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Midland

Rep. Mike Conaway to retire

We will have at least three new members of Congress from Texas in 2021.

Rep. Mike Conaway

Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas will not seek reelection in 2020, according to multiple GOP sources, becoming the fifth Republican to announce their retirement over the past two weeks.

Conaway, a veteran lawmaker who represents a ruby red district, has a news conference scheduled for Wednesday in Midland, but did not specify a topic. Republican sources, however, are expecting him to say he’s retiring. His office declined to comment.

Conaway has served in Congress for 15 years, but stepped into the national spotlight in 2017 when he was tasked with leading the House Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The panel’s then-chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), had agreed to step aside from the investigation amid ethics charges against him.

Conaway, 71, is also the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee and has served stints in the leadership of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s political arm. Conaway, an accountant, once used his accounting expertise to uncover an embezzlement scheme at the NRCC.

A longtime ally of George W. Bush, Conaway worked as chief financial officer of Bush Exploration, an oil and gas firm, in the 1980s. When Bush was governor of Texas, he appointed Conaway a state board of accountants.

Conaway joins Reps. Pete Olson and Will Hurd in heading for the exit; Conaway’s new hit before Hurd’s did, but Hurd’s was the bigger deal. The main difference here is that CD22 is basically a tossup and CD23 could now be called “lean Dem”, while Conaway’s CD11 is as red as it gets; he won with 80% of the vote in 2018. All the action for that one is gonna be in March. The only other point of interest I can think of for this is that CD11 as it is now configured exists because then-Speaker Tom Craddick insisted on creating a Midland-anchored Congressional district during the 2003 DeLay re-redistricting. He won over those who wanted to keep Midland in the old CD19, where Lubbock was the center of gravity, and here we are today. Conaway was the hand-picked beneficiary of Craddick’s political heft. Sure is good to have friends in high places. The Trib has more.

This is our most “run everywhere” election ever

We already knew this, and have quantified it in a number of ways, but it’s still worth taking a moment to marvel at the surge of Democratic candidates this year.

Lisa Seger

Before she could talk about her campaign for the Texas House of Representatives, Lisa Seger needed to check on her goats. Seger, who lives with her husband and 30 goats on a farm 40 minutes outside of Houston, had a doe in the maternity stall that was due any minute. “Spring is kidding season,” she explained.

If elected, the 47-year-old Seger, a sustainable agriculture proponent who got into farming after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, would likely be the only member of the legislature with her own brand of yogurt. But what makes her so unusual in the state’s third district isn’t her background, it’s her party—Seger is the first Democratic candidate to run for the seat since 2010, when the Republican incumbent Cecil Bell Jr. was first elected. Seger’s state senator also ran unopposed in her last election.

“I couldn’t remember the last time I was even able to vote for a Democrat in one of our elections here,” Seger says.

In West Texas, two millennial friends, Armando Gamboa, a 25-year-old from Odessa, and 24-year-old Spencer Bounds of Midland, decided to run for neighboring state house districts where Democrats have been AWOL for at least a decade. No one has run in Gamboa’s district since 2004; Bounds’ opponent is a 50-year incumbent who last faced a Democrat in 2008.

Seger, Gamboa, and Bounds are part of a trend. Call it the “Virginia Effect”: A little more than a year after the inauguration, Democrats in deep-red districts are running for office at a historic clip, determined to find and turn out progressive voters in places where no one has competed in years. It’s a sign that the enthusiasm that swept progressive activists in the first year of the Trump administration and led the party to big gains in the Old Dominion and elsewhere in 2017 is still burning heading into the midterm elections. These local races, flying mostly under the radar, could also give a party struggling for relevance in large swaths of the country a quiet boost this fall.

