April 30, 2008
Medina grand jury reconvenes, indicts wife

This was sudden.

For the second time, a Harris County grand jury indicted the wife of Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina, alleging she burned down the couple's Spring home and damaged two neighbors' homes in a fire last year.

The indictment, handed up Wednesday, charges Francisca Medina with felony arson for the destruction of her home, felony criminal mischief of more than $200,000 for damage to their neighbor's home and criminal mischief, a state jail felony, for damage done to the house behind the Medinas' home.

Four months ago, a different grand jury indicted Francisca and David Medina, accusing her of having a role in the June 28 fire and him of fabricating evidence, specifically a letter he gave investigators about the incident. The indictments were dismissed the next day.

Prosecutor Vic Wisner said he didn't expect any other indictments in the case, effectively clearing David Medina of any wrongdoing. The prosecutor said he remains open to receiving more information about the fire.

Francisca Medina's attorney called the indictment "ridiculous."

"There's no evidence, there's never going to be any evidence, that Fran Medina burned her own home," said Dick DeGuerin. "It was her dream home."

According to this Texas Lawyer story, the new grand jury just heard evidence today. That's a pretty quick result. It also goes into some more detail about David Medina:

Vic Wisner, an assistant Harris County district attorney, says that in ensuing months, new evidence and witnesses developed in the case that warranted a second grand jury presentation. Wisner presented the case to the grand jury.

"We felt we reached a stage that we had sufficient evidence to go forward," Wisner says.

Wisner says David Medina could be indicted later "if new evidence comes forth. But at this point, we're comfortable with the charging decisions."

"If he has relevant testimony we would call him as a witness at trial," Wisner says. "We've examined the law, and we don't think the marital privilege applies."

As for why the grand jury declined to indict David Medina, Wisner says "I think that will be obvious at trial."

"They examined his conduct and didn't feel it was criminal conduct, or they felt there was criminal conduct but there wasn't probable cause,'' Wisner says, speaking generally about the grand jury decision. "But, I can promise, it will all be covered at trial."

Boy, there's a teaser for you. The report I saw on KHOU said that prosecutors have found away to get around the spousal privilege exception. It didn't go into detail, and it quoted Dick DeGuerin scoffing at the notion, so who knows what they have in mind. I have a feeling this trial, should it get that far, will be covered pretty extensively.

One more thing, from the Chron:

Shortly after [former DA Chuck] Rosenthal moved to dismiss the [January] indictments, two grand jury members publicly denounced Rosenthal's unwillingness to prosecute, a rare move for the group whose actions are typically secret. They alleged that Rosenthal's actions were politically motivated.

The next week, District Judge Jim Wallace, who presided over a hearing to determine whether the two jurors were in contempt for speaking about the grand jury proceeding, criticized the district attorney's office for not supporting the grand jury's decision to indict the Medinas.

Wallace would dismiss the entire grand jury because of a procedural error by the district's attorney's office.

Members of the grand jury subsequently filed a lawsuit against Rosenthal for permission to discuss the evidence they heard while they were empaneled.

Before the indictments were handed up Wednesday, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, apparently coincidentally, said Scott Durfee, general counsel for the Harris County District Attorneys Office.

Jeffrey Dorrell, one of those grand jurors, is quoted in the Texas Lawyer story saying he feels they have been vindicated by this result, and that the second grand jury was not as kind to Mrs. Medina as they were. Some background on that saga can be found here, here, and here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Kelley to get $1.4 million

It's a lot less than what he asked for, but Lloyd Kelley will still get a lot of money out of the Ibarra case.

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Harris County to pay more than $1.4 million in legal fees to two brothers who won a record settlement resolving their wrongful arrest lawsuit.


In his ruling approving the attorneys' fees Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt blamed Harris County for refusing to settle the case, even though it had been advised by its own legal expert to do so.

"The tragedy, in the court's opinion, is that this vast expenditure of time on both sides was driven primarily by Harris County's mindset that has proven impervious to the truth, even though that truth was presented more than 5,000 billable hours earlier," Hoyt wrote.

Sounds like Judge Hoyt agreed with Kelley's argument to some extent, but wasn't willing to take it all the way to Kelley's conclusion that the county deserved to be charged more as a way of imposing "punitive" damages.

Harris County also used 26 trial and appellate attorneys on the case, expending nearly $2.3 million in billable hours, when two to four attorneys would have been "more than sufficient," Hoyt wrote.

"In part, this accounts for the factious tone of the litigation as experienced by the court and, as well, the absence of leadership in the handling of Harris County's business," he wrote.

Ouch. This case may be over, but with quotes like that out there, you can count on hearing about it again this fall.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Metro changes contractors

I'm not sure how big a deal this is.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials announced Tuesday they have ended talks with Washington Group International to be prime contractor on four planned light rail lines, saying the two sides were "hundreds of millions" of dollars apart.

Metro now will try to reach an agreement with Parsons Transportation Group, which ranked second among three candidates for the job when WGI was chosen in January 2007, Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson said.

Wilson said WGI will be compensated $77 million for design and engineering work to date, most of which has been paid. He said Parsons will build on that head start, allowing the projects to move forward on schedule.

The Metro board last week approved paying Parsons up to $12 million for work it will perform through December.

Metro announced the change at a hastily called news conference.

According to Miya, the topic of the press conference was not known to the attendees, or even to some Metro vice presidents, and City Hall didn't know it was coming. That's a little odd.

Wilson said Metro and WGI were "hundreds of millions" apart on the cost of the project and on how to share various risks that could affect costs -- such as delays, inflation, governmental action and unforeseen environmental impacts. The two sides had been in negotiations for a year.


A financial capacity analysis prepared for Metro this month put the cost of the entire Metro Solutions Phase 2 plan at $2.6 billion. However, that includes a fifth light rail project, the University line, which is longer and likely to be more costly than the others.

Wilson said Metro plans to start construction on the East End line in June and on the North and Southeast lines in September. Construction on the Uptown line is expected to depend on funding for the University line.

I don't know if this is going to add delays to the construction schedule, or if it's removing obstacles by getting past this impasse. The report I saw on KHOU last night (which for some reason I can't find on their site now) says Metro plans to break ground on the East and North lines in June, and still expects to meet the 2012 date for completion. It also said they expect to hear from the FTA about funding in July. Here's hoping for good news on that score.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The appeals courts

Looking at an email I received inviting me to a fundraiser for one of the candidates for the 14th Court of Appeals got me to thinking about those races yesterday. The Appeals Courts - the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals include Harris County - are sort of in-between races, as they cover a ten-county area, with Harris being about two-thirds of the voting population. As we know, in 2006 Jim Sharp carried Harris County in his race for the 1st Court of Appeals, Place 9, but not by enough. Here's how that broke down:

County Sharp Alcala
Harris 277,820 276,529
Others 120,010 130,209

Sharp won 50.1% in Harris County. Had he won 51.1% - actually, 51.0% would have sufficed - he'd have won the election, as his winning margin in Harris County would have swamped his losing margin elsewhere.

Basically, if you win Harris County by enough, you will win a seat on one of these benches pretty much regardless of what happens in the other counties. So how much is enough? To answer that, let's look at the other two contested Appeals Court races in recent years: Leora Kahn versus Richard Edelman in 2006, and Sharo versus Evelyn Keyes in 2004.

County Kahn Edelman Kahn % Deficit 2008 %
Harris 264,679 286,575 48.01 21,896 52.42
Others 107,825 139,942 43.52 32,117 43.52

County Sharp Keyes Sharp % Deficit 2008 %
Harris 478,352 538,788 47.03 60,436 52.60
Others 185,901 242,048 43.44 56,147 43.44

The "2008 %" column represents the percentage that the Democratic candidate would need in Harris County to overcome a performance at the same level in the other counties, assuming the proportion of Harris/non-Harris votes is the same. The math is in this Excel spreadsheet if you're curious. To put it in simple terms, as I see it, 51% in Harris County will require a strong effort elsewhere (Sharp had 48% elsewhere in 2006) to be competitive. A 52% showing in Harris puts you well within range. Win 53% in Harris, and you'll almost be surely be called Your Honor at this time next year.

I think this is doable, and it's consistent with the vote total target that I understand other countywide candidates have been told to shoot for. Obviously, you can hedge your bets by trying to improve in places like the reasonably Dem-friendly counties like Galveston and hopefully Dem-trending ones like Fort Bend, but the fat target is Harris, and that's where I expect the bulk of effort to be.

As it happens, as I was puzzling through this, I got a tip that another Appeals Court seat will be up for grabs in November. Rumor has it that Justice Wanda Fowler, who ran unopposed for a six-year term in 2006, will be stepping down in May. My understanding is that the party chairs for the ten counties that this Appeals Court covers will then get together and name candidates to replace her, with each chair getting one vote. At this point, that's all I know. Fee free to speculate about who else you might see on your increasingly crowded ballot this year.

UPDATE: I have now been informed that Governor Perry has convinced Justice Fowler to wait till later this year before stepping down, as that would allow the replacement he names to not have to run until 2010. Needless to say, I'm not the least bit surprised by this. And I think it can be taken as a sign that the Governor and his cronies are worried about these elections.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
If you don't have the cash, don't get the disease

This WSJ article is really scary.

Hospitals are adopting a policy to improve their finances: making medical care contingent on upfront payments. Typically, hospitals have billed people after they receive care. But now, pointing to their burgeoning bad-debt and charity-care costs, hospitals are asking patients for money before they get treated.

Hospitals say they have turned to the practice because of a spike in patients who don't pay their bills. Uncompensated care cost the hospital industry $31.2 billion in 2006, up 44% from $21.6 billion in 2000, according to the American Hospital Association.

The bad debt is driven by a larger number of Americans who are uninsured or who don't have enough insurance to cover medical costs if catastrophe strikes. Even among those with adequate insurance, deductibles and co-payments are growing so big that insured patients also have trouble paying hospitals.

The story is built around the case of a Lake Jackson woman who contracted leukemia and has had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in cash up front to MD Anderson Hospital to receive care. Read it and ask yourself what might happen to you if you were in her position.

On a related note, since many long-term illnesses are really disabilities of some kind, you might care to know what the Presidential candidates' positions are on the subject. Michael Berube explains it all to you, in detail. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Build green

I like the sound of this.

Houston builders will have to incorporate "green" design techniques such as heat-trapping vestibules and "cool roofs" that deflect sunlight under a proposed new energy code for commercial buildings.

The City Council could pass the new code for commercial buildings on Wednesday. A new residential code also is being developed and could come before the council next month.

Houston adopted its first energy codes in 2002 in response to a state mandate. This would be the first update, and it is decidedly more "green" than its predecessor.


The code would require simple things like covers for heated pools. But it delves into specific material requirements for required "cool roofs" that absorb less solar radiation. Acceptable types of window glass would have to strike a balance between energy insulation and a good view, Blake said.

New buildings of at least four stories would be required to have vestibules to prevent Houston's hot, humid air from rushing in when doors open and close. That was an addition to the engineering code created especially for the city's climate, said Bob Burch, an engineer with Carter & Burgess and a member of the city's Construction Industry Council. The CIC, an umbrella association for various builders groups, worked with the city on the new code.

Burch chaired the code-writing committee, which included city officials and representatives from contracting, real estate, architecture and green building organizations.

One would hope this means there isn't any organized opposition to this plan. At the very least, the article doesn't quote any opponents.

Burch said many of the requirements would pay for themselves in three years, or less.

"The entire industry is going toward the green," he said. "These are all things that are industry-proven and can be done and should be done."

I presume one reason for codifying this, beyond simply making a statement that the city believes in it, is that there will always be some builders who don't believe in it, or who'd rather take the short-term savings and cut corners. This is why I prefer a regulatory approach to a voluntary one.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The small county effect in the RRC runoff

A reader named Kay sent me a link to this Google spreadsheet, which shows how counties that had more than 10% turnout in the Democratic primary runoff voted in the Railroad Commissioner race. Short answer: Mark Thompson did pretty well there.


Henry votes Henry % Thompson votes Thompson %
32,385 37.85 53,183 62.15


Henry votes Henry % Thompson votes Thompson %
24,776 36.68 42,771 63.32

These 22 counties have just over 379,000 registered voters among them - which is to say, about as many as there are in Collin County, a little less than fiver percent of the statewide total - but they accounted for 34% of the runoff turnout, and gave Thompson more than half of his 36,000-vote margin of victory.

I presume a lot of these counties, like Webb, had local runoffs going on that drove the turnout totals. As for why Thompson did well in them, it's likely as I said before: having collected nearly a million votes in March, he was the name-ID leader, and coasted home on that. How he got to that position will remain a mystery on par with the fate of Jimmy Hoffa, but I think we've flogged that horse sufficiently. Anyway, I don't know how much light this really shines on things, but I love numbers, and these were interesting. Thanks to Kay for pointing them out to me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 29, 2008
Where the voter ID battle goes from here

After yesterday's Supreme Court ruling, voter ID was the hot topic among legislators.

"That's very encouraging for those of us who worked so long and hard on that," said state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, lead author of a voter ID bill last year. "It has to help those of us who want to see our election process be protected so that only those who are qualified are able to vote."

The legislation passed the Texas House but failed in the Senate, where 11 members united to block the bill from consideration.

And the same would happen next year if a similar voter ID bill reaches the Senate, several Democratic members warned Monday.

"Just because the court decision indicates that it's legal doesn't mean that it's right," said Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston. "The Supreme Court doesn't have a vote in the Texas Legislature."

Gallegos risked his recovery from a liver transplant last spring by remaining in the Capitol and providing the decisive vote in blocking the bill. Senate rules allow 11 members to block legislation they consider objectionable, and Democrats needed Gallegos' presence.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Republicans who wanted the voter ID bill almost got their way on a roll-call vote when Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was out with the flu. But Uresti rushed into the Senate chamber from a nearby apartment just moments before Dewhurst called his name.

Eye on Williamson, who links to other stories and reactions to the ruling, suggests that electing Joe Jaworski and Wendy Davis to the Senate would help prevent the 2009 edition of a voter ID bill passing out of the Lege. While I wholeheartedly agree with his prescription, I fear that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in his zeal to provide red meat for Republican primary voters in 2010, will find a way to bypass the two-thirds rule and force this through somehow. Frankly, had it not been for the extraordinary circumstances last year, I think he'd have succeeded then. To me, the best line of defense for 2009 is ensuring that a Democrat is the Speaker of the House, because in that case, we won't have Leo Berman chairing the Elections committee, and any voter ID bills that get filed ought to get strangled in the crib. You know what to do to help make that happen.

I'm not sure if I should be comforted or alarmed by this:

Gallegos and other Democrats did say they would consider an identification requirement as part of a package that made voting easier -- such as allowing people to register on the same day they vote.

"That would definitely be a plus for me," Gallegos said.

The 2007 Republican bill's author says "maybe" to the idea of same-day voter registration.

"It's possible that down the road that we will go toward that," Brown said.

"There are some things that have to be clarified in our process before we could go to that. I don't have a problem with one-day registration and voting so long as we have assurance that we can know that those people are not voting in other places," she said.

As always, the devil is in the details. Same day registration would be nice, but not nearly enough in my book. I've said before and I'll say again, the minimum requirement for me includes not just providing photo IDs for free to anyone who needs them, but actively identifying and tracking down those people so they can be sure of receiving their IDs if they want them. I can live with photo ID as a requirement if and only if it's not an obstacle. And one more thing:

State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said the discussion should begin with an assessment of the election system.

"Public policymaking should begin with identifying real problems," Villarreal said. "What we know is that the advocates of voter ID have not been able to bring forth evidence demonstrating that there is real fraud happening in the voting polls."

An honest assessment of absentee voting problems, which would include a critical look at the actions and inactions of our Attorney General, and possible remedies for them, would also be a requirement for me. Let's be sure there's an actual problem for us to claim to be fixing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
As the Rocket turns

We have now officially reached the point at which I feel dirty for ever having paid any attention to the circus that is Roger Clemens and his Mitchell Report saga.

On a day when his attorney disputed allegations Roger Clemens had a lengthy affair with country music singer Mindy McCready, McCready offered no such denial.

"I cannot refute anything in the story," McCready told the New York Daily News on Monday from her home in Nashville, Tenn.

The newspaper described her as "tearful but resolute."

Rusty Hardin, who is representing Clemens in an ongoing steroid investigation as well as a defamation suit against the man who accused him of taking performance-enhancing drugs, said Clemens' relationship with the troubled McCready was friendly but never romantic.

"Mindy McCready is a longtime family friend of Roger Clemens and the Clemens family," Hardin said in a prepared statement. "At no time did Roger engage in any kind of inappropriate or improper relationship with her."

You can read on or Google around if you want to know the more sordid aspects of this, which if true ought to land Clemens in much hotter water than what he's in now. I'm not making any judgment about their veracity - indeed, I'm contemplating whether Clorox or Mr. Clean will do a better job of wiping all knowledge of this soap opera out of my brain - just noting that somewhere along the line, this stopped being about steroids and started being about something else. I will say two things before I check myself in for a lobotomy:

1. Being a known sleazeball didn't prevent Wade Boggs from being elected to the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, Margo Adams wasn't jailbait (admittedly, neither was McCready at the time when the relationship was alleged to have become intimate), and the sportwriters had more than a decade to forget about all that before Boggs appeared on a ballot. Still, something to keep in mind when some upright member of the BBWAA brings this up in 2012 or whenever.

2. I know I'm not the only person to say this, but you think maybe Clemens might have served himself better by making a tearful admission and plea for forgiveness, followed by a quiet settlement with Brian McNamee? Where's a reset button when you really need one?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
A message from Diana Maldonado to TexBlog PAC

Diana Maldonado, the first endorsed candidate of TexBlog PAC, sent us the following email:

Dear Texas BlogPAC and Friends,

I want to thank you and your donors for your generous contribution to my campaign. We will use your contribution to communicate our message of balanced, progressive leadership to the voters of Williamson County.

I also want to thank you for a great party at Scholz's! The good news about getting Texas back on track is that so many different people are prepared to pitch in their resources, time, and in the case of your party...their singing voices!

House District 52 covers most of Williamson County including far north Austin, Round Rock, a bit of Georgetown, and all of Taylor and Hutto. The eastern side of the district is home to some of the most productive farmland in all of Texas. To the west, high tech workers and busy commuters have settled in the district because of affordable housing and excellent schools. We must honor and protect our rural roots as we plan for and manage the growth of urban areas.

Just like you, I am prepared to do much more than merely complain about the failures of past leadership. I will advocate for affordable tuition, consumer protection for homeowners, state support for public education, and increased access to healthcare for all Texans. I will fight against toll roads, the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC), and road projects that do not serve the people of my district.

As a former president of the RRISD Board of Trustees, I have worked to put the interests of our kids first. I have worked with my fellow citizens and board members to fully fund classrooms while respecting the pocketbooks of local taxpayers.

I am ready for to fight this battle. As the next legislator from Williamson County, I will build upon my track record of success to provide fair and honest leadership to my district and all Texans.


Diana Maldonado

Candidate HD52

I'm proud to be a part of this. We will be announcing more candidates that we support soon. With your help, we will put together a great slate of contenders to take back the Texas House.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Rev. Lawson responds to the Chron

In my overview of the DA race, I noted that the Chron took former HPD Chief Bradford to task for the 2002 K-Mart raid. That prompted a response from the Rev. William Lawson, who saw a double standard in how the editorial board holds law enforcement leadership responsible for the actions of its employees. I'm reproducing an unedited version of that letter below:

I am deeply concerned about a recent editorial apparently opposing former Police Chief C. O. Bradford, who is a candidate for District Attorney. Let's say for a moment that, as the Chronicle implies, Chief Bradford was entirely responsible for the officers' behavior at the scene of the street racing raid. Fine. Chief Bradford knows where the buck stops. He took steps to remedy the situation and made the difficult decision to fire the officers who had created the problem on the scene.

Contrast that with Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas and the Chronicle's evaluation of his performance. In June 2004, the Chronicle editorialized about several questionable shootings by Harris County deputies. The Chronicle reported that Sheriff's deputies had shot 19 unarmed citizens over a period of time, six of whom were teenagers. They further reported that sheriff's deputies numbered fewer than half the officers of HPD and produced almost twice as many such shootings over the same period. One person shot was described by the Chronicle not as a violent suspect but as an "erratic driver."

According to the Chronicle: "Burt Springer, a lawyer for the Harris County Deputies' Organization, had this to say about an innocent passenger paralyzed by a deputy's bullet while riding with a suspected car burglar: 'If you lay down with dogs you get fleas.' Such scant regard for the innocent is seldom stated so baldly."

Just a few months after reporting on these problems with the Sheriff's office, the Chronicle turned around and actually endorsed Sheriff Thomas writing, "The professionalism of the department's investigators and deputies is in evidence." With its knowledge of all of these problems-problems that cost Harris County residents their lives-the Chronicle endorsed Sheriff Thomas and praised his professionalism, as well as that of his deputies.

The Houston Chronicle must explain why multiple shootings of unarmed teenagers by Sheriff Thomas' deputies should be endorsed, while a good African American public servant like Chief Bradford should be demonized for his efforts to make the city safer.

I would hate to think it is because Bradford is African American, or because the Chronicle wants him out of the way so that the paper can endorse another candidate. James Campbell would never do that. It is painfully clear that the Chronicle has set two separate but unequal standards for our public officials. Those of us in the black community will be waiting for the Chronicle's explanation-not Chief Bradford's.

-- Rev. William Lawson, Pastor Emeritus, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church

Pretty strong stuff. I will say, as I said before, that it boggles my mind how the Chron could be calling for New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's resignation the day after the news of his prostitution habit hit the news, and yet they never once made any call for Chuck Rosenthal to step down, even after everyone from Quanell X to Ed Emmett had done so. I don't know what standards they have in these situations, but whatever they are, they're pretty unfathomable. A little consistency would be nice.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Ree-C has her say

Here's what my co-blogger Ree-C Murphy had to say (corssposted here) about the Houston Have Your Say event that I blogged about last week. I'm very much in sync with her about what we experienced, and what we hope everyone got out of it. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be involved, and my thanks again to the folks at KUHT and Ree-C for making it so. Lisa Falkenberg also comments.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Can anyone stop the TTC?

So I'm reading this article about opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor by folks who are living on or near the proposed path for I-69, and a question strikes me.

Although TxDOT has heard a nearly unanimous negative verdict from residents of the area, Dennis Mlcak is not sure how much that matters.

"They keep pushing this thing, and it keeps marching in a forward direction, so we can't really wait and see if it will die of its own accord," he said.

The Mlcaks' friends, Dane and Maxine Rudloff, whose property lies along I-10 near Sealy, have been through this before. When I-10 was built in the 1960s, the family had to sell 13½ acres for right of way. The road cut off 50 acres from what was left.

"We could see it, but eventually we sold it," Dane Rudloff said. "My mother-in-law went to her grave fuming about that."

So here's my question: Has opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor been a deciding factor in any race for state office? I'm hard pressed to think of one. The anti-TTC folks claimed victory when Rep. Carter Casteel lost her GOP primary in 2006, and while every vote counts in a close race like that, it was James Leininger's millions that put Nathan Macias in a position to win. I suppose you can count Rep. Mike Krusee's retirement as a win, but it was demographic and partisan trends that knocked him out - Bill Moody scored 47.8% in HD52 (PDF) in 2006.

Beyond that, I got nothing. I thought the anti-TTC fervor would play a role in the 2006 Governor's race, and maybe it did drive some voters from Rick Perry to Grandma Strayhorn or Kinky Friedman (who spoke the most clearly against the TTC on the trail), but in the end Perry won, and he beat back the toll road moratorium in the Lege. If the Governor's race were this year instead of 2010, that might be an issue, though I daresay other things would overshadow it. If it's an issue in any State House races, I haven't noticed it yet.

Another factor to consider:

It is from there -- the ranches and small towns of Walker, Grimes, Waller, Fort Bend and Austin counties -- that some of the most unyielding opposition has come.

Walker, Grimes, and Austin Counties are all represented by State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, who was one of the strongest anti-TTC voices in the Lege last session. Waller and the relevant part of Fort Bend are represented by freshman Rep. John Zerwas, who is also an opponent of the TTC. In other words, these folks already have champions in office, so there's no reason for the TTC to be a big electoral issue. The fact that these four counties plus a slice of Fort Bend only cover two districts demonstrates that however deep the feelings are, it's not very broad in terms of population. These folks may be passionate, but there's not that many of them, and that's not a recipe for success at the ballot box.

If there was an inviting target for their wrath, it would have been State Sen. Steve Ogden, who represents Walker and Grimes counties and is a strong proponent of the TTC, but he won easily in 2006 over a typically underfunded candidate. (Sen. Glenn Hegar represents Waller, Austin, and Fort Bend; he had no Democratic opponent in 2006.) As I see it, until and unless a statewide candidate taps into this sentiment and converts it into votes he or she would not have already had - which is to say, until and unless a Democrat convinces these generally Republican voters to cross over - the TTC will not be much of a campaign issue. The spirit may be willing, but the numbers are weak.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Texas blog roundup for the week of April 28

I'm not feeling the clever intro thing this week, so let's just get right to the business of highlighting the Texas Progressive Alliance's weekly roundup. Click on for the good stuff.

North Texas Liberal analyzed the arguments from Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, and Newt Gingrich in favor of the flat tax. See our conclusions here.

The Commissioner of the General Land Office of Texas is a monumental ass. PDiddie of Brains and Eggs has the dirty details in "Discussted".

Gary at Easter Lemming Liberal News informed his readers about the local elections and other events taking place in a Local Early Voting Edition.

WCNews at Eye On Williamson has This Week's Transportation Wrap-Up.

WhosPlayin resumes his watch on GOP Congressman Michael Burgess, and joins North Texas Liberal in rejecting his "flat tax" proposal as a tax increase on the middle class.

Hal at Half Empty wonders why Texas' junior senator, John Cornyn, doesn't support our troops.

Over at McBlogger, Captain Kroc has a real problem with some of the concessions the City made to a certain developer looking to build condos on Lake Lady Bird.

The Texas Cloverleaf promotes a story about more shenanigans in the Texas Youth Commission, this time forcing a Denton County superintendent to quit before she is fired.

Last week, KUHT (PBS Channel 8) in Houston ran a special on immigration and public attitudes towards it called Houston Have Your Say, which included public officials, activists, ordinary citizens, and a couple of bloggers. Off the Kuff was one of those bloggers, and he wrote about his impressions here.

Vince at Capitol Annex notes that the Texas Association of Business is calling for education reform and wonders if anyone else sees the hypocrisy in that situation.

BossKitty at BlueBloggin looks at yet another VA screw up and continues to ignore the welfare of our troops in the VA Caught In Suicide Coverup.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 28, 2008
Supreme Court upholds Indiana voter ID law

This is a disappointment, but not a surprise.

The Supreme Court ruled today that states can require voters to produce photo identification without violating their constitutional rights, validating Republican-inspired voter ID laws.

In a splintered 6-3 ruling, the court upheld Indiana's strict photo ID requirement, which Democrats and civil rights groups said would deter poor, older and minority voters from casting ballots. Its backers said it was needed to prevent fraud.


The law "is amply justified by the valid interest in protecting 'the integrity and reliability of the electoral process,'" Justice John Paul Stevens said in an opinion that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy. Stevens was a dissenter in Bush v. Gore in 2000.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also agreed with the outcome, but wrote separately.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented, just as they did in 2000.


The case concerned a state law, passed in 2005, that was backed by Republicans as a way to deter voter fraud. Democrats and civil rights groups opposed the law as unconstitutional and called it a thinly veiled effort to discourage elderly, poor and minority voters -- those most likely to lack proper ID and who tend to vote for Democrats.

There is little history in Indiana of either in-person voter fraud -- of the sort the law was designed to thwart -- or voters being inconvenienced by the law's requirements. For the overwhelming majority of voters, an Indiana driver license serves as the identification.

"We cannot conclude that the statute imposes 'excessively burdensome requirements' on any class of voters," Stevens said.

So you say. I respectfully disagree.

Indiana provides IDs free of charge to the poor and allows voters who lack photo ID to cast a provisional ballot and then show up within 10 days at their county courthouse to produce identification or otherwise attest to their identity.

Stevens said these provisions also help reduce the burden on people who lack driver's licenses.

While I agree that this mitigates the bad effects to some degree, I don't think it's sufficient. Moreover, what's the minimum requirement for a state that wants to pass a voter ID law to clear the not-too-burdensome hurdle? Does it have to try to distribute free IDs to people who don't have driver's licenses, or does it just have to make them available to those who can somehow travel to (say) a DPS field office to pick one up? Because I guarantee that when the Texas Lege tries again on this, it will do the very least it has to do to pass muster.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
HGLBT's Jenifer Pool achieves a milestone

This is cool. From a press release from the HGLBT Political Caucus.

The Houston GLBT Political Caucus is pleased to announce the appointment of Jenifer Pool, President of the Caucus, to the City of Houston's Building and Standards Commission.

Jenifer Pool was appointed by Mayor Bill White and unanimously confirmed by City Council to serve on the Buildings and Standards Commission. The first transgendered person to serve in an elected position in the City of Houston, Jenifer's expertise will allow her to do her duties on the Commission, the purpose of which is hearing and determining cases concerning alleged violations of ordinances relating to dangerous buildings and vector conditions.

"As a Professional Engineer who could not get a job with the City in 1976 because I was transgendered, and as the architect of the 1980 repeal of the City ordinance that made all transgenders subject to arrest, I am very satisfied with the positive changes in City government as evidenced by Ms. Pool's talents and education being fully utilized in this manner," said Phyllis Randolph Frye, a recognized leader in the national GLBT civil rights movement, and a partner in the Houston law firm of Simoneaux and Frye, PLLC.

"To be nominated by the Mayor and unanimously elected by City Council, shows the high regard they hold for Jenifer's expertise and leadership skills in the Caucus and the community," said Maria C. Gonzalez, Vice President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. The Honorable Jenifer Pool will serve a two year term on the Commisssion.

The Caucus meets the first Wednesday of every month at 7:00 p.m. The monthly meeting is held at the Havens Center, 1827 W. Alabama. Visitors are encouraged to attend the monthly meeting to learn more about the Caucus. For more information about the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, Caucus events, or volunteer opportunities call 713-521-1000, email [email protected], or visit our web site at www.theCaucus.org.

It's a cliche to say we've come a long way, but it's also true. And it's a very good thing. My congrats to Jenifer Pool on the appointment. I know she'll do a fine job.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The rise of Hispanic voting power

Pretty good article today on the growth of Latino voting power in Houston and Harris County.

As the babies born then turn old enough to vote in this year's November election, politics in the Houston area has a much deeper Hispanic tinge. Hispanics on the voter rolls have nearly tripled in the passing of a generation; the number of Hispanic lawmakers from here is inching upward. The Democratic Party, if it captures county judgeships and government positions for the first time in 14 years, will owe much to a stimulated Hispanic vote and Hispanic candidates, such as Houston councilman Adrian Garcia, who is running for sheriff.

Harris County, however, continues to hold the largest Hispanic population in the United States that has never sent a Hispanic to Congress. And there is a staggering gap between its burgeoning vote of nearly 300,000 and the total number of Hispanic residents, 1.48 million, which includes all ages and residency statuses. Latinos make up 15 percent of the county's electorate and 38-plus percent of its population, the U.S. Census Bureau and Harris County officials report.

In other words, the so-called sleeping giant, known as the Houston area's fastest-growing voting group, has been making slow progress without yet achieving dominant clout.

"It's not asleep, and it's not a giant," University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. "It has come to be a normal-size political animal."

Houston political consultant Marc Campos remarked otherwise: "The giant is waking up, and he's making a pot of coffee."

Couple points here. There's really only one Conngressional district in Harris County that might be won by a Hispanic candidate, and that's the 29th. Since beating Ben Reyes (twice) and Felix Fraga in primaries in the 90s, Rep. Gene Green hasn't been seriously challenged for that seat. When he retires - if I had to guess, I'd pick November of 2014 as the open-seat election for the 29th - it will almost surely be won by someone like State Rep. Ana Hernandez or State Rep.-to-be Carol Alvarado. That person would not be the first Hispanic Congressperson from Houston, however, because we are a lock to get a new seat out of the 2010 reapportionment, and I'd bet on it being an opportunity district for a Hispanic candidate. And so we'll likely go from zero to two in two elections.

As for the size and wakefulness of the Hispanic electorate, I'd call it a mixed bag. Armando Walle's victory over Craddick Dem Kevin Bailey was a big step forward, and the HISD bond referendum of 2007 probably couldn't have passed without strong support in the Latino community. On the other hand, given the chance to elect the first Hispanic At Large City Council member since Orlando Sanchez in 1999, nobody came out to support Joe Trevino in his runoff against Jolanda Jones. I think it's one thing to elect Latinos in districts that were drawn to elect Latinos, and another to win city- or countywide.

Speaking of the newly-elected Rep. Walle:

For the freshest examples of the stirrings, look near the railroad tracks by the Eastex Freeway in northeast Houston. This is where Armando Walle grew up with his single mother, Connie, who was 16 when he was born. Walle, now 30, became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. After earning a degree from the University of Houston, Walle worked as a staffer for elected officials at the city and county levels and is employed by U.S. Rep. Gene Green, the Anglo Democrat who represents a mostly Hispanic Houston district.

On his first venture as a candidate, Walle defeated longtime state Rep. Kevin Bailey in this year's Democratic primary in a northside district. District 140's population was mostly Hispanic for many years, and by 2004 most of its registered voters were Hispanic, too, according to the Willie C. Velasquez Institute, which studies Hispanic voting in the Southwest.

Other Hispanics besides Walle ran against Bailey in previous primaries, when voter turnout was lackluster. This year, Democrats across Harris County swarmed the polls for the presidential primary contest, and the wave carried Walle to victory. He also had campaigned door-to-door, losing about 20 pounds in the walking process, he said, and his mother apparently earned him some votes by calling voters and speaking to them in English or Spanish.

"We knew if we were going to win, that this would be the time to strike," he said, "and the stars aligned."

Indeed they were. And it should be noted that a late mailer by Rep. Green in support of Walle helped put him over the top. Reportedly, quite a few people gave their vote to Walle after hearing that Green had endorsed him. So in case you were wondering why nobody has bothered to challenge Gene Green in a primary over the past decade, that would be the reason: His constituents really like him. Sometimes it's just that simple.

About 115,000 Spanish surname voters cast ballots in the county in the last presidential election and, Murray said, the pattern indicates at least 150,000 Hispanic votes this time. But with Houston Hispanic and outgoing state Rep. Rick Noriega leading the statewide Democratic ticket as a candidate for U.S. senator, the statistic could reach 175,000. "Now," Murray said of that scenario for the Hispanic vote, "you are finally getting into the league where you become a city or countywide force."

Numbers-wise, the Latino vote was about 10.8% of the total in Harris County in 2004. Based on equivalent turnout, Dr. Murray's estimates would represent 14.0% or 16.4% of the total. However, everyone expects turnout to be higher this year; based on an expected total of 1.2 million (there was 1.068 million in 2004), Latinos would be 12.5% or 14.6% of the whole. That's a nice improvement, but there's still a lot of room for growth.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Early overview of the County Judge race

The race for Harris County Judge is a little hard to get your arms around, because there hasn't been anything like it in so long. Never mind a competitive race, there hasn't even been a contested race in November for Harris County Judge since 1998. So this year, for the first time in at least a decade, we have a chance to have a real debate about the direction and philosophy of our county's government, which easily has the highest power-to-public awareness ratio of any entity that will be on the Harris County ballot this year.

In some ways, of course, all of the countywide elections are like this, because we haven't really had any truly competitive races in at least that long; the 2006 campaign for County Treasurer, the least relevant office around, is the closest thing I can think of in recent memory. But at least we've had Democrat-versus-Republican matchups for other offices in recent years. Given that the County Judge is the CEO of county government, and given that we're already talking about the 2009 Mayor's race and the 2010 Governor's race, I really hope we'll take advantage of this apparently rare opportunity.

The good news is that this race should not get drowned out by whatever else is going on this fall. Democrat David Mincberg already has a sizable campaign war chest, and you can be sure that Republican Ed Emmett will be similarly well-armed. These guys will get press coverage, and they'll be on your TV and radio and in your mailbox. In all likelihood, it will be harder to cast an uninformed ballot for one of them than an informed ballot.

Further, there's a good chance that they'll spend a decent amount of their campaign resources talking about actual issues that have an actual impact on the lives of actual residents in Harris County. Taxes, flood control, transportation, the hospital district, a public defender's office, how much we spend on things like jails, that sort of thing. Both candidates position themselves are get-things-done business types, so unlike a Mincberg-Bacarisse matchup, ideology should be of lesser focus than in some races. Neither candidate has any obvious baggage (though I'm sure they've both got some busy oppo researchers buzzing away to find out what may be out there that isn't obvious), which again gives hope that they'll be talking about substantive matters rather than trivia. For those of you who like to complain about politics as sport and too much negativity and stuff like that, this may be your best chance to see a campaign conducted as you say you want them to be. No guarantees, of course, but at least the potential is there.

So, given the similarities in style and background, and assuming no ginormous skeletons emerge from someone's closet, how do these two guys distinguish themselves? For Emmett, I would think the task is to project himself as the guy in charge who knows what he's doing and is getting things done but who isn't connected to any of that bad stuff you might have heard about concerning some other Republicans in county government. He's both a new face for a change-hungry electorate, and a familiar one with his hand comfortably on the tiller and guiding us all through these uncertain times. It's a little tricky, since Mincberg will associate him with the shenanigans of former DA Chuck Rosenthal and current Sheriff Tommy Thomas, as well as County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, but far from insurmountable. Basically, I think the more he can talk about himself, what he's done and what he wants to do, the better off he'll be. The more he has to talk about external things like what some of these other knuckleheads have done, the worse off he'll be.

Mincberg too will want to talk about what he's done and what he wants to do, but he has to draw a contrast between his intentions and those of Emmett's as well. This would have been easier for him to do had Charles Bacarisse won the nomination, as the differences there, both stylistically and substantively, are sharp and easy to see. Mincberg needs to challenge the notion that Emmett, no matter how fresh-faced he may be, represents any real change of direction for county government. He'll want to talk about ethics, as they pertain both to Commissioner's Court and to other county offices such as the Sheriff, and why it's only just now that this is being discussed at all. He'll likely harp on the projected growth of the county - from 3.75 million people now to 5 million in the next decade or two - and how our always-done-it-this-way means of conducting business needs to change. He'll probably discuss the recently and strongly expressed preference for infill development, and talk about how decisions made by the Court affect the city of Houston, which tends to get the short shrift in terms of resources and services. I'm guessing to some extent what particular issues Mincberg will want to bring up, but the overall theme will be that of the need for a change of direction. The more he can talk about things that aren't being done but need to be, the better for him.

At some point, of course, the gloves will come off, and the two will go after each other in a more direct and personal way. I don't have much idea how that will play out right now, but it will happen. I think the risks of driving up your own negatives by attacking the other guy is a bit of a higher risk than usual for this race, but again, it's hard to say at this time. I know I'm looking forward to seeing this campaign unfold, and I hope we don't go quite as long before having another chance to have this kind of debate.


District Attorney

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Skelly, Doherty among leaders in cash-on-hand ratio

James L. at the Swing State Project takes a look at the "top 75 non-open seat House races this cycle in terms of each challenger's cash-on-hand competitiveness", which is defined as the ratio of the challenger's cash-on-hand to that of the incumbent. The idea is that having $500K against an incumbent with $2 million isn't as impressive as having $150K against an incumbent with $200K. Two Texan Democrats - Michael Skelly, at #2 with more than twice as much cash as Rep. John Culberson, and Larry Joe Doherty at #42 - make the list, while no Republican challengers do. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Workers Memorial Day

The following is an op-ed by Becky Moeller, the President of the Texas AFL-CIO, which I was asked to run as a guest column by Ed Sills. I thought it was interesting and timely, so here it is for your perusal:

On Workers Memorial Day, We 'Fight for the Living'

By Becky Moeller

President, Texas AFL-CIO

Monday, April 28 is the 20th commemoration of Workers Memorial Day, an observance that most Texans have probably never heard of. To working families, though, the subject is one of deep and lasting concern as the labor movement pauses to remember the victims of workplace fatalities and rededicate ourselves toward preventing future deaths on the job.

Legendary organizer Mother Jones summed up the spirit of the day: "Mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living!"

In newly released Bureau of Labor Statistics figures covering 2006, Texas saw 489 workplace fatalities, just slightly below the 495 of the previous year. While Texas ranked 25th among the states in per capita fatalities, the number represents a rate of 4.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, which is above the national average of 4.0. Another 258,500 workers reportedly were injured or contracted occupational illnesses, the official statistics suggest.

Almost all the workplace fatalities involved transportation incidents (202), acts of violence (59), contact with objects or equipment (88), falls (60), exposure to harmful substances (54) or fires and explosions (23). A disproportionate number of worker fatalities occur among Hispanics and immigrant workers.

Monday also marks the anniversary of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, signed into law by the liberal President Richard Nixon and enforced since then with lack of gums, much less teeth.

The latest government figures show that Texas businesses experienced a grand total of 3,491 routine OSHA inspections in 2006. At that rate, it would take 148 years for the agency to visit every eligible workplace for a routine safety inspection.

It's not like there's nothing to be found. A recent round of OSHA inspections of Texas refineries found numerous violations. OSHA workers are conscientious and effective when given a chance to inspect, and they do a fine job when called in to probe deaths in the workplace. When it comes to prevention, though, they are simply without resources to do the job.

What can Texas do to stave off worker fatalities?

For some years now, the Texas AFL-CIO has advocated for a state OSHA to complement the federal agency and focus on industries that have a history of deadly accidents. We believe preventive care is always cheaper than post-disaster consequences: Witness the BP explosion of 2005, in which about $150,000 of repairs could have prevented a multi-billion dollar catastrophe. A state OSHA would encourage employers in the most dangerous industries to stay ahead of tragedy. It would save far more than it costs, both in lives and money.

Many Texas employers responsibly place safety first, but the state's mechanism for addressing the ones who don't is weak. Besides a measured increase in regulation, Texas workers need reasonable access to the justice system when irresponsible employers cause workplace harm.

This week, the House Business and Industry Committee and Senate State Affairs Committee will consider a range of issues involving access to the courts for workplace injury victims. Among the issues: A recent Texas Supreme Court decision that would have denied courthouse access to any worker injured anywhere if the premises owner carried the right kind of workers' compensation insurance - regardless of whether the worker is even an employee.

The Supreme Court wisely withdrew the unanimous decision in Entergy v. Summers after a bipartisan group of legislators argued that the justices had misinterpreted state law. But to protect the right of workers to seek justice when they are injured, the Legislature should consider clarifying the rights of all injured workers to encourage employers to maintain the safest possible workplaces.

The vaunted "healthy business climate" in Texas must include better incentives for employers to keep workers alive and well. That's a basic principle that would honor the memories of the 500 or so Texas workers who die each year on the job.

Becky Moeller is president of the Texas AFL-CIO, a state labor federation of approximately 220,000 affiliates that advocates in the Legislature and political arena for working people in Texas.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Single-serving sites

It seems weird in this day and age to register a domain and create a webpage that does exactly one thing, but that doesn't seem to have stopped anyone from doing it. And I have to admit, some of them are useful, if limited in scope. I can think of about a million people who should not only bookmark this page but who should make sure it's the first thing programmed onto the chip that will eventually be implanted into their heads some day. And where would Mark Evanier be if he couldn't check on Abe Vigoda's status? By however miniscule an amount, the world would be a lesser place without stuff like that. Thanks to Oliver Willis for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 27, 2008
You may say it's not about tort reform, but it is

This front page story about the longstanding battle between a group of homeowners who bought defective houses and the builders who built them largely boils down to this:

The homeowners took photos of tell-tale brown stains under leaky balconies. They collected inspection records showing how the builder had sometimes skipped getting required permits.

They documented how the company changed names and then denied warranty claims.

And they provided their own mounting repair bills.

The District Attorney's Office refused to take the case. In a letter, consumer fraud division attorney Valerie Turner said she thought it would be too difficult under Texas law to prove Tremont "intentionally and knowingly promised performance to the consumer, which they knew would not be performed."

"Your complaint, while very serious, is not criminal," the letter concluded. "We are sorry that civil remedies afforded to you and other homeowners under Texas law ... seem inadequate."

Sarah Reid Ford, one of the homeowners, was confounded by the response.

"We could get dozens of witnesses to say: 'These people cheated me, they defrauded me,' ... and at the end of the day, the DA's office does nothing," she said.

