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The real goal of SB2

Let’s take a look at the quotes from the supporters of SB2, the new law that will impose revenue caps on all Texas cities, to see what they say about it.

“They’re going to have to start looking at spending this money like it was their own and not somebody else’s money,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “And they’re going to have to look at priorities.”

[…]

But Ellen Troxclair, senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Austin City Council Member, said those dire warnings imply a city has no control over its spending.

The reason this bill was one of legislators’ top priorities this year, Troxclair said, is because Texans are frustrated by rising taxes, and if it forces cities to rethink their spending, that’s a positive.

“The bottom line of SB 2 is it brings the rate at which cities are spending money more in line with the people’s ability to pay,” Troxclair said. “I hope that what the cities do is hear the pleas from citizens who elected them to make more responsible decisions when it comes to spending.”

Troxclair added that the bill doesn’t stop cities from going to taxpayers and asking to raise their taxes above 3.5 percent if officials deem it necessary.

[…]

Austin and San Antonio, which both have the highest credit rating of AAA, are also concerned that the caps will have an effect on their ability to borrow. The nation’s three major credit rating agencies have warned that the caps could have a negative impact.

Bettencourt and Troxclair, however, dismissed those concerns, saying that as long as cities are being fiscally responsible, credit rating agencies will have no reason to dock their scores. Bettencourt added that SB 2 doesn’t affect the debt portion of the tax rate, which are set by bond elections.

SB2 was sold as a way of reining in property taxes, to provide savings to homeowners. (Renters are on their own, the Republicans don’t care about them.) But no honest broker actually believes there will be any real savings. Literally no one is going to review their household expenses at the end of a year and say “thank goodness for that revenue cap, it saved us so much money”. Just look at the Houston experience, in which the typical reduction in taxes is less than $100 per year, while the city has been starved of revenue. The whole point of this exercise to to constrain cities’ ability to prioritize its spending needs, because with a revenue cap property tax reduction, no matter how trivial, always comes first. Paul Bettencourt and his cronies want cities to spend less. If that means laying off employees, if it means deferring maintenance and repairs, if it means not offering new services to meet the needs of a changing and growing population, that’s too bad. Or not bad at all, from his perspective, because what does he care about any of that? He wants government at all levels to spend less – more specifically, to spend less on things he doesn’t like – and SB2 will help accomplish that goal. Mission accomplished.

Bankrolling the anti-vaxxers

This is why we can’t have nice things.

A wealthy Manhattan couple has emerged as significant financiers of the anti-vaccine movement, contributing more than $3 million in recent years to groups that stoke fears about immunizations online and at live events – including two forums this year at the epicenter of measles outbreaks in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have long donated to organizations focused on the arts, culture, education and the environment. But seven years ago, their private foundation embraced a very different cause: groups that question the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

How the Selzes came to support anti-vaccine ideas is unknown, but their financial impact has been enormous. Their money has gone to a handful of determined individuals who have played an outsize role in spreading doubt and misinformation about vaccines and the diseases they prevent. The groups’ false claims linking vaccines to autism and other ailments, while downplaying the risks of measles, have led growing numbers of parents to shun the shots. As a result, health officials have said, the potentially deadly disease has surged to at least 1,044 cases this year, the highest number in nearly three decades.

The Selz Foundation provides roughly three-fourths of the funding for the Informed Consent Action Network, a three-year-old charity that describes its mission as promoting drug and vaccine safety and parental choice in vaccine decisions.

Lisa Selz serves as the group’s president, but its public face and chief executive is Del Bigtree, a former daytime television show producer who draws big crowds to public events. Bigtree has no medical credentials but holds himself out as an expert on vaccine safety and promotes the idea that government officials have colluded with the pharmaceutical industry to cover up grievous harms from the drugs. In recent weeks, Bigtree has headlined forums in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, New York, both areas confronting large measles outbreaks.

“They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles,” Bigtree told reporters outside the Brooklyn meeting on June 4. “It’s crazy that there’s this level of intensity around a trivial childhood illness.”

It’s like Margaret Mead said: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtless, super-wealthy citizens can change the world for the worse; indeed, it’s the main thing that does.

Next up for the Census lawsuit

Before the Trump administration can take a second shot at SCOTUS with the Census citizenship question, the federal court in Maryland will be revisiting their case with some new data.

[The SCOTUS] decision came two days after a federal appeals court ruled that Maryland-based federal Judge George Hazel — who is considering another legal challenge that was not before the high court — could consider new evidence that recently emerged in the litigation related to the federal government’s motivation for adding the question.

That challenge in Maryland was filed on behalf of more than two dozen plaintiffs, including the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus and several Texas-based nonprofits that advocate for Latino residents. They argued that including the question would lead to a disproportionate undercount of immigrants and people of color.

Hazel had already agreed with those plaintiffs’ allegations that the inclusion of the citizenship question violated the U.S. Constitution’s enumeration clause and a federal law that governs federal agencies and their decision-making process.

But they failed to convince Hazel that the question unconstitutionally violated equal-protection guarantees and that Trump administration officials had conspired to add the question to the 2020 questionnaire based on animus against Hispanics and immigrants, particularly when it comes to counting noncitizens for the apportionment of political districts.

(Those issues were not before the Supreme Court in the case it ruled on this week.)

On Monday, Hazel said he would reconsider the plaintiffs’ arguments after evidence emerged suggesting the question may have been tacked on to advance Republican gerrymandering and undermine Hispanics’ political clout.

[…]

“The citizenship question is blocked for now but the Supreme Court’s decision leaves open the possibility for it to come back. That’s why our lawsuit is so important,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, the executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero. “In fact, the court in Maryland is weighing new evidence that shows that the real intention is to injure communities of color for partisan gain.”

Lawyers with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing some of the Texas plaintiffs, said Thursday they would immediately pursue their claims before Hazel. They had already asked him to enter an injunction while the court was still considering the case so they could prevent the administration from adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census forms it had planned to print this summer.

This of course is all in reference to the Hofeller evidence, which came out after the original ruling in that case. This is the case with the closest relationship to Texas – the Hofeller data was based on Texas’ state legislative districts – so it would be extra sweet if it helps keep the citizenship question off the Census regardless. I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.

The Straus PAC

We’ll see what this does.

Rep. Joe Straus

Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he was launching a new political action committee that he said will aim to help him continue to carry out “a thoughtful, responsible approach to governing.”

The group, Texas Forever Forward, will be chaired by Straus, who said in a news release he will contribute $2.5 million from his old campaign account to the new initiative. Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson will serve as treasurer of the group.

“We are launching this effort because I believe Texas needs leaders who are forward-looking and dedicated to bringing creative, problem-solving ideas to the new challenges our state faces as our population rapidly grows,” Straus said in a statement. “It’s time to unite Texas in civic participation and ensure our next decades are the very best in our long, proud journey.”

[…]

Wednesday’s announcement keeps Straus’ name in the political arena as he leaves the door open to running for higher office in 2022, a person familiar with the former speaker’s thinking told The Texas Tribune.

Texas Forever Forward indicated it will support candidates and causes that align with Straus and his leadership style. A news release states that the group believes that “Texas should embrace diversity and promote inclusive, non-discriminatory policies and laws,” and that “public education is our greatest economic development tool, and it’s critical to make meaningful, sustainable investments in Texas students.”

It’s unclear whether the group plans to wade into GOP primary races — which have been hotly contested in past elections between the centrist and more right-leaning factions of the party — and whether it will support only Republican candidates running for office in 2020. Straus said in an email to supporters Wednesday that he plans to communicate updates on the political action committee as the election cycle heats up.

I think Straus can either support a bunch of candidates with his PAC, or he can gear up to run statewide in 2022. I don’t see a path for him to do both. If he supports any Democrats, even safe-seat Dems that were on his leadership team, he’ll be radioactive in a GOP primary. Bear in mind, he will probably have to oust an incumbent in a GOP primary if he wants a statewide seat, and even if there’s an open seat that interests him the competition will be fierce. If instead he spends a lot of money trying to beat Democrats he’ll lose all of the bipartisan sheen he has, and there will still be Republicans who will hate him as a RINO. The latter path is more viable if he wants to run statewide, but may not be such an asset if current voting trends hold. My guess is that he uses his PAC as an anti-Empower Texans weapon and stays retired from running for office. But the siren song of electoral politics is very alluring, so who knows. Let’s see what he does this cycle first.

