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Abby Whitmire: Why I’m running for Humble ISD Board of Trustees

(Note: As you know, I solicit guest posts from time to time. I am also working to follow the May 2017 elections more closely, to do my part for the renewed sense of purpose and desire to make a difference at the local level. I was delighted to learn that a friend of mine had taken that to the next level, so in that spirit I asked her to write about her candidacy.)

Abby Whitmire

Humble ISD covers over 90 square miles of northeast Harris County, including the communities of Humble, Atascocita, Kingwood, Fall Creek, and Eagle Springs. The population in the district is expected to rise from 40,500 to approximately 52,000 by 2025 – necessitating the construction of six new schools by 2022, including one high school, the seventh for the district. The district is 19.1% African American, 34.1% Latino, 40.9% White, and 5.9% Other. Almost nine percent of Humble ISD are Limited English Proficient and almost 34% are considered economically disadvantaged.

In the summer of 2016, the school board hired a controversial superintendent who had helped implement a private school voucher program in her previous job. The hiring of Dr. Liz Fagen as Superintendent was done over the very vocal objections of a large segment of the district. Many people in the district are still upset about that, and upset about how the board handled her hiring and how they tried to explain it to the public. A group of parents organized against this hire, and while we were ultimately unsuccessful in that objective, we have continued to serve in the role of watchdog for board and general district matters.

Part of this organizing includes supporting challengers to the six trustees who voted in the current superintendent (the seventh member was absent). Four positions are open in this election (one board member is not running for reelection so there is not an incumbent in that race). The day before the filing deadline, the incumbent in Position 4 was unopposed. I decided to run for Position 4 that day, because I believe the voters in Humble ISD deserve a real choice in who represents them.

I was blessed with amazing teachers who were committed and creative, and who cared so deeply about me and my classmates. I believe all children in Texas deserve a great, well-resourced school with respected and empowered teachers, regardless of where they live or how much money their family makes. I'm hoping to earn the votes of concerned parents in the district who want to protect public education.

I am the only candidate who has lived in a town – New Orleans – that is a living laboratory for charter schools. 93% of New Orleans students attend charter schools currently, and the number could soon approach 100%, as the Orleans Parish School Board intends to convert its five remaining direct-run schools into charters. This the highest percentage of any U.S. city (Source: Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives). The results are mixed at best. Living in that environment and hearing the concerns of parents and teachers made me extremely skeptical of charter schools and so-called "school choice" – the choice was often one of bad options.

My family moved to Kingwood for the schools. I want to make sure that the caliber of education in Humble ISD remains and even exceeds the level that has made it so attractive to families like mine. We know what works in education: Small class sizes, rich curriculums, experienced and accomplished teachers, and a system of support that helps to manage problems when students lose focus or fall behind. It's simple, but it's not easy. If I am elected to the school board, these will be my priorities.

Abby Whitmire is stay at home mom with a career background in non-profit fundraising, most recently in New Orleans for The Posse Foundation. Her campaign Facebook page is here.

(Ed. note: Kingwood State Rep. Dan Huberty, who is the Chair of the House Public Education Committee and an opponent of vouchers, had previously served on the Humble ISD Board. Just wanted to put that out there.)

A look ahead to Fort Bend County elections in 2017

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. I don’t know much about local and municipal elections in Fort Bend County, so today’s post is by Steve Brown.

As has been aptly reported here over the last couple of weeks, Secretary Hilary Clinton was able to carry what was once seen as dependably “red” Fort Bend County. Those of us who’ve been working to turn Fort Bend purple, if not blue, have long known that our county wasn’t as conservative as most people believed. Our demographically diverse population, young families and growing base of millennials point to a Fort Bend ready to embrace more progressive values like adequate public school funding and climate change and denounce divisive, hate driven agendas. I have confidence that local Democratic Party leaders will continue working in advance of the 2018 midterms to keep that momentum going, but there are a few local elections on May 6, 2017 that can help to cement support among persuadable suburban voters and build our bench of new leaders.

There are a number of municipalities, school districts & MUDs that will hold elections this year – like Stafford, Rosenberg, Fulshear, Lamar Consolidated ISD to name a few. However, I want to draw your attention to the Fort Bend ISD and Sugar Land races.

If there’s one thing that the 2016 election taught us, it’s that a majority of voters in Fort Bend’s Commissioner 4 precinct either embraced Clinton’s message, rejected Trump or both. These voters live in diverse, highly educated communities like Telfair, Avalon and Sweetwater. Democrats have traditionally done well in our strongholds of Missouri City (which moved its city council election to November) and Fresno. The emergence of winnable precincts in and around Sugar Land create unique electoral opportunities. Although Clinton didn’t have the coattails to boost our down ballot candidates, she did leave behind a road map for these local races.

Fort Bend ISD

Fort Bend ISD trustees are elected district-wide. This year, three school board seats are up – one for a trustee who lives on the east side of the district, one from the west side and one elected at-large. Currently, there are only two minorities on Fort Bend ISD’s Board, and one of them, K.P. George, is up for re-election in May. It would be ideal to add at least one more progressive and/or minority to a Board that governs a district representing one of the most diverse student populations in the country.

Sugar Land City Council

Similarly, a progressive candidate in one of Sugar Land’s 4 district races could help to reshape that governing body as well. Clinton won about half of the precincts in Sugar Land and came extremely close in a handful of others to arguably make Sugar Land a “toss-up” municipality. Sugar Land’s four district council members will be up for re-election in May. Sugar Land recently annexed two master-planned communities so it may be too early to predict how that might impact electoral outcomes there. Nevertheless, good candidates should definitely consider running this Spring, and possibly win office with as few as 3500 votes.

2018 Midterms

As we look forward to the 2018 mid-term elections, having solid candidates to engage persuadable voters in the parts of Sugar Land and Fort Bend ISD that overlap with Commissioner’s Precinct 4 will help lay the groundwork to win that commissioner’s precinct in 2018. A prospective nominee for that office could be buoyed by the support of a newly minted school board trustee and Sugar Land city council member- not to mention access to their voter base and donors. With the right collaboration and coordination it’s plausible that GOTV in Precincts 2 and 4 (which would both be on the ballot in 2018) could help to elect Democrats countywide – including County Judge, District Attorney and various judicial benches. A competitive commissioner’s 4 race could also have a positive effect on the HD 26 race in 2018 and 2020.

Democrats can’t win the state if we can’t win suburbs – especially the diverse ones. Fort Bend has been on the cusp of political change for some time now. We can finally reach that tipping point by taking seriously these low hanging local elections. All elections matter.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and Managing Director at Capitol Assets Sustainable Energy Development LLC.

Steve Brown: Why we need the US90A rail line

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. Today’s post is by Steve Brown, on the newly revived US90A commuter rail line.)

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

In May 2015, Metro began operating two light rail lines serving the East End and Southeast communities. Those routes, along with an extension of the Main St. line, were part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum. Included in that referendum was also a nine mile commuter line connecting Southwest Houston to Missouri City along Main/90A. Despite its bi-partisan support, that route has yet to break ground…or even clear its final environmental stage.

When the METRO Solutions referendum squeaked out a victory with 51.7% of the vote, it was the votes from Fort Bend that pushed it into the winner’s column. The METRO Solutions referendum received 66% of the Fort Bend County vote. That shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey (2016), Fort Bend residents beat out Harris and Montgomery County in favoring more spending for rail and buses. That study also found that a majority of Fort Bend residents believe that the development of a much improved mass transit system is “very important.”

Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2035. According to METRO, 24,000 daily work trips are made along the 90A corridor between Fort Bend and the Texas Medical Center. That number is expected to jump to 32,000 by 2035. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) also estimates that trips along US 90A to all major employment centers, such as downtown Houston, Uptown/Galleria, and Greenway Plaza in Houston will increase approximately 37 percent in that same time period. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear that METRO’s Board recently voted to submit this project to FTA for project development. The project development phase is a preliminary stage, so it doesn’t guarantee full funding.

What’s needed now is a robust strategy for the next legislative session to advocate for state funding for the 90A line, and the creation of a special district to spearhead this effort.

Under the state’s Transportation Code, the legislature can create special “Commuter Rail Districts” (CRD). These Districts have the statutory power to develop, construct, own, and operate commuter rail facilities and connect political subdivisions in the district. The Fort Bend CRD, for instance, could accept grants and loans from the federal and state government. It could also issue revenue bonds and impose taxes. This district would function as the project leader and fiscal agent in partnering with METRO, local municipalities, private investors, Fort Bend Express and other key stakeholders.

A lot has changed along Main/90A since 2003. The 90A line should definitely stop in Missouri City but it shouldn’t end there. Constellation Field in Sugar Land has become a major local attraction, and the Imperial Market development will break ground later this year. Combined, they will be a hub for Sugar Land’s retail, entertainment, residential and office growth. As such, having the 90A commuter line terminate at Imperial Market (or even the Sugar Land airport) makes a lot of sense…assuming they’re willing to coordinate with the CRD.

Additionally, Missouri City’s residential growth and development has steadily drifted towards SH6 in recent years. In addition to the 90A route, we should also examine the feasibility of having a Hillcroft spur with stops around the Fountain of Praise/Fountain Life Center, Chasewood/Briargate and traveling adjacent to the Fort Bend Tollway before terminating on SH6. Not only would that route help to spark needed economic development in key East Fort Bend communities, it would also serve commuters from Fresno, Sienna Plantation and Riverstone. This “Hillcroft Spur” could function as a Bus Rapid Transit alternative to rail, at least initially, and potentially replace the 2 METRO Park and Rides in Fort Bend.

Finally, the state legislature needs invest in urban and suburban transit. We’re not going to be able to adequately address traffic congestion in this state with more toll roads. According to the American Public Transit Association, commuter rail annually yields $5.2 billion in economic and societal benefits. Those benefits are often greater than the initial investment and include cost savings from avoided congestion, mitigation of traffic accidents and tax revenue generated. These projects are also dynamic job creators and economic development incubators.

It’s time that we get the right people at the table to brainstorm innovative mobility solutions in Fort Bend, and finally make the METRO 90A/Southwest Houston commuter line a reality.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and a past Director of Government Affairs for Metro.

Dan Wallach: The case for not letting everybody vote by mail

You know who Dan Wallach is by now. Voting systems and security are in his wheelhouse, and when he sent this to me in response to this, I was happy to queue it up.

vote-button

Vote by mail (VBM) is cheaper! It’s more enfranchising! Take your time and do it right! Yes, indeed, and why not even do it over the Internet! Sigh. But what proponents of VBM seem to miss in these arguments in that voting is not the same as doing your taxes. It’s not the same as buying stuff from Amazon. Why? Because voting fraud happens. Voting fraud has a long history. You name the voting technology, and there are people who try to use it to influence the outcome of elections.

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine to the time before the modern “Australian” secret ballot. Voters would get colorfully printed “party slates”, often from their partisan newspapers, and would take them to the polls to deposit in the ballot box. (Check out the pretty pictures!) Why did we switch to having the state doing the printing and having voters fill those ballots out in a private booth? To eliminate bribery and coercion! This transition was even connected with the women’s suffrage movement, since the women at the time were apparently less interested than the manly men in putting up with a partisan gauntlet between the street and the ballot box. (See this NPR interview with Jill Lepore for lots of fun details.)

Okay, so secret ballots are a good thing, but they only work when the voter cannot prove how they voted, even if they want to. That’s why you’re not supposed to have your smartphone out when you’re voting, because you can make a video of your whole interaction with the machine. That’s why you vote alone, without assistance, because your “assistant” could then monitor your every move. Yes, “assisting” voters is a prominent mode of voter fraud, especially for the elderly. (See this article about the history of voter fraud in Chicago for some details.) That articled also gets into my problem with absentee / VBM balloting:

Joe Novak, a longtime Chicago political operative who knew the intimate details of the election system, explained in 2002 that election fraud still worked the way it had for years. “Precinct captains still like to control the vote by pushing absentees.” The captain goes to a retirement center or other places where the elderly gather and gets a signed statement from a voter that they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. The captain can tell the voter how to vote. The idea is “Captains like to be ranked No. 1” in their ward organization. Alderman Joseph Moore from the Forty-Ninth Ward added, “The captain will offer to take (a completed absentee ballot) downtown for you.”  “Until they tightened the rules a few years ago,” Moore said, “it was common to see captains bringing in buckets full of ballots.”

A similar instructive example is the election of “Landslide” Lyndon B Johnson for the U.S. Senate in 1948 (background article, academic discussion). Texas, at the time, was largely controlled by the Democratic Party, so the Democratic Primary election was to be decisive for who would win the Senate seat, much like the Republican Primary is today. The 1948 primary went to a runoff between Johnson and former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, Johnson defeated Stevenson by an “87-vote landslide.” Much attention has focused on ballot stuffing in Jim Wells County’s infamous “Box 13,” but ballot box stuffing, among other fraudulent behavior, was apparently the norm across the state. Counties were allowed to report “revisions” to their tallies in the week following the election, allowing local party bosses to continuously adjust their vote totals to assist their preferred candidate.

Let’s get back to VBM. Yes, it’s absolutely easier to defraud an election where voters are using VBM. In Texas today, if you want to vote absentee, you must either be over 65, or have one of a small set of valid reasons. If we expanded this to the general population, would we have more voter fraud? Without a doubt. Sure, VBM proponents like to talk about the extent to which they verify signatures on envelopes, but they cannot possibly hope to combat elderly vote fraud, never mind undo family influence. VBM fundamentally enables fraud.

Okay, but what about those electronic voting machines? They certainly have their own serious problems. Here’s a 93 page report I co-authored as part of California’s 2007 “Top to Bottom Report” on the Hart InterCivic eSlate. Our conclusion then was that there were unacceptable security flaws in the design of the eSlate and every other voting system we analyzed. So far as I can tell, Hart InterCivic hasn’t meaningfully changed anything since then. We’re still voting on the same poorly engineered machines here in Harris County today. But are these weaknesses being actively exploited? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

What would I recommend to replace our aging and breaking voting systems? I was invited by Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and her team to help design something new, from scratch, that might better meet the needs of Travis County and others. Our design, called STAR-Vote (secure, transparent, auditable, reliable), uses state of the art cryptographic and statistical auditing techniques that can help voters prove their votes were counted correctly or prove they were defrauded (yet not be able to prove to a third party how they voted). STAR has printed paper ballots, so tampered software can’t mess with the final tallies without detection. And STAR is designed to use off-the-shelf commodity computer hardware rather than the overpriced proprietary devices being sold by the voting systems industry. Where does STAR stand today? We’ve got a great design. We have prototype implementations here at Rice, today, where we’re running usability tests. Ultimately, we need to get the funding together to professionally build and maintain the software, and that’s as much a political challenge as anything technical. Once the software’s done, the incremental cost of rolling out new hardware would be something like a third of the cost of what the voting machine industry wants to charge, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the ongoing service contract savings. (The exact business model for STAR is very much dependent on its funding situation. Legally, any company could take our design, implement it, and sell it, yet none have; sadly, some voting system vendors have inappropriately adopted similar technical lingo while shipping products without any of the desirable security properties.)

Yeah, but what about voter turnout? If your goal is to increase voter turnout, then there are plenty of ways to make that happen. 22 countries make voting mandatory. If you want something a little less draconian, might I suggest an “open primary” as California has done? That would better enfranchise “independent” voters who don’t want to be forced to vote in one party or the other’s primary. Or how about compact districts, so we can have more competitive races? Want something less disruptive? Okay, how about Election Day vote centers? In Travis County today, you can go to any polling place in the county, on Election Day, and you get to vote on your particular ballot. Want to vote near your work? No problem. Travis County adopted this to work around a nightmarish redistricting that would have otherwise resulted in large numbers of voters going to the wrong polling places, but you can see how it could add convenience for everybody.

My colleague, Bob Stein, likes to quip that all voters have one thing in common: they know who they want to vote for. If you want to increase turnout, I’m all for it, but if that’s truly the goal, then let’s not weaken our protections against voting fraud.

Dan Wallach: 2016 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

We’ve now had a solar system on our house, and an electric car charging from the house, for just over a year. Also of note, in my post last May, I suggested that what we need is a retail electric plan that sells to you at a competitive rate (versus the inflated prices at Green Mountain) and buys from you at the wholesale price (which can climb impressively high on hot summer afternoons, when your solar system is cranking out the juice). Well, plans like this are starting to appear on the market. MP2 Energy has such a plan and others are looking into it.

Today, I want to discuss a few related questions:

  • How much electricity did our solar system generate, and our electric car consume, in the past year?
  • Based on our year of data, would we do any better to stick with Green Mountain or go to one of the newer plans?

Of course, I’m only writing about our own usage, with our house and our car. Your house and your car and your, umm, mileage will vary, but you might be able to extrapolate from our numbers to reach your own conclusions about whether you want to go solar.

How much electricity did our solar system generate?

Below is a graph of the energy-per-day produced by our solar array. You can see the system generating more energy in the summer months, with the correspondingly longer days. You can also see the occasional days with bad weather. No sun = no power.

Dan Wallach 2016 chart

In total, over this twelve month period, our solar array (36 panels, 250W peak production per panel) produced 10.3 MWh of electricity. At the $0.12/kWh buyback rate we’re getting with Green Mountain Energy, that means that our solar array saved us roughly $1240 this year. (Our panels are facing east and west, as a result of the way our roof is built. If your house has a large southern-facing roof, you could get this much power from fewer panels.)

How much juice did our Tesla consume?

According to the Tesla’s dashboard measurements, after a year of owning it, we’ve driven a total of 7033 miles, and used 2476 kWh to do it. That’s 352 Wh/mile. Assuming you were paying $0.10/kWh for your electricity, then we’re talking about 3.5 cents/mile. Contrast that with a comparably large sedan with comparable performance (e.g., an Audi A7), doing the same sort of city driving and thus getting something crappy like 15 miles/gallon, then with current $2/gallon prices, you’re looking at 13.3 cents/mile. You’d have to have some kind of amazing 57mpg  hybrid to achieve the same cost per mile. (A Prius is almost there. Big luxury cars, not so much.)

Another way to think about it: the “long tailpipe” problem. Some critics of electric cars note that they still burn fossil fuels, just somewhere far away from home. Our solar array produced enough energy to run our Tesla for nearly 30,000 miles. So if you want to have a “solar powered electric car”, you can do it with even a modest-sized solar system.

What if you drive a longer commute? The prior owner of our Tesla lived up in the Woodlands and commuted back and forth to Houston. He was averaging an even more amazing 300 Wh/mile, driving twice as many miles per year in the same exact car. He upgraded to a Tesla P85D (the four-wheel-drive version that goes insanely faster) and his mileage stayed roughly the same. Supercar performance, tiny hybrid efficiency.

All that said, I don’t have a really good handle on the overhead of the Tesla. Sure, it consumed 2476 kWh in the past year, but that’s going from the car’s battery to the tires. There’s some fractional overhead beyond that, going from the wall outlet to the car’s battery. Charging a battery creates heat, which represents wasted electricity, and also requires additional energy to remove. The Tesla will thus use extra power to run the A/C compressor while it’s charging. For now, let’s just say that measuring the charging overhead is future work. (Hey OffTheKuff readers: if you’ve got measurement infrastructure that I could borrow for this, let me know!)

Lastly, I’ll note that we did several road trips in the Tesla, using their Supercharger infrastructure. I’d estimate that somewhere around 500 kWh of that energy was “free” from the Supercharger network (i.e., included in the cost of buying the car).

Should we stick with Green Mountain or switch elsewhere?

