database. But in certain jurisdictions across the country, federal judges have found that violates the Fourth Amendment.

[…]

Facing widespread criticism, ICE has slowly shifted its focus to so-called higher-priority offenders. In a memo sent by then-ICE director John Morton in 2010, he instructed the agency to target immigrants convicted of violent or gang-related crimes. Anyone with an outstanding criminal warrant or previous deportation order was also considered a priority. That reduced the number of ICE detainers placed on Harris County jail inmates from 1,000 to 300 a month, according to the sheriff’s office.

Now Johnson’s memo would limit that focus further, requiring immigrants to be convicted of serious crimes or sentenced to at least three months in jail. He also directed ICE to prioritize only immigrants with previous deportation orders stemming from January 2014 and onwards. Under existing policy, immigrants with low-level crimes could be considered deportation priorities simply by having been ordered removed from the United States before.

“That was one of the big complaints about Secure Communities, that it was rounding up all these people on low-level crimes but simply having an old deportation order made you a priority,” said Lena Graber, an attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a San Francisco nonprofit focused on immigrant rights. “If that’s being de-emphasized that will help a lot of people.”

In Harris County, for instance, about 180 immigrants were deported through Secure Communities in the first nine months of this year, according to information provided by ICE to the sheriff’s office. Of those, more than 90 percent had previous deportation orders. But about 40 percent were charged with crimes typically considered misdemeanors and not serious enough for deportation, such as larceny, forgery or possession of marijuana. All of their deportation orders were older than 2014 so under the new policy ICE would likely not have taken them into custody.

I’d like to see what folks like Stace have to say about this before I commit to a position, but “cautiously optimistic” seems reasonable for now. Not deporting non-criminals, keeping families intact, putting common sense ahead of the interests of the for-profit detention center builders – if that’s what this change leads to, it’s all good. It’s not going to happen without oversight and vigilance, however. This looks like a good first step, but it’s far from the only one.

Posted in: La Migra.

Once again with Anglo Dems and Anglo voters

Time once again for the biennial eulogy for Anglo Democrats in the Texas Legislature.

Rep. Donna Howard

When Donna Howard of Austin won a seat in the Texas House in 2006, she was the only white woman among Democrats in the state Legislature.

Over time, several others joined her briefly. But four elections later, Howard will once again be the only white woman among Democrats in the Legislature.

After the winners of Tuesday’s elections are sworn in, 63 of the 181 seats — 31 senators and 150 representatives — will be held by Democrats. Seven will be white. In contrast, Republicans will hold 118 seats. Only eight of them are minorities.

The tally of white Democrats in the Texas Legislature has been decreasing at a time when the legislative redistricting process and the state’s changing demographics have fueled the relative rise of minority winners from Democratic districts. The party has been trying to broaden its voting base, in part by mobilizing Hispanic supporters and attracting politically unaffiliated Texans.

But some Texas Democrats worry that the loss of white lawmakers could complicate efforts to attract independent voters if they are unable to argue that they represent all Texans, including Anglos.

[…]

Texas Democrats acknowledge that Republicans have been particularly successful in defeating white Democrats in rural districts.

Republicans have focused on white Democrats in a “very calculated” way “because they wanted to push this idea that the Democratic Party was just about minorities, which is not true,” said Jim Dunnam of Waco, a former representative who lost his seat to a Republican in 2010.

Political analysts said Democrats have been losing in rural areas because they are easier targets. Jerry Polinard, a political-science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American, said Republicans have focused on capturing districts with a majority of white residents, lightly redrawing district lines to favor their candidates.

Districts made up largely of minorities, which tend to lean Democratic, are not easily redrawn without inciting legal challenges, Polinard said.

“Obviously, in terms of the demographics of voting, Republicans pull much more strongly from the white vote,” Polinard said. Historically, minorities in Texas tend to vote Democratic.

Craig Murphy, a longtime Republican consultant, said white Democrats in rural areas became “inherently weak” when Republicans realized that they voted along party lines in the Legislature but went back to their Republican-leaning districts and pretended to be conservative.

“They were just very vulnerable incumbents,” Murphy said. “Many of them should not have had the right expectations to survive.”

But he brushed off the idea that Republicans were attempting to marginalize minority voters. The party was focused on winning as many seats as it could, he said.

I began this piece before Thanksgiving, and procrastinated long enough for the Statesman to write more or less the same piece this past Sunday. I covered a lot of this ground two years ago when there were 11 Anglo Dems in the Lege. What I said then is largely true now. There remain opportunities for Dems to reverse this trend a little – the three Dallas districts 105, 107, and 113, plus 136 in Williamson County are all potential targets for Anglo Dems in 2016. Beyond that lie the suburban counties, where if Texas’ electoral makeup ever changes Democratic gains will have to occur. No guarantees, obviously, and any gains made in 2016 could be balanced by retirements and/or primary challenges elsewhere, or wiped out in 2018. But it’s hardly hopeless.

I should note that of the 98 GOP-held districts right now, all but 5 are majority Anglo according to the 2008-2012 ACS report. Two of those five – HDs 117 and 144 – I’d expect to revert back to the Dems in 2016; they may flip again in 2018, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The two ways that a Democrat could win in one or more of these other districts is 1) altering racial mix of the electorate, either via demographic change or better turnout efforts; a lot of these districts are between 50 and 55% Anglo, so it wouldn’t take much; and 2) doing better among white voters. I’m not sure which will be the greater challenge, but those are the choices. Fortunately, they’re not mutually exclusive.

You wonder if Dems have hit bottom in how little support they can get from Anglos, which is probably in the mid 20s right now, or if there are further depths to plumb. There’s no way to avoid the fact that this happened while Barack Obama was President – Republicans were certainly fervent in their opposition to Bill Clinton, but race wasn’t the factor it is now. This has led to some speculation that things could turn around at least a little with Hillary Clinton on the ballot, and hopefully in the White House.

The top minds in the proto-Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign infrastructure are already gaming out Electoral College scenarios. What they think they have is a candidate who could compete in a handful of traditionally red states, putting Republicans on the defensive and increasing her chances of winning the White House.

Mitch Stewart, Obama’s 2012 battleground state director who is now an independent consultant advising the grassroots group Ready for Hillary, laid out the electoral math to TPM in a recent interview. Clinton will start with Obama’s map, he said, and can build from there.

There are two buckets of states potentially in play. Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri comprise one bucket. The first is a somewhat unique case, given Clinton’s history there, while the other two were razor-thin in 2008, but the principle is the same: Clinton has a record of appealing to white working-class voters — especially women — and they could be enough when paired with the Obama coalition to pull out a win.

“Where I think Secretary Clinton has more appeal than any other Democrat looking at running is that with white working-class voters, she does have a connection,” Stewart said. “I think she’s best positioned to open those states.”

[…]

“I think Hillary Clinton can be a temporary salve to Democrats’ fading chances with white voters, primarily because she will attract women,” Carter Eskew, a top adviser to Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, told TPM. “If she supplements her gender appeal with a real contrast on the economy, then all the better.”

That will be key, Stewart agreed. Clinton has already been testing a 2016 message that heavily emphasizes wage growth and expanding the middle class. That’s how she’ll attract those voters that could bring these additional states into reach.

“For whatever reason, Democrats have not been able to articulate a message that resonates even though our economic values align with that working-class family’s economic values,” Stewart said. “It’s something that we have to figure out.”

It is not a universally shared opinion, however. Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum outlined why Democratic struggles with the white working class have become so ingrained in recent years. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, sounded skeptical when asked by TPM about Clinton’s ability to break through with that population.

“It’s possible, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said in an email. “The hardening of party lines during the Bush and Obama years make switches more difficult unless they are propelled purely by demographic shifts.”

Texas isn’t explicitly mentioned in this analysis, but if Dems do better with white voters in places like Arkansas and Missouri, one would expect them to improve by some amount here as well. It’s a nice thought, if you believe it to be possible. I for one am old enough to remember when a Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2008 was going to be the death of Democrats in Texas, because she got Republicans so riled up. I argued at the time that any Democrat would have that effect, and I think I’ve been proven right. Things are different now – there’s less ticket-splitting, for one thing, and I just feel like a lot of attitudes have hardened. I believe, or at least I want to believe, there could be something to this. I’ll need to see some polling data, and to hear the idea floated seriously by someone other than a member of Team Hillary.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

What’s the Lege going to do with the revenue?

Not as much as it should, of course, because the Lege never comes close to doing as much as it should. It’s a question of whether they’ll try to address some real problems, or just engage in an orgy of tax cutting.

BagOfMoney

Texans can expect tax relief, a laser focus on border security and more efforts to fight traffic congestion when a cash-flush Legislature convenes in January.

The budget priorities line up with campaign promises from Republican state leaders and lawmakers, who handily won their spots with a message of keeping state government lean while carefully weighing any additional spending for its benefits.

At least some outnumbered Democrats also appear to be on the tax-relief bandwagon, as the state welcomes the prospect of having $5 billion or more in greater-than-expected revenue when the current two-year budget period ends. Anticipated economic growth is expected to yield billions more, with the caveat that uncertain oil prices must temper expectations.

The tax-relief issue “crosses party lines,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “Property taxes are really something that people would like to address.”

Besides property-tax relief – pushed by Sen. Dan Patrick, the incoming lieutenant governor – the potential for cutting the state’s business tax has been highlighted by Attorney General Greg Abbott, the governor-elect.

The devil, as always, is in the details of a state budget that totals $200 billion in the current two-year fiscal period, including state and federal funds that are largely spoken for before lawmakers convene. Education and health and human services alone take up nearly three-quarters of the total.

“I fully expect there to be some tax relief. The question is, what’s the nature of it?” said Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

[…]

What’s clear is that despite the billions of greater-than-predicted dollars awaiting lawmakers’ allocation, the list of programs that can use more money is far longer than the dollars can cover, especially in light of a spending cap on certain general revenue.

“It’s sort of easy when there’s not a lot of money. You just say we haven’t got the money,” said Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. “Whereas now, I call it kind of a food fight. You’ve got a lot of food on the table, and people are going to start grabbing for it and trying to make sure they get their programs funded at a level that they want.”

Simply keeping current levels of services to a growing population would cost an additional $6 billion to $7 billion in state general revenue, said Eva De Luna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which focuses on services important to middle- and lower-income Texans. That’s without addressing the lingering cuts from 2011.