More on stadium netting

Here’s an update on that little girl who was hit by a foul ball at Minute Maid park recently.

A 25-month-old girl who suffered a fractured skull when struck by a foul ball at an Astros game last month continues to recover from her injuries, and her family has hired a prominent Houston attorney to consult with the Astros about the matter.

In a letter addressed Wednesday to Astros owner Jim Crane, attorney Richard Mithoff provided the first public details about the child who was hit in the head May 29 by a line drive off the bat of Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. during a game at Minute Maid Park.

While no legal action has been filed, attorneys say Mithoff’s letter represents the first public overture to the Astros toward conversations that could lead to a financial settlement.

It also satisfies, for now, the public’s interest in the condition of the crying child who was photographed being carried toward a ballpark exit by her grandfather as Almora slumped behind the plate in distress after seeing the ball hit the child.

“The family wanted to thank everyone for their concern, and that was first and foremost,” Mithoff said. “Secondly, we wanted to see whether any conversations can take place that can lead to a discussion of options that would make sense for the fans and the ballparks and the clubs.

“I know Jim Crane and know him to be a responsible owner, and I think he will do the right thing.”

[…]

The Astros, meanwhile, said Tuesday that they are studying options for additional netting but at this point have no plans to make any additions at Minute Maid Park during the 2019 season.

See here for the background. There’s more on the girl’s condition and what the family is asking for in the article, so read the rest. I really hope the Astros do the right thing and extend their nets to the foul poles. Three teams have already pledged to do this, with the White Sox being the first to make an announcement. The Dodgers made their move after a fan was injured at their stadium. No need to wait for that to happen at your stadium, other teams. This now slightly outdated list shows the netting status at your team’s home. Feel free to tell them that you want them to care for your safety and the safety of your fellow fans.

Census citizenship question stopped for now

“For now” being the key point.

The Supreme Court on Thursday put on hold the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form sent to every household, saying it had provided a “contrived” reason for wanting the information.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the splintered opinion. In a section agreed with by the court’s liberals, he said the Commerce Department must provide a clearer explanation.

Agencies must offer “genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,” Roberts wrote. “Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”

Roberts said a district judge was right to send the issue back to the Commerce Department for a better explanation.

A string of lower-court judges found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated federal law and regulations in attempting to include the question on the census. They starkly rebutted his claim that the information was first requested by the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and they noted his consultations with hard-line immigration advocates in the White House beforehand.

What happens next was not immediately clear; the department had said it must know by the summer whether the question can be added.

See here for some background. Trump has already tweeted that they will try again, so it’s mostly a question of timing. Rick Hasen thinks they may be able to get back before SCOTUS in time for the fall term, which would allow for the question to be re-decided in time. Ari Berman, talking to ACLU attorneys who were among the counsel for the plaintiffs, think it’s unlikely. Everyone agrees that SCOTUS ruled that the Commerce Department could add a citizenship question if it had followed the Administrative Procedures Act, so if they can get back to SCOTUS they will almost certainly prevail. The new questions raised by the Hofeller files may be an extra obstacle for the Commerce Department, but not necessarily. Hold onto your butts. Daily Kos and Texas Monthly have more.

You are free to redistrict to your partisan heart’s content

Your Supreme Court, ladies and gentlemen.

In an effort to appear as though it hovers permanently above the partisan fray, the Supreme Court on Thursday delivered perhaps the most staggering win to the Republican Party since Bush v. Gore. In a pair of cases out of North Carolina and Maryland raising the question of whether extreme partisan political gerrymanders can ever violate the Constitution, the five-justice conservative majority finally answered a decades-old question: The federal courts will have no role to play in overseeing whether political lines were drawn for the gain of the majority in violation of the Constitution. As Chief Justice John Roberts put it in his majority opinion:

We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions. “[J]udicial action must be governed by standard, by rule,” and must be “principled, rational, and based upon reasoned distinctions” found in the Constitution or laws [as a plurality of the court found in the 2004 case Vieth v. Jubelirer]. Judicial review of partisan gerrymandering does not meet those basic requirements.

With this opinion, the chief justice puts on a masterclass in legal analysis by way of hypothetical question. How much of a partisan gerrymander is too much? How can we know? Which tool could we use? Who knows what lurks in the heart of voters? It reads as a protracted still life in learned helplessness. If, as it turns out, a court genuinely doesn’t want to adjudicate a problem, they can always say it’s too hard.

[…]

To be sure, the chief justice knows how this all feels, to the millions of voters whose votes are and will be diluted and discounted by the majorities who draw lines: “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” he concedes. “But the fact that such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles,’ does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary.” The solution, he would suggest, lies in state courts, constitutional amendments, state redistricting commissions (which he has deemed unconstitutional in the past), Congress, and state legislatures, which is a tiny bit like putting the looters in charge of the looting problem.

He ends with the noble caution that “No one can accuse this Court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence.” And, indeed, nobody does. We have in recent terms witnessed the court’s view of its competence to dismantle the administrative state, to curb union power, to overturn prior precedent, to gut the Voting Rights Act, and to use the First Amendment as an all-purpose civil rights stun-gun. But its competence to do sweeping and consequential change stops, today, at the door of the political gerrymander. In the chief justice’s telling, this is neutral minimalism.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan calls out this learned helplessness in her very first line: “[F]or the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.” She adds that the doctrine here clouds the issue that:

The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people. These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.

Before laying out the specific grotesquerie of the Maryland and North Carolina gerrymanders at issue, Kagan asks her reader to consider: “As I relate what happened in those two States, ask yourself: Is this how American democracy is supposed to work?”

In John Roberts’ America, it is. Mark Joseph Stern, who notes that Roberts likes to call himself “the most aggressive defender of the First Amendment on the court now”, reviews a couple of his recent decisions and concludes that Roberts thinks billionaires deserve more First Amendment protections than regular voters do. And if you really want to go down a nighmarish path, consider this:

After today’s disastrous decision, here are some things that line-drawers could do in the future:

  • Instruct a computer algorithm to generate huge numbers of maps that comply with all nonpartisan criteria and produce as large and durable an advantage as possible for the line-drawing party. Then pick an actual plan from this array of potential gerrymanders. This plan will be close to impregnable if it’s challenged on nonpartisan grounds. But it will still massively benefit the line-drawing party, probably more than any human-drawn map could.
  • Revise districts after each election to optimize their performance in the next election. Any districts slipping away from the line-drawing party could have some copartisans added to them. Any districts becoming overly safe could have some copartisans subtracted. Decennial redistricting, in other words, could become a thing of the past. Redistricting every two years is so much more effective.
  • Design noncontiguous districts in order to avoid the constraints of political geography. A state with many Democrats concentrated in cities (like my Illinois) could join clusters of urban Democrats with slightly smaller clusters of rural Republicans hundreds of miles away. These clusters wouldn’t have to be connected since no federal law, and no other law in many states, mandates contiguity. A state could even adopt entirely nongeographic districts, e.g., by assigning a representative (and sufficiently numerous) sample of the state’s population to each district.

We’ve already established that mid-decade redistricting is a thing that happens. Who’s to say any of this is out of bounds? Not John Roberts, that’s for sure. ThinkProgress, Sam Wang, and the WaPo have more.

Still no more prosecutors

I remain fascinated by this dynamic.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for more staff to handle fallout from the Houston Police Department’s botched Pecan Park drug raid, the second time this year commissioners have turned down Ogg’s push for more prosecutors.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines after a feisty debate involving the court’s reform-minded Democratic majority, officials from Ogg’s office and the outnumbered conservative commissioners. In the end, Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined County Judge Lina Hidalgo in turning down the request.

Added to the court’s agenda late Friday, Ogg’s request would have granted the district attorney’s office 10 new positions — seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators — to handle what officials in Ogg’s office characterized as an overwhelming caseload aggravated by the Jan. 28 Harding Street raid.

The court’s decision came a day after HPD agreed to give prosecutors thousands of pages of records relating to their use of confidential narcotics informants, avoiding a legal showdown that loomed after prosecutors from Ogg’s office threatened to issue grand jury subpoenas to get the records.