Green Mountain has the best net metering plan on the market, but there are only two competitors. In a nutshell, Green Mountain buys and sells power from you at the exact same price: $0.12/kWh, inclusive of all fees and taxes. But there are plenty of standard retail plans that will sell you electricity at $0.08 or $0.09/kWh. Can we do better than Green Mountain’s net metering plan? The real issue, once you strip away all the dumb politics, is that the underlying pricing model isn’t at all a flat rate for electricity.

Roughly speaking, there’s a wholesale price for the electricity coming from a commercial generator and then there’s a distribution price to get it to you. Wholesale prices vary all day long, with overnight lows below a penny and mid-afternoon highs as much as 3 cents/kWh, with occasional peaks that are much, much higher. CenterPoint charges 3.8 cents/kWh for delivery of that power, no matter what, alongside a flat monthly charge of $5.47 per residential customer. All those charges are often rolled into the pricing plans you see from other retail electricity providers, who are essentially gambling that they can buy power at variable wholesale rates and sell it to you at a flat retail price while still somehow making a profit.

When a retail electricity provider wants to get into the solar buyback game, their actual costs to get power downstream to your house (so far as I can tell) are the wholesale price plus the distribution price. Your excess solar power production is worth the same to them as the spot wholesale price when it flows back upstream. CenterPoint doesn’t give any sort of rebate for upstream electricity flows. CenterPoint’s argument: Somebody else is receiving the power you’re sending upstream, and they’re paying to get it delivered. CenterPoint charges for that delivery.

Can a retail electricity provider offer a competitive pricing plan that’s closer to the wholesale market structure while still buffering consumers from the sometimes insane spikes of the raw wholesale market? One such provider, who prefers not to be named yet in public, approached me privately and offered me the chance to test drive a new plan they’re working on. Their proposal is to pass through all the CenterPoint charges, as is, and then have a flat 3 cents/kWh for buying and selling power, downstream or upstream. I ran these numbers through my spreadsheet for the same 12 months of data I’ve already captured. Here’s what came out: Green Mountain’s $0.12/kWh net metering plan cost us $692.84 for the year. If we had this new plan instead, it would come out to $712.07 for the same usage in the same year.

Evaluating MP2’s spot-price “solar buyback” plan is a bit more complicated, because the upstream price they pay you varies all day long. Conveniently, MP2 did this analysis for me. I emailed them all our data and their conclusion was that our annual bill would be $904.32, so not especially competitive with Green Mountain’s net metering. MP2 also offers a net metering plan, similar to Green Mountain’s plan, but it’s presently offered as part of getting your solar system installed through SolarCity. Thus, not an option for us.

Call me modestly bullish on this. Even though MP2’s solar buyback plan isn’t a good deal for our house, other firms are looking to offer variants on the same business model that are competitive. As an added bonus, I’d now be incentivized to put a big battery on our house to capture the excess daily production and reuse it at night. With standard net-metering, there was no incentive, but now I’d save those distribution charges. I’ll still wait for the cost of battery packs to drop, but it’s fun to think about.

Some Thoughts About the Future

There are always going to be a few days in the summer where the demand on the grid peaks out. In those cases, all the market-rate adjustments in the world won’t cause a new industrial generator to be constructed and placed online. That means high prices and brownouts. (If anything, there’s a reasonable fear that generators might deliberately go off-line to force price spikes. That’s beyond the scope of today’s post.)

Solar has a big role to play in stabilizing our grid, because those hottest hours of the day are exactly when solar panels will be generating the most power. Solar also happens to do the job without pollution, and without incurring large infrastructure costs for long-distance power distribution. On top of that, solar’s one-time purchase and installation costs are rapidly shrinking.

Consequently, it’s sensible and desirable for the Federal government to continue its solar subsidy, and it would make a lot of sense for the Texas state government to get in on the game as well. The solar on our roof helps our neighbors, not just us. I’m not suggesting that we’ll stop burning fossil fuels, but rather that a diversified set of sources is a desirable way to meet the needs for a stable and scalable power grid.

The biggest objection to solar, so far as I can tell, comes from shills who misrepresent the financial structure of the electricity markets and claim that residential solar production leads to “mooching” off the grid. What I like about MP2 and some of the other buyback plans coming online is that they address this concern head-on. By passing through the monthly CenterPoint connection charge and pricing power consumption somewhere only marginally higher than wholesale rates, these new plans make it clear that solar systems aren’t mooching at all. They’re paying their fair share, and they’re improving the reliability of the grid while they’re at it.

Dan Wallach: 2015 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

I’ve been blogging about our electricity situation for the past few years here at OffTheKuff. In 2014, I mentioned that we were pondering going with a solar system. Well, we did it — a 9 kW (peak) solar system via Texas Solar Outfitters — and we also picked up a Tesla Model S. This is less about being green hippie freaks and more about disconnecting from what I’ve viewed as a deeply dysfunctional electricity market. (And also having a car that kicks ass, but that’s for another day and a different blog.)

We’ve only had the solar system since November, so it’s too soon to have full-year statistics. Once the system reaches its first full year anniversary, I’ll run the “profitability” numbers and do another guest post here. Stay tuned for more exciting charts and financial math (present value, IRR, and more)! Instead, I wanted to give some perspective on the economics of solar power.

Notably, Tesla just announced a new “PowerWall” contraption that puts a 10kWh battery pack on your garage wall for $3500 (plus hiring an electrician, plus permitting, plus ancillary equipment like inverters, so let’s call it $6000 minimum). Elon Musk envisions that we can truly replace our entirely fossil fuel-based economy with solar power: homes, cars, everything. (For more technical details on the PowerWall products, Teslarati has a good writeup.) Let’s do the numbers, shall we?

To begin, here’s our March electrical bill from Green Mountain — the best of the three available plans if you have solar.

WallachElectricBill

This is what “net metering” looks like. We drew 862kWh from the grid and fed back 573kWh. Meanwhile, over the same time period, our solar system reports that it produced 853kWh. Of this, the house consumed 280kWh and we sold back the remaining 573kWh. So, our actual power consumption for March was 1142kWh (solar generation plus grid consumption, minus excesses solar generation sold back).

I rolled back to last year’s stats, when we had neither solar nor a Tesla, and the monthly usage for the same time period was 864kWh, which says that the Tesla used around 280kWh for the month, or maybe it’s just hotter this year. Last year’s awful summer peaks were well north of 1500kWh, so presumably this summer, with the Tesla, we’re looking at 1800-2000kWh / month of peak usage.

(With our Tesla, we’re on target to hit about 7500 miles/year, so these numbers may represent a “low” usage point relative to others, but you can easily scale our numbers up if you want to predict your own hypothetical costs. Your mileage and the weather may vary, etc.)

Here’s where solar gets fun. The graph below shows the energy generated by our solar system on a beautiful, sunny April day. Positive numbers represent power we’re drawing from the grid. Negative numbers represent excess power we’re selling back to the grid. You can see our Tesla charging itself up after we got home from eating dinner out. You can also nicely see when the sun came up and when it went down again. On this particular day, midnight to midnight, we drew 20kWh from the grid while the sun was down. The solar system generated 52kWh, and we had an excess of 44kWh that we sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed a total of 28kWh on this particular day and were a net seller of electricity). Sounds great right?

WallachSunnyDayApril

The new Tesla PowerWall contraption leads you to ask the question of whether you could store all that extra energy in a battery during the day and release it at night. If you could do that, you could then cut yourself free from the grid. Today’s question: what would it take to go completely “off grid”?

To pull this off, you need to generate everything you might ever need, even in the worst case. So how bad is bad? Here’s a chart of our power usage over a two day period in early April when it was rainy and awful.

WallachRainyApril

Over these two days, our total power drawn from the grid was 46kWh. The solar system generated 25.2kWh, of which 9kWh was sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed an average of 31kWh/day on these two days). To make this work “off grid”, we’d need to double the size of our solar system. To make this work on a bad weather winter day, with correspondingly less daylight, the solar system would need to grow yet again. Also, this included a typical day of driving with our Tesla. What if we did a long drive and got home with a near-empty battery? You’d have a whole new form of range anxiety to deal with. Conversely, on days when you generate more than you use you’re just throwing it away.

Our current solar system cost us roughly $30k to purchase and install (before the 30% tax credit, which might go down in future years). No matter how you slice it, the profitability of the system is dubious, given how much cheaper electricity became after the Saudis decided to crank up their production. Doubling the solar system, installing expensive batteries, going off-grid, and discarding excess production? Sorry, that’s not financially rational.

Incidentally, if you want to know how to size up a Tesla PowerWall system for an off-grid solar application, you pretty much just add up your grid consumption during the night; you need to ensure you have enough solar capacity and battery capacity during the day to cover it. For our house, two PowerWall batteries ($3500/ea, for 20kWh total storage capacity) wouldn’t quite do the job. We’d need three of them to have a decent margin. If you had a bigger house or you drove many more miles on your electric car, then you’d have to ratchet everything up appropriately.

Conclusion 1: building a solar system to deal with worst-case power generation, operating your house “off grid”, will require your solar system to be much larger than you’d specify for a net-metering application, where you can rely on the grid for bad-weather days. As solar panels get more powerful and cheaper, the economics of this will change. Today, no. Ten years, maybe.

Next question for today: is there any point in buying a PowerWall if not to go off-grid? If what you want is “emergency” service in a power-outage situation, you can buy all sorts of natural gas generators. They’re loud when running and they require regular service, but after Hurricane Ike knocked our power out for ten days, we could feel the soulful allure. Unfortunately, a smaller PowerWall system wouldn’t help here, since for a ten day blackout, you’re really in a situation equivalent to the fully off-grid scenario.

Sadly, with only flat-rate grid electricity pricing available here, I conclude that a PowerWall has no real use at our home.

Caveat 1: so long as TXU is willing to give you “free nights”, then a PowerWall means free electricity for your home! You can expect TXU to kill that program off quickly once Tesla’s battery packs start shipping. Sorry about that.

Caveat 2: electric utilities are cranking up the scare machine that it’s “unfair” for solar consumers to pay less for the grid. First off, this is totally bogus, as we pay the same fixed fee as everybody else pays for CenterPoint to maintain the grid. (Many retail electric plans hide this fee, so long as you use more than 1000kWh, but they’re still paying it on your behalf. ) And if you’re a net provider rather than net consumer of power at peak times, you’re helping the grid. But let’s say the utilities win the argument and kill off or weaken solar net metering. At that point, we’re forced to buy a battery storage system to recapture our excess daytime usage. The grid then loses the benefit of our excess generation, and every new solar system just got more expensive for no good reason.

All of this would change if consumers were more exposed to the variable pricing of the commercial power market. Rice University, for example, buys its electricity a full year ahead of time, hour by hour, offset by in-house solar production. If it turns out that Rice pre-bought more than they need, they sell it back on the spot market. If they need more than they pre-bought, they have to go buy power on that same spot market. And, of course, when do they really need it? The same time as everybody else does, on the hottest days, so spot prices can be brutal. With this in mind, typical commercial flat rooftop solar installations point their panels southwest, maximizing their power generation in the afternoon when electricity is most expensive.

The real genius of power storage systems is that you can buy and store the power when it’s cheap and uses it when it’s expensive. Energy arbitrage! That means that the mammoth version of Tesla’s PowerWall might be very attractive for industrial and commercial users. Even utilities might deploy them into neighborhoods. And if home users were more exposed to the “real” pricing in the commercial market, they too would be incentivized to get personal battery storage systems, with or without solar, for the same reasons. So far as I can tell, none of the available-in-Houston 325 plans from the 52 different retail electric providers offer hour-by-hour variable pricing like this, but in Austin or San Antonio, your traditional electric utility might be able to do it. Here’s a nice NPR article with useful details.

Conclusion 2: so long as consumers have net metering available and are not exposed to variable time-of-day electricity pricing, they won’t be incentivized to buy a battery storage system, with or without a solar system on the roof. There’s really no benefit for Houston consumers today to buy a storage system.

Teslarati runs a similar analysis in a state with variable pricing. In Southern California, the PowerWall becomes profitable in 3-5 years, and is unattractive for off-grid. Also, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power, not to be confused with our NRG-owned Green Mountain Energy, is ramping up some kind of joint program with Tesla. Who knows, maybe we’ll see something like it here some day.

One parting thought: in the insane, fragmented universe of the deregulated Texas electricity market, where generation, distribution, and retail sales are performed by unrelated players, we’ll probably be stuck with pricing policies that incentivize consumers to waste energy for make benefit most glorious State of Texas. Of course, exposing consumers to the raw industrial electricity market would likely be disastrous. Consumers can’t easily manage their load or trade contracts against future use. The best we seem to get are “smart” thermostats that can throttle back at peak times. Yawn. What seems missing, then, is better regulations for how consumer pricing is structured to incentivize lower peak usage. My proposed solution? Net metering and predictable time-variable pricing should be a standard part of any retail electricity offering. Let me sell high and buy low! Similarly, every plan should be structured to eliminate perverse rate structures where marginal rates go down as usage goes up. That’s common sense. Deregulation!

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has written four of these analyses before.

Kris Banks: Comparing turnout, or where the vote was lost

(Note: This is the first of two guest posts submitted by Kris Banks, past President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.)

Democrats lost big last month. We lost at every level, from statewide all the way down to the countywide candidates. Every challenger and every incumbent lost.

That first paragraph kind of defies the rules of journalism, I guess. You’re supposed to lead with the news. Not only does everyone know what I said above, but it’s not exactly a new experience for Harris County Democrats. We’ve lost all countywide races in nearly every single election since the 1990s. The only exceptions have been 2008 and 2012.

I lead with it because it was a fact that didn’t quite square with what I saw in my precinct when I looked at the canvass. I’m Democratic chair of Precinct 60, a square section in the southwest side of Montrose between Westheimer, Richmond, Mandell and Shepherd that votes at Sydney Lanier Middle School.

It’s a solid blue precinct, and this election was no different. Wendy Davis pulled in 67 percent of the vote. Every Democrat won Precinct 60, and nearly every Republican lost – with the exception of Ed Emmett, every Republican not contested by a Democrat was defeated by the Green Party candidate in Precinct 60.

None of that was unusual. What struck me was how many votes the Democrats were getting. I knew turnout would be down from 2012. I was hit with a pang of disappointment that it was also down from 2010. In 2010, 47.2 percent of registered voters in Precinct 60 cast their ballot. In 2014, that dropped to 43.2 percent. With all the excitement I was seeing in my community for Wendy Davis and the Democratic ticket, how did we lose turnout?

Then I started looking at the numbers, and I started comparing them to my 2010 canvass. The 2014 numbers looked bigger. In 2010, the average Democrat (I’ll explain the “average Democrat” concept shortly) pulled down 671 votes. In 2014, the average Democrat won 722 votes.

So how did turnout go down? Well, I took a look at the other side. In 2010, the average Republican picked up 328 votes in Precinct 60. In 2014? 257.

Democrats didn’t drop off in my precinct. They turned out stronger than the last midterm. All of the dropoff in turnout in Precinct 60 came from Republicans.

I wish I could say it’s because I’m a particularly good precinct chair. And, you know, maybe I am. But I could see the same thing happening around Montrose. So why didn’t we win countywide? We must have lost somewhere else, and big. Where?

I’ve long loved the maps that I see Greg Wythe and others put out, and wanted to be able to make them myself. So I headed down to the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office, picked up a shape file, and determined I was going to teach myself how to make elections maps to answer these questions.

And here they are.

First, I wasn’t all that interested in Wendy Davis or anyone else statewide. No statewide candidate will ever win a statewide election in Texas until Harris County Democrats start winning midterms. So I needed to look at one number to figure out how Republicans did across the county. But I didn’t want to look at one race, because different dynamics might create skewed figures – for example, a candidate with a Hispanic surname might do unusually well in a majority Latino precinct.

So I took every Democrat running countywide, including the statewide, and made an average of their votes. Republicans were a little more difficult. Some of their numbers were much higher than other Republicans because they had no major party opposition. So to create the average Republican candidate, I took every countywide GOP candidate who was opposed by a Democrat.

The average Democrat got 298,145 votes in Harris County. The average Republican got 356,700.

The standard map you see has precincts colored red or blue as they were won, respectively, by Republicans and Democrats. The colors are shaded according to the margin of victory – dark red precincts are where the Republican picked up more than 70 percent of the vote, and pink ones are where the Republican won by just a hair.

Here’s that map for the average Democrat vs. the average Republican in Harris County in 2014:

Bam, and you now know nothing you didn’t know before. Democrats won African American, Latino and urban precincts, Republicans won the west side and suburbs. Some groundbreaking political analysis there. Move over, Bob Stein.

The main reason that map doesn’t matter is because it only tells you the strength of the vote in accordance to how big of a share each candidate got. That doesn’t mean much. Let’s say I’m a Democrat who wins Precinct A with 80 percent of the vote, but loses Precinct B with 40 percent of the vote. Things are looking pretty good until you find out that 200 voters turned out in Precinct A and 2,000 voters turned out in Precinct B. I’m now losing by 280 votes.

Let’s take a look at the average Republican vs. average Democrat map again. But this time, instead of the precincts shaded by the portion of the vote the winner got, they are shaded by the margin that the winner picked up there. For instance, for Precincts A and B above: the winner of Precinct A, me, got 160 votes there, and the Republican, my opponent, got 40. The margin I got there was therefore 120 votes. Not that many, so even though I won 80 percent, it would be light blue. In Precinct B, my opponent picked up 400 votes, so it would be a darker shade of red.

Here it is:

Democratic parts of the map are sky blue, for the most part. The darkest shade of blue only gets used four times, three in the south and once up north. Contrast that with the blood red sea in Cypress, Kingwood and Katy. Even the inside-the-Beltway Republican areas are darker than most Dem areas.

That’s how we lost 2014, by the numbers. The Republicans ran up bigger margins in precincts where they won. We won our areas like we always do. We carried some competitive precincts in the Southwest side of town. But the turnout just wasn’t there overall.

It’s important to put these maps in context. The best comparison to the 2014 election is the 2010 election. So how did we do in comparison to 2010?

Disclosure: In 2011, Harris County drew new precinct lines to fit redistricting. Most stayed the same, but 184 new precincts were created, which were carved out of old precincts. A perfect precinct-to-precinct comparison isn’t possible, therefore. What I did was figure out how the old 2010 precincts got carved up and apportion the 2010 votes according to the 2014 figures.

For example, Precinct 16 was cut into Precincts 16 and 890. In 2014, the average Democrats got 182 votes in Precinct 16 and 159 votes in Precinct 890. So, 53.4 percent of Democrats remained in Precinct 16, and the rest went to the new Precinct 890. To make the comparison, I split the 2010 vote accordingly. In 2010, the average Democrat got 314 votes in Precinct 16. So I put 53.4 percent – 168 votes – in Precinct 16 and the remainder, 146, in Precinct 890. End of disclosure; just wanted the reader to be aware that it’s not a perfect comparison.

So how did Democrats do in comparison to 2010? Here’s a map of where Democrats gained or lost a raw number of votes, with precincts where we gained colored blue (darker shades mean we gained more) and precincts where we lost votes colored red:

Not pretty. That is a rather pink map. In the vast majority of areas, especially in core Democratic areas, we lost votes. Sometimes a lot of votes. The few areas where we gained are no match for the areas where we lost.

So how did Republicans do? They won, so they must have done well, right? Here’s the flip side map for them:

Not exactly fields of crimson. In fact, the GOP map is bluer than the Democratic map is red.

Probably most interesting is the next map. It’s sort of a combo of the two. It compares the percentage of the change in votes from 2010 to 2014. In red precincts, the change was more positive for Republicans – in most cases, where the drop in Democratic votes was greater than the drop in Republican ones. Vice versa for blue precincts. The borders of the precincts are colored according to the 2014 winner of the precinct:

Big portions of this map look inverted from the first map above, especially in Republican areas. In 2010, the average Republican got 423,281 votes. That number dropped 15.7 percent in 2014. In 2010, the average Democrat got 333,021 votes. That number dropped 10.5 percent in 2014.

