Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

alcohol

You may finally be able to buy booze at Walmart and Costco now

I agree with this.

A protectionist Texas law that has kept Walmart, Costco and other giant retailers from selling hard liquor was found unconstitutional by a federal judge this week, prompting cheers from free-market advocates — and vows of a quick appeal from one of the parties on the losing side.

The Texas law that was struck down — unique in the United States — forbids publicly traded businesses from owning liquor stores while allowing family-owned companies to grow into giant chains without fear of competition from large national or international corporations.

If the late Tuesday ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman survives appeals, Texas consumers — like those in at least 31 other states and many foreign countries — will be able to buy vodka, tequila and bourbon from Walmart-owned stores and from other multinational retailer outlets.

“For decades, these laws have stood in stark contrast to Texas values,” said Travis Thomas, spokesman for Texans for Consumer Freedom, which advocates for free-market reforms in Texas. “The State of Texas should not pick winners and losers in private industry.”

[…]

Experts said an appeal could take more than a year to play out in the federal court system — longer if it were to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, Texans can expect the status quo in liquor retailing. If publicly traded companies are allowed eventually to sell distilled spirits, existing law would still require the companies to build separate facilities, though they can be adjacent to existing stores.

See here and here for the background. The Texas Package Stores Association, which represents the state’s liquor store owners, has vowed to appeal, and I’d expect this to go the distance. As you know, I’m no fan of Walmart, but on this issue I think they’re in the right. Now if we could only bring a similar sense of sanity to the state’s ridiculous beer laws, we’d really have something.

2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters passed a $1 billion pension bond referendum by a wide margin late Tuesday, securing Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark reform package and, the mayor hopes, marking the beginning of the end of a 16-year fiscal crisis.

The ballot item’s passage now means the city can follow through on its plan to infuse $750 million into the police pension and $250 million into the municipal workers’ pension to improve their funding levels and lower Houston’s annual payments into its pension funds.

If voters had rejected the measure, up to $1.8 billion of the $2.8 billion in hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would have been rescinded, adding tens of millions of dollars in costs to the city budget overnight.

“This effort has not been easy,” the mayor said at an election night party. “Tonight is not a victory for Sylvester Turner. Tonight is not a victory for the members of city council. Tonight is not just a victory for the employees. Tonight is a victory for the city of Houston.”

[…]

Many City Hall insiders and political observers had predicted voters could balk at a $1 billion bond and produce a close vote. But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, because the GOP-run Legislature had approved the reform package earlier this year, there was no organized opposition to shake voters from their typical habit of granting approval to city bond issues.

“Because most conservative groups and Republicans and most big players on the state level endorsed the bonds, it was unlikely that there would be much of a fight, and there wasn’t,” he said. “My honest guess is that people probably weren’t that attentive to the importance of Prop. A; it was simply the case that the city was asking for more money, as they routinely do, and the good news is that people typically vote yes.”

I gave up and went to bed before the final results came in, but Prop A had over 77% support, with absentee, early, and Election Day totals all being at about the same level. Turnout was higher than predicted, with over 87,000 votes being counted with a fifth of precincts still not having reported. I’ll have more analysis of this for tomorrow, but in the meantime, the other bonds passed, too.

Houston residents can look forward to a smattering of facility upgrades – including repaired libraries, new community centers and renovated fire stations – thanks to what appeared to be overwhelming voter support for $495 million in public improvement bonds.

Propositions B through E passed easily Tuesday despite anemic local turnout in a city lacking a marquee race.

The bonds’ passage, which will not require a property tax increase, would authorize Houston to issue $159 million in public safety debt, $104 million for parks, $109 million for improvements to general government facilities and $123 million for libraries. They are the first the city has requested since 2012.

[…]

Meanwhile, residents of Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in the northwest, were set to further loosen restrictions on area alcohol sales.

Heights voters already had lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores last year, but customers who wanted to drink at neighborhood restaurants or bars still had to join a “private club” by submitting a driver’s license for entry into a database.

Passing Proposition F lifts that requirement, leaving the neighborhood nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

I don’t expect that last bit to change any time soon. Props B through E were at similar levels of support as Prop A, garnering between 72 and 76 percent; Prop F, limited to just part of the Heights, had over 62%. I should note that the other four citywide props did have official, if perhaps not organized, opposition, as the Harris County GOP and conservative groups like the C Club and the HRBC opposed them. Didn’t have much effect, I’d say.

Elsewhere, school bond issues in Spring Branch and Katy were approved, while all seven constitutional amendments were passed. As I said, I’ll have more to say on Tuesday’s results tomorrow.

UPDATE: Final turnout in the Harris County part of the city was 99,460, which is higher than anyone projected it to be.

Another contemplation of turnout

Let’s see where this one takes us. Last time, I made some guesses about turnout in the HISD races based on overall turnout in the city of Houston. Now I’m going to turn that around and take a shot at pegging city turnout based on HISD.

It was suggested to me that we do have a model for a low-turnout HISD election scenario, and that was the May special election to revisit the recapture question. A total of 28,978 people showed up for that exercise. How can we extrapolate from that to the full city? Most years there isn’t a direct connection, since most years there isn’t an election for all of HISD. But such a connection does exist in two recent years, years in which HISD had a bond issue on the ballot. Let’s take a look at 2007 and 2012, the latter of which works because there were also city bond issues up for a vote. Here are the numbers:

2007: Houston = 123,410 HISD = 85,288 Share = 69.1%

2012: Houston = 576,549 HISD = 388,982 Share = 67.5%

“Share” is just the ratio of HISD turnout to Houston turnout. It’s quite pleasingly compact. If we take the midpoint of the two – 68.3% – and apply it to the May 2017 special, and we get a projected total for the city of 42,428. Which, also pleasingly, is well in line with the numbers I was noodling with last time.

What does that tell us? In some sense, not that much, as we don’t have a district-wide election in November, we have six district races. But it does give another figure for our estimate of hardcore voters, and a tad more faith in my own guess of around 50K total for the city. We can get from there to numbers for the individual races if we want. It’s still all hocus-pocus, but at least it’s based on something.

On a tangential note, we do remember that there’s also another Heights alcohol vote on the ballot, right? I’ve heard basically nothing about this since the petitions were validated. The signs like the one embedded above started showing up within the past week or so, but that’s the only activity I’ve seen or heard about, and this light Press story is the only news I’ve found. The area that will be voting has some overlap with HISD I, so it’s not touching many voters who wouldn’t already have a reason to be engaged, and as such probably wouldn’t be much of a factor even if it were a hotter ticket. Anyway, I just wanted to work something about this item in, and this seemed like as good a place as any.

Petitions have been submitted for Heights alcohol vote 2.0

That was quick.

Voters in the Heights will likely have the opportunity to further loosen alcohol restrictions in the neighborhood this November now that activists have secured more than the 1,500 signatures required to get a measure on the ballot.

[…]

When Houston annexed what was the incorporated city of the Heights in 1918, the boundaries of the city evaporated. Because of election rules the only residents who were allowed to vote on the matter last November had to live in the same voting precincts of those who voted to go “dry” back in 1912.

A Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar spokesman said those precincts were 0053, 0057,0075,0054,0058,0086,0055,0059 and 0501.

It’s speculated by Brain Poff, with Texas Petition Strategies, the firm who helped gather the signatures needed for last year’s vote and just finished with the petition for this fall, that the same will hold true this November for the ordinance to repeal the private club model.

See here and here for the background. I feel pretty confident saying that if the original Heights booze referendum was on your ballot last year, then it will be on your ballot this year. The only real question at this point is how many other things will be on there as well. I look forward to seeing how this campaign unfolds.

More on Heights alcohol vote 2.0

From the Heights Examiner (now a section of the Wednesday Chron), the reasons why restauranteurs want in on the action.

But the possible reversal of the century-old prohibition on restaurants would mean more than just no longer having to sign a slip of a paper before being served, said Morgan Weber who owns Revival Market on Heights Boulevard, Coltivare on White Oak Drive and Eight Row Flint on Yale Street.

“When we opened Coltivare we always knew this was just going to be one of the hassles and hoops we have to jump through,” said Weber. “What we didn’t know was what a legitimate pain it would be and how much it eats into your bottom line – reality sets in and that’s a different story.”

Weber said the private club model – that exists as a nonprofit, meaning they must have a board of directors for the entity – requires his restaurants maintain a separate bank account for alcohol sales and that the money from those sales cannot be withdrawn without a meeting of the board and a vote. Due to intricacies of the rules, alcohol sales from Coltivare sat in the bank for one full year before Weber and his team were able to withdraw the funds. Further, he can’t have his alcohol inventory delivered to his business. He has to send an employee to go pick it up. And he has to pay more for that inventory than other restaurants and bars in Houston who can sell alcohol under standard Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules. He said he pays barely above retail for liquor, beer and wine.