Instead of granting Ogg more staff, Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia voiced support for an external review by an independent third party. They also cited a Chronicle report that raised questions about caseloads and Ogg’s push for more than 100 new lawyers earlier this year, which the court also rejected.

[…]

In a statement, Ogg said her office “remains dedicated to fully investigating the Harding Street shootings” and said the shooting victims’ family members “and our entire community deserve to know the truth sooner, not later. Unnecessary delay creates hardship for everyone associated with this tragedy. If police misconduct led to the wrongful convictions of anyone, then every extra day served in the penitentiary waiting for justice increases the potential financial liability for Harris County taxpayers.”

Ellis, a longtime criminal justice advocate, told officials from the district attorney’s office that he did not feel comfortable receiving Ogg’s request late Friday, and urged King to meet first with an independent prosecutor before having commissioners vote on additional staff.

Hidalgo suggested that Ogg’s request was a reaction to coverage of the botched raid, telling King that Commissioners Court members “don’t write budgets based on headlines.”

See here for more on the first time Ogg asked for more prosecutors, here for more on that Chron story about caseloads, and here for more about the late ask for more prosecutors this time around. I can think of three things to say. One is that Kim Ogg should listen to Rodney Ellis and consult with someone outside Harris County about their staffing needs before taking any further action. Two, that consultation should include reviewing and revising those numbers the Chron cited, if only to present an alternative report that conforms to the specifications cited. And three, one way or another she needs to build or rebuild trust between her office and the Democrats on Commissioners Court, because she sure isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from them. The campaign ads for her primary opposition are being written for them.

By the way, Commissioners Court updated the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies

Nice.

The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to [add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies].

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — all Democrats — voted in favor. Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voted against. Prior to the vote, several LGBTQ advocates spoke in support of the proposal, while only one person — Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council — spoke against it.

Welch told the court that sexual orientation and gender identity are “undefinable” — and claimed the new nondiscrimination policies would “be used as a bludgeon against those who disagree.”

Commissioner Garcia responded with an emotional story about his late brother, Huberto, who died from AIDS in 1995.

“My brother was gay, and he grew up at a time when if you exhibited any tendency … you got beat up,” Garcia said. “So, here we have an opportunity to simply say, ‘People matter, and that people will be protected.’

“My brother couldn’t come home to die with his family,” Garcia said. “California at the time was the only place he could get healthcare”.

[…]

The new policies would take effect immediately and bring Harris County in line with other major Texas counties, including Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas and Travis (Austin) counties. Harris County is the third-most-populous in the nation and has more than 15,000 employees. The policies would also cover several hundred employees at the Harris County Flood Control District (think: Hurricane Harvey).

This only merited a passing mention in the Chron, which I find disappointing. Note that this policy applies only to Harris County employees; Commissioners Court doesn’t have the authority to do this for the county as a whole. Despite the failure of HERO, the city of Houston has long had a similar non-discrimination policy for its employees, which Mayor Parker updated to include transgender employees back in 2010. Elections have consequences, y’all. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for getting this done.

Metro and the Mayor’s race

This went pretty much as one would expect.

Delivering his fourth State of Mobility speech to Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed previous years, noting the region needs more options than solo driving if it is to handle the deluge of new residents in the future.

“We need to find ways to move people efficiently and quickly, and that means more than just building more highways,” Turner said.

While touching on the many improvements needed in the region, including deepening the Houston Ship Channel to keep the Port of Houston an attractive call for ships and support of a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, much of the session was spent on the upcoming transit plans.

“We cannot continue to operate a transportation system as if it was 30 years ago,” Turner said.

[…]

“Given the congestion we have now… we must build out our system,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

Patman and others said most of the summer will be spent selling voters on the plan, though officials believe it has strong support.

“Of course, we will have some naysayers,” Patman said.

That includes some of Turner’s opponents in the mayoral race, which also will be on the November ballot. Bill King and Tony Buzbee both have said Houston has invested too much in public transit to the detriment of suburban commuters.

Asked during a June 10 Kingwood forum on transportation solutions, King said “it is not transit or light rail” while congratulating Metro on its commuter bus efforts.

Buzbee focused his remarks at the event on the need to improve neighborhood streets and synchronizing traffic lights for better efficiency. He called the Metro plan too focused on a small portion of the city.

“It is more about career politicians telling us public transit is good,” Buzbee said.

So, Bill King cares more about people driving in from The Woodlands than anything else, while Buzbee demonstrates zero grasp of the topic at hand. As for Dwight Boykins, he wasn’t quoted in the story, probably because he wasn’t at the event. Insert shrug emoji here.

Look, Metro has come a long way since the dark days of Frank Wilson and David Wolff. There are more HOV lanes, a vastly improved bus system, more light rail, good ridership numbers, and forward-thinking planning from the Board and the Chair. All that is at risk, not just with the MetroNext plan on the ballot but also Mayor’s race. All the good work being done goes right out the window if a transit-hostile or transit-ignorant Mayor gets elected. Sylvester Turner is the only choice if you care about transit. It’s not even close.

In defense of the I-45 expansion

Jeff Balke rises in opposition to the anti-I-45-expansion clamor.

We have seen comments on social media and rantings about how our city should be more bike friendly and pedestrian safe. How we need commuter rail, better bus service and rapid transit like expanded METROrail. In fact, we could not agree more. We have written time and time again that we must be open to alternate methods of transportation if we are going to grow intelligently as a city over the next two decades.

However, one area where differ quite sharply is the idea that we should do nothing. That the only way to solve the problem is to force motorists to change their habits, give up their cars, and one way to do that is to make traffic worse.

Here is our biggest issue with that: size. Houston is massive. This isn’t New York or Chicago or even Los Angeles. We are 600-square miles inside the city limits alone. Add the entire region and it’s more than double that. Our centers of commerce are all over the place from downtown skyscrapers to medical center hospitals to office towers in the Galleria to warehouses and refineries on the east end to tech companies well north.

It would be virtually impossible to entirely give up a vehicle unless you were able and willing to live close to your job, and that isn’t often possible thanks to our lack of zoning and the far flung nature of our region.

We have seen many suggest projects like these are for the benefit of suburbanites who use our city resources and then retreat to the comfort of their neighborhoods outside the city limits while we are left to deal with the fallout. That is not abnormal. Most big cities deal with the very same issues. Space comes at a premium and not everyone can afford to live inside the Loop.

More importantly, there are things like hurricane evacuations and emergency vehicle movement that must be considered. The fact is we cannot solve our traffic problems in Houston with one thing. Rail, biking, walking, urban planning, wider freeways, none of those things will save us alone. We need a massive, concerted effort with a lot of growing pains to re-build the city the way it probably should have been designed 100 years ago.

Jeff didn’t single out anyone who argued for doing nothing, but as I was one who examined that idea, I’ll give him equal time. My post was more about considering the alternate universe in which we spent the same amount of money on transit as we do on highways – spoiler alert, we could have much better and more expansive transit if we did that – but that’s not how this works. And I did suggest that doing nothing might be better than going forward with this plan, so I’ll own that. Jeff is right, we can’t improve mobility on the wildest dreams of transit alone, and I-45 is a critical evacuation route for hurricanes, so there is a critical need to improve it. (And hope like hell we don’t need that evacuation route while it’s all torn up.) For sure, we will need multiple modes of travel to improve mobility in Houston. I just wish, and I’m sure Jeff agrees with me, that we put some more emphasis on, and resources into, those other modes.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 24

The Texas Progressive Alliance does not want to be lied into any more wars as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Some county race updates

2020 is going to be a very different election year in Harris County, because for the first time in anyone’s memory all of the non-HCDE countywide offices are held by Democrats. If you’re a Democrat in Harris County and you want to run for judge or an executive countywide position, you either need someone to step down or you need to challenge an incumbent Democrat. This month, we’re seeing some activity on that score, as two Democratic hopefuls have filed designation of treasurer reports for the purpose of running for County Attorney against three-term incumbent Vince Ryan. They are Ben Rose, who ran for HD134 in 2016, and Christian Menefee, past president of the Houston Black American Democrats (HBAD). That makes this one of the main local primaries to watch for 2020.