Several years earlier, the Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston also unsuccessfully urged prosecutors to investigate after Stature/Tremont failed to respond to consumer complaints and then changed names, said spokeswoman Carol Ritter.

The BBB ejected both companies from its membership rolls.

Though construction complaints are common, Ritter said, allegations about a pattern of substandard construction and deception by Stature were disturbing.

"They know that if they can string this out for as long as possible, they will just bankrupt everybody," she said.

Though it's possible in Texas to make a criminal case against a builder or remodeler who repeatedly takes homeowners' money and never performs any work, state laws are not strong enough to protect homeowners in many other situations, said Russel Turbeville, chief of the Harris County district attorney's consumer fraud division, who has seen construction-related complaints surge.

"Texas is a bad place to be if you've got a construction problem with your home," he said.

Tort reform and lack of legal protections have left homeowners who believe they have been victimized by builders with fewer ways to fight back, advocates from Home Owners for Better Building and Texas Watch say.

"To the extent there are builders who are gaming the system and preying on consumers we need to have significant reform," said Alex Winslow, of Texas Watch.

But Lee Parsley, an Austin attorney for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, said, "Lawsuit reform is not related to the problems people may be having collecting judgments or arbitration awards, and it has nothing to do with whether the district attorney can attempt to punish a person or company that refuses to pay."

In a narrowly defined sense, what the TLR shill says is true. The 2005 constitutional amendment that capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits doesn't, strictly speaking, have any direct bearing on these cases. But the whole point of the so-called "tort reform" movement is to make it more and more difficult for consumers to seek redress through the courts for wrongs done to them by sellers of goods and services, all to the benefit of those sellers and their bottom lines. They've used a variety of tactics, from capping damages awards to requiring complaints to be resolved by a rigged arbitration process or to go through a stacked commission before earning the right to sue, and on and on. And if a pro-consumer bill threatens to make it through the Lege, pour in the money and lobby like hell to make sure it dies and stays dead. We all know that's what TLR would do in the event a measure to make collecting judgments or arbitration awards or to give DAs more leeway to bring criminal charges against companies that refuse to pay ever gained momentum, right?

So yeah, it is all about lawsuit reform. And don't you forget it, because for sure TLR never will.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Prairie View voting problems, the continuing story

Quelle surprise.

Nearly a year and half has passed since Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott launched an investigation into allegations of voting rights violations of Prairie View A&M students in Waller County.

The lengthy investigation has left some students at the historically black university wondering why so much time has passed without a resolution. Others expressed a more patient stance, saying it is prudent for the state to do a thorough job.

"Something should have been done by now," said student Ashley Slayton. "I don't know think there is a logical explanation for why there hasn't been anything done."

The Attorney General's Office says the investigation is continuing but there is no word on how it is going or when it might end.

"I can't have any further comment at all," said attorney general spokesman Tom Kelley.


The investigation began in December 2006 when allegations were made that about 300 students had to cast provisional ballots when their names were not on voting lists. Local black leaders also contended that more than 1,000 voter-registration forms may not have been processed by Waller County officials.

The controversy surrounding the election and the subsequent investigation is not the first time voting and race have been an issue in Waller County.

In November 2003 former Waller County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman wrote a letter to the county elections administrator saying students from Prairie View did not necessarily qualify to vote locally.

But Abbott later ruled Prairie View students do have the legal right to vote locally. He said the students have to show only that they consider Waller County their legal residence.

In the latest incident, the Waller County Leadership Council filed a complaint with Abbott's office in December 2006, saying the voting rights of Prairie View students were violated during the November election of that year.

I've got some background on the stuff from 2003 and a lawsuit that was filed in 2004 here, here, and here.

Waller County Justice of the Peace DeWayne Charleston, who has been an advocate for black voting rights, said he is not upset the probe has taken so long and has confidence in the investigators.

"In all fairness, I think that Attorney General Abbott has satisfied me and that he has done what he can do to protect the integrity of the voting process in Waller County," Charleston said.

But he added: "I would probably be somewhat disappointed if they came back after taking a year or so with something to the effect that they found nothing."

It depends. Are there Democrats he can arrest? If not, don't hold your breath, that's all I'm saying.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Baseball for Sugar Land?

Is there baseball in Sugar Land's future? Maybe.

"That was one of the ones that was really at the top of the list of things our community would like to see," said Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace.

Wallace says it's too soon to say how big the stadium might be or how much it might cost. He did tell Eyewitness News that the city has already talked to several organizations interested in playing ball there.

"We have had ongoing discussions with a whole host of independents as well as other teams about perhaps coming to the city of Sugar Land," he said.

Because talks are in infancy, Wallace wouldn't' reveal who those teams are. But he does tell us that city leaders recently visited the facility of the Frisco Roughriders near Dallas, not to entice the team to relocate, but to look at their stadium and baseball product as a model to pattern any future Sugar Land team after. One thing he says the city will insist on from all venues built -- construction is not to increase the city's tax burden to citizens.

"We are not going to use general fund revenues to basically pay for something like this," he said. "It has to be self sufficient."

Well, they tried and failed to get the Dynamo, so I suppose all that stadium desire has to go somewhere. Good luck in your pursuit, Sugar Land. Link via Houstonist.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The middle name game

I generally don't watch the national news on TV if I can avoid it; since Tiffany does like to watch, I often can't. The other night during one of the broadcasts, there was a bit on how Republicans in North Carolina were attacking Obama, and it predictably included a clip with some guy saying "Barack HUSSEIN Obama!" And my first reaction to that was, don't these people know that the only reason your parents give you a middle name is so you can tell when they're really mad at you? I mean hell, Olivia isn't even four yet, and you'd better believe she can distinguish between "Olivia!", "Olivia Rose!", and "OLIVIA ROSE KUFFNER!", the latter of course being the nuclear option. So when I hear some angry white guy on the teevee saying "Barack HUSSEIN Obama!", I say to myself "What, did he not clean up his room?" Oh, and that you need to put the emphasis on the surname to get the full effect. You'd think they'd know this, but I guess not.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 26, 2008
Recycle or lose it

If your neighborhood is lax about curbside recycling, it might lose that service.

The city has compiled a naughty-and-nice list of neighborhoods that get curbside recycling pickup, and those with poor participation rates may get booted from the program, officials said.

If fewer than 10 percent of households in a neighborhood set out recyclables on the curb, then the coveted service could go to a neighborhood on the waiting list.

"It really makes no sense for us to spend resources if those neighborhoods are not going to participate," said Harry Hayes, director of the city's Solid Waste Management Department.

The city did two house-by-house counts in 2006 to gauge participation. One count took place after a $350,000 marketing outreach effort by the city.

The problem of insufficient participation in curbside recycling goes back a ways. If you remember the report from last year about imposing a fee for heavy trash pickup, some of the revenue from that was supposed to be used on recycling efforts. I really don't know why this service is so underutilized, and I think it's time - past time - for the city to do a real PR/education blitz to get more people to use it. This is exactly the kind of thing that would be ideal for a public/private partnership, as local businesses can help by pushing the concept in their offices as well. Ideally, the recycling program should be a moneymaker for the city. The fact that it's not, at least as of 2005, is a tragedy and a big missed opportunity.

Garden Oaks is one neighborhood that could lose the service. It had a 9 percent participation rate.

"I would be very upset," said Ivan Mayers, vice president of the civic club. "The city shouldn't be reducing recycling, they should be trying to increase it."

Mayers said the community deserves some more time and education.

"Garden Oaks is a neighborhood that's changing," he said. "We have a lot of older retired people and they're not really used to recycling, but we're getting a lot of younger, up-and-coming people, and they're very environmentally conscious."

Mayers said he will ask for a city official to come speak at the civic club meetings.

I have no problem with giving these neighborhoods one last chance. But let's get on with it. If there are other neighborhoods that will actually use the service, they need to be allowed to do so.

On a related note, I like this idea as well.

Houston could offer citywide recycling of "wood waste" such as tree limbs, stumps and brush as soon as this fall.

The program could divert more than 90,000 tons of trash from landfills, saving taxpayers $1.7 million a year. But residents would have to sacrifice half of their heavy-trash pickup days.

City Council could vote on the proposal in the next few weeks. Under the plan being considered by the Solid Waste Management Department "wood waste" pickup would take place on the scheduled heavy-trash day, every other month. Heavy trash -- such as furniture, appliances and some building materials -- and "wood waste" would alternate months.


LETCO will charge the city $12.45 a ton for the wood. That would save taxpayer money, since the city does not own a landfill and must pay tipping fees of $32 per ton to dump its trash. Officials estimate wood waste makes up almost 30 percent of the solid waste generated by the city.

Seems like a pretty clear win here. What's the concern?

Councilwoman Jolanda Jones expressed concern. She said the recycling is a good idea, but halving heavy-trash pickups could cause problems.

"I don't think every other month is sufficient," she said. "On the north side, and especially in Acres Homes, they need more rather than less heavy-trash pickup."

Then maybe this needs to be done in a way that allows for some areas to get a different level of heavy trash pickup. Maybe that solid waste fee that was discussed last year could be revived for this kind of purpose. I see no reason why this can't be worked out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
TSU talks to Dynamo about sharing the stadium

This makes a lot of sense.

Texas Southern would like its football team to play in the downtown stadium being proposed by the Dynamo, but the extent of the university's interest has been limited to talks with the team.

Incoming TSU athletic director Charles McClelland confirmed the school's interest in the project Friday night but denied knowledge of negotiations that would involve the contribution of funds toward the construction of the building, whose estimated cost is between $105 million and $110 million.

"I can pretty much confirm that TSU hasn't offered any money," McClelland said. "There have been talks but not a negotiation; I don't think we have entered into the negotiation stages, at least to my knowledge."

Dynamo president Oliver Luck said last week that TSU had expressed interest in playing its football games at the proposed stadium, for which team ownership is seeking partial funding from the city of Houston, something McClelland confirmed this week.


"It's something we desperately need for our student-athletes, a brand-new stadium, and we think it would help the overall direction of the program," [McClelland said.]

TSU plays most of its football games on campus.

More uses for a stadium is always better than fewer. The new facility is sure to be better than what TSU is currently using, and having them as a tenant will make the financial picture better for the Dynamo. I hope they can work this out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Austin to try again for light rail

Good luck, y'all.

A consultant hired by the city is recommending a 14-mile light-rail system for Central Austin, not streetcars as proposed by Capital Metro. The system would run from the airport to downtown, through the University of Texas and east to the emerging Mueller development.

The route is essentially the same one City Council Member BrewsterMcCracken and Austin Mayor Will Wynn have been talking about for the past six months or so. The proposal, finished just seven weeks after the council voted to pay ROMA Design Group up to $250,000 to produce it, comes as a "transit task force" formed by Wynn and state Sen. Kirk Watson moves into the final stages ofcreating a process to analyzerail proposals.

No one yet knows how the proposal, which likely will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, would be paid for.

That task force would almost surely analyze this proposal, and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board (chaired by Watson) would have the final say. But it is not clear whether such an examination could occur quickly enough for the light-rail proposal to be put before voters in November. Wynn has said he would like to have a rail vote this year, but there will be a number ofcomplicated questions about costs and benefits.

Watson, who was in South Texas on Tuesday, had not seen the proposal and had no comment. But Watson said that the process created by the task force "will allow any project to be fully vetted in a transparent, open, complete way."

McCracken, at least, said he think that the proposal can make it through that gantlet to a public vote in November, which he said would probably involve voters being asked to approve some sort of long-term debt.

"Yes, I think that's likely," McCracken said of getting the proposal onto the ballot in time.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell has his doubts. He said that only Wynn and McCracken, to his knowledge, had been briefed on the rail proposal.

"The key to this whole thing has been, how's this going to be paid for?" Leffingwell said. "If you just want to put the concept on the ballot in November, that would be one thing. But if you're talking about some sort of financial commitment by the city, I think it would be very hard to get there by that time."

Leffingwell and McCracken are often mentioned as likely candidates for mayor next year.

That ought to liven up their City Council meetings for the summer. Nothing like a little political rivalry to add heat to otherwise mundane agenda items.

A major criticism of the light rail that voters rejected in 2000 was that it would take street lanes away from car traffic. Not so, in this case, McCracken said, although the tracks would be in "dedicated lanes" segregated from cars. The space for the tracks, McCracken said, would come from available right of way on Riverside east of Interstate 35. Downtown, the tracks would run on pavement currently occupied by parked cars, he said.

The tracks, McCracken said, might take two lanes from the bridge over Lady Bird Lake, he said, although alternatively it could use the space now taken up by sidewalks. In that case, a sidewalk alternative bridge, such as the one on the South First Street bridge, would continue pedestrian and bicycle access across the lake on Congress.

The dedicated-lane concept was news even to Charlie Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. The alliance has been firmly behind the streetcar plan, in which the trolleys would share lanes with cars. To avoid reducing lanes on Congress would require tearing up the curb and sidewalk extensions that currently delineate the parking spaces.

"That's a new wrinkle, and we haven't had time to think about it," Betts said.

You can see a map here. I don't know Austin's geography well enough to know how much sense this makes, but I do know that Mike Dahmus, who had previously crapped on the streetcar plan, is supporting this. The comments at BOR are pretty positive as well. Take that for what it's worth.

Interesting sidebar, from the News 8 Austin story:

"We have a responsibility with $4 gasoline coming into play in the future, it's the voters' decision whether they want to move forward with that plan," McCracken said.

So far, that argument hasn't come up all that much in Houston. I think that's mostly because all of the real fighting was done before gas prices really skyrocketed. But as there are sure to be more battles to come, both over the existing Metro plan and whatever future expansion ideas it's working on, I expect this point to be raised again. I don't know how it will play here, but I look forward to finding out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Kirby Drive pain to be prolonged

Miya brings the bad news.

The Kirby re-construction is a four-phase process. Phases one through three are basically going according to schedule. But phase four is a problem. Though work on the final phase isn't scheduled for a while, we've learned the process is getting delayed even more.

Construction on Kirby near the Rice Village may be inconvenient, but at least it's underway. A few blocks north near Bissonnet and Kirby, the construction timeline is about to get pushed back.

"You always wish things were planned better," said Ron Pickett, who owns Charisma Car Wash. Pickett and owners of several neighboring businesses just learned that the contractor who did the street survey for the city made a major measuring mistake. To complete the Kirby reconstruction, the city will now need to take 15 feet of his property along the curb line.

"It makes me feel very nervous because it will be highly detrimental to my business," he said.

The city will now split up phase four of the project into two parts. The portion south of Bissonnet will go on as scheduled with no delays. However, the area north of Bissionnet needs to be redesigned, and that could take a while.

"We'll continue to maintain it and patch it, but we'll redesign it to take into account the additional right of way," said Houston city councilmember Anne Clutterbuck.

Fifteen feet is a lot. I don't know how such a mistake could happen, but that's a huge impact. And a good illustration of why we can't widen streets like Kirby.

This could get very ugly. And man, are things snarled in the Rice Village area, where the northern end of construction-induced lane blockages are. I have officially sworn off driving in the area for the foreseeable future. Those of you who have no choice in the matter, you have my deepest sympathies.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
New digs for the Profs

Every now and then, procrastination pays off. I'd not gotten around to unsubscribing the Professors R-Squared feed from Bloglines because I'm lazy about things like that, and then I looked the other day and lo, they had a new post. Which was announcing that they had moved to a new blog, which has the added bonus of including their colleagues at the U of St. Thomas PoliSci department. And which I'd totally not have known about had I been one of those takes-care-of-things-in-a-timely-manner people. So there! Anyway, this is very good news, so update your links and subscriptions and check 'em out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 25, 2008
TexBlog PAC endorses Diana Maldonado

I'm very pleased to make this announcement.

Last night, TexBlog PAC made our first endorsement of the 2008 general election cycle- Democrat Diana Maldonado, who is running in House District 52 (Round Rock).

The unanimous endorsement is the result of deliberation among the PAC's seven board members from various progressive Texas blogs, and was accompanied by a $5,000 check you made possible with your generous donations.

In 2006, Democrat Karen Felthauser ran an under funded race, but even with only $16,000 she managed to receive 44.2% of the vote compared to Republican incumbent Mike Krusee, who received 50.44% of the vote. Now House District 52 is an open seat, and Diana Maldonado gives the Democratic Party a strong chance to win one of the five seats needed to win a majority in the Texas House of Representatives.

"Diana Maldonado will represent the people of House District 52, unlike a pro-Craddick Republican," stated Karl-Thomas Musselman Board Member of TexBlog PAC and Publisher of Burnt Orange Report. "We chose Maldonado because TexBlog PAC is actively working to end the era of one-party Republican rule in Texas by electing Democratic candidates at every level. Texas families cannot afford another two years of Republican corruption, cronyism, and cuts. Maldonado will fight to improve public education, expand access to quality health care, create responsible transportation policies and protect our environment. She will be a voice that represents the people of her District, and we're proud to endorse her."

Maldonado's endorsement is the first of 5 major endorsements by the new PAC. During the 2008 election cycle, the TexBlog PAC will work toward winning 5 additional seats in the Texas House, allowing Democrats to elect a Democratic Speaker. A net gain of 5 house seats will put an end to the Republican claim of unilateral power and bring back the democratic process to the people's House.

"Texas' progressive bloggers decided to put our money where our mouse is," Vince Leibowitz, TexBlog PAC Board Member and Owner of Capitol Annex stated. "There are masses of untapped grassroots resources across Texas. There are exciting technological advancements that we can utilize to help get more good Democrats elected. Rather than sit on the sideline and Monday-morning quarterback, TexBlog PAC will actively engage our readers and supporters to help take back Texas."

Donate to Diana Maldonado today and visit her website to learn more about our 2008 inaugural endorsee.

You can see some photos from the BOR party at which she was presented with the check for her campaign. It's pretty amazingly cool to have been a part of that, but it's only the beginning. We've got more candidates to endorse and support, and a lot more events planned and in the works. Our endorsed candidates will also be writing some blog posts for us so we can get to know them better - look for Maldonado's contributions next week. And finally, more pictures, from Mean Rachel and Elise Hu.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Thoughts on "Houston Have Your Say"

If you tuned in to Houston Have Your Say last night expecting to see me on the TV, you would have been either annoyed or relieved to learn that I was on the sidelines with a laptop, liveblogging it instead. That was a somewhat daunting prospect for me, as my initial foray into that form of media wasn't terribly successful. You can read my efforts as well as those of my co-liveblogger Ree-C Murphy here and see how I did. At the very least, I think we got a lot more detail than the Chron story includes.

I'm still kind of taking it all in, as is Ree-C, who posted some pix from our vantage point here. I'm going to give a few thoughts here now, then think about it some more and see if I can come up with a coherent narrative.

- I don't know what I expected of this going into it, but I do know that I expected a fair amount of acrimony, and I was pleasantly surprised to see things remain mostly civil. There were a few jabs thrown by UH/HCCS Professor Luis Salinas and Sen. Dan Patrick at each other, but the funny thing is that in between the two segments, and again after the send half, the two of them were talking to each other, in a fairly calm manner. Here's Ree-C's observation from last night:

During the break, I noticed that people were getting together and talking with each other without animous. It was outstanding. It is the way is should be.

Solutions are made person to person. Kuffner said that Patrick and Salinas should be put in a room together and the door locked until they come up with workable solutions. I would agree in principle on that. These people in this room could be the key to working out solutions. It will depend on how far they carry it later...

(Hey, if I can talk to Kuffner with cheer and humor, anything is possible. Right? ;)

Indeed. Though, as I mentioned to someone later, a shared affinity for bad 80s TV shows, which we had, can break a lot of ice. If Mr. Belvedere can't bring us all together, what hope do we have?

- On a more serious note, I have to say that Sen. Patrick was one of the more pleasant surprises for me from this event. He got his talking points in, and he's way too fixated on "sealing the border" for my taste, but I do believe he really wants to find a solution, which is not something I would have said 24 hours ago. This dropped my jaw:

Dan Patrick: "We have to remove the fear from all sides." Calls "amnesty" a buzzword, and says a small group of people in this room with 30 days to come up with a solution would be able to do so. I must say I agree with him. There may be hope yet. Ree-C is with me on this.

He specifically said that the "extremists" on this issue were the main hindrance to a solution. I wouldn't know if he's ever said anything like this on his radio station, but he gave me the impression of acting in good faith. For that I commend him, and next spring when the Lege is in session and bad bills are flying about, I hope he remembers and acts on those words. It's going to take someone like him to change the dynamics of this debate.

- I wish I could say the same thing about some of Sen. Patrick's ideological colleagues, but the others who there representing a nativist perspective gave no indication of budging or listening. The Border Watch guy, who sat next to Patrick, and another fellow whose name and organization I've forgotten (somewhat stupidly, I failed to bring a copy of the guest list home, so I can't look it up), were prime examples of the "extremists" that Patrick said were in the way and inciting fear. Part of the dilemma here is that the nativists have a lot of "facts" that they like to cite that just aren't true. If you can't agree on what the problems are, then you can't even begin to talk about solutions. The fearmongers and xenophobes have to be marginalized in the discussion so that the legitimate concerns can be honestly discussed and dealt with.

- Still, in the end I came away feeling hopeful about this, and I think Ree-C would agree with me on that. Getting these people into the same room and getting them to talk to each other instead of at each other was a good thing, which we need a lot more of. There's still a lot of fear and ignorance out there - sadly, this came through very clearly in the video clips, call-ins to the show, emails that were read, and blog comments we've gotten - and that must be overcome, but for the first time in awhile, I feel like that can be done. It'll take a lot of work, and a willingness for people who agree on some but not all of the fundamentals to speak with one voice about the things they do agree on, but it can be done. Some leadership from our elected officials would help, but this is going to take all of us.

- Finally, I'd like to thank Patricia Gras for doing a fine job as moderator, Julie Coan with KUHT for inviting me to participate, the staff of KUHT for providing us with laptops and Internet connectivity, the panelists for their time and efforts, and my co-bloggers Ree-C and Mizanur Rahman for their camaraderie and for making liveblogging a lot more fun than I thought it could be. Having Ree-C to bounce stuff off of before and while this was going on was a big help for me, and she's right: if we can get along, so can the rest of y'all. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: I see that Michelle, who's been a stalwart in the HHYS blog comments, saw Sen. Patrick in a considerably more negative light than I did. That's fair, and had he not made his comment at the end about amnesty being a buzzword and extremists hindering the debate, I'd be fully in sync with her assessment. Maybe I'm being naive, but I agreed with that sentiment, and I want to build on it. Doesn't mean we should forget what else he's had to say, of course, and she did a good job highlighting that aspect of it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Macias' date in court

State Rep. Nathan Macias, who was knocked off in a ridiculously close Republican primary last month and who has filed suit alleging various frauds and misdeeds did him in, has a date set for his lawsuit.

The first hearing on the suit took place Tuesday in Comal County's 207th District Court, with visiting District Judge James Clawson ruling that he will preside over the trial -- scheduled for May 19 -- despite an attempt by Macias to have him removed from the case.

The incumbent had originally filed a lawsuit on March 31 to dispute the election and subsequent recount after losing by 17 votes to challenger Doug Miller.

Last week, Macias' attorney Rene Diaz filed an objection to having Clawson hear the case, seeking to have a new judge take over the proceedings. But Clawson, who has ruled on numerous election contests in the past, disregarded the objection.

"I frankly kind of enjoy (election contests)," Clawson told the court. "They're America at work."

Diaz gave no reasoning as to why he wanted a different judge, other than that it is a "right that every civil litigant has in the State of Texas." He presented Clawson with a handful of other cases from around the state to try and sway him to step down, ultimately to no avail.

"I'm not disappointed," Diaz said after the ruling. "I would characterize it as a bit surprised that he did not follow the overwhelming statutory and case law that I presented him."

Macias and his legal team still can challenge the ruling in a higher court, possibly the Texas Supreme Court, to seek a different judge. Diaz said any decision to do so would likely be made in the next few days.

"We're considering our options," Diaz said.


The lawsuit claims over 200 voters illegally cast ballots in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, and nearly 1,000 voted twice in the Republican primary. It also alleges numerous clerical errors and possible voter fraud might have tainted the election.

Quick! Someone notify AG Greg Abbott that there may have been fraud committed in an election! Of course, since it doesn't involve Democrats, he won't actually do anything about it. So never mind.

Via Vince, Macias is making other claims as well.

He also claimed convicted felons and mentally disabled people may have voted, and he alleges mistakes or improprieties by election officials, including sign-in sheets and mail-in absentee ballots lacking required signatures by election officials. He also complained that one of Miller's relatives helped hand-count paper ballots in Gillespie County.

According to the relevant clause in the electoral code, a person is eligible to vote as long as he or she "has not been determined by a final judgment of a court exercising probate jurisdiction to be: (A) totally mentally incapacitated; or (B) partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote". That's a pretty specific requirement, so I don't know if Team Macias is blowing smoke or actually can prove that one or more people who have such judgments against them voted in the primary and will say under oath that they voted for his opponent. Seems a tall order, especially in such a short period of time, but that's their problem. The pretrial hearing is set for May 14, so we'll see what goods he has to produce.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
"Vote by mail, go to jail"

This Texas Observer story about Attorney General Greg Abbott's crusade to prosecute mostly minority Democrats on flimsy charges of vote fraud is a pretty good overview of the saga, and builds to some extent on the work that the Lone Star Project has been doing. I have two criticisms to offer, because it felt to me like the piece came up a bit short; as someone who has been following this, I don't think I really learned much new. Anyway, on the matter of Abbott's Democrats-only approach to pursuing prosecutions:

Despite Abbott's declarations that nobody is above Texas law, he has prosecuted no Republicans. "What is especially troubling is that while Greg Abbott's office has prosecuted minority seniors for simply mailing ballots, he has not prosecuted anyone on the other side of the aisle for what appear to be open-and-shut cases of real voter fraud," Hebert told Texas House Elections Committee in January, as the panel held a hearing on a bill making the state's voter ID laws tougher.

[Gerry Hebert, a former chief of the U.S. Department of Justice's Voting Section] cited a 2005 election in Highland Park, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country with hundreds of million-dollar homes and where both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney once lived. In 2005, two election judges, both Republicans, and a 10-year-old boy handed out over 100 ballots, Hebert testified, without checking any voter registration or ID cards. The ballots were filled out and turned in, he said, quoting from several Dallas district attorney memos. The memos suggested a strong basis for prosecuting the judges for not following procedures and counting "over 100 more ballots" than there were "signatures on the roster."

In other words, here was a serious case of apparent ballot-box stuffing--voter fraud--by Republicans, albeit in a state where the GOP holds all the constitutional offices, most judgeships, and controls most county election boards. "Here we are nearly three years later, and Attorney General Abbott's office has done virtually nothing," Hebert told Texas legislators. "Rather than exercise his discretion to act directly on the [district attorney's] request and immediately investigate the voting irregularities and potential voter fraud in Highland Park, Mr. Abbott's office has instead used his office's resources to prosecute elderly political activists whose only 'crime' was assisting elderly and disabled voters cast a vote by mail."

I would have liked to know a lot more about this. If this was a violation of the law - and it sure sounds like it was - why isn't local law enforcement pursuing it? Surely this isn't the sole jurisdiction of the AG, is it? Are there any public statements about this case beyond Hebert's testimony? Can someone file a complaint and force there to be an investigation of some kind? I don't know the answer to any of these questions, and I wish the story had at least asked them.

The other omission is the continued effort by Republicans to require a photo ID to vote in person, which many party leaders including AG Abbott himself insists is needed to combat an allegedly massive epidemic of fraud-by-impersonation in the state. Yet every single case Abbott has pursued has involved absentee voting, which would not be affected by any of the voter ID bills that have been filed in recent legislative sessions. It might have been interesting to ask a Leo Berman or a Debbie Riddle - or if you want to go back a session, a Mary Denny - why it is that AG Abbott has never brought charges against any voter-impersonator. You'd think he could at least find one, given his dedication to the effort and the enormous PR victory that such a prosecution would bring to the pro-ID forces. Sadly, the subject was not explored. So do read the story, but keep these things in mind as you do.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Harrisburg rail resolution progressing

A few weeks back, Metro ran into a roadblock with its East End light rail lines, in that it was denied permission by Union Pacific to cross freight rail tracks at grade on Harrisburg, thus cutting it off from its intended destination at the Magnolia Transit Center. Shortly thereafter, an agreement was reached in principle to do a grade separation for both road and rail traffic at that crossing, with the costs shared by Metro, UP, and the city. Here's an update on that situation.

The East End light rail line will cross over or under Union Pacific railroad tracks and extend to the Magnolia Transit Center, 6948 Harrisburg Blvd.

That decision put the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District, Union Pacific and City Councilman James Rodriguez's office on the same track.

The elevated or underground grade separation will be a boon to the East End community -- and a relief to anyone who has ever sat and waited for the railroad cars to pass, said Sandra Salazar, Metro spokeswoman.

"This will be a very welcome enhancement to that neighborhood -- crossing without having to wait for the train to clear," she said.


The objections raised by Union Pacific in letters to Metro in 2006-07 are being resolved and Metro has been working with the Federal Railroad Administration to appeal Union Pacific's decision.

After the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District was created last year, it became a party to the negotiations between Metro and the city of Houston to determine how the light rail line would cross the Union Pacific tracks and roadways on Harrisburg Boulevard.


Prompted by calls from community leaders concerned that Metro might simply shorten its light rail line, ending about six blocks before the Magnolia center, Rodriguez brought the matter before the local community and the city.

The city has since committed to cover one-half of the costs of the grade separations, with Metro and Union Pacific agreeing to pay the remainder of the costs at that crossing, Salazar said.

"The different parties are now coalescing," Salazar said. "The costs haven't been figured out yet, but at some point it will be determined what the project is going to be and assigning costs to the (partners)."

A "ballpark figure," she said, would be about $20 million, though it could change drastically once the scope of the project -- such as whether the crossing will be an overpass or an underpass -- is determined.


After hearing complaints and concerns from constituents and noting the lack of a Metro map showing the Magnolia Transit Center as the terminus for the East End line, Rodriguez issued a statement April 7 about the importance of "bringing rail to the table" among all parties involved.

The statement helped to kick off the series of community and city meetings that resulted in the agreement where the city assumes 50 percent of the grade separation costs and Metro picks up 25-30 percent.

"We're about 15 percent [short] of getting this thing funded," Rodriguez said.

Mayor Bill White has "gone above and beyond," the freight rail district has been a good partner and the primary parties in the agreement have made promises to the East End community regarding the grade-level separation project that must now be kept, Rodriguez said.

Cost is always the issue, but we're not talking about a vast amount of money, and the grade separation for Harrisburg had been on the to-do list anyway. I don't expect there to be any further problems.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
When all else fails, create a task force

It's that time of the year, isn't it?

House Speaker tom Craddick today announced the Select Committee on Property Tax Relief and Appraisal Reform, headed by the inimitable Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton.

Otto's been around long enough to know that such work can be a thankless task, however dedicated he may be to accomplishing it.

Just ask [Tom] Pauken, whose work product took fire from groups including the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Texas Association of Counties and Texas Municipal League.

For those of you who just tuned in, this is the Republicans' biennial attempt to commit budgetary seppuku by cramming through a bill to lower the property tax appraisal cap or to impose revenue caps, which are even more insidious. They failed last time, and it is to be hoped they will fail again. Better yet, if we elect a Democratic majority to the House, we can focus on more important things, like actually fixing school finance and requiring sales price disclosure so that high-end and commercial properties can be made to shoulder their fair share of the tax burden. In the meantime, the usual shenanigans will proceed as always.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 24, 2008
At the TV studio

I'm at the KUHT studio for Houston Have Your Say along with Ree-C Murphy and Mizanur Rahman from the Chron. We will not actually be on camera - we're off on the side at the "bloggers table", which suits us all just fine. There's a number of distinguished-looking guests, fifty or so, and they are now being told what to expect. There will be three sections - economy and security issues, health care, and education. There will be a short video clip to start, then questions will be asked of the guests. Everyone has been told to play nice. We'll see how long that lasts. Oh, and no mike-grabbing.

The blog for this event is here. I'm going to post what I can as I can, given the limits of my attention span and comprehension skills.

UPDATE: Among the distinguished and distinguished-looking guests: Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, and State Sen. Dan Patrick. No Democratic politicians that I have seen as yet.

UPDATE: Just got our hands on the guest list. Other recognizable names: Former City Coucil Member Gordon Quan, Massey Villareal with the Greater Houston Partnership, Rice University's Dr. Stephen Klineberg, Sonny Messiah Jiles from the Houston Defender, Richard Shaw with the AFL-CIO, and our consensus favorite name on the list, Lura Lovestar, who is listed as a Concerned Citizen. Mike Fjetland, former canidate for CD22, is also here but not part of the on-camera audience.

UPDATE: My first post after the start of the show is here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
So much for the "virtual fence"

Why am I not surprised by this?

In a sign of the challenges facing the federal government's ambitious effort to police the country's border with Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security has ordered adjustments to a "virtual fence" project near Tucson that has been beset with technical problems.

A spokesman said Wednesday that the department will make modifications to the 28-mile project in Arizona. The changes include moving or replacing some of the nine surveillance towers and installing new equipment on them.


On Wednesday, Homeland Security officials defended their actions in Arizona, saying they had expected difficulties with the virtual fence prototype.

The initial project, known as P-28, "was never intended or purported to be the perfect, end-state solution," said Russ Knocke, a department spokesman.


The high-tech approach has not been without its problems. A February report by the Government Accountability Office pointed out flaws in the virtual fence. Inadequate software, it said, had been used and the project had been developed with limited input from the Border Patrol.

The report also cited complaints that it was taking too long for information detected by radar to be displayed on computers in a command center and that some of the radar systems were set off by rain or other environmental factors.

I had an earlier version of this story flagged originally. It had some more detail about that GAO report:

Less than a week after [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff accepted Project 28 on Feb. 22, the Government Accountability Office told Congress it "did not fully meet user needs and the project's design will not be used as the basis for future" developments.

A glaring shortcoming of the project was the time lag between the electronic detection of movement along the border and the transmission of a camera image to agents patrolling the area, the GAO reported.

Although the fence continues to operate, it hasn't come close to meeting the Border Patrol's goals, said Kelly Good, deputy director of the Secure Border Initiative program office in Washington.

"Probably not to the level that Border Patrol agents on the ground thought that they were going to get. So it didn't meet their expectations."

The Border Patrol had little input in designing the prototype but will have more say in the final version, officials said.

Let that be a lesson: Never roll out a deliverable without performing usability testing first. You'll have a much lesser chance of looking foolish that way.

[S]ome critics of the government's approach said it confirms their fears that the feds are acting without adequate consultation with local residents.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the fence plans "a half-baked political response" to voter anger about illegal immigration that has resulted in the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.

"The fence has become more political symbol than deterrence substance," he said.


The fences were part of a get-tough, anti-immigration measure pushed through Congress by conservatives in 2006 and approved by President Bush as a way of placating Republicans opposed to his plan for overhauling immigration law.

But the initiative has sparked controversy since its inception, especially in Texas.Those who live in its path on the Rio Grande have resisted efforts by federal authorities to survey their lands for the proposed fence. Others have complained the fence would divide not only their property but also wildlife refuges and university land.

Chad Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass and chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, said many problems result from the federal government's pushing through the fence projects too quickly. "I think they should slow down a little bit," he said.

But the virtual fence, using high-tech equipment, has been hailed not only by Bush but also by Democratic and Republican presidential contenders.

Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have said the surveillance equipment could reduce the need for physical barriers on the border.

Well, I'll say this much for a virtual fence: It's not as bad as the physical fence that DHS wants to build. At least it won't have the environmental impact of bricks and mortar, and it should be less costly to maintain. But it suffers from the same shortcoming as the physical fence in that it's a shortsighted and narrow-focused response that really isn't a solution to the problem it wants to address. A big reason why so many people are here illegally - and remember, a huge number of them entered by legal means, then overstayed their visas - is because we've created an artificial shortage of immigration visas, and we have such a time-consuming and burdensome process for getting those visas. If we allowed more people in, and we made it easier to go through that process, a lot of the black market that we helped materialize would dry up. This is not an intractable problem. It's a situation of our own making, and just as we made it, we can fix it.

But that requires leadership, and unfortunately there's a lack of that.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus denounced House Democratic leaders Wednesday as "spineless" and little better than Republicans for failing to take on comprehensive immigration reform.

Leaders of the all-Democratic caucus, which numbers two dozen, criticized their party leadership at a news conference for instead scheduling hearings on enforcement legislation and specific visa issues.


Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona called the Democratic caucus "spineless."

"Today my party wants to do what is easy, not exactly what is right," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.

The lawmakers were particularly incensed because hearings have been scheduled on a bill by moderate first-term Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., that focuses on enforcement and would add border patrol agents.

If a Democratic majority can allow such a hearing, "then we are no better than the Republican majority we replaced," Gutierrez said.

I believe they are referring to the so-called SAVE Act, which would be fiscally irresponsible in addition to being bad public policy. And it's co-sponsored by the xenophobic Rep. Tom Tancredo; why any Democrat would want to associate himself with that guy is a mystery to me. I know I hoped for better than this when the Dems took over the Hill last year, but it's been nothing but disappointment on this issue so far. Stace and Marc Campos have more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
No creationism degree

This is good news.

Saying that a belief in creationism -- the theory that God created the Earth in six literal days, as recounted in the Bible -- falls outside the realm of science, the state's commissioner for higher education has recommended that a Dallas-based organization not be authorized to offer a master's degree in science education.

A committee of the Higher Education Coordinating Board unanimously backed the recommendation by Commissioner Raymund Paredes on Wednesday. The full board votes today.

Paredes said his decision wasn't an attack on creationism or religion, but an attempt to defend science education.

"Religious belief is not science," he said. "Science and religious belief are surely reconcilable, but they are not the same thing."

Well said. It boggles my mind that we're fighting these stupid battles, but such is the state of things. Here's a statement from Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller:

"The issue before the Coordinating Board isn't about academic freedom or free speech. The issue is whether the state will sanction the teaching of religion as science. Committee members today recognized that doing so would be a disservice both to science and to faith.

Just as important, our state's leaders have said that they want our public schools to do a better job preparing students for college and the jobs of the 21st century. If we're serious about that goal, then we must be serious about how we train our teachers. Approving an advanced degree in science education from an institution that doesn't really teach science would represent a huge step backward."

I know this won't be the end of it, but I'm going to hope for that anyway. The Observer blog has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Attitudes on immigration worsen

Six months ago, the Houston Area Survey noted more negativity in local attitudes towards immigrants. That negativity is more pronounced now.

The survey found 63 percent agreed that new immigration should be limited, up from 48 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, 61 percent of those polled said illegal immigrants are a ''very serious" problem, up from 43 percent in 2006.

This year, 56 percent favored granting citizenship to illegal immigrants who have learned English and didn't have a criminal record, down from 68 percent in 2007. And today, 43 percent believe immigrants contribute more than they take, down from 52 percent in 2002.

The pessimistic attitudes toward immigrants are striking in an area as diverse as Houston. Nearly 25 percent of Harris County's population of 3.8 million is foreign-born, according to 2006 Census Bureau data.

The local attitudes reflect a nationwide fear of a rapidly growing population of immigrants who don't embrace American culture, reduce the prominence of English and increase poverty that will strap taxpayers, the survey noted.

The backlash against the mostly Latino immigrants is comparable to past resentment over large-scale immigration from Europe, Klineberg said, adding the bias is stoked by conservative media outlets who only focus on the negative aspects of the influx.

''Whenever there have been large waves of immigrants arriving in the country -- the Irish in 1840s and 1850s or the Greeks, Italians and Poles at the turn of the century -- Americans have always responded with antagonism and fear," he said.

This increasingly negative feeling about immigrants, both legal and illegal, first surfaced in the Houston Area Survey in 2005, he said.

''Each year there has been deepening anti-immigration attitudes, and this is happening despite the evidence of successful assimilation and upward mobility" of new arrivals, said Klineberg. ''All the evidence suggests Latino immigrants moving up and out of poverty, learning English and becoming Americans at least as rapidly, if not more rapidly, than Greeks and Italians did 100 years ago."

I said it last time, and I'll say it again this time: I believe economic anxiety,which is now being amped up by the housing crisis, coupled with a more generalized anxiety over things like the war in Iraq, is the driving force behind this. Indeed, there's a note on the sidebar that says:

Positive assessment of the local economy dropped to 57 percent from 60 percent in 2007, even though the official local unemployment rate has fallen.

I believe that when the economy starts to improve, a lot of this negativity will abate. It won't be cured, of course - we'll see this all over again the next time the economy goes into a prolonged tank - but people will focus on it less, and it will diminish as a political issue. We saw the same thing in the early 90s during and shortly after the Bush 41 recession - remember Prop 187? It's just more of the same, though perhaps a bit nastier and more prevalent thanks to the existence of a greater number of communication channels.

That's basically the tack I'm going to take on Houston Have Your Say tonight at 7 PM on KUHT channel 8. Should be interesting.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The Lege and immigration

Don't say you weren't warned about this.

Conservative Texas legislators made it clear Monday that they'll again push for strict state laws to crack down on illegal immigration when lawmakers convene in January.

A chief area they're likely to concentrate on is encouraging local police departments to work with U.S. officials to enforce federal immigration laws, which the House State Affairs Committee is studying.

Texas lawmakers last year provided about $110 million in border security money for state and local law enforcement but did not - despite some initial proposals - require local officials to enforce immigration laws.

Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, told the committee that he wants to see legislative proposals in 2009 requiring voters to show photo identification to prove their citizenship, penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants, and paying for local law enforcement to train officers to enforce federal immigration laws.

As Vince notes, many similar bills were filed during the 80th Lege, but fortunately a lot of them got derailed before they made it to the floor. The best way to make sure that happens again is to make sure that jokers like Leo Berman aren't chairing the committees that consider such bills, and the best way to make sure that happens is to elect a Democratic majority to the House. It's pretty simple, actually. South Texas Chisme and Dos Centavos have more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Tommy John surgery

This does not strike me as being a good thing.

While rates on UCL surgery are not tracked nationally, some of the area's and country's top surgeons said they've seen a significant increase in the number of high-school-aged players having the procedure.

"I would say over the last five to seven years, (the rate) has doubled," said David Lintner, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist who is Eovaldi's doctor and also serves as the Astros' team medical director. "And it goes up steadily every year."

Dr. James Andrews, one of the nation's most respected orthopedic surgeons, has also seen a spike in the number of high school pitchers he has performed the procedure on.

In a three-year span from 1996-99, Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on 164 pitchers, 19 of whom were high school aged or younger. From 2004-07, that number had jumped to 588 pitchers, 146 of whom were high school or youth league players -- a seven-fold increase.

"Without a doubt, it's an issue," said Glenn Fleisig, the Smith and Nephew Chair of Research at the American Sports Medicine Institute, which was founded by Andrews. "The numbers are staggering in adolescents. More and more high-school-aged kids are having the surgery."

The big question: Why is a procedure once used mostly on college and professional players becoming more prevalent in kids who can't legally vote?

There are many factors, including how much a pitcher throws, what type of pitches he throws and whether he has good mechanics. But one factor stands out as the main culprit.

"Without a doubt, the No. 1 statistical cause (of UCL injuries) is overuse," Fleisig said. "In our studies, when a pitcher regularly threw with arm fatigue, he was 36 times more likely to be in the surgery group as opposed to the non-surgery group. That's the strongest statistical correlation in any study we've ever done."

Back when I was coaching Little League, there were very strict rules about pitcher usage. No more than three innings in a single outing, no more than six innings in a week (or something like that; I forget the exact amount). We were dealing with 9 and 10 year olds, and this seemed eminently reasonable to me. I think the real problem here, and it's discussed later in the article, is that kids are playing year-round, in competitive leagues and tournaments, and in those situations, short-term concerns - i.e., winning this game or this league or this tournament - will take precedence over any one kid's long-term well-being. I think the only thing that can be done about this is for parents to recognize that they're not only not doing their kid any favors, they may be actually harming his future in the sport, and for coaches at the high school level to do what they can to discourage this kind of overuse for their kids. I suspect that as with the idea of pitch counts being important, this will take awhile to catch on.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Get ready to get Lost again

Yes, my favorite show is back on the schedule for five more glorious weeks. For those of you who like me need a little something to hold them off till then, here's an interview with the producers which among other things addresses the weird mystery of the four-toed statue from the end of Season Two. It said there were some mild spoilers in there, but I didn't really see anything that I thought I'd regret knowing about now. Anyway, read and enjoy, and remember that Lost is now on at 9 PM in Houston, so check your VCRs and TiVo to-do lists so you don't miss it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 23, 2008
You'd think quiet in school would be a good thing

Would someone please explain to me what's wrong with a silent protest?