Just based on buying alcohol at that rate, Weber estimates he’s losing 7 to 8 percent from his bottom line. That doesn’t take into account added labor for separate bookkeeping and trips to pick up inventory.

It’s not as easy as just charging more for cocktails, either, he said. Because patrons have an upper-limit to what they’ll pay for a martini, he can’t charge $14 at Eight Row Flint when Anvil in Montrose is charging $10.

See here for the background. I’m not in any way involved in the restaurant business, so I have no idea if Weber is reporting accurately or if he is exaggerating in some way, but if he’s telling it like it is then I can certainly understand his (and presumably others’) motivation. I have friends who live in the dry zone and I know some of them are not happy about this. I get that, but I can’t bring myself to endorse any of Texas’ antiquated and byzantine booze laws. I feel the same way about this as I do about the shamelessly rent-seeking beer distributors. These laws are anti-consumer, and they should be consigned to the scrap heap.

We could have another Heights alcohol vote

Sure, why not?

Heights voters last fall lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores, but customers still must join a private club if they want to drink alcohol at area restaurants or bars. That means submitting a drivers license for entry into a club database.

The Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition petition would lift that requirement, leaving the historically dry portion of the Heights nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

“While we were doing (the petition) last year, a couple of restaurants came around and said, ‘Hey, we’re here too,'” said Bryan Poff, a project manager for Austin-based Texas Petition Strategies, which is managing the petition drive. “As soon as they saw how much support beer and wine got … that was all they needed.”

[…]

Morgan Weber, co-owner of Coltivare and Eight Row Flint, said allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol more freely would improve the customer experience and help streamline operations.

“It’s not ideal from our perspective, because instead of really being able to make a great first impression … the first thing out of our mouth when you order alcohol is that we need to see your drivers license,” Weber said. “It’s right out of the gate kind of negative.”

Weber also pointed to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules that require restaurants and bars looking to sell alcohol in dry parts of the Heights to establish a separate non-profit or association to receive the proceeds of alcohol sales and pay for the private club’s operation.

See here for coverage of last year’s effort. I supported that effort (though I couldn’t vote for it, as I don’t live in that part of the Heights), as I generally support efforts to undo dry restrictions. This particular restriction is kind of silly – as noted in the story, restaurants can sell booze, they just have to collect your name and drivers license info for their “private club” to do it. I’m sure there will be opposition to this – I knew plenty of people who were against last year’s referendum, and I doubt they’ll be any happier with this one – though Bill Baldwin won’t be leading it. My early guess is that it will succeed if it gets to a vote, but we’ll see. Swamplot and Eater Houston have more.

HEB confirms interest in Heights location

As rumored.

Residents have seen and heard speculation and rumors for months, wondering what the fate would be regarding H-E-B’s potential Heights move. Well wait no more.

After the rumor mill ran wild following the No-Dry Vote petition spearheaded by H-E-B and the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition earlier this year, president of the company’s Houston region Scott McClelland confirmed to The Leader in an interview that the company plans to open its new location at the site of the old Fiesta in the Heights, should voters elect to make that area “wet” in November. The official site announcement took place at the old Fiesta location on 23rd Street and North Shepherd Thursday morning.

A permanent move into the Heights remains predicated on the No Dry Vote passing, and it appears H-E-B as well as the Coalition are confident in its future success, as evidenced by Thursday morning’s proceedings.

Advocates such as Heights resident, local attorney and chair of the coalition Steve Reilley told The Leader in September that opening an H-E-B within the Heights would provide a boon for the economy along with the diversity in shopping options.

“There are a lot of people who would like to have a big grocery store within walking distance because they don’t have transportation or would like to have a job they can walk to in the Heights,” he said.

McClelland’s recent inboxes seem to say as much.

“Over the last five years I’ve probably gotten more requests for a store in the Heights than anywhere else in Houston,” he said.

See here for all previous blogging on this topic. The former Fiesta site has been talked about as a potential HEB ever since the original store was sold and demolished. As noted, this is all predicated on the dry law revision being passed. KUHF addresses that.

In August, the City Council voted to place a referendum on the ballot to lift the ban on the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption.

Steve Reilley leads the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which collected more than 1,700 signatures on a petition to overturn the ban. He, together with city council members and representatives from the retail industry, kicked off the official campaign for a yes vote.

They’ll have to convince at least half of the estimated 10,500 voters who live here.

Considering there is no organized opposition, this sounds like an easy task but Reilley says they’re not taking it for granted.

“In Houston/Harris County, a November ballot in a presidential year is very, very, very long,” he says. “And so this one is literally going to be the last thing, the bottom of the ballot on that November ballot, so we have to get the word out.”

He says there’s also some misinformation about what the ordinance would do. It doesn’t repeal the original law that established the ban but merely allows for beer and wine to be sold in stores.

I don’t know about organized opposition, but I have seen one yard sign advocating a No vote, so someone is working against it. I make the referendum a favorite to pass, but it’s unusual enough – and this is a weird enough year – that I wouldn’t feel too confident about that. The Chron, Swamplot, and the Houston Business Journal have more.

Heights alcohol rule change petitions verified

The item will be on the ballot, pending Council approval.

beer

City Secretary Anna Russell confirmed that the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition gathered 1,759 valid signatures for its petition submitted last month, 248 more than required by law.

The Houston City Council is now slated Wednesday to formally call the election for Nov. 8, as required by state law.

The ban predates Prohibition. It first went into effect in 1912 and was kept in place when the Heights was annexed into Houston in 1918.

If the ban is lifted, residents would be allowed to buy alcohol at grocery and convenience stores. The change would not affect alcohol sales at restaurants.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for my interview with Steve Reilley, who led the petition effort for the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. I should note that the petitions specified “off-premise beer and wine sales”, so hard liquor would still not be available for purchase within this zone. As is always the case with dry areas, there are two liquor stores right outside the zone – they’ve been there for as long as I can remember – so no big deal.

The ballot proposition has now been approved by City Council, so it will officially be there. Only people who live in the historic dry area will have this item on their ballot, so administering it ought to be interesting. There is definitely some opposition to this, and as it is an affluent area I expect a fair amount of money to be spent by both sides between now and November. I consider the change effort to be the favorite to win, but anything can happen. The Press has more.

An update on the effort to make the Heights less dry

In which we learn there is indeed some opposition to this effort.

beer

A petition favored by grocery giant H-E-B to partially lift a 104-year-old ban on beer and wine sales in a dry part of the Heights could be headed for a vote this fall.

The Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which was formed to push the effort to allow sales for off-premise consumption, reported it gathered more than 1,700 signatures in 21 days. By law, the coalition had 60 days to collect a minimum of 1,511 signatures. The measure now is awaiting certification by the city secretary’s office.

H-E-B, which has expressed strong interest in establishing a store in the area, gave proponents a boost by working with Austin-based political consulting firm Texas Petition Strategies for the signature drive.

[…]

Opponents say the ban – put in place shortly before Prohibition – has kept the neighborhood family-friendly and helps guard against unwanted development. A change could alter future development, local resident and real estate agent Bill Baldwin warned.

“It opens the door for waves of other commercial development that undermines the character of this historic neighborhood, when the reality is we could simply drive one extra mile to get out of the dry area, get what we need, and still be able to enjoy the amenities and quality of life that I and my neighbors love,” Baldwin said in an email. “I myself am willing to go that extra mile.”

The Houston Heights Association has not taken a position on the ban, he added.

[…]

There is a Kroger in the dry area at West 20th and Yale. By contrast, the Kroger on North Shepherd at 11th Street is in a wet area. It recently opened an in-store bar that sells draft beer and wine. Kroger is not participating in the petition effort.

Baldwin said such nearby access makes repeal unnecessary. He said the movement comes from people with commercial interests in a change.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I personally find the argument espoused by Baldwin to be specious. Even if this effort could lead to liquor stores being opened in the Heights – which as we know the Beverage Coalition denies – it strikes me as unlikely that anything but a high-end place could afford the rent. I figure the amenities that people like about the neighborhood include things like walkability and good schools, and I rather doubt that an HEB would be seen as a negative. That will be a discussion for the campaign, assuming the City Secretary validates that there were enough signatures turned in. We should know that soon enough.