“All we’re hearing about is tax cuts. Nobody is talking about, ‘What did we cut out of the budget in 2011?’ ” she said. “I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that our future economy and prosperity are at stake. We need good roads but we also need good schools and universities.”

If you think that last bit is just the usual liberal happy talk, you should see what the Texas Association of Business’ wish list for the legislative session looks like. They expect to spend the next six to eight months fighting against the people they just supported for election on these issues, because that’s how they roll. “Border security” is a huge boondoggle for which all indicators are always that we should keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is to say to spend more and more and more on it. And no, the feds aren’t going to cover that check no matter how nicely Greg Abbott asks the President for it. As for property tax “relief”, the proposals put forth by Sen. Kirk Watson and others to increase the homestead exemption would be the most equitable way of doing this, which means it is also the least likely way of it happening. But I suppose anything is still possible before the session begins, just like the possibility than your favorite NFL team can go 16-0 while training camp is still going on. We’ll see what happens when the games start getting played for real.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

On grand juries

Some folks are trying to change the makeup of grand juries in Harris County.

HarrisCounty

It was a largely black crowd with at least a third of the audience made up of white people and a few anarchists sprinkled in. They were there to share ideas, sign some petitions, and to vent about injustice in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner deaths.

Inside the packed El Dorado Ballroom in the Third Ward, the shirt on a lonely hipster said it best: Murder Beats Not People.

A group called the Houston Justice Coalition, made up largely of students from nearby Texas Southern University, organized the outing. They shared their platform, which calls for Houston to implement police body cameras (something already working its way through city council) and for raising awareness about grand juries.

“I’ve served four times, twice as a foreman,” Third Ward Councilman Dwight Boykins said. It’s a hard sell, but everyone was encouraged to help diversify grand juries, which are commonly racially and economically lopsided and are easily swayed by prosecutors. “You have to commit not only to the $28 per day two times a week, but three months out of the year. And some people don’t like to do that,” Boykins said.

The event was advertised on social media as an organizing call for millennials, the target audience for all the #CrimingWhileWhite and #AliveWhileBlack responses on Twitter. It’s an age group that’s historically been the foundation of rights movements. This might all be a test to see if today’s young activists can keep the energy going.

It’s a start. Changing the grand jury system here from the current “pick a pal” method, which is a big driver of the non-diversity of grand juries, to a random selection like what is used for regular juries, would also make a difference. Sen. John Whitmire has filed a bill to require just that for Harris County, but a better question might be why do we have grand juries at all?

The concept [of grand juries] comes from our colonial parent, England. “It goes back centuries here,” explains London-based legal writer Joshua Rozenberg. “In medieval times, it was drawn from the local neighborhood. And these were men who were expected to look around and report criminal behavior within the community. They’re people who actually knew the offenders, as we’d call them today, and could perhaps bring them to justice.”

By the 16th century, that morphed into the system we’d now recognize as a grand jury: A group of people listening to a prosecutor’s evidence and deciding whether to indict.

But the United Kingdom actually abolished its grand jury system in 1933. “We now send cases that are serious enough straight to jury trial,” Rozenberg says. That way, both sides are able to present evidence and make their arguments, which is definitely not the case with a grand jury.

In fact, the UK exported grand juries to most of their former colonies — Canada, Australia, New Zealand — and virtually all of them have stopped using them.

“They are said to be ‘putty in the hands of the prosecutor.’ In other words, the prosecutor really tells them what he or she wants and they will go along with it,” he says. “Or that’s what we are told, because we don’t really know. We can’t watch grand juries at work.”

That’s why former New York judge Sol Wachtler once famously said that a district attorney could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” But, Rozenberg points out, “it must be even easier to get the sandwich acquitted if that is what the district attorney may actually want.”

Link via Grits. Why shouldn’t we make District Attorneys be the ones that are accountable for these decisions? I’d be interested to hear from the attorneys out there what the down side to this might be.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

How Texas can improve its pre-k programs

From Raise Your Hand Texas:

How Texas stacks up on pre-k

Raise Your Hand Texas recently released a report highlighting research-driven practices proven effective in public pre-kindergarten programs across the country, and comparing how Texas’ pre-k program stacks up. “Pre-Kindergarten for the Modern Age: A scalable, affordable, high-quality plan for Texas” was prepared by Dr. Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on early childhood education.

The report shows that Texas currently has in place few of the elements of high-quality public pre-k programs and collects very little data on program quality. With regards to statewide policy and funding, Texas only partially meets three of the eight elements of effective pre-k programs. The report recommends a series of policy changes to improve the quality and impact of the state’s pre-k program, starting with the need to expand our statewide commitment from half-day to full-day for at-risk children currently eligible for public pre-k.

“The current, rigorous research is clear – there is no longer any question that publicly funded, high-quality pre-k programs play a critical role in closing the achievement gap, both in the short and long-term, and that states are getting these results in a cost-sustainable manner” said Dr. Pianta.

The report’s recommendations include:

  1. Fund high-quality, targeted full-day pre-k for currently eligible students
  2. Implement structural quality elements such as:
    • required standards and curricula
    • pre-k specific preparation and professional development for teachers
    • effective adult-child ratios to promote learning
  3. Require uniform measurement, data collection and oversight
    • require participation in Texas Student Data System
    • require districts to collect and report data regarding children’s learning and teachers’ skills
    • provide sufficient staff to ensure effective program management and oversight

According to the report, multi-state evaluations demonstrate “academic gains can be maintained at least through third grade and in many instances, beyond.” To achieve those types of gains, the report says Texas must commit additional staff resources: “No state with a pre-k program has less state-level capacity (in terms of absolute numbers of staff) to monitor and oversee pre-k than does Texas – even states as small as Delaware.”1

“Providing currently eligible populations with access to high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten probably represents the single most powerful reform tool at our disposal to give every Texas child a fair shot at success in school and in life, and to improve performance in public schools across the state,” said Dr. David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas.

To learn more, and to download the full research report or executive summary, please visit www.RaiseYourHandTexas.org/prek.

The full report is here. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

As an example of the new wave of programs with results, an analysis of the impact of five state-funded preschool programs on young children’s school readiness in Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia showed 31% more annual growth in vocabulary skills for children enrolled in pre-k when compared to those who did not attend preschool.1 Increases in math and early literacy skills were also pronounced, showing 44% and 85% more annual growth, respectively.2

And a recent analysis combining results from 123 early childhood program evaluation studies estimated the short-term (one-year) impact of early learning programs to be about half the poverty achievement gap* , the equivalent of a four-year-old jumping from the 30th percentile to the 50th percentile on achievement tests.3

Notably, recent evaluations have demonstrated that gains can be sustained through elementary school and beyond. Although fade-out of program effects had been cited previously as evidence of preschool’s limited effectiveness, it is now clear that fade-out is far more likely a function of the stunning variation in quality of programs than in the value of pre-k per se.

Recent and rigorous research evaluations from multiple states, including studies of Texas programs, demonstrate that academic gains can be maintained at least through third grade and in many instances, beyond. Of note, in some evaluations the benefits of pre-k extend into early adulthood, with improved outcomes such as educational attainment and cognitive performance.4

In other words, the most current research indicates that high-quality pre-k programs can lead to significant and sustained gains for young children. Based on recent programs and rigorous research, there is no longer any question that publicly funded pre-k programs hold enormous potential for closing skills gaps, both in the short and long-term.

Notably, the contemporary statewide programs that show the impacts noted above are all funded at levels considered sustainable by state legislators. In other words, these programs are not “Cadillac” or boutique models with excessive costs that exceed state allocations or are offered to small select groups of children. Rather, they typically operate at per-pupil costs no greater than those of the K-12 system and still achieve these benefits.

What’s more, these investments in early education return financial benefits downstream. Analyses of various statewide and experimental studies estimate a total return on investment between $3-7 saved per child for each dollar spent on pre-k.5

Findings consistently show that the benefits of high-quality programs significantly exceed the costs by producing immediate improvements in school readiness, cuts in school spending related to retention and special education, and long-term impacts related to reduced delinquency and increased productivity.6

These benefits over the lifetime have been estimated to lead to savings of $9,901 per participant taking into account short, middle, and long-term outcomes, making pre-k a highly cost-effective intervention.7

Moreover, the rate of return on investments in quality pre-k is larger than other well-known educational expenditures, such as class size reduction.8

And although pre-k helps all children, it seems particularly beneficial for children who are low-income or dual language learners,9 which is a significant and growing percentage of the
Texas student population. So not only does pre-k work, the most recent research also makes it clear that quality preschool, especially for those children most at-risk for school failure, is a wise investment.10

Sounds pretty good, wouldn’t you say? Too bad we’re not going to get anything like this in Texas. But at least now the Early Matters folks have a blueprint for what they might want to achieve in Harris County.

Posted in: School days.

Abbott and the Latino vote

The Trib drops a number on us.

I guess I need to find a new Abbott avatar

Along with his 20-point margin of victory, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott accomplished something on Election Day that many naysayers doubted the Republican could: He took 44 percent of the Hispanic vote.

For Texas conservatives, Abbott’s performance indicated that Republicans are making headway among this increasingly crucial voting bloc, which tends to lean Democratic. But upon taking office, Abbott will find himself in turbulent political waters.

[…]

But election results show that despite Republican outreach efforts, Abbott does not have a strong hold on areas of the state where most of the population is Hispanic, particularly the border counties Abbott repeatedly visited during his campaign.

In Cameron County, which Abbott had set out to win, he garnered 42 percent of the vote while Davis took 55 percent. He fared worse in Hidalgo County, with only 35 percent of the vote to Davis’s 63 percent.

The results could prove troublesome for a party looking to hone its outreach efforts as the state’s Hispanic population swells. Although they make up less than a third of eligible voters in the state, Hispanics are expected to make up a plurality of Texas’ population by 2020.

Abbott outpaced his predecessors in winning support among Hispanics, but navigating the crosscurrents of appealing to a far-right base and conservative Hispanics continues to prove difficult for Republicans when it comes to immigration.