In Clear Creek, staff members have been fielding calls and e-mails from parents concerned about students taking a silent vow in support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth at some schools Friday. And this week, Alton Frailey, superintendent of Katy's school district, let all teachers know that -- though no one asked his district to participate in the silent protest -- if someone did, "my answer is no."

His districtwide e-mail on the subject, which confused and offended some teachers, came in response to form letters from parents complaining about Day of Silence, a national, and usually non-disruptive, silent student protest meant to draw attention to bullying based on sexual orientation.

"The degree of exposure and political posturing currently being generated is bringing more attention to this particular subject than is necessary," Frailey wrote Monday in an e-mail that also instructed teachers not to make exceptions for students taking vows of silence.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network has registered five participating schools in Katy, at least two in the Clear Creek school district and more than 20 in the Houston area. The organization estimates that more than 6,000 schools and several hundred thousand kids will keep silent Friday.

Usually these students try not to speak the entire day, although some break their vow if required to participate in class. Many also distribute pamphlets or wear T-shirts, letting peers and teachers know why they're keeping mum. This year, students are protesting in the name of Lawrence King, a California eighth-grader who in February was shot and killed by another student, allegedly because he was gay.

The event began in 1996, but only started getting negative attention recently. In 2005, the conservative legal group the Alliance Defense Fund staged a counterprotest, called Day of Truth, which supports the "free speech rights of Christian students to present an opposing viewpoint to those organizations that promote homosexual behavior in the schools," according to the group's Web site. Then this year, the American Family Association sent an alert encouraging parents to keep kids home Friday if other students at their schools are participating in the Day of Silence.

"There are a lot of misinformation campaigns originating with groups who recognize that the Day of Silence is a very powerful positive thing," said Daryl Presgraves, a GLSEN spokesman.

The AFA did not return a call seeking comment, but one form letter from its Web site notes "by allowing students to remain silent, administrations fail to protect the classroom from intrusive, political exploitation."

Not that the AFA would know anything about intrusive political exploitation. This sounds to me like about as non-intrusive a protest as you could ask for. Short of sending kids home for wearing the T-shirt, which strikes me as being way more disruptive than the protest itself, what would they have the administration do? Punish someone for not talking during the lunch period? That would be pretty ridiculous.

I think this sums it up well:

"I was greatly offended," said a gay teacher with the district, who asked not to be identified because he feared backlash. "What is the worst that can happen? Good Lord, how much instruction could you get done if kids were silent for a day?"

Yeah, you'd think that would be encouraged. We sure do live in strange times, don't we?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Ibarras must settle for their settlement

Last week, the Ibarra brothers sought a hearing to withdraw their settlement agreement with Harris County and take their case to trial, on the grounds that the county violated that agreement by paying the legal fees for two attorneys who had been sanctioned by the judge in the case to pursue an appeal of their punishment. Yesterday, the judge denied their request.

Sean Carlos Ibarra, 37, and Erik Adam Ibarra, 28, sought to return a $1.7 million payment they received from Harris County earlier this month settling their case because they wanted to go back to trial.

Their attorney, Lloyd Kelley, made the request because he said Harris County breached the settlement agreement by appealing sanctions levied against two assistant county attorneys who previously worked on the case.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt had sanctioned the two attorneys, Frank Sanders and Mary Baker, for improperly obtaining and making public Sean Ibarra's medical records during the discovery phase of the case. Sanders' and Baker's attorneys recently asked a higher court to review the matter.

Kelley had also requested an emergency hearing because he alleged Harris County is improperly using public money to pay for Sanders' and Baker's "private appeals."

Hoyt, however, rejected those requests Monday, signaling an end to the Ibarras' civil case.

In his ruling, Hoyt declined to rescind the settlement agreement and refused to reinstate the Ibarras' civil case on his trial docket.

He also declined to find Harris County in contempt or to levy further sanctions in the case.

The judge's decision means the Ibarras will keep the $1.7 million already paid into their lawyer's trust fund on their behalf.

So that's pretty much it for this case, other than the matter of Lloyd Kelley's fee request, which is still under dispute. There was a small story in yesterday's print section about how the money Chuck Rosenthal paid in fines for being found in contempt of court went into Kelley's pocket, but for some reason it doesn't seem to have ever appeared online. Weird. Anyway, barring anything strange, the fee stuff is the only unresolved issue left, and I figure that'll be dealt with soon.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Still looking for a few volunteers

In her report of the first week of business for Green Market, Tiffany wrote:

The biggest challenge for Central City going forward will be extending our volunteer base to cover the new market. One of the reasons we can bring organic produce to the market at such reasonable prices overall is that we are a mostly volunteer organization. We have no full-time employees, and only a handful of staff who draw some part-time wages for certain jobs. It has been a real strain on all of our regular, devoted staff and volunteers to get the new market up and running.

We are in desperate need of new volunteers to work the Green Market. We need people to help with load in at 2:00 in the afternoon to help vendors be ready for market opening at 4:00. We need people to help watch things during market time from 4:00 to 7:30. We need people to help re-load and get people out of the market safely at the end of the day. Imagine a small farm run by a family, with only one person available during the day to run market stalls and sell product. Who watches the stall while you go park a vehicle? Who helps you unload? What happens at re-load time at 7:30 pm when you are tired? The answer at Green Market needs to be volunteers. Right now we don't have enough.

If you think this is a good cause and want to help, please drop me a note at kuff - at - offthekuff - dot - com, or go to Central City Co-Op's web page and click on the "Get Involved" tab. If you have any questions, you can emai me or leave a comment here. Thank you for your consideration.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
More me on your TV

Apparently, my initial foray on KUHT wasn't enough to scare them off, so I'll be back on Channel 8 this Thursday at 7 PM as part of a live broadcast called Houston Have Your Say:

The first show will take a closer look at the impact of immigration on Houston's economy, security, health care and education while also searching for solutions.

Should be a nice, light, genteel conversation, right? There's a blog for this as well, which I presume will include some of the other talking heads as authors. Beyond that, I don't really know what to expect. Tune in and see what happens.

Oh, the one thing I do know is that we were asked to "dress in business or business casual style clothing", so I'm afraid that if you missed me in a suit and tie last time, you won't get another chance for that, at least not this soon. Sorry about that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
BOR turns five

Those of you in or near Austin, who therefore won't be able to see me on the teevee that night, here's something you can do with your evening: Help BOR celebrate its fifth birthday:

April 24th
Progressive hang out Scholz Beer Garten
8 p.m. until the music stops
Featuring the music of House Leader Jim Dunnam and the Bad Precedents.

In addition to music and snacks, we will also have Democratic candidates and elected official to talk about their races. Instead of a birthday presents, Burnt Orange Report will be raising money to take back the Texas House and support TexBlog PAC.

In fact, there may even be a surprise announcement from TexBlog PAC.

We hope to see you there and please spread the word!

I can now tell you that the surprise announcement will be the identity of TexBlog PAC's first officially endorsed candidate. We'll be following that with the name of endorsee #2 in early May. Wouldn't you like to know who that is, even before it gets put out on the Internets? Sure you would. So go to Scholz Beer Garten tomorrow night and wish those whippersnappers at BOR a happy fifth blog birthday for me. Have fun, y'all.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Twelve-month re-ups the hard way

Last year, the Lege passed HB109, which restored some of the families that had been cut from CHIP back to the program. Despite some fierce resistance from various Republicans, it reinstated a 12-month period for enrollment; the 6-month period that it replaced was a major cause for eligible families being dropped from the rolls, as the process is onerous and easy to mess up.

Unfortunately, the same 12-month period wasn't granted for food stamp recipients. But in a rather ironic turn of events, the massive problems with the new eligibility software that the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) uses, that 12-month period was imposed out of necessity.

Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the state Health and Human Services Commission, said nearly 900,000 needy families will have to be interviewed only once every 12 months, starting in June.

"We needed to catch that breather," Ms. Goodman said.

She said relieving state workers of interview duties will help them catch up on a backlog of food stamp applications.

Nutrition policy expert Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans, applauded the state's move.

"They found a solution that works for everybody," Ms. Hagert said.

The state has been scrambling to rebuild its eligibility-screening workforce and improve performance at four privately run call centers after the disastrous 2006 launch of a partly privatized system of social program signups.

Last year, problems escalated again after the commission ordered that a troubled computer system known as TIERS, for Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, handle tens of thousands of low-income women's applications for free pap smears and contraceptives.

Women who had family members on welfare or Medicaid complained that the relatives' cases also were dragged into TIERS. The Web-based system is unpopular with many state employees who say it's cumbersome. The state defends TIERS, saying it makes decision-making more uniform.

As we have seen before, these problems with TIERS have caused the HHSC to run afoul of federal regulations concerning food stamp application processing. This policy change, which for sure would have faced the same levels of pushback from the likes of David Dewhurst had it been part of a bill making its way through the Lege, was made because of the shortcomings of the same privatization fiasco that was passed in the name of saving money. Justice is rarely this poetic. Now perhaps we can see how much better the 12-month window serves the people who depend on this program, and make it an official policy change next year. It may be a strange and counterproductive way to get to a good policy result, but the fact of getting there is what would matter.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Strip clubs speak about the fee

I received the following press release concerning the letter sent by the Comptroller to Texas strip clubs that they had to pay the $5-per-person fee despite the injunction that was entered against it.

The Texas Entertainment Association (TEA) announced this morning that adult cabarets across the state received notification last week from the Texas Comptroller that controversial, industry-wide $5 admittance taxes are due today. The state's surprise notification comes in the wake of the 53rd District Court's March 28 ruling that the taxes represent an invalid, unconstitutional violation of First Amendment rights.

In its judgment, an Austin judge specifically ordered that the, "Defendants are PERMANENTLY ENJOINED from assessing or collecting the tax imposed by sections 47.051-.056." The Texas Attorney General's Office filed an appeal on April 7, and in letters issued to adult cabaret businesses across the state, the Comptroller's Office states that its appeal suspends both the Court's judgment and injunction.

Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Association of Club Executives, a nationwide organization of which the Texas Entertainment Association is a chapter, issued a statement on behalf of all the club owners in the TEA warning that businesses may be forced to close and that workers may lose their jobs due to this violation of the club's First Amendment rights. In addition, she noted that if the state can set aside the U.S. Constitution by filing an appeal, other businesses may soon find themselves in the same situation:

"The Texas Attorney General and Comptroller have made a poor decision, attempting to collect a tax from Texas businesses that has already been determined in court to be unconstitutional. Now, based solely on the fact that the state has filed an appeal, the Comptroller's Office has notified these businesses that the illegal tax must be paid today," she said.

"Cabaret owners may be forced to shut down. In these economically tough times, hard-working taxpayers employed by these legal businesses deserve better than being forced out of gainful employment by elected officials seeking to impose a patently unconstitutional law on an unpopular industry for the purposes of political gain.

"This is a terrible precedent for all sides and should be of concern to all business owners. The bottom line is that this is a narrowly targeted and unconstitutional tax on legal but politically unpopular businesses. The law affects approximately 165 cabarets in Texas. That means it could happen to anyone when political winds shift. The definition of what a 'deserving cause' is, and who is a good target for a narrow tax is, may change also. Our only protection is the U.S. Constitution and our courts.

"TEA attorneys testified before the legislative committee that the tax was unconstitutional. Now the court has confirmed it. All our elected leaders are sworn to uphold the Constitution. The right thing to do is obey the court's injunction until the appeal is decided and find another way to fund these worthy, but unrelated causes."

You can see a copy of the demand letter here (Word doc). According to an FAQ that was included with that file, here's the answer to the question "Have the clubs been collecting this fee?"

We cannot speak for all our members. Many clubs have, but there is confusion among our members as to how the fee is meant to be collected. If a patron enters, leaves and returns in a short amount of time, do we assess the fee twice? If the patron must stand outside to comply with smoking laws, do we charge him every time?

I have nothing to do with the Comptroller's office, but I'd say the answer to those questions is No, unless perhaps it's the club's policy to make these customers pay the cover charge each time the re-enter. I hope for the clubs' sake that their legal arguments in court are a bit sharper than that.

In the meantime, the clubs now have something else to worry about.

The state needs more robust laws to quickly shut down strip clubs and bars where minors are found performing, Attorney General Greg Abbott said today.

Addressing a state House of Representatives committee on licensing, Mr. Abbott recommended five ways to broaden laws governing sexually oriented businesses and to gather more information about who is working in them.

The hearing came on the heels of the Dallas City Council's unanimous decision last week to tighten city ordinances after police discovered evidence that a 12-year-old girl danced nude in a Northwest Dallas club last year.

Though it is already against the law to sexually exploit a child, state and city officials have been looking for ways to shut down or sanction adult businesses more quickly.


State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) said the state needs to exercise more oversight of adult businesses at a time when his northwest Dallas district feels besieged by crimes involving the exploitation of girls.

"What we're seeking to do today is bring the state and the cities closer together in a coordinated fashion ...to deal with a lot of the rogue operators. For too long we have not had the requisite sense of outrage," he said.

As I said before, it's not been a very good year for the strip clubs.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
When reality needs a little help

Discovery's show Deadliest Catch is Tiffany's favorite thing on TV, so I hope she doesn't take this news too hard.

Tuesday's fourth-season premiere of Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" opens during a raging nighttime storm in the Bering Sea. Mammoth waves smash an Alaskan crab fishing boat called the Wizard, sending large swells crashing over its deck. Inside, alarmed crew members discover that their stateroom is flooding with incoming seawater.

The sequence suggests that the fishermen are in danger of sinking as a violent tempest tosses huge waves against the boat.

But here's the not-so-deadliest catch:

The boat flooded in September.

The huge storm waves were from October.

And a producer may have filmed extra footage to help stitch the two events together.

Pages from a production outline obtained by The Hollywood Reporter suggest that producers of the cable network's top-rated series may have strayed from reality while editing the harrowing sequence from the show's record-setting premiere.

It's not as bad as that outline makes it sound, but it does raise the question of how real "reality" television is sometimes. I confess, I'm totally gullible about this stuff. I don't know how many episodes of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" I'd seen before I finally asked myself "How is it that each time they show up at 7 AM at someone's house, everyone in the family is present, awake, and fully dressed?" As with so many other things, it's better to have been a little too cynical instead of not quite cynical enough.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 22, 2008
SafeClear wins in court

I don't think I realized that the matter was still being litigated.

In a summary judgment issued last week, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes called Safe Clear "a rational safety program" that does not over-regulate the towing business, or restrict the free speech of wrecker drivers who are not part of the Safe Clear program.


Some wreckers who were not part of the contract joined together to file a lawsuit in 2005, but lost. The recent decision pertains to a second suit the group filed in 2006 that claimed Safe Clear takes away their right to free commercial speech by restricting their ability to solicit business on the freeway and creates a regulatory taking by controlling tow rates.

The judge sided with the city's arguments that safety concerns prevailed.

Suzanne Poole, president of the group that sued, the Houston Professional Towing Association, said an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is "a very strong possibility."

"It's not that we want the contract to go away, it's that we simply want to participate in it," Poole said.

Well okay. Maybe there's still room for a compromise of some kind, I don't know. Regardless, I think it's safe to say that SafeClear is here for good.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
More on Metro costs revisited

Tory has responded to my previous post on the costs of light rail and LRT versus BRT. I appreciate the discussion, and want to add a few extra points to the mix.

- I'm not claiming that transit, rail or otherwise, will cure Houston's congestion problems. I am saying that I believe it can help keep those problems from getting worse as we densify, which current trends and public preferences say we're going to be doing. Right now, I'd call Houston's surface streets crowded but for the most part tolerable. It may take me longer than I'd like to go between Allen Parkway and Rice University on Shepherd/Greenbriar, but it's (usually) not so bad that I'll seek any viable alternative to it. But there's no doubt in my mind that traffic on that route is worse than it was, say, ten years ago, and there's equally no doubt that it will be worse in ten years' time. The only hope I see to keep it from becoming intolerably crowded is to provide alternatives to driving.

- In the meantime, as conditions degrade on thoroughfares like Shepherd, I think the first place where you'll see the effects is on parallel streets like Dunlavy. To some extent, we've already seen those effects, which I believe is why streets like Woodhead, Hazard, and Mandell all got those accursed speed humps installed back when that was the craze. When I lived near Woodhead and Richmond in the early 90s, I used Woodhead as my north-south road whenever possible; I avoided Shepherd if I could. Then the speed humps were installed, and I started using Shepherd instead. I'm sure that was the intended result back then, as Woodhead is basically a residential street that was never supposed to be used for that kind of driving. Same thing with Morningside, which was once my preferred option to Kirby. I note this to point out that to a large degree, some alternatives to these increasingly crowded arterial roads are already essentially foreclosed, and if people start to choose them anyway, I'd expect the residents who once lobbied for those speed humps to demand further action in the name of keeping their streets as quiet as they're supposed to be.

- Which brings me back to the point that I believe it is vital to start planning and implementing rail transit extensions now, because I believe we will come to a point where all this new, dense development will make that kind of addition sufficiently more difficult and expensive as to render it impossible. Basically, the more that can be done before there's a lot of high-end stuff already in place, the more feasible it will be. Note that I think the same constraints will eventually hinder freeway projects. How much harder do you think the next Katy Freeway widening will be to do, after the new feeder roads have been thoroughly re-developed? This is one of the sticking points for the I-45 widening, after all, because it's a much greater burden to have to condemn properties in established neighborhoods and retail areas. What are we going to do when we can't easily add capacity to the highways?

- Finally, just to reiterate, I am not opposed to BRT. I am more than happy to consider BRT as a vital part of any future expansions of the Metro rail solutions plan. For the existing 2012 plan, however, this is simply not an option due to the political reality of the situation. The people who voted for the 2004 referendum were very clear on this point when BRT was first substituted in. When the time comes to vote on the next phase - because as we know we only ever have to vote on rail construction - then we can make sure BRT is explicitly part of the plan. Until then, it's LRT all the way.

I'll have some more thing to say on this topic in the future, but for now, I appreciate again the discussion that we're having. Please let me know what you think.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The polygamist PR campaign

I have not been following the story of the raid on the FLDS compound very closely - read Grits if you don't already for some excellent coverage on the topic. I did read this story about their ad hoc PR campaign with some interest, and thought this bit was worth mentioning:

Plural-marriage families exist mostly in the shadows, said Mary Batchelor, a co-founder of Principle Voices, a Utah-based polygamy advocacy group. She said families typically don't speak publicly for fear they'll be prosecuted for bigamy or lose their children to state authorities.

"It's scary, but ultimately, we decided to speak up and let the chips fall where they may," said Batchelor, now a regular on the polygamy media circuit. "When there is a lot of mystery about something, then people's imaginations start to fill in the gaps and they tend to go darker and darker. That leads to a lot of misperceptions."

A lot of the mystery, of course, comes from the fact that these folks isolate themselves from the larger culture. They do this in part for the same reason parents of all stripes have always done this, which is to shield their children from messages and experiences that they consider abhorrent and antithetical to their values, but also because they understand that the larger culture doesn't understand them and will, if forced to acknowledge them, be actively hostile towards them. Their religious beliefs are a part of it, but as this Houston Press story from a few years back told us, non-religious folks who prefer multiple-spouse arrangements feel the same way.

I'm not going to claim I really understand their perspective, but in the absence of any credible claims of child abuse, and it appears there are none here, then I don't see how these people's business is any of mine, or any of the state's.

If the calls turn out to be fake, some criminal defense lawyers said they doubt any criminal charges that may be filed in the case would stand up in court.

An anonymous call is not sufficient to grant a search and seizure, Houston lawyer Charles Portz said. "That's not probable cause. What other proof do they have?" he said.

"Are they DNA testing for sexual contact or to see who the parents are?" Portz asked.

Jim Harrington, head of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said it will matter if the original call was legitimate or a hoax.

"The officials have a duty to investigate and make sure that there's a reasonableness and the credibility to that call," he said. "The general rule is that you cannot have a warrant based solely on an anonymous call. There has to be other factors that come into play that demonstrate the reliability of the anonymous call. Otherwise you could imagine the havoc from people filing these false (reports) all the time."

State officials are confusing family law standards governing the interests of children with criminal conduct involving abuse with children, Harrington said. The state is misguided to separate children from mothers instead of removing older men suspected of sexually abusing children, he said.

But some law school professors disagree.

An anonymous call that turns out to be a hoax "is completely after the fact and has no legal relevance," said Sandra Carnahan, who teaches criminal procedure at Houston's South Texas College of Law. "The issue will be whether the (search) warrant is valid on its face."

The judge may have had enough reason to sign a warrant if the anonymous caller, whether legitimate or not, provided ample detail about conditions inside the compound, Carnahan said.

Jack Sampson, a professor in the University of Texas Law School's Children's Rights Clinic, said CPS workers were obligated to investigate the allegations as a civil matter. Whether it turns into a criminal issue is to be decided.

"We don't know who the father is. But we do know that if the father is more than two years older (than the underage mother), that there's been a crime," Sampson said.

CPS spokesman Darrell Azar said it doesn't matter if the original call turns out to be a hoax.

"What matters is what we found there. We found a number of children as young as 13 who were being married and were giving birth to children and who were sexually abused and the judge agreed," Azar said.

"So it doesn't really matter what happens with that situation. Once we get a report, we're obligated -- legally and morally -- to investigate," he said.

I don't recall seeing any stories saying that they had found 13-year-old mothers in the compound, but maybe I just missed them. Be that as it may, I'm very uncomfortable with the idea that a phony call could trigger all this. That opens a huge can of worms that would have pretty far-reaching implications for us all. I hope that if any criminal charges are eventually brought, the judge takes a very skeptical look at that original warrant.

Given how many young kids are now being separated from their families, I just hope we can get this mess untangled before we do any real damage. Grits has a personal take on this, and points to this interesting post from a self-professed "feminist Mormon housewife" as well. Check 'em out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Waiting for KBH: The next generation

And so the mind games begin anew. Evan Smith receives an email from a "Republican insider well-entrenched at the Capitol but not particularly close to Rick Perry" who insists Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison will not run for Governor in 2010; she'll accept the job as Chancellor of UT instead. Her spokesman categorically denies this. All I know is that the filing deadline is a long ways off, and we'll be in for a lot more of this sort of thing until then.

Clay Robison looks at it from the other perspective:

Perry spokesman Robert Black told my colleague, R.G. Ratcliffe, that the governor's position is he's running for re-election but may reconsider if he wins some of his priorities from the Legislature.

That suggests a novel line for the governor's 2009 state-of-the-state speech: "Give me what I want, and I will go away."

Boy, there's an appealing choice. I think I'll take my chances in the campaign, thanks.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Texas blog roundup for the week of April 21

Is your fondest hope for this year's NBA playoffs that you don't have to face the prospect of a Celtics-Lakers final again? I can't really help you there, but I can point out that this week's Texas Progressive Alliance roundup is 100% free of unpleasant 1980s flashbacks. Click on and see for yourself.

In honor of Income Tax day, Lightseeker at TexasKaos examines the Republican's tax cut claim here in Texas and discover that what it really amounts to is "tax shifting" and we are the ones getting shafted. Tax Shifting With Bohac's Assessment Cap as Our Example.

WhosPlayin notes that John McCain has proposed suspending the federal gasoline tax, and points out that McCain would do just as well to try to suspend the law of gravity.

The Texas Cloverleaf is helping to save the earth on Earth Day weekend with helpful tips for saving energy and your wallet, as well as picking up trash with Stonewall Democrats. Don't mess with Texas!

CouldBeTrue from South Texas Chisme wonders if all Republicans are Tom Craddicks in training. Listen to Nueces County Republican chair Mike Bertuzzi ignore all the 'Point of Order' calls at the county convention. Sound familiar?

John Coby of Bay Area Houston has the real press release from Rick Perry about his run for Governor in 2010.

Here are local activist Jose Orta's Impressions Of T. Don Hutto, Williamson County's immigrant detention facility, that were posted at Eye On Williamson after his recent visit.

At McBlogger, barfly analyses what's really important to the American voter in this hour of cultural brouhaha.

Off the Kuff takes an early look at the race for District Attorney in Harris County, which is sure to be one of the hottest local races this year.

Today is San Jacinto Day and PDiddie of Brains and Eggs will be at the commemorative ceremonies taking place at the battlefield near Houston.

BossKitty at BlueBloggin points out that Your $300 - $1,200 Economic Stimulus Payment Cost $767 Million

Hal at Half Empty questions whether one person running for President is actually temperamentally fit to be in that office.

Vince at Capitol Annex thinks it is terrible that Texas teacher salaries are so low that that more than a quarter of all teachers must work a second job to make ends meet.

North Texas Liberal reports on a homophobic journalist's question to White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, and the smackdown she gave in response.

George Nassar at The Texas Blue takes some time out of Friday's morning news roundup to point out that were the Bush administration to use a logical metric, it would be clear to them that the surge has failed.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 21, 2008
Green Market: The first week!!!

So I promised I'd be back to give updates on our efforts at Green Market, the Central City Co-op project at Discovery Green. We had our first market day on Thursday the 17th. I am just recovered enough to sit down and tell you about it.

The best news is that we had a fabulous opening day. The public spoke with their dollars and everyone had a much better day than anticipated, which was a huge lift to us all. Overall, I have to say how impressed I am with the energy and good will everyone brought to the table in getting this going on market day. Think about the unknowns and the risks: A brand new venue with no track record, no stable residential customer base and totally untested procedures for doing basic things like parking vendor vehicles and running credit cards.

I give absolutely everyone an "A" for effort and energy. From the park staff who hustled to help get things rolling for setup to the vendors who graciously rolled with every possible thing going not quite the way we had planned to the random members of the public who chased hats and tablecloths in 20 mile an hour wind gusts, we had an exciting and wondrous day. Children played, veggies got purchased, people talked until their voices gave out.

There are definitely things that we need to do better, but frankly I don't think we could have PLANNED anything any better than we did. Loading in and out was traumatic- we all have a lot to learn about how to do this safely and efficiently. Parking was a challenge- we had an event at Toyota Center last Thursday, and it will only become more demanding as the Astros have home games on Thursdays this season. But we are learning, and will learn more each week.

The biggest challenge for Central City going forward will be extending our volunteer base to cover the new market. One of the reasons we can bring organic produce to the market at such reasonable prices overall is that we are a mostly volunteer organization. We have no full-time employees, and only a handful of staff who draw some part-time wages for certain jobs. It has been a real strain on all of our regular, devoted staff and volunteers to get the new market up and running.

We are in desperate need of new volunteers to work the Green Market. We need people to help with load in at 2:00 in the afternoon to help vendors be ready for market opening at 4:00. We need people to help watch things during market time from 4:00 to 7:30. We need people to help re-load and get people out of the market safely at the end of the day. Imagine a small farm run by a family, with only one person available during the day to run market stalls and sell product. Who watches the stall while you go park a vehicle? Who helps you unload? What happens at re-load time at 7:30 pm when you are tired? The answer at Green Market needs to be volunteers. Right now we don't have enough.

Of course if you are reading this and interested in giving some time to the Market, you can drop me a note here, or go to http://www.centralcityco-op.org and click on the "Get Involved" tab to learn more and let us know you are interested. There are also volunteer opportunities at our Wednesday market in Montrose, which would help by giving other volunteers the chance to rotate to Thursday slots downtown at Green Market. And of course it's all about growing a community of people interested in organic produce, sustainable agriculture and local farming, so we hope you'd think that was way cool in and of itself.

We are busy tweaking things and trying to make this week better than last. We hope that the public will continue to be supportive of our efforts. I think we are on to something wonderful and potentially really successful at Green Market. If you haven't visited yet, please come. Let me know what you think.

Posted by Tiffany Tyler
A Noriega update

Garnder Selby considers the state of the Senate race in Texas.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, says: "Given how poor the national political climate is for Republicans, it's hard to completely write off any Democrat."

Still, she says, "this is an uphill climb. It is notoriously difficult for candidates of either party to get well-known in a state with 19 media markets, 32 congressional districts and at least 7.4 million general election voters."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, "spent $5.7 million in her barely contested race in 2006, and Cornyn spent about $10 million in 2002, and he had already been elected statewide," Duffy says. "Cornyn's (poll) numbers aren't stellar ... but he will be tough to beat."

Duffy plans to keep watching.

"What national Democrats want to see is how much money he can raise," she says. "They have no intention of pouring money into the state if Noriega can't raise a fairly sizable chunk."

At the end of March, Noriega's campaign had $330,000 in campaign cash on hand, a sliver of Cornyn's $8.7 million.

Historical note: No Democrat has won a Texas U.S. Senate race since 1988. Maybe it's fair to speculate that Noriega is warming up to seek statewide office in 2010.

Yet he has time to gain traction if he raises enough money and smartly defines himself while raising doubts about Cornyn.

In a sign of optimism, or naïveté, Noriega raised his post-primary fundraising goal from $5 million to $10 million. He's hired a fundraising chief who once corralled cash for Ann Richards. He's also brought aboard a Web marketing firm credited with helping Sen. James Webb of Virginia win a seat in 2006.

A look at his campaign kitty after the quarter ending June 30 should show if he's on track to give Cornyn a scare.

Selby has more on that $10 million goal here. I have to say, I wish Noriega were a lot farther along towards that goal than he is now. It's not from lack of effort that he doesn't have more cash, and it's not from lack of excitement about his candidacy, as his ActBlue totals will attest. I think it's a combination of too much focus on the Presidential primary and too little faith - still! - among the big money types here that a statewide win is a real possibility. It always seemed, back in 2006, that the grand plan (read: the reason why none of them were supporting statewide candidates that year) was to try to win things back in 2010. I suppose nothing has really changed since then. Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe Noriega's second quarter numbers will tell a different story - I sure hope so.

In the meantime, I note in Selby's story that Larry LaRocco, the Democratic candidate for Senate from Idaho, was in Austin for a fundraiser. LaRocco is well regarded by the national netroots, and thanks to outgoing Sen. Larry "Wide Stance" Craig, that seat is competitive in a way it would never otherwise be. But know this: Anyone at that event who calls himself a Texas Democrat and who hasn't contributed to Rick Noriega is someone who needs to check his priorities. It's long past time for us Democrats here to put funding our own candidates' races ahead of everyone else's.

On that note, I want to say that I'm glad to hear that CD10 candidate Larry Joe Doherty has been added to the Blue Majority PAC candidate list. The Blue Majority folks - Howie Klein, FireDogLake and others - have been good about seeing Texas as an opportunity for Democratic gains; they have also been generous in supporting Rick Noriega, and I thank them for that. I had endorsed Dan Grant in the CD10 primary, but now that November is what matters, I'm happy to help out Larry Joe Doherty, and I hope you will as well. LJD's chat with the FireDogLake folks is here, so take a look and get to know him if you haven't already.

Finally, to get back to the Senate race for a minute, last week a couple of our blogging colleagues on the other side of the aisle who are doing their thing for John Cornyn apparently noticed that Rick Noriega is of Mexican ancestry. Hilarity ensued. See BOR and Dos Centavos for more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
A cozy little family in juvenile court

This article about how the same attorneys rack up most of the court appointments and accompanying fees for defending indigent clients in juvenile court is fascinating.

Nearly half of all juvenile delinquency appointments have gone to about two dozen of the nearly 165 attorneys vying to represent these young offenders, payment records show. Two attorneys regularly appointed have disciplinary records with the Texas Bar.

Judges say they don't check the disciplinary records of those they appoint and that they rely on the most experienced or available. But many of their top picks also are juggling additional cases in family or criminal courts.

One of the top earners, attorney Oliver Sprott Jr., has done court-appointed work in the adult criminal courts and helped handle a death penalty case while making nearly $200,000 a year in the juvenile courts since 2005, records show. Public defenders working full time on juvenile or child abuse cases in Dallas County earn between $70,000 and $113,000; Travis County pays between $50,000 and $100,000. Sprott declined to comment for this story.

Caseload of 400
Another attorney, Mark Castillo, works as a part-time municipal judge in South Houston while pleading approximately 400 cases involving young offenders each year in Harris County. The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends a juvenile caseload of 200.

Castillo, who works most Thursday afternoons in the South Houston courts and does arraignments there every other afternoon, said he finds time to give juveniles a good defense and thinks public defenders would be even more pressed for time.

"A lot of them are just misdemeanors -- a graffiti case, a marijuana case -- those can be disposed of pretty easily," he said. "You just try to get the best ... you can for them."

All three juvenile court judges have been accused, privately at least, of favoring longtime friends or campaign contributors when appointing lawyers to represent the poor.

But Shelton and Phillips bear the brunt of criticism. Both received more than 90 percent of their campaign contributions from those they appoint; Schneider took in about 74 percent from these lawyers, according to a Chronicle analysis of contributions since 2005.

Mark Sandoval, an attorney appointed almost entirely in Sheltons' court, has also represented Shelton's wife in a lawsuit related to a fatal car crash involving their daughter, who was convicted of intoxicated manslaughter late last year. Sandoval, who did not return calls for comment, continues to get appointments despite being twice suspended between 1997 and 2000 by the State Bar of Texas for professional misconduct.

And two of the courts' top earners, Sprott and Glenn Devlin, who together earned $1 million from taxpayers since 2005, are longtime friends of Phillips and Shelton. Devlin was Phillips' campaign treasurer and former law partner. And each year during baseball season another top earner, attorney Gary Polland, lets Phillips sit in his seats near home plate for a dozen or so games. The judge says he always repays Polland for the cost of the tickets and has taken pains -- including limiting all donations to his campaign to $500 per person -- to erase any appearance of impropriety.

There was a chart in the print edition that showed how much campaign cash these most-frequently-appointed attorneys have given to the judges. The amounts were in the $10K and under range, which frankly strikes me as not terribly impressive. I think the cronyism is more of a concern than the contributions, but no matter how you slice it, the whole thing looks bad and really deserves closer scrutiny. And I'm thinking this just may be a campaign issue for Gary Polland if he does run for the soon-to-be-open SD17 seat.

For his part, Shelton says he gets no joy from his appointment powers and plans to study public defender offices in other cities. All three judges deny any correlation between contributions and appointments.

"I would be happier if there was a public defender system," Shelton said.

Well, yes, that would solve this little dilemma, wouldn't it? Which leads to the curious sidebar story about how "some critics" say a public defender's office would be no better than what we've got now.

[C]ritics of public defender systems call them bureaucratic catastrophes. And though studies have shown public defenders offices can be cheaper than an appointment system, no one has figured out a way to objectively compare the quality of defense, said James Bethke, director of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense.

And we have that now, for the current system? At least with a public defenders office, you'd have someone conducting annual performance reviews, which seems to me is better than nothing. This strikes me as a perfect-as-enemy-of-the-good rationale.

Malikah Marrus, a social worker with the Southwest Juvenile Defender Center, believes a new system would help. In her years working in the courts, Marrus said, she has seen an attorney pull a child by the ear and yell at him in court and others ignore the youngsters they are paid to defend.

"Some (attorneys) just don't talk to their clients," she said. "They just don't talk to them. It's like their client doesn't exist."

Other critics contend that the attorneys given the biggest caseloads are so overworked they can't meet with clients.

"From the time of the detention hearing to the first hearing/arraignment in district court, the child generally is sitting in detention with no idea of the charges, (or) many times of their next hearing, and no counsel from an attorney," noted the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative in a report to the county last month.

But many working the current system believe a public defender office -- unless adequately funded -- would make matters only worse.

None of these critics are named or quoted, so we have no idea who might think this or why. I must say, I have no idea why this story was run, because I have no idea what it intended to say. I'm perfectly willing to hear criticisms of a public defender's system, especially in the context of how it might compare to the mess we have now, but it would be very helpful if articles that purported to be about such criticism actually contained it. That's not so much to ask, is it?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The state prison guard shortage

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

The Texas prison system is short more than 4,300 guards, with 17 percent of its full-time security positions unfilled. Nearly one in five of the state's 106 prisons operates with fewer than 75 percent of its correctional guards.

Far-flung Fort Stockton, the worst-staffed unit, operates with 59 percent of its correctional officers.

Barfoot's lockup in Amarillo operates with 76 percent of its alloted guard positions.

The prison system has 34 percent fewer guards today than when seven Texas inmates pulled off an escape at the Connally Unit in South Texas in 2000, even though its inmate population has grown 5 percent since then, to 153,000.

Testifying before a legislative hearing last month, Texas Prison Board Chairman Brad Livingston called the guard shortage "critical."

To deal with the shortage, the prison board recently approved a 10 percent emergency raise for new employees, bringing starting salaries to $25,000 a year and $1,500 signing bonuses for those taking jobs at the hardest-to-staff units.

The raises were an attempt to address the fact that Texas guards earned the second-lowest salaries in the nation, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The Chron wrote a very similar story almost exactly a year ago. There is, of course, a way to alleviate this problem that won't cost the state any money; indeed, it will save millions of dollars a year. I think we all know what that is, don't we? We just need the Legislature and Governor Perry to take the problem seriously enough to do it. No, I'm not holding my breath in anticipation.

One more thing:

Texas prisons were built in some of the most out-of-the-way areas of the state.

Thirteen of the 15 prisons with the most severe guard shortages are in towns with fewer than 15,000 people.

Nine of those places have lost, not gained, residents since 2000.

Consider the Dalhart Unit, a 1,300-bed facility that operates with 31 percent of its correctional staff positions unfilled and is located in a remote Panhandle town of the same name with 7,000 residents.

Marty Turner, a field representative with the union in the region that includes Dalhart, said the prison is always short-staffed because it has a tiny work force to draw from.

"There's no help," he said. Skyrocketing gas prices have made it difficult to lure people to commute from distant towns, he said.

A shortage of affordable housing keeps them away.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, said he blamed the staffing problems squarely on decisions made during the massive prison building boom of the 1990s to put most of the units in far-flung locations.

"The state built most of its prisons in all the wrong places," he said. "They used prisons for economic development. The rural counties would give you the land and throw in other incentives. It might have looked like a bargain, but we're paying a huge price for it."

Well, given that this has been an utter failure both as a matter of public policy as well as for the stated rationale of economic development, perhaps we ought to consider closing some of these expensive yet wasteful and inefficient prison units. You'd think the self-professed fiscal conservative types would be all over this, but for some reason this issue is never on their radars. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The New Joys of Jell-O

This may be the most frightening thing I've seen in awhile, and I consider myself a connoisseur of cheesy 70s culture, not to mention an acquired respect for the concept of Jell-O salads. I'll never look at gazpacho in quite the same way again, that's for sure. Thanks (I think) to John for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 20, 2008
Technology Growth: Are We Preparing Today's Students?

There is a fascinating op-ed in today's Chron. It's about the exponential growth of technology and how that will impact future energy options (the example given is solar which is very encouraging), medicine, life expectancy and prosperity.

The life expectancy thing is interesting:

The point is this: Now that we can model, simulate and reprogram biology just like we can a computer, it will be subject to the law of accelerating returns, a doubling of capability in less than a year. These technologies will be more than a thousand times more capable in a decade, more than a million times more capable in two decades. We are adding three months every year to human life expectancy, but given the exponential growth of our ability to reprogram biology, this will soon go into high gear. According to my models, 15 years from now we'll be adding more than a year each year to our remaining life expectancy. This is not a guarantee of living forever, but it means the sands of time will start pouring in rather than only pouring out.
As is the stuff on prosperity:

What's more, this exponential progression of information technology will affect our prosperity as well. The World Bank has reported, for example, that poverty in Asia has been cut in half over the past decade due to information technologies and that at current rates it will be cut by another 90 percent over the next decade. That phenomenon will spread around the globe.

If, in the very near future, people world-wide will live longer and be more prosperous, what does that say for economic models, retirement, business, education, politics, the environment, etc., etc., etc.

We need some very smart people getting ready to deal with a fast changing world. In the meantime, fifth and eighth graders are getting ready to take the Science TAKS test on May 1st. Is this getting them ready to make wise decisions that will guide our future? Maybe. Those Science TEKS objectives sure force a more scientific thinking process model on science education. And, kids have to think conceptually to do well on the TAKS test. All is not lost with the accountability testing, but we need to do better, considering the world is not going to slow down and wait for us to figure out how to prepare students for fast technology growth.

(cross posted from musings)

Posted by Martha Griffin
Maybe the z-word isn't so dirty after all

You can always count on the Houston Area Survey for some provocative data.

Most Harris County residents would support zoning or other land-use planning tools to guide growth, protect neighborhoods and curb suburban sprawl, the 2008 Houston Area Survey shows.

Almost two-thirds of those responding to this year's survey thought more land-use planning would benefit Houston, three-quarters said redeveloping older urban areas was the best way to absorb population growth, and more than half said they would support zoning.

As neighborhood leaders push for stronger protections against development they consider unsuitable, political analysts and potential candidates said the survey results send a message that will resonate powerfully in the 2009 city election campaign.

"There is a clear perception that there needs to be a system to guide growth," said Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University sociology professor who has directed the annual survey since 1982 and will present this year's results to the Greater Houston Partnership on Wednesday. "There's a pretty powerful consensus there."

Somewhere, Wendell Cox and Randall O'Toole are wailing and gnashing their teeth. Oh, the humanity!

It's uncertain, however, whether these public attitudes will lead to new policies.

Klineberg and others cautioned that the survey gauges support only for general concepts. Details of a zoning ordinance or other planning initiatives might get a different reaction, they said.

Shortly before Houston's last zoning referendum in 1993, surveys showed a majority favored a zoning ordinance. But the election failed after voters saw maps showing how the new rules might affect their own property, said Kendall Miller, the president of Houstonians for Responsible Growth. The organization, led by real estate professionals, lobbies against additional regulations on development in Houston.

"Giving up control of their own property and handing it over to city government is part of the process of land-use restrictions," Miller said. "When people understand that, they generally reject it."

The print edition showed that the approval rate for "zoning" was a bit less than it was for the 1999 survey. This is a little like those "do you plan to vote for a Republican or a Democrat this year" polls. The generic result may look favorable for your side, but once a specific candidate - or in this case, a specific proposal - is in place, there will be specific things to criticize about it, and people who might like the idea in the abstract will see themselves as losing if it passes. This is not to say that another zoning referendum would be doomed to fail, just that having a majority in favor of the concept now means little.

One last thing:

Houston's business, political and neighborhood leaders have debated growth and development issues for decades. These discussions have intensified in recent years as people flocked back to older neighborhoods inside Loop 610, land values rose and developers started replacing bungalows with townhomes or high-rise buildings.

Again according to the print edition, 76% of respondents said that growth in Harris County is best done by redeveloping older areas, rather than expanding to the outer edges. That's a fine and responsible thing, and I'd give the same response. But it does bring up the matter of traffic congestion on surface roads again, and it highlights the urgent need to address those issues now while it's still possible to do so. I've got more to say on this shortly, but for now I just want to note the point.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
More K-Mart suits dismissed

This story needs a wee bit more detail.

Several civil rights lawsuits from a 2002 botched street racing raid were dismissed Friday in Houston federal court.

The resolution comes days after the more than 100 plaintiffs in the remaining 10 cases settled their lawsuits with the city of Houston.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas issued an order Friday dismissing the combined cases unless the settlements aren't resolved by July 18.

Okay, so is this saying that these dismissals are all part of the settlement agreements, or that there are some cases which aren't a part of that which have now been tossed? I believe it's the former, but it could have been made a lot clearer.

Three plaintiffs who had not come to agreements with the city or had not been located earlier this week have been reached and also settled.

Well, that answers that question. Barring a collapse in the settlement negotiations, it looks like July 18 is the end of the line for this saga.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
More on the Ibarras' request to withdraw settlement agreement

When the news broke about the Ibarra brothers wanting to cancel the settlement agreement in their lawsuit against the Sheriff's office, I wondered if it was because the county was paying for the appeal two lawyers who had been barred from their case were pursuing over sanctions given them by Judge Hoyt. That would appear to be the case.

The county is obligated by law to provide legal counsel for attorneys Frank Sanders and Mary Baker because they are county employees, even though they were not defendants in the lawsuit, said John Barnhill, first assistant of the Harris County Attorney's Office.

Sanders and Baker are appealing sanctions levied against them by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, who disqualified them three years ago from defending the county in a civil rights lawsuit filed by Sean Carlos Ibarra and Erik Adam Ibarra -- two Houston brothers who claim they were wrongfully arrested after one of them photographed an officer during a drug raid.

In his 2005 sanctions order, Hoyt concluded Sanders and Baker tried to deny the Ibarra brothers a fair trial and violated Sean Ibarra's constitutional right to privacy when they improperly obtained his medical records from the Harris County Hospital District. The judge ordered Sanders, Baker and the county to pay a $10,000 fine.

But the Ibarras are seeking to return the $1.7 million settlement they received from the county earlier this month and want to go back to trial, alleging the appeal by Sanders and Baker violates the agreement that resolved their lawsuit.