A brief summary of the effort to make the Heights less dry

The Heights Life provides a fact sheet:

beer

  • The petition is backed by HEB, who hired a law firm to handle the drive. Some of the canvassers, who are paid and may or may not be your neighbors or Heights residents, may not know about HEB, only the firm that hired them. Either way, it’s all about HEB.
  • The petition itself does NOT actually change anything about the existing law. The petition puts the issue on the ballot to be voted on in November.
  • You can only sign the petition and participate in the subsequent vote if you live in the dry zone.
  • The petition/future vote are for *off premise sales of beer and wine only.* This means you can buy beer or wine at the store and take it elsewhere. You will not be able to drink at the store.
  • The petition and vote will NOT ALLOW hard liquor sales.
  • Restaurants and bars will still have to get a club license to serve on-premise beer/wine/alcohol in their establishment.

There’s more, so go read the rest. The Houston Heights Beverage Coalition now has a Facebook page if you’re into that sort of thing. Note that my embedded graphic is an inaccurate representation of what’s at issue here, but I don’t feel like finding something else. As The Heights Life notes, there are already plans for an HEB on Washington Avenue, which is outside the dry zone. A Heights-based HEB would surely be in the spot of the now-shuttered Fiesta on Shepherd, just inside the northern boundary of the zone. This only happens if the vote to alter the off-premise sales restriction passes.

As Campos notes, there’s been a lot of discussion on Heights Kids and Nextdoor about the petition effort and what it means, not all of it (in my opinion) very accurate. I’m sure that is what prompted this post by THL, to help clear things up. I’m going to do my part for that shortly, as I plan to interview Steve Reilley of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC; there are a bunch of process-related questions I’d like answered, among other things. The HHBC has reportedly collected a sufficient number of petition signatures, so assuming they are verified, some number of voters will have another item on which to vote this November. If an opposition group should form for this, I’ll do my best to interview a representative from that group as well. In the meantime, this is what we’ve got.

Endorsement watch: For making the Heights less dry

The Chron is rooting for that petition effort to change the alcohol rules in the historic Heights.

beer

Today, sitting down in some of the restaurants in the Heights is like slipping through a wormhole into a bygone era when respectable Texas businessmen carried flasks of whiskey in their pockets. Waiters invite you to sign up for a private club – wink, wink – whose card-carrying members are allowed access to the establishment’s stash of demon rum.

Now, if a modern-day neighborhood reform movement succeeds, this quirky rule banning booze sales in the Heights may finally be amended. Something called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition has started collecting signatures on petitions calling for a referendum that could allow stores in the Heights to sell beer and wine. And it’s about time.

Nothing would change for bars or restaurants, which would still have to live with those archaic Prohibition-era restrictions. And package liquor stores would still be forbidden in the old neighborhood. The new rules would apply only to selling beer and wine that shoppers would carry out of stores and drink somewhere else.

Still, we hope this proposal for a limited rollback of Prohibition in the Heights succeeds, because this area’s booze ban has pointlessly shackled retailers and inconvenienced consumers who don’t even drink.

These antiquated restrictions on alcoholic beverage sales are a major reason why some people who live in the Heights have to drive out of their way to buy groceries. Beer and wine sales are a crucial source of income for grocers, an industry scraping by – according to data from the New York University Stern School of Business – on net profit margins of less than 2 percent. Although a comparatively small Kroger store survives in the Heights without beer and wine sales, expanding supermarket chains have conspicuously opened new stores outside the boundaries of the Heights.

See here and here for the background. If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you know that as a rule I support efforts to repeal Prohibition-era anti-booze laws. This effort is no exception – I’d sign the petition and vote in favor of the ensuing referendum if I lived in the affected area. There’s no good argument against allowing a grocery store to sell beer and wine in this part of town. I can’t help but think that this referendum effort is going to walk through a minefield of legal technicalities just because it’s such an oddball situation, but I say take them as they come. I wish the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC good luck in their quest.

More on the effort to make the Heights less dry

From the Chron:

beer

With the intention of building a new store in the Heights, H-E-B said Wednesday that it has been working with a political consulting firm in Austin to help change a law precluding beer and wine sales in a dry part of the historic Houston neighborhood.

The grocer said it has contracted with Texas Petition Strategies to collect signatures needed to secure a place on the November ballot where residents can vote to make beer and wine sales – for off-premise consumption – legal.

The effort has led to a petition drive by a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which has been seeking some 1,500 signatures needed.

H-E-B spokeswoman Cyndy Garza Roberts said a location in the Heights has been identified, but the company is still in negotiations on the site and commenting on specific details would be premature.

“We definitely want to be in the Heights, but in order to do so we need to make sure we provide those customers with the same quality products that they’re able to find at our other stores,” she said.

[…]

The group has 60 days to gather the signatures from residents who live in the area formerly known as the City of Houston Heights. Once the signatures are gathered, they will be verified by the City Secretary with Houston City Council then calling the election for November, according to a news release.

The signatures are being collected by a door-to-door effort and they can also be signed at area establishments, including Coltivare and Revival Market, said Hatch. The coalition has secured more than half of the signatures needed.

See here for the background. The one thing I know for sure is that a lot of Heights residents have been hoping for an HEB to be built in the neighborhood. I’d recommend playing that angle up, both in the signature-gathering and the election itself. I’ll be interested to see what if any opposition arises to this as well. Given the November date, turnout won’t be an issue.

Making the Heights a little less dry

From Swamplot:

beer

A GROUP CALLED the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC is hoping to bring about a vote on allowing beer and wine sales in the technically dry section of the Houston Heights. The group published a notice on May 5th announcing an application to the city to start collecting the petition signaturesrequired to get the measure on a local option ballot.

[…]

The group’s immediate goal isn’t to do away with all alcohol restrictions, and the proposed ballot measure wouldn’t get rid of the current private-club workaround frequently employed by area bars and restaurants. But the proposal would lift existing barriers for stores trying to sell beer and wine to becarried away elsewhere — an issue that forced the recently closed Fiesta Mart at N. Shepherd and 24th St. to install its traditionally-in-the-parking-lot Beverage Mart a full 4 blocks away on the corner with 28th St. (across the northern boundary of the zone).

Here’s a map of the dry area, which hasn’t slowed the proliferation of places to dine and imbibe in the Heights. Many of them are east of Oxford, which puts them outside the zone. Others, like the Down House, do the “private club” dodge, while Torchy’s on 19th inherited a grandfathered license from a defunct icehouse. When I first read this story, I thought it would be about repealing the ban for eateries and drinkeries, but apparently not. The Press has since given some clarification about who and what is behind this.

The chair of the [Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC] is an attorney named Steve Reilley, a founding partner of the Thompson & Reilley law firm. He says that the main impetus for this action is that the group simply wants to have “a nice grocery store in the neighborhood.” He pointed out the recent closing of the Fiesta location in the area and says that retailers are unwilling to expand or move in owing to the inability to sell beer and wine. “They can’t make the money without the beer and wine sales. We hope we are able to bring these stores in if we are able to alter the statute,” he said. “We want the same nice stores you see in other parts of town and [to] have them be economically viable in The Heights.”

H-E-B is one of the grocery store chains that are eyeing building a store in The Heights, but nothing definitive has happened on that yet, according to Swamplot. We asked Reilley if H-E-B was one of the members of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. “I believe they have definitely expressed interest in it and they’re definitely going to support this,” he said. “It is my understanding that if it passes, they are going to very likely move into The Heights. To that degree, yes, they’re part of it, and I believe they will be part of it going forward.” We left a message for H-E-B’s director of public affairs in Houston to see if the grocery store chain has any comment, and will update this article if we receive a response.

Reilley said other grocery chains are part of the special interest group but said he wasn’t able to confirm that. He referred us to John Hatch of Texas Petition Strategies of Austin, a company that has been hired to oversee collecting signatures and, if the issue makes it onto the ballot, stumping for a passing vote. We left a phone message for Hatch but have not yet received a call back.

The press release says, “TPS has conducted over 300 petition efforts in 170 different Texas communities, with more than an 83% the efforts passing — including efforts in Brazoria County, Lumberton, Lubbock, Dallas and Fort Worth.”

I gather from recent activity on the Heights Kids message board that people have been out knocking on doors to gather petition signatures, with an aim of having something on the ballot this November. I also gather that some folks are not clear on the details of this issue – specifically, why part of the Heights is “dry”, what exactly that means, and why there needs to be an election to change it. That may add to their challenge. A this subsequent comment notes that there are some potentially tricky legal issues involved as well, meaning that however this shakes out someone may wind up suing over whatever the result is. Any lawyers in the crowd want to comment on that? In any event, we’ll keep an eye on this. I live outside the “dry” zone, so I (presumably) wouldn’t get to vote on this. If you’ve been asked to sign a petition, leave a comment and let us know. More here from Swamplot.