I should note to begin that my wife is friends with Seger, and we are regular buyers of her farm’s goat cheese. Let’s be clear that Seger, Gamboa, and Bounds are running in really tough districts – Donald Trump got 75.2% in HD03, 70.3% in HD81 (the one in Odessa), and 75.7% in HD82 (Midland, and yes that’s Tom Craddick’s district). I don’t know what set of circumstances might be needed to win one of these races, but it would not be something I would expect. That said, there are three obvious reasons why what these folks are doing is important:

– Their odds of winning may be minimal, but they are still greater than zero. You can’t beat something with nothing, and having no candidate to run is the definition of “nothing”.

– Having local candidates to vote for – remember, everyone will have a Democratic Congressional candidate on their ballot this year as well – gives people in these “can’t remember the last time I had a Democrat to vote for” places a reason to show up and vote. Beto O’Rourke is doing a great job getting out to places that seldom if ever get visited by a Democratic candidate, but it’s still the case that someone in Odessa or Midland or the nether regions of Montgomery County is more likely to have their door knocked by one of these three. If we want Beto and maybe some other statewide candidates to win, they’re going to have to do better in these places than previous Dems have done as well as better in the big cities.

– Long term, of course, things can and do change – remember, Republicans were once an extreme minority in Texas. They built up their base one election at a time, competing and eventually winning in places where they had once not existed. There’s no reason why Democrats can’t do well in the not-quite-as-big cities like they do in the big cities, but it’s not going to happen by itself.

That latter point about the medium-sized cities is one I’ve mentioned before – I mentioned it and covered a lot of this same ground in that Rural Dems post – and one I think deserves a lot more thought and effort, but I don’t want to sidetrack this post. What I do want to do to finish this up is to note that right now, Democratic legislative candidates are not doing so hot in fundraising. Some of that as I noted before is due to late entrances, some is due to the zealous focus on the Congressional races as well as Beto’s butt-kicking in that department, and some of it is because the rest of us aren’t paying much attention to State House races. Which, not to state the obvious, we need to do a lot more of, since the Lege is where the really bad stuff will happen if the Republicans have the numbers and the wingnut concentration to run amok again.

So let me put forth a modest suggestion to the big-money types that exist in Democratic politics here: Put together a pool of money to distribute to these lower-profile candidates running in unusual places, so they can at least pay for some campaign materials and maybe hire a manager or the like. I’m thinking something like $50K per candidate, which once you subtract out the incumbents and the candidates in higher-profile races who are already on track to raise plenty of their own money, would probably require $3-4 million all together. That’s actually not much at all in the grand scheme of things – I mean, Sen. John Whitmire could pay for that by himself, twice over – but it could make a real difference in the performance of these candidates as a group, which again would be a boon for Beto and probably more than a few Congressional hopefuls. If nothing else, it would be a loud signal that we’re not screwing around this year. Everyone likes to talk about the examples that Virginia and Alabama set for us in recent months. It would be nice if we did more than just talk about it.

Two more places that Uber won’t operate

Goodbye, Galveston.

Uber

Just days after the City Council passed an ordinance designed to regulate transportation networks, Uber has shut down its service in Galveston.

Monday evening, people in Galveston who tried to use the phone app to order a ride received a message that Uber is no longer available in Galveston

“Due to new regulations passed by Galveston City Council, Uber is no longer available in the city,” the message says. “We hope to resume operations in Galveston under modern ridesharing regulations in the future.”

The council passed those regulations on Thursday.

The rules require that ride-hailing companies apply for operators’ licenses from the city, and require the company’s drivers to apply for chauffeurs’ licenses.

As part of the licensing procedure, drivers have to go through a background check that includes a federal fingerprint analysis.

Uber has objected to cities, including Austin and Houston, who require fingerprint checks from its drivers. In other cities, the company claims that its business model does not allow for the time required to conduct such background checks.

“These new regulations will make it difficult for partners to earn extra money on a flexible schedule and create barriers to entry instead of improving access to reliable transportation options such as ridesharing,” Sharraz Maredia, the general manager of Uber Houston said in an message to drivers sent on Monday evening.