The brothers' attorney, Lloyd Kelley, said paying for the appeal with county funds is illegal unless the Harris County Commissioners Court has approved such an expenditure.

Barnhill said Commissioners Court previously approved spending county money to defend Sanders and Baker.

As I said before, I don't think it's unreasonable for the county to pay the legal fees for their employees in a matter like this. There is a case to be made against that, given that their actions cost the county money as well, but that would seem to be an issue for their supervisors to deal with. I certainly understand where the Ibarras are coming from here, but I don't think they've been wronged by this.

No mention in this story about the dispute over Lloyd Kelly's fee demands, by the way. I'm pretty sure that issue isn't going away.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Your moment of Zen for the weekend

Why Sesame Street was so much better in the 70s than it is now, in one three-minute video clip:

For those of you who were born after, oh, 1980 or so, that strange-looking black object the aliens are trying to communicate is a telephone. No, really.

By the way, if you go here you can find more clips in the same vein. Enjoy!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 19, 2008
Strip clubs must still pay fees

Despite winning an injunction against HB1751, which assessed a $5-per-customer fee on strip clubs to pay for a sexual assault fund and other things, the fee must still be paid while the matter is still being litigated.

The state comptroller has sent a letter to strip clubs saying the fee is active and that the first reports and payments are due Monday. If they aren't sent in, a 5 percent penalty takes effect.

Strip clubs have vowed to keep fighting the fee.

"It's a grave injustice that the attorney general and the comptroller would use procedural court technicalities to continue to trample on the rights of these business owners," said attorney Stewart Whitehead, who represents the Texas Entertainment Association, which includes more than half the topless clubs in Texas.

Boy, between this and the setbacks in Houston, it sure has been a lousy year for the strip clubs, hasn't it?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
That's a lot of carbon

As SciGuy put it, we're number one in carbon emissions here in Harris County.

The first-ever analysis of county-by-county carbon dioxide emissions in the United States found that Harris County, which emits 18.6 million tons of CO2 per year, narrowly edged Los Angeles for the top spot.

"Some regions will see this analysis as an excuse to point fingers, but I don't really view it that way," said Kevin Gurney, an assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University who led the study. "This gives us an opportunity to improve the situation."


Harris County catapulted to the top of the carbon dioxide list, which tallied emissions from all fossil fuel consumption through the year 2002, because of its large industrial base.

Industry, including petroleum refining and chemical manufacturing, produced 54 percent of the emissions, according to the study. Motor vehicles were responsible for 26 percent; power plants 13.5 percent; and residential and commercial sources 6.5 percent.

In contrast, more than half of Los Angeles' CO2 output was emitted by cars and trucks.

"Somebody has to supply the country with its gasoline and petroleum needs, and Harris County and its surrounding areas have decided that it may as well be us," said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a professor of meteorology at Texas A&M University.

"The county's high emissions ranking also comes from being a large population center nearly self-contained inside a single large county."

The new analysis represents the first effort to break carbon dioxide emissions down on a county basis. Previous statewide analyses found that Texas emits more carbon dioxide than any other state, and if it were a country, would emit more than all but six nations in the world.

As a result, the county-by-county study didn't come as a big surprise to some analysts.

"In part, this is the cost of conducting the business we conduct in the Houston area," said Elena Marks, Mayor Bill White's health policy director.

Residents can do their part by installing energy-efficient CFL lightbulbs, better insulating their homes and using public transit or taking other actions to reduce personal CO2 emissions, Marks said.

"People shouldn't feel guilty about this," she said, "but they should pay attention to the data and realize that we all have a part to play in reducing our carbon footprint."

I think the attitudes expressed by Gurney and Marks here are perfectly reasonable. This is an opportunity for improvement, and we should try to take reasonable steps to do so. The more we do of that, and the less griping we do about it, the better off we'll be.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Interview with the Mythbusters

I love these guys. And yes, I think they're doing science.

AVC: You guys don't have any formal scientific training, but you generally seem to follow scientific methods and procedures when you're testing myths. To what degree are you attempting to scientifically prove something, vs. just indulging your own curiosity?

JH: If it turns out that we're doing proper science from time to time, it just happens to be that that's the most efficient way of doing it. We go into each of these stories with an open mind, and one of the great things about how the show works is that we're not approaching it from a doctoral point of view, we're just trying to see what happens. And we have relatively little time and a whole lot of curiosity, so the most efficient way to get there is what we do, and that often happens to be some form of science. We may not have a sample size larger than one, or we may not have unlimited resources--it's a TV show, and we generally turn these things around in about a week or so. That being said, the fact that we don't have formal training, that makes what we're experiencing a little bit more accessible to the viewers. If we actually knew what we were doing ahead of time, it would just be like talking at you, instead of experiencing the situation with you.

AS: We don't necessarily stand by our faults every time, but we will always stand by our methodologies and ethos. And the methodology is much more important to us. Given the restrictions of television, we understand why our results might not be unassailable, but whenever, for instance, on the Discovery Channel online message boards, people pipe in and say we're idiots and we don't know what we're doing and we got something totally wrong, interestingly, the people who jump most vigorously to our defense are working scientists. These are people from everywhere, from Lawrence Livermore and JPL and Sandia National Labs, the FBI, all over the place, real scientists who see what we're doing, and they consistently thank us. "I agree your results aren't always right," they'll say, "but your methods are clearly showing that science is a re-creative process, and it's an interesting process because it's messy, and no other shows show that."

Years ago, I remember reading an interview with a prominent scientist who lamented the fact that there wasn't a show on TV that glorified science and made it look cool, so as to attract kids to the idea of doing science themselves. I think now between the Mythbusters, the CSI franchise, which whatever you may think of them artistically has been embraced by science educators, and of course Bill Nye the Science Guy, his wish has been more than fulfilled. Thanks to Chad Orzel, who also thinks these guys do science, for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 18, 2008
More on the Perry 2010 plan

PoliTex has some follow-up comments from Rick Perry after his surprise re-election announcement from yesterday.

[Perry] didn't seem to see the big deal [over the timing of his announcement].

"I just got asked," Perry said. "After a while, as people keep asking, I just answered their question."

Perry couldn't give an answer as to why he decided to make the announcement today in Grapevine.

"My wife and I have discussed some weeks ago and made the decision we wanted to keep on doing the job we've been doing for Texas," Perry said. "And it was a good a time as any to make the announcement and I hope Texans agree with us that's what's happening in the state is a reflection of the leadership."

More of Perry's musings:

On any suggestions he's just saying he's going to run and will back out later: "I'm set to go. The good Lord may call my number tomorrow and then ya'll will have to write that He fouled up Perry's plan."

On his surprise announcement: "I told a lot of folks I was going to run again. I think this was just the first time there was an audience with a camera and reporters." [Editor's note: There was no cameras nearby when Perry told two reporters he was going to run again]

Why am I not surprised by that last bit? Burka scoffs at Perry's professed rationale:

Is there any impulse other than self-gratification? At the very least, the people of Texas deserve some indication of what he hopes to accomplish as governor for life. This announcement was an insult to the state. There was no gravitas to it. The episode captured what drives Perryphobes crazy. His ambition is without substance. It consists only of the desire to hold office and exercise power. Never mind that the question, "To what end?" has no answer, other than to reward his friends and draw pleasure from the misery of his critics.


At this point in my writing, I received a call from a friendly intermediary with good contacts in the Perry camp. This was the message: (1) The governor did not intend for this to be a real announcement for reelection. He would not have announced his intentions in this way. (2) He isn't prepared to run for reelection at the present time. He doesn't have an agenda yet for the next legislative session. (3) His closest advisers are split on whether he should run again. (4) Please convey this to Burka before he starts hyperventilating. (Too late. EMS is on the way.)

So I guess I am supposed to believe that this was an amateurish mistake by a supreme political pro. I'm not buying it.

He goes on from there, but you get the idea. I don't really know what Perry has in mind, but as I said before, I'll enjoy the spectacle as the likes of KBH and David Dewhurst froth over it.

Burka also expands on this discussion in a podcast interview with Evan Smith and the DMN's Wayne Slater, which you can listen to here. An interesting point they both raise is that Perry has neither a signature accomplishment that will resonate with a broad swath of voters, nor a clear rationale for why he wants to run again. If this really isn't a bluff, it will be interesting to see what he comes up with for that. What task can he say he's still got work to do on that he's been working on and making progress on since 2003? Property tax cuts, I guess, but do you think anyone will really believe that? I don't see it, but then I'm not inclined to.

One last thing, from PoliTex:

On term limits: He may have been interested in them idea years ago but, obviously, no more. "Term limits by and large mean that the bureaucrats run government and not the elected officials because the longevity of elected officials allow the people's voice to be heard..."

Funny how many still-incumbent Republicans who were for term limits back in the 90s feel that way now, isn't it? It's almost as if it had been a cynical ploy to gin up an issue against then-incumbent Democrats.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
RIP, Danny Federici

I noticed a new name among the E Street Band members on Monday night (not counting fiddler Sister Soozie, as Springsteen explained Patty Scialfa's absence by noting they had three teenagers), but didn't know the reason for it. Now I do.

Danny Federici, the longtime keyboard player for Bruce Springsteen whose stylish work helped define the E Street Band's sound on hits from "Hungry Heart" through "The Rising," died Thursday. He was 58.

Federici, who had battled melanoma for three years, died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. News of his death was posted late Thursday on Springsteen's official Web site.

According to published reports, Federici last performed with Springsteen and the band last month, appearing during portions of a March 20 show in Indianapolis.

Springsteen concerts scheduled for Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Saturday in Orlando were postponed after news of Federici's death.

He was born in Flemington, N.J., a long car ride from the Jersey shore haunts where he first met kindred musical spirit Springsteen in the late 1960s. The pair often jammed at the Upstage Club in Asbury Park, N.J., a now-defunct after-hours club that hosted the best musicians in the state.

It was Federici, along with original E Street Band drummer Vini Lopez, who first invited Springsteen to join their band.

Another thing I didn't know. On Springsteen says "Danny and I worked together for 40 years - he was the most wonderfully fluid keyboard player and a pure natural musician. I loved him very much...we grew up together." I say rest in peace, Danny Federici. Link via Jim Henley.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Friday random ten: Live in concert

After the great experience of Monday's Springsteen concert, I thought I'd try a little something different for this week's random music selections. Here's a list of ten memorable live music performances I've seen:

1. Maynard Ferguson, Snug Harbor, Staten Island, summer of 1985. I saw him again a couple of years later on the Trinity campus. He had a traditional big band with him the first time, and a stripped-down fusion-oriented band, which featured the multi-instrumental Dennis DeBlasio, for the latter. Of the two, I preferred the first show, but the second was in a smaller and more intimate setting - the '85 show was outdoors - and was still an awesome event.

2. Rush, San Antonio HemisFair arena, spring of 1986. The first rock concert I ever attended. The tickets fell into my lap via a friend who couldn't use them on the day of the show. They were touring in support of Power Windows. I wound up seeing them on the next tour in San Antonio, and the two after that in Houston. They're great live performers, but their opening acts always sucked - usually it was some Grade Z heavy metal band, with the lone exception being former Styx man Tommy Shaw on a solo tour. All of it was eminently forgettable.

3. James "Blood" Ulmer, Caravan of Dreams, spring of 1987. I was in Fort Worth with the Trinity wind symphony and jazz band, which did a tour of its own every spring break while I was in college. My buddy Steve Smith had heard that Ulmer, a blues guitarist he loved, was performing the night we were in town (we had our concert in the afternoon, so our evening was free). He persuaded David Raitt and me to accompany him to the Caravan of Dreams to see him play. It was a little too avant-garde for my taste, but the coolness factor in being able to say I did this makes it memorable enough to include.

4. The Who, with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Astrodome, September 1989. All summer long that year there were these obnoxious Miller Lite commercials in which they touted this "big party" they were gonna throw in Texas. This was the party, which also had the Fabulous T-Birds on the marquee. Needless to say, Stevie Ray was the best opening act I've ever seen, and the only one I've seen get called out for an encore.

5. Jethro Tull, The Summit, 1990. They were touring in support of Rock Island, their Grammy-winning "heavy metal" album; they made several wisecracks during the show about that classification. I don't remember what inspired my buddy Matt and me to get tickets for this one, but it was a lot of fun - Ian Anderson had some of the best stage patter of any performer I can recall.

6. Pink Floyd, Rice Stadium, April 1994. I remember driving home from work that evening and hearing a weather forecast that called for storms later on. So I made a detour to Academy and bought a six-dollar rain poncho. That was one of the best decisions I've ever made, for midway into the second set, a thunderstorm of Biblical proportions hit the area. It got so bad, that they cut the show short, while performing "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" - some water had accumulated at the top of the stage set, and it all dumped on them during the song, which led to the cutoff. Even with all that, a good time was had by all.

7. Blue Oyster Cult, Rockefeller's, mid-90s. I don't remember the exact date of this one. As with Rush in '86, it was by chance that I went, as my friend Stephen wound up with an extra ticket. We sat right up by the stage. The two of us were probably the only non-smokers in the place, and it was incredibly loud - I felt like my ears rang for days afterwards. And it was without a doubt the most kickass show I've ever seen. I still measure rock concerts by this standard.

8. Marcia Ball, Pat and Pete's Bon Ton Room, mid-90s. Another one whose exact date is lost to me. Looking back at this list so far, I see that it's one of five shows that were at venues that don't exist any more; six if you count the Astrodome, which isn't really the Astrodome in any meaningful sense these days. That's a little depressing, isn't it? Anyway, this was my first exposure to the Austin blues diva, and she brought that cramped little house down. Big arena shows have their place, but you just can't beat that kind of closeness to a performer.

9. Ceili's Muse, McGonigel's Mucky Duck, April 18, 1997. There was nothing particularly memorable about this show - I must have seen Ceili's Muse fifty times at the Duck back in the day. What makes it a keeper for me, and the reason why I can recall the exact date, is because it was at this show that I met Tiffany. We had our first date the following weekend. That was eleven years ago today. You may now say "Awwwwwwww".

10. Bonnie Raitt, with Keb' Mo', Aerial Theater, 2000. Back before Pace Promotions was assimilated into the Clear Channel vortex, Tiffany's sister Pamela was the manager of what is now the Bayou Place theater. She'd departed for business school by this time, but we were friendly with her successor, who helped us score sixth-row center tickets for this show. Those were the best seats I've ever had for a big-venue concert. And Keb' Mo' was the second-best opening act for any show I've attended.

So there you have it. What's the best live music performance you've ever seen?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Ibarra brothers want to go back to court

You know that settlement agreement in the lawsuit against the Sheriff's office? It may not be so settled after all.

The county paid Sean Carlos Ibarra and Erik Adam Ibarra the agreed settlement on April 1, but the brothers want to return the $1.7 million and resume their battle in court because Harris County is appealing some portions of the case.

The Ibarras are seeking an emergency hearing and reinstatement on the trial docket, but U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt has not yet acted on that request.

"We're dead serious about this," said the Ibarras' attorney, Lloyd Kelley. "I don't imagine that the court is just going to blow it off."

County Attorney Mike Stafford denied that the county has violated the settlement agreement.

"Everything is in the hands of an experienced, fair-minded judge, and he'll make the right decisions," Stafford said Thursday.


Kelley said the county breached that settlement agreement with his clients by recently challenging Hoyt's 2005 decision to sanction and fine two assistant county attorneys for improperly obtaining the Ibarras' medical records from the Harris County Hospital District.

But assistant county attorneys Frank Sanders and Mary Baker have every right to appeal Hoyt's decision to disbar them from the case and fine them $10,000, their legal counsel retorted.

The county ultimately deposited that money into the court's registry pending the outcome of the civil lawsuit.

Furthermore, Sanders' and Baker's appeal does not affect anyone's ability to comply with the settlement, said their attorney, Lynne Liberato.

"Sanders and Baker still may appeal for the sake of their professional reputations," Liberato wrote in court papers.

I'm not sure what to make of this. On the face of it, I don't see any reason why the attorneys in question shouldn't be able to appeal their punishment. I'm a little confused as to why that's happening now when the sanctions were given in 2005, but I don't know all the details so perhaps I'm missing something. I suppose the issue for the Ibarras here is if the county is paying the legal fees for Sanders and Baker as they pursue this appeal, and if part of the settlement agreement was that those two had done wrong and deserved those sanctions. If so, then I can see a distinction between them pursuing an appeal on their own, and them doing it on the county's dime.

Kelley also alleged the county violated the settlement by challenging some of the legal fees, court costs and expenses related to the Ibarras' suit after it had agreed to pay all of them as a condition of the settlement.

But the county has since alleged Kelley charged an excessive hourly rate and submitted large amounts of "unexplained expenses."

Well, Kelley's fee request was rather unusual, and I have a hard time faulting the county for taking issue with it. And with all due respect to Lloyd Kelley, it's not really clear to me how this disagreement over the bill affects the deal with the Ibarras. It feels to me like it's Kelley's business and not theirs.

But whatever. Back to you, Judge Hoyt.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Making Montrose walkable

This sounds like excellent news.

The Montrose Boulevard Conservancy's two-year plan to create a high-quality, landscaped and well-lighted pedestrian pathway with park-like amenities along one of Houston's main streets got a green light from area residents on April 10.

The plan -- "Walkable Montrose: A Master Plan for Re-Establishing Houston's Grand Boulevard" -- was received with mostly positive reviews from about 160 residents and city officials who filled the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral's S.P. Martel Auditorium, 3511 Yoakum Blvd., to standing-room-only capacity.

The community-based plan by the nonprofit proposes to restore Montrose Boulevard, built in 1911, to its original status as a grand avenue or pedestrian "promenade," group president Claude Wynn said.

Wynn and John Walsh, Montrose Boulevard Conservancy board member and real estate businessman, presented the plan. It calls for a 2.7-mile pedestrian walkway from Buffalo Bayou at Allen Parkway to Hermann Park's Mecom Fountain.

It would connect to hike-and-bike trails in Buffalo Bayou Park, Hermann Park, Rice University and the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Red Line Rice/Hermann Park Station.


Some components of the plan, such as the brown signs that direct visitors to the Museum District and specific points of interest, will be part of the city's responsibility.

Other areas, such as individual sections of the boulevard, are to be paid for by businesses that volunteer to spruce up and maintain those sections.

Walsh said the first phase of the project will cost $4.7 million, which includes a three-year reserve for maintenance after work is completed.

"We will call upon property owners for maintenance," Walsh said.

It will save about 50 percent in costs to construct all of the sidewalks, curbs, lighting and other work at one time, he said, rather than space out the construction and costs from business owners over a 20-year period.

"This is really stupendous for Montrose," said resident David Crossley, who predicted the project would result in "an explosion of business along Montrose, because it won't be a speedway -- it will be a great boulevard."

See MontroseBlvd.org for more. I have but one request: Can we please extend this a little farther north? I realize the street changes name to Studemont at that point, but it's still the same road. And that area needs this kind of attention, too. Pretty please?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Council approves billboard deal

The deal with Clear Channel to take down 831 billboards, which was presumably tagged by Council last week, has now been approved unanimously.

The agreement with Clear Channel Outdoor would remove 831 small and medium-sized billboards -- a two-thirds reduction of all the company's billboards smaller than 288 square feet.


Mayor Bill White said the new deal was a good compromise. The council approved it without discussion.

It was certainly an acceptable compromise to the folks who had complained about the original deal. I know I'm happy with it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Ashby highrise lawsuit coming?

That's what Houston Politics reports will eventually happen.

James Reeder, a co-chairman of the neighborhood group fighting the proposed tower, says it's likely that the developers will make enough changes in their project to secure the permits they need. Since the resulting project probably won't be acceptable to the neighborhood, Reeder says, the next step would be litigation.

His comments came during a panel discussion Monday night sponsored by the Baker Institute Student Forum.


Reeder, a partner at the Vinson & Elkins law firm who lives near the proposed high-rise, said the only regulatory leverage the city has over the project is to limit its impact on traffic congestion. If the developers build fewer apartments or take other steps to sufficiently reduce the number of daily trips into and out of the building, the city will have to approve it, he said.

But the story won't end there, Reeder said, pledging that neighborhood leaders would turn to the courts, if necessary, and fight the project "to our last breath."

And I think they'll lose, and spend a lot of money in the process. As long as it's just their money, I don't care. I certainly understand why they feel so passionately about this. My concern is if the city is involved in any such lawsuit. I'd hope they'd take a hard look at their odds of winning, and of what they'd actually gain from a public policy perspective by fighting this battle to the bitter end as opposed to punting and taking a more holistic approach going forward.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 17, 2008
The thirty-nine percent solution

To shamelessly steal PDiddie's title, Governor Perry today told the Republican Governor's Association that he wants four mofo years.

Gov. Rick Perry, after speaking Thursday at a forum held by the Republican Governor's Association, told reporters that he plans on running for re-election in 2010.

When Perry was asked if he could foresee himself, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison all on the ballot in 2010, Perry said he knew that he would be on the ballot.

"I don't know about the other two," Perry said. "You need to ask them."

Asked specifically if he was going to run for re-election, Perry said, "Yes."

During a news conference with other Republican governors, Perry also said that if Republican presidential hopeful John McCain asked him to be his running mate, Perry would refuse.

Hutchison released a statement signaling she has not ruled out running against Perry.

"I am encouraged by the growing number of Texans asking me to return home to run for governor to provide leadership for our state," Hutchison said. "It is too early to make an announcement about the 2010 race. Right now, I remain committed to serving the people of Texas in the United States Senate and helping our Republican candidates win crucial elections this fall."

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie quickly released a statement on Perry's announcement.

"Given the current State of the State after five years of absolute and failed Republican rule, there's no reason to think Governor Perry's record would earn him more than the 39 percent he received in 2006," Richie said, referring to the support Perry received in a four-way race two years ago.

Evan Smith says confidently that Rick Perry is, one way or another, serving his last term in Austin. I'll just say that I feel pretty good about Bill White's chances to take him out in 2010; at the very least, I feel confident that the Democratic money people learned their lesson in 2006, and will put their resources to better use this time around. As for KBH, who knows if she means it this time when she once again says she thinks she might run for Governor? I'll believe it when I see it, and though I think she'd be favored against Perry in a straight-up primary (there are other possibilities out there as well), I'm not as sure as Burka that she'd win. But if the two of them start carping at each other in the press, I'll sure enjoy the spectacle. BOR has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Two down, one to go for K-Mart settlement

It's almost over.

Two of three remaining plaintiffs with legal claims against the city and former Houston police chief C.O. "Brad" Bradford for alleged civil rights violations during a botched raid almost six years ago have reached settlements.

Houston lawyer Michael Kerensky notified U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas late Wednesday about the deals.

Now, with the exception of one plaintiff who cannot be located, the lawsuits filed by dozens of people arrested by Houston police during a 2002 street racing raid at a Kmart parking lot have been resolved.


Monday morning, Atlas approved the 11th-hour settlements for all but three plaintiffs. At that time, there was no deal for Wassim George Matta as well as two other plaintiffs who had not been located. Atlas on Monday agreed to put off jury selection in Matta's case until April 22. Since then, Matta and Ryan Grenwelge have settled, but lawyers are still trying to locate a man named George Mui.

Okay, so what happens if he can't be found? Does the settlement get entered and then put into escrow or something until he can be located, or does his case get dismissed? And how long do his attorneys have to find him before some action gets taken one way or the other?

I presume this is a situation where he took a trip without leaving contact information for his attorney, and not that he's really unfindable. Even if that is the case, I'm a little surprised at the lack of communication between him and his attorney. You lawyers out there, is this unusual, or more common than I thought? Thanks.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Early overview of the DA race

I'm going to start my Early Overview series with a look at the DA race, as that has arguably been the highest-profile county race so far. There are several things about this race that set it apart from the others, beginning with a something that is technically no longer a factor but is still there coloring the issues: Former DA Chuck Rosenthal. Four months ago, this would have been a very different race. It would have been a referendum on the flawed and divisive but still formidable incumbent - everything from his personality to his judgment, politics, service record, and philosophy of criminal justice would have been examined, debated, attacked, and defended.

Needless to say, that isn't going to happen now. Rosenthal is gone, and his protege lost a bitter runoff for the chance to replace him, so much of those issues are off the table. Both Democrat C.O. Bradford and Republican Pat Lykos have positioned themselves as candidates of change, there to clean up and redirect the DA's office in Rosenthal's wake. I can't help but feel, however, that while it's still fresh in everyone's mind now, a lot of that will fade by November as the interim DA does some of that work and the two contenders focus on each other rather than on recent history. One way or the other, the guard has been changed, and it's no longer a question of whether or not to stay the course but how far to deviate from it.

Having said that, this is nonetheless fertile ground for Bradford to drive the discussion. His list of priorities for the office are undoubtedly different that Lykos', and represent stark changes from the Rosenthal/Johnny Holmes era. Bradford is echoing themes first sounded by Dallas County DA Craig Watkins, and even with Lykos rather than Kelly Siegler as his opponent, this is his opportunity to make the case that simply replacing the person at the head of the DA's office isn't enough to get it back to the task of truly serving justice. It's going to take a change in what the office and the person in charge stand for, and he most clearly represents that. The more he can keep the conversation on that topic, the better I think he'll do.

Bradford has also taken advantage of the fact that Lykos has no more prosecutorial experience than he does to talk about their differences in managerial experience; only he has been in charge of a large public bureaucracy. That might have caught Lykos a bit off guard on Runoff Night because one can certainly claim that this experience of Bradford's isn't much of a positive for him. Yesterday's Chron editorial spelled it out in a piece discussing the settlement of the lawsuits stemming from the K-Mart street racing raid:

The HPD captain in charge of the raids, Mark Aguirre, was fired and later acquitted of official oppression charges. Disciplinary action was taken against dozens of other officers and staff members. The police chief at the time, C.O. Bradford, claimed he was unaware of the details of the planned sweep before it happened. Aguirre claimed Bradford had been informed of the plan and chose to scapegoat his subordinates.


While Bradford likely will avoid having to testify at trial about the Kmart fiasco, it should and likely will be an issue in his November contest with former Judge Pat Lykos for Harris County district attorney.

As the crime lab scandal also happened on his watch, Bradford must explain what responsibility he bears for these costly blunders and why he didn't prevent them.

While I believe that it's at least a little unfair to say that the crime lab scandal happened on Bradford's watch, there's no doubt that this is the public perception of it, and it's the biggest piece of baggage Bradford is carrying. The anecdotal evidence I have from people who normally vote Democratic is that this is their main problem with Bradford. The more time he has to spend responding to Lykos about this, the less well he'll do. Bradford has outlined what he wants to do with the crime lab, which is good, but he has not yet addressed the issue of how it got to be that way, and that's something he cannot put off forever. How he handles that will be crucial, and will set the tone of that debate going forward. He has to get it right.

Lykos' main problem appears to be that she pissed a lot of regular Republican voters off with her attacks on Siegler and the DA's office as a whole. In particular, many of Siegler's colleagues don't like her and are at least now looking favorably at Bradford. Should Bradford be able to secure endorsements from folks like that, it would not only reinforce his claim about his managerial experience versus that of Lykos, it would also to some extent defuse some of the negatives regarding his experience; if the current prosecutors think he's okay, how bad could he be? (Along similar lines, a show of support from HPD officers who served under him would be helpful; conversely, the lack of such support would undermine him.) Basically, Lykos has a division within her party that will need some healing, not an unusual state of affairs after a nasty primary and runoff. I always have hopes that such rifts will fester all the way through November, but in my experience they usually don't. At some point, tribalism kicks in, and most of the disaffected come back because their guy is still better than the other guy. The dynamic for Lykos is a bit different here because the grudge is more personal for the ADAs, but in the end it's not something that I expect to be a big factor.

I see fundraising as being an advantage for Lykos, at least at this point. It can't hurt to have folks like Robert Eckels working the phones for you. The early word I heard about Bradford's efforts on this front was that they were not going very well. Mind you, this was from months ago, and I don't have any more recent intelligence on that, so take it for what it's worth. A lot of Democratic campaigns have had difficulties raising money locally; this is partly due to the Presidential race, partly due to the sheer number of candidates trying to raise money, and partly due to the fact that after more than a decade out of power, the cash machine is a bit rusty. In theory, this should be a million-dollar campaign for both candidates, but I don't think that will happen. Both candidates have a fairly clear message about themselves, and both will have plenty of ammunition for attacks if - when - they choose to go that way. Getting their message and their attacks out will be critical, so if one of them winds up with a significant edge in campaign cash, that person will carry that edge to the polls.

In the end, this is a campaign that can be about real issues, or it can be about negative ads and mudslinging, or it can be about both. Unlike some campaigns, the negative stuff can also be substantial, as each candidate has issues about themselves they will need to address. If one of them can press their attacks without raising their own negatives in the process - always a risk with such campaigns - he or she will succeed.

That's about all I can think of to say right now. Please tell me what you think, and what you think I've overlooked or gotten wrong. Next up, the County Judge race.



Posted by Charles Kuffner
More on the MLS-Mayor kerfuffle

Thanks to today's Chron story on the little spat between MLS and Mayor White, we now know where that higher-than-previously-cited price tag of $105 million for Dynamo Stadium came from:

During a subsequent news conference to publicly assuage the mayor's concerns, team officials said the price tag on a new stadium had climbed to $105 million, up from the $80 million to $90 million previously estimated.

Boy, things are tough all over, aren't they? Guess we better get used to this sort of thing happening. So how much does this affect the negotiations?

Team officials later held a news conference to explain that they never intended to pressure the mayor.

But Oliver Luck, president and general manager, also reiterated the team's contention that a significant city investment in the new stadium is necessary to make the franchise successful.

"We have made our position very clear to the mayor that we are looking for some public support for that building, and we will do the right thing, which is to continue to negotiate with the city to try to identify any potential revenue streams that may eventually bridge the gap we're now facing," Luck said.


[MLS Commissioner Don] Garber's April 4 letter was addressed to the team's chief investors: Anschutz Entertainment Group owner Philip Anschutz, Brener International Group head Gabriel Brener and Golden Boy Promotions president Oscar De La Hoya. It was handed to White by Brener during an April 7 meeting.

Dynamo officials said they were only trying to illustrate the pressure they felt from the league.

"The point was not to put any pressure on the mayor or threaten the mayor by any means," Luck said, "but to really show the mayor the ownership of the league is very concerned about the progress or lack there of that we're making here in Houston in terms of a long-term home."

Garber cited the "lack of progress" in his letter:

"Even in the fourth-largest market in the country with a young and dynamic demographic that embraces soccer, the Houston team will continue to lose money without a public-private partnership on a new soccer stadium -- a fact that presents significant issues for the league."


White said he thought the letter was part of the team's negotiations, and should not be viewed as a signal that talks were breaking down.

He also said that the city's offer has been "reasonable," but, apparently, not rich enough.

"I want them to stay. I think they'll make money if they stay," White said.

"But we're not going to take money out of the police budget or the fire budget or have some big new tax that is going to be imposed on everybody in the community, in order to build a stadium."

I suppose this letter didn't change things, and it didn't necessarily indicate that negotiations are at a standstill, but I don't think it helped. Not that they have meant anything so far in this process, but I wonder if there is some kind of deadline for these talks, after which the Dynamo really will seek other options, including perhaps another look at places like Sugar Land. Given that construction is more expensive now, and that the economy overall isn't doing so well, I don't know that they have the leverage to make that kind of contingency all that viable. If so, then maybe we finally will see a resolution soon.

UPDATE: Bernardo Fallas chastises Commissioner Garber for writing the letter, then makes a curious statement:

Because as much as the letter calls on AEG and Co. to strike a deal or else, it also serves to pressure White, which in turn serves AEG and Co. Which is exactly why White ended up with a copy and why he made it public, a weird move considering he has been stealthy about negotiations.

It's not a weird move at all. Mayor White recognized the purpose of the letter, which was to put pressure on the city to make a deal with the Dynamo, and he knew that releasing it would cause a backlash that would put pressure on the Dynamo to back off. Which it has done. Pretty simple, really.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
West U makes school zone cellphone ban official

As you may recall, the West U ordinance that banned the use of cellphones in moving vehicles while in school zones had received preliminary approval from its City Council, but needed to be passed a second time to become law. Despite the best efforts of AT&T, it is now official.

West University Place City Council unanimously approved a ban on the use of hand-held and hands-free devices in active school zones at its meeting on April 14, despite concerns the ordinance would violate the First Amendment and could lead to racial profiling.

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and AT&T, two local lawyers and a resident spoke out against the ban while five residents and the principal of West University Elementary School spoke in favor of it.

Those speaking against it said they would be OK with the ban if it did not include hands-free devices.

"If I'm going to err, I'm going to err on the safety of those kids," said Mayor Bob Kelly.

Based on its own study of cell phone usage in the West U. school zone and studies by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, The New England Journal of Medicine and the AAA Foundation for Traffic and Safety, West U. police chief Ken Walker said, "both hands-free and hands-held (devices) are distractions."

As this was the second and final reading, the ordinance will go into effect on Aug. 1. It carries a $200 penalty for a first offense and $500 penalty for repeat offenses.

All cell phone usage -- including talking on a hand-held or hands-free device, text messaging or viewing images -- would be illegal in the three-block school zone in front of West University Elementary School, 3756 University Blvd.

I guess I'm not terribly impressed by the various objections that were brought up, on free speech and racial profiling grounds. I suppose I feel that in general, it's a fairly minor inconvenience to either avoid a school zone at the restricted times while talking on the cell, or to say "I'll call you back" and hang up, or to pull over to the curb to finish your conversation. It's possible you could be in a situation where none of those options are feasible, but that's got to be pretty exceptional. As such, I don't see this ordinance as too broad or intrusive.

Resident and attorney David A. Furlow said he would prefer West U. police be more vigorous in enforcing traffic ordinances if they are concerned about safety instead of infringing on free speech.

"I'm concerned about this ordinance being over-broad," he said, adding he believes it would not stand up to first amendment case law. "The city would pay major attorneys' fees if it loses this."

Kelly said he understands a lawsuit would be the next step if someone challenges the ordinance, but "I know that's not going to deter this council," he said during a break in the meeting.

Again, I suppose that could happen, but it seems like a relatively small risk. I could be wrong, but that's how I see it.

By the way, Rick Casey's column documenting the AT&T lobbying effort, was pretty amusing. I think they're going to have to step it up a few notches if they hope to persuade the Lege to pass a statewide law. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Border fence lawsuit update

Just an update on where the border fence lawsuits stand, as I missed a couple of stories recently. Here's one from Friday in which the judge gave permission to the federal government to enter the property of border residents who had refused to grant that permission before.

One of the last of more than 50 Rio Grande Valley property owners sued by the federal government to open their land to surveyors for the border fence lost her case in court.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen on Thursday denied Eloisa Tamez's motion to dismiss the government's condemnation lawsuit and ordered her to give six-month access to three acres of land in El Calaboz, part of a Spanish land grant to her family near Brownsville.

Tamez, a 73-year-old nursing program administrator at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, had fought the government since it sued her in late January. Her case, handled by the nonprofit Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles, was the most time-consuming for Hanen.

Late Friday, Tamez said neither she nor her attorneys had had a chance to review Hanen's order, but that she would turn to her legislators.

"Apparently he's (Hanen) just going to give entry to everyone's land no matter what we do," Tamez said.


Hanen wrote, "the Court is quite sympathetic to both parties. Any landowner, not just Dr. Tamez, would like to know the exact details of what the Government will be doing on his or her property." But the government is in a "Catch-22" because it will not know the scope of its work until it is on the property, Hanen wrote.

"This is certainly a case where the parties are 'unable to agree on a reasonable price,'" Hanen wrote. So the condemnation was allowed to move ahead.

Hanen also ordered that the government consult with Tamez before going on the property about the timing of their visits and any ways to minimize their impact. Hanen wrote that he would be available to resolve disputes and previously in court had said that he owned boots and would be willing to use them for a site visit.

A countesuit against the feds has gained support among border mayors and activists.

A coalition of Texas border mayors and county executives stretching from El Paso to Brownsville decided to join a proposed class-action lawsuit against Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Tuesday.

The Texas Border Coalition's executive committee voted to join the lawsuit filed in early February by Cameron County landowner Eloisa Tamez. A federal judge has not yet certified that lawsuit as a class action.

That lawsuit challenged the way Homeland Security went about suing property owners to get temporary access to their land to survey for the border fence.

"We are joining this lawsuit to protect the interests of communities across Texas and to minimize the impact the border wall will have on our environment, culture, commerce and quality of life," Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster said in a statement. Foster is chairman of the coalition.

Eagle Pass was the first municipality to be sued for access to city property.

It should be noted that some of the arguments being made in this proposed suit are the same ones that were rejected by Judge Hanen, so it's hard to say how effective this may be. But the activists are vowing to continue the fight anyway, and they may get a sympathetic ear from Congress.

Two congressional subcommittees of the House Natural Resource Committee will be holding a joint hearing on the border wall in Brownsville on April 28th. Tamez says she plans to attend. It will be held at the University of Texas at Brownsville. "Our congressional leaders have been absent and the landowners feel like we have been fighting this battle against the government on our own," says Tamez.

The hearing will center around Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva's Borderlands Conservation and Security Act, which would force Homeland Security to negotiate with landowners and would require the agency to follow federal laws when constructing the wall. The bill has been languishing in a subcommittee since last summer, however.

Since Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived 36 federal land and environmental laws two weeks ago, the bill has gained more co-sponsors but it still lacks Republican support.

The bill also repeals the section of the REAL ID act which gave Chertoff the authority to waive environmental, labor, and other laws to construct the border wall.

Grijalva told the Rio Grande Guardian in a story Monday that "The Real ID Act is an overreach, constitutionally. What we are asking for is to introduce another constitutional right - due process," he said. "We are not saying you cannot have national security on the border. Let's have a process whereby the public has some input. You must have consultation, you must have NEPA and the environmental assessments and you must look for alternatives."

Tamez says that Congressional leaders outside of Texas have done more for border residents in her community than local congressional leaders. "We want our congressional leaders to know what this border wall will cost for us," she says. "Congressman Bennie Thompson and Raul Grijalva have been more visible on this than our own Representatives."

Well, yeah. That's a damn shame, and maybe someday we'll see a primary fight or two over that lack of leadership. I said once that I thought this was a great issue for Rep. Henry Cuellar to run with, but apparently not. Other than electing Rick Noriega, there's not much that can be done about this in 2008, but it's not too late to start thinking about 2010. South Texas Chisme has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Top 100 novelty songs

Pretty good list, actually. Here's the criteria:

These songs were chosen for their originality, wit, humor, and lasting popularity. Novelty = "New or unusual". Most 'Novelty' songs are comic takes of current events, cultural fads, or holidays, along with parodies of established hit songs, and comedic narrations put to music.

That latter leads to the inclusion of comedy routines like "Santa Claus And His Old Lady", which isn't a song by any definition I'd recognize, but that's a minor quibble as most of the rest of the list is genuine music. Another interesting inclusion is "I Put A Spell On You", by Screamin Jay Hawkins. Certainly, this was a novelty performance, but I'd argue the song itself, stripped of those theatrics, is just a good old blues tune, one that has been given many serious interpretations from the likes of Nina Simone, Pete Townshend, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Anyway, as I said, it's a pretty good list, one that will likely have me poking through YouTube and iTunes to learn more about the unfamiliar names on it. Check it out and see what you think. Thanks to Matt for sending this to me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 16, 2008
MLS versus the Mayor

Are you wondering what the status is of the Dynamo Stadium deal, which at last report saw City Council approving the land purchase in early March? Apparently, so is MLS, and they're getting a mite antsy about it.

On Friday, the Dynamo handed the mayor a letter, from the commissioner of Major League Soccer.

"I am concerned about the lack of progress in your discussions with the City of Houston," writes MLS commissioner Donald Garber.

He said he'd consider moving the Dynamo out of Houston unless the city agreed to help pay for a new stadium. Otherwise, "the Houston team will continue to lose money."

The mayor didn't take to the letter.

"I don't respond well to threats, it was, I don't know," said White.

The mayor thinks the letter is a bluff.

"I think we've made an offer that's a reasonable offer that they can make money," he said.

The letter is here (PDF). Much as I like the idea of a downtown Dynamo Stadium, I see no reason to give in here. I think the city has been perfectly reasonable and accommodating, and they have no need to fear being extorted over the level of funding they're willing to commit to. If after all this the Dynamo want to walk, I say have a nice trip.

In a hastily called press conference Wednesday afternoon, Dynamo president Oliver Luck said despite the tone of the letter, the team has not set any deadline for a deal to be struck. But, he said private financing of the stadium would not be the goal.

"It's extraordinarily difficult to commit to that kind of private funds to that kind of stadium without any economic help from a city," Luck said.

Luck estimated a new stadium would cost about $105 million. He said in many cases MLS teams have partnered with cities in a 90/10 split on financing, with the municipality picking up 90-percent of the funding.

The Dynamo are not looking for that sort of split in Houston, but Luck said the city would have to put up some sort of money to make a new stadium a reality. He stressed though, no deadline has been set and the team has not been talking with any other cities about a possible move.

I've not seen any discussion of what ratio the franchise would pay for a stadium versus the city. I have seen $70 to 80 million suggested as a price; perhaps that reflects the Dynamo's share of that $105 million cost, perhaps it's a reflection of the rising costs of construction, or perhaps it was just a poor guess. In any event, this is clearly the sticking point, so it's just a matter of who blinks first. Miya has more at KTRK.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Lake Radack

I know that County Commissioners are into building things, but this is a new one on me.

Out on prairie as flat as a polished dining room table, where he has no river or even rivulet to dam, Commissioner Steve Radack intends to dig a hole and build a 500-acre lake that will teem with sportfish and lure anglers from afar.

Radack has defied nature before -- his Precinct 3 is building a nearly 50-foot-high soap box derby hill in equally flat Hockley. But the proposed lake dwarfs the soap box derby in scope and cost, the way a trophy bass does a minnow.

John Paul's Landing, on the Katy Prairie in northwest Harris County, could cost as little as $8 million. But where there is no natural basin, the only choice is excavation, and that's Radack's problem. He could be looking at a $60 million price tag if he can't find someone who will dig out and remove 12 million cubic yards of dirt -- enough to fill five Astrodomes -- for free.


Radack said those who have raised questions about the lake are ignoring that Precinct 3 will provide a premium recreational park in an area already encroached by subdivisions and strip malls. And the fishing -- the lake will be stocked with bass, channel catfish and other species -- will be better than nearly anywhere else in the county, he said.

"I wanted to create something where people could go for free and spend a lot of quality time with their families," he said. "It's always a good feeling to put something together that brings people together."

Well, I can't argue with the motivation for this scheme. It's a fine thing to claim some land for the purposes of keeping it green, and that part of the county needs such things to be done sooner rather than later, as development out there is very brisk. One could argue, of course, that this can be accomplished by turning that tract into a regular old park instead of a massive man-made lake, and some folks who know more about ecology are worried about that very thing.

Meanwhile, federal and state biologists have questioned whether the county can funnel in enough water to build a lake and whether the water can sustain a healthy fish population.

"We definitely have concerns about whether they will have enough water," said Donna Anderson, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The lake's planners point to an old-fashioned water source: the skies.

Fred Garcia, the John Paul's Landing project manager at the Harris County Flood Control District, said rainfall on the property and roadside runoff funneled into the hole will fill most or all of the lake. And if more water is needed, the lake will fill when Cypress Creek floods the Langham Creek area -- which happens about every five years, Garcia said.

He added it could take five to 10 years to complete the lake.


Because the lake will not have a constant source of flowing water, biologists remain worried that there will not be enough oxygen in the lake to support a viable fish population, said Anderson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Texas Parks & Wildlife has also questioned whether nitrates and fertilizer from farm runoff might pollute the lake, said Jamie Schubert, coastal biologist with the department.

Garcia said water will go through wetlands and marshy areas that will be planted near the lake. Many pollutants naturally are removed in such wetlands, making it habitable for fish, he said.

Massive aeration pumps, he said, will be installed on the lake's bottom to spray water above the lake surface and expose it to oxygen.

Anderson, who has reviewed the project, said it does not seem to make sense environmentally to build a 500-acre lake on prairie where no such body of water existed historically.

I don't know enough about this to have an opinion on the fish-viability question, but that last paragraph sounds like a reasonable concern to me. Or as a commenter put it, "if God intended a lake on the Katy Prarie, wouldn't He have provided for one?" You do have to wonder what unintended consequences there might be. And what could be done if the thing does turn into a stagnant pond, which would make for ideal mosquito breeding grounds? How much might draining and refilling it with dirt cost? Maybe these possibilities are extremely remote, but I guess I'd want more than just Commissioner Radack's word for it.