Initial day-after-election thoughts

– We now have two cycles’ worth of data to suggest that having more good candidates in a Council race does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Following in the footsteps of At Large #3 in 2013, a handful of Democratic candidates in At Large #1 split the vote with sufficient closeness to keep them all out of the runoff. The votes were there, they just went too many places. Lane Lewis + Tom McCasland = candidate in the runoff, pretty close to Mike Knox in total. Lane Lewis + Tom McCasland + Jenifer Pool = leading candidate going into the runoff. I have no idea what, if anything, there is to be done about this. There is no secret cabal that meets in a back room to decide who does and doesn’t get to file for a race, and we wouldn’t want there to be one if there were. I’ll just put this out there for candidates who are already looking at 2019, when the terms will be double and the stakes will be concurrently higher: If there’s already a candidate in a race – especially an open seat race – that would would be happy to vote for in a runoff scenario, then maybe supporting them in November rather than throwing your own hat in the ring is the better choice. I realize that framing the choice this way turns this decision-making process into a multi-level Prisoner’s Dilemma, but one can’t help but wonder What Might Have Been.

– On the plus side, the runoffs have given us some clarity:

Mayor – Turner
Controller – Brown

At Large 2 – Robinson
At Large 4 – Edwards

In AL 4, Amanda Edwards faces Roy Morales, who caught and passed Laurie Robinson by less than 900 votes by the end of the evening. As for ALs 1 and 5, I’m still deciding. I said “some” clarity, not complete clarity.

– Speaking of CM Christie, if he loses then there will be no open citywide offices in the next election, which is now 2019. That won’t stop challengers from running in some or all of the other AL races, but it would change the dynamics.

– In District Council runoffs, it’s Cisneros versus Cisneroz in District H, which is going to make that race hard to talk about. Roland Chavez finished 202 votes behind Jason Cisneroz, who got a boost from late-reporting precincts; he had been leading Chavez by less than 40 votes much of the evening. Jim Bigham finished all of 28 votes ahead of Manny Barrera for the right to face CM Mike Laster in December, while CM Richard Nguyen trailed challenger Steve Le but will get another shot in five weeks. I’m concerned about Laster and Nguyen, but at least their opponents pass my minimum standards test for a Council member. That would not have been the case if either third-place finisher (Barrera and Kendall Baker) had made the cut.

– Moving to HISD, if I had a vote it would go to Rhonda Skillern-Jones in II. I would not vote for Manuel Rodriguez in III, but I’d need to get to know Jose Leal better before I could recommend a vote for him.

– Your “Every Vote Matters” reminder for this cycle:


Aldine I.S.D., Trustee, Position 1
=======================================
Tony Diaz                  5,813 49.98%
Patricia "Pat" Bourgeois   5,818 50.02%

Yep, five votes. There were 3,742 undervotes in this race. I have since been forwarded a press release from the Diaz campaign noting that provisional and overseas ballots have not yet been counted, and hinting at a request for a recount down the line. I’d certainly be preparing to ask for one.

– Speaking of undervoting, one prediction I made came true. Here are the undervote rates in At Large Council elections:

AL1 = 28.56%
AL2 = 31.02%
AL3 = 33.09%
AL4 = 28.35%
AL5 = 32.34%

That’s a lot of no-voting. Contrast with the contested district Council races, where the (still high) undervote rates ranged from 15.97% to 22.49%. See here for a comparison to past years.

– Meanwhile, over in San Antonio:

In a stunning outcome, Republican John Lujan and Democrat Tomás Uresti were leading a six-candidate field for Texas House District 118 in nearly complete results late Tuesday.

In his second run for the office, Lujan, 53, showed strength in a district long held by Democrats, narrowly outpolling members of two prominent political families.

“I’m still on pins and needles. It’s not a done deal,” Lujan said with many votes still uncounted.

In his low-key campaign, the retired firefighter, who works in sales for a tech company, emphasized tech training to prepare students for the workforce. His backers included some firefighters and Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC.

Uresti, 55, a legal assistant, is vice chairman of the Harlandale Independent School District. With 35 years of community involvement as a coach, mentor and tutor, Uresti capitalized on his network of friends and family name — his brothers are state Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio and Tax Assessor-Collector Albert Uresti.

“Democrats are going to pull together again to win this one,” Tomás Uresti said of the impending runoff.

A runoff between Lujan and Uresti would be Jan. 19.

Gabe Farias, son of outgoing Rep. Joe Farias, came in third, less than 300 votes behind Uresti. Three Democratic candidates combined for 53.3% of the vote, so I see no reason to panic. Even if Lujan winds up winning the runoff, he’d only have the seat through the end of next year – the real election, which may produce an entirely different set of candidates, is next year, and Democrats should have a clear advantage. Nonetheless, one should never take anything for granted.

– Waller County goes wet:

Waller County voters overwhelmingly passed a proposition Tuesday to legalize the sale of all alcoholic beverages, including mixed drinks.

Though Waller County is not dry everywhere to all types of alcohol, various parts of it have operated under distinct alcohol policies passed in the decades following Prohibition. The change will apply to unincorporated areas of the county.

“I’m ecstatic with the numbers,” said Waller County Judge Carbett “Trey” Duhon III, who had publicly supported the proposition. “… It’s a good result for the county and for all the citizens here.”

Supporters like Duhon have said the measure was needed to smooth over confusing, overlapping rules and to help attract restaurants to a county poised to benefit from Houston’s sprawling growth.

See here for more details. And drink ’em if you got ’em.

– I’m still processing the HERO referendum, and will be sure to dive into precinct data when I get it. (I have a very early subset of precinct data for just the Mayor’s race and the two propositions. I may do some preliminaries with it, but this data is incomplete so I may wait till the official canvass comes out.) One clear lesson to take from this campaign is that lying is a very effective tactic. It also helps when lies are reported uncritically, as if it was just another he said/she said situation. Blaming the media is the world’s oldest trick, and I’m not going to claim that lazy reporting was a deciding factor, but for a group of people that considers itself to be objective truth-seekers, they sure can be trusting and unprepared for for being lied to. As with item 1 above, I don’t know what if anything can be done about this.

– Bond elections and miscellaneous other things are noted elsewhere. Have I missed anything you wanted to see me discuss?

Making Pearland wet

It always amazes me that there are still cities that don’t allow alcohol sales in this day and age.

Absher is one of about 1,000 Pearland residents who have signed a petition to remove all restrictions on the city’s alcohol laws: opening up the possibility for bars, clubs and liquor stores within city limits. A group of residents is hoping to put the measure on the November ballot – they need to get almost 8,000 signatures by June 22.

Proponents say Pearland’s current liquor rules are unnecessarily restrictive and antiquated in a city that’s now grown to more than 130,000 people. They say tax dollars are unnecessarily going to nearby cities.

“It’s not stopping anyone from drinking in Pearland, it’s just putting that revenue into Houston or Friendswood or Sugarland,” said Kevin Murphy, a member of Leadership Pearland, a leadership program sponsored by the city’s chamber of commerce that’s spearheading the petition drive.

If Pearland gets its election, it would be part of a greater trend across Texas. In 2003, the state had 35 completely “wet” counties, or counties that had no restrictions on alcohol, and 51 completely “dry” counties, which banned alcohol sales, said Chris Porter, spokesman for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

As of November, Texas had 49 completely “wet” counties and 10 completely “dry” ones, Porter said.

[…]

In 2007, Pearland removed a longtime restriction that required restaurants to register as “private clubs,” and patrons to sign up for those private clubs, to serve alcohol.

Now the city is looking to go even further. City councilman Tony Carbone said people visiting the city for conferences or other events “are not able to go out and have any drinks or anything.”

Removing restrictions would also help Pearland develop an identity as a city at a time when many of the new residents that have contributed to the suburb’s exponential growth look for entertainment elsewhere, like Houston.

“We want to have these things in Pearland,” said city councilman Greg Hill. “We don’t want to have to drive to Houston.”

Hill said most residents he’s spoken with are in favor of easing restrictions. But he said the hard part would be securing enough signatures to get it on the ballot, as many residents are not connected to local politics.

“The hard part is not going to be getting the vote to pass,” he said.

Anything that gets people more involved in their local politics is a good thing, if you ask me. I support this kind of effort on general principle, and I support it here. See this Community Impact story for more.

Costco joins in on liquor sales

Not just Wal-Mart any more.