The article is about how Abbott is going to try to balance his madrina-friendly image with the ugly xenophobia of his party. I’m not going to prognosticate about that – lots of people have been opining about what the Abbott-Dan Patrick dynamic is going to be like – but I am going to focus on those numbers. I presume that 44% figure comes from the exit polls we were promised. I know they were done and I’m aware of some complaints about their methodology, but I’ve seen basically no reporting or other analysis on them. Be that as it may, I’m going to do three things: Check the actual results to see if they line up with the 44% figure given, compare Abbott to Rick Perry in 2010, and I’ll hold the third one back till I’m ready to show you the numbers.

Comparing Latino voting performances is always a bit dicey, since the best we can do at this level is use county and State Rep district data, which is a reasonable enough rough approximation, but which can be distorted by the presence of non-Latino voters, especially if Latino turnout is lower than expected. But it’s what we’ve got, and we can at least draw some broad conclusions. A full comparison to Rick Perry in 2010 won’t be possible until all the legislative district data is published by the TLC in early 2015, but we’ll use what we do have. Here’s a look at county comparisons:

County Perry Abbott White Davis ========================================== Cameron 40.82% 42.01% 57.30% 55.46% El Paso 36.76% 37.25% 61.29% 60.32% Hidalgo 31.75% 34.79% 66.82% 62.70% Maverick 26.83% 26.27% 71.86% 70.27% Webb 22.92% 28.86% 75.60% 68.03%

So yes, Abbott did improve on Rick Perry, but not by that much. In Cameron County, which as the Trib story notes Abbott was claiming he wanted to win, he beat Perry by a bit more than one point. He did do three points better in Hidalgo and six points better in Webb, but only a half point better in El Paso and a half point worse in Maverick. Again, this is incomplete data – the State Rep district data will tell a better story – but if Rick Perry was scoring in the low thirties in 2010, it’s hard for me to say that Abbott did any better than the mid-to-upper thirties. It’s an improvement, and he gets credit for it, but I don’t see how you get to 44% from there.

I do have State Rep district data for Harris County, so let’s take a look at that:

Dist Perry Abbott White Davis Dewhurst LCT ============================================================ HD140 27.9% 32.2% 70.7% 66.3% 31.6% 65.9% HD143 29.6% 35.0% 68.9% 63.7% 33.4% 63.9% HD144 45.2% 51.7% 52.7% 46.3% 50.8% 46.0% HD145 36.3% 40.8% 62.0% 57.2% 41.6% 54.8% HD148 36.3% 39.1% 61.6% 58.7% 45.0% 50.8%

The caveat here is that the Hispanic Citizen Voting Age Populations (Hispanic CVAPs) are lower in these districts than in many other Latino districts. HD140 is the most Latino, at 60.6%; by comparison, the lowest CVAP in the six El Paso districts is 59.4%, with the other five all being greater than 70% and three of the six topping 80%. Be that as it may, Abbott clearly beat Perry here, by four to six points. That also comes with an asterisk, however, since as we know Bill White outperformed the rest of the Democratic ticket on his home turf by about six points. I included the David Dewhurst/Linda Chavez-Thompson numbers as well here to serve as a further point of comparison. Add it all up, and Abbott got 39.6% of the vote in Latino State Rep districts in Harris County. That’s impressive and a number Democrats will have to reckon with, but it’s still a pretty good distance from 44%.

I’ll revisit this question later, once the TLC has put out its data. In the meantime, there’s one more dimension to consider: How well Greg Abbott did in 2010 versus how well he did in 2014:

County Abb 10 Abb 14 ========================== Cameron 48.21% 42.01% El Paso 42.43% 37.25% Hidalgo 37.72% 34.79% Maverick 26.31% 26.27% Webb 29.12% 28.86% Dist Abb 10 Abb 14 ========================== HD140 35.1% 32.2% HD143 37.2% 35.0% HD144 54.0% 51.7% HD145 46.4% 40.8% HD148 48.6% 39.1%

Now of course this isn’t a real apples-to-apples comparison. Abbott was running for Attorney General in 2010 against a candidate who had no money and a self-described “funny name”. That’s a formula for him to do better. Of course, one could say that voters in these places liked him more when he had a lower profile. The more they heard about him, the less likely they were to vote for him. Make of that what you will.

Posted in: Election 2014.

The first college football playoff

How about that committee selection process?

As it turns out, it wasn’t a case of Baylor or TCU in the collective mind of the College Football Playoff committee after all. It was neither, and the joke’s on both.

TCU wins by 52 points and falls from third and a spot in the playoffs to sixth and oblivion?

“The committee doesn’t see the fall being very far,” chairman Jeff Long said.

Off the top of my head, Jeff, I’d say it’s the longest free fall by a Top 10 team after winning its last game by half-a-hundred in the history of polls, rankings or cave markings.

[…]

The only surprise Saturday was the Buckeyes’ big win with a third-string quarterback.

But that was nothing compared with Sunday’s shocker, especially if you’re a TCU fan or were under the impression the committee really meant to provide more clarity than the BCS’ much-maligned process. As impossible as it seems, the committee mucked it up even more.

Frankly, I was startled last week when TCU vaulted from fifth to third over Florida State. The move seemed less a vote of confidence in TCU than a shot across the bow of the Seminoles.

Florida State beat a pretty good Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, but it was a typical FSU win this season, a little less than convincing, the kind that started it on a slow slide from first to fourth.

Until Sunday, anyway, when the Seminoles moved back up to three.

And TCU fell in a black hole.

“I wouldn’t be honest if I wasn’t a little surprised dropping from three to sixth,” Gary Patterson told ESPN, smiling, playing good cop for a change.

Had the committee made TCU fifth or sixth last week, it wouldn’t be an issue now. All this result does is feed the conspiracy theorists. For that matter, the weekly release was probably a mistake. Long insisted it was a new world every week, but that’s a hard sell for a public unused to seeing such volatile movement from one Tuesday to the next. Made you think it was less about providing transparency and in reality just an excuse for an ESPN dog-and-pony show.

I have no dog – or pony – in this fight. Honestly, if I’d been on that committee, I have no idea who my fourth team would have been. Given all the past hubbub and controversy that led to the creation of this committee as a replacement for the unloved and unmissed BCS system, it’s quite the irony that in the first year of a four-team playoff for all the marbles, four slots weren’t enough. When does the drumbeat to expand this sucker to eight teams officially begin, I wonder.

And speaking of expanding

The Big 12 commissioner says the conference will reconsider how to declare its champion after being left out of the four-team college football playoff.

In a phone interview on the College Football Playoff Selection Show, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN’s Rece Davis: “It’s clear that we were penalized for not having a postseason championship game. It would have been nice to have been told that ahead of time.”

“We have to weigh whether this is substantial enough to add institutions. … It’s certainly a major consideration.”

The Big 12 would need to add two teams or have the NCAA approve a waiver to have a conference championship game. The Big 12 has 10 teams, and a conference must have 12 teams to have a conference championship game.

Clearly, there had been too much stability in conference composition lately. Round and round she goes…

Posted in: Other sports.

San Antonio City Council to vote on vehicles for hire this week

As we know, the San Antonio City Council is set to update its vehicles for hire ordinances, which is to say it’s getting ready to approve rules that would allow Uber and Lyft to operate legally there. The Express News story on the Council meeting to review the proposed ordinance updates is here, but this time my usual tricks to get to see their paywalled content failed, so I have no idea what that story says. What I do have is two other stories that tell us something interesting. First, the Rivard Report informs us that Lyft may do to San Antonio what it did to Houston – pull up stakes and get out.

Lyft

San Antonio City Council will vote next Thursday on whether to adopt new rules that would allow rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber to legally operate in San Antonio. It’s a process dozens of cities have gone through and dozens more will likely address in the coming months. San Antonio is the latest stop in the national rideshare debate: how do you regulate an “app?”

A representative for Lyft, one such transportation network company (TNC), said the recommended rules presented to City Council B Session on Wednesday would likely mean pulling service from the city as the regulations would make their business model – connecting drivers to riders via a mobile application – too expensive for the company and its drivers to operate in San Antonio.

Lyft suspended operations in Houston earlier this year after similar rules to those proposed locally were approved by Houston City Council. Uber continues to operate in Houston.

[…]

“The (task force) had good recommendations,” said April Mims, Lyft public policy manager. “Those were taken and altered throughout the process … we’re very uncomfortable with these.”

One of the main concerns, Mims said, is the insurance requirements. When the app is “off” in a driver’s car, their personal insurance would apply. When the app is “on” and they’ve initiated the process of picking up a passenger or have picked up a passenger, the TNC’s $1 million insurance policy goes into effect. The problem TNCs have is with the insurance requirement for the in-between stage – when the app is “on” but the driver is essentially waiting for a passenger to request a ride. For this scenario, McManus said, TNCs must provide $200,000 in excess liability to cover costs of accidents that exceed the driver’s policy limits.

“That could increased our costs up to 500%,” Mims said. “Insurance needs to be in place to respond to risk and there is no increased risk to having an app on in the background just like you would Facebook or Ebay or any other app. .. If you know as a driver that all you have to do is turn on your app and you’re covered by our (Lyft’s) insurance, why would you ever buy a new (insurance policy)?”

Lyft and Uber have been required to pay annual vehicle and administrative fees in other municipalities. San Antonio’s proposal calls for a one time, $110 application fee, an annual $160 vehicle permit fee, and a biennial driver permit fee to cover the cost of administrative staff and Ground Transportation Units performing random inspections.

“We’re fine with paying upfront and annual fees,” but the insurance, state background checks, and requiring each driver to provide documentation is too much bureaucracy to navigate for the average part-time rideshare driver, Mims said. “(They’re) only thinking of it comparing apples to apples, but it’s a completely different platform.

The TNCs’ concern is that drivers with other full-time jobs, who are single parents, or juggle complicated schedules will not be able to spend the necessary time and attention to go through a more regulated process.

“(Ultimately) it’ll reduce the number of drivers – will have an impact on passengers because they’re not going to be able to use you guys if they open up the app and there are no drivers,” she told a group of concerned Lyft drivers that attended the almost two-hour meeting on Wednesday. “In order to work, (Lyft) has to be on-demand. If it’s not on demand they might as well call a traditional (taxi) service.”

I’d been wondering if San Antonio would have rules similar to those in Houston. Lyft’s beef with Houston was about background checks, but in the end the effect was the same. But no big deal, I mean Uber (ugh) will still be there, right? Well, maybe not.