One last thing:

No one is interested in the dirt yet, Garcia said. But the flood control district is hoping that a Grand Parkway builder will need dirt for the highway.

There's a quid pro quo option in there somewhere, I just know it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
An early overview of the county races

Now that we know what all of the countywide race matchups will be, I thought I'd take a little time to look at the individual races for the non-judicial offices that will be on the ballot this November. It's a fascinating mix, with differing candidate styles and strengths, and it should produce some of the most compelling action we've seen at this level in a long time.

Before I get to that, I want to set the parameters for these analyses. It is certainly possible that due to the national races, local issues, demographic trends, and other macro factors that come November 5 we'll wake up and discover that one party or the other has dominated, winning most if not all of the races. That will make for some good post-mortem discussions, but it's not very interesting to contemplate here. I therefore intend to assume that the Republicans and Democrats will go into Election Day evenly matched, with every race up for grabs and no one having an advantage that cannot be overcome by candidate quality, fundraising, or other factors. The point from there is to try and figure out how those factors can tip a race one way or the other.

Making that assumption means that I'm not going to specifically consider the effect of the Presidential race on the downballot contests. Obviously, the top of the ticket will have a big impact, but the factors involved are highly subjective at this point. Who will or won't inspire voters to turn out, what will the dominant issues be, and so on, is more a matter of faith than anything else. Again, for the purposes of trying to isolate the variables that are under the control of the individual candidates, I'm going to assume that this is all a wash, and that in the end whether one party or the other is lifted up or dragged down, we wind up in that 50/50 situation.

The next assumption I'm making is that even in the lower-profile races, the candidates themselves do matter. That may seem obvious enough, but I hear so much talk about the national races driving the downballot ones that I think this concept can get lost. Take a look at this chart of contested judicial races in 2004:

Republican Votes Democrat Votes
McCorkle 545,012 Nguyen 460,283
Carter 539,323 Roll 463,658
Keyes 538,788 Sharp 478,352
Godwin 538,397 Voigt 466,222
Rains 538,380 Ritchie 465,620
Anderson 533,659 Ribnik 470,979
Burke 532,172 Mosier 474,115
McCally 524,198 Stone 482,385

Everyone agrees that judicial races are decided by the prevailing partisan preferences, as judicial candidates seldom have the money to run their own distinctive races. Yet even here, the number of votes varies. The difference in winning margin from McCorkle/Nguyen to McCally/Stone is 43,000 votes, or about four percent of the ballots cast. That wasn't enough to make a difference in a year where the Presidential vote went 55/45 for the GOP, but in a 50/50 year, it most definitely would matter. Under such conditions, a slight advantage for a candidate even among a small subgroup of voters - say, lawyers who try cases in these judges' courtrooms - could be decisive.

The point I'm making is that even in low-profile races, candidates matter. In the non-judicial races, where especially this year we should expect that the contenders will have money and will do advertising and other forms of voter outreach, they will matter more. Looking again and 2004, the three contested non-judicial races had even more variability in the final results:

Republican Votes Democrat Votes
Rosenthal 565,492 McKamie 460,671
Thomas 568,899 Clark 457,228
Bettencourt 607,085 Webb 434,101

Bettencourt's winning margin was 58,000 votes more than Rosenthal's. That was due in part to there being a lesser undervote in his race - about 4.7%, compared to 6.1% in the DA and Sheriff's races. In other words, Bettencourt gained votes from folks who skipped those races as well as from folks who voted Democratic in them. If that's not a measure of candidate quality, I don't know what is.

So that's the groundwork I want to lay. I want to see how these races look under the assumption that the score really does start out zero to zero and that what happens from there is all up to the individuals involved. With that established, we'll try to see how these races might shake out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
How bad is Fort Bend's air?

Apparently, nobody really knows for sure.

Sugar Land and surrounding Fort Bend County often get a double dose of dirty air from commuters' tailpipes and what's blown inland from the Gulf of Mexico, air-quality experts say.

But nobody knows for certain what they're breathing, because Fort Bend County is the most populous county in Texas without a monitoring station to measure air pollution. There are nearly 50 monitors across Greater Houston.

"It's such an obvious oversight," said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, or GHASP. "They need to know more than anybody what's in the air."


The prevailing winds off the coast force air pollution that didn't become ozone the day before to pool in Fort Bend County. Ozone, a colorless gas formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react in heat and sunlight, is the main ingredient in smog. Chronic exposure to smog can damage lungs, and people with lung or heart disease may have trouble breathing.

Sugar Land is also downwind of the W.A. Parish power plant, which generates more than 3,500 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 2.8 million homes, making it the second-largest in the U.S. The plant has reduced emissions of nitrogen oxides by 80 percent over five years, but still produces more of the pollutant than any other industry source in the eight-county Houston region.

What's more, the wind-aided buildup of ozone is compounded by the homegrown emissions from cars and trucks. Fort Bend County's population has grown 40 percent to nearly 500,000 people since 2000.

"Fort Bend County bears the brunt of today's pollution and yesterday's pollution," Tejada said.

But it's unknown to what extent.


Bob Hebert, Fort Bend County's judge, said he has not requested a monitor. The smog problem is a regional one, he said, so if Houston fails to meet federal clean-air standards, then Fort Bend fails, too.

"With the exception of the Parish plant, we don't have any major polluters in the county," Hebert said. "But we have the prevailing winds, so we can't clean up the air on our own. We could close the Parish plant tomorrow and still not meet the federal standards."

I feel like I'm missing an important piece of information here. Like, how much would it cost to install however many monitors would be needed to get an accurate picture of the problem. Is it simply not feasible, or is the somewhat defeatist attitude of Judge Hebert penny-wise and pound-foolish? Someone help me out here, please.

Assuming that the cost isn't too prohibitive, I don't understand why you wouldn't want to put in the monitors. Isn't everyone better off with full information here? And even if the bulk of the problem is the Parish plant, being able to document it more thoroughly might give you some leverage to get them to do better in the emissions department. Further, having sufficient data might also help to do things like more accurately inform the county's transportation policies. I just don't understand why they're content with not knowing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Hilton Americas up for sale

The hotel next to the George R. Brown Convention Center is on the block.

Houston Convention Center Hotel Corp. has hired real estate firm CB Richard Ellis to sell the property through a process that also will seek development proposals for a second convention hotel.

"The ideal buyer will buy the existing hotel and build the new one," said Richard Campo, chairman of the city-chartered group that owns the property and contracts with Hilton Hotels Corp. to manage it.

Earlier this year, city officials said they were considering putting the hotel up for sale, a move that could pave the way for a second to be built on a parcel just north of Discovery Green next to the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The idea was that another hotel would make Houston a stronger competitor for major conventions.


In about 30 days, an offering memorandum outlining the details of the sale and, most likely, a solicitation for development proposals, will be sent to a targeted group of investors.

Analysts have said the hotel could fetch $350 million.

The hotel corporation said it will let the market determine the property's value.

Mary Carolan of CB Richard Ellis said in this time of tight credit, investors are seeking "quality" real estate, and that Houston is being targeted by domestic and international funds because of its strong economy relative to other parts of the country.

Carolan said she's been getting inquiries from international pension funds that never would have returned her calls to them just two years ago.

"They want to know when product in Houston is coming available," she said. "We're not just domestically desirable, but globally desirable."

Well, that's nice to hear. For sure, it hasn't always been that way. Better enjoy it while it lasts. A little cashing in wouldn't hurt, either.

City Controller Annise Parker said she isn't certain whether the city should sell the hotel outright and walk away, or use that transaction to finance another hotel near the convention center.

"There's apparently some feeling among the convention professionals that Houston would benefit from it," she said. "I understand the need to have sufficient hotel rooms close to the Brown, but it's taken us a few years to crawl out of the post-9/11, post-Enron doldrums and for the hotel bookings to tick up. I would have to see numbers on what kind and type of hotel would make sense, and why the city should get involved again."

Well, if that aforementioned ideal buyer comes along, we won't have to worry about making that decision. What do you suppose are the odds of that?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The Curse of Big Papi?

This is actually pretty funny.

A construction worker's bid to curse the New York Yankees by planting a Boston Red Sox jersey in their new stadium was foiled Sunday when the home team removed the offending shirt from its burial spot.

After locating the shirt in a service corridor behind what will be a restaurant in the new Yankee Stadium, construction workers jackhammered through the concrete Sunday and pulled it out.

The team said it learned that a Sox-rooting construction worker had buried a shirt in the new Bronx stadium, which will open next year across the street from the current ballpark, from a report in the New York Post on Friday.

Yankees President Randy Levine said team officials at first considered leaving the shirt where it was.

"The first thought was, you know, it's never a good thing to be buried in cement when you're in New York," Levine said. "But then we decided, why reward somebody who had really bad motives and was trying to do a really bad thing?"

On Saturday, construction workers who remembered the employee, Gino Castignoli, phoned in tips about the shirt's location.

"We had anonymous people come tell us where it was, and we were able to find it," said Frank Gramarossa, a project executive with Turner Construction, the general contractor on the site.

It took about five hours of drilling Saturday to locate the shirt under 2 feet of concrete.


Levine said the shirt would be cleaned up and sent to the Jimmy Fund, a charity affiliated with Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Along with that, New York will send a Yankees Universe T-shirt, which is sold to benefit Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

"Hopefully, the Jimmy Fund will auction it off, and we'll take the act that was a very, very bad act and turn it into something beautiful," Levine said.

I just hope they mark the spot so that it can be a part of future tours of the new stadium. May as well begin the lore-making now. And I think King Kaufman had a good idea, too:

What the Yankees should have done was leave the jersey right where it was and start talking Red Sox curse 2.0. David Ortiz ended the weekend hitting .070, not a typo, with one home run and three RBIs in 43 at-bats. He had a .231 on-base percentage and a .140 slugging percentage, not a typo and not a typo.

That would have been a good time to blame Big Papi's slump on Hardhat Red Sox Boy. I mean, how could such a very, very bad act not bring down the wrath of the baseball gods on the very person whose jersey was underground? The Yankees could have made Castignoli's life miserable and given Red Sox fans a new curse to worry about, all with one wry smile and a few well-chosen words. Every time something went wrong with the Red Sox, they could have reminded everybody about the jersey.

Damn, I wish they'd thought of that. Ah well, maybe for the next Stadium.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 15, 2008
800K for Skelly

So you thought that Michael Skelly raised a mere $750K this quarter? I'm here to say he did better. Actually, his campaign and this press release say it:

With $796,809 raised in the first full quarter of 2008 and $666,506 cash on hand, the strength of Michael Skelly's support in his bid for Texas' 7th Congressional District is clear. Skelly has out raised his opponent, Congressman John Culberson, and is the leading fundraiser among Congressional challengers in the nation. Skelly's fundraising totals show a better than two-to-one advantage over Culberson.

"I'm energized by the support across the District - not just in terms of financial support, but also in their willingness to knock on doors and to build a grassroots movement," Skelly said. "We are gaining the support of Democrats, Republicans and independents throughout the 7th Congressional District."

Houston Politics has more. For purposes of comparison, netroots hero and repeat candidate Darcy Burner corralled a bit more than $500K for the quarter, which is pretty darned impressive. This is even better.

Moving north and west of CD07, Larry Joe Doherty had a fairly decent three months as well. From his campaign:

Larry Joe Doherty, the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 10th Congressional District, today reported receiving $108,680 from 141 contributors since his last filing on February 14, 2008, giving him $122,452 cash-on-hand.

"People are ready for change," noted Doherty, "we saw it at the polls, we saw it at the caucuses, and we're seeing it in our fundraising." Doherty won the March 4th Democratic primary by 22 points, sweeping all eight of the district's counties in an election that saw a record turnout of voters.

"On one hand, Mike McCaul is ignoring the fact that Americans want our troops home and out of a civil war in Iraq that has no end in sight," Doherty stated. "On the other hand, McCaul is ignoring the economic crisis that's squeezing middle class families with rising gas prices, rising food prices and health care costs that are out control."

"Time and again McCaul has rejected bi-partisan efforts to provide practical solutions," noted Doherty. "And if he's not going to be a part of the solution, it's time for him to step aside."

Rep. McCaul can write his own check, so the playing field is a bit different here. But still, not too shabby. Look for all this money to start finding its way into media buys soon. The November campaign season is getting underway sooner than you'd expect.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
At long last, he unites us

Via State of Mine, the news story that most amused me today.

President Bush has talked a lot about being a modern-day Harry Truman: a president who makes tough but unpopular decisions that will be appreciated by history, if not by his American contemporaries.

Well, now, Bush has passed Truman to set an ignominious record. He has become the president with the longest consecutive stretch of job-approval ratings below 50 percent since scientific public opinion polling was invented.

At 39 months, Bush passed Truman, who was on the wrong side of the populace for the last 38 months of his presidency.

With the 43rd president hovering around the 30 percent mark for job approval, it seems highly unlikely that he will crack the 50 percent level for the final nine months of his second term.

In the new poll, Bush's approval rate stood at 33 percent, just 1 percent age point above his all-time low. The President's approval rating has been relatively stable in ABC/Post polling; he hasn't topped 36 percent since November 2006.

You've heard of the Mendoza Line? I think we have its political equivalent here. Dallas, you're welcome to him.

Posted by Charles Kuffner

What an awesome concert. I may not hear anything today, and I'm a little sleep-deprived, but man, was it worth it. Bruce Springsteen is God, and we were truly privileged to see him and the E Street Band perform last night.

During the show, Tiffany pointed out a little girl, maybe nine years old, down in the general admission area with her mom and brother. It got me to hoping that Bruce and company are still doing this in another six or seven years, so that we can take Olivia to see him play (Audrey too, if it's a little later than that). Seeing how fit and energetic he was at the Toyota Center, that doesn't seem too unreasonable a thing to wish for.

UPDATE: Pete was there as well, and he provides a set list.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The race to replace Janek

As we know, there will be a special election sometime this year to replace State Sen. Kyle Janek, who currently represents SD17 and who plans to resign in June. We also know of one declared Republican candidate, and a whole lot of speculation about who else might run.

Houston money manager Austen Furse already is putting together a campaign staff and raising money for the race. Former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Gary Polland said he is looking at the race but is concerned the district is trending Democratic.

And state Reps. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, and Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, also are considering running, but they won't be able to be candidates without giving up their House seats if Gov. Rick Perry sets the special election to coincide with the Nov. 4 general election.


The 17th District stretches from southern Harris County through Fort Bend County and Galveston before a tail sweeps out to Port Arthur. The state's Republican leadership drew the district to be Republican in 2001, but it has been changing in recent years.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama received more votes in this year's primary than Janek received in his general election victories in either 2002 or 2006, non-presidential years.

Hochberg said that statistic is less convincing to him that the district is trending Democratic than the fact that Texas Supreme Court candidate Bill Moody got 46 percent in the district with no Democratic get-out-the-vote effort.

Hochberg said Democratic congressional candidate Michael Skelly will be spending tremendous amounts of money to turn out voters in the portion of the 7th Congressional District that overlaps Janek's Senate district.

"You have a trend. The question is, which candidate can reach out to Republican voters, because you are still going to need them," Hochberg said.

Both Hochberg and Howard said they may look at running for the seat if it is not on the same day as the general election. State law would prohibit them for running for re-election to their House seats and running in the special Senate election on the same day.

"The only people it prevents from running for the seat are the current House members," Howard said.

As always in these matters, the question of when Governor Perry will set the special election date comes down to political advantage. What will give the Republicans the best chance to win? Here, I think it's a bit of a mixed bag. Rep. Hochberg would be a very strong candidate, but I think the Democrats would do better in November, when the Presidential race ought to give them a greater boost in turnout than the Republicans will get. But Hochberg almost certainly wouldn't run in November because he'd have to give up his State House seat; in an earlier special, he could keep his seat until and unless he won, as the House seat would not also be on the ballot. There may be another viable Democrat out there who could run in November, one who ideally would have the capability to self-fund, as this is surely going to be a million-dollar race and there won't be much time to raise that kind of scratch, especially in an environment where there's so many other candidates clamoring for contributions, but I've not heard of such a candidate as yet. For that reason, I'll give the edge to November for the special election. Given that there won't be any official legislative business to conduct between now and then anyway, that seems like the right time for it anyway; why spend the extra money holding this election if you don't have to? But as I said, the consderations are more prosaic than that, so we'll just have to see if another Dem emerges.

Polland said the trend toward the Democrats is because of people from New Orleans moving into Fort Bend County and also because of a general frustration with Republican leadership in Washington and Austin.

"Our voters are disappointed that they hear one thing in campaigns and then something else when they get into office," Polland said. "I'm pretty consistent. What you see is what you get."

Polland said he expects Obama to be the Democratic presidential nominee and that Obama's campaign will focus on turning out new voters. He said a Republican will have to reach across party lines to win.

Janek disagrees. He said half the district's vote comes out of Harris County and will remain very conservative. He said there may be a "little uptick" in Democratic voting but that the district should easily go Republican.

As noted before, I think Polland's assessment of the district is more in line with reality. That said, I'd feel a lot more confident about Democratic chances there if we already had a candidate running and raising money for this seat instead of speculating now about who might run depending on when the election is. The numbers can only take you so far - you still need a good candidate and the resources to get that candidate's message out. The district's odd geography makes that a challenge. I actually think having about half the vote in Harris County - Janek is correct about that - is more help than hindrance for the Dems, as a fair amount of that will be coming from the clearly Dem-trending HD134. It's the Fort Bend and Brazoria portions of the district, which account for about 40% of the vote, that concern me. By any objective standard, SD17 is Republican favored, but it's not the slamdunk Janek claims. A good Dem - Hochberg for sure - with sufficient funding would make it a race.

At the risk of starting a rumor, I can think of a well-qualified candidate in SD17 who could run in November with good name recognition and at least the capability of raising some money: Chris Bell. Please note that this is 100% fact-free speculation on my part, so use only as directed, some restrictions may apply, not valid in all locations, yadda yadda yadda. If you can think of someone else, go ahead and name names in the comments. May as well have some idea of what our options are in the not-unlikely event of a November special and no Hochberg in the race. Greg and BOR have more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
How big a house do you need?

The beginning of this article about the state of the seven-figures housing market in Houston fascinated me.

When Ronald and Paige Wardell began shopping for a house inside the Loop, they figured they could find everything they wanted for $750,000 -- tops.

Their requirements: at least 4,000 square feet, a yard for their two young children, and that it be close to Ronald Wardell's Galleria-area law office.

"We quickly learned that for the type of house we wanted and the size of house we wanted, that simply wasn't going to be found," he said.

So they upped their budget and expanded their search.

Last spring, the Wardells moved into a 5-year-old, 5,370-square-foot house, sitting on just under an acre, north of Interstate 10 in the Spring Branch area. The price: $1.25 million.

I'm trying to wrap my mind around a 5000+ square-foot house. That's a heck of a lot of house, especially for four people. It's more than twice the size of my house, and my house isn't small. I'm wondering how you keep such a large house clean - it must be a full-time job. I'm also wondering what the utility bills must be like. I don't begrudge anyone who has the means the privilege of buying such a house. If you want it and you can pay for it, be my guest. Just don't moan about the property taxes, especially if you went more than 50% over your initial budget to buy it - I've got no sympathy for you there. I just don't quite get the allure of a house that big. Am I weird for thinking that way? Let me know.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Texas blog roundup for the week of April 14

Happy Tax Day! Whether you're awaiting a refund or mailing in a check, you can always count on the Texas Progressive Alliance to give you your money's worth. Click on for the week's highlights.

It would seem that the Republican Party of Texas (Republicans first, Texans last!) is looking for a few sweet young thangs! McBlogger at McBlogger has the story on the RPT's efforts to secure a few good young people.

Bradley at North Texas Liberal takes a look into the possible political aspirations of Condoleezza Rice... and tells us why she may be the Democrats' worst nightmare.The Texas Cloverleaf asks if you're ready to strike over gas prices? Some truck drivers are. They aren't defenders of the Alamo, and are few and far between, but will their message resonate with the rest of America? Some of them say no.

With the resounding defeat of Shelley Sekula Gibbs last Tuesday in the GOP CD 22 runoff, this spells the end of her short-lived political career. Hal at Half Empty has created a video to commemorate the Shelster's last hurrah.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme suspects U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez will be looking for a new job. Soon. Seems that Carlos spoke the truth about that d*mn fence!

Lightseeker over at Texas Kaos marks the upcoming annual income tax deadline by bringing up a sadly evergreen topic Tax Lies That Republicans Tell. After all, if the didn't find someone to put money in to the treasury, where would the money to pay for their crony politics come from?

Gary at Easter Lemming Liberal Newsis not catching up on sleep this time but reveals the predictions for four years his brother made the day after Bush was reelected. His brother gets the Cassandra Award and the media pundits don't have to worry about their jobs.

Doing My Part For The Left warns that voter suppression is not just a Texas problem.

Off the Kuff makes the case for investing in transit in Houston.

IVR polled the Skelly-Culberson CD-07 race, as well as Noriega-Cornyn, and came up with some interesting results. PDiddie at Brains and Eggs blogged it.

nytexan at BlueBloggin points out that most Americans are scrapping to get by, however, some federal employees are having tons of fun with government credit cards. Your Tax Dollars Purchased iPods, Internet Dating, Women's Lingerie...

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 14, 2008
Settlement reached in K-Mart Roundup lawsuits

The great K-Mart Kiddie Roundup saga may finally be drawing to a close.

Dozens of people arrested by Houston police during the 2002 street racing raid that turned into a scandal for the Houston Police Department have reached a tentative settlement with the city.

The agreement -- which still needs approval by U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas and the City Council -- will resolve at least nine of the 10 federal cases that include more than 100 plaintiffs. Lawyers on both sides confirmed the deal, but declined to reveal the settlement amount late Sunday. They will appear in court today, when jury selection was slated to begin, but it is unclear how Atlas will proceed in light of the agreement.

City Attorney Arturo Michel said the agreement makes good sense given the mounting legal costs and the distraction the litigation brought to HPD. The department is a different agency today than before the raid and lawsuits, he added.

"They've looked at how they operate, made some changes and they're moving on," he said of police officials. "It just closes the chapter on HPD's attempt to regulate a serious problem, but raises a lot of issues on how it was done."

The settlement also means that former HPD Chief C.O. Bradford, the Democratic candidate for Harris County district attorney, could avoid recounting the details of his department's missteps during a trial. Bradford stepped down as police chief in 2003, shortly after the incident.


In the early stages of the cases, Atlas ruled that HPD's plan to curb street racing was unconstitutional. In 2005, the judge wrote a scathing opinion calling HPD tactics to detain and arrest people not observed violating the law "an unjustified, almost totalitarian, regime of suspicionless stops."

Last year, an appeals court rebuffed Bradford's attempt to be removed as a defendant after Atlas ruled he would remain.

The judge allowed the case to proceed in February because of unresolved disputes about whether HPD had a custom of mass detention without individual suspicion and because what Bradford knew about the plan remained unclear.

Other plaintiffs settled their lawsuits, but these final cases took five years to resolve.

Looks like I was right after all to predict that these suits would not make it to a jury but would be settled instead. There may be one last case to go forward, and we still need Judge Atlas to sign off on all this, but this appears to be the end of the line. Which is surely a relief for Chief Bradford, as all this business will now not get a week-long rehashing in the news. I'm sure this incident will come up as a campaign issue, but at least from his perspective it will only be a campaign story, and not a lawsuit-against-the-city story. All things considered, given that there was enough merit to the suits for them to have come to trial, that's the best outcome for him.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Miles indicted


State Representative Borris Miles has been indicted on two counts of deadly conduct. The indictments stem from two different incidents on the same day back in December. The first incident happened during a Rockets/Mavericks game at Toyota Center. At a facility lounge, Miles allegedly pulled a gun on TSU regent Willard Jackson's wife. The second incident took place at a party thrown by businessman David Harris later that same night. At the party, Miles allegedly pulled a gun on Harris.

I hope he is able to get this matter resolved and his personal business straightened out. I really don't know what else to say.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Thumbs up on Day One for Discovery Green

Pretty good reviews, I'd say.

Those who flocked to the opening "Family Day" event gushed with enthusiasm as they surveyed the green space. While the park is compact, visitors Sunday said they were amazed at how much there was to do.

Visitors could hit golf balls, play shuffleboard, explore a new playground, dine in chic restaurants, stroll through gardens and enjoy a myriad of live entertainment venues.

Eric Andell, who has lived downtown for 10 years, enjoyed his meander through the park. "What's not to like here?" he said. "It's great to have some green space."

Nine-year-old Zeal Alexander, who was soaking wet after dashing repeatedly through a fountain, agreed.

"It's like going through a force field that's icy cold," he said.


In Discovery Green, the trees are strategically located in rows around open areas. Some 100-year-old live oaks were brought from other parts of Houston, where they had been slated to be destroyed.

"I especially like the old trees. It just feels like Houston,"said Amy Curtis, who brought her two young children to the park's opening.

Visitors who prefer using the trees as reading posts can even have books delivered to the park's reading room. Those inclined to more high-tech entertainment can access free Internet and even check out laptop computers to use in the park for free for two hours.

"This will be particularly good for those on a lunch break or convention visitors," said Edward Melton, who oversees the program.

I'd think that a big beneficiary of the new park will be the George R. Brown Convention Center. One reason for having a convention in a particular town is because there's stuff to do there, optimally nearby or at least within transit range, for when you're not sitting in a seminar or workshop. Between the park and the Main Street rail line, which makes the Museum District easily accessible, there's now a lot of stuff to do outside the GRB. That wasn't the case before. I don't know how much that sort of consideration weighs on convention planners, but I'll bet the opening of Discovery Green is going to make these people's job a little easier.

As I said before, we'll make our first official family visit to the Green on Thursday for the opening of Green Market. I'm looking forward to it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Kelly Fero: the man, the myth

Here's a nice little read about longtime Austin Democratic consultant Kelly Fero, who got himself into a spot of hot water in recent weeks. It's so inside-baseball that even I don't get all the references, but illuminating nonetheless. On the matter of Fero's surprisingly low profile for a guy who gets quoted in every other story about the state of the Democratic Party in Texas, I'll say that I've had regular email correspondence with him, I've spoken on the phone with him once or twice, and like everyone else mentioned in the story, I had no idea what he looked like before I saw the included photo. And like Greg, I'm generally a fan of his work. Read it and see what you think.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Another lawsuit against Farmers Branch

This time it's over their at-large City Council system, which the plaintiffs claim dilutes Hispanic voting strength.

Their attorneys, Rolando Rios of San Antonio and Domingo Garcia of Dallas, drew up a set of single-members districts that they contend would include one Hispanic-majority district.

"We believe the current at-large system of electing Farmers Branch City Council members makes it almost impossible for minority candidates to get elected," Mr. Garcia said.

The lawsuit contends that had single-member districts been in place last May, Jose Galvez, the first Hispanic to run for the council, would have been elected.


"The basic problem the plaintiffs have is, under the law, in order to maintain their suit, they have to be able to show that you can draw a single-member district with a Hispanic or Latino citizen voting-age population majority," [Bob Heath, representing the city,] said.

"We don't think you can do that."

He said that although there may be clusters of Latinos in the city, residents of voting age are widely dispersed.

A similar lawsuit thirty-some years ago is how Houston wound up with single-member districts. I doubt that having a single Hispanic on their City Council would have prevented Farmers Branch from pursuing its xenophobic anti-immigrant policies, but it at least would have given those being demonized a voice in the process. The lawsuit is set to come to trial on May 8. Link via South Texas Chisme.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Breaching the fence

How do you beat a million-dollar border fence? It's easy.

Illegal immigrants armed with torches, hacksaws, ladders and even bungee cords are making it around a section of the border fence hailed as the most efficient way to stop them.

In the 10 months since the section was put up, the only method federal agents haven't seen is a tunnel -- "Yet," said Victor Guzman, the supervisory Border Patrol agent responsible for the stretch of close-together 15-foot cement-filled steel poles planted three feet into the ground.

Agents responsible for guarding the stretch of border here "almost immediately" started seeing cuts in the fence. The towering gray and rust colored posts are marked with bright orange spray paint in areas believed to have been breached, Guzman said.

Guzman, who has worked in the area for nearly a decade, said agents have found holes cut with acetylene torches, hacksaws and even plasma torches -- a high-powered tool that uses inert gas or condensed air to quickly cut through steel and other dense metals.

"We see it once or twice a week," Guzman said of the holes along the 1.5-mile stretch of fencing about 80 miles west of El Paso.

We've heard this sort of thing before. The joke about a ten-foot fence enhancing sales of eleven-foot ladders may seem like a sound bite, except for all the truth it contains. And in some cases, even the ladder - or hacksaw or torch or whatever - isn't needed.

But it's not just illegal immigrants worrying the Border Patrol. The fence itself -- built by the National Guard and Border Patrol -- is starting to settle into the ground and gaps between the posts are widening. In one spot, an average sized woman could wedge herself through one of the gaps.

That's for a fence that was completed last June, so it's less than a year old. Really gives you a feeling of security, doesn't it?

One thing I'm curious about: Did the money that was allocated to build the 670-mile fence include allowances for future repairs, or is that something that will have to be dealt with every fiscal year by Congress? Because, it seems to me, this is exactly the sort of cost that never gets taken into account initially, and winds up the responsibility of the operating agency, which then has to make cuts elsewhere to handle it. It'd be quite the irony if Border Patrol had to initiate a hiring freeze to be able to pay for fence repairs, wouldn't it?

By the way, the Sunday op-ed pages had three good pieces relating to immigration and the border wall:

Border barrier sends the wrong message

Last February, I found myself in the difficult position of explaining American insecurity to a group of Mexican undergraduates at a college in Matamoros, Mexico, just south of the border at Brownsville, Texas. I was taking questions after delivering a lecture on the long-term prospects of Mexican immigrants being accepted into U.S. society. A neatly dressed young man in the back stood up to ask a pointed question. "How," he said politely in Spanish, "could such a rich and powerful country be so self-centered as to build a wall on its border to keep people out?"

Build Mexico instead of putting up a wall

If the official minimum wage were 10 times higher in Chicago than in St. Louis, it's easy to imagine what would happen: Thousands of men and women would leave their homes and families and travel north in search of better wages and a higher standard of living. And Regardless of what Chicago did to "protect and defend" its borders, the city would find it impossible to stem the relentless tide of determined job-seekers.

Substitute Veracruz for St. Louis, and the hypothetical example becomes very real -- and points to the true source of our immigration challenges along the U.S.-Mexico border. With wages for semiskilled in Mexico one-tenth the level of U.S. wages, even workers who hold jobs in Mexico see working in the United States as the only realistic hope for pulling their families out of severe poverty.

If the root cause of Mexican migration to the United States is found in Mexico, then why do we continue to believe that 2,000-mile walls will solve the immigration problems associated with undocumented workers?

Western Union and the wall

Confronted with fortress Jericho, Joshua's forces let wail on ramhorns and, as the spiritual has it, "the walls came a-tumblin' down." Millennia later, it's possible that another communication device -- the ubiquitous cell phone -- may blow away the border barrier currently being erected between the United States and Mexico.

This possibility emerged in the unlikely -- and funny -- convergence of two press releases on April Fool's Day. Within hours of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's announcement that he would invoke congressionally granted waivers to expedite 470 miles of security-wall construction across the American southwest, Western Union rolled out a new service targeted at U.S. Latino consumers that will enable them to transfer money to Mexico with but a few keystrokes from their mobile phones.

The latter was written by Char Miller, one of my history profs at Trinity University. Check 'em out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 13, 2008
Discovery Green Q&A

The Chron has a chat with Nancy Kinder, who headed up the private fundraising efforts for Discovery Green.

Q: When you started raising money, what was the pitch you made to donors? How did you convince people this would be a worthwhile use of their money?

A: When we explained the vision and they looked at the location, they all knew what we saw immediately and what the mayor saw: that if you build a park downtown, if you really do want high-rise living, apartments, condos, you need to have something for these people to do and to be a part of. If you have an apartment and you live downtown, where are you going to go?

I mean, there's concrete everywhere.

Q: So you raised all this money to create the park. What will be the source of money for operations and maintenance?

A: There are four parts to the budget. We (the conservancy) own the restaurant, and Schiller del Grande operates it. We get a certain percentage of rent, so, if they do well, we do well. Also, City Council approved $750,000 a year for general maintenance. A gala every other year will be the third part of it.

The fourth part, we need businesses and companies around us to help us out with the programming. The programming is critical. If you have people here, the more you do for them, the more they'll come back.

Q: Have you encountered any concerns that all the millions being contributed to Discovery Green might be reducing funding available for other charitable causes?

A: At the beginning, there was some concern out there among the green groups. But I think we've brought a more high profile to green space and urban parks and created a blueprint for other organizations that want to do green space. We've convinced them you can't just have green space, because no one will come.

Here's a very early story about the opening day festivities.

Beneath blue skies and a cool breeze, Mayor Bill White declared the opening Sunday of Houston's first major downtown park-- which took four years and $122 million to transform from a patchwork of parking lots.

Discovery Green stretches in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center along McKinney for about eight city blocks or 12 acres -- surrounded by a dramatic view of Houston's skyline.

"This is a pure urban park that will have programs every day. It will have more intense activities than some of our other parks," said White, who had traded in his suit and tie for shorts and tennis shoes for the occasion.


Many in attendance for the "Family Day" entertainment were gushing with enthusiasm at the myriad of entertainment, including model-boat races, kites, sports demonstrations, music and dance.

Well, I hope they'll come back, then. Tiffany got a call from one of her co-op colleagues this afternoon. She was staffing the information booth for the Green Market, and needed help because they had already given out all of their flyers and promotional materials. We loaded the kids into the minivan, made a quick stop at Kinko's to pick up another 500 flyers, and I dropped her off at the entrance to deliver the reinforcements, picking her up again after a swing around the block. The place was clearly full, and the report from the market was that it was "crazy busy". In fact, they were supposed to have about 500 postcards printed by the Downtown District to hand out, but they were all distributed yesterday, before the official opening. So, based on all this, I'd say the place is off to a roaring start. We'll be there Thursday evening for the first Market day, along with a picnic dinner. I'll get Tiffany to write up a report afterwards.

Anyone here visit the Green today? What did you think?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Mount Rush Hour

I finally got the chance to photograph those giant Presidential heads that you can see on I-10 eastbound just past I-45:

Here's a map to where they are, in case you want a closer look that doesn't involve highway speed. The captions read "A tribute to American statesmanship". Have I mentioned lately how much I love having David Adickes in town?

By the way, the question of who the four Presidents are came up in the comments on the picture. I think we all recognize Lincoln and Washington, so it's the other two who might be a mystery. Based on what David Adickes himself said here, the guy on the left is Franklin Pierce. Next to him, based on my own guess, is Martin Van Buren. If you think otherwise, please speak up.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
How not to register a complaint

Not smart.

A month before complaints about problems at his apartments were disclosed publicly, state Rep. Hubert Vo used his government letterhead to complain to Houston police commanders about the department's scrutiny and accuse officers of harassment.

"What I am concerned with is the appearance that the NPC officers are using their authority to harass and issue tickets instead of working with the apartment managers to remedy any deficiencies," he wrote in the Feb. 25 letter to Assistant Chief Dorothy Edwards, who heads the Houston Police Department's Neighborhood Protection Corps.

"The word 'harass' is a very strong word and I use it very cautiously, but the conduct of the officers involved in this situation leads me to no other conclusion."

The three-page letter, which goes on to complain that the manager at the Villa De Matel apartments was not treated fairly and "taunted," was obtained from HPD by the Houston Chronicle late Friday under the Texas Public Information Act.


While it does not make any explicit threats or demands, the letter is on his state office stationery, which contains the state seal and a rendering of the Texas Capitol. It notes his position on the House Law Enforcement Committee last session.

Under his signature, Vo also indicated that he was sending a copy to Edwards' boss, Chief Harold Hurtt.

Here's a simple rule that all elected officials should follow: If what you're about to do is not directly related to the function of your elected office, don't use any of the trappings of your office for it. That means no stationery, no email address, no phone, and so on. If it's your personal business, do it on your time and on your dime. You'll be amazed how much grief you can avoid this way.

Now I don't know if this official-letterhead complaint by Rep. Vo violated any laws or House rules. His opponent is calling for an investigation - no surprise there - but that doesn't mean there's anything to investigate. If there is, then let the chips fall where they may. And let there be no more surprises to uncover related to this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The Libertarian lineup

The local Libertarian Party, which nominates by convention and not primary, has its slate of local candidates up. There are a few familiar names - Susan Delgado has apparently decided to follow the Mike Gravel career path; Drew Parks has been on the ballot in CD07 a few times; Mhair Dekmezian is a repeat candidate in HD134. Of interest was the inclusion of a candidate for Tax Assessor. Generally speaking, the LP runs candidates for state and federal office, but not county offices. Looking through the election return archives on the Harris Votes page, the last time such a candidate ran was in 2002 for County Judge. Not sure why that is, but for this year at least, you'll have a third choice in the Tax Assessor's race. Anyway, if you're one of those pox-on-both-their-houses types, there's you list of third choices.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
For a public defender's office

Criminal defense attorney Mark Bennett endorses the idea of a public defender's office in Harris County.

Among other things, a public defender's office can maintain standards in the area of investigations. Ad hoc lawyers are at the mercy of the district court judges in getting approval for investigators, including mitigation specialists. A court-appointed mitigation specialist in a non-capital case is, as far as I can tell, unheard-of in Harris County. Harris County judges are, according to defense lawyers with court-appointed practices, stingy with funds for investigators of all sorts. Worse, Harris County judges are known to cut investigators' fees after they have done their work. Try getting a mitigation expert to return to work on a Harris County case after a Harris County judge has slashed her fee. A public defender's office would, like the Harris County District Attorney's Office, have a staff of dedicated investigators to use as needed without seeking the approval of the court. The office would also have a budget that it could use for outside investigators and experts if necessary, without the micromanagement to which court-appointed lawyers can be subjected.

With a couple of assistant public defenders assigned to each court, the DA's office will lose its home-court advantage. This will improve the effectiveness of indigent defense. It will also improve its efficiency, since there are economies of scale and, in Pat McCann's words, "economies of efficiency" in a PD's office that don't exist in an ad hoc system. Lawyers assigned to a court will learn to perform their jobs more efficiently so that they can help more defendants more with less wasted time. In-house investigators will cost the County less money than ad hoc investigators. Instead of paying the lawyers and requiring each to cover her own overhead, a PD's office will consolidate the fixed overhead of the lawyers representing the indigent.

It's good stuff, so check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 12, 2008
Watch those construction costs

In light of our recent discussion about the costs of transit, I thought I'd flag this story about the general rise in construction costs and how this is affecting capital projects.

Rising prices for steel, concrete and oil are swelling the city's capital improvement budget, forcing the delay of dozens of projects, city officials said Friday.

"Steel and cement are crazy," said James Tillman IV, director of the city's Capital Improvement Program. "In previous CIPs and previous years we could build a pretty nice fire station for $3 million. Now, we're having trouble building one for less than $5 million."

Tillman said there are many reasons for construction delays and cost increases, including unforeseen problems that appear mid-project or changes in codes and laws. But material construction costs seem to be a prevalent problem challenging both the private and public sectors nationwide.

Rebar prices have risen from $700 per ton to $1,000 in four months, said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, a construction trade group. Diesel prices are rising faster than gasoline prices, he added, forcing governments to pay more to operate dump trucks, concrete mixers and cranes.


Construction costs have been rising faster than consumer prices. Between late 2003 and this February, the Consumer Price Index has gone up 15 percent. But the Producer Price Index, a measure of raw materials, grew 25 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Harris County has not seen a spike in construction costs for road building, but the county has not bid many projects recently, said Ron Krafka, head of the construction programs division of the county's Public Infrastructure Department.

Krafka said the county could see an increase in the next couple of months, as more projects are bid. But he said the economic slowdown also could work to the county's advantage if contractors are willing to submit lower bids because there's less work to go around.

"A couple years or so ago, we were being told that there was so much work in the pipeline that we might consider deferring some of our projects," Krafka said. "Now, we've got at least a couple calls from contractors saying they're very interested in the upcoming work."

It's not so much Harris County you have to worry about, though the 288 toll lane project is looming out there in the distance. It's TxDOT and its yet-to-get-underway overhauls of US290 and I-45 that should be reading this article with trepidation. I can't wait to see what the next round of cost estimates will be.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Interview with Michael Skelly

Josh Berthume has a nice chat with CD07 challenger Michael Skelly. For those of you who first heard about Skelly from his awesome fundraising numbers and wondered if he was for real, here's your chance to hear for yourself.

Meanwhile, IVR Polls did a survey of CD07 and blogged it at the Swing State Project. It's basically a generic D-versus-R poll at this point, given the relative levels of name recognition. Interestingly, for a district that's supposedly solid red and which needs 60% GOP performance or better to save their bacon at the countywide level, the Republicans appear to have their work cut out for them. They're in a good position to hold Culberson's seat - right now, anyway - but as they themselves have said, they need a lot more than that.

One thing they'll need is money, and Culberson is trying to do something about that.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, appears to have struck gold with the campaign fundraising pitch that he faces his hardest re-election challenge, but he still lags significantly behind Democratic challenger Michael Skelly at the bank.

Culberson reeled in more than $260,000 in campaign contributions in the six weeks ending March 31, a fifth of it from the political action committees of energy companies, law firms, manufacturers, physicians and others, according to new disclosures to the Federal Election Commission.

In the previous six weeks he raised $35,000.

Skelly, a wind power executive making his first run for public office, has not yet filed his latest financial disclosure before Tuesday's deadline.

But a campaign aide said Skelly's report will show he has raised about $400,000 in the last six weeks, to go along with a like amount in the first part of the year.

Already one of the best-financed Democratic challengers in House races across the country, Skelly has indicated he will put some of his personal wealth into the campaign later this year as well.

Having twice as much money as Culberson in the campaign treasury can give Skelly an advantage in buying advertising, assembling a campaign staff, conducting polls and other campaign functions.

The figures put Skelly in the unusual position of having a richer campaign than the Republican incumbent in a Republican-friendly congressional district.

My understanding is that Skelly's goal for the entire quarter was once $400K, which is what he raised in just the last six weeks. I'd say Culberson has his work cut out for him in this department.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Meet the new Solicitor General

The Supreme Court of Texas Blog points out a little news item that likely won't get much notice but really ought to: the hiring of a new Solicitor General, a man named James Ho. Why should anyone care about this? Because of this tidbit of biographical information that SCOTX mentions in a footnote:

In addition to the many details in the press release, Ho has the distinction of having co-written a paper in 2003 with John Yoo about "unlawful combatants" and the Geneva Convention. Harvey Kronberg at Quorum Report seems concerned today, but I think that's premature. It's only if Texas secedes and begins to wage its own foreign policy that we should start to worry about how Texas would treat "unlawful combatants." [Update: Harvey made a new post today (Thursday) moderating his earlier criticism after more carefully reading the linked article. Along the way he notes that Ho has gone out of his way to distance himself from some of Yoo's more controversial statements on the subject.]

Here's a bit of what Kronberg has to say on the subject:

[T]here is no indication in this article that Texas' next Solicitor General, James Ho agrees with Yoo's perspective. The State of Terrorists simply argues that unlawful combatants are owed neither the rights of a criminal defendant nor the rights of a Prisoner of War. His supporters correctly argue that this view is mainstream and agreed with by sources as diverse as the New York Times editorial page and Democratic Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahey. To agree with the Yoo and Ho in their jointly authored piece does not inherently lead to the condoning of torture or false imprisonment without remedy.

In fact, Ho told a University of Houston audience, "...The Senate came to an explicit consensus on the Geneva Convention issue when Senators on both sides of the aisle agreed that al Qaeda fighters are not legally entitled to all POW privileges. The Senate also came to an implicit consensus on the Torture Convention, when no Senator bothered to defend the Justice Department's earlier memo. Perhaps that is unsurprising, given that the Department withdrew its earlier memo before the confirmation proceedings took place.

Ho continued, "As a former career staff attorney at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel - one who served at the Department at the time the memo was written, but who did not work on it and did not even read it until after leaving the Department - I must say that the earlier memo was a tragic episode for the Department. It's not every day that the Office of Legal Counsel reverses itself. It's rarer still for the Office to reverse a position it took earlier, under precisely the same Administration, and under precisely the same Attorney General. But as a matter of respecting international law, it is good that it did so."

The legal arguments in The State of Terrorists simply open a door. They advocate no behavior or attitude toward "illegal combatants". What lay on the other side of that door could be either measured or malignant depending on the policy-makers in charge.