I have expected that someone, possibly more than one someone, would challenge Ryan, assuming he doesn’t decide to retire. We can agree that while Vince Ryan has generally been a fine County Attorney – his office has been sufficiently aggressive in enforcing environmental law that the Lege has taken steps to clip his wings, and he quickly put an end to then-Clerk Stan Stanart’s equivocating nonsense following the Obergefell ruling, among other things – a lot of people did not care for how he handled the bail lawsuit. If Ryan does run for a fourth term, I’m sure we’ll relitigate that with vigor. Regardless of whether Ryan is on the ballot or not, I hope we also have a spirited argument about what the role of the Harris County Attorney should be in a blue county with a Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. Is there room to take a more activist role in fighting against the actions by the state and federal government that directly harm Harris County? Maybe the answer to that question is No, and maybe the answer to that question is “Yes, but it comes with significant risk”, but I think it’s a question worth exploring. Let’s talk about what a Harris County Attorney should be doing, not just what that office and the person in charge of it have been doing.

I mentioned that the two At Large HCDE seats that remain in Republican hands are the last countywide seats held by a member of the GOP. They are At Large positions 5 and 7, now held by the execrable Michael Wolfe and the dinosaur Don Sumners. Both of them now have declared challengers, as Andrea Duhon and David Brown have filed treasurer reports against them. Duhon, who ran for and narrowly lost the HCDE Precinct 3 race last year, is up against Wolfe, while Brown will oppose Sumners. I won’t be surprised if they have company in their primaries, but for now they’re the ones.

Finally, I haven’t seen a treasurer filing, but Diana Alexander has announced her intention to challenge County Commissioner Steve Radack in Precinct 3. Alexander manages the Indivisible Houston, Pantsuit Republic, and Pantsuit Republic Houston Facebook groups; I don’t know anything else about her at this time. I can say for certain that others will be entering this race, as this is the top local prize for Democrats to pursue. Some names I have heard mentioned in connection with this include term-limited Council Member Mike Laster, former State Rep. Kristi Thibaut, and Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, who would not be able to say anything about this without triggering resign to run. If you’ve heard other names being bandied about for this, please leave a comment and let us know.

Appeals court upholds dismissal of term limits lawsuit

Score one more for the city.

A Texas appeals court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling that struck down a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a 2015 voter-approved referendum extending term limits for city officials.

At issue in the suit was Proposition 2, a ballot measure that changed Houston’s charter to limit elected officials to two four-year terms instead of the previous cap of three two-year terms.

Community activists Phillip Paul Bryant and James Scarborough alleged in their lawsuit that former mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston used “deceptive ballot language” to “selfishly expand term limits.”

Parker was term-limited out of office and did not receive a longer term due to the ballot referendum, which easily passed.

Eric Dick, an attorney for Scarborough, said he would appeal the case.

“I said from the beginning it’s going to be decided in the Supreme Court of Texas,” Dick said.

See here for the background, and here for a press release from the city. The court’s ruling is here, and the TL;dr version of it is “the district judge got it right when he ruled that the ballot language was sufficiently fine”. They rejected the plaintiffs’s argument that the ballot language was misleading. Obviously, the Supreme Court is gonna do what the Supreme Court is gonna do, but for now at least it’s all systems normal for this year’s election.

David Temple re-trial starts

The beginning of the next chapter in a long story.

For the second time in 12 years, a former Katy-area football coach is standing trial in the murder of his pregnant wife, seeking exoneration after prosecutorial misconduct caused his first conviction to be reversed.

David Temple’s return to court takes place almost 20 years after his wife’s death, which he has insisted was the result of a botched break-in at their home. The murder and trial in 2007 became drew national attention and the case has remained controversial ever since.

Jury selection began Thursday and will continue this week, with testimony due to begin next month. State District Judge Kelli Johnson, special prosecutors from the Texas Attorney General’s Office and defense attorneys are choosing from a pool of 240 potential jurors.

The amount of time that has lapsed usually benefits the defense, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston. It remains to be seen what evidence withheld from the first trial will be presented.

“We probably shouldn’t expect any surprises,” she said. “The question is how much the prosecutors’ case has degraded over time.”

See here for all the background I have on this. The case is being prosecuted by a lawyer from the Attorney General’s office, as DA Kim Ogg recused her office due to the allegations of misconduct against the office from the past. Suffice it to say that this case is a hot potato, and people have strong feelings about it and about David Temple. I’m just interested in seeing how it plays out this time around.

If it weren’t for Latino population growth…

Texas would have a lot less growth overall.

The gap between Texas’ Hispanic and white populations continued to narrow last year when the state gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident.

With Hispanics expected to become the largest population group in Texas as soon as 2022, new population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau showed the Hispanic population climbed to nearly 11.4 million — an annual gain of 214,736 through July 2018 and an increase of 1.9 million since 2010.

The white population, meanwhile, grew by just 24,075 last year. Texas still has a bigger white population — up to 11.9 million last year — but it has only grown by roughly 484,000 since 2010. The white population’s growth has been so sluggish this decade that it barely surpassed total growth among Asian Texans, who make up a tiny share of the total population, in the same time period.

The estimates come as lawmakers begin to sharpen their focus on the 2021 redistricting cycle, when they’ll have to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps to account for population growth. And they highlight the extent to which the demographics of the state continue to shift against the Republican Party.

The African-American and Asian-American populations grew by a bit more, and a bit less, than the white population, respectively. The Latino growth was more than half of the entire total. On the plus side, if you rig the Census n a way that allows for a large undercount of the Latino population, you can mostly pretend none of this is happening. So there’s that.

Lawsuit planned over cable franchise fee bill

I sure hope Houston gets involved in this.

Fort Worth and cities across Texas stand to lose millions of dollars due to a new law that slashes fees telecom providers pay to them. But before the savings go into effect next year, it’s likely cities will challenge the legislation in the courts.

The bill, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month, would slash right-of-way fees telecom providers pay cities to supply cable and phone service. For years, companies paid cities two separate fees to run phone and cable TV lines in right-of-ways — even when delivered over the same line. The bill changes that practice, and allows providers to only pay the higher of the two fees.

Supporters of the bill, like Walt Baum, the president of the Texas Cable Association, said it’s necessary to end an “outdated double tax” on companies. But Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said he thinks the legislation violates sections of the Texas Constitution.

“The use of public land is a privilege, not a right,” Sandlin said. “They could certainly decide to run those wires through people’s backyards, but they would pay a lot more. They have to pay for that rental of public space.“

Fort Worth estimates a little over $4 million will be lost in revenue due to the law, according to a presentation given to the Fort Worth City Council outlining the legislative session’s impact. And in some cities, those losses are more than six times that, with Houston pinning its potential losses at up to $27 million.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, authored Senate Bill 1152 and chairs the Senate Business and Commerce committee. Since 2006, telecom providers — some who stand to potentially cut costs due to Hancock’s bill — have contributed over $150,000 to Hancock’s campaign, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics.

“I don’t know who saves millions more than the constituents that I work for,” Hancock said about providers paying less.

This wouldn’t be the first time one of Hancock’s bills spurred a lawsuit.

In 2017, a group of over 30 cities filed a lawsuit against the state alleging that a bill authored by Hancock violated articles of the Texas Constitution that prohibit the legislature from directing local municipalities to make gifts or grants to a corporation. The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court, is ongoing, and Kevin Pagan, McAllen’s city attorney, said he believes the newly signed legislation violates the same tenets.

Pagan said the new bill wrongly requires cities to make a gift to private companies by allowing providers to use the right-of-way at a lesser charge.

The telecom providers are, “already in the right-of-way. You’re already using our facilities. You’ve already agreed to pay us a franchise fee. And now under this law, you’re just going to stop paying,” Pagan said. “It’s a gift from the state legislature back to those companies.”

See here for the background. I have no idea what the odds of success are for this lawsuit, but as I said up front I sure hope the city of Houston signs on as a co-plaintiff, because we’re definitely taking it in the shorts from this bill. As for the claims from the cable lobbyist that this bill will lead to lower costs for cable subscribers, well, if you think that will happen I’ve got a nice beach house in Abilene to sell you.