Uber

Uber General Manager Leandre Johns said the ride-share company opposes the proposed regulations.

“The city has undermined the very task force they commissioned by amending behind closed doors the recommendations that didn’t align with their agenda,” Johns said in a statement. “Ultimately, this process is unfair to the citizens of San Antonio that have urged city council to embrace transportation options like Uber.”

Johns urged City Council members to vote no to the proposal, saying it “hampers innovation, jobs, and transportation choices for the people of Alamo City.”

[…]

Johns said the meeting was full of countless appalling accusations.

“City officials are entitled to their own opinion but certainly not their own facts. For months, we have worked in good faith with city officials to implement smart regulations that ensure riders have access to a safe, reliable ride,” Johns said.

Huh. A copy of the proposed ordinance is at that link. What if they change the rules and no TNCs apply for permits? That’s not an outcome I would have expected. We’ll see what happens next week.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Hempstead landfill trial update

It’s complicated.

StopHwy6Landfill

For many in the courtroom, a judge’s promise Friday that the Waller County landfill trial would conclude “before Santa Claus comes” was welcome news. Earlier in the week, they had lamented the possibility that the trial – one over an issue that has divided the rural county for the past two years – would pause and not conclude until February, due to a crowded court calendar.

Yet both the landfill developer’s attorney and members of incoming county commissioners agree that whatever the verdict, the controversy over the proposed 250-acre waste site will be far from over.

“Whatever happens,” Pintail Landfill attorney Brent Ryan said Friday, “we’re going to move forward with the project.”

County Judge-elect Trey Duhon, a landfill opponent, agreed.

“The end of this trial is not the end of the story,” Duhon said.

[…]

Whatever the jury decides – the trial is now expected to continue through Tuesday, pause, and then resume again on Dec. 16 – it is unlikely that Waller County will be left with definitive answers.

The reasons are twofold.

Ryan, Pintail’s attorney, said that the company will proceed with the project regardless of whether the jury invalidates Waller County’s 2013 landfill ordinance and host agreement. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, not the county, has the final say over the landfill, and the commission is still reviewing Pintail’s permit application. That proposal is expected to be reviewed in a contested case hearing this summer, commission spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.

If the state commission were to approve the project and Waller County’s ordinance were invalidated, Ryan said Pintail would be free to develop the project – it just wouldn’t have to provide Hempstead or the county with benefits that had been agreed to.

See here for the background. Originally, the trial was expected to conclude in February due to a crammed court calendar, so I suppose a December conclusion counts as good news. The thought that this won’t settle the matter of whether the landfill can be built or not, and that the decision rests with the TCEQ, is rather unsettling. I’m not exactly sure how that is, but whatever. The point is, one way or the other this fight will go on.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Weekend link dump for December 7

Let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.

If you’re just now coming out of your Thanksgiving coma, this is what put you there in the first place.

This is what oligarchy looks like.

Tim LaHaye has been wrong for a long time.

How to correctly pluralize your surname for addressing holiday cards, and avoid making all the anal-retentive grammar cops you know twitch uncontrollably.

Good news – cigarette smoking among adults is down from 2005. Not among all adults, but overall things are going in the right direction.

Better go easy on the nutmeg, if you know what’s good for you.

It’s driverless buses that could be transformative in the near future.

For shame, Ridley Scott. For shame.

Lifting the ban on gay men donating blood is long overdue.

The entire Bible explained, in one Facebook post.

Such generosity. I’m, like, so impressed.

“That’s total goblin dung. Every author I’ve spoken to writes crap from time to time, especially in the beginning. We all have a Rise of the Spider Goddess buried away somewhere. The idea that anyone is born with an innate ability to write brilliant fiction is a myth.”

Oh, hey, this isn’t creepy at all.

If we want to have a dialog on racism, we should listen to the kids that are living it.

The whole idea of non-compete agreements for hourly workers is ridiculous and demeaning and ought to be banned.

MLB umpire Dale Scott comes out as gay. He’s been an MLB ump for 29 years now, so if anyone wants to freak out about this, you have some catching up to do.

RIP, Bobby Keys, saxophone player for the Rolling Stones.

Watch out for those “order confirmation” emails. This is a classic phishing scam.

“Perhaps if Obama crashed and burned in dramatic ways more often, he’d get more credit for boldness.”

Turns out stop and frisk had little to do with New York’s crime rate.

“If there was ever a time when you could be happy people don’t check the reliability of their news sources, this would be it.”

A great story about some really lousy times working for Radio Shack.

“What Mysterious Force is Preventing Passage of a Roads Bill?”

Do you watch “State of Affairs”? So does the CIA, and they like to tweet about it.

“With this vote on this bill today, the Republican Party cements its reputation as the party of mass deportation.”

“Richard III was a blue-eyed blond, and the present Queen may not be descended from John of Gaunt and Edward III, the lineage on which the Tudor claim to the throne originated.”

“But if you look beyond the political fights, the picture looks very different. Obamacare is, policy-wise, having a great month — maybe even the law’s best month ever.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Kolkhorst wins SD18

One special election begets another.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst won a promotion to the Texas Senate on Saturday, leveraging her 14-year incumbency and high-profile endorsements to fend off a fellow Republican opponent who spent nearly $2 million of his own money portraying Kolkhorst as soft on the border.

Kolkhorst eclipsed the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff with Fort Bend businessman Gary Gates in Senate District 18, which stretches from Katy and Rosenberg to near Corpus Christi and Austin. Kolkhorst won 55 percent of the vote, 20 percentage points higher than Gates earned.

“We have an opportunity to have the most conservative session in recent history, responding to the demand of the voters of Texas,” Kolkhorst said. “I’m truly humbled by the results.”

Though the three-week sprint only officially began when Glenn Hegar announced his intention to resign after winning statewide office last month, the leading candidates have treated the seat as vacant since Hegar won the GOP primary for comptroller in the spring. Hegar officially resigned Friday.

Kolkhorst and Gates have spent that time looking to outflank one another on perhaps the most resonant issue in this largely rural district along U.S. 59: border security. Gates has hammered the seven-term state representative for a vote granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants a decade ago, which Kolkhorst now says she regrets.

Strictly speaking, of course, this applied to people who were brought to this country as children. Because we once thought it was a good idea to encourage college-ready students to go to college. Now Republicans want to deport such children, which is as compassionate as it is sensible. I don’t even know what to say any more.

Kolkhorst’s elevation creates yet another vacancy in Austin: A special election will now be held for her old seat, House District 13. Just as Kolkhorst ran for Hegar’s seat, candidates are already running for hers.

There are currently vacancies in HDs 13 and 17, with one to come in HD123 and later on in SD26; the special election in SD26 will likely create another vacancy in either HD116 or HD124. And you thought the 2014 election season was over.

Full election results are here. Turnout was 39,200 votes, or maybe less than percent overall. The dollars per vote total was pretty high in this race. The Trib has more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Everyone wants to get in on the fracking fight

Come on in.

National environmental groups joined forces with grassroots activists in Denton on Thursday, seeking to defend in court the first municipal fracking ban adopted in Texas.

The Denton Drilling Awareness Group, a citizens group that fought to put the ban on the November ballot, and Earthworks, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., filed a petition in court asking to be named as defendants and intervenors so they can help provide a “vigorous defense of the legality and enforceability of the ordinance.”

Hours after the ban was overwhelmingly approved by voters on Nov. 4, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, along with the Texas General Land Office, filed lawsuits challenging the ban’s constitutionality and accused it of disrupting the state regulatory framework.

In addition to attorneys from a Richardson law firm that worked on local drilling ordinances, Denton Drilling Awareness Group and Earthworks are being represented by lawyers from Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Cathy McMullen, the leader of the grassroots group that collected nearly 2,000 signatures and petitioned to get the ban on the ballot, said they’ve been talking for some time to Earthworks and others about mounting a legal defense if the ban was approved by voters.

“This is what they do,” McMullen said. “I’m proud to have their help.”

Ultimately, a Denton civil court judge will decide whether the two groups can join the litigation. The other parties involved in the litigation can protest their involvement, but the city of Denton has said it will not block them from joining their legal defense team.

“We are happy to work with them and are open to their request to become an intervenor. We won’t oppose it,” said Lindsey Baker, a spokeswoman for the city.

I don’t really have anything to add to this. I’m just following the news related to this election and the subsequent litigation, and this is interesting, if not unexpected, development. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Texas’ first same-sex marriage

Fascinating story.

More than 40 years ago in a small chapel off the Gulf Freeway, a hulking ex-tackle from Brownsville slid a ring onto the finger of his partner, transforming the slight man wearing a blond bouffant wig standing opposite him into his husband. In their hands they clasped the first marriage license ever given to a same-sex couple in Texas.

The story of Antonio Molina and William “Billie” Ert is full of firsts. It marked Texas’ first gay marriage and the first recorded instance of a same-sex couple receiving a license to wed in the Lone Star State. It was also stained by finality, a quixotic love story that set back the Texas gay marriage movement 40 years while also helping to inspire a generation of civil rights advocates.

By 1970s standards, Molina and Ert’s story went viral, making front-page headlines from El Paso to East Asia. “Two men seal vows with a kiss,” the Denton Record-Chronicle reported on Oct. 6, 1972. The Straits Times of Singapore’s headline read, “And then they were wed … HE to HIM.”

Molina’s hometown newspaper, the Brownsville Herald, ran a photo of the beaming couple holding their marriage certificate, he in a suit and tie and Ert in a white beaded dress, elbow gloves and wig. That wig, it turns out, was what separated their success from the handful of gay couples who already had attempted to get married.

“We wouldn’t have issued any license if we’d known he wasn’t a female,” Wharton County Clerk Delfin Marek said at the time. His deputy said Ert’s “frosted shoulder length wig” fooled her.

[…]

The couple had been together for a number of years when they exchanged rings in a small ceremony at Houston’s Harmony Wedding Chapel, Rev. Richard Vincent, who officiated the ceremony, told The Advocate two days after their wedding.

“We marry souls, not bodies,” said Vincent, an activist minister who helped found the gay-friendly Dallas Metropolitan Community Church. “They met the requirements as set forth by the church; they love each other, and they had a license, as I signed it. As far as I’m concerned, they are married in the eyes of God and in the eyes of Texas.”

The timing of the marriage was perfect for homosexual activists.