Republicans won all the races, but not because they did a better job. In fact, in comparison to 2010, they did worse.

But they still won, both in 2010 and 2014. If you’re trying to figure out where the Democrats truly lost, I think those numbers are important in context. But if you want to really understand it, you have to compare the numbers to a different situation – a situation where the Democrats won.

Let’s look at 2012. In 2012, the average Democrat got 568,317 votes, and the average Republican got 551,131.

It’s truly hard to compare 2012 and 2014 because of the disparities between a presidential election and a midterm election. As a diehard Democrat, I would love to be a visionary and an optimist and say that we shouldn’t throw our hands up in the air and say “A midterm election will never have the same turnout as a presidential one!,” never say never, all that B.S. The problem is that statement is true. It’s true across the country for red and blue states alike. Maybe not to the extent it’s true in Harris County, but it’s still true.

But both Republicans and Democrats dropped in every precinct. So we can compare how much they dropped. Here’s a map comparing 2012 and 2014 like the immediately one above, where the change in votes is compared. Red means Republicans had a smaller dropoff than Democrats, vice versa for blue.

There’s your crimson field.

Both Republicans and Democrats had big drop-offs. It’s just that while Republicans lost 35.3 percent of their vote, Democrats lost 47.5 percent.

Republicans didn’t do well in 2014. They actually lost more votes than the Democrats did from the prior midterm. But when no one turns anyone out, the Republicans win by default.

I’m going to look at persuadable voters and the base soon.

Dan Wallach: Home power analysis, 2014 edition

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

It’s July and that can only mean one thing: time to worry about my electrical contract for the next year. As we saw in last year’s installment, I ended up going with TriEagle Energy’s 100% renewable product. They want to jack my rates by 10% over last year, so clearly it’s time to run the numbers again.

This year, I decided to try to sort out what each plan would cost based on my power usage data for the past year (thanks again to SmartMeterTexas.com). For five months, my usage went over 1000 kWh/month and for seven it was well below. I then downloaded the full spreadsheet of available offers from PowerToChoose.org, built an equation to estimate my monthly charges, and then all I have to is sort to find the cheapest, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy. The spreadsheet data they give you is a disaster. Rather than just listing the fees, there’s now a textual column titled “Fees/Credits” and there’s no standard way in which they’re reported. Some companies report what you’d pay per kWh, inclusive of monthly fees, while others report what you pay exclusive of those fees. This meant I had to go through every row in the table and try to interpret their mumbo jumbo. Deregulation!

If you just try to just naively scale the 500 or 1000 kWh numbers, you end up with a wrong answer by 2% or more, but the EFLs often fail to give you enough data to do any better. So, with that caveat, here’s a histogram of how much money I’d spend in a year with each of the nearly 200 fixed rate electricity contracts on offer. Higher points in this histogram mean there are more plans that would end up costing me that price.

WallachPowerAnalysisChart2014

While I don’t want to name names for companies with unhelpful Electric Facts Labels and PowerToChoose-published data, I do want to give kudos specifically to Our Energy for doing it better. They say explicitly what CenterPoint expenses they are passing through, and they themselves have a flat rate on the power they’re selling. This allows me to calculate my real expenses, not a cheesy approximation of them. That would adjust them from $1316/year (as everything else in the histogram above is computed) to $1277/year, moving them into the top competitive position on my chart. Would others be cheaper as well? Probably, but PowerToChoose doesn’t give me enough information to choose. Should I reward Our Energy with my business for having the best and most transparent EFL? It’s tempting, but first, a rant…

Can’t we please go back to having a centrally regulated traditional utility company?

San Antonio still has this. I had a friend there send me a copy of her utility bill. She’s paying approximately $0.11 / kWh. Her bill breaks out the fixed and variable charges, much like I appreciate from Our Energy. On my histogram above, she’d be somewhere in the far left — getting an exceptionally good rate and not having to do this stupid analysis every year. All of our lovely free market competition in Houston is really just a series of opportunities for fools and their money to be quickly separated from one another.

Hey, what about solar power and saving the earth and stuff?

When I first started writing this year’s analysis, I said to myself, “Surely solar power must be a real option by now!” After way too much investigation, the short answer is, “maybe, if you can afford the big payment up front.” After spending the last month getting quotes and doing the research, I’m this close to pulling the trigger on a solar installation. Here are the high points:

Solar works hand-in-hand with the grid. When you install a solar system, it’s generating power during the day that you probably don’t need, and you need power at night that your solar system isn’t providing. This means your meter gets to run backwards during the day and forwards at night. If you have a month where you generated more than you used, you get a negative electric bill, which is then “banked” for future months. (Curious side-effect: you don’t want to over-size your solar system, because you’ll never get all your money back from the “bank”.) Also notable: if grid power goes down, so does your solar system. You can install a backup battery system or a gas-powered generator, but that’s a whole separate animal.

The financial incentives are okay, not great. In rough terms, the system I’m contemplating, which might generate 9-10 kW from the mid-day sun, will cost $20k after federal tax incentives. After that, you have small or even negative electric bills, and you start making money back on your initial investment. You stir in a bunch of assumptions about the depreciating value of the asset you’ve bolted to the roof, and you come out with a bottom line that you can look at with standard financial investment terms (internal rate of return, etc.). The proposal I’m considering from Texas Solar Outfitters would have an IRR of 7.4%, under their standard set of assumptions. Under different assumptions, you’re better off just getting power from the grid. (The same numbers in a place like California are in the “no brainer” category, both from additional up-front incentives and from the tiered electrical pricing they have. Solar helps keep you out of the higher tiers.)

What about leasing vs. buying, warranties, etc. In short, a lease is a lot like a loan. You’re paying less up front and you’re making monthly payments. The leasing company is trying to make money. The net effect is that the IRR goes down to the point that the deals are less likely to be worthwhile. (Again, this varies on a state by state basis. Nobody’s subsidizing those leases here.) Solar lease deals also act like an extended warranty on your gear. If your panels aren’t up to spec, they repair them for you. Most solar parts have very long warranties of their own, so this is less of a big deal than you’d think.

The environmental impact of solar is less abstract than the premium you pay for a “green” grid electricity plan. No matter what grid plan you purchase, green or not, the same mix of mostly coal and gas-fired generators are still producing the power your house is consuming. The only difference is that you’re paying your utility middleman to also buy you “renewable energy credits”, which are sold by wind farms and other such things and which may or may not be feeding their electrons to your house. It’s at best unclear whether you’re incentivizing somebody to install more “green” generation capacity versus building another traditional plant. On the flip side, when you’re turning sunlight into power, you’re directly removing your demand from the grid. This sort of logic is especially attractive if you’ve got an electric car and you’re worried about the “long tailpipe” emissions problem.

Aren’t you just a leach on the electric grid, then? Umm, no. By installing solar, you’re doing the grid a favor by supplementing its power during the peak draws in the hot summer sun. If more houses could run their meters backwards, that would effectively supplement the big generators and help avoid brownouts. Also, you’re paying the same monthly fee that everybody else pays for connecting to the grid.

So, what’s your new electricity plan then?

I need to pick a new electricity provider now, even though it might be a while before I can get a solar panel system installed on my house. The set of plans that support solar sellback is very small. So far as I can tell, I’ve got precisely three choices: Green Mountain, Reliant Energy, and TXU. The winner among these seems to be Green Mountain, who will buy your first excess 500 kWh/month from you at full retail price and half price thereafter. TXU buys from you at 7.5 cents/kWh no matter what. I can’t seem to find the Reliant number.

Green Mountain says you can sign up for any of their plans and switch without penalty to the plan that supports buying your power back from you, so that’s probably the way for me to go.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has provided this annual analysis three times before.

Christof Spieler: On reimagining the bus network

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

At METRO, we’re proposing to redesign every bus route in Houston. We call it Reimagining, and I think that it will be one of the most important improvements in the modern history of Houston transit — alongside the park-and-ride system, the light rail lines, and the creation of METRO itself.

We started this process because our riders told us that the current bus system isn’t working well. We saw this in comments we got at public meetings, and we saw it in a 20% drop in ridership from 1999 to 2012 — a drop that occurred even as the amount of service METRO operates increased. I can say from personal experience that our riders are right. I ride the bus often; for several years, before I got a new job on the rail line, it was my daily commute. Too many of our routes are infrequent and circuitous. Too many connections are unreliable and out-of-the-way. The system as a whole is too hard to understand. Weekend and evening service is minimal.

We knew we could do better. But until we engaged a team of local and international consultants, assembled a task force of stakeholders representing the people who use the system, and worked through the process of designing a new system from scratch based on all the data we have of where people live, where people work, and where people are riding transit today, we had not idea of how much better.

It turns out that we can do a lot better.

We can make frequent service available to more people. Frequency is the most important component of high-quality transit. If a bus comes every 15 minutes, you can just show up at the stop without consulting a schedule. You don’t have to plan your life around the bus; it is there for you when you need it. Today, 534,000 people live within 1/2 mile of 7-day-a-week frequent bus service; under the reimagined system 1,126,000 do. Of our 207,000 current riders, 99,000 will see their trips upgraded from infrequent service to frequent service. Within that zone of frequent service, they have access to 998,000 jobs, to colleges and universities, to retail centers, to parks, to places of worship, and to medical care.

We can dramatically increase weekend service. If someone depends on transit, they need to get to the store on Sunday, not just to work on Monday, and the people who work at that store need to get to work on Sunday. Today, METRO operates only 40% as much local bus service on Sunday as on a weekday. 20 of METRO’s local routes don’t run at all on Sunday. In the reimagined system, every route will run seven days a week, and the bus will come as often on Sunday morning as it does at midday on a weekday. 10,000 current riders who have no Sunday service today will get it.

We can make it easier to get around a multicentric city. Today, nearly every bus route goes Downtown, but most of our riders are trying to go elsewhere. We’re forcing them to go Downtown first to transfer to go wherever they want to go. That takes them out of their way and slows them down. The reimagined system will create a grid of east-west and north-south routes, creating connections all over the city and serving major employment centers from Greenspoint to Westchase. Today, someone going from the Heights to Memorial city has to first go east to Downtown to catch a bus west. In the new system, they ride west to the Northwest Transit Center and connect there. That will reduce an 89 minute trip to 50 minutes, saving that rider 6 hours over a five day workweek.

We can make the system easier to understand and to use. METRO’s current routes are accidents of history. Some date back to old streetcar routes, tweaked over time but never rethought. The results are confusing. Shepherd, for example, is served by the 26/27 south of 20th, the 50 from 20th to Crosstimbers, the 44 from Crosstimbers to Tidwell, nothing from Tidwell to Parker, and the 66 north of Parker, (plus a few other overlapping routes.) The new system is designed to make routes as logical as possible. On Shepherd, for example, there will be one route that runs the entire length of the street. That also makes it easier to name routes in a way that describes where they actually go.

We can make trips faster. By making routes more frequent to reduce wait times and by making trips more direct with the grid, we can make trips a lot faster. The team looked at 30 locations all over the network and analyzed all possible trips between them. 58% will be at least 10 minutes faster with the new network; 28% will be at least 20 minutes faster. We can also make trips more reliable, reducing by 30% how often our buses cross freight rail lines at grade.

We can provide service tailored to neighborhoods. A grid of fixed route buses works will in areas like Southwest Houston, with high population density, well spaced and connected arterial streets, and destinations that line up along those streets. In the Northeast, though, we have lower densities, a fractured street network, and scattered destinations. Today, we serve those areas with meandering low-frequency routes. We have the budget to keep doing that, but we think we can serve these areas better with flex zones: buses that circle a neighborhood and deviate on request to where ever someone wants to get picked up or go. These connect to fixed routes at transit centers, connecting those residents into the entire network.

This plan is about making people’s everyday lives better. It will give our current riders faster, more reliable, more frequent service. It will also make transit a useful option for more people; we project it will grow ridership by 20%. It will do all this with minimal negative impacts — 93% of current riders will be able catch a bus at the same stop they do today, and 99.5% within 1/4 mile of their current stop — and within current resources. We think the reimagined network plan will also build a foundation for the future: the system structure makes it easy to extend routes, increase frequency, add more lines to the grid, and overlay express service as the region continues to grow.

Now that we’ve unveiled this draft plan, it’s time for our riders and everyone else who lives in the METRO service area to have their say. Nobody knows a neighborhood as well as the people who live or work there, so we know we’ll get some good ideas for improvements. We’re holding public meetings across the area, and setting up information tables at transit centers to get input from our riders, but the easiest way to see the plan and send us your comments is to go to transitsystemreimagining.com.

Why, people have asked me, didn’t METRO do this long ago? Because change is hard. Few cities ever undertake a blank sheet reexamination of their bus systems; they tend to focus on route expansions, and big capital projects. Few transit agency staffs are willing to let go the systems they know well, few boards are willing undertake something so complicated, and few elected officials want to take the inevitable pushback that comes with any change to a system that people depend on every day. METRO has always spent a lot on money on operating the local bus network, but in the past agency leadership never paid much attention to it. This board knows that the bus system is at the core of what we do, and once we got the agency back on a sound financial footing, we committed to making sure we run the best system we can. If you think this plan does that, we need your support to make it happen.

Christof Spieler, PE, LEED AP is a METRO board member and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, Director of Planning at Morris Architects, and Senior Lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture. He relies on METRO for most of his daily trips.

Ed. note: See also Christof’s article in Offcite.

Give up the green

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

We clip it, bag it, throw it away, feed it, love it, hate it, fight with it, protect it, brag on it and curse it. Our lush green lawns suck up a preposterous amount of our time, energy, money and water supplies. That’s why Texas – still facing major water woes – is the perfect place to open a national discussion on the need to give up this ridiculous obsession.

Lawn care is big business in the United States. According to Ted Steinberg, the author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, Americans spend a massive $40 billion on their lawns every year. Texas, famous for its big suburbs full of big homes surrounded by big lawns, surely makes up a large portion of that total.

The sheer volume of water used for lawn upkeep is even more incredible. According to a Texas Water Development Board study, 259 Texas cities between 2004 and 2008 used an annual total of about 96.7 billion gallons of water outdoors – 80 to 90 percent of which is estimated to have been used to maintain lawns and plants. To put that into perspective, picture all the water that runs over Niagara Falls during a 40-hour workweek. Now imagine that same amount poured into our yards. Just in Texas.

This tremendous wastefulness has continued during a time of scarcity. Texas, already drier than most of the rest of the U.S. to begin with, is in the middle of one of its worst droughts in history. But the lawn care industry is humming along and, along with agriculture, remains a major source of water consumption. (Of course, we don’t eat the grass; it goes into a landfill, but not until after we’ve dumped an estimated 22 inches of water on it, according to the Texas Water Resources Institute.)

In many ways, Texas has adeptly handled water shortages in recent years. Cities like San Antonio are leading the way in municipal conservation efforts, and Texas voters in 2013 overwhelmingly approved a plan to take $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to fund water supply projects. We’re faring considerably better than states like California, where several communities are on the verge of running out of water, and other parts of the world like China.

Still, we drop enough fresh, potable water into our yards every day to make T. Boone Pickens blush.

We must cast aside our vanity-fueled insistence that lush lawns are a fixture of our modern lifestyle. There’s no good reason to plant thirstier varieties of grass, like St. Augustine, instead of hardier types like native buffalograss. Incorporating xeriscaping, or dry landscaping, into more lawns would also help reduce water use.

If Gov. Rick Perry can talk about marijuana in the same tones as President Obama, surely we can have a meaningful conversation about the other kind of grass, too.

Mustafa Tameez (@mustafatameez) is Founder and Managing Director of Outreach Strategists, a Houston based communications and public affairs firm. He is also a contributor for the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Tribune, and co-hosts a FOX26 Sunday morning show, “The Round Up.” This post was originally published on Trib Talk.

(Ed. note: Charles here. When I talk about water conservation, this is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Putting aside the question of how we landscape our yards, it’s insane to use this much clean, drinkable water on grass, especially since much of it gets wasted anyway. If we’re going to get serious about managing our future water needs, this is one of the fatter targets out there. Some cities like El Paso have by necessity led the way on this, but at some point state action will be required. Until then, we should at least be aware of this. We can spend a lot of money generating the water we need, or we can use less and spend less.)

Jay Aiyer: Consider a local option for pre-k

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

Pre-K education has emerged as the most hotly debated issue in this year’s race for Governor. Both Senator Davis and Attorney General Abbott have laid out competing proposals to provide pre-k education in Texas, with dueling press conferences and accusations flying back and forth.

What Pre-K seeks to do is to eliminate what education researchers have recognized as the single biggest impediment to improving public education—the literacy gap. For years we have been aware that because of income and parental education disparity, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds begin school at a significant disadvantage. We know that a child that reads at grade level by the end of 3rd grade has over a 95% chance of graduating from high school. When you consider the close correlation between high school graduation and the rate of poverty—you can see that the development of an effective Pre-K program in Texas has the potential of significantly reducing poverty in a generation.

While there are merits to both Davis and Abbott’s respective plans, it’s what they are missing that is most telling.

Funding
You simply can’t have an effective Pre-K system without a funding mechanism in place. Our current K-12 system is itself woefully underfunded and the object of litigation. The idea of proposing an expansion of education without addressing the underlying financial problems that exist in K-12 renders any plan proposed nonsense. You have to get the funding right.

Infrastructure
Private and religious schools largely provide Pre-K in Texas. Several ISDs have a limited Pre-K program, but the vast majority does not. In order to expand Pre-K through the ISD system, it would require a significant capital expenditure on a scale not previously seen. Buildings have to be built and that itself could be billions in additional costs.

Implementation
Every study that has been done on Pre-K recognizes that its impact is only significant if the program is comprehensive and structured educationally. State government has repeatedly shown that when it comes to the development and implementation of specific educational programs, they have done more harm than good. Rather than a large state program—local governments are better suited to making Pre-K work.

So what should we do?

The most effective Pre-K systems nationally, have been locally driven and locally controlled. Tulsa, Oklahoma is the national leader in Pre-K and has had the most effective program. San Antonio’s local initiative has also been widely praised for its approach. While applauding Davis and Abbott for their focus on Pre-K, I would argue that if they really wanted a program to be successful—develop a funding system through a local authorization process, and let city/county governments lead the way. Austin has repeatedly proven it is unable to solve big problems. It’s time to try a different approach.

Jay K. Aiyer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. He served on the Board of Trustees for the Houston Community College System from 2000-2008 and served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Lee P. Brown from 1998-2000.

Melanie Scruggs: Ways Houston can increase its recycling rate

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

Houston has significantly improved its recycling rate by expanding single-stream recycling, or the “big, green bins.” While the smaller, 18-gallon green boxes only had a participation rate of 22%, the larger recycling bins are up to 62% recycling participation since the larger bins are a better, more convenient design and they accept more materials.

Following successful models of cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Toronto, Dallas and Austin, Houston can improve its recycling rate beyond our current 6% or next year’s expected 12% by implementing education programs and incentives.

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It all starts with consistent programs and education

First and foremost, all homes serviced by the City’s waste services need to have the same, consistent recycling program. Right now, some neighborhoods have dual stream while others have single-stream; some neighborhoods recycle glass separately and others do not. Inconsistent recycling services unnecessarily complicates City-wide public education and messaging, makes it more difficult to teach communities how to recycle and can cause people to give up on recycling properly. Consistent, single-stream recycling where all recyclables go in one container separate from trash really does simplify the process.

