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Laredo

Supreme Court hears bag ban arguments

Hoping for the best, but not really expecting it.

In the case Laredo Merchants Association v. The City of Laredo, lawyers spent almost an hour arguing whether Laredo’s 2015 ban was illegal under state law. If the Republican-led court rules against the city, bag bans across the state could be deemed illegal.

The city of Laredo’s lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Dale Wainwright, argued single-use bags are not garbage, so they are not covered by the several lines of state law that the case hinges on. The code says local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The arguments made Thursday mirrored those in lower courts, where the case was originally decided in favor of Laredo before an appeals court overturned the verdict by a 2-1 margin. The city then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

[…]

The oral arguments represent the last public action taken on the case, but a decision by the Supreme Court could still be a long way away. The court has discretion over the timeframe for a verdict, and previous cases have taken anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years to resolve.

See here for some background. An earlier Trib story that previewed the case had some further details.

The case hinges on only a few lines of the Texas Health and Safety Code, specifically section 361.0961, which states local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” In the lower courts, arguments focused on the specifics of the law, including the definitions of “container or package” and “solid waste management.”

Attorney Christy Drake-Adams filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Municipal League and the Texas City Attorneys Association supporting the city of Laredo and arguing that siding with the merchants would represent a swift departure from Texas’ history of supporting local governments.

“There just seems to be a trend that the state wants to consolidate power in the state’s hands,” Drake-Adams said. “They don’t want the federal government telling them what to do, and yet they want to tell local governments what to do.”

Drake-Adams also said this case could create a dangerous precedent of strict, uniform regulations on cities.

“Extreme uniformity and regulation fails to address diverse local concerns,” Drake-Adams said. “Texas is a great example of why that can’t work. A state as large and diverse geographically as Texas, that simply can’t work.”

Supporters of the merchants’ case are arguing that statewide enforcement of the law should overrule any local ordinances, and the inconsistent local laws like the plastic bag bans seen in cities across Texas cause unnecessary strain on small businesses.

“Inconsistent local ordinances harm the sales of affected retailers, force the layoff of employees, deprive retailers of their existing inventory of bags, and impose an expensive and complex requirement on multisite retailers to comply with varying ordinances across the state,” wrote Edward Burbach in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Retailers Association in support of the merchants.

Remember, the goal here as expressed by Ken Paxton and abetted by Greg Abbott is to kill off all local bag laws, on the way to generally bringing cities to heel under the state. And yeah, we’re hoping the Supreme Court will stop them. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the law in question can – someday – be easily modified to fix the flaw that the pro-bag-litter faction is exploiting. That would require winning some elections first, of course. But at least it gives us something to aim for.

Hyperloop versus high-speed rail

I’ve been pondering whether our state is big enough for two high speed land-based forms of transportation, and I think the answer is “yes, at least for now”.

The Hyperloop is nearly twice as fast as Texas Central’s High-Speed Rail project already in the works to connect Houston and Dallas. To boot, the lightning-quick travel time is not even direct. The journey is routed through Austin, which would act as a hub connecting the Texas cities.

Hyperloop One could also be operational before Texas Central’s line. In its announcement, Hyperloop One declared its intent to begin shipping freight by 2020 and passengers by 2021.

One major factor will be ticket pricing. Texas Central has not released specifics but expects pricing to be on par with airline prices. That will likely be far cheaper than the Hyperloop, which is expected to be around $330 one-way.

If Hyperloop One does move forward in Texas, it will likely face many of Texas Central’s same growing pains; the company has met plenty of resistance from Texas landowners. Unlike Texas Central, which is developing its project privately, Hyperloop One will work with government agencies on development in some capacity. Though the specific arrangement has not yet been detailed, Hyperloop One is already working closely with the Colorado Department of Transportation and has said it intends to continue government relationships wherever it ends up.

[…]

A spokesperson for Texas Central told Bisnow the two projects are not in competition. Hyperloop One is not building a direct line from Houston to Dallas. Texas Central sees the two different modes of transportation as complementary, similar to airlines.