One could very reasonably argue that an administration that had already shown a willingness to embrace torture would clearly not take the measured path, and thus any assistance given to them on the issue, no matter how defensible on its own merits, is at best questionable. It's too bad there isn't some kind of Senate confirmation process for this hire, because I think the proper way to get to the heart of what Ho was thinking then, and what he thinks now, would be a public hearing of that nature. As that's not available, perhaps we can get some questions asked by the press between now and his start date. I think we deserve to know more about James Ho. PDiddie weighs in as well.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
San Antonio to jump on board the school zone cellphone ban bandwagon

So far, the only places to ban cellphone use while driving through school zones have been small cities-within-cities like Highland Park and West University Place. That's about to change in a big way.

Soon you might not only have to slow down in a school zone, you might also have to hang up that cell phone with the push for the cell phone-free school zones in San Antonio.

The ordinance is set to go before the City Council within the next few weeks. If it passes, those caught breaking the law could end up paying a $200 fine.

If you can drive 20 mph and talk on the phone, city leaders say you probably won't be multi-tasking for too much longer.

"It's a matter for a lot of folks of changing their behavior, putting the phone down or using a hands-free device, so that when you're going through school zones and there's kids out and about, you have the full focus on the road," District 7 City Councilman Justin Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said he has the ball rolling on the law. The ordinance already took effect in Dallas and surrounding areas, and if supporters have their way, you can bet to see it in San Antonio, too.

What's the over/under on when Houston follows suit? Six months? If it's not on City Council's agenda by the end of the year, I'll be surprised.

The proposed law includes reasonable exceptions, including parents trying to locate their children.

"If you're in a school zone and you're not driving, then this isn't going to apply to you, if you're not moving," Rodriguez said.

Seeing this makes me once again feel a twinge of sympathy for AT&T's position about a uniform statewide standard for this sort of thing, instead of a patchwork of local rules, all of which differ as Highland Park's and West U's do from each other and from San Antonio's. Now obviously, not a whole lot of people drive through more than one of these places in a given year, but all it's going to take is a Houston ordinance that allows hands-free devices to create the potential for confusion here. I will also be surprised if this does not show up on the Lege's radar in 2009.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The nurse's union

I missed this story from last week about the new nurses' union in town, but having been reminded of it, I thought it was worth pointing out.

It's only been a few days since the California Nurses Association won its first victory in Texas by organizing 275 registered nurses at Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center Hospital, but it's already setting its sights on the future.

While the union's initial order of business is to move toward getting a contract for its newest members, it's also using the momentum to sign up other nurses who work for health care facilities in Houston and around Texas.

"It's simply big," said Ed Bruno, organizing coordinator for the union's National Nurses Organizing Committee in Tampa, Fla. "Texas warrants attention on its own."

And, he said, the union is finding that many nurses are interested in its message of improving nurse-patient ratios, adding whistle-blower protections and providing a voice at work.

The nationwide union that represents 80,000 registered nurses is relishing its win at the Tenet Healthcare-owned hospital. The victory also is sending some shock waves through the health care community.

Houston employment lawyer Michael Muskat, who represents companies in employment disputes, speculated that the California Nurses Association is likely eyeing other Tenet-owned hospitals in Houston.

Besides Cy-Fair, Tenet owns two others: Houston Northwest Medical Center and Park Plaza Hospital.

The campaign probably wasn't just centered on nurse-to-patient staffing ratios but had something to do with less-than-ideal communications between management and staff, said Muskat.

As Racy Mind puts it, "How many times before in the history of the labor movement has a union organizing effort been largely not about more money for the worker, but about working conditions and the safety of someone other than the worker?" I'm sure pay issues will come up as well, but that's a provocative thought. Best of luck to the CNA in its efforts to recruit more members, and for its future lobbying efforts on these same issues before the Lege in 2009.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 11, 2008
Hubert Vo

Marc Campos:

Commentary has noticed that local Dems have been eerily quiet on the not so good run that Harris County Dem State Rep Hubert Vo has received in the Chron. There is another Chron article today plus an E-Board special. It seems like on the internet yak-off lines, local Dems have a take on every thing. In fact, most go out of their way to let you know their opinion on all kinds of stuff. Commentary has not heard a single peep coming out of the local Dem camp on this matter - nada - silence. Then again, what can you say?

I'm guilty of this. What can be said, what needs to be said, is that I'm extremely disappointed in him. This shameful episode is nothing like the Rep. Hubert Vo that I have come to know over the past four years. I don't know how this came to be - a lack of attention is the most benign thing one can hope for, and that is far from exculpatory - but it needs to be fixed immediately, and in a manner that leaves the affected residents in conditions that are better than they would need to be if the minimum acceptable standard had been met all along. He owes them that much, and he owes all of his supporters a genuine assurance that this will never happen again.

There's a lot that can be said about the possible political implications of all this, but I'll save that for another time. I don't expect politicians to be any more or less human than the rest of us. As with any group of people, there's a range for things like decency among them. Rep. Vo is one I'd have put towards the top end of that scale, so these revelations are as much a surprise as they are a shock and embarrassment. I hope that decency that I and many others perceived about Hubert Vo is enough to make this right, for his residents and for him.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Big media me

I have often said that I have a face for radio and a voice for blogging. Tonight you will have the chance to judge that for yourself, as I make my debut appearance on The Connection: Red, White, and Blue. It airs tonight at 8 PM and tomorrow at 5 PM on KUHT channel 8 in Houston. We had a discussion of the recent primary results and other matters political, with David Jones, Gary Polland (who for some reason reminded me of Ryan Chappelle from 24), and Edd Hendee of KSEV. As an extra special bonus, you get to see what I look like in a jacket and tie. What more could you want? So set your TiVos and check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Metro costs revisited

So last week, the Chron's Rad Sallee wrote about a jump in cost projections for Metro and the Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines, which were reverted back to LRT from BRT late last year. That column got some people up in arms, as one might expect, and now Sallee is back with a conversation with Metro CEO Frank Wilson, who tries to assuage us that it's not as bad as it looks.

Wilson said Friday that the apparent increases are misleading for several reasons. First, the mode was upgraded from Bus Rapid Transit to light rail, and since Metro had intended to put rail in the ground anyhow, the initial estimates (which did not include that) were too low.

Second, he said, the higher figures include purchases of trains, which now cost $3.5 million each, through year 2030.

And finally, Wilson said, inflation in the coming years has been factored into the stated costs. A Federal Transit Administration report said Metro's assumed inflation rate of 3.5 percent was "optimistic" and probably should be higher.

The new projections show the two lines increasing from $434 million to $1.34 billion, with Metro's share being $684 million. Wilson said Friday he expects the actual cost to be substantially less after a new contract is negotiated with Washington Group Transit Management Co., but he would not state a figure because the talks are ongoing.

Let's assume that the FTA will agree to pay half the cost of all five lines being planned. (That's not exactly what Metro proposes, but it works out to the same thing.)

Let's also be optimistic and assume that costs will rise only half as much as the new numbers from FTA and Metro indicate.

If earlier projections for the University, Uptown and East End lines rose by the same multiple, the total would be about $3.3 billion for all five lines, with a Metro share of $1.7 billion.

Wilson was emphatic Friday that the five lines together will cost less than $3 billion, but he wouldn't say how much less.

Obviously, it would be better if the costs were less. I don't know what Wilson has up his sleeve to make this happen, but let's give him a chance to make good on his word. What I want to do here is talk about why we're spending this money, and why I think we need to spend this money, whether the final cost winds up above or below the $3 billion mark.

I've harped on this before, but I feel like this discussion and the comparisons of Metro's costs to those of TxDOT's freeway widenings is missing a crucial point. We spend money on freeway widening, and minus the usual carping for cost overruns we generally agree that we should spend money on freeway widenings, because we can and because we have to. We have to because our population growth and the expansion of the Houston metropolitan area outward means we have rapid increases in the amount of vehicular traffic, and the alternative is endless, wasteful gridlock. We can because there's room to add extra lanes and HOV capacity; though some property gets condemned, a lot of the needed right-of-way already existed before the expansion in question got started.

And that's the key. We can add lanes of traffic, whether free or toll, to our highways, at least in most places. But we can't do that for the surface roads, because the right of way doesn't exist, unless you want to condemn every property that currently stands alongside that road. You can't add extra lanes to Kirby, or Richmond, or Montrose, or Westheimer, or any other thoroughfare like them that thousands of people a day depend on to get them from the highways (or wherever) to their destinations. It's simply not an option.

But these roads are getting increasingly crowded, and there's no sign that trend will slow down, much less reverse itself. Kirby, for example, has two high-rises being built at Westheimer, one of which will feature a ton of ground-floor retail; there's also the Sonoma project on Bolsover, and a new high-end apartment complex on Richmond next to Pappadeaux's. How much impact do you think that will have on Kirby's traffic? Especially at Westheimer? And Montrose/Studemont is getting busier, too. As we know, there's a ton of dense development going on Montrose/Studemont between Gray and Washington; already, this is going to mean the installation of another traffic light to handle all the entrances and exits at Memorial Heights. The stretch between Allen Parkway and Center Street already suffers nasty backups at times due to flaky timing on the lights; adding another to the mix isn't going to make that any better.

The point I'm trying to make here is simple: Traffic in Houston on the non-freeway roads is bad, it's getting worse, it has the same negative effects has gridlock on the freeways (pollution, lost productivity, etc), and it cannot be mitigated by adding capacity. The only possible solution is getting some of those cars off the road, and that means transit.

So if we accept that we have a problem - and if you don't, please make your case in the comments, because I'd like to hear it - and that we can't solve it by the same means with which we're tackling the freeway congestion problem, then the question becomes what kind of transit should we have? What can we do to actually get people out of their cars and deal with the short-term and long-term effects of denser development in Houston's core?

Well, there's always buses. They're relatively cheap, and they don't require any construction. They're also slow, unpredictable, not particularly comfortable, and they themselves contribute to congestion because they use the same road lanes as everyone else. I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on this because I just can't see how any investment in more buses is going to get enough people to stop driving to make the increase in bus traffic a net win. Again, if you think I'm wrong about this, please say so. Note that I'm not talking about commuter bus service here, which is a fairly popular but highly cost-inefficient (*) solution for getting people off the freeways; I'm interested in reducing the number of drivers on the streets, not just on the highways. From where I sit, we already have buses, and very few people who have a choice in the matter choose to take them.

Then there's bus rapid transit (BRT), now also known as guided rapid transit (GRT), which is a big improvement over ordinary buses in that it has its own right of way and has multiple points of ingress/egress, which speeds up the getting on and off process; this also allows for direct boarding by people in wheelchairs and with bikes or strollers. It's more expensive than buses because you have to build that right of way, but less expensive than light rail because you don't have to build the tracks. In many ways, it's a fine system.

It's also not what the people want. This comment on Tory's blog sums it up very well.

When Metro decided to go with BRT the first time, who liked that idea? Well, a bunch of people on this website, for starters (no surprise there). Who didn't like it? I'd estimate a couple hundred thousand (million?) disappointed Houstonians -- in particular, those along the lines who would be most directly affected by this grand investment. And I'm guessing those same large swaths of population would become agitated yet again if we switched modes on them another time. I'd be willing to bet more so, this time.

And you know what the kicker is? This is THEIR taxpayer money. A little bit yours, a little bit mine, sure -- but mostly that of everyone else out there. Some posters here like to point out that "oh, back in academia I had a shrewd professor who taught the difference between revealed preference and stated preference, etc, etc, etc (for about 10 or more paragraphs)".

You know what? It doesn't matter. We "elites" don't have the ability to tell others what they should spend their money on just because we "know" that they don't actually want to spend it on this or that. I "know" that BRT is great, but if Houstonians want light rail and want to spend their hard-earned money on it, then that is their prerogative. We're still at least pretending this country is a Democracy, right?

Remember the outcry when Metro first announced it was scaling back its 2012 plan to build BRT instead of light rail as promised? That's a nontrivial hurdle to overcome. And unlike the rail on Richmond or Westpark controversy, there aren't any grassroots groups or politicians who will push for BRT as the answer. BRT isn't going to happen, at least not with the existing Metro Solutions map, because there's nobody who wants it to happen and will advocate for it to happen. For future expansions, maybe. For now, it's a non-starter.

So that leaves light rail, which brings us back where we started. We know from the Main Street line that people will use it, and we know from the BRT kerfuffle that people want it. The cost is a concern, though the irony is that if we'd not delayed and dilly-dallied so much after the 2004 referendum was passed, we could have built a lot of the 2012 plan for a lot less money; the longer we take to start construction on the remaining lines, the more expensive it will ultimately be. But hey, let's talk about it for another six months anyway, just in case.

The conclusion that I hope this will lead you to is that there isn't a cheap and easy fix for this problem. It's going to cost money, just like all that freeway widening did. We know about the Katy Freeway and its $2.8 billion price tag, which was originally sold to us as being a mere one point one billion. There's the massive upcoming makeover for US290, which Christof pegged at $3.5 billion; that may yet go up, as the same inflationary costs that are biting Metro are also taking a chunk out of TxDOT. The still-in-the-works I-45 widening was last guessed to be $1.5 billion, which is no doubt ludicrously out of date now. Then we've got the aesthetic and acoustic triumph that was the 59 widening/lowering, though it hasn't actually done much for mobility, for whose cost I can't find a citation, plus previous widenings south to Sugar Land and north to Kingwood, the West Loop project for another $344 million, the upcoming 288 toll lane project for which no costs have yet been calculated...we're talking some real money here, maybe $10 billion or more total. Whatever the number may be, it's certainly more than we were originally told it would be, yet there's only ever a freakout when it's transit costs that go up. Funny how that works.

But in the end, all this is an investment. It's an investment in getting people from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. And the options we have for how we make those investments aren't the same everywhere. We need to be careful in how we compare these investments to each other, because we don't have the same choices everywhere.

(*) - I say commuter buses are cost-inefficient because they're empty on their return trips, and idle during non-rush hours. Neither of those is true of regular buses or light rail trains.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Interview with Craig Watkins

Radley Balko has a fascinating interview with Dallas County DA Craig Watkins in reason magazine. One point I'd like to highlight:

reason: How should a prosecutor balance his time and resources between prosecuting present-day cases and looking for cases of wrongful conviction?

Watkins: Well, before we got here, there was no one working on innocence cases. So there was no balance, because no one was doing it. We just decided to start a whole new section of the office dedicated solely to innocence. And they're not only looking for bad convictions, they're also looking at what policies and procedures we can put in place to keep them from happening in the future. So we aren't really taking time away from prosecutions. We've just added positions that didn't exist before.

reason: What specific steps did you take after winning office to address this issue?

Watkins: The first thing we did was set up this "Conviction Integrity Unit" in the district attorneys office. We immediately staffed it with two attorneys and two investigators, and told them to look at 400-some-odd cases for which there was DNA available to test. So their responsibility right now is to look through those 400 cases to see if there's reason to suspect a wrongful conviction. If they find cases, we'll then collect the DNA and test it. If it shows the person in prison is innocent, we'll start proceedings for an exoneration.

In addition to that, the unit has the responsibility of training the younger lawyers here in the office on the ethical side of a prosecutor's job--things like the importance of properly dealing with exculpatory evidence. And we intend to have this section here in this office forever. This is not a pilot program. It's something I'd like to see spread across the country--where DAs will actively seek out convictions that were obtained unfairly.

Sound familiar? C.O. Bradford, the Democratic candidate for DA here in Harris County, has proposed the same thing. And I think it's as needed here - and most other places as well - as it is in Dallas. The issues in Harris are perhaps a bit different - where Dallas' problems mostly stem from Henry Wade's convictions-uber-alles mentality, the signature item here has been the spectacular incompetence of various court-appointed defense attorneys. That's something that will be mitigated going forward if the proposed and under study public defender's office takes flight, but in the end, the different problems lead to the same result of people being wrongly convicted. It's the DA's job not to just avoid these problems as best they can, but also to work to correct them when they become known. I hope we follow Craig Watkins' lead in this regard.

Anyway, there's a lot more good stuff there, so check it out. Thanks to Grits for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
West U stands firm against AT&T

Despite the pushback they have gotten from AT&T over the proposed ban on cellphones in school zones, with or without hands-free gadgets, the city of West University Place is holding firm in its desire to pass that ordinance.

West U Mayor Bob Kelly said he has "absolutely not" gotten any adverse reaction to the council's decision.

"From my pharmacist to the people I work with, to residents of West U, I have heard nothing but praise," Kelly said. "I did get one e-mail from a West U resident who said, basically, that we shouldn't have a cell phone ordinance."

Kelly said he remains convinced that a ban on all cell phone use in school zones -- whether the phones are hand-held or hands-free -- is in the interest of public safety.

Scientific studies show the issue is the distraction caused by conversations, whether a driver is holding the cell phone or using a hands-free device, Kelly said.

"Unless AT&T comes up with something to refute the scientific evidence, I don't see any reason the council won't go ahead and pass the ordinance," Kelly said. "I think AT&T is a fine company. I just think it may not be in their best business interest."

West U Mayor Pro Tem Bob Fry said he's received more e-mails about the ordinance than any other issue during his first year on the council. Those e-mails have been "overwhelmingly" supportive of the cell phone ban, Fry said.

As the city's representative on the Houston-Galveston Area transportation policy committee, Fry said officials from a number of other area cities have commented positively on the West U ordinance.

"It is being watched very closely, so closely that AT&T has come down on us," Fry said.

"It did bother me, I have to admit it did," Fry said. "But you think about it, and it's just right."

Again, I'm fine with this ordinance, though I admit I can see AT&T's perspective in wanting there to be a uniform statewide standard. If they want to lobby for that in the Lege - and by that, I mean actually work to craft a law that will address the issue and get passed - I'd support that effort. In the meantime, I don't object to what West U is doing, and if their law and that of places like Highland Park causes that kind of state law to come about by other means, that's okay too.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Active hurricane season predicted: Film at 11

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Like most other forecasters who have, or will soon, released their predictions, [hurricane season prognosticator Bill] Gray sees an active year, meaning the Atlantic should see more storms than usual. Gray said today he expects 15 named storms this year. But what does this really tell us?

Not much, as it turns out.

Seasonal forecasters suggest people shouldn't obsess on the specific number of storms predicted. Instead, forecasters, including Gray, say it's important to focus on the predictions for which they say there is some skill, namely whether a hurricane season will have above- or below-normal activity.

Gray defines normal activity as the average number of named storms that occurred between 1950 and 2000. The average during that period was 9.6 named storms -- that is, tropical systems that achieved at least tropical storm status and were designated by the National Hurricane Center as Allison, Bret, Charley and so forth.

Hurricane forecasters generally agree the Atlantic entered an active period in 1995, when some driver -- be it natural forces, global warming or some combination thereof -- began warming sea surface temperatures in the tropics and causing more storms to form.

Since 1995, only two years have been below the 9.6 average: 1997 (seven) and 2006 (nine). By those odds, as scientists say we're still in a warm Atlantic period, one probably can expect there's an 85 percent chance Gray will be right with his prediction that this will be an active year.

It's kind of like predicting the Red Sox and Yankees to compete for the American League East, isn't it? But as the article goes on to suggest, these preseason predictions are often just rough guesses.

Predicting the actual number of storms in a given year, especially five months before hurricane season peaks, is even more problematic, as recent seasons have suggested.

Before the hyperactive 2005 season, for example, Gray forecast 13 named storms in April. There were 26.

And for the 2006 season, perhaps in reaction to the active 2005 season, he predicted 17 named storms in April. There were nine.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has faced criticism as it has trumpeted its own seasonal forecast in recent years, releasing it to much media fanfare during nationally broadcast news conferences. But NOAA's forecasts have been as wrong as Gray's.

So, at this year's National Hurricane Conference, the new director of the National Hurricane Center, Bill Read, said NOAA would seek "a lot less publicity" for the 2008 seasonal forecast to be released in mid-May.

SciGuy, who wrote the article, has more. Basically, consider these early forecasts to be more suggestion than command, and pay closer attention to the revised forecasts later in the year.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 10, 2008
Countdown: Urban parks and organic produce

Many of you may have wondered, "So he's married, right? And she gets mentioned sometimes, but we've never actually HEARD from her..."

So here I am to rectify that!

As CK has mentioned before, I've been involved with the Board of Directors for Central City Co-op since last fall. Our family has been a member of the co-op since 2003, and when I accepted my severance late last summer, I decided that one of the things I wanted to concentrate on was going back to my original career intentions of working with non-profit and educational groups. Since I'd done a corporate gig for 10 years, getting my feet re-wet by working with a group near and dear to my heart seemed like the perfect option.

I hadn't been on the Board more than 6 or 8 weeks when someone said, "Hey, Discovery Green has approached us about being the market operator for their new park. We should look at this."

So my business experience has come in handy helping the co-op develop a brand-spanking-new business in the bustle that is downtown Houston. It's been a wild and wonderful ride. Working with all of the various groups involved in Discovery Green has been very exciting. There's a ton of brain-power and good will behind the park effort, and a lot of excitement brewing with the Green Market offering.

Green Market, a project of Central City Co-op, will operate on Thursday afternoons from 4 to about 7:30 pm during the summer, with some adjustment as winter comes and the day gets shorter. We will operate year-round. It's a real challenge to develop a market for organic produce and locally produced artisanal goods, but we think it's coming along nicely. Because we can't be sure what the market will bear, things will start slowly, but we have plans for steady growth and the addition of vendors on a weekly basis. Our thrust is local, organic, "green" and primarily agricultural. As a Certified Farmer's Market, we will bring farmers from a 200 mile radius of downtown into the city, providing local produce. We are also trying to bring a variety of value-added agricultural products (prepared foods, for instance), and merchandise from local craftspeople. A big part of our challenge is creating a demand in downtown that can sustain these farmers and artisans. We hope that the park will facilitate the creation of a real community around these ideas.

When I first started going to co-op, I was interested in finding organic vegetables and fruits for less money than the local supermarket, and felt that somehow participating in a community of people interested in ideas of sustainability in general, and organics in particular, was a good thing. The idea of local agriculture, and the contribution of farm-to-fork issues in the environment and the local economy was something I hadn't even thought much about. And I had no idea whether I or my family (then only husband) would like local produce. I've learned a lot over my years as a co-op member about the offerings of local farmers. The strawberries may be smaller, but I swear they are sweeter. The local spring onions and fresh herbs are a delight to cook with. I've learned not to fear greens. I've rediscovered what a real tomato tastes like.

I hope that our effort at Green Market will bear fruit, not only for the office and residential communities of downtown, but for the local farmers and artisans we hope to have at market on a weekly basis. All of this, of course, depends on market attendance, and people being willing to purchase perishable items downtown and take them home. It's a gamble. But one Central City is, with the support of our existing community of members, farmers and our new partner at Discovery Green, willing to take. We look forward to the evolution of our new community.

Come see the Market on Thursdays beginning next week! The Co-op will also have a table at Family Day at Discovery Green this Sunday, where you can pre-order our assorted "share" of produce for delivery at market on Thursday. We will also have open market (by the piece) shopping on Thursday, and pre-orders for future pickups.

As for my role here at the blog, I'll leave the heavy lifting to the other adult in our household. I think he does a fine job. I do intend, though, to write about our work at Green Market and other things that strike me from time to time. Thanks for reading today, and I'll be here again with a market update next week!


I will be appearing on the early morning news programs on local affiliates Channel 11 Friday morning at around 6:15am and on Saturday on Channel 2 at around 6:30 am to talk about Green Market. Of course these both being live appearances, times could vary dramatically. Either way I am up and camera ready by 5:45 am 2 mornings in a row. How's that for dedication?

Posted by Tiffany Tyler
New billboard ordinance delayed

The deal with Clear Channel to take down over 800 billboards has been delayed for a week by City Council.

The council is expected to take up the agreement at next week's meeting. It calls for the company to dismantle smaller billboards throughout the city. Many are in residential neighborhoods and advertise liquor and lottery games. Mayor Bill White has called the signs offensive.

Council members said they wanted another week to read over the legal agreement with the company before voting. The final documents were not ready by Wednesday's meeting.

I presume it was tagged by somebody, but that information is not in the story. I also presume this will be easily adopted when it does get voted on next week.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Bradford identifies the issues

As we know, GOP DA runoff winner Pat Lykos wants the November campaign to be about "issues". I think we can all get behind that, so here's the issues Democratic candidate C.O. Bradford wants to talk about, according to an email he sent out yesterday morning:

  • Restore ethics and integrity to the District Attorney's Office

  • Prosecute criminals vigorously and fairly

  • Eliminate trials by ambush - no more misuse of power or abuse of discretion

  • Establish a Professional Standards and Human Resources Division

  • Work with the community to prevent and reduce crime

  • Create a Conviction Integrity Unit and a special DWI Prosecution Squad

  • Pursue the creation of Teen Courts in Justice of the Peace precincts

The full document is here (Word doc). Let the issues debate begin!

On a related note, the Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center blog, which was a big supporter of Kelly Siegler's, is looking favorably on Bradford right now. And speaking of Siegler, a few Republican consultants give their view as to why she lost.

"Having to carry the Chuck albatross on you, boy that was tough," former Harris County Republican Party chairman Gary Polland said.

"Part of it also is related to the national campaign," Polland added. "(Siegler) became a victim of (Barack) Obama, (John) McCain and Hillary (Rodham Clinton) -- they are talking about 'we are the candidate of change.' "

Siegler, who had been promoted by Rosenthal to chief of the agency's special crimes bureau, tried to distance herself from her former boss during the campaign, saying she had given him advice that he ignored or rejected.

Republican political consultant Allen Blakemore, who guided Rosenthal's successful campaigns in 2000 (including a GOP runoff against Lykos) and 2004, said the timing of the scandals that led to Rosenthal's resignation interfered with Siegler's attempts to stand independently.

"The unraveling of the Rosenthal administration was still present on people's minds," he said.

No great revelations in there, but it's all collected in one place for easy reference.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Grade separation for Harrisburg in the works

Recently, Metro ran into a roadblock - more of a tracks-block, actually - with its East End light rail line, which was denied permission to cross a freight rail track at grade on Harrisburg. That meant that the East End line would have to terminate short of the Magnolia Transit Center, which everyone agreed was a sub-optimal solution. Fortunately, the optimal solution of grade separation, which was proposed but didn't have a funding mechanism, is now looking like a realistic possibility in the near term.

After a meeting on Friday brokered by Houston City Councilman James Rodriguez, the plan to extend the route is back. An expensive grade separation, with light rail going either over or under the freight rails, is now the likely end result.

"This whole Metro Solutions works if you're able to connect to a major transit center, so going to the Magnolia Transit Center is key for the mobility in the area. We were able to get together and stress that the city does have some funds to commit to this. We'd like Metro to commit some funding and also the Freight Rail District. The Freight Rail District agreed to take the lead in organizing all the governmental agencies."

Mark Ellis is chairman of the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District and says a grade separation could cost upwards of $20 million.

"It's my understanding that Metro is committed to 25-percent of the cost of the grade separation at Harrisburg. The Mayor has committed to 50-percent. I suspect that UP will step-up and do their 5-percent. We still have a little bit of a gap, but we're trying to work with just about everybody in the region, Harris County, the Port, the railroads, the city and Metro to see if we can't find the funding."


Metro's Sandra Aponte Salazar says it's too early for Metro to talk about specific costs, but does say the progress is encouraging.

"Metro is committed to taking this light rail line to the Magnolia Transit Center and we've said it's not a question of if, but when. It's good to see this cooperation, absolutely."

Indeed it is, and kudos to Council Member Rodriguez, who was not happy when the initial story broke. Hopefully, this will be done as part of the East End line construction, so that the completion date is not delayed. Thanks to Christof and the Gulf Coast Institute for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Public defender's office gets OK to be studied

It's a step in the right direction.

Commissioners Court agreed Tuesday to study whether Harris County should create a public defenders office and what kind of program might work.

The court voted 4-0 to instruct Budget Officer Dick Raycraft to conduct the study and report his findings by late September. Commissioner Steve Radack missed most of the meeting, but said he supported studying the issue.


Court members held off on discussing the merits of a public defenders office, saying they wanted to see the results of the study first.

County Judge Ed Emmett said he would support creating the office if it would level the playing field for poor defendants, even if it costs more.

"This is about more than money," Emmett said. "At the end of the day we have to have the fairest system possible."

Radack said earlier this week that he would not support the creation of a public defenders office unless it saved the county money.

The county spent about $22 million on court-appointed defense attorneys last year to handle about 52,000 cases in county and district courts, Raycraft said.

We saw Radack's skepticism last time. I note as well that he didn't say he'd support it if it saved the county money, just that he wouldn't unless it did. That may be reading too much into what he said, but I haven't seen a pledge from Radack to go along if the study is favorable, and I'm not going to put words in his mouth. Far as I'm concerned, he's still got room to weasel out if he wants to. Which would be low of him, but not a flipflop.

Raycraft said he plans to set up a panel that would include representatives from the courts, community groups and the county to help with the study and hammer out some recommendations for the court.

"We're going to make sure there's public input, there's no question about that," he said.

I hope this includes public hearings as well. The more open discussion there is about this, the better.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Wind power to the people

From last week, a proposal to connect the wind farms in West Texas to the rest of the state.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees most of the state's power grid, was asked by the Public Utility Commission to study how best to get the power to the markets that need it the most. After considering hundreds of options, ERCOT narrowed it down to five possibilities.

The least expensive would cost $2.95 billion to accommodate up to 12,000 MW of wind power, but it's not as flexible to handle future growth as another 12,000 MW plan that would cost $3.78 billion.

The most expensive plan would accommodate 24,800 MW of wind power and cost $6.38 billion.

New transmission lines from West Texas wind projects would not reach Houston but most likely connect to Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. The cost of such projects would be distributed to all Texas rate payers, regardless of their locations.

The report was submitted to the Public Utility Commission, which is expected to review it in the coming weeks.

The report is here (PDF). This seems like a no-brainer to me. Our state is rapidly growing, and with that growth comes a lot of extra demand for energy. I for one would rather that energy be supplied by wind farms and other renewable sources than by more coal plants. I'll be rooting for a recommendation of the maximum investment.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 09, 2008
More on Katy tollway congestion pricing

I've said before that I don't have a problem with the concept of congestion pricing, but there's something about this that doesn't feel right to me.

Four toll lanes that will open on the rebuilt Katy Freeway in October will become clogged with traffic unless Commissioners Court imposes congestion pricing during peak travel times, county and state officials said Tuesday.

County Judge Ed Emmett said congestion pricing likely will be needed to help the county fulfill an agreement to keep traffic moving at least 45 mph in the toll lanes.

"We don't know how to maintain this (traffic flow) without congestion pricing," said Gary Trietsch, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation's Houston district.

The court is expected to set the rate in the coming months. The Harris County Toll Road Authority recommended that passenger vehicles pay $1.25 to travel between Texas 6 and the West Loop during nonpeak hours and that the price double during peak hours and other times when the traffic is moving slower than 45 mph.


Six years ago, the county, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT agreed to cooperate on widening the 11-lane Katy Freeway to 18 lanes. As part of that pact, the public bodies committed to operating toll lanes that move at least at 45 mph, providing people an incentive to pay to use them.

To me, the goal should be optimal mobility for the entire system, not just for the toll lanes. Doesn't it make more sense to ensure maximal flow on all lanes? Will they lower the toll if those lanes are zipping along at 65 MPH and the free lanes are all clogged up, or is this a one-way function only?

I understand that HCTRA set this threshhold in order to ensure a return on its $500 million investment. Metro would like for its commuter buses to travel at a decent speed as well. I get that, I'm just saying that it would be better to let the toll lanes slow down to 40 or even 35 if it meant the free lanes got an equivalent bump in speed. But that's not the priority here, so this is what we'll get.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
KTRK wins injunction in Sheriff's email deletion case


The Harris County Sheriff's Office policy of automatically deleting e-mails after 14 days violates state law, a judge has ruled.

State district Judge David J. Bernal issued a permanent injunction on Monday, preventing the department from implementing the policy ever again. Bernal also ordered the release of 750,000 e-mails erased from employees' in-boxes in a mass deletion between Jan. 12 and 19.


The sheriff's office had argued that the deleted e-mails were no longer subject to the Texas Public Information Act once they moved to backup tape.

According to Monday's ruling, however, all the e-mails are considered public information, regardless of their storage medium.

The ruling also determined that Sheriff Tommy Thomas' policy of deleting e-mails after 14 days contradicts the Texas municipal code, which requires all public employees' correspondence to be kept for two years.

As I said before, the Sheriff's argument that email on backup tape was no longer subject to the TPIA was so ludicrous that it's hard to believe they even tried to make it. It doesn't pass the laugh test. This is an embarassment, and it got what it deserved.

The sheriff's office must now turn the e-mails over to Dolcefino within 14 business days and pay all KTRK's attorney fees and costs.


Thomas has asked to file an appeal, said John Barnhill, first assistant county attorney. Barnhill declined to comment on the possible basis for such an appeal on Tuesday.

I guess there's no argument so stupid that it can't be improved on appeal. This is nothing but a huge waste of time and money, and I'm not the only person who thinks so.

At what point can some grownup in Harris County government insist to Sheriff Thomas that he's wasted enough of the public's money, and that it's time to turn over the public's information?

There are two grownups in particular who should be having this conversation with the Sheriff. One is County Judge Ed Emmett, who along with Commissioners Court is going to have to approve the expenditures for those legal fees at some point; given recent history in that regard, one might think they'd be a little risk-averse in pursuing flight-of-fancy appeals. The other is County Attorney Mike Stafford, whose office's resources are the ones being directly wasted on this fiasco. He is certainly capable of telling the Sheriff why this is a no-win case, and why he won't allow his office to be abused in this manner, if he chooses to do so. You want your county government to behave responsibly here, that's where I'd focus my lobbying efforts.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Runoff wrapup

Most of this I covered last night, but just to be official and all, here are the results of races of interest.

- Pat Lykos won the DA runoff, and as soon as she did, the race for November began.

[Democratic candidate C.O.] Bradford ripped Lykos as soon as her victory was revealed.

"We need to end the good ol' boys and girls network that has mismanaged Harris County for so many years. Pat Lykos is a part of that network," he said in a written statement. "Lykos also has no management experience. As a judge, she clashed often with the DA's office and had a high number of cases overturned on appeal. Her personnel files reveal that her supervisors believed she had no leadership or team-building skills."

He said he has the experience, education and training "required to bring integrity and fairness" to the agency.

"I am very disappointed in Mr. Bradford," Lykos said. "I was hoping we could run an issue-oriented campaign."

Okay, first of all, management experience is an issue. Kelly Siegler raised it in the campaign, albeit without much success. Everything Bradford pointed out here is a documented fact, and all of it is objectively relevant to a race like this. Two, I don't know what DA runoff Lykos was watching, but I seem to recall her saying a negative thing or two about Siegler.

Responding to his allegation about management, Lykos said she has managed the probation status of thousands of defendants, chaired the judges' committee that oversaw the county criminal justice computer system and headed a statewide judges' group.

During the GOP campaign, Lykos, a former felony court judge, tried to portray Siegler and Rosenthal as an unethical matching set. She said only someone outside the agency could restore public confidence in the district attorney's office in the aftermath of scandal.

"The office is in disarray," Lykos said last month. "And it has been discredited nationally and worldwide."

By her definition of "issue-oriented", that would have been a "disappointing" thing to say. Let's be honest, this is going to be a negative campaign. That doesn't mean it can't be substantive, however. Both candidates have questions to answer about their background and experience, and the only way that's going to happen is if those questions get raised. Like it or not, here it comes.

And three, I'd been told that Bradford, whom I've criticized for being too quiet up till now, would come out of the gate as soon as his November opponent was known. I'm glad to see that happen.

One last thing:

Turnout for the runoff fell below 40,000 votes countywide, compared with the 140,695 votes cast in the race in the first round on March 4.

The runoff election returns report says "total number of voters" was 49,957, and "number of district voters" was 40,367. I'm not sure what the distinction is there, but with 477 undervotes and one overvote, that does give fewer than 40,000 total ballots cast in this race. Which is another thing I got wrong. Clearly, Lykos did a better job turning out the smaller-than-expected number of people who cared about this runoff.

- Moving on, Pete Olson had an easy victory over Shelley Sekula Gibbs.

Olson and his campaign aides credited strong grass-roots support for knocking off an opponent with a bigger bankroll and higher name recognition in the district. They also said Olson won key endorsements, and successfully undercut Sekula Gibbs with a contrast ad arguing that she changed her positions on abortion and illegal immigration -- key issues to Republican voters.

"There were significant policy differences between us," said the 45-year-old Olson. "Those were all factual. We thought it was important for the voters to know some of the differences."

Sekula Gibbs, who claimed 30 percent of the vote in the primary's first round to Olson's 21 percent, praised the hard work of her campaign staff and volunteers, but lamented it was not enough to overcome what she characterized as Olson's negative campaign.

"The positive message we put out of our campaign was not strong enough to overcome all of the negativity that came out of my opponent's campaign," she said at an election night party at Mamacita's Restaurant in Webster.

Yeah, it's always the other guy that fights dirty. Rep. Nick Lampson also got an early start on the November campaign by releasing the following statement last night:

"Congressman Lampson has promoted NASA while his opponent didn't know the name of the Johnson Space Center in a recent debate. He has worked on transportation issues while his opponent supports more toll roads and a big government land grab called the Trans-Texas Corridor. And he has worked for affordable health care while his opponent opposes the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Congressman Lampson is an independent voice for Texas. His opponent is a Washington insider with little or no knowledge of this district."

I'm sure Pat Lykos is disappointed by that as well.

- In other Republican races of interest, Ken Legler won by 101 votes over Fred Roberts in HD144, Angie Chen Button triumphed in HD112, and Odessa incumbent Buddy West was sent packing in HD81; the latter is a win for Tom Craddick.

- On the Democratic side, Mark Thompson scored a solid win over Dale Henry.

Thompson, 48, is an orientation and mobility teacher for the blind. He was a commissioned peace officer for eight years in the 1990s, serving two years as an Austin park police officer and then three years with the State Capitol police.

Henry, 76, had a career as a petroleum engineer, working in this country and the Middle East for oil-drilling and field-service companies. He also worked as a private contractor for the Texas Railroad Commission in plugging and filling abandoned wells.

Thompson has been urging the commission to be more aggressive in forcing natural gas companies to replace aging compression couplings whose failure has caused gas explosions in homes. He also has focused attention on oil-well waste being pumped into the ground with injection wells.

Henry focused on the need to clean up environmental problems caused by oil drilling and abandoned wells. His special concern is oil-field pollution of groundwater.

The Observer's Cody Garrett has more:

In the statewide contest, Texas Democrats continued to support a political newcomer. Voters favored Mark Thompson over Dale Henry 59 percent to 40 percent. Thompson is a therapist for blind children and former Austin Capitol and Park Police officer -- who had spent (as of April 4) only $200 on his entire campaign.

I wrote about Thompson's inexplicable Mar. 4 victory and have spoken with him on several occasions. He says he is running a campaign on issues and he says he will not take any money from oil and gas interests.

Thompson told me Tuesday that he intends to court those voters who supported his opponents and to raise money for the general campaign. He has consistently refused to "go negative." He even neglected to mount a campaign to debunk the allegation that he hadn't voted since 1996 (a charge floated by the Henry campaign). In fact, he did vote in Austin in 2005 and 2006.

Thompson's victory shows Texas Democrats don't always follow the leads of bloggers -- since most of the progressive blogging community had piled on Henry's bandwagon. Thompson even beat Henry in Travis County, 51-49.

True enough, though if you look at the county by county results, Thompson ran strongest in rural and South Texas areas, where I daresay our readership is pretty small. But he did also run slightly ahead in the big urban counties, so that only goes so far. There was also precious little mainstream news coverage of this race, going back to the March primary, and Dale Henry didn't have a whole lot of money to get his message out, either. I still don't know why, and may never know why, people picked Thompson; at this point I guess he qualified as the better-known candidate from having led in Round One, despite Henry's candidacy in 2006. One commenter in a previous post mentioned Thompson's opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor as a factor. Maybe that helped him - the TTC wasn't specifically mentioned on Henry's issues page - but that again assumes people knew enough about him to be aware of it, and I'm skeptical of that. Whatever the case, he's who we've got. If he's sincere about courting those who opposed him, I'll be glad to hear what he has to say.

- In Austin, Rosemary Lehmberg will succeed Ronnie Earle as DA.

Addressing supporters at Joe's Bar and Grill on Tuesday night, Lehmberg said she would get to work soon on issues that came up during the campaign, including how best to deal with drug offenders and environmental crimes. She thanked supporters, including Earle.

"Ronnie, you've been my friend and my mentor, my boss," she said, looking at Earle and then turning to the crowd. "He gave me the greatest gift of all: He gave me his good name."

During the campaign, Lehmberg said that, like Earle, she would rarely seek the death penalty.

Lehmberg repeatedly said that she was the best candidate to run the independent public integrity unit, the state-funded arm of the office that investigates those accused of wrongdoing at the Texas Capitol. During the runoff campaign, Lehmberg criticized Montford for taking money from Capitol lobbyists and wealthy businesspeople from outside Austin, saying the donations would cloud her judgment in public integrity unit investigations.

"Negative campaigning works," Montford said Tuesday night. She said she did not know whether she would work for Lehmberg.

See what I mean about the other guy? Amazing how often that happens, isn't it? But maybe there was just a little bit more this time:

Montford outraised Lehmberg $564,371 to $337,750 through March 29, the most recent required reporting date. Much of her money came from connections that her father, AT&T lobbyist John T. Montford, developed in past jobs as a Texas senator from Lubbock and as chancellor of Texas Tech University.

Montford received 6 percent of her campaign contributions from lobbyists, not including her father. Her largest donor was former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe, a Uvalde rancher, who gave her $170,000.

"It just makes me wonder: Why would they care about our race?" said voter Margot Marshall, 63, as she left the polls Tuesday at Travis Heights Elementary School. "I assume influence."

Well, yeah. There is that. Nice to see that even lobbyists can sometimes fail to sway an electorate, just like us bloggers.

- And finally, Larry Weiman won the 80th District Judge nomination in Harris County, Richard Morrison won the Commissioner's Court runoff in Fort Bend (and the Republican incumbent, Tom Stavinoha, got knocked off in his runoff), and Eric Roberson won in CD32. That's all I've got, but there's plenty more out there:

Greg Wythe
Mark Bennett
Half Empty
Miya Shay
Elise Hu
Muse and Muse again
Walker Report
Houston Politics
Eye on Williamson


Posted by Charles Kuffner
If at first you don't privatize, try try again

You have to hand it to Governor Perry. He never gives up, no matter how bad the idea is.

Texans could buy lottery tickets at the checkout lines in supermarkets and big-box department stores, at coffee shops and cabarets. They could pay with credit cards or personal checks and play online or the old-fashioned way with a ticket that's also a tiny ad for anything from soft drinks to sporting events.

Those are just some of the proposals offered to state officials by some of the nation's largest financial firms that have an interest in remaking the 16-year-old government-run Texas Lottery Commission into a market-driven enterprise operated by companies motivated more by the prospect of profits than the vagaries of politics.

Although the prospect of turning over Texas' $1 billion-a-year lottery to the private sector received the coldest of shoulders when Gov. Rick Perry first suggested it, a year ago, proponents have been busy laying the groundwork for a second, more concentrated push when lawmakers return to Austin in January for the 2009 legislative session.

"I seriously doubt at this point that they have one vote, much less the 100 they'll need [in the 150-member House], but they're already here visiting with folks to lay out their case," said state Rep. Warren Chisum, a Pampa Republican who heads the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Chisum, whose committee is among at least three legislative panels to be tasked with at least looking at the feasibility of a closer partnership between the lottery and private enterprise, describes himself as very much a skeptic. He questioned whether lottery ticket sales could generate the billions of dollars that the investment firms say are out there and whether the capital markets want to take chances on state lotteries.

"It sounds very pie-in-the-sky -- to me, anyway," Chisum said.

When folks like Warren Chisum are expressing this kind of skepticism, you wonder if Governor Perry has anyone in the Lege on his side of this. You have to wonder what the point of this effort is. I mean, don't we have bigger things to worry about?

According to a demographic study released in December by the University of Houston, fewer and fewer Texans are playing the lottery. And those who do play most tend to be lower wage earners with less education.

The study found that people without a high school diploma are likely to spend more than $60 a month on lottery games. People with a four-year college degree are likely to spend about $5 a month. People who earn $20,000 to $50,000 a year spend twice as much on lottery games as people who earn $100,000 a year or more.

The privatization proposals say the lottery needs to end its reliance on a ticket-buying base of low-income earners by marketing the games to people with college educations and more disposable income.