Wholesale giant Costco has joined Wal-Mart and other retailers in the fight to let public corporations sell liquor in Texas.

Texans for Consumer Freedom, a group formed last month to lobby Texas lawmakers to loosen restrictions on the state liquor market, announced Wednesday that Costco Wholesale Corporation would lend its name to the effort.

“We are glad to be joined by Costco in our efforts to level the playing field for the retail sale of spirits so Texas consumers receive the choice, convenience and lower prices competition provides,” Travis Thomas, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

[…]

“Costco proudly stands with Texans for Consumer Freedom in its efforts to eliminate the unusual Texas spirits laws that artificially restrict competition and prevent us from directly serving our over 1.3 million Texas members,” Executive Vice President Dennis Zook said in a statement.

See here, here, and here for the background. Kroger and the Texas Association of Business were already in with Wal-Mart, and the Texas Package Stores Association – basically, the existing liquor stores – stands in opposition. My impression is that the bills in question will have a decent chance of passing, but we’ll see.

Beer vending machines

Sure, why not?

beer

Patrons of bars and businesses with proper alcohol licenses would be able to grab a cocktail or beer from an automatic dispensing machine — much like a soft drink — if the legislature passes legislation offered by a Laredo lawmaker.

Texas is actually one of the few states that do not allow these self-serving machines used in bars and casinos in New York, Ohio, Florida and Louisiana, according to James Nicol, CEO of Easybar, the company that has sold more than 400 liquor service stations.

States such as California and Nevada, which have strong service unions, have been opposed to the self-serve machines.

“It sounds like Texas has been the same way,” Nicol said. “Legislation could open that up, and there’s definitely going to be an opportunity there.”

Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, filed House Bill 2118, which would give businesses that are authorized to sell alcoholic beverages the option to use an automated machine to dispense their drinks.

According to the bill, only those who are 21 years of age or older with a credit card that matches the name on their drivers license may use the machines. But some people question how the machines would be monitored.

At Rice, in one of the residential colleges, there was for years a soda machine that would randomly dispense a beer. It was a student’s job to keep the machine stocked, so you can see how this might happen, and once it did it of course became a tradition. I rather doubt it still exists today, as the regulatory environment we live in these days would not tolerate it, but it’s a fun memory from The Good Old Days. I don’t have a point to that story, it just seemed like as good a time as any to tell it. As far as HB2118 goes, I’m mostly curious as to where one might be likely to find a beer-dispensing machine. I totally understand why a bar that doesn’t have a kitchen might want to have a snack-vending machine on premises. I’m a little unclear as to why a bar that has, you know, a bar, might want one of these. Texas also doesn’t have casinos, so that’s one less potential customer. Has anyone ever encountered one of these things? I’m genuinely puzzled about where and why they would exist.

Why only Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart stands to benefit from legislation that would change how retail liquor licenses are granted, but some potential competitors would not.

While two state lawmakers recently filed legislation that would allow retail giant Wal-Mart and other public corporations to sell hard liquor in Texas, the proposed bills maintain provisions that would prevent grocery chains H-E-B and Whole Foods from joining the competition.

The state’s alcoholic beverage code currently prohibits publicly traded companies, such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Target, from selling spirits here. But House Bill 1225 and Senate Bill 609 would eliminate that prohibition and remove a cap on the number of liquor stores one company can operate.

However, those bills would continue to ban operators with mixed-beverage permits or permits for on-site wine and beer consumption from enjoying the same access to the state’s lucrative liquor market.

H-E-B and Whole Foods, both based in Texas, currently hold both those permits and so would remain in the excluded category.

As of Tuesday, it was unclear whether the bills could be amended to include H-E-B and Whole Foods without opening the door to bottled liquor sales at other establishments – for example bars and restaurants – that operate with similar permits.

State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, introduced HB 1225 last month, but said he was unaware the bill’s language wouldn’t benefit H-E-B or Whole Foods. And Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who filed companion legislation in the Senate, confirmed his office has started researching the issue.

“This concern has been brought to our attention by several retailers, and we are looking into ways to address this issue,” Hancock wrote in an email.

See here and here for the background. I’m okay with changing the law as it now stands, but not like this. Either open it up to all, or don’t bother. A supermarket shouldn’t have to choose between having an in-store cafe and being able to sell booze. This should not be that hard.

Wal-Mart booze update

The Lege gets involved.

One week after Wal-Mart sued the state for the right to sell hard liquor, two Texas lawmakers and a new coalition of businesses are taking the same fight to the Capitol.

Wal-Mart, Kroger and the Texas Association of Business on Wednesday helped birth a new nonprofit group calling itself Texans for Consumer Freedom to push for laws allowing publicly traded corporations like Wal-Mart and Kroger to own and operate liquor stores. Public companies are barred from the Texas booze market by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — an arbitrary exclusion from the free market, group members say.

“Free markets transcend any individual retailers whether they’re publicly or privately held,” said Travis Thomas, a spokesman who helped form Texans for Consumer Freedom. “It should be open to everybody to compete.”

Bills filed this week by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, would repeal parts of the alcohol code that exclude publicly traded corporations and limit the number of liquor stores a company can own.

If the bills pass, grocery stores that want to sell hard alcohol would still be required to do so in a separate building with its own entrance.

“This does not mean that publicly traded companies are going to be selling spirits next to bread and candy,” said Scott Dunaway, another spokesman with Texans for Consumer Freedom.

See here for the background. The bills in question are HB1225 and SB609. Texas law also limits a single owner to five liquor stores, though immediate family members can consolidate permits under a single company. Normally, I’d make fun of a big business-fronted group name like “Texans for Consumer Freedom”, but I don’t have any particular objection to the goal of updating this part of the alcohol code. It’s not a remnant of Prohibition, as Ross’ comment on my previous post notes, but it doesn’t make any sense as it stands now. We’ll see if they get any traction or if this will be a multi-session affair. In the meantime, RG Ratcliffe asks a darned good question.

Wal-Mart sues Texas

It’s about booze.

Wal-Mart filed a lawsuit in an Austin federal court on Thursday challenging a Texas law that forbids the company from owning and operating liquor stores in the state.

The lawsuit says the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission code prevents Wal-Mart from obtaining a permit to sell hard alcohol because it is a publicly traded corporation.

Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said the company is seeking a “fair and level playing field so we can offer our customers a full assortment of adult beverages.”

“This is counter to Texas’ belief in free enterprise and fair competition, limits our customer’s choice and keeps the price of spirits artificially high, all of which harm Texas consumers,” Lopez said in an email.

I’m not exactly a fan of Wal-Mart, but it’s hard to see the rationale for that law. I’m guessing it’s another remnant of Prohibition that never got updated or deleted, and now it has a constituency behind it in the existing retailers. Any lawyers want to weigh in on this one?

A chance to help the sobering center

It’s a good cause.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

First impressions of the 2014 results

My initial thoughts, for what they are worth.

– Let me begin by saying that for all the criticism I had of the UT/Texas Trib’s polling and the skepticism of Internet-sample methodology, they were fairly accurate in the end. In particular, the last YouGov result just about nailed it. I still think what they do is more alchemy than anything else, and their subsample results often look ridiculous, but however they did it, they got it right and they deserve credit for it.

– I’m sure we’re about to be deluged with critical stories about Battleground Texas and public doubts about their future viability – the Trib and the Observer are already on it – but I have to ask, given the way this election went nationally, why they are more deserving of scorn than anyone else. In particular, how did they do any worse than the DCCC, DSCC, and DGA? The DSCC’s fabled “Bannock Street Project”, which was supposed to save the Senate by increasing Democratic turnout in battleground states, was a spectacular dud. Democratic candidates for Governor lost in such deep red states as Illinois and Maryland. Hell, the chair of the DGA, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who pooped on Wendy Davis’ campaign a few months ago, failed to get a majority of the votes in his own election. BGTX doesn’t have much to brag about today, and I have no doubt they could have done plenty of things better. But I know a lot of people – friends of mine – who worked their tails off for BGTX and the Davis campaign, and I will not demean the work they did. If you want to criticize them, go right ahead, but please be specific about your complaints. I’m not going to pay attention to any generalized rants.