See here for some background. I’m glad to hear that both Hyperloop One and Texas Central see their systems as complimentary and not competitive at this time. Things may change if they’re both successful, of course, but we’re at least a few years out from that. Unlike high speed rail, hyperloops are brand new and untested technology, so who knows what will happen with the development, but like high speed rail there is likely to be opposition from communities that this project will pass through. I have to think we’ll begin to hear more about this now that the chances of it happening here are greater. In the meantime, one of the lead planners with AECOMM on this project has been talking to the press about it – see this followup story in Bisnow and this DMN article for his thoughts. I remain excited by the possibilities, but still want to see this thing in action before I buy in all the way.

Texas remains in hyperloop competition

We’re still a long way from anything happening, but if it does it could happen here.

There’s still a chance Texans could be some of the first people in the world to whisk along in tubes at 700 mph.

Hyperloop Texas, a joint proposal of engineering firm AECOM and public agencies in the state, is one of 10 winners of the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, a competition to find the best routes for the system.

Hyperloop, the brainchild of Tesla founder Elon Musk, envisions vacuum tubes and travel pods making interstate travel at faster-than-flight speeds. In their proposal, AECOM estimated the trip from Houston to San Antonio could be made in 21 minutes. Getting to Austin would take another eight minutes. Houston-to-Dallas, not including the time for layovers, would take 48 minutes.

A freight component would use the Hyperloop system to ferry goods from Laredo to the Port of Houston.

[…]

Winning doesn’t mean anything will get built, but Hyperloop One said in a release it “will commit meaningful business and engineering resources and work closely with each of the winning teams/routes to determine their commercial viability.”

See here for the background. What I like about the proposed route is that it wouldn’t directly compete with the Houston to Dallas high speed rail line. You can get to Dallas from Houston via this route – indeed, you can get all the way to DFW Airport – but you have to go via San Antonio, so the total travel time is shown as 48 minutes, about what it would be for the Texas Central ride. Basically, this is the Texas T-Bone, with Laredo, DFW, and the Port of Houston as the endpoints. We can debate whether this technology is feasible or not, but if it is, then I hope subsequent routes include some of the spaces in between and elsewhere. Let’s add stations in New Braunfels and San Marcos and Waco, and do a similar T-Bone in the other direction, to bring in El Paso and Midland/Odessa and Lubbock and Amarillo. If it works, of course. I can dream, can’t I? KUT has more.

Harris County Attorney files amicus brief in SB4 lawsuit

Good.

Last week, Harris County Commissioners Court opted not to join a lawsuit challenging the state’s controversial “sanctuary cities” law as unconstitutional.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, however, has filed a brief asking a federal court to halt its implementation on Sept. 1.

“S.B. 4 will do irreparable damage to this State’s child welfare process, place county attorneys charged with representing DFPS in an irreconcilable conflict, and do further trauma to children who have been placed in the State’s care. Further, there is no legitimate state purpose in treating children who have an unauthorized immigrant parent or other potential care giver differently in child welfare cases,” states Ryan’s brief, which was filed this month in federal court.

[…]

Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said that come Sept 1., with no injunction stopping SB4’s implementation, the county attorney’s office does not know how it will handle certain child welfare cases.

“That’s an ethical hell that we do not want to experience, and that’s why Vince Ryan has asked the federal court for guidance,” O’ Rourke said.

You can see the specific objections in the story. This is not as good as if Commissioners Court had voted to join the litigation, but it’s something. In the meantime, Cameron County and the city of Laredo have joined the plaintiffs, and there are a couple of bills to repeal SB4 that have been filed for the special session, though of course neither of them will get anywhere. It’s still important to make the stand, and in the better-late-than-never department, business interests are weighing in as well. It’s hard to overstate how much damage the Republicans in charge have done to Texas’ reputation this year, and there’s still more to come. Stace has more.

Paxton seeks to overturn all local bag ban laws

It’s up to the Supreme Court to decide whether he gets it or not.