Next, we need consistent promotion and education to explain what items go in the recycling bins. Recycling messages may take a plethora of forms: bus signs, billboards, bill inserts, social media, speaking in neighborhood meetings and even in schools. Speaking to elementary school students is one of the most effective recycling education methods, since kids are great at teaching their parents how to recycle. This is especially true in multi-lingual homes or in homes where parents have not recycled previously. Teaching youngsters responsible, environmentally conscious behaviors such as recycling will hopefully also encourage them to be sensitive to the environment throughout their lives and future careers.

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Broadly speaking, recycling media and messaging should be tailored to reach populations with different interests and values. Environmentalists are going to be compelled when you say it is good for the environment, but that’s not everybody—maybe not even most people in Houston. The City may explain how recycling creates jobs, saves tax dollars in the long run and teaches resource conservation to connect with one group; explaining how recycling means less dumping on environmental justice communities connects to another. We live in an era where mass communication can be tailored to very specific audiences. Goodness knows I saw Mayor Annise Parker’s campaign ads all over my internet; surely the City can promote recycling that effectively.

At the individual or neighborhood level, stickers on recycling bins and door-to-door communication have been proven highly effective in cities like San Francisco, where they divert 80% of waste from landfills. Some cities have also appointed neighborhood “block leaders” where neighbors encourage each other to recycle properly and help distribute recycling instructions and media. Council member Bradford once suggested that the City create some kind of recycling competition between neighborhoods and invent rewards for neighborhoods that recycle the most.

Door-to-door visits may also target areas with low recycling participation or high contamination. City employees may use stickers and notes on recycling bins to inform people what they are doing right or what needs improvement. Door-to-door visitors are very effective since they can take some time to explain what items are recyclable in the City’s recycling program, what isn’t, why it is important and make sure residents understand the incentives in place.

Incentives help to improve recycling rates

All waste services have a cost, but not all communities have waste fees or a designated monthly charge to fund trash, compost and recycling services. Some cities pay for waste disposal from general funds and are able to achieve high recycling rates through consistence services and promotion. Toronto, for example, has no waste fee and boasts 49% diversion from landfills—about 3 times that of Houston. Part of Toronto’s success is likely due to their curbside food waste collection and a commitment to strong education programs. Monthly charge-based incentives do create powerful economic incentives to increase recycling, however, and have proven successful in other cities.

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Unit-based or “SMaRT (Save Money and Reduce Trash)” pricing allows customers to pay less if they recycle more. While some communities may determine the amount through metering, where each load of trash set out at the curb is weighed, this is unnecessary and often unpopular. An easier solution is to offer different sized trash cans—24 gallon, 36 gallon, 64 gallon and 96 gallon—and to charge customers more for bigger cans, incentivizing waste reduction as well as recycling. In general unit-based pricing can reduce waste disposal by up to 50% and increase recycling by up to 40%. EPA estimates that PAYT policies in 2006—which covered only 25% of the US population—diverted about 6.5 million tons of waste which would have otherwise been thrown away. They estimated then that the policies reduced disposal by an average of 17%.

Mandatory curbside recycling and composting programs are controversial, but they are also very effective at incentivizing participation. Essentially these are ordinances which say that the City will not collect any waste if either recycling or composting are not also present, or if there is recycling or composting present in the waste. Customers are still free to self-haul their discards to a landfill and pay gate fees there, but City collection crews will not throw valuable commodities into the landfill themselves. Such policies are best implemented after all other incentives, education and programs have gone into effect to capture the last chunks of material after recycling, composting and other programs have become widely accepted.

Creating a City Wide Recycling Culture

Promoting recycling not just at home for homeowners, but also at apartments, condos, businesses, events and public spaces contributes to an overall recycling culture. If people don’t have recycling available until they move into a house, they are less accustomed to recycling and participation tends to be low. Consistent recycling programs at businesses, public spaces, tax-exempt institutions and schools also maximize potential job creation, revenue and conservation for the City.

Plenty of businesses take on voluntary recycling services or are interested in reducing waste in order to increase efficiencies and lower costs. Boeing and Mitsubishi for example have committed to Zero Waste to landfills and this is a growing trend in the business community. Voluntary efforts are important to lead the recycling culture, and recycling ordinances are also key to long term improvements in recycling outside of the City’s residential service area.

Note that some homeowner associations that have opted out of City waste services and in exchange for a refund or sponsorship program for private waste contracts. Houston could pass an ordinance requiring recycling in these opt-out neighborhoods or make it a condition of the grant that these neighborhoods have to provide single-stream recycling similar to what the City provides its customers.

Other aspects of a recycling culture include recruiting recycling-reliant industries, re-use centers, swap shops and salvage from bulky trash collection. Austin just started a promotional program to support local businesses that sell recycled products. Recycling is good for the environment and creates tens of thousands of jobs in our region; we should support manufacturers that use recycled content or re-use materials. Publicly committing to supporting the recycling industry will increase overall buy-in to recycling programs at home, work and play.

ScruggsImage4_PackagingWaste

In addition to recycling and compost, cities with a recycling culture are advocating for better product design. There is a nationally coordinated effort around container packaging, for instance, to eliminate non-recyclable packaging designs for certain products. Since our tax dollars pay for recycling and waste programs that dispose of millions of dollars’ worth of packaging every year, it makes sense that we should advocate for design that would lower the cost of recycling and disposal. This policy framework is called “extended producer responsibility” and aims to create economic incentives for producers to improve product design to achieve longer lifespans with greater durability and safety.

Long-term Zero Waste Goal

The big picture, long-term goal—90% diversion from landfills or higher—is often called Zero Waste. The Zero Waste International Alliance has developed the only peer-reviewed definition for the term:

Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

Note that this definition specifically excludes phased incineration technologies such as gasification, which has been proposed for the City of Houston’s “One bin for All” proposal. In practice, local and commercial Zero Waste standards vary with 90% diversion or higher being a common goal. Both Dallas and Austin have Zero Waste goals, and San Antonio has a short-term goal to divert 60% of its waste by 2020.

Recycling, composting, and waste reduction are all higher and better uses for these materials than incineration according to the EPA. Unlike unproven technologies like gasification of solid waste, Zero Waste relies on proven technologies such as separate recycling and organics collection. We hope that as soon as the City abandons its inkling toward gasifying our trash, we will see real leadership in establishing education programs and incentives to increase participation in the “big, green bins” recycling program, which is already showing success and fostering a culture of responsibility, unlike “One bin for all,” which fosters a culture of waste. Houston’s low recycling rate is a sign of opportunities we have yet to explore and provide to all residents. We believe the right services and education programs will yield successful results just like they have in other Cities, and set a positive example for other communities to follow.

Melanie Scruggs is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, a statewide, grassroots advocacy organization for waste and recycling issues. Melanie graduated from the Plan II Honors program at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012.

Dan Wallach: Energy Pricing 2013

Note: The following is a guest post by my friend Dan Wallach

For the past two years, I’ve written a guest blog post here about electrical rates. Let’s do it again, shall we?

Last year, I switched from a variable rate to a fixed rate electrical plan, to avoid the occasional shocking price hikes that came with variable plans. This year, with my one-year lock-in ending, I decided it was time to look again, so once again, it was back to PowerToChoose.com. To help you sort through the offers, it helps to understand how much electricity you use every month. For those of you with a smart meter on the side of your house, you can get yourself an account at SmartMeterTexas.com. You type in some stuff from your power bill and you’re good to go. Here’s what it said for my monthly power usage over the past year:

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What you see shouldn’t be too surprising: when it’s hot in the summer, our electric bills go way up to run the A/C. In the rest of the year, we’re using less. (You’ll see the July 2012 bar got cut into two half-bars. This is probably a side effect of when I switched my electrical service from one company to another last year.)

You’ll notice that, for most of the year, we’re running comfortably under 1000 kWh/month. Well, most of the electricity plans available to us have a $10/month surcharge if you go below 1000 kWh. (You have to read those electric fact labels carefully.) What’s the right way to go shopping then? Turns out, there’s a link at PowerToChoose that will let you download all the terms of every electric plan in one giant CSV file that you can load into Excel. I took that data, stripped out everything except the plans offered in Houston through CenterPoint Energy, and then sorted by the 500 kWh/month predicted cost. Estimated prices range from $48/month to $89.70/month.

Cutting to the chase, who’s got the best deal? If you want a fixed rate 12 month term, the winner turns out to be TXU’s “Energy Saver’s Edge 12”. Summer Energy is slightly cheaper with a 6 month term, but then you have to do it all again in 6 month. If you want a “100% green” power source, the winner is TriEagle Energy’s “Green Eagle 12”. At least, that’s who would have the best deal for me, given my electric usage. Just for fun, here’s a frequency distribution chart of these prices, focused on what you’d pay for 500 kWh/month, which is the more relevant number for me.

WallachGraph2

The y-axis tells you how many plans would cost you each given price (within a bucket size of $1.50). I’ve plotted frequency charts for only the fixed-price plans, and I’ve separated out the renewable ones (typically “100% renewable”) from the others. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this except to say that there are a whole lot of uncompetitively priced plans out there, and the gap between “100% renewable” and other plans has largely disappeared from the market, unless you’re looking for strictly the lowest priced plans out there.

At least in my case, the TXU cheapo plan looks like the way to go. Even then, if you read their fine print, I’d get assessed a fee if I ever went below 500 kWh/month, but since that hasn’t happened at all in the past year, I’m not going to worry about. I always find it perverse when I have a disincentive to make my house more power efficient. Say I replaced a bunch of our power-hungry halogen bulbs with LED bulbs. I might drop below 500 kWh/month in the winter and end up spending more money. That’s fantastic.

But wait! I downloaded all of this data on May 30 and that’s when I told TXU to switch me. Somehow, their computer switched me from the “TXU Energy Saver’s Edge 12” plan to the “TXU Energy e-Saver 12”. Sounds similar, right? In fact, the 500 kWh/month estimated cost for the new plan is $74/month versus the $54/month that I was expecting. Talk about bait and switch! My guess is that TXU rolled out new plans on June 1 and silently moved me from the original, competitively priced plan to the new, embarrassingly uncompetitive plan. It’s a good thing I had all the original data saved when I called, and then had to talk to a supervisor, and so forth. After 41 minutes of “we’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience” and peppy hold music, all I know is that they’re “investigating” and will get back to me in a few days.

Incidentally, Summer Energy, my current electrical provider, is June 3rd’s winner, with an estimated $50/month for 500 kWh/month of usage with a one year lock-in, so long as you use the proper promo code. TriEagle’s “Green Eagle 12” continues to be the cheapest “100% renewable” plan at $56/month. Part of me wants to just dump TXU ($54/month, if everything goes my way) and instead go with one of these others. The other part of me is just curious to see what TXU will do next. Behold the power of electricity deregulation!

(Note to readers: I’ll post an update here in a comment when I finally resolve this mess.)

Guest post: A response to Sen. Patrick on school choice

Note: The following is a guest post, by Aboubacar Ndiaye. It was sent to me unsolicited. I liked it and agreed to print it, so here it is.

Aboubacar Ndiaye

In an editorial published last Wednesday in the Houston Chronicle, State Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) again argued for what he sees as education reform. In the article, he proposed increasing the use of online learning, course credit testing, and vocational training programs. He also pushed for removing the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. Glaringly absent was any mention of the voucher initiatives he has introduced in the State Legislature.

Numerous policy experts and other commentators have shown definitively that vouchers do little to improve the lot of the children they are said to help (i.e. smart kids forced to go to failing public schools). According to a report from Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy group, voucher programs in other states and in the District of Columbia have shown no discernible increase in performance for voucher students at private schools. They also found that vouchers actually benefited wealthier households by effectively giving them state-funded private school discounts.

In the past, proponents of public education like myself have been backed into a rhetorical corner. Because of the state’s radical (and unconstitutional) underfunding of public schools, we have had to focus on fighting for money to support basic education programs. That focus, unfortunately, has left us open to the charge that we are “defending failure.” Though it is hard to talk about remodeling a house while it’s on fire, we make a mistake by not proposing and supporting broad-based reform of education in Texas.

As a product of HISD schools and as a former Math tutor in HISD schools, I’ve seen first hand the impact that underfunding has had on public education. Whether it is crowded classrooms or insufficient learning materials, the educational well-being of Texas students is drastically below what it should be. But as we argue for more money from the State and from local property taxpayers, we must, in the same breath, argue for sensible reforms at failing schools in the State.

For example, while Sen. Patrick’s online education proposal seeks to replace classroom time with online teaching, web-based and interactive learning and tutoring sources added onto a full school schedule has been proven to have great educational benefits. A New York Times investigative feature in December 2011 showed the pitfalls of over-reliance on online education sources, but supplemental resources can help low-income students who may not be able to afford private tutoring otherwise.

Along with adding online learning, we should argue for giving principals, teachers, and parents at underperforming schools more flexibility in the management of their own campuses. That means letting them make decisions about school day and school year length, funding extra teachers and teacher aides to reduce class sizes, and to let them experiment with different curriculum strategies like Double Dose Math Courses and Cooperative Teaching. Individual schools districts and the Texas Education Agency would still have to sign off on proposed changes, but that process should be swift and transparent.

Another element of school reform, one that is garnering bipartisan support in the wake of the STAAR debacle, is reducing the emphasis on high-stakes testing. Over-dependence on testing as an accountability measure has had a terrible impact on the way kids are taught in the state. At the school where I worked, I remember constant benchmark testing, weekend test practice, lessons on test-taking strategies, all of which impeded our ability to actually teach content and reasoning skills.

Lastly, we should not reflexively dismiss the idea of school choice. Sen. Patrick’s proposals seek mainly to undermine public education, but they call attention to a problem that too many of us either ignore or tolerate. Every day, thousands of kids in this state are going to failing, often unsafe, schools. Private school subsidies are not the answer, but more funding and transportation options are needed to support magnet and school choice options within the public system. School districts in Houston, Dallas, and Austin have done a great job increasing school choice options, but their magnet systems are not large enough to meet the demand from parents and students. We must also make sure that the magnet and school choice options are true improvements over the home school, and not the proliferation of “magnet in name only” programs at some HISD campuses.

Many of the proposals I have mentioned require buy-in from communities, parents, teachers, and government officials. None of these reforms are easily implemented or cheap for that matter, but they are necessary. If Texas continues on its current educational trajectory, it will create an undereducated low-skill and low-wage workforce that will force companies to either import its skilled labor from other states or move to those states. As the legislature debates restoring the lost funding from the past legislative session, it should also consider the sensible reforms above.

Aboubacar “Asn” Ndiaye was a Field Organizer on the Harris County Democratic Party’s 2012 Coordinated Campaign, and is currently an independent policy professional.

Guest post: Gun control realities and fallacies; is there a way forward?

Note: The following is a guest post, written by regular reader Peter in Houston. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but he makes some good and provocative points, and I’m a believer in having thorough discussions of complex issues, so I present this here for your consideration.

I have been a gun owner for the past 25 years. I live in a large metro area, and I own guns in defensive calibers for personal protection. I have had a State Concealed Handgun License for the past 14 years, and I do carry a firearm in public. I also enjoy casual target “plinking” with a .22LR pistol. Over a decade ago, I had the privilege of participating in an advanced tactical classes for civilians, where I learned a great deal about personal protection, and experienced a small sampling of what our police officers experience. We practiced topics like drawing from concealment while moving to cover, engaging multiple targets, shooting from awkward positions, shooting in low-light and no-light, and other defensive skills, firing hundreds of rounds in the process. Do you know how much your hand can hurt after firing hundreds of rounds? Ammo sitting in the summer Texas sun also gets very hot, ow ow. We donned body armor and went through live-fire scenarios with extremely low power paintball-type ammunition fired out of real handguns; we role-played simulated home invasions, convenience store robberies, clearing a home which has an invader hiding somewhere, and hand-to-hand combat. My most amusing moment was being gob-smacked with a Nerf bat. I was also “shot” in the chest out of spite after I gave up the money. These are my qualifications as an intermediate-to-advanced civilian gun owner.

You might think I would be the type of person who believes in no gun control, but I do believe there are areas where Federal guns laws can be improved. For one, I don’t see a compelling reason why the average gun owner needs more then ten rounds in their weapon. I myself carry an old-school five-shot revolver, Sgt. Joe Friday / Dragnet style.

Supposedly, just drawing a gun ends the violent encounter in most cases. When shots are fired, it’s usually decided after two or three shots. So I think five is OK, and I do carry one or two reloading strips for a total of ten or fifteen rounds, though these are very slow to deploy. So why would I settle for only five at a time? Revolvers are quite reliable; I have seen many people at the range struggle with semi-automatic jams. I would rather have five rounds with near 100% certainty than have to clear a jam after the first round. Plus, I like being different, and I like the retro aesthetic of a revolver.

Most pistols purpose-built for concealed carry have about a ten round capacity by design, because they are meant to be small. Therefore, why the uproar about a limit of ten? Because semi-automatic weapons are fast to reload, you can carry on an effective defense with ten round magazines. You just do a “tactical reload” during a lull in the fighting, so that you’re always full. Of course, it helps if the juvenile John Connor is your child, because he will be highly skilled in recharging empty magazines. In the movie Terminator 2, Sarah Connor was firing an eight round .45 pistol. I never hear .45 owners complaining that their pistols don’t hold enough ammo.

However… if someone simply must have a 20, 30, or 100 round magazine, let them have them; but we could change the law so that to get these magazines you have to possess a Federal Class III license. I would like to see existing magazines grandfathered to current owners and their immediate family members only; beyond that, they could only be transferred to a Class III licensee, or turned in to a buyback program. Class III licensure is quite stringent. If you get one, you can own a real machine gun. Machine gun as in Al Capone. That’s a high level of trust.

There is a problem in that Federal law allows private party sales. I think these should be outlawed, and all gun buyers should go through the National Instant Check System (NICS), with a few exceptions, for example, transfers amongst immediate family members should be allowed. Interfamilial transfers didn’t help Nancy Lanza, but I have the suspicion the “transfer” in her case was involuntary.

I am not an expert in this area, so I don’t know the exact details about how to get someone adjudicated so that they get into the NICS database as a bad actor, but maybe we need to look at how to make that process easier and faster.

To summarize my concrete suggestions for gun control that could make a difference over a span of years (not overnight), which I am positive the NRA would oppose:

  1. 10+ round magazine ban, except for Class III licensees; existing magazines grandfathered to current owners and their immediate family members
  2. Reform NICS to get more nutcases and bad actors into the database
  3. No more private sales or transfers, except between immediate family members

Now it’s my turn to rip into some of the ideas that merge from the gun control crowd. Gun control activists are purposefully very imprecise in their language and definitions concerning firearms; they want to create large, all-inclusive categories of guns, then they want the public to want them all gone.

First of all, let’s get something clear. The AR-15 used at Newtown, as destructive as it was, and as horrifying the results of its use were, is not an assault weapon. Assault weapons are fully automatic machine guns. The AR-15 is a “pull the trigger once / fire one round” semi-automatic gun. It is not a machine gun. It is not an automatic gun. Machines guns have been illegal since 1934, unless you have the aforementioned Class III license. But advocates want you to think it’s an assault weapon, because “assault weapon” performs well in focus groups.

The gun control advocates want you to hate the AR-15 so much that you will tell your Member of Congress to ban it! What really threatens gun owners is that the AR-15 is functionally no different from most other rifles in existence today. They may have cozy wood stocks rather than scary black stocks and pistol grips; but they are functionally the same, firing the same .223 caliber round, or an even bigger one.

Even the President says, “We must ban military-style assault rifles”. Wow, what a pile of obfuscations there. But once we ban a demonized class of guns, then their non military-styled cousins are also toast, because they are functionally identical.