– Davis didn’t come close to matching Bill White’s vote total, and no statewide Dem reached 40% of the vote. That’s the harsh truth, and there’s no sugarcoating it. The funny thing is, though, for all the talk about turnout being down, it wasn’t actually Democratic turnout that was down. Here’s a comparison of the vote totals for the Democrats running for the top four offices over the last four non-Presidential cycles:

2002 2006 2010 2014 ======================================================= Governor 1,819,798 1,310,337 2,106,395 1,832,254 Lt Gov 2,082,281 1,617,490 1,719,202 1,810,720 Atty Gen 1,841,359 1,599,069 1,655,859 1,769,943 Comptroller 1,476,976 1,585,362 N/A 1,739,308

Davis didn’t peel crossover votes away from Abbott the way White did from Rick Perry, but beyond that I don’t see a step back. If anything, it’s an inch or two forward, though of course that still leaves a thousand miles to go. Where turnout did decline was on the Republican side. Greg Abbott received about 360,000 fewer votes than he did in 2010. Given the whipping that Republicans were laying on Dems across the country, one might wonder how it is they didn’t do any better than they did here.

One thing I’m seeing, and I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow, is that some people seem to think that because Davis got about 265K fewer votes than Bill White that means that overall Democratic turnout was down by that amount. In a word, this is baloney. White drew the votes of some 300K people that otherwise voted Republican. Their presence in his tally was nice for him, and would have been critical in a different year, but they had nothing to do with Democratic turnout. I am at a loss for why people are making that claim, and why they are overlooking or ignoring the gains in the races just below the Governor’s race, where a coordinated turnout effort would have an effect. Like I said, more about this tomorrow.

– Harris County wasn’t any prettier than the state was, and here in Harris there were declines in the vote totals of both parties. I’ve been looking at the statewide results more closely to see where the gains and losses were, and my initial impression is that the other big counties did move forward in ways Harris did not. The mail program was a success, but it seems clear that it mostly shifted behavior. If there was a net gain, in terms of votes we wouldn’t have had at all without the mail program, it means that in person turnout efforts were that much less successful. If we’re going to be introspective, that’s the place to start.

– All that said, if I’m newly-elected Harris County DA Devon Anderson, I’d take a few minutes to be concerned about the fact that I have to be on the ballot again in 2016. Consider this: By my calculation, the average Republican judicial candidate who had a Democratic opponent received 359,759 votes. The average Dem judicial candidate got 297,311. Anderson received 354,098 while Kim Ogg got 311,094. To put it another way, Ogg got crossover votes, which stands both her and Anderson in contrast to Pat Lykos in 2008 and Mike Anderson in 2012. Frankly, if she’s up for it, I’d tell Kim Ogg to keep running and start fundraising now for 2016. Assuming the patterns from the last two Presidential years hold here, she’d have a real shot at it.

– Along the same lines, of the five legislative seats the Dems lost (three in the House, one each in Congress and the Senate), HDs 117 and 144 should flip back in 2016, and if I were Pete Gallego I’d keep running for CD23 as well. (If he doesn’t want to run any more, allow me to be the first to hop on the Mary González bandwagon.) If Susan Criss can’t win HD23, which had been trending red for some time, I doubt anyone can. As for SD10, it’s not up again till 2018, but for the record, Libby Willis basically hit the Bill White number, which suggests she drew a non-trivial number of crossovers. Someone ought to take another crack at that one next time around but bear in mind this was always going to be a tough hold. I strongly suspect that if Wendy Davis had decided to run for re-election instead that we’d still be mourning her defeat.

– One prize Dems did claim was knocking off longtime Bexar County DA Susan Reed. Republicans claimed a victory over DA Craig Watkins in Dallas, where he was his own worst enemy. I refer you to Grits for more on that.

– Other results of interest: You already know about the Denton fracking ban. The Katy and Lone Star College bond initiatives passed. Austin Council Member Council Member Mike Martinez and attorney Steve Adler are in a runoff for Mayor; other Council race results, the first single member district elections in Austin, are here. And finally, Old Town Tomball repealed its ban on alcohol sales. Pour one out, y’all.

– Finally, a word on the matter of the efficacy of campaign ads, in particular negative ads. Yesterday morning after we dropped off the kids at school, Tiffany mentioned to me that Olivia’s understanding of the Governor’s race was that if Abbott won, there would be more standardized tests, which did not please her. “He wants to test four-year-olds!” she said. “That’s just wack!” I will simply note that at no time this year did I ever discuss the Abbott and Davis pre-k plans with her, and leave it at that.

The battle over booze sales comes to Tomball

I always enjoy a good story about when a county or town votes on whether or not to repeal Prohibition-era restrictions on local alcohol sales.

Eight decades ago, the oil started flowing in Tomball and the whiskey soon followed. The boomtown began attracting a rough and rowdy crowd, prompting the town’s leaders a few years later to pass a law prohibiting the sale of hard liquor.

Two world wars, several social revolutions and a digital age later, the statute remains on the books. Only now, residents call this part of town historic “Old Town Tomball” and count the trendy shops and restaurants where one might imagine enjoying a Margarita or a Bloody Mary, in addition to the beer and wine sales that are now permitted.

That’s why many around town are looking with anticipation to Nov. 4, when voters will have a chance to repeal the Depression-era restriction.

“We would really be only going from moist to wet. We were never completely dry,” explains Bruce Hillegeist, president of the Greater Tomball Chamber of Commerce.

[…]

Tomball garnered the nickname “Oiltown USA” as the oil started gushing in 1933, the same year that Prohibition was repealed. Saloons and brothels soon sprouted up along the railroad tracks near the train depot, residents said.

“Boys were being bad. The area was getting too wild. So the town leaders decided to take control and ban the sale of all distilled spirits except beer or wine,” Wilson said.

Both the oil boom and brothels have long since gone bust.

“I don’t think the statute ever really toned things down back then,” she said. “They probably just drank more beer.”

The town’s mayor and chamber of commerce fully support this change as another step to draw people to Old Town Tomball, which is being revitalized by the opening of quaint shops and restaurants and the restoration of historic buildings.

As it happens, Tomball is named after a prohibitionist and fervent opponent of the demon rum, Thomas Ball. That’s because Ball – a lawyer and congressman credited with being the “father” of the Port of Houston – was responsible for routing the railroad tracks through this tiny community 32 miles northwest of Houston. The citizens of the town, which was then called Peck, were so grateful for their own train depot in 1907 that they changed the town’s name to honor him.

His connection to Tomball would later thwart an attempt to be elected governor, though. His opponent, James Ferguson, obtained photos of the town that bore his name. The images showed four saloons boasting nickel beer and 10-cent shots as well as houses of ill repute doing a brisk business.

Awesome. If there’s any organized opposition to this proposal, it went unreported in the story. Some of these referenda have been pretty hotly contested, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. As I’ve said before, I don’t really understand the point of these laws and I support the efforts to repeal them. Good luck, Tomball.

On pot and prosecutions

I’m sure you’ve heard about President Obama’s remarks that marijuana isn’t really more harmful than alcohol. There’s plenty of evidence to back that assertion, but Harris County DA Devon Anderson strongly disagreed with him anyway.

Zonker

President Barack Obama’s recently published remarks calling marijuana less dangerous than alcohol has prompted Harris County’s District Attorney to release a response today which bolsters her profile as a “law and order” prosecutor.

“I adamantly disagree with the President. According to a 2012 Drug Use and Health survey, marijuana is the number one drug that citizens over the age of 12 are addicted to or abuse. The negative effects of marijuana use on a developing brain can be permanent, and our President is recklessly giving what amounts to parental permission to our most impressionable citizens to break the law. Marijuana is creating deadly situations right here in Harris County,” Devon Anderson said in the news release.

[…]

“I welcome the President to come to Houston to review the same capital murder cases I did just last week that were the result of marijuana drug deals,” Anderson’s statement said. “Maybe then he will see that the most effective way to keep our law-abiding citizens safe is to obey all laws that our legislators put on the books at our State Capitol.”

You can see her full statement here. Again, the evidence is overwhelmingly with President Obama on this, and I’d recommend you read folks like Mark Kleiman for some current research on drugs, alcohol and crime – start with this WaPo interview, or go read his blog, for which he is not the only author. For this particular piece, I’m going to outsource the argument to Mark Bennett. But seriously, in terms of crime and social costs, it’s more correct to say that President Obama understated the case than that he overstated it.

The Chron also asked both Democratic candidates for their reaction. I’ll skip Lloyd Oliver’s rambling answer and go right to the good stuff.

Ogg, a former Harris County prosecutor now in private practice, supports diversion programs for people apprehended with small amounts of pot.

“In 2013, more than 12,000 people were arrested for marijuana and sent to jail in Harris County at a cost of more than $4 million,” she said. “Marijuana is illegal in Texas but jailing offenders in possession of small amounts is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Instead, those funds should be spent prosecuting violent offenders, gang members and thieves. It makes more sense to divert that group of offenders to voluntary work programs that make them more employable and don’t result in license suspensions, time in jail and other factors that cause them to lose their jobs or become less employable.”