See ya, Stickland

Good riddance.

Former legislator

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a firebrand conservative Republican from Bedford and one of the most vocal members of the Texas House, announced Monday he will not run for reelection in 2020.

Stickland, first elected to represent House District 92 in 2012, broke the news to supporters in an email, saying he had “determined it is not in the Lord’s will for me to seek re-election.”

“Instead,” he wrote, “I intend to dedicate more time to my family, my church, and my business.”

While in office, Stickland established a reputation as one of the House’s more pugnacious members, often taking to the chamber’s back microphone to debate — and sometimes kill — pieces of legislation. Stickland typically argued he was pushing back against bills in the name of liberty and freedom, a nod to the hardline conservative values he aligned himself with.

[…]

Although Stickland was at times effective with his procedural maneuvers and tactics in the House, he didn’t pass his first bill until this year.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment — seven years,” he told colleagues as the House passed his measure to ban red light cameras in the state. “The people of Texas have been waiting a longer time than I have.”

While Stickland prided himself on his lone wolf image, the lawmaker was deeply unpopular with a faction of members and constituents who disagreed with his approach to politics. In the 2018 general elections, Stickland, running for a fourth term, almost lost to a little-known Democratic challenger.

Stickland was an utter waste of space. His political beliefs ranged from risible to reprehensible. From anti-vaxxing to rape apologia, you could always count on Stickland to be loudly and aggressively on the wrong side of just about any issue. The next Legislature is already in better shape for Stickland’s absence. His departure also opens up a swing district, though I’m honestly not sure that it will be easier for a Dem to win without Stickland on the ballot. Be that as it may, let me just say good-bye to someone who truly deserves to hear that word. May I never have to hear his name again. The DMN has more.

The battle for the Lege is gonna be lit

Fasten your seat belts.

While the Texas Senate appears safe for Republicans, Clinton’s comments underscored the emphasis that some Democrats — both in Texas and outside it — are already putting on the fight for the majority in the state House, where their party is nine seats away from control of the chamber. Views vary on just how within reach the majority is for Democrats, but few disagree that 2020 will be a frenzied cycle for House races as Democrats work to protect — and potentially build on — their recent gains. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to take back seats and head off the worst-case scenario: a Democratic-led House heading into the 2021 redistricting process.

The early contours of the fight are taking shape in the wake of a legislative session that saw Republicans largely eschew divisive social issues for a bread-and-butter agenda following a humbling election cycle in which they lost a dozen seats in the lower chamber. There is also a new speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, who appears intent on keeping the GOP in power by minimizing the kind of internecine conflict that has previously bedeviled the party.

“Everything is focused on redistricting,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at a recent tea party meeting as he fielded questions about the demise of some controversial legislation this session. “There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House … going into redistricting because if you look at the nation — we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there’s no other place to go.”

[…]

As Republicans have sought to get their own in order for 2020, state and national Democrats have been drawing up preliminary battle plans to take the House. Their path runs through a group of 18 districts — 17 where Republicans won by single digits last year as well as House District 32. That’s where Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, ran unopposed while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won by just 5 points.

Of course, Democrats have to simultaneously defend the 12 seats they picked up last year, some of which have already drawn serious GOP opposition.

The path is “tough but possible to flip the chamber,” said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “We feel like there are enough potential targets out there that nine is doable, but it is gonna take a lot of work and resources.”

The NDRC spent $560,000 in Texas last cycle, and Rodenbush called Texas “one of our top priorities for 2020.” It recently hired an Austin-based Democratic consultant, Genevieve Van Cleve, to oversee its advocacy and political efforts here as Texas state director.

Other national groups are zeroing in on Texas this cycle as a state House battleground. They include the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Forward Majority, a super PAC that injected $2.2 million into Texas House races in the closing days of the 2018 election.

The state Democratic Party is expanding its campaign and candidate services as part of what will ultimately be a seven-figure effort in House races. Over the past weekend in Austin, the party held a training for 55 people to become campaign managers in state House races.

[…]

Abbott’s political operation plans to go after Democratic freshmen, as do well-funded organizations such as the Associated Republicans of Texas.

“ART is focused on candidate recruitment earlier than ever this cycle,” ART’s president, Jamie McWright, said in a statement. “We are identifying qualified, knowledgeable candidates who are willing to tackle the state’s biggest issues in order to win back the seats Republicans lost in 2018.”

Republicans are particularly focused on the seven seats they lost last cycle that Abbott carried.

You can see the potential targets here. There’s really only one competitive seat in the Senate this cycle, and that’s SD19, which Dems ought to be able to win back. On the House side, the top GOP targets based on the given criteria are going to be HDs 45, 47, 52, 65, 114, 132, and 135. I’ll be surprised if they don’t expand their list beyond that, but those are the seats I’d go after first if I were them. On the Dem side, there are the nine seats Beto carried but that Republicans won, plus however many others where he came close. It’s very likely that a seat no one is worried too much about becomes more competitive than expected, thanks to changing conditions and candidate quality and other unforeseen factors. So far, no one other than Mayor-elect Eric Johnson has announced a departure, which is unusual; normally at this point in time we’ve had a couple of people say they’re not running again. Open seats are more likely to be a problem for Republicans than they will be for Democrats, but Dems don’t want to have to play defense when there are gains to be made.

At this point, the name of the game is one part candidate recruitment and one part raising money, which will be the job of the various PACs until the candidates get settled. In Harris County, we have two good candidates each for the main targets: Akilah Bacy and Josh Wallenstein (who ran for HCDE in 2018 and was the runnerup in the primary to Richard Cantu) in HD138, and Ann Johnson and Ruby Powers in HD134. In Fort Bend, Sarah DeMerchant appears to be running again in HD26, while Eliz Markowitz (candidate for SBOE7 in 2018) is aiming for HD28. We still need (or I need to do a better job searching for) candidates in HDs 29, 85, and 126, for starters. If you’re in one of those competitive Republican-held State Rep districts, find out who is or may be running for the Dems. If you’re in one of those targeted-by-the-GOP districts, be sure to help out your incumbent. Kelly Hancock is absolutely right: This is super-duper important.

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

“I’m haunted by their eyes”

We should all be haunted, and outraged, by this.

Immigrants held in a McAllen-area U.S. Customs and Border Patrol processing center for migrants — the largest such center in America — are living in overcrowded spaces and sometimes are forced to sleep outside a building where the water “tastes like bleach,” according to an attorney who recently interviewed some of the migrants.

“It was so bad that the mothers would save any bottled water they could get and use that to mix the baby formula,” attorney Toby Gialluca told The Texas Tribune on Saturday.

But when she recalls the conditions described to her by the immigrants she interviewed at McAllen’s Centralized Processing Center, Gialluca said she goes back to one thing.

“Their eyes. I’m haunted by their eyes,” Gialluca said.

Gialluca and a slew of other lawyers have been meeting with children and young mothers at facilities across the state this month as pro bono attorneys. At the McAllen Center, Gialluca said everyone she spoke with said they sought out Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande so they could request asylum.

Gialluca said the migrants, all from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, told her they aren’t receiving proper medical care and children don’t have enough clean clothes. Unable to clean themselves, young mothers reported wiping their children’s runny noses or vomit with their own clothing, Gialluca said. There aren’t sufficient cups or baby bottles, so many are reused or shared.

“Basic hygiene just doesn’t exist there,” Gialluca said. “It’s a health crisis … a manufactured health crisis,” she said.

[…]

On Saturday, state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, issued a letter to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission inquiring about the reportedly inhumane conditions at a Clint facility where another group of lawyers told the Associated Press about a group of 250 infants, children and teens who spent nearly a month without adequate food, water and sanitation.

Attorneys who visited the El Paso-area station said they found at least 15 children sick with the flu and described a sick and diaperless 2-year-old boy, whose “shirt was smeared in mucus,” being taken care of by three girls all under 15.

“HHSC has a responsibility to these children and individuals to ensure they are receiving, at a minimum, basic care,” Alvarado wrote, acknowledging that the facilities are managed at a federal level, but still imploring the state to do more. “As these facilities are in our state, the conditions under which they operate is a reflection of our values and commitment to the humane treatment of all within our borders.”