The U.S. Supreme Court was poised to hear the case of another gay couple who sought and failed to receive a license in Minnesota, Jack Baker and James McConnell. While awaiting on the High Court to rule, Baker and McConnell quietly went to another Minnesota county, obtained a license and were married in 1971.

By the time Molina and Ert tied the knot, a handful of other same-sex couples from Washington State to Kentucky had tried unsuccessfully to follow in Baker and McConnell’s footsteps. The nascent gay rights movement, born in the wake of a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay club known as the Stonewall Inn, seemed poised for a breakthrough.

The public and the courts, however, were not ready.

“When Antonio and Billie tried to marry, the medical profession considered homosexuality a mental illness. Most states, including Texas, criminalized it, and there were no legal protections for gays and lesbians anywhere,” said Mark Phariss, who currently is challenging Texas’ gay marriage ban with his partner, Victor Holmes.

Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time. I had no idea about any of this. Kudos to Chron reporter Lauren McGaughey for digging it all up. In 1973, the Legislature closed this loophole in the law by changing the wording that allowed “any two persons” to get married to “a man and a woman”; the Lege made another change in 1997 to make this more explicit, and then of course there was that awful constitutional amendment of 2005, which I call the Double Secret Anti-Gay Marriage amendment since it made illegal something that was already illegal. Now of course we have a judge’s ruling against said amendment, and a motion to lift the stay on that ruling, which would allow modern couples to formally and officially do what Molina and Ert wanted to do all those years ago. I’d love to know what those two thought about all this, but Molina died in 1991, and Ert could not be found. We’ll just have to leave that part to our imaginations, but there is this to guide us:

Ert and Molina had no way to know what, if any, effect their actions could have on future same-sex couples. In a letter to the gay publication DAVID 41 years ago, however, Ert echoed the hopes and arguments of today’s same-sex marriage advocates.

“This is 1973 and not 1956,” Ert wrote. “I see no reason why the gay community should have to hide behind closed doors to live and love who they wish, be them two females or two males. The U.S.A. is the Land of the Free, so they say, and tell us.”

Thankfully, it’s not 1973 any more, either. Wherever you are, Antonio Molina and Billie Ert, I hope you’re happier now. Swamplot has more.

Posted in: Society and cultcha.

Making room for quail

Preservation isn’t just for urban elites.

Jim Willis knows it isn’t easy to love a prairie. The quilt of burnt orange and brown that covers his Colorado County land can’t awe or inspire the way a canyon or mountain range does. But he can step onto his porch on a crisp morning, take a sip of coffee and hear the three-count whistle of the northern bobwhite quail.

The moment is enough to reveal the subtle beauty of an unbroken terrain of yellow Indiangrass, little bluestem and other tall grasses. That’s because the land was barren of wildlife not too long ago, unable to support anything but cattle.

Willis began restoring his overgrazed pasture into native grasslands more than a decade ago, placing him at the fore of a new prairie populism in Texas. Across the state, rural landowners, a new generation of urban refugees, are removing acres of Bermuda grass and creating pioneer-era landscapes that require less water and chemicals and provide habitat for a variety of critters.

The push is in response to the steady decline of the quail, an iconic Texas bird that uses the tall grasses for shelter and food. But the benefits of native grasslands go beyond one species, Willis said.

“Quail really is a canary in a coal mine,” he said. “If they’re healthy, you have a healthy ecosystem. ”

Texas is known for its bucolic hill country and mysterious piney woods, the rugged beauty of Big Bend National Park and a seemingly endless coast. But it’s largely a prairie state, and those grasslands are disappearing because of modern agricultural practices, development and fragmentation by roads and ranchettes.

The changing landscape has put quail in peril, with the bird’s numbers dropping 75 percent over the past 30 years or so, according to state biologists.

A carpetlike pasture planted for cattle grazing “might as well be a Wal-Mart parking lot” to quail, said Jon Hayes, a biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the bird to nest, forage and hide from predators, heat and wind.

To help reverse the quail population’s decline, Texas lawmakers last year earmarked $6 million for restoring prime habitat, expanding research into the species and educating landowners.

The state’s primary goal is to rehabilitate prairie in three areas: the Interstate 35 corridor just south of Dallas, the rolling plains near Oklahoma and a 12-county cluster beyond the westward march of Houston’s sprawl. The key is to connect restored plots to one another to increase the bird’s odds of survival.

Already, what began with 225 acres owned by Willis now stretches across 40,000 acres. That includes seven miles of contiguous reconstructed prairie that connects his property to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles west of Houston.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the A&M Agrilife Extension Service have lots of information about the decline of the quail population in Texas and the ongoing efforts to do something about it. As a to-the-bone urbanite, I know nothing about any of this, but I’m glad there are people who do and who care enough to try to make it better. I wish them the best of luck.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Saturday video break: Don’t Worry Baby

It’s the Beach Boys, not looking very beachy but sounding like they always do:

I will never understand the 50s and 60s fashion of band members all dressing alike. It just looks so weird now. Anyway, a group that did not look or sound like the Beach Boys but which had their own excellent song called “Don’t Worry Baby” was Los Lobos:

That was the first single from their first major labal album, Will The Wolf Survive?, and I’m so happy that it got regular airplay on then-San Antonio rock station KXZL, because I doubt I would have heard them otherwise. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Posted in: Music.

There will be charter referenda next year

Details are pending, but one way or another we’ll get to vote on some charter changes next November.

HoustonSeal

City Council members on Thursday agreed that any city charter reforms, including changes to term limits, should go to voters in November rather than May next year, but they kicked most substantive discussion of those issues to future meetings.

Thursday marked the second charter committee meeting on possible changes, most notably switching from three two-year terms to two four-year terms and repealing a voter-imposed revenue cap. The committee’s actions have no binding power, but the goal is to come up with recommendations for which changes should go to voters.

And though Thursday’s agenda called for discussion about the proposed reforms, the meeting largely turned on the logistics of future charter meetings: how many to schedule, whether they should be held during the day or at night and if they should be conducted outside of council chambers.

Council members agreed to hold six bi-weekly meetings starting next year, to alternate meeting times between day and night and to hold them in council chambers.

[…]

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who has been pushing the charter reform conversation for months, has laid out four basic reform proposals. Councilman Michael Kubosh on Thursday tacked on another voter issue, a possible vote on a failed feeding ordinance petition he helped organize.

Bradford’s reforms, in addition to the term limits, are as follows:

  • Any item advanced by at least six council members could be placed on City Council agenda.
  • City Council could meet in executive session.
  • The city would dedicate any funds above the revenue cap (if repealed) to paying down general fund debt.

See here, here, and here for the background. The first point that needs to be made is that I don’t see a specific proposal to repeal the revenue cap. What I do see is Bradford’s “revenue cap lite” proposal, which I object to for the same reason that I object to the existing revenue cap. If the Mayor and Council choose in a given year to dedicate funds to paying down the debt, that’s fine. I have a problem with requiring them to do so, in the same way that I have a problem with requiring them to pass pointless tax cuts instead. We elect Mayors and Council members to make these decisions. If we don’t like the decisions they make, we should vote them out. That’s how this is supposed to work.

As for the term limits proposal, Campos asks why the fixation on four year terms (he has some good thoughts on the subject as well that you should read). I think the simple answer is that switching from three two year terms to two four year terms is about the most minimal change to the term limits law you can make, and as such will be the easiest change to sell to a public that has accepted term limits as the de facto standard. You know how I feel about this. I can’t see me voting for this change. I recognize that rejecting this will be seen as an affirmation of the three two year term status quo, which I don’t like either. I don’t have a good answer for that. All I can do is continue to stump for something better, which to my mind would be a combination of no term limits and some form of public financing for campaigns. And while I’m at it, I’ll write a letter to Santa Claus asking him to bring me a pony this Christmas. I figure the odds of that happening are about as good.

I have no opinion on the other items at this time. What I do have an opinion on is that if we’re going to go through this exercise, why not also include a proposal to repeal the 2001 amendment that banned domestic partner benefits for city employees? Yes, I know Mayor Parker issued an executive order extending these benefits to all legally married couples, including same sex couples, and yes I know there is litigation over that. Repealing the 2001 amendment would put her order on firmer legal ground, it would enable more employees to take advantage of this benefit, and it would remove a stain from the charter. And yes, I know that we might have to vote on a repeal referendum for the equal rights ordinance. But maybe we won’t – we should know well in advance of the August deadline for ballot items – and even if we do, why not play offense as well? I’d at least like for us to talk about it. More from Campos here.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Mayor Parker wants body cameras for HPD

Good.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston won’t wait for federal funding before buying body cameras for all of the city’s uniformed police officers, Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday, as activists launched a petition drive for an ordinance essentially mandating the mayor’s plans.

Both the mayor and police chief have announced their commitment to body cameras designed to record all interactions between officers and the public, even though the innovation is expected to cost around $7-million during a severe city budget deficit. Houston plans to apply for some of the federal funding proposed by President Obama earlier in the week, the mayor said, but the city plans to invest in its camera program before Washington’s money flows through the pipeline.

“We are absolutely going to apply, as is every other big police department across the United States, for body cams,” Parker said. “Actually, not every police department will want to go that route, because you have to have the policy in place, you have to have the ability to store the records from the body cams. But we’ve had our pilot up, we know what we want in the cameras. We have a good initial policy that we’re going to roll forward.”

The mayor hopes grants and law enforcement foundations will bankroll about half of the expected expense.

“As the national debate on body cams becomes more robust, I think you’re going to see more interest,” Parker said.

See here for the background. Activists are pushing for an ordinance to require body cameras on the grounds that while the current Mayor and police chief support them, the Mayor we get next year and the chief he or she appoints might not be so supportive. You might think that after the travesty in Staten Island with Eric Garner that body cameras aren’t what they’re hyped up to be, but that isn’t the case. They will do a lot of good, for the public and for the police. Let’s get this done.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Bag fees versus bag bans

Interesting.

plastic-bag

If you live in Washington, you know the drill: After bagging your groceries, the checkout machine asks you how many bags you used. And if you used plastic or disposable bags (rather than bags you brought on your own), you have to pay 5 cents per bag. The District passed a law requiring as much in 2009 — a policy that states like New Jersey and New York are also considering, and that has been adopted around the world from Ireland and Scotland to South Africa.