This is a hard reality to speak about; yes, the wounds inflicted by the .223 bullet on children were horrific. But the reality is, there are much more powerful rifle rounds available; the .308, the .30-06. The political reality is this – the voices that claim “no private citizen should own a gun with as much power one used in Sandy Hook”, are really saying this:

NO PRIVATE CITIZEN SHOULD OWN ANY RIFLE!

Basically, the only rifle left after a hypothetical ban of .223 caliber above would be the little .22LR youth camp rifle. Gun owners aren’t stupid. The non-shooting public, the mass media, and some politicians get led around by the rhetoric and emotion, but it’s all painfully transparent to gun owners. They realize that calls for “sensible gun control” might really translate, after the legislative sausage is made in the back rooms, to near-total gun elimination. That’s why the public resistance to gun control is so profound, and why the public polling on guns hasn’t changed much since Sandy Hook (as reported on NPR, Dec 20, 2012).

What guns owners have seen the gun control activists do, which also makes us very concerned, is that they pivot from gun type to gun type. They know they can’t get everything banned in one fell swoop, so they try legislative incrementalism. “Sensible gun control” at one time meant “Ban Saturday Night Specials”. Remember Saturday Night Specials? “We need to ban Saturday Night Specials and other highly concealable guns which have no utility for target shooting or hunting, their only purpose is to kill people”. That was the mantra many years ago, when I went to college in 1979.

Well now, people are calling for the ban of exactly those firearms which do have utility for target shooting or hunting, rifles in .223 caliber and above. So which is it? Obviously, they want both banned. They want everything banned. The gun control advocates try to sound reasonable, and they spin it well, they try to demonize one type of gun or another at different times, and it’s different guns in different decades, too. A few years ago, they trial-ballooned that “shotguns are a weapon of mass destruction because they shoot dozens of projectiles simultaneously”. Oh gosh, so much worse than a machine gun even! That particular trial balloon sank, but it goes to show – they want everything banned. Rifles, shotguns, and handguns comprise all guns.

In the gun control world, “some guns are too big, some guns are too small, and really no guns are just right”.

I think there is a real though completely ironic parallel between gun control activists and pro-lifers. The pro-lifers don’t want abortion restricted; they want abortion illegal. If they can’t make it illegal, they will practice legislative incrementalism, and pass laws to harass women out of their minds, for example, to force the State to make trans-vaginal sonograms part of “pre-abortion counseling”. So it is with the gun control lobby. They want to stick it into the privates of gun owners. But we know it’s coming, and we say no. We can read between the lines; we’re not stupid.

Neither should the 80 million gun owners and ammunition users be taxed for the misdeeds of a very few. There are roughly 11,000 gun murders in the USA each year, but that means 99.98625% of gun owners didn’t do it; so don’t punitively tax gun and ammunition purchases. They shouldn’t be covered by “sin taxes”, because it’s in the Bill of Rights! How can an explicitly enumerated civil right be treated as a sin? That’s just illogical.

My assessment is that there is some room to make progress in refining and strengthening gun laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands, while protecting the rights of legal users, but the gun activist lobby will get the big eyes and overreach, they will try to get too much instead of what is possible and acceptable to the majority, and the GOP controlled House will kill any bills. And we’ll be stuck where we’ve been for decades.

It’s a mistake for gun control activists to think that gun owners are a dying breed, all old white men. I’m not an old white man. My nearest neighbor who shoots is a woman – who attended a Quaker college, of all things. Eighty million Americans own guns. That’s a huge number of people, who if they get directly threatened, will react by becoming politically active. And gun owners aren’t all Republicans.

By all means, let’s have a conversation about legislative firearms changes that are feasible and Constitutional, yet protect the core values of all stakeholders.

Speaking of the Constitution, SCOTUS has reaffirmed that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right, not only a collective right (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008). Look it up! It’s your Bill of Rights.

This is Charles again. My thanks to Peter for sending this. After receiving it, Harold Cook made a similar argument on his blog, which I recommend you read as well. Also, to address Peter’s point about terminology, I recommend MoJo’s A Non-Gun-Owner’s Guide To Guns. At the very least, we should all be clear on what it is we are and are not talking about.

And now a word from the HCDP

Note: The following is a guest post written by Michael Kolenc

A week has come and gone since the election, and while we still wait for the provisional ballots to be counted, we can say that the 2012 elections gave Harris County Democrats a reason for celebration. We won elections from the top to the bottom of the ticket; we expanded the capacity of the HCDP; and we moved out of our comfort zone to change the organizing culture of our local party.

HCDP Chair Lane Lewis has been making the case to everyone that will listen: Investing in the HCDP, so that it is a stronger and sustaining operation, will help us all achieve our goals. This past year demonstrates that commitment.

With the election now a week behind us, it is important for us to take a careful inventory of our work and how it contributed to electing Democrats. No one at the HCDP Campaign will claim to have re-created the rubric for how to run campaigns, but they will claim to having been focused on the goal of talking to a universe of targeted voters. It was this – with the help of some amazing candidates, elected officials, donors, staff and nearly 1,000 unique volunteers – that enabled the HCDP Campaign to be effective and deliver results.

Through the HCDP’s program over 36,000 doors were knocked, some 890,000 calls made from nine offices county-wide, and, for the first time, a vote by mail program was instituted making us competitive with the Republican’s program. These are not things that happen by accident or in a vacuum. Programs like these require planning, resources, and a commitment from stakeholders that this is the new way to operate. It requires a belief that organizing does not end on Election Day, but rather is a year-long process despite even or odd numbered years.

The work of the party has just started. 2013 municipal elections and the 2014 contests are here and require planning. In order to build upon the success we had this year – VMB program, voter contact numbers, and vastly increasing straight party ticket voting – we need to invest in our party.

Candidates, elected officials, donors, and party activists should want to see a HCDP that is focused the entire year on electing Democrats and not just in the six months before the election. As we approach the end to our first year with Chair Lewis at the helm, know that he will make the case once again about the importance of us all having a little skin in the game.

Michael Kolenc is a political advisor to Chair Lewis.

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This is me speaking again. I now have my hands on a draft canvass and am happily crunching away to see what I can learn from it. I hope to get some empirical idea of how turnout, Latino voting, and other things went. I am encouraged by talk of involvement in the city elections, and we definitely need to be thinking about 2014 already. My thanks to Michael for his report on the HCDP’s activities for this past election.

Elsa Caballero: Public Employee and Janitors Mobilize in Support of City of Houston Bonds

Note: The following is a guest post.

For the past month, Houston’s janitors have joined forces with our city’s public employees in favor of the City of Houston bond package and METRO referendum on the ballot this election cycle. Volunteers, made up of HOPE and SEIU Local 1 members, are having voter-to-voter conversations about the real immediate benefits of improving our libraries, parks, public housing, public transportation and roads. Working in conjunction with the Vote for Houston’s Future Committee we will have reached 4,000 households in person or by phone by November 6th.

Our members have placed their full support behind this investment in our city because we believe in growing our economy from the bottom up. All Houstonians benefit from quality infrastructure, but it’s low and middle-income families who often depend on these services. This is our opportunity to pull our resources together to balance opportunity for families who live on the margins. With nearly half of all single mothers in Houston living in poverty, it would be immoral and dangerous for us to ignore a growing wealth gap that could undermine our city’s economic vitality in the near future.

This past summer, Houston’s janitors living on as little as $9,000 a year went on strike for a better future for their families. After five weeks, with the support of political leaders, regular Houstonians, and union members from around the country, janitors saved their union and won a 12% raise. The story of one of these janitors, Hernan Trujillo, is a testament to the benefit of quality public infrastructure. As the breadwinner for himself and his two elderly parents, Hernan worked as a dishwasher during the day and a janitor at night, leaving precious little time for himself. Unable to afford a car, Hernan spent most of his time going to work on the bus where he would make time to study the English books he borrowed from his local library. Now with his English close to perfect, he hopes to return to school.

There are thousands of others like Hernan. When families have avenues to rise out of poverty, we all benefit. A vote in support of the city bonds is vote for a brighter Houston for all.

This post was written by Elsa Caballero, State Director for SEIU Local 1 Texas

Response from County Clerk to Wallach testimony about recounts

The following was sent to me in email by Hector DeLeon, the Director of Communications and Voter Outreach for Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart:

I read Dan Wallach’s report of the recount in your blog titled Diaz Still Leads After Recount. In his report he states:

There was no attempt to audit the original electronic systems, perhaps looking for unusual behavior in the original tallying systems’ logs, or perhaps comparing the in-person poll books or absentee envelopes against the number of cast votes.

What Wallach does not mention is that a reconcilation process is conducted between Election Day and the day the results are canvassed to ensure that the number of access codes printed from the JBCs at each poll match the number of signatures on a pollbook.

He also states: “So far as I could tell, the boxes that hold the JBCs have no security seals, which could have at least provided some evidence of chain-of-custody maintenance.”

Here he also fails to explain that there is a chain of custody in place from the moment that the equipment leaves the County Clerk’s possession. Additionally, he fails to say that security seals are placed on the JBC boxes when they are picked up by the presiding election judges. For Election Day equipment set up purposes, the security seals on the JBC boxes are broken in the presence of the Republican and Democratic presiding and alternate election judges at the poll. There is a form which has to be completed and signed by the presiding and alernate election judges attesting that this occurred.
 
On Election Day, after all votes are cast, in the process of closing the poll, a security seal is placed on JBC boxes before leaving the poll. Again, there is a form that needs to be completed and signed by both the presiding and atlternate election judges attesting that this ocurred.

Additionally, the slot where the mobile ballot box (MBB) is located on the JBC has a security seal. the JBCs’ MBB security seals are only broken to extract the MBB after the presiding election judges return the JBCs at the end of Election Day. At the time of delivery, each JBC is inspected to make sure the security seals are in place. Once the equipment is returned the MBB must be removed from the JBC to enable the reading of the votes. All these procedures are documented on forms which most be completed by the PJ and AJ in the conduct of adminsitering the election at each poll.

All security seals have an ID number. Those numbers are reviewed to ensure the number match on all approriate chain of custody forms.

In short, there are procedures in place to ensure the integrity of the equipment and the veracity of the number of ballots cast at each poll.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found this to be quite educational. My thanks to Hector DeLeon for the feedback.

Dan Wallach: Energy pricing 2012

This is a guest post that follows up on an earlier guest post.

Dan Wallach

Last year, I wrote a guest article for Off The Kuff where I discussed the complexity of trying to get a good price on your electric bill. In Houston, we have seemingly hundreds of companies who will gladly take our money in return for electricity. Which should you choose? The place to begin remains PowerToChoose.com, but the market has changed a bunch from when I last took a look.

If you really dig around PowerToChoose, you’ll see all these companies you’ve never heard of, each of which has a piece of clip-art on its web page of a beautiful meadow with a shining sun, or maybe a happy family with perfect teeth. (Exercise for the reader running the Chrome browser: you can right-click on those pictures, and select “Search Google with this image”, and see how widespread those stock images are used. In one case, the smiling family I saw also appeared in web sites for a car dealership, a dentist, a youth ministry, a nutrition supplements company, and an alarm system company.)

Last year, it was common for these companies to offer low teaser rates for the first month that bubbled them up to the top of the list. You’d then pay the regular higher rate thereafter. This made it very difficult to do comparison shopping, since you had to dig deeper into the “electricity facts label” sheets to find out what the real prices were. It also created a huge incentive for you to switch companies every month.

At the time, I decided to switch to Pennywise Power, who was advertising a relatively low variable rate. I was entirely happy with them until this July, when their prices exploded. My bill for June was $197.99 for 1873 kWh ($0.105 per kWh, after taxes, fees, and such). My bill for July was $289.78 for 1662 kWh ($0.174 per kWh). It’s come back down again, but at least for two months, they were charging far above other companies’ advertised rates. (Note: the wholesale market for electricity went bonkers at the end of June, and some of that was clearly passed on to me.)

My conclusion last year was that Pennywise’s rates were low enough to be attractive, but I apparently failed to notice my own warning:

“Variable rates” aren’t connected to much of anything beyond the whims of the executives who set these rates. If you read the legal verbiage closely, they can change your rate, at any time, to any price they want.

After seeing the shocking July bill, I figured it was time to jump into a fixed rate product, so back I went to PowerToChoose.com and slogged through the various options. These days, the low teaser rates from last year are all gone. Now, the advertised price seems to be the price you actually pay, but things are still a bit wonky. One of the tricks I observed with Pennywise is that their pricing, which included a $9.95 “base charge” if you use less than 1000 kWh, creates some perverse incentives if your electrical usage is just below that number per month. Wasting energy to get over the top might save you real money! This year, I resolved to find the best fixed price with zero “base” charge. That led me to Summer Energy, where I inked a one year lock-in at $0.093 per kWh. (If you sign up today, with the proper promotion code, it’s $0.085 per kWh.) My first bill showed up for the back half of July, and it included a $4.89 base charge! I had to threaten to abandon them if they didn’t fix it, and they eventually came around.

So, what have we learned here? First, when you’re doing business with faceless companies who advertise low rates, you might expect to have unexpected charges and unusual behaviors. (Summer Energy still hasn’t sorted out my request to set up automatic credit card payment.)

Second, this “deregulated” market could stand to have more regulation. If you read the electricity fact sheets that our vendors are required to publish, there’s a remarkable amount of diversity among them, and lots of fine print they leave out. If I were king for a day, all of these fixed “base rate” fees would be standardized, simplifying vendor competition to price per kilowatt-hour within equivalence classes of different percentages of “renewable” energy.

Finally, a word about the future. A buddy of mine in California got himself a fancy solar panel system on his house. He sells excess capacity back to the grid, but it’s much better than that. His electric utility company (for which he has no choice) has tiered rates. The more electricity he burns, the more he pays. But by selling power back, he stays out of the higher rate tiers. He also gets tax credits and other incentives that aren’t available in Houston; some other Texas utilities offer rebates, but Centerpoint has nothing in our area. In theory, with our shiny new smart meters, we could have some all kinds of sophisticated billing policies like variable day/night rates or solar systems that let you sell power back to the grid, but these aren’t happening yet. I suspect this is an unfortunate side effect of our multi-vendor deregulated market. (Reliant does have a plan that lets you sell power back, but the base electrical rate is uncompetitive.)

If you dig deeper into your electrical bill, you’re paying a big chunk of your bill to Centerpoint for “delivering” your electricity, no matter who you’re paying for your juice. That’s the place where we might eventually see some innovation. Centerpoint could charge variable time-of-day or tiered rates, they could buy back your electricity if you have solar, and so forth. One of these days, I might buy myself an electric car, and I’d be keen to have more sophisticated electrical pricing in place before then.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice University.

Joshua Sanders: Required Referendum Does Not Need To Be A Bump In The Road For A New Metro

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Joshua Sanders

The METRO Board should not risk its newfound goodwill by raiding its member entities’ General Mobility Program (GMP) funds after the end of September 2014. Instead, METRO should move forward with a required referendum that offers voters the clear choice to extend the General Mobility Program at its historic level of .25 of the 1-cent METRO sales tax for a shorter extension to fulfill its obligations from the 2003 referendum.

The 2003 METRO Solutions Plan election extended the General Mobility Program from 2003 through September 2014, extending a partnership with the County, the City of Houston and smaller member cities that has been in place since a coalition of these same entities helped establish METRO, its service area and the penny sales tax. This coalition has been held together by balancing the funding from the penny sales tax between the General Mobility Funds for roads and streets at 25%, and the rest of METRO’s budget for buses and related transit services including light rail at %75. Although the General Mobility Program was not officially set at 25% until 1988, mobility investment from METRO to its member entities has always been at the core of the partnership that created METRO in 1978.

The New METRO Leadership has done well to overcome the recent controversies that have delayed the implementation of the 2003 METRO Solutions plan approved by voters in 2003. The new 2012 Business Plan and Budget lays out a five-year plan with the stated goal of being a better community partner. It would have been even better if it introduced real metrics for judging success like ridership and future debt level expectations, which are currently $1.1 billion plus perhaps another $539 million for pension liabilities. But the 2012 Business Plan did introduce a new level of transparency on how much more light rail expansion is going to cost than originally estimated in 2003. METRO looks to “boldly accelerate” spending on light rail to complete 3 of the 4 lines approved in 2003 for a little over $2.1 billion, or $1.4 billion more than estimated for same three lines in 2003. The North, Southeast and East lines are slated to be completed by the end of 2016, 8 years, 7 years, and 5 years late, respectively.

Unfortunately, the bus service expansion promised in 2003 of increasing capacity by 50% will not be delivered under the 2012 Business plan. In fact, bus service and routes have significantly decreased from their 2003 levels to help make room for the accelerated commitment to light rail transit funding.

Despite this profligate spending plan, some argue that the General Mobility Program should be capped or cancelled to support more rapid bus and rail expansion. We are now being told that METRO needs more money to complete the goals that were outlined in the 2003 referendum. We believe Metro needs the discipline of the GMP and the chance for the public to access the performance of light rail after completion and operation of the current expansion. The primary reason the 2003 referendum was set to expire next year was due to METRO’s outlined promise in the METRO Solutions Plan to complete the components of the referendum by this time. By completing the goals of the 2003 referendum in 2012, the member entities and the taxpayers would have had adequate information on the true capital costs, operating costs, and ridership numbers to justify the investment in the transit plan. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and won’t happen for another couple years.

Destroying the long standing coalition of community partners that created METRO by changing the General Mobility Program in the required referendum runs the risk of the METRO Board losing its discretion. It would be one thing to come to the taxpayers and member entities with results to justify their request for more funding, but METRO is asking its member entities to forget their part of the bargain and is now trying to remove needed funding for roads and mobility.

The General Mobility Program is not a diversion from transit as some like to characterize it. Since when did roads stop becoming part of the transit and mobility equation? Those same roads are responsible for moving the other %95 of the people, goods, and services in the region that don’t utilize transit. Roads and infrastructure I might add that METRO buses run on every day.

With the State of Texas and the Federal government having an ever decreasing ability to fund road and infrastructure projects, it is important to also look at the GMP as a great source of local transportation funding. Not many other cities in Texas, rather the US, have discretion over a funding source for transportation and mobility projects that comes directly out of their tax base. This funding helps not only maintain existing roads and infrastructure in the City of Houston through the Rebuild Houston plan, but it goes to build new capacity in Harris County where 92% of the growth in our region was accounted for during the last census.

Houstonians for Responsible Growth urge the New METRO to not make the voters choose between a situation where METRO gets more money either way. What do we mean by that statement? METRO has the ability to choose the ballot language and details of the proposed referendum. If a proposal is put on the ballot that its member entities have not reached a consensus on, the likelihood of passing the referendum decreases and the General Mobility Program agreement runs the risk of ending with METRO keeping all the funding from the 1 cent sales tax. It turns into a situation of “heads METRO wins, tails you lose.” Either situation impacts the member entities’ budgets, and those entities may have to seek new revenues sources to pay for existing debt and future infrastructure projects.

METRO’s new image may not be strong enough with voters to win support for a capped General Mobility Program, and an ugly referendum fight could hurt the other important City of Houston bond priorities on the ballot. That is why it is important that METRO find a compromise solution with its member entities to avoid this public fight.

METRO would do best to extend the General Mobility Program program in its current form until completion of the 3 lines under construction are done. As stated above, this would give the member entities and the taxpayers the ability to judge for themselves whether or not METRO’s investment justifies the cost and is in line with what the voters approved. New METRO would come out a winner by proving their newfound fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers. By admitting to the public that mistakes were made and even government’s plans need to be adjusted, they would go a long way to rebuilding a solid foundation of trust with the public.