There are a lot of elected officials in this state who support passing laws greatly restricting access to abortion because they say they believe in the sanctity of life. Most of those same officials oppose laws that grant equal treatment under the law to LGBTQ people, and support laws that allow “sincerely held religious beliefs” to be a legal reason to not do business with LGBTQ people, because they believe that LGBTQ people are engaged in immoral behavior. These same elected officials, who care so much about life and morality, don’t have so much as an unkind word to say about the appalling, inhumane treatment of thousands of people, many of them children and babies, right here in Texas. I don’t know why any moral authority is granted to these officials, whose names include Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, Chip Roy, Dan Crenshaw, Ron Wright, Lois “Bathroom Bill” Kolkhorst, Jonathan “Former Fetus” Stickland, Tony “Death Penalty For Abortion” Tinderholt, and many many more. They have clearly shown that they don’t deserve it.

UPDATE: In addition to voting all of these useless assholes out of office, you can donate to or volunteer for any of these organizations if you want to help do something about this.

Weekend link dump for June 23

The day the music burned.

“The widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies creates employment opportunities up and down the supply chain. Worldwide, the sector employed 11 million people at the end of 2018, according to this sixth edition of the Renewable Energy and Jobs series.”

“The Secret History of ‘Vampire’s Kiss,’ the Craziest Nicolas Cage Movie of All Time”.

RIP, Gloria Vanderbilt, fashion designer, socialite, artist, and mother of Anderson Cooper. (Warning: autoplay video)

A prequel to The Hunger Games will be published next year. Expect a movie to follow.

Great, now I have to worry about black holes disappearing.

“When comparing the 2016 presidential election to 2018 House races, the biggest increase of support for Democrats came not in the suburbs (which received the most attention) but in rural areas.”

Don’t like your lousy polling numbers? Fire your pollsters. Problem solved!

From the Couldn’t Have Happened To A Nicer Guy department.

Facebook’s “cryptocurrnecy” makes no sense, except to Facebook.

How Long Must We Keep A Straight Face?”

“This willingness to eschew democracy in favor of authoritarianism was forecast by Zachary Roth before Trump’s election.”

I hope the Newtown families take these assholes for every penny they have.

“Headlines have warned about a coming ratpoclaypse driven by climate change. But there isn’t a lot of research to back these warnings up. Part of the reason is that it’s hard to predict what rats will do, because it’s harder than you’d think to study what rats are doing right now.”

Is your kid’s cellphone causing them to grow horns? Well, probably not. But it’s a hell of a question.

“This is not just a problem for Major League Baseball, this is a problem for humans. But when a person in the public eye, like a baseball player, is charged with domestic violence, it’s an opportunity to put a spotlight on something that affects a staggering percentage of the population.”

How Donald Trump is trying to make it harder for Americans abroad, including active military members, to vote.

RIP, Molly O’Neill, author and food critic, sister of former Yankees star Paul O’Neill.

Everything I Learned While Getting Kicked out of America’s Biggest Anti-Vaccine Conference“. One of the more dsturbing and disheartening things I’ve read recently.

“The problem isn’t that it’s unbelievable. The problem is that his base doesn’t care.”

Royce again

The “Royce West for Senate” thing is officially a thing.

Sen. Royce West

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, met this week with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as he nears a decision on whether to run for U.S. Senate — a decision that West now says will come sometime next month.

West had a positive meeting with Schumer and staff at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a Democratic source familiar with the meeting said. West, the source added, signaled that he is likely to run.

Asked for comment Friday, West said in a text message, “I’ll make a decision whether to run next month.”

West has been viewed as a potential candidate for months but has not said much publicly about his deliberations over whether to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. If West enters the U.S. Senate race, he would have to contend with a Democratic field that already includes MJ Hegar, the former U.S. House candidate. Schumer met with Hegar in March.

See here for the background. As it happens, this story appeared on the same day that I received another fundraising email from the Chris Bell exploratory campaign; I wonder if Bell has met with Chuck Schumer. I’ll say this much: If Royce West is our nominee in 2020, I will be happy to vote for him and to advocate for him. I’m going to need to be convinced to vote for him over MJ Hegar in the primary, because right now she’d still be my preference. I doubt polling will tell us anything about who might have a better chance of winning next year, as I doubt either West or Hegar has enough name ID to be more than a generic Democrat in a horserace question. Hegar is the more exciting candidate, but that’s not enough to project a significant difference at this time. We’ll see what he – and Chris Bell, and Amanda Edwards, and anyone else who might be lurking out there – decides to do.

Appeals court rejects firefighters pension reform lawsuit

This is not related to Prop B. I know, it’s hard to keep all of this straight.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Thursday sided with the city of Houston in a lawsuit over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform plan, which the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund alleged violates the state constitution.

The firefighters’ pension fund sued Turner and other city officials in May 2017, shortly after the Legislature passed — and Gov. Greg Abbott signed — Senate Bill 2190, the legislation overhauling Houston’s pension systems. Firefighters opposed the measure, while Turner and other officials said it resolved a fiscal crisis that could threaten the city’s fiscal solvency.

In the lawsuit, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund argued the pension reform law strips its right under the Texas Constitution to “select legal counsel and an actuary and adopt sound actuarial assumptions.”

The pension fund contended the reform plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment, now codified in state law, gives the city and its actuaries a role in determining the fund’s cost projections, which the fund’s board of trustees said it alone should control.

See here and here for the background. The suit was dismissed by a district court judge, and the appeals court was basically ruling on whether that judge was correct to dismiss or not. You can read the opinion here, but it’s pretty dense and technical, and my eyes glazed over almost immediately. In short, the appellate court said the trial court judge’s decision was fine. The firefighters’ pension fund, who filed the suit and the appeal, will appeal again, to the Supreme Court. So we’re not quite finished with this yet.

The case for a second MLB team in the Metroplex

It’s an interesting argument, with a lot of aspects to it.

[T]he 2019 Street & Smith Baseball Yearbook contains an article (“Where to Next?” by G. Scott Thomas) rating the top 20 metro areas [for potential MLB expansion]. More than 100 reporters and editors filled out a report card (using grades from A to F) for each contender. In ranking order, the results are: Montreal, Portland, Nashville, Charlotte, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Vancouver, Raleigh-Durham, Mexico City, Austin, Monterrey, San Juan, New Orleans, Indianapolis, New Jersey (i.e., North Jersey), Havana, Sacramento, Columbus, Orlando, and San Bernardino. I was a bit surprised to see Nashville rank so highly, but otherwise the top 10 more or less line up with the favored locales of other pundits.

One viable metro area is missing from the list, however. That’s might be because it already has one team. I refer here to Dallas-Fort Worth, the Metroplex, or simply North Texas as it is increasingly referred to. Just as the Southern California conurbation eventually evolved into SoCal in popular discourse, North Texas will likely progress to NorTex (admittedly, it sounds like a public utility or a petroleum corporation) in the near future. Remember, you heard it here first.

Now it might seem unfair if not downright bigamous to bestow a second team on a metro area when so many other suitors are out there. On the other hand, such fairness was not a factor when Los Angeles and New York were awarded franchises in the first round of expansion. But a realistic case could be made for those teams then. The same is true for a potential NorTex franchise now.

First of all, did you know that NorTex is the largest market in the US with only one team? Yep, it’s true. One smaller metro area, San Francisco-Oakland (4,728,484 as of 2018) has two teams, though in past years some have opined that is one team too many. If the A’s can’t find a new home in the East Bay, they may be proved right. At any rate, the Bay Area has roughly 2.8 million people fewer than NorTex does, and has had two teams for more than half a century.

NorTex has 7,539,711 people according to a 2018 estimate (way up from 2,424,131 in 1970, two years before the Rangers hit town). That’s good for fourth place in the metro area population sweepstakes. Of course, New York and LA lead the pack and are not within striking distance. But third-place Chicago has “only” 9,498,716 people.

More important, however, are the metropolitan growth rates. NorTex has grown 17.33 percent since the 2010 census. Chicago is virtually stagnant with a growth rate of just 0.4 percent. This is not only much lower than DFW, it is lower than any of the other top 25 metro areas, including such renowned meltdown towns as Detroit and St. Louis. You have to go all the way down to Pittsburgh (No. 27 metro) to find a lower growth rate – in fact a negative rate of -1.34 percent. (The only other major league metro area in the red is Cleveland at -0.97 percent.)