Some localities have gone farther still — California and Hawaii have effectively banned plastic bags outright — but recent research suggests that charges or fees can also be effective (and have the added benefit of being less coercive). Moreover, it suggests that they work, at least in part, through a surprising mechanism. It’s not just the relatively minor added cost, on its own, that impels people to stop using plastic bags and to instead bring their own bags with them to the store. Rather, it’s the way this small change disrupts habitual behaviors and helps people draw a tighter linkage between the environmental awareness that they already possess, and actions in the world that actually advance that consciousness and their values.

Such is the upshot of a new study on plastic bag charges published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology by a team of Argentinian researchers, led by psychologist Adriana Jakovcevic of Buenos Aires University. Charging a relatively small amount for bags “produces changes in behavior,” says Jakovcevic, “and these changes are not only because of the economic value of the incentive — there are also some other processes at play that involve environmental concerns.”

Go read the whole thing. A new ordinance in Buenos Aires in 2012 allowed for a good natural experiment on this since only part of the metro area was subjected to a bag fee. Every time I bring the subject up here I get pushback from groups like the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who support full-on bans and argue that bag fees are not effective. I have always thought that the bag fee idea has merit and what’s more would be politically easier to accomplish. There’s already been an attempt to curtail municipal bag bans by the Legislature, and the issue is sure to come up again in this session. Maybe this is the more practical way to move forward. Read about the Buenos Aires experience and see what you think.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Friday random ten: Who needs instruments?

There is much excitement in my household (read: Olivia is excited) for Pitch Perfect 2. In honor of that, here are ten a capella tracks:

1. Behind Closed Doors – Modern Barbershop Quartet
2. Corn Dogs – The Bobs
3. Good Old A Capella – The Nylons
4. Enterprise: Sulu Medley – Hi-Fidelity
5. Star Wars – Moosebutter
6. Yoda – Lager Rhythms
7. Not The Same – Ben Folds and The Spartones
8. Party In The USA – Barden Bellas
9. Brothers, Sing On – Tufts Beelzebubs
10. Route 66 – The Manhattan Transfer

That last one is in honor of Tim Hauser, founder of The Manhattan Transfer, a group that inspired a capella performers for decades. What’s your favorite instrument-less song?

Posted in: Music.

Other towns consider fracking bans

If Denton can do it

A Texas hamlet shaken by its first recorded earthquake last year and hundreds since then is among communities now taking steps to challenge the oil and gas industry’s traditional supremacy over the right to frack.

Reno Mayor Lyndamyrth Stokes said spooked residents started calling last November: “I heard a boom, then crack! The whole house shook. What was that?” one caller asked. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that Reno, a community about 50 miles west of Dallas, had its first earthquake.

Seismologists have looked into whether the tremors are being caused by disposal wells on the outskirts of Reno, where millions of gallons of water produced by hydraulic fracturing are injected every day. Reno took the first step toward what Stokes believes will be an outright ban by passing a law in April limiting disposal well activity to operators who can prove the injections won’t cause earthquakes.

Reno and other cities are taking their lead from Denton, a university town north of Dallas where the state’s first ban on fracking within city limits takes effect Tuesday. The Denton ban has become a “proxy for this big war between people who want to stop fracking and people who want to see it happen,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

It also has become a referendum on Texas cities’ rights to halt drilling.

[…]

Denton’s city council has pledged to defend its ban, and other cities have taken note.

“Regulation doesn’t work very well in the state of Texas because the Railroad Commission doesn’t work on the public’s behalf,” said Dan Dowdey, an anti-fracking advocate in Alpine, a college town a few hours from two major shale formations, the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford. Dowdey and others are calling for Alpine’s city commission to ban fracking — even though the closest drilling is more than 100 miles away.

“We’re familiar with what the oil and gas industry can do to an area, and it’s not real pretty and it smells bad,” Dowdey added.

Residents of Presidio, a border town southwest of Alpine, want municipal leaders to protect their water source from being tainted by exploratory fracking wells in Mexico, said Pat Simms, who sits on a Presidio County water conservation board.

See here for some background. The Legislature will of course seek to pass a law that would forbid cities from adopting such bans, and the ongoing lawsuits might make that moot anyway. But maybe they won’t! Who knows? Point is, the desire to do this isn’t going to go away, and as long as that exists there will be a way. BOR and Texas Vox have more.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Bexar legislative shuffle update

The two candidates that we thought were running for HD123 have officially announced that they are running for HD123.

Mike Villarreal

Two Democrats announced this weekend that they’re running for Texas House District 123, the San Antonio seat that state Rep. Mike Villarreal is leaving to run for San Antonio mayor.

Public relations consultant Melissa Aguillon and City Councilman Diego Bernal officially kicked off their campaigns surrounded by cheering supporters. Other contenders for the house seat could include former City Councilman Walter Martinez, a Democrat, and Libertarian candidate Roger Gary.

They’re gearing up for a sprint of a race that could be over in a matter of weeks. The candidates are waiting for the Texas governor to set the date for a special election to fill Villarreal’s seat.

Villarreal announced he’s running for mayor after Julián Castro stepped down to become secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington.

“We expect it to happen at the very end of this year or the first month of next year,” Bernal said of the special election.

See here and here for the background. There has been a bit of chatter that Villarreal would back out of the Mayoral race since Leticia Van de Putte jumped in, fueled by Villarreal’s not-quite-a-resignation letter that may have left him some wiggle room. Villarreal insists he is staying the course, and neither I nor these candidates have any reason to doubt him. As I have said before, Bernal starts out as my favorite in this race.

Meanwhile, speaking of LVdP, Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia asks what qualities the voters in SD26 might want in her successor.

In recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot about the virtues of nonpartisanship. Mike Villarreal has made it one of the centerpieces of his mayoral campaign, and former Councilman Walter Martinez — who is one of the candidates vying for Villarreal’s seat in the Texas House — has also talked about its importance.

Given that Democrats will be badly outnumbered in a Patrick-controlled Senate, however, this is a question that lurks in the shadows of the special election to succeed outgoing Sen. Leticia Van de Putte: Is nonpartisanship possible — or even advisable — for her would-be successor?

Keep in mind that Senate District 26 is overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2012, Barack Obama took 62 percent of the vote in SD 26, even while he could only muster 41.4 percent statewide. The great majority of the district’s constituents oppose Patrick’s agenda.

The contenders for Van de Putte’s seat are Trey Martinez Fischer and José Menéndez, two San Antonio Democratic representatives born a year apart (Martinez Fischer is 44, and Menéndez is 45) who were Texas House freshman classmates in 2001. Martinez Fischer is the Democrats’ voluble happy warrior, while Menéndez is the measured, behind-the-scenes conciliator rarely on the front lines of a partisan battle.

Martinez Fischer told me last week that he considers himself able to adapt to different legislative conditions.

In 2011, when partisan bickering was the order of the day and Republicans slashed education funding by $5.4 billion, Martinez Fischer dipped into his bag of parliamentary tricks with points of order designed to slow the onslaught. In 2013, when a spirit of compromise emerged, he played a key negotiating role in the restoration of $3.9 billion in education funds.

“Our job is to do whatever is best for the entire state,” Martinez Fischer said. “But I’m not going to be a Pollyanna about it. We find ourselves in some very divisive and partisan times and people have to know that there are lawmakers out there fighting day and night to represent their views.”

See here for the background. All due respect to Rep. Menendez, but TMF starts out as my favorite in this race. Unlike the one in HD123, this election would not occur until later in the year, most likely in November. Expect this debate to go on for quite some time, and keep an eye out for what these two Reps do during the legislative session to either advance this narrative or show another side to their character and abilities.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Appraisal caps back on the agenda

The idea will never die, unfortunately. No matter what the effects are.

BagOfMoney

Local officials in the Houston area say they are concerned that incoming state leaders will push for tax relief measures that could limit their ability to meet the needs of fast-growing urban and suburban areas.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has spoken of “looking at ways that we can try to provide some level of tax relief,” and it was also a key platform of the incoming lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick. With rising assessments driving up tax bills in many suburban counties, some lawmakers have proposed reining in such increases. Proposals include making it easier for residents to call a tax rate election when property tax revenue comes in high to lowering the cap on taxable home values.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he is concerned about state lawmakers potentially tying the hands of county officials to set tax policy and provide adequate services.

“If you lower property taxes, someone is going to have to tell counties like Harris what services you don’t want anymore, because we’re barely funding our mandated duties as is,” Emmett said.

[…]

Other proposals submitted so far in early bill filings for 2015 include hiring county-level tax experts, lowering the appraisal cap from 10 percent, expanding exemptions, capping revenue growth based on a formula that considers population and inflation, and abolishing property taxes altogether, replacing them with a modified sales tax.

“The devil is in the details,” said Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert. “Depending on how they cap it, it could shut down how Fort Bend serves the county. I think there’s a reasonable solution to it if we get everyone to be reasonable.”

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, agreed that some of the proposals could provide taxpayers with relief without crippling the budgets and autonomy of local leaders.

“We’re always open to the idea of appraisal reform, but we’re not fans of the revenue-capping idea,” Sandlin said. “The revenue cap takes discretion away from the governments closest to the people. It’s the state saying, ‘We know what’s best.’ ”

If the Legislature actually cared about making the appraisal system better and fairer and more equitable, there’s lots they could do to make that happen. That’s not what they’re interested in, of course. It’s the usual wingnut wish list of cutting taxes for the wealthy and limiting spending for no good reason. You’d think these legislative Republicans would be leery about making Texas be like California, but irony died a long time ago and left no successor.

Besides, it’s not like there aren’t other ways to arbitrarily limit spending.

The Legislative Budget Board voted unanimously Monday to set the state’s growth rate at 11.68 percent for its 2016-17 budget, about 1 percent higher than the spending cap for the current budget.

The decision comes as state officials expect to enter the next legislative session in January with a multibillion-dollar surplus and competing factions push to ramp spending growth both down and up.

The budget board — made up of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, and four members each of the state House and Senate — selected the rate with little discussion, though the decision could have a big impact on next year’s legislative session.

The growth rate guides how far the next budget can exceed the current one in spending on “nondedicated revenue,” which are the parts of the budget that are funded by state taxes but not required to go to specific programs. In practice, the growth rate puts a spending cap on less than half of the state’s two-year budget. State leaders have indicated they have no plans to attempt to “bust the spending cap” next year, a move that would require the support of a majority of lawmakers.