Joshua Sanders is the Executive Director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

Christof Spieler: Deciding the future of Houston’s transit

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Christof Spieler

We as a region are facing a huge decision about our future. If we don’t increase transit use by offering more people the option of high-quality transit, we will be stuck in gridlock. But among all the money we spend on transportation, we have only one dedicated transit funding source, and we are spending a quarter of it on roads in what is known as the “General Mobility” program. Over the past 30 years, METRO – our transit agency – has spent more on roads than it has on building transit infrastructure. If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail – for a decade or more, even as the population – and the demand — continues to grow.

We know this: when Houstonians are offered high quality transit they use it. Our park-and-ride system – buses that run as often as every 5 minutes during rush hour from suburban park-and-ride lots down HOV lanes directly to Downtown – carry 30,000 boardings every weekday. Half of Downtown employees who live in the areas served by the system use it. With 37,000 boardings a day, our light rail line carries more people per mile than any other in the U.S. besides Boston; Dallas has 10 times as much track as we do, but carries less than than twice as many people. Even outside rush hour, trains are standing room only. Bus service on Westheimer, where bus service runs frequently all day, every day, carries about 15,000 boardings. These riders have found out that high quality transit – transit that is frequent, reliable, and goes where people want to go – makes their lives better.

But most Houstonians do not have the option of using high quality transit. Greenway Plaza, Uptown, and Greenspoint, which are not served by rail and are not connected to the HOV lanes that keep park and ride buses out of traffic, have less than a third of the transit ridership that Downtown and the Texas Medical Center do. If we build the infrastructure to offer those areas better service, many of those employees will use transit like employees in Downtown do. Corridors like Kirby and Washington Avenue, where density is growing, don’t have the frequent bus service that Westheimer does; therefore the new residents moving in are all getting in their cars to go to their jobs. With better service, many of them would be on the bus.

We have a plan to connect more people to high quality transit, approved by the voters in 2003: light rail lines that link Greenway Plaza and Uptown to the park-and-ride system and to the other major employment centers; new park-and-rides; expanded local bus service; links to the airports; and commuter rail.

Unfortunately, good transit infrastructure costs money, but it’s cheaper than the alternatives. The HOV lane park and ride system cost $1 billion to build, and the current 3-line light rail expansion costs $2.1 billion, (including $435 million in upgraded roadways and utilities). Even expanding local bus service on city streets costs a lot of money: METRO’s biggest expense year in and year out is operating or maintaining bus facilities. But the alternatives to good transit are even more expensive: the Katy Freeway widening, originally estimated to cost $1 billion, came in at $2.8 billion dollars, and it bulldozed over 1,000 homes and businesses. Widening 290 is estimated at to cost $4.6 billion.

Roads and transit alike are funded primarily by the general taxpayers, not just the users of those facilities. The state and federal government collect gas tax, and toll roads collect tolls, but the majority of transportation funding comes from income tax, property tax, and sales tax. TxDOT has calculated that the gas tax collected on the fuel burned on a typical Texas highway covers well under half of the cost of building and maintaining that highway. And the gas tax doesn’t pay for arterials or local streets. The rest of the cost – half of the cost of that highway and all of the cost of that street – comes from the taxpayers as a whole, regardless of whether they taxpayers drive, walk, bike, or take transit.

METRO’s “General Mobility” funding for roads started as a political deal, but only the roadway part of that deal has been upheld. In 1988, voters committed to spending 25% of METRO’s sales tax on General Mobility for twelve years; in 1999, the METRO board extended that program for another 10 years, and in 2003, voters reauthorized it through 2014. Both the 1988 and 2003 votes were part of a package that included rail expansion. Those rail expansion promises have not been kept. The 1988 rail system was never built, and, of the 4 lines that the 2003 ballot called for to be opened by 2012, only 3 are under construction, projected to open by 2014. But though we have not kept our rail construction commitments, we have spent every bit of the money promised — and more — on roads. From 1988 to 2014, METRO will actually have spent 27%, not 25%, on roads through General Mobility. In addition, METRO spent another $1.2 billion to rebuild major streets in Downtown, Midtown, and the Texas Medical Center.

Of the billions of public money the Houston region spends every year on transportation, only a small part is available for transit. While most tax revenues received by state or local governments are – in theory – “flexible” funds that could be spent on highways or roads; in reality, the city, the county, and the state are spending only miniscule amounts of their money on transit. Many of the Federal and local funds are–in theory–“flexible” funds that could be spent on highways or roads, but in reality the city, the county, and the state are spending only miniscule amounts of their money on transit. The only dedicated funding source we have for transit in this region is METRO’s 1 cent sales tax. Spending a quarter of this on roads is not “balance”, it’s part of a larger imbalance.

But over the years, METRO’s member jurisdictions have become dependent on General Mobility. Some have gotten very good deals. Piney Point Village, a city of 3,150 surrounded by Houston on every side, has gotten $16.49 for every $1.00 it has contributed in sales tax, while the city of Houston has gotten $0.20 for each of its dollars contributed. Hedwig Village, a neighbor of Piney Point Village, has gotten $10,016 per capita from 1999 to 2014 while Houston has gotten $810. In addition to hefty General Mobility payments, both villages get local bus service, METROlift, and the benefits of reduced congestion on the Katy Freeway due to Park-and-Ride buses. It’s no wonder that the property tax rates in these villages are only a third of the property tax rates in Houston. General Mobility has become a massive subsidy for these small cities. But even Houston and Harris County, which have not gotten these special deals, have come to rely on this METRO money for their capital infrastructure budgets. General Mobility has never been promised or authorized past 2014, but everyone is counting on it.

Unfortunately, funds are tight, and we know METRO does not have enough sales tax revenue to continue both General Mobility and transit expansion. After the 2003 referendum, METRO – just like cities, counties, and school districts around the country – was hit with unprecedented increases in construction costs as the global economy boomed. Then in 2008 the economy crashed, dramatically reducing the sales tax revenue we use to fund transit. By 2010, sales tax revenue was 16% below projections, and while it’s rising again now, we don’t expect it to get back to the pre-2008 projections for 20 years or more.

METRO is being open and transparent about the decision we face. The 2003 referendum required that we call a vote by this year to answer the question of whether general mobility payments will continue. Simply the fact that the voters will be able to decide this issue is unusual in the world of transportation; you won’t find highway expansions on the ballot, and nobody has ever required that the City of Houston or Harris County get specific taxpayer approval for every road they plan to widen. But METRO is going beyond just letting the voters decide at the ballot by giving the public a chance to have input on what goes on the ballot. We’re going beyond that. We have already held two public meetings – one of which ran for nearly 4 hours – to get input, on what should be on the ballot and we’ll be scheduling more public meetings before adopting ballot language in August.

Since Annise Parker appointed 5 new board members in 2010, we’ve put METRO’s financial house in order, securing $900 million in federal funding for new rail lines, cutting costs, and paying down debt, all while continuing to replace 100 aging buses a year and budgeting to keep our facilities in a state of good repair. We are also being unprecedently transparent: every check we issue is posted online; we’ve issued a 200-page budget book that details what we spend and why; and video of every board meeting and every committee meeting is posted online.

METRO is working together with local stakeholders to solve this problem locally, not leave it to Austin or Washington. We’ve heard from many people telling us that all of METRO’s sales tax should go to transit. We’ve heard from others, especially representatives of the smaller cities, who say that 25% — or more – should continue to go to roads. We’ve also heard suggestions for compromise, including a proposal from board chair Gilbert Garcia to freeze General Mobility at the dollar amount it will reach in 2014, with the growth in sales tax revenue above that amount going to transit. Based on all that input, we will put a clear, simple proposition on the ballot, and it will be for the voters to decide. I have already heard people stand before the board and tell us that, if they did not agree with the wording of the proposition on the ballot, or if the voters decided didn’t vote the right way, they would go to the Texas legislature to invalidate the result. That’s simply unacceptable. This is our region’s money, not the Texas legislature’s or Congress’.

We need to be clear about what’s at stake here: we are making a decision about the future of our region. We are deciding about the future of transit in Houston; the outcome will decide how many of us have the option to use high quality transit. This is not some abstract discussion about funding formulas; it is a decision about what options Houstonians will have to get to work, school, and all the other places they need to go in their day-to-day lives for decades to come. If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it
local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail – for a decade or more, even as the population continues to grow. The next new light rail line – the one the voters voted to open by 2012 – would not start construction until 2028 or 2030. The impacts of such a delay on our region’s economy, our mobility, and the quality of our day-to-day lives are huge. If General Mobility were to expire with the current contracts in 2014, we could see significant bus expansion by 2015 and start more rail by 2018. We are deciding about the future of transit in Houston. The outcome of this year’s General Mobility referendum will decide how many of us have the option to use high quality transit.

Christof Spieler is a licensed professional engineer who has written and spoken extensively on transit and urban planning. He was appointed to Metro’s Board of Directors by Mayor Parker in 2010.

Laura Spanjian – From Industrial to Green Revolution: The New Houston

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Laura Spanjian

Bike Share kiosks in downtown. Electric vehicle charging stations at the grocery store. Over 15 miles of new rail lines being constructed. Wind turbines and solar on rooftops. Solar-powered mini-offices at schools and parks. E-cycling and polystyrene foam recycling. Urban gardens surrounding office buildings. LEED-certified historic buildings. Complete Streets in urban neighborhoods. Accessible and recreation-oriented bayous.

What City is this you ask?

The New Houston.

Innovation, creativity and a black gold rush spirit dominated industrial Houston at the turn of the last century – putting Houston on the map as an economic leader.

Today, Houston is at an historic juncture. Decision-drivers for the city and the region are no longer only economic. There is an emerging recognition that the city has the building blocks to be one of the most livable, equitable and sustainable places in the nation, and lead the next revolution: the green revolution.

What are these building blocks? Recently, Forbes Magazine placed Houston as the number one city for young professionals. And young professionals drive innovation and use new thinking to solve old issues. Houston has a business-friendly environment and a plethora of large companies conducting business in new ways. Houston has high average incomes and a concentration of graduates from elite colleges from across the country. Also, for the first time in thirty years, the Kinder Houston Area Study revealed a significant increase in the number of residents who support mass transit and prefer a less automobile-dependent, more urbanized lifestyle. And Mayor Annise Parker’s forward-thinking and innovative approaches and initiatives are putting Houston on the map as a national green leader.

What’s most exciting about Houston is that few people think it will lead the green revolution. But this sleeping giant is starting to awaken. Houstonians love a good challenge and love to save money.

At the turn of the last century, rich resources made Houston a national economic leader. At the turn of this century, rich resources will do the same. Texas has, by far, the largest installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. The City of Houston capitalized on this and has been recognized by the EPA as the number one municipal purchaser of green power and the seventh largest overall purchaser in the nation.

The City has a robust partnership with the University of Houston’s College of Architecture’s Green Building Components Program. Their innovative faculty has designed the first movable solar powered office/generator, and the City, through a grant, has purchased 17 of these units for emergency preparedness and other uses. Houston also recently received two large grants to reduce the cost of solar for residents and test out new types of rooftop solar technology.

Houston Green Office Challenge

Houston does not only create cleaner ways to use energy, Houston actually uses less energy. The City knows about energy efficiency: over 80 City facilities are expected to achieve guaranteed energy use reductions of 30% with paybacks of, on average, less than ten years.

The City also wants energy efficiency to be part of the urban fabric of Houston. Through our Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP), led by the General Services Department, the City has helped 13k Houston residents weatherize their homes, resulting in 12-20% kWh reduction and $60-125 savings each month. On the commercial side, the award-winning Houston Green Office Challenge and the City’s partnership in the DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge are encouraging building owners and property managers to find innovative measures to reduce their energy and water consumption and decrease waste.

We also know that equally important to encouraging high performing buildings is looking at our codes. In January 2012, the City, with leadership from the Public Works and Engineering Department, set the bar high by adopting the Houston Residential Energy Code. This code makes Houston’s standards 5% above the state code for residential energy efficiency standards, and also requires all new residential buildings to be solar ready. And Houston is poised to adopt another 5% increase above state code this year.

It’s not just about energy efficiency. Houston also embraces green buildings. Currently Houston is number four in the nation in the number of LEED certified buildings with 186 certified projects. That’s up from #7 just a year ago.

One of the most impressive pieces of the green revolution is the emphasis on public transportation and new transportation technologies. Under the leadership of METRO, Houston will soon have three new rail lines, adding over 15 miles to the system.

Houston is at the forefront of the electric car movement. Houston was one of the first cities to receive EV cars for a City fleet, which now includes 40 Nissan Leafs and plug-in hybrids. And with partners such as NRG launching the first private investment in public EV charging infrastructure, Houston is leading in electric vehicle readiness.

In addition to electric, CNG is offering cleaner, cheaper fuel for additional options: In a partnership with Apache, the Airport’s new parking shuttles at IAH are being powered by natural gas.

With the launch of Houston B-cycle, the City’s bike share program is now a reality with 3 stations and 18 bikes in downtown, with $1 million in committed funding to grow to 20 stations and 225 bikes by the fall of 2012. This grant-funded program offers a transportation alternative for citizens and will help address pollution issues, traffic congestion, and rising oil costs.

And the City, under the leadership of the Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, recently won a $15 million highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2012 TIGER grant. This project will assist in eliminating gaps in Houston’s bike grid: the project includes building 7.5 miles of off-street shared-use paths, 2.8 miles of sidewalks, and 7.9 miles of on-street bikeways.

And the dream and vision behind the Bayou Greenway project is becoming more of a reality. This proposed linear park system is unrivaled in its breadth and scope.

Finally, sustainability must encompass urban agriculture. The City Gardens and Farmers Market Initiative supports urban gardens and markets: the City has planted numerous new vegetable gardens (some of which are highlighted in First Lady Michele Obama’s new book, American Grown) and, with its partner Urban Harvest, has encouraged the sale and purchase of local food by starting a weekly farmers market at City Hall, with over 40 vendors.

In addition, the Mayor’s Council on Health and the Environment created an obesity task force to look at the importance of healthy eating and exercise. The Healthy Houston initiative will review and implement sustainable food policies for Houston to create work, school, and neighborhood environments conducive to healthier eating and increased physical activity. And under the leadership of Councilmember Stephen Costello, Houston is working to minimize food deserts and increase food access.

These initiatives are helping to make Houston a growing, thriving, modern, green city of the future, a destination for visitors, a magnet for new residents and a city well positioned in the global market.

The New Houston is here, and it’s on a roll.

Laura Spanjian is the Sustainability Director for the City of Houston. Learn more at http://www.greenhoustontx.gov, http://www.facebook.com/greenhoustontx and http://www.twitter.com/greenhoustontx.

Nick Cooper: Let Us Help People!

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Nick Cooper

I am a volunteer with Houston Food Not Bombs, a vegetarian anti-war group that has been in the news recently for speaking out against the new law requiring prior written permission to share food in public. For eighteen years, we have been helping the homeless, the hungry, the working poor, and the city of Houston by keeping members of this vulnerable, even desperate population fed.  We are the local chapter of a global movement with a simple and effective model — we obtain donations of healthy vegetarian food, cook at home or wherever is convenient, and share in public with hungry people. 

In the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, before government officials have in place any emergency food programs, we are already serving healthy meals in the streets. We were the first group sharing food with the homeless after Ike, Rita, and Katrina.  FEMA has referred people to us.  However, under the new law, if a hurricane comes through Houston next month, even under emergency conditions, it will be a crime for us to do what we do best — obtaining free healthy food and sharing it in public.

In March, without speaking to any of the volunteer groups doing this kind of work around town, and without any impact study, the Mayor and CM Rodriguez ramped up pressure for a new law to restrict and penalize food-sharers.  The opening salvo was a Houston Chronicle Commentary in which city officials and heavy hitters in the homeless service industry (at least one of whom earns a quarter million dollar a year salary) declared their support for a new law that would make any public sharing of home-made food illegal.  As with most politics in Houston, real estate investors were calling the shots.  These powerful interests not only have easy access to elected officials and to the editorial pages of the Chronicle, but also sit on the Board of the Coalition for the Homeless and host their events.  At the public sessions of City Council before the final vote, the few voices representing real estate were invited to cut to the front of the queue, filibustering for the cameras while the hundreds against this new law were pushed back. Homeless, volunteers, religious leaders, and supporters had important warnings about the impact of the new law on their lives and health, but the press, the Mayor, and many of the Council Members had left.  The Coalition for the Homeless even presented a report of its results from a faith-based and volunteer focus group in which every single participant opposed any law that included criminal penalties for those sharing food in public. The majority of City Council Members ignored it.

Parker scrapped the first draft, but immediately in its place came a hastily written, vague and confusing new “emergency” law which City Council approved on April 4th.  Now in Houston, it is illegal to share food with five or more needy people “without the advance written consent of the public or private property owner.”  There are other provisions in the law, but the crucial part is this new criminalizing of sharing food on public property.

This is not the first time a Food Not Bombs chapter has come up against these sorts of laws.  In San Francisco in 1988, and in Orlando in 2011, food sharing volunteers were criminalized and arrested. City officials then, like Annise Parker now, described the process for navigating the requirements as easy, while those attempting to navigate it disagreed.  In San Francisco and Orlando, they disagreed from behind bars.

The law includes no indication of how to obtain permission to share.  The Mayor herself was unable to answer a simple question about how to get permission.  Even if there were a clear process, many donations are spontaneous.  Often, prior written permission is not just a complication, it is impossible.  I can speak to this from long personal experience.  As a Food Not Bombs volunteer, I often find myself with extra, healthy food that needs to be distributed quickly, and I drive around to do so.  I can’t possibly know ahead of time when I will have this food, or exactly where I will find homeless people.  I can say with certainty that the people who receive this food really need it.

There is also no schedule of fines.  Not only do those sharing food risk breaking a law, there is no way to know what the penalty might be.  Does a first-time offender get a warning?  Do the fees ramp-up for repeat offenders to the maximum?  Even the simplest question of what the maximum penalty is seems to baffle the Mayor and the media.  Though they all seem to agree the maximum is $500 (1234), the relevant section of city code, Chapter 20-19 of the Houston Code of Ordinances, says $2,000.  Our group faces the prospect of $100,000 per week in fines for trying to help our hungry friends in the streets.

Many volunteers are intimidated by the vague law, the unknown fines, and the prospect of having to miss work to appear in court.  Some groups are trying to comply, some groups are continuing to share food without permission, and many are dropping out.  Already the number of hungry people arriving at Food Not Bombs has tripled, and many of them describe not having eaten in days.  This constitutes a human rights crisis in Houston manufactured by the Mayor and majority of City Council.

Talking to Houstonians about this law, we have been confronted with increasingly alarmist talking points.  Some are convinced that the backlash against the law amounts to a personal attack on the Mayor, or even an attempt to impeach her.  Others think the law will effectively better coordinate services, eliminate trash, or prevent food-poisoning.  Some have actually told us that the homeless downtown receive too much in food donations and they need less.  Whatever their source, these fallacious talking points have become so widespread, that we have written responses to each of them.

At a recent panel discussion on homelessness, one of the signatories to the Chronicle Commentary, Stephen Williams, the director of Health and Human Services, spoke about the need for creative and new approaches in ending homelessness now that so many agencies are laying off workers.  He said we all would have to listen to one another and work together in new ways that challenge our preconceptions.  I raised my hand to explain that Food Not Bombs has such an alternate model.  Unlike city agencies and non-profits that are experiencing lay-offs, we have more people sharing food than ever.  Unlike organizations that have to buy or store their food for long periods of time, we are often able to serve fresh donations within hours.  Unlike hierarchical institutional homeless shelters, we treat hungry people like people, not numbers.  Our group doesn’t need a penny of grant money.  We are secular, so folks of any faith can arrive certain that we are not using our food to try to convert them.  They are free to take some of our anti-war literature, or discuss politics, religion, or anything else with the volunteers, but they do so as friends, not as potential converts. All we need from the city is not to be criminalized.  Williams responded, disappointingly, that we just need to play by the new rules and that was that.  So much for really listening to one another!