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday filed paperwork urging the Texas Supreme Court to eliminate plastic bag bans across Texas, including Austin’s.

Paxton is seeking for the court to affirm an earlier decision that overturned a bag ban in Laredo. However, he also wants to court to expand the ruling to eliminate all bag bans across the state.

“Texas must be empowered to enforce its statewide solution of waste disposal,” the brief said. “To give full meaning to the Legislature’s directive about the management of waste, the Court should clarify that municipalities cannot pass waste management duties onto consumers by banning packaging or containers.”

[…]

Paxton said the Texas Health and Safety Code prohibits cities from creating bag bans that restrict the sale or use of a waste container.

“Municipalities do not get to violate Texas law merely because they don’t like it,” Paxton said in a news release. “We’re asking the Texas Supreme Court to uphold the law so that the ruling can be used to invalidate similar ordinances across Texas.”

See here and here for background on the Laredo case. The bag law was upheld by the district court and then overturned by the 4th Court of Appeals. A statewide restriction on municipal bag laws was on the Abbott anti-local-control agenda for this legislative session, but did not succeed. If Paxton and the plaintiffs against Laredo win, that won’t matter.

Galveston wants a bag ban

Good luck.

Reacting to a groundswell of concern about the effect of plastic bags on the environment, Galveston is on the forefront of a statewide controversy over cities’ ability to ban plastic bags that are killing turtles, birds and fouling beaches.

A proposed ordinance with unanimous City Council support and strong community backing faces fierce opposition from outside forces, including conservative think tanks and plastic bag manufacturers who have already sent threatening letters.

[…]

Not all businesses support the ban, but it has the backing of the influential Galveston Hotel and Lodging Association. “As business operators we typically don’t like this type of business regulation,” said Steve Cunningham, association president and manager of the Hotel Galvez. “But being on the Gulf, this one is necessary because of the damage to the wildlife and the environment.”

City Attorney Don Glywasky drafted the Galveston ordinance to avoid the legal pitfalls encountered by cities such as Laredo. The Laredo bag ban was challenged under the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal law that bars local governments from adopting regulations to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Glywasky believes Galveston is unique. “I don’t really see that this is a solid waste management issue,” he said. “If we can cut down on some of the plastic bags that go into the marine environment, that is not something for the purpose of solid waste, it is for the protection of the marine environment on which we depend.”

That argument drew no sympathy from an influential conservative organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. James Quintero, director of the foundation’s Center for Local Governance and Think Local Liberty, said Galveston’s proposed ordinance conflicts with state law.

“Our position would be that Galveston’s ordinance, no matter what the stated reason would be, is still prohibiting containers,” said Bryan Mathew, policy analyst for Texas Public Policy Foundation. “In our view, a lot of local governments have been attempting to regulate out of bounds by hiding under the term of local control.”

Mathew called anything that smacks of what Gov. Greg Abbott lamented were attempts to make Texas more like California “out of bounds.”

“Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” Abbott said last year during remarks at a Public Policy Foundation gathering, where he warned of “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

That erosion would include anything that hinders “people from being able to sell and buy with minimal government regulation and a low tax burden,” Mathew said.

Mathew saw no contradiction with the traditional conservative support for local control, arguing that local control refers to legislatures, not local governments.

“Utter hogwash,” said Zach Trahan, spokesman for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “They made it up this last year to justify their abandonment of local control.”

Yeah, let’s be clear that the “conservative” principle at work here is “because we said so”. Local control is great up to the point where localities do things that displeases authoritarians like Greg Abbott and the TPPF, thus requiring they be brought to heel. I think Galveston has perfectly good reasons for wanting to regulate plastic bags, but the court ruling against Laredo’s bag ordinance does not bode well for its future.

Paxton sues Brownsville over bag fee

Of course he does.

plastic-bag

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is wading into another fight over local control; this one about plastic bags at grocery stores.