That 11.68 percent growth rate was the low end of the range. Moody’s pegged the state’s growth rate at over 15 percent. Ah, but what do those private sector yahoos know about anything, am I right?

Posted in: That's our Lege.

A chance to help the sobering center

It’s a good cause.

When the Houston Recovery Center turns to the public in coming months for the first time and asks for help, the request will likely seem small and perhaps odd: The city-backed sobering unit wants to raise funds to pay two van drivers.

But it’s a request that says a lot about the direction of the center, a place for those whose only crime is public intoxication and who, a year and a half ago, would have gone to jail. The center offers a place to sober up with medical supervision and get help with addiction.

The vans are part of what substance abuse professionals call the “warm handoff” principle, the idea that a person who agrees to get help should be quickly shepherded to a detox or treatment center, whatever the next step might be, without pause and with the help of a familiar face. It’s a critical decision easily derailed.

“It’s huge,” Houston Recovery Center director Leonard Kincaid said. “For that moment, you have them. It’s this window of opportunity and you have to do everything right.”

And so the center will make its first donation call for about $320,000 to cover drivers, maintenance, insurance and gas for two vans that will transport clients to medical and social services 24/7. Adding the van service would mark a significant milestone in what staff says is an effort to expand the reach of the over-night sobering center the city opened in spring 2013 to reduce jail crowding and free up police officers.

[…]

Seeing the daily need for addiction services in the city, Kincaid said, has inspired the center to try to offer more long-term care; there are 369,000 people age 12 and older with substance disorders in Houston and fewer than 10 percent currently have access to treatment, according to the most recent National Survey on Substance Abuse and Health.

The center’s 18-month treatment program, for those with addiction, is tracking about 150 people through recovery. Of those enrolled in the program, 87 percent are homeless.

“The responsibility and the burden is becoming very real for us,” Kincaid said.

See here, here, and here for the background. By all accounts, the sobering center has been a welcome addition to the landscape, and clearly there’s no shortage of need for it. To a large degree, you can’t deal with homelessness without also dealing with addiction. We need to make sure the center gets the funding it requires to keep doing what it does and do as much of it as it can.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Abbott files his suit

As expected.

JustSayNo

Leading a 17-state charge up a steep legal hill, Attorney General and soon-to-be-Gov. Greg Abbott Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s moves to expand legal protections for undocumented immigrants.

The lawsuit, the 31st Abbott has filed against the Obama administration during his 12-year tenure, fulfills his gubernatorial campaign pledge to challenge President Barack Obama’s executive action to protect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of immediate deportation.

“Article 2, Second 3 was added to the Constitution to prevent this very type of conduct by a President,” Abbott said at a press conference announcing the suit, which was joined by 16 other states. “The president’s executive order and actions of federal agencies to implement the executive order directly violate a promise to the American people.”

Legal and political experts said they were skeptical of the suit’s legal underpinnings.

“It’s ill advised, I don’t think he has standing, he gets the basic terminology wrong and he protests too much when he says he’s not politicizing it, because all of it is simply about the politics of it,” said Michael Olivas, an immigration lawyer and professor at the University of Houston. “He characterizes what the president did as an executive order — it is not an executive order. It’s executive action.”

Filed in the Southern District of Texas, the suit argues Obama’s actions are unconstitutional and violate the federal Administrative Procedure Act. It also argues that the president’s order will “exacerbate” the border crisis and force states to spend more on law enforcement, health care and education.

The suit does not ask for a restraining order to immediately halt the changes, but does request that they be declared illegal.

A copy of the lawsuit is here. How do we know this is all about politics? Every single state in those 17 has a Republican governor, including several that have very small immigrant populations and thus have no credible claim to being “damaged” in some sense by this. Immigration attorneys were not impressed.

“This is completely political theater,” said Robert Loughran, an Austin immigration lawyer. “The lawsuit fails both on procedural grounds and on the merits.”

David Leopold, a former national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called President Barack Obama’s executive action “absolutely solid” and predicted Abbott’s lawsuit eventually will fail in court.

“It’s a frivolous complaint, not a serious lawsuit. It’ll be dismissed,” he said. “I don’t see any merits to this lawsuit at all.”

Of course, Abbott isn’t trying to impress the experts here. He’s playing his own game. Oh, and for you fans of irony, this happened on the same day that Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring all state agencies to use the federal E-Verify system, which back in 2010 he said would not “make a hill’s beans of difference” when it comes to what’s happening in America. So, you know.

One more thing, regarding the politics of this, from this AP story in the Chron.

Meanwhile, the executive director of a Hispanic engagement nonprofit said the states involved with the lawsuit “have listened to a right-wing, xenophobic faction of their party” and are “on the wrong side of history.”

“We’ve seen that Latinos, overwhelmingly, are united in support of the president’s actions,” said Arturo Carmona, head of Presente.org, which has more than 300,000 members. “Republicans will suffer the consequences in November 2016.”

I sure hope so. Trail Blazers and Unfair Park have more.

Posted in: La Migra, Legal matters.

Whining about the fracking ban

These guys just can’t believe they lost.

Did college students tilt the outcome of Denton’s vote to ban hydraulic fracturing?

That question has stirred debate since the city – home to the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University – became the first in Texas to ban the oilfield technique that sparked a drilling boom and spawned tension in some urban areas.

Overall, the vote wasn’t close. Nearly 59 percent of voters supported the ban, even though its opponents – buoyed by contributions from energy companies – spent far more money. That margin, the ban’s supporters say, amounted to a mandate.

But ban opponents (meaning supporters of fracking) argue that college students disproportionately affected the vote, effectively drowning out Denton’s permanent residents – particularly those living alongside natural gas wells.

“The election returns clearly show the permanent residents of Denton favor property owner rights, economic benefits from responsible drilling and American energy independence while our city’s college students did not,” Bobby Jones, treasurer of anti-ban group Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, said three days after the election.

The ban’s supporters reject that narrative.

“They’re treating a whole group of people as if their votes don’t count as much as other people,” said Adam Briggle, a board member of Frack Free Denton, a group pushing the ban. “My second reaction is, it’s wildly inaccurate.”

See here for the background. The Trib does some number-crunching to show that the pro-frackers’s complaints are largely without merit, but let’s be clear. This is about denigrating the value of the students’ votes, making it seem like their votes don’t, or shouldn’t, count as much as other votes. There’s a reason why student IDs were not deemed acceptable for voter ID purposes. It won’t matter for the purposes of the litigation that’s already been filed, but it is of a piece. Some people’s votes count more than others, and when those others help swing an election, the first reaction in some (Republican) quarters is to de-legitimize those votes. It’s the reality we live in these days, and it’s going to take a lot of effort, and electoral victories, to change that.

Posted in: Election 2014.

What will the clerks do?

Some of Texas’ county clerks are making plans to accommodate same-sex marriage license applicants in the event that federal judge Orlando Garcia lifts the stay on his ruling that tossed out the state’s ban on same-sex nuptials. Some other clerks are planning to be jerks about it.

RedEquality

Jeff Nicholson, chief deputy for Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia, a Republican, said Tuesday he consulted with the DA’s office about the issue after receiving an inquiry from a citizen.

“They advised us very explicitly that the lifting of the stay by Garcia in San Antonio, which is a different district than the one we’re in, doesn’t have any effect on us,” Nicholson told the Observer. “I think the DA’s position is here, until this is very clearly decided, that Texas law is Texas law, and we’re going to sit tight.”

Ken Upton, Dallas-based senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said clerks in other states, including Kansas and Missouri, have taken similar positions.

“I don’t think there is anything keeping them from issuing the licenses once the stay is lifted, but an argument could be made that they aren’t required to do so until it [the outcome of the case] becomes final,” Upton said.

Ken Upton is nicer about this than I would be. I think that’s a chickenshit move, and I’d be happy to see any clerk that refused to follow the law get slapped with a contempt of court charge. Judge Garcia’s ruling invalidated a provision of the state constitution, which last I checked applied to all of the state. And why are they consulting with the DA’s office? Are there no qualified civil attorneys available to advise the Tarrant County Clerk? Sheesh.

Fortunately, same-sex couples from Fort Worth will be able to obtain licenses in Dallas, where Democratic clerk John Warren said he’s prepared to issue them.

“You take an oath to uphold the law, and if the law changes, you’ve got to do it,” Warren said. “If the law says I can’t, then I won’t. If the law says I can, then I will.”

Republican Bexar County Clerk Gerhard C. “Gerry” Rickhoff said in addition to keeping his office open ’round-the-clock, he’s considering setting up tables in Main Plaza to accommodate same-sex couples. Rickhoff said he’s also lined up district judges to waive a 72-hour waiting period before ceremonies can occur, as well as officiants to conduct them.

“There’s a pent-up demand to stop these civil rights violations that are pretty evident,” Rickhoff said. “I would imagine they’ll be driving into San Antonio in droves, and that’s what we’re prepared for. Nobody will be turned away. We’ll work until there’s nobody left.”

Democratic Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said her office will also be ready to extend its hours if Garcia lifts the stay.

DeBeauvoir said she’s also prepared to “flip the switch” on changes to a database that would replace “bride” and “groom” with “Person 1” and “Person 2.”

Now that’s the way you do it. Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart says he’ll ask the AG’s office for advice and will do what they tell him, which is slightly less weaselly than Tarrant County Clerk Garcia. I don’t know what Judge Garcia will say or when he might say it, but this is coming whether some squeamish bureaucrats are ready for it or not. Those that aren’t need to grow up and get with the program or get out of office.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 1

The Texas Progressive Alliance is back from its tryptophan vacation as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

It’s still not Medicaid expansion

The Legislature may do something that could sort of be called “Medicaid expansion”, if only for lack of a better term, but we would all do well to remain deeply skeptical of what they might consider.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The once taboo subject of expanding Medicaid in Texas has been broached in recent weeks by some Republicans and GOP-friendly organizations, as the Legislature prepares to reconvene early next year.

[…]

In 2013, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, wanted to use federal dollars and a Medicaid waiver to create a new insurance program for poor Texans, but he was never able to build much support among his Republican colleagues.

“Last time, everybody was pretty reactionary,” said Zerwas, a physician. “We were playing defense.”