Allies and sympathizers who are used to working in politics often ask me about trying to reach a compromise with the city on this issue.  The first step would be trying to ascertain what the Mayor wants, and to see if there are better ways to achieve that without penalizing volunteers.  We heard concerns about food poisoning, trash, avoiding duplication of service, and responded, spending time to write a set of solutions that don’t involve penalizing volunteers.  We submitted them to the Mayor’s advisers and City Council, but got no response.  It seems that as with the unconstitutional “civility” ordinances, the real goal of this law is something no Mayor can admit: to try to make the homeless disappear.  So far the law is not being enforced, but its existence has had a chilling effect of volunteerism, has diminished the food supply of vulnerable Houstonians, and has shown our local government’s lack of interest in the clear voices of the people who came out in massive numbers to speak out in favor of the freedom to share food with the hungry in public.

Nick Cooper is a musician with Free Radicals, documentary filmmaker, and local activist with indymedia and Food Not Bombs.

Christina Gorczynski – Mission Possible: Youth Engagement

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Christina Gorczynski

Ask the League of Women Voters to do a guest blog and what do you get? Brace yourself, readers, for a civic engagement pep talk.

The year was 1920. The National American Woman Suffrage Association had chalked up victory: the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution was adopted and women at last won the right to vote. The next step? Morph that Suffrage Association into a League of Women Voters and work in communities all over the country to teach a brand-new voting population about the candidates and the issues with the goal of encouraging voters to cast an informed ballot. It’s been nine-two years and we’re still at it. Because it still works.

Presently, the League is engaging youth voters and we need your help. If you’re between the ages of 18 to 25 and you’re reading this you’re politically engaged, and that’s especially significant because half of your contemporaries are not. Though many are not politically active, according to statistics, they are civically-engaged, which provides you an opportunity to draw them into the political process. More individuals between the ages of 18 to 25 volunteer in their communities, share opinions about politics and contact their elected officials than actually vote. They are interested and clearly care about their communities.

Young people volunteer for youth, civic/neighborhood, issue-specific and faith-based organizations at a much higher rate than they vote, participate in elections or volunteer for political campaigns/organizations. They have not made the connections between issues, elections, laws and policies and they are waiting for invitations and role models.

According to research, the young people who do get involved with politics are trying to solve a particular social issue and they are highly likely to be involved because someone invited them to participate. They are likely to stay involved if they have role models who teach them how to engage in democracy, and you are those role models. Our system is counting on you to educate your peers, so consider this article as my personal invitation to you.

If you want to engage young people, the first step is meeting them where they are. Volunteer for a youth-based organization. Step out of the political field to coach youth sports, participate in a mentoring program, judge a high school debate contest, sponsor a scout troop or teach a class at your place of worship. Invite them to make civic life part of their life. Better yet, come volunteer for the League of Women Voters to visit high schools with me.

When you engage in face-to-face, peer-to-peer communication with young people on their turf, you have the power to make an impact and the next step is registering them to vote. Tell young people that their opinions matter and that they have ideas that can resolve social problems. Assume that they are not registered, and know that once registered, they become more likely to vote and more likely to pay attention to your calls to action.

As far as calls to action, I will provide you with suggestions and encourage you use your own best instincts. Rock The Vote produced this excellent resource for candidates and campaigns regarding youth engagement which encourages asking new voters to make a pledge to vote. The advice seems sound and they provide statistics on effectiveness.

My personal favorite call to action is to tell them to contact their elected officials to provide feedback and ask questions. I walk them through the process of figuring out who represents them in Washington, Austin, and Houston. Next, I provide them with the League of Women

Voters of Houston Directory of Elected Officials which is a list of contact information for every official who represents the people of Harris County. You can also encourage them to interact with candidates, political groups and elected officials on Facebook and Twitter.

Be prepared to hear that one vote doesn’t matter. Be prepared to hear that whole elections don’t matter. Don’t buy any of it. Remember that elections are the way we make decisions; that they’re the way we extend what’s right and fix what’s wrong and get on with the business of creating happiness and prosperity. You are part of our national conversation and make America the place we want it to be.

And remember that the League of Women Voters is here to help.

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Christina Canales Gorczynski is the Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Houston. You can contact Christina via email director@lwvhouston.org and via Twitter http://twitter.com/LWVHouston.
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The League of Women Voters of the Houston Area is a nonpartisan political organization which works to promote civic responsibility through informed and active participation in government.
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Thank you to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University for the extensive research in the field of youth engagement. Thank you also to Rock the Vote and Texas League of Young Voters for their work to register young people.

Jamaal Smith: Cracking Down on For-Profit Colleges in Southwest Houston

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Jamaal Smith

I come from a family of educators. Four out of five of my aunts were teachers, and my wife is currently working on her Doctorate in Education. I was made to understand from an early age the power and promise of basic and higher education. In my campaign to become the next State Representative from District 137, an area that covers most of Southwest Houston, I have made education the core of my message to voters. I know that good, accessible, and affordable education options can be the silver bullet to solving some of the other issues which my District faces, including crime and low levels of economic development.

In the area of higher education, Southwest Houston faces an array of huge challenges. First, area high school graduates are often unprepared for college-level coursework. Secondly, because of the economic and demographic profile of Southwest Houston, most students are first-generation students, generally from low socio-economic backgrounds. Thirdly, options for higher education in Southwest Houston are more and more centered on the for-profit
college industry.

For-profit colleges such as Everest Institute, University of Phoenix, and Sanford-Brown College have come under scrutiny recently because of their excessive tuition prices, overreliance on public money, and deceptive – at times criminal – recruitment practices. According to a federal investigation led by Sen. Harkin of Iowa, the number of students at for-profit colleges has grown from 553,000 to 1.8 million, an increase of 225%. At the same time, employment rates for graduates of these schools are dismal, with unemployment rates hovering around 23%, more than twice the national rate. Currently, 25% of for-profit school graduates default on their student loans, making up 44% of all defaults. Most egregiously, these schools charge 6 to 10 times more for similar programs at local community colleges.

It’s easy to see why the Wall-Street-traded parent companies of these colleges (Kaplan Inc., Corinthian Colleges, the Apollo Group, etc.) collectively earned 2.7 billion dollars in profits in 2009 alone. Over 90% of the revenue earned by these businesses comes from federal tax dollars, effectively making these companies highly profitable and terribly ineffective government contractors.

Unfortunately, Southwest Houston is home to dozens of these predatory institutions, including American Intercontinental University, Westwood College, Texas School for Business, and Everest Institute. They target low-income students, single mothers, and veterans through aggressive recruitment and marketing programs. Allegations made in a Government Accountability Office report include recruiters harassing prospective students, entering false data to reach recruitment quotas, and attempting to make applicants sign a contract of enrollment before speaking to a financial counselor. An undercover GAO prospective student received over 180 calls in one month, some as late as 11 pm, after signing up for a college information website.

Along with these recruitment practices, for-profit schools are doing a disservice to students in Southwest Houston by charging exorbitant prices for their programs. We can put these types of schools out of business and meet the educational needs of the residents of Southwest Houston by bolstering the availability of affordable public higher education. For example, tuition for the popular Medical Assistant program at the Bissonnet Campus of Everest Institute costs $17,023, while the same program at HCC’s Coleman Health Professions campus costs a total of $2716. That’s a premium of 526% at the private institution. Moreover, students at HCC likely will not borrow to attend the program, as Pell Grants are more than enough to cover tuition, books, and living expenses.

The problem, and one of the primary reasons these colleges are able to continue to prey on low-income students, is that HCC does not have sufficient funding to offer enough courses to meet the demand from non-traditional students. Southwest Houston is especially hit hard because while for-profits have dozens of campuses, HCC only has two – one in Alief and the other in Gulfton.

If elected to the Legislature, I will push for state funding to open a career education-focused HCC campus in the heart of Southwest Houston, one that directly competes with the for-profit colleges. The campus will provide training for careers most needed in the current economy including physical therapy and information technology. I will work with HCC and with other organizations to increase awareness of these programs, and to make sure that the enrollment and financial process is streamlined. Lastly, I will propose legislation to increase state oversight of the recruitment practices of for-profit colleges. The future of Southwest Houston will depend greatly on the quality of the higher education it provides to its residents. As State Representative, I intend to make it as great, as accessible, and as affordable as possible.

Jamaal Smith is a candidate for State Representative in House District 137 in Southwest Houston.

Tyson Sowell: The Problem of Single-Use Bags

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

On Wednesday, June 20, Houston City Council approved a budget amendment to

“address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags city-wide. This proposal will be taken to the appropriate committee for proper vetting, consideration and input from businesses, residents and environmental advocates.”

Tyson Sowell

Texas Campaign for the Environment supports the phasing out of single-use bags and advocates for reusable bags. Brownsville was the first city in Texas to address the pollution impacts of single-use bags. After a year of study, the City of Brownsville decided to limit both paper and plastic bags, even though they were home to a major paper bag manufacturer. Soon after, South Padre Island and Fort Stockton, in West Texas, passed local ordinances limiting single-use bags and, most recently, (after an extensive study) Austin too found limiting single-use bags makes economic and environmental sense.

Plastic pollution in the US has increased by 165% since 1969 making plastic pollution the third most abundant pollution type. It is estimated that Houstonians consume 1.9 million plastic bags per day or more than 693 million plastic bags per year.

So, why not just recycle them?

Nationwide recycling rates for single-use bags are very poor – 60% to 90% of paper bags and 95% of plastic bags are NOT recycled. Additionally, voluntary recycling programs for plastic bags have been unsuccessful in keeping them out of landfills, waterways, trees, and storm drains. For example, Austin’s plastic bag recycling pilot program, at its best after distributing 900,000 reusable bags, was only able to achieve a 27% recycling rate. If the City of Houston followed this route, assuming they could achieve this same level of success, 1.4 million bags per day, would still be free to roam our streets and swim in our waterways.

As Houston grows, its waste problem grows with it and phasing out single-use bags is a step in the right direction to reduce our waste and keep our city beautiful. Buffalo Bayou is heavily polluted with plastic waste and continuing to ignore this problem will not make it go away but will make it worse. Even though paper bags biodegrade, they use more energy to manufacture and transport and are not any better for the environment overall.

Houston is the only city of the ten largest cities in Texas that does not provide curbside recycling for all of its residents. The recent budget crunch has been blamed time and time again for the City’s inability to expand this service. Phasing out plastic bags would save the City about $2 million per year which could be used to expand recycling and get Houston on the path to a green, clean future.

It’s time for Houston to get serious about its growing waste future. It’s time to bag the bags.

Tyson Sowell is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment – a statewide, grassroots, environmental policy advocacy organization. You can learn more at texasenvironment.org, at facebook.com/texasenvironment and follow on twitter at twitter.com/txenvironment.

Cindy Vara-Leija: Political Activism, Great-Grandma Style

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Cindy Vara-Leija

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a mother of six would take her youngest children along as she set up her folding table and chair outside her local grocery store. She was there, as was the standard of the time, to sell poll taxes to her friends and neighbors. More importantly, she was there to make sure that her friends and neighbors understood, in whatever language they spoke, the importance of paying the poll tax so that despite this obvious attempt to keep them from exercising their Constitutional right to vote they were able to cast their ballots and make their voices heard.

Throughout her adult life, she also served as a poll worker, an officer in the Denver Harbor Civic Club, a volunteer with her local Garden Club, a PTA/VIPS volunteer with her local public schools, a founding member of the Reata Committee (which later evolved into the Go Tejano Committee), a member of the Catholic Daughters, and a member of other various community organizations.

This woman was a prime example of political activism in her day, someone who was willing to give of her time, and that of her family, in order to make her community a better place. I’d also say that this woman is a prime example of the political activism that we need today, someone who is willing to, as she’d say, leave a place better off than how she found it.

This woman, my mother, will turn 90 years of age in October. If it wasn’t for the effects of the Alzheimer’s disease she was diagnosed with in 2003, she’d probably still be working at the poll on every Election Day and registering people to vote in the months before.

However, she continues to serve her community through the example she set for her six children, her fourteen grandchildren, and her twenty-two great-grandchildren.

Her legacy, though, isn’t and shouldn’t be limited to those of us who call her mom or grandma. It shouldn’t even be limited to those of us who’ve had the privilege to personally know her. It should, as should the legacy of the many community and political activists who came before us, be for entire generations who are now at a crossroads.

As we watch what is happening to our community – the all out attack on women, the attack on public education, the corruption that seems so prevalent in politics and Corporate America – it seems that the example my mother set over fifty years ago of getting involved in your community and participating in the political process should be what we teach our children, and one another, on a daily basis. After all, as mom so eloquently puts it, “Remember to vote always. It costs you nothing, but you can pay dearly if you do not.”

She is indeed an example of the political activism we need now. As the 4th of July comes next week, I’m reminded of her strength and belief in civic duty. I promise to keep up her fight, and as the holiday nears and elections come quickly, I hope you’ll do the same.

Cindy Vara-Leija is a candidate for Constable in Precinct 1 in the Democratic primary runoff.

Erica Lee: How to Keep a First Grader Off Death Row

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Erica Lee

It is the beginning of the school year and excitement is in the air. Children are looking for their classmates in the hall. Parents are tucking in shoelaces and zipping backpacks. Teachers are taking one last look at the classrooms and organizing their supplies. Finally, students enter a wonderful first grade teacher’s classroom with pep in their step. The smiles are bright and everyone is filled with anticipation for another school year, an opportunity for excellence, a chance to help a child reach his or her full potential. As the first grade teacher begins to call the roll, and each child nods, raises a hand or answers, one question should be on the mind of school board members, community advocates, voters and even parents: How do we keep these first graders off Death Row?

Typically, when educational achievement is discussed, it becomes a dialogue about numbers, passing tests (See recent STAAR results), graduation rates (Black/Latino achievement gap) and college preparedness (College readiness data). Our leaders often speak of the positive academic goals we are trying to achieve in our education system; however, it seems like these statements fall on deaf ears or at least dispassionate ones. I believe adults/voters would put more energy into fixing education if they thought about the negative outcomes and costs to society that they personally wanted to avoid. It is a human nature to be more concerned about yourself than about a child you have never met. So, why don’t we speak about providing quality education as something that can prevent bad things from happening to good people — the good person being you, of course. It’s kind of like how brushing your teeth regularly can prevent tooth decay, or at least smelly breath for people in close proximity. For our children, the negative consequences for a failed education system include illiteracy, juvenile delinquency, under-employment, unemployment, drugs, felonies, and in the worst case scenario ending up on Death Row. These affect you whether or not you have children because Texas spends more money to lock someone up than it does to properly educate a child – $8,562 per pupil for education versus $18,031 per prisoner – and that’s in addition to police enforcement, SNAP, Medicaid, the war on drugs, lost taxes and lost lives.

You see the thing is there is a profile for the life history of many of the people who end up on Death Row or life without parole and much of that history starts in early childhood. The answer may be easier than we think. Attorney David Dow, who has defended over 100 Death Row in Texas over the past 20 years, describes the common background of his clients:

“Over 80% of the people on death row came from the same sort of families, had the same background, exposure to the juvenile justice system and were under-educated…the best possible version for their story would be a story where no murder ever occurs (paraphrase).”

Dr. Dow asks the question, “How can we intervene in the life of a murderer before he or she becomes a murder?” I ask you the same question rephrased as “how do we keep a first grader off Death Row?”

It is my belief that just like any challenge if we know the root causes then we are foolish to not attack it with all of our effort. For most major illnesses, researchers typically want to find the root cause and prevent the disease from ever developing. The prevention strategy is known to be more effective for long-term survival and often even more equitable. While we know many of the root causes that lead to poor academic achievement, slow language development, diet, poverty, family education attainment, access to books and experiences, for some reason we choose not to attack those with our best vaccine. We choose not to invest all we can in a child’s early years even when we know it will pay multiple dividends for decades to come. For some reason, it is easy to ignore those bright-eyed hopeful young children be they toddlers or first graders. While adults will readily form neighborhood watches, pay for alarm systems and attend community meetings on how to reduce crime, we rarely invest the same time and attention to the prospect of investing in our children.

So, how do we keep a first grader off of Death Row? We must invest early and often in their social, emotional and academic development In a state where only 14% of our 3 year-olds are enrolled in pre-k or Head Start (Children’s Defense Fund) and over 25.7% are in poverty, we must find ways to support early childhood education that help our children build a strong foundation. During my time as a first grade teacher, I noticed a distinct difference in the cognitive development between those children who received early childhood education and those who had not. The children who had attended such programs often had a wider vocabulary and grasped concepts at a faster pace. And, once the gap of development and knowledge begins then it becomes ever harder for a child to catch up. And, if they never catch-up with their peers (now global) then in the worst case scenario, someone is murdered and that child ends up on Death Row.

Maybe, if we thought about quality education and investment in our children as a matter of life and death we would not have stood more than $5 Billion in education cuts during the 82nd Texas Legislative Session. Maybe, if we truly believed in education, we would occupy our school buildings and board meetings to ensure that all children were given the opportunity to learn. Education is a matter of life and death—better health, economic and family outcomes increase almost lockstep with the level of education attained. It is not just about keeping an innocent child from eventually ending up on Death Row; but, it is about the community that we envision where the American Dream still lives.

Mathematically, scientifically, and fundamentally, it makes sense to work on prevention rather than the treatment after the disease of poor academic achievement has taken hold. But psychologically, our society seems to spurn prevention for bigger, more costly solutions. I am encouraging you to fight to prevent poor academic outcomes; we must turn the tide against stop gap solutions in our education system. Support candidates and organizations that will work to invest early and often in to the education of our children. Lend your voice, vote and effort to this cause; because, in a country that imprisons more than 2.3 million people and holds 25% of the world’s prisoners (leading all nations), our investment in our children, will determine whether we produce children of infinite destiny or more prospects for Death Row.

Erica S. Lee, MPP, is a candidate for the Harris County Board of Education, Pos. 6, Pct. 1. Connect with Erica at http://LeeforEducation.com or www.twitter.com/PublicPoLeecy.

Yvonne Gutierrez: Republican support for women’s health?

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Right there with them

We all know there is a lot at stake for the 2012 election cycle. All eyes are on Washington but the old adage is true — all politics is local. State Legislative races are crucial. Especially when it comes to women’s health care – the most popular political whipping boy (or girl, rather) of late.

The 2011 convening of the State Legislature produced dismal outcomes across the board, most notably in women’s health care. The state’s family program was slashed by two-thirds. The cut will actually cost taxpayers nearly four times as much – in excess of $230 million – in additional Medicaid costs.

Additionally, not a single bill was passed that would renew and expand the successful Texas Women’s Health Program (WHP). The health care program brings in $9 in federal dollars for every $1 Texas pitches in and was highly recommended by the nonpartisan/bipartisan Legislative Budget Board. So why no bill? Because Planned Parenthood is the most utilized and trusted provider in the program that makes health care accessible to more than 100,000 women statewide. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) drafted and approved a rule that would exclude Planned Parenthood from the program. The rationale for the rule: Planned Parenthood clinics that receive WHP and do not provide or promote abortion (because it is against the law and has been for more than three decades) share a name with entities that do and are therefore “affiliated”.

Planned Parenthood is rightly challenging the rule in the courts stating that it is a violation of constitutional freedoms of speech and association. Planned Parenthood family planning clinics can’t be excluded from any federal or state family planning program simply because completely separate legal and financial corporations provide legal abortion services with private dollars.