One suggestion is allowing ticket sales at grocery store and department store cash registers, where the price of the ticket would be rolled into the overall outlay. The same strategy could be used in cafes under some of the proposals.

Gerald Busald, a mathematics professor at San Antonio College who has conducted several studies of the Texas lottery operations and its players, questioned whether the pool of lottery ticket buyers can be significantly expanded.

"I don't think those players are out there," Busald said. "If people [with more disposable income] want to gamble, they can drive to one of the casinos across the state line."

Well, yeah. It's pretty simple, really - in terms of entertainment value for the dollar, a Lottery ticket is pretty far down the list. How much fun is a scratch-off ticket, anyway? I just don't get the allure. Thanks to South Texas Chisme for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The DMN writes about the HHSC

From yesterday, a familiar litany.

Lawmakers are worried that a partly privatized system for determining who receives public assistance is still shaky and may not be salvageable.

Paperwork for applicants has been lost. Needy Texans have received little help from state workers when they've complained of mistakes. And all too often, Texans who should qualify for state-paid health care and other benefits have been refused because of such errors.

When one closely watched measure of the state's performance on aid requests plunged recently, lawmakers sharply questioned Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins. He has announced several new initiatives this year to lure and retain state eligibility workers - and to train more of them on a computer system causing most of the delays.

But those steps haven't calmed lawmakers' nerves. They and advocates for the poor are skeptical he can quickly fix a system that's been in crisis for most of the five years since the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry slashed the payroll of the state's welfare offices and ordered a shift of many screening duties to four privately run call centers.

State leaders acknowledge that promised cost savings haven't materialized and mistakes are common. Now, the system could be headed for more severe problems, as a jittery economy means more Texans may soon apply for public assistance.

The problems could also distract Texas officials as they separately seek to overhaul Medicaid, the nation's main health care program for the poor. Some advocates for low-income Texans fear that if Mr. Hawkins' agency remains preoccupied with fixing the eligibility system, it will be distracted just as it needs to focus on huge changes designed to cover more adults and improve preventative and dental care for poor children.

"These problems need to be resolved now - not in the next [legislative] session - because people's health is at stake," said Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

It's all stuff we've seen and heard before, though the bit about things getting worse as the economy sinks is a new concern. There's no way around the fact that this has been a fiasco of biblical proportions from the beginning - worsened service, increased costs instead of promised savings, the canning of the outsourcer, and so forth. It's failed in every possible way, with more to come as it continues to roll out because there's no return.

State officials acknowledge the failures but say there's no turning back. The new system is "a much more flexible system. It's modern, it's Web-based, and it allows us to provide Texans with a great deal of choice in how they apply for benefits," said Stephanie Goodman, a Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman.

She said the promised savings and improved efficiency haven't materialized because the program ordered by lawmakers in 2003 hasn't been fully implemented. "But it's also incredibly difficult to modernize a system that 4 million Texans rely on every day. It's like trying to remodel a hotel that's full of guests," Ms. Goodman added.

I'm sure the old system was in need of an upgrade, and I know fully well how painful such transitions can be. But we compounded all of that woe by trying to do it on the cheap, with an inexperienced vendor instead of the people who knew what they were doing. It would be amusing in a "Dilbert" kind of way if it weren't for all the suffering that has resulted.

Anyway, read it and weep. And remember there will be more to come soon.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Oh Danny Boy, you can come back now

Remember that pub in New York that banned Danny Boy last month? Well, they have now lifted the ban, as Saint Patrick's Day is safely in the rearview mirror for the year.

Danny Boy is back in the musical fold at a Manhattan pub where the familiar ballad was banned for all of March.

Foley's Pub and Restaurant held a party Wednesday night to mark the end of the musical prohibition.

Danny Boy is often seen as an Irish standard, and some consider it symbolic of the Irish diaspora that began around 1850. But Foley's Irish-born owner, Shaun Clancy, calls it depressing -- and he notes that it was written by an Englishman who never set foot in Ireland.

Clancy declared Danny Boy off-limits last month, including on St. Patrick's Day.

Slainte, y'all.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 08, 2008
Open results thread

Early results are trickling in, some good, some not so good. Let's have a look, Democrats first:

- Who are these people that are voting for Mark Thompson? We had two excellent candidates for Railroad Commissioner at the start of this race, and as things are going we're going to end up with this guy. WTF? At least Eric Roberson is leading in Dallas' CD32.

- Rosemary Lehmberg has a big early lead (PDF) on Mindy Montford.

- Larry Weiman is up 20 points on Marc Isenberg.

- Richard Morrison is over 60% (PDF) in his County Commissioner's race in Fort Bend, but with fewer than 300 early votes cast, so it's far from over.

On the GOP side:

- Pete Olson is crushing Shelley Sekula Gibbs in CD22, thus lowering the humor potential of that race by about 97%. Angie Chen Button is leading the crazy guy in Dallas' HD112, while West Texas incumbent Buddy West appears to be on his way to retirement. West was anti-Craddick, so that's a pickup for the bad guys, while Button is likely to continue Fred Hill's anti-Craddick stance for a hold. In Harris County's HD144, Ken Legler has the early lead.

- Speaking of Harris County, Pat Lykos has the lead in both absentee and early voting. So much for my analysis of where the vote was coming from.

I'll try to keep an eye on these, but feel free to chime in if I'm too slow.

UPDATE: At 9 PM, the Harris County Clerk page has no precincts reporting, but the SOS page does. Usually, it's the other way around. Anyway, I think it's safe to declare Mark Thompson, Rosemary Lehmberg, Richard Morrison, and Pete Olson all winners - in fact, the AP has called it for Olson. More later. BOR, Elise Hu, and Houston Politics are all liveblogging as well.

UPDATE: All results are in. Lykos defeated Siegler, so the Chuck Rosenthal era is officially over, and prosecutorial experience is not an issue for the fall. Weiman beat Isenberg, Legler squeaked past Roberts, Button knocked off Dunning, and in what may have been the nastiest State House runoff, Ralph Sheffield beat Martha Tyroch in Central Texas. Thank you, and good night.

UPDATE: Oops, missed that Roberson won in CD32. Now I'm done here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Updated billboard reduction plan set for Council

Back in December, a plan to get Clear Channel to take down 800+ billboards was proposed by Mayor White, but it ran into resistance and was ultimately put off till later because of concerns that it would allow existing billboards to be relocated. It appears those concerns have now been dealt with, because the ordinance is back on Council's agenda, and some former critics are now hailing it.

The agreement with Clear Channel Outdoor would take effect after the City Council approves it. The proposal is on Wednesday's agenda.

Under the settlement, Clear Channel would remove 831 small and medium-sized billboards from across the city, 51 of them from designated "scenic districts." That represents a two-thirds reduction of all the company's billboards that are less than 288 square feet in size

Many of those billboards were slated to come down by 2013, but some could have remained up permanently because they are located on federal roadways and are beyond the city's legal reach.

In return, Clear Channel would get an extension on 24 large billboards that would have come down between 2009 and 2013. Those will get to stay up 20 more years. The last ones will come down in 2033.

"I think that's worth it," Mayor Bill White said Monday. "It takes down more billboards faster."

Anti-billboard activists said they approved of the deal.

"We were very pleased," said Ed Wulfe, a board member with Scenic Houston. The nonprofit advocates for beautification of streets and public spaces. "For all practical purposes, it will mean no new billboards."

The group had blasted White for offering a "relocation" provision in its previous settlement offer last December. That would have given Clear Channel the right to move 466 medium billboards. That was the same as allowing new billboards to be built, the group contended.


Michael "Mack" Fowler, on the steering committee of the Quality of Life Coalition, said he was pleased with the change.

"I think relocation was a complete and total non-starter," he said. "It was a horrible idea."

One of the critics of the original plan said that the relocation provision "violate[d] a core principle of billboard reduction ... freeze everything in place. Don't let it move, don't let it be rebuilt." I'd say this new plan satisfies that condition, so it ought to have smooth sailing. I'd also say this is a good example of why Mayor White has done as well as he has and maintained such a high level of popularity in doing so: He proposed something that didn't go over so well at first, then took the time to hash out the problems with the various stakeholders, and emerged with a solution that satisfied everyone. You want a good definition of success in politics, that's a fine starting point.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Get ready for congestion pricing on I-10

The new toll lanes on the finished I-10 product may cost more to drive during rush hour.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is recommending the court set a rate of $1.25 during nonpeak hours for the trip between Texas 6 and the West Loop and double that during the morning and evening rush hours.

The court voted last June to double tolls on the Westpark Tollway during rush hours but overturned its decision days later following a public outcry over the plan.

The court is expected to set the prices for toll lanes on the Katy Freeway in the coming months.


The decision on imposing peak-hour pricing rests with Commissioners Court, [Peter Key, HCTRA deputy director,] said.

"We think (peak-hour) pricing is the most effective way to keep traffic flowing and the safest way," Key said.

County Judge Ed Emmett said, "We have to maintain a certain speed in those lanes, and congestion pricing is supposed to do that."

Despite the fiasco that was Westpark congestion pricing, I have no quarrel with this. It makes sense, and you can always choose the non-tolled lanes of I-10 instead, which unlike Richmond Avenue should be able to handle the extra volume. And it may have to, if the toll lanes get too much action:

If a $2.50 toll did not keep traffic flowing at a minimum of 45 mph, the toll road authority could recommend that the court raise the price, Key said.

"If we don't maintain that flowing traffic in that (Katy Freeway toll area), we will have to make changes," he said. "One potential change would be the toll rate."

How high do you think they'd go? I can imagine a situation in the future where folks will have to make some unpleasant choices about their daily commute. Do you prefer to pay an extortionate toll, or leave for work at 5 AM to avoid crushing traffic? How about organizing a carpool?

Vehicles with three or more occupants will be able to travel for free in the eastbound toll lanes from 6 to 11 a.m. and in the westbound toll lanes from 2 to 8 p.m., year-round.

Besides high-occupancy vehicles, only vehicles with EZ Tags will be allowed to travel the toll lanes.

I don't remember if this has been discussed somewhere before, but how exactly is that going to be done? If I've loaded up my minivan with commuters and I zip through an EZ Tag lane on I-10 without having an EZ Tag in my car, will I get nailed by the cameras, or will those cameras be able to verify that I have the minimum number of passengers and let me go? Will there be a special carpool lane? Will I need to have an EZ Tag and then fill out a form to get a rebate? If anyone knows the answers here, please leave a comment. Thanks.

UPDATE: Michael Jones explains it in the comments:

My understanding is the three "tolling plazas" will be manned during the AM and PM rush to monitor compliance. Each toll plaza will have multiple lanes, and drivers will be told to use the one closest the monitoring station if they have 3 or more.

Less than three in the "three or more" lane, and the monitor pushes a button, and your EZ tag is charged.

During non-rush periods, the lane will be closed (forcing everyone into the full-time toll lanes) or will be switched to full-time toll.

Katy Tollway Information Page

Good to know. Thanks!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Free Starbucks At 11 AM Today!

Starbucks is giving away 8 oz cups of its new "everyday" coffee at all its locations at 11 a.m. CDT today. This freebie only lasts 30 minutes, so don't be late or you'll turn into a pumpkin latte.

There has apparently been a constant drumbeat of requests for a consistent, everyday brew rather than Sumatra one day and Gold Coast another and so on. Me, I like the variety. I always get a tall cup of their "bold" coffee of the day with room for cream and then I'm well into one of my "I don't require much to be happy" moods. But, if it's free, I'm willing to try the everyday stuff.

More details:

New brew will be called Pike Place
bold, robust flavor with smooth, buttery finish
freshly roasted, freshly ground
baristas will throw out any that has not been used after 30 minutes

This caught my attention:

The company has also promised to start grinding all its brewed coffee in stores, which will bring back the pungent aroma many customers have missed since the company started using flavor-locked bags of pre-ground coffee years ago.

Love that. I wanna walk into Starbucks and smell that smell.

There's lots in the article about Starbuck's business model, but who really cares. The world stops for me at 11 a.m. today when I'll be at Starbucks getting my free cuppa Pike Place.

Posted by Martha Griffin
RIP, PinkDome

So long, PD. I'll miss your liveblogging from the Capitol, your keen sense of fashion, and of course your crush on former Rep. Carter Casteel. Enjoy your retirement - you will be missed.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Last chance to vote

Today is Runoff Day, which is the last time anyone like me will nag you to vote until November, barring special elections such as the one we may get in SD17. If you're a Democrat, you'll be voting in whichever Early Voting location is in your State Rep district. If you're a Republican, it's mostly like that but a bit more complicated if you're in CD22. If that's a bit too complicated for you, Matt Stiles has all you need to know in four easy steps. Go vote, and please vote for these people:

For Railroad Commissioner, Dale Henry.

For 80th District Court (Civil) in Harris County, Larry Weiman.

For Fort Bend County Commissioner, Precinct 1, Richard Morrison.

For Travis County District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg.

For CD32 in Dallas County, Eric Roberson.

We'll talk about what the November ballots look like afterwards. Happy voting!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The two DA runoffs

The Chron overviews the Travis County DA runoff, which is the hottest contest on the Democratic side of the ticket for tomorrow.

A sharp debate over who would be the best public watchdog at the state Capitol has overshadowed the usual issues of crime and punishment in the race to replace retiring Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle.

As Tuesday's Democratic primary runoff nears, Mindy Montford, an assistant district attorney who ran second to Earle's longtime first assistant Rosemary Lehmberg in a four-person race, has tried to focus on crime.

Her advertisements warn Travis County residents about rising burglaries and tout her courtroom toughness. But the campaigning always returns to the office's small but powerful Public Integrity Unit, which can investigate lawmakers and state politicians for ethical violations.

The unit's biggest recent case is Earle's controversial and still pending prosecution of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. No Republican is running, so the runoff will determine who takes over after Earle's high-profile 31-year tenure.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, said the Legislature created the integrity unit in the seat of state government decades ago, realizing that local district attorneys would be unlikely to investigate their political colleagues back home.

"The Travis County district attorney is functionally the ethics enforcement agency for the entire state," Smith said. "The issue of who is elected here is critical."

This has been a pretty nasty campaign, with a lot of allegations about Republicans supporting Montford, one of which landed a well-known Democratic consultant in some hot water. My qualms about Mindy Montford are that she's got too cozy a relationship with lobbyists, and that she won't be as aggressive about the Public Integrity Unit as Rosemary Lehmberg will be. I'm rooting for Lehmberg to win, and if you're in Travis County and haven't voted yet, I hope you'll consider voting for Lehmberg today.

Meanwhile, back in Harris County, third-place finisher Jim Leitner has hopped on board the Pat Lykos Express, despite earlier statements that he would not endorse anyone in the runoff. That action has got Kelly Siegler taking action to get out the vote for herself, and caused at least one former colleague to lose respect for Leitner. I still think Siegler is going to win this one, but I don't know how confident I should be in that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Death by blogging

I suppose I should say something about this story, in which we learn about the high-stress lifestyle of people who get paid to blog. So I will: This is my hobby. I spend a decent amount of time at it, but it's not my bread and butter. The day may come when circumstances will prevent me from doing this blog as I've been doing it; when and if that happens, I'll figure something out. I cannot conceive of any circumstances under which I'd risk my health for this site; much as I love y'all, doing that would put my relationship with my family at risk, and that ain't gonna happen. So while I have sympathy for the folks who blog for pay, I can't say I relate to their problems. And that's all I got.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Texas blog roundup for the week of April 7

How about those Kansas Jayhawks? I'd show you some video of last night's game, but I don't have it and I'd get my butt sued off if I did. So, since we can't have basketball highlights, how about some blog highlights from the Texas Progressive Alliance? Click on for the slam dunks and full-courts presses.

Matt Glazer of Burnt Orange Report writes about how the TexBlog PAC shattered expectations to raise $3782.09 from 106 donors over the past week, putting the PAC in position to make a $5,000 donation to a House candidate before the end of summer.

Refinish69 of Doing My Part For The Left gets election fever and decides to through his hat in the ring in Elections 2008- Yet Another One.

Off the Kuff takes a look at where the early vote came from in the GOP runoff and hazarded a guess about what it might mean for the candidates.

The civil rights movement affected us all, and continues to do so today. Over at Texas Kaos they're remembering the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King-in ways both large and small.

Corn? Soy beans? Those are for eatin'! The Texas Cloverleaf looks at the next best Texas biodiesel crop-- algae!

XicanoPwr reports on Texas' Child Protective Services (CPS) removal of 183 young women, girls and boy, ages 6 months to 17 years, from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's compound near Eldorado, TX.

Pete Olson, a Texas CD 22 candidate has elevated Hal's blog to that of a "prominent local Democrat blogger" In That's MISTER Half Empty, Bub, we get Hal's take on that.

WCNews at Eye On Williamson has the latest on a new GOP's scheme to finance toll roads around the state in Sen. Ogden Wants To Gamble With Your Money.

John Coby of Bay Area Houston comments on the High Cost of being a Republican.

McBlogger this week takes a look at a certain court case involving some SoftSoap and a naughty child.

Stace Medellin of DosCentavos writes about Senate Leader Harry Reid's statement on Cesar Chavez's Birthday. Reid gave the strongest response among Democrats and pointed to GOP obstructionist tactics regarding various issues affecting Latino Americans.

The Seventh Congressional District of Texas draws national attention and PDiddie at Brains and Eggs has the linkage in Skelly Goes National.

Vince at Capitol Annex tells us that the recent uproar involving a criminal complaint filed over a blog is a wake-up call for bloggers' rights.

CouldBeTrue over at South Texas Chisme wants to be shocked that Chertoff decided to bypass all laws to build that d*mn fence! Republican arrogance and incompetence knows no bounds!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 07, 2008
Hakeem in the Hall

Hot dog!

What was improbable on the day he stepped off the plane from Nigeria and inevitable by the time his glorious 18-year NBA career ended, became official when Hakeem Olajuwon was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame on Monday.
"For many years, you've been a future Hall of Famer," said the former Rockets and University of Houston star. "You hear that. It's an honorable title. But now, for the Hall of the Fame to call you, it's like, 'Wow! Is that really true?'

"All of these legends, great players who have played in the past and you have been selected to be among them. I think that is the highest honor that any player can receive."

Olajuwon is joined in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame's class of 2008 by former players Adrian Dantley and Patrick Ewing, coaches Pat Riley and Cathy Rush and contributors Dick Vitale and Bill Davidson. The enshrinement ceremony will take place Sept. 5 in Springfield, Mass.

This is an honor that is richly deserved for The Dream. Congratulations!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Blockwalking With Richard Morrison

I had terrific experience on Saturday, block walking with Richard Morrison who is in a runoff for Fort Bend County Commissioner, Precinct 1 (see map here of Precinct 1). Election Day is tomorrow, Tuesday, April 8th. We walked in Greatwood, which, who knew, turns out to have a zillion Democrats. We know that because they turned out en masse for the March 4th Democratic Primary.

Richard got a great response, and why not. He ran against Tom DeLay in 2004, the first person to run a credible campaign against him. Richard dug the grave for DeLay and Nick Lampson kicked him in and buried him in 2006. Lots of us in TX-22 have not forgotten that. I was proud to hit the streets for Richard for this runoff! He's one of those candidates that is very real at the door, and has personally visited with many voters.

Richard is far and away the better candidate in the runoff and was the top vote getter on March 4th.

Richard is an attorney, practicing in Greatwood. He's representing the folks fighting the giant garbage dump in the eastern end of Precinct 1. He's going to be a fighter against the Trans Texas Corridor and the Grand Parkway Tollroad. Want honest government? Richard Morrison is your guy.

He's been endorsed by two of his opponents in the March 4th primary, as well as State Representative Dora Olivo and others.

We have slim pickings in Fort Bend County in terms of Democratic elected officials, and Richard Morrison will make a welcome addition to that team. Plus, he is the person that can beat Stavinoha, the Republican who holds the Precinct 1 Commissioner seat. Stavinoha needs to go in a big way.

If you live in Precinct 1 (map reminder here), please vote for Richard tomorrow 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fort Bend County voting locations here.

This is a race to watch tomorrow night when the election returns come in!
(cross posted from musings)

Posted by Martha Griffin
Discovery Green set to open

Discovery Green, the new urban park in east Downtown, gets a nice writeup on the verge of its grand opening.

Discovery Green, the 12-acre, $122 million park that opens April 13, represents Houston's changing self-image as its leaders embrace the green qualities that so often impress visitors arriving by air for the first time.

"It does symbolize a new direction for Houston's public investment and civic philanthropy," said Mayor Bill White, who kicked off the fundraising campaign for the park in October 2004.

Discovery Green will be the first major public park in downtown Houston.

Visitors can sprawl in the grass for a concert, race model boats or splash in an interactive fountain. Runners can try out the jogging path while more sedate visitors can read a magazine in a small library or have a drink at The Grove restaurant.


Another concern often expressed about downtown parks is that they're likely to attract homeless people. Root Memorial Square, a small city park just south of Discovery Green, was the site of homeless encampments for years.

Experts on designing urban parks say the best way to prevent this is to keep them filled with people and activity.

Root Memorial Square is across the street from the Toyota Center. As a Comets season ticket holder, I can attest to the homeless-persons issue there, but that pretty much vanished after its 2005 facelift.

Moreover, the public and philanthropic investment in Discovery Green can be justified only if the park attracts many people from throughout the Houston area, said Phil Myrick, a vice president of the Project for Public Spaces, a New York nonprofit that participated in early planning for the park.

Too often, Myrick said, "money gets poured into a place that very few people end up enjoying and spending time in."

Because Discovery Green is in a "challenging location," Myrick said, it will have to offer compelling activities to attract visitors from far-flung neighborhoods.

"Consider your average person on a Saturday or Sunday. Are they really going to pack up the kids and head downtown, or stay closer to home?" Myrick asked. "If downtown is the only audience (for the park), it will be a terrible waste."

Guy Hagstette, the park's director, said he's keenly aware of this challenge. Planners have worked hard, he said, to develop attractions and activities that appeal to all kinds of people. Almost all of the activities, with the exception of model boats and parking in the underground garage, will be free.

People who enjoy trendy games can play bocce, an Italian sport similar to lawn-bowling, while more traditional Texans can pitch horseshoes. Part of the model boat pool will be frozen during winter months for ice skating. Children can frolic in a "mist tree" that also serves as a piece of public art and a place for joggers to cool off.

The Houston Public Library will offer indoor and outdoor reading rooms and plans to provide free WiFi service throughout the park.

Since most of the new development surrounding the park is likely to serve an affluent market, Hagstette said, he has tried to ensure that Discovery Green's attractions serve diverse communities.

The park plans to host a health fair on Juneteenth and an Asian festival. A farmer's market will serve a demand for locally produced food. On weekends, families can visit the park, put their pets in one of two dog runs and watch their kids play on the playground while they discard their newspapers and cans into recycling bins.

The farmer's market is Central City Co-op. I know this because Tiffany is on its board of directors, and has spent the past several weeks helping to get everything ready to go for the grand opening. She will do a guest post later this week with more information about Central City and what you can expect to find at that farmer's market at Discovery Green.

I think it all sounds pretty cool, and I'm really glad to see there's a stage for outdoor music performances as well. Maybe someone will resurrect the idea of Party on the Plaza, which has been sorely missed. Having this park right in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center will be a heck of a nice advertisement for the rest of Houston, too.

And as promised, the park has spawned a lot of new development.

The streets surrounding Discovery Green, the new 12-acre downtown park, hum with activity as its April 13 opening approaches. A luxury high-rise apartment building and office tower are rising on two sides of the park, while a planned hotel and other nearby projects hope to benefit from it.

Brokers, developers and analysts say the park is attracting new development that promises to shift downtown's center of gravity to the long-dormant area east of Main Street.

The flurry of projects shows Mayor Bill White was correct when he predicted in 2004 that a high-quality park next to the George R. Brown Convention Center would create an "explosion of growth" on its periphery, said broker Dave Cook of Cushman & Wakefield.

"Everyone now feels that they want to be on the park," said Cook, who's been involved in a number of land deals in the area.

Some of this growth is a result of Houston's strong economy, a growing convention business and demand for downtown office space, real estate professionals say.

But Discovery Green, they say, is accelerating and intensifying this trend.

"I don't think the park is the only draw," said Ralph Howard, chief executive of Situs Cos., a real estate consulting firm based in Houston. "But it's becoming a new, natural center for the central business district."


The lure of urban parks is evident in views from balconies jutting out from One Park Place, the 37-story luxury apartment tower that developer Marvy Finger is building on Discovery Green's western edge.

The prospect of living near the park is so appealing, Finger said, that he's already leased about 60 of his 346 units, even though the project won't open for a year and he hasn't started marketing. The units will lease for $1,500 to $4,500 monthly, said Deborah Hartman, a publicist for the project.

Finger was the first developer to plunge into the market around Discovery Green. It was a crucial move for those who followed, said Cook, the broker.

"Finger's acquisition was the critical site and the critical development," Cook said.

Having a core of residents near Discovery Green will be an important part of making the park a success. But Phil Myrick's statement about the park needing to draw people from elsewhere is true as well. I feel like a key to that will be the upcoming expansion of Metro Rail, because being able to get to a place like Discovery Green without having to worry about - or pay for - parking will make it a more attractive destination. That's a few years off still, though, so we'll have to see how it does with just the Main Street line for now. I figure we'll pile the kids in the minivan and take a visit sometime soon after this weekend, so I'll let you know what my impressions are when that happens.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Overview of Railroad Commissioner runoff

If you can call it that - there's not much to or in this article.

Henry had a career as a petroleum engineer, working in this country and the Middle East for several oil-drilling and field-service companies. He also worked as a private contractor for the Texas Railroad Commission in plugging and filling abandoned wells.

Henry won election as a Mills County Commissioner as a Republican, and he first ran for the railroad commission in the 2004 GOP primary. Henry won the Democratic railroad commission nomination in 2006, losing the general election with 42 percent of the vote.

In this campaign, Henry has focused on the need to clean up environmental problems caused by oil drilling and abandoned wells. His special concern is oil-field pollution of groundwater.

Thompson is an orientation and mobility teacher for the blind. He was a commissioned peace officer for eight years in the 1990s, serving two years as an Austin park police officer and then three years with the State Capitol police.

Thompson has been urging the commission to be more aggressive in forcing natural gas companies to replace aging compression couplings whose failure has caused gas explosions in homes. He also has focused attention on oil-well waste being pumped into the ground with injection wells.

That's the meat of it. There's some stuff there about Thompson's failure to vote in a general election since 1996 (he did vote in the Democratic primary and runoff in 2006) and Henry's previous runs for office as a Republican. I've said elsewhere that such "issues" generally don't interest me much, and that's the case here as well. Any objective review of the race and the hopefuls will lead to the conclusion that Dale Henry is the better and more qualified candidate, so I see no need to get distracted by lesser matters.

If you do want more information, RG Ratcliffe did podcast interviews with both Henry and Thompson for the March 4 primary - Henry's is here and Thompson's is here. And remember to vote tomorrow - for Dale Henry - if you haven't already. It's another one of those low-turnout affairs, so your vote carries more weight than usual.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Pizza dot com

I'm fascinated by this.

Fourteen years ago, Chris Clark shelled out 20 bucks to register the domain name "pizza.com." This afternoon, he sold it for $2.6 million.

"It's crazy, it's just crazy," he said somewhat giddily yesterday morning from his home in North Potomac. By then, a week's worth of anonymous bidding at an online auction site had pushed the price to today's high. The auction closed at 2 p.m. today.

"That amount of money is significant," said Clark, 43, who recently launched a software company. "It will make a significant difference in my life, for sure."

With more than 150 million domain names already listed with registry firms, coming up with unused -- and uncomplicated -- Web addresses is close to impossible. That's led to an active secondary sales market, where domain owners try reselling their Web names to big corporate spenders.

Most domains resell for about $2,000, domain traders say. But the premium names -- the generic ones that cover an entire industry and end in the all-important ".com" -- can draw millions.

Business.com sold for $7.5 million in 1999, and so did diamond.com seven years later, according to an industry trade magazine. In 2006, a Russian alcohol exporter bought vodka.com for $3 million, while sex.com sold for about $12 million in cash and stock. Last month, fund.com sold for $10 million.

The best generic names -- those like books.com (owned by Barnes & Noble) and pets.com (PetSmart) -- were snapped up long ago during the early 1990s, back when the World Wide Web was still relatively shiny and new.

Such names are popular because they naturally draw Web traffic. An Illinois T-shirt company, for example, recently paid $225,000 to buy tees.com after executives learned that the site was getting 17,000 hits a month -- mostly by people who typed in the address out of curiosity.

The idea of typing in a random domain name "out of curiosity", in this day and age of spyware and viruses, just boggles my mind. Way back in 1998, when I was putting together a little web page of information for people who'd be coming in from out of state to attend our wedding, I went looking for the URL of DoubleTree Hotels, with whom we'd reserved a block of rooms. While on a break at work, I entered www.doubletree.com in IE on my computer. That took me to a nasty hardcore porn site. This was back before corporate filtering was ubiquitous, so I got quite an eyeful; thankfully, this was also before the malware epidemic, so that was all I got. The lesson I learned, and it's one I strictly adhere to today, is to always use a search engine when I don't know the address offhand. It's served me very well.

(In case you're curious, by the way, the correct URL was www.doubletreehotels.com. I don't know if the other version is still a porn site, and I have no intention of trying to find out.)

The other thing that struck me: Seventeen thousand hits a month? That's maybe a third of my traffic. Is that really worth almost a quarter million bucks? Clearly, I need to rethink my no-advertising policy. Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Bill James speaks

Nice little Q&A with baseball stats legend Bill James. Here's a question he could have written a book about:

Q: Who are ten players in the Hall Of Fame that do not deserve to be there?

A: Fred Lindstrom, Jesse Haines, Tommy McCarthy, Lloyd Waner, George Kelly, Ross Youngs, Roger Bresnahan, Earle Combs, Jim Bottomley, and Chick Hafey.

Actually, he did write a book about it - it's called The Politics of Glory, and though it's a bit out of date these days, it's still a great read, both for its history and for its methodology of determining what makes a Hall of Fame player. As with everything James writes, it'll make you think. Thanks to Dan for sending me the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 06, 2008
Rice to hire Cal's Braun as basketball coach

Meet the new coach.

Three weeks after dismissing the winningest men's basketball coach in program history, Rice stands poised to hire former Cal coach Ben Braun as successor to Willis Wilson.

According to an NCAA official, Braun will be introduced at 2 p.m. Monday.

Braun compiled a 219-154 record over 12 seasons in Berkley, leading the Golden Bears to five NCAA Tournament berths and three NIT appearances, including the 1999 NIT title.

Cal advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1997, its first season with Braun at the helm, and reached the second round of the Tournament in 2002 and '03.

But after making six postseason appearances in his first seven seasons, Braun managed to lead Cal to only a pair of postseason appearances over his last five seasons. The Bears finished either eighth or ninth in the Pac-10 three of the last four seasons.

Braun was fired on March 26 two days after the Bears fell to eventual champ Ohio State in the second round of the NIT.

Second only to Nibs Price in victories at Cal, Braun went 185-132 in 11 seasons at Eastern Michigan (1986-96) and 148-103 at Siena Heights College (1978-85). With 552 victories, Braun closed the season ranked 11th among active NCAA Division I coaches.

A full bio is here. Reaction on the Rice Fan Forum is pretty positive so far, and I have to concur with that. Braun sounds like a good coach who's run a clean program and who'll be a good fit with Rice academically. And as a poster noted in that thread, he's the highest-profile coaching hire Rice has made since Ken Hatfield. While that relationship eventually went sour, it did pay some fast dividends - I'd call Hatfield's first five seasons (1994-1998) among the best periods for the program in recent years. I'm excited to hear what Coach Braun has to say about his new gig tomorrow.

UPDATE: More from MK Bower and former Cal player Rod Benson.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The high cost of getting tuff on crime

Great article in the Chron about the decline of personal recognizance bonds in Harris County and the effect it has on the local jail population. You need to read the whole thing, as it really adds a lot to the discussion of why our jail system is so screwed up, but I want to focus on two aspects of the story.

Over the past 15 years, the use of personal bonds has all but disappeared in low-grade felony cases. Most Harris County district court judges say they would consider them for the right defendant, but the numbers suggest the "right" defendant rarely appears.

It has not always been this way. In 1994, personal bonds accounted for the release of almost 9,000 people from the Harris County Jail, including more than 1,800 facing low-grade felony charges, frequently drug possession.

A decade later, only 109 felony defendants were let out of jail without posting a cash bond. By 2007 that number was up slightly -- to 153 -- which translates into less than one half of one percent of the 36,176 people in jail interviewed by pretrial services officers.

Fewer personal bonds may be good for the bonding companies, as some people who once got them might be able to pay to get out of jail, especially if charged with a misdemeanor. But defense lawyers complain it is neither smart nor fair.

"What this means is that if you are really poor, you have zero chance of getting out of jail before your trial," said Pat McCann, president of the Harris Country Criminal Lawyers Association. "If you're a poor person in jail, you're screwed."

The basic purpose of a bond is to make sure a person charged with a crime shows up in court. Public safety is also a consideration.

The consequences are two-fold. Fewer personal bonds contributes to the Harris County Jail being filled beyond capacity, requiring local taxpayers to spend $9 million a year to house approximately 600 prisoners in a private Louisiana jail. And people who cannot post a bond are far more likely to plead guilty in order to get out of jail.

"It's just plain nuts," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate's criminal justice committee and has talked with local judges and jail officials about the issue. "You've got to be smart as well as tough. If we better managed our current resources and only locked up those who posed a public safety risk, we would save millions of dollars."

So that's nine million dollars to ship inmates to Louisiana, plus however many millions hiring more guards and paying overtime, plus a failed proposition last year to spend $195 million on more jail space. All because judges - Republican judges, which is all we've had since 1996 - have decided that no-cash bonds are a no-no. For all the bitching and moaning that some local activists do about property taxes and spending on other programs, they're awfully quiet about the vast resources we pour into keeping mostly non-violent and non-felony offenders, many of whom are awaiting trial, in jail. Apparently, it's okay to spend tax dollars lavishly on some things, just not on things they don't like.

And I want to emphasize again, what we're doing here we're doing by choice. We don't have to do it this way. There's a huge opportunity to be more efficient, save money, and better serve the interests of justice, if only the people who get to make these choices wouldn't be so dogmatic about it. The remedy for that, since it's clear that what we're getting is what we'll continue to get as long as the same cast is in charge, is at the ballot box in November.

The interests of justice is the other item to discuss:

Almost half of the felony cases filed in Harris County in 2006 were resolved within 60 days, many of those at the first trial setting. No other urban county in Texas disposes of such a high proportion of its cases so quickly.

Whether that equates to justice is a different matter. Often the lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients end up recommending pleas for people they just met and whose cases they have not investigated.

"It's just insidious," said defense attorney David Jones. "Isn't the system supposed to be an adversarial system? What's guiding it now are the values of a bureaucrat. It has become a matter of processing."

So how many innocent people, rather than sit for months in jail because they can't afford a cash bond, plead guilty to something so they can get on with their lives? We've discussed this before, and it's a bit sobering to consider. What would you do if you were in that situation? It's a pretty nasty choice, isn't it?

The bottom line is that it doesn't have to be this way. We can choose to do things differently. And we will have the chance to make that choice soon.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
TexBlog PAC: We did it!

All right! after our five-day campaign, the TexBlog PAC wound up with more than 50 donors, and more than $2000 raised, which surpassed both of our goals. On behalf of the PAC board, I thank everyone who contributed to this effort. We couldn't have done it without the generous support of the Texas netroots. We'll be announcing the first candidates on our slate soon, and we'll be having some traditional fundraisers in the coming months to get the resources we need to help more candidates. Thank you all very much!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Toll road cameras expand in scope

In December of 2006, we heard about how the Harris County Toll Road Authority was using cameras stationed at toll lanes to identify and nab serial toll-skippers. The Chron story at the time also said that "the technology [is] useful for other purposes as well, including tracking stolen vehicles". If, like me, you wondered what those "other purposes" might be, now we know.

"We're going to be catching a lot of bad guys," said Assistant Chief Deputy Randy Johnson, of the Precinct 5 Constable's Office, who also serves as the incident management administrator for the toll road authority.

Eleven cameras already are in place and another 24 will be installed by the end of the month. The toll road authority plans to install cameras throughout the toll system by the end of the year. Five similar cameras are mounted on deputy constables' patrol cars, Johnson said.

The system, which has been operating for about a month, has proved so promising that the Houston Police Department wants a piece of the action. Harris County leaders next week will consider an agreement that would include the HPD in the county system at no cost.

"This is a good law enforcement tool," HPD spokesman John Cannon said. "It's a technology we would be foolish to ignore."

The license plate recognition cameras are perched on toll booth canopies. As a car passes, the cameras focus on its plates. That information is then checked against a database of chronic toll road violators, as well as more serious criminals. License plates of automobiles involved in child abductions or other missing persons' cases also are on record.

If the system detects a match, a county dispatcher will be alerted and notify the nearest law enforcement officer.

"If that car is flagged, if it goes through a particular toll or EZ Tag lane, it would immediately be brought to the attention of county employees and constables who patrol the tollways," Cannon said. "That gives us a better lead than if we did not have that type of technology."

As I said back in '06, I don't necessarily have a problem with using this kind of technology in place of traffic cops to enforce the law. But I do have the same concerns about who will have access to this data, what security and storage policies are in place for it, and of course what else will they use this technology for? This particular use is easily justifiable, but it's not without risk. I guarantee that at some point, a person who is driving the car of a friend or family member who's in one of those databases will get pulled over and have a very unpleasant experience, with a nonzero possibility of something going catastrophically and tragically wrong. Are we prepared for that? There's certainly benefit in this plan to watch for the cars of known criminals, but there's downside as well.

In case you were curious:

Red-light cameras installed at 50 Houston intersections will not be used in the same way as the tollway authority's cameras, Cannon said.

"Red-light cameras are strictly used for traffic enforcement," the HPD spokesman said. "That's not what they were designed to do."

Good to know. I'm kind of curious as to what the persistent red light camera critics think of this program HCTRA is implementing, but so far I haven't seen any reaction from any of them.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Whither carpal tunnel syndrome?

Was the epidemic of carpal tunnel syndrome overstated?

"At its height of diagnosis, anybody showing up at a doctor's office with wrist pain or hand pain was being diagnosed with carpal tunnel," said Carol Harnett, vice president of insurer Hartford Financial Services Group's group benefits division.

Since then, carpal tunnel cases have plummeted, declining 21 percent in 2006 alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among workers in professional and business services, the number of carpal tunnel syndrome cases fell by half between 2005 and 2006.

What changed?

First, it may not have been the white-collar epidemic it appeared to be.

A 2001 study by the Mayo Clinic found heavy computer users (up to seven hours a day) had the same rate of carpal tunnel as the general population. Harvard University headlined a 2005 news release: Computer use deleted as carpal tunnel syndrome cause.

"Clearly, if keyboarding activities were a significant risk for carpal tunnel, we should have seen, over the last 10 to 15 years, an explosion of cases," said Dr. Kurt Hegmann, director, the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational & Environmental Health. "If keyboarding were a risk, it cannot be a strong factor."

Blue-collar workers, especially those doing assembly line work such as sewing, cleaning and meat or poultry packing, have a far greater incidence of carpal tunnel than white-collar workers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

That doesn't mean white-collar workers don't get carpal tunnel and related disorders. But it may mean such disorders were overdiagnosed when they were most in the news, resulting in an artificially high number of cases by the late 1990s. Most doctors have dropped the term RSI, calling them "musculoskeletal disorders" while government agencies like "cumulative trauma disorders."

Now, some experts think some of those patients had "referred pain" from trouble elsewhere, such as the neck. Other theories claim attention to ergonomics has prevented injuries, or that they have become underreported because they lack the immediacy of a broken bone.

For what it's worth, I'm not the most ergonomically correct typist out there, and I've never had any problems. I do on infrequent occasions feel some mild pain or numbness in my fingers or wrists, at which point I back off from the computer for a few hours, and then I'm fine. Maybe I'm just lucky, I don't know. I have plenty of coworkers who've used wrist braces and whatnot, and I'm certainly not doubting the existence of these maladies. But I can't say I'm surprised to hear that they're not as prevalent as they were once said to be.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 05, 2008
Commissioners Court to study public defenders office

This is encouraging.

Commissioners Court is expected Tuesday to approve a study of whether Harris County should create a public defenders office.

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said that after the study is completed, she likely will press colleagues to create the office, an option the court has rejected for more than two decades.

"I am predisposed to support creating a public defender system," Garcia said. "It's long overdue in Harris County."

But Commissioner Steve Radack said, "They can study it, but unless it saves taxpayers' money, then I'm not for it."

Way to keep an open mind there, Steve. With an attitude like that, I suspect you'll find a way to question any report that shows a PDs office would in fact save money. But as Commissioner Garcia correctly notes, it's not just about strict accounting:

Garcia said she likely would push for a hybrid system in which some defendants would be represented by public defenders, some by court-appointed lawyers.

Dallas County has a hybrid system.

According to the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, the county's public defenders office was assigned 41,000 cases last year and handled them at a cost of $214 per case.

The 25,000 cases assigned counsel in Dallas last year cost $493 per case.

Radack said he is convinced that defendants in Harris County receive fair representation from court-appointed lawyers and will look at only whether a public defender system would save money.

But Garcia said the county should study the county's entire criminal justice system and look for ways to thin out adult jails while maintaining public safety.

The county, she said, may find that a public defenders office could cost more than a system that solely relies on court-appointed lawyers.

But a good public defender system may have unexpected cost benefits -- perhaps its lawyers would help more defendants post bail, relieving the county of jail costs, she said.

Garcia said she may be willing to spend additional money to create a good public defenders office if it would help prevent innocent defendants from being convicted.

"It might be part of what the Pledge of Allegiance says: It's justice for all," she said. "A good public defenders system can provide just that: justice for all."

I can't put it any better than that. And let's face it, not convicting innocent defendants isn't just a key part of what justice is about, it's also good economics, given how expensive it is to incarcerate inmates these days. Whatever penurious amount we're spending on the current system of court-appointed attorneys these days, I don't see how it can offset the cost of locking up someone for 20 years for a crime he didn't commit.

And in a related story, some good news for the county.

State inspectors found no violations during their weeklong inspection of the Harris County Jail system, officials said Friday.

"The facility, the entire complex, was found in compliance," said Adan Munoz, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The complete report should be ready next week. Inspectors check all aspects of prisoner care and guard training, as well as cleanliness, fire safety and other building standards. The county was given 10 days notice prior to the inspection.

Previous inspections from 2004 to 2006 found that the county was out of compliance because of crowding and understaffing. The county hired more guards, expanded overtime and sent 600 inmates to a Louisiana prison last year to get back into compliance last May.

Well, that's something. At a substantial cost, I'm sure, but at least we're not breaking the law any more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Early voting totals

Not exactly a big excitement generator.

More than 22,000 people voted early for Tuesday's Republican primary runoff elections in Harris County, about a third of the number who voted early for the March 4 primary.

On the Democratic side, where there are fewer local races on the runoff ballot, early voting hit about 6,000, or a mere 4 percent of the comparable turnout for the March 4 primary that included the presidential contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Five days of early voting ended Friday night at 35 locations across Harris County. The same locations will serve as polling stations for Tuesday's elections, except for in southeast Harris County, where there will be additional locations.

I'd guess we'll see 50,000 to 60,000 total on the GOP side, and about 15,000 on the Democratic side in Harris County. I don't see any returns on the SOS site, so I've no clue what the statewide totals might be. I'd guessed 200 to 250 thousand on the Dem side; that will have to come from places like Travis and Bexar, because Harris sure isn't driving it. But I can't find their EV numbers online, so who knows where we're at.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
TexBlog PAC: One down, one to go

I'm very glad to say that the TexBlog PAC has surpassed its goal of $1500 raised; as of late last night, we were at $1875, which gives us more than $10,000 cash on hand and puts us in a position to start helping candidates as we work towards taking back the Texas House this year. We'll have an early list of our endorsees soon, but for those of you who have contributed to this effort, or any time previously, I want to say Thank You on behalf of the PAC board, and of those candidates who will be the beneficiaries of your generosity. We couldn't have done it without you.

Now we'd still like to hit our goal of fifty donors over this same period. We have forty now - can we get ten more? If you'd like to help us get there, you know what to do. As always, I greatly appreciate it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Whitmire: Abolish the TYC

I think there's a lot of merit to this.

The Texas Senate's leader on prison policy has a novel idea for the state's $235-million-a year system of juvenile corrections: Abolish it.