KHOU and the Chron have more coverage on this. I had seen a blurb on this a few days ago when Galveston City Council passed their ordinance, but it was behind a paywall so I didn’t know any of the back story. I did not expect this reaction to the ordinance, but all things considered I should have.

See ya later, Midland.

The rider-sharing sic company Uber has told potential customers it will no longer provide service in Midland County.

[…]

“Uber gives municipalities an ordinance and says pass this or we will leave,” said District 4 Councilman J.Ross Lacy on Monday night. “It is becoming an ongoing battle with cities in state of Texas that they don’t want to follow same rules as someone else.”

Lacy expressed disappointment with the result. He said he personally worked hours on negotiations with Uber. In December, City Council passed the second reading of an ordinance that Lacy said featured work from those negotiations.

[…]

“They (Uber) will not agree to terms of the ordinance because they don’t want to set a precedent,” Lacy said. “I worked a long time and had a handshake agreement, and for them to come back after the fact is disappointing. I negotiated in good faith. They didn’t.”

The Midland ordinance included allowing transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber to conduct their own background checks, which last I looked was a big deal for them. I don’t know if there was more to this story than what this report has, but if these rules were unacceptable them, I don’t know what they would accept. They’re really making the case for statewide regulations for TNCs, which is not a position I ever expected to support.

And here’s another reason to want to get this fight out of the local arena.

A group shrouded in mystery failed to deliver on its promise of a political blockbuster on Monday, in the process digging up new questions to pile upon a tall stack of older unanswered ones. After teasing a big announcement late last week, the group – known as Austin4All – declared that it had gathered enough signatures to force City Council Member Ann Kitchen into a recall election. However, as of Monday evening, the group hadn’t submitted its petition to the city clerk.

Austin4All’s co-directors, Rachel Kania and Tori Moreland, did not respond to an email from the Austin Monitor asking when – or, indeed, if – they plan on turning the petition in. In earlier messages, they explained that they were both in Iowa for the presidential nominating caucuses on Monday night.

The recall effort is purportedly a reaction to Kitchen’s attempts to tighten regulations imposed on transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft. Austin4All’s petition is a separate venture from another petition that aims to bring the regulations to a voter referendum. After announcing that they had collected enough signatures, the organizers of that effort quicklydelivered the petition to the Office of the City Clerk.

If Austin4All’s boasts prove to be true, Kitchen will have five days after verification of the signatures to resign or to face a recall referendum as early as May.

[…]

Austin4All’s existence may predate the city’s new system of geographical representation. In 2014, a group with the same name conducted a petition drive whose aim and organizers raised questions.

The Monitor found documents from January of that year showing that an Austin4All incorporated in Hays County as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit – which are forbidden from participating“in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” When asked on Monday whether that was the same group, Moreland said, “We had no involvement and cannot speak to any affiliation.”

There are no other records of another Austin4All, let alone one that is filed as a political action committee, as the group appears to claim to be. According to campaign finance rules, any group that spends more than $500 must report the expenditures. As of the most recent filing deadline, no such records exist.

Kitchen said that she views the recall effort as an attack on her constituents, who made Kitchen one of only two Council members who were elected without having to face a runoff. “Now they’ve got someone from the outside,” Kitchen told the gaggle of press outside City Hall. “They don’t know who’s funding it, they’re telling lies throughout the neighborhood, they’re not identifying themselves. So it’s really a threat to the people of District 5 who have the representative that they chose. And I think it is a horrible precedent for this new system that we have and a threat for the entire city.”