[…]

Ogg, the former director of the city of Houston’s anti-gang task force and former executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston has concluded – after 26 years in public safety work – that tougher marijuana enforcement isn’t what people want.

“They want to be safe. They want our focus and attention on the dangerous criminals,” she said. “There aren’t enough resources in Harris County nor is it fair to make people lose their jobs over minor offenses like possession of marijuana in small quantities.”

Ogg talked about this at length in the interview she did with me. Obviously, I agree with her perspective on this. I think she’ll have a lot of voters on her side for it as well. While I don’t expect anything to happen next session, or the session after that, there will continue to be legislative attempts to dial back penalties for pot smoking. As with many other things, we can get ahead of the curve, or we can scramble to catch up. Seems a pretty clear choice to me.

Council OKs ordinance to help bring grocery stores to food deserts

Good.

Supermarkets now can sell beer and wine next to schools and churches, an exemption to city regulations Houston City Council granted unanimously Wednesday, hoping to encourage grocers to locate in neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy food.

These so-called “food deserts” are common in Houston, typically in poor areas such as Third Ward and Fifth Ward that also tend to have a high concentration of churches. Without the rule change, grocers – which industry experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive – could not operate within 300 feet of churches and most private schools, or within 1,000 feet of public schools.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who helped lead efforts to pass the exemption and long has worked on the food desert issue, said an independent grocer has agreed to open a 20,000-square-foot store in south Houston, and said he has meetings scheduled soon with four large grocery chains.

“We’re talking to them about how the city can help them come into these under-served areas because, obviously, they’re taking a risk. There’s a reason they’re not there in the first place,” Costello said. “This item was one of the last variables we were trying to overcome. We’re figuring out ways to try to peel back the onion to get them to come into these areas.”

[…]

The language passed Wednesday defines a grocery store as covering at least 10,000 square feet of floor space, and excludes businesses that allow alcoholic drinks to be consumed on site and those that derive more than 25 percent of their gross receipts from booze sales.

Jane West, of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, said members of the civic club coalition were satisfied with the amended language. Still, West said the impact of the change may be limited.

“I hope it does, but I’m very skeptical it will actually provide the benefit it’s promised to provide,” she said. “To me, the risk is they’re just going to encourage more of the large convenience stores, the kind of stores they want to eliminate.”

As I said when this first came up, I didn’t understand the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. Be that as it may, this strikes me as a sensible approach, one that will still keep bars and liquor stores out of the affected areas. As to whether or not it will actually provide the promised benefit, the proof will be in whether or not any new grocery stores get built in places that had previously lacked them. CM Costello says one is in hand, and we’ll see when that announcement happens, and if any others follow it. Finally, for those of you that scoff at the whole notion of “food deserts” in the first place, just think of this as the city loosening some regulations in order to encourage new businesses. Does that make it feel better? Texpatriate has more.

The dry Heights

What’s a guy got to do to get a drink around here?

Heights dry map

Eighty years after the repeal of Prohibition – the anniversary of which came and went with hardly a toast last week – there is a sliver of Houston where the booze is still banned.

And for more than 100 years, that’s been just fine with the residents of the Houston Heights.

Back when it was a city on its own and not a historic Houston neighborhood in the shadows of the skyscrapers, Heights Mayor David Barker led a campaign to rid it of the saloons that were springing up on 19th Street.

One of those saloons had become famous due to Jennie Yon Yon, a monkey who would ascend into the sky every Sunday afternoon in a hot air balloon to entertain the festive crowds.

It was never, it seems, a moral issue pitting pros against antis. The good people of the City of Houston Heights simply wanted to protect their property values, says Sister Mary Agatha, an Incarnate Word teacher who grew up there, in the book she wrote on the neighborhood.

The boundaries of this island in alcoholic seas are not neat. But they basically follow an elongated area between the North Loop and I-10, bounded on the east by Studewood and on the west by North Durham.

There are irregularities to this rectangle, though, which have spread confusion over the years.

“The question of boundaries affected by the law comes more frequently to the Heights library for solution than any other purely local inquiry,” Sister Mary Agatha tells us. The Heights was annexed by Houston in 1918 and one would have thought that 15 years later, when the repeal of Prohibition opened the beer taps across the country, that would have applied to the dry Heights.

It didn’t. The legal underpinnings of that reality, however, were not resolved until 1937, when the Texas Supreme Court said the Heights was dry and would remain so until the people within the original boundaries of the neighborhood voted to make it other.

This is a subject that has been discussed in some depth – see, for example, Houstorian from 2007 and this Houston Heights newsletter from 2009; the Leader News had a story in November as well – but it’s one of the quirkier things about Houston’s history, so it’s always interesting. One of the irregularities as I understand it is that at least in some places, the eastern border is Oxford, not Studewood. This is why so many bars and restaurants with full bars have popped up on White Oak just west of Studewood, but very little has happened past where Onion Creek is. I’m not sure if this is the case at 11th Street or not; Berryhill has a full bar, but I’ve heard that they’re on a site that used to be an icehouse and they inherited a grandfathered exception to the dry regulations as a result. Like the story says, it’s confusing. I seriously doubt anything will change about the status quo. Residents of the neighborhood don’t want any more places that sell alcohol near them. Several of the existing bars and restaurants on White Oak encountered resistance from nearby residents that were concerned about noise and drunks, and some contention remains to this day. There are ways around the restrictions. Some places do BYOB, some operate as “private clubs” for which you have to buy a token membership before you can imbibe. One way or another it all works out.

Drinking al fresco

From the Things You Might Not Have Realized department.

beer

“It is a commonly-held belief that it’s illegal to walk down the street drinking a beer in Texas. However, that is not always the case.”

Those words, which we recently happened upon at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission website, sparked wary excitement. We’d always chafed under the assumed strictness of Houston drinking laws, even fearing that we might receive a ticket for drinking in Houstonia’s unfenced Heights yard. Until, that is, we researched the Texas legal code, which states that public drinking is prohibited only in certain areas of state parks and wherever a city has specifically deemed it illegal. In 1994, the City of Houston successfully petitioned to ban drinking in public within the entire Central Business District (the area roughly bounded by Dowling Street and I-45, McGowen Street and Buffalo Bayou). On the one hand, you can’t drink on downtown’s streets, or Midtown’s or EaDo’s. On the other, it’s open season for open containers everywhere else.

Public intoxication, which the TABC defines as inebriation that “may endanger the person or another,” is illegal everywhere, of course. But there’s no law against strolling Allen Parkway with a Lone Star while taking in the skyline, or sipping margaritas to-go in Eleanor Tinsley Park. Just keep things classy and under control, not like you would in NOLA.

I’m a pretty moderate drinker these days, so this knowledge is of limited practical use to me. It’s still good to know, and hey, maybe it will be of more use to you. Link via Swamplot.

Food deserts and booze bans

It’s complicated.

A city ordinance intended to keep alcohol sales at a distance from schools and churches could be relaxed for grocery stores in an effort to alleviate some of the so-called “food deserts” that plague poorer neighborhoods across Houston.

The City Council is expected to take up the proposed revisions this week in hopes of removing one of the many barriers keeping Houston’s struggling neighborhoods from landing large groceries, which experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive.

The idea is to make more locations available for supermarkets in areas where residents lack access to fresh, healthy foods. Studies have linked food deserts to diet-related diseases, as well as higher food prices for the residents in such areas.

University of Houston researchers have estimated 26 percent of Harris County residents, most in low-income areas, lack access to healthy food, slightly above the national average.

One of those areas is Houston’s Fifth Ward. The neighborhood just northeast of downtown is home to scores of stray dogs, liquor stores, abandoned buildings, illegal dump sites strewn with tires, and many churches. The historic neighborhood is not home to a large grocery store that stocks what residents consider reliably good, fresh produce.

A city ordinance currently prohibits the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches, public hospitals and most private schools, and within 1,000 feet of public schools and some private schools.

In Fifth Ward, these restrictions mean full-size groceries cannot build on many of the tracts large enough to hold them, since churches often sit right across the street.

“To have a grocery store with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, everything, it would attract people to move into the area,” Fifth Ward civic activist Kathy Blueford-Daniels said. “It would have a positive impact on the community because people wouldn’t have to travel so far. A lot of the people here still ride buses.”

[…]

Many of the multi-acre sites suitable for a grocery store are on major thoroughfares, precisely where churches and schools tend to locate, said Councilman Stephen Costello, who has worked on the food desert problem.