John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston who chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, said no amount of reforms at the Texas Youth Commission will correct what he sees as an expensive, poorly conceived, top-heavy, ineffective bureaucratic operation that's better known for its sex abuse scandals than its graduation rates.

"We're spending ($235) million a year and we've got these broken-down, unsafe facilities in all the wrong places," Whitmire said this week, adding that he would replace the state system with smaller lockups closer to where most offenders live.

In making the case for dissolving the 59-year-old agency, Whitmire noted these facts: The agency has more employees (4,100) than incarcerated youth (2,800), yet still, because of a complex set of factors, including the difficulty of recruiting staff in remote places, is short 440 guards. Its offender population is smaller than some high schools, but in part to support a huge bureaucracy, the state spends a large amount each year to provide for their care. It scatters troubled offenders in units located in largely rural areas around the state, even though most come from urban areas far away, he said.

"You can't take a kid from Houston and send him to the Oklahoma border where he never sees his parents and expect to reform him," Whitmire said. "Let's keep the kids in county-run urban settings and let the (state) money go with them and you cut out all the top and middle bureaucracy. We're wasting millions of dollars and not getting very much in return."

I think there's a lot of merit to this idea. One of the things we learned from the problems at the Pyote facility is that it's difficult to find and retain qualified staff at these remote locations. Not too many people would choose to live out in the middle of nowhere like that, especially at the prevailing wages. At least under this plan, you'd be able to draw from some larger labor pools, and yes, I think keeping the kids in familiar surroundings will help them rehabilitate. That is the point - rehabilitation - right?

District Judge Mike Schneider, one of [District Judge Pat] Shelton's fellow juvenile court jurists in Harris County, said he hopes that the state studies Whitmire's proposal.

He said he has felt frustrated because in the past TYC didn't provide youths with services ordered by Harris County judges. Before the TYC scandal, sex offenders sentenced in county courts to TYC often did not undergo counseling ordered by judges, he said.

If the county probation department ran lockups for such offenders, judges could check to see if the services were provided and hold the department accountable, Schneider said.

"I have no problem getting rid of TYC as long as we have the option of dealing with kids locally and that it's not an unfunded mandate," he said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, chair of the county juvenile probation board, said he will wait and see whether state lawmakers seriously consider Whitmire's proposal.

Brazoria County Court-at-law judge James Blackstock, who is chairman of that county's juvenile board, said the issue will come down to money.

"If the state orders that and funds it sufficiently, then I'm all for it," he said. "If it's an unfunded mandate, then I'm against it."

That's a perfectly reasonable position to take. Sadly, with the Lege, it's not something you can assume. Let's get the discussion going on this, and see where it takes us.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Adopt-A-Beach Spring Cleanup April 26

From the office of Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson:

The 22nd annual Adopt-A-Beach Spring Cleanup will take place Saturday, April 26th at eight sites in the Houston area. The all-volunteer is coordinated through the Adopt-A-Beach Program of the Texas General Land Office.

"Join us for a great day at the beach with thousands of other Texans who care enough to show it through their actions," Patterson said.

Volunteers can register at any of the eight check-in sites beginning at 8:30 a.m. on April 26th. Each volunteer will be given data cards, gloves, pencils and trash bags. All volunteers are advised to wear closed-toe shoes and bring sunscreen and plenty of drinking water.

Texans who are not able to attend the cleanup can help keep their beaches clean by making a tax-deductible donation online at www.texasadoptabeachorg. There are several different Adopt-A-Beach sponsorship levels ranging from $25 to $25,000, allowing both individuals and corporations to contribute to this major cleanup effort.

The all-volunteer event is coordinated through the Texas General Land Office Adopt-A-Beach Program. Statewide coastal cleanups are held every spring and fall.

Texas beaches receive large amounts of marine debris due to a convergence of currents in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1986, more than 365,000 Texas Adopt-A-Beach volunteers have picked up more than 6,900 tons of trash along the Texas coast. Volunteers record data on the trash to learn more about the causes of marine debris and to help mitigate pollution along Texas' 367 miles of coastline.

Local news media sponsors for the cleanup include the following Houston stations: KHOU-TV (CBS Channel 11), KXLN-TV (Channel 45 Univision), Clear Channel radio stations KTRH-AM, KPRC-AM and KBME-AM and KLOL-FM.

Statewide sponsors for the Adopt-A-Beach Spring Cleanup are National Oilwell Varco, Royal Caribbean, ExxonMobil, Stormwater Solutions, Halliburton and Starbucks. In-kind donations will be provided by Keep Texas Beautiful.

The General Land Office Adopt-A-Beach Cleanups are held rain or shine!

For a complete listing of cleanup sites for the upcoming Spring Cleanup, to learn how you can participate, or for additional information on the Adopt-A-Beach Program, please visit www.texasadoptabeach.org or contact the GLO at 1-877-TX COAST.

All the information you need is at the link above. It's a worthy cause, so please help if you can.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 04, 2008
AT&T responds to the West U cellphone ordinance

I received the following email from AT&T spokesman Kerry Hibbs in response to this post about their opposition to the West U school-zone cellphone ban ordinance:

Just to clarify our position on wireless safety, AT&T has begun working with legislators on a statewide law that would provide consistent, enforceable rules concerning cell phone usage for drivers. That would be the best way to address the issue. However, we're also more than willing to work with local governments such as West University Place on ordinances that allow hands-free calling in school zones.

I appreciate the clarification.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Friday random ten: Genealogy time

Is it Friday already? Why, yes, it is. Time for some random music!

1. "I'm My Own Grandpa" - Asylum Street Spankers. I was musing about whether this was a song that came from someone's actual real-life experience, or if it was just a flight of fancy, and came across this little treatise, which tells me the answer is a little bit of Yes to each. My God, I love the Internet.

2. "Jim Dandy" - Black Oak Arkansas. And while I was on that train of thought, this song started playing, and I started wondering about the origin of that phrase. Apparently, it has its roots in baseball. Who knew?

3. "Blister in the Sun" - Violent Femmes. From the soundtrack to the movie Grosse Pointe Blank. I'd argue this was the beginning of the 80s music nostalgia craze. If only the playlists for 80s music radio stations were as good as this.

4. "Skokiaan" - Bill Haley and the Comets. And now that 80s music is the new oldies, I wonder if Classic Oldies like this will have a place on the radio any more. I think you can still find it on the digital cable music channels, at least.

5. "One" - Eddie From Ohio. What happens when a couple gets a little too close to each other.

6. "I'm Bad Like Jesse James" - John Lee Hooker. I'd believe him if I were you.

7. "Cool for Cats" - Squeeze. Dedicated to Rob Booth, the biggest Squeeze fan in the city.

8. "Daisy" - The Go Gos. And since I've mentioned 80s music twice, I'll point out yet again that there isn't a single station in the country that will play both the classic Go Gos tunes from the 80s as well as anything from their latest release. This has never made sense to me.

9. "He Moved Through The Fair" - Paisley Close. I have at least four versions of this song. Nothing deliberate, mind you, it's just very widely covered.

10. "Friend Is A Four-Letter Word" - CAKE. They're coming to (near) Austin soon. I'm so jealous.

Have a random day!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
City wins another round in revenue caps lawsuit

In the ongoing battle over revenue cap referenda, the city scored a victory in the courts yesterday.

Anti-tax activist Bruce Hotze lost a legal battle with the city on Thursday, but said he will continue to fight for a cap on all city revenues.

The cap was Proposition 2, which voters passed in 2004. The city has not enforced it, because voters also passed another cap mechanism by a wider margin. That cap, Proposition 1, is not as restrictive.

"I'm mad as a hornet that the appellate court has sent this back to the lower court on a technicality," said Hotze, a local businessman and limited-government activist. "We're going to take this all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to."

The "technicality" is Hotze's right to sue, known as "standing." The 14th Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Hotze and his group had no standing to bring the suit, and sent it back to district court to give him one more chance to claim standing on different grounds.

"We are gratified to have prevailed in the Court of Appeals," Mayor Bill White said in a statement. "We respect those who have fought for tax limits for years," he added.

The judgment affirmed the city's decision to use Proposition 1 instead of Proposition 2, even though both were approved by voters, said Scott Atlas, the city's outside counsel.

The standing issue is crucial, Atlas said.

"If you give every taxpayer the right to challenge decisions like this that the government makes, you'll be tied up in courts forever."


Hotze's attorney, Andy Taylor, pointed out that the First Court of Appeals did give Hotze standing on a related lawsuit that forced the mayor to certify the vote on Proposition 2.

"Somebody's got to have the right to challenge the government," Taylor said. "He's been the pioneer taking the arrows from the beginning, and who would have standing if Bruce Hotze doesn't have standing?"

The court's opinion is here. This gets a little confusing because there's more than one lawsuit relating to the revenue caps. As noted in the Houston Politics blog, this decision reversed an earlier district court ruling that said both revenue cap proposals from 2004 must be enforced. Both measures passed, but the city's preferred Prop 1 had more votes, so it was considered to have precedence over Prop 2. See here, here, here, and here for more background than you probably care about on this. In 2006, there was another referendum (Proposition G) that excluded the city's enterprise funds, such as airports and convention facilities, from Proposition 2. That passed, there was another lawsuit filed by Hotze, and it too was tossed on grounds of standing. Which, lest I've missed something, means that unless Hotze can clear that hurdle in the lower court, this is the end of the line for this particular fight. The wheels do grind slowly sometimes, don't they?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Last day of early runoff voting today

Have you cast your vote in the primary runoffs yet? If you have, you're in select company. And you have until 7 PM today to join that select company, plus Tuesday the 8th, at the limited number of locations that will be available. Take my advice and vote today - I guarantee it won't take you more than a minute or two. And please remember to vote for Dale Henry and Larry Weiman.

I see, by the way, that things are getting a bit ugly in the DA runoff.

Former Harris County government chief Robert Eckels has emerged as the top financial promoter of Pat Lykos' campaign for district attorney with his veiled funding of a $17,500 leaflet that denounces candidate Kelly Siegler without revealing its senders' identities.

Using money left over from his campaigns for county judge, Eckels is this year's sole bankroller of the Harris County GOP Political Action Committee, which has been criticized by Republican Party officials for using the name while lacking any official connection to the party. The committee has received no other money this year and endorsed no one for other offices.

Many Harris County voters this week received the mailed leaflet, which makes no mention of former judge Lykos, from the "Harris County GOP PAC." By law, the committee listed treasurer Jason Miller, a computer technologist. It contains no reference to Eckels, who once employed Lykos, or of committee chairman Bob Pelfrey, a longtime Republican activist. Those disclosures are not required.

Eckels' $17,500 contribution to the committee, however, is listed on disclosures filed this week with the Texas Ethics Commission.


Eckels said he was not trying to hide his role in the mailing, which shows Siegler and her disgraced former boss, Chuck Rosenthal as a pair, calling them "one & the same." It also states, among other things, that Siegler "doesn't believe ethical rules apply to her."

Instead, Eckels explained, he merely agreed to fund whatever mail Pelfrey wanted to send on behalf of Lykos. Eckels and Lykos said they never saw the leaflet until it was mailed and did not discuss its contents with Pelfrey.

"The language is perhaps a little stronger than I might use," Eckels said. Lykos said she thought Pelfrey's mail was going to be an endorsement of her rather than a slam against Siegler -- but added that the allegations in the leaflet are factual and based on public records.

Siegler, told of Eckels' role, said "it's not surprising to me, when Lykos' entire campaign has been based on deceit, false accusations and downright lies."

Jared Woodfill, a lawyer who chairs the Harris County Republican Party, said the use of the name Harris County GOP PAC without additional data about its backers has fooled several voters into thinking the leaflet is the official word of the party, which is neutral in the district attorney's race.

Said Pelfrey: "The voters are smarter than that. People like Woodfill ... will say that if they are not being endorsed."

Lykos pointed out that Siegler has benefited from an endorsement mailing from another group with a generic name, Conservative Republicans of Harris County. Its leader, Dr. Steven Hotze, endorsed Siegler but Hotze does not include his name on his recommendation list.

The last few days of a runoff campaign are always such fun, aren't they? As for that other hot GOP race over in CD22, Dr. Murray offers his insights, and gives the advantage to Shelley Sekula Gibbs. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
AT&T pushes back on West U school-zone cellphone ban

The West University Place no cellphones in school zones ordinance has attracted some organized opposition.

AT&T is reaching out and touching the West U City Council over its vote to prohibit cell phones in the city's only school zone.

The telecommunications company has organized a campaign to oppose the ban by distributing "talking points" and "sample letters" for community leaders and residents to send to Mayor Bob Kelly and the City Council.

Well, good luck with that. I've got a sneaking suspicion that this measure is pretty popular in the community, so what they may wind up with is more of an Astroturf effort than a grassroots one.

AT&T materials aimed at reversing the ordinance characterized Walker's position as "wishy-washy."

"I think I was very clear in my comments to council," Walker said. He noted that 1,034 children attend West U Elementary School, saying: "I am very surprised that a corporate giant like AT&T would take a position that does not support the safety of our children."


AT&T spokesman Kerry Hibbs said the company is concerned about the safety of children.

But Hibbs said AT&T is oppposed to the West U ordinance because it outlaws hands-free attachments.

"We think a total ban including hands-free goes too far," Hibbs said. "There are a lot of ordinances like this starting to spring up. The point is, we would prefer that there be a statewide law that would be consistent, rather than a patchwork of different city ordinances."

Asked whether AT&T would oppose such a state law, Hibbs said, "Well, yes."

"There are a lot of things that distract drivers besides cell phones," Hibbs said.

You know, AT&T might have gotten some sympathy from me up till that remark about preferring a consistent statewide ordinance that they'd oppose anyway. I admire the candor, almost as much as I admire Anne Marie Kilday for asking the question, but a little consistency would be nice, too. Besides, the hands-free distinction is illusory, at least as far as safety goes. I don't object to leaving it out of ordinances on the grounds that it's too intrusive to enforce, but as it doesn't make a difference in performance, it's not something I'm going to quibble about.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Judy Norsigian in town

One of the fine people I met at my precinct convention on March 4 was a woman named Cathy who served as the convention secretary. She sent me the following information about an upcoming appearance by Judy Norsigian that I said I'd pass along:

Saturday 4/12/08. 4pm Pregnancy & Birth: women's problems & nurses problems in Houston.

Judy Norsigian, founding member & Exec. Director of Our Bodies OurSelves (OBOS), Nuestros Cuerpos, Nuestros Vidas, Boston Women's Health Book Collective representative, writer, and international women's health advocate, hosted by National Nurses Organizing Committee-Metropolitan Houston Chapter (NNOCTexas):

Public invitation: Labor & Delivery nurses, Ob/Gyn nurses, midwives, childbirth activists, community women, women's health advocates...

3:45pm Press conference; Dinner. NNOC Houston Office:1709 Rosewood near N. Main St. Houston

4pm Dialogue & Dinner

Contact Linda Morales [email protected]

Sunday, 4/13/08, 10:45am-noon, Houston Women's Group, Politics of Pregnancy & Birthing in the USA: Sojourner Truth Room, 3rd floor of the
First Unitarian Universalist Church, 5200 Fannin, at Southmore.(elevator accessible).

For more information email Courtney [email protected]; website: http://www.houstonwomensgroup.com/

Judy Norsigian, Exec.Director, co-author, of" Our Bodies, Ourselves," will lead discussion on the politics of women's health movement, creating choices in pregnancy and birthing; book signing. Lunch afterwards.

Website: http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/publications/childbirth/default.asp

Tuesday 4/15 5:30-7pm Texas Medical Center Women's Health Network, Women's Health and Sexuality & Childbirth Controversies. Houston Academy of Medicine-TMC Library, 1133 John Freeman Blvd., Ground Level Conference Room (directions and parking information here.

The program is free and open to the public. Refreshments are served.

Judy Norsigian bio informtion here.

Any questions, let me know and I'll pass them on.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 03, 2008
TexBlog PAC

Thanks to a couple of generous contributions, the TexBlog PAC is more than halfway to meeting its $1500 financial goal, which will enable us to start helping candidates immediately. We'd still like to get a total of fifty donors regardless of that, so even if you've only got a few bucks to spare, please consider making a contribution. If you really feel sporting, you can even make it a recurring one, say five or ten bucks a month, so that every time you see one of these posts nagging for donations, you can get all smug and say you're on it. So what do you say? Help us help the candidates who are going to put Tom Craddick out to pasture. Give to the texBlog PAC today. Thanks very much.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
If the law is in your way, ignore it


Texas border land owners, mayors and wildlife groups blasted the Bush administration's sweeping plan to waive nearly three dozen federal laws to speed construction of a border fence by year's end.

Using authority granted by Congress, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday it plans to issue two waivers to complete 670 miles of fencing in four border states. DHS says it has finished 309 miles of fencing, leaving 361 miles to be constructed by a December deadline.

''Criminal activity at the border does not stop for endless debate or protracted litigation," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement. ''These waivers will enable important security projects to keep moving forward."


Two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, in March asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that earlier DHS waivers of federal law are unconstitutional.

''The Bush administration's latest waiver of environmental and other federal laws threatens the livelihoods of the ecology of the entire U.S.-Mexico border region," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

The laws the governments seeks waivers for represent legislation such as the Clean Water Act and more obscure regulations such as the River and Harbors Act of 1899.

Can you imagine the outcry if, say, Metro or TxDOT were given the authority to ignore laws in the pursuit of building a rail line or a highway? Who's to say that couldn't happen some day if it's OK now for Homeland Security to do it?

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, who chairs a coalition of border leaders, expressed outrage at DHS for not having meaningful consultations with local officials. In January, a federal judge approved a DHS lawsuit to survey city land before Foster and the city had received a copy of the suit.

''I'm just a yahoo from Eagle Pass, Texas, but this is just the absolute height of folly," he said.

Foster said his city's top crime problem is an occasional Mexican shoplifter caught at the local mall. ''If shoplifting is a matter of national security, we have a problem," he said.

Indeed we do. The Texas Observer, who heard a rumor about this on Friday, and South Texas Chisme have more, while Rick Noriega has a statement on the matter as well.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
County disputes Kelly's fee demand

Harris County has responded to Lloyd Kelly's request for $4.4 million in fees for work relating to the Ibarra lawsuit against Sheriff Tommy Thomas. Their response, in brief: No effing way!

"Lloyd Kelley's request for attorneys' fees is excessive," said John Barnhill, first assistant at the Harris County Attorney's Office. "We feel it's our responsibility to the taxpayers to point out where it's excessive. We trust the judge will exercise good judgment and consider our comments."

Kelley contended when he submitted his request for payment that courts should be as harsh on those who mount "frivolous defenses" as they are with lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits. But county officials say punishment or sanctions cannot be sought after a case has been settled.

"When I took the case, what should have happened is the county should have admitted liability," Kelley said last month. "So they would have saved most of this money."

By arguing unsuccessfully to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the county government, sheriff and deputies should be protected from the Ibarras' lawsuit, Harris County delayed the trial three years and drove the legal expenses higher, Kelley said.

But enhancing those fees because of a desire to punish another party is unreasonable, the county argues.

The county is also taking issue with the $650 hourly rate charged by Kelley and his associate counsel Ben Hall and the $350 hourly rate charged by Kelley's co-counsel David Tang.

County officials argue they should only have to pay the prevailing local market rate, which they suggest is closer to $250 to $350 an hour in Harris County.

County officials also argue the number of hours in the billing request submitted by Kelley and his associates -- more than 3,400 -- should be significantly reduced "due to a failure to document or demonstrate billing judgment."

Some of Kelley's expenses, including magazine subscriptions and hotel bills, appear unnecessary, the county's attorneys said.

As I said before, I don't think the fee-doubling-as-punitive-damages request is out of line, at least as a theoretical device. I have my doubts that the judge will see it that way, but it at least passes the laugh test for me. The hourly rate, I think the county has a good case for arguing that the prevailing rate or something close to it is what they should be billed; the rest is he-said/she-said. I expect that even if the county wins here, we're gonna get stuck with a pretty big bill, which in addition to the settlement serves to prove Kelly's point about how this could have been a lot less painful had the county sought to settle in the first place. Maybe they'll learn from this for the next time.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Runoff early voting so far

So I did my civic duty for the runoff on my way home from work yesterday, casting my ballots for Dale Henry and Larry Weiman. Not too surprisingly, there wasn't any line at the Metro Multi-Service Center on West Gray - I was in and out in under two minutes. Sure does make a difference having a hard-fought, intensely interesting Presidential campaign at the top of the ticket, doesn't it?

Here's the two-day totals (PDF) for early voting at each location. Also in the "not too surprisingly" category is the higher turnout for the Republicans, where the DA runoff is the hottest contest going right now. The CD22 runoff is also of interest, though that's mostly confined to HDs 128 and 129, where turnout is heavy, and 144, where it's moderately so. If you want to take a guess as to what that might mean for the DA race, here's how Kelly Siegler and Pat Lykos did in the State Rep districts that had at least 300 ballots cast at their early voting locations through two days:

Dist Siegler Lykos
HD126 3872 2841
HD127 5179 3157
HD128 2233 1420
HD129 4009 2926
HD136 5076 4976
HD138 2165 2125
HD144 2385 1501

This does not include HD137, whose two early voting locations have each had over 300 people show up so far; as there was no Republican candidate on the ballot for State Rep there, I can't easily separate out those votes. Note that this isn't a perfect correlation, as anyone can vote in any early location, though usually a decent percentage of them are from that district. You don't know what the Leitner and Perry voters will do, but I'd say so far this bodes well for Kelly Siegler.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Has anyone registered the "sucks" variant yet?

The posts, they write themselves.

At one time, the Bush Library Foundation owned the easiest Web site to remember: www.GeorgeWBushLibrary.com.

But whether on purpose or because of an oversight -- foundation spokesman Taylor Griffin wasn't sure -- it lost that domain name last year. Illuminati Karate, a Web company in Raleigh, N.C., picked it up for less than $10.

Since then, offers have come in to buy it, although company officials won't say who or how much. And they're coy on what they plan to do with such a recognizable site.

"We're just holding onto it for the time being," said lead Web developer George Huger. "To be honest, I couldn't believe someone was letting it expire."

Link via State of Mine. As Dogbert once said, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. And since I raised the question in the title, I can tell you that GeorgeWBushLibrarySucks.com is still available, if anyone wants it. I'm thinking you probably won't get much of a deal from the Bush Library Foundation for it, but hey, you never know.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
"It's the end of the world." "Again!?!"

What do you do when you think someone may bring about the ultimate destruction of the earth and possibly the universe as we know it? File suit and hope for the best.

More fighting in Iraq. Somalia in chaos. People in this country can't afford their mortgages and in some places now they can't even afford rice.

None of this nor the rest of the grimness on the front page today will matter a bit, though, if two men pursuing a lawsuit in federal court in Hawaii turn out to be right. They think a giant particle accelerator that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva this summer might produce a black hole or something else that will spell the end of the Earth -- and maybe the universe.

Scientists say that is very unlikely -- though they have done some checking just to make sure.

The world's physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a "strangelet" that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called "strange matter." Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

I'm fascinated by the idea of an environmental impact statement for this project. Is there a section to fill out about the risk of creating a black hole? I have to admit, that would impact the environment.

Snark aside, it's an interesting story, and these plaintiffs have some history of pursuing similar injunctions. Read it and see what you think. Thanks to Melissa for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
A Republican runoff to watch

Paul Burka has a useful overview of the Republican runoffs for State House seats. There are no such Democratic runoffs; despite numerous primary challenges, there were only two open seats on the Dem side, one of which was ceded to Roland Gutierrez, so there were no multi-candidate races. Burka includes an analysis of the impact of each runoff on the Speaker's race, and the outlook for November. I'd classify the latter as follows:

HD52 - Tossup/Lean Democrat
HD55 - Likely Republican
HD81 - Safe Republican
HD112 - Lean Republican if Dunning, likely Republican if Button
HD144 - Lean Republican

You really need to read Burka's report on Randy Dunning, who if elected is an early favorite for the 2009 Ten Worst list. The Dallas Observer has more on this guy. It makes for an interesting choice for us Democrats. Do we root for the much saner Angie Chen Button, who will likely be a straightforward conservative not unlike the retiring Fred Hill and who would seem to be a much better bet to hold the seat, or for the nutty Dunning, who'd be more beatable but an utter disaster if he did get elected? It's like a more extreme case of the Emmett/Bacarisse race for the County Judge nomination. I could go either way on this one.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 02, 2008
A Catastrophic beginning

The Catastrophic Theater, which had its mighty fun launch party last weekend, is set to debut its first show this Friday.

When Catastrophic Theatre sets sail Friday with the area premiere of Big Death and Little Death, you can expect the journey to be a bit jarring.

Director Jason Nodler wouldn't have it any other way.

Comfort-food theater is not Nodler's dish -- as anyone familiar with his work can attest. In 1993, Nodler co-founded Infernal Bridegroom Productions and was its artistic director until 2003. Houston's leading alternative theater troupe folded last year due to financial difficulties.

After several years freelance directing around the nation, Nodler is back helming a new company, with former IBP icon Tamarie Cooper as associate artistic director (and so far, the group's only other staffer). They are launching Catastrophic with Mickey Birnbaum's apocalyptic comedy, produced in collaboration with the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance.

"I began in the theater as a playwright," Nodler says, "but wanting to write a play unlike anything else I'd seen in theater. Something very funny, very weighty, very pop -- equal parts art and entertainment. In finding this play, it's as if I found the play I was always trying to write."

As the company describes it, Big Death is "a dark comedy with pit-bull cannibalism, death metal, war veterans, car crashes, drugs, sex, teen angst and the end of the world." Premiered in 2005 at Washington, D.C.'s, Woolly Mammoth, it has divided critics there and elsewhere. Peter Marks of the Washington Post found it "pretty excruciating ... a shrill meditation on nihilism in America."

Yet reviewing the production Nodler directed later that year at Providence, R.I.'s, Perishable Theatre, Bill Rodriguez wrote: "Nodler has assembled a perceptive cast that nails this bittersweet play like a stake through the heart of oblivious contemporary culture ... (it) can be a high point of your theatergoing year."

"It's about a returning Gulf War vet who finds himself unable to reintegrate into society and his family," Nodler says. "And the effect on his teen son and daughter who need his attention. There are flashbacks to the story's core traumatic event that happened one year earlier, when he'd just returned, when he's greeted by his family and during his ride home with them.

"Really," he adds, "it's about one big death and myriad little deaths."

Should be interesting. If you were ever a fan of Infernal Bridegroom, the name may have changed but the mission is the same. Check 'em out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The jail chronicles

This is fitting, isn't it?

The Harris County Jail held about 10,400 inmates -- 1,000 beyond its capacity -- Tuesday, the same day the Texas Commission on Jail Standards carried out its annual inspection of the lockup.

The figures appear in line with the conclusions of a national advocacy group that issued a report Tuesday decrying the growing number of inmates in U.S. jails and the effect it has on communities.

According to a Justice Policy Institute study, the number of people in American jails nearly has doubled since 1990 as the facilities detain more drug offenders, mentally ill and criminals sentenced to prisons.

The same trends have contributed to crowding in the Harris County Jail, leading it to be cited several times by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The Justice Policy Institute report focused on the nation's most populous counties and covered the decade from 1996 to 2006. According to the report, Harris County, the third-largest, incarcerated the fourth-highest number of inmates, 9,400, in 2006. That represented a 23 percent increase over 1996, when the county jail population was more than 7,700. That increase was the 12th biggest among the nation's most populous counties, the report said.

The report is here (PDF). Thanks to Grits for the link.

Voters in the county last year defeated a bond that would have paid to build a $245 million, 2,500-bed jail in the downtown jail complex.

It would have included a vast area for health care and mental health care, officials said. It also would have included a larger, improved intake center where incoming detainees would be evaluated and placed in appropriate settings if they were found to be mentally ill.

In June, the Commissioners Court will consider whether to ask voters to approve a bond for a smaller jail than the one rejected last November, [Dick Raycraft, county budget and management services director] said.

Detention costs in the county continue to rise. Two years ago, the county spent $154 million on detention, Raycraft said.

This year, it will spend $192 million, a 24 percent increase. The costs will continue to rise if the county builds more jails and hires the guards needed to operate them.

And I will continue to advocate a vote against these new-jail-construction bonds until the county demonstrates that it can get a handle on those rising costs. That means coming up with a plan to jail fewer people - and remember, we're often talking about low-level drug offenders, people who can't make bail, and people who have chosen jail time over probation because probation is so onerous. Which in turn may obviate the need for more jail space, though perhaps some of the other features, such as more resources for mentally ill inmates, would still be appropriate and needed. But without that, I say No.

UPDATE: More from Grits.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Reliant regional finals get kudos

They may not have gotten any sellouts, but the folks at Reliant Stadium got some kind words from the NCAA about the games that were played there over the weekend.

When it was all said and done, the first NCAA regional in Houston since 1986 received rave reviews.

"Actually, we were really pleased," said David Worlock, the NCAA associate director of the Division I men's basketball championship. "The feedback is still coming in from the participating institutions, our committee members and staff on site, but so far it's all been really positive."

That's the same feedback Reliant Park president Shea Guinn received on his end as Reliant prepares to host another NCAA regional in 2010 before staging the Final Four in 2011.
"I thought it went exceptionally well," Guinn said. "The feedback from the NCAA ... and fans was nothing but positive.

"As a dress rehearsal, it was a huge success. We have good ground to build on for 2010 and 2011."

Though the Texas Longhorns were the No. 2 seed in the regional, Reliant Stadium (43,000 capacity) didn't sell out. But more than 65,000 fans attended the Friday and Sunday sessions combined. It finished among the top-five all-time regionals.

"Over the weekend, we sold the equivalent of over two arenas," said Guinn.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. But it still makes me wonder about the wisdom of opening the whole stadium for the 2010 regional final, which may or may not include such a local draw as the Horns.

Worlock said the NCAA looks forward to bigger crowds and perhaps a more festive atmosphere surrounding the stadium than during this past weekend in Houston.

"The folks at Reliant Stadium are top-notch, they're very easy to work with, and it's such a beautiful facility," he said. "As far as the seating configuration, it's going to be even bigger in 2010 and 2011.

"We would like to think it will be improved because we've learned from the regional this past weekend."

Snark aside, the experience matters more than the headcount, and it appears the folks at Reliant did a good job with that. So, my kudos to them for a job well done, and my best wishes for coming up with a viable strategy for selling all those extra seats next time.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Fifty for TexBlog PAC

During this relative lull in the campaign season, I'm going to focus some energy on helping to raise money for the TexBlog PAC. We'd like to show some strong numbers for the June 30 reporting date (there is no March 31 reporting deadline for state campaigns and PACs). As it stands right now, we have a bit over $8500 cash on hand, and we want to get that over the $10,000 mark so we can start helping candidates now.

So I'm asking for your help. We'd like to get 50 new donors over the next five days for TexBlog PAC, with a goal of hitting that $10K milestone along the way. If you'd like to help us reach that goal, and get an early start on supporting the candidates who will take back the Texas House and send Tom Craddick back to the back mike, please visit our ActBlue page and make a donation. We will be announcing our first endorsees soon, with more to follow afterwards. The goal there is a minimum of six campaigns to help, with a minimum donation of $5000 to each.

Ambitious? Sure. But we know the support is out there, and we know the enthusiasm for making Tom Craddick a former Speaker will help us carry the day. Please give us a hand now and together we can make that happen. Thank you very much.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Skelly in Politico

National attention for our local rising star.

Democrats have been increasingly bullish about their ability to win over suburban, ancestrally Republican House districts that have been trending in their party's direction over the past decade.

But their party's latest target shows just how confident Democrats have become. Democrats are eyeing one of the most reliably Republican seats in the heart of Texas -- Rep. John Culberson's suburban Houston district, once held by President Bush's father -- and have a candidate who is causing a stir due to his prolific fundraising.

Businessman Michael Skelly is positioned to be at the top of the Democratic fundraising list for the year's first quarter, according to a Democratic operative, raising about $750,000 from individual donors without even tapping into his substantial personal wealth. Another Democratic operative said it could be the "best first quarter ever" for any House Democrat in his first filing period.

Skelly has already handily outdistanced Culberson in fundraising -- rare for a challenger -- banking more than $402,000 in mid-February, according to his latest FEC filing.

"He actually likes to fundraise," said Skelly's campaign manager, Bill Kelly. "He's more than willing to do his part, and he's going to put in a substantial amount of his own money. But he's already done the hard part."

By contrast, Culberson reported only $82,200 in his campaign account in mid-February but claims to have worked over the past month to quickly refill his coffers. Culberson estimated he raised $250,000 in the past 45 days -- largely in response to Skelly's strong early fundraising and his ability to self-fund.

Sweet. I've had two people ask me since this piece came out if Skelly is for real. I'll tell you what I told them - Yes! - but you don't have to take my word for it. I can guarantee that Skelly will be at a function or event near you sooner or later (if you live around here, of course), and you can and should see for yourself why the Dems are excited about him and the Republicans are worried.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Macias to sue over HD73 primary result

The recount didn't go his way, so after pondering his options, soon-to-be-former State Rep. Nathan Macias has decided to sue over allegations of irregularities in the HD73 Republican primary.

"There is no other option but to ask a judge to order a new election," said Macias, R-Bulverde, at an Austin news conference. "My hope is that for all our sake, we ensure that a fair, open and honest election takes place." Macias said a comparison of the Democratic and Republican primary election voter lists show that 253 people in District 73 illegally voted in both contests.

"Our position in the lawsuit is you just can't know who really won this election," said Macias' lawyer, Rene Diaz.

"It's always been said, tongue in cheek, 'Vote early and vote often.' I always thought that was just a joke," Diaz said.


The lawsuit alleges several other irregularities that Macias said should invalidate the election night results.

In Comal County, the lawsuit says that 44 mail-in, absentee ballots should not have been counted because they were not signed by Comal County Clerk Joy Streater, as required by law, and that three provisional ballots also lacked election officials' signatures and should have been discarded.

Streater said Macias' representatives did not raise the issue of the unsigned mail-in ballots at the recount, and she did not know whether that allegation is true. If true, she said, "it would be up to a judge to decide" whether they were fatal flaws in the election.

I'm going to guess that the unsigned mail-in ballots issue is one that occurs frequently in elections and never gets any attention paid to it because it never matters. If that's the case, then one could argue that unless there's evidence suggesting these ballots are somehow illegal, overturning an election result on the basis of an oversight is too extreme a remedy. On the other hand, if this is an unusual occurrence, then Macias' argument is more persuasive.

The complaints in Gillespie County focus on Box 5, the last box of the four counties to be tallied. Macias was leading by more than 50 votes before that box was counted, and the results of Box 5 gave Miller his apparent victory.

Macias said the box arrived at the courthouse suspiciously late and showed a suspiciously high voter turnout.

"By far the most serious irregularity with respect to the election records of Gillespie County Box 5 involved the last voter sign-in sheet," which was unsigned by the election judge, the suit says.

Gillespie County election officials were not available for comment Monday afternoon, but Streater said an unsigned voter sign-in sheet is a common oversight, which frequently occurs late on election night when election judges are fatigued.

Box 5 is the new Box 13, I guess. If only a photo ID were required to cast a vote, that would have solved all these problems, right? BOR has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The case against the penny

Here's an informative article that makes the case for abolishing the penny (and the nickel) based on the cost of minting them and their lack of purchasing power in today's economy. I'm a sentimentalist, I like my pennies and nickels (and we regularly roll coins to bring back to the bank, so we don't lose money through wastage), and even I found this compelling. It won't break my heart if nothing happens, mind you, but I can certainly see the merits of the argument. Of course, I can also see the merits of keeping the penny and dumping the nickel. That's actually a pretty creative suggestion.

Somewhat perversely to me, the countries that have successfully gotten rid of their smaller coins or are on the path to doing so also seem to be converting their small bills into coins. As you know, I am very much not a fan of that, and if that's a corollary of the anti-penny movement here, you can count me as a foe. Given the increase in demand for base metals, and the fact that replacing bills with coins will further exacerbate that, I don't understand why you'd want to invite future problems with negative seigniorage (read the article) like that. Maybe by the time that happened you'd have to consider doing away with all coins, but still. Why borrow trouble? Anyway, it's a good read, so check it out. Link via Yglesias.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
April 01, 2008
Furse is in for SD17

I have been forwarded an email announcing that Austen Furse, described as a "candidate for SD17", will be speaking Wednesday at the R Club downtown. (Actually, it said he was a candidate for SD7, but one presumes that was a typo. Though his candidacy would be much more interesting to me if not.) That appears to make this official. Note the brief bio of Furse in the comments to that post, as provided by Kenneth. If Gary Polland is also in, this will be a race to watch regardless of who else runs.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Identity theft alleged in HD144 runoff


A candidate in the Republican runoff race for House District 144 filed a police report Monday accusing his opponent of identity theft over the disclosure of his Social Security number on a mailer.

Fred Roberts said he filed the complaint against Ken Legler over the direct mail piece, which included public records of federal tax liens involving Roberts. Those records, which were reproduced on the flier, contained Roberts' federal tax identification number, the same as his Social Security number.

The mailer was sent to about 5,000 households, including Roberts, who saw it Friday. Roberts said he saw his picture under the heading, "He doesn't pay his own taxes, but he wants to set state tax policy for you," and thought that such attacks come with the political territory.

But then Roberts, a 53-year-old insurance agent, studied the piece further.

"I was looking at it and there's my Social Security number. I went, 'Oh, no,' " Roberts said.

Legler said Monday that it was a mistake to include the identifying number on the mailer. He said he learned about it Saturday at a Republican senatorial district convention and walked up to Roberts and apologized.

"We wouldn't push anything out on purpose like that. What we were trying to put across was the taxes," said Legler, a 50-year-old businessman.

Legler offered to pay for a service to protect Roberts from identify theft.

This may have been an honest mistake, but I think Roberts has every right to be pissed about it, and to pursue whatever legal remedies he may have available to him. Someone should have caught that before the mailer went to the printers.

By the way, this is the first story about the GOP primary for the open HD144 seat that I can recall seeing. There was probably an overview story before the March 4 primary, but that's probably it. I didn't even know that Roberts is being supported by the Texas Parent PAC until I read it towards the end of this piece. I realize there are hotter races than this one, but it would have been nice for this race to get a bit more visibility.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The delegate count

The Associated Press says Sen. Barack Obama won 38 of the 67 available delegates at Saturday's Senate conventions. Phillip Martin says it's a 37-30 split, though some outstanding challenges and still-uncertified results may make the final result 38-29. We won't have a completely finalized total until the state convention in June, but this is the range of possibility. And either way, it means Obama comes away from Texas with the majority of the delegates, either 99-94 or 98-95, not counting superdelegates. Now let the discussion about how we should be doing this begin!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Caller editorializes for Kenedy wind farm

The Kenedy Ranch wind farm project, which is currently under litigation, picked up some editorial support over the weekend.

Every pound of coal or natural gas that can be taken out of the equation for producing electricity has to be counted as a plus. That's the basic reason why construction of wind farms in Kenedy County should be viewed as an overall positive. Against the possible negatives -- as yet unproven danger to migratory or endangered birds, or the impact of roads and the turbines that it takes to capture wind power -- the greater weight should be given to subtracting carbon dioxide-producing fuels from the business of producing power.

The two sides of the argument have been getting an airing lately in the region as two projects begin in Kenedy County, an $800 million project on property owned by the the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation, and a $400 million project on the adjoining property owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust.

Together, the two projects will have, at completion, slightly more than 300 giant turbines churning out close to 500 megawatts of electricity. That's electricity that could power hundreds of thousands of homes in Texas. And the key part is that it could be done without burning another chunk of coal.

Opponents of the projects, chiefly funded by the neighboring King Ranch, have been mounting an aggressive campaign to stop, or slow, the projects. Their organization, the Coastal Habitat Alliance, have been arguing to whoever will hear them, including the Nueces County Commissioners Court, that the projects need a better review than they've been getting so far.

I'm sympathetic to the argument that the review process for wind farms needs to be updated and made more stringent, but as the editorial goes on to say, that's a case to be made in the Lege. I continue to believe that the Kenedy Ranch has the stronger position in this ight, and I hope they succeed.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Rusty Yates has a new son

Noted for the record.

Rusty Yates, the father of five slain children, has a son with his new wife.

Yates on Sunday told KHOU television in Houston that his wife, Laura, recently gave birth to a "healthy boy." Further details were not immediately available.

The couple wed in March 2006.

Rusty Yates divorced Andrea Yates in March 2005.


Defense attorney George Parnham told KTRK-TV that Andrea Yates is aware of her ex-husband's new child, "is at peace with the issue" and her position is that life goes on.

According to a story from March 2006, Laura Yates had two children previously. My feelings about Rusty Yates can be summed up as "complicated", but I offer my congratulations to him and his family, and wish them all well with their new baby.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
RIP, Dith Pran

Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist on whose life the movie "The Killing Fields" was based, has died of cancer at the age of 65.

Dith was working as an interpreter and assistant for [New York Times reporter Sydney] Schanberg in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, when the Vietnam War reached its chaotic end in April 1975 and both countries were taken over by Communist forces.

Schanberg helped Dith's family get out but was forced to leave his friend behind after the capital fell; they were not reunited until Dith escaped four and a half years later. Eventually, Dith resettled in the United States and went to work as a photographer for the Times.

It was Dith himself who coined the term "killing fields" for the horrifying clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.

The regime of Pol Pot, bent on turning Cambodia back into a strictly agrarian society, and his Communist zealots were blamed for the deaths of nearly 2 million of Cambodia's 7 million people.

"That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp," Schanberg said later.

With thousands being executed simply for manifesting signs of intellect or Western influence -- even wearing glasses or wristwatches -- Dith survived by masquerading as an uneducated peasant, toiling in the fields and subsisting on as little as a mouthful of rice a day, and whatever small animals he could catch.

After Dith moved to the U.S., he became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, dedicated to educating people on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime.

He was "the most patriotic American photographer I've ever met, always talking about how he loves America," said Associated Press photographer Paul Sakuma, who knew Dith through their work with the Asian American Journalists Association.

Schanberg described Dith's ordeal and salvation in a 1980 magazine article titled "The Death and Life of Dith Pran." Schanberg's reporting from Phnom Penh had earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

Later a book, the magazine article became the basis for "The Killing Fields," the highly successful 1984 British film starring Sam Waterston as the Times correspondent and Haing S. Ngor, another Cambodian escapee from the Khmer Rouge, as Dith Pran.

The film won three Oscars, including the best supporting actor award to Ngor.

"Pran was a true reporter, a fighter for the truth and for his people," Schanberg said. "When cancer struck, he fought for his life again. And he did it with the same Buddhist calm and courage and positive spirit that made my brother so special."

I saw "The Killing Fields" in the theaters with some buddies when I was in college. It was one of the most emotionally wrenching movies I've ever seen, and I cannot begin to fathom what it must have been like for Dith Pran and those like him who survived it. My sincere condolences to his family. Rest in peace, Dith Pran.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Texas blog roundup for the week of March 31

Still smarting from Davidson's lack of a coherent plan for a final shot against Kansas? Or perhaps still in awe that this is the first Final Four of the 64-team era to feature four #1 seeds? Either way, the Texas Progressive Alliance blog roundup is good for what ails you. Click on and enjoy the highlights.

Saturday, TXsharon of Bluedaze attended the Barnett Shale Expo and the lies told by John Tinterra, Texas Railroad Commission, in front of citizens who pay his salary and in front of his boss, Victor Carrillo, reminded TXS of a quote from Cold Mountain: "That man is so full of manure we could plant him and grow another one!".

McBlogger's never been a big fan of tax abatements to lure new companies to Austin. He's even less thrilled with them when they are being used to entice developers, especially developers who can't seem to make their finances work without the abatements.

Off the Kuff takes one last look at primary voting in Harris County, this time examining Democratic turnout by State Rep district.

WCNews at Eye On Williamson previews the GOP runoff in HD-52, The Same Only Different.

Over a thousand Harris County voters took "vote twice" too seriously, writes PDiddie at Brains and Eggs.

Hal at Half Empty will vote in the Democratic primary runoff, to be sure, despite the fact that only one race will appear on his ballot. The tables are turned and the Republicans in CD 22 have a much more juicy decision to make. Oh, to be a Republican.

Gary at Easter Lemming Liberal News turned it over to his brother Jim for a few odd links as he was getting ready to be tired out at the third step of the Texas Two-Step. Earlier in the week Gary got his dander riled at racist media conservatives.

nytexan at BlueBloggin tells us that keeping 378 delegates and 275 alternates under control is like herding cats in It's Great To Be A Democrat In Texas at the Senatorial District 18, Bastrop County Convention.

Posted by Charles Kuffner