The Republican on Wednesday sued the city of Brownsville over its $1 per-bag fee, started in 2011 to cut down on waste, calling it an “illegal sales tax.”

“Clearly, Brownsville is raising taxes on its citizens through this unlawful bag fee,” Paxton said in a statement. “The rule of law must be upheld, and state law is clear – bags may not be taxed.”

[…]

The lawsuit, filed in Cameron County, is Paxton’s first attempt to thwart city efforts to curb waste by charging for bags or banning them. He joins the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the powerful conservative group, in that broad effort.

The Brownsville bag fee was passed in 2011, but Paxton is only getting involved now that an appeals court has overturned Laredo’s bag law. You would think that since cities are responsible for garbage collection that cities ought to have a fair amount of leeway to take measures to minimize and optimize that task, but then you would not be Ken Paxton or his meddling enablers at the TPPF. Why is a fee for plastic bags different than a fee for (say) heavy trash pickup or disposal of toxic chemicals? I’m pretty sure the answer to that question will be “it just is” and “because we said so”. If we want different outcomes, we need different leaders.

Laredo plastic bag ban overturned

Ugh.

plastic-bag

The Fourth Court of Appeals on Wednesday sided with merchants and free-market groups who argued that Laredo’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because it is pre-empted by state law regulating solid waste disposal.

The 2-1 ruling overturned a lower court’s decision, the latest setback for environmentalists and advocates of local control in Texas.

Laredo, which estimates it once went through some 120 million plastic bags each year, is among several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton and Port Aransas — that have sought to regulate them to reduce waste.

The city argued that its ban was designed to beautify the city and reduce clogs in storm drains, not to manage solid waste as barred by the state law.

The lawsuit, filed by the Laredo Merchants Association, was the first challenge to such a ban to be heard in court. And it triggered briefs from 20 Texas lawmakers, a prominent free-market group and the Texas Municipal League — who squabbled over cities’ power to regulate commerce.

Wednesday’s ruling only affects Laredo’s ordinance for now, but it gives legal momentum to bag ban opponents elsewhere.

[…]

The state law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Local governments, it says, can’t adopt a regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Laredo contended that its bag ban’s purpose — “prevention of litter” — did not fall within the “management purposes” barred under the law.

The appeals court disagreed.

“The Ordinance does exactly what the Act intends to prevent — regulate the sale or use of plastic bags for solid waste management purposes,” Justice Marialyn Barnard wrote for the majority.

See here for the background. I’m sorry, I know I’m not a lawyer, but this is a ridiculous reading of the law. You can see here for the bill in question, and see here for its text. I’d bet you a dollar right now that if you tracked down the key people on that bill – author, sponsor, and conference committee members – none of them would claim it was their intent to forbid cities from banning or taxing plastic bags. The idea never would have occurred to them. It just boggles my mind that people who claim to be “conservatives”, who claim to decry “judicial activism”, who claim to oppose “big government meddling”, could view this as a victory for their principles. Do we want the Legislature to set the solid waste pickup schedules for cities like Laredo, too? I don’t get this at all. But here we are, and far too many of our Republican legislative overlords can’t wait to get to Austin in January and pass bills to do more things like this. This is where we are these days.

By the way, to continue with my hobby horse about the appeals courts and the opportunity that this year’s election provides: That 2-1 decision? The two are both Republicans, and the one is a Democrat. Now, there’s nothing that would keep the Supreme Court from overruling a 2-1 decision that had gone the other way, but still. This is what I’m talking about.

The southern segment of the proposed Oklahoma City-South Texas passenger rail line

There’s more to it than connecting San Antonio with Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Two potential South Texas routes were selected for further study, according to [Rep. Henry] Cuellar. The first would originate in San Antonio and travel south outside of existing transportation corridors to a station near the Laredo-Columbia Solidarity Bridge. That route would then cross on a new railway bridge to join a new rail line which would continue to Monterrey, Mexico.

Cuellar said that route would have the potential for high-speed rail service, with trains traveling at speeds of 180 to 220 miles per hour.