“We started plotting out all the areas we wanted to focus on and started plotting where the churches and schools were and realized, ‘Wow, we’re limiting exactly where we can put these stores,’ ” Costello said. “Some of these grocery stores, a small part of their sales is going to be alcohol, it’s just a part of their business plan. We had to figure out a way that, if we allow for the encroachment, it’s only for grocery stores that predominantly sell nothing but food.”

Maybe it’s because I’m not particularly religious, but I don’t quite get the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. I get it for schools, but for churches that seems more like a Prohibition-era remnant of official disapproval rather than a piece of coherent public policy. It’s not a huge deal, but this sort of restrictions should not in any way impede the goal of enabling grocery stores to be built in neighborhoods that really need them. I’m sure Council will figure it out.

Second attempt at Sunday liquor sales

If at first you don’t succeed.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson filed a bill last week that proposed liquor stores be allowed to operate seven days a week.

Under the current law, liquor stores may operate from Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The stores must close on Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. If Christmas or New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday, the stores must close the following Monday, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Thompson’s proposal would allow the stores to be open from noon to 10 p.m. on Sundays, but the stores would continue to remain closed on the holidays.

[…]

Texas could potentially gain $7.5 million in new revenue every other year if the Sunday ban were lifted, according to a 2011 Texas Legislative Budget Board analysis.

During the 2011 legislative session, a similar measure failed to gain traction. Companion bills filed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Rep. Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, were left pending in committee.

Rep. Thompson’s bill is HB421, for those keeping score at home. See here, here, and here for the background. I supported this then and I support it now, mostly because I don’t see any good reason why Sunday should be different than the other days. I’m not the only one who sees it that way, either. We’ll see if this bill has a better fate this time around.

One can ban backer will face recall

The can ban battle in New Braunfels is not over yet.

New Braunfels city councilman Bryan Miranda, who supported a hotly debated container ban on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers, will face a recall election in May after voters signed a petition seeking to oust him from office.

[…]

Miranda did not return phone messages Wednesday. He told the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper, which first reported the news about the successful recall petition, that it was an attempt to circumvent the will of the people.

Supporters in New Braunfels approved the container ban in November with 58 percent of the vote.

“The efforts of a few individuals to divide our town and disrupt the democratic process is discouraging to say the least,” Miranda told the newspaper.

In the paperwork they turned in Tuesday, petition organizers accused Miranda of “incompetence and misconduct.” They needed 150 signatures and turned in 279. Of that total, city officials verified 215 signatures, said Danny Batts, deputy city secretary.

Batts said the recall election would be held May 12.

When the recall supporters failed to get enough signatures to take a crack out ousting NB Mayor Gail Pospisil, I thought that was the end of it for now, but clearly not. I have no idea why the deadlines were different for each of these; you have to be a subscriber to the Herald-Zeitung to see its contents online, so that’s no help. Anyway, one more election result to watch for in May.

No recall for New Braunfels Mayor

Looks like the can ban battle is over for now.

A petition for an election to recall New Braunfels Mayor Gale Pospisil failed when organizers submitted an insufficient number of valid signatures.

City Secretary Patrick Aten said that of the 1,117 signatures submitted Friday, city staff could only verify 668, 67 signatures shy of the the 735 needed.

Many signatures were thrown out because required information, such as a voter ID number or the date, was missing, Aten said. About 35 signatures belong to people who don’t live in New Braunfels, he said.

The petition was spurred by Pospisil’s support for an ordinance banning disposable containers on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers within city limits.

That’s a pretty sloppy effort if forty percent of the signatures lacked enough basic information to verify their legitimacy. Not having the date? Either they didn’t train their volunteers well or they didn’t get their money’s worth from whoever they paid to collect the sigs. There’s still a lawsuit pending, but otherwise the opponents of the can ban ordinance will have to wait till the next regular election to vent whatever spleen they have left over this.

“Says I, I’ll try cider, I’ve heard that it’s good”

We know all about the local beer-brewing scene here, but did you know there was a burgeoning trade in cider as well?

By the time Jake Schiffer was ready to incorporate Leprechaun Cider Co. in the spring of 2010, he had a business plan, enough funding to cover startup costs and an orchard lined up to provide the kind of apples he wanted, and handle the fermentation and bottling of the product.

All he needed was his parents’ signature on the paperwork, since he was only 20.

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” says Schiffer, who has since reached legal age.

Leprechaun Golden Cider hit the Houston market in March, but only on draft. In mid-September, 22-ounce bottles of the sparkling alcoholic beverage went on sale at retail prices of $6 to $7.50 each in stores and around $9 in restaurants.

[…]

Leprechaun joins a U.S. cider market that, although tiny in comparison with the beer market, grew by 10 percent last year. A recent Reportlinker.com analysis attributed that to increased investment and marketing by Green Mountain Cider, the U.S. market leader, as well as growing consumer demand.

“The growth of premium regional draught cider products (many of them on tap) has mirrored the growth of craft beer and these two segments share a somewhat similar consumer positioning,” the report said.

He currently contracts with an orchard in Oregon for his apples, but hopes to grow them in the state some day. Tiffany is the cider drinker in our house, and she plans to be on the lookout for Leprechaun.

By the way, the title of this post is taken from the cider-themed song “Johnny Jump Up”:

It’s a fun song to sing, but I doubt it’ll be adapted for a marketing campaign any time soon.

Allowing alcohol sales in Buda and Kyle

More Texas towns seek to loosen restrictions on selling alcohol.

A political action committee hoping to make Buda and Kyle wet said it has collected enough signatures to put language easing laws regulating alcohol sales on each city’s ballot.

The Better Business for Hays political action committee, recently formed by business owners, is working on a proposition that would allow all alcoholic beverages to be sold in both cities where permitted under Texas law, clearing the way for a wider variety of bars and other establishments that serve and sell alcohol.

Currently, grocery and convenience stores in Buda and Kyle can sell beer and wine. Liquor stores can set up shop in Kyle but not Buda. Restaurants in both cities can obtain alcohol permits if less than half of their revenue comes from alcohol sales, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

A restaurant’s permit allows the sale of liquor, wine and beer, but a less expensive permit to sell only beer and wine is not an option in either city.

[…]

City election officials have to certify the signatures against a list of registered voters to then make it on the ballots.

If approved, the proposition would be on the May 2012 ballot in Kyle and the November 2012 ballot in Buda.

We’ve seen quite a few of these elections in recent years – in Dallas, Lubbock, Luling and Friendswood – and as far as I can tell since I’ve been paying attention to this sort of thing, none have failed to pass. I’m always amazed at how many of these places there are, and how it is that these laws have remained on the books for so long. I wish the people of Buda and Kyle the best as they seek to update themselves.

Election results elsewhere

Results of interest from elsewhere in Texas and the country…

– Three of the ten Constitutional amendments were defeated, with Prop 4 losing by nearly 20 points. It drew strong opposition from anti-toll road activists, and I daresay that was the reason for the lopsided loss. The other two, Props 7 and 8, were pretty innocuous, and I have no real idea for why they went down.

– There was one special legislative election, to replace Fred Brown in HD14. Republicans Bob Yancey and John Raney will advance to the runoff for that seat.

– In New Braunfels, the can ban was upheld, and it wasn’t close.

The container ban ordinance, which goes into effect Jan. 1, was approved by 58 percent of the vote.

Ban supporters hailed the win as vindication of their claim that residents want the river protected from rowdy tourists and their litter.

“This was a landslide that can be disputed by no one,” said Kathleen Krueger, spokeswoman for Support The Ban. “New Braunfels has spoken loud and clear that we want to protect our rivers for the next generation.”

The lead spokesman for the opposition said the real issue was government transparency and vowed to continue the fight.

“I’m not disappointed,” said Mark McGonigal. “I have an opinion and so do other people. I knew one side would prevail. But the legality of this has yet to be determined.”

A lawsuit challenging the ordinance as illegal under state law, filed by a group of local business owners, is pending in state district court.

Nearly 9000 votes were cast in that referendum.

– Elsewhere in the country, there were a number of good results for progressives. Voters in Maine restored same day registration, while voters in Ohio repealed a law that would have curtailed collective bargaining rights. Each was a defeat for the state’s elected-in-the-2010-landslide Republican Governor. Mississippi voters rejected a radical “personhood amendment” that could have had far-reaching negative effects on reproductive choice. And finally, Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the author of the anti-immigrant SB1070 and a notorious racist, was recalled by voters there. Small steps, but in the right direction.