But with Perry leaving office in January and a new legislative session set to begin, Zerwas and his allies once again are pushing for a new program.

The difference this time is the dialogue is more thoughtful and the effort is more organized, he said.

Zerwas and other legislators had the chance after the 2013 session to go back to their districts and listen to their constituents. Many expressed interest in insuring people who can’t get coverage under the new law, he said, but many more have indicated that they want to see the already stressed, safety-net hospitals get some relief from being forced to care for so many uninsured people.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott said on the campaign trail that he opposed Medicaid expansion, but spoke of seeking a block grant from the federal government to reform Medicaid in the state, echoing some other Texas Republicans.

The words “block grant” are your first clue that despite the sincere words of people like Rep. Zerwas, this is the same old song and dance with some fresh wrapping paper on it. Block grants are a shibboleth and a mirage. The Bush administration refused to grant waivers to allow for these things. President Obama will nominate Ted Cruz to be its next Attorney General before his administration will consent to block grants for Texas.

The Texas Association of Business, an influential group with close friends in the Republican Party, has come out again in support of expanding Medicaid, just as it did in 2013.

Bill Hammond, president of the organization, said it will take a “massive effort” in 2015 to increase coverage for Texans, but it’s a fight he is willing to take on.

“It just makes sense for us from the business perspective,” he said.

[…]

Dan Stultz, president and CEO of the Texas Hospital Association, said in a presentation that hospitals need meaningful coverage expansion.

Stultz told the Associated Press earlier this year that hospitals agree with Perry that the Medicaid program is “severely flawed,” but he also said that “without the Medicaid expansion, many will remain uninsured, seeking care in emergency rooms, shifting costs to the privately insured and increasing uncompensated care to health care providers.”

The Texas Medical Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in state government, also supports allowing state leaders to work with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to come up with a solution that fits Texas’ health care needs.

The association’s leaders are pushing the Legislature to create a concept, as it says on the group’s website, that “works for the state and helps Texans in the coverage gap get affordable and timely care.”

The “support” these organizations have for Medicaid expansion doesn’t extend to supporting candidates that support Medicaid expansion, of course. In that way, it’s like their support of immigration reform. Fill in your own definition of insanity, and go search healthcare.gov for insurance policies that would cover that affliction.

Be all that as it may, we now have an interim report with recommendations on the subject.

Texas should pursue a waiver from the federal government for more flexibility to administer Medicaid, heighten the “visibility” of the state’s mental health programs to “ensure adequate leadership and accountability” and consolidate its three major women’s health programs, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services said Monday.

In a lengthy report, the interim committee released its recommendations for the 2015 legislative session, addressing charges from outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to expand access to women’s healthcare, improve the state’s mental health services, stop prescription drug abuse, and provide affordable care options for the state’s uninsured — all under the constraints of a fiscally conservative budget.

[…]

Among the report’s other recommendations:

Texas should not expand Medicaid to cover low-income adults, a key tenet of federal health law. Lawmakers should, however, seek to renew the “transformational” Medicaid waiver that, among other things, helps reimburse hospitals for the emergency care they provide to the uninsured. Notably, the report does not rule out pursuing a transformational waiver like the one the feds approved in Arkansas, which provided for a private health coverage expansion to low-income people using the Medicaid expansion dollars made available under the Affordable Care Act.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the report. Rather than get distracted by shiny objects, read these two paragraphs from page 23:

The state’s first order of business must be to repair this broken Medicaid system and bring these costs under control. By enacting common-sense reforms such as cost sharing, health savings accounts, variable benefit packages, and high-deductible emergency care plans, Texas can reform its Medicaid program in a way which contains costs, encourages personal responsibility, and lessens the burden of providing uncompensated care.

Unfortunately, most of these innovative solutions are not able to be implemented under the strict Medicaid guidelines imposed by the federal government. By receiving a federal waiver from these restrictions, Texas can finally have the flexibility it needs to design a sustainable and cost-effective Medicaid program that is appropriate for the citizens it serves and accountable to taxpayers.

Like I said, let’s keep our eyes on the ball. The feds have been making noise about that “transformational” waiver not being a guarantee if Medicaid isn’t expanded in some acceptable form. What “acceptable” looks like is the hundred billion dollar question. The feds have been fairly accommodating to recalcitrant states, but there’s only so far they’ll go. Block grants ain’t happening, and those pet rocks masquerading as “common sense reforms” are more smoke than substance. Texas is going to have to give something to get something, and I’ll believe that will happen when I see it. A press release from Sen. Charles Schwertner, the chair of the HHS committee, is here, and Texans Together has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Denton responds to fracking ban lawsuit

Game on.

One day before its first-in-Texas ban on hydraulic fracturing is set to take effect, Denton called the oil and gas extraction technique a “public nuisance” that the North Texas town has the right to regulate.

“Those activities have caused conditions that are subversive of public order and constitute an obstruction of public rights of the community as a whole,” Denton’s attorneys wrote in a legal brief filed Monday. “Such conditions include, but are not limited to, noise, increased heavy truck traffic, liquid spills, vibrations and other offensive results.”

The argument came in the city’s two-page response to a lawsuit filed by the Texas Oil and Gas Association just hours after Denton voters overwhelmingly approved a ban on hydraulic fracturing – widely known as fracking – on election night Nov. 4.

Texas’ largest petroleum group is asking a Denton County district court to declare the ban invalid and unenforceable, saying it infringes on the state’s right to regulate drilling – and mineral owners’ right to develop their resources.

[…]

In its response, Denton said the petroleum group did not identify specific state regulations that make its ban unconstitutional.

“The suit is premised on the [Railroad Commission of Texas] completely occupying the field of regulation,” said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth-based lawyer who focuses on environmental and energy issues. “Denton is rightly seeking to have them identify the actual regulations that supposedly occupy the field.”

See here for the background. That was written Monday – the ban went into effect yesterday, and as far as I could tell from a news search last night, has not been enjoined by a judge. Denton’s response to the TXOGA lawsuit is here. There was apparently a second suit filed by the General Land Office (GLO press release here) at the same time, alleging that the Denton ban prevents the GLO from performing its constitutional duty to maximize revenues from leasing public school lands; Denton’s response to that suit is here. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not going to try to evaluate the merits of these claims, I’m just looking forward to seeing what the courts do with them.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Re-redistricting HISD

Well, this would be different.

HISD Redistricting Plan

The Houston school board would grow from nine elected trustees to 17 under a bill filed by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, who said she wants to give residents of the former North Forest school district increased representation.

The Houston Independent School District took over the northeast Houston district in 2013 under orders from the Texas Education Agency. The seven-member elected North Forest school board dissolved, and HISD absorbed the schools and students.

In September, the HISD board approved a redistricting plan to even out the population of the nine trustee districts in light of the new North Forest residents. But that move wasn’t enough, according to Thompson.

“Following the closure of North Forest ISD and the realignment of about 53,000 residents, many of my constituents feel that each school board district is so large that they have little or no say on any of the board’s decision-making process,” Thompson, D-Houston, said in a statement. “This bill will provide an opportunity for the North Forest community to have a stronger voice on the HISD school board.”

The nine HISD districts range in size from about 146,500 residents to nearly 156,300.

Under Thompson’s bill, which would apply only to HISD, the 17 trustees would represent about 77,200 people each.

See here and here for the background. Rep. Thompson’s bill is HB289. I will let this post serve as my biennial plea to everyone that writes anything about the Legislature to please always include bill numbers in those stories. This one was easy enough to find – it’s the pre-filing season, so Rep. Thompson had only one page of bills to her name, and the caption was recognizable – but that isn’t always the case. Please don’t make me curse your ancestry this spring. Include bill numbers. It’s the right thing to do.

Anyway. I doubt this will go anywhere, and I’m not sure how I’d feel about it if it did. I get the complaint, I’m just not sure this is the right answer. But we’ll see. Rep. Thompson can be very persuasive, so I wouldn’t count this out.

Posted in: School days.

Searching the couch cushions for loose change

That’s basically what this is.

BagOfMoney

To say the city of Houston is working to cut a looming $120 million budget deficit one color copy at a time would not be accurate. It’s more like millions of color copies.

Cellphones no one is using, old cars no one is driving, a 50-step process for approving fire alarm permits no one can explain – these are the targets and triumphs of a small team of efficiency experts tasked with burrowing into mounds of data and analyzing city operations to find savings.

While city leaders are looking at some painful ways to close next year’s massive deficit – pension reform, layoffs, cuts in service – the six members of the Lean Six Sigma squad have generated $25 million in savings and better processes in three years, showing there are easier ways to cut.

Next on the list? Perhaps an email to the sixth floor of the Houston Fire Department headquarters at 600 Jefferson. The shared printer there spit out 32,519 color pages in September, the most of any of the city’s networked printers. About 81 percent of the machines’ pages printed in color, nine times the citywide average.

It may sound like small ball, but given the size of city operations – 55 million pages are printed each year – the potential savings can add up quickly.

Finance director Kelly Dowe, who formed the Lean Six Sigma team in May 2011, said the group – named for decades-old problem-solving methods that began in manufacturing – has a broad focus, targeting everything from shortening the time it takes to hire city workers to helping pollution and restaurant inspectors plan better daily routes.

I don’t want to denigrate or belittle this in any way. It’s a valiant and necessary effort, it will achieve real savings, and it will make government work better. These are all very good things. What I do want to do is disabuse anyone of the notion that there’s more of this that can be done to close the rest of the budget gap. In the best case scenario, Dowe’s efforts might shave five percent or so off that projected $120 million deficit. That’s real money, but it’s nowhere close to a solution. The rest of the way there is a lot harder, with the choices a lot less pleasant.

The other point that needs to be made is that we need this level of scrutiny on the whole budget, including the public safety budget. As far as I can tell, that part of the budget has been walled off and the only thing one can do with it is propose to spend more. That’s not something I will accept, certainly not until my questions about HPD’s operations are answered. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I’m willing to accept the possibility that we really do need to spend more on public safety to get what we want out of it. (Body cameras, for example, I’d absolutely support spending on.) But I want to see the numbers first. I want to know what what we’re spending our money on now is the best and most efficient use of it. Show me we’re putting the same effort into critically examining the public safety budget, and then we can talk. Along the way, we might also make some more progress on that deficit.

Posted in: Local politics.