Now, the state of Texas is spending precious dollars on defending their unconstitutional rule. Dollars that could have been spent on oh, I don’t know, health care for low income Texans. Meanwhile Governor Perry maintains he will set up his own state women’s health program. He’s instructed state officials to find nearly $40 million to set up the state program because he’s been warned that restricting a woman’s choice of eligible providers will make Texas ineligible for the $9 to $1 match. True to form, Governor Perry is blaming this all on the Federal government. He’s deliberately leaving out the “minor” details of multiple extensions the Center for Medicaid Services provided HHSC so Texas could fix the proposed rule.

Luckily for the 130,000 Texas women enrolled in the WHP, a judge put a hold on the state’s rule allowing women to continue getting their WHP care from Planned Parenthood while the case is litigated. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will rule on the State’s appeal to the hold any day now.

It was blatantly obvious what happened last session. A contingent of right wing legislators highjacked the State’s support for family planning and turned into an anti-abortion debate. In turn, family planning funds were slashed and low-income women lost access to their ability to prevent unintended pregnancies. Because these legislators are the majority, they won. The few moderate Republicans who were actually in leadership and support family planning were railroaded.

What is the leading cause of abortion? Unintended pregnancies. Mission accomplished?

Despite these clear anti-women’s healthy bullying tactics within the Republican party, a recent New York Times opinion editorial piece ironically accuses Planned Parenthood of “making an enemy of someone who has failed to pass its purity test.”

Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown (whose spouse is Romney advisor, Dan Senor) chastises Planned Parenthood for not engaging and supporting Republican members of the US Congress and Senate – as though Republican members and candidates are begging for a Planned Parenthood endorsement.

The fact of the matter is Planned Parenthood is a non-partisan organization. Planned Parenthood is the leading nonprofit provider of nonjudgmental reproductive health care. We provide well woman exams, birth control, lifesaving cancer screenings, HIV testing and counseling and basic health care services to nearly 3 million women across the U.S.

The Planned Parenthood Action Funds in Texas – our political arm – educate voters and our political action committees support candidates who will support women’s health care. Republican or Democrats. Women or Men. Bottom line: It’s about women’s health.

We all know Tea Party extremists who infiltrated the Republican party threw bipartisanship overboard a while ago. Republican candidates who support commonsense family planning – like the Mitt Romney who ran for U.S. Senate in 1994 — are rare these days. The reality today is Republicans don’t want support from Planned Parenthood without cover. They know they’ll be attacked from within the party. The Republican party has been dominated by right wing rhetoric and evangelical tyranny. Plain and simple. Support for something as noncontroversial as birth control is now tantamount to support for so-called “abortion on demand”. Politicians are running scared.

The real Republican Party (the one that actually started the federal Title X family planning program in the 1960’s) needs to wake up. Women – all women – are watching and they don’t want access to pap tests and breast exams eliminated so that right-wing men can pound their chests in victory. And yes, Campbell Brown, Planned Parenthood does want to continue to support Republicans who support women’s health. We’re still here. They just need to show up.

Yvonne Gutierrez is the Political Director for the Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast Action Fund.

Gene Wu: Backyard Progressivism

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Gene Wu

Before I became involved in politics, I learned that there are real people in our communities who need hands-on assistance, people who are desperate for others to help lead them out of poverty. Beyond the typical political rhetoric of what we would like to see government do (or, in the case of some, not do) for people, it should be very evident that in order to accomplish progressive ideals, more work is needed in the community on a one-on-one basis. One example that always reminds me that our battle against poverty does not end at the statehouse is that of Yolanda (whose name has been changed here for the sake of respecting her privacy).

Helping people like Yolanda is why I chose a path of public service. I believe that government has an active role in helping people achieve upward mobility. However, my life in Southwest Houston has shown me that accomplishing progressive goals require more than just government action. Southwest Houston has one of the lowest voter participation rates in Harris County because a large percentage of the population consists of non-citizen immigrants and the working poor. Their voices are often ignored in the political process because they cannot vote or do not have the means to contribute financially.

Yolanda was an unusually quiet student when I first met her in the Skills for Living program. Most of the adult students there were shy at first, but joined in once they realized that they had similar life stories. But Yolanda seemed more reluctant to share her life with the rest of the class. Unlike many of the other students, Yolanda was employed, and had been with the same trucking firm for nearly 19 years. She eventually confided in us that she was embarrassed that she could not provide a better life for her children. I was a volunteer mentor and teacher in the program, and we helped Yolanda change her life.

Yolanda was fresh out of high school when she was hired at the company. She had planned to go to college after saving up a little money. However, she became pregnant at 19, and had to keep working because her husband didn’t make enough to support the family. Shortly after their second child was born, her husband simply left one night and never came back. In one of our first exercises, we pored over each student’s finances, looking for areas to make improvements. When I reviewed Yolanda, one single item jumped out at me. Why would a person who had been working at a company for 19 years make so little money? What Yolanda explained shocked me.

In all those years, Yolanda had never once gotten a promotion or a merit raise. Despite the fact that she now trained the people who would become her supervisors, Yolanda had never asked for a raise or promotion. She felt that she was not worthy of one because she lacked a college education.

More importantly, she was worried that she would be fired if she ever asked because she was “just a secretary.” We worked with Yolanda and the other students every week for several months. We fixed their resumes; coached them on interview skills; taught them how to ‘market’ their experience; and Dress for Success even provided them with proper business attire. Yolanda’s final task was to accomplish her own goal of getting a promotion. While we had helped Yolanda with her anxiety, it was hard for her to shake nearly two decades of self-doubt and fear. But she knew that she had to do this because she wanted her kids to have a better life.

In our next class, the students who had successfully completed their objectives shared their stories. I could already see that Yolanda was beaming with pride. She said that when she met with her boss, she told him she wanted to be promoted and he simply said ‘yes.’ She never even had to use any of the approaches or strategies that we practiced. Her boss told her that he had thought that she wasn’t interested in taking on more responsibility and that she just liked her low level position. Yolanda was given a promotion, nearly doubled her salary, and was put on a track to ascend further up the company.

The more important lesson here was not for Yolanda; it was for her children. Her two kids, now young adults, saw their mother succeed through hard work and self-marketing. Yolanda not only began her climb out of poverty, but she taught her children to never fall into that same trap.

We’re only a few months away from another November election. But, as much as we may love the legislative fights or savor the electoral victories, I believe that the bigger accomplishments are not what we can see on 24-hour cable news or the front page of the newspaper. Our real goals are people in our communities. Being ‘progressive’ should be more than just a label, it should mean that a person takes personal responsibility in their community to make sure no one is left behind.

Gene Wu is a candidate for State Representative in House District 137 in Southwest Houston.

Alan Rosen: A Call To Protect Our Children

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Alan Rosen

Every day, the internet opens up new doors for communication, commerce, and the betterment of all our lives. But, with great advances in technology come huge risks and the responsibility rests with each of us to protect our greatest treasure: Our children.

Right here in Houston, a family told Channel 11 that their 12-year-old daughter had been lured into the sex trade by someone chatting with her on Facebook. KHOU reported the girl was taken to an undisclosed location and forced into prostitution. The girl was missing for 48 hours, which must have felt like an eternity to her parents. The family said they were able to finally track her down thanks to GPS on the girl’s cell phone. Technology was what led her astray, but technology is also what brought her back.

These stories make my heart sink – not only as a law enforcement officer, but as a father. I don’t mind telling you it keeps me up at night thinking that something might happen to one of my children. But, worrying isn’t what solves problems. We must all be more proactive and find the best ways to make the lives of our children safer and richer. We shouldn’t close them off from the learning opportunities presented online, but we can’t turn a blind eye to the dangers.

Here at home, I established the first Child Predator Apprehension Team at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Positive change can happen and it’s simply a matter of actually doing the work. We’ve done the work and it continues to this day. We increased warrant apprehension rates 161 percent and capture rates for the Child Predator Apprehension Team is 84 percent. Those are people who would otherwise be on the streets of Harris County preying on our children.

The next thing we need to do is create an Internet Predator Task Force. We have to take a stand and I propose we do it through the best use of technology. We can keep an eye on these child-targeted sites and let the bad guys know we’re watching them here in Harris County.

Local and state leaders are figuring out that a proactive approach is the best way to get real results. For example, our neighbors to the east in Louisiana are about to start requiring every registered sex offender to include their criminal status in their social media profiles. It may seem like a small step, but it’s a shield in the fight to keep our kids safe. It is up to us to work proactively with families, legislators and community leaders to stay ahead of those who would harm our most precious asset—our children.

Alan Rosen is a Candidate for Harris County Constable-PCT 1 in the July 31st Democratic Party Run-Off Election. His website is AlanRosen.org.

Steve Brown: The Grown-Up’s Platform

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Steve Brown

Texas Democrats recently adopted a very progressive platform that addresses critical areas of need in our state. It also gives reasonable, mature Texans an alternative to empty ideological rhetoric.

Although most headlines will center on our bold pronouncements in support of marriage equality, abolishing the death penalty and decriminalizing marijuana (and rightly so), there are a number of other policy proposals worth mentioning as well.

In addition to the familiar themes related to fully funding public education and supporting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (health care reform), Texas Democrats also raised numerous emerging issues as additional items in need of public support and legislative action.

State Budget Policy

Texas Democrats support sensible solutions for fixing the state’s multi-billion dollar structural deficit. We need to modernize our tax base so that it reflects our service-oriented economy. What state lawmakers shouldn’t do, however, is continue to dodge responsibility by punting the costs of services to local governments and taxpayers. Cuts to education, health care and transportation may sound appealing to Tea Party activists, but the truth is that these services are still being rendered at local taxpayer’s expense – an expense that’s more costly and less efficient than if it were addressed at the state level.

Texas’ Impending Water Crisis

Due in large part to recent droughts and population growth, Texas’ towns are literally drying up. We need practical, sustainable solutions to ensure that we have enough water to meet the needs of our people, businesses and agricultural enterprises. In fact, we recommend that the Governor elevate this issue to an emergency item at the start of next session, and identify the funding sources to cover the capital costs associated with creating new water management strategies. Failure to meet our water supply could result in catastrophic human and economic losses.

Smokefree Workplaces

Texas Democrats support the need for a comprehensive statewide smokefree law as a top public health priority. We recognize that prevailing science indicates that secondhand smoke causes preventable diseases like heart disease, stroke and cancer. Additionally, the health care costs associated with treating these diseases bear an enormous burden on taxpayers and businesses. It’s time to clear Texas’ indoor air.

Castle Doctrine

In the wake of several incidents, sufficient doubt has been raised as to whether the Castle Doctrine actually is being applied fairly. Texas Democrats urge lawmakers to modify its “Stand Your Ground” law to help prevent vigilantism and encourage neighborhood watch groups to work collaboratively with local law enforcement agencies.

Transportation

We recognize that we can’t simply build more roads or toll roads to adequately address the state’s transportation infrastructural needs. Texas simply needs more multi-modal options. Its time for the state to invest in light rail, and partner with communities across Texas to create more transportation options. Such investment will help enhance quality of life, attract a vibrant business environment, improve air quality and leverage federal funding opportunities.

These are but a small sample of the priorities identified in the Democratic platform. Texas Democrats understand that it takes a strenuous, reasonable assessment of the true challenges facing our state to ensure that Texas is as great today as it will be fifty years from now. That means that we have to elevate the seriousness of public debate and elect leaders more interested in long-term, sustainable solutions and not regurgitated ideology.

The grown-ups in Texas will find much to agree with in the Democratic Party’s platform.

Steve Brown is the Chairman of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and a member of the Texas Democratic Party’s Platform Advisory Committee. Connect with Steve on Facebook at facebook.com/sbrown2 and on Twitter at twitter.com/electstevebrown.

Guest posts coming

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be running a series of guest posts that I have solicited from a variety of people. I’m doing this partly to give myself a bit of a breather during the summer lull and my own vacation time, and partly because I’m privileged to know a bunch of smart, interesting people whose opinions I respect. I’ve asked them to write something on a topic of their choosing, and I’m very pleased to be able to bring you what they have produced. I hope you’ll enjoy the results and find them as enlightening as I have.

Sylvia Garcia’s impressions of the SCOTUS oral arguments on redistricting

Former County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia was in Washington, DC to attend the Supreme Court hearing on the Texas redistricting case. I asked her before she left if she would be interested in writing about her impressions of the case for publication here. This is what she sent me:

Sylvia Garcia’s Impressions on Supreme Court arguments in Texas Redistricting Case

Sylvia Garcia

With only a few sentences into his argument, the State’s lawyer was interrupted by Justice Sotomayor (one Wise Latina) with a pointed question “does that not turn Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (Act) on its head?” And, from there it was about an hour and half of lively and engaging oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States.

It was a “bucket list” item for me as a lawyer and former Judge but for all of us in Texas, it was a monumental hearing which will set the political stage for the next decade in Texas and could well have repercussions for decades to come.

I won’t dwell on how we got here except to remind us that there are many things at play. There is the Justice Department who enforces the Act and there was a lawyer there making arguments in behalf of the government. Then there is the San Antonio federal court that ordered the interim maps which are subject of this appeal by the State of Texas. The “State’s” lawyer was there and by State’s lawyer I don’t mean our Attorney General. He was there too, but not to argue though he did sit at the counsel’s table. Our State’s lawyer was a hired gun. Then there is the D.C. District Court who has jurisdiction of the redistricting case itself and has in fact scheduled a trial to begin in a couple of weeks. Now, if that is not confusing, let me make a few points about the Voting Rights Act (Act) itself.

The Act was designed to provide the opportunity for minorities to elect a candidate of their choice and to ensure the constitutional principle of “one person/one vote”. Early on it was about African American voting rights and recently, it’s about the growing Latino population. In Texas, it is about both. There are two sections of the Act which come into play: Section 2 which protects minority voters from changes that would deprive them of an effective vote for a candidate of their choice. That means no dilution of minority voting. Section 5 which prohibits changes that worsen the position of minority voters with a discriminatory purpose. That means that there can be no changes with a discriminatory purpose. I won’t pretend to try to unravel it all. I simply want to give a backdrop to what is at stake and provide a few personal impressions.

First, I was impressed that all the Justices except Justice Thomas who traditionally never asks questions, asked many questions. I didn’t expect it to be so lively, so engaging and almost to the point where Chief Justice Roberts couldn’t get a question in and at times had to sort through who was asking what as some Justices were gently interrupted. It was like watching big leagues point counterpoint.

Secondly, I was impressed that the Justices quoted transcript page numbers, talked specifically about maps, and genuinely appeared to know the case. Justice Sotomayor described the El Paso District as “antler-type district, a head and two unconnected antlers on top, nothing tying them together“. Justice Breyer quoted from transcripts to make several points. Justice Kagen quoted from the record below. I was impressed. If interested, the full transcript of the hearing is on line on the Supreme Court web page at www.supremecourt.gov. My impressions however are taken from my notes during the arguments. A side note, we had to check in all our electronics which meant no photos, no text, no tweets and no recordings. Nada.

Third, and what you probably are most interested in. What may or may not happen? I was relieved when Chief Justice Roberts noted “the Voting Rights Act is not at issue here”. Frankly, many of us feared the Court would use this case to hold the Act itself unconstitutional, another “Gore-ing”. Hearing the Chief Justice say that was good news. However, the same cannot be said with regard to Section 5 of the Act. Many of the Justices, clearly more than five and that’s all they need, had questions that would lead one to infer that they are prepared to end it, change it or set new legal standards for its application. Or, as Justice Sotomayor said, “turn it on its head”. Not good news.

Also, the Chief Justice was overly concerned about “coalition districts” and questioned whether the Act should even apply to them as the Act’s intent was to protect minority rights. As he put it, “It’s one thing under the Voting Rights Act to say that this group votes as a bloc and has been discriminated against in its ability to elect representatives of its choice. It’s another thing to say that two different minority groups are put together because they share some particular view so that one candidate is going to be each of theirs candidates of choice. That goes quite a step further from what we have upheld under the Voting Rights Act”. Clearly, coalition districts will get a hard look and may not receive any deference and may be eliminated when new maps are drawn. That could also be bad news.

Questions also seemed to suggest that the Justices are not overly concerned by Texas’ primary timeline. Justice Sotomayor pointedly asked, “… what’s the real drop-dead date? It’s not November 6th, because that’s the date of the general election. What’s the latest election — primary election that any State has? June 26th? What is our drop dead deadline?” With that and rather quickly other Justices pointed out Utah’s late primary, other states’ primaries and it was obvious that their only concern was the big deadline- November 6. 2012. Garza (challenging maps) pointed out that “The — the critical date is 45 days from the election in order to ensure — sending out a ballot to overseas voters, including the military. So if — if you go back 45 days and then you give the jurisdiction sufficient time to develop a ballot, because you need a ballot to send to the — to the soldiers, then that’s about — what they — what the testimony was is that takes about — 90 days, I believe is what they testified. So 45 days plus 90 days, and that’s the drop-dead deadline. That would put us at about June 26.”

It definitely appeared to me that the Court was more focused on what the D.C. Court will do in a few weeks than worrying about the primary time line in Texas.

Of note is that Garza (challenging maps) pointed out that “there are section 5 claims with regard to Harris County”. If the Court listened or if the San Antonio gets a remand for further review, Harris County lines may be looked at again. That could be good news.

The options then appeared to be (1) remand and ask the San Antonio Court to give deference to the Legislatively approved map and put burden on State to show it is not discriminating or (2) delay till the D.C. Court has its trial due to begin in a few weeks or worse (3) do nothing.

That is not good news. It could cause even more delays to the Primary schedule or ultimately could cause us to have two primaries- one as set in April for all but offices directly impacted by the maps-congress, Legislature and then a second probably in June for those races. Then everything gets on ballot on November 6. While the Court was reminded by all sides that the San Antonio Court’s order on the primary schedule was based on agreement by all parties, the Justices did not seem fazed by it. Justice Ginsburg said more than once it was a “complicated case” before the D.C. Court and no one can assume what they would or would not do. And, she cautioned that they may not act as swiftly as the lawyers think to keep the April primary schedule.

We will all now wait and see.

Finally, we should celebrate the whole notion of our three branches of government. The check and balance system was hard at play yesterday in that court room. As I sat with one branch of the government – members of Congress – I thought of how happy I was to be a lawyer, to be an American and to be able to say that no matter what happens “we had our opportunity to be heard”. But, as is always in politics “it is not over till it’s over’ and we shall see. As a side note, I still don’t understand why the Court does not allow everyone to see what I saw on TV. Surely, CSPAN would not have interfered.

For those interested, I was not the only Texan there and while I’m sure I missed seeing someone, I was sitting in the front row with Members of Congress thanks to a reserved seat secured for me as NALEO President by Senator Leahy (D-Vermont). Others I spotted were Congresswomen Eddie Bernice Johnson and Sheila Jackson-Lee; Congressmen Al & Gene Green, John Culberson, Lamar Smith, Lloyd Doggett, Ruben Hinojosa. State Senators Wendy Davis, Rodney Ellis and Tommie Williams. State Representatives Jessica Farrar, Trey Fisher Martinez, Marc Veasey and Gary Elkins. Also, a number of lawyers from all the cases and their plaintiffs including Chad Dunn, lawyer on our Harris County redistricting case and lots of LULAC folks who also braved the cold and snow at a rally in front of the Supreme Court building.

My sincere thanks to Sylvia Garcia for sending this to me. Now I’ve got “attending oral arguments for a case I care about at the Supreme Court” on my bucket list as well. Two more impressions from after my initial roundup of them come from Michael Li and Greg Wythe, while the Trib reminds us of the deep logistical doo-doo we’re now in. Anyone want to take a guess as to when the primaries will ultimately be?