You don’t have to be a math wizard to see that NorTex will likely surpass Chicago for third place within the lifetimes of many if not most of the people reading this article. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You don’t need a weathervane to see which way the wind blows.”

It’s a good read, so check it out. Obviously, MLB has to be in expansion mode for any of this to be a possibility. My guess is that when the expansion to 32 teams comes around, D/FW will not be on the short list, but if and when 36 teams are the target, it will be. How long that may take, I have no idea, but however long it takes I’d bet D/FW will still be in the picture.

The lamentations of Big John

You guys, he may finally lose a race. I’m serious!

Big John Cornyn

There is no ghostwritten Cornyn memoir. His ego does not seem to live and die on how many times he appears on Sunday morning talk shows. And he’s never launched a presidential bid, exploratory campaign or even a vice presidential lobbying effort.

“I haven’t run for president,” he said. “My wife told me if I decided to run for president, I needed to get a new wife. And I’ve been married 39 years, and I’m not going to go down that path.”

It is that understated quality — what some observers describe as “boring,” “vanilla” and “not Ted Cruz” — that lends so much uncertainty to his 2020 reelection campaign.

But Cornyn’s calmness may also prove to be his greatest asset amid potential Texas political tumult. He is the de facto leader of state Republicans this cycle, with his name set to appear on the 2020 ballot below only the presidential contest.

And from this perch, Cornyn, despite his usually steady manner, is cranking the alarm as loudly as he can to his fellow Texas Republicans.

“We are, I think, no longer the reliably red state we have been,” he said. “We are at risk of turning purple. And if we don’t do our job, then we could turn blue in the coming years. “

Some of the most respected minds in Texas politics agree.

“He’s unbeatable in a regular year, but this is not a regular year,” said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist who ran Cornyn’s first statewide race in 1990. “A presidential year like this one changes the outlook. Otherwise, he’s unbeatable in the state of Texas.”

Now, thanks to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s near-ouster of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s midterm elections, Texas Democrats smell blood. An endless stream of Democrats across the state spent the winter and spring floating their own names to run against Cornyn. At this point, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar is the most prominent Democrat to officially enter the fray.

Cornyn is the first to agree that the ground is moving.

“Everything’s changed [since 2014],” Cornyn said. “I think 2018 woke up everybody on the Republican side to the fact that we not only need to be competitive in the primaries, but we need to talk to broader general election voters, too.”

There’s not really anything new in this story, which is mostly about how steadfast and unexciting the big lug is. News flash, John Cornyn is not Ted Cruz, both in his boring style and his more substantive manner, as has had passed actual legislation of consequence in his time in office. Some of it has even been bipartisan. He goes into 2020 a favorite for re-election (with, obviously, an awful lot of things still to happen that can and will affect that outlook) but not a lock. Honestly, I think he’s more at the mercy of Donald Trump and the voters he will inspire to go to the polls than anyone wants to admit. It occurs to me that if he does lose, there will be a bit of an echo of the 2006 Senate race in Rhode Island, in which longterm and generally well-liked incumbent Lincoln Chaffee, one of the last liberal Northeastern Republicans standing, was ousted by an electorate that liked him personally but wanted to send a message to then-President George W. Bush, whom they did not like. Other than being a multi-term Republican incumbent Senator, Cornyn isn’t anything like Chaffee, but it’s hard for me to imaging him losing in a world with anything but a deeply unpopular Republican President. I mean hell, he might not be seriously challenged in such a world. But here we are, and say what you want about the guy, he recognizes the peril he’s in. It’s just that there’s only so much he can do about it.

By the way, City Council passed the budget

In the end, this was pretty boring. Which is a good thing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston city council approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year with little commotion Wednesday, authorizing a spending plan that was scrambled at the last minute by developments at the Legislature and a judge’s ruling that the voter-approved Proposition B is unconstitutional.

The council voted 12-4 in favor of Turner’s budget after approving a series of amendments during a nearly seven-hour session. The budget covers city spending for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

About half the spending — $2.53 billion — will come out of the city’s tax- and-fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries. The city is set to spend about 1.9 percent more than it is projected to spend during the current fiscal year.

The remaining spending will come out of “enterprise” funds, which are supported by fees, including the Houston Airport System, and city utilities, which run on residents’ water bills.

[…]

Also complicating the budget was a bill passed by the Legislature that limits the fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way. That opened a spending gap of more than $16 million, according to city budget officials.

Wednesday’s budget approval followed consideration of more than 30 amendments proposed by council members.

Among the amendments approved were proposals to create new finance transparency requirements, change how the city sets its next budget and commission studies that could change how the city’s fleet management and solid waste departments operate.

In the end, there were no layoffs thanks to Prop B getting tossed by the courts. That could still get reversed on appeal so it’s not a settled matter, but for now it’s where we are. A respite from that drama, no matter how brief, is welcome.

Happy (bike) trails to you

Trails connecting to trails. It’s a beautiful thing.

With roughly four miles of new trail in the neighborhood along Sims Bayou and a electric transmission route, officials in southern Houston’s Five Corners District as well as park advocates said they expect a lot more running.

“It really is a milestone and I think it is going to open up all kinds of possibilities for us to complete the system and demonstrate that people will use these corridors,” said Beth White, CEO of Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit spearheading the Bayou Greenways 2020 effort.

The trail runs north of Sims Bayou for about 1.5 miles, parallel to Hiram Clarke Road to West Airport. The path, open to walkers, runners and bicyclists, runs along a CenterPoint Energy utility easement. A host of destinations, including three schools, and hundreds of single family homes are within 1,500 feet of the trail, the first in the city to run along a utility easement.

Perhaps more critically than what is along the route, is the connection it provides to the trail system along Sims Bayou, recently spruced up and expanded with nearly 2.6-mile segment featuring vibrant murals. The new portion runs from Heatherbrook Drive to Buffalo Speedway. Though unconnected to the rest of the trail system, the two southwest Houston segments offer some relief from on-road riding, and greatly expand the number of people who can easily and safely travel to Townwood Park near Orem and Buffalo Speedway without a car.

[…]

Getting even this short segment of utility easement trail open, however, has been a long journey. City and CenterPoint officials celebrated an agreement in 2014 that untied some of the thorny issues related to public use of the utility right of way. The deal even became the template for state legislation passed in 2017 allowing counties and municipalities to partner with companies for combined use trails along power line routes.

“In a built-up city you have to take advantage of every corridor that you can,” White said.

Then slight delays set in for the first trail, from working out the final language of cooperative agreements to planning and design approvals. By 2017, the connection still was just a blueprint.

The slow-going hasn’t dampened expectations for more connections, more miles of bayou and utility easement trails, providing more people easy access to trails, White said. The parks board remains on pace for its 2020 goal of 150 miles of trail along seven Houston bayous, she said.

I hadn’t realized it from the story, but looking at the map made me realize this is a connection to the Sim Bayou trail, using the utility easement so it’s still off the street. The original bill that allowed for bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way was passed in 2013, and the great thing about it is that these easements generally run north-south, while the bayous go more or less east-west. That would allow for a real connected network and a whole lot more of the region that could be safely biked off-road. I hope we hear about a lot more of these getting finished up soon.

Biden talks big about Texas

And other states, too.

Joe Biden

Democratic front-runner Joe Biden said Monday he plans to campaign during the general election and win in South Carolina, Georgia and Texas, states that have consistently supported Republicans for about four decades.

“We plan on campaigning in the South. I plan on — if I’m your nominee — winning Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina. And I believe we can win Texas and Florida, if you look at the polling data now,” the former vice president said at the Poor People’s Campaign forum in Washington. “It’s a marathon — it’s a long way off.”

Georgia most recently backed a Democrat in 1992, and that was Bill Clinton. The last Democrat who carried Georgia, South Carolina and Texas together was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Biden’s remarks came in response to a question about whether he plans to campaign in the South and the Sun Belt. He mentioned that he visited Alabama in 2017 to support Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat who won a special election in the traditionally red state.