Yeah, who doesn’t love a faux-“grassroots” organization with secret donors led by a couple of political pros (Moreland and Kania have ties to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) coming in to try to overturn an election? Spare me. I’ll say again, I believe that there is an needs to be room for innovation in the vehicles for hire market, and that cities should find a reasonable way to allow such companies to operate. But by the same token, those companies need to actually abide by the legally enacted ordinances, and they need to accept that some oversight is necessary for the process of doing background checks on their drivers. Fingerprint checks aren’t the be-all and end-all, but they’re perfectly sensible in a way that “take our word for it” isn’t. I still don’t want to see a one-size-fits-all approach from the Legislature, but a law mandating some minimal requirements that includes fingerprints or the equivalent is something I do support.

In any event, the Travis County Clerk has certified the petitions to overturn the Austin ridesharing law on the ballot. City Council there will vote on that next week – they could simply ratify the alternate ordinance put forth by the petitioners or possibly some “compromise” ordinance that everyone can agree on, or it goes to the voters. That will make the month of May a lot more interesting around here. The Trib has more.

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.

Conservation is still the best water plan

The state of Texas needs to do better at it.

As Texas recovers from the severe drought of the last two years, water experts say that conservation is the easiest way to ensure that the state will have enough of water for future growth. Fixing leaks is one method that took on added importance since the drought caused pipes to crack as soils dried out and shifted. But homeowners and businesses also have plenty of room to cut back on water use, especially on lawns, which account for at least half of the average home’s summertime water demand. Farmers, who account for 60 percent of the overall state’s water use, can also save more, though their share is already declining as cities grow.

The need to conserve was driven home by the 2012 state water plan, which opens with the statement: “In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”

“Conservation is an essential part of the state water plan,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist. “It’s part of how we get from point A to point B. It’s also the least expensive to implement.”

The push toward conservation is gathering pace, especially in cities. This spring, Dallas —  a heavy water user, with about 120,000 gallons per year on average for a single-family household last year — announced that it was implementing permanent watering restrictions, limiting homeowners to two days of watering per week. Austin is also considering enacting permanent restrictions — something that El Paso, the driest major city in Texas, has had in place for a few decades.

“I think the best water management practice is to always restrict the use of outdoor watering,” state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said at a committee hearing this spring, in the wake of a visit to El Paso.

But enacting restrictions can be wrenching, especially in places that pride themselves on small government. Both Midland and Odessa — both of them in the perpetually dry Permian Basin — put in place restrictions for the first time last year, amid the worsening drought. “We don’t respond really well to, ‘Okay, the government says you’ve got to do this, and by God you’re going to do it or we’re going to string you up,’” Midland Mayor Wes Perry said last year, as he explained Midland’s initial preference for voluntary restrictions (which did not work).

That sound you hear is my heart breaking for the poor, put-upon people of Midland and Odessa. People who live in deserts should not expect to be able to water their lawns on demand.

To me, using tiered rates to charge a premium to high end water users, and dedicating a portion of those proceeds to fixing leaks, is a cornerstone strategy for conservation. I get that the high end users themselves don’t much care for this approach, but who cares? Let their big water bills serve as incentive to reduce their usage. I don’t even understand the argument against this.

Two water stories

The future of Texas’ water supply sure is a hot topic in the papers these days. I hope that continues after we start getting normal rainfall again.

Story One is about desalinization:

For El Paso and a growing number of Texas cities, the question isn’t whether they have enough water, but what price people are willing to pay to make it drinkable.

Aquifers beneath the Chihuahua desert are filled with brackish groundwater, belying the seared landscape above. Salty water rushes down rivers. And the Gulf of Mexico offers a virtually unlimited supply.

For centuries, Texans had cheaper ways to quench their thirst. But population growth – up 20 percent over the past decade, to 25 million people, and predicted to almost double by 2060 – is driving up demand, just as the supply is shrinking. The latest draft of the state water plan predicts existing supplies will fall by 10 percent in the next 50 years.

But Texas has more than 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, enough to meet current demands for more than 176 years.

For many cities, the cost of desalination – up to four times that of other water treatments, sometimes even more for seawater desalination – is no longer a deal-breaker.