The second route would begin in San Antonio and travel southeast to Alice. At Alice, the route would divide into three legs. The first leg would travel to San Diego, Texas and then to the Laredo area. The second leg would travel south along abandoned railroad tracks to McAllen and east to Harlingen and Brownsville, while the third would travel east along the KCS Railway to Corpus Christi.

Once the Tier 1 study is completed, interested developers could conduct a Tier 2 study for preferred routes. That study would provide project-level analyses, detailed design, alignments and cost refinements, Cuellar said.

More than 10 million people currently live along the 850-mile corridor under study. That population is expected to increase nearly 40 percent by 2035.

See here for the background. You can see the different options in the embedded map. The Monterrey option was a later addition to the project scope due to the high-speed possibility, for which private investment is also in play. I’m very interested in seeing how this goes.

Alignments proposed for Oklahoma City-South Texas passenger rail

Check ’em out.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have released 10 service and route options for new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.  The options are evaluated in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

“This corridor is home to major financial, energy, and education centers that people rely on every day,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “Providing efficient, more reliable, and faster higher-speed passenger rail options to move between cities is crucial for the economy and the population to thrive.  I encourage those along the I-35 corridor to participate in the comment and public hearing opportunities so that they are able to learn more and share their input.”

During a 45-day public comment period, FRA and TxDOT will take comments on the 10 options and the seven recommended preferred options that the two agencies identified.  Four public hearings will also be held to give residents a chance to learn about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, understand how their communities may be affected, and provide comments.

Current passenger rail service along the Interstate 35 (I-35) corridor includes three intercity Amtrak services from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth (Heartland Flyer), Fort Worth to San Antonio (Texas Eagle), and Los Angeles to New Orleans through San Antonio (Sunset Limited).

The DEIS addresses the relationships of the major regional markets within the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program corridor in three geographic sections, and preferred alternatives are recommended for each geographic section separately.  The three sections of study are:

  • Northern Section:  Edmond, Oklahoma, to Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas
  • Central Section:  Dallas and Fort Worth to San Antonio
  • Southern Section:  San Antonio to south Texas (Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley)

More than 10 million people currently live along the 850-mile corridor, which is expected to grow by 39 percent in Texas and 25 percent in Oklahoma City by 2035.  As a state with some of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, spread out over hundreds of miles, Texas is now in high demand for alternative modes of transportation.  Since the majority of the state’s population is centered in the eastern half of state, along I-35 stretching into Oklahoma City, the highways have experienced increased congestion.

“More passenger rail service will help relieve already congested roads along the I-35 corridor and help this region manage the significant population growth on the way,” said FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg.  “I encourage everyone to provide feedback on the 10 options that FRA and the Texas DOT have presented to continue moving this effort forward.”

In fiscal year 2012, FRA awarded a $5.6 million grant to TxDOT to fund a study of new and improved passenger rail service to meet future intercity travel demand, improve rail facilities, reduce travel times, and improve connections with regional public transit services as an alternative to bus, plane, and private auto travel.  The Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study evaluates routes and types of service for passenger rail service between Oklahoma City, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.

More information about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study can be found here.  The Final EIS is projected to be released by early 2017.

There are three public hearings scheduled to discuss these alignments, on August 9, 10, and 11, in Laredo, Austin, and Arlington, respectively. Relevant documentation is here if you have a few hours to spare and an enjoyment of poring over PDFs, while TxDOT’s page on the project is here. Just looking at the map, which I have embedded above, doesn’t give a clear picture of where the tracks would be. Streetsblog says it wouldn’t actually stop in “urban Austin”, but the map seems to indicate it would go near or by the airport, so perhaps this is a question of terminology.