“I have no intention of walking away, if I’m the nominee,” Biden said. “If I’m not the nominee, I have no intention of walking away, in trying to help whoever the nominee is to win those states.”

Obviously, I like the sound of that. Let me make three points here.

1. First and foremost, I am officially neutral on the Presidential primary at this time. If I had to vote tomorrow, I’d be choosing from the trio of Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Julian Castro. My second tier has Beto, Buttigieg, Booker, and Gillibrand. Biden’s in the group after that. He’s currently atop the primary polls, and tends to do the best in general election matchups, so this sort of article usually focuses on him. So be it.

2. One of my criteria for deciding who will get my primary vote is the level of commitment the candidate in question has for campaigning in Texas and competing to win in Texas. I hope that all of them are in on this, thus not making my decision any easier. So as far as that goes, good for Biden.

3. That said, it’s my opinion, bolstered by the polling data we have so far, that who the Democratic nominee will be will not matter that much for how competitive Texas is. The primary factor, by a long shot, is Trump himself. The nominee’s job will be maximizing turnout among those who want Trump out. I’ll be making up my mind about that later on in the cycle.

Anyway. Bottom line, I want all the candidates to be thinking big like this. It’s what the country needs and deserves. CNN has more.

Worrying about the expanded school marshal program

This just seems like such a bad idea.

Would a teacher who volunteered to do double duty as a school marshal in Texas act any braver [than a professional law enforcement officer]? Some might. Maybe most would. Would those who decide not to engage a shooter be subject to arrest?

The bill Abbott signed June 6 removed the 200-per-student cap on the number of marshals a school may have. It was part of a legislative package he sought after the May 18, 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

A separate, more expansive bill includes a number of school safety measures, including requirements that all teachers have access to a telephone or another electronic communication device, that school districts routinely hold drills to prepare students and personnel for an emergency, and that a statewide consortium be created to provide more children with mental health services.

While those programs appear laudable, expanding the school marshal program could lead to disastrous results. “There’s so much potential for mistakes to be made, for unintended injuries to occur,” Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, told the editorial board. “A marshal’s gun could be dropped. A student could try to take a marshal’s gun. And what kind of guns are we talking about?”

Texas’ school marshal program, which began six years ago, was modeled after the federal air marshal program. Only certain school officials, local law enforcement, and the Texas Department of Public Safety are supposed to know who the anonymous volunteer marshals are until they are called into action. That, too, is a problem, said Switzer.

“My children went to a large school where not even all the teachers knew each other. If an incident occurs at a large school, an armed marshal might be mistaken for a bad actor,” she said.

Studies showing black students are disproportionately targeted for discipline are also a concern, the gun control advocate said: “I worry about what might happen if an armed school marshal makes an assumption about a kid because of how he looks.”

The less than 40 certified school marshals in Texas in 2018 rose to nearly 200 after the Santa Fe shooting. That number is expected to grow now that the program has been expanded. Any teacher or other school staffer can volunteer to be a marshal and keep a gun in a safe place on campus for use when it’s deemed necessary.

[…]

Asking teachers, coaches, office staff, and counselors to be prepared to safeguard students in an emergency is reasonable. Asking them to take on the role of an armed protector is not.

See here for further information. I basically agree with everything this author says. It’s just a matter of time before there’s an incident, whether due to mishap, carelessness, mistaken identity, incompetence, or bad intent. The odds of that happening are so much greater than a volunteer marshal stopping an actual shooter. What do you think will happen when such an incident does occur?

Here comes the driverless pizza delivery vehicle

Gotta admit, this has me scratching my head.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

There goes another high schooler’s job: Domino’s Pizza Inc. plans to test unmanned pizza delivery in Houston later this year.

The chain, known as a technology leader in the restaurant industry, is teaming up with Nuro, a Bay Area robotics startup run by a pair of former Google employees. To start, Domino’s will send food to customers from a single store in the Texas city using one of Nuro’s fully autonomous vehicles.

The test is scheduled to start late this year and could expand in 2020, according to the companies. Domino’s has more than 6,000 restaurants in the U.S. and, with the labor market tight, the company is experiencing a driver shortage, with as many as 10,000 open positions nationwide, according to Kevin Vasconi, the company’s chief information officer.

The Nuro partnership will help the chain determine if autonomous vehicles are a way for its restaurants to keep up with demand during busy times when drivers are in short supply, he said.

“Consumers are ready for this,” Vasconi said. “I have been surprised by the overall positive reaction people have had to an autonomous vehicle delivery experience.”

[…]

Domino’s previously tested autonomous delivery vehicles in a partnership with Ford Motor Co. The pilot began in 2017 to see how customers would react to stepping out of their homes to fetch pizza from a locked warming chamber in the vehicle. That program has ended.

Pizza Hut, a chain that made its name with sit-down dining and is now trying to catch up with rivals on delivery, teamed up with Toyota last year to work toward driverless delivery.

Nuro is the same outfit doing the Kroger autonomous grocery delivery testing. See here and here for background on that. I wish there were some information on how the earlier pilot went (I didn’t find anything in a cursory search). With groceries, you get a cheaper delivery price if you go out and lug them into your place on your own. Will that entice people to do the same for pizza? I guess you’d save the cost of a tip, if nothing else. I haven’t ordered from Domino’s in a million years, so I’m the wrong person to react to this news. How do you feel about this? TechCrunch has more.

Will Ken Paxton ever be prosecuted?

At this point, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely.

Best mugshot ever

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.

See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.

At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.

Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.

The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.

That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.

That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.

Ten Best and Ten Worst 2019

Here’s that famous biennial list from Texas Monthly.

The Best

  • House Speaker Dennis Bonnen
  • Representative Joe Moody
  • Representative James White
  • Representative Donna Howard
  • Representative Dade Phelan
  • Representative Victoria Neave
  • Senator Kirk Watson
  • Representative Tom Oliverson

The Worst

  • Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick
  • Representative Tom Craddick
  • Senator Bryan Hughes
  • Representative Poncho Nevárez
  • Senator Angela Paxton
  • Representative Jeff Leach
  • Senator John Whitmire
  • Senator Brandon Creighton

Special Awards

  • Most Improved: Governor Greg Abbott
  • Cockroach: Representative Jonathan Stickland
  • Freshman of the Year: Representative Julie Johnson
  • Bull of the Brazos: Senator Paul Bettencourt
  • Furniture

Click over to read the stories. Many of these had me nodding my head, others had me saying “huh, I hadn’t realized that”. None of them stood out as egregiously wrong based on the reasons cited, which has not always been the case. Anyway, read and enjoy, and as always consult with Harold Cook for the proper way to respond.

Metro’s driverless shuttle finally debuts

Nice to have good weather.

TSU’s Tiger Walk isn’t just for pedestrians anymore.

The region’s first autonomous shuttle to carry passengers debuted Wednesday along the tree-lined walk, the center of the Texas Southern University campus. Operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority, the vehicle will ferry students and others along the Tiger Walk as part of a pilot program to gauge how driverless vehicles can solve some of the region’s travel obstacles.

“We have to plan for the future,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, noting some Houstonians need reliable local transit to link them to major bus and rail stops, a hurdle in transit circles referred to as “first-mile/last-mile.”

“Autonomous vehicle technology has the ability to serve those needs and many more,” Patman said, standing in front of the blue shuttle. “Once these things become commonplace, we can have these autonomous vehicles lined up.”

[…]

The vehicle for now uses an established route with three stops around campus, relying on sensors to detect when it is safe to proceed and avoid others along the Tiger Walk, which is a closed part of Wheeler Avenue across the college. The Tiger Walk intersects with the Columbia Tap Trail.

The second phase, likely in 2020, will extend the shuttle’s route to the Purple Line rail stop near TDECU Stadium and the University of Houston campus. That will be the first foray into automobile traffic for the shuttle, along a stretch of Cleburne Street. The third phase of the trial will extend the shuttle service to the Eastwood Transit Center at Interstate 45 and Lockwood.

See here, here, and here for the background. I approve of this kind of usage, with the shuttle acting as a connector between the campus and (right now) a bike trail and (eventually) a light rail stop. That’s how you make it easier for people to not use their cars for short trips. I’ll be very interested to see how many people use this thing, and how many of them come from or go to other non-car modes of travel.