The state’s first permanent seawater desalination plant will open on South Padre Island in 2014. Until then, all of the state’s 44 desalination plants – most of them small, scattered across West Texas and the Rio Grande valley – treat brackish groundwater.

The El Paso plant is the state’s largest, capable of producing 27.5 million gallons of water a day for city customers and those on the Fort Bliss Army post.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” said John Balliew, vice president of operations for El Paso Water Utilities, which worked with the U.S. Army to build the $91 million plant.

See here and here for some background. The good news is that there’s plenty of brackish water in Texas, more than enough to meet the needs of the growing population, at least in the drier western parts of the state. The bad news is that it costs more than fresh water to use, and I suppose no one really knows what if any negative effects there may be from sucking that water out from underground. The other good news is that the need to use a more expensive water supply ought to encourage conservation – using less is always cheaper than finding new supplies. Be all that as it may, I think we’re going to see a wave of desalinization plant construction, which means it’s just a matter of time till we get the first major scandal involving some kind of financial shenanigans having to do with such construction. That’s when you know an industry has really arrived in this state.

Story Two is about reclaiming wastewater.

Wastewater – the water that runs down the drain as you brush your teeth, wash dishes and clothes, shower and flush your toilet – will be increasingly important to Texas’ future. The 2012 state water plan predicts use of so-called “reclaimed water” will grow by about 50 percent by 2060, to 614,000 acre-feet per year, or more than 20 million gallons.

“It takes a little bit of getting used to,” said Midland Mayor Wes Perry, whose city already uses treated wastewater to irrigate the grounds of Midland College and will add it to its drinking supply in 2012.

“When you start talking about drinking water, that is uncomfortable,” Perry said. “But if you look at other places, they’re doing it. It’s a psychological thing more than anything else.”

California, Florida and a few other states already add treated wastewater directly to the drinking supply, but this will be a first for Texas.

I suppose I had always assumed that treated wastewater was part of the equation, so the “ick factor” mentioned in the story doesn’t affect me. We’ve actually been doing a little bit of this on our own, by putting a basin in the kitchen sink to catch water that we use when washing our hands, rinsing dishes, or dumping unused drinking or cooking water. We then use what we collect in the basin to water plants outside, since it’s perfectly fine for them. Baby steps, but I figure every little bit less that we use the hose to water outside is a win.

What do you think about this stuff? Does any of it bother you?

Even in Midland

Fact-based sex education replaces mythical thinking in Midland. And they said it couldn’t be done.

In the spring, public school students in Midland will cross what until very recently was the political third rail of sex education. For the first time, they will be taught about contraception — and how to practice safe sex.

The West Texas town is known for oil and Republican presidents, not progressive social policy. But after watching the teen pregnancy rates creep up year after year — 172 pregnant girls were enrolled in the town’s public schools last year — many in the community realized something needed to change.

“These are girls as young as 13 that are pregnant, some of them are on their second pregnancies,” said Tracey Dees, the supervisor of health services in the district of just under 22,000 students, adding that many of them reported having sexually transmitted infections as well.

Eighteen months ago, with input from parents, staff and other community leaders, the school board decided to implement a new curriculum for seventh and eighth-graders — one that emphasizes that waiting to have sex is best, but also teaches students about condoms and birth control. Midland is just one of a number of schools, from West Texas to the suburbs of Houston, that are moving toward “abstinence-plus” education at the urging of their health advisory committees made up of community members.

“We’re getting calls from all over the state,” said Susan Tortolero, the director of the University of Texas’ Prevention Research Center in Houston who developed the curriculum being used in Midland. “It’s like we’re beyond this argument of abstinence, abstinence plus. Districts want something that works.”

What a novel idea. There’s a part of me that’s never quite understood why this is controversial. I mean, why wouldn’t you want your kids to have the best information? How can you expect them to make good decisions otherwise? I’m glad that even in places like Midland, people are starting to get that. It’s just a shame that so many kids had to be poorly served in the meantime.