This project has been kicking around for awhile – Oklahoma got a federal stimulus grant in 2009 to study rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which isn’t actually part of this proposal but may have been the genesis of what we now have – with TxDOT creating the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study page in late 2013; as you can see at that link, there’s a separate project to link this rail line, if it happens, to the Houston-Dallas high speed line, if that happens. An extension into Mexico has also been floated, though I have no idea if we’re even allowed to say that sort of thing out loud any more. As this is a TxDOT project, one presumes that there won’t be any questions about whether or not this qualifies as a real railroad for eminent domain purposes, which is not to say that there won’t be any resistance to the possibility. I’m never sure how seriously to take this, as TxDOT has never been all that interested in anything but roads and there are plenty of ways for the chuckleheads in Congress and the Lege to put up obstacles, but we are at the DEIS stage, and that’s progress. What do you think? See here for the impact statement, and KVUE has more.

Plastic bag litigation update

This could be a big deal.

plastic-bag

Is a plastic bag a container? Does the definition of “solid waste management” include litter control?

If a state appeals court answers yes to both of those questions, regulations on plastic bags in several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton, and Port Aransas, which ban the bags, and Brownsville, which requires businesses to charge customers a $1 fee for the bags — could be in danger.

The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio heard oral arguments Tuesday in Laredo Merchants Association v. City of Laredo, in which the merchants claim the city’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because existing state law regulating solid waste disposal preempts it.

The law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Section 361.0961, passed into law by the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal Act, says that local governments can’t adopt regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Arguments on Tuesday focused on the definitions of several phrases in the law, especially “container or package” and “solid waste management,” and what, precisely, the Legislature had intended.

The merchants’ case is the first challenge to a Texas municipality’s bag ordinance to make it to court. The Texas Retailers Association filed a suit against Austin’s bag ban in 2013 but later withdrew its petition, and Dallas repealed its bag fee after plastic bag manufacturers sued last year.

The Laredo merchants sued the city in March 2015, and appealed to the Fourth Court after the 341st Judicial District Court in Webb County sided with the city last June. A victory for the merchants could mean the overturning of local bag regulations across the state, while a win for Laredo could encourage other cities to pass regulations of their own.

[…]

On its face, the case is a fight over flimsy pieces of plastic. But the series of amicus briefs filed on each side establish that a much weightier issue is at stake: How much power do local governments have to establish regulations that affect commerce? Three Texas state senators and 17 state representatives, all Republicans, filed an amicus brief last week in support of the merchants, arguing, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, that state law preempts the bag ban. The Texas Municipal League filed a brief in support of the city. Executive director Bennett Sandlin told the Tribune that the bag issue is one where local control is particularly important because different cities have different environmental concerns; Fort Stockton, for example, cited cattle deaths from ingesting plastic as a reason for the bag ban.

The implications of the local control dispute go beyond plastic bags and extend to ridesharing, energy, rent control, and other areas where municipalities have sought to pass stringent regulations. Last May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 40, which limited local regulation of drilling activities after Denton voted to ban hydraulic fracking in the city. Recently, legislators have vowed to address local rules on ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft.

“We’ve got a Legislature that used to believe in local control and now, some of them, all they believe is control of the locals,” Sandlin said. “We’re facing it not just in plastic bags but any number of issues.”

You can say that again. I’ve blogged a bunch about plastic bags, but this lawsuit had escaped my notice till now. I fully expect the issue to be on the agenda for the Lege in 2017 no matter what happens here. It’s not that Texas Republicans love regulating individual behavior, it’s that they do not recognize as legitimate any form of governance that does things they don’t approve of. They sue the feds, and now the cities are squarely in their sights. Look at the words of two-bit authoritarians like Sen. Don Huffines, who was quoted again in this story, and ask yourself whatever happened to the Republican brand of “small government”. Whatever else these guys are now, that ain’t it.

How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.

go_to_jail

Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.

US-Mexico high speed rail?

What goes north can also go south.

Like this but with fewer mountains

A high-speed rail line connecting San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico, could be less than a decade away from welcoming its first passengers, according to federal and Texas officials who met with Mexican officials in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to discuss the project.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-San Antonio, hosted the meeting in which Texas and Mexican officials offered a joint presentation to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about the project, and Cuellar said Foxx was receptive. It was the third meeting between U.S. and Mexican officials related to the project, Cuellar said, following a meeting in the summer and another in October.

“From the Mexican side, they are very interested,” Cuellar said. “From the Texas side, they are very interested.”

Supporters say the rail line, if completed, could move passengers from San Antonio to Monterrey in two hours. The trip takes nearly five hours traveling by car.

Cuellar said he became interested in such a project after learning that the Texas Department of Transportation had received $5.6 million in federal funds last year to study possible rail projects between Oklahoma City and South Texas.

[…]

Both Mexican and U.S. officials envision a large portion of the project’s funding coming from the private sector, perhaps from a single company investing in the project in both countries.

We are familiar with one private investor for high speed rail in Texas, and we heard about that FTA grant recently. Obviously, all this is a long way from happening, but if both do happen – I’m reasonably confident about the Houston-Dallas line – then it would make a lot more sense to connect them, since that would have more value than two separate, disconnected lines. That would mean finishing the rest of the so-called Texas Triangle, which would then have offshoots continuing on to Oklahoma City and Monterrey. That would be pretty cool, don’t you think? The Highwayman and the Express News have more.

Bag ban update

Having survived legislative meddling, bag bans are back on the agenda in Texas cities.

plastic-bag

Six months after Austin’s ban on most disposable plastic and paper bags took effect at checkout counters across the city, political fights are raging in Laredo and Dallas to follow suit.

In Dallas, the debate over a single-use bag ban (for both paper and plastic bags that don’t have a certain amount of recyclable material) has led to allegations of false information within the City Council and is likely to drag on for months in that body’s Quality of Life committee. Still, many consider the fact that it’s being debated at all to be progress; in 2008, an ordinance on bags was proposed and quickly tabled.

The political environment may have changed further, now that the Texas Retailers Association has decided to drop its lawsuit against the city of Austin’s bag ban. The association had alleged the ordinance violated Texas’ Health and Safety Code.

“It could have had a chilling effect,” Jeremy Brown, and environmental law research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, said of the lawsuit. “You’re a city and you want to avoid litigation generally. Now that the lawsuit has been dropped, he said, “maybe there’s an impression of reduced political risk.”

[…]

In Laredo, an outright bag ban appears to be off the table. Instead, a “reduction ordinance” is more likely, and now the argument is over what form such a law might take. Should the city adopt a fee-per-bag structure, as was recently done in Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, Md., where shoppers pay 5 cents per single-use bag? Or should it go the Brownsville route, where shoppers pay $1 for an unlimited number of bags? (In each of those cases, retailers keep a small portion of the fee, and the rest of the money goes to a public environmental cleanup fund.)

H-E-B is lobbying hard for the dollar/unlimited option. That’s because “if it’s a per-bag fee, each bag needs to be scanned,” said Linda Tovar, spokeswoman for the company’s border region corporate office. “So the time that it takes for a cashier to process and order will be longer than what a usual process may be.”

Environmental advocates say there’s no logic behind that mechanism. In Brownsville, the first Texas city to pass a single-use bag ordinance, officials hoped the $1 charge would be temporary, since it would provide an incentive for customers to bring their own reusable bags. But revenue from the fee has actually tripled from 2011 to 2012, suggesting habits weren’t changing and leading to allegations of a “slush fund” for the city, which has raised more than $2 million from the law.

Companies say they’d rather see voluntary programs and education campaigns, pointing out that a patchwork of different city ordinances are difficult to follow and encourage shoppers to cross city lines for cheaper bags. So far, though, such efforts have not had much success. Austin spent nearly $1 million on an education campaign for reusable bags before abandoning it, after failing to reach a declared goal of reducing plastic bag use by 50 percent.

I look forward to seeing how these fights play out. As you may have noticed, Houston is not currently among the cities contemplating this action. I feel pretty confident that it will eventually come up, so I’m hoping that the other cities that are dealing with it will have figured out the best way to do so. Got to be some benefit to trailing the pack, right? We’ll see.

Please count everyone

U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves was in Laredo on Monday trying to ease some anxiety among residents there about the upcoming Census.

Border counties, flush with residents fearful of being turned over to immigration agents, are historically among the most undercounted. The Census Bureau ranks Webb County — where Laredo is located — among the nation’s hardest-to-count areas, joining a list that includes more rural places in Alaska and South Dakota.

Speaking to about a dozen colonia residents, many of whom only speak Spanish, Groves tried to allay their fears. He stressed that census data will be kept confidential and not turned over to other agencies.

“If the president asked me for your census form, I can say ‘No, you can’t get it,'” Groves told the crowd. “If I violate that law, I can go to prison.”

Groves visited the colonia with Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who said his district, which includes Laredo, lost more than $55 million in federal dollars during the last census because of undercounting.

An estimated 373,000 people in Texas weren’t counted in the 2000 census. Cuellar said Texas could pick up as many as four congressional seats if every household is properly counted.

There are many bumps in the road, and it’s not just with Latino communities.

The Census Bureau is printing instruction guides and sample forms in dozens of different languages for use in community help centers, since one in five residents speak a language other than English at home. But there have been errors due to poor translations, including material for Vietnamese speakers that describe the census as a “government investigation.”

The agency was able to correct its Web material two weeks ago after groups pointed out the problem, but it’s too late to fix the paper forms, according to the report. There are more than 1.1 million Vietnamese in the U.S., mostly clustered in California and Texas.

Other gaps included a lack of specialists for the Bangladeshi community in Detroit; the nation’s third largest Korean-American population in Chicago; and the south Asian and Cambodian groups in Philadelphia and Rhode Island. In Virginia, when groups cited a need for census specialists for their Korean and Vietnamese communities, the agency responded by hiring someone who spoke Chinese.

Responding, the Census Bureau has emphasized it is devoting a large amount of its $133 million ad campaign to racial and ethnic audiences, including television spots in 28 different languages. It also worked with more than 150,000 business and community groups, hoping to build trust in its message that filling out the 10-question census form is safe and easy to complete.

Those stories were based on a report released by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can read their press release here and their full report, which is summarized in that release, here (PDF). They express hope that it’s not too late to fix some of these problems. I sure hope they’re right about that.

Counting on the Census

I wasn’t really paying attention to this sort of thing ten years ago, so I don’t know how much effort was made at the time to get an accurate count of Texas’ residents for the 2000 Census. I can say that there seems to be a lot of focus this time around, and that’s a very good thing, because there’s a lot riding on getting it right.

Census undercounts have historically plagued Texas, and with billions of federal dollars at stake for health care, schools and immunizations, officials say the state could lose millions if the count is not accurate in 2010.

With the census just a year away, communities have organized “Complete Count Committees” to urge residents to participate.

An audit of the past census, conducted almost a decade ago, found that 373,567 Texans were not counted, or 1.76 percent of the state’s population, for an estimated loss of $2,913 per person — or $1 billion — in federal funds from 2002 to 2012.

That census was recalculated, and it was determined that there was a half a percent nationwide overcount, which shows the difficulties in getting an exact figure.

If the undercount had been allowed to stand, losses for Medicaid, child care, block grants, vocational services and other services would have been dire. And the nation’s eight largest counties, including Harris and Dallas in Texas, would have lost more than $100 million each in federal funds, according to the audit for the U.S. Census Monitoring Board.

A lot of the undercount in Texas was along the border, but it happened in the big cities as well. Here in Houston, I know that Council Members Melissa Noriega and James Rodriguez are working with the Census folks to get as accurate a count here as possible. The local effort is called Houston Counts, and they could use your help if you’re so inclined. Click over and fill out the Volunteer/Committee sign-up form (PDF) to pitch in. They’re not exactly overflowing with volunteers right now, so every little bit matters. The Houston metropolitan area should be in line for one of the extra Congressional seats that will come Texas’ way in 2011, but it won’t happen if we don’t count everyone.